Author: Chris Cook
Tara woke late the next morning, nestled contentedly in the small bed, with her face pressed into a well-worn pillow that still had the scent of Willow's hair. She spent a few moments luxuriating in half-sleep, letting her mind wander where it would around the image of the woman upstairs, before finally getting up and wrapping herself in a warm dressing gown hanging on a hook behind the small room's door. Stretching the sleep out of her limbs, she ventured into the library to take a better look around, now that the previous night’s tiredness was gone.
She had been expecting- well, to be honest she didn't have much of an idea what a crime-fighting hypnotist would have in her library. Manuals on police work, guides to meditation, something like that. The library far surpassed her expectations. Seeing the stately room in full for the first time, with the morning light shining in through the tall east window, her attention was immediately drawn to the glass-fronted wooden case standing on a pedestal of its own in the middle of the room. She leaned down to inspect its contents, a single volume, aged but well cared for, open at the first page which showed a woodcut of a snake coiled around a tree, from which a fork of lightning had blasted a branch - the facing page was blank.
Tara turned to the shelves, and found further confirmation that, so far as she was any judge, the library was a rare collection of books associated with magic and power. Her gaze passed over the spines of leather-bound editions of the Malleus Maleficarum, Dante's Divine Comedy, Machiavelli's The Prince, volumes of history concerning the Delomelanicon and the supposedly-apocryphal Necronomicon, and a dozen different editions of the Bible. Interspersed with these were volumes of a more esoteric nature - a well-thumbed copy of The Labyrinth, a set comprising The Three Musketeers and its sequel, the complete works of Shakespeare, paperback editions of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes - that at least seemed to fit the image of the Shadow.
Tara's attention came at last to the desk that crouched between the bookshelves. It had a row of shelves itself, mounted on the back of the desk, and leaning down to peer at the titles there Tara saw that there were none on the slim volumes, only tiny years picked out in gold lettering. Diaries, she realised. For a moment she was tempted by them, but she refused the temptation. On the desk was the twin to her own Codex Nocturnus, sitting open with a weighted bookmark holding the pages, beside a collection of notes made from the text. Beneath the loose pages was a manila folder that caught Tara's eye. She shifted the papers slightly to reveal the name on its label: Tara Maclay. Hesitantly she picked it up and opened it, wondering what secrets it might have told. But all it seemed to contain was a series of clippings from newspapers, reviewing her appearances at the Hurricane Club. She recognised instantly the piece from the Times, with its small picture of her smiling nervously into the lens of the camera. Shuffling the newspaper articles aside she found only a single page beneath them in the bottom of the folder, a copy of the police report on her the robbery from her apartment. Nothing more, about her family, her childhood. Tara was on the one hand relieved not to have her whole life laid bare - but she had to admit she felt a twinge of disappointment. The file was one such as a policeman might keep of a case, nothing more. No personal interest. Tara's eyes flickered to the desk's single shelf, and the most recent book there, from which poked a tiny silk cloth marking the most recent entry. She mentally shook herself, put the file down and turned away from the desk.
She jumped a little to find Willow standing by the doorway, watching her. She was wrapped in a nightgown, dazzling white, and her hair fiery red, in the light from the window. She looked healthier than last night. Her skin was still pale, but she had a glow about her, and she moved steadily as she walked into the room, without any visible sign of weakness.
"I was just having a look," Tara said quickly, "you know..." she trailed off lamely, gesturing to the desk and the bookshelves. Willow smiled and waved her hand, dismissing Tara's concern.
"It's okay," she said, "there's not anything I'm trying to hide. Well, obviously from most people there is, hence the mask and the whole secret identity thing, not to mention all the invisibility, but... not from you, is what I mean." She smiled hopefully.
"Would you like me to get breakfast?" Tara asked.
"Oh, no, it's okay," said Willow, "I got it. I thought you might be hungry when you woke up, so I took care of it." She disappeared out into the hall, and came back a moment later with a silver tray.
"It's just scrambled eggs and toast," she said apologetically, "I'm not really much of a chef."
"That's fine," said Tara, beaming, "thanks." They sat on a lounge chair beneath the window and balanced the plates on their laps.
"Did you really hear me last night?" asked Willow after a moment. "In the warehouse, I mean. You said you hear me call?"
"Mmm-hmm," said Tara, swallowing a bite of toast. "It sounded like you were right next to me. I thought... did you use telepathy?"
"I must have," mused Willow, "I was putting so much effort into my shield that I couldn't even speak. But I don't remember trying to call you. I guess I just did it without thinking."
"Your shield?" asked Tara. Willow nodded.
"I can still do some real magic," she said, "if I really need to. Defensive kinds of spells. I used to be better at it, but... it didn't work out so well."
"What happened?" asked Tara immediately. She almost regretted it when she saw the hesitation in Willow’s expression.
"See," Willow said after a moment, "now I wish I could lie to you, almost. Just give you the sugar-coated version, and have everything be okay. The truth is... not so good." Tara set her plate down and took Willow’s hand.
"I know who you are, here and now," she said, looking into Willow's eyes, making sure the other woman could hear the sincerity she was directing at her. "I'm not asking you to pretend to be perfect. I'll deal."
Willow nodded, and took a deep breath.
"I always had the gift," she began, "even when I was little. I gradually found out about it on my own, from books mainly, and after a while from finding other people who knew, and could teach me. Five years ago I had learned pretty much everything I could. All the books here," she gestured around the library, "I'd found, and used. I didn't admit to anyone what I'd learned from them. They would have been afraid of me. They would have been right. I was changing myself, though what I was becoming... I don't know. I crossed a line I shouldn't have."
Willow paused, and gently took her hand from Tara's. She curled her hands together in her lap, and set her gaze on the floor.
"I killed a man," she said quietly. "He was a- He wasn't a good man. The way people talk, casually, they might say he deserved to die. But I had him beaten, defenceless. There was no way he could have hurt me, or... or anyone else, any more. There was no reason that forced me, I... chose. I decided that he should die.
"I realised how wrong I had been slowly. At first I tried to justify it to myself. Then I tried to ignore what I had done, pretend it had never happened. Finally I couldn't. I tried to find a solution, a way to live with what I'd done, and there wasn't one. I didn't have anyone to turn to, so I locked up the house I was living in then, and just went away. I figured if there was an answer anywhere, I would find it eventually. Or I'd just keep looking. Either way seemed to work.
"After a long time, I found someone who helped me. She understood magic better than I had, and I learned some of that from her. And she understood people better than I did. She- well, she didn't tell me what to do, but I think she knew all along what I'd eventually decide. When I'd made up my mind to come here, to New York, and try to use what I had learned to fight evil, she wished me good luck, and then she just left. I never saw her again."
Willow fell silent, but still didn't look up. Tara had seen, and felt, a change come over her, in the way she breathed, the way her hands clenched tightly in her lap. She dismissed her own hesitation and reached out to Willow, drawing her into an embrace that brought the tears out. For a long while Tara simply held her, letting her cry. For her part, she felt the woman's pain acutely, yet took some consolation in the ease with which Willow allowed herself to be held and comforted.
"Sorry," Willow eventually murmured as her breathing steadied, "I just... I do pretty well nowadays. I used to get nightmares, but now mostly I sleep well. Doing what I do, it helps. It's just that- talking about her reminded me of what I'm missing, I guess. She cared about me. No-one really had, before, and since then, well, the life of a solitary crime-fighter and all-"
"I care," said Tara abruptly. Willow froze in her embrace, then slowly looked up. Tara smiled, and nodded. Willow shifted closer to Tara on the lounge. Just as their faces came level, Willow's turned down again.
"I don't deserve your care," she said quietly. Tara opened her mouth to argue but Willow quickly sat upright and put a hand to Tara's lips, stilling them with the tips of her fingers. "No, please listen," she insisted. "What I once was, I haven't- I don't use those magics anymore, but I'm still the Shadow. Still close to the dark. I have to be, to do what I need to do, but it's my sacrifice. I spend my nights walking in shadow so that other people don't have to, so that they can be happy, and not have to know what evil there is in the world. People like you, you're too beautiful to touch the darkness. I can't ask you to come to my world."
Tara's mind whirled, looking for the right words, the way to keep herself at Willow's side. 'She thinks I'm beautiful?' a part of herself echoed, incredulous, threatening to derail her thoughts completely. Willow's fingers touching her lips were not helping. Gathering herself, Tara gently held Willow's hand and lowered it.
"Willow," she said quietly, "look at me. Please." At Tara's gentle insistence, Willow met her gaze. "I know you want to protect me, but this is my choice. You can't make it for me. And I choose you. I don't want to go back to my world, I feel empty there. I want to stay with you."
Tara fell silent, suddenly afraid at how much she had said. Her mind had been caught up in delight at Willow's trust in her, and so much of her concentration had been on making her feel better that Tara hadn't realised how much she was admitting until the words were out. She'd practically declared love for this woman who, truth be told, she hardly knew - 'You know her,' her mind insisted, 'you know what you're feeling.' And besides, Tara worried, with her emotions running high she’d barely stopped to consider that, perhaps, Willow just wouldn't feel that way about another woman. Tara wasn't ashamed of how she felt, but she knew that a lot of people didn't even think it was natural.
She let her gaze drop, fearful that if she watched Willow's face any longer she'd see confusion, dismay, disappointment. She gulped and steadied her breathing, very nearly lapsing into a meditative state, her thoughts turned entirely inwards. She noticed nothing until she felt Willow's other hand gently brushing away the veil of hair from her face, and tucking it behind her ear. Hope surged - she wanted to look up, to see, perhaps, happiness. Doubt regathered itself, and she wondered if Willow, in her kindness, was just trying to soften the rejection. She couldn't look up. She couldn’t move.
Willow leaned forward, and very gently, watching for the slightest sign that Tara was pulling away, kissed her cheek. Tara didn't move, her eyes were fixed on Willow's hand, held in her own, and her only reaction for a moment was to release the breath she was holding, which became almost a sigh. Willow stayed there a moment, her stillness belying the turmoil of desire and uncertainty she was feeling. She eventually summoned the courage to move, to find out what happened next. As she slowly leant back, Tara looked up, her free hand was suddenly in Willow's hair, and their lips met.
A sharp clattering noise from beneath the desk broke the silence and the kiss. Both Willow and Tara jumped, staring wide-eyed at each other. Willow relaxed first, while Tara frowned, curious.
"It's a message coming in," Willow explained. Tara exhaled and found herself grinning at Willow. Both of them giggled like teenagers at the element of farce. Willow gave Tara's hand a squeeze and stood up, crossing the library to the desk and opening a cabinet beneath it. Something like a typewriter was hammering away inside, slowly producing a page of printed text. Tara joined Willow and leaned down to watch the machine work. It rattled out a few lines, then fell silent. Willow tore off the page and read it.
"Not good," she muttered to herself, handing it to Tara.
'To Shadow, urgent,' it read, 'Macauley Westen departd London fr New York 1830hrs 3rd, w. Disq. Magic. Flight 80 PA. Possible connectn w. Codex Noct. theft. Have sent relevant files by air. Giles.' Tara looked at Willow, questioning.
"One of my agents," she explained, "a man I helped two years ago. He lives in England now, he’s got a lot of contacts among people who deal with magic and the occult. Macauley Westen is a nobleman, I think. He's untrustworthy, from what I hear, but I'll have to look him up to know more. The Disquisitionum Magicarum is a treatise on dark magic. It could be helpful to someone looking to use the Codex Nocturnus, if that someone were interested specifically in dark power."
"If he's coming here," Tara said, "and bringing that book-"
"The Shadow should be waiting to meet him when he arrives," finished Willow.