She knew as she approached the hallowed gates of Bran Castle that she would come face to face with her lord and master for the first time. As twisted and cruel as she herself was she could not deny feeling a certain amount of apprehension. Above her the steep walls of the castle rose abruptly, a deterrent to enemies and friends alike. Even higher still, tall towers rose into the air to be topped by steeply pitched turrets. It was a foreboding place, the air thick with an immense power that came from the master himself.
Her feet barely made a sound on the wooden drawbridge but the silence was shattered a moment later when the mighty iron portcullis barring her way rose of its own accord. It ascended into its niche above and she walked through into the dark courtyard. There were others there of course, his black armoured guards had watched her from the moment she came into view of the castle. Other hangers-on lurked in the shadows, sycophants and lesser demons, basking in the distant presence of their master. She bypassed them all, a slender figure swathed entirely in a cloak as black as night, the cowl of her hood leaving her face in shadow.
She was silently admitted to the castle keep by two guards, they simply stepped aside as she swept past them. Although she had never visited Bran Castle before, she knew exactly where he was, she could feel his presence drawing her ever closer to him. The corridors of the castle were narrow and dark, only lit by burning torches set sporadically in brackets along the walls. Dark tapestries further added to the sense of narrowness. She did not need to look at them to know that they depicted her master's many victories in battle...although none depicted the battle at Covasna; none spoke of his greatest defeat and the loss of his mighty army.
As she entered the great hall, she felt a sense of elation so overwhelming she felt that she ought to fall forward and prostrate herself on the ground. Instead she kept striding forward, her walk still the same graceful glide she had maintained throughout the castle to this point. The hall was shrouded in darkness, its fire dead and cold. A few torches burned, casting desperate fingers out into the gloom but losing their war against the shadows. Purposefully she strode into the darkness, walking towards the head of the great hall and the dim outlines she could see. Although she was not trying to stare, she could see the outline of a mighty throne, dull gold gleaming in the faint light. Someone was seated at its centre but she averted her eyes, instead staring at the massive skull mounted high on the wall overhead. It belonged to no animal that she had ever known to walk the earth, a cruel beast with foot long fangs and thick horns even longer. Older demons swore that the beast had been a favourite pet.
Just a few metres short of the throne, she finally went down onto one knee, knowing that she could not possibly approach further without his blessing. Her cloak settled around her gracefully as she rested her hands on her bent knee and bowed her head. She heard him shift and knew that he was now standing above her. Heavy footsteps sounded as he moved down the stairs towards her but still she did not look up. Finally the toes of his booted feet came into her view. Her entire body trembled with anticipation, her heart that had not beat for several years, still felt as though it might beat once again in his presence. She then felt fingers brush her forehead, they were icy cold but she did not notice their temperature, instead she noticed the jolt the touch sent coursing through her body. The fingers moved, gently pushing the cowl of her cloak backwards from her head. It fell to her shoulders and exposed her white blonde hair. Next he gently held her chin, tilting her face upwards to meet his gaze directly.
She could do nothing but gasp. Nothing she had ever heard, no amount of speculation or gossip could ever have prepared her for the reality of him. His face held her gaze, she was unable to tear herself away from his black eyes, completely devoid of white or any other colour, and she doubted she could ever draw her gaze away again. His black eyes were set into a visage of unimaginable beauty that she thought might be labelled godlike. Everything was in perfect proportion, from his hawk-like brow and strong nose to his full, slightly parted lips. Thick waves of black hair were swept back from his face and curled down to the nape of his neck. His lips parted in a smile to reveal dazzlingly white teeth.
"I had heard whispers of your beauty, but now that I see you in the flesh I must admit that the rumours were largely untrue," even his voice was perfect, the deep tones soothing and intoxicating. "You are far lovelier than words can describe, Tara."
"You are too kind, Master," Tara murmured, her blood red lips barely moving.
"I speak only the truth," he replied solemnly, "Before we engage in idle conversation I know you wish an explanation of me, an explanation as to why you have be restrained from pursuing the love of your mortal existence."
Tara nodded slowly, "Yes...and I do not understand why you would bestow your attentions on me...I am but one of many, and weak, very weak still."
His smiled broadened, "You are many things Tara, but weak is definitely not one of them...besides your beauty, I have also heard whispers of an amazing gift that manifested itself shortly after your turning...show me."
Tara swallowed awkwardly and tried to keep her fear hidden as she held up her palm in front of her master. She murmured a brief word and seconds later a small flame flickered into existence and hovered above her palm. Her Master's lips parted in awe.
"Truly wonderful," he whispered, "While every vampire fears fire...you can create it...is this the extent of it, or can you do more?"
"Much more, my Lord," Tara admitted without boasting, "Although I am still exploring my limits...I think there is still more to uncover and to learn."
He nodded, pleased, "I see my feelings about you are entirely justified."
"My Lord?" Tara was confused, her brow furrowed slightly.
"Do not look so worried, Tara," he laughed lightly, "I would not have you join my harem unwillingly, although in seeing your beauty I am sorely tempted...I have another task for you, one which I think is far closer to your own desires."
"Willow," Tara whispered, the name still sent a thrill coursing through her body, every fibre of her screaming to seek out that particular human and her blood.
"Willow Van Helsing," he nodded in agreement.
Tara was surprised, "You know of her, my Lord?"
"Indeed I do, and if I had not kept you isolated in Greece, you too would know why...your love, Willow Van Helsing, has become the most feared demon hunter in England...seeking out and killing our kind in particular with an awesome passion...a passion for vengeance, no doubt for the murder of her loved one."
Tara bristled slightly, her voice was fierce when she replied, "I was not murdered...I was granted immortality...and Willow will share that with me as soon as I am given leave to pursue her and free her from the mortal coil!"
Although Tara had been more than surprised to learn of Willow's newfound occupation, she suppressed this quickly, instead her face burned with a fierce determination. For her own immortal sanity, she needed to turn Willow Van Helsing, to sink her fangs into the white skin at her throat and in turn have her drink from her own vampire blood. She needed Willow to be with her, for the past three years she had suffered the embarrassing torment of longing for her mortal lover. It was a torment that she would not admit to of course, but one she knew she could ease by inviting Willow to join her in immortality. However, her efforts to get close to Willow were curtailed when an elder vampire, Angelus, had requested her to join him in an embassy to the Greek vampires...Tara was loath to leave Willow even further behind, but she could not disobey. For three years she had suffered Willow's absence...now, as she journeyed back towards the land of her mortal life, she hoped to finally have the opportunity to see Willow once more.
"That you shall Tara...that you shall...but at the time of my choosing," he intoned softly.
"I do not mean to be insolent my Lord, but what care you for Willow Van Helsing?" Tara met his gaze brazenly, a small measure of anger creeping into the corners of her mouth at the thought of her master denying her access to the women she craved.
"Oh...I do believe that Willow Van Helsing will cross our paths very soon," he said as he cupped her face in his hands and smoothed away the tight lines that marred her face, instantly reassuring her, "Our time is coming Tara...and I have a very special and vital role for you to play."
Dracula's lips curled upwards in a bizarre smile as Tara's shining face gazed adoringly back at him.
Willow Van Helsing was perched as foremost as she could possible be on the forecastle of the Van Amstel, her chest resting on the bowsprit as she watched the bow of the ship slice into the water beneath her. Much of her red hair was contained beneath a white rag, knotted at the nape of her neck in the fashion of sailors. The rest of her outfit was also suited for sea travel, although she retained her black doe-skin breeches, she had replaced her usual black shirt with a billowing white one and her boots with a pair of soft soled deck shoes. She turned at the sound of a loud cough and saw her friend and mentor, Rupert Giles climbing the ladder to the forecastle, his glass stained with salt. A grin spread quickly across her face and she leapt down from her perch to face Giles.
"Ahoy there, Giles!" Willow greeted him enthusiastically.
If Giles was surprised to see Willow actually out of her cabin, he did not let it show on his face. The surprise would have been justified given the fact that for the entire first two weeks of their voyage Willow had done little but lie on her bunk in her cabin and heave up every morsel of food that she attempted to eat. However, as he looked at her now she appeared to be a picture of health with a rosy glow to her cheeks. Several strands of red hair had escaped from beneath the rag and were whipping about her face. Giles inwardly reminded himself that he really had to do something about her vibrant red hair before they arrived in Japan.
"Sea life seems to be agreeing with you at long last," Giles commented with a smile.
"Now that I can actually stand on deck without running for the railing every minute, I must say that sailing is quite agreeable," Willow announced with a firm nod of her head.
She turned back to stand at the railing of the forecastle and Giles crossed to join her. He was a little unnerved by the way Willow was hanging out over the railing, perched so precariously that a sudden wave could have easily thrown her overboard. Willow seemed not to care; there was a broad smile on her face of the like Giles had rarely seen over the past three years. Although three years in his long life was a relatively brief span of time, he felt as if he had known the young woman for much longer and had come to care for her a great deal. At any rate, she often treated him with the disrespect a young person would show to their father...especially when it came to any task she did not want to do.
"I do hope Abraham is alright though," Willow added quietly, "I've spent time apart from him before when he was with his regiment...but I've never been this far away from him, he could always come to me if I needed him."
"I think Abraham will be just fine," Giles attempted to reassure her, ‘If all goes well, we will be back home next year...it will be like you never left!"
Willow did not appear convinced, but it was the last she mentioned of Abraham. Giles was not to know that she had promised her brother she would not miss him dreadfully...although promising and then doing were entirely two different kettles of fish. She turned her mind to other matters, in particular one which she had wanted to ask Giles for some time but feared offending him.
"You know Giles, there's something I've been thinking about for the past few weeks," Willow began, finally brushing her salty hair out of her face and tucking it back beneath the knotted rag on her head, "It's all very well and good hiding the skull...but people find even the most well hidden things, why didn't you just destroy it? You know, smash the darned thing with a very large hammer?"
"Now that is a good idea!" Giles slapped the palm of his hand firmly against the ship's railing.
"It didn't cross your mind...say...three hundred years ago?" an incredulous Willow asked with just the tiniest hint of derision in her voice.
It was then that Giles turned to give Willow a look of glacial murder and she immediately realised that she had completely missed the sarcasm in his response. Given that Giles did not ordinarily resort to sarcasm, his delivery was terrible.
"Oh...of course you thought of destroying it," Willow mumbled, somewhat chastened for her hasty words, however she didn't waste any time with an apology, "Why didn't you?"
Giles wiped the angry expression from his face with an awkward smile, "I am sorry Willow, your comment just brought to mind my original frustration in being unable to destroy the skull...Conrad tried the simple approach, he swung the mightiest war axe he could lift to cleave the skull into pieces but it killed him."
"It...it killed him?" Willow asked incredulously.
"As he struck the skull, it was his own body that was torn open and he fell dead at my feet," Giles appeared immensely sad, as though the Prince's death had occurred just yesterday, "Everything I tried since, all manner of magicks, failed. My only option was to carry it to the ends of the earth and hide it from Dracula...as poor a solution as it was. For the past three hundred years I have been researching a spell that would work, but I fear I am no closer today than I was then."
Giles sighed and removed his glasses, scrubbing them violently with the sleeve of his shirt. Even Willow could see that he regarded his inability to destroy the skull as a serious shortcoming on his part. The fact that he could do nothing to remove such evil from the world meant that he was rendered helpless despite all his magicks and knowledge and it laid him bare to the bone.
"Giles..." Willow began awkwardly, unsure of what to say.
He replaced his glances and glanced across at her, "It is nothing you should worry about, Willow, we will go to Japan, confirm the security of the skull and possibly move it...and go home, back to our normal lives."
Willow had to smile at the manner in which Giles said ‘normal lives,' as if killing demons for a living was the same as being a teacher or a lawyer. However, Giles managed to ruin her humorous mood a few moments later when he withdrew a thick book from the inside of his coat and handed it to her. She eyed the book warily before taking it.
"A dictionary of Japanese?" Willow went from staring at the cover to staring at Giles with an annoyed expression on her face.
"It's a long voyage, Willow," Giles nodded towards the book, "but it's also a difficult language, you might want to start reading."
"Everybody should just speak English...it would make things so much easier," Willow huffed in a frustrated manner.
She made a great show of opening the book and then propped it up on the railing in front of her as though to suggest to Giles that she might possibly slip and let it fall overboard. One of his sternest glances told her that this would not be a very wise course of action and she quickly busied herself in a task she was particularly good at...pretending to read.
Giles sighed, "For a demon hunter, Willow, you are exceptionally narrow-minded."
When they finally did reach land after almost eight months of sailing, Willow was by no means proficient in the Japanese language despite Giles' best efforts. However he was confident that she would at least be able to great her hosts with some amount of formality.
Greeting the locals was the last thing on Willow's mind as the Van Amstel sailed into Nagasaki harbour; her main concern was feeling solid ground beneath her feet once more, even if it was a tiny artificial island off the coast of Japan proper. The one thing she was not impressed with however was the fact that Giles had insisted she dye her red tresses black in order to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the Dutch men and black-haired Japanese. So it was a raven haired Willow Van Helsing that disembarked in Dejima from the Van Amstel, some of her usual swagger definitely missing. Her swagger was eroded completely when the tense looking Japanese official perched on the dock indicated that she was to hand over all her weapons immediately. Willow turned to Giles for confirmation and the warlock merely nodded but his eyes were stern, indicating that Willow should comply swiftly. It was almost like giving up her arm as she placed her sword and dagger on the table in front of the official. Then from her pockets she withdrew various smaller daggers, the odd cross bow bolt and a stake, by the time she had finished emptying her pockets of everything that could be considered a weapon, the official's eyes were bulging as he stared at her. Willow merely shrugged and moved from the water's edge, following Giles as he seemed to be headed towards an official-looking delegation of Japanese and fat Dutch merchants.
Giles had told her the island was small but she was surprised to find out just how small the fan-shaped island really was. It was home to at least twenty Dutchmen and almost twice as many more Japanese officials and guards, designed of course to keep the foreigners at arm's length from the sacred soil of Japan. The large city of Nagasaki was separated from Dejima by both the water, and a heavily guarded bridge.
Willow followed Giles's lead, she stopped when he stopped and bowed when he bowed, although she could not keep herself from staring at the Japanese. She had seen Chinamen in London fairly often, especially down by the docks, but they had all worn European garb. The Japanese were so foreign in their strange, elaborately embroidered robes, with their haughty, suspicious expressions that Willow was forced to acknowledge she really was on the other side of the world. She was immediately struck by a strange sensation, one of longing for mist rolling up over the Hampshire hills, for the familiar halls of Montague House and most of all for Abraham. It was with a sharp pang that Willow Van Helsing realised she was exceptionally homesick.
Giles was speaking to her, a short, wiry Japanese man at his elbow. Willow forced her attention away from her longings and into reality, to the very real situation in which she now found herself.
"Willow, this is Nakamura Kenji-san," Giles introduced her, "A dear friend of mine for many years...he will be helping us with our little task."
She bowed politely, "Pleased to meet you."
Kenji strode forward towards Willow. Despite the bulky clothes he wore and his small stature, she could see from the way he moved with grace and power that he was a formidable man indeed.
"The pleasure is mine, Willow Van Helsing," Kenji replied in heavily accented English, "Rupert has written many letters about you and the work you do...very impressive if even half of it is true!"
Willow smiled awkwardly beneath his intense gaze and after a few moments she had to look away. It was then that she noticed the young woman standing behind Giles and Kenji, her face cast downwards so that much of it was hidden behind her waves of raven black hair. Kenji noticed her looking and he smiled broadly, motioning the woman forward with a brief gesture.
"This is my daughter, Ayako," Kenji announced with great pride in his voice, "She will be your companion while you are with us and attend to your every need."
"I really don't have many needs..." Willow began to protest, desperately not wanting to offend anyone, least of all their hosts but she was cut short by a sharp stab in the ribs from Giles' elbow.
"So Willow-san...how much do you know about Dejima?" Kenji asked with a raised eyebrow.
Willow sighed imperceptibly, glad that she had at least completed some of the reading Giles had assigned her on the voyage, "I know it is the only point of contact for Dutch traders...no foreigner is allowed into Japan proper..."
This one point had been a concern Willow had intended to raise with Giles but given that she had spent much of the voyage avoiding him for fear of being assigned further work, she had not quite got around to it. She simply expected that they would both be quite capable of stealing un-noticed onto the mainland and carrying out their task unseen. It was an element of the journey Willow had been looking forward to.
Kenji grinned but raised one finger to halt her recitation, "Aha! You are not quite correct, one time each year the Dutch Kapitan and an official delegation must travel to pay homage to the Shogun in our capital, Edo."
"It just so happens that we have arrived precisely at the right time to join them in their delegation to Edo," Giles nodded with satisfaction at their apparently fortunate timing.
Willow tried not to appear too disappointed but the thought of travelling as part of a pompous, official delegation was already causing her to groan inwardly.
Eager to fall asleep in a bed that did not sway with the ocean, Willow opted to follow Ayako to their lodgings rather than eat and drink with the rest of the ship's company and Giles. Giles had been waxing lyrical about something called ‘saki' for the past few weeks. Willow had no idea what that was but she was sure it was something she was bound to dislike.
As she followed Ayako through Dejima's narrow streets, she was struck by the architecture of the buildings that lined either side of her, some rising two stories above. While she had no idea what Japanese houses were supposed to look like, she was sure it wasn't the distinctly European looking buildings with their neat shutters and gaudy colours.
Ayako obviously saw her confusion written plainly on her face, "Dutch people live in Dutch houses on Dejima...tomorrow you will see how Japanese live when we begin our journey to Edo."
The Japanese girl inclined her head gracefully towards the not to distant edge of the island and Willow realised she could clearly see the shores of Nagasaki proper. She smiled in thanks and the two women continue walking in silence until they passed a small party of Dutch sailors whom Willow recognised from the Van Amstel. She immediately noticed a change in their behaviour from the deference they had shown her throughout the sea journey...but their rudeness was not directed towards her, but rather towards Ayako as they spoke Japanese.
Even though Willow could not understand a word of what they were saying, she knew much the connotations behind them from their rude gestures, the tenor of their voices and most of all from the red flush of embarrassment staining Ayako's cheeks. Willow quickly linked her arm through Ayako's and increased their pace, well aware that the earlier confiscation of her weapons now meant that she was completely unarmed. She hoped that the men would not be stupid enough to follow them. Giles would not want her involved in a brawl on the streets of Dejima, it would potentially ruin everything. The men's voices followed them down the short street but their footsteps did not. Willow breathed a sigh of relief when Ayako led her into a small house at the edge of the island.
As they entered, Willow immediately noticed a difference, while the façade was European, the interior was distinctly foreign. Rather than carpet, some sort of hard mat covered the floors. Ayako paused to remove her shoes and Willow followed suit with her boots, quickly slipping her feet into the pair of slippers indicated before the other girl could notice how dirty her feet were.
"Come Willow-san, we will find you suitable Japanese attire and a bath and then we will eat," Ayako steered Willow up a flight of stairs.
"A bath sounds wonderful...but I'm honestly not hungry," Willow protested, her stomach already reeling from just the thought of all manner of strange, exotic food.
Her protest fell on deaf ears as she was ushered in a low ceiled room with very little future save a table and a low bed. There were however bookshelves containing a wide variety of books. Willow scanned their spines and saw popular novels and work of non-fiction in Dutch, English and French. In the middle of the floor, surrounded by a white cloth, was a low wooden tub filled with steaming water. Red petals floated atop its surface. Willow gazed longingly at the water and a nearby sponge. When she turned back to face Ayako, she found that the young woman had moved to a closet of sorts with a sliding door. Inside were shelves of garments, although Willow could not tell their shape or form from the way that they were folded.
Willow studied Ayako's pale face in the failing light of day and decided that her first impressions of the young Japanese woman had indeed been correct. Although she had no idea of the Japanese standard for beauty, Ayako appeared truly pleasing to her own eyes. Her almond skinned face was round without being plump and her eyes dark to the point of being black, as black as the raven tresses which were arranged elaborately atop her head.
"Ayako, why were those men treating you so poorly just now...surely they must respect a lady of rank?" Willow asked gently, wondering if she ought to be asking the question at all for fear of offending some custom.
Ayako turned with an armful of garments, she shook her head slightly, "Ladies of rank do not come to Dejima...only courtesans."
Willow lifted her eyebrows, "So the only women allowed on the island are prostitutes...and those men thought that you were one...but you're not, are you?"
She smiled in reply, "Would it matter if I were, Willow-san?"
It was Willow's turn to flush pink as she stammered out her lame reply, "No...no...of course not, I mean, it is a perfectly sensible option, especially given the lack of professions open to women..."
Willow met Ayako's eyes more than a little awkwardly and seconds later the dark-eyed girl burst into a peel of rich laughter. Her own lips curled upwards, encouraged by the musical sound. She had not heard genuine laughter from a woman's lips for some time and she realised she had missed the sound immensely.
Ayako gently laid the garments she carried on the floor in front of Willow and then wrinkled her nose when she stood once more. Willow realised that she was looking with disgust at her dirty, salt stained men's clothes and immediately felt embarrassed by her appearance, especially in relation to the richly embroidered silk garment Ayako wore.
When her hands went to the topmost button of Willow's shirt, Willow realised that she meant to undress her and stopped her. She enclosed the tiny soft hands in her own before she could undo the first button. As Willow stood holding both Ayako's hands, she immediately felt the calluses covering the palms and the pads of her fingers and she knew them for what they were. Ayako had spent time using a sword and if the firmness of the calluses were anything to go by, she had spent a lot of time using a sword.
Ayako met her gaze calmly but offered no explanation as she drew her hands away; they disappeared into the wide sleeves of her garment, "I am sorry, Willow-san, I will leave you to bathe and return when you are done."
"T-thank you," Willow stammered because it was all she could think of to say in reply.
Ayako bowed her head and moved out of the room, Willow felt an element of something leave with her when she walked out of the room...a feeling she could not put a name to. Even so, it was gone a few moments later when Willow turned to look at the tub. It took seconds for her to strip off the dirty clothes and plunge herself into the water. She found it pleasantly warm over her feet and lower legs but realised quickly that the Japanese must bathe standing up. Willow pursed her lips together as though wondering whether she could fit and decided that she could. It took some manipulating of limbs, but eventually she was happily tucked into the tub, submerged up to her chest. She sat, listening to the quiet jostling of the water around her body and eventually her eyes lid closed.
I am in Japan, Willow could not quite believe it herself until she rolled those words over in her mind, I am in Japan... She was impossibly far away from everything and everyone she had ever known, Abraham, Christopher, Sam and Nancy, everyone except Giles...and the part of Tara she carried within her heart, Tara, I am in Japan...are you still watching over me so far from home? Willow knew in her heart that she was.
When she opened her eyes once more, Willow could not tell how much time had passed. She had to stand to scrub herself and in doing so, realised that her dirty clothes had been removed. No doubt her Japanese host had taken them to be burnt.
Her new clothes caused her a great deal of confusion when she went to pull them on after towelling her skin dry. Instead of a shirt and a simple pair of breeches, there were great swathes of material which could have wrapped around her body in any number of ways. She sensed someone enter the room and turned to see a red-checked Ayako standing in the doorway.
"My apologies, Willow-san," she politely averted her eyes, "You need help?"
"Help!" Willow pleaded, awkwardly holding one piece of fabric against her body.
The Japanese girl entered the room, still keeping her head downcast as she selected the garments Willow ought to don first. She picked up the soft cotton under garments and Willow quickly shrugged into them, mortified at being naked in front of another person even for just a moment. Once the shirt and pants were securely tied and her modesty restored, Willow was able to relax significantly as Ayako showed her how to wear her kimono and the wide trousers known as hakama.
"You do this every day?" Willow asked as Ayako tied the pants at the small of her back to complete the outfit.
She glanced down at herself, feeling strange and yet oddly comfortable in the Japanese garments. She did not know if Ayako had chosen the emerald colour of the kimono to match her eyes but it was certainly gorgeous.
"This type of kimono is normally worn by a man," Ayako replied, another red flush creeping into her cheeks, "It takes less time."
"Oh," Willow mumbled, no doubt it was one of her quirks which Giles had seen fit to include in his letters to Kenji. She glanced up at Ayako's downcast face but could not tell what she was thinking, specifically whether she thought her abnormal because she preferred men's clothing.
Willow was not given an opportunity to explain herself before they headed back down the stairs for a light meal at the low table. Willow tried to kneel on the cushion in the same manner as her host but she found it extremely uncomfortable, instead she folded her legs in the manner of her childhood.
The food laid out was simple, rice, chicken, fish and some sort of stringy substance that looked like worms covered in a dark sauce. Willow looked for the knife and fork but found only two thin sticks. She looked to Ayako with a confused expression on her face only to see her expertly wielding the sticks in one hand, easily lifting food to her mouth.
"Chopsticks," Ayako inclined her towards the implements Willow was studying intently, "Like this."
Willow proved to be a quick study, only a few minutes into the meal she was able to at least get food into her mouth without sending it onto the floor or her lap. For all her fears regarding Japanese food, she found it to be light, refreshing and easy to eat. Despite her exhaustion, she enjoyed the meal and she ate in companionable silence with Ayako, the only sounds being the scraping of their chopsticks against the ceramic food bowls.
It was towards the end of the meal that Willow finally realised just how tired she really was, she could barely keep her eyes open long enough to guide her next scoop of rice into her mouth. As she often did when she was tired, she allowed her mind to wander at will and almost always it were her memories of Tara which resurfaced. Sometimes Willow did not want to lose the thought, she would remember a particular moment she had forgotten and often a smile would come unbidden to her face.
"You have lost someone," Ayako's quiet statement filtered through her thoughts.
Willow forced her half-lidded yes open and realised that her mind had probably been wandering for quite some time, the lump of rice sat uneaten in her mouth and she quickly chewed and swallowed. Willow did not ask how Ayako had come to that particular conclusion from just her expression; she merely replied simply, "I have."
"A lover?" Ayako asked in a bare whisper, as though it were exceptionally rude of her to ask such questions of a guest.
A lover...my dearest friend...my whole world, "Yes," Willow replied simply.
"Four years ago," in saying it Willow could still not bring herself to believe that much time had passed.
Willow quickly shovelled another scoop of rice into her mouth even though she had already eaten her fill. It felt strange to speak of Tara's death to an almost complete stranger and yet as she sat across the low table from Ayako she felt as though she could tell the Japanese girl everything.
"I am sorry, Willow-san," Ayako whispered quietly, "For your loss and for the pain you carry for so long...
"You should not be sorry," Willow replied after swallowing her mouthful of rice, "The loss and pain will always be present...but someone told me a while ago that I need to live my life, and I plan to."
Ayako ducked her head quickly, the simple motion reminding Willow very much of a certain blonde who would often do the same thing if she were embarrassed. It was at this point that Willow set down her chopsticks, unable to bear the thought of eating another bite, no matter how delicious it was.
"I think perhaps we should both sleep, our journey will be a long one," Ayako said quietly, rising to her feet.
Willow nodded, although the food had been excellent, she already felt it sitting in her stomach as a lump of hard rock. She was weary beyond words and already dreading the thought of travelling once more. She followed Ayako back to the bedroom, an unseen servant had removed the tub and the bed sheets were drawn back in an inviting manner. Stripping of the outer layer of her kimono, Willow practically tumbled onto the bed, not even caring when she discovered that there was no soft mattress beneath her body. Her head fell backwards onto the pillow and she found herself gazing up at the young Japanese woman, her dark eyes unreadable in the dim light. Willow closed her own eyes with an exhausted sigh.
Willow was already half-asleep when she felt a smooth but callused palm gently brush the side of her cheek. Almost instinctively, she reached out and caught the hand as it retreated.
At the sound of Ayako's voice, Willow opened her eyes to see the young woman's face above her in the darkness. Her lips were parted slightly and Willow could see the rapid rise and fall of her chest. She was undeniably lovely, the moonlight rendering her skin as smooth as marble, her eyes as black as obsidian and her hair as shining as silk.
Ayako eased her hand from Willow's grasp, "It is late..."
Willow caught the edge of reluctance to her voice but she still rose determinedly from her side, the folds of her kimono falling about her body as she did so. As she moved from the room, Willow turned to face the opposite direction and quickly squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her fists, desperately willing the fierce hunger in her body to go away.
"Ayako?" Willow suddenly whispered in a hoarse voice.
Ayako had never left the room, remaining just inside the doorway and she clearly heard the young Englishwoman call out to her. For just a moment she felt elated but even as her lips parted to answer her whispered name Ayako knew that she could not respond. If she went to Willow now she knew that neither she nor Willow would have any control over what followed. Despite Willow's adamant statement earlier that evening, Ayako knew that the young woman was not ready to move on with her life.
Without answering Willow, she silently padded from the room. As she went to bed alone that night she could not help but feel angry towards the lover that held Willow in thrall even in death.
When Willow awoke the next morning, the sun was already streaming through the gaps in paper blinds and across the soft covers. She stretched her body in several directions and immediately discovered that sleeping on the floor had not agreed with her in the slightest. Her bones creaked and her back felt as stiff as a rod. Nevertheless she managed to rise and stared in confusion at the pile of clothing that she was supposed to be able to don. Although it had only been the previous evening, she could barely remember how each piece was supposed to go. Almost half an hour later, fervently glad that no one had been watching, Willow glanced down at herself and was satisfied she had achieved at least an approximation of Japanese garb.
When she descended the stairs, she noticed that a meal had been laid out on the table. Willow did not feel hungry in the slightest and instead continued outside where she could hear a cacophony of voices and other sounds. When she emerged she came upon a scene of well organised chaos. Several ornate palanquins and wagons were surrounded by both Dutch and Japanese men on horseback.
Willow had not noticed Ayako at first because she was not wearing the same style silk gown she had worn the day before, instead she was wearing garments similar to Willow as she sat astride her prancing horse, her hair bound in much the same manner as the men in a tightly bound topknot. When she saw Willow a small smile crossed her face. Willow's cautious approach had something to do with the awkward tension she felt in the presence of the Japanese woman, it was also due to the fact that she hated horses with a passion. She came to stand beside Ayako's horse and tentatively reached out to stroke its muzzle.
"Good morning, Willow-san," Ayako inclined her head slightly, "You sleep late indeed."
"I was very tired," Willow replied, managing a small smile of her own.
The two women stood in silence for a few moments, Willow awkwardly continuing to stroke the muzzle of Ayako's horse even though the very act was causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand up. It was Willow who eventually broke the silence, knowing it was her apology to make.
"What happened last night...between us..." Willow began awkwardly.
"Nothing happened, Willow-san," Ayako replied quickly, her smile never faltering, "And that is how it will remain."
"Yes," Willow agreed, although she still could not manage to eliminate all traces of reluctance from her voice. However, as lovely as Ayako was Willow knew she only wanted the Japanese girl to satisfy the needs of her young body and Willow could not bring herself to let such a relationship develop further. Without love she would only be using the girl, and she hated to think of herself as a monster that would use women and discard them as it suited. In becoming such a person she would turn into the creature she despised above all others...Edward Walsh.
"Willow-san," Ayako interrupted her thoughts, Willow tried to meet her gaze confidently, "I am truly sorry for being such a beautiful woman."
Willow could not help but smile in response to the playful one which teased across Ayako's own lips, she spoke the truth, her beauty was a large part of Willow's problem. However, as Willow struggled to mount her own horse moments later, she realised that she had been placed in the perfect situation in which to move on from Tara. Here she was in a far away, foreign land with a beautiful young woman who felt something for her...She glanced ahead to try and find Giles in the melee but the only person she did manage to pick out was Kenji Nakamura staring at her in an unnerving manner. Willow sighed as she tentatively spurred her horse forward; it was going to be a very long journey.