As much as Willow wished she could sink into the feathers of her four-posted bed, draw her blankets up over her head and remain there for several days, she knew she had very little time for such indulgences. She and Abraham had parted ways with Giles at Montangu house but not before their mentor informed them that they would be leaving at first light the next morning, headed towards the darkest heart of Europe in a race against Dracula's forces. In all likelihood they would arrive too late but it was a chance all of them had to take. Willow had seen the deep creases in Giles's forehead as they left him to his preparations, she knew as well as he that the spell to destroy the skull would not be completed in time...if even such a spell could be written. They would be going to Covasna with absolutely no cards to play save the skills they already possessed.
Following a brief and silent meal, Willow had retired upstairs to pull together the things she would need for the journey. She quickly noticed that the only items she was selecting were weapons and armour, somehow everything else seemed trivial. Ayako's katana was one of the first items she set aside for it was never far from her side to begin with.
At odd moments she would wrap her fingers around the hilt and lift it from wherever it happened to be resting, caressing its length with trembling fingers. It was a constant reminder of the Japanese girl and the potential life that had been stripped from her. Willow could only speculate as to what would have happened had Ayako lived and her father allowed her to travel to England. However she knew in her heart that she would have stayed at her side no matter what that choice would have brought her...most likely death at Covasna. It was this realisation that scared Willow almost as deeply as Ayako's death...the people who loved her were all doomed to die...
As though it were suddenly hot to touch, Willow set the katana down on her window seat with the rest of her equipment and took several awkward steps backwards until she felt her bed hit the backs of her legs. She sat heavily, feeling the weight of fate settle about her shoulders, pressing her down.
Willow was startled by a firm rap on her bedroom door but before she could calm herself enough to give permission to enter, the door swung inwards to reveal her brother. She sighed, pleased as always to see him, but even more fearful for what the future held for him. As she studied his dashing features, she knew without a doubt that she could not live without him. If Abraham was to be taken from her, as with Tara and Ayako, she would never be able to carry on with her life; indeed...it would be no life worth living.
Even as she felt herself sink so low as to render it impossible for her to stand once more, Abraham effortlessly managed to bring her out of it, simply by the fact that he was standing in her doorway puffing on a rather smelly, rather large cigar.
"Abraham Theodore Van Helsing, don't you dare smoke that foul smelling thing in my bedroom!" Willow leapt to her feet with the intention of shooing her cigar-smoking brother back out the way he had entered.
Willow crossed the floor to grapple with his arm, receiving an eyeful of cigar smoke when she tried to prise the offending object from his fingers. As strong as she was, Abraham easily held her at bay and she growled angrily.
"I'll hang my head out the window?" he offered hopefully, eyes pleading with her like those of a hungry puppy.
Willow eyed the cigar in his hand, already sending up puffs of foul smoke towards her ceiling, and eventually gave in with a grumpy shrug.
"Keep you head out the window!" she pointed in the direction of her window seat.
Abraham had to make a small spot for himself to sit amongst Willow's clothing and equipment which she had neatly laid out for their journey to Covasna. He tossed her black breastplate to the floor where it fell with a crash and shuffled aside a stack of silver crossbow bolts. The one thing that did catch his eye as he prised open the window was the strange sword Willow had brought back with her from Japan.
He sought permission from Willow who had returned to her perch on the edge of her bed; she nodded with a tight-lipped smile. He closed his fingers around the hilt and lifted it onto his lap. Blowing a mouthful of smoke outside, he gently prised the blade from its scabbard and continued drawing until he had at least a foot of blade bare before his eyes.
He reacted in much the same manner as Willow had when she first laid eyes on it, "This blade...it's beautiful."
"As beautiful as the woman who owned it," was Willow's quiet reply.
Abraham quietly choked on his cigar, as soon as he managed to draw a breath, he slid the sword back into its scabbard and met Willow's gaze directly. She did not hold it for long and quickly turned away as though in some amount of pain. Abraham stubbed out his cigar on the window sill and tucked the remainder of it into his breast pocket before crossing the floor to his sister's side. He tried to keep the surprise from showing on his face as Willow suddenly crumpled into a tearful ball in his lap. Her fingers latched onto the front of his waistcoat and she held the fabric in a white-knuckled grip as though she would never let him go. He merely sat, his arms gently cradling her as she sobbed, waiting until she was ready to tell him about the owner of the sword.
"Who was she?" Abraham asked quietly as Willow's tears had subsided, she was now wiping her wet nose against his front.
"Oh Abraham," Willow mumbled, "Why is it that everyone I love dies? Mother died giving birth to me, father passed away and left the two of us alone...then Tara...and Ayako died because I was not at her side."
"Do not be ridiculous," Abraham tried to keep his voice firm but he was faltering slightly when he finished what he intended to say, "I am still here."
Abraham immediately regretted saying anything at all; it came out sounding so flat and desperate in the face of Willow's sadness. He made up for his inadequate words by cradling her all the more firmly against his chest. Just when he thought Willow was not going to answer his question, she opened her mouth and started speaking; painting in words a portrait of the raven-haired Japanese woman she had fallen in love with.
He had to admit that from Willow's description of her, Ayako sounded to be the perfect foil for her impetuous and arrogant demeanour; he did not voice his opinions aloud however, for fear of upsetting her further. There was little point in discussing what might have been.
"She died before I could admit that I loved her, before I had the courage to press my lips against hers or know her body as well as I know my own, I only wish..." Willow drew her story to a close with a deep breath, "What does it matter...my entire life has been filled with pain and suffering, and the only time I was truly happy was during those short months with Tara, and even then her family and...that man, were a constant shadow hanging over our heads."
"Heroes are forged through pain and suffering," Abraham offered, not at all sure why the words tumbled from his lips.
Willow frowned as though she too were confused by Abraham's choice of words, "I'm no hero Abraham."
"You are," Abraham replied firmly, no longer unsure sure of his words, "You've chosen to spend your life selflessly keeping people safe...even though they have no idea you're doing it...and you're riding off to do battle against a scourge that has lurked unseen for hundreds of years and is soon to rise again if we fail."
Willow remained unconvinced, "I should never have entertained thoughts of a relationship with Ayako. I knew the situation we faced and the likelihood of danger...and even had she lived I would have brought her back to all this."
Willow waved her hand in the direction of the assorted weapons and armour piled up in front of her, seeing them as accoutrements of a lonely life.
"You would have brought her home to your own house, and your family...and I'm sure from what you have just told me of her that she already accepted the life you live," Abraham said quietly, "I should have very much liked to meet her."
Willow smiled briefly, "She said the same thing of you before she died."
With a quick pat on Willow's shoulder, Abraham stood and walked over to the large mirror mounted on Willow's wall. It was a gift he had commissioned for her twenty-fourth birthday. He traced his fingers over the beautiful silverwork, depicting small snippets of Willow's life with space spare at the top for further additions.
"We should add something of your Japanese voyage to the mirror," Abraham suggested, glancing over his shoulder back at Willow, "I'll arrange it as soon as we return."
Willow just nodded a pensive expression on her face. She loved that mirror and certainly not out of any tendencies towards vanity on her part but rather because of the stories Abraham had seen fit to include around its frame. As much as they saddened her, she had to admit that she liked the idea of having those Japanese memories committed to silver. Her gaze travelled from the mirror, around the rest of her room. While her time spent at Gordon Square had been far from idyllic, she had grown to love the house.
"I don't know why," Willow mused as she stared at the mirror, "but I have the funny feeling that I will never see this house again."
"Do not even jest of such things, Willow," Abraham berated her sternly.
Willow simply shrugged, "I was not jesting...but if you would rather I did not give voice to my feelings..."
"I would rather you didn't give voice to that particular feeling," he replied curtly.
In complete contrast to the rather sombre air that had been created in the room, Willow's face broke into a small grin. She rolled and flopped awkwardly off the side of the bed, hoping to earn a small smile from Abraham as a result of her antics. However, his face remained stern as she came to stand in front of him, reaching up to rest her hands on his shoulders.
"You worry too much Abraham," she commented, "I will have my brother watching over me...what can possibly go wrong?"
Despite being on edge the whole time, the first week of their journey across Europe proved almost completely uneventful for the small party. Giles, Abraham and Willow travelled by horse for speed and only stopped for a brief period each night to rest and feed themselves as they raced to Covasna. Abraham had very thoughtfully provided Willow with a rotund but stout-hearted horse named Tubby. Although Willow had initially had her doubts, Tubby did his very best to maintain the pace of the much larger animals Giles and Abraham rode. Even so, a slow trot meant an extremely uncomfortable journey for one who hated horses as much as Willow. She thoroughly expected to arrive at Covasna too tired and stiff to fight.
Abraham, who of course spent as much time in a saddle as he did on his own two feet, actually managed to sleep quite comfortably with his chin tucked onto his chest. He was doing so on one particular morning, slumped astride his large black destrier. Giles was some way up ahead, out of sight on the narrow road ahead. The warlock preferred solitude as he rode. Willow knew that he was worried about how events at Covasna were going to unfold and this occupied his thoughts constantly. Willow turned her attention back to her brother and studied his peaceful face, not for the first time she appreciated just how handsome a man he really was. Throughout his life, the past few years especially, he had more than proved his worth as a protector to her. However, she absently wondered at the key element that was missing in his life. Awkwardly, Willow spurred her horse forwards to come up directly alongside her brother.
"Abraham," Willow called softly so as not to startle Abraham, his chin jerked up almost immediately indicating that he had merely been dozing, "Forgive me if I am prying...but I think as your sister I should be able to ask you anything, and there has been one particular question which has weighed on my mind for sometime now."
He smiled as easily as he always did, "Anything dear sister, you may ask absolutely anything of me."
"Why have you not married?" the question came more abruptly than Willow had intended but she was surprised by just how quickly the smile disappeared from her brother's face.
Almost as quickly, he turned his head aside and the expression that had replaced the smile was lost to Willow. When Abraham turned to face her once more, the small smile was back in place and she was left to wonder at what had just passed through his mind.
"I know more than a few men who are not married at my age...although granted, few are quite as eligible as me," his voice was light in tone but Willow suspected it was a front concealing something deeper.
"And certainly none as handsome," Willow teased him predominantly to cover up her own unease, "Do you plan to one day...marry that is?"
This time Willow could see the expression that replaced Abraham's smile; it was one of decided discomfort. In fact, as Willow studied his face further, she thought that it could almost be an expression of guilt. While she did not like to think she had dredged up something which caused him pain, now that she had opened the jar Willow had to know what it was that vexed her brother so. A small inkling began to surface at the back of her mind and so wondered whether she might dare speak aloud her suspicions, however implausible they seemed. Willow was so absorbed in this issue that she narrowly avoided contact with a low hanging branch on the trail. She ducked urgently, in time for it merely to snag a few wayward strand of her hair.
"Ouch!" Willow muttered, rubbing her head as she turned to glare at the offending branch.
Beneath her, Tubby began to prance awkwardly, as though sensing that his rider was off-balance. Sensing that Willow was in danger of slipping from the saddle, Abraham reached out to hold Tubby by his harness, stroking his nose until he clamed. Willow was a little white-faced when he turned to look at her.
"You would think I would be able to at least sit comfortably on a horse by now," Willow sighed with exasperation, "If can wield a sword with no small amount of skill..."
"That's an understatement," Abraham added.
Willow smiled, her horse-fear already forgotten," Well, any skill I do possess is due largely to your highly effective and patient tutelage."
"Nonsense," Abraham was quick to reply, "I dare say that you could best me with one hand tied behind your back...Willow, your skill is entirely a result of your own determination and inherent talent...but we are both digressing, I think there was an answer you wanted and I know you will fret if you do not uncover the truth."
"Are you like me?" Willow blurted out suddenly, her cheeks immediately colouring.
Abraham frowned lightly, "Like you, Willow? In what way?"
"A S-Sapphist...or rather, I mean...not that term exactly because you're a man but..."
Abraham supplied the words that she could not, "Do I prefer men?"
Willow ducked her head, feeling ashamed for bringing up the subject in the first place. It was Abraham's business alone on whom he bestowed his affections. She had been wrong to ask in the first instance.
"Chin up, my dear Willow," Abraham reached out and lightly brushed his sister's reddened cheek, "I would hope that you would accept me if I was that way inclined...but I am not...and I guess you might say that I am like you in that we both share a passion for the female form."
"Then who, I have never seen you look twice at any women...I honestly think I have spent more time staring at bosoms than you," Willow tried to jest but the expression on Abraham's face was unnerving.
"I have only loved but one woman in all my twenty-eight years," Abraham replied quietly, almost reluctantly.
"Please do not tell me that it is me...or our mother...because that would be truly pathetic," Willow commented with a short laugh, seeking only to lighten his heavy mood.
Abraham shook his head, his mood unchanged, his heavy countenance only serving to make Willow regret ever bringing the subject up.
"I love you more than life itself Willow...." Abraham breathed deeply, "Which is why I could never exhibit anything more than a brotherly affection for the woman who stole both our hearts at the Marlborough's picnic."
"Oh Abraham..." Willow whispered as comprehension dawned. Her brother had silently loved Tara and watched her grow closer to his own sister without a thought of ever making a move for himself. In knowing the depth and intensity of her own feelings for the beautiful blonde, she understood some of his torment and felt her own heart break for him. " Why did you not...you should have told me at least."
"Should I have?" Abraham's tone was verging on bitter, although he quickly suppressed this and when he continued his voice was merely taut, "How could I ever seek to compete with my little sister, you have been far more blessed that I when it comes to wit, intelligence, beauty and charm...how could Tara have chosen otherwise?"
While Willow could understand the depth of her own feelings, she could not put herself in her brother's shoes. Would she have pressed her attentions on Tara even if she was being courted by her brother? Would she have stood back as Abraham had done and simply watched as the woman she loved was courted by another? Willow was fervently glad circumstances had not worked out that way for she knew her heart...and she would never have let Tara get away from her.
Even as she came to understand the extent of her brother's sacrifice, another, far uglier thought reared in her mind. She fought to suppress it, knowing only ill would come if she gave voice to it but her mouth opened and the words tumbled forth.
"You could have asked her parents for her hand in marriage...the thought never crossed my mind at the time...but I am sure it crossed yours. You were a far better match for her than Edward Walsh ever was...our family name may not be as distinguished as that of the Walsh's but it was fortune the Maclay's were seeking, not name," Willow did not stop to even appreciate the look of horror on her brother's face, "Why did you not?"
"Please do not suggest such a thing to me, Willow," Abraham whispered, truly traumatised, "To suggest such a thing in hindsight has no purpose whatsoever and it will not bring her back."
Willow was far from satisfied, "You are avoiding my question, you could have married her!"
"I 'could have' married her, Willow, past tense!" Abraham's voice rose but he did not resort to shouting. "It is over, Tara is dead, let us not speak of what might have passed!"
"You still have not answered my question!"
Beneath him, Abraham's horse quivered, sensing his rider's discomfort and rising anger, with a shaking hand he reached down to pat the horse's neck. He could not bring himself to look at his sister although he could feel her eyes boring into the back of his head as she waited for his answer.
"I could have married her in name yes, but she would have always been yours. Willow, put yourself in my shoes for just a moment, could you ever imagine anything as awful as having what you want more than anything in the world in name only, having it and not being able to do anything about it?" his voice had taken on a hint of desperation, "I would have a wife but no lover...and for the sake of decency I would be unable to marry again or even take a lover in all but the utmost secrecy. You know what kind of man I am Willow, I could not bring myself to do that...even for my sister."
"So instead you let her marry that pig?" Willow demanded unsympathetically.
"I have given you everything, Willow!" Abraham protested," Would you also have me suffer a marriage to a woman I loved but could never have?"
"To save her life? Yes!" Willow replied immediately.
Abraham's expression was crestfallen but he continued to meet his sister's demanding gaze without flinching. He could see the anger written clearly on her face, it was an anger that had little time for rational thinking.
It was Willow who had to turn away first, she wrenched her gaze away and decided that a physical separation was also needed. Tubby needed several prods from her heels before he picked up his pace and moved her away from Abraham. Without looking back she kept up the pace until she caught up to Giles. The warlock glanced around at the unexpected company but had a warm smile for her all the same. It was a smile Willow could not return for fear of letting her built up rage escape. This of course resulted in her cheeks flaming a bright, hot red to match the roots of her hair.
"Willow, you seem upset?" Giles questioned gently.
"I don't want to talk about it," was Willow's curt reply.
"Perhaps Abraham could help..." Giles began; unaware of what had passed between the two siblings behind him on the trail.
"My brother and I are not on speaking terms," Willow replied in a firm voice.
Giles did not ask Willow any further questions but he did feel that their chances for success had just taken a sharp turn for the worse.
It was a dark, heavy night in Klausenberg. Not a trace of moon or stars managed to break through the thick, oppressive layer of cloud which hung over the city. The inhabitants could sense something ill being brought with the weather and kept indoors, their doors and shutters barred. All in all, it was a fitting atmosphere for the events to come, dark weather for dark days.
No one was more aware of this than Willow Van Helsing as she stalked Klausenberg's streets at night. Nearing the end of their long journey, their destination now almost in sight, she could not allow herself to relax to the point where sleep would come. She remained on edge, tense to the point of breaking and unable to remain cooped up indoors, especially in close proximity to her brother. In just a short week since Abraham's confession, the once close relationship between the siblings had disintegrated to the point that neither could manage a single word to the other in greeting let alone apology. Willow was all the more uncomfortable because she knew in her heart that the apology was hers to make, having been the one responsible for the rift in the first place and also the one who was unable to see past her conclusion that Tara's death had been Abraham's fault. Willow had known this conclusion to be ridiculous in the extreme from the movement it originally left her lips, but she could not let it go. Now she clung to her anger as though it were all that kept her going.
So she walked the streets when she knew she ought to be resting for what was to come, a lone figure daring to venture outside. She had swapped her stained and dusty travel clothes for her black hunting outfit, forgoing a jacket even in the night chill. Ayako's katana rested at her side, lightly slapping her thigh with every step she made. The thoughts racing through her busy mind were bleak, so bleak that the scream that suddenly tore through the still night was a welcome relief. Willow's entire body responded, her muscles immediately tensing as she sprang into action. Her booted feet made no sound even as she sprinted at full speed across the cobbles in the direction of the scream.
When she came upon the scene, she felt blood coursing through her veins, not in fear but excitement. This was what she lived for, it was exactly what she needed.
Four vampires had cornered one lone figure. The victim was backed up in a dead-end alleyway with no way out. Willow could only just make out the cloaked victim, the cowl was up over their head but from the earlier scream, she knew it was a woman. They were taunting her, making swipes and lunges for her with no amount of urgency. Their clawed fingers were grabbing at her clothes even as she pleaded and hugged the wall behind her in an effort to get as far away from them as possible. Willow's fists clenched as one demon strode forward and struck her across the head with the flat of his hand. Her head snapped sideways and she fell to her hands and knees.
Without announcing her presence, Willow lightly sprang up onto a nearby staircase and used that as a vantage point from which to leap over the heads of the vampires and drop between them and their prey. All four snarled when their path was suddenly blocked by a dark figure with only the white teeth of her grin flashing in the darkness.
Willow cast a glance back over her shoulder, although she could not see her face, Willow could clearly tell the woman was terrified by the manner in which her whole body shook. She gently but firmly grabbed her by the upper arm and pushed her back into a corner.
"Stay back!" Willow commanded the woman, "Let me deal with the scum."
Willow drew her katana and held it steady before her with both hands on the grip. The four vampires were advancing on her. Judging by the grins on their faces, Willow could see that they had overcome their initial surprise and were expecting to add a second victim to their tally for the evening. She knew she would prove them wrong. In a heartbeat, her body surged forward with the katana in her hands working as an extension of her arm. The vampire in the centre was decapitated before the other three could even blink.
Even though there were still three of them, the vampires did not stand a chance in the face of Willow's rage. Everything that she had allowed to build up within herself over the past week, especially the intensity of her anger towards her brother, it all escaped in the quick, brutal combat that followed.
When the remaining three came at her it was as one, three snarling demons hoping to overwhelm the one woman opposite them with one brutal strike. When two were forced to stumble backwards a moment later, they realised that their companion was lying face down on the cobbles beneath Willow's boot. With a grin she whipped a stake out from the pocket of her waistcoat and drove it downwards. The creature writhed for an awful moment before collapsing into a pile of dust.
"You want to rethink your evening meal, lads?" Willow drawled, twirling her katana around in her hand, "Your friends certainly do."
The two vampires looked at one another and wisely decided that this one particular meal was too much trouble. They turned and made a break for it, sprinting back towards the open street. However, Willow was not about to let them ago, even had she promised something to that effect, she would have broken it anyway.
The vampires were fast, but Willow was faster. One lagged slightly behind and Willow decapitated him from behind. His legs continued running for a few steps before his exploding body showered her with dust. For the second, Willow shifted her grip on the stake in her hand and with a flick of her wrist, it went sailing straight into his back. He screamed and stumbled, joining all of his companions in destruction.
With her quarry reduced to little more than dust on the cobbles, Willow was finally able to turn her attention to the woman she had just rescued. She retrieved her stake from the ground and turned to walk back to the end of the alley. As she tried to make out her face beneath the shadow of her cowl, Willow wondered what sort of woman would walk the streets of Klausenberg alone at night...besides herself of course. Instinctively, she did not put her katana away.
The woman straightened, her frightened, defensive posture falling from her shoulders like a cloak. She walked towards Willow, her confident strides graceful and elegant. Something about her was distinctly unnerving and Willow could not find any words, even to ask if she were unharmed.
"How can I ever thank you enough?" the woman whispered in a deep throated tone, the sound of it stirring familiar feelings in Willow's gut.
With two pale hands, she reached up and gently lifted her hood away from her face and let it fall to settle on her shoulders.
Willow could only manage one word in a strangled whisper as she made out the all too familiar features in the darkness.