Return to Van Rosenberg Chapter Twenty-Two

Van Rosenberg

Author: Alcy
Rating: R for supernatural violence and (eventually) hot, gay lovin'
Disclaimers: I don't own any of the Buffy, Tomb Raider or Dracula characters. This fic is of course AU so no spoilers for any season.

Montagu House was gone...and it wasn't just missing, it had been replaced by a truly monstrous Grecian edifice with towering columns and a broad entranceway. Willow stood in the middle of the footpath, completely oblivious to the agitated muttering of pedestrians walking by either side who were annoyed that someone would dare disrupt the flow of traffic. Her mouth worked soundlessly as she read over the words etched deeply into the stone fašade far above her head, British Museum.

"Good lord..." she whispered, "I know Giles had some delusions of grandeur but this is ridiculous..."

Willow failed to notice that the pedestrians who had so grudgingly parted on either side of her were now giving her a very wide berth. However, she was so confused that talking to herself in the middle of the street was the least of her problems. When Willow turned around she realised that there were a myriad of little...and some very large details that she had missed during her panicked dash from Gordon Square to Great Russell Street. For a start, Montagu House was not the only building missing...and nor was the British Museum the only building that had been erected overnight. Almost the entire frontage of the street across from her had been changed. Willow could also not remember seeing quite so much traffic on the fact, she was sure that she had never before laid eyes on the huge horse drawn carriages lumbering along the street, each carrying at least a dozen passengers. There were also many smaller carriages of the type Willow was used to...but she had to blink her eyes several times at the sight of a carriage being propelled without a horse. Willow took a few steps backwards as the noisy machine moved past her, belching out large quantities of smoke as it did so. Several pedestrians walked straight into her, jostling her about the footpath,

"Watch where you're going!" one man grumbled, casting a rather dirty look over his shoulder.

"I say, move along!" another growled as he almost knocked Willow to the ground.

Scared and confused, Willow pushed her way through the flow of people, moving towards the British Museum as though somehow this new building might hold the answers she so desperately needed. Thankfully there were far fewer people moving up the stairs and into the building and she was able to breathe somewhat easier...although her heart was still thudding along at a rate that threatened to cause her to pass out if she didn't calm herself down soon.

Willow ducked quickly through the massive doors and into the relatively peaceful interior. Once inside she barely paused to look above her at the massive ceiling before making a beeline straight for a secluded niche by the wall. She pressed her face against the cool stone and closed her eyes, knowing that it would be too much to hope for everything to be back to normal when she opened them once again. Still, Willow imagined the blissfully quiet interior of Montagu house, the rows upon rows of books, the reading tables and most of all Giles busy with his duties, perhaps pushing a trolley laden with books or exclaiming over damage done to some rare volume. Christopher Croft would be swinging back on the hind legs of a chair with his feet up on the desk, no doubt earning himself a few terse words from Giles. She'd move through the doors that led to Giles's office and other private rooms and Abraham would be sitting there, his knife hard at work as he sharpened a stake to replace one he had broken the previous night. He would set the wood down and she'd fold herself into his embrace. The words that had passed between them would be an unpleasant memory and the cause of those words would be almost forgotten...

Except she couldn't forget...even now, with her eyes squeezed tightly shut and her entire body pressed back into a corner, she felt her skin crawl with the sensation that she was being watched. Her heart, which had begun to slow slightly, raced on with renewed intensity at the thought of those piercing blue eyes stabbing a hole straight through her body. Willow's hand awkwardly scrubbed at the fabric covering the middle of her chest, needing to confirm that the skin there was still whole. Even as her fingers found no wound she remembered the awful sight of looking down and seeing the point of a sword protruding from her own bloody chest. Her body sagged involuntarily when she remembered it being withdrawn and she almost collapsed to the floor. However, by far the most nightmarish sight was that of the woman she loved standing over her with the bloody sword in her hand,

"I'm a demon, I cannot be trusted."

It was all too late but Willow now realised that those words had never been intended for Dracula...Tara had spoken to her. Willow drew the coat tightly over her small frame, her fists clenched as they clutched at the fabric.

For Willow Van Helsing, fearless demon hunter, reality had become something to be feared. All she wanted to do was sink to the floor and let the herself be overtaken by the sobs that were already threatening to bubble forth from her mouth. Although she knew she ought to just square her shoulders and get on with the business of finding out what the hell had happened, she did not want to open her eyes and face the changes that had taken place around her.

Almost five minutes had passed before Willow realised that she could not stand in the corner of the lobby all day. She decided that she would venture back out onto those busy streets once more and make her way back to Gordon Square, the one place where the fewest changes seemed to have taken place.

She slowly prised her eyes open and looked ahead, only to find that there was someone staring at her. It was a dark-haired woman, tall and elegantly attired with a cane resting in one hand. Willow froze even though there was nothing in her gaze to suggest that she meant harm.

Lara Croft was somewhat annoyed when she heard an abrupt and insistent knock on the door to her office. She was quite sure she had told Cordelia that she was not to be disturbed all morning. The knock repeated, this time even more insistently and with an irritated huff she threw down the report she had been reading.

"Come in!" she growled, her tone indicating that whatever the reason for the disturbance, it had better be good.

A rather sheepish looking Cordelia poked her head around the door, apologetic tones written all over her face before she even opened her mouth.

"I am most sorry, Director Croft, but it's one of the front of house staff, he says you simply must come down to the entrance right away."

"Is there some sort of problem?" Lara asked. Her tone was dangerously close to exploding; indicating that she already felt the matter was not worth disturbing her over.

"Well a manner of speaking" Cordelia began hesitantly, "It is Rosenberg Ma'am...she's in the entrance acting...well, acting rather peculiarly from what I've been told."

It was obvious Cordelia had no specific details to offer so Lara slid back her chair and rose. Her leg was aching particularly badly today and she was forced to use the cane she hated to steady her steps. She saw Cordelia relax slightly when she realised that there was going to be no explosion of temper.

"Cordelia, would you run downstairs and fetch Faith to the lobby?"

"Certainly...unless you need some assistance first?" Cordelia asked gently, well aware that Lara went out of her way not to make an issue of her disability.

"No, I'll be fine," Lara replied with a slight shake of her head.

As she made her way to the entrance, Lara realised that the mere mention of Rosenberg had been enough to banish her foul mood almost completely. She had to admit that she had missed the scatty redhead's presence around the museum for the past few months. However, as pleased as she was to think that Willow might be returning to work, Lara could not help but feel a measure of concern. While Willow was generally known for displaying odd behaviour at times, she seldom did so in public. Indeed, it was all she could do to keep the surprise from showing on her face when she descended the main stairs down into the entranceway and saw a uniformed employee nod towards a strangely clad figure huddled in a corner. It was Rosenberg, eyes shut, hugging the side of the wall as though she hoped to sink straight through it. While her behaviour was odd enough, Lara was further surprised to see a pair of striped pyjamas protruding from the bottom of her overcoat.

While Lara stood at the foot of the stairs, still staring, Willow's eyes opened and their gazes met directly. Even as Lara managed a small smile to try and put the woman at ease, she was disturbed by her expression. Her face was blank, missing the slightest hint of greeting, or even recognition. It was as though Willow had absolutely no idea who she was staring at. She crossed the floor slowly, out of both necessity and concern that Willow would bolt if she approached too quickly.

"Willow..." Lara spoke gently, "Why on earth are you standing here in your pyjamas?"

Willow glanced down at her attire quickly as though she did not understand what Lara was referring to and she did not reply immediately when she lifted her head. Instead she stared intently at Lara as though she were studying her face for a hint of recognition. Finally she gave up and asked in a determined voice, "Who are you?"

Lara almost stumbled backwards as though she had been struck. Willow's expression was so earnest, without the slightest hint of deception. She seriously did not know her own employer. Lara then realised that Willow's expression was not just blank...the girl was terrified.

"Willow...I'm Lara Croft, you work for me," Lara explained quietly, "Don't you know me?"

Willow's reply was a confused shake of her head. Lara was searching for something else to say when she saw the young woman's eyes dart sideways and stare at something or someone over her shoulder.

"Giles!" her sudden exclamation reverberated throughout the entrance and caused more than one patron to turn their heads in astonishment at the shout.

Willow dashed across the lobby in her pyjamas and threw herself into the arms of the tall man standing by the stairs. Lara frowned, she was sure Giles had mentioned visiting Willow at home just yesterday. However, from the way she clung to him, it was as though she had not seen him for years.

Giles returned Willow's hug but cast a searching glance over her head in Lara's direction. Lara merely shrugged with a confused expression on her face.

"Giles, what is happening to me?" Willow whispered into her mentor's chest, clutching at the fabric of his waistcoat as though she were drowning, "We were at Covasna...something happened to me there and then I was lying on my bedroom floor...and I came here looking for Montagu House but it's gone, replaced by this monstrous building...and that strange woman over there seems to know me and Giles, I swear I haven't seen her before in my life," Willow glanced over her shoulder to see the dark-haired woman still staring at her as though she had grown a tail, "Will you tell her to stop looking at me please? It's distinctly unnerving."

Giles immediately realised that the strange woman Willow was referring to was Lara. However, that didn't unnerve him half as much as her mention of Covasna and Montagu House. Although Willow had indeed just been at Covasna...Montagu House had been demolished over fifty earlier to make way for the very building they were standing in. However, as he stood holding the trembling girl against his chest an awful thought struck him. Another Willow, part of a different time, had known Montagu House very well. He gently disentangled Willow's arms from his body and held her at arm's length. He knew the question he had to ask would sound ridiculous to his own ears...

"Willow, who do you think you are?"

Willow's expression indicated that she also thought it completely ridiculous, "Giles...what an odd sort of question...well, I'm Willow of course!"

Giles smiled kindly, "Yes, I know you're Willow...but I need a little more information, when were you born, who are your parents...?"

Willow's frown deepened but she replied anyway, "I don't know what kind of practical joke this is...or spell more like considering you can't have possibly demolished entire buildings on your own...Willow Van Helsing, born on the 6th of October, 1760 to Pieter and Marianne Van Helsing, but they're long dead of course...and I have an older brother, Abraham...speaking of which, Giles, where is Abraham, I simply must speak with him at once."

Giles appeared crestfallen, however, he did not have a chance to reply to Willow's question before Faith emerged from a side door, Cordelia at her heels. The vampire hunter's face broke into a broad grin at the sight of her friend up and about and apparently back at work. Lara was already moving forward to intercept Faith but she was too slow and Faith crossed the floor at a run,

"Will, you should've told me you were coming in today!" she cried, arms outstretched as she moved in to embrace Willow.

Willow had turned at the sound of fast-paced footsteps approaching her. Before the strange woman could throw her arms around her, one fist snapped out quickly and caught her squarely on the jaw.

Faith was thrown backwards to land heavily on her arse in the middle of the floor, she went sliding several more feet when she hit. The expression on her face when she stood however was more one of shock than pain.

"Bloody hell, Willow!" Faith gasped as she rubbed her jaw, "That hurt...and where the hell did you learn to hit like that?"

By now patrons were actually starting to leave the museum when the witnessed the strange scene taking place in the lobby. If the sight of the small woman wearing pyjamas had not been enough to worry them, she was now starting to hit people.

Willow felt as though she had been backed into a corner, she stood with her fists still clenched but looked from the woman sitting on the floor back to the one familiar face in all of this madness. She turned again. By now the fallen woman had regained her feet and was looking more than a little angry. Willow lifted her fists, ready to defend herself if attacked again.

"Willow...she means no harm, just relax a little and let us help you..." Giles spoke urgently, wanting to reach out and touch her but hesitating in case she hit him too.

"Please Giles, I just need to see my brother," Willow pleaded with a gulp as she tried to stop tears from flowing, "I have yet to apologise for that ghastly fight we had over Tara...and then what I did, sleeping with her..."

Giles, Faith and Lara immediately took on expressions of varying degrees of shock but it was Faith who managed to fight past this to actually say something...even if that something was rather inappropriate.

"Willow, you had sex and you didn't tell me?"

Willow responded with a confused stare even as Giles reached out and took her by the shoulders, he gave Faith a stern expression that could be read in just one way, 'keep your mouth shut.'

Faith ignored him of course, a small measure of fear creeping into her voice, "Giles, what the bloody hell has happened to Willow?"

"Faith, just shut up and help me get Willow downstairs, we need to get away from the public areas as soon as possible," Giles knew that it was almost impossible to spare Willow any further stress until he could calm her down...and the middle of the entranceway was not exactly the best place to do this.

However, it was all too apparent that Willow did not want to be moved; she wanted answers to her questions and nothing else. With Giles holding one arm, and Faith the other, Cordelia held the doors open for them as they removed her from public eyes. Willow did not go quietly; she lashed out with her legs and struggled with her whole body as she tried to wrench herself free.

"Bloody hell Giles, unhand me I say!" Willow yelled, trying to move so she could kick the woman to her right, "Let me go...where the hell is my brother? Abraham! Abraham!"

Faith winced at the sound of Willow shouting at the top of her lungs so close to her ear, "Couldn't we possibly find some laudanum or something?"

Giles glared at her over the top of Willow's head and she immediately sealed her lips shut, trying to block out Willow's screams as they carried her down the stairs to the lower levels of the museum. They managed to make it into Faith's office without attracting too much attention and shut the door behind them. As soon as Willow was out of their grasp, she made an urgent bolt for the door. Faith was on hand to tackle her and wrestle her back to the couch, surprised to find that Willow was as least twice as strong as she used to be, even despite the wound in her shoulder.

Willow backed up into a corner and her eyes seized upon a display sword balanced on the desk in front of her. Without warning, she darted forward and her fingers closed over the hilt of the weapon. The sword protested slightly, as though it had not been drawn for some time but it was soon balanced in Willow's hand, point extended towards the three others in the room. All of them stared at her as though she had indeed grown a tail.

Faith hardly felt threatened, "Willow please stop pretending you know one end of the sword from the other.

Giles immediately snapped out an arm and barred Faith's path just as she was about to move towards Willow and disarm her. Although Faith clearly thought that Willow with a sword in her hand was clearly nothing to be worried about, Giles knew otherwise.

"Faith...Lara, I wonder if you might give me a few moments alone with Willow?" Giles asked gently, not taking his eyes off the frightened girl backed into one corner of the room.

After a few words to let him know just how displeased she was. Faith left closely followed by Lara. Neither woman had acknowledged each other's presence despite their close proximity but Giles could not afford to worry about that now. If his guess was correct, something had happened to transport the entire consciousness of Willow Van Helsing into her reincarnated body to the point where Willow Rosenberg had ceased to exist. Giles calmly took a seat on a small stool by the door, even as Willow kept the sword pointed in his direction. With the two strangers leaving however, he noticed the fire in her eyes had dampened considerably.

While he had known Willow Van Helsing exceptionally well, so many years had passed since her death. It was shy, bookish Willow Rosenberg who was foremost in his mind. It unnerved him slightly to see the woman he had known since she was a child standing in front of him with the sword as though it were an extension of her arm.

"Giles, can you please just tell me what is happening. Who were those horrid people, acting as if they knew me?" Willow asked, the point of the sword almost facing downwards now.

"Willow, I will explain everything as soon as you put that weapon back in its scabbard, I know exactly what you can do with it and it's making me uncomfortable."

"Oh," Willow glanced down at the sword as if she had quite forgotten she were holding it, she slid it back into its scabbard with a slightly sheepish expression on her face.

She gently replaced the weapon back on its small plinth and took a seat on the corner of the desk, clasping her hands together to keep them from shaking. It was hardly necessary for Giles to tell her that something momentous had happened to her, if it wasn't evident from the world around her than it was very clearly written on his face. Something was very wrong.

"There's a newspaper just behind you, have a look at the date," Giles nodded towards the copy of the times which was lying on Faith's desk.

Willow picked it up and scanned the masthead; The Times was not a paper she was familiar with. She glanced at the date and had to read it more than once to ensure she was reading it correctly,

"15th May 1898," Willow whispered, the date more than a hundred years off what it should read.

Willow thoroughly expected to have spent a few days or even weeks unconscious following her injury but this was ridiculous. When she glanced up at Giles he nodded slowly.

"The paper is not wrong Willow, it is indeed 1898...and I believe that the last year you remember is 1784, is that correct?"

"Yes," Willow squeezed out the barest of whispers.

She closed her eyes but only saw the numbers, 1898 over and over in her mind. Her earlier suspicions had indeed been correct, something had happened...Willow let out a choked laugh, she could hardly think of a larger understatement. She was still laughing when the name came to her, a name that was on the tip of her tongue but for some reason she could not quite remember.

There were images associated with the name, images she could not quite understand but they came to her nevertheless. She saw the dark haired woman, her mouth flashing in an irrepressible grin. Willow remembered her name as Giles had spoken it earlier, Faith...although Willow had hit her earlier for some reason she felt they were friends. She was tied in some way to the second dark-haired woman, the one who claimed to be Willow's employer. Willow's mind lingered over her rich lips and full breasts and in seconds she felt her cheeks heat up almost instantly. There was also a sandy haired young man, clumsy but endearing and stout hearted. Willow could not put a name to the grinning face in her mind.

Willow opened her eyes and stared at Giles. His face bore a few more lines than she remembered but other than his strange attire, he seemed not to have changed. Instead of books, she saw him standing behind a bench with an array of tools in front of him...constructing things...machines, weapons. Willow frowned, wondering how on earth she could remember Giles doing any such thing when he had only ever been a librarian. Tying everything together was a young woman hunched behind a massive desk covered in paper and thick books, her pen scratching away on the parchment in front of her.

Willow did not just know that woman...she was that woman. The name...

"Rosenberg," she whispered, the name seeming to naturally roll off her tongue.

She immediately saw Giles lift his head, "What did you say?"

Willow did not answer his question; instead she had one of her own for him, "Giles, who is Willow Rosenberg?"

"I should think that you would be able to answer that question."

Willow frowned, not at Giles's cryptic answer but rather at the fact that she knew the answer.

"A researcher...I remember writing papers, reading books...but I hate writing...and reading for that matter..." Willow struggled to get the simple facts about that life out in words, she felt as though it should have been so straightforward but everything sounded odd to her ears as though the description had never quite fit, she looked up at Giles with a need for reassurance written plainly on her face, "Giles, tell me, tell me I'm Willow...tell me you know who I am?"

"Willow, look at me...I know you're struggling to take all of this in but hear me out a little longer; you need to understand everything all at once for your own sanity

"My own sanity?" Willow laughed wildly for just a moment, "Giles, I'm remembering this whole other life I lived...or rather am living...and you want me to stay sane? I think it's a little too late for that."

"Willow, the life you're beginning to remember, it is your life," Giles began slowly, "The events that you think happened yesterday, Covasna, Abraham, Tara Maclay, Edward Walsh...and myself, they are events that have been and gone. They all took place over one hundred years ago."

"Reincarnation," Willow whispered, "Myself, and this...Willow Rosenberg, we are the same person?

Any average person may have found this concept more than a little difficult to grasp, Willow had been fed a steady diet of such things for a long time. While it still came as a shock, she was still able to get her head around the basic fundamentals that it involved. Everything that she thought was her past, all her recent memories, they were nothing but remnants of a life that had already been lived and was now intruding on another in the present.

"Yes," Giles replied simply.

"And Abraham...Abraham is dead," Willow forced the words out, knowing that they could only be true.

Giles could only nod is response to the crestfallen expression on Willow's face. He saw the colour rise in her cheeks as though she were about to explode and knew exactly what was coming. She was going to a manner of speaking. He saw the emotions play across her face before she even gave voice to them and he could clearly see the one she struggled with most, denial.

Willow slipped from the corner of the desk and stood on shaking legs, the entire room was spinning and her vision blurred. She glanced towards Giles but his was no longer the friendly face of her mentor, it was stretched and distorted. No longer friendly at all, he looked like a monster. She pressed her legs back against the desk behind her, needing something solid in contact with her body. Although she clutched at the desk like it was keeping her from drowning, she still felt as though she was going under. She realised she needed to get out of the room, out of the building and back to the one place that was as familiar as it were possible for anything to be in this nightmare.

Giles made no move to stop her as she dashed past him and out of the door. She had a vague memory of the passages they had taken to bring her into the building and she ran back down these now. Through doors and up stairs until she was back in the foyer she remembered. It wasn't until she was once again fighting her way through the pedestrians on the street that she realised she was being followed. Willow glanced over her shoulder to see the dark-haired woman keeping a respectable distance.

"Will...where are you going?" she called over the crowd.

Willow fought until she reached a clearer section of the street and continued onwards at a faster pace. Behind her, Faith also walked faster, maintaining the same following distance.

"I am going home!" Willow announced resolutely over her shoulder, already seeing the entrance to Gordon Square just up ahead.

Faith broke into a jog and came up alongside Willow. When she reached out to take her by the elbow, the redhead yanked her arm away with a small, angry grunt.

"Will, your flat is quite a might want to take the tram," Faith suggested, nodding towards one of the large carriages speeding along the street.

Willow frowned as though she had no idea what Faith was referring to; instead she turned and began walking down Gordon Square, already feeling a great deal more relaxed than she had been while inside the museum. She reached the front steps to her home and sighed as she stopped to stare up at its fašade.

"Will, you can't just go into someone's house..." Faith began, frowning up at the heavy black door at the top of the steps.

"It is my house," Willow replied in a matter of fact manner, walking straight up the front steps with renewed purpose.

The door was unlocked as she had left it earlier. As soon as she walked through the front door of Gordon Square she felt a huge weight lift from her shoulders. For the time being everything else was forgotten...she was home.

Willow woke drenched in sweat. She sat bolt upright in a tangle of bed sheets and blankets and fought in a panic to get the constraining fabric away from her body. With her limbs finally free, she found herself sitting in the middle of a bed. Everything was bathed in a silver sheen and she realised it was moonlight pouring through a large window, the curtains open. It did not take her long to realise that this was not her little flat. Not only was the bed three time larger than she was used to, the entire room was larger than her flat. Willow glanced from the canopy of the four-posted bed above her to the thick drapes hanging on either side of the window and the other furnishings. All were solid, expensive looking and decidedly unfamiliar.

"Where in the frilly heck am I?" Willow whispered aloud.

Willow glanced down to see she still wore her own pyjamas. Carefully she crawled down from the bed and her bare feet hit the rug on the floor. She stood cautiously, half expecting someone or something to rush out at her from the shadows in the room. Gradually Willow recognised the room and when she turned to see the large, silver framed mirror with her own reflection staring back at her she knew exactly where she was. She did not dare take another step closer to the thing, remembering what had happened last time she had ventured closer. Instead she stared at herself, relieved to see she was just her usual self, wearing her pyjamas and with decidedly scruffy hair. She dragged her fingers through the tangled strands a few times and ventured out of the room.

The house was just as empty as it had been when she entered earlier. However, while she had been eerily familiar with the house, she now felt as though she knew it inside out. Instead of making her way down the hallway towards the stairs, she turned in the opposite direction and walked determinedly towards a closed door. Without hesitation, she pushed it open and a name instantly came into her mind.

"Abraham," Willow felt the name roll off her tongue so easily, as though she had said it many times, Willow Van Helsing's brother.

Although she had never before set foot in that room, she immediately thought that Abraham's room had changed since the last time she saw it. Even as she was trying to think how this was even possible, her mind came up with a reason, he had lived in this house long after she had died; of course he had changed things. Willow crossed the floor to the four-posted bed, identical to her own save for the rich red hangings and covers on the bed. She crawled up onto the bed and curled into a tight ball and cried for the brother she had lost, lamenting the fact that she never had a chance to apologise or even say goodbye.

Willow was not quite sure how long she lay there sobbing, but eventually she dragged herself from the bed and scrubbed her stinging eyes with her fists. She sat for a moment before realising exactly where it was she wanted to be, a room where she felt even closer to her brother. Almost running, she made her way back down the hallway and down the stairs. She passed the parlour, not even noticing Faith sleeping on one of the black couches and into the library. Before she crossed to the book shelf she glanced up at the shelves stretching around all four walls and up to the ceiling. She realised with an ironic laugh that this was the first time she had stood in the library and actually wanted to read the material held on its shelves.

She did not need to search for the book she was after; she found it by instinct and tipped it forward, standing back as the hidden door swung inwards. Although the torches were not burning in the brackets, she found her way down the circular stairs easily in the darkness. The training room below was dimly lit with the thin shafts of moonlight finding the narrow windows that ran around the top of the room. Willow walked out towards the middle of the room, feeling the familiar pads beneath her feet. A smile crossed her face; she remembered hitting those pads many times, from a variety of angles. She did not need to close her eyes to imagine seeing Abraham striding across the pads towards her, a grin on his sweaty face.

Unlike Abraham's room, this room was exactly as she remembered it, save the fact that someone had actually tidied and there were no weapons or books lying about. Willow sensed someone watching her but she already knew who it was and was unconcerned, the presence was as familiar as that of her own brother, although she did not belong in this house.

Moments later the room was bathed in a golden electrical glow as the lights were turned on.

"Please accept my apologies for striking you earlier," Willow turned and met the dark-eyed gaze of the woman standing by the stairs.

Faith turned from facing the light switch she had just flicked and accepted the apology with a small nod, "As long as you will forgive me for my insensitive remarks, it's not everyday you lose your best friend...even though she's standing right in front of you."

"I'm still here, Faith," Willow whispered, pressing her hands to her temples as though she had a headache.

"Are you really?" Faith asked gently, almost hopefully.

"I'm just a little..." Willow struggled to find the right words to describe her current state of mind, "My mind's a little busy right now and until everything straightens out I'm not sure who I am," Willow choked out a laugh as she replayed her own words in her mind, "God, I sound crazy."

"Just a little," Faith agreed rather readily.

Willow sighed and relaxed noticeably, due in part to her friend's ability to put her at ease no matter the situation. She found her feet moving forward and before she knew quite what had happened she was in Faith's warm embrace, the other woman's arms enfolding about her in a protective manner and holding her close.

"You know you don't normally hug me right?" Faith commented quietly, giving Willow one last squeeze before she stepped back.

"I know...and besides, weren't you getting all the hugs you needed from Lara?" Willow remembered the heated words that had passed between them at their last meeting and she was glad they could put it behind them, although she regretted mentioning Lara's name in such a context.

Faith did not seem to take offence; she merely shrugged as though she too was glad to put it behind her and did not offer any further information.

With her back pressed to the wall, Willow slid down to sit on the bottom step, tucking her knees up close to her chest. She glanced down at her pyjama clad legs and realised she really needed to get out of them eventually.

"A part of me is overjoyed to be here, with you and Myles...Lara...although especially you," Willow realised she needed to talk everything through for it to make any sense, "And yet another part of me misses Abraham so much it hurts...and I don't want to be alive without him."

"Will..." Faith began in worried tone of voice, her brow furrowed with concern at the suggestion implicit in Willow's words.

Willow saw the look cross her friend's face and quickly shook her head to refute any suicidal connotations, "It's alright Faith, I'm not planning on going anywhere."

Faith breathed a noticeable sigh of relief. She was having a difficult enough time trying to come to terms with the changes her friend had undergone in such a short space of time, having to deal with the fact that she might be looking for an easier way out of her problems was something she did not want to have to do.

Willow continued, "But what makes it even worse is the fact that we quarrelled before Covasna, Abraham and I."

"You mentioned earlier," Faith nodded and gave the reason in one small word, "Tara."

Tara, Willow rolled the name over on her tongue but did not speak it. A small part of her wanted to tell Faith everything, the impact Tara's death had had on her and the way in which she had been completely duped into loving the demon who had so cruelly invaded her body. However, a larger part was far more interested in remembering the time she had shared with Tara while she was still alive, the time they had spent at Hagley Park. Willow thought it more than odd that a part of her was remembering being with Tara physically while the other part had never so much as kissed another woman. While it was hardly the most important of her worries at that moment in time, she felt somewhat cheated at this rather unfortunate circumstance.

Still, with all of those memories being inextricably bound up with the events that had seen the end of her first life, she was more than eager to try and suppress least for the time being. Although she knew it should have been one of her very first questions for Giles...she could not bear to ask where Tara was in this life...or if she even still existed. A part of her fervently hoped that someone, Giles, Abraham or Christopher, had destroyed the vampire.

"Can we not talk about her...please," Willow turned her head away, staring at the racks of weapons on the far wall.

"Of course," Faith agreed quickly, hardly wanting to go out of her way to upset Willow further, "Are you hungry...tired...?"

Without answering Faith, Willow rose from the stair and crossed the room. Faith watched as she paused in front of the weapons rack and rolled up the sleeves of her pyjamas. A few moments later she selected two wooden staves. She carried them both back into the middle of the room and tossed one in Faith's direction.

Faith caught it smoothly even as Willow adopted an aggressive fighting posture. She couldn't help but grin at the sight of her friend holding the stave in her pyjamas as though she meant business.

"I don't want to hurt you," Faith cautioned, twirling the stave over and over in her hands as she moved towards the centre of the room.

Willow responded by performing the same manoeuvre as Faith, except that she took it a step further by adding a spin. Faith's jaw dropped.

"This body is not exactly in peak condition," Willow decided, glancing down at her rather spindly forearms, "But I think I should be okay."

If Faith's jaw had dropped at Willow's earlier move, then it should have hit the floor after what followed. Faith had never seen anyone move quite so fast let alone tiny, bookish Willow Rosenberg who would sooner lift a pen than a weapon. It quickly became apparent that she was indeed somehow channelling Willow Van Helsing, a woman who was undoubtedly no stranger to weaponry.

To an observer, the sight would have been a strange one. Two young women duelling with staves, one clad appropriately while the other wore a pair of stripey pyjamas.

Faith lost herself in the movement and the crack-crack of stave upon stave as they both danced beneath the golden light of the lamps hanging above them. She soon realised that Willow knew exactly what she was doing, almost as though each move came naturally, without requiring any thought.

Willow too allowed herself to completely inhabit the space of the pads; there was nothing outside of them, no-one other than Faith in her small world. Even as she moved, her feet dancing lightly, she appreciated the fact that this should have been impossible. Just a few days ago Faith would have laid her out flat on her back in a matter of seconds. As it was, she was more than holding her own. She also realised with an internal grin that her shoulder wound was hampering her movements somewhat.

Willow grunted slightly as she ducked inside one of Faith's forward thrusts and delivered a solid blow to her gut. She went down heavily, hitting the pads with a loud thud. As Willow stood over her opponent, she decided not to tell Faith that she had not fought to her full potential.

"You know what?" Faith groaned as she struggled up into a sitting position, "This really isn't've always been the intelligent one but now you're stronger than me as well?"

"I'd like nothing more than to be one or the other," Willow replied with a tinge of sadness in her voice as she reached out to help her friend back to her feet, "but Willow Van Helsing has come back for a reason...and I think I have to learn to work with her."

"I know," Faith flexed her limbs to find everything still in working order, "It's still unfair though."

"You want to go another round?" Willow suggested with a playfully arched eyebrow.

"I can go all night," Faith grinned.

Continue to Van Rosenberg Chapter Twenty-Four

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