Tara Maclay did not feel one hundred and thirty-seven years old. She stared intently into the window pane in front of her as she studied her reflection. Her golden blonde hair framed a somewhat pale, but otherwise very youthful looking face. Round, brilliant blue eyes stared back at her. She did not look one hundred and thirty-seven years old either.
And yet that was how old she ought to be, after all, a person that was born in 1761 ought to be one hundred and thirty-seven years old. In fact, given the impossibility of reaching such a biblical age, Tara knew she ought to be dead. Dead. She let out a long sigh and pressed her hand to the glass in front of her so she could no longer see her face...however now she could see the smooth, unlined skin on the back of her hand, yet another reminder of her age.
As far as Tara could hazard a guess at her age, she supposed she was eighteen. It was a guess determined in the most depressing of manners...by her death. She had been just eighteen when she died at the hands of what she now knew had been a vampire. It was at the moment of her death that her memories ended...she remembered shapes moving in the darkness, then an abnormally pale face descending towards her own just moments before she unleashed a chilling scream. Then there had been pain...and nothing...nothing until the battlefield over one hundred years later when she had woken confused and frightened. Although these feelings had disappeared immediately when she saw Willow...they had slowly crept back in the days that followed. They were days in which she had struggled to understand what had happened...and why so many years had passed. Willow of course had tried to explain...but her explanations were nothing short of horror stories and there were many things that could not be said at all. It eventually came to the point where Tara begged Willow to stop talking. Although Willow said that she understood intimately how Tara was feeling...she still begged her to stop, especially after Willow admitted that she had never woken to learn that she had spent decades as a foul, loathsome vampire.
The thought that she had become one of those pale, blood-drinking creatures, the same creatures responsible for her death, had sent Tara into a spiral of shock and denial. The days of processing this torturous knowledge had gradually stretched into weeks...and then months, finally to the point where she would not emerge from her room at Gordon Square.
So Tara sat at her window and watched the world outside pass her by. Gordon Square was a quiet street, but she saw enough of the fast moving world to know that she was not a part of it. Willow came to sit with her, often at first as she struggled with the tears and nightmares...then gradually less and less as her own silence made it difficult to communicate. A part of her wanted desperately to talk to Willow and fall into her arms, surrendering to her touch...but she could not bring herself to let that part triumph. She was terrified that, in a fit of madness, she would ask Willow to resume her story...and she already knew that there were things in her past she just did not want to know.
She knew full well that her silence had created a wall between them that caused the redhead immense pain. Tara saw it in her eyes. However, for all the pain and sorrow in her gaze there was something else that she did not understand. It was a pity of sorts, but one that left her feeling scared and alone. Although she desperately wanted to reclaim the relationship that they had once shared, this gaze frightened her to the point that she could not bring herself to even look at Willow.
It was the ultimate torture...not being able to simply look at the woman she loved more than anything.
Willow Van Helsing-Rosenberg yelped as the wooden practice stave caught her squarely across her unprotected arse. She darted backwards and away from the follow up swing as her best friend and sparring partner, Faith Winters, let out a laugh of triumph at her very palpable hit. Willow scowled and adopted an offensive stance as though she were determined not to let such a thing happen again, at least in this particular bout. Faith's next swings were all blocked with apparently effortless ease, although the look of fierce determination in Willow's eyes gave her away. Even though it was merely supposed to be a training bout, she was channelling all of her determination and energy into what she was doing.
Just as Willow blocked her latest swing, Faith suddenly found the tables turned and she was forced to give ground in the face of her attacks. Her feet moved quickly in a reverse across the practice mats as Willow surged forward, bringing her wooden stave down each time with such force that Faith felt her own stave reverberate violently in her hands. Still, she was not about to concede, especially not when it would further bolster Willow's already over-inflated opinion of her fighting skills. She ducked beneath a sweeping high blow that would have given her a football sized lump on the side of her head and quickly brought her stave forward to block Willow's reverse swing as she came back around. Faith then spun and delivered another solid blow to Willow's unprotected arse. A part of her knew it was bad form to laugh yet again at her hit but she couldn't help herself.
The small moment of mirth only infuriated Willow further, she darted forward with her rear still smarting from the blow and wiped the smile from Faith's face with a series of blows that drove her back further until she finally crashed against a suit of armour. The armour had previously been stacked neatly in the rack, toppled outwards and fell to the floor with a resounding clatter. Even with the dust from the fallen armour yet to settle, Willow continued to swing and Faith was forced to block. She eventually grew tired of Willow's angry blows and seized a shield from the rack, using it to block the stave. After one whack too many, the stave snapped in half. Faith seized one of the pieces so Willow could not pick it up and resume hitting her with it.
"Slow down a bit, Will!" Faith commanded, waving the stave at Willow from behind the shield. "You're going to do me a serious injury here!"
Willow kept the stave raised, she wasn't quite done, "We're not playing here. Are you going to say the same thing to a vampire...or a demon when they come at you with a battle axe? There's no respite for us, Faith, no mercy."
Faith scowled, "We're bloody training...although a part of me is saying that you'd rather knock my head off than show any mercy, what the hell is up with you?"
"Like I said," Willow shrugged as she twirled the remaining half of her stave around in her hand. "This isn't for fun."
Even as Willow started to shift into a defensive position, Faith tossed aside both the broken stave and the shield. Without warning she threw herself forward and tackled Willow to the ground. She landed hard atop the redhead and heard a grunt as the air was knocked out of her body. While she was still trying to regain her breath, Faith plucked the makeshift weapon from her hand and tossed it across the other side of the training room. She then seized both of Willow's hands and pinned them to the ground.
Beneath her, Willow's face was as red as her hair from a combination of exertion and embarrassment. She stared defiantly up at Faith with a small scowl on her face. Faith could not resist a grin, she looked like a petulant child.
"What is this all about?" she demanded, not letting Willow move in the slightest. "You're not usually such a sore loser."
"That is because I rarely lose," Willow replied quickly. "Now would you let me up? You're exceedingly heavy and you're squashing me!"
Faith ignored the jibe about her weight and shook her head, enjoying the feeling of having Willow pinned to the ground and helpless for once, "Not until you tell me what's got your knickers in a knot!"
Willow sighed and had to look away from Faith as she admitted, "It's Tara."
"That was my first and only guess," Faith said, finally getting off Willow and rising smoothly to her feet. "It's always Tara."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Willow asked grumpily, still lying on her back on the mats.
"My meaning was fairly obvious," Faith shrugged. "You get all broody and bloody pissed off and I know it's something to do with Tara...well, either that or you didn't like the pie I made for dinner."
"The pie was bloody awful," Willow shivered at the memory of forcing the uncooked pastry down her throat until she could handle no more. If she thought Faith's cabbage soup was bad, it was clear that her pie was even worse. Even though they were engaged in a deep conversation, she couldn't help but pause to lament the state of their diet. "I've got plenty of money, why the hell do we have to eat cabbage all the time?"
"Look, it's the only thing I know how to cook okay?" Faith replied testily. "Anyway, I believe we were talking about Tara, not criticising my cooking."
"I'm worried that she may never recover," Willow admitted suddenly, knowing that if she didn't get it out straight away then Faith would be forced to pry it out of her, a process that sometimes took hours.
"Who are we to say what 'recovery' means to her though?" Faith shrugged, she was not unsympathetic but merely stating the obvious. "Although we may want her to be a functioning member of this family, to converse with us...to have sex with you..."
"Faith!" Willow's redness increased. Although the seventeen-year old Willow Van Helsing had enjoyed an exceptionally healthy sex life with Tara, she could not imagine resuming their relationship. Not while things were so tense between them. She could no sooner imagine having sex with Faith.
"...that might not be what she wants," Faith continued, she paused before finishing quietly, "You might not be what she wants."
Willow knew Faith made perfect sense...and it was what she had been afraid of from the moment she realised that Tara was having difficulty accepting her new life. While she could not imagine resuming their relationship at present, she had held onto the hope that they would be able to go back to the way things had been...before Edward and the turning that had almost destroyed their lives. However, as the months went by and their relationship grew only worse, Willow felt guilty and ashamed at just the mere thought of being with Tara...as though it were in some way wrong.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't wonder that. In removing the demon from her body the spell essentially returned her to the state she was in when she was turned...Tara is eighteen, Faith." Willow grimaced as she tried to rise into a sitting position, "And I feel as though I'm at least one hundred."
When it became apparent that Willow was struggling to get to her feet, Faith reached out a helping hand, "An eighteen year old who spent decades as one of the undead."
"Decades she doesn't remember," Willow pointed out in a tight voice as she rose to her feet. She crossed to the weapons rack and withdrew a fresh stave.
With a sigh of suffering, Faith retrieved her stave and took up a defensive stance. Thankfully when Willow began her blows were far less intensive or violent than they previously had been and she was able to enjoy the exercise instead of fear for her life.
"I know you're worried about her," Faith said between the cracking sounds of stave upon stave, "but I think you're underestimating how much she can handle...I think you should tell her everything."
"Oh you think that do you?" Willow asked in a testy voice as she parried another swing, "You know I've already tried...I got as far as explaining what life would have been like as a vampire before she begged me to stop."
"Explaining life as a vampire...well, that doesn't sound too bad?" Faith shrugged, she had begun to pant slightly.
"The seduction, rape and murder of innocents, the drinking of their blood," Willow began, "It was all a terrible nightmare to her...and to actually consider that those were things she had done, it was too much for her."
"Was it too much for you to learn that your lover had been turned into a vampire and then betrayed and murdered you?" Faith responded, changing tact slightly.
Willow paused for a moment; she too was breathing faster, "I coped."
Faith resumed, forcing Willow to stop over-thinking everything as she continued to fight, "And you choose not to tell Tara because you believe she can't cope?"
"Well...yes," Willow admitted with a frown, she couldn't understand where Faith was coming from. "We are two entirely different cases, before I went into the mirror or experienced the memories held within the cache I had already experience so much...and even then it was extremely difficult for me, you remember what a head case I was when I emerged from the mirror!"
"My humorous memories of you running around London in your pyjamas aside, my point is that you coped," Faith then grunted as Willow's stave caught her in the gut, it wasn't hard enough to knock her to the ground but she did have to pause and catch her breath, "You don't want Tara to know because you have decided that she can't cope...what if Giles had decided that for you, if he refused to tell you anything even when you were demanding answers?"
"It's completely different!" Willow protested, annoyed at what she perceived as Faith blaming her for Tara's state.
"Face it, Will, you think she can't cope because she's not as strong as you were...because Tara is essentially a well-bred eighteenth century lady."
"Yes!" Willow resumed striking out at Faith, the stave moving fluidly in her hands. "And in case you've forgotten, I remember what it was like to be a well-bred young woman in the eighteenth century!"
"I know you do Will, I'm just saying you should give her a little more credit, she may not be a talented demon hunter of your ilk," Faith blocked each of Willow's blows and then held up her hand for a brief respite as what she had to say next was difficult to say. "However, she did spend several weeks as a married woman with a violent husband. Do you think because she merely had to face being hit and raped by her husband that she isn't strong enough to learn what happened?"
"Faith, please," Willow whispered, not even wanting to know just how Faith knew those intimate details of Tara's life...they were details even she struggled to understand. "That is not what I am saying."
There was a small bout of silence between them as neither had anything to say in further response to Faith's observation. A minute later, Willow resumed the bout to keep her mind from thinking guilty thoughts. However, neither of them were enthusiastic about their actions and merely went through the motions. They traded polite blows back and forth across the training room. Just as she was about to bring her stave around in another sideswipe, Willow saw a pensive look pass across her friend's face and she lowered her stave altogether. Willow stopped her movements before she brought the practice weapon crashing into Faith's undefended body. Breathing heavily with exertion, she stood watching Faith, not at all comfortable with the amount of thinking she was suddenly doing.
As though finally realising she was still in the room with Willow, Faith tossed her stave to one side to indicate that she was done with training. It was a merciful relief, they were both exhausted. Willow set her own weapon back in the rack.
"I know you love Tara no matter what," Faith began quietly. "But do you honestly think that the two of you can resume your relationship in the midst of all this turmoil you both feel?"
Willow turned to face Faith, at first she spoke quietly but as she went on her voice continued to rise in intensity, "I honestly don't know Faith...the Tara that is foremost in my mind is not the girl I knew in my youth, the girl who is upstairs right now...but the tortured vampire that I hated...and then loved. At the end...before Covasna, we were together and it felt right, it felt right Faith and I feel as though I've lost her all over again! How the bloody hell can you find something and lose it at exactly the same moment?"
"I can't tell you, Will," Faith said sadly, sensing her best friend's pain. "But I do know that the vampire's gone and although I hesitate to say it in this ever-changing world in which we live...and in our particular line of work...I don't think she's coming back. For all intensive purposes, the Tara that is upstairs, she's your Tara...and whether or not you two become lovers again, it's up to you to help her accept who she is."
As she wiped the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her shirt, Willow nodded reluctantly, "I know...how the hell did you become so damn wise?"
"I've always been wise...you've just never listened," Faith said as she reached out and laid an arm around Willow's shoulders in a gentle hug.
Before they left the training room both women reached out to lay a gentle touch on the framed photo that hung by the stairs. Their fingers caressed the glass as though they were touching a person instead of the image. As she passed it by, Willow cast a lingering glance over the photo even though she could summon it at will from memory. There were two people in the image, two smiling faces with the future ahead of them. One was her teacher and mentor, Rupert Giles and the other her assistant and dear friend, Myles Cavendish. Both had given their lives on the battlefield at Covasna...Giles had given his life to work the magic that saved her life and restored Tara to her human self. Dear, brave Myles had fought alongside them despite being so terribly young and inexperienced. Lara had found him lying on the battlefield with a single arrow through his heart, a mercifully fast but no less tragic end. Two dear friends, both now gone.
As Faith disappeared up the stairs ahead of her, Willow lingered for a while with her mind working overtime as it had done so often in the three months following Covasna. She missed Giles desperately, his wisdom and his guidance had been invaluable in every instance and she wished he were here to help her through this time, to help her get through to Tara. While she knew Myles wouldn't have too much to say about her problem, she did know that his grinning face would have cheered her up immensely. Whenever she thought of the young man, she bitterly regretted not letting him spend Museum money on the prostitutes in Paris. It was a relatively silly thought in the overall scheme of things...but it was something Willow would always regret.
When the bookcase door closed behind them, once again concealing the entrance to the training room, Faith headed straight for the kitchen, she was always famished after training. Willow bade her goodnight and ascended the stairs to catch a few hours sleep before she took to the streets that night. Although Dracula was dead, vampires and demons still stalked the city streets at night, preying on any soul unfortunate enough to be out on the dark streets alone. The work she did was still needed; it was work that Willow was almost grateful for. It kept her occupied, busy all the time...too busy to think about her.
However, even as Willow's body sagged with weariness she could not help but look at the closed door at the end of the hall. It was still relatively early in the evening and she could see a faint crack of light peering from beneath the door. Tara was still awake. Willow sighed and walked straight past her own room and came to a halt just in front of Tara's room. She listened for a moment but could hear nothing. Willow paused before she brought her fingers up to knock on the door and thought better of knocking, she half turned as though to leave. She stood outside the door for almost a minute, poised to return to her own room, but still feeling as though she had to see Tara...even if it was only to wish her a simple goodnight. Finally she turned back to the door and reached out with a decisive move to knock on the door. The knock itself was far from decisive, a mere tentative touching of her knuckles to the wood.
Moments later there was a faint voice from inside, "Yes?"
Not come in...she might as well have asked 'who is it?' Willow thought with a sharp pang, it would hardly have been anyone else standing outside her door. Faith gave Tara so much space it was as though the two women existed on a different plane of reality and Willow had not found the time or the energy to engage new servants. This was despite the fact that they had eaten Faith's cabbage soup and her own 'stew' so often that both dishes now caused her to gag slightly at the sight of them. However, the actual finding and engaging of servants was not high on her list of priorities. She knew that eventually she would have to attend to such practical matters, but until that time became absolutely necessary, she knew they would have to do without.
"It's Will..." she said quietly. "Willow."
There was an awful pause, Willow feared that Tara would simply not answer her but then she heard a barely audible, "Come in."
Willow opened the door and entered slowly so as not to startle her. Tara was still sitting at the window; it was exactly the same spot in which she had been sitting that morning when she brought her breakfast. She was staring at something outside the window, although the fast falling dark made it difficult to see anything at all. Willow looked at Tara for a few moments, willing her to turn around. When it became apparent that she would not, she scanned the room and found the largely untouched breakfast tray sitting on the bedside table. She automatically crossed to the room to retrieve it, frowning when she saw that the porridge was untouched and the fruit had barely been nibbled on.
"Um...I came to see if you were hungry?" Willow asked quietly, she then looked down at the tray. "But I see not."
Tara finally turned away from the window to look at her through expressionless eyes; however she merely shook her head and then resumed staring out the window. Willow stood in the centre of the room holding the tray; she couldn't help but stare at Tara. Even though she could only see the slight curve of her pale cheek, her eyes roamed downwards over her neck which was left bare as her hair was neatly arranged atop her head. Willow jerked her gaze away as she felt like an intruder even though she had looked at the same skin many times...and seen more besides. Tara made no move nor gave any indication that Willow's presence was bothering her...but she did not make any effort to engage in conversation either.
Say something or leave, Will, Willow thought awkwardly, she took a few steps backwards towards the door but stopped short of leaving. Her movements were reluctant because she did not want to leave in the first place. She wanted to cross the floor and take up the cushion at Tara's side but the imagined look of fright on Tara's face was enough to prevent her from doing so.
"Tara?" Willow whispered, hoping to at least gain her attention and another glimpse of her blue eyes before she left. However, Tara did not acknowledge her question and remained staring at whatever it was that held her fascination outside. "Are you happy at Gordon Square?"
Willow put the question to Tara and gave her time to think it over. While it was obvious that she wasn't happy, Willow needed to hear her admit it...although for what reason, she wasn't sure. Almost a minute passed and Tara did not respond. Willow sighed and made to leave, balancing the full breakfast tray on one hand as she opened the door.
"I don't like this house."
The quiet but sudden announcement almost caused Willow to drop her tray. She turned quickly but Tara was still looking out the window even as she continued speaking.
"This house frightens me...it's as though something bad happened here."
Something bad did happen here, Willow thought as her heart ached for the blonde, My brother imprisoned you for sixteen years in the basement...you were tortured and mad when you emerged. However she could not give voice to such thoughts. "I'm...sorry," she whispered, "I-I can find somewhere else for you to stay, perhaps with Lara, you remember Lara don't you, tall, brunette, Faith's...errr...friend...the Museum Director, I'll ask her..."
"You are babbling," Tara interrupted her in a quiet voice.
"Babbling?" Willow frowned, then felt her spirits lighten somewhat as she realised it was an almost flippant and yet poignant observation on Tara's part, "I guess I was..."
"I don't like this house...but nor do I want to leave," Tara admitted as Willow's voice trailed off. Her own voice faltered slightly when she tried to continue. "I-I..."
She finally turned around for the second time, although at first her gaze was downcast as she stared at her hands clasped in her lap. Willow waited expectantly and sure enough, after a few moments Tara looked up with a small sigh escaping her lips.
"I need to be here," she breathed. The unspoken conclusion to her sentence was simply, with you.
Willow's own breath was caught in her throat and she could not reply immediately, when she did her voice hardly carried further than her lips, "Me too."
The moment passed almost as quickly as it had arrived and Tara turned her gaze away, effectively ending the conversation. After waiting for a minute, Willow left the room and closed the door quietly behind her. As she walked down the hallway she realised that her eyes were brimming with unshed tears...she suspected that they were tears of relief but she couldn't be sure. Eventually, she had to set the tray down on the floor before she dropped it altogether. She too remained on the floor and allowed herself to give into the tears...just once more. Finally tomorrow held a possibility that had been absent from yesterday, or the day before that...