Willow awoke with the unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling that something or someone had left their night soil in her mouth. Coupled with this, there was an insistent and repetitive pounding within her skull that would not cease even after she rolled over and pulled a pillow over her head. As the pounding continued, she finally realised that it wasn't in her head at all. It was someone, an exceptionally rude and inconsiderate someone, ramming their fist against her door. She sat up with a sudden start and then felt a sudden rush of nausea and dizziness flood her body. With a groan, Willow sank back against her pillows in an effort to halt her rising need to vomit. She did manage to keep her eyes open however and saw that it was still the middle of the night; she had left her curtains open and only a weak light from the street outside filtered into the room.
Obviously ignorant of her suffering, the pounding on her door continued. Willow tried in vain to ignore it in the vain hope that whoever it was would simply leave but it became apparent that they were hell bent on seeking an audience with her, even prepared to risk her wrath to do it.
"For heaven's sake! What!" Willow demanded in a tone of voice that left no doubt as to her mood.
Almost immediately, the door swung open and a rather dishevelled Faith entered wearing a robe. Her hair was unbound and unkempt about her face and there was a red smudge on her cheek that looked suspiciously like rouge. Willow propped herself up onto her elbows and saw that Faith's legs were bare from the knee down, the robe was also open slightly to reveal a bare chest. She snorted as she guessed that Faith would be wearing absolutely nothing beneath the robe. However, the expression that her friend wore on her face was not smug with pleasure...or even sympathetic to Willow's obvious illness.
Faith moved to the side of the bed and only needed to glance once at Willow's face, and then at the half empty bottle sitting on the table beside the bed to know what had happened. She appeared far from impressed.
"Willow, you know full well you are incapable of holding any form of alcohol whatsoever...what possessed you to drink half a bottle of something that has probably been sitting in your cellar for almost a century?" Faith growled.
Willow was in no mood to be scolded like a child, and she replied in a rather tart voice. "I'm an adult and I'll drink if I please! Was there a purpose for your visit?"
Faith sighed, "I thought Tara might be in here with you."
"Why the bloody hell would Tara be in here with me?" Willow snapped, the mere mention of the young woman's name was enough to taunt her with memories of their conversation earlier that day. Tara's words came unbidden into her head and she felt the same helpless anger once again. Her anger dulled however in the face of her pain and she flopped back against the pillow as she was unable to hold herself up on her elbows. "No, I haven't seen her since we spoke...and I ran out of her room rather abruptly and...well," Willow sighed sadly before continuing, "You were witness to the state I was in..."
"Well she's gone," Faith replied in a matter-of-fact tone, obviously seeing no point in breaking the news to Willow gently.
"What?" was Willow's eloquent reply, she once again sat up with a start but this time she was unable to stop the immediate vomit reflex, her stomach heaved violently and its contents would have covered her lap save for Faith's quick thinking. She shoved a receptacle into Willow's hands and waited patiently until the retching had stopped.
When Willow's stomach finally ceased its heaving and her head had cleared sufficiently she glanced down with a grimace at the messy, smelly result of her attempt to drown her sorrows. It was then that she realised the receptacle that Faith had so helpful provided was one of her best bowler hats. She glanced at the headwear and knew that she would never be able to wear it again.
She handed it wordlessly to Faith who accepted it gingerly. "It's your own fault, you smashed your basin."
Willow glanced in the direction of her friend's nod and saw the scattered shards of porcelain across the floor. She remembered dashing the items to the ground in her anger and she felt embarrassed at her loss of control. Stripping the covers away from her fully clothed body, Willow stood slowly to find that she had not even bothered to remove her shoes in her drunken state. She swayed somewhat but managed to stay on her own two feet. Upon a further survey of the damaged items on the floor she knew that the bowler hat had been Faith's only recourse, both her pitcher and basin had been reduced to hunks of porcelain.
Once standing, with the pounding in her head and nausea in her gut slowly receding, Willow turned her attention back to Faith and her rather unexpected, alarming statement.
"Tara's gone?" Willow repeated. Even as she spoke she could not remain still and waste time, she crossed to her wardrobe and withdrew a dark jacket and a small selection of weapons. "Are you positive she is not in her room? Or anywhere else in the house?"
Faith nodded in reply, "I was hungry after...well, let's just say 'strenuous activity', but upon leaving my own room I saw Tara's door wide open, a sight I am unused to seeing...rather than wake you I searched the remainder of the house but could find no trace of her, and your heavy coat is missing from the rack by the door."
"Your powers of observation never fail to impress me," Willow remarked as she tossed the jacket on to her bed while she strapped a sword around her waist. With the sword in place, she tugged the jacket on and stuffed its pockets with stakes, knives and firebombs.
Faith did not pause to question her, she knew as well as Willow just how dangerous the night was. "I will accompany you, wait a few moments for me to get something on other than a robe."
"I cannot afford to waste a second in looking for her, Faith," Willow replied as she checked her small arsenal, now that her flurry of activity was over, concern for Tara was foremost on her mind. "She's alone...she doesn't know this London well at all...oh god...she could be anywhere..."
Willow sagged slightly at this momentous realisation. London was indeed a large city with a warren of streets that would confuse a visitor in moments...especially one as sheltered and naive as Tara. In a split second, Faith was at her side with a firm hand on her shoulder. Even dressed in nothing but a robe she still presented the picture of strength and confidence.
"And the longer you remain here, the more you injure your chances of finding her quickly, stick to the main routes, I'll take South towards the river, you head West towards the Park...Lara will also be roused to join in the search, and people from the museum will be contacted...we'll have dozens out looking for her Willow...trust that we will find her."
Comforted by Faith's reassurance, Willow nodded tightly and chose to exit via the window instead of the door; it was after all much quicker. She ignored Faith's call of 'we have a front door' and shimmied down the wall to drop lightly into the street. With her feet on the cobbles, she broke into an urgent run.
Tara had of course visited London many times in her youth, especially during the social season, but nothing could have prepared her for walking the cobbled streets alone, in the dead of night, with absolutely no idea where she was going. Yet for all her disorientation, she felt very little fear. There was something about the night that felt comfortable...that and the fact that Willow's coat felt snug around her body. Tara continued to walk, simply relishing the fact that she was once again outdoors after so long spent sitting by her window. By the time she contemplated returning to the mansion, she had lost all sense of direction and she turned around only to find an unfamiliar street stretching out behind her.
To her left was a dark, tree-filled expanse which she guessed to be Hyde Park. Although she knew better than to venture into such a place at night, Tara could not help but draw closer to the majestic oaks which rose up out of the earth and towered high above. It had been too long since she had felt the grass beneath her feet and heard the sound of leaves rustling above her head.
A twig cracked somewhere to her left and Tara froze. However when she turned her head to see a dark shape standing in the shadows, she did not feel as scared as she knew she ought to be. Instead, she calmly turned towards the street and the safety of its lights. She had gone barely a few paces when two more shapes dropped out of the trees above and landed without sound directly in front of her, baring her path.
A part of her knew she ought to be screaming and running for her life, but as the pale faced shapes came closer she stood her ground and kept her chin held high. Barely audible footsteps behind her told her that the third one had moved closer. The nearest, a tall man wearing a long, flowing coat, moved closer still, a smile on his lips.
"You do not scream or run...do you not fear us?" he asked quietly, his voice deep and soft. Following his words he drew his lips even further back into a wide smile, baring his twin fangs. "Or is it that you are too frightened for action?"
"You are vampires," Tara observed with a note of curiosity in her voice, she cocked her head to one side and studied the two in front of her closely.
The two in front of her looked at one another with bewildered expressions, as though wondering if their prey was in her right mind.
As they seemed confused by her actions and slow to move, Tara found herself remembering the night she had died. The same pale faces shining in the dark...the same sharp fangs, only on that particular night they had plunged into the soft flesh of her neck. Tara remembered the sharp, agonizing pain that had originated in her neck and then been sent coursing throughout her entire body as the life was sucked from her.
Although her memories ceased with the darkness, Tara instinctively knew that her physical form had somehow become one of these creatures...these monsters that stood in front of her. Her body went cold and she shuddered to think of doing what these creatures were now doing, stalking the night searching for helpless victims upon which to feed. Blood...they feed on blood, Tara shivered, sickened at the thought and yet there was an undercurrent to her revulsion. It was as though she knew what it was like to crave the feel of warm blood surging down one's throat, to watch with satisfaction as it pumped from the dying body of a victim.
It was at that point that Tara realised she did not fear dying...what she did fear was becoming such a terrible creature...again. She backed away slightly from the two in front of her, but a quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that one was still behind her. She fumbled in the pockets of Willow's coat and her hand wrapped around a slim object. When she withdrew her hand, she found a length of wood lying in her palm. The sight of this object earned a laugh from the tall vampire in front of her.
"Look! It thinks itself a vampire slayer!" he mocked, taking a few steps towards her.
His movement was cautious, as though despite his words he was entertaining the thought that she could be capable of slaying him. However it became all too obvious that Tara had no idea what she was doing as she held the stake limply in her hand. As he came closer, she knew she ought to be doing something with the splinter of wood but instead all she could do was hold it. Into his heart! It needs to go into his heart! She was still simply holding it when he suddenly snatched it from her loose grasp and tossed it into the shadows.
Tara let out a sharp breath as her wrist was ensnared in a vice-like grasp. She was suddenly jerked backwards and her head tilted to one side, baring her neck.
"Let us play with her first!" the woman behind him demanded.
"No!" growled the third in a whiny voice. "I'm starving, she looks sweet!"
Although Tara knew that they were discussing her very fate, she did not struggle. Instead she lay limply in the arms of the vampire who held her, had it not been for his grip on her body she would have fallen to the ground. Again she remembered the moments before her first death and the extent to which she had screamed and struggled against the creature. Despite all her efforts, she had been unable to even loosen his grip such was his inhuman strength. She knew that to struggle now would only incite their pleasure.
"Can't we at least chase it?" the woman pleaded, obviously not quite as hungry as her companion who professed to be starving. "I need to hear her screams!"
"And risk the chance of attracting unwanted attention?" The one who held Tara growled. "You forget where we are sister...no, it is best we do this quickly and quietly, the vampire hunter stalks these streets."
I do not want to die again. Tara thought as they argued around her, three voices blending into one unpleasant sound, I am meant to be here...I am meant to be with Willow! As the determined voices sounded in her head, Tara's fear was gradually replaced by anger until the point that her entire body trembled with an unleashed rage. Her captors merely thought she was scared out of her mind. Vampires burn...they fear the flame... Even as the words went through her mind, Tara had no idea where such a thought would come from. A well bred woman would never acknowledge that such a thing as a vampire existed let alone know how to kill one.
This knowledge however was of relatively little use, knowing how to kill them did not help her conjure up fire out of thin air. Thoughts of flames still danced through her mind. In her anger she visualised the monsters burning and writhing in the pain that they deserved. Suddenly, the night around her was made bright by a flame burning at the palm of her hand. The tongues of fire licked at the vampires clothing as he leaned over her body, all too quickly they caught hold and he stumbled backwards. As she fell backwards she saw his eyes go wide with surprise just moments before his entire body was engulfed. Seconds later Tara watched him explode into a shower of hot ash.
His two companions looked on with expressions of shock mingled with horror as Tara lay forgotten on her back in the slightly damp grass. She looked back and forth between the scorched grass in front of her and the source of the turned on her, still determined to finish what they had started.
As their clawed hands reached for her, Tara shrank back, scuttling backwards in an awkward, crab-like movement that could not possibly take her away from them fast enough. She turned over and only just managed to scramble to her feet before she felt a cold hand grasp the back of her neck and wrench her backwards.
"Unhand her I say!" an all too familiar voice cut short the cry that she was about to utter.
The vampire holding her turned just as she did, they both saw a darkly clad shape sprinting towards them. Moments later Tara found herself once again dashed to the ground as her captor freed his sword arm to engage this new, far more palpable threat. It was of very little use, however, the silver blade flashed in the darkness and sliced into his body before he had time even to defend himself.
Tara felt her body flood with relief at the sight of Willow, her red hair unbound and flowing about her body as she moved gracefully on her feet. She did not pause after dispatching the first vampire, continuing to move in a fluid motion to face the remaining vampire. The female snarled and looked as though she might rush at her, seconds later however she turned and began to flee the scene. She had managed no more than a dozen paces before Willow cut her down with a single broad stroke to her back. Her scream was cut short as her body disintegrated like her companions.
The short but violent combat was over as soon as it had begun and Willow re-sheathed her sword before she turned to walk back to where Tara lay on the ground. The blonde watched her former lover approach, taking in the strange sight of her clad in black, war-like clothes. The steely mask of battle was still on her face and she looked like a different person entirely.
"Willow!" although Tara's voice was tinged with relief at the sight of the redhead, there was a slight question in her voice as though she wasn't sure if this person was indeed the Willow that she knew.
"I saw the flames," Willow offered by way of explanation even though Tara had not asked such a question. She then regarded Tara with a strange expression on her face.
"Who are you?" Tara whispered quietly as Willow continued to approach.
"I could ask the same question of you," Willow observed with raised eyebrows. "You are not the same Tara that died in Austria." She then turned and looked towards the patch of scorched grass where Tara's victim had turned to ash within the fury of her fireball. It was another Tara that had been able to wield the magicks...a Tara she thought was gone. She realised that she truly did not know who it was that sat on the ground in front of her.
Tara lifted her hand and stared down at it as though she still expected to find the flesh blackened by the fire that she had held in her palm. Instead she found the skin pale and unblemished, as though the fire had never danced on her palm.
"I-I...don't know," Tara admitted, still staring at her hand. "I wanted them all to burn...and then there was fire..."
Willow paused as though she was unwilling to approach Tara further. However, a second later she swayed slightly on her feet and eventually had to hunch over with her hands resting on her knees. Concerned, Tara rose to her feet and moved closer to Willow. Tentatively she reached out and placed a hand on her back.
"Were you injured during the fray?" Tara asked, although she had not seen the vampire's blade get close enough to strike.
Her question was answered a moment later as Willow's entire body heaved in a violent motion. She dropped to one knee and placed a hand on the damp earth as a small amount of liquid fell from her lips. Her body continued to heave, but nothing more emerged. When it had subsided, Willow tried to stand.
"Nothing so courageous I'm afraid," Willow gasped. She straightened with Tara's aid and wiped her lips with her sleeve. "The heady, dizzying effects of intoxication are fast giving way to a roaring headache and my body continues to try and expel that which has been expelled several times over already."
"Intoxication?" Tara gasped in horror. "The Willow I once knew would not drink to excess..."
"Stay your judgement!" Willow replied testily, she desired no lecture, especially not when the headache was starting to set in. She closed her eyes and pressed both her hands to her temples in a vain effort to curb the throbbing sensation.
"I am sorry..." Tara began quietly.
Willow opened her eyes and glanced across at Tara. She could see that the blonde was confused...and scared. The rediscovery of her magical abilities had no doubt left her also wondering just who she was. It was not the time to be demanding answers in anger. Instead Willow closed the gap between them, slowly...until their bodies were almost touching. When she made the last step to bring them both together, she exhaled a short, sharp breath and wrapped her arms around the blonde. After the moment where Tara had woken on the plateau of Covasna, it was the first time the two women had been drawn into physical contact. They melded together perfectly as though they had never been parted.
Willow desperately wanted to be able to break down, to draw as much comfort as she possibly could from the embrace but she knew that it was the woman she held who needed as much comfort as possible. She was also acutely aware of the fact that she was drenched in sweat after sprinting along London's streets in her search for Tara. When she had seen the glow of fire in the distance, a part of her had known it was Tara...even though she believed her powers to have been extinguished along with her demon. There was much for them both to explore and understand, but now was not the time.
It was a good several minutes before the two women drew apart, Willow found Tara's cheeks shining wet with tears. As she reached out to wipe them away, Tara lent into her touch and nuzzled at the palm of her hand.
"It seems..." Tara paused and drew in a breath as she studied the redhead. Her face was coated in a light sheen of sweat that was fast drying in the cold night air. "It seems as though I no longer know you Willow Van Helsing...if I ever did...but I think...I think I should like very much to know you once again...despite your disturbing penchant towards intoxication and slaying fanged creatures."
"You're not saying that just because I saved your life are you?" even as Willow's hopes soared with Tara's words, she retained a small element of caution.
"No," Tara shook her head slightly. "I am fairly certain that you still retain some of the most admirable qualities of the Willow I once knew..."
Her voice trailed off as she lent forward, before Willow could quite appreciate what was happening she found Tara's lips upon her own in the lightest of kisses. She allowed her lips to part slightly as Tara pressed forward to intensify the contact. Again it felt fresh and knew and a small part of Willow's brain wondered just how it was possible for two people to experience their first kiss more than once. However, the far larger part of her brain was occupied in trying to process the delicious sensations that were coursing from that contact. For another glorious minute they remained pressed together, Willow's hand clasped the back of Tara's neck and she trailed her fingers through the soft blonde hair that cascaded down her back.
When they eventually did part, it was with an element of reluctance and they both leaned in for another light brush of the lips before they finally stopped to process what had just occurred.
Tara stepped back and ran her tongue slowly across her lips as though she were still savouring the kiss. In response, Willow felt weaker still at the knees and it had nothing to do with the lingering effects of alcohol.
"One of them at least," as Tara spoke her eyes danced ever so slightly with mirth.
At that point, Willow felt a huge weight lifted from her shoulders. Although it wasn't quite a smile...it was the start of one and it gave her hope that Tara's smile would once again fill her future.
For the walk back to Gordon Square and remainder of the night, Willow would not allow herself to think about the difficult healing process that was to come. She wanted a few hours to savour the fact that their renewed understanding had begun.