Once again, the large kitchen at Gordon Square was a bustling hive of activity despite the fact that there was just one person in the space. Willow, with her hair securely tucked out of her face and her body wrapped in the over-large apron, moved back and forth between the different pots on the stove. At all times there was a look of fierce concentration on her face as she struggled with the morning's breakfast.
Okay, porridge looking good...Willow experimentally prodded the gooey mess clinging to the bottom of the pot in front of her and frowned, Perhaps still a little lumpy. She added more water to the mix and gave it an energetic stir before turning her attention to the pot of boiling water on the back of the stove. With her hands securely encased in oven mitts, Willow picked up the pot and carried it to the tea pot. She poured the water atop the waiting tea leaves and stifled a yelp as the rising steam scalded an exposed area of flesh on the underside of her arm. She managed to bear the pain long enough to set the pot down. Willow sighed as she inspected the angry red mark and retrieved the little jar of salve Faith had seen fit to buy as a result of the inordinate number of times that she had managed to burn herself. It had been a thoughtful purchase as the little jar was already half empty.
After smearing the salve liberally on her arm Willow suddenly remembered her porridge. She dashed back to the stove to find the water had evaporated to leave a rapidly browning mess hardening in the bottom of the pot. Willow groaned and snatched the pot away from the oven before further damage could be done. She dipped a spoon to taste her creation and decided that it would be adequate enough...with milk and a liberal covering of brown sugar.
"You should have woken me to help," a voice announced from the doorway.
Willow looked up from spooning the porridge into three bowls to see Tara standing with a hand on her hip and a bemused smile on her face. Her mouth worked soundlessly as she tried to manage a greeting. In truth she had not expected to see Tara in the kitchen as she had still been taking her meals in her room.
She realised with a slight grimace that the blonde's smile was no doubt as a result of her own flustered appearance. Although she had not bothered to look in a mirror all morning, she could just imagine herself as a skinny figure wrapped in a dirty apron with scraggly, unkempt hair and bright red cheeks. Tara on the other hand looked as though she were about to pose for a portrait. Willow felt no jealousy whatsoever but she did wonder how on earth the blonde managed to look perfectly attired, coifed and composed first thing in the morning...or at anytime of the day for that matter. She suspected in was inherent as she had distant but distinct memories of waking up next to Tara to find her just as perfect. Willow snatched another glance up at the blonde and was rewarded with an arch of her perfect eyebrow.
"I have everything under control," Willow assured her, trying her best not to sound too emphatic with her refusal. While it was a well-known fact that her cooking was not exactly gourmet, she was certain that Tara had never even boiled water in her life...or any of her lives. In her current incarnation she was certainly ravishing...but that did not mean she could cook.
Tossing the pot indiscriminately into the sink, Willow took a seat at the table and motioned for Tara to do the same. As the blonde pulled her chair back Willow felt a pang of guilt, realising that she should have swept the chair back for Tara in a gentlemanly fashion. She also noticed the bare wooden table without a cloth or napkins and her shoulders sagged at her complete lack of refinement. It was the first time that Tara had not taken a meal in her room and she treated it as though she was dining on her own.
"I'm sorry for...for this," Willow nodded towards the table. "I guess I should make an effort with company at the table."
"Well, it does feel slightly odd to take one's meals in the kitchen," Tara noted with no hint of snobbery in her voice. She looked around at the rather bare, purpose-like room before turning her attention to her breakfast.
Willow nodded in agreement. It had been so long since she had lived in the proper household that she had almost forgotten that only servants ate in the kitchen.
"Willow?" Tara asked quietly, she looked up towards and continued when she saw Willow attentively awaiting her question. "I do not mean to be rude...but what is this?" She tried to scoop up a delicate portion but could only manage an ungainly, brick-shaped lump.
"It is porridge..." Willow paused to shovel a spoonful into her mouth and shrugged, even she herself had to admit that it was a particularly bad batch with the consistency of wallpaper glue. "Have I not given you porridge every morning for the past month?"
"Yes, but I've never actually touched it," Tara admitted, she discreetly set her spoon down on the table and choose an apple from the bowl in the centre of the table.
"Oh," Willow mumbled, she felt oddly compelled to continue eating. She supposed her stomach had developed the ability to handle the rather solid food. When she swallowed it grated against her throat. "I suppose I should hire a cook."
"Are you going to stop at just a cook?" Tara ventured carefully. "A house of this size is in dire need of servants...a cook of course and a kitchen boy to assist. I should think a butler, a parlour maid and upstairs maid...driver...footman and a gardener."
Willow spluttered and several gobs of porridge came flying out of her mouth. She stared at Tara who responded with an even, serious stare of her own. "But we don't even have a carriage...or a garden for that matter!"
Tara's serious expression slipped into a grin and Willow realised that she was being teased. She blushed and concentrated intently on her porridge. However, this lasted only mere seconds as her breakfast was neither as interesting nor as palatable as Tara. When she glanced back up, Tara was resting back in her chair, happily gnawing on her apple. She spied a thin trickle of apple juice snaking down her chin and in her mind she imagined throwing herself across the table to clean it off with her tongue.
Such a pleasant thought occupied her mind completely until her gaze was rudely interrupted by the whirlwind appearance of Faith. The brunette swept into the room and immediately began searching the room as though she had misplaced something. She dug through the assorted pile of dishes in the kitchen sink and then through the racks of cutlery hanging above the bench. Her every moment seemed to be accompanied by an immense clatter. Faith scowled as she gathered up a handful of butter knives and inspected the edge of each. None seemed to be what she was looking for and she threw them down with a slight snort.
When she could ignore her no longer, Willow set down her spoon, "Can I help you with anything?"
"I need a sharp knife," Faith turned to Willow with her hands on her hips.
"I hid them all," Willow replied promptly, before Faith could continue, she explained in an annoyed voice, "I'm thoroughly sick of you using them to sharpen your stakes! Each time I go to use one when preparing a meal I find the blade dull with wood shavings clinging to its length...there is an entire room full of sharp objects downstairs."
Faith narrowed her eyes with annoyance, "Downstairs being the relevant word here, Will...I can't be bothered going all the way downstairs! This is a kitchen...kitchens have knives."
Willow sighed a tortured sigh and reached into the pocket of her apron, she withdrew a wicked looking knife in a leather sheath that appeared better suited for sawing limbs than carrots, "Sharpen it after you're done! And your breakfast is getting cold."
Faith eyed the plate Willow indicated contemptuously, "Will, I'm sorry but there's no bloody way I'm eating your porridge." She followed Tara's earlier actions and gathered up a handful of fruit that she stuffed into the pockets of her coat.
"I shall employ a cook as soon as possible," Tara announced in a decisive voice.
Faith grinned and nodded towards Tara, "See...decisive thinking, that's what we need around here...cheerio ladies!"
Faith breezed out of the kitchen as quickly as she had entered, twirling the knife on her palm as she went. Willow sighed and gathered up her plate and Faith's, moving to deposit the uneaten porridge in the scrap bucket. Her mood improved when she glanced out of the kitchen window to find that the day had dawned particularly bright and clear as only a winter's day could. With a small smile on her face, she turned her back on the dirty crockery lying in the basin and imagined taking a relaxed stroll with Tara. Just the two of them in the sunshine, she'd wear her pinstripe with a snug coat and Tara would wrap an Indian shawl around her shoulders. The imagined scene was so domestic that Willow thought it might as well have been out of her dreams.
"It's a fine day out," Willow announced as Tara joined her to deposit her empty plate into the basin. "I was thinking..."
"Will...," Tara spoke just as Willow continued with ‘I was thinking' and both women cut themselves off, unwilling to interrupt the other. Although they had spent the better part of a week since Tara's late night stroll simply being in each other's company and getting to know one another again, there was still an undercurrent of awkwardness to everything they did. Whether it be talking or touching, everything was done with careful thought instead of on an impulse. "I'm sorry, please go on," Tara ducked her head.
"No, no," Willow waved her hand, trying to smile to put Tara at ease. "You were going to say something." Although Willow felt cheated of the opportunity to outline her plan for the day's outing, she did have to admit that it was her scheduled that dictated what they did. Although the museum was hardly busy, her work still kept her away from Tara most days of the week.
"I think I'm ready," Tara admitted in a whisper.
"Ready for what?" Willow asked the question even though she already knew the answer. She guessed that there would be no sunlight stroll.
Tara kept her eyes on Willow as she spoke, wanting to reassure herself that she had made the right decision, "To start uncovering who I am...or was..." Tara wrinkled her nose slightly as she thought through this strange paradox. "Who I used to be..."
Willow immediately reached out and took one of Tara's hands in her own; she lifted the pale hand to her lips and pressed a light kiss against her skin. She continued to hold her hand and offer Tara the reassurance of the contact between them, "I've long since given up trying to understand my life in such terms. I just want to be me...just Willow, and you should do the same...if finding out these things will help you to be Tara, then I will love you and protect you with all of my heart."
Love, the word lingered in the air even after Willow had spoken. It took the moment's silence for her to realise that it was the first time she had told Tara she loved her since the demon had been exorcised. Even before that, in their night of passion at Covasna, Tara had cut her short before she could say the simple words that meant so much. She honestly could not remember the last time she had told Tara just how much she loved her. It was a powerful emotional realisation and she felt tears burn at her eyes.
"Will?" Tara asked, her lips parting with concern. "I-If you think that it is not the right time then I can wait...I did not intend to cause you grief..."
"Oh...no, no, no," Willow whispered, shaking her head as she spoke. "Your request is not the reason for my tears...I meant what I said...and I meant that I love you...and I believe it has been too long since I said those words to you."
"Oh," Tara let a pleased smile take a hold of her lips until she found herself grinning almost stupidly. While she had never thought that Willow did not love her...it was something else entirely to hear it confirmed. "Those are words I could never tire of hearing...please say them again?"
Willow grinned in reply, "I love you."
Tara drew in a deep breath as though fortifying herself with the words, "And you will help me...just to be Tara Maclay?"
Willow nodded in confirmation, "I will help you to be Tara Maclay...and I think I know where we should start."
As soon as Willow arrived at her intended destination, with Tara in tow, she immediately questioned her decision. She was standing in the training room, staring at the bookshelves that concealed the entrance to the cell in which the vampire Tara had spent over a decade in filth and abject misery. The hidden door no longer opened...and even if it did, there was nothing but a brick wall behind it. Months ago Faith and Myles had bricked over the doorway at a distraught Willow's command.
In the midst of her reflection, Willow felt a gentle touch at her elbow. She turned and looked at Tara who was standing directly behind her, so close their hips were almost joined.
"Why are we here?" Tara asked quietly.
Willow turned fully, she still felt uneasy with her back to the door, "Do you feel anything standing here? Chills? Are any strange memories coming to you?"
Tara shrugged and replied simply, "I feel nothing."
Willow frowned. It was all too obvious that Tara spoke the truth. Her face was almost expressionless, perhaps with just a hint of curiosity as to what Willow intended by bringing her down to the basement of Gordon Square. Given that she felt nothing, Willow was reluctant to let her know what had happened behind the wall and she decided that it was not the time to tell Tara...nor would it ever be. She would have to show her...
Willow remembered back to the circle of candles that Giles had arranged in the library at the British Museum and the small figure that sat, squat and peaceful at its centre. Once again she wished fervently that Giles were available to help them. While she knew the rudiments of the spell, having experienced it herself, it was another thing to be able to repeat it.
She was hesitant to suggest the procedure to Tara, especially when she stared back at her so expectantly. "There is a way that I might be able show you what happened...well, most of it anyway. It's called a memoria alveus and within it are contained the memories of several individuals, yourself among others. It was used on me and I think the same information would work for you."
"How does it work?" Tara asked hesitantly.
"I do not know the science behind it...but I know that it felt as though I were there...it was difficult," Willow admitted honestly.
"What little I do know about what happened to me...dying and becoming a vampire, is awful enough without actually experiencing it," Tara let out a breath before she continued, "Even if I experience the memories held within that..." Tara struggled to remember the name of the tool Willow had mentioned. "That memory object...even though they are my memories...I still won't be that...person." That vampire...
"I know," Willow replied, making a conscious effort to keep her voice as neutral as possible. She also glanced away so that Tara could not see the accompanying expression on her face.
However, the blonde had already noticed and both women remained silent for several minutes. When Willow finally turned to look at her, she found with an expression on her face that could only be called sad.
"Do you miss her?" Tara asked quietly.
"What?" Willow managed, slightly taken aback by the unexpected question. After a moment's consideration, she started to shake her head firmly. However, it was only after she had completed this adamant refusal that she realised there was no way she was being honest...with herself or Tara. "Yes...how could I not...I loved her...but please, I do not want to discuss this now..."
"My apologies...I just wanted to say that I know you do not intend to mould me into any particular image, Willow...and for that I am grateful," Tara inclined her head.
Willow let out the deep breath that she had been holding; relieved that Tara did not wish to pry further into what was a complex relationship that she herself did not fully understand. As she turned her back on the hidden doorway to the vampire's cell, she could not help but wonder if things were ever going to be ‘normal' between the two of them. Although the more she dwelt on it, the more she realised that theirs had never been a normal relationship according to the prescribed standards of the day. Now, as they stood, over one hundred years later, reality had become even further skewed towards the impossible. A resurrected vampire hunter with complete memories of her former life and a former vampire with memories only of her human life. It was enough to make any sane person's head hurt.
"This is difficult," Tara whispered breathily, as though she could sense what Willow was thinking.
Willow managed a smile, she reached up and brushed the back of her hand to the skin of Tara's cheek in a brief but tender movement, "You understate things so nicely."
"I want to experience the memories held within that object...and yet perhaps I ought not to be so hasty to do so. I fear what I will learn," Tara admitted.
You are right to fear, Willow thought as she nodded in response to Tara's statement but she could not bring herself to give voice to such a thought. "That is entirely your decision."
As though sensing Willow's mood, Tara then extended her hand and Willow did not need to be asked to take it. She slipped her fingers between Tara's slender, pale hands and squeezed it slightly. She then led her away from the bookshelf that concealed the sight of so much pain and suffering for both of them. She paused in the centre of the room, still holding Willow, and stared in amazement at the impressive collection of weapons and other implements that ran the entire length of one wall.
"This is going to take a little while to get used to," Tara inclined her head towards the racks. "The fact that you can wield all of these...especially considering you were once terrified of horses."
Willow grinned, happy to have her mind drawn back to more a more pleasant line of conversation, "I must admit that my terror of the ugly brutes has not abated."
"A weakness, Willow Van Helsing?" Tara inquired as she lifted one eyebrow.
"Just one among many," Willow replied honestly. "For as you well know, I cannot cook."
Tara laughed lightly as no answer was required to that admission other than a resounding agreement, she let go of Willow's hand and crossed to the weapon racks. The same hand that had held Willow's now touched everything from the hilt of a seventeenth century rapier to the burnished silver of a breastplate that had probably never been worn. She eventually settled on an odd looking weapon that appeared to be a bundle of sticks tied together.
"What is this?" she asked in a curious voice.
"Ah, now that is something I can do," Willow joined Tara's side and gracefully withdrew the bamboo weapon from the rack to hold it out in front of her. "This is a stave used to practice the Japanese sword form of kenjutsu."
"Japanese?" Tara exclaimed in surprise. "Where would you have learnt such a thing?"
Willow shrugged, "Japan of course." At Tara's further exclamation of surprise she continued, "I travelled there a long time ago to seek something...a beautiful country with some beautiful people." Ayako's face floated into view and Willow realised she had not thought of the Japanese woman for some time.
"Will you show me?" Tara asked, interrupting Willow's thoughts.
"Of course," Willow nodded, she moved back to the centre of the room. With the stave in her hand and the anticipation of moving through the graceful forms of kenjutsu, she forgot about her troubled thoughts.
With one last long look at Tara, Willow closed her eyes and commenced with the forms. She slipped into the movements as though she had last performed them yesterday even though it had been months since she had used them in her training. Although she could not see Tara with her eyes closed, she sensed her presence and she was in her every thought as she moved.
The night was cold enough for Faith to find herself shivering despite the thick woollen coat and sailor's hat she wore. She glanced up at the sky, it was as clear as it could possibly be and the stars and thick wedge of the moon shone down on her. Faith scowled as she perched on the gable of a house, the moonlight illuminated almost everything, from the roof tiles upon which she sat, to the cobbles on the street down below. It was obviously not a good night for hunting and this had more than made itself evident in the fact that she had absolutely no contact with vampires. She withdrew her pocket watch and saw that she had been patrolling the close packed streets of London's poorer neighbourhoods for almost four hours. Normally she enjoyed being out, searching for her prey, but on this cold night she would have preferred to be warm beneath the covers of a bed, her naked body pressed up against the equally naked body of her lover.
With a sigh, Faith tucked the watch back into her coat and decided that she would head home despite the lack of a single kill for the night. Still, she did feel some satisfaction in the fact that Willow had managed just two vampires herself for the whole week. Faith ignored the fact that they had been slain in just one night...within the space of a minute and she had not been out patrolling since. After a quick mental count, Faith worked her total out as six for the week...although she was tempted to make it six and a half as one had been inordinately large.
Faith stood and hopped lightly from the gable on which she stood onto the ridgepole of the row of houses. She easily balanced her way along until she reached the end of the row. Using the eaves and guttering of the house, Faith silently climbed down from her vantage point and back onto the cobbles. It was just as cold down below and she broke into a brisk walk, keeping to the shadows to avoid any attention from humans who were out this late at night. It was rather obvious that anyone who did walk these streets after dark was either a whore or a thief. Although Faith had no qualms about meeting either, she had no need for whores and the department had strict rules about killing humans whether they were scum or not.
She was again dreaming about a naked Lara Croft when she caught sight of several fast moving shapes out of the corner of her eye. Faith turned just in time to see a distinctly human shape disappearing into an alley. The swiftness with which they moved proved them to be no ordinary mortals. With a grin spreading across her face, Faith gave chase at full speed. She gave little consideration to the fact that there could very well be more than one vampire waiting for her around the corner.
Still, what she did find startled her somewhat. There was not one, but four fleeing shapes ahead of her in the darkness. All were running as fast as they possibly could...as though running for their undead lives.
"Errr, hello!" Faith brazenly yelled after them. Her call seemed to go unheard and she scowled with frustration as she continued after them. "There are four of you for god's sake! I'll play nice!"
Her taunts merely earned her a glance from the vampire trailing slightly behind. He looked back over his shoulder and Faith saw the absolute terror in his eyes. She continued to give chase but could not help but feel uneasy. She was a hunter to be feared of course but she had never elicited such a response from her quarry before.
When it became obvious that she was going to have trouble catching up to the four fleeing vampires, Faith decided to take an alternate route that she knew would put her in front of the potential kills. Veering off down a tight alleyway that was little more than a gap between buildings, Faith ignored the pounding in her chest and pushed herself as hard as she could. She was already tasting the sweet satisfaction of informing Willow she had bagged four in one night.
Suddenly Faith heard a blood curdling scream fill the night air, followed shortly by another. Without pausing a beat, Faith turned and took a route that would take her in the direction of the screams. Something or someone besides herself had obviously caught up to her prey. She immediately jumped to conclusions as to who it was, Rosenberg...bloody hell, those are my vamps! she thought angrily, wondering what had drawn Willow out even though it was not her night. For a brief moment Faith heard the clash of steel upon steel but the combat was short lived, followed by another scream.
Despite her haste, when Faith finally reached the scene of the skirmish she found nothing but scorch marks on the cobbles, fallen weapons and fast cooling ash floating in the breeze. She expected to find her redheaded friend gloating with a smug smile on her face but she was alone in the alley.
"Will?" Faith called tentatively, a chill wind stirred and she shivered violently as the cold seeped through her coat.
Instinctively she drew both her sword and pistol but there was no trace of whatever...or whoever it was that had slain the vampires. Faith scanned the area briefly but she soon realised that she did not what to meet whatever it was that had done this to four vampires in so short a space of time...not alone anyway. She turned and left the scene at a run, looking back over her shoulder several times. She idly wondered if there was a way she could let the rest of the department know that there was a powerful new demon on the scene and still claim the four vampires as her own kills.