If there was one room in the British Museum that Willow enjoyed almost as much as the library and her own office, it was the museum's archives. It was a cavernous room located on the topmost floor of the museum, and following so many years of acquiring objects and information, it was crammed with shelves, cabinets and drawers full of books, papers and files of all shapes and sizes. Housing every scrap of information the museum possessed about the treasures it stored, it truly was a 'treasure trove' of sorts, one of knowledge. For someone like Willow, it was invaluable. It also made her a little giddy whenever she entered.
Upon entering she immediately felt refreshed by the smell of so much paper in one place. It was almost enough to make her forget the unpleasantness of the evening's activities. However the fact that her back ached and the nasty bruise on her forehead throbbed with every step was more than enough to remind her that it ha actually happened. The African Hall really was a shambles despite the fact that Lara, Faith and Alex had made some inroads into removing the debris and restoring order. Lara had made the announcement that the Hall would be closed to visitors through gritted teeth. Having exhibits closed to the public was not a good look when she had just come from a fund-raising meeting. No doubt she had the nightmarish thought that the fat, old bores would actually come and inspect the institution to which they were donating such large sums of money. Willow knew, as well as Lara did, that such men rarely ever visited. Their donations made them feel intelligent and well-learned, without actually having to set foot in the museum. It was just the ever-present worries of a museum Director rearing their ugly heads.
Willow however was not the Director, and she was free to worry about matters of actual concern, namely the small, white object which she now drew from the pocket of her coat. For all her studying, and repeatedly running her fingers across its engraved length, Willow was still no closer to discovering its identity or purpose. This bothered her, and she tucked it back into her pocket, determined to at least uncover something that would tell them why guards had been killed and the British Museum had been desecrated in such a fashion by the shadow creatures.
Given that the room stored rather old paper, the light levels were exceedingly dim. Every single one of the huge windows was completely covered with a thick curtain that admitted barely a scrap of light. Electric light was prevalent at the entrance but the farthest reaches of the archives were almost in total darkness. Willow had come prepared; she withdrew one of Giles's beamlights from the pocket of her coat. She allowed herself a moment of sadness as she ran her fingers over the small tube, remembering the man who had invented it and treasuring his memory.
She was just about to switch the light on and head into the dim light between the cavernous shelves when there was a slight, reedy cough emanating from behind her. Willow winced slightly, she had hoped that it was late enough for the archives to be empty of staff.
"Can I help you?" a decidedly unfriendly voice following the cough. It was delivered in the type of tone that implied the offer of help was a mere formality and very unlikely to be provided.
Willow turned on her heels to see Jenkins, the museum's archivist standing with his chicken-like arms perched on his narrow waist. He was peering at her through overly large spectacles that looked as though they should not be able to perch on the little man's pug-like nose. When he saw that it was Willow who was intruding into 'his' archives, his expression changed only slightly from one of annoyance to outright disdain.
"Ah, Miss Rosenberg...I am so sorry, I did not recognise you..."
Willow almost smirked at this statement, there were very few other redheads at the museum and none were women who wore men's clothing.
"...is there something I can help you with?" he offered, maintaining the same tone and turning the offer into an accusation, as though he knew she was there to cause mischief of some sort.
"I will be perfectly fine Jenkins...I know my way around in here," Willow replied, trying to keep her voice friendly, probably better than you do, you arrogant little snot. "You know that."
"Yes, I do know," he sneered. His eyes narrowed maliciously, "Is there something in particular you are working on? An exhibition perhaps? A paper for a scholarly journal?"
"I know exactly what I need thank you..." Willow began tautly, trying to turn her back on him.
"If you might permit me one more question, for curiosities' sake, between colleagues...just what are you working on?" Jenkins prodded further. "I do believe I haven't seen an exhibition curated by you for some time...as a matter of fact, I have never seen an exhibition that you have curated. For a so-called 'curator', that is rather odd...would you not agree?"
Willow bristled noticeably; she straightened her back and used her full three-inch height advantage to stare down at the little man. She knew she ought not to be baited by his line of questioning, but she could not let such a slight against her scholarly reputation go unanswered.
"I do not know what you are trying to imply Jenkins, over the past years I have curated exhibitions on Romanian folklore, funerary implements of Ancient Egypt and holy relics of the forgotten saints..." As well as discovering that I am in fact the reincarnated soul of someone who died over one hundred years ago, having an ensouled vampire for a lover and playing a rather large part in saving Europe from one of the most blood-thirsty monsters ever to walk this earth, "I think I have been rather busy..."
"Ah, perhaps I intended to mean exhibitions that visitors actually saw," Jenkins replied snidely.
Willow glared at the archivist, itching to wipe the wretched little smile from his face with one swipe of her hand. She reined her impulses in and smiled sweetly once again.
"Well, each to their own I guess, we can't all enjoy the same things now can we?" Willow patted him on his sparsely covered head, "Do be a dear and run along now," before I knock you into next week you pompous, self-important little bastard, "And I would really prefer not to be bothered thank you very much."
Jenkins' eyes narrowed behind his spectacles, "Well, if you do happen to need any help, I will be in the natural history catalogues...doing some 'real' work."
"You do that," Willow commented as he turned smartly on his heels and began to walk away.
She watched him go and couldn't resist one last parting shot, "Pleb," she muttered, just loud enough for him to hear.
Willow turned her back on him before she saw his response, determined not to become embroiled in a war of words with one of the museum's 'normal' staff. In her thinking, 'normal' meant someone who had absolutely no idea that the British Museum, apart from being the foremost museum in the world, was largely a cover for an organisation that resisted the forces of darkness that existed in the world. It was rather a rather sobering reminder for Willow of the fact that most people went about their lives without ever knowing such a world existed. In some ways, she was envious of their ignorance.
Somewhat ashamed of herself for her immature behaviour, Willow retreated into the shelves and had to draw in several deep breaths to calm herself down. As her nostrils filled with the aroma of old paper and leather, she felt renewed almost instantly.
Willow had not been exaggerating when she had told Jenkins that she knew her way around the archives. She switched on her beamlight and moved directly to the shelves near the back of the room, grateful for the halo of light that surrounded her as she moved amongst the very oldest papers that the museum possessed. Row upon row of thick, leather bound catalogue and books greeted her like old friends. She even reached out her hand and trailed her fingers along the spines of a few, just to feel their presence...and to confirm that Jenkins and his cronies were doing their jobs in keeping them dust free. Just as the pungent odour of old knowledge was at its strongest, Willow stopped and swung her light upwards.
There, the circle of light illuminated the gilt embellishments on the spine of one exceptionally large tome. It was well above Willow's head. She retrieved a nearby wooden step ladder and used to climb to the level of the catalogue. Willow had to tuck her light beneath her arm and use both has to grasp the embossed leather spine, the width of which was almost larger than the span of her hand. The ladder creaked ominously as she climbed back down slowly. With both feet planted on the floor, she moved to the solitary reading desk nestled at the very end of the row. She turned off her beamlight and switched on the lamp above the desk, careful to move it so its light would not shine directly onto the pages of the catalogue.
She sat in the slightly creaking chair and reverently folded open its pages. Willow scanned the first page, noting the Museum's very first acquisitions...even a rather terse one in her own hand. It simply said 'old spear,' circa 1500, Romania, and gave the date of deposit as the nineteenth of September, 1782. Following her entry was a longer passage in another hand giving detailed information that said the object was actually much more than a simple spear. It was an ornate, silver-headed spear used by a Romanian nobleman who enjoyed engaging in bouts of vampire slaying in his spare time. The entry went on to give more information about the owner, how it found its way into the collection and other items that it was related to. As though it had been yesterday, Willow remembered Giles scolding her for making such a poor entry into the catalogue. Rather than allow her to redeem herself, he had completely the entry properly himself. She remembered not being overly concerned at his lack of faith in her scholarly endeavours as she had simply retreated to the training room and the weapons that she loved far more than words. Willow 'tsked' slightly at her own past self's laziness, although she had to admit that she had more than made up for it in her subsequent life.
"You were a rather hopeless case, Willow," she told herself as she resumed turning pages, grateful that she had been reborn with more common sense, enough to understand the importance of proper cataloguing procedures.
Each page was folded over with great care. There were more entries in Giles's hand, even some in her brother's...none in her own, indicating that she had not again been entrusted with the sacred duty of cataloguing acquisitions. When she reached object number '1440', she scanned the page carefully, her eyes roaming down past '1441', an Attic kylix or drinking cup done in the red-figure technique, and '1442', a sixteenth century Scandinavian tapestry depicting the ride of the Valkyries. Finally Willow's eyes saw the number '1443' that matched the corresponding tag on the object. Next to the number was recorded the date of deposit, 26th February, 1812 and absolutely nothing else. From the almost blank entry the catalogue moved onto '1444', another Scandinavian object, this time a black dagger of unknown provenance. Willow carefully scanned the text again but no amount of care would reveal any further information for the 1443rd entry in the catalogue. It simply wasn't there. She frowned; it was most unusual given the precision with which every single other entry was made. Each was in its proper place, with all the correct details noted...save the only one she needed to be there.
The date alone gave her very little information save that it had been deposited during Abraham Van Helsing's tenure as Director of the Museum...and Willow Van Helsing had been dead for twenty-seven years. It was therefore little wonder that she had no memory of the object.
Willow sighed, with the object not being where she expected to find it in the proper catalogue it would be next to impossible to locate further information about it. She had no starting point, no reference...and it would take an almost endless search throughout the archives to find what she sought. That was provided the information even existed in the first place. While she was not admitting defeat, Willow had to admit that matters were looking decidedly grim. If there was one thing she did not like, it was not being able to find the information she sought.
Her disappointment was interrupted when she heard footsteps approaching, footsteps that were punctuated by the slight tapping of a cane. She did not have to turn around to know it was Lara Croft, but she did so anyway. Even in the dim light, Willow could see that the Director was moving a little slower than usual, and the fact that she was using her cane at all meant that her leg was causing her considerable difficulty. Not a trace of this showed on her face however as she stepped further into the light of the lamp.
The expression on Willow's face, however, was obviously transparent from the response it immediately elicited.
"Things are not proceeding according to plan?" Lara enquired.
"I am afraid I have to admit defeat...the information is not in its proper place, and I do not have a clue as to where to go from here," Willow sighed, not enjoying starting the conversation on such a pessimistic note.
Lara raised an eyebrow in surprise, "Admitting defeat Rosenberg? That is most unlike you?"
"Well...when people do not put things in their proper place, this is what happens!" Willow had a slight edge to her tone, indicating her frustration. She then yawned slightly and had to admit to herself that she was rather tired. "Sorry, it is just that...well, you know how much I like order."
Lara nodded understandingly, before she could say anything further however she winced noticeably and had to lean against the shelf at her back for support. The moment passed quickly and Lara straightened up once again, although Willow noted she was relying heavily on her cane.
"I do not mean to intrude...but...are you quite alright?" Willow asked hesitantly, unsure of the reaction she would receive. "You seem to be in some amount of pain..."
"Nothing a small dose of laudanum will not be able to fix," Lara replied in an off-handed fashion.
"Laudanum? Lara..." Willow began in a concerned voice.
Lara waved her concern aside with a brisk motion of her hand, "That and Faith's more than skilled ministrations."
The resulting flush of heat in Willow's cheeks was more than enough to silence her on that matter. She ducked her head to conceal her rising colour.
It had been a deliberate move on Lara's part, deflecting Willow's attention away from herself. It took the redhead almost a minute to compose herself and she was able to glance back up again.
"So...the catalogue?" Lara returned to safer ground...for both of them.
"The catalogue is incomplete," Willow growled, hitting her palm decisively on the edge of the desk. The sound echoed down the aisles of the archives but she did not care.
"Coincidence?" Lara queried.
Willow shook her head firmly, "A coincidence that the one object in the British Museum that is missing an acquisition record is the very same one that is sought out by demonic thieves? Highly unlikely...there is a reason that there is no information for this little object...but it is a reason I cannot begin to fathom."
There was a cough from the darkness, a cough that Willow immediately recognised. She stifled a groan as she turned to see Jenkins coming into view.
"Please refrain from making so much noise within the archives!"
Any annoyance she felt quickly faded into pleasure when Jenkins saw just whom it was she was talking to. Lara turned around to stare at the little archivist. Almost instantly his expression changed completely as he tried to smile.
"Director Croft, my apologies, I did not see you there...are you well this evening?" he enquired in a honeyed tone.
"Tolerably so," Lara replied politely. "Is there something we can help you with?"
"I was actually intending to inform Miss Rosenberg I am finishing for the evening and enquire as to whether there was anything else I could possibly do for her?" Jenkins looked at Willow with an expectant, almost eager expression on her face.
Willow paused for a moment and considered his offer, she had no doubt that within the presence of the Director the archivist would have gladly agreed to assist her in searching the vast multitudes of catalogues held within the archives. However the thought of spending an entire evening alone with Jenkins was too much to stomach.
"No thank you Jenkins, you have been quite helpful enough already," Willow replied, trying to keep her sarcasm to a minimum.
The archivist was not baited by her tone, he merely nodded his head respectfully in Lara's direction and left them alone. Willow watched him go before looking up at Lara with a peevish expression on her face.
Before she could say anything the Director silenced her with one raised finger and a brisk statement, "Before you say anything Willow, remember that such prejudicial thoughts are hardly becoming to a learned scholar."
"Yes well this learned scholar no longer sees her Director as the terrifying dragon that she once did and will feel free to espouse upon her own, quite valid prejudices!" Willow fired back just as briskly. "Arrogant little bastards like him are an impediment to the true work of this museum and I for one, will not stand to be scolded by him!"
"Willow," Lara said in a low tone of warning, "this museum serves dual purposes, neither of which is more important than the other."
Immediately Willow snorted in disagreement, "I would think that saving the world from the devious, ruthless schemes of the supernatural and undead monsters that inhabit our world is far more important than..."
"Than preserving the world's treasures for future generations, enlightening and educating all that pass through our doors?" Lara raised an eyebrow as though daring Willow to challenge her further.
"Perhaps...just a little," Willow replied meekly, although she had to admit to herself that she understood the point Lara was making. She conceded defeat by turning her back on Lara to resume scanning the pages of the catalogue.
"Huh?" Willow turned around once more at the sound of Lara's question. She glanced up to find the Director's expression pensive.
"You really used to view me as a terrifying dragon?" Lara asked, her curiosity aroused by Willow's earlier statement.
"Yes," Willow admitted readily, a little surprised by her own honesty. It was embarrassing but it was the truth. She should have stopped herself at that point, but found herself unable to stop the words, "You were this enigmatic, almost iconic figure within the museum and I was just this curator who could barely tie her own shoelaces, you were...and still are, an imposing individual...unnaturally beautiful...and with a gorgeous bosom..."
Willow finally managed to stop herself by biting her lip. She was relieved to see that Lara was smiling, and she eventually let out a musical sounding laugh that went some way towards easing the embarrassment.
"What changed?" Lara prodded further.
"Well, after all that we have been through I have come to view you as more of a friend rather than an employer...and one does not usually think of one's friends as terrifying dragons...that and the fact that you are no longer the most beautiful woman in London, well, except in Faith's eyes of course but not mine..."
"I don't think we are friends," Lara interrupted quietly.
"We're not?" Willow spluttered slightly in confusion. She paused awkwardly, "I'm sorry for presuming..."
"We're family, Willow," Lara continued before Willow could continue her apology. She smiled warmly. "You are that annoying younger sister that I never had, or even knew I wanted...but I now find myself unable to think of life without you."
Following her confession, Lara reached out and placed her hand on Willow's shoulder. She gave it one simple squeeze that said as much as the fiercest hug. The contact was brief, Lara withdrew her hand and turned to leave.
"Willow...promise me you'll go home soon?"
"I promise," Willow nodded emphatically.
However as soon as the Director turned and left, she went straight back to the catalogue in front of her and resumed her search. She started from the first page and methodically began scanning every single entry. The thought foremost in her mind was that perhaps the object had merely been given an incorrect acquisition number and somewhere in those pages it was waiting to be discovered.
When Willow finally rubbed her weary eyes and decided her best hours of research were well and truly behind her, she threw down her pen with a decisive movement that said she was finished for the night. A quick glance at her pocket watch however confirmed that it wasn't so much night as early morning. She had well and truly broken her promise to Lara.
If Willow had not been so exhausted, she would have been amused by the fact that she was fifteen minutes early for a new day at work. Being that she was a tireless and devoted intellectual, Willow knew she could have dragged herself out of her exhaustion and forced her mind to keep working, at least for a few hours longer. However Willow also knew her employer and Lara would know after just one glance that she had remained at work throughout the night, With the reasoning that she would be sent home anyway, Willow decided to leave. Her angry, growling stomach also reminded her that she had not eaten a thing since a quick lunch taken yesterday. She was so famished that even the thought of leaden porridge of her own creation made her mouth water.
It was not until Willow was bounding up the front steps of Gordon Square that she remembered Tara. She felt a stab of guilt that she had not thought that her absence might cause the blond unnecessary anxiety. Her fears were forgotten the moment she swung open the great black door and discovered the most heavenly smell wafting from the direction of the kitchen. Willow was quite certain that Gordon Square had never in its history played host to such a delectable aroma. As she removed her coat and hat, Willow inhaled deeply. She frowned slightly as she though she recognised the smells from another time, half a world away.
Before she could investigate further, she was stopped in her tracks by the arresting sight descending the stairs. It was Tara, her hair loose about her shoulders, framing a face that was nothing but perfection. While Willow knew she looked exactly like someone who had been awake all night, Tara was the very epitome of radiance. Unconsciously, Willow felt a small smile tugging at her lips.
Tara on the other hand was in the midst of planting her hand on her hip at the sight of the wayward redhead. However, the impish grin on her face was enough to stop the motion, but not quite enough for her to respond with a smile of her own.
"I didn't hear you return last night," Tara said as she continued down the stairs, she inwardly winced at her motherly tone. "And here you are, running back to work already?"
"Actually, I am just returning home now," Willow replied guiltily, her smile fading. "I lost track of time...I am truly sorry, I should have called."
Tara finally returned Willow's smile, "We are both aware of the fruitless nature of such a suggestion, I would not answer that contraption...the tel...eee...phone...it is most unnatural."
"Progress is a beautiful thing," Willow's voice had shrunk to a whisper due to the fact that Tara was now standing directly in front of her, and that is not the only thing that is beautiful.
Faced with the tangible reminder of Tara's physical presence, Willow was unsure how she managed to remain at work all throughout the night. Her fingers twitched in a slight, uncontrolled motion and she realised she was itching to trail the pads of her fingers down Tara's check, over the soft, unblemished skin. She was forced to clutch both her hands behind her back to stop such a movement. It became all too apparent why she had remained at work...for working was preferable to the awkwardness of her present relationship with Tara. At times she felt as close to the blonde as they ever had been during their youth, especially in her office the previous day, and yet at other times she found herself gripped by a powerful uncertainty. Willow had intense memories of her tragically short relationship with the young woman standing in front of her, however at the same time she felt a conflicted knot in the pit of her stomach at the thought of the monster that her lover had become.
Not the vampire...the vampires...
On one hand, the beast who craved depravity and violence, the vampire who had seduced her and then so coldly slain her with her very own weapon. And the other hand the vampire whose soul had been restored against her will. Willow had blamed that vampire for everything that had happened in the past even though she had been unable to control the demon within her. Slowly but surely, she had forgiven her...and had gradually realised that she loved her despite the demon. Three very separate individuals in the same, eternally beautiful body, Willow knew that she would be checking herself into an asylum if she continued to dwell on such a conundrum.
"Tara..." Willow began, desperately wanting to say something. However she was unable to bring the necessary words to her lips.
Any thought of words faltered altogether when Tara brought her hand up and placed it gently on her cheek. Willow's hands fell to her sides and she closed her eyes for several seconds as she leaned into the touch. She inhaled the light fragrance emanating from the blonde's delicate wrist and felt her knees go weak.
It should have been impossible for such a brief contact to induce such a feeling. Yet when Tara withdrew her hand, Willow felt as though she had lost a part of her own body. She opened her eyes slowly.
"You are exhausted, Will," Tara said gently, "If you try and talk to me now, I have no doubt that all I will hear is incomprehensible babble...there will be time later."
And with that she leaned forward and deposited a brief kiss on Willow's lips. Their skin met for just a second and it was all Willow could do to keep from placing a hand on the back of Tara's neck to prolong the kiss. She made no such move, and Tara stepped back, ducking her head as though her own boldness surprised her.
"Time later...of course!" Willow said brightly, tapping her fingers on her thighs to keep them busy. She glanced down the hallway towards the kitchen and then back to Tara, "So...someone is cooking?"
"Yes!" Tara clasped her hands together and beamed as though she was particularly pleased with herself, "And thanks heavens that someone is finally neither you nor Faith."
Willow was so pleased at Tara's announcement that she completely overlooked the comment about her cooking. She followed as Tara led the way down the hall towards the kitchen. The aroma grew stronger they closer they came and Willow could not help but frown as it drew old memories back to her. The excitement she felt was still tinged with confusion.
"I am afraid that I cannot claim the initiative in this matter," Tara spoke as they walked. "They actually turned up on the doorstep enquiring after positions in the house..."
Willow lifted in eyebrows in surprise, "And you just let them in? Tara, that is unwise to say the least, I-I..."
Her words faltered abruptly as soon as she entered the kitchen proper. Her eyes did not go to Faith who was sitting at the table, nor to the bulky, unfamiliar figure standing over several boiling pots on the stove. Instead they went to a figure standing directly opposite her. Her mouth dropped open as she gazed, completely gormless, at the young woman with the black, almond shaped eyes and marble skin.
"Ayako," the name crossed Willow's lips as a mere whisper.
Willow was already half-asleep when she felt a smooth but callused palm gently brush the side of her cheek. Almost instinctively, she reached out and caught the hand as it retreated.
At the sound of Ayako's voice, Willow opened her eyes to see the young woman's face above her in the darkness. Her lips were parted slightly and Willow could see the rapid rise and fall of her chest. She was undeniably lovely, the moonlight rendering her skin as smooth as marble, her eyes as black as obsidian and her hair as shining as silk.
Ayako eased her hand from Willow's grasp, "It is late..."
Willow caught the edge of reluctance to her voice but she still rose determinedly from her side, the folds of her kimono falling about her body as she did so. As she moved from the room, Willow turned to face the opposite direction and quickly squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her fists, desperately willing the fierce hunger in her body to go away.
Despite what she was seeing, it was impossible. Ayako Nakamura had died in her arms over one hundred years earlier.
Willow glanced around discreetly and was relieved to find that although her display of astonishment was obvious, the only other person in the room who noticed was the woman at the centre of her attention. Faith continued to eat heartily at the table, barely glancing up to acknowledge Willow, the rotund man at the stove was only just turning his head and Tara had been standing just behind her, unable to see her face. Willow quickly closed her mouth, but she could not help but stare. Her mind was trying to fathom exactly what it was that she was seeing. For all intents and purposes, she was staring at a dead woman.
Tara moved to stand beside Willow, still unaware of the shock that had overwhelmed her. She extended her hand towards the young woman, "Willow, might I have the pleasure of introducing Yuko Nakamura."
Yuko? "A...pleasure indeed," Willow whispered, swallowing quickly.
Tara then indicated the portly man standing over the stove, "And this is Haruki Okubo."
The Japanese man inclined his head in greeting and smiled in a jovial manner before returning to the boiling pots on the stove. Willow could only politely return the smile for a second before turning her attention back to the young woman.
"They are from...Japan," Tara said the country's name awkwardly, it was indeed a foreign term for her in every sense of the word. "Haruki is a cook, his food is a little strange...but delicious. Yuko has offered to run the household, minding all those little details that can get overlooked by busy people...cleaning for example."
Willow had still barely recovered from the initial shock. It took Faith frowning in her direction for her to realise that her jaw had once again dropped. She smiled and nodded at both Japanese in turn.
"This is splendid, just splendid," Willow could not stop nodding her head and smiling in an effort to conceal the strange feelings coursing through her body from the others standing in the room. "Errr...now if you will all excuse me, there is something...something..." Willow searched for an excuse to leave the room but came up blank. "Something extremely important...I really must see to it immediately."
She fled the kitchen and in doing so made a determined effort to avoid meeting Tara's gaze. It was enough that matters between them were already awkward without adding the Japanese woman into the equation. Willow practically broke into a run as she made her way to the library and down into the sanctuary of Gordon Square's training room. She didn't even bother turning on the lights, instead she sat heavily on the bottom step of the staircase and placed her head in her hands.
"Oh good heavens...what is it with me and women returning from the dead?" she asked the room in a breathless voice.