The flowing forms of kenjutsu offered Willow almost complete relief from her tortured mind. In the silence, with a practice stave in her hand, she was able to lose herself in the complex rhythm of the Japanese martial art. She had removed her shoes in order to feel the contact with the mats beneath her feet. Dancing across them, she moved with barely a sound. Forward, thrust, parry...back, sweep, parry, she repeated the forms over and over until there was a thin sheen of sweat covering her body. She stopped only long enough to strip off her waistcoat and shirt before she continued wearing just her woollen vest and pants.
A mind as busy as Willow's eventually found a way to intrude on the silence. She found herself dredging up further images of her past, and in the state of mind induced by kenjutsu she saw everything as clearly as the day it had happened.
"Ayako, now is perhaps not a good time...but the thing..."
Willow twitched slightly mid-form, disturbing the flow of her rhythm. She paused for several heartbeats before resuming. Perfection remained elusive, however hard she strived to attain it.
"What thing, Willow-san?"
Her mind was working too fast for her mind to be the correct state to achieve perfection. She whirled about on the balls of her feet, hoping to escape her memories by increasing her tempo.
"The thing...the n-nothing that happened...between us..."
The serene mask on her face faltered and she missed a movement altogether.
Willow grimaced slightly, but continued increasing her speed.
"I should like there to be something...b-between us..."
Her tempo had increased to the point where her forms were barely discernable amidst the wild swinging of her stave. She hacked and slashed at the air around her as though that would drive away her tormentors.
"I should like that too, Willow-san...very much."
It was at that point that something else intruded on her concentration. She detected soft, barely audible footsteps on the stairs. If Willow had not been so attuned to picking up faint sounds, she would have missed them altogether. She did not stop, but instead drew in deep breath and continued. Her body slowed as she attempted to restore order to her chaotic movements.
"Your forms are very beautiful." The soft voice interrupted her concentration just as she was beginning to once again find the peace she sought.
Expecting Tara, the unfamiliar voice caught Willow off guard. She completely mistimed her steps. Her legs tangled themselves beneath her and she crashed to the ground in an ungraceful heap. Willow let out a small yelp as she poked herself in the hip with her own stave.
Lying in a sweaty, awkward mess on the mats, Willow peered up towards the staircase and saw the Japanese woman standing there with her arms folded and a serene smile on her face.
"The technique is quite poor, but they are nevertheless beautiful," she added.
Her soft, lyrical voice removed any trace of mockery from her words but it did not serve to improve Willow's mood. She tossed her stake aside and began to haul herself to her feet. Before she had even lifted her bottom from the ground, Yuko was standing in front of her with an outstretched hand. Willow blinked stupidly, wondering just how the woman had managed to move so quickly across the room. A few moments passed before she took the proffered hand.
With a single tug from Yuko, Willow found herself pulled to her feet. Through the movement, she felt the Japanese woman's strength. It surprised her at first, but she remembered Ayako. The way she had moved, and fought. Her entire body had radiated a quiet strength that went beyond mere muscle power. It was something spiritual, almost magical.
Willow found herself standing almost toe-to-toe with Yuko. Their close proximity was uncomfortable, but it gave her the chance to study her face in a way that had not been possible earlier due to shock. Although Ayako had died over one hundred years earlier, Willow was still able to visualise the young woman's face in her mind. While Yuko was strikingly similar, she was definitely not Ayako. Yuko's face was slightly rounder, her lips fuller, and she was even shorter. Willow knew then that the woman standing in front of her was not Ayako Nakamura in the same way that she was Willow Van Helsing.
"I thought you were someone I knew," Willow began quietly. For some reason she was unable to take a step back. Her discomfort was fading. It was gradually being replaced by a sense of familiarity. "Someone I knew a long time ago."
"Ayako Nakamura," Yuko replied with a slight nod. "My ancestor."
"Ancestor?" Willow let out a slow breath and shook her head as if she didn't think it were possible. It was unsettling to once again be standing in front of a woman with who there had been so much lost potential. Only it was not her. "You look so much like her."
Tentatively, Willow lifted her hand towards Yuko's face. With her hand half-raised, she stopped abruptly and withdrew slightly. Willow stood with her arm suspended awkwardly in midair. Her feelings were dreadfully conflicted and this was reflected in her uncertainty of action. She saw a smile cross Yuko's face, and knew it was meant to be one of reassurance. Willow was far from reassured. Instead she was reminded of that awful day over one hundred years earlier.
Willow finally let her bloody sword fall to the earth as she collapsed to the ground at Ayako's side. Even as her knees hit the soft earth, she was already struggling to tear strips from the clothing she wore in order to create makeshift bandages to staunch the flow of blood from Ayako's terrible wound. Before she could tear the fabric, the Japanese girl laid a bloody hand atop her own.
Following those short words, Ayako closed her eyes, as though it had taxed her greatly to say them. Willow panicked, thinking she was dead, until the hand holding the hilt of her katana moved towards her with small, jerky movements.
"Ayako..." Willow whispered.
"Take it," she whispered.
Willow gently received the bloody katana from Ayako's limp hand, feeling all the while as though she should be doing something to help her instead of mutely kneeling by her side.
Ayako's eyes opened once more and she was able to lift her hand to Willow's cheek. Her fingers were already cold but there was a small smile on her face.
"I should have protected you," Willow had to admit brokenly.
"Do not think that!" Ayako whispered fiercely. "I know I fought well...it is a good death."
Willow struggled to maintain her emotions and hold back the words she truly wished to say. She knew that no death is a good death. "I have never known anyone braver."
"I love you." Ayako's words were even less than a whisper, spoken as her hand fell from Willow's cheek limply to her side and her eyes slid closed.
Hot tears burned Willow's eyes and a sob lay trapped in her throat as she watched Ayako's chest rise and fall. She did not repeat the motion again, having breathed her last. Willow bowed her head. It was too late for her to say those simple words for Ayako to hear even though she knew in her heart that she had loved her as much as her heart would allow her to.
For Willow, it felt as though that sob felt as though had remained trapped in her throat since that day. It emerged now, a strangled gasp that she suppressed as quickly as she could. She was mortified that she was about to break down in front of a complete stranger.
Yuko responded quickly and tenderly. She retrieved Willow's hand from where it was still frozen in midair and held it without her own.
The first thing Willow noticed, were the calluses on the girl's palm. She knew then that Yuko followed after Ayako in more than just looks. Yuko then lifted her hand, helping it continue on the trajectory that she had originally tried to follow. Willow did not resist. Yuko brought it up to her cheek and pressed it against her skin. She closed her eyes and leaned into the touch.
Willow felt the soft skin of her cheek beneath her own callused palm. Tentatively, she brushed the skin of Yuko's cheek with her thumb in a light caress. She was amazed at how natural the contact felt. Her heart was beating rapidly in her chest. Here was her chance to regain the opportunity she had spurned and then lost altogether in Japan. Willow leaned forward slightly, drawn towards Yuko's full, pink lips. For a split second, Willow felt the moment was right. It was what she should have done all those years ago. However, she stopped herself. None of it was right. This was not her second chance with Ayako. Ayako was long dead. More importantly, Tara was once again in her life. That was what she wanted. Or at least, that was what she thought she wanted. Willow let her hand fall from Yuko's cheek, and she wished she were still wearing her waistcoat so she could jam the offending appendage in the pocket.
"I am sorry," Willow whispered.
Yuko opened her eyes. "I know this must make you feel uncomfortable, and for that I am sorry. However, you must allow me to explain why I am here. I begin by saying that my family still speaks of the great Willow Van Helsing."
Willow let out a self-deprecating snort and lowered her gaze. It made her uncomfortable to think of herself as any sort of hero. "In Nippon I was a stupid, rash fool." When she glanced back up to Yuko's face, she found the Japanese woman smiling. "Why are you here?" Willow asked quietly. She did not want to sound rude, but she was impatient to understand why Ayako's twin was standing in her house.
"Destiny," Yuko replied simply at first. However, at Willow's confused expression, she continued, "Willow-san, do you remember Nakamura Kenji-san? And the last words he spoke to you before you left Japan?"
Just as clearly as she had remembered Ayako, Willow remembered her father. Kenji Nakamura had been a powerfully intimidating man. Willow had come to see the softer side of him. He had loved his daughter more than life itself. In the end, she counted him a friend. She heard his final words to her echo clearly in her mind. Without any further explanation, she knew exactly why Yuko had come to England.
"I wish you well in your travels and your quest...and if ever you shall need it, the Nakamura family will come to your aid."
"Why now?" Willow asked. "I do not mean to be rude, but I could have used your help last year."
Yuko bowed her head in apology. "Word did not reach us of your struggle against Dracula until it was over. I must admit that we are...slightly...late."
Willow almost laughed at the dry humour in Yuko's voice. She had to admit to herself that, even if Yuko had arrived to help when most needed, it would have been one too many thing for her to have dealt with. Especially after rejoining with her past self and rediscovering that the love of her life was a vampire. And now she's not a vampire any longer. Willow couldn't even begin to rethink the details in her head.
Yuko interrupted her thoughts. She spoke as she withdrew something from behind her back. "I have something that belongs to you, Willow-san."
Willow had not noticed the slender object that Yuko carried in her left hand. With little ceremony, Yuko raised it up so they could both clearly see it. When Willow saw exactly what it was, her eyebrows lifted in amazement. Her fingers were trembling at her sides but she could not bring herself to reach out and touch the object. All she could do was stare.
It was the wakazashi that matched her katana.
The short sword was every bit as beautiful as she had remembered it to be. Kenji Nakamura had given her the katana, and retained the wakazashi in his possession. She was made achingly aware of the absence of the katana. It had gone missing at some point during the past hundred years. Willow knew it was hardly fair to blame herself, she had been dead for most of that time.
"You are wrong regarding the most important thing, Yuko," Willow said as she shook her head slowly. "This never belonged to me."
"Nevertheless, it is yours now," Yuko announced with warmth in her voice. "It has waited many years to be reunited with its sister."
"I do not deserve that weapon." Willow swallowed awkwardly. "I must confess that the katana is no longer in my possession. I have no idea where it is."
Surprisingly, Yuko seemed unconcerned by this admission. She continued to hold the wakazashi at arms length, as though she was still insisting it now belonged to Willow.
Reluctantly, Willow lifted her right hand and wrapped her hand around the proffered hilt. Her arm jolted slightly. It was as though she felt a sudden surge of power at the weapon's touch. Yuko released her grip on the weapon and gave it completely over to her. Willow held it reverently, not even daring to draw the blade from its scabbard.
"They will find their way back to one another, Willow-san," Yuko said with a strange certainty to her voice.
As Willow remained completely consumed by the weapon she held in her hands, she did not see the solitary figure watching her and Yuko from the stairs.
Tara closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against the cold stone wall. It was as though she needed to feel something else solid besides the floor at her feet. After a few moments, she opened her eyes to find Willow still staring in rapture at the sword the Japanese woman had given to her. When she glanced back up, Tara could see her eyes were shining with unshed tears. Willow then let the sword fall to her side as she embraced Yuko in a fierce hug.
She wrenched her gaze away from the scene and turned to retrace her steps back up the stairs. The moment her foot hit the first step, it creaked loudly. Her heart stopped in her throat and she froze. However, a few seconds later, there were no voices from the training room. Willow was obviously wrapped up in her new sword and the young Japanese woman. With the tears streaming freely down her cheeks, she ran the rest of the way up the stairs. The heavy door closed with a loud bang behind her, and she did not care.
The worried frown on the elderly gentleman's face deepened slightly as he held the small vial of liquid up to the light. He did not need to retrieve his glasses to see that there was something very unnatural at work. Thoroughly disturbed, he tucked the vial safely into the pocket of his waistcoat. He glanced across to the mahogany clock in the corner to check the time. His guest would be arriving shortly, and he fervently hoped that she could shed more light on what was happening.
He had barely resumed perusing his notes at his desk, when a knock on his door interrupted him. A moment later the door swung inward to reveal the face of one of his nurses.
"Excuse me, Doctor," she began. "There is a Miss Lara Croft here to see you."
"Excellent, show her in please, Miss Gibson." As he rose from his chair, a tall, regal woman entered his office.
"Doctor Barker," she said warmly
"It is a pleasure as always, Miss Croft. Thank you for coming to see me so promptly," Barker said with genuine relief in his voice
"The urgency in your call was hard to ignore, Doctor," Lara said as she shook his extended hand. "I would guess that it concerns Mr Meates?"
"I'm afraid it does indeed," Barker said with a nod. "He lifted the not inconsiderable bulk of his body out from behind his desk.
He then moved out of his office, indicating to Lara that she should follow. He continued talking as he made his way down the corridor, "When you brought poor Mr Meates to us, his wounds were severe. I had some doubt as to whether he would recover due to the sheer amount of blood he lost. It turns out that blood loss is the least of his worries."
As they walked, Lara saw the Doctor withdraw a small vial from the pocket of his vest. He then turned and handed it to her mid-stride.
"What is your first guess as to the nature of this substance, Miss Croft?" he asked cryptically.
Lara lifted the vial up to eye level and scrutinized its content. To the naked eye, the liquid it contained was pure black. Although she was no woman of science, Lara first suspected it to be ink. However after giving it a slight shake, she saw that it was the wrong consistency. The liquid in the vial was thick and sluggish.
"I am no scientist," Lara handed it back to him. "Please enlighten me?"
Barker accepted the vial in one hand, and with his other, swept open a door they had just reached. "It is blood, my dear Miss Croft. His blood."
They had entered a room containing a single hospital bed. Upon it lay an apparently unconscious man. Although Lara immediately recognised Tommy Meates, the security guard badly wounded in the attack on the museum, she could see that something was terribly wrong. The usually swarthy young man now had skin that was the colour of pure white chalk. As she drew closer she discovered it wasn't merely white, it was transparent. It's transparency clearly proved Barker's earlier statement. Each vein was visible, throbbing with the same black blood that was contained within the vile. Every inch of skin she could see - his face, neck, upper torso, arms and hands - was all the same.
"My god," Lara whispered in horror after trying to comprehend the full extent of what she was seeing. "What happened to him?"
She took a step forward, moving towards her employee as though intent on taking up his hand in her own. She stopped herself, unable to make the last movement to actually touch him.
"It is quite alright, Miss Croft." Barker moved past her and laid his hand on the man's forehead. "As to what has happened to him, I must say that I have absolutely no idea."
Taking his lead, Lara reached out and took Tommy's hand in her own. She was struck by just how icy cold his flesh was. As she watched, Barker lifted the unconscious man's eyelids to reveal eyes without irises, or pupils. The eyeball was a pure white marble, unnatural and frightening.
"His wound?" Lara queried.
"See for yourself." Barker reached down an lowered the sheet that had previously been drawn up over Tommy's abdomen.
Expecting to see his lower torso swathed in thick bandages to cover the gruesome wound she had seen with her own eyes, Lara gasped when she saw nothing but unblemished chalky white skin. There was nothing to suggest that the man had recently been carved open by a blade.
"Miss Croft, I must say that over the years that I have known you, your staff members have been brought to me with some exceptionally strange wounds. Dreadful gashes from the fangs of daemon hounds, cuts from every weapon imaginable and all manner of burns, boils and blisters, but this takes the cake in terms of impossibilities and incurability. There is simply nothing this hospital can do for the poor chap." Barker sighed and shrugged his hefty shoulders in despair.
"Your job is to keep him as comfortable as possible." Lara tried to reassure the worried doctor. "Finding a cure is our task."
"Thank you, Miss Croft." Barker nodded. "He will be given the best care available."
"As always." Lara nodded in appreciation. "Please inform me of any changes to his condition."
As Barker led her out of the room, she paused outside the door. Her expression was on of genuine sincerity as she cast one more glance back into the room at the poor, unfortunate Tommy Meates with his chalky white skin and throbbing black veins.
She said one last goodbye to the faithful Doctor and continued down the corridor. Even as she stepped out of the hospital and into the sunlight, the man's sightless eyes continued to haunt her. The feeling in her gut told her, without any substantive proof, that his condition had everything to do with the mysterious shadow warriors. Somehow they had to ascertain who, or what, they were. However Lara also knew that they would be forced to wait for the creatures to come to them...not the other way around.
Willow watched on in anticipation as her new cook, Haruki Okubo, poured a huge pot of scalding hot water in her bathtub. Even the one would have been enough to satisfy her, but he quickly returned with a second bucket. That too went into the tub, followed by a bucket of cold water to create the optimum temperature for bathing. Each bucket was emptied with a grace of movement that she did not think possible from such a portly man. Just observing him doing such a simple chore was enough for Willow to realise that he was no doubt a formidable warrior, and probably quite capable of knocking her flat with just his bare hands.
She thanked him warmly in Japanese. The words were a little stiff after so long without speaking the language. Haruki responded with a slight smile and a small bow, just as he had every time Willow had spoken to him over the past three days that the Japanese pair had been resident at Gordon Square. She was not quite sure whether he was mute, or if he simply preferred not to speak. Willow supposed she could ask Yuko, but she had responded to the Japanese women's presence in typical Willow fashion. She was avoiding her.
Haruki maintained his bow as he shuffled backwards out of the small washroom. He pulled the door shut behind him, and Willow was left alone with her steaming bathtub. As she began peeling off layers of her clothes, sweaty from her last training bout, Willow dwelt on the huge amount of effort expended to produce a rather meagre bath. She made a mental note to explore the installation of hot water plumbing at Gordon Square. Although just when she would have the time to turn her mind to something as mundane as plumbing, Willow did not know.
With the last of her clothes dumped in a pile on the cold, stone floor, Willow eased herself into the tub. There was a brief moment of hopping from foot to foot as she adjusted to the water's temperature. This was followed by further wincing and sighing as she lowered her whole body into the tub. Her small frame fit quite comfortably with her knees tucked up to her chest. She sighed one more drawn out sigh as she rested her back against the side of the tub and closed her eyes. Cradled in the water, Willow was almost able to forget such matters like shadow warriors, improperly catalogued objects and long-dead Japanese women.
Unfortunately, the peaceful bliss lasted barely a minute. A cold blast of air hit her head and shoulders, the only parts of her body not submerged. She let out a slight yelp of discomfort. When Willow turned to see who the intruder was, she found Tara standing with her hands on her hips and a determined expression on her face.
"Good heavens!" Willow muttered awkwardly. She immediately tried reaching for her towel but it was too far from her flailing arms. She had to settle for folding her arms around her legs, drawing them tightly against her chest. It was only after she had done it, that she realised how ridiculous it all was.
The same thought was plainly obvious to Tara. "I've seen everything before, Will. Intimately."
Despite the truth of her words, Willow could not turn and face Tara. She could feel her cheeks turning red, from something other than the heat of the water. Before she could concoct a decent sounding response in her head, Tara spoke first.
"Who is...or was Ayako?" Tara asked quietly.
The few simple, seemingly straightforward words cut into Willow's heart. As though she had been stabbed with an icy cold blade, her heart stopped for a moment. When it finally did start beating once again, its thump was so loud so could hardly hear her own busy thoughts.
She swallowed and decided that the only response she could offer was the truth. "Tara, there is so much of my life of which you have no knowledge. This is just one aspect...and one which I did not think would come back to haunt me in such a fashion. After your death I travelled to Japan. There was a woman there with whom I felt an attraction. Her name was Ayako, she was kind...beautiful and so very graceful in everything she did. She was killed before we could act upon that attraction." Willow studied Tara's face to gauge her reaction, but all she found was an unreadable mask. However, after just a few moments, Tara dropped her head and stared at her feet. Heaven help me, I shouldn't be telling her this. "It just so happens that the woman you hired, Yuko, is Ayako's ancestor. For better or worse, the resemblance is...unnaturally uncanny. I was startled, tis all."
Tara forced herself to lift her head once again. She met Willow's gaze defiantly and asked suddenly, "Did you love her?"
"What...I-I..." Willow spluttered. She stopped herself before she allowed further unrecognisable noises to escape from her mouth.
"It's a s-simple question," Tara whispered.
"Do I detect the green tinge of jealousy in your voice, Tara?" Willow asked quietly. It was an odd emotion for her to see in Tara for it was completely against her character. This unsettled Willow somewhat and she found herself unable to stop talking. "Why did Shakespeare decide jealousy had to be green? I rather like green, and it seems a shame for such a fine colour to be tainted with such an undeserved reputation-"
"Will!" Tara interrupted impatiently. At any other time Willow's babbling would have brought a smile to her face. However she was intent on the question she had asked. The image of Willow and the young Japanese woman embracing was fixed firmly in her mind. "I asked you a valid question."
"Of course, a very valid question, to which you deserve an answer." Willow stalled for time before she finally offered her simple answer. "Yes."
"And Yuko...do you love her?" Tara continued, her voice breaking slightly.
"What?" Willow gasped in surprise. "No! Of course not! I've known the woman for less than a day-"
"So you just need more time to get to know her?"
"No! I don't need more time to get to know her...I mean, I'm sure she's a lovely young lady but..."
"But what, Will?" Tara asked coldly. "What are you about to say? That you have me? A girl you knew several lifetimes ago? I know you've lived a whole life since then, far be it from me to stand in the way of something, someone that will make you happy."
"You make me happy!" Willow protested.
"Please don't do me the discourtesy of lying to me, Willow. I know full well I make you miserable. I see it in your eyes whenever you look at me."
"You know that's not true," Willow whispered, drawing her knees tighter to her chest. However, even as she said it, her subconscious dragged up the image of Tara standing over her dying body with a bloody katana clenched in her pale fist. She shook her head stubbornly. That vampire was not the woman now standing in front of her.
"I promise I'll stay out of your way." Tara misinterpreted Willow's silence as evidence of her guilt.
"Tara, please don't go!" Willow placed her hands on the side of the tub and drew herself to her feet. She extended her hand towards the blonde's back. Head lifted high, Tara walked out of the laundry and left Willow standing, stark naked, in her tub of water.
"That couldn't possibly have gone any worse if I actually tried," Willow muttered angrily to herself.
She continued to stand in her tub, unable to sit back down and resume the peaceful state she had been in before Tara's entrance. The water grew colder, and her skin prickled with goosebumps in the cold night air. She began to shiver but still could not move out of the tub. However, she knew she couldn't leave Tara alone with her thoughts for too long.
Willow glanced down and saw her fists were white knuckled at her side. She decided that it wasn't the ideal moment to resume their awkward conversation, at least not while she was so angry. First, she needed to let off some steam. Then she would do her best to set Tara straight, minus the messy word soup.
Awkwardly she made to step out of the tub onto the wet floor. However, before she could reach out for her towel, the laundry door opened and Faith stepped in with an armful of dirty clothing.
"Bloody hell!" Willow gasped, trying to cover herself awkwardly with her hands. She stomped her foot angrily and sent more water splashing all over the floor. "Is the whole world going to walk in on me while I'm trying to have a bloody bath?"
"Awfully sorry," Faith said as she turned to leave. There was hardly an ounce of an apology in her jovial tone. She cast a glance over her shoulder before she exited the laundry, looking Willow up and down.
Willow instantly felt her cheeks redden. "What?" she demanded.
"You're looking a little on the scrawny side, Will," Faith commented nonchalantly. "Eating every now and then is something I would highly recommend."
Willow reached swiftly for her wash cloth and hurled it in Faith's direction. The sopping wet rag would have caught Faith squarely on the cheek if not for her quick reflexes. Without dropping the laundry she carried under one arm, she caught it and tossed it back into the tub at Willow's feet.
"Bugger off!" Willow muttered darkly.
Faith grinned and practically skipped out. She caused Willow's expression to darken further when she gave her a cheeky wink before closing the door. Willow did not even think about sitting down to resume her enjoyment of her bath. The water was now lukewarm and she was as mad as hell.
There was only one activity that could even begin to alleviate her frustration and anger. She was going hunting, and she almost felt sorry for any creature that would be foolish enough to happen across her path.