26th February 1778
In hindsight I should have known that Edward Walsh harboured me ill intentions following his strange behaviour at Captain Van Helsing's birthday. I however thought I was safe from the likes of him, safe in my secret world with W. I had not forgotten his marriage proposal of some months past but my response was to simply ignore it until he grew tired of my disinterest and found a more willing bride. While one would expect that brides would be easy enough to come by for a man of his means, tonight it became painfully apparent that it is me he intends to marry.
These past few weeks I have spent a grand total of seven glorious days alone at Hagley Park with W. On each occasion I told my mother that Abraham would be at home with a small party of friends including Edward Walsh and that we would be amply chaperoned at all occasions. There was no small party of friends on any occasion, and I did not feel the slightest bit guilty in lying to my mother, especially if it meant time alone with W. I revelled in the sheer decadence of it and we spent much of our time making love. Sometimes I felt as though we had all the time in the world and it was slow, languorous, and yet there were other times when I scared myself with the fierce intensity of my passion for W and my need to be with her completely before she was taken away from me forever. It was tonight I realised that this may happen sooner than I ever anticipated.
I forget what tonight's ball was for and I do not think that I ever cared in the slightest, save that it was my duty to be seen and I would at least be consoled by W's presence, if in the midst of a crowd. The night started well, W was by far the most handsome woman in the room attired in a vibrant green silk that had all the gossips speculating as to whose eye she was attempting to catch. Those old hags would have been scandalised to realise it was me...and I how wanted to tell them just to see the expressions on their sour, judgemental faces. However, I was content to admire her from the apparent perspective of a dearest friend, and was even fortunate enough to dance with her on the pre-text of having no other dance partners (it was not a case of not being asked but rather refusing absolutely every gentleman that asked!)
Although I knew full well I could not avoid Edward all night, I nevertheless made a valiant attempt and succeeded until supper. He made polite conversation at first but before I knew quite what was happening he was standing on the musician's stage with me at his side announcing our imminent wedding. I was fully aware of his arm linked with mine, seemingly innocent to all assembled. Only I was aware of the painful grip he had on my bare arm as though to speak out in disagreement with his announcement would be a mistake I would regret. The entire room erupted into an enthusiastic cheering and clapping save for two people, one of whom my eyes had sought out as soon as I had recovered from the shock of Edward's announcement. I sought out her gorgeous face to find that all colour had drained from it completely, she was stark white against the vibrancy of her gown and hair. The sweet mouth I loved to kiss was frozen open as though she were struggling to shout something out over the noise in the room. I could discern no further emotion as she turned and made a discreet but hasty exit from the room. I saw Abraham's tall figure further towards the back of the room, also staring in shock until he turned and followed his sister from the room.
How I longed to tear from Edward's grip and follow them but his grip only tightened to the point where I emitted a small gasp of pain that was lost amidst the cheers. I turned to look at him and saw in his eyes that he had not missed W's exit...and the reason for it. He lent close to my cheek and the repulsive words that he whispered burn in my mind still.
"Come our wedding night Miss Maclay you will learn what it is like to feel a man inside of you and I guarantee you will enjoy it far more than the perverted ministrations of that red-headed whore!"
Rupert Giles liked to think of himself as a rather unflappable character. However, on this particular morning as he was passing the training room he had the rather unfortunate experience of nearly dying of shock. He heard rather savage sounding yells and cries coming from within and every so often the smack of solid objects coming into contact with one another. He rather discreetly slipped through the door to find the sounds emanating from none other than Willow Rosenberg, clad in nearly full Japanese kendo regalia armed with a bamboo stave, attempting to beat the life out of an unfortunate practice dummy. He could not stop the colour draining from his face, despite her complete lack of technique, and less than traditional shouts, he was struck by the picture she presented and the memories it stirred.
After recovering from his initial shock, Giles managed a polite cough, loud enough to carry across the room and interrupt the redhead in her exertions.
"Giles?" Willow paused in mid-swing, her cheeks flushed red from both exertion and the embarrassment of being caught acting out her frustrations on the practice dummy, "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I was just reminded of someone I used to know," Giles smiled weakly, taking a few more steps into the room.
Willow's eyebrows lifted disbelievingly as she looked from the practice stave in her gloved hands back to Giles, "This reminds you of someone you used to know?"
"Well, everything save your complete lack of technique and the fact that you're wearing the chest plate upside down," he managed a chuckle in respect to this, "Honestly, I don't see how you even managed to fasten it...here, let me fix it."
Willow glanced down at the chest plate, furrowing her brow as though figuring out just how she had managed to get it so wrong before turning around to let Giles undo the straps and position it correctly.
"Well, it would remind you of Faith wouldn't it?" Willow asked, shifting slightly as Giles re-strapped the piece of armour.
"No, Willow," Giles said quietly as he laced the straps around her waist, "You do not remind me of Faith...I have seen Faith practice often but she does not favour the Japanese style of swordsmanship...and she also does not use practice to work out her anger."
"I'm not angry..." Willow began before stopping abruptly, realising that of course Giles heard her rather raucous shouts just a few moments earlier.
Giles finished the lacings and turned Willow around to face him, satisfied with his work, he crossed to the neatly stacked practice equipment and selected a robe and armour for himself. Willow watched as he rather deftly pulled on each piece of equipment until he was attired exactly the same as she was. She was more than a little nervous as Giles crossed the pads to stand in front of her with his own stave raised in front of him.
"Giles, are you sure about this?" Willow tentatively lifted her stave, "I'm pretty angry and I don't want to hurt you..."
She had absolutely no warning when Giles sprung forward, quick feet making short work of the distance between them. The stave danced in his hands and it was all Willow could do to desperately block each slashing motion as she was forced backwards. The initial bout lasted mere seconds before Willow found herself up against the wall with nowhere to run.
"This has nothing to do with anger," Giles said as he levelled the stave at her neck, "Although I have to admit I've never seen you this angry in all the years I've known you, I would hazard a guess and say you're upset about Faith...but I would be wrong wouldn't I?"
Willow stepped forward back onto the pads as Giles lowered the stave away from her head and turned to move back to his starting position, "Yes...well no...I mean I'm concerned about Faith of course but I saw her just yesterday evening and she's going to be fine...fine as only Faith can."
Willow padded across the floor to rejoin Giles and was ready for his second attack, blocking each movement successfully...if only because his strokes were considerably slower.
"You're angry at someone else?" Giles guessed even as he continued to swing, "Croft? Or Myles, has that little devil been neglecting his tasks? Certainly not me I hope?"
The bout ended with Giles poking Willow in the stomach, she dropped her stave and doubled over instantly with her eyes bulging out.
"Not you Giles!" Willow gasped, "Edward Walsh...I'm angry because of Edward Walsh!"
Giles paused even as he was about to sweep Willow's feet out from beneath her; it was clearly his day to be surprised by the young redhead.
"Willow, where did you hear that name?" he asked quietly.
Managing to straighten up, Willow retrieved her stave and replied, "Just from that diary, I read a passage that mentioned him, I've never heard of him before but if he were indeed a real person, it seems that he was a thoroughly dislikeable individual...his actions incensed me...I'm not quite sure why, I guess the diary's just written so vividly..."
"Thoroughly dislikeable would be one of the politer terms used to describe him," Giles muttered in acid tones, he then noticed the strange way that Willow was looking at him and managed a brief smile, "I'm not surprised you haven't heard the name, political history has never been one of your great interests."
"Political history?" Willow queried.
"Indeed," Giles raised his stave once more and waved at Willow to do the same, "He was an outspoken Member of Parliament for almost twenty years and I do believe I read that he vehemently opposed the establishment of this very fine institution which now employs the both of us. How was he described in the diary?"
Willow paused before replying, while she had no qualms about reading the diary herself she felt odd relaying the events as recorded by Tara. For some unfathomable reason she felt connected to the woman, even though she no doubt died many years earlier, and that for her to read Tara's words was almost natural. She didn't know why she should feel so guilty about sharing the information with Giles but it felt personal and very real to her.
"Err, I suppose I can see how he would come across badly," Willow completely skirted the issue and fired back a question of her own, "Giles, since you seem to be so learned when it comes to the life and times of Edward Walsh, can you tell me if he was married?"
It was Giles' turn to pause before replying but eventually he nodded, "I do believe he was...and fathered several children...but I cannot tell you the name of the woman."
"Her name wasn't Tara, Tara Maclay?" Willow asked quietly, her voice lingered over the syllables of the name.
Even as the words left Willow's lips she was suddenly assaulted by a wave of memories, she remembered saying the name over and over, almost as though it were the only name that had ever meant anything to her. She vividly remembered whispering the name in the heat of passion...even though she hadn't the slightest idea what the heat of passion actually felt like, and the small waves of pleasure at saying the name in greeting...as well as the pain of screaming the name in vain. All this passed in just a few seconds, the rush of emotions overwhelming Willow completely and driving her to her knees. She vaguely heard Giles saying her own name but it wasn't until the wave had passed that she could bring herself to look up at him and accept his offer of a hand to her feet.
"It may have been Tara," Giles said softly, "but I can't be sure."
"That's okay, Giles," Willow said a little too brightly, "It's no biggie and it certainly doesn't mean anything to me anyway...can you go another round or have I worn you out?"
"Worn me out?" Giles gasped in outrage, "Why you little upstart...prepare to be humiliated!"
Giles had no sooner raised his stave than the wind was knocked out of him as Willow's surprise blow caught him full across the chest, he was knocked backwards and she continued to drive him back with each new swing. If he were surprised, he managed not to show it and instead doubled his efforts. However, only Giles himself was aware of the fact that he was exerting almost every ounce of his not inconsiderable skill to block Willow's stave and try and gain the upper hand. He watched the look of concentration on Willow's face change from one of red-faced exertion to an intense, fierce competitive expression that was most unlike the person wearing it. He noted her almost flawless technique...no longer even bothering to conform to the rigid forms of the kata but adopting a more fluid, natural style that was difficult to predict.
Giles only managed to gain the upper hand when Willow paused momentarily, as though she were realising that she had suddenly acquired a skill she never knew she possessed. Her look of concentration was replaced by one of confusion. Giles did not pause, he darted inside her guard and stabbed her once again in the stomach so hard she crashed backwards into the practice dummy and it toppled forward to land on her.
Willow lay on her back beneath the dummy groaning until she heard the sound of hearty laughter coming from the side of the room. She lifted her head and twisted her neck slightly to see Myles doubled over with mirth at her embarrassing situation. She scrambled to her feet, neither quickly nor gracefully with all the armour on and pointed her bamboo staves in the direction of the young man.
"You just come over here and start laughing, Myles!" Willow had a good attempt at a stabbing motion in his direction which only served to make Myles laugh even harder, "You shouldn't laugh at people that are carrying big sticks!"
"Ordinarily no," Myles was still grinning, "But you can when they can't run fast enough to catch you!"
And with that parting shot Myles bolted from the room and Willow followed a split second later with a last grin over her shoulder in Giles' direction. Willow made a valiant attempt to catch him so as to deliver the thrashing she felt he deserved but after fifteen minutes of chasing him around the lower levels of the museum and bowling over Cordelia Chase, she was exhausted and had to admit defeat...and Cordelia was threatening to expose her less than grown up shenanigans to Croft.
Meanwhile in the practice room Giles removed his protective gear slowly, wincing as the blows that Willow had managed to land now made themselves known. Something moved in the shadows, emerging from the darkness between two practice dummies but Giles continued to disrobe, completely unconcerned by the additional presence in the room.
"Things are moving fast," the presence commented quietly.
Giles turned to face the pale young woman standing next to him, "They are...Tara...but are they moving fast enough? I don't know if she'll be ready in time and she must...you know that as well as I do."
Tara inclined her head slightly as in agreement. She ran her eyes over the rows of practice equipment and then the mats on the floor where Willow had stood just a few moments earlier. There was a small smile on her face as though she were remembering what had just taken place in the training room.
"She'll be ready Giles; I'll see to that...you always were such a worry wort," there was just the hint of humour in Tara's voice.
Giles turned away to stow away his gear neatly, "Can you blame me? I'm placing far more trust in you than I would like."
"Why can you still not bring yourself to trust me after all these years?" any trace of humour had vanished from her voice, replaced by open annoyance.
Giles finished his tidying before deigning to reply to her, he still could not bring himself to look at her and his tone was firm, almost accusatory, "Because I know what you are and I know what you did...and nothing you have done since, or ever will do, can erase that."
"It is not your forgiveness I crave Giles...but rather hers."
When Giles could bring himself to look up once more, she was gone and he was alone in the room.
Willow shifted uncomfortably on the high backed leather chair in front of Croft's desk; she winced as it squeaked slightly. Croft stood on the other side of the desk, staring out the window for the time being, as though she were deep in thought and did not even realise Willow was there.
Being alone in the presence of Lara Croft was not exactly top on the list of Willow's favourite situations to be in. For a variety of reasons, reasons which she was sure had something to do with the potent sexuality issuing forth from every pore of Croft's being, Willow felt ill at ease and decidedly provincial in the company of her employer. Faith's presence had always made things somewhat easier. Although Willow was slowly coming to realise that this was due to the fact that whenever Faith was in the room Croft's attention was singularly focused to the point of almost ignoring everything else. As innocent and naive as she was, Willow knew there was more going on between Croft and Faith than a simple employer/employee relationship. It unnerved her somewhat; it would have been easier to accept if Croft were a man. As it was, Croft was most definitely a woman...as Faith was a woman. It had nothing to do with disgust and revulsion as it would with most people...but rather it had everything to do with insecurities on Willow's part. Their relationship unnerved her because it was what she wanted for herself...not with Croft of course, a chill ran down Willow's spine when that thought ran through her head. It was bad enough being in the presence of the woman fully clothed let alone naked. Willow grimaced as she felt the familiar sensation coursing through her cheeks and she knew that her face had turned an embarrassing shade of red.
As Croft turned slowly, finally dragging her attention away from the window and back within her office, Willow ducked her head, letting her hair fall forward over her face to disguise the redness in her cheeks. She could feel Croft's eyes on her but could not bring herself to look up.
"Faith's condition has improved markedly," Willow commented, still staring down into her lap, "The doctor was having a difficult time keeping her in bed...and she was rather annoyed I did not see fit to bring her any cigars."
Croft chuckled softly as she took a seat, "Why does that not surprise me."
Willow managed to raise her head, she was surprised to find a slightly pained expression on Croft's beautiful features and she swallowed nervously.
"She...expressed a desire to see you...just whenever you had a spare moment were her exact words. I think perhaps she would like to deliver her report verbally."
Croft turned to face Willow directly, the pain replaced by the slightest twinkle in her eye, "Yes, sick bed or not, I do need her report...thank you, Rosenberg."
Willow nodded in acknowledgment. She was then surprised to hear a knock at the door behind her, turning she found a rather pale faced Myles standing just over the threshold.
"Ah, Cavendish, so good of you to join us," Croft beckoned him forward with a motion of her hand, "Come and take a seat next to Rosenberg here."
Myles almost raced across the floor to perch himself rather awkwardly on the seat beside Willow. Willow glanced across and gave the young man a smile of reassurance. Given the fact that she had to bear Croft's presence almost every day, she could imagine how uncomfortable the young man was. She knew for a fact that he would hide in closets until Croft had passed by him...and she suspected that it was for a similar reason as her own fear. Willow hated to compare herself to a hot-blooded teenage male, but they were both faced with the same predicament when in Croft's presence.
"I'm sorry I was late Lady Croft, but Giles would not let me go until I had finished all my tasks...he did seem rather busy, preparing for another of Faith's trips from the looks of things..." Myles stopped abruptly as though he realised he were waffling.
Willow glanced across at Myles with a confused expression on her face and then back to Croft, "Why would Giles be preparing Faith's equipment...she can't possibly go anywhere in the condition that she is, you're not seriously considering sending her on assignment?"
"We have received a message from Faith's contact in Eastern Europe...a piece of information that we desperately need to have and someone must be sent to meet our contact in person..."
"That person can't be Faith, I won't allow it!" Willow insisted, no longer intimidated by Croft with her friend's health on the line.
"I agree, which is why I'm sending you," Croft said simply.
She looked on with an impassive face as Willow's expression morphed almost instantly. At first her features were frozen and then comprehension dawned. As her mind chewed over Croft's words and realised exactly what they meant for her, her jaw dropped and her eyes bulged. Her face stayed like this for several seconds before her jaw began to work as though she were trying to say something. The words would not come and Croft continued.
"It simply isn't prudent for us to wait until Faith has recovered, you of all people should understand the need for speed when it comes to vital information," Croft intoned in a serious voice, "We need you on this, Willow."
Willow's mouth continued to work ineffectively until she paused to pull herself together. She closed her eyes for a few moments and when she opened them she blurted our, "I've never left the country before and you're sending me to Eastern Europe?"
"That is correct," Lara nodded.
"But you can't...I mean, this is obviously important, crucial even to our work around Vlad Tepes and you're sending me?"
"That is precisely why we're sending you."
In the chair beside her, Willow heard Myles snigger behind his hand. She turned her head and glared at him through narrowed eyes. He very promptly wiped the smile from his face.
Croft watched the interchange and had a small smile of her own for Myles, "I wouldn't look so smug if I were you Cavendish...you're going too."
"Right...crossbow...complete with your standard barbed bolts, silver-tipped bolts and armour piercing bolts," Giles paused for a moment before selecting another quiver of bolts with their heads coated in an odd black surface, "I better throw in some flammable headed bolts given all the Atramen that have been giving you grief lately."
Giles nodded as though satisfied with himself and packed the bolts and crossbow into the bag open in front of him. Willow made a face as Giles turned his back on her to rummage on the racks behind him. Meanwhile Myles was peering into the bag with an excited grin on his face. Giles slapped his hand away from the silver-tipped bolts when he turned around.
"Dagger," Giles commented as he placed a rather long and wicked looking weapon in the bag, "Longsword..."
He ran into an obvious problem when he went to fit the sword into the canvas bag, he paused with a frown on his face as though trying to work out how he could manage it.
"Ah, Giles," Willow was eyeing the weapon nervously as though it were going to leap out of the scabbard and run her through of its own accord, "Surely you must have something a little smaller?"
Giles glanced up at Willow's interruption of his packing process, his eyebrows raised as he considered her question. He glanced from Willow to the longsword and back and then made a thoughtful little sound as though accepting the fact that Willow would have great difficulty in lifting the weapon let alone swinging it at anything that was intent on harming her. With a reluctant sign, he replaced the sword on the rack behind him and selected a far shorter, lighter rapier-like blade that even Willow would have little trouble in wielding. He glanced up at Willow to seek her approval and she replied with a nonchalant shrug.
"I don't plan on using any of those weapons, Giles," Willow commented firmly, "Especially not while I have two good legs and am quite capable of running."
Giles chuckled, "Where's the fun in that?"
"My point exactly!" Myles chirped in agreement.
Willow glanced from one to the other and gave an exasperated sigh, it was clear that she was fighting a loosing battle.
"You two finish packing all of this..." Willow waved her hand at the various accoutrements that Giles had littering the table in front of him, "All of this stuff...I'm going home to pack the real essentials...books, writing implements and the like...I'll see you both tomorrow."
Willow stumbled from Giles' workroom; the full realisation that she was being sent to Eastern Europe was only just beginning to hit her. As she stumbled down the corridor in the general direction of her office, she made a mental note to seriously consider self-incapacitation in order to avoid going.
I'm sure Croft wouldn't send me if I were missing my thumb... Willow mused as she glanced down at the offending appendage, although even as she began to wriggle it back and forth she decided that she quite enjoyed the use of her thumb and severing it was not the best course of action.
It was a fully intact Willow that arrived completely out of breath at the docks the next morning, thanking her lucky stars that the steamship was still there and had not left with out her. Myles was waving urgently from the railings and Giles was waiting near the gangplank with exasperation clearly written all over his face.
"I'm sorry...I slept in," Willow wheezed between gasps of air, dumping her small travel bag at her feet but retaining a tight hold on an elegant wooden writing case which contained her papers, writing implements and more importantly, the diary.
"Your subconscious really wanted you to miss the boat didn't it?" Giles thumped her lightly over the head with a sheaf of papers he held in his hand, "Here, these are essentials which you will not want to lose...I almost gave them to Myles, I couldn't quite decide who was the more trustworthy out of the two of you."
Willow accepted the papers and quickly leafed through them, most were standard documents of introduction and the like, a few looked like instructions from Croft and Giles and would require a closer inspection once she was on her way. As she was looking downwards Willow caught sight of the bag of weapons that Giles had packed the previous day and she kicked it with the toe of her boot. While completely unaccustomed to expeditions of any kind, and still clad in her usual worn suit, Willow had at least managed to find an old pair of hiking boots from her university days. Giles looked her up and down with a frown.
"You might want to purchase some new clothes en route, if I might suggest an excellent outfitting store I know in Paris..."
"What's wrong with my attire?" Willow glanced down at her sensible suit.
Giles sighed once more, "I really have to run, and so do you...pick up your bags, and get on the boat, I've arranged for a guide to meet you in Paris...do you think you can get that far on your own?"
Willow had picked up her travel bag and was awkwardly attempting to get a hand on the weapons bag as Giles spoke; she glanced up when Giles mentioned the word 'guide.'
"You're giving me a guide?" she asked hopefully, "Why didn't someone tell me that earlier, I was up all last night colour coding travel plans and maps...honestly Giles..."
Giles was already departing with a last smile and a wave over her shoulder even as Willow struggled with her belongings.
"Really!" she gasped, "He could have at least given me a hand!"
Behind her the ship's whistle pierced the crisp morning air with several short bursts; Willow glanced over her shoulder to see the sailors already beginning to hoist the gang plank. With a panicked yelp, Willow turned and ran, yelling at them to hold the plank. She barely made it, tossing her bags across to a sailor and having to leap over a good foot of water herself. Once safely on the plank and making her way up onto the deck she breathed a sign of relief. She crossed the deck to join Myles and was annoyed to find that the young man had managed to kit himself out quite respectably for their trip. He was wearing sturdy denim trousers tucked into high boots with a sweater and thick coat and topped by a rather ridiculous pith helmet that she suspected had been liberated from Giles' workroom.
"You do realise we're going to Eastern Europe, not Africa," Willow commented upon eyeing up the helmet.
Myles was unperturbed by this little detail and rapped his knuckles on it, "Still, looks pretty spiffing though doesn't it?"
Willow avoided replying, instead concentrating on a niggling little feeling at the back of her mind that usually meant she had forgotten something. While trying to remember what this was she turned her attention back to Giles' parting words.
"Did you know a guide is to join us in Paris?" she asked Myles.
"Yes," the young man replied cheerfully.
"Great...to make this trip even more unbearable I have to put up with a Frenchman!" Willow threw up her hands, still trying to remember what it was that she had forgotten.
"I don't think he's French, I think Giles said he was an American," Myles commented helpfully.
Willow groaned, "This could not get any worse!"
Even as the ship set out on the River Thames Willow found her stomach lurching in a manner which hinted at the possibility of some rather spectacular gastro expulsions once they were actually in the Channel. It was at this already unpleasant moment that Willow realised what it was she had forgotten. She lent forward and smacked her forehead on the iron deck rail.
"What's wrong?" Miles asked cheerily.
"I left all our weapons behind," Willow muttered, banging her head on the rail for a second time.
While she wasn't sure whether she ought to be miserable or ecstatic at leaving this key piece of their luggage lying on the dock, she did know that the boat was carrying them to continental Europe and all its associated sights and marvels...and dangers and monsters, and she was definitely sure that she didn't like that one little bit.