Tara knew he would not be hiding. Despite her anger, he had no reason whatsoever to fear her. Of the two of them, he was by far the stronger, being several hundred years older than she. He had been present at her turning, he had watched throughout those horrible dark years before Abraham Van Helsing found and imprisoned her. He thought he knew her. However, what Angelus did not know was that she was not afraid of him. There was no way he could possibly comprehend the extent of her love for Willow...and the strength which that love gave her, the strength to hunt him down like the animal he was.
She did not even need to hunt; Angelus was waiting for her in the back streets of Klausenburg, in a part of town so dark and disused that even the bottom dwellers would not venture there. She sensed his foul stench before she even laid eyes on him, a reek so powerful she almost retched...he had wanted her to find him.
Angelus watched Tara approach from his perch high on a flat rooftop. Her body melded completely into the darkness around her save for her pale face and that long, blonde hair which seemed to shine even in the absence of moonlight. His mouth twisted into a leer, when he defeated her and she was laid out helpless beneath him, he would cut off every strand of those white blonde tresses...although, and his mouth twisted into a broad smile at his next thought, her hair would provide a useful handhold when he took her brutally. He could hold her hair and force her to keep those blue eyes of hers locked on his as he claimed his right as her elder, a right which she had consistently denied him all these years.
He saw her looking up at him now, that impassive expression which angered him so. There was no respect there at all, just as always. From the moment she had been turned, Tara Maclay had made for a surly, disrespectful vampire, refusing to submit to his authority...and even worse, their Master had claimed her as his favourite and indulged her every whim. Even after she changed into something impure, he still accepted her. It irritated Angelus to no end...if he were Master, then Tara would not be permitted to continue to exist let alone saunter the streets as she was now, thinking she was so far above him. Angelus snarled, baring his fangs.
"I can smell you from here, Angelus," she said quietly, her voice carrying up to him on the breeze, "No need to breathe one me...oh wait, I forgot you can't breathe can you, you undead bastard."
"Come up here and say that," he taunted like the schoolyard bully he must have been as a child.
Tara obliged, climbing up the side of the building effortlessly with her inhuman strength. She sprang lightly from sill to gable and finally onto the roof next to Angelus.
"You don't have to do this, Tara, you know as well as I that Red's injury was an accident."
"Yes, but I also know you would have hurt her given a chance...you wanted to torture the skull's location out of her!" Tara growled, her blue eyes flashing even in the darkness, "How on earth do you think a memory that severely repressed would be able to be retrieved through torture?"
"You'd be amazed at what can be uncovered by using a little pain...if you had the guts to try it," Angelus circled Tara, not letting his gaze off her for an instant, "but you won't...because that little mortal has got you wrapped around her little finger...and I'm the only one that sees it, even our master is blind to your infatuation, he is ignorant as to your true motives."
"I dare you to say that to his face...he knows I exist only to serve his will," Tara kept her voice calm and level despite his best attempts to rile her, "You're pathetic in your jealousy, Angelus. You know I will have our Master's favour when she gives me the skull using my methods...I should think that in destroying you I will further gain her trust!"
"Destroy me? Ha!" he snorted derisively, "You know you cannot."
Tara arched an eyebrow, "I would dearly love to prove you wrong."
He arched his back, stretching his muscles in preparation, "None of your magic tricks then, bitch!"
"I promise," Tara replied evenly.
He came at her with all the rage and fury he had previously held suppressed in her presence. Beneath the force of his blows, Tara finally realised just how much he hated her, the depth of his resentment towards her for stealing his place in their Master's shrivelled and merciless heart. Even as she matched him blow for blow, replying to each one of his punches with one of her own, she knew that his physical strength far outstripped her own and it would only be a matter of time before he won out.
They danced across the rooftop, both using every inch of its surface, moving off chimneys and railings to leap down on the other, it continued in this vein, with neither managing to get the other into a weaker position. While Angelus was stronger, Tara was faster, always one step ahead of his fists. She watched as he seized an iron railing in his hands and ripped it clean off its mountings. It swung in his grip like a sword, she dodged his first strikes easily but eventually she was not fast enough and the pipe caught her full across the stomach.
Tara doubled over and gasped for air. She had never felt her beating heart to be a weakness that others could exploit but usually she fought far lesser beings, beings that did not know she was something other than a true vampire. Before she could straighten her body, Angelus surged forward and knocked her to the ground with the weight of his body.
As she was laid out beneath him, Tara almost panicked at the feel of his weight atop her body. Just the feel of him dragged up memories long suppressed of another man who had strived to make her entirely his, reducing her to the basest form...merely a vessel for his pleasure to be used and abused as he chose.
Angelus lowered his head and pressed an ear to her chest, Tara could already feel her heart hammering like a train. He paused there, keeping his ear pressed against her chest as he listened to the organ beat wildly.
"Strange," he whispered, remaining still, "I always thought that I would not miss it, if you could live forever would you really care that your heart was not beating?"
He lifted his head and stared her in the eye, waiting for his answer.
"If it didn't I would be just like you," despite the fear she felt, Tara managed to get the sentence out without a stutter, she had to fight to keep thoughts of her husband from her mind but even so her subconscious insisted on supplanting the face of Edward Walsh onto Angelus. The fear she felt threatened to bubble to the surface but she fought, her entire body trembling with effort. "I'm nothing like you, Angelus."
He grinned, lifting one hand to stroke the hair that clung stubbornly to her face, "But you were once...and you did horrible things, I should know, I was there. Do you want me to remind you, Tara?"
"I was never like you!" Tara cried, her fear giving way to anger, "She never stopped l-loving me!"
Tara's form suddenly shimmered beneath Angelus and he growled, knowing that when she formed into her misty form it would be very difficult to follow her. With her weight gone from beneath him, his body hit the cobbles beneath him hard. He scrambled to his feet to see her re-forming in the street below him. A laugh escaped his lips, even for the most powerful vampires, it was difficult enough to shapeshift once and one could not do it in quick succession. She had not run far enough by any means. Angelus' own body shimmered and he floated down to join her. When his body reformed there was a broad smile on his face.
"What is this, Tara?" Angelus began striding towards her in a relaxed manner, "You want to run but can't face the label of coward...will you stand and fight after all?"
"I just needed more room," Tara said as she held out her right hand for him to see more clearly.
Angelus watched a flicker of light dance across her palm and recognised it instantly for what it was, his eyes went wide when he realised what she intended. Seconds later the flickering light had become a raging ball of fire hovering just above her palm. Her face was thrown into light and shadow in the face of the fireball and he could see the hellish expression that had twisted her features. At that moment he knew nothing would save him.
"You promised, you whore!" Angelus' voice had raised an octave.
"I lied," Tara growled in a cruel tone, lifting the dancing fireball higher so she could watch him squirm.
"Who do you think you are, Tara?" Angelus screeched as he scrambled to his feet, pointing a trembling finger in her direction, "He did not appoint you his executioner!"
Tara calmly faced his accusation, knowing she had all the time in the world as he could not change into his non-corporeal form so soon after the last change. She knew full well that she would have to answer to their Master for destroying Angelus but it was a risk she was willing to take to see him gone forever. When her ferocious gaze did not waiver, Angelus turned his back on her and ran full tilt, hoping to make it around the corner in front of him before she burnt him to a crisp. Both knew that he would never be fast enough...
"That's right, Angelus," Tara whispered, gaining immense satisfaction from seeing his fleeing back, "Run...for all the good it will do you."
Sweeping forward in a graceful swirl of dark fabric and white blonde hair, Tara launched the fireball at the fleeing vampire. It burst on his back and spread rapidly down the rest of his body...in hindsight Tara thought that perhaps her enjoyment of watching Angelus being reduced to a pile of burning embers would have been heightened had she been able to see the expression on his face as he was destroyed. Still, she did enjoy grinding the weakly burning fragments of what was once Angelus into the cobblestones of the alley beneath the toe of her boot. It was a fitting end for the bastard...now she just had to convince her Master it had been the right thing to do...
Willow shifted uncomfortably in her narrow bed, her chest protesting with the small movement. She awkwardly tried to fluff the pillows at her back but gave it up as a hopeless task; there weren't enough feathers in the pillow to be fluffed in the first place. She did take some comfort from the narrow bed and hopelessly inadequate pillow; at least she was uncomfortable in her own bed, in her own home. Willow could lie back and gaze at her walls crammed with assorted clippings and artwork and remember why she had saved each one, or drawn that particular sketch. They were hers...all undeniably Willow-orientated and she felt safe in the knowledge that they were a glimpse into who she was. It was her past, a past she could remember...
Willow had spent much of the past month, throughout the journey back to England, dwelling on her past. Her withdrawn, contemplative state had concerned Faith of course but her friend had wisely given her the space in which to deal with the events at Covasna even though Willow could tell Faith was struggling to keep her questions at bay. It was only upon her return to England and the musty familiar smell of her own home, that Willow was finally able to clear her mind of the thoughts that had consumed her since her injury. She was no longer struggling to discern her relationship to Tara Maclay or more importantly to Willow Van Helsing, instead she slipped back into the role of Willow Rosenberg, researcher. Her copious notes from Eastern Europe and Covasna were piled upon her bed and littering the floor, completely obscuring her rag rug. She happily buried herself in starting the paper which she would deliver to rapturous applause at the year's Royal Society Conference (In order for this belief to work, Willow had to conveniently forget that she detested public speaking).
Burying herself in her research Willow was also able to forget that she had lost the diary somewhere in her travels. In many ways it was a relief, the last thing she wanted to do was continue reading the damn thing when what she had read had seriously compromised her sanity. On the other hand, she desperately wanted the answers it could provide. Although Willow felt torn between delving deeper into the mystery and retaining her sanity, it was only by being extremely close-minded that she could bring herself to believe that she still had a choice at all.
A knock at a door interrupted her futile pillow fluffing. Whoever it was did not wait for an invitation to enter before swinging the door open, Willow already knew it was Faith...who else would be quite so rude? Her flat was so tiny she could see the front door very clearly from where she lay in bed.
"I say, Faith," Willow made a half-hearted attempt at being angry at her friend barging in unannounced, "I could have been naked!"
Faith sighed regretfully, "But you're not...damn!"
Willow grinned, unable to remain even half-mad at Faith, especially given that she was so glad to see her. After spending two days alone in her little flat without a soul for company, even a bookish, introverted soul like Willow was bound to long for someone to talk to.
Faith glanced around Willow's tiny flat with barely concealed disapproval on her face, "I know now why I don't visit you at home often...are you sure it hasn't got even smaller since my last visit?"
"Well obviously I should talk to Lara about my earnings; clearly researchers don't get paid as well as agents!" Willow shot back, rather offended at Faith's criticism of her tiny space in what was a very large world.
Willow immediately noticed that Faith ignored the mention of Lara, her face clouded slightly at the mention of their employer's name. She did not press the issue, knowing that whatever had happen between the two of them, it was none of her affair. The look was gone almost as soon as it had appeared and Faith steered the conversation back towards Willow.
"Why don't you talk to your parents, surely the colonel could afford to purchase you a small townhouse?" Faith said as she crossed the tiny kitchen to move into Willow's bedroom.
"The colonel would purchase me a palace if only I were to marry," Willow sighed grandly, she brightened almost instantly, "but he knows I would throw such an offer in his face if he were to dangle it in front of me...I would rather live in the most squalid tenement than suffer the indignity of a marriage arranged by my parents."
"That's my girl," Faith reached out and gave Willow a playful tap on her shoulder.
"Faith!" Willow cried out as though she were hurt, her expression mortified.
Faith took a hasty step back, holding back the hand she had just tapped Willow with as though it were a dangerous weapon, "I'm sorry Will, I don't realise my own strength sometimes...did I hurt you terribly?"
"No!" Willow replied in exasperation.
It was then that Faith noticed Willow wasn't looking at her at all; she was staring at the floor by her feet. Faith glanced down to see several sheets of paper beneath her booted feet. She lifted one foot with sheets of paper stubbornly clinging to the sole. Before she could remove them herself, Willow's hand shot out and retrieved her notes.
Perched on the edge of the bed, Willow stared in horror at the smudged ink on one of the sheets. She stared up at Faith as though her friend had just committed murder.
Faith unleashed an apologetic grin as though that were sure to make Willow forget the awful transgression. Willow was not to be appeased so easily and she gingerly hunkered down on the floor to retrieve her papers as though she feared Faith would ruin all of her work.
"Will, don't hurt yourself, I've got them," Faith moved much faster than Willow and was able to scoop up the reminder of the papers before Willow could strain herself, "Did I smudge them terribly?"
Cradling the papers in one hand, Faith assisted Willow back up onto her bed with the other. Her brow furrowed with concern at the sight of Willow's white as a sheet face. The wound had truly taken a toll on her slender friend, Willow lacked the physical strength that she herself had and the road to recovery for her had been long and arduous. As she watched Willow scan her papers for damage, Faith could not forget that it was the strange blonde vampire who was responsible for saving Willow's life. She also could not forget the images she had seen while linked with her. Even though she knew it could not possibly have been the same Willow sitting in front of her now, she still could not look at her in quite the same way.
"Will...this may seem an odd question," Faith began cautiously, "but what exactly is your relationship with the blonde vampire?"
Willow glanced up, the papers on her lap forgotten, "With Tara?"
"Tara?" Faith repeated, she could not fail to notice the way the name rolled off Willow's lips, it was almost a caress...and Willow's black-rimmed eyes sparkled.
Willow nodded, "Tara Maclay, she wrote the diary you found at Tirgsor...although she was a young woman then..."
"As opposed to the blood-sucking demon she is now?" Faith interrupted fiercely, "Will, what the hell have you got yourself in to here?"
"Nothing I can't handle!" Willow replied, she couldn't quite fathom why, but Faith calling Tara a 'demon' just didn't sit right at all, "Tara has done nothing but protect me...I did not tell you at the time but she saved us both in the graveyard."
Faith raised her eyebrows but she did not let herself get distracted, "Will, you're skirting the issue here...your relationship with her?"
Willow looked slightly wounded, "I cannot tell you Faith, mostly because I do not know myself...suffice to say I think I knew her...in a past life."
Faith snorted loudly, unable to stop herself, "Oh...I think you did more than simply know her!"
Willow frowned innocently at the exceptionally knowing look on Faith's face, "What does that mean?
Faith bit her lip, it was at times like these that she realised how innocent Willow truly was, she regretted her quick words but there was something in Willow's expression that hinted at more than she was letting on and she decided to elaborate, "When I linked with her I saw...well, I don't really know what it was that I saw...but it was disturbing and I think you should be careful around her...in fact, better yet, stay away from her altogether."
Willow tried to keep the heat from rising into her cheeks at Faith's insinuations; the words of the diary were etched into her mind. If Faith had seen half the passion that had been contained within those pages then it was no small wonder that she was asking leading questions.
"The diary..." Willow began, seeking the appropriate words to explain and yet reluctant to even try.
"Oh," Faith turned to rummage in the rucksack she had lung over one shoulder, she retrieved a familiar slender volume and passed it to Willow, "Myles found this in your hotel room in Klausenburg, I believe he has conveniently forgotten to return it to you until now."
This time Willow knew she had failed to keep the heat from colouring her cheeks. At the same time as she accepted the diary from Faith, she ducked her head, letting her hair fall forward over her face to disguise her embarrassment. As impossible as it was, she was beginning to feel as though the diary was a part of her and the events depicted within its pages were part of her life. It was as though Myles had read intimate details of her own life as opposed to someone who had died over a hundred years earlier.
Willow jerked her head upward, hoping her cheeks had cooled somewhat, "What?"
It was then she noticed the moisture shining in her friend's eyes, as though Faith were on the verge of tears. Willow was seriously unnerved, she had never seen Faith show any sort of emotional vulnerability for any reason, for physical or mental pain. She searched through the last few words she had said only to realise that she had said very little of consequence. If she had done anything to hurt Faith, then it would have been in what she did not say.
"Faith..." Willow began hesitantly.
She watched as Faith stood in one swift movement and backed away as though she suddenly realised that she was about to cry. She stopped in the doorway between Willow's bedroom and the kitchen and rested one hand on the doorframe as though she needed the contact to keep herself steady.
"Why is it that no one will tell me what the bloody hell is going on around here?" she growled exasperatedly, "Of all the people in the world I thought you would always be honest with me...and now I find you're just as bad as that two-faced bitch!"
Willow tried to rise as swiftly as Faith had but she was forced to face the fact that she could only manage an awkward stoop, aided by a shaking hand on her iron bedstead. Her expression however said more than her movements, she was confused and hurt. Faith had never turned on her so savagely...and certainly not without good cause.
"In what way am I not being honest with you?" Willow pleaded, the very fact that Faith was mad at her at all was tearing her to pieces, "And what two-faced bitch are you referring to?"
"Croft, you would think if the bitch was fucking me then she could at least cut me in on what she knows!" Faith spat, Willow's jaw immediately hit the floor in shock, "And you, I'm your bloody best friend and you evade the truth like it's a bloody disease!"
Willow had a million adamant refutations running through her mind, she knew full well that she knew little more than Faith and she wanted to explain this to her...but the only concrete thought that she could concentrate on was Faith's relationship with their employer. Although Willow had never been sexually attracted to Faith and she merely ogled Croft in the most innocent way, the revelation both stunned and hurt her.
"You and Lara..." Willow mumbled; her lips barely moving.
Faith glared at Willow for a moment as though she were stupid before turning and making her way towards the exit, her last words spoken over her shoulder, "I'm going to leave you to your research...just read your little book and bloody well leave me alone. I don't know what the hell is going on...but I do know enough to know that I don't want to be a part of it."
Willow jumped at the sound of the door slamming behind Faith. She used her white knuckled grip on the bedstead to lower herself back down so she was sitting on the edge of the bed. For all the confusion that she felt over how little she knew about what was going on in her life, she had not even dwelt on the possibility that it also affected Faith as someone who cared about her. The fact that she was in a relationship with Croft had obviously heightened her emotional susceptibility but Willow knew there was something more. Faith had mentioned that Lara knew something...Willow frowned, while Croft always seemed to know just a little bit more than everyone else, this appeared to go beyond that into the realm of withholding vital information. Rather than become frustrated and angry herself, Willow turned her attention to the diary in her hand. Willow thought she ought to make a cup of tea before reading but a part of her did not expect to be able to read the text no matter what Tara said. She opened it half-heartedly and flicked though the pages, past Tara's handwriting and to the heavy, straight backed script she had previously been unable to decipher...
30th September 1779...
Willow glanced up and stared at a spot on the wall opposite her in shock, she lowered her gaze back to page in front of her and read again, 30th September 1779... The words were written as plain as day...only Willow could tell that they weren't, nothing had changed within the text, it still appeared to be in some sort of code with the letters and words scrambled into a meaningless order. However, Willow now found that as she ran her eyes over the text she saw the words clearly formed in her mind. Her tea forgotten, she remained perched on the edge of the bed as she continued reading, her hands shaking as they gripped the diary.
I write these words with very little enthusiasm, I think that I shall not keep writing as it seems to be an entirely futile endeavour to reflect on that which has passed. No matter what one writes, words cannot change the past. The words written on the previous pages prove that all too undoubtedly. But my mood can hardly be labelled cheerful, the very house in which I sit and write adds to my melancholy, most of the furniture here at Hagley Park is draped with abysmally gloomy dust cloths for we cannot take it with us when we leave here. Leave...Abraham and I are leaving Hampshire behind us, his idea rather than mine but I was not adverse to the suggestion. As much as I love Hagley Park and Hampshire, there are too many memories clinging to every surface...I have not even been able to sleep in my own bed these past weeks. Curse this miserable existence...curse my life and that...that woman...I would be far happier if I were dead. What a miserable, wretched creature I am...Tara has married that man and all I am left with is this wretched diary detailing our affair...
I forced myself to read the words she wrote and they served the purpose she intended, how could they not...to ignore the pain written on these pages would render me as callous and uncaring as that pig Walsh. I certainly have no desire to sink to the level of that cruel, wretched bastard and each time I think of him wed to Tara my eyes burn with a fierce hatred I did not think myself capable of. If I did not have Abraham as a restraining influence I think that I would do something very foolish indeed.
For some time following Tara's marriage to that bastard, dying seemed a viable option to ease my pain. I soon found however that my meddlesome brother knew my own thoughts even better than I and was not about to grant me such a simple way out. He detailed servants to follow me at every hour of the day, whenever I turned around there would be the day maid or the parlour maid standing behind me, innocently dusting the same spot over and over. I asked them to leave me alone but they just curtseyed and backed off a few paces as though they had been commanded not to let me out of their sight. The cutlery was kept locked away, even the forks, I could not find a serviceable length of rope...even in the stables and my windows were fastened shut so firmly I could not pry them open with brute force. I knew I could have found a way to kill myself despite Abraham's every precaution but the lengths to which he went to keep me safe made it impossible for me to take such a cowardly route. For all the pain I felt, Abraham loved me and he wanted me to live.
For all the love I feel for my brother, I do hate him so. He does not realise that he is condemning me to a joyless, empty existence in this dark, dark world...for there is no joy, nor light without her by my side. I feel ashamed that some tiny amount of solace could come in the form of occasional glimpses as we attend the same functions about London; it is not so big a city that we can avoid one another for the rest of our lives. In response to that thought, I very quickly made up my mind that I would never attend another social function as long as I lived, the thought of seeing Tara from a distance on his arm would be too much for me to stomach, I would be forced to see his cruel leer and perhaps even suffer the absolute humiliation of watching a growing pregnancy...although I knew it already, that would force me to face the fact that her body belonged to him. I cannot bring myself to dwell on such a thought...I cannot and will not, Willow paused, the words 'will not' were underlined with a heavy line which had almost pieced the page of the diary, she could feel the pain written in those words, accept that...but I am lying to myself, that bastard probably has his fingers on her body right now...I would like to break every single one of them...I hate him...and I hate her for marrying him...and I know I will hate living in London...with its bloody dirty streets and pretentious fat old tarts prowling everywhere and into everyone's business, just to step out my front door onto Gordon Square will be an exercise in self-restraint...
Dragging her eyes away from the text, Willow hastily flicked to the inner front cover of the diary and re-read the address she had found written there, Gordon Square, London. Abraham and Willow Van Helsing had moved from Hagley Park to settle in Gordon Square, London. The townhouse Willow had visited on a whim and left without ever entering some months ago, had belonged to the Van Helsings.
"For a genius...I'm so exceptionally stupid!" Willow berated herself sternly.
For all the excitement she felt, there was also a numb terror, she remembered all too well how the house had made her feel upon seeing it...and the distinctly undignified manner in which she had fled after seeing something in one of the dark gable windows. Willow glanced back to the diary in her hand, torn between reading the rest of it and returning to the house with a firm resolve to at least knock on the door.
Willow stood, somewhat swifter this time although she felt a rush of blood to her head as she did so. She did not bother to get dressed; instead she merely pulled a heavy coat over her pyjamas and slipped her feet into a handy pair of slippers. With the diary tucked safely in the pocket of her coat, she made her way out of her flat and out into the broad light of day.
In remaining bedridden for so long, Willow had not realised just how much strength she had lost. Even making it up onto the nearest tram outside her flat took an exhausting amount of effort. She collapsed onto a seat, attracting a number of stares from other passengers who could no doubt see her slippers and pyjama bottoms protruding from beneath her coat. Willow did not care, she kept one hand in her pocket, holding the diary firmly, her heart was beating at a million miles a minute and she felt like she would faint at any moment.
Sometime later, already needing bed rest, Willow found herself once again standing in front of the imposing townhouse on Gordon Square, the austere fašade seeming to have grown even bleaker and darker since she had last seen it. She distinctly remembered seeing light shining from within but now the windows were all dark, everything about the house appeared dead. Willow risked a quick glance up to the attic windows but she saw no terrifying white face staring back down at her. Even so, she approached the massive black door unable to hear anything but the pounding of her own blood in her ears.
Willow had an inkling at the back of her neck that for some reason she ought not knock at all. She tried the brass knocker at her eye level but found it immovable, as though it were stuck fast to the door. Knocking produced no better results; she could hardly make a sound by pounding on the door with her small fist. There was only one thing left to do, her hand shook at she reached for the heavy brass door knob. More than a part of her wished to find the door firmly locked and barred against entry, however, as her fingers closed over the knob she felt it hum beneath her touch. Yelping in fright, Willow snatched her hand away and took a step back. She looked down at her hand, but apart from the trembling there was nothing out of the ordinary.
"Don't be such a coward, Willow," she whispered to herself, steeling herself to touch the knob once more, "It's just a house, silly." Just a house...although, it could be infested with rats, insects, frogs...or it could be just your run of the mill house possession, or unfriendly spirits desperate to keep intruders out...don't forget your line of work Rosenberg!
Willow paused; anything was possible in her line of work...except perhaps the frogs. She seriously wondered if she should find Faith, apologise for whatever transgression she was supposed to have committed and ask her to visit the house with her. Willow shook her head, she drew in a deep breath and steeled herself for another try at the knob. Even before her fingers touched the brass she was prepared for the shock she felt, she did not snatch her hand away as she felt the gentle vibrations course through her hand and the rest of her body. She now realised that the sensation was not unpleasant, it was almost as though the house itself was welcoming her home.
"Hello to you too," Willow whispered with a firm turn of the knob.
For all its bulk, the black painted door swung easily on its hinges with none of the sinister creaking normally associated with haunted houses. Willow breathed a hesitant sigh of relief at this but paused before stepping over the threshold. She remained still as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the entrance lobby.
"Is anyone h-home?" Willow managed to stammer, her voice seeming to disappear before it had even travelled into the house, "Helloooo?"
Willow waited at least a minute, both out of courtesy and the fact she was dead scared. Eventually she accepted that no one was coming to greet her and with a deep breath, took a step over the threshold and into the house. She moved further into the entrance way, buoyed somewhat by the fact that nothing sinister had yet emerged and also by the rather pleasant feeling she felt coursing through her body, increasing with each step she took further into the house. Willow glanced over her shoulder to find the door still open out onto the street, not looking in the least like slamming shut of its own accord. Reaching back to close it gently, Willow felt only a small shiver of fear as shut and she only opened it once to check she wasn't locked in.
With the door shut behind her, Willow felt overly warm in her overcoat. If she had expected to find the empty house chilled and musty, she was mistaken. She drew off her overcoat and found herself comfortable in just her slippers and striped pyjamas. Before leaving the coat hanging on the rack by the door, she retrieved the diary from its pocket and tucked it firmly beneath her arm.
The lobby was much like every townhouse Willow had ever entered. Directly in front of her and rising above her head was a flight of stairs which no doubt travelled up all three floors. The scarlet carpet running up its length appeared fresh and new, with no of the wear marks usually found denoting the well-worn path found up most flights of stairs. Willow glanced up at the landing above but saw nothing but darkness. Ahead of her was a hallway lined with paper in a bold blue Oriental-like print, the detail seeming to make the hallway darker, smaller...and yet rather than give it a claustrophobic atmosphere, it felt warm and inviting. A highly polished hall table sat opposite the flight step, Willow ran her fingers over its surface to find not a trace of dust on the wood or on the handsomely embroidered cloth. Sitting the centre of the table, where one would usually find the telephone in most modern houses was an Attic black figure vase, similar to ones Willow passed by each day at the museum. Beneath her studied gaze, she had no doubt that the amphora was authentic and with a wry smile she wondered whether Abraham Van Helsing had pilfered it from the museum's collections.
Padding along in her slippers, Willow moved past the stairs and to the first door leading off the hallway. A sudden glow caused her to almost leap straight out of her slippers, as it was; she dropped the diary with a dull thud. Before bending to pick it up, she saw that a gaslight set into the wall was suddenly burning brightly, the flame dancing merrily behind its glass housing.
"Okay," Willow whispered, wondering if she had inadvertently flicked a switch as she moved through the hallway, she chose to believe she had even though she had touched nothing except the coat stand.
She slowly opened the door in front of her; it too swung inwards into darkness. Willow waited in the doorway and found the large room beyond partially lit by the dull light creeping beneath the heavy curtains. It was a formal sitting room. The first thing Willow noticed was the massive black marble fireplace that sat directly across the room from her, it's mouth plugged with a brass fire screen, its surface flickering with the reflection of the light that had just lit behind Willow's head. Eerily, most of the furniture in the room was covered by huge white dustsheets...despite the almost complete lack of dust.
Willow had always hated the white sheets; they rendered objects into featureless lumps, concealing what lay beneath. When she had been very small her brother had told her that ghosts lurked beneath, ghosts that would be unleashed if you ever dared to take a peek beneath. She smiled when she remembered Alex's most terrifying prank, he had once peered beneath a dustsheet in their attic and acted as though something had grabbed him, drawing him beneath the sheet, his pretend screams were easily drowned by Willow's own as she had gone sprinting off to find Giles to help her rescue her brother. They had found Alex quite intact, perched on a settee, draped in the dust sheet and looking very pleased with himself.
Now the sheets did not scare Willow so, without realising quite what she was doing, she strode across to the nearest one and swept it back with a sharp tug. There was nothing beneath it except a black coloured sofa with plump cushions still waiting for someone to sink against. Willow moved throughout the room, throwing off every dust sheet to reveal the furniture beneath. By the time she was finished uncovering every piece of furniture, she was breathing heavily with exertion and her wound was throbbing in protest at her activity. The room she had revealed was inviting. Several black sofas and ottomans, liberally strewn with white cushions, waited to accept a visiting party of guests. Willow could almost see the thick mahogany table in the centre of the room spread with a china dining service, a pot of tea and a plate of cucumber sandwiches and finger cakes.
There was just one dust sheet remaining in use in the room, it was hung above the fire place and appeared to be covering two large frames. Willow threaded her way through the seating to stand in front of the fireplace. As she tugged this particular dust sheet off, she did feel a chill at what would be revealed beneath.
"Oh my god," Willow stumbled backwards, the backs of her legs hit an ottoman behind her and she went tumbling over the footstool and onto her back. She winced at the contact but kept her gaze above her on the two paintings which she had just uncovered.
Willow scrambled to her feet as fast as her injury would allow and went straight to the high windows. With an urgency that surprised her, she swept back all three pairs of heavy black velvet drapes to let more light into the room. When done, she crept back in front of the paintings, her lips parted in awe.
Both had matching frames of thick, finely worked wood overlaid with gilt, the shine not having dulled despite however much time had passed. The painting on the right was undoubtedly Abraham Van Helsing, although it was a portrait of him most unlike the one Willow passed by every day in the bowels of the British Museum. Willow was hardly a painter herself but she could see that it was done by a fine artist, the oils seeming to bring the man's face to life. He was young, far younger than he had ever been in any portrait Willow had seen previously. There was no facial hair on his smooth, strong jaw-line, nor any grey in his thatch of red hair. His green eyes danced merrily and there was a slight curve to his well-proportioned lips, as though the artist had captured him during a moment of mirth. Now, seeing him in his youth, Willow could see exactly why Faith had so often teased her for having a resemblance to him. The resemblance was made all the more apparent when Willow finally allowed herself to dwell on the painting hanging to the left.
If Willow had ever wondered what she would look like wearing her hair swept up into an elaborate coif atop her head, with her creamy white bosom almost bared to the world, she could now see for herself. It was Willow Van Helsing...and yet she was also Willow Rosenberg...
Willow had to take a seat on the ottoman she had tripped over earlier. As she studied the painting, it was all too like looking into a mirror...although Willow could not quite imagine herself wearing the same expression. The Willow in the painting looked older, and yet Willow knew she had not lived past her twenty-fifth birthday. The expression she wore shared none of the mirth of Abraham, she was sad to the point of appearing tortured and Willow suspected the artist had taken liberties to make her appear more cheerful than she actually was in life. Having read much of the diary, Willow could understand the expression in the face of what had happened to her.
As Willow studied the painting she saw, tucked in one hand, just below her breast, a slender little book. Willow quickly recognised it for she held it in her own hand in the present. Despite Willow Van Helsing writing her first words in the diary with little enthusiasm, it appeared that she valued it enough to be painted holding it. Although Willow could not guess the exact date of the painting, she suspected it was several years after the first entry, possibly just before her death.
Although she had known of her intimate connection to Willow Van Helsing since her dreams had started to mirror the diary, Willow did not know what to make of this latest connection...or if it was more than that. She seriously wondered whether the grave in Hampshire was nothing but an empty fašade, and no coffin lay in the cold ground beneath it. Willow's first instinct was whether she was a hell of a lot older than she had always thought.
She dismissed this as impossible, she remembered growing up, they were hazy memories dulled by the passage of time but she remembered her lessons with Giles, sitting patiently at a small desk beside Alex. Alex...Willow remembered her own brother and could not help but wonder in looking at an image of Abraham Van Helsing, if she was seeing the man he would had grown into had he lived.
Unable to remain staring at the paintings any longer, Willow stood and turned her back on them. As she did, she caught a glimpse of a shadow moving out in the lobby beyond the door. Without pausing to give herself time to be afraid, Willow dashed out into the hallway in time to see a pair of white feet padding up the stairs.
"Excuse me!" Willow called, making a beeline for the stairs herself, "I say, do hold up a moment won't you?"
As she sprinted up the stairs, chest already heaving, Willow did not consider her actions. She was following someone or something up a flight of stairs into a dark and empty second storey having no idea where she was being led. Faint footsteps on the stairs above her head told her that someone was definitely there...why they were ignoring her calls, Willow did not know.
Moments later, quite out of breath, Willow emerged in the beginning of the second floor passageway, seeing nothing down its dark length save for faint light emanating from the open door of one of the rooms halfway along its length. It was at this point that Willow chose to exercise a small amount of caution, slowing her pace so her slippers were practically silent on the rug beneath her feet. She inched along the hallway, keeping to one side of the passage and not moving her gaze from the doorway ahead.
Willow paused just beside the doorframe, her entire body tensed, torn between her desire to run away and the desire to enter the room. When she finally managed to do it she did it quickly, practically leaping into the doorway like a maniac. If anything was waiting for her in the room, it would have undoubtedly been caught in the act...but there was nothing there except a room. Willow's arms fell to her sides as the tension drained from her body almost immediately. The room that she found in front of her was nothing like she had been expecting. Unlike the sitting room below, the velvety blue curtains were already open, light spilling through the wide windows to illuminate the surfaces within. Again there was no dust...and nor were there any dust sheets. As Willow entered the room she felt an eerie sense of familiarity, as though she knew that if she opened the topmost drawer of the bureau she would find neatly folded under-things and the second drawer, gloves and stockings. She knew the framed illuminated texts on the walls were authentically medieval without the need to examine them closely. More than anything, she wanted to fold herself beneath the thick, downy blue cover that was spread across the mattress of the massive four-poster bed that took up much of the centre of the room. Willow crossed to the right side of the bed and sat on the very edge, gazing down at the contents of the bedside table. Nestled directly beneath an old fashioned candle holder, was a thick, leather bound book, Willow picked it up and settled it on her lap, A Treatise on Vampyres.
"Light bedtime reading," she commented as she ran her hands over the tooled cover, not daring to open it.
The book had been concealing a small framed portrait; Willow gently plucked it from the table and held it further into the light to see a faded drawing done in thick India ink...Tara. Willow brushed the frame with her thumb; she had hardly expected any other portrait to sit at Willow' Van Helsing's bedside. Already knowing that it would be alright, she tucked the small frame into the breast pocket of her pyjamas. She felt as though she were being watched but as she glanced up, there was no one there. As her eyes roamed the room, she could not look past a tall mirror which ran from floor to ceiling. It was set into a beautifully tooled silver frame. Willow approached from the side and gradually the tiny details in the silverwork became apparent, it was as though it were a life story told in silver. Willow started from the bottom and worked her gaze upwards to see children playing, an 'A' and a 'W' linked, riding ponies, a quill denoted studying and writing, sheaves of parchment were curled as though ready to be written on, two feminine hands entwined, the flanks of a naked woman and the unmistakable curve of a breast. Willow moved in front of the mirror as she neared the top, seeing images of crossbows and swords replace the innocent ones below it and what looked like a Japanese temple and a samurai mask.
As her eyes roamed the entire frame she caught sight of an inscription at the very top and could just make out what it said, tu fui, ego eris
"What you are, I was. What I am, you will be," Willow mouthed the translation.
When Willow jerked her head downwards and met her reflection in the mirror, she blinked rapidly, unsure of what it was she was seeing. While she expected to find her reflection staring back out of the mirror wearing her faded red slippers and striped pyjamas, she found none of these things. The only thing that was correct was the diary she held clasped against her chest. The rest of it was not right...her reflection's hair fell in ringlets down over her shoulders even though she remembered tying her hair back that morning. As she looked down her reflection's body she saw it clad in a long white dress, once again leaving her bosom half bare as what the style of the late eighteenth century. Her white feet were bare. Willow blinked but there was no change in her reflection. She lifted trembling fingers towards the surface of the mirror and was both relieved and unnerved to see the false reflection also lift its arm. Willow stopped short of actually touching the glass; her fingers poised inches away as though she could not bring herself to make contact.
"It's just a mirror," Willow whispered.
She heard the whispered words issue forth from between her lips but the reflection was silent, the lips did not move save to part a fraction. At that moment Willow knew that it was no reflection she stared at. Her terrified subconscious was urging her to move away from the mirror but not one of her muscles responded. Her hand remained outstretched, hovering next to the mirror.
Her false reflection's cold fingers emerged from the mirror's surface, curling tightly around her own with vice-like fierceness. Willow only had time to utter a small gasp before she found herself swiftly jerked forward. From the moment her body was swallowed by the mirror that was not a mirror she found herself in another time, as a very different Willow...