The first two weeks of their journey to Edo proved relatively uneventful if a little awkward for Willow. Not only was she stuck on horseback, she had to contend with Ayako's continued close proximity. It was not that the Japanese girl was intentionally seeking her out but rather every time Willow turned around or looked ahead, Ayako was there. She would catch a glimpse of her dark eyes or the soft skin at the nape of her neck and her resolve would falter a little more each time. Although the Japanese scenery was completely foreign and seemed more than interesting enough to occupy everyone else in the delegation, Willow found that there were few things that could draw her gaze away from the one place she did not want to look.
On one particularly grey morning, the delegation was nearing the end of its second week of travel when Giles motioned Willow to the side of the road. Willow sat on her horse, somewhat confused as they remained still and let the Dutch Kapitan and the rest of his men pass them by as they continued on their way to Edo. They were left with Kenji and Ayako Nakamura and two men whom Willow knew to be Kyuzo and Gorobei, brothers in the service of the Nakamura household. She could only tell the pair apart by the fact that Kyuzo had a crescent shaped scar on one cheek, apart from that, they dressed identically and spoke in the same stilted tones. Both now nodded politely as they saw her staring at them and she replied with a nod of her own before seeking out Giles to inquire as to why the six of them were left quite alone on the road.
"We're not traveling to Edo with the rest of the delegation?" Willow could not quite decide whether she was disappointed at missing out on her opportunity to see the Shogun's capital.
"No Willow, the skull is not in Edo," Giles replied, already swinging his horse towards a much narrower, less traveled road that was little more than a walking track, Willow eyed its narrowness with distaste even as Giles continued talking over his shoulder, "Today we travel to Aokigahara...in English, the Sea of Trees."
"Sounds lovely," Willow commented absently, digging her heels in tentatively in order to follow Giles.
"You will not be calling it lovely after tomorrow, Willow-san," Ayako interrupted in a stern voice, "It is a thick forest of closely woven trees and dark caves, full of thieves, and the worst demons imaginable...few venture there of their own choice and even fewer still return."
Willow's expression brightened as soon as Ayako mentioned ‘dark place,' at the words ‘thieves' and ‘demons', a broad smile had spread across her face.
"Splendid!" she announced, her eyes shining with anticipation.
Willow then spurred her horse forwards with such gusto that she almost lost her balance. She did succeed in spooking Giles's horse and merely shrugged when her mentor gave her a stern glance over his shoulder.
The enthusiasm which had gripped Willow that morning as the small party set out west towards Aokigahara had only faded a little by the time the small party stopped to make camp for the evening. It had mostly been dampened by her exceedingly sore buttocks and Giles's admission that they would not reach their destination until the next morning. Eight months of not having killed anything except for a particularly vicious rat on the Van Amstel was definitely beginning to get to her.
While she had camped many times throughout her Japanese journey, on this particular night, the reduced numbers in their group meant that Willow was forced to acknowledged Ayako's presence on a more intimate level than simply murmuring thanks as she served the evening meal or any number of other small tasks she happened to carry out especially for her.
While there was still enough grey light to see by, Willow watched as Ayako crouched over the swords she carried at her waist. Willow had often noticed them hanging in their scabbards at Ayako's side, but this afternoon was the first she had seen of their naked blades. Her curiosity eventually won out over her refusal to allow herself to get close to the Japanese woman and she found herself approaching, intoxicated by the sight of the beautiful shining steel laid out on Ayako's lap.
Ayako looked up as Willow approached, a small smile crossing her face as she paused her cleaning of the blade to invite Willow to sit.
Managing a quick smile of her own, Willow folded her limbs beneath her and sat on the ground opposite Ayako. She then found the steel blade being held out towards her. Trembling a little, she accepted it onto the palms of her hands.
"This is a katana," Ayako indicated the blade Willow held, "And this..." Ayako withdrew a second smaller, but no less beautiful blade from its scabbard across her lap, "This is a waikizashi, and together they make a daisho. This particular daisho were forged as a pair and mounted as a pair, making them extremely rare and valuable."
"They are both beautiful," Willow whispered, her eyes caressing the intoxicating patterns in the blade she held, "The most beautiful weapons I have ever seen."
Ayako reached out and ran her fingers along the flat of the blade Willow held while balancing the waikizashi on the palm of her other hand. Willow stared at both the blade and at Ayako's delicate fingers as they moved in front of her eyes.
"This pattern is called the jihada, created by folding the steel back upon itself many times...the characters here, "Ayako traced the kanji just above the sword guard, "are my family crest, the sword was made for my great-grandfather many years ago and although I was not born a son...my father passed it down to me."
Willow finally allowed herself to wrap her fingers around the intricate lacings on the hilt of the weapon, guiltily remembering that she had yet to wash her hands after a long day of riding. As soon as her hand closed around the grip, she felt its strength and power radiate down her arm. It was like nothing she had ever held before. Extending her arm to one side, she studied the length and slight curvature of the blade.
"My father favours the nodachi," Ayako continued, referring to the much lengthier weapon that Kenji wore strapped to his back.
"Your swords only have one cutting edge...much like my brother's cavalry sabre," Willow mused, swivelling her hand so the cutting edge was pointing downwards, "I am used to weapons with two edges...it is difficult to use in combat?
Ayako laughed lightly at the eager expression on Willow's face, "Come Willow-san, I will begin to teach you kenjutsu."
Ayako slid both weapons, one at a time, back into their scabbards and left them resting atop her saddle bags. Instead of the steel weapons, she selected two wooden staves of comparable length to her katana which had also been included in their luggage. She tossed one to Willow, who caught it with a deft movement and immediately twirled it in her hands with a lazy grin. Without warning, Ayako darted forward and with a quick slicing motion, knocked the stave away from Willow before she could catch it.
Somewhat chastened, Willow retrieved her stave and kept it firmly within her grasp.
"Always keep a firm grip on your weapon, Willow-san," the tone of Ayako's voice was not condescending in the least, "and remember the katana is a weapon for slicing..."
The Japanese girl repeated her earlier movement in a more exaggerated form, bringing the stave down in a blurring movement with both hands on the hilt.
"and thrusting," Ayako kept both hands on the weapon and lunged forward, the tip of the stave passing just to Willow's left, she straightened to see Willow already imitating her grip on her own stave.
In the dimming light of early evening, as the fire was light and the evening meal prepared by Kenji himself, Ayako and Willow continued their lesson. At first the clearing was relatively silent as Ayako demonstrated the forms with her undeniable grace and Willow repeated them, awkwardly at first and then with something resembling the correct posture as she began to grasp the concepts involved.
Impatient to move onto something with more contact, Willow challenged Ayako to a duel. A challenge the Japanese girl reluctantly accepted with a small shrug. Willow faced off confidently and started using the techniques Ayako had demonstrated; however, as their combat progressed she quickly resorted back to forms she was familiar with. The stave was wielded like it was her own sword with moves that came easily to her. Ayako adapted to the change in Willow's style but retained the forms she knew; gracefully meeting each of Willow's more brutal chops and slices, biding her time until she found an opening in Willow's guard. As Willow mis-timed a particularly flamboyant backhanded swing, Ayako seized her opening and lunched forward.
The stave caught Willow in the middle of her stomach and she immediately doubled over, clutching at her stomach with her left hand. She glanced up at Ayako, her expression one of pain mingled with admiration. Giles had been the last person to defeat her in a sword bout over two years earlier, since then, no one or no thing had managed to come close to touching her.
"I think..." Willow tried to gasp out the words as she struggled to regain her breath, "I think that I have much to learn."
Although Willow was both physically and mentally sore from her defeat, she was able to at least stand on her own two feet...if wobbling a little. Ayako merely showed concern, far from the triumphant grin Willow would have worn had she won.
"I would not be embarrassed, Willow Van Helsing," the two girls were joined by Ayako's father, "My daughter has practised kenjutsu eagerly since she was barely four years old."
Willow tried to keep her face impassive despite her exhaustion; she hated being viewed as a poor loser...even though she did secretly have to admit that she did not like to lose to anyone, even a beautiful woman.
"If you would permit me?" Kenji held out his hand and Willow passed him the staves she held with some degree of relief.
With a thin sheen of sweat covering her face, Willow retreated from the clearing and found a soft patch of mossy earth beneath a tree. She sat with her aching legs sticking out in front of her as though they would not move again. She had been of a mind to plunge them into the river until one of their guides mentioned that it was full of water nymphs that would pull you under and hold you down just for amusement. So she sat, watching Ayako and her father dance across the clearing, the staves were mere blurs in their expert hands. The crack-crack of bamboo on bamboo rang out around them and reminded Willow of her intensely physical sparring sessions with Abraham. She tried to imagine what her brother was doing at home and wondered whether he would venture to the theatre without her by his side. For some reason she did not think that he would be able to suffer Christopher Croft's presence for long given that he was an entirely modest, practical young man and Croft was a posturing braggart. With a pang Willow decided that her brother was probably lonely.
"I noticed you picked up the forms easily."
Although startled by Giles's sudden appearance just behind her, Willow did not jump even slightly. A demon hunter learned to control such movements as they would betray fear or lessen your reaction time. Instead she glanced over her should at her mentor to see his gaze was directed out into the clearing as he watched Kenji and Ayako.
"It may be different from what I am used to, but the katana is still a weapon," Willow commented with a nonchalant shrug.
Giles nodded, he knew Willow was not boasting but merely stating the truth.
"She is a beautiful woman," Giles commented suddenly.
"Who?" Willow had to ask, even though she already knew exactly whom he was referring to, the question sounded even stupider in light of the fact that there were only two women in their party and Willow was one of them.
Giles also knew this, and as such he did not answer her question. Instead he asked an abrupt one of his own, "What are your intentions towards her?"
"What?" Willow sat up a little straighter, the beginnings of an indignant expression on her face.
"It was a simple enough question," Giles replied with a shrug, shifting his stance into something a little more casual, "I may be a very, very old man but even I can see that there is an awkward undercurrent between the two of you...are you in love with her?"
"No, I'm not in love with her," Willow's answer was firm without being vehement.
"Well, she is in love with you," Giles stated simply.
Willow could not keep the surprise from showing on her face. She was not surprised at the fact that it was Giles who had uttered the statement as he was a man who observed and knew many things, but rather she was surprised at the fact that she herself had not picked up on Ayako's feelings. She had definitely known that there was something between them...but love, love was a different matter entirely. Willow ducked her head, staring intently at a twig she twirled between her fingers as she tried to deny to herself that she had ever done anything that would cause Ayako to fall in love with her.
You're a silly fool Willow Van Helsing...people don't make you fall in love with them...you either are or you aren't, Willow remembered catching sight of a shy blonde across a crowded picnic field, I loved Tara from the moment I laid eyes on her...before she even opened her mouth or did much more than sit and take a bite of a cucumber sandwich...
"I would be careful if I were you Willow," Giles continued in a cautionary tone, "Kenji Nakamura is a very old and very dear friend and if you have relations with his daughter...
"I do not want to have relations with his daughter!" Willow shivered, as though it was ill-mannered of Giles to even think about such things let alone actually give voice to them, "Please desist with this line of questioning!"
"I did not say you could not have relations with her...just don't break her heart," Giles continued, not noticing the rising colour in Willow's cheeks.
"Goddammit Giles, I thought I was supposed to be the pigheaded one that doesn't listen," Willow growled, snapping the twig viciously between her fingers, "and now you're not listening to a word I say...I do not want to have relations with her!"
Giles paused in his commentary for a moment and Willow glanced up, thinking that perhaps he had said his piece. However, she could see the set of his jaw in the fast fading light and knew that he was not quite done. She groaned and slammed the back of her head against the tree trunk behind her.
"But you do want to sleep with her," Giles commented quietly.
"Yes damn you Giles, I'm still a woman...of course I bloody well want to sleep with her!" Willow snapped, rising to her feet in one explosive movement, her fists clenched at her side, "But my heart will not allow me to love again...not yet...and maybe not ever."
Giles sighed, he could feel the raw pain in Willow's voice, the wounds still unhealed even after all the time that had passed, "It's time Willow, it's time to move on for the sake of the people who are around you now and care about you...you'll come to see that you can move on from your loss and be happy once more."
"You and my brother are as bad as each other," Willow growled in exasperation, "I wish you would both bloody shut up!"
"Well...we're both quite a bit more intelligent than you, Willow," Giles replied all too calmly.
The wizard appeared even calmer in the face of Willow's state of agitation, while he merely stood with his arms folded; Willow paced a short track in front of him with firm steps. Eventually she realised that remaining in Giles's presence would merely lead to her saying something she would regret. Without giving Giles a last parting glance, she walked away from the clearing, away from Giles, and away from the cause of her current predicament, Ayako. As she walked she cursed the rotten fates, everything would have been a whole lot simpler had Kenji Nakamura had a son.
In her desire to get away from prying eyes or anyone else's opinion, Willow had practically broke into a run by the time she had gone more than a few metres from their camp. She did not stop until the glow of their fire was dim in the distance and she felt truly alone. In the darkness she stumbled and went crashing to her knees, dirt digging into the palms of her hands. Willow did not rise from her hands and knees; instead she curled up into a small ball, her face pressed against the cold earth. Unbidden tears came freely, flowing down her cheeks and into the dirt. Moments later great sobs chokingly emerged from her throat until they racked her small frame.
Willow's sobs did not cease until she realised she was lying on the earth with her entire body chilled to the bone. She tucked her knees up to her chest and hugged them tightly against her, seeing nothing in front of her but the darkness that surrounded her.
"Why did you ever leave me?" she whispered fiercely, her voice forced between gritted teeth, "Why goddammit, Tara?"
As befitting the resting place of a particularly evil object, the cave at the heart of the Aokigahara Forest was a truly foreboding place. Even Willow, who honestly feared very few things due to a unique combination of recklessness, stupidity and bravery, felt a chill run down her spine at the sight of the gaping black maw. She was fervently glad that Giles had somehow retrieved her own weapons from the official on Dejima and had returned them to her. The familiar weight of her sword at her side did much to dispel the fear she felt at the sight of the cave.
It was situated at the base of a small cliff with a slight, mossy rise leading up to it. With the jagged rocks around its mouth, it looked like a creature rising to swallow whatever unfortunate creature happened to approach. Kyuzo and Gorobei stayed well back from the entrance, Ayako ventured little closer either. It was Willow who followed closely behind Giles and Kenji, almost tripping over their heels in her eagerness to see what lay inside.
Giles turned and held up his hand in a motion for Willow to stop.
"Willow, Kenji and I will enter alone; the four of you will stand guard," as soon as Willow opened her mouth to protest the decision, Giles silenced her with a quick grunt, "No...there are protections placed on this chamber which require great care, even by the one who set them in place...you will remain here."
Willow huffed in a disgruntled manner as she watched the backs of the two men disappear into the darkness, while she did not doubt Kenji Nakamura's skill with the nodachi he wore strapped to his back, she could not see how he expected to wield it in the close confines of the cave. She turned her back on the cave's entrance and sat on the mossy earth beneath her, gazing out into the forest. Ayako stood close enough that she could reach out and touch her. Willow turned her head slightly and watched the young woman from the corner of her eye. Ayako's dark eyes were scanning the forest, her lips parted slightly in anticipation of something. After less than a minute, Willow had to turn her gaze away, knowing full well that now was not the time or place to ogle a woman...no matter how beautiful she was.
To take her mind off such matters, Willow stood once more and advanced further away from the cave mouth. She did not like having the black hole at her back any less than not accompanying Giles inside.
"This place sends terror straight to my heart," Ayako whispered, her white knuckled fist gripping the tsuka of her katana as though she were poised to draw it.
"I heartily concur," Willow nodded, her eyes darting into the trees as she scanned their surrounding with intense concentration.
Willow could feel that something was not quite right; she sensed the presence of others besides those in their small party even though there was nothing she could see or hear to confirm her instincts. She followed Ayako's lead and wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her own sword before moving a few paces closer to the forest. She kept her gaze not only on the forest floor, but above in the trees as well.
"You are right to watch the trees," Ayako commented as she saw the direction of Willow's gaze, "We learn to use every surface from which to mount an attack."
Willow nodded, "You would think it strange then to see English battle lines drawn up in a field of war, the soldiers fight in lines, shoulder to shoulder, directly facing the enemy without any attempt at concealment or surprise."
"That is indeed strange," Ayako agreed, moving a little closer to Willow so they were standing shoulder to shoulder as the soldiers in a battle line, "I would think that many men would die that way."
Her close proximity made Willow slightly uncomfortable, but she had no desire to move further away, "Many men do, my brother Abraham was in the cavalry and for so many years I was truly fearful that another war in Europe would break out, or that he would be sent to the Americas to fight against the colonists...thankfully neither came to pass before he resigned his commission."
Ayako turned to look at Willow's profile, an interested expression on her face, "You have not spoken of your brother."
"No," Willow smiled sadly, "I did not want to dwell on him for fear of missing him terribly...but I miss him no matter what I do...and I do wish he was here with me."
"I should like to meet your brother," Ayako announced warmly.
The sadness in Willow's smile ebbed away and she turned to meet Ayako's direct gaze, "I think you shall...he would like you very much." And how happy he would be for me if I were able to introduce her as my lover...would he see only my happiness, or would he see straight through me and know that I could not love her the way I love Tara?
Willow sighed, the small sound full of not only of longing but of promise...a tiny sliver of hope that she may be able to once again experience the woman's touch she craved...if only she could bring herself to make those first few steps.
She opened her mouth to speak but found the words came awkwardly, "Ayako, now is perhaps not a good time...but the thing..."
"What thing, Willow-san?" Ayako cocked her head to one side, a small puzzled frown on her face.
"The thing...the n-nothing that happened...between us," Willow stammered, wondering why someone as fearless as she could not manage a few stupid words.
"Ah," Ayako's frown disappeared and was replaced by a small smile, "That thing."
"I should like there to be something...b-between us," Willow made an awkward motion with her hand, pointing quickly from herself to Ayako.
The small smile on Ayako's face broadened until her whole face was shining, "I should like that too, Willow-san...very much."
Willow did not get the chance to continue the stilted conversation as she was interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the cave behind her. Both she and Ayako turned and a few moments later, as though the darkness of the case was spitting them back out, Giles and Kenji came into view. The faces of both men immediately told Willow all she needed to know. Giles's words were hardly necessary.
"Our protections were still in place...but the skull is indeed gone," he announced in a defeated voice.
While Willow stared at Giles as he spoke, several tiny sounds made her spin to face the forest once more...at first it was just the snapping of twigs and brushing of leaves, and then Ayako's curt cry of warning. Willow was already facing the forest with her sword drawn when at least a dark dozen shapes sprang from the forest to encircle the group. They were all identical, men clad from head to toe in black with only narrow slits for their eyes. Each carried a drawn katana, all levelled in the direction of their intended prey.
Behind her, Willow heard Kenji and Giles draw their own weapons and a bare moment later, Kyuzo's and Gorobei's weapons were also drawn with steely hisses. Without waiting for any sort of single or attack from the warriors surrounding them, Willow strode casually forward, a lazy smile on her face.
Willow ignored Ayako's fierce whisper and continued walking towards the men, while their body posture did not change in response to her unexpected movement, she could sense their confusion. With a deft flick of her wrist and fingers, Willow twirled her sword once and brought it to a stop directly in front of her, her stance set.
"Which of you would like to die first?" Willow announced confidently as her smile broadened.