More than anything, Lara Croft hated being an object of other people's pity. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that she had spent her life being as self-reliant as possible, travelling alone whenever possible and remaining unmarried even as she turned thirty. She preferred to be alone...or at least she had spent most of her life convincing herself that was what she preferred.
She had overheard gossip of course...museum patrons and sponsors, busy bodies with too much time on their hands and little sense. Since her appointment as Director three years earlier, the gossip had not ceased...it had only become more wildly speculative as she refused to give them any information. What puzzled them all the most was the obvious fact that the Director was undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful woman who could have her pick of eligible men, both handsome and wealthy.
That much was true; Lara had had many suitors over the years but she had turned them all down without batting her magnificent eyelashes. The fact that she was not undesirable should have given her some satisfaction but Lara had never cared for such trifles. She had long felt that the number of men who wanted her was entirely unimportant...but it was the number of women she wanted, and couldn't have, that occupied her thoughts more recently. The realisation that she was attracted to women did not overly bother Lara Croft, what did bother her was that it meant she could no longer convince herself she preferred to be alone.
The accident in Australia six months previously had made the situation even worse in terms of pity...and women. Last week Lara had reluctantly hired a new field agent for the Museum. It was a relatively simple act, staff were hired frequently...but this particular appointment hit Lara like a slap in the face. She was replacing herself.
She had hired the new employee based solely on reports of her work and her credentials but she was now wishing she had laid eyes on the woman first. All the practical skills and field experience in the world could not make up for the fact that the woman was an ill-disciplined rogue with no respect for authority whatsoever. She was brazen, tempestuous, uncouth and worst of all...she was the most beautiful woman Lara had ever had the misfortune of laying her eyes on. Her name was Faith Winters.
Lara watched her now from one of the balconies in the employee library as she listened to Giles delivering an induction speech. Even from her perch high above, Lara could see the obvious look of boredom on Faith's face as Giles droned on about the Museum's illustrious history. Clearly standing in one place and listening to others talk was not Faith's preferred occupation. Beneath the tight fitting clothes she wore, every inch of her body appeared tensed and ready for action. Lara shut her eyes tightly but she could still see Faith's generous breasts straining against the white shirt and leather jacket she wore, her cleavage clearly showing in an entirely inappropriate manner.
When Lara opened her eyes once more, she was mortified to find the young woman staring straight up at the balcony, as though she had confirmed her suspicions that she was being watched. Giles was still droning on, oblivious, but Faith's expression had changed from one of boredom to smouldering excitement. Her lips parted slightly in a knowing smile.
As soon as Lara felt the first wave of heat flood her body she made a hasty retreat...as hasty as she could manage in her wheelchair. Although Giles had designed a chair in which she could propel herself rather than suffer the indignity of being pushed, it was still awkward. She made her way from the balcony and into the private elevator that led directly to her office. As she slammed the door across and jabbed the button she let out an angry snort, disgusted with herself for allowing Faith to get to her. Moments later the elevator ceased its whirring and stopped at her office, even before she slid the door open she could see Cordelia Chase poised at her desk, waiting to pounce in case she needed something.
Her secretary was already at the elevator door before she could say something, sliding it open for her.
Lara made a quick 'shooing' motion, "I am quite capable of managing a door thank you, Cordelia."
"I am sure you are," Cordelia replied smoothly, indicating that she did not agree with Lara's statement, she held open the door to Lara's private room and ignored the angry expression on her employer's face.
Something inside the office caught her attention even as she held the door open....the room was not empty. Standing in one corner was a pale blonde woman. Cordelia frowned; she had not let anyone through the door.
"Who the devil are you?" Cordelia demanded in outrage, she turned quickly to Lara as she moved through the door, "I am terribly sorry Director Croft, I could swear no one had come in here...and I have not left my desk all morning."
"It is quite alright, Cordelia," Lara replied with a curt nod, "The visitor is expected."
Cordelia frowned, "There is nothing in your diary."
"Nevertheless, she is expected," Lara said firmly, "That will be all."
"Shall I bring you tea, lunch...?"
"That will be all, Cordelia," Lara repeated even more firmly.
With another angry frown, Cordelia departed and closed the door behind her to leave Lara alone in the room with her mysterious visitor. She propelled her wheelchair slightly closer so she could see her more clearly. It was obvious that Tara Maclay had not changed at all since their last meeting; even the clothes she was wearing appeared to be exactly the same.
"You were not expected," Lara said quietly, a trace of warmth in her voice, "But you are still very welcome...and long overdue for a visit I might add."
Tara inclined her head slightly in apology, "You will understand the reason for my absence."
"Of course," Lara whispered.
Tara crossed the room until she was standing just in front of Lara; she studied the chair and then looked back up to Lara's drawn, tired face. Her concern was clear in her expression.
Lara shrugged as though it was all of little concern, "After so many years of thinking myself indestructible...it finally became apparent that I am not."
Without prompting, Lara reached to lift her skirts away from her legs. She pulled them up to reveal that her left leg had been badly mauled, almost beyond recognition. The wound was clearly recent, still partially unhealed and the scars in the flesh were deep and red. Tara immediately dropped to the floor in front of Lara, without asking permission she reached out her pale hands and tenderly laid them on Lara's torn flesh. She felt Lara wince but did not remove them.
"Demon hound?" Tara inquired without looking up.
"No...a very ordinary, non-demon crocodile, in goddamn Australia," Lara replied through gritted teeth, she drew in a quick breath, "Lovely country..."
"The damage to the muscles is extensive," Tara whispered as she gently probed the injury.
"Oh, is that why I can't walk," Lara commented bitterly.
Tara ignored her friend's bitter statement altogether, knowing that it had arisen from an understandable pain and frustration. She continued to probe at the wound, tentatively reaching out with her magicks to delve within Lara's body and see the extent of the damage. Tara drew in a reluctant breath, although she could not afford to give false hope, she also could not sit back and watch Lara suffer without at least exploring the possibilities.
She glanced up at Lara and saw that the brief examination had given her a faint glimmer of hope already.
"I cannot promise anything and I must warn you my magicks are...tainted...you may feel extremely unpleasant, if not physically sick." Tara paused as though reconsidering her offer, she could no longer meet Lara's hopefully gaze. "I am sorry...I do not know if it is worth the risk..."
Tara suddenly felt warm hands grasping one of her own. She looked down at them to find Lara's hands wrapped around her fingers, squeezing tightly.
"Please try," Lara whispered with a slight catch in her voice. "Any risk is worth it. You have no idea how frustrating it is to be confined to this goddamn chair."
Tara was able to meet Lara's gaze once more, she nodded once and then closed her eyes. As she drew on her power she immediately felt the taint of it. Before her soul had been returned the taint had held no consequence for her, however subsequently she felt it coursing through her veins like thick, muddy water. She felt Lara shudder slightly and knew she felt it too.
Working as quickly as possible, Tara visualised the injury on an internal level. She concentrated all her power on repairing what had been severed. As time went by she felt Lara's spasms increase steadily and she heard small whimpers that gradually became cries of pain. The time came where Tara had to choose between continuing to work on the injury and doing Lara permanent damage of another kind. She held on for as long as possible before abruptly breaking contact as she felt Lara sag beneath her touch.
When Tara opened her eyes she found the scars were still present, perhaps lacking a little redness, but just as deep and awful. A broken sigh escaped her lips and for a moment she could not look up and meet Lara in the eyes.
Eventually she did. There was a thin sheen of sweat covering Lara's face and neck as though she had just run a great distance. However her eyes were bright and alert and there was a small smile on her face.
"Lara..." Tara tried to apologize.
Lara reached out and placed her shaking hand on Tara's shoulder. Then, with an obvious amount of pain she rose to her feet and straightened unsteadily. Tara stood in tandem with Lara so she could continue use her shoulder as a support. Once confident on her own feet, Lara lowered her hand and made agonizing but steady steps towards her desk on the other side of the room.
"I am truly sorry that I could not do more, Lara," Tara whispered as she watched Lara cling to the edge of her desk for support, "If I had come sooner..."
"Well..." Lara drew in a deep breath as though trying to reign in her disappointment, by the time she exhaled she was able to manage a small smile, "I would have written, asking you to come but you don't exactly keep a fixed address." She removed her hands from the desk and turned to face the blonde vampire, her smile remaining. "Tara, I can walk...I may not ever be able to climb mountains again...or go back to Australia and teach that bloody crocodile a lesson...but I can walk, and that will have to be enough for me. Thank you."
Tara nodded even though her disappointment on Lara's behalf still registered on her face. She knew the adventurous life her friend led would now have to end. It was a crushing blow for a woman who truly felt alive only when she was pushing her body to the limit.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the door opened. She turned and saw Rupert Giles striding into the room. Lara turned also and any challenge she may have been about to make died on her lips when she saw who it was.
Giles paused just past the threshold into the room, his gaze darting left and right as though he did not know where to look, to greet Tara or to express his amazement at Lara standing under her own power. His decision was made for him a moment later when she suddenly swayed. He darted forward, both hands reaching out to hers.
With Lara settled on the settee, Giles was able to turn his attention to Tara. He could count the number of times he had seen her over the past twenty years on the fingers of one hand. Each visit had been brief, a mere perfunctory meeting with the sole intention of passing on information. He studied her for a few moments but it was hardly necessary, there was nothing about Tara that had changed over the years. He saw the same flawless beauty and lithe grace, the ever sad eyes and unsmiling mouth.
"I see you and Lara have had time to...catch up." Giles commented, quietly amazed by the vampire's magic prowess. "But I do not think that is the sole reason for your visit."
Tara was hardly fazed by Giles's desire to move straight to business and forgo any polite conversation. "As much as I enjoy Lara's company, it is not. He knows Giles."
The three simple words were enough to drain all colour from Giles's cheeks. He removed his glasses and began to scrub at them furiously with the cuff of his shirt.
"How much does he know?" Lara asked, glancing worriedly at Giles who seemed too flustered to speak.
"Enough that we should be very concerned." Tara's voice was tightly drawn, as though she was trying to keep herself from conveying emotion. "Although he said nothing at the time, I am beginning to believe that he sensed her rebirth...albeit far fainter than you or I, Giles. He has carried his suspicions with him over the years, suspicions that are growing in intensity with each passing year...he has sent several of those closest to him out to search for her, including me."
Although Tara did indeed know that Willow had been reborn, she had very little idea as to where she actually was. She had kept her promise to Giles that she would not interfere in anyway...as difficult as it had been. Her frustration at having to rely completely on Giles to keep Willow safe was clearly evident.
When Giles finally replaced his glasses, he looked straight at Tara, "None have come close to finding her...I spent several years with the family when they first returned from India as a tutor to her brother. Upon his death I established myself as her mentor and have remained in contact over the years...her safety foremost on my mind. When she graduates from university, she will take up a position at the museum."
"But until then, Giles?" Tara demanded. "The walls of a university will not hold back those trying to find her!"
"I agree," Giles replied quietly. "This is why we have no choice in what we must do next."
An hour passed as the three worked through their plan, the finer details were ironed out, everything laid out to the last letter for if anything were to go wrong, it would be Willow Rosenberg's life at stake. With everything ready for the next step, Giles said goodbye to Tara just inside the back entrance to the museum. Although the two of them were far from friends, there was empathy there. Giles could see the pensive expression on Tara's face, that there was any expression there at all meant that she was deeply concerned indeed.
"You know you will not be able to remain with your own kind when this is all over...you will truly be an outcast," he commented quietly.
Tara merely nodded.
"You will be welcome..." Giles began.
"Please don't," she interrupted, "It could take many years...I will think about such matters when this is all over." Tara then drew in a breath, finally feeling that the time was right to ask the one question that had been foremost on her mind throughout the day...not to mention the preceding decades, "How is she, Giles?"
Giles pursed his lips reluctantly and did not reply. However just as Tara thought that he would say nothing at all on the matter he smiled slightly, "She is just as beautiful as she ever was...although...different."
"Does she remember anything of her former life?" Tara tried to keep the desperation from her voice...but failed.
Giles shook his head. "Absolutely nothing."
Nothing, Tara told herself, feeling her head thumping like a piece of lead in her chest. She did not quite know what she had expected Giles to say; she had hardly expected Willow to be reborn knowing exactly who she had been...and who she had loved. Although Tara had at first felt crushed by this realisation, she slowly came to see it for the blessing it was. Willow did not remember dying...or the circumstances of that death. The more she dwelt on this, the more she realised that she was actually daring to hope that they could at least be friends in this life...if not more. Her heart fluttered fiercely.
Don't be bloody ridiculous you fool! Tara berated herself, drawing in a deep breath. This is precisely why you enchanted Willow's mirror...so she will remember the life she lived...remember what you did. She'll never love you again...
Giles's firm voice drew her out of her thoughts.
"Nothing can compromise Willow's safety...absolutely nothing." Giles said fiercely, his eyes burning as he said the words. "You must promise to do everything you can to ensure that she stays safe! She is more important than you or I."
"I understand." Tara nodded curtly as she drew up her hood and headed out into the dimming light of dusk.
As she walked away from the British Museum, Tara knew that the task she had been given could destroy everything she had worked towards since her ensoulment. The painstaking task of building and maintaining her humanity could be wiped away in an instant. She squared her shoulders and kept Giles's parting words foremost in her mind.
It was hardly difficult. Even in her darkest hours, Willow had never ceased to be the most important element in her life. Without Willow, she could not exist.
Unlike her first visit to Bran Castle many years earlier, Tara no longer felt the need to prostrate herself before Dracula, Lord of Vampires. As she marched towards his throne, she felt very little fear...only tiny slivers at the nape of her neck that could not be helped. However high in Dracula's favour she had risen, she could still be brought crashing downwards.
He was, as ever, shrouded in darkness as he sat atop his mighty throne in a relaxed pose. As Tara came close enough to see him clearly she saw he wore only a finely tailored shirt. One bare leg was resting up over the armrest as though he were a drunk merely playing at being lord. His hand, complete with immaculately manicured nails, rested on his knee. As she approached, his pose shifted. He placed both his feet together on the floor and leaned forward as though anticipating the pleasure of her company.
Tara drew up just short of the throne and nodded haughtily, her only concession to acknowledging his power. As she lowered her gaze her eyes flicked over the shape tucked against one corner of his throne. The brief glance was more than enough for her to see it was a completely naked, terrified young woman. The sight of her almost caused Tara to lose her composure. Her green eyes were wide with terror in the midst of her pale face. Long red hair fell in tangled strands, almost covering her heaving breasts but not quite. Her resemblance to Willow was almost enough to transform Tara's glance into stare, a stare that Dracula would undoubtedly notice. Tara brought herself quickly under control.
In a split second she had forced her attention back to Dracula's handsome visage and away from the redheaded woman. The expression of pure disdain on her face did not waver.
His perfect lips curled into a broad smile. "My lovely Queen...you are well?"
"Well enough," Tara replied in a bored voice.
Dracula grinned and his own gaze flickered down to the woman. "You are just in time to partake in a special treat I know you will enjoy!"
He leapt down from his throne and seized the young woman by her hair, dragging her to her feet with an exclamation of delight. Tara maintained her expression as he pinched and prodded at her supple flesh, his delight heightening as she tried to squirm out of his grasp.
"My Lord," Tara interrupted him just as he bent to take one of her heaving breasts into his mouth. "There are matters which are far more deserving of your attention at this time...I have news you need to hear."
"Bah!" he spat, "What news can possibly compare to the flesh of a nubile beauty...come Tara, she tastes like fresh honey...no doubt her blood will be just as sweet."
"Willow Van Helsing has been reborn," she spoke in a flat, toneless voice but it had all the effect she needed.
He froze for a moment before suddenly thrusting the girl backwards. She fell from the dais and landed heavily on her back, lying dazed as Dracula marched down the steps towards Tara. He stopped just inches from her face, his dark eyes smouldering.
"You would seek to confirm my suspicions?" he asked.
"With proof." Tara reached into her cloak and withdrew a small object.
It was a photo of Willow taken a few months earlier. She passed it to Dracula without looking at it. He was not to know that she had already spent too much time staring at it and had committed every aspect of it to memory. Even now, if she could close her eyes she knew she would be able to bring up that exact image, everything from the way her hair sat around her face to the unmistakable twinkle in her eye as she grinned for the camera. Even Tara knew it was not customary for people to grin for photographs...but Willow had.
"Proof indeed," Dracula muttered, absently tossing the photograph to the stone floor.
It took some effort for Tara not to follow the fluttering progress of the photo as it fell to the ground. Although she had memorized the image of a smiling Willow, she desperately wanted to tuck it back into the bosom of her dress, close to her heart. Instead it fell into the dust at her feet and was ignored.
"My Lord?" Tara was concerned by his apparent lack of interest. "She is the key to the skull...we need to decide a course of action."
"And we will," Dracula replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. He glanced to the floor where the young woman had fallen to find her gone. His gaze jerked upwards and sliced through the darkness to see her struggling with the heavy door at the end of the hall. "First though, we shall enjoy sport together...I have missed this immensely, just you and I, fucking them and then sucking them dry...I was in the mood for a young man today but I knew you would prefer a woman. Does my choice please you?"
"Immensely," Tara replied, even going as far to run her tongue over her lips to satisfy him. Inwardly however, she was searching for ways to avoid what she knew was going to happen next.
"I want to see you chase her down," Dracula whispered fiercely.
Tara glanced over her shoulder and uttered the simple spell which sealed the door shut. "It would hardly be much of a hunt."
Tara turned and headed towards the other end of the hall. She tried to look as though she was closing in on the girl with some enthusiasm but the real thoughts running through her mind were all the ways in which she could help the girl escape and still maintain her favour with Dracula. Even with her mind working overtime she could think of nothing...nothing except how long it had been since she last sank her teeth into real human flesh.
The girl did not run, perhaps she knew it was pointless. She did however beg. Tara was forced to look into her green eyes, eyes which were begging for life.
"I am so sorry," Tara whispered in the terrified girl's ear
"Please help me!" the girl pleaded desperately.
Tara's voice broke when she replied, "I cannot."
She seized the struggling girl by her hair and wrenched her head backwards, exposing the full length of her pale neck. Tara was transfixed as soon as she saw the vein throbbing beneath the skin. Knowing the Dracula was watching her intently; she swiftly sank her razor sharp teeth into the soft flesh. As soon as the skin punctured she felt the warmth flowing into her mouth and down her chin. As the woman struggled against her firm grip, Tara felt her own heart thud with the thrill of the kill. When it all came down to it...she was still a vampire.
Tara drew back and saw the mess in front of her; the girl sagged in her arms, her throat a bloody, torn mess. Unable to stand staring at what she had done, Tara dragged the girl back to her master and gratefully thrust her into his welcoming arms.
Thankfully, once lost to his lust, Dracula ignored Tara's reluctance to participate. He stripped the shirt from his body and thrust the stupefied woman backwards against the cold wall.
With his attention fully focused on the young woman, Tara turned away from Dracula's naked form as he pressed her back against the wall. She could not however silence her terrible screams. Such screams would have once been music to her ears...but now they stabbed her soul with piercing shards of agony. Her whispered apology to the woman counted for absolutely nothing, it was murder...and she was allowing it to happen.
Allow it to happen was all she could do however. As powerful as she was...Dracula was the Lord of Vampires and had been so for a millennium, he would snap her neck like a twig before she could begin to think about unleashing one of her fireballs to engulf him in flames. However, she would not allow herself to excuse what she was doing; instead she forced herself to suffer the screams as though it was she, and not Dracula, who was savaging the young woman.
Tara listened to his insatiable rutting for what seemed like an eternity before she heard him finish in a sound her ears knew well...too well for her own sanity.
"I will send William and Angelus forth to seize her," Dracula announced suddenly, obviously having given the matter some thought throughout his sport.
Tara turned and stared directly at his naked back as he dipped his head for one last drink from the now dead woman's neck.
"I disagree, Master," Tara replied firmly, "The information will not be on the surface to be drawn out via means of torture...a more subtle approach will be required...an approach I think would be best suited to one of her mortal acquaintances...a friend if you will."
As he stepped away from the body of the young woman, her lifeless form slumped to the floor. Dracula then unleashed a mighty sigh as he stretched, arching his back with some gusto. He turned to face Tara, the blood covering his naked body glistened dully in the poor light.
"So you suggest we should...bide our time?" he asked, cocking his head to one side with interest.
Tara nodded, "I believe that Rupert Giles is as yet unaware of our knowledge...it would be to our advantage to ensure that this remains the case, at least until the location of the skull is rediscovered."
"Agreed...you will watch over the vampire hunter," Dracula announced. "Provided I can trust you to perform that small task without falling back on any of your old habits? I don't want you killing her...it would not be conducive to finding the skull."
"Understood," Tara replied, this time she bowed low, wondering if he could hear her heart thudding violently in her chest. She forced a grin onto her face as she glanced back up at him; the tip of her tongue flicked out to lick some of the blood from her lips. "My Lord, might you permit sport of another kind...a well greased passage never ceases to yield information."
Dracula clapped his hands together with satisfaction, "I am immensely pleased that Van Helsing did not ruin you when he restored your soul...if anything, I think I like you even better with one. You know all of this is evil...and yet you do it anyway, splendid!"
Tara forced herself to continue smiling even though it was beginning to physically hurt. "My thoughts exactly" Stupid cock-sucking arsehole "Now, if you will excuse me, I have another redhead to stalk."
She turned to leave his presence. With her back to him she ached to be able to flee as fast as possible but knew that the slightest movement out of the ordinary would ruin everything. Tara forced herself to walk slowly, although she could feel his eyes burning into the back of her head. Each step was an exercise in controlling her fear.
At the sound of his voice, Tara immediately stopped walking. She did not turn around, instead turning only her head so he could see her face in profile. "Yes, Master?"
"As you know I am very patient...but even my patience has a limit. Find the skull."
"Yes, Master." Tara repeated. She tried to inject an element of fervour into her voice but her tone came out dull and flat. When no other commands were forthcoming she continued on her way, trembling with each silent footfall.
In the midst of her fear Tara remembered the photograph of Willow lying in the dust at Dracula's feet. She felt her heart sink at the realisation that there was no safe way to retrieve the precious item. Still, it was an item that would constantly serve to remind her that she had chosen Willow's life over that of the unfortunate victim.
Once outside the great hall, Tara immediately dissolved into her misty form. She then fled the castle as fast as possible, not stopping until she was at a distance where she felt safe enough to curl into a tight ball and cry tears of shame and regret.
The only problem was that she could find no tears to shed for the girl she had helped murder. Tara did not cry, but she did feel sick to her stomach. For she had no doubt that even the purest, most complete soul in the world would not change the fact that she was a demon...now and always.
Willow blinked. As her eyes came into focus she immediately wrinkled her small nose at the sight of Giles leaning over her...a little too close for comfort. She placed a weak hand on his chest and propelled him backwards. It was hardly a shove but he took the hint and gave her some breathing space.
"Willow?" Giles asked with concern weighing his tone.
"I'm fine, Giles!" Although Willow was exhausted she managed to sit up under her own power. However her hands went straight to her head as the room began to spin. It took a few deep breaths before everything began to return to normal. "I have got to stop experiencing past lives like this...there should be some sort of warning label on spells like these, do not use more than once or you'll go utterly insane. Giles, am I insane?"
Giles stared at her for a few moments as though giving her question serious consideration, "No more so than usual."
"Ha ha," Willow voiced sarcastically.
"Have you any thoughts regarding what you were just shown?" Giles asked quietly.
Willow snorted in disgust, "Dracula's naked body is an image I could do without!"
Fighting back any further blunt retorts, Willow swallowed uncomfortably. Of course she had thoughts...too many to count and all equally disturbing. If she closed her eyes she knew that all she would see nothing but images of a broken body lying in the dark cellar beneath Gordon Square.
Willow drew in a deep breath; she could not bring herself to say the vampire's name. "She said she wanted to bring me back because Abraham told her I would know where the skull was...Giles that is impossible. I was most definitely and very completely dead when Abraham did whatever it was that he did with the skull. How in the frilly heck am I supposed to know where it is?"
Giles uncharacteristically shrugged, he then removed his glass and rubbed them on his sleeve. Willow sighed as she realised that, for once, Giles did not have the answers.
"I am not certain now either," Giles admitted. "I thought that by giving you all the information you would...well, I do not quite know what I was expecting...but I have to admit I was hoping you would come out of it knowing where to find the skull."
Willow felt as though she had just failed a test. "Sorry to disappoint."
"No, I am merely being impatient...lately I have been dwelling on my own life and its finite nature, thoughts that I should not be wasting my time with...perhaps in a week something will come to you, after you have had the time to process the new information," Giles offered, "And in the meantime I will continue to work on the spell."
Willow glanced quickly up at Giles, feeling rather annoyed that he would chide her for not remembering where the skull was when he had spent the better part of several hundred years trying to find a way to destroy it. She thought better of saying something to that effect and settled for something a little less inflammatory but no less disgruntled.
"I don't want to ruin what sounds like a stunning plan Giles...but can you not just leave the skull wherever it is?" Willow asked as though it was the most obvious question in the world. "Dracula hasn't found the damn thing in the last hundred years, so what would make you think he'd ever find it?"
"You have met Dracula...or at least Willow Van Helsing did," Giles began.
"Lovely chap," Willow commented, remembering with a grimace the strikingly handsome vampire that she had come so close to defeating.
"And you know full well he will never stop searching for that skull," Giles continued, not amused by Willow's comment.
"If he also believes that I know where it is...why does he not come for me?" Willow asked, unsure whether to be excited or terrified at the prospect of facing the Lord of Vampires once again...the Rosenberg part of her wanted to flee to the far side of the world and hide under a rock. "Surely the old boy would not be bothered by a spot of torture...I don't have a very high pain threshold, I'd be blubbering like a baby if he tried to pull my fingernails off..."
Willow glanced down at the worn and cracked little nubbins that were all that remained of her fingernails. As ugly as they were she decided that she would rather have them than none at all.
"You should know the answer to that question." Giles said sternly. He finally rose from the floor, doing so slowly as though his limbs were stiff. As he stood he gently retrieved the memory cache from its spot on the floor between him and Willow.
Willow bit her lip and continued to stare at her fingernails, Giles's tone reminded her of the time when he had been her brother's tutor. She then deliberately chewed at her longest fingernail to avoid answering the question, anything to avoid acknowledging her involvement. When she finally did look up at Giles she saw an expectant expression on his face.
Willow looked as though she had just swallowed an extremely bitter pill, an expression that very quickly gave way to anger when she realised that Giles was not going to let her off addressing the point at hand.
"Goddammit Giles, I saw that memory, I know she protected me from Dracula!"
"And continues to do so," Giles added quietly, unperturbed by Willow's outburst.
"Fine...I do not want to talk about it," she muttered with an air of finality, "Let's just say that I accept the fact that you're worried about Dracula finding the skull...so I'll find it, I don't know how but I will...is that good enough?"
"No...but it will do for now." The already deep furrows on Giles's brow deepened, "Willow, are you alright?"
"Yes," Willow replied in a voice she hoped was convincing enough to avoid further interrogation.
She then forced herself to banish all thoughts of the blonde vampire from her mind, every aspect of Tara's memories made her sick to the stomach. Even though she had seen it in her mind, Willow was still having difficulty accepting the fact that her brother had imprisoned Tara for years. Abraham had always been such a gentle soul...the fact that he had been consumed by his hate was a truly painful discovery. She could not judge her brother. It was a discovery that caused her to search her own heart and wonder if she too was capable of such evil. She remembered the depths to which she herself had sunk following Tara's death. Abraham had been the steadfast rock anchoring her to life and sanity. He restrained her from murdering Edward Walsh in cold blood...and loved her too much to allow her to kill herself.
As she stared at Giles she mulled over the brief comment he had made earlier about the finite nature of his life. She had not dwelt on it at the time it was said, and now found it hard to imagine her life without his presence. It was a thought that she very quickly dismissed as being entirely ridiculous. Giles had already seen her die once and no doubt he would see her die again. This odd thought led her to another...she wondered how he coped with generation after generation of friends and family dying around him. Willow had seen more than enough of death in her two, relatively short lives...but Giles had seen so much more. An odd thought struck her, she wondered if Giles had ever been in love. It was much too difficult a question for Willow to even contemplate asking at that moment...if at all.
"I will continue to work on the spell that will destroy the skull...it is difficult...but I do know that it must be destroyed at Covasna," Giles added in Willow's silence, almost as an after thought. He then turned to place the memory cache safely in the middle of a nearby table.
In turning his back on Willow, Giles remained oblivious to the dark cloud that passed over her face at the mention of that place. Her eyes dulled and her lips trembled violently until she clamped her mouth shut, biting down hard on her jaw to keep the tremors from returning. Although she was sitting directly in front of Giles, watching him place the idol on the table, the chill running through her entire body made her feel as though she was alone on the plateau. You're not at Covasna, Willow voiced inwardly, You're safe and warm in the British Museum...you're not there...you're not there... With some effort, Willow wiped the pained expression from her face just in time for Giles to face her again.
"Well that is just asking for trouble isn't it?" Willow commented breezily, a small smile tugging at the corner of her lips.
Giles nodded slightly in agreement, "It is far from the most pleasant spot on earth."
Willow suddenly felt as though the walls of the library were hemming her in. Whereas moments ago her body had been chilled, she now felt as though the tiny flames that burned on each of the surrounding candles were emitting a tremendous amount of heat. Even Giles's usually reassuring visage seemed grotesque and threatening. She had to get out.
"If you don't mind...my brain is kind of haywire, I think I might go and pummel a training dummy," Willow slowly rose to her feet, testing both her legs to see if they functioned normally. "Or I'll find Faith...she might actually stand a chance at beating me in my weakened state."
Willow did not wait for Giles to protest at her sudden desire to engage in physical activity. She left the library as quickly as possible while at the same time trying to appear as though she was unconcerned by what she had just learnt. In truth, Willow was concerned.
She paused along the corridor, some distance from the library and had to lean her back against the wall to steady herself. Her breath came quickly, as though she were panicking. Willow closed her eyes in an effort to calm herself and slow her heartbeat down a little but all she saw in the darkness was an endless plateau covered in skeletons.
Willow was beginning to realise just how unnatural her reincarnated life truly was, she would have no choice but to return to the place where she had already died.