Willow was steadily beginning to realise that her cooking wasn't quite up to scratch, but she would never have gone quite as far as to admit that she couldn't boil water. However, as she was frantically trying to boil several pots at once in order to have enough to wash her rapidly growing pile of dirty clothes, she suddenly realised that she was overwhelmed by the rattling, steaming pots splashing vast quantise of liquid onto the stove top as they raged out of control. Her thumb had already been burnt and she had just scalded her forearm as she lent over to try and remove a pot at the back of the stove that she had filled too enthusiastically to begin with. With her hands wrapped in cloths, she wisely decided to lift the pots at the front from the stove top. However, the last one hissed and spluttered at her as though daring her to try and move it. Willow eyed the boiling water as though she were staring at a demon intent on doing her harm. For all she knew, something had possessed her stove and was out to get her.
Through her frustration, she heard footsteps behind her and glanced quickly over her shoulder to see Faith enter the kitchen with a rather amused smile on her face.
"You have no qualms about facing several vampires at once but as soon as you get in front of that oven you're quailing like a kitten being forced to take a bath," Faith commented helpfully as she peered over Willow's shoulder.
"Thanks very much for that analogy," Willow replied in a strained voice as she struggled to get a better grip on the pot. "You know, you could offer to help!"
Wrapping her hand in a cloth, Faith took the pot from Willow's grip and quickly took it outside where she promptly tossed it in the tub Willow was preparing for the washing. When she re-entered the kitchen she found Willow with both hands in a bucket of cold water, her cheeks red and flushed from the exertion of the past half an hour. She glanced across at the row of pots next to her and realised that they still had to be carried out to her tub...and then she actually had to wash the clothes. By the time she was done with clothes, her stomach would be rumbling for dinner. It was a never-ending nightmare of household chores. She would have sooner faced an Atramen demon alone (provided she had matches of course).
"You know what?" Willow muttered as she lifted one hand out of the bowl to inspect her wounds. "I hate cooking...I hate washing, cleaning, ironing and anything that involves a feather duster instead of a sword!"
"I hardly need to remind you that you need to hire some servants," Faith said gently as she picked up another pot and started to carry it out of the kitchen. "Stop being so stint with your money!"
"I've never actually had money," Willow mused as Faith returned. "The thought of spending it seems abhorrent somehow."
Faith grabbed her wrist and examined the burns on Willow's fingers, she then looked back up at Willow with a no-nonsense expression on her face, "Either spend money...or suffer more burns...and more upset stomachs!"
Willow frowned, "I haven't had an upset stomach...have you?"
Faith propped one hand on her hip, "You didn't hear me retching all night after your roast chicken? I swear to god Will, you nearly killed me!"
Willow sighed, "I guess I could look into hiring someone..."
"Someone?" Faith interrupted. "You need more than one for a place as big as this!"
"You need a cook at least," another voice joined in the protest and both Willow and Faith turned towards the kitchen door to see Lara enter. "Or I promise that I will never accept an invitation to dine at Gordon Square."
The Museum Director had traded her normally dark and sombre garments for a light, airy white dress that softened her entire countenance and made her seem far younger than her years, almost a girl. Her hair was also freed from its usual stern plait and hung loose about her face. Willow couldn't help but be reminded why she used to feel hot flushes in Lara's presence.
"Hello you," Faith lifted her eyebrows in surprise at the sight of her lover and her attire.
Faith crossed the distance between them to take Lara in her arms and deliver a rather passionate kiss while Willow could only stare at what was not happening between her and Tara. She eventually looked away as the kiss went on for what she felt was a little longer than necessary. However, even as she lifted the last pot to carry it out of the kitchen, she couldn't help but keep glancing at them with a sigh on her lips. Finally when she returned, Faith had drawn back, though only slightly, and there was a broad smile on her lips.
"I didn't realise Director Croft was making house calls today," Faith purred playfully, leaning in for another quick kiss.
"I'm actually not here for you," Lara admitted. "I'm here for Willow."
Faith held Lara at arm's length and glanced over her shoulder to Willow, "Not what I was expecting to hear...is there something going on between the two of you that I do not know about?"
Willow tried to look as innocent as possible and lifted her hands as if to deny all knowledge of anything between herself and Lara. The last thing she wanted was to wake up to find a jealous Faith standing over her bed with a loaded crossbow.
"Nothing that you should worry yourself about," Lara reassured her. "Besides, Willow isn't exactly my type...she is entirely too skinny."
In response, Willow glanced down. Most of her body was concealed beneath a bulky apron that she had found hanging behind the kitchen door. It had no doubt belonged to the previous cook and she'd had to wind the ties around her waist twice. Still, she had to admit that the arms that protruded from her rolled up shirt sleeves were on the scrawny side. Just last week she'd been forced to put another notch in the leather straps on her breastplate in order to keep it firm and snug against her body. There was definitely no denying that she had lost weight in the face of the stresses in her life...and she blamed a little of it on her cooking.
Therefore considering it was the truth, she didn't have an indignant remark to say to Lara in reply. Instead she just shrugged. Faith's nod of agreement did not help matters through and she scowled.
"Do you mind giving Willow and I a moment alone?" Lara asked her lover. "I'll meet you upstairs in your room in a few minutes."
Faith brightened considerably and there was a wicked gleam in her eye, "I don't mind at all...it'll give me time to strap 'Monty' on."
"My thoughts exactly," Lara responded with another kiss and Faith practically ran out of the room.
Willow cocked her head to one side with her nose wrinkled in her confusion, "What's a 'Monty'?" she asked Lara as Faith's feet thudded up the stairs.
Lara smirked and took a seat on the corner of the table, "Umm, you might want to ask Faith when you're feeling adventurous one day...and you'll have to get your own."
Feeling none the wiser for Lara's cryptic answer, Willow continued, "Adventurous...you think I'm not adventurous? I would definitely say that I am an adventurous person...I mean, I fight vampires and demons for a living. I enjoy a good adventure as much as the next person..."
"Willow," Lara said quietly to interrupt her babbling.
When the redhead stopped and saw the serious expression on her face all thoughts of the mysterious 'Monty' were banished and replaced by her concern for Tara, "You've spoken to her?"
Lara's nod caused Willow's heart to stop in her throat as she waited for further exposition. She had not expected Lara to fulfil her promise so soon.
"I've done all I can," Lara continued. "Now it's up to you."
"To talk to her?" Willow ventured uncertainly.
Lara shook her head, "No...just listen to her, all her personal contact these past three months have been people talking to her, telling her what has happened to her. She needs time to tell her own story first...the story that is foremost in her mind," Lara tilted her head slightly to one side before she continued. "She wouldn't tell me...but I could sense that it pained her greatly...Willow, I must admit that I am worried that you will not be able to listen to her."
"It is Tara," Willow replied simply, as though that were enough of an explanation. She was confident that whatever Tara had to say, she would be able to listen...in fact, she was certain of it.
Although she thought that there was more advice Lara could offer, Willow was impatient to be with Tara. First and foremost she was ashamed of herself for being guilty of ignoring Tara's needs. A part of her had been convinced that if she could just tell Tara what had happened, everything would be alright. She had not stopped to consider that there were things she needed to hear first.
There were no further words needed between her and Lara Croft. She nodded her thanks and made to move past her in the direction of the stairs. As she did, Lara stopped her with a gentle touch on her arm. When Willow stopped she found herself drawn into Lara's firm embrace. At first she felt a mild sort of panic at being in such close proximity to the breasts she had admired for so long, but gradually she accepted the reassurance for what it was and allowed herself to sink into the welcoming arms. As warm and safe as she felt, Willow did not allow herself to linger long. She was desperate to be with Tara...and she did not want Faith to come down the stairs and find her in the arms of her lover.
As Willow mounted the stairs some moments later she realised that, although she was desperate to be with Tara and rectify her ignorance of the past three months, she was terrified. It was not Tara herself that she was scared of. The quiet blonde was hardly a threatening figure...except when she was a vampire. What she was terrified of was somehow failing at this task and alienating Tara forever. Although she had no reason to think of it as such, in her mind she viewed this as her last chance to break through the walls Tara had constructed around herself. With each step and each creak of timber beneath her feet, she drew closer to one of the most important conversations of her life. She glanced down at her attire and realised she still wore the over-sized apron. Hastily, Willow undid the ties and dragged it off, tossing it over the side of the banister. The shirt and pants she was left standing in were hardly more presentable. Willow shivered slightly and stopped in her room only long enough to get a woollen sweater. She continued towards the room at the end of the hall, deliberating keeping her strides small and slow.
Finally, after she could draw out the walk no longer, she found herself in front of the door. She lifted her knuckles and knocked gently.
The response was almost immediate, Tara spoke in a soft voice that barely travelled through the door, "Come in, Willow."
Buoyed somewhat by this, Willow entered the room and found it a little lighter than the darkness she usually encountered. The curtains were drawn back and one window was even opened to let in a small breeze. One thing had not changed; Tara was still perched in her usual seat beneath the window. Willow hesitated slightly, not knowing where to sit. She tossed up between taking a seat at the other end of the window seat...or on the bed; neither option presented an easy choice. The window seat seemed too close to Tara...and the bed, too far away. She finally chose the window seat but was sure to pick up one of the cushions and hold it on her lap like some sort of shield.
As Willow sat, staring down at the pillow in her lap she gradually realised that, unlike each of their previous interactions, the silence between them was almost comfortable. She found herself able to glance up at Tara and stare for several seconds, once Tara even caught her gaze and held it before they both drew away.
Almost half an hour passed in which neither Willow nor Tara said a word. While Tara remained seated primly with her ankles neatly crossed, Willow kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up beneath her. The pillow she was using as a shield had since been discarded.
When Tara finally spoke her voice was like the first few notes of music at the opening of a concert, "Please allow me to beg your forgiveness?"
Willow sat up a little straighter, almost leaning forward, "But there is nothing I must forgive you for!"
Tara turned and regarded her through her liquid gaze, "I fear there are many things that I have done...many things that I ought to offer penance for, and yet they are things that I know nothing about," she paused and drew in a shallow breath. "Tell me Willow...please, how do I ask forgiveness for something I don't remember doing?"
"Simple," Willow replied in a whisper, "You don't...you've done nothing wrong...you've never done anything wrong in your life."
Despite the intended reassurance implicit in her words, Willow saw immense sadness in Tara's eyes. It was the kind of sadness that would threaten to rip your heart out if you let yourself get drawn into it. However that was exactly what Willow wanted...she wanted Tara to let her in, to share what she felt. More than anything, she needed to know each of the thoughts and emotions that were running through the blonde's head. If she could just understand, then she could try and help her...but she needed to know first.
Before Tara spoke, she wanted to be able to reach out and press her fingers to the back of her hand...any small touch to at least give her a sense of contact. However, she merely managed to twitch her fingers in Tara's direction before leaving them resting on the pillow next to her. As much as she wanted to touch Tara, she couldn't quite bring herself to do it...not yet anyway. Willow bit her lip, pleading with herself to be patient.
"I did do something wrong, Willow" Tara eventually admitted. "I turned my back on the woman I loved...and I destroyed my life by choosing to marry..." she struggled to force his name out but in the end she simply spat, "him."
"You had no choice..." Willow began quietly.
"You do not need to lie to placate me," Tara interrupted. "I could have turned my back on my family and fled to live out the rest of my life in peace and happiness with you...and yet I chose duty...you have no idea how painful my choice was..."
Willow wanted to interrupted, to tell Tara that it had been just as painful for her to be separated from the woman she loved. However, she kept her lips shut and did just as Lara had said...she listened. Tara cast her head downwards once again as she continued.
"I thought I knew what kind of man I was marrying...I knew he was cruel and vile...and yet I did not know the half of it," Tara paused to take a breath, when she let it out her whole body shuddered with some awful thought. When she turned to look at Willow her eyes were wet with tears, "I did not realise that one man could be so heartless...could inflict so much pain on someone he had vowed to protect and cherish. Every night...from the first...to right before my death...every night he came to me and took me with a brutality I did not think even he was capable of."
The intensity of Tara's words shocked Willow. Even if she had been capable of speaking, she would have been able to think of nothing to say in response. Instead she watched as the moisture that had been welling in Tara's eyes finally gave way. Two fat tears snaked down either cheek and dripped down onto her lap. They continued to fall in a steady stream but Willow could neither wipe them away nor offer a handkerchief.
Tara continued even though her voice was clogged with tears, "It was brutal...to go from the touch of a gentle and considerate lover...to someone who thought only of his own lust and need for dominance. He didn't need to strike me to force compliance, he was my husband, I would have done everything he asked of me....even though it repulsed me, just the thought of him laying his hand on me was enough to paralyse me with fear...and he hated that, he hated that I lay as still as stone while he satisfied himself. He hated it so much that he started to hit me, I cried...and that only angered him further. I never knew what he wanted."
For the love of god...please stop! Willow cried inwardly, she had to fight to keep tears of her own from falling, her lips trembled with the immense effort that this required, I can't sit here and listen to this...I just can't...
Yet it was what Lara had told her to do...listen.
So while Tara continued, finally able to give voice to injustices committed over a century earlier, Willow could only sit and listen. She listened to the sufferings of the woman she loved and by the time she had finished, Willow was glad Edward Walsh was long dead otherwise she would have take her sharpest sword and sliced his manhood off...and then his head, regardless of who was watching.
When she glanced down she saw her hands were both balled into white-knuckled fists of anger and frustration. Frustration at the fact that Edward had been able to use Tara in the way he had and there was no question of him being able to get away with it, it had been his right. Where had she been throughout Tara's suffering? She had been cloistered away at Hagley Park...feeling infinitely sorry for herself and angry at Tara for making such an awful choice.
Tara explained how Edward had finally driven her to leave that night in Austria...with her dress already torn from his anger; she had dashed out into the night without caring what might befall her. Although her memories of the attack were little more than fleeting recollections, Willow could tell that she had welcomed death's freedom...even though it came through the violent and painful act of a monster.
Tara's voice finally trailed off and after a few minutes to gather herself together and wipe away her tears with the sleeve of her gown, she glanced up at Willow. Willow met her gaze, but only long enough to see the expectation inherent in her eyes. Willow didn't know what Tara expected her to do...to hold her, comfort her...or say something in reply. What could one say in response to such pain? I'm terribly sorry you had to live through that but you did choose him over me? Willow felt the tears finally begin to fall, but they were not tears of sorrow. Rather they were tears of rage that matched her balled up fists.
It was too much...everything was too much. Willow fought to hold herself together for the few moments that it took to escape from Tara's room but she failed and as she ran out the door she let out a gasping sob. She tore the short distance down the corridor to her room and slammed the door shut behind her, not caring that the jarring sound would reverberate throughout the entire house. Once inside, Willow's anger and frustration led her to pace about on the rug in the middle of the floor, unable to decide her next move. As she paced past her dresser, she dashed out her arm and swept everything that sat atop it to the floor. Her jug and pitcher, a few bits and pieces, her hairbrush and a bottle of perfume Abraham had given her all crashed to the floor.
Willow was immediately assaulted by the intense smell wafting from the pool of perfume on the floor. She remembered when Abraham had given it to her, a year before she met Tara...she had worn it throughout their relationship...and now it was gone, destroyed by her rage. With another sob, Willow backed away from the mess on the floor until she felt her bed pressed against her legs. She sank down to the floor and pressed her back against it. It seemed as though a year had passed since her playful banter with Faith in the kitchen that morning over boiling pots of water. She would have preferred to face every household chore ever invented instead of Tara's confession.
A few moments later there was a hesitant knock on the door, "Will?" It was Faith, no doubt disturbed from her 'playtime' with Lara, "Is everything alright?"
No, it's not bloody alright! Willow raged, placing her head in her hands, That bastard raped my beloved and I did nothing to help her...I wasn't there for her... She was immediately assaulted by the awful image of Edward Walsh tearing at Tara's clothes, stripping them away so he could paw roughly at her naked flesh...flesh that Willow had always caressed so tenderly. With a groan of pain she slammed her head against the side of the bed, trying to clear the images from her mind even as she imagined him taking her...
"Why did she have to tell me," Willow whispered to herself. "She could've kept it to herself, bottled it up and never let me know...I didn't need to know!" Later she would realise that her rational self would never allow Tara to force herself to do such a thing...but at that point, with such awful thoughts raging in her head, she couldn't think like that.
There was another knock, "Will...I'm coming in."
The door handle began to turn and Willow glanced to her left, she saw a boot she had taken off the night before and seized it. She then threw it against the door with all the strength she could muster.
"Goddamit Faith!" Willow yelled. "Leave me the bloody hell alone!"
"Don't be ridiculous..." was Faith's immediate response, but the door did not open.
"Piss off!" Willow growled. "I don't want to see you, or Lara...or anyone!"
In the silence that followed her shouts, Willow could tell that Faith was still standing outside the door. However a few minutes later she heard Faith's bare feet padding back down the hallway to her own room. Willow eventually lifted herself from the floor but it was only long enough to make her way down to the cellar to find herself something to drink. She made her way back to her room with a bottle of whiskey and tried to drink herself to the point where the images would stop and she could sleep.
Finally, with half the bottle sitting uneasily in her stomach, Willow wrapped herself in the bed covers and drifted off into a fitful, nightmare ridden sleep.
Although Tara had seen Willow struggle to maintain composure throughout the time in which she spoke, the liberating feeling of the weight of her memories gradually lifting from her own shoulders compelled her to continue. It was too late that she realised that the slender redhead, as strong as she was, was having difficulty coping with what she was saying. Tara didn't blame her, the memories of what Edward had done to her were so covered in filth that she had difficulty giving voice to them...even though they had occupied most of her thoughts during the months since her reawakening.
After her voice finally trailed off at the point in her story where she had died, she dragged her gaze up to meet Willow's, prepared to face the revulsion that she might find. She waited, just hoping that Willow was strong enough to listen to her words and yet still be able to offer her the comfort she needed. A few moments later, it became painfully clear that she was not. Willow lost her struggle and collapsed into sobs as she ran from the room. Tara let her go...she knew she should have prepared Willow for what she was about to say, yet she also knew that if she had stopped or taken a pause, the words would not have come.
She remained sitting at her window seat, staring out at the street as the afternoon slipped by, then evening came as the light grew dim...and finally night. Without much conscious thought as to what she was doing, Tara left her room. She was suddenly overwhelmed by the need to get out of the house after so long spent within its walls. The corridor was dark and silent, the air thick and heavy...as though the house reflected the mood of its occupants. She slowed as she passed Willow's room before she broke into a sudden run and continued down the stairs, unable to leave fast enough. She paused only long enough to grab a coat in the hall before she dashed out into the night once again.
This time however, Tara carried Willow with her...for it was her coat which she had taken, and her scent lingered even as her feet carried her further away from the house on Gordon Square.