Willow found it somewhat odd to be sharing a room with someone once more. While she had grown up an only child and never had to share anything in her life she had shared a room at both the Academy and when she had been a junior officer. Which was why she found it odd that Tara's presence felt so different. The blond managed to make herself quite inconspicuous. She was quiet, tidy and polite... and Willow found it distinctly unnerving. It was like sharing a room with a ghost. Willow suspected that she was so used to loud, extroverted people in her life that being around someone who wasn't was difficult to adjust to.
The weather was absolutely hideous the first two days since the arrival of Slayer squadron and it made flying any sorties almost impossible. As a result a very bored Willow had overhauled her Draken's engine completely and had rigged up two of the 20mm cannons to take another fifty rounds of ammunition. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination but Willow had time on her hands and when she was bored she got very creative.
As Willow worked she had watched the Slayers listen to Buffy. She couldn't hear what the other captain was saying but she knew from experience that the slight blonde was an excellent leader. She often gave impassioned speeches about the most minor of details so for all Willow knew she could have been talking about what was for dinner that evening. Not really interested in watching Buffy speak, Willow craned her neck for sight of Tara and saw the young woman seated off slightly to one side. It was odd, she was so unlike any other pilot Willow had met. Pilots were normally loud, confident and very often hot-headed and those who weren't quickly became so. The blonde woman however, was shy to the point of being introverted... a most unusual trait for a pilot. Willow would never admit it to anyone else but she was guilty of having done a fair amount of staring over the past few days. Tara had said very little, even when they were alone in their cabin. Willow was beginning to despair, convinced that they would never have a conversation that consisted of more than, "How was your day?" "Fine, thank you," or "How's carrier life treating you?" "Fine, thank you." Willow was also beginning to think that the blonde couldn't say much else besides "fine thank you."
The officers mess that night was packed to the rafters. No flying had made for some very bored pilots and there was little else to do besides drink and play an endless amount of cards. The Devils had commandeered one corner of the mess and the Slayers the opposite... as far away from each other as possible. The rivalries between their captains had filtered down to the other pilots and tension was always going to be high between the two crack squadrons.
Five of the Devils were playing poker, Dennis abstained for a mumbled reason that sounded suspiciously like, "My Mum told me not to," and so he spent the game looking on enviously. Willow rocked back on the hind legs of her chair, waving cigarette smoke from away from her face until Spike took the hint and stopped chain smoking. He looked decidedly twitchy after that, Willow chucked him a stick of gum with a grin.
As she sat and scanned the hand that she had been dealt she also scanned the room keenly. She was incredibly disappointed to not find a certain blonde haired flight-officer amongst the Slayers and when Barrel asked her how many cards she wanted she gave up looking altogether. Willow concentrated on her hand.
"Two," Willow said to Barrel, throwing her discarded cards down on the table.
"Say, have you guys seen that dark-haired girl with the American squadron?" Charlie asked the other Devils, nodding his head in the direction of the Slayers.
"How can we not have seen her!" Alex replied excitedly, picking up Charlie's question and risking a nervous glance over his shoulder in the direction of the Slayers, "I mean... how can you miss her. She just screams out ‘look at me!' Three please."
"What's her name?" Barrel slid three cards in Alex's direction.
"Faith," Alex replied a little too quickly, scooping up his cards and immediately Willow saw his happy poker face, she grinned discreetly.
"Gimme two porky. That's not all she'll be screaming," Spike ignored the glare from Barrel, "Yes Spike, oh god... give it to me!" his voice took on a high-pitched faux girlie voice.
The other four guys guffawed heartily as Spike growled playfully and watched the dark-haired Slayer over the top of his cards. Willow rolled her eyes and finally got around to picking up her cards
"Scotch please," Willow heard a soft voice ask up at the bar, she looked up to see Tara.
The blonde stood, elbow rested on the bar top. She was dressed very casually, uniform pants with a loose white sweater that still managed to accentuate her full breasts. Willow blushed and looked back to her hand... not that she was looking at Tara's breasts or anything...
Her card hand splayed out in her hands and Willow glanced at each in turn. The ten of spades... the jack of spades... the queen of spades... the king of spades... almost a royal flush... she held her breath as she pulled out the last card from the back of the hand to find...
...the ace of hearts...
Willow stared down at the offending card which had totally ruined her hand and where she should have been cursing her rotten luck... she grinned, her cheeks burning as she stole a look at Tara up at the bar.
"Good hand huh Will?" Alex nudged her playfully.
"Ah, what?" Willow looked up to see her best friend clutching his own cards to his chest.
"No, I'm out... I need another drink," she said, throwing the hand to the table.
Willow slid her chair back and made her way through the throng, towards the bar and towards the blonde who now had her back completely towards her. Her eyes drifted down past her ponytail, over the sweater on her back and to her shapely arse and thighs. Willow wished she could just reach out and place a gentle hand on her hip, just where her sweater ended. The bartender just finished pouring Tara's scotch on rocks, Willow reached in her pocket and withdrew the necessary change. There was a small sound as she place her money on the bar and Tara turned around. Blue eyes... absolutely gorgeous... Willow almost forgot that she had the ability to speak.
"My shout," Willow said quietly, "Ben" she hailed the bartender and nodded in the direction of Tara's drink, "I'll have a double of the same."
"Y-you really don't have to..." Tara began.
"I insist," Willow said with a small smile, I wonder if she lets a little loose when she's drunk... Willow, you're not supposed to be buying girls alcohol just to get them drunk... I mean, how low is that?
"Thank-you Captain Rosenberg," Tara swept up her drink and moved back into the throngs all too quickly, she made her way over to the other members of her squadron before Willow was able to say a word to stop her.
"You're welcome..." Willow whispered, feeling inherently foolish in her hopes that Tara would stay and chat with her. She downed the scotch in one fiery gulp and placed it back on the bar, "I'll have another... with soda." Denied Rosenberg... she isn't the slightest bit interested okay... just let it go...
From afar, she watched Tara down her drink in one shot as well. Her head tipped back to reveal a long, pale neck... she swallowed and visibly winced as she put the glass down. She doesn't usually drink? Willow asked herself as she observed the blonde's uncomfortable reaction. Then Willow's staring session was ruined when Faith moved to block her view, leaning in close to say something to Tara. Willow wrinkled her nose and decided it would be best if she stopped pining and returned to the poker game.
Tara was hoping like crazy that no one noticed her paler than usual complexion as she walked into the crowded and boisterous officer's mess. Today had not at all been a good day with the stormy weather keeping them grounded... or whatever the sea-based form of the word was... watered? Even the huge carrier had dipped and swayed with the motion of the waves around it... leading to the rocking... and the heaving... and subsequently the sea-sickness. Tara was sure she had thrown up everything she had ever eaten, including some unidentifiable substances.
As she strolled up to the bar she wondered if drinking really would help or if would just make things even worse. Still, being drunk maybe she wouldn't feel the rocking of the ship any more... This plan of yours stinks Maclay. Yet the bartender was waiting patiently for her request.
What should I drink... beer, yrrrgh no! ummm... "Scotch please." Do I like scotch?
Tara waited as the bartender poured her scotch over ice, she was fumbling in her pocket to pay for it when someone placed some coins down from behind her. She spun around to come face to face with her cabin-mate, Captain Rosenberg.
"My shout..." Tara didn't hear the rest of what she said, she was lost in the redhead's eyes.
Tara fumbled quickly for something witty and gracious to say in reply and all she came up with was, "Y-you really don't have to..."
"I insist," Willow said.
Tara gathered up her drink and searched for something to say but came up with a blank. She quickly mumbled her thanks and made good her escape into the crowd. The whole time she was moving away she expected the Captain to call out after her but there was nothing. Tara reached the haven of her fellow squadron members and didn't dare a glance over her shoulder to where suspected she was still being watched. Tara glanced down at the drink in her hand and raised it to her lips before she could stop herself. The drink went down in one gulp, leaving a hot trail in its wake. She grimaced at the uncomfortable sensation and set the glass down a little shakily.
"Way to go T," Faith joined her with a smile and two drinks in her hand, "Want another?"
"No..." Tara knew it wasn't a good idea.
"Come on T, free drink! It was for B but she's had more than her fair share already... she's already got her groove on and before you know it, she'll be dancing on the tables."
Tara took the drink without asking what it was and tried to lose herself in the conversation going on around her. Their little gathering quickly became a sculling competition between Faith and the three guys in the squadron with Buffy egging them on and Tara doing her best to look enthused.
Two drinks did nothing to stop the motion of the ship... she was quite sure it was even more pronounced. Her stomach felt violently queasy and she feared she would throw up all down someone's front and make a fool out of herself. See this is why you don't drink Maclay... you've had two and you're already reeling like you've been going at it all day long...
She excused herself and made a hasty exit, not quite sure where she was headed but as long as it was out of that smelly mess it was a good place in her books.
Tara didn't quite know how she managed it but she made her way to the deck. The sun had just gone down, the sky was a deep blue fast fading to black as night took over. It had stopped raining and now the wind just blew with moderate ferocity as she hung on to the railing near one of the anti-aircraft gun emplacements and gulped in a lungful of fresh air. She heard soft footsteps behind her and turned around to see the person she had been trying to avoid all night standing right there.
Willow Rosenberg, her pale face shining in the weak light of the night lamps. She held her flight jacket tightly around her and Tara realised for the first time that it was actually quite freezing outside. Tara had been so glad to escape to the fresh air that she hadn't realised. The captain's hair escaped from where it had been tucked behind her ears to fly about her face in the wind. She made no move to brush it from her eyes, she just stood there calmly... her arms folded, rocking on her heels as though she were nervous.
"Hey," Willow said gently, "Are you okay?"
Tara's face was as white as chalk with just the hint of green around her cheeks... it didn't make for a pretty sight.
"Seasick," Tara mumbled weakly, "I thought I was alright yesterday, but then today was like this. I haven't been able to keep anything down at all... and the drinks... not the most brilliant idea I've ever had."
Yes! Willow thought excitedly and then quickly shook her head, No! It's not good that she's sick... but yes that she spoke to me... two sentences at least!
The ship dipped into another massive wave and a spray of water splashed across the deck... reaching both of them. Tara felt the freezing salt water sting her cheek and a few yards from her Willow laughed in mock fright. Tara found herself laughing too, it was such a beautiful sound.
"Maybe it would be better if we went back below decks?" Willow suggested as she wiped water from her face. She thought to add a further suggestion, "Maybe grab a cup of coffee?"
"Sounds like a good idea," Tara replied.
Suddenly she felt a wave of nausea as the ship came back up the other side of the wave, she stumbled to her knees. Before she could even begin to feel embarrassed she threw up over the deck and Willow's boots. Tara coughed, retched a few times before she sat back on her heels. She expected to see Willow looking down at her disdainfully but instead there was a gentle hand on her back, rubbing soothingly. Tara coughed again, feeling her dry throat and the awful taste that lingered in her mouth.
"Come on, let's get you inside," Willow helped her to her feet and placed an arm around her back.
"I'm sorry sir, I feel like an idiot," Tara mumbled, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, "I'm not normally like this."
"What? Drunk and smelly?" Willow teased, "And cut the sir crap, none of my guys have ever used it... well, except Dennis... but anyway, the name's Willow, please use it."
"Of course... Willow... that's pretty..."
Tara lent most of her weight on Willow as they made their way down a set of stairs and into the corridor. Tara's head as spinning and each step felt as though she were stepping on marshmallow. When she stumbled, Willow caught her before she could fall to the floor. She drew her back to her feet and her arm went securely around Tara's waist to keep her steady. For a moment, Tara enjoyed the feel, the warmth of Willow's arm resting there and for just a split second she lent into her embrace.
"Come on, I'll get you to bed," Willow said softly, once she was sure Tara wasn't going to fall again.
I'll get you to bed... the words hit Tara like a bucket of ice cold water and she stopped. Tara surprised Willow by shrugging out of her arms. Willow made no effort to hold on as the blonde stepped away.
"I'll get myself to bed thank you sir... I'm keeping you from your squadron, they'll be missing you."
"No, its no trouble..." Willow began only to be cut short by Tara.
"I-I've embarrassed myself enough for the evening already... p-please don't make it any worse than it already is," Tara asked Willow quietly, the shame sneaking into her voice.
Willow frowned, not quite understanding what Tara meant but she nodded anyway, "O-okay..."
"Good evening Captain Rosenberg," Tara turned and walked unsteadily down the corridor towards the crew quarters and in the opposite direction from the mess.
Willow watched her leave with a sigh and wondered just what she had to do to win the trust of the beautiful blonde. Maybe if you stopped acting like you're on heat every time you're around her... might help... but I'm not! That's the problem... She turned towards the mess and went back to rejoin the poker game, although knowing that her heart would no longer be in it.
"Please Buffy... come on, I've been waiting around all day for you guys and besides, you promised!" Dawn batted her eyelashes at her big sister.
"I'll take her up Buff, you're beat."
"Sure thing Will... just go easy on her okay, I don't want to have to drive home with someone who stinks of vomit."
"Hey, I threw up on my first flight and it's not my fault you did one of those great big loopy things without any warning!"
"A barrel roll... and you asked me to do one," Buffy said with a grin, she chucked her flight helmet in Dawn's direction and the youngster caught it happily.
"Come on Willow!" Dawn said over her shoulder as she ran for the Tiger Moth, "We'll be able to see the sunset."
Willow smiled knowingly at Buffy and grabbed her helmet and goggles before following Dawn.
Dawn had already climbed in the forward cockpit and Willow checked that she had her harness done up tightly. The girl was grinning from ear to ear, practically bouncing in her seat as she waited for Willow to check everything.
"Lots of barrel rolls please Willow... in a row!"
"We'll see sweetie... I might not be up to it," Willow grinned and clambered into the rear cockpit.
With a cough and a splutter, the bi plane came to life. In seconds they were in the air, the ground falling away behind them. The last of the sun rays falling across the landscape in a golden glow. Willow loved the feeling of the wind in her face. She moved the stick gently to the right and the plane banked in a slow arc over the field. Buffy was waving at them, a tiny figure far below. Willow juggled the stick left and right a few times and the plane waggled its wings for the spectators. She then opened up the throttle completely, punching the tiny Tiger Moth upwards and into the sky.
The plane levelled out at a few thousand feet and its two occupants gazed out over the landscape as the last rays of sunlight left the land. The bright blue day gradually gave way to a pink tinged dusk. Just for a few moments, Willow closed her eyes to feel the wind against her cheeks, to really feel herself flying.
Willow opened her eyes once more and grinned. It was exhilarating, the feel of having the whole sky to roam and Willow wanted to explore every inch of it. As she kicked the plane over into a roll she heard Dawn squeal happily over the din of the engine and she laughed with her.
As she laughed, Willow knew she wanted to be doing this for the rest of her life. Her parents had always told their only child that she could do whatever she put her mind to and they were right. Willow's high school grades were good enough to open any path she chose... doctor... scientist... If Ira and Sheila Rosenberg had ever doubted the wisdom of her choice, they hadn't given Willow the slightest clue.
"Air Command... how very lovely," her mother had said holding her close.
"You'll look absolutely splendid in one of those dashing flying uniforms honey," her father had smiled and ruffled her hair.
And that had been that. At the age of seventeen she'd enrolled in Air Command's pilot training scheme and had been sent to California. Willow remembered arriving in a foreign country feeling very small and alone. She'd barely been able to raise her voice above a whisper the first day at the Academy and had quickly been jostled and shunted to one side in what was a loud and busy little world. She had been beginning to feel it was the wrong choice when she had been bowled over, literally, by a miniature whirlwind. As the two girls had disentangled their limbs and helped each other to their feet the whirlwind introduced herself as Buffy Summers. It was the beginnings of friendship that was to go down in Air Academy history as one of the most infamous on record. If there was any sort of trouble the instructors could bet their bottom dollar that it involved Summers and Rosenberg... and yet they could never prove a thing.
Willow even found a home away from home with Buffy's family. Her mother, Joyce and her little sister, Dawn, had invited her into their lives with open arms. She fitted in easily and for the first time realised what it was like to have sisters. Her own parents worried about her from afar of course, Sheila sent her copious care packages mainly containing Willow's favourite earl grey tea. She was convinced that Americans didn't know the first thing about tea.
A nice cup of tea... that'd go down a treat... but first...
Willow laughed as she gunned the throttle and yanked the stick back as she entered the first of the series of requested barrel roles. The world became inverted, the sky became the ground and vice versa and yet Willow was in perfect control. The bi-plane was an extension of her body, perfectly blended into one instrument. Everything she made the plane do, every twist and turn... she felt it all as one continuous movement, a strange dance of sorts. Using her limbs, Willow couldn't dance to save herself but in a plane it was a different story.
Willow knew something was wrong before the Tiger Moth gave any outward sign of a problem. It was every pilots worst nightmare and yet when it happened Willow didn't panic. The first lesson she had learnt was that you never panic.
Willow calmed pushed the ignition switch in once more even as the plane fell into a silent spin towards the earth. It spluttered, coughed and belched smoke before the prop kicked into life. Willow levelled the plane out and saw the ground rushing past all too close beneath them.
She turned the plane around, hading back towards the field despite the fact that the plane sounded fine. However, when the stick was beginning to feel as though it were mired in glue Willow knew that their joyride was over for the evening.
The field stretched out before them as Willow guided the plane into land, coming closer and closer to touching down. The engine began to splutter again and Willow eased up on the throttle, slowing their speed... guiding it gently.
"Almost there Dawnie," Willow yelled.
No sooner than the words were out of her mouth, the engine stalled completely again. At that height the plane lost airspeed all too rapidly and there was nothing Willow could do. The ground was rushing up so very fast as Willow fought to keep the plane level. It was so very heavy though...
Onlookers screamed as the plane suddenly sideslipped and its lower wingtip dug into the grass covered field.
...Willow's world turned upside down again, although it was not in a good way and she heard Dawn scream once.
Dirt and plane went hurtling, the plane cart-wheeling over once before flopping over on its back.
...Willow's head went smashing into the instrument panel and blackness claimed her mercifully.
The plane ground to a halt eventually, giving the small crowd of people running after it an opportunity to catch up. Buffy was yelling for Dawn and Willow as she ran with all her strength. Legs flying across the grass in an effort to reach her best friend and sister.
...There were hands grabbing at her, tugging her away from the plane. Someone had her by the shoulders as another struggled to undo the harness that kept her trapped in the plane. It was stuck... or rather she was stuck... Through her haze Willow smelt the cloying fumes of aviation fuel leaking from the tank and a small moan escaped her lips. The fuel tank... it's going to go up... Dawnie! Finally the straps came free and Willow half fell from the cockpit before strong arms caught her. She didn't fall all the way however, her leg was jammed awkwardly between crumpled struts in the cockpit. The struts snapped with the added weight and Willow felt massive waves of pain go shooting up her leg and through the rest of her body. She fell from the cockpit fully and into strong arms that kept her from continuing on to meet the ground. The pain caused her to black out completely...
Her leg hurt... the air was hot, reeking of burning aviation fuel. Someone was screaming and Willow tried to open her eyes. It hurt like heck to try at first but gradually she managed and found herself lying on her back. She thought the sun had come up again but it was just the wreck of the Tiger Moth which had caught on fire.
"Dawn!" Willow tried to sit up but was met with fresh waves of pain.
"No Willow," someone was saying, "You have to keep still."
Willow squeezed her eyes shut, god it hurt! Someone was still screaming and Willow realised they were saying the same name over and over again, "Dawn... Dawn..." Buffy... it's Buffy screaming for Dawn... is Dawn alright... is she...
Buffy sat with a very straight back in the chair beside Willow's hospital bed. Willow lay propped up with several pillows, a tray of what obviously was supposed to pass for food rested on her lap. She had taken one bite of the mashed potato and it now sat like a lump in her throat, refusing to budge.
Buffy's expression was blank but her hands kept smoothing non-existent wrinkles in her dress. Willow finally managed to swallow the lump of potato and she set her fork down gently. There was no point in trying to eat anything anyway.
The silence was painful in itself and yet to speak was even worse. It was Buffy who finally spoke up, her voice strained,
"I've seen you land a stalled plane before Willow, you even landed in a peat bog once and came out without a scratch... what happened?" Buffy asked quietly, too calmly, "Why did the plane flip?"
"I-I don't know Buffy," Willow ducked her head and looked at the food tray, "They said that the fuel pump stopped working for some reason... so the Moth stalled..."
"But why did the plane flip Willow... you were the one behind the stick... you had control of that plane and yet for no apparent reason it flipped..."
"Buffy, I'm sorry, I said I was sorry. What more can I do? There wasn't anything else I could have done, I swear..."
"You had control of that plane... my little sister was in your hands Willow!"
Willow felt the tears sting her eyes once more... like she hadn't done enough crying already for the youngest Summers. She had cried until her eyes felt raw.
"She was twelve Willow... twelve..."
"My sister is dead Willow... there's nothing you can say... I just hope your guilt eats you away from the inside out and I pray to god that it hurts for the rest of your miserable life!"
Buffy pushed back the chair and ran from the room. Willow was left propped up in bed, the tray on her lap and her right leg stuck out awkwardly in front of her, encased in plaster. Hot tears fell again and Willow reached for some tissues to blow her nose. The tray rattled and Willow picked it up and threw it against the wall with a sob. There was a loud clattering of metal tray and broken crockery as mashed potato and gravy ran down the wall in a gooey mess.
Willow's eyes opened and she sighed to find herself in the relative comfort of her own bunk. She rolled over onto her back, staring up at the bottom of Tara's bunk. For the first time she wondered how the blonde had managed to get herself up there last night in her inebriated state. Willow heard a soft moan from the blonde as she turned in her sleep.
A shiver ran down her spine and Willow realised that she was cold... well, she was always cold on the carrier but this morning it was more pronounced. Her leg ached as a reminder of events passed, the reality of the nightmare...
She tucked her blanket up around her chin and tried to get another hour or two of sleep but sleep was a long time in coming.