Tara remembered the crash all too well. Despite strenuous effort, a crash was unavoidable. It took all her skill just to keep the Guardian level as it mulishly wanted to flip over on its back. Such a manoeuvre would end in fiery death. She elected not to lower the undercarriage, in the rubble strewn streets it was just as likely to kill her as a belly landing, and she couldn't be sure that the wheels were undamaged. Everything was coming so fast. With a sickening thud and a grinding of metal, the aircraft hit the ground. The canopy shattered, showering her with glass and ripping into her skin even though she raised her arms to cover her face. The sound of metal at breaking point before it finally tore was deafening. Tara could have said with certainty that she was going to die, she tried to hold on to the image of Willow's smile in her mind and yet the noise and the pain were unbearable. Then the plane lurched one last time before grinding to a halt so sudden that it sent Tara flying forward against the shattered instrument panel. Everything went black.
She woke, as she lifted her head from the instrument panel where it had come to rest. Her face felt warm and sticky as though it were completely covered in blood. She was groggy, disorientated, until her thoughts came flooding back to her, every bit of the landing playing through her mind. Now she knew exactly where she was and that it was not a good place to be...in fact, it was the worst possible place on earth.
Her movements began sluggishly but she quickly picked up the pace, she was acutely aware of the urgency of her situation. Her harness came undone swiftly and she swivelled in her seat to grab the survival kit which, as for every pilot, was stowed behind her seat. Tara yanked off her helmet and threw it out of the cockpit, instead selecting a woollen hat that she kept back there as well. Finally she snatched the machine pistol from the holster behind her seat and the two spare clips of ammunition, those went into the pack. While she was a deadly shot in the air, Tara had never received top marks for her prowess with the hand-held weapon. However, it was all she had.
As she exited the cockpit she prised open a sealed switch on the instrumental panel and pressed it hard for the prescribed five seconds. A red warning light began flashing ominously and she scrambled away from the aircraft as fast as she possibly could. She had barely run more than fifteen metres before the aircraft erupted in a compact and muffled but effective fireball, consuming it completely. Tara was thrown to the ground, face smacking into the dust on the street, heat from the explosion searing her body despite her heavy flight gear.
Twenty seconds my arse Giles! she remembered Giles very clearly saying in training that they had twenty seconds to get clear after the self-destruct was activated.
Tara had just discovered that the reality of it was somewhat different. She made a mental note to raise the issue with the bespectacled Englishman when she got back to the carrier. Not wasting anymore time she regained her feet, tugged on her pack and darted into the maze of rubble and partially destroyed buildings, knowing full well that the LGFs would be converging on her position at any moment. Tara ran, having never been to New York, she had no idea where she was going...she just had to get as far away from the crash site as possible.
Tara ran non-stop for the better part of half a day. The whole time her heart pounded as though it would burst from a combination of exertion and fear. However she would not and could not stop. As night began to fall Tara weighed up whether to press on under cover of darkness or finally allow herself to stop and rest. She made up her mind when in the gloom she tripped on a piece of rubble and went crashing to the ground. She lay unmoving in the dust as exhaustion and pain overwhelmed her. For a few moments tears burned her eyes and she just wanted to lie there and never get up. However, she forced herself up, staggering like a drunkard into the nearest building. Tara made her way up to the first floor. It had been someone's house once...another lifetime ago. The fašade had partially been blown away and looking outside Tara noticed trees for the first time in months, one even still had its autumn leaves clinging. She collapsed exhausted on a rug, reflecting on her luck that she had thankfully seen very little LGF action, just a few planes flying above from which she was able to shelter quite easily. With any luck, they would think she died in the crash and was consumed in the subsequent explosion...although she knew better than to tempt her fate by believing that was the case.
There was a mirror hanging above a mantel and for the first time since the crash she was able to take stock of her injuries. Although the last thing she wanted to do was look at herself, it had to be done. She was a frightful mess, her face was caked in sweat, dirt and dried blood from the cut on the side of her head. It had opened and bled freely at some stages during her dash for safety, although it was not deep it needed cleaning lest she develop an infection. Tara tugged off her hat and dug the compact first aid kit out of her pack. She winced at the sting of the iodine but worked swiftly and soon it was covered beneath a clean dressing. Apart from the cut and very blistered and sore feet from running in her flying boots she wasn't too badly off. She was however, exhausted and drained to her very core. She barely had time to note all the potential exits from her hiding place in case she had to make a quick getaway before falling asleep in the corner of the room on a pile of mouldy cushions.
The last thing she saw before she slipped into welcome sleep were images of Willow, Willow wearing her cherry-coloured helmet, Willow doubled over laughing, wrinkling her nose up at powdered eggs for breakfast again, sweat soaked on top of her during their love-making. Tara held fast on to those images and took them into her dreams.
Night had fallen but Willow remained on deck, sitting miserably beneath her Guardian. She had spent all afternoon helping the mechanics repair the tail plane, all the while allowing herself to believe that she would be allowed to return to New York as soon as repairs were completed.
Boone had refused permission of course, although there was a decided note of sympathy in his voice as he explained that the main assault would take place in two days, as soon as the reconnaissance had been analysed. All ground forces would be alerted to be on the lookout for Tara and any sign of her. Until then however, there was absolutely nothing Willow or anyone else could do. She just had to hope and pray that Tara was somewhere safe, hiding just like Buffy had said.
The Devils and Slayers had attempted to rally around her but she had refused any offers of sympathy or companionship. The dinner that Buffy had brought out for her sat untouched at her feet save for a sausage which had been angrily hurled at Alex when, for the fourth time, he told her to come inside.
It was bitterly cold on the deck, Willow sat with her back pressed up against the Guardian's front wheel, a cigarette clenched in her fist which every now and then she absently raised to her lips. A large pile of cigarette butts was stubbed out beside her. Smoking on the flight deck was strictly forbidden but Willow didn't care, and no one had the heart to tell her to stop. She half-heartedly wished that the Guardian's fuel tanks would be ignited and she would go up in a spectacular and mercifully quick ball of fire. However, she didn't entertain such thoughts seriously, Tara was out there alive...she knew it and felt it. It was just a matter of finding her and once that was achieved...never letting go of her again.
She stubbed her current cigarette out carefully on the deck, having firmly decided that, no matter her current mood, blowing herself up would not solve anything. Almost automatically, she shook the packet to release another but found none came to hand, she'd smoked the whole packet. Willow shook it again and again, just to make sure and that was how Faith found her a moment later...feverishly shaking the obviously empty packet.
Without a word, the brunette squatted a shot distance away and tapped her own pack of Marlboros to offer one to Willow who reached out and accepted wordlessly. Faith pulled one out for herself and the two of them sat puffing in the darkness, the only sound besides inhaling was Faith slipping backwards to sit on the deck more comfortably. In doing so she made it clear that she was not about to get up and walk off immediately.
It was some minutes before either of them spoke,
"Can I have another?" Willow asked quietly, having sat fidgeting for a whole two minutes without one and finding she could hold on no longer.
Although she was supposed to be sitting idle in a state of utter despair, she still had to be doing something. The only two things she could think of were smoking and drinking alcohol, the latter being ruled out due to the likelihood of her doing something completely irrational in a drunken state.
Faith chucked the whole packet at her, Willow caught it and shook one free, placing it on the edge of her lips. When her numb fingers refused to co-operate to strike a match, she was beginning to realise how bitterly cold she was. Willow swore continuously as she went through three matches before Faith hunkered closer with a light. As soon as her cigarette was lit, Willow tucked her gloved hands up inside her jacket sleeves.
"I guess we both have so many bad habits already that adding one to the mix doesn't really matter," Faith said quietly, trying to bait Willow into a seemingly innocuous conversation.
Willow sighed for some reason, "That and the fact that I'm probably destined for an early grave anyway so I won't need functioning lungs for much longer."
"What the fuck does smoking have to do with your lungs?" Faith asked in a heavily sardonic tone.
In reply Willow delivered a look that spoke volumes about Faith's inanity and her own intellectual superiority. Faith just chuckled in reply, far from offended and glad to have prised a little of the old Willow out of the sturdy shell she had built since Tara went down.
"I haven't smoked since..." Willow began quietly and then drew in a breath before eventually deciding that she could mention her name without any adverse effects, "Well...Tara hates it, so I don't."
"So you're reverting back to all your old habits in her absence?" Faith pushed a little harder to provoke some sort of reaction, "Cos if you are looking to start up with your wanton womanising I might have something to say about that..."
"I'm not!" Willow snapped suddenly and angrily, taking Faith's proffered bait hook, line and sinker, "I'm with Tara now and that's that...I'll always be with her and if anyone tries to get in our way then by hell I will..."
"Chill Red, chill," Faith was once more thoroughly satisfied of Willow's lasting intentions towards Tara, "I just feel as though she's my little sister, Buffy and I both feel that way...I was just checking..."
"Well you don't need to 'just check' alright?" Willow whispered in a choked voice.
Faith looked across at Willow and realised that she was crying, silent tears running unchecked down her cheeks. In the dim light on the deck, they lay wet and glistening on her pale skin. Faith made no move to reach out and comfort hear, for which Willow was grateful...she just wanted to be able to let it out. It was impracticable for her to go about her duties red-eyed and morose, it had to be cleared out now in order for her to function as she had to. The fact that Tara was gone did not remove any of her responsibilities, nor did it remove the fact that they were in the middle of a war.
"I hate feeling helpless," Willow sniffed loudly and angrily, dashing a cold sleeve across her swollen, red and runny nose.
"Same here," Faith replied honestly, "As soon as the opportunity arises, I'm going to find her...there's no way I'm leaving it up to a bunch of grunts to find T."
Willow looked across at the resolute expression on Faith's face and knew the Slayer meant it, a fact that she was grateful for. It meant that, when the time came for action, she wouldn't be alone.
"Tara's going to be in New York during the bombardment," Willow whispered quietly.
She said it knowing full well that she had little right to protest as she had agreed with Boone when he reasoned that the lives of the many outweighed the lives of the few. However, it was an altogether different story when Tara was one of the few even though she knew that Tara would be one of the first to give her life to save others.
"Do you honestly think T is that stupid?" Faith asked back in a slightly angry voice, "Do you think she would be anywhere near the ship when the navy lets loose? She'll be no doubt running as fast as she can in the opposite direction, towards the grunts."
"I know, I know," Willow replied, slightly exasperated that Faith was right, "What if she got captured..."
Both pilots knew that was the worst-case scenario. If Tara had indeed been captured, it would be very doubtful that she was still alive bombardment or no. Willow knew that if she herself was in that position, she would pray the bombs fell directly on top of her. For once, Faith had no come back, taking a very long drag on her cigarette as though it helped somewhat. Willow did the same although she knew for a fact it didn't really help...
"Whad'ya say we go inside?" Faith asked nonchalantly, annoyed that she was afraid for her friend.
Willow nodded, throwing the Marlboros back to Faith, "I'm fucking freezing."
When Tara woke the inside of her mouth was the consistency of sandpaper. She retrieved her water bottle and drank sparingly from it despite her thirst. However she needn't have worried, upon a brief exploration of her surroundings she found water collected in a bathtub which was partially open to the elements. Over her compact primus stove she boiled it with her dried survival rations to create a nourishing but decidedly unpleasant smelling stew. While it was cooking, she stripped down to her waist and gave herself as good a wash as she could manage, aided by the fact that she found an old cake of soap sitting neatly on the basin as though someone had used it mere days ago rather than months. Tara frowned, perhaps there were survivors here after all.
She cringed as she pulled her decidedly dirty clothing over her relatively clean body and went to eat her food. However, when she turned and took a step she thought she say something move in the corner of her eye. Tara froze, cursing herself for leaving her weapon with her pack. Searching cautiously she saw a small shadow move on a wall behind a overturned table and realised with relief that it could not possibly be an LGF...it was much too small.
"Whoever or whatever you are, come out now and you won't get hurt...otherwise I'll count to three and come and get you myself," although despite the small size of whatever it was that stalked her...Tara wasn't sure that diving in headfirst after it was such a good idea, "One...two..."
Before she said three, there was a plaintive meowing from behind the table and a more urgent 'shhhhh' which followed. Tara relaxed slightly, meowing was about as unthreatening a sound as she could hope to hear. She took a footstep towards the table, and then some more until she was so close she could hear the frantic breathing of someone who was terribly afraid. There was the sound of a slight scuffle and a fluffy grey ball came careening at her. Far from attack, it jumped up into her arms and started purring almost immediately. Tara almost grinned, she did have a way with cats. As she was stroking the skinny little thing, a mop of shaggy brown hair, closely followed by pair of huge brown eyes, peeked over the top of the table. The eyes were wide with fear but relaxed somewhat when they saw the cat nestled safely in Tara's arms.
"Come out, I won't bite I promise,' Tara said softly, dropping to one knee to make herself less threatening.
Very, very tentatively, a boy emerged from his hiding place. Although he was a little hard to make out due to his dirty appearance, he looked to be about ten, he was terribly skinny and his rather raggedly clothes hung on his frame. A state not helped by the fact that the suit and coat obviously belonged to a grown man. He'd rolled up the sleeves of the jacket and an overlarge belt was looped around his waist. His unkempt hair was wild about his face and uncut it curled down over his collar.
He did not take any further steps toward Tara but rather regarded her with the hard stare of someone who had seen more than too much in his short years. His little face would have been impish under normal circumstances but here it was very, very serious and grave.
"Is this your cat?" Tara asked, still stroking the very content animal.
He nodded once and Tara set the animal back down, it refused to move away and when she gave it a little shove in the direction of its owner it simply thought Tara wanted to play and chased her hand. It ended up circling Tara's body, brushing up against her at regular intervals. The boy didn't seem overly concerned, he'd obviously decided that the cat thought she was safe and that was good enough for him...besides, cats are very good judges of character. He cast a furtive glance in the direction of Tara's little stove where the stew was merrily boiling. She sighed and moved over to it, turning the stove off she scooped up a small spoonful and blew on it before tasting it. Not good at all...but palatable. She set it down on the floor opposite her with the spoon sitting in it.
"Here you go then, careful it's hot though," Tara inclined her head towards the food.
It did not take long before the boy scampered across, he carefully picked up the bowl using his coat sleeves to protect against the hot metal. Despite how hot it was, he made very short work of the stew. Tara's stomach rumbled unhappily but she had eaten a very full breakfast before taking off the day before.
She thought he had finished when he set the bowl down but there was a little in the bottom, he beckoned to his cat who was still hanging around Tara. The skinny little animal began to eat, it's purring intensified. As it ate, he looked up at Tara and flashed his teeth in a smile.
"Thanks awfully, we haven't had anything to eat except rotten turnips for the last few days...and I hate turnips when they are cooked properly let alone rotten, don't you?" he was very well spoken, obviously from a well-off family.
"I agree, perfectly disgusting," Tara smiled in return, "I'm Tara Maclay, I'm a pilot in Air Command."
His eyes lit up and he talked excitedly, "Were you in all those dogfights yesterday? I couldn't really see it but there was a terrible racket...I thought perhaps they had come to destroy them for good...I got so jolly excited about being able to stop hiding..."
"We have," Tara assured him, "And we will, eventually."
"What kind of plane do you fly? I have...had a model of a Gullstrike and a Draken hanging from my ceiling at home, I made them myself...well, with a little help from my Dad but he's dead now, my Mom too," although his voice was sad, it sounded as though he had been forced to come to terms with his loss already, "I'm sorry, I'm babbling, it's just haven't had anyone to talk to in the longest time, except Mrs Chippy. Mrs Chippy is actually a 'he' though, I named him before I knew what he was and the name stuck."
He stroked the cat gently, it had finished eating and was licking its paws. Tara wondered how on earth the young boy had survived all this time, obviously alone in New York City. He was thin, but other than that, seemed relatively unharmed...and obviously very talkative.
"Oh, and I'm Apsley, Apsley Cherry-Garrard...but all my chums and practically everyone else call me Cherry."
Tara smiled, "Please to meet you Cherry."
Even as she chatted with the boy, Tara was acutely aware of the need for her to be moving on. She remembered the plans Boone had gone over during their last briefing on Angel Island and the fact that army units would be coming down from Canada. It was her plan to head north and hope like hell that she bumped into one of them. There was no question of her leaving the boy here, she simply had to take him with her although she didn't fancy their chances.
"Cherry...I'm heading north...I have to try and met up with our army units...I'm afraid its going to be quite scary at times and you're going to have to try to do your best to keep up with me."
His eyes lit up, "Oh, I thought you were going to leave me behind...soldiers can't take children along with them on their missions after all...I'm quite brave and I move fast!" he said matter-of-factly.
"What about Mrs Chippy? Is he brave to?"
"Without a doubt, he just rides in the front of my coat," he swooped the cat up and nestled him securely against his chest before trying to do his buttons up single-handedly.
Tara smiled and reached out to do them up for him. Thirty seconds later, she had her pack on and ready to go, balancing the gun against her forearm.
"Moving out?" Cherry nodded seriously.
Tara nodded in reply and together the unlikely pair started out of the house, both creeping as silently as cats, sticking close to piles of rubble. As they moved, Tara wondered what Willow would think of her now and her strange new companions. A boy called Cherry and a the cat with a decidedly ill-fitting moniker.
The day and hour had arrived for the all out assault on the alien mothership and Willow stood by her Guardian waiting for the call to move out. The freezing cold of an early winter morning combined with the red dawn of death. Its bloody fingers creeping across the sky as though it were heralding the day to come. As she glanced skywards Willow reflected on the fact that she had never put much stock in omens...she believed in making her own fate. However, as her breakfast sat uneasily in her stomach and she yawned widely, she offered up a silent prayer to whoever was listening.
Willow had hardly slept a wink since Tara had been shot down. Despite this she had spent all of the previous day going over every inch of her plane, making absolutely certainty that it was in perfect working order so that if anything did go wrong, it would solely be down to pilot error. Willow rarely made mistakes in the air...
The briefing that morning had been thorough but to the point. They were to keep the skies clear at all costs for the main ground assault to move up through the city, wiping out any and all LGF resistance that they encountered. Analysis of the reconnaissance photos take of the ship and the surrounding area had proved to be invaluable. They showed that the ship had been securely fastened to the ground, it was almost as though it had become a building rather than a ship. LGF inhabitations had spread outwards from it like a disease, the photos showed that the heaviest concentration was all set within two miles of the ship.
The technical boffins had pored over the photos of the ship, analysing it to see where weaknesses lay. Most noticeably were what looked to be some sort of vents or exhaust ports which sat near the very top of the ship, two lay opposite each other. The boffins reasoned that direct hits on these vents may result in catastrophic damage to the interior...the 'may' part had Willow intensely worried. Being practically a genius herself, she considered herself qualified to question their findings. However, on this occasion Boone had told her to shut up very firmly. While this justifiably angered her, she could see his reasons for the lack of options. It was all they had to go on. If they lost this, everything would be over.
The take off had to be timed accurately in order to ensure synchronisation with the ground forces. Willow felt that too much depended on the army taking as much ground as possible. The pilots had been briefed that they may be landing at the city airport to refuel and rearm...another 'may' in the plans. This however didn't worry Willow, if she was on the ground, then she would be that much closer to finding Tara.
Willow looked impatiently at her watch and the way the minutes were ticking by with excruciating slowness. She looked up from her watch to see Faith staring at her, the brunette having not spoken to her since the night on deck.
"All set Red?" she asked jauntily.
Willow nodded, still looking at her watch, "Yeah, I feel good."
"How are you though?" Faith asked with more seriousness to her voice.
Willow lifted her head to look Faith in the eye and nodded again, more resolutely this time, "I'm good, Tara's out there, I know it."
"Damn straight she is," Faith replied as though that were the answer she was expecting to hear from Willow, "Smoke?"
Willow glanced at the packet and shook her head, "No thanks, Tara will kick my arse if I'm lighting up all the time."
Faith laughed loudly and lit one for herself, "You're whipped woman! You're supposed to be the senior officer!"
"Not where it counts," despite the moment, Willow found herself grinning in reply.
From the balcony of the carrier's castle, the tall tower which acted both as the ship's bridge and the flight tower, came a very loud and angry shout,
"Pilot Officer!" Boone screamed at Faith, "Put that fucking light out before you blow everyone to hell!"
Faith cast a contemptuous glance up before taking one last, insolent drag. She threw it to the ground and stubbed it out firmly with the steel toe of her boot.
"Like we're not all going to hell anyway," Faith looked longingly at her wasted cigarette, she then glanced down at her own watch, "Five minutes to go, better get mounted up."
Willow nodded at Faith who winked and turned to jog across the deck to her own plane. She jammed her helmet on her head and turned to climb the ladder into her cockpit. This time she let the deckhand fastened her harness straps as she sat running through her checks.
The last strap fastened in place and the cockpit hood slammed shut, locked, pre-flight checks done and Willow was set to go. Before she fired up the engines she had one last task to carry out, from the inside pocket of her flight jacket she withdrew a snapshot of Tara. Taken during one of their training days at Angel Island, the blonde was smiling lop-sidedly at the camera. It was partially out of focus due to the fact that Willow had been the photographer. However, even Willow's poor camera skills could not make a different to how damn beautiful she was. Willow tucked it to one side of her instrument panel, snagging it firmly in place. She then flicked all switches, feeling the Guardian's engines awake, full of promise. In seconds their defending roar could only just be heard through her helmet but she could feel it through every surface of her body. Her fingers curled possessively around the thrust lever.
From her cockpit, Willow watched Tad as he strolled to the castle balcony overlooking the deck, he raised an arm and fired a very pistol. A red flare soared skywards, adding to the already ominous glow which lay over them all. It was the signal she had been waiting to see for two days. Before she slammed the lever forward, Willow reached out with her other hand to trace Tara's picture gently.
"I promise not to let you down baby," she whispered in the eerie light, her hand then moved to the stick which she grasped firmly, her com crackled into life as she said in a firm voice, "Devil One moving out, see you all up there."
Willow slammed the thrust level forward, her arm trembling with a fierce intensity while at the same time the other hand holding the stick remaining solid and unmoving. She was slammed back in her seat as the Guardian accelerated in the blink of an eye. It rocketed off the end of the deck and climbed into the red sky, a devil with a mission.