At first Tara thought she was in total darkness. However, as her eyes adjusted she realised translucent pipes embedded in the walls gave off a faint, pulsating green glow. They cast the sickening colour over everything and also gave off a steady thrumming sound. The thrum grew to an incessant drone in the back of her head, as though it were invading her senses. Tara shook her head in a vain effort to clear it.
Her boot falls echoed off the cold metal floor, one after the other as she walked down the passage. She began to think it had no end until the light began to get brighter. Tara hugged the side of the corridor and kept her advance cautious even though she knew full well she was dreaming. This dream had visited her many times, always a long corridor...and at the end would be the room with the strangely shaped machine that made her skin crawl just to look at it.
Tara knew it was the machine Willow had described in her dream...but not once had she been strapped into it as Willow had described.
The light ahead changed slightly, a shadow passed in front of it. Tara narrowed her eyes to try and make it out. It appeared to be a figure, although it was much too slender and small to be an LGF. In this particular dream she had always been alone so she was curious to see what or who it was. As she came closer, light and dark separated to reveal it was indeed a human. Tara could eventually make out a woman's curves, long flowing hair...and finally, her features. As they came into focus, Tara gasped in disbelief.
"Mom?" she asked in the barest whisper.
It was the one person who never appeared in her dreams...not even her ordinary dreams which were exactly the same as those experienced by ordinary people. Tara often dreamt of her father and brother. She imaged what they would be like if they were still alive today, or relived cherished moments from her childhood. In all of those dreams one much loved figure had been absent. She had missed her mother all the more fiercely because of this, wishing just once that she could talk to her in her dreams.
Now she was standing in front of her, as real as life. As Tara gazed at her in astonishment, she noted her mother had not changed a day since the last time she saw her alive, before the trip to Egypt from which she had not returned. Tara's own vibrant blue eyes stared back at her from a face which was untouched by the passing years. Her wavy, dark blonde hair fell down over her shoulders, it fell over a simple white dress. It was almost as though Tara were looking in the mirror.
Diana Maclay wore a small but sad smile rather than the broad, carefree one she had constantly worn in life. Tara missed that smile, although at that moment she was contented to be able to see her at all.
"Mom," Tara repeated, this time in a louder voice, "I've missed you so much..."
Tara made to embrace her mother but Diana held up her hands to indicate that she could not. Tara's heart sank but she did not plead further, she knew how these things worked.
"As I have you, dear heart," Diana's voice was rich and throaty in its sadness.
"I was alone...for so long," Tara ached anew when she thought of the brutal deaths of her father and older brother, "Dad...Donny..."
"I know...I know," Diana consoled her from a distance, her hands still partially extended towards Tara, her voice choked with grief over the loss of her family.
"How? I mean, what happened to you...you just never came back," Tara had so many questions that needed answering, they poured forth, "Mom, where are you?"
"I'm here," Diana replied, her arms making a wide, encircling gesture at the space around her, "I'm a part of all of this...when they took me, it was all I could do to save a part of myself, stay free in a sense. Now I am just simply here..."
"As part of the dreamscape?" Tara asked hesitantly.
Diana shook her head, "Yes...and yet no. I can't explain it, I'm aware of them but as far as I can tell they are not aware of me. I guess I have condemned myself to an eternity of limbo...I do not know..."
Tara was incredibly saddened at the thought of her beautiful mother reduced to haunting the dreams of an alien species intent on destroying the world. Painful tears stung her eyes and she fought to hold them back.
"Don't cry little one," Diana whispered in a broken voice, "Just please listen to what I have to say...I do not know how much time we will have together. It took me years of searching to find you and when I did your dreams were a vicious blend of their dreamscape and your own tortured visions...mostly of yourself and the beautiful redhead..."
"Willow," Tara whispered, her voice lingered tenderly over each syllable.
"Willow," Diana nodded, she had already heard the name in Tara's dreams.
"I had to find you, I alone of all humanity know what has happened and is happening," Diana managed to smile wryly, "If you could call my present state ‘human.' I do not want to alarm you Tara...but everything depends on you...everything..."
Tara felt her shoulders sag already beneath such a weighty statement, even though so far she had heard virtually nothing.
She barely had the strength to speak again, "Mom, what?"
"They are the Juthungi, Tara. A race even more ancient than man...much more so. However, whereas humanity have also found art and culture, they have dedicated themselves to a civilisation of war. They are warriors first and foremost, which is why they are so very adept at killing. Yet, their greatest pleasure lies in the dreamscape...for killing things in the dreamscape is how they feed, they must do it to sustain themselves."
"I often wondered the purpose of it," Tara commented quietly, she was listening to every detail, "Then why the global war in the first place?"
"The Juthungi cannot simply draw everyone into the dreamscape, otherwise all of humanity would have long since been killed...without our technology and own weapons to aid us, we truly would be helpless. No, they need people like you...sensitives, who are in tune with the dreamscape and can therefore draw others in."
"So if everyone like me were dead...they would leave," Tara deduced.
Diana shrugged, a casual gesture for such a dreadful statement, "Perhaps...but there is another way to make them leave."
"How? Mom you must tell me, is it something I can do?" Tara said in an urgent voice, she took a step closer to her mother.
Even as she spoke, a group of Juthungi emerged from a room behind them which Tara had not noticed until now. She looked urgently to her mother, wanting confirmation as to whether they could see her or not. Seconds later she knew, rough, huge hands grabbed both her upper arms. Tara struggled violently, even as her mother looked on with a sad expression on her lovely face. They began dragging Tara backwards into the room.
"Mom?" Tara watched Diana following them.
She continued to speak even as her daughter was dragged on her heels, "Tara listen to me, we're running out of time. This whole ship...it's a machine, bound to our earth and designed to draw everyone into the dreamscape, and to do that they need a sensitive to hook up to their dread machine, they have tried and failed with a few people already...you absolutely must be the next sensitive they use!"
"Then I'll just draw everyone in!" Tara cried in exasperation, still struggling against her captors although less so as she realised it was futile.
They had now dragged her fully into the room. Hands still held her while another Juthungi moved in front of her. He leered at Tara in what she assumed to be a grin. Her insides crawled in the face of it. He withdrew a wicked looking blade from a sheath at his side and for a few terrified moments, even though she was dreaming, Tara thought he would plunge it into her body. Hands on either side of her tugged off her heavy flight jacket while the one with the knife slipped it under her jersey. Tara was forced to stand still as they stripped her down to her undergarments, removing her heavy boots as well. She stood freezing in just a woollen singlet and tights, her bare feet threatened to freeze to the floor.
"Mom?" Tara craned her neck over her captors to find her mother standing by the door, tears rolling down her face.
Juthungi hands thrust her backwards, Tara yelped as she fell through the air. She landed hard in the chair she had seen in her dreams. The one Willow had described her being strapped to. They immediately began attending to a complex series of straps which served to fasten her securely into the chair. Tara felt it's cold metal mould to every curve of her body until it fit as though it were made specifically for her.
"Tara, listen to me...I can change it! I can make it so the Juthungi are trapped within their own dreamscape, their real bodies will be dead to our world. Humanity will be safe - never again to be drawn into that deadly world. By standing at the conduit between the real world and the dreamscape I can influence it because I am part of it. However, I need your strength Tara, there's no way I am strong enough to do this alone. You and I share a connection that would make this impossible between any other two people," Diana Maclay surged forward between the Juthungi so that she stood right beside Tara, her lips almost touching Tara's ear, "Together, we can do this!"
Tara was terrified by the intensity of her mothers words as well as what she suggested. For the first time doubt crept into her mind as to whether she could trust this vision of her mother. The military training in her questioned everything, including whether or not all of this was a lie...designed to draw her back to the ship.
"Mom...I mean...how can I trust that what you say will happen? I don't want to doubt..." Tara began, she drew a breath and asked the question she needed to, "Are you really my mother?"
"Tara, time's almost up...I don't know what to say to convince you..." Diana's tone was urgent, her visage tortured with grief, "I knew you liked girls from the moment you gave Susan McNeil those flowers when you were just five...and you kissed her on the cheek at her birthday party. Seeing you and Willow together in your dreams, I know you've found the one woman who will love you for the rest of her life. Willow. You need to draw on that intense passion you feel for her in order to save her life...and the lives of millions of people...Tara..."
It was a dilemma that no one person should have had to bear...the fate of the world. At that moment Tara Maclay wished fervently that it were someone else, someone far stronger than herself. The metal pressed against her body, she was numb with cold, terrified. All she wanted was to be with Willow.
They had come together despite the military, despite the Juthungi, despite the war bringing chaos to the world around them. For the brief months she had known Willow, Tara had been blissfully happy despite everything. She had always known that she would do anything to save Willow's life...and if she could save the rest of the world as well, then why the hell not!
Tara realised she had all the strength she needed. She turned back to her mother, her face grim with determination. As she looked into Diana Maclay's eyes her doubt faded.
"Yes," she whispered.
At that moment a massive shockwave surged through her body causing her to spasm uncontrollably. Tara screamed...the pain was unbearable as she writhed against the straps which held her down. She arched her back upwards, instinctively straining to get away from the contraption which held her in thrall.
The pain abated for a blessed moment and through her glazed eyes Tara could just make out her mother. Tears continued to roll unchecked down Diana's face. As she lay gasping for each breath, Tara began to realise exactly what would happen if she chose to follow her mother's advice for real. She cried as well...
Tara's eyes snapped open and she lay absolutely frozen for a few moments before she realised where she was. She calmed instantly when she saw Cherry's little face regarding her with a mixture of concern and fear. With a muffled groan, Tara sat up and rubbed her aching temples. At that moment she realised that her cheeks were wet with tears.
"Who's Willow?" Cherry asked quietly, staring at Tara with wide eyes.
"What?" Tara asked groggily, trying to recollect her shattered thoughts.
"Just before you woke up, you called out for someone named Willow."
Tara had no idea what she had said in her sleep for the young boy to hear. She hoped fervently that it had been safe for his young ears.
"Willow is...Willow is my girlfriend, my everything really," Tara replied quietly, as she talked she began rummaging around in her pack for some food for the three of them, she fervently hoped they managed to meet up with the army soon, she didn't have much food or water with her.
"Ah," Cherry nodded sagely, "I had a girlfriend once, Jemima Carrington-Jones, but I made fun of her hat one day and she never spoke to me again...I should very much like to find her again. What's Willow like, I hope she doesn't wear silly hats."
Tara passed Cherry a pack of survival mix which was made up of nuts and chocolate before she replied, "No, Willow wouldn't be seen dead in a silly hat, she has bright green eyes, even brighter than Mrs Chippy's, perfect red hair and the cutest little nose. She's the most beautiful girl on the planet," Tara's eyes were burning as a sure sign to stop talking before she burst into tears, she continued a little gruffly, "Hurry up with those, we're moving out in five minutes."
Tara tucked into her own packet, the dry food rattling around in her dry mouth and she took a small swig of water from her canteen. The food sat even worse in her stomach where it congealed and set into a hard lump like concrete. She barely finished half the packet and handed the rest to Cherry who accepted them gratefully.
They were back on the road less than a minute later, although as their feet took them closer to safety Tara knew she was going in the opposite direction from where she ought to. She looked ahead to Cherry who was struggling gamely over a pile of rubble. So far during their journey she had yet to hear one word of complaint from the boy. Her mouth set determinedly...she would get him to safety first.
Despite the fact that her newly repaired Guardian handled sluggishly, Willow felt a surge of confidence running through her veins. She looked out to her left and right to see both Devil and Slayer squadrons fanned out in formation as they approached the mothership. It lay on the landscape like a giant pimple, each one of the pilots longing to squeeze and squash it completely like the disease it was.
As they approached, Willow watched swarms of LGF fighters emerge from the sides of the ship. The flying wings also fanned out in their own deadly formation. They rose quickly to meet the oncoming threat to their ship.
"Here they come, hold on to your knickers everyone!" Willow yelled over the com just as she slammed the thrust lever forward to dive into the middle of the approaching LGFs, there was no way in hell she was holding anything back today.
The Guardian's engines gave a worrying cough of protest before they complied with their master's commands. As Willow dived she opened fire at the first craft in her sights and watched it explode in a giant fireball which took another LGF craft with it. Willow flew through the debris of the destroyed ships and tore through the centre of the LGF formation. Her manoeuvre sent them scattering in all directions, right into the paths of the rest of the Devils and the Slayers.
In her bold move, Willow had torn straight through the defensive formation of ships and found herself on collision course for the mothership. She pulled up just before she slammed into its side and went skimming up over its surface at maximum speed. The vents were at the apex of the pimple-shaped ship...Willow could see them clearly.
"Why hello there," Willow whispered, her face curling into an evil grin as she released two of her four rockets towards the target.
Both rockets slammed into the vent with a huge fireball as a resulted. Willow yanked her stick to one side and pulled a tight turn around to check on the damage she had done. As the smoke cleared she saw the heavy armour plating had been partially torn away from the opening...but the vent was still not clear. More firepower was needed.
"This is Devil One to all planes, this nut is gonna be tough to crack...use your rockets and be as accurate as possible. Cover each others attack runs...it's like flying through a swarm of insects out here!" Willow said clearly and firmly, even as she pounced an unsuspecting LGF and let rip with a burst of cannon fire into its wing.
Willow accelerated back up into the sky, away from the ship where manoeuvrability was constricted. She glanced over her shoulder to see the sky a mass with craft, both going down in flames and tearing through the sky. The Guardians were clearly the superior planes...Willow fervently hoped that there were enough of them to win the day.
Down on the ground, two figures far away watched the explosions with a mixture of excitement and horror. Cherry couldn't contain a whoop of excitement as he punched his fist into the air with a primal cry. Mrs Chippy was not impressed with all the commotion, her little head peaked out of his coat with a worried frown.
"The assault," Tara whispered, gazing skyward as she saw bright flashes of light erupt around where the alien mothership lay.
It was exactly where she needed to go...and yet she doubted whether she would be able to make it in one piece. A wry smile almost crossed her face, she would run the risk of being killed by her own squadron if she went anywhere near the ship.
The sounds that came from the ship were distant, mere muffled explosions. However, in the street where Tara and Cherry stood watching a louder rumble could be heard. It came from the direction of the ship but neither of them could see anything. Tara surmised that it had to be Juthungi from the direction they were coming. There was no alternative but to hide and hope they were passed by.
Tara dragged Cherry unceremoniously by the scruff of his neck, even as the small boy craned his neck to be able to see the approaching convoy. He scrambled to stay on his feet and followed her down into the building's ruined basement. Tara continued to retain her hold on him until they had reached the darkest spot in the dank space. She crouched down behind a furnace which had long since ceased to burn and pulled Cherry down with her.
"You didn't need to drag me so roughly, I wanted to see who it was!" he protested loudly.
Tara didn't respond as the rumbling in the street drew closer to the building in which they were hiding, she just clamped a strong hand over his mouth. Cherry got the picture and promptly stopped trying to argue. Tara lowered her hand and gently shifted him behind her so that her body shielded him. She half expected him to go charging off and confront whoever it was himself with the foolhardy bravery of a child. With shaking hands she held the machine pistol out in front of her. She had never fired the weapon in anger. It was one thing to let loose with a battery of 20mm cannons by pressing a button in the cockpit...it was another altogether to pull the trigger of a weapon in her own hands.
Cherry in turn held Mrs Chippy tightly in his coat with one hand, if the kitten ran off, he knew there was no way he could follow her. Mrs Chippy however, seemed quite content to sit in the warmth and luxuriate in the fact that they had ceased running. She was unconcerned by her master's heart thumping in his chest and was in fact...purring. In the other hand Cherry felt for, and found a small chunk of masonry. His fingers curled over it, he gripped it tightly in preparation to throw it with all the strength he could muster.
The barely audible thrum emanating from the kitten and the panicked breathing coming from Tara and Cherry were all that could be heard coming from the dark space. Outside however, was another story. The rumbling grew louder as it came closer, eventually the building began to shake. It showered them both in fine clouds of dust and stung their eyes.
Suddenly, Tara heard the distinct sound of heavy boots on the wooden stairs leading down to the basement. The thudded down in rapid succession, first one pair...then another and another...Even as she tightened her grip on her weapon, Tara knew there was no way that she could hope to fight them off.
A single beam shot through the darkness, illuminating the clouds of dust around them. Before Tara realised that it was simply torch light, it fell directly into her eyes and blinded her. Tara threw her hand up to shield her eyes even as she heard the most welcome sound she could possibly imagine.
"It's a woman and a kid!" a strong Southern accent cut through the fog in her brain as he yelled to his comrades.
Tara blinked, trying to focus as the torchlight no longer shinned directly into her eyes. All she saw were bright spots for a few moments before she could make out the dirty face of the man in front of her. His earnest brown eyes stared at her from beneath his large helmet, she realised that his hand was extended towards her.
Tentatively, Tara reached out. As soon as she came into contact with his grimy paw, he secured a vice-like grip on her hand and yanked her up in one strong movement. Another soldier had already moved to help Cherry up and the boy beamed at his rescuer. The sudden movement startled Mrs Chippy and her small head peaked out of Cherry's coat to see what was going on.
"Are you alright mam?" the soldier asked in a loud voice before he saw her flight jacket, "I'm sorry, sir!"
Tara just nodded, she extended her hand to Cherry who responded with the barely imperceptible but vigorous shaking of his head. Although he liked Tara a lot, Cherry didn't want to be seen holding her hand in front of the battle-toughed soldiers. Even so, he remained close as he followed her stoically from the building.
Once outside she realised what the entire rumbling had been. Stopped outside the building, it's engine still humming, was a massive tank. The tank commander gave them both a wave from the turret. Tara looked down the street to see another two tanks behind the first, a number of soldiers either stood beside them or clung to the sides.
An officer strode up to greet her with an extended hand, "Lieutenant Oates, third armoured battalion. You one of those pilots from the fleet?"
"Yes, Flight Officer Maclay, I was shot down a few days ago and have been trying to meet up with you guys."
"We were heading for the front but have just been recalled to reinforce the rear, you guys sure are lucky we bumped into you, Maclay," Oates nodded, agreeing with himself, "I'm guessing you'll want to hitch a ride?"
"If it's no trouble..." Tara began.
"Trouble? Most certainly not!" he turned to men sitting on the sides of the nearest tank and barked out swift orders, "Hey, you louts! Help the officer and the kid up!"
"We're riding on a tank!" Cherry said breathlessly, he scrambled up the huge tracks on his own, even so, arms reached down to pull him up.
Tara found more than enough soldiers reaching down to help her up. She was hoisted onto the rumbling, metal beast and settled into a spot next to Cherry. Someone had already slapped an overlarge helmet on the boy's head and he grinned at her from beneath it. Tara reached out and lashed the chinstrap up firmly for him, keeping it tight on his head.
Even as the tiny convoy began moving again with its two extra passengers, Tara's gut began to ache. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the mother ship, as far away as it was. Her mother's words rang over and over in her head. She knew what she had to do but was terribly afraid to do it. Not for her own sake...but for Willow's. Their tank pulled away last, there was nothing between her and the ship...except Willow.
Cherry was perched comfortably on the side of the tank, well, as comfortable as it was possible to be on the side of a lumbering metal giant. Mrs Chippy had taken this new development in her stride and was riding in his coat with her eyes on the road ahead. A firm hand slapped him on the shoulder and he looked up to see the tank commander smiling down at him.
"Hey kid, want a Hershey's bar?"
Cherry could only nod enthusiastically and the soldier passed him down a rumpled but intact bar of chocolate. As he was peeling back the wrapper and tucking into his first bite, he looked across to Tara. She was staring behind them, at the perilous way they had just come. Her beautiful face had a pained expression as though she were longing for something. He thought perhaps she was missing Willow. He broke off a piece of his chocolate and tapped her on the shoulder, offering it to her. Tara smiled and shook her head.
"I'm not really hungry," she replied, she turned around again and went back to facing their past.
He watched her face set in a fierce expression of determination. Cherry knew it well, it was what had seen them both through the past few days. She discreetly tugged her backpack back onto her back and checked her weapon.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard may have been just ten years old, but as he watched Tara he knew she was planning to do something quite rash.
"Tara?" he asked uncertainly.
Tara spun around fully to talk to the boy, she hunkered down slightly to meet him at eye level.
"Cherry, these men will take good care of you and Mrs Chippy alright?" her voice was firm and would brook no argument.
Cherry nodded, the chocolate became tasteless in his mouth as he realised she was leaving him. He carefully folded the remainder of the chocolate back into its wrapper and handed it to her. Tara took it with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Without a further word she lightly jumped off the back of the moving tank. Within seconds she had disappeared into the rumble that littered the street. All Cherry could do was stare wistfully and eat the piece of chocolate he had broken off to give to Tara.
"Oi! Where'd the woman go?" one of the soldiers had just noticed Tara was missing and grabbed Cherry by the shoulder.
Cherry turned back to face him with an impassive expression on his little face, "She has something she needs to do."
Willow jammed her thumb down and watched as one rocket tore away from the Guardian and went soaring towards the vent atop the ship. Although she watched with satisfaction as the missile slammed into the port side vent and something erupted in a ball of flame, there was no second rocket that followed. She jammed the button again before peering out of her cockpit and down to see the second rocket hung up on its bracket beneath her wing. It dangled uselessly, neither secure nor about to fall off.
"Oh for fuck's sake!" Willow slammed her fist against the side of the cockpit and broke of her attack run in the face of a furious barrage of cross fire from all sides.
As she pulled up and out of the most severe fire, she called out over her com to Charlie and Barrel, "Devils three and five, all set for your runs...I'll draw fire."
"Will!" Alex yelled from where he was circling, engaged at keeping enemy aircraft at bay, "Get the hell out of there, what else can you possibly do?"
"I make an extremely nice sitting duck," Willow muttered, as she sped towards the target from the opposite side of the ship as Charlie who was making his live run, she was merely acting as a dummy.
Willow noted with satisfaction that the majority of the fire was directed at her as she ducked and weaved with all the urgency that she could muster. This in itself was an achievement in a plane which was performing worse with each passing minute it was in the air. She passed directly over the target without having fired just as Charlie's rockets slammed home. Willow passed unscathed through the resulting fireball and back up over the other side.
"Nice shooting Devil three...they've definitely got something to think about now," she watched as fires burned beneath her, licking over the surface of the alien ship, "All set Devil..."
As Willow was pulling back around for yet another dummy run, struggling to avoid fire coming from the ship, she was pounced by an LGF that had snuck through the Slayers protective circle. The engine coughed once more, losing vital airspeed. The Guardian shook as fire tore along its underside, raking it from nose to tail. Willow fought to level her plane out, her instrument panel lighting up like a Christmas tree with warning lights.
Even as she struggled with the controls Willow was fiercely angry, How come I'm the one who's always getting her plane shot full of holes...I'm supposed to be good dammit!
There was an explosion behind her and Buffy's voice came over the com, "It's off your tail Will, you've done enough, land that crate before it lands you!"
"Thanks Buff," Willow kicked the place into a right turn...or rather tried to turn, the Guardian refused to cooperate and managed only a weak bank to the right.
She was moving away from the scene, but at a snail's pace and with barely any control whatsoever. If she ran into any LGF action she would be toast for sure. Luckily for her, they were all hanging around the ship trying to stem the main attack which, thanks to Willow's leadership, was wrecking havoc.
A few minutes later, as she was still struggling towards friendly lines, Buffy's voice called over the com again, "We're spent, fuels low and ammunition is almost gone...we'll be right behind you."
"Outcome?" Willow asked through clenched teeth.
"Inconclusive," Buffy replied, "The outside of it is all shot to hell but I don't know what internal damage we've done or how many of them we've killed...let's just hope the army has made some progress."
Willow landed a few minutes later, it felt weird to be landing on solid ground instead of a carrier. While the Guardian was seriously damaged she managed to get it grounded without further incident. After all, she was extremely good at landing damaged planes.
Willow leapt down to the ground from her cockpit, feeling a slight jar as she did so but nothing serious. She flexed all her limbs to make sure they were still there. As she was doing so a pair of soldiers ran up,
"Sure is a nice plane sir," one said, casting appreciative glances at the new-fangled aircraft.
"It used to be a nice plane," Willow turned and surveyed the rather serious damage that had been done to her freshly repaired plane, "Is there someone around her who can start fixing her up?"
"The tech boffins are just being brought up from the rear now, shouldn't be long before you're back in the air," the soldier replied confidently.
As Willow looked wearily at her plane she was suddenly aware of just how tired she was. Having no sleep in almost two days was fast catching up with her now she was back on the ground. Her limbs, which only a few moments ago had still been energized from flying, began to turn into jelly.
"Are you alright sir, are you hit?" the soldier asked, his hand shooting out to grab Willow as she sagged.
Willow shook her head, "I'm fine...just exhausted that's all. I really need to grab a few hours sleep."
The solider helped her to a cluster of tents which were serving as a field hospital. Willow gratefully slumped down into the nearest available cot and was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Willow awoke to something licking her face and for a few glorious moments she thought that it might be Tara. However, as she regained consciousness more fully, she realised that the tongue was much too small and too rough to belong to Tara...and she was also quite sure that Tara did not purr. Gradually her eyes opened and came to focus on a tiny, furry little face. She lifted her head from the pillow and lent back slightly to regard a skinny, little orange kitten that looked at her as though he expected thanks for waking her up.
"You're Willow aren't you?" a bright voice piped up from the bed next to Willow as she was still trying to gather herself together.
Willow lifted her head to see a small boy seated on the bed behind her. His wayward mop of hair half flopped over half of his dirty little face. He held a huge, steaming tin mug of hot chocolate with his much too long sleeves brought up to protect his skin from the heat. She regarded the rather queer sight for a moment before replying.
"My name's Willow yes, how did you know?" Willow sat up a little further, propping herself up with her arms.
The cat meowed indignantly at being forced to shift as Willow moved. She absently reached out and stroked it as it settled into a new spot.
"Tara told me about you," he replied simply.
Upon hearing that name Willow sat up in a hurry. She caused herself a massive head-rush which sent her head spinning and sent the cat leaping to the floor. She grasped her head firmly between both hands for a few moments to quell the sensation. Once the room had stopped spinning, she threw back the covers which someone had kindly placed over her.
"When did you meet Tara?" Willow asked urgently, managing to sit up fully and swing her legs over the side of the bed.
The cat stole the opportunity to return Willow's lap and she absently resumed stroking it.
"A few days ago, she found Mrs Chippy and I hiding and helped me out until we met up with some soldiers."
"Tara was with you when you met up with the soldier?" Willow repeated with a furrowed brow and the first glimmerings of hope, "Do you know where she is now?"
"Yes!" he replied enthusiastically, as though he were quite pleased that he could help but at the same time unintentionally exasperating Willow with the brevity of his replies.
"Where? Where is she...please?" Willow tried to keep her voice from sounding too desperate but failed miserably.
"The big ship," this time he replied with much less enthusiasm, he ducked his head as though it were his fault that he had lost her, "She made sure I was safe and turned right back around again, saying it was something she had to do....but I don't know what it was she had to do...but she was going in the direction of the big ship. I'm sorry."
Willow's heart sank and she lent her head in her hands, accidentally jabbing Mrs Chippy's foot with her elbow. The cat meowed indignantly and leapt off her lap, having decided that he'd had enough of sitting on the volatile stranger's lap. He returned to Cherry, rubbing himself against his master's legs.
"It's not your fault..." Willow realised she didn't know the boy's name even as her mood plummeted to the very depths, "What is your name?'
"Apsley Cherry-Garrard," he reached out a hand and Willow grasped it as firmly as she could manage under the circumstances, "But everyone calls me Cherry...and this is Mrs Chippy of course."
"Cherry...thank you very much," Willow flopped back onto the cot, the springs protesting under her slight weight.
She lay there, feeling an unbearable emptiness and disbelief. Tara had been rescued and within mere miles of returning to her love but she had chosen to run in the opposite direction.
Cherry felt some of Willow's pain, he missed Tara even though he had only known her for a relatively brief time. He knew just how wonderful Tara was...Willow must be feeling what he felt a hundred-fold.
"Willow," he saw her blinking back tears.
She propped herself up on her elbows again, and felt reassured by the sympathy evident on Cherry's face. It was clear Tara had an effect on him.
"Yes Cherry?" she whispered.
"Are you going to follow her?" he asked simply.
Willow's eyes widened as she realised what Cherry was effectively saying. Why was she sitting around feeling sorry for herself when she could be going after Tara. Willow knew there was little time to waste. She glanced at her watch and saw she had slept for the better part of the afternoon; night would fall soon. For some reason, she couldn't quite explain, she knew Cherry was very right when he said Tara was heading for the ‘big ship.' Images of her dream flooded unbidden into her mind and she squeezed her eyes shut tightly, both to hold onto them and block them out.
"Willow?" Cherry asked again, perhaps the redhead had not heard him.
"Yes...I am," Willow replied firmly before Cherry could ask the question again, finally managing to stand up.
Captain Red, fighter Ace extra-ordinaire, was about to become a foot soldier...
Tara slipped and tumbled down a pile of rubble. As she crashed down her world spun around her, she momentarily lost conscious as her head slammed against a concrete slab. When her eyes re-focused she had to stifle a terrified scream. She was face-to-face with a Juthungi on the ground beside her. Petrifying seconds passed before she realised that it was lying down in death, it's sightless eyes staring at absolutely nothing. Once over her initial terror, Tara regarded it quizzically. In death, although the creature visage was hideous, it was nothing to fear. Instinctively, she reached out and placed her hand on its head, right between its two purple eyes. If she had been expecting to feel something she was disappointed. All she felt was a vague feeling of uneasiness that could have been coming from her own emotions.
Once done communing with the dead alien, Tara regained her feet and resumed her trek towards the mother ship. The closer she came, the more damage was revealed until she was its exterior was a mass of pitted, gaping holes.
At its base, it was connected to the very earth by a series of large tubes. They threaded their way downward in no particular succession, each descended underground. They pulsed like veins full of blood as though they pumped something into the earth. Tara could not get any idea of what it was through the opaque surface of the pipes.
She froze when she saw a small cluster of aliens barely fifty feet away from her. They stood quite impassively, almost as though they were waiting for something. Although she had seen them many times in the dreamscape, it was altogether different to see them real and alive. Fear and doubt resurfaced. What if they were to kill her on the spot? What if her mother had been wrong? Steeling herself for what was to come, Tara gathered a series of deep breaths. She composed herself through her breathing just as her mother had taught her so many years ago.
She was ready...
"I'm so sorry Willow," Tara murmured as she emerged out into the open.
It did not take long for the Juthungi to notice her...
Tara drew in a deep, shuddering breath as moments later, rough, greasy hands claimed her flesh. In that moment she knew for certain what she had begun to realise in her dream...she would never see Willow again...