As soon as the whisper left Willow's lips she knew she had to find a way to break Tara out of the trance in which she was trapped. While at first she had been unable to draw her eyes away from Tara's expression, Willow recoiled in horror when she noticed the tubes piercing Tara's skin. Her fists clenched with a yearning to grab them and tear them quickly but tenderly from her lover's body. Yet at the same time a part of her was trying to instil a sense of caution. She had absolutely no idea what the liquid running through those tubes was doing to Tara, and more importantly whether their removal would cause her pain or lead to her death.
"Hold on Buff!" Willow called over her shoulder, where she hoped Buffy was still alive, "I'm going to fix this!" And just how are you going to do that Rosenberg? Think!
Her face set in a grim mask of determination, Willow dragged herself to her feet with the intention of reaching Tara no matter how difficult that was. She reasoned that once she reached Tara and somehow removed her from that machine, everything would stop. Tara was right in front of her...all she had to do was reach out and touch her...
Willow stumbled, suddenly feeling incredibly dizzy.
There was a blinding flash. Willow's boots crunched on the gravel.
A blast of icy cold wind and the deathly silence of the dreamscape hit Willow at the same time. Someone stood just in front of her...but it wasn't Tara. Purple eyes bored into her own, fearless and merciless. Willow just stood shock still in the presence of the muscular alien where her lover ought to have been. The LGF regarded her as though her appearance had been entirely expected.
Before Willow could even think that it was all a bad dream and it would be over in a matter of seconds, the LGF's huge hand surged forward and its fingers wrapped themselves around her neck. Willow felt the steely fingers tighten around her flesh, slowly cutting off her air passages. As though she weighed nothing, it lifted Willow right of her feet. Her legs were left thrashing helplessly at the air. She struggled for breath, powerless in its grasp.
In one lightening movement, the LGF moved its free arm. Willow suddenly felt a sharp, piercing pain through her left shoulder and her eyes watered fiercely. She wanted to scream but couldn't. Within her limited field of vision, Willow glanced down to see a skewer-like instrument in its hand. The other end was embedded in her shoulder. She was stuck like a pig on a roasting spit.
When the LGF withdrew the skewer from her shoulder in one brutal tug, the scream finally came. The cry tore from Willow's lungs but sounded little more than a strangled gasp due to the vice-like grip on her neck. It nevertheless pierced the air with palpable pain as she struggled desperately, kicking her legs but still finding nothing but air.
As though in response to her futile attempts to escape, the LGF drew its arm back slightly and with a mighty heave sent Willow flying like a rag doll. At some stage during her flight through the air, reality shifted yet again. Rather than continue flying until gravity brought her to earth, Willow's limp body collided with a cold, metal wall. Already unconscious, Willow's body then dropped like a stone to the floor and she lay crumpled in a small heap in front of Tara.
The first thing Willow felt when she regained consciousness was the damp of her own blood soaking her jacket sleeve. Then she felt the wound where the skewer had pierced her shoulder. Face contorted in silent pain, all Willow wanted to do was curl into a little ball and hide. However, somehow she knew she had to restore a semblance of sanity and bodily function. She tested one limb at a time and was a little surprised to find that everything still worked except her left arm which hung limp and useless at her side. It was useless but still managed to cause her a tremendous amount of pain. She had nothing to stem the flow of blood except a few field dressings in the front pouch on her webbing. Awkwardly she fumbled for them and pressed them against the wound. As soon as the dressings made contact with the wound it radiated even more pain. Barely conscious, Willow managed to jab herself with a tiny syringe of painkiller. She then lay gasping against the wall as she tried to force herself to get moving despite her injury, sweat beading her face.
Her pain-fogged mind cleared enough for her to focus on Tara once more. In fact, the sight of her lover still bound to that awful machine instilled an inhuman will within her. She dragged herself to her feet and stood swaying for a few seconds before taking a lurching step forward. Willow felt like a drunkard as she staggered towards Tara, all her effort focused on reaching her as fast as possible. She had no idea how much time she had before being dragged back into the dreamscape again. Willow knew she had no chance of surviving another bout with her LGF assailant.
She thanked her lucky stars with each step she took that did not wind her up in the dreamscape. After what felt like an eternity had passed, she found herself face to face with her lover's sightless eyes. Willow almost broke down at the sight of what Tara had become. Veins of vivid green pierced her beautiful porcelain skin as the alien substance moved beneath her skin.
Instinctively, Willow raised her cupped hand towards Tara but stopped just short of actually coming into contact with her skin, fearful of the consequences. She was made acutely aware of the fact that while she was so close, she could see no way in which to help her. Tears began to flow as a result of her inability to do anything.
"Tara...baby, I don't know if you can hear me," Willow tried to keep the tears from choking her voice, now was not the time to give into her pain, "Wherever you are, I need you to come back to me...please, come back."
A split second later, Tara's eyes rolled back into focus.
Through the haze within her mind, the mixed images she was getting, Tara heard Willow's voice. She struggled to concentrate on that sound she knew so well...using it as a point from which to focus all her scattered thoughts. If she could just hold onto that voice, she knew she could make some sense of the chaos in her mind.
In her mind, Tara reached out and tried to take hold of Willow's words. She found them and latched on, refusing to let go even as everything accelerated at a dramatic speed. Tara found herself carried on a torrent, moving faster and faster towards something both real and intangible. Just as she was about to be forced to let go, Tara came to an abrupt halt. She jerked forward once. When she lifted her head she found herself face to face with Willow. It was a very dirty, bloody and wounded Willow.
Willow's face was wet with tears and her mouth worked soundlessly for a few moments before the words poured forth.
"My god Tara! You're here, is it really you?" her words came out in a single stream, so urgent was her need to speak, "Stay here, don't let it draw you back in again...please, I have to get you out of here, out of this chair and out of this ship!"
No! I can't, I haven't finished yet!
Tara knew she couldn't give up as everything depended on her. However, she not only had to find a way back into the dreamscape, but also a way in which to control it rather than vice versa which would result in the destruction of the human race. She looked sadly at Willow and knew that she had given herself a chance to say goodbye. Tara tried to speak but she could not even move her mouth let alone make a sound. The cruelty of fate would have it that she could see Willow one last time, but not say a word to her.
However, the bond between them was so intense that the mere expression on her face spoke to Willow. Tara saw the redhead's face grow intensely worried and her torrent of words became even more urgent.
"Tara? Why are you looking at me like that? Stay with me for gods sake!"
Only now did Willow reach out and physically touch Tara. With both hands, she grabbed her cheeks, fitting her fingers carefully around the tubes emerging from Tara's skin.
Tara felt a powerful surge of emotion with the contact. She drew on Willow's love for her and her incredible strength which still remained despite the fact she was horribly wounded. It was exactly what she needed and she drew as much as she dared, more even.
Willow felt it and in that instant she knew that Tara would let herself be drawn back into the dreamscape. She knew it...and was not going to let it happen.
"Fucking hell Tara, I want you to stay with me!" Willow was almost screaming, her grip on Tara's cheeks growing steadily stronger as though that in itself would keep Tara with her, "I don't care about whatever it is you are doing, you're not going back to that place...Tara, I love you..."
Willow was gradually fading as she was drawn back in...
Love you too Will...
Even as Tara was consumed by the dreamscape, she managed to remain aware of herself. Unlike her previous chaotic experience where she had struggled to grasp anything substantial, she retained a hold on herself.
She found herself walking, or at least a movement which passed for walking in the strange dreamlike state in which she existed. It was not the dreamscape she was so familiar with; she couldn't describe it except to think that it was like being behind the scenes. There was nothing below her feet, above her head, or to either side. She couldn't describe exactly what was out there except to say that there was nothing. The only focal point she could see was an intense bright, blue light directly in front of her. Tara squared her shoulders and definitely walked towards it.
As she moved towards it, she gradually made out of the source of the light and discovered that there was not one, but two sources. A perfectly spherical ball of blue light hovered in the nothingness, to its right was an identical sphere save for its red hue. Tara thought that they were that perfect size to contain a single human. A thought that was confirmed when a body moved within the blue sphere. Tara ran over to it to find herself staring at her mother, trapped within the field of blue light.
"Mom!" she had to fight to restrain herself from reaching in there to pull her out.
Diana raised an exhausted head to meet her daughter's gaze, "Tara...I can't hold it for much longer. With your help, they've started the process and already people everywhere are being drawn into the dreamscape..."
"Willow..." Tara breathed.
"...I'm powerless to do anything without you. You have to help me turn the tide against them!"
Tara was frantic, "How? Just tell me how and I'll do it!"
Diana weakly pointed towards the red sphere opposite her, "You must enter the red...join with me and together we can draw the Juthungi and trap them in their own creation."
Tara looked over her shoulder towards the red sphere and felt a sense of dread just looking at it. She turned back to her mother, hesitation beginning to creep in when faced with what she did not understand.
"Why...I don't understand..."
"Trust me Tara! The red sphere," Diana looked as though she were faltering, she sunk to one knee within the sphere, clearly exhausted.
Tara finally turned away from her mother and faced the red sphere. She moved towards it, although even as she did, she couldn't help but feel a sense of foreboding. Something was terribly wrong.
She put her hand out towards the red sphere, her skin almost coming into contact with the light that made up its surface. As she did so, there was an immense surge from the surface of the sphere as it acted like a black hole, seeking to draw Tara within its depths. Tara faltered and took a single step back. Her mind was working overtime.
Surely the sphere would be working to keep me out if this is the way to destroy them...I should have to fight to get in...everything else so far has been a fight...
"Come on honey, you can do it...just step into the sphere and I'll take over from there. Everything will finish...the world will be saved and you will be with Willow once more!" Diana cried out from within the blue sphere behind her.
Willow! All I have to do is step in here and Willow and I will never be parted again...so easy...
Tara took a step forward to counter the backwards step she had made a few moments earlier. Once again the sphere pulsated and surged, seeking to haul her into it. Tara gave herself up to its magnetic attraction and at once everything came surging forward. As her skin met the red sphere's surface she felt tiny pinpricks cover its surface. However, it was more than that. All of a sudden, she felt as though her entire life draw through those tiny holes. First, just her hands and forearms where they entered the sphere but slowly creeping forward.
No! Tara wrenched herself out of the sphere in an instant.
She stood gasping just beyond its reach and realised exactly what had happened. Everything was again moving fast. Behind her, Diana's voice was growing increasingly shrill as she demanded her daughter step within the red sphere.
"Trust your mother dear one, I'm the only one that loves you!"
You are not! Tara raged inwardly, at that moment knowing that everything surrounding her was one gigantic lie.
Her fists clenched at her sides, nails biting into the flesh of her palms as she realised that whether the being in the blue sphere was her mother or not, she had fooled her. Stepping into the red sphere would have cemented the process and humanity would have stood no further chance. It was exactly where the Juthungi wanted Tara.
She seethed with anger at not only the betrayal, but the fact that there now appeared to be no hope of saving her friends, and Willow.
With her features appearing like ice and fire combined, Tara raised her head to look the Diana-thing straight in the eye. Given the rather startled expression she received from it in return, Tara knew it was not the response it wanted.
"Tara my love..." it whispered helplessly.
"You're not my mother!" Tara screamed as rage overtook her.
Tara was swept away by the ferocity of rage coursing through her body. Unable to contain the emotion or give any rational thought to what she was doing, Tara charged at the sphere that held the Diana-thing. With a primeval roar she launched herself into it, passing through its surface. She landed inside and to her surprise she was alone. The Diana-thing had disappeared. Inside the sphere, she lost all concept of reality. There was no sense of time, distance or even self. Tara was aware that she was inside the sphere somehow.
Instead of the tiny pinpricks erupting over the surface of her body as had happened in the red sphere, Tara felt an immensely powerful essence course through the very core of her being.
As she felt them, she became aware of who they were as a race. The predator-like way in which they stalked the inhabitants of an entire world and devoured them inside their dreamscape. Once they had finished with one race, they moved onto the next, always hungry for more. The more she learnt of them, the more she hated them.
Just as Tara was aware of them, they too were aware of her. Thousands of voices cried out in rage when they realised their plan had not fallen into place.
She realised that part of the Diana-thing's plan had been ground in truth...the powerful force she felt was their essence. The blue sphere was the portal through which their consciousnesses could move from one plane to the other. Tara probed deeper and her mind reeled with the overload of information.
Destroy it, the words entered Tara's mind as she struggled to make sense of everything, Destroy it?
Everything began to fall into place. The Juthungi naturally existed in a dream state, it was the blue sphere which allowed them to remain in her reality. They had created the red sphere to do the opposite for humanity...and she was to have been at the heart of that process.
Fall into your own trap you little green fuckers! Tara thought angrily.
Stretching each of her limbs outwards until they touched the sphere at different points, Tara begun pushing with all her might. It had nothing to do with strength, and everything to do with the battle for control which raged in her mind. On one had, she had the entire stream of Juthungi consciousness straining against her, and on the other she had her memories of Willow keeping her focused and in sight of what she had to do.
Tara strained against the sphere, every muscle on her body standing out grotesquely as she struggled to destroy it and seal off their portal to her world. Small cracks began to appear in its surface, starting from the points where her limbs touched it and radiating outwards. Tara screamed in rage, concentrating everything she had to will the sphere to break. The Juthungi cried out in horror.
For Cherry it seemed as though the battle had been raging for an eternity. The noise of the explosions had filled his ears for so long he did not think he would ever hear anything else. Even the usually stoic Mrs Chippy was trembling inside his coat.
There was another sound, far quieter than the explosions and other noises of battle and yet also far closer. Cherry looked up and his eyes widened in fright when he saw a pair of massive, heavily muscled legs come to stop just in front of his hole. The legs suddenly went into a squat and Cherry met the eyes of the enemy for the first time. The alien reached beneath the beam, his fingers stretching out towards the boy. Cherry screamed and lashed out with his feet. However he could do little in the face of the terrifying creature attempting to drag him out from his small sanctuary. The alien latched onto his ankle and Cherry found himself being roughly dragged from his hiding place. As he slid out towards the open, Mrs Chippy wriggled her way out from his coat and once clear, darted away. Cherry watched her bushy tail disappear and was relieved that she would be safe for a little while longer. However, he had to think of himself now. As he was dragged out fully and hung upside down by the ankle, Cherry continued to struggle. Trying in vain to get the alien to drop him so he could scarper away. The iron like grip merely tightened.
Cherry looked up at the face that was looking down upon him. He watched the alien ready the long knife he carried. Although he was terrified, he had had enough of screaming and resolved that not a single sound would escape his lips. He wondered if it hurt to die.
Suddenly he did hurt, but it was not the sharp thrust of the knife that he had expected. Instead, he had been dropped and landed hard on his shoulder. Cherry grunted in pain but scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could. He found himself standing eye to eye with the alien who had dropped to his knees. Cherry stared in surprise as the once strong creature slumped forward and fell to the earth. It lay there completely motionless as though dead.
Tentatively, Cherry tapped it with the toe of his shoe. He darted back a few paces, fully expecting it to lash out and strike him down. Nothing. Cherry unleashed the hardest kick he could muster. He yelped and the only result was a very sore foot. It was definitely dead.
Suddenly there was a piercing whine overhead and Cherry looked up to see an alien craft falling in a graceful arc. Without a turn or any attempt to pull up, it ploughed straight into the earth. Sending up both clouds of dust and fire. It was followed almost immediately by a second and then another. The alien aircraft were falling from the sky as fast as they had once flown through it. Cherry starred transfixed until he realised that he was in danger. With a last glance up at the sky, he scrambled back into his hiding place.
The Juthungi knew at once what was happening, he felt it coursing throughout his body, felt the other members of his race departing this plane for the other. It was a struggle for him to remain in this reality. The tiny golden-haired being that fought him was strong; there was no doubt about that. He grew angry at his inability to defeat it, and knew that time was running extremely short. He had to dispatch this nuisance and then kill the sensitive in the next room before she wiped out his entire race. With the strength of one who had just one last hope, he pressed his attack forward. The tiny figure fought with courage but was steadily being beaten back. Finally he managed to get inside her guard and felt the satisfying touch of his blade against its soft flesh. Its eyes widened in surprise for a moment before they closed and it sank to the ground. He did not pause to celebrate his kill; he had to kill the sensitive before it was too late.
A heavy boot sounded behind her and Willow spun around to see a single LGF standing in the doorway from the antechamber. With a heart wrenching tug, Willow realised it had defeated Buffy and was now coming for her and Tara.
As it moved towards her, she watched its eyes continually losing focus. It also stumbled as though intoxicated. Willow realised that what had happened to her, was now happening to the LGF. It was being drawn in and out of the dreamscape. However, it continued to struggle towards her, brandishing the knife in its hand. Willow stumbled back against Tara's body behind her. She was exhausted, drained and had lost a lot of blood, she had no hope of defending herself. The only way she could stand was by holding onto the chair which held Tara.
She watched transfixed as the LGF advanced on her and her delirium took over, "You're not going to stop her...she's taking care of every last one of you single-handedly and there's nothing you can do about it!"
If the LGF understood her, it made no sound. What it did was raised it's weapon in Tara's direction. Willow watched the knifepoint at her lover and knew that the creature aimed to see her dead, even if it was the last thing it did. Willow lost consciousness for a few moments and woke again to find her grip slipping.
"I wouldn't come any closer if I were you," she whispered, struggling not to keel over, "I know kung-fu. I can kill you with my bare hands."
Willow knew she couldn't kill a fly at that point in time, let alone a hulking LGF warrior but a little bluffing never hurt anyone. She stood stock still as it came to stand directly in front of her. It was so close that she could feel its hot breath falling on her face. Rather than waste it's precious time taunting her, it raised its knife above its head and made to finish Tara off with one stroke.
"No!" it was all unfolding in slow motion like a nightmare.
Willow grabbed for its arm but was brushed aside as though she were made of paper. She screamed as she landed on her wounded shoulder. Through her haze, she watched the LGF raise its knife again. With horror Willow realised that she was powerless to do anything but watch it kill Tara. Futilely, she stretched out her hand towards the alien, willing herself to find some last bit of strength.
The creature's chest suddenly erupted in an ugly spatter of green blood and fragments of something that looked like bone. The knife that had threatened Tara clattered to the ground as it too slumped and fell. Half in shock Willow looked towards the door and saw Faith standing there with a stony expression. The brunette had retrieved her Bren gun and it now sat smoking on her hip.
"Thanks Faith," Willow whispered.
"You look like shit, Captain," Faith remarked as she threw the empty Bren aside and crossed the short distance to Willow's side.
"Nice to see you too," Willow struggled up into a sitting position and her immediate concern was for Tara.
There was no change in the blonde's condition, her eyes were still rolled back and her mouth hung open in a silent scream.
A deafening echo reverberated throughout the structure. It came from above them and yet it sounded as though it were everywhere. A second followed the first and this time it shook the deck on which they stood. Faith and Willow looked at each other and both knew what was happening.
"Just fuckin' brilliant! This thing has a self-destruct," Faith said angrily, hands tightening into white balls of fury, "There is no way in hell I'm going to die in a BBQ! We're getting out of here!"
"We are leaving," Willow whispered, "But not without Tara."
Willow grabbed onto the chair and with a grunt, drew herself up. Faith quickly grabbed her and helped her up, supporting her beneath both arms. Finding herself face to face with Tara, Willow reached out and placed both her hands on Tara's face. She felt the smooth skin, traced the green lines pulsing below it. Through her touch, she willed Tara to wake up.
The explosions sounded and felt as though they were growing closer. Faith looked around anxiously.
"Will, you've gotta bring back Tara now, or else there will be nothing left to bring her back to!"
Willow only had eyes and ears for Tara. She traced the beautiful skin, now cruelly punctured by the tiny tubes. All she wanted to do was grab a hold of them and pull them out, free Tara from the machine which had her trapped.
With the sound of breaking glass, the sphere shattered into thousands of pieces and flew outwards in all directions. Tara hung motionless for a few seconds before she dropped like a stone and fell into the nothing that surrounded her. She fell, completely lost...until she heard a familiar voice calling out to her once again. Tara smiled, Willow was there, and she had never left her side. After that, it was easy to find her way back.
"Baby...please..." Willow urged in desperation.
"Will!" Faith growled.
"It's up to her!" Willow snapped over her shoulder, instantly feeling guilty for doing so.
When she turned around she met Tara's eyes...seeing very clearly sapphire blue rather than the whites. Tara was staring at her wide-eyed, her mouth working imperceptibly. Willow unashamedly blubbered like a baby at the sight of her lover free from the spell which had trapped her for much too long.
There was a hiss of escaping gas from the chair which held Tara, almost like the sigh of one defeated. In rapid succession, the tubes embedded in Tara's skin were expelled. Each leaving behind an ugly wound the size of a small coin. Even before the last of the tubes had removed themselves, Willow was struggling with the straps that held her arms and legs. Faith quickly moved to help and together they freed Tara in a matter of seconds. The blonde stumbled forward out of the chair with Faith doing her best to support her as she slumped to the floor.
On her hands and knees, Tara began to retch violently, her entire body wracked with spasm after spasm as it tried to expel the foul ooze within her body. Eventually it came, all Willow could do was cradle her as she vomited up copious amounts of the green substance which had been pumped through her body. Despite the fact that it had been pumped into her veins, her body now seemed to be rejecting it in every possible way.
Faith stood over the pair of them, knowing all too well that their time to escape the ship was rapidly running out. They had to leave as soon as possible despite the fact that Tara could not even stand. Willow looked up over her shoulder from where she knelt beside Tara and her face said that she knew exactly what Faith was thinking.
"Is Buffy dead?" Willow asked Faith as she stroked Tara's back, the blonde heaved again.
Faith shook her head gratefully, "No, I checked her briefly before I got that bastard on your six...she's unconscious but breathing."
"Get her and start making your way out as best you can, we'll follow you," Willow ordered.
"With all due respect, I'll wait..." Faith began.
"I outrank you so get your arse moving," Willow interrupted, in no mood for heroics, "we'll be right behind you."
Faith growled low in her throat as she looked at the pair of them, Willow with her wounded shoulder and Tara still curled up into a tight ball, heaving uncontrollably. She then glanced back over her shoulder to the anteroom where Buffy lay, also badly wounded. What a fine group they made.
"See you outside," Faith muttered before making a reluctant exit.
Willow watched through the doorway as the brunette scooped a limp Buffy up into her arms. With a last look over her shoulder, Faith was off running.
At her feet, Tara had collapsed forward, the last of her strength completely sapped by the fight to rid her body of the alien substance. She lay panting in her own vomit. Willow struggled to pick her up but with one arm she could do little more than roll her over and cradle her head.
‘Tara, baby, we have to get out of here,' she whispered, gently stroking her matted hair out of her eyes.
"Just leave me here, Will," Tara whispered weakly, eyes half lidded.
Willow knew they had absolutely no time to be gentle. She grabbed Tara by the shoulder and shook her roughly.
"On your feet soldier!" Willow screamed in Tara's ear.
Tara's widened although they were still hazy, she moved her arm ineffectually as though she were trying with all her strength but there was none to be had. Willow wrapped her good arm around Tara's back and succeeded in heaving her up into a sitting position. From there, Tara reached out and grabbed a hold of the chair which had held her so cruelly. With trembling fingers, she used it as leverage to pull herself up. Willow supported her until she was standing and then shifted her arm to Tara's waist. Her knees felt as though they were about to give out beneath her.
"Can you walk?" Willow asked quietly, finding a small moment to kiss Tara's jaw line tenderly.
"No," Tara whispered, holding onto Willow as fiercely as she was able, "But I can run."
Willow grinned, "That's my girl."
With each step Faith ran she felt as though her heart was going to burst out through her ears. Buffy weighed relatively little, but the effort of carrying her and running as fast as possible was taking its toll on her exhausted body. As she neared the corridor where the huge, tentacled monster had claimed the lives of the rest of their group...and Tad, she didn't even pause to reflect so urgent was her haste to escape the self-destructing ship.
She remembered how it had killed Tad, Alex and Barrel before its tentacles had slumped lifeless into the darkness, a victim of whatever magic Tara had wrought within the heart of the alien ship. Faith had barely paused to grieve before going to look for her remaining friends.
Faith ran full tilt across the chasm, refusing to accept that the platforms could give way and send her and Buffy plummeting. She reached the other side safely and passed Alex's lifeless, headless body. A tentacle had wrapped itself around the young man's neck and ripped it off in one brutal movement. Faith's eyes stung with unshed tears but she couldn't stop.
There was light up ahead, Faith stumbled towards it just as the ceiling behind her came crashing down amongst flames and tortured metal. The destruction was right at her heels. Heedless of what lay just outside, Faith dived for the tear in the ship's hull and rolled mid-air so she would act as a cushion for Buffy. As she did, a plume of flame reached out for her, stretching its deadly fingers in one last attempt to claim her life.
Faith hit the earth hard and all the wind was knocked out of her. She struggled to her feet, not wanting to rest until she was at a safe distance from the exploding ship. Together with Buffy, she stumbled, crawled and dragged herself another fifty meters before collapsing in the shelter of a garden wall, surrounded by a few hedges still gamely clinging to life.
Faith gently lay Buffy down, and stood, seeing instantly that there was no chance of Willow and Tara escaping the way she had just come. She watched in horror as the entire bulkhead of the ship began to collapse and completely destroy the exit. The entire structure was ablaze, sounds of fire and tortured metal filled the air. Every few moments a huge section would breakaway from the exterior and fall crashing to the earth, or collapse inwards upon itself. The ship was in ruins.
Faith slumped forward to her knees; unable to take her eyes away from watching the huge vessel go through its death throes. There seemed to be no hope of Willow and Tara finding a way out. Angrily she slammed her fist against the earth in front of her, damning herself for leaving the pair of them inside so she could flee to safety.
It was at that point that she saw two tiny figures stumbling away from the wreckage at another point and she scrambled to her feet. Narrowing her eyes slightly, she saw it was indeed Willow and Tara. Raising her arms wearily above her head she waved and received a tiny wave back from Willow in return.
With a relieved smile, Faith went back to Buffy's side. The blonde's eyes were open slightly and she too smiled when she saw Faith approach and sit down beside her. Faith quickly withdrew what few medical supplies she had with her, mostly bandages and set about ascertaining how badly Buffy was wounded.
"Hey," Buffy whispered, "What are all the bright lights? Have we ended up on Broadway?"
"You wish, the LGF mothership has gone up in flames," Faith replied as she peeled back the layers of Buffy's clothing to expose her wound, "Good riddance to bad rubbish I say...and I don't know what Tara did, but every last one of those bastards is dead."
"Good for us," Buffy tried to sit up but groaned in pain, a slight trickle of blood came from the corner of her mouth, "Guess I won't be jumping back into the cockpit for a while."
Faith had gently peeled the layers of fabric away from Buffy's wound and had to grit her teeth in order to keep from groaning with despair. It was a serious wound, cutting deep through flesh and muscle and god knew what else...
"How's it look?" Buffy asked as her head slumped back against the ground.
"Real good, Buffy," Faith lied through her teeth, not knowing what to do in the slightest other than make her friend as comfortable as possible.
There was a scuffle behind her and Faith turned to see Willow and Tara stumbling over to them, each looking like death warmed up and a little scorched around the edges. As soon as the pair saw Buffy they scrambled to be at her side. Faith ever so gently picked up Buffy's head and cradled it on her lap, stroking her sweat soaked hair out of her eyes. Buffy smiled as she saw Willow and Tara, reaching out her hand to rest on Willow's knee.
"Hey Buff," willow whispered, fighting back tears as she saw the wound which Faith was now gently covering with a layer of bandages.
Buffy had ceased feeling anything and she did not gasp in pain as the dressings were applied. She patted Willow's knee weakly.
"I'm sorry I wasted so much time blaming you for Dawn's death...I always knew it was an accident but for some reason I needed my hate to keep me going. I regret losing all those years we could've spent flying together," Buffy closed her eyes.
"Forget about it, we'll have a lot more to come," Willow laid a hand over Buffy's stroking it gently.
"Stick to flying because you are one god awful liar Willow Rosenberg," Buffy whispered.
The rise and fall of her chest gradually slowed and her eyes did not open again. Only then did the three women realise that their friend was truly dying. After all the ordeals they had been through, all three of them were unable to contain their emotion any longer. Tara was too exhausted to do anything but let the tears roll unchecked down her face, creating paths through the green muck dried on her skin. Faith dashed her arm across her eyes, angrily trying to wipe the tears away but more fell. Willow had no strength to cry either, but she did. Great sobs racked her body even as she tried to remain stoic for her friend.
A small smile crossed Buffy's face and she spoke, her lips barely moving, "Stop crying...I don't wanna die surrounded by sissies."
Several coughs racked her body as she struggled to breathe, blood bubbling out of her mouth. The coughs eventually subsided and the blonde gave one last shuddering breath, dying as she lay surrounded by her closest friends. The war had claimed one last casualty.
As he wandered around the ruins of the battlefield in a daze, Cherry almost stumbled over the body of yet another alien. All of them, including the one that had been about to kill him, had dropped dead seemingly of their own accord. He quickly moved away from the huge fallen giant which repulsed him and renewed the fear coursing through his body.
The battlefield was a nightmare. Aliens and dead people lay where they had fallen, many of the people so terribly mutilated after combat that Cherry could not bear to look. Everywhere there was death. He could not see one living soul and for a bleak moment he wondered if he was the only one left.
Cherry then looked up at the sky which had once been black with alien aircraft...now it was a surreal expanse of thick, comforting grey clouds. Maybe Tara was out there somewhere and she would come back to fly him away.
"Hey kid!" a rough voice interrupted his sky gazing.
Cherry looked back down to see a man wearing a tattered uniform running towards him. He studied the man's exhausted but jubilant face.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Cherry thought it was rather daft question given the circumstances but he simply nodded in reply.
"Well, we're gathering everyone back towards the hospital tent to see just how many there are," he jabbed his thumb over his shoulder in a vague direction, "you'll be safe there and there should be something to eat."
Cherry nodded, he wasn't hungry, "I have to find my cat first."
"Well, don't take too long, there might be some of the bastards left hiding somewhere," he slapped Cherry heartily on the shoulder and continued on his mission to round up more survivors.
Cherry just nodded and continued plodding his way around the rubble, always staying fairly close to his hiding place where he had last seen Mrs Chippy before she darted away.
"Mrs Chippy!" he called, beginning to fear that she had either run away for good, or been killed in the chaos.
Cherry wandered calling her name for another half an hour until his voice was hoarse but with absolutely no luck. His shoulders slumped dejectedly and he wondered about the point of living in the world without his beloved cat. He returned to the concrete beam and scrambled up on top of it. He perched there, swinging his legs down over the side and putting his elbows on his knees in a weary posture. He reflected on the rather terrifying but oddly funny situation in which he now found himself, quite alone in a ruined world. It was a far cry from his rather pampered existence before the war.
Just as he was deciding whether his situation warranted a good cry or not, there was a small plaintive sound from behind him. Cherry spun around enthusiastically, he knew he would recognise that meow anywhere.
Mrs Chippy padded up onto the beam beside him as though she had been out for a Sunday jaunt but was now rather glad to be home and looking for something to eat. She regarded him calmly for a few moments before coming closer and allowing herself to be stroked. She yelped indignantly as she was swept up off her feet into the relieved boys' arms. However, following her initial disapproval she allowed him to continue to hold her, even if he was a little over-enthusiastic.
Cherry pressed his face against Mrs Chippy's warm fur and listened to her purr contentedly. He knew he wasn't the only one happy to be back together again. As he snuggled his cat, he gazed out over the landscape around him. He saw three figures walking in the distance. This in itself was hardly a surprise as here and there people had begun to emerge from their places of concealment. It was only when they drew closer that he realised how familiar two of them were.
He instantly recognised the blonde haired figure as Tara and his heart leapt again. She had survived! Then he knew the red-haired woman beside her must be Willow, the young lady he had met briefly in the hospital tent who had gone to search for Tara. Cherry found himself smiling secure in the knowledge that he wasn't alone anymore.
Still clutching Mrs Chippy tightly against his chest, he jumped from the beam and ran to meet them.