"I feel guilty about leaving without Fred," Willow told Buffy as the two of them left the rec center and headed off down the street.
"She'll be fine," Buffy reassured her, though her tone of voice betrayed the fact that she was as unsure about whether or not what they were doing was the right thing to do as Willow was. But it couldn't be helped. While she and Willow had watched Fred doing her relays, her cell phone had gone off. Luna was on the other end, and told the two of them to come back to the Secret Base for a meeting.
"Maybe we can get Luna to call her again later," Willow said, knowing that she was trying to justify walking out on Fred, something she thought she would never have to do. She hoped that Fred could understand that it wasn't done intentionally just to snub her, but that Sailor Soldier business had come up while she was busy. She would understand that...wouldn't she?
"Maybe," Buffy replied, her tone once again betraying her uneasiness about the situation, though she said nothing more about it.
The two walked in silence all the way to the Bronze where, after flashing their Bronze Passports to the young man at the counter, they walked to one of the nearby doors and into the room that, to most of the other patrons of the nightclub/entertainment lounge, was nothing more than a simple empty storage room. In actually, however, when Willow or her friends opened it, the empty storage room became the Secret Base, the room Luna and Artemis said was the place where they could discuss strategy and generally get together and relax.
Willow had been there earlier in the day, and even then, she didn't exactly like it, as it was here that she had the most vocal arguments and disagreements with Anya and the others. That didn't exactly give her a lot of fond memories about the place, and from what Luna had told Buffy, it sounded as if there was more of the same to be had on this occasion.
So Willow wasn't all that surprised to find waiting for her at the table in the center of the room not only Luna and Artemis, but Anya as well. What was surprising, however, was the identity of the one sitting beside her.
"Hi, Willow," Cordelia said with a slight wave of her hand.
"But...But I thought you said that you didn't want to have anything to do with us anymore," Willow blustered, trying to figure out what was going on. Realizing what she said, she quickly amended, "Not that I'm not glad to see you, because, well, we've been friends for a long time and it's always nice to see you, but I got the impression that when you said you didn't want to be with us anymore, you also didn't want to be friends with me."
"I didn't," Cordelia agreed as she got to her feet. "But then Anya told me how much you missed me, and that made me realize that by staying away, all I was really doing was hurting you, not only as far as our lives as Sailor Soldiers go, but also as your far as being your friend in real life goes. And that made me realize also that you've had to deal with a lot recently, and that our friendship shouldn't be sacrificed because I didn't agree with it. So I decided that if you can make personal sacrifices for the benefit of all of us, then so can I."
Willow smiled and ran at Cordelia, arms outstretched, enveloping her best friend in a hug, trying vainly to fight back the tears that threatened to come forward; an urge that she saw Cordelia fail spectacularly against. Willow looked at Anya over Cordelia's shoulder and silently mouthed, "Thank you."
"You owe me," Anya mouthed in reply, letting Willow know immediately that even though the rift between her and Cordelia had just been patched, there still existed a rift between the two of them, one that was not likely to be as easily mended, nor likely to be so anytime in the near future.
But that didn't matter to Willow right now. All that did matter was that Cordelia was not only her friend once again, but was also back on the team. That made having to deal with Anya a lot more bearable, since Cordy would now no doubt side with Willow on anything, making the odds in dealing with the blonde, who still fancied herself as leader of their group, slightly better than two to one did.
"While I'm happy for this reunion," Luna interrupted, bringing them all back to the present. "I must say that I'm concerned that one of you is missing. Why isn't Fred with you?"
"She's still at the rec center," Buffy explained.
Luna sighed, turning to look at Willow. "She's still at her swimming competition?"
"Very well," Luna said. "This news is too important for you to know to wait until she's arrived to tell you. One of you will have to tell her later. Now, I assume that you've all heard about the reports of people disappearing?"
Willow and the others nodded in the affirmative, Anya saying, "Do you think this is some attempt by the enemy to draw us out?"
"It's the only explanation that makes sense," Luna confirmed. "And that's exactly why I think that it would be a good idea for the five of you to be on your guard from now on. There's no rhyme or reason to the enemy's movements. They appear to be striking at random, choosing targets that have no discernable pattern. It would appear that they are doing this in the hope that one of their victims is someone you know."
Willow found her attention at that moment shifting from Luna's words to her memories of Tara, her still unproven yet unquestioning belief that she was the Moon Princess making its way to the surface. The thought of Tara ending up a prisoner of the Dark Kingdom frightened her for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they might be able to force the Mystical Silver Crystal from her. But it was mostly due to the fact that Tara, as an innocent in the battle she and her friends were fighting, did not deserve to have her life be put in danger that way. That was, after all, why she fought so hard when she had no help. But to find out now that all of her best efforts might have been for nothing...
Willow's attention abruptly refocused to the present when she heard Luna's voice, realizing that she had been trying to talk to her. "Willow, are you all right?"
"What?" Willow asked, before coming to her senses. "Oh. Yes. I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" Anya asked, her tone indicating to Willow that she asked out of genuine curiosity, and not out of what appeared to be an apparent opportunity to capitalize on Willow's perceived lack of leadership skills and assert herself as the leader.
"Yeah," Willow answered, moving to sit down. "It's just that...I've got something to tell you all."
"Please forgive me, Tara," she thought to herself. "But the only way I can protect you is to reveal your secret."
Fred stepped out of the locker room, clad once again in her shirt, pants and coat, plastic bag containing her wet swimsuit in hand and knapsack containing her schoolwork slung over one shoulder, looking towards the stands to see if Willow and Buffy were waiting for her. She had seen them earlier just as she was about to perform her first relay, and had been happy to know that they had come to watch, just as Willow had promised her. But her face fell sharply when she realized that her two friends were no longer there.
Fred smile returned, if fainter than before, at her silent mention of the word, knowing that this was the first time in her life where she could feel right about using it. Even back home in Texas, her natural talents with Mathematics had made her distant from her fellow classmates, which made her family's decision to come to Sunnydale all the better, as far as she was concerned. She had hoped for a new life here, and for a time, she wondered if that would be possible, given that everyone at school was no more willing to accept her than the people she had known at school back home.
Then two months ago, her entire life had changed. Not only did she actually gain some friends, but she also came to learn that she was a superhero, sent from the past to defend the Earth in the present from an evil force that threatened its future. The thought of all of that impressed her a great deal, certainly, but not nearly as much as having friends for the first time in her life. And it was that sense of friendship that kept Fred connected with Willow and Buffy while Cordelia and Anya had gradually distanced themselves from the group, perhaps never to return.
Fred knew what it felt like to be alone, which was why she stuck by Willow no matter what happened. And the three of them had done their best over the past two months at repelling the forces of the Dark Kingdom. Or, at the very least, keep them from succeeding in such a fashion that would mean the end of the world. Their decreased strength, combined with their internal problems, kept them from working at their full potential, which meant that, unless the five of them could start working together again, all the three of them could do was simply delay the inevitable.
Walking out of the rec center, Fred made her way idly down the street, looking up into the sky as she wondered where Willow and Buffy had gone. For a moment she thought about giving them a call and asking what they were up to, but she realized that if she did so, it might make her seem clingy and dependant, and she didn't want to project that anymore than she knew she already did, since that was indeed how she felt on the inside most of the time.
Willow had her own life to live. And Fred knew that, no matter how she might feel about it, she couldn't be a part of it all the time.
"Maybe they're at the Secret Base," she wondered. "Willow wouldn't just leave me all by myself unless there was something important she had to take care of. And what could be more important than Soldier business? Maybe I should go there and..."
She shivered at that point, realizing how cold the surrounding air had become. But as she became aware of the blowing snow and freezing wind, she realized how little what was going on had to do with a change in the weather.
A few moments later, the blowing snow and winds formed a tornado from which emerged a man in black with a red cape, holding a sword sheathed within a scabbard in one hand. Giving her an appreciative stare, he smiled faintly.
"Such a pretty little thing, you are. I almost feel bad that there's nothing you can do to stop me." Withdrawing his sword, the man pointed it directly at her. "Almost."
Fred dropped her knapsack and affixed a battle stance, knowing that this had to be one of the agents of the Dark Kingdom. If that was true, there was only one thing she could do to protect herself. Thankful that she had strapped on her bracelet when she had changed, she moved to transform.
"Mercury Power Make Up!"
Willow had to admit, the others had taken her news far better than she expected them to. But that didn't mean much when what she had expected was a lot worse than what she had been given, which, when she thought about it, wasn't all that great, either.
"You've known who the Princess was for the past two months?" Buffy asked.
Willow nodded slightly.
"And you didn't tell us?" Anya asked.
Willow nodded again, her head moving slightly less than it had the last time, almost as if she were ashamed to admit it.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Cordelia asked before the others had a chance to say something that could make Willow feel worse. "If we had known you knew who the Princess was, we would have stuck by you and forgotten the petty differences that came up between us."
"I know," Willow admitted. "But...but I thought that it would be easier for her if she...if I...if I didn't let you guys know I knew who she was."
"Why not?" Luna asked, taking in the conversation with a great deal more interest than she normally would have, given the fact that she knew Willow's memories were coming back faster than the others. And that the only thing that made sense at this point was that Willow had found out for herself the fact that she was the Moon Princess, deciding not to reveal that knowledge to the others for her own reasons, much like Luna had done when they had first met the others and explained the situation to them. She couldn't tell what Willow's motives were, though she suspected that they were similar to her own: that the knowledge she had was not something that needed to be discussed at the present time.
But apparently, what Artemis had said earlier in the day was right. If Willow knew for certain that she was the Princess, there was now no way that they could continue to keep it a secret.
"Because..." Willow began before stopping herself, feeling the tears began to well up. "I made a promise that I wouldn't tell anyone. Not even you guys. I...I just wanted to protect her without letting her know how much danger she was in."
"That's a very noble thing for you to do," Cordelia said.
The others agreed, though Luna noted that Artemis clearly displayed some concern about hearing that. Tilting her head to indicate that she wanted to speak to him in private, the pair made their way out of the hearing range of the others. "What's wrong?"
"You know very well what's wrong, Luna," Artemis said. "Willow wouldn't think about protecting the Princess if she thought she herself was the Princess."
"What are you saying?"
I'm saying that Willow clearly thinks that there's someone else who is the Princess. We can't let her go on thinking that, Luna."
"What's so wrong about that?" Luna asked, completely nonplussed.
"You can't be serious," Artemis stated, his features indicating he clearly did not like what Luna was thinking. "You can't think that letting Willow and the others believe someone else is the Princess is a good idea. Aside from the fact that it's not right to the others, you can clearly see how badly this is eating away at Willow. She's been through too much in the past two months, and we're not completely faultless in giving her those problems to deal with. We can't sit idly by and expect her to go through this, as well."
"I know," Luna sighed, admitting defeat in this particular argument. "But like you said, she's been through too much lately. Don't you think it might be a good idea for her to get this off her chest, just so she can be at peace...at least for a little while?"
Artemis nodded, and the two moved to rejoin the conversation between the others. "So, Willow," he said. "I think you can agree that telling us who the Princess is would be a better way for her to be protected rather than keeping her identity a secret from the ones sworn to protect her."
Willow nodded in understanding. "OK, then. I'll tell you who she is, but only if all of you can promise me that you won't make a big deal out of it."
"We promise," the group said in unison.
"OK, then," Willow said, mentally preparing herself to do the hardest thing she would ever have to do in her life. "I'll tell you what I know."
Angelus hated to admit this, but he was indeed surprised about the events that had transpired in such a short amount of time. This plan had been enacted with the hope that it would draw out the Sailor Soldiers. He never in a thousand years would have believed that this plan would be successful in actually capturing one.
But here she was. This young girl, appearing no different than the others he and his comrades had captured one moment, had revealed herself to be one of the five whose capture was the ultimate goal of this plan. Even more surprising was the fact that this one, despite her obvious weaknesses in the face of a superior enemy, appeared to be holding her own.
Angelus knew, however, that she couldn't last. Whenever she had fought before, she had always been in the company of either their leader or their leader and at least one other, and never served any real purpose in any of their conflicts other than to provide distractions that would give the others the opportunity to attack whatever monster the Dark Kingdom sent their way. He could also feel the emotional turmoil that this one was going through at the moment, and knew that this would make her far more useful to their cause than he had first imagined.
They said that friends could be one's own worst enemy. Well, if all went as well as he expected, he would find out how true that statement was very soon.
"Shine Aqua Illusion!"
Fred sent the attack, one of her most powerful, directly at her opponent, hoping that it would be good enough to inflict some harm. But her hopes faded when he brought his sword up and deflected the attack with ease.
Gritting her teeth, she tried again with a different attack. "Mercury Aqua Mist!"
This wasn't one of her more powerful attacks, and she knew it. It was, in all honesty, little more than a defensive tactic used so that the enemy would be distracted, giving Willow or Buffy enough time to do some other attack that would be more powerful. So she wasn't at all surprised to find that it was deflected as well.
Her opponent smiled. "I'm impressed. You are holding your own quite well, despite the fact that you're all by yourself."
That comment stung, but Fred refused to let it get under her skin too much. "We're just as powerful apart as we are together."
"Are you?" the man asked, his smile showing that Fred's words amused him more than concerned him. "You don't appear to be all that powerful without them. Perhaps if your friends were here, then I would have already retreated."
Fred couldn't help but admit to this fact. If Willow and Buffy had been here, this...person, would have already been defeated, leaving them free to go about their own business. "Maybe, but I'll still be able to beat you all by myself."
The man raised his free arm and wagged a finger. "I don't think so." He then brought up his sword and ran his other hand across the blade, the action giving the weapon a purple tinge. His smile, which had never wavered during the entire battle, suddenly became, if possible, more lecherous. "In fact, I would daresay that this battle...is over!"
With that declaration, he swung his sword, casting the energy directly at Fred. She tried her best to fight it, but her defenses were too worn down from the fight to put up any real resistance, and she collapsed to the ground.
"Why?" Fred thought as she began to lose consciousness. "Why have my friends abandoned me?"