Willow was nearly out of breath by the time that she got to the Bronze and so tired from her exertion that she forgot to take out her pass and show it to the attendant at the counter. Luckily, Riley was the one who was there, and Willow knew that he was a lot more polite about her slip up than others would have been, and after fumbling through her pockets to withdraw her wallet, and withdraw her pass from it, she made her way into the Secret Base without further incident.
Entering the room, she saw Buffy, Anya and Cordelia sitting around the table, Luna and Artemis on it. And all five of them were looking at what had been placed upon it: Fred's knapsack and a plastic bag Willow could see contained her swimsuit.
"This was all we found," Buffy said as Willow approached; no emotion whatsoever in her voice as she gestured to the bags. The blonde's head was downcast, and Willow could immediately tell that she felt guilty about what had happened.
"It wasn't your..." Willow began to console Buffy, then stopped when she realized that she herself wasn't entirely blameless for what happened, either. "It wasn't our fault," she amended. "We couldn't have...we couldn't have known that this might have happened. And even if we did...we don't know if there was anything that we could have done about it." She suddenly perked up. "Besides, we don't know that Fred is actually captured. For all we know, she could have gone off somewhere in such a hurry that she dropped her stuff and left it behind and...and...I'm reaching here, aren't I?"
"Kinda," Buffy admitted. "Besides, if she did go off on her own, why didn't she contact us to let us know?" She buried her face in her hands. "It's our fault this happened."
"It doesn't matter who's at fault right now," Anya bluntly interrupted. "All that matters right now is that we find her and get her back."
"Agreed," Luna said before anyone could comment on the rude tone of Anya's words. "Without any proof to the contrary, we can only assume that she was captured by the enemy. No doubt they saw her as nothing more than a random passerby whom they could take advantage of. Since she revealed her Soldier identity to them, it must have opened up a situation wherein the idea of capturing her proved too inviting a situation for them to willingly pass up."
"But if they did capture her, where could they have taken her?" Cordelia asked. "I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not up for walking around the entire town trying to look for her." At the glances of the others, Cordelia clarified, "It'll take too long to look for her that way, and it would put all of us in danger, too."
"Now that they have one of us, the enemy won't feel the need to act in secret anymore," Artemis surmised. "It's most likely that they'll use Fred as bait to put into action some large scale plan in order to draw the rest of us out of hiding. They know that we won't pass up an opportunity to rescue her."
Willow slammed a clenched fist down on the table, startling the others. "Well, I don't plan to let them get that opportunity!"
"And what exactly do you suggest we do, Willow?" Anya asked. "I mean, you're supposed to be our leader and everything, so why don't you come up with a plan to rescue her instead of standing there and spinning on your wheels letting the rest of us try to figure something out?"
"Leave her alone!" Cordelia snapped, her calm finally leaving her and glaring at Anya. "Can't you see that she's in pain over this? She doesn't need to deal with another round of you trying to assert yourself and be the boss of us at the same time that she has to deal with you disputing her ability to lead us!"
"I may not have agreed with Willow's leadership of us, but at least I stuck around," Anya snapped back. "Where were you when she was putting herself in danger every night?"
Cordelia was stung by Anya's comment, but thankfully Buffy interrupted before she could say anything. "You've never helped us out," the blonde said, her face contorting into an expression of abject disgust. "All you did was come here every day and tell us how we should be doing our jobs. Did it ever occur to you that maybe we're not like you, and that we can't devote our entire lives to the success of our mission?"
"Why should I act like I have a life outside my life as a Soldier?" Anya shouted. "It's not like I have anything else in my life to look forward to!"
The others fell silent and looked at Anya as her head immediately turned down to the floor, their expressions immediately growing a great deal softer than they had been mere moments before. After a few moments of silence, Anya brought her head up and looked at each of them in turn; giving to them in a whisper the explanation she knew they deserved to hear. "I...I was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor some time ago. I...I have six months, perhaps a year left to live."
"And that's why you've been pushing all of us to work harder?" Cordelia asked, quickly realizing something else. "Why you've...you've tried so hard to get me to take a more active role in the mission?"
Anya felt the tears well up in her eyes as she nodded slightly in response to Cordelia's question. "I don't have a lot of time left, and I want to make sure that before I...before I...leave, the mistakes of the past can be prevented from happening here in the present."
The group became uncomfortably silent at that, none of them daring to look at the others. Luna broke the silence a few moments later by saying, "We can't afford to deal with this now. There will be time later to do so once we've found Fred and brought her home."
The others nodded in agreement, getting to their feet and moving to the door at the opposite end of the room. As they reached it, they all turned to look at Luna and Artemis one final time before Willow opened the door and led the group out of the room.
"Good luck, Sailor Soldiers," Luna whispered as they left, an unshed tear forming in her eye.
Faith looked up from her throne as Xander made his way into her presence, right hand on his chest in subservience, and immediately grew disgusted by his appearance here and now. It didn't take much thinking to surmise why he was here; of the four Shitennou, he was always the one that sought to curry favor with her by informing her of the activities of his brethren. Not even Oz, who, like Xander, also conducted his work out of genuine love for her, did resort to that sort of underhanded trickery. And despite her disgust of his tactics, there had been times when she had allowed him to do so, enjoying the feeling of allowing him to believe that doing this was what pleased her, even though the times when it actually did were rare.
But Faith knew that whatever he had to say now, she was going to find it neither pleasing to hear nor amusing to twist to her advantage.
Bowing his head, Xander began, "My Queen, I have news about Angelus..."
Faith immediately grew annoyed and raised a hand, cutting off Xander's words. "I do not care to hear about whatever petty problems you have with him. Be gone from my presence and be thankful that you are too valuable to me at the present time to properly punish you for disobeying me."
"But my Queen, he seeks to act against you."
Faith's eyebrow rose slightly, betraying her interest in a topic she had just stated her disinterest in. "Oh? And how does he plan to do this?"
"He has captured one of the Sailor Soldiers, my Queen," Xander replied, his head still lowered, almost as if he could not risk looking into the face of his Mistress, who no doubt would be displeased by this news. "He believes that, if she were to be turned to our side, she could be influential in bringing about the destruction of the others. I fear...that once he is done, Angelus may seek to use her to overthrow you and take the power of Oueen Metallia for his own."
Faith rested her head in one hand, mulling over this news with more interest than she had previously wanted to show. Angelus acting on his own was very worrisome, indicating that the power she had over him was slowly beginning to fade. More interesting than that, however, was the news that he had captured one of the Sailor Soldiers and sought to make her an agent of the Dark Kingdom. Foolish Xander believed that this was an act on his comrade's part to be an affront to her power.
Faith had no doubts that it very well could end up becoming this. But that would come to pass only if she allowed it to happen. And Faith was too clever to allow her followers to do anything to harm her. Especially if she could somehow make it work to her advantage.
"Thank you for informing me of this development," she said, a wicked smile crossing her features. "I shall be on guard against any...deception. As for Angelus' plan...I shall allow it."
This was clearly not the response that Xander had been expecting. "My Queen?"
Faith chuckled. "Clearly you cannot see the clever fiendishness of Angelus' plan, my dear Xander. Having one of the Soldiers fight for us will indeed prove to be most...destabilizing to the others. By having her fight for us, and showing that one of their number can be convinced to do so, we can show them all how powerless they are to stop us." She got up from her throne. "Tell Angelus to bring her here. I shall see to her...reeducation personally."
Xander didn't like the thought of what Faith was planning, but he clearly enjoyed the prospect of being punished for disagreeing with her even less. "Yes, my Queen."
As Xander moved to leave, Faith allowed a slight chuckle to escape from her, a chuckle that soon became a deep, hearty laugh. Angelus' plan may have been one he had hoped to enact for his own ends, but it would become more beneficial to her in the long run.
Not only that, but it had given her an idea about another way to hurt the Soldiers that perhaps could be more effective at causing their downfall than all the power her followers could muster. After all, direct attacks from without by her warriors had failed more times than she would care to admit.
Perhaps it was time to consider a different approach. Perhaps it was time to have someone deliver a subtle blow to the heart of the Soldiers; someone who could work her way into their confidence over time, and tear them apart from within when she wished it.
Someone who would be the last person they would suspect of being capable of doing so.
Willow walked in silence beside Anya, the two of them walking down the street towards the park. She had said to the others shortly after they had left the Bronze that the easiest way to find Fred would be to split up in order that they could cover more ground. Cordelia and Buffy quickly agreed, and said that they would go together to check the downtown area, leaving Willow all alone with Anya for company as Willow decided that they should check out the park. It was Willow's assumption that Fred had gone there after her competition, and that someone had stolen her belongings from there, leaving them where Buffy and the others had found them, which would also explain why Fred hadn't been able to contact them. It wasn't exactly the most sound explanation, and not exactly one that held up under scrutiny, but Anya didn't seem to mind, other things obviously being on her mind
Willow turned to look at Anya, who, much like she had been ever since leaving the Bronze, was doing everything she could to avoid having to talk or look in her direction. Willow didn't exactly blame her for doing this, knowing as much as she did that her declaration had changed the relationship between the two of them.
Willow also knew that Anya wasn't going to be the one to discuss it, since she was as vulnerable now as she had ever been. That meant, whether or not she liked it, Willow had to be the one to get them talking about it. There had been a time when Willow would look forward to tearing Anya apart over some flaw in her character, of which she had plenty. To do so now felt wrong, but at the same time, was essential.
Anya turned to look at Willow at the redhead's question. "What?"
"Why didn't you tell us about your..." Willow paused, searching for the appropriate word. "Your...condition."
Anya waved a dismissive hand, clearly telling Willow that was a topic she did not want to discuss. "What difference would it have made?"
Willow spun on her heels to look Anya directly in the eye. "It would have made a big difference, and you know that. If we knew that the reason you were being so confrontational towards us about how to do our mission was because you only had a short amount of time in which to accomplish it, we wouldn't have fractured the way we did. Cordelia wouldn't have run off on us, Buffy and I would have been more agreeable to your point of view, and Fred..."
Willow sniffled, trying in vain to hold back the tears that threatened to burst forward as the mention of Fred's name. "Fred wouldn't feel so...alone."
Anya blinked and affixed Willow with a cold stare. "What? Are you saying that all of this is somehow my fault?"
"No!" Willow shouted, immediately recognizing the tone in Anya's voice and going on the defensive. "I'm not trying to dump this all on you."
"Why shouldn't you?" Anya asked with a defeated shrug. "It is, you know."
Willow's rebuttal died unsaid on her lips. "What?"
"It's my fault," Anya stated matter-of-factly. "I've known a lot more about what's going on than the rest of you do. And I've known it for a lot longer than you do. I think that's what makes me feel so...determined to see the enemy defeated. And I didn't want to tell you why I felt that way because...because I thought that you didn't need to know."
She looked over Willow's shoulder, seeing the nearby shops displaying their Christmas wares. "I wasn't always like this, you know. There was a time when nothing mattered more to me than making money, marrying a nice man, and having lots and lots of children. But then..." She chuckled. "God, I never thought about it till now."
"What?" Willow asked.
"Last year, I was living in New York," Anya explained. "I had gone out to do some last minute Christmas shopping for some friends. I was on my way home when I heard a voice. I looked around for who was talking to me, and found Artemis coming out of the alleyway, telling me all about my past life, the duty to which I had been sworn to uphold and the mission to which I had been predestined to accomplish since my rebirth on this planet. I knew that to do so, I had to leave my friends, my family, and my entire life behind.
"At first, I treated it like a game," she continued. "Something I would do in my spare time for fun. But then I learned that...that I only had a short amount of time left to live. It was that, combined with being on the move for so long trying to find both the enemy and you and the others, that I started to grow bitter about my situation, so when I finally ended up finding you all, I couldn't allow myself to see you as friends I could enjoy in civilian life, but only as people who couldn't do the job our former lives as Soldiers required of us."
Anya let out a small laugh. "And I had no idea that the four of you would be so different. I think that's why I knew I had to do all I could to get all of you together on the same page, even if it meant ruffling your feathers. Who would have thought that I could fail so spectacularly at that? And who would have thought that I would find all four of you in the same place?"
Letting out a small whistle, Anya moved to sit down on a nearby bench. "Time really flies when you're not having fun."
Willow moved to sit down beside Anya. "So when did you find out about your...condition?"
"About a month or two after meeting Artemis," Anya answered; her head tilted towards the snowy ground. "I knew then that I had to completely devote myself to the mission, even if it meant I couldn't have a normal life."
Anya lifted her face to look at Willow directly in the eye, and Willow could see the tears running down her cheeks. She then looked away, saying, "I'm sorry, you know. I didn't want to be so harsh with you. I guess you think that makes me a bad friend."
Had she not the knowledge of Anya's impending fate, Willow would have to agree with her statement. Now, however, it made all too much sense why she behaved the way she did. "No," she whispered, lifting a hand to Anya's cheek and turning her head back around to face her. "That's what makes you a good leader."
Anya smiled, sniffling a bit. "Willow, there's more to being a leader than being single mindedly devoted to a mission or goal. You have to look out for the people under your command. You have to make sure that they feel loved and wanted and that the time and effort they give is not taken for granted. I've never done that. But you have."
"What are you saying?" Willow asked, confused.
"I'm saying that I was wrong," Anya answered. "There's no one better suited to be our leader than you."
She smiled, and Willow returned the smile, knowing that a bridge had finally been built between them; a structure bringing together a gap that had been shattered for far too long. Combined with the bond that she shared with Cordelia and Buffy, Willow knew that it finally meant that they were strong enough to face any threat the Dark Kingdom could throw their way.
But it had happened too late, for by capturing Fred, they had already inflicted upon them the greatest harm they could imagine. But Willow knew that wouldn't last forever. They would find their missing link, and when they did, the chain that was their collective friendship for one another would be forged anew, stronger than it had ever been before.
"We'll find you, Fred," Willow promised herself. "I swear it. We'll find you...and bring you home."
Faith held a white rose between her thumb and index finger, watching its petals with interest. The rose was an indicator to the magicks that Queen Metallia, at her request, was using to turn the Soldier Angelus had brought to her to their side, and the magicks that both she and the great Demon Queen were using to craft the one that would work its way into the Soldier's lives and destroy them from within. Once the petals of the rose changed completely from white to black, Faith knew that both would be ready to be unleashed upon them.
But first, there was another plan that had to be enacted. Turning, she looked at the Shitennou, arms crossed against their chests once more in obedience, awaiting her command to carry out her will.
"Begin," she said, her voice a raspy whisper.