Cordelia and Buffy walked out of the library, their spirits no better now than they had been when they had first entered the building. They had been everywhere downtown that Fred might have been, and it was now inevitable that they would have to reach the conclusion that Fred had not gone off on her own, but instead had been captured.
"So, what do you want to do now, Cordy?" Buffy asked, glancing towards her dark haired companion, and was surprised to discover that Cordelia was looking off in the distance, the glazed over look in her eyes telling Buffy that wherever it was she was looking, Cordelia would probably have better luck finding it through a telescope.
Cordelia snapped her head around to look at Buffy. "What?"
"I said, what do you want to do now?"
Cordelia sighed, her shoulders slumping with the act. "I dunno. Let's...let's meet up with Willow and Anya and head back to the Secret Base."
The pair walked down the street back towards the Bronze in silence for several moments before Buffy exclaimed, "You're keeping something from us, Cordy."
"I said, you're keeping something from us," Buffy repeated. "What's wrong?"
Cordelia turned away, looking inside one of the nearby shop windows. "I think you know."
"I know we all sympathize with Anya, but..."
"But it's different for me," Cordelia replied, the tone of her own voice shocking herself into silence for several seconds. After taking a few moments to calm herself, she continued, "She always wanted me to...to get more involved. Always forcing me to do things I...I didn't really want to do. That was mostly why I decided to leave you guys."
"But you told us that it was because..."
"...of the visions?" Cordelia finished. "Yes, I did. I didn't want to tell you the truth that it was because of Anya that I wanted to leave, and figured that giving you a more believable reason would have been better for you to understand."
"I see," Buffy admitted, though she had to admit to herself that she really didn't. Why would Cordelia think that lying to the others would be a good way to make them feel better? "So...when she told you that Willow missed you..."
"I believe her," Cordelia admitted. "It was the first thing she said to me that didn't sound like she was trying to subtly coerce me into doing something I didn't want to do. At least now I know why she did it, along with why she did those other things."
Buffy nodded in reply. "And with Fred..." she paused, unable to make herself say it what it was obvious both of them knew. But she noticed then a tear make its way from down Cordelia's cheek, and knew that, even without saying it, she understood what it was that she was trying to say.
Amy leaned back against the hard plastic chair, absently munching on a French fry as she stared out the window at the crowds of people going to and coming from the mall across the street. She shivered a bit as she recalled the events that had taken place there no too long ago, remembering how much she had been frightened about what happened there that day.
And remembering also the fact that Willow had seemed rather reluctant to talk about it, not only the day after it happened, but nearly every time that she had brought it up in conversation since then. It wouldn't bother her as much to see Willow acting that way if it wasn't for the fact that it was also around then that her behavior began to change. Having known Willow since junior high, and knowing that she had a weakness when it came to the academics, it surprised Amy to see that Willow was beginning to take her schoolwork more seriously, consistently improving her marks to the point where she had gone from being nearly average to an honor roll student in less than a month, seemingly without any real effort on her part.
"It must be because of all that time she spent with Fred," Amy thought as she took a sip of her soft drink. Why Willow would knowingly choose to hang around with a known social outcast like Fred was an idea that she simply couldn't wrap her head around. True, neither she nor Willow were exactly on the high rungs of the ladder of social popularity, but at least there were those among the student body of Sunnydale High with which they could feel wanted and loved. But in all the time they had known her, Willow and Amy had always assumed that Fred was simply an island alone in the vast sea of students that went to the school.
Setting her drink down on the table, Amy looked out the window again, seeing the sky beyond the mall begin to darken as the dim light of the winter afternoon transited to the full dark of night. Looking down at her watch, Amy figured that she probably shouldn't stay out that much longer. Her mother would no doubt be worrying about her.
Amy thought about her mother then, knowing that what had happened two months ago had changed the relationship between them. Before then, Catherine Madison had never really paid too much attention to her, preferring instead to focus on her career as a local stage performer. Amy had desperately wanted to have a relationship with her, the kind that she thought every teenage girl should have with their mother.
It was that, more than anything, which overrode her suspicion about her mother's motives when she had suggested she help out in the performance she was doing at the mall that day when she and Willow had gone. It wasn't until it was too late that she realized the true reason why her mother had been acting strange all day: it hadn't been her mother at all, but some strange alien creature that had shoved its hand into her chest and drained away all of her energy, sending her into unconsciousness.
Her next memory was waking up in the hospital, seeing through the fog of her mind Willow's face looking down on her. After taking the time to talk to her about what had happened, Amy had gone to her mother's room. And it was there that mother and daughter promised to one another to spend more time together and to get along better than they had before.
"Who would have thought that it would have taken an attack against both of our lives to make us realize how much we truly mean to one another," Amy thought as she reached to take up another French fry.
It was the last conscious movement she made, for as her fingers reached into the pile of fried golden sticks, the wall behind her exploded inward, sending chunks of brick and glass flying, one of which impacted square against the back of her head, immediately knocking her to the table and sending the remnants of her meal scattering to the floor around her.
Standing near the ruined building, oblivious to the cold surrounding him and the cries of pain emanating from those trapped inside, Angelus smiled and turned to look at his comrades, seeing in their eyes the fire burning within his own heart. This direct assault was exactly what they had been waiting for, knowing that it would draw the remaining Sailor Soldiers into a confrontation that, given the capture of one of their comrades, they would be completely unprepared for.
He silently cursed Faith, the soulless witch seeing fit to take the one they had already captured for her own purposes. He also cursed Xander for being weak enough to actually inform Faith of his plans despite his warning, but knew that it wasn't his fault for doing so. Faith had him wrapped around her finger so much that it was impossible for him to even contemplate going against her.
It didn't matter who was at fault, to be honest. Let Faith have Sailor Mercury. Soon enough, he would have the other Soldiers in his possession, and through them, the Princess and the Crystal, as well. And once he had them, nothing would be able to stop him.
Drawing his sword, Angelus swept it across the area. "Level it all. Show no mercy."
Tara watched from the cover of a nearby alleyway as the four men blew a hole in the Doublemeat Palace and moved to set about causing destruction to the surrounding area. She was sure that one of them was the person she had spotted earlier in the day, and even more sure that he, along with the others, had been someone she knew...or had known, at some point in her past.
That didn't make sense, though. Even though she couldn't remember a thing about it, Tara knew that her past had been a kind and peaceful time; and a time where she had been as she was now: a goodhearted individual not prone to violence or irrational thought, never acting on random impulses or against her moral code. She could never knowingly associate herself with people like them.
But Tara realized that, at the moment, it didn't really matter who they were or what connection they had to her distant past. All that did matter was that they were causing harm to the innocent, and that meant they had to be stopped by any means necessary.
"This is for you, Willow," she thought as she brought up her walking cane and began to head towards them. "What I do now, I do so that you may never have to do it again."
Buffy and Cordelia had called Willow and Anya, letting them know that they had no luck in finding Fred. Willow responded likewise, saying that, since it was beginning to get dark, it might be a good idea to call it a day and for all of them to head home, picking up where they left off tomorrow. But Buffy could pick up on one important fact from how Cordelia described her tone: Willow was just as doubtful about whether this was the right thing to do as they were. She knew as they did that while it might be beneficial to them, it would more than likely harm Fred in the long run. The longer it took to find her, the more unlikely they were going to find her.
"I feel so useless," Cordelia moped as Buffy slid her cell phone back into her pocket.
"Don't feel so bad," Buffy replied, her face brightening into a wide smile. "Hey, let's head down to the mall. Bet that'll cheer you up."
Cordelia smiled faintly at that, knowing that Buffy's reasons for suggesting this were more out of a need to cheer her up more than a desire on her part to actually go, a trait she no doubt inherited from Willow. "She has a way of bringing that out in people," Cordelia thought.
It took the two of them only a short amount of time for the two of them to arrive at the mall, and they had gone but five minutes before they came to realize that there was something out of the ordinary. The first hint was the fact that, despite the fact that Christmas was mere days away, the mall was hauntingly empty. The second hint came when they rounded a corner and saw that most of the people that were in the mall had congregated around a jewelry store that had been taped off, mall security and police working inside trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the shopkeeper inside.
The third and most obvious hint came when they heard a large explosion coming from somewhere outside.
Making their way through a crowd that was quickly doing its best to be somewhere else, Buffy and Cordelia made their way outside and tried to find the spot where that explosion occurred, swiftly finding it at the remains of the Doublemeat Palace across the street, and finding there also the four individuals that were no doubt responsible for its destruction.
"Man, I knew the food at the Doublemeat was bad, but I think blowing it up was a bit much," Buffy commented, both she and Cordelia giggling slightly at that, and stopping when they realized the seriousness of the actions being displayed in front of them. Swiftly reaching into her pocket, Buffy withdrew her cell phone and pushed the redial button.
"Will, it's Buffy. You and Anya need to get down to the mall right away."
Willow sighed. "Buffy, if you're calling me because you've found out about a twenty percent off all shoes and shirts sale..."
"Will, the enemy is attacking."
An uncomfortable silence followed Buffy's comment before Willow replied, "We'll be right there."
Buffy put her cell phone back into her pocket and rolled her eyes, not exactly surprised that Willow had thought she would be calling her about a sale.
Moving to join Cordelia under cover and out of sight of anyone who may be watching, Buffy turned to look at her companion and nodded. Cordelia nodded in reply, joining Buffy in raising her arms to transform to their Soldier forms.
"Jupiter Power Make Up!"
"Mars Power Make Up!"
A few blocks away, running as fast as they could, Willow and Anya raised their arms.
"Venus Power Make Up!"
"Moon Prism Power Make Up!"
At the Secret Base, Luna, who had until moments before been sleeping quietly on the floor, suddenly found herself wide awake, her eyes widening in shock and fear.
Something was about to happen. Something bad.
Moving towards Artemis, Luna tapped his sleeping form with one paw. "Artemis? Artemis, wake up."
The white furred feline stirred and mumbled something Luna couldn't hear, but otherwise gave no indication that he had heard Luna's words. Annoyed, she swatted Artemis over the head. "Wake up!"
Grumbling, Artemis opened his eyes and got up, giving Luna an annoyed look. "What?"
"We have to go," Luna said, moving towards the door. Artemis watched her go, and could tell that whatever it was that was bothering her, it was serious and immediate.
"Why? What's wrong?"
Luna turned back to look at Artemis, her expression that of a person knowing that she had run out of time. "It's happened."
Moving to join Luna, Artemis asked, "What?"
Luna couldn't bring herself to say it, knowing that Artemis would once again chew her out over it. Instead, she simply said, "Things are going to change, Artemis. And we have to be there when they do."
That was all Artemis had to hear, and the two of them made their way from the Bronze towards the place where their lives, and the lives of the Soldiers, were about to be fundamentally altered.
They had done their best to prevent it, but their time had now run out. All they could do was to make sure that the transition occurred with as little problems as possible.