Luna and Artemis made their way down the street as fast as their paws could take them, but Luna knew that it was pointless for them to try and exert themselves this much. No matter how fast they went, she knew that they wouldn't arrive in time to prevent Willow and the others from coming to great harm; harm that she and Artemis had tried so hard to protect them from; harm that none of them, especially Willow, deserved to be placed into.
Harm that she had knowingly sent them all into.
Luna couldn't help but chastise herself for what she had led the others into; she had thought it would have been for the best of all concerned to keep Willow and the others ignorant of everything they needed to know in order to fight the forces of the Dark Kingdom. Even Anya, who Artemis said was more knowledgeable in that area than the others, didn't know the whole story, especially the true role that Willow played in all of this. If he had known what she had planned to do once they had all gotten together, however, Luna had no doubt that he would have told her more, if only to provide for her a reason to explain her consistently bad attitude towards the others, making the pain of revealing her medical condition to the others far less obvious than it had apparently been.
Luna promised herself that, if Willow and the others managed to survive their current crisis, she would explain everything in exact detail to her and the others, and try to get them to understand the reasons why she felt she had to keep this information from them. She knew that the others would probably understand, but Luna had no doubt as to how Willow would react to this: even though she had taken her duty as a Sailor Soldier to heart, this new piece of information would cause her to question why she had been manipulated into putting herself in very real danger night after night, by the one person that she believed had no reason to question her role as the leader and had supported her without doubt throughout all the recent problems she had to deal with.
She and Artemis rounded a corner and came to a complete stop, surprised and shocked by what they saw. Lying against the wall of the building, her head slumped to one side, was Fred, her eyes closed, but otherwise looking unharmed.
Luna made their way over to her. "Fred?"
Fred blinked twice and opened her eyes, looking over at Luna and Artemis, a confused expression on her face. "Luna? Artemis? Wha...What's happening? What's going on?"
"We've been looking for you," Artemis explained. "We thought that you had been captured."
"Are you OK?" Luna asked, clearly still surprised at finding her here, but realizing that her state of mind needed to be assessed.
Fred raised her hand to rub her eyes, drawing in a ragged breath as she got to her feet. "I think so. What's going on?"
"The others are out near the mall," Luna explained. "The enemy has attacked, and they're trying their best to stop them."
"I've gotta help them," Fred muttered, moving to head down the street, only to come up short after two steps and collapse to one knee.
Moving over beside her, Luna said, "No, Fred. You're too tired. You should go home and take care of yourself.
"They'll be fine," Artemis added, knowing that he was lying to her, but also knowing that in her weakened state, Fred wouldn't be able to make that much of a difference, and quite possibly could end up putting the others in more danger than they obviously already were. "When they've driven them back, we'll all get together and celebrate your return."
Fred nodded weakly as she placed a hand on her head, waving Luna and Artemis on with the other. "OK. OK, go."
Luna nodded and turned to Artemis, both of them making their way down the street once again. Fred looked up and watched them round the corner and head off.
And in the space of two seconds, her entire demeanor changed dramatically. Gone was her weary tiredness and exhausted composure, replaced by a strength that belied her form and previous state of mind. Also gone was the look of confusion and pain on her face, replaced by a cocky smirk and near feral gleam in her ice blue eyes, two drastic changes that, seen by those who knew her, would find very much disturbing.
Then again, was there anyone out there who truly knew her? Obviously there wasn't, for if there were such people, they wouldn't have allowed what had happened to her to take place. Not that she held any ill will towards the people who had done this to her. In fact, she felt very much indebted to them, finally allowing her to see through the web of deception of lies her former friends had ensnared her in, and she was determined not to allow herself to become once again trapped within it.
Tilting her head as she got to her feet, Fred made her way down the street Luna and Artemis had gone down, her expression changing from the dangerous smirk and ice cold stare that had been on it to a expression of neutral indifference; an expression that, in its own way, was even more chilling.
Willow didn't consider herself very large with the butch, but over the past two months, she had gone through a crash course in learning how to defend herself and, with the help of Luna, had been trained well enough to battle the enemy and cultivated within her the strength and courage it took to be able to do so without fear.
But that didn't exactly mean she was willing to take on the four strongest warriors of the Dark Kingdom, especially all at once. Willow had wondered why they had never gotten together and attacked her before, and had figured it out rather easily: they, like she and her friends, had been unable to work together, meaning that whenever they did attack, she only had to deal with one or two of them at any one time. But it had become clearly obvious that they had worked out their differences and committed themselves to the singular goal of destroying them all.
This made Willow all the more grateful that she and her friends had also managed to patch up their differences. She wasn't sure she would have been able to deal with this problem if she had been by herself. But Willow was beginning to realize that, alone or together, there might not be any way to deal with the enemy this time.
"If only Fred was here," Willow thought as she ducked a blow that would have separated her head from her body. "If we were at full strength, we would have already beaten them back." Putting on her resolve face, she delivered a roundhouse kick that sent her opponent, the one garbed in red, stumbling backward, his sword falling from his hand. Willow had gone after him once he had been ejected from the Doublemeat rather forcefully, assuming that he would be the easiest to take care of.
If that was true, then Willow did not envy the task given to her friends, for even in his obviously disoriented and injured state, he was more than capable of keeping her on the defensive. Willow knew she had to do something if she had any hope to deliver an offensive that would drive him back.
This thought came as she took a step backward, quickly finding her booted foot impacted against something slippery. Before she could do anything to right herself, Willow found herself tumbling backward and fell flat on her rear on a patch of icy road. Wincing at the sudden and painful impact, she tried to get back to her feet, but found her footing shaky and merely succeeded in once again falling, this time flat on her face. Pushing herself up, Willow found herself staring directly into the blade of her opponent.
"I have failed my Queen far too often," he snarled, panting as he raised his sword to deliver a killing blow. "I do not intend to fail her now."
Willow tried to get some clean footing, but couldn't get enough traction to right herself, and merely slumped down on her chest, resigned to her fate.
So it came as a surprise to her that several seconds passed where she didn't feel the blinding pain that she would have normally associate with having her head separated from her body. Opening one eye, she saw Anya's form kneeling in front of her, her arms raised and holding her chain up to block the strike that had been coming to Willow's head. Willow looked at Anya's face, and saw there a mixture of emotions: pain at her exertion in holding her pose, resolve to do so regardless of what happened to herself and, what surprised Willow the most, as Anya's head turned to look at her, a genuine expression of concern for her safety.
Taking the hint, Willow crawled out of the way as Anya got to her feet and drove the man back, following up on this by delivering a kick to the gut that sent him sprawling to the ground. Getting up, Willow made her way over to Anya, placing a hand on the other girl's shoulder. "Thanks."
Anya placed a hand on Willow's shoulder in return, then brought up her other hand and waggled a finger in Willow's face. "That's two you owe me, Will."
Willow was about to respond to that with a snappy retort when she recognized the smile on Anya's face, realizing that her words were more to break the tension over what had just happened than everything else. Smiling, she nodded and replied, "And I'll pay you back with interest, as soon as we're done here." Anya nodded and moved off. Willow moved off to join her, her confidence stronger than it had been mere moments before.
Maybe, just maybe, they would get out of this after all.
Tara moved towards the bus stop bench, Amy's additional weight keeping her from moving as fast as she would have wanted. Tara knew that she could be moving faster than she was, and there was certainly nothing more she would like to do at that moment, but doing so would put Amy in more danger than she already was, and she couldn't shirk her responsibility for her welfare now, especially when it was clearly obvious to her, if not to Amy herself, that had Tara not gone into the Doublemeat to investigate why one of the four attackers had gone inside, Amy would have been dead right now.
"But saving Amy and making sure she's all right has put Willow in danger," she admonished herself. "I can't let her come to any harm, but I just can't leave Amy here...can I?"
Tara let a frustrated growl escape her throat, realizing that yet another painful decision had been placed in front of her. She let out a sigh, realizing that there was no point in fighting these decisions when they occurred. She was a fighter against the forces of evil, and doing things like that came with the territory.
That thought, coming to her as she helped Amy onto the bench, made Tara rethink her earlier decision to take herself out of the conflict. Certainly her earlier decision to do so still rang true, but now that she had the opportunity to think into the future, she realized that it wasn't nearly as clear cut as she had believed it to be.
And it was especially not fair to Willow, who had doing the exact same thing even without the support of her friends, if what she had learned two months ago was any indication. Even if they somehow managed to patch up their differences and work together, Tara knew that Willow would need someone by her side who would support her unconditionally, and it wouldn't hurt if that same person could easily understand the problems that she faced.
Tara knew that it had to be her, even if it meant reneging on her earlier decision to take herself out of the equation and to let other people deal with the problem, even if it was someone like Willow, whom Tara knew could try to deal with the problem, but no doubt would succeed better if she had someone by her side. It would mean having to reveal to her fully her nocturnal activities, but she had no doubt that Willow would understand. After all, she had mere hours ago done the same, and Tara had not been judgmental about it.
That was what two people who were truly in love with one another did. They worked through their problems and found ways to support one another, even if it was about something as grandiose as saving the world.
Amy hissed as she shifted her weight onto her broken leg. "Damnit."
"Go easy on yourself," Tara chided, getting back to her feet. "You don't want to aggravate your problem more than it already is."
"Oh, really?" Amy snapped back, her tone of voice all but spitting venom Tara's way. "How exactly could I be worse off than this?"
Tara turned her back to Amy before she responded. "You could be dead. Be thankful for small favors."
She walked away before Amy could respond, keeping herself from turning back to look at her one last time. Partly it was because, now that she was reasonably assured of Amy's safety and comforted with the knowledge that she wouldn't get herself into any more trouble, she could devote herself fully to protecting Willow.
But it was also to hide from her the pain and anguish she felt at having to be so cold towards her in responding. Tara knew that she had no right to be that way, as even though Amy's tone made it more than obvious to her that she deserved it, she also knew that it was more because she had, once again, gotten herself involved in a situation she clearly had no ability or desire to understand, and finally cracking from the pressure of having it happen one time too many.
The sad thing was, however, that while she clearly felt bad for Amy, Tara felt a whole lot worse for Willow. Amy had, after all, only been exposed to it in fleeting glances, never realizing the true danger she and the rest of the world faced. Willow, on the other hand, was right in the thick of things, night after night, and knew of the consequences of her actions should she falter in her duty, even for a moment.
Tara knew that doing that sort of thing, even with the emotional support she and her friends could provide, was not healthy, and was never more proud of Willow than she was at that moment. Anyone else would have cracked under that sort of pressure, but she, like herself, had within her the courage and strength to do the impossible in the name of doing what was right.
Those two words repeated ad nauseam within the confines of Willow's mind, serving no real purpose other than to drive her to the point of insanity, frogs and horses being the things that frightened her most in this world.
On the other hand, it had the fringe benefit of keeping her adrenaline flowing, meaning that, despite her tired state of mind, she was in no danger of being overwhelmed by the situation and make a mistake that could cost her dearly.
Risking a glance, Willow immediately could tell that her friends were less advantaged in that area; Buffy, despite apparently being on the same adrenaline kick she was, looked less likely to be able to keep that going, and Willow knew it was only a matter of time before her weakened state prevented her from stopping a fatal blow. Cordelia appeared to be holding her own; though Willow could see from the way she carried herself that she had twisted her ankle at some moment, the pain of which, despite her best efforts, was slowly but surely making itself more and more obvious, which meant it was becoming less and less easy for her to ignore it. And Anya, in an attempt to cover up the others' shortcoming, was doing her best to compensate, but Willow could see that, while it was succeeding for the most part, it was also wearing her out faster. And she wasn't sure, but there might have been more than one occasion where she appeared to be on the verge of fainting to the ground, her hand moving to her forehead before it happened.
"She shouldn't be here," Willow thought, dodging a blow to her midsection. "None of us should be here, but especially her. If we're not careful, we're going to be the one who end up killing her instead of that brain tumor."
Seeing the one known as Angelus moving towards her, Willow tried to cartwheel out of his way, only to find her hands, much like her feet had earlier done, impacting against the icy ground at an awkward angle and sending her skidding to the ground in a tangled mess of limbs.
Grunting, Willow pushed herself to her knees, finding that someone was standing in front of her. Preparing to defend herself, she lowered her defenses and allowed herself to become disconnected from what was going on around her as she looked up, her vision refocusing itself, and realized who it was in front of her.
Willow immediately enveloped the girl in a fierce hug, the emotional high she felt at seeing her return to them washing over her. "I'm so glad you're here. How did you manage to escape? Are you OK? Did you learn anything about our enemy while you were captured? Oh, I have so many questions I have to talk to you about and things I want to explain, but that'll have to wait till later. We have to deal with these guys first, so go find somewhere you can be safe until.."
It was only then, after her emotional high had receded, that Willow became acutely aware of how wrong the situation was. For starters, how she had acted in the past few seconds had left her vulnerable to assault from behind. And she, though thankful for the fact that they hadn't acted on it, still found it strange that they had not taken advantage of her lapse in judgment, knowing that her friends were not likely in any condition to stop them.
But more worrisome was the fact that Fred's reaction to the whole situation was entirely wrong. For starters, she had given no reaction at all. Though she had always known Fred to be logical to a fault when it came to sudden situations, Willow had always known Fred to showcase some emotion when it came to her accomplishments, even if it was merely bashful embarrassment at being treated as different than the rest of her peers. Certainly she should be rather happy at accomplishing something as monumental as breaking out of the Dark Kingdom's fortress all by herself.
And then Willow looked up at Fred's face and, her blood turning cold as she broke the hug and began to slowly back away, realized why Fred was showing no emotion at what was going on. One look at her face, seeing on it an expression of pure and utter disgust, magnified by the icy look of her blue eyes, immediately brought Willow to one inescapable conclusion.
"This isn't Fred. At least...not the Fred we know."
No sooner had this thought passed through her mind than Willow found her throat caught in the vice like grip of Fred's hand and, with surprising strength, found herself lifted off the ground and sent flying through the air to land hard on the ground a good distance away.
Approaching the area from further down the street, Luna and Artemis watched with surprise as they saw Fred walk up to Willow and stand in front of her, wondering why she was here after having conceded to their wishes to go home and rest. Their surprise soon turned to shock, however, when they saw Willow, who had gotten to her feet and shown unabashed joy at seeing Fred here, had her outreach of friendship thrown back at her when Fred grabbed Willow by the neck, lifted her off the ground and send her flying through the air to land on the ground several feet away.
Willow pushed herself up from her newly fallen position and looked at Fred, scarely allowing herself to believe that what had just happened had truly taken place. This had to be some mistake. Fred wouldn't have done this. Only one explanation made sense: that this was some monster assuming Fred's form in an attempt to goad her into lowering her guard, which she had foolishly done.
Cursing herself, she looked at the thing that had Fred's form and asked, "Who are you? And what have you done with Fred?"
"Nobody has done anything to me, Sailor Moon," Fred replied, moving towards Willow with a deliberate slowness in her step. Willow fought to get to her feet, realizing two things at that moment: this was indeed Fred and not some monster assuming her form, and that the deliberate use of her Soldier name was a clear indication that she no longer considered the two of them to be friends, something that Willow found more painful than the blow which had brought her here.
And certainly more powerful than the blow that Fred delivered to her midsection as she attempted to get to her feet once again, adding as she did so, "They've simply allowed me to see through your deception."
"My deception?" Willow wheezed, the breath knocked from her as she got to her knees, Buffy and the others, having stopped their attacks on the other enemies, moving to protect her from Fred's brutal assault.
"Yes," Fred replied as the others formed a protective bubble around her. "And I intend to make sure that you do not have the opportunity to ensnare me within it once again."
Fred crossed her arms across her chest, and Willow noticed for the first time that she still wore her transformation bracelet, but it was radically different than it had been before. While it still bore the blue jewel of Fred's bracelet, it was now black in color, held onto her wrists with straps which appeared to be leather.
"Dark Power...Make Up!"
Willow and the others watched as Fred's body was enveloped in darkness, reforming after several seconds when the darkness faded, to show her body in a completely different state of affairs. While she still wore her Soldier uniform, it was dramatically different than it had been. Her bows, originally blue ribbon, were now black lace, tribal designs decorating her boots, collar and tiara. While these were certainly dramatic changes, they were nothing compared to the way her body had changed with regard to her new outfit. Her pale skin had become a light blue, dark blue highlights on her forehead and framing her face. Her hair, normally a short cropped blue when in her Soldier form, was now long and straight, alternating between blue and brunette.
Her most striking change, however, was in her eyes. Though they were the same as they had been prior to her transformation, seeing them on her now, in the guise of the person that Luna had said was the Soldier of Wisdom, Guardian of Water and Knowledge, was even more chilling, suggesting little more than to literally rip the hearts from her former friends, much like she thought they had done to her figuratively.
The others approached her now, Angelus handing Fred an icicle he had plucked from the ice wall that had formed following her transformation. Taking it into her gloved hand, Fred held it to her side.
Willow wondered what Fred was doing, and found her answer as the icicle morphed into a dangerous looking sword, which Fred brought up and pointed at each of her former friends, addressing them one last time.
"Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, Sailor Venus, look upon you new enemy. And know that as I strike you down, I shall become more powerful, and use my power to rid the world of your meddlesome presence. And once you're gone, who will be left to stop us from finding the Moon Princess?
Buffy and the others tightened their circle around Willow, prepared to defend her to the very end, but it was obvious to Willow that they had no idea what to do. They had to stop Fred and the others, but they couldn't attack them at the same time that they had to attack their former friend.
"Leave them alone!"
This bold declaration caught everyone's attention, and they all turned to look at the ruins of the Doublemeat Palace, seeing the figure emerging from it. A figure Willow recognized instantly.