Tara marched towards the assembled groups, her steps those of a woman having great confidence that what she was doing was the right thing to do; a feel that was far from the truth, as she was very unsure as to whether or not this was indeed a good idea. What she was about to do was the single most frightening thing she had to do, even more so than imagining a future for herself without her parents. But, like then, she had to be strong, to forget the pain those thoughts brought to her and focus on the task at hand, because more than anything else, Willow's life depended on what she did now.
And if she were to do this, she would do it without disguising her identity. She owed it to Willow to be able to do this, to show her just how far she was willing to go in order to make sure that she and her friends got all the help they needed in fighting these people.
"You shall not harm the Guardians of the Princess," she boldly declared, pointing at each of the males in turn. "I will do my best to see that you and you master fail. She turned towards Fred, adding as she pointed to her with the walking cane she held in her hand. "And I will help them to bring you back to where you rightfully belong."
"I am where I belong," Fred replied, raising her sword to counter Tara's gesture. "And I'll see you long before you have any opportunity to tear me away."
She brought her weapon up and stared directly into Tara's eyes, obviously challenging her to a fight. But before Tara could respond, someone said, "No."
Fred turned to look at the one who had spoken, finding Angelus looking down at her, a look of disapproval on her face. "You shall do nothing of the sort."
Fred was clearly displeased at being treated like this. "Excuse me?"
"Our Queen has invested a lot of our energy into your...education," Angelus explained. "And I do not think that she would enjoy having her efforts foolishly go to waste, considering that you are more useful to us alive than dead." Stepping forward, he brandished his own weapon Tara's way, a wicked smile forming on his face. "And besides, I would enjoy the pleasure of seeing how well this...person can do in facing me."
Tara returned his stare, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach as she wondered now if she had bitten off more than she could chew. But she didn't have any choice now that she was committed to this. Turning to look at Willow, she saw her looking at her, the expression clearly showing utter confusion and silently telling her, "What are you doing?"
"I'll explain everything to you, Willow," she thought. "I promise I will, just as soon as I deal with this guy." Returning her attention to the enemy standing before her, she added to herself, "That should give me time to think of something."
And then the battle was joined.
Willow stood dumbfounded as she watched Tara go head to head with Angelus, whom she knew to be the most dangerous, the most powerful, and most sneaky of the enemy's four strongest warriors. Her brain utterly refused to believe what was going on in front of her, and why should she try to believe otherwise? This wasn't at all like the Tara she knew; the Tara that was thoroughly incapable of acting in an violent manner; the Tara that was incapable of acting in a irresponsible manner; the Tara that was, for more reasons than one, the one person who shouldn't have gotten involved in all of this.
And yet, for some reason, it didn't surprise her at all to be seeing Tara like this. It made her recall the conversation they had months ago when she had said that she had engaged in some questionable activities to find out about the Mystical Silver Crystal. It may also explain why Anya was so reluctant to look at her as a friend. If the two of them had run across one another, and Anya had misinterpreted her actions as those the enemy would do, that would explain a great deal.
Willow tried to get herself to move, knowing that she had to help Tara, but the sight of the others, along with Fred, nearby, made that something that would be impossible, since they would stop anyone that tried to interrupt their leader. And even if she could take them all on by herself, there was no way that Buffy, Cordelia and Anya would let her, saying that Tara would need all of her concentration. That was something Willow couldn't help but agree with.
She also couldn't help but feel that what was happening here felt very much familiar, but she dismissed that for the moment, concentrating instead on telling herself that her beloved would be OK, knowing that she could do little more than watch and pray.
Fred grew increasingly disinterested with watching Angelus battle this newcomer. Unlike him, she held no feelings of honor for what she was doing, and no need to have her prove that honor. And that must be was why his comrades were apparently content to let their leader fight her all by himself, keeping themselves occupied by making sure that her former friends did not interfere.
It occurred to her then that, unlike the others, she was not honor bound to accept his leadership and remain uninvolved, since, despite his apparent beliefs, he held no power over her, and thus had no right to assume that nonexistent authority over her.
Looking at the one Angelus fought, she thought for a moment how familiar she looked, but shrugged it off just as quickly. It didn't matter who she was. All that did matter was that she was an enemy, and one that needed to be quickly disposed of.
She took a step forward, and was not exactly surprised to find a retort to her actions.
"What do you think you're doing?"
She turned to look at the source of the comment, and was not exactly surprised to find it coming from Xander. From what she had learned of the four of them, he was the one who was always questioning the actions of the others in front of their leader, always assuming that any suspect move was a covert attempt to usurp his Queen, a line of reasoning that also included questioning why she herself should be allowed to fight on their side. She smiled mirthfully, realizing that she now had an opportunity to do two very important things at once: perform a service for her new allies by eliminating one of her former allies, while at the same time embarrass the one who had questioned her inclusion into their inner circle by performing a service he and his comrades had been unable to perform themselves.
"I am going to do what none of you have been able to do," she replied. "What none of you seem to be able to do: eliminate all those who oppose our attempts to resurrect our glorious ruler."
Fred snickered to herself as she watched the expressions on Xander's and the others' faces darken at that, the three of them barely managing to hide the revulsion they felt at having their shortcomings pointed out to them. Turning around, she covertly moved off to find the best means of approaching that would make her undetected to all that could stop her.
Anya turned her head to find Luna and Artemis running towards them. Leaving Cordelia and Buffy to take care of Willow, she ran up to meet them. "What's going on?"
"What do you mean?" Luna asked.
Anya angrily tilted her head back towards the fight. "You know what I'm talking about. Why did you let the Princess fight all by herself? And why did you feel the need to keep it a secret from us." She turned her attention to Artemis. "I'm especially disappointed in you, Artemis. You know what I've gone through, what...what I've had to do. Why didn't you think this was important enough to tell me?"
"Believe me, Anya, I wanted to tell you," Artemis replied, not bothering at all to hide his shame at being berated. "I truly did. But Luna said that was something that shouldn't be told until we felt that you were all together and could deal with that knowledge."
"And she's not the Princess."
So focused was Anya on her fury towards Artemis that she nearly missed Luna's words. But when they finally registered in her mind, she found half of her anger split towards her, as well. "What?"
"Tara's not the Moon Princess," Luna clarified, the words coming from her through the last vestiges of the mental barriers she had developed in order to prevent her from saying what could no longer be kept quiet. "We...we lied to you all."
"You lied to us?" Anya repeated, her tone conveying all the emotion of one whose patience was dangerously thin, to a point where the slightest provocation could snap it in two and cause her to do something she might regret later.
"Yes," Luna replied, the word coming out more pained than she would have liked.
There was a time when hearing this news would have made Anya angry that she had been used in this way, being sent on a mission whose true goals were kept from her, even if it was supposedly for her own good. And to be honest, learning of this did anger her a great deal. So it was all the more surprising that her concerns were placed elsewhere. "Did you ever stop to think about the harm you were doing?"
"We didn't want it to be like that," Artemis tried to explain.
"So you just let Willow go along believing what you had said, knowing that you were lying to her hand over fist?"
"No, but we," Luna began, only to come up short as she thought about what she had just been told. "Wait, what?"
"You know what I'm talking about," Anya retorted. "You've let Willow go around Sunnydale for the past two months with the emotional baggage that her girlfriend was the one we've been trying to find, and she doesn't know that every reason she's been fighting as hard as she has, not to mention the reasons why she did so without our help, was a lie?"
"No!" Luna snapped back. "All of her efforts haven't been in vain. She's done very good work in protecting the Princess. It's just that...Tara's not the one she's been protecting."
"So then who..."
Anya's question was abruptly cut off as she heard a bloodcurdling scream erupt from behind her.
Willow's initial surprise had long since faded, quickly replaced by the growing fear she felt for her beloved safety, and the disgust she felt about her own unwillingness to act to protect her. But more importantly, the growing and now unshakable feeling that this was not the first time what was taking place had occurred.
Every time she blinked, she saw the landscape around her change from the cold darkness of downtown Sunnydale to the ruined remains of a palace, a building she couldn't recognize, but felt more like home than her real home. Tara was here, too, clad in the armor of a warrior, clothing that at the same time seemed ill appropriate and perfectly acceptable.
But instead of the male form of Angelus, this person that had Tara's form was fighting a female clothed in a long purple dress, her brunette hair topped off by a golden crown, an appearance that was certainly at odds with the expert fighting skills she was showing off in fighting this person that looked like Tara.
It struck Willow how much this person that looked like Tara was different from the way Tara was now. Although Tara as she was now was certainly a capable fighter, more than holding her own against the one she fought, there was none of the confident swagger, the bold attacks and the almost egotistical way the Tara in her mind's eye conveyed as she fought her own battle.
"I really don't think that Tara would be capable of doing things like that," Willow thought to herself. "Then again, I never really thought Tara could be capable of doing the things she's doing now."
Turning towards Cordelia, she saw the pained look on her face as she rubbed her head. "You OK?"
"Yeah," her best friend replied. "Yeah, I'm fine. It's just that...I can't help but think..."
"That you've seen this before?" Willow finished.
"Yeah," Cordelia muttered in reply. "You feel that way, too?"
"Yeah," Willow replied as she brought her head back to the battle. "Please, baby. Please be OK." As she did so, she caught sight of Anya talking to Luna and Artemis, and realized that the two of them could be the only one who could help her to make sense of any of this.
Or were they?
Willow wondered for a moment why that thought came so quickly to mind. Luna had always been truthful to her, never giving her any reason to doubt that what she was saying was the truth. After all, she had never given any real reason why she should.
Just as soon as she thought this, however, her subconscious mind provided for her one case that verily disproved that.
Luna was waiting on top of the dresser when she entered the room. Willow could tell immediately that she looked troubled. "What's wrong?"
"How did you do on the test?" she asked in reply.
Clearly surprised that such a thing would worry her, Willow dropped her backpack on her bed and fished out the paper, tossing it down in front of her. "Pretty well, actually, especially when you consider the fact that math really hasn't been one of my strong talents, not to mention that I barely studied at all over the last few days, what with my need to head out into battle all by myself. And it's been pretty funny explaining that to Mom all the time. Maybe if I can get a few more A's, she'd ease off my case a little bit..."
Luna, who had leapt onto the bed and had taken a look at the paper, interrupted at that moment. "Willow, I don't think you should do that again. At least...not constantly."
"What?" Willow asked after a moment's pause. "Getting good grades?" Because you're the only one whose telling me to do that. Miss Calendar, Principal Snyder, Tara, Amy, and even my mother tell me that I have a special destiny, and that it's only going to come to me if I apply myself. So frankly, I have to find it surprising that you would think that failing a test every now and then when I clearly don't have to would be a good idea."
"Because," Luna snapped, then, when she had gotten Willow's attention, continued in a calmer voice, "Because I don't think that it would be a good idea to give the Dark Kingdom, who is actively searching for the Moon Princess just as we are, any reason at all to think that any particular individual is acting contrary to their usual way of thinking. To do so would provide to them a means to figure out your secret identities; this would not be a good thing if we wanted to keep the Princess safe."
Willow thought it over for a moment. "So what you're saying is, that to protect not only the Princess, but ourselves, we should keep on doing our normal routines, even though we know that there's a group of big bads out there looking to stop the only people protecting the one person who could make a difference in all of this?"
"Pretty much, yeah," Luna agreed after a moments hesitation on her part.
Another moment went by before Willow responded, "OK, that makes sense to me."
It did indeed make sense to her then. Looking back on it now, however, Willow had to admit that everything Luna had said that day didn't make sense. If her mother's years as a child psychologist had taught her nothing else, it was that thousands of people acted strangely every moment of every day, and that it would be incredibly difficult to make them rein in their natural impulses, even if it was for a good reason; and forgetting for a moment the fact that there was no real way to determine just how long this conflict with the Dark Kingdom would last, there was no realistic way that they could convince nearly six billion people to behave normally for any amount of time.
"I know Luna would only do it if she had a good reason," Willow told herself. "And protecting ourselves is a good reason. But how could she think for one moment that we could behave on a straight and narrow path without ever straying from it? It's human nature to grow and change and it's not something you can stop. What is it about us that makes that necessary?"
She then asked one other question: "What is it about me that makes that necessary?"
Buffy swung her head around quickly, finding that something was wrong. Noticing her, Cordelia turned to her. "What's wrong?"
"Fred," Buffy replied. "She's just...disappeared."
"What do you mean, disappeared?" Cordelia snapped back. "Where is she?"
"I don't know!" Buffy shouted back. "If I knew where she was, I wouldn't have said she had disappeared!" Calming down, she added, "But you can bet that she's up to no good."
"No argument there," Cordelia agreed. "So...what do we do about it, Will?"
When Willow didn't respond, Cordelia turned to her, finding her attention squarely fixed on the battle, giving no indication that she was noticing anything else.
Tara was trying her best, but it was becoming increasingly clear that her opponent was one step ahead of her. Willow knew she had to help, but no matter how hard she tried, her legs absolutely refused to move.
She watched as Tara blocked a strike, kneeling as the weight from the strike forced her down. Tara tried to hold her arms up, but Willow could clearly see them shaking, indicating that her best efforts were in vain. Very soon now, she would lose her weapon and be at the tender mercies of the one facing her.
The moment happened far too quickly, but to Willow, it went as slowly as a turtle's crawling walk. The sword was knocked away from Tara's hand, and without pause, the blade of her opponent was sent directly into her chest. Gasping, Tara turned to look in Willow's direction, her face pained with the failure of her effort.
She collapsed to the ground, the triumphant laughter of her opponent ringing through her ears. Willow blinked in an effort to clear her mind, the images she was seeing not what was taking place in the real world.
But as her vision refocused, she became very much aware of one fact: what had happened may have been a dream, but as she imagined it, it had also taken place in the real world, for while Angelus stood before Tara, the tip of his blade at her throat, Fred had driven her own weapon through Tara's back, and even now turned to look Willow directly in the eye.
"Look at this fallen warrior, Sailor Moon," she said. "This shall be you and your comrades soon enough."
Willow didn't hear the words. All she could hear was the sound of her own breathing and her own heartbeat, both of which were clearly getting out of control. The next thing she heard was an inhuman cry of pain, a noise that sounded unnatural to her own ears, and it took her a few moments to realize the truth.
It was a scream; a scream that came from her own mouth. Shoving Cordelia and Buffy aside as they vainly tried to block her, Willow rushed to Tara's side and turned her over. "Tara?! Baby?! Wake up! Please, wake up!"
Tara's eyes faintly opened, and Willow smiled faintly in reply. Perhaps things weren't as bad as she feared. Taking Tara's hand into her own, Willow tried to reassure her, knowing full well that what she was actually doing was doing her best to console herself.
"It's OK, baby," she said. "We'll...we'll help you. Make sure that you're all right."
Tara let out a chuckle that swiftly turned into a pained cough. "Don't lie to me, Willow. There...there shouldn't be any secrets between us."
Willow let out a mirthful chuckle at that, realizing the irony of Tara's words, an irony she herself must have realized as she added, "I...I guess it's kinda funny. If we had come to that conclusion sooner, maybe...maybe all of this could have...could have been...avoided."
Despite the situation, Willow found reason to chuckle at that. Her expression turned deathly serious, however, as Tara's arm went slack in her own and she fell back on the ground.
Gathering Tara into her arms, Willow tried to hold back in believing that the impossible had just happened. But no matter how hard she tried, she knew it to be true. Tara was dead, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Through the fog of emotions clouding her brain, Willow found a crystal clear image of a memory long forgotten. A memory of Tara...or rather, the person from her dream who had Tara's face; a person whose name she now knew.
Luna, Artemis and Anya rushed over as Willow made her way towards Tara's fallen body. Buffy and Cordelia, getting to their feet, looked to them, hoping to get some explanation as to what was going on.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Cordelia snapped. "Why didn't you tell us that the Princess was helping us fight the enemy?"
"Because she's not the Princess," Anya answered.
Buffy and Cordelia gaped at Anya in surprise at this sudden, and rather abrupt, answer. "What?"
"Tara isn't the Princess," Luna answered. "We let Willow...and you think she was because...because we didn't think you could handle knowing the truth."
"And what that would be?" Buffy asked, before Willow's cry brought her and the others' attention around to find Willow, who was still holding Tara's body, engulfed in a bright light, a light that drove Angelus and Fred back towards their comrades; they themselves shielding themselves from the light.
The light faded after a few moments, revealing a Willow whose appearance had dramatically changed. No longer wearing her Soldier uniform, she was now clad in a white dress, her blonde pigtailed hair reverting back to its natural red. And on her forehead...
"Yes," Luna said, seeing the look on the others' face as the truth dawned on them. "Willow is Princess Serenity."
Willow had no idea what had just happened to her. One moment, she had been so consumed by her emotional breakdown over what had happened to Tara that all outside sources of sensory immersion were automatically closed off to her. The next, she had been hit hard by a tidal wave of emotions and feelings, not only from herself and Tara, but Buffy's, Anya and Cordelia's. Even Fred, Angelus and the other enemies' emotional states were open to her, their feelings washing over her.
Intermixed with this swell of emotions was a second set of feelings; feelings that she knew also belonged to those present, but were different in such a way that it gave her pause to wonder whether or not the two distinct sets of emotions were indeed coming from the same people.
The wave of emotions and memories receded, being replaced by a feeling of tremendous power, power she knew could be used to help save Tara from dying of her wounds. Raising her arms, she held out her hand, palms facing one another, and focused her mind on channeling her newfound energy into a physical form through which it can flow.
"Willow is Princess Serenity?"
The question came at Luna from each of the young women standing before her, and came at her with such surprise and ferocity that, even though she had been mentally prepared for this for some time, it still caught her off guard. "Yes," she replied.
An uncomfortable silence followed her confirmation, which gave the three girls cause to rethink what had happened over the past several months. Buffy looked back over the time she had spent with Willow, and found it difficult to imagine that she had been consorting with royalty this entire time. Cordelia felt incredibly guilty about learning this; the knowledge of this making her decision to leave the group more of a bad idea than she had convinced herself it had indeed been. Not only had she abandoned her friend, but she had also abandoned the one who needed her protection the most.
Anya, understandably, was the most upset, and was also the most concerned about where this new information would take them. More importantly, she worried about whether or not she and the others could trust Luna and Artemis ever again. But even though her mind was focused on all of that, she couldn't help but wonder how all of this was going to affect Willow. She certainly had been through a lot recently, and if nothing else, this was going to do little more than promise more of the same.
Suddenly wondering why the enemy hadn't acted on the inaction on their part, she quickly brought her attention back to the present, expecting them to be preparing to strike against Willow before she could do anything. She was about to warn the others to be ready for such an attack when she noticed that they were just as paralyzed into inaction as they were. For a moment, she wondered why it was that they weren't taking advantage of the situation.
And then she saw Willow raise her arms, palms facing one another, a small ball of light coalescing between her hands, reforming itself into the form of a large multifaceted jewel, its surface reflecting the light that surrounded it and the power that it contained within itself.
She realized what it was as she heard the choked gasps of surprise from Buffy and Cordelia, and Luna's confirmation of her curiosity.
"The Mystical Silver Crystal."
Angelus hadn't the faintest clue what was going on. One minute, he had been content to let the young woman who rushed to the side of his defeated opponent, knowing that in a few moments, she and the others would follow her lead into the great beyond. The next, however, he found himself unable to move and saw, with one look to his side, that the others were similarly affected.
It was then that the light that had appeared grew brighter, engulfing all those present in its brightness. He tried to shield his eyes, but even despite that, it managed to penetrate his senses.
The moment it had done so, he felt a flood of memories flood unchecked, as if they were the water being contained within his mind by a floodgate. All of these memories felt so familiar, and yet strangely alien. One showed Xander and Oz engaging in an arm wrestling match, he himself leaning against a nearby tree watching the pair and offering each of them advice. It was a memory that was clearly not a falsehood, and yet he could not recall such an event occurring.
Another showed himself sparring with...no, it wasn't possible. He was fighting against the woman he had just defeated. But there was something different about her in this memory. She was wearing different clothing, her hair done up in a different fashion and her figure was subtly more muscular, but other than these trivial matters, she was indeed the same person he had just defeated.
A third memory came to mind, and though it was just as confusing, it soon brought about other feelings within him. He was at the ruins of a palace, the location of which escaped him. He was walking among the crumbled parapets and ruined fortification, behaving very much like the general of an army; obviously the army that had led the attack against this place. It was in doing this that he came across a most disturbing sight.
Strewn across the battlefield in front of him, bodies buried under the rubble, were his comrades. Spike was pinned down under a broken column, his sword lying mere inches from his outstretched arm. Xander and Oz lay nearby, pinned face up and face down under the ruins of what had once been a wall. He saw himself collapse to one knee, the sight knocking the breath out of him and shocking him more than he thought it would.
But not nearly as much as the guttural, inhuman noise that emerged from his mouth.
Angelus blinked, trying as hard as he could to clear his mind and thinks straight. None of these memories were familiar to him, and certainly did not gel with his memories of serving Faith faithfully, if reluctantly. But as much as those memories felt right and seemed true, these newly recovered memories felt just as, if not more, right.
But that couldn't be true. They couldn't both be right.
The noise brought Faith before Queen Metallia, her pace fast, and yet hesitant at the same time. The Demon Queen was obviously upset about something; that much was obvious. Faith herself had begun to feel that something had gone wrong. It had been her hope that she could find out what this problem was and deal with it before Metallia found out about it.
That, apparently, was no longer possible. All she could do now was hope that whatever was wrong, it was not nearly as bad as she feared it was. Or, more accurately, the expected reprisal she would suffer at Metallia's hand was not as painful as she feared.
"Faith...," the raspy female voice boomed as she arrived in Metallia's chamber, kneeling out of respect and bowing her head in subservience.
"Yes, my Queen?"
"Your secret weapon...has been completed."
Faith visibly relaxed, her entire demeanor changing in the blink of an eye as she realized that things were not as bad as she feared. "I am glad. She will be the instrument that brings about the end of the Sailor Soldiers."
"I had thought that the girl you had brainwashed would have been sufficient for that task," Metallia replied, a slightly chiding tone in her voice. "Do you fear that she may fail you in that task, as your other minions have failed you?"
Faith gritted her teeth, but kept her voice neutral as she replied, "They have not failed me yet, at least, not sufficiently to make their continued existence a detriment to our cause. Having the captured Soldier in our thrall will serve to weaken their resolve further, and this new element we shall introduce will break their spirits and shatter their remaining will.
"Yes," Metallia mused. "Perhaps you're right."
Faith smiled faintly, relishing in the minor victory those words had brought her. Her happiness and good spirits were immediately darkened, however, as the room became engulfed in a brilliant white light.
Faith's question was cut off as Metallia erupted in a deep throated roar in response to the light. Whether it was because the light was harming her or energizing her, Faith could not tell. All that was apparent was that it was affecting her greatly, and there was only one thing that could do that.
"The Mystical Silver Crystal," she realized.
"Faith! Bring them back!"
Faith brought her head around. "What?"
"The Crystal! Its power has been unleashed, and is weakening the hold you have on your warriors! Bring them back before it is too late!"
Faith got to her feet and closed her eyes, using her powers to bring her warriors back as Queen Metallia commanded. She knew, however, that it was most likely too late. The powers of the Mystical Silver Crystal were beyond corruption, and once it was used in such a manner, there was little to no hope of reversing its effects.
As bad as it could be, Faith held out hope that it was not as bad as she feared. Even if it was, she knew that Xander and Oz would most likely continue to serve her, if only out of their misguided loyalty to her. And the power she had worked over Sailor Mercury simply heightened the anger she had already felt towards her former friends. With them most likely to remain under her control, she hoped that they would serve her long enough to find out who had used the Crystal and find an opportunity to snatch it away from her.
She simply hoped that her hold over them would stay together long enough to have that opportunity present itself.
Willow poured the energies she felt through the Crystal and over Tara, feeling her lover's wound heal itself under her gentle touch. Even in this controlled state, however, it washed out over the surrounding area, touching all that were nearby. For a fleeting moment, she wondered what effect it was having on those present, but dispelled it just as quickly. Nothing mattered to her more at that moment than Tara's safety.
No...this wasn't Tara Maclay. She was Princess Endymion of the Earth Kingdom of Elysion. Neither was she Willow Rosenberg, underachieving high school student that everyone but her knew had a special destiny in life. She was Princess Serenity, keeper of the Mystical Silver Crystal, daughter of Queen Serenity, and heir to the long destroyed Moon Kingdom.
Willow opened her eyes to find Tara looking back at her, a faint smile on her face. She also saw Buffy, Anya and Cordelia on one knee before her, eyes locked intently on her.
Letting go of Tara and setting her body back on the ground, Willow got to her feet, one question present, if faintly, on her mind.
"I am...a Princess?"