Luna took a hesitant step forward, unsure of what was about to happen next. So much had happened in the past few minutes, and though everyone was clearly doing their best to go with it, she knew that the circumstances that called for that wouldn't last, leading everyone to ask questions and demand explanations and shout accusations at one another. "Willow?"
Hearing the voice, Willow looked down. "Luna?" She then brought her head up to look at the others. "Venus? Mars? Jupiter?"
"Willow?" Luna asked again, her voice radiating clear confusion at Willow's obvious lack of familiarity towards her friends.
"Willow? Who is Willow?"
Luna's tongue caught in her throat, only now realizing what was going on. "Princess?"
Willow smiled faintly. "It's good to see you, Luna." She looked towards the others. "It's good to see you all." Her forehead creased as she noticed something was wrong. "Luna, where is Mercury? I would have thought that she would be here with you?"
Luna hesitated, wondering how much she should say. Willow had obviously fallen deeply into the persona of Princess Serenity, and even though she deserved to know what had happened, there wasn't any possibility that, buried as deeply as it was, Willow's normal personality would be made aware of it. And there was also the possibility that, like Willow, Princess Serenity wouldn't feel comfortable learning about what had happened and the reasons for it.
Regardless, Luna knew she couldn't keep it a secret any longer. The truth had to be told. "She...was captured."
"Captured?" Willow asked, clearly not understanding what she had been told.
"The Dark Kingdom broke free of the imprisonment that your mother had trapped them in," Luna explained. "Artemis and I got you and your Guardians together in the hopes of stopping their attacks on Earth. We decided to awaken you as a Soldier first, reasoning that you would be best protected by fighting alongside the others. But there were some...complications. Even though for the most part you remained friends, you couldn't agree on what to do. That led to tensions flaring up between the five of you. Fred...Mercury always had confidence problems, and we tried our best to make her feel needed, but...but..."
"But despite that, the Dark Kingdom managed to capture her and manipulate her insecurities to turn her against us?" Willow asked.
"Luna nodded, her eyes welling up. "And it's my fault."
"How so?" Willow asked.
"I...I told you that we had to find the Princess and keep her safe, but I kept from you the fact that the Princess was among you the entire time. I allowed you to believe that, even to the point where I allowed you to believe that Tara was the Princess, and all because I wanted to keep you safe."
"And if I hadn't done that, the five of you would have been able to come together much easier, Tara would not have been hurt and Fred would still be with us." Luna started to cry. "It's my fault, Princess. I've failed you."
"Luna, it's all right."
Luna looked up to find Willow staring back at her, the faint smile still on her face. If she was upset at having been lied to, she certainly didn't show it. "You did what you thought was necessary in order to protect me. I would have expected no less from you."
Luna visibly relaxed. "Thank you, Princess. I'm glad that you agree with the actions I took to ensure your safety."
The look of appreciation on Willow's face disappeared, and her expression took on a hard edge. "I did not say that I agreed with your actions, Luna. Merely that I understood why you had undertaken them. That you chose to do so in the manner you did was very irresponsible of you."
Luna cast her head down, accepting the rebuke. "I'm sorry, Princess."
"Your apology is neither requested nor required," Willow said, looking back towards Tara. "All that matters now is that Endymion has been healed from her injury. Once she has sufficiently recovered, we can get to work on formulating a plan to recover Mercury. After that..." She paused and raised a hand to her forehead.
"Willow?" Luna asked.
Willow drew a haggard breath and muttered, "Fainting now." Before anyone could react, she collapsed to her knees and fell on her side, the dress she wore reverting back to her civilian clothes.
"What's wrong?" Cordelia asked as she and the others rushed to Willow's side. "Is she going to be all right?"
"I believe so," Luna answered, not exactly sure of how true that answer really was, but not wishing to aggravate an already tense situation. "The energies of the Silver Crystal must have really overwhelmed her."
"I'll say," Buffy couldn't help but quip, resetting Willow's upper body so that she lay straight on the ground. Anya, meanwhile, moved to Tara's side and picked up the small object lying beside her head and brought it over to Luna.
"Is this what all of this trouble has been about?"
"Yes," Luna answered. "As the Princess, Willow was entrusted with its protection in the future. Now that it's been revealed, we'll all have to work together to make sure that the enemy doesn't get it."
"What about Tara?" Buffy asked.
"What about her?" Anya responded. "If she's not the Princess, she's not really someone we should be concerned about, right?"
Cordelia was about to respond to that when she looked over Anya's shoulder and found her voice caught in her throat. Buffy, Luna and Artemis followed her gaze, and likewise fell silent. Anya looked over her shoulder to find Tara getting to her feet.
"I think that what should be done, as far as I'm concerned, is not really any of your business," she said, obviously in response to Buffy's question. Realizing this, Buffy tried to cover her mistake.
"I'm sorry, Tara. I didn't mean it to come out that way. What I meant was...I mean..."
"I know what you meant, Buffy," Tara interrupted as she made her way over to Willow. "And like I said, it's none of your business." Bending over, Tara gathered Willow into her arms and started to walk away. Buffy and Cordelia moved to stop her, but stopped as Luna spoke up.
"Let them go. They've both learned a lot today, and they need to work it out on their own."
"In the meantime, we've got some things of our own to discuss," Artemis said. "We should head back to the Secret Base." He and Luna began to walk back down the street the way they had come, Anya and the others following after pausing for a few moments to watch as Tara's figure receded into the distance.
Willow awoke from what could only be described as a nightmare on a bed that was not her own. Taking a look at her surroundings, she immediately recognized where she was.
"Tara's bedroom?" she thought. "How did I end up here?"
She went over her recent memory, her last thoughts before blacking out the sight of Tara's body being skewered by Fred's blade, and her shocked helplessness at seeing this as the life flowed out of Tara's body as quickly as she collapsed to the ground. Willow realized that the shock of seeing that had rendered her nearly catatonic, as she could recall nothing from that point on.
That explained her blackout and memory gap. It didn't, however, explain why she was here.
Moving to sit up, Willow wrapped her arms around her legs and began to sob. She had failed Tara. She had failed her friends. She had failed Luna. Most importantly, she had failed herself. "I wasn't strong enough to stop them. I wasn't strong enough to save Tara. She's dead, and I didn't do a thing about it. It's my fault! She's dead because of me!"
"Hey, Princess. What are you crying for?"
Willow snapped her head up immediately at the sound of that voice, telling herself that it was impossible for her to be hearing it. "It's not possible. It can't be true! It...it just can't be!"
But it was. Standing in the doorway, holding a glass of water in one hand, was Tara, her face a cheerful happiness that would have warmed Willow's heart had it not belonged to someone who by all rights should not be here in front of her now.
"Tara?" she croaked.
Tara nodded. "Yes, sweetie. It's me."
Even though this sounded entirely believable, Willow couldn't accept this that easily. "You...you can't be Tara. You've got to be one of the Dark Kingdom's monsters, playing weird mind games with me. Or maybe...maybe I'm still dreaming, and my subconscious is cooking up some kind of mental barriers designed to prevent me from accepting the truth..."
Willow knew that she was beginning to sound like her mother, and choked down the gag reflex that she had at thinking along those lines, even if they were certainly preferable to dwelling on the obvious. She then heard Tara...or whatever it was, begin to speak to her again, and brought her attention back to the words.
"Your name is Willow Danielle Rosenberg, the only daughter of Sheila and Ira Rosenberg. You've always wanted to have a younger sibling, and it really bugged you throughout your childhood, as you never had any friends to play with. Your best friend is Amy Madison, whom you've known throughout your entire life."
Willow thought it over. All of this certainly were things that the Dark Kingdom didn't know about, but that didn't prove conclusively that this was Tara she was talking to. "Nice try, but just because you know all of that doesn't mean that this isn't some kind of wonky, self induced dream I'm living out..."
"You're also Sailor Moon, defender of Love and Justice." Setting the glass down on the nightstand, Tara reached out and took Willow's hand into her own. Despite her reservations, Willow didn't immediately flinch or back away at the touch of Tara's skin against her own. Tara brought her fingers to the ring on Willow's ring finger. "I got this for you as a Christmas present. When you came over earlier today, I decided to give it to you early because..."
Tara hesitated, and Willow, who had begun to believe that all of this was real, found her beliefs shaken once again. She was about to wrench her hand free from Tara's grip when she finished her sentence.
"Because...I love you and wanted to give you something that would prove to you how much I do. I also wanted to give you something that would show you how much I was willing to do in order to be with you."
Understanding finally blossomed in Willow's mind and she leapt off the bed to envelop Tara in a fearsome hug. "Oh, Tara. I can't believe it. I...I thought that I had lost you."
"But you found me, Willow," Tara replied, running a hand through Willow's hair. "You've always been able to find me. Or rather, in this case, Princess Serenity found me."
Breaking free of Tara's embrace, Willow looked at her curiously. "What?"
"You're Princess Serenity, Willow," Tara responded.
"But...but I can't be," Willow stammered. "You're the Princess. Luna said so."
"Luna lied to you," Tara said, her voice slightly pained. "I'm not Princess Serenity. You are."
"But why would she..." Willow began to say before stopping herself, the answer to her own question coming easily to mind as she recalled something she had thought of prior to her blackout. "Oh."
"You're taking this rather well, Willow," Tara observed. "If you don't mind my saying."
"Oh, sure," Willow said, chuckling mirthfully as she settled back down on the bed. "It's not every day you learn that you're actually the reincarnation of royalty." Realizing what she had said, she looked up at Tara. "I mean...well, you know."
"I do," Tara answered, moving to sit down beside Willow. "And even now, it still surprises me."
Willow let out a breathy chuckle at that before realizing what Tara had said. "Wait a minute. I thought you said..."
"I said that Luna lied to you about me being Princess Serenity," Tara clarified. "I never said she lied to you about me being a Princess."
Willow knew that Tara had always been sensitive and carefully guarded talking to anyone about her lack of memory with regard to her past. It was only because she had trusted her that Tara decided to reveal it to her in the first place. And it was for that reason that she had told Tara about the fact that she was the reincarnation of Princess Serenity. If she could be this way after learning that everything she had been told was a lie, then that could only mean one thing. "So...when I said you were the Moon Princess..."
"You were half right," Tara finished, her trademark half smile, half smirk still on her face, obviously finding this information more amusing that she really should have.
"Yes," Willow realized, memories flooding into her. "Yes...I remember."
"What do you remember, sweetie?" Tara asked encouragingly.
Willow tried to sift through the jumbled influx of memories to pick out something specific. Several things came readily to her. "I remember...I remember Fred...Fred was instructing me in mathematics, and being surprised that I had taken to heart so quickly formulas and equations that even she couldn't figure out. I remember that Fred...Buffy...Cordelia...Anya...they were all my friends back then. And you..."
The image of Tara as she was back then formed in Willow's mind, as before nothing like Tara as she was now. It was still Tara, but enough about her was different that Willow could readily see them as two different people, even if they shared the same face.
"You were there with me. And we were happy."
"We were," Tara confirmed. "But...it didn't last."
"I know," Willow agreed, Tara's words bringing to mind the memory of that woman leading a massive attack on the palace that she now knew was more like her home than her actual home; seeing her friends fighting these people in an attempt to protect her and dying for their efforts. And the inhuman, triumphant cackling laugh as that same young woman drove her blade deep into Tara's chest.
"It won't happen again," Tara reassured Willow almost as if she could detect what Willow was thinking about. "We won't let it. We'll work together; you, me and your friends. We'll rescue Fred, and then send that woman and those who follow her back to where they belong."
Tara wrapped an arm around Willow, the redhead accepting the comforting touch readily. It just felt right, the two of them like this. Willow couldn't imagine why anyone would want to break them apart.
"We have to keep them apart."
Anya knew that her words were bound to bring about shocked exclamations from those who sat around the table, but even that knowledge didn't help prepare her for how those assembled at it reacted.
"You can't make them break up," Cordelia said. "They've been together for a lot longer before this whole situation happened."
"And even if we can get Fred back, and I'm not going to lie to you and say that's going to be easy or even possible, we're going to need all the help we can get," Buffy added. "We can't tell them to separate without having a good reason for doing so."
"Yeah," Cordelia agreed. "Why should we tell them to break up?"
"Because it was their love that caused the tragedy of the past life in the first place," Anya explained. "And I for one don't want to see it repeated here." She turned to Cordelia, a look of anger on her face as she shook her hand, which still held the Mystical Silver Crystal. "I would have thought being exposed to the power of this thing would have helped you stitch together those wayward flashes you had into full memories of your life in the past." Anya then brought her anger to Luna and Artemis. "You knew of this too, didn't you? Was this also some of the information you decided to keep from us for our supposed benefit?"
"We knew that the Princess and Endymion were likely to find one another in the future," Artemis said. "It was her mother's wish that they would find each other in this life and be happy. But we didn't expect things to go as badly as they have."
"I find that hard to believe," Anya scoffed. "Especially considering that it appears you have had a hand in guiding this ship as it headed directly into the iceberg."
"That's enough," Luna snapped. "Can't you see what's going on here? We're starting to fall apart and bicker amongst ourselves again. It was doing that which got us into this problem to begin with."
"Luna's right," Buffy agreed. "We let ourselves go our own ways and argue about what everyone else was doing so much, we couldn't help but allow the enemy to cut our noses off despite our faces."
Anya moved to sit down. "I know. It's as much my fault as anyone else's. I told Willow that doing what I was doing set me down a dark path, made me see things only in black and white terms. My...affliction certainly didn't help things much. But she's allowed me to see that maybe, just maybe, I can look on the bright side of things without things collapsing around me." She turned to Cordelia, an apologetic look on her face. "It's even made me realize that...having a friend can sometimes be more important than having a comrade."
Cordelia didn't know what to say. Of all of them, she and Anya had the rockiest of relationships since they all first met, and it would have seemed impossible that they could get along. And even though Anya hadn't said it, it was as close to an apology as she had ever come. She smiled and nodded, letting Anya know that she had gotten the message.
"So what do we do about this?" Buffy asked, picking up the Silver Crystal and examining it under the room's light.
"We need to give it back to Willow," Luna replied. "It does belong to her, after all."
"I don't think that's a good idea," Anya said, drawing irritated glares from all but Luna. At this, she tried to explain her thinking. "It's not that I don't trust her, but I don't think she needs to have any more pressure and stress put upon her."
"This coming from the one most responsible for dumping it on her in heaping shovelfuls," Buffy not so silently muttered.
"You can't judge her current behavior on what she's done in the past," Cordelia said, coming to Anya's defense. "At least she's trying to make up for it. What are we doing?"
The room became uncomfortably silent after Cordelia's question, nobody finding the courage to answer the question. The silence continued for several more moments before Luna spoke up again. "We should give the Crystal back to Willow. If there's anyone with whom it would be safe, it's her."
The others nodded in silent agreement, Buffy hand the Crystal to Anya, who put it into her purse. "Willow should be home by now," Luna continued. "Let's all go over there and do our best to cheer her up."
A surprise awaited the three young women and two felines as they traveled to Willow's home in the cold darkness of the winter night, arriving at Willow's home nearly half an hour later; for it wasn't Willow who answered the door at Cordelia's knock, but her mother.
"Oh, hi, girls," Sheila said. "You're Willow's friends, right?"
Cordelia nodded. "Is she home?"
"I'm afraid not," Sheila answered, her brow crinkling in thought. "Isn't she supposed to be with you?"
Cordelia looked back at Buffy and Anya, hoping that one of them could come up with an excuse to explain Willow's absence. "Um...guys?"
Buffy looked at Anya, at a loss for words. Anya stared blankly back, herself unable to think of an explanation. Just when the situation looked grim, Cordelia exclaimed, "Oh, now I remember!"
"Remember what?" Sheila asked.
Cordelia stammered, trying as best she could to explain herself without making it sound too forced. "Well, she...I mean Willow. She...That is, we...we all got together for a..."
"A study date!" Anya all but shouted.
"A study date?" Sheila repeated, her tone of voice indicating that she wasn't at all convinced.
"Yeah," Cordelia nodded, hoping that she could quell Sheila's concern before it had a chance to grow to unreasonable levels. "The four of us got together to study for...for our trigonometry test."
"But today was the last day of school for two weeks," Sheila said, confused by why her daughter would get together to study with her friends when there wasn't going to be any school for the next fourteen days.
"Really?" Cordelia asked, a forced cheer in her voice as she turned to look at Buffy and Anya, her wide smile changing to an angered ‘what-the-hell-were-you-thinking' look. "I completely forgot about that."
"She's been acting out again, hasn't she?"
Cordelia turned back around at the sound of Sheila's question. "Excuse me?"
Sheila's hardened expression softened somewhat. "Cordelia, I know that you and Willow are good friends, but even I would have suspected that you would have caught on to her strange behavior by now."
"What kind of strange behavior?" Buffy asked.
"Staying out all hours of the night, talking to her pet cat, spending all of her time with that...girlfriend of hers," Sheila rattled off Willow's supposed strange behaviors as if they were part of a list she had been keeping to catalogue her daughter in some medical journal, and those she was doing it to couldn't help but feel unnerved by how Willow's mother was treating her behind her back. And to top it off, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what she meant by "that girlfriend of hers." It was all they could do to keep themselves from saying anything that would make the situation worse.
Realizing her bad manners, or perhaps realizing that she was speaking ill of her daughter in front of her friends, Sheila regained her composure. "Would you like to come inside and wait for her?"
The girls made their way inside the house and went into the living room, finding the television on and tuned to the evening news. They sat down as, to their surprise, the news turned to coverage of the aftermath of the battle they had just undertaken.
"Downtown Sunnydale is in chaos tonight, as local law enforcement struggles to contain and determine the cause of a massive attack on a local eating establishment and the surrounding area. Joining me to provide some details is one of the eyewitnesses to the assault, having just completed her statement to the police."
Buffy drew a hissed breath and looked at Cordelia as the camera panned back to reveal Amy standing beside the news reporter, realizing now that it must have been her that they heard screaming inside the Doublemeat as it started to go to pieces; the need to take care of the enemy making any attempt to rescue her impossible.
So how was it that she had managed to survive the ordeal, the footage proving what had be all too obvious at the time; that anyone trapped within was almost certainly a goner?
These were questions that the news reporter obviously had, as well. "Miss Madison, could you describe to us to the best of your recollection just what happened here?"
"Well," Amy began. "One minute I was having a quick pre-dinner snack and thinking about what to do on my winter break, the next I was sent flying out of my seat as the wall exploded in behind me. I woke up to find myself trapped under a block of wall as this strange guy with a sword..."
"A sword?" the reporter interrupted.
"Yeah, a sword," Amy repeated, all but annoyed that her story was about to be questioned; it no doubt already having been done so by the police. "Anyways, this guy walks up to me and is about to turn me into shish kebab, when..."
"Yes?" the reporter prompted.
"Well, you're not going to believe me," Amy continued after a moment's hesitation. "But this woman comes into the building, wearing a nutty tuxedo ensemble, and proceeds to waste the guy who was about to kill me and get me out of there."
"That's, um..." the reporter said, his voice betraying the uncertainty he felt about Amy's tale and the fact that it was being broadcast to thousands, if not millions, of people. "That's an very interesting story..."
"I'm not making it up!" Amy shouted. "It's what really happened! Do you think that if it didn't, I wouldn't have suffered a broken leg?"
Whether by design or sheer coincidence, the camera panned back at the reporter's words to reveal that Amy, supposedly having broken her leg, was in fact standing on both feet, no evidence that she was using something to support her weight.
"Yeah, I know that I don't have a broken leg," Amy huffed, her words clearly being said not only to the reporter, but to those at home who, like the reporter, were beginning to doubt the validity of her tale. "I can't really explain what happened, but I was lying on a bus bench, fighting the urge to black out, when suddenly this bright light comes in out of nowhere and blankets the entire area. And the next thing I know, my leg's healing itself. Within moments, you couldn't tell that it was broken at all..."
"The Crystal," Anya breathed, her hand unconsciously gripping her purse tighter and looking at Buffy and Cordelia, whose injuries during the battle had miraculously healed themselves.
The reporter, meanwhile, in a not too obvious attempt to divert attention away from Amy, abruptly brought himself back into focus. "I'm sorry, miss. I'm getting word now that one of the security cameras from one of the nearby shops was able to pick up some footage of what happened. We've been given permission to broadcast it to our viewers at home. We apologize in advance for the poor quality of the video."
The screen then abruptly filled with static, intermixed with video of what had taken place hours before. Most of it was unwatchable, but there were certain moments when it could be clearly seen that Willow and the others were facing off against Angelus, Fred and the others. None of it was able to capture their names being spoken aloud, but the fact that it existed at all, and clearly showcased what was going on, was troublesome enough.
The heads of Anya and the others snapped around as they heard Sheila's voice, seeing her emerge from the kitchen and watch what was happening on screen. For a moment, the three of them realized that they had just turned into the proverbial deers in the headlights of an oncoming truck, Sheila no doubt watching what was playing out on screen and recognizing four of the people on it as her daughter and the ones currently sitting inside her living room. Knowing that there was nothing they could do to convince her otherwise, they prepared themselves the best they could for a dressing down.
Instead of delivering one, however, Sheila moved over to the coffee table, picked up the remote, and started to change channels. "The things they put on TV these days." She clicked through several more channels until she reached a station that was broadcasting an old "Simpsons" episode. "There we go," she said, setting the remote down on the coffee table, the edge in her voice loosening somewhat. "Personally, I find this program rather degrading, but I've studied enough tests to know that it's popular enough with kids in your age bracket."
The phone rang at that moment, and Sheila went off to answer it. As soon as she was out of sight, Anya glared at Cordelia. "Our age bracket? Who does she think we are? Laboratory specimens?"
"At least she only sees you as that," Buffy countered. "She actually knows me." At Anya's curious glance, she continued, "I came over here one time with Willow, and I swear to God, she never could say my name correctly."
"What did she call you?" Anya asked.
"Bunny," Buffy sighed, drawing a laugh from Anya, which in turn drew an irritated glare from her. "It's not funny!"
"I think we have more important things to worry about," Artemis said at that moment, keeping his voice low so as to not attract unwanted attention. "We've been trying to operate under the radar of the local authorities, but this has made that impossible, and made matters more complicated than they already were."
"I didn't think that was possible," Anya muttered, no one choosing to point out her rudeness. It was, after all, exactly what they were all thinking.
"It's worse now, however," Luna said, her voice equally hushed. "Before, we've only had to deal with the threat that the Dark Kingdom represented to the Earth, but we can't continue to do that as effectively as we have been when we have to worry about dealing with them and reprisals from those we have to protect at the same time."
"With all that's going on now, it's enough to make you wonder how things could get any worse," Cordelia sighed.
Sheila chose that moment to reenter the room. "I'm sorry, girls. You're going to have to leave."
"Why?" Cordelia asked. "What's wrong?"
"That was Willow who called," Sheila explained. "She's at... her girlfriend's, and she's decided that, with the exception of Christmas Day...she's going to be spending the entire winter break at...her girlfriend's house." She sighed, and tried to salvage the situation as best she could. "You're all invited too, as well. That is, if you haven't anything better to do."
Anya let out a breath. "I certainly don't."
"Living on your own allows you to do whatever you want whenever you want," Buffy said. "Besides, it'll be nice to spend Christmas with some friends, having been on my own for so long."
"Guess you can count me in, as well," Cordelia added, not really wanting to say yes, but after hearing Anya and Buffy agree to come, not really wanting to say no, either.
"Excellent," Sheila said, clearly happy that her life had not spun totally out of control. "Anyways, I've got to call my husband and let him know what's going on. You girls can show yourselves out, can't you?" Without bothering to wait for a reply, she turned back to the kitchen and walked off, muttering under her breath, "Honest, I don't know what's gotten into her lately. If she wasn't doing better in school..."
Anya and Buffy turned icy stares on Cordelia as soon as Sheila was gone. Seeing them do this, Cordelia threw her hands up. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry."
"With any luck, the enemy is having problems of their own to deal with," Luna said as the group moved to depart, Anya going to Willow's room and leaving the Crystal on her dresser, where it would be safe until Willow came to claim it. "And we can also hope that this experience has put them off doing anything overt against us in the future."
Faith kept her back turned as she heard her warriors approach, her decision to do so a choice on her part to keep them unaware of the worry she felt for what was most likely going on in their minds. She felt them stop short of her throne, and yet she still did not turn to face them. It was still out of the desire to keep them from realizing how worried she was, but was also due to the fact that she wanted to remind them who was their Mistress, and who held the power of life and death over them.
She would speak to them at her convenience, not when they demanded her to do so. It was a last, desperate attempt to hold on to some of the power she knew was, at this very moment, slipping away from her.
Still not turning to face them, she began to speak. "You've all failed me."
"My Queen," Xander said, obviously attempting to save face. "Please forgive us. We were..."
"Be silent," Faith spat as she finally turned around to look at her warriors. Xander and Oz were both on one knee, showing the respect to her authority that they had always given her. Mercury, while not doing likewise, at least showed some resemblance of respect to her. Or, at the very least, did not appear to have an awareness of what she and Metallia had done to her. Even if she did, Faith consoled herself with the knowledge that her latent insecurities towards her friends and the overpowering urge to act against them was stronger than the power of the Crystal could bury.
The same could not be said for Spike and Angelus. Both of them carried themselves with the air of men who would prefer not to be in her presence at all. One look at the two of them, and Faith knew that if they had the opportunity to do so, they would move to sever her head from her body. Faith knew they would never have a chance, of course, but the fact that the very idea was present in their minds distressed her.
Faith looked at each of them, making sure she had their full and undivided attention. "I am gravely disappointed in all of you. You have dishonored the name of our great leader, your own reputations, and worst of all, you have dishonored me." She moved to sit on her throne, her features transforming into pure unadulterated disgust and rage. "I should rid myself of your presence, and I have every right to do so."
She allowed a small smile to form on her face. "That is, of course, each of you could give me a reason to allow your continued existence." Truth be told, she did not want to give them this opportunity to save their lives since, aside from Mercury, their continued existence was detrimental to her plans. Thus her question served a twofold purpose: it would give each of them an opportunity to speak in their own defense to give their pitiful lives further meaning, while at the same time provide an indication as to how badly the energies of the Crystal had affected them.
Xander was the first to speak. "My Queen, I know I have failed you, but I wish to atone for that failure. I could hardly allow myself to do so were you to take my life, though it is well within your rights to do so. But I beg you, my Queen, grant me a reprieve in which I could bring about the destruction of your enemies."
Faith allowed herself to smile at that. As much as she despised Xander's devotion to her, it did indeed have its moments where it served her. He would do anything to please her, even stand by her as the very ceiling collapsed around them.
"I concur with my comrade, my Queen," Oz added, the tone of his voice telling Faith that what he was saying was more out of a desire to save his own hide and gain favor with her than anything else. "We have indeed failed you, but our failures only embolden us to work harder to accomplish your will. Their will come a time when our failures have made us stronger than our enemies, and on that day, we shall crush them like the insignificant bugs that they are. All we ask is that we be given an opportunity for that moment to arrive."
His words were those of a man teetering on the edge of the brink, and Faith knew this well. Nevertheless, it was a clear indication on his part to his desire to please her, and so she could rest easy knowing that half of her warriors were still under her control.
Now came the hard part. Turning towards Spike, she asked, "What about you? What reason could you give me to allow you to continue living?"
"I...do not know, my Queen."
This reply caught Faith off guard; it was certainly not the response she would have expected from him, not when he was, among the five of them, the one with the most reason to hate and despise the Soldiers, perhaps even more so than Fred herself. "You do not know? How can you say that? Perhaps you have forgotten the injury one of their numbers dealt to you. Surely you still wish to see the death of the one who caused that to you."
The question caused a conflict within Spike's mind. It was certainly true that he wished grave harm against Sailor Venus, for she was an enemy to the Dark Kingdom and had bested him in personal combat, a feat few had been able to accomplish and survive to tell about it. But on the other hand, he was now beginning to realize that she had been in the right to do this to him, as he was on the side of evil, being manipulated to serve an evil force that sought the destruction of the new home of his rightful master.
No, he was not an unfeeling monster, in service to this wretched hag. He was an honorable warrior, one of the guardians of the Princess of Elysion, and he would not allow himself to be used anymore.
The ironic thing was, that at that very moment, the only way to ensure his survival and to seek out the Princess, was to continue to appear under Faith's spell. "Yes," he said, infusing his voice with more anger than he really felt, hoping that it covered up the fact that he was disgusted by the sight of the woman before him. "Yes, I do."
"Good," Faith replied, his response obviously pleasing her. She then turned her head towards Angelus, her eyes meeting his. It became obvious to the others that the moment this happened, a battle of wills had begun between the two of them. One thing was certain to the four who watched this: one way or another, there was going to be a problem.
Angelus crossed his arm over his chest. "I can't give you a reason why you should spare me. In fact, I haven't the slightest clue why you have allowed us to live this long."
Faith's eyes narrowed dangerously. "If that is what you believe, why should I not kill you and the others now?"
Angelus grinned, a sight that sent a shiver down Faith's spine. "You want to kill us, thinking that we are a threat to you, and justifying your decision to do so by claiming that we are of no further use to you. But even though you want to deny it, the fact of the matter is that we are still useful to you. And although it serves your purposes to kill us, we are more valuable to you alive than dead."
It was all Faith could do to keep her emotions under control; the most overt sign that she was angered by this being the growl that emerged from the back of her throat. It was true, every word of it. Though eliminating them was the easiest way to ensure her own safety, it was also the surest way to her own downfall, for with them gone, there were none among the Dark Kingdom that could be capable of dealing with the Sailor Soldiers, not even Mercury, who was more useful to her as a deterrent rather than a capable warrior.
Getting to her feet, she gave Angelus a cold stare before turning her attention to everyone else. "That is certainly true," she said. "However, the four of you are, at present, of no further use to me."
"What?!" Xander exclaimed, interpreting those words as an all but certain death sentence.
Faith smiled. "No, my dear Xander. I shall be allowing you and your comrades to survive for now. But you will not be needed to fight the Soldiers." She looked at Mercury, who nodded slightly in reply and turned to leave.
"No," Faith continued. "I feel that, after failing with the overt strike with the sword, a surgical strike with the dagger would be more...effective."
"I never thought I'd be glad to be back at school."
Willow walked up the steps of Sunnydale High two weeks later, reflecting on what had happened during the past fourteen days. She had been living at Tara's house for the entire winter break, the only time she had come home before yesterday being Christmas Day. And though her relatives were more than happy to see her, the fact that her mother all but ignored her made her feel as if she and Tara should have spent the day at Tara's own home.
Her friends had been uncomfortable as well, though they had the excuse of still being uncomfortable with what had happened days earlier. They were polite to her mother and relatives, of course, it being obvious that they were there more for her mother than for her, but they never bothered to talk to her directly, the only time they had done so was before the guests had arrived, when they had given the Silver Crystal back to her, Anya saying to consider it "an early Christmas present."
At least the Dark Kingdom hadn't done anything since their last attack two weeks ago. Willow and the others were prepared to believe that they had dealt them a near crippling blow from which they could never recover, but Artemis quickly set them straight on the situation: "Just because they have backed off doesn't mean that they've been beaten. They'll strike again, but they'll do so in a more subtle way, and we all have to be on the lookout for it when it happens."
It was clear that recent events had unsettled the four of them more than their falling out, and that it was going to take time for the trust between them, which had only recently begun to form, to make itself apparent. "I just hope it happens, soon," Willow thought. "This whole situation started because we couldn't trust one another. I'd hate to think how things could get any worse than this."
Willow rounded a corner heading for class, and caught sight of something that shocked her. Standing near a set of lockers at the far end of the hallway was Fred, talking to Jonathan and some of the other students, appearing for all the world as if there was nothing wrong. And as far as Jonathan and the others was concerned, that was certainly true.
But Willow knew better. "Fred? Here? This has got to be the Dark Kingdom's subtle strike that Artemis was talking about. I've got to find Buffy and the others. Maybe we..."
Before Willow could think any further, she was suddenly knocked off her feet as someone bumped into her from behind, papers flying everywhere as Willow hit the ground. She got up to her knees and tried to look for Fred, but she, Jonathan and the others had disappeared.
"I'm sorry," came a bubbly female voice from behind her. Turning, Willow saw a girl about her age with long blonde hair and blue eyes wearing a pink skirt and matching high heeled shoes move to pick up some of the dropped papers. "Are you OK?"
"Yeah," Willow replied, moving to assist the girl in collecting her belongings. "Are you OK?"
"Yeah," the girl nodded, picking up a final paper that looked like a schedule and giving it another look. "I was looking through this, trying to find my way to class when I bumped into you. I'm really sorry."
"That's OK," Willow said, a small pang of guilt forming in the pit of her stomach. This girl was apparently new to Sunnydale High, and met all of the requirements for not having any real friends. Willow could sympathize with her completely. For most of her high school tenure, she had been the same way. "What's your first class?"
The girl looked at her schedule. "Mathematics with Miss Calendar."
"Me, too," Willow said.
"Cool!" The girl said, reaching for Willow's arm. "We can go together."
Willow really didn't feel comfortable with that idea, but didn't really feel like saying anything negative that would hurt her feelings. Nodding, she accepted the arm and gave it a shake. "I'm Willow Rosenberg, by the way."
The girl turned to her and smiled. "Harmony Kendall. Nice to meet you."