Willow slowly drifted back to consciousness the first thing she thought of the amazing fact that she was doing so in the first place. Given the ferocity of Fred's assault against her, it was all but inevitable that she would end her life the moment the opportunity presented itself. Of course, she wasn't about to feel bad that she was still alive because...well, not being dead was a very good thing. A very, very good thing. But knowing that she was still alive didn't help her figure out any explanations as to why.
A moan drew her attention across the room, where she found Luna's similarly unconscious form stirring to full alertness. Crawling over to her on her hands and knees, Willow paused as Luna's body was enveloped by a bright light, which faded after a few moments and left in the feline's place the strange girl. Willow wondered for a moment what had just happened before she recalled the events prior to the fight, and how the girl had suddenly appeared and revealed herself to be Luna. She also remembered the surprise that she had felt at that moment, and knew that there were lots of questions that needed to be answered.
Surprisingly, however, the one that came to mind most readily at the moment had nothing at all to do with any of that. "Luna, are you OK?"
Luna shook her head as she got to her feet. "About as well as can be expected Willow, all things considered." She looked at Willow approvingly. "You did well." She then took in her surroundings. "What happened to Fred?"
"I don't know," Willow responded, likewise getting to her feet. "But I'm going to go find out."
A lengthy silence followed before Luna responded. "Willow..."
"No, Luna," Willow said, turning away from her guardian and friend, in order to avoid having her see the tears that were starting to well up in her eyes. "We're still alive for a reason, Luna. Fred wouldn't have just left us behind if she was still under the influence of the enemy, and they most certainly wouldn't have left us all alone unless something had happened to scuttle their plans. And all roads in this lead to Fred's current condition. I noticed something during the fight. She came...out. Of the spell, I mean. She was normal for a few moments. If she shook off the enemy's influence while we were out, she's really confused at the moment, and she won't know what to do. We...I have to find her and stop her from doing something to harm herself."
Willow stopped talking, her heart beginning to break. She knew that Luna couldn't understand what it was she was feeling, so there wasn't any point in trying to explain it to her. She was thus surprised to find her fingers intertwining into her own, the comforting pressure she put on it letting her know that not only did she understand, she knew that it was something she had to do on her own without her help. It was a silent testament to the friendship the two of them shared, and how they, through trial and error, had come to understand one another better than they had when they had first met.
Willow was off within moments of hearing Luna speak, Luna herself looking off in the direction she had gone for several more moments before heading off in the opposite direction.
Artemis and the others, still looking at the chaos happening outside the rec center, watched in surprise as the dome covering the building collapsed. Surprise was soon turned to dismay, however, as the police quickly moved inside the building, cutting off any attempt to enter through that entrance, and the crowd of sufficient size to prevent sneaking around to try and find another.
Frustration soon set in among the group, and they spent a few moments debating whether or not to try to get in anyway when a familiar form emerged from a vent near the top of the building, its presence unnoticed by a crowd more intent on finding out what was going on through the windows of the building, but immediately noticed by the small group hiding some distance away that was looking for anything strange or unusual.
And the figure certainly fell into both categories, both for her presence and the way she composed herself, if it was possible for a cat to be nervous. "Luna!"
Luna made her way over towards the others, trying her best to act for the entire world as if there was nothing wrong, but more or less failing in her attempt. "Come on. Let's get out of here before someone notices."
"Hold on a minute," Anya interrupted, her tone on the verge of anger. "What's going on here? First you and Artemis disappear for days on end without any explanation, then something seriously big happens involving the enemy, only we're on the other side of town about to get thrown into prison because Willow tricked us." Looking towards the others, and seeing the dirty looks on their faces, Anya crossed her arms over her chest before turning back to Luna. "I think we deserve some sort of an explanation for all of this, Luna."
"And you'll get it," Luna responded, her tone of voice polite but impatient. "But not here." She then made her way off, her tail wagging behind her in a clear betrayal of her nervousness. Cordelia and Buffy moved to follow her, Anya and Artemis exchanging a look before joining them a few moments later.
Willow, now transformed back to her civilian guise, made her way through the crowd as swiftly as she could, thanking whatever deity it was that allowed her to get out of the rec center without encountering the police, and wondering how she knew where Fred had gone. It was as if she had some sort of internal radar that immediately picked up on her, a gut feeling, if you will. She wasn't exactly sure that she should trust that feeling, though, as doing that sort of thing had often gotten her into trouble before.
But maybe, she wondered as she stepped inside a nearby building and made her way to the nearest staircase, this time would be different.
It had to be different.
For Fred's sake.
Fred stood on the balcony, having reverted back to her civilian form and holding her sword in both hands, casting her gaze between it and the ground below. Her heart ached as the events of the past several weeks came back to her as easily as if they were memories of Christmas morning, when she was a five year old child going to the tree to see what Santa had left for her, of spending time with her grandparents and playing a game of chess with her great grandmother.
The only difference being that these memories were not of happy holidays with friends and relatives, but haunting images of the pain and suffering she had knowingly brought upon her friends, and the undeniable knowledge that she had enjoyed every moment of it.
That was what hurt her the most; not that she knew that she was harming her friends, but the fact that, deep down in her heart, she had wanted to do all of what she had done to them. It would have been different if she could somehow justify that she had been coerced into doing what she had done, but the truth was that, with everything bad that had been going on with them back then, she had wanted very much to lash out at them; the four of them never realizing that their petty arguments about every little thing and the single mindedness they showed towards their own viewpoints was destroying her emotionally, making the normally pacifistic and docile Fred a boiling pot that would have threatened to spill over had the enemy not gotten to her first and used that disgust to shape her into a tool for their own twisted uses.
Fred felt a tear run down her cheek, and closed her eyes. Then in a sudden flash of anger, reared back with all of her strength and threw the sword as far as she could into the distance. She didn't bother to track its course; she wouldn't need it ever again.
She opened her eyes and looked down to the ground below. The forces of the Dark Kingdom had left her behind for only one reason: now that their hold over her was gone, she was no longer useful to their purposes. And she knew that, because of what she had done, Willow and the others would never accept her back, her actions no doubt branding her a detriment to their cause.
The only solution appeared to be to step off the balcony and fall to her death. She was no longer a pawn of the enemy, and would be seen as a liability to her friends. Death seemed to be the only way to ease her guilt.
The sound of a door opening from behind caught her notice, but she paid it only the briefest of concerns. There was only one person who would be foolish enough to follow her here.
"Hi, Fred," came Willow's response. She then noticed Fred's stance and realized that she had arrived just in time. "You want to step down from there?"
"I can't, Willow," Fred replied simply. "I've...I've done too much. I can never go back."
"I know," Willow said, then caught herself and hastily added. "I mean...I know you've done so much, but you can come back. You were under the enemy's control..."
"But they didn't manipulate my mind, Willow," Fred stated blandly. "They only magnified what was already in my heart. On some primal level, I wanted to do all that I did to you." She broke down and began to cry. "I...I can't live with the pain, Willow."
"I know," Willow replied, keeping silent her own knowledge of what Fred was facing at the moment, as she knew the other girl wasn't ready to hear what she had learned the other day. "But you can do your best to atone for it." She stepped forward hesitantly, knowing that a false move on her part could send Fred plunging to her death.
Stopping beside her, she looked up at Fred's face. "You've been through a lot, Fred. And you've made some mistakes. But you can work to make things right again. I can't speak for the others, but I want you to come back to us." Then, unworried that her words might provoke that which she hoped to avoid, added, "You said that you hated those at school because you thought that they were jealous of your talents and skills, and generally not liking you all that much. Well...I was among their number at one time. But I've tried to atone for my mistakes when we learned of our mutual destiny. I tried to make you feel as part of the group, that you could always come to me with your problems. I've even risked my life to try to help you, Fred. Would I have done that if I didn't care for you?"
Fred found her resolve to take her own life waving under Willow's words, the sincerity she detected in them breaking through the shell of pain she had built up around her heart. She turned to look at Willow, finding the redhead looking back at her with a forgiving face and her arms outstretched, clearly beckoning for her to come to her.
"We can make things right, Fred, but not if you take your own life. Come back to us. We can make it all better."
The ice around Fred's heart melted, and uninhibited by embarrassment, she leapt into Willow's arms, clinging tightly to her as she cried out her pain and frustrations. Willow settled the both of them down on the ground, but otherwise didn't say or do anything to silence her. She simply allowed herself to comfort Fred, the first step in what would most likely be a long road to recovery.
"I'm sorry, Will. I'm so, so sorry."
"It's OK, Fred. Let it out. I'm here. I'm here."
Faith grimaced as she watched the display on the crystal ball in front of her throne, then reached forward to pick it up and throw it against the nearby wall, where it shattered impressively, scattering glass all around the immediate area. She then brought her full furor towards the two who had been responsible for the events she had just seen.
"You two have failed me."
Xander, on his knees, was practically pleading for his life, "My Queen, it was not my wish to do so..."
"BE SILENT!" Faith's dark eyes grew darker as she passed her glances towards both Xander and Angelus, noting the differences in their composure; Xander was all but a nervous wreck, no doubt convinced that his life would be ended at this very moment. Angelus, on the other hand, gave off the appearance of a man who had just won an important victory, a feeling that Faith was quick to dispel, raising a hand and sending tendrils of dark energy coursing from it and all over his body.
To his credit, Angelus refused to give Faith the satisfaction of doing what Xander had done, and shame himself by cowering in fear. He bore the pain well, as any warrior whose courage born in the heat of battle should. After a few moments, the enjoyment she got from seeing him suffer, as did most things that amused her, quickly bored her, and she lowered her hand, raising her other in a dismissive gesture. "Despite your actions, I am sparing your lives, as you are still useful to me. Now leave my sight before I change my mind."
The pair made their way out of the throne room, Xander as quickly as he could, Angelus less so. She then looked up at Spike, who had made his way into her presence. "What is it that you want?"
"My Queen," came the reply. "I would suggest that, now that the enemy is back to full strength, we should perhaps...limit our attempts to revive Metallia until we can strike without failure."
Faith rested her head in her hand. "And why should I believe that you think this is the best course of action to take? You seem to have taken little interest in our glorious mission as of late."
Spike visibly stiffened. "I...I don't know what you mean..." His attempt to explain himself was cut short when Faith turned her steel gaze on him.
"Don't worry," she said, a smile on her face. "I'm not angry that you've attempted to contact her. In fact, you could say that you've done me a favour."
Faith's smile turned devilish. "By preparing her for what's to come."
"So let me see if I get this straight," Anya said, sitting at the table, Buffy and Cordelia at her side, all three of them looking towards Luna, who was at the table's opposite end; only it wasn't Luna's feline form, but the young girl they had encountered earlier in the day. Naturally, the three of them had trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that this young girl was the one who had trained them all to fight the enemy, even after she had explained to them how it had happened. "When Willow unleashed the power of the Crystal, you gained the power to transform into a human being, and have been working behind the scenes towards stopping Fred, with the intention of stopping whatever the enemy was doing to her."
"Yes," Luna replied simply.
"And there's a reason why you didn't tell us, right?"
"And that is?"
Luna let out a sigh. "I wanted to help you." Seeing their confused expressions, she added, "Artemis and I...well, we...we..."
"Used us," Anya stated with characteristic untactfulness, drawing annoyed glares from her comrades, but a look of understanding from Luna.
"Yes. Artemis and I agreed that I should use my new powers to help undo all of the problems we've caused you."
"And so you decided to leave Willow all alone while she went off on her own after Fred?" Buffy asked. "Not exactly helpful, is that?"
Luna cast her gaze down to the floor. "She wanted to go by herself. There was nothing I could do." She looked up and turned her gaze to each of them. "And besides...I have a feeling."
"'A feeling'," Anya scoffed. "Oh, yeah. That's a good thing to hinge the life of the Princess on."
Luna looked up at Anya. "But if it leads to the return of Fred, would you consider it a bad idea?"
Anya let out a shrug. "Not really."
"But we don't have any idea that it will actually work," Cordelia replied. "I mean, for all we know, it could be a trap set up by the enemy to lull us into a false sense of security. We know deception isn't beyond their capabilities."
The door opened before Luna could respond, and the four turned to look as Willow stepped into the room, using one hand to keep the door open. Luna smiled.
"I guess you know now," she replied. The others looked up in relief at Willow, only to stop as Fred stepped into the room behind her. Turning to look at Willow, they saw in her face a look of happiness, her green eyes sparkling with delight, a look that dropped as she gave each of them a look, the unspoken declaration on her face that Fred was back to normal, and that any action taken on their part to treat her badly would be met with harsh words from her. And knowing that such actions from her were rare, it was not a sight they were either looking forward to seeing nor entirely excited to create.
Fred offered a small wave. "Hi, guys."
Cordelia, Buffy and Luna got up from their chairs and moved to embrace their returning companion, offering her kind words and loving gestures. Artemis, standing nearby, noted that Anya made no move to join them, and leapt up on the table. "What's wrong?"
Anya shook her head. "Nothing." She got up and looked down at Artemis. "I'm going for a walk to clear my head."
Artemis nodded, and watched as Anya, after looking at the others, made her way out of the room. Although he hadn't said it, he knew that there was something troubling her, but felt it would be best to leave her be for the time being.
This was, after all, a time for celebration. What could possibly go wrong now?
Walking down the street, Anya paused and turned off into an alleyway. Slumping against the wall, she looked up into the sky as she felt further down the alley a familiar presence making itself known to her. "What now?"
"I need a decision from you," Spike replied, moving to stand beside Anya. "Faith's putting into motion actions that will cause our mutual destruction if she's allowed to continue unopposed."
Anya shook her head. "I just...I just don't think its right. We can't work together against the best interests of our respective leaders."
"Even if it means they'll end up killing us all?"
Anya let out a sigh. No matter how she chose to think about the brewing situation, it always invariably led back to that. And as much as she wanted to respect Willow as a friend and a leader, she had to look out for her best interests, even if that meant having to keep Tara out of her life by any means necessary.
"All right," she said, turning to look at Spike. "I'm with you."
Tara had settled down to relax after a rather stressful day and, having failed to find any solace in her favorite book, chose to watch some television instead. It proved to be a mistake; as after changing the channel for several seconds, she happened upon a station that was broadcasting a most disturbing report.
..."the latest in a series of bizarre events that have been occurring throughout Sunnydale in the last several weeks, the rec center has been enveloped by some sort of energy barrier. All attempts to penetrate it have thus far proven fruitless. And key witnesses have come forward to report that, prior to the barrier's appearance, some kind of situation was going on inside..."
Tara's blood ran colder than ice water at the video on her television screen, knowing instantly that this was the attack by the enemy that she had feared would happen and that Willow was in the thick of it. Being caught flat footed in a situation like this deeply embarrassed her, especially considering that, in the past, she had an uncanny ability to detect wherever there was danger and get there in time to help Sailor Moon deal with the problem.
Of course, things were easier back then. She didn't know what she knew now, that instead of helping Sailor Moon protect Willow from the evil that was invading the Earth, she was helping Willow, who, much like herself, had been putting her life in danger nearly every night. And the worse thing was they were trying to fight off an enemy that had already attacked the planet, and had already defeated them, and it was starting to look less and less likely that they could defeat them.
"And it's all because of us," Tara thought, the memories of what she had learned last night causing the stress she had been suffering today. Knowing that, having loved Willow in her past life, and that their love had been the reason why they were currently facing off against this powerful enemy deeply sobered her.
She continued to take notice of the news broadcast until the barrier collapsed, which ironically did not make her feel any better. It hadn't helped her psyche that she had been on edge even before learning what she had learned yesterday, and that the events of the past twenty four hours had made her more antsy about the threat the world faced, especially since her concern was dramatically shifting from the well being of the whole of the citizens of the world to both Willow's and her own personal safety.
To calm her frayed nerves, she decided to go to the Espresso Pump, where she currently was, looking out at the passing traffic as she sipped at her drink, the irony that her actions were not doing what she had set out to do, chiefly calm her down, not entirely lost on her.
Suddenly Tara felt the hairs on the back of her neck raise, and turned to find Willow's friend Amy standing behind her. "Hi," she said.
"Hi," Tara replied, her guard lowering somewhat as she recognized who it was that was approaching. "You're Amy, right?"
Amy nodded, moving to sit down beside Tara, the blonde not really doing anything to suggest that the other girl's presence was unwarranted. Not that she really wanted her to be around, but if someone else was around her, maybe it would help calm her nerves.
Searching for a topic with which to do so, Tara said, "So...Willow tells me you're going out with...a friend of yours?"
"What?" Amy started, caught off guard by Tara's words. Then she blushed and allowed a small smile to form on her lips. "Yeah. Jonathan's a good guy, even if he does tend to speak in computer code and Klingon half the time." Tara smiled at that, but her hope that this could lead to a stress free conversation was immediately dashed as Amy changed topics. "Listen, I wanted to talk to you about Willow..."
Tara gritted her teeth. Amy may not have been aware of it, but discussion about the redhead wasn't exactly what she wanted to do at the moment, especially towards one whom she knew had never exactly shown the greatest approval of their relationship. "Look, Amy. I know that you've never been comfortable about our relationship..."
"It's not that," Amy interrupted, and Tara immediately took notice of the fact that there was something about the way she composed herself that made her want to know what it was that she had to say.
"I'm worried about her," Amy continued, looking out the window. "I've known Willow for a long time, and so I would like to think I know her better than anyone, even her own parents." She gave a sheepish smile, remembering who she was talking to. "Present company excluded, of course. In any case, it couldn't have escaped your notice that Willow's been acting a little...strange, has it?"
"More than you know, Amy," Tara thought as she nodded in reply. Amy took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"What I mean is that Willow's starting to not act like...Willow. I know it sounds strange, but I'm beginning to think that Willow's starting to become a whole other person, and I don't think it's a good thing." Tara looked into Amy's face, finding in her expression a concerned friend who was reaching out to the only person she knew who could help the one she was concerned about. Tara fought to keep the smile off her face as she realized how close to the truth Amy really was.
"And you fear that she'll do something bad?" Tara asked.
Amy nodded. "I just don't want her to hurt herself. I couldn't exactly go to her parents about this. You know how they are, right?" Tara didn't respond and Amy, oblivious, continued, "You're the only one I know that I can say this to, if only because I know that you're the only one I can believe will something about this. You care for her as much as I do, and I know that you won't let anything bad happen to her."
Tara reached out and took Amy's hand into her own. "I promise you, Amy. I'll do anything I can to bring Willow back to normal." Amy nodded in approval, and got up to leave.
"I didn't mean to intrude," she said. "I can see that you're busy."
Tara smiled faintly. "Actually, you've been a big help. Thank you." She watched as Amy walked out of the Espresso Pump and, after finishing her drink, moved to follow her example and leave. She had walked halfway back to her home when she encountered a second figure, a blonde in a pink dress and matching high heeled shoes that looked for the world to be blocking her progress.
"Hello," Tara said warily.
"Hi!" the blonde replied, her voice perhaps a little too sugary for Tara's taste. "You're Tara, right?"
"Yes," Tara answered, her defenses going up ever so slightly as she searched her memory for the blonde's name. It suddenly came to her as she recalled Willow speaking of a new friend she had made at school. "You're Harmony, right?"
"Yeah!" the blonde responded, if possible, even more chirpily as she made her way over to Tara. "I've got a message for you."
Stopping directly in front of Tara, Harmony reached up and put a hand on her shoulder. "There's someone who wants to meet you."
Tara was confused for a moment, but that confusion was broken as she felt herself being pulled away from where she was standing. She struggled to fight it, but found her will to fight weakening under the surprisingly strong grip of the girl in front of her, a girl that appeared to be no stronger than your average teenage girl.
But then there was something about her that shifted, ever so slightly, and suddenly Tara found herself looking not at a pink clad teenage girl, but a purple garbed Amazon woman, her long brunette hair flowing about her head and her face a look of triumph.
And it was on this image that her brain finally overloaded and she blacked out under the strain of being pulled in all directions.