Willow looked up as Anya reentered the room and gave her a look as she turned away from Fred, apparently not willing to go over to her. She then watched as, caught under her hawk eyed glare, Anya sighed and capitulated, making her way towards Fred and giving her some kind words.
It was clear, however, that she was doing so not out of a genuine desire to make Fred feel better about being used as a pawn by the enemy, but simply out of courtesy to her. It deeply troubled Willow that Anya was behaving this way. When they had talked before after learning about her illness, she had appeared to open up and begin to feel at ease about the situation and her new role in it. Now, however, she appeared to be slipping back into her old patterns and way of thinking, believing beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was the only one who knew what was best and to hell with anyone who disagreed.
And now there was the growing feeling in the pit of her stomach that she would end up doing something that would bring about a problem that they might not be able to solve.
She felt a hand on her arm and turned to look at Luna, and found her looking back with a concerned expression on her face. "You're worried, aren't you, Willow?"
Willow nodded in response. "Something's coming, Luna. I can feel it. All the monsters we've been fighting, all the battles we've had up until now... I get the feeling that it's nothing compared to what's coming soon. And I can't help but feel...." She paused, and Luna could see that there was more to her hesitation than she was letting on.
"That there's something coming," Willow finished. "Something we might not be able to..." Her dialog came to a sudden end as a stabbing pain worked its way into her brain, causing her to cry out. At the same moment, Cordelia shot to her feet and followed suit with a cry of her own.
Both actions did not go unnoticed. "What is it?" Buffy asked.
"Something's happened," Cordelia answered. "Something bad. And we have to find out what it was."
"How?" Fred asked, and no sooner did she do so than did Willow provide them a means, by getting up from where she sat and heading out of the room, the door closing nosily behind her.
"I guess we follow her."
"Are you up for that?" Cordelia asked. "I mean, can you handle going back into battle so soon after you...well, you know..."
"I'm...I'm not sure," Fred responded. "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to handle it, to be honest. But I know that sitting here doing nothing isn't going to be helpful to anyone."
"Fine," Anya exclaimed, clearly not pleased at the idea of having her come along, but realizing that debating the issue would take time that they obviously did not have. She turned to look at Luna. "Luna, do you have any idea what..." Anya came up short as she completed her turn, finding Luna at the table, her upper body slumped over the table, her eyes closed.
"She's fallen asleep! Unbelievable!"
"Go," Artemis said. "I'll stay here with her."
Letting out an irritated groan, Anya gestured to the others as the group moved out the door to follow Willow, the common thought among them the same: the longer they delayed, the further away Willow would get, and the more likely it would be that she would be left alone to confront whatever danger awaited them.
Tara awoke to the sight of gravel mere inches from her face and, pushing herself to her feet, took immediate notice of her surroundings as she dusted herself off. It appeared to be a deserted stretch of land somewhere near the outskirts of Sunnydale, which didn't make her too happy. To have been sent here where no one would be able to see what was going on, not to mention help her, didn't give her any good feeling about her life expectancy.
"Especially since I have a pretty good idea who's behind this," she thought to herself. "Strange girls just don't appear out of nowhere and spirit me halfway across town." A small smirk appeared on her face. "Well, not without a car, anyway..."
The humor of her comment was a clear attempt to find amusement in the situation, but it really didn't seem to work all that well, as several seconds later, she heard the sound of laughter coming from behind her. Turning on her heel, Tara saw the woman she had seen shortly before she had been teleported, her dark, unfeeling eyes drilling directly into Tara, causing the hair on the back of the blonde's neck to raise.
"So, Endymion, we meet again."
The words gave Tara an uncomfortable feeling, especially in light of the fact that Faith said them as she was looking over Tara as one would inspect a piece of meat. She had to throw up some sort of defense, if only to keep Faith from knowing how unnerved she was. "I...I don't know...I don't know what you're..."
Tara knew that the moment she began stuttering, she had failed in her attempt, a feeling all the more punctuated by Faith's bitter laugh. "How pathetic it is to see the Princess of the Earth reduced to a gibbering, stuttering mess. One has to wonder why Serenity sent you into the future. If she had any idea that this is how you would turn out, I doubt she would have bothered."
Tara's face remained impassive, though her anger was starting to grow. It would be wise on her part not to let that anger show. This was a woman who had annihilated an entire kingdom out of her desire to harm Willow and herself, and over the past few months, she had demonstrated a remarkable desire to accomplish that goal again by whatever means were necessary to her.
But what could she do about her now? She had built up a mystique and aura around her person in the guise of what Willow and the others referred to as Tuxedo Mask, but that mystique had been fading in light of the actions that had brought them all to this moment, and there was nothing she felt she could do as plain old Tara Maclay against one who wanted her dead.
She was about to respond when she noticed Faith's head look past her shoulder, and her face break out into a wide grin. "How ironic; in the past, she was in danger, and you came to her rescue, only to perish at my hand."
Tara turned around to see a quintet of figures approaching, and although she knew all of them, she was distressed to see who was leading the way.
"How fitting it shall be to see her try and fail at the same task you attempted so long ago."
Willow had gone two blocks from the Bronze before the others had caught up with her, and despite her insistence that they head back and wait for her, they told her plainly that she needed their help to deal with whatever she was heading off to face. She had relented, but found herself irritated by their actions, regardless of how well intentioned they were.
Tara was in danger. How she knew that, she hadn't a clue. Perhaps the past few days had given her some sort of sixth sense that could tell her when her girlfriend was in danger. Even before she knew Tara's true role in everything that had happened, Willow wanted to protect her, but the feeling hadn't been as strong then as it was now.
"What has happened that makes this different?" she asked. The answer came soon after they left town, having found a place to transform into their Soldier forms, as they arrived in a field to find Tara confronted by a young woman in a purple dress that she recognized as Faith. Seeing the situation playing out in front of her, Willow was immediately on edge, and she saw Fred flinch involuntarily as well. It was obvious that despite what she had said earlier, Fred still had emotional baggage from what had happened to her. Willow could understand what it was she was feeling. Like her, she recognized the threat that Faith presented to the world.
"Faith." The word left her mouth in a hushed whisper, barely audible to those around her. Nevertheless, the response was met with a mirthless laugh from the woman in question. "Welcome, Princess. Come to try and save your love?"
Willow stiffened, her face putting on what she referred to as her "resolve" face. "I'll do whatever I can to stop you."
Faith's smile turned deadly as she spread her arms. "Your mother tried to stop me. She obviously failed. What makes you think that you can succeed where she failed?"
"She has the power of love on her side," Anya replied, uncoiling the chain from her waist. "And she has friends who will stand by her side no matter what."
Faith let out a cackle. "Ah, yes. ‘Friends.'" She turned towards Fred. "You hear that, Mercury? They still consider you a friend, despite all that you have done to them."
"They know what you did to me," Fred said a little shakily. "And they've forgiven me for what I've done."
"Really?" Faith mused, looking towards Anya. "What about her?"
Willow raised an eyebrow. "What about her?"
Faith's smile widened. "You really don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" Willow snapped, her frustration at playing this game growing, especially as Faith let out another laugh, a sound that was beginning to irritate her.
"You're as oblivious now as you were in the past, Princess. You seem to think that I am the greatest danger that you face. But all the while, the greatest threat to your cause has been among you."
Willow turned to Anya, refusing to believe Faith's words. No matter what she had done before, and for all the trouble she had caused them, whether recent or ancient, intentional or accidental, the conversation they had near Christmas told her that she wouldn't go out of her way to do anything that would endanger their lives.
But the look on the blonde's face told Willow all she needed to know. The others noticed as well, and while all three looked especially pained, particularly Cordelia and Fred, Cordelia was the only one to voice her anger. "Why?"
"You know why," Anya responded without emotion. "I told you before that keeping Willow and Tara apart was the only way to keep the world safe. It was their love that brought about the tragedy of the past, and I had to make sure it didn't happen again."
"And since we didn't agree with you, you went behind our backs and consorted with the enemy?" Buffy asked.
"I didn't do anything," Anya retorted. "One of them came to me. I didn't want to agree, but as you can see, the situation has spiraled out of control so much that I had to consider whatever options I could."
Faith brought her attention back to Tara. "You see, Endymion? You and your love cannot be together. Doing so will only result in the destruction of the world."
Tara recovered a small shred of resolve. "And letting you get away with what you've done won't?"
Faith's face contorted. "You misunderstand. I want to rule the world, not destroy it. That cannot be done while you and the others stand in my way."
"You can't think that we'll stand by and let you get away with that, do you?" Cordelia asked.
Faith smiled bitterly as she brought her arms back down. "Of course not, but if you need to be persuaded otherwise..." Moments later, she threw her arms back as lightning bolts erupted from her hands, four of them striking the ground near her feet, which soon transmuted into the forms of Faith's warriors. Willow saw the expression on Tara's face change from one of anger to one of shocked surprise, and sympathized with the situation she now faced; irrelevant to how Anya and the others saw them, they alone knew the truth about them, and how Faith had used them to her own ends.
For their part, they appeared to be just as surprised to be there as they were to seeing them there. Then they noticed where they were, and more importantly, who they were facing. Then they drew their weapons, Willow and the others moving into combat mode, prepared once again to fight in the name of love and justice and defend the Earth from the threat to its people.
And in one moment, Faith changed everything. With a snap of her fingers, she had her warriors move their weapons to strike, only it was not towards the Soldiers, neither was it towards Tara.
Instead, their weapons were poised to deliver a mortal blow to themselves.
Willow's eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. "What are you doing?!"
Faith ignored her and directed her attention to Tara. "You see what I can do, Endymion? How even your personal guard have fallen under my spell? If I so wish it, they would fall upon their weapons and give their lives for me." Her face softened. "But it doesn't have to be this way. Join me, and I shall spare not only their lives, but those of the Princess and her guardians."
Tara frowned. The person that had attacked them countless times in the past few months, whose very goal was the enslavement of Earth, was going to spare their lives? It didn't make any sense. "But you want us dead. You want all of us dead."
"Perhaps I did, once," Faith responded cryptically. "But at this moment, whatever can be done in order to ensure my survival takes precedence, even if it means sparing yours for the time being."
Tara thought it over, and was surprised to find herself in complete agreement with everything that Faith had said. Seeing what had happened to them before in the past had given her something to think about, and the events of the past few minutes had made it all but clear that the only way to ensure Willow's continued safety was to not be with her.
Turning around to face Willow, she let out a small sigh, then said, "I'm sorry, Willow."
Willow's heart leapt upward and lodged in her throat. "Tara, no."
"It's the only way to save everyone."
"Tara, no! We can find another way!"
"There isn't any, and you know it."
"Think about it, Willow," Anya cut in. "Would you not do the same in her position?"
"You're one to talk," Cordelia muttered. "I don't see you going up there to sacrifice yourself for the good of the team."
Tara ignored the exchange as she looked at each of them in turn. "Thank you all for your help. You've all been wonderful in ensuring our safety, but this is something I have to do alone." She turned halfway back to Faith, her hair masking her face, but Willow could definitely see a haunting look of sadness on her face. "Look after Willow, will you? She gets into the most terrible trouble."
She then turned her back to Willow and the others and headed off towards Faith. She had barely made it two steps when a strangled cry from Angelus caught everyone's attention.
"No! I won't allow this!" Starting forward, he brought his weapon up to strike Tara down, only to find himself frozen on the spot as he neared Tara, Faith having brought her arm up to stop him in his tracks. Tara passed by him without a misstep.
Willow was awash with emotion, struggling to figure out what to do. She knew she had to do something, but what that something was eluded her. It wasn't an issue of numbers; even without Tara's help, they were nearly even as far as strength goes, but Faith was clearly holding the strings here, and had the power in this situation.
Power...that was always the problem in her life, wasn't it? Someone else always had the power in her life, and was always tugging her in many different directions. Her mother wanted her to do better in school, Snyder was always being a bully towards her, the cheerleaders were always putting her down, even Luna and Tara, the two persons in her life that wanted to look out for her, always seemed to want her to do things their way instead of what she felt was best.
Everyone was making the decisions for her, and she hated it. It made her angry, but not as angry as she felt at this very moment. She normally had a "walk-away-from-danger" mentality to situations like this, but on some carnal, primal level, she knew she couldn't allow herself to do that here.
There was only two times in recent memory when she felt the way she did now: when she had her first fight against the enemy, and when she had held the prone form of Tara after Fred had delivered a mortal blow to her. And like those times, she felt a surge of power and strength that gave her the clarity of knowledge to know what she had to do to make sure Tara did not come to harm.
"Stay away from her!"