Tara was led through the labyrinthine caverns and shoved through the door of her cell so fast that she had little time to either take in her surroundings or give any thought to what had happened. Once she had been shoved inside her new home, and after falling to the floor after she tripped over her own feet, she had the perfect opportunity to think things through.
The first thing she thought of was about how, for a prison cell, her current location was surprisingly opulent, with a Queen sized bed adorned with drapes in the center of the room, windows with exquisitely designed curtains off to one side, and a dressing suite with wardrobe and makeup table against the far wall. It was a place more suited for a five star hotel than a dark and dingy fortress cave.
The second was the unmistakable feeling that she was being watched. She got to her feet, but didn't turn around. She knew that there was only one person here who would come to see her.
"That was a very foolish thing to do," Spike said, stepping around her and entering her field of vision.
"It had to be done."
"You saw how the Princess behaved. You should have let us deal with her."
"You mean let her deal with her. There was no way I was going to let Faith harm Willow...or you." Tara said this more forcefully, and she began to wonder who it was she was trying to convince by saying this. "In any case, Willow won't go to those lengths again. I know her."
"You know nothing."
Tara was beginning to get frustrated, and crossed her arms over her chest, boring a hole straight into Spike's face. "Then enlighten me."
Spike looked back at Tara, his gaze intense and his stance defiant. "The Princess has awakened now. And she won't stop until she has you in her arms once more, even if it means all those that stand in her way must suffer."
Tara's mood immediately grew reflective, recalling her vision of what had happened to the Moon Kingdom during its last days. It had been her hope that, by walking willingly into the enemy's hands, she could have prevented all of this from happening again. But instead of doing that, did she open the door to once again bringing a world full of innocent people to their destruction?
She was about to respond when the door swung open violently and Angelus entered the room and, without breaking stride, backhanded Tara across the face, sending her to the floor. Spike was in his face in moments.
"What are you doing?!"
"What you obviously haven't the stomach to do," was the response offered as Angelus unsheathed his sword, pointing its tip at Tara's throat as she got to her knees, brushing aside a few stray strands of hair. "This is your fault."
Tara stared at the blade, knowing that even the slightest movement from the hand that wielded it would end her life. To her credit, although she feared for her life, she didn't allow that fear to show on her face. "I know."
"You should die for that."
Tara looked towards the floor. "I probably should." She felt the steel on her throat disappear and closed her eyes, prepared for the worst.
Tara opened her eyes and looked towards the open doorway, recognizing that voice immediately and hoping that, despite what had happened earlier, she was seeing things, but she wasn't.
"You were told not to harm her," Harmony said, hands on her hips and glaring at Angelus as if he were a six year old with his hand caught in a cookie jar. "Faith wants her alive so that she can continue to torment her friends."
"I don't care what Faith wants," Angelus growled back in response. "And I care less for what you want, creature. You may have been cast off from her genetic form, but you aren't her, so you should stop behaving as if you are. I cannot harm Faith, but that won't stop me from harming you."
Harmony pouted, a look that surprised Tara, as it was something she would have expected to see from a teenager who had just been told that she couldn't go shopping at the mall. "You're not really nice, you know. I would have thought that you'd like me a whole lot more, considering it was you who had the idea for my creation in the first place. Wouldn't that make us like, brothers, or something?"
Tara looked towards Angelus, and caught the unabashed look of anger on his face. Then, in a swift movement that happened so fast that she nearly missed it, he sheathed his sword and stormed out of the room, Spike following behind him after casting his glance back down towards Tara. After they had left, she got back to her feet and moved to sit down on the bed, trying to make sense of all that had just happened. Things were looking pretty bad, and it didn't help that the most problematic situation was one that had been under her nose the entire time.
The shifting weight of the bed told her that problem was now sitting beside her, and she turned to look at Harmony, finding a smile plastered wide across the latter's face. If she didn't know better, Tara would have sworn that she was trying to come on to her. She fidgeted slightly, uncomfortable at the sudden closeness.
"It won't work, you know."
Tara stiffened. "What?"
"Your attempts to resist us," Harmony explained. "You may have done so for a while, but Metallia is growing stronger every day. And when she's at full strength, she'll scour the Earth clean, and there's nothing you can do about it."
"Willow will find a way," Tara responded with full conviction. "She has friends that will stand by her no matter what happens."
"Really?" Harmony asked, her voice sugary enough for Tara to nearly throw up at hearing it. "Well, you know as well as I do that they were never on the best of terms back before that incident at Christmas." Her grin widened and became lecherous. "And now that you're out of the way, they'll be at each other's throats again. And guess who's going to take advantage of the situation to drive them apart, leaving poor widdle Princess Willow all by herself?"
Harmony let out a squeal and jumped off the bed, skipping out of the room without bothering to wait for Tara's response. She wouldn't have gotten it, at any rate.
Tara was too busy trying to stop the tears she felt at her hopelessness from showing on her face.
Harmony walked down the corridor, the spring in her step causing her to start skipping and jump slightly into the air every so often. She was happy. Endymion was in pain, and she knew that it was partially due to the fact that she now knew that someone close to Willow was an enemy and was now in a position to cruelly break her heart, among other body parts.
It had given her great pleasure to do that. It was, after all, the reason for her existence. Yes, she knew that she was little more than a portion of Faith's essence and soul given a mind and form of its own and sent out to cause chaos, but she was doing something that she loved. And Faith had given her a free hand in that, as well. As long as she embarrassed Willow and caused her pain, how she did it was her own business.
Faith should therefore be happy that she had scored a major victory against her enemies, and she entered the throne room ready to show her pleasure. "Hey, boss. That was a great plan you managed to come up with. Maybe now with her girlfriend out of the way, we can get back to work reviving Metallia without any interference. It's really bad about that guy you had to kill, but you can make an egg without breaking some omelettes...wait a minute, that's not right..."
It was then, through the psychic link they shared, that Harmony felt the sadness coming off of Faith. This really confused her; she had just scored a major victory against her enemies, so why wasn't she happy about it? "Boss, you OK?"
If Faith heard her, she gave no outward sign of it, continuing to stare off into space as her head rested on her hand, the shoulder of that arm leaning hard against one of the throne's armrests. Harmony didn't know what was going on, but was determined to make Faith feel better. "You want me to throw you a party, or something? I can probably scrounge up some food and streamers, and I can probably get a cake if you give me some time..."
Harmony's tirade ended in a squelched squeal as Faith's arm shot out, blue electric bolts flying from her fingertips to strike the rock above Harmony's head, sending dirt, dust and pebbles down on her. She ducked to avoid the worst of it and looked back at Faith, finding the latter's eyes boring daggers back at her.
"Go. Now. Before I decide your continued worth to me isn't worth your ceaseless prattling."
Harmony scrambled to her feet, the anger from Faith that she felt telling her that she wasn't kidding. "Sure, boss. Sure." She left the throne room as fast as she could, still feeling Faith's emotional state. After a few moments, though, the anger dissipated and was soon replaced by an emotion that felt strange to her.
"I'm really glad you girls came over," Sheila said as she led Buffy, Cordelia and Fred to the living room. "I'm not quite sure what's gotten into Willow lately. I'm hoping that you can help break her out of her funk. It's been my understanding that being around friends can improve one's mood."
"You have no idea," Buffy thought as she settled down on the couch, the others moving to join her as Sheila went off to the kitchen. Not wanting to tip their hand and reveal more than they knew, she said aloud, "What do you mean? What's wrong with Willow?"
Returning with a tray of cookies and cups of hot chocolate, Sheila answered, "Her grades have been slipping again. I was so proud to learn she had been doing better in school, but it looks like she's been falling back into old patterns. She's also starting to find even the things that brought her pleasure a chore. I can't even get her to come out of her room unless it's for school, meals or to go to the washroom."
The girls looked at one another, knowing that Sheila's words were speaking of a problem that she couldn't even begin to comprehend. It was true that ever since losing Tara and turning into an all powerful version of herself, Willow had become a bit more withdrawn, but they didn't think it had gotten this bad.
"Can I ask you girls a question?" Sheila asked. When she didn't get a response to the negative, she leaned closer and whispered in their direction. "Has Willow been doing drugs?"
Cordelia, who had picked up a cup of hot chocolate and taken a sip, choked on the contents and let some slip from her mouth. In between coughs, she asked, "Excuse me?"
Sheila cast her eyes to the mess on the carpet, then back towards Cordelia. "It's a proven fact that all of the symptoms Willow is exhibiting are experienced by those suffering from depression, and depression is a common symptom of habitual drug users. Since you're her friends, I was hoping you could tell me all about what she's been up to lately. I've tried to contact that girlfriend of hers, but she hasn't returned my calls. I'm not surprised, really. She's probably too busy painting the landscape or growing some flowers or communing with nature or some other odd lesbian ritual..."
The phone rang then, and Sheila got up and moved back towards the kitchen. The girls visibly relaxed at her departure, then noticed Luna sitting at the top of the stairs, head tilting towards Willow's room.
Entering Willow's room, Cordelia and the others saw Willow's body collapsed on the bed, head buried in the pillow. Luna, in human form, stood over her, tenderly brushing her hair.
"She's been like this for days," she explained to the others. "I'm starting to get worried."
"You're not the only one," Cordelia explained. "What's the deal with that...that...that 'superwoman' form she took?"
"It's the Princess part of her personality," Luna explained. "I was afraid that this would happen, but I hoped that we could deal with the enemy before it did. But now that she's awakened fully, we may have a more troublesome problem to deal with."
"What do you mean?" Fred explained. "I mean, I don' want to sound selfish, but y'all saw how she behaved when she turned into...that. All she wanted was to stop the bad guys. That's all we've been trying to do, right? If we send her after them, we'll have them defeated without a problem."
"That is the problem, though," Luna clarified. "Willow isn't the Princess, and the Princess isn't Willow. Willow knows that you're her friends and that you love her, but to the Princess, you're just a distraction; an impediment. She won't make any distinction between friend and foe when it comes to her love for Endymion. To her, anyone who stands in her way is an enemy,"
"Even us?" Buffy asked.
"Guys," Willow's muffled voice spoke up then, drained of her usual perky enthusiasm. "Would you please stop talking about me as if I wasn't here?"
Luna looked down at Willow as the redhead turned over to look at the group. "I'm sorry, Willow. It's just...we just want to look out for you and make sure you're OK."
"Yeah," Buffy added. "That's why Anya isn't here." Hearing the name of their former comrade, Cordelia flinched, and Buffy turned towards her, apologetic. "Sorry."
"You don't understand, guys," Willow said, looking at each of them in turn. "Things are never going to be OK for me. Tara's gone off and gotten herself captured by the enemy, and we can't do a thing about it. I thought that we could, but...there's no way we can do it...no way I can do it...unless I turn back into the Princess."
"So what's the problem?" Fred asked, clearing not seeing any sort of conflict. "You can let her control you again..."
"NO!" Willow shouted. "I won't do that. I won't sacrifice who I am now just so who I was can be with Tara. Tara loves me because I'm gentle, kind and compassionate. And when I'm the Princess, I feel...cold, heartless, and capable of doing great harm to anyone, even my friends. I'm...I'm ashamed."
"Why?" Fred asked.
"During the fight, when I let the Princess take control, I was still capable of understanding what was going on around me. I could watch helplessly as Faith killed one of her own soldiers. And you know what? I enjoyed seeing it. I took pleasure in seeing someone take another's life. That's not me. That's not who Tara sees when she looks at me." Willow turned over and started to cry. "I can't believe I lost her."
"We'll find a way to get her back," Luna said, seeing that Willow was getting distressed about the situation, and needing to comfort her in some way, even if it was a pithy gesture. "We'll do all that we can to help rescue her."
Willow turned over, her expression clearly set in her 'serious/resolve' look. "Good. Because I don't want to anymore."
Luna's eyes widened. "What?"
"You heard me," Willow said, reaching up, taking off her transformation brooch and throwing it across the room, clattering on the floor near her wastebasket. "I quit. I'm done being the leader. Find someone else to take the job." She turned over and buried her face in her pillow again, her body language making it clear that the conversation was over.
Luna turned towards the others, her expression sad. "I guess...there's nothing more to say, really. You better go."
The group parted after leaving Willow's house, each of them taking their own paths home. Fred walked down the street, surprised at how she had conducted herself in Willow's presence, but not at all regretful about what she had said. It was bad enough for the enemy to have taken her and twisted her mind to want to hurt her friends, so with the shoe now on the other foot, why shouldn't she voice her opinion that now there was a perfectly good opportunity for them to get even.
On the other hand, Willow had been the only one to genuinely care for her when she contemplated taking her life at the end of the ordeal, knowing that it was going to take time for the fences to be mended for the others, and so her desire to help Willow deal with her problem was such that it overrode her own desire to harm the enemy in any way possible.
She did want to do that, to be sure, but not if it cost Willow her life. She had saved her life, and now Fred would try to find a way to save Willow's.
So absorbed was she in her own thoughts that she had nearly passed the teenage boy leaning against the wall. Pausing for a moment, she turned back and looked at him, seeing the clothes he was dressed in and the sour expression on his face. For a moment, she thought she recognized him, but shook her head in a dismissive manner, thinking that it was just her mind playing tricks, and continued on her way, paying the young man no further attention.
After leaving Willow's house, Buffy spent a great deal of her time thinking about the current state of affairs in her life, and realizing that, whether she liked it or not, Willow's safety and well being was her top priority, to the exclusion of everything else. That meant that she would have to sever her connections with everything about her life that gave her some degree of happiness. She let out a sigh, realizing that, once again, she was turning away an opportunity to have her own life.
This time, however, there was a clear difference: she was doing it to save someone whose life and well being mattered to her more than her own. It was with that thought that she found the strength to withdraw her cell phone and punched in Riley's home phone number. After hearing it ring for several seconds, someone on the other end picked up.
"Hey, Riley. It's me."
"Hey, Buffy. Excited about our date tonight?"
"Actually...I have to cancel."
"What? How come?"
Buffy paused, unsure as to how to respond. She couldn't tell him the truth; how would that look? She let out a breath, knowing that her next words were going to be painful not only for her to say, but for him to hear. "I just...I just don't think we should see each other anymore."
"Why? If it's something I did..."
"No, Riley," Buffy was quick to clarify. "You're a nice guy, really you are. But...I've never really had anyone in my life stick around for very long. My parents...Parker...everyone I've come into contact with has left me. And now...well, things in my life have been pretty bad lately, and I have to make a choice. And... I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"I'm a grown man, Buffy..."
"I know. That's why I hope you can accept my decision."
"Goodbye, Riley." Buffy cut the connection, then moved to turn off her phone, not wanting to have Riley call back. She then started walking again, and had made it barely two steps before she started to cry.
Cordelia spent the entire time walking home thinking about her place in the grand center of things. It was so much simpler when the thing she had to worry about most was being treated as a freak by her classmates. She had certainly come a long way in that short amount of time, and despite all the hardships she had endured, and the painful sting of betrayal from one she had grown to consider her best friend and mentor, she had come through it a better woman, and wouldn't have missed it for the world.
She had no reason to believe that things could get any worse. But then entered her house and found her mother standing by the stair case, a letter in hand.
"What's wrong, mom?" she asked.
"You'd better take a look at this, sweetie," her mother replied, handing her the letter. Cordelia took it and began to read.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Chase
Cordelia felt a lump in her throat. This couldn't be happening. In the space of five seconds, she had gone from having everything to losing it all. "Mom...what does this mean?"
"We're broke, sweetie," her mother responded, her eyes wet with unshed tears. "We have nothing left to our name. Your father's at the tax office trying to sort things out, but I'm afraid it's not looking too great. I've been on the phone with my parents, and they've agreed to take us in until we can get back on our feet."
"Grandma and Grampa?" Cordelia asked, shaking her head slightly, still in shock over the whole state of affairs. They lived in San Diego, which was as far out of the way as you could get. More importantly, it was away from Willow, at whose side she needed to be now more than ever. "Move away? Mom...no. I can't move away. I...I have friends here. I...I have a destiny to be here."
It surprised her to say this; for the longest time she had been adamant about avoiding her destiny, but now with Anya's betrayal and Willow's problem on top of the omnipresent spectre of the Dark Kingdom, she knew that she had to be here to keep the team together.
She wasn't the only one shocked to hear this. "Destiny? What are you talking about, honey?"
"Nothing, mom," Cordelia hastily answered, hoping to avoid answering any embarrassing questions. "I...I just don't want to move away."
"I'm afraid we have no choice, sweetie. We'll have to leave by the end of the week." Her mother turned and headed back up the stairs. "Pack some of your things, sweetie, but try to choose some of your less expensive clothes."
Cordelia stood dumbfounded, unable to believe what was happening. In such a short amount of time, her whole world had been rocked to its very foundations. And it was ironic that the only person she could go to for comfort was herself dealing with a crisis that she herself felt compelled to deal with more than her own.
She made her way to her room and looked at all of her prized possessions, soon to be taken away from her. Suddenly, she let out a wail and flopped on her bed, letting out a sobbing series of cries.
Luna's feline form stood on Willow's windowsill later that night, looking towards the sky and seeing the full moon in the air. She had been glad that it was a full moon this night, as it would allow her to make contact with the computer that maintained and projected Queen Serenity's hologram at the ruined Moon Palace. The Queen often sought her and Artemis' counsel in times of need, but had always said that she would give them advice should they need it. Now was one of those times.
"Please, Queen Serenity," she whispered. "Hear my voice. I am in need of your counsel."
A beam of light shot through the open window, striking the locket Tara had given Willow dead center. A small representation of Serenity's form appeared on top of it, her expression concerned. "Luna, what is wrong? I sense great trouble."
"It's worse than that, Your Majesty," Luna explained. "Willow has...she's given up the will to fight."
Serenity's expression grew understanding, realizing what must have happened for that to have occured. "The Princess side of her personality. It has awakened, hasn't it?"
"I'm afraid so."
Serenity did not appear too upset at this news. If anything, she took it in stride. "Perhaps it was a bit na´ve of me to think that this day would never come. I had hoped them to find happiness in this life, but perhaps not even here are they destined for true peace."
"I don't believe that," Luna said defiantly, leaping off the windowsill and moving towards the table upon which the locket rested. "And neither do you. If you did, you never would have sent them here in the first place."
Serenity nodded. "That's true."
"But it's worse than we feared. Endymion has been captured by the enemy. And Willow has...she's given up. She doesn't want to be Sailor Moon anymore."
"I'm not surprised," Serenity said. "I've kept track of my daughter since she was reincarnated, and she's always had a kind soul. Perhaps it was not a good idea to show her how she had once been; I had believed that would not have made a difference, but it appears to have done the exact opposite."
"Is there anything we can do to help her?" Luna asked.
"Yes, but I am reluctant to do so."
"Because it would involve showing her...what things may be had you not found her. And that could make her worse than she is now. I do not wish to knowingly bring more harm to her. In her current state, she could be scarred for life."
"But it might be necessary for her to know," Luna said. "Knowing how bad things might have been had I not found her might give her the strength to face the problems she is dealing with now. Things couldn't be that worse, could they?"
Serenity sighed, reluctant to enact what Luna intended, but, knowing as she did, that there was no other way. "I suppose not. Very well, Luna. I hope you're right." Serenity's form faded, and the light moved to envelop Willow. The intensity of the light grew brighter, yet Willow made no move to wake or show any sign that she was bothered at all with the light. After a few moments, the light faded, her form disappearing along with it.
Luna looked upon the spot where Willow had laid. "Good luck, Willow."
Willow slowly awakened to find that she was no longer on her bed, that she was instead lying in the middle of the road. Common sense overrode any questions she had about how she had gotten there, and she got to her feet immediately.
And she immediately wished she hadn't, for she found the street upon which she rested, along with most of the surrounding area, an uninhabitable wasteland; windows were broken or boarded up for the most part, others showing clear signs of looting. The sky was a deep crimson red, punctuated only by dark clouds that hung in the air like birds-of-prey stalking a dead animal carcass. Sirens could be heard in the distance, broken occasionally by the odd strike of thunder.
More horribly, she recognized it as one of Sunnydale's many streets, not far from the high school.
This was her home. But it was also...not.
Only one thought occurred to her at that very moment.
"Where am I? What happened?"