Six Hours Earlier
"I'd really like to know what it was you were thinking when you decided to betray your friends."
Standing on the floor in front of the chair Anya was sitting in, Artemis looked up at her with an expression of disappointment. To be honest, Anya could understand why, but that didn't mean she had to take that accusation lying down. "I didn't betray them. I was...doing what needed to be done."
"I can understand why you would want to do that," Artemis sympathized, though some of the edge in his voice remained. "But what did you hope to avoid by going over to the enemy?"
Anya let out a sigh and looked out the window. "What's already happened; prevent the Princess from awakening." She turned her gaze back to Artemis. "You know what she was like. And now with Tara gone, it's only going to get worse. If Willow loses control of her new power, the Princess will wake up again, and nothing will stop her from getting what she wants." A continuation of her retort was halted by a wave of dizziness, and she brought her hand up and shut her eyes, trying to stop her sudden feelings of nausea.
Artemis leapt up onto the table beside the chair, concern for his charge's welfare rising. "It's getting worse, isn't it?"
"Not a lot of time left for me," came the reply. "I went to the Doctor after...the battle. He says my condition's getting worse, no doubt due to the stress and overexertion I'm putting myself under. He says I'm likely to be dead inside the month if I don't stop."
"Then maybe you should."
Anya looked towards Artemis, surprised that the one who had trained her, her guardian and, for lack of a better term, best friend, could have said that. Of all the people she had expected that sort of thing from, he was the absolute last. "What?"
"You've done enough to help the others understand the dangers of what they face and get them prepared to deal with it. You don't have to keep going on like this. Take some time to rest, savour what time you have left and let the weight of the world fall on the shoulders of someone else."
Anya got up and turned to look at Artemis. "How can you say that? How...how can you even think that? I can't just go on the sidelines and leave my friends alone, especially now." Her dizziness came back then, and she moved to sit back down. "In any case, who really cares if I work myself to death? After what's happened, I doubt anyone would really care if I just upped and died tomorrow."
A pregnant silence followed, broken a few moments later by Artemis' whispered, "I would."
Anya's eyebrows raised in surprise as she turned around to look at the feline. "What?"
Artemis cleared his throat. "Anya, I've been by your side for a long time, and I'd like to think that we've come to know each other as more than partners. I'd like to think that we're...friends. But I only know you as Sailor Venus, the Soldier of Love and Beauty, leader of the Sailor Soldiers, guardians of Princess Serenity. I'd...I'd like to know Anya Jenkins a little better. What's her favourite color? What did she want to be when she was growing up?"
Anya smiled, moving to wipe away the tears that were running down her cheek, and gave Artemis a good rub on the head, coming to a decision right then and there. "I'm...I think I'm going to have that operation I told Cordelia about. I owe it to the others...especially Cordelia."
Thinking of her brunette companion gave her pause to think of how she had treated her during their last battle. At the time, she hadn't cared enough to feel anything about breaking her heart. Now, of course, she felt differently. They had bonded so much, and she had to try to fix that bridge before it collapsed.
And, if nothing else, Anya was a fighter. She moved to pick up her cell phone, then paused, realizing that she had no reason to believe that Cordelia would have held onto her own. So, after grabbing the phone book from underneath the coffee table and looking through it for her house phone number, she dialled it instead. After two rings, she got the following message.
"I'm sorry. Your number cannot be completed as dialled."
Twelve Hours Later
Cordelia ran though the open field, the folds of her expensive dress billowing in the breeze behind her. The freshness of the air penetrated her lungs, making her steps as light and bouncy as her elaborately done up hair. She fell to the ground and giggled like a schoolgirl, rolling along the grass, enjoying the simple pleasure it brought to her.
The voice was followed by a thunderclap that shattered the cheerful sunny day around Cordelia into a thousand shards of tinkling glass, causing her to slip into a freefall towards a bottomless pit of darkness. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound emerged.
"Sweetie, are you awake?"
"Sweetie, are you awake?"
Cordelia's eyes fluttered open as she bolted upright, the sheets of her bed wrapped around herself and, much like her pyjamas, covered in cold sweat. It had obviously been a terrible nightmare she had just went through, until she recalled her current state of affairs and realized two things: her nightmare was very real, and her experience of it was far from over.
"Sweetie, are you OK?"
Cordelia swallowed, trying to calm her jackhammer beating heart, and responded to the voice. "Come in, Mom."
The door opened, and her mother walked into the room. "Are you OK, sweetheart?"
"I'm fine, Mom," she lied in response, apparently not as convincingly as she had hoped, as her mother crossed her arms over her chest, and gave her a knowing stare. Deflated, she let out a sigh. "OK, I'm not."
"I know, sweetie," her mother replied. "It's hard for all of us." A faint smile appeared on her face. "I have to admit, however, that I'm impressed at how well you're handling the situation. There was a time when you would have thrown a temper tantrum at the slightest provocation unless you got your way. Now you're looking at the situation around you and dealing with it like a strong young woman would." She sniffled, and Cordelia could see repressed tears in her eyes. "I'm so proud of you, honey." Without another word, she got up and walked out of the room.
Cordelia sat on the bed for a few seconds, contemplated what she had just been told. Her life had indeed taken a great deal of twists and turns; a member of Sunnydale's elite, yet treated like a pariah because of her supposed visions, then learning that said visions were a part of her former life; a superhero with a destiny she had once wanted no part of, but now had a strong conviction towards. The life of her best friend was in danger; in comparison, any problems she might have seemed pitiful by comparison.
Fighting back the urge to cry, she got up, moved to pick up her bathrobe, and headed for the washroom.
"So you broke up?"
"I had to. It...it was the right decision."
"Forgive me, Buffy, but if you were as confident about that as you say you are, you wouldn't be here to see me, would you?"
"I...I guess not, Mr. Wood."
Buffy sat across from Robin Wood, the school's counsellor, giving away her nervousness by randomly crisscrossing her legs. The events of the past day had gnawed away at her, and she had an overwhelming urge to talk to someone about it. Seeing as though the only person she could talk to in these particular circumstances, however, was someone likely to declare her crazy, she felt she had to embellish the truth slightly.
Buffy fidgeted. "I don't know. I mean, I like Riley a whole lot. I really do. But...anytime I get a little happiness in my life, it gets taken away from me."
"And you feel that if you stay with this guy, you'll lose him through means you can't control?"
Buffy nodded in agreement. "Sounds silly, I know."
Robin shrugged. "I don't know. Sounds more like a teenage girl in love." He leaned forward to pick up his coffee mug. "And to be honest, I can't really help you out with that."
"How come?" Buffy asked, her voice crossing the border from disappointed to whiny without ever coming close to sad.
Robin smiled. "Because when it comes to love, there are no easy answers."
"I can fight evil monsters and save the world, but I can't handle being in love?"
Buffy left the office with that question on her mind, the building starting to fill up with her fellow students as the bell signalled the start of a new school day. As she moved to go to her homeroom, she felt a hand on her shoulder. On reflex, she slammed her elbow into the person's stomach.
Buffy spun around to face her assailant to find Amy bent over backward, her books on the floor and her arm over her stomach. Instantly apologetic, Buffy quickly moved to help Amy catch her breath and pick up her dropped schoolwork.
Amy let out a pained cough in response, catching her breath in order to give a short "It's OK" in reply. Handing over her Math book, Buffy asked, "So...what's up, Amy?"
"I...I wanted to talk to you."
"What about her?"
Amy shifted uncomfortably on one foot, and Buffy immediately detected a change in the air around her. If she didn't know any better, she could have sworn that Amy was becoming...confrontational.
"Well, you've hung around her a lot lately, and since she doesn't really talk to me anymore, I have no way of finding out if there's anything wrong with her. I'd go to her mother, but I suppose I'd have better luck trying to talk to her bedroom wall. In any case, I wanted to ask if you noticed anything...strange about her."
Buffy hesitated, not entirely sure how to respond to the question. She did indeed know more about the situation than she really wanted to let on, but didn't think it was a good idea to actually discuss it in present company. On the other hand, Amy was clearly concerned about her best friend, especially since it was obvious how much they had drifted apart, and was clearly not going to leave her alone unless she got an answer.
"Yeah," she replied. "I have."
Amy glared at Buffy, her change in attitude now readily apparent. "So what have you done about it?"
Even though she had been expecting it, the tone of voice in which the accusation had been flung at her caught her off guard. "Excuse me?"
Amy glared daggers at Buffy. "Ever since you got here, Willow's been acting all strangely; staying out all night, lying about where she's been, becoming moody and depressed for no reason, and treating her real friends like the crap she would scrape off her shoe. And while I've been trying to figure out what's been going on, you've known this whole time, and chose to...I don't know, play cheerleader and screw around with your boyfriend?"
Already on edge with Amy, Buffy felt her self control go when Rilely was mentioned. And despite knowing full well that, with a history as sordid as hers, she could likely get expelled for what she was about to do, she couldn't let Amy get away with treating her like that. Thankfully, a new voice interjected, saving her the trouble.
"Leave her alone!"
Buffy turned to see Fred standing behind her, hands on her hips and with an expression she had not seen on her face since her brief time as Dark Mercury. "I mean it, Amy. Leave Buffy alone. She's done nothing to you."
Amy was clearly not impressed by Fred's attempt to stand up for Buffy. "Back off, brainie. I don't know why Willow would want to hang around with her, but it's obvious where she got her bad attitude. And being around you obviously didn't better. Now she thinks she's smarter than the rest of us, and doesn't feel it worth her time to hang around with the intellectually challenged." It was clear that Amy still had some fight in her, but it was equally clear to her that she was outnumbered, so she gathered up her wits and walked off without another word.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Buffy turned and headed towards Fred, visibly thankful that the embarrassing incident that was about to happen had been avoided. "Thanks."
The pair headed off to class, but stopped next to the doorway. "Have you heard from Willow?" Fred asked.
"Not since last night," Buffy admitted. "I got the impression that she didn't want to be disturbed, so after we brought her home, I just headed home myself. You?"
"Likewise," Fred answered, looking into the classroom, then back towards Buffy. "So how come she's not here?"
Buffy likewise stuck her head inside the classroom, failing to find Willow seated at any of the desks. "What? Where is she?"
Fred pulled Buffy away from the door and dragged her down the hallway away from the classroom. "I don't know, but I have a bad feeling about this."
"You don't think...that Faith got her too, do you?" Buffy asked.
"I don't know," Fred said after a moment's hesitation. "I don't think any of us would be here now if she did."
"But that doesn't make it easier to answer the question about where she is right now," Buffy pointed out.
"She's probably at home still," Fred conjectured. "She probably convinced her mother to phone the school and say she was sick. I wouldn't blame her, really."
"We should go check on her," Buffy suggested. Fred's eyes widened at that. "What?"
"I mean...we should cut class."
"Why not? It worked before, didn't it?"
"Yeah, but that was because we had outside help. I don't think we can get away with it now."
"Because you've had the lack of smarts to announce doing so in front of a teacher."
Buffy and Fred spun around to find Miss Calendar standing behind them, the expression on her face one of utter disappointment. "I expected better from the two of you." She shifted her attention to Fred. "Especially you, Miss Burkle. You were once one of my best students. But lately your work's been slipping, not to mention that period where you displayed very serious antisocial behaviours."
"But Miss Calendar..."
Miss Calendar raised her hand. "Please, Elizabeth. You're already in enough trouble as it is. Don't make things worse for yourself. You're both to have detention with me after class. Be thankful I don't report this to Principal Snyder. Now get to class."
Buffy and Fred visibly deflated at that, knowing that they had been defeated. Following Miss Calendar back to the classroom, they moved to sit down at their desks, resigned to the fact that, while their concern for Willow was still evident, at least she was likely to be in a better position than they were.