Willow clutched the stair rail in the darkness as she descended the stairs down from the attic. Predictably, she had been unable to return to sleep following her disturbing dream and heading downstairs seemed to be the best course of action in her wired state. She wandered through the kitchen and bypassed the refrigerator as the mere thought of a snack of any kind made her nauseous. It was with no surprise that she found herself standing in front of the door to the little room Tara and Ashley shared. The door was closed and she raised her hand to rap lightly on it with her knuckles. Just as her hand was about to fall she stopped and moved away. While she desperately needed Tara, she couldn't bear the thought of waking her from desperately needed sleep.
Although I do have a good reason I suppose, Willow mused, not being able to dwell on any other thought than her dream revelation that she was Ashley's guardian.
Despite her good reason, Willow slumped into one of the sofas in the living room. She did not even pause to wonder where Spike and Mat were as the two of them usually slept on the sofas Two sleeping bags lay on the floor, still rolled in their stuff sacks. Willow lent forward, placing her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. Even in the relative silence, broken only by the ticking of a hideously untasteful cuckoo clock, Willow could not bring her thoughts to bear. Each tick of the clock thumped painfully in her brain.
Willow did not need the clock to remind her that what she needed the most was time...and there was none to be had. Everything was coming to a pass now, and the shit would really hit the fan in the morning when she announced her revelation to the group. She could just see the look of complete horror on Giles' face.
"Penny for your thoughts?" a voice interrupted from the direction of the kitchen.
Of course Willow did not need to look up to know that it was Tara, there was only one voice that could have possibly soothed her frazzled nerves.
"You don't want to pay for my thoughts," Willow replied, staring out the window and over the lake beyond, "In fact, I probably couldn't pay you to hear them. I'm sorry I woke you."
Tara crossed the space between them and took a spot on the sofa. Willow noticed the carefully chosen distance at which she sat, just within arms reach. To any outsider they would appear as two friends rather than lovers.
"You didn't really wake me...although, I guess you did," Tara replied cryptically but warmly, "I must have sensed you outside the door in my sleep, you didn't make a sound."
Willow almost managed a smile, "I didn't realise I had that sort of effect on women."
"Just this one I think," Tara did smile, a small lopsided one that succeeded in bringing some warmth to Willow's lips.
The warmth faded all too quickly, replaced by a drawn out sigh which Willow did not even realise she was releasing until she turned her head and met Tara's worried gaze.
"Sorry..." Willow began.
Tara cut her off by pressing a firm finger against her lips, withdrawing only when it was clear that Willow would not restart her apology, "This isn't a time for apologies, Will, it's time for being open, honest and upfront with whatever it is that is weighing you down so badly its practically burying you!"
Willow was not surprised that Tara was not wasting time in getting to the root of what had her so fucked up, yet another example of them all running out of time. While she desperately wanted to lie, another part of her knew that was not an option when it concerned Tara. Even as she was opening her mouth to speak, Tara laid her head in her lap. Willow found herself looking down into the deep blue eyes of her lover and speech came easily.
"I had a dream...and not in a Martin Luther King Jnr way," Willow began, "I had the kind of dream that wasn't really a dream at all...I was there, in that place."
To back up her words, she held up her right hand to show the graze on her palm.
"Willow, you could have easily been grazed earlier tonight...during our..." Tara paused and blushed noticeably, not quite sure what to call what had been an incredibly passionate and intense bout of sex.
"Fucking," Willow finished impatiently, although her tone was insistent rather than curt, "It wasn't there when I went to bed, Tara, it was there when I woke after my dream...I mean the dream that wasn't really a dream."
"I believe you," Tara replied simply, although her cheeks had flushed a rather scarlet shade of red at Willow's blunt choice of words.
"And I leant that I am Ashley's Guardian," Willow added.
Willow searched Tara's face for the first hint of a reaction she knew was coming. Willow felt herself under scrutiny for a few moments as Tara simply stared. Her face however, did not descend into shock, as possibly Willow had been expecting. Instead her eyes closed for a few moments as though she were processing what she had just heard. Willow watched closely, wishing she could take back those few words even though it would not have made them any less true. When Tara's eyes opened once more, they were shining bright with unspoken love.
"It doesn't make any difference," Tara whispered, staring up at Willow from where she lay with her head cradled in her lap and at the sight of Willow's frown she explained further, "I know you would have protected Ash with your life whether you were her Guardian or not, and I won't protect her any less fiercely because I am not her Guardian...so, it doesn't make any difference."
Willow nodded, Tara's words were the truth, but she continued with the one little detail that she had neglected to mention, "There's just the little issue of the sword...and the choice between killing the Big Bad or killing the Seventh Seal...I mean, the choice is easy, I'd have made it no matter what but it's not like I know any more about swordplay than you do. I used to read a lot of fantasy novels but they never really offered much in the way of practical instruction..."
"Will...babbling," Tara reminded her tactfully.
Willow pursed her lips together as she looked down at the gorgeous woman in her lap and reflected her total misfortune. She had finally met the woman she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, and the whole world was going to hell and she was supposed to be some kind of Xena incarnation. She wished she had spent more time watching the way Xena wielded her sword instead of the way her leather skirt moved about her thighs.
Terrified as she was, a part of Willow was grateful that she did have this burden. Tara could concentrate on her daughter and she could worry about this impossible task. As hot as the mental picture was, she hated the thought of Tara having to wield a sword in combat.
"I love you," Willow could think of nothing else to say, nothing coherent anyway.
She gently picked up Tara's hand and laid a kiss on her knuckles.
"That's all I need to hear right now," Tara replied, feeling distinctly reassured.
Neither spoke after that. Although there were perhaps things that needed to be expressed, neither wanted to try and put those things into words. Tara eventually drifted off to sleep cradled in Willow's lap. Willow sat running her fingers through Tara's hair as the ticking of the clock gradually reinvaded her head. She ignored the sound as a herald of impending doom and allowed it instead to soothe her into sleep.
Bob was tired. He had worked tirelessly to bring about the release of his lord and now that he was within grasping distance of his goal he felt drained. There had been the decades spent engaged in seemingly pointless' minute tasks consoled only by the knowledge that they were necessary and would one day eventually add up to victory. He then shuddered at the memory of eighteen years spent living the life of a family man in order to move vital chess pieces into play. The façade of that life had been so convincing he had almost fooled himself into believing that he could comfortably live such a life. However, he had never drifted far from the ultimate goal of the Society, that which they had worked at for over two hundred years, ever since that meddling coven had ensnared their lord with that infuriatingly effective Seal.
His clenched both his fists at his side. It was only a matter of time now and he would perform the rituals on the remaining Seals, including the Seventh. This of course required breaking the Guardian...a task which he felt more than able to carry out. He remembered his meeting with the redheaded woman, standing above her as she cowered in his presence. There had been just enough defiance in her eyes to ensure that the breaking would at least be rewarding.
"There will be problems my lord," a small voice suddenly whispered in his ear.
The master closed his eyes, fighting the urge to turn and blast the insignificant little underlying to dust, he had not heard the lackey approach and this made him very angry indeed. He had been too rapt in his own thoughts.
"I thought I told you not to sneak up on me and whisper in my ear like the slimy little weasel you are, Mr Brown," Bob uttered through clenched teeth.
"My humblest apologies, my lord!" Mr Brown bowed low, his forehead almost scraping the floor.
In a whirl of his black cloak, Bob spun and bore down on the pathetic little wretch he now regretted choosing to serve him. The idea of blasting him into smithereens was extremely appealing. Mr Brown's eyes widened with his realisation that he had unconsciously repeated his earlier mistake and he went down on all fours, pressing his forehead to the ice-cold floor as he waited for the killing blow. Bob towered over the squat little man who prostrated himself before him. He was less a weasel and more a toad, right down to his bald head and bulbous dark eyes. His brown robe flared out on the floor around him, not managing to conceal his bulk.
"I thought I've told you not to call me that!" the voice thundered around the room so loudly it masonry dust free from the cracks in the stone walls
"But it's so irreverent my l...." Mr Brown began to utter it once more before managing to cut himself off, "And it's not even your real name, I thought it was..."
He risked lifting himself from his uncomfortable position on the floor and moving into a marginally more comfortable kneeling position. His gaze lifted a little defiantly. Even as he did so, he found himself with no air to breathe. He attempted to draw a deep breath but it was as though he were suddenly standing in a vacuum. His master advanced with one hand raised as thought it was about to make a downward chopping movement.
"That name is dead to me...it ties me to her!" Bob's voice continued to shake the very stones which encased them, Mr Brown tried desperately not to glance up at the ceiling to confirm that it was not about to come down on his head as Bob spoke, "Her part in this is over, over, do you hear?"
Mr Brown nodded, although he thought perhaps his leader was being a little too vehement, "Yes...Bob, but I think that..."
He was not interested in listening to anything the little man had to say, "In fact, Mr Brown, you will make it your personal mission to put her out of her misery tonight," Bob nodded as though this satisfied him immensely.
"Thank you!" Mr Brown replied enthusiastically, almost believing that his earlier transgressions had been already overlooked.
Bob narrowed his eyes at the underling, "No Mr Brown, this is not a privilege...it merely indicates how insignificant she is that I would assign her killing to a fool like you...even had I not the other problems to deal with myself, I would not have bothered with her...I do not stoop to squash insects."
Mr Brown nodded, still feeling that he ought to be grateful to be alive let alone assigned a specific task. Bob did not acknowledge his acceptance and instead spun deftly on his heels, turning his back on the kneeling man to pace the darkened room.
Behind him, Mr Brown hesitated, wondering whether to try and explain to his master the problems that weighed his mind....especially in relation to the Guardian of the Seventh Seal. His legs were aching and cold on the floor and he desperately wanted to flee the room. However, he did not even risk shifting his weight, instead remaining seated exactly as he was. A few minutes later Bob turned and raised his eyebrows, "Are you still here?"
"The problems...Bob," Mr Brown began insistently.
"Ah yes, the problems, please inform me of these crucial insights which you seem to have gleaned where I have not."
"I was not insinuating..." Mr Brown's eyes bulged.
"Speak!" Bob growled, infuriated with the constant grovelling and apologizing that surrounded him.
"We did not foresee the Guardian's relationship with the Seal's mother that we have recently been informed about, it should be factored into our plans as I believe it could possibly prove our undoing."
Bob growled low in his throat, it sounded like the tearing of old paper, "Of course we're aware of it. Just what is your learned opinion Mr Brown?"
Mr Brown flinched at the sarcasm in Bob's voice but continued nevertheless, "Love can made people behave unpredictably, we may never be able to break the Guardian due to her feelings for the Seal's mother and in turn, the seal itself."
"Thank you for that extra special little insight, Oprah!" Bob snapped angrily, dwelling on the thought of turning the man inside out, "It is it or do you have something else warm and fuzzy to raise with me...hugs and puppies perhaps?"
Mr Brown almost caught himself muttering under his breath like a disgruntled school child but Bob's stony expression kept his dangerous opinions in check. In fact, he really wanted nothing more than to scurry from his overlord's presence before he was reduced to a pile of something sticky and foul-smelling. He managed to formulate a reply that was straightforward, but no less likely to cause offence.
"The sword Bob, we've neglected to mention the sword."
Bob's response was unexpected and he simply smiled and nodded. When Mr Brown raised his eyebrows in surprise, Bob reached out and patted him on the cheek with the palm of his hand.
"Never you mind about the sword Mr Brown, I've seen to that little matter," Bob replied in an upbeat tone, completed by a very satisfied smirk on his paper-like face.
Willow was seeing without really seeing. Although her eyes were open, her focus had a limited scope for some reason. She picked out details, without seeing the whole picture. As a result, information flowed to her brain in neat parcels...although this did not make it any easier to digest. Each time her gaze shifted, it seemed to fall upon complete carnage, all around her lay the dead and dying bodies of people she knew...and loved. Buffy lay twisted and broken, her sightless eyes staring up at the sky but one hand was reaching out towards a second woman, a brunette, lying face in a pool of blood. Willow instantly recognised the black leather jacket as belonging to Faith. She continued scanning her surrounds and saw Mat and Dawn...bloodied and dead. Spike lay in front of the teenagers as though he had been defending them. Nat lay next to her brother. She saw Captain Diebel, and a number of the guys from her precinct, lying surrounded by spent bullet casings, their weapons clutched in lifeless fists. Willow's gaze passed over them all...and she did not feel a thing. She saw Giles, staring at her in death, his glasses smashed on the pavement beside him. A smaller body lay beneath him, blonde hair fanning out, smeared with blood. Willow knew instantly who it was and still her heart did not skip a beat.
Something hard and cold filled her fist. Willow gaze lowered to see a sword, its length completely covered in dark red blood. The sword faded into the background, and instead she focused on her booted foot and what, or rather who, lay beneath it. Her boot was pressed against a pale, blood smeared cheek and above the toe, a pair of bright blue eyes stared up at her in absolute terror. Willow withdrew her foot and the woman continued to stare up at her, chest heaving in great, racking breaths.
"Who are you?" the woman whispered in a tortured voice.
Willow did not feel the need to speak in reply although she thought that perhaps there ought to be words that needed speaking, some form of apology perhaps. The sword thrummed impatiently in her hands, reminding her that she had a task to carry out. Willow lifted the sword and it rose easily above her head as though it were weightless. She paused for only a second at the top of her swing before bringing it crashing downwards...
A rough hand reached out through the darkness and firm fingers dug roughly into her shoulder. Willow responded with an angry growl as she tried to shake the insistent contact off. A second hand grabbed her other shoulder and she was shaken fiercely.
Willow was still being shaken when she finally awoke and as a result, she was extremely pissed off when she saw it was Faith responsible for her rude awakening. She noticed Buffy was standing at her shoulder. Before she could confront the brunette or her partner, Willow glanced to see Tara still asleep on the sofa beside her. Her gaze fell over the soft rise and fall of Tara's chest and up to the silken curve of her cheek. She remembered their frantic, emotional fucking in the forest earlier that night but at the edges of that vividly raw memory lay something else, an elusive feeling that Willow struggled to grasp. When she did manage to dredge it up, it was so cold and chilling a strangled gasp escaped her lips. Even as she leapt to her feet and away from Tara, she lost it once more. It was concealed once again in a place her conscious self could not access.
Tara woke with Willow's sudden movement out from beneath her head and she sat up in a daze. The sight of Willow staring straight at her with an ashen expression greeted her, as though she had just seen a ghost...or something far worse.
"Will?" she said immediately, even as she was forced to stifle a wide yawn.
"You two can have a domestic discussion later," Faith butted right in, her hissing voice earnestly serious, "The shit has hit the fan and we're not going to come out of this clean...Spike, hurry the fuck up!"
She looked over her shoulder just as Spike emerged from the kitchen, several crossbows slung over his shoulders, a heavy sword in one hand and a wicked axe in the other. He tossed the axe and one of the crossbows to Faith in rapid succession. She caught both, slinging the crossbow over her own shoulder and twirling the axe to test its weight. A quiver of crossbow bolts came her way and these were slung over her other shoulder. Buffy had her standard issue pump action shotgun tucked beneath her arm and her pistol tucked in a holster at her side.
"Spike, wake Giles, Xander and Anya and fill them in," Faith barked orders swiftly and the peroxided Englishman did not pause for a moment as he darted to do her bidding, Faith turned her attention back to the two women who were both wondering what the fuck was going on, "Tara, I need you to get upstairs and stay there with the kids, send Nat back down to us, we're going to need all the muscle we can muster."
Tara's eyebrows lifted at the mention of Nat being called ‘muscle' but she did not skip a beat as she stood, "What the hell is going on?"
Willow felt lost. Her concentration was only restored when Buffy pressed her own handgun in her hand. She glanced down at the black metal before back up to Faith who looked as though she had no time to give them the answers they sought.
"They're here," she hissed, "I don't know how the hell they did it but they found us before we could make our next move."
Tara's gaze shifted as though she was looking through the wall to the little room where Ashley lay sleeping and her lips parted in horror. She glanced instinctively towards Willow and glance she received in return from her redheaded lover was one that would have frightened her if she had the time. While Willow's face was almost expressionless, her eyes spoke volumes that Tara could not read. Hidden in those green pools was something that yearned to be let loose, something huge and terrible. The moment passed when Willow blinked and she moved towards Tara, gripping her hand with one of her own that was icy cold. Her gaze was filled with a fierce love that both reassured and frightened her blonde lover.
"Do as Faith says, I won't be far away." Willow whispered, her words just as fierce as her expression.
"What are you going to do?" Tara's eyes flicked briefly to the gun in Willow's hands and then back to her face.
Willow suddenly felt the dead weight of the mechanical weapon and she tossed it to Buffy, who caught it with a surprised look on her face. She turned back to Tara,
"I'm going to let myself go," Willow replied calmly, "No restraints...no control...or else everything will end here and we'll all die."
"Will..." Tara began in a cautionary tone.
Willow silenced Tara by cupping her face tenderly, pressing the tips of her fingers hard against the smooth skin of her cheeks. They shared a brief moment that ended with Willow pressing her lips to Tara's in a chaste but intense kiss. When she drew back the resolve on her face was firm and would brook no argument.
"You know I have to do this," Willow whispered fiercely, "But you also know that I'll come back to you."
As Willow let her go, Tara's expression on her face said that she was far from convinced but she nodded stiffly and turned for the kitchen. Although Willow watched her until she disappeared around a corner, Tara did not look back once. Willow turned back to face Faith, Spike and Buffy. Giles, Xander and Anya had also joined them. Although the bespectacled Englishman was sleep tousled from his rapid awakening, he clutching an axe and looked ready for business. Xander also held both a crossbow and an axe, the weapons seemingly at odds with the white t-shirt and pyjama bottoms he wore. He also wore Anya on his arm, the blonde clutching at her husband as though she was drowning. Each of them looked to Faith for direction and she marshalled them calmly.
"I didn't have time to scout properly, but they outnumber us a good ten to one...at least," Faith begun, sounding as though these odds were quite acceptable and manageable.
While Spike snorted, the rest of the group breathed in a collective sigh of trepidation as they did not share Faith's optimism. Willow cast a glance out over the lake once more, the beautiful scene it presented was in direct contrast to the dread she felt inside. She half expected to see helicopters tearing towards them until she supposed that probably wasn't the way these people worked.
Faith continued speaking, "Spike and I will act as a roving defence around the house, concentrating on protecting the entrances, the roof, the weak spots where they might enter and get up to the kids..."
"Er, hello!" Anya interrupted, raising her hand as though she were in a classroom, "Shouldn't we just run?"
Faith glared as though this was the most moronic question she could have asked but she answered it calmly, "We wouldn't get more than a mile, if we could even get away in the first place...and it's extremely difficult to defend a moving platform, for witches or fighters and we'd be in more than one vehicle."
"In other words, pet," Spike finished, "It would be messy."
Faith nodded curtly and resumed her rundown, "Spike and I will be roving, Giles and Xander will take up position on the deck with crossbows and axes, Buffy, I want you to be inside and anything that gets through the first line of defence and into the house will be up to you to deal with. Anya, you'll be with Buffy but with the main aim of watching those stairs and stopping anything from getting up there, Tara will set up a shield without a doubt but I don't want them to even get that far."
Anya nodded resolutely, although she was still terrified, "Hand over that axe, sweetie," she demanded of Xander.
Her husband proudly handed over the battle-axe and she hefted it rather expertly, Spike raised his eyebrows in surprise. Willow had listened while each of the gang had been assigned their tasks, and it was only when he name was not mentioned that she ceased staring out the window and met Faith's gaze.
"I don't know what to do with you, Willow," Faith admitted honestly, "And I think even if I did assign you a position it would not matter when all hell breaks loose, you'll go wherever you feel you need to be."
Willow just nodded gratefully and while everyone else was casting her strange looks as though she were suddenly about to grow tentacles, Faith just nodded in return. Spike glanced at their company and noticed someone was missing,
"Where's Nat," it wasn't a question, he sounded as though he already knew the answer and it was mere formality that he said it in the first place, "Methinks I know who did this to us."
"Spike?" Faith asked, brow furrowed questioningly.
At that moment Tara came thudding down the stairs, Ashley and Dawn in tow. Willow immediately met Ashley's gaze and the little girl gave her a resolute thumbs up. Dawn seemed by far the more terrified of the two girls.
"Nat's gone, along with Matt," Tara breathed in deeply, "Dawn says Nat never went up to bed."
"Stupid filly's gone and done us all in," Spike rumbled, eyeing up his sword as though he was imagining exactly who was to be skewered on the end of it.
Faith whirled from facing Tara to Spike, "How the hell do you know this?"
Spike shrugged in far too nonchalant a manner for their present situation, "It figures, she's gone and we're all in a right mess...and I never did trust her."
Willow suddenly remembered something from earlier that evening, "And I saw her talking on her cellphone earlier, I assumed it was harmless...but give the circumstances I suppose..."
"I'm surrounded by morons!" Faith growled, "You choose to tell me this now!"
As if to punctuate her angry words, their was a blood curdling war cry from somewhere in the forest, not too close but close enough to let them all know that their enemy were almost upon them. It began with one piecing voice before being taken up by a whole host. Tara searched out Willow one last time and their eyes met, emotions burning clear despite the distance between them. She then tore her gaze away and turned to usher the two girls back up the stairs.
"Right," Faith muttered loud enough for everyone to hear, "We're on, positions!"
Willow stood in the middle of the living room as the rest of the group scrambled to their respective positions, only pausing to grab an extra weapon or additional crossbow bolts. Despite the noise they made in their scramble, Willow could hear nothing except wind rushing past her ears. Stirred up by the wind, her hair whipped over her eyes. With the wind came a papery voice hissing in her ears that she remembered all too well,
I promised I would see you again soon my daughter...