Willow blinked. Once. Twice. She found herself lying on her back staring up at the sky. A cornflower blue sky was peppered with cotton wool clouds. Blades of grass tickled her ears and cheeks. High overhead a bird flew over and she felt as though she watched the beat of its wings for hours. She propped herself up using her elbows at first, before rising into a full sitting position. The morning had dawned cool and crisp. In complete contrast to the maelstrom in which she had found herself earlier, the air was completely still. Still not fully aware, Willow dragged herself to her feet. As soon as she was standing she began to remember what had happened before she found herself lying in the grass.
Her limbs felt as though they were no longer part of her body and she had to lift her hand in front of her face to reassure herself that it was indeed still attached. She waved it backwards and forth a few times to find that everything still appeared as though in slow motion. With her arm raised, she saw that it was bare and followed the lines of her forearm, elbow and biceps before ending up at her shoulder where her sweater finally began, torn and blackened at the edges. She lowered her hand and glanced down at her body. The sweater was also burnt at its hem, and the shirt beneath it. Her jeans were peppered all over with tiny scorch marks and holes and one leg had been torn away at the knee. Willow bent slightly to see her shin scraped bare of skin with tiny bits of dirt and gravel embedded amidst the crusted and still wet blood. Oddly enough, it did not hurt in the slightest.
Willow heard someone utter a grief stricken moan and when she spun slowly to find the source she found Faith bent over on the ground, cradling a limp body in her arms. Although Willow could only see a flash of blood-matted blonde hair and the sleeve of a leather jacket she knew instantly that it was Buffy. She started forward, her friend's name on her lips but at that moment Faith looked up. The Slayer gently laid Buffy's body down and rose to her feet, retrieving her bloodied axe from the ground as she did so. She then turned and ran towards Willow with a look of pure murder on her face. Willow immediately blanched as it appeared that she were the target of Faith's rage.
"Faith, wait!" Willow spluttered, unable to take her eyes off the axe in Faith's white-knuckled grip.
However the brunette brushed straight past her right shoulder and Willow turned to see Nat in nearby. The traitor who had betrayed them all to the Society was wandering from the trees as though in a daze. She hardly had time to realise what was happening before Faith pushed her to the ground, the momentum sending Nat flying onto her back. One she had her target down, Faith planted her knee squarely on Nat's chest. Her axe was raised as though she could bring it down at any moment.
"You sentenced us all to death...tell me now why I should not kill you here and now!" Faith demanded, pressing her knee against Nat's throat.
The young woman gasped and tried to push Faith away but she could not budge the Slayer. Her eyes were wild with fright, fixed on the axe above her head.
"Faith, please!" Nat whispered desperately, "I was only doing it for my brother...they swore they would spare him. I would do anything to keep him safe, you must understand that."
Faith growled, "What I do not understand is how could you be so fucking stupid, you know they need Matt's life to complete the spell, what could have possibly made you think that they would let him live?"
"I don't know!" Nat cried, "I was so scared, I just wanted all of this to be over, the running, the hiding, the fighting...please don't kill me..."
"You killed Buffy...therefore I will kill you in return," Faith said coldly.
Willow watched from a distance as Faith's axe fell but at the very last moment before the weapon struck, she averted her glance. She heard the dull thud of the axe as it sank into something soft and her stomach heaved uncontrollably. She doubled over and noisily expelled the strawberry pop tart she had eaten the previous morning. When she straitened moments later she heard an alive Nat sobbing quietly, a sound of relief rather than pain, and Faith's emotionless voice.
"Get out of my sight before I realise I made a mistake in sparing you."
Willow looked up once again to see a still living Nat practically run in the opposite direction from Faith. She hardly cared whether or not Faith killed the girl but knew she'd have plunged he axe into Nat's neck herself if she possessed the strength. As it was, Willow could barely stand and observe. Faith sank back to her knees once more, trembling hands reaching out to stroke Buffy's blood matted hair away from her face. Willow felt tears burn red hot at the corners of her eyes but they would not fall. The burning sensation was a welcome reminder that she was still alive, and her best friend's death hurt like hell. In her grief she felt ordinary and human. The events of the morning became a distant memory.
All too aware that she was staring at Faith and intruding on her personal grief, Willow turned around to face Giles' house. She took an unsteady step towards it as though she knew that there was something or someone inside that she needed to see. As she continued walking closer, the damage to the house registered in her foggy head. It was scorched black in places where it had been seared by fire and the wood torn and rent in others from the strike of axes...and bodies. Half the front had been blown apart in the explosion that had killed Buffy instantly. It was the closest Willow had come to standing in the middle of a war zone.
She saw Giles stumble from his once pristine lakefront abode and for the first time since she'd met the Englishman she was actually pleased to see him. He walked towards her and met her gaze for a moment before he did an about turn to survey the damage to his property. He said nothing in response to the mess, simply turning his back on it and continuing towards Willow. As he approached Willow felt the burning tears finally begin to slide down her cheeks, each one squeezed out slowly. Giles was breathing laboriously as he approached, several cuts covering his hands and face.
"Willow," Giles whispered, reaching out a hand to place it on Willow's shoulder, "Are you alright?"
From the initial hesitant contact Willow found herself slipping easily into an embrace. Giles arm's slipped easily around her small frame and she found herself able to close her eyes for a few moments piece despite the burning smell that continued to assault her nostrils. She pulled back a few moments later, still feeling as though there was somewhere she needed to be.
"A...bit seared around the edges," Willow replied slowly as she glanced down at her blackened clothing, "But otherwise...I'm not hurt."
Willow realised that she was on the cusp of realising what it was she had been trying to remember and she furrowed her brow in concentration. She glanced up at Giles whose expression was radiating concern.
"Giles, I'm sorry for what's been said between us," the apology was out of the blue and yet she felt it needed saying...but it was not the thing that was tugging at the edge of her conscious.
"I am too, Willow," Giles removed his glasses and went to polish them with the ragged cuff of his shirt when he realised that one lense had cracked, he continued speaking as he stared at the broken glass, "I should have realised how much Tara needed you..."
Tara... Willow's eyes darted back towards the house and its upper level...Tara had been upstairs. Even as the realisation dawned that she needed to find Tara, Willow felt a prickly sensation at the back of her neck as though her blonde lover was not what she sought.
"Tara," Willow felt the name roll of her lips as though she had forgotten it for a very long time, "Giles, have you seen Tara?"
The Englishman looked up from his glasses with a start and shook his head quickly. He too turned back towards the house. Willow suppressed the decidedly unpleasant prickly sensation that continued to pester her mind and broke into an awkward run as she made her way to the house. With her newfound purpose, some semblance of clarity returned to her and a smattering of hope out of the despair she had felt only a moment ago.
"Giles, gather everyone together, help who you can...we've got to act fast or the kids are dead!" Good god, Ashley will be dead...
Willow clearly remembered the smug expression on Bob's face as he announced the remaining seals were in his possession and she felt her hatred burn. She remembered sharing a strawberry pop tart with Ashley but it felt like a decade ago instead of just yesterday. Willow felt a keen sense of loss as she vaulted up a pile of rubble to enter the house through the nearest hole. For the first time she felt in her heart that Ashley was her daughter as much as Tara's.
The interior of the lake house looked as though it had been through an earthquake and two World Wars. Willow had to step over several bodies on her way to the stairs, she was thankful that none were her friends. Leaping up the stairs two at a time Willow felt her heart pound in her chest from a combination of exhaustion and fear at the thought of what lay waiting for her in the attic. Nearing the top, the toes of her sneakers slipped and she went crashing forward, slamming her chin painfully on a stair in front of her despite putting out both hands to lessen the impact. As she lay sprawled on the stairs she lifted up the palms of both hands, covered in warm, sticky blood. Willow stared at it for a few moments. Although her occupation had sanitised her to violence, the thought that the blood might just be Tara's was a completely different circumstance, one she did not think she could ever get used to.
Willow crawled up the last few stairs on her hands and knees and practically fell into what was left of the attic. A cool breeze met her face as she slowly rose to her feet and she found herself standing in open air. Glancing upwards she saw only a few twisted remnants of the rafters which had once held up the roof...the roof was now nowhere in sight. Willow took a cautious step out onto what was once the floor of the attic, testing her weight.
"Tara!" a moment later any thoughts of the floor giving way were completely banished as Willow spied a pair of feet covered in yellow socks protruding from a pile of rubble.
Willow frantically tossed jib board and fabric fragments aside as she uncovered the body of her lover. Tara's twisted body emerged, trapped beneath one last rafter beam which Willow could not dislodge. She tugged at it in vain, even trying to will it off Tara with whatever magical strength she had remaining but the beam only wobbled pathetically.
"Tara? Tara, baby can you hear me?" Willow felt beads of sweat pepper her forehead as she gave the beam another pull, straining against its weight and the other debris it was trapped beneath, "For fuck's sake move!"
Willow heard the floorboards creak behind her and she spun around to find a blank-faced Faith standing watching her. She flopped back onto her heels in an exhausted state, tears coursing down her cheeks.
"I can't move it," Willow heard herself mumble.
Without further hesitation, Faith strode past Willow and took up a secure grip. With one tug she pulled the beam free and tossed it aside with a crash, freeing Tara from beneath its weight. Willow scrambled past the Slayer to kneel at Tara's side. She crouched and stared, reluctant to reach out and touch her.
"Is she breathing?" Faith asked in a voice as blank as her expression, moving to stand just behind Willow's shoulder to crane her neck for a better view of her friend.
Willow felt her head about to explode, eyes straining to catch the rise and fall of Tara's chest, "No...god, I don't know...I don't think she is!"
Faith placed a firm hand on the babbling redhead's shoulder, squeezing tightly to bring Willow back to a semblance of calm. Willow glanced back over her shoulder to see Faith offering her a hand to take.
"Willow, I need you to step back for a moment, can you do that?"
Willow nodded slowly and took the proffered hand. She was hefted to her feet in one swift movement and Faith moved to take her place next to Tara. The Slayer reached out and picked up Tara's limp wrist with a gentle grip, sitting motionless for a few moments as she checked for a pulse. She only nodded in response to the unspoken question that was burning a hole in Willows chest and heard the redhead immediately let out a short sob.
"She's dead?" Willow whispered.
"Not dead...alive..." was Faith's truncated response as she moved to check Tara's limbs and body for injury with a gentle exploratory touch, probing for breaks and internal injuries while a frozen still Willow held her breath.
Before Faith could finish her examination, Tara stirred noticeably. It was slight at first, just a trembling of the hand, then her lips moved as though trying to form words and finally her eyes opened. She blinked a few times to bring her gaze into focus. She saw Faith first, kneeling close by and then Willow standing behind Faith with a chalk white face and dark rings beneath her eyes. With a slight groan she dragged herself into a sitting position. She put her right arm out to steady herself and upon contact with something solid she felt a sharp stab of pain from both her arm and the palm of her hand which was lacerated with jagged cuts. She knew at once it was broken. After a few moments to gather her senses and return to reality Tara realised that the pain was not just in her arm, it was everywhere. Her whole body was one mass of pain, her muscles felt as though they were jelly and about to slide right off her bones. She glanced down at her fingers to find the very tips of them were seared off completely, the wound cauterized.
"T?" Faith asked cautiously, motioning Willow to keep her distance with an urgent wave of her hand.
Willow found herself clenching her fists at Faith's command, she had no intention of smothering her lover with well-meaning but claustrophobic attention but she did want to be physically near her. The sight of a helpless and weakened Tara lying amongst the rubble of the attic spelt out the nature of their reality in plain terms, they were not playing a game and the losers died.
"I'm alright, Faith," Tara replied bravely, cradling her right arm with her left hand, "I think it's just my arm...and my brain feels like it has been scooped out with a spoon. I'm tapped out, I used everything I had...and it still wasn't enough."
"We all gave everything we had," Faith agreed in a defeatist voice.
Although she was scarcely a few feet away from Faith and Tara, Willow felt a sense of detachment from their conversation. While she too was exhausted and felt the sting of defeat as painfully as any of her friends, she was not about to concede victory to The Society and their parchment-faced leader. It was now that she now felt the full weight of her role as the Guardian of the Seventh seal, especially with the realisation that it was a role that had the potential to shape the outcome of the events swirling around them.
Not just the potential... Willow thought with a determined tightening of her lips, If the prophecy found in the Veneficus is true then I'm the one that has the power to swing this battle either way and that means...
Willow suddenly felt lighter, she realised she had managed to dig up an inkling of hope from the ashes of their defeat even as she realised she should have known it all along.
"They can't win..." Willow finished her train of thought aloud, causing both Faith and Tara to focus their attention on her.
Although given that the others have to rely on someone who is emotionally and magically unstable, I don't know if they'll feel the same way about our chances of coming out of this...
"Will," Tara spoke to Willow for the first time since she had woken, her tone spoke to her exhaustion but it also carried relief at the fact that her lover was alive and relatively unscathed, "Thank the goddess you're alright...are you alright?"
Willow hunkered down close to Faith at Tara's side and reached out to lay a reassuring hand on the blonde's thigh, "Yes, I may look like I've had the shit kicked out of me...but I'm fine."
"What do you mean 'they can't win'?" Faith demanded, "And you don't just look like you've had the shit kicked out of you, you did get the shit kicked out of you...so forgive me if I'm not sharing your newly discovered optimism."
Willow ignored the tone in Faith's voice, "The prophecy, the one Ashley found in the Veneficus, it all hinges on me...they can't even let this big bad out without me killing Ashley..."
"Willow!" Tara hated the sound of those words coming from Willow's lips, not to mention the fact they served to remind her of the danger her daughter was in.
"And there's no way in frilly heck that is ever going to happen!" Willow asserted fervently, slamming her fist into her palm as she did so, "The hand is in our favour and they know it...that's why Bob didn't kill me when he had the chance...he needs me."
Tara's face whitened even more noticeably, "He almost killed you?"
Faith pursed her lips together as though she had realised that Willow's point was a good one. Meanwhile, Willow reached out to pick up Tara's left hand in her own, running her fingers over Tara's skin reassuringly. The contact was not enough and Willow shifted closer in order to pull Tara's body into hers. Still rapt up in thought, Faith subconsciously made space for the lovers to embrace. A silent sob racked Tara's frame once she was enfolded into Willow's arms as she allowed herself to recognise the pain of losing her daughter.
When Faith returned her attention to the two women, Tara's tears had dried on her cheeks and Willow was sitting back on her haunches, a mask of composure and determination on her face.
"You could be right, Red," Faith announced suddenly.
"I am right," Willow replied simply, "We should move fast though...help me get Tara downstairs and into the car, we've got to get her to a hospital."
Even as Faith swept the blonde effortlessly into her arms, Tara was protesting at the thought of being sidelined in subsequent events...especially ones involving her daughter. She was protesting vehemently as Faith carried her down the stairs and into the ruined house. Willow remained behind for a few moments, buoyed somewhat by the small amount of hope she had managed to find in the aftermath of tragedy but also struggling to suppress the grief she felt. She could not get either the image of Tara lying as though dead and Buffy lying very much dead out of her mind. The thought of further deaths haunted her and she swore then and there that she would do everything in her power to save the kids...all three of them.
The Willow that joined the rest of their small gang outside the house a few minutes later was prepared to be a leader. The looks she received in return appeared to acknowledge this...all save Tara. The blonde's expression remained defiant even though Faith still carried her because she was too weak to stand.
Xander supported his wife's rather limp body, although it was unclear who needed help more between the two of them. His shirt was sliced open across his chest, revealing a nasty gash. He appeared ready to kneel over from loss of blood. Anya had obviously been battered and scorched in the explosion that had killed Buffy, her face was covered in a layer of black soot.
"Has anyone checked if any of the cars still run?" Willow asked the rest of the group.
"Of course," Spike replied, he had been skulking behind everyone else, his usual swagger considerably subdued, "Xander's is a bit rough around the edges but engine seems to work fine, Giles' car was safe enough in the garage...yours is totalled though, Red...looks like it was hit by a stray fireball."
"Oh," was all Willow could manage at the mention of her beloved car, such trifles hardly seemed important now, "Okay, Giles, I want you to get Xander, Anya and Tara to a hospital in Xander's car."
"Certainly, Willow," even Giles, who had seemed to have a permanent beef with Willow in the past, accepted her leadership without question, "Although I can hardly imagine what they will think of our injuries!"
Tara seemed to be the only one not pleased with Willow's new leadership role as she pounded her fists against Faith's strong grip in a vain effort to get herself released.
"Willow Rosenberg, you are not sending me away when it's my daughter who is in danger!" she protested.
Willow followed at a safe distance as Faith carried Tara to the car, she felt the gap between them keenly and wished nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out and nurse Tara back to health herself. However, as Faith swung open the door of Xander's car and placed Tara inside she knew that this was the way it had to be. Tara collapsed back onto the seat and could not pull herself up again no matter how hard she tried to use her wasted muscles. Willow knew that Tara would not be able to follow her where she was going. She crossed the short distance to the car door and crouched down so she was level with Tara. The blonde met her concerned gaze with watery, defiant eyes.
"Tara..." Willow began quietly.
"Shut up, Will," Tara interrupted curtly, "I know you're doing what you think is best and I know I can't follow you...but that doesn't mean I'm going to go quietly. Ash means the world to me..."
Willow reached out and laid her hand on Tara's arm, stroking the dirty skin as though it were priceless silk. She heard Tara let out a small intake of breath at the contact.
"I know, baby...Ash means a lot to me as well..."
"You don't know, Willow!" Tara felt her temper rising, she was angry at her inability to do anything but she saw Willow's cheeks redden and realised the anger came across as though directed at her. She tried to reign it under control, "I'm sorry...but for so long Ashley was all I had...Giles, can we go please. If we wait any longer then I'll want to get out of the car."
Willow stood up and stepped backwards, whispering just two words before she quietly closed the door, "Love you."
With the door shut, she watched Tara's face on the other side of the glass. She saw Tara mouth the words, "I love you too," but Willow was not satisfied. Even as Giles coaxed the protesting, smoke-belching car to life, she motioned for Tara to wind her window down. It was only down halfway before the car began to move but Willow lent through the window and pressed her lips to Tara's for a brief second. That contact was enough to make her crave more but all too soon they were ripped apart and the car was rolling down the gravel.
Willow was immediately struck by the awful sinking feeling that she had done the wrong thing. She felt as though she should have kept Tara at her side no matter what.
Oh god...what if something happens to her and I'm not there. We should be together.
"You want to be in that car," Faith stated simply as Giles pulled away with the car belching smoke from its exhaust pipe.
She turned and regarded the redhead who was still staring down the road, even when the car disappeared around the bend. Willow's fists were clenched at her side but she quickly folded them across her chest, hugging herself tightly. Just when she thought Willow was ignoring her, the redhead replied in a tight voice.
"It's killing me already," Willow replied, turning away from the road as though that would somehow make her feel better about her decision, "But I think it's hurting her more not to be a part of this."
"She knows you'll do everything you can to get Ashley back...we will do everything we can."
"We're running out of time..." Willow began.
"Matt and little bit could be dead already," Spike joined the two women still appearing to be completely crushed by the loss of his Seal.
"Spike, I know this might be asking the impossible but can you follow them?" Faith asked, assuming her position as leader as Willow struggled to deal with Tara's absence, "It's probably suicide to try and get close but..."
"Sounds like my cup of tea," he replied much too quickly.
Willow nodded, "They need the sword to kill Ashley, but Matt and Dawn are in immediate danger. Spike, be careful...and don't do anything stupid, we've had enough friends hurt today already."
The blonde Englishman shrugged nonchalantly, "No problem Red, I think I'll nip into town and steal myself a motorcycle."
The two women watched the swirl of his leather disappear into the trees and they were left standing in silence. It lasted for several minutes before Faith realised that Willow was once again lost in her thoughts, her green eyes misted over with apprehension and fear. No doubt amplified by the fact that she had just sent her lover away.
"Red," Faith whispered, trying to gently snap Willow out of her thoughts, "Willow..."
Willow turned and glanced at Faith out of the corner of her eye, her voice was tinged with grief as she simply stated the obvious, "Buffy's dead."
"We can grieve later," Faith choked slightly on the words but she held herself together.
While Faith too felt the absence of her friends...not to mention the little blonde cop who had become so much more, she knew they had to get moving and find the sword before the Society. While seemingly simple, the task could easily prove their undoing for one very simple reason...
"Okay!" Faith announced resolutely, showing the optimism that only a Slayer could manage on the verge of an apocalypse, "Time to save the kids...and the world...um, Red, do you know where the hell we're going?"