Tara's foot slammed heavily on the pavement as she emerged from the car, as though she needed to remind herself that she was actually awake and not walking into her worst nightmare. She didn't close the door behind her as she moved away from the Oldsmobile and towards the two stationary vehicles in the middle of the road. She studied the scene laid out before her and saw violence everywhere. At her feet were bodies missing hands, arms...and heads, and she knew that Buffy had been at work here. Her boots crunched on shattered glass, spent shells. Sprays of red blood covered the pavement in dreadfully beautiful patterns. For someone who was both an ex-cop and an ex-con, it should have been relatively easy to stomach. However, the thought of Willow at the heart of it all made Tara sick to her stomach. She saw the violence through the eyes of someone unused to such careless disregard for human life. Tara staggered closer to the cars, moving in an awkward gait as she stepped over and around bodies.
As she approached Evie's Jag her heart pounded against her chest, the solid vehicle looked as though it had been torn open with a can opener. She saw a slender body in what was once a pristine white suit propped up against the rear wheel. Tara scrambled across the last few metres that separated her from Evie and fell to her knees beside her ex-lover. Blood had seeped outwards from several bullet holes in the movie star's body, ruining her suit and leaving her near death. The corners of her lips curled upwards into an approximation of a smile when her gaze fell on Tara.
"Sorry, Tara," her voice was cracked and barely audible, "It was a good plan..."
"And I can't thank you enough for agreeing to it in the first place," Tara stared into Evie's glazed eyes, "You're a brave woman..."
"I had to be to date you!" Evie scoffed, wincing in pain with the effort of speaking but she knew exactly what Tara wanted to hear most of all, "They took your girl."
"Willow," Tara breathed, her teeth clenching and grinding in rage.
Tara heard footsteps fall behind her but did not look over her shoulder as she knew it was Faith. The brunette placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing firmly once in reassurance.
"They've long since cleared out, there's no one else here," Faith reported in a tone of disappointment as though she had wanted to find someone she could beat to a pulp, "No one alive anyway."
"It was a mess," Evie recalled, her breathing harsh and laboured, "There were so many of them..."
"Evie..." Tara began to silence Evie for her own good even though she knew there was nothing she could do to save her life.
"Don't you dare try and shut me up...Tara Maclay," Evie was just as strong willed as ever, "There were dozens of them...they must have known I had my boys with me....it went on forever, smoke and bullets flying, so much noise...Willow and Dawn were so calm, terrified, but calm...she's an incredible young woman Tara, I'm happy for you..."
"Dawn's gone too," Faith added as Evie trailed off.
Evie held Tara's gaze, her vision seeming to clear for a moment only to fog again but this time it was with unshed tears. Tears for an old lover, for the past, and for a future that she would never see. Tara reached out and picked up Evie's limp, bloody hand and held it tenderly, it was all she could do.
"They took Willow and Dawn...that little woman died trying to defend them, she came out of nowhere...'
"Buffy," Faith added in a heavy tone.
"Buffy...she's a serious piece of work," Evie wheezed, "Carved her way through every guy they sent against us, even after Cruz and his boys were dead....it wasn't until that white-haired bastard showed up..."
"Him I'm familiar with," Tara replied in a low voice, "You really shouldn't speak...save your strength."
Evie let out a macabre chuckle, "Ha, I'm done for babydoll and you know it...never was one to shut up though, perfect really...because you never said anything...the whole time we were dating, it was like being with a stone wall at times..."
"I'm sorry," Tara mumbled, although there was absolutely nothing she could have done to change the way she was and they both knew it.
"Don't be..." Evie let out a racking cough that shook her already weak frame, blood bubbled from her lips and flowed freely down her chin, "Conversation...was always never on my mind when I was with you..."
Tara smiled for Evie's benefit, gently caressing the skin of her hand with her thumb as her body sagged further and her eyes glazed over once again.
"Never did stop loving you..."
"Bullshit," Tara whispered quietly, drawing a strand of blood soaked hair away from Evie's face.
"I'm fucking dying T...it's what I'm supposed to say..."
With the last quip still on her lips, Evie let out one last weak breath and her eyes slid closed, her hand slipping from Tara's grasp. Tara bowed her head as though she was offering up a prayer when in actual fact she was struggling to keep from screaming aloud at the top of her lungs. All her rage, her anger and burdening sense of injustice seethed beneath the surface of her skin, straining to be released. It took all her strength to contain it, harness it until it was time to unleash it on those who had done this.
When she eventually rose to her feet her expression betrayed nothing except a steely calm. Faith moved to stand at her side.
"They've got Willow and Dawn" the brunette stated the obvious.
From the ashen expression on Tara's face, Faith realised it didn't need restating. It was foremost on Tara's mind.
"Yes," Tara growled, "At least I know exactly where she is."
Faith nodded, "The Talbot mansion...they'll be expecting you."
Tara turned to face Faith, "I wouldn't have it any other way, I want them to know exactly who it is standing in front of them when they die, Glory and that blond bastard especially...my smiling face will be the last thing they see."
Willow's eyes opened to meet nothing but darkness. Her head searched frantically but her eyes fell on nothing that showed the slightest glimmer of light of any kind, there was just an endless sea of black. She could have been a room that stretched for eternity, or one where the walls were closing in on her. Willow squeezed her eyes shut once more and forced herself to draw shallow, even breaths to calm herself. As her heart's thudding slowed gradually, she gathered in a sense of her surroundings. Her wrists were tied above her head at a height that made it almost impossible for her to stand flat footed on the ground, her shoulders were already screaming in agony at the unnatural position they were forced to assume.
Dozens of emotions surged through her body. There was pain of course, not only from her position but from blows that she had received during her journey and the searing one to her cheek which she knew had knocked her unconscious. Someone had removed the thick woollen coat she'd donned in Evie's car and she was left clad in the same satin nightgown she'd worn marching down the stairs after Tara at the Palace. Willow was freezing and she was terrified, as terrified as she'd been when their small convoy had been ambushed by dozens of armed men, their guns spitting fire and death in all directions...
The road had been blocked by a fiery obstacle, forcing the convoy to halt and lie almost defenceless in the face of an ambush. Willow had watched as the bodyguards, seemingly tough and invulnerable men, had been torn to pieces by a hail of bullets as soon as they stepped out of their vehicles. Those who had managed to squeeze off a few rounds did so as a final act before they too joined their comrades in pools of blood.
From being frozen for those first few moments, Willow had been jolted into action as a bullet slammed into the bullet-resistant glass just beside her head. She threw herself over Dawn's trembling body even as the cacophony continued to sound in her ears. As her breath came in gasps into Dawn's hair, she squeezed her eyes shut and waited for her world to end in the searing heat of an explosion. As the seconds wore on a more rational state of mind returned and she realised that she would probably not be destined to die on this dark street.
This was all about Tara, and as such they were here for her...all these strangers were dying for her. Willow raised her head and saw Evie Abernathy, once Tara's lover, looking down at her with an ashen face. Willow could tell she didn't want to die but there was no trace of accusation in her eyes.
At that point, Evie slid a slim, deadly looking gun from a bejewelled holster at her hip. She swiftly cocked the weapon even as she delivered a tight-lipped smile in Willow's direction.
"Stay in the car kid, don't want you getting caught in the cross fire, you'll be safe here..." Evie's words trailed off, the actress failed to even convince herself with her lies.
Willow stared incredulously at the movie star, hardly looking the part of gun-toting saviour despite her weapon and confident pose. Clad in her white pants suit she was, as always, the epitome of sophistication and sensual perfection. She opened the door and her lithe leg emerged, she planted her heel firmly in a pool of blood.
Faced only with a view of her back, Willow could not see the look on Evie's face when the first of three bullets hit her. She could count them because she jerked violently with each one that slammed into her frame. Evie then slumped to the ground motionless without ever having fired a shot. Willow watched through the open door as figures emerged from the shadows, evil men with their weapons trained on the two young women huddled in the rear seat. Despite the proximity of the advancing thugs, Willow's gaze was drawn back into the shadows behind them. In the gloom she picked out the shape of a tall man clad in a billowing coat, his profile lit faintly by the hot red glow of his cigarette. He took a step forward and Willow instantly knew that she was staring at true evil, far more so than the hired thugs who were stretching eager hands into the car to claim their prize. It was the peroxided man who had spoken to her in the back alley at Kitty's. Although there Tara was just metres away to step in...here she had no one.
Willow shrank away from the closest fingers but even as they moved to close on her forearm, the body they were attached to was suddenly headless. The body fell, revealing Buffy posed with her bloody katana in a post strike stance. The petite blonde met Willow's eyes for a scant moment before whirling to dismember a second thug before he knew who or what he was up against.
Dawn looked up sharply in time to see Buffy move in a blur and out of the path of a hail of bullets that were centred on her previous location. Willow immediately felt the girl's body relax as though she knew they would be safe with the arrival of the petite blonde assassin. Through her limited view, framed by the open car door, Willow saw glimpses of Buffy as she carved a bloody path through her attackers. The air around her was thick with gushing blood as she carved off limb after limb.
Willow too felt that their ordeal would shortly be over and she would be able to give Tara a piece of her mind regarding their enforced separation. There were many things she wanted to say to the blonde, most of them would be words fuelled by anger and she was determined to make them as ugly as possible...before they engaged in an enthusiastic bout of make-up sex.
However, as the thugs stopped falling onto Buffy's blade, the coat-clad stranger took his position on the chopping block as though he too were eager to die. Even as Buffy moved to strike him down, Willow could see that this was no clear cut contest. He dodged Buffy's blade in an apparently effortless move, distracting her with the swirl of his leather coat which hindered her movements as it disguised his own. If she were surprised by her initial failure, the deadly little assassin did not show it, she kept up a relentless barrage of attacks as they danced across the ground, moving in and out of Willow and Dawn's line of sight.
"We'll be okay right, Willow?" Dawn's urgent voice sounded from beneath her, "Buffy can beat this guy can't she?"
"Yeah, of course Dawnie," Willow replied in what she hoped was a fervent voice, "Buffy's never lost to anyone."
There was a violent thud and the stationary car rocked on its wheels, followed by a second that was much more discreet chasing the first. Willow glanced up at the cars roof even though she could see nothing through the thick exterior. In that impossibly small space, the two combatants danced as though they were on a football field. Willow and Dawn listened to the sounds of combat, hearing manly grunts punctuated by further thuds and the deadly whistle of Buffy's katana as it sliced through the air. It was the only sound that came from the assassin and her footfalls barely made a sound on the metal as she moved.
While both girls lay in wait, hoping to see a peroxided head fly through the air, the sound that chilled them to the bone was that of a female's voice crying out in pain not once, but twice.
Willow's eyes were wide with fear as the scuffling above them ceased. A thin trickle of blood began running from the lip above the open car down from where it had gathered on the roof. She watched with a fascinated horror as the life liquid continued to flow, even as she was watching she saw something fly through the dark air to land several metres away from the car in a mangled heap. Willow saw a flash of blonde hair and the glint of shining metal as Buffy's own katana protruded from her back. She lay motionless on the ground.
"Buffy," Dawn whispered in a strangled gasp even as Willow's fingers closed over her eyes in an effort to keep the sight from her.
Dawn wrenched Willow's hand away and then struggled violently to be set free from her weight which lay atop her body. Willow struggled to keep her in the car but the young woman was hell bent on getting out and reaching the side of her fallen sister.
"Dawnie, no!" Willow was forced to watch as she fell out the car door and struggled awkwardly to her feet.
She watched in horror, expecting to see bullets slamming into the girl seconds after her exit from the car. However, none were forthcoming and Dawn fell in a heap at Buffy's side. No sooner had she done so though, black suited men were surrounding her and dragging her to her feet.
"That's not the bird we're here for," Willow heard a voice above her speak in a gruff tone, "We want the redheaded one."
"She's in the car!" someone yelled.
Willow's heart raced, she hardly expected to be able to remain hidden in the car but to know they were coming for her and to be powerless to do anything about it was something else altogether. She frantically searched for a weapon, anything to use rather than just let herself be dragged away like some defenceless child...like she had been eight years ago. In the front seat, still lying in the hand of the dead driver, was a pistol. Willow darted forward and snatched it up, fear rendering her oblivious to its blood smeared grip as she held it in her shaking hand.
A sneering face appeared in the doorway, an expression wiped a few moments later when faced with the cold, merciless barrel of a pistol. Even though it was it the hands of a young woman who was shaking with fear at the thought of pulling the trigger, it was a force to be reckoned with. The thug hadn't the time to back out of the car, in a surge of emotion and adrenaline, Willow pulled the trigger.
A single click emitted from the weapon. In frustration, Willow pulled the trigger repeatedly but her attacker grinned at his luck and crawled forward to drag her kicking and screaming from the car. She was hauled out and dragged unceremoniously to her feet in front of the man who had just dispatched Buffy as though it were child's play. Although determined to defiant no matter what, Willow felt weak and helpless in his presence.
"What'll we do about the spare, boss?" a surviving thug shoved a terrified Dawn forward, still sobbing over her sister's death.
Willow had glanced to the girl and then back to Spike with an urgent look on her face as she demanded, "She stays with me!"
Spike's gaze travelled across to Willow's and she did her best to hold it, despite the piercing stare. She saw a cold, calculating presence behind his eyes, one completely devoid of compassion and immune to pleadings. Willow lifted her chin defiantly, daring him to challenge her...despite the fact that she held no cards whatsoever. He finished searching Willow's face, leaving her feeling dirty and crawling before nodding to the man that held Dawn. Willow was able to breathe some small sigh of relief as they were both moved towards waiting cars. As much as she wanted to be able to reassure Dawn, no words would come.
It was now, after the violence of her kidnapping, that Willow found herself in darkness and in pain. Despite the appalling nature of her current circumstances, Willow sensed whatever happened next would quite probably be worse. She was almost content to leave her eyes shut and loose herself in thoughts of being somewhere else.
The door opened with calculated violence, slamming against the wall behind it with a ferocity that sent tremors through the chains that held Willow's hands. Her eyes opened and she had to squint at the bright light that surged through the door. As her vision gradually returned, a figure emerged at the centre of the searing light.
"Little Willow Rosenberg," the figure's voice drawled lazily, confidently.
The voice was exactly the same, just as everything else about him had changed over the preceding eight years. Willow remembered a femininely handsome face, although it had seemed terribly wicked even to a small girl. His body had been trim in a well-tailored suit with his grip possessing a vice-like quality.
"Tommy Talbot," Willow whispered, instantly feeling twelve years old once more.
She could see him in perfect clarity now as her eyes adjusted to the light. The first thing Willow noticed was his gait, a crab-legged scuffle with knees at odd angles. One bony hand gripped a black walking stick which shook as he leaned heavily upon it. Tommy saw the direction of her gaze and his saggy, hollow face twisted into a cruel smile that was anything but friendly.
"I have your friend, Detective Maclay, to thank for my ill-favoured appearance...starting with my legs which she cruelly crippled, leaving me to waste away to a pathetic approximation of my former self."
Willow noticed that he had literally wasted away. His suit appeared to hang from a skeleton rather than a still living and breathing man. The thin, lank hair that hung from his head was nothing like the dark, lustrous locks that Willow remembered so vividly. However, as his body had wasted, his arrogance and cruelty had been bolstered and magnified, it was etched into every crease of his face.
"Well I'm sorry she didn't put you out of your misery," Willow tried to manage a rough growl but her voice emerged as a frightened squeak, "She'll be back to finish the job."
Tommy laughed and Willow didn't blame him, her threats sounded pathetic even to her own ears.
"I'm counting on just that...I've got a little surprise waiting for Maclay, a visit from an old friend that I think she's going to enjoy very much," Tommy pursed his lips together thoughtfully as he looked Willow up and down, he nodded as though reassuring himself of some important fact, when he resumed speaking his voice had taken on a petulant, high pitched whine, "While we're waiting for her to arrive, I don't see why there's any reason we shouldn't finish what I set about to do eight years ago...a right that was mine, and that fuckin' bitch stole it away from me!"
Willow almost gagged. Tremors of revulsion shook her frozen frame as she recognised that look in Talbot's eyes. A wave of nausea took hold of her at the thought of that perverted freak touching any part of her body. Talbot watched her conspicuous reaction with immense satisfaction, feeding off the fear she emanated from every pore of her body.
"And I'm going to take back those eight years she stole from me out of your flesh...she robbed me of my prize and now I'm left with you...old and disgusting...you're the one that's going to pay for what she stole, and it'll be just as good!" he squealed, his excitement rising with each word.
With a superhuman display of courage, Willow forced her fear back inside her body rather than let it erupt in a display of abject misery and uncontrollable sobbing that she knew Tommy would feed from greedily. She forced herself to remain calm in the face of his obvious excitement.
"Whatever you want from me Tommy, you're not going to get it," Willow swallowed the bile that had risen in her throat, "So you can just keep your foul hands to yourself or I'll rip them off with my teeth!"
He threw back his head, revealing his scrawny chicken-like neck, and cackled loudly for some moments. Willow watched him through narrowed eyes, wishing fervently that Tara would appear behind him and snap his neck like a twig. However, her lover was nowhere near her at that point in time and she was alone with the monster in front of her. She channelled her fear into anger and hate, despising the man thoroughly. When he had ceased laughing and wiped away the tears that had trickled from his eyes, he found himself looking at a girl whose gaze spelt out her hate in vivid detail.
Tommy snorted, somewhat ruffled that Willow had not been reduced to a quivering wreck. He attempted to straighten his crooked frame to appear even more menacing.
"I'm going to want you to dance for me," he announced.
"Like hell I will," Willow replied, this time her voice did emerge as a growl, angry and firm, "You take these chains off me and I'm going straight for your scrawny little throat!"
Tommy cackled again, "Brave words from a little girl...but I think you'll find we have just the right incentive to change your mind."
He gestured with an inclination of his head and Willow watched with a sinking feeling as Dawn was dragged into the room, kicking out with her heels the entire time. She managed to jab one hell into the toe of the man holding her and he grunted loudly. He responded by whipping a knife from his boot and grabbing her in a headlock, the knife went to her throat.
"Dawnie!" Willow hissed urgently, she jerked her gaze from the defiant girl back to Tommy, "Don't you dare hurt her you...you..."
He lunged forward and made a silencing sound deep in his throat, "That's quite enough from you little Willow Rosenberg, I'll make this nice and simple for you so it's real easy...you don't dance for me, and I start carving up your little friend here...piece by piece...Lenny, I believe a demonstration is in order..."
The thug holding Dawn grinned as though Christmas had come early. He shoved Dawn to the ground and held her wrist to the ground, with one vicious downward slice of his knife, he sliced her little finger off just above the knuckle. The scream that followed seared right through Willow's soul and she squeezed her eyes shut as though that would make the heart-wrenching sound stop.
Her chin suddenly felt as though it were caught in a vice. When she tried to wrench it away, the grip only tightened.
"Open your eyes!" it was Talbot's shrieking voice, Willow tried again to twist away from him but he forced her to stay put, "Open your eyes and look at what you've done!"
Willow opened her eyes, at first no more than a mere slit through which she saw only blood. Her eyes fully open, she met Dawn's anguished gaze as she clutched her bloody hand to her breast.
"Don't do anything, Willow," Dawn hissed through gritted teeth, pain choking her voice.
"Continue the demonstration please, Lenny," Talbot was clearly enjoying himself.
"No!" Willow heard herself yell, twisting her body urgently as though she suddenly thought she could wrench herself free from her bonds, "Leave her be! I'll dance for you goddammit, I'll dance!"
Tommy Talbot's face lit up, "Excellent...Lenny, we need to find our little stripper here a stage on which to do her work...and it better be good, or else the little lady here will have trouble using a knife and a fork tomorrow."
For once in her life, Faith was at a loss as to what to do. She knew exactly what she would do under any normal circumstances. She would gather together her Ladies and they would take justice straight to the Talbot clan...of course, many Ladies would be killed but that was the way it ran in Old Town. The Talbot's couldn't do this without expecting major retribution of the bloody and violent kind. However, this particular situation was thrown upside down by the fact that Tara was in charge, this was her party and Faith was just a guest.
And if Tara chose to party alone...
"You're planning on going in there alone aren't you," Faith narrowed her eyes as she cornered Tara in the supply room.
"Of course not," Tara replied much too smoothly as she slammed another shell into the shotgun in her hands.
The weapon fully loaded, she tested its weight and grunted with satisfaction. She threw it over her shoulder and picked up the bag at her feet which was already packed full and straining at its fastenings. Faith stared after Tara with narrow eyes as the ex-cop turned and exited the room without a further word. She grunted and followed the blonde.
"You won't get further than the boundary fence alone, Glory's goons will riddle you with bullets and her dogs will tear your bloody carcass to pieces" Faith cautioned vividly, "And besides the fact that you're a grumpy bitch who's fucking a girl I think of as my little sister I would hate for your story to end like that...not to mention Willow's story. She's counting on you to get her out of this...not get yourself killed."
Tara glanced back at Faith over her should as she paused at the top of the stairs, with a slight grunt she continued on her way. Faith followed once more, feeling as though she was trying to draw blood from a stone. She reached out and grabbed Tara's upper arm to halt her walk.
Tara turned glared at Faith, her trigger finger twitching above the shotgun's trigger.
"What do you want from me?" Tara demanded, "Because right now you're just slowing me down."
"I want you to stop and think about what you're doing for at least a second!" Faith growled
The bag in Tara's hand dropped to the ground and landed with a thud, the shotgun left her shoulder so it was pointed at the ground.
"All I can think about is Willow in the hands of that family!" Tara replied, her voice threatening to break, "I can't wait around for you to gather your troops, to plan, to choose our weapons...I'm going in now."
"I'll come with you!" Faith insisted.
"You know as well as I do that Glory wants me...if I go in there with a pack of Ladies armed to the teeth, all guns blazing, she'll kill Willow and Dawn without a qualm...I can't let that happen," Tara said firmly, her fingers clenched around the shotgun in her hand, "Even if things turn to shit I can count on the fact that she'll let them go if she has me."
"This is Glory we're talking about..."
"I know, I can't guarantee anything," Tara sighed, retrieving her fallen bag, "But you can promise me one thing...when...if I get Willow out, and Dawn, you'll get them out of town?"
"Of course," Faith replied quickly, mesmerised by the heartfelt expression on Tara's face, "But you still don't have to do this alone..."
Her bag back in her hands and the shotgun over her shoulder, Tara continued walking. Faith felt compelled to follow but couldn't say whether or not Tara would pull the shotgun on her.
"Yes I do," Tara stared straight ahead.
"Why? It's suicide you crazy bitch!"
Tara paused for a moment and replied, "Because I am always going to be alone without her."