"Tara, what is it? What's wrong?"
Looking into Willow's eyes as she asked that question, Tara couldn't help but feel worried about her safety. After all they had done, and after all they had achieved, everything they created was about to be destroyed. She wondered briefly if she should voice her concerns. After all, keeping secrets from Willow had brought them to this point, and Tara knew that it would not be a good idea to keep something from her again; even if they were unable to do anything about it. And with nothing they could do to prevent what was to come, all Tara wanted was for Willow to enjoy what very well could be her last moment alive.
Enveloping the redhead in a hug, Tara spoke softly, "Nothing, Willow. Just enjoy this moment as if it were your last."
To herself, she added, "For it may very well be."
Faith was beginning to think she had made the mistake she had hoped not to make. Searching the cave for more than ten minutes, she had yet to find any evidence that Willow was anywhere inside. Despite the danger of continuing on, she pressed forward, taking a moment to glance at her pressure gauge. Seeing that she was nearly out of air, Faith retraced the path she had taken to get here, and figured that if she turned around now, she could make it back to the surface before she ran completely out of air.
But if she did, she wouldn't have the opportunity to confront Willow. For all Faith knew, the redhead was going to skip out of town after doing whatever it was that she was doing in here. For that reason alone, she decided to continue on. The risks were obvious. There was the danger of getting lost inside the cave, the chance that she could get trapped inside if the entrance were to somehow get blocked. And of course, there was the more likely danger of running out of air and drowning before she could find Willow.
Faith knew the dangers. But she also knew that there may never be another opportunity to deal with the redhead and find out the truth. She had to continue onward and try to find Willow, even if she were to die in the attempt.
A few moments later, she came to the entrance to a tunnel that branched off from the main path. Heading down it as breathing became more difficult, Faith hoped that wherever it was she was going led to a fresh source of air, otherwise she was done for.
Her eyes widened as she saw that the path she had taken lead into an underground cavern. Kicking a bit faster, her air nearly spent, Faith headed out of the tunnel and towards the water's surface, hoping that Willow was here. With the air in her tank nearly gone, she found it ironic to think that the person who may have played a role in ending Buffy's life could be the only one able to save her own.
Willow continued to hold onto Tara, the feel of the blonde's skin against her own and the sound of their combined heartbeats the only things that mattered to her. The pain, confusion and hurt of the past few days was gone, replaced by the touch of the one who could comfort her in these trying times, a thought made somewhat ironic in that the actions of her kind, taken out of ignorance, were the cause of what had happened. Her head resting on Tara's chest, Willow closed her eyes and savored the wonderful peace that she had found, a peace that was abruptly shattered when she heard three words in a very familiar voice.
"What the hell?"
Willow's eyes shot open and looked out into the water to find Faith, clad in scuba gear and wearing her lifeguard swimsuit, staring right back at her. The brunette's gaze turned slightly, and Willow realized that she was looking at Tara. Breaking her look on Faith, Willow turned to look up at Tara, seeing an expression on her face that the redhead immediately interpreted as one of resignation.
Reaching the rocks, Faith ditched her gear and reached for Willow's arm. "Willow, get away from that!" Glancing down at Willow's body, she added, "And why are you naked?"
Willow stubbornly refused to move, her mind barely registering the brunette's question. "Faith, what are you doing here?"
"Looks like I'm saving you from the same thing that might have killed Buffy," Faith replied, tugging on Willow's arm hard and finally separating her from Tara.
"No, Faith," Willow said, turning to look at the brunette. "You've got it all wrong. Tara had nothing to do with Buffy getting killed."
Faith wasn't buying what Willow told her. First she had said that she hadn't done it, and then Faith had seen her go out, rent a boat and come out into the middle of the ocean. That alone was confusing, and Faith promised herself to inquire about that later. But to swim into the cavern and find her in the embrace of a creature that was clearly alien in nature? That defied explanation, rational or otherwise. "Oh, yeah? So if she had nothing to do with what happened to Buffy, how come the two of you look like you were celebrating something?"
Willow found that she was unable to answer that question. It wasn't that she didn't have an answer, of course. But the answer certainly wasn't one that Faith was about to either genuinely accept or believe without comment, especially since doing so would put Tara in danger, making her worst fears about Faith learning of Tara's existence come true. The last thing Willow really wanted to do was admit to Faith was that she was in love with Tara.
"Faith, you have to believe me..."
The movement of Faith's hand had been too quick for her to catch, and thus Willow found herself unprepared for the strike of the brunette's hand against her check. Her knees gave out as if someone had slammed into her and Willow collapsed to the ground. Tara was on her feet immediately and grabbed Faith's wrist, clenching her own hand around it. Faith let out a strangled yelp of pain as she felt the bone break, looking at Tara with anger and reaching up to strike the blonde with her other hand.
That hand never reached its intended target, for Willow had gotten back to her feet then and rushed to block the incoming strike. "Faith, no! Listen to me!"
Faith struggled to release the hands on her wrists, but their grips were ironclad. "Red, are you shitting me? This...this thing killed Buffy!"
"No, she didn't!" Willow all but screeched, her mind working at light speed, trying to find something to say. But what could she say that would make Faith understand what was going on? The only thing she could think of was the thing that could make everything worse. It pained Willow to realize that the only way to clear Tara's name would be to admit to Faith that she had lied to her before, and that she was the one that killed Buffy. It wasn't a lie, after all. She had done it. Not in the literal sense, of course, but she had done it.
Faith snorted of disgust. "Oh, yeah? Well, if you didn't kill her, and neither did that," she tilted her head towards Tara, eliciting a glare from both her and Willow, "Who did?"
Before Willow could give her answer, Tara released her grip on Faith's wrist and collapsed to the rocks, clutching her head. Immediately letting go of the brunette, Willow moved to help the blonde to her feet. "Tara? What's wrong?"
The words that came from Tara in response to the redhead's question were nearly unintelligible to Faith, who was only able to pick out one or two words, and even that wasn't enough to make sense out of what the blonde was trying to say. Willow, however, not only seemed to understand her, but turned pale at hearing it, indicating that it wasn't anything good.
Getting to her feet, Willow grabbed Faith's arm. "Faith, we need to go."
The sudden change in the redhead's attitude was a bit too much for Faith to take in. "Why?" Gesturing towards Tara, she asked, "What did that tell you?"
Willow growled and stared into Faith's eyes. "Faith, Tara is not a thing. She's a living, breathing person with feelings, and I would like it very much if you started respecting them."
"Don't tell me what to do, Red," Faith snapped, all pretense of trying to maintain calm around Willow abandoned. The redhead was obviously too enthralled by the strange blonde to think rationally, and that made her words more untrustworthy than she had originally decided to believe. She wasn't about to be led along by any more games. Pointing to Tara, she continued, "For all I know, she put you under some kind of spell and made you do things you didn't want to just to serve her own ends."
The comment stung Willow. She had already wondered if that was a possibility for what had happened, so it didn't really surprise her that Faith had come to that conclusion herself. After all, it was the only way to explain everything. That is, if you had no way of knowing what had really happened. And there was no way that Willow was going to be telling that to Faith anytime soon.
"Faith, I'm not kidding around. We've got to get out of..."
The sound of someone coming up through the water cut off her words, and Willow turned to see several people emerging from the water, making their way towards them. The redhead was struck by how similar they appeared to Tara: naked as newborn babies and scales placed at strategic locations around their bodies. The only thing that separated the newcomers from Tara was their expressions, at first merely angry, quickly turned darker at the sight in front of them.
One of them, apparently the leader of the group, looked at Tara. "Tara, what is the meaning of this?"
Tara found herself at a loss for words. "I...I...I..."
Willow spoke up first after seeing that Tara couldn't answer the accusation inherent in those words. "Who are you to ask her that? She can make her own decisions without..."
The voice was so commanding that Willow took a step backward out of reflex and, looking down at her body as if she were only now becoming aware of the fact that she was naked, made a half hearted attempt to cover herself in front of the newcomers.
Faith meanwhile, glared at the mermen, anger in her eyes. "So this is how it was, Red? Your little friend here couldn't settle for killing one person, so she got a bunch of her pals together and decided that it would be more fun to lure other people down here to butcher like cows?"
Willow shook her head. "It's not like that, Faith. Tara had nothing to do with what..."
"I SAID SILENCE!"
The merman pointed, and four of the other mermaids who had accompanied him swam forward, approaching the rocks. Willow stood her ground in the face of the approaching danger, not willing to leave Tara's side no matter what happened. Faith, however, apparently deciding that the best defense was a good offense, swung her head around, trying to find the best possible route of escape.
"Faith, what are you doing?"
The brunette shot a glare at Willow. "What does it look like I'm doing, Red? You may want to sit there while Aqua Girl's friends gut you, but I'm gonna try to get out of here, and if I can't, then at least I'm going to go out fighting."
Holding onto Tara, Willow looked up at Faith. "Faith, please! Don't do anything hostile towards them! Maybe we can find some way to get out of this so that we don't end up like...like Buffy..."
Faith paused in her frantic search for a weapon at that, finally realizing that Willow was right. It wouldn't do her any good to do anything that could get her killed. But at the same time, she couldn't just let these... these things take her prisoner. Turning to look at Willow one last time, a mixture of sorrow and pain on her face, she turned around and, as the mermen approached, ran straight at them, leaping over them as she closed in and diving head first under the water.
Willow's cry was seconds too late to make a difference, and Faith was gone. Two of the mermen that had been approaching quickly spun around and headed off after her. It was a sight that made Willow's heart sag. Buffy had been an accomplished swimmer and excellent at controlling her breathing well enough to dive at great depths, and neither of those talents had been good enough to save her from the aggression of the mermen. She didn't know how good Faith was at that sort of thing, but somehow she realized that it didn't matter. The mermen had, as Buffy would say, the home field advantage. And that fact made Willow realize with absolute certainty that Faith was never going to make it to the surface.
And she wondered for a moment that it might not be such a bad thing. That thought, coming out of nowhere, shocked Willow a great deal. It surprised her to know that, on a subconscious level, she truly didn't want Faith to escape and that she wanted the brunette to die at the hands of the mermaids who had gone after her. Why did she want this? Did she truly hate Faith enough to want to see her dead?
Those were questions that certainly deserved more thought, but as the mermaids reached the rocks and made their way towards her, Willow realized that she wasn't going to have time to figure them out.
Faith swam in a panic, hoping that she hadn't made yet another mistake in deciding to swim away from Willow and the creatures. All that kept her going was the thought that they had to be after her by now. She knew that there was no chance in hell that those things were simply going to let her get away. That alone made it important for her to get out of here.
Especially considering that those things had the advantage in the current chase. Whatever they were, those creatures must have some way to breathe underwater. That left her at an immediate disadvantage, having left her own air supply back in the cavern. Even if she had remembered to grab it, it wouldn't have mattered. Putting aside for a moment the fact that it was nearly empty, the extra weight would only slow her down. Speed was important in her escape. Not only because she needed to get away from those creatures before they caught up to her, but because she had to traverse the tunnels leading out of the cave and head back to the surface all on the strength of one breath.
Faith had to admit that the chances of her succeeding in that weren't good. She wasn't that good at free diving to begin with, though Buffy had been trying to help her out. Still, to go from the cavern to the surface probably would have been beyond even her abilities. And if Buffy couldn't do it, then Faith didn't stand a chance. But it was certainly preferable to sticking around with Willow. Doing that guaranteed certain death. Even though the chances of death were as likely in this situation, probably more so, at least she had a chance, no matter how infinitesimal it was, to get away.
Looking ahead, she could see the tunnel twisting around. Faith swam forward as fast as her legs could take her, her chest beginning to ache as she turned around another corner and saw the mouth of the cave off in the distance. Keeping her mouth closed, Faith smiled. All she had to do now was swim out of the cave and head back to the boat...
She felt a hand grasp at her ankle then, and turned to find two of the creatures behind her, one of them holding onto her ankle. Using her free leg, Faith kicked the creature in the head, causing his grip to loosen from her body. Taking off in a mad scramble, Faith tried to make it as far down the tunnel as she could before either of the creatures following her had a chance to get her again.
Unfortunately, the optimism she felt at escaping didn't last long. Feeling a hand on her ankle once again, Faith struggled to try and free herself, but this time the grip was too strong for her to break in her increasingly weakened state. She grew more distressed as she felt another hand on the calf of her other leg, the two now working to tug her back in the direction she had just come.
Faith fought the urge to give up, but the fact that her chest was beginning to tighten from having held her breath for so long, along with her earlier exertion while trying to find the cave entrance, was making that difficult. Moaning as she felt the hands move up her legs, she struggled to free herself, the combination of the water and her lessening strength working against her to make her reactions languid and easily counteracted.
The hands of the creatures closed around Faith's waist, turning her around and shoving her against the stone floor of the tunnel. Looking into their faces, Faith could see nothing but cold, dark hatred in their eyes. And as she watched one of them wrap his cold hands around her throat, she realized that she shouldn't have dismissed Willow's arguments so easily and that she should have listened to her when she had said to do nothing. Maybe she would not be in this position had she done that. Of course, she wouldn't have been in this position in the first place if she had listened to Riley when he had told her not to get involved in something that wasn't her business.
But Faith didn't listen to Willow. She didn't listen to Riley. They had been the voices of reason, the thing that normally saved her from doing something as stupid as this. But as far as Buffy's death was concerned, she shut her own voice of reason off and refused to listen to anyone else. All that mattered to her was that she find out what happened. She just had to be the conquering hero, doing what she thought was right in order to avenge the blonde's memory.
It was ironic to look at the situation she had found herself in now. In the brief time that she had known her, Faith had learned a lot about Buffy, and one of the things she knew was that Buffy was a kind and peaceful soul who didn't want anyone to go to any amount of trouble on her account. For the briefest of moments, Faith wondered if Buffy was looking down on her from Heaven. She didn't believe in God or Heaven or any of that religious stuff, but she couldn't help but think that what was going on was the work of some higher being. Had Buffy been looking down on her, trying to tell Faith not to do what she was doing? Was this God's way of trying to tell her that she should have listened to Willow and Riley and not gotten involved?
As Faith blew out her air in response to the force against her throat and involuntarily sucked seawater into her lungs, she began to realize that, for the first time, she had allowed her emotions towards others to cloud her judgment. She had tried hard throughout her life not to do that, but when it came to Buffy, she couldn't help it. She was like Angel.
No. She wasn't like Angel. She was an angel. And Faith knew that she was about to join her in the big ocean in the sky.
"I'm sorry," she thought as she felt the telltale signs that signaled that she was about to drown to death. "Willow...Angel...Riley...please forgive me. Buffy...I'll be seeing you real soon."
Tara visibly, and very violently, shuddered. Willow, arms held away from her body by the mermaids holding her prisoner, could only watch as the blonde dealt with feeling the death of Faith at the hands of the other mermen. It made her ill to see Tara like this. She had told Willow about how much she had been affected when Buffy had passed away. But caught up in the throes of passion at the time, Willow hadn't paid much attention to what effect it had on her. But there was no mistaking the downtrodden look on Tara's face or the closed off and shrunken form of her body. There was only one thing that could make Tara feel that way. And were it not for those holding her captive, Willow would have rushed forward to comfort her. But the mermaids would not allow it, having separated them rather violently, and the two that remained after the others went after Faith holding her off to the side as their leader approached Tara. All he had done for the past few minutes was simply stare at Tara, the expression on his face one of disgust and anger.
When he finally spoke, his words were even and without emotion. "Tara, daughter of Miranda, daughter of Celeste, you have violated the edicts of our clan. You have led other humans to our territory. You have committed the worst of crimes: making contact with a human and having them learn about us. What have you to say for yourself?"
As Tara looked up into the face of the other mermaid, Willow could see a change in her demeanor. Where before the blonde had been withdrawn and painfully shaken, now she was projecting an image of confidence and defiance, a far cry from the shy and closed off Tara that she had come to know.
"I did it because our way of life has become stagnant. We cannot continue to allow ourselves to believe that if we remain withdrawn from the surface world, we will be protecting ourselves. This very incident should show you beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we remain hidden and attack anyone who violates our territory, unknowingly or otherwise, we only serve to bring that which you do not want: unwanted attention to ourselves. It is a vicious cycle that we've been trapped in for years, ever since you denied the feelings of one very much like me." Tara looked at Willow, hope sparkling through her eyes. "A mermaid who found love with a surface dweller and would do anything that she thought was necessary in order to protect the one that she loved."
Turning her gaze back to the merman, she continued, "And if you feel it necessary to kill me for doing what I think is right for our society, then so be it. But do so knowing that my death will not prevent what you fear. The seeds have already been planted. And if others were to follow in my footsteps and begin to question why they are doing the things they do, then I will have done enough. You can kill me, but you cannot kill what I have begun here. You would need to kill our entire society to do that."
The merman cast a glance towards one of the guards holding Willow and nodded. Keeping one hand on the redhead, the merman withdrew a knife from the sheath tied to his arm of his partner and passed it to their leader. Taking the weapon, the elder merman moved back and brought Tara violently to her feet. Her head cast down, her blonde hair covering her face, she did nothing to retaliate. Willow watched with growing concern, wondering what had happened to the confidence and self assuredness that Tara had just shown.
"Tara? What are you doing?"
Lifting her head, Tara looked at Willow. "What I must. Don't you see, Willow? If they kill me, others would find out that the Elders are not above killing their own in order to maintain their secrecy. Then a change in the way we live will have to occur whether or not the Elders desire it."
Willow saw Tara's eyes tear over as she looked at the merman. "But please...if I am to die, let me do so with the knowledge that Willow will be spared. Let me die knowing that she can return to the surface to lead out the rest of her life without incident. With me gone, she won't have a reason to return here and bother you. And she can keep the secret of our existence. I trust her well enough to do that."
"You may trust her, Tara," the merman said, tracing the point of the knife's blade across her chest and causing Tara to wince. "But I do not. And neither will the other Elders. She had involuntarily brought two other humans into our midst. She had corrupted you. And who knows what other secrets about us she may have learned from you?"
Tara's eyes shifted to Willow only for a brief second, but it was long enough for the elder mermaid to notice. Grabbing Tara by the throat, he lifted her off the ground. "What have you done to her, Tara? Have you used your magic on her?"
Struggling, Tara tried to free herself from the merman's vice-like grip. Disgusted at her actions, the merman threw her at the rock wall. The blonde hit it like a sack of potatoes and crumpled to the ground.
"TARA!" Crying now, Willow could only watch as the merman approached Tara's fallen body and traced the knife across her body.
No. It was not all she could do. She could save Tara. There was no way that she was just going to stand here and let her be killed. Wrenching her right arm, she sent the merman holding it headlong into the water. Before his partner could respond, Willow had her knee buried deep into his gut, causing him to release his grip on her arm and crumple to the ground.
Rushing forward, Willow stood between the elder merman and Tara, arms outstretched as if she was protecting a valuable treasure. This, at least in her mind, was in fact exactly what she was doing. "Stop! I won't let you hurt her!"
"Stand aside, human."
Willow stood her ground. "I will not. If you...If you want to kill Tara, then you will need to kill me first."
Before the merman could respond, Willow heard a voice from behind her. "Willow...no!"
Turning her head, the redhead looked at Tara, who was getting to her knees. "I must, Tara. If they feel the need to kill someone because of what has happened, then let it be me."
"But why?" Tara asked, perplexed.
"Because..." Willow began, hesitating for a moment, before continuing, "Because...I have no one now. On the surface, I mean. Buffy's dead. So is Faith. And my parents never bothered to pay that much attention to me. I don't have any friends up there. Buffy was the only one person in my life who looked out for me...who treated me like I was normal...who treated me like family. And now that she's gone...I have no one. And nothing left but the ocean that took everything from me. And...and I don't want to live if I'm going to be reminded of everything that I have lost whenever I look at water, be it an ocean or the running water of my bathtub."
She turned back to Tara. "And in any case, it works out for the best for everyone if I'm the one who dies. Tara, you said that if you were killed, and it became known to others of your kind, then the changes to your society that you want will happen. But if I die...then you still get them."
"But how?" Tara asked, noting that the hand of the merman holding the knife was wavering.
"Because...if they kill me...then you can live. And you can make sure that your society knows that their leaders have killed one who harbored no prejudice towards you and your kind, no matter what they have done to me. And they can also see that perhaps not all human beings are evil. And Tara...I want you to live. I will die happy knowing that you will live. And that you will have gotten what you wanted."
Closing her eyes, Willow stretched herself to her full length and tilted her head upward, opening herself up to be struck down. "Be brave, Tara. And live...for me."
Tara expected the elder merman to walk over and deliver the killing blow to the redhead. After all, he had made it clear that he was not open to the idea that no-one had to die in order to maintain the secret of the clan. So she was surprised to find the merman drop the knife to the ground.
"Perhaps...we have been wrong. If one can still see the good in one of our own, with the knowledge of what we have done to those she loves, then we may have been wrong to judge all humans based on the actions of a single representative of their kind. Perhaps you are right, Willow. Perhaps not all humans are bad."
The heads of Willow, Tara and the merman turned to see one of the mermen that had been guarding Willow get to his feet, his own knife in hand. Staring into Willow's eyes, he snarled, "No! There can be no peace with humanity! Humankind invaded our territory! Humankind polluted us! Humankind cannot be allowed to do so again!"
And with that declaration, he threw the knife at Willow.
Willow was violently shoved to the ground, her head impacting against the rock. The last thing she was aware of was a strange, gurgled cry, and then total darkness claimed her.