Chapter 54

So, this was what Willow remembered.

She remembered knowing the exact minute the battle started, feeling something settle deep inside her, letting her know the fighting right below her feet had begun.

She remembered hearing Xander and Giles outside, fighting as a pack of The First's minions had attacked everyone on the upper floor.

She remembered Anya's scream.

And she remembered the three Bringers charging into Robins' office, blades held high, as they attacked her. She knew she must have screamed, grabbing the scythe as tightly has she could, both to use as a weapon and to keep them from getting their hands on it.

At one point she ended up on the ground, one of the Bringers pressing a knife against her throat. She had tried to draw up the magic inside her, to try and push the Bringer off, but she'd choked, too terrified to be able to wield the magic properly.

She had been partway through a spell when she'd blacked out, and that in itself probably lead to disastrous results; channelling the power up through her and then simply letting go without telling it what to do.

Willow didn't know exactly how she had ended up outside, leaning against a tree a few dozen yards away from Robin's office, but it probably had something to do with Minh and Molly, who were standing near her, panting and covered in dirt and blood.

"We have to fight that thing?" Molly asked, looking up at what Willow assumed was The First.

The demon was at least twelve feet tall, massive and intimidating and leering down at them. The only thing that came to mind for Willow when looking at it was Greek mythology. Specifically the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The creature was big; thick and muscular and with horns larger than Willow herself. It stood in the rubble of the school, snorting and snarling, as a thick fog leaked from its hands. The fog drifted upward, covering the sky above them with a thick black film, and throwing everything around them into shadows.

"Kill them," it roared, voice deep and menacing, as it called to the übervamps, giving them the protection from the sun they needed to continue fighting the Scoobies and the Potentials outside.

Willow felt her whole body trembling, because that? That was a big demon.

That was the biggest, and probably the most terrifying demon she had ever seen.

And being best friends with the Slayer? She had seen a lot of demons.

"Come on," Minh said, picking up the scythe and pushing it into Willow's hands. "We have to help them."

Molly shook her head, eyes wide as she stared in fear at The First. "No… no, we… we can't beat that."

"You heard what Buffy said," Minh insisted. "We have to keep fighting. We can't let it win."

She was right, of course. They had to keep fighting. They couldn't let The First win, couldn't let it spread its evil and take over. They had to stop it.

Willow just needed to get over the fear gripping her, freezing her in place, and then she'd be good.

When The First took its first step, out of the rubble and debris at its feet; that was what threw Willow into action. She took off, leaving Minh to deal with the petrified Molly. She had to find Faith. She couldn't do this without Faith.

"Willow, run!"

Buffy was running toward her, a determined look on her face. Willow didn't think, didn't dare look over her shoulder, simply pushed harder, running towards Buffy as fast as she could. She held out the scythe, and Buffy grabbed it as she continued move, slicing into something that had been right behind Willow.

"Thanks," Willow panted, still refusing to look at whatever it was that Buffy had just killed. Knowing something had been about to take a bite out of her was enough, she didn't need to see its gory corpse.

"You okay?" Buffy asked, breathing heavily while looking her over for any physical damage.

Willow knew there was a gash in her upper arm, but other than that, she wasn't injured. "I'm okay."

"The spell?" After assessing that Willow wasn't hurt she began glancing back and forth, making sure nothing was going to sneak up on them while they tried to get their bearings.

"Got interrupted. I… I don't know what happened, I blacked out when a bunch of Bringers came at me. Molly and Minh got me out."

Buffy nodded, "A few of the girls fell back to help out upstairs when the übervamps started slipping past us. Xander held them off as long as he could, but after Giles went down, he probably appreciated the help."

"Giles?"

"One of the Bringers, it got him pretty bad. Anya's with him, trying to stop the bleeding."

"Faith?" Willow asked, a little afraid of what she was going to hear. Everyone was spread out in front of the school, fighting the demons and trying not to get hit by The First, but she hadn't been able to spot Faith.

"She got Anya out before the roof caved in. They're over there, come on." Securing her grip on the scythe she took off, leaving Willow with no option but to follow.

Buffy led them towards the parking lot at the side of the school. The First stood in the middle of the pavement, leering down as the Potentials tried to fight back against the übervamps. Running as close as she dared, Buffy pulled a sword from one of the fallen Bringers and hurled it at The First.

The blade implanted in The First's cheek, but the creature reached up and swatted it away before glaring down at Buffy.

"Stupid girl," it roared. Its eyes were like black pits, boring down into Buffy. "You think you can defeat me with your mere metal weapons?"

Buffy gritted her teeth. "I can try."

"Demons of the underworld, surrender yourself to me, so I might take down this pathetic excuse for a hero."

Willow was about to look around to see exactly what was going to happen, when something collided with her. She flinched instinctively, about to shove whatever it was off of her, when she felt strong arms wrap around her. "Faith?" she asked hesitantly.

The Slayer sagged against her for a moment before stepping back, keeping her hands clasped in Willows. "Red, you're okay."

Willow nodded, "Yeah, I… Faith, you're bleeding." One of her hands dropped Faith's, gently reaching out towards the wound on Faith's side. Her shirt was matted and covered in dirt and blood, but Willow could easily see the shredded skin lying underneath. Her fingers skimmed along Faith's stomach, careful not to touch the wound where it wrapped itself around her torso. "Oh Goddess, Faith."

"I'm okay," the brunette insisted roughly. "Just a scratch."

Willow let her hands skim a little closer to the wound and Faith flinched. She winced in pain, but Willow caught her before she fell. She shifted Faith until the Slayer was leaning against her, an arm weakly wrapped around Willow's back. She didn't like how pale Faith was beginning to look. "Faith, that isn't-"

"We've got bigger things to worry about, Red. Look,"

Willow followed Faith's gaze, gasping at what she saw. The creatures all around them, übervamps and Bringers alike, were beginning to disintegrate, turning into a black dust and being sucked into The First's open mouth.

"Oh, no."

"That's nasty," Faith said flatly. "That is so nasty."

"It's absorbing their power. It's making itself stronger by killing them all." She turned, looking towards Buffy standing just a few steps away. "Buffy, we have to do something!"

Buffy was staring straight ahead, shaking her head slightly. "No."

"Buffy," Willow yelled, holding Faith more securely against her. "Buffy, what do we do?"

The other Potentials were gathering around The First, drawn near as the creatures they were fighting began disappearing. They formed a loose circle around The First, spread out and keeping a wary distance from it. As the last of the demons disintegrated The First began laughing, a deep, booming sound that rattled Willow to her bones. Over the sound, she could still hear Buffy and watched as the blonde took a step back, eyes wide and worried.

"No, no that isn't true."

"Buffy!"

"I tried, you know I tried. I didn't mean to let you down."

Willow shifted Faith away from her, making sure the other Slayer was secure on her feet before taking a careful step towards Buffy. "Red," Faith gritted out, "What's wrong with her?"

"I don't know. Buffy, Buffy what's going on?"

Willow registered Carmen, a third of the way along the loose formation of girls from where Willow was standing, drop to her knees, screaming and holding her head in pain. She could hear Jessie, crying and pleading with something too, but Willow ignored them, focusing only on Buffy.

"Buffy, please, look at me" Willow begged, not understanding what was going on, "Tell me what's wrong."

"No," Buffy screamed, tears beginning to run down her face, "No, I protected her. You know I protected her. You can't say that."

"Willow," Faith said from behind her. "She's lost it. We have to do this without her."

"How?" Willow asked, turning towards Faith for a moment. "Faith, how are we supposed to do this without her? Something's wrong. She's-"

"Mom, please, don't say that."

Willow whirled around, eyes wide. Buffy was standing there, tears falling as she pleaded with something Willow couldn't see. But she knew it couldn't be The First; it was corporeal now, it couldn't take on the form of the dead. And it was clearly standing right there, looking down on them as it absorbed the last of its army and began to darken the sky above them further.

"Buffy, Joyce isn't there. Listen to me, please."

Buffy didn't seem to hear her. "No," she screamed, "No, I didn't fail you, you can't say that. I took care of Dawn, I did everything I could to protect her!"

"Buffy, please," Willow begged, walking forward and trying to lay a hand on the blonde's arm, trying to break her out of whatever trace she was stuck in. "Buffy-"

The moment her skin touched the Slayer's the other girl whirled, leaping back and turning to look right at Willow. "I didn't fail you," she insisted, looking Willow right in the eyes, "I'm still your daughter. I did everything I could."

Willow felt an icy cold grip her, seeing Buffy look so distraught. She was looking right through Willow, screaming at whatever it was that only she could see.

"I had to, Mom. I had to. I'm the Slayer, that's who I am. I tried my hardest to keep her safe, to keep her out of danger. I died to keep her safe." Her hands were clenched at her sides, fists going white with how hard she was squeezing them. "Please, Mom, no."

"Buffy," Willow tried again, determined to break Buffy out of it. "She isn't there, it's all inside your head."

"I didn't mean to fail you, I didn't mean to," Buffy repeated. "You, and Dawn, and all my friends. I didn't mean to fail you. I tried. But I can't do this, I can't win this time, I'm not strong enough to be the Slayer."

All around Willow could head the other girls beginning to start it too, screaming and crying and begging. She didn't know what was going on, only that she had to convince Buffy it wasn't real.

"Buffy, listen to me," she tried, "please. It isn't real. That isn't Joyce, she isn't real."

"It is real though, for her."

Every word on the redhead's tongue died with the sound of the new voice.

"As far as she's concerned, she really is speaking with Joyce."

A chill began to spread inside Willow, its frozen grip beginning along her skin and spiraling down inside her, gripping her lungs and heart with frozen claws. It squeezed, choking off her air and stopping her heart. It burned, it was so cold it burned inside her, rubbing her raw and leaving her gasping, trying to draw in air.

No.

She turned slowly, knowing she wasn't prepared for this.

"There's my girl. I've missed you."

She stood only a few steps away. Her eyes as bright as ever, hair soft and silky and reflecting off the sunlight that Willow knew wasn't there. Her smile was soft, lips curled slightly with fondness.

The bloodstain was still there; the dark red smear placed directly above her heart.

"Tara."

"So you haven't forgotten me then. I was beginning to wonder."

"Tara, no, I could never…"

"Are you sure, Willow?" Tara frowned. "I think you may have begun to forget me."

"Tara, baby," Willow pleaded, her voice raw and weak, "I could never forget you."

"So sleeping with her then, what was that?"

"Tara, I didn't-"

"Didn't what?" Tara asked, her voice light, the accusation in her voice hardly there at all. "I remember everything you told me about her, Willow. That she's evil, wrong, a killer. Did that suddenly change?"

"No, Tara, it isn't like that."

Her eyes narrowed, "How is it like, then? She's still the same person, still a murderer, still evil. Is it you that's different now? Is that it?"

Willow shook her head, pleading with Tara to stop. But Tara wouldn't stop.

"It isn't that she's different, that she's changed and seen the light, it's that you have. You can fall into bed with her, touch her and love her and cry out her name, because you're the one that's changed."

Tara shook her head sadly, "I tried to warn you, Willow. I tried to save you, to make you see, to understand. But you wouldn't listen. And now look at where you are. A killer. A demon. A slave to the darkness inside you."

"Tara, it isn't like that. You know it isn't like that."

"So, what? Knowing you became evil because of me, because I died, that's supposed to comfort me?"

Willow could feel the tears stinging as she tried to make the other girl understand. "I was in pain," she insisted. "I was dying inside because you were taken from me. I couldn't control it. I lost control because I loved you and you were gone."

"You lost control," Tara said lowly, "Because you were dabbling into magic you knew you shouldn't. You lost control because you played with fire, Willow. Fire burns. You knew what was going to happen, but you did it anyway."

"No, please."

Tara shook her head, a laugh breaking free of her lips. The sound was hard and sharp and unlike anything Willow had ever heard the girl make. "You became a slave to the evil inside you, Willow. You're no better than a demon, than any of the demons we fought to keep this world safe. And that darkness inside you, it isn't gone."

"I know it isn't," Willow cried, falling to her knees, "But I'm trying. I'm learning, you know I am. I learned how to keep it all down, to control the darkness, to keep it from taking over again. I did it for you!"

"You didn't do it for me," Tara said sadly, shaking her head. "You did it so your friends would take you back, so they'd still love you, after everything you did." She tisked, "And you don't have control, Willow. I can see it. I can see all the dark power coiling inside you, ready to snap and break free. You only think you can control it, but that isn't the case. You can't control it, Willow. You're a slave to your own darkness."

"No," Willow pleaded, clawing her hands into the ground, ignoring the pain that sprung to her fingers. She needed Tara to believe her. Tara was always the one that believed in her. "Tara, no."

"It's true, Willow. I don't know who you are anymore, but you aren't the girl I fell in love with."

"I'm still me," Willow insisted tearfully, getting to her feet and moving forward. She grabbed Tara's hands in her own. "I'm still me, I'm still Willow. I still love you, Tara. Please, take me back."

"I can't," Tara said, stepping back and pulling her hands from Willow's grasp. "I can't, Willow. Because I can see how this is going to end."

Her vision was getting blurry with her tears, but Willow pressed on. "How what's going to end?"

"This," Tara said, spreading her arms wide, "This battle, this fight. The demon up there," she said, nodding her head upwards. "I can see how it ends."

Tara's face darkened, eyes narrowing and holding a hatred Willow had never seen before. "You're going to kill them all, Willow. That darkness inside you? It's going to bubble up and take over. You're going to destroy the world because you can't handle the power inside you anymore."

"No, no that isn't true!" Willow cried. That couldn't be how this ended. There had to be another way. There had to be. It couldn't end like this, not after they'd all worked so hard.

"Yes," Tara said, shaking her head sadly at Willow. "All your friends, you're going to kill them. You can't control the magic inside you."

"Yes, I can, I know I can."

"Then it's your own death sentence, Willow. Say goodbye to everyone you love."

"No," she begged, voice hitching with her tears, "No, Tara, please."

"Your friends' love saved you once, Willow, but it won't save you a second time."