It was that goddamned dream again. Waking without really being awake. Willow didn't realise at first of course, she never did. Mornings had never been her speciality which was why when she opened her eyes to find herself in the cabin she shared with Tara she thought nothing of it. She just yawned and snuggled back into the soft pillow, begging herself for just a few more minutes of sack time.
As she dozed in a contented haze she finally started to realise that things were far from ordinary once more. For one thing she was warm. Usually, it seemed no matter how many pairs of socks she pulled on, her feet were permanently cold... along with the rest of her. Usually Willow rose very early and quickly each morning for that reason. There was no point in staying in bed freezing when you could be up and working... still freezing but at least being productive.
Willow was so very warm she found a smile creeping across her face. She burrowed until she found the source of the warmth. This wasn't hard as her bunk was tiny. Usually it seemed that there was barely enough space for her own small body. She soon discovered that the source was someone was pressed tightly against her from behind, fitted into the contours of her body. The familiar feeling of an arm snug around her waist. It triggered something in her mind and she struggled to think what was wrong with the all too pleasant picture...
She realised that she was indeed in her own cabin. That in itself was strange because she remembered she had gone to sleep in Tad's cabin for the second night in a row. Had she walked in her sleep? The body behind her shifted, moving even closer, radiating such a pleasant warmth that Willow felt she could easily drift back into a state of contented slumber. Willow felt as though their skin were joined despite the fact that there were many layers of clothing between them. She was about to drift off when she suddenly realised that all of this was far too good to be true. Something about it was eerily familiar. She remembered a time when she had woken before from such a dream... an unspoken name on her lips. Willow's eyes widened and she had a revelation... the name that had been on her lips as she woke...
Willow twisted her body, rolling over in the tight space until she found what she was searching for... that face, "Tara."
She found herself face to face with the blonde who was now haunting her dreams as well as her waking hours. Tara's eyes opened when she heard Willow say her name, hazy blue eyes staring dreamily into Willow's. Just for a moment, Willow could have sworn she saw a flicker of surprise pass across Tara's features. It was gone before Willow could even wonder about it, replaced by a small smile that made her eyes dance.
Tara reached up to stroke her cheek with her hand. Her fingers were cold but Willow didn't care, the touch was still electric. Willow let out a breath. How strange was it that none of this was right at all? She was in her own cabin, in the arms of a woman she could not even summon the courage to talk to let alone crawl into a very narrow bed next to and she was so warm. It wasn't right, and yet as she gazed into Tara's blue eyes she was sure that nothing could be wrong with it.
"Good morning baby," Tara whispered, her voice still clogged with sleep.
"That sounds so good," Willow replied unconsciously, still lost in those strange blue eyes.
"Well, I can say it again if you like," Tara said with a broad smile, she reached her hand around to the back of Willow's neck in a light caress, her cold fingers causing Willow to shiver delightfully, "But I'd rather do this..."
Tara pulled Willow towards her with a firm hand, searching out Willow's lips with her own. For a moment Willow's eyebrows raised in shock at the unaccustomed contact and she panicked, wanting to pull away. However, it didn't take long for the warmth of Tara's lips to relax her completely. Tara's tongue flicked against Willow's teeth, seeking invitation. A little nervously, Willow parted her lips, a shiver running down her spine as she took Tara's moist tongue into her mouth. It met her own in a tender, languid waltz. Willow heard a groan of pleasure leak from her own mouth. This was definitely how every day should begin... even in the middle of a war.
<Dammit, I'm dreaming,> Willow thought with a pang of disappointment just as she was beginning to lose everything in their kiss, <Just a little while longer... then I'll try and wake up... mmmmm, Tara-tongue... just how I always dreamt it would be...>
Everything was brutally interrupted by a deafening explosion. Willow tore herself from Tara's kiss and sat upright as the whole ship shuddered violently beneath them. Her hand shot out for Tara's at the same moment Tara's hand searched for hers. Theirs fingers entwined in a white knuckled grip, calming Willow's racing heart beat. Another rumble, this time followed by the sound of tearing metal, explosions. Willow was about to pull them both from the bed when Tara's head suddenly snapped back. Her eyes stared upwards, seemingly at nothing. For a moment her face was serene, her lips parted in silent wonder.
Willow watched transfixed and forgot that the ship was probably being torn to pieces around them. Tara's lips moved, mouthing a word that looked to be, 'Mama' and yet Willow couldn't say for sure. Gradually, however, Tara's features contorted into a mask of pain and grief. Her mouth was opened as though she were screaming, yet no sound emerged.
"Tara?" Willow asked, squeezing the hand she held as hard as she could.
As though in slow motion, Tara lowered her gaze to bring her into contact with Willow's once more. Her face was a chalky white, her expression unreadable. The hand Willow held went totally limp.
"They're here," Tara said in a quiet monotone.
Willow was just about to ask who Tara meant when the sound of an immense explosion was followed by the bulkhead exploding inwards. Willow was once again knocked to the floor, she heard Tara scream her name in fear. Metal twisted, moved as though it were paper and the last thing Willow saw was a huge panel falling towards her.
When Willow came to, she found herself pinned beneath the panel. She struggled to get out a breath, it was pushing on her chest and making breathing very difficult indeed. Smoke filled the air, she couldn't even choke her chest hurt so much. With both hands, she tried to force the metal that had her trapped upwards so that she could move. However, as soon as she tried to exert any force excruciating pain shot up her leg and she cried out. Willow could see her foot extruding from the bottom of the panel. It was pointed at an impossible angle.
"Tara?" Willow's voice sounded so distant, even to herself.
The smoke parted and Willow saw Tara staring right at her. However, the blue eyes were glazed over... and Willow realised that they were not seeing anything, they were lifeless. A piece of metal bracing that had been blown inwards now protruding sickeningly from her chest. Willow wanted to vomit but even that was beyond her, the horrible taste just sat in her mouth.
Even in death, Tara's hand was reaching out towards Willow. Willow reached for it...
"Tara... please..." she whispered, "Tara, no!"
"Tara!" Willow woke, this time for real.
She found herself where she had left the waking world the night before, in Tad's cabin. The blankets and the pillow lay on the floor where they had obviously been thrown by her thrashing about. Freezing cold, she lay shivering on the mattress in sweat soaked pyjamas.
Willow swung her socked covered feet to the floor and sat up, her head swam a little and she rubbed her temples with the pads of her fingers. That damned dream was really being to get her goat! Well, not the beginning... just the ending...
"Willow!" Tara sat bolt upright in bed.
Well, she almost sat bolt upright in bed. In her post-dream haze she forgot the ceiling was much to low to sit up fully and she thumped her forehead painfully on the metal. Clutching her forehead with her hand she gritted her teeth.
The same dream again. The same one she had been having every night for the past month... even before she had met Willow. At first the girl she had been holding in her sleep had remained nameless. Not faceless though... the face of the pale, green-eyed woman with the bright red hair had never left the back her mind. And then she had met her for real... Captain Willow Rosenberg.
Now that her dream girl had a name however, things had still not changed. Tara still dreamt of her death every single time. She saw it as though she were floating somewhere above her body. Watching yourself die was not a pleasant experience and every single time she woke covered in sweat, shivering in terror. The worst thing about it was knowing that, as night followed day, the dream would always come again.
It was always different, sometimes different places... the cabin she shared with Willow, her own family home in Oregon, her barrack room back in Sunnydale... as well as unfamiliar places she was sure she had never been. Most often she died in the explosion, body torn by flying shrapnel or crushed beneath falling metal... although once she had even drowned as the ship flooded. There was only one element that remained consistent throughout all of them. Her last word,
"Willow..." she whispered the name, feeling it leave it lips like a sweet but painful caress.
Tara brushed her sweaty, limp hair back from her face and lent over the side of the bunk. Willow's bed was impeccably made and very much empty... as it had been for the last two nights. She sighed and rolled off her bunk, landing on the floor with a thud. She was about to grab her toilet kit from her locker but she paused for a moment. Tara lent over and brushed her fingers ever so lightly against Willow's pillow, wishing it were Willow's cheek she was touching.
Willow hadn't seen the blonde for the past two days. She had felt dreadful for her obvious avoidance but every time she had tried to muster up the courage to approach the peculiar blonde, her entire insides achieved the consistency of jelly. The last two days had been a complete disaster of apocalyptic proportions... literally. Not to mention the fact that the world was being overrun by an enemy Willow hadn't even seen, she had to deal with the fact that she had completely lost her mind. Now this dream...
The door swung inwards with a squeak and Willow had to close her eyes for a few seconds as the light was flicked on without warning. When she managed to prise them open, she found Tad standing in the doorway still bundled in his heavy, fur-lined coat from the nights watch.
"Will, you're positively blue!" he said in a worried voice, "Are you coming down with something?" Tad picked up her heavy sweater and handed it to her.
Willow tugged on the woollen sweater with numb fingers. She became stuck as she tried to pull in down over her head, her arms helplessly in the air. Tad was there in an instant, tugging it downwards. The first thing she saw when the sweater popped over her head was his concerned face. Once he had ensured that Willow was not going to die a horrible death by sweater asphyxiation, he stepped back to give her plenty of space.
"I'm fine... just slept badly that's all," Willow's voice sounded a little strained.
"And you look it!" Tad replied emphatically. At Willow's indignant glare he narrowed his eyes playfully, "Hey, I'm your friend. I get to say things like that, so quit it with the evil-Willow act because it's not very convincing."
"Fine," Willow muttered.
"You'd better shower or whatever, fix your hair at least There's a briefing at 0700... something about a merchant convoy escort."
"Sure thing," Willow stood, her head swam for a moment and she stumbled.
Tad caught her and helped her to the door, a supportive arm around her waist, "Look, are you sure you're not coming down with anything?" He put his hand to her forehead to find it a little hot.
Willow waved him away, protesting that she was fine and stepped out into the corridor. She wasn't looking where she was going and felt herself smack into someone. Whoever it was had dropped their toilet kit and was bent over picking it up as Willow found her bearings.
"I'm so sorry," Willow bent down as well to help retrieve a fallen toothbrush.
Willow looked up at the same moment as a very flustered Tara. For a moment all either of them could do was stare dumbstruck. So many words came to both of them, words they wanted to say so very badly and yet were far too terrified to say aloud. Tara glanced up at Tad who was standing in the doorway with a somewhat amused expression on his face. He very quickly wiped it off when he saw the pained look on Tara's face as she looked back to Willow and then to him again. The blonde's face fell and Tad could have hit himself when he realised what she must be thinking. His jaw worked soundlessly as he tried to think of something to say to rectify the situation. He drew a complete blank and decided that the best thing to do was to leave the two of them to it.
"Um, have a good day ladies," the door to his cabin closed very quickly indeed.
Willow held out the toothbrush for Tara to take, the blonde practically swiped it from her fingers. They both stood at the same time, Willow all too aware of her dishevelled appearance.
"Tara, I..." Willow tried to think of something to say, something witty that would relieve the tension hanging in the air like a thick, choking fog, "I was j-just..."
"Sorry for running into you sir," Tara replied quietly, she brushed past Willow's shoulder and moved off quickly down the hall.
Willow watched her go, shoulders slumped dejectedly. It was only when the blonde had disappeared into the washroom that Willow realised what Tara had just seen.
Oh my giddy aunt! Willow whacked herself with the palm of her hand, Me coming out of Tad's cabin, looking as though... Willow looked down at herself, her pyjama top was almost completely unbuttoned and she was sure her hair was a complete birds nest, ...looking as though I've been shagging all night... oh goddamn you Rosenberg!
Willow made a quick dash for her own cabin seeing that Tara was all too obviously not in residence. The only thought running through her head was how on earth she was going to work up the nerve to tell Tara that her sleeping in Tad's room was purely out of her fear. I can't admit to her that I'm too scared to talk to her!
Willow paused for a moment and lent against the bulkhead, breathing in deeply to quell her panic. Human mating rituals were so silly...
"Maclay, you look like you've been put through the proverbial ringer," Faith greeted Tara as she sat down, a broad smile on her face.
Tara immediately though that such smiles should be illegal... and on this morning more than any other. She merely shrugged in reply but at the look of curiosity that suddenly lit up the brunettes features she regretted her choice of response. To Faith's credit, however, she recognised the expression on the blonde's face as one of hurt rather than guilt or indifference. Although she was a little disappointed it wasn't guilt, it was so much more fun to pry into.
"Something up T?" Faith inquired in her tell me everything voice... perhaps with the barest hint of sympathy.
Tara said nothing, she just sat there cradling her coffee. Every so often she would raise it to her lips and take a small sip. Faith noticed she was far too preoccupied with something... or someone on the far side of the room. She didn't need three guesses to figure out who it was before she even followed Tara's gaze. Sitting on the other side of the room was Willow Rosenberg, cradling her own cup of coffee as though it were life. Her skin was a similar shade of grey to Tara's. Faith grunted in exasperation.
"What in tarnation are you two doing to each other?" Faith asked, then her face suddenly lit up and she grabbed Tara's shoulder to force her to met her gaze, "You went against my advice didn't you? Well, if I were you I would've too... but damn T! I got to tell you, if you two are shagging you've really got to get over yourselves and lighten up!"
"Faith please... that's not it at all," Tara began, not wanting to endure one of the brunette's blunt conversations.
"Then what is it?" Faith asked insistently, "Either spit it out or quit looking like death warmed up."
"She is sleeping with someone," Tara replied in a small, bland voice, "But it's not me."
"Really? Who?" Faith's curiosity perked up, her eyes gleamed as she leaned forward.
"It doesn't matter," Tara replied, wishing Faith would leave her alone, It's not me, that's all I know... and I hate myself for wishing it was.
"Come on Maclay..." Faith pried just a little more.
Tara spun on her, her coffee slashing over her hand with the movement but she ignored the scalding heat, "Just shut the hell up Faith! Don't you know when to quit?"
Faith raised both her hands in defeat and moved away from Tara slightly lest she find herself on the receiving end of an angry right hook. She settled for throwing the redheaded captain on the other side of the room the most evil glances she could muster. If anyone deserved to be happy it was Tara and as far as Faith could tell, Willow Rosenberg was making her life a complete misery. Either that or they were inflicting it on themselves... two equally guilty parties. Faith groaned inwardly, wishing she could just sit the two of them down and force them to spit out everything they were feeling. Or maybe they could just cut to the chase and have sex... Faith found that always worked very nicely when you had been tiptoeing around someone for much longer than was necessary.
Willow stopped trying to cast discreet little glances at Tara when Faith took up staring at her intently. The look on her face said she was about ready to come and tear Willow's throat out. She ducked her head, letting her hair fall over her face so she couldn't even see the blonde out the corner of her eye. She resumed staring at her coffee, sure that fairly soon the whole ship would know that she and Tad Dempster were a couple. Willow groaned inwardly.
"Hey Will," Alex lent over and jabbed her in the arm, "Why is Faith throwing daggers at you? I hate to tell you but if I were you, I'd be running for the first porthole!"
Willow shrugged, not wanting to let another person in on the mornings embarrassment. She was spared from further questions as Boone and Tad walked in, all twelve pairs of eyes from Slayer and Devil squadrons turned to the front of the room expectantly as Boone unfolded his notes.
Willow kept her eyes locked on Boone the whole time and yet she could still tell that Tad was avoiding her gaze. She was angry at herself for no having the guts to run after Tara and make her listen until she had explained exactly what had happened. Boone cleared his throat and Willow chided herself for letting inappropriate thoughts intrude on what was a formal briefing.
Boone continued as Willow tuned in, "We've been receiving garbled transmissions from a merchant convoy somewhere to our north since yesterday afternoon and have finally managed to get a fix on their position. For the past two days they have been under heavy attack and their destroyer escort has been lost. They're requesting air cover to escort them the last league of their journey north and I'm dispatching the Slayer and the Devils. You will rendezvous with the convoy which is approximately fifty miles to the north east and accompany them to..." Boone paused and looked as though he were searching for an exit but came up a complete blank, "Well... you will accompany them to their destination."
Willow frowned and noticed confused looks on the faces of everyone around her. Weren't they going to be informed of the convoy's destination? She wondered who would be the first to speak up and was about to raise her own hand. Boone however, sensed this mood amongst his pilot and his face as he stared at them answered the unspoken question. He wasn't going to tell them a thing.
"Your assignment is escort... not pursuit. Be vigilant... and good luck."
"Sir," Buffy piped up, "What is the convoy carrying?"
"That's irrelevant Summers, all you need to know is that it is imperative that convoy reaches its destination," Buffy nodded, suitably chastised and Boone nodded with an air of finality, "Well, what are you all waiting for... suit up, you're moving out in fifteen minutes," Boone's tone was deadly serious, "Don't go chasing anything, stick to the convoy and return to the Odysseus as soon as you are told. Am I understood?"
There was a chorus of 'yessirs' around the room and the sound of a dozen chairs scraping backwards in haste.
Tara watched Willow's back as she left ahead of her. She wished she could say something as simple as 'stay safe'... but it was by no means that simple.
"It's Tad Dempster," Tara said quietly as she and Faith rode the elevator up to the flight deck with Tara's Gullstrike.
"Huh?" Faith asked as she tugged on her thick woollen gloves, she couldn't hear the blonde over the whirring of the elevator mechanism.
"Willow is sleeping with Tad Dempster," Tara said a little more loudly and blushed when she did so, "I know you said she went for women but I saw her coming out of his cabin this morning in her pyjamas..." when she said it aloud, Tara realised how stupid it sounded... and how much it hurt.
Faith suddenly laughed and Tara looked at her in surprise, Faith was laughing at her misery? Tara ducked her head in shame but Faith just reached over and cupped her chin, tilting her heaad back upwards.
"Did you stop to ask them what had happened?" Faith asked, trying to stop herself laughing, "Or did you just turn tail and run?"
"What?" Tara asked, her cheeks warming with embarrassment at the mere thought of asking such a question, "What was I supposed to ask?"
"Well, 'have you two be fucking?' is always a good one. Short and to the point... usually you can judge the answer just by their reaction."
"Faith!" Tara growled, about to put an end to the conversation before it went even further into 'don't go there' territory. Faith also knew full well that she hated the use of such crude language.
"Sorry T!" Faith lightly brushed Tara's arm as the elevator locked into place, level with the flight deck. The deck crew quickly moved to unlock the folded wings.
Faith followed Tara as she moved around to the cockpit. Tara scrambled easily onto the wing of the plane and from there she climbed into the Gullstrike's tiny cockpit, lowering herself down with her arms until she was in snugly. Faith clambered up after her and took the job normally done by the deck crew, helping Tara fit her harness straps securely.
"I was just asking because I don't think that anything is going on between them," Faith almost sounded as though she were sorry for getting Tara so riled up. When Tara looked up with a look on her face that was so innocent and hopeful, Faith finally did feel a little sorry for her tactlessness, "Dempster is in charge of the night watch most nights... and I know he was last night because I saw him while I was out... err, visiting someone... so he and Willow can't have been doing what you thought they were up to last night, he was on duty. You really should find out the facts before you jump to conclusions T."
Tara was reluctant to get her hopes up, "But they could still be..."
"T," Faith said firmly, "Quit it with the self-torture, they're not sleeping together. Like I said, Red doesn't do stick. There," Faith checked that the last strap was firmly tightened, "You're good to go."
"Thanks," Tara said weakly as Faith jumped down.
Tara looked out from her cockpit to where the brightly painted red Draken's sat on the other side of the flight deck. Willow was checking that her wings had been folded down correctly much to the disgust of the deck sergeant who insisted that the job had been done by the book. She saw the redhead flash the man a quick grin as if to say sorry before she climbed up onto the wing of her aircraft. Just before she climbed into the cockpit she glanced around to check everything was in order with the rest of the Devils.
She doesn't do stick... but that doesn't mean that she wants to do me... Tara sighed, remembering the way Willow's body had felt pressed against hers in the dream, the taste of her lips from their all too brief kiss.
She was lost for a few moments staring at Willow before she saw Buffy gesturing wildly, Tara realised she was supposed to be warming up her engine already. As the huge machine coughed and roared into life at the flick of a switch Tara wished that this mess between her and Willow had been sorted out before they set out.
She wasn't afraid to die... but she was afraid of dying and never knowing what it was like to hold someone she loved close in her arms for real.
"There's the convoy below," Willow glanced out her cockpit window and saw the fleet on the ocean below.
She noticed that several of the merchantmen were heavily damaged, one was listing to the side and lagging behind the rest. Their destroyer escort was nowhere to be seen and Willow had the horrible feeling that those ships had been sunk at some stage in the journey. She drew in a deep breath and looked out either side of her cockpit window to see the rest of the Devils sitting in a perfect covering formation.
"This is Devil Captain to convoy," Willow hailed the convoy.
"Convoy... Devil...aptain, boy are we ever... to see you chaps," came the relieved voice over a broken radio contact.
"Well, we've got your skies now," Willow said confidently, "Go make yourselves a cup of coffee and let us worry about the little green fuckers."
"...anks," the voice replied, "Over."
"Right, Devil Squadron form up to provide low level cover..." it was a totally redundant question but Willow wanted to do everything by the book, "Slayer squadron are going to keep altitude and cover our arses," she squinted upwards to see the black silhouettes of the six Gullstrikes at eleven o'clock.
"Too right we are," Buffy's voice came snappily over the radio, "Keep your eyes peeled everyone."
Half an hour later Willow's entire body was rigid with unreleased tension. She had been scanning the sky anxiously the entire time and yet had not seen on single thing. Yet she had been on edge the entire time. The fingers that gripped the stick had none of her usual casualness, rather they were white knuckled. Willow forced herself to calm down a little, relax her grip so that her fingers rested lightly on the cold metal. It lasted all of two seconds before she returned to her state of anxiety.
This isn't like me at all... since when have I ever flown like this... my first solo flight when I was seventeen? Not likely! Willow had been a natural from the moment she had sat in a cockpit, they had not been able to get her to come down from her first solo flight... not until she ran out of fuel. Then again... I've never been in combat before... never been shot at by anyone who actually wanted to kill me.
"Convoy to Flight... we've reached our destination," a voice snapped Willow out her reverie, "Thanks so much for seeing us here safely."
"Just doing our jobs," Willow replied, squinting as she peered downwards to see where the ships had arrived, Like we did so much!
There was absolutely nothing in sight and Willow wondered if they had the wrong co-ordinates. However, one by one the ships in the convoy disappeared... not all at once, just very gradually. It was a weird sight to see an eight hundred foot long ship disappearing as though it were being erased in a sketchbook. Willow had to blink a few times to realise that they were indeed gone.
It only took her a moment to realise what had happened. It was a net... just the same as the one that covered the Fifth fleet. What it disguised however, Willow had no idea... but she had much better things to do than hang around and sate her curiosity.
"Righto chaps," It was the Odysseus over the radio, "Job's done... now get back to the carrier pronto."
"I don't need to be told that twice!" Charlie said in a relieved voice, "Just being out here gives me the creeps."
"It's still our sky," Willow replied bluntly, kicking the Draken into a sharp turn about, "Let's keep it that way."
"The fleet should be just ahead, the net will be opening shortly to let us through," Buffy's voice sounded over the comm.
"No sign of hostiles either," Alex added in what sounded like a very relieved voice.
"Runnin' scared, c'mon where are these little green men holed up?" William said earnestly, "I wanna tear some up."
"Cut the chatter Devil 4," Willow snapped, if the enemy chose not to engage then she thank her lucky stars, "Summers, can you see anything?"
"Nothing except your little red arses," Buffy replied from where Slayer squadron was circling above.
Willow still couldn't see the fleet and yet she knew it was somewhere just ahead, a small light flash on her cockpit panel indicating that the net was about to open, "Good, approach is clear... window opening in ten seconds, nine... eight... seven..."
"Summers... we've got company!" It was one of the other Slayer pilots, "Hugging the ocean, to the left and moving away..."
Willow had to make a split second decision and she aborted the re-entry through the net and banked, the rest of the Devils followed suit in formation.
She saw the low lying black shape, her first glimpse of what they were up against. It fitted the description that Boone had given them perfectly although there was something about it that made her shiver. Willow was fascinated by all manner of flying machines but she would most certainly not be disappointed if she never saw this one again. She didn't care how it stayed in the air, or how it handled... all she wanted to know was how easy they were to destroy.
Willow remembered Boone's careful warning about pursuit. Even though it was just one lone plane she fought back the urge to order the whole squadron to chase after and gun down the single LGF. It would be so easy...
"Re-form Devils, we're going through the net... Summers, Devils are standing down, advise the Slayers do the same," Willow fervently hoped that Buffy would follow her lead ever though she knew full well that the Slayer captain hated taking orders as much as she did.
"Rosenberg," was all Buffy said, but Willow recognised the tone as an affirmative one.
Willow recognised Dennis' voice over the radio and she glanced out to her left to see Dennis peeling out of formation. He dove in the direction of the lone Martian, still moving away.
"God dammit Dennis, get your ass back here!" Willow yelled furiously into her mask.
The young man wasn't replying. Either he had switched off his radio or was ignoring her. Willow watched the red plane continue to dive on the lone black shape hugging the water below.
However, Dennis had already pulled into a perfect firing position. He let the Martian plane have short bursts from his cannons. The black shape had time to bank once before the bullets tore into it. Willow watched from above as its wing disintegrated and the black shape slipped into a spiral. Before it plunged towards a watery grave, it caught fire and exploded violently. All that was left to hit the waters surface were a few fiery fragments.
"Hoorah!" Dennis' excited voice sounded loud in Willow's ears and she gritted her teeth.
She watched the Draken perform a victory roll, much to close to the sea's surface for her liking. Just as Dennis had straightened out Willow heard the very last thing she wanted to hear at that moment and yet she had been sub-consciously waiting for it,
It's a trap...
"Company!" Buffy's voice came yelling urgently over the radio, "Twelve o'clock high... they're in the sun... move your arses down there!"
"Break, break break!" Willow yelled an urgent warning just as she looked up and saw the dark shapes descending on them from the sun.
She kicked the Draken into a desperate right turn just in time to see blue tracer lights go whizzing past her wing. At that moment, as all hell broke loose, it was every person for themselves.
Tara looked in horror down to her left as the small swarm of Martians descended on the tiny Drakens far below. She watched each of the Drakens make frantic turns to escape the diving planes, they broke formation and scattered as blue tracer lights went flying past them. She watched the lead Draken... Willow's... bank a sharp right, diving with a Martian hard on her tail.
Buffy! Tara looked desperately in the direction of the Gullstrike sitting at the head of the formation, willing her to give the order to assist the beleaguered Devils.
"Slayers, lets show these LGFs why its not good manners to sneak up on our friends," Buffy's voice came over the radio and Tara heaved a sigh of relief, "Watch out for each other down there."
When Tara opened the Gullstrike's throttle as far as it would go and dived, feeling the familiar and wonderful surge of adrenalin go surging through her body. When she was in the air it was all too easy to forget who she really was and it was almost as though she was an entirely different person in the air. While never ambitious to the point of being reckless, Tara could handle any plane as though it were simply an extension of her own body. She made all the manual adjustments to the controls with her own hands and feet and yet it was as though she were thinking them.
Diving, the Gullstrike was the fastest plane in Air Command and the faster the better in Tara's book. She scanned the sky below and saw one of the dark shapes on the tail of a frantically swerving Draken. Tara slipped in behind the black plane, lining it up in her sights. Just as she was about to jab her thumb down on the trigger it was gone.
Tara blinked, did these planes just disappear in mid air?
Blue lights flashing past her cockpit told her differently as she realised it had simply climbed and turned the tables on her. She gritted her teeth, annoyed that her all too abundant pride had allowed something intent on killing her to get into a position where it could do so.
Their tiny patch of sky was a tangled jungle of planes. Black interspaced with blue and red, each one ducking and weaving in an effort to kill or stay alive.
Willow had tried nearly every trick she knew in order to cease being the target of the aggravating blue lights that kept shooting past her plane as she twisted and turned. Sweat beaded on her brow and her hands grew slippery inside her gloves but still she kept her grip tight, her hand steady.
Willow saw a flash of red from the corner of her eye, she looked to see Dennis' Draken take several hits on the wing. She took her eyes off his plane for a few moments as she swerved again to avoid the plane that was on her tail before she could try and come to his aid. A huge explosion suddenly rocked her Draken, Willow pulled up just in time to avoid the flying debris from an exploding plane. Her eyes widened when she realised what had happened.
"Dennis... goddammit!" Willow slapped her thigh with her palm.
As she continued to pull upwards to gain some height, she heard a crackling voice over her radio,
"This is the Odysseus to all planes, your orders are to get out of there as soon as possible. Windows are going to be opened in the net just in time for each of you to get through."
"This is Slayer captain, affirmative Odysseus," Buffy looked at her dangerously low fuel levels, About time! Any longer and we would've been flying on fumes only.
Buffy heard Willow's reply a few seconds later, the other captain sounded a little exhausted.
Willow turned the plane towards the net, she could see absolutely nothing and yet she knew it was there. If whoever was controlling the huge pink cloud didn't time this right...
She saw a Gullstrike disappear into the net in front of her, the window closed immediately behind it and the Martian that had been tailing the plane suddenly disintegrated. In a ball of flame it was gone and Willow shivered as she pushed the throttle forward as far as it would go.
Crispy fried Willow... just what I always wanted to be...
Suddenly she heard an explosion behind her and realised that she had already passed through the net. Willow turned slightly to see that it had closed right on the Martian on her tail. She sighed with relief and turned for the Odysseus, lined up just ahead of her.
However, she saw a Gullstrike engaged in a low level dogfight with a Martian that had slipped through the net. Willow's heart was in her throat for whoever it was, weaving between the masts of the Fleet.
Instead of having a heart attack when she realised that a lone Martian had slipped through the net behind her, Tara had simply kicked the Gullstrike into a dive. She took her plane down, low to the water so that there would be no danger of flying smack into the net from the inside.
Although arguably she had just created a bigger problem for herself by having to dodge the Fleet, Tara calmly steered between the hulking ships. She banked sharply to avoid the Nestor's radio mast and allowed herself a quick glance over her shoulder to see the awful shape still there. Tara gritted her teeth when she formed her plan, sending the plane upwards and straight at the net.
The pink glow came closer and closer until it was all she could see around her, just as she was about to hit she violently jerked the stick and cut the throttle. The Gullstrike fell into a sideways slip away from the deadly glow. Tara saw sparks fly as the Martian also turned but not fast enough, it scraped the net... The Gullstrike slipped into a spin and she blacked out as the blood rushed from her head.
Seconds later she came to, finding the controls heavy in her grip as the plane plunged downwards. With a grunt of effort, Tara regained control. The stick felt as though it were mired in glue when she pulled back up just in time to avoid an impromptu swim.
"Nice one Maclay," it was Buffy's voice over the radio and Tara realised that the Martian had not survived its brush with the net. She allowed herself a small sigh of relief.
As fate would have it however, the Gullstrike's engine began to protest, coughing and spluttering. The controls felt sluggish and Tara's gaze fell on the needle of her fuel gauge. It was sitting well past empty.
"This is Slayer four to the Odysseus, you'd better clear the deck because I'm landing this thing right now!"
Willow watched as the Gullstrike touched down perfectly while she circled the carrier.
She looked out behind her and saw the remaining four Devils circling with her. Dennis, the poor chap, was gone.
There would be time later to reflect on what had happened, right now she had to get her bird down too. As soon as Tara's Gullstrike had taxied forward over the crash barriers, Willow set up for her approach. As she went through all the pre-landing checks and re-checks that she knew by heart, Willow's mind wandered to the mysterious blonde. On the ground she was so timid... almost to the point of being invisible. Yet get her in a plane and she was amazing! Willow didn't think it was possible for someone to have such a remarkably different flying personality.
She can fly me like that anytime, as soon as the thought had entered her mind Willow banished it with an angry retort, Damn the blonde!
She was still thinking of the blonde after she touched down and taxied over the crash barriers. Just when she was about to completely lose herself in irreverent and wanton thoughts of naked limbs, the image of Dennis's Draken going up in a ball of flames came back to her. An image that she had been doing her best to shut out of her thoughts.
Willow had shut off the Draken's engine, the prop blades had stopped spinning, and forced herself to get all thoughts of the blonde from her head. The fast, frantic combat played out in her mind like a movie reel. In black and white... rewind... close call... too many close calls. Their enemy was fast, much faster than a Draken or a Gullstrike. The strange black plane's movements were unnaturally abrupt and difficult to predict. However... Willow remembered several weaknesses which she could analyse to Air Commands best advantage. Her fist port of call would be her office to write a detailed report on the combat... accompanied by a glass of whiskey or something equally as strong.
Suddenly she heard the screeching of metal behind her and she looked out the side of her cockpit to see Alex's Draken coming in at a dangerous velocity... much too fast. The bat man was waving his bright orange bats in an effort to get the plane to pull up. Willow saw dark black smoke start to billow from the exhausts, the engine spluttered and died completely just before the aircraft ploughed into the deck. It missed all the arrestor wires, continuing its dangerous slide straight into the first crash barrier. As always the first barrier broke, the wires snapping and flying dangerously close to crewmen who had to dive into the crash nets off the side of the deck in order to avoid disaster.
The plane slammed into the second barrier, still sliding and it strained against the wires. They held, the Draken was brought to a tangled halt. Willow saw no sign of any movement from the cockpit.
"Alex!" Willow hissed, throwing off her harness straps.
She leapt straight to the deck from her cockpit, she let out a small cry as her poor leg buckled beneath her. Ignoring the shooting pains coursing up her leg, Willow scrambled between the wires of the crash barrier in an effort to reach her friend.
Alex's cockpit was still locked in place and Willow fought angrily with the catch on the outside. She gave a cry of frustration as it refused to budge. She received a fright when the engine suddenly caught alight, just a small flame and yet in mere seconds it was almost too hot to stay where she was.
"Alex!" Willow cried before she hurriedly drew out her pistol from the holster inside her jacket.
She broke the canopy with the butt of the gun before using both it and her gloved hands to clear the remainder of the jagged glass from around the edges of the canopy frame. Willow tossed the gun aside and hastily undid the unconscious man's harness straps. Once she had freed him from the restraints, she grabbed Alex around his upper torso. Trying with every ounce of strength she possessed, she heaved him upwards. Willow grunted loudly with effort, heaving and straining until she managed to half him half the way out. Sweat beaded on her forehead and the fire licked even closer. At any moment she feared the whole plane would erupt in a ball of flame, consuming them both.
"Alex!" Willow yelled in the young man's face, "You've got to help me, I can't do this by myself!"
Alex's eyes fluttered open and Willow thanked her lucky stars he didn't panic at the flames so close to them. Pushing weakly with his arms, he managed to lever himself out of the cockpit. Willow pulled as well and they both tumbled free of the cockpit, Willow went crashing down onto the wing with Alex falling on top of her.
Willow struggled out from beneath him to see that he had passed out again. Grabbing him beneath his arms she struggled to drag him away from the fire but she was so very tired. Her breaths came in laboured gasps and she could hardly stand her own weight on her leg let alone drag Alex's weight. He felt as though he weighed a ton as she dragged him inch by inch away from the unbearable heat.
Just as she feared she couldn't get him away fast enough there were hands grabbing him away from her. Willow fell backwards as two burly deck hands grabbed Alex and carried him out of harm's way. Someone helped Willow up, an arm around her back. She had just barely started her feet moving when the finally Draken went up. A wave of heat flew past her, blowing her forward and face first into the deck. Whoever was helping her picked her back up again and dragged her to a safe distance.
Willow rolled over onto her back and watched the shell of the Draken stubbornly burning even as a swarm of men with fire extinguishers moved around it. It was a twisted, gnarled mess... totally unsalvageable. With a wince Willow managed to scramble to her feet, her knee buckled slightly but she held herself up by sheer force of will power. The crew man who had helped her was standing beside her, she turned to look at him blankly. It was only when she saw his lips moving that she realised he was shouting at her.
"Sir, are you alright?" he demanded loudly, almost shouting in her ear, "Captain Rosenberg!"
Willow wasn't ignoring him as she couldn't hear him... the only thing she could hear in her ears was the echo of the deafening explosion as Alex's Draken had gone up in flames. Staring vacantly into space, she was too shell struck to wonder if she'd gone deaf. Willow scanned the deck, the still burning wreckage surrounded by men trying to fight the fire with extinguishers. It was hot, the smoke burned her lungs and she turned away from it. She took one step forward and stumbled slightly, feeling as awkward as a newborn foal. Through the smoke she saw a figure standing watching her, blonde hair swirling about. It was Tara...
Unless Willow was mistaken she was sure that the look on the blonde's face was relieved... relieved to find that Willow was alright? Willow tried to lift a foot as though to make her way towards the blonde but it wouldn't move. Instead she just smiled slightly and nodded. Tara returned the smile, just the barest movement of her lips before she moved away. Willow sighed, in relief or exasperation she couldn't tell. All she knew for sure was that what she was feeling was beginning to feel suspiciously unlike a simple desire for sex with the beautiful blonde. Her gut wrenched painfully, her insides felt as though they were mush... and not just from the adrenaline that had surged through her while she was pulling Alex from the burning plane.
She blinked, knowing that she probably appeared awfully silly staring at nothing and looked around her to find that the medics had Alex strapped to a stretcher. She quickly moved to his side, relived to see him awake and talking. He smiled when he saw her approach.
"My gorgeous saviour," he said as she took his hand between her own grimy mitts.
"You would have done the same for me Harris," Willow managed a smile for her friend's sake, "Besides, I kinda like having you around me."
"I make you look good don't I?" he asked as the medics picked him up.
Willow shrugged playfully and followed them as they moved him towards the elevator. Keeping his hand within her own. When she looked briefly over her shoulder, she couldn't see Tara anywhere.
Willow sat in her office after seeing Alex all the way to the medical bay and having herself checked out as well. She had protested that others were far worse off than she but one of the docs had insisted on checking her ears. After being proclaimed fine, Willow had been grateful to make her exit and retreat somewhere where it was quiet.
Her ears still rang, the doc told her it might take up to days for the ringing to stop. She collapsed in her chair and tugged her singed mittens off. Willow felt a sharp twinge of pain when she did so. A small shard of glass was protruding from her left palm, a residue of clearing the canopy glass from the rim of Alex's cockpit. She hadn't even realised at the time and even now she felt very little pain. She winced slightly as she drew it out. A sudden rush of blood followed after it finally popped out of her skin. Willow watched it flow down her palm and drip onto the floor for a few moments.
After a few moments, she had the clarity of mind to reach into one of her desk drawers and fumble for a first aid kit. Awkwardly she patched herself up with a bandage and some messily applied tape. It wasn't a pretty job by any means but it stemmed the flow of blood well enough.
She threw the kit on the desk, a voice sounded out from behind her and she spun in her chair to see Dennis standing outside the office door. For a few moments her eyes widened in surprise, she stood slowly.
"What happened, I thought you'd brought it for sure," not exactly the most enthusiastic greeting on Willow's part and yet it was all she could manage.
"Managed to kick the canopy off and bail out," Dennis replied, "Didn't have time to think about how low I was... it wasn't until I was floating in the water that I realised my chute only just opened in time."
"Are you alright?" Willow asked the sodden young man.
He nodded timidly, "The doc checked me out... not a scratch. I was lucky enough to bail out right in the fleets path and the launched picked me up... otherwise I might very well still be bobbing like a cork out there," both Dennis and Willow shuddered at the thought of being left alone in the ocean with nothing but a dinghy, "I was born under a lucky star I guess."
Dennis padded a little closer in his wet socks, clutching a thick woollen blanket around his shaking shoulders. His lips were blue, his skin whiter than chalk and his hair plastered to his head like a newly born baby. For just a moment Willow wanted to scoop him into her arms like a stray lamb and tell him how glad she was to find him still in one piece... still alive after fearing that he had died as his plane smashed into the ocean.
Instead, her fist clenched with anger. Anger at what he had done... the way he had ignored her orders in order to chase after that lone Martian that had turned out to be the bait for a trap. A trap that had resulted in the loss of four planes, the death of two pilots. Willow crossed the floor space between them and without warning she let go a huge right hook. Her fist made contact with the young man's jaw and he fell backwards, landing with a thud on the hanger floor.
She had to fight the urge to jump up and down as her fist smarted painfully. Instead she settled for folding her arms, tucking the tender fist into the crook her arm as she glared down at Dennis.
He scrambled to a sitting position, the blanket fallen to the floor as he looked up at her. His eyes were watery and he held his hand over his nose to stem the trickle of blood that had begun to flow.
"If you ever disobey my orders again then you'll be lucky if all you end up with is a bloody nose," Willow said in a harsh voice, her mind occupied with thoughts of Alex's plane going up in flames... dragging his limp body clear just in time.
"They killed my parents!" he half-yelled back, as loudly as he dared in the face of his angry captain, "I couldn't let them get away with it!"
"Yes you could!" Willow said angrily, her mood fuelled by thoughts of her own parents. She was barely concealing her frustration... she would have gone after the lone Martian with barely a second thought had she not been the one in charge of five other pilots safety, "For the sake of the rest of the squadron... yes you could!"
"They killed your family too!" Dennis protested, "Don't you want to kill them?"
God yes! "Every single last one of them," Willow turned her head aside and whispered fiercely. She turned back to look at Dennis with fire in her eyes, "But I will not go about it like an angry child!" Reaching down she grabbed the young man by the scruff of his collar and dragged him roughly to his feet, his eyes were wide with surprise more than pain, "You cannot ignore orders just for your own sake, they are for a good reason, any fool could see it was a trap. So they probably killed your parents along with millions of other people... deal with it in your own time. Cry, crochet a few doilies... whatever... just don't ever put my life or the lives of your squadron in danger like that... if you ever pull a stupid stunt like that again there will be far more serious consequences than just my fist in your face!"
"I-I'm sorry," Dennis stuttered weakly, "My brain was screaming at me, telling me it was a trap but once I started diving... I couldn't pull out... Captain Rosenberg sir, it won't happen again..."
"You're damn right it won't, now go get cleaned up before I lose my temper again," Willow let go and he stumbled backwards.
With one last look over his shoulder he broke into a fast walk. Once he was out of sight, Willow lent back against the fuselage of a nearby Draken and her shoulders sagged with the weight of what she had just had to do. Dennis was a nice young kid... probably too nice for war and all that it entailed. Willow felt the responsibility of her position, the men that depended on her to get them through this nightmare... she felt old beyond her years.
"Rosenberg," Willow jumped slightly when she heard her name.
She looked up to see Buffy standing in front of her, still wearing her flight gear, on edge as though she had little time to spare. She also wore an odd expression that looked suspiciously like desperation.
Buffy's reply caused Willow to gape stupidly like the child she had just accused Dennis of being,
"I need your help."