Author: Amber Lee
Willow Rosenberg hadn't meant for her world to change that day.
For one thing, she hadn't been expecting it, either. She hadn't expected that crack to the head, the kick in the gut that woke her up on that evening . But as soon as she saw those blue eyes, peering shyly from between blonde bangs, as soon as their eyes had met, blue on green, and her heart had given a strange jolt that she'd never felt before, Willow knew that her world was about to be turned upside down.
The funny thing was that she was looking forward to it.
"The Shadow Snake?"
Willow's tone was sceptical as she stared at Faith, one of her fellow Puppies. Faith's long, dark hair was up, rare for her, and twisted into some fangled new style she was testing. Her long pony tail offered a good grip for an opponent, but, Willow saw, with amusement, that Faith had braided in a spiked band, discouraging anyone who had the idea. Both she and Faith wore the typical Dog outfit- a black tunic with short sleeves, black breeches, and black boots. The white trim at the edge of their sleeves marked them as Puppies, trainees in the Provost's Guard.
Faith nodded enthusiastically, pony tail bobbing, and grinned, her teeth flashing in the fading sunlight. "Yup. You know, the rats that were kidnapping all the little mites ten years back, or so?"
"Aye," Willow answered, her tone adding the implied duh. "The one Beka Cooper hunted down."
"Aye. Amazing, the little terrier." Faith's brown eyes sparkled with admiration.
Willow laughed. "I wouldn't be calling her 'little', Faith. She's a good nine years older than us."
Faith made a face at her best friend. "Maybe so, but soon, we'll be just as important! Both of us, true legends! Just like Beka!" Her eyes shone with her enthusiasm.
Willow grinned, knowing that Faith was indulging in another one of her fantasies. But, Willow also knew that if Faith and she were to reach Beka's status of fame, they would have to work curst hard to do so.
On her first year as a Puppy, Rebeka Cooper had hunted, and caught, the Shadow Snake, a group of rats - May the Black God reject their souls, Willow thought vehemently - that had kidnapped, held hostage, and murdered several children in the Lower City. Beka had been on that trail like a true Dog, not giving up until she had tracked them down. Yates, the man in charge, had ended up dead, and his companions either joining him in that fate, or caught, and put in the cages. Beka's story had quickly circulated around the city of Corus. Willow wouldn't ever admit it, but it was Beka's story that had finally convinced her to take up work as a dog instead of taking a milder job that most young women in Corus would.
"Faith, don't be a cracknob. You'd better prove to me now that you've got some sense in that pretty little head of yours, elsewise I might have to give you a good nap tap."
Willow looked up at the sound of the familiar voice, and grinned at the blonde Puppy making her way towards them. She plopped herself down on the bench on which Faith and Willow were seated,
"Hey, Buffy." Willow couldn't help but keep grinning when she saw Faith's disgruntled expression.
"Oh, please," Faith muttered to Buffy, scowling. "You couldn't catch me if you tried."
"I wouldn't be so sure. We're talking about you, here, not Wills." Buffy slung a friendly arm around Willow's shoulders, and pulled her into a one-armed hug of greeting. "She's the fastest of us all."
"Are not. You're the strongest." Willow flushed with pleasure at the compliment, and smiled at her blonde best friend.
"Is not! I'm the strongest!" Faith was indignant, and she was unconsciously pouting, her full lips twisted into a frown that was common for her.
Buffy grinned, and wrapped her free arm around Faith, pulling her into an embrace. "No, that's me. You're the best at being the most annoying."
Faith's lips twitched towards a smile. "I don't know, B. How about I'm the best at being so jaw-droppingly attractive that all those rushers can't help but stop and stare at me?"
The three burst simultaneously into a fit of giggles.
Willow laughed along with her two best friends, and felt a warm glow in her chest. This- this was what she had been missing before joining the Guards. Friendship. Companionship. Being cared for. Love.
And in that brief moment, Willow felt that her life was complete- nothing could make her any happier than she was in that moment. She knew in her heart that she wouldn't change anything about her life, no matter the enticement of the offer.
How very wrong she was.
Willow shot Faith a dark look. "Hush, you looby. You're going to get us both in trouble!"
"But it's so boring!" Faith made no effort to lower her voice-in fact, she seemed to raise it just to spite Willow- and Willow leapt forward, clapping a hand over the brunette's mouth.
"Shh!" She hissed. "Shut your gob, you cracknob. I want to keep my job, thank-you very much! Mithros, Buffy was right- you are the most annoying!"
Faith scowled. "But, Willwo-" She began to protest, her voice muffled by Willow's palm.
"Shhhh!" Willow insisted, glancing almost fearfully at their partners' backs. They didn't turn, unaware to the squabble their Puppies were engaged in, their eyes still scanning the streets with practised alertness.
Willow gingerly removed her hand, green eyes still watching Faith warily. "You know the rules, Faith! Why can't you follow them?"
Faith rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah." Her voice rose, pitch increasing, an insulting imitation of Kebibi Ahuda, the stocky Carthak woman who was the Watch Sergeant of Jane Street Kennel, and also Willow, Faith, Buffy, and their fellow Puppies' combat training master. "'Speak when you're spoken to. Keep out of the way. Obey all orders. Get killed on your own time'." Her voice lowered to its normal pitch, still too loud. "I don't see why we have to follow this pig scummer!"
"Faith!" Willow gasped, horrified, as she returned her hand back to its place over her mouth with amazing speed. "Shut up! I like my head where it is! You know, attached to my neck!"
Faith opened her mouth to reply-a nasty retort, no doubt- but the voice of Evelyn, their female training dog, effectively snapped her mouth shut.
"I'd better not be hearing noise, Puppies. Look sharp, you ducknobs, and take out your batons. I hear a brawl up ahead."
Faith's mouth opened again-by the way her eyes flashed, Willow could tell she was not partial to being referred to as a 'ducknob'- but Willow, who had drawn her baton, gave her a very conspicuous smack on her arm. Rubbing her arm, and grimacing at the redhead beside her, Faith pulled out her baton, and fell silent.
Evelyn had been right. Ten yards down, a group of rushers were brawling near the fountain in the center of one of the main squares. Willow and Faith followed their training dogs, who were roughly shouldering their way through the crowd, to the middle of the circle.
"Stay out of the way. Only fight if we seem to be in danger, or to protect yourself," Evelyn ordered as she and Eagle Eye, their male training dog, strode towards the fight.
Faith immediately lost her fighting stance, slouching as she watched with disgruntled eyes. "We never get to do anything!" She complained loudly, much to the amusement of some of the closer witnesses.
Willow held her defensive stance. "Quiet, Faith, and pay attention. That attitude'll only get you knifed in a back alley."
"Maybe," Faith replied morosely. "But at least I'll be out of my misery."
Willow sighed, her eyes on the brawlers, who were being smartly detangled, and knocked down by their Dogs, and her eyes suddenly zeroed in on a slender figure slumped on the cobblestone amongst the rats, loosely curled in an attempt to protect herself, one arm wrapped around her head in an attempt to protect it. Willow narrowed her eyes- now that wasn't right- and saw, with a sudden icy feeling in the pit of her stomach, that the ground around the figure-definitely female- was stained crimson.
"Oy, Faith." Willow elbowed her disinterested partner urgently in the ribs to get her attention. "Today might be your lucky day. Lookie." She pointed with one finger towards the girl on the ground.
Faith grinned. "Ooh, a wounded one! Let's get 'er!"
Willow grabbed her enthusiastic friend before she rushed off, catching her by the arm. Her eyes were still fixed on the girl-she didn't seem to be moving, and that worried Willow to the point that her stomach was doing little flips of anxiety. "Hey, slow down there, partner! I need you to cover my back. I'll go in first, get the girl, and you make sure we don't get killed on the way."
"Sounds good to me! More fighting to be had!" Faith did sound genuinely pleased, and Willow managed a half-smile in return.
"Fine, then. Come on." Gripping her baton, Willow broke into a run, Faith hot on her heels.
It wasn't hard for Willow to reach the girl on the ground. Most of the rats still standing were either too busy fighting back, or fleeing like the cowards they were, so most didn't notice the slender redhead slipping and dodging between them, jumping delicately over their fallen comrades. The ones that did notice were either not bothered by the seemingly non-threatening Puppy weaving her way among them, or were quickly taken down by either Willow or Faith.
Willow dropped to her knees next to the fallen girl, and quickly ran her eyes over her, searching for the source of the blood that covered both her and the ground. Willow noticed a large gash across her forehead, another on her arm, and, by the ginger way the girl cradled her right hand, it was either broken, or sprained. Willow couldn't help but notice how beautiful the girl was, despite her injuries, and as she gently touched the side of her neck, seeking a pulse, her heart gave a funny jump at the contact.
"Willow, hurry up!" Faith ordered as she dodged an attack, and then generously gave the rusher a perfectly-delivered nap tap; the man dropped, out cold, and Faith took the time to glance fleetingly over at her friend.
Willow nodded absently, and reached forward to brush back strands of blonde hair to further examine her for injuries. She didn't know why - as it certainly wasn't the most sensible thing in the world - but she was too concerned about the wounds to think properly. So she continued to kneel next to the girl like a jinglenob, checking her for injuries instead of getting her to safety as she should have.
"Willow!" Faith's demanding cry wrenched her to her senses, and Willow leaned forward, gathering the girl - Woman, she mentally corrected herself. She looks my age - into her arms.
It was somewhat of a struggle to stand, but Willow managed, staggering a bit under the woman's weight. Stars, she's heavier than she looks! Willow was comforted by the warmth of the body she cradled in her arms- it assured her that the woman was still alive and breathing, as did the somewhat disjointed rise and fall of her chest.
"Faith, cover me! Let's go!" Ducking her body slightly so her head and the woman was protected behind her shoulder, Willow began to run. Anyone who got in her way was rammed with an unforgiving shoulder. Each encounter knocked Willow off-balance, but she somehow managed to stay on her feet, and finally, finally, she and Faith broke through the last of the ranks, and into open space.
Still, Willow kept running, pushing her way through the crowd. Most moved out of the way for her, either at the sight of the bleeding girl in her arms, or Faith's baton, which she brandished threateningly when someone refused to move.
Willow ran a good distance before she finally felt safe enough to slow, and finally stop. She could hardly breathe, and she could hear Faith still struggling to catch up. Willow sagged against the closet wall, grateful for the support.
"M-Mithros, Willow!" Faith panted, pounding into view. She halted beside Willow, and doubled over, hands on her knees as she fought to reclaim her breath. "Did you have to go so fast?!"
Willow could only smile cynically in response before a quiet groan brought her attention back to the precious weight in her arms. Cautiously, Willow lowered herself to the ground, gently placing the woman onto the ground- she could imagine that waking up cradled in a stranger's arms, and a Puppy's at that, would be alarming- and waited.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the woman's eyelids fluttered while Willow watched, entranced. Finally, after what seemed to be an inner conflict, the woman squeezed her eyes shut once, and then opened them.
Willow's sharp intake of breath was the only sound in the silence as she found herself gazing into the most beautiful pair of blue eyes she had ever seen. The blue eyes hazy at first, slowly regained lucidity, and then widened as they took in the sight of the green-eyed Puppy staring back at them.
"Oh!" The woman gasped suddenly, bolting upright into a sitting position. Willow sprang backwards, away from her and into the wall, at the exact same time the woman jumped away from her. It took Willow a moment to calm her thundering heart, her eyes never leaving the woman, who looked strikingly like a hare in the shadow of a hawk, before she remembered why the woman would be so alarmed.
"O-Oh...I-I'm sorry...I didn't mean to frighten you! It's just that, you were all cut and bruised and bleeding, and I couldn't just leave you there in the middle of a brawl- I mean, how rude would that be? So me and Faith went in and got you, even though we probably shouldn't have, and we'll most likely get in trouble from our training dogs when we meet back at the Kennel, and...Oh, I should shut up now..."
Willow fell silent, abashed, wishing fiercely that she didn't babble when she was nervous, which she undoubtedly was now. It was strange, but she had a feeling something other than exertion was making her heart hammer in her chest in an unfamiliar, jagged tune, and making her cheeks flush a not-so-flattering red.
During the whole speech from Willow, the woman was quiet, her head cocked to the side as she studied Willow in silence. Her blue eyes were unreadable, but Willow was sure she saw her lips twitch towards a crooked smile.
"Mithros, Red, give the woman some time to wake up." Faith sauntered over to her best friend, and tossed her dark hair over her shoulders, eyeing Tara with something close to amusement. "Just ignore Willow. She doesn't shut up when she's nervous."
Willow shot Faith an acidic look. "Yes, Faith, thank-you."
Faith grinned, and shrugged. "Just keeping it real, Will."
Willow's next look was mingled irritation and a promise- a promise to get Faith back for that little comment. Faith arched her eyebrow in a silent challenge, and Willow answered by pulling back her lips in a fierce smile, more of a baring of her teeth. Faith laughed, and dropped to one knee, examining the woman.
"Stars, you don't look so good. It's a good thing Willow and me came and got you. You probably would've died before Evelyn or Eagle got to you...Ouch!"
Willow elbowed Faith in the ribs once more, but this time with more force. Faith recoiled with an annoyed "Hey!" but didn't retaliate, obviously getting the hint, as she saw how the woman had paled. "Oops..." She muttered, and then fell silent.
Willow gave her one last glare, and then turned her attention back to the woman, who unintentionally seemed to shrink away from her. Willow was quiet for a moment, speculating, and then gave her what she hoped was a warm smile.
"Just ignore Faith; she doesn't ever think about what she says. Are you okay? You definitely need healing, for sure, and we'll take you back to the Kennel...don't worry; I'll make sure they don't ask for any kind of payment. I'm Willow, by the way. " The last sentence was added after Willow realized she was most likely coming across as rude. "Puppy Rosenberg! Yup, that'd be me, and- Ouch!" Willow felt silent, shooting Faith a grateful glance, as the brunette and kicked her to get her to stop her babbling.
The blonde woman was quiet for a long moment, her sapphire eyes unfathomable. Unexpectedly, she offered Willow a hesitant - but still the most beautiful Willow had ever seen - smile.
"T-Tara..." She whispered, her smile almost wry. "I'm Tara."