I stare at the body lying face down on the floor. It's a must-have accessory for any hotel room truly aspiring to have that 'authentic' Basin City feel. Too quote the cliché, I've seen enough dead bodies in my time that this one should be completely unremarkable...and it would be, apart from the fact that it's on the floor of my hotel room. The pistol still held in a lifeless hand indicates that it was not meant to be a friendly visit.
"I've seen bodies in the Palace before," Faith remarked from where she stood to Tara's left.
She appeared just as unimpressed as Tara. Obviously the Palace was an establishment which had seen its fair share of dead bodies. The body was non-descript. It was just an ordinary looking guy wearing a crumpled suit. He lay on his back with a single bullet wound through the chest and blood had spread out across the carpet beneath him. Tara saw the look of annoyance on Faith's face and thought she was probably more worried about the bloodstain on the carpet and inconvenience of getting rid of the thing.
Faith stared at Anya, who was on the verge of hysterics and currently being consoled by Willow and Dawn. She decided she wouldn't get much out of the blonde woman and looked to another of the ladies who stood over the body with a grim expression.
"Mandy, where's the problem, couldn't you just dump it?" Faith demanded before her gaze travelled to Tara, a smirk appearing on her face, "You interrupted the live sex show that Willow and Tara were about to perform for the audience at Kitty's...nice show by the way, Willow."
Tara stifled a growl that warned Faith she was treading on very dangerous ground with her little joke. Still standing at Anya's side, Willow ducked her head in embarrassment. The redhead clutched her thick coat tightly around herself as underneath she still wore the same green set in which she had performed. Mandy did not appear concerned at Willow and Tara's combined embarrassment or for ruining Faith's fun, instead, she deftly flicked the guy's coat open with the toe of one of her pumps. That single movement changed everything. Faith's expression changed almost instantly from one of annoyance to one of barely contained apprehension bordering on horror. Gleaming on the inside of the guy's coat was a badge...a cop's badge.
"Why the fuck is there a dead cop in my place?" Faith directed her question to Mandy, who in turn inclined her head in Anya's direction as though the blonde was somehow at the root of the mess.
Everyone in the room had immediately understood what had changed when the stiff turned out to be a cop, especially Tara. It seemed as if the threat delivered by Glory's messenger a few days earlier was coming true...the cops were entering Old Town with something else on their mind other than a good time. If that wasn't enough to break the truth then the dead cop lying on the floor of a room in the Golden Palace certainly was.
"Anya?" Faith continued with her questioning, she was out to get the full picture before making any decisions, "Please tell me you didn't drive this guy to suicide?"
Anya responded by unleashing a hysterical stream of incomprehensible words and Dawn glared at Faith for provoking her, "Go easy on her Faith, she shot the guy okay! He broke into the Palace and when Anya went to check out the noise he shot at her...so she fired back."
Faith raised her eyebrows and replied calmly, not willing to accept such a completely implausible explanation, "Okay, two things, Anya. Firstly, quit it with the hysterics - it's making you look very unattractive, and secondly, since when did you start carrying a loaded gun around inside?"
Anya managed to compose herself suitably before she made a reply. As she did, Tara studied the scene, like any good cop would. She moved about the room taking a mental note of everything that appeared to be a part of the puzzle. The orientation of the stiff, the broken window and Anya's compact purse gun lying on the floor at her feet. She ended up standing by the window with her back to everyone else when Anya spoke.
"My last client had just left in a rather foul mood, he kept claiming he hadn't had his money's worth...even though he most certainly did! I had Lola and her girls escort him out," Anya spoke indignantly, as though she couldn't believe a customer of hers was not satisfied by her ministrations, "So when I heard the window break and all the banging and crashing next door here, I grabbed my gun thinking it was the bastard coming back."
"And decided to check it out for yourself?" Faith asked sceptically, "Anya, we don't keep you around here for your security skills...and you're not exactly known for your bravery. Why didn't you just call Lola?"
"Because any fucker who thinks I don't give good value for money deserves a lesson!" Anya snapped, stomping one of her bare feet for effect, "I walked in here and the bastard shot at me...I fired back but when I turned on the lights it wasn't him at all, it was this guy."
Anya pointed at the stiff and them folded her arms across her chest, over her flimsy, short nightgown. Tara frowned, nothing added up. She walked across to the body and hunkered down beside it. The bullet had entered his chest, leaving a substantial tear in the flesh.
"Tara?" Willow spoke up, so far she had said nothing since they had arrived on the scene.
Tara didn't reply, she stood and walked to the door where a single bullet had torn a chunk from the doorframe. Her fingers reached up and traced the splintered wood as she pursed her lips thoughtfully.
"You were standing in the doorway?" Tara's question was obviously directed at Anya, although she did not turn and face her.
"Damn bastard nearly took my ear clean off," Anya replied, touching the appendage just to reassure herself that it was still there.
"Pretty fucking awful shot for a cop," Tara remarked, "Missing from such close range."
"She said it was dark," Mandy added, brow furrowed in an effort to understand where Tara was leading with her enquiry.
"The room was dark yes, Anya's eyes would have had to adjust from the lit hallway into the dark room whereas he was already in the dark, the door opens and there's Anya framed in the lit doorway...hence the fucking awful shot," Tara turned and placed herself in the centre of the doorframe, almost as Anya would have stood when she opened the door, "And you fired two shots?"
Anya nodded in reply and Dawn added helpfully, "And one of them hit?"
"No, they both missed," Tara said gruffly.
Faith grunted, "I've always said you couldn't hit the side of a barn, Anya."
"Then what the bloody hell happened here?" Mandy threw up her hands in frustration.
"Someone else shot him, the hole in his chest wasn't made by that pop gun Anya was wielding, her two shots went here..."
Tara crossed the room, stepping directly over the dead body in the middle, before touching the wall between two unmistakable bullet holes punched through the wall. She then turned and faced the rest of the room, all eyes were fixed on her as though she had just stripped naked and done a little dance.
"Good catch," Dawn nudged Willow's side with her elbow, "She's fucking brilliant."
"Not really, simple, superficial crime scene investigation...and I've put enough bullet holes in people to know what kind of mess they make," Tara stated matter-of-factly.
"What the fuck are you playing at?" Faith demanded of the ex-cop, obviously not as impressed as everyone else was with her 'C.S.I' skills.
"I'm saying Anya didn't kill him," Tara replied, unruffled by Faith's attitude, "And although I can't say who did for sure I've got my theory as to who was behind it all...it sure as hell wouldn't be the cops, as corrupt as most of them are, they would never stoop this low. It's an awful lot like Glory's work...she'd love this sort of stuff."
"You're so busy thinking like a cop you're missing the point Maclay. It doesn't matter who shot him or why, all that matters is he's dead on our turf...right in the guts of our turf. It means war plain and simple," Faith stood with her arms folded staunchly across her chest, "That's all that matters."
Tara couldn't accept what Faith had taken to be a given, "Talk to the cops, there's still some good people left who would stand up to the Talbot's..."
Tara bit her lip as soon as the words were out, they sounded pathetic even to her own ears.
"Who Tara?" Faith demanded, seizing on Tara's discomfort, "I'm pretty fucking sure that you were the last bona fide hero in Basin City and look where you ended up! You wouldn't be able to do jack for us. The only people who are going to get us out of this mess are ourselves."
"Get Willow out of the building then, and Dawn, Anya, everyone who doesn't need to be here..."
All the women in the room were alarmed when what remained of the window burst inwards, the exploding glass accompanied by a dark black shape. In the successive heartbeat, Faith whipped her pistol from its holster and would have dropped the intruder in an instant had she not recognised Buffy in her silky black Asian-style garb. The blonde woman dropped silently to the floor and rolled swiftly to her feet. Almost as soon as Buffy was inside and back on her feet, the wail of cop sirens filled the air outside. Everyone inside the Golden Palace knew that it was now too late to get out.
Buffy gave the body a single glance before lightly padding across the floor to stand before Faith who immediately saw the single tear in the sleeve of her loose fitting shirt. She was well aware that if their bullets could find Buffy then there was no way anyone else would get through. Buffy nodded in silent agreement, her small face stormy with anger as though she were pissed that someone had actually managed to hit her...even if it were only her clothing.
Faith issued orders coolly and efficiently, "It's too late to get anyone out...Buffy, you know where you need to be..."
The deadly blonde woman nodded curtly again and was off at a run towards the stair well. She would make her way to the rooftop and from there make short and nasty work of any cop who tried to get into the Palace via that route.
As Buffy disappeared, Faith continued, looking around Tara's hotel room to search out her younger Ladies. As she did, she saw Tara's eyes dart discreetly to where Willow was standing still consoling Anya, a trace of anguish hidden behind a stony gaze.
Fucking brilliant. As I stand in that room with the dead body and the incredibly brave and foolish women who act as though they're the fucking Light Brigade, I can't take my eyes from the kid standing in the corner. This whole business has already gone far enough and I've at least got to try and end it.
"Willow and Dawn, I want you to..."
Tara's sudden vice-like grip on her elbow interrupted cut her short and she turned to face her with an impatient expression. Faith wasn't impressed at being manhandled from the hotel room and out of the line of sight of the room's occupants.
"Stop this nonsense! I'm going out there, to hand myself over before any shit can start and you all get yourselves killed!" Tara hissed in a low voice so as not to be overheard.
"It's not just about you anymore Tara!" Faith jabbed the taller woman hard in the chest with her index finger as she continued, "It's about who owns Old Town."
Faith could not afford to stand still and argue with Tara, she was on the move, a general marshalling her troops with an efficiently any military leader would be envious of, "Willow...Dawn, I want you to barricade yourselves in the third floor laundry. The rest of you, mount up, time for a good old fashioned shoot 'em up."
She then moved down the hallway, forcing Tara to trot along behind her like a dog...an analogy Tara was not impressed with. Faith was moving down the main stairs two steps at a time with Tara right behind her.
"People...Ladies, are going to die, is it worth it?" Tara persisted, even if Faith appeared not to be listening.
Faith didn't pause for a moment, or even bother to look over her shoulder at Tara, "Fuck yes it is! If we don't go to war now then none of us will ever be safe again. It will be a return to the old days of beatings and rape and men taking what they want from us whenever they want. Do you want that for Willow?"
Tara growled, now following Faith deeper into the bowels of the Golden Palace, "It's not going to happen, I'll protect her."
Faith was quick to respond, even as she broke into a run, "And you'll die trying...Tara, if you love her, you'll let us do this, or better still, you'll fight with us."
As though to back up her point, Faith stabbed a combination into a pad beside the door she had come to a halt in front of. The pad clicked and Faith swung the door inwards, she flicked on the lights to reveal a small arsenal of weapons stacked on shelves and in racks. Clearly the Ladies were well prepared for a rainy day. Faith picked up an empty holster and chucked it to Tara as though that were the end of their argument.
Tara stared back at her and then at the cold steel in the rack opposite her. Before she knew what she was doing, she shrugged the leather coat from her shoulders and tossed it to one side. Such a cumbersome item of clothing would only hinder her movements. She was left clad in Faith's cast off leather pants and her white prison issue vest which served to remind her of exactly where she did not want to return. The webbing for the holster slipped comfortably over her shoulders, the twin holsters nestling in the small of her back. She then selected a pair of her favourite Berettas from a rack nearest her, effortlessly slamming clips into both and then sliding them into the little pouches on her back. For the first time in eight years she felt the weapons comfortable weight and the security that came from knowing she could draw both in a heartbeat. With the Berettas in her hand, she knew exactly how much damage she could do, and just how hard she was to stop.
Faith looked on appreciatively, a small smile on her face.
"Why not," Tara replied, meeting Faith's gaze, "I've got nothing better to do."
That was all I could say, 'nothing better to do'...as though I was about to sit down to watch TV or eat a meal instead of try to save the woman I love.
The Golden Palace's exterior had seen better days, along with the rest of it. As the figure in the car peered up at it he smirked, seeing not just a rundown hotel, but the scene of his triumph and vindication. He would finally get to pay back that bitch for what she did to him. Pay her back by killing her and all the stupid whores who had taken her in. He knew full well how much a cop like her hated innocent people getting hurt or killed. It was the reason behind everything. If Maclay had been corrupt like every other good cop, he would have had his fun with that kid eight years ago and that would be the end of it. Instead he was a shadow of his former self, unable to get out of the car in which he sat even if he wanted to.
He saw police Captain Brewer approach his window and lowered it the merest fraction. The cop nodded respectfully, awaiting his orders. They were predictably short.
"Kill as many of them as you can, try not to kill Maclay but if it happens...well, it happens," he liked the sound of it.
"With all due respect, I thought Maclay was wanted alive?" Brewer asked cautiously, not wanting to offend him.
"You know full well what happened to Amai, Brewer," he snarled from inside the car, "Do you want my mother's little pet watch dog, Spike, to do the same to you?"
Brewer shivered noticeably, "No sir."
"Then I'd do what I say if I were you Captain Brewer, lest you piss me off...and you can be rest assured that I'm just as nasty and unforgiving as my mother."
Brewer glanced up at the Golden Palace, he like many of the other cops had enjoyed many a wild party thrown by the Ladies in the hotel, all attended unknown to his wife of course. Although a glance was all he spared the place, he only had to think of the fat envelope that would greet him after this job was finished to forget all about those parties and concentrate instead on 'officially' sanctioned destruction and murder.
"Yessir Mr Talbot, no problem."
Tara peered from the window and saw the cop cars parked down on the street below and the cops swarming about, assuming their positions. She felt a strange sense of irony wash over her, as though she was seeing events unfold from someone else's perspective.
I should be used to seeing things from the wrong side of the law by now. Especially after eight years behind bars and now running with Basin City's most notorious prostitute cartel. I know the majority of the cops down there are following an order issued by the morally bankrupt fuckers above them but I also know the real truth is that those grunts would have no qualms about those orders. They're cut from the same mould as that backstabbing ex-partner of mine, Seamus O'Hara. Rotten scum who would sell their own mothers for the merest hint of a cut of whatever's going down. As I look down at them scurrying around in their uniforms, wearing badges that mean nothing, I realise that I'm beginning to enjoy being on the supposedly wrong side of the law. The more I think about it, the more right it seems. You know a city is fucked up when the good guys are drawn from the criminal element.
"Am I interrupting your concentration?" Willow's soft voice sounded from behind Tara.
Tara shifted slightly so her head no longer presented a nice ripe target in the window and she turned her attention to Willow. The red head had been quick to change from her stage costume. She had donned a pair of well-worn jeans, a plain grey sweater and her red Converse shoes. Her hair still hung long about her face and down her back.
"Vigil more like," Tara replied, feeling years worth of weariness lift from her shoulders at the mere sight of Willow.
"Do you think whoever planted that body knew you'd be able to figure it all out?" Willow asked quietly as she too strained for a view out the window.
Tara promptly placed her hand atop Willow's head and pushed her back down before she had the chance to see anything. Willow plopped ungracefully backwards onto her arse. She opened her mouth to protest but received a rather stern look and she closed it again.
Tara shook her head, "It doesn't matter how it got there...if Anya had charged in there with no weapon, the ruse would have been foiled completely. They did it because they can, to show us just how powerless we are in this game."
"Well, it's not very nice," was Willow's heartfelt reply.
Tara felt her facial muscles soften as though she was just one slight movement away from a smile. Willow shared none of Tara's emotional reluctance and a warm smile spread across her face despite the situation they found themselves in. They remained like that for a few moment before the reality of what was going on outside came crashing back to Tara. In fact, she was mortified that Willow was anywhere near the front lines, in this case, the windows.
"I recall asking you to stay put where I left you," Tara's tone became gruff and serious, "If all hell breaks loose..."
"Then I'm safest at your side," Willow interrupted promptly.
"Like hell you are," Tara was unconvinced, "I want you out of the way."
"Tara, if things turn to poo-poo around here them it's going to be bad for everyone no matter where they are," Willow knew full well she made a good point, "Besides, we need to have a serious chit-chat you and I."
"Willow, we're under siege by a bunch of greedy cops who don't give a damn whether we live or die, now is not the time for chit-chat...serious or not!" Tara felt the cold weight of the pistols nestled against her back speak to this.
"We kissed Tara...unless you've already forgotten about Kitty's and the dance...and the skimpy little outfit and us smooching in front of the whole crowd," When Tara did not respond immediately Willow felt a sudden stab of anger but she kept it on a leash, "Are you going to go all staunch and quiet on me...or blame everything on my outfit?"
"A lot can be blamed on your outfit, Willow," Tara replied dryly, again almost cracking a smile. She lifted her head a fraction and peered out the window to confirm the cops hadn't moved in the last few minutes, she was still looking out the window when she finished her sentence, "But my actions can't."
"What can you blame it on then?" Willow response was immediate, for better or worse she was going to drag everything out of Tara, especially how the hardened ex-cop felt about her, "I wouldn't think that Tara Maclay would change her mind without good cause."
Tara watched the cops for a few more moments before turning back to Willow, she met the redhead's gaze evenly. Willow had a determined set to her jaw and a gleam in her eye that hinted she was more than ready for a fight. She was dealing with the issues important to her, and everything else currently going on could go to hell. Against all better judgement, Tara knew that this was exactly what she wanted...
...although Tara knew full well the surrounding circumstances could have been better. Sitting in a rundown whorehouse with an army of cops outside and a cold hard weapon in your hands didn't exactly have romantic connotations.
"I love you, Willow," the words came out as one drawn out sigh, soft and tender as they ought to be. However, as if to reaffirm her fears, a siren blared at the precise moment she spoke and drowned them out completely.
"You what?" Willow frowned in frustration, she had barely seen Tara's lips move.
I outwardly grimaced at the thought of having to repeat those horrid but delicious words, sirens continue to wail outside and I wish I could leap from the window and silence them all for this one moment. There are the cops outside, poised with their cannons ready to rip into flesh regardless of how innocent it is...and then there is this beautiful little minx sitting in front of me. Someone who deserves far more than all this...more than this grumpy old escaped criminal...but I suddenly realise I don't care. I wish those sirens would shut the fuck up!
"I fucking love you, Willow Rosenberg!" Tara heard herself almost shout.
There was no trace of surprise on Willow's face after the words had been uttered, but rather a little grin of triumph, a grin which Tara thought was entirely justified after the effort she had expended in trying to woo someone who had all but declared themselves eternally celibate.
The sirens stopped as though on cue for Willow, and Tara lifted her head to the window, suspicious of the silence. There was still no movement towards the building.
"I should be pissed off at your for making me wait so long...not to mention being a big meanie with all your denial," was Willow's honest reply when she had regained Tara's attention once more, "Not to mention the fact that you've wasted our time together with your sulking and now I'll probably die without ever even seeing you naked."
Tara arched her eyebrows in Willow's direction and replied in a deadpan voice, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch kiddo."
Just as a pout was beginning to form on Willow's face, she saw the barest hint of a smile pass across Tara's lips. It was only for a second as Tara must have felt it growing and turned quickly to peer out the window once more, her face lost to Willow. When she faced her again, it was gone, replaced by the serious Tara she knew all too well.
"I promise you're not going to die Willow," Tara stated firmly, "Although I might think about doing you myself if you don't listen to me and get back to the laundry."
"I will if you include me getting to see you naked in that promise of yours?" Willow asked cheekily.
Tara smirked, and was about to reply when the window above her shattered in a thunderous hail of gunfire. Panes of glass showered both Willow and Tara. Mere seconds after the shooting began, Tara grabbed Willow and rolled her away from the window, shielding her beneath her body. They lay, Tara's cheek pressed against Willow's forehead, her arms around her head. She felt the glass raining down on her and the sharp sting of each as it cut into the bare flesh on her arms.
Beneath her, Willow's fingers clung to the fabric of her vest in terror. The redhead's breath came hard and fast against Tara's neck.
"I'm sorry," Willow whispered in Tara's ear, her voice barely sounding over the hail of gunfire.
"Don't be," Tara replied fiercely.
"If it's worth anything, I fucking love you too," Willow continued, her tone just as fierce.
The gunfire ceased and Tara knew they were going to come a split second later. She lifted her head and stared deep into those green eyes beneath her. The moment lingered beyond all sense of real time.
"It's worth everything," she replied in one breath.
As soon as the words were out, Tara was moving. She bounced onto her haunches to deposit a quick kiss on Willow's forehead before practically throwing the redhead beneath a nearby coffee table. There was barely enough space for her to squeeze beneath it. Then she was on her feet, her boots grinding glass beneath them. She was about to feel for the Berettas at her back when something slammed into the side of her head. Tara reeled backwards against the wall behind her, feeling as though the side of her head had been blown away. She raised her hand to the source of the pain, expecting to find a mangled mess rather than the narrow graze she did find. Thrown off balance she was caught unprepared when a cop in full SWAT armour and helmet flew through the window. He had time to disconnect himself from his harness and move at Tara before she was able to collect herself from the bullet grazing her head. She stared down the barrel of a gun for far too many seconds before her arm lashed out and swiped it to one side. Bullets spewed from the weapon in an arc around Tara, punching holes in the wall dangerously close to her body.
My movements feel sluggish as I struggle with the cop, I try to keep the barrel of his weapon away from my body but I'm so tired, every muscle aches and I just want to go to sleep. There's a flash of red hair in the corner of my eye. It's more than just a glimpse of the kid, it's seeing the woman I love and all the associated pain that comes with it. It's hurts like hell and I'm glad for it. I feel stronger. I know that I can't let anything end today...it's just started.