Serving as Willow's Shomer had been quite easily the worst job of Rachel's life but there was not a force between heaven and hell that could have dragged her away from it. Some others had cycled in and out to join her in the task of keeping watch over Willow's body during the days between her death and her funeral, Buffy had been there often too, and there'd been offers to relieve her from her duties, but nothing, and she meant nothing, could have taken her away from Willow.
But even that task hadn't matched up to the reality of the actual burial. Watching the coffin containing Willow's remains be lowered into the ground had to be, bar none, the single worst moment of Rachel's life. It was just so final; the exclamation mark on the end of what had happened. She was dead, she was gone, she was never coming back. A world without Willow was almost incomprehensible to her but that was the world that she would be living in from that day on and the coffin's burial made it impossible to ignore or just flat out deny.
The wolf howled inside her as she watched the burial. Oh, it did not like what had happened, not one bit. Pack had been hurt, pack had been killed, vengeance had to be exacted. It wanted blood. It wanted the sort of justice that an animalistic spirit can understand. Watching the bastard be shot up with a thoroughly lethal chemical cocktail just hadn't cut it. It just wasn't visceral enough. And Rachel was inclined to agree. It just wasn't enough. Too quick, too clean. He deserved so much worse.
The assassin's trial had been one of the quickest ever seen in such a high-profile case. No defence had been entered, the evidence had been overwhelming, and punishment had been both swift in coming and harsh in its result. And yet it still hadn't satisfied. He had died quickly, still defiant, still unbowed, and it had all felt so hollow and pointless. She had wanted to see him broken, wanted it on a primal level, even though she knew it wasn't going to happen.
And what cold comfort if had offered Rachel, little as it was, had done nothing for Tara, who had barely spoken since, or for Buffy, who had been entirely inconsolable, or for Dawn, who had been in floods of tears on the other end of the holonet channel she'd talked to Rachel on afterwards and was still devastated. Force, she didn't think anything was going to offer any useful comfort to Tara after what had happened. She was just . . . lost, barely functioning.
Just thinking about Tara made Rachel angry. Of all the people in the world who didn't deserve to suffer like that Tara was pretty damned close to the front of the list. She'd never hurt anyone in her whole life. She was the sort of woman who could barely bring herself to squish a bug infestation and yet there she was: one of the first people caught up in the Sith campaign, one of the first to suffer from their evil.
It was hideous, absolutely hideous, and she would be just one of many, a great many indeed, unless the Sith were stopped quickly. Such was always the way. The dawn of a new age of Sith power always left incredible suffering in its wake. Hell, that was the source of their power. The more suffering the better as far as the Dark Side was concerned; just more grist for the mill, increasing their power and weakening the opposition.
The rest of the funeral passed by in a daze for Rachel as she went through the motions of it on autopilot. She'd known the ins and outs of Judaism since before the Halloween so it was rather too easy for her to just slip into neutral and go through the required motions as they recited the Kaddish and then dealt out the traditional expressions of condolence before washing her hands and leaving the cemetery.
"I want to break something," said Faith, looking as pissed off as Rachel had ever seen her. "This is just wrong. Slayers just ain't meant to outlive their friends. It ain't right."
Rachel turned to look at Faith. "I can't say I'm sorry you're still alive," she said. "But I understand. Believe me, I understand."
Silence fell between them and Rachel spent those moments looking over the crowd leaving the cemetery. It was, quite frankly, ridiculously large. Rachel doubted that half of them had ever spoken to Willow in their lives, bloody politicians, but they had still attended. Why? She didn't even want to think about that. It would just make her want to do something foolish.
Still, there was no shortage of people who Willow actually did know. Witches and wizards, students and peers, children and adults, Jedi and apprentice, human and alien - Willow had known and befriended them all in her own way. She'd had no shortage of friends and they had came together to grieve her. It was something that Rachel could appreciate despite the vague obscenity of it all.
"Man, Tara's bad off, isn't she?" asked Faith. "What do we do?"
"Force knows," replied Rachel, still looking over the crowds. "It's beyond me. I'm better at breaking things than putting them back together."
"Yeah," said Faith absently. "Same here."
Buffy and Tara cleared the crowd and approached Rachel and Faith. Tara looked even worse close up; the black dress she wore made her incredibly pale skin even more prominent than it already was. She looked like a dead woman walking. Nods of greeting were exchanged but what sort of conversation do you make under those circumstances?
"I wish Dawn could be here," said Buffy finally.
Rachel nodded in agreement. "She wishes she could be here too," said Rachel. "But she couldn't get away from her mission quickly enough."
Of course she knew. Rachel felt a fool for even saying it.
"I want to help you fight them."
"Tara?" asked Rachel. "What are you talking about?"
"Those Sith," she said. "They took Willow away. I want to fight them. I want to stop them."
Rachel felt completely off-balance. This was totally out of character for the Tara she knew, even if she didn't know the woman all that well. "What?"
"I want to fight them," said Tara, her voice stronger than Rachel had heard it since Willow. "I can't let them get away with this. I just . . . I just can't."
"Tara, this . . . are you sure?" asked Rachel. "You're not . . . you're not a fighter, not that I've ever seen."
"I'm a witch."
Rachel ran through half a dozen different ways to tell her that being a witch didn't make her a fighter, she even ran through the 'Willow wouldn't want you to get yourself killed' line but in the end what can you say? Tara was an adult and Rachel wasn't going to be turn her away to try and go it alone, which she almost inevitably would if Rachel was any judge.
"Okay," said Rachel. "Fine. We'll talk. Later. Elsewhere."
It was at that point that were approached by Signa Resnan, a Jedi Knight who also happened to be an alien. The only one at that time. He was quite a sight. All the Selinef tended to be large, evolved from some great species of hunting cat as they were, but he was truly massive, dwarfing even Malak. The size alone made for quite an eye-catching specimen. His rather bright green eyes and generally feline features just added to that.
"I am sorry for your loss," said Signa, his voice halting in the way that all Selinef voices did when they tried to wrap their vocal cords around human languages. "Miss Rosenberg was a fine woman."
Tara smiled at him weakly. "Thank you," she said. "Willow always spoke very well of you."
"I am glad to hear that," he replied. "Again, I am very sorry."
And then he left. Signa was a good man but not a very talkative one as a rule. She also had some doubts as to whether he'd attended a human funeral before which would make it rather awkward for him, she imagined. She made a mental note to speak to him later. They had things to discuss anyway.
Others came and said similar things as the crowd drifted away. Politicians, wizards, witches, Jedi, and so and so forth. They all passed on by and seemed to feel the predictable need to utter some pointless platitudes that had pretty much already been covered. Some were just looking to buy brownie points but others . . . well, it was predictably human to feel the need to share your grief.
But eventually it ended after a visit from the Chinese twins that were the latest Jedi to come off the line, so to speak, as they completed Rachel's training. The crowds dispersed and the group decamped to a somewhat less public place, taking the sub-orbital to the Jedi Enclave.
"I'm not really sure what you want, Tara," said Rachel. "I can't really imagine you in a battle against the Sith. They're ruthless. You'd hesitate, inevitably, and then you'd die. Not even a footnote, just a number on a chart when they work out the death toll. Do you really want that?"
"I won't hesitate."
"Have you ever killed, Tara? I don't mean a vampire or a demon, I mean a person," said Rachel. "Because that's what you'd have to do: kill. You can't use stunners against people like the Sith."
And she hesitated then. To her credit, she didn't just toss off an answer. "If . . . if I have to," she said. "They killed Willow."
Rachel grimaced. "This is a very bad idea," she said. "How about a support role? You're a skilled witch. There's plenty you could do away from actual battles and bloodshed."
Tara looked quite faint to Rachel by then. Bloodshed and killing just didn't agree with her, even in the abstract, so quite how she expected to fight the Sith was beyond Rachel. "I . . . "
"Tara, you don't have to do this," said Rachel. "No-one expects you to turn into something you're not. You're a good person doing good work. There's no need to turn away from that and to my least favourite line of work."
"B-but I can't just walk away."
"You don't have to," said Rachel. "There are so many things you can do with your skills. You can erect wards, you can create communication links, you can perform tracking spells, you can scry, you can, well, you get the idea. A witch is more than just the ability to throw fireballs at people. You of all people know that; you've been practising magic longer than anyone I know, and that's saying something."
"I-I-you think that work?"
"You have a lot of skills, Tara. You don't need to be out there dealing death and destruction to get retribution against those who killed Willow. Believe me, you don't need to do that. Less direct methods are often the most effective. Killing minions? Easy, but also quite pointless. Undermining their plans with a well-placed spell? That's brilliant. Brains, not brawn."
The fact that stopping most Sith plans basically left you with no option but to kill a shedload of people was something Rachel decided was best not mentioned. It just didn't seem appropriate.
"I-I-yes," said Tara, straightening up. "I have to fight for what I believe in. If this is the best way, then that's what I'll do."
Rachel couldn't help but sigh in belief.
"But you'd best not be lying to me," said Tara. "I don't want to be sidelined into something useless because you don't think I'm up to scratch. I'm an adult. I make my own choices. I won't be mollycoddled."
Rachel blinked. "As you wish," she said. "I'll give you what you want when I find use for a witch. Just don't expect it to be right away."
Tara nodded and then, with a tremulous smile that somewhat undercut her surprisingly assertive behaviour, she left, leaving Rachel alone in her rooms with only her thoughts for company. Not the best place to be just then, that. The last thing she wanted right then was to be left to her thoughts and none of her usual distractions appealed just then. Studying the magical texts she had collected, working on her various experiments, brewing potions, and so on - none of it appealed.
She could meditate, of course, that was the classic way for a Jedi to deal with emotionally stressful situations, but she truly didn't want to see what sort of things would come to her as a reflection of her current emotional state. Meditating in darkness was something that she'd rather leave in her past, thank you very much, and she couldn't quite dissipate the desire to smash things and take revenge enough to do anything else.
Rachel knew that she should let it go, regain her Jedi equanimity, but it was just so difficult. It was all still so raw, so new, so fresh, even though it had been a week since. Some Jedi Master she was, not even being able to purge herself of negative emotions. Force help her if her students had the same problem.
And then Faith barged in, providing a convenient distraction. "B's gone to get some sleep," said Faith as she entered the rooms. "Don't think she's all that with it right now."
"Can't blame her. Much easier to not be."
"Yeah," said Faith. "I just don't like it. It's B. She's supposed to be all Xena-girl, not mopey and stuff. It ain't right. It's like seeing Wonder Woman beaten down or something."
"No-one can be strong all the time, Faith. Give her a few days and she'll be back to normal, or something like it."
"Yeah, right. I get you. It's just . . . wrong, you know? Doesn't seem right at all, like the world's turned upside down on me."
"I know what you mean."
"Right," said Faith. "You do. How are you doing anyway?"
"I'd say I feel like someone tore one of my limbs off but I've already had that done to me and it didn't feel anywhere near as bad as this does. You?"
"Wasn't as pally with Red as you are," replied Faith. "But yeah. It sucks. She was like superwoman or something with all that magic and she was about the most inoffensive person this side of Tara. I just never figured on her being first of us to buy it."
"That's the way of the Sith," said Rachel in a weary tone of voice. "Power that they can't control is power that has to be destroyed. Personality doesn't come into it."
"Well we'll fuckin' show 'em. They ain't getting away with this," said Faith. "We'll kick their collective, evil ass and then burn their fuckin' plans down."
"It's a plan."
Rachel'd had a sneaking suspicion that going to sleep wouldn't end well for her after everything and finding herself on the viewing platform of the Star Forge really did confirm that suspicion in the most emphatic way possible. Even in a dream, knowing it wasn't real, it still reeked of a horrible, ancient evil that was rivalled only by the hellmouth itself. It had been an obscenity in life and so it remained in death.
The view from the windows was a true contradiction to the nature of the beast she inhabited. There was always a certain sort of abstract beauty to the stars and their constellations but the Star Forge had been well placed to see it all. She could see the the full majesty of the Grandian, the constellation that contained all of the major core worlds, from where she stood and there was also the Serkan Major and Minor in their grand sweeps across the galaxy containing massive amounts of mineral wealth that had been fought over for millenia.
"They come for her."
Rachel just about jumped out of her skin when she heard that. And she just about jumped out of her skin again when she turned to face the voice and saw Malak.
"They come for you all but especially for her."
"This would have been more helpful before they killed Willow."
"They come and death follows in their wake. They are the pale rider."
"Are you going to tell me anything useful?" asked Rachel. "I'm really not in the mood for interpreting the abstract right now."
Malak turned away from her and looked out upon the stars as he often been wont to do during his time as a Sith. When he turned back, Malak was gone, replaced y a greasy-haired man that Rachel recognised as Severus Snape. "I can teach you to bottle fame, brew glory, and even stopper death," he said finally.
Rachel just stared. Why on Earth was Severus Snape appearing in her dreams? Good Lord, she hoped it wasn't Freudian.
Snape's form wavered and then disappeared to be replaced by that of Darth Revan a moment later. Rachel's hand instinctively moved to where the hilt of her lightsabre should have been but her waist was bare.
"A true Sith never dies," intoned Revan. "You know this."
"It's an impossible ideal," snapped Rachel. "You can only pervert the natural order so far before it snaps back at you."
Rachel truly began to understand how disconcerting she must have been back in the old days as Revan stared at her from behind the mask. And then she disappeared to be replaced by the elderly form of Obi-Wan Kenobi. "You will find that a great many truths that we cling to are dependant upon our point of view," he said.
"I must have eaten something very strange today to get this dream. Vision. Whatever."
Obi-Wan smiled at her. "Perhaps."
And then she woke up. That had been officially the strangest vision she had ever received. But it gave her some ideas, some useful information, even if it gave her some bad directions to think in.
Rachel accomplished absolutely nothing the day after the funeral. She tried, oh did she ever try, but she just couldn't focus. Her mind kept sliding back to Willow. Willow as a child, Willow as a teenager, Willow as a woman, Willow dying, Willow lying on a cold, metal slab, Willow being lowered into the ground never to return. Her mind just refused to leave the subject no matter how hard she tried. It wasn't something she was used to, having her mental focus so utterly boken, and she didn't like it, not one bit.
Eventually a call came through that gave her an excuse to turn her stagnant work away and do something else. A quick button press and the holographic image of the Vice President of the Terran Republic was hovering over her desk in front of her. It wasn't a sight that engendered warm feelings in her but she kept that to herself.
"Mr. Kahn," said Rachel. "This is a not altogether unexpected pleasure."
"Master Giles," he said. "Let me just start by expressing my most sincere condolences about what happened to Ms. Rosenberg. I was unable to attend the funeral but I did feel the loss. She was a fine woman and deserved much better than what she received. I can assure that we, the government of the Terran Republic, will be doing everything in our power to bring all responsible for the commissioning of this terrible act to justice."
Rachel inclined her head in a short nod. "I do appreciate that," she said. "And I'll pass your condolences on to the family next time I see them."
"Thank you," he said. "Now, on to business, the President wishes to meet with you regarding recent events. He wishes to consult with you and see what advice you have to give, and he wishes to do it in person."
"I think that can be arranged," said Rachel. "Does he have a preferred time for the appointment?"
The image fuzzed for a moment as the VP looked away and spoke to someone off-camera and then came into sharp focus as he looked back. "If you are available, he would like to see you tomorrow," he said. "Say, ten in the morning, New York time?"
"That would be acceptable," said Rachel with a quick nod. "I will be there. Is there anything else?"
"Ah, no, no," he said. "That is all. Again, my condolences. We will bring those responsible to justice."
And then this display winked out. Well, there was something else to occupy Rachel's mind. A meeting with the President. It had been a few months since their last discussion and there was certainly plenty to be dealt with. Indeed, there was plenty to discuss.
That night Rachel left the Jedi Enclave alone and headed for the cemetery that Willow had been buried in using the late-night sub-orbital. It was locked, quite thoroughly locked in fact, but that was certainly no barrier to her. Given her abilities it was little more than a gentle hop to clear the cemetery's gates and make her way in despite everything.
Being alone in a cemetery at night certainly wasn't the best way to improve her state of mind, that was sure, but it was something that she had to do. She had to say goodbye to Willow and to do that properly she felt that she had to be alone. It just didn't feel right, hadn't felt right, to try and do so at a funeral parlour or at the burial itself surrounded by people, many of whom weren't people she actually knew at all. No, it hadn't felt right at all.
And so she made her visit in the dead of night to a locked cemetery. The grave was easy enough to find; she rather doubted that she'd ever be able to forget the location of Willow's resting place. It was a simple thing. A patch of land, freshly dug, with a small headstone at the top of it telling all who passed the exact identity of the person buried there.
There were no flowers around the grave. As dictated by Jewish tradition there was instead a collection of stones placed at the headstone, a tradition dating from the times long since passed when the Jews had been unable to properly bury their dead and had instead placed a sheet over them and weighed it down with stones. It was an ancient tradition, older than either Christianity or Islam, and those attending the funeral had obeyed it without protest.
"Even when I walk in the valley of Darkness, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me." said Rachel to the grave as she placed another stone there, one that she had enchanted to provide an endless light forever more. "I hope that has brought you some comfort, Willow, those beliefs. It doesn't seem too much to ask."
She settled down on crossed legs in front of the grave and sighed deeply before speaking again. "It's hard to believe you're gone, Wills," she said. "You've, well, you've always been there, ever since I was a little kid. I can't remember a time before the yellow crayon, really, and now . . . now you're . . . Force, I can't even say it."
She took a deep fortifying breath.
"You're dead," she said. "You're dead and you're not coming back and that makes me feel . . . too much. Force, I miss you, Willow. You've only been gone a week and I miss you like I've never missed anything before in my life. It just isn't right. It . . . it should have been me. They're my enemies. Mine. You never hurt anyone in your whole life, not really, and you didn't deserve to be gunned down like some extra in a B-movie just because you're good at magic.
"But there's nothing I can do about that," continued Rachel, pausing to take a deep breath before saying more. "It won't be for nothing. Your death won't be in vain. The Sith have tipped their hand now. They've given themselves away too early and I have plans, oh do I have plans, which can be put into place. It won't be easy but I'll win. I'll crush them. And they're going to know, before they die, that I'm doing it for you. They're going to pay, Willow. I know it's not the Jedi way but it's my way. They're going to pay dearly."
Rachel stayed there, at the grave, talking to it as if Willow were there till first light when she left for her appointment with the President.