Giles wanted to reach for Illyria to stop her but he knew better. He shielded Buffy with his own body. The others who were outside could take care of themselves. "Serena, please..." he said. His heart was starting to speed up. He knew the cop was confused and scared and that anything could happen with a loaded gun. "Wesley!"
Wesley knew what Giles meant. "Fervefacio," he said as he pushed Illyria aside.
Serena watched as the blue girl took a bullet straight to the heart and never faltered. She was about to pull the trigger a second time when the man spoke the word ‘fervefacio.' Her gun didn't fire. In fact it began to burn her hand and it melted before her eyes. She dropped the gooey substance to the ground and tried to make a dash for her car.
But Giles stopped her. “Please come inside.” He held her arm in a firm grip but not a threatening one. “I know you didn't believe me last night but it's all true. Willow is alive. She was never truly dead.”
“She was dead, I saw her,” Serena said, heart racing, sweat dripping down her back.
“And you just saw her rise, correct?” Giles asked loosening his grip.
“You're telling me she's a vampire?” Serena knew she was in trouble, these people were insane. And if she didn't do something soon she might be their next victim.
“No not a vampire. Please come inside. We'll explain as best we can.” Giles said.
Serena lost her balance when she saw Willow emerge from the house. She was seeing a ghost. Logic, of course, took over and told her it must be a twin sister or something. There had to be an explanation. She stumbled backwards into the arms of someone behind her. When she turned around she saw it was the man who had been inside of the circle with Giles.
“Careful. Don't want to hurt yourself,” he said.
Giles watched as Ethan reached for Serena and helped her steady herself. He was sick to his stomach seeing Ethan Rayne among his friends pretending to be one of the good guys. Sick thinking of Ethan and Willow together. And he still had no idea how the two came to be sharing one body. He wasn't quite sure how he was going to explain everything about the case to Serena. He would start with the basics of magic but not until everyone calmed down.
“Don't touch me,” Serena said and pulled away from him quickly. Another Englishman, she made a mental note ‘not' to vacation in London any time soon. “I've called for backup. My partner will be here in less than two minutes. Killing a cop's gonna make you a lot of enemies.” She was such a bad liar.
“They won't hurt you,” Willow said and walked over to Serena. “Hi, Serena, right?”
“Yes.” Serena spoke in a hushed tone as she looked into Willow's eyes. “Your body…what did they do to you…I saw your body…you were dead.”
“I know and there were others. They aren't dead, either, they're just…” Willow looked over her shoulder to Giles before she said the word, “…lost”
“You're insane,” Serena said, “All of you.”
Willow looked at Giles who just shrugged. It was his way of saying, ‘ go ahead and show her.'
She bent down to pick up Serena's gun.
Fearing for her life Serena backed away even further.
Willow closed her eyes and bowed her head down toward the gun. Her hands cupped the black, viscous mess that used to be the police woman's weapon. They warmed up and crackled with magic while Serena looked on.
Before Serena's eyes her weapon had reshaped itself in Willow's hands. Willow opened the chamber and emptied the bullets before she handed the woman her gun.
Serena took it and looked at it strangely. Even if it didn't work or have bullets in it she felt better having it in her own hands. “What's going on here?”
“Clearly you see that if we wanted to hurt you we would have already done it,” Giles said.
“I'll explain how Willow got back here and she and…” he felt the bile rising in the back of his throat, “…Ethan will explain the rest.”
“Ethan? Rayne? The husband? The one you said murdered her?” Serena was confused.
“Well, nice to know some things never change, eh, Ripper?” Ethan winked at his childhood friend.
By this time the porch was crowded. Everyone from the ritual circle had come outside to see what the ruckus was. Everyone except the blond man who stood just inside the door watching the festivities. He seemed to be conspicuously avoiding the sunlight. Hmm...
“So not only do you expect me to go into a house with a group of occultists but you also want me to go inside with a suspected murderer?” Serena said.
“I won't hurt you,” Giles said sincerely, “None of us will. And I think, down inside, you already know that. I'm very sorry for my behavior last night. It was completely uncalled for. But I thought I had lost a friend.”
He was right. Serena knew she was safe with them. She softened and relaxed a little. If the guys back at the station saw her in this situation they would have killed her themselves. Never, NEVER put yourself in a predicament like this one. The problem with ‘never' was that hot leads turned cold real fast. Sometimes, Serena knew, you had to go into the lion's den.
Everyone headed back inside, Serena first followed by Giles and the others. Willow and Ethan were left on the porch alone and, when everyone was out of site, Ethan grabbed his wife and immediately lowered her in his embrace before he planted a firm kiss on her lips. When he let her up from the backbend she wrapped her arms tighter around him and rested her head on his shoulder. "Glad to be back in your own vessel again, little one," he asked.
"You know I love you," she said.
"Yes," he agreed skeptically.
"But thank goddess I'm back, baby!"
He let out a knowing laugh and squeezed her tight and kissed her again. He pulled away slowly, but still held her in his arms. "Now...the hard part. We have to tell Ms. Michaels and your old chums inside…”
"And Giles," she reminded, setting him apart from the 'old chums' and putting him in his own category.
“Yes,” he continued, seemingly unfettered by her remark, “We have to tell Giles and the others about what we've been doing. I'm venturing a guess when I say we'll have a skeptical reception at best."
"Let me handle the Giles thing, ok?" She looked up into his eyes.
He knew, no matter how tightly she clung to him at that moment, he knew he'd be losing her to Giles soon. "Of course my sweet." He kissed her neck softly and whispered I love you in her ear.
“Remind me to thank you later for saving my life,” she whispered back.
“Looking forward to it, love,” he said and playfully bit her ear before he led her inside, his fingers interlaced with hers the entire way.
Once inside she broke his hold on her hand and moved away from him to the group. It was all so awkward. Hugs and kisses were definitely not in order. After all - she'd left these people high and dry years before and never bothered to keep in touch. They'd somehow managed without her but trying to do the work they did without her power must have been a blow. She'd be content to just turn and leave now that she had gotten the help she needed. But three people were missing. And when those people were found they didn't have bodies to return to. Willow doubted Ms. Michaels would be interested in exhuming the bodies so that their rightful owners could inhabit them again. She was a powerful enough Wicca to regenerate the bodies, even without Osiris, but something told her it wasn't going to happen that way. At least not when a plain old civilian was at the helm of the investigation.
"Tea?" Giles asked Serena as they walked through the main hall and toward the kitchen. He decided not to take her to the dining hall since the ritual had just been performed inside. And he thought that the ballroom with all the equipment would be too overwhelming for her.
"Ok," she said hesitantly.
"Buffy? Why don't you show Ms. Michaels to our private dining room," Giles said and pointed down a hallway.
"Sure, this way," Buffy said. "Guys? I think Serena will want to talk with all of us."
The group followed behind. "Even Illyria?" Wesley asked sotto voce as he passed Buffy.
"Good point. Send her to the tower?" Buffy suggested.
Wesley agreed and led the demon away from the group.
Willow watched as Ethan moved up alongside of the pretty police woman. He was a consummate flirt. Any other time it would have made her jealous, but now...with Giles...it actually put her at ease. She waited until everyone was out of sight and then headed off in the direction Giles had gone. She walked swiftly, hoping to gain as much time alone with him as she could. She found the kitchen door and braced herself while butterflies flitted all around her stomach.
Giles had put on a large kettle of water. When he heard the door swing open he turned around quickly. He saw Willow and his heart sunk. He had no idea how to talk to her at this point. Though a thousand words were racing through his mind he settled on, "Hello." Always the proper Englishman. How he managed even that much he couldn't imagine.
"Hi..." She could have cut the tension with a knife. "I just...I wanted to say thank you. I had no right to come to you, I know that, but...you…you're the only one..." she said and couldn't finish her sentence.
He cleared his throat and leaned back against the counter. "You're welcome," he said flatly.
Willow moved closer to him as she tried to speak. But it was so difficult. The words just weren't coming as quickly as she needed them. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Giles," she began.
"Don't, Willow...just...." He shook his head in disbelief. What he really wanted was to take her in his arms and start over yet here he was treating her like this. He couldn't believe the words coming out of his mouth. "Don't," He said again.
But she was stubborn and she needed to say things. "I'm sorry," she whispered as she moved closer to him, tears rolling down her face. It was an apology for the last few years of their lives that they'd spent apart. An apology for showing up with Ethan, literally with Ethan, and expecting Giles to help.
No longer able to fight the urge Giles reached forward and wrapped her in his arms. "Willow..." He sighed and held her tighter. "Ethan Rayne!" He exclaimed in disbelief. "How in the world did you find your way to him?" He rested his forehead against hers.
She didn't answer.
Still he held her. "Do you love him?" He was a fool for asking. He knew as soon as he said it but he had to hear her answer. It had been the first thing he thought of when he'd heard her married name. Did she really love him or did Ethan force her?
Willow just cried harder and buried her face in the crease of his neck. Her refusal to answer spoke volumes.
"When I saw you last night...your body...I...I...when I think of losing you that way...." his thoughts were a jumbled mess as he prattled on. He took a deep breath to compose himself enough to say, "I want you back you know."
"I know," she said.
"Spike!" Buffy yelled and ran over to Serena who had collapsed onto a chair at the dining room table.
"What?" he said defensively, "You were the one telling her about vampires and slayers...I thought it might help your little explanation along."
"By sportin' your ridges and bearing your fangs? Nice going, William," Faith said and patted him on his back.
"Ms. Michaels, are you ok?" Buffy was asking as Ethan sat beside the woman and began fanning her with a magazine he'd found on the table.
"I wonder if..." Ethan started to say.
But the blond Slayer shot him a look, "Don't speak," she warned.
Ethan just raised an eyebrow and winked at Faith. "Feisty one, isn't she?"
Faith smiled. She knew the guy was scum, but he had a certain charm.
Spike let his façade fade back to human and went to help Buffy with Serena. "Sorry about that, pet, I didn't mean to scare you. I don't bite anymore," Spike said, "Honest."
Aaaaaand another Englishman - note to self.
"Not helping," Buffy said and turned her attention back to Serena. "Are you ok?"
"I will be in a minute," Serena said. She looked around. Everyone had seen that guy's face all distorted but nobody seemed to be in shock.
"Spike's ugly but he won't hurt you. If he does he'll have me to answer to," Xander chimed in and moved to stand beside Buffy. "Hi, Xander Harris," he said and extended his hand to her.
Serena took it and forced a smile. This one looked somewhat normal to her. "Hello," she said.
"So what are you?" It was absolutely ridiculous of her to be encouraging these people to continue on with their delusions. But she did it. After all she had seen, though, she still didn't believe.
Willow felt something standing there in Giles' arms that she hadn't felt for years - safety. Ethan wouldn't hurt her. In fact he couldn't hurt her - she'd kicked his ass for the first year he pursued her. One night that ass-kicking energy fueled something other than hatred in Willow and, before she knew it, they were shagging like fuzzy bunnies. It was odd. She'd never felt un- safe with Ethan, but now that she was back in Giles' arms she realized what she'd been missing. "I don't think I can let go," she said, her face still turned in towards his neck, her head resting on his shoulder.
Giles bent and kissed her softly on her temple and said, "The others are waiting."
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes, her heart pounding so fiercely she thought it might break out of her chest. Willow just smiled and lowered her eyes before she backed away.
Giles went ahead of her and met up with the others in the dining room. When he walked in Ethan was fanning Serena and the rest of the gang was milling about uncomfortably. Wesley had walked in behind Giles but Willow still hadn't joined them.
“Ok so you're a vampire ‘slayer,'” Serena said, air-quoting the word slayer. “And you're a slayer, also,” she said pointing to Faith. “And William…”
“Spike,” he corrected quickly and defensively.
“Right, Spike,” she said, “Is a vampire but you have a soul so you don't bite humans anymore.” Her tone was patronizing but she kept going.
”Right, he was neutered,” Xander said.
“You are on my list, Harris,” Spike warned.
Serena continued. “And Rupert Giles and Mr. Pryce are Watchers from some secret society based in London that trains petite, little girls like Buffy to kill the scourge of the earth.”
“I'm stronger than I look,” Buffy offered with a shrug.
“I know it all sounds crazy but believe me when I tell you it will probably explain sixty-five percent of your unsolved cases,” Giles said. “Though you won't be able to share that information with your superiors at least you, personally, will know which cases you should be pursuing humans for involvement and which cases you should...” Giles cleared his throat and said, “…call for reinforcements.”
“Meaning you,” She stated.
“Yes,” he said.
Willow entered the room quietly while the others spoke and stood next to Giles.
“So the other bodies,” Serena said, “These people are still alive somewhere? Their souls, I mean? Where do you suggest I start with them? I mean…what happened to them?”
“I can explain,” Ethan and Willow said together. They smiled at each other and the room fell silent waiting to be told.
“And you can perform this spell? ” Serena still said those magical words with skepticism, “to find the others?”
“Well, sort of,” Willow said.
“When we found out this demon had been corrupting souls and stealing their bodies we stepped in and tried to help. Unfortunately, in the process of corruption, the soul is destroyed. It can never be turned back to its true form, it simply ceases to exist. So people who were once good and innocent had turned evil,” Ethan said, "At least to the casual observer."
“Poetic,” Giles mumbled under his breath.
Ethan continued, ignoring the comment. “With no hope of a happily ever after. They were simply obliterated as if they were never created.”
“The more bodies it inhabits, obviously, the stronger it becomes. It gains knowledge from each person and moves on,” Willow said.
“Kind of like a vampire. It gets your memories, but not your soul,” Dawn said.
“Sort of,” Willow said. “But plain-old humans weren't enough anymore so it started targeting people with special gifts and powers hoping to gain their secrets and strengthen itself,” Willow said.
“Like witches,” Serena said.
“Yes. The other five victims were friends and were working with us,” Ethan said.
“Five?” Giles asked. Willow had been the forth. Or so he thought.
“There were only three others,” Serena added.
“Only three that you found. The others were not in your jurisdiction and their murders weren't exactly like the other cases, so it probably didn't come up as part of the pattern,” Willow added.
“So why were the bodies drained of their blood?” Serena had already come up with plenty of scenarios on her own but they had all involved humans. She couldn't even begin to guess what demons did with human blood.
“Well the first victim, Jessie, was new to our group but she was strong. When the demon got to her she was able to astral project just before it jumped into her body. As soon as it jumped into her body she performed a spell that cast it out and she was able to return safe and sound,” Willow said.
“The problem with that was that Jessie, though very powerful, was still a novice. When she cast the demon out she was thinking of protecting us and her home environment. Those thoughts of us and home mixed with the spell she was casting and she sent the bloody thing straight to our front door,” Ethan said.
“After Jessie warned us that she had banished the demon, Ethan and I and the rest of the group performed a spell that would guard our souls against corruption. Since we didn't know where she had sent it we needed to be protected at all times. We protected souls but we couldn't protect the bodies,” Willow said.
“Sins of the flesh and all that,” Ethan added with a glint in his eye.
Willow just sighed and rolled her eyes. Leave it to him to offer that as an explanation. “We didn't know when or even if any of us would be targeted. It had been months since the first attack so we thought maybe we were safe. But one day we realized that the demon was living with us, inside of one of us. It had been there all along.”
“Willow and I found this out but never told the others. The spell had already been done, the others were safe but we weren't sure which among them was corrupt. If we had approached the wrong girl we would have put everyone in more danger,” Ethan said.
“So you took their souls yourselves,” Giles offered.
“We were going through the group one at a time. Eventually we would get to a soulless body and know we'd have found the demon. But as we collected souls the demon destroyed their bodies so that they wouldn't have hosts to return to.” Willow said. “The beast doesn't need a body to exist. It can survive without a host but it's powerless. It can't do anything. It will just float around, non-corporeal. It can't speak or fight or anything, so it has to find a vessel so that it can gain more knowledge and get more power and do more damage.”
“That's pretty much what evil things do,” Spike added. “Kill things, get more power, kill more things…it's a vicious cycle.”
Everyone looked to him for a moment and then back to Ethan. “We had sent each girl to a different safe-house. Their bodies would have a safe place to rest while we sent their souls to the Elysian Fields to be hidden and cared for,” Ethan added. “But our plan backfired and the bodies were destroyed and the souls were lost.”
“They never made it to the Elysian Fields?” Buffy asked.
“No,” Willow said.
“How do you know that they weren't destroyed before you performed the spell,” Dawn asked.
“It wouldn't have worked if there wasn't anything to protect. We know that we saved their souls but for some reason they never got to the place we sent them,” Willow said.
“And how about you,” Giles asked Willow, “What happened?”
“I was going to one of the safe-houses to check on one of the girls. When I got there I saw the body had been destroyed and drained of all its blood. So I told Ethan what was going on, not realizing that the demon was still in the body in the house with me,” Willow said.
“So you were on the phone with Ethan when you were attacked,” Serena asked. Everyone in the room took a deep breath and waited for Willows explanation. Serena felt like she was missing something.
“No, uhm...we don't need a telephone to speak,” Ethan said and smiled.
“I'm sorry?” Serena said. “I don't understand. Were you there with her?”
“They speak telepathically,” Giles said softly. He and Willow had never been able to get to that point in their relationship. She always kept her shields up around Giles. He thought it was because she didn't trust him. And hearing her say, now, that she allowed Ethan inside of her…it crushed Giles' heart more than he could stand. If that was even possible.
Willow met his eyes. She knew what he was thinking. Later, when they were alone, she would tell him the real reason she had never been able to connect with him that way.
“You're mind readers?” Serena said and then answered herself with even an even more patronizing tone. “Of course you are…why wouldn't you be...stupid, Serena, get with the program.”
“I don't know what else to say to you or show you to convince you that this is all real,” Giles said.
“All we can do is relay this information to you and hope that it helps you in the future.”
Serena was starting to understand. Starting to believe. And it frightened her. “I know…it's just…”
“Takes a bit doesn't it, Ms. Michaels?” Ethan offered and smiled.
“Yeah,” she said. “So, Willow…where were you all this time? We were with your body last night in the woods but where were you?”
“Ethan saved me. We were connected, telepathically at the time of impact. He knew before I did that I was going to be attacked so he pulled me out of my body and…” Willow stopped, afraid to tell the woman the rest.
“And?” Serena asked.
“Ethan took my soul and brought me to him. He merged our spirits so that we could share his body.” Willow avoided Giles' eyes. She avoided Ethan's, too.
“Oh.” Serena just sat there staring into space, trying to absorb everything she had just heard.
The day wore on and turned into night. Serena had been listening to all of them for hours. She was surprised at how, all at once, she just accepted what they were telling her and started to formulate her own ideas and suggestions about the case. None of them were valid, of course, but she still tried to help.
When they started talking about what was going to happen once they found the souls, Serena chose not to listen. They wanted to exhume the bodies and return their souls. She would have no parts of it. Legally, for one thing, it was out of the question. The girls had only been gone for a week, but still. And no matter how much she believed them, she was tethered to reality. It was a small tether, like a tiny, little kitten-whisker - but it was there and it had a hold on her. Exhuming bodies, breathing life into them...it was all too Mary Shelley for her.
They had sent Serena home, eventually, claiming that what she doesn't know won't hurt her. And they told her that they would contact her once the spell was completed – success or fail.
Willow, Ethan, Amy and all the others were too drained to even think of performing a ritual of that magnitude. They needed rest. Spiritual and physical. As the crew turned in for the evening, one at a time, eventually only Willow, Buffy and Xander were left. They had avoided the awkwardness of discussing Willow's abrupt departure so many years before.
Buffy explained how they had all ended up at the Hightower. Willow explained that she and Ethan were fighting the good fight, but she left out the details of their beginning together and the darkness that shrouded her for so long after she had left them.
Willow showered and changed into some things Amy had given her. She wandered around the entire hotel, searching each floor of the building. It felt right to her. Being there felt like home and she couldn't shake it. Or ignore it. Eventually she found her way back to Giles' quarters and paused outside his bedroom door. She held onto the doorknob, her forehead resting against the door for the longest time. But she couldn't turn it. She couldn't go in. Not when she knew someone else was waiting for her.
She found her way back to Ethan who was in the far west wing of the house. Giles had allowed him to stay but only after he agreed to having his magic bound for the night. “ You'll never trust me will you old friend?” Ethan had asked. But Giles didn't waste his breath answering.
“Alone at last,” Ethan whispered as Willow crawled into bed next to him and slunk into his arms. A sweet, romantic kiss soon turned into a passionate moment between the two. Her body was soft and warm against his as he moved above her, his motion a gentle tease at times, a fiery need at others.
“Oh how I've missed this, love,” he said as he kissed his way from her ear to her shoulder and lowered the strap of her nightgown. His hand slid in an agonizing slowness along the outside of her thigh beneath the silky material she wore while her skin burned beneath his touch.
“I've missed you,” she replied and coaxed him back up to her for a kiss. It was true. She had missed making love with him. Ethan knew her like no other and loved her like no one had ever dared. She caught his lower lip in a playful bite before she closed her eyes and lost herself in his embrace.
“Your lips are saying yes but your eyes are saying no. Care to share your secrets with me darling?”
He rested a hand on her hip and absently traced circles on her skin with his thumb. Ethan leaned into her and swept his warm, moist lips along the long line of her neck.
“No secrets,” she said. She could hear the lies in her own voice. “This is the part where I thank you for saving me, Ethan.”
“I would do anything for you. You do know that, don't you?” He met her gaze and raised an eyebrow while he waited for her to answer.
“I do,” she said. “But I meant thank you for loving me…and saving me from myself all these years. I was really…lost…all that time…I don't know what would have happened if you ever gave up on me.”
Maybe it was the tone in her voice. Maybe it was the look in her eyes. Whatever it was, Ethan knew she was trying to tell him something other than thank you. He looked into her eyes and propped himself up on one elbow above her. “You're staying, aren't you?”
She responded with a kiss so fervent that he almost lost the feeling in his knees. Willow wrapped one leg around his waist and pulled him close, her hips instinctually grinding up in search of his friction. He pressed his body to hers and they moved late into the night as though they were one again. Never once discussing what the morning would bring for them. Never once discussing that this was the end.
Serena's eyes shot open when her forehead met the cold, ceramic tile of the floor in her bathroom with a slap. Though she had fallen asleep propped up against the wall it seemed she had lost her balance. She had been frightened the night before. Not I just saw a scary movie so I'm going to sleep with the lights on frightened – it was different. She knew. She knew that those shadows dancing along her walls were more than shadows now. She knew about ghosts and spirits and vampires and demons. And she couldn't handle it.
She had tried to sleep in her own bed but it felt like she was being watched. Hiding under the blankets didn't work. Curled up in a ball in the corner didn't work. So, finally, she ended up in the bathroom with a clove of garlic in her pocket, a crucifix in one hand and her car keys, which she had accidentally dropped into holy water once, in the other. It was a stretch but it was better than nothing.
Her heart was racing as she scanned the small room to make sure she was alone. Once she was satisfied she opened the two windows along the far wall and let the sunlight pour in before she dared unlock the door and step out into the hallway.
She dressed quickly, grabbed a few things and headed back to the Hightower. Something was bothering her. It was a nagging feeling. For some reason she knew she could help Giles and the others with the girls who were missing. Something had told her in a way she didn't exactly understand. She was supposed to be there with them when they performed the next spell. It wasn't like a conversation she'd had with an invisible thing. She just… knew.
“I won't help again,” Illyria said, “It is selfish and wrong to imprison them.” She stood at the window looking out onto the lawn as the sun swathed the green glades in a warm ray of light.
“It's not the way you think, Illyria. You don't understand.” Wesley was trying so hard but she just took so much out of him. For a thing so powerful and immortal she wasn't adapting to the human manner of life or speech at all. Either she refused or she just didn't get it.
“I understand that these girls are free. Free from the confines of this filthy flesh in which my spirit rots. Free to live forever.” She was sad knowing that they would be returned to their bodies eventually. “I envy them.”
“You helped last night, with Willow.” Wesley said, trying to encourage her. But he knew it was a bad example.
“She was trapped with another. It is a worse prison than being stuck inside of one fetid vessel. Two souls sharing this weak, worthless, human shell...it makes the bile rise from my insides and burn the pit of my throat to think of it.” She met his eyes and added, “And the Watcher loved her. I could not bear to feel his pain any longer.”
“Someone loves these girls, too. They need to be found and given their bodies back.” Wesley approached her and reached up to stroke her long, silky blue hair. Sometimes she found his touch condescending, sometimes she found it manipulative, and sometimes she found it a kind gesture. He never knew what he was going to get when he treated her with any sort of comforting contact. He continued stroking her hair as he said, “You cannot make this decision. It's up to them. If we find them in the ether and they don't want to return to their bodies we'll discuss this again. But now…we need to go and prepare.”
“They will not choose to stay as they are – an immortal mist in the wind. They have everything and yet they will cry for help. And you will cry for them. Do you not understand how foolish you mortals are?” She whipped her head around and looked him in the eye, her pupils expanding to full black when she met his gaze like a tiger that had just locked onto its prey.
Wesley was not startled by her movements. He had come to expect it and accept it. “I understand. But that is what we are. Foolish or not we are meant to live and die. And if those girls don't get their bodies back they will never die, they will never rest. Earth is not meant for immortality. There is something more. Something better. Somewhere we belong after we leave this plane. And those girls deserve the chance to move on when it's their time. Can you understand that?”
“And what of you? Had you gone to this ‘somewhere' before I brought you back?” She just didn't understand. Or maybe she did.
“I never…” he chose his words carefully, “…never made it to my destination. It wasn't my time.” He would never tell her how much he resented her for doing that to him. It was one of the only things he and Buffy ever discussed in private.
She brought her hand up and stroked the side of his face. He closed his eyes and lost himself in her touch. When he opened them again sweet, soft, innocent Winifred was standing before him.
“I'll do it for you, Wesley.” She smiled and cocked her head to the side. By the time she had turned on her heels to walk away from him she was cold, hard, distant Illyria again. Wesley took a deep breath and narrowed his gaze on her as she left the room.
“You helped me, once, so I'm gonna return the favor.” Amy looked into Willow's eyes. “You belong here. With us.” She smiled and added, “With Giles.”
Willow changed the subject quickly. “Are you ready for the ritual? It's not like last night – I mean - we knew where I was. This one will be much harder. And we're trying to locate three. And we don't have anyplace to…put them.” She was nervous and it showed. It was like she was that awkward teenager back in high school.
“I'll be fine. Giles has been working with me. Last summer I stayed in England with the coven for two months…I kinda picked up a few things from them.”
“It's different isn't it?” Willow asked.
“The white magic?”
“It's amazing. I can't believe the things I did to you when you were fighting the urge to use black magic so hard. You knew…you understood. I just didn't get it,” Amy said.
“I know.” Willow just smiled at her old friend.
“Morning, love,” Ethan said as he entered the room and placed a kiss on Willow's cheek.
Amy rolled her eyes and left the two of them in private. It seemed that nobody would accept him. They had all had their dark pasts but for some reason Ethan's was unforgivable.
“Sleep well?” He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.
“After that workout last night?” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him softly.
“So, listen, love…I've been thinking,” he began.
She listened, falling in love with Ethan all over again while he suggested a plan for returning the souls of their friends to their respective bodies.
“You're making this difficult,” she said. She wanted to hate him for something, anything, but he just kept getting better.
“As I intended,” he said with a wink and a kiss. He took a step away from her to leave the room and then whirled back around on a whim and whisked her into his embrace. Ethan spun her around and ended with a dip, his strong arms holding her safely to his chest. His smile faded to seriousness as he leaned forward, pressed his lips to hers and kissed her like she'd never been kissed before. Ethan knew it might be the last time he held her.
"Giles," Buffy said, "You have to give it back."
"The lot of you has gone completely mad, every single one of you. Give this back to Ethan? Rayne? Are you insane? I'm not giving this back to him." Giles was holding up a little green glass jar that had a wispy bright yellow mist floating around inside of it.
"He seems ok," Buffy said. "He's been fighting bad stuff like we have. Can't a person change?"
Giles just shook his head. "I can't believe that after all he's done to me, to you, that you think he is a changed man."
"Ok, let's take for example...you. Are you telling me that just because of your Ripper days we shouldn't trust you, either?" Buffy crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side awaiting his response.
"Of course not. I'm..." he didn't finish.
"Different. Better. You've changed. And Faith's changed. And Willow...remember dark, veiny Willow? All gone...And Spike and Angel and...." Buffy just threw up her hands as if to say need I say more.
"All right, all right," he said. "Point taken. But I don't have to like it." Sometimes it was good to let Rupert go and let Ripper's insolence shine through. A man's gotta have layers, right?
"Men," Buffy said with a grunt and turned to leave the room.
Giles searched his library for all the books he had on astral projection and meditation. Though it was something he practiced often he'd never searched for so many souls. In fact the only person he'd ever been able to connect with was Willow.
Once he'd found everything he was looking for he grabbed the bottle of Ethan's mojo and opened the door to his bedroom. When he reached the end of the hall and rounded the corner he almost ran head-on into Ethan. " Ponce." He muttered under his breath.
"How's that?" Ethan said knowing full well the word Giles had spoken.
"I was just about to return your powers but I find myself at a crossroads, perhaps you can answer a question for me. Can you be trusted?" Giles asked snidely.
Ethan's smile grew by the second until he finally replied, "No."
Giles wasn't expecting that. "Well, then." He shrugged it off and continued down the hall still holding the man's magic.
"Come on, Ripper, you know damn well what I meant. I can't be trusted any more than you can," Ethan called after him. "Do you realize what you've got there? Hm?"
Giles stopped but kept his back to Ethan. "A worthless jar of black-magic, a few parlor tricks and some power that you, undoubtedly, stole from some poor, old, unsuspecting witch on the verge of death."
Ethan laughed. Would he ever stop paying for his sins? "My magic is anything but black," he said as he approached Giles. "And my tricks are best utilized on the horizontal in a large comfortable bed," he whispered that part in his old pal's ear. "And I've not stolen anything but Willow's heart in the past six years. And the use of the word 'stolen' there is a metaphor for she gave herself to me freely. Completely." He leaned against the wall in front of Giles and smiled. Smug bastard. "But I wasn't talking about the magic. I was talking about Willow. Have you any idea..."
The last thing in the world Giles needed was Ethan Rayne telling him something about Willow. Giles dropped the books he had in his hand and grabbed Ethan by the throat and pushed him up against the wall. He just looked him in the eye and never spoke a word. It was a warning. It would be the only one. They both knew that. Giles relented eventually and bent down to pick up the books while Ethan gathered himself. The Watcher held the magic up by the bottle-neck in front of his eyes. It dangled loosely, dangerously close to being dropped as he peered around the jar and met Ethan's gaze. Giles raised an eyebrow, cocked a grin and then dropped it to the ground before turning his back to leave as Ethan dived and caught his raison d'etre at the very last moment before impact.
"Why didn't you call? We were mad at you, yeah, but...we worried about you. I worried about you," Xander said as he held Willow in an embrace.
"I'm here, now," she said.
"Yeah, with Ethan Rayne, Will...come on," he said and let her go. He stepped back and looked at his friend taking in all the changes in her since the last time he'd seen her.
"I know you don't understand. And you know what...you never will. So don't make me talk about it, ok?" She was being sincere, not at all defensive. It was all true - no matter what she said about her life with Ethan the others would never understand.
"So what's the plan?" Xander said.
"Perform spell, find souls, return to their bodies," she said very casually as if she were talking about a trip to the drug store.
"Lather, rinse, repeat?" Xander's face lit up when he saw Willow's smile. He reached forward and hugged her again, so happy to have her back in his life. He hoped she would decide to stay. "Glad you finally broke a smile," he said, "I was afraid I'd have to do the snoopy dance and...well...you know - we're 29."
"Damn," she said, disappointed that she wouldn't be seeing her friend dance. Willow pulled away when she heard Buffy enter the room. "Hey, Buff."
"Hey," Buffy said. "You guys ready? Giles and the others are just about finished preparing everything."
"Yep, all ready," Xander said and turned and headed for the door giving Willow a quick, little, snoopy dance move just before he left the room.
Willow smiled and turned her attention back to Buffy. An awkward silence filled the space between them.
Finally Buffy spoke. "We're not gonna let you off easy, you know. You hurt us. You hurt Giles."
Willow's smile faded and she nodded her head in understanding. "You fucked up big time," Buffy said. Willow just nodded again, afraid that speaking would only mess things up more. After a few moments Buffy softened and said, "You seem happy with him," meaning Ethan.
"I am," Willow said and then paused before adding, "I was. "
Buffy knew what her friend was trying to tell her. "Stay or go, the choice is yours. We'd love to have you back in a gradual acceptance kind of way that will probably involve a lot of you doing
extra chores around here for a while. But Ethan goes. He doesn't come around at all no matter how much he's changed. I don't care if he's good or not. If you're staying then tell him goodbye. Even if you and Giles don't get back together it still hurts him to see you two. That's the deal, take it or leave it."
"Buffy." Giles had been standing outside the door the entire time. He'd heard the Slayer admonishing Willow and had to step in. Nothing more needed to be said. He watched Buffy leave the room and made his way over to Willow. "I'm sorry about that."
"No, it's ok. She's right." Willow had run the gamut of emotions in the 24 hours she'd been with the gang. Her friends had welcomed her at times. But sometimes they changed gears mid-sentence and made her feel bad about leaving them.
"This is difficult for all of us," he said.
He moved closer and placed a hand on her shoulder before he looked her straight in the eye. "You are welcome here always. No matter what. No strings. No complications. Nothing is expected of you, love. And you don't owe me anything. I don't want you to think that staying here means that you and I pick up where we left off. I love you, I always will. But that shouldn't come into account when you make your decision. If you want to stay then stay for you. We'll figure out the rest as we go along. Buffy was right, they won't make this easy for you - you've got a lot of atoning to do. But when you're tired of explaining yourself to the others..." He leaned forward and placed a soft, delicate kiss on her lips. "I'm here. I don't want explanations and I loathe apologies," he said with a smile. "Friend or lover, Willow, I will never turn my back on you."
She suppressed a tear but it burned like hell behind her eye as she held it in. "Why are you so good to me?"
Giles shrugged and shook his head. He reached up and tucked a fallen strand of hair behind her ear and stroked the side of her face softly. But that was all. Then it was time to change the subject. "Are you ready? The others are..." The doorbell sounded throughout the building and interrupted his thoughts.
"By the pricking of my thumbs," Ethan bellowed as he entered the room. It was his way of announcing that he had his powers back, though the ‘wicked' reference was not actually apropos. When he saw Giles and Willow standing so close he cleared his throat and said, "Ripper I believe I heard the doorbell. Perhaps you should go and check." He smiled when Giles stepped away from Willow and left the room. "Shall we?" He held his arm up for Willow. She took it and let him lead the way.
On the porch, bathed is sunlight, Serena fidgeted nervously hoping they hadn't started without her.
She tried to think of a reason she could give Rupert Giles and the others for showing up uninvited, unannounced, and unprepared to assist them at all.
The darkness fell like a blanket around them. All but Illyria and Spike, the only two who could see in the dark. Willow spoke the opening lines of an incantation as Giles lit the candle in front of him and then passed the flame to Buffy on his left and so on and so on until every wick was lit with fire and the circle was closed with Ethan, Willow and Serena inside.
Serena had told them she thought she could show them where the souls were. The information was stored inside of her but she couldn't access it, she just knew it was there. Willow tried to read Serena for the information but she was too weak from the ordeal of being trapped inside of Ethan for a few days. She hadn't realized how much energy she had lost. So, of course, Ethan stepped in since it was his family they were searching for. It was a casual thing, he just needed to connect with her through meditation while the two of them sat back to back and locked arms. But leave it to Ethan to add some grunting and some unnecessary undulating.
Willow, Ethan and Serena held hands inside the circle while the group around them chanted and meditated, protecting them from mystical disturbances and evil intruders. Willow started sweating. The palms of her hands and the small of her back were soaked with perspiration and she felt woozy. But she kept those things to herself and pressed on, drawing on every last ounce of strength she had until she collapsed, unintentionally falling backwards into Giles' waiting arms. He just happened to sit directly behind her, much to Ethan's chagrin.
He pushed aside the candle as he watched her falling into him. Giles tucked one arm under Willow's knees and one arm around her back and he picked her up and carried her to the side of the room, instructing the others to keep the circle intact and he would take her place. He set her down softly on a sofa in the corner, gently wiped the sweat from her forehead and pushed her hair back from her face. She stirred and shifted, slowly gaining consciousness beneath his touch. When she realized what had happened she shot up, eager to get back to the spell. But he stopped her. “No, love, you mustn't. You're too weak. You've been through enough. Rest, will you?”
She folded back down again, her muscles tired, her head pounding. Willow began shivering as her body temperature plummeted. Giles tore off the thin suede button-down shirt he was wearing and wrapped her in it and covered her with a blanket before returning to the circle in a plain white tee. He stepped over the arms of the outer circle and situated himself in what had been Willow's spot, reluctantly holding Ethan's hand on side and Serena's on the other.
The room lit up as grey storm clouds swarmed above them inside the building. Serena could not believe what she was seeing. An actual storm. And indoors. Had they really done this? Was she really a part of this? They had prepared her for what would happen and told her that she had to keep steady, no matter what. It was a bad idea to involve her but they really didn't have a choice. For a civilian she held up pretty well. Thunder boomed all around and energy crackled in the air. If they bad been outside there would have been lightening but inside there was just a constant streak of energy pulsing beneath the clouds.
Each of the three inside the circle had a little glass box in front of them similar to the glass bottle Giles had stored Ethan's magic in. It was strong enough to store a soul, Wesley had told them. Angel's soul had been kept in one at one time when Angelus paid a visit to the gang in L.A. Ethan said he would try to be the catalyst for all three girls but if they were all located at once and tried to return through him at the same time it wouldn't work. If three were located at once then Serena and Giles might need to offer their bodies as the conductors that would pull the soul from the ether and transfer it to safety. When the storm raged above them more fiercely the de facto triumvirate inside the circle knew the time had come.
Ethan opened himself first, shouting the words that allowed a soul to enter and pass through him. He squeezed Giles and Serena's hands just as he spoke the words, signaling them that all souls had been found and all needed to be pulled out of the ether together. They each spoke the words and within seconds the three of them were levitating four inches above the ground, their bodies crackling with purple sparks and blue lights while the girls passed through them. In an instant it was over.
When everyone had pulled themselves together Wesley found Illyria sitting Indian style on the floor in front of the glass jars. She was trying to speak to the girls telepathically, trying to tell them that they didn't have to go back to their bodies. Though nobody could hear their responses Wesley gathered by Illyria's growing anger that they had told her they wanted their bodies back. They were witches, true, but none were nearly as strong as Willow. They had to depend on someone to retrieve their bodies for them. Giles hated seeing three lives depend on Ethan Rayne but there really wasn't anything he could do about it.
Serena sat in a daze on the sofa next to Willow. "Is that it," she asked, "Or is there more stuff I need to know?"
"Like what," Willow asked.
"You know, like...tooth fairy...Easter bunny..." Serena sat there, still as a statue, and continued to be confused.
Willow just smiled. "One thing at a time."
"Oh...ok," Serena said calmly. Nothing was going to faze her ever again. Nothing.
Giles joined them, handing each woman a glass of tea before he sat in the snug space between them. "Well," he said, "Now do you believe me?"
"Uh-huh," Serena agreed. "Sorry about the attitude the other night. I just...well...you know."
"Understood," Giles said. He turned to Willow. "And you, love, feeling better?"
"Well, yeah. Except..." Willow was afraid to say what she meant.
Giles turned to look at her when she stopped speaking. He leaned close to her and whispered in her ear, "Don't you dare think that just because we managed that spell without you that we don't need you here.”
She smiled and took a deep breath. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ethan gathering up the souls. It was time. He was leaving. Now all she had to do was decided whether or not she was going with him.
Amy walked over to Giles and told him, "Angel just called. He needs reinforcements in Morocco. Buffy and the rest of us are going. Will you come into the ballroom and program the zappy-thing to send us over to him?"
Giles smiled at Serena and said, "Don't ask." He stood up and followed Amy out of the dining hall and into the ballroom.
Serena finally broke out of her numb stare and got up and searched for her purse and car keys. "I'm glad you're alive, Willow," she said when she had found all of her things. "You're my first ray of hope…I wish all of my cases from now on turn out to have happy endings. You have no idea what it's like to see the things I see every day. I know you guys fight monsters, but my battles are all about humanity. I see people doing things that your demons and monsters do. It makes me sick."
"I know. But at least you know you can come to us, now, for help."
"You...you're staying?" Serena asked tentatively.
Willow didn't even realize what she had said. Come to us . Had she meant her and Ethan? She wasn't sure herself, not until Serena asked. Willow stood up and walked her down the long hall and to the front door. “Thanks for everything,” she said and gave the woman a hug.
“You're welcome. Tell Ethan I'll be outside waiting. He asked for a ride…is that ok?” After all, he was Willow's husband.
Willow just shook her head affirmatively and smiled. She watched Serena get into her car and then she closed the door and then turned her back to lean against it.
"Penny for your thoughts." Ethan appeared out of nowhere. Had he been waiting to get her alone?
"Ethan," she started.
But he interrupted her. "Room 126."
"Take a stroll, love. You'll find your things, complete with my signature on the divorce papers, all sprawled out in the farthest room from Ripper's suite I could find." He moved closer to her.
“Make nice, now. Don't you two kids go jumping into…oh, never mind, Ripper looks like he hasn't had a decent shag in years.”
She was speechless. Stunned. Eventually she spoke. "When did you..." she began but he stopped her again.
"The night we came to Ripper for help. I knew, little one. This is where you belong," he said with a smile.
Ethan took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly. " Magic," he whispered in her ear.
Charles, Wesley, Illyria, Buffy, Dawn, Faith, Spike and Amy were all gathering weapons and books. One by one they stepped into the teleport machine and Giles sent them to Angel. Buffy was last. She went to Giles and hugged him. “I'll call,” she said.
"Do you really need a bathing suit to avert an apocalypse?" Giles asked motioning toward the duffle bag Buffy had draped over her shoulder.
"Busted," she said and shrugged.
"You are evil and must be banished," he said and placed a fatherly kiss on her forehead. After all the things Buffy and the others had said to Willow he was surprised that they all took off and allowed him some private time to settle things with her. He typed a few things into the computer after Buffy stepped into the chamber. The lights flashed inside the machine and she was gone.
Willow watched as Serena and Ethan drove away together in the Benz with the glass soul boxes safely tucked away in a padded trunk in the back seat. Ethan had insisted that he handle it from there. He didn't want Willow to go through any more pain. He would take care of it all. Willow wasn't sure if he'd enlisted Serena's help or not, though she knew he didn't need it. He was powerful. More powerful than Giles would ever give him credit for. More powerful than he could even imagine. His magic had grown by leaps and bounds when he'd started using it for good instead of evil.
When the dust settled after the taillights disappeared at the end of the road Willow locked the door and went to the ballroom to find Giles. But he wasn't there. In fact nobody was there. The place was completely empty. She heard the distinct whistle of a tea kettle wafting through the house and smiled. After a brief pause she wandered down the hall to the kitchen and found him pouring two more glasses of tea.
"Separate rooms, of course. For now, at least," he said as if they'd already been in negotiations for her return.
"Naturally," she agreed. "Separate floors, even."
"That can be arranged," he said and sliced a piece of lemon into her tea. "There will be no mention of Ethan from this moment forward. By either of us."
"I won't even tell you if it's rain ing outside," she said and moved closer. It was her turn to make a rule. "No apologies?" She wasn't sure of that one. She still didn't feel as though she'd said enough about the past few years of their lives that they'd spent apart.
"I should think not," he said as if it were the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. He thought for a moment before adding, "In fact I insist. The minute you start apologizing I'm throwing your ass out on the street." He handed her the glass of tea.
"Deal," she said. She stared at him for a moment, the rugged handsomeness of his face, the line of his jaw. She put the tea down and moved even closer to him. "Giles?"
He was getting nervous now. Breathless, even, and still avoiding her gaze. "Uhm...yes?"
"Do you want to know why I left?" The coy, flirtatious moment had turned serious.
"Not particularly," he said. By this time their lips were almost touching as they stood practically nose to nose breathing in and out in sync.
"I don't love him," she said moving closer.
"But you're in love with him," he said.
"That will fade. Love doesn't.” Willow ran her hand down his arm from his shoulder, over his bicep, finally ending with her fingers intertwined with his.
His insides started fluttering about and his heart actually skipped a beat. Giles slowly removed his glasses and set them down on the counter. He squeezed her hand before he let go and wrapped his arms around her. She put her head on his shoulder and he rested his chin against her. “Keep your memories as secrets, love. Not because they'll hurt me but because they're yours,” he said. “Cherish them if you like.” He pulled away and looked into her eyes. “Because by this time next year I will have blown them all out of the water,” he said with a mischievous grin. He whisked her off of her feet and held her in his arms as though he were going to carry her over a threshold. Giles closed his eyes and pressed his lips to hers.
The Knowing - Prequel
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