Buffy hung up the phone and returned to the living room. "Okay, it's official" she said. "Willow and I are going to England. Giles has got us booked on an overnight flight to London this evening, and he'll meet us at Heathrow. Would it be okay if Dawn stays with you guys? She's had enough upset recently."
"The Dawnster's always welcome to crash at casa del Harris, but I'm not convinced this is such a great idea, Buff," said Xander. "Willow's incredibly fragile. She can hardly stand to be around any of us. Seeing Giles... I don't know. It's only been a week since it happened. She's been bad enough here at home. Are you sure a trip to the old country to visit the guy she tried to murder is really what she needs right now?"
"I don't know what choice we have," said Buffy quietly. "If Giles and the coven think something can be done for her…"
"Do you think they'll suck out all her magicks?" said Anya, brightening. "Because that's fun to watch. Oh boy, do the sparks fly. I remember one time... " She stopped, seeing Buffy and Xander's expressions. "What?"
Willow hadn't spoken a word in the week that had passed since Xander had brought her down from Kingman's Bluff and they'd settled her into Buffy's spare room. Xander had told her that Giles had been teleported back to England immediately to be cared for by the coven, and she was profoundly relieved not to have to face him. She desperately wanted to apologise to everyone, to make everything go back to the way it used to be, but she couldn't think of anything that would ever come close to expressing the depth of remorse that had her awake night and day. Her hands shook constantly; and when she wasn't crying, her stomach heaved although there was nothing left to be sick with. She was exhausted, numb, guilt-ridden, grief-stricken, and frightened to death because she could still feel the presence of the black magicks. Willow lay on Buffy's spare bed as though in a trance, disconnected from everything and everyone. And now they were standing in the doorway. She could feel their eyes on her back, and sensed their nervousness. The undemanding kindness that Buffy, Xander, Anya and Dawn had shown her over the past few days left her humbled and confused. Willow could only imagine how they all must hate her, but the strength of their emotions couldn't surpass her own self-loathing.
When it became clear that Willow wasn't in a suitcase-packing frame of mind, Buffy and Anya went into her room and did it for her.
When it was done, Buffy returned to the spare room, where Willow still lay facing the wall. As far as Buffy knew, she had been in that position for a very long time.
"Okay, Will, you're all good to go," she said with false cheer. "The taxi's coming at five, and we're being met at the other end, and going to the coven. Are you okay with that?"
It was the truth, but not the whole truth. Buffy waited, but Willow gave no sign of having heard. In a way, Buffy was very glad not to be asked any questions. If Willow realised that it was Giles who would be meeting them, and that they would be stopping at his flat in Bath before going on to the coven, Buffy was sure she would refuse to go. The Slayer pulled the door shut and beat a hasty retreat to do her own packing.
The plane journey from Los Angeles International was uneventful. Buffy shepherded Willow through the check-in and security areas, and once on board Willow simply curled herself into a ball under the scratchy airline blanket. Buffy couldn't tell if she was awake or not, but suspected that she was. She always was.
By the time they dragged themselves through the customs and battled the free-for-all that was the baggage claim at Heathrow, Buffy was jet-lagged, dying for a shower, and increasingly nervous about their impending reunion with Giles. She kept glancing at Willow and periodically hobbled her with the perversely unmanageable baggage trolley, but her friend didn't complain. At length they made their way through to the exit, and wandered adrift in a sea of groggy ex-passengers and frantically waving friends and relatives.
"Buffy! Over here… "
She felt Willow stiffen beside her, and turned to see Giles fighting his way to the front of the crowd.
"S'okay, Will," she murmured. She could take a guess at what her friend was thinking, and it wasn't good.
Giles elbowed his way through a gaggle of foreign exchange students, and stopped a few feet away, his eyes on Willow. He couldn't help but flash back to the last time he'd seen her, from his vantage point on the Magic Box floor. She looked even worse now. Not surprising, really, from what Buffy had told him on the phone.
Attempting to defuse the moment, Buffy dropped her carry-on and embraced her Watcher as gently as she could. Even so, Willow caught the wince.
Giles moved towards Willow, now studying a point in the distance, but Buffy stopped him.
"I'm not sure who she was expecting to see, but it wasn't you," she whispered.
He nodded. "Right, then. Let's get out of here," he said, taking charge of the trolley and heading towards the lift to the car park, leaving the girls to follow along behind.
"Typical guy, huh?" said Buffy with a smile at his back. Her expression turned serious. "I'm sorry, Will. He's the only one who can help us right now."
Willow's sullen expression reflected a potent mixture of anger, embarrassment, and above all, fear. He was going to help her? She knew from the Watcher's dealings with Ethan Rayne that he could hold a grudge forever… what was it Xander had called him? The emotional marathon man? And Ethan had never tried to kill him, as far as she knew. How could she have been so stupid as to let Buffy bring her right to him?
Giles piled the suitcases into the back of his new navy blue Land Rover, letting the women arrange themselves inside. Willow immediately lay down on the back seat and closed her eyes. Giles took the hint and didn't try to speak to her. He got behind the wheel, gave Buffy a reassuring smile, and squeezed her hand. Soon they were belting down the M4 motorway towards Bath.
"Wow, Giles, you drive fast."
"No, it just feels fast compared to what you're used to. It's what happens when you come to a country where people are trusted to exceed twenty-five miles per hour." He grinned. "Although in your case, twenty-five is probably about right. Perhaps even a little generous."
Buffy let that go. "What does this do?" she enquired, poking at the dashboard.
"It's the stereo settings. Don't touch anything," said Giles, batting her hand away. "I know what you're like. I'll be listening to Icelandic folk music for the next six months if you fiddle with my presets."
"Fine, mister control freak, let's get down and funky with... " She pressed a button experimentally, and Aretha Franklin's 'Freeway of Love' blasted through the speakers. Buffy and Giles shared a look, came to the unspoken conclusion that absurd jollity was preferable to uncomfortable silence, and left the 'Best of Motown' CD to work its magic for the next couple of hours.
It wasn't long before the stresses of the journey took their toll, and Buffy drifted off. When Giles gently shook her awake, she felt as if she'd been sucked into one of the 'Masterpiece Theatre' costume dramas her mother had liked so much. They were parked on a quiet street lined with tall white townhouses and mature chestnut trees.
"They're Georgian houses. My flat is on the first floor. Nice big rooms, but bloody freezing in winter," said Giles. "I've spent too long in sunnier climes. Not as hardy as I used to be." He checked the rear-view mirror and sighed. Willow hadn't stirred.
"Maybe you should take her on up. It'd be a friendly gesture," said Buffy. "I'll chill for a minute, then bring up the bags."
Giles nodded. He got out and opened Willow's door. She sat up with a jerk, and Giles just managed to stop himself from taking a step back.
"We're here, love. Come inside and I'll give you the tour." He held out his hand but Willow didn't take it, and she didn't look at him. She cast a quick look up and down the street, and then his hand was on her back, guiding her gently but firmly to the door. He unlocked it and indicated the stairs.
She knew he was afraid she'd make a run for it.
They reached the landing, he unlocked the door, and it opened into a well-furnished, generously-proportioned living room where the overwhelming impression was of having oneself immersed in a pot of lemony yellow paint. Solid bookcases were built into the walls, and Willow recognised many of the volumes on the shelves as refugees from the high school library. Seeing them was a little like coming into contact with her younger self, and she wished yet again that she could go back in time and change things. There was a crucifix on a hook behind the door, and she suspected that there would be others artfully concealed behind the curtains.
"Well, this is it. I went a bit mad with the interior decoration. A reaction to that horribly dreary apartment in Sunnydale, I suppose. Here, let me take your jacket."
She let him help her off with it, and he disappeared down the hall to put it away. Giles returned seconds later, walking backwards, with Quentin Travers and four large, armour-clad special operatives in tow.
"Quentin, what the bloody hell do you think you're doing trespassing in my home?" As if he didn't know.
"Waiting for you and your little friend here," was the mild reply. Travers indicated Willow, now struggling in the grip of two operatives. Her eyes were wild and she shook uncontrollably, silently pleading with Giles to use his influence somehow. Not that she was sure he would, even if he could.
"Come now, Rupert," said Travers, smiling at Giles' outraged expression. "You didn't really think a trivial thing like trying to destroy the world would escape our notice, did you?"
Giles's eyes flicked to Willow. She was absolutely terrified. From the way she was looking at him, she obviously thought that he had delivered her right into Travers' hands.
"Leave her alone. I'll come with you and answer whatever questions you have."
"That's very gallant of you, Rupert, but I'm afraid there's some information that only Ms. Rosenberg can provide."
"What happened last week was an extraordinary aberration, I assure you," said Giles, fighting to keep his voice under control. "The danger is past."
Travers regarded Giles levelly. "You know as well as I do that the danger is most definitely not past."
"You have no authority to take her into custody or to punish her," said Giles. "Do your superiors know what you're doing?"
Travers ignored the last. "We don't want to punish her, my boy. We just want to make sure she's safe to be roaming loose in the world. Surely you agree that she needs rehabilitation, after all that's transpired?"
Giles' eyes burned into Travers. "I remember what you did to me when I was her age. There's no way in hell I'm going to let you do that to her. Get out, Quentin, before I do something I should have done long ago."
"I'm not interested in arguing with you, Rupert. She's coming with us, and that's all there is to it. Now, I suggest you step aside and let us do our jobs."
"This doesn't fall within the Council's jurisdiction. She's neither a Watcher nor a Slayer, and you have no right to terrorise her like this!" He took a few steps toward Travers. "And you most certainly have no right to use her to get at me."
"Would I be able to use her for that?" Travers raised his eyebrows. "You're doing it again, Rupert - allowing your feelings to overcome your judgement. Only this time, the child you're defending has joined with the forces of darkness, rather than fought them."
"That's not - "
"And, as we've agreed, she isn't a Slayer," Travers went on. "She's just a young lady who's done some rather unpleasant things, and as a Watcher, you're under no obligation to her whatsoever. However, we'd be most interested to discuss the tutelage in magick that Ms. Rosenberg has been receiving from you over the last five years or so."
Giles froze, and Travers smiled, knowing he had hit a nerve.
Travers reached into his pocket and pulled out a small hypodermic loaded with a murky yellow liquid.
"No! Giles, don't let them!" Willow was becoming frantic, trying to twist herself free.
Giles positioned himself between Travers and Willow and made a last effort to reason with the man. "Quentin, you could do irreparable damage - "
Travers looked Giles calmly in the eye. "That's enough, Rupert. You know you can't win. Nor should you." He turned his attention back to Willow.
The operatives were prepared for Giles' next move. They knocked him to the floor and held him down with a speed and precision that Travers found extremely gratifying. Despite the Watcher's recent injuries, it took all the operatives strength and skill to subdue him.
Travers pushed up Willow's sleeve and wiped her arm with an antiseptic pad.
"Buffy!" she screamed. Her voice was ragged with disuse and panic.
Giles hadn't ceased to fight for a moment, but he knew he didn't stand a chance. He'd been in this position before - frequently - but he'd been much younger then, and having the weight of the operatives pressing on his back and ribs was excruciating.
"Quentin, you mustn't dose her with anything," he gasped. "She's allergic to all kinds of drugs." The lie was all he could do for now.
Travers glanced down at Giles and considered for a moment. "You're awfully keen to protect someone who's recently tried to kill you, Rupert." He cleared the excess air from the syringe. "But you needn't be concerned. I'm sure the Council infirmary could cope with any reaction."
Travers turned back to Willow. "Now hold still. We wouldn't want the needle to break off in your arm, would we?" The operatives gripped her tighter than ever, and he administered the injection.
Tears coursed down Willow's face, but her irises were black.
Giles saw it coming. "Christ, Willow, no," he moaned.
But the magicks were on her before she could pull them back.
So much for her resolution never to cast another spell.
There was a brief, blinding flash of red light, and the operatives released Willow with a shriek as flames materialised up and down her arms and a shock wave of mystical energy hurled them away. One of the operatives barrelled into Buffy as she came in the door. She dropped him with a chop to the neck before pulling the other one out onto the landing and throwing him down the stairs.
Travers wheeled on the operatives struggling with Giles.
"For God's sake! Forget about him! Get the girl!"
The men released Giles and steeled themselves to confront the witch, but she was gone, and Buffy was blocking the exit. She heaved one operative onto another, and Giles shot past them, down the stairs, and out into the street with Travers hard on his heels. Giles could see Willow staggering down the street up ahead, and a moment later she collapsed against a garden wall. Travers' footfalls thudded along behind him as the older man strove to keep up.
Rage bypassed all of Giles' usual behavioural filters. He abruptly stopped, turned, and nailed Travers right between the eyes with the punch that had once been his calling card. There was an audible crack. Giles had wanted to do it for years, and now that it had happened he found it a deeply, intensely satisfying experience. The last thing that the Council official saw before losing consciousness was Ripper standing over him.
"*Pillock.* I look after my own, and don't you forget it."
Giles knelt beside Willow and took her pulse. It was strong and steady, so he pulled her into his arms and carried her back to the flat.
Buffy met him on the front step and helped him to negotiate the bodies piled at the bottom of the stairs. "God, Giles. That was one hell of a punch," she said, dragging the operatives outside and locking the door behind them. "You were the very essence of cool," she called up to him, grinning. "No one will ever believe it."
Giles laughed slightly, as much to release the tension as anything else. "Quentin will believe it, when he wakes up with a broken nose and two black eyes."
Travers' probable reaction was something that Giles did not permit himself to dwell upon.
He set Willow down gently on the sofa. Buffy helped him to arrange a pillow and some light blankets around her, then went to the bright, cheerful kitchen to get a bowl of water and a flannel to try to bring her round. Giles followed her down the hall.
"I should leave her for a bit," he said. "She'll be all right. They'll have given her a fairly strong sedative, which may actually be no bad thing. From what you've been saying, I think she was in desperate need of some sleep anyway."
"Yeah, maybe." Buffy looked at him seriously. "How are you doing? Wrestling with those guys probably didn't help your ribs and stuff. And eesh, look at your knuckles." She indicated his left hand, now red and beginning to swell.
Giles flexed it a few times before putting it under the cold tap. "It's nothing." He permitted himself a grin. "I'd do it all over again."
Buffy laughed. "Well, I wouldn't mind seeing it all over again."
He smiled, hearing the admiration in her voice.
"I just wish I could've done it under different circumstances."
Buffy nodded, and put the bowl back in the cupboard. "So that was pretty much the worst thing that could've happened today, huh?" she said.
"Yes, and I'm fairly certain Willow holds me somewhat responsible." Giles took off his glasses and absently began to clean the lenses. He hissed as the action made him acutely aware of the painful throbbing in his left hand.
"No. Not after the way you took her side." Buffy reached over, carefully took the glasses from him, and began polishing them.
"Thank you," he said, genuinely touched. She had done a lot of growing up over the last couple of years.
"That's her stuff, Giles, not yours. I'm guessing Will feels incredibly guilty about what she did to all of us. Especially you. She probably thinks you hate her, and although she hasn't said anything, I think she's been expecting the Council to do something awful to her."
"Well, they almost succeeded." Giles was grim as he started gathering up supplies. "I'm afraid we can't risk staying here even for one night. As soon as that lot come to, they'll be back with reinforcements." He glanced at Buffy and stopped, registering the troubled look on her face.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Giles... do you?"
He cocked an eyebrow. "Do I what?"
"Hate Willow." There, she said it.
Giles was appalled, but a shadow of guilt crossed his face. "No, of course not."
"It's just... you're acting kind of... I don't know... "
Giles squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples. "It's complicated. But I don't hate her. I could never hate Willow." He hadn't yet been able to sift through the guilt and anger enough to discern who or what he blamed. Everyone. No-one. Willow. Himself.
Buffy nodded. She knew it was useless to press for details when his defences were up, and instead pursued a different line of questioning. "So, where are we going?"
Giles gave a rueful smile. "Ethan's."
"I'm afraid not. It's very much in his interest to help. You'd be amazed what he'll do if he's properly motivated."
It was beginning to get dark when they finished loading up the Land Rover with suitcases and boxes of Giles' reference books. Willow was still asleep, but her colour had improved somewhat. Buffy folded a duvet and put it down on the back seat. At last they were ready to leave. Giles scooped Willow up once more and carried her down to the car. Buffy stood aside as the Watcher settled her friend under the comforter, making sure that she would be warm enough, and wouldn't fall off the seat if he had to stop suddenly. Buffy went back to shut the front door and returned to find Giles standing stock still, leaning against the car and cradling his ribs. His hands fell to his sides when he caught sight of Buffy. He forced a smile.
"It's all right. Go on, hop in."
Buffy stared at him. "You're awesome, Giles. Did I ever tell you that?"
His eyebrows shot up, and he blushed as pleasure battled for dominance over embarrassment. "Was it your turn to get hit on the head today? What brought that on?"
Buffy stepped away from the car and lowered her voice. "To be able to do what you're doing... After what Willow did to you... and now you're in big trouble with the Council."
"I'd do anything for Willow, just as I would for any of you," he said quietly. "And I confess I do feel... at least partially responsible for what's happened. As far as the Council goes, I've been in trouble with them since I was old enough to speak in complete sentences, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
"So you're not worried about getting fired again?" said Buffy.
"No. Travers was the one at fault today. I'm going to lodge a formal complaint with the Council - they're not all as bad as he is - and I think he's more likely to get the chop than I am on this occasion."
They climbed in and Giles coaxed the engine to life.
"Forget something?" Buffy held out his glasses.
"At last," he smiled wearily. "It's suddenly all so clear."
"It's so beautiful out here," said Buffy, as they left the city limits and began negotiating narrow, undulating country roads. The fields and trees were the fresh green of early summer, and the evening light softened the shadows on the hills. "I can see why you were glad to get out of Sunnydale."
Giles smiled. "Well, yes and no," he said. "I love this place, but sometimes you just long for a bit of mindless optimism, a decent shopping mall and American prices. Do you have any idea how much a leather jacket costs in this country?"
"So that's what you really missed, huh," said Buffy. "I knew it."
He laughed. "You had to find out sometime."
Up ahead, Buffy could see two huge, golden statues of rearing horses. They were more Vegas than Ascot.
"Let me guess," she said as they began slowing down. "Ethan's?"
"Yes. Those horses are merely the tip of a very tacky iceberg." He turned hard left, and they were heading up a long, leafy driveway to a large Jacobean house of weathered grey stone.
Giles pulled up outside the front door and turned off the engine. "Wait here. Do *not* come in until I tell you. All right?"
Buffy nodded. He raised his eyebrows, and she nodded again.
"I'll be right back." He cast a quick look through the back window to ensure that Willow was still asleep, then went up to the heavy wooden door and was about to bang on the gargoyle knocker when Ethan yanked the door open with a look of utter amazement.
"Ripper! You old bastard, I thought you were dead!" His smirk faded and he gave Giles a tentative poke in the chest. "You're not, are you?"
"No. No thanks to you. May I come in?" said Giles, pushing past the sorcerer and closing the door behind them.
Buffy sat in the car obediently, amusing herself by experimenting with all the buttons on the car radio. She looked at the clock. It had been half an hour already. There was a soft moan from the back seat. Willow was waking up, and she didn't look good. The Slayer debated the merits of staying in the car versus disobeying orders. It didn't take long.
The front door was unlocked. Buffy cracked it open and couldn't help but marvel at the utter lack of taste that had taken over what must once have been a very lovely home. There was an enormous shrine to Janus in the foyer, for a start. Buffy idly wondered what the mailman must make of that, before proceeding down the dark, mahogany-panelled hallway. She passed all manner of occult knicknacks, as well as a collection of nineteenth-century prints featuring ancient Greeks being naughty, and a chair laden with antique teddy bears. She could hear voices now. Well, one at least. Giles. She made her way through to the end of the house, and could hear him quite clearly now, although his voice was low. Buffy opened a door to the left, and found herself in Ethan's study.
"… and if you ever gave a damn about what happened before, you'll help me get it right this time. Tell me what to do, Ethan, or I swear you'll never see - " It was the voice Giles had used on Travers earlier, and to Buffy's ears it didn't sound remotely like her Watcher. But Ethan seemed to recognise it.
"Hello, Buffy. How's tricks?"
Ethan was backed into a corner, literally and metaphorically, and for once he appeared profoundly relieved to see the Slayer in the doorway.
Giles wheeled around, and Buffy wavered a bit under his hard, empty gaze. Immediately upon noticing her discomfort, his look softened.
"What is it, Buffy? I'm not quite finished here."
"Yeah." She shifted from one foot the other. "Sorry to… uh… interrupt. It's just that Willow's waking up, and she - "
Ethan's eyes got very wide. "You brought the witch *here*? She's here *now*?" He strode to the doorway and quickly looked up and down the hall.
Giles rolled his eyes. "Good show, Buffy. I hadn't quite gotten to that part."
Buffy winced. "Sorry. But she is. She looks pretty sick, Giles. What should I do?"
He sighed. "Stay with Ethan. Do whatever you have to in order to keep him in this room. I'll be back in a minute."
He went to the door, pulled Ethan back into the study, and looked him in the eye. "I meant what I said. Think about it. Sit down and don't move until I get back." He could only hope that Ethan would be more obedient than Buffy had been.
It was dark. Willow opened her eyes and could just about focus on the buckle of the seat belt. She felt hot and clammy. The remnants of the burning spell. She lifted her head, and was then able to add dizzy, nauseous, weak, and thirsty to the list. There was no noise from the front seat, so she must be alone. She put her head back down and closed her eyes again, imagining that Tara was holding her.
Then the little light came on as the door opened. Before she could react, Giles was there, crouching down in front of her, his cool hand on her forehead. For an instant it was like they were back in the Magic Box. Reflexively, Willow grabbed him and heard a sharp intake of breath. She was holding his hand in front of her face, and suddenly registered how raw it looked.
"All right. Easy… easy," he soothed, rubbing her back with his free hand. "You just looked a bit too warm, that's all. You've had a long, bad day."
She let go of his bad hand and he pulled away, gingerly massaging his tender knuckles.
"Willow," he said intently, "I want you to know with absolute certainty that I had nothing to do with what happened earlier. I'm so sorry. I should've known better than to take you back to my place. I had no idea that Quentin would have the ba-… er, nerve to do something like that."
Willow nodded. "Yeah."
"Do you believe me?" he pressed. "I-I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, but - "
"Of course I believe you," she said, but her eyes were still closed, so he couldn't be sure. Then, "Where are we?"
"We're a little way outside Bath, at Ethan's. He's going to help us get you sorted."
"Oh." That seemed unlikely, but she was too groggy to pursue it.
Willow raised her head and looked at him, meeting his eyes for the first time since her arrival. In a small, shaky voice, she said, "Giles, I feel really bad."
"I know, love. That's the sedative wearing off."
"No, I mean… my magicks." Among other things.
Giles nodded. "We're going to get that seen to very soon. Do you feel up to coming inside? Buffy's in there with Ethan, and I don't think those two had best be left alone for long."
She sat up and let him help her out of the car. He put a steadying arm around her and they made their way into the house very slowly.
"Am I delirious, or are those teddy bears?"
He laughed. "They belonged to Ethan's sister. She was going out with Randall when I knew her. Well, she was at first. Then she went out with me. Lovely girl. Shame her brother's such a prat," he said pointedly, seeing Ethan emerge from the study. Giles caught Willow just as she collapsed.
When she came to, she was lying on the chaise longue in the study. A fire crackled and popped in the hearth. Although it was summer, the nights were cool, and the smell of wood smoke was comforting. Buffy had been curled up in a leather armchair, but she got up when Willow sat upright, rubbing her eyes.
"Hey, Will. How're you doing?"
"Fine," she said, looking around. "Buffy, what's going on? What's Giles doing?"
Buffy offered her a glass of orange juice and some toast. "Better have some of this. You haven't eaten anything all day."
Willow took the juice, but knew the toast would be a very big mistake.
Buffy made an attempt at levity. "You should see the massive, octopus-shaped waterbed in Ethan's guest room. It's like surfing, but dry."
But Willow wasn't having it. "Don't try to change the subject. What's Giles doing? He said he was going to do something about my magicks, but he didn't say what."
Buffy was taken aback by the real anxiety in her friend's voice. "I don't know. He and Ethan have been walking around outside for a couple of hours." She took the plate of toast and put it down on the coffee table. "Come on, Will. How long have you known him? Giles would never hurt you. What happened last week was a one-shot deal, and even then he put your life before his."
Willow flushed. She hadn't needed to be reminded of that. Buffy punched her shoulder ever so lightly.
"I'm sailing single-handed around the world, and when I get to the most deserted part of the ocean, there's this huge typhoon. My boat almost capsizes, but finally it rides out the storm. Then, I see a speck on the horizon. It gets closer and closer, until I can see it's another yacht, but the mast is snapped in half, and it's taking on water way too fast. Then I see a figure on board, waving for help. It's Sting, and he comes over to my boat and does yoga on the deck and sings to me all the way to Sydney." Buffy grinned. "Okay, now it's your turn."
Willow's eyes filled with tears. "I'd just rather be anywhere but here. With Tara."
Buffy pulled her best friend close and let her cry until Giles returned with Ethan.
The Watcher knelt down in front of Willow. He put his hand over hers, and to his dismay felt her go rigid. He withdrew his touch and sat back on the coffee table.
"Willow, a friend of ours from the coven is coming over in a little while. She's going to help Ethan and I remove the black magick from your system," said Giles.
Willow struggled to keep her voice under control. "How can you do that? I told you before, you're not gonna take my magicks."
A worried glance passed between Buffy and Ethan as the Watcher and the witch regarded each other for a long moment.
"There's no need to get defensive. No-one's going to take the white magick that you've always had. That's yours; it's pure, and you can trust it. What we're going to do is perform a ritual and a spell that will separate the dark magicks from your own, and then cleanse your mystical energies," said Giles. "Do you understand?"
Willow nodded, but everyone could see that the resolve face was back.
"I understand," she said. "But I don't want you to do it. Leave the magicks as they are, and I'll learn to live with them. I'm never, ever going to use them again anyway."
They were both all too aware that the resolution had already been broken once.
"Willow." Giles shifted. "I know that the idea of confronting that part of yourself is frightening, but - "
"Giles, I know what happened with Randall. I *saw* it! You and Ethan promised you would help him, but you couldn't. You brought something forth from him that was too dark and too strong; he couldn't handle it, and neither could you." Damn it, she was crying again. "He tore his own skin off before he died."
"That was a different kind of thing entirely," said Ethan, seeing Giles momentarily at a loss for words. "We were young and inexperienced… Also, some of us were absolutely shit-faced," he shot a guilty look at Giles, "and Randall had never summoned Eyghon before that night. He panicked and forgot everything we'd told him about how to protect himself. He didn't know how to work with forces of that magnitude. It's a bit like swimming river rapids… you can't fight the power, so you have to relax into it, go with it, and then you'll be much more likely to survive. Randall couldn't do that."
"And I *can*?" said Willow incredulously. "I completely lost it before, and I know I will again. I can feel it!"
"Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me," muttered Ethan.
"I'm sorry, but there's really no alternative," Giles said firmly. He was nearly as shaken by the memory of Randall as by that of the previous week, but fought hard to keep it out of his voice.
"Willow, we have to get rid of those magicks somehow."
She was almost incoherent now, sobbing. "You tried to take my magicks that night and it almost killed me. You messed them all up… I almost died. I lost control and then I tried to kill you!"
"Yes, all right. Shh," he was saying, simply trying to calm her now. Ethan was right. If Willow had already decided that the ritual would fail, there wasn't much anyone could do to prevent it.
"For a while after Tara died I was strong… I was invincible… at least, that's how it felt. Or maybe I just didn't care if I won or lost. I can't get back to that place. I can't go through that again." She looked him dead in the eye. "And I *won't*. I can't control any magicks right now; I'm too tired and too strung out and too scared of what'll happen. Because something *will* happen, Giles, and I'll end up killing all of us and who knows what else I'll do before that. So forget it. You're not doing any ritual. I don't want your help, I don't deserve it, and frankly it's my problem and none of your business."
Although he empathised, understood - even shared - her fears, Giles almost lost it then. Once lit, his fuse was so short as to be non-existent. Buffy watched as every muscle in her Watcher's body tensed.
"This isn't all about you!" His eyes blazed, and Buffy knew that a barrage of words everyone would regret was imminent.
"Don't," she said, squeezing his shoulder. "Giles, please just don't, okay?"
Willow matched his stare with her own for a moment, then threw the blanket from her lap and headed out of the study. The back door slammed.
Buffy, Ethan, and Giles looked at one another.
"You must admit she has a point, Ripper," said Ethan.
Giles nodded and stood up, exhaling slowly. "Yes."
Buffy looked from one man to the other. "So you're not going to do the ritual?"
Giles was frowning as he went to the door. "You two behave yourselves. We'll be back in a bit."
A minute later, Buffy and Ethan heard the back door open and shut.
"Well," said Ethan. "This is turning into a more interesting evening than the one I had planned… Excuse me." He made to leave, and Buffy planted herself in the doorway.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Packing," said Ethan. "I'm not hanging around while my house goes up in some mystical fireball, thank you very much. I plan to watch this from a distance, and I suggest you do the same."
As he began to push past, Buffy seized him and shoved him into an armchair. The gross one, with the randy satyrs embroidered on it. "Remember what Giles said? Something you'll never see again?"
Ethan's face fell, and Buffy smiled grimly.
"Ever heard of a game called Anywhere But Here?"
It was a clear night, and Willow could make out quite a few constellations despite the brightness of the moonlight. She walked through the back garden, past the pink marble Janus fountain, and far enough down the grassy slope beyond to be out of sight of the house. There was a breeze kicking up. It swept through the trees, carrying evening smells of leaves and damp. She sat down in the new-mown grass and breathed in the sweet, fresh scent. A few minutes later she sat up, sensing a presence nearby.
"Giles, I know you're there, and I know you're mad."
He came down the hill and sat beside her.
"Was I making the clucking sound?"
"No, but I could hear you sighing a mile off. Just open up the car and I'll get my stuff and get out of your hair."
"I don't think so. For one thing, we're quite a walk from civilization, and I happen to know that your suitcase is a dead weight." His slight smile came and went. "You're not going anywhere."
Her automatic, "Well, you can't stop me," only raised a look that suggested otherwise.
He did a pretty good resolve face too, sometimes.
"I'm sorry I've disappointed you," said Willow at last.
He hunkered down in front of her and his eyes were hard. "Don't you dare try to placate me, or tell me what you think I want to hear, all right? No more self-pity. No more lies. I love you Willow, but Christ, I've had enough." He ran a hand rapidly through his hair and sat beside her in the damp grass.
Willow's stomach lurched. This was the first time that he'd really shown her his anger, and she wasn't sure where it was leading. It occurred to her once again that the Scoobies might not know Buffy's Watcher as well as they thought.
"I-I'm not. Giles, whatever you're planning on doing - "
Giles took a deep, calming breath. "You're not here as punishment, Willow. God, you're doing a fine job of that yourself. If I'd wanted you to be punished, I'd have set bloody Quentin Travers on you myself. I've been at least as much of an idiot as you have. I-I really let you down."
"You let me down?" She was dumbfounded. "How do you figure that? Giles, you saved me. I know you did. You and Xander."
He shook his head. "Before that. Quentin was quite right. I should never have encouraged your studies in witchcraft the way I did." Willow opened her mouth to protest, but he carried on.
"I was there to teach Buffy, not her friends. But I taught you just enough - gave yourself just enough rope to hang yourself. I was always busy with Buffy, and I didn't keep as close an eye on what you were doing as I knew I should have. You had easy access to my personal library and to all the supplies in the Magic Shop. You were doing far too much, too soon. By the time I was aware that something needed to be done, there was the business with Glory, and then Buffy. There was always something more urgent to attend to, and I left it too late."
He looked at her intently, and to her relief, his gaze was warm. "I'm so sorry. If I'd been paying proper attention I could've prevented all this."
"It wasn't your fault," she said tiredly, twisting a bit of grass between her fingers. "It was just one of those things. Your responsibility has always been to Buffy, I know that. I could've told you I was getting in over my head, but I didn't. It wasn't the corruption from the resurrection spell that made last week happen… it was losing Tara, and everything she… she represented." Her throat was getting tight again.
"Perhaps," he said quietly, "but you were primed and ready. It was only a matter of time."
"Maybe." Probably. "Giles, I have to go. I love you guys, but being around you is just too hard right now. I'm going to get myself to a hotel, and in the morning I'll get a taxi to the airport."
"You won't make it to a hotel. Not in the state you're in."
"Well, I can't stay here." She dropped the blade of grass and brushed herself off.
"Look at me," he said. Reluctantly, she did.
"Willow, I care about you very deeply, and of course I'm concerned for you, but beyond that, I'm a Watcher, and as such I have to consider the bigger picture. If you don't trust me to remove these dangerous magicks, that's one thing. But if you won't let anyone else help you, then that's another. If that's the case, love, we have a very serious problem."
Willow found those words more disturbing than the ones he had said in anger.
There was only the rustle of the wind in the trees to break the silence as they stared at each other. It wasn't exactly a threat, but it was close enough, and Willow had no doubt that it was genuine. She knew that Giles cared, but she knew also that when he had a job to do, he did it. Whatever the cost. He was being utterly honest with her, and she decided to return the favor.
"Giles, I'm so, so sorry for what I did to you. To everyone. Everything. What I did… what I said. I didn't mean any of it. Not… not really." She shook her head in disbelief. "I haven't even asked you if you're okay! I really thought you were going to die… and I didn't even *care*." She looked stricken.
"Willow - " Perhaps he had frightened her into another attempt to appease him.
"You've always been great to me," she rambled on nervously. "I-I know this stuff embarrasses you, but you were there for me when my mom and dad weren't. You took care of all us kids, as well as Buffy. You always let me hang out with you when nobody was home, and you made me feel useful. Like I was part of something really important. Like I was doing you a favour, instead of the other way round. It meant a lot to me."
"Of course you were - " he began, convinced now that she was in earnest.
"You did all that, not to mention saving my stupid, worthless life so many times I can't even count, and… and look how I repay you." She almost laughed at the irony of it, and shook her head.
Giles took off his glasses and moved round in front of her.
"It's been my pleasure, Willow. I won't deny that there have been times, like that Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, when I've longed to whack you across the back of the head with a sack of wet sand." He grinned, and she nodded, the memory of their arguments raising just a hint of a smile. "But all in all, I count you among my dearest friends and most valuable allies. You've taken care of me on occasion, and helped me out of plenty of nasty situations. You don't owe me anything."
He reached out and tapped her shoe with his index finger. "But if you really want to do something for me, come back inside with me now. We've lost poor Tara; and Ethan and I lost Randall; but I'm damned if I'm going to lose you as well."
Buffy noted her Watcher's small smile of reassurance as he and Willow sank down at opposite ends of the sofa.
Giles glanced at his watch. "Any sign of Catherine? She ought to be here by now."
Buffy looked uncomfortable. "She's upstairs. She wanted to talk to you alone." The Slayer cast a quick look at her friend.
Giles caught the look and nodded. "Right. Willow, you should eat something before we get started." He headed for the door and paused, knowing that she wouldn't. "See to it, Ethan."
"I've had about enough from you for one day," muttered the sorcerer. Buffy could see that the sorcerer didn't count sandwich-making among his duties.
"I'll rustle you up something, Will. Be right back."
Willow and Ethan sat alone in the study, regarding each other with suspicion.
"Ethan, what did the Council do to Giles? After… after Randall?"
Ethan crossed his legs. "Not a clue. He doesn't talk about it. When Randall died, he ran. Just couldn't stand himself. His parents were frantic. He'd been gone for… well, it must have been getting on for three months when the Council caught up with him. He was told that it wouldn't have been so bad had he not come from a long line of Watchers." Ethan gave a small smile. "I do know that later, Travers defended himself with the claim that he'd had to be certain Ripper was… 'safe'… whatever that meant. It was mostly just a power play. Travers always was afraid of him… his power and that mighty brain. He shouldered most of the responsibility for Randall's death, and he's never forgiven himself, nor me, for letting it happen."
Willow nodded. That explained some of what she'd seen when she'd pushed into his mind. It filled in some of the blanks and refreshed the memory of Randall, his eyes half clawed out, begging for his friends to kill him before Eyghon did.
"Here y'go." Buffy set a sandwich and a glass of water on the table in front of Willow, and Giles appeared, looking grim.
"Buffy, Catherine would like to see you upstairs, please."
Buffy nodded and went.
"The coven is setting up wards around the property. However, they're of the opinion that we should wait a while longer before doing the ritual and the spell," said Giles. "Until you're stronger."
"I second that," said Ethan quickly.
"Willow, your mystical energies are a part of you, and will resist any outside interference." Giles went on as if Ethan hadn't spoken. "You'd have to contain the energies; keep them in check the whole time we were working with them. The argument in favour of postponing the ritual is that the pure and impure magicks would have time to settle… would become volatile less readily, and would therefore be easier to manipulate and separate. The argument against it is that the black magick is still bound up with your own, and is as potent as ever - it's just that it's taking some time to regenerate. Then it's going to come back more forcefully than ever, and at that point…" he hesitated. "Well, it will be too late to do anything, love."
Willow just managed a nod. "How long will it take to come back?"
"I don't know." He scratched a non-existent itch on his forehead. "But I really don't think we should wait to find out."
"I disagree," said Ethan. "The girl's already admitted she doesn't think she can control herself long enough for us to do what needs to be done. If this goes wrong, she'll be overtaken and die. Her magicks will be released throughout our dimension. Once liberated from the confinement of a mortal body, they'll be rendered formless and unstoppable by any means that I'm aware of."
Giles glared at him. "Thank you, Ethan. There are risks either way."
Ethan shrugged. "On your head be it, old son. I hope you've got a good insurance policy."
Giles looked at the terrified young witch. "Well, what do you think, Willow?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. I want it to be over..."
"But?" supplied Giles.
"But I'm scared. I don't want you to do it. I'm sorry, Giles, but I-I just …"
He nodded. "I know. Buffy's going to help Ethan. Catherine's lending her some power, just for tonight."
Giles declined to mention the coven's reluctance to become too closely involved until the ritual had been performed and Willow's power cleansed. He couldn't blame them after all that had happened, but he had been hoping for a little more direct help than had been forthcoming so far.
"Buffy's going to do it?" Willow wasn't sure that made her feel a whole lot better.
Willow and Buffy sat by the fire while Giles and Ethan went into the hall to prepare for the ritual. Buffy made a few attempts to lighten the mood, but Willow was beyond comforting. She trembled, feeling the dark power stirring, gathering strength, and permeating her own energies until it was impossible to tell where her energies blurred into the black magicks.
"Buffy, I'm so tired," she said. "I feel like I'm losing control already. Giles doesn't know what to do. He always knows what to do." She wished with all her heart that Tara could be with her right now.
"He's trusting you to do your part, Will; you have to trust him to do his."
Giles reappeared in the doorway. "All set, love. You ready?" He walked over to Willow and held out his hand. "Come on," he smiled. "'Passions' is on later, so let's not hang about."
His grip was warm and strong, and as he pulled her up, Willow was reminded of when she first knew him, and the absolute faith that she'd had in Giles' ability to solve any problem. ****
The hall rug had been rolled up, and a circle created with symbols drawn on the hardwood floor using a concoction Buffy didn't want to scrutinize too closely. Willow lay down in the middle of it as instructed. Buffy and Ethan knelt on either side of her, and Giles took up position behind her head. Ethan spoke a long incantation, and Buffy smudged some sage and other herbs to clear the energies in the hall as much as possible before they got started.
Ethan rattled off a string of words Buffy didn't understand. She lit some foul-smelling candles and turned off all the electric lights.
The sorcerer pulled a huge, torn leather book onto his lap and glanced at the Slayer. She nodded, and he began to chant.
Willow was breathing hard, and shaking violently. Her heart was pounding, her hands were sweaty and cold, and she wished she'd gone to the bathroom before all this started. She could feel the energies awakening, massing, building in her head and chest as Ethan and Buffy took it in turns to read from the ancient volume. She was almost overcome by an urge to make a break for it before they went any further, but forced the impulse down. She had brought this on herself, and she owed it to her friends to see it through. The feeling returned more strongly a few minutes later. It must have shown in her face, because she could feel Giles' hands squeezing her shoulders slightly; not holding her, but exerting just enough pressure to let her know that he was still there, and paying attention.
"*Ominori. Alrea deoman rift.*"
The black magicks immediately responded to Ethan's summons, and surged through Willow, making her shudder a little. Then Buffy and Ethan's hands were on her head, and she could feel their magicks moving through her own. The black magic suddenly flooded Willow's synapses, and she fought with all her strength to keep it down, back, away from the pure energies. Buffy read aloud while Ethan wove in and out of Willow's mystical energies, parting dark from light.
The ritual went smoothly at first. Buffy only needed to add her power to Willow's to help her hold back the dark power while Ethan worked to create a barrier between the black and white magicks. It was easy to begin with, but as Willow's energies adjusted to the intrusion, Buffy soon found that she had to use much more power to have the same effect. Buffy was unused to this kind of strain and tiring much more quickly than Ethan.
Willow's nose began to bleed, and her irises darkened as Ethan called the malignant energies forth to make themselves apparent. Pain suddenly lanced through her head, and all she could see were shooting lights. Ethan paused in his chanting for a minute to let it pass. As soon as he tried again there was another pain, then another; stronger and more prolonged. Willow was losing her concentration, starting to panic, and Buffy wasn't far behind.
They kept going, but the discomfort became more intense with every attempt until tears of pain and frustration were streaming down Willow's face, and her fingers and heels were digging into the floorboards. The veins spider-webbed across her face and arms.
Nothing existed but the magicks, and even they receded as the pain advanced. Willow couldn't afford to faint, she had to stay conscious to keep the black magicks from surging forward to the point where she'd never regain control of them. She could hear Ethan and Buffy chanting, but their words made no sense to her now, it was just noise.
Ethan shook his head and looked at Giles. "Willow's exhausted. I can't do this alone, and Buffy hasn't the experience to keep up with me. Her fluctuations in power are unbalancing Willow's energies, making the flow disjointed… I can feel them ebbing and flowing like waves, getting darker each time. She won't be able to keep pulling them back much longer."
They all looked down at Willow, her face still contorted with the pain and effort.
"Just having an assistant to help Willow keep the black magick at bay isn't enough," said Ethan. "I need more help than that, or this'll take more time than we have."
Buffy looked to her Watcher, eyes wide, brimming with tears. "Giles? Take my place."
He shook his head.
"I don't think I can at this stage. If Willow doesn't want me in there, consciously or subconsciously, her energies will simply absorb mine, increasing the strength of the black magic exponentially. She'd be back to where she was before Xander got to her, and I'd be killed instantly."
"Then get the coven in here!" said Buffy angrily. "God, can't they combine their powers and do something?"
It was Ethan's turn to shake his head. "They already have and are. Their power is concentrated on protecting us and containing whatever magicks they can within the boundaries of this house. That in itself is a major undertaking, and requires all of them to work in unison, uninterrupted."
Willow screamed then, and all the candles in the hall blew out at once.
Buffy scrambled to re-light them, and Willow lay curled up on her side, holding her head as blood trickled steadily from her nose to the floor. Buffy recoiled as she pried her friend's eyes open. Completely black. Stains from new cuts spread across Willow's shirt as the magicks exacted a partial payment for their summons in blood.
Willow gritted her teeth and managed to gasp out one word.
"Giles, she's losing it. You have to do something. Take my place," Buffy pleaded again. "I really think she'll let you in this time."
"But she might not let you out. "I'm afraid we're in over our heads again," Ethan said gently. "Perhaps we should consider sparing her the kind of torment Randall went through." More softly, he added, "I've a gun upstairs. Do it right, and she honestly won't feel a thing."
Giles closed his eyes for a long moment before looking back down at Willow, writhing in agony, and just for an instant he wondered if Ethan might be right.
"Sorry to have to say it," said Ethan. "But the magicks would still be contained if you did it now, while she's still holding on to them. It might be the kindest - and best - thing for all concerned at this point."
"No way." said Buffy. "Giles, you can't!"
Giles touched her arm. "No, of course not."
He fixed the sorcerer with a glare. "I haven't come this sodding far just to make the same mistake twice. Have you?"
Ethan just shook his head. "You tell me, Rupert, which is the right thing to do - sacrifice one essentially unimportant girl that you happen to have a soft spot for, or condemn the whole world?"
Buffy looked desperately at her Watcher. "Isn't there any way to bypass her consciousness? A spell or something? That would lessen at least some of the danger, right?"
Giles sat back, deep in thought. "Yes. Perhaps." He ran his hand through his hair distractedly, then stood up. "There is one thing I can try, although as I said, if she rejects my presence in there… it's over." He looked from his Slayer to Ethan.
Ethan shook his head helplessly. "Do you want to get Catherine in here and see what she thinks?"
"No. It wouldn't be right to involve her at this level. I've helped to create this problem, and I should be the one to bear the responsibility if it should fail."
"Come on. You don't have to bear this particular responsibility all alone." Buffy shot Ethan a look as she scooted along and made room for Giles at Willow's side.
He gave her a questioning look. "You're sure? There's no going back once I begin."
"Of course I'm not sure, but what are the choices? Save her, kill her, kill all of us? Somebody has to do something. Forget what Will said to you in the Magic Box. Giles, she trusts you more than anyone. I know she does. So just get inside her thick head and put your stompy foot down." Buffy looked at him intently, and he nodded.
The Watcher got down and lay flat on the floor so that his face was level with Willow's, and touched her shoulder very gently.
"Willow?" he said quietly. "It's Giles. Listen to me. I'm going to help you, but I'll have to put you to sleep for a bit. Is that all right?"
He didn't expect a response, but Willow stiffened for a few seconds. Then, almost imperceptibly, she relaxed and inclined her head. He thought she might have attempted a smile, but he couldn't be sure. Giles smiled back with all the confidence he could muster. Buffy helped him to ease Willow onto her back again, and when it was done he laid his hand across her forehead.
"Let go, then. *Sleep*."
He felt a flutter of her old panic returning, then it was gone and he was in. He waited a few moments, then signaled Ethan to continue.
It was still dark when Willow came to with the most blinding headache she'd ever experienced. Even through the pain of it she could feel that something was missing. The black magicks were… gone. But… her own energies were still there, moving easily through her, and they felt good. Willow laughed silently and closed her eyes in relief. She was such a jumble of happiness, guilt, and remorse that she could do nothing but cry for a while, but it was a release, and she felt better afterwards. It took her a minute to figure out where she was, and why the bed felt so weird. Oh. This must be Ethan's octopus waterbed. 'Cause, the tentacles. Where did he find sheets for this thing? She started to sit up, but only made it halfway before the cuts reasserted themselves. They'd been bandaged. She touched her upper lip and found that her face had been cleaned up. She hiked the pillows up a bit and flicked on the light. She'd had enough of the dark, thanks. Buffy was snoring gently beside her, and Giles lay sprawled in an armchair, asleep. There was a book on his stomach and his feet were propped up on the bed. His face and, presumably, other places bore long, shallow cuts that matched her own.
"Awake, are we?" came a voice from the doorway.
"Yeah," she said softly, not wanting to disturb the other two.
Ethan came and perched beside her. He looked into her eyes and put his hand on her head. "*Permeatum.*"
"What are you doing?" Willow didn't like the idea of Ethan going into her head unsupervised.
"Just making sure…" he muttered. "Yes. It's all gone. At least for now. You'll always have a weakness where the black magicks are concerned, but I guess you'll be more careful next time, eh?"
"What happened? Are Giles and Buffy all right? Are… are you okay?" Never thought she'd be asking him that.
"We're fine," said Giles, his voice thick and deep with weariness. He stood up and gently shoved Ethan off the bed, then sat down in his place and moved to check Willow's eyes.
"Done that," Ethan said smugly.
"Mmm. And I suppose you've looked at the energies as well?" said Giles.
Ethan sighed. "I did perform a good proportion of the extremely dangerous ritual with only the help of the little blonde whatsit there," he said. "I'm not completely incompetent."
"Not completely," Giles admitted.
Ethan read between the lines. "You're welcome." He gave Giles the two-fingered salute and staggered off to bed.
Giles turned back to Willow. "And how are you?"
"Okay, I guess. Monster headache."
"Me too," he said, "but that's not what I meant."
Willow looked down. "How I am doesn't matter. After what I did, nothing about me matters anymore… I have no right to exist. I don't want to exist. It hurts too much." She hadn't really articulated that thought even to herself until now, although it suddenly dawned on her that her recklessness last week had been rooted in that pain. "I could have destroyed the world twice over, and I can't even begin to tell you how… sorry… I am." Sorry just didn't cover it. "I'd really appreciate it if you could find it in your heart to believe that, and tell the others. I wish you'd all just stop caring, Giles, 'cause it only make it worse."
"You know we're not going to do that," he said softly.
She moved so that her legs were over the side of the bed and pulled her jacket from a nearby chair.
Giles put his glasses on. "The hardest part for us," he said, gesturing to himself and Buffy, "is over. The hardest part for you… learning to come to terms with your grief and your mistakes… is yet to come."
"Well, I can't do it here."
Willow moved to get up, but Giles beat her to it. He held her in place with just one finger on her shoulder.
"I'll make this easy for you. You'll leave when I say you can, and not before. We're not finished, Willow. You're not ready to go anywhere just yet, but you will be when the coven and I get through with you." His words were absolute, but the tone was kind. "I promise."
The authoritative Giles of old was back. Part of her resented him for ordering her around, as she always had, but in a way his 'don't mess with me' attitude was reassuring right now. At least he seemed to have confidence, even if she didn't. She shook her head, blinded by tears.
"Giles - "
He sat back down. "You want atonement? You think that disappearing, making yourself miserable, or… or worse will please us? Will help Tara?" He pulled off his glasses and began polishing them on his shirt. "Believe me, you can never make amends for taking a life, and you never forget the pain of a loved one's death, or what they meant to you. All you can do is muddle through as best you can, and work at becoming a wiser, more compassionate person as a result of those experiences. Know yourself well enough to recognise when you're in trouble, and don't be afraid to ask for help."
Willow looked at him with blurry eyes. "Is this supposed to be a pep talk?"
He directed a half-smile at the floor. "No, I'm just being honest. As I expect you to be from now on."
Willow nodded. "I still have my magicks."
"Yes. We eventually managed to isolate the black magicks. Once that was done, it was much easier to bind and dissolve them. Then we did the cleansing spell, and that took care of any residual dark energies."
"Ethan said I'll always have a weakness for the black magicks now." God, just thinking about that made her shudder.
"You will," he agreed. "But you know what to look out for this time, and so do I. I'll be keeping a close watch on you, as will the coven and your friends."
"No one's ever going to trust me again. I'll never trust myself again, now that I know what I'm capable of doing."
"What you're capable of doing under the influence of the magicks, you mean," he corrected.
"It doesn't make any difference. The end result is the same. Death. Destruction. Hurting the people I love."
"Willow, do you remember me telling you that we all have strengths and weaknesses that can be played upon?"
"Well, one of your biggest weaknesses is your lack of faith in yourself. That's what led you to become so deeply involved in the magicks in the first place, wasn't it? You were trying to defend yourself against everything and everyone that you didn't think you could cope with. Then you got so good at doing that, you forgot how to rely on yourself and your friends… and me."
Willow lifted her head to look him in the eye. "Are we still friends, Giles?"
He smiled. "Yes, of course." The grin faltered a bit, and his eyes grew serious. "I'd have bloody killed you last week, otherwise. And you'd have done the same to me this evening."
Willow's answering smile faded. "I know."
"So here we are," he said. "Not having killed each other, yet both rather sore and absolutely knackered."
"Did you know you sound sorta Ripper-y when you're tired? Does it take more energy to talk proper English?"
He grinned. "Yes, it does. And this *is* 'proper English', luv." He indicated with his hand for her to scoot over. "Budge up."
Willow moved over towards the middle of the bed, and Giles stretched out with a sigh.
"Mmm." His eyes were closed.
"Do you…" Willow wasn't sure she wanted to push her luck any more tonight.
He pushed down the edge of the pillow so that he could turn to look at her.
"Do you think you could ever trust me again?"
Giles put his hand over Willow's and curled his fingers between hers, but didn't rush to answer. The physical and psychological assaults of the previous week remained painfully vivid. All he had to do was close his eyes or take a breath.
"It's going to take some time. But I think that once you learn to trust yourself, then the rest of us can trust you too," he said finally.
"I second that," said Buffy, smiling sleepily up at her friend.
"Thanks, Buff," said Willow, hugging her. The last few months had really taught her who her friends were.
They lay quietly for a while.
"Giles?" said Buffy softly.
No response. He was asleep, and Willow was nearly there too, her head on his shoulder.
Buffy watched them for a few minutes before turning over, and for the first time in over a year she slept peacefully, all through the night.
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