“This is going to be the last story,” Kate began. She had taken Willow into the room that lay at the heart of the manor house. It was windowless and warded to prevent discovery. The coven advertised itself as a New Age Centre for Holistic Healing – a vague title that allowed them to operate without much scrutiny. Some of the villagers knew a little more about the true nature of the work done at the secluded house but they said nothing. The Harkness family had lived at the manor for generations. That conferred a certain immunity, not to gossip perhaps, but certainly to interference.
“So what happens after this story?” Willow asked, a little nervously. The wooden floor was cool on her bare feet and she wished that she had a chair to sit in, or a table to lean on. The room was empty, featureless. Stone walls, smooth and plain and a narrow wooden door weren't much to look at or to get comfortable with. She thought back to the river and the library with an inward sigh of regret.
Kate sank gracefully to the floor, folding her legs into lotus position without difficulty. Willow sat down too, but settled for crossing her legs. She was fit enough but that just didn't look comfortable. Kate smiled cheerfully and replied, “You go home.”
“But I haven't finished all my studies here,” Willow protested. She wondered if many prisoners clung desperately to their shackles as the guards tried to release them after years of imprisonment. If they did, she could sympathise.
“Face it, Willow, you're more powerful than anyone here. You've been shown some of the basics that you need – you were like someone who can drive a Grand Prix car but never mastered riding a bike – but what you need to do now is get back to your life. It's time and you're needed over there.”
“Who needs me?” Willow asked, despondency slumping her shoulders.
Kate growled with frustration and angrily gestured at the stone wall to her right, spitting out an incantation. Willow gasped as a picture formed on the surface. Xander and Buffy were sitting in his apartment, wrapping paper and tape scattered around.
“I should have got one of these years ago,” Buffy said, flourishing a narrow parcel in one hand.
“Going to come in handy,” remarked Xander. “So that's one for all of us, then?”
“Yes. The woman in the shop couldn't believe I wanted four.”
“Do you want me to keep Willow's here?”
“If you like. We can take it with us to the airport as a welcome home present when she gets back. Giles says it shouldn't be much longer.”
Xander looked solemn. “Can't be soon enough. I miss her.”
Buffy reached over and patted his hand, her face mirroring his concern. “We all do,” she said softly.
The picture faded and Kate turned to Willow. “Satisfied?” she asked.
“Suspicious, more like,” said Willow. “Was that real, or something you just whipped up to stop me whining?”
Kate looked smug. “I'll bet you a fiver it was real and when you find out what's in those parcels, you can pay me. Now, enough of the time wasting. My legs are going numb.”
“Why are we in this room anyway?” asked Willow. “It's not exactly cosy.”
Kate glanced around. “No, it isn't. But this tale might need us to be somewhere protected.”
“They're only stories,” Willow protested.
“They're me tapping into people's souls and memories,” Kate said quietly. “But so far, they've all been people who were still alive.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Brenton asked, nervousness putting a quaver in his voice.
“Relax, you baby,” replied his friend, Scott, throwing a scornful glance over to where Brenton was standing, slumped against a wall. “This is like, the coolest place ever. No need for drugs; he'll take you places, show you things you've never even dreamed of.”
“But I don't have any cash,” Brenton objected, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, his fingers curling defensively.
Scott waved this off. “He doesn't ask for money.”
Even naïve Brenton found this odd. “He has to ask for _something_. No one gives out stuff like this out of the kindness of their hearts.”
Scott hunched one shoulder in an irritable gesture. It was obvious that he was guessing as he replied, “Maybe he just does it because it's fun for him. Or he asks you to do something in return. How should I know? All he told me was that I had to bring a friend next time or I couldn't get in. Anyway, last chance. Are you coming with – or do I have to tell everyone at school that you wussed out?”
Brenton fell into the trap dug by peer pressure and never even noticed it. “I'm in. What are we sitting around here for? Where is this dump, anyway?”
Scott smiled slowly, his face secretive and rather sly. “That's the really good part. It moves around. Kind of tricky to see it too but he gave me this. “ Scott pulled out a thick black rod from his pocket and showed it to Brenton. “It sort of tugs you in the right direction,” Scott continued.
Brenton reached out an exploratory finger and touched the locator rod. It felt greasy and slick and a spark jumped from it, like static. He jerked backwards, startled. “Hey! Is that safe?”
Scott sighed and rolled his eyes in disbelief. “I don't know why I even bother with you sometimes. You should still be building mud pies.”
Cowed, Brenton slunk behind his friend as he held the rod out in front of him. At first Scott was hesitant, walking slowly and pausing frequently. After a few minutes though, his steps speeded up and he seemed to be anticipating the direction the rod was indicating. Brenton kept close by him and when Scott walked down an empty alley and suddenly disappeared, Brenton was moving too fast to draw back. His next step brought him not further down the alley but into a room, a seedy waiting room, with tables, chairs and magazines. The incongruity of it, the lack of anything out of the ordinary, made him giggle foolishly.
“What is this?” he whispered. “A demon dentist or something?”
Scott turned round to glare him into silence. “Something's wrong,” he said in hushed tones. “This place usually has people in here waiting and Rack's door is always shut when he's with someone.” He gestured to a door in the corner of the room. It was open but there was no sign of anyone in there.
Brenton was now flushed with bravado, as it seemed that he wouldn't have to meet this Rack guy after all. “Let's see,” he said, swaggering towards the door.
Scott called out a warning but Brenton walked through and stood there, looking round curiously. Scott appeared at his shoulder and they both saw it at the same time – Rack's body, hanging upside down, his glazed, dead eyes gleaming in the subdued light. Screams caught in their throats, choking them as they absorbed the macabre sight.
Willow brought her hands up to her eyes, covering them, as though she too could see Rack's corpse. Kate stopped talking and reached over to pat her knee gently. “Is it too much? Do you want a break?”
Willow shook her head, brushing away the tears that were trickling down her face. “It's him, isn't it, the one who's dead? Tell me, it's just him, not the boys?”
Kate's face creased with sympathy as Willow's voice broke but she did not flinch. “I can't, Willow. Look –”
Willow held up her hand, halting Kate's words. “Then tell me what happened.”
Kate began to talk again, slipping her hand over Willow's to reassure her as she did.
“I'm so out of here,” Scott said, frantically. His eyes skittered around him nervously. He grabbed Brenton's sleeve and began to pull him back. Brenton shrugged him off, his gaze intent as he studied the tortured body.
“What _is_ your problem, man? We have to leave. Now!” Scott urged.
Brenton shook his head slowly. “Can't you hear him?” he said abstractedly. “He wants us to stay.”
It was too much for Scott. With a yelp of fear, he turned and ran for the door. He got as far as the waiting room before Brenton tackled him, forcing him to the floor. “I told you; he wants us to stay,” he said, his breath warm on Scott's face. “Weren't you listening?” He grabbed Scott's shoulders, flipping him onto his back and began to haul him back to the inner room, his strength out of all proportion to his size. Scott struggled but couldn't break free. As they crossed the threshold into Rack's room, the door slammed shut with a deadly finality.
Brenton let go of Scott, who leaped up and began to tug at the door handle, whimpering to himself. Brenton ignored his futile efforts and walked over to Rack. Reaching out his left hand, he placed it over Rack's heart. Nothing happened and he frowned, as though listening to instructions. His brow cleared and he gently laid his right hand over Rack's face, his fingers splayed out. It was as if he had completed an electrical circuit. Brenton's body went into spasms, jerking obscenely, his hands not moving no matter how his body thrashed around. Scott watched from the doorway, his mouth slack, and his eyes wild.
Brenton screamed continuously, a high-pitched keening that ended as abruptly as it had begun. He collapsed to the floor, his hands tucked protectively under his armpits, curled up into a ball. Over him, Rack's body began to sway and the glazed eyes glimmered into life once more. Scott cried out an inarticulate warning but Brenton was lost in pain and ignored him. As Scott watched in horror, Rack's body smoothly rotated so that it was hovering feet down, a few inches off the floor.
“That's better,” said Rack, his gravelly voice amused. “I was getting a headache.”
“No!” Willow cried out, scrambling to her feet. “He's dead! I know he's dead. I felt him go, I drained him dry.”
Kate looked up at her, then uncrossed her legs, wincing slightly and stood up too. “Yes, you did,” she agreed. “But he's not a youngster. That man's been around for longer than you think. If he'd stayed like that for long, I don't doubt he'd have stayed dead but Brenton had some talent, enough to jump-start Rack. You took his power but I have a feeling he counted on you not paying all that much attention to details. He died but not all the way dead, if you see what I mean.”
“He died,” Willow insisted stubbornly. “No human could have come back after what I did.”
“Rack isn't pure human,” Kate said flatly. “He's a vampire of sorts; feeds off magic, not blood. You should know; he had more than a taste of you, didn't he?”
Willow flinched, hearing Rack's insinuating voice, huskily telling her that she tasted of strawberries. She nodded, shame making her eyes drop and her cheeks heat up.
“You killed his human part – and left his demon in the demonic equivalent of hibernation,” Kate commented, her words seeming to come from far away. Willow looked at her, anguish contorting her features, sickness twisting her stomach. She tried to speak but couldn't force the words out. Kate grabbed her as Willow's legs gave way, easing her down to the floor.
“Stupid, stupid.” Kate muttered. “Too much for you to handle. I should have – ”
Willow's eyes snapped open and she pushed herself up to sitting. “Finish this fast,” she rasped. “Then I want Giles.”
Kate's eyes closed for a second and then she gestured at the door. It swung open and Giles came in quickly, his eyes going straight to Willow. “I warned you, Kate,” he said angrily, “but you wouldn't listen to anyone, as usual. You're bloody lucky I don't – ”
Willow, jolted out of her shock and misery by Giles' behaviour, interrupted his threat hastily. “Giles, did you know about this? About Rack?”
He glanced at her and rubbed the back of his neck. Not meeting her eyes he began to stammer, “Well, in a way, that is, we weren't totally certain – ”
“Until I tapped into the energies, no one knew,” Kate said. “When I did the research for these stories, it was impossible to miss this one. So much pain attached to it, it stood out. But you have to understand – until I tell you the stories, I'm not sure what's in them myself, not all the details anyway. I have an outline, a vague idea. When I'm telling you, you enhance the story, though you don't know you're doing it. Most of what I tell you comes from you, don't you see?”
“If I have to be honest, no,” said Willow, tucking a strand of her coppery hair behind her ear and looking more composed.
Kate sighed in frustration and glanced at Giles for assistance.
“You were the catalyst for the events, Willow,” Giles said simply. “You're needed for their re-telling, too. That's one reason we're putting you through this. The other stories were, well, rehearsals. You might not have noticed but did you feel a little tired after Kate had finished them?”
Willow looked thoughtful and shrugged. “I might have. Hard to remember. But I sure had the wiggins listening to this one.” She gave Kate a rather cool look.
“That's only to be expected, given the nature of the tale,” said Giles, pacing the small room and looked agitated. He swung back to look at Willow imploringly. “I hesitate to ask but I must,” he said. “Willow, we need to complete this story and find out what happened to those two boys.”
Willow looked at him, the trustworthy, familiar friend she had tried to kill. There was really no other answer she could give and he knew it. With a feeling of desolation gripping her as she wondered if Giles would ever fully trust her again, she gave him what he wanted, nodded and answered, “I'm ready.”
Giles smiled at Willow with relief and approval clear on his face. He closed the door and came to sit beside her. “Willow may have given you her permission to continue,” he said quietly to Kate, his tone daring her to challenge him, “ but there's no reason for her to endure this alone. I'm staying with her.”
She raised her eyebrows and grimaced resignedly. “So I see,” she murmured. “Here we go, then –”
<u>Chapter Seven </u>
Rack smiled lazily at the two frightened boys. Brenton had recovered enough to be aware of his surroundings. Avoiding Scott's accusing glare, he was gazing at Rack with haunted eyes.
“Now, I'm feeling much better,” Rack said. He gave Scott an affable look and waved a negligent hand at the door, which sprang open. “You don't have anything I need though, so why don't you get the hell out of my way?” Without a backward glance at Brenton, Scott fled the living nightmare in an undignified scramble of arms and legs. The door slammed shut then vanished, leaving smooth, unbroken wall in its place.
A sticky silence settled over the room. Brenton sniveled as he watched Rack stretch out his arms and wriggle his neck.
“That little witch really hurt me,” Rack murmured to himself. “Guess we all know who's going to pay for that.”
He turned to Brenton, his face thoughtful. “You want to help me, don't you?” he asked pleasantly. “You know, she tried to kill me and well, that's just not right, now is it?”
Brenton shook his head, less an agreement with Rack's words than a denial of what was happening to him.
Rack grinned widely, savouring the delicious fear Brenton exuded. Suddenly he staggered and smacked a hand against his skull, moaning softly. “Hurts, still hurts so much – what did she _do_to me, the ungrateful bitch? She had power to spare; why take mine?”
“Because you didn't deserve it, you bastard,” Willow muttered. Giles and Kate exchanged alarmed glances. Willow's eyes were fixed and wide, as she looked at pictures only she could see, embellishing the story with her memories. Speaking almost casually, she said, “He didn't get much from that boy, you know. He'll drain again soon and when he does, he'll go out looking for more people he can take from. He used to be careful and take just enough, leave them begging for another session, but now he's not going to waste time. He'll rip any power they have right out of them.” Challengingly, she looked at Kate from under downcast eyelids, “And you know what that'll do to them, Kate, don't you? It's what stopped you doing it to me. Take someone's power - all of it - and you take them with it. They die. But you know that, don't you Kate? It's what stopped you all from doing it to me when I came here. But you thought about it, didn't you?”
Kate jerked away from Willow, alarm in her eyes. “No! We would never have done that to you, Willow! Tell her, Giles.”
Giles gripped Willow's wrist tightly. “Yes, Willow, I would have done that in Sunnydale, but only as a last resort, and if I had no other choice. But since our first plan worked, there was no reason to consider it. You know that.”
Willow's dark eyes were blazing with fear and insecurity. She scanned Giles' face, paring away every evasion and subterfuge. Finally she nodded, relief slumping her shoulders. “I believe you, Giles,” she whispered softly. “But we have to stop Rack.”
Giles tilted his head, frowning. “'Stop him'?” he asked. “Willow, all this happened weeks ago. There's nothing we can do.”
Willow stood in one smooth movement and looked down at Giles and Kate. “There's nothing _you_ can do, that's right,” she said. Her eyes flooded with ebony witch light and she rose slowly off the ground. “But me, I can do plenty.”
“No.” Kate stood up and rose level with Willow. “Have you learned nothing, child? Will nothing strip you of your arrogance?”
Willow glared at Kate and said angrily, “I am not a child! Rack has to be stopped. I can go back and do that, you know I can. I'm not starting something new, I'm correcting a mistake.”
Kate shook her head, resignation on her face. “It might seem that way but that's not how it works.”
“How would _you_ know?” demanded Willow. The eerie, black light faded from her eyes and she sank back to the floor, much to Giles' relief.
Kate smoothed back her hair from her forehead, her hand shaking slightly. “ Willow, if you _ever_ do that in front of me again, I'll smack you down so hard people will be using your hair for a hearth rug.”
Giles decided it was time he intervened. He opened his mouth and both women spun round to give him looks so icy that he prudently closed it again and snatched off his glasses quickly for a not at all needed polish.
“Where do you get off, giving me orders like this and acting as if you're about ninety?” Willow demanded, hands on hips and lips set in a thin line.
“When I'm acting for the Powers and I happen to be imbued with the wisdom of the ages,” Kate snapped back.
Willow gaped at her for a second, then burst out laughing. “You're a Power?”
“You're a what?” exclaimed Giles, shoving his glasses back on quickly and staring at Kate in shock.
“Don't either of you listen?” Kate said in exasperation. “I'm as human as they get. I said the Powers were working through me. They do that sometimes. How do you think I'm doing this whole story telling stuff anyway?”
“Well, it did seem a little advanced even for you – ” began Giles, quailing slightly as Kate gave him an offended look. Taking a deep breath, he continued, “I assumed that in my time away in Sunnydale, you'd applied yourself and made good progress, that's all. Does your aunt know of this?”
Kate shuddered. “She'd have a fit. Don't tell her if you value my life. The Powers wouldn't step in to save me, not from her.”
The tension lessened appreciably as the three united in a common fear. Miss Harkness was formidable, inflexible and opinionated - yet strangely charming.
“Never mind that, “ said Willow. “We still need to sort out Rack. What did he do? God, he was hanging there listening when I was talking to Dawn. What if he goes after her, wanting to get the Key's energy?”
“He can't have,” Giles said reassuringly. “I've been talking to Buffy frequently and she's not mentioned Rack at all. Which is rather puzzling.”
“No, it isn't,” Willow said, her voice rising with excitement. “It means we _did_ fix him. We did go back and kill him properly. We can plan it better. There's no need to rush, I see that now – but we have to do it. We really do.”
“Willow, you can't just go back in time and change things,” said Giles impatiently. “You've never had that much power. No one has.”
Willow swung round to face Kate, a challenging gleam in her eyes. “I bet Kate's Powers can do it,” she said. “In fact, I think that's what this whole story idea was for. Well?”
Kate reluctantly nodded in agreement. “Of course I can take you back but I was hoping I wouldn't have to,” she said, chewing on her thumbnail absent-mindedly.
“Why?” asked Willow. “Because it's dangerous?”
Kate spat out a scrap of nail and looked scornful. “Rack? That cheap pathetic excuse for a warlock? He might scare kids into giving up their power but I'd like to see him try those party tricks on _me_.”
“He's stronger than you think,” objected Willow.
“You're only saying that because he fooled you. But remember, you didn't go back once you saw where he was taking you. You already beat him once.”
Willow smiled at her gratefully. “I suppose I did,” she said. “So why don't you want to go finish him off? If he's not human, it's not like we need to worry. Maybe Buffy can help.”
Kate frowned. “Where do you get this idea that non-human equals fair game? Giles, what have you been teaching them over there?”
Giles shrugged. “I was trying to keep things simple and let them discover the shades of grey themselves,” he said. “It's not something you can teach, it's something you have to learn.”
Willow looked puzzled. “I don't mean a ‘good demon' is a ‘dead demon',” she said, belatedly realising why Kate was looking perturbed. “Clem's a sweetie for one, Angel helped us lots and Spike, well, he's different than most vampires, I guess.”
“Most of the evil undead don't get to see the Slayer naked, that's a certain fact,” said Kate dryly. As Giles began to splutter, she winked at Willow who smiled back.
“I was thinking more of him fighting with us and protecting Dawn, but whatever,” Willow said with a shrug. “None of that matters when it comes to Rack though. He needs removing. He's dangerous.”
“I still think you're a little too ready to hang him out to dry,” Kate remarked. “If he was that bad, how come you never got the Slayer to deal with him?”
“Because I thought he was human!” said Willow impatiently.
“Human, demon, doesn't matter. He was using magic and that puts him inside the Slayer's reach. If not her, who? Your police? You saw yourself how unable they are to deal with that sort of thing. Giles, haven't you _covered_ this for heaven's sake?”
“I've always instructed Buffy that the human world has to be allowed to deal with human criminals,” said Giles stiffly.
“Like that Ben guy?”
“Ben, Glory, Ben? That Ben?” asked Willow with some perplexity. “You said he died of his injuries and it was for the…oh.” She looked at Giles with a dawning realisation and wasn't surprised when Giles shrugged and nodded.
“I dealt with Ben, yes. It had to be done.”
“Buffy could have done it,” said Kate. “You were shielding her. You always have. It's one of the reasons Quentin wanted you replaced.”
“You know Travers?” said Willow, wondering how much more would be revealed in the space of five minutes.
“It's a small world when it comes to magic,” Kate said airily. “ And news like that gets out. This coven is linked to the Council in many ways. They use the Manor as the place for their retreats sometimes.”
Giles looked indignant as he answered Kate. “I can assure you that my natural fondness for my charge never led me to neglect my duties as Watcher.” Relapsing into a more natural tone, he added, “Most Watchers see their Slayers die very soon. I've been with Buffy for so long, seen her cope with so much…She's an extraordinary young woman and I loved her too much to burden her with Ben's death. I've never regretted my actions but I know she would have.” He gave Willow a stern look. “I shall be most displeased if this ever gets to Buffy's ears, Willow.”
Willow held up her hands in surrender. “She won't hear it from me,” she assured Giles. “But can we please focus on Rack instead of ancient history? Kate, you said you could go back and deal with him but you didn't want to. Why?”
Kate looked at her in silence, one eyebrow raised. Willow flushed and said, “Consequences and ripples?”
“You seem to have – finally – got the message.” Kate said, clapping her hands rather ironically. “Yippee. Yes, killing him again would be nice and tidy but who knows what it'll do down the road?”
“You could say that about any of the demons we kill, “ objected Giles. “Sometimes you just have to go ahead and slaughter them.”
Kate shrugged. “I know that's a very pleasant option for those of us who think with our – “
“Swords,” Kate finished, giving Giles an arch glance. “But some cases are different and trust me, Rack's one of them. Don't worry too much. You take out someone the Powers have plans for and they'll generally work around it or fix it. But it's not a good idea to force them to work too hard.”
“I'm getting tired of this,” said Willow angrily. “What about Brenton? What about all the other people Rack's going to hurt, trying to get his power back? What about _me_, if I can get all personal. He'll be after me the second I get back in town.”
“I certainly agree that he needs to be neutralized,” Kate said calmly. “He's causing – caused – too many ripples of his own. But there's no need to kill him. The Powers think it would work well to move him back home. You've killed his human side. What's left is a crippled demon, dangerous here, but quite ineffective in his native dimension.”
“So why don't they just shove him through a portal then?” asked Willow.
Kate sighed. “Brenton. Rack has anchored himself to this plane using the lad. We send Rack home, Brenton goes with him. Body and soul. Forever.”
Giles frowned. “I'm still a little hazy on this. As I told Willow, it's been weeks since the events of that night. What is Rack doing right now? And isn't it the case that the longer we wait, the more changing things will impact on the present?”
“I'm getting a headache,” murmured Willow.
Kate nodded vigorously. “It would do, but for one factor.”
Giles looked cynical. “I'll feed you your line. What factor would that be, then?”
Kate smirked, then sobered and said, “Rack and Brenton are trapped in that silly house of his. When Rack let Scott go, the doors slammed shut to keep Brenton there. The Powers reinforced that so that no one can get in or out. They've basically frozen time inside the house. If we go there to tackle Rack and it's looking inevitable, we'll be appearing right at the point where the story broke off. No time travel involved, just teleportation inside a magically sealed room. The sad part is that Brenton's parents are beside themselves but, well, it's Sunnydale.”
Willow nodded. She was well aware of the implications of missing people in Sunnydale. Brenton's parents would be in a very small minority if they actually got their child back.
“Well, that makes things simple,” she said brightly. “The water's all calm and unripply. Let's get some spells, weapons and jump on in. Splash around a bit.”
Kate gave Giles a look of disbelief. “Are they all like this?” she said.
Giles rolled his eyes. “Willow's the calm one,” he confided.
“Ask Travers for a raise. You deserve it.”
<u>Chapter Eight </u>
Sitting in a circle, Giles' hand warm in her right hand, Kate's cool and firm in her left, Willow felt a tingle of apprehension mingled with excitement. Maybe the years fighting beside Buffy had her craving the undeniable thrill of the battle against evil. Sternly reminding herself that it wasn't that long since she'd _been_ the evil, she concentrated on the ritual that Kate had described in careful detail.
Kate felt Willow's whole body trembling and hoped that she wasn't going to crumble. Coming face to face with Rack after spending weeks feeling guilty over killing him was bound to be traumatic. Giles had assured her that Willow - and indeed all of the Slayer's friends - reacted well in a crisis, but that could be his partiality talking.
Giles gently squeezed Willow's hand, wordlessly reassuring her.
All three braced themselves as the ritual began, the heavy smoke stinging their eyes, their linked hands stained with coloured chalk from drawing intricate designs on the floor. Their voices merged in the chant and, for two of the three, the preparations were for nothing. A wind swirled around the room, neatly snuffing the candles and by the time fumbling hands had found matches, one had left and two remained behind.
Willow felt no surprise that she alone had made it back to Rack's dismal little den. Even as the other two had planned and discussed, she had felt detached from it all. This wasn't something you did with plenty of company. She had been alone when she killed Rack the first time. Feeling alone had been what triggered her descent into darkness. Ending this wasn't going to be a team event.
As she had been warned, time had frozen for Rack and Brenton. She studied the two figures, fear clutching at her with icy fingers as she wondered if Rack twitched an eye. Just a shadow, she decided. Brenton looked about Dawn's age, too young to have any conception of what his friend had dragged him into. Willow didn't need a spell to sense that he was magically gifted. If they got out of this, she would have to look him up, give him some pointers. Sunnydale had enough perils without an untrained teenager with a potentially deadly gift being added to the mix.
Murmuring one of the spells she had prepared, Willow was able to visualise the hold Rack had over the young man's body and soul. Thick ropes of orange light held the two together in an ugly tangle. Willow was tempted to slash through the confusion, sever the bond with a clean cut. Tempted – but not in that much of a hurry. It would leave both of them dead, or drooling idiots at best. This was going to take work. Patient, time-consuming work. Another incantation and the light solidified. As a child, Willow had once been given the task of untangling dozens of embroidery threads that had become an impenetrable ball of rainbow-hued chaos. It had taken her nearly a week to do it and the job had been absorbing once she'd conquered the urge to give up on those knots that resisted her clumsy fingers. With that memory playing out in her mind, she began to gently ease Brenton free of Rack's hold.
Because she had chosen to make the bonds solid, she had to deal with them in that form. One thick rope of coercion slipped from Brenton and whipped out at Willow, seeking to ensnare her in his place. Because they were created by Rack's magic to leech power from whoever was handy, once free of Brenton, they homed in on the best power source available – in this case, Willow.
Willow leapt backwards, holding up her hand and instinctively creating a barrier. The rope lashed against it but couldn't smash through. Willow frowned. She was safe behind this shield but she couldn't work through it. If she released it, would she have time to neutralise the threat to herself? Glancing over at Rack, she felt panic flood through her. Like a sleeping spider, jerking awake when his web entangled a victim, Rack had sensed that his link to his power source was under siege. Somehow, he was beginning to stir, despite the freezing spell. Or were the Powers releasing him out of some idea of fairness, or, more likely, to make her task even harder?
“Wouldn't put it past them,” muttered Willow, eying the thread malevolently. Coming to a swift decision, she dropped the shield and sent a fire bolt sizzling at the thread, dodging as she did so. Rack screamed as the magical flames turned the thread to ashes and then, having nowhere else to go, burrowed into his exposed chest. Angry blisters formed, oozing pus, and his skin began to char.
Willow guessed that she had only moments before Rack was fully aware again. The way the fire bolt had acted gave her the semblance of a plan. Swiftly, she located the ends of each entangling bond and peeled them off Brenton just enough to apply the fire to the loose end. They were consumed without being able to look for alternate power sources and the destruction of each thread wounded and weakened Rack. That was much faster than her original plan and the way Rack was stirring it was just as well.
As the final thread severed, both men became aware of their surroundings. Willow didn't want Brenton around when she confronted Rack. She realised just why it was that Buffy so often went in solo. It meant she had fewer distractions. The door reappeared as the freezing spell dissipated and Willow moved so that Brenton had a clear run at it. He stared at her, obviously confused by what was happening to him and her inexplicable appearance in the room. Luckily, he was bright enough to interpret her movement and, staggering slightly as his cramped muscles protested the sudden exertion, he made it to the door and escaped, giving her a grateful, if desperate look as he passed.
Rack and Willow were left alone.
The warlock looked at her steadily but made no move, other than to brush at the wounds on his chest with a painful grimace. Finally he broke the silence. “Not very friendly of you, to do that to me. What did I ever do to you?”
Willow was about to reply heatedly when she caught herself. “You didn't do anything I didn't let you do, ” she replied. “I feel more anger towards Amy, if anyone, for bringing me to you. But even then, it was my choice. When I drained you it was because I needed a power boost and you were handy. Nothing personal.”
Rack raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “No rant about how wicked I am for ensnaring the innocent youth of Sunnydale? How I'm a monster who needs to be put down? You never let me down, Strawberry. Always unexpected.”
“No, that's all true,” said Willow steadily. “But I didn't go after you before because of that. Last thing on my mind was protecting anyone, believe me.” In a few, terse sentences, she told Rack what Warren's fate had been and how she had been halted in her grief-inspired madness.
Rack pursed his lips and shook his head ruefully. “And I was just hanging there, missing all the fun. Figures. First time this little bitty town gets some excitement and I'm dead to the world.”
Willow raised her eyebrows. “You don't call an annual apocalypse exciting?”
“Only if it actually takes place. Your Slayer friend tends to be a bit of a party pooper, doesn't she? So, if you're sorry you killed me – ”
“Oh, I wouldn't say that, exactly,” Willow interrupted coolly. “I think you being dead is just fine but it's been pointed out to me that everything has consequences and on a scale of one to ten, magically killing someone is an eleven. So, I'm here to tell you to leave. Go back to whatever demon dimension you call home.”
“New Orleans? How rude.”
Willow smiled. “Don't tell me you still think your human side is still squirming away. You're pure demon now and I don't think the Hellmouth is very safe for the likes of you. I mean it; go home. I can open you a portal –”
“I don't need you to,” Rack snapped angrily. He was becoming uneasily aware of his weakness and Willow's news didn't surprise him. Rack was a pragmatic parasite and essentially lazy. He had no desire to go up against Willow, with, he suspected, a Slayer in reserve and he guessed that no matter how he cloaked his place, Willow would always find it. She might have stepped back from the edge of darkness but it was only a few steps away. And she had been _scary_. Hot, but scary.
Spite made him play with his former toy one more time.
“Before I go, just one little question. The Powers were so concerned about whether I live or die that they let you come here to fix things. Ever wonder why they didn't undo what Warren did to your girl as a way of stopping _you_? You were about to end the world after all. Or was she just not all that important to them?” With a mocking smile, he called up a portal and stepped through, leaving Willow mired in confusion.
“But you know why they didn't,” Giles said, his patience thinning in the face of Willow's refusal to see facts. “There was no need to do something so drastic when Xander's intervention was all that was needed.”
“How did they know it would work?” Willow demanded, her face animated, her eyes glowing with fury. “I was _this_close, Giles. Isn't that cutting it a bit fine? If they had brought Tara back, I would have stopped, I would have – ”
Giles gave her a steady look and said quietly, “Are you sure of that, Willow? Deep down, are you sure? Weren't you enjoying yourself so much that even Tara wouldn't have been able to stop you?”
“'Enjoying!' Giles I was doing it _because_ of Tara! If she wasn't dead, there would have been no need for any of it.”
“That's not strictly true,” said Giles, a steely implacability in his voice and face. “You began to use your magic to bring her back. When that failed, all that came after was revenge. Revenge on Warren for accidentally killing Tara, revenge on his two accomplices for being part of his overall plans, revenge on Buffy, on Dawn, on all your friends for reasons I don't think you've ever really faced squarely.” He turned away and stared out of the library window before continuing, almost in a whisper, “And revenge on me for daring to criticise your actions.”
Behind him, Willow stood, tears trickling down her face, her mouth working helplessly. Giles spun round as he heard her choke out the words, “I'm sorry, Giles, I'm so sorry.” Moving quickly he reached her side and hugged her to him, stroking her bright hair as she cried against his chest, her hands clutching at his arms desperately. The library door opened quietly and Kate entered, taking in the scene with raised eyebrows.
“Is this going to go on much longer, or should I come back after lunch?” she enquired pleasantly.
Giles glared at her. “Willow is upset,” he said reprovingly.
“Only because you upset her, you plonker. Willow, stop soaking Rupert's jacket and come for a walk with me. You look as if you need some fresh air.”
To Giles' surprise, Willow pulled away from him at once. “Sorry,” she murmured, dabbing at his soggy, smeared, sleeve.
“It's one of my older, hand made in Bond Street, jackets and I never liked the colour,” he assured her. That got him a smile but as she left the room with Kate, he couldn't help wondering if Willow would ever be at peace with herself again. Thinking back to his own rebellious youth supplied the answer to that question and he sighed, rubbing his aching forehead. How had he ended up being a Watcher to not just the Slayer but an assortment of her friends as well?
Down at the river, Willow and Kate sat for some time in silence watching the water flow by. Gradually Willow felt her emotions untangle and smooth out and she relaxed, the tension leaving her body. Kate had been watching her, waiting for this and she pounced.
“What brought that on, then?” she asked casually. “Didn't see you as the clingy type.”
Willow smiled ruefully. “No one's as good at laying on the guilt as Giles. I think that's only the second time he's hugged me though.”
“When was the first?” asked Kate curiously, propping herself up on an elbow and looking at Willow with sparkling eyes. “Tell all.”
“Kate!” Willow protested. “Giles is like a –”
“You say ‘father' and I'll chuck you in the river.”
“I did have a crush on him, way back in high school,” Willow admitted with a grin. “But apart from the whole being gay thing, Giles is just – Giles. He's a grown up. And he hugged me when he thought I was a vampire but I wasn't. Well, I was but that wasn't me, it was an alternate me. I was fine.”
Kate stared at her, mouth gaping. “I suppose that made sense in your head. I must visit Sunnydale one day. Or possibly not.” She shook her head and sat up. “Stop trying to distract me – ”
“Huh? You were the one who –”
“Hush, teacher speaking,” Kate said archly. She sobered and pulled up a few blades of grass to nibble.
“Does that taste good?” Willow asked.
“I was a sheep in a former incarnation, “ Kate said solemnly. “And if the next words out of your mouth aren't an explanation of why you're fussing and fretting over the Powers not bringing Tara back, I'll turn you into one right now.”
Willow looked at her sideways. “I know Rack was just trying to cause trouble. His idea of a going away present. But after I got back here, I started to wonder – Kate, do you remember in the tent, at the fete? You gave me that vision?” Kate nodded, a question in her eyes. “Did you see what I saw?”
“No,” Kate replied. “It was your future, not mine. What was it that bothered you so much?”
Willow's lips trembled as she whispered, “I saw Tara. I saw her old, happy but old. Don't you see, Kate? There's something I can do, a ripple in the possibilities that will mean she lives. I'd given up, accepted her death but now I have to know how to make that future come true.” She paused, and then added firmly, “And you and your Powers are going to help me.”
<u>Chapter Nine </u>
Kate gave Willow a level glance and said, “Can we pretend you never said that?”
Willow looked puzzled. “I don't understand. Why wouldn't you want to help me? Tara didn't deserve to die, it wasn't right. It wasn't meant to be, so we should fix it.”
Kate shook her head in bewildered disbelief. “You _still_ don't get it do you? All this time and you still think you can play around with things to suit yourself, no matter what the consequences. I give up, Willow. I really do.”
She stood and turned to leave. Willow jumped up and caught her arm, holding her in place. “You can't just walk off,” Willow said, her voice low and dangerous. “I won't let you throw away Tara's chance to come back.”
Kate wrenched her arm free and faced Willow. “Come back? As what? A walking zombie like Mrs Summers was? Oh, yes, I know about that. The Powers don't miss close calls like that one, believe me. Or are you going to rip her soul from heaven as you did to her daughter and force it back into a body that's already begun to merge with the earth?”
Kate knelt and picked up a handful of soil from the riverbank and cast it into the air, to be taken away by the cool, fresh breeze. “This is Tara. She's in the earth; she's in the air around you. Every flower that blossoms, every leaf that uncurls in the spring has Tara's essence within it. It's all connected, Willow. That's natural, that's right. What you want to do isn't. The earth cries out against it, can't you _hear_ it?”
Kate's impassioned voice faded to silence and she looked at Willow almost pleadingly. Her face hardened as Willow's lips thinned stubbornly.
“Fine,” said Kate. “Let me do some ‘show and tell' then, since I seem to be dealing with a spoiled kindergarten kid in a tantrum.” Kate turned and surveyed the river then pointed at a large boulder on the opposite side, waist high and firmly embedded in the soil. As she murmured an incantation, the rock began to shift, then tore free with a grinding noise. As Willow watched, Kate moved the boulder upwards and towards them and, strain clear on her face, let it drop into the middle of the river.
“Look,” she said. “See how the clear water is dirty now, see how the water is dammed and can't flow properly? That's what you would do.”
Willow cocked her head to one side and looked at the damage Kate had caused. “The water will clear in time, the river will rise over the boulder and carry on flowing.” She turned to Kate. “Flashy but I don't think you proved your point.”
Kate gritted her teeth. “Maybe I dropped it in the wrong place,” she said ominously. “Of course, the earth would heal itself. Even _you_ can't be egotistical enough to think you could make a lasting difference – but the damage you could do would still hurt and that's just not permitted.”
“I'm not trying to damage anything!” Willow shouted, losing what little patience she had. “I'm trying to help.”
“Help who? Tara? She's dead and her soul is at peace, as Buffy's was. Her family didn't care about her and the only friends she had, apart from you, have come to terms with losing her. It's just you, Willow. You want to bring her back for your sake. Can't you see how selfish that is?”
“It's not selfish when they're the only person in the world you can ever love, the only – ”
“Nonsense!” said Kate. “You loved before Tara, you'll love again. It's not in you to be alone that way.”
Willow folded her arms and glared at Kate. “What about my vision, then? You seem to be forgetting that!”
Kate waved her hand in dismissal. “You had a glimpse of an alternate timeline, fine. Doesn't mean you have the right to force this world to change to match it. Do you really think that Tara being alive would be the only difference? What right do you have to alter the lives of countless millions just to suit yourself? Ripples, remember? For all you know, that could have been a descendant of Tara's anyway. A future niece or cousin. You could have been seeing a very distant future.”
Willow sank to the floor, the defiance draining out of her. “I thought it was a chance. I thought it could go back to how it was,” she whispered brokenly, her hands twisting in the grass.
Kate sighed and sank down beside her. “It will stop hurting, sweetheart,” she said. “But not until you grieve for Tara properly.”
“I'm not ready to go back home,” Willow said wretchedly. “You've been showing me all week what happens when I used magic and I still just wanted to change things. If I'd had the spell in my hand to bring Tara back, I would have cast it and to hell with the consequences. I'm not safe.” She turned pleading eyes to Kate. “Take it off me,” she begged. “Take my magic away.”
Kate's eyes widened. “I can't,” she said flatly. “It's as much a part of you as your hair, your hands.”
“They can be cut off,” said Willow, “and I'd still be me.”
“Bad analogy,” Kate sighed. “Magic is in your blood, how's that? But you're making progress, you know. Think of this as your graduation test.”
Willow looked disconsolate. “I failed, right?” she said.
“Let's say you earned a retest,” Kate replied “I think I'll make it a field trip back to that weird little town you call home. I hate marking test papers.”
She stood, extending a hand to help Willow up. They looked at each other for a moment, then Kate drew Willow towards her for a warm hug and the healing begun in Xander's arms was completed in Kate's.
Sunnydale, two weeks later.
Xander and Willow stood near Tara's grave. “What's that you've got?” Xander asked as Willow pulled something from her pocket.
She smiled at him. “It's a Jewish custom to lay pebbles on the headstone when you visit a grave,” she explained. “These are some I got from a river in England.”
As she walked alone up to the simple marker and knelt beside Tara's grave, Willow thought back to that peaceful river, set the pebbles from its bed on Tara's gravestone and said hello to her beloved – and goodbye.
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