There wasn't much more he could do but watch her sleep. She murmured under her breath but otherwise remained still. Giles grunted, pressed his fingers harder into his temples, and once again rearranged the puzzle pieces. Snatches of conversation slid into and out of place. Why would anyone want to kill a child?
A small knock interrupted his thoughts and he turned just as the door eased open. Buffy peered through the crack and he motioned her in. She rubbed her hands together and licked her lips.
Giles sat up. “What is it?”
“Um…” Her eyes flitted around the room.
Giles closed his and rubbed his neck. “Dear Lord, Buffy. We've only been gone two days.”
When he looked up she shrugged. “When they slayer's away the demons will play… or,” she frowned. “…take over your shop and summon Krogerslick.”
“Krugerslek,” Giles corrected automatically. “Demon god of flesh – did you say my shop?”
She looked to Willow and then back to him. Giles saw the uncertainty in her eyes. She paused and took another step forward. “Xander says it's pretty bad. He and Anya barely escaped…“
Giles nodded and waved away the rest of her statement. She had a sacred duty. “Of course. You- you go –“ his stomach rolled and he tried not to look at Willow.
“We could send D'mitri – or maybe call Angel?”
For a second Giles considered her suggestion. He needed his slayer. Without her strength - he moved to sit on the side of the bed. He smiled down at Willow still nestled under the covers and ran the back of his hand down her cool cheek. This was one more thing she didn't need.
“You have to go, Buffy,” he repeated. “Krugerslek uses human flesh to build armies. Much like The Judge only -”
He fought his stutter – how in the gods' names was he going to protect his family from the Council and whoever they had helping them? Yet, statistically, they stood a better chance against the Council than Sunnydale did at surviving Krugerslek.
“Indestructible,” Giles finished. He adjusted Willow's cover in an attempt to keep himself focused.
Buffy frowned. “You need me,” she argued.
Yes, Giles agreed. More than you realize . Instead he shook his head. This was his doing and he would find a way out of it. Still, Buffy's duty to society came before his personal needs. He looked back down at Willow and brushed away the frown line from between her eyes with his thumb as he spoke.
“We have D'mitri… and even Ethan – small comfort that that is. And for now, we're safe enough.”
It was a lie. He didn't feel safe. And he wouldn't until they were home with all this behind them. He exhaled and put his hands to his knees. The decision had been made.
“I'll have Ethan secure you the required documents and a ticket.”
Buffy nodded. A rumble of voices sounded outside the door and a wash of relief cleared her expression. She looked to the door and then back to Giles. Guilt shone in her eyes. Giles smiled slightly, giving her permission to go.
Giles looked back to Willow and fought the urge to wake her – just to make sure he was still forgiven. Gently, he lifted her hand from her belly and replaced it with his own. Still, it was difficult to believe there was a new soul within her. A combination of their essence, a product of their love, inches away from him yet secure within Willow. Shame and guilt pecked at him. She'd done what she could to save their baby and he'd nearly run her through with accusations and insults.
Yet, in Willow fashion she'd bent with his blows and rebounded, protecting what was hers. What was theirs. He smiled sadly and sat back in the chair. Willow always protected what she considered hers. Quiet, unassuming, and nearly lethal with devotion. This baby had very little to fear with her mother at arms. He hoped.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Her soft voice broke the silence and he looked up. Willow was awake, if not entirely alert. Her eyes though twinkled at him for the smallest of seconds. He exhaled in relief. Conscious was good. She smiled at him and put her palm over the back of his hand and pulled it back to her belly. Giles looked down and cocked his head to the side before looking back at her face. She looked up at him through slitted eyes that wrinkled with unspoken pain.
“I'm afraid that's more than they're worth,” he assured her. “How are you feeling?”
“Mmm,” she considered. She licked her dry lips and then spoke. Her voice came out raw with sleep. “Duct taped… and kinda chilly.”
Giles nodded. “I'll get you another blanket,” he decided hurriedly. Fall in England wasn't exactly balmy.
“Maybe you could just hold me?” she suggested. Bright eyes shone up at him. A smile tilted the corners of his lips.
“I can do that,” he agreed quietly. In fact, he'd been aching to do just that for almost two hours. He pulled back the blanket enough to slide in next to her. Moving as quickly as he could without upsetting her injury Giles molded his body around hers. A shiver caught Willow's body and he tightened his hold.
“Are you in much pain?”
He felt her muscles stiffen as she fought another chill. A small groan escaped her lips. “Only when I move,” she tried to joke. It fell flat and they fell into an uncertain silence.
Giles pursed and unpursed his lips as he searched for the right words. He had to know what she'd gone through. For any of this to make sense he needed to know. But to put her through whatever had tortured her again….
“Are you up to talking about it?” he asked. “I need to know what happened to you. If you can remember.” He felt her tense and then she nodded.
“Tell me what you can about the portal,” he coaxed. He closed his eyes as her scream echoed in his memory.
She shivered again.
“D'mitri says you weren't alone. Could you recognize who was there with you? Anyone you've seen before? May- maybe from when the Councils visited home?” He grasped at straws but any lead was better than none.
“It wasn't CoW,” Willow said. Her brow furrowed and reluctant certainty tinged her voice. “It was …Jarren.”
Giles nodded. Of course Jarren's spirit would still be with Willow. He was her protector. He licked his lips. Perhaps it was too soon. She was still groggy.
“Yes,” he tried again. “But who else? What else? Something tried to hurt you –“
“No,” she said and then shook her head agitated. “I - I mean yes… Jarren… he was the one.”
Giles froze. Their safety had been released. She looked down at her raw hands and picked at the scrapes as she talked.
“—he kept saying to let him in, to relax…” her small voice shook and broke. She trembled in his arms. “that it'd be over soon.”
Fired poured from his stomach and Giles felt the blood rush to his skin. He clenched his fists and forced himself to swallow. But, she needed him, contact with him, so he stayed by her side. He steadied himself then struggling to keep his voice as even as possible asked, “What would be over soon?”
She shook her head. “It felt like he was pulling something from me… li-like energy?”
Green eyes looked to him for confirmation. Giles nodded slowly and waited.
“He kept saying something about a vessel and energy and then…” she paused for a breath and looked up at him. “And then I left. I know it wasn't safe, but I couldn't let them –“
Willow's lips quivered and her voice broke. “I - I think I hurt him….”
“I hope you did,” he said under his breath. And if she hadn't, if he ever crossed paths with him on any plane, Jarren would know pain, Giles vowed. Jarren and the entire bloody Order of Bastards would suffer.
It took a few moments of concentrated effort but Giles managed to slip into his Watcher's training. He needed information and emotions would clutter his rationale. “When he pulled you into the void was there anything… anything at all that you could identify?
Willow closed her eyes and worry lines crossed her brow as she thought. Finally she sighed. Her shoulders slumped. “It was just black. I couldn't see my hand… or my shoes… or… anything – except he kept saying they couldn't hold me there very long … that he had to hurry or the Council would find me.”
She glanced up at him. Giles frowned at the intensity of the dark circles under her eyes. They'd worsened in the few minutes she'd been awake. “That's all I remember. It's like whenever he talks to me I lose a little something. I get all… fuzzy.”
Giles leaned down and kissed her forehead. “You did fine,” he assured.
It wasn't much, but information was information. Of all people he knew better than to ignore even the smallest detail no matter how irrelevant it appeared. Already the mental puzzle was back on the table. He rearranged the new knowledge. Both parties were after the baby. The Council had denied it, but denial was standard operating procedure. Jarren and his Order of Blessed had gone to great lengths to win Willow's trust and then openly deceived her. Giles grunted. What else had they lied about?
“Something's not right,” he muttered.
“I'll say,” Willow agreed. Her voice sounded strained and she grimaced.
Concern overrode confusion. “I picked up a few different pain killers… nothing too potent, but maybe enough to take off the edge?“
Willow shook her head as he'd expected she would. She would suffer if it meant her baby was safer.
“I don't wanna talk ‘bout this anymore,” she said slipping into a fuzzy cadence. “I don't wanna be scared.”
“Then I shall provide a distraction,” Giles murmured. He kissed her temple then pressed his palm tighter across her belly. He looked down at the woman he loved and needed more than breath. She needed affirmation. She needed – or maybe he needed – to know that there was more than pain and loss in store for them. Their child was proof of that. He exhaled slowly. It might be a little early for this, and they'd probably change their minds a million more times between now and then, but…
“Do you have an opinion on the name Lucretia?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Sounds like excrement,” she mumbled then strained her eyes to meet his. “Or a Borg.”
“Willow,” he said unable to keep the surprise from his voice. “Lucretia was my favorite aunt's name.” Although, he paused, she was right it did bear the phonetics of -.
Her mouth drew into a surprised ‘o'. “Oh… like the name,” she realized. “It- it –“
“It's terrible,” he filled in for her. He crossed it from his list and tried again. “Would you consider Grace?”
Her smooth cheek rose against his in a smile. A second of contentment pushed aside his worry.
“Gracie's nice,” she breathed.
Giles nodded and kissed the top of her head. “Grace,” he repeated. It felt right. Grace Giles. A strong name for a strong spirit.
Willow nuzzled the back of her head into his chest. He fingered a lock of her red hair content to hold her and enjoy the easy silence.
She sighed and relaxed even deeper into his side. “Tell me about her.”
Giles smiled. “Obviously, she's brilliant. I dare to guess she'll be born knowing how to read. And she'll have your red hair.”
Willow's soft giggle warmed him. “But with your curls. And she'll be like you… only less… male. But she'll have your eyes and your sense of humor… and your accent.”
“Accents are hardly hereditary, Willow,” he admonished with a laugh and then relaxed into the pillows.
“I know,” she sighed. “But little kids with English accents just make my heart go all squishy.”
His mouth quirked around the edges. “Then we shall isolate her from everyone but me-“
Giles tsked and ran his thumb down her arm as he spoke. “You can associate with her. But for her to have my accent you must never speak around her.”
“Then we'll move to England,” Willow decided.
“And leave our family?”
She shook her head. “Buffy and D'mitri and Xander and Anya would come with us. We'd live in a… a… commune.”
Giles arched his right eyebrow. “A commune? Really.”
“And we'd grow our own tomatoes and… well, I don't like green beans so we wouldn't grow those, but at night, we'd all gather around the communal fireplace and you'd play the guitar and Xander'd play the harmonica –“
“Xander can play the harmonica?” The image of Xander huffing away at a harmonica brought a genuine grin to Giles's face.
“Well… not yet –“ she yawned. “But he'd learn.”
“And while we're doing all this communing and growing of tomatoes and sitting around our roaring fire, none of you would talk?” He felt her frown.
“Maybe she'll just be really great at imitating your accent,” Willow finally conceded.
“Besides,” Giles consoled her. “England is too close to the Council.”
“Anywhere is too close to CoW,” Willow sighed. The bounce that had been in her voice moments before was gone.
Giles closed his eyes. He'd meant to distract her not throw their precarious situation in her face. “Don't worry, Willow,” he tried to comfort her. “We'll get through this.”
He felt her hesitation and then her slow nod. “And when we get home I thought maybe we'd look for a house. Nothing too grand really, maybe something with a yard. There's no room for a crib in our flat.”
Silence met his revelation. Giles looked down his nose and tried to gauge her expression. It was far away and nearly unreadable. “Willow?”“I was just thinking about our house,” she answered softly. “How many rooms?” Giles paused to consider and then with her input spent the next half hour decorating the home the most likely didn't exist. Willow wanted room for a garden. He wanted a study lined with shelves. And an eat-in kitchen large enough to hold their family - biological or otherwise. “And if Xander's going to visit, I suggest a padlock on the pantry and refrigerator door,” he finished caught up in the very tangible idea of Xander eating them out of house and home. He frowned and looked down when the hoped for giggle didn't come. “Luv?”
He jiggled her shoulder. A soft snore answered him. Giles nodded. It was to be expected. The magic and blood loss had taken their toll on her body. For a moment he considered slipping from the room, but the soft body in his arms convinced him otherwise. Willow needed him and he needed her. For the first time in a long while, under the comforting spell of the story he'd spun for her, Giles relaxed and let her deep breathing lull him to sleep.
A strong hand on his shoulder jerked him from a dream he almost remembered. He opened his eyes with a start, instantly aware and on edge.
“It's taken care of,” Buffy whispered. “I'm gonna head out in a few.”
Giles fumbled with his glasses that had somehow ended up on his chest then squinted at his watch. “So soon?”
She nodded. “D'mitri got enough with the money from the car-“
He'd sold it. Giles nodded. Good. They needed the cash.
“-and Ethan was more than happy to pull in a few favors –“
Giles raised a questioning brow.
“- after I threatened to break his leg.”
He nodded. “Of course.”
Buffy stood straight and looked over to Willow. “You'll take care of her?”
Giles tightened his hold on Willow and nodded. “Or die trying.”
“Not an option,” Buffy said firmly.
His expression softened. She was speaking as family now. “Of course,” he answered softly.
She took a few steps back, gave a small wave, then switched to ‘Slayer Buff'. All business. “So… I'll kick some slick Krogers' ass and then be on the next plane back.”
“It's Krugerslek, Buffy,” Giles corrected. He looked at her as he always did when he sent her on a mission, hoping she'd see the care and concern in his eyes. “And do be careful.”
Almost an entire day had passed without incident. Willow slept, had nightmares she couldn't remember, awoke, tried not to complain, played Old Maid with Giles, and took the anti-biotic. Giles frowned as she tossed the pills to the back of her throat and chased them down with a glass of cold water. She put on the brightest face she could. He put a hand to her forehead.
“You're warm,” he informed her. He took the glass from her hands, set it aside and tried again. His hand was cool and large and comforting and Willow leaned into it.
“Lots of covers?” she said hopefully. Aside from an occasional chill and fire shot of pain – and blinding headache, she felt fine. “Did Buffy call?”
Giles took her wrist between his fingers and timed her pulse. She tried to hide her smile. He looked very official. But then, Giles looked very official doing almost anything.
“Yes,” he said with a distracted nod.
Willow waited. Then cleared her throat quietly. Giles jumped slightly brought back to attention. He put her arm gently back to the bed. “My shop is… obliterated –“
She gasped and then felt her expression drop. Even though it was hard to focus she forced a smile. Happy thoughts. He needed happy thoughts. She hoped her voice sounded peppier to him than it did to her. “With the insurance money you can… rebuild… maybe next to the Starbucks? Oh, and maybe add a room for a psychic or something? That'd be good.”
Giles considered her suggestion and then shrugged. “Regardless,” he continued, “and more importantly, Xander and Anya are fine and they and Buffy are working on a plan.”
“Krugerslek,” Willow said and then shivered. She'd read about them once in one of Giles's books. “Very of the not fun variety.”
Giles adjusted his glasses. “I would much rather be facing the Krugerslek than what we're up against,” he muttered under his breath.
Willow's heart jumped and she tried to pretend she hadn't heard him just as he tried to pretend the words hadn't left his mouth. He looked back to her his demeanor somewhat distant now. “Would you mind if I checked your stitches?”
Willow paused then shook her head. It wasn't as if he hadn't seen her before. There. He had. Many times. Many many times. But it was different somehow when it involved cold clinical detachment. Like finding out you'd slept with your gynecologist at a drunken frat party. Weird. Not that she'd ever slept with anyone at a drunken frat party. Still… Willow pushed aside her mental babblings and relaxed her legs as best she could.
“How ‘bout them Manchester soccer players, Dr. Giles?” she tried to joke as he disappeared between her legs.
His lack of answer and then concerned frown when he reappeared pushed any humor aside. Willow's stomach tightened as it did when she got in trouble. “What?”
His smile did little to relieve the tension she felt. He shook his head. “Just a little infection,” he said casually. “That's all. You try to sleep and we-we'll just continue your medicines and I'll see if we can get something stronger.”
“Infection is… it's… it's bad,” she sputtered. Her stitches pulled as her alarm grew. “I mean… staph...-“
“It's not that bad,” he said. “Promise.”
Willow looked up at him and then nodded. If it wasn't that bad, then it wasn't that bad. Sure, she felt bad, but not …infection bad. Unless, of course, he was just saying that so she wouldn't worry. Which would be so like him to carry the burden quietly. Mild panic mixed with the other varities that swam in her gut.
“In any case,” Giles said as he cleared the makeshift card game from the covers. “You should rest.”
“Again?” she tried to whine but it came out sounding more like… something entirely incoherent. She tried to disguise the shiver that shimmied her shoulders and looked up at him as he bent bent and pressed his lips to her forehead, then to the tip of her nose, and then finally her lips. They were moist and cool against hers and she smiled at his gentle touch.
“Sleep,” he whispered.
Willow eased back into her pillows. It wasn't so bad, really. The cases were soft and the blankets were warm and if she didn't remind herself that it was Ethan's bed – another chill went through her – then she actually felt as near to comfortable as she could get. She nodded to Giles and then let him blur as sleep snuck upon her.
D'mitri and Ethan, looking like two soldiers passing time over cards looked up from the table as Giles closed the bedroom door behind him.
“Don't look so worried, Ripper,” Ethan said as he returned his attention to what he'd been dealt. “She'll be up to shag status in no time at all.”
He ducked just into time to avoid D'mitri's attempted smack to the side of his head but obviously didn't count on the succeeding backhand. Giles smiled as the resulting blow knocked Ethan off the chair. It was a short-lived feeling and fear reclaimed its hold.
“What is it with you people?” Ethan demanded. He wiggled his jaw. Deciding everything was in place he crawled back to his seat and resumed his hand as if nothing had happened. “I was merely commenting upon how worried you looked.”
Giles squinted. Surely that wasn't a note of sincerity in Ethan's voice. “We need something stronger for her,” he announced careful to keep his voice low. “It's gone infected.”
Ethan shook his head. “Sorry, mate, but I'm fresh out of medics for you and the Czar to abuse.”
D'mitri looked up sharply. “She needs hospital.”
Giles clenched his teeth. “Yes,” he said. “I know. But unfortunately, that's not an option. We can't afford to be found.”
A solid thud against the front door and then the splintering of wood interrupted any argument that might have ensued.
“Too late,” Ethan muttered.
Giles didn't know just how many men entered the apartment but he was acutely aware of being outnumbered. He backed up in front of Willow's door and steeled himself for the attack as two men in dark suits rushed him. He wasn't sure how long he'd last with two and possibly more against one, but he did know that it would take all of them to move him from where he stood.
They rushed him at once, blows landing solidly to his stomach and jaw, hands grabbing and pulling him away, weakening his stance but Giles fought hard and dirty. He vaguely registered one opponent falling and then another before one more was upon him knocking him from his post with a kidney punch that sent Giles sprawling. Blocking the pain Giles turned and scrambled back to the door, grabbing the man's leg just as the rest of him disappeared into the bedroom. The intruder stumbled then fell to the floor.
Giles was on him in an instant. His vision veiled in a sheet of red fury Giles unleashed his wrath. There was no thought, just action and reaction. They had hurt Willow and they would pay. They would suffer as she had if he had to do it one member at a time. Cartilege crunched then gave as Giles repeatedly punched the man who now jerked and sputtered beneath him.Powerful arms pulled Giles off the battered intruder but Giles struggled and scrambled forward when the hold slipped. He nearly stumbled over the still body then turned around to face the next attacker. Giles knew he didn't have much more to give but he wasn't giving up. He rushed forward unwilling to give up more of the advantage only to be caught by strong arms and solid chest. He struggled certain he'd lost but unwilling to accept his failure and imminent death by this man's hands. What had happened to the others? Had he failed them as well? “We must leave.” In reaches of Giles's mind he recognized the deep voice and stilled his struggle. The battle was over? He gasped for breath ignoring the pain it brought him. “This doesn't look good,” Ethan said from Willow's bedside. She groaned.
Giles jerked his gaze to the bed finally slowing his adrenaline enough to process. Had she broken more stitches? Had they somehow gotten to her?
“Willow,” he whispered fiercely as fear clenched his heart. He pushed from D'mitri's hold and rushed forward knocking Ethan out of his way. Giles looked down at the unconscious redhead. She writhed, caught deep in the grips of the fever then gave a strangled cry as her body jerked taut.
Giles stared for a second his brain not comprehending what was happening to her and then it struck him. She was in seizure. Giles licked his lips anxiously automatically running the protocol to handling such a situation. A reaction to the fever… make sure she can't hurt herself. He stood helpless as the seizure ran its short course.
Willow's head fell to the side the telltale red splotches of fever stood out on her pale and sweat sheened face. Her eyes rolled beneath her lids and her breathing was shallow and rapid. Giles knew. There was no choice. They had to leave… now. It would only be a matter of time, minutes maybe, before the Council sent more suits after them.
Gently, like a new father handling an infant, Giles slid his arms under her and he lifted her from the bed. “It's okay,” he soothed. Sweat from her brow smeared against his chin. “We're going to get help.”
Her arm fell from his hold and hung loosely. Her slender fingers trailed the bedspread as he eased her from the bed and balanced her weight. Giles cradled her warm body into his chest wishing that just once he could take her pain. He paused long enough to exchange a look with D'mitri. The soldier nodded slowly.
“Hospital,” Giles muttered.
Between the Council and the Order there was nowhere to hide and certainly nowhere that would give Willow the medical attention she needed. The least he could give her and their baby was a chance. There was nowhere else. He pulled her closer and the tiny threads of her stitches scratched against his bare arm. Dammit, how could he have let this happen?
“They'll find us,” Ethan reminded him then cocked his head as he reconsidered his statement. “Well, you, anyway.”
Giles turned back long enough to glare and then carried Willow from the room. Vaguely he noticed that the bodies were still sprawled about the near destroyed room then stepped into the obviously quiet hallway. He didn't look back. D'mitri would follow and sod Ethan if the bastard ran and hid. Not that Giles would blame him.
It took Ethan mere minutes to hotwire the nearest car and once again Giles sat in the back of a stolen car helpless against whatever had happened to the woman he needed more than breath. He adjusted her as gently as he could already in a sweat from her heat. Strands of her sweat soaked hair clung to his neck. Giles closed his eyes and pressed his head against the window cursing his vain stupidity, his careless disregard for the basics of medical treatment, his selfish decision to allow Willow and Xander in his and Buffy's calling….
“Bloody Council,” he muttered. Willow frowned and her eyelids fluttered. Alarm coursed through Giles and he steeled himself for another seizure. None came but he couldn't relax. He didn't want to relax.
Ethan threw his arm across the back of the front seat and turned around casually. He held up a ring. Giles squinted at the thick silver band and then glared at Ethan for clarification.
“By the looks of things, Ripper,” Ethan said easily as he pulled Giles's glasses from his pocket and handed them across the seat, “It wasn't your boys who found us. When you piss off someone you don't do it half way, do you?”
Giles snatched the frames from Ethan, begrudgingly grateful the bastard had found them, and put them on. “Get to the bloody point,” he growled. He had neither the time nor the inclination for witty banter.
“The Order of Blessed,” Ethan explained. He looked down his nose and studied the insignia carved across the band. He glanced up and flashed a quick and brilliant smile. “Sound familiar?”
Giles stared at him then finally relented and nodded slightly. Ethan was in this now whether he liked it or not and he had information that might protect Willow. “Go on.”
“Nasty group, really,” Ethan said. “Wickedly powerful –“
“And you know this… how?” Giles asked. He winced against the sting over her brow.
Ethan preened. “Because they asked me to join.”
Giles's heart lodged in his chest and he fought the urge to reach over the seat and finally kill the man who continually turned his life upside down. He felt the fool, trusting Ethan when of course the bastard would somehow be involved. No wonder they'd been found.
The car swerved as D'mitri's hand shot out and shoved Ethan to the passenger's door.
“Hold on, hold on,” Ethan cried ducking and throwing his hands over his head. They all followed momentum as the car jerked to a stop on the side of the road.
Willow cried out and Giles held her closer. “You have thirty seconds,” Giles enunciated. The tone of his voice was deadly. He was done. No one would have a chance to hurt her again. D'mitri could beat Ethan senseless but he would finish the kill.
Ethan peeked through his arms then sat up and shook his hair back into place. “I didn't say I joined them,” he defended himself. He brushed imaginary specks of dust from his sleeves. “There was a little matter of them eschewing material wealth and physical pleasure –“
“Fifteen seconds,” D'mitri intoned. Giles kept his eyes on Ethan's face looking for any sign of deception.
“Powerful group of sorcerers,” Ethan rushed and then stretched his neck proudly. “Little wonder they wanted a man of my –“
“Seven seconds,” D'mitri interrupted.
“Right,” Ethan said brought back to task. “Secretive… deadly. They go back farther than your beloved Council of Wankers … no love lost between them.” He shrugged.
Giles inhaled the information, what little of it there was. He kept his eyes trained on Ethan but spoke to D'mitri.
The car screeched to a halt and Giles lifted Willow from the seat and carried her through the emergency room and straight to the nurses' station. Her pulse had gone from racing to alarmingly slow and unsteady and she no longer responded – no moans, no cries, no seizures. It was as if she'd… stopped. He held her tightly, willing her to share whatever life force he had to give.
“My wife,” he said adjusting Willow's slight weight. He felt a line of blood roll down his bare arm and fall to the top of his shoes. More stitches undone. The nurses scurried to and fro and he tried again, louder. “My wife needs help.”
“We'll be with you in a minute sir,” a harried and plump nurse informed him barely looking up from her paperwork. She held out a clipboard. “Fill these –“
“She needs help,” Giles repeated. That was all he could think and that was all he could say. His pulse raced and another string of blood rolled down his arm. “She- she's pregnant… I… I tried…”
The nurse looked up and then startled. “Get a gurney,” she ordered and rushed out from behind the desk.
Giles nearly sagged in relief and then lost himself in the confusion. There were people running around him, talking to him, asking him questions he couldn't find the words to answer. “You're going to be fine,” he whispered in Willow's hair. “Just fine.”
Hands tried to slide under his, to take her away and Giles held on fiercely. He couldn't let her go, not again.
“We need to examine her, sir,” someone said.
Right, Giles nodded but he wouldn't let go.
“You need to put her down so the doctor can help her,” another nurse said. Her voice wasn't cold. It was warm, like Willow's. Giles nodded.
“Someone get him out of here,” another voice commanded and Giles clung tighter and turned away from the confusing bustle. He wouldn't leave her side. She needed him.
“Just put her on the bed, sir,” the nurse with the warm voice coaxed. Her arm felt nice around his shoulder and he let her turn him. “You can hold her hand. She'll be right here.”
“Y-yes,” he managed. She'd be fine. Right there where he could touch her and make sure no one hurt her. He lay her gently on the narrow bed arranging her, pushing her hair off her forehead and then took her limp and raw hand in his.
“Get him out of here,” a small man in green scrubs ordered. “He's in shock… get somebody to check out that eye.”
“I'm fine,” Giles heard himself say but he didn't and wouldn't look away from Willow willing her to recover, trying to communicate with her. Somehow there was a way to get through to her, to have her open those eyes.
Events moved in a slow motion blur. He ran beside the gurney as Willow was moved to a room. He winced as she was stuck with needles and patched with monitors, as her body already so broken was pulled this way and that, as faceless and nameless people spread her legs and explored the wounds. There was no dignity to preserve for her.
“Cervix is tight,” someone announced. Giles shuddered. Their baby, not even born, innocent and helpless, and a victim. How much was she suffering? How hard was that soul fighting and when would it become too much? Certainly it was a matter of time. He squeezed Willow's hand tighter and prayed that the two people he loved with everything he possessed had enough energy left to fight.
He didn't know how long they worked on her or how many different people sailed in and out of the room and he didn't care. As suddenly as the troupe of doctors and nurses had surrounded them, they were gone. He and Willow were left alone in a dreary room that still echoed of, “If they make it through the night we'll have more to go on.”
Giles sagged into the nearest chair and tried not to see the tubes and wires and whatever else had been attached to her fragile body. He just wanted to see her. Willow, vibrant, giving… alive. He wanted her to open her eyes and look at him with love and… forgiveness. He hadn't earned it, but he needed it. Giles dropped his head to the mattress and rested his arm across her middle. He needed her forgiveness. He desperately needed… her.
The subtle change in air pressure as the heavy hospital door bumped open jarred Giles from a fitful nap. He grimaced as he lifted his head from the edge of Willow's mattress. The sheet stuck to his cut and he thought for a moment that his eye might explode. He put a cautious hand to both and looked up as another doctor came in. It was the third in under an hour.
“Mr. Sharpe,” the tall doctor greeted him. Giles blinked then nodded. Ethan. Of course. A pseudonym. “I'm doctor Smythe. How are you?”
Giles ignored the question. It didn't matter how he was. He looked down at Willow's still body and then quickly to the doctor. “Any news?”
Dr. Smythe shook his head and flipped through her chart. “It's –“ Giles sighed in frustration. “Yes. I know. Touch and go.” He knew he made a sight, no sleep to speak of in the past few days, looking fresh from a street fight, but the pity in the doctor's eyes shamed him.
“How about you let someone look at that cut?” he offered.
Giles shook his head. He'd had worse. He deserved worse.
Dr. Smythe snapped the folder shut and sat on the edge of Willow's bed. “Obviously your wife's wounds aren't new. Were you somewhere you couldn't get help?”
Giles pressed at his cheekbone, paused, and then looked up. “You could say that.”
“We're damn lucky you came when you did… or she wouldn't be doing this well.”
Giles nodded and rubbed the one-inch of his forehead that didn't hurt. “What about the baby?”
Smythe shrugged. “It's too early to tell if the infection or anemia caused any damage. There's a possibility of brain damage… miscarriage…”
Giles's lungs gripped with cold fear.
“What the hell happened? Surely you were aware of how serious her condition is?”
“Of course I was,” Giles snapped his voice raw with emotion. He pushed his hands through his hair then dropped his elbows to his knees and leaned forward. He closed his eyes and lowered his head. He'd happened, that was what.
When he finally had some control over his voice he looked up. “I did the best I could… considering the circumstances.”
That was the only explanation he could give without being in danger of having himself admitted to the psych ward for observation. He blinked and shook his head. “She'll be okay, won't she?”
Doctor Smythe took a deep breath and stood next to Giles. “We'll get her through this. She will scar –“
Giles looked up. If they survived this and as a result of anything either of them had done their baby was… hurt, Willow's scars would go beyond her flesh. Would she ever be able to forgive him for that? Giles closed his eyes. Would he ever forgive himself?
“She's in good hands,” he said and put a reassuring hand on Giles's shoulder. “Trust me.”
Giles nodded and watched as the doctor crossed around the bed and opened the door. He wondered for an instant if the doctor's concern ended when he crossed that threshold. Giles called out to him not wanting the only reassurance he had to leave. Smythe stopped and looked back. “My friends, a large Russian, and a rather bony…-“
“Right outside the door,” Smythe said and then to illustrate pulled it wider open. D'mitri lifted his chin, acknowledging Giles and Ethan held up a white Styrofoam cup in a mock toast. All three men disappeared as the door swung shut and left Giles and Willow alone again.
The doctor's words ran him through though he'd meant them to be kind and reassuring. Scarring… possible brain damage… if they make it through. The hospital staff had done all that they could – repaired his damage as best they could. There was nothing he could do but wait for the situation to play itself out and it ate at him. He blinked his dry eyes then reached up under his glasses and rubbed away the grit that days of minimal sleep had left. Giles stifled a pained moan and hunched over in his chair.
He was a patient man by nature and nurture but waiting and doing nothing where it concerned Willow and their baby unnerved him. He wanted a plan – something, anything that would give him the smallest bit of an edge. It was only a matter of time before the Council or the Order found them and he doubted very much that next time a fistfight would stop either of them. He was out of his league. Even with D'mitri's strength and Ethan's skill as a sorcerer behind him he knew he was against the ropes.
Another hour passed, more medical staff floated in and out changing tubes, and between them Giles held Willow's hand. His hushed murmurs contrasted the harsh clatter of monitors as he told her the story of a lonely man whose life had never been more complete thanks to the love of a woman he didn't deserve. He freshened the cloth on her head and arranged her blankets.
He watched the i.v.'s as saline and antibiotics dripped into the tube and brought color back to her skin and for a moment dared to dream that this was something else entirely. It was near April and at any moment their friends and family would invade Willow's hospital room with flowers and gifts for baby. There would be hugs and kisses and if he knew his slayer, tears. Whether or not he'd allow anyone aside from Willow and himself to hold her he hadn't decided but the illusion was shattered with the whoosh of the door.
“I thought we had more time,” Dr. Smythe muttered as he switched off machines. Dread filled Giles's stomach and he jumped to his feet instantly alert.
“What's wrong?” he demanded. He turned his frantic gaze back to Willow. No alarms had sounded… nothing… had tests come back? Giles swallowed what he could of his fear and looked to the doctor. “Tell me what's happening.”.
Smythe pushed past him and jerked the iv bags from their hangers. With a few swift movements he released the locks and pulled Willow's bed out from the wall. Giles grabbed his arm and jerked him away.
“There's no time, Mr. Giles,” Smythe snapped. He jerked his arm from Giles's hold and reached for another tube.
Giles stumbled back a step. Mr. Giles. They'd been deceived again, lulled into a moment of near trusting respite. All weariness faded. He raged against his own stupidity then rushed forward blind to every intention but one. Smythe slammed into the wall and Giles pressed his forearm across the man's throat.
“The hell there isn't,” Giles said in a savage whisper. He pushed until Smythe's face turned red. Smythe struggled but Giles didn't back down.
“The Order,” Smythe gasped. “They've found you.”
Giles loosened his hold and searched Smythe's face for a sign… a flicker in his eyes or change in aura… anything that he could trust.
“If the Council wanted her dead I'd have seen to that earlier,” Smythe said his expression set. His gray eyes bore into Giles and Giles felt the truth.
Giles clenched his jaw and stepped away. They'd come full circle. He closed his eyes knowing and hating the only answer he could give. There was nowhere left to turn. He swallowed and then nodded. What choice did he have?
Both men jumped at the door swung open and D'mitri came through looking worn but ready to fight.
“Something wrong?” D'mitri asked. He kept tone neutral and his gaze firmly on Smythe but his posture clearly stated that it would only take a word from Giles to unleash him.
“We heard yelling,” Ethan clarified as he sauntered in behind him.
“We've been found,” Giles explained quietly. The words sent an ache through him. “We're moving.”
“Where?” D'mitri asked. They looked to Smythe.
“I've got orders to return her to the Watcher's compound,” he said.
Giles's tensed and tried not to picture the horrors that could face them. Try as he might to come up with something more suitable he couldn't. Willow needed the medical attention only the compound could provide.
“What a delightfully insane concept,” Ethan managed. He raised a brow at Giles.
D'mitri narrowed his eyes. “Not there,” he said. “We barely got her out of there alive.”
“From her own doing,” Smythe snapped. He looked ready to go on but took a deep breath. “If you fight this, she will die. Your only chance is to trust me.”
Giles closed his eyes and then nodded. “Let's go.”
It was the distinct lack of pain that brought Willow into consciousness. For a moment she thought maybe it was a dream, that the lack of the sandlewood and toast smell that permeated Ethan's apartment was somehow dream induced. Any moment she'd be floating in a lake with a really big head or that guy from… whatever show it was that Giles liked to watch.
Giles. Willow fought another layer of whatever held her under sleep. Sandlewood and toast meant that Giles was close by, watching her, keeping her safe. Antiseptic – yes, that was what she smelled… disinfectant meant they, or at least she, was somewhere else. A small cry of alarm later and she was awake, eyes wide in the gloom of what appeared to be a hospital room. She looked to either side seeing an empty chair and then to her left a smaller cot that held… Willow sighed in relief. Giles. He was there.
A frown creased her forehead and she squinted in the darkness trying to discern if he had any tubes or monitors attached to him. Satisfied that he didn't and then hearing his soft and even breathing Willow relaxed. She didn't know where they were or what day it was, but they were together and for the moment it was enough.
Willow sank into her pillows and tried to pull of memories or even fragments of memories that would give her an idea of what had happened. Everything up to cutting herself – Willow's hand flew to her belly willing a sign – any sign that their baby was alive.
“She's fine.” Giles's warm and sleepy voice startled her eyes open. Willow rolled her head to the side and watched as he threw aside his covers and stood. Mere seconds later Giles smiled down at her. Half his face was swollen and an angry, stitched cut screamed out at her, but she'd never seen anything as beautiful as the love in his sleepy, ruffle haired expression. He rubbed his thumb across her cheek. “And you're not hurting because in a rare moment of… altruism Ethan did a spell…”
“What happened to you?” she interrupted quietly, not at all sure she wanted to know.
Giles caressed her worry-frown away and settled in beside her on the bed. “It's much worse than it looks,” he assured her. His voice was light as if the cause was amusing and Willow busied her fingers with tracing the outline of his bruises and tried to remember what had happened. Giles caught her hand in his and brought it to his lips then tilted his head to the side and asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Willow said with a small shrug. “Not like… hey, I'm ready to kick box fine, but it doesn't hurt so much… so… yeah… fine.”
She looked up to him in alarm. “I'm not dead am I? Cause I always pictured dead as… less… hospital-y and more… glade-y and –“
Giles's smile cut her off and she took a deep breath. “And my Willow is back,” he said. Her soul warmed at the relief she heard.
“You're not dead,” he assured her. “And we're not in hospital per se. More like an infirmary. We had this problem of unwanted guests at Ethan's –“
A cold went through Willow's stomach. They'd been found? Giles kissed the top of her head as if he knew what she'd thought. She frowned but fought the panic.
“And so,” he continued and then sighed as if the next part pained him. “The Council offered us their services and… here we are.”
Willow struggled to sit up but his gentle hold tightened and she settled for only moving inches away. What had happened that this had been their only option? “But the… the Council? They're the bad guys remember? Or at least one of them… They want our baby -“
A flood of bright light and a friendly enough voice interrupted her concerned indignation. Willow raised her hand to her eyes and squinted at the backlit intruder. She pressed into Giles in a subconscious effort to distance herself from the man at the door.
Giles rubbed his thumb over her knuckles and kissed her temple. “S'okay,” he whispered.
“I can assure you Miss Rosenberg that the thing we want for you and your baby is a full recovery. That little one is very important to us.”
It took a second before Willow registered that the voice didn't come from the man who pushed some sort of machine into her room but rather from the man who followed him. Any tension that had left under Giles's comfort returned and brought friends. Something about his comment chilled her blood. She looked up to Giles for explanation and then groaned as the overhead lights flickered on.
“We suggested,” Travers continued, “and Mr. Giles was amenable that perhaps an ultrasound would settle your fears and be of use in our evaluation?”
When her eyes quit stinging from the intrusion of halogen lighting she looked up to Giles for confirmation. They had one scheduled at home… but if Giles thought it was a good idea…. It would alleviate some of her fears to see that little heartbeat and, she smiled, finally see their baby. She bit her lip to hide her smile and then nodded.
Travers looked pleased. “Mr. Caine will perform the ultrasound. I'll be in my office.” He turned to Giles. “I trust now that you see Miss Rosenberg is past danger that you'll join me?”
Willow looked up just in time to see bars close behind Giles's green eyes.
“I told you three days ago,” Giles said with iron in his voice. “I'm not leaving her side.”
Willow nearly jumped. Three days ago? She'd been out for… oh, boy. Travers lowered his head slightly and then nodded.
“Of course,” he acquiesced. “I'll have someone ring me when you're ready.” He turned and then stopped just before he reached the door. “But don't dally. Time is of the essence, Rupert.”
Willow's gaze flew back to Giles's. She didn't like the subtext and definitely wasn't thrilled with the text. While it thrilled her ego and sent warm fuzzies down her spine that Giles wasn't leaving her side, there was that time is of the essence thing that rang of… not good.
Giles scowled at Travers's retreating form and then replaced it with a warm smile. He gazed down at her with an expression that clearly told her not to worry. “Let's have a look at our girl,” he said and gave her shoulder a squeeze. He nodded to the technician.
Willow watched as the equipment was readied and despite the tenseness that Travers had given them both she grinned. After months of not really believing it – she'd seen the positive test result, experienced the morning sickness, felt the waistband of her pants tighten, but those could be explained away. But this was irrefutable she'd see her baby.
She bit back her giggle as Mr. Caine the technician squirted cold goo on her belly and bit the tip of her tongue as she looked up to Giles. He squeezed her hand and nodded toward the small gray screen. Willow followed his gaze and as Mr. Caine pressed what looked like a hand held scanner to her belly a fuzzy picture appeared.
Willow felt her breath leave her in a soft, “oooh” as she saw the small baby inside her twitch and then swallow. She'd thought her feelings had been intense when she fell in love with Giles, but they were nothing like the love that filled her at that instant. Her throat tightened and she blinked back the sting of tears. “Wow,” she whispered unable to take her eyes off the monitor.
Willow pulled her attention away long enough to see Giles's expression. Fear, anticipation, and awe flowed across his expressive face. His eyes widened and then softened with love. “Th-that… moving?” Giles stuttered in question. He ran his hand through his hair and glanced anxiously to Caine. “That's normal, right?”
“Very good sign, Mr. Giles,” Caine assured them both and then proceeded to point out various limbs and heartbeat – measurements, dates… Willow tuned him out . If all was well then none of that mattered. She scrunched the soft cotton of her gown, caressing her baby. Their baby.
“There she is,” Giles said quietly his voice nearly breaking. His gaze never left the screen as he reached across Willow to touch the monitor. The baby's picture reflected in his glasses. “Grace,” he whispered. Willow watched him swallow his emotion and squeezed his hand.
“A little too early to determine the sex,” Caine commented in the background.
Willow squeezed Giles's hand and then wound his arm to her chest. He sank to the side of her bed riveted to his daughter's image. A small smile played at his lips. Pride. Willow saw it and felt it and for a moment their problems faded. He turned his smile to her and kissed her forehead.
Minutes passed, they were assured it all ‘looked great', and then they were alone with a grainy picture to share between them.
“She's real,” whispered Willow from the security Giles's arms provided. “All this time I've been fighting for her… ‘cause she's ours…. But now… it's hard to explain… it's more than that - I've got this whole other person inside of me. She's got arms and legs an-and a big head –“
“Which time will rectify,” Giles interjected. He took the picture from her and held it up for a better look. He frowned and looked down at Willow's small pelvis. “I hope.”
“I'm being serious,” Willow said though she couldn't help but smile. He'd been so… enamored. She'd seen tears and his eyes told her that his soul had been touched..
“We're not through this yet, are we?” Willow asked reluctant to break the cocoon they'd built for themselves. The excitement and now the warmth of his embrace combined with whatever spell Ethan had woven and she wanted to be in the loop before she drifted back to sleep.
Giles took another long look at the picture and then inhaled deeply. What little flicker of hope she had was extinguished by his combination cheek scratch and grunt. Never a good sign. She braced herself.
“Ummm… no, we're not,” he confirmed and gave the picture back to her. “Travers has given me some information, probably less than what they know, but… it's… conflicting.”
“You're trusting Travers,” she asked quietly. “After all he's done to you?” She hazarded a look “After what the Council did to Heath and Melanie –“
Giles shook his head. “I may never know what happened to them,” he said. “But there's no one left to trust. They were willing to help you and that at least bought us some time. And I'm not entirely sure, considering the outcome that what Jarren told you is true.”
He left the bed and rubbed the back of his neck while he processed. Willow clasped her hands and waited. In his own roundabout way he'd tell her.
“The Order of Blessed is an ancient sect of mages,” Giles said. “So ancient in fact that they'd been considered… defunct. Which explains… or partially explains why I've never heard of them.” He looked embarrassed and then pushed ahead. “They live just within this world but rely almost completely on magic –“
“Then it's no big,” Willow interrupted. She rushed to explain herself. “I mean, yeah… big, but magic is magic…. And you and Ethan are –“
“Not that strong,” Giles finished for her. Willow opened her mouth. The three of them –
“- not even with you,” Giles interrupted. “Although,” he continued with a proud quirk of his brow, “according to Travers's sources you did give them quite a jolt when you left their void.”
Willow nodded. It had been do or die… and she hadn't wanted to die. She still didn't and what he wasn't saying scared her.
Giles stopped pacing long enough to pull a chair to her side and sat. He clasped her near healed hands in his. “As time passes, their source rebuilds its power somehow –“
Willow swallowed. If they had to drain her then maybe they were draining others. She took a shaky breath.
“-And that time is growing closer, Miss Rosenberg.”
Both Willow and Giles jumped. Giles closed his eyes and swore under his breath. “Perhaps a little warning? A knock maybe?”
Travers proceeded as if he hadn't heard. “The mythology is that the Order garnered their power from a Druidic stone that had captured the powers of the old ones before they disappeared – except for a few, who, according to their history hid and preserved themselves until the right vessel was born,” Travers's cold gray eyes locked with Willow's. She blinked and tried not to look away. “We think that's you, Miss Rosenberg.”
Willow shook her head. “I'm not a vessel,” she assured him. “I'm really more … of a…Tupperware container… or-or one of those margarine tubs you use for leftovers.”
“To tell the truth –“ Travers started but stopped at Giles's snort of contempt. He raised a brow at his employee and then pressed on. “We thought so, too. But your success with Myop's crown did not go unnoticed.”
“Th-that wasn't power, though,” Willow protested. “That was me fighting for my life…. Ask Giles. He's got the scar to prove it.” “There is a vague reference in Babalini's Codex that points to a vessel and the downfall of the Order and conversely their invincibility,” Travers said. “The vessel's child will be their demise and her essence their eternal salvation.”
Willow blinked and then shook her head with vehement denial. “Well, they're wrong,” she said. “They're gonna have to reinterpret their prophecy and… find someone else. I am not their go to girl.”
She shook her head. The Council had to be lying. Her baby wasn't anyone's demise. She was a sweet, innocent fetus with a big head and two arms and…. Willow shook her head. She wouldn't accept their word. It was unfathomable.
“Did you know about this prophecy when you killed Melanie?” she asked. “Did you think that maybe she was this vessel? And rather than give the Order a chance you'd just… eliminate the threat yourself?” Willow pressed ahead trying to find holes in Travers's story.
“We didn't know about the prophecy then,” Travers assured her. “It has only recently come to our attention. And I assure you that Miss Chamber's death was entirely at her own hands.”
“Melanie didn't have any powers,” Giles said softly. Willow looked to him and he rubbed his temple with one hand and indicated a stack of books that lay neatly beside his cot. “I've researched it. He's telling the truth – at least about the Order and their intentions.”
His voice shook and it was an obvious struggle to continue. “If they find you and take you, you will complete their power source and ensure their invincibility.”
Willow stopped short and tried to stop her chin from trembling as the tugging sensation she'd felt in the void returned to her. It wasn't the baby they were taking. It was her powers. She gasped and grabbed Giles's arm.
“Th-then why all the talk about the baby? And you and your past?” A hot tear fell to her hand. She brushed her eyes hastily.
“Perhaps to throw you off your game, Miss Rosenberg,” Travers said with a shrug. “It's a fair enough war plan. Divide and conquer. With you estranged from the only people who could protect you it made their job easier.”
She shook her head sickened at how easily she'd played into the Order's games. She'd nearly destroyed what she and Giles had created because of her own insecurities. She'd trusted complete strangers over the word of her man. Willow sniffed back another threat of tears. Now wasn't the time to cry.
“There's a way to stop them, right?” she asked. She looked to Giles for confirmation. He turned to Travers. She saw the muscles in his jaws tighten.
Travers shook his head. The regret she saw in his expression almost touched Willow's heart.
“We've studied the problem since it came to our attention. Once they're back to full power they can take her whenever and wherever they want. You can't stop them.”
Giles waited until Willow was in a fitful sleep before he resumed pacing. Travers's words hung cruelly in his mind and he searched for ways to prove the bastard wrong. Willow's soft whimper brought pause to his shuffling and he stopped by the bed and kissed her forehead until the wrinkles faded and her body relaxed again. What he wouldn't give to make all this disappear. To finally be able to give her the life she deserved. He sighed. It wouldn't do anyone any good to waste energy on what would never be if he didn't devise a plan of some sort.
He stood and paused again, testing the air for any disturbances that might signal… what he definitely wasn't ready for. How long until the Order came into power? He couldn't be sure, but instinct told him that it would be soon. A short rap at the door signaled D'mitri and Ethan's arrival and Giles nodded his greeting. They'd have to keep it quiet but he wasn't leaving Willow's side – especially now.
Looking much more rested D'mitri's wide shoulders and ready stance gave Giles a much needed boost in confidence and he quickly and quietly filled in both he and Ethan on what little he knew.
“And your plan is to storm the castle?” Ethan said. “Is that it, Ripper? Smite the evil dragon for your lady fair?”
Giles clenched his teeth. “My plan is to prevent them from taking her. Perhaps get to the power source and destroy it before the Order is back to power… before they can get her.”
D'mitri furrowed his brow and then cocked his head to Ethan. “Which might happen if we knew where they were.”
Ethan withered under Giles's pointed stare and took a few steps back. “Let's not be hasty,” he said and put his hands out before him. “I took away her pain…”
“Where are they?” Giles demanded with quiet determination.
“It's not like they transported me there,” Ethan protested. “Apparently I'm not as important as someone in this room. I merely had a meeting at a local restaurant. He said something about a castle – somewhere ‘round here so they could watch their enemy. But that's it. It's not like he drew me a map.”
Giles scowled. “There aren't any castles here, you git. I know this area.”
Ethan shrugged. Giles frowned and pulled at his lip in thought. Or, perhaps there was but…
“Surely not… it's nearly in ruins,” he said as he ruminated the remains of Tripplethorpe. It was kilometers from the compound but still the closest and most unsuspecting castle… He turned to D'mitri. “Third floor off the main hall is the library. Get into it and get me maps of the area.”
“I do so love it when you take charge,” Ethan crooned. He sat at the foot of Willow's bed and crossed his legs.
“Do shut up, Ethan. And make yourself useful,” Giles said. His expression softened as he looked at Willow. Her chest rose and fell evenly and a small smile played at her lips. “Find a spell … or something that will track her… Just in case we.. umm… move too slowly.”
Nearly an hour later the three men poured over the maps and texts that cluttered Giles's cot. They argued over tactics, plotted alternative courses, and Ethan astounded Giles with the list of spells he presented for both tracking and cloaking.
“That one,” Giles said and pointed to the list.
Ethan nodded. “It means I'll have to remove the no pain spell she's under,” he warned. “That won't be pretty. But it's the strongest one on the list.”
“There're not enough of us,” D'mitri said and pulled Giles's attention back to their battle plan. He pointed to an enlarged photograph of the crumbling walls of Tripplethorpe. “Even if they've secluded themselves in the in tact section, it's still too big for the three of us –“
“Two of you,” Ethan interrupted. “I'll be back here workin' my mojo, remember? Where it's nice and safe.”
Giles swore and slammed his fist to the mattress. Papers and books jumped. That had been the problem with every plan they'd formulated. He'd wanted to leave the Council out of this but he didn't have a choice. For his plan to work he needed men.
He pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eye. Again he was left with no choice. “Go get Travers.”
Willow listened, her hand warm in Giles's as he, Travers, D'mitri, and two other men she didn't know argued over tactics. Ethan hovered around the edges throwing in a comment or two whenever it was inappropriate. Willow's head throbbed with the intensity of their conversation and she brought her free hand to her temple. She hated this. Travers had said it himself and it was the one thing from his mouth that she believed. They couldn't stop the Order.
“What if we let them?” she asked.
The din stopped and six men looked at her as if she'd lost her senses.
“What if we let them take me,” she clarified needlessly.
“Willow,” Giles gasped. He squinted in disbelief. “Don't be ridiculous. That's counterproductive … and beyond…”
“Maybe she has a point,” Ethan said. He stroked his chin and shrugged. “Give them what they want… let them concentrate on her for a bit while we sneak in the back door.”
She watched Giles's expression roll from disbelief to anger and felt her resolve shake. Willow inhaled her courage and then nodded.
“That's impossible,” Giles argued. He pulled away from her and she grabbed his hand before the pacing could commence.
“No, Giles, it's not,” she said. “They're going to take me, anyway… you've all said it. Why not on our terms?”
She saw the stubborn set of his jaw and matched with her own as she hurried ahead. Now was not the time to be wishy- washy. She had to take control somewhere.
“Send some troupes to Tripplethorne… do your covert stuff… make sure that's where they are,” she instructed Travers. “Giles, and D'mitri, and Ethan and I'll work on making sure they can find me.”
Giles growled and turned so that he knelt before her. “If we don't get to you in time they will kill you – drain you,” his voice faded and he looked down to the sheets. “I won't lose you.”
“What choice do we have?” she asked quietly. She knew the answer just as everyone else in the room. They had no choice. She had no choice. Pain and uncertainty flashed in Giles's green eyes and he set his chin then looked away.
She wove her fingers through the back of his hair and pulled his gaze to hers. “You'll get me back,” Willow said and then their lips met in a soft kiss. She could taste his struggle. “I trust you.”
Travers cleared his throat and reluctantly she looked to him. “It seems our best course of action,” he agreed.
Giles inhaled through his nose and then turned his attention to Travers. Willow didn't miss the glare and she chewed her lip as a moment of silent battle between the two men waged. Finally Giles sighed and his shoulders fell. “Send your men,” he said. He tugged his glasses off his face and rubbed his forehead.
When Travers's men had gone with they orders he, Giles, and D'mitri surrounded the maps. Travers spoke tapping the map for emphasis, “My men will secure the grounds and rush whatever defense they have mounted. You and yours will find Miss Rosenberg and get her to safety. Special ops will take care of the stone. We'll meet back here and debrief.”
Ethan snorted. “Best plan I've heard all night,” he muttered.
Willow chewed the tip of her nails and tried to center herself as satisfaction and trepidation mixed in her stomach. Intuition told her there wasn't much time to prepare and she knew she wasn't strong enough to face whatever lay ahead on her own but she'd made the only decision she could. The other choices were suicide. At least with this one there was a chance.
Intuition told her there wasn't much time and she needed to prepare. She was in no state to face the Order. Somewhere in her there was a happy spot… and if not a happy spot then at least a not so agitated cubby. Paper crinkled in her hand and Willow looked down. Grace's profile looked back at her and she smiled as the calm seeped through her.
Giles's voice pulled her attention as he revamped the plan. Gone were the soft-spoken inflections and intonations, replaced with harsh commands and tight phrasing. He sounded he sounded in control and ready to fight and it scared her. A shiver ran through her shoulders.
“Right then,” Giles said finishing the meeting. “If you would be so kind as to give Willow and me some time –“
Willow kept her gaze on Grace's picture until she heard the door swing shut after the last man. She looked up expecting to see Giles standing before her with his hands to his hips – his take charge I'm in control stance. Instead he sat on his bed his gaze distracted. Willow shivered again. He was frightened. She swallowed and forced her chin up.
“We can do this,” she said. The ultrasound printout crumpled under her grip and she struggled to keep her chin from shaking. As afraid as she was she would be strong for him.
Books fell, maps wrinkled, and the sound of material moving filled the silence that followed her comment and then Giles was at her side. He gathered her in his arms, rocking her and smoothing her hair as he whispered soft assurances to both of them. Willow sank into his strong chest taking the strength he offered her and giving him her own. Giles would find them.
Giles eased from her hold and put his hands to either side of her face. They searched each other's eyes finding truths and then they kissed. Willow closed her eyes as their lips met in quick desperate movements that eased into slower and deeper kisses. A whimper escaped her as despite the situation and Willow blushed and followed him when he pulled away.
Their foreheads met and their lips were a scant inch apart. “I will find you,” he breathed. “Promise.”
She nodded and kissed him again. She put her hands over his forearms feeling the tension in his deceptively lean muscles. Goddess, how difficult this had to be for him. The mother in her wanted to pull him to her breast and ease his fears.
“We'll make it through this,” she whispered. “And then we'll go home and look for that house.”
A small laugh escaped Giles and he kissed her again pulling her into his passion as though if he could get her close enough they'd never be apart again.
“How long do you think?” Willow asked when his hold loosened.
Giles pulled away and shrugged as he reached for his glasses. “There's no way to know, really. Hopefully, later than sooner to give you a chance to build your strength and to give us a chance to mount our defense.”
Willow nodded. “But probably sooner, huh?”
Giles nodded and polished his lenses again. “Probably soon after the Council lifts its protection spell from you. If this blasted Order is as anxious as they seem they're not going to waste any more time.”
She saw his fists clench in her blankets and put both her hands around one of his and brought it to her mouth and kissed the tip of each knuckle until he unfurled his fingers and then she pressed it to her cheek.
“Hold me?” she asked wanting nothing more than the warm comfort of his arms around her for the rest of her life.
“Forever,” Giles whispered and buried his face in her hair.
“You might want to hold onto something,” Ethan said. He flinched away from Giles's glare. “Sorry, Ripper, but if you want the tracing spell then she has to be clean.”
Giles grunted and gripped Willow's hand.
“Yow,” she exclaimed and twisted her fingers from his clench. She gave him a rueful smile and lowered her voice. “I think he meant me.”
Giles nodded and loosened his hold. He glanced up at her a bit chagrinned. He couldn't help it. For almost a day there were moments he'd almost convinced himself that she wasn't hurt. “Sorry.”
“Now,” said Ethan. He rubbed his hands together and earned another glare from Giles which to Giles's consternation the bastard pretended to ignore. “As I was saying… this is going to hurt. I'd cast the spell to last the duration of the natural pain. Unfortunately I wasn't planning on lifting it so I took a shortcut and that means when I lift the spell the pain is going to be… retroactive.”
Willow grimaced, nodded, and pinched her eyes closed. “Okay,” she said and took a deep breath. Giles took one with her.
Ethan started his chant but Willow's sudden cry of, “No… wait,” interrupted him. Both men jumped and looked at her.
“Are we talking big hurt like… like when Dr. No Anesthesia sewed me up… or big… but manageable… l-like the time I had my wisdom teeth removed?”
“She does babble, doesn't she, Ripper?” Ethan said.
“Only when she's nervous,” Giles said as he pulled his glasses off his face then wiped his brow. To see her in pain again… to send her to them so vulnerable… he shook his head. It was insane and he couldn't do it. Wouldn't do it. He opened his mouth to stop Ethan but Willow spoke first.
“Okay… just do it,” she said with a nervous nod. She shook her hair from her shoulders and puffed her cheeks. “I – I'll deal.”
Three short words later and Willow gasped and clung to Giles's arm. Her fingers dug into his flesh. Giles hated Ethan.
“You could have warned her,” Giles ground out barely containing his urge to throttle the man. Dead, Giles decided. Ethan would look good dead.
D'mitri flew in through the door and slid to a stop. “I heard screaming,” he explained pulling up short.
“It hurts,” Willow repeated until it became a mantra that raced through Giles's head. He pulled her hair from her face and pressed a towel to her cheeks.
“S'alright,” he lied. Nothing about this was right, but they both needed to believe it was. Wide green eyes stared into his begging for reassurance – or morphine. Unable to provide either Giles turned to Ethan. “Let's get the tracing spell done.”
Ethan nodded then quirked a brow. “Come hold my hand?”
“Just do the bloody spell,” Giles thundered.
Ethan rolled his eyes. “It's going to take two of us. We'll need to be connected and in light of your current situation I thought holding hands would …”
Giles rolled his eyes and clenched his teeth. He nodded and reluctantly let go of Willow. He glanced once over his shoulder and then started toward Ethan it lifted his mood some when the thin man flinched.
“Idelimus Locator?” he asked. It was powerful and required the least preparation. Ethan nodded and then his expression changed. Giles felt his heart stop and cold filled his veins and the world slowed. Black tendrils crept from the corners of the room and a low hum filled the room.
“It's started,” he whispered.
D'mitri lunged toward Willow's bed but Giles held out his hand. “No,” he ordered. His breath came hard and fast. He turned frantically to Willow.
“What's happening?” she asked her face white. She strained to look over her shoulder and then her terrified eyes met his. The hum grew in intensity.
Giles tore his gaze away. Dear God, as much as he wanted to protect her, he couldn't. The best he could do for her was complete the spell and as he promised, find her. He grabbed Ethan's hand.
“Now,” he yelled. Together they started the chant. Giles heard Willow's frantic cry over the din.
“Hurry,” she yelled. Black tendrils of nothing permeated the room knocking over furniture.
D'mitri joined in her plea. Giles stumbled over words then needing to tell her one more time that he would be there turned back to the bed to find… nothing. She was gone. The black was gone. He dropped Ethan's hand and tripped forward.
Giles couldn't get enough air in his lungs and his chest heaved with effort. He touched the sheets to find they were still warm and then gripped them in his fist. He wasn't sure if the pulling at his soul he felt was Willow or the precursor to passing out. He shook off the sensation. “Where is she?” he asked unable to tear his eyes away from where she had been moments before.
“Rupert,” Ethan started.
Giles whirled to face him still clutching the sheet. “I asked you where she was,” he growled. He didn't know how much time he had and he couldn't afford to wait.
“It'll take a few minutes,” Ethan hurried. He moved closer to D'mitri and held up his hands. “You know the drill… essence trail… swinging crystals over maps… -“
Giles managed a short breath and then nodded but no one in the room relaxed. “Find her,” he said shortly and then turned back to the empty bed. He felt his resolve fortify. By all that was holy and un he would save her.
Willow sensed the floor and the pain before she actually felt them and threw her hands out to catch herself. The cold hard floor broke her fall and her hip and injured leg took most of the impact. She cried out as stars exploded behind her eyes and her entire being centered on the sharp hot pain that waved from her hip and thigh. She struggled to remain conscious although the temptation to let the pain go, to sink into dark oblivion until it was all over was nearly overwhelming. Yet, she clung to the one thing she knew as truth. Giles would find them.
With shaking and weakened arms Willow pushed her torso off the floor and then fell forward again as bile rushed from her stomach. She choked it back, let out a sob, and then tried again. Fire ripped through her but she managed to finally raise her head and open her eyes. The room, gray, swam before her. It was different this time. Everything about it was different. From the taking, which before had been frenzied and terrorizing to the destination. A stone room with a dirt floor was a big step up from what she'd expected.
A shadow fell over her and despite the need to vomit Willow swallowed her pain and looked up into Jarren's deceptively cherubic face. He smiled, waved his hand over her and Willow felt her eyes roll back in her head as dark oblivion returned.
Thunder rolled and flashes of lightning lit the night sky with the threat of rain but the majesty was lost on Giles as the kilometers sped by. His sole focus was Willow. There was no trail to follow, nothing Ethan could do to find her, and his worst nightmare was on the table. Giles had nearly torn the room apart as the spell faltered. The one saving grace Ethan said was the bond Giles and Willow had. She had connected with Giles as the spell happened and now he was their only guide.
Giles shifted anxiously in his seat his pulse racing as he felt her around him. They were getting closer. They'd been right about the ruins. He clenched his jaw and shut out the sound of the car, the low rumblings of D'mitri's plan of attack, and the counter arguments posed by the two special ops members who'd been assigned to them. He didn't care who he had to hurt… or worse… he was going to get Willow and their child out of there alive.
Pebbles snapped and popped under the tires as their car and the ones before and behind them slowed to a crawl. Giles took a deep breath and looked to the east where the ruins of Tripplethorpe castle awaited. He exhaled slowly, priming himself, forcing patience. Willow was there. He could feel the steady strong drum of her life force. “She's here,” he said with a quick nod. It took all his discipline not to tear open the car door and go after her.
There was no room for error. He wouldn't take any chances when it came to getting her back. And when they were together they would go home and he would spend the rest of his days making this up to her. Her life had been nothing but excerpts of pain since the day they'd met. Loss, betrayal, abandoned dreams. Giles closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window. From here on out Willow would have the life she deserved.
“Let's go,” D'mitri said and Giles snapped to attention. He opened the door and stepped outside the car. The air buzzed with rain that refused to fall and lightning lit the sky for the briefest of instants. With Ethan behind him and D'mitri at his side Giles followed his senses and started down the road. Around him, in his periphery he saw the special ops teams, a dozen men in all, moving beside and in front of him in the shadows, keeping low.
“We should be on the lookout for traps,” Giles muttered, more to himself than anyone else. It was his way of staying on task not letting his emotions get the better of him. “See anything, Ethan?”
Ethan nodded and gestured toward the crumbling walls. “Your basic keep out shield…. Surprisingly simple, actually - I'm surprised they didn't call out demons… or at the very least –“
“Ethan,” Giles warned turning his glare full force.
“ - rottweilers,” Ethan finished. He tsked. “They don't view you as much of a threat, do they… Ripper?”
“That's what I'm counting on,” Giles said and then pressed ahead.
Willow's energy shifted and Giles stopped short. He closed his eyes and tried to still his racing heart. Perhaps it was the proximity to other magicks he rationalized – a shift in her energy could be any number of things. But instinct overrode reason and his pulse pounded at his temples.
“It's started,” he breathed. Giles spun toward Ethan and Ethan jumped nervously away. “Break the bloody field,” he ordered not caring if they were heard.
He didn't know how long it took to drain her…. He licked his lips and glared at Ethan again. Bloody hell, why was the bastard moving so slowly. Letting his control lapse Giles rushed Ethan and caught hold of his collar.
“For God's sake, man,” Giles raged. “Now.”
D'mitri grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away but Giles struggled. They needed to understand… if he couldn't feel her then he couldn't find her. “Now,” he ordered again.
Ethan shook off the attack and breathed in deeply through his nose. His thin chest expanded with the effort. Power ebbed and flowed between the wall and the small group as he called the elements.
When Giles thought he could stand no more waiting Ethan nodded. “Quickly,” he said and waved Giles through.
Not caring if anyone else made it Giles slid through the opening Ethan had managed. With an impatient hand Giles brushed away the throb of magicks and tried to steady his breathing.
Where are you? He thought turning his head left and right, waiting for Willow to guide him. Weak energy tugged at his soul and he followed past the overgrown bushes, barren trees, and piles of ancient stones that hid a door secured into the ground. He reached for the rope handle but D'mitri stopped him and pulled him back.
“Let them do it,” D'mitri said as the black clad team surrounded the door and on the count of three pulled it open. “I'd rather them be shot than us.”
Giles nodded but didn't want to break his concentration with talk. He felt her, but something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
When the door checked out the ops men disappeared inside. Giles descended the stairs and looked up to see Ethan roll his eyes.
“Always a dungeon, isn't it?” he grumbled. “Can't ever be somewhere clean… always with spider –“ he caught Giles's glare and turned to descend the ladder. “Right. Coming.”
But Giles no longer cared what Ethan said. It was Willow – her pull lessened and alarms sounded loudly in his head. It wasn't right. They were closer now he should have felt her more strongly. He pushed ahead of the ops. They were running out of time.
Willow rolled her head across the slab and winced as daggers of light assaulted her eyes. She was so tired, lazy tired, like the time she'd been put under to have her wisdom teeth removed. I have a really big head, she thought randomly and then tried to let the world fade again. Sleep was good. She smiled and closed her eyes.
“I told you it felt like a warm bath.”
Willow nodded, amused by how deep her voice had turned. Anesthesia… warm bath… whatever… It felt funky and the only thing that disturbed her was a slight itching in her chest. Laughing, knowing she must look drunk, Willow flopped an arm across her chest and tried to scratch.
“Sorry, Willow,” Jarren said and lifted her hand away. “We can't take the amulet off until the ritual's finished. Won't be long now. Nearly halfway there and then I will be released from this body. You'll love it. I promise. No body… no worries. Just energy.”
His voice was soothing and calm and she melted toward it. He sounded like Giles – all British and smooth. She pouted. Giles. Where was he, anyway? He'd be bummed he missed this. He'd like this feeling. Maybe she'd find a spell to…Willow's thoughts wandered. I wonder if my feet are as big as my head?
Giles swore and pounded his fist on the stone wall. Willow's signal had lessened by at least half. He gritted his teeth and turned around again listening with his heart to feel which of the four corridors pulled most strongly at him. There were too many people. So far ops had done nothing but run about like boys playing soldier and get underfoot. With so many people, so many auras and protection fields, he was quickly becoming confused.
“I don't like this,” D'mitri said. He looked nervously up at the rotting rafters and then squinted at the shadows. “There should be people standing guard – something,” he looked to Giles. “It's too deserted.”
Ethan snorted. “I estimate it won't take that long to drain the poor girl – maybe half an hour… and once that's done all the guns and tactics in the world won't do any good. They'll be… indestructible.” He shrugged.
Giles frowned at the reminder of how short they were on time but nodded. In their arrogance the Order had underestimated him. He hoped. Irritation flared as ops moved back and forth in front of him. “Get them away from me,” he growled. D'mitri sprang into action herding the dozen men to the far end of the hall.
Ethan took a few steps away and Giles exhaled and closed his eyes. Half an hour… how long had it been already? Half that? More? Dear Lord, Willow… help me here. He opened himself further to her and finally a blue silver strand vibrated above the rest of the psychic din. Relief eased the tension behind his eyes and Giles opened them and nodded toward the left passage.
“This way,” he mumbled. Giles took a step forward and watched as a cold blue sheet of energy throbbed. It grew brighter as he walked closer and Giles frowned trying to identify what they were up against.
Ethan stepped around him walked a few feet farther into the hall and then stopped. “So much for them underestimating you.”
Narrowing his eyes Giles took another step forward and then threw his arms in reflex as spears of energy shot toward him. Ethan grabbed his collar and jerked him back as the spear came within inches of them both.
“Not anything you want to mess with,” he explained “We might want to find an alternate route for rescuing your princess.”
“Fix it,” Giles ordered after he'd regained his footing. He gripped the edges of his jacket in an attempt to stay in his skin. Gods, there was no time for this. D'mitri and the others edged forward.
“This was not in my job description,” Ethan muttered. He looked over his shoulder his expression pained and definitely put out. “I specifically put in a ‘no pain to Ethan' clause, remember?”
He sighed heavily against Giles's glare. “Give me your knife.”
She was floating now above her body attached only by a thin ribbon, bobbing like a big Willow balloon caught in the breeze. Willow giggled… at least the balloon her did. She rolled to her stomach and looked down at her body. One arm was crooked over her head and the other lay across her belly. Looks like I'm sleeping she thought.
“Just a few more minutes,” Jarren said. The excitement in his voice shimmered across the room but he wasn't talking to her. Willow cocked her head and watched as two men she hadn't noticed before bustled around the room. Jarren lifted the amulet off her chest and studied the iridescent contents and then dropped it back .
“What shall we do with the body?” Willow heard a robed man ask and looked down at her shell again with a detached interest. It wasn't bad as far as bodies went. Maybe a little skinny….
Jarren shrugged. “Gift wrap it and send it to her lover.”
She smiled. Lover. Giles. And then she creased her brow…. Giles… they had a plan of some sort? Lunch? The conversation below caught her attention.
Jarren waved away the question. “I won't need this form once the energy completes the stone. Burn it… I don't care.” He rolled his shoulders. “Can't wait to get out of this…monstrosity.”
Willow frowned then forgetting why she was annoyed rolled to her side and then back… this was fun. The higher she floated the easier it was to flip and turn…
“You're sure the child isn't tainting the energy, Jarren?”
Yes, Willow thought a child would love this feeling… this freedom… a big Willow and child balloon…. Child. It sounded familiar… and the stirrings of a repressed concern jerked the ribbon that held her to her body tighter. She felt her physical body inhale and struggled against its pull.
Jarren laughed. “The child can only enhance it.” He looked up sharply his smile instantly replaced with a thin-lipped line. “The stone is ready?”
The minion nodded. “Once the vessel's drained we'll take the amulet to the stone.”
Jarren nodded and returned to Willow's side. She watched as he caressed her brow. Willow's brow tightened as she tried to focus. Child. Baby. Slowly the connections reached for each other. Giles. The three of them…a family. Giles and Wil-low sittin' in the tree….She smiled again. An enhanced family. Giles and me and baby makes three.
The synapses fired again and the ribbon jerked and Willow knew something was amiss… she felt pulled in two directions. Something wanted her to go higher and a light within her shell… her body… kept pulling her back. Willow watched as the amulet she wore glowed brighter as each minute passed and then the pink glow from her belly caught her attention and she stared at it zeroing in on the resistance that grew in her body.
The ribbon jerked tighter pulling her into focus as she recognized the shadow of her baby and then like a slap to the face felt its struggle to survive. Her baby. Her baby needed her. As if someone had plucked a taut rubber band Willow snapped into her body and felt her back arch as she tried to breath.
The feel of her body dying around her, the intense heat from the amulet as it absorbed her, and Jarren's increasingly agitated pacing told her that time was running out. Willow focused her what little energy she had left inward and found her baby's life force. She clung to it, surrounded it, and tried to shield them both as she waited for Giles. Hurry, she begged him. Please.
Ethan sucked in air through his teeth as he pulled the knife through his grip and Giles watched for a moment in disconcerted silence. Ethan squeezed his fist and blood spilled onto the dirt floor making random patterns. Giles didn't understand what he was doing nor did he care as long as it was done quickly. Willow's pull faded with each minute that passed.
Giles barely waited for the energy to fade. He clenched his fist and plowed forward at a run and stopped only at the heavy wooden door at the end of the passage. Energy pulsated around its edges and Giles knew… Willow was behind it, waiting for him, still alive… barely.
D'mitri stepped next to him. “The men have left us -”
Giles licked his lips and looked back at the door. He didn't care … he didn't have time to care. While D'mitri talked Giles calculated just how much force it would take to get through the door.
“I don't think the stone's there,” D'mitri finished.
Giles heard him but didn't look away from the bull's eye he pictured and kicked the door. Sod the stone. He wasn't going to lose Willow discussing pointless strategy. The door rattled on its hinges but gave no more than that. Undaunted Giles tried again and again had the same results. He bounced back and readied himself for another attack but D'mitri grabbed his shoulder.
“Your Council is up to something. I feel it. I don't trust them.”
Giles swiped D'mitri's hand away and then shoved him away. Barely contained rage tilted his vision. “I don't care about the Council or their bloody plans,” he hissed. “Now either help get this door open or get the fuck out of my way.” He reared back and gave the door a vicious kick that knocked it off-center.
Sounds of scuffling and orders exploded from the opposite side of the door and Giles's adrenaline surged. D'mitri joined him with the next kick and then bolted down the hallway after the ops as the door wavered and then gave up hold on its hinges. In slow motion it tilted away and without hesitation Giles and Ethan stormed the room.
She could feel the darkness hovering over her, seeping into the edges of her vision, and Willow struggled to stay in her body. She wasn't ready yet and she clung harder to the weakening heartbeat. In the distance she heard noise, felt the surge of electricity through the room and a rush of air over her cold skin. Something was happening, something big. Giles. He'd come and that meant that this was almost finished. They'd go home soon.
Fired by passion and rage Giles plowed into the dimly lit room with Ethan behind him. He ducked the first round of attack and strained to find Willow in the gloom. She was so close… his Willow. Still there, still with him… A fist across his chin broke his trance and Giles oomphed loudly as a second blow landed in his stomach.
Giles fell forward but was fortunate enough to have his attacker's knee to his nose stop his descent. A metallic tasting stream of blood rolled down the back of his throat and Giles stumbled back with the momentum but he was too far gone on adrenaline to realize that he should have passed out.
With an enraged roar he rushed forward burying his shoulder deep into the attacker's stomach and lifting him off the ground. He didn't stop until he felt the thud of body against stone vibrate through him. Giles had to eliminate the threat and he lifted the man again slammed him against the wall. The man's head smacked against the stone with a satisfying crunch of skull.
In his periphery Giles saw Ethan struggle against another robed brother but none of it registered. Willow was within his grasp and he wouldn't waste an opportunity. Blind panic replaced the small moment of triumph. He was within feet of her his senses should have been exploding with Willow. They weren't. There was the smallest vibration and even that wavered.
He took another step forward and then invisible hands jerked him back and into the air. Giles grunted as his shoulder slammed into the wall and he slid down next to the lifeless body he'd just discarded.
Ignoring the searing pain that shot through him Giles pushed his back up the wall and stood. The background noise of Ethan's grunts and struggles faded as Giles's sight took an express route to the hooded figure who emerged from behind Willow's altar.
“So close,” Jarren said. He tsked and pulled back his hood revealing the innocuous face Giles had memorized from the plane. He smiled and tilted his head to the side before he spread his arm over Willow. Giles clenched his teeth and furled his fists as Jarren brushed her bangs from her forehead.
“Look at her,” he said in a voice sounded too intimate, too familiar. “So peaceful.”
Giles narrowed his eyes and started forward again. He had not come this far to lose it all in the final seconds. He drew up short and gasped for breath as Jarren lifted his hand. Giles clutched at the invisible fingers that gripped his throat.
“Just a few more minutes,” Jarren assured him. “Then this will all be over for her. This miserable existence that binds her will end and her destiny will be fulfilled.”
Giles's lungs burned with the effort. Still prying at hands that weren't there he took a staggering step forward. He wasn't giving up. He couldn't. It wasn't over yet.
He needed something, anything to distract him, to buy precious second. Spells and incantations rifled through his head but he was too incited, too off balance. Nothing made sense. The realization hit him cold and hard: Nothing would work. Giles knew he was no match for Jarren… not now nor had he ever been…. He'd been a fool to think otherwise.
The crystal around Willow's neck pulsed with a vibrant energy and Giles's heart stopped beating as helplessly he watched its glow brighten.
In one triumphant movement Jarren jerked the amulet from Willow's neck and held it up. Her head rolled to the side, carried by the momentum and lay now at an awkward angle, facing Giles. He inhaled sharply and tried to comprehend what had played before him.
Jarren smiled as the crystal's glow illuminated his face and Giles knew… it was over. Willow was gone. Air escaped his aching lungs in a sickening rush and the room spun. Giles stumbled forward realizing in the back of his mind that Jarren's hold on him was gone. As suddenly as it had appeared it was gone.
Giles expected another attack through a wave of a magickal hand but when it didn't come he rushed ahead. Rage, beyond anything he'd felt consumed him and the need to destroy, to kill, to cause as much pain as he would surely feel overwhelmed him. Giles roared as only a man lost to hatred could and lunged forward. Jarren would die and if the gods had any mercy, so would he.
His yells gutteral and primal Giles threw Jarren to the floor. Jarren's voice rose and his eyes widened as nothing he did stopped Giles. They both knew it. The magick was gone. Their struggle filled the room and though blood flowed freely from Jarren's head Giles didn't stop nor did he want to. Willow had been through so much at the hands of the Order that Giles could never punish them enough.
Blow after blow landed across Jarren's face until the sound of crunching bones and cartilage was replaced with the sickening smack and splatter of fist against raw wounds. Tears, blood, and sweat stung Giles's eyes, blinding him but he couldn't stop. Not yet.
Letting the mass of blood and bruise that had once been Jarren's face drop to the floor Giles stumbled to his feet. He lifted his foot then sunk it into Jarren's ribs and then he did it again grunting with the effort, with the release of a rage he couldn't fathom. A momentary flash of crystal sidetracked him.
Willow… her essence captured within the amulet. Surely the crystal that looked like a bauble she might choose at a charm shop wasn't the stone that granted the Order invincibility… If it had been then Jarren wouldn't be dead. The stone was destroyed. That was the only way Giles could have gotten close enough to either Jarren or Willow. The Order was gone.
The revelation spun his thoughts and Giles shook his head and wiped his eyes to clear his vision. The amulet… Willow's essence…. If it was taken then… it could be given. Giles felt his heart lurch into his ribcage. If it could be taken then it could be returned. Jarren forgotten Giles stumbled across his body and grabbed the amulet from where it'd fallen.
It glimmered in his clutch, the essence sloshing and swirling against its confines, and he turned to Willow. Ethan, at her side, had straightened her, smoothed her gown, in a show of respect folded her hands, arranged her. Giles felt his breath catch in his throat then tripped forward and pushed Ethan away. He could bring her back… he would do it. The resolve sang through his veins. If it weren't too late, and it couldn't be… the fates weren't that cruel… he could give her life.
“She's gone, Ripper,” Ethan said.
Giles shook his head, refusing to hear the regret in Ethan's voice. With shaking hands he tilted her head back on the slab and grabbed her jaw. He would feed it to her… drop by drop if he had to. With his free hand Giles pried the top from the amulet and carefully poured its precious contents into Willow's lax mouth. Her essence bubbled and pooled at the back of her throat as he'd expected and he set aside the half full amulet.
“Help me,” he ordered and clamped her jaw shut. He slid his hand under her shoulders and with Ethan's help lifted her, holding her head straight so that gravity had no choice but to work on the liquid.
“Again,” he said and eased her back down. Once more he tilted her head and poured the remainder of her life force into her mouth. This time it swirled and lessened. Giles heart soared. It would work. Frantic for any response… anything Giles let her go and pressed his head to her chest and listened.
“Come on,” he urged. He pressed harder. “Come on.”
Nothing. Giles pulled back t then lunged forward. CPR… he had to try.
“She's gone,” Ethan repeated fiercely. He jerked Giles away and tried to wedge himself between Giles and Willow.
Giles shook his head and shoved Ethan away. This would work. It had to. He grabbed Willow's shoulders and lifted her again. Her chin fell to her chest and then jerked back as he shook her, calling to her, praying to the powers that be. A frustrated sob escaped him and he gave her one final shake then nearly dropped her in his wretchedness. Nothing.
Willow floated from her shell… lost watching as below her men fought and died. And one… the one who'd first drawn her attention hovered over her body, bleeding on her. He had a name… she knew it once… but it was so easy to forget and let it all go….
“Help me,” he said looking to the other battered but standing man. Willow tilted her head to the side and watched as the dark haired man hurried to her side. His aura wasn't nearly as comfortable, but there was… something. A connection to… Giles?
Willow grinned and glided back to the ceiling. Giles. It was Giles. She knew him. She knew Giles and – she looked back down as he poured something in her mouth – he needed her. Willow paused and then saw a silver tendril escape her body and reach for her – call to her. She backed away knowing that this wasn't her but something else entirely. The ribbon hummed and traveled with easy grace tickling Willow washing her with love until it surrounded her. At the instant of its touch Willow knew…. Grace…. Her baby. Their baby. Willow let the euphoria consume her and gasped a shuddering breath.
Giles clenched Willow's gown in his hand and smothered another sob into her chest. He'd tried and he'd failed. Willow was lost to him. His lover and his child were both dead by his hands. Pain swallowed him and he held tighter to Willow's body and shuddered. There was nothing without her. No reason to exist. The world could plummet into hell and he wouldn't care.
Another shudder, paused, then stood and stared down at her body in disbelief. That hadn't been him. He wiped his eyes free of tears and blinked. Had he imagined it? Had he felt muscles tense? Had he felt her breathe? Or had it been her body shutting down one bit at a tim? Frantic with hope Giles pulled Willow into his arms.
“Willow?” Giles cried. He looked back down at her, not knowing if he imagined that pink had replaced the blue around her lips. He shook her and then nearly dropped her as her back arched with effort and she gasped loudly, struggling for air.
Alive. Giles exhaled and grabbed the edge of the table before he could pass out. Willow coughed. Alive, his brain repeated. She was alive. She'd come back to him. With a small cry Giles kissed her forehead, her cheeks, then pressed his head to her chest. There it was… the heartbeat. He soul soared. They'd been given another chance.
Willow coughed, sputtering and finally her eyes flew open and she stared… terrified, confused. He grabbed her hand in his, trying to smile, to reassure her but only managing to maintain his own breath. “Shhh…” he managed.
Recognition sparked in her eyes and then they closed. Giles froze… no force could be that cruel…. He whispered her name.
“She's breathing,” Ethan said. He opened his mouth to say more but D'mitri barreled through the door followed by three or four battered ops.
He gasped for breath but forced out his question. “Was I too late? They tried to stop me… but I destroyed the stone….”
“She's alive,” Ethan whispered.
Giles blinked. Yes, still breathing. Still alive. He nodded, and then nearly growled as both Ethan and D'mitri edged forward. Not bearing the thought that anyone besides him would touch her Giles slid his arms under Willow and lifted to his chest, carried her past the living and the dead and stepped into the darkened hallway.
Traveling by blind instinct he maneuvered the halls, found the stairs, and was greeted by the remnants of the night's storm. Rain spit down on him and Willow and he hugged her closer, kissed her temple, and started to the cars. They would go to hospital and then they would go home.
In the distance he saw the unmistakable outline of Quinten Travers pacing in front of the dark sedan. He paused long enough to throw his arms out in obvious fury. Giles squinted – they'd won. He had Willow and the stone had been destroyed. There was no reason for Travers to….
D'mitri's words haunted him. ‘Your Council is up to something.'
Willow whimpered, as if she heard his thoughts. Giles gently shifted her weight and changed his course. As he drew closer Travers's angry voice cut through the night as he yelled into his cell phone.
“I don't know what the hell happened…. The stone's destroyed…. Yes… Yes, I'm quite aware of how it would have helped the Council…. No… I don't know about the girl… not that it matters. She would have been a small sacrifice for what having the stone would have brought us….”
Giles stood not five feet from Travers trembling in betrayed rage. A small sacrifice? The words burned themselves in his brain. His wife and child a small sacrifice for the Council's gain? The years of devotion, his life, their lives, they counted for nothing. Travers's words made the final cut of Giles's ties to the Council of Watchers. There would be no more. Giles would make no more sacrifices.
Travers stopped short as if feeling Giles's glare, and slowly turned to face him. Giles concealed nothing in his expression, letting the years of hatred and resentment and disappointment shine through his eyes. Travers tightened his jaw and swallowed nervously. Flanked by D'mitri and Ethan Giles turned away from Travers and all that he represented and never looked back.
Giles stood at the front door of the beach house and frowned out at the cool spring breeze.
“You'll need your sweater,” he called into the bedroom already anticipating her response. At six months pregnant and tired of being fawned over Willow was fond of reminding him that pregnant women were warmer than most.
He was trying, really trying to let Willow do things for herself but it was difficult. Her hands still shook and her muscles often gave out on her at unexpected times thanks to their time spent in England and it frightened him. It scared them both. The doctors had assured him that given times she'd come to full strength but it'd been two months and as a man used to watching his slayer heal nearly overnight watching Willow struggle for such a long time was torture.
“Luv?” he called when there was no response. “You're alright?”
He frowned, put aside the blanket he'd been folding, and started toward the bedroom. “Willow?” He pushed open the door.
A cross breeze greeted him and the sheers across the bedroom doors that led to the patio billowed with the wind. Giles swore and crossed the room in a few agitated strides. She knew better than this. The doctors had said short walks – as in from the bed to the bathroom – not strolls across the beach. They'd be having a serious chat when he found her. He couldn't take care of her if she didn't let him.
“Were you calling me?” she asked. Giles lost his anger and turned toward her voice as relief coated his mood.
She turned her small face to him, pushed herself away from the porch railing, then held out her hand beckoning him closer. “Feel,” Willow said and pressed his hand to her rounded belly. The both stood in expectant silence listening and waiting and then Giles grinned. His daughter's foot or bum or whatever rolled past his hand as she flipped and stretched. He raised a questioning brow.
“She's been doing that for the past hour,” Willow explained and then wrinkled her nose. “It feels kinda… squicky… but it's a cool squick.”
He nodded. Squicky indeed. Movement was good and whether either of them admitted it or not, they'd been monitoring Grace – counting kicks, ultrasounds, Doppler equipment since Willow had been strong enough to come home from hospital. Besides, it was kind of… cool.
Giles smiled, kissed Willow's cheek and then encircled his arms around her expanded waist and pulled her against his chest. With her secure in his hold he leaned his chin on her shoulder and stared at horizon.
“Have you heard from Ethan?” Willow asked suddenly.
Giles wrinkled his forehead in confusion and pulled away to make sure he'd heard correctly. Ethan Rayne? The less they heard from him the better. Willow turned her beautiful face to the side and raised a brow.
“I never got a chance to thank him,” she explained. “Maybe we should send him something? Like a… thanks for help saving my life fruit basket or… gift certificates… or… something.”
He couldn't help but smile. Ethan Rayne… and a fruit basket… a big one with pineapples wrapped in yellow cellophane. Giles kissed the top of her head. “I'll look into it,” he assured her. He had no doubts Ethan would be around to collect on that debt.
Willow nestled into his hold and snuggled her arms under his. She shivered and instinctively Giles tightened his arms around her. “Ready to go inside?” he asked.
She shook her head but leaned farther into him. “Not yet,” she begged. “I've been inside too much. And fresh air's good for the baby – just maybe… hold me?”
“You make it sound like holding you is a chore,” he said as he lifted her slight body with ease. “When I can assure you that it is anything but.”
He settled into the Adirondack chair and pulled Willow's legs across his lap. She sighed and squirmed about in search of a more comfortable position. Giles felt the stirrings in his groin and tightened his grasp on her hip with the hopes that she'd quit wiggling. His body betrayed him and Willow giggled and twisted again.
Giles closed his eyes and waited until she was settled before opening them again. “That wasn't very nice,” he scolded, teasing, serious, liking the tingling, wishing he could take it further, knowing he couldn't or wouldn't. Not yet. She was under a strict no intercourse order. Willow laughed again and nudged to top of her head against his chin.
Willow lifted her chin and raised her mouth to his in invitation and Giles replied in kind. Her lips were warm and sweet under his and he traced the seam of her lips with his tongue until she opened herself to him. Her velvet soft tongue coaxed him in further and Giles felt himself spiraling into the love she offered.
A small whimper passed between them and reluctantly he broke the kiss. To do anything more would be unfair… to them both. Willow's dark eyes burned brightly up at him and her chest rose and fell in time with his. She smoothed her hand across his chest and over his shoulder. Giles cleared his throat.
“Soon,” she promised her voice low. Giles nodded, not trusting himself just then. “Only 3 more months. And then six weeks after the baby gets here…. That's only four and a half months. That's not too terrible… is it? And until then we can do… other things.”
Giles groaned and rolled his head against the back of the chair. Other things. His need surged between them. How many nights recently had she tried the other things? He knew she was too weak and as much as it killed him to stop her, he could wait. He would wait until she was stronger.
He shifted her into a less intimate position, kissed the top of her head, and hugged her tighter. "I miss your body… more than I thought I would actually… but as long as I have *you*... I could wait forever.”
Willow nipped gently at her ear and then kissed his neck until Giles squirmed away. “But not if you keep that up,” he warned. She snuggled into him and for that instant life was perfect; his family in his arms where he could surround and protect them. He let the contentment fill him and pressed his cheek to her hair.
“This is nice,” she said with a sigh and relaxed deeper into him. Giles had to agree. Having her in his arms was very near to his definition of a perfect moment.
He felt Willow stifle a yawn and looked down his chin straining to see her face. “If you're tired we can go inside,” he offered but she declined and he wrapped his arms tighter around her. If she wanted to be held then he would hold her. In fact, he preferred holding her.
Neither spoke as the minutes passed but Giles didn't mind the silence. They'd always done quiet well – from nights spent researching to nights spent listening to each other's bodies. Crickets sounded in the night and the moon rose higher in the sky as Willow's breathing slowed and she snored softly in his arms. Giles smiled. He found that little quirk to be charming and couldn't imagine a night without having it lull him to sleep.
Truth be told, he couldn't imagine life without Willow. She had permeated every aspect of his world – almost his every thought. And he'd nearly lost her… twice. He couldn't risk losing her again. Giles tightened his grip and set his resolve. He wouldn't lose her again. He'd do everything he could to ensure that, including what he should have done a long time ago.
He felt a twinge as guilt handed him another coupon. What had he been thinking? Trying to be cute he supposed… make it special, memorable, surprise her. He rolled his eyes. He was a fool. He could have proposed under the soft glow of the bloody Denny's sign and it wouldn't have mattered to Willow. She saw sentiment, she saw the intent, setting was incidental.
He'd made his intentions clear enough that night, then for propriety's sake had backtracked. It'd been too soon and he hadn't wanted her to have to deal with those questions. What he'd failed to take into account was that they'd known each other forever. Then there'd been recovery time in the aftermath of Myop's Crown and finding out she was pregnant. Gods, but he'd wanted to ask right then. He hadn't though, didn't want it to seem they were engaged because he'd managed to… [knock her up]. All of them foolish excuses.
In his heart Giles considered Willow his wife. She was essential to his being and the formalities and legalities seemed silly in comparison to the bond their souls shared. Yet, they lived in this world and Willow deserved the rite of passage and the celebration and dammit, he wanted to give her that. Now.
He nudged her arm and then gave her a gentle shake. “Luv?”
He saw her brow crease in a sleepy frown as she tried to shoo away what disturbed her rest. He shook her again. “Willow,” he whispered. “Wake up.”
She grunted her displeasure and then inhaled deeply as she gave up her nap. Sleepy eyes blinked up at him. “Is something wrong?” she asked and stretched her shoulders.
Giles pursed his lips, fighting his smile, fighting the tongue that threatened to tie itself around his vocal chords. It'd been less than a minute between then and now and he was sweating? He licked his lips and shook his head.
“Nothing's wrong,' he assured her. “I – I just need to ask you something.” Dear Lord, that sounded lame… perhaps he should have taken a day to practice? He exhaled.
“Yes,” she said.
He nodded and struggled for the words. How ironic… or moronic . He wanted to tell her how she was his life, how he couldn't let another day go by without the world knowing it as well. How could he tell her that when they were apart he felt lost and yet the moment he saw her, his soul rejoiced? He opened his mouth thinking for a moment he'd found the right combination but then snapped it shut as the words suddenly disappeared.
He grunted in frustration and slid out from under her. He always thought better when he moved and suddenly, this had to be perfect. “Th-the thing is… I realize that… I can't - ” dear God, he was mucking this up. “What I'm trying to say is –“
He rolled his eyes and grabbed the railing for support. Out with it, man. Ask her. Four words. None of them over two syllables. Will. You. Marry. Me. . “W-will you… I- I know that this should be more romantic… but… will you –“ He took a calming breath and his shaking ceased. He knelt before her and took her hand in his. “Marry me.”
“Yes,” Willow said. Though it shook her voice sounded stronger and more alive than he'd heard in months. She looked up at him, her eyes twinkling in the night, her smile gentle and shy. “Yes.”
For an instant Giles thought his heart would explode. She'd said yes. Seconds later she was in his arms again and he kissed her, tasting her happy tears. He pulled away, reluctant to part but needing to see her face, to make sure he wasn't dreaming. If he was, he hoped never to wake.
“I don't want to wait,” he rasped. “I've waited for too many things and I don't want to wait for this.”
“Right,” Willow whispered. She leaned forward, cupped his cheek in her cool hand, then kissed his lips. “No more waiting.”
They stood at the dune, surrounded in candlelight that wavered with the ocean's breeze. Willow and Giles gazed into each other's eyes and promised forever. Her gentle smile never faltered and her love surrounded him.
Giles smiled down at his bride as the priestess wound the thin silken cord around their wrists. He didn't try to stop the catch in his voice as he repeated his vows. In the company of those he'd come to love as family he left himself open and gave them witness to the depths of his love for Willow.
When the time came to secure their union with a kiss Giles took her in his arms brushed his thumb across her smooth cheeks and slowly lowered his lips to hers. His wife. He deepened the kiss, sliding his hand past her belly and securing it behind her back steadying them both. He had forever to make her life beautiful and as they turned to smile at their guests Giles knew forever started right then.
Sequel: Saving Grace
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