DISCLAIMER: These are not my characters; Willow and Tara, the other characters, and various plot events that set up this story belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc, and I am grateful to have them.
Chapter 9: Two Sorcerers
We're just a couple of sorcerers,
And the night is still our time:
A time of magick.
"I don't understand," Willow said slowly. "Giles, why didn't you tell me before?" She tried to look away, but her eyes kept shifting back to him. To his face, his arms. Were his hands a little larger than she'd remembered, the veins standing out more boldly blue against his skin? Did his eyes glint more gray than she'd once noticed? Was the line of his jaw harder, tauter?
No. He was the same Giles he had always been. It was just this new disclosure, this sudden revelation, that colored him darker, more brutal, in her eyes. He had killed Ben, had pinched his nose and covered his mouth and watched the life snuff out inside him. Giles had killed, too.
Too. He had killed too. For a second, just one second, she had forgotten.
She felt the familiar stab of nausea, the dizzy reminder, but this time, it wasn't because she had remembered. It was because she had forgotten. And for a second, someone else had been the villain. And it had been a relief. She had been the bad guy for so long. So, so long. She clutched her stomach with one hand.
"Ah," Giles said. He removed his glasses with one hand and pinched the bridge of his nose. "After Buffy died, well, I didn't think it mattered. I think I was very wrong about that."
Willow felt suddenly tired. Exhausted.
"Willow," Giles said now. He sighed. "I'm afraid that's just the beginning of what I have to tell you." He stood. "The rest of it well, I ." He turned, sinking his hands into his pockets. He took a few steps toward the back wall and stood for a long moment. Then he straightened his shoulders and turned to face them.
"You remember Ethan Rayne, yes?" he asked her now.
Willow nodded. "The costume shop," she said. "And the band candy, and the mark of Eyghon, and Buffy's mom on the car ."
"Buffy and I talk, you know," she said, the corners of her mouth lifting. "At least we used to."
"At any rate," Giles continued. "I take full responsibility for everything that happened later, but in the beginning .well, in the beginning, I was seduced. Ethan seduced me."
There was a brief silence, and then Willow spoke. "Metaphorically," she said.
"I'm sorry?" Giles turned around, his eyebrows raised.
"Metaphorically?" she repeated. "You mean he seduced you metaphorically."
"Ah," Giles said again. "Yes, well, um. That." He looked over her head at the knife rack on the wall, suddenly appearing very interested in the weapons hanging there. Willow watched him uncertainly.
Giles sighed. "This may come as a shock to you," he said. "But, well, it wasn't precisely metaphorical."
It was a good story, Willow thought. Or, well, it would have been under different circumstances. Now, it was
disturbing. In more ways than one.
Buffy had told her, years ago, about the group of friends with whom Giles had called forth Eyghon, the tattoos on their arms a reminder that heand his friendshad to pay a terrible price for tampering with the forces of black magick. They had killed their friend. And later, all of themexcept Giles and Ethan Raynehad been killed, too.
The rest of it was new.
It called to mind an England of fog and cobblestones, an England Willow had read about in the gothic novels she'd read on summer nights before Buffy had moved to town. Mist and murder. Magick. She knew she was romanticizing it, but she couldn't help it.
Giles had left the others behind, had slipped out of Ethan's bed one gray morning, taking with him a leather jacket and memories of black magick. Willow imagined Giles paused at the doorway, his hand gripping the tattoo to draw out the pain. She imagined his eyes traveling the perimeter of the room, memorizing the dirty handprints on the wall above the mattress, the rusty electric tea kettle, the crumpled trousers on the floor. She imagined his mind tucking away the sex and the lust with the squalor, packaging it tidily away. She imagined him squaring his shoulders as he left the room and not looking back.
A few months laterhe did not say what he had done during that timeGiles showed up on Quentin Travers' doorstep.
The Watchers' Council welcomed him, of course. They'd expected him long before, and they looked at him speculatively, but they took him in. To learn. To train. To carry on his family heritage.
But there were surprises. The Council had, traditionally, trained one Watcher at a time. That was their way. But it was the seventies, and in the wake of England's faddish educational experimentation, the Council had decided, at the urging of Professor Berlinone of their most respected demonology expertsto accept a second candidate. It was a gamble, but the Council felt buoyed by Professor Berlin's enthusiasm. Perhaps it was time to expand. And as it happened, Professor Berlin had just the right candidate, a rogue magician from the streets.
And so it was that when Giles walked into a dank basement library one morning, the air thick with the mildew of ancient texts and the heavy smoke of unfiltered cigarettes, he found Professor Berlin waiting for him, eyes bright and lips pinched in the smile that Giles would later come to associate with plans. Dark plans. And Professor Berlin wasn't alone.
"It was Ethan, of course," Giles had said. "He'd already begun worshiping Chaos by that time, but I was too blind to see it."
He hadn't gone into much detail about the year that followed, but Willow's imagination had supplied atmosphere and description to fill in the gaps. The tension between the two men: the abandoned lover and the deserting loved.
Ethan's slick sense of triumph.
Giles' sick sense of futility.
The years of intense study and magickal practice that followed, Giles reading into the small hours with Ethan across the table and Professor Berlin smiling down at them from his stool near the stacks.
"He hummed incessantly, the Professor," Giles had recalled. "Prokofiev, I think it was. It used to drive me quite mad until I realized that I could use it to my advantage. Focus. Block out both of them and really be in the texts."
In the end, Giles said, it was the focus that was his undoing. It allowed him not to see the long gazes that passed between Professor Berlin and Ethan, the empty hours when they had slipped out, and he was left alone with a cooling mug of tea and a pile of books. It allowed him not to question the instructions the Professor gave him, instructions that increasinglyas the months wore onbecame more intricate.
They practiced incantations. They performed spells. They experimented with harnessing darkness and communicating with demons and casting runes. Some mornings Giles would wake with itchy skin and a pounding head and not be able to remember the details of the night before through the insect-screen of magick that clouded his thinking.
"Nothing had changed," Giles said. "I thought I had left that life behind me, but I hadn't. I was the same. I was tempted. I was ready to be seduced all over again. The only difference was that I told myself the Council had approved it. And if they had approved it, it must have been all right. And ."
"What about Ethan?" Willow asked.
Giles sighed. "And Ethan had moved on. I didn't want to see it, but he'd set his sights on the Professor. No, the seduction this time was all magick. Somehow, that made it makes it worse."
"You were tricked," Willow said. She pressed her knees to her chest, wrapped her arms around her legs, pulled into herself, into the corner of the sofa.
Giles smiled sadly. "No," he said. "No, I wanted to be tricked. Don't you see I wanted the black magick, the darkness. I wanted the power. I wanted it all. But I didn't want ."
"The responsibility," Willow interrupted softly. Giles looked at her for a long moment, his eyes hooded. And then he took a breath and continued.
The Council had assigned Giles and Ethan a joint project. A fledgling Slayer, a young girl from South London whose African parents had been honored when they'd learned of their daughter's sacred duty. And who had cried when they'd learned she was to be sent to New York.
It was a trial for the two junior Watchers. An experiment.
They had traveled with the girl to the States, Ethan and Giles and Professor Berlin. They had established themselves in a fifth-floor walk up and set to work. And for awhile, things had gone well. Too well. Ethan was studious and docile. The Professor was unexacting and supportive. He made hot drinks for the four of them after late patrols.
"I thought we were learning our trade," Giles said. "Practicing. Becoming better. Becoming Watchers. Under the guidance of the Professor, you see. If he was there, then we couldn't do any harm. We had a calling. We were going to transform the art of Watching with magick.
"I didn't see that Ethan had gotten to him. That he had almost gotten to me ."
Ethan and the Professor had suggested a spell. A three-way trance that would call on a primal dimensional shifter, a protective force that would enhance the Slayer's essence. Augment her strength. Protect her. They had studied the spell for months, the three of them, immersing themselves in Sumerian texts. They had so immersed themselves that they hadn't noticed the Slayer pulling back, retreating from their tight circle. They didn't notice that she grew more distant, less focused.
In the days just prior to the trance, Giles had realized that he hadn't seen the Slayer for some time days, perhaps? But he had ignored the warning of her absence, pushed back the uncertainty he'd felt, the suspicion that perhaps . But no. The Professor would guide him. And Ethan had changed. They had both changed. And if they could harness this force, well, they could do anything.
"Thank God it didn't work," Giles said. "At least there was that." Slightly before entering the trance, he'd had a pang of misgiving. He had glanced over and seen Ethan's slow smile at the Professor, seen a look pass between the two men that he hadn't understood.
He hadn't registered the glance until they'd been trancing for a day and a night. His muscles rigid, his head thrown back in concentration, he had felt recognition coming from a faraway place in his gut. But he knew. Perhaps it was an effect of the force they were trying to harness, a primal wisdom settling in and clarifying something he should have seen long before. Ethan and the Professor had other plans. He felt the bite and sting of magick and knew that it wasn't for the Slayer. It was for themselves.
Somehow, he had broken the trance, struggled to his feet. Ended it.
"When we came out," Giles' voice had gone dead quiet. "There was a note on the floor. It had been slipped under the door." He stood, wiped his palm across his face. "It was from her. I knew before I'd even picked it up. I just knew."
Willow imagined, with a sense of foreboding, that she'd knocked, the Slayer. She had banged on the reinforced steel door. She imagined the girl's knocking eventually slowing, stopping. The Slayer slumping, her fist still balled up. Maybe she had leaned against the door for a moment, pressed her cheek against the cool metal. Maybe she had been tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of it being so hard. Maybe she had been carrying that note around for awhile in case she changed her mind. But standing there, deflated, her fist unclenching, she had made a decision.
Willow shook herself, turned back to Giles.
The note, he continued, had been dated the day before. It had asked for a sign. From either Watcher, a sign that would give her the will to go on. To slay.
"She wanted meaning," Giles said now. "She wanted to know that there was a reason to go on, a reason to keep fighting. Just a word, she said. A word to tell her that her fight was not futile, that there was a higher purpose. She could keep going with that word."
She had never gotten a reply, of course, never heard that word. And she had given up. On a subway underneath Manhattan the night before, she had given up her fight.
Willow didn't move. She reminded herself to take a breath.
"That's not all," Giles said now. He turned to face them, meeting Willow's wary gaze directly. She shook her head.
"There was a massacre that night," Giles said slowly, as if he hadn't heard her. "In Greenwich Village. One subway stop away from the station where they found her body in the train, where her neck had been snapped." Willow's mouth opened, but she didn't speak.
"Vampires killed thirty-nine people that night," Giles said. "In a disco. Thirty-nine lives lost. Thirty-nine plus one."
Willow's palms felt clammy. She rubbed her hands on her jeans, trying to wipe it off, the sick feeling, the knowledge. She stared at Giles, wordless. His eyes rested on a spot on the wall just over her head.
"The Council reacted," he said. "They fired the Professor, and they sent Ethan down on the spot. But not me . I was very lucky. I got probation. I came from a solid family, you see, a family that had been in the Council for generations. They said that I had made an honest mistake. They took me back, and I trained again. I trained for nearly twenty years, until Buffy was called."
Willow's shoulder sagged. It was too much, information overload. She was out of practice. She leaned back against the sofa, realizing as she did so that she had been sitting on the edge of her seat the whole time. Her muscles felt stiff and unused. But there was something .
"But Giles," Willow could hardly get the words out. "Buffy .I always thought she was your first Slayer."
Giles pushed his glasses further up the bridge of his nose with a finger and looked at Willow. He smiled, the first genuine smile Willow had seen all day. It softened his eyes.
"No," he said quietly. "Buffy was my second chance."
Willow clutched her arms around herself, trying to squeeze away the uncertainty that had settled into her chest, her arms. She didn't know what to think. What in all that Giles had told her was the important information?
"Giles," she said suddenly. Her voice was louder than she'd intended it, more urgent. She took a breath, concentrated on the feel of the rough cotton of the shirt clutched in her fingers, and she started again.
"Giles, why did you tell me all that?" He didn't answer right away.
"I've spent my whole life trying to right the wrongs I've done," he said finally. "To atone. For the terrible things I did as a boy. As a young man. Things I should have known not to do." He paused. "Things I knew not to do. And I still ." His voice trailed off.
"Is it enough?" Willow asked finally, her voice like gravel. Images she had forced out of her consciousness for months peeled themselves out of the corners of her mind. Black thread on lips and naked fear and exposed membrane. And underneath all that, the memory of her own hatred. It pulsed under her skin.
"Giles, is it enough?"
Giles lowered himself back onto the sofa, next to her. She wasn't sure she would be able to meet his eyes through the images that had skinned the top layer of calm from her mind, so she focused on his cotton trousers. The fabric was worn at the knee, the white threads showing.
She felt panic rise in her throat at his nearness. If she could just relax, breathe deeply . If she could just concentrate on those white threads, just let go of the moment and relax into that white place, it would be okay. She could make it go away. She could be calm there.
But Giles put a hand on her knee, and the touch shocked her. "It has to be enough," he said. "It's all there is."
Willow felt the warmth of his hand on her knee, the finger shapes of sense and solace and . And then she knew. It was sense, and solace, and understanding. Giles understood. She raised her eyes to his.
"It doesn't disappear, Willow," he said. "The regret. The fear. It never goes away. But the magick doesn't go away either. I made a choice in 1977. I knew then that I was capable of darkness, of killing. That I had been responsible for the deaths of a great many innocent people. But I knew ."
Willow felt weak. "What?" she asked. The training room receded until it was only herself and Giles. Two faces. And the video clips of pain that played restlessly on the back wall of her mind. "What did you know?"
"I knew that if I just stopped, if I ignored the magick, if I ignored my knowledge that more innocent people would die. I had a responsibility, Willow. I couldn't undo what was done; I could never make it right. But I could spend the rest of my life trying."
"But Giles," Willow said, her shoulders sagging again. She wanted to believe him. She wanted to be comforted, to be bolstered by his words. She wanted it desperately. "I'm addicted, remember? As in I'm an addict. I can't handle it." Her mouth twisted in disgust.
Giles rubbed the back of his neck. "It seemed so, didn't it?" he mused. "When Buffy told me that you had quit the magicks altogether, I agreed that it seemed like the right thing. And certainly, when you ingest pure magick as you did it's like a drug. But Willow it's like a drug. it isn't a drug. It's still magick."
Willow swallowed hard. "Then why," she started to ask, but she couldn't ask the question. Even asking it would let herself off the hook. She sank back against the cushions and squeezed her eyes shut.
"Witches sometimes experience what we think of as addiction," Giles said. "But the idea of addiction, well, it's it's a framework. A lens, if you like. And it doesn't fit in your case. It's too easy an answer." Willow cast her eyes about the room, looking for something to focus on, something solid and familiar.
"But Tara," she said weakly.
"Tara understands this," he said. "I talked to her a few days before she died did you know? No, I don't suppose you did."
Willow felt dizzy. Her body seemed to itch from within, and the room spun without. It had only been a day since she'd got Tara back. Was every moment every single moment from now on going to be the moment her world shifted, the moment everything changed?
"I've made so many mistakes," Giles said, and she forced herself to look at him. "I should have seen it in you years ago. The signs were there all along even at the beginning, when your spells went wrong, it was so clear. But I didn't want to see it. I saw you heading down the same path I'd traveled, and I thought if I just turned my ahead away, I could make it stop. And by the time I realized, well ."
He looked down for a moment.
"It's not a gift, Willow," he said softly. "It's a struggle. I'm not going to lie to you. You have to be stronger than you ever thought you could be. Every day you walk the line between dark and light. Every day you make the choice to use magick the right way, to resist the easy answers. The darkness. Every day, you you remember. And"his voice had grown quiet, and Willow strained to hear him"and it's bloody hard."
Willow couldn't read Giles' expression. It was tender, but his eyes were gray with regret, and his mouth turned down at the corners.
"We're the same, you and I," he went on. "And sometimes we have to do the things that others won't do. That others can't do. The things that are too hard. I can try to bury it in research, and you can try to hide it with addiction, but it doesn't work."
He smiled at her, and the smile was sad and hopeful and knowing. "You and I, Willow," he said. "We're sorcerers."
Chapter 10: One Step Forward
The first step towards vice is to shroud innocent actions
in mystery, and whoever likes to conceal something
sooner or later has reason to conceal it.
When Dawn and Buffy returned to the Magic Box, having turned up little more than an easily-slain Ssoj demon and a gathering cloud of rumors about the Poet, they found Xander and Tara tense at the research table, silently flipping through a massive pile of books. Anya leaned against the counter, her arms crossed over her chest. She looked up when the bell over the door rang.
"Hey, we brought pizza," Dawn announced, sliding the boxes onto the counter.
"Yeah, and we washed our hands first," Buffy added lightly. "No monster slime toppings this time."
"I still don't see what the big deal was," Anya said crisply, moving to open the top box. "That was a perfectly good pizza that I paid for with hard-earned money. Anyway, it tasted sort of like chicken. You know, if you closed your eyes and ate really quickly."
Dawn wrinkled her nose. "Eeuw," she said. "I don't want to know, right?"
"No," Buffy said firmly. Dawn saw her sister glance at the closed door of the training room, and then at Tara and Xander, who had hardly looked up from the table when they had come in. They were talking now, and Dawn eased a little closer to hear.
" trust Giles on this," Tara was saying, her voice pleading. "I've been thinking a lot about everything, and and it's not as clear cut as I used to think it was. It's complicated. It's ."
Xander closed his book. "Right," he said, his voice tight. "And you've been doing all this thinking exactly when? You've been alive again for, what, 24 hours?"
"Xander!" Dawn couldn't keep the shock from her voice. "What's going on?"
"Dawnie," Tara said; her eyes cut back to Xander, who pushed back his chair and headed for the pizza. Tara watched him go and then looked down at the table for a moment. Her fingers traced the raised letters on a leather-bound book. "Dawnie," she finally said again, looking up at her. "I've hardly seen you. Come sit with me." She patted the seat next to her. "No Glory action, I promise." She smiled, sort of. "What's this about headaches?"
Dawn shrugged and took the paper plate of pizza that Buffy handed her. "It's funny," she said, "but I haven't had one since you've been back. I mean, I know it's only been like a day, but it's a whole day. And the last couple of weeks, I was having them all the time. More and more, in fact. Maybe I was allergic to England."
Tara leaned forward. "I'm sorry you were going through that," she said. "We have to get you to a doctor, see what's causing them."
Dawn shook her hair back before blowing on her pizza and taking a bite. "It wasn't that bad," she said through a mouthful of cheese. "They never lasted very long, and Willow always took care of me."
Tara smiled. "You know, Dawnie, Willow said the same thing about you." Dawn flushed with pleasure. She had done that, hadn't she? Even with the headaches. It all seemed so long ago, so far away, the distortions of sound and sight. The voices pitched high and the crowded white on white images. The headaches that made her rigid with pain.
"It's all blurry now, anyway," Dawn continued. "I mean, whenever I had them, Willow was always there. Like, every time. I don't remember that much, but I remember that one thing. Willow was always there. I kind of think that. "
Dawn looked sideways at Tara, wondering if she should tell her the other part, the part she hadn't even told Willow. She wasn't even sure it even meant anything, the missing time.
But Tara wasn't really listening to her. Not really. Her eyes kept darting to the closed door of the training room, and more than once Dawn thought she was going to just get up and walk over. Finally, Dawn shrugged and took another bite of her pizza.
"Aren't you going to eat?" She gestured to the other paper plate on the table. Tara nodded and pulled the plate toward her, smiling quickly. But Dawn had had a lot of practice at reading faces that summer. Well, one face anyway. And she could see now that Tara's quick smile was a cover. That all she was thinking about was Willow.
Tara watched Xander eat three slices of pizza without pausing before he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and took a breath. He'd eaten standing up, and now he shifted from foot to foot.
She understood where he was coming from. She really did. She had been there herself, weeks ago. Well, months ago now, but it felt like weeks. Weeks that stretched endlessly backward in her memory because they felt like whole years that she had spent without Willow.
But everything was different now. Maybe she should be wary, too, but it just wasn't in her anymore. Not after today. Not after the previous night. She knew Xander was thinking of the Willow who bruised others, but even after all that Tara had heard that day, she could only see the bruised Willow, the Willow who was black and blue inside and needed her. The Willow she had finallyoh God, finallyfound again.
Tara's cheeks burned with the sense-memory of Willow's hot tears on her face. She had tasted Willow on her tongue, and she had worn Willow on her skin. There wasn't a shower in the world that could have washed that away. And no magick would ever, could ever take that away again. She felt that now, deep as muscle and bone.
"Are you okay? You look upset," Dawn said now, and Tara realized that her cheeks really had flushed red. She pushed her chair back.
"Xander," Tara said, trying to think of something that would convince him, that would make him see. "She's going to take it slow. We'll all help her." She lifted her chin. "I'll help her."
But Xander slammed his fist onto the counter. The pizza boxes moved, and Tara flinched. "You weren't here, Tara," he said. "You didn't see this place. She destroyed it. I just put it back together again." His voice rose. " She was insane. She was scary as hell. She was ."
Tara's jaw tightened against his words. "She was wrong, Xander." She squeezed her eyes shut for a second. "She knows that. But it's different now." She hoped that Willow would keep talking to Giles for a few more minutes. She willed it. "I'm going to see her through this. I'm not going anywhere again."
"Great," Xander threw his hands up. "That should do it then, since you're perfectly safe. No Glory anywhere. You're in no danger. I feel really reassured." He scrubbed at the sides of his heads with his fists.
Tara's breath came out in a shudder. She couldn't put what she knew to be true into words. She looked helplessly at Buffy, who seemed to understand and stepped in, moving toward Xander, one arm outstretched.
"Xander, we've talked about this," Buffy said, her voice low and controlled.
" You talked," he said, jabbing a finger at her. "Giles talked. I listened. But I didn't like."
In the taut pause that followed, Tara saw the door to the training room open, and Willow stopped in the doorway, her eyes restless until they settled on Tara.
"Sweetheart," Tara said, forgetting about Xander for a moment as her body sought out Willow. She felt the familiar pull as they moved toward each other. Which of them was the magnet? Tara wondered. She slid her arms around Willow's shoulders and felt the body, stiff with tension, soften against hers. One of Willow's fists was clutched to her chest, but Tara felt the other on her own neck, felt the damp palm under her hair.
Still grasping Tara's neck, Willow turned to look at the others. Tara could sense the anxiety coming off her in waves, could feel the rapid pulse through the palm on her neck.
"Xander?" Willow asked. Her voice was tight and thin. He looked down, flexed his fingers. "Xander, please talk to me."
"I want to talk to you," he said tersely. The steel in his voice stabbed at Tara, and she gripped Willow's shoulder more tightly.
"Jesus, Willow, that's just it. I want to talk to you every day. I want to see you every day. The real you, not some scary witch who could lose it at any second." He took a step toward them, and Tara felt Willow shrink against her. She held on.
"Okay, Xander, you need to cool off," Buffy said, stepping in again and putting a hand on his sleeve. He shook off her arm and walked away.
"Right," he said. "Cause I'm the one you should be scared of." He laughed, a short, terse laugh. "That's rich, Buff. She tries to the end the world, and you're scared that I might hurt her?"
"Of course I don't think that," Buffy said quietly. "But I think you're upset, and I think you're scared. And I don't think Willow needs to hear this right now."
Xander met her gaze for a long moment, and then he shook his head. "I'm sorry; I am." he said. "I wish I could be Mr. Supporto here, but I don't know how."
"Would you like to know what I think?" Anya spoke. Tara started. The world had shrunk for a minute to the strained triangle of Willow and Xander and Buffy, and she had forgotten that the others were still there.
"I think you like her this way," Anya continued, her voice cold but calm. "Weak and needy."
"What are you talking about?" Xander turned toward her.
"She needs you," Anya said, her heels clicking onto the floor as she slid off the counter where she'd been sitting. "And you like it. You get to keep on being the hero this way."
Xander stared at her. "No," he said. "No. It's just ." He deflated suddenly, and Tara could almost see the anger as it left him, the huge puff of it leaving him smaller. He was just a boy.
"Willow," he said, and his voice drooped with defeat. "I saw you smile this morning for the first time in months. I don't want to lose that."
Tara felt the pull as Willow broke the protective circle of her arms and took a step toward Xander, reaching toward him. But he held his palms out against her.
"I understand what they're saying, but the magick it takes you away, Will," he said, tilting his head. "And I don't want you to go. Not anymore." Sliding his keys off the end of the counter, Xander turned and walked away, up the stairs to the door. And he closed it, very quietly, behind him.
They all stared at the closed door for a moment. Tara half-expected it to open again, half-thought that Xander would come back in, apologize, pull Willow into a hug and tell her he was sorry, that he would support her no matter what. But he didn't. The door stayed closed. Xander stayed gone.
Finally, a little numb with the shock of it, Tara pulled her eyes from the door to look at Willow. One hand was still clutched to her chest; the other held stiff a few inches from her thigh, reaching toward where Xander had been standing the moment before. Tears had beaded on her chin.
Tara reached for her again and gathered her up.
The road to the Magic Box was paved with good distractions. Doc smiled to himself. The Poet, indeed. Give a man a Norton anthology and a few tae bo lessons, and he thought he could take on the powers of darkness. He looked familiar, and Doc had almost stopped for a better look, but there were more important issues at hand.
Doc knew better. Fighting was all well and good, but if you didn't have the proper tools, jabs and punches didn't get you very far. Look at the Slayers .they were an endangered species. Always the last of their kind. He'd learned that lesson many years ago, and he'd stopped wasting his energy on them.
No. Far better to have education than to fight. Book learning. The classics: Latin, Demonology, Sumerian, Celtic Runes and Artifacts. A really long tongue and a tail didn't hurt, either.
The Key now there was a tool he'd have liked to have added to his repertoire. Too bad they'd missed that once-in-a-lifetime chance. The Key would never open that particular door again. Not that one.
But there were other doors. He wondered idly if she was aware of them, that little girl.
And he was headed for one of them right now. To see an old friend. To get some answers. And to find his Glory.
Tara rubbed her hand over the small of Willow's back, pressing gently. Willow had been breathing slowly since Xander had left, just sitting and listening to the others talk--or not talk--and trying to be calm. She had been almost ready to try the magic, Tara thought, but Xander had scared her.
He had meant to, she thought. And it had worked.
So Giles and Anya were poring over the books, looking one last time for a way to chart essences without using magic. Dawn was helping, casting worried looks at Willow from time to time. Buffy was leaning against the bookshelf, her eyes on the front door to the shop.
She was still and silent, but Tara could see that she was thinking furiously.
Tara turned back to Willow. It would all be fine. It had to be. Maybe they were making something out of nothing. She felt normal. She didn't feel any connection to Glory. Nothing at all. And she would talk to Xander herself. She would make him understand.
Willow still held one hand to her chest. Tara had thought it was the clenched fist of anxiety, but now she looked more closely and saw a glint of metal near the base of Willow's thumb. She took Willow's fist in hers and unfolded the fingers to see a small pewter object on a chain in her palm.
"It's a pendulum," Willow said. "Giles gave it to me."
Tara turned the inch-long pendulum over in her hand. She held it up to the light so she could see it better. "What did he say it's for?" Her voice had slowed, but Willow didn't seem to notice.
"It was his grandmother's," she said. "It's supposed to be a reminder of balance. Walking the line."
Tara fingered the pendulum for a long moment before handing it back to Willow, whose hand closed around it tightly again. And then she looked at Giles thoughtfully.
"I think," she started to say. The symbol was familiar, and she thought that it meant something else, something important.
"What is it?" Willow said.
Tara glanced at Giles again, and then at Willow's green and trusting eyes. "Nothing," she said. "It's lovely." She smiled at Willow, pulled her close, and kissed her forehead. "And I'm sure Xander will feel differently soon," she said softly against Willow's ear.
But over Willow's shoulder, she looked at Giles, and the wisps of a thought gathered. And took shape. And clouded her eyes.
Chapter 11: Cabaret
Something's bound to begin.
It's going to happen,
Maybe this time .
--Kander and Ebb, "Maybe This Time," Cabaret
It all happened so fast. That's what Willow would remember later, when she was alone with Tara in the darkness, with Tara's sleeping head in her lap, Tara's sweat drying on her skin, Tara's arms just holding on. There was no time for fear, or panic, or suspense.
When she thought back, she would wonder if there had been a sense of it all coming, the featherweight noise of a drum roll heard from the very last row of the second balcony, a tension building out of nothing into a slow thunder. But no, that was just her mind inventing drama. There had been the moment of knowing what to do and the moment of doing it. And then everything changed again.
It had been like watching a floor show, only she was supposed to sing, and she didn't know any of her lines, didn't even know the plot or the kind of music that would be played or the theme. That seemed familiar, somehow, but she couldn't think about why.
She had waited for Xander to come back. Or Anya, who had gone after him. She was sure he would come back, and she was equally sure he wouldn't. She didn't blame him, after all, for being angry. He had been a friend when she had least deserved one. Would it make a difference if she told Xander that she was terrified? If she told him that she knew she deserved punishment for the destruction that she had caused, for the scars that she had left? And she could handle punishment; she could handle anything now.
But was there a choice here? With the books spread in front of them, with Tara's hand warm on her knee, with the screaming awareness of Tara that stood between her and logical thinking, she knew there was no choice. She would do whatever it took to keep Tara alive, and if that meant that someone got destroyed in the process, well, she'd just make sure that she was the first in line.
Willow was dimly aware of Buffy and Dawn leaving; they were going back to the house to get some book Giles had left there. Buffy talked with Tara in a low voice, she squeezed Willow's shoulder.
Willow felt overheated with thought; she couldn't soothe the burn of excess in her mind. Giles' talk and his pendulum, now cool against the hollow of her throat. Xander. Dawn's headaches. She had hardly talked to Buffy yet; they had hugged before lunch, a long, hard hug that anchored them to each other and to the kitchen floor, but they hadn't really talked. And Glory might be in Tara.
Tara who was alive. Tara who was flesh and blood and not a memory. Tara whose fingers had touched her almost constantly today, who had, with the exceptions of her own necessary walk alone and that necessary talk with Giles, kept her hands on Willow. Tara who seemed to understand her, to understand everything. Willow didn't know what she had done to deserve that, to deserve a love so powerful it came back to forgive and enfold her.
She only knew that there was always a price, always a trade. She had saved Tara and lost Buffy. Brought Buffy back and lost Tara. With Tara back, someone else would leave. Someone always did. This time this time it was Xander.
Into these thoughts came the ping of the bell, and the door to the shop swung open, and things started to happen.
The Slayer had gone. Wasn't that lucky? It just made everything so much simpler.
The lights of the magic shop burned, and the door handle turned easily. Doc paused anyway, reflecting that this was a moment when everything might change. A threshold moment. He was about to open a door. He might find his Glory here, the Glory who had once been a kind of mother to him and whom he now had tried to midwife back into this reality.
He stepped into the shop and carefully pulled the door shut behind him. He had never been in the Magic Box; by the time he'd come to Sunnydale, Rupert had already taken it over, and Doc had thought it best to stay out of the way. And it had become a habit, solitude. Receding into the shadows.
But now what good was sitting alone in his room?
Standing at the top of the few steps leading into the shop, Doc smiled at the two girls who looked up at him from their seats at a table across the room. The two faces rested on his. One facethe redhead'sfell. The otherthe blondelooked quickly at her.
"Can I help you?" the blonde girl asked him. She looked familiar.
Doc allowed a pleasant smile to lift the corners of his lips, stilled his tail. "I think you can," he said. "I'm looking for someone." Rupert would be able to help him; he knew things about Sunnydale, about the pulse of its non-human life. He would have felt the new energy, too. He would be able to identify it. He might not want to, but with the Slayer gone, there were ways of compelling him to talk. "Rupert Giles. I understand you may ."
And then it hit him. The reason the girl looked so familiar to him. The same thing that must have drawn him to Rupert now, after nearly two years of being practically neighbors, if only one of them had known it. Oh, but he was good. He was better than he knew.
"You," he said aloud, delighted. "You died." He could have sung. He wanted to dance. He'd been looking for a resurrection. And it looked like he had just found one.
Was this his Glory? Was the essence he had worked so hard to restore right in front of him? He wanted to sense the energy, to taste the essence. He wanted to catch its scent on the air. He lifted his nose and sniffed, but nothing.
The other girl stood up quickly, grabbing her lover's arm and pulling her, not too gently, backward, stepping in front of her. "Will," he heard the blonde say.
"Get Giles," the redhead spoke quietly, but her voice was urgent, and her eyes sparked with protection. And menace. He glanced from the one to the other; their connection was palpable, a current that flickered between them. He could feel it from where he stood. Ah. So that's how it was with them.
As for Glory, there was only one way to find out. He flexed his fingers and without taking those last steps, without touching ground with one stride and then the next, was simply upon them.
It was his big number.
Willow was trying to protect her; Tara saw that. She felt it. When Willow stood up and yanked her back, she gripped so hard that Tara knew her arm would bruise, would be marked with all the panic and resolve, all the fear and
and longing that pulsed in those gripping fingers.
The longing was the problem. In that half-second, Tara saw that this could go two ways. One way led to dark magicks and old habits and struggle. They would go the other way. Willow wanted to push her back, to keep her safe, but she had to take charge of this situation.
Tara didn't have time to think as the man glided toward them. Space seemed to contract; one moment, he was standing across the room; the next, he was directly in front of them, in front of Willow, who had pushed her back. Had he glided or somehow folded back the space and walked through it with one step? She wasn't sure, but she didn't have time to think about it.
He was next to them; he had moved past Willow and stood to the side, and as Willow turned back and Tara opened her mouth to call Giles, to force some word out of her suddenly dry mouth, she saw the arms coming, and she felt fingers push through her hair, and she saw fingers part Willow's hair. She sensed it coming, remembered the prick of fingertip touching scalp, that particular pain she had felt twice before, and she acted. This wouldn't happen. This would not happen. Not to her, not to Willow.
She reached for Willow's hand.
She needed no words. They had done this before; they could do it again. They only needed to be in the same place, to know the same thing, to think one thought. She closed her eyes for a brief second, drawing a blanket of calm over her roiling brain, and she reached for Willow's hand, and she pressed into her urgent finger-touch the knowledge of what to do and the memory of how to do it.
Willow's fingers closed over hers just at the moment the man's fingers pressed against scalp. Their fingers laced, from pinkie to thumb, and then they flattened their palms together, the force pushing out the space between their hands with a little "pfft" until there no distance left between hand and hand, between skin and skin.
Their eyes met for the briefest of brief moments, and then, with one movement, their heads both snapped to face the man. They had done this before, and it came back. A sudden puff of power, an exhalation of energy, a Siamese twin of breath and force.
And the man flew back across the room, hurled straight into the bookcase opposite. His back struck the edge of one shelf, and a bit of greenish skin showedwhat on earth was that?and he fell to the floor. A shower of books rained down on him.
Tara stared at their clasped hands, rigid with connection, white with power. The aftershocks traveled up the inside of her arms, of their arms. It was all so familiar. But there wasn't time to think; there was still work to do. Raising their hands to shoulder level, they flexed their joined hands back.
"We bind you," Tara said. Her own lips moved, but it was Willow's voice that echoed into the room, accompanied only by the soft shuffling of pages turning as the spell blew around the man and took hold.
Willow concentrated on the solid floor beneath her feet and the cool metal of the pendulum against her throat and the hot, damp skin of Tara's palm. She felt the press of Tara's fingers and understoodas if Tara had spoken the words into her mindthat Tara was bringing her down, was holding her. Willow took a deep shuddering breath, and she let it out slowly, slowly through her pursed lips.
For a moment, all was silent, and then Giles was there, bursting in from the training room. Willow stared at the man on the floor, bound to the wall with magick. It had worked, and she felt okay. She breathed in, and the magicks hummed in her head and coursed through her fingers and stood the hairs on her arms on end, but she focused on remaining calm.
"I don't believe it," the man on the floor panted. He was held rigid against the bookcase, his left leg twisted under him and his scaly greenish tail pinned to the wall behind him. "All that work."
"What is go ." Giles stopped short, fixing first on Tara and Willow's joined hands and their blown-back hair and then seeing the man on the floor. "My God," he murmured, whipping off his glasses with one hand to stare.
"No, Rupert" the man said, smiling his thin smile as the binding spell settled in and held him without pain. "Your professor."
Willow shook her head to clear it. What was happening? What had just happened?
"Giles?" She heard her voice shaking when she spoke. "You know him? He he wants Glory. Tara he thought she was ."
"She's in there, all right," the man said now. "But ."
"You're wrong," Willow spat out. She knew he couldn't move as long as her fingers twined with Tara's. He would stay bound. "There's no Glory in her you couldn't do the spell."
Narrow lips stretched over pointed teeth in a delighted laugh. "In her? Gosh, for a powerful witch, you're a little slow. I guess you had kind of a rough summer, but still have you really not figured it out by now?"
Willow glanced in confusion at Tara.
"Can't you tell?" The man said. "Glorificus is in you, too."
For a second, Willow's world fell away.
Tara's head snapped toward her, her hand clenching so hard that Willow thought a finger might snap, but that kept her from falling, kept her from staggering backward and severing their connection as a memory she had pushed down into the base of her skill flared up, flashed whole and complete into her mind. The night she had taken Glory into her mind for what she'd thought was only a moment.
Tara had walked ahead, plucking at the bandage on her arm, shuffling her feet as she walked, lifting her head to the night. Willow had trailed behind. She had been wearing ridiculously high-heeled boots, and her feet had ached, but it hadn't mattered. Already, by then, the pain that would keep her company for over a yearin one form or anotherhad settled in, taken root. Aching feet were nothing.
She followed Tara to the base of the tower, winced as Tara yanked the bandage from her wounded hand and hurled it off, hung back as Tara grew suddenly taller with purpose and wrapped her fingers around a brick. Willow had felt acid rage eating away at the lining of her stomach and her throat when she saw Glory approach, and from that moment on it had all been so easy.
Easy to glide soundlessly up behind Glory, her feet skimming the floor. Easy to come face to face with a Hell God. Easy to claim Tara as her own with three small words. The easiest thing in the world to send that rage down her arms and into her hands, to liquefy her fingers and melt through two heads of hair and two skulls, to feel the flesh of her fingers touch memory and thought and mind.
She had let herselfher mind, her thoughts, her selfrecede, and she gripped Tara's mind with one set of fingers and Glory's presence with the other, and she reversed them through the empty channel of her arms and her black, black brain.
It should have hurt like hell. Her head should have split with pain. Her nose should have bled; her legs should have buckled.
But it had been so easy. And as two essences seeped through her and back into their own bodies, Glory to Glory and Tara to Tara, she had felt somethinglater she would decide it had been the magicks. There was discomfort at first, but then a fist of pleasure spread, hot and restless, through her mind. That was Glory.
She would forget, in the tornado of emotion that touched down after that, finding Tara and losing Buffy. She would forget that in that moment of uncertainty, after those days of fear and loneliness, that essence that coated her insides like sex. It was the first thing that had felt good in days. It wasn't the first time she had felt darkness pulsing through her, but it was the first time she had felt the black skin-itch of magick that had stayed with her ever since.
Now, Tara was holding her up with only her fingers, with only her hand.
Had it been Glory? All this time Glory? She couldn't move, couldn't take her eyes from the face of this stranger.
The Professor was that what Giles had called him? laughed again. "Well, gosh," he said. "I guess that threw you for a loop, didn't it? But relax; it's not even enough to extract. It's just a trace, like a smudge. You both have it. Frankly, I'm surprised you didn't feel it before now."
Willow stared. Her mouth was dry. She couldn't think. She saw Giles glance at her and Tara, who was also to stunned to speak. He peered at the Professor, and then he took over.
"It was you," he said slowly, evenly. "You did the spell. You opened the door to resurrect Glory, but Tara came back. Tara's connection to Glory," he paused, "and perhaps Willow's responded to your spell."
The Professor winked. "You always were one of the brightest of watchers, Rupert." To Willow, he seemed strangely calm, unperturbed. Why was that?
"How could you do something so utterly stupid?" Giles bit out. "Do you have any idea of what could have happened to these girls if something went wrong?" Willow saw that Giles was shaking. She had only heard that fear in his voice when he spoke about Buffy.
"You have to understand the way I am, mein Herr," the Professor said. It had the ring of an old joke. "But, as much as I hate to disillusion you, it didn't work that way. Resurrections are a tricky business; they don't always turn out the way we want them to. I know that better than anyone."
Willow was having trouble following the conversation. She heard all the words, but she heard them through a cloud. Was it a cloud of Glory?
"Believe me," Doc continued. "I'm disappointed, but I'm a realist. There's only enough Glory in these girls to be a little bit interesting. A kind of thumbprint, if you like. An enhancement."
He deflated suddenly. "It's really too bad."
Giles looked at Willow and Tara again. He pulled his glasses off with one hand. "And why should I believe you?" he asked. "What reason have you ever given me to trust you?"
"No reason at all," the Professor said lightly. "Except that you know it's true. You know how extraction spells work. If Glory's essence were in there, I could have gotten it out. Once I had my fingers on their heads, if she were really in there, no little girl witch spell in the world could have stopped me."
Giles frowned. He thought for a moment, and then he nodded. "Willow, Tara, he's right."
"But, well, if his attempt to raise Glory didn't bring Tara back " He raised his face to them. "What did?"
The bell to the shop jangled then.
"Hey," Dawn bounced through the door, Buffy close behind. They were laughing at something, and in the moment that it took for them to burst into the shop, they didn't have time to notice the broken bookshelf, the figure magickally bound against the wall, Giles standing tall without his glasses, or Willow and Tara, side by side, hands clasped and arms rigid.
In that moment of not noticing, Dawn spoke. "We couldn't get into the house," she said. "We forgot the key."
Chapter 12: Clouds of Glory
It struck me every day
The lightning was as new
As if the cloud that instant slit
And let the fire through.
--Emily Dickinson, "Time and Eternity"
The laugh in Buffy's throat faded as soon as she stepped over the threshold to the Magic Box.
She and Dawn hadn't been laughing about anything in particular. Buffy had wanted to put Dawn at ease. Xander's outburst was fresh in her mind, and it had torn at her insides to see Willow's face fold in on itself with shame when he had left the Magic Box. Buffy didn't know herself if Willow should cast again, at least not so soon, but she thought she should trust Tara on this, and she knew she could trust Giles.
And, of course, underneath the tensions that had resurfaced in the last few hours, Buffy was still worried about the reason for Tara's return.
But circling all of that, pinching down that worry Tara had come back to life, and Willow and Dawn had come back to Sunnydale. There might still be questions to answer, but it was enough to make her smile, to make her grab Dawn's hand and twirl her around in the middle of the street.
But there was nothing to laugh at in the Magic Box, where a cloud of tension hung thick in the room.
"We forgot the key," Dawn said, and then she stiffened and sucked in her breath, and Buffy took in the scene in front of her. Giles stood, glasses in one hand, his face hard as he looked at the man against the wall. A man whose leg twisted underneath him, whose green tail poked up behind, who sat as if paralyzed against the bookcase. Buffy recognized him immediately. He had tried to kill Dawn. Her lips thinned.
And then there were Willow and Tara, who stood by the research table, facing the man. Their hands were clasped tightly, knuckles white and arms rigid. They were both flushed and panting, and Willow's face, as the turned toward the door, had gone still in an expression that made Buffy uneasy. Was that guilt on Willow's face? Or was it was it magick?
Buffy had the sense that they had all been here before, that they were playing out a drama that had started long ago. Maybe the scenery had changed, maybe their lines had been rewritten, but it was the same. Seeing him, the man whom she had sent spiraling off the tower with a single shove, brought it all back.
It had all gone wrong when she came into their lives. Dark magicks. Destruction. Death. They had all wanted to do the right thing. To fight evil and save the world. To protect Dawn. But they had lost their way, all of them, and the choices since then had only gotten harder, the punishments more brutal.
Buffy remembered talking to Giles after Glory had taken Dawn. Faced with killing her sister or ending everything, Buffy had said that she didn't know how to live in the world if these were the choices, if everything were stripped away. The words lived on her memory like a scar. Itching occasionally and there to stay.
But she had died, and she had come back, and she had stripped so much more away herself. She had peeled back the protective layer around her friendship with Willow. She had watched her friend, exposed and alone and gasping for breath, and she hadn't helped. She hadn't cared.
But she cared now.
She could see at a glance that the man by the bookcase wasn't moving, so she dropped her arms to her sides and strode toward Willow and Tara. That look on Willow's face as she watched Buffy coming .
Tara glanced quickly from Willow's face to her own and back again. One palm gripped Willow's tightly, but she held out the other, beseeching.
"I made her do it, Buffy," she said. "It wasn't her fault ."
Tara's words stopped Buffy cold.
She saw it all in that moment. That look on Willow's face, the quick apology of Tara's wordsthey were still wary of her, still afraid of her anger, or maybe of her coldness, of that righteousness she had pulled on like a wool sweater every morning after she'd come back. It was the only warmth she'd been able to find, that thread of morality that had allowed her to judge her friends, to judge Willow. To judge herself.
This knowledge settled into Buffy's stomach. Was that, in the end, the legacy that Glory had left them? That she and her friends would become distanced and alienated? That they would drift separate and alone? That they would see each one another hurting and do nothing to ease the pain? That they would hurt and fear one another?
Only months before, she and a grief-frozen and bitter Willow had faced off in this very place. They had said cruel things, both of them. But Willow's words had been cruel because she had spoken the truth, while Buffy's had been cruel because she had not, because even at what might have been the end of everythingthe end of friendship and life and love and the worldBuffy had held back.
Could she have stopped it? If she had been able to say one word of comfort when she'd found out Tara had died, if she'd been able to reach for Willow and hold her instead of staring at her in dumb shock, to show her own grief instead of preaching at her could she have stopped it all?
That had been Buffy's nightmare all summer, the thought she had awakened to every night for three months. That had been her cold sweat of regret: if she had acted differently, if she had just said the right words to Willow, if she had just Christ, if she had just touched her .
No. She wasn't going to make that mistake again. What had been stripped away was hers to paint back.
Now, Buffy looked closely at Willow, whose usually pale face was flushed with fear and the tinge of magick. This was one of those moments, Buffy thought, one of those moments when you make a choice, and it matters, and you undo your mistakes, and it lasts. She could ask a question. She could ask what Willow had done, or what had happened, or if Willow had cast a spell, or if Willow had been careful, or why the man who had tried to kill Dawn on the tower was twisted against the bookcase.
But she knew the right question, the only question. There was no dilemma, no choice to make. She slipped her hand around the rigid line of Willow's neck and kissed her friend softly on the forehead, let her lips cool her friend's hot skin.
"Will, are you all right?" she asked, and she felt the stiffness go out of Willow's neck, and she saw the wariness in Willow's eyes give way to something else, a trust that shone green and parted her lips slightly. It was a look Buffy had not seen in a very long time. But she remembered what it looked like, and she knew how to recognize it. Before the relief of the last day, before the endless wintry mourning of summer, before the rage. Even before the guarded loneliness and careful, cautious hope of the months before.
It was love, pure and simple, and it beaded on Willow's lashes and spilled onto her cheeks.
"Thank you, Buffy," Willow whispered, leaning in so that her forehead touched Buffy's. They stood that way for a moment. Buffy felt the threat of tears feather the back of her own throat, but she swallowed against it. How had she missed it before, that all Willow had ever needed was forgiveness? Forgiveness for using the dark magicks. For starting with magick in the first place. For being herself. How had she missed it?
When Buffy lifted her head, she saw Tara smiling gratefully at her in the gentle and knowing way that only Tara smiled. Tara saw things that others didn't, Buffy knew. She saw things that happened beneath the surface of conversations, currents that other people missed. She seemed to understand, now, and she smiled.
"You okay, Tara?" Buffy asked, but she already knew the answer. Tara had Willow, and Willow was safe. And so Tara was okay.
Buffy nodded and shook herself. Time to figure out what had happened. And decide what was going to happen.
Dawn felt paralyzed. He had cut her, that man, had sliced into the flesh of her stomach. He had drawn her blood and watched it drop onto the cold metal grating of the tower.
But, from behind her vision, behind her logic and her thinking, she realized that she was unafraid. This man couldn't hurt her. This man could help. He knew things. She felt this as a whispered voice, that there were things to learn here. Important things.
Buffy had turned from Willow to look at the man. She had rested her hands on her hips, tilted her head slightly. Her face was still and composed and hard with intent.
"What do you want?" she said evenly.
But the man was looking only at Dawn, and Dawn felt drawn to him. She felt the pull of knowledge. She took a step toward him.
"You," she said. She wasn't afraid. He was here to tell her something important.
"Ah," he said. "The key." His eyes twinkled blackly at her. "Now this should be interesting."
"Um, repeat much?" Buffy rolled her eyes. "You said that last time. New confrontation, new one-liners?"
"I'm human now," Dawn said slowly, but the words didn't feel exactly right. They jarred with that whispered voice that was humming something else at her, something approaching from the distance of her mind. What was it? Still, she shook it away, crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm not the key anymore."
Doc laughed. "Ah, is that the pretty bedtime story they told you?" he crooned, glancing at where Giles stood, next to Buffy. "Rupert, I'm ashamed of you. I taught you better than that."
"I think maybe you've said enough," Giles said quietly. He slid his glasses back on.
"Oh, I'm just getting started," Doc continued, his eyes narrowing. "Did you tell this little girl anything, Rupert? Did you tell her about your research at Council Headquarters last spring? About the legacy of the key?"
Giles's head snapped up, his face registering surprise. Then he took a step forward. "How how do you know about that?" he asked, and Dawn heard an iron note in his voice, but when she looked at him, she thought he looked ashamed. He dug both hands deep into the pockets of his trousers, but Dawn could still see the hard shapes of his fists.
Buffy looked at him sharply. "Giles?" she asked, her voice low. He didn't look at her.
"Did you really think you could just be a girl now, a teenager?" Doc asked Dawn. His body was held stiff and rigid, but his eyes flashed and sparked at Dawn. "Did you really think that you could just let it all go for slumber parties and make-overs?"
Dawn took another step.
"Ask Rupert to tell you about the three locks," Doc said, a cold smile lifting the corners of his thin lips. "The three triggers that release your power. The key's power." His eyes shone at her, and Dawn felt compelled. She moved toward him.
"Dawn, stay back." She heard Buffy's warning, but she paid no attention. She couldn't take her eyes away from that pointy chin, from the knife angles of those cheekbones.
"Three locks," she said. Her head was buzzing. "Tell me."
"Well, if Rupert won't tell you," Doc said with relish, "I guess I'll have to. Now, it's only a rough translation from the ancient Tnatum dimension text, so you'll have to forgive the doggerel." He cleared his throat and recited. "In killing with no weapon, in seeing a wish undone, in forgiving its greatest threat, the key is met."
Buffy raised her eyebrows. "So Dr. Seuss writes prophecies now?" she asked flatly.
"You can believe what you like," Doc said to her, and his eyes flashed black, but he turned back to Dawn, and eyes smoothed out again. Dawn couldn't stop looking at him, moving toward him.
"You've had the visions already, haven't you?" Doc's voice had dropped, but Dawn heard him clearly in the silent room. "The headaches? It's already begun."
She stared at him, uncomprehending, and then she took another step forward, raising her hand at him. Then she stopped, glancing at her arm, letting it fall shakily back to her side. Why had she done that? What had she been going to do?
"Is it Glory?" Dawn heard her voice shake at the name.
He laughed, and for the first time, Dawn saw something gentle in those black, black eyes. "Glory can't touch you anymore," he said. "She had her chance, and she blew it. She has much left to do in this reality, but she can't touch the key."
"What, then?" Dawn watched her feet move forward, saw that she put one in front of the other until she was only inches from him. She could feel the shimmer of binding around him. Her voice had dropped to a whisper. It was the two of them. Him and herself.
In the moment before she felt the body behind her and the hand on her arm, the moment before Giles' fingers closed around her elbow and pulled her backward, Doc spoke, and his voice was so quiet that Dawn later thought maybe she had only read his lips. Or maybe she had only imagined it.
"You're a thief," he said. "You hijacked my resurrection."
Willow felt herself weakening, growing tired, and when she glanced at Tara, she saw fatigue in her eyes, as well. They could only last for so long before their fingers loosened. She wanted to say this, to tell Buffy, but she couldn't make her mouth work. She swallowed.
"Buffy," she heard Tara say, the word hoarse and slow in Tara's mouth, and Willow saw the blur of Buffy's head turning to study them.
"Let him go," Buffy said, and Willow instantly released Tara's hand. Cool air hit her palm where the hot grip had been, and she flexed her fingers, feeling them crack with release. She took a dizzy, dazed step backward, then another, finding the wall with her back and sliding down it until she reached the floor. She hugged her knees to her chest. Tara had slumped into the nearest chair and leaned on the table, her head propped up with one hand. Her face mirrored the exhaustion Willow felt.
Willow closed her eyes, letting her head tip back to rest against the wall and listening to the others. Her mind felt foggy and dim, a nimbus of confusion settling in. She was tired. So tired.
"I am so going to kick your ass," she heard Buffy say, and there was shuffling and a shout and a spark, but when she opened her heavy eyelids again, the man was simply gone, and Giles stood, one hand still wrapped around Dawn's elbow, staring at the empty space where he had been.
Willow tried to keep her eyes open, to watch as Buffy walked around the shop, making sure that the man was gone, as Buffy returned to embrace Dawn, hugging her and holding the back of her head. She heard talking, and she tried to listen, but she couldn't really focus on the words.
"I I don't think we need to worry about him coming back," Giles said through the fog. "Not yet. He'll be looking for Glory. He's always been rather single-minded, one task at a time."
Willow wondered if she'd fallen asleep for a minute. Surely she had missed something, a big fight or the revelation of secrets. The confrontation. Had she drifted off? They had been talking about Glory, and then Buffy had told her to let go, and then .and then what?
That woke her up.
Glory had stayed in her mind, some part of her anyway, ever since the night she'd cast the reversal spell. Glory had been there when she'd telepathed to Spike and, later, to all the Scoobies. Glory had been there when she'd sacrificed that deer. Glory had been there when she'd cast spells for party decorations, and . Oh, God.
Willow heard the mumble of conversation, and she thought she heard her name. Then there were hands on her knees, but they weren't Tara's hands, and she opened her eyes. Buffy had knelt down in front of her, was looking at her. "Hey, Will," she said softly. "You did good."
"Buffy," Willow's voice sounded tiny even to her own ears. "If Glory was in us all along, in me and Tara, then it wasn't our fault." She frowned, shook her head. "I mean, it was; we made choices, bad choices, but maybe it was like we couldn't see clearly, you know? Like there so many things to choose from, but the good ones were hidden behind a cloud?"
Buffy just looked at her, a tender look that Willow felt like she hadn't seen in years. When was the last time she had really seen Buffy? Buffy had taken care of her after Tara died, had bathed her and fed her and held her for days at a time, but Willow hadn't seen her. She hadn't seen anything then.
"I know it was still my fault," Willow whispered, "but maybe ."
Buffy's fingers pressed on Willow's knees. "You listen to me, Willow Rosenberg," she said, her voice fierce and even. "We all make mistakes. We all pay. And you've paid more than your share. You don't have to be sorry anymore. Careful, yes, but not sorry."
It was forgiveness, and it hurt. "But Buffy," Willow heard her own voice leak out, pleading and high. She pressed the tip of her tongue against the back of her teeth, against the sob, as her tears spilled out again.
"No," Buffy said. "Willow, you started with the magicks to help us. And I pushed you to use the dark magicks to stop Glory; we all did. You had to do it all alone." Buffy pushed a lock of Willow's hair back, cupped Willow's cheek with the palm of her hand.
"So maybe you went too far, but who was helping you? You got into the dark magicks for us, and we repaid you by making you deal with it alone." Buffy's voice splintered on the last word, and she took a long shuddering breath. "And I'm sorry." Willow felt the hand on her face tremble. "Willow, I am so, so sorry."
Willow leaned into Buffy, and she felt Buffy's arms wrap around her like a pardon. Like absolution. But she wasn't sure, after all, who was forgiving whom. She felt Buffy's tears wet against her ear, and she felt Buffy's shoulders shake, and she held on to her friend.
Finally, she heard Giles clearing his throat, and she looked up to see Tara holding Dawn's hand but watching Willow carefully, and Giles standing protectively over them.
"Buffy, we need to talk about this," Giles said. "There are some, some new developments you need to know about." Buffy nodded.
"Tara, you want to trade?" Buffy squeezed Willow's shoulder one last time and went to Dawn, and Tara moved to pull Willow to her feet. Willow shivered when Tara's fingers closed around hers. Her heart was still full of Buffy, but Tara's fingers enfolded her, and when she looked up, Tara's eyes took her in.
"Okay, show's over," Buffy said, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's late. I think we should go back to the house. Tara and Willow should get some rest, and the rest of us can talk."
Tara started to protest, but Buffy held up a hand. "We'll fill you in on everything in the morning," she said. "But look at you two; you can hardly stand up." Willow felt Tara nod, forced herself to nod.
"Giles," Dawn murmured. She sounded calm to Willow, and her voice it didn't sound like Dawn's voice, but it was very familiar. Restful. Or maybe it was just that she was so tired, so very tired.
There were still more questions than answers, still more uncertainty than knowing, but tonight, just for one night, with Buffy's forgiveness on her skin and Tara's magick in her veins, Willow wanted to shut the door against Glory and keys and locks and all hard things. To take Tara to bed, and close the door behind them, and sleep.
Return to BtVS/Angel Page
Return to Main Page