Title: All things truly wicked
Pairings: Willow/Giles, and shades of Buffy/Giles; several canon pairings referenced.
Word count: ~3000
Summary: The road to redemption is a rocky path. But at least there's no one in the back singing Barry Manilow.
Warnings: Magical coercion, imaginary gore, and... uh... Willow, still on the lower rungs of her sliding scale from Apocalypse Now back to savior of humanity. Spoilers through "Grave".
Once, Willow fell asleep in the library. They had been researching some dead priest with a name like a dairy supplement: they being her and Xander and Giles, because Buffy was off sleeping in Angel's empty bed, and this was before Cordelia ever kissed Xander in the dark. This was when the cast of her whole world was unimaginably small, and everyone in it loved her without thinking. Thoughtlessly. She was sixteen years old.
But, still, she had bad dreams. And she woke to the sound of Giles calling her name, his voice was a little wondering, a little kind. He bent down and said Willow like it was a question for which he expected her to have an answer. Even then.
England is warmer than she expected.
After class, she sits in the meadow with the sun on her back, her whole body breathing light. There are clouds in the sky, little puffy ones, the pale volume of them frank against a yawning kind of blue. If Xander were here with her he would pick out comic book villains and wingless ducks from every thready wisp. Or else if Tara were here with her, she would pick out endless fruit.
If Tara were here Willow wouldn't be. It's like a paradox, except it hurts.
Willow crosses her legs in what her kindergarten teacher called Indian style until Willow's mother wrote her a six-page letter about the legal consequences of racism in the workplace. She rests her foot on her knee. When she thinks about it, she can feel how shallowly the grass grows under her, the web of roots so broad but inches deep.
Giles finds her like that, her legs folded in on themselves and her hands feathering through dirt.
He looks happy. He's just come away from a phone call with Buffy, she knows. They talk every day now. Really Willow kind of thinks he should thank her, because no way would Buffy have been willing to shell out the money to talk to a guy who abandoned her if Buffy's best friend hadn't gone psycho and made pretty much everyone look better by proximity. Or maybe she would have. Buffy always seemed so strong to Willow, but after Willow brought her back it was like for all those years of pain she had been storing weakness, growing a deep secret stock of need. When Giles left, what was it she said? It feels like I'm dying. Of course, that meant a different thing in Buffy's mouth than it did in other's people. Willow knows that even if she doesn't believe it.
When Giles took Willow away Buffy was there at the airport, and she said nothing. She didn't even hug Giles, because of the whole ribs thing. Instead she clasped his hand, just once, her fingers terribly small across the back of his hand for things so costly. She tried to hug Willow too, and Willow flinched back, away, because Buffy always was transparent and right then she held the memory of Willow's pain in her body, like a glass holds water or light.
"Hello," Giles is saying. He doesn't tell her how Buffy or Dawn is doing. In England, he looks weirdly young; he tramps around in big, clompy boots and doesn't seem to know what to do with her now that he's not blasting her through walls. Willow remembers when he was their adult friend, a sort of pet or mascot who was valuable when he dispensed validation. But she's not a kid, and he's just a person, a little bit vain and a lot tired. Certainly tired of her.
"There's a creek near here," she says, to avoid saying what she's thinking. "Isn't there?" She digs her fingers into the ground and lets her skin listen to the dirt.
"Yes," he says, looking surprised. "About two miles south."
She hasn't left the compound since he brought her here, or touched a computer. Still, it's a visceral relief to see him tilt his head, his eyes impressed. Kind of an outdated habit: to scrape for every margin of respect. She just can't shake it off.
"Isn't there," she says, "isn't there some myth, like, that witches can't cross running water? Or can't get spells across it?"
"It's more usually applied to ghosts," says Giles, "but some claim it also goes for witches, yes."
"So how come they have the special coven base of operationsy thing so close to a stream?"
He raises his eyebrows at her, in that special way he always does when his inner English major is crying brokenly into its pillow.
"I think most practitioners don't give much credence to that particular superstition," he says. "Also, even if it's true, running water is a difficult thing to-- to outrun, if you will."
"I guess that's a point," Willow says. "You'd-- you'd have to get rid of all the plumbing in your house, for one thing."
Giles snorts. "And so any resultant boost in power would probably be spent simulating the conveniences afforded by a working shower."
"A zero-sum win!" she says, and is rewarded by his blankest look. By this point he's crouched beside her, his big coat gathered around him like oiled-leather wings, weight resting on one knee.
"What were you really thinking about?" he asks.
She looks down. "Tara," she tells him. It is at least more recently true. She used to do the same thing to Buffy, when Tara was gone. Penny for your thoughts? Tara. And Buffy always backed right off.
GIles doesn't, obviously.
"Anything specific about her?" he says, calmly, the wind like a shadow in his hair.
Willow lies back flat among the wildflowers, letting her face fall out of the shade into the sun. "I was thinking about how she left me," she says.
Giles frowns. "You two were reconciled-- at the end, weren't you?" he says. Of course he does. Good old Giles, who doesn't think that leaving matters so long as you were always intending to come back. Who thinks absence is one more way to teach a willful girl a lesson. One more way to ensure that power doesn't get used. The joke's on him, anyway. Just because you come back doesn't mean you get to stay.
"Yes," Willow says, "because she forgave me."
He gets that look in his eye. Like something makes sense now that didn't before.
"But you didn't get a chance to forgive her," he says, thoughtfully.
Willow gets a brief and perfect flash of what he would look like if his body were eaten by birds; his cheeks punctured and flapping loose, his eye sockets like cups. She imagines roses growing through and around his bare ribcage.
The sunlight shines living pink behind his ears.
This kind of violence, it comes instinctive and alien all at once: a middling defense against the monotony of hating people. Willow never realized just how boring she was until she tried to destroy the world and went about it wearing black. She thinks now that she should have put on Tara's shirt; left Tara bare-breasted in their room for Dawn to enjoy. Gone out with a map of Tara's murder on her back.
"No," she says, meaning yes. "I mean-- that would be wrong, wouldn't it? I did all those terrible things to her," terrible things like wanting her to be happy and sucking on her clit until she screamed until they rose right off the bed to trills of sunny music, "and, and she was right to go, so--"
"In my experience," says Giles, gently, "that only makes it harder."
"In your experience?" Willow says, too quick, too cold: forgetting for a second that she is warm here, she is quiet, she is supposed to be following the sound of his voice up out of the depths of herself.
"Jenny," he says, "was very like Tara, in some ways. She also… she also knew how to take care of herself."
The sound of his voice is soft.
Willow doesn't know what he's saying. She's trying, she really is, but Jenny and Tara died. Jenny was a hobbyist with delusions of heritage and Tara was little better, really, barely strong enough to rate registration, barely enough to get a professional brainsucker drunk for two hours at a time. Giles himself is stronger than either of them ever was, after a lifetime of stealing other people's power. Giles is lucky Angelus wasn't human, or Giles would have killed him without a thought in his head but flame. But Willow bites her tongue, and watches the light comb through the grass with pale teeth.
"I'm not saying this right," says Giles. Obviously, Willow thinks. Her tongue tastes like meat. "What I mean is-- they were able to put themselves first, when they needed to."
"Are you calling Tara selfish?" Willow says, so fast it burns her mouth with cold. She doesn't say: she was.
"Of course not," says Giles, all genuine shock. "But she didn't, er, lose herself, in others. She was always aware of her own strength, and its limits. A consequence of her upbringing, I imagine." His face darkened a little; the good daddy offended by the memory of more publicly fucked up families. The man who snarled at old women for keeping children in the dark.
"So you're saying I was too much for her."
Giles breathes out. "I'm saying that Tara didn't… well. She didn't leave you for your sake. And it's not-- it's natural that you're angry with her, however unfairly, however irrationally."
Willow says, "But you left Buffy for her sake. Didn't you."
His hand leaves her shoulder, after a moment. He gives a rueful little chuckle.
"I have never been very good at allowing people room to breathe," he says. "One of the many things you and I have in common, I'm afraid."
He looks so sad. In profile, he is pretty much what he was in his gone library. Limned by gold and with his glasses cradled low on the bridge of his nose.
Not choosing, not even wanting, really, Willow reaches out. She touches his neck. And he's there, then, at the ends of her, his thoughts laid out like new constellations.
She finds herself in them easily: is giddy, to find that she is everywhere in his head. He was thinking of Buffy and Jenny and Tara but before all of them he was thinking of her, the presence of her like a lazy codeword for his own faded soul.
"Willow," he says, slowly, and she pulls him down into the grass, by the shoulder and the neck, until she can put her hands on his face and he turns his head into the heat of her palm. It is so easy to make him still. Like following the pulse of underground water. All systems, in the end, tend towards silence.
"Explain it again," she says, climbing on top of him. When his breath seems caught in his throat like a thorn she rubs her thumb against his windpipe and whispers something from one of his own books. The truth. She still wakes up in the middle of the night dreaming the dreams of 13th century monks, their secret sins sucked from a breast of paper. She prefers ink to milk.
"After Eyghon," Giles says, "Jenny could hardly look at me. Well, you remember. We spent… we spent such a lot of time being angry with one another. And for a long time after, I, I resented her for it, you know, because in the end we had so little. Time."
Something flickers in his eyes.
"Willow, what-- where--"
"Shhh," says Willow, wiping the thought cleanly from his head even as it forms. She just wants answers. Honest answers. She's not hiding from him; she's trying to stop him hiding from her. She repeats that and it gives her strength, just like the heat of his chest between her thighs gives her courage. She can feel the press of his lungs, rising up through the core of her hips. In his chest they move like wings, and if she asked the blood in them for guidance, she imagines they would teach her how to live.
She does, actually, remember Ms. Calendar's reticence, not so much because of how obvious it was as because Buffy told her all about it over ice cream, looking unusually thoughtful, for Buffy; trying hard to work out why anyone wouldn't forgive Giles on faith. She doesn't remember what she said, or who she sympathized with, but it probably wasn't Jenny. She would still have been all high off her success after trapping Eyghon in Angel's skin. Pretty funny, when you thought about it. How none of them had even really been afraid.
And the truth is-- what he's still not saying-- Jenny, Tara, they weren't brave enough for it. For loving people like her. They never were.
He's struggling in earnest now; but slowly, as if pushing through a big pot of invisible syrup. Magic syrup. One arm is trapped against his side. With the other he flails at her, and his hand brushes limp against her waist.
Willow is a good student. They are lying here in this field of wildflowers and even if Willow hasn't really learned most of their names, yet, or the things they can do, what matters is the potential: huge and golden and there for the taking if you look.
Everything is connected.
"Giles," she says, taking off his glasses, "you can't fight me. Not now."
She could do almost anything, here, and that would be amazing if it weren't for the things she still can't do. That's connection; her failure and her triumph wrapped up in the same skin. Tara used to talk about this stuff, but Tara never understood it. Tara made it a metaphor. That was all she could make of it, because she never effected real change in any direction at all, except the once.
Willow kisses him as an afterthought. She has no plan. She catches his hand at her hip and she leans down and takes his mouth, and it opens for her. He lies there perfectly still, his mouth a cup of heat, until she puts her other hand back on the side of his face, smoothing the crinkly skin. Then he stirs, and kisses her back, obeying the thought in her open palm.
It's about power. But he kisses like she aways thought he would, tender and a little probing too. His lip slack for her tongue.
She places her fingers over his, with his big palm on her thigh, warm through her jeans. She guides his thumb up the bowl of her hip. This would be easier, she thinks, if she made him see Buffy, or Jenny. But there are scars on his big old brain that make it hard for him to see true love. And she is getting tired. She lifts her mouth from his jaw and tries to breathe and feels him, stirring, under her, like the remnants of innocence.
It's funny. When she was sixteen, and done nothing, Oz noticed her before she ever noticed him.
He told her about it after. "The eskimo costume," he said, and something else, something about Halloween. Willow asked, in a tentative kind of way, whether she had maybe been walking through walls at the time? He said not that he had noticed, no. He said that she'd been smiling.
That was the Halloween Willow died. It hurt: dying. It was surprising and it hurt. And afterwards she also felt had strong, just like Buffy. But unlike Buffy, Willow didn't make a big thing about it. She didn't break anyone's bones. Whoo-ee, afterlife. Just like life except a little transparent and full of people who don't recognize you on sight. Though it was true that that was better than living.
Buffy always knew when to leave, too.
--that was the night Giles beat up Ethan, one last time, for old times' sakes. Wiping his hands with a handkerchief, sending the children away, saying, "It's who I am", which was a dangling modifier if ever she heard one. Willow knows that now even if she didn't then. How else would he have figured out how to break the spell? No way through but by pain.
Though, really. It's always the head. Hands and heart, but you aim for the eyes. In her throat moves her magic, hot as air.
"For god's sake," says Giles, precisely, from very far off.
Fine. The truth:
Tara looked at Willow first. Quick as she was to leave when Willow lifted her hand.
Through the screen of her straw-colored hair, her eyelids fleshy and weighed down with fear, she looked. In bed, with Willow splayed out under her like a flower or a fruit, she looked. She had such clear eyes, all full of Willow then, open and so, so blue--
She is on her back.
Giles looks down at her coldly. "Willow," he says, "wake up."
She opens her eyes. It is too dark to see his face, with just them, two open holes for light. It's so late that she thinks someone should have come looking for her, but there's no-one there but them.
"Didya ever think you didn't love me enough?" she asks. Above her, the sky is full of stars.
"Lately," says Giles, "every day."
He isn't touching her. He has his arms wrapped around himself, as if to hold in his guts. Starlight glints off his glasses and his hair.
Willow is so tired of him. Of hurting so much, and him, always there, as if he had the right. She doesn't think that she could move if she tried: she is sinking into the earth.
"You overextended yourself," he says, as if in answer to her thoughts. "It's not surprising. I know Althanea has been teaching you to access environmental power sources, but your own capacity for channeling energy is--"
"Why didn't you just kill me?" she says. She enunciates carefully.
He turns his head.
"You killed Ben. And you would have killed Dawn. You killed your friend when you were twenty years old. You're Mr. Practical Guy, you think the world is such hot stuff, so why won't you let me die?"
"Don't be ridiculous," he says, the laughter still in his voice; thick as blood. "You said it yourself, my dear. Ben, Dawn, poor old Randall… I've only ever killed the innocent."
His arms fall, easily, to his sides.
"Or hadn't you noticed?" he says.
Willow can't breathe. She can't, can't, can't: the beating of her lungs inside her breast. "Warren wasn't--" she begins.
"Willow," says Giles, gently, "there's work to be done."
He does touch her, then. He kisses her on the forehead, his mouth closed and cold. She watches the stars pour back into the space his head briefly filled, and thinks of Tara's constellations: pineapples and pomegranates and old men.