Title: A Heavy Darkness Falling, Chapter 2/7
Word Count: 60,000
Rating/Pairing: R, Giles/Willow
Disclaimer: Not mine! They belong to Joss and Mutant Enemy.
Feedback: Would be really, really nice, even if it's just to say hi.
Summary: When a cult that worships the First Evil makes Willow their target, Giles finds himself on a quest in the Amazon to save her - and world (again) - with the help of bloody Ethan of all people. Post-Chosen.
Author's Notes: This was written over the course of about six weeks. It was an incredible experience that I hope to never have again, and it would not have been possible without certain people. Thanks to my Amazing Narcoleptic Line-Editor fuzzyboo03 for holding my hand, helping me piece together the damn action sequences, and forcing me to tame my clauses. Thanks also to kivrin for beta reading and looking at the Big Picture when I couldn't see it anymore. Last but not least, thanks to twitchylizard for her mad Wiki skillz, which were invaluable during the research process.
The coven in Westbury was housed in a rambling stone building that had once been a convent, tucked away amidst rolling green hills in an isolation that was meant to provide both privacy and an atmosphere that lent itself to contemplation. It had been a refuge for Giles more than once in the past, and he was infinitely glad to see it now, as it came into view at the end of the barely paved road they’d been bumping along since leaving the A39. The air smelled like spring, fresh cut grass, salt from the sea, and home.
The mood inside the car was tense and silent. Willow was slumped in the backseat, having lost consciousness somewhere over the Atlantic due to Giles’s dwindling energies. Giles himself was too weak to attempt any but the most necessary conversation; he felt almost hung-over, his limbs leaden and unresponsive, and any attempt to so much as lift his head left him dizzy. He leaned back in the front passenger seat and sustained himself with the thought that in just a few minutes the coven would be able to collectively relieve him, at which point he planned to sleep for twelve uninterrupted hours in a real bed before dealing with the fallout of any of this.
Xander was at the wheel, driving grimly and with a good deal more speed than usual. It was a sign that things were indeed dire that he had hardly said a word since they’d left Heathrow three hours earlier. But while Giles might have found Xander’s usual babble to be comforting, he mostly felt grateful for the silence. His head was splitting.
Ethan was in the back with Willow, sulking. As he had put it, the “Earth-mother, goddess-worshipping, everything-is-connected types” weren’t really his crowd. Giles interpreted this to mean he was afraid the coven might turn him into a toad for his role in this sorry affair, and that Giles would let them. He had tried to leave them twice now, the first time in Macapá with an airy, “Well, lovely to see you again, Ripper. Ta!” He’d not got three feet before Xander casually grabbed the back of Ethan’s jacket and said, with a smile made all the more unnerving by the eye patch, “Oh no, Rayne, I think you’re in this for the long haul. Get your ass on that plane.”
The second time had been a rather more blatant bid for freedom at Heathrow, while Xander and Giles (who had been barely on his feet himself by that time) struggled to maneuver an unconscious Willow into the car. But that time Xander’s method, like Ethan’s, was rather more direct. He chased after Ethan, shoved him into a wall, and punched him in the face before dragging him back to the car. Had Giles had the energy, he would have applauded.
The car had finally stopped moving, Giles noticed fuzzily. They were parked by the grand old building the coven called home, and Xander had disappeared, along with Ethan. Giles could only hope that Xander had taken him along to avoid another escape attempt, but he didn’t have the energy to care very much. He closed his eyes – and opened them again minutes or maybe hours later as the car door swung open. A voice, so familiar and comfortingly exasperated that Giles could have wept out of pure gratitude, said, “Oh, Rupert, what have you done to yourself this time?”
He looked up and saw Mary Harkness silhouetted by the sun. She had her hands on her hips and though Giles couldn’t see her face very well, he thought she seemed worried. “I’ll be fine,” he said, with as much of a smile as he could manage. “You got our message, surely?”
“Yes, it was rather redundant. One of our Seers told us what you were up to. Rupert . . .” She surveyed him and then sighed. “Come now, we’d best do this as quickly as possible.” With Mary on one side and Ethan – who kept shooting wary glances at her – on the other, Giles managed to lever himself out of the car. “You’re to rest for at least two days after this,” she informed him as they struggled up the walk toward the house, Xander following behind with Willow in his arms. “I don’t care what your precious Council says, I don’t care if there’s an apocalypse. Two days. Are we clear?”
Giles tried to laugh, but he was afraid it came out as more of a groan. “You won’t get any argument from me.”
“You say that now,” Mary grumbled as they came into the cool, dim foyer of the house and she steered them to the left, thankfully avoiding the stairs. “But tomorrow you’re feeling better and something is just too important to wait, and next thing you know you’ve fallen over in a dead faint. Two days, Rupert. No argument.”
They staggered into the library. All the tables and other furniture had been cleared away, save for one chair and a single sofa, and all the members of the coven were arrayed about the room, perhaps fifty people in all. There was a thrum of power in the air, and it helped Giles sit up a little straighter as Mary and Ethan deposited him in the chair. At Mary’s gesture, Xander lay Willow on the sofa, and then retreated with Ethan to stand in the doorway. Ethan looked as though he would have liked to retreat all the way back to the car, the airport, and preferably Rio, but he didn’t.
It was very fast. One moment Giles could feel the constant, sucking strain of Willow on his energies, a strain which had grown almost unbearable in the last few hours. The next moment it was gone, and Giles sighed, letting his head drop to rest against the back of the armchair. The coven was supporting Willow as a group now; the draw on each individual would be negligible, and while it was only a temporary solution, it was one that could be sustained for weeks, possibly even months.
Finding a more permanent solution would have to wait. A young woman Giles didn’t know showed him to his room, the same one he’d had when last he’d stayed there, after Willow had nearly killed him. He toed off his shoes, let his jacket fall to the floor, and collapsed otherwise fully clothed across the bed.
Twelve hours turned out to be a conservative estimate. It was closer to fifteen hours later when Giles finally roused himself. It was very early morning, not yet six, with the sun a bare lightening of the blue-grey sky to the east. Despite the early hour, Giles knew he could sleep no more, especially in the dirty, travel-worn clothes he had on.
Twenty minutes of utter luxury in the shower and another few spent shaving off four days’ worth of scraggly beard from his face and chin, and Giles felt almost human. He remembered his promise to Mary then, and, patting his face dry with a towel, grimaced at himself in the mirror. He would not go haring back to London right away, certainly, nor would he be attempting any magic any time soon – he was not so foolish as all that. But there were things that needed doing immediately, and Giles did not think it pure ego to admit that he was one of the few who could do them.
First things first, however. He dressed in jeans and a jumper and went in search of breakfast.
The hall where the members of the coven and their guests dined communally was almost empty at this hour. Giles had expected to find it deserted, but upon entering he spied Mary at the far end of the table, her dark head bent over a book. There was, as ever, a kettle and an assortment of tea available on the sideboard. The kettle was still warm; Giles fixed himself a cup of Earl Grey, and went to sit across from her. She looked up.
“Good morning,” Giles said.
She eyed him critically, and finally made a sound of satisfaction. “Good morning,” she returned. “Your color is much better. I trust you slept well?”
“Extremely.” He took in her red-rimmed, shadowed eyes and said, “Did you sleep at all?”
“No,” she said, rubbing her eyes with the heel of her hand. “After hearing Mr. Rayne’s story, I found myself quite unable to.” She sipped her tea. “Interesting man, your Mr. Rayne.”
Giles winced. “I assure you, Ethan is no way mine. He is a . . . remnant of a very foolish time in my life. It has no relevance here,” he added at her sharp look. “He’s not harmless by any stretch of the imagination, but if he were out to harm me, I think I would know it by now.”
“Will he be helpful, do you think?”
“Hard to say. Perhaps. He’s a wild card,” Giles admitted, “but one I’m willing to play with.”
“I trust your judgment then,” Mary said. Not for the first time, Giles thought that if he were to dig through the skeletons in her closet, he might very well find an Ethan, perhaps even a Randall. It mostly was her dedication and her acute awareness of what was at stake; those qualities in combination were not often found in those who had not had a personal brush with the dark. But it was also her understanding of situations and relationships like his and Ethan’s, and people like Willow as well. He suspected she knew what it was to go deeper and darker than most people knew was even possible, and, more significantly, what it was to come back from it. “Allies are few enough as it is in this.”
“Yes,” Giles said, sipping at his own tea. “Do you happen to know what ‘this’ might be?”
Mary sighed. “At this point I have only conjecture and suspicions.”
“I understand. I’ve hardly had the time or energy to begin putting the pieces together myself. But it is . . . alarming.”
“Yes.” She turned her teacup around in her hands three times counterclockwise, and then back again. “Shall I tell you what alarmed me particularly, and then you can tell me if they’re the same things that alarmed you?”
“By all means.” It was always such a pleasure to work with Mary Harkness. Their minds were alike in many ways, yet just different enough to make things interesting.
She took a deep breath and shook her head when Giles offered with a gesture to pour her more tea. “It will sound cold,” she said at last, “but the kidnapping itself doesn’t alarm me greatly. Personally, yes, of course, because as you know, I’m very fond of Willow. But on its own, as revenge for the blow you dealt the First, it wouldn’t alarm me. Even a cult like that, infusing its members with her power – that would be troublesome and dangerous, especially for Willow, but it could be dealt with.”
Giles frowned. “But Ethan says he didn’t see that happen.”
“Exactly. Which brings us to the first alarming thing: the question of where her power went.”
Giles nodded. “It can’t have simply dissipated, so it must be contained somewhere. If not in a person than in a sacred object, a talisman or the like. That’s a place to start researching at least,” he said, brightening. “We can look into objects that have been associated with the First over the millennia, see which ones might be extant.”
Mary tapped her book. “Already there.”
“So far, nothing. But I agree, I think it must be contained in a sacred object rather than a person. Mostly due to the second alarming thing.”
“The attempt on our lives made by our guide?”
Mary nodded. “Because it seems that it was not, in fact, an attempt on Willow’s life, but rather an effort to recapture her. You and Mr. Rayne were simply in the way.”
“Yes. He called her . . . the Vessel,” Giles recalled. His memories from that time were faded around the edges, indistinct. That bothered him, for while Ethan was capable of telling his own version of events, Giles did not like to rely on him. Ethan had never proven himself particularly reliable.
“So Mr. Rayne said. Even more troubling.”
“A vessel,” Giles repeated, studying the knotted wood of the tabletop. “Something that is empty, but waiting to be filled.” He raised his eyes and saw his own fears reflected in Mary’s eyes. “With the First?”
Mary sighed deeply. “I think so, Rupert. I have tried to find some other – any other – explanation, but it’s the only one that fits. They robbed her of her power, intending to use it to make manifest the First in her body – which would have burned her soul up, I might add. Except that Mr. Rayne had impeccable timing –”
“As always,” Giles muttered.
“– and stopped them before the ritual had reached the point of no return.”
They stared at each other and then away. The silence stretched for at least a minute, while Giles tried to wrap his mind around it. Perhaps it should not have shocked him, but it did. The idea that if Ethan – Ethan! – had decided at the last minute that Chaos would be better served by ignoring the signs and letting things proceed, if he had not chosen to feel responsible and act in a most uncharacteristically heroic way, Willow might at that moment have been possessed by the First, might have had her very soul burned out of her by it – he thought he might be ill.
“Is she awake?” he asked at last, when he thought he had control of his voice again.
“She woke last night, briefly,” Mary replied, “and asked most urgently after you. I told her you were well and that you were resting. I didn’t ask her about what happened, I thought it best to leave that to you. Rupert,” she added, leaning forward and lowering her voice, her mouth set in a grim line, “you must determine how far the cult managed to get in its ritual. If they have marked her in some way –”
“I understand,” Giles said. If she were marked, that could mean any number of unpleasant things, the least of which was that she might be unwittingly leading the cult straight to Westbury at that very moment. He did not like to think about what that might mean for Willow.
He cleared his throat painfully. “What about the possibility of returning her powers to her?” he asked. “Or helping her live without them somehow, if they can’t be found?”
Once more, Mary sighed, and rubbed her forehead wearily. Giles had a sudden, sinking feeling in his stomach. “That,” she said quietly, “would be the third very troubling thing.”
An hour later Giles stood outside Willow’s room, a tray of coffee and tea with scones in hand. He knocked, and a few seconds later the door was flung open, not by Willow, but by Xander.
“Hey, G-man, you’re upright! And bearing food, excellent. Come in.”
“I take it Willow is feeling better,” Giles said, following him into the bright, comfortable room. The bed was empty and Willow herself nowhere to be seen, but Giles could hear the shower running. Xander looked as though he’d kept vigil all night – his eye was bloodshot and shadowed – but at least he was no longer silent and anxious.
“Yeah,” Xander said, grabbing a scone off the plate before Giles even had the chance to set it down on the end table. “She slept pretty good. She said this morning she was sort of dizzy, but that was all. She was complaining about being dirty too, and how bad she smelled, so I decided she really must be better. Not that she didn’t have a point.” He paused, apparently waiting for Giles to chuckle. When all Giles could muster was a distracted smile, Xander frowned. “Uh oh. What’s wrong?”
Giles seated himself in one of the bedside armchairs and poured himself a cup of tea before answering. Xander helped himself to coffee. “I need you to go back to London,” Giles said, “and get a team of researchers started on looking at sacred objects associated with the First. Especially anything that might have fallen into the hands of the Children of the Dark Eye.” Briefly, and in a low voice since the shower had stopped running, Giles outlined what he and Mary had put together that morning. “You see then why it’s imperative that we find the object in question,” he finished at last.
“Yeah,” Xander said. He had stopped eating halfway through Giles’s account, and was back to looking grim. “Sure. But I’m surprised you’re having me do this – don’t you want to go to London yourself and nag the researchers into rebellion like usual?”
Giles grimaced. “I would like nothing more. But I have been forbidden from leaving by Miss Harkness until I’ve recovered fully.” Not to mention he wanted to be close by in case something were to happen to Willow. Until they were sure she was neither in danger nor a danger to those around her, Giles was loathe to leave her.
“Okay,” Xander said, nodding. “Then I solemnly swear that I will nag to the best of my abilities.”
“See that you do. Anyway,” he added, “I think we’ll see you within a week. There will have to be something in London for Kennedy.”
“Oh. Yeah. Andrew was taking care of arrangements when I left. Her family wanted her brought home to be buried in their, um, mausoleum.” Xander frowned. “Do people really still have those?”
“Some do, I suppose,” Giles said. “I had not thought otherwise, but we should have a memorial service of some kind.” He glanced toward the bathroom door. “Has she spoken to you of it at all?”
“No,” Xander said, “but that’s not, uh, real surprising.” He fidgeted uncomfortably and broke off a piece of scone, which he then proceeded not to eat. “I, um, I didn’t like Kennedy very much. Sounds awful to say it now, I know, but I didn’t, and I kinda made my feelings clear to Willow at one point and, uh, let’s just say it’s not exactly weird that she hasn’t said anything to me about it.”
“I see,” Giles said, and that was all because at that moment Willow herself emerged from the bathroom. She’d put pajamas back on after her shower, and her hair was damp and dark red, curling over her collarbone. Giles watched a drop of water as it slid down, tracing the line of her neck, and then shook himself.
“Giles!” she said. “Oh, Miss Harkness said you were okay, but I –” She broke off, strangely hesitant, and then stepped over to hug him, somewhat awkwardly because he was sitting down. “Thank you,” she whispered into his ear.
He breathed in the clean smell of her skin and the herbal scent of the shampoo she’d used. “There was never any question,” he murmured. “Surely you know that.”
She drew back to look at him, and seemed about to say something. But then Xander cleared his throat and they both jumped.
He raised an eyebrow at them. “If you two are done with your touchy-feely moment, I should probably get going.”
“Going?” Willow said, sinking down into a chair. Giles slid a blueberry scone onto a plate for her and she looked at it without appetite. She poured herself a cup of tea, at least, with milk and a little sugar, and sipped. She would have to eat eventually; her face was already rather thinner than Giles remembered, her cheek bones very prominent. The coven was supporting her magically, but her body was up to her.
“I have to go back to London,” Xander replied. “Giles here has me on research detail.”
“Oh.” Willow glanced uncertainly toward Giles. “Are, um, are you going to?”
Giles shook his head. “No, I’m staying for the time being.”
“Oh,” she said again, relaxing visibly. “Good.”
“Yeah, you’re in good hands, Will,” Xander said. He drained the last of his coffee and stood. “I’ll see you soon, though, okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, following him to the door. They hugged for a long time while Giles watched surreptitiously and with a strange sort of envy. Finally Xander kissed her on the forehead and left.
“So,” Willow said, returning to perch on the edge of the bed. She broke the scone into two and started to pick at it. “You wanna tell me what Xander’s researching?”
“Yes,” Giles said. “But first . . . Willow, I need to know exactly what they – what happened to you.”
She looked away. “Yeah, I kinda thought you might.”
“I understand it will be difficult,” Giles said gently. “But we need to know.”
“Yeah.” She slid the plate back onto the table and came to sit in the other armchair, tucking her socked feet up underneath herself. Giles thought suddenly of those days after she had nearly ended the world; she had been so pale and wan, and they had sat just like this, sometimes speaking, but very often not. He had held her hand. After a moment he reached out and did just that. She looked momentarily surprised, and then her fingers closed over his.
“You – you know what happened in Rio, right?” she asked at last.
“More or less. Willow,” he said, squeezing her hand, “I’m so sorry about Kennedy.”
She swallowed, her eyes bright, and then gave a weepy little laugh. “Yeah, she – she gave them a fight. We both did, but I think she was way more of a pain in their ass than they’d expected.” She sighed. “She shouldn’t even have been there.”
Giles raised his eyebrows. “I thought she lived there.”
“Uh, no.” Willow picked her tea cup up in her free hand and took a long sip before continuing. “We, um, weren’t really together. Hadn’t been for awhile. About, um, six months, actually.” She looked down into her cup. “I just hadn’t told anyone because . . . I don’t know. We were both seeing other people,” she sighed again, “trying to be friends, even though I’m not sure we were ever really friends to begin with.” She swallowed. “She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Tara.”
Giles was silent. At last he said, “Kennedy was a Slayer, Willow. I’m not sure there is such a thing as being in the wrong place at the wrong time for them. In some ways, that’s their duty.”
“I guess,” Willow said. “It just – it wasn’t her fight.”
“I doubt she would agree.”
“Probably not. Kennedy thought they were all her fights.”
They were both silent then. Giles waited, not wanting to rush her. She would tell him everything in good time, he sensed. There was no immediate urgency as far as he could see. At last she looked up and said, “I’m afraid I don’t remember much. They kept me pretty drugged.”
“Whatever you can tell me.” He wanted to ask her about objects she might have seen, but he didn’t yet. He wanted, first of all, to know what had struck her as important.
“Right,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Well, I kinda woke up later, where Ethan found me, really deep in the jungle. They had me tied down to this big slab of stone, virgin sacrifice style, I guess. It was night and this place was – it was a place of serious power, Giles. I mean, I was pretty out of it, but I could feel it anyway, Dark power. Bad, bad things’d happened there. Worse than Kingman’s Bluff in Sunnydale and that was pretty bad.”
“Were the members of the cult there?”
“Yeah,” she said. She frowned, as though struggling to remember. “I didn’t see them very well – they had on long robes and hoods. I kept thinking that bad guys make the same cheesy wardrobe decisions over and over – I was really pretty stoned. One of them said something to me in Portuguese, he said . . .” She paused, her frown deepening. “I think he said that it was the greatest honor to be the Vessel, that it was more than I deserved. And he slapped me.” Giles started, his hand clenching on hers. “Not hard,” she added, “just to wake me up, I think. But it was about then that I realized I was totally naked, which seriously freaked me out more than anything else. Tied up and naked with a bunch of people I couldn’t see – that strikes a pretty deep chord for most women, I think.”
“But they didn’t . . .” Giles stopped. “None of them, that is –”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “None of them touched me except the one, I guess he was the leader. They called him . . .” She frowned. “Saramargo, I think it was? Kinda weird.”
Giles nodded, filing the name away. “And how many of them were there?”
“Not that many, now I think about it. Maybe ten, but not more than that. They did some chanting, all in a circle. I think it was in Sumerian, but I was still pretty woozy and my Sumerian’s never been as good as yours or Dawn’s – I know how to pronounce it, but I couldn’t actually figure out what they were saying. The air got really hot though, and thick, so I think whatever they were doing was working. And then the one who’d slapped me, he put his hand over my chest and –” She broke off, swallowing. “Giles, how did you ever forgive me?” she asked, looking up. Her wide green eyes were terribly bright. “I did that to you. That’s all I could think, once I could think again, I mean. I did that to you, and you forgave me. How?”
“I –” Giles stopped. “Circumstances were somewhat different –”
“No,” Willow said, shaking her head. “I mean, yeah, sure, but, but not – I did that to you, Giles, and I knew what it would do and I – I didn’t care. I hurt you – oh God, I had no idea until they did it to me how much I hurt you.”
Her head dropped and she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. Giles stroked her hair and said, “I knew what would happen, remember?”
“Which doesn’t make it better,” she said in a very low voice, still not looking up. “It doesn’t change what I did. What I did.”
“No,” he agreed, “it doesn’t.”
Her shoulders shook silently. He continued stroking her hair and the nape of her neck, and wondered what to tell her. Before he could think of anything that wasn’t trite or condescending or an outright lie, she took a huge, gulping breath, sat up, and said, “Maybe I deserved it.”
He stared at her, horrified, but managed to find his voice quickly enough. “No, Willow, no, you can’t think that.”
“I can. After what I did – maybe I deserved it. And maybe I shouldn’t get it back.” She met his eyes at last, very steadily, and he saw that she meant it. “I know you and Miss Harkness must be looking for a way to get my power back, but maybe – maybe I shouldn’t. If I’m capable of hurting you like that –”
“Willow, that was two years ago,” Giles said firmly. “You are not the same person you were then. And I was able to forgive you because . . . because when it was all over, you were you. Willow. My Willow,” he added, before he could allow himself to second-guess it. “How could I not?” She didn’t reply, and Giles decided to change tacks. “And even if the issue of your power were that simple, which I’m afraid it isn’t, what would you have us do with it? We certainly can’t leave it where it is, wherever that may be.”
She shrugged. “You take it. Or give it to the coven.”
“Willow,” Giles said, cupping her face in his hands, “you don’t mean this.”
“Don’t I?” she replied.
“No. You are – you’ve just been through something dreadful –”
“No worse than I what did to you,” she said, averting her eyes.
“Maybe. Maybe not. That isn’t a, a productive comparison.” He stroked his thumb over her cheek. “What happened to you amounts to an assault, Willow, physical and mental as well as magical. That isn’t something you’re going to recover from quickly. Please, I beg you not to make rash decisions you might regret later.” He looked at her as steadily and seriously as he knew how, until at last she nodded. He dropped his hands back down to clasp hers again. “Now then,” he said, “before we go on, allow me to ask what I should have before anything else – are you all right? Your injury, I mean.” He touched his own, over his heart. “Did Miss Harkness give you something for it?”
“Yeah,” she said. “She put a salve on it last night and gave me the bottle. I put some more on after my shower.”
“Good,” Giles said. “It won’t heal it completely, but it will help.”
Willow nodded. “It already feels better.” She drew a breath, looked at him strangely, and seemed about to ask him something. But he saw the moment she changed her mind and said instead, “Um, where were we?”
“He put his hand over your chest,” Giles reminded her quietly.
“Yeah, and, well, you know what happened after that. Next thing I knew Ethan was tearing out of nowhere – except of course I didn’t know it was him, and I was seriously wigging until I figured out that he wasn’t as bad or worse than the guys in the robes. He got us both to that lodge and . . . yeah, I guess that’s it.”
“I see,” Giles said slowly. “And they didn’t – the cult, I mean – they didn’t anoint you in any way? Or cut you or – or tattoo –?”
She shook her head. “I, uh, looked pretty closely in the shower just now, and I think Miss Harkness looked last night too. If they marked me they did it before I woke up, and they did it in some way I can’t see.”
Possible, Giles thought, but not probable. An invisible marker did not seem to be the style of the Children of the Dark Eye. He decided to relax on that point for now, but remain vigilant and close by, just in case.
“My other question,” he said, after a brief pause, “is about where your power went, exactly. Ethan said he couldn’t tell, but if it had gone into their leader, he thought – and I agree – that the two of you would have never escaped. Willow, did you see where it went?”
“I . . . no,” she said apologetically. “I was kinda distracted at the time from feeling like he was sucking my soul out through my chest.”
An apt description, Giles thought, remembering. And it would have severed her soul from her body – killed her – if Ethan hadn’t come through. Though if Mary were right, the Children of the Dark Eye had had other plans for Willow’s soul. “I understand,” he said. “But did you happen to see if there was anything around, a talisman or –”
“Yeah,” she said, so quickly that he sat up in surprise. “He – the leader guy, Saramargo – was wearing it. It was all black and gold and garnets, really gaudy like those things are. It stood out.”
“Could you draw it?” Giles asked, fishing a scrap of paper and a pen out of his pocket.
“Maybe,” she said. She took the paper and pen and then hesitated, biting her lip. Finally she drew a rough eye shape, a chain extending from the point at either end. “That was gold,” she said, tracing the tip of the pen over the edge of the eye, “and inside it was black, like it’d been inlaid with onyx or something. And the pupil part was a garnet, I think. I don’t know exactly,” she added anxiously, “it was pretty dark.”
“No, Willow, this is very helpful.” Giles slipped it into his pocket. “I’ll fax it down to London and have it waiting for Xander.”
“You think it’s important then?” she asked. “I mean, I didn’t get hardly any vibe off it at the time.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Giles said. “They would have wanted it as magically inert as possible before the ritual began. But I believe it is entirely possible that your powers are now contained within it.”
Willow frowned. “But why would they do that? They’re useless all locked up.”
Giles looked at her hard for a moment. He could not keep this from her, as much as he would have liked to. She was too smart by half not to put the pieces together on her own and he would rather be with her when she found out. Choosing his words with the utmost care, he told her what he and Mary had discussed that morning, about what the ritual had actually been intended to accomplish.
She listened in silence until he was finished, and then looked away. “That’s, um . . . wow.”
“Yes,” Giles said. He stared down at where their hands were still clasped together. “I hope you know – that is, the coven can keep you safe. But, but your powers –”
“I get it,” she said. “You’re going to try and find this Dark Eye thing and get them back. But if it comes down to it, you might have to destroy it to keep them from finishing the ritual and giving the First a body.” She shrugged with clearly feigned indifference. “Well, looks like I might get what I want after all.”
“Unfortunately, as I said before, it’s not that simple.” Giles’s mouth was dry. This was the part he had dreaded all along. God, he didn’t want to do this, but it had to be done and he didn’t want anyone else to do it in his stead. “Willow, do you remember when you were here before, at the coven, and you suggested it might be better if we took your powers?” She nodded. “Do you remember what I said?”
“You said it wasn’t a hobby,” she replied slowly. “And it wasn’t an addiction. You said the magic was inside me.”
“Yes, exactly. Which is no less true now.” Giles had to stop to sip his tea, and worried that she might feel his hands trembling in hers. “You see, for people who, who’ve gone very far into magic, it, it’s like it becomes a part of them. It’s part of what binds our souls to our bodies. That’s why Ethan and I, and now the coven, had to share our magic with you to keep you alive.” He paused and stroked his thumb over the back of her hand. “But that can’t go on forever. The coven can sustain you for a time, but not indefinitely. If we can get your powers back, then of course it won’t matter, but if we can’t –”
“I’ll die,” Willow finished. “Oh.”
Giles nodded, forcing himself to meet her eyes, though he would much rather have looked away. “Miss Harkness is working on how to revert your soul back to how it was before you started practicing magic. There is hope there.” What he did not say was that any magic having to do with the soul was complicated, to say the least. There was some precedent, Mary had told him, but it consisted almost entirely of attempts that had failed.
Willow said nothing for a very long time. Giles let her be silent. He had no idea what she might be thinking in that moment, though he rather suspected she was in shock.
At last she cleared her throat and glanced up at him. “I, uh, can I be alone for awhile, Giles?”
He hesitated. “You won’t do anything foolish, will you?” He didn’t think she would, but after news like that, one simply never knew.
She shook her head.
“Then yes, of course.” He squeezed her hands once more and stood. “If you need me, I’ll be around, all right?”
“Thanks,” she said. “Hey, do you think later we could take a walk? To the beach, maybe?”
He nodded. “I’d like that, very much.”
She managed a smile and he felt something in his throat close up painfully. He let himself out of her room, but lingered in the hallway just beyond, listening for . . . something. But the walls were thick and he heard nothing. He leaned against the wall a moment, removed his glasses, rubbed his forehead, and came to a decision.
“Not like this,” he muttered, pushing the words past the tightness in his throat. He took a deep breath and strode off up the hallway. It was time to find Ethan.
Unfortunately, finding Ethan turned out to be more difficult than Giles had anticipated. He checked his room, then the dining commons, and finally the library, before concluding that Ethan must have gone out onto the grounds. He could not have left without anyone noticing, Giles thought, though with Ethan one could never be sure. He went back to his own room to pick up a coat – and found exactly what he’d been looking for all along, fidgeting in an armchair.
“Ripper, mate,” Ethan said, standing. “You have to let me out of here, I’m going mad. This place is so –”
“Wholesome?” Giles suggested with a smile.
“Orderly,” Ethan replied with a glare. “Well-meaning and everything in its place. There isn’t a speck of chaos anywhere to be seen, I’m about to go round the twist. Ripper, you have to let me leave.”
“Calm down,” Giles said. “As it happens, I have a job for you.” He sat down on the bed and gestured Ethan back down in the armchair. “Stop hovering,” he added irritably, when Ethan remained standing, looming over him and eyeing Giles with open suspicion. “It’s not even nine yet and I’ve already had a long morning.”
“A job isn’t really what I had in mind,” Ethan said, taking his seat at last but continuing to frown warily. “I rather thought you’d consider my debt for that whole Fyarl incident paid up and let me go on my merry way.”
“Ah, no.” Giles smiled more tightly. “As Xander said, I believe you’re in this for the long haul.”
“And if I think otherwise?” Ethan leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I’m head of the Council now, Ethan. Do you remember that.”
“Threatening me, Ripper?” Ethan asked with a lift of an eyebrow and a distinct lack of rancor. He sounded more curious than anything else. Whether that was because he didn’t take the threat seriously, or because he figured that threats, recriminations, and blackmail were par for the course with the two of them, Giles didn’t know and didn’t care.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I could make your life very difficult without ever leaving my office. On the other hand,” he gave a shrug, “Council operative pays quite handsomely.”
Ethan shot him a look of pure horror. “I would rather slice off my thumbs.”
“That could be arranged,” Giles said without missing a beat.
“Seriously, Ripper, you can’t do this to me.”
“I can and will.” Giles leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and said seriously, “Ethan, I need you on this. You have a talent for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong and yet somehow coming out with it still attached. And I have the sneaking suspicion a good dose of chaos might be just what this situation calls for.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, Ripper.” Ethan crossed his arms over his chest. “Money on the other hand . . .”
“Of course. As I said, Council operative –”
“Call me that I again and I’ll walk out that door,” Ethan said, pointing to the door in question. “I’m not doing this for the Council.”
“Why then?” Giles asked, genuinely curious.
“Money, it would seem,” Ethan said evenly. “What’s the going rate for a job like this?”
“Eight thousand, Sterling.”
Ethan shook his head. “Twelve thousand.”
“Ten thousand, and you tell me the real reason you haven’t walked away from this already. Because I know as well as you do that if you wanted out, none of us could stop you.”
For a moment, Ethan looked as though he might refuse to answer. Then he sighed and said, “Let’s just say I’ve always had a weakness for redheads.”
Giles found himself frowning suddenly, quite fiercely. “You can’t possibly think –”
“Oh, not for a minute. Don’t get all worked up over it. I find her charming, but I don’t fool myself that she would ever take notice of me – especially not with you around.”
Giles stared. “I beg your pardon?”
Ethan rolled his eyes. “Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed.”
“Noticed what?” Giles demanded, sitting up
Ethan raised an eyebrow in infuriating incredulity. “Ripper, old man, I don’t remember you being this dim – though I suppose it would account for why you only have a shag about once a decade.”
“What the hell would you know –” Giles began, more furious by the second about where this conversation seemed to be going.
“Oh come off it, anyone who looks at you can tell. And if you can honestly say you didn’t notice that even half-dead she wanted you, then it’s no wonder.”
“You, you’re wrong,” Giles sputtered. “And quite possibly in need of professional help. Willow and I are friends. We’ve been friends for a, a long time –”
“Yes, and that never leads anywhere, of course.”
“Ethan, do stop being ridiculous,” Giles managed, attempting to achieve an indifferent tone. “Apart from anything else, Willow is, is – that is, her last two lovers were women.”
“And you and I both know quite well that such things are not written in stone. Clay, perhaps,” Ethan added with a smile, “but not stone. Ripper, let me tell you something.” Ethan leaned forward. “I was in that jungle with her for three days and any time she was conscious all she did was ask for you. Not Buffy and not that Xander chap, even though they’re supposedly her best friends. You.”
“Because, because she knew I could help,” Giles said. So much for indifferent; he sounded more desperate than anything else. Damn Ethan anyway. “Because she, she was hurt and I, I –”
“Your stammering gives you away, Ripper,” Ethan said, leaning back again and smiling as smugly as a cat in a dairy. “It always has. You know I’m right.”
“I know no such thing,” Giles replied stiffly.
“She invited you into her bed, you idiot!”
“Because I was safe!” Giles burst out. “Because she can’t possibly imagine a scenario in which I might think of her sexually. That’s why she did it. No other reason.”
“Right, that’s it,” Ethan said, standing. “If you’re going to be willfully stupid then I’m done. I hope you and your left hand have another blissful decade together, because you certainly deserve it.” With which parting shot he stalked out, not even bothering to close the door behind him. Giles stared after him, gaping, and was still doing so when Ethan reappeared, looking remarkably unsheepish for someone who had just spoiled his own dramatic exit.
“Ten thousand quid sounds reasonable,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb. “Plus any travel expenses, of course. First class. Not all of us can travel the world in a posh private jet, but we can damn well have some decent legroom.”
It took Giles a few seconds to recover himself. “Business,” he replied, firmly.
Ethan sighed. “Very well, business class, since I am a model of compromise. And just what, pray tell, do I have to do to earn this money?”
“I, er,” Giles removed his glasses and began polishing them, “I’m not entirely sure yet. I imagine I’ll be asking you to go back to Brazil eventually, but for now I’d like you to go down to London and check in with Xander. He’ll explain things. Put yourself at his disposal, see what he needs.” He put his glasses back on and looked very hard at Ethan. “I trust I needn’t elucidate the consequences if you cross me in this in any way.”
Ethan grimaced at him. “Er, no, I think I can imagine.”
Giles smiled. “Excellent. Then we understand each other.”
“As much as ever we do, at least.”