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 walk to the sea from the coven was just a little more than two kilometers long. It had been one of Willow’s favorites before, once she had recovered enough to enjoy anything at all. Giles sought her out when she didn’t appear at lunch and found her in her room, dressed in jeans and a thick jumper that had probably been lent her by one of the coven, her hair pulled back neatly from her face. She was pulling on a pair of thick wool socks when she called for him to come in.
“You ready?” she asked, standing.
“Yes.” He had an old blanket for them to sit on folded over one arm, and a bag with two thermoses of hot tea and some sandwiches over the opposite shoulder. He nearly said something about her absence at lunch, but decided against it. He hoped that the crisp sea air would do what he suspected no amount of coaxing from him could. She took the blanket from him and off they went.
It was a rather blustery day for a walk to the sea. Within minutes Giles found himself wishing he’d brought a hat and gloves. Still, he was grateful for the distraction, uncomfortable as it was, since he could not stop thinking about what Ethan had said. Bloody Ethan. He probably considered it a religious experience, contributing to Giles’s personal chaos. He wondered glumly how long it would be before he could walk beside Willow like this, so close their hands brushed occasionally, and not think about it. Never, Giles suspected.
Willow herself seemed unaffected by the wind, though Giles imagined that if he could see inside her head, it might rather match the weather. Fortunately, by the time they began picking their way carefully down the rocky path that wound down the cliff face to the beach, the sun had at last seen fit to put in an appearance, warming the tips of Giles’s numbed ears.
The beach was rocky, the surf low and gray, shimmering a little in patches of weak sunlight. They found their usual spot from before, just in front of a boulder it was possibly to lean against comfortably. Willow spread the blanket out and sank down onto it with a sigh, the first sound either of them had made since leaving the coven. Giles took it as tacit permission to speak, though he waited until he’d settled himself on the blanket a safe distance away. He passed her a thermos of hot tea, and then a sandwich.
“That’s to eat, by the way,” he said. “Not to feed to the gulls.” Some of which had already flapped down ungracefully a few feet away, clicking their beaks in expectation.
She smiled at him ruefully and took a dutiful bite. He wrapped his hands around his own thermos and sipped, feeling it warm him all the way through. “How are you?” he asked, deciding it was as good an opening as any.
She swallowed, chased the bite of sandwich with some tea, and shook her head. “I . . .” She looked over at him. “I don’t want to die. And, and I never expected it to be like this.”
“How do you mean?”
“I don’t know exactly. Slow, I guess. It’s like . . . it’s like I’ve been diagnosed with cancer or something. I feel okay mostly, but I know I might be dead in a few weeks.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Giles said slowly. “But I suppose you’re right.”
“I have time too,” she said. “I always thought that if I was going to die – young, I mean – it would be fast. A vampire or another witch . . . something like that, fighting evil.” She looked down at the sandwich in her hands, tore off a crust of the bread, and despite what he had said, tossed it to the gulls. They went mad immediately, flapping and snapping at each other. She watched them a moment, but then, perhaps noticing that he was watching her in turn, took another bite.
“Would you prefer it to be fast?” he asked.
She shrugged. “No, it’s just what I always thought.” She glanced over at him again. “Why’re you so far away?”
“Yeah, you are. You’re at the other end of the blanket. It’s not catching, you know, I promise,” she added, in a way he suspected was supposed to be joking, but which came out sadly uncertain.
“No, no, that’s not, not –” he stammered. God, Ethan was right. The stammering really would give him away. And of course there was nothing to do but go to her. He would not have her believe he was avoiding her for any reason. There was so little he could do for her right now, but making her feel secure in his friendship and in his love for her – that was well within his reach. “Better?” he said, once they were leaning side by side against the boulder, the stone ice cold even through the layers he had on. This had been rather more comfortable in the summertime.
“Almost,” she said, and to his surprise set the sandwich down on the blanket and reached out to wrap her arms around him, sliding her hands into the warm space between his coat and jumper. “It’s cold,” she murmured, laying her head on his chest. He hesitated just a moment and then settled his arms carefully about her as well. She snugged herself closer still, and he rested his cheek on the top of her head.
Stupid Ethan and his maybe being right. Of course now Giles was looking for signs when he had no reason to believe . . . anything. Or – perhaps not exactly no reason. Her hand was rubbing slow circles over his lower back and toying with the edge of his jumper. He was tempted to ask just what, exactly, she thought she was doing, but instead he closed his eyes and let himself pretend for a few seconds that all were well. The smell of the salt in the air, the sound of the waves and the wind over the bluff, and, above all else, her warm, solid weight in his arms, leaning against his chest – it could have been a slice of a rather chilly heaven. If he only pretended.
A minute of pretending became two, then five, ten, fifteen, until at last Willow said, “Giles?”
“I want you know to know . . . if nothing can be done, I don’t want to drag this out.” She shivered, and he held her closer. “I want to see everyone again, Xander and Buffy and Dawn and, and my parents.” He felt her swallow and her voice, when she spoke again, was shaky. “And then I want to come back to the coven and just, just – I’m on borrowed time already, I mean, and I don’t want to drain them, I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want it to be over, if it has to be.”
Giles nodded. “That’s very brave of you.”
“And if it comes down to it,” she said, sitting up and looking him straight in the eyes, “I don’t want anyone else there but you. Not Buffy, not Xander, just you.”
“Willow,” he said, pulling away a little.
“Promise me, Giles,” she said, her hands tightening where they gripped his upper arms. “Please?”
“You –” Giles began, and then stopped. ‘You don’t know what you’re asking,’ was what he wanted to say and could not. He could not refuse her in this, and some part of him didn’t want to. He did not want anyone else to hold her in that hour, God forbid it should come.
Stupid fucking Ethan.
“I promise,” he said.
She nodded. “Thank you.”
That was the first of many walks that week. They set out every morning after breakfast, usually on the path to the beach. After the first day they barely mentioned their current situation at all, which was more of a relief than anything else. Mary had come no closer to a solution and Giles’s daily reports from Xander were full of fresh negatives. They had turned up no information that might lead them to the Children of the Dark Eye, nor had they found any mention thus far of the talisman anywhere in the Council’s extensive library. Ethan could tell them where the ritual had taken place, but there were several such places of dark power in the Brazilian jungle and Giles didn’t think the cult would risk using the same place twice. On the fourth day, Giles dispatched Ethan back to Rio to look into the matter in person, and set to waiting with growing anxiety.
Willow never asked about any of it, and Giles didn’t offer updates. She seemed to have achieved a bittersweet peace, and the last thing he wanted was to disrupt that. And so they took walks and sat close together on the blanket, sipping tea and staring out at the sea. After the first day, Giles didn’t try to distance himself. They talked when they felt like it and were silent when they didn’t, and Giles fell a little more into sad, despairing love with her each day.
Friday morning dawned gray and drizzly, but with just slightly less chill in the air. They had been at the coven for five days; on Sunday they would go down to London for Kennedy’s memorial service. Even if no news had come in, Giles would have to stay while Willow returned to the relative safety of Westbury. The coven could support Willow wherever she was, but more than a few miles distance would put a strain on them in the long-term; then, too, there was the ever-present possibility of the cult coming to retrieve her by force. Giles thought she would be safer in Westbury, where she would be protected by old magics utterly at odds with the sort the cult would have studied. But necessary as he believed it to be, he hated the thought of leaving her.
Such were the thoughts preoccupying him that morning, when he knocked on Willow’s door after breakfast. She slid her hand into his as they walked, and he tried to put everything else from his mind. If he had to leave her soon then he would do nothing that might mar their last few days together.
“Do you mind if we go somewhere else today?” she asked him, pausing them both at the start of the path to the beach.
“Of course not,” he said. “Wherever you’d like.”
Without another word, she led him away from the house and across the grounds until it was no longer visible behind them. When she started up a steep hill dotted with springtime wildflowers, he knew at last where they were going. He followed in silence until they reached a great oak tree, possibly the oldest tree on the grounds. He had found her sitting beneath it once before, a flower from Paraguay blooming in front of her.
He was carrying the blanket this time. He spread it out beneath the tree’s branches, while she touched the trunk of the tree and closed her eyes. After a few moments she sighed, opened them again, and sank down onto the blanket. Giles sat leaning against the tree; she leaned against him. He pressed his lips to her forehead.
“Do you remember – before?” she asked.
“Of course,” he murmured into her hair.
“I brought that flower all the way from Paraguay,” she said wistfully. “I miss that. Feeling connected. I didn’t realize how important it was until it was gone. Now, it’s like I’ve lost my sight or my hearing or something.”
“You’ve changed your mind then?” Giles said. “From what you said to me that first day?”
“I – I don’t know.” She picked a blade of grass and rubbed it between her fingers. “I miss feeling connected, but I don’t miss feeling . . . afraid of myself.”
“Were you often afraid of yourself?”
“Yeah,” she admitted, still staring at the blade of grass. “It was part of why Kennedy and I split.” She glanced at him; he raised an eyebrow. “She – she kinda liked being a Slayer a lot. Maybe too much. She reminded me of Faith sometimes, how she used to – but not, not psycho like Faith was back then,” she added hastily. “But she liked the power and she just never got why it made me so nervous, you know?”
“So . . . I don’t know.” Willow let the blade of grass fall from her fingers at last. Giles realized she was looking at the spot where her flower from Paraguay had bloomed. He held her and waited. That seemed to be what he was best at these days.
“Giles?” she finally said.
“Can . . . can I see?” She touched him on the chest, on his scar. “What I did to you?”
He almost said no. He wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was too private, or perhaps, he admitted, it was pure vanity. The scar was white and hard and ugly, and he did not relish the idea of anyone seeing it. Hardly anyone had, except the coven’s healers. Still, if anyone had the right, it was Willow, both for having created it and for having one of her own now. When he finally answered, it was to ask, “Do you really think it will help?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. She looked up. “But I need to see, I think.”
He nodded. She helped him with the buttons of his shirt, Giles working from the top down and Willow from the bottom up, until they met in the middle and she popped the last one free. He shrugged out of it and then, fighting the urge to hesitate or even stop altogether, pulled his undershirt off over his head She stared for a moment before reaching out to press her hand into it. And then she kissed him.
Her lips were so soft. She was far too thin, and yet she was so soft everywhere Giles touched her. He had not understood how much he had ached for this until now, when he rubbed his thumb beneath the hem of her shirt and felt her shiver. He wanted badly to let his hands drift upward to touch her breasts, but then he thought of her injury, still inflamed, painful and tender, and he refrained. The kiss grew steadily more intense despite their restrictions; her hand never left his scar, and he was sure she could feel his heartbeat pounding against her palm. But when her free hand dropped from the back of his neck to his belt buckle, he broke away instantly.
“No,” he managed, even while the rest of him protested. “Not here.”
“Yes,” she replied. She was flushed, her eyes wide and dark. “Here, like this.”
Oh God, this wasn’t fair. “No, I won’t – Willow, I won’t be your, your act of desperation.”
She drew back from him at last. “Is that what you think this is?”
“I – I don’t know,” Giles said, backtracking at the note of hurt in her voice. “You tell me what it is.”
“I love you,” she said clearly. “I thought it was kinda obvious. And I thought you – oh God, was I wrong?”
Giles could not bear the look of mortification on her face. “No,” he assured her, capturing her hands in his own. “Not wrong. But why –”
“Because – because when I was lying in that hut and I thought I would die, you were the only one I wanted. Because you didn’t let me go. Because . . .” She paused and touched his scar again. “Because you forgave me. Because you’re handsome and kind and – and I know I’m not making any sense at all here and probably I am needy and desperate because I might die soon, but there are so many things I might never get to do and I don’t want us to be one of them. Is that awful?”
“No,” Giles said slowly. “It’s not. But, Willow –”
“Please, Giles. Here, now, like this. Even if it never happens again.”
Giles stared at her in . . . he didn’t know what. Longing, yes, God, how he wanted her. Confusion, perhaps; he knew all too well why he wanted her but he still couldn’t imagine why she wanted him. And fear – yes, that was what to call that trapped feeling in his chest. Fear that when this was over and – please God – she was still alive, she would regret this act.
But he had found over the past few days – had it really been less than a week? – that he could deny her nothing. She desired him in this moment, and her desire would have made him hers, even if he had not been already.
“Yes,” he said, and she pulled him toward her once more.
It was slow and a little awkward, outdoors not really being the ideal place for something like this. The grass was soft enough, but once they had divested themselves of their clothing, Willow started to shiver. Giles rolled them up in the blanket, which made Willow laugh into his bare collarbone. “Like a burrito,” she said, and went on giggling until Giles kissed her feather-light in the curve of her neck and made her moan instead.
They took their time, touching each other unhurriedly, caressing with deliberate slowness, learning each other’s bodies. Giles had found this part awkward with lovers in the past, but with Willow it was pure joy. She was beautiful, her breasts not large but lovely, and she quivered when he stroked the underside of one of them. He would have liked to pay much more attention to them, but he was afraid of hurting her and had to content himself with caressing lightly, squeezing gently, and brushing his thumb over her nipples. She pinched one of his in return and smiled impishly when he jerked against her and let out a soft moan.
At last their bodies were both flushed and covered in a fine sheen of sweat; her pupils were wide and dilated with arousal, and Giles knew he must look much the same as he stroked a hand carefully down the side of her body. She took it and placed where she wanted it, where he had been too nervous to go thus far, and arched against him until he gasped and had to hold her still.
“You want to this to be over right now?” he managed, amazed at his ability to form full sentences.
“Watching you lose it is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen,” she replied, tracing the features of his face with a delicate finger. “But I’m ready.”
She guided him toward her with flattering eagerness, but he was careful as he slid into her. He did not know if she had been with a man since Oz, and then there was her injury to be mindful of. He was too afraid of hurting her to let go the way he would have liked; she noticed after a little while, and paused, wrapping her legs around his hips and squeezing the muscles deep inside of her, holding him in place. He almost came undone then, clutching at her and gasping into the hollow of her throat. “Giles, I’m not gonna break,” she whispered in his ear, and arched her back. He could not stop himself then from losing himself in her, in the joining of their bodies, but it didn’t matter because she was with him, her hips rising to meet him on every thrust, until at last she shuddered beneath him, around him, until at last he shook in her arms, stifling his groan against her lips.
Afterward, Giles pulled the blanket over their heads and they lay together, hidden from the world. “Thank you,” she said.
To his embarrassment, Giles found himself unable to answer for the painful tightness in his throat. It was ridiculous, almost shameful, that in this moment she was the one to hold him and make soothing noises, but the thought of losing her now was overwhelming. He had previously thought only of the possibility that she might regret this, but if everyone’s efforts failed and he lost her forever, would he? Would he wish it all undone for the sake of his future sanity?
He knew the answer, of course. Love doth make complete and utter idiots of us all.
“I won’t let it happen,” he told her once he’d got control of himself again.
There was just enough light filtering through the blanket for him to see her face. She smiled gently and touched his lips with the tips of her fingers. “Hey now, Giles, don’t go making promises you don’t know you can keep.”
She was all too right, unfortunately. He nodded. A few minutes later the distant rumble of thunder forced them out of their warm cocoon. They found their clothes and raced the storm back to the coven, making it just before the first drops fell.
They parted with a kiss in the deserted foyer. Lunch was in an hour, and Giles climbed the stairs to his room, planning to shower and change. The storm was rumbling outside, the clouds hanging dark and low and heavy. He wondered if it would last all night, and if Willow would invite him to her room where they might make love again, warm in her bed this time while the storm raged outside. Then he laughed at himself; in the years since Jenny, he had somehow managed to forget what a complete and utter romantic sop he could be.
“Rupert Giles, you are an idiot.”
Giles froze, his hand on the doorknob to his room. “Hell,” he muttered. He turned to face Mary Harkness, who crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “Would you like to come in?”
“I’d like to neuter you,” she snapped. “Honestly, what were you thinking? Never mind. You weren’t.”
“Please come in,” Giles said, gritting his teeth. “I don’t relish making a public scene over this, for Willow’s sake if not my own.”
This seemed to win past her anger, at least temporarily. He opened the door and she stalked past, tilting her chin up in annoyance. She seated herself in his armchair, crossed one leg over the other, and waited until he’d closed the door. “Did you really think I wouldn’t know, connected as she and I are?”
“I – I confess I didn’t think about it at the time.”
“We’ve already covered how much or how little you must have been thinking,” she said coldly.
“Now see here, Mary,” he said, beginning to feel well and truly annoyed. “This is none of your business. You’re a friend of mine and of Willow’s, but this is private. It was our decision, and I do not care at all to be attacked over it.”
“You don’t care to be attacked over it because you can’t defend it,” she replied, standing abruptly. “You know this was a bad decision. She is vulnerable, Rupert –”
“Well, this just gets better and better. What are you accusing me of, Mary? Being some sort of, of predator? I can assure you, every move that was made was made by Willow. She wanted it as much if not more than I did –”
“Of course she did, she thinks she’s dying.”
“Oh, that’s very flattering,” Giles said, rolling his eyes, even more irritated because it was no more than he himself had thought earlier. “The only reason she might want me is because she thinks she’s dying. Thank you so very much.”
“That isn’t what I – that’s not the point, Rupert.”
“No, you’re bloody well right it’s not the point. Not that I’m sure what the point is. Righteous indignation isn’t your style, Mary.”
She glared and crossed her arms over her chest again, though her stance was more defensive than indignant now. “I’m not jealous, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I never said you were.”
She frowned at the carpet and was silent for a moment. “Not that it thrilled me,” she muttered at last, sounded less furious, “when I figured out what was going on. Honestly, Rupert, you picked the worst possible time in about twenty different ways.”
He sighed. “I’m aware. And . . . if you were made uncomfortable in any way, I am sorry.”
“I was. And thank you.” She seated herself in the armchair again, her posture still reserved but much less rigid.
“Did – that is, was everyone privy to my and Willow’s, er, moment?”
Her mouth twisted in amusement. “No,” she said. “I am the – the conduit, shall we say. The one closest to Willow. The others might have felt something odd, but not enough to realize what it was.”
“Oh,” Giles said, sinking onto the bed. “Good.”
“However, in light of that I don’t think it would be overstepping my bounds if I asked if you were planning to have other moments?”
She sighed. “Very well then.”
“Not, not – I don’t mean to make an inadvertent ménage trios out of this, Mary. If you’re made uncomfortable, she and I certainly – that is, we can wait, if it’s necessary.”
“No,” she sighed. “Now that I know, I can block her a little – not enough to rob her of much power, but enough not to know when the two of you are . . . what the two of you are up to.”
“Oh,” Giles said. “Yes, good, thank you.”
She looked at him rather the way she had the first day they’d arrived: affection, exasperation, and worry, all rolled into one. “I meant what I said before though. She is vulnerable. And so are you.”
“Don’t pull that macho crap with me, Rupert. It never fit you well. Your last lover died and I know how long you mourned for her.”
Giles looked down at his hands. “That was different.”
“It was. This will hurt differently.”
He sighed. “Then I take it you’ve found nothing so far on how to help her if I can’t?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Rupert. We’re still looking, but we’re running out of likely places to find anything.”
He nodded. “Well, then, I suppose it’s time to step things up on my end.”
“Indeed.” She stood and went to the door. “Be careful, Rupert.”
Buffy, Dawn, and Xander were waiting for them at Giles’s flat in London when they arrived Sunday night. There was even a tuna casserole baking in the oven. Predictably, Dawn flung herself at Willow the moment they stepped in the door. Buffy waited until her sister was done, and then hugged Willow herself for a long time. Giles was next for both of them, and for almost as long. He wanted more than anything to reassure them that everything would be all right, but found himself quite unable to speak, to say nothing of not being able to honestly offer such assurances.
They ate together at his small kitchen table. Xander and Giles did the washing up, and then Giles cited work and disappeared into his study to give the four of them some time together without him.
Not that there wasn’t work to do. His ten days away from London had come at a heavy price, and Giles was about to have to pay it. But before anything else came the report Xander had left for him. He had rung Giles that afternoon, just as they were leaving, and said the research team had finally found something on the talisman overnight. Xander had promised they would have the information waiting for him in London. Giles sat down behind his desk and picked up the folder.
It was disappointingly thin. There was an engraving of the object itself, with more detail than Willow had been able to provide, and then a description. It was probably a thousand years old, the report said, one of a set of two identical talismans, and had always been associated with the First. It had not been seen for roughly five hundred years, at least not by anyone willing to say they had seen it. Its last recorded sighting had been in the sixteenth century, when a cult in Italy calling itself the Sons of the Dark Eye had used its twin in an attempt to make manifest the First in physical form. Their efforts had failed spectacularly, as such things often did, and the few cult members left alive had fled the wrath of the Catholic Church to the New World, apparently taking the second talisman with them. From then on there had been no sign of it at all until it had been used against Willow.
All of which was useful, at least vaguely, but it was the second page that made Giles’s pulse speed up. It was a description of the ritual as told by one of the participants under interrogation by the Church. It seemed remarkably similar to the one the Children of the Dark Eye had tried to perform: A sorcerer of great power had been captured and held until the night of the ritual, when he had been robbed of his power by the cult’s leader. As Giles had suspected, his power had been trapped inside the talisman, which had then been hung around the dying sorcerer’s neck and shattered. The spell performed by the rest of the cult was apparently meant to focus the raw outpouring of magic into burning up the sorcerer’s soul and replacing it with the First.
And they might well have succeeded, except that somehow the Church and the demon hunters it had employed in those times had caught wind of what was about to happen. They showed up at precisely the right moment, breaking the cult’s circle and its spell just as the leader had broken the talisman. Left unfocused the sorcerer’s magic burst from the talisman in a tidal wave of power that had instantly killed those at its center – the sorcerer and the cult’s leader, as well as everyone within two meters. Of those left standing, it seemed that four had escaped.
The question, therefore, was whether the Children of the Dark Eye were descendents of the original Sons of the Dark Eye, or merely a knock-off. Not that it mattered greatly; if they were a knock-off they were a very dangerous one. Giles dug his wallet out of his back pocket, found his contact number for Ethan in Brazil, and picked up the phone.
He had expected to have to leave a message and wait for him to return it, but to his surprise Ethan answered on the second ring.
“Ethan,” Giles said. “Where are you?”
“Well, that’s a fine greeting. Hello to you too, Ripper.”
“Where are you?” Giles repeated with undisguised impatience.
“Macapá at the moment. Rio was a dead end. Pity, that. The restaurants are much better.”
“Your suffering knows no bounds, I’m sure,” Giles said dryly. “Have you found anything?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I feel I’ve earned the ten thousand quid and then some, if you feel like handing out a bonus.”
“We’ll see. You’re not done yet. What have you found?”
“I’ve been consulting with my shaman friend here. Reformed chap, you know the type, but he still keeps his finger on the pulse of dark goings-on in the area. He says that if something darker than dark is about to happen and we think they won’t be using Hecate’s Womb – that’s a rough translation of the name of the place I found Willow – then it will probably happen at the Mouth of the Beast.”
“Which is?” Giles prompted.
“A place of power at a split in one of the larger Amazonian tributaries. The good news for your back is that it’s only six hours from here by canoe.”
“What makes you think I’ll be coming myself?” Giles asked. He’d barely had time to form the intention of going, and this was not the sort of mission the head of the Council usually undertook personally. But if circumstances could ever be called extenuating, these certainly were.
“Because I know you too well, Ripper.” He could hear Ethan smiling, damn him. “It would make you twitch like an electrocuted cat to leave this in the hands of a Council minion. Or me.”
Giles grimaced. Ethan’s certainty simultaneously solidified his urge to go and made him want to send someone else just to prove him wrong. In the end, though, there was really no choice at all. “Should I teleport or do you think there’s time for me to fly?” He was loathe to ask the coven to teleport him, considering the strain Willow was already putting on them, but he would if time were of the essence.
“Well, that’s the good news,” Ethan said. “My friend says that the ritual would have been easier to perform with Willow herself to serve as the First’s host. Her body and her power are already linked, and it would have much simpler, magically-speaking, though still very risky.”
“But they no longer have Willow.”
“Precisely,” Ethan said. “They will therefore have to make do with someone else, probably one of their own. That’s rather more difficult, and my friend says it’s unlikely that they’re powerful enough to pull it off except on the night of the full moon.”
Giles leaned over to check his calendar. “That’s . . . three days from now.”
“Yes. I assume you’ll be flying straight to Macapá?” Giles made a noise of agreement. “Then that gives the three of us enough time, I believe.”
“Three of us?” Giles repeated, and paused. “Your shaman friend?”
“Josué, yes. I thought we could use the extra firepower. And we could definitely use his connections.”
“Ethan,” Giles said, torn between annoyance and worry, “I didn’t give you permission to recruit. How on Earth do we know the man is trustworthy? I mean, for heaven’s sakes, I hired a guide in Macapá and he tried to kill us.”
“It’s called initiative, Ripper,” Ethan replied. “And Josué is not someone I hired. I’ve known him for years, and I’ll thank you to remember that he did help me find Willow. I trust him as much as I trust you.”
“Oh really?” Giles said. “And how much is that?”
“Now, Ripper, we both know that you’re the one with trust issues in this relationship, as your young American friends would say.”
Giles rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “I can’t imagine why.”
“You really need to get over that pesky Fyarl incident. Bit of fun, that was.”
“Easy for you to say, you weren’t the one who got a silver-plated letter opener stuck in his sternum by his own Slayer,” he replied, and added, before the conversation could devolve further, “Never mind that. I should be there tomorrow night, local time.”
“Duly noted. Ring me when you get in.”
They hung up. Giles stayed sitting quietly for a moment then, listening to the muffled sounds of laughter from Willow and the others. He removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and thought about going out to join them. In the end he simply turned on his computer. He had things to take care of if he was going to be unreachable and risking his own skin for the next three days.
Two hours later it had grown very quiet in his living room. A glance at the clock revealed it was after eleven. They must have gone to bed; he should think about doing the same. He shut down the computer, and was just setting his desk to rights when there was a knock at his office door and Buffy and Xander came in without waiting for permission.
“Willow and Dawn went to bed,” Buffy said. She was wearing pajamas herself, with flying toasters on them. “But, uh, we kinda wanted to, to – Giles, isn’t there anything we can do?”
There was certainly no need to ask about what. “I’m afraid not. Mary Harkness and the coven members are looking for a way for her to live without her power, if it comes to that.”
“And how likely is that?” Xander demanded.
“Not . . . very, at this juncture,” Giles admitted. He sighed. “Tomorrow, after the memorial service, I’m going to Macapá. Ethan and I are going to do everything in our power –”
“Wait a minute,” Buffy said, waving a hand to stop him. “You’re going? Why you? You’re the one who’s always telling me I shouldn’t risk myself because my experience is so valuable. That’s like ten times as true for you. You’re Knowledge Guy. And you’re the head honcho. If something happened to you, we’d be, uh –”
“Headless,” Xander supplied.
Giles frowned at them. “I see your point,” he said, “and I appreciate your concern, but there is no one else with my particular experience or knowledge.”
“We have mystics, Giles,” Xander pointed out. “Lots of them.”
“And they are . . . very good,” Giles said. “They are also young and inexperienced and would be in far over their heads in this matter. I’m afraid there’s no room for discussion. I’m going to Macapá tomorrow.” The two of them exchanged a look, but for once had the sense not to say anything. “It should be a short trip,” Giles added. “No more than four days. I’ll write up the details for you, Xander, before I leave.”
“And what about me?” Buffy said. “Don’t tell me I can’t do anything to help. I could go to Mapaca –”
“Macapá,” Giles corrected.
“Whatever. I could go with you. There has to be something I can Slay.”
“Would that there were,” Giles sighed. “But no, I think Ethan and I will have to take care of this. I was hoping, however, that you and Dawn might accompany Willow back to the coven. The wait will be . . . difficult for her. Any diversion the two of you might provide would be most welcome, I believe.”
Buffy nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
“Now,” Giles stood, “if you’ll excuse me, tomorrow is going to be about eight hours longer than usual and I really should – what?”
They were looking at him nervously, and exchanged an inscrutable look before Xander finally said, “Yeah, so when Willow went to bed, she kinda –”
“Went into your room,” Buffy finished. “You wanna tell us what that’s about?”
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. “Not particularly.”
“Then I guess we’ll just have to draw our own conclusions,” Buffy said, frowning at him, “and the one I’ve come to is giving me some pretty serious wiggins. So, contradict away, Giles, please.”
Giles sighed. “All right, fine. Yes. We are.”
“Whoa,” Xander said.
“Yikes,” Buffy said.
“Eloquent as ever,” Giles muttered. “Is this going to be a problem?”
“No, um, no,” Buffy said, fidgeting.
“Not unless you hurt her,” Xander added.
“Or go on a suicidal rampage if she dmmph –” Buffy broke off, Xander having clamped a hand over her mouth.
“Inner monologue, Buff,” he said dryly, removing his hand.
“Yeah, well, not out of the question in my experience,” she replied, crossing her arms over her chest and eyeing Giles with unnerving scrutiny.
“I have no plans to either end, I assure you,” Giles said. “May I go to bed now?”
Thankfully they let him escape. He was sure they would both have more to say on the subject eventually, but he hoped it would wait until everything else had been sorted.
Willow was curled up dozing under the eiderdown. Giles changed his clothes for pajamas and crawled in beside her. At the dip of the mattress under his weight, she woke and blinked at him sleepily. “Where were you all evening?” she asked.
“Working,” he said, pulling her close. “Making arrangements. Ethan has a fairly definite lead. I’m leaving tomorrow for Macapá.”
“Oh,” Willow said. A line creased between her eyes. “No, Giles, I don’t want you going. This – I’m – you can’t risk yourself like that.”
He found her hand under the covers and brushed his lips over her knuckles. “I think that’s my decision to make,” he said. “I promise you, I’ll be careful.”
The worry-line did not disappear, but she nodded reluctantly. Giles reached over to turn off the light. “By the way,” he said, “Buffy and Xander saw you come in here.”
“Oh,” she said. And then, “Whoops.”
“Did they freak out big time?”
“Not as of yet.”
“Oh, good.” She paused. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right. I had no intention of keeping us a secret forever. I was just rather . . . unprepared.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Good night.”
It took her a few minutes to settle herself then; they had discovered the hard way that sleeping together was more difficult than sex in terms of her injury. At last she seemed comfortable stretched out on her side, her back to his chest, one foot hooked between his calves, one hand pressing his hand to her stomach. Just as she had the last two nights, she fell asleep quickly and slept soundly, deeply, as her body and soul attempted to heal an injury that could not be healed. Just as he had the last two nights, he lay awake long after, and wondered what he would do if all else failed and he had to learn to sleep without her pressed warm against him once more.