Title: A Heavy Darkness Falling, Chapter 7/7
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.
Coming to was a slow return of sensation. It spread outward from the tips of his fingers, up his arms and legs and into his chest, until he could feel the ground beneath him and the sweat on his face, smell the rotting leaves and the damp earth. Awareness came as well, but even more gradually, and it seemed an eternity before he remembered he could open his eyes, much less that there was any reason he should.
He blinked, and the first thing he saw was Ethan, slumped over against the massive roots of the tree. Giles forced air through his lips in a groan, and Ethan raised his head.
“Dead?” Giles managed. And then, thinking that possibly he needed to clarify matters, “Us?”
“Not as far as I know,” Ethan replied.
Giles looked down at his chest; things were coming back to him in bits and pieces now, and he remembered an axe and his chest and a bleeding wound. All that was left now was a pink line, about eight centimeters in length. He looked up at Ethan. “Did you –?”
“Yeah. Almost couldn’t – you were pretty far gone by the time I got to you.”
“Oh,” Giles said. “Er, thank you.”
Ethan waved this away. “Don’t. I assure you it was entirely self-serving. I made a list in my head of all the people who would line up to murder me if I came back to England without you.”
Giles gave a weak laugh. He sat up slowly, head spinning, his shoulder still aching something fierce. He closed his eyes, waiting for the vertigo to end and trying to grasp and hang onto more bits of what had happened. Blinding white – he remembered at the end there had been an explosion of blinding white light – Willow. It had been Willow’s power exploding as Ethan destroyed the amulet. He dropped his face into his hands; he’d failed her, and now he would have to go home and hold her as the coven severed their bond and she died.
It might have been kinder of Ethan to let him go. Except . . . except then he could not have been there for Willow, and he had promised.
“Do you have the pieces?” he asked at last, lifting his head.
Ethan had apparently dozed off against the tree again. “Of what?” he asked, slitting his eyes open.
“The amulet. Were they destroyed?” He wasn’t sure why he wanted them, except possibly as a morbidly maudlin souvenir. They would be useless now. Worse than useless. But he wanted them all the same.
“What pieces? I didn’t destroy it.”
“But I told you to, to –”
“You did,” Ethan said. “I heard you. I didn’t do it.”
“But the explosion –”
“Was meant to mimic the effects, yes?” Ethan said, very slowly and with careful enunciation. Giles glared at him. He did not think this was an appropriate time to joke, but then, he supposed Ethan hadn’t just had a near-death experience. Not to mention his complete lack of any sense of the appropriate. “So the idea was that it would be the same either way and fool any surviving cult members into thinking the ritual had simply gone awry.”
“Oh,” Giles said. “So it’s not – it’s not been destroyed then.”
Ethan reached into his shirt and pulled it out to show Giles before taking it off and handing it to him. “All in one piece. I just happened to finish the spell at the same moment you told me to go ahead and break it.”
“Oh,” Giles said again, more faintly. He closed his fingers around the amulet. “Erm,” he said, as something occurred to him. “Are there surviving cult members?” He glanced around; they seemed alone in an unusually quiet jungle. The trees and everything seemed intact, though, so Giles hoped it was merely that it had been shocked into silence.
Ethan shook his head. “I, er, took the liberty of disposing of the bodies.”
Ethan nodded, and Giles sighed in relief. Burning a body was really the only way to be sure it wouldn’t come back nastier than it had been in life; cremation was specified in Giles’s own will for that very reason. But it had obviously cost Ethan significant energy, and probably also taken some time. Giles checked his watch and found it shattered; he then glanced up, but it was impossible to tell from the position of the sun what time it was due to the density of the canopy. “How long was I out?” he asked.
“Half a day. Well,” Ethan amended, checking his own watch, “closer to a full day now, I suppose.”
“Hell,” Giles said, attempting to scramble up. “I told Willow I’d call her. She’ll think the worst.”
“Rupert,” Ethan said with weary patience, “it’s going to take five hours at least to get into mobile range. You nearly died, I’m exhausted, I suggest we both sit for a few minutes.”
But Giles was determined. He would not leave Willow wondering for one minute longer than was necessary, and he didn’t trust his own energies enough at the moment to make contact with her the way she had with him – had that really only been yesterday? Less than twenty-four hours ago, even.
He dragged Ethan down the hill, ignoring his grumbling all the way, until they encountered the splintered remains of their canoe. They salvaged what they could of their belongings and crawled over the wreckage to the cult’s canoe, which was, if not intact, at least river-worthy. They used the paddles to push themselves off and emerged into the wide stretch of the river and unexpected sunlight. Giles turned his face up to it and closed his eyes.
“Since you were so eager to get going,” Ethan said, “you can drive.” He spread out a few of the orange life vests in the front of the canoe and settled down, apparently to sleep.
“I won’t argue,” Giles said, though he eyed the motor warily. He examined it; the engine looked much the same as the other one, and he’d managed that one while under attack. This could certainly not be harder, or at least he hoped not. He lifted his head and said, “Ethan?”
“You pull the thing,” Ethan said, raising his hand to make a gesture that might have been pulling the throttle or might have mimicked something obscene.
“That wasn’t – I was going to ask if you’d seen the First since the explosion.”
Ethan did sit up then. “No. No more Bringers either.”
Giles nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Once Willow has her power back she can seal it off – the inter-dimensional backdoor, as she called it – and then –”
“It will find a way back in,” Ethan finished.
“Ever the optimist, aren’t you?” Giles sighed without rancor. “You’re right, I expect. But hopefully not in my lifetime.”
Ethan nodded, but did not lie back down. “It was like that all last year, I take it?” he asked. “I see dead people?”
“Yes,” Giles said. “There was a lot of that.”
“And . . . it never appeared to you as Randall.”
“No.” Giles hesitated. He had never discussed this with anyone, in point of fact; the First had made sure to appear to him only when he was alone, and the others had never asked him if it had. It had served to underscore his isolation within the group, as Giles was sure it had intended. “It came to me as Buffy, usually, to list off all the ways I had failed her. It came as Angelus, to mock me. And it came as Jenny. A woman in, in Sunnydale,” he explained when Ethan started to ask. “The one Eyghon possessed.”
“Ah,” Ethan said. He was silent; Giles let them drift now that the current carried them toward their goal. At last he said, almost casually, “It was very convincing.”
“Oh yes. The First has an eye for detail, if nothing else.” Giles leaned wearily against the back of the bench. “But what you must remember is that while it is real, the things it says aren’t. They aren’t the things our dead would say to us if they could. They’re – they’re what we fear they would say. The worst-case scenarios.”
Ethan nodded, but did not reply. After a moment, Giles pulled the throttle and the engine caught, making further conversation impractical. Giles kept one hand curled around the rim of the canoe for balance and one on the rudder as he steered them toward Macapá, the Council jet, and home.
Ethan drove from Heathrow to the coven this time, with Giles in the front seat and Xander in the back, where he could stomp on the imaginary brake all he wanted without annoying anybody. It was usually a three hour journey from London, but Giles thought they’d make it in two and a half today. Or at least they would if they ever managed to pass the sheep-toting lorry currently plodding along in front of them. Ethan let the string of cars on the other side of the road go by and then passed. Xander made a strangled noise.
“What’s his problem?” Ethan asked.
Giles rolled his eyes. “He drives like a seventy-five year old grandmother, that’s what.”
“I do not,” Xander objected. “I drive cautiously.”
“He never goes more than ten kilometers an hour over the speed limit,” Giles informed Ethan.
“Which is, you know, what’s legal,” Xander said. “And those of us with no depth perception have to be a little more careful.”
Ethan made a disgusted noise. “Excuses, excuses.”
“Was he always this terrifying?” Xander asked Giles.
“Oh yes,” Ethan answered for him. “I was the get-away man every time. Ripper, do you remember that time in Edinburgh when we stole that –”
“Stop,” Giles said flatly. Ethan subsided looking smug and Giles thought about telling him to ease up on the gas after all. There was no real hurry; the amulet was safe around his neck, the cult was decimated, and Willow was waiting for him at the coven. It was only his own eagerness to see her that told him to hurry. But Ethan was a skilled driver and these back country roads were mostly deserted; the medical supplies on the Council jet had yielded a sling for Giles’s right arm and a bandage for his thigh, and though they hurt rather more now than they had in his adrenalin-soaked state, he didn’t mind the occasional bump.
It was early evening by the time they arrived, all in one piece despite Xander’s dire predictions. The days were growing longer and it was still fully light out. Giles had his door open before Ethan had even finished parking the car in the coven’s driveway. He was only halfway up the walkway when the door was flung open and Willow flew out. He caught her with his left arm and held her to him, sighing in relief. She clutched at him with both arms, until finally drawing back to look at his arm in its sling. She stroked it gently and looked up at him; he thought about reminding her that he was fine, after all, but decided that would be inane. Instead he removed the amulet from his neck and placed it around her own. She stepped away from him, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. She opened her eyes and nodded.
“All right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s – it’s good. I can feel it in there. Which is kinda weird because that’s exactly the sort of thing I haven’t been able to sense at all since – um. Anyway, I think I might even be able to get it back without breaking it.”
Giles nodded. “Where are Buffy and Dawn?”
“Oh, well.” Willow smiled a bit sheepishly. “Buffy asked me if I thought I was going to kiss you when you got here and I said probably, ‘cause with the life saving and all, and they decided maybe they’d rather stay inside.”
“I see,” Giles said, and glanced around to see if Xander was watching. But it seemed that both he and Ethan had gone inside, leaving Giles and Willow alone on the gravel driveway.
“They’re really okay with it,” she said, stroking a hand down his good arm. “Just kinda . . . well, you know.”
“It’ll take time.”
“Yeah. But, er, we should go inside because they do want to see you and I want to do this,” she held the amulet out, “but before then, you should actually kiss me. ‘Cause you haven’t yet. Were you waiting for permission?”
“Oh,” Giles said in faint surprise, looking down at her. “Yes. A bit, actually.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Are you going to be silly about this now that I’m not dying and insist you’re too old or something?”
“I . . . was considering it.”
“Don’t. Kiss me instead.”
“Oh, very well,” he said, smiling despite himself, and did so. It was a little awkward with only one hand, but the essentials of kissing didn’t really require hands. It just felt a bit off balance. At least Giles felt so, though Willow, when at last they broke apart, sighed happily.
“Don’t do that again, okay?” she said. “The leaving me part, I mean, and the risking your life and the getting hurt parts. Not the kissing part, of course. That you can do as much as you’d like.”
The coven was once again gathered in the library. Willow held up the amulet for Mary to see as she entered, and Mary smiled broadly, first at her and then at Giles. Willow sat in the center of the coven’s circle; Mary nodded to her and there was general murmur of anticipation before the coven joined hands.
“They’re gonna have to be super careful with the timing, Will said,” Buffy’s voice informed him quietly in his ear.
He turned from where he stood observing in the doorway and hugged her – mostly out of affection, but also to check that she wasn’t the First. She was too thin – he had always thought her too thin – but reassuringly solid all the same. “I imagine so,” Giles said.
“Yeah,” Dawn said from his other side, a trifle more loudly than she should have. Buffy made a shushing noise and Dawn glared before continuing more quietly, “Miss Harkness said that if Willow still has her connection to the coven when she gets her power back, the whole thing could go kerblewy.”
“Yes,” Buffy said, smiling tightly. “Which is why I told you to stay in the other wing.”
Dawn rolled her eyes and didn’t even bother to argue. She gave Giles a hug and leaned against the doorjamb, ignoring Buffy eyeing her with obvious annoyance and exasperation. Giles, trapped between them, wondered if it was quite the safest place to be at the moment. But then Willow began speaking in a careful, imploring voice, asking the goddess to return had been stolen from her, and Giles had no attention to spare for anything but her.
The emerald at the center of the amulet took on a deep green glow that reminded Giles of the rainforest at its most verdant. Willow reached up and . . . into it, it looked like, as though her fingers were passing into the stone to extract something, until she had a ball of white fire cupped in the palm of her hands. She nodded to Mary, and Giles heard the coven draw a collective breath at the same moment Willow closed her eyes and pressed the white fire to her chest, just at the place where her scar was.
The fire vanished and then seemed to spread throughout her. Her eyes flew wide open and her mouth gaped in surprise. She was radiant, her skin glowing, her hair lightening. Her eyes caught Giles’s eye and she smiled; it was innocent enough, but there was something in it, some ecstasy perhaps, that made the tips of his ears turn red. It was possible he had never wanted her more, and it was unnerving to feel such arousal amidst so many people. It was both a relief and a disappointment when, seconds later, the glow faded and Willow sighed, slumping over.
“Wow,” Buffy said. “That looked like, um, fun.”
“It looked kinda like a –”
“Thanks, Dawn, we get it,” Buffy said quickly.
“All right, all right. I wasn’t sure Giles – uh, I mean, not that you haven’t – obviously you have and with Willow – not that, that – crap.” Dawn turned to Buffy. “It’s not okay to make those jokes about Giles anymore, is it?”
“I’ve been making those jokes about Giles for ten years,” her sister replied, standing aside to let the coven members pass. “I kinda think there’s no stopping now.”
Mary Harkness was the last to leave. She stopped to grace Giles with a rare hug. “Good to have you back,” she said.
“Thank you. Did Willow tell you –?”
“Of course.” She paused as though considering her words. “If the First doesn’t know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty.”
“Yeah, right,” Buffy said. “That’s like the biggest if that ever iffed.”
“Er . . . quite,” Giles said. “I’m fairly certain it knows exactly what we’re about to do.”
Mary nodded grimly. “Then I suggest she take back-up. There are a few coven members –”
“Ah, thank you, Mary, but I think Ethan and I should suffice. If he’s still here, that is,” Giles added, suddenly realizing he hadn’t seen Ethan since they’d arrived at the coven. He wondered if Ethan really had slipped away while they had all been preoccupied with returning Willow’s power to her. The idea alarmed Giles to some extent – he’d counted on having Ethan along when they closed whatever portal the Children of the Dark Eye had opened – but more strangely, it disappointed him. Which was, perhaps, even more alarming.
“Nah,” Xander said, appearing suddenly. “He’s here, he just said he’d rather give this a miss since it might blow us all up. I guess it didn’t?”
“No,” Dawn said. “There was just some chanting and then Willow got all glowy and looked like she was having the best org –”
“Dawn,” Buffy said. “God, what is with you? Are you channeling Anya or something?” She frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “Hey, you’re not, are you?”
“No,” Dawn replied, managing to look both annoyed and satisfied at the same time. “Just ‘cause you’re a prude –”
“I am not –”
“I’d forgotten how charming they could be,” Giles said in an aside to Xander while the two sisters went on bickering. “Where is Ethan then?”
“Right here. Ready and willing to be invaluable – for a bonus fee, of course.” Ethan grinned at Giles as he strode up the hall from the foyer. “Five thousand Sterling sound reasonable, Ripper?”
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. “Three thousand. And we’re back to Ripper now, are we?”
“Four thousand and not a penny less,” Ethan returned easily.
Giles frowned. “Would you really leave Willow and me to go it alone if I refused?”
“Ah, but if I told you that, it would diminish my enigmatic charisma. We can’t have that.”
“Yes, well,” Giles replied with heavy irony, “your enigmatic charisma is only worth three thousand pounds to me.”
“Don’t be greedy, Ripper. Compared to what you paid for that amulet, four thousand quid is nothing.”
He couldn’t argue with that, unfortunately; on principle he wanted to resist some more, but he knew it would only waste time. “Fine,” he said.
“Good,” Mary said, appearing relieved. For their part, Xander, Buffy, and Dawn – who had broken off their arguing in favor of looking back and forth between Ethan and Giles during their exchange like spectators at Wimbledon – seemed fascinated. “I will . . . leave you to it then. Good luck.”
“Thank you. I’d say we’ll let you know how it turns out, but I expect you’ll know if it goes badly.” Giles smiled grimly. “Speaking of which,” he turned to Buffy, “you might want to have a weapon on hand – or a small arsenal – just in case something gets through.”
“Okay,” she said, and left dragging Dawn with her. Mary followed, glancing back over her shoulder once. Giles gave her what he hoped was a reassuring nod.
“Unless you have other ideas, I thought I’d stand outside and lurk ominously,” Xander said.
“Thank you, Xander,” Giles said. “Most helpful.”
“Hey, I do my best.”
“Are you done with the obligatory witty banter yet?” Ethan demanded, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’d like to get this over with.”
“Yes, yes,” Giles said, frowning. He glanced toward Willow, who had not yet moved from her place on the floor. “Willow?”
She looked up and smiled slowly. “Hi,” she said.
“Are you – all right?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Just kinda . . . buzzing. You know?”
“Uh,” Xander said. “Giles, are you sure this is the best time to do this?”
Giles didn’t answer. He exchanged a glance with Ethan and then eyed Willow once more. He certainly did know what she meant, but he didn’t quite know what the effect would be on any magic they worked together. It could increase its power exponentially – or cause it to spin out of their control. If they waited an hour or two, her energies might be steadier and the spell would be more reliable, if not perhaps quite so powerful.
Giles was still staring at Willow, struggling to make up his mind, when a subliminal humming he’d hardly been aware of ceased. He blinked and shook his head, as though to clear his ears; Ethan rubbed at his, and Willow looked up, eyes wide with alarm. “That was –”
“The wards,” Giles finished. A chill crept down his spine. “The coven’s wards just dropped.”
“Bloody hell,” Ethan said.
“What does that mean?” Xander demanded,
Giles glanced back toward the foyer. “It means –”
“GILES!” they heard Buffy shout from up the hallway toward the foyer. “Giles,” she gasped, coming into view and skidding to a stop just a few meters away, one hand out to brace herself against the wall, “we’ve got Bringers out front, at least a hundred. And they’ve got a guy –”
The building rocked as though in a massive earthquake. The chandelier hanging from the ceiling swung wildly and dozens of books tumbled from the shelves.
“– with them,” Buffy finished.
“I think they just blew the doors off,” Willow said, scrambling to her feet.
“It’ll take more than that to blow the doors off this place,” Giles replied with a confidence he didn’t feel.
“Even with the wards down?” Xander asked.
“I believe so. Buffy, the man they have with them – what did he look like?”
“Short, black hair, black cloak.”
Giles felt sick. “Hell. Ethan, how many bodies were there?”
“Four,” Ethan answered without hesitation. Their eyes met as they came to the same horrible realization of their mistake.
Giles had to ask, though he held little hope. “And was one of them Saramargo?”
“I was almost positive –”
“It’s him,” Willow said quietly. She met and held Giles’s gaze. “I can feel him. I – I’m sure it’s him.”
There came then the sound of wood splintering and dull, rhythmic thumps, as the Bringers attacked the ancient front doors; apparently the sorcerer’s spell hadn’t quite done the job. Buffy glanced back over her shoulder, but it was impossible to actually see the foyer from where they stood.
“Go,” Giles told her. “Help the coven hold them off. We’ll do this as fast as we can. Xander?”
“Lurking ominously. Right. With sword, I hope?”
“Here,” Buffy said, tossing one to him. “Don’t swing from your shoulder like you always do.” With that she was gone, bounding up the foyer just as the splintering became cracking, and then a sound like gunshot.
“Good luck,” Xander told them, and then Giles shut the library door on him.
There was no way to lock it, of course, so the three of them shoved every stick of furniture they could move in front of it. “How are you?” Giles asked Willow breathlessly as they struggled to push one of the sofas across the carpet.
“Okay. That sobered me up in a hurry.”
“I meant –”
“I know. I’ll deal. You think this is good enough?”
Giles surveyed the stack of chairs, sofas, and bookshelves that made up their barricade. It wouldn’t hold the Bringers off forever, very likely wouldn’t stop Saramargo at all, and they couldn’t do anything about the skylight or the windows. But hopefully it would at least slow them down. “It’ll do,” he said, and after a moment’s hesitation shed his sling. He wanted both hands available for this.
It was not the best atmosphere for this sort of spell. Entering inter-dimensional space was tricky at best, and when entering one shared by a hell dimension it was downright dangerous. Concentration was key, and it was rather difficult to achieve with distant shouts and screams and crashes begging their attention all the while. It took them precious minutes of Willow chanting from a book of spells to achieve the meditative state required, but then, quite suddenly, it all fell away.
Giles felt uncomfortably adrift at first, his mind rebelling against the formlessness of the place, the utter quiet, the dark that wasn’t really dark at all, just nothing. But then his mind made sense of it – forced sense upon it, rather – and in a sudden flash he found himself standing beside Willow and Ethan. It was no longer dark, but bright, bright white, as in very poor Hollywood approximations of Heaven, and Giles’s mind – or perhaps Willow’s, since she was in charge of the spell – had reassuringly provided him with solid ground to stand on and some vague notion of walls around them.
“Look,” Willow said, pointing. She seemed to have recovered herself much faster than Giles had – or Ethan, Giles noted with satisfaction, watching Ethan frown and shake his head. He followed her gaze and blinked.
“The inter-dimensional backdoor,” he said. It was a plain white door with a doorknob, cracked open just slightly. There was an unpleasant stench emanating from it – rotting corpses and sulfur and other things Giles was grateful he couldn’t name.
Willow glanced to Giles. “Wonder what would happen if I just tried to close it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what I thought. But it’s not like we have too many other options.” She took a deep breath and stepped forward, hand outstretched, but at the last second before her hand touched the doorknob there was a terrific gust of hot, fetid wind. Willow stumbled backward into Giles, who staggered into Ethan, and so they were all three of them on the ground when the wind somehow inverted itself, reshaping itself into what Giles could only assume was the First in its true form – savage and satanic, something primeval that cut straight to the back of Giles’s brain and had him shrinking away. The massive horns curled around the devil’s face, framing the soulless black eyes.
They hadn’t prepared for this, but of course the First would have more power here, in this space between their dimensions. It had a form of sorts, if not quite a body, and there was no doubt in Giles’s mind that it could annihilate them.
“You dare trespass here?” it snarled.
“Yes,” Willow said, and to Giles’s astonishment, picked herself up. Giles could barely move for his own fear and shock, but she stood between them and the First, that putrid draft out of Hell blowing over her, and lifted her chin. “You trespassed in our dimension, so here we are.”
“You cannot think to confront me –”
“We did before,” Willow replied, so quietly Giles almost couldn’t hear her. “And we won. Go back.”
“How dare you –”
“GO BACK!” she screamed and spread her arms wide. There was a blast of power that blacked out everything for a moment, and Giles didn’t smell sulfur and rotting bodies anymore; he smelled cut grass and salt from the sea and mochas and chocolate chip cookies baking in his Sunnydale kitchen.
But beneath all that, something was wrong. Off.
Giles had no time to determine what that might be. A huge, sucking vortex opened where the plain white door had been moments earlier, a swirl of black with bolts of blinding white light running through it. He felt Willow gather herself in, pull her energies into herself, Giles’s and Ethan’s too. She didn’t ask for permission, though he’d have given it without a second thought, and he gasped at the rough invasion. She gave them no time to recover as she flung it all outward, a raw, unstoppable flood of energy.
The First screamed.
Giles wouldn’t have thought it possible, but that was the only word he had for the noise that burst forth as their combined power crashed into it. He realized only then the fatal error it had made in confronting them here: Any form, even one that was purely mystical in substance, gave it power, but also made it vulnerable. Even if it could not be killed, it could be attacked.
The vortex widened, the lightning bolts becoming stars, the blackness transforming into swirling cosmos. Giles hardly dared lift his head for fear he might get sucked in along with the First, which was still fighting. It screamed again and, in its final moment, sent a blast of power back at them – no, at Willow, Giles realized. She rocked back and the faint tingle of wrongness Giles had been feeling all along was suddenly much stronger.
The last thing Giles saw as he was flung out of the inter-dimensional space was the vortex closing, devouring the First.
He slammed down onto the library carpet with all the wind knocked out of him, the smell of sulfur and corpses still in his nose. He had to fight to stay conscious, fight to lift his head to find Willow and Ethan. Ethan was sprawled unmoving several feet away, and seemed to have been knocked out altogether; at least Giles hoped he was merely unconscious. Willow . . .
She stood perhaps five feet away from him, apparently unharmed. He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Willow,” he said, though speaking took massive effort. He wanted to tell her, You were incredible. But then she turned to him and he saw the lightless depths of her eyes, the veins on her face and wrists, the blackness of her hair. The praise turned to prayer. “My God,” he said.
“Ripper, don’t be so paranoid,” Ethan said. Giles saw him struggle to pull himself into a sitting position and then, apparently, give up. “It’s over.”
“No,” Willow said flatly. “It’s not.”
She strode past them and out the library doors. Giles stared after her and then pushed himself to his feet as fast as his protesting head and body would allow. He staggered the few steps to the doorway, where he clung to the doorjamb. The hallway beyond was deserted, though the walls bore marks and there was an abandoned sword on the floor. Xander’s, Giles thought, bending to pick it up. He felt depleted, but leaving Willow to her fate in favor of collapse had never been an option; sword in hand, he pushed himself down the hall.
He nearly caught up to her as she entered the foyer. She paused, head cocked to one side as though listening; Giles knew she was aware of him behind her, just as she was aware of every being in the building. He slowed, not wanting to approach her too closely.
The foyer had come into view at last around the bend in the hallway, and with it an almost frozen tableau. Everyone stood more or less as they must have when the First had been vanquished and the Bringers had vanished, weapons dangling uselessly in hand as they stared at the center of the floor where Saramargo stood, holding Mary Harkness three feet off the floor. He wasn’t touching her at all, but Giles recognized the signs of the spell the sorcerer had used on him in the jungle; gasping and red-faced, Mary struggling against an invisible hand clenched around her throat.
“Stop,” Willow said, making a careless swiping motion. Mary fell immediately to the floor and one of the coven members rushed forward to pull back her into their protection.
Saramargo whirled to face her. “You,” he spat.
Willow didn’t bother to answer. She thrust her hand out and he lay sprawled on the ground. She kept her hand out, holding him down, then yanked him off the floor and let him hang in mid-air as Mary had done, though she didn’t choke him. Yet. A wave of her hand and his lips were gone, a horrible blankness where his mouth should have been.
“You stripped me,” she said, her fury sharp as diamonds. “You slapped me. You sucked me dry. And now I’m going to do the same to you.” Another wave and his clothes vanished.
Giles was dizzy with the effort of standing, but his terror was so great as to overcome it. He had feared for her life constantly in the last few days, though he had pushed it as far down and away as it would go so he could focus on the task at hand. Now it came rushing back with a different flavor: He was afraid for her, but he was also afraid of her. Horribly, horribly afraid.
He had to believe this was a parting gift from the First. Anything else shook him too badly to bear thinking about.
Xander, Buffy, and Dawn were gathered on the other side of the room. Giles caught Xander’s gaze and gave the slightest shake of his head. He didn’t want them to try to intervene; this would have to be between them two of them.
“Willow,” he said quietly.
She whipped her head around. “Don’t.”
He made a show of dropping the sword. Last time he had come armed, but he sensed they would get nowhere if he had a weapon in his hand. “Willow, this isn’t you. Something happened when the First – when you banished the First back to its dimension. It – it possessed you somehow.”
She laughed at him and then smiled the slow, wicked smile he remembered all too well from those agonizing hours in the Magic Box. “See, Giles, that’s where you’re wrong. That’s where you’re fooling yourself. This is me.”
“I don’t believe that,” Giles replied quietly.
“No, you don’t want to believe that. Hard to love me when I’m black-eyed and veiny, is it?”
“No, as a matter of fact. It’s as easy – and as difficult – as it always is.”
She stared at him a moment and then turned away. “Save your breath. I’ve got him right where I want him – where I’ve wanted him since the moment I woke up naked on that stone slab.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“It is true!” she snapped, and Giles barely managed to suppress a smile of grim triumph. She was angry, but anger caused cracks in the façade. She shook Saramargo; his head jerked, but her attention was no longer on him. “You know what he did.”
“I do know,” Giles acknowledged. “Intimately.”
He thought he saw something in her eyes then, some startled, guilty flicker, some spark of Willow, but when she spoke her voice was hard and cold again. “You claim to love me. How can you show him mercy?”
“Would you deny him the same mercy you were shown?”
It was unmistakable this time; she faltered and Saramargo, eyes rolling wildly, dropped several inches. “It’s not the same. You said it wasn’t. He isn’t sorry.”
“It’s not. But, Willow,” he said, stepping between her and the sorcerer, aware that he was treading a very dangerous line, “I cannot and will not allow you to play judge, jury, and executioner here. It’s not your place. I have no doubt you’re capable of killing him, but you’ll have to do it over my dead body, and I mean that very literally. Is that really what you want?” She’d had no problem with it before, but Giles had to hope she had changed enough for it to make a difference. If she hadn’t . . . well, he most likely wouldn’t be around to worry about it.
“It’s my right,” she said through clenched teeth.
“No,” he said. “It’s not. Just as it wasn’t last time. You have no right to vengeance.”
“I want him to suffer,” she said. There were tears in her voice now, but Giles held himself back. He could see it fading already, the color of her hair lightening, the ugly veins receding. When she was herself again, he would touch her; he didn’t dare before then. “I want him to suffer,” she repeated, choking, “like I did.”
She took a gulping, gasping breath and Saramargo crumpled to the ground. Mary and two of the other coven members swept in immediately, binding Saramargo and removing him from her control. For an awful moment Giles thought she would resist, and that could only end badly, but in the end she relinquished him without a fight. They carried him from the room as quickly as possible, while Willow stared after him with a terrible expression of hatred and anger and bewilderment. The hatred and the anger faded with her hair, leaving her standing there in front of all of them, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth and her eyes squeezed shut. He reached for her.
“Don’t!” she said, flinching from him. “Don’t.”
He didn’t try again. She turned away from all of them and climbed the stairs. Everyone let her go, watching until she reached the top and disappeared down the hallway toward her room.
Giles didn’t go to her then. He had the feeling he would not be at all welcome, and so he did what needed to be done elsewhere. No one had been killed, thank God, but there were a number of wounded members of the coven. Xander, Buffy, and Dawn had escaped unscathed, save for Xander’s sprained wrist and a cut down Buffy’s cheek that would heal within a day. When Giles ran out of people to mend, he went out to help with the wards, which needed to be reinstated as quickly as possible. The Bringers had all vanished when Willow had defeated the First, but there were still the usual dangers – “the creepy crawlies that went ‘Argh!’ in the night” as Dawn called them. Ethan joined them, his usual sarcasm and smirk notably absent.
It was ten o’clock before any of them had the chance to sit down for a very late dinner. Giles was exhausted by then and glad for it. He was nodding off over his soup, which he’d hardly tasted anyway, when Mary appeared for the first time in hours. She touched him on the shoulder; he managed a reassuring smile for Buffy and Xander – Dawn was asleep with her head on the table – before following her out into the deserted hallway.
“How is she?” Giles asked once they were alone.
“I have no idea,” Mary replied. “She wouldn’t let me in. I’ve been with Saramargo.”
She sighed. “We’ve bound his magic, but I’ve little hope that he can be rehabilitated. He has no access to his power now at least, and is therefore of little danger to himself or anyone else.” She shrugged. “Who knows? Perhaps with the First truly banished –”
“Perhaps,” Giles said, though he thought it unlikely as well. Saramargo’s fanaticism had seemed complete, not something he could come back from. The coven would not execute him, but he would live out his life in forced isolation in some lonely, deserted land far from anyone he might harm. His magic would be bound up tight and any attempt to use it would be punished with severe physical and mystical pain. Giles felt no pity. “And Willow?” he asked, returning to what seemed to him the more urgent matter.
Mary said nothing. Giles met her gaze unflinching, until at last she crossed her arms over her chest and said, “She’s dangerous, Rupert.”
“She almost killed a man. In the coven, on our ground. In violation of everything.”
“I know. But she didn’t,” Giles said, striving to sound reasonable and not desperate.
“Because you stopped her. And if you’re not there next time?”
“There won’t be a next time, and if there is – I will be.”
Mary shook her head. “Not good enough. Not good enough by half. And feeling bad about it afterward isn’t good enough either.”
“Mary.” Giles frowned. “Don’t dismiss her remorse like that.”
Mary sighed. “I don’t, Rupert. But you have to admit that she’s . . . a problem. She’s unpredictable –”
“No,” Giles said, shaking his head. “Mary, listen to me. I don’t think that was her. Not really. It was the First.”
“No!” he said. “I’m not making this up. You weren’t there – it, it felt like it went through her. She was worked up before then because of Saramargo, I think, and then it – it – I don’t know what it did, but she was fine till then.”
“She took your energy, Rupert,” Mary reminded him in an even tone. “Stole it. Don’t try to gloss over that.”
Giles sighed. “You talked to Ethan, I take it?”
“Yes. I asked his advice, actually.”
“You asked – why?”
Mary raised an eyebrow at him. “Because I wanted another perspective.” She leaned back against the wall. “He agrees with you, as it happens, which relieves me in many ways. But if she’s vulnerable to that sort of thing, then that’s a different problem.”
“I don’t think she is, not really,” Giles argued. “It was not the ideal time for us to be doing that spell. Her energies were unstable, her concentration was bad because of what was happening outside. You have to take all that into account.” He’d lost all semblance of reason, he knew. He sounded like he was begging, but he felt as though he were pleading for Willow’s life. And he was, or close enough; he was pleading for them not to bind her magic as they had Saramargo’s, for he knew that was what Mary thought might be necessary.
“I do,” Mary allowed. She studied him. “And I think you’re right.”
“Good luck convincing her of that.”
She left him standing alone outside the dining commons. He thought about going back in, but Buffy and Xander would have questions he couldn’t answer. He thought about going up to Willow, but couldn’t think what he might say. Not yet.
He chose the third option, outside, where day had melted into night. After the total darkness of the jungle, Westbury seemed positively bright: the light of the house spilling onto the driveway, the faint glow from the town, visible where it nestled between two hills at the far end of the valley, and the moon, just past full, spilling white light everywhere. He tilted his head back; the stars were still brilliant, but completely different from the ones he’d seen during their journey upriver.
They had yet to yield any answers when Giles was startled out of his daze – which had become less contemplative and closer to falling asleep on his feet – by the sound of a car door slamming. He blinked, squinted into the dark, and realized it was the car Xander had rented at the airport and that someone had just shut the boot – rather more loudly than intended, judging by the swearing.
“There’s no use trying to sneak away now,” Giles called, following the noise; Ethan had moved the car further away from the house and into deeper shadow. “I know you’re there.”
“Bugger,” Ethan said, emerging out of the dark. “I thought I’d actually managed to escape the final heart-to-heart.”
“Have we ever had one of those?”
“I think we came dangerously close a few times in that jungle. Fag?” Ethan held out a pack of cigarettes.
“The coven forbids smoking on the grounds.”
“Yeah, think someone mentioned that. You want one?”
“God, yes.” Giles selected one and held it between his lips while Ethan lit it. He shot a guilty look up at the building, but no one appeared to chastise them. He took a drag and let out the smoke. “Christ, it’s been a long time.”
“You need some vices.”
“I have whiskey.” Ethan exhaled a cloud of carcinogens into the clean night air and made a scoffing noise; Giles ignored it. “I have to say, I didn’t expect you to be sneaking off yet,” he said. “I thought you’d at least wait around to give me the information I need to pay you.”
“I left it all on the desk in your room. And don’t forget the extra four thousand.”
“Four thousand for what?” Giles demanded, taking another drag. It was awkward smoking with his right hand, but his left arm was back in its sling where Mary insisted it belonged, at least until tomorrow when someone would have the time and energy to heal it for him. “Falling on your arse and being a useless prat?”
“Oh, and you were real heroic?”
“No,” Giles had to admit. “But at least I’m not charging anyone money for being a useless prat.”
“Only because you’re salaried,” Ethan muttered.
“I heard that.”
They fell silent then. Giles finished his cigarette and snuffed it out on the ground before picking the butt up to throw away inside. Ethan rolled his eyes at him and left his own where he ground it out with his heel.
“Ethan,” Giles said as Ethan opened the driver’s side door.
“What?” He settled himself in the front seat and closed it, leaning through the open window to look up at Giles.
“Do you believe what you told Mary? It wasn’t really Willow?”
“We saw the same thing, Ripper. There was something else riding her, I think.” He paused, faced forward, and drummed his fingers briefly on the steering wheel. “But that wasn’t all of it. I would say she’s been sitting on that anger since those days in that hut.”
“And the First built on it. Or used it as a way in.”
Ethan nodded. “Or something. That’s just my best guess, of course.” He raised his eyebrows at Giles. “You can’t be too surprised though.”
“She . . . she’s been doing so well,” Giles replied. He looked back toward the house, up to the second floor, and counted four windows over. Her room was dark. He wondered what that meant.
“But it’ll always be there, that little piece of darkness. You wouldn’t be interested otherwise.” Giles opened his mouth to protest and Ethan cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t deny it, Ripper. You like your lovers with a bit of dark, a bit of danger. Always have.”
“Yes, well.” Giles sighed. “I’d hoped I’d grown out of that.”
“Some things we never grow out of, Ripper.” He flashed Giles a smile laden with irony. “Be seeing you.”
“Be seeing you,” Giles replied, knowing it was only the truth. He watched the taillights of the rental car until it had disappeared round the bend in the unpaved road. Then he turned and went inside.
Willow didn’t answer when Giles knocked, but the door wasn’t locked. Giles pushed it open, afraid he might find her missing. But she was there, curled on top of the covers, sound asleep. The room was chilly with night air blowing in through the window. Giles closed it, wincing at the sound the latch made, but she didn’t stir.
He sat on the edge of the bed and laid his hand on her shoulder. She did stir then, or at least her breathing changed, letting Giles know she’d woken. He stroked down her arm to where the sleeve of her shirt ended and rested his hand against her bare skin. He felt her sigh, a soft rise and fall under his hand, and then roll over onto her back. “Giles?” she whispered.
“Yes, of course,” he said, hand still resting on her arm.
“Not really ‘of course,’” she muttered. “Not after today. I waited – I thought you would come, but you didn’t.”
“You told me not to,” he reminded her.
“I did?” she said, glancing away. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember much, I guess, except – except wanting to kill him.”
“I know. But I wanted to.”
Giles opened his mouth to tell her that it hadn’t been her at all, it had been the First, and stopped. He remembered what Mary had said, and what Ethan had said. Anything he said to her now would sound like empty reassurances; she wouldn’t believe him and she might shy away from talking about things she should.
“I wanted to kill him too,” he said at last. “For what he did to you. I thought we had.”
“Not the same.”
“No,” he agreed. It had felt like full-out war in that rainforest; killing Saramargo in those circumstances was entirely different from what Willow had nearly done. “Do you want to know what they’ve done with him?”
“I can guess. Same thing they’re talking about doing with me. Binding the magic. Maybe it would be better.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Is that really the life you want?”
“No,” she said, “but maybe what I want isn’t – isn’t safe. God, Giles, I was just – I was just so angry. And I knew I had to stop – I knew it the whole time, but I couldn’t, it was like I was –”
“Possessed?” Giles said.
“Yeah,” she said, frowning at him. “How’d you know?”
“Because I rather think you were. Well, not quite possessed.” He kept his voice quiet and even as he explained his theory about the First. She said nothing and her expression gave nothing away, but at least she listened. “It’s not that it wasn’t you,” he finished. “But you would never have gone so far if it hadn’t pushed you.”
“I don’t remember being pushed. I remember that blast of power and then –”
“And then you were angry?”
“Furious. It was like I was drunk on it. But it, it shouldn’t have been able to get in,” she said, sitting up in renewed anxiety. “It didn’t do that to you or Ethan.”
“It didn’t try,” Giles pointed out gently. “I don’t know what would have happened if it did. That potential is there inside you, Willow, and it probably always will be. But what let it in wasn’t that, I think, so much as your anger.”
She swallowed. “I’ve been trying . . . not to be.”
“Why not?” Giles raised his eyebrows. “You have every right.”
“You weren’t,” she muttered, looking away. “With me, I mean when I did it to you. And don’t tell me circumstances were different,” she added. “I know they were, I just . . . you weren’t.”
“I was,” Giles said. He reached to take her hand and laced their fingers together.
“I never saw.”
“I never let you see. And,” he sighed, “I love you. I loved you then as well, perhaps differently than I do now, but that doesn’t matter. I know you don’t want to hear that circumstances were different, but they were.”
“I just –” She swallowed and looked away, down at their linked hands. “It wasn’t – it wasn’t that he stole my power. I keep thinking about that awful helpless feeling when I woke up and I couldn’t move and I couldn’t do any magic and there was just nothing I could do to save myself. And then having to stay here while you went – I don’t – I’m not helpless.” She was shaking, her face very white, her eyes dry but wide.
“You’re not,” he said. “Tonight facing the First – I was completely unprepared for that. You were the only one of the three of us not cowering on the ground.”
“You weren’t cowering,” she objected, frowning at him.
“Well, I wasn’t standing up either. You’re one of the most capable people I know, Willow. You were just – hurt. Think about this,” he added when she only looked skeptical. “How many times did I have to sit things out because I’d got knocked over the head?”
“A lot,” she admitted, and managed a very small smile for him. “Did you get knocked over the head this time?”
“No,” Giles said, returning the smile. “It was Ethan’s turn.”
She nodded, the smile fading. Giles sat without saying anything more until at last she said, “I know I’m not helpless. I know that.”
“I can’t shake that feeling. It’s awful.”
“I’m sure it is. But remember what I said to you afterward? When you told me you thought you’d deserved what happened?”
She sighed. “You said it would take time.”
Giles nodded. “There’s no magic that can fix the way you feel. But don’t – don’t sit on it,” he added.
“Coming from you, that advice is kinda hilarious,” she replied. “I’d just like to point out.”
He grimaced at her and she smiled wanly. Neither of them said anything. Giles thought the conversation was at an end – at least for the time being – but neither of them seemed to know how to go on to anything else. “How are you now?” he asked at last.
“Really, really tired,” she said. “You gotta be even more tired though, what with the changing time zones and me sucking your energy out of you and all.”
“Ah,” he said. “You remember that part.”
“Yeah,” she said, shrinking into herself a bit. “Sorry. I was sorta desperate and I knew you’d say yes if I asked, but there wasn’t really time.”
“It’s all right. It actually makes me feel better to know you did it on purpose – that sort of thing can be very dangerous if the person doing it loses control. But I am very tired, and so I hope you don’t mind if I’m rather more direct than I might usually be in asking if –”
“Stay here,” she said. “Please?”
He had to suppress a sigh of relief. He went to his room get his valise, thankfully not running into anyone on the way. It seemed as though the coven had gone to bed; the building was quiet and still after the tumult of the day as Giles made his way through the softly lit corridors. He half-expected to find Mary waiting for him, but she wasn’t. There was only his valise next to the bed, and Ethan’s bank account information on his desk. Giles left it where it was for now; tomorrow he would fax it down to London and have his secretary take care of it.
Willow was sitting on the edge of the bed when he returned, swearing soft flannel pajama pants and her bra. It was the first glimpse Giles had had of the burn on her chest since he’d returned; it was better, he decided, more pink than red. She held the bottle of salve in one hand, staring at it, until he cleared his throat and she looked up.
“How does it feel?” he asked, setting his suitcase down in the corner.
“Better. But it still stings. Putting this stuff on isn’t much fun,” she added, gesturing with the jar.
“May I?” Giles asked, holding his hand out for it.
She handed it to him and he sat on the bed beside her. She bit her lip as he spread it on, a little awkward with his right hand but careful to cover every bit of it. When at last he put the lid back on the bottle and set it aside she let out the breath she’d been holding.
“How ‘bout you?” she asked, touching him lightly on his arm in its sling. “You want me to take care of this?”
Giles looked down at it. “I certainly wouldn’t say no. Are you sure you’re up to it?”
She nodded and scooted forward on the bed. “It might even help. Healing magic always feels, I don’t know, good, I guess. It’s all earthy and stuff. Close your eyes.”
He did so, and felt her lay her hands on his shoulder; it got very warm, just shy of hot, and then, quite abruptly, all the pain vanished. He opened his eyes. “Thank you,” he said, removing the sling. “That feels much better.”
She smiled. “Me too, actually. Anything else I can fix for you?”
“Well, my leg, but I would, er, need to have fewer clothes on.”
“Good,” she said. “I am in favor of fewer clothes, as you might’ve guessed. Go” She made a shooing gesture toward the bathroom.
He checked the bandage while he changed; the stain there was the dark brown of dried blood, which meant that it had finally stopped bleeding. He brushed his teeth and changed his underwear, but if she really meant to do his leg for him then there wasn’t much point in putting on anything else.
He came back out to find her drowsing; she made a charming, sleepy noise when he slid in beside her, and stroked her hand down his body until she encountered the bandage on his thigh. He held very still, and this time felt more than warmth; he felt the energy flowing through Willow, from the earth and out of her hand and into him, knitting his skin together. He matched his breathing to hers as she worked, until at last he felt the flow of the energy slow and then cease. It was a more gradual healing than his shoulder had been, perhaps because they were both half-asleep, but it seemed to do more than simply heal the gash on his thigh; for the first time since Giles had received Ethan’s vision days ago, he felt safe.
Willow skimmed her hand back up his body and laid her head on his chest. “Tomorrow,” she murmured, “I want you to tell me everything that happened, ‘kay? And don’t leave out the bad stuff. I want to know.”
He meant to answer her. He meant to promise her that they would make love in the morning as soon as they’d woken and then he would tell her every bit of what he and Ethan had done. But the words got lost between his mind and his mouth, and he slid into sleep without another word.