R, slash, Giles/Ethan, Willow/Tara. Willow and Giles and lovers past, that summer in England.
On the flight, Giles reads whilst Willow dreams beside him, her
eyes darting around below their lids. His glasses are giving him a headache, and
he takes them off with the familiar gesture, casting them down unheeding of
where they fall. The book in his hand is the only one of Buffy’s he could face
reading, something by Oscar Wilde that he has read before, and he lets that drop
At the end of her very first day with them, Willow knows the coven are the most extraordinary women she has ever met. She remembers vaguely that this was what she wanted in the beginning: this is why she went hunting for a Wiccan group on campus the night she met Tara. This coven are no wanna-blessed-bes – they have power that is real and tangible and connected to everything on earth.
Miss Harkness is in charge of her, and she is strict; every time she speaks, Willow feels ignorant and hears her own accent as uncouth and American. But she wants to learn to be like these women, to use magic like religion and prayer, to be powerful and gentle and strong, so she perseveres. The coven are reserved and British, and they don’t have her talk about what happened to her, nor spout psychobabble at her the way she thought they might. She is grateful.
But they are afraid of her. Willow knows this without needing to be told; they look at her askance as if she might explode and become once more the dark force fuelled by grief they sensed from across the ocean. It makes it hard to go on.
In the afternoon, she takes her leave and wanders out into the grounds, looking for someone.
“How did you know?”
She finds him sitting under the same tree, but it is four days later and seems much longer than that to Willow. Intellectually, she knows it is only a fortnight since Tara’s death, but it feels light years distant, as if that spray of blood was something that happened to someone else. She knows it happened to her by the muted grief that colours her every thought, but the black rage and supernatural horror have left her a different person. She hopes.
“I’m sorry? How did I know what?” Giles asks, leaning against the tree trunk. She can smell the leather of his riding boots.
“Back in the beginning,” she says, twisting a blade of grass around her finger. “When I first started learning magic. You used to hide the books in your office so I couldn’t get at them.”
He smiles at the memory. “That’s true, I did, and you used to go in there and get them anyway. As I knew you would.”
She is not placated. “You knew even then that it was going to end badly, didn’t you?”
“My dear, I knew nothing of the sort. I did only what I thought was right at the time. Which is all any of us can do, really.”
“You knew,” she persists. “You did the tongue-clicky thing and everything .”
He smiles again. “I maintain I did not know. I can’t see into the future...”
“But?” she prompts as the sentence hangs.
“But I can see into the past.” He settles back, letting book and glasses drop onto the grass. He seems to be thinking about something. After a moment, he asks, “Will you allow me to tell you a story?”
“That depends,” she says, a trace mischievously. “What’s it about? Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll?”
“Yes, yes, and yes, although there may be some details tactfully omitted which I’m sure you’ll forgive me for.”
She smiles a little, twirling grass again. “Tell me a story.”
Ripper left Magdalen on a breezy day in September, and the first thing he did in London was to go to bed. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, but he rejoiced in that fact; he pulled the covers over his head and let himself sink down beneath into the darkness. No breakfast or chapel, no early-to-bed-early-to-rise, not here; he felt the weariness in his limbs press down. He could sleep here, in daylight and safety, undisturbed by anything save his own breathing.
He stayed where he was until well into the night, and then emerged to push his tangled hair out of his eyes and sit, still and quiet, in the dark. He heard sirens and traffic and the buzz of voices, but felt no compulsion to seek company. He went back to sleep.
Through the next three days, he slept – sometimes fully dressed, sometimes half-there and listening to low-volume Cream, sometimes naked, sometimes deep into the depths where only the junkies sleepwalked, but never awake. Never listening to the thoughts in his head.
On the fourth day, he was drowsing with a sheet over his head when his door creaked open. His reflexes were sleep-numbed, and he stayed still.
“Hey, you.” The voice was petulant and male. Ripper began to shift as it continued. The sheet was of a relatively open weave, and through it he could see the figure standing in the doorway. Something was shining in the light.
“I’m trying to cast a spell, a small thing for pleasure and gain.” An amused, sneering laugh. “Trying to. But it doesn’t work. Nothing works. And it’s your fault!”
Ripper pushed the covering from his eyes. “What?”
“You.” The man – maybe boy, not man, as he couldn’t be any older than Ripper was himself – had his hands on his hips and exuded flamboyance. “Since you arrived, something has been interfering with it, something magical, and I think that something is you. Who are you? What are you?”
“My name is Ripper,” he said, his voice a soft, slow drawl, and stretched out, cat-like, so the sheet swept off his shoulders. His new friend seemed bemused for a moment, possibly at the sound of cotton on skin, or perhaps the realisation that Ripper was wearing very little beneath the cover.
Eventually, there was a corresponding introduction. “Ethan Rayne.”
Ripper smiled. “You were doing magic.” He had never known there was enough power in him to cause whatever this strange sorcerer thought he had caused, but he could always use power. “I could help.”
“Perhaps you could.” Ethan smiled back at him. Moving a step forward, he held out his hand.
Ripper took it.
Her expression must be a sight to behold; Giles is looking at her with something approaching amusement. “You don’t have the copyright on a sordid past, you know.”
“I forgot,” says Willow, and feels stupid again. Hard thing to forget, that your high school librarian was once a demon-raising force of darkness, but also a hard thing to believe. Hard to believe that she had a slight crush on him when he arrived at Sunnydale High School, and three years later the school was gone, as was the librarian and the girl she was then; now she is in England with Rupert Giles.
“Understandable.” He is not looking at her. “It’s something that happened a long time ago.”
“To someone else?” she suggests, but he shakes his head.
“No. It happened to me.”
Willow nods. “I understand that. I think.”
A month after she arrives, she does magic again. Slowly, slowly, she does it, without pyrotechnics and uncontrolled energy, only her mind and the stillness within it. She makes a flower bloom from nothingness, and then she returns it to the void from whence it came. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust, she thinks, remembering the many funerals she has attended.
Magic only when the world is held in balance, she repeats to herself. The coven would be proud, but they are not here. She has walked out into the grounds by herself again.
When the flower is gone, she leans back against the tree. “It wasn’t just the magic,” she tells Giles. “It was Tara.”
“Tara was a witch, too,” he says mildly.
“I know, but she was a real witch. Not like me.” She frowns. “She knew everything they’re teaching me now. I wanted to be just like her. In the beginning I never even noticed I was in love with her, not the magic.”
“Tara knew.” His voice carries certainty. “She was a very wise young woman.”
“I wish I’d told her earlier,” Willow says wistfully. “I wish I knew earlier that I loved her. I wish...”
She wishes, and suddenly there are tears in her eyes, not because of the magic and the evil and the mess, but because she loved Tara and Tara is gone. She blinks furiously, forcing back the tears, but they are treacherous and fall anyway. Her grief is silent and painful.
She lets herself cry when there is no other option, and Giles says nothing but places one hand on hers, the warmth of it carrying the meaning. He is no stranger to this feeling, and knows he can do nothing but be there.
When at last she is quiet, he speaks, and his voice is soft but unsteady. “Tell me about Tara,” he says. “She should be remembered.”
Willow takes a deep shuddering breath, remembers a beautiful girl, and tells him about Tara.
Willow and Buffy shared a room, and it was pretty enough, with its cheerful colours and cushion-strewn bedspreads. But it wasn’t quite right. Tara lived in a room on her own, but it had enough books for two, and enough warm yellow light to welcome the world inside.
Willow thought: I’m in love with a girl who keeps fairy lights up all year round. She wanted to laugh and dance and sing about it. I’m in love with a girl.
Tonight, she was singing on the inside, but serious. They were doing a spell. She had looked through the musty old books, found spells for torture and pain, spells for disfigurement, dismemberment and death, and then, early in the morning, she had found a different one. A sweet spell, a pretty spell, a spell for lovers.
She bought a rose, went to find Tara, and they began.
“We're going to float the rose, then use the magic to pluck the petals off, one at a time. It's a test of synchronicity. Our minds have to be perfectly attuned to work as a single delicate implement,” she said earnestly, then expected Tara to laugh.
Tara didn’t, merely looking at her with trust. “Cool.”
Willow smiled at her, shyly. “And it should be very pretty.”
They closed their eyes and held hands.
The rose... rose. It hovered a metre above the ground, and didn’t falter even as they dared open their eyes to look at it.
“It worked,” said Tara softly.
Willow nodded. “Now for the hard part – the petals.”
As she spoke, she closed her eyes again and felt the link hold – herself, the rose, Tara, herself and Tara, the rose – then break. With a wrench that echoed through both their minds, the rose moved, shooting upwards to the ceiling, then downwards, across the room in crazy chaotic motion-
Willow breaks off. “That was you.”
“What was?” asks Giles mildly.
“The rose... that was you and Ethan.”
He nods. “Yes, indeed. Ethan and I, meeting and having our first civil conversation in twenty years.”
“You had so much power,” she says, almost wistfully.
“Hardly.” He is as wryly self-deprecating as he always is. “We merely disrupted a spell that was already being cast.”
“From all the way across town,” she argues. “And you weren’t even trying, either. It’s not like you wanted to be all disrupt-y or whatever.”
He nods again. “That is true, but it probably says more about the nature of the spell than anything else. That spell relies on a strong connection between its two casters. It doesn’t in fact make any difference what type of connection it is, as long as it exists. In magic, love and hate are the same.”
“Still,” she says, “you and Ethan just got close to each other, and bang, rose petals everywhere. What if you’d actually been trying?”
“Trying to do what, my dear?” he asks, and the smile is entirely Ripper’s.
The rose ricocheted off the walls and hit the ground, smoking. Only the stem was left intact.
Willow was shaken. “What the hell was that?”
“I don’t know,” Tara said, surveying the debris with a critical eye. “But the petals are off.”
She laughed a little, and Willow loved her.
“I really liked that spell,” Willow decides. “Even if we never exactly did it right, it just felt right, you know?”
“I know.” His voice holds conviction born of experience.
“It was connected, and balanced, and everything they tell me about.” She smiles. “I think I was a good witch, once. I’ve done the shop-falling-on-me thing, and now I want to be Willow again.”
For once, he appreciates the pop culture reference, and nods. “I think you’re on the right path.”
She smiles again, then concentrates. Once again, the flower is pulled from the ether, rising from the ground in harmony with the way the magic moves in her mind, and the petals spread out, translucent in the light.
But something happens; her control falters, and the flower begins to shake as though caught in a high wind. Before she can pull the strands of magic back into line, it shudders and explodes, a shower of petals falling into her hair.
“Oh,” she says, allowing a moment for the grotesque parody to sink in. “So much for balance,” she adds after a moment, and stands up to leave. Something is hurting inside her head.
“Try it again,” advises Miss Harkness.
Willow, her expression mutinous, does so. The problem, whatever it may be, is getting worse; earlier, she could still make the flower bloom every so often but now whatever she does, she causes an explosion. Explosion is not the word; it is merely a ripping of flower petals, but to Willow it represents so much more than that.
“Interesting,” says Miss Harkness. “You were doing well, and I really thought...”
Willow tunes her out. Although they try to hide it, the coven are still as terrified of her as they were when she arrived here. At length, she stands up.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Harkness, but I‘m very tired. Could we continue this some other time?”
“What? Oh, of course, another time.” The witch nods dubious approval, and Willow seizes her chance to make a graceful exit. Of their own accord, her feet lead her outside to a tree that is becoming very familiar.
“I wondered when you’d come.” Giles looks up as she appears. “I take it you're not having a good day?”
She sighs. “Giles, I thought it was working. I really did. But it’s like there’s something inside me that doesn’t want to be controlled. I’m going to be homicidal veiny explody-girl forever.”
“Try again,” says Giles thoughtfully, and she jerks away from him.
“No! I’m tired of being treated like I’m some, I don’t know, experiment. Like I’m just interesting, like somehow I’m not a person.”
“You misunderstand me.” His expression is unreadable, again. “I asked you yesterday to tell me about Tara. Try again.”
"Once upon a time, there was a kitty," Tara said, and Willow settled in to hear the story. "She was very little, and she was all alone, and nobody wanted her."
It was not quite dark in the room - the fairy lights were soft yellow, almost like the candles they used so many of - but it felt as though Tara were a moving shadow among many, a wraith, a witch-ghost. The kitten was another, a black-furred apparition chasing wool. Nothing to be afraid of. As long as they were together beneath the Christmas lights, there wouldn't ever be anything to fear.
"This is a very upsetting story," Willow said sleepily.
"Oh, but it gets better."
The spell-books in the room were silent and brooding, and Tara snapped them shut one by one, playful as she pushed them into their spaces on the shelves. She cared for books almost as much as Giles did; he didn't see it, but Willow did, and remembered her own fondness for a librarian who loved his calling. Tara put pens and pencils straight on her desk, she made sure all the candles had been blown out, and she called the kitten to her basket.
"'Cause one day the kitty was running around in the street and a man came, and swooped her up..." - and there was a brief sound of purring from somewhere near the floor. Tara laughed softly and lifted the kitten. "And took her to the pound. And at the pound there were lots of other kitties, and there were puppies, and some ferrets... "
Willow was falling asleep. "Were there dolphins?" she asked.
Tara nodded solemnly. "Yes. Many dolphins at the pound."
"Or was there a camel?"
Tara thought about it. "There was the front of a camel. A half camel."
Willow took the kitten and let herself sleep. "Did the kitty get chosen by some nice people?" she asked with her eyes shut.
She felt Tara moving around the room even as she fell down into slumber and beyond; she stirred unconsciously as Tara finally slipped under the covers beside her, making room for cold feet. She smiled at the thought while she held onto it, before it drifted away to make way for sleep and Tara's soft voice.
Willow sighed. Tara did her best not to disturb as she snuggled down beside her, but Willow woke up a little anyway.
It was like magic. It was magic; the softness and sweetness, the night spent falling asleep in the arms of a lover. Willow wondered why they didn't share dreams, they slept so close, and then she thought they might and she would never know, she had never asked. She wouldn't ask; she would lie here in the stillness and warmth, and cherish the thought.
"Well, now you ruined the ending," said Tara, and Willow was asleep.
“The magic,” Willow says suddenly. “That was it. That was the reason.”
“The reason for what?” he asks, and she is aware of the way she always jumps into a conversation headfirst, leaving explanations behind her.
“Tara never knew me without the magic,” she clarifies. “I mean, you and Buffy and Xander knew boring-me from before, but Tara only knew magic-Willow. It made me special,” she continues dreamily, “and that’s why Tara noticed me. She was so...” She falters for the word. “So, just so, and she stayed with me.”
He shakes his head. “That’s unworthy of you, Willow. And of Tara, too. Do you honestly believe that was all she saw in you?”
She hesitates. “Well...”
“Do you think the rose could have been levitated had she not loved you? Do you think she died thinking of anyone else but you?”
He is closer to angry than he has been in all the time she has been here, and she is afraid.
“Did Ethan love you?” she bursts out. “Would he have loved you even without the magic?”
He smiles ruefully, but says nothing.
Ethan disliked the cold. Ripper knew that and drew him in close, wrapping blankets over them both. They had no electric light – no-one had twenty pence for the meter – but they did have candles, on the floor and on the table and windowsill, with one by Ripper’s left hand where it hung over the edge of the bed. The light was soft yellow and welcoming, a pleasant contrast against the harshness of the sodium light. Ethan had had to remember not to lay the candles out in a sacred circle as he lit them, mere force of habit willing them to invoke more powers than just light. Ripper had laughed, saying he wanted no succubi sharing their bed, and Ethan smiled a half-smile, suggestive of an idea forming in his head for later.
Tonight, they were content. Ripper had opened the window a crack so he could hear the noise of the city outside; he could never sleep in silence. Sirens and the sounds of traffic drifted in, as did the voices of people making their way home through the night. The snow refused to stick, and they heard the crunch and muffled swearing of people drunkenly slipping on black ice.
Ripper sighed deeply, peacefully, and felt comfortable in the warmth, Ethan’s limbs entangled with his. The constant turmoil inside his head had abated for a while, and he felt less like Ripper than he had in a long time. Less like Ripper, more like Rupert Giles, and when Ethan sleepily asked for a story, he reached into himself, drew on his own history, and spun it.
His voice seemed familiar to himself. “In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”
There was a long, thoughtful pause.
“She’s always a girl,” he said presently. “She always dies young. She can’t do magic, because her strength is enhanced and she’d lose control. Her Watcher does the magic for her.”
“And that’s you,” Ethan murmured.
“Yes. Her Watcher trains her, guides her, conveys the wishes of the Council to her. She slays, her Watcher watches, and then she dies.”
“What happens to the Watcher?”
Rupert was silent for a moment before answering. “He stops keeping his diary,” he said carefully. “He takes a quiet research post offered to him by the Watchers’ Council. He works with his books. He doesn’t talk much. Eventually he dies too.”
Ethan shifted suddenly and Ripper was aware of the movement in his arms. He paused a moment more before saying, “You see, he’s not allowed to love her.”
“Not allowed to love her,” Ethan repeated drowsily.
Ethan’s eyes were closed. “No wonder you ran away.”
He held Ripper as they fell asleep. Around them, the candles burned down.
The birds are singing and Willow is determined. She tries to keep silence inside her mind, emptying it of everything but magic and the earth, but even before she can conjure the flower, she feels herself falter.
She stops. She listens.
Breathe, says Tara’s voice. Wait. Grieve.
She stops, letting out a breath, and lets her mind fill again. “Magic’s not the important thing,” she whispers.
“What is?” he asks.
The names of lovers are unspoken on the silence; they both know the answer.
In the morning, Willow goes back to her lessons and works diligently. But later, in the afternoon, she asks permission to go and tell her companion the Watcher about her progress, and the coven smile and let her go.
“I did it!” she tells Giles triumphantly. “Miss Harkness said I probably shouldn’t try it again today, so I can’t show you, but I did it! No explosions or anything!”
“That’s good to hear,” he replies. “Do you understand now why it wasn’t working before?”
She considers. “I can’t explain it, exactly. It’s like you’re not allowed to have magic as the only thing you think about, because if you do, you stop being human and stuff explodes. But I had Tara.”
“Have,” he corrects. “Tara remains a part of you, or else there would still be incidences of exploding flora.”
She muses over this, her academic mind coming into play. “Why is magic so dangerous?” she says after a while. “If it’s connected to the earth, why can you destroy things with it?”
“Try asking Miss Harkness that,” he replies. “It’s not a simple question, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak on it.”
“I don’t want the sixty-gigabyte answer,” she persists. “Just the simple one.”
He inclines his head, apparently considering it. “It’s all to do with balance,” he says finally. “You say it’s connected to the earth, but the earth itself is destructive. Volcanoes erupt, hurricanes materialise, and in the same way, magic can be used to wreak havoc. The difference is that volcanoes and hurricanes are a natural product of the way the world works. One human being taking the natural laws into her own hands – that’s not.”
She sighs. “I think I know that.”
“There are warning signs even before the apocalypse,” he says, faintly amused. “Similar to the signs that indicate a volcano is going to erupt.”
“Like in Pompeii,” she interrupts. “It’s in the writings – there were barking dogs and ash flurries and the smell of sulphur, and things like that.” She pauses. “Does that mean if you use too much magic you start to smell of sulphur? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that.”
He laughs a little. “Not exactly. But surely you did notice magic taking its toll on your body, even before... before the trouble.”
She nods. “I got headaches and nosebleeds, things like that. I didn’t think much of the time, just thought I was tired, but now I think...” Her voice trails off.
He nods. “Quite so. The warning is a gift – it’s a sign to stop before things get entirely out of hand.” He pauses. “Of course, you have to actually take heed of it. If you don’t....”
“Apocalypse,” says Willow matter-of-factly.
He thinks about it. “Well, not immediately. Firstly, pain. Inordinate amounts of paracetamol. More pain. Followed by anaemia, alcohol, unconsciousness, then maybe apocalypse. In special cases.”
She lets her mind run through it, assimilating the concept of the earth issuing its own brand of warning to a led-astray witch. She says, “What’s paracetamol?”
Sunday night, and Ripper was on his knees.
Ethan thought it was amusing, but then Ethan would, lost in his own world of mayhem and Chaos magery. Ripper’s power was more like himself, more raw and straightforward and currently leaving him through his nose. He leaned forward and sneezed again, covering his hands with the heavy, thick blood; there was a pile of shredded and clotting tissues on the floor already and no sign of it stopping. There was a corresponding thickness inside his head, a feeling of weight that wouldn’t shift, and dull pain behind his eyes. He couldn’t stop a soft moan escaping, and Ethan looked up. He paused for a moment, staring, then seemed to come to some sort of decision.
“You know something?” He got up and ambled slowly across, dropping so he was at Ripper’s left side. “Some people can look beautiful and tragic with blood and tears all over their faces. Some people, Ripper, but not you.”
He paused, wrapping an arm around Ripper’s shoulders. Ripper was too weak to throw him off, and Ethan smiled. “Darling, darling Ripper. What’s brought this on, then?”
“Nothing,” Ripper muttered through the blood. He wasn’t precisely sure what it was – it could possibly be malnourishment, or maybe sleep-deprivation – but all the same, he had an idea.
“Nothing?” Ethan’s expression became mildly quizzical. “I wouldn’t say that.” He swept delicate fingers over the skin of Ripper’s arms, noting the distinct lack of warmth. “I’ll tell you what, this feels like cold turkey to me. What are you trying to kick now?”
“Nothing,” Ripper growled again. “Leave me the fuck alone.”
“Give me your hand.” Ethan was in the mood where he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “There’s a good boy. Now just relax.”
Ripper had no choice in the matter. Ethan’s grip was gentle but firm, and he concentrated for a few minutes. When his eyes shifted back into focus, they bore a look of muted triumph. “You’re tapped out.”
Ripper didn’t reply. The nosebleed was getting worse, and he moved his head to try and stem it.
“It’s all gone, isn’t it?” Ethan went on, his tone only mildly chiding. “Your magic’s gone. I do wish you wouldn’t do this.”
“It’ll come back,” Ripper gritted out. “It always does.”
“That’s right.” Ethan sat back and thought about it. “It’s the cost, isn’t it? Nothing in magic without a price, and all of that.”
Ripper breathed in, and out, and in, and out. “I cannot offer anything but my flesh,” he said clearly.
“I can.” Ethan’s smile was wicked, chaotic.
Ripper knelt forwards, holding back the flow of blood. “I still have my soul!” he cried, and his hands were covered in red.
“It’s like aspirin, but not so easy to overdose on,” Giles replies. “It’s the price you pay, and I wouldn’t ever forget that if I could help it. Magic seems so easy, especially when you’re gifted with power, but it’s not. Absolute power corrupts.”
“I was high on it,” says Willow. “It was the best feeling in the world.”
He frowns. “It’s not an addiction. It’s not, Willow. I suppose it made sense for you to think of it that way, as a vice which could be beaten, and from what Buffy told me, you showed a great deal of strength.”
She can’t help but smile at the mention of Buffy. But she thinks about the days going cold turkey, after Tara left and Dawn was in pain, and tries to disagree with him.
“Easy for you to say,” she says in the end. “You were never addicted.”
“I had Ethan,” he says quietly. “I had Ethan and all his mistakes to learn from. I got out before it was too late for me.”
There is a long, quiet pause, broken only by the soft birdsong and stirring of leaves. The September sun shines down.
“I had Tara,” says Willow finally. “I had her to guide me. She loved me and she let me follow her. And I... silenced her.”
The Lethe’s bramble sat on her dressing-table, pink, crackling and untouched. Willow pictured it sitting there, thinking about what it could do. Behind her, Tara was angry. The girl who had been so shy tossed her long hair out of her eyes, her face clear and unhidden. “Willow, you are using too much magic.” Her voice was clear, too – no stammering there. “What do you want me to do, just sit back and keep my mouth shut?”
“That’d be a good start!”
The sharpness and arrogance shocked even Willow herself. Tara reeled a moment, then turned, her blonde head disappearing among the crowd. Willow watched her go, murmured her name, but she was lost.
That night in front of the mirror, it was easy: the bramble between her fingers, the power in her reflection. “Let’s just forget it ever happened,” she said, and cast.
The next day, Tara’s voice was raised in song with the pink flowers pinned to her breast. Willow watched her move, watched her dance, and loved her.
But it happened again, because Tara was still Tara and Willow was Willow.
“Willow, you are using too much magic.”
The bramble was in the same place by the table, and there was enough of it left. Willow cast the spell.
There were tears in Tara’s eyes as she sat at the table. “Willow, I don’t think this is going to work. ”
“Did Tara forgive you?” asks Giles, and he really wants to know.
Willow looks rueful, a half-smile lingering around her lips. “She came back.”
And somehow, that is all that matters; that it happened is enough. Willow can do magic again now, but there will never be anything to touch that knowledge: for a night and a day, she loved and was loved, because Tara came back.
“By Osiris, I command you, bring her back! Hear me, keeper of darkness!”
She called, knowing her voice would ring out across the universe, her pain ripping through the fabric of dimensions. Tara’s body grew cold in her arms and this was natural death.
After she sucked the books dry at the Magic Box, she strode across the town with her hair and eyes and heart blacker than pitch and darker than the night that fell over Sunnydale. She was stronger than anyone who had ever lived, and more driven with purpose; she would drive him to ground and make him suffer and make him hurt and kill him stone dead like an ugly, ugly thing.
She hunted Warren to the woods. A lazy, remembered murmur – “Bored now...” – and with a flick, she ripped the soul from his body and the skin from his bones.
He was dead, like Tara, and she had killed him. Like he killed Tara.
“One down,” she told Buffy and Xander.
Dead, like Tara, and two more to kill.
One down, two to go, one down, two to go, make them hurt and make them suffer, two to go, suffer, suffer for Tara, poor Tara, two to go, oh, Tara...
She wakes, drenched with tears and sweat, and cries out. The day has broken – the coven rise early and people will be stirring – but all she wants is to sleep and she can’t for fear of what dreams may come.
She gets up, grabbing clothes haphazardly and savagely, tearing at buttons and zippers that will not thrust into place, and she strides out into the morning with determined despair flowing through every movement. Her footsteps echo despite her bare feet, and she walks as fast as she can with no aim in mind, trying desperately to escape this place.
As she almost knew she would, she walks into him. Giles looks up, startled. “Willow? What is it?”
She looks at him, standing there holding a newspaper and blinking in surprise, and he looks so calm and normal that she lashes out, "Don't!"
“What?” he says again, stepping back not a moment too soon. Willow’s flailing hands make little effect on him, but her words do. “Don’t even” – she hits him – “say anything about connectedness and control and magic” – and she hits him again – “don’t, don’t, just don’t, because it doesn’t change anything” – strike – “because Tara’s still dead, Tara’s dead, and I couldn’t bring her back, I couldn’t bring her back...”
“Willow!” he exclaims, but he doesn’t try to stop her, doesn’t push away her hands, and the lack of resistance makes her even angrier.
“Tara’s dead!” she yells, wanting to hear the truth, and aims one more crack, thinking now about Tara and only Tara. She is losing momentum, her voice is losing any semblance of control, and her hands fall uselessly by her sides.
“Willow,” he says quietly, and she looks up at him through blurred eyes. She doesn’t want to let go of the rage that does at least make her feel full of life, but she can’t hold it. She gives up as he moves forwards and lets her fall into his arms, his glasses and newspaper falling to the floor with a rustle and crack. The dream is still so vivid, so real in her mind, and Tara’s name will be forever on her lips, but the crazed feeling she was left with is draining away, leaving behind only stillness and the muted colours of grief.
He holds her until her breathing slows into a ragged, calmer rhythm, and then leads her away from whatever she was trying to escape from, outside into the grey-green daylight. She hangs on to his hand, feeling like a child recovering from a tantrum, and waits for him to say something. Perhaps she might have thought he would be angry, but she knows him of old and remembers that nothing ever breaks that reserve save death and resurrection.
When they have been walking steadily for five minutes, he asks, “Better?”
“Yes,” she says, and means it. After a pause, she adds, “But I don’t want to go back inside.”
“That’s fair enough. Although, I do feel my skills as a conversationalist are somewhat inhibited at this hour of the morning.”
She manages a watery smile. “You don’t ever talk like a normal person, do you?”
“Guilty as charged. I blame the British public school system.”
“Why do you have to be so nice all the time?” she asks suddenly. “I nearly killed you, Giles!”
“I haven’t forgotten that,” he says quietly. “Don’t think I have. But I, of all people, cannot judge you. Only you can do that.”
For a few minutes, there is silence. Willow turns to look behind her and sees the two sets of footprints in the dew, marking a smudged line behind them up to the house.
“It’s your turn to tell a story,” she says, her voice shaking but determined. “And none of that Chicken Soup crap. I don’t want to be uplifted and enriched and spiritualised and all of that.”
He nods slowly. “I understand. A real story.”
“A real story,” she agrees, and they both know what will come.
Ripper rose through icy water, still and running deep within his mind, into consciousness, sitting up and blinking as the demon left him. He shivered; the bone-deep cold of possession cut through mere clothes and skin to his soul beneath, and his hands were shaking like leaves in a storm.
Ethan was to be next, but he moved, and the demon jumped into the closest sleeping body. It sat up with a jerk as its features contorted, and Ethan laughed. “Bit of a wake-up call for our Randall.”
Ripper didn’t speak, still chilled with sleep and dazed by the comedown. He watched in silence as Randall settled down on the high, his mind a flying curve ball as the demon entwined with him.
Ethan sat back, bored. “Wish I’d taken my turn, now,” he groused. “Was it good for you, Ripper?”
Ripper thought about it, the fury of Eyghon, then shrugged. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“Just a thought.” Ethan leaned in and kissed him. “You didn’t get as orgasmic as you generally do, and I can tell when you’re faking.”
He laughed and Ripper sighed, closing his eyes. The low was as harshly intense as the euphoria, and he wanted nothing better than to give in to the depression until he fell into an exhausted sleep.
He would have stayed as he was, eyes closed, had the silence not been broken by Ethan’s sharp intake of breath. “What’s happening?”
Ripper was alert and on his feet in a fraction of a second, and knew. “He’s
lost control,” he whispered, and stared up at the sight of a demon let loose.
Ethan jumped out of its way, side-stepping towards the kitchen. “Weapons!” he yelled, and the demon turned to him, lurching almost blindly. Ethan dodged.
“Randall?” Ripper tried softly, and Randall looked out at him. The demon was wearing his face, but the human being was there too for a moment of dichotomy in those shared eyes. “Randall!” Ripper screamed, trying to break in, and failed. The demon was back and angrier, moving towards Ripper with diabolical inevitability.
Ripper backed away and Randall’s hands lunged for him, almost grabbing him around the throat.
Ethan was back, holding up something sharp and glittering. Ripper was a bare-handed fighter, but he could catch a throwing knife. His fingers closed around the handle.
The demon was so close he could feel it breathing, now, and that was Randall, that was really Randall beneath the metamorphosing features, that was Randall, that was Randall...
“Ripper, do it!”
Ripper could catch a knife. And somehow or another, when Ethan grabbed Randall from behind and held him back, Ripper could plunge that knife into a human and stab him to death, fresh blood rushing out over his hands and evaporating into nothingness as the demon’s essence disintegrated and disappeared, leaving the body stretched out on the floor.
Ethan was facing Ripper, the last of the blood and demonic remains on the floor between them. “Fuck,” he said, after a moment.
Ripper stared at him, holding the dripping knife. He couldn’t breathe.
For a moment, Willow feels it, the suffocation and the cloying smell of blood. “When did you leave London?” she asks.
“About a week afterwards.”
They have been walking in a circle, and almost without realising it Willow has allowed him to lead her back to the house. But she stays silent, knowing there is nothing she can say to add to a story like that, a story twenty years in the telling, knowing that it is a true story. At one point, she might have been inclined to doubt it, not able to reconcile it with the mild-mannered librarian, but she knows now what he is capable of. She drained him of his life and his magic, and in doing it she felt the darkness in his heart and soul, knew him as thoroughly as he knows himself. In fact – and she blinks at the notion – of all the people in the world she has not had sex with, it is he whom she knows the most intimately. It is a strange thought – disturbing and comforting in more or less equal measure.
“I wish I could have met Ripper,” she says wistfully as they turn to go in. “He sounds... well, interesting.”
He pauses under the eaves. “You have,” he says, and holds up one hand, knowing she is thinking of the band candy incident. “You have, Willow. Ripper is part of me. He is me, in the same way as you are the girl who killed Warren.”
She thinks for a minute about the night in the kitchen the first time he came back. Almost as if it was something that happened to someone else, she remembers threatening him. She remembers saying those words, drugged with her own power, not noticing that the man standing by Buffy’s kitchen door with a dishcloth over one arm was Ripper.
“I killed Warren.” As she says it, she believes it.
“And I killed Randall.”
There is a long silence whilst their words hang on the air.
“Maybe we should start a support group,” she says suddenly. “My name is Willow and I tried to destroy the world.”
“I never tried to do that,” he reminds her, smiling.
“But you wanted to, right?” she asks anxiously.
“I did,” he says, after a moment’s deliberation. “That said, Ethan is still alive and out there somewhere. I would know if he were dead, and I doubt the American government could hold him for long. The world may yet be destroyed.”
She grins. “We can only hope.”
It is breakfast time.
That afternoon is the first time he goes to find her rather than the other way around. Willow is sprawled under the tree with a book, enjoying the autumn sunshine that is so rare here. As Giles approaches, he wonders vaguely what she is reading. He is pleased to note that she retains the capacity to surprise him after so many years; he expects the book to be somewhere in between the Malleus Maleficarum and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but has no way of knowing for sure.
She looks up at the sight of him, and the book falls shut on her thumb. “Hey, Giles.”
The greeting is blessedly normal and natural, as is the tableau of a girl lying on the grass in the sun, and he seats himself next to her with a feeling of contentment. “What’s that you’ve got there?”
She holds up the book so its cover faces him. “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” he reads. “Interesting choice.”
“It’s all about selling your soul to the devil,” she says cheerfully. “Or something like that.”
“Something like that,” he agrees. But something about it bothers him, and the words leap to his lips as though he is, once again, possessed.
“‘And the world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.’”
Willow looks up, her eyes wide.
He is embarrassed for a moment, and sighs. “Don’t repeat history, Willow. At least, try not to. Rewrite it.”
“I will,” she says, and it is a promise. “How about living happily ever after, should I do that?”
He stands up and walks around the tree. “Finish your book and return it to its owner. And then live happily. That’s all.”
She frowns for a minute, then flips the book open to the flyleaf. “This book belongs to-”
“That means I have to-”
Silence prevails after that. Willow is deep in thought, and Giles is loath to break into the reverie. But unbeknownst to her, Willow’s concentration is channelling her power. He narrows his eyes, sees it as a soft red spreading haze, and on a whim he reaches out. It has been a long time since he has seen his own magic, apple-green and perfectly complementary, and the two clouds of colour meet and meld.
Willow looks up. She says nothing, only stares as the knowledge of what is happening rises to her conscious mind. Gaia gives them a minute’s contentment before she claims her due from them both; red and green mix into yellow and then gold, before draining into the earth from whence they came. For a second, they both sense the exact lines of the tree’s root system, down, deep down into the viscera of the earth. They are joined, momentarily, before the spell lifts and they are themselves, unchanged.
Waves of peace break on mental shores. “Thank you.”
“You, too,” she replies, then returns to the place where she left off. She reads, and he lies on the grass and stares at the sky, a Watcher quietly watching as clouds and swallows drift past overhead.
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