Author’s Note. This story is set in the summer following the end of season 6. Willow is in England, with Giles and the coven trying to come to terms with her actions after Tara’s death.
Many thanks to Jennifer for doing her usual wonderful job of beta reading.
Willow wandered around the rose garden, stretching out a hand now and then to pull a flower towards her and breathe in its scent, sweet and wholesome. It soothed her as much as picking up one of the cats that seemed to roam freely in the garden and rubbing her face in its fur, listening to the deep purr.
Not that she deserved soothing. Sometimes, when the black, corrosive self-hate overflowed and spattered poison over anyone close, she felt like razing the flower garden until nothing was left but withered stalks. And she took care to avoid the cats for their sake.
The sun shone into her eyes, dazzling her. When she blinked away the tears, she saw a young woman sitting in Willow’s favourite spot, next to a stream that ran through the garden, burbling happily over age-smoothed, mossy rocks. Willow hesitated. When she sat there, she liked to be alone, to watch the sun sparkle on the water, to close her eyes and listen to the unending rush of the gentle baby river. But the woman turned around and smiled, gesturing for Willow to join her.
Willow walked over and smiled tentatively back. People in the coven tended to shy away from Willow. If they had to be with her, they almost vibrated with the urge to put distance between them and the person who had, such a short time ago, tried to end their world. Yet, this woman was relaxed and Willow could only suppose that she didn’t know who she was.
No more lies or evasions of what she had become. Willow took a calming breath and said, “Hi, I’m Willow. From the States. The one who tried to -”
“Hey!” The woman held up her hand and Willow paused, confused. “This isn’t first day at school, is it? Because I just hate it when they go around the room and make everyone introduce themselves.”
Willow frowned. “No, I just thought you should know what, I mean, who I am.” She began to back off. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
It was calmly spoken and the tone was friendly but Willow found her legs folding and she landed on the grass with a thump. “Ow!”
“Sorry. Came on a little strong, did I?”
“What did you do?” said Willow, shocked at the ease with which her body had obeyed this stranger’s casual order.
The woman shrugged. “I wanted you to stay here and when I want something, I get it. So I try very hard <i>not</i> to want things.”
Willow felt helpless and lost, but that was so normal a state these days she brushed it off. Absently picking at some blades of grass, she began to weave them in a simple plait, avoiding the grey eyes that were studying her so frankly.
A slim hand reached out and closed gently over her busy fingers. Startled, Willow looked up. Since she’d left Sunnydale, Giles had been the only one who touched her, and he was rarely around. It had been so long since someone else had touched her without fear.
“You might want to set that down slowly and back away fast,” suggested the woman.
Willow glanced at the braid more closely.
The grass had suddenly mutated into a writhing snake, two headed, with venom-coated fangs. Willow shuddered with revulsion and despair.
“Banish it. You have to do it; you created it.”
Willow looked at her, still gripping the snake tightly.
“You want me to kill it? I won’t. It’s not harmful to us. Its poison is highly selective. If I were a rat, I’d worry but as it is…”
Her companion smiled and nodded.
“Good. You don’t panic easily. Send it home then. It really doesn’t belong here, you know. It won’t be happy.”
Willow pursed her lips for a moment, and then murmured an incantation. The snake vanished and her hand clenched on air.
Willow basked in the approval then flinched as the woman continued in a rather more caustic voice, “If you’re a ten year old novice that is. You’ve got power spilling out like water from a bucket with a hundred holes in it. Didn’t anyone ever teach you anything?”
“Not really. I’m sort of self-taught,” admitted Willow.
“Save me from the well meaning amateurs.”
“Hey! I’ve raised the dead, you know. We’re not talking levitating pencils anymore…” Willow’s voice trailed off as she saw the trap that had been set for her unwary tongue.
“So; you’ve got pride and a quick temper. Lovely.”
“Who are you?” demanded Willow.
The woman smiled slowly, running her fingers casually through her short brown hair. “I won’t say your worst nightmare because I can see what that is and I’m way scarier than that. My name is Kate. I’m going to finish off what the witches started and send you back to your friends in one piece. More or less.”
“You’re a witch?”
“Not exactly,” Kate said, then stared off in front of her pensively. “Really, it’s not all that important what I am. I’m going to spend some time with you over the next few days. Tell you some stories.”
“No offence,” said Willow, “and I love reading but I’m a bit old for fairy tales at bedtime.”
Kate smiled again, a hint of mischief flashing across her face. She stood, easily and without using her hands and brushed some grass off her jeans.
“Trust me; you’ll want to hear these stories. And I’m not planning to tuck you up in bed anytime soon either. That’s when you do most of your crying and I hate soggy pillows.”
Willow glared at her. “Have you been spying on me?” she asked angrily, her shoulders tensing automatically.
Kate raised a mocking eyebrow. “That’s like asking the water in this stream if it’s wet. I don’t have to spy to hear what you’re shouting out at the top of your lungs. In a metaphorical way, that is.”
Both turned and saw Giles striding towards them quickly.
“Oh, it’s Rupert. I’m out of here. We don’t see eye to eye on some things.”
“What things?” asked Willow curiously, waving at Giles as she spoke.
“You, mostly. Be back here tomorrow at ten and we’ll start. Unless it’s raining. Again. I don’t like getting wet. If it rains, I’ll find you, okay?”
She walked away, passing Giles with no more than a nod of the head, which he returned stiffly. He made his way to Willow, who got up and greeted him with a subdued smile and brief hug.
“I see you met Kate,” Giles remarked dryly. “Quite an abrasive personality but she’s very talented.”
“If you need to strip walls, I’m sure she’s the first person you turn to,” muttered Willow, still stinging from the digs Kate had made.
Giles looked at her appraisingly. “She will be doing that to you in a way; sanding down the rough edges so you fit back in. But that’s not perhaps the best description I could have used, judging by your face.”
“I’m not all rough and ragged, well, maybe a little, but I thought I was here so I could learn to control my magic, not get therapy.”
Willow sounded a little sulky and afraid. It wasn’t a good combination. Giles sighed inwardly. The coven was at the end of its resources. Asking Kate to help was an act of desperation and one that he had opposed vehemently. Now he wondered if he had been too optimistic that Willow, the dear, shy Willow he’d known for so long, and come to love so dearly, would resurface unaided. Perhaps that Willow was gone forever.
“Kate is a therapist of sorts but the methods she uses are unique. I’ll let her tell you what she plans to do. Remember, if you have any qualms or reservations, you can refuse to go through with it.”
“And will I still get my, ‘Get out of Coven’ free card?” Willow asked cynically.
“That depends on other factors,” said Giles, pushing his glasses firmly so that they rested on the bridge of his nose in the correct spot. They immediately slid down again but he didn’t notice.
“I’ll listen,” said Willow grudgingly, staring down at the ground. “Oh, wait, that’s her line, isn’t it?”
Giles surprised her by laughing heartily. “If you can get a word in edgeways with Kate, you’ll be doing better than I ever could. That young lady likes to hear herself talk.”
“Fine. We’ll see how long I can put up with her, then.”
Willow left Giles abruptly and he decided not to follow. Maybe they had all been tiptoeing around her too much. It wouldn’t do Willow any harm to be left to think for a while. He tried to imagine what her thoughts would be revolving around and shivered, images of flayed bodies rising in his memory. Changing his mind, he walked after the quickly retreating figure.
The next day was warm and cloudless. Willow had brooded all night but boredom tempted her towards the garden and she arrived only a few minutes late. Which for Willow was rebellion of the highest order, given that Kate had been assigned as her teacher and the meeting was therefore an informal class.
Kate wasn’t there. Willow sat patiently for a short while and then began to grow restless. She stood to leave but stopped herself, realising with dismay that she was getting irritable. It took so little nowadays, and the magic seemed to surge within her as the anger built, teasing her with images of how a tweak here, a slap there, and all could be made as it ought to be.
Willow gasped and bit her lip hard, trying to remember the exercises she had been taught. She closed her eyes and sank down to the ground again, crossing her legs and beginning the meditation routine. A measure of peace began to calm the roiling tempest inside her mind and her tense muscles relaxed. A shadow fell across her, blocking the sun that was gently warming her upturned face. Startled, Willow opened her eyes and squinted up at Kate, who was looking at her with a sober expression.
“Carry on, if you like,” said Kate softly, sitting beside her. “I can wait. There’s no rush.”
The truth of this, the easy acceptance of a short delay, brought home to Willow her own petulance and impatience. The always waiting tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away, annoyed at herself.
“I didn’t mean to be late,” Kate continued. “One of my other cases needed me urgently. Poor child.”
Willow looked at her, a question in her eyes. Kate shook her head.
“I don’t discuss cases. Not even yours, though I’m sure I’ll get the third degree from Miss Harkness after our session ends.”
“She scares me,” said Willow. ‘The way she looks at you, as if you’re a black beetle for not agreeing with her and if you aren’t now, you will be by the time she reaches for her hellebore and aconite tincture.”
Kate giggled. “She’s my auntie. No, no, don’t get flustered.” Willow’s blushes faded as Kate smiled at her conspiratorially. “Think how intimidated I am, when I know for a fact that she changed my nappies.”
Willow looked sympathetic but there was a smile tugging hard at her lips.
Kate noted the swift emotional changes and wondered if that was a good sign. From anger so palpable that others had sensed it in the house to a relaxed camaraderie in the space of a few minutes. It was good that Willow had been trying to deal with her inexplicable outburst of rage but by now she should have moved beyond such uncontrolled reactions.
“Shall I tell you what we’re going to be doing?” she asked abruptly.
Willow stiffened. “Giles said if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to do it.”
“Giles can go and dunk his head in a teapot,” Kate said bluntly. “I happen to think that this will help you and I want you to do it. I’m trying very hard to let you decide that for yourself but it’s an effort. Better let me tell you fast.”
Willow shoved out her lower lip, then capitulated. “Go on, then,” she said. “Bully me into it. No wonder we had a revolution. You Brits are bossy.”
Kate pretended to look astonished. “That was so easy. I’m going to practice this bullying thing. Obviously it’s a handy skill to have.”
Willow smiled reluctantly.
Kate stood and walked over to the stream. She bent over and picked up a few pebbles.
“Watch this,” she said casually and threw a large stone into the water, aiming at a calm spot where the water had pooled, rather than the fast flowing centre. “See the ripples?” she continued. “That’s what happened when you had your little magical tantrum. You caused ripples. All actions do, but when you get magic involved, well let’s just say the effects are more like me dropping a boulder in, rather than a pebble.”
Willow nodded, a memory surfacing. “After I brought Buffy back, someone who knew about it told Xander that magic always has consequences. He was quite definite about it.”
“He was quite right. It does. You saw for yourself, or you’ve been told, about the consequences your actions had on those immediately involved.”
“I know what they had on Warren,” murmured Willow, a sickness welling up.
“Forget him,” ordered Kate. “Well, not forget exactly, but let’s leave him for a bit, shall we? Your friends, Buffy, Xander…those lot. They were all affected.”
“I tried to kill them if that’s what you mean.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. That Buffy did it to you first, from what I hear, when she went crazy from that demon poison. Anyway, they all worked out fine. Buffy’s happy to be alive, best buddies with Dawn and teaching her to slay – ” Willow gasped in astonishment. “And Xander’s never stopped boasting about his yellow crayon speech being the turning point in the history of the world. Made his day. So forget them too.”
“Is there anyone I’m allowed to remember?” Willow asked, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
Kate smiled. “I thought you’d never get maneuvered into asking. Yes, but you don’t know them mostly, so you probably never would have bothered.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I’m going to tell you, show you maybe if I can get the spell right, about some of the consequences of your –”
“Don't call it a tantrum,” warned Willow. “It was more than that. I lost the one person I loved, the –”
“I know what you lost and I know who you lost,” said Kate. “And I’m going to help you find her again.”
Willow jumped up, a disbelieving look on her face. “Tara? You can bring her back?”
Kate gave her a dismayed look. “Tara’s dead, Willow. I’m talking about you.”
Willow’s lip quivered and she slumped back to the grass, disappointment souring the surge of joy. “So what are you going to do then?” she asked sullenly.
“Weren’t you listening? What you did affected so many people that if I was to tell you all their stories, we’d die of old age before I was half done. So I chose some in the first circle of ripples.”
“But what good will it do?” said Willow, perilously close to whining.
“Not sure,” said Kate thoughtfully. “But it’ll be fun.”
Willow had absorbed Kate’s words but was still not quite ready to begin.
“So, you do your Ghost of Christmas Past bit and I realise that trying to end the world wasn’t all that evil? Or you add up all the good results and all the bad and tell me I come out on top?”
Kate shook her head.
“I don’t have scales that big, or the skill to load them. I think you need to know more about what you did. You’ll know how much you have to deal with when it comes to guilt and it’ll serve as a warning to you for the future. You tried to kill your friends and you did kill Warren and Rack. You also tried to end the world. You know deep down that your friends will forgive you. The dead guys are past doing or saying anything useful. But the rest of the world…I think you need to meet a representative few. And they might as well be ones who were directly affected. They don’t know it was your doing of course, but you will, and I think it will be useful, therapeutic and all sorts of other good stuff. Besides – aren’t you even a little bit curious?”
Willow picked up a stone of her own, flat and oval, plain brown with grey flecks. It fit well in her hand. She walked over to the stream and flicked the stone so that it skipped across the water, once, twice, three times and then sank.
“It still makes ripples, even when you stay on the surface,” Kate said gently.
Willow continued to stare out at the water.
“Do it, then,” she said tiredly.
Kate smiled and said, “I’ll be interested to see what you make of this one.”
She murmured an incantation and Willow’s surroundings dropped away. She was sitting in formless white mist. Before she had time to panic, Kate’s voice, cursing inventively, cancelled the spell.
“Guess that didn’t work. Typical. I’ll just have to tell you about it then, but it won’t be half as flashy. There’s this teenager living in Sunnydale called Diana, see - ”
Diana sat in the middle of the pentagram, a spell book by her side, a jumble of ingredients heaped in front of her. She frowned as she read through the instructions for the tenth time. This was so complicated! And there was the little matter of the human blood; she was trying very hard to forget that part. She had tried to donate blood once and fainted when they took the sample from her ear lobe.
The small spells she’d done; the ones that required a memorised chant and the burning of a few herbs in a bowl - they had been fine. The effects had been so small though, that she wasn’t even certain they’d been caused by the spell. Jan might have slipped on the steps because they were wet with rain. Tiffany could have caught chicken pox from one of her bratty kid sisters.
Diana took a deep breath. She had to do something bigger. Something that would show them. She glanced over to the mirror on her bedroom wall. Plump, spotty, stringy mouse hair. It wasn’t her fault she hadn’t been born beautiful as they were. It never occurred to her that less junk food would take care of the first two problems and a visit to any supermarket would let her put Mother Nature in her place with regard to her hair. A peevish look took away any hint of prettiness in her features as she held the book closer to her eyes. Reading by candlelight was giving her a headache.
A horrible suspicion gripped her. Feverishly, she pawed through the sachets of herbs and mystical ingredients in front of her. There was one missing! Wailing in despair, she stood up, breaking the pentagram as she stumbled over to her desk and scuffed the chalk lines. Grabbing her wallet, she sighed in relief as she found a few dollars left over. It should be enough. She blew out the candles quickly and flung back the curtains, wincing as the sunlight hit her eyes. As she left the room, a curl of smoke appeared in the centre of the broken pentagram and began to expand.
Diana hurried along the street, checking her watch. The shop was open for hours; that wasn’t the problem, but if this spell weren’t cast soon, there would be no point in doing it, the specified time would have passed.
And the thought of being like this for another year was unbearable.
The spell would give her the one thing she had always craved - popularity. It would do it by leeching it from anyone around her who had it but, well, she’d make sure people were still nice to them. She wouldn’t let them get shoved to the outskirts of every group, left off every invitation list, chosen last for everything – or maybe she would. Just for a little while at least.
Back in her room, the demon she had unwittingly summoned as she carelessly read the spell over and over inside the pentagram, found her scent. Purple eyes gleamed and a thin tongue swept across razor sharp fangs in anticipation. Of course, the missing ingredient meant that he wasn’t the demon that Diana had been aiming for, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if he had been inside a properly drawn pentagram. As it was, the broken chalk lines meant he was free to seek out his summoner. A fun game of hide and seek with a tasty treat as the prize.
And Grathshik played to win. Always.
Diana came round the corner, out of breath and resolving to get a car as well as popularity. And money. Might as well make all this effort pay off. She came to a sudden halt, her mouth gaping open.
The Magic Box was trashed. Utterly trashed. It looked as if someone had driven a tank through the window and used the insides for target practice. Diana didn’t even wonder if the weird woman who ran it was hurt, she didn’t give a thought to the culprit; she just ran to the door and hammered on it, calling out,
“Let me in! It’s an emergency!”
There was no answer. She blinked at a piece of paper taped to the door. It said, with admirable brevity, ‘CLOSED’ and it was hard to argue with that. Diana’s lips thinned. She knew exactly where the herb she needed was kept. If she could squeeze in somehow and just borrow some, well, no one could possibly object. She’d leave an I.O.U . No, that would be stupid. Oh, the hell with it. She’d spent a small fortune in the shop. They owed it to her. Righteous indignation lent her strength as she recalled a bitter argument with the shopkeeper over the precise definition of, ‘a dollar a scoop’ for patchouli potpourri. Diana’s attempts to explain that some of the potpourri had fallen off as she brought the scoop to the bag and that she was simply picking up the fallen bits rather than stealing extra, had fallen on stony ears.
It was payback time. Diana looked around and saw no one. Moving as fast as she could, she clambered through the open window, trying to avoid the jagged edges of glass. She made it and found herself in the shop. An unusual sense of daring gave her the courage to complete her mission and she turned to go after tucking the small packet into her coat pocket. The door was firmly locked, which was about as silly as you could imagine, given the state of the window. Diana tugged at it but there was no key visible and the shop was getting more and more menacing with every passing second. Giving up, she walked to the window, hoping that no one would see her unconventional exit.
She was head and shoulders out when a demon popped up in front of her face.
Kate stopped and Willow’s head jerked round sharply.
“You stopped! Why did you stop? What happened to her?”
“She had accidentally - although that isn’t a viable excuse - raised a demon. He’s not up there on the top ten list of nasty demons of all time but he’s not exactly the sort you take home to meet mother either. What do you think happened?”
Willow’s head sank onto her knees.
“She died. She died because I destroyed the shop and she – hey, no that’s not right.” Willow lifted up her head and glared at Kate. “None of what happened to her was my fault! She broke in to get the herb and that was probably just as quick as buying it but even that isn’t relevant. It all started back at her house. Whatever bad thing happened to her, it happened because she was badly prepared and sloppy. You never say a syllable inside the pentagram until you’re ready to go.”
Kate grinned admiringly. “Sharp as a tack. Don’t sit down on yourself, will you?”
“So how can I have rippled her?” demanded Willow.
“I never finished the story. I just paused for a moment.”
“You’re a sadist.”
Diana, not surprisingly, screamed. Very loudly. The demon screamed right back at her, a grin splitting his face in two and exposing more teeth than anyone had a right to have. Unless they were a crocodile.
“I believe you invited me over,” he hissed. “But you didn’t wait for me. Very rude. I came after you to teach you some manners.”
“I’m sorry,” sobbed Diana desperately. “I didn’t mean to summon you. I was trying to summon Magreatha, goddess of wishes.”
The demon looked honestly taken aback.
“That wimp? She’s no good at eviscerations at all. Now if you’d asked for me – and not broken the circle and let me out of course – I’d have happily disemboweled as many people as you wanted. Really. It wouldn’t have been any trouble at all.”
“Dis-disemb? Oh, no! I wanted to be popular, that’s all. Please, can’t you just go home?”
The demon cast a disparaging look around the quiet street.
“Baby, I am so out of here, don’t worry. After I’ve shown you what disemboweling is, since you seem a little hazy on the concept.”
Diana started to scream again as the demon moved in for the kill.
“You’re stopping again? Do you have an addiction to cliffhangers?”
“You were looking a little pale. I thought perhaps I could summarise, spare you the details.”
Willow looked at her dangerously. Kate sighed and continued.
Anya and Xander arrived to board up the shop window. Xander attacked the demon with a hammer and killed it. Anya got Diana out of the window, warned her of the penalties for looters, confiscated the herbs and banned her from the shop for life.
Willow stood up, spluttering with rage and laughter.
“You! She didn’t die. I’ll never trust you again! Are all your stories like this?”
Kate’s grin slid off her face. “No. That was just the beginning. But it’s not quite as light hearted as it seems. If the shop had been open as normal, she would have got that herb and the demon would have killed her on the way home. If by some chance, the demon was killed as he tracked her, she would have done the spell and a lot of damage to her classmates besides. I think she was too lazy to go far with her witchcraft but Sunnydale has an odd effect on people. Now she’s taken up quilting and made a new friend or two. She’s fine.”
Willow looked unconvinced. “I still can’t be all, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I tried to end the world because it means a stupid girl gets to meet people’,” she objected.
Kate sighed. “No one expects you to be. This takes a bit out of me. Let’s try again tomorrow, shall we? And I’ll try and get the surround sound thing working.”
“If it’s all the same to you, the less magic involved the better. You just telling the stories is fine.”
“Well, that takes magic, too. How do you think I know about this stuff? But, fine, we can stick to the basics. See you same time tomorrow, then.”
Willow watched Kate walk away with mixed feelings about more stories. She had more than a little in common with Diana and it was disturbing to see how she might have ended up without her friends to rescue her. She recalled spells she had performed that hadn’t gone as planned and sighed at the way she had been scornfully critical of Diana’s blunders as she listened to Kate’s story.
One of the victims of her ‘will be done’ spell was approaching, his face concerned.
“Willow?” said Giles. “Are you feeling well?”
“I’m a worm,” said Willow sadly. “I’m all despising of sad loners who try to improve things by magic but that’s me, or it was. Maybe it still is.”
“You’re not making any sense, Willow,” said Giles anxiously. “I’ll tell Kate that there must be no more of this. I can’t see how burdening you with reproaches and reminders can be of any assistance at all.”
Willow’s eyes met his, resolve strong on her face.
“I need them, Giles. I’d gotten so arrogant, so sure of myself. I don’t know quite what she plans but I think she’s helping me see myself clearly.”
She stood up. “How about a ‘nice cup of tea’? Do you ever have nasty cups of tea, or not bad but not quite up to par cups?”
Giles smiled at her attempts to tease him.
“I obviously haven’t taken to you a service station on the motorway yet. A cup of tea would be very welcome after all the talking I’ve been doing today.”
“With the Watchers Council?”
Giles looked at her ruefully. "That would have been pleasant in comparison. No; my next door neighbour came to convince me to donate something to the jumble sale. She stayed for hours, gossiping about people I don’t know and never want to.”
“Did you give her something?”
Giles brightened up. “I certainly did. A dozen jars of marrow jam.”
“I can see why you would want to get rid of that and I’m not even sure what a marrow is but why did you buy it in the first place?”
Giles’ smile broadened. “I didn’t. She gave it to me last winter. She was mortally insulted.”
“Giles! You might have hurt her feelings!” protested Willow.
Giles thought back to the sly comments Mrs. Singleton had made about his young lady friend with the red hair, the insinuating spitefulness of her ostensibly polite questions.
“I devoutly hope so,” he replied.
Willow looked at Kate, raising her eyebrows and smiling expectantly. The rain had swept in during the night and the garden was a damp and soggy wilderness. Their rendezvous had been moved to the library, one of Willow’s favourite rooms in the large manor house owned by the coven. The shelves were crammed with a mixture of shabby, dog-eared paperbacks and, tucked away in the dimmer corners, some books that would have been welcome in the Magic Box, in the section reserved for Giles’ use alone. The air was redolent with the enticing smell of old paper, the furniture shabby but welcoming. Subtle lighting made reading possible in every chair and an apparently random scattering of tables meant never having to leave one’s chair to set down a drink.
Kate had settled down in a deep armchair by the fire, sighing with pleasure as she curled her feet up beneath her.
“I love this chair. I used to be able to lie down in it when I was little. Now I’m all grown up, I keep forgetting I can’t quite do that anymore.”
Willow’s chair was equally comfortable and she held out her sock-clad feet to the flames, enjoying their warmth. Summer in England took some getting used to for a Californian.
“So, have you got another story for me?” she asked.
Kate smiled, sipping at a steaming mug of tea and brushing away some crumbs that had fallen from her oatmeal cookie to her lap. “Of course. This one is full of romance and weddings.”
Willow winced. “The last wedding I went to ended in the bride becoming a demon, the groom leaving her at the altar and the guests getting attacked by another demon. Not quite in that order but it wasn’t a fun time. And you should have seen the bridesmaid dress I had to wear.” She shivered at the memory.
Kate said, “At least you had a dress.”
Being next door to the Magic Box was an odd location for a shop specializing in wedding dresses and tuxedo hires. Unless your mind wandered to love potions and such, in which case they fit together well enough. Sarah Prescott had never set foot in the Magic Box and didn’t even notice that it was boarded up. Her mind fixed on one goal, she pushed open the dress shop door and stepped inside.
The man behind the counter, Mr. Simpson, who owned the shop in partnership with his wife, glanced up as the bell chimed softly, his face distracted and fretful. The frown deepened as he saw Sarah. He looked down at a list he held and swallowed hard.
“Good morning, Miss Prescott,” he began formally.
“Is it here?” interrupted Sarah eagerly, sweeping aside social niceties as the outdated irrelevancies they were. “You said today, didn’t you? I’m so excited! I know it’s silly, someone my age wanting white but – ”
Mr. Simpson tried again. “Your dress came in on the final delivery, late last night but -”
“Last night! And you didn’t call me? The wedding is in three days! I need that dress, I have to get the shoes dyed to match, I have to coordinate the bouquet, you wouldn’t believe how much I have to do.”
Her voice was rising ominously and Mr. Simpson, prudently keeping the counter between them, hastened to reassure her.
“I do know how rushed you are, my dear but it arrived very late, after the store had closed in fact. However, that’s really not important. The dress isn’t here –” He paused, expecting a shriek but Sarah just stared at him, her mouth falling open in shock, speechless in the face of this disaster. “Didn’t you see what happened next door? The shop was gutted, some sort of gas explosion I believe. It made a huge hole in my storeroom wall and well, your dress was ruined, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry. The insurance will cover it of course and we will be happy to provide you with a replacement dress. In fact, in view of the urgency, we’d be happy to offer you any dress in the shop for the same price as the one you lost.”
He beamed at her, amazed that he’d managed to string so many words together without interruptions.
Sarah tried to speak, failed and looked around helplessly. She saw a chair and tottered towards it, her legs giving way as she reached it. Mr. Simpson, wishing fervently that his wife were here to deal with this awkward situation, rushed over to her, wringing his hands together futilely as he hovered around her.
Sarah was talking almost to herself, jumbled words that reached Mr. Simpson’s ear in fragments. “All my life – dreamed of this day – going to be perfect – has to be perfect – dream wedding – beautiful bride – my special day.” Her voice faded away and her head drooped into her hands for a moment.
Sarah made a supreme effort and looked up at him. “I want my dress,” she said. “I don’t care what it looks like, I have to have it. Give it to me.” Her face was flushed as she tried to hold back the tears that threatened to fall and she wound her fingers together tightly to stop them shaking.
“But, but, you don’t understand, it’s ruined, totally unwearable. In fact, I may well have put it out in the trash already.”
Sarah leaped up, her face filled with fury, galvanized out of her shock by this additional blow. “You threw out my dress?” she shrieked.
Mr. Simpson quailed before her rage, desperately trying to atone. “I’ll find it,” he assured her, adding recklessly, “If I have to search the dumpster myself!”
It took thirty minutes, and Mr. Simpson was a broken man by the time his mission was complete, but Sarah left the shop with one of their trademark pink and silver boxes in her arms. Pristine wrappings and delicate satin bows housed a tangled, torn and dirty dress, foaming lace tattered and torn, ivory silk turned grey with dust, a long streak of something orange running from the bodice to the hem.
As she turned to walk away, Sarah paused and stalked over to the Magic Box. She eyed it malevolently and whispered a few words under her breath. Deep inside the shop, a shelf holding some miraculously unbroken crystal balls began to wobble, before succumbing to gravity and plunging to the floor. Shards of glass lay like splintered sunlight over the more mundane debris. Satisfied, Sarah nodded her head sharply and left, her precious burden cradled in her arms.
Willow leaned forward eagerly. “So why did she want the dress? And why was she so mad at poor Giles and Anya if she thought their shop had been destroyed in an accident? It wasn’t very nice of her to do that curse.”
Kate shrugged, her face studiously blank. “Haven’t you ever attacked people who hurt you without meaning to?” she asked.
Willow flushed and picked at the fringe around the arm of the chair without replying.
“That wasn’t a rhetorical question,” said Kate, sitting up straight in her armchair, her grey eyes stern as they rested on Willow.
Willow avoided her probing glance and looked at the leaping flames, losing herself in their dance. Finally she replied, “Yes. Yes, I have hurt people. You know that. I hurt them physically and I said things that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
“Did you mean them?” asked Kate, settling back into her chair as Willow broke her silence.
“At the time, sure. I reveled in saying them. I got a real kick out of it. It was glorious to stop acting, stop pretending. It wasn’t until afterwards, when I remembered their faces that I – oh God, they’ll never forget it either. Never.” Willow’s voice quivered and broke as the ready tears welled up.
“We all have thoughts inside us that we don’t share for various reasons. You just decided that you’d break with tradition. It’s not the end of the – oops.” Kate pulled a rueful face at her own blunder and smiled at Willow, inviting her to share the joke. After a moment, Willow gave her a watery smile in return and fished in her jeans’ pocket for a clean tissue. After she’d dried her eyes and blown her nose, she said firmly, “But I still want to know about Sarah and the dress.”
Kate shrugged agreeably and continued. “Sarah wasn’t a Magic Box customer. I’m afraid she saw it as being a shop for dabblers. Maybe if she’d ever got down off her high horse and ventured over the threshold, she’d have been surprised. I can’t see Rupert catering to the masses. Be that as it may, she was a fairly powerful witch. She grew a lot of her own herbs and she ordered in the more esoteric items. The net has a lot to answer for; it makes some things too easy. When you have to go out at moonrise to gather the fern seed yourself, for three months on the trot, it might put you off doing a spell of disenchantment. When you can buy it online and have it express delivered the next day, it’s easy to give into temptation.” She paused. “Where was I before I started ranting? Oh, yes. That dress.”
Sarah emerged from her bedroom and swept downstairs, ignoring the gasps from her guests as they saw her dress. Three days had done little to improve it, despite her best efforts. The orange streak had faded to yellow and the smell of garbage had faded too, but it was still a travesty of a dress. At the foot of the stairs, his eyes filled with unconditional love, a blissful smile of anticipation on his pleasant face stood her betrothed, James Purkiss III. He gazed in adoration at the vision of youthful beauty moving towards him, a shy yet happy look enhancing her perfect features. Her dress was a fitting frame for such a masterwork, a confection of frothing lace and silken splendour.
As he took her arm and walked with her to the minister, who waited outside in the sylvan wonderland that the Prescott fortune had created in Sarah’s garden, James basked in the knowledge that all his guests were struck dumb in admiration. For the rest of his life, he would proudly display photographs of his wedding and continue to get the same reaction; stunned silence as the person tried desperately to reconcile what they saw with the running commentary James provided.
Sarah spent her wedding day writhing with humiliation but consoling herself with the fact that she had the rest of her life to live it down. Frumpy, plain and poor, she had used spells to beguile James from the start. Woven into the wedding dress were spells that would seal their love for all time. The spells had taken weeks to prepare and Sarah had lost many pounds as she worried about their effectiveness.
Such a pity that she had to send the dress back to the shop for last minute alterations to the waist. An even bigger pity that the seamstress had broken her wrist tripping over her young son’s skateboard, meaning that the dress had to be sent to a different place to be altered. Most tragic of all that it was returned on that fateful night. Consequences and coincidences; no amount of witchcraft can cope with their effects.
“Oh, the poor thing,” said Willow, giggling in spite of herself.
Kate raised her eyebrows. “It isn’t really funny,” she said pointedly. “Myself, I suspect the work of a balancer, using your actions to teach Sarah a lesson. They’re related to vengeance demons, but aren’t quite so powerful and choose their own cases. Sarah had done something truly bad when she coerced true love and changed James’ life. Oh, he will be happy, but that’s beside the point. What Sarah had to endure on her wedding day, looking like that, everyone laughing on her perfect day, well, it went some way towards making her pay for her actions.”
Willow was fidgeting uneasily. “Why do these stories all seem to have people in them who’ve done similar things to me?” she blurted out.
“You’ve created enchanted clothing?’ Kate asked dubiously. “You don’t seem the sort, somehow.”
Willow leapt to her feet. “I’m talking about manipulating people into thinking they love you!”
Kate peered up at her, maddeningly calm. “So, who did you do that to, then?” she asked casually. “And sit down. I’m getting a muscle spasm in my neck.”
Willow flopped back in her seat, looking dangerously close to losing her temper. “I didn’t exactly. It was Tara. We were arguing over how much magic I was using and I didn’t want her to be mad at me. So I, well, I made her forget that we’d fought.”
Kate looked disgusted. “That’s one of the reasons she left, I assume?” she said in a tight voice, her nose screwed up as if she’d smelled something unpleasant.
Willow glanced over, startled by Kate’s reaction. “That and the magic use. I see now that she was right, of course. I was using way too much magic, getting addicted to it. I should have stopped sooner, as she asked me to.”
Kate snorted. “If someone told you that you were addicted to breathing, would you meekly agree and stop doing that, too?”
Willow shook her head but said, stubbornly, “It’s not the same.”
Kate sighed. “Willow, I’m here to tell you the stories, not delve into your past but I really can’t let this one go. Listen to me; I said you were an amateur, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” muttered Willow. That still rankled.
“Well, I was wrong. You’re a natural. If there’d been anyone around with any talent as you grew up, they could have trained you and maybe none of this would have happened. Instead, you grew up hollow inside. You’re, oh, you’re like a sea sponge in a way – ”
“Well, thank you,” interjected Willow wryly.
“Lots of holes, just waiting to be filled with water to make it get bigger. You were soaked in magic; whoosh, it flowed into you. But you can only absorb so much and after that you start to drip, or in your case, flood the whole damn bathroom floor.”
Willow stared at her in astonishment and then began to laugh. “I’m a s-sponge, a leaky sponge,” she said, gasping for breath. “Kate, that’s the weirdest analogy I ever heard.”
Kate had the grace to look sheepish. She waved an airy hand. “Details. Make up your own, why don’t you? Anyway, you can’t just stay out of the water; that’s killing you. But once you’re wet, you need wringing out to be useful. And I will abandon this image now, because like most analogies, it’s a poor attempt to describe something that just is. You are a very powerful witch, Willow and you’re so suffused with power that I doubt it will ever leave you. But it’s been controlling you through your emotions and that has to stop. We need you back in the driving seat before we have another crash. Which leads in nicely to the next story.”
Willow recoiled, “I’m not sure I can –“
“Not today, I’m shattered too,” Kate said kindly. “And I think we might take tomorrow off, too. Isn’t it the village fete? You’ll enjoy that.”
“Giles said it was a jumble sale,” Willow objected.
Kate looked cynical. “That’s next week. Everything that doesn’t sell at the fete ends up at the jumble. It’s a subtle hierarchy of events but being a furriner with ways not of our own, I can’t expect you to grasp the complexities. When you’ve been here a bit longer, I’ll introduce you to the delights of a bring and buy sale.”
“I can’t wait,” said Willow in a voice drenched with insincerity.
The visit to the fete had been fun at first. Uncomplicated, undemanding fun. On the other side of the ocean, her friends were most likely battling demons, facing down evil with a multitude of faces, not to mention arms, legs and tentacles. Here, in a quiet English village, Willow was on a roll at the tombola stall, winning a bottle of ketchup, some rather sticky dandruff shampoo and finally, after depleting her supply of twenty pence coins, half a bottle of whisky that she presented proudly to Giles. He thanked her profusely, even though it was blended, not a single malt and led her off to the coconut shy. His Watcher’s training paid off here and he solemnly handed Willow two small, hairy coconuts, ignoring her protests with a bland smile. Noticing a small child crying over a dropped ice lolly, Willow gravely handed him one of the coconuts. He promptly dropped it on his toe and Willow and Giles escaped hurriedly, the sight of a wrathful mother bearing down filling them with more dread than a gang of vampires would have inspired.
“Where’s Kate?” Willow asked as she prepared to indulge in a cream tea a little later. She had become very fond of this treat; a currant scone, split and thickly laden with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam. She had even become accustomed to drinking tea with it, rather than coffee.
Giles smiled. “Kate’s working,” he replied, with a hint of mischief in his voice. He glanced around the crowded tea tent. “Good turn out,” he remarked, clearly changing the subject.
Willow wrinkled her nose at him and decided to experiment with adding a few sliced strawberries to the scone.
Giles waited for her to finish her delectable treat and then stood, making way for a tired looking mother and father with what seemed like half a dozen children swarming round their legs.
“Let’s go over here,“ he suggested as they sauntered over the grass, still slightly damp from yesterday’s rain but drying nicely thanks to a warm sun and a light breeze. Giles steered Willow towards a small tent with a pointed roof, fabulously decorated with stars and in a rather fetching shade of purple. Willow saw the sign, ‘Madame Fortunata Reveals All’ and balked.
“I’m not going in there!” she protested. “If she’s fake, it’s a waste of money, if she’s not, I’d probably crack her crystal ball.”
“I don’t think there’s much risk of that,” said Giles. He held up the flap of canvas and urged Willow inside, dropping the flap behind her as she entered. Blinking in the dim light and overpowered by the smell of damp canvas, Willow took longer than she should have done to recognize Madame Fortunata.
“Kate! I might have known it was you. Do you do this every year?” Willow exclaimed.
Kate nonchalantly adjusted the chain of gold coins anchoring her veil to her head and nodded. “Been doing it for five years,” she answered. “Sit down and cross my palm with silver, why don’t you?”
Willow sat and rooted about in her pocket for some change. She looked dubiously at what was left after her encounters with stallholders whose selling techniques would have made a loan shark feel faint. “Will copper do?” she asked hopefully.
Kate snorted derisively. “I don’t think so,“ she said. “But those little gold ones will do nicely.”
Willow grudgingly handed over a pound coin. Kate raised an eyebrow expectantly and Willow growled and added a second.
“I don’t know why you care,” remarked Kate. “You can’t take change back with you.”
Willow grinned. “It’s all from Giles, anyway,” she confessed. “I’m going to owe him, like a thousand dollars by the time I go home.”
Kate brushed this aside and resumed her fortune teller persona.
“Sit, sit and I will tell you of your past, your present, and your future,” she intoned.
Willow looked sceptical. “Doesn’t this work better when you don’t already know the person?” she asked pointedly.
“Think about what you just said,” replied Kate. “It works just fine, this way, thank you.”
Willow mentally slapped her own forehead and resigned herself to a few minutes of humouring Kate.
“You have been through great turmoil and loss,” said Madame Fortunata.
“You saw me at the lucky dip stall, did you?” asked Willow dryly. She got a warning glare for her levity.
“You have traveled far, over land and water. You soared like the birds but you had no wings.”
Willow remembered doing that at the height of her quest for vengeance. She had felt the chill air caress her as she arrowed through it but nothing had cooled her white-hot rage.
“You have loved and been rejected, have broken faith and been betrayed. You are capable of much violence and much tenderness. You are full of magic yet at home with technology. You are –“
“I think that’s enough,” said Willow, trembling slightly at the memories Kate’s words evoked.
“You are Willow,” Kate finished inexorably.
“And my future?” Willow asked, her voice as tart as a green apple, as bitter as lemon peel.
Kate shrugged her shoulders theatrically. “Why ask me? Your future is in your hands and yours alone. Look at them and see.”
Involuntarily, Willow glanced down at her palms, curved upwards in her lap. Cupping them, she watched as they filled with clear light that shimmered with images flowing into each other like oil on water. She saw her friends, sometimes younger, sometimes older than when she left them. She saw Tara, silver haired and lovely in old age and frowned, puzzled and disturbed. She saw monsters, demons she had fought, rising again from the earth. She saw herself, dark-eyed and powerful, the entire world at her feet. She saw the futures that could be hers and she looked until she could bear no more. Wrenching her hands apart, she thrust the palms out towards Kate, who sat, silently watching.
“Take your magic away,” Willow said, through clenched teeth. “I don’t want to know what will come. I don’t want to live with that knowledge.”
“You want to live in the dark?” Kate questioned. “Frightened and cowering in a corner?”
Willow shook her head. Her voice was strong and sure as she said, “Not knowing what will come is the only way of being able to deal with it when it does. Believe me. Humans aren’t meant to know the future. It cripples us, constricts us.”
Kate pursed her lips, considering. “Fair enough,” she said finally. “Now, get going so I can deal with some real customers.”
Willow leaned over the table, her face impassive, and placed her palm on the crystal ball, its cool curve fitting her hand perfectly. The crystal glowed blue as the residual magic from Kate’s spell flowed into it.
“Now you can tell them the truth,” Willow said softly. “I wonder if you’ll be that cruel.”
Willow didn’t see Kate again until the following afternoon. The day was fine but Kate left a message for Willow to meet her in the library again, directly after lunch. Willow got there early and waited patiently, browsing the crammed shelves and finally choosing a book that had been awarded to Amelia Denning in 1932 for perfect attendance at Sunday School. The book was called, ‘Dawn Tackles the Lower Fourth’ and Willow’s lips twitched with amusement as she read, comparing the Dawn she knew with the heroine of the book.
When Kate arrived, Willow looked up, her face alight with laughter. “Why didn’t I ever get books like this to read when I was a kid?” she asked. “So funny. Were boarding schools really like this? Midnight feasts and playing tricks on the teachers?”
Kate walked over and examined the book. “Oh, I remember this one!” she exclaimed. "There’s a whole series about this school. I loved them. They’re collector’s items now of course; that one you’re reading is probably worth a few hundred pounds.”
Willow looked at it in surprise and carefully closed it, setting it down on the table beside her. Kate shook her head. “Don’t do that. Books need to be read, or they don’t feel loved.”
“I’ll finish it later,” Willow promised.
Kate seemed ill at ease and remained standing, her arms folded defensively across her chest. “I’m sorry,” she said, the words bursting from her. “I shouldn’t have given you that vision, not without warning you or asking you first.” She cast her eyes upwards. “Rupert went spare with me.”
“He went what?” asked Willow, her mind flying to bowling.
Kate gave her an uncomprehending look and then giggled and translated. “Oh, it means he was furious. Normally, I’d just ignore him but when he gets going, well, have you ever seen him channel his youthful side?”
“Oh, yes. In fact, I’ve seen him become it, but that’s not my story to tell. And speaking of stories…”
Kate gave her a grateful glance. “You want to carry on, then?”
Willow nodded and Kate sighed with relief, regaining her poise almost at once. “Thank God. I’d hate to think I’d done all this work for nothing,” she said frankly. “Fine. Well, the next story is about someone you hitched a lift with.”
“I’ve never hitched,” Willow protested. “It’s really dangerous.”
“Not if you don’t actually get into the car,” said Kate, watching as understanding spread over Willow’s face.
Jim Bennett had been driving trucks all his working life. This was probably the last one he would own though; he was getting older, stiffer and he just didn’t have the stamina for the cross-country hauls that his job required. He had planned to retire, maybe move with Mary out to the country somewhere, and put roots down for a change. She had never complained that he was away so much – except the time he missed Christmas Day, snowed up in the North. He swore she’d sulked till the next Christmas about that. In some ways, it kept their love fresh, the partings and the joyful reunions.
But none of that mattered now. Mary was dead, the cancer she had concealed for so long, finally defeating even her stubborn will and killing her after a short week in hospital. He couldn’t regret the time he’d spent alone, the road stretching out in front of him, the world streaming past his windows in an endless, fascinating series of snapshot impressions or wide vistas, but he could regret that he hadn’t tried to share his world with her more.
This was to be his last trip, he’d decided. He planned, quite calmly, to drive his truck to a lookout point he knew, a few miles outside Sunnydale, park her up and then jump, when the night concealed what lay beneath. Being alone as he drove was one thing. Being alone in an empty house, year in, year out - that would be unbearable.
The wheel was smooth under his callused fingers as he made the small adjustments to keep the truck steady. Up ahead he thought he spotted a police cruiser. He frowned. Last thing he needed was a ticket. It wouldn’t matter but it would break his mood of exalted anticipation dealing with the routine of getting pulled over. He eased back to the speed limit, cruising steadily.
The truck was rocked suddenly as Jim felt something hit the roof of the cab. It felt heavy and as he wondered if a branch had been blown down, he felt the accelerator pedal drop away from under his foot as it was pushed down hard.
“What the hell?” he muttered.
The next few moments were a nightmare. Jim, on his way to kill himself, found instead that he was fighting to save his life and the lives of whoever was in that police car ahead of him. It was hard to believe - he was never quite sure whether he did or not - but the truck was driving itself, deliberately ramming the car in front, over and over. Jim sat, a helpless spectator, as the truck wheel span this way and that, the speed creeping up steadily until the engine was racing and the cab was trembling. He felt as if he were inside a beast whose chains had finally been snapped and who was hungry for revenge.
He was so close that he could see the frightened faces in the back seat of the cruiser, prisoners, probably, as they turned to look at the behemoth bearing down inexorably on their fragile container.
Then, as inexplicably as it had begun, it ended. The truck seemed to float as the malign influence loosened its grip. For a terrifying moment, it coasted along, a lethal chunk of steel aimed directly at the car in front. Then Jim cried out with relief as he felt his frantic tugging on the wheel make a difference. With every ounce of strength he possessed, he sent the truck into a jackknife, allowing the police car to pull away at last. Trembling with reaction, he fought the truck to a standstill, and then pulled it over to the side of the road. He turned off the engine and sank his head into his hands, dry sobs racking his body. Pushing open the door, he climbed down and looked down the road. He couldn’t understand why the cruiser hadn’t come back to arrest him and he was damned if he knew what he would tell them if he did. As the minutes passed, he realised that they wouldn’t be returning. It didn’t make sense but then, nothing did tonight.
One thought hung in his mind, burning as brightly as the taillights on the car he had nearly obliterated.
He wasn’t ready to die. Not yet, not tonight.
Kate finished and looked at Willow, cocking her head expectantly, like a robin looking for crumbs.
Willow said, “So I scared the poor man so much he stopped being suicidal? Well, that makes it all just peachy doesn’t it? Here I was thinking that I was the Angel of Death that night and far from it. I was just spreading sweetness and light around wherever I went.”
Kate shook her head violently, ornate silver earrings whipping back and forth like lightening bolts. “You were wrong to do what you did, Willow. Or let’s just say what you planned to do was wrong. What you actually did was kill a murderer and a warlock who got his kicks corrupting everyone he met. That’s not so terrible, but don’t tell anyone I said that and don’t make a habit of it.” Willow opened her mouth, shocked at this but Kate ignored her confusion and continued. “Where you went wrong was getting so full of yourself that you decided to make everyone’s life better for them. Same as you did when you messed with Tara’s memory. You’re arrogant, Willow. You’ve always been the brightest but you felt you had to keep your light hidden. That had to be galling. Magic has given you the chance to shine like the sun and - oh, you crazy diamond, you - that’s just what you did.”
Willow looked totally lost at this point. Kate sighed. “It’s a lyric from a Pink Floyd song. I got carried away.”
“Giles warned me about that,” Willow mentioned slyly.
“He did, did he? Ever hear his lecture on the mystical rites of the Babylonians? Take a sleeping bag along – you’ll need it.” Kate stood. “The next story isn’t so nice. People die. Does that make you feel better? Give you some more guilt to wallow in?”
Willow looked at her helplessly. “I tried to end the world! I should be punished, I should feel bad.”
“Which is very nice for you but not so much fun for everyone else around you and not really very useful either. It’s almost time for you to go back, Willow. They can’t teach you much more here. The summer is nearly over and school is about to begin. Or are you going to drop out?”
Willow’s face was anguished. “No, but I’m not ready, I can’t go back and face them. Not yet. They must hate me and – ” her voice trailed off. “They’re all I have left, now.”
Kate’s voice was firm. “You always have yourself, Willow. And I don’t get the impression that anyone over there hates you at all. They’re worried and concerned but wouldn’t you be?”
Willow nodded, reluctantly. Kate was trying to force to her to emerge from her cocoon of misery and spread her wings. “But I don’t think I’ll be a beautiful butterfly,” she thought wretchedly to herself. “More like one of those moths that make big holes in clothes and gets exterminated.”
Kate perched on the arm of a chair and looked at Willow seriously. “I’m showing you these glimpses, these slices of other people’s lives for a reason. I want you to know, deep down in your gut, that what you do has consequences and they’re so wide reaching that you must never, ever, assume you can predict them all. I don’t want to hobble you to stop you from running; I just want you to look where you’re going.” She stood up again. “Go read your book. If I remember that one, Dawn has the same lesson to learn. She has a midnight feast in her dorm and gives most of her friends food poisoning with some undercooked sausages.”
Willow smiled and reached for the book. “You give weird homework,” she murmured.
“This is going to be the last story,” Kate began. She had taken Willow into the room that lay at the heart of the manor house. It was windowless and warded to prevent discovery. The coven advertised itself as a New Age Centre for Holistic Healing – a vague title that allowed them to operate without much scrutiny. Some of the villagers knew a little more about the true nature of the work done at the secluded house but they said nothing. The Harkness family had lived at the manor for generations. That conferred a certain immunity, not to gossip perhaps, but certainly to interference.
“So what happens after this story?” Willow asked, a little nervously. The wooden floor was cool on her bare feet and she wished that she had a chair to sit in, or a table to lean on. The room was empty, featureless. Stone walls, smooth and plain and a narrow wooden door weren’t much to look at or to get comfortable with. She thought back to the river and the library with an inward sigh of regret.
Kate sank gracefully to the floor, folding her legs into lotus position without difficulty. Willow sat down too, but settled for crossing her legs. She was fit enough but that just didn’t look comfortable. Kate smiled cheerfully and replied, “You go home.”
“But I haven’t finished all my studies here,” Willow protested. She wondered if many prisoners clung desperately to their shackles as the guards tried to release them after years of imprisonment. If they did, she could sympathise.
“Face it, Willow, you’re more powerful than anyone here. You’ve been shown some of the basics that you need – you were like someone who can drive a Grand Prix car but never mastered riding a bike – but what you need to do now is get back to your life. It’s time and you’re needed over there.”
“Who needs me?” Willow asked, despondency slumping her shoulders.
Kate growled with frustration and angrily gestured at the stone wall to her right, spitting out an incantation. Willow gasped as a picture formed on the surface. Xander and Buffy were sitting in his apartment, wrapping paper and tape scattered around.
“I should have got one of these years ago,” Buffy said, flourishing a narrow parcel in one hand.
“Going to come in handy,” remarked Xander. “So that’s one for all of us, then?”
“Yes. The woman in the shop couldn’t believe I wanted four.”
“Do you want me to keep Willow’s here?”
“If you like. We can take it with us to the airport as a welcome home present when she gets back. Giles says it shouldn’t be much longer.”
Xander looked solemn. “Can’t be soon enough. I miss her.”
Buffy reached over and patted his hand, her face mirroring his concern. “We all do,” she said softly.
The picture faded and Kate turned to Willow. “Satisfied?” she asked.
“Suspicious, more like,” said Willow. “Was that real, or something you just whipped up to stop me whining?”
Kate looked smug. “I’ll bet you a fiver it was real and when you find out what’s in those parcels, you can pay me. Now, enough of the time wasting. My legs are going numb.”
“Why are we in this room anyway?” asked Willow. “It’s not exactly cosy.”
Kate glanced around. “No, it isn’t. But this tale might need us to be somewhere protected.”
“They’re only stories,” Willow protested.
“They’re me tapping into people’s souls and memories,” Kate said quietly. “But so far, they’ve all been people who were still alive.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Brenton asked, nervousness putting a quaver in his voice.
“Relax, you baby,” replied his friend, Scott, throwing a scornful glance over to where Brenton was standing, slumped against a wall. “This is like, the coolest place ever. No need for drugs; he’ll take you places, show you things you’ve never even dreamed of.”
“But I don’t have any cash,” Brenton objected, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, his fingers curling defensively.
Scott waved this off. “He doesn’t ask for money.”
Even naïve Brenton found this odd. “He has to ask for something. No one gives out stuff like this out of the kindness of their hearts.”
Scott hunched one shoulder in an irritable gesture. It was obvious that he was guessing as he replied, “Maybe he just does it because it’s fun for him. Or he asks you to do something in return. How should I know? All he told me was that I had to bring a friend next time or I couldn’t get in. Anyway, last chance. Are you coming with – or do I have to tell everyone at school that you wussed out?”
Brenton fell into the trap dug by peer pressure and never even noticed it. “I’m in. What are we sitting around here for? Where is this dump, anyway?”
Scott smiled slowly, his face secretive and rather sly. “That’s the really good part. It moves around. Kind of tricky to see it too but he gave me this.“ Scott pulled out a thick black rod from his pocket and showed it to Brenton. “It sort of tugs you in the right direction,” Scott continued.
Brenton reached out an exploratory finger and touched the locator rod. It felt greasy and slick and a spark jumped from it, like static. He jerked backwards, startled. “Hey! Is that safe?”
Scott sighed and rolled his eyes in disbelief. “I don’t know why I even bother with you sometimes. You should still be building mud pies.”
Cowed, Brenton slunk behind his friend as he held the rod out in front of him. At first Scott was hesitant, walking slowly and pausing frequently. After a few minutes though, his steps speeded up and he seemed to be anticipating the direction the rod was indicating. Brenton kept close by him and when Scott walked down an empty alley and suddenly disappeared, Brenton was moving too fast to draw back. His next step brought him not further down the alley but into a room, a seedy waiting room, with tables, chairs and magazines. The incongruity of it, the lack of anything out of the ordinary, made him giggle foolishly.
“What is this?” he whispered. “A demon dentist or something?”
Scott turned round to glare him into silence. “Something’s wrong,” he said in hushed tones. “This place usually has people in here waiting and Rack’s door is always shut when he’s with someone.” He gestured to a door in the corner of the room. It was open but there was no sign of anyone in there.
Brenton was now flushed with bravado, as it seemed that he wouldn’t have to meet this Rack guy after all. “Let’s see,” he said, swaggering towards the door.
Scott called out a warning but Brenton walked through and stood there, looking round curiously. Scott appeared at his shoulder and they both saw it at the same time – Rack’s body, hanging upside down, his glazed, dead eyes gleaming in the subdued light. Screams caught in their throats, choking them as they absorbed the macabre sight.
Willow brought her hands up to her eyes, covering them, as though she too could see Rack’s corpse. Kate stopped talking and reached over to pat her knee gently. “Is it too much? Do you want a break?”
Willow shook her head, brushing away the tears that were trickling down her face. “It’s him, isn’t it, the one who’s dead? Tell me, it’s just him, not the boys?”
Kate’s face creased with sympathy as Willow’s voice broke but she did not flinch. “I can’t, Willow. Look –”
Willow held up her hand, halting Kate’s words. “Then tell me what happened.”
Kate began to talk again, slipping her hand over Willow’s to reassure her as she did.
“I’m so out of here,” Scott said, frantically. His eyes skittered around him nervously. He grabbed Brenton’s sleeve and began to pull him back. Brenton shrugged him off, his gaze intent as he studied the tortured body.
“What is your problem, man? We have to leave. Now!” Scott urged.
Brenton shook his head slowly. “Can’t you hear him?” he said abstractedly. “He wants us to stay.”
It was too much for Scott. With a yelp of fear, he turned and ran for the door. He got as far as the waiting room before Brenton tackled him, forcing him to the floor. “I told you; he wants us to stay,” he said, his breath warm on Scott’s face. “Weren’t you listening?” He grabbed Scott’s shoulders, flipping him onto his back and began to haul him back to the inner room, his strength out of all proportion to his size. Scott struggled but couldn’t break free. As they crossed the threshold into Rack’s room, the door slammed shut with a deadly finality.
Brenton let go of Scott, who leaped up and began to tug at the door handle, whimpering to himself. Brenton ignored his futile efforts and walked over to Rack. Reaching out his left hand, he placed it over Rack’s heart. Nothing happened and he frowned, as though listening to instructions. His brow cleared and he gently laid his right hand over Rack’s face, his fingers splayed out. It was as if he had completed an electrical circuit. Brenton’s body went into spasms, jerking obscenely, his hands not moving no matter how his body thrashed around. Scott watched from the doorway, his mouth slack, and his eyes wild.
Brenton screamed continuously, a high-pitched keening that ended as abruptly as it had begun. He collapsed to the floor, his hands tucked protectively under his armpits, curled up into a ball. Over him, Rack’s body began to sway and the glazed eyes glimmered into life once more. Scott cried out an inarticulate warning but Brenton was lost in pain and ignored him. As Scott watched in horror, Rack’s body smoothly rotated so that it was hovering feet down, a few inches off the floor.
“That’s better,” said Rack, his gravelly voice amused. “I was getting a headache.”
“No!” Willow cried out, scrambling to her feet. “He’s dead! I know he’s dead. I felt him go, I drained him dry.”
Kate looked up at her, then uncrossed her legs, wincing slightly and stood up too. “Yes, you did,” she agreed. “But he’s not a youngster. That man’s been around for longer than you think. If he’d stayed like that for long, I don’t doubt he’d have stayed dead but Brenton had some talent, enough to jump-start Rack. You took his power but I have a feeling he counted on you not paying all that much attention to details. He died but not all the way dead, if you see what I mean.”
“He died,” Willow insisted stubbornly. “No human could have come back after what I did.”
“Rack isn’t pure human,” Kate said flatly. “He’s a vampire of sorts; feeds off magic, not blood. You should know; he had more than a taste of you, didn’t he?”
Willow flinched, hearing Rack’s insinuating voice, huskily telling her that she tasted of strawberries. She nodded, shame making her eyes drop and her cheeks heat up.
“You killed his human part – and left his demon in the demonic equivalent of hibernation,” Kate commented, her words seeming to come from far away. Willow looked at her, anguish contorting her features, sickness twisting her stomach. She tried to speak but couldn’t force the words out. Kate grabbed her as Willow’s legs gave way, easing her down to the floor.
“Stupid, stupid.” Kate muttered. “Too much for you to handle. I should have – ”
Willow’s eyes snapped open and she pushed herself up to sitting. “Finish this fast,” she rasped. “Then I want Giles.”
Kate’s eyes closed for a second and then she gestured at the door. It swung open and Giles came in quickly, his eyes going straight to Willow. “I warned you, Kate,” he said angrily, “but you wouldn’t listen to anyone, as usual. You’re bloody lucky I don’t – ”
Willow, jolted out of her shock and misery by Giles’ behaviour, interrupted his threat hastily. “Giles, did you know about this? About Rack?”
He glanced at her and rubbed the back of his neck. Not meeting her eyes he began to stammer, “Well, in a way, that is, we weren’t totally certain – ”
“Until I tapped into the energies, no one knew,” Kate said. “When I did the research for these stories, it was impossible to miss this one. So much pain attached to it, it stood out. But you have to understand – until I tell you the stories, I’m not sure what’s in them myself, not all the details anyway. I have an outline, a vague idea. When I’m telling you, you enhance the story, though you don’t know you’re doing it. Most of what I tell you comes from you, don’t you see?”
“If I have to be honest, no,” said Willow, tucking a strand of her coppery hair behind her ear and looking more composed.
Kate sighed in frustration and glanced at Giles for assistance.
“You were the catalyst for the events, Willow,” Giles said simply. “You’re needed for their re-telling, too. That’s one reason we’re putting you through this. The other stories were, well, rehearsals. You might not have noticed but did you feel a little tired after Kate had finished them?”
Willow looked thoughtful and shrugged. “I might have. Hard to remember. But I sure had the wiggins listening to this one.” She gave Kate a rather cool look.
“That’s only to be expected, given the nature of the tale,” said Giles, pacing the small room and looked agitated. He swung back to look at Willow imploringly. “I hesitate to ask but I must,” he said. “Willow, we need to complete this story and find out what happened to those two boys.”
Willow looked at him, the trustworthy, familiar friend she had tried to kill. There was really no other answer she could give and he knew it. With a feeling of desolation gripping her as she wondered if Giles would ever fully trust her again, she gave him what he wanted, nodded and answered, “I’m ready.”
Giles smiled at Willow with relief and approval clear on his face. He closed the door and came to sit beside her. “Willow may have given you her permission to continue,” he said quietly to Kate, his tone daring her to challenge him, “ but there’s no reason for her to endure this alone. I’m staying with her.”
She raised her eyebrows and grimaced resignedly. “So I see,” she murmured. “Here we go, then –”
Rack smiled lazily at the two frightened boys. Brenton had recovered enough to be aware of his surroundings. Avoiding Scott’s accusing glare, he was gazing at Rack with haunted eyes.
“Now, I’m feeling much better,” Rack said. He gave Scott an affable look and waved a negligent hand at the door, which sprang open. “You don’t have anything I need though, so why don’t you get the hell out of my way?” Without a backward glance at Brenton, Scott fled the living nightmare in an undignified scramble of arms and legs. The door slammed shut then vanished, leaving smooth, unbroken wall in its place.
A sticky silence settled over the room. Brenton sniveled as he watched Rack stretch out his arms and wriggle his neck.
“That little witch really hurt me,” Rack murmured to himself. “Guess we all know who’s going to pay for that.”
He turned to Brenton, his face thoughtful. “You want to help me, don’t you?” he asked pleasantly. “You know, she tried to kill me and well, that’s just not right, now is it?”
Brenton shook his head, less an agreement with Rack’s words than a denial of what was happening to him.
Rack grinned widely, savouring the delicious fear Brenton exuded. Suddenly he staggered and smacked a hand against his skull, moaning softly. “Hurts, still hurts so much – what did she do to me, the ungrateful bitch? She had power to spare; why take mine?”
“Because you didn’t deserve it, you bastard,” Willow muttered. Giles and Kate exchanged alarmed glances. Willow’s eyes were fixed and wide, as she looked at pictures only she could see, embellishing the story with her memories. Speaking almost casually, she said, “He didn’t get much from that boy, you know. He’ll drain again soon and when he does, he’ll go out looking for more people he can take from. He used to be careful and take just enough, leave them begging for another session, but now he’s not going to waste time. He’ll rip any power they have right out of them.” Challengingly, she looked at Kate from under downcast eyelids, “And you know what that’ll do to them, Kate, don’t you? It’s what stopped you doing it to me. Take someone’s power - all of it - and you take them with it. They die. But you know that, don’t you Kate? It’s what stopped you all from doing it to me when I came here. But you thought about it, didn’t you?”
Kate jerked away from Willow, alarm in her eyes. “No! We would never have done that to you, Willow! Tell her, Giles.”
Giles gripped Willow’s wrist tightly. “Yes, Willow, I would have done that in Sunnydale, but only as a last resort, and if I had no other choice. But since our first plan worked, there was no reason to consider it. You know that.”
Willow’s dark eyes were blazing with fear and insecurity. She scanned Giles’ face, paring away every evasion and subterfuge. Finally she nodded, relief slumping her shoulders. “I believe you, Giles,” she whispered softly. “But we have to stop Rack.”
Giles tilted his head, frowning. “’Stop him’?” he asked. “Willow, all this happened weeks ago. There’s nothing we can do.”
Willow stood in one smooth movement and looked down at Giles and Kate. “There’s nothing you can do, that’s right,” she said. Her eyes flooded with ebony witch light and she rose slowly off the ground. “But me, I can do plenty.”
“No.” Kate stood up and rose level with Willow. “Have you learned nothing, child? Will nothing strip you of your arrogance?”
Willow glared at Kate and said angrily, “I am not a child! Rack has to be stopped. I can go back and do that, you know I can. I’m not starting something new, I’m correcting a mistake.”
Kate shook her head, resignation on her face. “It might seem that way but that’s not how it works.”
“How would you know?” demanded Willow. The eerie, black light faded from her eyes and she sank back to the floor, much to Giles’ relief.
Kate smoothed back her hair from her forehead, her hand shaking slightly. “Willow, if you ever do that in front of me again, I’ll smack you down so hard people will be using your hair for a hearth rug.”
Giles decided it was time he intervened. He opened his mouth and both women spun round to give him looks so icy that he prudently closed it again and snatched off his glasses quickly for a not at all needed polish.
“Where do you get off, giving me orders like this and acting as if you’re about ninety?” Willow demanded, hands on hips and lips set in a thin line.
“When I’m acting for the Powers and I happen to be imbued with the wisdom of the ages,” Kate snapped back.
Willow gaped at her for a second, then burst out laughing. “You’re a Power?”
“You’re a what?” exclaimed Giles, shoving his glasses back on quickly and staring at Kate in shock.
“Don’t either of you listen?” Kate said in exasperation. “I’m as human as they get. I said the Powers were working through me. They do that sometimes. How do you think I’m doing this whole story telling stuff anyway?”
“Well, it did seem a little advanced even for you – ” began Giles, quailing slightly as Kate gave him an offended look. Taking a deep breath, he continued, “I assumed that in my time away in Sunnydale, you’d applied yourself and made good progress, that’s all. Does your aunt know of this?”
Kate shuddered. “She’d have a fit. Don’t tell her if you value my life. The Powers wouldn’t step in to save me, not from her.”
The tension lessened appreciably as the three united in a common fear. Miss Harkness was formidable, inflexible and opinionated - yet strangely charming.
“Never mind that,“ said Willow. “We still need to sort out Rack. What did he do? God, he was hanging there listening when I was talking to Dawn. What if he goes after her, wanting to get the Key’s energy?”
“He can’t have,” Giles said reassuringly. “I’ve been talking to Buffy frequently and she’s not mentioned Rack at all. Which is rather puzzling.”
“No, it isn’t,” Willow said, her voice rising with excitement. “It means we did fix him. We did go back and kill him properly. We can plan it better. There’s no need to rush, I see that now – but we have to do it. We really do.”
“Willow, you can’t just go back in time and change things,” said Giles impatiently. “You’ve never had that much power. No one has.”
Willow swung round to face Kate, a challenging gleam in her eyes. “I bet Kate’s Powers can do it,” she said. “In fact, I think that’s what this whole story idea was for. Well?”
Kate reluctantly nodded in agreement. “Of course I can take you back but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to,” she said, chewing on her thumbnail absent-mindedly.
“Why?” asked Willow. “Because it’s dangerous?”
Kate spat out a scrap of nail and looked scornful. “Rack? That cheap pathetic excuse for a warlock? He might scare kids into giving up their power but I’d like to see him try those party tricks on me.”
“He’s stronger than you think,” objected Willow.
“You’re only saying that because he fooled you. But remember, you didn’t go back once you saw where he was taking you. You already beat him once.”
Willow smiled at her gratefully. “I suppose I did,” she said. “So why don’t you want to go finish him off? If he’s not human, it’s not like we need to worry. Maybe Buffy can help.”
Kate frowned. “Where do you get this idea that non-human equals fair game? Giles, what have you been teaching them over there?”
Giles shrugged. “I was trying to keep things simple and let them discover the shades of grey themselves,” he said. “It’s not something you can teach, it’s something you have to learn.”
Willow looked puzzled. “I don’t mean a ‘good demon’ is a ‘dead demon’,” she said, belatedly realising why Kate was looking perturbed. “Clem’s a sweetie for one, Angel helped us lots, and Spike, well, he’s different than most vampires, I guess.”
“Most of the evil undead don’t get to see the Slayer naked, that’s a certain fact,” said Kate dryly. As Giles began to splutter, she winked at Willow who smiled back.
“I was thinking more of him fighting with us and protecting Dawn, but whatever,” Willow said with a shrug. “None of that matters when it comes to Rack though. He needs removing. He’s dangerous.”
“I still think you’re a little too ready to hang him out to dry,” Kate remarked. “If he was that bad, how come you never got the Slayer to deal with him?”
“Because I thought he was human!” said Willow impatiently.
“Human, demon, doesn’t matter. He was using magic and that puts him inside the Slayer’s reach. If not her, who? Your police? You saw yourself how unable they are to deal with that sort of thing. Giles, haven’t you covered this for heaven’s sake?”
“I’ve always instructed Buffy that the human world has to be allowed to deal with human criminals,” said Giles stiffly.
“Like that Ben guy?”
“Ben, Glory, Ben? That Ben?” asked Willow with some perplexity. “You said he died of his injuries and it was for the…oh.” She looked at Giles with a dawning realisation and wasn’t surprised when Giles shrugged and nodded.
“I dealt with Ben, yes. It had to be done.”
“Buffy could have done it,” said Kate. “You were shielding her. You always have. It’s one of the reasons Quentin wanted you replaced.”
“You know Travers?” said Willow, wondering how much more would be revealed in the space of five minutes.
“It’s a small world when it comes to magic,” Kate said airily. “And news like that gets out. This coven is linked to the Council in many ways. They use the Manor as the place for their retreats sometimes.”
Giles looked indignant as he answered Kate. “I can assure you that my natural fondness for my charge never led me to neglect my duties as Watcher.” Relapsing into a more natural tone, he added, “Most Watchers see their Slayers die very soon. I’ve been with Buffy for so long, seen her cope with so much…She’s an extraordinary young woman and I loved her too much to burden her with Ben’s death. I’ve never regretted my actions but I know she would have.” He gave Willow a stern look. “I shall be most displeased if this ever gets to Buffy’s ears, Willow.”
Willow held up her hands in surrender. “She won’t hear it from me,” she assured Giles. “But can we please focus on Rack instead of ancient history? Kate, you said you could go back and deal with him but you didn’t want to. Why?”
Kate looked at her in silence, one eyebrow raised. Willow flushed and said, “Consequences and ripples?”
“You seem to have – finally – got the message.” Kate said, clapping her hands rather ironically. “Yippee. Yes, killing him again would be nice and tidy but who knows what it’ll do down the road?”
“You could say that about any of the demons we kill, “ objected Giles. “Sometimes you just have to go ahead and slaughter them.”
Kate shrugged. “I know that’s a very pleasant option for those of us who think with our – “
“Swords,” Kate finished, giving Giles an arch glance. “But some cases are different and trust me, Rack’s one of them. Don’t worry too much. You take out someone the Powers have plans for and they’ll generally work around it or fix it. But it’s not a good idea to force them to work too hard.”
“I’m getting tired of this,” said Willow angrily. “What about Brenton? What about all the other people Rack’s going to hurt, trying to get his power back? What about me, if I can get all personal. He’ll be after me the second I get back in town.”
“I certainly agree that he needs to be neutralized,” Kate said calmly. “He’s causing – caused – too many ripples of his own. But there’s no need to kill him. The Powers think it would work well to move him back home. You’ve killed his human side. What’s left is a crippled demon, dangerous here, but quite ineffective in his native dimension.”
“So why don’t they just shove him through a portal then?” asked Willow.
Kate sighed. “Brenton. Rack has anchored himself to this plane using the lad. We send Rack home, Brenton goes with him. Body and soul. Forever.”
Giles frowned. “I’m still a little hazy on this. As I told Willow, it’s been weeks since the events of that night. What is Rack doing right now? And isn’t it the case that the longer we wait, the more changing things will impact on the present?”
“I’m getting a headache,” murmured Willow.
Kate nodded vigorously. “It would do, but for one factor.”
Giles looked cynical. “I’ll feed you your line. What factor would that be, then?”
Kate smirked, then sobered and said, “Rack and Brenton are trapped in that silly house of his. When Rack let Scott go, the doors slammed shut to keep Brenton there. The Powers reinforced that so that no one can get in or out. They’ve basically frozen time inside the house. If we go there to tackle Rack and it’s looking inevitable, we’ll be appearing right at the point where the story broke off. No time travel involved, just teleportation inside a magically sealed room. The sad part is that Brenton’s parents are beside themselves but, well, it’s Sunnydale.”
Willow nodded. She was well aware of the implications of missing people in Sunnydale. Brenton’s parents would be in a very small minority if they actually got their child back.
“Well, that makes things simple,” she said brightly. “The water’s all calm and unripply. Let’s get some spells, weapons and jump on in. Splash around a bit.”
Kate gave Giles a look of disbelief. “Are they all like this?” she said.
Giles rolled his eyes. “Willow’s the calm one,” he confided.
“Ask Travers for a raise. You deserve it.”
Sitting in a circle, Giles’ hand warm in her right hand, Kate’s cool and firm in her left, Willow felt a tingle of apprehension mingled with excitement. Maybe the years fighting beside Buffy had her craving the undeniable thrill of the battle against evil. Sternly reminding herself that it wasn’t that long since she’d been the evil, she concentrated on the ritual that Kate had described in careful detail.
Kate felt Willow’s whole body trembling and hoped that she wasn’t going to crumble. Coming face to face with Rack after spending weeks feeling guilty over killing him was bound to be traumatic. Giles had assured her that Willow - and indeed all of the Slayer’s friends - reacted well in a crisis, but that could be his partiality talking.
Giles gently squeezed Willow’s hand, wordlessly reassuring her.
All three braced themselves as the ritual began, the heavy smoke stinging their eyes, their linked hands stained with coloured chalk from drawing intricate designs on the floor. Their voices merged in the chant and, for two of the three, the preparations were for nothing. A wind swirled around the room, neatly snuffing the candles and by the time fumbling hands had found matches, one had left and two remained behind.
Willow felt no surprise that she alone had made it back to Rack’s dismal little den. Even as the other two had planned and discussed, she had felt detached from it all. This wasn’t something you did with plenty of company. She had been alone when she killed Rack the first time. Feeling alone had been what triggered her descent into darkness. Ending this wasn’t going to be a team event.
As she had been warned, time had frozen for Rack and Brenton. She studied the two figures, fear clutching at her with icy fingers as she wondered if Rack twitched an eye. Just a shadow, she decided. Brenton looked about Dawn’s age, too young to have any conception of what his friend had dragged him into. Willow didn’t need a spell to sense that he was magically gifted. If they got out of this, she would have to look him up, give him some pointers. Sunnydale had enough perils without an untrained teenager with a potentially deadly gift being added to the mix.
Murmuring one of the spells she had prepared, Willow was able to visualise the hold Rack had over the young man’s body and soul. Thick ropes of orange light held the two together in an ugly tangle. Willow was tempted to slash through the confusion, sever the bond with a clean cut. Tempted – but not in that much of a hurry. It would leave both of them dead, or drooling idiots at best. This was going to take work. Patient, time-consuming work. Another incantation and the light solidified. As a child, Willow had once been given the task of untangling dozens of embroidery threads that had become an impenetrable ball of rainbow-hued chaos. It had taken her nearly a week to do it and the job had been absorbing once she’d conquered the urge to give up on those knots that resisted her clumsy fingers. With that memory playing out in her mind, she began to gently ease Brenton free of Rack’s hold.
Because she had chosen to make the bonds solid, she had to deal with them in that form. One thick rope of coercion slipped from Brenton and whipped out at Willow, seeking to ensnare her in his place. Because they were created by Rack’s magic to leech power from whoever was handy, once free of Brenton, they homed in on the best power source available – in this case, Willow.
Willow leapt backwards, holding up her hand and instinctively creating a barrier. The rope lashed against it but couldn’t smash through. Willow frowned. She was safe behind this shield but she couldn’t work through it. If she released it, would she have time to neutralise the threat to herself? Glancing over at Rack, she felt panic flood through her. Like a sleeping spider, jerking awake when his web entangled a victim, Rack had sensed that his link to his power source was under siege. Somehow, he was beginning to stir, despite the freezing spell. Or were the Powers releasing him out of some idea of fairness, or, more likely, to make her task even harder?
“Wouldn’t put it past them,” muttered Willow, eying the thread malevolently. Coming to a swift decision, she dropped the shield and sent a fire bolt sizzling at the thread, dodging as she did so. Rack screamed as the magical flames turned the thread to ashes and then, having nowhere else to go, burrowed into his exposed chest. Angry blisters formed, oozing pus, and his skin began to char.
Willow guessed that she had only moments before Rack was fully aware again. The way the fire bolt had acted gave her the semblance of a plan. Swiftly, she located the ends of each entangling bond and peeled them off Brenton just enough to apply the fire to the loose end. They were consumed without being able to look for alternate power sources and the destruction of each thread wounded and weakened Rack. That was much faster than her original plan and the way Rack was stirring it was just as well.
As the final thread severed, both men became aware of their surroundings. Willow didn’t want Brenton around when she confronted Rack. She realised just why it was that Buffy so often went in solo. It meant she had fewer distractions. The door reappeared as the freezing spell dissipated and Willow moved so that Brenton had a clear run at it. He stared at her, obviously confused by what was happening to him and her inexplicable appearance in the room. Luckily, he was bright enough to interpret her movement and, staggering slightly as his cramped muscles protested the sudden exertion, he made it to the door and escaped, giving her a grateful, if desperate look as he passed.
Rack and Willow were left alone.
The warlock looked at her steadily but made no move, other than to brush at the wounds on his chest with a painful grimace. Finally he broke the silence. “Not very friendly of you, to do that to me. What did I ever do to you?”
Willow was about to reply heatedly when she caught herself. “You didn’t do anything I didn’t let you do, ” she replied. “I feel more anger towards Amy, if anyone, for bringing me to you. But even then, it was my choice. When I drained you it was because I needed a power boost and you were handy. Nothing personal.”
Rack raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “No rant about how wicked I am for ensnaring the innocent youth of Sunnydale? How I’m a monster who needs to be put down? You never let me down, Strawberry. Always unexpected.”
“No, that’s all true,” said Willow steadily. “But I didn’t go after you before because of that. Last thing on my mind was protecting anyone, believe me.” In a few, terse sentences, she told Rack what Warren’s fate had been and how she had been halted in her grief-inspired madness.
Rack pursed his lips and shook his head ruefully. “And I was just hanging there, missing all the fun. Figures. First time this little bitty town gets some excitement and I’m dead to the world.”
Willow raised her eyebrows. “You don’t call an annual apocalypse exciting?”
“Only if it actually takes place. Your Slayer friend tends to be a bit of a party pooper, doesn’t she? So, if you’re sorry you killed me – ”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” Willow interrupted coolly. “I think you being dead is just fine but it’s been pointed out to me that everything has consequences and on a scale of one to ten, magically killing someone is an eleven. So, I’m here to tell you to leave. Go back to whatever demon dimension you call home.”
“New Orleans? How rude.”
Willow smiled. “Don’t tell me you still think your human side is still squirming away. You’re pure demon now and I don’t think the Hellmouth is very safe for the likes of you. I mean it; go home. I can open you a portal –”
“I don’t need you to,” Rack snapped angrily. He was becoming uneasily aware of his weakness and Willow’s news didn’t surprise him. Rack was a pragmatic parasite and essentially lazy. He had no desire to go up against Willow, with, he suspected, a Slayer in reserve and he guessed that no matter how he cloaked his place, Willow would always find it. She might have stepped back from the edge of darkness but it was only a few steps away. And she had been scary. Hot, but scary.
Spite made him play with his former toy one more time.
“Before I go, just one little question. The Powers were so concerned about whether I live or die that they let you come here to fix things. Ever wonder why they didn’t undo what Warren did to your girl as a way of stopping you? You were about to end the world after all. Or was she just not all that important to them?” With a mocking smile, he called up a portal and stepped through, leaving Willow mired in confusion.
“But you know why they didn’t,” Giles said, his patience thinning in the face of Willow’s refusal to see facts. “There was no need to do something so drastic when Xander’s intervention was all that was needed.”
“How did they know it would work?” Willow demanded, her face animated, her eyes glowing with fury. “I was this close, Giles. Isn’t that cutting it a bit fine? If they had brought Tara back, I would have stopped, I would have – ”
Giles gave her a steady look and said quietly, “Are you sure of that, Willow? Deep down, are you sure? Weren’t you enjoying yourself so much that even Tara wouldn’t have been able to stop you?”
“’Enjoying!’ Giles, I was doing it because of Tara! If she wasn’t dead, there would have been no need for any of it.”
“That’s not strictly true,” said Giles, a steely implacability in his voice and face. “You began to use your magic to bring her back. When that failed, all that came after was revenge. Revenge on Warren for accidentally killing Tara, revenge on his two accomplices for being part of his overall plans, revenge on Buffy, on Dawn, on all your friends for reasons I don’t think you’ve ever really faced squarely.” He turned away and stared out of the library window before continuing, almost in a whisper, “And revenge on me for daring to criticise your actions.”
Behind him, Willow stood, tears trickling down her face, her mouth working helplessly. Giles spun round as he heard her choke out the words, “I’m sorry, Giles, I’m so sorry.” Moving quickly he reached her side and hugged her to him, stroking her bright hair as she cried against his chest, her hands clutching at his arms desperately. The library door opened quietly and Kate entered, taking in the scene with raised eyebrows.
“Is this going to go on much longer, or should I come back after lunch?” she enquired pleasantly.
Giles glared at her. “Willow is upset,” he said reprovingly.
“Only because you upset her, you plonker. Willow, stop soaking Rupert’s jacket and come for a walk with me. You look as if you need some fresh air.”
To Giles’ surprise, Willow pulled away from him at once. “Sorry,” she murmured, dabbing at his soggy, smeared, sleeve.
“It’s one of my older, hand-made in Bond Street, jackets and I never liked the colour,” he assured her. That got him a smile but as she left the room with Kate, he couldn’t help wondering if Willow would ever be at peace with herself again. Thinking back to his own rebellious youth supplied the answer to that question and he sighed, rubbing his aching forehead. How had he ended up being a Watcher to not just the Slayer but an assortment of her friends as well?
Down at the river, Willow and Kate sat for some time in silence watching the water flow by. Gradually Willow felt her emotions untangle and smooth out and she relaxed, the tension leaving her body. Kate had been watching her, waiting for this and she pounced.
“What brought that on, then?” she asked casually. “Didn’t see you as the clingy type.”
Willow smiled ruefully. “No one’s as good at laying on the guilt as Giles. I think that’s only the second time he’s hugged me though.”
“When was the first?” asked Kate curiously, propping herself up on an elbow and looking at Willow with sparkling eyes. “Tell all.”
“Kate!” Willow protested. “Giles is like a –”
“You say ‘father’ and I’ll chuck you in the river.”
“I did have a crush on him, way back in high school,” Willow admitted with a grin. “But apart from the whole being gay thing, Giles is just – Giles. He’s a grown up. And he hugged me when he thought I was a vampire but I wasn’t. Well, I was but that wasn’t me, it was an alternate me. I was fine.”
Kate stared at her, mouth gaping. “I suppose that made sense in your head. I must visit Sunnydale one day. Or possibly not.” She shook her head and sat up. “Stop trying to distract me – ”
“Huh? You were the one who –”
“Hush, teacher speaking,” Kate said archly. She sobered and pulled up a few blades of grass to nibble.
“Does that taste good?” Willow asked.
“I was a sheep in a former incarnation,“ Kate said solemnly. “And if the next words out of your mouth aren’t an explanation of why you’re fussing and fretting over the Powers not bringing Tara back, I’ll turn you into one right now.”
Willow looked at her sideways. “I know Rack was just trying to cause trouble. His idea of a going away present. But after I got back here, I started to wonder – Kate, do you remember in the tent, at the fete? You gave me that vision?” Kate nodded, a question in her eyes. “Did you see what I saw?”
“No,” Kate replied. “It was your future, not mine. What was it that bothered you so much?”
Willow’s lips trembled as she whispered, “I saw Tara. I saw her old, happy but old. Don’t you see, Kate? There’s something I can do, a ripple in the possibilities that will mean she lives. I’d given up, accepted her death but now I have to know how to make that future come true.” She paused, and then added firmly, “And you and your Powers are going to help me.”
Kate gave Willow a level glance and said, “Can we pretend you never said that?”
Willow looked puzzled. “I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you want to help me? Tara didn’t deserve to die, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t meant to be, so we should fix it.”
Kate shook her head in bewildered disbelief. “You still don’t get it do you? All this time and you still think you can play around with things to suit yourself, no matter what the consequences. I give up, Willow. I really do.”
She stood and turned to leave. Willow jumped up and caught her arm, holding her in place. “You can’t just walk off,” Willow said, her voice low and dangerous. “I won’t let you throw away Tara’s chance to come back.”
Kate wrenched her arm free and faced Willow. “Come back? As what? A walking zombie like Mrs. Summers was? Oh, yes, I know about that. The Powers don’t miss close calls like that one, believe me. Or are you going to rip her soul from heaven as you did to her daughter and force it back into a body that’s already begun to merge with the earth?”
Kate knelt and picked up a handful of soil from the riverbank and cast it into the air, to be taken away by the cool, fresh breeze. “This is Tara. She’s in the earth; she’s in the air around you. Every flower that blossoms, every leaf that uncurls in the spring has Tara’s essence within it. It’s all connected, Willow. That’s natural, that’s right. What you want to do isn’t. The earth cries out against it, can’t you hear it?”
Kate’s impassioned voice faded to silence and she looked at Willow almost pleadingly. Her face hardened as Willow’s lips thinned stubbornly.
“Fine,” said Kate. “Let me do some ‘show and tell’ then, since I seem to be dealing with a spoiled kindergarten kid in a tantrum.” Kate turned and surveyed the river then pointed at a large boulder on the opposite side, waist high and firmly embedded in the soil. As she murmured an incantation, the rock began to shift, then tore free with a grinding noise. As Willow watched, Kate moved the boulder upwards and towards them and, strain clear on her face, let it drop into the middle of the river.
“Look,” she said. “See how the clear water is dirty now, see how the water is dammed and can’t flow properly? That’s what you would do.”
Willow cocked her head to one side and looked at the damage Kate had caused. “The water will clear in time, the river will rise over the boulder and carry on flowing.” She turned to Kate. “Flashy, but I don’t think you proved your point.”
Kate gritted her teeth. “Maybe I dropped it in the wrong place,” she said ominously. “Of course, the earth would heal itself. Even you can’t be egotistical enough to think you could make a lasting difference – but the damage you could do would still hurt and that’s just not permitted.”
“I’m not trying to damage anything!” Willow shouted, losing what little patience she had. “I’m trying to help.”
“Help who? Tara? She’s dead and her soul is at peace, as Buffy’s was. Her family didn’t care about her and the only friends she had, apart from you, have come to terms with losing her. It’s just you, Willow. You want to bring her back for your sake. Can’t you see how selfish that is?”
“It’s not selfish when they’re the only person in the world you can ever love, the only – ”
“Nonsense!” said Kate. “You loved before Tara, you’ll love again. It’s not in you to be alone that way.”
Willow folded her arms and glared at Kate. “What about my vision, then? You seem to be forgetting that!”
Kate waved her hand in dismissal. “You had a glimpse of an alternate timeline, fine. Doesn’t mean you have the right to force this world to change to match it. Do you really think that Tara being alive would be the only difference? What right do you have to alter the lives of countless millions just to suit yourself? Ripples, remember? For all you know, that could have been a descendant of Tara’s anyway. A future niece or cousin. You could have been seeing a very distant future.”
Willow sank to the floor, the defiance draining out of her. “I thought it was a chance. I thought it could go back to how it was,” she whispered brokenly, her hands twisting in the grass.
Kate sighed and sank down beside her. “It will stop hurting, sweetheart,” she said. “But not until you grieve for Tara properly.”
“I’m not ready to go back home,” Willow said wretchedly. “You’ve been showing me all week what happens when I used magic and I still just wanted to change things. If I’d had the spell in my hand to bring Tara back, I would have cast it and to hell with the consequences. I’m not safe.” She turned pleading eyes to Kate. “Take it off me,” she begged. “Take my magic away.”
Kate’s eyes widened. “I can’t,” she said flatly. “It’s as much a part of you as your hair, your hands.”
“They can be cut off,” said Willow, “and I’d still be me.”
“Bad analogy,” Kate sighed. “Magic is in your blood, how’s that? But you’re making progress, you know. Think of this as your graduation test.”
Willow looked disconsolate. “I failed, right?” she said.
“Let’s say you earned a retest,” Kate replied “I think I’ll make it a field trip back to that weird little town you call home. I hate marking test papers.”
She stood, extending a hand to help Willow up. They looked at each other for a moment, then Kate drew Willow towards her for a warm hug and the healing begun in Xander’s arms was completed in Kate’s.
Sunnydale, two weeks later.
Xander and Willow stood near Tara’s grave. “What’s that you’ve got?” Xander asked as Willow pulled something from her pocket.
She smiled at him. “It’s a Jewish custom to lay pebbles on the headstone when you visit a grave,” she explained. “These are some I got from a river in England.”
As she walked alone up to the simple marker and knelt beside Tara’s grave, Willow thought back to that peaceful river, set the pebbles from its bed on Tara’s gravestone and said hello to her beloved – and goodbye.
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