Rounded by a Sleep



She should be the one dreaming in red, Willow knows; she should be the one tossing on sweat-heavy sheets with memories of flayed skin pasted to the inside of her eyelids so they’re all she can see, her friends’ voices ringing in her ears in a cacophony of accusation and appeal.

But she’s sleeping fine. The English air, soft with dampness, the gentle sun, the long walks under ancient trees, over rolling hills ... she’s eating well and fast asleep after only a few minutes of snuggling into place under a quilt that smells subtly different, even though Giles has shown her the brand of detergent he uses and it’s the same as they have at home.

It’s Giles whose face is sharpened by fatigue, lined with weariness as though his waking hours are all of the twenty four, and she can feel his tiredness now, lying acrid in the air when he’s close. The earth gets tired too, lays down to rest in winter, the clamour of brash spring a faint memory, but Willow knows humans, ephemeral, transient, evanescent flickers that they are, have a shorter cycle. Dream time, down time, sleep time; they need it or they wither.

Giles, to Willow, is an oak. They don’t wither but they can hollow out until what seems like a mighty tower, roots deep, branches arching wide, latticing the sky, falls with the first spring storm, the first autumnal tempest, and is shown to be a mockery, a blown egg. Giles shows her one, as they walk, the vast girth of trunk split open to reveal emptiness, the rings that told its age devoured until a sapling had more substance than it. A cracknel, he calls it.

Day after day, she watches him, hesitant questions hovering on her lips, unspoken, and night after night she dreams of him as he was, strong, wise...there for her, always. And she wakes and in her first glimpse, matches reality to dream and shivers.

One night she rouses from her sleep, restful, deep and peaceful, and hears him talking, muttering, crying out. The sounds are frightening, edged with madness, enough to make anyone shrink away, close their ears, feign deafness.

Willow’s done pretending.

She slips from her bed, bare to the night and uncaring, and goes through the dark, watchful quiet of a sleeping house, her hand reaching for the handle that opens his door, her body pushing forward impatiently as soon as it gapes wide enough to admit her. Her footsteps patter forward like raindrops on leaves until she’s beside his bed looking down at what he holds.

Sendel root, carved and incised with two runes, one for each of them, bound and wrapped by strands of hair. The moonlight that floods the room, through a window Giles hasn’t even bothered to shroud with curtains, isn’t needed; she can feel it’s hers and know it’s his, without seeing bright copper and ash-grey entwine.

Giles has been stealing her dreams and leaving her sleep for payment. No real theft that; she’s left indebted to a man she tried, scant weeks before to kill, a man she humbled, humiliated and hurt.

A man she’s loved for years, with a love grown from recognition of like, nurtured by shared danger, watered by shed tears. He moves against the sheets as once she’d dreamed he’d move under, on, inside her, but these are aimless spasms, where she’d imagined powerful thrusts, sure and certain. Giles is fighting a foe whose strength saps his and as Willow kneels beside him, her breath quickening, she hears her name on his lips, and knows that she’s his adversary in those dreams, with nothing but a dull acceptance of that fact.

It’s not over then. Every gain she’s made has been as much a step forward as if she were on a treadmill; purposeless motion, taking her nowhere. She’s not won, she’s cheated, peeked at the answers, bribed the teacher.

And if the anger had returned, ripely rotten, she might have struck the enchanted root from his hand, taken back the memories by force, because deep in her something yammered and demanded one more look into Warren’s eyes as he was skinned, wanting to savour that look and hold it close as a lover.

But anger has been whittled from her and there’s nothing left but gratitude and concern as she wakes him with a kiss, drawing back swiftly as he’s pulled out of nightmares into her world.

Understanding is in his eyes too fast for him not to have expected this to happen one day. He saves her – still saving her! – from asking the question by gifting her with the answer. “You weren’t strong enough, Willow. They would have snapped you in two.”

She’s been two before. She knows that that feels. Never wants to feel it again.

“You’re right, Giles.”

Being able to say that and mean it sends power and certainty rippling through her. “But that was then. I’m stronger now.”

Night after night of restful sleep...much stronger.

Willow wraps her fingers around the totem and tugs gently, easing it from his hand. She walks to the window and opens it as he watches, letting the moonlight touch it, until it’s a mass of silver, glowing in her hand as her magic, moon magic, consumes it utterly.

Then she goes to lie beside him, her cool body against his fevered one, her warm hands on his face to capture every tear, her slow, soft kisses sending him to sleep.

And when they wake, the rain’s falling and the room’s dim and cool and Giles smiles as if she’s right where he’d always dreamed she would be.

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