The Unraveling Series
Part 1 - Unraveling

written by Head Rush


Rating: FRM
Spoilers: Up to the season 6 episode 'Tabula Rasa'.
Summary: Why was Willow so angry with Giles when he arrived back at the Magic Box in 'Grave'?
Thanks: To Gail C and Della M.
Author's Notes: WARNING: Dark, a bit gory, but the happy ending.
Feedback Author: Head Rush



"Dawn, are you really sure this is what you want?"

"Yes! Tara, I'm old enough to decide these things for myself. I've made my decision, and I'm prepared to take the consequences."

"I know, sweetie, but I feel it's my duty as your friend and as a woman to give you the benefit of my experience. Don't do this. No good can come of it. You'll be sorry afterwards, but it'll be too late." Dawn rolled her eyes.

"Oh come on. Melodramatic, much?"

"What can I get you?" chirped the woman behind the counter. Dawn shot Tara a look.

"A quadruple-scoop, butterscotch, chocolate, and peanut butter sundae with bananas, rainbow sprinkles, marshmallows and hot fudge," she bellowed over the roar of the cappuccino machine. The woman nodded shortly, and turned to Tara.

"And for you, ma'am?"

Tara watched a gangly boy ladle gobs of semi-congealed butterscotch sauce into a tall glass and gulped. "Just water, please." Dawn grinned.

"I guess hanging around Xander's rubbed off on me a little. I sometimes like things that are not good for me. Don't worry, I won't tell Buffy that you're the one who funded the redecoration of our bathroom in delicate shades of barf."

"I knew it was smart of me to stick with water. Quick, grab that booth by the window."

They settled themselves down on the diner's cool, blue plastic upholstery with sighs of relief. It was a hot summer's afternoon, and the mall had been thick with roving packs of teenagers trying to impress each other by being as obnoxious as was humanly possible. Tara was adjusting to the gnawing, constant misery that had been her companion since leaving Willow, and Dawn was under strict supervision since she'd been caught shoplifting. When Dawn's older sister wasn't completely distracted by her own sex life, money problems, or big bads, she would come down like a ton of bricks whenever Dawn stepped out of line. The girl was glad to have some quality time with an adult who didn't make her feel as if her every move was being scrutinized by the teen police. Tara likewise enjoyed the relative simplicity of their friendship, and was glad to receive occasional word of how Willow was getting on in her absence. They sat in companionable silence for a while, watching people go by until their order arrived. Then Tara turned to Dawn.

"Okay, what gives? You called this meeting. Something's been on your mind all afternoon, and for once I don't think it's boy-related. Although I could be wrong." She smiled gently and waited. Dawn began to look exceedingly uncomfortable.

"I don't know. It might not be any of my business… but I'm starting to get really worried about Willow." Immediately, Tara's face fell.

"Why's that?" she asked, but she could have made a good guess at what was coming.

"Well… she seems… I don't know… mad, I guess… or maybe depressed… all the time. She doesn't talk to me much anymore. We used to be really close, do lots of stuff together... but lately she hasn't wanted to hang out, or even help me with homework." Tara nodded.

"I know it's hard to understand, Dawnie, but Willow's… well, I guess she's taking our breakup pretty hard. It takes a long time to adjust to life without someone you love. Someone you've made a commitment to. She still loves you and needs you, but you'll have to be patient with her," she smiled a bit. "And me."

"I get that, but… I think there's more to it," Dawn said slowly.

"What makes you say that?" Tara didn't look as if she really wanted to hear the answer.

"Buffy's had me slaving in the Magic Box since I did my cry-for-help thing, and part of what I do is help Anya with the inventory. Over the last few weeks, things have been going missing. Not candles and unicorn statues like the Sabrina-wannabes go for. It's the stuff that doesn't look like anything special? Jars and packets of dusty old ingredients that can do some real damage in the wrong hands? You'd have to be into some pretty nasty dark power to need marnox root combined with Himalayan nightshade and goats' hoof essence. Even I know that."

"Okay, but why do you think Willow's the one taking those things?"

"When I'm not name-tag girl at the shop, Buffy has me doing the maid thing at home. I was vacuuming in Willow's room and saw a bunch of the stuff that's missing hidden under her bed. I wasn't snooping," she said quickly, "I was cleaning. The point is, she's the one stealing from the shop… and that's not all." Dawn fell silent, stirring the gooey mess in the sweaty glass. Tara was looking decidedly more miserable by the minute, but let Dawn go at her own pace. Until she couldn't stand it any longer.

"W-what else is she doing?" said Tara. Dawn briefly wrestled with her conscience.

"Okay. Now you can't tell Buffy, all right? Woman to woman confidentiality?"

"Uh... huh." Tara's frown deepened.

"I've been sneaking out at night," the girl flushed. "Not every night. Sometimes I go and see Spike, sometimes I just hang with my friends. I'm not doing anything naughty. Remember, Willow's the one we're focusing on here." Tara nodded, and signaled for her to skip the disclaimers. "But when I've passed the Magic Box, I could see that Willow was in there, reading, or mixing things together. Her eyes were black. Sometimes it looked like she had cuts on her arms or her face." Tara's sleepy gaze suddenly took on an intensity that Dawn hadn't seen before, and it scared her.

"Her eyes were black?"

"That's bad, isn't it." Tara gazed at her for a long moment.

"Yeah, Dawnie. That's very bad."

"I hate going behind her back like this." Tara shook her head.

"No, don't stop now. Dawn, this is serious. If you want to help Willow, you have to tell me everything you know. It's me, remember? I know what she's capable of. A-at least I thought I did." Tara sat back. 'I'm not so sure anymore. You know that's why I left." She sighed heavily. "Maybe I should've stayed, you know? Tried to keep her from going further into the dark magick, rather than abandoning her to it." She scrunched up a paper napkin and absently began to tear it apart as Dawn began a slow recitation of every recent instance she could think of when ingredients had gone missing, and what they were. When Willow came into the house looking wired, or angry, or upset. When she seemed to be avoiding any contact with her friends. When she was up or out all night. When she came in with band-aids all over her arms. When things around the house would suddenly be found smashed or burned. When she heard Willow sobbing behind a locked door.

"And what does Buffy think of all this?" said Tara at last.

"Most of the time I take care of it before Buffy sees anything. She's been so… fragile. Especially since Giles left. I don't want her to have to deal with any more problems right now. Besides, she never got the merit badge for observing-the-world-around-you, anyway, y'know?" Tara looked grim.

"What do you want me to do, Dawn? Willow's made it pretty clear that she's not comfortable around me right now. If I confront her with all this, she'll put two and two together and come up with Dawn's-been-snooping. She'll be angry and embarrassed, and I doubt she'll welcome another intervention from me."

"But we can't just do nothing… we have to at least *try* to help her. Preferably before she burns the house down, or turns me into a rat or something."

"I don't want to scare you, sweetie, but I think she could do a lot worse than that if she carries on this way. I agree that we have to help her, but I'm not sure how. It's not like there's a twelve-step program or anything." Dawn hugged herself, but her goosebumpy arms weren't caused by the arctic blast from the diner's air conditioning. Finally, Tara appeared to have made up her mind.

"Okay," she sighed. "It won't be pretty, but I'll talk to Willow. I still love her. You know that. And I think she still loves me. So there's a chance she'll listen. But she's into some very heavy stuff, Dawn. Can you go and stay with a friend for a few days?" Dawn stopped stirring the sludge in her glass and looked up, shaken.

"Are you saying she might try to... to do... something... to me? Something bad?" She shook her head. "Willow wouldn't do anything like that... she... she just wouldn't."

"N-no… of course not. I mean... not intentionally. But sometimes she can do things without meaning to. Like, she made Mr. Giles blind for a while a couple of years ago." Dawn frowned.

"She *did*? I don't remember that."

"She made us lose our memories just a few weeks ago. She didn't mean for those spells to go wrong, or to hurt anyone, but they did. And it seems as if the more negative the emotions she's feeling, the more... unpleasant... the effects of the spell turn out to be. She loves you, Dawn, but this is Willow's… most sensitive subject."

Tara could see that Dawn was struggling to keep up. She tried to elaborate without breaking any confidences.

"Willow's power is bound up with all kinds of other issues that she has with herself and the way she sees the world. The way she deals with day-to-day living. The way she relates to other people. And I get that, you know? I feel it too, but not with the intensity that Willow does. She's not going to appreciate anyone who threatens to bring down the psychological defenses she's built up through using magick, and even by just knowing that she knows how to use magick. She may react... badly, and I just want be certain that you won't be too convenient." Dawn blinked.

"I think I want to be certain of that too," Dawn said slowly. "I can go and stay with Janice for a couple of days."

"Then let's get you home so you can get your things together. We'd better go now, it looks like there's some rain on the way. Do you think Willow will be in this evening, around eight?"

"Oh, yeah. She never misses 'Passions'. Spike got her hooked."

"Then I'll come over at nine." Tara smiled, and Dawn pushed her melted sundae away.

"I hardly ate any of this, but I feel really sick now."

"So do I," said Tara.

* * * * *

As the end credits of 'Passions' began to scroll, Willow shifted her position on the sofa, stretched out her arm, and pointed her index finger at the television. "*Five.*" The channel changed.

"There's this little invention called a remote control," came a voice from the foyer.

"You might want to give it a whirl sometime."

"Tara!" Willow had the presence of mind to look sheepish that Tara had caught her in the act of using magick out of sheer laziness once again, but a second later her face was bright with hope. She couldn't help but wonder if her ex had come to make up, as she'd so often fantasized that she would. Then Willow registered that Tara was dripping wet, rain running through her long, light brown hair in rivulets, and she snapped out of it.

"It's pouring out there... but you already knew that." Willow wondered how best to proceed, and decided on social niceties as a good way to begin.

"Can I get you something to drink? Tea, coffee, Snapple... anything you want."

"Sure, uh, tea would be great. Earl Grey, if you've got it?"

"Your wish is my command," Willow grinned. "Oh wait, that's Anya's line, isn't it? Why don't you go find a towel, and I'll play mother, as Giles says. Although I have no idea what he means by it." The women exchanged tentative smiles, neither knowing quite what to expect from the other.

When Tara got to the top of the stairs, she paused. She had to pass Willow's room to get to the bathroom, and the door was slightly open. She didn't disbelieve Dawn's claims about the missing magick supplies for a moment, but if they were here, she wanted to see for herself, just to make sure that she wouldn't be confronting Willow unfairly if Dawn had made an honest mistake. Tara moved to the far side of the bed and got down on her hands and knees. She could see immediately that Dawn had been right, and it was in fact much worse than someone lacking knowledge of witchcraft could realise. There were bags and jars of ingredients that individuals were forbidden to use privately. Some of the items were dangerous in themselves, others only when properly mixed together. Tara dug around a little more. Statuary and charms, crystals and rotting spellbooks that appeared to be bound in... was that *human* skin?

After a few minutes, Tara's back started to ache. She pulled herself upright... and caught sight of Willow leaning in the doorway, arms folded, watching. Tara recognised the expression. This was going to be a hard evening.

"Are you finished? Is there anything else you want to see? Would you like to root through the closet now? Shall I empty my pockets?" Eyes narrowed, words a quiet growl. Obviously Willow was angry, but Tara knew her well enough to detect a little fear there, too.

"Sweetie, we need to t-talk. Can we go downstairs and have tea?" Willow nodded and headed back down the hall, thanking the Goddess that Tara *hadn't* looked in the closet. Or the dresser.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the thunder echo through the darkening streets. Finally, Willow spoke.

"So that's why you came over? To check up on me?" Disappointment mingled with guilt as she stared at the blank television screen.

"Honey, I still love you and care about you just as much as I ever have. I'm just really worried that you're starting something you won't be able to stop. You're a natural.... a powerful witch. Way more powerful than I am - "

"Tara! Will you stop that? You're always running yourself down. You've been doing magick practically all your life - "

"Willow, this isn't about me. It's about you. It's about your casual use of your power, which is stronger than you know. It's about your lying and stealing and sneaking around. You know that you're into some really dark, chaotic magicks now, and you're trying to hide it from the people who love you because you know these are forces you should leave alone. We don't want you to get hurt or… or worse." Tara took Willow's hand in hers and squeezed it gently. "You want to be left to your own devices, to do whatever you want, to go farther than it's safe or even *sane* to go. You're experimenting with magicks that good people, good witches, just don't. And I don't understand why you feel you have to do it. You have nothing to prove." Willow jerked her hand away and moved out of reach.

"What, are you saying I'm not a good person now? That I'm- I'm going bad or something?"

Willow was blushing furiously. Tara was right on the mark, and both of them knew it. But the power was a lifeline now, and there was no way she could let it go. Even when she'd actually tried, the effects of the withdrawal were worse than anything she'd felt while conjuring the dark energies. They were so bad one night that she'd actually thought she was dying. She'd called out to Buffy, but the Slayer either hadn't heard or wasn't there. Buffy had been more distant since she'd come back. Willow couldn't blame her, but she'd started hanging out with Amy in the meantime. She supposed a lot of it was her own fault. It was lonely, pulling away from her old friends in her efforts to get time alone to tap into the strongest powers she'd yet tasted. They were terrible sometimes, there was no denying that. But Willow rode out the nosebleeds and lacerations, the very thought of which would have horrified her not so long ago. Before she brought Buffy back. The nastiness was worth it for the incredible rush afterwards, though. She could feel her power becoming stronger and more refined by the day. By the spell, even. She'd never felt that way in her life before, ever. And no one was going to take that away.

"No," said Tara carefully. "I'm- I'm not saying you're bad *at all*, you're not. Not… not yet. I'm just saying -" Willow cut her off, eyes flashing. What did she mean, 'not yet'?

"Save it, Tara. We're not together anymore. The bond has been broken, and you don't have the right to judge me, or to tell me what to do." She stood up. "You don't even know *what* I've been doing! Who got you to come here anyway? Oh, don't tell me, it was Dawn, right? She thinks I'm turning into some kind of big bad?"

"Honey, anyone who has access to enough power will always carry that potential," said Tara softly. "I can't bear to think of that happening to you." Willow froze. She had the potential to be evil? To be like the creatures she'd dedicated herself to fighting over the last six years? Tara thought she was that weak? That ignorant? *Tara*, of all people, thought that? She had thought Tara was the one person in the world who understood her.

"I can't believe you said that. I can't believe that's what you think of me... I think you'd better leave now," said Willow quietly. Tara stood up.

"I don't want to lose you, Willow. Not like this." She turned to go, then jumped back with a yelp when a porcelain vase on the end table exploded, shards cutting deep into the side of her face. Shocked, Tara whirled around to see Willow disappearing into the kitchen, then heard the back door slam. Her legs were no use right now, so she sank down onto the sofa and pressed a bunch of wadded-up tissues to her cheek. There would be time to see to that later. She thought long and hard about what to do, then went over to Buffy's desk, found her address book, and picked up the telephone.

* * * * *

Willow wandered aimlessly around town, trying to calm and collect herself. She hadn't stopped to see what had happened to Tara. It was mortifying. After all her protests, she'd had to go and lose control like that, just at the last minute. What if she'd really hurt Tara? Willow felt ill. She went down to the beach, but it was getting dark, and the thunderstorm was circling back around. The rain was starting to bounce on the asphalt when she returned to Sunnydale's Main Street. The nearest shelter just happened to be… the Magic Box. She had the keys on her. She always did these days. Willow crossed the threshold, flicked on the lights, shut the door firmly behind her, and immediately breathed a deep sigh of relief. She was back in her element.

It was fairly cozy in the shop, if you could ignore the pygmy death masks and the baleful looks of the petrified hamsters. The lamps cast a soft, warm glow, and the rain hammered soothingly on the display window. Willow took her time strolling along the upper level, then down the stairs, past the counter and the big round table, and finally made her way up the ladder to the loft where the serious magick books were kept safely locked away in Giles' sturdy English oak bookcases. She turned on the reading lamp, put her key in the lock, and selected a new pile of books. Between the nightmares and the insomnia, Willow couldn't sleep for long these days, so spent most of her nights in study. She would read all that she could absorb in one sitting, then try to cast the spells or perform the rituals she had learned. Sometimes they went perfectly. Sometimes they went very badly wrong. Willow sat indian-style with a huge tome bound in black snakeskin on her lap. Soon, she had left herself, the day, and the world far behind.

A few hours went by without her noticing, and she had tried out a couple of new spells that she hoped would increase her tolerance for much darker, stronger, and more unruly forces than those she'd been used to dealing with. At least, she hadn't dealt with them before bringing Buffy back. But that resurrection spell had given Willow a taste of power she'd never dreamt could be within her reach. Nor had she desired it to be, but still, there it was, and there was no going back. Willow concluded her practice session, as she so often did, by applying band-aids to the cuts on her arms. She had just stood up to throw the empty box away when the door opened and a man stepped in, shutting the door behind him. Willow's heart nearly lurched out of her chest. His form was more or less concealed beneath a long black overcoat, but he was tall and dark, and looked pretty solid. He took a few steps forward, and she actually gasped, just like in the movies.

* * * * *

"Giles?" Willow couldn't believe her eyes. He smiled at her, but it wasn't quite his usual, reflexive grin.

"There you are. Hello, love."

Up until very recently, Willow wouldn't have thought twice before rushing into his arms. She would have hugged Giles more readily than her own father. Now, though, she moved towards him slowly, almost cautiously. Willow and the Watcher hadn't parted on the best of terms. She hesitated at the bottom of the ladder. A moment went by. Then, to her immense relief, Giles took her gently by the shoulders, turned her around, and pulled her to him. She had almost forgotten how strong and reassuring he could be. Willow slowly leaned into the front of his damp Henley shirt, allowing him to prop her up. Closed her eyes. Suddenly, she was very tired. Giles didn't say anything, just rested his chin on the top of her head while his hand traced lazy circles on her back.

For the life of her, Willow couldn't remember why she had been so anxious about seeing him again. Whatever was wrong, Giles would make it all right, just like he always did. For the smallest of whiles, she relaxed and felt safe for the first time since… since Giles had returned after Buffy came back. Correction. Was *brought* back. Now she remembered why she had been nervous, and a little of that newfound calm evaporated as quickly as it had come. She pulled away from him and began to backpedal. Giles was wearing his puzzling-it-out face. Willow hovered between the counter and the back door in what she hoped was a casual manner and made a stab at small talk.

"You're all wet. What, did you swim here?"

"Yes, I swam the Pacific to get here from England. I took the long way round." Giles grinned, and was once again uncomfortably aware that his outer layers of clothing were sodden. Rainwater dripped down his neck, and he whisked a hand back and forth through his wet hair vigorously, spraying Willow and making his dark curls stand on end. Willow couldn't help but laugh, and a second later, he did too. For a moment, everything felt okay again.

"So, um, when did you get here? You must have jet lag something fierce," she said.

Giles nodded. In fact, he'd teleported to Sunnydale very soon after hanging up the phone from his talk with Tara. Or rather, Tara's talk with him. He'd barely been able to get a word in edgeways. Willow still had that deer-in-headlights look.

"What're you doing here? I mean, I'm glad to see you and everything, but... is… is everything okay with Buffy?"

"Yes, as far as I know." He paused. Surely Willow should know if her best friend was all right or not. "But I'm, ah, I'm not here to see Buffy. In fact, I'd prefer it if she didn't find out I was here. She's still adjusting to not having me around, and I think a fleeting visit would only make the process more difficult for her."

"Uh, yeah, I guess. But then, why *are* you here? I'm guessing it's not just because you missed those Café Americanos from Starbucks."

Giles smiled slightly, and began to circumnavigate the shop, running his hands along the shelves, noting what hadn't moved since he'd last been in the shop, and what had sold. Or been taken. Willow watched him with a growing sense of unease. It was weird that he had come back so soon, and without Buffy's knowledge. Giles went down into the basement, and reappeared demanding tea. While Willow went into the back room to organise it, Giles climbed the ladder to the book loft. The books Willow had been using that evening were scattered around haphazardly, and it turned him over to see the ones she had selected for her latest session. If he had known what she had been getting herself into he never would have left her to her own devices. Especially not after that show of bravado a few weeks ago in Buffy's kitchen.

Willow climbed the ladder, mug of tea in hand. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him leafing through a particularly sinister volume, squinting at the notes she'd made in the margins. Those spells had had some really unpleasant side effects. She'd spent hours cleaning up. Giles closed the book with an expression that was almost sad. His eyes flickered over the band-aids on her arms. He nodded once, shortly.

"Right. Let's go downstairs."

Willow gulped.

* * * * *

Willow had a pretty good idea what was coming, and she was braced for it. They sat at the round table in pregnant silence while Giles stirred his tea. Willow could tell that he was clenching his jaw. She fiddled with a crystal, waiting for him make the opening move. Giles took off his glasses and began wiping them on the corner of his shirt. He scrubbed for a long time. Finally, he put them back on and sighed.

"I had a phone call from Tara," he said, meeting her eyes briefly. "She's very concerned about you. And she's right to be."

"Tara. That figures. Giles, we haven't been together for a while. She really doesn't know what's going on."

"Then you tell me, Willow. What's going on?" Giles made a conscious effort to keep his tone soft and reasonable.

"Nothing! Really nothing. Unlike Harry Potter, I don't have a dark arts teacher, so I'm doing a little book learnin' by myself, that's all."

Giles nodded. "This is going to make me sound like a tedious old fart, but you know I did the same thing when I was around your age." He pushed up his sleeves and showed Willow an assortment of faint, pinkish-white scars criss-crossing his forearms. Willow hadn't noticed them before. He didn't usually roll his sleeves up that far. Then he pushed the left sleeve up a little higher to where he had burned off the Eyghon tattoo a few years before. "These are by no means the only scars that I carry from those days. Do you remember how well my youthful forays into the black arts turned out? You *should* remember, because I've told you often enough, and in graphic detail. You even saw one of the legacies for yourself, when Eyghon showed up on my doorstep twenty-four years later."

"This isn't like that, Giles. I'm not summoning demons, for one thing."

"Aren't you? Didn't a demon come through with Buffy when you brought her back?"

"Yes, but -"

"And haven't you been opening dimensional portals? If you do that, you never know what the hell - literally - is going to come through." Giles was aware that the volume was creeping up, and he backed off a little. "Willow. I'm Buffy's Watcher, and that's a very special relationship, but you and I…We're more alike." His smile was slight, but warm. "I've known you a good while now, love, and I think I can safely say that I know you pretty well." He took a long pull from the tea mug. "We're attracted to a lot of the same things… including those that we should run from and never look back. The point is, I know where you're coming from… and more importantly, I can see where you're headed." Willow rolled her eyes.

"No, Giles, you really can't." There was no way he could make that claim with any sort of authority. He hadn't even been around here recently, and so much had changed.

"All right." Giles didn't want to put her on the defensive any more than she already was. He tried a different approach. "Sometimes, when I was younger, I used the magicks to make myself feel better about who I was. To feel in control, or more powerful. More powerful than my father, for instance. Or my friends."

"I don't do that," said Willow, feeling her cheeks grow hot.

"I see. Tara will be all right, by the way. Her face probably won't be scarred." Giles shot her a meaningful glance, and she shifted.

"That was an accident."

"Which part? Hurting her, or making the vase explode?"

"Both!"

"I meant it before, when I said you've been lucky so far." He tried to establish eye contact, but failed. "You're cocky, and you're dependent on the magicks to help you with things you're perfectly capable of doing yourself." He reached out and curled a large, warm hand over her small, balled up one. "But Willow, this has to stop before something happens that cookies and an apology won't fix."

"I knew it," she said. "You don't trust me anymore." Somehow, that hurt worse than anything, and the thought that she had given Giles a reason to feel that way shook her to the core. Her throat constricted, but she was damned if she was going to let him see her cry.

Giles looked away while she pulled herself together. "It's the magicks I don't trust. Dark power can overtake you without your wanting it to, or even realising that it's happened. It can be intoxicating. Addictive. You can lose yourself in it, and I know that can feel good. It's power and surrender all in one. Controlled and controlling. You can harness incredible force, or you can just give in and let it do the work while you go along for the ride. How it takes you depends on you." Willow was blinded by tears now. Giles forged ahead, gently relentless, intent on getting through to her. "That's why it's so dangerous. That's why you have to be utterly honest about the extent of your ability to handle the forces you call on."

Giles went on for some time, trying everything he could think of to get her to step away from the magicks for a while, reconnect with her friends, get some perspective. Willow gave an occasional perfunctory nod. There was no way she was giving up the magicks. They were all she had left, but they were enough. The Watcher droned on and on, telling her how she didn't understand the dangers, respect the forces, have the discipline to do what she was doing in a way that was safe and responsible. He went over the risks of performing a resurrection spell *again*, and many others besides. After a while, Willow shut down completely. Finally, she snapped.

"This is great. You're just like Tara. You think I'm becoming evil, or… or crazy or something! Neither of you *really* know me… or what I'm capable of!" A surge of adrenaline and mystical energy coursed through her, unbidden, and she felt a little dizzy with the suddenness of it.

Willow stood up, her irises darker than usual, her cuts reopening under the band-aids. She was unaware of the plaque flying off the wall, the lights flickering on and off, or the rain beating down with unnatural force outside. Giles whipped off his glasses.

"How about you, Willow? Do *you* know what you're capable of? Really?"

"I know what I'm doing, Giles. You still think I'm a stupid sixteen-year-old! I'm not a kid anymore. Hell, I'm not the same *person* anymore. And you're not my Watcher, so just leave me alone from now on, okay?"

Giles' eyes glittered. He stood up, towered over her, and tried to stare her down. He hoped that a little intimidation would spare them both the alternative. "Answer me. Exactly how powerful *are* you, Willow?" She hesitated a moment, then shook her head.

"That's it. I've had enough for one night." Willow snatched up her jacket and started for the door. Giles hated himself for what he was about to do.

* * * * *

"Willow. *Sit down*." She froze. Giles had never sounded like that before, and he suddenly looked… different… somehow. Almost like a stranger. He wasn't yelling. In fact, his voice was almost hypnotically soft. Willow sat back down at the table. She could no more have got up and left than turned night into day.

Giles moved his chair around so that he could sit facing her without the table between them. Willow was rapidly losing her nerve.

"W-what are you doing? Giles…" She flinched as he reached out to her.

"It's all right, love. Just relax."

Giles lifted her chin until she was looking him in the eye, then placed his left hand across her forehead and muttered something in a language Willow didn't recognise. At first nothing happened, and then Willow had the incredibly unpleasant sensation that she wasn't alone in her own mind. There was something, someone else in there, and then a torrent of mystical energy that rocketed through her neural pathways, invading every corner, including those that she kept most carefully guarded, even from herself. Giles fully understood her desperation to keep him from seeing some of those things, but the procedure didn't allow him to be selective in what he saw or sensed. At first, Willow was too shocked to think or feel anything. Then she focused her energies, instilling pressure from the opposite direction, countering his efforts easily. She hadn't broken eye contact with Giles, and it was obvious that his young friend had gone from terrified to outraged in very short order.

Giles hadn't counted on her being able to put up much resistance to a technique this advanced. At least, no more than he had been able to when the Watcher's Council had used it on him so long ago, following the inquest into Randall's death. He went a little deeper, pushed a little harder, and his gut contracted when a flicker of pain crossed her features.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, his eyes dark with concern. "It won't hurt if you don't fight it."

But Willow wasn't about to let him get away with this. At once furious and humiliated, she struggled to block his invasion of her mind. Suddenly, her 'resolve face' had taken on a new and worrisome aspect. Giles didn't yet have the information he was looking for. It would be much too dangerous to leave the procedure half done, but she was making this very difficult for them both. Severing the connection too soon could leave her with real psychological trauma. He increased the pressure gradually but steadily, trying to get it over with as quickly as possible. Willow matched him push for push, eyes screwed shut, teeth clamped together.

The Watcher was rattled. He hadn't been prepared for a battle of wills, or for having to use this much force. She really was amazing. If only he could make sure that she used all that power responsibly. He stepped up the pressure a bit more, and Willow groaned softly, tears spilling down her face. She began to fall forward, and he put out his right arm to steady her. Giles felt wretched. This kind of interrogation was the ultimate violation. Their friendship was unlikely to survive such a betrayal of trust, but if he had to be cruel to be kind, well, it wouldn't be the first time. Willow hung in there for another ten minutes or so, her breathing ragged. At last, Giles gave a long, hard shove, and the remaining blocks dissolved. Willow made a final, frantic effort to resist, but this time she couldn't match him. Blood gushed from her nose, spattering her shirtfront and knees, and she pitched forward, unconscious.

* * * * *

Giles eased Willow to the floor. He folded his coat and slid it under her head, and elevated her feet on a pile of books. He checked her pupils and her pulse, then went into the training room and washed her blood from his hands. He splashed some water on his face and leaned against the sink for a few minutes. The colour had drained from his features, and his hands shook uncontrollably. It wouldn't do to let Willow see that. It would either scare her, or she would take it as some sort of compliment that she could have such an effect on someone so much more experienced in the dark arts - or perhaps both. Giles felt that he had a good idea of the extent of Willow's power, and was more concerned than ever on that score, but his immediate worry was her physical and mental well-being. He should never have done it. He'd gone too far. It had been necessary, but God, she would never forgive him, never confide in him ever again. Giles selected a clean hand towel from the counter and saturated it with cool water. He took a long drink from a bottle of iced tea and a quite a few deep breaths before returning to Willow, wondering what he could possibly say to alleviate what she would be feeling when she came to.

Giles sat on the floor in the semi-dark for some time, listening to the rain outside, holding the wet towel to Willow's forehead with one hand, using a handkerchief to staunch the flow of blood from her nose with the other. After a while she started to cough as the blood trickled down the back of her throat. Her eyes flew open. Moments later, they focused on his, and narrowed. Then she began struggling to get up. Giles pushed her back down as gently as he could.

"No, just keep still for a minute. You're all right. Willow, please listen to me. I'm so very sorry. I never meant for it to come to this."

Willow stared at him. Her expression flitted from frightened to furious to wounded, not settling on any. She became aware of the warm stickiness on her face, and wiped the blood on the back of her hand. "What… the hell… did you do to me?" she stared at him, stunned. "How could you *do* that?" God, he knew *everything* about her now. Or thought he did.

"I'm so very sorry," he repeated. "You must believe I only did it to help you. As you couldn't tell me yourself, I had to use another… method… to give us some idea of how much power you have, and how much control, or… free will."

Willow was crying openly now, pulling herself to her feet, chest heaving. Blood mixed with the tears, stains spreading down her t-shirt. She looked terrible. Instinctively, Giles took a step forward and reached out to her, but wasn't surprised when she shoved him back with all the strength she possessed. She was shaking with rage and shock, staring at him with bloodshot eyes in pure, dumb, disbelief. Giles' expression was almost imploring.

"Love, if it's any consolation, the Council once had some special operatives do the very same thing to me. It feels... well, there are no words to describe how it feels. It's a terrible violation of what should be no one's territory but your own. If there's any way I can prove that I'm still your friend... that you can still trust me after this -" Willow looked him right in the eyes.

"Did you get what you came for? I hope so, because I *never* want to see you again, Giles, and if I do, I'll be ready for you." She stumbled towards the exit, but her wobbly legs couldn't beat his strides, which were equally wobbly, but longer.

Giles got between her and the door and tried again. "Willow, I don't know anything about you that you don't already know yourself. I care about you just as much as I ever have… maybe even more. And I know you're not turning into some sort of big bad… I never did think that. You *are* one of the good guys. You always have been." And he profoundly hoped she always would be. He waited. She just stared right through him, so he kept talking.

"I know you don't want to listen to me, and I know you're frightened to admit it, but I think, deep down, you know that what I've been saying is right... but you're too angry right now. With me and with yourself. I'm going to give you some time, and then I'm going to come back and we'll talk again." Then, gently, "And I should tell you, love, I'm not the only one who's keeping an eye on you. So be careful."

When she finally spoke, her voice was so soft and rough he could barely hear her.

"Get out of my way."

After a long moment, Giles nodded, then stood aside and let her go.

Read the next part: Wicked Trouble