The Unraveling Series
Part 2 - Wicked Trouble

written by Head Rush





Buffy was asleep on the sofa when the front door cracked open and Willow came in. The latch clicked shut and Buffy stirred. She was a light sleeper these days.

"Who's there?" she asked fuzzily. "It's not even light yet."

"Just me. Go back to sleep."

There was something in Willow's voice that penetrated Buffy's half-woken state. She sat up, her eyes widened, and she gasped. Willow's face was red and blotchy; her nose, the lower portions of her face, and her t-shirt were covered in dried blood; and she'd obviously been crying for some time.

Buffy stood up. "Oh my God. Will, are you okay? What happened?"

Willow looked at her blankly. She didn't know how to answer that question. "Nothing. Just go back to sleep, okay? I-I'm all right."

But Buffy wasn't going to let it go that easily. "Willow, come on. Who did this?"

"Ask Giles."

Willow dragged herself up the stairs, leaving Buffy standing in the middle of the living room utterly confused. She looked at the clock. It would only be early evening in England, so she picked up the phone and dialled Giles' number, but there was no answer. He'd sure picked a great time to get a life.

* * * * *

Tara liked Jitters. It was everything a coffee house should be: bookcases and overstuffed armchairs formed cozy nooks; unchallenging classical or jazz warbled pleasingly in the background; the lighting was soft and warm, and ever-so-slightly pretentious conversation was encouraged by a selection of well-chosen reading material scattered on low tables. Dawn also liked the brownies and the boy behind the counter.

"Are you sure he's coming?" said Dawn. "We've been here an hour already."

Tara looked up from a dog-eared copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes. "He'll be here. When I left this morning he was dead to the world, so I left a note where he'll be sure to see it."

"On the box of doughnuts?"

Tara laughed. "Yeah. Besides, this place isn't hard to find; he knows the Espresso Pump, and that's only a couple of blocks away."

Fifteen minutes later Giles appeared, looking decidedly rumpled in black jeans, a white t-shirt, and a flannel shirt left unbuttoned and untucked. His hair looked like he'd been pulled through a hedge backwards, and he hadn't even shaved. Tara took this as a bad sign. She caught his eye with a wave, and he smiled. As soon as she saw him, Dawn jumped up and ran to give him a hug.

"It's so great to see you! You look tired. Do you want some coffee? You like the boring stuff, right?"

He grinned. "It's great to see you too, and yes, a cup of the boring stuff would be lovely." He began to move past, but Dawn tapped his shoulder.

"Um, sorry, but I don't have any money, so it's on you."

Giles nodded and patted her head as he handed over a five-dollar bill. "Glad to see some things have stayed the same."

Dawn went off to issue orders to the boy at the counter, and Giles went over to Tara. She stood up and gave him a slightly awkward hug.

"Sorry I'm late, love. I overslept. How's your cheek this morning?"

"It's all right. Thanks for coming, Giles. I'm sorry I had to call you last night."

"Not at all; you did the right thing." He hesitated, not sure how to proceed.

Tara broke the ice for him. "Willow's not good, is she?"

"No," he said quietly, "and I'm afraid I may have made things rather worse."

Dawn returned with his coffee and sat in rapt silence as he told them of his attempts to get Willow to open up to him; her refusal; how he had eventually resorted to an invasive and frightening Council technique to assess the level of power she held; the trauma that ensued, and her understandably outraged reaction. When he had finished, they sat in unhappy silence for a while.

"So what kind of power are we talking, Giles?" said Tara.

Giles' brow furrowed. "Prodigious. Willow has a tremendous amount of raw power, but very little ability to control it; and what control she does have seems to go out the window if she's sufficiently upset." He nodded at the bandage on Tara's face. "As you saw."

Tara nodded. "And you agree she's addicted to the magicks?"

"Yes." He paused, frowning. "The question is, what to do about it."

"What can you do about it, if she doesn't want help?" said Dawn.

Giles sighed. "Well, mystical energy can be taken from someone by force, but it's an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do, and consequently is used as a last resort in... well, I can only think of two very extreme cases where that's happened."

"Is it possible that other witches could help her?" said Tara.

He nodded slowly. "Perhaps. I have friends in a coven in England who are keeping an eye on Willow; I'm sure they'd do all they could to help if I could convince her to contact them. But nothing can be done until Willow accepts that she has a problem; and I think that after last night, she may resist further confrontations more than ever."

Then Dawn chipped in, "I hate to break it to you, but there's some more badness. When Willow came in last night, Buffy asked her who had roughed her up, and she said, 'Ask Giles'. So Buffy's been trying to call you at home ever since, and now she's starting to freak that you're not there."

"Oh dear Lord, that's all we need."

"Maybe you went away to a Watcher's conference in Scotland?" said Dawn.

Giles looked at her. "Actually... that's not bad. But much as I hate to burden her further, I think Buffy needs to know what's going on. I'll call her, but I won't tell her I'm in Sunnydale unless it becomes absolutely necessary." He looked pointedly at Dawn. "And neither will you. Let's just keep everything as simple as possible for the time being."

* * * * *

Two days later, Willow couldn't stand it any longer. She went over to Tara's and apologized for all she was worth. She had never meant to hurt her. It was totally an accident. She'd just been so upset that Tara had seen that stuff in her room and was disappointed in her. They sat on the front step drinking iced tea. They sat quietly for a while, till Willow spoke her mind.

"I really am sorry, baby, but you shouldn't have called Giles. That was going way too far."

"Giles didn't think so. Will, he only wants to help."

Willow made a noise that really wasn't a laugh. "You wouldn't be defending him if you'd seen how he tried to 'help' me the other night." She looked away. "Or maybe you would."

Tara ignored that. "He feels terrible about the way things turned out - he looked terrible when he got in the other night. He asked me to tell you that he'll be down at Sandy Point at six tomorrow, and he'd really like to see you there. He has to go home the next day. Watcher stuff."

Willow's jaw set, and she shook her head. "No way. Absolutely no way."

"Will, we're never going to be able to give... you know... us... another try as long as there's this big issue between us," Tara said. "Can't you just say, okay, so there's something that's standing in the way of my happiness, and the happiness of the people who care about me - I owe it to myself and to them to at least try to do something about it?"

Willow rolled her eyes.

"We know it's hard, Will. We're not expecting miracles; we just want you to try, that's all. Can you do that?" Tara's voice was unsteady, on the verge of tears. "D-do you care enough a-about me to do that?"

Great. Emotional blackmail. What was next - a gun to a puppy's head?

"I don't want to see him, Tara. You have no idea how much I don't ever want to see him again." Just thinking about Giles made her flush with anger and embarrassment.

Tara nudged her hopefully. "But... you will?"

"I might. You really don't know what you're asking."

Tara took her hand. "I love you, you big moron."

Willow smiled, squeezing her hand. "What would I do without you?"

* * * * *

Willow spent the whole of the next day debating whether or not to go down to the beach that evening. If she went, it would be an indication that she had forgiven Giles; was willing to let go what had transpired between them, and that was so very not the case. Then she thought of Tara. She would be doing it for her and Tara, not for the Watcher. He could say whatever he wanted, but it wouldn't make any difference. She'd go. At least then she could honestly say that she'd gone to see him.

She was sitting at the kitchen counter with a mug of herbal tea when Buffy came in and grabbed a muffin from the fridge.

"Hey, Will. What's up? I've been thinking; we should really spend more time together... So, I was wondering. You wanna help me fill out my tax return? You can do it online and everything. I just don't trust myself to do the math. You know tax evasion is what they got Al Capone for. I wouldn't stand a chance, and you know you don't get to shower every day when you're in jail. I'd hate that."

Willow stared at her. Buffy seemed nervous. "Yeah, 'cause, that'd be the worst part about being in jail. Buffy, are you okay?"

"What? Oh, yeah! Totally. Well, fine then. If doing my taxes doesn't do anything for you, how about we catch a movie... before we do my taxes."

"How about we catch a movie while Anya does your taxes?"

Buffy nodded. "That could also work."

"Buffy."

"Uh huh?"

"Why are you being so relentlessly perky? Have you been talking to Tara?"

"No. Why?" Not Tara. Giles.

"Oh, no reason. You just seem a little... overly interested in doing the bonding thing all of a sudden," said Willow.

"Bonding is what friends do. Bonding is the glue that holds friendships together." She paused. "Or something. I just wanna spend more time with you, that's all."

Willow raised her eyebrows. "Doing your taxes?"

"Well, if there's anything more fun than spending a day giving my non-existent money to the government, I'd love to hear what it is. Gotta run. I'll see you later, okay?" And then she was gone, leaving only a scattering of crumbs in her wake.

* * * * *

At five thirty, Willow heaved a sigh of resignation and slowly made her way down to Sandy Point. It was rumored that great white sharks frequented that bit of the coast, so the beach wasn't usually too popular. This evening it was just her, a few foolhardy surfers, and Giles. She stood at the top of the wooden stairs leading down to the sand for a minute, composing herself. He was down there, sitting on the sand reading a book. Seeing him brought it all back - the anger, the embarrassment, and the fear - of him, and of herself - which was worst of all. She couldn't go through with it. She turned to go. She'd tell Tara she'd been to the beach, but couldn't find him. She went a few paces, then stopped. She couldn't do it. No more lying to Tara. Willow quickly turned and descended the rickety wooden stairs before she could change her mind.

"Hey." She stood a few feet away from him.

"Hey, yourself." He smiled up at her. "Thank you for coming."

"It was close."

He nodded. "Were you all right? After... Afterwards?"

"Yeah. Just great, thanks." She sat down beside him with great reluctance.

"I want you to know how truly sorry I am," said Giles. "I never meant to hurt you, or scare you. After all we've been through, you must know I'd never do anything like that without a damn good reason."

Yes. There was a reason. Something was wrong. Willow knew that, and it was why she was so very uneasy all the time; especially when she felt an irresistible urge to do a little magick. Or a lot. She allowed her fear to fuel the anger, which was a simpler emotion to deal with.

"I feel like I don't know you all of a sudden," said Willow. "I never would have thought you'd abandon Buffy just when she really needed you. I never would have thought you'd violate my mind, but hey, you did. Buffy - "

Giles ran a hand through his hair and looked at her intently. "I haven't abandoned anyone, and the arrangement that Buffy and I have is in her own best interest. She knows that she can contact me any time she wants to - as can you."

"But Buffy - "

"Has Buffy said anything new about my leaving? Does she need my help right now?"

"Well, no, but - "

"Then let's leave her out of this for the time being, shall we? It's you I want to talk about."

That's what Willow was afraid of. The tension had been building all day, and her stomach was in knots, despite the mildness of Giles' tone. She focused on the horizon. The evening was drawing in, and the breeze was turning cooler.

"Willow. You were right, a few weeks ago, when you said you were very powerful. However, there aren't many people who could perform the resurrection spell you did and not..." he took off his glasses. "Well, not pay a price for doing so."

Now she was really worried. "W-what do you mean? What kind of price?"

Giles considered his response carefully. The complete answer would terrify her.

"Addiction, at best. You can't channel that kind of power without it... corrupting... your own mystical energies to a certain extent." He looked at her. She was listening. "That's why I was so disturbed when you said that I shouldn't piss you off. You've never threatened anyone in your life, least of all with magick. And the incidents with Tara and the vase, and in the Magic Box, indicate that you're probably less in control of your power than you used to be. So we know something's changed, yes?"

After a moment, Willow gave a barely perceptible nod. "So, what... You're not gonna take my magick away." It was a statement, not a question. "You can't do that. I won't let you do that." One look at his face and Willow realised that she wasn't helping her case.

"No, I don't believe that's necessary. But you do need to seek assistance from some people who know more about this than I do. I have some friends in England - They were able to help me when Ethan and I... When I lost a very good friend to the magicks. To.. to Eyghon."

"God, Giles! This is nothing like what you and Ethan were into!"

"Are you sure about that?"

She wasn't.

"Yes! And I-I'm not going to England."

"We'll see." Giles scratched his temple. "Several friends have told me that a number of people - including some I hope you never encounter - are watching your progress with great interest. Your potential is considerable, and if you let your power continue to develop unchecked, you'll lose control of it completely; and then you will merely be... formidable. That's not what you want, is it?"

Willow took all this in silently. She had felt her power changing, growing, becoming darker and more chaotic. The magicks didn't feel good anymore, but still she craved them. They were part of what made her... her. And If Giles was right, then maybe she was becoming something evil. She was scared. All she wanted was to be happy; to be with Tara, living whatever passed for a normal life in Sunnydale. She'd let everybody down, and now something really bad was happening to the one thing she had that made her feel confident and unique. She'd already hurt her friends, and God only knew what she'd done to Buffy.

"Giles... " Her voice was unsteady.

"Mmm?"

"When... when you looked in my mind... what did you see? Was it bad?"

Giles gently took her chin and turned her to look him in the eye. "No. Not bad. But like everybody, you have certain... imbalances. Strengths and weaknesses of character that can be drawn on or played upon. Especially when you're feeling vulnerable or upset. Any dark power that you channel through yourself will detect these traits, and seek to exploit them; and this seems to have been happening at least since you performed the resurrection spell. Perhaps it was even happening to a lesser degree before that."

She nodded, and he continued.

"That's why it's so important to understand the nature of the forces you call on, and to know the limits of your ability to control them. Your mystical energies have been infected, for want of a better word, by the dark magicks; and its strength far exceeds your ability to control it. We need to find a way to change that as quickly as possible."

Willow was shivering violently.

"Don't worry, love. There are a number of things we can do to cleanse your mystical energies and extract the dark power. We'll get you sorted, I promise."

Willow's worst fears had been confirmed, and she was crying before she could stop herself. It was quite dark, and she hoped that Giles wouldn't notice. She didn't even have a sleeve to wipe her eyes on. She turned her head the other way. She felt a movement beside her, then the warmth of Giles' fleece jacket across her shoulders.

"Hankie's in the left pocket. You've been giving it quite the workout lately."

"Thanks," she muttered.

"Just don't blow your nose on the sleeve, snotty."

She could hear the smile in his voice, then felt the reassuring weight of his arm around her. They sat in silence for a while, listening to the waves breaking over the rocks.

"Giles?"

"Yes."

"You're really sure I'm not evil?"

"Yes. Absolutely sure."

"And you're sure I'm gonna be okay?"

"Yes."

"You're... you're sure you can help me?"

"Yes, love. I'm positive."

* * * * *

Thirteen weeks later...

* * * * *

"Excudo!"

Everything went green, then black. For an instant, the burning was unbearable. Willow was unconscious even before Giles' blast of mystical energy sent her crashing through the brick wall of the training room and into a supporting pillar in the shop beyond. If the energy field had cushioned the impact just a fraction less, her spine would have broken instantly.

What the bloody hell just happened? For a moment Giles was paralysed with the horror of what he'd done. This was Willow... and she may have killed Anya. And she certainly hadn't done Buffy any good. Even when he'd arrived at the Magic Box, he hadn't really been sure of what to expect from the girl. Only when she'd come into the training room bearing Anya's prone form, obviously intent on killing him did he unleash any energies that could seriously harm her. The Slayer had taken a solid hit, but she was coming to. Giles wished with all his heart that he could give her and Anya the attention they needed, but there just wasn't time.

"Buffy?" He knelt beside her.

She sat up, groaning, and blinked at him for a moment, trying to remember why he was there. Then it all came flooding back.

"Go and see to Willow. I'll check on Anya," said Buffy.

Giles didn't hesitate. He went out to the dim shop floor and crossed over to where Willow lay amidst small fires, scattered merchandise, and broken beams. She was pale as death, and had a long cut on her cheek, but she seemed to be breathing all right. Giles wasn't overly concerned until he saw the blood pooling beneath her head.

"Oh, God, Willow. What have we done here?" He couldn't quite believe the extent to which he'd failed her.

He eased one hand under her head and lifted it just enough to get his other hand behind it. As well as the gash, there was a good-sized lump forming back there already. He drew a hankerchief from his pocket and folded it under her head. The new pressure on the wound was enough to bring Willow round. The change in the rhythm of her breathing got his attention and brought about an abrupt change in his demeanor.

"Demor - "

Willow hadn't even got the first word of the spell out before Giles' hand clamped over her mouth. She grabbed at him, but he used his free hand to shove one of her arms under his leg, then leaned on her hard, holding her other arm immobile across her chest. He could have used a spell which would have had the same effect, but was loath to add more magick to the volatile mix already swirling about the shop.

"Willow, shut up and listen to me."

He didn't sound angry, but Willow knew him better than that. He must be furious, but, as usual, he had to be in better control of his emotions than anyone else. He'd never add his anger to hers, never show what he was really feeling. God, her head hurt. Giles did that. He was heavy, and Willow could barely draw breath, let alone shift him. She had no choice but to meet his eyes.

"Stop. Just stop," he said. He made it sound like the easiest, most reasonable thing in the world. Giles' grip was iron, but his voice was calm and soothing, almost soporific. Willow stilled and stared up at him.

"I can help you," he went on. Soft. Hypnotic. Almost the way he had sounded before he'd turned around and violated her mind. He'd promised to help her after that, but nothing he'd tried had worked for long. Nothing could help her now. Her involuntary sob was muffled by his hand. "And I have friends who can help you. You're not the first person this has happened to, and there are ways to make the terrible things you're feeling go away. To make everything all right again."

Giles doubted that anything would be 'all right' again for some time to come, if ever, but he had to put his argument in the simplest possible terms if she was to follow it in her current haze.

Willow blinked slowly. It was almost impossible to think clearly, the magicks were so strong. Giles could make it all right, if anyone could, and God, she wanted this to be over. Crazily, her mind flashed back to the time when she'd had a vampire double, and had come into the library. She remembered Giles's unselfconscious relief, his rush to hug her when he'd realised that it was really her, and not her skanky twin. The time he'd pulled her out of the staircase at the high school. The time he'd saved her from some ungodly tentacled thing that emerged from the Hellmouth under the library; the time... When was it? She couldn't remember, and felt a flash of anger, though at who or what, she couldn't say. For once in her life, she wasn't thinking too much, overanalysing everything. This was quite simple, really. Jonathan and Andrew. Tara.

Giles searched her eyes as signs of lucidity came and went. "Let me put this in words of one syllable. The forces within you are dark. They're far more powerful than you are, and they're using your grief and anger and power to become stronger. Once they've used up everything you have, you'll die. Willow. You're tired, and soon you'll be exhausted. You have to stop now." Her irises were black pools, and all that he could see in them was his own reflection. "We can make it stop. You can come back from it... Just as I did." Giles repeated the word 'stop' as often as possible in the faint hope that sheer repetition might succeed where more complex arguments failed.

And if you believe that, perhaps you'd be interested in some magic beans. Somewhere underneath the rage and adrenaline and black magick, Willow was terrified, and desperate for someone to help her. What a relief it would be to just give in and let Giles take over. But Tara was dead: nobody and nothing could make that right. Before anything else could happen, the death of the sweetest person Willow had ever known would have to be avenged, and she couldn't do that as long as Giles had her pinned to the floor like something out of a police training video.

Giles shifted his position slightly. The new angle sent fresh spikes of pain through her head, and her face contorted under his hand. The Watcher's expression did something complicated, but not unsympathetic. If he believed there was a chance that she could be trusted not to work a spell the moment he took his hand from her mouth, he would have released her and let her have her say. Willow struggled feebly, trying to favour the wound, but Giles had his priorities, and her comfort wasn't one of them.

"I'm sorry about your head," he said, "but you're not moving." Giles called over his shoulder to Buffy. The Slayer had apparently come onto the shop floor, but she hadn't drawn near enough to be included in Willow's limited field of vision.

"Anya's out cold," she heard Buffy say. "I don't know what you did to her, Will, but she's alive. And so are the rest of us, luckily for you."

Buffy's words stung, but Willow knew she meant them kindly. Well, sort of. Then Buffy and Giles were talking, but their voices were so distant. The fog was closing in again, and Willow knew that she was running out of time to catch up with Jonathan and Andrew. Her back and her head were killing her, and the hand over her mouth was making it hard to breathe, but Giles was immovable. Another surge of anger and resentment surged through Willow, and she focused on the man who was in her way. Hurting her. Again. His methods had taken her by surprise not long ago, and she wasn't going to feel particularly bad about showing him what she had learned from the experience. She began to block out the pain and focused instead on channelling the mystical energies.

"Thanks for coming, Giles," Buffy said quietly.

There was a part of Giles that couldn't help but be pleasantly surprised by Buffy and Anya's reaction to his arrival, but their utter relief at seeing him was troubling, too. They had clung to him like frightened children - the grown-up had come to save them and everything would be all right now - but he had soon realised that this errand of mercy was more likely a suicide mission. The hard floor was hell on his knees, and he wondered how much longer it would be until Willow couldn't hold out any longer, and he could try a different binding spell. He hoped very much that Buffy wouldn't ask how or when he and Willow were going to extricate themselves from their current position, because he had no idea.

Suddenly, Buffy's eyes widened, and just as Giles turned back to Willow, a lightning strike of agony shot through his mind. For a few moments he was blinded by the pain, gasping for breath, and Willow took advantage of that split second when his grip loosened to get her arm and one leg under him, as Buffy had taught her to do when fighting vamps. She heaved with all her strength, and he fell to the side. Willow scrambled to her feet and looked down at him.

"Hey, Giles, how do you like it when your opponent can fight back?"

"Willow..." said Buffy warily. The sickening realisation that her best friend had become an adversary beyond her ability to defeat was sinking in.

Giles ignored the bright comets of light flashing before his eyes and stood up, blinking rapidly. People could become deranged by grief, but this seemed to go far beyond that. "What are you trying to prove, Willow? What's all this really about?"

Willow considered for a moment, not entirely sure of the answer herself. She decided to go with the easiest response, one that would mask any weaknesses, and put some of it back on him. "Payback. For Tara. For my life... for everything. For what you did. Your leaving. And your coming back," she shook her head. "I warned you, Giles. I told you I'd be ready for you - "

"Willow, don't you dare try to blame this on Giles," said Buffy. "This isn't his fault. You've always wanted to do more magick than you should. This has been coming for a long time. He's told you over and - "

"Buffy." Giles' tone was warning. Buffy's anger was a natural response; as much a part of her love and concern for her friend as her semi-hysterical laughter had been a little while ago, but he couldn't allow her - or himself - to fuel Willow's rage any more than they could possibly help.

"Let Giles help you. Let me help you. We love you, Will. We know you don't want to be doing this." Buffy was standing in the training room doorway.

Willow glared at her. "Sleep." Buffy swayed, but caught hold of the doorframe and managed to remain upright.

Giles hit Willow with a mild burst of power; just enough to send her sprawling into a corner, and turned to Buffy, hand outstretched. "Stay awake."

Buffy's eyes cleared, and she nodded. "Awake."

"Buffy, I want you to get on the phone to Ethan Rayne. Tell him I'm calling in the favour he owes. He'll know what I mean. Impress upon him, love, I want him here now."

"Are you sure? The last thing we need is - "

"Just do it. His number's in the wall safe in the training room. Behind the fridge."

"All right. But the phone's out, I already tried it. I'll have to go to a public one," said Buffy. She glanced from Willow, who grinned and shrugged, to Giles, who looked grim. "I don't want to leave you - "

"I'm fine. Just go," he said, not taking his eyes off Willow, and for once Buffy did as she was told.

Self-serving bastard though he was, Ethan had his uses in certain situations, and he'd practically written the book on the abuse of magicks. Giles was confident that the sorcerer would make his life miserable afterwards, but he needed backup, and calling the Council was out of the question. Perhaps together, they could do for Willow what they had failed to do for Randall.

Meanwhile, Willow had been jolted just enough to take her anger to a new level. She passed her hand over the back of her head. At once, the pain subsided, the gash closed, and the lump flattened. Giles was coming towards her again. She had done some research on the Watcher's power assessment spell he'd used on her a few weeks ago, and all the books agreed that as long as the practitioner was careful and skilled, the procedure would be painless, and no harm would come to the subject. But Willow hadn't had the time or inclination to achieve the level of proficiency that Giles had. She was in a hurry, but she could spare a minute or two for this. She wasn't looking for answers, she just wanted to know what he was feeling right now. She really wanted to know how angry he was... how afraid. She wanted to see everything he was so adept at hiding, while the world fell down around him.

She met his level gaze, and reached out with her mind again. There was a rush of triumph and a pang of guilt when he stopped in his tracks, wincing as muttered a counter-spell that blocked the unschooled energies seeking purchase on the most fragile parts of his being.

"Willow, I told you before, I'm here to help you, not to fight. Please. Don't make me really hurt you."

"I don't have time for this, Giles. I have places to go and geeks to kill. But there is something I'd like to do first." She prepared to assault his synapses again, but he sent out a small flash of power that met hers mid-stream, and exploded.

He had to stay on his feet, keep her talking, stall until Ethan arrived. "There's no need for this. If there's something you want to know, ask me and I'll tell you."

How do I end this? The question formed in Willow's mind before she could abort it. She couldn't go there. Keep the anger directed outwards.

"That might take a while. Seems there's an awful lot about you that you've never told us."

"Only for your own protection." Giles' temper was beginning to fray; he spoke slowly and chose his words with care.

"You've done all kinds of things... got all kinds of power," said Willow, stalking around the room. "You proved that right here a few weeks ago. If you hadn't done that, I probably wouldn't even consider you an obstacle, much less a threat... Wouldn't have to be wasting my time on you right now."

Giles' heart was pounding wildly. "How much of a threat I am depends entirely upon you, Willow. Believe me, I can be your best friend, or your worst enemy." She was trying to antagonise him; to goad him into a fight that would give her an excuse to kill him in self-defense. Unless... it was the other way around. Perhaps she wanted to lose.

Willow tried to push into his mind again, harder and faster this time, and was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath from the Watcher. He dropped to his knees, holding both head and breath, waiting for the shooting pains to pass.

Suddenly, Willow was in. She felt a flicker of what he felt. She had fantasised about this moment for weeks, but now that it was actually happening, it was just... nasty. Pain, anger, disappointment, guilt, resentment, grief. Bewilderment. And fear - yes, there it was, keen and sharp. A tinge of panic. That was what she wanted to see. Giles was feeling a lot of the same things she was, but not in the same way. His emotions were grounded in his concern for her and everyone else; hers were quite the opposite.

There were images, too. Most of them made no sense to Willow, but she could make out an occasional face here and there: Buffy, Xander, Anya, Jenny, Tara. Even herself, as she was what seemed like a very long time ago. Demons, covens, forests, pub brawls, condemned houses, ancient libraries. Then, a memory. Ethan, some guys, and a girl. They were panicking as a boy around her age, his features twisted in agony, tore bloody strips from his own skin and screamed at the others to help him. There was no option to look away, so Willow was treated to each and every horrific detail of Randall's first and final encounter with Eyghon, and Giles' last descent into the abuse of dark power.

The aftermath was like a movie on fast-forward. They had tried to clean Randall up as much as possible before returning his body to his parents, but he'd liquefied in their arms. The hasty concoction of an elaborate tangle of lies to explain Randall's death to his parents without telling them that their son had been consumed by a demon. The Watcher's Council and police inquests that followed. The brutal methods that Travers had authorised the special operatives to use in order to wrest a full account of that night from the grief-stricken young Watcher. Throughout it all, the sickening guilt, anger, and remorse that would stay with him always. All because he and Ethan had pressured Randall into something they should have known he wasn't strong enough to withstand. They'd told him not to worry; promised it would be fine; swore they'd be able to help him. They'd failed spectacularly.

Without the magicks anaesthetising her, Willow would have been overwhelmed with pity for what Giles had had to bear for so many years. But over the last couple of days her emotions had shut down to the point where she was now completely numb; feeling nothing but the magicks. Giles was doing this on purpose. Maybe even making it up to seem worse than it really had been, just to teach her a lesson. As much as she wished that were true, she knew only too well that nothing she was seeing would be within his ability to control. At least, she didn't think so. So that was the reason he hardly ever used magick anymore.

Willow crouched beside the Watcher. She put her hand on his shoulder and felt him jump. "You were quite the bad boy back then, Ripper. You have some nerve to lecture me, when you know good and well that you've done a hell of a lot more black magick than I ever have, and you totally got off on it."

Giles didn't reply. He lay curled up, hands over his head, breathing hard. Willow paused, vaguely wondering if she was causing him any real harm by doing this. He appeared to be in a lot of pain, but hey, so was she when he'd done it to her. Her resolve strengthened, and she continued to root around in his mind, looking for anything that might be useful.

She felt the presence of the power Giles was holding. Some of it was borrowed - nobody could generate that much power on their own - but it had a strong foundation in the power he had himself, and in his strength of will. It had to, or he wouldn't be able to control the incredibly strong magicks as well as he was. Willow closed her eyes, let her mind go blank, and the connection to Giles was severed. She saw him relax a little, and he groaned as he slowly let go of his head and moved so that he sat looking up at her. The warmth in his eyes had gone.

Willow conjured a series of small bursts of power. First one. Then another. And another. When he didn't respond in kind, she allowed him a minute to recover and realise what was happening before moving into what she knew he would recognise as a serious spell-casting position. She was fairly confident that if he was pushed hard enough and long enough, Giles would retaliate. She wasn't disappointed.

When Willow' arms stretched out to him, Giles' arm shot out instinctively, loosing a beam of green light that snaked towards Willow at lightning speed. It hit her squarely in the chest and sent her flying over the counter, into the display shelves beyond. She fell to the floor, showered with broken candles and statuary. As she caught her breath, she heard Giles get to his feet.

"Come on, then, Willow. If all you want is a fight, then that's what we'll do."

Giles spoke with a confidence he didn't feel. Now that his hope of a peaceful resolution had faded, the next step would have to involve hurting her just enough to take her out of the game. He was deeply concerned for Willow, of course, but furious too, that she had been selfish enough to land them all in this ludicrous situation. The coven had made Giles ten times more powerful than he had ever been, and he wasn't certain that he'd be able to regulate the bursts of power with the delicacy of touch that would be necessary. He hadn't meant to send Willow all the way through the wall of the training room earlier. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he killed her.

"What are you waiting for? Get up." The tone was menacing, comprised of equal parts genuine anger and pure bluff.

Willow stood up, caught off guard by this change in tactics. "So this is it, huh? A mystical grudge match?"

"Hardly. I'm not doing this just for the sake of a fight, and I hold no grudge against you."

"Well," she sighed. "That makes one of us." She muttered an incantation, and Giles was thrown violently against the wall and held there. Blood streamed from a gash his left temple. Willow moved her hand in a circle and hurled a small sphere of blue energy directly at him. He sent a burst of power back immediately. It collided with hers in a hissing of electricity and travelled back along the same stream to hit him with double the force.

His body absorbed the energy, and he nearly lost consciousness. Willow prepared to throw another, but stopped when she heard footsteps behind her.

"Not very brave, are you, Willow?" Anya stood by the counter. "It's not good form to wreak vengeance on a man while he's down. Let him go, give him a sporting chance. It's more fun that way."

"You're right, Anya. This is your special area of expertise, so... maybe you'd like to help."

"Repulsor. Forget the mojo, Willow. You're not getting me to do you any more favors."

"Oh. Okay, then." Willow thrust out her arm, and a blinding ball of energy hurled Anya into the brick wall at the far end of the training room. She hit the floor and lay still. Willow turned back to Giles, who was coming round.

"Anya does have a point, though. It'll be more fun to see what you can do." She waved her hand, and the energies around Giles dissipated. He fell forward, but landed on his feet. Willow was circling the room. Giles waited until she was in front of a large pile of books, then thrust out his arm.

"Xantior!"

A flash of red, and Willow was hurled into the wall with an almighty thud. She fell onto the pile of books and lay there, stunned. Through a wine-colored haze she could see Giles coming towards her. He'd paralyzed her with some kind of spell. It didn't hurt. It didn't feel like anything. She simply couldn't move. Fuzzily, she wondered how he'd done it - it would be a good spell to know. Giles was standing over her now; head cocked, hands in his pockets. He wasn't smiling.

"Do you still want to see what I can do?"

Silence.

Then a sudden gust of wind scattered the papers on the floor. "Giles? A-are you all right?" Buffy closed the front door behind her. "Is Willow okay?"

Giles nodded, but didn't turn away from Willow. "Did you speak to Ethan?"

"Yeah. He's on his way."

"Ethan Rayne's coming here?" said Willow. "Oh, this should be good."

Buffy came up behind the Watcher. "What's going on?" She glanced at her friend and pursed her lips. "Doesn't look good for you, Will."

"Buffy, Anya's taken a hit. Would you go and see how she is, please. The training room."

Buffy's jaw tightened, and she left without a word. Giles knelt beside Willow and held his left hand above the center of her chest. Like Rack had done. Willow started to panic, but there was absolutely nothing she could do. She was barely in control as it was; the magicks were competing with her body for every ounce of strength she possessed. If Giles upset the knife's-edge balance she was holding... She had to get out of this and get him out of the way. Jonathan and Andrew would be running like hell, but she would find them. She tried a string of incantations that might dissolve the spell, but it held firm. There was a pressure building in her chest, but it didn't hurt.

"Giles..." She tried to get his attention, but he refused to meet her eyes as he pressed his hand to her solar plexus.

Giles' hand was surrounded by crackling streams of purple light. Then it hurt; a searing pain, and Willow screamed. Giles was draining her of the energies. It was like being slowly pulled inside out, and it burned.

It wasn't much easier on Giles. His mystical energies already far exceeded the maximum advisable levels. Taking in even more, especially in the form of black magick, was near suicidal.

Buffy watched open-mouthed from the training room doorway as Willow jerked, gave a ragged, choked-off gasp and stopped breathing. The energy around Giles' hand vanished instantly, as did the binding spell. He'd miscalculated. He grabbed her wrist for a pulse and bent his head to her chest.

"Buffy!" he barked. "Come here!" Buffy was already at his side. "CPR. You breathe, I'll compress. You might press too hard."

Buffy had a glazed look. "Yeah, Giles, you wouldn't want me to hurt her."

Giles had no choice but to let the pointed remark go. Watcher and Slayer worked together for an eternal minute, until Willow's eyes finally fluttered open. They were still flat, obsidian black.

"Will?" Buffy moved to take Willow's hand, but Giles stayed her arm and shook his head. Buffy stared at him. "I can't believe you did that. I mean, I know... but still."

"Neither can I," he murmured. "Willow, I'm sorry."

Her eyes registered no expression. "You will be."

Giles could feel the air starting to prickle and buzz. The hair on his neck and arms was standing up. "Buffy, get back in the training room and stay there, no matter what."

Buffy could feel it too. "I'm not leaving," she said quickly. "We're in this together. That includes you, Will. Come on. This has gone way too far already. I love you both. I couldn't stand to lose either of you. We've been through too much for - "

Willow was conjuring something, but Giles had yet to figure out how or what. He turned the full force of his glare on Buffy.

"Buffy. Love. Go."

The look on his face unsettled her so much that she hesitated only a second before retreating. She had barely reached the relative safety of the back room when there was a terrific bang and Giles was sent skidding into a display case. Willow stood up. She stretched out her arm and muttered something. A ball of crackling orange energy hit Giles, and he was thrown into a cabinet. Again, and he crashed into the table. Again, and he was hurled into the counter. Willow allowed him no time to recover before resuming her attacks. Buffy watched from the back, tears streaming down her face. Everything in her screamed to step in and try to help him, but she knew that strength alone would be useless against Willow's magick. Anya might be able to do something, but she was still unconscious. All that Buffy could do was watch and wait.

The Watcher had relieved Willow of some, but by no means all of her power. She knew he'd always been jealous of it, but she hadn't expected him to actually try to steal it. She was weakening fast now; the relentless assault on Giles had sapped a tremendous amount of her mystical energies, and she still had Jonathan and Andrew to deal with. It was time to wrap this up.

Giles watched as she extended her arm towards him. "Insidior!" he said, thrusting his hand forward. There was a blue flash, and the stream of energy that was poised to leave Willow's arms was turned inward. She spun around, hit the magazine rack, and crashed to the floor. Giles stood up, and was immediately sent reeling back into a cloud of thick green mist that made him gag. The Watcher and the witch matched each other blow for blow for some time, until Giles' knees were buckling, and he could hardly think straight between the exhaustion and the magicks. Through it all, he'd continued to try to talk her out of what she was doing. The only thing that seemed to make any impression was when he had gently enquired as to what Tara would say about all this. Her reaction, as he had anticipated, was to lash out, but Buffy had saved him. Willow almost laughed, it was so predictable. She'd played on Buffy's weakness, and got rid of her by threatening Dawn's life with a mystical fireball.

Giles was absolutely spent, but as the only one who stood any chance of buying the others some time, he had to keep going. He was now fairly certain that his death was inevitable. Willow had him pinned to the ceiling, and amused herself briefly by letting him fall, then slamming him back up again. He hurt all over, but he wished to God he'd taken those keys out of his pocket.

The door-chime tinkled, and Ethan Rayne stood in the doorway. "In a spot of bother are we, Ripper? Getting your arse kicked by a little..." His eyes volleyed from Willow to Giles, twisting in pain on the ceiling, and back again.

"Hey, Ethan! Care to try your luck?" Willow turned.

But Ethan had fled.

Willow's power had almost completely wound down, but her resolve was as strong as ever and she'd never let Giles see that she felt even worse than he did. She'd have to recharge before going after the geeks. She let Giles slam to the floor one last time, and then he was talking again. Didn't he ever shut up?

"Perhaps... you're not as strong... as you think you are," he was gasping. That was funny. She didn't feel very strong at all right now.

He started to pull himself up. "Willow... You need to stop."

Giles watched as a flash of cruel inspiration crossed Willow's features and knew that she'd taken the bait.

"What I need," she said, "is a little pick-me-up."

She was at his side before he could react. Her hand hovered in front of his chest. This was it; one of them really was going to die. There wasn't even time to inwardly apologise to anyone. A shock of energy, the pain exploded, and Giles collapsed onto his back. He fought to remain conscious; to direct Willow's next movements, but he could barely speak, let alone clarify that the answer to stopping her torment did not involve destroying the world. He could only hope that the overdose of white magicks might allow Willow's essential goodness to surface in time. Willow was leaving then, in a whirl of wind and papers. Pain washed over him, stronger than before, and the darkness closed in.

Read the next part: Loose Ends