Complicated
written by Ruth


Rating: FRAO
Spoilers: : Set after S6, very vague spoilers for early S7.
Summary: : Some things in life are complicated, especially if you are Willow. Others aren’t.
Thanks: My wonderful and patient betas Gail and Rari. Special thanks to Gail, for all the (sometimes heated) Willow talks.
Feedback Author: Ruth



An anticipated call isn’t always a pleasant one.

Lurching towards awareness, Rupert Giles hung precariously on the edge of the mattress as he reached for the bedside phone. All he heard at first were someone’s shaky breaths, a hitch in each one.

“Yes? Xander?”

“How d’you know…never mind. Giles…Willow… you gotta come…”

The young man’s voice couldn’t keep up with his distress. Giles kept his own words calm and deliberate, trying to pass reassurance down the line. Reassurance that he wasn’t sure he could give.

“Tell me exactly what has happened. Is Willow still with us?”

“Don’t tell me there’s some freaky telepathy vibe going on with you two since your Bring and Share magic picnic?”

“No, I only…I feared for her.”

There was a pause on the line.

“Then *why*,“ continued Xander through what were clearly gritted teeth,” Why the HELL did you let her come back?”

“Willow was not our prisoner. She came willingly and left the same way. Now, *what happened*?”

“You know she’s been staying with me. On account of there being nowhere else, ‘cause Buffy and Dawn can’t… won’t have her back?”

“So I understood.” Understood, accepted, entirely saw how shattered were the bonds of Buffy and Willow’s friendship, that they might never be mended.

“I thought she was doing okay. When she came back from England she was quiet but…I dunno... free, somehow. Clean slate, back to just Willow. We watched movies and ate corn dogs and…it was like it used to be. Before Buffy, before we knew we’d lived all our lives on a Hellmouth. She was getting ready to go back to College, getting in a few catch up classes. With all the mojo goin’ down, she kinda slipped last year. I went out to work every day and came back to a meal for two. It was like…we had someone of our own again. But I guess I was wrong about Willow’s side of it. Giles…I… you know me. Great with the lame funnies and the mitred corners. Not so much with the sharing and openness. I figured she’d talk when she was ready. Got home today and she was in the bathroom. In the empty bath, damn plug leaks, you’d think I’d have fixed it, some builder I am, oh God…” He was crying openly now, and even through his exasperation at the lack of actual information, Giles’ heart went out to the young man.

“What happened, Xander?” Softly but clearly. Make him spell it out.

“She tried to kill herself. I had some sleeping pills left over from back when... after Anya and I… I know I should’ve flushed them or turned them in, but…I just forgot they were there. Docs said it was touch and go for a while there. She took the lot. It wasn’t some cry for help; it was the real deal, Giles. Exit Only.”

“But she *will* recover?”

“They reckon so. They want to persuade her to get psych treatment but what about all the witch stuff? They’ll think she’s delusional. What if her mom hears about it? Straight to Insanityville, no stops.” Xander’s voice rose again, panicking. “Can’t you do something, use the Council, pull cords?”

“Strings. Perhaps. Look, it’s, hang on, three in the morning here. I need a day, possibly two; stall for time if you need to. Try to be with her when she wakes. Ask her…remind her about the Mind’s Eye. She should know what I mean. Then tell me her answer.”

Something in Giles’ tone made Xander realise that any questions he might have were unlikely to be answered, at least for the time being.

“Mind’s Eye. Got it. Okay.”

“We’ll speak again. Thank you for telling me, and for your care for her, Xander.”

A heavy sigh from Sunnydale told him that Xander thought he hadn’t taken quite enough care. The connection cut. Giles kept the phone off the hook and dialled. There were quite a few places where the distinction between day and night was not one of the fundamentals of life.

* * * * *

Riding again through rain, the Watcher neared the clearing in the greenwood where the House stood, guardian over the mysteries of the coven. It was a rambling, slate roofed, stone built affair. A verandah running round three sides of the ground floor was completely enclosed with the aid of frosted glass, backlit from within in the relative gloom of the rainy day.

Dismounting at the end of the trail, he tethered his horse, letting it graze, then strode purposefully to the front door. It had neither knocker nor bell, but listening ears would have known of his arrival. Sure enough, he heard the soft slap of bare feet on tiled floor as he waited, shaking the rain from his clothes and hair. The door opened inward and he was ushered in to the verandah. There was no need to go further today, to disturb the deep peace of this house. Giles felt quite enough unease of his own, especially when he saw who had come to greet him.

“Rowena.”

“Rupert.” Almost of a height with him, she had carried her small burden out with concentrated care, eyes fixed on it. Dark hair in a thick untidy plait draped over one shoulder, her faded scarlet dress falling off the other, as she greeted him she looked up to meet his gaze calmly. She offered him the silk wrapped box in silence, putting it in his outstretched hands. When he tried to close the distance between him she withdrew subtly. Yet she stayed, searching his face as if wanting to memorise every feature.

“You should go now. You’ll be needed. If I weren’t on greeting duty you wouldn’t have seen me at all. Be well, Rupert.” She stepped forward then and kissed him tenderly on the cheek.

“I wish…” he began, but she stopped him with a wave of one long hand.

“I know. But the time we shared is passed. My place is here: yours is out in the world.” She looked behind her and smiled. “I really have to go inside. Fianna’s having a “Wordsworth” day, that’s a great many lines to decipher. We all have to pitch in.” Giles smiled in sympathy for the afflicted member of the coven, doomed to speak true prophecy in the poetic words of others all her life. Some gifts could better be described as burdens. Others…

“Rowena, thank you. For everything.”

Involuntarily they both looked upward, in the direction of the upstairs room where they had lain together every night for the span of two moons’ waxing and waning. After his second return from Sunnydale, even more, curiously, than the first, his spirit was wounded and the coven had taken him in for healing. He’d met Rowena then, herself newly arrived: young and gentle, quick witted and quicker tongued.

In Sunnydale, once he’d got on his feet again after the wasted year that followed the destruction of the High School, he’d been a solid citizen, respectable, even a little dull. Shy with women, and invariably preoccupied with his duties toward Buffy and whatever threats plagued them all week by week, he hadn’t formed any serious attachments. Here, he had learned again to rest, to relax, to drink dandelion wine and make music; to come out of his shell, and as close as he’d dared in years to falling in love.

Rowena was only a few years older than Buffy and her friends, but she'd never seen him as too old, as out of touch, a Watcher or a shopkeeper and nothing more. Artless and open, she saw only Rupert, a man who loved learning and understood the mystical path she sought to walk. He had spoken to her of all that he knew and all he had seen; she had made his heart glad and his body sing.

At the end of his stay he’d wanted her to come away with him but she felt an obligation to her sisters, and he could hardly argue that she should neglect her calling for his sake, he who had given so much to his own. Now they bade each other farewell again, and this sensation was one he was having all too often of late: sand slipping inexorably through his fingers.

“And thank the sisters for the loan of this. I will bring it back as soon as I can.” Balancing the Mind’s Eye in the crook of one arm, he fished in his pocket for the purse of money he had brought. “For the prosperity of the House.”

The coven depended on the charity of visitors and guests; fostering and focusing their magical talents took time and energy, too much to permit them to take regular jobs. Rowena accepted the gift gracefully and turned to go. Giles stayed until the inner door closed behind her, then let himself out. He took considerable pains not to look back.

The rain had stopped. The horse picked its way carefully along the narrow trail, shying every so often at nothing, sensing perhaps, as animals often can, the power in the precious magical device tucked away in a saddlebag. As they left the woods at last and headed down the steep hill, a rainbow shimmered insubstantially against still heavy clouds.

He needed to make haste now, to exchange the harmony of horse and rider for the altogether more frustrating negotiation between rental car and winding country road on his way back to Bath. A call to Xander to check that they were prepared for his coming; the gathering of books and supplies and small luggage for his stay, and he was ready. By evening he was crossing the Atlantic in a cramped economy class seat, preparing to take on a shared task that depended so much on the other party, on Willow herself. Did she have the strength to endure this trial? He truly did not know. He only knew that it was possibly her only remedy.

* * * * *

The door opened and closed again apparently by itself, but the figure behind the desk didn’t start, nor show any expression beyond brief amusement. A shuffle of someone coming to attention on the plush carpet deepened the amusement.

“Four eight nine five Shadow Agent Marcie Ross, sir. I’m here as you ordered.”

“I’d like to think of it as a polite invitation, Marcie. Drink?”

This job was full of incidental fun, besides all the Government-sponsored chaos it happily promoted all over the country. Watching the glass tip repeatedly and the whiskey vanish into thin air, the Director reflected on how many of these ‘shadows’ ended up with a drinking problem sooner or later. Thankfully, it was not his concern.

“Now, I’ve asked for you in particular because I know you come from Sunnydale.”

The glass hovered for a moment and was set down heavily on the corner of the desk.

“I’m listening, sir.”

“You know what I…what *we* are trying to accomplish through this department?”

“Magic, sir. You want to harness it, control it. Stop rogue elements opposed to our free and democratic way of life.”

There was a cynical edge to her last statement that pleased him. Just as long as she fulfilled the mission - his way.

“You grew up in Sunnydale. You must have noticed a number of…unusual occurrences. The place attracts mystical energy, amplifies it. There were reports a few months ago of some quite extraordinarily strong and dark magic being channelled. Before we could send an agent, the activity dissipated. But we did find out who was at the centre of it, and she’s recently returned home. I believe you actually went to school with her. Willow Rosenberg?”

“No, sir. Can’t say I remember her. Can’t say I recall *anyone* from High School.”

Bitter. Understandable in the circumstances. Well, what matter a little freelance motivation: sometimes the pure streams of duty just weren’t enough. Muddied waters were so much more fertile.

“There’s a photograph and details of her last known address in here.”

He held out a thin folder and it was plucked into the air. “Keep me posted. I have a… personal interest in this case.”

[Now why would that be?] Marcie wondered as she left the spacious and well appointed office. [He’s not from Sunnydale, that’s for sure. He’s not even an American]

* * * * *

“He should have let me die, Giles.” Willow looked stonily down at her hands, tracing the mark left by the IV needle in her left one with a thin finger. It wasn’t the first time she had voiced the sentiment.

“And I am very glad that he did not.” Giles was repeating himself too.

They were sitting on plastic chairs in a side room of the ER recovery suite of Sunnydale General. Despite the fact that Xander had told him she wanted him there, Giles noticed that she had seemed more distressed then pleased when he arrived, and they had been having this circular conversation ever since.

“It was *my life*. He had no right. Who would have missed me anyway?”

“He had rights as your friend. And whatever you now feel, the *world* would have missed you. We are all here for a good reason; all have value. You cannot decide otherwise even for yourself.”

It hurt his heart to be so stern, but there would otherwise be no end to this fruitless argument.

“I *thought* you came to help. Why are you being so mean to me?”

“Willow, if you truly want my help you know I will do all I can. What I refuse to do is to agree with you when I think you are profoundly wrong, when I see you trying once more to take the easy way out.”

She looked at him aghast. “Easy? Swallowing a dozen pills and going to hell is *easy* in your book?”

“Giving up is easier, by and large, than the alternative.” He looked steadily at her, refusing to flinch or break eye contact as she glared. Finally she conceded, bowing her head again and muttering:

“So what’s the alternative?”

Giles shifted in his chair, trying to stretch out the kinks in joints and muscles and clear the fog of exhaustion from his brain.

“Xander told you I would bring the Mind’s Eye.”

“Yeah. I was… kinda out of it most of yesterday, though. I remembered it was at the coven, and that weird poetry woman said something about seeing ourselves. One of the other sisters said it’s used for insight. For change. I want to change, Giles, right now, before it’s too late. Will it show me where I went wrong, make me different? ‘Cause I *so* don’t want to be me anymore. I’d rather… I’d rather not be at all.”

Giles sighed. Her desperation was genuine but she was still far from true understanding.

“Oh wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us,” he intoned quietly in a flawless Scots brogue. “Robert Burns.”

Willow frowned. “ Yeah, that was it. It sounds …scary when you hear it properly.”

“In a way, so it should. It will not be a matter of a quick fix this time, Willow. Magic cannot change the essence of who you are. The Mind’s Eye will show you how you have been seen and affected by significant people throughout your life, and you must understand that these will be amongst the most painful, but valuable, lessons you have ever learned.”

“*More* pain? What, I haven’t suffered enough? I messed up so bad and I’m such a bad person that I lose all the things that made life worth living, and the universe wants to punish me some more? God, Giles, I swear you are some kind of masochist: you think only things that hurt are any good!” She jumped unsteadily to her feet, and was about to run from the room when his voice stopped her.

“Willow!”

She quailed at the sudden snap of anger in his voice, even though he had scarcely raised it.

“Stop and sit down. I am extremely tired and my temper is short, and shouting at a patient would no doubt be frowned on in here.” He took a deep breath and continued more gently. “This is not about punishment. But it is a journey with no shortcuts, no sailing boats on clear waters. The path is very difficult. You need a companion who has travelled it before you.”

“What do you mean?”

Giles took off his glasses and folded them loosely in one hand, rubbing the bridge of his nose; the action had always seemed to Willow to make him seem oddly vulnerable.

“Years ago, after Eyghon, before I could be accepted back into the fold by the Council, they required me to go on retreat and to use the Mind’s Eye with the help of an older Watcher who had in his time done the same. I believe it was after the death of his Slayer: a death he had inadvertently caused.”

“That must have been harsh.” She’d seen how hard Giles had taken Buffy’s death, even though she had actively chosen to meet it, and he had tried his very best to save her.

“Quite. The point is, unless you are prepared to do this without preconceptions, in the right spirit, it won’t do its work and we would both be wasting our time and this opportunity. It isn’t one to be scorned. The use of the Mind’s Eye is rarely granted.”

His companion was silent for the longest time.

“Okay. What would I …we do?”

“We would spend a period, a week or a few weeks, in partial retreat. You would attend University classes as you would normally, but all your free time, studies aside, you would spend with me. There are certain conditions you should be aware of. In this situation the roles of traveller and guide, student and teacher if you will, are specifically prescribed. Simplicity in living and working are enjoined. Food preparation, cleaning, washing are all done by hand, and it is considered fitting that the student perform those tasks.”

Willow’s face was the picture of outrage. Giles stifled a grin.

“I promise I won’t make you wear the little white apron.”

There. She had very nearly smiled.

“The guide is expected in his or her turn to put *all* their life experience and knowledge at the traveller’s disposal, no matter how personal.”

His deep discomfort at the prospect was obvious, and she began to feel the first stirrings for a long time of real gratitude. It had been hard to receive care even from Xander, because she had so doubted that she deserved it. That Giles, such a reserved and private man, might do this for her, even after everything she had done, gave her some reason to hope that she might have a future after all. But…

“How can you forgive me, Giles? How can you ever trust me again after what I did to you? To everyone? What I tried to do?”

He reached out and took one of her hands in his.

“Tell me Willow, how does one forgive?”

“I…I suppose most people try to see…why it happened, if there’s a good reason, whether the other person really meant it…” The unspoken plea moved him, but at the same time it concerned him. He looked straight into her eyes, speaking kindly but firmly.

“I think, before we move on to forgiveness and trust, we’ll start with honesty, shall we?”

He thought for a moment he had miscalculated. She stared at him for a few seconds, gasped once, snatched her hand away and dissolved into sobs, face crumpled, fists beating on her knees, her sides, her head as she rocked and keened.

Hesitantly he tried to comfort her, to put a hand on her shoulder or her hair, but she beat him off with feeble slaps.

“Don’t… *don’t*. You know, Giles. You *know*…”

He did, but it was from long experience rather than any sudden inspiration. He waited out the storm, sitting forward in his chair to speak softly when at last she calmed somewhat and raised her head, and he could see her face, sheet white and stricken.

“Tell me. You need to hear yourself say it, Willow.”

“The… things I said… what I felt… about Buffy and Dawn and… and you. They… I… Oh God, Giles, I *meant* them. The magics didn’t create them. They just let me set them free. I’ve got all that poison, all those angry and mean feelings inside. I’ve had them for so long. The power was gone but the badness was still there. I was trying to get away from it… from myself, and the only way to do that was…” She looked away towards the bustling ER where the doctors had battled for hours to bring her back from the brink.

“I forgive you, Willow.”

The words were quiet and for a second she thought she must have imagined them, but he nodded in response to the question in her eyes when she turned back to him.

“Didn’t you hear what I said? I hurt you, almost killed you and I meant to. I can’t ever undo that.”

“No you can’t. Nor can I. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen, make excuses for you. That’s not forgiveness. But I can choose to forgive you, and I do.”

“Just like that? “I forgive you”? It can’t be that simple.”

“Yes. Yes, it can. It is. Trust, on the other hand… trust has to be rebuilt.”

Willow’s eyes filled with fat tears that spilled down her cheeks and into her mouth as she breathed her dead lover’s name.

“Tara. Tara said the same thing. Before she d-…the night she came back to me. That’s what she said: ‘trust has to be built again’.”

“Tara was a very wise and good person.”

Giles got to his feet and helped Willow back to her room. She leant on his arm and he had to stoop to hear her whisper as they walked:

“So are you.”

* * * * *

Two days later they met at Xander’s apartment.

“Xander’s still not too sure about this, Giles. But he trusts you: he said you’d do a better job than he did. I tried to tell him it wasn’t his fault, that I should have talked to him. I guess I didn’t want to lose him too.”

She was rummaging through drawers, throwing a few clothes into a bag. The minimum necessary, Giles had said. Simplicity. Enough to be presentable at classes but not so much that she would be forever washing. She squinted at a label.

“Dry clean only. Nope.”

So much for her favourite dress. She’d end up looking like that guy in her Astronomy class: frayed jeans and three identical cheesecloth shirts. Or was it the same one? Giles was sitting patiently on the couch beside his own small carryall, wearing comfortable jeans and a dark blue sweatshirt emblazoned with a crest and the words “OXFORD UNIVERSITY”. A joke present she’d had her mom bring back from a trip to a conference there, back in that other life. Mrs Rosenberg hadn’t questioned why she wanted one in a man’s size, but it had duly appeared and been presented amid much merriment. Willow could remember Buffy’s teasing about showing off; Xander’s joke about how he would at least now know how to *spell* ‘university’ while Giles was around; Anya’s opinion that it might help Giles attract easily impressed UC Sunnydale students; his horrified face. And she and Tara had laughed with the rest and made tea for everyone…

“I saw Buffy today.”

Willow stopped suddenly and tensed.

“She came to visit you in hospital. Before you woke. Dawn went with her. They’re both glad you’re all right.”

She let out the breath she’d been holding and sat down on the floor, twisting a pink t-shirt in her hands.

“It’s never going to be like it was, is it Giles?”

“No. Not the same; but not necessarily worse for all that. It depends on you. All of you.”

“Trust has to be rebuilt.” Willow repeated Tara’s words again like a mantra.

“Indeed. Shall we be on our way?”

She stuffed the t-shirt in and zipped her bag.

“I can take my laptop, you said. For assignments only, I know.”

She went over to the shelf where it had been kept since she’d moved here and stopped. No sign.

“Now where…hey!”

She spied it on the breakfast bar, open and switched on. Checking the battery status she saw that it had not been left on all day, - not that she would have been so careless with it. Xander hardly touched a computer and anyway he had left before she had that morning. Looking carefully around her everything else seemed totally normal. Strange. Gathering the laptop under one arm she followed Giles out from the apartment and locked the door securely behind her.

A skeleton key rose silently from behind the couch and floated slowly towards the door.

* * * * *

“She’s going away, sir. Not alone. There’s a man with her.”

“Not according to the reports *I’ve* heard.”

“Sir?”

“Never mind. Description, destination, possible negative impact on mission?”

The Director trotted this out with his usual bored irony and Marcie wondered again where the ‘interest’ lay in this for him. Maybe it was a British thing.

“Destination unknown at present, but they were planning at least three overnights I’d say. I followed as soon as I could consistent with security but they left in a car, sir. Subject’s companion was male, approximately six feet tall, 180 pounds, mid to late forties, casual dress, glasses. Oh, and British, sir, like you. Subject referred to him as “Giles”.“

There was a low chuckle on the other end of the line.

“Well, well, well. We may have just hit the jackpot. Can you trace them?”

“Sir, I mailed a schedule of her classes for pickup from my base of operations. As long as she keeps to that I’ll keep tabs on her. No reason to suppose she won’t. Classes recommence tomorrow. Is this ‘Giles’ part of the picture now?”

“I think I can safely say he’s *always* in the frame, my dear.”

“So what’s the deal then, sir? You know this guy?”

* * * * *

“Well, it’s um…er…I can’t think of anything positive right now, Giles: help me out here.”

The rented room contained little more than the space it encompassed. In one corner was a wooden table with two chairs. Apart from a mattress with rolled up sleeping bag against two of the walls, there was no other furniture.

“Bare necessities only. There is a small kitchen here, and a shower and toilet over here. “ Giles opened the respective doors to demonstrate. “Perfectly adequate. The cottage on the North York Moors that we used in the 70s had an outside lavatory and we got all our water from a well. I cooked on the open fire.”

“How did you bathe?”

Giles shrugged and looked a bit shamefaced.

“Well, um, apart from the absolute basics, we, er, we didn’t. You know, just two chaps together, don’t tend to bother with that sort of thing.”

Willow wrinkled her nose delicately and was heard to mutter under her breath, “Eww, *men*”, and a little more loudly, “guess I should be glad we’re not still in England.”

“Or in the backwoods of Virginia.” responded Giles pointedly, national pride slightly stung by the implication. “Don’t worry, I’ll preserve proper standards of personal hygiene this time. Also “- he could see her eyeing the sleeping arrangements doubtfully - “I promise not to walk around in a state of undress and so far as I know I do not snore.”

A tiny smile came to Willow’s lips then was gone. She went to dump her carryall at the foot of one of the mattresses and began to shake and lay out the sleeping bag.

“This looks familiar,” she remarked, as Giles did the same on his side of the room.

“It belongs to Buffy. I borrowed both of these. Everything else was here, anything superfluous is stored.”

Willow turned abruptly and sat down heavily. Then she jumped up again and paced fretfully.

“Did she…when you talked to Buffy, what did she say? About me, about us? Is there any chance she’ll ever forgive me?”

They stood facing each other, knowing that if this above all was not resolved, then Sunnydale might no longer truly be home to Willow.

“I believe that she very much wants to forgive you. But for her sake and especially for Dawn’s, she needs to see that you will act differently, that you will see things… yourself… in a different way. I, I suppose I’m talking in a very old fashioned way, about, well, repentance.”

“Giles I’m *sorry*.I really am. I said it and I mean it. Really I do.”

Giles thrust his hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders. Then he shook his head and looked at her over the tops of his glasses.

“Willow, just as forgiveness is not forgetting or excusing, repentance is not about words or even feelings, however sincere. Sackcloth and ashes are all very well…”

“Yeah. I remember from Sabbath school. ‘What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God’. Not the burnt offerings, even if they start out as cookies. ‘Cept I don’t think I believe in God any more, not in that sense.”

“So how do your Wiccan beliefs inform you?”

Willow shrugged apologetically and rubbed her hands together.

“Um, that was…kinda T-Tara’s thing more than mine. I was more on the “doing” than the “being”, if you know what I mean.”

Giles nodded as if this only confirmed what he had already surmised.

“But, but *totally* open to it, willing to…go along with…” Her voice trailed off. Start with honesty. She took a deep breath.

“It all seemed so great in theory. Reverence the earth and balance the forces, celebrate your womanhood and sisterhood, and yeah, not forgetting the brothers ‘cause diversity’s all good, but…there seemed to be so much about what you shouldn’t do, not about what you *could*…” She waited for Giles to say something but he only listened, a lift of his eyebrows indicating that she should go on, as if he knew there was more, that this was the root of it now.

“I wanted the power. The power and the knowledge. I wanted to see how far I could go, how fast. I figured it’d be like school. All I had to do was study and work and I’d be top of the class. Only this time…it might actually get me some respect.”

Her final words were sourer than she’d meant them to be, and Giles looked sad. It was hard to tell how much was sympathy and how much reproach. Willow wrapped both arms around herself, hugging tightly, comforting and crushing, face screwed up miserably.

“You weren’t kidding about the pain, were you Giles?” She said in a small voice, her eyes haunted by the raw truth.

“Willow, get my books from the car would you, please?”

She searched his face to see if he was angry with her but read only resolve, a calm determination to face with her all that had to be faced.

The box of books was large and heavy and she was grateful the apartment was only one floor up. Giles had found somewhere over a boarded up shop on the outskirts of town, close enough to the campus for Willow to get there everyday, but where they would not be disturbed by the idly curious.

“Is that everything?” she asked as she hefted the box onto the table.

“There is this.”

From among his belongings, Giles took out the wooden box wrapped in saffron coloured silk that contained the Mind’s Eye. Willow took a step back, bumping her hip against a chair and stumbled.

“I…I don’t know if I’m ready.”

Giles looked with respect and his own apprehension at the object whose power he could feel even as he held it.

“That makes two of us. In any case we don’t use this yet. First we prepare the space.”

He hung an intricately carved jasper pendant over the door lintel, to guard against malevolent spirits, and a fluorite cluster like a miniature iceberg from the exact centre of the ceiling to promote clarity of vision. Lighting a single small candle, he extracted a slim volume from the collection of books and found the place. The blessing and invocation began in a language Willow didn’t recognise, continued in Latin and then in what she knew to be Hebrew.

“Show us truth, grant us wisdom and light
From our ancestors physical and spiritual
By our guides without and within
Upon our paths straight and crooked
Out of our beginning seen, towards our end unseen.”


He finished the ritual in the common tongue and motioned with his hands for her to be silent but to come to the light. Sitting cross legged facing each other, the burning candle between, they sat quiet until the wick at last extinguished itself in the puddle of molten wax.

Still with the afterimage of the flame before her eyes, Willow blinked and started slightly. It was dark outside now, dim inside, with only streetlights to cast shadows in corners through the uncurtained windows.

“Is… is now the right time?” she asked timidly. The contemplative mood was abruptly broken by an audible gurgle from Giles’ stomach. He looked chagrined.

“Pardon me. It seems one of my inner guides is leading us towards supper.”

He made no move, only looked at her expectantly, and Willow remembered that this would be her job. As would all the others.

“See what you can make from what’s in the kitchen. Tomorrow after your classes, we will see.”

* * * * *

“It was strange,” mused Willow as she finished drying the dishes. “I felt like I was being watched.”

Giles looked up from the only extant copy of Culpeper’s “Herbal Signatures Disprov’d with Sundry Exemplars” and cocked his head enquiringly as she came back into the living room.

“I know, I know. Guilty conscience. I nearly sent them into oblivion so I think they’re all staring at me thinking pitchforks and ducking stools.”

“When in fact none of them know anything of what really occurred. Anya and I were picking through the wreckage of the shop and quite a few former customers came to see the ‘earthquake damage’. They didn’t even think to notice that the neighbouring premises were untouched.” He shook his head in renewed wonderment at the strength of Sunnydale’s determination not to see what was right in front of it.

“Anya. Yet another one in the long list of people who’ll never speak to me again. God, I’m so sorry Giles. You worked so hard on that shop, put so much of your money and your life into it, and I tore it all to bits.”

“Neither Anya nor I will starve; we were fully insured, and she has a new set of priorities in her life now. Besides, I seem to recall that several of those piles of debris have my name on them.” Giles remarked mildly.

He turned another page of the book, seeming to read but in reality waiting on her, knowing that all the protocols of this ritual required that the student seek to be taught, that the traveller set the first foot on the road. The Mind’s Eye sat in the dead centre of the floor on top of its box, where he had put it, carefully avoiding skin contact, after Willow had gone to her classes that morning, The second she had come in the door she had looked straight at it, and sneaked surreptitious glances its way all through their meal, as if afraid it would move of its own accord or call her name. Now she approached it calmly and knelt on the floor beside it, assessing it as it, perhaps, was assessing her. Giles put down his book very quietly and went over to join her, asking without words if this were the time. She nodded quickly and reached out her hand to touch it.

A split second of absolute terror, the sensation of Giles’ hand closing over the top of hers as it seemed to sink into a spongy surface, and she plunged headlong into the first vision.

* * * * *

“There was this burst of bright light, it shot up towards the ceiling where something was hanging, then back down again and they were both…it looked like they were being lit up from inside, sir. Spooky.”

“Did you see the source of the light?”

“It was a …device of some kind, on the floor. They both touched it, and then the lightshow. It looked like a sculpture, about eight inches round and four high, abstract, as if you had dropped something liquid and frozen the splash. It seemed to change colour all the time, though that might have been a trick of the light. Mostly it was pale blue. It was on a wooden box, on a yellow cloth.”

Marcie could actually hear the Director straighten in his chair and sensed his shift from mild interest to intense concentration.

“Very well done, Marcie,” he said in a near whisper. “Now you’re quite sure you can’t get in there?”

“No sir, all the windows and the door are locked *and* bolted from the inside. Mr. Giles hasn’t gone out at all as far as I could see.”

The Director was thinking. She waited.

“Rupert Giles is a very dangerous man. He knows nearly as much about the magical arts as I do. We’ve crossed paths, and swords, time and again. So far I’ve managed to outmanoeuvre him. But if he gets all of Miss Rosenberg’s power, and that must be his plan, there’ll be no stopping him. You have to get that device. Keep watch on the place, take whatever chance you get. But get it away from him and safely back to me, as soon as you can.”

“Yes, sir.”

The man Giles had seemed very ordinary to Marcie. Her doubts must have been obvious from her tone, because the Director added:

“I’ve seen him raise demons and exorcise them, seen him high as a kite on magic and power, and kill a friend who trusted him”. All true. Once upon a time. “You can’t trust only what you see, Marcie. You should know that.”

Ethan Rayne replaced the handset gently in its cradle. He allowed himself a small smile, then a broader one. Dancing round the room would offend against the dignity of his position so carefully won. But…the *Mind’s Eye*. No wonder Rupert locked himself away with it. He must care a great deal for the little witch to share that ritual with her. With any luck that caring would be the weak link he could exploit. When he’d learned that Giles was back in Sunnydale again and in contact with Willow, it had merely been another opportunity to disrupt Giles’ equilibrium en route to the more serious objective of finding out how the student dabbler that he remembered had become so powerful. Now…

[Once I get my hands on it – not literally of course, that would be exceptionally stupid and bad for my mental health- Chaos my Master, what offerings I shall bring you]

He did a little dance round the room.

* * * * *

They were in a brightly lit, antiseptic corridor in a modern facility. White coated lab assistants passed them without a glance and they noticed no sound from their own footfalls. They went through a double set of security doors without challenge and into a laboratory full of busy activity.

A group of scientists, cartoonishly bespectacled bald little men and uptight nervy women, watched the antics of a huge cage full of white mice as they scrambled over each other to find food and mate, as they made their nests and undertook the various obstacle courses and intelligence tests designed for them.

Another figure rushed into the room, red gold hair dishevelled and white coat unbuttoned. As one, every eye in the room turned disapprovingly on her and she hastened to put down the small cage she carried, its lone occupant nosing expectantly at the bars, squeaking.

[It’s my Mom] Willow’s voice sounded to her own ears as if it came through water, and she knew she was speaking aloud in the real world. The Giles of her vision shook his head and, finger pressed to his lips, warned her only to listen and observe.

The scientists continued to work, comparing notes and negotiating amongst themselves, jostling for position at the most favoured spots, passing their findings to subordinates who scurried from the lab with the papers and returned bringing untidy wads of dollar bills and ludicrously large medals to hang round winners’ necks.

Mrs. Rosenberg tried valiantly to join in, keeping her head above water as she found allies and enjoyed small triumphs. In the cage by the door, meanwhile, the solitary mouse negotiated its habitat with intelligence and persistence, cheeping now and then for attention from its distracted owner. From time to time she would turn to feed and play with it, admiring its skills, only to find that her place in the crowd had been filled and she had to begin anew. Attempts to cite evidence from her lone subject brought a chorus of scepticism, a reminder that the group was all, that it was statistically unsound and intellectually untenable to believe that the behaviour of an individual was any different from the rest. Several of the men and a few of the women snickered at the sentimentality, indeed the selfishness, of wasting time on one when so much more good could be done for science and humanity by proper study of the whole. She tried to question the ethics of some of what they were doing and was informed loftily that she must trust that the end result would be well worth any temporary suffering. Their work was of fundamental importance in the goal of a better society. Mrs. Rosenberg hastened to agree.

The little mouse soon ceased its squeaking and curled up in a corner of its cage by itself.

* * * * *

Flung back to awareness, Willow felt Giles’ hand lift from hers and she grasped it, holding on to ease the sense of dislocation. Both were breathing hard as if they’d been running, swaying with the after effects of the power of the Mind’s Eye.

She stared at him, horrified. Instinctively they shifted back, away from the device.

“Is that…is that really how my Mom sees me? Just an experimental subject? God…”

Giles gently took his hand away and spoke out of long and hard experience.

“You misunderstand. Magic never gives you the plain truth, the whole truth, because the truth is very seldom plain and whole. It’s complicated and messy and has to be wrestled with and lived with until you can bear it.”

“What if I can’t?” If this was only the beginning, she was starting to despair.

“There isn’t really a choice, Willow. You will find you have strengths of which you do not know. When you are ready?”

Willow realised both that her mouth was dry and that she wasn’t ready yet.

“Can we…maybe have some tea first?”

Giles was doing some of his own dealing with the implications of what they’d been shown.

“That would be most welcome.”

He watched as she made the tea, measuring out each level spoonful, timing the brew to exactly three minutes by the clock, concentrating on not spilling the milk, checking and rechecking.

[Two mugs, two spoons, four sugar cubes, one tray, check. Extra milk just in case, check. Tea still hot, check. Take the tray out, ch-]

“Ow!” She turned awkwardly, twisting one ankle round the other, and the tray flew out of her hands. Tea splashed out in a messy arc across the kitchen doorway and the mugs dashed themselves against the open door. Willow landed on her hands and knees, crunching wet sugar into the carpet. Her look of horror was out of all proportion, as was the storm of weeping and the anguish on her face as she pleaded with him.

“Giles, what is *wrong* with me? I mess up everything I touch! I try and try and the harder I try the more it goes wrong, and why can’t I get something *right* for once?”

He did the only thing he could think of in the circumstances: mere words were clearly not going to make any impression. He helped her up from the floor and drew her gingerly, by stages, into his embrace, holding her close, stroking her hair, rocking and shushing her as if she were a crying infant.

Not that she was a child. She was pressed so hard against him that he could discern every slender line and curve, and he suddenly became acutely aware of the danger of comfort becoming something else: something verging on inappropriate. He eased himself away tactfully once she had calmed a little, helped her pick up the bits and together they made fresh tea. At her protest that this would spoil the ritual, he reassured her:

“So long as we preserve the spirit, there is room for some latitude in observing the letter of the law here. In any case I’m hardly going to go without my tea while you’re out all day, am I?”

They sat side by side on Willow’s mattress and she began to talk. Of how her parents never seemed to want to hear unless things were going well for her, of how they were so earnest about making a better world and so dismissive of her concerns about living in this one. Of how, according to them, everything could be dealt with if only you looked at it rationally and calmly, if you had all the facts.

“And it sounded so good. I wanted it to be like that. Thinking, learning, analysing, managing, that was the way to go, I could do that. But feelings: they were so huge, so frightening. I wanted sometimes to scream and beat my head on the floor and howl, but what good would it have done? It just wasn’t how we Rosenbergs did things.”

“Willow, if you don’t mind my asking, were… are your parents happy, do you think? Together?”

“Sure. I, I mean they never fought, hardly said a cross word…hardly said any words.” She contemplated the far wall and sighed. “No. They weren’t happy, not really. They ran out of things to say to each other so they just stopped. I guess they spent a lot of time trying to sort out everyone else’s problems so they wouldn’t have time to see their own. Or mine. My parents aren’t actually too good with people. I used to dread parent teacher night because my Dad would almost always say something clueless and my Mom would get on her soapbox to some poor teacher. I wanted them to be proud I was doing well in school, but I wanted them to stay at home as well. It was the same when the Triple Threat came to visit.”

“Triple Threat?”

“My Dad’s sisters. All unmarried and all thinking that their baby brother ‘married out’ and betrayed his heritage. I mean it’s not like Mom’s a Gentile, but she wasn’t Orthodox and didn’t keep a kosher house, and whatever she did do, she was doing it wrong according to them. Me especially. She’d get me to read to them or play the piano but they were always criticising. Like a great big black wave of disapproval. With wigs. And moustaches.”

Giles snorted in amusement and Willow laughed too, before becoming serious again.

“Do you ever get over your family, Giles? Or does it predestine everything you’ll ever do or be?”

“I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask. Predestination is an occupational hazard in a Watcher family. But on the more general question, my answer would be ‘yes’. And ‘no’.”

“ Oh, *enough* of the cryptic, already!” Her tone had an edge to it and he looked sideways at her, surprised.

“Sorry. It’s just that everyone does it. Yes and no. It is and it isn’t. On the one hand, on the other hand. Why can’t I get a straight answer for once?”

“Lesson the first, I suspect. Do you want a straight answer even if it’s the wrong one?”

“Then what?”

“Let me show you.” He led her back to the Mind’s Eye; once they had seated themselves he stretched out his hand to it and indicated that she should put hers on top as he touched the surface.

* * * * *

Books. Wall to wall on shelves, piled on chairs and tables, visible in the top of open boxes, they laid complete claim to the tall narrow room, its floor of worn oak boards, the ceiling studded with carved bosses that seemed to anchor the intricate weaving of raised plasterwork which covered it. Books lay scattered on top, around and inside, even wedged between the bars of the large cage in the middle of the room.

[Again with the cage metaphor] mused Willow as she watched the two figures within it, one a model of frantic activity, the other guarded and still.

A tall man in a tweed suit paced urgently up and down, alternatively rattling the bars and shouting to be let out, then shaking his head furiously and raking his hand through his receding hair. The gesture was so familiar that the clear family resemblance to Giles was almost unnecessary.

In any case, there he was, a gangly boy in short trousers squeezed against the bars in one corner, intently studying a huge leather bound volume. A pile of books taller than he was teetered precariously at his side. As he read, he traced the lines with one finger, looking up anxiously now and then at his father, whose behaviour was becoming more and more erratic. By turns, he would rail at his son, accuse him of not realising the seriousness of their calling, plead with him to understand how much pain his father was in, say how proud he was of the boy’s achievements and apologise for bringing him into the world at all.

Each outburst seemed to drive the young Giles further into his shell, his hands trembling as he turned the pages, his wide eyes mutely begging his father to stop. But there was no let up, until finally the man crumpled, dropping to the floor of the cage and sobbing incoherently. His son panicked, going to the cage door, shouting for help until a group of identikit grave faced men came to take their fallen comrade.

As he was led away, he gave his son a last look of profound sorrow and regret, and locked the cage behind him. As the door banged shut the pile of books in the corner tumbled to the floor, right on the spot where the boy had been sitting.

* * * * *

As they recovered from the journey once more, Willow looked into Giles’ face and saw a fading echo of the fear of his younger self before he covered it hastily, looking away and clearing his throat.

“These are all about the metaphor right? I mean none of that really happened cause your Dad didn’t go mad and lock you in a cage and I was never in one, not to mention not being a mouse and what’s with you being a real person in *your* vision when I have to eat cheese?”

It might have been the old Willow rabbiting on, but for the undertone of resentment in her last question. Giles decided to tackle that one first.

“Willow, the Mind’s Eye will show you how you have experienced life as well as how others have seen you. It feeds on your own memories and feelings. It makes no judgements about you except those that you have made yourself. You were a mouse because in some fashion you believe yourself to be so; I am a youth trying to make sense of mysteries I can never hope to fully understand. So much knowledge will always be outside my reach. As for my calling, well…”

Willow thought of the cage, of the boy whose father was taken away.

“I never realised.” Empathy for him stirred within her: she put a hand on his shoulder and he smiled gratefully.

“Making due allowance for the extremely florid interpretation put on it by the vision, of course.” He tried to shake off the maudlin mood with a quip but she wouldn’t let it pass.

“*Giles*. Honesty, remember? I know you don’t like to talk about feelings but if I have to bare my soul I reckon you’re supposed to as well.”

He took a deep breath and took off his glasses, fully aware of the symbolism of casting off his armour.

“The calling of Watcher is in many ways akin to that of the Slayer. We are required to defend the world against the forces of darkness: our weapons are knowledge and experience and wisdom passed down through the generations, just as hers are preternatural strength and skill. I was born a Watcher and will be one until the day I die, whether I remain with Buffy or not. There is no escape and no time off for good conduct.”

“I guess that explains why those Council guys were so cranky.”

He laughed softly.

“We all have our own ways of dealing with such a responsibility. Some choose a rigid adherence to tradition, others become so flexible they lose sight of the goal. Some are cold and ruthless, some romanticise the battle, some drink too much…” he gave an apologetic shrug at the last one.

“And some” guessed Willow “break under the strain.”

“Yes.”

“Your Dad?”

Giles got to his feet and paced as he spoke in a quiet voice. He had never told Buffy about this, never told any from among the group. It felt even now like a betrayal of his father’s memory, but he steeled himself. He had gone into this willingly and needs must go where the Mind’s Eye led them.

“My father was a dedicated and caring man, but not strong either in health or nerves. He never had a Slayer himself: the Council had at least that much sense. He was involved in research into prophecies, particularly into ways to confound or turn them aside through use of the magical arts, in which he had considerable skill. When I was thirteen my mother died suddenly.” He paused, immersed for a moment in the memory.

“It must have been awful, for you both. Did she…was it a vampire?” asked Willow tentatively.

“No. She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. My father found her. I was…away at school. He, he took it badly;” Giles made an impatient sound, “as if you can take anything like that well. He immersed himself in his work, taking every triumph and every reversal personally. He worked alone much of the time, I didn’t see him often and I didn’t know what to say when I did. I missed her *so much*, but he couldn’t bear to speak of her. There was…a crisis. Several things went badly wrong in succession. We lost four Slayers and three Watchers inside six weeks.”

“Was it really his fault?”

“At the time, he thought so. So unfortunately did the Council. He was reprimanded; not long after he had a nervous collapse. I was at home for the holidays by then, I had to cope with it all and it terrified me to see him so out of control, so helpless.”

“Did he ever recover? Did they make him go back? Giles he didn’t….did he?” It horrified her to think that he had once rushed to another suicide, this time too late.

“No, he died eight years ago of entirely natural causes. Eventually he came home, took up light duties at the Council Library, took his medication and survived. Things were never the same though. He saw those girls and their deaths in his dreams for the rest of his life.”

“You’re not like him, Giles. You’re one of the strongest people I know.”

“Thank you. I am also, I have been informed by a great many people, stuffy, unfeeling, ‘British’ and emotionally constipated,” he recited dryly.

“I never said any of those! Well, maybe some… but…it’s how you cope, right? So you don’t end up like your Dad?”

“In a difficult situation we must make the best compromise we can. But we must be aware that it is a choice *we* make, and know the consequences.”

“I don’t *have* to see myself as a mouse,” Willow reflected, “ and I don’t have to think that how people see me is the way I am. “

“Indeed. May I suggest we leave it for now, turn in and get some sleep? You will need to think about these things for some time: this is not a process that can be rushed. Let me know when you are ready for the next stage.”

* * * * *

Over the next few days, Willow established a routine, completing her college work quickly in the calm silence of their shared space, and using the time she spent at her domestic tasks to unpick in her mind the rest of what the Mind’s Eye had shown her. She began to appreciate the contemplative benefits of a slower rhythm to life, the reasoning behind this aspect of the ritual. Giles gave her his full attention whenever she wanted to talk, whether it was about mystical revelation or recombinant DNA. He was not at heart a scientist, but his quick mind grasped the basics and his moral sense of the worth of all life permeated his views on everything, and challenged her in surprising ways.

On the third evening she casually mentioned the restrictions placed on experimental research by “people who don’t understand the science”, and he suggested urgently that she consider whether “understanding the science” was enough, and asked what she thought was the purpose of knowledge.

“Well, it lets you do stuff you couldn’t before. You know, knowledge is power and all that…” she hesitated, thinking of things other than science. She could see from the way Giles was looking at her that he was as well.

“And with great power comes?”

“Great responsibility, yeah, I know.”

“Do you, Willow?”

She opened her mouth to answer in the affirmative and then stopped, starting again hesitantly.

“No. I really don’t. I can say the words okay, but…” She fell silent, thinking back as far as she could remember, to the time she first learned how to write code and break into other people’s systems. The heady excitement of the forbidden, the quashing of her conscience with the argument that she was just snooping, not harming anyone. The thrill that the good girl could be a bad girl with no comeback, no fear of being found out and singled out. Later, the realisation that her talent for magic was growing exponentially, the conviction that Giles was just a stick in the mud grownup afraid to take risks, that at last she had something distinctive of her own to contribute to the Scooby gang, something no-one else could do. Magic was good, the more the merrier and the faster the result the better. She thought again about her vision.

“My Mom used to talk about ethics in science all the time. I figured that was all very well for her; hard science didn’t need to worry about it, because it was about curing disease and making more food for everyone and who could argue with that? “

“Who could argue that the Slayer needs resourcefulness and cunning as well as strength and fighting skill?”

Willow balked at the non sequitur but then she understood.

“The Test. The Council. That’s what they think. The end justifies the means. People are expendable.” She looked at herself in horror.

“That’s where I ended up, isn’t it. So long as the magics were “doing good”, it didn’t matter that I lied to you, that I took your books when you hid them, that I… I stole from the Magic Box, that I let you leave before I tried to raise Buffy… that I *wanted you to leave* in case you stopped me. Even… God, even Tara: I lied to her and messed with her mind and wanted her to stop bugging me, and she was *right*, all the time! Tara…” She began to weep quietly, whispering Tara’s name like a prayer.

“Will it ever stop, Giles? Will I ever stop seeing her falling, seeing her blood all over me? If she hadn’t been there with me she would have been safe.”

“I can’t say. But in all likelihood, no. That… that kind of event burns itself on your memory. An indelible scar.”

“Do you…do you sometimes see Jenny? “

Jenny with her dark hair lying all around her beautiful, frozen face, unseeing eyes asking him: “why?”

“Sometimes. Not so often as I used to.” Other dead faces competed with her: Randall, even after all these years; his father, peaceful at last; Joyce; Buffy; Ben.

Willow scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands and sat up decisively.

“I’m ready now Giles. To use the Mind’s Eye again.”

* * * * *

The Playroom was large and sunny, painted in primary colours and full of toys: blocks and a playhouse, cars and trucks and ride-ons, dolls and teddy bears in a jumble on the window seat. A throng of small children played energetically in little groups, oblivious to the efforts of a scruffy boy with dark hair who clowned and jumped and laughed and tried to get them to notice him. Eventually he gave up the attempt and wandered over to the window, looking out longingly at the world outside. His attention was caught suddenly by a gaily-painted box sitting in the corner of the seat opposite all the soft toys. He struggled with the catch but persevered. Inside was a collection of puzzles, each one different but designed to interlock to form a whole. He tried his best with the simpler ones but even they eluded him. In the end he just sat admiring the shapes and colours, the box on his knee. Some of the other children noticed and told him to leave it, that wasn’t a good toy, it was too hard and boring and not worth the trouble. The boy shook his head and said that he liked it, that it was going to be his.

A few children came to persuade him to come and play at something else, at the sand tray or in the playhouse. After a while he went with them, but tucked under his arm was the pretty box of puzzles. As he played he might put it down or even sit on it, but it never left his side all through the day. He found passing thrills and absorbing games, but always he came back to *his* toy.

Time came to go home; the children lined up to collect their coats and bags and the scruffy boy, who had brought neither coat nor bag save a brown paper one for his lunch, went to put the box away. He put it back on the window seat, turned away and then stopped. Watching carefully to see if anyone noticed, he put it under his arm again and sauntered casually out, and as soon as he reached the corner, running with it all the way home.

* * * * *

They were getting used to the effect of rushing back into the world, perhaps. Not to mention that the feeling of this vision was a warm and happy one on the whole: Xander Harris, for all his often-exasperating ways, was the one friend Willow had always been able to count on.

She wondered aloud how they had ever found each other. “We couldn’t be more different, could we?”

“Actually, I used to find you two curiously alike,” Giles remarked thoughtfully. “You both had an innocence, a straightforwardness about you that was in contrast to a lot of the other young people.”

“You mean we were immature and clueless,” Willow groused. Giles shot her an admonishing look and she shrugged.

“I mean you weren’t infected by the atmosphere of cynicism and false sophistication that seemed to permeate that damned school. I never saw so much collective refusal to take any kind of stance until I came to…”

“America? Your prejudices are showing, Giles.”

“I was going to say Sunnydale. I’ve lived in England, it’s no worse these days and I don’t *care* if it makes me seem old and behind the times. The times are *wrong*. There is right and wrong and there is good and evil, and with all we’ve seen I believe that more than ever. The day we all surrender to moral relativism will be the day humanity is lost.” He paused in his quiet tirade and whipped off his glasses, fishing for a handkerchief.“ I’m sorry. Willow. That probably wasn’t at all helpful.”

Willow was gazing at him with a soft expression. “You gave us all strength, Giles. The Scoobies. When we felt like giving up and just letting it happen, we used to say, “better get Giles, he’ll know”. After…after you left again it all went so far down the pan we thought we’d be swimming in the sewer for ever and I just realised how disgusting that sounds but, but, *you* know.”

He nodded gratefully. However ready he had been to go, it was perversely satisfying to know how much he’d been missed.

“Xander used to do that for me. He never let me give up. When I was bored at elementary school- which was a *lot* of the time- he’d make up fun things to do. When I got picked on he’d wade in, and get pummelled by the bullies. When I was lonely in the holidays with my parents out of the house all the time – and his folks at home too much - we’d go down to the docks and watch the ships go out, dreaming of where we’d go if we got the chance.”

“Do you regret never going? Staying here instead of attending an Ivy League college, or, or one in Europe?”

“You mean Oxford, don’t you Giles? I remember, you tried to sell it to me without me noticing. Wasn’t very subtle.”

“You’d have loved it. Probably more than I did.”

“Buffy said you dropped out. Did you ever go back?”

“Oh yes, after I had thoroughly fu- er, ruined my life for two years. The Council had me reinstated and I completed my degree and a doctoral thesis on top of that.”

“Hey, Dr. Giles, how come you never told us?” teased Willow.

“ I somehow doubt that the fact that I can tell you the names and political careers of all the signatories to the Peace of Westphalia would be of any great interest. But you didn’t answer my question.”

“No. Because I’m not sure I know the answer myself. Back then, it was an easy decision, or a quick one at least. I wanted to fight evil, and what better place than the Hellmouth?” She sighed. “Unless you end up being the thing that needs fighting.” Her face was pinched and her eyes bleak again.

“Have enough to do with dark forces and sooner or later they will have something to do with you. None of us are exempt; the fortunate have someone to bring them back from the brink.”

“Xander. I hope…I hope life gets better for him. He tries so hard.”

“He stopped by to ask about you this afternoon.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That you were well, and that I felt you were making progress. He understands of course that any details of what passes between us here must remain confidential. He told me to tell you…“in case she forgets, with all the thinking”…that he loves you.” Giles contrived to appear both deeply embarrassed and genuinely touched. Willow beamed, and reached out to him, laying her hand over his heart.

“C’mon Giles, don’t be scared. Friend love is good. Friend love is the best there is. Friend love won’t steer you wrong.”

All at once her guide and mentor looked very grave.

“I’m sorry to say that sometimes it can. Come. I have a cautionary tale.”

* * * * *

The Eye had taken them back to the Giles family’s library. The cage contained many more books now, leaving only a tight corner for young Rupert to occupy. He continued to study diligently, although now and again he would look around at the musty volumes with a tired and resentful air, and test the bars of the cage in a half-hearted fashion.

The library door creaked on its hinges and a young man’s face peered cautiously round the jamb. Willow thought he looked quite extraordinarily beautiful for a youth, with dark thick-lashed eyes, a straight patrician nose and that full sensual curve to his upper lip. His guarded expression turned swiftly to one of awe: then intense intellectual greed at the store of arcane knowledge. The Watcher boy was clearly fascinated by the newcomer, who stepped into the room and stood with insouciant grace, taking out a cigarette and doing obscene things to it with his mouth while looking straight into the eyes of his quarry.

Because Rupert was being hunted. No doubt about it. The predator skirted the room quietly, drawing on his cigarette periodically, looking anywhere but at the cage, perusing the shelves, scuffing his shoe on the floor before crushing out the still smouldering fag-end under his heel. Rupert followed his every move, so that when finally a hand snaked through the bars and grabbed his wrist, he didn’t even flinch despite the “caught in the headlights” glaze in his eyes. His captor smiled a sweet smile that didn’t quite convince, and with his free hand dangled a shiny bunch of keys in front of his captive. When Rupert made a grab for them he shook his head reprovingly, let go the wrist and pocketed the keys.

For the first time in the whole exchange they spoke.

“Ethan. Let me out. Please.”

“Pleasure.” A whole spectrum of meaning and implication in a single word.

The key slotted with surprising ease into the lock, the gate opened wide and Rupert scrambled hastily over the toppling piles of books, falling in an untidy heap at Ethan’s feet. He was pulled up swiftly and the two fled the room into the corridor beyond.

It began as a well-lit spacious gallery, the walls hung with gorgeous art work and gleaming mediaeval weaponry. The pair stopped and wondered, fenced and posed; Rupert had lost his bookish air. If anything, he seemed more daring and cocky than his new friend.

The corridor started to narrow. The windows here were shuttered, the walls hung with tapestries of mythical beasts. Tables were scattered with odd sculptures: grotesque man-plants and living stones, crab women and dog-faced bears, nature perverted and confused. Ethan seemed to find these images of even more interest and invited Rupert to touch and taste and see.

At last they came to a dead end, a massive iron-studded door before them. Ethan produced his bunch of keys again and opened it with a flourish. Outside it was dark. A roar of wind and a squall of rain blew in on them, but Ethan was undaunted, grinning wildly as his hair and clothes were whipped and drenched so that they clung closely to his slender body. Rupert gazed at him, mesmerised, he himself soaked and not caring, about to go out into the storm.

A shadow fell over them; something was trying to come in, its menacing growls echoing in the air. The young men stood frozen on the doorstep, wide eyed with fear; then they tried to close the heavy portal against the invader. Wood screamed and scraped against stone, they sweated and struggled with the door that Ethan had opened with such ease. With a final lunge, Rupert pushed it shut and drove the bolt home, and they both leaned their backs against the door, panting and trembling. Ethan grabbed his companion’s hand, started, and then stared down at it. Rupert’s hands, both their hands, were stained with fresh blood. The smell of it, ferrous and salty and hot, filled the hallway. Rupert panicked, fleeing back the way they had come. Ethan called after him but he covered his ears and refused to look back. His figure became smaller and smaller until he vanished from sight.

Instead of following him, Ethan waited until all appeared to be quiet outside, then he unbolted the door and slipped out into the night.

* * * * *

The *smell*. It was still there even in this world. Giles’ face had tuned pasty and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Willow had both hands clamped over her mouth and she gagged, leaped to her feet and rushed to the bathroom. Giles sagged helplessly against the doorframe, only a short stride himself from needing to do as she was doing and bring up everything he’d eaten. The sensory trigger had brought it all back: Randall’s transfigured form, skin tearing and falling away as he gave birth to the demon within, as it clawed its way through his face, his arms, his voice. The whistle of the sword blade and the meaty thump as it severed his head. The stark silence in which the group had disposed of the remains by fire, staring at the flames until their brows were singed.

Willow crouched over the toilet bowl, dry eyed and panting from retching, tiny sounds escaping as she faced her own, more recent, past.

“W-w…I….I…”

Finally she turned towards Giles as she staggered to her feet, and her look was a knife in his heart. So they were here now: the worst of it. Warren, who whatever his crimes had not deserved to be tortured and flayed alive in the forest. Warren incinerated as a perversion of the human form, just like Randall. Warren, whom she had not named in all the months since, though all around her remembered.

“Warren. I, I killed a human being.”

“Yes.”

Her eyes were pleading with him to say more, to offer absolution, to say he believed in a life for a life, to reassure her that the dark magics had corrupted her utterly and that no-one fully human could want to do such a thing. Giles kept silent, only drawing deep breaths to settle his nausea, looking away from Willow, waiting for her once more. He could hear her shaking even from where he stood.

“There is nothing I can do. I can’t bring him back. I can’t pay for what I took. Ever.”

She seemed to turn in on herself and slumped to the floor, drawing up her knees and putting her forehead down on them, one fist beating the tiles in time to her words:

“Rack, Rack and Warren. Two. Not one. Two.”

“Rack? Buffy mentioned something…”

“Rack. Sorcerer. Bad magic dealer. Power source. Dead,” whispered Willow brokenly.

Giles knelt in front of her and cupped her chin, lifting her face to his, searching it and speaking calmly.

“Do you seek earthly punishment? Buffy told me that no one has reported either man missing. She has not been able to locate Rack’s den or his corpse since that night; Warren’s family appears to have vanished from Sunnydale. Take your story to the police and without bodies or willing witnesses you may simply be committed. That is of course one of the choices open to you. Except, of course, for your not being mentally sick.”

“Are you sure, Giles? I mean, how could anyone sane do things like that?”

“It’s a conceit, you know,” remarked Giles as he helped her to her feet and back into the living room. He fetched a damp cloth for her face and a drink of water. She frowned as she looked up over the rim of her glass.

“What’s a conceit?”

“The notion that great acts of barbarity are only committed by the insane or permanently distorted of soul. It’s easier to believe that humanity is inherently noble. In fact war crimes, torture, cruelty and bloody vengeance are carried out by otherwise normal people all the time. ”

“And afterwards? How do they live? How can they?”

“They can be treated as, or make themselves, outcasts from society. They can harden themselves and sink deeper into the abyss. Or they can live with a painful but necessary understanding of the human heart and its capacity for extremes, and they can learn. ”

He walked over to his sleeping area without another word, and fetched his night-clothes, taking them into the bathroom to change. Willow waited until he had settled down to sleep before going back to clean every square inch of the bathroom and her body, scrubbing until her hands were raw and she was an angry pink all over from hot water and rough drying.

She didn’t sleep until nearly dawn.

* * * * *

“I don’t know what’s going on in there, sir. My access to the roof terrace has been blocked up by the next door property’s owner. I can see Miss Rosenberg coming and going but nothing more. She looked *terrible* this morning.”

“Then I’d say there’s no time to lose. If you can’t get in, you’ll have to make him come out. Remember that for the time being he still needs the witch unharmed. Extracting power takes time.”

“Sir, he seemed…very concerned. Very caring. He saw her to the door and, er, kissed her. On the cheek, sir.”

“Ripper’s kissed a great many people. Doesn’t stop him using and discarding them afterwards. Use your imagination, Marcie, but get that device away from him.”

Marcie put down the phone. Time for some invisible mischief again. After the life and death situations she’d been assigned to over the past few years, this would be a piece of cake.

* * * * *

Willow was starting to think that the universe had decided on earthly punishment of its own accord. She had caused a small explosion in chem. lab, despite being certain that the dangerous chemicals were safely out of the way. She had managed to fall down the lecture theatre steps whilst late after having to report to the Dean’s office, and interrupt the flow of her testiest professor. Her own belongings were constantly going missing and she found other people’s lecture notes in her bag, so that she had to track them to their halls of residence to return them with apologies, in one case, twice. The sensation of being watched was stronger than ever, but she put it down to all the odd looks she had been attracting all day.

Now she was seriously late and she knew Giles would be concerned. Sure enough, he was standing at the window in the front of the apartment, looking out for her. His relief when she rounded the street corner was palpable, and she put on a brave smile for his benefit, even though she was dreading what more the Eye might reveal. She hadn’t felt like eating today and the light-headed feeling was presumably responsible for her spazzy behaviour.

She was just stepping into the street when her legs were swept away from under her and she sprawled in the gutter, striking her head. She was struggling to her feet just as a truck rattled up, skirting the sidewalk so that she was right in its path.

A few seconds later she was dragged away by strong hands as the truck’s brakes shrieked and its driver cursed soundly. The door to the apartment stairway flapped, though there was no wind, and banged shut, the deadlock catching.

Giles and Willow were too busy brushing her down, dabbing at the graze on the side of her head and reassuring the trucker that it was not his fault, that at first they didn’t hear the thin scream. It took a moment more to work out where it was coming from: the bluish glow they could see in the window made their jaws drop simultaneously and they hastened to unlock the door with Willow’s latch key and dash upstairs.

The Mind’s Eye had something in its grasp but they could see nothing. Giles strode forward and cautiously put out one hand, waving Willow back with the other. He dropped to his knees and covered the empty space above the crystalline form; as he did so a shocked expression formed and he stared across the space as he had done when he and Willow were using the Eye. But now he gazed apparently into empty air at the end of a beam of light, mouth open in wordless surprise.

She could see it from the outside this time, the way the Eye absorbed the light back into itself and let go the participants in the ritual with a jerk.

“Who *are* you?” Giles rasped, still captured in an unseen handclasp. A woman’s gasping voice answered:

“He warned me…not to touch it with my bare hands. But…it wanted me to, wanted to show me…”

“You knew this was here? Who told you?”

“The Director. He said you were doing dangerous magic here, that I had to get it off of you before you became too powerful. But…I don’t understand. I’m not a witch, and it wanted me…and I don’t think you’re what he said you were.”

“Witch? How d’you know…” began Willow but Giles signed for her to be quiet.

“What is the meaning of what we saw?” He found himself addressing the hand that held his, the only concrete point of contact.

“The hall of mirrors? They all reflected each other but not me. I wasn’t in any of them, nothing on and on to infinity. A great big nothing.” This last, so quiet they could hardly hear her.

“You are nothing?” asked Giles, not letting go. ”According to whom?”

“Everyone. My whole damn life, but school most of all, and then wishes came true. They wished I wasn’t there, so I disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” Willow’s brow furrowed as she tried to track down the memory.

“Hey, wait a minute, I got it, it’s, it’s *Marcie* isn’t it? From Sunnydale High? What happened to you? I mean, I know what happened, but where were you? What are you doing here, and like he said, how did you know about the Eye?”

“The Eye? Is that its name? It’s not to drain power though, is it?”

“Who gave you that idea? The Mind’s Eye is a tool for seeing oneself, and how others see us, an aid to reflection. Most magic is not about power but about insight, about connections.”

Willow had the distinct impression that Giles was reminding her as well as informing Marcie.

“So no-one can see me. Tell me something I didn’t know.”

“Marcie,” Giles told her gently, “it is as much the case that you can’t see yourself.”

“But *they* did this to me! All the snotty bitches and sweaty jocks and teachers with their pet students. What could I do?”

“Perhaps little then. Perhaps something now, with help.”

“What kind of help? Magic? Like I should trust either of you.”

“What were you told, exactly? Who sent you?”

“Look, can I have some water?”

“I’m sorry. Of course. And please understand that we want to help you if we can.” He fetched water and put the glass on the table. As it lifted into thin air and the water poured down an invisible throat, vanishing as it was drunk, Willow and Giles exchanged glances. The Marcie they had experienced had been very unstable. Two against one had a physical advantage but they were effectively blind should she choose to try something underhand. Giles fetched a shirt from his bag.

“Would you put this over your shoulders, please? It’s disconcerting not to be certain one is speaking in the right direction.”

“Not to mention neither of you want to be knocked on the head from behind.” But she did as he’d requested then pulled out a chair and sat facing them both.

“After…the Cordelia thing…some FBI guys took me away from the school and brought me to some government institute. Turned out I wasn’t the only invisible student, not by a long way. Me and my pals at ‘Unseen University’ had training in covert surveillance, infiltration, communications, you name it. The plan was to send us out as agents to sabotage outfits the government couldn’t get at through the usual channels, or couldn’t be seen to be getting at. Worked pretty good too. That’s what I’ve spent the last two years doing. Then I get a call from the military in Nevada: the hallowed Area 51 no less. Thought I’d get detailed to hitch a ride on a flying saucer but they told me it was some new department investigating other paranormal stuff. Mostly magic. I’ve seen David Blaine. Not much of a security risk. But y’know, you go where you’re sent. The Departmental Director’s some British guy, knows Sunnydale though. Knows about you Willow, and most of all he told me a heck of a lot of things about *you*, Mr Giles. But obviously it’s not all true. You don’t seem like a badass wizard or the kind of guy who’d even think about getting high, and no offence, but when were you ever called Ripper?”

“Ethan.”

Destined forever to turn up in Giles’ life like a bad penny. And there were absolutely no prizes for guessing what was the nature of his former friend’s interest in the Mind’s Eye: spiritual improvement was not a pastime Ethan indulged in.

“Listen carefully Marcie. I don’t know all that Ethan Rayne has told you but whatever official position he has wormed his way into, the only person he has ever worked for is himself. If he were to possess the Mind’s Eye,” Giles gestured towards the device, “he would use it only for sick games with people’s minds. How many people are truly ready to find out how they appear in the eyes of others and in their own heart? Mystical forces are real, but they are to be respected. They are not weapons, not secrets that your government friends can use.”

“So you’re telling me, abandon my mission, turn on my employer, and then what? Resign? Find a nice civilian job and settle somewhere? Is there something we’re *not seeing* here, people? I’ve got no choice.”

Willow cleared her throat and spoke hesitantly to her former classmate. “Marcie, maybe…maybe that’s not true. Say you could become visible again, would you want to?”

“You kidding? That’s the number one dorm game at ‘Unseen’. “What I’d do to be seen”.“ Nevertheless, there was uncertainty there too.

“Because, well, like Ethan told you, like Giles said, magic is real. It can…change things, people. *If* you know what you’re doing. I think… I could do it…” She caught Giles’ eye; he was frowning, but in deep thought rather than disapproval.

“If it is possible, you would have to think carefully about your future,” he warned Marcie.

“Left like this, I don’t have a future. Shadows don’t last long, one way or another, or so I’ve heard. Could you…can you do it for all of us?”

Giles froze. The temptation for Willow had to be huge. She could channel power like few he had ever met, but for all that, she was a weak vessel and it would only leave her even more damaged than she was already, more likely to fall into Dark Magic again, with who knew what consequences this time. She was looking to him now for guidance, for instruction, but he knew that *she* must decide, and must own the decision.

“Marcie, I…I don’t think that would be right.”

Giles let out the breath he had not been aware of holding.

“Magic is…well, using it is risky. Trying to change that many people, changing them at a distance, it…I think it would unbalance things too much. I know none of this was any of your faults. I’m willing to give it a try just in your case, ‘cause you’re here now, and I feel…kinda responsible for your situation, but the others… I’m sorry.” Willow found that every muscle had tensed, that she was chewing on her own lip: she hated saying no, always had.

“But you could do it, right? You are one powerful sister, from what I’ve read in the reports about last summer.”

“That power wasn’t a good power I took it from places I should never have gone.”

The borrowed Oxford shirt shifted over invisible shoulders as Marcie seemingly bent to rest her elbows on her knees. A heavy sigh followed.

“So what you’re saying is not you can’t, but you won’t.”

Willow gritted her teeth.

“Yes.”

There was a long pause. Marcie made no audible protest: Willow didn’t waver. Giles was smiling sadly to himself; not just for the shadows, but for Willow. She should have called that halt on many occasions before now: ‘can, but won’t.’ Better late than never, however.

“My Mom and Dad still live here you know,” mused Marcie. ”I could make up a story about being in a coma or losing my memory. I could…not go back to school, but maybe study at home, go to college.”

“And are you ready to see yourself in a mirror again?” asked Giles. Willow was not sure what he was getting at, but Marcie laughed a short, conspiratorial laugh.

“I want the chance. That’s all. After that, I reckon it’s mostly up to me. *I *decide if I’m going to be noticed from now on, and whether it matters. So, we gonna do it?”

“Willow, can I have a word in private?” Giles drew Willow aside and they moved toward the kitchen. Keeping his eye on Marcie’s position, he spoke in a low voice.

“Are you ready to use magic again this soon? I can support the spell, anchor you to some extent. It would mean a transmutation, but not from one element to another, only a rearrangement of quantum particles. For an individual that should be achievable without too much disturbance of the balance of natural forces. But any risk would be your responsibility.”

She nodded decisively, and spoke to Marcie: “I’m ready when you are.”

Marcie recalled what Giles had told her about the significance of her vision. ” I have to do something too, don’t I?” she asked him.

“Yes. Other people can hold up a distorting mirror. See yourself clearly first and you can help them to see you. Willow and I will call upon magical forces with which you need to co-operate. Focus your mind on your physical being, visualise it. Recognise that you have value as a human being. Give the magic something to work on.”

It worked, to coin a hackneyed phrase, like a charm: Willow chanted, Giles echoed a counter verse to keep things from spinning out of control in any one direction. Bit by bit, coming gradually into view like a visual effect on film, the pale hopeful face and black clad figure of Marcie Ross became visible for the first time in nearly six years. She looked down at herself, then rushed to the bathroom to look in the mirror. Three seconds of amazed delight, then she collapsed to the floor in a dead faint. Giles and Willow were very concerned, but it turned out to be simple shock. The spell itself seemed to have had no ill effects on either woman.

Marcie was all for simply “disappearing” (as she put it with a slightly hysterical giggle) and leaving the Director high and dry. After another round of being offered whatever she had in return for the gift Willow and Giles had given, Giles had a suggestion. He merely asked that together with her agent’s card, mission papers (shredded) and letter of resignation, Marcie include in the parcel posted to her employer a folded piece of paper that he gave her. That done, he would consider the debt paid. Sneaking a peek as she left for her ops base, Marcie saw that three words were neatly written on it in Mr. Giles’ distinctive handwriting.

‘Piss Off, Ethan.’

* * * * *

“Now you know why I stay in all day: how important it is to keep the Mind’s Eye, like a lot of other things, away from the unwary,” said Giles, after he had seen Marcie to the door and bolted it behind her. “And the unscrupulous,” he added, thinking of Ethan. He smirked at the thought of Ethan getting the note, and missed Willow’s reaction to his words.

Willow seemed very subdued for the rest of the evening, and as she brought him his after supper mug of tea, he touched her lightly on the arm.

“Something troubling you? About Marcie? The spell? The Mind’s Eye?”

“Giles, do you think *I’m* ‘unscrupulous’?”

He paused in the middle of taking a sip of tea and looked up at her. What a very pertinent question. He put his mug down on the table and wrapped his hands around it, considering.

“I think,” he said at last “that you have at times *acted* unscrupulously, not always intentionally but nevertheless. I think that despite appearing to be conscientious in small details, you are apt to miss the larger dimension. You ‘strain at a gnat, while swallowing a camel’.“

“Sounds like one of Rabbi Fleischmann’s talks. He was always big on those flocks and herds. Is that Mishnah? Rabbi Hillel?”

“It’s from the New Testament, in fact: a criticism of those among the Pharisees who could not see the wood for the trees, so to speak. When did magic start to go sour on you, Willow?”

“You know…after Oz left. When I did that “do my will” spell and put you all in danger…No. Before then.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked into her past.

“When…when I found them…together, when I saw he’d cheated on me, I tried a spell: to break their hearts. I called upon powers, authorities I never had before. I…was going to burn his image: a photo. I couldn’t go through with it in the end, something stopped me, a weird feeling, just second thoughts I guess; and Verruca came, the other werewolf. She attacked me and Oz saved me. But he still left. Just a lot of busted glass for my trouble.”

“Willow, did you know how much power a true likeness of the object of the spell invokes?”

“I just knew it was a sure fire way to make the spell take effect. That it was in the list of ingredients.”

Giles slammed one fist on the table, making the empty tea mug jump. Willow jumped as well. Tight-lipped, trying to keep his temper, he spoke to her as sternly as he ever had in all the years he’d known her.

“Magic is not cookery, Willow: combine the ingredients, get a result. It opens doors into realms of which we will never have full knowledge. Why do you think I tried to warn you, time and again, of the dangers?”

“I …I thought you were just being, y’know, a grownup.”

“Meaning?”

“Telling me what to do, how to think, stopping me finding out stuff because you thought I couldn’t handle it, wasn’t “mature”. I thought sometimes…” she swallowed, ashamed and disgusted with herself but unable to deny it, ”that you just wanted to stop me knowing as much as you did, wanted me always as the junior partner in research and magic. That you didn’t want to end up redundant.”

Giles smiled a thin smile. “And yet when I did think myself redundant, you wanted me to stay.”

“Giles, I said *sometimes*. Other times, most of the time, I couldn’t imagine the Scooby gang without you in it. I do love… we all love you. It was like Sunnydale had a piece missing last year, and not any old bit of sky either. One of those funny shaped pieces that you know fits somewhere and it drives you crazy 'til you find that one place it fits and you can get on with completing the puzzle.”

He bowed his head to cover both his amusement and how curiously moved he was by her concept of him. Moved, yet at the same time unsure of how, indeed whether, he fitted into Sunnydale any more. That was a train of thought for another day, however.

“Human emotions are very strong, Willow. Magic taps in to primal parts of our minds: love, rage, loss, fear, …desire. Give it too much fuel, set a fire in the wrong place or for the wrong reasons, and it will spread far beyond the hearth.” He traced a finger along the tabletop. “I blame myself in some ways. I should have been more open, more willing to speak of my own experience. I hoped you would learn by stages as you went along, that the dangers would become obvious to you. I didn’t truly understand how far you had strayed from the path of true magic until you called me that day in England.”

Willow knew exactly which call he meant.

“You were angry then,” she realised. ”I thought you were shocked but pleased that Buffy was back, but you were angry at me for doing it. That’s why all the stuttering and glasses cleaning.”

“I was angry and I was afraid. Of what it might mean for Buffy, for you, for all of us. A Slayer is not an ordinary person, and I’m not just referring to physical prowess. She has burdens enough without adding more. And she must bear them, ultimately, alone. Her life is by its nature short and intense, a firework across the night sky. ‘Do not return to it once lit’.” He seemed a little apologetic at his poetic turn of phrase, but Willow saw the depth of his appreciation for Buffy and his innate sympathy for her plight.

“There are just not enough ways for me to screw up, are there, Giles? Look, I need some time. I’m not ready for the Mind’s Eye tonight, after Marcie, after everything. Can I take five?”

“The staging posts on this journey are for you to decide. Just let me know when you can continue. I have time; as much time as you need.”

In the end it was three more days before they took their places beside the Eye. Willow studied and worked, washed and shopped and cooked and cleaned, making jokes about ‘lesbian housewives’ at which Giles would laugh and then blush. It was comfortable and comforting to spend time with another person, to get to know Giles better as a human being and not just an extension of Buffy and her calling. They talked about her class work, about witchcraft and history and sexual politics, and Giles told her some hair raising, though somewhat edited, stories about Ethan and the London of his early manhood. He was in the middle of a story involving trying to write rock songs under the influence of various illegal substances, when Willow suddenly turned her gaze to the middle of the room.

“It’s calling me. It wants me, like it wanted Marcie. Is that…do you think that means this session’s especially important?”

“What’s important is whether you answer it, I should say.”

“I think I know who it wants to show me next. And I can go there. That’s all behind me now.”

* * * * *

A slender young man, his hair dyed an arresting shade of mahogany, loped loosely down a city street, humming under his breath and beating time with one swaying finger. He barely glanced at the storefronts he passed, and apart from a slight smile and a shake of his head, took little notice of the milling crowds, all of whom were anxiously following each other in tight gaggles to various destinations.

He came upon a city garden, sunlit and vibrant green in the midst of the pastel painted concrete buildings. Strolling among the plants, he stopped to admire and smell the perfume of a few of the prettiest flowers, most of which were in full bloom, tumbling out of containers and drooping from bushes onto the paths, thrusting themselves forward into the light.

None seemed to capture his attention completely however, until he came to a shady corner where moss covered natural stones were arranged on a bed of raked white gravel. As he stood beside it, relaxed but alert, he noticed a stray plant, its seed blown in by the wind, which had managed to establish itself in a crevice. Fascinated with its tenacity in growing here and by the shape of its delicate leaves, he reached out a hand and was taken aback when it shrank from his touch. He watched it recover with distance, and saw that it actually leaned towards him if he stepped back, and the contradiction clearly intrigued him. He circled, waiting, returning to the Zen garden again and again. He nurtured the interloper, watering it, moving the rock an inch here, raking the gravel in a distracting heap there, to foil anyone who might think to uproot it. In his care it began to bud and blossom, to show a beauty all its own.

The rusty creak of the gate alerted him to closing time, and he stared about him, panicking. He plucked the flower with haste but with care, cradling it to his chest as he hotfooted it, slipping out just as the gate slammed to. Now it was all his own, and though he found it hard to make his way along the street and not let it be damaged, he refused to let it go. Even when a hidden thorn made him hiss in pain and almost drop the flower, he only stumbled and carried on.

A storm was coming, and there was no shelter. The flower would be buffeted, drenched, perhaps torn from his grasp and swept away to destruction. He cast around for a place of safety but found only space to put the precious possession out of harm’s way, even if it was also out of his reach. Better it be unharmed than remain his and be endangered. He gave it one last longing look before moving on.

* * * * *

“Oz really loved me, didn’t he? I thought he didn’t love me enough to stay - but it wasn’t like that at all.” The trace of tears long dried remained in Willow’s voice even now.

“Life is sometimes unkind. We may want very much to do something, to have something, but circumstances - fate, if you will - may have quite another...” Giles stopped in mid-sentence and sat stock still, a hand over his half-open mouth. He looked as if struck by sudden revelation, and a troubling one at that.

“Giles? What’s wrong?”

“Oh damn. Of course” he said softly to himself. As she addressed him again, he shook himself out of his distracted state and smiled faintly.

“It’s, it’s alright, nothing to do with you Willow, don’t worry about it at all, um, a stray thought. Er, what was I saying?”

“Fate. How it kicks you in the teeth. Like it did with Oz. If he had never gotten bit we might have been happy, he could have been just a cool guy in the band. We might still be…no that’s crazy. I met Tara, I loved *her*, I’m *gay*.”

She was so taken up with her own train of thought that she missed the brown study Giles had fallen into once more. Staring at her clasped hands, mouth pursed and brows puckered, she wrestled with a truth coming to the surface of her mind from the place where she kept pushing it down.

“It was real. I…pretended, afterwards, that it was just to please him, just because it was expected. That I’d never liked it like you were s’posed to. But I did have those …feelings: for Oz, for Xander, for y-…they were just as real as what I felt for Tara. How could that be?”

She didn’t expect Giles to answer, which was just as well. He appeared to be contemplating the Mind’s Eye with a sad and faraway expression. Willow ploughed on, trying to sort out the tangled history of her heart.

“Maybe it’s more about wanting to be close, and I just assumed. Or it’s because they thought I was beautiful and no one else did, and I was grateful. Can you be in love with a man and a woman the same? Giles, what do you think? Giles?”

The Watcher jumped, flustered, and hastened to apologise. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid that I’ve lost the thread here. To what exactly are you referring?

“Oz and Tara. Y’know, one a guy, and the other…not. So did I…like both equally? ”

“It seemed to me - to all of us - that your affection for them and theirs for you, was quite genuine, quite as strong in each case”

She shook her head. “No, that’s not what I …I love my friends, love Buffy and Dawnie, but I don’t want to…don’t feel, you know, *attracted* to them.”

“Ah. I see.” Giles was intently rubbing his thumb and forefinger together and avoiding her eye. ” You, er, want to talk about…”

“Yeah. The um, the *thing*. If I really want to see myself clearly I can’t leave it out can I? I know you hate talking about it and hearing about it and it’s not something I’d shout about myself for choice, but it is kinda important in life, isn’t it? Especially for me.”

“I don’t “hate” talking about…sexual matters. The modern habit of blurting out every intimate detail in public simply makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. I believe in privacy, and sensitivity in speaking of things so…so personal.”

“I know what you mean. At college, the second you try and stop someone telling you more about their girlfriend than you want to know, you’re uptight or a prude. At least I can put on my lesbian hat and pretend straight sex squicks me. Or I show a bit *too* much interest and it makes the guy nervous” She giggled, but then turned pensive. “I’m not sure whether the old Willow wasn’t more honest.”

“How so?”

“It always felt so…important. Those feelings are so intense, so much a part of who you are, what you long for, that just treating it like what you had for breakfast seemed to be…missing the point. Or maybe I *was* just a prude.”

“No, I think you were a sensitive young woman entitled to her own views and feelings. Do you know the root of the word ‘prude’? It comes from the French for ‘pride’, it’s about self regard, a desire to distinguish oneself from the rabble, nothing to do with a reluctance to talk casually about sex.”

Willow smiled at his unselfconscious show of learning, so familiar and dear, then she got up from her sitting position on the floor and gestured over to the table.

“So let’s not be casual,” she offered.

They drew up their chairs at right angles to each other, the table a forum, not a barrier. She half expected him to get up, make tea, to make an excuse to put this off, but as before he was guided by her and sat ready to talk.

Willow plucked at her sleeve a few times, looked at the ceiling, and took a breath.

“If I still think about having sex with men, can I really be a lesbian?”

Giles seemed taken aback, but he didn’t reply, only made a non-committal noise to encourage her to continue.

“ After…after Tara, I mean after we got together, I looked at, at women in a whole new way. But I never stopped looking at boys that way. I felt like a traitor to the cause, every time it happened I reminded myself how it was when Tara and I…when we made love. How different it was, that it was what I really wanted, would always want from now on. But I felt like that with Oz too. How could I?”

“You were in love. Seems fairly straightforward to me.”

“But the sex part, it felt so good. Not the *same*, y’know, obviously, um, technical differences, but just as powerful. All the other girls, the girl-liking girls, used to say they’d never got it on with a guy, never wanted to, knew they were different all along. I didn’t. Falling in love with Tara changed my world. The first time we kissed, really kissed, the first time we went to bed together, I couldn’t believe this was me. But I’d wanted Oz too, he made me feel…alive in my body, I don’t know how to explain it properly…”

“You were very fortunate. To have had two lovers so attuned to your needs in their different ways. I think it matters less that they were of different genders than that you sincerely loved them and they you. As for the UC Sunnydale ‘lesbian contingent’: their experience is no doubt valid for them. It doesn’t mean you have to feel less…authentic for having a different one.”

“They kept going on about how female sexuality was more rounded, that men were just in it for the chase, they just wanted to score, what the woman wanted wasn’t important, that it was all about the penis…”. Her brain caught up abruptly with her mouth and she covered it with her hand, shocked at her candour. Giles registered only faint amusement.

“Strangely enough, I have heard the word before. And the argument.”

“Do you think it’s true, from your point of view? ‘Cause you’re a guy. Well, sort of…” Seeing his stony face, “Oh God Giles, *sorry* I didn’t …I meant you’re not a *jerky* guy, you can maybe help me see this from the other side of it, and I’m thinking, Xander, not the role model here.”

“Thank you - I think. Much of it can be put down to age. Young men are dominated by their hormones, on the whole. It doesn’t have to stop them treating you with respect: that’s their choice. Attitude and maturity make a great deal of difference. Oz was an example to the rest of them, if you ask me.”

“I bet you were too, when you were young.“ The sour expression again. “Younger.”

“ Not particularly. Our group hardly represented the cream of English youth. I’ve improved since then…” Willow was clearly intrigued, and he coughed hastily and tried to change the subject.

“What else did you take from the vision of Oz?”

She sent him a 'we’ll come back to you later' look. “Mostly, that he saw me when no-one else did, that I was growing in the wrong place but he found me and cared for me, and I’d have been lost without him. When he left I thought the world had ended. I understand now, and I didn’t for the longest time, why he felt he had to leave, and in the end, that he was doing the best he could. Like you said, doing that… compromise with reality thing.”

“Mm. There are times of course, when reality won’t let you do anything but surrender.”

“Tara. No compromise about that, just a stupid accident from a maniac with a gun; a guy who was after Buffy. I’m never going to understand how the universe let *that* one through.”

“Done its fair share of ball dropping, hasn’t it?” He tried to keep the tone light, but Willow saw how deep his disappointment went and had a sudden moment of clarity. Perhaps it was the fluorite, energised by contact with the eye, she told herself. Or perhaps she was just getting herself a sense of perspective.

“You and Buffy. The two people who do most to put the world to rights and you get the economy-sized raw deal. It’s *so* not fair.”

“It’s called being in the front line. Fair, if it exists, is for other people. Willow, it’s customary for the guide to share his or her parallel vision immediately after that of the traveller, but would you mind if we left it until tomorrow? It’s Sunday and we could set to after breakfast. Completely up to you, of course.”

Willow, who had a good idea as to whom they would see, touched him gently on the hand.

“Giles, I…*thank you* for doing this. I know it can’t be easy letting me in on all your secrets. But it’s been…good to get to know you. If I gotta take my medicine, I’m glad there are some nice side-effects.”

She woke in the night, another question capturing her attention, and saw that he was sitting at the table again drinking tea. In deference to her need for sleep he hadn’t put the light on, and the faint light filtering in from the street cast his strong face into relief. He wasn’t reading, just thinking, with a wistful tilt to his head as, in between sips of tea, he considered whatever it was. In loose sweatpants and a T-shirt, hair mussed and without glasses, he seemed younger, but also sadder and lonelier. Less a Watcher, and more just a man. She hadn’t given it much thought until now, but she suddenly wondered what he did all day, standing guard over the Eye, only his books for company. She chastised herself for never asking, and, kicking out of her sleeping bag, whispered his name to alert him to the fact that she was awake.

“Giles? You okay?”

He turned in his seat and blinked the remnants of his introspection away before giving her one of his familiar, kind smiles.

“Uh, yes…yes, I’m fine. Is there something I can help you with?”

“What do you do while I’m at college in the daytime?”

“I read, I catch up on my correspondence – you know, because you post the letters –I think about how best to help you. I think about a lot of things. I, I do some exercises to maintain a basic level of fitness and stop my joints seizing up, and this is an extraordinarily mundane conversation to be having in the middle of the night, don’t you think?” They both laughed.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t wake up ‘cause of that, I was thinking about Oz. And Tara.”

“What about them?”

“If…If I ever went with a man now, would it be an insult to her, to our love? Because if it’s true that the real me could always have been happy with either, it could maybe happen sometime, right?”

“I suppose so. I would say that you will know if and when the time comes whether…whether her shade - her spirit - would give you her blessing or not. You said to me once that she wanted you only to be happy, that she would have left you with Oz had that been your choice. Wherever she now is, I feel sure her perspective won’t have narrowed.”

Willow swiped a hand across her damp eyes. “I hope…it’s a good place. She deserves the best.”

* * * * *

Jenny. Jenny in her true guise, a gypsy of her tribe, nimble and graceful on her bare feet, flounced skirt swirling from her slim hips, beaten gold at her throat and wrists and in her earlobes, ebony hair to her waist. Jenny dancing, a turn-of-the-century waltz in a richly decorated but rustic hall. In the midst of the gaily dressed, careless throng she was masked and exotic, a splash of night in deepest mourning, the wing of a raven in flight. Jenny, clasped tightly in her partner’s arms, but not willingly, her face turned away, looking to the musicians as they played to the end of the dance. Jenny, watching him from behind the hourglass confection of satin and lace that disguised her eyes, her mouth set in an unforgiving line. Jenny, dancing with a monster.

He revealed his true guise as he bowed deeply, slipping into his demon features before she had a chance to take off her mask. She looked straight into his face then, recognition hardening her heart, and moved to capture him again, but he evaded her, taking off at a clip through the doors of the hall, across the moonlit wild garden and through to another building.

They had come to a theatre in the round, tiered seats rising on three sides, a balcony running the full circle far up above their heads. He was hidden here, out of sight perhaps among the blood red draperies, or perched to strike from a height. Jenny climbed the stairs to the gods, seeking the best vantage point. The lone figure of a girl came onto the stage, a soliloquy about fate and the struggle between good and evil on her lips. As Jenny searched, she glanced across the circle and saw another onlooker, a man dressed smartly in best Watchers’ dress code cotton, silk and tweed, everything starched and buttoned up to polished perfection. He was concentrating on the girl, encouraging and coaching her performance, so much so that when Angelus in his human form joined the little drama, he did not hear Jenny’s muted cry of alarm.

She watched the man remonstrate with and coax the girl, appeal to her partner to take his proper place in the action, to follow the scene as best fit the play, but neither she nor he would have any of it. They were determined, it seemed, to act out a 'pas de deux' of their own devising, an improvisation straying far from the script. In the end, the Watcher let them carry on, hoping for the best, suspecting disaster on the horizon but unable to prove it. Indeed, all seemed well enough to begin with, and Jenny lost sight of the play in her contemplation of the other half of the audience.

She liked what she saw: his cultured, educated voice, the strength of his convictions and the restrained passion behind them. He held his own against the blandishments of his actors, but the gentle way he dealt with them, letting the girl have the limelight, guiding, not hectoring, interested and captivated her. His physical form pleased her too; from across the space between them she admired the way he moved, the emphatic gestures of his hands, the cute nervous mannerisms when things were not going well.

She stole around the balcony circle, still unnoticed, and crept up behind him to put her hands over his eyes. He started so violently that even the players stopped in their tracks, and the girl gave a childish giggle before turning back to her partner. Angelus did not recognise her, still masked as she was, and carried on without undue concern. The Watcher, distracted but fascinated by her, was at a loss how to handle the interruption. He clearly felt he should not neglect his task, but she settled herself near him, invading his personal space, leaning in so he could have smelled her hair and couldn’t help but notice the creamy blush of her skin, emphasised by her low cut peasant blouse. He fidgeted in his place at the edge of the action, not failing to be moved by the romance, the connection taking place below them.

Jenny flirted, touching him, speaking in his ear, making him laugh and blush and raise his eyebrows at her. He tugged at her mask but she shook her head, catching both his hands, trying to pull him away from his place at the balustrade, teasing him with a sway of her body. After a beat he followed her, moving into her embrace, closing his eyes, kissing her fervently everywhere he could reach, the mystery of the mask forgotten. When she drew back to get her breath she stumbled; he tried to catch her but she fell heavily, striking her side against the wall. He went to his knees to help her but she shook him off and collected herself proudly, and brushing the hair away from her face, turned her back on him and stalked away. Desperate, he followed her down to the stage where the improvisation was getting more and more out of hand, the actors arguing in the wings.

The girl turned on Jenny as she passed and tore the mask away roughly. Angelus snarled, lunged for her and she fled with him at her heels. The Watcher and the girl were left alone on stage, the distance between them just enough to contain Jenny’s body as she was hurled from the balcony to lie broken on the boards beneath. The suddenness of it, the violence, echoed in the theatre and in his cry.

* * * * *

Willow could feel Giles’ racing pulse; could see his eyes filled afresh with the horror, fear and rage of that night, years ago now. She could hear him struggle to draw a breath and choke back another, then he pulled away hastily and rushed to the far corner of the room, unable – unwilling – to face her. Going to him, touching his rigid, trembling back, she offered the simple solace of an embrace and he took it, holding on so tightly that it frightened her, that she felt as if she might drown in his despair.

All at once he snatched his arms away, fighting for calm within, obviously ashamed of the intensity of his reaction, murmuring his apology that he shouldn’t inflict this on her when to her it was no doubt ancient history, gone and forgotten.

“Giles. Don’t. I haven’t ever forgotten her. Miss Calendar – Jenny - was my favourite teacher. She always took me seriously, treated my opinions like they mattered. She was a great teacher and a good friend, and…I know you loved her, even with everything that happened.”

Giles passed a hand over his face, scratching at his jaw in a nervous reflex. He sat on the end of his sleeping mattress and Willow came to sit by him, curling up her legs under her as she sat on the floor.

“I suppose the object lesson here is: never take your attention away from the unfolding story,” he said tiredly. “If I’d only taken the issue of Buffy’s involvement with Angel more seriously…”

“Giles, you didn’t know what would happen. The rest of us – well, not Xander – wanted to believe he was an exception. I let her think of him as a real boyfriend. It all seemed like a romance novel: Slayer, Vampire, fated enemies falling in love. I was just so…adolescent about it. So was Buffy, whether you like it or not,” she finished, challenging him to defend Buffy. He didn’t try.

“And I should have provided some adult perspective and commonsense and put a stop to it.” Although he knew, just as Willow did, how unlikely it was that Buffy would have obeyed such a prohibition. “Well, I could have tried harder to dissuade her. Instead I was too busy being a slave to my own bloody hormones to keep my mind on my duty.”

“It wasn’t like that. You did everything you could for Buffy. Jenny liked you and you liked her. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Except that it killed her. If she’d stayed away from me Angelus might not have discovered who she was, she would not have tried to make up for her deception by working the restoration spell.” Giles put his head in his hands, so she could barely hear his next words. “I just…I wanted her. Wanted someone of my own. Stupid. I know it looked ridiculous to you lot, a man of my age…”

Willow rubbed his arm comfortingly, absently brushing the hairs the wrong way. He *wasn’t * old, she decided. She – they all – had simply been young.

“We thought it was sweet. Mostly. Look, Giles, I know we teased you horribly about it but we were just being…teenagers. It’s what they do; make fun of their elders, not wanting to think that grownups don’t have it all worked out. They want the monopoly on smoochies and romance and angst. You go find someone. Take no notice of us. It’s not too late.”

She’d intended to encourage him, but to her dismay, his expression as he lifted his head seemed only utterly downcast. He shifted about a little, making up his mind, and opted, as a matter of policy, for honesty.

“Willow, you remember the revelation you had, about your true feelings when you worked with the Dark Magicks? Where do you think it came from?”

She wasn’t sure what this had to do with Giles’ love life, or lack of it, but it was a reasonable question.

“I…from my mind, I guess. A sudden realisation, facing up to the truth.”

Her companion shook his head.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it was more than that. In some of my talks with…the coven,” - in fact it had been Rowena who had told him – “I learned that to be filled with the essence of true magic is to be connected not just to everyone and everything else, but in a very basic way to oneself: one’s nature, one’s destiny. It seems that one is given the answer to a fundamental question about oneself. Not necessarily right away, but as a knowledge that reveals itself when the time is right. In your case…”

“That I can’t deny the negative, the damaged parts of my personality. That I can’t blame the bad magic alone. I have to take the rap where it’s due. That even if life isn’t fair, that’s no excuse.”

“Exactly.”

Willow recalled that Giles too had carried that essence, before she had sucked it out of him.

“So what did you learn? You’ve pretty much come to terms with *your* bad-ass side.”

He grunted agreement at that, and studied his hands, running the fingertips of one hand over the guitar calluses on the other.

“I’ve come to understand that…there isn’t a ‘someone’ for me. There never was, there never will be. No cottage in the country, no Mrs Giles, no stories at bedtime for the children. Just Rupert, plugging on, by himself.”

His pain was manifest, almost the more so for his being quite matter of fact: the intensity of it surprised her.

“Are you sure? How can you know your whole future like that?”

“It’s not my whole future, only the answer to a question I wasn’t really aware I had been asking. Now I have the answer, I know how badly I wanted to know. How I’d never given up hope that perhaps it was possible. How much I still wanted it. However the universe, as usual, has other plans.”

“Then the universe isn’t fair. If anyone deserves to find true love it’s you, Giles. You‘re such a good person, a loveable person. I used to…”

She stopped, embarrassed, and he fixed his sea green eyes on her, enquiringly.

“I used to think you were the ideal man. Back in High School. When I wasn’t moping over Xander, I used to hope I’d find someone like you, smart and wise and kind, who didn’t care if people kept up with fashion or the latest gossip, who’d see me for who I was and still love me.”

“You did find that person. Twice. You were blessed, and may well be again. You’ve learned by now that I’m no paragon, but thank you for the compliment from your younger self. For what it’s worth, I thought most of the Sunnydale students didn’t know what they were missing by not taking the trouble to get to know you.”

“Look at us, Scoobies’ Mutual Admiration Society. Will they ever ride again? The Scooby gang?”

“It won’t be as it used to be. Change is inevitable, necessary.”

“Will you be Buffy’s Watcher again?”

“She hasn’t asked me to be. I have a life in England now, important work to do. I will probably go back there soon.”

“And be all on your own? I hate to think of you being there, being lonely.”

“I do have friends, some very good ones. And it’s not impossible to think I might…find some ‘company’, here and there. I daresay I’ll get by.”

To Willow, it was if she could see him laying aside the wish for the gift he wanted but couldn’t have and accepting a poor substitute, a stopgap that didn’t even begin to fill that space in his life. It just wasn’t good enough.

“’Company’? You mean casual sex.”

The look of distaste on her face annoyed him.

“No, I do *not* mean casual sex. I would hope you think better of me. I’d also hope you know that real life is more complicated than that. At its best, its highest, to…to make love is an expression of profound commitment and joy. At its worst it’s just a passing spasm, or a means of exploiting another person’s trust. There are myriad shades of meaning and emotion in between. I don’t believe that to be unable to achieve the best should mean one must refuse all. It’s not the same as being casual about it. I’m hardly about to work my way in short order through my female acquaintances – even if any of them would have me.”

Willow wondered what part of her subconscious came up with the random thought: << I might>>. Giles misinterpreted her startled expression.

“I’m sorry. I’m so used to you all being…squicked, is the term, I gather, by the idea that I might actually have physical urges like the rest of the male population, that I’m apt to be somewhat defensive.”

“No, no, you’re right,” agreed Willow quickly. “We should be more adult about it. Why shouldn’t you want to…to…”

An odd sensation was forming in her chest; it was making its own crazy connection with that random thought, and she tried in vain to quell it.

“Because I’m very, very old and it’s gross, or so I’ve been informed.”

“Don’t tell me: Buffy, right? She can be – I hate to say this, with the whole Spike thing this last year – but as far as other people are concerned…a little narrow sometimes. Plus, I’m guessing that was a while back? Pre noble sacrifice, pre year of hell, pre ‘I’d-be-a-fine-one-to-judge-anyone-on-who-they’re-sleeping-with’ Buffy. She might look at it differently now.”

Giles shrugged. “Or I might be less bothered by her opinion.”

“Tchah. You’ll always be bothered by what she thinks, just like the rest of us. She’s your friend. We care what our friends think of us.”

“I wonder.”

“Yeah. Now if it were Harmony or Spike or whoever we’d say …go…do something impossible to yourself, but we want our friends to keep on liking us. Like us again. Whatever.”

“I meant I would question whether “friend” is quite the term for what Buffy is to me.”

Willow looked amazed. “What else could she be? You’ve helped her through so much, been there for her for years. She can be a bit…okay, a lot sometimes, take-you-for–granted girl, but she cares…”

“Buffy is the Slayer. I am her Watcher if I am anything in this world to her. Even if we hated each other – which I can assure you we don’t – that wouldn’t change. I know it,” he gestured imprecisely before touching his temples “here. Were it not for a shared destiny we’d not have crossed paths in a dozen lifetimes. I owe her my service if she wants it, loyalty if she needs it, my life if it is necessary.”

“You sound like a mediaeval troubadour. The fair lady and the gentil knight.” She turned to him, eyes wide. “You don’t, you know, see it *that* way, do you?”

Giles hesitated and the chest tightness was there again. Then he let out a bark of a laugh and she relaxed. Perhaps there was at least one of her male friends *not* pining for Buffy’s favours.

“Faulty metaphor, I’m glad to say. It might be more accurate to say *she’s* the knight and I’m her squire, or her sword smith. It’s a complicated relationship, a negotiated one. We had very different expectations of each other to start with and there’s been give and take on both our parts. But I can never forget what she is. I may play fast and loose with Council precepts on occasion but there are good reasons why that is one of a Watcher’s basic taboos. As far as the Slayer is concerned it’s ‘Keep Your Hands Off’.”

“Has anyone ever disobeyed?”

“A few, over the centuries. Unmitigated disaster usually followed. The Slayer’s lifespan was considerably shortened in every case, and the Watchers did some very odd things afterwards. Anyone who reads the collected Diaries all the way through gets a very clear warning *not* to go there.”

“But did you ever think about it?”

“Willow, *where* is this leading? I am not interested in Buffy in that way, though I love her dearly. I know she is remarkably beautiful, all you young women are. Even at her young age, Dawn is showing equal promise. Come to think of it, it is astonishing how comely most of the occupants of Sunnydale are.” He chuckled. “One might imagine Southern California has some cosmic casting director selecting you at birth. But admire the garden as I may, I know when it’s not right to pick the flowers.”

“That’s …good. That you know that.”

Of course it was good. Giles was a gentleman, a man of honour and restraint and would never stoop to take advantage. Darn him.

*Where* were these thoughts coming from? The obvious culprit was the undercurrent of appreciation and pleasant daydreaming that had bubbled its way to the surface every now and then during the years Willow had known him, but why now? Here?

Perhaps it was because she’d accepted now that ‘male’ would always be a flavour in her taste test. Or that it was clear he was not devoted to a life of celibacy and prayer at the Buffy-shrine. Or even…that he wasn’t staying; that in the ‘Petty and Selfish Department’ of her heart of hearts she just wasn’t ready for the wrangle of questions, comments and sideways glances that a real involvement would provoke. If the real Willow was capable of deep resentment, anger and jealousy, she could also think boldly about sharing a brief encounter with an old friend, of generating some serious heat and then letting the ashes fly away. It was as true as the loving, loyal and forgiving part of her nature, as her belief in soul mates and happy ever after.

“Willow? Something amiss?”

The concern which deepened and roughened his voice, that ordinarily would have alerted her to danger, warned her to pull back from whatever byway she had stumbled upon, only fanned the small flame of speculation brighter. Think of all the different sounds that wonderful voice could make…

“No, nothing’s wrong. Another of those lessons you promised me. A revelation. Not too painful this time.”

“Well, if you need the chance to think on it, we can take a break until after lunch.”

She’d got out of the habit of paying close attention to him after leaving High School. During the whole of her sophomore year she’d made a particular study of his hands. The way he would cradle a rare volume, gently shaking the pages loose to avoid wetting or thumbing the corners to turn them; his gestures as he made some important point; the strong, sure movements as he ground and polished the weapons with a whetstone and a soft cloth, his ring catching the light.

Junior level Giles-watching majored on his eyes. They could sparkle at the sight – sometimes the mere mention – of Jenny Calendar. They would soften with affection and concern at Buffy’s troubles, snap with cold anger at the latest misdemeanour Snyder would try and pin on her, roll theatrically at Xander’s lame witticisms.

Senior year, even though she was so taken up with unravelling the tangled skein of Oz and Xander, had incorporated a part-time course on Giles’ mouth, specifically a hunt for the elusive smile. He’d been – understandably – so much sadder that year. He mourned Jenny deeply but silently, and often appeared to be in physical pain if he sat too long or made certain movements too quickly. Xander had flat out refused to tell her what the docs had said about Crawford Street.

Now she was integrating it all, casting her eye over the whole man. Today he had on a very well worn pair of jeans, soft blue denim starting to wear to white at the knees, and the striped shirt he’d loaned to Marcie, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He was sitting, as he had for some minutes now, with his back braced against the wall, long legs stretched out on the hard floor, hands folded in his lap. He breathed steadily in and out, eyes closed, attention focussed inward.

She should have been meditating too: Giles probably expected it. He would certainly have seen it as more profitable than following this winding path through the woods of her imagination that ended in the two of them making out in a clearing. Willow snorted loudly, bringing him back to awareness momentarily.

“Sorry. Noisy thoughts: shutting them up now.”

Had she spoken them aloud he’d soon have shut them up for her, she decided, and amused herself by picturing his face. Giles did *such* good righteous indignation. She should keep her mind on what she was supposed to be doing here: Deconstructing Willow 101. So at midterm review, where was she?

[Emotionally orphaned, substitute sibling, bisexual, potentially dangerous witch, with the hots for a guy old enough to be my father. I think there’s a paper in there, maybe even a thesis. What do you think, Dr. Giles?]

“I think after lunch, we may be given the opportunity to tackle the subject of Buffy. Are you ready?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry. Yes. Buffy. That’s gonna be crunch time, isn’t it?”

“She’s had an undeniably strong influence on all who know her, so yes, this is likely to be very significant. We could put it off if you need more time to… absorb whatever you were meditating on.”

[Absorb. Interesting idea. Well, there could be sucking…stop it, stop it, stop it! Buffy; concentrate on Buffy. It’s what we all do all the time anyhow.]

* * * * *

Heat, dust, and the sweet smell of wild thyme filled the air. The plain stretched away rocky and barren, a backdrop of snow-capped mountains on the distant horizon. Only a silver ribbon of a stream broke up the colour palette of drab, ochre, and white.

A slight figure stole through the early morning light on the outskirts of the camp of the Spartans, where goatskin tents had been pitched on the bare earth. The warriors slept on it too, wrapped only in their cloaks, each with his shield, helm and spear close at hand.

At first sight *this* was no warrior, but a maiden in a chiton of homespun, slender as a reed. Stealthy on her bare feet, golden hair cut close to the nape so that no enemy could use it as leverage in battle, she was luminously beautiful, shading her clear grey eyes against the new-risen sun, turning her head to one side to listen for the location of the sounds she had heard.

A pack of dogs hung around the camp, earning their keep by finding winged game birds and digging leverets from their burrows. They were on a hunt of their own now, sniffing at the scrubby ground cover, behind boulders and crevices. The maiden approached them, scattering the group with a shout. Ground feeding birds took flight in a cloud of flapping wings but she took no notice, striding forward to the source of that noise, a plaintive yapping cry.

It was a tiny fox cub, harried and trembling, cowering in a scrape of earth beside a thorn bush. Before the dogs could close in again the maiden gathered it up, holding a fold of her garment under its body to support it. Soon it grew quiet in her arms and she went back toward her tent, for she was indeed one of the battle host, their pre-eminent fighter, whose slain enemies were legion. The sentry let her pass with only a cursory glance at her living burden.

She cared for the little vixen in her tent, reared it by hand to be her loyal companion. Though she could not take it often to the field of battle, it heard all her triumphs and sorrows in the aftermath. By night, oftentimes, it would sneak into enemy lines, committing sabotage or bringing back intelligence – for the fox had the magical ability to make its speech understood. If in its travels it was compelled to seek, from time to time, a mate from among its own kind, then she was content for it to be so. She knew that the fox would always return to her, that the playful nips she sometimes received from its jaws were no more than the working out of its wild nature, yet imperfectly tamed.

But there came a time when loyalty was tested. The fox had brought its latest mate into the camp for safety and an enemy transfixed it with a stray arrow. The fox turned on its mistress then and savaged her, so too the armourer who came to her aid, then snapped and snarled through the whole encampment, wantonly attacking anything in its path in its fury and despair.

There was no choice then but exile. The maiden watched, sorrowing but resolute, as with stones they drove the fox into the wilderness.

* * * * *

“Hey, that’s not right! That’s not how the story of the Spartan and the fox goes: I remember from…”

Giles coughed significantly and Willow stopped in mid sentence.

“Oh. Right. Off topic. So, Buffy’s a warrior, makes sense. And I’m… her pet.” Her expression hardened. “A pet that turned on its owner. Can’t get much lower than that, I suppose.”

“Willow.”

In the one word were all his compassion and understanding, but also a determination not to let her slide into unproductive self-pity.

“I know, I know. It’s just…I never meant to be anything but Buffy’s friend. I wanted to help fight the good fight, to use my powers for good to, to make a difference.”

“You *did* make a difference. Time and again, you did. None of that has been cancelled out. It’s not a mathematical equation, weighing up amounts of good and bad and seeing how they balance, coming up with a quantitative answer. It’s about direction. But good intentions are not enough.”

“I lost my way after Tara was killed. Or…when I tried the resurrection spell.”

Giles hesitated before suggesting: “I think if you look, you might find it began considerably further back even than that.”

Willow was about to demur, when a shower of splinters of memory pierced her conscience and she gasped. How she had loved Buffy but hated to share her, with Angel, with Faith, later with Riley and even Giles. How she had sympathised with her friend’s romantic troubles while noticing how boys swarmed around her like wasps around the jam pot. How glad she had been to get ‘superpowers’ of her own, to have something Buffy didn’t have, couldn’t do for all her strength and training. How she had basked in the reflected glory but longed for the light to shine directly onto her. At the same time she feared it, afraid lest she not be solid enough, lest it go right through her, reveal her to be nothing but an imitation of a person of substance. That while Buffy the Vampire Slayer could save the world, she, Willow, could only tinker with the mechanisms, tinker until they broke.

It was too much for mere tears, too deep for any sorrow she could show. Her whole friendship with Buffy had, she saw, a running thread of resentment and inadequacy woven into the fabric, even while she had been, and seen herself as, the one person Buffy would always be able to count on.

“Was it worth nothing, then, Giles, was it all corrupted and poisoned? Would Buffy have been better off without me?”

He had asked that question of himself during the summer after Buffy’s death. Since then he had formulated a kind of answer.

“You simply can’t know. It’s an unprofitable question to ask about the past. All we can do is look at particular things we see now could have been better done and resolve to learn for the future.”

“You mean *I* can. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

“Don’t I? Isn’t that for me to judge?”

“You made Buffy into the best Slayer there ever was, as far as I know. I’d say you make the grade.”

“Buffy made herself a great Slayer. And she has had a great deal of suffering, loss and pain along the way. Had I counselled her better, she might have been spared some of it.”

“I thought we’re supposed to learn from suffering.”

“That doesn’t make it good; doesn’t mean you don’t try to prevent it.”

“And does the fact that although I loved Buffy, sometimes I envied her and was angry with her, and hated always coming second, does it ruin the love?” Willow strained to hear his answer: the voices in her head shouted that it did, and she longed for hope, to be able to quiet them.

“I don’t see that it *must*, though unchecked it *may*. I very much doubt that “pure” love exists. We do ourselves no favours by trying to deny that there are things about our friends, and about our relationship with them, that we find… difficult. Weeds ignored take over the garden.”

She sat quietly, contemplating how the weeds had spread. A stray thought occurred.

“You’re big with the gardening metaphors. I never saw you lift a spade in Sunnydale.”

“My apartment had no garden, and I wouldn’t have had the time, at any rate before the School blew up. In Bath I have a garden flat, with a lawn and a stone seat, and I train sweet peas and jasmine up the trellis. Well, actually the jasmine is rather like Buffy – tends to grow itself and resist most attempts at training.”

“Will we see you and Buffy in the Mind’s Eye?”

“I should say so, yes. There really is no parallel to Buffy, but Buffy.”

* * * * *

[A knight and her squire. Good guess, Giles]

The lists were crowded with challengers; the temporary wooden stands with onlookers. Pennants fluttered in the breeze, horses neighed and stamped, their harness jingling. The greasy smell of cooked meat from the vendors’ trays mingled with the sweat of effort and of the unwashed.

It might have been a youth in that fine armour, except on closer inspection she wore the guise of an Amazon, girded with a purely decorative quiver, her helm plumed with rare ostrich feathers. Her breastplate was moulded to fit her woman’s shape and she cut a fine figure as she consulted, laughing, with her squire, an older man who towered over her in his parti-coloured tunic. He cared for all the weapons, negotiated with the Marshall of the lists, groomed and saw to the stabling of her horses, and watched every contest with rapt, nervous concentration. If she landed a blow or unhorsed her opponent, he cheered; when she was injured he rushed to her aid, tending her wounds devotedly. There were times when she ignored his advice but he seldom berated her, instead encouraging and bidding her only try again.

He would have liked to fight, that was clear. He rode a horse well and trained with her daily, giving a good account of himself although she overreached him in strength and agility every time. But he knew he could not compete in the joust. He had no patents of nobility, carried no blue blood in his veins, only the heritage of a long line of wise stewards and learned clerks. So instead he dedicated himself to her, championed her cause, and stood always ready to assist whether by day or night.

He knew the day of defeat would eventually come, and so it did. Another Amazon of surpassing strength, but entirely without honour, threatened the knight and all she held dear, promising to raze the town in the aftermath of her victory. The squire was able to strike in secret and fatally wound this enemy, but his mistress had fallen. He carried her dead from the field and dug a grave in her ancestral lands. He knelt there in homage a final time, then cast aside his service.

* * * * *

“But why did it end there? That’s not the end of you and Buffy.”

“It’s all that was meant to be.”

Willow scowled. “And then I stepped in and trampled over nature and fate to change it, to get what I wanted.”

“You did not act alone. Did no-one try to dissuade you?”

“Xander, maybe, a little. I knew Tara didn't want to, but she…she trusted me. Mostly not. They wanted me to be in charge, to save Buffy from hell, to save us all from being without her. None of us looked beyond that, to what might have happened. I can’t believe us – can’t believe *me*. I thought I knew better.”

“Knowledge can be expensive. When you have to decide between what must be and what you want with all your heart, you discover just how expensive.”

He of course, should know if anyone did.

“But instead of me paying a price, it was Buffy. Unless Tara was the Universe’s idea of payback.”

The thought had haunted her the whole summer, once it became clear that her ability to do magic would remain, that the misuse of her power was not to be punished by its removal. Tara had been so bound up with Willow’s own growth as a witch and with her exploration of mystical forces; and she had loved her so very much…

“Then why take her life and not yours? Do you remember what I said about goodness not being a matter of mathematics? Neither is ‘payback’. That’s the point, in a way. If you could calculate exactly what the outcome of a given course of action will be, it would be relatively simple. It might work in physics, but life is more complicated. Bring magic into the mix, that which is so interwoven with reality that you can’t measure it, well… if you’ll pardon the overstretched metaphor, the incalculable can happen. I don’t believe Tara’s death was ‘aimed’ at you; it just happened. That’s the tragedy of it.”

“Yeah, I get all that. I think. Talking with you is good for the brain cells, Giles. Gives them a good old sweaty workout.”

He grinned, flattered and amused. “You might find Buffy disagreeing with you on that point. She used to complain that hers might die from the strain unless they went to sleep from boredom.”

“Buffy. God, I *so* want things to be right between us again, and between you two. If you aren’t her Watcher any more, what’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know. It’s accepted wisdom that the Slayer needs a Watcher with her all the time. But the Council is not exactly up to speed with all that has happened here, and has been – reluctant to try to exert its authority over Buffy, bearing in mind past history.” They shared a rueful smile.

“I’m inclined,” he continued, “to leave it to Buffy.”

“It’s up to her whether she wants me as her friend again as well, isn’t it? However much I change.”

“Indeed. She knows it’s what you want, I hope that she will see a considerable change for the better as time goes on, but to trust you again – it’s her decision.”

Willow nodded. “And I’m okay with that. *Finally*, I’m totally okay with Buffy being in charge. And with her being the one who goes out and fights the bad guys, and we’re her sidekicks.” She paused as something odd struck her. “Giles, in your vision, there was one thing that didn’t compute. Where it was *you* that killed…Glory, it must have been. ‘Cause that didn’t happen.”

Giles’ face clouded. He wrapped his arms around his bent knees, and looked at the floor in front of his feet.

“No, I didn’t kill Glory. I couldn’t have. But I could kill her human vessel to prevent her re-emergence. I could kill Ben, and I did… with my bare hands.”

For a second she was dumbfounded.

“Xander.”

“*What*?”

“I remember. He wanted to do that, to save Dawn. Before the ritual, in the Magic Box, you remember, don’t you?” She babbled, trying to take it in, trying not to look at him in case he had suddenly grown another head, in case…

This was stupid. What had he done that she had not, and with infinitely greater cause? Ben was a casualty of war: Warren and Rack, only sacrifices to her grief. She took hold of Giles’ left hand and held it, palm pressed to palm. Deliberately, she let a little flow of magical energy tingle against his skin.

“Power. Feel it. I have it, you have it, Buffy has it. How do we use it, *why* do we? That’s the key, isn’t it?”

Giles’ eyes had been fixed on the tiny green sparks curling around their fingers, but now he looked straight back at her. It was like reading an arcane text: there were echoes of a common language, but so much was hidden meaning and missing context. They ought to have been able to share the Annals of the Fellowship of Bloody Hands, but each record was unique.

“Do you…want to talk about it?” she offered nonetheless.

“No.”

He got to his feet and went into the kitchen, shutting the door. A few minutes later she heard the kettle boil on the hotplate, its whistle abruptly cut off, as swiftly as a life might be ended.

Silently, he handed her a steaming mug, and standing with his gaze fixed on the far wall, drank his tea. He spoke only after her had downed it all.

“Has the ritual been stopped in time, Glory would then have come after Buffy and Dawn. In her frustration and anger she would have hunted them until she had her revenge, probably destroying many other lives in the process. Buffy, to do what she does, bear what she must bear, has to retain…a purity of heart that is not required of the rest of us. If she is not to become nothing but a killer, there are some things – even necessary things - that she must not allow herself to do. The Slayer is so much more than an ordinary girl, and so much less. Buffy has been coming to terms with that ever since she was called; it may take her all her time on this earth, as it has many Slayers before her. It falls to us – to me – to help her and through her the world. That is all.”

For him, that was the end of the subject. Willow for her part had no idea where to start with it. It was left just there, what it was. That was all.

They were coming to the end of their pilgrimage; both could sense it. As far as Willow was concerned, there was only Tara left to see in the Mind’s Eye. Giles explained that in this case there would be no vision for him. The process worked best when there were several comparable figures in the lives of traveller and guide, or where they shared one or more, but an exact match could not reasonably be expected.

He tried to warn her obliquely that she must prepare carefully for her vision of Tara. As well as reopening the wounds of loss, it would bring things to light about this most precious of relationships that Willow would not like but must heed and understand. They left it another two days; time to look forward, but also back at the complexities of her life that she had already been shown.

* * * * *

A goddess. She was a golden fire goddess, beautiful and terrible, many-armed and far of sight. Her devotee visited her temple often, bringing gifts of fuel and flame, basking in her benevolence, kissing the feet of her image and prostrating herself before it. She danced and sang for the deity, feeling truly alive for the first time. She spent so much time at worship that she scarce had room for everyday life, so she moved the statue of the goddess into her home, making of it a shrine.

As time went on the image seemed to work miracles. Place in one of its hands a scroll of secret lore and it would divine the meaning, speaking the words aloud. Gifts would hang in mid air whilst the goddess examined them; the statue bled when damaged and wept when invoked with prayers for aid.

And fire. Always when the goddess was angry or thwarted the idol burned black as charcoal and flames danced in all its palms, scorching those who came too close.

Though its follower, its High Priestess, was concerned by the last of these manifestations, she reasoned that this showed the extent of the goddess’ power and was all the more reason to worship and hold her in holy fear. No one except wrongdoers, those who chose to incur her wrath by overstepping the boundaries, would come to real harm. So she never put out the fires, only waited patiently for them to burn out.

The goddess granted many boons. When her Priestess fell grievously sick she healed her by direct intervention. She smote the enemies of righteousness; there were even rumours that she could raise the dead. Her fame increased and her demands with it; she would not be content unless all was as she decreed. Her Priestess was not exempt, for all her love and service: she ventured too close on a bad day and was struck to the floor, burned. She fled the goddess’ presence.

It seemed as if the goddess would lose all claim to divinity, and be consumed by dark fires. It was only through the intervention of a warrior princess, who doused the flames and closed the gate to the shrine, that disaster was averted.

All was quiet. The shrine was now deserted. With shaking hands the Priestess unlocked the gate with a secret key and entered, approaching the altar with undiminished adoration. She wanted only to be in the presence of her mistress, whatever the cost, and she embraced the statue with a longing heart.

It came to life in her grasp, holding her with one pair of arms, caressing her mouth with its now warm brazen lips, the other hands stroking a breast here, dipping beneath her skirts there, winding her wheaten hair around slender fingers. The Priestess writhed in pleasure, opening herself to the seeking hand without restraint, moving in slow waves against the goddess’ body and begging her never to release her, to accept all that she had to give, all that she was. Even as hungry flames began to lick at her, she showed no pain, no fear, only desire. The fire penetrated her mouth: she swallowed it as if it would quench every thirst. It rippled across the arches of her bare feet: she cried out in ecstasy and it twined slowly up both trembling legs where they were braced apart for the goddess to see and touch. As they made their journey, her cries became more urgent, more breathy, and at the moment they entered her vagina and spread over her clitoris, her scream of completion rang out for all the world to hear.

* * * * *

“Bloody Hell!”

His hand was shaking in hers; she could hear his heaving breath and see how his pupils were dilated even through the thick fog of her own intense arousal. Of their own accord her eyes looked to his lap and widened. He scrambled to his feet, scarlet with embarrassment and remorse.

“Willow, I’m, I’m sorry, this is terribly inappropriate. Excuse me.”

He turned his back to gain some semblance of control and rearrange his clothing, making the evidence of his condition less obvious.

“It’s alright, Giles, it’s not just you. You just, well, you can’t help but show it. I feel it too. It’s because it’s the truth. About Tara and me. She was my *lover*. The Eye passed on all those feelings. She adored me, and we…were lovers. S-she…” Willow couldn’t carry on whatever she was going to say about Tara because now the tears were coming thick and fast, even as the liquid heat in her core still flowed and every part of her body longed for that loving and passionate connection again.

Giles forgot all about the humiliation of his physical reaction to the eroticism of the vision. Willow’s pain was better than a dozen cold showers, and he knelt beside her and wrapped her in his arms awkwardly, shifting his weight around as she leaned on him, seeking both bodily and spiritual support. She didn’t wail or sob, but only wept silently and steadily until the spring ran dry and his shirt front was soaked. When she gently disengaged herself with a grateful, if wan, smile, he offered her his handkerchief, the chance to blow her nose, compose herself and get ready to face what else the Eye had shown her.

“Tara used to say, she never really lived ‘til she met me. No-one else ever said anything like that. Not Oz, not Xander. No-one needed me like she did. She made me feel…so special. So…just right. Beautiful and powerful, like in the vision. We explored magic together; she wanted me to discover what gifts I had. She was never envious that I could do more than she could, she was happy for me. She was just so…perfect. There’s nothing bad there. Nothing. Really.”

Giles couldn’t let her deceive herself this way.

“You are protesting too much. You see, as I saw, what went wrong.”

Willow cringed, screwing up her features, as if warding off a blow. She nodded tightly, making fists of her hands and bringing them to her mouth, as if she could prevent the traitorous words from leaving her lips. But Giles was waiting; he would not be satisfied unless she said them aloud, unless she acknowledged the truth in his presence.

“She should… have stopped me: long before she did. She loved me too much, no, she *needed* me too much, to risk it. She should have stopped me running before I could walk in terms of Magic. She should have made me understand what she knew to be true about Magic, that like you said, it’s not cookery. Or chemistry. Or anything that’s just about doing things and making things happen. She knew it and she let me go wrong, until it was too late and then I wouldn’t listen to her. I was so hyped by success I thought it was easy; power was mine for the wielding and never mind the consequences.”

“And would you have listened to her even in the beginning?”

“Maybe. Before…before we fell in love, while we were just friends, she was so wise, so much more mature then me. It’s as if…loving me the way she did…hurt her, made her less than she was, oh God I *hate* this, isn’t there anything that’s purely good in my life, anything I haven’t spoiled?”

She was twisting her hands in the material of her skirt, as in her mind she tried to wrest the good away from the tangle of her life. Giles watched the struggle, longing to reassure her but knowing that it would be of little value. She didn’t need lies any more than Buffy had, standing by the dust-strewn gravesite of her childhood friend.

At last Willow drew a deep breath and spoke decisively.

“I’m still glad. It was a true and good love. We did some stupid things, not because we loved too much, but because of all the baggage we had. Tara’s awful family, all my issues about not mattering, both of us being afraid our love wouldn’t last. But I really think…it would have, if love ever does. And maybe…in time, she would have stopped worshipping me and I would have stopped wanting her to. But we never got the chance.”

That evening they lit a candle surrounded by rosemary sprigs: for remembrance. When they had sat until it was spent, Giles told her that the ritual was now at its end, and in the morning she could be on her way. He wrapped the Mind’s Eye reverently and put it back in its case, and Willow packed her things. Giles would stay here until his return to England.

Lying in bed, trying to sleep, Willow let her mind free-associate through the past two weeks. How she had come at least to the beginning of understanding how things had gone so terribly wrong, but that the seeds of a new start were still alive, buried here and there for her to find.

She could see that, at base, her parents loved her, even if they had problems showing it. That they were in the background now of her adult life and she could start to see them from an adult’s perspective: how the pressures of life moulded them as they did her.

She could see that she had Xander for good. Through all the twists and turns, all their differences, *he* was her best friend, her rock.

Oz had loved her, truly and well; in some wise he still did. He would always have a place in her heart that no-one else could occupy.

Buffy was the Slayer. Nothing that she, or Willow or anyone else could do would change that. All they could do was to help her to bear the burden and exercise the privilege in the best way she could. And it was up to Buffy whether Willow was again to be a part of that support system; what Willow could do was simply to offer what she had.

Tara was gone. To be loved in the way Tara had loved her was a gift: a gift not without its dangers, but still infinitely precious. She had to keep it, and Tara, safe in her memory. To hope – but not to expect – that she might know such a love again.

And Giles. He had given so freely of his experience and the lessons he’d learned in life. He gave so much all the time, and to so many people, and got so little back. Willow had always doubted that “the satisfaction of a job well done” was all it was cracked up to be, particularly when that job never seemed to be done, in the sense of finished with. He rolled with the punches life so often dealt him, the consequences of every choice, and got back up again ready to fight another day. Perhaps she could do likewise.

She could hear him on the other side of the room, tossing restlessly. Usually he slept fairly well, occasionally troubled by bad dreams, but he had told her that there were techniques, mediations to control them, otherwise Watchers and Slayers would surely lose their minds to the horrors they had to deal with.

She slipped out of bed carefully and crawled quietly over to him. He wasn’t even asleep; as she came near he rolled over to face her, an apologetic expression on his face visible in the half-light as her eyesight adjusted to compensate.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” he began, but she rubbed his shoulder soothingly and shook her head, telling him not to worry, she had too much on her mind for sleep. To her surprise he flinched away from her touch.

“Hey, I didn’t…hurt you, did I? Are you sore? Or sick?”

“N-no, nothing like that. Just go back to bed, Willow.” He wouldn’t look at her for some reason and her concern and suspicion only intensified.

“Look, what’s *up*, Giles? I thought we were going to have honesty here. There can’t be a whole lot of dark secrets left by now.”

“I’m not trying to keep anything from you,” Giles answered rather testily. “It’s nothing you need to worry about. I’m just finding it hard,” he winced “to get to sleep.”

Willow suddenly had more than an inkling of what his problem might be. She hadn’t forgotten how they had both felt after the explicit scene in her vision of Tara. Flashbacks kept jumping into her mind at intervals and she was pretty sure that Giles, with his excellent memory, had been getting them too. Moments when he’d been oddly distracted then, if he noticed her looking at him, extremely flustered, had cropped up all evening.

She decided to test the theory. She put her hand back on his shoulder but this time stroked quite deliberately and slowly across his collarbone, grazing bare skin at the neckline. He made a tiny sound, and it definitely wasn’t one of pain.

“For God’s sake, *what* are you doing?” His whispered voice sounded strained, but more cornered than angry.

“Playing doctor. And my preliminary diagnosis, Dr. Giles, is that you’re feeling, I believe the medical term is…horny.”

Giles closed his eyes and turned his head away. Now he did look angry: his jaw was working and his next words came out in a low and warning tone.

“How clever of you. Now please leave me alone. It isn’t any of your business.”

“I’m not making fun, Giles. I said I was okay with it, remember? It’s totally normal and okay for you to be a man, to have a man’s needs.”

She paused. Well, nothing ventured…

”I could…help you with it, if…if you’d like.”

His eyes snapped open and he stared at her, utterly shocked.

“And before you get on your high horse, this is not a pity…thing, it’s…Look on it as a gift. Not a payment or even a thank you, no taking of any advantage whatsoever, but because you’re Giles and I care about you and maybe you need this now, and it’s something I’d really like to give you.”

He opened his mouth to reply but she silenced him by covering it with hers and kissing him soundly, both her hands on his face and sliding up into his hair at the temples.

It might have been shock that held him there despite his superior strength. It might have been breathlessness that stopped him saying anything more when she drew back. Only one way to be sure: lay her cards on the table.

“I find you attractive. I have for years. I don’t want a romance, I’m not ready for that yet and I honestly doubt it would work anyway. I’ve enough things that are complicated in my life right now. This is a simple thing I’m offering: one time only, no strings, never to be mentioned again or to anyone else. No 'I love you' s, no promises. Just lips, hands, bodies, and feeling good, possibly *very* good. I’m here and you’ll soon be there, and well… what do you say?”

She watched the play of emotions across his face, the battle with conscience and the mute appeal to tell him if she had any, *any* reservations about this. She only looked steadily back, making it clear that it was a bona fide offer, and noting with a hum of satisfaction that there was nothing that told her he didn’t find her attractive enough. She’d said her piece: now it was his move.

His eyes never leaving hers, he sat up and unzipped the sleeping bag down to his feet, laying it out flat like a blanket on the mattress. Lying back down nearer the wall, he took her by the hand and had her sit next to him.

“So where would you like to start?”

This was a very different Giles, this man with a low sensual voice and an open-ended invitation to start where she liked and finish who knew where. His mouth had been wonderfully soft, so she went back there. It was even better this time because he kissed back, pulling her gently down with one hand massaging the hair at the back of her head. His other hand rested on her knee, bare where her nightshirt had ridden up her thigh. Warmth radiated from the spot, making her wish he would move it further up. But he seemed determined to make this one time they would have last as long as humanly possible. He was still only kissing her, parting her lips with his tongue, thrusting slowly and deeply into her mouth and letting her do the same to him.

He broke off the kiss and moved to her jaw line, tracing the curve to her ear with quick butterfly kisses, alighting on the earlobe and worrying it with tiny nips of his teeth. He licked her there and then blew softly on it, making her giggle and draw up her legs with a shiver. With a lazy smile he looked into her eyes and kissed the tip of her upturned nose before rubbing his cheek against hers so she could feel the beard stubble.

“I remember this,” she said contentedly. “Nice.”

He exhaled slowly against her neck and moved his lips to the hollow of her throat. He had a talented tongue in more ways than the singing and the five languages, Willow thought to herself as he took a small eternity making a wet trail as far down as the buttoned nightshirt would let him, then following his working fingers as he popped the buttons one by one, right down between her breasts, over her navel and to the hem of her silky panties. When he finished she was trembling.

“Just sitting there waiting?” he purred, lips moving against her belly. She opened her eyes again and looked down at his bent head. He smiled against her skin and moved away. “You used to think about this, did you? Wicked child.”

“Mm-hm. Naughty, *naughty* thoughts about what was under all that tweed and those baggy jumpers.”

He stretched up to whisper in her ear.

“Want to have a look, then?”

“Mmm. And I want to feel. ”

Willow grasped the hem of his t-shirt and pulled it over his head, tossing it to one side. She explored his bare chest with both hands, brushing the curly hairs and skimming his nipples with her forefingers, causing a sharp intake of breath and a quiet “god” to be uttered. Slipping her now open shirt from off her shoulders, she lay down flush with him and pressed naked skin against skin, putting her arms around him and stroking his long back. She could feel bumps and marks that didn’t belong, knew he was badly scarred but didn’t want to ask, not now, not when she was pleasing him like this. No reminders of past hurts, no promises for the future: just the delightful now.

She kissed his throat and strong chin, then returned to that delicious mouth and combined plundering it with moving sensuously against him, rubbing herself on him like a cat, purring in her turn. She put a thigh carefully between his and hesitantly inched it upward, until she could feel his hardened flesh through the loose pants, then she moved her leg away again. One of her hands moving on his back slid down into the waistband and started to work the pants down over his hips, and he shifted willingly to help her.

“There’s so much of you,” she teased as she pulled the soft material down his long legs and over his feet, stretching her arms as far as she could, but having to bend so that her head rested against his thigh so that she could complete the job.

“I think I give good value, pound for pound.”

Yes indeed. Naked, he was a marvel. He wasn’t at all sculpted, not like the guys on calendars or cheeky greetings cards, but real and solid, perhaps a trifle soft round the middle but firm elsewhere: very firm in one particular place. She took a good long look and pronounced:

“Quality *and* quantity. I think I you have yourself a sale.”

“Not for sale. Free to a good home.” He made his meaning abundantly clear by putting his hand between her legs, just holding it there on top of the fabric but pressing a finger in exactly the right place. He frowned suddenly.

“Damn. I don’t have any…”

“It’s alright, I have to take things that do the job as a side effect. Never needed it until now.”

He seemed relieved, but then unsure again.

“I haven’t even asked if you want to… go that far.”

“If you do, then I do. So do you?” Then she laughed at her own wordplay and circled his erection firmly, stroking it from base to tip.

“Yesss. Please.” Giles rolled her onto her back and settled between her legs, letting her wrap them round his waist. In this position he could bend down and put his mouth to her breasts, and he took full advantage of it, following their gentle curves with parted lips, suckling them, teasing her nipples erect with delicate licks and busy fingertips, lapping at the stiff peaks until the nerve path between breast and core was alive with electric excitement. She stroked the nape of his neck while he feasted, and ran the other hand over the front of his torso as far as she could reach in every direction, down his arms, feeling the taut muscle there as he supported his weight on one or the other side. When he braced himself on both hands and made as if to move up her body, she locked her ankles behind his back and arched, pressing her soaking wet but still covered groin against his belly, showing him how hot he had made her. He groaned and dropped onto her, holding back most of his full weight but still crushing her between him and the yielding mattress, her thighs spread wide, no movement possible except if he let her. It ought to have been frightening but she trusted him not to hurt her; she could hear his excited breaths and knew he was in the grip of instinct: a knowledge only reinforced by the way he slid up her body in rough jerks until the tip of his cock poked at her, blindly seeking its destination of tight, slick flesh, impatient of the barrier between. One of his hands dove between their bodies and made for the offending garment, but she pushed on his shoulders until he lifted up enough to look in her face and shook her head.

“Wait. Fun first, then business. Pleasure all round,” she promised.

Pushing a bit harder she encouraged him to go on all fours with his arms and legs either side of her slender figure. Starting with a lingering kiss to his mouth, with liberal helpings of tongue, she kissed her way down his body as he had hers, sliding on her back towards the foot of the mattress, walking her hands down his flanks until she was holding his hips and had reached her goal. Taking the head of his cock in her mouth she held it there, swirled her tongue into every nook, tasted the clear fluid that seeped from the opening. Very gently working the foreskin back with her fingers she sucked continuously over and under the exposed ridge, listening to his pants turn to moans and semi-coherent encouragements. She soothed him by caressing over his ass and thighs with the knuckle, then the palm side of her hands, putting as much variety into it, and into what her mouth was up to, for both their sakes.

She could just make out the desperate words “S-stop. Going to…come…” and let go at once. That would most definitely *not* do. Not just yet awhile, anyways. She held still to let him calm down enough to continue and told him to turn over. Her tone was more forceful than either of them had expected. Even in the midst of a haze of urgent desire he managed an amused smile at both it and her surprised face.

Obediently he changed roles, letting her sit astride him at the level of his navel, bending his legs up so she could be supported by his long legs and he could feel her bottom pressing against his erection as she leaned back provocatively, tossing her fiery hair and licking her lips.

“You taste nice,” she commented archly, “but y’know, I think there’s somewhere even more fun where that fine thing of yours could go. Oh yeah, right *here*.” With that she shocked them both again by shamelessly thrusting her hand into the front of her panties and pushing the material down until he could glimpse the first wisps of auburn hair beneath.

“*Christ*, Willow!” Giles’ look of tormented hunger was exhilarating but she wasn’t going to be cruel. Not when in any case, she was eager to know how the rigid heat she could feel pressed against her rear would feel pushed deep inside her.

She leaned onto him and swung a leg over so that her knees were together, then wriggled out of the panties, swaying so her small breasts brushed his chest, and mouthing the line of his collarbone. He was frankly groping her by now, refinement the last thing on his mind, and she enjoyed the roughness of it for a while before straightening up and moving to straddle him again. He helped her quickly to the right position then let his eyes close and his jaw slacken as she took him in inch by inch, relaxing long unused muscles and exhaling slowly until he was as far in as he could go.

“All right?” they both asked together, and grinned. Willow moved her hips from side to side and in a circle experimentally, and was rewarded not just by Giles’ low sounds of evident pleasure but by the strong stimulation she got from the sensation of being so completely filled. She rose up slightly and dropped down, and the sensation was repeated and magnified, so she tried it again. Soon they were rocking against each other hard and fast and she knew it might be possible after all to come like this, without a touch anywhere else. She was about to be scorched but she didn’t care: a flood of liquid quenched the flame and brought its own tide of pleasure and she rode it as she rode her partner, soaring up with a singing cry and making him look up at her in wonder. He wasn’t quite done yet, and with almost bruising hands on her thighs he pulled her against him for the last several hard strokes it took to make him let it all go and come with a shout.

Resting her hands on his sweating body, Willow held him inside as long as she could. When they were forced to separate, he found something to clean them with, then cradled her against him, tucking her head under his chin and stoking her cheek tenderly. It began to be a little chilly in the unheated apartment and he suggested they should get under some covers. Willow was disappointed.

“Could we…sleep together, just this once?”

“I was under the impression that we just did,” he replied with mock innocence. “But seriously, yes, if you would like to…”

“Please. It’s so hard to wake alone.”

Giles’ face told her he knew exactly what she meant, and once she had fetched and unzipped her sleeping bag there were enough covers for them to share. They were drifting peacefully when Giles kissed her forehead and spoke in a low, soft voice:

“Thank you, Willow. This was not a gift I took lightly. You are a special and unusual young woman. Try not to forget that.”

“It was my pleasure.” She giggled. “Absolutely literally. You were…wow. It was…lovely; it felt *very* good.”

“For me too. It’d been a while since…well, since. Just…thank you.”

* * * * *

June 2003, U.C. Sunnydale Graduation

“Giles, hey! Glad you could make it!”

The tall familiar figure strode across the lawn to where Willow stood with her friends, and kissed her on the cheek unselfconsciously.

“Congratulations. You should be very proud of your achievement.”

Willow grinned.

“Yeah, now I get to go to grad school and be poor for another three years.” Her obvious delight at the prospect belied her words.

Xander straightened the lapels of his smart suit and smirked.

“You’ll be rich in *knowledge*, Will. What ‘s a *brand new BMW* next to that?”

“He’s got his midlife crisis vehicle already, Giles, same model you had. This one’s in *gold metallic*” sneaked Buffy. She presented her cheek gracefully to receive her kiss in turn, as did Dawn, who confided:

“I got first ride in it out of everyone.”

“How are you keeping?” Giles asked them both fondly.

“Straight As” boasted Dawn. “Well, except for that teensy hiccup with stupid social studies. Never trust a teacher with a nose piercing. Not to mention the fact that I will *never* live down having a sister on faculty. But it’s so good for my mental health to know I have a counsellor on hand day or night.”

Her sister blew her a mock kiss, acknowledging the sarcasm.

“And I’m fine,” put in Buffy. “Slayage is way easier than counselling. I had a happy birthday this year, and no apocalypses are currently scheduled.” Her happy face fell for a moment. “Is that a horrible portent, do you think?”

Giles chuckled. “Well according to those of us keeping up with such things, it’s that most rare and blessed event in the history of the world, a ‘slow year’. I’d say, enjoy it while you can.”

“How is England?” Willow asked him. “And your garden: how are the sweet peas?”

The others looked askance, but he was pleased she’d remembered the little detail.

“Just coming into flower. There should be a fine display by the time I get back. Oh, Rowena sends this for you, with her love.” He fished in his pocket and brought out a hand carved box containing a charm on a silver chain, fastening it around Willow’s neck. Xander waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“And who’s Rowena? Getting some action we should know about, G-man?”

“She’s a *friend*. The correspondent for the coven where Willow stayed last summer. And don’t…”

“Ever call you that, check. But you can’t blame me for bein’ curious. With all the lack of romance in my own life and that of my nearest and dearest, I need gossip like I need a ton of wax for my shiny new car.”

“Giles is an island complete unto himself,” Buffy chided. “He doesn’t need coupledom like us lesser mortals.”

“No man is an island entire of itself,” Giles corrected gently. If Willow hadn’t known better the misquote might have been all that bothered him. “Nice to see you’re reading something more positive than Miss Dickinson these days.”

“Well, I have to pass the time between appointments, and there are only so many colours of nail polish in the world," she told him impishly, inviting him to share the joke. "Poetry is cool if you don’t have to write a report on it.”

Giles sighed theatrically and Buffy punched him lightly on the arm, making him grimace and rub the sore spot. A pretty, dark haired girl whom Giles didn’t recognise came up to the group. She spoke warmly to Willow and hugged her; something intangible sparkled in the air between them.

“Giles, this is Rachel, she just graduated with me. Rachel, our friend Giles, from England.”

He shook hands cordially, a question in the glance he gave to Willow. She gave a non-committal shrug, but her eyes were shining and it was a ‘definite maybe’ as the Americans might put it. Certainly all the others seemed to know Rachel well.

They all strolled back to Xander’s apartment in the bright sunshine, duly admired his new 'baby', which was parked out the back, and set up the celebration party. Other guests turned up through the afternoon, college friends of Willow and Rachel, some Sunnydale High School faculty and pupils mingling awkwardly with each other, a few of Xander’s crew coming from work with only just enough time to take off their hard hats and wash their hands before making for the beer.

Towards the end of the afternoon, Willow found herself standing behind the couch on which Giles was sitting on his own, sipping a glass of red wine. He seemed contented with life, all in all: pleased with Buffy’s survival and good spirits, glad to see how the latest version of the “Scooby Gang” was maintaining itself and happy to be here without feeling guilt at leaving again.

“Life seems to be treating everyone here quite well,” he said, and she realised he’d registered her presence a while ago.

“Some things are good, others not so much. Xander worries what Anya’s up to, while she’s following her demon star. Dawn won’t tell us where and when she last saw Spike, though we all know she knows, and it’s maybe not good. My parents finally admitted defeat and split up – but I think they’re happier now. Buffy still gets scared that the next patrol will be her last. We’re all making compromises, living the complicated life. How ‘bout you?”

Giles contemplated the bottom of his glass with a wry smile.

“Same here.”

END