Chapter Twenty-Eight: What Can't We Do
SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 8:40 PM (GMT)
When Willow had promised to go cold-turkey on the magics, she'd expected it to be one of the hardest things she'd ever have to do. She still remembered how empty she'd felt every time Rack's spells worked their way out of her system; so logically, rejecting all magic should be lots worse. But she'd also known exactly how lucky she was that she was being given a second chance; cookies wouldn't cut anymore if someone got hurt again because she was careless with her spellwork. And if she could only have one or the other, even if magic was what had brought them together in the first place... well, that wasn't really a choice, was it?
To her bewilderment, the universe had seemed to agree with her, almost as though she was being rewarded for the decision. There'd been none of the grand, noble suffering she'd imagined; none of the howling emptiness she'd feared. She could still sense magic, for one thing, and touch minds she'd touched before; that kind of passive ability wasn't something that could just be turned off. And when she and Tara linked hands so Tara could borrow Willow's power to cast her spells.... Tara's love and energy brushing against her spirit felt more wonderful than any cheap imitation she could find at Rack's. She wasn't living magic the way she used to, it was true, and that was sometimes inconvenient; but she wasn't nearly as cut off as she'd expected, either.
But for all she'd appreciated the ease of transition, she'd also worried that it was too easy; and sure enough, it had left her ill prepared for days like this one, when it seemed like all the dire consequences she'd been avoiding had combined into one overwhelming wave of awful. When the house her best friends, daughtery little sister figure, and associate heroey types had invaded started collapsing under the weight of an incoming Hellmouth; when all that stood between them and pancake-y horror was one witch's spellwork.
The urge to just take over was so strong Willow could almost taste it.
Surely, Tara wouldn't mind if I just... helped? It's not as if it would be much more than I'm already doing. Just... giving the spell a nudge. Not actually taking control or anything.
Though even if I did take over, you know, just this once. Would it be so bad? I'm the one with all the magical heavy lifting experience, aren't I? After Glory, and Adam, and every other time I pushed myself to the limit to be the Big Gun the Slayer needed? They would have died without me! What if I don't take over, and something goes wrong, and they do die this time? Surely Tara would forgive me....
Willow swallowed guiltily around the knot of worry in her throat, remembering thinking something not unsimilar with a sprig of Lethe's Bramble in her hand. How many times had she decided she knew what was best, only to make the problem worse? Tara had all the witchy knowledge Willow hadn't been raised with, plus access to Willow's own power; even Giles with all his new tricks probably couldn't do any better. Pushing her aside now would be like saying Willow had no faith in Tara, that Willow was the only one allowed to save their friends when it really mattered.
That she had to still be the one they turned to, even with all the other changes in their lives. That... she was afraid, and didn't trust anyone else to fix things. Not even Tara.
But that was what kept relationships together, wasn't it? Trusting one another. They'd already found out the hard way that love wasn't enough. Backing out of her commitment now would be like throwing Tara's trust back in her face, and something deep within Willow balked at doing that to her again. She remembered Tara trying to reassure her the day after they'd got back together, telling her that she was still the real Scooby; Willow felt ashamed, now, that she hadn't turned right around and told Tara she was a real Scooby, too.
She took a deep breath at that thought, opening her eyes just long enough to get a good look at her girlfriend's serene face. Tara looked focused, but also peaceful, and more beautiful than anything else in Willow's life. Worth everything Willow had to give her... even, surely, the effort of a little faith.
"I can do this," she murmured, tightening her grip on Tara's fingers as she shut her eyes again, concentrating on holding up her end of the spellweave. On keeping the flow of power moving steadily from her to Tara, and from there to the crumbling house atop the hill, shoring up its failing structure. "We can do this."
And for several long, strained minutes she thought that might be enough: knitting the timbers and stone of the aging manor together while the earth trembled beneath it. It was like one of those trust exercises they'd done in college, the one where two people linked hands and one leaned over backward until there was no way to catch themselves if the person holding them up failed. Only, in this case, the person being held up was doing something complicated at the same time; something she could only do if Willow just did not let go.
The oppressive Hellmouth magic flooding up from the foundations of the house like toxic smoke worsened as the minutes passed, and she sank her teeth deep enough into her lip to draw blood as her stomach turned over. The feel of it had spiked after the magic-trapping ward had gone down, so she knew Buffy and the others had made at least some progress; and right after that, the suddenly appearing sense of several dozen would-be Slayers nearby had made it clear they really were in the right place. But no one had come back out yet, and if they didn't hurry up, there'd be devouring going on from beneath again no matter who'd promised what.
She was on the verge of reaching out to the others to give another frantic warning when a sudden flare of incoming magic pierced the spell around the house. It felt familiar; weird, but familiar, as if a bunch of well-known presences had squashed themselves into one blobby being for transport. Anya was the only person Willow knew who could flash around willy-nilly these days, but if it was her, she definitely wasn't alone.
"Tara," she breathed, concerned.
"Is that Giles? And-- Ethan Rayne?" Tara gasped, and her eyes flew open as the steady, rising pressure of the Hellmouth's magic fluctuated abruptly. The counter-pressure that Tara's spell had been applying against it slipped in turn, unable to adjust quickly enough to the new additions; the air split with a series of ominous groaning and cracking sounds, and Willow swallowed hard against her renewed fear.
If she could just-- but she couldn't, but what if she didn't--
Buffy! she reached out again, almost involuntarily, a fretful thread of thought.
But only a half-sent Wills, it's...! made it through in reply before the magic inside the manor spiked a second time, worse than before, as if a nova of demonic energy had suddenly ignited in the basement. The way Willow and Tara's mingled magic had spread throughout the structure, it was as though someone had suddenly flashed them in the eyes with a million-candlepower spotlight; both women flinched, nearly losing control of the flow of magic again, and this time the spell began unravelling irreparably around the edges.
It was like trying to weave a scarf more quickly than a kitten could tease it apart from the other end: very much a losing battle, but one they couldn't just surrender. Willow suffered a bad few seconds of abject panic before another infusion of energy shored up the spell-- this one more like a spreading root system than a hammerstrike, and comfortingly familiar. It still wasn't enough to stop the collapse, but it did help enough for them to keep hold of the occupied areas, Tara wrapping their energy protectively around the sparks of life they could still sense in the building. The rest of the manor began to fall apart like a house of cards shaken off its foundation, splintering and cracking and crumpling room by room in a thunderous clamor of noise.
"Oh, goddess," Willow whispered under her breath, hoping against hope that they hadn't just lost any of their family. There seemed to be fewer presences in the manor than there had been before all the magical disruptions, but it was impossible to be sure amid all the chaos. "Please be okay. Please be okay."
"Just a little longer," Tara murmured in turn. "I think they're coming; we just need to hold it a little longer!"
Willow glanced up over Tara's shoulder, and realized she was right: people really were starting to flee the manor. The two witches had settled onto the drive between the van and the house to cast the spell; their legs had numbed quickly from the chill, uneven pressure of the cobbles, but it gave Willow an excellent view now as bodies hurled themselves out through the wide, still open front door. For a moment, her concentration on the spell wavered again as she wondered if they were going to need to defend themselves-- but the first people to stumble out looked befuddled, not hostile. Sort of stunned, disbelieving, and mortified all at once.
She relaxed a little, sinking most of her attention back into the spell as they milled around, gathering beside the front door. The first handful were quickly joined by an angrier, more worried-looking group of tweedy types, but those didn't approach either beyond giving Willow and Tara a few wary glances. A few of the most agitated ones plunged back inside; they must have been the lifesigns uppermost in the house, gathered together before the house's structural integrity had been compromised. Prisoners like the Potential Slayers, maybe... possibly even their field Watchers? Though there didn't seem to be nearly as many of them as there should, if Giles was right about there being a total of forty-nine girls marked by the hand of Sineya.
Willow bit her lip, worry mounting for one particular Watcher, the one whose magic she'd bet anything had reached out to help them hold up the house. They'd had to leave him behind in London in the uncertain custody of the police, but if that had really been Anya flashing in, well, she knew the justice demon had answered one of Giles' wishes before. It really could be him; anything could have happened! And if it had....
Well, anything could still happen. Willow took a deep breath, blinking the weariness away, and held on.
The few Watchers who'd gone back inside started staggering back out after a minute or two, and with them, the first of the faces she'd been looking for, at long last. Relief washed over Willow's ragged nerves as Xander walked out through the door, a gun held casually in one hand and the other supporting a young woman bleeding from several shallow, ragged wounds. He handed the girl off to one of the fretting Watchers, who threw her arms around the young woman, exclaiming something that got lost in the general din of noise; then he stuck the gun in his waistband and strode back inside, returning a second time with a somewhat older woman in a torn, bloodstained blouse who looked kinda familiar.
More young women poured out after the pair, a few dozen maybe; followed by Faith and Wes, ragged and weary-looking and holding each other up but alive. At least one thing had gone according to plan, thank Hecate! Cordy and Groo walked out next, carrying a pair of crying prepubescent girls; then Xander again, guiding a pair of handcuffed, traumatized looking guys in black; then Dawn, arm-in-arm with a dark-eyed, attractive young woman who looked sort of angry with the world. Buffy was right behind them, similarly burdened with a wounded Slayer-to-Be, though her eyes were on Dawn's companion; that seemed strange to Willow, but she missed what happened next as the still slowly collapsing spell took the basement with it. The ceiling supports had finally let go, along with the last of its structural integrity-- but that was all right, because the rest of the manor's inhabitants seemed to have finally made it to the entry hall. Giles and Ethan and Anya filed out next to last, each carrying tragically adorable, whimpering toddler-sized Potentials.
Last of all, an aristocratic looking older Watcher emerged-- and Willow gasped, slumping forward as Tara finally let the spell go. They'd done it; they'd held the house together long enough for everyone still alive to make it out, and Willow hadn't even needed to reach for the darker magics to do it. She laughed faintly in exhaustion and disbelief, the sound lost in the clamor of the house's final death throes, then sat up straighter and reached out to frame Tara's weary face with shaky hands.
"We did it, baby. You did it. You're amazing."
An abashed smile broke over Tara's face as she beamed back. "You know I couldn't have done it without...."
She stopped there, though, the light in her expression going out as she turned sharply, staring over her shoulder. "Oh, no...." Tara breathed, then started trying to struggle back to her feet, hampered by cramping limbs.
"Tara, what...?" Willow replied, confused and feeling a little let down as she followed suit, bracing herself against the van. The guy Tara was staring at, the last Watcher out, didn't look like anything particularly horrifying; though he was stalking rather purposefully toward the group of young Slayer Potentials and the Scoobies still among them. Maybe he was related to one of the girls? Because he looked sort of....
"Oh, goddess," she echoed her girlfriend, understanding Tara's reaction instantly as comprehension hit.
She heard Anya cry out next, her voice shrill and carrying with disbelief: "But I thought... Giles, you said every person to freely play a part in Travers' plot, why is he still here?"
Heads turned at her exclamation, one in particular just in time: Faith lunged toward the incoming Watcher, who had drawn a dagger from some hidden sheath as he headed for his erstwhile son. She was barefoot for some reason, but that didn't hamper her stride as she moved, a flash of metal lashing out from her hand-- was that a chain she was carrying? Sparks flew as she deflected the blade.
"I'll give you door number two, you son of a bitch!" the Slayer spat at him, then whirled and struck out with the chain again, sending its length whipping toward his throat.
He ducked, missing the strike by a hair's breadth-- but by that point, everyone else had caught on to what was happening. Willow and Tara, finally steady on their feet again, made it to the group just as Xander emerged victorious from the hurried dogpile, eyes flashing lavender as he wrapped his hands immovably around the senior Wyndam-Price's wrists.
Willow had expected, if she were ever to meet him, that Wes' adoptive dad would be the same type of starched-shirt jerk as Quentin Travers. But current events seemed to have unraveled him, too: he was red-faced in anger, lips drawn back in a snarl, and a deep, bitter anger flared in his eyes as he met gazes with Wes.
"Years," he hissed. "Decades I spent setting the scene, and twice now...."
Wes interrupted him, voice glacially cool. "It is not my failures but your own which should concern you now. I don't know what you were promised-- and I don't care to know-- but you had better hope that your master's tastes in punishment are not as extravagant as his rewards."
Richard's face darkened further, and he would have said something else-- but then the young woman Dawn and Buffy had been so focused on stepped up and slapped him full across the face. Hard enough to rock his head to one side, despite her relatively slender muscles and petite frame.
Willow glanced at Buffy, then Faith, biting her lip as the dots connected.
"Kennedy!" one of the Watchers cried out.
The world's newest Slayer threw an angry, hurt look at the woman who'd spoken; probably her training Watcher, if Willow had to guess. "You can't tell me he doesn't deserve it, Thera. Or did you set me up for all this?" She gestured toward the still-settling ruins of the house.
The older woman reeled back. "No. Of course not. I would never! But-- but he's--" She reached out to Kennedy, then withdrew her hand, deflating. "I would have said he was one of the Council's strongest loyal proponents of adapting our methods to modern times. But after seeing the lengths toward which he and Travers were willing to go in that pursuit...." She squared her shoulders, then, and nodded to Giles. "I begin to see the point you've been trying to make, all these years."
Giles very carefully did not roll his eyes, though Willow saw his mouth twitch as he acknowledged the statement. "Indeed."
"How do you like that, Dick? You might have done some good here after all," Faith said, smirking at Richard Wyndam-Price with unholy cheer. Then she turned to Anya. "So. I got a good wish in mind for this guy. You still taking orders?"
Uncharacteristically, Anya paused; then she glanced at Xander before clearing her throat and replying. "Actually, well. D'Hoffryn... he took the Wish back again. He said I had one last try, and that if it worked, we'd be even, but he couldn't let me upset the balance on the Slayer's behalf anymore."
Xander's face did something complicated at that, and Willow's heart lurched for him; she reached out for Tara's hand again, gripping her fingers tightly.
Tara squeezed back as Anya hurried to continue before Xander could reply. "So-- I did it. It's done. Travers and company... well, they're not dead, but they're somewhere no one from this world will ever find them."
"But I saw you in demon face on our way out," Buffy said, narrowing her eyes.
"Yes, well," Anya fidgeted, this time obviously not looking at her ex-fiancé. "Unlike last time, he only took the magic, not the...." She gestured up and down the length of her body. "I guess that's his idea of even."
The conversation had apparently distracted Xander enough to loosen his grip on the captured Watcher; the elder Wyndam-Price broke abruptly away in the silence that followed Anya's statement, toes digging deep in the cobbles as he tried to run.
Faith stopped him before he'd even made it two steps by the simple expedient of kicking him in the back of a knee as he passed her. Buffy had drawn the knife she'd been playing with in the van the instant he'd moved; she tossed it to Faith as smoothly as if the move had been rehearsed. Faith caught it, pausing for a second to give Buffy a wry look; then she knelt and pressed the ornate edge against his throat. "Might want to rethink your strategy."
The man went still again under the threat, but his eyes blazed with helpless fury. "You might wish to rethink yours," he replied. "I'm not Sahjhan's only contact, nor his only means of reaching you. Merely the one he's been cultivating the longest. Perhaps if you free me, he might not kill the rest of you when he comes for my son. Sahjahn. Sahjhan. Sahjhan!"
Faith paused at the repetition of the name, glancing up toward the sky; but after a long moment of held breaths, she lowered her gaze again.
"Sorry, Dick. Seems your master ain't listening tonight," she said, giving him a sharp grin.
The old Watcher's expression finally slipped at that, and for a moment, naked dismay showed on his face.
Travers gone, Wes' old dad defanged, Sahjhan possibly retreated from the field....
"It's almost over," Willow said hopefully, meeting her girlfriend's gaze. At least this go-round; at least until the Hellmouth moved again, or some other disaster happened.
Tara's smile lit up again; and this time, they weren't interrupted as they wrapped their arms around one another in exhausted relief.
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