By Jericho TGF
Flying, no, rocketing through the woods, Buffy brought her considerable power to bear on running. Tearing through underbrush, smacking against small branches in her way, she didn't bother to duck or evade. That would take too much time. Time she was deathly afraid she didn't have.
As fast as her feet were carrying her through the dense forest, as quick and nimble as the Slayer was, her mind was locked in place. Sparing a smidgeon of her resources for contingency plans, she focused on two thoughts: how to stop Miranda from pulling Spike into the sun and what to do if she does. Having not the first clue on either did nothing to lighten that yoke of dread weighing on her.
In truth, she was also cursing herself for jetting out of their 'safe haven' - a macabre overestimation if there ever was one - without at the very least swiping the comforter that had been laying in a crumpled heap next to the tree that Spike leaned against just a short while ago. She'd made a mistake, possibly a fatal one, and her stomach churned and writhed painfully at the admittance of it.
If Spike died... No. That was one scenario she would not deign to entertain.
Neither as fleet of foot, nor as oblivious to the pulling and scratching of the surrounding foliage, Willow panted and struggled her way through the brush as she ran. When first Buffy went dashing out of the clearing, faster than the proverbial shooting bullet, the redhead had been just one step behind her. She was fast outpaced, at least physically. Willow's mind raced as swiftly as the Slayer's body far in front of her, though in much less of a straight line, darting down tangent trails of thought and back again after discarding notions as either absurd or unworkable.
Spike had specifically asked Giles to bring her. It wasn't for her inherent charm and grace. She knew that. He'd figured her magicks might be helpful. Guilt prodded her into wondering what he'd think now, given her glaring lack of assistance in keeping him from being taken. That failure wouldn't be going down in the record books as her shiniest moment ever. It was doubly important that she come up with something to help him now. Try as she might, though, she couldn't think of a suitable assist to get him back.
She might not be a haunt expert, but she knew magicks in ways that few could. Or dared. Not once had she ever heard of a spell that could be used as a weapon against the dead - the all the way, free-floating dead, anyway. With the haunt's ability to alter the composition of her physical manifestations, there was only an infinitesimal chance that a physical attack with magicks would work even if Willow zapped Miranda while she was fully formed. So, if Miranda couldn't be forced to stop dragging Spike to his immolation, what other options were there?
It was possible Willow could provide enough counter-pull to keep Spike in the woods.
Shaking her head as she ducked under a low-hanging branch, she quickly threw out the idea. Without knowing the extent of Miranda's strength, it was a questionable option at best. Saving him from doing a stunning impression of a charcoal briquette would be rather pointless if he ended up drawn and quartered in the process. Plus, the only hope there was of working the spell at all would be if she could catch up with him. Short of using spells she could never use again, however 'for the greater good' the reason seemed to be, there just wasn't time to get to him.
Breathing heavily, hurrying as fast as she could, Willow groaned at the appearance of a small tree trunk blocking her path. Not wanting to lose any time, she leapt over it. Unfortunately, she didn't possess the inherent agility of her best friend. Well, she did, just the wrong best friend. Her toe caught on the raised nub from a broken branch and she pitched forward, windmilling her arms and squeaking in surprise.
One hand slapped against a tree to the right of the path and she almost caught herself from falling. Almost. Her grip slipped and she careened into the underbrush headfirst.
She landed relatively softly on a mat of dead leaves and squishy stuff that she most definitely didn't care to examine too closely. Rising from her sprawled position, she spit what she desperately hoped was dirt and flecks of dried leaves from her mouth as she shook her head and rested on all fours for a moment. Lumbering crashes of sound were coming up behind her, and in the distance she could hear Buffy barreling ahead - not as loudly, as she was farther away, but with more speed.
"Willow!" Giles' wheezing breath gasped out her name as he drew up next to her. Leaning over to rest his hands on his knees, clutching Spike's comforter as if it were the lifeline to pure oxygen, he cursed every cigarette he'd ever smoked in his life, every scotch he'd ever drunk, and every day he chose to recline with his LPs instead of jog for his health. "Are you alright?" His question took awhile to force out of air-starved lungs, and even when it did, it was virtually unrecognizable.
Disgusted with herself for the odious display of clumsiness, she pushed herself up and knelt as she wiped her hands. "Yeah. Darn log."
"Dastardly..." Giles panted, "...trees. They can...get the...jump...on you...if you're not...careful."
Willow's chin snapped up defensively and she raised a scratched and sore hand to shield her eyes from the sun beating down on her while she prepared a retort. It was going to be a witty and sarcastic one, too, until all thoughts of repartee fled out of her head as she looked at the back of her hand.
Lowering it and her head slowly, she stared in weird fascination at the marks clearly visible on it. The sun was bright overhead, courtesy of a break in the thick canopy. No leaves or branches blocked the light from pouring down liquid gold rays, making her pale skin seem almost translucent.
There was a nasty gash on her palm, but she only vaguely noticed it when she flipped her hand over. Staring at the appendage with eyes sightless for all but the sunshine, her pulse sped up to a dizzying pace and she smiled.
"I have an idea."
Giles frowned. That was certainly good news, but Willow's vacant stare made him question the validity of her claim, as well as her mental acuity. She could have hit her head, after all.
Before he could temper her words with caution, her eyes snapped back into focus and she barked out a clipped command. "Giles, go! Follow Buffy. This might not work."
He wanted to ask what might not work, along with ten other highly important questions, but she had that look she got when she was really intent on something. Her resolve face, as she often referred to it. With the wisdom of age, he understood that occasionally a person just has to forge ahead without all the answers...no matter how much nicer it would be for that person to take a minute to let a few oxygen molecules return to his body. With only a nod to conserve energy and time, he turned to continue his trek after Buffy and Spike.
Blurry as a Renoir, the landscape slipped past the sprinting Slayer. Oblivious, she strained to hear the telling sounds in front of her. Sounds that would let her know exactly where Spike was and how close he was coming to the all-too-fast approaching break in the shady safety of the forest.
Bursting through a bush with explosive force, decimating the harmless greenery, she was finally rewarded with a glimpse of the not-yet-extra-crispy vampire. Not that she felt any particular victory in that. In fact, the sight was so horrendous, it froze her in her tracks and she gasped. She sized up the situation in less time than it took her heart to pound once in her throat.
Spike was obviously and, she thought, blessedly unconscious. One elbow jutted towards the sky where he was held in an invisible grip. His torso tilted back in a parody of jaunty reclining pose and his legs flopped bonelessly over the ground clutter across which he was being dragged. Any damage to his head was hidden from Buffy's horrified gaze. It lolled lifelessly against his back. His long neck was bared and bloody. The cougar bites oozed sticky redness that stained the skin around them without hiding the wicked puncture wounds. His clothes were ragged and torn and the flesh beneath was lacerated, scratched, and scorched.
It was blindingly obvious that his torturous trek through the woods hadn't been in the straightest of straight lines. Nor had he been spared the slices of deadly light that dappled the forest floor in places, if his slightly smoking body was any indication.
As she watched, Spike was pulled forward slowly, his body making a chilling rustling sound as it bounced and slid over the ground. Buffy felt a faint glimmer of hope when she noticed how slowly Miranda was dragging him. Hope that perhaps her seemingly endless energy was waning.
That hope was brutally extinguished when his upraised arm jerked suddenly and his body swung around, smashing into a small tree. The trunk shook on impact and a rain of leaves silently and gracefully floated down, a gruesome contradiction in its serene natural beauty.
Spike was a mouse in the clutches of a cat more vicious than the cougars they'd encountered had any hope of being and it was killing him - not quickly, as a foray into the sunny day would be - but by deadly degrees. Damage was Miranda's intent, damage and then death. A lot of damage.
That moment of clarity shook Buffy out of her horror-induced trance and she roared out her rage, her rejection of Miranda's insidious plan, and her own feelings of helplessness. She leapt forward, fury frothing and bubbling in her eyes.
Without a large array of options, Buffy did the only thing that sprang to mind. She launched herself in the air just steps from Spike and landed on him, grunting on impact. Thinking she might be able to jar him loose from Miranda's grip, she was sorely disappointed as she felt herself dragged along the forest floor on a Spike-sled. She may as well have not bothered.
That really ticked her off.
Rolling off of the vampire, she slid into his path and swung at the air, where Miranda's head would have been had she been visible. There was neither resistance nor response. In fact, she ended up back on that Spike-sled when his body hit her just below the knees, toppling her.
Collecting herself quickly, she grabbed for the wrist lying limply against Spike's side, wrapping her fingers around it in a bone-crushing grip. Her other hand caught a passing tree trunk and she prepared herself for the pull.
For a moment her efforts seemed to work. Spike's progress slowed as her grip tightened, then stopped momentarily. Buffy redoubled her efforts, willfully ignoring the screaming heat of her muscles as they bunched and flexed. Focused on her goal, she didn't notice the swirling color that was materializing next to her. She started in surprise and almost released her punishing grip on Spike when Miranda's voice broke the ominous silence.
"You are quite the persistent young lady," the deceptively petite woman drawled casually. "But then, 'lady' is a bit of a misnomer, is it not?" The question had an air of idle curiosity. Angry fire crackled in Buffy's eyes and she speared Miranda with a look that could melt steel. Pursing her lips as if put out by the unpleasantness in the tawny pools glaring at her with such hostility, the haunt waved a dainty hand dismissively. "I was merely referring to your unusual strength. Do not take offense."
Buffy rolled her eyes and refused to answer. Despite Miranda's appearance, the dragging force had not lessened on Spike's body and it was taking all her concentration to keep him stationary.
Feigning a deep sigh, the haunt cocked her head to the side and studied the red-faced, straining Slayer. "I suppose it matters little, as your remaining time is destined to be only marginally longer than the spawn of Satan's with whom you share your body."
Gritting her teeth, Buffy's head swiveled on a tense neck. Sarcastic, disdainful, enraged, she ground out, "You must have missed the memo. I don't do 'destined.' Too predictable."
"Yes, well, be that as it may..." Miranda's voice trailed off and her solidity wavered, but not before ripping Spike out of Buffy's grip with nothing more than a thought, tossing him away as effortlessly as she would wipe a speck of dust off a sleeve.
The Slayer was taken by surprise and fell backwards, landing hard on her rear end. If there were any lingering doubts about Miranda's power waning, they were laid to rest when she pointed at Buffy, smiled, and flicked her finger. Buffy felt a blow roughly akin to a semi truck plowing into her. The force of it picked her up and threw her several feet.
Struggling to her feet, she lunged after Spike's retreating body. She was neither close enough nor fast enough and he slipped past the last protective barrier of shaded ground.
Spike was dragged into the brilliant and deadly light of day.
Time seemed to stop, leaving Buffy with nothing but abject terror. Seconds crept by like hours, like days, as inch by flayed inch of Spike's body was brought forth into the sun. She was screaming a gut-wrenching wail that poured out the basest of all human emotions but she didn't hear it. She was running so fast that every cell in her body felt abused by the effort but she didn't feel it. Her heart was pounding, pumping blood as quickly as it could to sustain her, but for Buffy it was dying.
Smoke, pungent and acrid, burned her nostrils and watered her eyes. So much smoke. It hid Spike's body from her and she felt cheated at the loss, no matter how awful the sight of his broken, bleeding shell had been.
While her world was disintegrating right in front of her, some fragment of her mind took note of odd trivialities with eerie dispassion. Footfalls were coming closer. Giles was calling her name. He was coming to help. She knew that he would have the comforter with him. That's what Giles would do.
She also knew he would be too late.
A barefoot Willow stood on the sliver of sun-kissed earth near the edge of the forest with arms stretched wide. After picking herself up from where she'd fallen, she had quickly cleared a small area of debris. Proud of the fact that she'd only shuddered twice - okay, three times - at the ick factor as she brushed away the decaying foliage that blanketed the ground, she wriggled her toes into the cool, damp soil dark with nutrients. Once her feet were sufficiently buried, she grounded herself. Clearing her mind and releasing the connection to her internal magicks, she gave herself over to the most powerful force known to anyone. The power of the earth and its elements.
Willow took a good long look around the woods and thought about the magnitude of what she was going to try to do. And then she thought about the consequences should she not make the attempt.
Throwing back her hands, closing her eyes, Willow steadied herself and began.
"Sister Earth, I call to thee, beseeching with humility. Weigh my mind, my heart, my soul, to give you proof of noble goal. Protection is the pure intent, relieving one of his lament. Release your moisture, set it free, this alone my humble plea."
She wasn't invoking a spell, at least not in the classic sense. The natural world commanded an energy that was varied in scope and as ancient as the planet itself, but it wasn't the same type of energy that she had learned to bend to her will with her magicks. The type of energy she'd used. Abused. This new force was a power that could not be corrupted, couldn't be harnessed. It was completely pure and yet the most intricate and intense to handle. There was no invoking it, only asking - very, very nicely - to be allowed to nudge it a little.
Willow felt the intensity of that energy as soon as she started. Perhaps her history allowed her to better recognize what was happening to her, though the feeling wasn't even remotely similar to the effects of the spell casting she was used to. Her bare feet warmed, as if the soil beneath and around them was heating and expanding, spreading its warmth to her skin. Seeping into her muscles and bones, it comforted her in inexplicable ways even as she was studied and judged by an incomprehensible and age-old consciousness.
If she was found wanting, her attempt could be brought to a much more rapid conclusion than she would like. One that was significantly less pleasant than just burning out.
"Sister Air, your help I need to stir the wind and bend the reed. Earth's gift received into my hands, I beg you lift above the lands. Moisture rising ever high will crystallize in azure sky. A debt I'll owe for all boons gifted, ever thankful for nature shifted."
The purity of the force is what drew Willow to it after the tragic consequences of the dark forces that drove her internal magicks. During her rehabilitation, she'd spent long hours studying the true essence of magick and she'd stumbled across several theories on natural energy. She was fascinated by it, but never dared to imagine she would ever attempt to manipulate the unimaginable power. There was a very good reason for that, too. The catch. The type of energy that imbued the earth and its provinces and the type of energy that she could control just didn't mix. The best nature witches in recorded history, occasionally labeled erroneously as weather witches, were actually normal, if often a little eccentric, women. No power on their own. They simply had the ability to key into the power of nature and bend it to their will in small degrees.
That wasn't the case here, and as such, the inherent danger and risk involved were magnified.
As gentle breezes caressed her skin and lifted damp hair from her slightly sweaty face, danger and risk were the furthest things from Willow's mind. She felt welcomed. Accepted. Recognized as a sister of the elements, she was serenely comfortable in a way she'd never been before. It was a heady and joyous feeling. A natural high that had no side effects, no drawbacks, no darkness in it at all. She was herself. Not a powerful witch hiding from a history of geekiness. She was the nerd and the woman, the strength and the weakness, the good and the bad. Because of that, because she willingly embraced her own true nature and hid no part of it from that for which she reached, she was acknowledged by the energy. Acknowledged and loved.
Standing in what now felt like the most tropical rainforest during the wettest of wet seasons, air almost tangibly fluid and heavy sluiced over her flesh, dampened her clothes, embraced her. Then, on the wind, it lifted toward the heavens above.
"Sister Fire, elemental, assistance here is fundamental. I make to you an allocution, and ask your aid in resolution. Your essence, heat, is needed dearly to steer the course and see it clearly. Join with Air and Earth divine to speed the gift and help it climb."
Beyond the gratitude, the pleasure that her attempts were working, the relief, Willow felt purified. The intense pleasure didn't mask the importance of the task that precipitated her actions. Instead, it coursed through her and cleared her mind of all but the most vital thoughts. Triviality was just that. Trivial. And quickly discarded.
An agonized wail of torment echoed through the trees, ruthlessly jarring Willow out of an almost trance-like state as she was preparing to call to the fourth and final corner. Focus evaporated like a fine mist. Fear trickled in.
Looking around wildly, her mind made connections her heart couldn't accept. The cry was Buffy's. In it was loss and torturous failure. Spike had been pulled into the sun.
An instinct she wasn't even consciously aware of reached out to the magickal power she was most familiar with wielding. Instantly, as if she'd grabbed hold of a dozen live electrical wires, the shock of the dual forces brushing against one another shuddered through her. Shaking, jerking, almost epileptic tremors rocked her small body as they clashed together.
Eyes clouded with dark force, then cleared, only to cloud again. A sticky, black, and oily feeling clutched her heart and soul. With tempest-tossed frailty, she labored to sort out that which could never be consciously sorted. She had no choice. There was nothing she could do to save herself, to save Buffy, Spike, anyone. Willow's mind released its hold, tore itself away from the internal strife. Surrendered.
With no mind to guide the actions of the body, the soul was left to fend for itself. Often underestimated and occasionally discounted completely, it exists in every conscious being. Too many times the soul and what it is capable of are forgotten - in some cases not even recognized as being there - and it can't do the job it was meant to do. It is and has always been at the mercy of the dictates of the mind. When they disagree, mind and soul, mind wins. The soul can inspire discomfort with actions taken, but without the mind's agreement, can't affect those actions. It is often a silent voice of impotent disapproval. But when the mind is sleeping, or - as now - defeated...
Willow's soul repudiated the dark forces swirling malevolently inside her. It had tasted the sweet liquid purity of natural energy and chose to ally with it. Rising forcibly like a phoenix out of the ashes, it clawed at the darkness, tearing at it, rending it limb from proverbial limb. The soul battled with righteous fury, decimating and dispatching the cloying shadows, forcing it out of Willow's body for the final time.
When the distasteful job was done, the soul reached out for the colorful swirl of energy that was left, both embracing and immersing itself in the force of life. For the soul, it was a homecoming.
In combination, soul and energy assumed control of Willow's body. Her arms came up again, her fingers opened and straightened towards the sky. A voice, musical and serene, rose from her throat. The ritual continued.
"Sister Water, with no despair, your strength I hail in this repair. The gift now granted, lifted, sped, I give to thee for duties read. From clear, opaque, hide shining sun, from dry, rain down, quench vicious fun. Cloud the light and wet the land, to spare them death's most dark demand."
In an instant, the sun disappeared behind large, dark clouds and the gentle rains started to fall. The goal had been achieved, but at what cost? Had it been too late?
Empathy and a belief in what was right flooded Willow's body. Exhaustion was battered back, held at bay for the time being. With the wisdom of the ageless energy inside her and guided by her soul, Willow lifted her face to the crying sky and called out once more.
"Earth, Air, Fire, Water, join as one in me, your daughter. I give myself to sisters four; unite in me forever more. Turning back the revolution, rescind the price of persecution. For gifts bestowed, my fealty, as I will so mote it be."
Spent, changed utterly, Willow's arms dropped. The energy that had joined with her soul ebbed. Her soul was left in control of a body that had been taken to the limits of stamina and endurance, and beyond. Her damaged and fractured mind was silent.
Large, green eyes rolled back in her head as she crumpled. Unconscious before she hit the earth, a healing sleep pulled her deeper and deeper. Though unaware of it, the energy Willow embraced and channeled began working to heal her mind and restore her body.
With no one to take notice, a blue mist materialized around the girl. Obscuring her fallen body from potentially prying eyes, the mist provided protection and warmth, and then wafted over her skin, imbuing her with energy of its own.
There is only so much a person can take. When you're the Slayer, that bar is set significantly higher than the average person's. It has to be. That doesn't mean the bar doesn't exist or that it can't be reached. She'd been a hairsbreadth away from the breaking point more than once. Hell, she'd passed it more than once - when she had to kill Angel to save the world, when her mother died, when Glory had taken Dawn. When she'd been brought back from the dead.
People are unique, though. There's even an adage that sums it up nicely: that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Of course, there isn't exactly an adage that covers what does kill you, but Buffy had kind of figured it was like a double dose of strong.
Turned out she was wrong.
Watching Spike disappear behind a cloud of flesh-scented smoke ripped Buffy's heart out of her chest, gripped it in a cadaverous claw, and mashed into a quivering mass of pulsing, bloody gore. Strong wasn't on the same planet with how she felt.
Coughing, hacking, she tried to make her way to Spike's side. There was too much smoke. She couldn't find him. Tears she didn't feel poured down her cheeks as she called to him over and over, but he was beyond hearing. Couldn't respond. Might already be gone.
Panic seized her stomach and rammed it up through her ribcage and into her throat.
The first raindrop fell while she was stumbling through the thick, cloying blackness. Three steps later she was drenched. She didn't notice. When the breeze picked up and started to disperse the hazy screen, she was oblivious. Engrossed in her search, she had no time to take note of anything as mundane as the weather.
Then, as if born of the sulfurous smog, Spike's form emerged from the smoke.
Taken completely by surprise, she almost thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. She hadn't realized until she saw him lying supine in the yard, still smoldering, just how convinced she'd been that she wouldn't.
Spike was still alive...still undead, anyway.
The sweet relief that flooded Buffy's body left her weak-kneed and trembling. And a little miffed. She rushed to his side and collapsed next to him on the muddy grass. Touching him, running a gentle hand over his bleeding, swollen, seriously broken face, then down his lacerated and bruised chest, she tried to assure herself that she wasn't seeing things. Tried to assure herself that he really was still there.
When he was feeling better she was going to kick his ass all the way back to Sunnydale. How dare he get yanked all over creation by something with a major yen for using him as fireplace fodder? How could he have let himself get pulled out of that clearing? He knew better! Big arrogant idiot. Thinking he's all invincible and stuff. Stupid. Stupid.
His hideously abused face was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.
She was a tumult of emotion, ecstatic one minute and vibrating with anger the next. Then, as she calmed down slowly, as she became more and more assured by the fact that Spike had not been burned to cinders, the anger faded. It was just fear-based anyway, she wasn't really mad at him.
Big undead dummy.
Leaning over him, she brushed a tender kiss to his lips like he was the sleeping prince in a politically correct version of Snow White. The irony tugged at the corners of her mouth, knowing he'd loathe the comparison pulled them the rest of the way into a brief grin. He didn't move, but judging by appearance alone, that was probably for the best. He was not going to be all moonlight and roses when he came around.
The sound of someone breaking through the woods behind her spun Buffy on her haunches. When she saw the gasping and staggering Giles, she stood up and rushed to his side, throwing her arms around him.
"He's okay. Well, actually he's not even close to okay, but he will be. You brought the comforter. I knew you would. I should have grabbed it. I wasn't thinking. Giles..."
Letting her get out the rush of words, mostly so he could catch a breath, he encircled her in his arms and let her babble. He could feel the tremors that wracked her body. It told him more than words ever could just how bad it had been for her, almost losing another person that meant so much to her. It didn't even bother him - much - that it was Spike.
Maybe he was getting used to the idea. Maybe he was grateful to the annoying vampire for saving his life when the first cougar attacked. Maybe he trusted in Buffy's heart enough to know that if she loved Spike, there must be something redeeming in him after all.
Maybe he was just getting soft in his old...wait. Never mind.
When he could finally get a word out without sounding like an emphysema patient, he said, "How odd. It appears to be raining."
Buffy pulled back and turned her head to look at Spike, only in part to verify he was still there. She smiled slightly and chose not to let it slip that she hadn't noticed until just then. "And people wonder why you're called 'Watcher'," she teased, then grew serious. "That's what saved him, Giles. One minute it's all 'Sunshine on my Shoulder' and the next it's 'Who'll Stop the Rain'."
When she realized the importance of what she said, she looked up at the sky. Blinking against the deluge, she peered at the bluish-gray clouds and frowned. "Actually, that is pretty strange. Song stylings aside..." Her voice trailed off when she glanced at Giles and noticed him staring at her like she'd just spouted Shakespearean verse. "What?"
Giles shook his head quickly. "Oh, nothing. I'm just astounded that you're familiar with the works of John Denver and Credence Clearwater Revival."
Once the requisite long-suffering look had been delivered, and after pointedly ignoring his sarcasm, Buffy slid back into the focused Slayer role and returned to Spike's side. Giles, grinning a little while her back was to him, followed her.
The grin fell away when he got his first look at the battered vampire.
"He's hurt pretty bad, Giles. Miranda likes to play with her food. I tried to stop her, but she knocked me away like I was nothing." Meeting her eyes, Giles glimpsed the concern and fear, the anger and purpose, everything that made her a great Slayer and an even better human being shining brightly in their depths. "We have to move him. He can't stay here. I'm thinking a big hell no on heading back into the woods, so we'll have to get him into the house. He's going to need blood, too, but we're out. Maybe Willow..." Frowning, noticing the absence of her friend for the first time, she asked. "Where is Willow?"
Giles lay the comforter on the ground and motioned to Buffy to help him get Spike onto it. They would use the tattered fabric as a makeshift stretcher for the time being. "I passed her on my way to you. She assured me she had an idea." Eying the clouds, he drawled, "It would appear her assurances were well founded."
Nodding, she concurred. "Well founded, well irrigated, and well shaded. Our little Willow's got a hearty 'Way to go' coming to her." Worry flared briefly in the tawny pools of her eyes. "Unless it was a dark magicks thing. You don't think it was a dark magicks thing, do you? No end justifies that means."
"I agree, Buffy, but I wasn't exactly in a position - "
"Oh! Look! Here she comes." Buffy caught a glimpse of Willow slipping out of the forest behind Giles' shoulder. As the redhead drew closer, Buffy started slightly in surprise at the sight. "Giles," she whispered, "do you see what I see?"
Her Watcher turned his head. Yanking off his glasses, his eyebrows rose and his eyes widened. Willow was walking towards them, alright, and she looked relieved - tired, but relieved. She also looked really, really dry. With each step she took, the curtain of rain parted for her, then closed back up behind her. When she reached her friends she smiled an exhausted but happy smile.
Neither Buffy nor Giles could figure out quite what to say. Waterlogged, rain pouring from them in warm rivulets, they just stared. Willow didn't seem to be offended by their dumbfounded silence, though. She didn't even seem to notice. She looked down at Spike, gasped at the sight of him, and raised her hands out from her side with her palms up, like a human scale of justice.
"Sisters four, a short request, healing hands to stand the test. What's done, undone, what's paid, now free. As I will, so mote it be."
She knelt next to him on a small patch of now-dry soil and slowly moved her hands over the length of Spike's body. In their wake, his flesh closed and healed, leaving only bruises and dried blood to mar his pale flesh. What bones were broken mended out of sight of human eyes, but mend they did. Buffy shot a confused and anxious look to Giles and spoke softly.
"There's rhyming? We're rhyming now?"
Just as confused as Buffy, Giles could only nod vaguely. "It would appear so."
Her task complete, Willow stood and grinned sheepishly at her soaked friends. "Guess we don't need the rain anymore." At her words, the rain cut off abruptly.
"Okay, Will, what's with the after-April showers and the wax on, wax off healing hands bit? Not that I don't appreciate it," Buffy dropped her eyes to the newly repaired but still unconscious Spike, "cuz, hey, I'm all about the thank you, but what's going on?"
With a Madonna-like serenity, Willow smiled gently. "I asked for help and I got it."
Trepidation had Buffy biting out, "Gee, think you could vague that up a bit? We might actually figure out what you're talking about in the next decade or so."
"It's okay, Buffy. You don't have to worry about me. I'm all right now."
Buffy was bothered by her friend's casual dismissal. Her stomach pitched sharply, the way a loved one of an alcoholic's would at the sight of a drink in his hand. "You did a spell, didn't you? Was it dark magicks, Will? Not going to judge, I promise, but gotta say I'm - "
"It wasn't a spell, Buffy. I promise. At least, not in the way that you think."
Buffy shook her head in disbelief and rolled her eyes. "Would someone care to explain to the magickally challenged just what is going on here?"
Giles spoke up, finally realizing what Willow was talking about but more confused than ever by how it was possible. "You invoked the corners."
Both Buffy's question and her rising frustration were ignored for the time being. Willow corrected Giles. "Not invoked. I couldn't do that before. I asked them for help. Giles, it was amazing. There's a lot that's fuzzy, I kinda lost control when I heard Buffy cry out. The energy I was handling touched the power I used normally and it knocked me loopy for awhile."
"Awhile?" Buffy's voice rose in agitation. "Giles said he passed you just minutes ago."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he sighed. The day had been overwhelming at best, and this new information went a long way to straining his endurance. "If Willow is correct, and she now has the ability to invoke the corners, it's entirely possible that she was out for hours. At least to her perception. When the two different forces collided in her, there would have been rather significant damage." He looked at Willow intently. "Quite frankly, I'm surprised you survived the experience. They may very well have slowed down, even stopped linear time to aid in healing you. Willow, I can't say that I'm overly familiar with elemental energy, but I do know it's a very different force than you're used to. To attempt to call the corners with your history was very dangerous."
Simmering with impatience, Buffy stepped between her friends. "I'm fascinated. Really. And I just can't wait to hear the entirety of this riveting tale, but we have more important things to deal with right now. Personally, I'd like to get Spike someplace with a little more cover than the wide open yard."
"Gonna have to vote with Goldilocks on that one, folks."
The weak voice rising from the ground brought any and all discussion to an abrupt halt. Buffy's head snapped around in time to see Spike tenderly push himself up on his elbows. The effort cost him and he winced, hissing out a sharp expletive.
Any concern that wasn't Spike-related fled from Buffy's mind. She dropped to his side and cautiously helped him sit up. "Shhh," she soothed gently, "everything is going to be fine."
A bark of dry laughter set him off on a coughing fit that paled his face beyond the norm and had him clutching his side for relief. Buffy was helpless to do anything but rub his back with sympathy. "Fine, she says," he finally wheezed. "That's bloody rich. Watch yourself, Slayer. The optimistic bent inn't exactly holdin' water right now."
Sympathy sizzled into a mild irritation at the dire hopelessness Spike spouted. Oddly enough, her mood brightened. That was just one of the interesting dynamics in their relationship. She grinned. "Whine, whine, whine. I swear, it boggles the mind that you made it past your centennial."
Arching his eyebrows and huffing, he made to get to his feet. When he twisted his torso, pain lanced into his side. Between gritted teeth, he ground out, "I bloody well hate that bint. I do. I really hate her." With Buffy's help, he made it to jelly-filled legs and tottered dangerously. Sliding under his arm and adding her strength to his weakness, Buffy helped him stand. It pinched a little, needing help like some swaddling babe, but the deep bruises and blood loss pinched more, so he tolerated the kid gloves. For now.
Looking himself over, assessing the damage, he was surprised it wasn't worse. His shirt and jeans were a write-off, no question, but his duster was just a little knocked up. It would survive. So would he. That was enough for the time being. Glancing up at the ominous black clouds that saved his unlife, he murmured, "Nice timin', Red. Appre - "
Dropping his gaze to the redhead, his head jerked in surprise. "What's with the glow, Will?"
Buffy, Giles, even Willow herself was taken aback by Spike's observation. Two heads turned to study her as she lifted her arm and looked at it. It was, in fact, giving off a faint bluish glow. "I-I don't know. I'm blue. Why am I blue? Giles?"
Crossing to her, Giles stared at Willow like she was a very interesting bug under a microscope. "Fascinating."
"No," Willow cried, distressed. Any serenity she had been feeling previously was gone like the smoke from Spike's body. "Not fascinating and really not normal! A-and Blue? Not a good look for me!" She was working herself up when a shudder wracked her body. It was almost like an internal wave went through her. The glow intensified even as her body stilled.
"Mother is sleeping." It was Willow's voice, but there was no Willow in the words. "She expended a large amount of energy, though she tried to mask the effects of your confrontation, Buffy."
Surprised beyond the telling of it, Buffy stepped forward. "Nathan?"
Brown eyes familiar for their tragic depths stared at her with warmth and patience. They were the same wise yet youthful orbs that she had first seen in a dead child's face. "Do not fear for your friend, Buffy. Willow is fine. She is, in fact, here with me. It was necessary to borrow her consciousness to contact you so I wouldn't attract Mother's attention. She now knows of my presence, and though she doesn't accept what or who I was, she fears me as a threat and guards herself."
Giving his attention to Spike, Willow's mouth smiled. "Your friend is humble, vampire. She would not tell you what she risked in beseeching those with the utmost authority for their assistance in saving you. The power she invoked made it possible for me to use her as a vessel. It cleansed her of the darkness that shadowed her heart and tormented her soul. She is free of it now, which is a benefit for her, but do not think that lessens the import of the trials she went through." Nathan broke off and chuckled. "Even now she's...disgruntled that I'm telling you this. She has a pure spirit and a good heart. A valued friend."
"B-buffy?" Giles stuttered on her name, too confused and stunned to do much more than that. "Wh-Who is this, and please forgive the glaring misnomer, person?"
Nathan, grinning with the precociousness of the average eight-year-old though he was far removed from an average anything, raised a hand to Giles and waved. "Hello, Mr. Giles. My name is Nathan. I was Miranda's son. What I am now is not important."
Spike snorted. "Nipper does that a lot. Big with the mysterious rot. You get used to it. Well...no, you don't, but he generally doesn't stick around long enough to bother much with it."
"Spike." There was impatience and warning in Giles' voice.
Not offended by the free-speaking vampire, Nathan said, "He's not wrong, Mr. Giles. Don't concern yourself."
"Nathan," Buffy asked, "what is it? Why are you here?"
Willow's body turned towards the Slayer. "I protected Willow as best I could when she was felled by the dueling forces inside her. Had Mother taken notice, she would have taken her over and used Willow's magicks against all of you. I blanketed her essence, keeping her from Mother's attention. Against those with power, Mother can only assume control if the person is unconscious. Willow was, unfortunately, an excellent candidate for inhabitation. Obviously. I have a gift to bestow her, and it is one that requires her awareness in combination with my presence in her mind. When she awoke, the pressing need to get to all of you drove her so I bided my time. Plus," he admitted with an angelically innocent smile, "I enjoyed our earlier contact and wanted to speak to you again."
Buffy gave the boy a beaming smile and struggled to control the urge to ruffle his hair affectionately. Willow's hair, anyway. Then, the memory of what Nathan had been through at his mother's hand came flooding back to her. She couldn't believe she'd allowed herself to forget - even briefly.
The pity and sorrow must have shown, because Nathan reached out and laid a hand on her small shoulder. Speaking softly to her alone, he said, "I didn't show you what happened to me for you to take the burden of it as your own. That particular weight is not for you to carry."
Buffy's shoulders squared. "It is now."
Nathan sighed knowingly and nodded. "Forgive me, I'd forgotten your strength of will and determination. I shouldn't have. It's what lifts you above your predecessors."
For the second time Nathan spoke as if he was more than casually familiar with Buffy and her unique personality. For the second time she felt a curious twinge at his comments. And, for the second time, Nathan changed the subject before she could pursue the issue.
"Willow is growing impatient, so I will provide her with my gift and take myself away from you now. Perhaps we will be able to talk again after..."
In his eyes was a combination of hope and despair. Miranda was, for all time and despite her gargantuan failings, still his mother. Buffy supposed some mixed feelings on the matter of destroying her was natural. She followed her heart and wrapped Nathan in a warm and caring embrace. "I look forward to it," she said sincerely.
"Um...Buffy?" Willow's voice was muffled by Buffy's hair. "Not that I don't appreciate the affection, but I'm me again."
Buffy smiled, but didn't let go right away. "And who else is as deserving of a hug? You saved Spike. I didn't thank you properly, or even understand fully what it took to do so. I do now. Thank you. I'm sorry for before. I was all suspicious girl."
"I understand. Really. You're forgiven."
Giles, quite for so long that his mouth felt dry, cleared his throat. "Willow, what was the gift Nathan was referring to?"
Finally released from the friendly and grateful embrace, Willow brushed her hair off her face and answered. "Nathan said something about opening my eyes, but I'm not sure what he meant."
"What's with that kid and seein' things?" Spike asked, mostly to himself. A good thing, seeing as his sardonic drawl was ignored.
When Buffy moved away to stand beside the vampire, Willow caught her first sight of the Carr House since Nathan's...visit. What she saw made her physically nauseated and almost dropped her where she stood. She swayed and clutched at her head and stomach, ill at heart as well as soul. Giles saw her going over and grabbed her before she had the chance to fall.
The urge to retch was strong.
Sick, twisted bolts of vile green energy pulsed malevolently around the exterior of the house like perpetual lightning from hell. A swirling vortex hung in midair above the roof. Looking at the B & B from the back, she could see tendrils of ill-looking color flowing into the vortex from a spot over the horizon, as well at least twenty thick strands coming up from what appeared to be storm cellar doors that were attached to the back of the house.
It was the most macabre and horrendous thing she'd ever seen and it took everything she had not to run screaming from the abomination.
"Willow!" Buffy cried out and rushed to her. Spike was just a step behind. Her three friends clustered around her, supportive and concerned, cutting off her view of the house and the manifestation of evil she saw there. It was a physical relief.
"What's wrong, Will?" Spike asked, scanning the area for potential danger.
"The house," she managed. Slowly her senses were stabilizing. "I think I know why getting rid of a haunt is called a cleansing."
"Really?" Giles asked, no more able to keep the interest and thirst for knowledge out of his voice than he would be of walking stark naked across a high wire over a stadium crowd. "I've been wondering about that, actually. It seemed an odd term, given the situation." Three pair of eyes pinned him and he shifted a little under the weight of the looks they gave him. Defensive, he snapped, "So sorry my desire for information is inconvenient for you."
Buffy sent a comforting grin to Giles before asking Willow, "What did you see?"
Serious and intent, Willow replied, "Trust me when I tell you that you don't want to know. But I know where we need to go."
Willow raised a still-shaky hand and pointed in the general direction of the storm cellar doors she saw so briefly, but will be forever etched in her mind as a part of an insidious whole. "There."
Continued in Chapter Thirteen