Transformations - Chapter 17

Giles had asked Moira to outline the bones of the plan, which she did with her usual cool succinctness. Only he, no doubt, could detect her underlying tension--and that only because he knew her voice so well, and the way, under stress, her consonants lost a bit of their crisp quality, allowing the underlying softness of her native Cornish accent to show through.

"As Wesley recommends," Moira said, with a nod in the young Watcher's direction--at which Wesley blushed violently. "I shall perform the spells that will allow him and Rupert to function as part of our fighting team, and then an additional set that should, temporarily, grant us all increased strength. The range of both these spells is about four hours: in other words, people, we shall have until midnight."

"And then our coach will turn back into a pumpkin," Xander said, "And all we'll have left will be our glass slippers."

"Xander," Willow admonished gently.

"Uh--sorry." He slumped down on the sofa. "I'm listening."

"Thank you, Xander. As all of you are aware," Moira continued, "That isn't much time. We'd best have our enchanted mice in a row--" She threw the boy a smile and bit of a wink. Giles wanted to warn her to be cautious, that Xander, more than anyone, would be vulnerable to her LeFaye charm

"Before we even begin," Moira continued. "If you'd be so kind, Willow, I shall ask you to go on-line and see if you can't find architectural plans for The Factory. As detailed as you can make them, I should think. I'd like to see every broom closet, every sub-basement, every manhole cover in the place. Do you think you can manage?"

Willow nodded. "Sure. I can do it."

"Do we even know Buffy's being held there, though?" Joyce asked. "What if they've taken her somewhere else? What will you do then?"

"We prefer to begin with the most obvious, Ms. Summers, and work our way out from there. No fears: if my divination spell can't locate Buffy within the confines of Willow's plans, I will definitely widen my circle. Personally, I believe your daughter's there. Even as a living woman, Helena had a streak of compulsiveness--she was one of those girls who'd run back into the flat a dozen times to make sure she'd turned off the iron or unplugged the toaster. If she's at The Factory herself, I believe she'll keep Buffy quite near: The Helena I knew would want to watch. I believe this...demon will still wish to check on her captive regularly."

Giles marveled at the calm way in which Moira spoke of her Slayer--only the slight trembling in her hands, which she clasped to conceal the tremors, gave her away.

"We'll all want to memorize Buffy's position, once I've found it. When we've breached The Factory itself I want you, Xander and Willow, to go straight to her. You'll have bolt-cutters and a hacksaw to free her from her fetters. Work as fast as you can, and make your retreat. Carry extra weapons. If Buffy's unhurt, which she very likely is, she'll be able to help you. Try to keep your heads; things are bound to become very confusing."

"What about you guys?" Willow asked softly.

"Wesley and I will be taking out as many vampires as we can, but specifically seeking Maria and Helena. Without their leaders, the Potterville vampires are bound to become less potent." Moira glanced toward the windows. Giles knew that their heavily curtained panes must reveal absolutely nothing, and yet, with that uncanny sense of the rising moon she'd always possessed, Moira commented. "It will be full dark soon. Time for you, Ms. Summers, to be leaving."

"So you think it's perfectly reasonable to order me out of town again?" Joyce asked, with some bitterness. "My daughter, my own child, and you're allowed to charge in and help her, while I'm supposed to sit in, some hotel room and not worry?"

"I know that you shall worry," Giles told her quietly. "And that, Joyce, is quite, quite natural."

"Time and again, Rupert," Buffy's mother responded, with the same bitterness, "You take her from me. Sometimes I wonder if, pretty soon, there won't be anything left for me at all. Why should she need a parent, when she has you?"

"Because I'm not her parent," Giles told her, rising with some difficulty, "And...and she loves you deeply, Joyce." He laid a light hand upon her arm. "Let me walk you out."

Joyce began to shake her head in protest, frowning, then stopped herself: Giles guessed that she'd a thing or two to say to him on their own. He stayed with her, though the stairs presented a challenge: with his vision bolloxed up as it was, he'd quite a legitimate fear of stumbling. Even Joyce, angry at him as she was, seemed alarmed by his rather unsteady progress.

In the back of the Summers' jeep, through the lightly-tinted glass, Giles could detect the outlines of Joyce's suitcase, not as yet unloaded from her previous excursion to Los Angeles. He lingered with her by the driver's-side door, wanting to offer assurance where none could truly be given. He'd always found Buffy's mother to be a lovely woman, admirably protective of her daughter, but he'd no desire to worry about her during this coming battle, or to have her witness what must be.

"I'm concerned about you too, Rupert," Joyce told him, in a somewhat kinder voice, touching his arm, just above the point where the bandages left off. She glanced over her shoulder, toward the top of the stairs, from which vantage point Moira watched them.

Joyce leaned closer. "That woman--" Another glance at Moira. "Is she deluded, or can she do the things Mr. Wyndham-Price thinks she can do?"

"Moira?" Giles smiled slightly, meaning the expression to comfort her, unsure of how well it succeeded. "Oh, yes, yes. Rest assured, she's, um, quite capable."

Buffy's mother gazed up at him. She'd the incandescent porcelain skin of a woman in a Renaissance painting, the classic loveliness of her face haloed in soft, dark-gold curls. Giles reminded himself that it was from this woman that Buffy got both her beauty and her natural tenacity. He felt sorry for Joyce, to be sent away again, when he knew that she truly wished to stay--and yet he also knew that to be impossible. He could in no way predict the course of the events that would follow, and he would never forgive himself--or expect Buffy to forgive him--should anything befall this brave but tenderhearted woman.

Giles found himself wishing to confess to her what had happened, yet he knew that this was far from an appropriate time. "Best you go now," he told her, once Joyce had climbed upward into her large vehicle, and he had shut the door firmly behind her.. "Drive straight out of town. No turning back, if you please."

"Buffy's right," Joyce told him, just before she rolled up her window. "You are bossy, Rupert."

With that, she drove away, leaving him with a sense of her anger, and the strong feeling that closure had not been achieved. But she'll return, he told himself. They would talk, and talk honestly.

And having heard what he had to tell her, Joyce would very likely be tempted to emasculate him with whatever sharp object came most easily to hand.

"I think we must move on, Rupert," Moira called down to him, in a soft, tense voice.

The staircases seemed unnaturally long that evening, and Giles found himself leaning heavily on the railing. It had required the better part of his strength merely to stand upright and speak rationally with Buffy's mother.

He'd only come halfway toward his goal when Xander popped out from the flat door and came bouncing down to him with the ungainly enthusiasm of a large but only half-grown puppy. In his current state, Giles found the boy's energy somewhat daunting, but was not in any way unappreciative of the support--though he shot Xander a bit of a glare, for form's sake, as the boy slid a hand beneath his elbow.

This was the way things stood between them: they concealed their emotions beneath shields of humour or scarcely-felt impatience, because that was appropriate, it was what one did.

In the past, Xander had made his jokes--sometimes such harsh jokes Giles wondered if the boy in fact intended to test him, to see where his breaking point would come. To see at what point his words could drive Giles past irritation into a state that was darker and crueller--as if Xander quite expected that state to lie within every older man to whom he tried to look for guidance.

Yet, since the few days prior to the Ascension, during which they'd spent hour after weary hour in one another's company, these harsher jests had dropped away to nothing--as if, after three years, Xander had at last allowed himself to trust, and to rest assured that his truer, better, more vulnerable nature need no longer be concealed, that if he let himself relax, he would not be punished.

The small stack of Xander's luggage pushed against his wall had not escaped him. Giles understood its meaning too well, and could only grieve for his young friend. He wanted to warn Xander not to be frightened by what he would see tonight--but he could not, in truth, give the boy assurance that such a state of being was not real, that it would pass after their need had passed, and that he would be his own true self once more.

Giles hoped that it would be so.

"What are you gonna do tonight, Giles?" Xander asked, as they reentered the flat

"I'm the diversion," he answered, allowing Xander to steer him toward the sofa.

"The Wild Magic stuff?" Willow breathed. "Giles, all the vampires will be drawn to you. It's too dangerous."

"Yes, the Wild Magic," Giles agreed. "There's no need for concern, Willow; I know what I'm doing."

Willow's expression told Giles that she, as well, knew what he was doing, and that she didn't much like it.

"I'm bound to throw a few surprises their way," he tried to reassure her. "Really, you needn't worry."

"What about after?" she asked.

"We'll consider that once Buffy's safe," he told her, in the tone that brooked no argument. Willow gave him none, though she glanced at Xander. The boy scowled, and Willow's eyes grew shadowed, and she turned away from him, going to her rucksack to fetch her computer. Under her gentle tutelage, Giles no longer found the thing such a "dread machine" as he once had, and yet the speed and ease with which she caught hold of hidden bits of information never ceased to amaze him. She was always so very willing to help, and he wondered if he had, in the past three years, thanked her enough for that, or if he had seemed to her peremptory, taking her aid for granted.

The plans to The Factory hardly seemed to cause her any trouble whatsoever.

"I'll need something of Buffy's," Moira said. "Something organic, if possible, or if not that, then of a personal nature."

"Yes, of course." Wearily, Giles began to rise, but Xander stopped him.

"You rest, I'll get. What am I finding?"

"Look upon the pillow, see if you can't find a bit of her hair." Giles leaned back into the cushions, wanting to shut his eyes, if only for a moment--but found he could not, with Xander's frankly dumbfounded stare upon him. After a moment's scowling contemplation, the truth appeared to dawn upon Wesley as well, for his jaw dropped.

Had Buffy been present, she would have needed to repeat her advice of, "Mouth looks better closed, Wes."

"Mr. Giles!" Wesley exclaimed, in that shocked manner most often ascribed to elderly maiden aunts--except that Giles's own maiden aunt was rather a worldly and amusing person, and would have been rather more likely to respond with a warm laugh and perhaps some sort of quasi-ribald jest.

"Yes, Wesley?" Giles asked, in a bland, mild voice that the younger man no doubt found intolerable.

"Remember Cordelia," Willow murmured, glancing up from her screen.

"But, I say!" Wesley attempted to spring dramatically to his feet, lost his balance and fell back into the uncomfortable chair with a groan. "Mr. Giles is so much older than I!"

"Giles isn't old," said Willow, his defender.

"I'm going." Xander turned, taking the stairs two at a time, returning seconds later with something nearly invisible in his hand, which Moira took from him.

She retreated to the kitchen, saying nothing, and began to raid Giles's drawers for the other necessities of her spell.

Knowing how slow spells of divination could be to accomplish, Giles kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the sofa, falling almost instantly into sleep.

He woke a time or two: first to Moira's soft exclamation of "Got her!" Once to Xander moving furniture under his old friend's direction, once to the sight of the two women kneeling on the floor, chalk in hand, their red heads leaned close together in consultation, finally to the sight of Willow bent over a brazier of herbs prepared, no doubt, to Moira's precise instructions.

The young witch held her breath, her brow furrowed in concentration, and suddenly the contents of the brazier sprang alight, and a sweet, spicy smoke wafted gently into the air.

"Oh, Em," she called awestruck, "I did it! I can't believe that I did!"

"I knew that you would," Moira said encouragingly, giving Willow one of her more tender smiles.

The small flames in the brazier cast golden lights and soft shadows over Willow's face. She held a sheet of parchment in her left hand, and her lips moved soundlessly to the shapes of the more difficult words.

"That's it," she said softly. "I think I've got it. I did everything you said. Are you ready, Em?"

A coiled tension had come into Moira's body, and her eyes had hardened to their most intense green. Sitting up, Giles felt his own eyes changing as well, the center of his magical being reacting to the already-strong presence of magic in the room. He fought to regain his balance, both physical and arcane. To hold himself in stillness, so as not to disrupt Moira's Craft.

Giles had never understood LeFaye magic, and perhaps wasn't meant to--he could never get a single one of his old friend's spells to work. He only knew that whatever Moira did, it was deeply personal, deeply female, perhaps not meant for any man to understand.

Within the confines of the Watchers' Compound, for years now, Moira had been forced to wear a bracelet that contained a binding spell, one that would render her without magical power. Even amongst her peers she was feared--but he had never feared her; he would trust her with not only his life, but with everything dear to him within that life.

"Mr Giles--er--Rupert, will you go first?" Wesley asked, breaking the silence. His hands trembled, and again he pressed them against his thighs to still them--but even then the creases in his trousers were not disturbed.

"Be my guest," Giles said, wanting to observe, to see how the younger Watcher would react. Poor chap, he appeared truly terrified.

A single chair, straight-backed and plain, stood at the center of the complicated design that Willow and Moira had chalked onto the floor. It both worried and relieved Giles that Moira showed great interest in continuing Willow's magical education: worried because he'd have preferred that his young friend restrict her efforts to gentle, earth-based Wiccan spells; relieved because Willow seemed determined to learn more, and who better to teach her both the skills, and the pitfalls beneath them, than one trained in such arts since infancy?

The flaming herbs had smouldered down into embers, and Willow slid the brazier into position beneath the chair. Between the two of them, she and Moira removed Wesley's glasses, his watch and his ring. They relieved him of his jacket, and then their hands delved into his trouser pockets to take all they found there, arranging everything in a small heap on the sofa. Wesley appeared to carry a rather amazing lot with him, and yet the line of his suit was never disturbed. Giles could not help but wonder--perhaps it was a miracle of truly good tailoring, the sort he himself had never been able to afford.

Willow removed the brace from Wesley's leg, while Moira unfastened the collar round his neck. "All right, love?" she asked, in a soothing tone.

The young Watcher shivered uncontrollably, even as the two woman helped him to rise, and sat him within the pattern, on the chair. Despite his apparent chill, Wesley had begun, yet again, to blush violently. Willow moved to stand close behind him, her eyes shut, one hand on his shoulder whilst the other cupped his chin, until his head came to rest against her abdomen, pillowed against the soft pink knit of her jersey.

Moira knelt at Wesley's feet. She reached beneath the chair, which was now wreathed in pale smoke, and took a small vessel from the embers. Carefully, she swirled its contents, not losing a single drop, then parted Wesley's thighs with her hands, setting the vessel between them on the seat of the chair. The moment she touched him, and no doubt to his great chagrin, the young man became powerfully aroused--something not even the excellence of his tailoring could entirely conceal.

Xander, who'd been watching intently, shot Giles a look. Giles shook his head, warning silence.

Unwavering, Moira dipped her fingers in the vessel, marking sigils on Wesley's brow and at the base of his throat. Her hand slipped beneath the fabric of his shirt to repeat the pattern on the skin above his heart. The young Watcher moaned aloud.

Almost as if to cover the moan, Moira began to sing her spell. Giles recognized the language as Cornish, a tongue that had long since grown old and died. The scale of the music sounded odd to modern Western ears, eerie and disturbing--though it would, perhaps, have seemed perfectly normal to the more ancient peoples of the British Isles. He wondered, not for the first time, how much of the history Moira's family told of themselves was true, how much legend or embellishment.

She fell silent.

Wesley moaned once more and slumped forward in his seat, pulling out of Willow's hold. Moira barely managed to save her vessel before it upended itself over the floor. She sat back on her heels, a position surely uncomfortable to her, as she watched the young man recover himself. When he straightened, Wesley looked oddly vulnerable, still pink-cheeked, most likely ashamed.

"The pain has...gone," he said haltingly. "I feel most amazingly odd."

"Why don't you go down the hall, splash a bit of water on your face?" Moira told him, tactfully. "Take a moment to recover yourself--but be extremely careful. You won't know your own strength." She continued to kneel, unmoving, watching him go.

"Moira?" Giles said. "Are you all right?"

"I never know, Rupert," she answered. "How much is real--real emotion, real feeling--and how much not. I have always so wanted to be cared for only as myself." Moira rubbed her hands together, working the oil with which she'd anointed Wesley into her skin. "How much is LeFaye, I always wonder? How much is the accursed LeFaye touch? You accused me of using sex to drug Helena, Rupert--and perhaps I did. With what I am, perhaps it's unavoidable and, ultimately, I'm to blame."

"Not really needing to hear this," Xander said. He'd begun, rather frantically, to unburden his own pockets, perhaps alarmed by the thought of repeating Wesley's performance in the present company.

"The demon is to blame for what's become of Helena," Giles told her. "Moira, cannot take this on yourself."

"Ah. Well." Moira shook herself. "At any rate, Wesley's done with. Who's next?"

"Wow, how'd you do that?" Willow asked her. "I knew you'd combined the two spells. No, no, don't tell me. Advanced magic. Not ready yet." The young witch sighed. "I'll be ready someday, though, right?"

"Someday, yes," Moira agreed. "Xander, are you quite prepared?"

"Sure." Hurriedly, he completed the turning-out of his pockets, and removed the small saint's medal he wore on a chain round his neck. Giles had seen it once close to: the saint depicted, ironically, was Aloysius, protector of children.

It didn't escape him that St. Aloysius was also the name of the foundling's home where Helena Penglis had spent her own early years. The longer Giles lived, the less the small coincidences of life seemed to amaze him.

Xander sprawled in the chair, tilting his head back to look at Willow, smiling up at her as she, in turn, smiled down upon him. They seemed easier with one another now that Oz was away, less concerned that small appearances might be taken amiss--not so much by Oz, the most patient and understanding of young men, but by others. Willow and Xander had become, once again, to each other what they, from early days, had always been: the truest of friends.

"Ready?" Moira squeezed the boy's knees, and he laughed--Xander was extremely ticklish there, a weakness Buffy and Willow never failed to exploit. Giles had often chided them for their disruptive behavior in the library, but been secretly amused. He'd no doubt that Buffy would soon enough ferret out his own weaknesses.

The thought drew him up abruptly. "Em," he said, "Perhaps we had best move this along?"

She completed the lesser spell in short order. Upon rising, Xander stumbled, and almost immediately shattered a lamp.

"Whoa," he said, gazing down at the destruction. "You weren't kidding about that strength thing."

"Sit down, please," Giles told him. "And be careful. I can't afford to replace every lighting fixture I own."

"Gotcha," Xander answered, sitting carefully.

Giles took his place in the chair. The ritual affected him not at all as it had Wesley. He centered and gave himself over to Moira's Craft, finding Willow's touch soothing, and Moira's pleasantly familiar. It was a relief to have the pain go away, even if, at the end of it, he felt not so much well as like a very fragile vase broken to pieces and then held together again with thick layers of duct tape. By the time he'd finished, Wesley returned, looking somewhat more composed than he had previously.

Once Giles had vacated the pattern, Moira removed the chair and she and Willow stepped together into the center of the design, wrists crossed as they held hands. Whatever passed between them seemed somewhat more complicated, but Giles did not listen. He'd begun to move quietly as he could around the flat, collecting weapons.

He'd amassed quite a pile before the two women ended and broke apart. Willow began to dismantle the spell, while Moira overlooked his choice of hardware.

"Quite a collection," she commented, meeting Giles's eyes with sympathy--both of them knew well that it would not be weaponry, this time, that would save the day. "When will you begin?" his old friend asked, in an low tone.

"Once we're underway," he answered, loading what he could into a carryall. His right hand, although it caused him no pain, would still not work with much effectiveness, and he wondered how well it would serve him when it came to a fight.

Moira slung the bag over one shoulder, but Wesley bustled up, saying, "Ah--ma'am--please."

Shaking her head, she watched him adjust the carryall onto his own shoulder. "Remember what I told you, Wesley, about the spell? You've too nice of manners for your own good."

"But Your Ladyship..." he began.

"Never mind me, love," she said, glancing back at Giles. "Would you a like a moment, Rupert?"

"If you wouldn't mind." Giles began to load a second bag, but paused when the door shut behind the other Watchers. Xander and Willow looked at him expectantly. He felt suddenly tongue-tied, and stood twisting the strap of nylon webbing, wanting to say so much and yet so unable to find the words.

Willow surprised him, sliding her soft little arms, that now felt so much stronger than they had before, around his waist, pressing her face against his chest. He held her in return, his arms round her shoulders, enfolding her diminutive body in his embrace.

"I've wanted to do this for so long," she said, "Practically for forever. I love you, Giles. Like family. There, I said it, and the world didn't blow up or anything."

"And I, you, Willow," he answered, realizing that the statement made very little sense of any kind, and yet he meant it to the core of his soul. "What you may see...what I may do...please..." He couldn't string together a sentence to save his life, and yet Willow seemed to understand. She stepped back a little, looking up into his face.

"You will always be our Giles," she answered, "And we'll always love you, now matter what happens tonight. Okay?"

"Yes," Giles answered, feeling hollowed out with emotion. He turned to Xander, meaning to shake the boy's hand, perhaps repeat words as incoherent as those he'd said to Willow but, again, to his surprise, his young friend caught hold of him fiercely, holding him tight, his dark head pressed hard against Giles's neck. "You come back. You come back," he muttered savagely.

Giles held the boy in return, and vowed to himself that if any way existed to control the Wild Magic, he would do his best to escape and, as Xander asked, return. "Yes," he said quietly. "If it's at all possible."

"That's what I love about you, Giles," Xander said, laughing, already moving away. "It's that overwhelming optimism."

"Shall we join the others?" Willow asked. She picked up the laden carryall. "Wow! I'm really strong! That does it--when Buff and I move into the dorms, she's carrying all the heavy stuff."

Giles could not help but smile, despite his trepidation: that was his Willow, hoping for the best, such a lovely, endearing quality.

They went below, joining Moira and Wesley beside Wesley's shiny blue van. The carpets had indeed been, as Giles rather suspected, irredeemably stained.

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