Transformations - Chapter 20

The Wild Magic had never been his, he realized that now--not his in the sense of something owned, controlled, ruled over. Rather, it existed as a parasite within him, gnawing at his insides with its corrosive power.

He'd read someplace once--he couldn't remember where, or even how one accomplished the act referred to as "reading"--about what happened when a person breathed flame into his lungs. He knew he hadn't done so, not in a corporeal sense, and yet the experience felt similar enough that he could think of no other comparison. When the Wild Magic rushed through him, it left nothing in its wake, only the shell of his body, hollowed out, its interior fire-red, and sore.

He knew, though, that the physical harm, truly not severe, would prove by far the lesser ill. The real damage lay deeper, and more invisibly, in the realm of his mind, his soul, his will. This night he'd given himself over to the destructive force of his magical inheritance, and it had devoured him, stealing strength, fragmenting memory.

He'd been swallowed up in shadows, and he couldn't think how to get free again.

Someone had said a spell, he knew--and some vestige of him still understood what was meant by that word. Only this brief, blessed, healing touch had prevented the savage force of the Wildness from taking all he possessed. He'd smelled incense in the air, over the reek of the greenness and the burning, and he half thought he'd spoken to the spellcaster, ordering her away, but at this point, such a thing hardly seemed possible. How could he speak, or act, or do anything to hold himself to this place? Why should he want to?

He still felt the pull, as if the shadows that engulfed him wished to drag the remnants of his self down along with them--a last source of magical fuel to feed their hunger--as they hurried toward their own place, where they might seek and grow strong again inside another. He wished, with as much fervency as he still possessed, that he could stop the pull, but the vortex yawned before him, and he was helpless to resist.

Like Angel into Hell, the whisper of his inner voice supplied, but he'd no idea what the words meant. He knew that he ought to fight, but couldn't remember why.

Easier, so much easier to slip away, to go into the darkness, where perhaps he'd no longer have to think, or feel, at all. What were the reasons for that, anyway--the thinking, and the feeling?

Reasons. Reasons. He forced his mind to work, to drag the scraps of his once-stubborn will together.

He'd had a job, and thought it important--or not a job. A vocation. A calling. Had he been a priest?

No, not that. Something else, another word entirely. A smug grey man had come to him, made him do some terrible thing, and finally informed him that he was not worthy. It wasn't the dreadful act that made him so, but something else--something, when he searched the fragments of his memory, that he could not regret in any way.

A secret.

What had it been, that hidden thing--far, far more secret, really, than the smug man ever guessed--which made him unfit for the work that had once been his entire life?

Dimly, he felt a faint pressure round his body, something lightly touching on his chest. A whisper of sensation, like the landing of a butterfly.

At first he thought the touch must be his own fancy--it came and went, sometimes he'd no awareness of it at all. It was nothing compared to the pain that stung and ached both inside his physical form and deep into the confines of his soul.

What made me unworthy? the thought returned.

The pressure increased: he felt arms, strong little arms, a face pressed to his chest, its chin digging between his ribs.

Love, that was it. Love made him unfit, and try as he might, he could not remember why, or even who it was that he loved. Only that the love itself existed more strongly in him than anything he had ever felt, stronger than anger, or pain, or fear.

Names drifted into his head: he examined them and set them aside.

Willow? He did love someone by that name, but not in a way that could cause him any loss. No, to all concerned it was perfectly acceptable to care for Willow: one was allowed to have friends, after all, so long as the friendship did not interfere with one's work.

Jenny? There had been someone called Jenny once, and he'd loved her, a thousand years before. She'd been a dark woman of secrets and moonlight, and he could remember her lovely eyes watching him as she lay in his bed--though not truly watching, because Jenny was dead, and in a part of himself he believed that he'd caused her death, even if another's hand had performed the deed.

The memory disturbed him so deeply he felt himself begin to ebb again, but the small, powerful arms pulled him back, giving him a brisk shake for good measure. A voice called out: "Giles, it's me. Buffy. Giles, can you hear me?"

A different hand touched his throat. Another voice said. "I don't think he can, Buffy."

The reason, the actual reason, that he'd lost his calling was a girl bright as Jenny had been dark. He could see her standing in a shaft of sunlight, beneath the window of a place that had since been destroyed: golden hair, deep blue eyes, a smile like all the candles of the world burning at once.

The grey man said he'd a father's love for her, but that was the biggest lie of all. How frightened he'd been to be caught in the truth, knowing it wouldn't be proper, wouldn't be right--when everything in him cried out to be with her, only with her, until the end of his days.

If she stood beside him in this moment, at this place, he would never be able to slip away. She would hold him to this life. He'd promised her never to leave, as long as she wanted or needed him. He'd promised.

In a sudden burst of memory, he recalled the sweetness of her, the light honey-sweetness of her mouth, her lips--if joy had a flavour, it would taste just so. He could still feel the satin of her skin beneath his hand, the beautiful shift and flow of her body against his.

Even now he could feel her astride him, the press of one hand on his shoulder, the other cupping his cheek. The marvelous closeness of her as she bent nearer and nearer, her lips brushing his, the warmth of her breath going into him.

"Buffy," the other voice said, cautioning.

She pulled away, and he wanted to cry out, only to keep her near.

"No, Will," his love said. "No, he's warm. You're wrong. He's breathing." Her hand struck his chest brutally, though he knew she meant him no harm. "You're wrong!"

"I...I didn't mean he was dead. Or anything. I didn't mean anything." The other voice's owner sounded close to tears. "Not dead."

"Than what? If you've got something to say, why not spit it out? You think he's turned into Ripper, or something. Or some kind of soulless zombie guy. C'mon, Will, let me know what you're thinking." Her hand kneaded at his shoulder with bruising force. "'Cause I think he's okay, he's just a little tired. But I'm a grownup. I can take it."

"I just...don't know, Buff," the voice he recognized, suddenly, as Willow's answered. "I don't know."

"Yes, you do." Tears roughened Buffy's own voice. "I'll bet you asked Moira, and she told you every last one of the gory details."

"Buffy, she didn't know either. I did ask, but all she could tell me was that it 'wasn't likely' Giles could ever come back if he went that far. And he did. Go. That far, I mean."

"No," Buffy said, in the stubbornest of voices. "No, Will, I don't accept that." She lifted his hand to her cheek, rubbing that softness against his callused skin, turning her face a little to imprint a kiss into his palm, her tears falling warm and salty, stinging his battered fingers.

That small act was enough to force open his eyes. All colour seemed lost, darkness all around and only the light of an electric torch for a beacon--but she was there, his dear one, gazing down upon him with such perfect love that he felt, at last, bound into the world again. A bit of the terrible hollowness filled in--and for the first time he accepted the possibility that somehow the rest of him might, at some point, be healed.

The Wild Wood meant nothing: it was only a dead and barren place, and it no longer possessed any power over him. His place, his true place, was only at her side.

Buffy wept too bitterly, then, to notice his own gaze, and Willow wept too, her face buried in Buffy's shoulder for comfort.

"Giles, Giles, you have to come back," Buffy pleaded in a tiny voice, almost too soft to be audible. She kissed his open palm again. "You have to come back. I love you."

It registered for the first time. Giles. That was his name. Not his full name, or that which one would expect one's lover to call, but his name nonetheless, the name by which she knew him.

Giles remembered that he had known, knew, would perhaps know again, thousands of words, in many languages, but just then only one word meant anything: her name. He called it with every bit of strength he could muster.

"Buffy," he said, his voice hardly detectable, even to his own ears. "Buffy."

She heard him. Her eyes opened. Even in the darkness they shone blue as a summer morning.

He'd scared her so bad she couldn't believe it. After the shadows had gone away, he'd just lain on the ground like a dead man, or one that was getting there fast. Now and then he'd faded until he looked almost transparent, and even now, having touched her and spoken her name, he still looked gray. His skin felt warm, though, and she took that as a good sign.

She and Willow helped him sit, his back against one of the creepy trees that she still couldn't believe he'd summoned--or whatever it had been that he'd done.

Buffy could see him trying to pull himself together, to smile, to act like his old self so that he wouldn't scare them. He wasn't making it, not by a long shot. He seemed to be having a hard time talking, not just getting stuck the way he sometimes did when he got nervous or excited, and his brain got going faster than his tongue could handle. His throat worked, as if each word had sharp edges, and it hurt him to let them through--so they only came out one at a time, and didn't make a whole heaping lot of sense. The effort made him sweat, and the sweat itself smelled both smoky and green, the way his mouth had tasted when she'd kissed him.

She could see him getting more and more upset, until he just kind of huddled back into the tree, with his hands over his face. She hated to see that; it scared her all over again. She'd always gone to him for comfort, and now he needed her, and she was afraid she'd let him down.

Buffy knew they needed to get out of there, that he wouldn't get any better until they did, but she hated to force him, and didn't know if he could manage even if she did get him to his feet and make him walk.

She glanced at Willow, pleading for help.

Willow knelt beside him, taking his arm. If she hadn't been so freaked out, Buffy might have found her best friend's appearance pretty funny: the magic backlash had completely fried poor Willow's hair, as if she'd just been inflicted with the world's most heinous perm--red fuzz stuck out something like three inches all around her head. But Buffy was freaked out, and she didn't feel like she could laugh at anything.

"Giles," Willow said, in her Resolve Voice, "We need to go now. Buffy and I will help you, okay?"

Giles looked up at her, his eyes green, but paler than Buffy had ever seen them, like those old bottles made of almost-clear glass.

"You don't need to say anything," Willow told him. "Just get up."

It didn't seem possible, but Giles made it up, swaying but vertical. He looked down at Buffy, a questioning look on his face that was nearly one of his old looks, though not quite. His eyes slipped shut again, and he almost went down, but she forced him to remain standing.

"C'mon, big guy," she muttered, "Stay on your feet."

Willow went to his other side, adding her support. Giles was just about bigger than both of them put together, and it was awkward as hell, but somehow they got him going forward, up the spiral between the trees.

"Do you still have your Slayer-strength?" Buffy asked Willow.

"Nah, I think the spell wore off," Willow answered. "It's gotta be way past midnight, and Giles feels really heavy."

"Well, he feels heavy to me, too," Buffy said.

"Here. I," Giles informed them, sounding irked.

"I know you're here," Buffy told him, keeping hold of his arm with one hand, lightly rubbing his back with the other. "Someone's sounding cranky," she said to Willow. "Maybe he's feeling better?"

"Buffy," Willow cautioned. Even under the best circumstances, Willow hardly ever got into the spirit of teasing Giles.

Maybe this wasn't the best time, but anything that got a reaction from him, good or bad, gave her hope. What she hated was to see that horrible blankness slip over his face. That he got mad when she teased or talked around him let Buffy know her Giles was still in there. She just wanted to get him home, wrap her body around his, and love him `til he found his way back to her. All the way back.

"How far do you think it is?" Willow asked. "To the top, I mean?"

Buffy looked up, but all she could see, seeming to go on and on forever, were trees and darkness. "I don't know, Will," she answered. "Not far."

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