Connect the fist to the face. There are no powers here, no supernatural abilities, and it hurts. She lets her momentum bring her around and snaps a backwards kick to the man’s side, wincing at the hollow thud as her foot hits ribs. Cradling her hand, she launches a side kick, but he catches her boot and pushes.
She hits the ground, bouncing up again with the determination of hard-learned lessons; ducks and weaves as he comes at her, turning away punches effectively if somewhat clumsily. He throws a punch too hard and she comes at him low, rams an elbow into his solar plexus.
Kicks him in the side when he staggers, throws another punch. He grabs her arm and tries to wind in the rest of her, but she twists free -- she is small and sometimes this works to her advantage. She’s out of time and fancy moves, so she just brings a knee up into his groin. Follows it with a jab to the windpipe when his eyes widen and roll, and he’s down for the count.
“Sorry,” she winces as she steps over his insensate form. Slides behind the computer set up at the far end of the sterile white room -- four minutes to clear the room, she reminds herself as she drops a disk into the drive with the hand that doesn’t hurt. She never would have thought she’d miss having an inflectionless voice in her ear, but with no noise but the click of keys, the hum of the monitor, and the ragged breathing of the man lying behind her, she finds she does.
At three minutes, she’s past the first line of defences. At two and a half, she hits a snag, and has to stop the corruption of the entire network. At just under two, she’s got the disk copying the hard drive, and at one minute seven seconds she hits the door.
The lights above her go on, and the windows clear. A man and a woman look down at her, and she helps the man laying on the floor back to his feet. He groans.
“Good, Willow,” the woman’s voice echoes, and the coldness does not come solely from the audio system. “Now, run it again. Faster this time.”
The apartment is spacious. High rafters, wide windows that look down on the trash that flits through the alleyways and the wind across the rooftops. She can hear it sometimes, crying against the bricks, searching for her.
The place came with computer equipment, as she suspects others came with punching bags or sparring mats. Cutting edge computer equipment, faster than anything on the commercial market. Chock-full of programs that could even make her supper if she rigged the hardware correctly. The computer geek’s dream.
She buries it all beneath piles of books. Ones with Pulitzer medals stamped on their covers, the bright yellow of ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide To...’ and unabridged encyclopedias. Worn and broken hard covers picked up from the used book store down the street for a dollar each, Harlequin romances with missing pages, scientific journals. Ancient books of crumbling parchment written in tongues never spoken by man, pictures etched in substances she prefers not to think of.
There are books of mystical origin in the entire place, but not a one of magic. Strange distinction, that. Though there is nothing with spells and curses that may steal up her skin, it is never far removed from her mind. There is magic here -- ice that twists and twines through her veins, and has coiled itself too tightly to her blood to ever ignore or escape. It is in the hum that she cannot ignore when everything is quiet and peaceful.
She doesn’t sleep any more. Sometimes she sits with her knees drawn to her chest, staring out the window, safe in the warmth provided by facts written on pages, collections of well-loved paper, and words faded by time and eyes. She will not let herself catch her reflection against the night because she is not really here, but watches the human traffic below while the moonlight taps at the glass.
Sometimes she just lays awake because even though the flow of energy is constantly zipping through her system and she just *can’t* sleep, she knows they’re watching her. So with eyes closed, breath deep and measured, she lays between cool sheets and listens to the hum of hopes and fears and desperate lives that surround her.
She sits in a cafe. It is exactly the same as a thousand others to her -- waitresses weaving amongst the cozy (tiny) tables, hovering at the edges of the boots. Women in pearls and power suits talk with faded fingers, men in ties down shots of espresso. Track lighting competes with the sun spilling through the wide plate glass windows. Fans swirl silently above, moving the air and the thicker spirits.
She raises her mug to her lips, tilts it back so that the steam flits across her skin. Inhales the aroma but does not drink. The cup settles back on the bright yellow saucer with a clink, and she taps the biscotti to the ceramic mug with small, controlled motions. The hum of conversation surrounds her, and the tapping settles into the murmur as she tilts her head and listens to the things that people don’t say.
Outside the window, people bustle back and forth, and she sees the pattern settling beneath the crowd. A man standing, purposefully on a corner; a blond woman making her way down the street, traffic reflecting off her sunglasses.
She thinks about the hum of life, the gods and goddess, and the noise skin makes when it rips from muscle and bone. The cafe door opens with a cool blast of fresh air, and the bell that hangs above it jingles. She does not think of how a spray of blood can warm you when you cannot feel anything, but holds her coffee to her lips and does not drink. The warmth works its way through her skin, but the blood and the humming ice that flow through her will shake that warmth right out through her fingertips.
There is a pause in the murmur of the cafe, and it distracts her from the things that race around without voice. She stares into the depths of her cup and tells herself that her eyes are not dark and lost against the coffee. If she looks up, she knows what she will see reflected in the window.
She will see herself.
“Will,” Xander breathes, and slides in across from her. Dawn hovers uncertainly behind him, eyes carefully on the corner of the table.
“You can’t be here,” Willow says, sharply.
“’Heya Xander, Dawn, how’ve you been? Boy, it sure is nice to see you again, and I sure am sorry for running off without a word after almost destroying the world, leaving serious concern in my friend’s minds as to whether or not I’ve--’”
“Ended it?” she asks quietly. She could make them leave. She could make this no more than a murky memory. She could, and she needs to, but she won’t. She’s too selfish, she thinks. She’s always been selfish.
“Willow...” he starts again. “*God,* Willow --”
She wants it to be six months ago, when things were rough and she was sad and he was always there for her. He’s been here, with her again, for all of three minutes and he’s making it so damn hard for her to maintain the distance, for the detachment -- for this to be just another place that she is not. She wants it to be five months ago, even -- She’d trade being all veiny and scary, crashing and crying on his shoulder for the clarity and the curious numbness that are all she is able to allow herself now. The purpose that is all she is able to feel so that she can redeem herself through this hell that has captured her.
Her untouched coffee sits on the table between them, and she reminds herself that if she tackles him and hugs him until he can no longer breath she’ll spill it all over the place.
The waitress shows up then, pulls a chair from a nearby table and sets it between Willow and Xander while Dawn tries to wave her off. Under the woman’s scrutiny, Dawn flops into it, edging it towards Xander until she could almost be sitting on his lap, and stares at her hands while the waitress taps her pencil against her order pad. Xander orders for her, creating as fancy a concoction as he can put together with his limited knowledge.
This is any cafe in the City of Angels. It has a good view of the street, four easily accessible exit routes, and a motorcade carrying a very bad man is going to pass by in thirty-two minutes. There is no reason for Xander and Dawn to be here, except for chance, and except for her.
Xander watches the waitress until she is out of earshot, and Willow watches him. She knows when Dawn flickers accusing eyes up towards her. “So, Will, how’ve you been?” he asks.
‘You can’t be here,’ she says. Tries to say. What comes out is a wry smile as she looks down at her cup. She thinks of the weight at her hip and the magic running through her veins, and she snugs the murmur of conversation around their table like a cloak. “Y’know,” she is what she actually says. “I’m...” Good. Great. I’m just spiffy. She’s selfish, and she can’t bring herself to speak the words. “I’m considerably less evil,” she says, cheery. She’s gotten good at lying.
Dawn’s voice is low and broken. “A lot of things are considerably less evil than you were the last time I saw you.”
“Dawn!” Xander hisses.
“No, no, it’s okay,” Willow tells him, then redirects her attention to the girl she almost reduced to component energy. “Five months without trying to destroy all of existence, and counting.”
“That’s good,” Xander says with a clap of his hands. “We’ve noticed. What with the lack of world-destroying that’s been going on lately.”
“I’m aiming for, y’know, the rest of my life,” she frowns, tapping her biscotti against her coffee cup.
“Well, it is one of those promise you’ll likely only have one opportunity to break,” Dawn points out. “Once the world is destroyed, you don’t have too many more chances at it.”
The waitress returns with Dawn’s drink, which she pushes listlessly around. Out the window, Willow sees more of the confusion slip into order, and the humming in her veins is loud again. She’s been selfish for long enough.
“You can’t be here,” she says. Xander just stares at her, and it’s enough to goad even Dawn into looking at her.
“But...” Xander starts.
“Don’t you even want to know about everyone else?” Dawn accuses. “Don’t you want to know about the mess you left behind?”
“You have no idea how much I want that, Dawnie --”
“*Don’t* call me that. You can’t call me that any more.”
“You have no idea how much I want to know, Dawn. You can’t.”
“It seems obvious.”
Xander broke in. “Look, girls...”
“Don’t you even want to apologize, Willow?”
She stares into her coffee, and pretends that her eyes aren’t lost in the black. “If I apologised to you, Dawnie, if I framed the words again, would they have any more meaning than the last time I said them?”
She’s gotten good at lying, but she’s promised herself that she will never lie to herself. She is a murderer and a junkie, and she has become a thief and a liar, but what keeps her sane is that she can face up to it. She is all these things, but there are much worse people she could be.
“Diana,” she says. She’s always hated Diana. Her coffee is cold where her fingers wrap tight around the mug. The bright yellow no longer sunny and cheerful, but overdone, garish. “Diana was the goddess of the moon, before she was mother of witchcraft. Patron saint of the hunt, of all things wild and free. Her power was supreme, and no man could touch her, behold her beauty. One day, while she was bathing, a youth crept through the woods to see her. The youth maybe knew not the punishment for seeing her naked. And she certainly didn’t know that the youth was there. Didn’t matter, though. The punishment was the same. Death. Death for daring to look where they should not. Neither of them knew, and neither of them planned it, but it didn’t change the ending.”
“But -- it wasn’t Diana who killed the boy. It wasn’t,” Dawn says quietly.
“She may not have wielded the knife, but she killed her all the same. She may not have wielded the knife, but it still ended with her blood on Diana’s face and hands.”
Xander’s voice catches at her change of pronoun, and he’s hugging her. “Oh, Willow...” He smooths her hair and kisses her forehead and that’s all she needs to strengthen her resolve. Nothing can happen to him. “It wasn’t your fault.”
But it was. It was, and it was, and so was all that followed. “You have to go,” she whispers. And she wishes she could cry, but the magic hums through every part of her. She has tied it all together so it doesn’t break free; she has tied it to her breath and her blood and her sweat, and the tears just can’t escape the hold.
He’s got his arms around her and they suddenly stiffen, and she knows he’s felt the gun tucked beneath her coat. “It’s okay,” she whispers in his ear.
“You can’t be here,” she tells them, pulling herself free of Xander’s arms. “You have to go.”
“But we just got here,” Dawn says, earlier recalcitrance shattering and she looks so very young.
“I know, sweetie, I know. And I wish you could stay, and I wish I could go with you. But I can’t, and this is the only way I can make it up to you.”
“But... It doesn’t make *sense!*” she exclaims. “If you wanted to come back, you would.”
“Look, I don’t think it’s that simple,” Xander says, and Willow doesn’t know if she likes the way he looks at her. The hum of other people’s conversations she wrapped around them is starting to fade and break up.
“But it *is,* don’t you see? If you wanted to, you would.”
Willow sighs. Kisses Dawn on the forehead, hard, and she thinks she leaves a mark. Takes the girl’s hands in her own. “Listen to me. I love you very much, and I’m so sorry for everything. I wish I could come with you, but if you don’t leave soon, I’m going to end up hurting you again.”
“I don’t understand,” Dawn whispers with glinting eyes.
“It’s better that you don’t. Now, I need you to listen to me very carefully,” Willow says, pulls her into a hug. The younger girl is stiff, but she sniffles. “I need you to really hear me here, Dawnie. You can’t tell anyone you saw me.”
“But, everyone’s worried sick about you and --”
“No one, sweetie. No one at all. Do you understand?”
“Yes, but --”
“I need you to promise me, Dawnie, okay? I need you to promise me that you won’t tell anyone.”
Shaking her head, Dawn hugs her, hard and uncomprehending. Shakes her head while she says “I promise I won’t tell anyone I saw you.” She must have felt something inside of her bind to those words, because she backs away quickly, turning to rub at her eyes.
“Xander --” Willow starts, and he holds a hand up.
“No magic, okay? This is me. This is just me.”
“Xander, you can’t -- You don’t know how important that it is that you don’t --”
“Just tell me one thing, okay? Answer one question for me, and I promise you I won’t say a word.”
She opens and closes her mouth. Looks out the window and is afraid at how long her own selfishness has drawn this out, how much danger she has put them in. Her cell rings, and she looks at Dawn and Xander with anxious eyes as it continues to peal. She pulls it out and flips it open because it’s all she can do.
“Diana,” someone breaths, and then the line goes dead. She pockets the phone without a word, fingers brushing cuffs as she does so.
Xander is still looking at her, waiting, and Dawn is sniffling as she looks out the window at the man standing on the street corner. Michael purposefully does not look back at her.
Answer me one question, Xander said, but she knows that that’s only a go if he gets the answer that he wants. She’s never been able to lie to him. He knows that he’s a part of her. “All right,” she says, and lies with her eyes.
There’s a woman leaning against the front of the cafe when the three step outside. She’s tall and blonde, dark glasses reflecting the scene as they hang on to each other for dear life before parting. Willow heads down the opposite side of the street as Xander and Dawn, keeps her eyes on the cracks in the pavement. Footsteps fall in beside her, cat-soft. There’s the faint rustle of a leather jacket as the blonde woman keeps pace.
“Look, I know --” Willow stops. Looks in the store window before her, not really seeing the display, only the way her eyes pick up the dark behind and disappear. “They’re not a threat,” she says, and her voice is tight. “They’re nothing.”
“Look, Nikita, I know them, okay? They won’t -- They won’t tell anyone. They won’t.”
“The motorcade just left Brodial Avenue. ”
“You don’t *know* what it’s like,” she says violently. “You don’t know. I just wanted some time away, time to clear my head, and now I’m stuck in Section.”
Nikita pulls away from the display, keeps walking down the street. “None of use chose this,” she says curtly. Continues down the street, and Willow trails behind, trying to find the words to frame the emotions. “You need to get some sleep,” Nikita says abruptly. Willow starts to protest, but the other woman cuts her off. “You lie silently, and you close your eyes, but you don’t sleep. You’re going to start cracking up if you don’t let go.”
Willow’s hands want to grasp at each other tightly, to fidget with the cuffs of her jacket, to trace the patterns of runes and symbols, but she has learned to lie with her body so they sit silently at her side. It sickens her how comforting the weight tucked into her belt is, the reassurance she finds from the brush of metal against her back. There’s a chill in the air, or it’s the chill in her blood, the magic bound up, and she can’t find a way to tell Nikita that she can’t sleep any more, with the humming in her veins and the constant electric current. That she’d she’s starting to long for the nightmares, as long as there’s some relief from the constant awareness and reality, the constant *thinking.*
“There’s always one way out of this,” Nikita tells her in a voice bereft of all emotion. “There’s one sure way out of this, but if you take it, that’s it. That’s the end and there’s no going back. Now, the motorcade has just turned down the north end of this street, and we need to get into position.”
Silence then, as people ebb and flow around them. “Look, I’m sorry. I just--”
Nikita pushes her sunglasses back into her hair. Eyes warm, glacier blue, and full of warning, she says “We need to get into position.”
Willow stuffs her hands into the pockets of her coat as they cut through the crowd. She does not shiver. The motorcade trundles down the street as they reach the corner where Michael waits silently. She sees delta team drop into position as the long black cars pull up in front of a steel and glass hotel.
Michael raises a hand to his ear, and nods. “Go,” he says, and Willow finds the familiar weight of her gun as she and Nikita stride across the yellow lines of the intersection, coats flapping in the wind.
The hotel door opens silently into a rush of activity. “What did you tell him?” Nikita asks, eyes fixed on the target as he boards the elevator.
“Tell who?” She needs her friends to be gone from this. She needs them to be back on the hellmouth, because she needs the best for them. She needs to get herself back to a place where she doesn’t have to work so hard not to tighten her hands into fists.
Silence as they watch to see which floor the elevator empties at. Fifth. Perfect.
“He wanted to know that I was happy,” Willow finally replies.
Silence. He’s her friend and her confident and if he’s a part of her then she was just making sure that that part of her was safe from all this.
“He -- It wasn’t too hard to figure out what he wanted me to say.”
The stairs are dark, and they whip around and around on their way up. It is dizzying, and all there is is the echo of soft footfalls, the glint of guns, and the sense of spinning. Every circuit takes them closer to the target but right back around to where they were. With the whisper of future gunshots already licking through her mind, Willow tries to shut out the void and the dancing magic in her veins, asking her what-if, what-if.
If the vertigo should take her, would she fall asleep or would she wake up?