Catherine lost six days on her final magic bender at Rack’s.
It had started like any other night there--floating to the ceiling, lost in the power of the spell. Then the room disappeared, and she was scaling a mountain, snow falling all around her, dusting her hair and eyes, chilling her to the bone. Two identical snowflakes landed on her sleeve, and she turned to tell someone, anyone, but she was all alone.
Her heart pounded as she raced to the top of the mountain. She dove off it, falling for hours until the ocean caught her in its arms. She marveled at the perfectly symmetrical cottages the fish had built among the coral reefs. Then the girls who had been cut from the cheer squad grabbed her by the arms and tried to bite her with their piranha teeth. She swam away as fast as she could, gasping for air on every stroke.
After days of swimming, she washed ashore a beach with warm purple sand that squished beneath her feet. When she woke again, a circle of fire surrounded her, and there was no way out.
She returned to reality just outside Rack’s lair, with the taste of ashes on her tongue, and a wrenching sense of loss where her magic had been.
She waited months for it to return, as it always had before. She begged anyone with magic for borrowed power, but it didn’t take. She tried kick-starting it with drugs. Nothing happened. She tried sex, first with her husband, then with warlocks, other witches, and demons. Nothing changed.
In desperation, she drove to Santa Clara to the coven that had cast her out for misuse of magic years ago.
She sat on the grass outside the coven, swatting at mosquitos, ignoring the curious stares of the junior witches, as Theresa, the High Priestess, read her aura.
Theresa finished her examination, looked at Catherine with sorrow in her eyes. “You’ve burned through your magic so thoroughly that none can take root in you again.”
Theresa didn’t need to add, We warned you about this. Catherine heard that message loud and clear. She’d had a rare gift, and she’d lost it through her own carelessness.
It ate away at her until she had a dream on the Summer Solstice. In that dream, she drifted through the universe, connected to oceans and constellations and black holes with the startling clarity she’d only known when casting powerful spells.
She reached Breaker’s Woods, and she saw a being of pure magic. A powerful witch, not yet born. Still unformed.
The universe spoke to her. It told her that she could mentor a younger witch, help her avoid the mistakes she had made.
She woke up, and as the emotions of the dream began to fade, she realized that she didn’t have to be just a salon owner, obsessed with the triumphs of her past. She had a destiny.
Three days later, she discovered she was pregnant. It all made perfect sense. She started reading beginner spellbooks, ethics manuals, training drills, and anything else she could find about raising and nurturing a talented young witch. Catherine the Great had never done anything by half-measures and wasn’t about to start now.
Sunnydale, January 1997
Catherine was halfway to her salon when she realized she’d forgotten the angelica for the face wash. She hurried back to the house, opened the gate to the backyard and discovered Amy and girl with long hair sitting under the oak tree, floating pencils. That was odd. Amy hardly ever brought friends home.
The other girl’s pencil spun in a much wider circle than Amy’s. The girl saw Catherine, and gave a little shriek. The pencil spun wildly out of control, careening into an olive tree.
Catherine ran to the tree to inspect it. The pencil was embedded several inches deep. To do that, by accident--this little girl was powerful.
The girl said, “I’m sorry about your tree! I don’t know how that happened.” Her voice shook, and her eyes darted to Amy.
Catherine tugged at the pencil. It didn't budge. “It’s all right. You can talk to me about the magic.” She yanked the pencil out of the tree. “I’d be glad to give you lessons, if you like.”
The girl’s face burst into a huge grin. The pencil wobbled in Catherine's hand. “Really?”
Catherine said, “Sure. What’s your name again?”
The girl said, “Willow.”
Catherine been trying and failing to help Amy come into her powers all these years, but it wasn’t her fault. It was because her destiny was to mentor someone else. Willow clearly had much more potential than Amy did.
Welcome to the Hellmouth
Sophomore year was actually starting to look up for Willow. It had started off fairly badly: Xander and Jesse shut her out more and more often, and Jesse was all big with a crush on Cordelia, of all people.
But then Amy had invited her over to her house to learn magic. Not the sleight of hand stuff, actual magic. And when Amy’s mom had found out, instead of being mad, she'd agreed to teach Willow magic, too. A lot of it was working on endless "connecting with the earth" exercises, and reading ethics books, but it was all supposed to build up to more exciting stuff later.
Then the new librarian showed up with a whole bunch of really old and interesting history and biography books. These were books that weren’t even in the Sunnydale public library, or even UC Sunnydale’s library. And he was really, really smart, and handsome, and he had that English accent that made her head go all tingly.
And to top it off, the new pretty girl, the one who legally should be part of the Cordettes, had actually tried to be friends with her. It had to be the magic--even though Willow had kept it a secret, there was probably something about it that had changed her, made her more of the kind of person that someone like Buffy Summers would want as a friend.
She was this close to having an interesting life. And it had all started with learning magic.
Willow stared across the yard at Catherine, an intense look of concentration on her face. “Vincire!”
Catherine felt the magic wrap lightly around her arms. Not perfect, but remarkably good for a first try. “Good. Now hold it and see if you can get it to bind me tighter. You want to immobilize your opponent’s hands.”
Amy darted up behind Willow and grabbed her shoulder. “That’s freaking amazing, Willow.”
“Oh!” Willow flinched, and fell against the rose trellis. The magic bonds wavered, then disappeared. She leaned against the rose trellis, panting.
“I think that’s enough for today.” Catherine said. “Remember to read chapter six of Roslova’s ethical principles. We’ll discuss them tomorrow.”
After Willow had left, she walked back to the kitchen, where Amy was sitting at the table, pretending she hadn’t just shoved a brownie in her mouth.
“You did that on purpose,” Catherine said.
The cat wandered in and twined around Amy’s leg. She petted him and gave Catherine a sullen look. “Shouldn’t she learn how to do spells when someone’s trying to distract her?”
“That’s not why you did it.”
Amy blinked back tears. She picked up the cat and ran upstairs.
Catherine sat down and considered the Amy issue. Craig had found a new job in Sacramento, and had asked if they could revise the custody agreement.
Tomorrow she’d tell him he could take Amy with him to Sacramento.
It was for the best. Amy had served her purpose: she’d led Catherine to her role as Willow’s mentor. There was nothing else for Catherine to provide her; she might as well let Craig take his shot at parenting their daughter. Maybe he could motivate her to do something besides gorge on brownies and sulk about all the attention Willow was getting.
Out of Mind, Out of Sight
Willow wasn’t having any luck finding any credible causes of invisibility online, just a lot of crackpots with weird websites and even weirder theories about the world. But one search result caught her eye. Giles was always on the lookout for Slayer prophecies.
"Giles, the University of Arizona just published a translation of a Navajo myth. It's about a really strong girl who fights monsters. It says she'll meet her darker sister, and then something about both of them saving the world from a major evil that might be invisible, or untouchable."
Her breath caught a little as he moved closer to look over her shoulder. She loved that intense, focused look he got when he was interested in something.
"Oh, that's fascinating. That one’s new to me. Print it out and we'll add it to the list. Good catch."
She tried to keep her face neutral, but inside she was grinning ear to ear. Giles knew practically everything. Finding a prophecy that he didn’t already know was really, really something.
She’d been thinking about him and Ms. Calendar a lot lately. They were both really warm and kind to her, and she liked that a lot. Catherine wasn’t nearly as friendly. Occasionally she thought she should tell Giles and Ms. Calendar about the magic, and ask them to help.
But Giles and Ms. Calendar sometimes acted like she was she was just a kid. Catherine was the only adult who always took her completely seriously. That was probably worth putting up with someone who could be kind of cold.
Willow took her parents’ “no boys in her bedroom” rule seriously, so they ate their Twinkies on the floor of the living room.
“There’s a Star Trek marathon on Channel 57 tomorrow,” he said. “Do you still have your pointy Vulcan ears? I’ll bring mine.”
Willow choked on her Twinkie, and took a long drink of water. “I can’t. My parents hired a, um, test prep tutor, so I’ll be busy here every morning.”
All of this seemed like the kind of thing Willow’s parents would do and Willow would go along with (and probably weirdly enjoy). But the way she said it was just a little too quick.
“C’mon, what are you really up to? Is it a fun thing?”
“It’s kind of the opposite of fun. Unless you consider vocabulary drills, and um, logical inference a real hoot.” She looked down at her half-eaten Twinkie., then said, “Did you catch Babylon 5 the other night? What do you think is gonna happen with Lyta and the telepath, now that she has weapons?”
Oh, she was hiding something. Was it something about a guy? That seemed fairly freaksome, because judging by the past year, any guy Willow was interested in was practically guaranteed to be a demon. And Buffy wasn't around to protect her this time.
The next morning, he waited a few houses down from Willow’s to see who this “test prep tutor” was. Instead, Willow left the house with an armful of books. He followed her, feeling kind of strange about the whole 007 routine, but someone had to look out for her.
She stopped at Amy Madison’s house, and went inside. He crouched down behind some bushes near the front gate. Maybe Amy was visiting her mom for the summer. But Willow wouldn’t get all avoidy about hanging with Amy. Wow, there was a creepy-looking demon face on the gate. What if there was something bad happening to her right now? Should he be storming in right away?
Finally, after what seemed like hours, Willow came out the door, looking none the worse for wear. And it was daylight, so she couldn't have been vamped. He jumped out from behind the bushes.
Willow yelped and dropped her books. "Xander, you scared me! What are you doing here?"
He helped her pick them up. "Trying to figure out what you're doing here."
"I just, um, well, Amy's mom needs some help with, um . . . chores and I was--"
"Why did you tell me it was test preparation at home? Time to be honest, young lady."
She looked miserable, but he resisted the urge to cut her some slack. If she was in some kind of trouble, he needed to know. She sighed. "Ok, but you have to promise to keep it a secret."
He said, "I promise." He didn’t know if he could keep it. But right now he needed to make sure Willow was okay. He could deal with the fallout of a broken promise later.
"Catheri--Mrs. Madison has been teaching me how to do magic."
It was surprising how much it stung that she had kept a huge secret from him. They’d known each other forever, and up till now, she’d always told him everything. Seriously, everything, no matter how weird or random, he’d heard about it.
Also, Amy's mom was kind of mean. Not as bad as his parents, but unpleasant enough that they'd always hung out at Willow's house. He couldn't imagine why Willow would want to learn anything from her. And since when was she on a first name basis with that woman?
He was probably looking as confused as he felt, because Willow said. "I know it's kinda hard to understand, but I want to be able to help Buffy. I'm not very good at it now, but Catherine thinks I can be if I work hard."
She looked at him, eyes so wide they seemed to take up half her face. "Can we keep this a secret for now? I don't want Giles and Buffy to know until I get good at this--so it will be more like a pleasant surprise."
“I don’t know, Will. This sounds kind of--”
He wasn't sure this was anything approaching a good idea, but he couldn't say no to her, either, not when she did that thing with her eyes.
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
“A love spell?” Willow looked at Xander in disbelief. God, what was so special about Cordelia, anyway? Sure, she was pretty. But there were other pretty girls in the school who weren’t so horribly mean all the time. Could Xander be so oblivious to how much it hurt that he was so hung up on Cordelia? Or did he just not care?
He leaned up against her locker. “It’s not what you think,” he said. “I just want her to love me long enough that I can break up with her and subject her to the same hell she's been putting me through.”
Catherine had told Willow doing spells for personal reasons could backfire. But it didn’t seem like there was much of a downside to doing this one. It was about time Cordelia felt some of the pain she inflicted on other people.
“I’ll need something of hers,” she told Xander. “A personal object.”
Giles knocked on the door at the Madisons’ house, peering through the glass.
Just another day in the Hellmouth, with a misdirected love spell affecting all of the women in Sunnydale (and maybe other places as well, for all he knew). As an added bonus, he’d had to watch Jenny throw herself at Xander. As if it wasn’t painful enough just seeing Jenny every day. Even worse, two of his charges were responsible for all of it. He’d been furious with Xander; but Willow’s involvement was far more troubling.
Mrs. Madison let him in.
He glanced around the room--a bit dreary, with all the dark wood paneling, but aside from a few idols on the shelves, there were no outward signs of the witchcraft.
But years of training and experience had taught him that appearances counted for nothing. A tiny blond teenager could be the Chosen One. A ventriloquist’s dummy could be a tenacious demon hunter.
This ordinary looking house could be the site of dangerous forays into magic.
He sank down on the couch across from Mrs. Madison. "It’s come to my attention that you're teaching Willow magic, and it needs to stop."
She seemed unfazed by his glare. "Oh, it does? Why is that?"
"She's a bright young girl with a lot of potential. It's utterly irresponsible to get her involved with something so dangerous."
She looked at him like he was a particularly interesting bug. "You send her out to fight vampires with nothing but stakes and holy water, and you think what I'm doing is dangerous?"
"That's, n--not the point.” he said, as his left eyelid started to twitch. “She'd be in danger from vampires just by virtue of living here." A familiar scent was drifting in the air--Damiana oil, a magic ingredient that Ethan had favored, back in the day. Giles felt even more unsettled.
"What makes you think I'm the only one who's noticed how powerful she is? Would you prefer that chaos sorcerer friendof yours take her under his wing? Or the gypsy spy? Or how about a demon?"
He flinched at the mention of Ethan and Jenny. Just how much did this woman know? Was it all from Willow, or were all of these incidents common knowledge in Sunnydale? How badly had he blown his cover?
"Nevertheless, she doesn't need you--"
She waved her hand dismissively at him. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"There's no need to get insulting. I understand far more about magic than you realize--"
"No, you don't. I'm not trying to insult you--it's just a fact. You don't know what you're talking about. You don't even know what you don't know.”
“I think--” he began, but she didn’t pause for a second to let him speak, kept on talking in an almost earnest tone of voice.
“You’re so out of touch with your own magic that you couldn’t see her natural gift for it. You have no idea what it's like to have as much power as she does. How could you possibly know what's best for her?"
For the first time, Willow envied Marcie Ross. She was starting to see the upside of being invisible. She kept having flashbacks to pouring her heart out to Xander, and being rejected yet again, and going psycho with an axe. The worst part was, it was kinda her fault for doing the spell wrong, and maybe even for doing the spell in the first place. She sat on the floor in the back of the library, way back in the geography section. Sunnydale High had eliminated geography classes a few years ago, and she was the only person geeky enough to read those books for fun, so no one would find her here. She didn't want to explain to Oz about the stupid phone call that probably hurt his feelings and ruined things with him. She didn't want to apologize to Buffy again about accidentally casting the spell on her, or even talk to Xander ever--
"Willow?" Oh, crud. Giles should have been at the top of the list of people she wanted to avoid, and the library was the worst place in the world to hide from him.
“Oh, hi, Giles. I was just studying--regular school stuff, I swear.”
“Did you talk to Mrs. Madison about Buffy?”
Oh, god. “Well, yeah, but only after I realized she knew all that stuff already. She says it’s really obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.”
He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes, then put them back on so he could glare at her. "I want you to explain to me what you've been learning from Mrs. Madison." That stern tone of voice was the one that he reserved for people being very stupid. She hated hearing it directed at her.
"Well, we talked last night about the spell. See, part of the reason it went wrong is that I sent the spell in a misdirect-y way. Away from Cordelia instead of at Cordelia. And I should have invoked Venus because she's the goddess of love, and instead I invoked Diana and she's the huntress, and that’s probably why everyone got so violent--"
Ok, from the look on his face, that was definitely not the right answer. She thought about what else he might want to know. "We’re going over Roslova's magic ethical principles again, and we talked about how the spell violated the principle of self-determination, because I didn’t ask Cordelia if I could do the spell, and the principle of um, beneficence, because we weren’t trying to help anyone with the spell--we were more big with getting even with Cordelia.”
“How long have you been studying ethics?” he said.
At least that was an easy question. “Since she started teaching me.”
"What else have you been reading?"
"The Boston Coven's ethical guidelines."
"Do you have the fourth edition, or the fifth?"
"I've got the fifth at home. I’ll bring it by tomorrow. Let me know if you need any other ethics books."
He looked--well, still mad, but less mad. Maybe he wasn’t going to kick her out of the Slayerettes after all.