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The Waking

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I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
            ~Theodore Roethke

 

When he was eight years old, he carved his name into her skin with a penknife. She was green and wet with spring, and the cut burned deep, bled clear. When she'd finished screaming, she thought, 'So this is love, then.'

He'd been just another boy, one day ago, moving like a clumsy squirrel over her body until he found a place to wedge himself and read. In the autumn, like every child before him, faceless in her memory, he'd circled her endlessly. Bucket in hand, he had picked her cast-off seeds from the earth to pierce and string them for his games. He'd never looked up at her, nor had she looked down at him.

Now, though, he had scored her with his letters. Scarred her with his name. His precious, powerful human name -- for names were magic, he whispered to her as he cut -- forever printed on her flesh. It buzzed at her constantly, once the pain had faded, like bees had set up housekeeping in her trunk. 'Love,' she told the kestrel who nested alone in her uppermost branches, as she thought it might appreciate the advice, 'itches.'

This was good to know about love. As were these things: the sharpness of his nose, the soft wave of his hair like new leaves opening to the light. The way he'd run through the grass, arms outstretched, airplane noises sputtering from his mouth. Small play-soiled hands on her boughs as he climbed, up and up. The sureness of his grip that made her, in those moments, the tallest, strongest tree that ever grew.

Everything she could learn was good to know about love. It didn't happen often for her kind -- perhaps because there were so few of her kind -- or did that go the other way round? Her mother had scarcely had the time to tell her much about these things, anyway, in her one short season growing before she'd been flung out into the world, curled tiny and safe in the darkness of her prickly shell. She had to learn as she went.

She couldn't know for sure that this feeling, this itch, was even love, the willow at the end of the garden pointed out. It could be melancholy, or scrofula, or indigestion -- those human moods, so hard to tell apart. So undignified, all of them, and fleeting. Not made at all for creatures such as them.

'You know nothing.' She rustled her leaves at it. 'Nor am I a creature such as you.' Shaking herself loose from her skin, she walked and stood beneath the other tree -- hands planted fast on slim green hips. 'Nothing like you at all.' She had eyes, for instance, deep reddish-brown, to glare up at it with. 'And I know what love is.'

The willow laughed at her, in the slow silent language of plants, the language in which you could scream as a boy wrote love into your skin and not be heard at all. 'Boys climb in trees, and swing from us, and grow, and the men they become forget that they ever knew us, if we are lucky. Boys do not love trees, and trees should not love boys. This is no less true for trees with human feet, than us with only roots. I am older than you. I know.'

She turned her back on it, leaves tumbling from her hair. Not worth arguing with, that one. It didn't understand. Could be a thousand years older than her, rings packed so close inside its trunk that you couldn't see where one ended and the next began, roots grown down to the heart of the world, and it would never understand. Of course she loved him. How could she not, when Rupert Giles loved her?

She was his tree now, bound to him by his own hand. His name lived in her flesh, and who would give away their magic to someone they didn't love?

*****

Rupert ran away when he was ten. Oh, not very far away. There wasn't very far to run -- forest in one direction, town in the other where everyone knew whose son he was, and the only way out was a rail ticket he hadn't the money to buy, even if they'd let him. He wasn't a fool; he wasn't really leaving.

But he ran a little way, anyway. Just enough to be out of the house, away from his father's study. Away from words that fell on his chest and crushed the breath out as surely as the fifty pound barbell had when he'd made the mistake of playing about by himself at the sports complex. Tradition. Honour. Responsibility. Black and heavy as an iron weight. Too much; too hard to hold it up.

He packed a rucksack in the kitchen. Bottled milk and apples; jam sandwiches. The things he'd sometimes take just for a walk outside, to spend an afternoon in the sun. But now he was running away, and these things were more important, somehow. They had to last, had to keep him safe while he hid. While he figured things out.

In the middle of the night, he clambered out of his window, bundled against the cold in a pullover, jacket, boots. He could have made it down the steps and out the back door without being caught, probably, but the window seemed right. No need to pass bedrooms with lights that might be on and ears that might hear him creeping. No study door gaping wide, smelling of book-dust and destiny.

Out the window; down the trellis. Across the wide expanse of lawn, dew-slick in the night, and up. To his safe place. His thinking place. His tree.

It was dark, but Rupert didn't need to see, to climb. Not this tree. Not these boughs whose every gnarl he knew with the memory of his hands, where to grasp, where to brace, where to lean. It seemed as he climbed as if the branches almost fell into place, there before he even remembered which one to reach for. Seemed, too, when he glanced down, like they closed in below him, so he couldn't fall, even if he slipped.

He climbed high -- not higher than he'd gone before, but higher than he'd ever stayed to settle in and sit -- and then he did just that. Hung his rucksack on a half-broken branch, leaned against the trunk, and wrapped his arms around one knee.

"They can't make me do what they want," he whispered. Not to himself, exactly, but not to anyone real. Just to give them shape, and power, and weight, these things that he was saying. "They can't. I won't. It's my life."

From where he sat, he could see the sky overhead as if it were painted on his bedroom ceiling, like he could stand up on a chair and a pile of books and touch it with his fingertips. Stars winked on and off in the blue-black, as the thinnest, highest branches swayed above him, gently.

"Don't want to look after some stupid..." He stopped, grinding his teeth, then went on. Not as if anyone could hear him out here and chide him for his language. "...stupid bloody girl somewhere. Don't want his ugly scratchy suits and his library and his people in London that he has to go see and stays away for weeks on end. Don't want to be what he is. I want to be what I am."

Whatever that might be. He wanted to grow up to be a pilot, with flying goggles and a beat-up leather jacket. Or a fireman, maybe, with a bright red engine to drive. Or he could have a shop like Mr. Parker's, and wear a blue and white striped apron as he stood behind the counter, wrapping up fish in crisp clean paper to sell.

It didn't matter, now, what Rupert did when he became a man. He wasn't supposed to decide now. They said that, in school. He could grow up to be anything he wanted to be. Prime Minister, even. Or a taxi driver.

They weren't allowed to decide for him. Not his father, not his mother. Not even grandmum, who wore blue jeans when she took him riding, and always played conkers with him when he asked. Not even her; he wasn't going to be what they wanted just because she'd been it, before his father had. Nobody got to say what Rupert Giles was but Rupert Giles.

"I won't." He pulled an apple from his bag and crunched it soundly, gnashing his teeth at them all. "Whatever they try to make me do, I won't ever be what they expect."

The fruit was dry in his throat, though, when he tried to swallow. He set it aside in the crook of two branches, and leaned his head back against the tree. He stared at the stars for a very long time, before he finally fell asleep.

He woke to sunlight and the screeching of birds, and the sound of his mother's voice calling his name, sharp and tuneless with worry. He watched her for a moment as she stood in the garden, right beneath his tree. Surely she could see him up here, same as he could see between the branches himself? But it didn't seem so, for she called his name again, peering upwards, then shook her head and started for the road.

His legs were stiff from sitting here so long, and cold, despite the layers of clothes. He'd be in more trouble, too, the longer he hid himself away. "I won't do it," Rupert whispered again, a promise to himself. "I'll be what I want to be."

Then he grabbed his bag and slowly climbed back down.

*****

Seasons passed quickly when you were in love, she discovered. Oh, the white flowers candled into bloom on her limbs no sooner than they always did, and the leaves fell no faster in the autumn. Nothing changed in the turning of the world -- but boys grew faster than the world could turn.

Time moved now with the speed of outgrown shoes, of shirts with sleeves too short, and long arms reaching for a higher branch. He changed, her boy, so very quickly that, watching him, she lost track of sunlight, snow, the length of days. She noted them, but only in passing. Only to remember, for instance, that the cold snap in the air meant he would bring fresh apples again, strange sweet fruit so different from her own, to eat beneath her shade.

She counted them, though, the seasons, so she would always know how old he was. You had to know these things -- had to know everything, after all, about the one you loved.

Six autumns after the spring that he first cut her, Rupert introduced her to a friend.

He'd brought boys there before, to climb and play, kick at footballs or throw sticks up to knock the pricklies from her branches and harvest the auburn seeds that lay inside. He wasn't friendless, not at all, though there was a distance between himself and his playmates. He was paler, spent more time indoors than they did, in that room whose walls -- she'd seen when she'd crept up rootless and feet-footed in the night to peek inside -- were made of books. But he never lacked for company, those days that he didn't choose to be alone.

This one, though, was different. This was no boy, for one, and nothing like any girl-child she had seen before. Tall. Strong and long of limb -- taller than Rupert even, for all that he'd been growing like a sapling in the sun. Her hair was short, black, curled like lambswool close to her scalp, and her skin was as brown as Rupert's was pale. Twice that, even, plum-blue shadows in the hollows of her throat.

The tree didn't quite know what to make of this stranger, or the way that Rupert glanced up at her through his lashes, uncertain. Looking for approval, the way he would when he walked with his father through the garden and named the names of the handful of plants that humans thought were the only ones who had magic in them. A sharpness, an echo of the burning of his cut, tried to strike at the tree from inside, made her uppermost leaves shake nervously in the windless sky.

There was a word she had, in her notes on love, called jealousy. She thought she understood what it might mean, but couldn't tell if that was this. Love -- despite the willow who never stopped smirking at her -- she knew, and learned more about every day, but this... This shaky, fearful feeling would not give itself a name, just yet.

Then Rupert pointed at his name, on her skin where it still burned still strong and clear. "This is my favourite tree," he explained, and this girl, she stooped to look at it, and smiled.

Then, still smiling, the girl looked up, and bent her knees beneath her, and jumped. Straight up, her long arms high above her head. Strong fingers grasped and held a branch so high that Rupert could only reach it by two steps worth of climbing. Then she swung herself up -- so fast that she made the tree feel windblown in her wake -- and hooked her legs around the branch. Grinned happily at Rupert as she hung there, upside down.

Sudden as the ending of a summer storm, the tree's fear disappeared. So quickly that she grasped at its ghost, desperate to note it down so the next time that it happened, she could learn what it was. But it was gone, even the memory softening to relief. Something about the sound of Rupert's voice, the bright crescent of the girl-child's open mouth... Like the feeling itself, the reasons for its sudden absence could not be touched, could not be pinned in place. She only knew that whatever the newcomer was, it was nothing dangerous. Not to Rupert, not to the tree herself. Nothing that could take him away from her.

The girl didn't play with Rupert often; for long weeks she would be gone from the house just as his father often was, and when she was there, she spent more time within the book-walled room than Rupert did. Even her outside hours were spent more often running down the paths, or along the grassy verge, Rupert's father standing by the road, arms crossed. Watching.

But some afternoons, some evenings, the two of them would be free at the same time, and would chase each other through the garden, laughing, though the girl would always win. She would do chin-ups from a branch, while Rupert sat below and read aloud. Sometimes the girl would read, the warm, smooth up-and-down of her voice like a small song in the garden, as she retold the adventures of pirates and caliphs, and agreed with Rupert that this sort of book was much better than Fleisshocher's Treatise on Thaumaturgy, whatever that might be. Once, they both put down the book, and climbed up very high, to look at the nest where the kestrel, mated now for years, had laid her eggs, then climbed back down without disturbing them.

One night in early autumn, conkers just about to fall, Rupert's father and the girl drove away down the road. Rupert waved at them from the grass, then ran back to the garden to read, bookmark neatly placed at the spot where they had stopped last time. "It's not cheating," he muttered aloud. "I'll just read the same bit over when Solange gets back."

Two nights later, his father returned -- alone. Silent as he entered the house, his face the empty grey of long-dead leaves.

A day went by, and no one left the house. Rupert's face didn't even appear in the book-room window, bored and longing for the outside, as it often did. There was only silence, silence, from the house -- so heavy that it seemed to escape the walls, push outwards to the garden, to the grass and trees and birds. Even the wind grew somber and still.

Shadows lengthened, pooled and crept, the only thing that moved -- then finally, an hour after dark, he came. Her boy, running from the back door like a maddened bull had once run through from the fields, long ago, head down and nothing in his way that seemed to matter. She was sure he would hurt himself before he stopped in time, trip and fall, or failing that, smash his forehead flat against her trunk.

But he did stop, standing there beneath her, breathing hard. He looked up, and if his father's face had been bleached of colour, this must be where it had all escaped to. Red and white, blotches high on his cheeks, and a fury so dark in his grey-green eyes that they seemed to roil with blackness, like a thunderhead.

It frightened her, an icy shiver-shake like nothing she had felt before, not like that fleeting nameless, long-gone fear. She had never seen this anger in his face; in any human's face, in all her years. She'd seen it in the sky, when lightning slashed it open, in the wind, the night it raged so hard that it ripped a tiny poplar from the soil, roots and all. But not in him.

He drew back his arm, and for a moment, a second, she knew only mindless terror. Of him, of his hand, of this thing in his eyes. Of love itself, that it could hide this horror in its name, that she had never guessed. For what else could it be but love, to be this strong? She'd seen hatred on the faces of men, and it was paltry, weak, compared to this.

Then he hit her, hard, and everything came clear. Like that moment of beginning when his knifeblade touched her skin, but deeper. Sharper. Calmer, and the terror was gone. It didn't hurt at all, when he did it again. And again. Didn't hurt her flesh, anyway, though inside, every cell, every ring, the ghost-shape of her two-legged self, all ached as if the world had fallen on her, crushing her to dust. He hit until his fingers bled, until his knuckles split, until the thunderclouds in his eyes burst open and the rain washed down his face, and she understood, for he was hers, and so was all his hurt.

She wanted more than ever, more than she'd ever dared to want, to step out of herself in front of him. To kneel on two legs by his side, and wrap her arms around him, hold him tight. Rock him as she'd seen his mother do, or some child's mother in those days when they were all the same, until he quieted in her embrace, and fell asleep.

But that, she couldn't do. One thing -- the first thing, the most important thing, her mother had taught her when she grew inside her shell, was this: 'You do not let them see. Not men. Birds, bugs, badgers, other trees, they know what you are. They will not harm. But men must never see you wearing their form, not when they are clear of mind and will not take you for a dream. No man, no woman, no matter how kind they seem. No matter if you love him, or he you. Humanity is our undoing, our danger, for we are not what they are. They know it, but do not understand how it can be, and it drives them mad.'

She suspected her mother of dramatics, in her moments of clearer thought. There were stories in Rupert's books about her kind, or near enough, and true they ended badly, most of them, but... surely not all. Or even so, she could be different, be the first... But it was too strong, this rule of being. An older, colder fear than any other, written in her cells. She couldn't show herself to him, went limb-locked when she even thought of it.

So she gave him what she was, what she could. Strength and stillness, and a hard surface to batter himself against, until he finally slid to the earth. Until he finally slept, there amid the moss and fallen twigs, and she could slip free without him seeing, to press her lips against his forehead.

*****

"Happy...ow...damn..." Must have been moles in the lawn again. Really... subtle moles, with really tiny hills that looked just like flat grass in the dark. "Happy..." Or he could just be drunker than he thought. Was it possible to be drunker than that? "...sodding birthday to me..." Rupert toasted the back garden with his half-empty bottle of Strongbow. If it'd been the first half-empty bottle, he'd have been sure of the moles-in-the-grass theory, but given it was the second -- no, third...

Bed. Bed would be good. Bed was, he felt distinctly sure, soft, and clean, and much warmer than the chill of a night's walk home from the pub. Barry'd offered him a lift, but Barry'd had more to drink than Rupert had. That'd be a happy sodding birthday, all right, neck broken in a ditch somewhere. Or maybe it'd be the best going-away-to-uni present he'd ever get; he wasn't entirely sure.

He'd started across the flagstones -- moles beneath those too? -- towards the back door, digging in his pocket for his keys, when he noticed the light on in the study. His father was still up. That was all he needed, the look he'd get for stumbling in past midnight, pissed to the wind. The speech he'd get in the morning about responsibility, how he wouldn't be able to booze it up in Oxford, and he ought to be studying now, preparing, not staying out all hours of the night with his friends.

Not a speech he hadn't heard before, these last few months. They couldn't leave off, it seemed. School was out; it was summer. His last days as a free man, was what these were supposed to be, before... Before he reported to Simon Weatherby in the Council office at St. John's College, and turned himself over, lock, stock and barrel, to his destiny.

"Des...destiny...right. Ha, bloody ha..." He didn't particularly like the sound he made when he laughed drunk -- high and giggling, and hard to stop, once he started. Rupert turned back off the path, stumbling away from the house and the lights and... destiny, whatever the hell that was. One night, at least, he could be free of that, before he started packing up his things tomorrow morning, right?

Quite a few molehills over here, as well. He found that watching his feet worked fairly well for not tripping over them. Molehills, or feet. Made him a bit dizzy, looking down as he walked, but seemed a fair trade. At least until he ran bang-smack into something tall and broad and harder than his forehead.

He looked up, dizzier than ever. "Oh, hello there, tree, old thing. We must stop meeting like this, you know. People will say we're in love." He warbled a bit of the song to it, but the tree, unsurprisingly, didn't come back with the girl's part, and Rupert wasn't about to go for the high notes. Instead, he gave it a half-hearted hug round the middle, then rubbed at his forehead and slid down to sit with his back against the trunk.

"S'my birthday, did you know?" he asked aloud, then took a swig of cider. "They bought me a great big booze-up in town, to celebrate. Eighteen, free at last, kiss the girls and make 'em cry, and off into the world you go, little man."

And not a one of his cheering mates knew that off into the world meant off to a life his parents had planned out for him before he was even born. There was a retirement account set up in his name already, for Christ's sake. With the balance paid out to his family if anything... happened to him, before he went old and grey and got... he giggled again, but it didn't sound so bad this time. The booze softened his ears, maybe. Before he went old and grey and got put out to stud.

"What if I want to get put out to stud now, eh? What would they do if I...I.. put Annie Mayrose up the duff and had to settle down, right now? Send me off to Oxford anyway? Buy her off, take it out of my retirement funds?" Not that there was a chance of that; they'd been careful and they were neither of them fools. Not much chance of Annie Mayrose settling down with him even if it had happened; no love between them, just friendship and a bit of fun, now finished by mutual, sensible agreement.

"We're so very, very sensible, we are. We Gileseses." He rather thought one too many esses had slipped out of his mouth, but perhaps there was just an echo. "Sens-si-ble." He gave the tree a small, fond pat. "We're like you. Tall and stodgy and... steadfast. That's the word. Stuck in place. 'Cept when our dads say go, it's the smart thing to do. Then we go. 'Cos it's the smart thing to do. Sensible."

Even if... He stared at the third of his bottle left, then drank it down, letting the bottle fall with a clink against a half-buried root. Even if they'd promised themselves that they wouldn't. That they'd be.... What? What had he thought that he wanted, back then? "Ha! I was going to fly a plane. Or maybe a fire engine. Drive one. 'Cos you can't fly those."

Even if. Sensible, even if. Because those were kid promises, weren't they. And he wasn't a kid anymore. Hadn't been a kid for a long time, really; today was just the day it went legal. "Happy Birthday to me, then. Happy off to destiny." Rupert gave the tree another pat. "I'll miss you when I go, old tree. You're a good tree. Best conkers ever."

He reached for a drink that wasn't there, and found himself staring at his empty hand for a second longer than felt quite right. Closed his eyes for another second, just to break the spell. Just a bit of dark and cool to sort things out. Seemed like he was falling into it, tumbling down into the dark, the tree against his back the only solid thing, and even that felt soft enough to lean his head against.

When he opened his eyes again, the lids were heavy. Everything was heavy. Wet cotton filled his skull. Couldn't be morning yet. Too soon to be hung over. Not fair. "Nah...fair," he murmured, with a tongue that didn't want to move. But it didn't hurt like a hangover, just felt warm and soft, despite the night air's nip. Comfortable. No reason to move at all. Wasn't dawn -- the sky was dark above, streaked white with blurry stars.

He sat there, looking but not looking. Eyelids drifting open and closed as they pleased. Floating, like they had that holiday on the river: his father at the oar, and grandmum with a hat to shade her face curled up in the end of the boat with Rupert, stroking his hair as he dozed.

Someone was stroking his hair, though she didn't smell of peppermint and lemon, like his grandmother had. More like... nothing. Like tree bark and leaves wet with dew. Nothing that wasn't always there. It came to him dimly that he was dreaming, but he leaned into the touch anyway. Felt good against his scalp, and tracing down his face.

When it touched his lips, his eyes flickered open, and he knew he was dreaming for sure.

Wide eyes stared down at him, the rich red brown of conker shells, from a woman's pale, fey face. Pale, fey, green face. Her hair was green too, but a darker shade, bushing out around her face, long and thick and tangled with leaves. It fell past bare, green shoulders, and brushed the tops of... had to be a dream. Small, high breasts, the nipples just a shadow-smudge darker than the rest of her skin.

"You're a very pretty dream," he told her clearly, amazed he could make his lips move. He usually couldn't in his sleep; not at his own command, anyhow. "I like you."

She smiled, and her teeth were white, at least. Small and even, and her tongue was... Rupert peered. Yes. Green, in her thin-lipped, wide green mouth. Of course. "Stay?" she said, and her voice was the sound of wind through leaves. It seemed to come more from the air around him than from her moving lips.

He grinned back at her, and lifted his arm a bit only to let it flop heavily back down at his side. "M' not going anywhere at the moment, love."

Her eyes came very close as she knelt down in front of him, peering into his face, and she frowned. "Stay?" she said again. "Stay here."

As things often do in dreams, the words fell with another sort of meaning, one he couldn't mistake or talk his way around. "I can't. I wish I could. But you know. Destiny. Duty. Something else that starts with a D." Delirium tremens, he thought with another half-giggle.

She just kept frowning at him. Crossed her arms, even, over those pretty naked breasts. An unpleasant echo of his father's frown, the few times he'd dared to bring up the idea that he might want something else besides an Oxford education and a retirement fund.

Seemed like she'd stare and frown until this dream went sour and all he'd have to show for it in the morning would be an aching head and the memory of yet another disappointed face, if he didn't say something soon. "I--- all right, you caught me then. It's bollocks, all of it. Duty, destiny, d-thing I can't remember. It's just... there's this girl." His dream-girl's eyes widened at that, then narrowed. "No, not like that, sweetheart. I haven't even met her. Just this girl, somewhere. And someday, she's going to need me. Need somebody, anyway. Ah, look, I'm drunk, all right, and dreaming and, and I can't talk straight. This girl, this destiny thing's got her by the throat and she's got no choice, and somebody needs to look after her, or..."

God, the quiet in that house, and the words nobody would say. The staccato explanations and then nothing, 'til the silence and his dad's grey face weighed down twice as hard as all those d-words ever had, and Rupert couldn't take it any longer, had to run out in the night. Take out his helpless anger on... this very tree he leaned against, it was.

"Somebody needs to look after her, or she'll die. Can't let that happen, you know? Not again."

His father had told him as much, later, with the words he hadn't said, as much as those he had. Someone had to look after them, and if tradition meant nothing to him, wouldn't Rupert think of that? Who better than someone who knew the things the Gileses knew? Like how it felt to fail, and lose the one you had.

"Tradition, destiny...pfaha. We're the best there is at it because we know what happens when you fuck it up."

A warm green finger traced his lips again, but this time, covered them. Hushing him. Probably all for the best, really. He didn't want to hear himself say this stuff.

Then... it seemed as if he drifted again, but it couldn't have been long. A second. Two. Warm finger on his mouth became warm lips. Warm fingers free to move beneath his jacket, then once she had it off his shoulders, start on the buttons of his shirt. Leaf-tossed hair tickled against his face, and he smiled. Gormlessly, he suspected, but he couldn't see his face, and she didn't seem to care.

She moved in his arms like a ghost might, light and quick. Somehow barely there and solid as a stone, as the treetrunk at his back, at the same time. It made sense in the dream, as everything makes sense in dreams, that she would touch him like this. Want him, apparently, like this, some fairy girl he'd never seen before in his life. That she could light up his body like a bonfire, like nothing he'd ever done with Annie Mayrose or his own more expert hands.

Rupert kissed her back, touched her temples, her shoulders, her smooth, green skin that moved and rippled like any girl's beneath his fingers, but he couldn't catch up with her at all. When she finally sank down onto him, it was all he could do to hold onto her, hands on her waist as for one moment she stopped stock still. Her mouth opened wide as her eyes did, and the sound she made was nothing like her speech. It was a cry like nothing he'd ever heard, half moan, half scream, and it echoed in his bones.

Then she was moving again, and he didn't even try to keep up, just held on as if the ground might fall away beneath him if he let go, and he'd fly off into the darkness. Faster and faster, so tight around him that he thought he knew now why she'd cried out, in the seconds before he couldn't think at all.

Then she ground herself against him, fingers splayed against his chest, and the darkness did close in. He did fly off. He heard her wind-voice whisper after him, "Come back, then, if you cannot stay," but he was too far gone to answer.

*****

He did come back, after he went away. She pointed it out to the willow, who scoffed at her. Yes, back, but back for days, then off again, and it wasn't as if he came out of the house when he was here.

But he came back, she said. Always. Because it was the only thing she had to say.

It wasn't much, as the seasons slowed down to move at their normal rate. Slower, even, with him gone away. Autumn dragged forever into winter, and small neighbor boys sneaking over to steal her fallen fruits from the ground only reminded her of Rupert in a bad way. An emptiness like dry-rot that made her ache inside.

Winter, and she hid inside herself from the snow and the cold, whispering the things she knew of love, to keep them fresh. It burns. It itches. It makes you fear its loss. It tastes like apples and fire on your lover's lips. It breaks the inside of you, and puts you back together in a different shape. It stays, even when the loved one goes away. And he does come back.

Spring, and he didn't come back.

Summer, and he visited once, and stayed in the house.

Autumn, and winter, and spring, and summer, and winter and every day was longer than the next.

She called for him, with the voice of her rooted self. Sometimes in the night when she was certain his parents wouldn't hear, even in her other, human voice. He never answered, could not hear. She knew it, but she did so anyway.

She reached for him, as well, the only way she knew. She could not follow him to wherever he'd gone away; her two-footed body was bound to her tree and could barely reach the edge of the road, even if she had known which way to go when she got to the crossroads in the distance. But she could reach with her other body, out into the world. Down, and out. Deep into the soil, past worms, rocks, she reached with her roots. She didn't know what direction, could not feel him, far away, so she reached in every direction. Splitting. Growing. Pushing ever outwards.

Finally, finally, he came home. Near the end of the fourth long, slow autumn. At dusk, when his parents had driven away somewhere hours ago and the house was dark and empty, Rupert came walking --out of the woods, not down the path. Back to her -- but he wasn't alone.

"What's the matter, Ripper -- afraid to go inside? Scared they left the maid behind to tell tales on us when they get back?" It was a boy -- a man, she supposed, as her boy was a man now, and this one stood as tall as him, though thinner. There was darkness snapping in his eyes, a teasing whine in his voice like the far-off buzz of dragonflies in summer.

"We -- they -- haven't got a maid, you prat. Just don't want the neighbours thinking someone's breaking in, ringing up the police. Or even telling my folks I was here, if they see that it's me. Just wait back here a bit, 'til it gets dark." Rupert ducked beneath her shade, and the other man followed, rolling his eyes.

"Who cares if they ring the cops? We'd be out of there before they ever showed. And who cares if they know it's you -- not like they don't know where you aren't. The college has to have called weeks ago -- you think stopping off home to steal some of your dad's books is really going to put the final nail in your dead-to-them coffin?" The other man laughed, and it sounded like branches breaking. She felt a brief inexplicable desire to do that -- break one off on his head.

"Shut it, Ethan. My family's none of your business. Did you come out here just to wind me up, or what?"

"I thought I came to pay your trainfare with fairy gold. Fairy paper, really, though it'll still be leaves in the morning."

"No, that's why I brought you, not why you came along."

"I'm wounded to the quick; here I thought you were taking me home to meet the Mater and Pater." The young man clutched his fingers to his heart. "You're ashamed of me, aren't you. Admit it."

"Frequently."

Ethan grinned. She didn't like his grin. It was sharp and sly and full of secrets. "That's all right, then. Had me worried for a second."

Rupert -- her Rupert, looked back at him, and grinned the same sharp grin. Somewhere in her topmost branches, the tree began to quiver. "You make as little sense as possible, don't you."

"I do try. Sensible's predictable, you know. And predictable makes you slow. Slow makes you..."

"Dead." There was all the weight of a long-gone boy's anger in that word, but none of the fire. It slipped out and hung there, and for a second his face looked as grey as his father's had, those many years ago.

"Well. Not quite what I was thinking, but as good as, anyway. I was going for boring."

The grey was gone, and there was that grin again. That grin on Rupert. It burned, but wrongly. Ate at the center of her trunk, a feeling half familiar, from long ago. One that had, back then, aborted itself when a girl hung upside down from her branch. Not now. Now the fear raged through her veins, the channels that carried water from her roots now shooting something else entirely through her body.

"You never go for boring." Rupert's hand fell on the other man's shoulder and those black-snap eyes turned hot, like pitch in the sun. His hand snaked out to grasp at Rupert's neck, and Rupert pushed him hard against her trunk. Pushed him, and then... and then put his mouth against Ethan's and they were kissing.

He was kissing her Rupert. Here, against her skin. How dare he, this stranger. This ... this... Blind worms! Slugs and snails! Root rot!

She'd drop that branch on him now, if she could get away with it, but it would mean crawling out human-shaped and breaking it off. She settled for what she could do -- she let the anger overtake her limbs, and rained down conkers on his head.

On both their heads, she realized, bent close together as they were, but somehow she couldn't bring herself to feel sorry that Rupert got pelted as well.

Ethan raised his face up first, peering suspiciously up into her branches. "That was... interesting. Considering the air's been perfectly still. You've not got an infestation of monkeys around here by any chance?"

Rupert lifted up his face and blinked. "Not that I know of."

The...blindwormrootrotsnailslug put his hand against her trunk for a moment, and she felt... dizzy. She hadn't known she could feel dizzy, but that must be what this was, this feeling like the wind was blowing so hard through her branches that the world beyond turned fuzzy and grey.

"Very interesting." He slithered out from Rupert's arms and reached up to grab a bough. Climbing her! And not to hang upside down, she suspected, though even if he did, she knew this angry fearful burn would never fade. Not with this one.

He didn't hang upside down, though. He moved sure-footed, up and up, touching her every so often with that same dizzy surge of being looked at. Read, like a book, like she was pressed and bound and dead beneath his hands. Up, and up, while Rupert watched, impatient, from below. Towards the kestrel's nest, and suddenly she knew where he was going.

"What are you doing, Ethan? Get down before you break your fool neck."

"Someone doesn't like us very much, I think." She hit him with another seed. "No -- someone just doesn't like me," the other called down. "I wonder why." And he reached for the hole in her trunk, the little leaf-stuffed hideaway that no one, not even the birds, ever touched.

Her hand snapped tight around his wrist before she had the chance to think about it, almost before she knew she was out of her skin. He stared up at her, where she crouched above his head. You never let humans see, she heard her mother whisper inside her. Yes, but this was more important than that.

She leaned down and brought her face so close to his that she saw her own self in his eyes. "Do not," she hissed at him, quick like an angry snake. Quiet as she could so that Rupert below wouldn't hear, wouldn't peer closer to see. She tightened her fingers around his wrist, squeezing with all the strength that her rooted form had used to send those roots searching outward for water, for food, for Rupert. His eyes narrowed, and he looked about to speak, so she said it again. Whispered it close to his ear. "Do not. Go away."

They stared at each other for a very long second, and she wondered if Rupert would hate her, if she broke the branch that this one perched on, sent it crashing down.

"All right," said the rootwormsnailslug thief, in a voice loud enough for Rupert to hear. "I'll go. But I'm taking him with me, you know."

She dropped another conker on his head, from high above. "He comes back," she told him, and let go of his wrist, melting into her trunk.

"Ethan, what are you on about? Or maybe it's what are you on? Come down here."

"On my way, Ripper; don't burst a vessel." He shinnied quickly down her body, and for Rupert's sake, she resisted the urge to move a low branch just enough to make him trip at the end. To remind him that she meant what she'd said. Go. Go now.

When he reached the ground, he pulled Rupert away from her trunk. Away from her roots. Towards the house.

"Come on; it's dark enough now. Let's get out of here."

"You're crazy, you know. It's just a horse-chestnut tree. Used to be my favourite place to play when I was a kid."

"Just your childhood playmate? Nothing more than that? I think I should be jealous; it certainly has strong feelings for you." He was too far away now to hit with a seed, so she poked her head out of her trunk to glare at his back.

"You are crazy."

"But never boring."

"That'd be why I brought you with me."

"I thought it was the fairy gold?"

"That too." Rupert paused before the door, reaching in his jacket pocket for something. "You never said why you came along, though."

"To make sure that you don't stay, of course. So your parents didn't trap you in their nets again, send you back to Watcher school."

Rupert's hands stopped moving. "Not going to happen," he said, his voice low. "That's...not me. Not anymore; maybe never was." He pulled something shiny from his jacket.

Ethan's voice was sharp, loud enough to be heard even over the creak of the back door opening. "You're not bored -- you're afraid of it, aren't you!" There was something of gloating, and something of satisfaction in the sound of his laugh, and she wasn't just jealous, now. She hated him.

Rupert turned, half in the doorway, looking back, and she ducked her head inside her skin again, though she doubted he could see her from that distance. "You--" Bright fury, for just a second, the fire that hadn't been there when his face was grey. Then gone, as quick as it came, his face falling into a shadowed smile. "You did just come along to piss me off."

"Well I'm good at it; seems a shame to waste the talent..."

Their voices faded as they moved inside and the door closed behind them. She watched the house, but it stayed dark, until finally they emerged, bags over their shoulders, black guitar-case in Rupert's hand. They left by the back gate, Ethan making sure, she noticed, to keep them out of range of falling seeds.

'He does come back,' she said to herself, as the night grew darker, colder. 'He did. He does. This is nothing. He does come back to me.'

Early in the morning, when the kestrel was just waking in its nest, she slipped her skin again, and climbed up to that secret little hole. She reached inside, and held the prize that she had hidden within, in the palm of her hand. One conker, polished smooth and brown, several seasons past its prime. Not safe anymore, not here.

She folded her fingers around it, and whispered -- the last thing she could think to teach it. She wind-hissed the words aloud, even if, shaking, she was unsure if she was a liar, after all. "Love comes back. Love always comes back."

Then she held it out to the kestrel, and asked the bird to fly with it, far away.

*****

When he came back to Oxford, Rupert's parents sold the house. Moved into a smaller, cosy place not far from his college. They said that the old one was too big to manage with just the two of them anymore, and they'd rather live somewhere closer to the Council headquarters in London, so his father needn't commute so far to work.

But he knew they did it to keep an eye on him. Make sure he didn't drop out of school, out of his Watcher training, off the face of the earth, again.

He didn't tell them there was no danger of that. Or rather, he did, but not so well that they believed him. He couldn't, without explaining why, and he wasn't about to do that. To tell them about Eyghon. About Randall. About Ethan, who'd given him the same damned disappointed look when he left London that his tutor gave him when he showed back up at school. That his father gave him a week later when he arrived in Oxford.

Seemed he was always disappointing someone. But at least this way, he wouldn't be playing with fire. Even if he failed -- the freezing fear that had made him run to London in the first place, that Ethan, for some reason, could pluck from his brain as easily as he could pluck a wallet from someone's pocket -- at least Rupert would be trying to keep someone safe. Not running so far and so fast from that responsibility that he got Randall killed, instead.

Somehow it didn't make things easier, that he was doing the right thing, now. He half suspected there was no right thing, never had been. That it was all some cosmic joke, and somewhere, someone was laughing hard at him. In his blackest moods, he consoled himself with the thought that if he'd grown up to be a fighter pilot, he probably would have crash-landed on top of an orphanage.

In brighter, later times, he rather wished his parents had kept the house he'd grown up in. It would have made a nice place to go home to, just every so often, when things got too much. That wouldn't be the same as running away had been. Just a little trip out to the horse chestnut tree with jam sandwiches, to think for a while.

*****

Love comes back, she had said, but this time, he didn't come back. Counting by seasons hurt too much, so she started to count by years. One winter. His parents left, and they never came back either. Two winters. Three. The kestrel died; a pair of black rooks took its place.

Boys grow up, the willow said again. Gently; there was no mocking now. They do not live forever anyway, you know. Would you have wished to see him go grey, like his father? Small and shrunken, as the old ones get? Best that he has gone while he was still what they call pretty, is it not?

She did not answer the willow. She'd stopped talking to it years ago; she wished she could stop listening to it too.

No, she answered in her heart, in the still-green center of herself. No, it is not best. Yes, I wish to see him go grey, grow old. Silver as aspen leaves. Small, wrinkled, frail, I do not care. He is mine. I want him here.

She reached again, with her roots. Out and down, down and out. Years and seasons, trying to find him again. Under the ground, she couldn't tell where she was, could not see in the dark, but she could tell if he was there -- or wasn't. He always wasn't, and so she pushed on.

Sun and rain. Children climbing in her branches, new houses closing in on her garden. She saw it all, but could not bring herself to care. For all the distance that she traveled underground, she felt more root-bound to the earth than ever, seldom stepping from her skin anymore, to feel the sunlight, the wind on her other body.

Once, the other one came to see her. At night, when the lights were off in the house that no longer belonged to Rupert's family, he came. It was many years later than she'd seen him last, but she recognised the blackness of his eyes. The shape of his face beneath the lines. She shook her branches at him, though it was spring and there was nothing she could drop upon his head.

"Oh, hush, old thing," he told her, peering up. To see if she would watch him from above, no doubt, but she would not give him the sight of her other form, not now. Not when the thing he'd tried to steal so long ago was gone. Long gone and far from here. "I didn't come to hurt you or steal your pretties. Just came..." He walked slowly around her trunk, touching it carefully. Softly. "Really I don't know why I came. Seemed like the thing to do, somehow. Don't dare go near him now, so why not drop in on his past."

When his fingers passed across the slashes of Rupert's name, she heard him sigh. It sounded very old, that sigh. Did that mean her boy was old, somewhere, as the willow had said? Did he have as many lines? It didn't matter at all, of course; he would still be beautiful -- but she would have liked to be able to see him in her mind as he was now.

Ethan touched her again, tracing the letters with his hands. "So. He carved himself in you as well, did he?"

That was too much. He went too far. She slid free from her trunk enough to hiss at him, a wordless order to leave.

"All right, all right. I'll go. You are a possessive thing, aren't you. Well, if he ever comes back, I wish you joy of him. He's gone cantankerous in his golden years."

Then he was gone, and she was all alone again.

Not long after that -- a year or two at most -- something else, something terrifying, happened. A clear spring day in England, and underneath the earth, she was pushing, pushing, reaching, as always -- and suddenly, the world... screamed at her. Or perhaps she just screamed so loud that it echoed back at her from everywhere.

Something was reaching, reaching back at her. Reading her like Ethan had, that once. Like a dead flat book. Knowing her. Something sad and raging that touched... everything at once, it felt like. Every sorrow that she knew; her loneliness, her need. Every year she'd spent alone, reaching, whispering that love comes back. Every hated moment when just for a second, she didn't believe it.

She screamed, and in the fire of her scream, she thought she heard every other voice in the world scream as well -- including his. Somewhere he screamed in sorrow, anger, pain, and it made her hurt that smallest fraction more.

Through the earth, through her blind seeking roots, she heard one voice not screaming. Dire and angry, blacker than the dark beneath the grass. "Oh, you poor bastards...your suffering has to end."

Her tree-body shook. Her human body cowered inside it, deep within her heart, and she thought the world would end. And then... it did.

Not the world, but the pain. The suffering, the screaming... stopped. The day was still and warm, and there was silence in her mind.

His voice was silent too, though, and for that, though the fear was gone, she wept.

Then reached. And reached.

*****

"You call them what?" Dawn asked, her face twisted up in that half-amused, half-dubious look that said she suspected he was putting her on.

"Conkers," Rupert repeated patiently. Was it a prerequisite of teenagers everywhere that they have not only the ability but the moral imperative to turn every remotely susceptible word into an innuendo? He stifled a laugh at himself; of course it was. It certainly had been for him at this age. "Horse chestnuts, more properly." Which, by the look on her face, was hardly an improvement.

"And you play with them by banging them together."

"If you don't stop making that face, young lady, I'm going to clean my glasses at you, and then where will you be?"

"Slightly out of focus and a little to the left of where you think I am?"

Rupert scowled lightly at her, and dropped the nut to the earth again. "You did ask about what it was like growing up here, you know. Not that I grew up in Devon, but..."

"You see one conker, you've seen 'em all?"

He sighed. "More or less. There was a tree very much like this behind my parents' house when I was young. Don't you have a sister you're supposed to be terrorising?"

Dawn pointed off towards another tree, where Buffy, Willow, and Kennedy sat cross-legged at its base. "Willow's giving them the 12-step, root-systems, how I learned to stop being evil and connect with everything in the world in a happy way, speech. Only this time with visual aides, since we're, you know. Here. Where it happened. Which is cool. But pardon me if I still like to be out of blast radius when she does the great big magic things. I trust her -- I do. I just...get a little spooked."

Rupert watched as the grass in front of Willow and the two Slayers shifted, slightly, and a small green plant appeared. In seconds, it had shot high into the air, and a bright yellow sunflower had sprouted at its top. At least she wasn't repeating herself, he thought with a smile, as the plant shrunk down again and disappeared into the soil.

"That, I would say, was one of the smaller magic things. Although in some ways, you're right -- because they're all great big." He walked toward the other girls, and Dawn walked at his side, despite her professed desire to stay out of the path of Willow's demonstration.

"Right. Everything touches everything else. Every little thing you do can change the world. I get it." She sounded tolerantly bored, but a glance at Dawn's face showed a half-serious smile. "No, really. I get it. Kind of hard not to, when you're off chasing down all the girls all over the world that your sister turned into superheroes just by handing Willow an axe."

"That on the other hand would be one of the great big magic things. In all senses of the words." They reached the tree, and the girls looked up at them.

"Hey guys -- you missed the commercial for Super-Willow-Gro Fertilizer," Buffy said.

"No Paraguay this time, Giles," Willow assured him, a bit uncertainly. "Just Iowa. I sent it home again, though."

"I saw," he informed her, and smiled to let her know it didn't bother him. He knew as well as she did -- perhaps better, though her confidence in herself had increased tenfold since she'd activated the potential Slayers -- the difference between this sort of magic and the things that she had done in her sickness and her grief. He was in no fear of becoming bangers and mash if he displeased her. "I'm glad you sent it home; it wouldn't have fared very well here, I'm afraid. Not sunny enough."

"So you just, what... reached all the way across the world and found a sunflower, and brought it here?" Kennedy asked, her face set in a frown of concentration that was becoming familiar; it happened every time she tried to understand the way Willow's magic worked. Which was much more often, since she'd seen the power that Willow had channeled that final day in Sunnydale.

"Not exactly, hon. I didn't bring it -- that would've caused all kinds of trouble. I just reached out. Down into the ground. And kind of... asked it if it wanted to come see England for a bit." Willow put her hands on the earth by way of demonstration.

"You talked to a plant and it actually listened?"

"Sure. I mean, I'm not saying a philodendron is ever gonna take Jon Stewart's place on the Daily Show, but they're alive. They have a... a spirit to them, even if it's not just like ours." She closed her eyes, and set her fingertips deeper in the grass; perhaps even down into the dirt. "Everything has a spirit, something you can touch, or talk to if you know the right words. You, me, this tree, the bird that's about to drop something nasty in Dawn's hair..."

Dawn stepped backwards with a squeak, and looked up, then glared back down at Willow. "Not funny."

"Was too," Willow answered without opening her eyes.

"Kinda yes," Buffy agreed.

Kennedy knelt in front of Willow, staring down at her spread fingers in the ground. "So you're connected to the whole world right now? You're like radio station K-WILL!"

Willow giggled. "Something like that. But not much more than anybody else is -- I can just hear things a little better.

*****

Reaching. Reaching. She was always reaching, and so used to it that in the moment that she sensed him, she didn't even realize at first. Then she thought she must be wrong -- for of all the roots that she had spread, had pushed out through the earth, this was one of the closer ones. Far closer than he'd seemed that day the world had screamed and for an instant she had felt him.

But it was him. It was Rupert, somewhere so near that she knew, if she just grew faster, reached harder, she could get there. Could be where he was.

She moved through the soil as fast as Rupert had, that night that he'd run toward her, head down, and hit himself until he bled. She pushed like a blind, burrowing worm, if that worm could travel with the force of a tree's love, with the power of her human form breaking free of the trunk of her tree, rushing down, down into that one root. She might burn herself out; she could feel as she pushed that the fire of her passage was eating away at that power, channeling it into her tree-body forever. She might never step out of her bark-skin again, but she would reach him this time.

Something new about love, or something old rather, that she hadn't had words for before, though she'd been living it all along. Something she'd never had time to teach before she sent her own seed far away: if love does not come back, you go to it.

Then, seconds away, she heard a voice. Soft, female. Questioning. 'Hello?'

It echoed up the root to the tree -- up all the roots, to the tree. Made her freeze in place, her soul-self seeking vainly to hide inside a trunk now miles away from the root that it traveled through. Because that voice was the voice that had almost ended the world -- the one full of fury and sorrow that had brought her Rupert to her, for a second's screaming pain. And now it stood between her and him. Blocking her way.

'No,' it said. 'Oh, no, please. Don't be afraid. I'm...I'm not like that anymore. I'm so sorry.'

She stayed where she was, huddled tight inside her root, afraid to move. Afraid to believe it. The power was still there; it boomed within the voice, made her chitter inside like a terrified sparrow.

'Please...' And the power touched her. Stroked along her root, and opened itself up to her, as she had once been opened wide to it. There was fear, and sorrow, and pain, all the things that had raged at her, yes, but also kindness, softness, newfound hope, like a seedling growing up into the day.

And every place that voice, that power, touched her, she could see Rupert on the other side. The places where he had touched this one. Where he had carved his name into this one's skin as well, though not as fiery or as deep as he'd touched her. The places where he'd touched this power, had touched the ones it loved, and it had touched others... connections like roots reaching outwards, crossing, all around the world.

'You see? I won't hurt you,' it said to her. 'I just wanted to say hello.'

Slowly, carefully, she pushed out a tendril of root towards the place where the body that owned the voice sat. Where Rupert stood beside it. Where the earth was soft from the passage of some other plant, not long ago, and it was easy to push free, and up into the sun.

'Hello,' she said back to that voice. 'I think you know someone I love.'

*****

Willow's eyes flew open, and she stared -- not forward at Kennedy, who watched her worriedly, but up, blinking into the sunlight, at Rupert.

"Ah... Giles? There's somebody here who wants to talk to you."