Willow had meant to just return the cookbook to Buffy’s mom with a minimum of social pleasantries. But Joyce asked, “Are you all right, dear? You look a little down.”
The floodgates opened. After a long discussion of Oz-missage, plenty of sympathetic words from Joyce, and a couple of mugs of hot cocoa, Willow decided to ask.
“Did you ever have your heart broken?”
“Of course. I think everyone does some time in their life.”
“How did you get over it?”
Joyce considered this for a moment. Willow liked that; it felt like Joyce was actually considering the question as something unique, worthy of consideration. She wasn’t just doling out some pre-made advice. Finally Joyce said, “Well, the last time, the thing that helped was having a change of scene. Sometimes distractions help.”
When Willow got back to her dorm and checked her email, the new message waiting for her seemed like an offering from Fate.
“-and there’s one more thing,” Professor Walsh said.
Giles wasn’t sure he could process one more thing. What he’d already learned at this meeting--that there was a governmental agency devoted to fighting demons, that it was headed up by one of Buffy’s professors (whom Buffy admired), that one of the commandos was Buffy’s new boyfriend--was quite enough on its own. The fact that Buffy had told him none of these things prior to this meeting was also distressing.
Walsh continued, oblivious to Giles’ internal turmoil. “We can’t bring Summers into the Initiative. The security clearance process takes more than a year, and there’s no guarantee they’d approve her anyway. It would also be bad for unit cohesion to bring in someone who hasn’t been through our training program.”
Giles huffed, “Buffy’s training has been second to none--”
“I’m sure it has,” Walsh said. “But that’s hard to explain to a bunch of Army grunts who never even heard of the Slayer before now. What we’re willing to do is offer Agent Finn’s assistance on patrols. We’d also be willing to contact the Watcher’s Council about sharing information, particularly about some of the weapons we’ve designed.”
“Thank you, we’ll consider it,” Giles said. But from the look on Buffy’s face, he knew the decision had already been made.
He felt a bit uneasy about it, but perhaps it was time to let other people take on some of Buffy’s burden of slaying. Buffy’s graduation plan had involved the entire graduating class, and had gone off without a hitch.
Maybe the days of “one girl in all the world” were finally coming to an end, in a good way.
Willow waited outside Giles’ door, summoning the courage to knock. Everything seemed clear and sensible in her head, but she couldn't be sure that it wouldn't sound stupid once she said it.
Finally, she knocked.
Giles didn't look mad at her. That was a plus.
"Hi, Giles, can I talk to you about something? It's kind of serious."
"Of course, Willow. Would you like some tea?"
Tea would give her time to stall, time to change her mind about asking, and then she'd have to work up the nerve to have this conversation again. "No, thank you."
They sat down on the couch in his living room. She decided to jump right in. "I've been accepted for an internship program at Apple for the next semester and the summer."
"Really? That's wonderful. What's the problem?"
Of course he wouldn't immediately understand. Apple was just a logo on her laptop to him. "So Apple's in Silicon Vall--,um, just south of San Francisco. I just feel so messed up. And maybe getting a little distance from here for a while would help. But I don't know if I should leave for that long. I promised Buffy I'd stay and help her out, and after one semester, I leave? I just feel bad about it."
"Willow, I’m sure Buffy would be happy for you to take a break."
"Buffy forgives everybody for everything, no matter how bad it is! I need someone besides Buffy to tell me if I'm doing something that hurts her."
"I see." He looked a little guilty.
Then he said, "I think now might be a good time to take a break. It's been quiet, and the Initiative has the demons under control. Riley can help with the research and patrolling." Giles sounded almost wistful, like he was nostalgic for demon activity. She wondered if it was boring for him. Demon-slaying stuff had been his life, for a long, long time.
Willow wondered if she should say anything, but she wasn't sure what. Cheer up, there will be probably be an apocalypse next week sounded kinda wrong.
Instead she said, "Also, I'm taking a break from magic. Maybe forever." There, that should make him happy.
His brow furrowed. "I don't think you need to give up magic entirely."
Sometimes it felt like she couldn't do anything right. "But you said I shouldn't--"
"--perform a spell when you were grieving. There's nothing wrong with magic; you just need to be careful when you use it."
If that was true, then she was probably never going to practice magic again. Because the heartbreak over Oz felt like it would last forever.
Giles checked his watch again, wincing as every muscle in his wrist ached from the motion. Eleven minutes before he could take his next Percocet.
He was getting too fucking old for this. It would be one thing if he’d provided some useful role in preventing The Sacrifice of Three, but instead he’d identified the Word of Valois too late, and the demons just tossed him around like a rag doll. Buffy and Riley had handled it without him. Giles was beginning to feel more and more irrelevant. He'd gone into this expecting his tenure to be short. Such was the way of Slayers; they had short, difficult lives. What he hadn't expected was for his Slayer to not only survive, but to outgrow the need for a Watcher. Buffy was extraordinary in so many ways.
Buffy, Xander, and Riley were perfectly capable of basic research, and when Willow returned from her internship, she’d be able to handle some of the more difficult research matters.
Riley was far more suited as a sparring partner for Buffy these days. Buffy had always relied much more on instinct than technique, so she didn’t really need Giles’ expertise.
Really, there was nothing he was doing these days that he couldn’t be doing from England.
And if he returned to England, perhaps he could salvage things with Olivia.
He called Liv and told her he was considering returning.
"And I thought perhaps--"
"Well, you thought wrong. It’s not about Sunnydale or whatever the hell those things were." she said flatly.
“Liv, I know I should have explained, should have warned you--”
“Of course you should have. And of course you didn’t.” It wasn’t so much her words that stung, as the tone of weary resignation.
He gripped the phone tighter, trying to find the words to make things right. “What I do isn’t just a profession, it’s a sacred calling, and there’s a certain amount of secrecy that’s necessary. When faced with the evil in this world, most people will want to look away and rationalize that, and it’s often easier if I let them do that.”
“So it’s the most important aspect of your life, and you didn’t tell me in all the years that you’ve known me.”
Lovely. He’d managed to bugger things up even more.
“Rupert, you were always closed off. It was kind of sexy and mysterious at first. But after a while, that allure wore off. It didn’t matter much when all I cared about was the two of us having fun once in a while. But I’m getting older and I want children. And you’re not the kind of man I’d want to be their father."
There was nothing he could say. He’d unwittingly made this decision for both of them, years ago, and it had finally caught up with him now.
Willow was telling Tara about the internship when she spotted Riley across the hall. She waved at him, and he came over.
Willow handed him a binder. "Here's the background materials I collected for you. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Giles can translate Sumerian, Mandarin, Latin, German, French, and, some of the more . . . exotic languages if you need it." She hoped she hadn't gone overboard, but if Riley was going to help out with research and patrolling with Buffy, he needed to know everything that might be helpful.
Riley pretended to stagger under the weight of the binder and smiled at her. "Professor Walsh only wishes she was this thorough."
He was such a nice guy. Willow hoped Riley and Buffy had gotten over the weirdness of Buffy "getting married" to Harmony during the whole Thy-Will-Be-Done fiasco.
She asked, "So how's The Project going?"
"Still awkward, but it's progressed to a warmer kind of awkward."
She grinned and punched his arm playfully. "Progress is of the good. Just remember the shovel."
Riley walked away. Tara asked, "That guy you were talking to--is he your b-boyfriend?"
"No, he's just a friend. I just got out of a bad relationship, and I'm not gonna be ready to date anyone for a while."
Tara nodded, and fished something out of her backpack. "I thought you m-might want to take this on your trip--it's a doll's eye crystal."
Holy cow. Willow had been coveting one of those for--well, six months, at least. "Wow, I've never seen one of those. Where did you get it?"
Tara said, "I found it in my attic. I think it's was my grandmother's."
"Oh, I couldn’t. Not something that meant so much to your family.”
Tara looked sad, which was weird. Willow tried to think of something cheering to say. "When I come back, maybe we could try some spells with it."
Tara brightened at that, so Willow kept up the chatter. "Or, you know, we could get together and not do spells. I mean, not that I don’t wanna do spells with you, I just--it’s not the only reason for us to hang."
Tara beamed at Willow like she was the most wonderful person in the world. What the heck was that about? It had to be the magic. Tara had the strange idea that Willow was really powerful, which was ridiculous given how badly some of Willow’s spells had failed.
Ethan sat at a dingy little bar just outside Sunnydale. The beer was abysmal, but the place was quiet, which suited his purpose. He needed to think about what to say to Ripper to facilitate a conversation, rather than a beating.
A dark-haired lad approached Ethan.
“Hi, I’m Scott,” he said.
Ethan kept drinking.
Scott refused to take the hint. “I heard that you’re a powerful wizard. Is that true?”
“Well, I prefer the term ‘sorcerer’, but otherwise that’s accurate.” Ethan knew he should be focusing on the best way to convince Ripper about the change in the balance, and 314. But Scott was pretty, with large soulful eyes, and Ethan was entitled to a little fun on this trip, aside from the usual prank on Ripper.
“Can you show me a magic trick?”
“Of course, but let’s take this outside. I don’t need anyone gawking at me but you.”
The parking lot was deserted, except for a couple of sad-looking vamp slags having an animated conversation about a friend who owed them money.
Ethan said, “Show time,” and sent a bolt of magic towards Scott. It wrapped around him, surrounding him with golden light, lifting him off the ground. The look of wonder on Scott’s face suddenly turned to fear and confusion.
Ethan turned around and saw a group of men in masks and camouflage surrounding the vamps. He dropped Scott and started to run away, but it was too late. One of the soldiers grabbed him and pushed a club into his gut. Every muscle in Ethan’s body tightened uncontrollably as electricity pulsed through him. He toppled to the ground like a felled tree, his muscles still completely flexed. The men carried him away, and Ethan could only wonder if this time his sense of play had finally proved fatal.
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Hi, guys. Hope everything's still quiet in Sunnydale. I've been very busy with
Willow had spent the last twenty minutes trying to figure out what to say next.
She didn't want to go on about all of the perks Apple was giving her. They'd given her a really nice studio apartment near the campus, a new laptop, and more money than she could possibly spend for living expenses. It was all super-exciting and flattering, but Buffy had to slay for free and Giles had been fired by the poopheads at the Council and Xander was working crummy jobs and living with his parents and she'd been really mean to him about all of that. It felt pretty insensitive to go on about how great her job was.
Maybe she could talk about the actual work she was doing . . .
Willow's days were spent in a deluge of coding. If she wasn't the kind of person who started coding for the sheer fun of it, the drudgery would overwhelm her. Instead, it fell like a comfortable sort of rhythm for her brain. She'd never worked with such a large codebase before, and that was simultaneously intimidating and thrilling.
When she'd first started working with computers, it was purely for the intellectual challenge of it. Then Buffy came along, and Willow's computer work had a purpose: catching demons, and sometimes saving the world. No one cared about the quality of the work she did, so long as she got the job done.
At Apple, they cared about the quality of the coding in and of itself; not just the end result of the coding. Brenda, her mentor, talked about achieving elegant code, which meant code that was readable, easily understood, and clean. Paradoxically to Willow, making her code simple was hard. It meant she had to look at the entire problem and think about the solution to the entire problem, and the least-complicated way to get there. It was a far cry from the mad dash to solutions she'd had to do in Sunnydale.
Nah, all of the stuff about learning to write elegant code would just confirm her status as the dullest person alive, again.
She wished she could tell them what she was working on: a new digital music player, code-named Dulcimer. Having 1000 songs she could carry in her pocket was a really nifty proposition. Willow would probably get one of the players when Apple started selling them. Or maybe she'd make one of her own, if she couldn't wait that long. Buffy and Xander would think it was cool, too. Giles would probably think it was an affront to the sacred record player, and would probably go on about it in his irritating, but kinda adorable way.
So, violating her non-disclosure agreement was a no-go. Maybe she could talk about the meeting she was going to this weekend. She'd noticed a posting at work for the Santa Clara Technopagans meeting. It occurred to her that maybe the Technopagan group wouldn't be as pointless as the Sunnydale Wiccans were. Maybe she could talk to them about trying magic again.
But Technopagans might remind Giles of Jenny. And maybe telling them that she was thinking about trying magic again might freak them out.
So probably not a great idea to bring up the Technopagans, either.
Willow closed her email. She'd think of something to write later.
Walsh was in a meeting with her technical team, discussing the feasibility of installing a behavioral modification circuitry chip for the 314 test subject, when she received a Priority One call from Dr. Edwards.
"Dr. Walsh? The coma patient we transferred here is showing some signs of brain activity lately. There's a good possibility that she'll awaken within the week."
"Excellent work, Edwards. Keep me posted if there is any change in status."
Walsh's sources at the Council had proved very helpful; the other Slayer might prove to be a much more tractable ally than Summers. And if not, she'd still be a convenient source of Slayer blood. The tests they'd run on her blood so far were fascinating, though not conclusive.
The Technopagans met in a conference room in the West San Jose Community Center. Not as exciting and mystical as Willow might expect, but probably more practical in terms of space and accessibility to computers.
Jocelyn, one of the leaders of the Technopagan group, said, "Tell us about the spell you tried."
Willow took a breath, and repeated the words:
"I conjure thee by Barabbas, by Satanas, and the Devil. As thou art burning, let Oz and Veruca's deceitful hearts be broken. This way. I conjure thee by the Saracen Queen and the name of Hell. Let them find no love or solace. Let them find no peace as well. Let this image seal his fate, not to love, only hate."
There was a miserable feeling in the pit of Willow's stomach when she finished. The words had just tumbled out in a rush of pain and fury when she'd tried to cast the spell a few months ago. It was really different saying them again now.
Jocelyn said, "What do you think about it now?"
Willow fidgeted in her chair. She'd heard some of the other Technopagans' stories about spells gone badly wrong, spells done for all the wrong reasons. Still, sharing her own worst decisions with the whole group was terrifying. It felt like her nightmares about being naked in front of the whole class, and her stage fright nightmares all rolled up into one. "Well, um, from the invocations, it's kinda obvious that the spell doesn't come from a good place. And eternal heartbreak is pretty--harsh. I'm a horrible person, right?"
Jocelyn said, “You chose not to go through with it. Even at a terribly painful and distressing time, you chose not to do harm with magic.”
Well, that was one item for the “not-completely-horrible-person” column. “But if I had--it would have been badness. Lots of badness. I guess it’s like everyone’s been saying: magic and emotional distress are kind of un-mixy.”
Looking at the group, she saw a few people who maybe agreed that she was a horrible person, but a lot more who looked like they knew exactly where she was coming from.
Giles had told her the same thing a few months ago, but it had felt like criticism, a lecture. It was really different to hear it from a lot of people who had all struggled with it too. It seemed like she'd been pretty lucky that no one had been seriously hurt by her spells.
Giles was puttering around his house, rearranging the books out of sheer boredom, when the phone rang.
"Rupert? It's Clea Walker."
He racked his brain for a moment, then remembered. Clea was the Watcher in San Francisco who had helped him search for Buffy two years ago.
"Hello, Clea. How lovely to hear from you. How are you?"
"I need some help. My Potential's family did some remodeling of their house, and discovered a hidden room full of ancient books. They need to inventoried and categorized. I would do it, but Miki, my Potential, requires a lot of attention."
The weary tone in Clea’s voice made Giles suspect that "a lot of attention" was a bit of an understatement.
"I want these books to be available to the Watcher's Council, and for the Slayer, but Miki and her family want someone who won't be inclined to alert the Watcher's Council about every deviation from protocol in Miki's training. Do you know someone who could manage that?"
A few years ago, Giles would have presumed some malfeasance on Clea's part. But Buffy had taught him that rigid adherence to the Slayer Handbook rules was not a prerequisite for success. And the debacle with Faith and Wesley still stung. He understood all too well what Clea and her Potential might fear, with good cause.
He thought about the Watchers who might keep an open mind about unconventional techniques. Rodriguez in Phoenix, or perhaps they could convince O'Neely from Cleveland to help.
On an impulse, he said, "I'd be happy to help with the initial sort and categorization. There's been a real lull in supernatural activity in Sunnydale lately."
As Giles had suspected, Buffy was mostly unconcerned about the prospect of him leaving for a few days.
She said, "Giles, if your idea of a vacation is reading a bunch of musty old books, you are in desperate need of a life."
Giles decided to play along with her. "Not just reading, but archiving, categorizing and indexing books. If I’m lucky I might get a chance to get some cross-referencing in. It's a librarian's dream come true."
"Oh, right. That makes it much more vacation-y."
Xander said, "Speaking of books and the people who love them too much, have any of you heard from Willow lately?"
Buffy said, "She called on my birthday, and was really happy that nothing bad happened to me. I think that was the last time I talked to her."
Xander said, "I've talked to her a couple of times, and she's been weird. Like there have been awkward pauses where usually Will talks a blue streak." He turned to Giles. "Could you check on her? Make sure that there aren't any mother bezoars or whatever that have gotten to her?"
"Of course," Giles said, tamping down the anxious thoughts that Xander's words had raised. Willow was probably just really engaged in her work, and even chatterboxes like Willow were allowed to be reserved at times. It was probably nothing.
Still, he'd check in person. He owed her at least that much.
Willow kept all her focus on holding the barrier to the door of the community center. Jocelyn was anchoring her, and some of the other witches tried to push the barrier down. The distinction between Willow and her magic was getting fuzzier; it almost felt like she was being battered by magic as much as her spell was. She was gasping for breath like she was running uphill.
She gritted her teeth, dug deep, and the barrier held fast against the other witches' magic. A couple of them looked scared.
"Willow, I think it's time for a break," Jocelyn said.
Willow caught sight of her reflection in one of the computer screens--whoa, her eyes were completely black. "Is--that the magic?"
Jocelyn said, "Yes, it's a sign you're overtaxing yourself and need a break. That was really advanced work, and you did very well."
Willow wondered what might happen if she needed to hold a barrier longer--it wasn't like the evil would offer her break time to keep herself balanced.
Clea’s Potential lived in a large house near the Presidio.
Giles caught a brief glimpse of the Potential, Miki, before her parents drove her to school. She was a spindly girl with huge dark eyes, and none of the natural grace he associated with any of the Slayers he’d known.
As he and Clea made their way up to the newly-discovered room in the attic, Clea said, “Miki’s parents want her to go to school, and aside from tradition, I couldn’t come up with an argument against it. There’s no guarantee she’ll ever be called, so why should she give up her education?”
“I think that sounds reasonable,” Giles said. “The traditions came from a time when young women had different prospects than they do now.”
“She’s also kind of fragile in terms of confidence. I feel like it’s a good thing that she’s not training all day. If she’s having a bad day in the training room, it might help if she’s also having a good day at school.”
“Buffy benefited from having outside interests balance in her life. It makes her a better Slayer,” Giles said. She’d proved that on the first day he met her: It's carbon dated. Trust me, only someone living underground for ten years would think that was still the look.
They reached the room, and Giles caught his first glimpse of the books, some stacked neatly on tables, others resting on built-in shelves.
“Someone did a concealment spell on the room, and preservation spell over the books. I noticed the spells when we moved in. The books can’t be moved from the room. I found that out the hard way when I tried to take a copy of the 1803 Slayer’s Handbook outside. It dissolved into dust.”
Giles winced at the thought. He looked around the room and spied Steinberg's History of Golems on a shelf. The only other copy he'd ever seen was in the Council headquarters library.
"Of course." She handed him a pair of gloves. He put them on and gently removed the book from its shelf.
He turned a few pages. The print was more legible, and the pages were in better condition than the Council's copy.
He could see dozens of other obscure titles lining the shelves, and felt a slight thrill. He'd never seen so many outside of the Council Headquarters.
"This is an amazing find," he said.
Clea's grinned back at him. "I'm glad there's finally someone else who appreciates it. My partner is polite enough about it, but she's from more of a demon-fighting perspective, and just doesn't get it."
Giles settled in to start the inventory. He'd check on Willow tomorrow.
There was a knock at Willow's door, which was weird, because nobody knocked at her door, not even neighbors. It was kind of a weird living situation where everyone politely ignored each other.
She opened the door, and it was Giles.
"Giles?" Her instincts kicked in--he showed up, out of the blue, without calling first?
She left the door open, but backed away from it, and started thinking of where the nearest pencil was. She tried to tamp down the panicky part of her that was stuck on a loop Oh god oh god please don't let Giles be dead
Giles picked up on her unease, and said, "I'm sorry if this seems like an ambush visit. I've been helping out a Watcher in San Francisco. Buffy and Xander told me that they hadn't heard much from you, and we were worried." He crossed through the door and Willow breathed a sigh of relief.
Then she finally processed what Giles said, that they were worried about her, and guilt surfaced. "I'm sorry," she said. "I've just been . . . really busy, and I didn't know how to talk about it. Why don't I order a pizza and we can talk?"
Over pizza, Giles listened to Willow talk about the work she'd done with the Technopagans (He allowed himself a moment of memory of the Technopagan he knew best, then turned his attention back to Willow.). He barely restrained himself from clucking his tongue when Willow brought up the spell she'd tried to cast against Oz and Veruca. He'd had no idea she even knew about such dark magics; that she'd come so close to actually carrying it out was frightening.
When Willow talked about the group discussions about questionable magic spells, he realized that the group had done a much more effective job of helping Willow understand the pitfalls of magic than he ever had. Vague warnings about the dangers of magic were never going to be as striking as personal experiences.
He said, "I probably should have talked to you about my own experiences with magic." Why hadn't he? Did he really expect someone with such a bright and inquisitive mind to do as she was told, without ever questioning why? Was it fear that if she knew how badly he'd failed, he'd lose his credibility and any chance of being a positive influence? Or was it as simple as vanity, of not wanting to admit to his worst excesses and risk losing her good opinion of him?
She said, "I'd like to hear them, sometime. But probably not today. I just finished a day of hearing really awful magic stories and my brain is kinda hurty right now."
She grabbed another slice of pizza. "So enough about me. What did the Watcher in San Francisco need?"
"Well, they've discovered a library. It's absolutely stunning. They have all five volumes of the Books of Ascension, in pristine condition, and dozens of other unique titles. Someone could spend years studying the volumes." And then it hit him. Why couldn't that someone be me?
Willow was enjoying the enthusiasm about the library (which did sound kind of amazing). He was--well, adorable—when he talked about how much he loved books. Then she saw something--a fleeting expression, some revelation he had, and she had to know.
"It looked like you just had an epiphany there."
He sighed. "I'm going to ask Buffy if I can move here and work at the library full-time."
Oh, this was bad. Very very bad. “But Buffy needs you!”
“Buffy said she no longer needed a Watcher on graduation day; if anything, I’ve been hanging on too long.”
This could not be happening. “She meant she didn’t need Wesley or The Council, not that she didn’t need you.”
“She’s been handling things mostly on her own, or with The Initiative for months now.”
“Well, sure, because there hasn’t been anything big this year. But once we get into Apocalypse season, she’ll need you.”
He smiled, “If Buffy feels the same way, then I’ll stay. We’ll see what she says.”
There was a pause as Willow tried to figure out if that was the end of the subject, and then Giles asked, “How are you enjoying the internship?"
Willow said, "Apple's taught me so much about coding, and I just realized that it's kinda like the stuff the Technopagans have taught me about using magic mindfully. I mean, it's all about thinking about what you want to achieve, and the best way to get there without creating more problems."
“I never thought computer programming would give you insight into magic, but I’m glad it has,” he said.
There were a lot of questions bubbling through Willow’s mind, and she seized on the least important one: “What’s San Francisco like? I’ve never been. The people at Apple gave me a list of fun things to do there, but between work and the Technopagan meetings I haven’t really had a chance to try any of them.”
“Do you think the Technopagans could spare you for a day? I’ll be back here in a few weeks, and I’d be happy to explore San Francisco with you.”
She grinned. “I’d like that.” If nothing else, she’d have another shot at convincing him how indispensable he was.
“You’re sure about this?” Buffy asked.
“I believe I can be of more use to you in San Francisco than in Sunnydale, yes.” Giles said.
“But who’s going to sternly remind me of my sacred duties? Or clean their glasses when one of us does something cringeworthy?”
“We’ll set up a schedule. Willow can handle the stern reminders, and Xander and Anya can divide the glasses function as they see fit.”
She asked, “How soon will you start?”
“September. Clea’s agreed to give me time to get my affairs in order here. There are a few administrative tasks that I’ll need to handle in San Francisco, so I’ll take a few trips here and there.”
“Ok,” she said. “You know we’ll miss you, right?”
“Of course,” he said.
As much as he appreciated the sentiment on his behalf, he'd much rather hear that she needed his help. But she'd grown beyond that, and it was up to him to move on.
Willow kept dithering to on what to wear on her day out. Her black silk sheath dress seemed way overdressy and impractical for walking around San Francisco. Jeans and one of her brightly colored shirts made her look like a goofy college student, (so ok, she was one, but that didn’t seem right for dinner and the theater.) She finally settled on a bright red wraparound dress, one of the only Buffy-approved items in her closet.
There was a knock at the door. Giles was standing outside. He took a long look, so long she wondered if she'd done something wrong, but then he smiled and said, "Willow, you look lovely."
Buffy was right about the dress!
"Thanks! Um, we have tickets for Arcadia at the Geary Theatre at 2, and I'd like to see Golden Gate Park, the Asian Art Museum, and the Ferry Terminal if we can."
As they walked to his car, she asked, "How are things at home?"
"Mostly uneventful," he said. "Last month Jonathan Levinson cast an augmentation spell that altered reality for his own personal gain, but didn't do any lasting harm. In the augmented reality, Jonathan was a doctor and diagnosed Buffy's mother with a brain tumor, and then cured it."
"Wait, what? Is she ok?"
"Yes, apparently she’s in perfect health now."
"Oh, that's--weird, but good," Willow said. It also explained some strange memories she’d had of Jonathan, ones that didn't seem to fit, but had seemed very real. It was fascinating that one person and one spell could make major changes in the world like that. She wondered what the Technopagan group would make of Jonathan’s spell--would they just dismiss it as a completely irresponsible spell, or one that maybe a whole group could do successfully for the right reasons?
But this was her vacation away from talking about magic and consequences. It was time for adventures in San Francisco.
Willow had been staring at the bronze Buddha figure for several minutes; finally she looked up and said, “My brain can’t take in one more exhibit. Do you mind if we bail?"
Giles completely understood Museum Fatigue. "Of course not."
As they walked out, Willow asked, "How does this compare with the Asian art in the British Museum?"
"Both collections are fairly comprehensive. I'm partial to the British Museum, for obvious reasons."
"I'd like to see it someday," she said wistfully.
She could be there right now, if she'd chosen to attend Oxford or some other school in England instead of helping Buffy.
Sunnydale was a ridiculous, constraining little backwater burg with very little in the way of intellectual or cultural enrichment. Living there was one of the many sacrifices he'd made for the honor of serving as Buffy's Watcher. It had begun to chafe much more now that it seemed he was no longer needed.
He couldn't imagine how stifling Sunnydale could be to an energetic young woman with a bright and inquisitive mind. He wondered how long Willow would be able to stand it. She knew, probably better than anyone else in Sunnydale, what a great wide world there was to explore outside of it.
They walked a few blocks, Willow chattering about the rest of her plans for the day, when she stopped mid-sentence, and said, "Oh, a cable car! Can we ride one, or is that too touristy?"
He stepped aboard the car and grabbed her hand to help her up. She struggled to regain her balance, so he wrapped his arm around her to steady her. She leaned against him, and Giles became acutely aware of her: her arm wrapped tightly around him, the scent of her hair, her magic searing him everywhere they touched.
Before Giles could find a graceful way to extricate himself, the cable car filled up. This was going to be a long ride.
Willow bounced out of the theater, barely able to contain herself. "Oh, god, that play--the parts about the fractals, and the heat death of the universe, and that line about 'It's the wanting to know that makes us matter'--and am I babbling incoherently again?"
What a delight to see Willow bubbling with enthusiasm again. "It's a brilliant play. I'd say some excitement is in order."
"And I think Thomasina was based on Ada Lovelace, who was the first computer programmer, and one of my heroes. And oh, Septimus just broke my heart--he loved her so much, and the way he took on her work for the rest of his life was so--beautiful."
Giles frowned. "I thought he was rather a cad. Thomasina was his charge, and far too young for him--"
Willow shook her head. "She was his equal in every way that mattered! She was just as smart as he was, and she was about to get married. She was an adult."
"Well, I suppose you're right," This discussion was veering close to his uncomfortable feelings. Best to drop the subject entirely.
"And I loved the part where they figure out that Lord Byron had been there through the hunting records. Kinda like the time we found that teleportation spell in the book of demonic limericks."
She paused, and a cloud crossed over her sunny demeanor. "Giles, are you sure you're not going to miss that? All of us working together to find out how to fight demons?"
"Of course I'll miss it. But my feelings aren't the most important thing here. I have faith that all of you are capable of handling the research. Is there something in particular you're concerned about? Something demonic? Something Buffy might not have told me?"
She looked trapped, and for a moment he feared the worst. Then Willow said quietly, "No, it's not about anything demon-ish. It's just that I always feel safer when you're around. Like no matter how bad things get, you make them better just by being there. I'll miss having someone to talk to, about Hellmouth-y stuff. And the non-Hellmouth-y stuff too."
He flushed. She expressed her emotions so openly; that vulnerability had never come easily for him. He said, "I'll miss our conversations, too. But I'll be just a phone call away."
She perked up a bit at that, but didn’t seem completely convinced.
Their next stop was a newsstand and chocolate shop.
Willow asked the shopgirl for chocolate recommendations, and the shopgirl chattered away about cacao varieties and percentages and offered samples. Willow listened with the same rapt attention she had for any new information. Giles watched her, transfixed. He kept telling himself to look away, but her face kept changing with each new taste, and he couldn't bear the thought of missing any new expression.
He firmly told himself to stop, and glanced at the newspapers. He noted the wide selection of British broadsheets with approval, and the wider selection of tabloids with dismay. He picked up a copy of The Guardian, and looked through the local newspapers. If this was to be his new home, he'd better learn about the local happenings.
Finally, thirty minutes later, they escaped the shop with a dozen or so chocolate bars and half a dozen newspapers.
They walked around Golden Gate Park, then up to the Ferry Building for dinner. Willow had picked a Vietnamese restaurant with a sleek modern interior.
They kept the conversation light during dinner. When the check came, Willow said, "I'll get it."
"Oh, surely not."
“They pay me more than I can spend for meals,” Willow said. "It's kinda crazy. I've never been poor, but having more money than I know what to do with is--different. I mean, it's a nice problem to have and all."
Good lord. He'd known that Willow could move on to lucrative work elsewhere, but he'd expected her to have to spend some time paying her dues and working her way up. He had no idea she'd passed up immediate rewards to stay in Sunnydale.
He suddenly had the sinking feeling that Buffy was about to lose Willow. Here she had the possibility of interesting and lucrative work, and the support system of the Technopagans for furthering her magic studies. “Are you considering staying on once the internship is over?”
She shook her head. “This has been fun, and I’ve learned a lot. But I’d be bored out of my mind if I stayed. And I miss Buffy and Xander.”
He felt a wave of relief, tinged with disappointment. Willow had offered Buffy so much support, with magic, research, and whatever the hell she did with that bloody computer. It was a relief to know that Willow would be there for Buffy.
The disappointment was personal, and selfish on his part, so he pushed it aside.
Giles insisted on walking Willow her up to her apartment, and just as she was about to say goodnight and tell him to say hi to Buffy and Xander for her, she remembered something. "Oh--the chocolate! There's one bar that's supposed to be really special. Would you like to come in and try some?"
Giles gave her an indulgent smile, and said, "I would, thank you."
They sat down on the couch. She dug through her bag and retrieved a bar.
She broke off a square for her and one for Giles. "This one's Porcelana. The girl at the newsstand had said that it's made with really rare cacao beans."
She bit into the chocolate, which had a satisfying snap. As she swallowed, she noticed the horrified look on Giles's face. What had she done wrong now?
"Oh, for God's sake, don't bolt down wonderful chocolate--take a piece and let it melt in your mouth. It will taste so much better."
"Ok. Wouldn't want Mr. Chocolate Police coming after me." She broke off another piece and let it melt. For a minute, it just sat there, and she ignored the impatient little voice in her head that said to chew and swallow already. And then as the chocolate started to soften, underneath the unmistakable chocolate flavor, there was a hint of hazelnuts, and then a note of honey. She closed her eyes and focused only on the silky smooth texture of the chocolate. As the chocolate dissolved, the flavors melted into a caramel finish that lingered afterwards.
She opened her eyes and looked at Giles, wondering if she’d looked like a total freak to get so excited about chocolate. Or if he knew that the chocolate was mostly an excuse to spend more time with him.
But Giles was looking at her very intently, a look she’d never seen from him before, and it made her heart start thumping hard. Today, her old crush on Giles had returned with a vengeance. When he'd held her hand, and held her close on the cable car, a little thrill rushed through her, and she’d been sure it was obvious. She’d figured that it was just her stupid tendency to develop unrequited crushes.
Except that the way he was looking at her now, maybe it wasn’t unrequited. She scooted closer to him on the couch and touched his face, and he took the hint, bending his head down to kiss her. She kissed him back, tasting chocolate on his tongue, running her hand on the back of his neck. It was the most intense kiss she’d ever had, and part of her wanted it to last forever.
Other parts of her wanted things to go a bit further, so she grabbed his hand and placed it on her breast.
Giles gasped as he felt Willow’s breast through the thin fabric of the dress, her nipple hardening under his touch.
He was hard already, and he wanted this very badly, but a small, rational voice in his head told him that he needed to stop. The small, rational voice usually prevented terrible decisions.
He pulled away, as gently as he could, and said, “Willow, I think we got a little carried away--”
Willow said, “--but in a good way, right? I mean, it was good for me.”
He sighed. He didn’t know how to stop this without hurting Willow’s feelings. It didn’t help that the less rational voice in his head was telling him he was an idiot to try. “I, um, don’t have any complaints. But I don’t want us to rush into something that you’d regret later on.”
She looked baffled. “Why are you saying that?”
“Because I value your friendship, and I don’t want to risk it over one hasty decision.”
“Lots of people get into relationships and manage to stay friends,” she said. “Why couldn’t we?”
He heard the word relationship, and felt equal parts elation and terror. “Willow, I think the world of you, but I’m old enough to be your father, and your life is just beginning. I don’t want to hold you back from anything life has to offer you.”
“God, is there something in the water in Sunnydale? Why does every guy think he needs to make decisions for someone else? I’m an adult now. Can’t I decide what’s best for me?”
He should have firmly refused, but instead he said, “Just think about it for a week? I’ll be back in town, and if you still feel the same way then, we can discuss it then.”
“Ok,” Willow said, a little deflated.
As he walked out of her apartment, he wondered what had possessed him. Perhaps it would be the most tactful way of extricating himself from this mess he’d created. Surely, given time to think about it, Willow would realize what a colossal mistake it would be to get involved with him.