CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE REAL WORLD
Ira Rosenberg had been visibly surprised by Willow’s abrupt decision to move back home the previous afternoon. Sheila, however, had merely nodded clinically and observed that it was good Buffy was finally feeling stable enough not to need her friends’ help twenty-four seven. Willow (who had originally justified the move to Buffy’s as necessary to help Buffy adjust to life without her mom) had managed to eke out a feeble murmur of agreement in response. But, given the truth of her present circumstances, Sheila’s comment was a knife twisting in her gut.
Willow had endured two uncomfortable family dinners before her parents had departed for the weekend; Sheila was giving a lecture about something significant at some prestigious campus…somewhere. Now, at least, Willow had the house to herself. And yet she couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t that the bed was uncomfortable or that the room temperature was off. It wasn’t even the fact that her bed was Tara-less.
One thing was brutally clear: Buffy had decided she didn’t need Willow’s help. Ironically, all because of a spell, a spell that would’ve helped Buffy. All the more galling was the fact that Buffy seemed plenty happy to accept help from Giles—and even Spike.
Willow sighed as Amy’s exercise wheel creaked. “At least I have you, Amy.”
Then she sat up, realizing something: she hadn’t tried to de-rat Amy lately. All summer, her main project had been resurrecting Buffy. And that had gone off without a hitch...well, as far as the magicks went, anyway. Surely, if she could pull that off, she could turn Amy back into her human self.
Willow pushed back the covers and stood, racking her brain for relevant magicks. In all the research she’d done to put the resurrection spell together, there had to have been something. And then a possibility came to her. Of course...the possibility was Italian, and she didn’t really speak Italian, but...
“Rivela!” she commanded. A tattered parchment materialized before her. Grabbing it, she looked over the writing. She could only understand intermittent words, but it seemed like a straightforward incantation. Something about the danger passing and undoing what was done. Yes! This could be it.
She removed Amy from her cage, set her on the bed, and read the incantation aloud. There was a sizzling flash of light and then suddenly Amy was Amy again.
Willow grinned; Amy merely screamed.
Its scents were more pungent than they had any right to be, but she turned down the fetid alleyway nonetheless. After more than eight months (and twice as many visits to shamans and seers), she was back in southern California and enormously heavy with whatever perversion of nature was growing inside her. She was, quite frankly, about ready to stake herself but, after all this effort, it just seemed like a waste.
She’d heard murmurings of a magnificent dark power in Sunnydale. Pressing for details, she’d learned he kept his location heavily cloaked and the entrance constantly moving. Only someone touched by the supernatural—a real witch, a demon, a vampire—could find it.
So here she was, wandering the godforsaken streets of Sunnydale at two o’clock on a Saturday morning looking for the stupid place. A sleazy Italian barkeep had told her that, if you had the magic touch, you would feel it when you got close. But, after three hours of searching, she was yet to feel a thing.
She’d already tried every other notable shaman and seer in the western hemisphere, to no avail. No one seemed to understand what the hell was inside her. Not that she really needed to know what it was. She just wanted it gone.
But perhaps this magic man would be different. Rumor had it he dispensed power the user could channel however they wished. Which sounded ideal because, in her experience, if a lady wanted something done right, she was generally better off just doing it herself.
She was tired though. Dragging all the extra weight around was draining. And she hadn’t rested since she’d left the useless traditional healers at the Hopi Reservation back in Arizona; she’d been too focused on shaking down Sunnydale’s seedy mystical underbelly.
And she was hungry.
As she passed a neon-lit dive called the Fish Tank, a stocky, alcohol-addled man called from the doorway, “Hey, cute little mama!”
She paused and studied him. He’d do.
“What’s your name, mama?” he asked as he hopped off the stoop and started toward her.
“Darla,” she answered sweetly.
“So,” Amy asked, “do your parents know about the magic?”
Once Amy had gotten past the initial shock of being re-humanized, Willow had led her down to the living room and caught her up on the past three years of Sunnydale events. They were now sitting on the couch with what little junk food they could scrounge up.
“Not so much,” Willow answered. “After the whole trying-to-burn-us-at-the-stake thing, I kinda decided not to bring it up again.”
“That makes sense.” Amy nodded seriously as she inspected a pack of root vegetable chips. She tentatively popped one into her mouth and made a face. “Can we go out and get some real food?” Her face brightened. “Can we get cookies?”
Rather than point out that cookies were hardly any realer than veggie chips, Willow replied, “I think the only places open right now are Doublemeat Palace and that one convenience store, which is kind of a walk.”
“Mm, no,” Amy said distractedly, eyes darting around the room. “Why are you staying here anyway, if you’re in school?”
“Oh. That.” In her updating, Willow hadn’t said a lot about Buffy, but she supposed she might as well mention it. Amy might sympathize with her current predicament. “Well...Buffy kinda died and I went to stay in her house while she was gone. And then I brought her back, and kept staying there.”
“Wait, you brought her back? Like, brought her back to life?” Amy demanded. She didn’t seem shocked or angry, just impressed.
“Yeah, because...well, because we thought Buffy was in a hell dimension. But it turned out she was...not. And I wanted to do a spell to make her forget that she was in a nice place while she was dead, but she got mad and kicked me out.” She left out the pregnancy part, not wanting to have to talk about Spike and Buffy. The two of them still kinda wigged her out.
“Her loss,” Amy said, fiddling with the corners of the veggie chip bag. “You could still do the spell for her anyway though.”
“Amy, memory magic is complicated stuff,” Willow said regretfully. “And this is a huge thing to make her forget. I would have to do more research before trying it, if I wanted it to turn out right. I spent months on that resurrection spell.”
“If you can raise the dead, you can do anything,” Amy pressed. “You just need someone to give you a boost.”
“Yeah?” Willow questioned. Amy’s confidence was reassuring, even if she didn’t know of anyone boosty. Amy had to be out of practice after being a rat for so long, and Tara certainly wouldn’t be any help.
“Yeah,” Amy said, nodding eagerly and setting the chips aside. “I actually know a guy who might be able to help you out. He’s probably wondering where I’ve been all this time…”
“A...guy?” Willow asked, fishing for details.
“Come on,” Amy said, standing. “He knows spells that last for days and the burnout factor is, like, nothing.”
Willow stood too. “What kind?” she asked. “Of spells, I mean.”
“Oh, I don’t know. All kinds,” Amy said as she slipped her feet into the shoes Willow had lent her. “Come on,” she insisted.
“He’s a warlock?” Willow asked, reluctantly putting her shoes on as well. She didn’t think sheer power was what was needed for delicate psychological magicks, but she’d never heard of this guy before. She was curious.
“I guess,” Amy shrugged, heading for the door. She shot a sly glance back at Willow. “Maybe we can stop for cookies on the way.”
“Where exactly is this guy?” Willow asked as she locked the front door behind them. “Near the convenience store?”
“He could be,” Amy answered. At Willow’s confused look, she went on, “His place is cloaked. There’s an area it usually sticks to, but it’s always moving to stay hidden.” She set off eagerly up the street, taking long strides. Willow followed. She would have been happy to spend a quiet night at home with Amy, but her curiosity was definitely getting the better of her.
After about half an hour, Amy’s pace slowed. Another ten minutes and she turned to Willow, grinning. “Found it.”
“Where?” Willow glanced around the squalid alleyway but didn’t spot any hints of magic.
“You have to feel it,” Amy directed her, extending her hand to touch the air in front of them. “There.”
Willow followed suit. “It feels...hot.”
Amy whirled around and backed into the sheet of warm air. The air around her shimmered and rippled. And then the shimmering and rippling stopped and Amy was gone.
Frowning, Willow followed. Her step took her into a dingy beige room. A couple people sat hunched on ratty furniture and a stale misery hung in the air. The only clean thing in the room was the water cooler.
“Cool, right?” Amy said as Willow took in the room.
“Um… Yeah,” Willow answered not altogether truthfully.
A door opened and the heads of the miserable people snapped up in unison.
“Rack, it’s my turn,” one of them said desperately.
“No, man,” the other appealed, “you said I was up.”
“Bull!” the first protested. “I’ve been here for hours.”
But the man who’d emerged from the door looked past them and raised a hand crackling with magickal energy. “I believe these two were next,” he said. His voice was rough, but not as rough as his appearance. His hair was scraggly, his face scarred. His presence exuded a thick, heavy energy, like a hot, humid day with a storm on the way. He stood aside, his expression blank, and gestured for them to enter.
Willow hesitantly accompanied Amy across the threshold, aware the man’s eyes were locked on her even as Amy spoke to him.
“Thanks, Rack, for taking us,” she said, an unsettling coyness slipping into her voice. “I know it’s been a while. You’ll never believe—”
“You were a rat,” Rack said, his tone betraying no emotion.
“How did you—?” But he cut her off with a look.
“Hope it taught you not to mess around with spells you can’t handle,” he went on. “You should leave that in the hands of a professional.” With another crackle of energy, he turned back to Willow. “This one is giving off vibes,” he remarked as he stepped toward her.
“I-I don’t mean to,” Willow stammered. “Vibe at you. If it’s in a negative way.”
“I mean you have power, girl,” he explained, “coming off you in waves.”
“Um. Maybe?” Willow said shakily. “I mean, I can do stuff. But I can’t do...everything.”
“And what do you want me to do about it?” Rack asked, still staring at her.
She thought what she really wanted was for him to stop looking at her so she could leave and go back home. But instead she mumbled, “I don’t know. I thought… Amy said—”
“Amy said I could help you,” he interrupted, stepping closer still. “But did she say how you could help me?”
“No,” Willow said, trying to keep her voice steady. “I have money, a little. Or, uh, maybe I could help you with your computer or—” She flinched as his hand moved toward her.
“Relax,” he insisted. “I’m not going to hurt you. But you have to give a little to get a little, right?”
Willow shot Amy a glance she hoped communicated, ‘Get me out of this!’
But Amy merely whispered, “It’s okay. It’s over fast.”
“That’s right,” Rack encouraged. “I’m just going to take a little tour.” And he placed his gnarled, dry hand flat against the skin of Willow’s chest.
Willow felt a surge of power course through her from a source deep within. It sparked her senses alive, zapped through her chest to bounce back off Rack’s hand. She blinked as he let her go; the shapes and colors of the drab room seemed a million times more vivid than before.
Rack brought his face close to Willow’s ear and murmured in a tone that raised goosebumps on her skin, “You taste like strawberries.”
When Buffy arrived at the Magic Box on Saturday afternoon, a notebook of budget-related scribbling tucked under her arm and a homework-laden Dawn in tow, she was surprised to find Xander as well as Giles waiting for her. Anya was there too of course, but she was absorbed in shop-running activities, not sitting at the table and watching the door expectantly.
“Hi,” Buffy said as she set her notebook down. “Sorry I’m a little late. Had some so-called morning sickness in the not-morning.”
“All she’s been eating all day is leftover curry,” Dawn said as she pulled a textbook out of her backpack. “Is it possible to overdose on curry?”
“What? Who eats curry for breakfast?” Dawn shot back. “And lunch. And dinner. And snacks.”
“Ah, erm, well… I’m happy to make more,” Giles offered awkwardly. “Are you feeling alright now?”
“I’m fine,” Buffy answered, waving away his concern. “Can we get started? I want to finish getting things figured out.” She opened her notebook and slid it toward Giles. “I’ve been keeping track of everything, but I don’t want to keep needing help paying for it. So I’m thinking of getting a job. I, um, don’t really know where yet, exactly. But there has to be somewhere, right? And I have the time now, since I’m not so much with the slaying lately, and I’m not going to school.”
She’d thought it over and, while not the most exciting idea, it seemed to be the most sensible one. Willow was a student. Xander was a construction worker. Buffy was a sad pregnant person who sat alone in her house every day. It was obvious who needed a change.
“There’s actually been some discussion on that subject,” Giles said. “I’d like to offer you a job here at the shop. Not in a retail capacity,” he added quickly at the look on Buffy’s face. “I know your opinion of sales is, ah, unfavorable, to say the least.”
“Yes, and most importantly, Giles will pay you directly, as a partner of the Magic Box,” Anya said, striding over from behind the counter. “You won’t actually be getting any of the store’s money.”
“It’ll all check out bureaucratically too,” Xander chimed in. “It’s an actual job title, so you can file income tax and do all that boring stuff.”
“Okay,” Buffy said slowly, looking around at the others, wondering what on earth they’d come up with. “So what is the actual job title?”
“Paranormal consultant,” Xander said, handing her a typed sheet of paper. “We even wrote up this whole ad that’s never going to be posted anywhere.”
Giles recited with a faint smile, “Duties include identifying magical artifacts, researching preternatural beings and events—”
“In other words,” Xander summarized, “watcher stuff. Or all the Slayer stuff that doesn’t require going out and slaying anything.”
Dawn looked up from her homework and gazed at Buffy hopefully.
“And all for significantly higher pay than you would get at, say, Doublemeat Palace. And possibly the phone sex line,” Anya added contemplatively.
Buffy looked around at all of them as the reality sank in. “Wow, guys, this is amazing.” Then she shook her head. “What am I saying? I can’t let you do this.” She turned to Giles. “It’s really great of you to help, but this is my problem and I have to deal with it. Ergo, actual job-getting.”
“Buffy,” Giles said earnestly, leaning in. “I am offering you this job. And it’s one that you’ve already done for years. Isn’t it time you were compensated?”
“I still think the Council should pay Buffy,” Dawn piped up.
“Yes, Dawn,” Giles replied. “And I still think it unlikely that the idea would appeal to Quentin Travers.”
“Wait,” Buffy said, looking between Dawn and the others. “Still? You’ve all talked about this already?”
“Well, yeah,” Dawn answered sheepishly. “It was kinda my idea.”
“And a good one at that,” Giles stated definitively. “But you can think about it first, Buffy. As you should before taking any job, of course.”
Buffy gazed down at the page:
Wanted: paranormal consultant for local occult goods retailer. Flexible hours, with some evening and weekend availability preferred. Competitive pay. Duties include identifying magical artifacts, researching preternatural beings and events, and advising staff and associates regarding field research and self-defense.
In other words: digging up info on miscellaneous objects that showed up, staring at demon illustrations, and helping the others figure out how to do the job she no longer could. All Giles-type stuff that he was surely already doing. They didn’t need her. And the books and organization side of things had never come to her as easily as the slaying.
“Buffy?” Dawn asked.
Buffy set the page down. If it had been Dawn’s idea, Dawn was probably waiting for an enthusiastic ‘yes’. “I don’t know, Dawn. I thought maybe it would be good to get a job in the real world.”
“This is the real world,” Dawn countered categorically. Clearly deciding the matter was settled, she changed the topic and asked, “Do you remember any algebra? Willow’s not around to help me with this stuff.”
The next couple of hours consisted of long stretches of Buffy and Xander frowning over the letters and numbers on Dawn’s homework, interspersed with lengthy bouts of Buffy and Giles frowning over the letters and numbers in Buffy’s budget. But, at the end, there was finally a budget. It accounted for bills and groceries, the more immediate pregnancy-related expenses like vitamins and books and her next prenatal appointment, school supplies and wild growth spurt wardrobe for Dawn…pretty much everything Buffy could think of.
Around sundown, Giles looked at his watch. “I’ve an appointment to view a flat downtown,” he announced.
Xander looked out the window at the sun sinking below the horizon and said casually, “I guess I’ll go do a quick patrol.”
Buffy raised her eyebrows.
“What?” he said. “It’s not like I haven’t done it before.”
“Yeah,” Dawn said, flipping her algebra textbook shut, “with, like, four other people.”
Before Xander could retort, Giles turned to Dawn and Buffy and said, “I’ll drop the two of you at your house, shall I?”
Darla was in an irritable mood by the time she found the damn warlock. Aside from her annoyance at not having found him on her first try, she was now also displeased by the lack of useful offerings at the local magic shop. She’d stopped in just after sundown and bluntly asked the woman at the counter, Know anyone I can see about getting this thing out of me? The woman had given her a very plastic smile and rattled off a list of difficult-to-find ingredients, then mused about an abortion clinic in Colorado before wishing her luck and telling her to have a nice night.
This place didn’t lift her spirits. It reeked of weak, pathetic humanity. Addicts. Frenzy. She sat on the dismal sofa and eyed the door, trying to get a sense of who was behind it, but the air was so dense with magic that the details of humanity didn’t escape the shut room. So she waited.
At last, the door opened. A scrawny young man walked out of the room as though in a daze, and behind him emerged an older man with a hard, scarred face.
Darla pushed off the couch and strode briskly past him into the room before whirling around and declaring, “I want you to do whatever it takes to get this thing out of me. I need this thing out of me.”
With a sardonic sort of grunt, he shut the door behind them. “Name’s Rack.” He circled around her, surveying her as energy buzzed in his hands. “Interesting,” he said as he came to a halt in front of her again.
“Is it?” she replied impatiently.
He scrutinized her impassively. “Unfortunately, I can’t help you.”
Figured. “I’m not surprised,” Darla said acidly. She’d just kill him and head off to L.A. Maybe Angel and his guilt would be good for problem-solving for once.
But before she could make her move, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “I’m a hedonist,” he explained slowly, his eyes raking over her. “I don’t deal in life and death stuff. But I just might know someone who can get you what you need.”
Now they were getting somewhere.
“This someone have a name?”
Rack grinned mysteriously. “Strawberry.”