The Quick And Easy Solution
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
was created by Joss Whedon. Dragon Half
was created by Ryūsuke Mita. Not sure who owns the rights to these properties, but I don't, and I don't pretend that I do. I acknowledge all copyrights.
The Quick and Easy Solution
Willow staggered as the edge of the door smacked into her shoulder. She grabbed it to steady herself, which not incidentally kept it from smacking into Buffy, who was huddled against the wall behind it.
"Okay, ow," said Willow with a grimace of pain.
Kendra pulled up short in the doorway when she saw the tableau in front of her. Amy Madison was stretched out on the floor of the handball court, unconscious, while Xander and Jesse performed CPR on her.
Willow glanced over at the wall mirror, still sitting on the easel where they'd placed it. The painted glyph was gone, burned away by the spell it had unleashed. Willow nervously adjusted the door, trying to make sure that Buffy wouldn't be visible in it from Kendra's position.
"What happened?" Kendra asked Willow. "We heard de scream from de library."
Willow opened her mouth, hesitated, and wordlessly turned to Joyce for help.
"I'd just come to give Buffy and her friends a lift home," Joyce said. "We were in the locker room when we heard it."
"I doubt dere was anyone in de whole school who didn't," Kendra replied.
Behind the door, Buffy was trying to breathe as quietly as possible. She closed her eyes and thought about her ring-amulet -- which was on the floor on the other side of the doorway. For all the good that did her, it might as well have been on the Moon.
Kendra watched the two boys working on Amy, her brow furrowed in thought. She looked up again and took in the room. Joyce kept herself calm through sheer willpower.
"Where is Buffy?" Kendra asked.
Thinking quickly, Joyce said "She went to call 911."
Amy coughed. Jesse raised his head from her mouth as she gasped in a huge wheezing breath and coughed some more. Xander left off his compressions and felt for the pulse point in her wrist.
"We have heartbeat," he said.
Willow stepped up and knelt by the girl's side, across from Xander. "Amy?" she said. "Can you hear me?"
The coughing fit over, Amy's eyes opened. They were glazed and unfocused.
"W-Willow?" she said weakly. "Willow, run…it's not me…Wi…w…" Her eyes closed and she went limp.
Jesse held his fingertips under her nose. "Still breathing," he said.
"Pulse is…weak, but there," Xander added.
Joyce glanced at the door that hid Buffy, then turned to Kendra.
"Maybe you should find Mr. Giles," she said.
Kendra stared at Mrs. Summers in surprise.
Joyce looked puzzled. "It's no great secret, is it? That he's your guardian, after your uncle--" She broke off. "I'm sorry."
"Oh," Kendra said. "No, I thought--" She shook her head. "You're right, I, I should find him." She turned and left, allowing the door to swing closed behind her. Buffy sagged in relief against the wall.
As soon as the Slayer was gone, Joyce stepped around the boys and picked up Buffy's ring and overshirt.
"That," Buffy said, "was close." She closed her eyes and focused her concentration for the transformation.
"Is finding Mr. Giles something we want
Kendra to be doing?" Xander asked as he got to his feet.
"Better that," Willow said, "than saying 'hey, would you mind leaving so Buffy the Dragon-Half can change back to human form?'"
Buffy's dragon attributes flickered and were gone. Joyce handed her the ring. Without bothering to open the chain, Buffy slipped it over her head.
"What now?" she asked.
"Now, you go call 911," Joyce replied. "Not only so we don't get caught in a lie, but because that's always a good idea when someone's just needed CPR."
Buffy pulled on her overshirt and headed off in search of telecommunications. Everyone else gathered around Amy's unconscious form. Jesse stayed on the floor, keeping track of her pulse and breathing.
"Is she gonna be OK?" Willow asked Joyce.
"She's had a tremendous shock," Mrs. Summers replied. "But her soul is back where it belongs…her only problems now are medical."
"What about the thing? The body-snatcher?" Xander asked. "What happened to it?"
Joyce shook her head. "Without knowing exactly what it was, all I can say is that we sent it off to its proper place. Wherever that is."
Willow smiled. "We did it, though."
"We did," Joyce replied. "We were lucky."
"Really lucky," Willow smiled. "We had you."
In the parking lot, the paramedics loaded the still-unconscious Amy into the ambulance. As her rescuers had agreed, Buffy stepped forward when they asked if anyone was going to ride in with her. As the truck started up and the lights and sirens became active, Kendra and Giles came out of the side entrance. They stopped at the sidewalk and watched the vehicle pull away.
"Well," Joyce said as the siren faded in the distance, "who wants a lift home?"
"Uh, no thanks, Mrs. S," said Jesse. "I wanna walk. Clear my head, kind of."
Willow nodded. "Yeah, a lot's happened in just one day."
"Plus, I think I left some books in my locker yesterday that I'm gonna need. If Mr. Giles will let me back into the building, anyway."
"But," Willow continued, "you can drop me and Xander off at my place."
"She can?" Xander asked.
"Yeah. There's something I'd like you to help me with."
Xander shrugged. "I can walk from there, I guess. Sure, no sweat."
They said their goodbyes, and Jesse headed for the building. The rest started for the big black SUV.
"Mrs. Summers?" Giles called out. "A moment of your time, if I may?"
Joyce hesitated, then handed Willow her car keys. While the two teenagers continued on towards the vehicle, Joyce turned to Giles, who was just walking up to her.
"I wonder if we might discuss what just happened?"
Joyce nodded. "Of course," she said. "In fact, Jesse needs to get into the building; he left something in his locker. Why don't you give your keys to Miss…uh, Kendra…so she can let him in while we talk?"
"It's Miss Young, actually," Giles said. He pondered Joyce for a moment. He gave her a quiet nod of respect and gave Kendra his keys.
"Prop the door open for me," he told her. "I'll close it when I come in, and meet you at the library."
The two of them watched as Kendra and Jesse made for the side door. Giles glanced at Joyce from the corner of his eye.I must remember,
he told himself, never to play poker with this woman.
"All right, Mr. Giles," said Joyce. "What's on your mind?"
"Kendra and I were just having a look at the handball court while Miss Madison was being trundled out here," Giles said.
"Did you find anything interesting?" Joyce said carefully.
"Oh, quite," Giles said. From a coat pocket, he produced a handkerchief, folded up with something inside. "There was a broken hand mirror in the corner. Clearly flung there with some force."
He carefully unfolded the cloth to reveal several shards of broken, mirrored glass. The largest pieces had parts of a complex symbol painted on them in red nail polish.
"Why don't we stop fencing, Mrs. Summers?"
"So," said Jesse, "have you thought about…what we talked about?"
"I've not had de time," Kendra replied.
They were walking through the hallways on the way to Jesse's locker.
"Right," Jesse said, "'Cause everything happened so fast, right afterward."
"But to tell de trut', ye haven't even given me de details, an' already I feel better about it dan I do about Miss Summers' cheerleader plan."
"Huh," Jesse said. He was forcing the casualness a little more smoothly now; he didn't think she noticed. He was wrong.
"Well," he said, "what I'm getting from my locker is actually the rulebooks for the game. If you're gonna be waiting in the library…I could go too and tell you about it. And, uh, like I said, we meet every Sunday afternoon. That's tomorrow."
After a long pause, he added, "I'm just sayin', that's all."
Kendra's face felt hot again. She had no idea why, but it was getting annoying.
Joyce stood looking at the fragments for a long moment. Finally she sighed.
"You and I are very much alike, Mr. Giles," she said. "Each of us is privileged to be responsible for a remarkable young woman."
"It's a very scary world out there…and it's hard to know who to trust."
Giles nodded. "On the other hand, too little trust can sometimes be as dangerous as too much. Especially when others take it as a sign of evil intent."
He folded up the handkerchief again and put it away.
"Kendra and I still aren't certain what your daughter did that night at the Bronze, but she was clearly on our side, that time at least. That's why I'm giving you a chance to explain."
Joyce nodded. "I'm going to put my cards on the table, Mr. Giles. Not all of them, not by a long way, but a few."
Giles folded his arms and waited.
"I know a technique -- well, as long as I'm being honest, a spell -- that lets me see supernatural energy; spells, curses, innate supernatural powers; that kind of thing. I can see them, and to a certain extent, analyze them."
"Are you a witch?" Giles asked, intrigued.
"I honestly don't know what you mean by that word," Joyce replied. "I know what I
would mean, but…"
"I see," Giles said, looking off at the horizon. "Where did you learn this technique?"
Joyce shook her head. "I'm not ready to tell you. Let's deal with what's in front of us first, all right?"
Giles pondered that for a moment. "Fair enough," he said. "Go on."
"Buffy's told me enough about Kendra that I wanted to take a look at her…and later we're going to have to have a talk about what I saw. But, of course, Amy was also there, and…"
Freshly showered, Catherine Madison was struggling to close the jeans she'd put on. That wretched girl had been letting this body go to pieces! She clenched her stomach muscles as much as she could and managed to get the button through the hole. Letting out the breath she was holding, she grabbed a belt and slipped it through the loops. She put on a denim shirt, which she chose to wear loose in order to hide the way her waist bulged over the belt.
She had just pulled on a pair of cowboy-style boots when the phone rang. She hesitated, considering the pros and cons, before picking up the receiver.
"Madison residence," she said.
"May I speak with Catherine Madison?" said a man's voice.
"This is Mark Wilson; I'm an intern at Sunnydale General. Please remain calm, Ms. Madison, but I'm afraid your daughter has just been admitted to the emergency room."
"What!? What happened?" If that little bitch had damaged that body, there would be Hell to pay.
"Apparently, she collapsed at school. I understand she was there for cheerleader tryouts? Shortly after they were over, she lost consciousness. She still hasn't awakened, and we're not sure why, but the preliminary diagnosis is nervous exhaustion."
Catherine stood holding the phone, her thoughts whirling.
"Who found her?" she asked.
"Oh, uh, some of her fellow students, and one of the parents I believe."
In her mind, Catherine replayed the words spoken by a horned and winged creature that could look like a teenage girl when it chose: We don't know who or what you are…
"I'll be right there," she said. She hung up the phone, cutting off the intern in mid-platitude. A smile slowly crept across her face.
Giles and Joyce paused by the door to the driver's seat.
"Strange," Giles said.
"In what way?" Joyce asked him.
"W-well, what you describe, it's all characteristic of Dark Magic," Giles said. "The solid black eyes, the telekinetic powers -- all things you might see in a, in a witch who's given herself up to darkness. Demons, ghosts, other possessing entities, they have powers of their own, but those are distinct from what you saw."
Joyce shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you," she said. "I don't really know a lot about what's out there."
"You don't?" Giles replied, puzzled. "But, you've learnt this, this rather esoteric body of mystical knowledge…"
"I've learned a whole other world of magic, Mr. Giles," Joyce smiled. "Turns out I have more to learn about this one."
"All right," Giles smiled back. "I look forward to more in-depth conversation at a later date, Mrs. Summers."
She reached out and shook his hand.
"Me too," she said. She got into the car and started the engine as he stepped back.
Buffy was flipping through a magazine without really reading it. She picked up her paper cup, half full of room temperature machine-dispensed ginger ale, and sipped at it. She wished she'd remembered, when they'd asked who would ride in with Amy, how much she hated hospitals.
The PA system made that pinging noise, and a female voice said something with just enough electronic distortion that she couldn't make out a word. She sighed and set the magazine aside. She got to her feet, stretched, and slowly paced around the waiting area.
Down the hallway, a middle-aged woman with dark red-brown hair approached the nurse's station and spoke to the duty nurse. After they'd exchanged a few words, she came down the hall to the waiting area.
"Excuse me," she said, "are you Buffy?"
"Yes," Buffy said with a tentative smile, "that's me."
"I'm -- I'm Catherine Madison."
"Catherine the Great," Buffy said. "Hi."
Catherine had the presence of mind to look surprised when Buffy spoke.
"Sorry," Buffy said. "Amy told me a little bit about you. Um."
"Do you --" Catherine hesitated. She didn't want to pour it on too thick, but whatever else Buffy was, the witch knew that she was also a teenage girl. Subtlety would probably be lost on her. "Do you know what happened?" she finished, in a strained voice.
Buffy reached out and took hold of Catherine's hands.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I really don't."
"At the front desk, they told me her heart and breathing had stopped," Catherine said. "If you hadn't been there…"
She pulled her hands from Buffy's grasp and turned away, closing her eyes and pressing a hand to her mouth. Just in time, too; she'd been about to snarl with rage. They'd nearly killed Amy's body; she would make them all pay for that. After she took it back, of course. First things first.
"I'm sure she'll be fine now," Buffy said. "They won't let me in until she wakes up, because I'm not family, but the doctor said it was just nervous exhaustion. She just needs time to recover."
"Mrs. Madison?" said a youngish blonde man in a lab coat as he approached.
"I'm Mark Wilson; I called you earlier?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. May I see her?"
"…of course. It's right this way."
"Oh, just a moment."
Catherine turned back to Buffy and said, "Could I offer you a lift home when I'm done?"
"Oh," said Buffy. "No, my Mom's already on her way. But thank you. And please…don't worry. She'll be okay. I'm sure."
Catherine nodded, hiding her disappointment. She really wanted a chance to get her hands on that ring the girl wore on its chain. It was obviously a treasured personal item, just the thing for some really creative cursing. But there would be time for that later. She said a quick goodbye and followed the intern into the hospital room while the blonde turned to leave.
Amy lay still in the hospital bed, eyes closed, breathing steadily. There was an IV drip attached to her left arm, and a nearby heart monitor was maintaining its steady beep.
"That's just a precaution," said the intern. "Standard protocol is to monitor the heart for a while after…anyway, her pulse is steady and strong."
Catherine nodded, then said, "Could I be alone with her? I promise I won't…touch anything."
The intern hesitated, then nodded. "Take all the time you need," he said.
As soon as he was gone, Catherine's eyes narrowed and she sneered.
"This won't take long at all," she hissed. From her purse, she drew forth a small clump of twigs, tied together in a literal "stick figure" with a twist of black thread. Three feathers had been tied on to simulate hair.
Catherine carefully lifted Amy's pillow and slipped the talisman under it.
"Sleep," she said, "until I return for you. Can't have you giving the game away before I'm ready, can I?"
Amy's eyelids twitched. Her head moved slightly from side to side, and a faint whimpering noise escaped her throat.
"Shh," Catherine said. "Shh…nobody can hear you anyway."
Amy's face went slack once more, and she lay still.
Catherine grinned and turned to go. She'd inspected the dolls she'd used to prepare her first exchange spell, and they would still work. But this time, she decided, she'd add a new wrinkle to the spell. The time had come to burn her bridges behind her.
Giles entered the library to pick up Kendra. She was sitting at the central table, with Jesse in the seat next to her. Several books were spread open in front of them.
"I see," Kendra was saying. "It's not so different from de tactical exercises Mr. Giles gives me. He describes a situation, and asks me what I'd do…"
"Exactly," Jesse said. "But in real life, there's always some uncertainty, and we use the dice to simulate that factor."
Giles cleared his throat. Kendra looked up, saw him, and practically leaped out of her chair to stand at parade rest. Jesse sat still, looking puzzled, indecisive and oddly guilty.
"I'm sorry," Giles said, "what's all this in aid of?"
Jesse started to speak, but Giles hushed him with a gesture and waited for Kendra to say something.
"Sir," Kendra said. "Jesse was just teachin' me…" She fell silent. For the first time since Giles had met her, she seemed nervous.
"How to…play Dungeons an' Dragons. Sir."
Giles opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He looked back and forth from Kendra to Jesse several times. He opened his mouth again and took a breath, but reconsidered and shook his head. Finally, he took off his glasses and whipped his cleaning cloth out. Even when she wasn't there, Buffy Summers managed to disrupt things…if only by proxy, through her friends.
"I can explain," Jesse said.
Giles put his glasses back on and aimed them at Jesse. "Oh yes," he said, "do."
Xander stood in the middle of Willow's room, holding a shoebox. Another one was on her bed, along with three plastic storage bins. Willow herself was leaning into her closet, digging into the storage shelves that were usually hidden by hanging clothes.
"So what are we doing here?" he asked.
"Looking for something," Willow replied. She emerged from the closet with two more random containers of stuff. She put them on the bed and gestured for Xander to place his burden there as well. Sitting on the mattress, she grabbed the nearest one and opened it.
"Looking for…?" Xander hazarded as he sat and opened another box.
"I'm not sure," Willow said. "I'll know it when I see it."
"No wonder you wanted me here," Xander said. "With a concise, detailed description like that, so will I."
Willow gave him a patient stare. "We're looking for mementoes of my childhood," she said. She dug through the box in front of her, turning over old report cards, pocket-sized books of word games, and decks of flash cards. One by one, she gave each item a glance, shook her head and set it aside.
"Okay," Xander said, "so I should, what, look through this stuff and…" He shrugged.
"Weed out the obvious trivia and show me the rest."
Xander picked up a faded cardboard box containing a Real Hydroponic Gardening Kit. From the picture on the box, the little boy's success in growing a single bean sprout in a plastic cup had transported him to heights of ecstasy undreamed of by mortal man. Xander shook his head and set the box aside. Under it was a pair of photographs.
"Oh, man," he said. "Will, remember this?"
He showed her the photos -- two copies of the same shot. A grinning ten-year-old Willow was leaning her elbows on a table, chin resting on one palm. On the table in front of her was a fuzzy, beige and white plush toy that was made to look like a perfectly spherical puppy. Its smiling cartoon face and floppy ears were directly on the front of its body, and its paws were little nubs of white plush with no discernible legs.
Willow took one look and her expression went all gooey.
"Ohhh, Mr. Wuffles," she moaned.
Xander handed her one of the photos, holding the other one and gazing at it fondly.
"Man, you loved that dog," he said. "You took him everywhere you went."
"I'd almost forgotten," Willow said. She gently brushed one finger across the toy's image in a circular motion.
"Whatever happened to him?"
"Oh," Willow said, her smile fading, "Mom decided I was getting too attached. I came home from school one day and she'd given him to a children's hospital. When I wanted him back, she talked about sick and dying kids; I wound up feeling guilty for being sad."
"That's gotta suck," Xander said.
"Well, she only did it because my attachment to him was interfering with the normalization of my social interactivity. She told me so herself." Willow put down the photograph. "I was eleven."
She pulled another box closer and opened it.
"So, more stuff like this?" Xander said, putting his copy of the photo on top of hers.
"Yeah," Willow said, "but I'm looking for something specific…and you know something, I've just realized exactly what." She rummaged quickly through the box, shoved it aside, and grabbed another.
"Yeah. I brought it home from the county fair when I was twelve. The very last completely trivial thing my parents ever bought me. After that it was all Fun With Science books and educational toys. Which were great, don't get me wrong. But they never bought me anything just for fun, not after this."
She shoved the second box aside and opened a third.
"And I practically had to pitch a fit to get them to do it," she added.
Suddenly she froze, like a hunting dog going on point. She slowly reached into the box and lifted out a clunky, heart-shaped locket made of cheap plastic. It was about the size of a pocket watch, and coated with a silver-colored acrylic "chrome" finish. Even the single strand of chain it hung from was made of clunky plastic links.
"This is it," she said, almost reverently.
"Looks…kinda cheap," said Xander.
"Yeah, it really was. But I wanted it so bad."
For answer, Willow pried it open. It was hinged on one side and designed to snap closed. Inside were two frames intended to hold heart-shaped pictures. One was empty. The other held a printed cardstock photo of a cocker spaniel puppy.
"It came with this picture," Willow said.
"Cute," Xander replied, clearly not getting it.
For answer, Willow picked up the photo of herself with Mr. Wuffles, and held the two pictures side by side. Xander whistled in amazement.
The toy was spherical, and the live puppy was, well, puppy-shaped, but they had the exact same coloring. Even their white faces, with a beige patche over each eye, matched.
"I still missed Mr. Wuffles, even after a year," Willow said. "When I saw the picture, I had to have this. Had to." She dropped the photo again and gazed contemplatively at the locket.
"So why the sudden nostalgia?" Xander asked.
"Oh, I dunno," Willow said. "Seeing Amy again, and watching Jesse get all dorky for a girl who's actually worth his time…that hasn't happened in a while…"
She glanced at Xander. He was looking her right in the eye, his expression dead serious.
"Will," he said, in his firmest, no-nonsense-iest voice. "You're a lousy liar sometimes. And when you're talking to me? You're hopeless.”
Willow hung her head, looking guilty.
"Hey, c'mon," Xander said. He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Tell your bestest bud what's the what. As if he didn't already know."
"You don't know," Willow said.
"So I guess you're not planning to do that other world spell Mrs. S did for Buffy the night she transformed?"
"…Maybe you do."
"Will, c'mon, think about this."
"I have," Willow insisted. "You know me; I've researched it, and I found an actual magic shop in town and bought a couple of books, you know, to see what I could learn? And I couldn't get anywhere, so I really think this is the way to go."
"Okay, maybe," Xander said. He put both hands on her shoulders and gripped them for emphasis. "But you're gonna hold off on doing anything permanent until you've talked to Mrs. S, right? Get some expert advice? You know, that's what Jesse and I have you for; you should have someone too."
Willow met his eyes and smiled wistfully.
"Well," she said, "I guess I was more considering it than really planning it." She looked down at the locket in her hand. "I just want to be ready, when -- if, I mean if -- the time comes."
"Okay," Xander said, releasing her. "And anyway, didn't she say you needed something you've treasured for a long time? How treasured is that thing if it's been in a box for the last couple of years?"
Willow furrowed her brow thoughtfully.
"You might be right," she said. "It might not be suitable."
She studied the puppy picture in its heart-shaped frame. Her eyes flicked over to the matching frame in the locket's lid. The matching, empty frame…
She reached into one of the boxes she'd already searched and fished out a pair of scissors. Picking up one of the two loose photos, she carefully began cutting.
"Will, what are you doing?"
"Just a little arts and crafts," she replied. She finished trimming the cutout she'd made into a heart shape, centered on the plush toy. She pried open the empty locket frame, slipped the cutout into it, and snapped it back into place. Contemplating the facing pictures, plush toy and matching puppy, she smiled."Now
it's suitable," she said, and snapped the locket shut.
"Will," Xander said cautiously, "you're starting to freak me out here. I think…I think I'm gonna have to make you promise me something."
"You don't have to…" Willow began.
Willow gave out the most put-upon sigh in her repertoire. She reached out her free hand and took hold of Xander's.
"I promise," she said. "I won't try the Otherworld Mage ritual until after
I've spoken to Mrs. Summers."
Xander let out the breath he'd been holding and smiled.
"Wouldn't dream of holding you back, Will; I just want you to look before you leap, okay?"
She smiled back, and they hugged.
Joyce pulled into the driveway and stopped. She and Buffy got out and made for the house.
"I feel like celebrating," Buffy said. "How about we order a pizza for dinner?"
"Sounds great, honey," Joyce replied. "Provided you have a salad with it." She checked her watch. "Unfortunately, I can't join you."
Joyce opened the door and they went in. "Thing is," she told her daughter, "my plans for this weekend have gone all out of whack because of the Amy situation. I was going to spend the afternoon at the gallery. And I have to put in a couple of hours there today, in order to get ready for tomorrow."
She dug her wallet out of her purse.
"Tell you what," she said, "why don't you have your friends over? I'll trust you all not to destroy the house while I'm gone." She fished out several twenties. "Order some pizzas -- salads too, young lady, and I'll want to see an itemized bill and
get all my change back -- then watch some TV or listen to records or something, and I'll be back in a few hours. Then I can drive them home, or you can walk them. What do you say?"
"I say gimme the money and go before you change your mind! …I mean, yes, Mommy, that sounds ginger-peachy."
Buffy was on the phone to Luigi's when Xander and Willow arrived. As arranged, they circled the house and tapped on the kitchen door. Buffy asked the person she was speaking with to hang on.
"Is Jesse here yet?" Willow asked as Buffy let them in.
Buffy shook her head. "He passed on it," she said. "Said he needed to get ready for the game tomorrow. Is there a game tomorrow? I didn't see anything in the school paper."
"Oh. Not a school game," Willow said. "Not even sports, actually. It's this thing he goes to on Sundays."
"Okay," said Buffy. She picked up the phone and continued placing her order.
"Where was I?" she said. "Right…but pepperoni only on half of it. The other half should have…" She looked a question at Willow.
"Pineapple," Willow said, prompting Xander to make a face.
"Pineapple," Buffy repeated.
"How can you do that to a poor innocent pizza?" Xander demanded.
"Okay," Buffy said. "And finally, one of your ten-inch custom pizzas. Ready?" She paused. "Okay, I'm gonna need pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, jalapenos, chili powder, horseradish, Tabasco sauce, Buffalo sauce…and do you have any wasabi?"
"Forget what I just said," Xander quietly told Willow.
They'd finished the pizzas, and Willow had bullied them into eating the salads as well. Buffy had returned to her natural form before eating, and now she was washing up the silverware while Xander was in the living room, checking the cable listings to see if there was anything interesting on.
Upstairs, Willow dried her hands on a towel and left the bathroom. As she headed for the stairs, she couldn't help but notice that the door to Mrs. Summers' room was standing open. Curiosity impelled her to step up to the door and look in.
It looked just like an ordinary room. Which it was, of course; Willow certainly wasn't expecting parchment scrolls, a bubbly cauldron or a crystal ball. She still felt vaguely disappointed, somehow.
She was just turning back to go downstairs when she spotted it out of the corner of her eye. The trunk of magical tools that Mrs. Summers had asked Jesse and Xander to bring up from the basement was sitting on the floor next to the vanity table. Willow stared at it longingly -- and then she noticed that the padlock wasn't fitted into the clasp. The trunk was unlocked.
Her breath caught. She turned her head to listen; Buffy and Xander were arguing about the merits of whatever show or movie Xander had found. Willow turned back to the trunk and swallowed nervously.
Willow had always considered herself honest. Basically. When she gave her word, she'd never break it. Exactly. She'd promised she wouldn't try the ritual until after she'd spoken to Mrs. Summers, and that was that. No matter what a perfect opportunity she had here, or how much this looked like a sign.
Still, there was no harm looking, right? She hadn't promised not to look. She slowly entered the room and knelt before the trunk. She gently lifted the lid and eased it back.
There was the board, tucked into the back. Wrapped in folds of cloth were the various items of crystal, bronze, clay and wood.
She shook her head. There was no point torturing herself. She turned away -- and then saw that Buffy had brought her guests' coats upstairs and dropped them on her mother's bed instead of hanging them in the closet downstairs.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, she picked up her coat and felt in the side pocket. The plastic, heart-shaped locket was inside. She had everything she'd need for the ritual right here. But the notes she'd taken, the one time she'd seen it performed…was this the coat she'd been wearing, the last time she'd looked them over?
It was. She found the folded pages in the inside pocket. This really was a sign, wasn't it? Not until after I've spoken to Mrs. Summers,
she'd promised. Of course, she'd already spoken to Mrs. Summers, on several occasions, on a variety of topics, hadn't she? So in a way, that promise was already fulfilled. Besides…she'd already decided she was going to do this sooner or later. Why not now? And anyway, she knew Xander had been worried over nothing. No harm, no foul.
Heart pounding, breath rasping in her throat, scarcely believing she was really doing it, she pulled the board from the chest and set it on the vanity table. A quick search of the chest, pausing for quick glances at her notes, turned up the ritual items. She placed them on the grid, just as she'd sketched out that night. She folded a blank sheet of paper with trembling hands and placed it on the proper square. The locket was the last item. She placed it on the paper and tried to calm herself. Was she really going to do this?
From below, she heard Buffy's voice floating up the stairwell.
"Will? You coming down any time soon?"
Painfully aware of what it would look like if they found her now, Willow looked at herself in the vanity mirror.
"Hung for a kid, hung for a goat," she whispered. She reached out and put her hands on the clay statuette and the bronze coin.
"By this heart's token," she said, "and in the name of the Shrouded Gods, I ask that a way be opened to the magic my heart seeks. Heaven to Ocean, Ocean to Earth, Earth back to Heaven; show me the path engraved by the light."
She'd seen the ritual done twice before. Each time, there'd been no visible display, but she had instantly felt a profound, unseen change in the room. This time, she didn't feel a thing. Everything felt exactly the same as before.
She stood there, staring at the board and wondering what had gone wrong. Had she gone through all this for nothing?
"Willow?" came Buffy's voice from right behind her. She turned and saw both of her friends staring at her from the doorway. "What are you doing?" Buffy demanded.
Next to her, Xander said nothing. Willow felt the bottom drop out of her stomach when she saw the hurt, betrayed expression on his face.
"I --" she began, but just then, a burst of white light flared up behind her. With a startled shriek, she spun around and backed away from the vanity. The cheap plastic locket was glowing and giving off a rushing sound. Willow felt a wind whipping up around her, stirring her hair and clothes.
"What did you do?" Buffy cried out. "Will, what did you do?"
The locket was glowing brighter, and now it floated up off the vanity and out into the middle of the room. Buffy and Xander stepped forward at the same time and tried to hustle Willow toward the door, but a cone of light snapped out at her, covering her like a searchlight.
At the touch of the light, Xander was knocked headlong to one side, sprawling across Joyce's bed. Buffy was knocked away in the other direction, but she only staggered a few steps and fetched up against the wall. Willow felt no force at all, but when she tried to run, she couldn't move.
The locket shattered and flew into bits, but the light inside it remained. Something on the other side could see
Willow; she knew it. It was evaluating her, judging
her, and her mind gibbered in fear.
The cone of light snapped off. Then, with a crash of thunder, a bolt of silver-white lightning lanced out from the glow and struck Willow full in the chest. She flew backward and would have slammed into the wall if Buffy hadn't managed to get behind her and catch her. The dragon-girl sank to her knees and lowered her friend to the floor.
The glow faded, leaving something that looked like the cheap plastic locket, but even at a glance it was clearly much better made. It fell to the floor, hitting the rug with a hard metallic thump.
Willow was lying on the floor with her head in Buffy's lap. The rainbow-striped pullover she was wearing had a charred spot right over her heart. She groggily looked up and met Buffy's eyes.
"Okay," she said, "that
shouldn't have happened."
Her eyes rolled back in her head and closed, and she went completely limp.
TO BE CONTINUED
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