Title: "Empty Spaces on a Chessboard"
Pairing: Willow/Illyria or Willow/Rowena? …I’m not telling.
Summary: An unexpected visitor arrives at the Council and disrupts Willow’s brooding over Ro’s absence.
Disclaimer: All characters belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc. and the Watchers staff.
Distribution: Just ask, and I’ll say yes.
Feedback: Yes please!
Spoilers: This takes place after Another Apocalypse (Watchers Episode 124) and Not Fade Away (Angel Episode 522).
Author’s Note: With permission from Ambyrhawke Shadowsinger, this story incorporates one event from her fic, "Across an Ocean of Fear." In her story, Willow gives Rowena a chess piece just before Ro leaves for England, telling her to bring it back, since she can’t play without it. It was just so damn romantic, I had to use it. Thanks for the inspiration, Hawke!
2nd Note: Some quotes are taken from the Angel episode "A Hole in the World", including the section from Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Princess.
~ Part 1 ~
The Council lobby was eerily silent. Down hallways and in other parts of the great building, rooms were alive and buzzing with Watchers and Slayers going about their duties. In this central location, however, all was quiet. The wooden crest loomed over the entrance, brazenly displaying the insignia "Expedia est Potentia" to the apathetic emptiness.
The stillness was shattered by the shrill ringing of the doorbell.
"I’ll get it!" Andrew bounded down the spiraling staircase and threw open the front door. At the sight that greeted him, he backed up with his arms folded across his chest in nervousness. "Um, can I help you?"
When he got no response, he fidgeted and said, "Don’t I know you from somewhere?" His eyes narrowed, "You look kinda familiar…"
The new arrival tilted her head as she appraised the being that stood before her, and then swept past him, stating in a deep, ancient voice, "I have come to exchange words with the witch. The one you call Willow." Standing in the center of the lobby, Illyria gazed around the empty room, taking in her surroundings.
"Um, okay I’ll be right back." Andrew paused a moment before ordering, "Don’t go anywhere…please." The Ancient One simply cocked her head at the retreating form of the human, amused by his presumption.
Willow stared intently at the board in front of her, biting her bottom lip in concentration. Her face cleared as she seemed to come to a decision. With a deliberate motion, she lifted the black knight and placed it firmly in the position facing the white bishop. With a look of triumph she raised her eyes expectantly toward the empty chair in front of her. Her face fell. Growling in frustration, she swept the pieces off of the chessboard. This is useless, she sighed. She pushed away the tears that threatened to fall. I will not think about Ro. I will not think about Ro. I will not…Her inner chant was interrupted by a tentative knock at the door.
"Willow?" Andrew peeked his head through the door. "I know you said you didn’t want to be disturbed, but, ah…" he hesitated a moment before continuing. "There’s a scary, blue she-momma here to see you," he blurted out.
Willow’s eyebrows rose in surprise. As she processed this information, Andrew’s gaze swept across the room, registering the scattered chess pieces strewn across the floor. Ever helpful, Andrew offered to clean up the mess, "…you know, while you go downstairs." He trailed off as Willow flew into action, grabbing his arm along the way and leading them both towards the lobby.
At the top of the stairs, she stopped suddenly and grasped the railing for support. "Oh Goddess," she breathed, "Fred?" The shell of her former friend turned at her approach and piercing blue eyes gazed up at her. "What’s happened to you?" the redhead choked out.
"Your grief is suffocating." Illyria’s features twisted into a look of disgust. She continued chillingly, "I have not witnessed this sickening a display of human emotion since…" her hard voice almost softened, "the man…Wesley."
"Well," Andrew cleared his throat. "I see you have some catching up to do, so I’ll just leave you two alone." He hesitantly backed away, taking advantage of Willow’s distraction. When neither woman acknowledged his mumbled excuse, he slipped silently away.
Willow was too caught up in her shock and confusion to notice Andrew’s departure. Staring down at the blue-tinted form of Winifred Burkle, realization suddenly dawned on the witch. She brought a hand to her mouth as she whispered, "Giles mentioned a phone call from Angel…he thought…" her eyes widened as she trailed off. "Oh Goddess!" she breathed again. Not knowing what else to say, she offered a high-pitched "Oops?" and numbly made her way down the stairs towards the awaiting figure.
Ignoring the pain and guilt that poured off the girl in waves, Illyria stated coolly, "The half-breeds are dead. Their puny weapons and minute battle skills proved too weak." She tilted her head and added, almost as an afterthought, "For such insignificant beings, they possessed a surprising amount of courage. I will honour them for that. I feel a loss for the white-haired one in particular. He was my pet."
Willow struggled to take this all in. "They’re…dead? Oh Buffy…she’ll be so upset." She barked a laugh at her understatement of the century. The Old One remained motionless, clearly not understanding the humour.
Her focus returning to the Fred-look-alike, Willow asked, "So, um, why are you here?" For the first time, a look of uncertainty crossed Illyria’s features. "They are all gone. There is an…emptiness." She seemed to struggle a moment before saying, "The girl’s memories…Winifred’s memories of you…confuse me. I do not like being confused," she spat, a cool glare boring into Willow.
"Uh, okay," Willow motioned towards the sitting area. With a helpful smile, trying to appease the blue-haired woman, she gently prodded her to continue. "So what is it about these memories that confuse you?" She sat in one of the plush chairs and waited patiently.
Illyria remained standing, her crystal eyes seeming to draw inward. "They are all jumbled – unlike all her other memories, which are neatly ordered and arranged almost…alphabetically." She cocked her head and added, "I believe it is the Pylean alphabet." Willow’s nose scrunched in amusement as Illyria continued. "There are numbers and theories and languages floating about inside like shadows of dreams, but they are all logical. Even her feelings for Wesley are clear, unclouded and precise."
"But you," she turned on the witch, who sat back in her chair, eyes wide. "You remain a mystery, a pulsating flux of awe and admiration to this Winifred. There is softness and lust and confusion hovering inside me." She grabbed at her chest, trying to rip out an invisible foe. "There is something approaching what she felt for that other human," she paused. "And there is an odd joke about Bacchanals in Latin," she finished, her eyes piercing into Willow’s with an unanswered question. "I wish to explore you further."
At this last statement, Willow’s face blushed a deep red. "Um, well…uh," she stammered. Illyria seemed to sniff the air and a predatory grin spread across her face. "Your arousal intrigues me."
With that, Willow regained her senses and sternly pointed at Illyria. "Stop that! My…arousal is none of your business. Besides, I like my women less Smurf-like," she declared with a challenging glare.
An offended expression crossed the crystal-blue eyes, but was replaced by what Willow could only interpret as pain and loss. At this jarring display of weakness from the ancient being, Willow’s face softened. After a moment of hesitation she seemed to come to a decision. "Say," she began, nervously biting her lip, "I don’t suppose you play chess?"
The engines roared as the aircraft slowly taxied towards the runway. Rowena fidgeted with her seatbelt and peered out the miniature window at the retreating gray of Heathrow International.
She glanced at the large man beside her. He had already managed to fall asleep, somehow, with his head slowly drifting forwards and mouth hanging slack. Just as long as he doesn’t drool on me, she thought absently. She began tapping her fingers on her knees, torn between being impatient to take off and wanting to halt the plane to disembark. She had no idea what kind of reception she could expect upon her arrival in Cleveland.
Earlier, Althenea had practically dragged her to the airport. After a big hug farewell, she had sent Ro on her way with a knowing grin and pat on the back for support. Just before Rowena had disappeared through the gate, Al had shouted to her that she’d added a little care package to her bag, but that she was only to open it once she was in the air.
Although the plane was still in queue on the runway, Ro felt that she’d waited decently long enough, and reached into her carry-on. Inside, she found a small, neatly wrapped package with a note that read: "Please don’t be mad – I’m just looking out for my girls! Give Will a giant kiss for me! Take care of yourself. All my love, Al."
With a slightly confused expression, Ro tore open the package. She rolled her eyes when she saw what it contained. Sitting proudly among red tissue paper were two small items: a pack of nicorette gum and a hotel shampoo sampler. Shaking her head in exasperation, she returned the package to her bag. A hint of a smile teased her lips.
She glanced back at the man beside her to make sure her movements hadn’t woken him, but he seemed completely oblivious to the world. She was startled as a loud snore escaped his nostrils. Go figure, she thought, everyone but me seems to be able to sleep through long flights. She closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath, and then gazed back out through the small window. With a rush of anticipation and fear, she settled in for the journey as the plane picked up speed and rose deftly into the air.
~ Part 2 ~
"Checkmate!" Willow beamed up at her opponent.
"Unimpressive," Illyria scowled. "I am a pitiful echo of what I once was. I was the immaculate embodiment of rule. I commanded armies of millions across worlds of fire and ice…and now I have control over a measly fifteen wooden minions that are restricted to move in odd directions."
"Well, you’d be commanding sixteen of those ‘wooden minions’ if you hadn’t stuck one of your pawns into your mouth to test its molecular structure." Willow pointed out, a smirk playing across her lips.
"You also were missing one minion," Illyria commented in return. "It seemed only just to maintain a balance between light and dark for this battle of strategy."
Willow blushed and turned away. "Yeah, well, your pawn doesn’t exactly balance out with my missing queen, but the thought was nice." She had already explained how she had given her chess piece to Rowena when she had left, in an attempt to offer an incentive for her return. "So," she tried to change the subject, "do you wanna play again?"
Illyria ignored her attempt to divert the conversation. "You seem to mourn the loss of this friend as if she were dead. But she remains in this world, across a measly ocean."
"I know," Willow tried to smile to lighten the mood but failed. "It’s not as bad as it could be." She glanced up at her chess partner, whose concerned blue gaze was eerie and unnerving. Her voice somber, Willow continued, "Especially considering that I should be mourning Fred instead of thinking about Ro…"
Willow’s eyes fell to her lap, only to lift back to meet Illyria’s a moment later. "Did – I mean, do you know if she…suffered? No, wait, I don’t want to know…of course she must have. I-I just can’t believe she’s gone."
After a pause, Illyria deigned that the witch was worthy of hearing the truth. "Your friend is not entirely gone," Illyria shared. "Fragments remain. Her memories are inside of me, can be accessed whenever I choose." She paused a moment. "I would lie to you if you wish."
With that, she morphed into a bright-eyed brunette. A lilting southern accent flowed from rich red lips that curled in a grin. "See? I’m not really gone. Anytime you’d like me to bend your ear about that Pergamum Codex …"
Sitting quietly in her chair across the forgotten chessboard, a tear trailed down Willow’s cheek as her friend babbled on cheerily.
Ro stood outside the large doors of the Council entrance, her luggage at her feet. She clutched a small object, hidden in her left fist. Okay, she took a deep breath, you can do this. With more resolve than she felt, she rang the doorbell. She could hear the sonorous ring echoing through the great building.
After an intense moment, she thought she heard Andrew muttering under his breath as the door slowly opened. "If it’s another wanna-be mega-mojo’d yet beautifully slender woman, I’m not letting her in – I don’t care what colour…Rowena!" he exclaimed, squealing in overly-enthusiastic glee. He cleared his throat and continued in a deeper voice, "I mean, Hello! Please come in." He gestured inside.
Ro smiled as she took a step inside. "It’s nice to see you, too. Do you think you could…?" she motioned towards her bags.
"But of course, m’lady – please, allow me." He chivalrously grabbed her luggage and struggled through the door. "So," he began conversationally, belying the effort it took to keep the bags from falling, "how long will you be staying? Or are you here for good? And are you and Willow…"
He was cut off by the sound of Giles clearing his throat as he walked into the lobby, cleaning his glasses. "Please, Andrew, I’m sure Rowena has had a long flight. The last thing she needs is to be bombarded with questions." He leaned in and gave her a peck on the forehead, before replacing his glasses. "It’s good to see you again, my dear," he smiled kindly.
"Thank you, Giles," Ro managed to get out, her eyes glistening at his tenderness.
At that moment, two dark slayers swaggered in from the direction of the training rooms, deep in conversation. "All I’m saying is, it seems that you’re losing your right hook. I totally had you in that last match."
"Sure, Slick, whatever you need to tell yourself," Faith answered playfully. She stopped when she saw who was standing in the entrance. When Ken continued bragging away, Faith put her hand on her arm to get her attention and nodded towards the newcomer. "So, the prodigal Watcher returns," Faith winked to Ro in welcome, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Rowena returned the smile, but her focus was pulled away, towards Kennedy’s approaching figure.
The slayer stopped less than a foot away, her stance dripping with menace. "If you hurt her again, I’ll take pleasure in killing you with my bare hands." She waited a moment, one eyebrow raised as if daring the watcher to question her sincerity. Then a grin spread across her face and she took a step back, "Good to have ya back!" She punched Rowena’s arm playfully, making her wince in pain. "She’s upstairs, by the way."
"Yeah," Andrew piped up. "She’s been locked up in her room for months…well, at least until…" He was cut off by a glare from Kennedy, who quickly smiled back at Ro.
"Why don’t you head up and see her?" Kennedy supplied, innocently. "I’m hitting the showers." And with that, she was gone.
"Um, thank you?" Rowena rubbed gingerly at her arm, confused by the whirling emotions that Kennedy had inspired. And what had Andrew been about to say…?
She shrugged and took the slayer’s advice; she tentatively made her way up towards Willow’s apartment.
~ Part 3 ~
Rowena’s nervous anticipation was deafening; her heart thudded uncontrollably in her ears. Okay, breathe, she told herself. As she approached Willow’s apartment, she noticed that the front door was partially open. She paused a moment, gathering confidence, and pushed the door open.
Her breath caught as a redheaded vision filled her eyes. Willow, her body hummed. The feeling was broken only by a nagging sensation that tugged at her consciousness. Reluctantly she pulled her gaze away from her redheaded beauty, and became aware of a third presence in the room.
Rowena paused, brow furrowing in confusion. Willow sat across their chessboard from a young, beautiful brunette whose rich red lips were curled in a brilliant smile. The Canadian Watcher stood there, mouth agape and dark thoughts clouding her expression. The two other women remained oblivious to her arrival; Willow was captivated by the brunette, who seemed to be relating some story in Latin. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation to all this, Rowena skeptically reassured herself, not wanting to jump to conclusions.
Only now realizing the quiet intrusion, Willow glanced up mid-laugh, her eyes misty, and gasped in surprise. "Ro?" she whispered in disbelief.
The three women were caught for a moment in time, one with a look of shock, the other with a hurt, questioning gaze, the third sending a cool glare towards the intruder. The tableau hung suspended for an eternal, deafening heartbeat as the two watchers stared at one another. The redhead broke Rowena’s gaze to glance guiltily at the brunette and then down at the chessboard between them, before lifting her eyes once more into Ro’s. Her forehead creased in bewilderment.
Rowena, quick-witted as always, made the logical connections. She nodded once, and spoke tersely. "Right. Well, I see you don’t need this after all." She turned and fled from the room, dropping the object she had been clutching dearly since she had arrived. Blindly passing corridors in her haste to escape, a lump grew in her throat. She rounded a corner and sank against the wall, her pain and confusion getting the better of her. What the hell just happened? She banged her head against the wall in frustration, desperately holding back the tears. What am I doing here? I should never have come back... Through her silent sobs, she overheard an unfamiliar voice drifting from Willow’s apartment.
"This is the woman whose departure you have been mourning? You spoke of a bright, worthy spirit, a goddess among women. But this weak being is akin to a flower that has wilted – too long denied solar nutrients. And she does not appear altogether stable…"
Kennedy ran her fingers through her still-damp hair as she made her way up towards Faith’s apartment. It was a tradition between the two slayers – the loser of their sparring matches had to fork out the money for their post-training ice-cream sundaes, and Kennedy was looking forward to collecting on her recent victory. Her train of thought was interrupted as she caught sight of a tear-stained Rowena, slumped against the wall in the middle of the hallway. She schooled her features and approached the Watcher. "I take it the big reunion didn’t go quite as planned."
Standing up hastily, Rowena wiped at her eyes and tried to compose herself, not wanting Kennedy to see the depth of her insecurity. She searched the Slayer’s face, but found only a mask of indifference, devoid of either gloating or concern.
"Who is the girl?" She asked coolly, releasing a hint of the anger and betrayal she felt at not being warned.
"Girl?" Kennedy asked, feigning innocence. "Oh! You mean Willow’s new chess partner! That’s right, you’ve never met Fred, have you?" she smirked. "Willow’s had a crush on her since forever – even while we were dating, though she’d never admit it." Kennedy shrugged her shoulders, "I guess she’s your problem now…"
Kennedy looked appraisingly at her former Watcher, her eyes trailing contemplatively across the other woman. "You know, I would have said that you’ve got nothing to worry about, since Willow supposedly has a ‘weakness for blondes’…" she emphasized, rolling her eyes. "…But I guess you don’t even have that going for you anymore, huh?" She reached up and ran her fingers through Rowena’s limp, mousy-red hair. She bit her lip and held her tongue, but her expression spoke volumes.
Ro’s cheeks burned in embarrassment. As she fought back tears, she searched the slayer’s face for any trace of compassion. She beseeched the woman with a heartfelt question, spoken barely above a whisper, "Why?" She took a deep, steadying breath, before continuing with more force. "Do you really hate me so much?"
Taken aback by the raw sincerity, Kennedy’s face registered a hint of regret at her harsh words. "Of course I don’t hate you," she spoke softly. "But you don’t get it," Kennedy began brazenly, trying to defend her actions. "When it comes to loving Willow, nobody gets an easy ride." She folded her arms and accused, "Not even you." The Slayer continued, an incredulous expression crossing her features, "And you gave it all up. You just stopped fighting, and ran away."
Rowena’s red eyes pierced coolly into those of the slayer, whose own dark pupils blazed back in defense. Fighting the desire to lash out again, the young Slayer simply shook her head and shrugged. "So the way I see it… it’s a race for the grand prize, may the best girl win." Kennedy paused, and seemed to consider her next words. Her face softened as she confessed, "But in the end, I really just want Willow to be happy… and between us, I think you can give her that…"
Rowena was shocked at the admission. "For what it’s worth – thank you."
"Don’t thank me. I would never in a million years have rejected her the way you did." Kennedy stared intensely into Rowena’s eyes and spoke deliberately, "Make no mistake – I’m not your ally in this, and I never will be."
Gazing at the Watcher’s retreating form, Kennedy’s face fell. There I go again, she thought. But she needed to hear it, the Slayer reasoned with herself, for Willow’s sake, if nothing else. Once more at peace with her sense of decency, Kennedy continued on her way to Faith’s for some ice-creamy goodness.
Willow sat staring at the empty doorway, a blank expression plastered to her face. Her brain struggled uncharacteristically to make sense of the whirlwind of events that had just swept in and out of that same entryway. She’s back, her heart sang. But how did everything go so wrong? What the frilly-heck just happened?
A voice slowly crept into her consciousness and her attention was pulled back towards the woman sitting opposite her. Across from our chessboard, mine and Ro’s, she thought, mentally smacking herself at her infidelity. But she left me… so why am I the one feeling guilty for a small, insignificant game of chess?
"…And she does not appear altogether stable…" the voice was saying. Willow locked eyes with her once-friend and was struck by the discord of hearing Illyria’s ancient voice through Fred’s soft lips, the harsh words belying innocent eyes.
"Change back." The whispered words seemed torn from deep within her being. When Fred’s shell only tilted her head in response, Willow’s voice rose in strength and venom. "Change!"
The Ancient One paused a moment longer, and then she closed her eyes and a shiver ran through her. Blue streaks shimmered and flowed across her hair and into her crystal eyes as she morphed back into Illyria. She remained silent, observing the changing emotions that boiled under the surface of Willow’s face. The sudden arrival of the human had obviously upset the witch greatly. Her body was tightly strung as if ready to pounce, but Illyria knew that Willow’s anger was misdirected, caused by the drifting sense of helplessness that overwhelmed her. She was not worried.
The redhead spoke with a deceptively casual malice, "Don’t ever insult Rowena again. You don’t have the right to – you’ll never be human enough to understand any of this." With that, Willow stood and walked towards the door. All the anger dissipated as she peered out into the empty hallway. Her heart sank. I can’t lose her again.
She glanced down at her feet and felt a clench in her gut. There, lying discarded and forgotten amidst the expanse of carpet was a small, white chess piece. She reached down and gently caressed it, trailing her fingers along the fine curves etched into the wood. It was her queen.
~ Part 4 ~
Outside, clouds broiled and tumbled through the sky, casting a smothering shadow across the Council grounds. Gazing out into the dreary grayness, Rowena could hear a low, distant rumbling. Storm’s coming, the thought broke idly into her consciousness.
Behind her, reflected in the large, arched windows of the library, sprawled rows upon rows of silent books.
When she was a child, Rowena used to love sneaking into her father’s small library. As a hard-working fisherman, he didn’t have much time to read. In fact, he wasn’t much of a reader at all. He did, however, have his small, cherished collection that he would occasionally delve into on a stormy evening. When she thought her father wasn’t watching, little Ro used to tiptoe into his library and gently shut the door. Often, she would curl up into his big armchair and thumb through the dry, yellowing pages, soaking up every last word. But sometimes she would just stand and gaze at the small cluster of books, lying in wait upon dusty shelves. She’d trail her fingers along their soft leather spines, and she would marvel at the way they seemed to breathe with their hidden depths.
Now, with her back to the incredible multitude of books that slept within the Council’s great library, she found a brief comfort in the humbling memory.
"There’s my favourite Watcher," a jovial voice announced behind her.
A smile graced Rowena’s lips before she turned around and locked eyes with her friend.
"And there’s my favourite carpenter," she laughed, giving Xander a tight hug. When she released him, her expression grew mischievous. "Although, I’m sure I can think of at least one Watcher that you prefer over me."
Xander’s eyes glazed over for a moment as visions filled his poor, sex-deprived brain. Naked Willow. Naked Ro. Naked Willow "over" naked Ro. He shook his head, snapping right back out of the gutter. Buffy’s voice filtered through his mind, surfacing from a simpler time, God Xander, is that all you think about? Rowena, of course, remained oblivious to the effect of her innocent words.
"No way," Xander waved off her comment, his eyes twinkling with mystical energy. He grew quiet, a sincere smile curving the edges of his mouth. "It’s good to have ya back."
"Thank you," Rowena replied, averting her eyes as she remembered her earlier thoughts. I should never have returned.
Xander saw Ro begin to pull into herself. He noticed the redness around the Watcher’s eyes and berated himself for not noticing earlier. He guided her towards a more secluded area between the stacks of books
He gently lifted her chin. "Hey, you gonna tell me what’s wrong?"
Rowena glanced away again, embarrassed by Xander’s exaggerated gentleness. He’s tiptoeing around my feelings, as if I’m some fragile, time bomb of distress that might explode at any moment… But then, maybe that’s exactly what I am. She gave a frustrated sigh, annoyed by her own weakness.
She glanced back at Xander, who waited patiently, looking genuinely concerned. And in the end, it was just gazing into those caring, multi-hued eyes of his that did it. An invisible barrier seemed to burst within her and all of her insecurities came tumbling out. "I should never have come back. I left for a reason, after all. I needed to get myself sorted out, work through some issues." She paused and glanced at Xander. He wore the same expression as before, non-judgmental and deeply compassionate.
"I loved Willow, but I just couldn’t be with her. Not then. Obviously not now. Maybe not ever." By this point, tears were streaming down her face. "I thought I was ready, but I guess I’m not," she barked out a self-deprecating laugh, "I mean, God! Look at me! I’m such a mess!"
Xander tried to comfort her, but she shook her head and continued her rant. "Willow has enough emotional baggage of her own when it comes to relationships. The last thing she needs to deal with is all of mine, as well." She wiped away at her tears, and accepted Xander’s offered handkerchief. "Maybe it’s for the best," she sniffed, "now that Willow’s found someone else. I could just leave quietly, and let Willow be happy."
"Whoa," Xander put up his hands to stop her, "and here’s where I cut in to say ‘Be kind, rewind.’ First off, can I just point out that in no way would you leaving ever make Willow happy? Secondly," he emphasized, "who gave you the idea that Willow’s found someone new?" He interrupted her as she began to speak, "and before you start telling me about her new chess partner, I should remind you that she’s only been here for all of a few hours. I know Will’s been lonely, but I don’t think she’s that desperate. Besides, demons are more my type, anyway," he finished with an ironic grin.
Rowena glanced at Xander sideways as she tried to process this new information. She shook her head to clear her thoughts and focused in on his first question. "Kennedy made it seem as though they had… a history." She furrowed her brow. "You’re telling me she only just arrived today?" Suddenly his final point sank in, "Wait… she’s a what?"
Willow remained transfixed, staring down at the chess piece in her hands. She hadn’t moved since finding it. For the first few moments, Illyria had observed her with an almost clinical curiosity, but eventually she’d adorned a cool look of disdain. Finally she grew bored and moved towards the witch.
"Humans are the oddest of creatures. I can sense your soul weeping, seeping through you like a blackened river of anguish. And over what? This trifling wooden object of no consequence?"
Willow glanced between the chess piece in her hand and the Ancient Being standing in front of her. She looked like she was going to be sick.
"This," she waved the chess piece in front of Illyria’s face, "has nothing to do with anything." To make her point, she angrily threw the queen across the room. Once the object left her hand, she immediately felt its loss. She closed her eyes and gave a dejected sigh. Her shoulders slumped and she whispered, "I love her," as if that explained everything.
Illyria cocked her head to the side. "There it is again. This concept – Love." She almost spat the word. She paused, then admitted, "I do not understand the significance of this. It is nothing but a few passing moments of bliss, and yet whole worlds seem to worship the very notion of Love. Kings have waged bloody wars and champions have slain both friends and enemies alike, all for Love. It permeates through your kind’s notion of culture – it is found in song and dance, and throughout the written word… And yet Love, this curious concept, remains nothing more than transient and intangible."
By the time she had finished, Willow wore a look that bordered on pity and understanding. Without warning, she stepped towards her once-friend and gave her a searing kiss. Her hands tangled into blue-streaked hair as her lips massaged and suckled those of the other woman. She poured every ounce of herself into that one passionate encounter. Willow broke the kiss and stepped back gently, out of breath. "Love can be very tangible," she stated softly. She walked over to where she had thrown the queen. Leaning down, she tenderly picked it up and placed it in her pocket. Without glancing back at Illyria’s motionless figure, she left in search of Rowena.
"A demon," Xander nodded. "I’m right there with ya," he added, as Rowena continued to stare at him in shock. "I’ve actually been thinking of asking her out for a coffee." He gave a sheepish grin. "After all, there seems to be a shortage of straight, available women at the Council."
This seemed to snap Rowena out of her stupor, and she allowed an exasperated laugh to escape. "How do you know she’s straight?"
"Well, I don’t really. But it can’t hurt to ask. And I’m pretty sure Fred had a few relationships with men, so I figure the odds are in my favor."
Rowena just smiled and shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around the fact that the beautiful woman she had seen with Willow earlier was actually a demon. She looked at Xander questioningly. "How do you know all of this? You said she’s only been here a short time…"
"Yeah, I stopped in to see Willow earlier, and saw that she had company." Xander chuckled, "The meeting pretty much went along the lines of ‘Hey Will, aren’t you going to introduce me to your new frie- Holy God, you’re Fred!’"
Rowena’s eyebrows rose. "So you’d met her before, then?"
Xander nodded. "Right around when Sunnydale got turned into a glorified pot-hole. We stayed at Angel’s for a bit to regroup." He reflected, "Fred was really nice, I remember. Of course, I was still pretty much in a daze after Anya…" he broke off, then focused back on Ro. "I guess you never met her? Fred, I mean?"
Rowena shook her head. "Willow told me about her, though. Said she would’ve made an excellent Watcher if she hadn’t gone to work for Wolfram & Hart."
"Yeah," Xander agreed, "it would have been cool to have her around the Council."
Ro gave him a strange look. "But she’s here now…"
"Well, sure," Xander explained, "but from what I hear there’s not much of Fred left in that body of hers. Illyria’s pretty much stolen the driver’s seat. I mean, every now and then, she lets Fred out to play, but..." He trailed off as he realized that Rowena’s eyes had glazed over. "Um, hello?" He waved his hand in front of her face. "Earth to Ro."
The Watcher had gone pale. "Did you say Illyria?" Her voice trembled slightly.
"Yeah. She seems like a nice enough little demon, except for the bad dye job… I wonder if she’s related to Brell?" he speculated.
Rowena gaped at his flip remarks. "Xander, Illyria is no ‘little demon.’ She’s one of the Ancient Beings, those who used to rampage the earth. They were captured and imprisoned in the Deeper Well, to be watched over by an immortal guardian." She started pacing, "but how could she have escaped without our knowledge?" She stopped in her tracks, a look of fear spreading across her face, "Oh my god, we have to warn Willow!"
"Okay, let’s not get carried away," Xander tried to reassure her. "We both know Willow can hold her own. I’m sure she’s not in any danger."
Ro was shaking her head. She walked numbly over to where the Opus Obscurum was kept locked up, and pulled it out. She flipped to a page and stared at it for a moment. With a deceptive calm, she placed the open book on a table in front of Xander.
"This is Illyria, in its native form," she indicated a depiction of a powerful, mystical being. "And this," she pointed to the vast league of deadly warriors that flanked the Old One, taking up the better part of both pages, "is her Army of Doom."
Xander looked from Rowena to the book, then back to the Watcher. "Um, Ro? Not to interrupt the dramatic, music-swelliness of the moment or anything, but we can handle this. We’ve dealt with Armies of Doom before." Xander pulled out a chair, and indicated for Rowena to have a seat, before sitting opposite her. "I don’t mean to trivialize this, but do you think this might have more to do with your insecurities with Willow?" Rowena just looked at him blankly.
"And I’m not saying that you’re being transfer-y or anything…" Xander hastened to explain, "You’re a Watcher – fighting demons is what you do." He took her hands in his, before continuing in a calm voice. "But maybe, by turning Illyria into the bad guy in all this, you’re avoiding the real issues… after all, this gives you something real, something tangible to battle, instead of having to confront the demons in here." He tapped her forehead playfully, a knowing smile on his lips.
Rowena gave a frustrated sigh, clearly not amused by his gentle teasing. "So maybe I’m being a little transfer-y, as you call it, but that doesn’t change the fact that Willow may be in danger!"
"I know you’re concerned for Willow, and I love you for that – but not in a sexual way, of course," he added hastily, with a devilish grin. He grew serious again. "All I’m saying is, we should try to keep some perspective on all of this. Okay?"
Rowena nodded mutely. "Good," Xander said, standing up. "Now go find that Witch of yours."
~ Part 5 ~
"Willow?" Rowena knocked softly on the door to her friend’s apartment. When there was no answer, she opened the door and peeked inside.
Standing alone in the center of the living room, with her back to the entryway, was a blue-streaked woman in tight leather. So this is what Xander meant by a bad dye job, she smirked. Brell’s relation, indeed. Against her better judgment the curious Watcher in her was fascinated by the transformation that the ancient demon had taken within Fred’s body.
As if deigning to address the new presence in the room, Illyria turned slowly and cast her blue-crystal gaze on Rowena. "The unstable human returns." She tilted her head, sizing up the Watcher. "I do not sense whiskey on your breath. Interesting."
Rowena bristled at the strange criticism. Before she could speak, Illyria continued, "It confounds me that the witch, one with such spirit, would ever choose such a seemingly weak human for a mate."
Rowena’s eyes flashed. She stalked towards the demon and hissed menacingly, "You stay away from Willow. You may be the all-powerful Illyria, with your fancy time-manipulation and all your little minions, but you have no idea who you’re up against. So you can just take your Army of Doom and shove it right up your –"
"Enough," the Ancient One intoned. She appraised the mortal. There was a fire in the woman’s eyes and her stance suggested that she was not afraid. Yet, Illyria realized, this human believes me to be in full power. And still she does not cower before me as others have. Pity.
"You may be worthy after all." Illyria reconsidered, "Or simply a fool."
Rowena looked indignant. "What’s that supposed to mean?"
Illyria shot her a cool glare. "I grow tired of your petty venom."
"Really." Rowena’s tone was unsympathetic. "You can grow tired of me all you like. But you will keep your hands off Willow."
At this, Illyria brought her fingers to her lips. They tingled with a recent memory. "My hands. Yes." She broke into a predatory smile.
Rowena staggered back, as if suddenly reminded of whom she was threatening. "R-right," she stammered. "Well, then."
At this momentary display of fright, Illyria’s smile widened and she indulged in the now-unfamiliar surge of power. "Your fear flatters me, flows through my wounds like a balm. But it is wasted." She turned her back and took a step towards the forgotten chessboard. She picked up a black pawn and idly traced its edges as she continued, "My army is long dead and I am a mere shadow of the magnificent being I once was. The great Demon-God Illyria has ceased to exist." She suppressed the grief of her lost influence. It was getting stale.
Rowena looked at her suspiciously, "So, you’re not going to start an apocalypse?" Illyria turned slowly around and faced the Watcher again. She offered nothing but a cold glare in response. The Watcher nodded. She seemed to have relaxed slightly. "And Willow?" she asked, holding her breath.
"If you prove worthy of the witch, I will pose no threat to you."
A moment of stillness passed over the two women as they stood staring at one another. Rowena watched, mesmerized, as Illyria shut her eyes and seemed to reach out with her mind, sending tendrils of herself outward to touch, scrutinize and absorb every molecule that resided in her midst and beyond. Her essence flowed past the confines of the room, the hallway, and out beyond the walls of the building.
"An electrical storm is coming," she stated. A feral grin spread across her lips. "I thrive in the unleashed fury and chaos, the display of innate power of the natural world."
Ro smiled softly. "You, too?"
Crystal eyes fell into gentle brown. "Your witch grieves. This does not please me. You may go to her." And with this dismissal, Illyria turned her back to Rowena and resumed her analysis of the release of oxygen from Willow’s hanging plant.
"So there I am, the dust hasn’t even settled yet, and Mia turns to me with those eyes of hers – I swear, I thought she was going to take me right there in the alley!"
"Get out!" grinned Faith, licking the ice-cream from her lips. "You know," she shook her spoon at Kennedy with a smirk, "I may have to take you two off patrol together. Wouldn’t want you getting distracted." She jumped off the counter, grabbed their empty bowls and headed to the sink. "So," she began over the running water, "how is it?"
"How’s what?" Kennedy played along.
"Do I really need to go into the birds an’ the bees? Or I guess in your case it would be the birds and the birds," her hands paused their movement under the tap, "which, now that I think about it, sounds a helluva lot more natural…"
"Not gonna argue there," Kennedy agreed, laughing at the other Slayer. She joined Faith at the sink and grabbed a towel to dry the bowls. She shrugged, "I dunno. It’s nice, I guess."
"Nice?" Faith’s eyebrows shot up. "Not my idea of a good roll in the hay."
"Don’t get me wrong. That girl is hot. And some of those moves…" Kennedy trailed off.
Faith turned off the sink and leaned back against the counter. "So what’s the problem?"
"It just hasn’t been…earth-shattering, you know? Not like –" She shut her mouth as Willow entered the kitchen, looking around as if hoping to find a third occupant.
"Hey, have you seen Ro?"
Faith shrugged. "Sorry, Red. Not since she arrived." Kennedy remained quiet, placing the dishes back in the cupboard.
"Did you try her apartment?" the older Slayer asked.
"Yeah, her bags were there, but…"
"But no Ro." Seeing Willow’s dejected frown, Faith continued, "Did you check the Watcher’s lounge? Or maybe she went to visit Xander or Giles…"
The witch was shaking her head. "I ran into Giles, but he hasn’t seen her either." She sighed, "I’ve looked everywhere."
"That case, I got nothin’." Faith looked over at Kennedy, who had watched the whole exchange quietly.
When both pairs of eyes fell on her, Kennedy shrugged. "I did see her in the hallway earlier," she offered, "but she could be anywhere by now."
"Oh well, thanks." Willow gave a weak smile, and moved towards the door to continue her search.
"Will, wait." The redhead turned around at her ex-girlfriend’s plea. Kennedy approached her with her hands shoved deep in her pockets. She glanced back at Faith, who suddenly seemed captivated by the contents of the cutlery drawer. She turned back to Willow, who waited patiently with one hand on the open door.
"So, um. How are things? With you, I mean? You know, now that she’s come back?"
Willow gave Kennedy a sad smile. "I-I really don’t know." She picked at the hem of her sleeve. "I just…" she sighed, as if suppressing a sob, "I just need to find her."
"I get that," Kennedy nodded. She reached for Willow’s hand and studied the curves of her delicate fingers for an instant. She glanced back into hazel eyes and said, "Good luck."
Willow’s face blossomed into a sincere smile. "Thanks."
With a final squeeze, Kennedy released her hand. The kitchen door flapped open and shut, revealing flashes of red as she watched Willow sweep out of her life again and again and again.
With a sigh, Kennedy turned around and noticed Faith setting two bowls on the counter and scooping mounds of chocolate ice cream into them.
"What’re you doing? We just cleaned those."
Faith draped her arm across her sister-slayer’s shoulders. "I figure, with our crazy metabolism, there’s always room for more ice cream."
~ Part 6 ~
After leaving Illyria, Rowena took a slight detour. She walked the Council
grounds, breathing in the unreleased static energy that hung suspended in the
air. Leaves swirled beneath her feet, and trees whistled from above. She held
her arms tightly to herself to block the growing wind. Needing a quiet space to
work through her emotions, she had resorted to the familiar, deceptive calm of
the outdoors in the hours before a storm.
During these habitual walks, Rowena could usually descend into a sense of serenity. Today, though, her thoughts were anything but calm. They swirled around inside her head, mimicking the wind-blown leaves at her feet. The Canadian Watcher knew she should really be looking for Willow. With Illyria no longer a threat, it was about time that they worked out this mess that lay between them. But Rowena had no idea what she was going to say to the witch. I should apologize for being jealous of Fred… of Illyria. The Watcher nodded. That’s a good start. Then I can tell her how I feel. Whatever that is. She sighed. I can’t believe I got all bent out of shape over a silly game of chess!
She stopped in her tracks. The cool breeze stung her face, making her eyes water. What am I doing out here, while Willow is inside thinking that I’m angry with her? She began striding back towards the Council building. With each step, the urgency to make amends flared like a surge of lightning. She picked up her pace. I need to tell her how sorry I am. For leaving. For being so stupid... so scared. She was practically running now. I need to tell her that I love her.
She was inside, bounding up the spiraling staircase two steps at a time. How very lady-like. The absurdity of this thought was a welcome reprieve from the tumultuous whirlwind of possibilities and doubts running through her mind.
She slowed as she reached the hallway leading to their suites. It struck her that she didn’t even know where to look for Willow. She rounded a corner and stopped dead in her tracks. Never mind. There, sitting against the doorframe to Rowena’s apartment, was Willow. She sat with her knees tucked up under her chin, giving off a deceptive air of quiet patience. The witch glanced up, noticed the other Watcher staring at her, and scrambled to her feet.
"I-I was looking for you," Willow stammered, "but when I didn’t find you, I thought I’d just wait here ‘til you got back…" She indicated the spot where she had been sitting. Her brow creased and she glanced back at Ro as if unsure of what to do or say next. The other Watcher still hadn’t said a word.
Rowena had prepared for this. Granted, it had been within the last two, frenzied minutes, but she had planned out exactly what she was going to say, and how. But as she stood before Willow, all thoughts and grand speeches of love seeped from her mind. All that was left was a deep ache as she gazed into infinite hazel eyes.
"God, I missed you." The words tumbled from Rowena’s mouth as she swept forward into Willow’s embrace and captured her lips in a passionate kiss.
At that moment, a group of five young slayers appeared at one end of the hallway. Those at the back of the group bumped into the ones in front, who had stopped abruptly upon seeing the two Watchers locked in embrace. "C’mon," Marsha shepherded them along, tugging at a few who stared slack-mouthed at the couple. "Nothin’ to see." As she passed, she caught Willow’s eye and winked, a huge smile plastered to her face.
Willow was mildly mortified. She gently pulled away, instantly missing the contact, and glanced down the hall. "Not that I don’t love these public displays, but, um, maybe we should step inside?" She smiled at Ro, arching her eyebrows.
Rowena blushed. "Good idea." She opened the door and Willow slipped in behind her.
"So, um," Willow began, nervously glancing around the apartment and avoiding Rowena’s gaze. "I take it you’re not still upset about Illyria? ‘Cause really, she means nothing to me." Her brow furrowed. "Well, not nothing, nothing… I-I mean I’m friends with her a-and I was pretty close with Fred… But she’s just not the kind of something that I want you to be. That I want us to be. You know?" she glanced up at Ro with a beseeching look. Suddenly, her eyes grew wide, remembering something. "Oh!" she exclaimed, digging in her pocket and pulling out a small white object. She cupped the chess piece in both hands and then proffered it to Rowena.
"This game," she nodded towards the queen in her hands, "this silly game just isn’t the same without you." She spoke as if she were reciting a speech. "Don’t you get it? It’s not just about this one chess piece. It’s you. You are my queen." Willow blushed, "and that sounded a lot less cheesy in my head."
The Canadian Watcher looked down at the offering and smiled wistfully. "Oh, Willow," she covered the witch’s hands in hers, closing their fingers around the small wooden piece. "Thank you." She leaned in and caught Willow in another kiss, wrapping her arms around the slender woman.
Willow was surprised, but quickly reciprocated Rowena’s attentions. She brought one hand to the back of Ro’s head and the other to the small of her back, pulling her closer. Her fingers tangled into red-brown locks, and she sighed as she felt Rowena’s tongue slip tentatively inward. Willow grabbed Ro’s tongue with her lips and began sucking greedily, inciting a moan from the other woman.
As if shocked by her own responses, Rowena broke the kiss abruptly. She turned away from Willow, placing one hand on the doorknob to steady herself.
With fear in her eyes, Willow whispered, "Please don’t leave."
On his way to the workshop, Xander came across Kennedy and Tracey peeking conspiratorially into a slightly ajar doorway. He walked up behind them and glanced inside. "Whatcha guys lookin’ at?"
"Sweet Jesus!" Kennedy exclaimed, as Tracey jumped back from the door and looked guiltily at Xander. "Didn’t anyone ever teach you not to sneak up on a slayer?"
"You know, she’s got an excuse," he countered, nodding towards Tracey. "But for a slayer, you sure are easy to sneak up on." He wore a grin of triumph.
Kennedy arched an eyebrow and crossed her arms, but didn’t respond.
"So, what was so interesting?" Xander asked, peeking inside.
"Nothing," the Slayer replied indignantly, embarrassed at being caught eavesdropping. Without glancing back at the doorway, Kennedy turned to leave. "It’s not like I was captivated or anything… it was just funny, that’s all," she mumbled in her exit.
"Uh huh," Xander said distractedly as the scene within caught his attention.
"…it’s not even like you’re that blue, really," a voice filtered towards them. "Now, Aayla Secura, this really kick-ass Jedi Knight from the Old Republic – she was blue! Or more of a deep cerulean…"
As the whiny human rambled on, Illyria stared at him with a blank expression, her head tilted to one side.
"Of course, unlike Secura, most female Twi’leks were doomed into slavery. They were forced to expose their very souls through their sensual dancing, for creepy, powerful men." Andrew shook his head ruefully. When he got no response from the Ancient One, he tried again. "So, have you ever watched the Smurfs? I always thought Gargamell was just misunderstood. And kinda lonely…"
From the doorway, Xander shook his head in disbelief. He leaned over and whispered in Tracey’s ear, "You know, most Twi’leks aren’t even blue. Some are –"
"All kinds of colours," Tracey nodded knowingly. "Like Lyn Me, for example, who’s sort of a lavender-white, or even Ayy Vida, who’s green with dappled-brown stripes."
Xander’s jaw dropped. "Marry me."
Tears streamed down her face as Tracey tried unsuccessfully to muffle her laughter.
"Please don’t leave." Willow’s plea hung in the air, laden with fear and need.
Rowena turned back around, a sad smile on her face. "Never," she said reassuringly. She scrunched her brow. "But I think I need for us to take things slow."
"Slow," Willow nodded. "I can do slow. It still means forward, and forward is good…" Her expression grew panicked. "It does mean forward, right? I mean, I don’t want to assume…"
"Definitely forward," Rowena acknowledged, gently touching the witch’s lips with her fingers to assuage her. "It’s just… I think I’m scared. I suppose some would call it a ‘fear of intimacy,’ but it goes deeper than that."
Rowena stepped towards Willow and took both hands in hers. "Will, there’s something…" she broke off as if unsure whether she should keep going. Making up her mind, she began again: "There’s something I need to tell you, something I should have let you know a long time ago." She bit her lip, faltering.
Willow squeezed her hand reassuringly. "It doesn’t change anything," Ro went on, "it’s just sort of a… an explanation, I suppose, for my actions before – when I left for England." She dropped her gaze. "When I left you," she whispered.
Rowena released their clasped hands and turned to look out the window. The storm outside was still building, gradually stalking closer. The council grounds were eerily still in the overcast dimness, lit by a faint glow with the occasional flash of distant lightning. It reminded Rowena of the gathering of a giant wave, drawing in and back, before crashing down in a cloud of thunder. It wasn’t raining yet – that would come later.
"Was it the gay thing?" Willow’s voice made Rowena snap her head around. The witch continued tentatively, "Cause I-I sorta figured that’s what it was. I know you said before that it wasn’t, but I know how hard it can be to come out to yourself, let alone to others…" she trailed off, noticing the other Watcher shaking her head.
"That wasn’t the problem," Rowena explained. "Well, maybe a little at first, but I think Althenea helped me to realize that it wasn’t really the root of my… hesitations."
"Okay," Willow nodded, clearly confused. "So, what was it then?"
"W-well," Ro began tentatively, "remember when I told you that I wasn’t meant to find someone? That it was… complicated?"
Willow nodded sadly. "And I snapped back, saying it was actually quite simple..." She wore a pained expression. "I’m sorry I didn’t listen."
"You were upset," Rowena shrugged. "Plus, I was pretty vague. Under similar circumstances, I probably would have had just as hard a time reading between the lines."
"Well, I’m listening now." Willow wore a patient, caring expression.
Rowena took a deep breath. I can do this. "I-it’s complicated because… there was an incident." She broke off for a moment, but continued bravely, "that seems to enjoy coming back to haunt me," she stated dryly. Willow frowned in confusion, but remained silent.
"It happens whenever I let myself become intimate with someone…" Ro struggled to explain. Willow had to strain to catch her next words, spoken barely above a whisper. "I-I hear voices." And more loudly, self-deprecatingly: "God, this sounds so stupid…" Rowena rubbed at her eyes in frustration.
"It’s not stupid," Willow countered. "Please, I… I want to understand."
Rowena continued quietly. "These voices… they whisper, and scream at me," she choked out. "They tell me that I’m dirty, and worthless, over and over."
Willow’s face was stricken. "What?" She cupped Ro’s cheek in a tender caress. "Why? How could anyone ever think that?"
With one quick look into Willow’s encouraging eyes, the Canadian Watcher began her story. "It happened back at the Academy…"
As Rowena talked, Willow nodded occasionally, deeply engrossed in the other woman’s narrative. At one point, the witch’s hand went silently to her mouth and her brow creased. As always, there was love in her eyes as she gazed upon Rowena, but there was also a hint of darkness lurking beneath the surface, and something else – something new. It crept through gradually, and by the end of Ro’s telling, a new light seemed to have blossomed in Willow’s eyes. It was a deep respect for Rowena’s unimaginable strength.
~ Part 7 ~
A crack of thunder ripped through the sky. The wind screamed as it pelted leaves and small debris through the light drizzle that was only just beginning to fall. The window panes shook under the howling onslaught of wind and the branches of a nearby tree whipped against the glass.
Inside, the growing storm was muffled to a dim murmur. The relative quiet was broken by the dull clacking of two-inch heels on tile, mingled with the softer shuffle of a second pair of flats. The owners of said shoes walked down the echoing hallway hand in hand. Willow gave Rowena’s hand a light squeeze and was rewarded with a gentle squeeze in return.
After a few more steps, Rowena glanced at Willow to notice that the redhead was watching her. The Canadian blushed under the tender gaze, averting her eyes down to the tiled floor before glancing back up in time to catch the most radiant smile on her companion’s lips. As a grin slowly spread across Rowena’s face, she was distracted by the sound of a lilting voice that carried from down the hallway, gradually gaining in volume. Willow quirked her eyebrows at Ro, who responded with a soft chuckle.
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
As the voice grew louder, Rowena slipped her hand from Willow’s and took the slightest step away, missing the sharp look of confusion from the redhead. Willow’s attention was drawn back to the voice as it swelled in climactic fervor.
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it myyyy waaaaaay
Faith appeared from the end of the hallway, her mouth still open wide in crescendo. Noticing the two Watchers staring at her with matching smirks, she paused and then flashed them her trademark grin. "I see you two found each other," she gestured between them before placing her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.
Rowena glanced nervously away, earning another worried look from Willow. The witch nodded and cleared her throat, turning back to Faith with a teasing grin. "So, what’s with the Sinatra?"
"Oh, you know," Faith rolled her shoulder, feigning nonchalance, "just a little somethin’ to keep me motivated…" she looked back and forth between Willow and Rowena, who both bit back laughter. "What, I can’t have layers? Oh, hey Will," she quickly changed the subject, "I think Blue wants to see you."
"Oh!" Realization swept across Willow’s features. "I kinda forgot about her…" She gave Faith a sheepish look and then glanced towards Rowena, to catch a blush rising in the other Watcher’s cheeks. "Um, did she say what she wanted?"
"Nope," Faith shrugged. "Last I saw, she was moping in the library an’ Andy was giving her an earful."
Willow’s eyebrows crept towards her hairline, but she refrained from inquiring further. Instead, she turned to Rowena. "So, I guess I should…" she motioned towards the library, a silent question left in the air.
Rowena nodded quickly. "Yes, of course. We can start that indexing later on, just come by my place once you’re done with Illyria."
Willow gave a grateful smile, reaching out to gently squeeze Rowena’s arm before heading off down the hallway with an extra little sway in her step. Once the redhead was out of sight, Rowena turned back to see Faith regarding her with a knowing grin.
"So…" Faith began mischievously, nodding in the direction Willow had gone, "indexing?"
Rowena blushed and gave an awkward smile. "Well, you know how it is. I leave for a few short months and come back to find everything in shambles…" she trailed off lamely.
Faith simply nodded, a smile teasing at her lips.
Willow slipped silently through the massive library doors. At first glance, the large hall appeared to be empty. No watchers doing life-or-death research, no slayers struggling to complete last-minute homework assignments. Not a soul. As she was about to leave, Willow caught a flash of blue through one of the stacks. With a hint of a smile, she softly approached Illyria.
The Ancient Being was standing amidst a row of books, her back to the redhead. She didn’t turn around, or make any indication of Willow’s presence. Her head tilted to one side, as if listening to a silent, mournful song. Her body remained taut, transfixed.
Finally, she spoke: "So, this is what it means to be human."
Willow glanced at the titles of the nearest books. "Uh, you’re standing in the scaly-demon section."
At this, Illyria turned slowly and glared at her. A deep voice pierced through Willow’s mind. Do not presume to understand my methods, Witch.
The redhead put her hands up in a show of peace. Illyria continued out loud. "This place breathes, pulses with the past. Voices sing and scream and weep through written words." Emotionless, her voice held no hint of a cadenced timbre as she recited: "‘Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’"
It took Willow a moment to place the quote. "Oh, Dylan Thomas!" Her face registered surprise. "You’ve read him?"
Illyria ignored her. "And you do, don’t you? Sing in your chains? You glow with it – your humanity, your mortality. It is harsh and sickening, yet strangely poetic."
Willow paused before replying. "Yes, I suppose our mortality is harsh," she began slowly, struggling to find the right words to express herself. "But it also gives us something to fight for. There’s something… urgent… precious… in knowing that some day, we’re all going to die. And I suppose that makes us try to live our lives to the fullest."
Moments passed as the Ancient One stood contemplating Willow’s words, regarding her with cool precision.
"Wesley tried to convince me to leave, once," Illyria stated, out of the blue.
"Um, okay?" Willow wasn’t sure where this was going.
"I told him of worlds of smoke and intangible half-truths, of torment and unnamable beauty. Opaline towers as high as small moons... insensate lust…" she broke off, as if caught in a memory. Willow wondered whether the Demon God was remembering the worlds, or the telling of them. Wesley had certainly changed since his bumbling time in Sunnydale, to be able to have such an effect on this blue-streaked god.
The witch snapped out of her thoughts as Illyria continued: "I could travel them all on a whim, moving across dimension portals as easily as stepping through curtains of rippling waterfalls. But now," she turned on Willow with a look of raw pain, "now I am bound to this earth, this body. I have no more influence over this world than do the slight wisps of wind from the ventilation system that you ignore as they move across the room. I am a luxury, unimportant and meaningless." Illyria’s breathing became ragged, as if suffocating from the confined space. After a frenzied moment, she grew startlingly calm, her crystal eyes penetrating into Willow’s. "You will help me."
Under Illyria’s intense gaze, Willow began to fidget. "I-I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking of me. To restore your power?" She looked questioningly into unmoving blue eyes. "O-or to send you to another dimension? ‘Cause even then, I’m not sure I have that kind of control…I-I mean, I can try. I’ve sent someone, well, it was me, really, or I guess a vampire version of me, to another dimension before, but…" her eyes furrowed as she glanced back up to Illyria’s expressionless face.
Willow took a breath. "What I’m saying is, I’m not sure it’ll work, or that it’ll work the way we want it to. That kind of power…" she trailed off, perplexed.
Illyria began to speak. There was a flash of lightning, quickly followed by the shattering roar of thunder. The lights in the great hall flickered off as gales of wind thrashed at the power lines outside. In the eerie dimness, faint shadows slanted across Illyria’s face and Willow’s breath caught in her throat. In that brief instant of failed light, the Ancient Being could almost be mistaken for the shy, eager young woman whose body she had consumed. In the following silence, the emergency lights came on, casting a dim glow on the two women.
Willow’s eyes were large, as if she had just seen a ghost, or as if shocked by a sudden revelation. Or perhaps both. Refocusing on Illyria, she spoke softly. "I think I have an idea."
With a level gaze, the demon considered the woman before her, saying nothing. The silence was broken by faint rumblings, the grudging reverberations of a petulant thunder god who refused to be so easily ignored.
~ Part 8 ~
Three pairs of eyes gazed through the glass of the large council windows. Their view distorted by curtains of rain, they could just make out the silhouettes of five figures forcing their way through the tumultuous downpour towards the relative safety of the gazebo.
"Explain to me again why they’re going to all this trouble to send her away on some inter-dimensional holiday, when she just got here?" Dawn asked skeptically. "And not only that," she frowned, "but it has to be performed tonight – on a night of quite possibly the biggest storm since Noah built his arc!"
"I still say sitting around with flashlights and telling ghost stories is a much better way to wait out a power failure," Andrew pouted.
Rowena remained silent, her arms folded across her chest and her face expressionless.
"Why don’t they just perform the spell in the coven room," Dawn pushed, "like sane people?"
Rowena kept her eyes fixed intently on the events outside as she broke her silence, "Because they’ll be able to draw more power from the storm this way."
The rain pelted on the roof of the gazebo, creating a steadily pounding rhythm that drowned out the occasional low rumbling of thunder. Falling from the edges of the roof, the rain came down like a sheet and created an elusive barrier as intermittent bursts of wind tore at it, pulling the rain into the tenuously dry shelter.
"Thanks for helping with this," Willow panted, wiping the water off her face as they reached the gazebo.
"No prob," Faith replied easily, wringing her hair out. "Not entirely sure why you need me to help with this witch-fu, but you know I’m always willin’ to lend a hand."
Xander’s eyes glazed over for a moment. He shook his head, "Ok, I’m back."
"Huh?" Willow glanced at him, confused.
"Sorry, I went to a happy place," he explained, with a slightly guilty look. "The image of Faith… lending you a …hand," he trailed off sheepishly. Willow rolled her eyes.
"Not that kinda hand," Faith smirked. "Not that I’m saying you’re not doable, or anything," she turned to Willow and gave her an appreciative look.
Standing apart at the edge of the gazebo, Illyria watched the entire exchange with an air of cool distraction. She had one arm extended out, caressing the rain that fell beyond the covering.
"Yes, well," Giles cleared his throat, wiping the raindrops off his glasses. "Shall we get back to the matter at hand? Er, to the spell," he clarified, blushing.
"Run through this again for me?" Xander asked, kneeling down and opening the bag that held the ingredients. He passed five candles to Faith, who began placing them around in a circle.
"It’s a variation on the joining spell we did with Buffy, to defeat Adam," Willow explained, taking the powdered herbs from Xander and pouring two concentric circles, one small enough for a single person the stand inside, the other wider, stretching beyond the ring of candles. Inside the smaller circle, she chalked out a pentagram.
"Each of us embodies a certain primary characteristic, and in turn, these characteristics act as connections to each of the elements. For example, Giles represents the mind, which is associated with air." She lit the first candle, and handed it to him. "Faith represents the body, so she’s the earth." She passed the second lit candle to the Slayer.
"So my high school sweetheart was right," Faith joked, gently taking the candle from Willow, "I am dirt."
"How sweet," Xander said sympathetically.
Faith shrugged, "I’m over it."
"Xander, your heart and emotion links you to water," Willow continued, handing him his candle. "And my spirit makes me fire," she declared, shielding the flickering flame of her own candle from the wind.
"So, what part does blue-eyes play in all this?" Faith asked, nodding towards Illyria.
"She’s the fifth element," Willow stated, indicating for the demon to stand in the center circle.
"Of course," Xander nodded. "Why was I expecting an orange-haired Milla Jovovich?"
"Willow," Giles cut into Xander’s light banter, "how can we be sure there won’t be a similar attack by the first Slayer again?"
"I’ve manipulated the spell," Willow assured. "It shouldn’t call on the power of the entire Slayer line like our last joining spell. The power should come directly from the storm… I hope," she smiled tentatively. Giles took a deep breath and nodded.
"Well, just in case, I’m renting D.E.B.S. before going to sleep tonight," Xander grinned. "If that slayer chick is gonna make our dreams go all Salvador Dali, I plan on dying a happy man."
"You want to dream that you’re a sexy spy in a school-girl outfit?" Willow chuckled.
Xander folded his arms. "I could be a lesbian," he retorted.
"I guess then you’d die a happy woman," Willow patted his arm.
"Watch your candle," he rebuked, sticking his tongue out as wax spilled on Willow’s hand.
Faith leaned towards Giles. "Aren’t ya glad you don’t work with teenagers any more?"
"Lord, I don’t know why I ever gave up being a librarian," the older Watcher sighed. "The children stayed well away."
Quiet chuckles could be heard from all corners, fading softly until the only sound was the drumming of the rain. Having eased their tensions with their usual pre-fight banter, the group descended into an expectant stillness.
"Okay, are we ready?" Willow looked around the circle at each individual. Faith met her gaze and nodded once, rolling her shoulder in an attempt to focus her energy. Xander, his face suddenly serious, gave a brief thumbs-up. Giles nodded slightly in acknowledgment, closing his eyes. Finally, her gaze fell on Illyria.
The Ancient One had remained deadly silent throughout the preparations. Now she stood in the center of the inner circle, looking out at the storm, a statue poised with utmost grace. She turned her head slowly towards the waiting Witch. Crystal eyes locked with hazel. A voice broke through the howling of the wind, calm and distant. "Let us begin."
"They’re ready," Rowena whispered, clutching her arms about herself. All three observers leaned imperceptibly towards the window, breath hitched in anticipation.
From across the distance, they could see Willow begin to chant. Inexplicably, the wind began to swirl away from the red haired woman, creating a sphere of stillness as a torrent of rain and leaves spiraled outwards beyond the expanding barrier.
"Goddess," Rowena breathed, looking out across the grounds. Reaching as far as the ends of the horizon, the storm seemed to be pulled in an intensifying current that coiled about the Council in a slow orbit. A small pinpoint at the center, the gazebo was shielded by the sphere created by the sorceress.
Inside the calm barrier, five pairs of wide eyes took in the awesome sight beyond the circle, where wind, rain and lightning all converged. In the quiet space, Giles’ voice rose in a solemn chant.
"By the grace of the mind,
As intellect and reason breathe with life,
And merge with the wind,
I summon Air."
Suddenly, the barrier gaped open, letting in gushes of wind. Amidst the scream of the overpowering gale, Giles’ voice slowly faded.
There is a box, large and ornate. An unremarkable gem rests on its heavy lid. The gem is dull and clouded with age. A slender hand – my hand – reaches out, touches it. A cloud of dust bursts from an opening in the sarcophagus and is sucked through my windpipe. I taste power.
"By the strength of the body,
As muscle and bone rise from dust,
And nourish the forests,
I summon Earth."
As Faith completed her chant, leaves and debris broke the barrier to join the surge of wind.
We are standing in the stairwell. Lorne starts to sing, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine." I look into the face of my beautiful man. I smile, and continue the verse, "You make me happy…" And then there is blood, so much blood.
Before Xander had even begun, rain pelted into the clearing, soaking them all and very nearly putting out their candles. Xander attempted to shield the flame with his hand. Relieved that it seemed to be staying lit, he quickly recited his part.
"By the warmth of the heart,
As love and compassion flow through blood,
And spill into oceans,
I summon Water."
"She was such a little girl that one did not expect to see such a look on her small face…" His voice is deep and rich as he reads to me. "The fact was, however, that she was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to." It soothes me as I lie in my bed, dying. "She felt as if she had lived a long, long time." Through his voice, I feel peace.
"I walk with heroes. Think about that." I try to be strong, but it’s burning now. Searing heat flows through me, leaving a chill.
Wesley cries silent tears. "You are one."
"Superhero," I say, but it hurts. "And this is my power: to not let them take me." My voice, gaining in strength, hides the fear of the inevitable. "Not me."
The wind, leaves and rain gushed in a whirlwind about the five shivering figures. Above the din, Willow added her voice to the rising chaos.
"By the intensity of the spirit,
As energy and passion ignite the soul,
And burst into flames,
I summon Fire."
There was a blinding flash as a bolt of lightning streaked down from the heavens, straight into Illyria’s chest.
Back in the library, Willow took a breath. "What I’m saying is, I’m not sure it’ll work, or that it’ll work the way we want it to. That kind of power…" she trailed off, perplexed.
Lightning flashed as Illyria began to speak. "You misunderstand me, Witch." Her words rolled with the growling thunder, guttural and ancient. "I do not wish to be restored to power, nor to walk the lands of shimmering worlds." The lights flickered out. In the darkness, soft words could be heard. "I wish to be human."
The blast of energy threw the others backwards, breaking the circle. Almost immediately, the wind and rain ceased their attack, returning to the natural drone of drops beating on the roof. A silence settled. Willow tenderly rose to her feet and glanced towards the center, a guarded look in her eyes.
From their vantage point inside the Council, the three observers could just barely make out the still form that lay sprawled on the hard floor of the gazebo.
Andrew was the first to speak. "Does that mean it didn’t work?"
No one else said anything. "I mean," he continued, "she’s still here, right?"
Between the two women, Dawn was the first to break the silence. In a low, solemn voice, she asked, "They weren’t sending Illyria on some inter-dimensional vacation, were they?"
Rowena shook her head somberly in confirmation. Dawn processed this, looking down at the prone figure. Slowly, she nodded.
I am no stranger to fear, or isolation. Lost and alone in a cave for god knows how many years, in a harsh world where my kind was treated like cattle. No, I know what it means to be trapped. I am not unfamiliar with the invisible bars of a cage that squeeze inwards, suffocating, sucking the life out.
This is something else altogether. Something much worse.
There was a time when the thing ate through my flesh. Stripped me of my innards and rotted every last one of my organs. Raped me to the very depths of my being. My body became a marionette, manipulated at the whim of this unholy demon. Brown eyes pleaded and screamed, unheard through the harsh blue-crystal prison. Since then, that thing, that monster, managed to settle into me. An uneasy acceptance slowly developed. It evolved into a reluctant comfort, like a dirty and sodden, flea-ridden security blanket that could not, just could not be put down or relinquished. The borrowed power, limited as it was, became a source of cynical joy.
And now, even this is being ripped from me.
"F-Fred?" Willow asked tentatively, taking a step towards the figure lying in what remained of the powdered circles. She still wore the tight leather bodysuit, but there were no longer streaks of blue in her long, disheveled hair. The still body showed no sign of life.
They’re all dead. I remember now. Like flashes of realization, I can see each of them as they fall. Angel, his brave, puny sword raised too late as he’s consumed by a breath of fire. Spike, cutting swaths through the demons, struck almost in passing by a stray wooden spear, turning to dust and blowing away in a light breeze. Gunn, who never really stood a chance, fatally injured but fighting anyway to his very last.
And Wesley. Wesley dying in my arms. No, her arms. "This wound is mortal." Her voice, not mine.
"Aren’t we all?" He replies.
And then she lies to him. Pretends to be me, says he’ll soon be where I am. She lies.
Without warning, the woman’s head snapped upwards, startling the four Council members. Brown eyes darted around the circle, those of a wild animal searching for escape.
"Fred, it’s okay," the redhead stepped forward gently. "It’s me, Willow." She reached a hand out to touch the woman’s arm, but it was ripped away from her as hurtful eyes glared into her own.
"You did this to me," Fred’s voice was harsh and raw. She choked back a sob. "And… and they’re all dead." Her voice now carried the undertones of a scared child, "All of them." She glanced aimlessly around the clearing, a lost look in her soft brown eyes. "I should be dead," she finished weakly. And with a speed that surprised even the Slayer, she tore out of the gazebo. After only a few paces, she fell to her knees, her sobs racking her small body. She raised her face towards the heavens, and was cleansed by the pounding rain.
With a look of desperation, Willow made a move towards her fallen friend.
"Wait," Xander placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Let me."
Receiving a silent nod, he ventured out into the downpour towards the girl hunched and shivering in the wet.
"C’mon," Faith came up beside Willow, wrapping her arm around slender shoulders. "Let’s get inside. There’s nothing else we can do here." She nodded to Giles, and the three of them made their way through the rain back towards the Council building.
Reaching the safety of the indoors, Willow stopped just inside the open doorway and turned. With her arms crossed tightly against her chest, she stood gazing outwards through the thick curtain of rain. Out in the storm, a tableau seemed frozen in time. Unimposing yet determined, a man stood silently over the kneeling figure of a small, fragile woman. Wind tore through their hair and clothes. The woman’s face was raised towards the sky, soaking her cheeks with a salty mixture of tears and rain. Willow could just make out the look of desperation on the woman’s face as she looked, unseeing, into the caring eyes of a carpenter. She watched as he knelt beside the frail woman and, after a moment of hesitation, wrapped her in his strong arms.
Willow felt a warm presence envelop her, as Rowena wrapped a blanket over her shoulders and embraced her from behind.
"Hey," Willow whispered, her eyes fixed on the scene outside.
"Hey," Rowena breathed into her ear. "Stop blaming yourself."
Her brow creasing, Willow turned in Rowena’s arms to look directly into the Watcher’s eyes. "But, she’s… and now Fred…" Without finishing her thought, she turned back to gaze out into the mist. "Look at her, she’s a wreck!"
"Yes," Rowena acceded, "she does seem broken and afraid. For now. It’ll take her awhile to adjust, but it’ll be okay." She squeezed her arms around Willow in reassurance.
"But… with Buffy, it wasn’t okay." Willow stammered. "I tore her out of Heaven!"
"This is different," Rowena stated forcefully. And then softer, "It’s what she wanted."
"What Illyria wanted, you mean," Willow whispered. "I thought," she gulped back a sob, "I thought it was what Fred would’ve wanted, too. Apparently I was wrong."
"It’ll be okay," Rowena repeated softly, almost as if she were trying to convince herself.
Reluctantly, Willow nodded. She leaned back into Rowena’s embrace. Both women watched in silence as the two soaking figures rose and slowly made their way back towards the Council, back to the shelter and the warmth.
~ Part 9 ~
Long after Xander had guided Fred inside and up to the infirmary, the two women remained in the doorway, huddled together as they watched the rain fall in silence. They could hear a whispered debate going on behind them, and eventually Andrew approached tentatively, having apparently lost the argument. Dawn kept her distance, listening intently.
"So, um, this may sound like a dumb question," Andrew began, looking back towards Dawn, who encouraged him to continue, "but… I thought Fred was, y’know… gone. How did you bring her back?"
Willow turned in Rowena’s arms to face the young man. The fact that Rowena hadn’t moved away in the presence of someone else did not go unnoticed by the Witch. "She was never really gone," Willow stated quietly. "Just… suppressed."
Andrew thought about this as Dawn moved closer.
"Sort of the way Angelus was always inside of Angel?" the young woman asked. "But just, controlled? Never allowed to the surface?" Willow nodded.
"So then what was all that about an empty shell?" Andrew piped in, "And her brain collapsing and leaving electrical spasms, or something?"
"She lied." Willow shrugged, "Wouldn’t you, if you knew they’d kill you if they knew the truth?"
The two young coven members pondered this for a moment. "So," Dawn asked tentatively, "what happened to Illyria?"
"It’s sorta complicated." Willow explained slowly. "A part of her will always be with Fred. They’re intimately connected now, and that will never change."
"So she gets to feel what it means to be human." Rowena softly interjected.
Willow nodded. "But she isn’t completely limited to Fred’s body anymore." Willow looked outside, up towards the sky. "Her essence is everywhere. In the leaves, the rain…" she trailed off.
"The fifth element," Andrew breathed. "The ultimate warrior, what the ancients claimed to be the light of creation, able to bring life to the farthest reaches of the universe."
"But that’s just from the movie," Dawn broke in, skeptically. "Illyria’s nothing like that."
"You’re right," Andrew nodded sagely. "She’s different." He spoke in a voice that dripped with wisdom. "She transcends boundaries. She is one with Nature." Dawn snorted and rolled her eyes.
Willow paused, "Uh, something like that. Sure."
A smile spread across Andrew’s face, "Cool!"
Like a heartbeat, she was there, deep inside the human, thrumming through her very being, a soft, barely discernible murmur.
From within, she felt despair and anguish. These were feelings Illyria could understand. But buried beneath the surface, lying almost smothered under the pain, she could sense a brightness, something she couldn’t quite grasp. It burned low, an ember from a dying fire, but it was there, unmistakable. It was Love. And all it needed was a gentle breath of air, to coax and nourish it back to life.
So this is what we live for, Illyria thought, intrigued. She could feel it, this new sensation of life, of mortality… of humanity. And it seemed to wrap around her, a warm ray of hope. It was intoxicating.
Watching the pain pulse through the broken woman, Illyria wanted to return the favour. The act of comforting was alien to the Ancient Being, but she was determined to try. Her essence nuzzled into the crying girl, feeding her with the same hope and warmth that she herself had only just learned to trust. Almost reluctantly, the pain began to ebb, if only slightly. They stayed that way, supplying each other with strength for moments, or years, until their breathing slowed and deepened into a healing tranquility.
When her human slept, Illyria gently extricated herself. She left the bedside as a lover might, with a tender kiss so as not to disturb the slumber of her bright one.
And, like a ghost, she went outside to play.
Her essence drifted slowly, tingling with the anticipation of meeting an old friend. Almost timidly but with utmost resolve, she merged with the power of the natural world. And she was there, in the rustling of the leaves. She was the dappled shadow that moved across the base of the trees. She could whisper with the wind as it tickled through the grass and then rise up, howling to drive the rain that swept from the clouds. She rejoiced as she ripped across the sky in a clap of thunder and came crashing down in a blaze of lightning. She reveled in her own brilliance, her unleashed glory.
Finally, she was free.
~ The End ~
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