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Chapter Twelve

"...and these extremely vivid memories, known as flashbulb memories, tend to be formed when? Yes, Miss Rosenberg?"

"During times of intense emotion."

"And are they an accurate record of events?"

"Not necessarily. Any type of memory can become distorted over time, in order to fit the narrative our minds construct about what is true."

"Very well put. The world, as we perceive it, is subject to our own biases, rather than an objective reality. There are instances in which we cannot necessarily trust what our own perception tells us." The professor looks at her watch and frowns. "I seem to have kept you late. You're free to go, have a lovely weekend everyone."

As we join the students streaming into the hallway, Tara says, "How's Buffy doing?"

"Good!" I say, maybe a bit too brightly. "She made pancakes this morning, and we talked for a bit – it's nice, to see her more with the talking again."

I don't mention her reaction to the dream, which has been on my mind since the morning. After her cousin dying in hospital, and then her mom passing away so soon after coming home from her there... I can see why the mention of the place could affect her that way. Still, I'm not sure if it's because I'm on edge, but I got the impression there was something she wasn't telling me.

"What did you talk about?" asks Tara.

"That weird thing last night – oh, and we called Giles. We're meeting at six at the Magic Box today."

"Today? But I have my group project... hold on, I'll see if I can find Matt and Jen and reschedule –"

"It's okay, I don't want to make you change your plans. I can fill you in on what we talk about."

"Are you sure? If you're in danger that's more important than the project — I'll say something personal came up, they'll understand."

"Well, I don't want to mess up your schedule…"

"Wil, is there something you're not telling me?" She stops walking and I do too, missing the distracting of moving my legs. I fidget with my hands as I scroll through my mind for something to say. Before I find something, she says, "I know I'm not as strong as you, but I have been practicing magic since I was a kid. I'd like to at least try to help."

She is right. I need her there. And I'm going to have to tell her eventually. "I'm... sorry I didn't tell you everything. It wasn't because I doubted your magic skills." She looks at me, and I look back into her eyes, then away. "The dream I had... it was about you. I dreamed you got hurt."

I don't like how my voice comes out. All the anxiety I've been pushing down spills out through my lips.

"Hey," she says, touching my cheek. "It's okay. We'll figure out what's going on."

My first thought is that she doesn't believe me. That she doesn't think the dream is anything more than a regular nightmare. I'm not sure whether to feel hurt or grateful.

"You don't think it meant anything?" I say.

"I'm not sure," she says. "I was beside you when it happened, and the way you were shaking... it was pretty scary. But even if it did mean something, magical clues tend to be misleading – remember that story you told me, about when Buffy fought the master?"

I nod. It's a good point. Still, the bloody image of the dream has been floating in my mind's eye all day, making me feel deeply ill. I can't think of any way that scene could turn out okay in the end.

"Why would the powers want me to see that?"

"We don't know that it was them," says Tara. "Someone is after Buffy, and that makes us all targets. The dream could have been planted as a way to throw you off."

That... actually makes a lot of sense. And if it's true, it's been working – if I'd been thinking clearly, I would have already realized that was a possibility.

"You're taking this really well," I say.

She smiles softly. "I feel safe with you."

Giles, Buffy, Xander and Anya gather around as I describe the dream, Tara sitting beside me. Concern shows in her mouth and eyes as I talk, especially when I mention the gunshot. But she holds my hand as I tell the story, and her expression never shows the same dread pounding in my chest.

When I'm finished, Xander says, "Geez. Scary stuff."

Anya says, "What was that spell you did before you passed out? Maybe it had weird nightmare side effects – like pickles."

"It wasn't really anything," I say. "I just kind of mustered up a bunch of energy and... poofed it." I remember the feeling, slipping out of my skin and into a stream of energy. I must have been gone less than a second, but that time made the ordinary world look flat and colourless, a sketch on paper, compared to a world where even the air buzzed against my senses. I felt the constant motion of the atoms of my body, electrons spinning around my molecules, everything shaking and alive. I understood in physical terms how all my molecules and all those of the world around me were in constant motion, filling in each others' spaces, no separation.

I reached out to touch that energy like a bird bringing its wings down on a lake, prismatic droplets arching into flight. I cupped my hands beneath the night water and drew up as much magic as I could, heavy and black, the bright points of stars zooming in from every direction. And then I put myself back into my body, and I let the magic free.

"Poofed" doesn't really cover it.

Giles touches his hand to his forehead and the bridge of his nose as though he has a headache. "Willow, may I speak with you a moment in private?"

Despite the politeness, I know it isn't really a question. I follow him into the back room, while he tells the others, "We'll be back shortly, please continue this discussion."

Amongst the crates of magical imports, he says, "That was especially irresponsible. Calling upon magical forces without any plan not only leaves you prone to overexertion, it leaves an extremely visible energy signature. Any kind of supernatural threat could have been drawn to that kind of display."

"Well, then we could have fought them off!" I burst. "Which wouldn't have been an option if I'd done nothing and we'd died."

"We have all faced significantly more imposing foes and emerged unscathed. I know you feel you did what had to be done, and that is precisely what worries me." He looks at me in a way I'm not used to. It's not a teacher's expression, not even a disappointed teacher. It's the way my mom tries to look at me but never quite gets right.

He continues, "I have no doubts as to your ability as a witch. But you've been valuable in the fight against the forces of darkness since long before you developed those skills, and you will be no help to your friends if you become obsessed with raw power. The Willow Rosenberg I know is not merely a witch, but an intelligent woman and compassionate friend, both of which are more valuable attributes."

"Thanks," I say, "but isn't that the type of person you'd want to be using magic?"

"Yes. That is precisely why I fear you practicing if you lose sight of who you are."

"Are you really so worried that's going to happen?" I say, hurt.

"Unfortunately yes." He exhales and begins to pace. "Willow, when you resurrected Buffy, you crossed a threshold. And even if the end results were desirable –"

"You mean Buffy's life?"

"— if you convince yourself the ends justify the means, you will do far more harm than good!"

His eyes burn blue behind his glasses, and his intensity frightens me. I say, "What do you want me to do?"

"If I cannot dissuade your interest in dark magic, I will make damn well sure you know the consequences of these spells. I will lend you several texts on magical history, and you will come here every day at closing time having read them. Understood?"

"Yeah," I say, though I'm sure my confusion shows. Rather than a punishment, this sounds like the sort of thing I would already do for fun. And even if we're arguing, the high school self inside me is kind of flattered that Giles is letting me take home the magic texts he keeps such a close eye on.

"Good," he says. "Let us rejoin the others."

When we go back in the room, the others look up, and Anya takes it upon herself to break the awkward silence. "How did your private conversation go?"

Xander interjects before either of us have to answer. "We were just saying how Buffy was the one who caught Willow when she fell, so maybe some of Buffy's wonky dreams transferred over to Wil. Is that, a um, thing that happens?"

"You would have been susceptible to magical energy, having just exhausted yourself," says Tara. "Though Buffy's nightmares would have to have some kind of magical basis for that to be the case."

"You know I don't like to be blunt, but if they're not magical, why are we talking about them?" says Anya. "I have a recurring dream where I'm crowned Queen of the Shrimp, but you don't see me calling a meeting about it – and frankly, my dream seems much more likely than Buffy going to an institution and yelling about vampires."

"The closest thing we've got to a lead is what that demon said," says Buffy. "We know someone in Sunnydale is after us, we know they're human and they've got connections to the demon underworld. We get Spike to ask around at demon bars for anyone who's been hanging out with M'fashniks, and it should be a short list to follow up."

Everyone at the table looks expectantly at Giles, and he takes a moment to catch on. "Oh. Yes, that sounds like a reasonable plan. Though you're all adults, you don't need to ask my permission." That last sentence irks me, as apparently I'm the only one who needs tabs kept on her. I push down the part of me that wants to argue about that, remembering his strange intensity a few minutes ago.

He hands me several thick volumes, already bookmarked to certain chapters, and I wonder how long he's been thinking about this.