Career Advancement

Two Ladies of Quality


Tara finished lighting the candles and the incense, then turned off all the lights in the dorm room, just as the light of the full moon poured in through the open window. "Welcome, Blessed Mother," she whispered with a smile.

Willow was gone again, but Tara had decided not to let her girlfriend's unpredictability distract her from the rituals she loved. The turning of the year was coming, All Hallow's Eve, and tonight was the full moon closest to that date.

She had wanted to do this skyclad, but the realities of dorm life dictated that she be wearing something in case one of her neighbors thought it would be a good time to pull the fire alarm. A few days ago she'd mentioned to Willow that it would be nice to hold the Samhain ritual out in the woods, and Willow had eagerly agreed. But Willow had disappeared after her last class, and, well . . .

Tara opened the window and took a deep breath of the evening. Beyond the chattering people on the lawn outside, beyond the smell of the cars, beyond the streetlights, was the world. She closed her eyes and began to sing.

"Persephone went into darkness
The sun slides under the hill
The sea draws off from the shoreline
The world grows silent and still."

Her mother had taught her the words when she was a child, a song to mark all turnings and changes. Tara had whispered the lines at her mother's funeral, while the rest of the small church had sung about a stern God in his heaven who would damn you to hell if you didn't toe the line. Her father had always given her a pointed look during those hymns.

She knelt on the floor as she sang, holding her arms out to the moonlight. Magic drifted along her skin, turning about as the entire cosmos moved in an eternal spiral. Life flowed around her--Miss Kitty a small presence on the bed, Amy crouched in a corner of her cage with the spirit of a woman flickering amidst the tiny rat power. Outside, young life bounced and sparkled. Darker energy prowled nearby. Tara tried to care about possible danger, but she'd slipped away from her active mind when she had chosen to sail on the moonlight.

The Hellmouth churned, blanketing whole areas of the town in darkness. Spots of merry chaos dotted the area, flashes of red and yellow and, oddly, baby blue. Demons of various sorts. Some of them were violent and evil, others were just . . . other. A flare of fierce white shone in the middle of one gathering of chaos, a collection of yellow that rapidly shrank until the white stood alone. Tara urged a drift of protection towards the flare, and she felt Buffy look around in surprise.

Tara pulled away from consciousness of the active creatures. This was the time of year to pay tribute to the beloved dead. The moon and the calendar were out of sync, but the Wiccan year turned on the moons, and the old year ended tonight. Departed spirits traveled through the fainter realms, and there was one she missed badly--

The dorm room door opened and the lights flicked on. "Hi, honey, I'm home!" Willow called.

Tara gasped in shock, her mind skittering in all directions.

Willow turned off half the lights. "Oh, baby, I'm sorry!" She looked around the room. "What were you doing?"

"I--I was doing the Samhain ritual."

"I thought we were doing that together--was that tonight?"

Tara had to smile. "Yes, it was."

"Oh, I'm sorry!"

She got up off the floor and went to hug Willow. "Where were you?"

Willow bounced a little. "I got an idea in class, then I went to the Magic Box to look some stuff up."

"An idea for what?"

"For turning Amy back."

Tara looked over at the rat cage. Amy was sitting up and apparently paying close attention. "I saw her when I was in the ritual. The rat can hardly hold her."

"Oh, good, I was hoping for that." Willow dropped her bag on the bed and went to crouch down in front of the cage. "She wants to get back, but while she's a rat she doesn't have the means to do it. We just need to show her the way out." She unlatched the cage door, reached in for Amy, then placed her on the bed. "You be good," she said to Miss Kitty, who had come over to sniff. "Amy is not dinner."

"What will we need?" Tara asked, looking over the candles, then checking her box of herbs and simples.

"We shouldn't need anything." Willow knelt at the foot of the bed and put her hands around Amy. "I--I found a portal spell a while ago, and what I found at the Magic Box showed me how to modify it so that it can help someone like Amy. We just need to show her the way and give her an anchor." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Tara felt the power building. "Willow, wait--"

"Hecate," Willow whispered, "she called on you before, bring her back to the shape she had before."

Amy the rat began twitching and squeaking, with streams of light circling around her. The light started to take on the shape of a young woman, but the edges remained blurry.

"Ooo, darn it . . . Hecate, we beseech thee, return Amy to the way she was." The squeaks changed, becoming more human.

Tara felt the power around Willow moving, spinning faster. Miss Kitty dove off the bed and disappeared underneath. Papers over on the desks began to rustle in the physical wind.

"Hecate, darn it, let her go!" Willow snapped. "Don't think we can't make you!"

"Willow!" Tara gasped. "You can't just--" Willow reached out and grabbed one of her hands, and Tara went to her knees in shock as her own power was yanked into Willow's magical spiral.

The light around Amy solidified, hiding the rat from view. The cries were completely human.

"Change back!" Willow ordered. "Now!"

Horrified, Tara saw that her eyes had gone black, then the light exploded, knocking her and Willow to the floor.

They lay on the floor gasping for several seconds, then Willow lifted her head. On the bed lay a naked young woman, blinking back.

"I did it," Willow whispered. "I really did it!"

The next few minutes were chaotic. Amy crouched on the bed, darting frightened looks in all directions, cringing at the noises from the hallway and outside. Willow found a robe to drape around her naked shoulders, and it took Amy a few moments to remember to pull it around her. Tara stayed on the floor, her mind still whirling from the amount of power that had been flying around the room.

Willow finally dropped onto the bed next to Amy, grinning at her. "Hi! Welcome back!"

Amy stared at her, blinking. "Wil--Willow?"

"Yes, hi! How are you!"

"I--I was a rat."

"Yes, and now you're not."

Amy raised a slow hand up to her face, then turned her head to study her hand. She flexed her fingers for a few moments, watching them, then her gaze fell on Tara. "Who are you?"

Tara opened her mouth. "This is Tara," Willow answered first, "my roommate."

"Roommate." Amy looked around the room. "Is this--college?"

"Uh huh."

"I missed graduation?" Amy said forlornly.

"Oh, you didn't miss much," Willow shrugged. "Some vampires, some explosions, the mayor turned into a demon--you were safer in the cage."

Tara leaned forward and put a careful hand on Amy's foot. "Hi," she said softly. "How do you feel?"

Amy studied her for a while. "Fuzzy," she said finally.

Willow bounced off the bed to the other side of the room. "Oh, I bet you're dying for a shower. Let me find some stuff."

Amy flexed her foot under Tara's hand. "I think I remember you," she said. "Quiet and green and singing." She frowned and looked over her shoulder. "Was there a cat?"

"Yes, but we never let her bother you."

Amy shuddered. "She looked at me. And she licked her lips."

"Oh, dear."

Willow came back with a basket containing soap and shampoo and some towels. "Here you go. You'll probably feel a whole lot better after a good wash."

Amy reached up to her hair and grimaced. "Oh, yes." Clutching the robe around her, she made her way off the bed, took the basket and towels, then headed for the bathroom.

Willow waited till the bathroom door was closed, then bounced up and down. "I did it! She's back!"

Tara took a deep, shaky breath. "That was so dangerous."

"What? No, it wasn't, if it hadn't worked, she would have just stayed a rat."

"No--no, that's not what I meant. You--you just started summoning power, without any protection. There are things out that feed on the power, and you were pulling so much." She looked around the room nervously, feeling wisps of something that might be lingering power and might be something else. "And then to just make demands . . ."

Willow laughed and leaned down to hug her. "It's OK, baby, nothing bad happened." She laughed again and dashed over to the closet. "She's going to need something to wear." She began flipping through everything. "But she's taller than me, and she's skinnier than I remember."

Tara stared for a few moments, then shook her head. "Where are her old things?"

"I think they're still in her house. Apparently there was some account somewhere that kept paying for it." Willow frowned. "I wonder if her mother set it up, she arranged lots of stuff."

Tara got up and sat on the end of the bed. Miss Kitty cautiously poked her nose out, then joined Tara, who picked up the cat to hug. "I hope there isn't too much trouble getting her back into life. She didn't officially graduate high school, and I bet her driver's license has expired. There will be all sorts of paperwork."

Willow waved her hand. "We can whip up something, say she went to high school somewhere else, create a transcript--Oh, maybe we can get her a scholarship. Or just set up so that it looks like she's already done a couple of years of college so she doesn't have to bother. But first--" She took another look at the closet, then shrugged and snapped her fingers. A small pile of clothes appeared on the bed.

Tara jumped. "Did you grab her clothes from her house?"

"No, those'll be all musty, and they're old, and she needs new stuff. "

Tara stared at Willow in disbelief. "You summoned new clothes? From where? Did you take them from someone's closet? Or from a store?" She looked at the shirt on the top of the pile and found a price tag. "Willow! That's stealing!"

Willow blinked at her in dismay. "We'll go pay for them. Of if Amy doesn't like them, I'll just send them back."

"And get others?"

"Why are you so mad? We got Amy back, that's a good thing. OK, maybe the clothes are a little much." She waved a hand, and the clothes disappeared. "OK?"

Tara hugged Miss Kitty, hiding the tears that wanted to start and trying to find words to make it all clear. "Willow, sweetheart, you can't just take what you want, especially with magic. Everything has a cost. We don't have to magic anything up for Amy, it can be done the usual way."

"But this will be so much faster, and there won't be as much fuss and explanations and all that. Who would it hurt?" She glanced at the spot on the bed where the clothes had been and blushed. "I really was going to pay for the stuff that Amy wanted to keep."

Tara put down the cat, then went to hug Willow. "It's going to hurt you, sweetheart. It's--it's like algebra. Both sides of the equation have to balance. If you take something on one side, you have to give on the other."

Willow smiled and tugged on a strand of Tara's hair. "Chemistry with more newt. You're so sweet to worry. But I'm not doing anything that's draining me, or anything. Though I did feel a little out of breath by the time we got Amy all the way back," she finished with a grin.

Tara tried not to sigh. "It's not just the power you use. It's the why and the how. You just--demanded that the universe do what you wanted, just yanked on the--the strings of creation without worrying about what those strings are tied to. Everything has echoes and consequences."

"Nothing bad happened!"

"Not yet! There are reasons for the circles and the invocations and the rituals, it's to make sure you're only pulling on sources you can trust. There is so much power out there, but a lot of it isn't safe. If you use it, it will you use you back."

Willow stepped back. "Only if I let it."

"Only if you can." Tara wrapped her arms around herself. "There are things out there that are a lot more powerful than you, Willow."

"It's not like I'm--I'm summoning demons or anything."

"Yet," Tara whispered. "You keep grabbing power and doing bigger and bigger things, and it's luring you in . . ." She turned away. "I'm scared for you."

Willow went over to her desk and rummaged around some things. "I--I know it could be dangerous. That's why I'm careful. But I can do the big things. Why don't you want me to try everything I can? I'm not afraid."

"Oh, sweetheart, you should be--" She turned back. Willow was staring at her, a small bundle of herbs in her hand and a terribly sad look on her face. "What is it?"

"I'm sorry," Willow whispered. "Forget." The world faded out.

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