“…Police still have no idea who was behind the attack, though it is believe that it was not random.”
The words brought Willow out of her sleep; her aching body and pounding head told her she hadn’t been asleep long. At first, for a brief moment, she thought she was at Kawalsky’s house and that her aches were the result of a long and stressful rescue mission. It was a ritual for SR-1 to spend the first night after a rescue together; the nightmares seemed to stay away if the four of them were in one place. Hayes and Kawalsky rarely slept after a bad mission; the two men always sat up talking, dissecting everything that had happened, while she and Grogan fell asleep watching the news.
It was the sound of the reporter’s voice that made her think she was home in Colorado. That and the post mission numbness she was feeling. Her mind was unusually calm, having locked away the horrors of whatever she had seen, allowing her to experience a false sense of peace.
But the reporter’s words made it impossible for her to indulge in that fantasy for too long. As much as she would like to pretend otherwise, Willow knew exactly where she was.
If the news hadn’t been enough to remind her, her dreams would have. Her sleep had been fitful, marred with images of demons and lost friends. Not exactly nightmares, but almost.
Reluctantly Willow opened her eyes, the lure of sleep easy to resist when she knew nightmares were waiting for her. She wasn’t at all surprised to see a sleep-blurred Mrs Summers sitting in the recliner next to her, the mother of her childhood friend watching the news closely.
She had hardly changed.
In the dim light, Willow could see that she had aged slightly, but not dramatically. Her hair was the same, blonde and wavy, and her perfume… Exactly how Willow remembered it. She was the same elegant woman Willow had so fervently wished had been her mom when she was a teenager.
Mrs Summers must have felt Willow’s eyes on her because she turned towards her. “Willow!” Her smile was warmer than it should have been. “I didn’t know you were awake. How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” she said automatically. She glanced down at the table sitting between the recliner and lounge and saw two small tablets and a glass of water. “Are these…?"
“Yours,” Mrs Summers finished for her. “I didn’t have the heart to wake you.”
Willow took the tablets and smiled. Her headache had eased only slightly with sleep and she knew that it would begin to grow again with every passing minute. That blessed numbness would fade soon and she would be thinking again. Thinking about Buffy, and about Daniel, Giles, and Faith… And she wasn’t ready to do that.
“Would you like anything else? Another drink? Coffee? Tea? Something to eat?” Mrs Summers sounded nervous, awkward even.
Willow could only imagine how difficult it was for Mrs Summers to see her.
Probably about as hard it was for Willow to see Mrs Summers.
“No, thank you, Ma’am.” Willow honestly didn’t think she’d keep food down. Any minute now she knew her brain would kick in. Just like the numbness, she could only keep her eyes away from the walls and mantle for so long.
“Are you sure?” Mrs Summers asked. “It’s no trouble.”
“I’m fine, really,” Willow assured her.
Awkward didn’t begin to describe how she felt. Being in the same room as Mrs Summers made her stomach churn and her heart pound like a squadron of Jaffa was chasing her.
If she had a choice, she’d actually prefer to be chased by a squadron of Jaffa.
Hell, she’d offer herself up to the Goa’uld if it meant not being here.
There were some things in her life she had worked so very hard at staying away from. Some, like Cordelia, would call it running away and she would be right. Facing what she had done and what she was responsible for was something Willow had never been able to do – at least when it came to Sunnydale.
And now she found she couldn’t face what had happened at the hospital. Her mind still refused to think about it longer than a second and the thought of ringing Caritas to see if anyone had survived terrified her so much she couldn’t breathe.
Willow didn’t want to know, she wanted to delay the pain she knew would come for as long as possible.
“You have a nice house.” Willow blurted out, unable to help herself. She blamed the silence. Sitting in silence with Mrs Summers was worse than hearing her voice.
“Thank you.” Mrs Summers smiled at the compliment. “I’ve been living here for about five years now. It’s a nice neighborhood.”
“It seems like it,” Willow agreed, knowing how absurd the comment was. She had no idea what the neighborhood was like. She just wanted to keep the small talk going. Silence and Sunnydale conversations were two things she wanted to avoid at all costs.
“Do you still have your apartment in Colorado Springs?”
Willow blinked in surprise.
“Rupert gives me updates on you every time I see him,” Mrs Summers explained.
He…he did? Mrs Summers asked about her? Still? Even though Willow hadn’t returned or opened any of her letters, Christmas, or birthday cards? “Yes, I still have my apartment in Colorado Springs, Ma’am.”
“Willow, please, call me Joyce. I’m not used to being called Ma’am,” she told her. “It makes me feel old.”
But it made Willow feel safe. Calling some people by their first name was personal. Referring to them by their rank or surname felt like they were distant from her, that they weren’t close enough to become too important to her.
It was stupid, she knew that, but it was how she felt.
“Okay, Joyce.” It sounded weird saying her name.
“Are you still with the Air Force?” Joyce wanted to know.
Willow didn’t want to talk about this; maybe the silence hadn’t been so bad. She felt guilty telling Joyce about her life when Buffy… She mentally shook her head and forced that thought back. “Yes.”
Joyce smiled. “I think Faith mentioned you ’re a pilot as well. What kind of planes do you fly?”
What kind of planes did she fly? Why was Mrs Summers asking… Oh. Willow closed her eyes briefly. She knew what Mrs Summers, Joyce, was doing. She must have sensed Willow’s awkwardness and was talking about the Air Force to make this easier on her.
Giles had told her a lot, judging by Joyce’s questions, which meant she knew how badly Willow reacted to any mention Sunnydale.
Tears sprung into her eyes. “Jets.”
“Jets?” she repeated, her expression one of awe. “I’m sorry; I don’t know why I’m so surprised. You’re in the Air Force, of course you fly jets, it’s just that… When you were in High School, I always imagined you’d be a computer programmer or a teacher. I never thought you’d be a fighter pilot in the Air Force.”
Willow shifted awkwardly. “I’m not really a fighter pilot,” she corrected her, wanting the almost proud look in Joyce’s eyes to disappear. Joyce had no reason to be proud of her. Not… Not if she knew the truth. “Right now I’m analyzing Deep Space Telemetry.”
“It sounds interesting,” Joyce said, the look on her face encouraging Willow to say more.
“It’s classified, actually,” Willow said, studying her hands on her lap.
Willow nodded. “Top Secret.” She could still feel Joyce’s eyes on her.
“I wonder what Buffy, Xander, and Oz would say if they could see you now?”
All of the air left Willow when Joyce asked the question. It was a question Willow had asked herself a million times over the years, but hearing it from someone else made her think about it.
REALLY think about it.
If Buffy, Xander, and Oz could see her now, what would they think? If they had watched over her during the last seven years, saw everything aspect of her life, would they be as proud of her as Joyce seemed to be? As sympathetic as Giles and Faith were? As angry as Cordelia? As protective as Angel?
She squeezed her eyes shut. It shamed Willow too much to even contemplate. They…
They would be so disappointed.
She felt Joyce touch her arm. “I’m sure they would be very proud of you, Willow.”
Willow shook her head. “No, they wouldn’t.” The more she thought about it, the worse she felt.
They would hate her.
Not because of Graduation, Willow knew, deep down, Buffy, Xander, and Oz wouldn’t hold her responsible for that. What they would hate her for was what she had done after Graduation.
“Willow…” Joyce began, her voice even gentler than before. “Buffy, Xander, and Oz loved you a great deal. They would be proud of what you’ve accomplished, especially after everything you’ve lost.”
Shut up! God, would she please shut up! They wouldn’t be! How could they? She had… She had… God, what had she done?
“And I’m sure your parents would be proud of you too.”
“Mrs Summers…” She had to stop now. Willow could feel the pain and grief bubbling up inside her.
“Just like I am.”
Willow looked at her then and she was smiling at her, giving Willow the kind of smile a proud mother gave her child. It killed Willow to see it. Joyce had no reason to be proud of her but Joyce didn’t know that.
“I know the grief you experienced, Willow, we all do, and to rebuild your life the way you have…”
An almost hysterical laugh escaped her. “Rebuild my life?” Willow repeated, her voice was laced with an emotion she couldn’t discern. “My life hasn’t been rebuilt.” It was the opposite.
Joyce didn’t understand. “Willow?”
“My life is a lie.” Even though Willow whispered the words, they seemed loud to her ears. “Everything I’ve, I’ve achieved… It’s a lie.”
Joyce shook her head. “No, Willow it’s not.”
Willow nodded. She couldn’t stand to see Mrs Summers proud of her, she couldn’t let her believe that she was living a life Buffy, Xander, and Oz would be proud of. “My entire life is made up of lies and… If they could see me now, Buffy, Xander, Oz, they would hate me. They’d hate what I’ve done.”
“Willow, you haven’t done anything –”
“No, I haven’t, and that’s why they’d hate me! They died and I did nothing! Nothing but run! I left the people they loved behind to fight evil without EVER looking back.” She was on her feet now and tears were falling down her cheeks. “I ignored Cordelia, Faith, Giles, and Angel, pretended they didn’t exist for four years and even after I did contact them once, I hardly spoke to them for two years after that. They sent me cards, letters, tried to call me, Giles… Giles even approached General Kerrigan to see me, to get me out of the Air Force and I ignored it all. I turned my back on them because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing them. I thought if I didn’t think about them anymore that losing them wouldn’t kill me.”
Shame flooded her.
“I left them to fight evil on their own…” A sob tore from her. “I left them to die. They’re my family and I left them to die!”
Joyce’s eyes flickered to something behind Willow and she opened her mouth to speak but Willow held her hand up, silencing her.
Joyce needed to hear the truth. “I left them so I could have this big, wonderful normal life where I didn’t have to be scared of the dark, where I didn’t have to fear every single second of every single day.” The words were pouring out of her now, she couldn’t stop them. “I don’t have a normal life, Joyce; I have a life that is as bad as the one I gave up. It’s exactly the same, except this life is a lot more hollow than the one back in Sunnydale. I haven’t had a lover since Oz; up until I met SR-1 I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t want any. I… I still don’t.”
Joyce’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Willow…” She took a step towards but Willow jumped back.
“NO! Don’t give me comfort!” she shouted. “I don’t deserve your comfort. Joyce, if you knew the full truth about me… You’d be demanding that I leave. I’m not who you think I am. I don’t deserve your comfort, your sympathy, or your love.”
God, she hated herself and it was time Joyce knew everything.
“Buffy, Xander, and Oz died because they didn’t want to leave me behind. They died because they loved me so much that they would rather risk an apocalypse than see me dead. And how… How did I repay them? I turned my back on EVERYTHING they believed in. The people they loved, the cause they died for. I didn’t just leave Angel, Cordy, Faith, and Giles behind… I left THEM behind. I killed them then I spat on their graves.”
“Oh, yes, that’s EXACTLY what I did. They risked everything for me, NEEDLESSLY, and… and… They didn’t have to. When I was kidnapped before Graduation, I could have gotten away. If I hadn’t been so fucking stupid, so damn nosey, they wouldn’t have had to trade the box of Gravrock at all. They’d be alive right now.”
“Giles told me everything about Graduation, you couldn’t –”
“I had a way out of the Mayor’s office and I didn’t take it,” Willow cut her off. “I killed the vampire who was supposed to be watching over me and instead of getting the hell out of there I stayed so I could read those damn ‘Books of Ascension.’ If I hadn’t read the books, I wouldn’t have been caught by those vampires a second time – Buffy and the others wouldn’t have had to trade anything for me.”
But she had, and they had traded for her life.
And now look at her? Look at her! She was nothing but a coward. Too scared to go into a hospital to search for her friends, too scared to see if they were alive.
Willow dropped to her knees as the pain crashed over her and she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.” She was so sorry for everything.
Joyce knelt in front of her and put her hands on Willow’s shoulders. “Willow, there is nothing for you to be sorry for. What happened – ”
“Was my fault!” Willow sobbed. “And I’m so sorry, Joyce. I’m so sorry that I took Buffy away for nothing. I’m so sorry I left everyone behind. Please… Please forgive me!”
“There’s nothing –”
“Forgive me,” Willow begged, pleaded. “I’m so so sorry. I didn’t mean… I didn’t mean for them to die. If I had known, I would never… God, I miss them so much. Every day… And I’m sorry. Please, please forgive me.”
Willow felt herself being pulled into a tight embrace. She struggled against it at first, but Joyce was too determined.
“I’m sorry,” Willow whispered over and over again.
Joyce pulled away from her a moment later and cupped Willow’s chin in her left hand. She was crying. Willow could see the tear tracks streaming down her face, and the look in her eye. She looked away. Oh God…
“Joyce, I’m so sorry.”
“Willow,” Joyce’s voice was firm. “Look at me.”
Willow did what she asked.
“I forgive you.”
Oh God! Oh… Willow sobbed uncontrollably.
Joyce laid a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I forgive you, Willow.”
“As do I.”
Willow spun around at his voice and saw him standing behind her with Daniel and Faith. Oh God… They were alive! They were alive! “Giles?” Her hands shook as she reached out for him.
Giles knelt in front of her and took her hands. “I do not believe there is anything to forgive, but if forgiveness is what you seek, then I won’t deny it to you.”
She closed her eyes and Giles enveloped her in a hug.
“I forgive you.”
“Oh, Giles!” Willow cried as he held her. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have left you behind, I should have stayed with you. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Shhh… Shh… It’s all forgiven, Willow.”
She… She didn’t deserve it! “Giles, I never stopped loving you. I pretended I didn’t care but… I loved all of you.”
“We love you, too, Red.” Faith was next to her.
Giles reluctantly let her go and the two women stared at each other. “I’m...”
Faith shook her head. “Don’t say it. Not anymore, it’s over, Red. It’s forgiven.”
Willow’s eyes filled with tears once again and she looked at both of Faith and Giles. “Thank you.”
Seven years of pent up grief, pain, and tears spilled from her as Giles and Faith hugged her. She clung to them as tightly as she could, crying. She felt Giles’ hot tears on her shoulder and Faith’s on the side of her neck. The three of them sat on the floor for what felt like ages before Faith moved out of the embrace. She could hear her talking to Daniel, assuring him that she was okay, but Willow didn’t have the strength to move from Giles’ loving arms.
It… It was like she was finding them all over again.
God, she had missed them – missed this – so very much.
Time seemed to disappear for Willow again as Giles held her. Her eyes closed as he gently rocked her in his arms and whispered soothingly in her ear. Being close to Giles, like this, was something Willow had never done since Sunnydale.
When she had reestablished contact with them about a year ago, she had kept herself distant from them. They had never been this close – physically or emotionally.
Now it felt like there was nothing between them.
“I’ve missed you,” she whispered.
“I’ve missed you, too,” he replied, pulling back.
“We’ve missed you, even when you came to visit.”
Willow froze at the voice. “Angel?” How had he gotten here so fast? How long were she and Giles sitting on the floor together? Long enough. Her legs ached as she reluctantly disentangled herself from Giles’ arms.
Angel and Cordelia were here and behind them was SR-1, standing with Daniel who was leaning against the wall.
“How did you…”
“I called them,” Faith answered and she shrugged. “If we’re gonna do this right, we need the whole gang here.”
Willow got to her feet and looked at Angel. The two of them stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. Then Angel moved with vampiric speed and she was in his arms. She didn’t have to ask for the forgiveness she hadn’t known until today she craved.
The look in his eye told her she already had it.
When he pulled back, he was smiling. The first real smile Willow had seen from him in… ever. She smiled back through the tears.
“Hey, do I get a turn?”
Willow turned to Cordy almost fearfully.
“I’ll forgive you, Willow, for abandoning us,” Cordelia said. “But if you EVER shut us out again I’m going to hunt you down, drag you back to LA by the hair, tie you to a chair, and force you to listen to Angel sing every song ever released by Barry Manilow until you cry uncle and trust me, you will.”
“I mean it, Willow. You shut us out again and I’ll never forgive you. That means no more hiding, no running. If you’re scared, tell us. If you feel guilty, don’t bottle it up for seven years and wait until an apocalypse to tell us.”
Cordelia meant every word. “I won’t, I swear.”
The brunette nodded. “Good, ‘cause I really didn’t want hear Angel sing.”
Willow giggled and then squealed when Cordelia threw herself at her. Both women screamed a moment later when Faith launched herself at them yelling ‘group hug’. Then, Willow found herself surrounded by all of her Sunnydale friends.
But this time, Willow didn’t cry. Instead, she reveled in the feel of being so close to all of them. She looked over Faith’s shoulder to see SR-1 and Daniel watching her. The expression on their faces was something she had never seen before. Daniel had tears running down his face, Kawalsky and Hayes were unreadable, and Grogan looked pained.
She opened her mouth to say something to them, to explain, but Cordelia spoke. “You know what this means?”
She pulled away. “You’re now officially a member of the Fang Gang.”
Willow faltered. Being here like this was one thing, but she couldn’t give up the Air Force or embrace her magic. There were some things she couldn’t do. “Cordy…”
“On a part time basis, of course,” Cordelia clarified. “We don’t expect you to give up the Air Force but…”
But they expected her to be here for them, in the way she hadn’t been for the last seven years. “I’ll try,” she vowed, even though the thought scared her to death.
Faith grinned. “Sweet. Welcome to the Fang Gang, Red.”
Oh God, she was going to cry again!
And she wasn’t the only one. When Willow looked into Giles’ eyes, she could see tears there.
“Yes, Willow, welcome home.”