They were watching her again. They tried to hide it and pretend that all was well, but she could feel the little pinpricks of awareness that danced over her skin as their eyes followed her everywhere.
She tried to ignore their scrutiny, on some level accepting it as penance for almost killing them all and trying to destroy the world. The Magic Box was being repaired and she was doing her time as a Scooby, helping to research the latest threat, which didn't happen to be her. However, repaired or not, the Magic Box would never be the same and neither would their friendships. There weren't enough chocolate chips in the world to fix this, so she accepted their mistrust and cautiousness.
"I found it," she stated, looking up to find her suspicions confirmed. Xander quickly became fascinated by the wood he was measuring, seemingly absorbed in the renovations and Giles looked at her with unmasked speculation. Buffy seemed a bundle of unchanneled energy, as if itching for a fight. Willow was sure that while that was partly due to the demon they had been researching, part of it also stemmed from her proximity to her best friend.
Willow knew that they couldn't go on like this for long. The tension was nearing a breaking point. Giles would come to her to "talk" soon. She had been waiting for this, but still didn't know what she would tell him. She hadn't completely made peace with her actions either.
The expected chat arrived sooner than she thought. That afternoon, as she was shelving the books that they had used in research under Anya's watchful eye, he called to her.
"Willow, would you come assist me in the training room?"
She nodded, "Sure, Giles," and slid the book she was holding into place.
She entered the room and saw Giles sitting on the couch, his elbows resting on his knees and his fingers steepled beneath his chin. She moved to join him.
"Are the nightmares any better?" He asked to open the conversation.
"They're okay," she answered quietly. In her new spirit of openness and attrition, she had told him of the nightly visions she had of Tara and her death and the horrors that plagued her sleep.
"I see... and how are you doing otherwise."
Willow offered a self-depreciating half smile, "I'm getting better, one day at a time and all that."
"Willow, you must know that we are worried about you. You are still very fragile emotionally and are grieving. I know that you have no intention of using magic at this time, but I am, we are all, concerned about that being a possibility."
"Giles," she started to interrupt.
He lifted his hand to stop her. "Let me finish. I'm not proposing anything drastic, such as removing your abilities. Frankly, I don't know if that is possible at this point. I would like for you to voluntarily submit to a binding ritual to keep you from accessing those abilities at this time."
"At this time? Giles, if I go through with this, do you honestly ever think there'll be a time when you would be prepared to release me, to give me back the powers that you see as such a threat?"
"Willow, I can't tell you what will happen and it's not that we don't trust you. The dark magics that were affecting you have been purged, but you know that knowledge cannot be unlearned. The memories and draw of that power are still there. What will happen the next time you're vulnerable?"
Willow worried her bottom lip between her teeth as Giles removed his glasses to clean them.
"Can I have some time to think about this?"
"Of course... but, Willow ... don't take too long." He put his glasses back on and looked down at her; then he left the room.
Willow sat alone in the quiet room and thought about what he offered, her friends, her family.
Willow wept as she held Tara in her arms. Her love's life-blood soaked the carpet around them in an ever-widening circle.
"Nooooo!" She cried out in anguish. As she screamed, Tara slowly disappeared, leaving her holding empty air.
"... no, no, no, no, no..." her mind raced over and over. "I can't lose her, got to find her, no, Tara, where are you baby? Please, please don't leave me Tara, no, where are you, Tara, please, Tara..."
She stood slowly, glancing around, as the color seemed to drain from her surroundings. Everything seemed to fade to a sickly monochrome. She looked around the empty room and began searching for signs of Tara. Spinning around she turned and started running through the house. Every night, she searched, hoping but never finding her lover. Tonight was different.
She looked in Dawn's room and had a brief image of Tara laughing with Dawn as they hung a poster. She stepped forward over the threshold, reaching for Tara, but she faded like a mirage.
She ran to Buffy's room and Tara was there dressing a wound on Buffy's shoulder. Buffy looked up at her accusingly and Willow held out her hand, watching the scene quickly disappear into the dreary emptiness that seemed to be infusing the house.
Room after room she searched the house, haunted by glimpses of Tara and her memories. The house itself seemed to become darker and emptier, taking on an abandoned feel.
Finally, she entered the kitchen. Like every room she searched, Tara was there, laughing and making banana pancakes. A single stream of light entered the window, illuminating her.
"Tara," Willow called out and ran to her, hoping this time to catch her. Her hands passed through the beam of light and met nothingness as Tara disappeared.
Willow spun upon hearing her name and saw Tara had reappeared across the room, opening the door and descending into the basement.
Willow followed her, slowly walking down the steps into the dark basement, unable to see where she was going. She remembered her last time down here. It still made her shiver. She couldn't shake the memory of the way Buffy had attacked them, saying over and over that they weren't real. She hadn't entered the basement since Buffy had tried to kill them. Tara had even done her laundry for her.
She slowly extended her right foot forward, feeling for each step and finally meeting the floor. She turned in the darkened expanse and called for Tara.
"Tara," she called again, "Please, I need your help. I don't know if I can do this alone."
Tara appeared before her, surrounded by light. "You're not alone. You're never alone, baby. I'm with you. I'll be with you always."
Willow rushed toward her, her heart breaking as the light began to flicker. In a bright flash, Tara was no longer there; instead Cordelia was in her place.
Cordelia reached out her hand and touched her fingertips to Willow's temple. The world shattered.
Willow's whole body started to convulse, as her surroundings slowly faded to black. She fell to her knees. Cordelia stood over her, illuminated by an otherworldly spotlight in the midst of nothingness.
Tears flowed freely down Willow's face as she was once again subjected to all of the fear and pain of humanity. Images bombarded her consciousness of people suffering, dying, and living. As before, this overwhelmed her, but this time it was accompanied by a feeling of helplessness that undid her.
She wanted to scream, to protest; she didn't deserve this. Why was this happening? She couldn't. She couldn't scream, couldn't cry out. The words, the very thoughts were torn from her in waves of anguish. Somewhere deep down she knew that she deserved this. This was the punishment she had been waiting for.
"Shh..." Cordy comforted her as the images started to fade.
"You know what's out there. You know how much suffering there can be. You can help stop some of it. You can help them.
"I can no longer hold the visions. I've moved past them now, beyond this plane. You can do what I can't any more. Someone has to take my place. Fight the good fight.
"I'm not the first and you aren't the last. We're fragile, mortals, but you're strong Willow. You're stronger than even you know.
"Even now, the magic lives in you. You're holding on by a thread, lost, without direction. I'm here to help you. I'm here to give you a direction, a purpose. It's our curse, but also our blessing.
"Without an anchor, you will lose yourself again. We can't allow this to happen. The magic you hold will help you to handle the visions in a way that I couldn't. The pain that you feel will help you to remember who and what you are fighting for."
Cordy paused and reached down to help Willow to her feet. "I know it's hard, but you can do it. Many lives are at stake, not just yours, but the people I love. Don't make me regret this."
Cordy embraced her and once again she was bombarded by images. She saw Fred and Gunn. She saw Wesley. She saw Angel with his infant son, and then sparring with a young man, sparring with Cordelia. She saw Lorne and Darla and the Groosalug. She felt Cordelia's love for these people, even if she didn't always know who they were.
She also saw the people in her life. She saw Dawn and Buffy and Xander and Anya. She saw Giles as he lay dying from her attack. She saw Tara and their last wonderful night together. She watched her die again, and saw the person she had become.
Speechless, she clung to Cordy and looked into her face. The light bathed them, slowly dissolving Cordelia's features, and for a moment, it was Tara that held her in her arms.
"You don't know what's to come. It won't be easy. We must each walk our own path and find our own redemption. Don't forget what you're fighting for and remember, Willow, you're never alone. I am with you and I love you, no matter what." Tara kissed her softly and Willow woke up.
She sat up in bed, crying out with a sense of loss. Then the tears began to fall, the first she had shed since Tara's death. The warm wetness revived her and began to wash away some of the darkness that clung to her soul.
"Giles, I'm leaving." Willow and Giles were sitting at the table in the Magic Box. Xander was once again working on the repairs and Anya was assisting a customer.
"When will you be back?"
The scrutiny of her actions was getting to her. She didn't need a babysitter. "I'm not. I mean not any time soon. I'm going to L.A., Giles."
Giles sat up straighter and tilted his head to the side, examining her. "I'm not sure that would be a good idea, Willow. This is a difficult time. You haven't yet recovered from what has happened. I don't think this is any time to be running off."
"I'm not running away, Giles. I have to go. I can't explain it to you, but it's something that I have to do."
Giles sighed. "What about what we talked about? I still think it would be best if you would let me perform the binding."
"I can't, Giles."
"I need to do this Giles. The magic is part of me. I have to face it and face myself. I know you think it's irresponsible, but it's not. I'm trying to be responsible, to do what's right. I just... I can't do it here. Not anymore."
"Great, that's your answer? Run off to L.A. with your big mojo," Buffy interrupted. "Did you forget that you tried to kill us all not too long ago? You decided you didn't like the way the world was going so you were going to end it 'for our own good.'
"What's going to happen the next time you decide the rules don't apply to you? Who else is going to pay the price for standing in your way?"
"Buffy, I know what I did was wrong," Willow tried to explain, only to be interrupted by Buffy snorting in derision. "Look, I know what I did is wrong, but I'm not the only one to make mistakes. Not that long ago, you tried to kill us all, too.
"We forgave you for that. Angel killed Ms. Calendar, tortured Giles and tried to send the world to hell and you forgave him. I'm not asking for forgiveness. All I'm asking is that you trust me enough to let me handle this and do what is right."
Giles spoke up, as he saw Buffy's temper building. "Willow, as I said, it's not that we don't trust you, but you are very vulnerable right now and we, as your friends, are trying to protect and help you."
"I do understand, Giles, and I appreciate this, but you can't hold my hand forever. I have to go. There are things I need to do, and I can't do them from here. Please understand that I have to face this. I am not running away. I'm trying to make things right. I need to go away for a while to do that."
"Fine, Willow. Go. Run off to L.A. Go see if Angel will take you in like he did Faith. But, so help me, if you can't do this and you go back there, to that darkness, I will kill you, Willow. I can't take that chance again," Buffy threatened and then walked away.
Willow sighed sadly, and looked down at her hands. Slowly, she stood and began gathering her things.
Giles watched the young Wiccan begin to walk dejectedly from the store. "Good luck, Willow."
"Thanks. Goodbye, Giles."
Willow let herself into Cordelia's apartment. Luckily, Dennis had remembered her from her trip last year to tell them all of Buffy's death. She had gone to Cordy's for coffee and to gossip about Sunnydale. Actually, Cordelia had pumped her for information and she had entertained the former May Queen. With Sunnydale behind them, the two had developed an amicable almost-friendship.
Dennis was frantic and had done several things to get her attention, to find out where Cordelia was. She answered him sadly but truthfully, that she wasn't sure, but that she didn't think that Cordelia would be coming home any time soon. She was going to stay there in the meantime.
She was unpacking when she heard the knock at the door. Her experience from Sunnydale had taught her better than to just yell, "Come in," so she left her open suitcases and went to the door. Dennis didn't seem to be anywhere around, having been despondently silent since she had told him about Cordelia.
She opened the door marginally, and saw Gunn standing there. She opened the door wider and headed toward the kitchen, figuring that he would follow her. He did.
"Uh, Red, hi. You're a friend of Cordelia's, right? From back home or somethin'?" He looked at Willow, vaguely recognizing her.
"Yep, I went to school with Cordelia in Sunnydale. I'm Willow, and you're Gunn, right?"
"Yeah. Listen; is Cordelia here? We've been looking for her. She hasn't shown up at work for a while and we were wondering what's up."
"I'm staying here for a while. Cordelia had to go somewhere. I... I'm not sure when she'll be back. I got a message to come take care of things for a while."
As she finished speaking, Willow dropped the glass of water she was drinking and started to slide down to the floor. She gripped the edge of the table and Gunn came around to support her.
When she finally relaxed and began to stand, Gunn released her and went to stand on the other side of the table.
"So... you get visions, too, huh? They hand out the party pack to you guys or something?"
Willow looked at him sadly and shook her head, groaning at the cascade effect started by the movement.
"Not too, huh? You get Cordy's visions. How did you get Cordy's visions? Where the hell is she?" He demanded.
"Later, please... big, scaly demon... little kids... pre-school, Martin Street... I'll tell you what I know later. Help them."
Gunn left the room and returned with a bottle of aspirin from the bathroom. "Cordelia took these. I'm going, but I'll be back."
Willow put her head on the table and groaned, as Dennis brought her a glass of water and a few aspirin out of the bottle. When she had taken them, she could hear the sounds of him sweeping up the mess she had made moments before. This was something he knew how to handle. Unfortunately, Willow didn't know if she could say the same. The visions, the new responsibilities, the pain and the idea of all that she had lost overwhelmed her. She cried.
A little while later, Willow got up and put the coffee pot on. She didn't know if it was from the visions or her bout with magic, but she had begun to get these feelings, when things were about to happen.
Just as the coffee had finished brewing and she had set out three cups, there was another knock at the door. It was Gunn and the quiet brunette that she didn't really know, but recognized as Fred.
They all sat down at the table and began to sip the coffee. Fred shifted nervously in her chair, while Gunn stared at her accusingly.
She told them what she knew. "Cordelia called me. Well, she visited me in a dream. She said something about moving beyond the visions and she gave them to me. She told me to come here and to help you guys. She showed me some of what has been going on and said you needed my help, that I needed to help you."
"She was just gone. She called Angel and he went to meet her. We haven't seen either of them since. Even Connor bailed."
"Angel's son. Some freaky shit went down and if you ask me, he's right in the middle of it. Anyway, they're all gone. It's just Fred and me. And, well, now you.
"But, I have to tell you, I don't know how we can do this. You get the visions, great, but you don't look like much of a fighter and Fred isn't either. So that just leaves me, and I ain't no Angel. We're going to need some help if we are going to keep this up. You know what I mean?"
"What about Wesley? I thought he was helping you? I saw him in my vision."
"Wes isn't around any more. Some of that shit I mentioned before... Well, a lot of it involved Wesley. He's kind of persona non grata, around here."
"That's not good enough. We need him, so unless you can give me a good reason not to, I'm going to call him."
"He won't come," Fred spoke up quietly. "He took Connor away to try and protect him, because there was this prophecy, only it wasn't really a prophecy, it was some demon trying to make us think there was a prophecy, and he took Connor and didn't tell anyone and almost got killed and then Angel did try to kill him, so he's mad and nobody will talk to him."
Willow smiled and wondered if that is what she looked like when she babbled. "He'll help. I'll make sure he knows he doesn't have a choice. I can't do this alone; we can't do this alone."
"You are never alone," Tara's voice whispered comfortingly inside Willow's head.