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Home is Where Your Heart Is

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Willow’s phone rings just as she and Xander are in the midst of a nail-biting game of Operation, which has turned out to be quite funny in light of Xander’s sudden blindness in one eye.

He’s now terrible at the game, and every time his metal tweezers hit the metal part of the bodily openings and a loud buzz sounds, she giggles. Then, the other patient in the hospital room glares and clears his throat in increasingly louder iterations. This makes Xander laugh despite the pain in his eye.

She ignores her phone because she wants to savor her best friend’s laughter. She’s so relieved that he’s alive and that more parts of him aren’t harmed or damaged in any way that she has to take this time to ignore the evil out there waiting for them. . . to cherish these moments of playing childhood games.

It’s nice to feel like they’re being Xander and Willow again. With the First Evil and imminent apocalypse, there really hasn’t been enough of that.

Plus, playing these games allows her to ignore how she feels about Buffy right now, and Willow doesn’t like the unsettling feelings she’s having about her other best friend.

Willow easily pulls out one of the white bits of plastic with the metal operating tweezers, and making a face of mock upset, Xander throws up his hands in surrender.

Her phone makes a little two tone chirp, indicating that she has a voicemail, but she still ignores it.

“Don’t give up yet,” she encourages, continuing her turn. She intentionally scrapes metal against metal, trying to drag out the game. “See? I missed. Your turn.”

“And you should check your voicemail.” Xander pushes aside the closed battleship map from their earlier game and shifts under the covers. “It could be important.”

Willow gives him a level stare. “Nothing is as important as this. . . being here with you. It can wait.”

Her phone asserts its ring again, signaling another phone call. Xander can’t see who’s calling Willow, but he gestures. “See. Important. No one calls twice in a row unless it’s important.”

“How do you know it’s the same person?” Willow teasingly chides him.

“At least look.” Xander sounds anxious now. So much for relaxing.

Determined to keep things light, Willow reaches into her bag for her phone. “Fine. I’ll look, but only to prove to you that. . .” She trails off as she sees who’s calling, and now she’s really really glad that her finger didn’t accidentally brush the screen to answer the call.

“What? Who is it?” Xander presses.

The little line that has commonly dipped into a groove between her eyebrows appears. “No one,” she says with too much haste. She thrusts the machine back into her purse as if the knowledge of who is calling her might disappear. She definitely doesn’t need to deal with her right now.

Xander leans forward and touches her forearm with so much gentleness that tears well in Willow’s eyes. “Hey. I know that look.” He rubs his thumb over her soft skin. “It’s your parents, isn’t it?”

Of course, Xander would guess. He definitely gets that part of her life. . . more than anyone else in this world except for maybe Buffy, but Willow determinedly pushes aside that thought. She has always been fairly good at compartmentalizing. . . it’s how she survives and keeps going with all the hurt she’s experienced. To feel all that pain all the time. . . she’s afraid she’ll go all black haired and veiny again. She shudders.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” Xander insists, pulling her forward so that Willow falls against his chest and the Operation game slides to the floor with an extra loud clatter. This time, his roommate doesn’t even bother to make a disgruntled noise.

Willow presses her face against his chest. “Yeah. It’s my mom.”

“Wonder what she wants.” Xander’s voice rumbles against her ear.

Tears spill over her cheeks as he strokes her hair. She relishes the compassion but feels extremely guilty because she’s supposed to be taking care of him. He is, after all, the one in the hospital bed. “Sorry.”

“For what?” He sounds genuinely confused.

Willow sits up and swipes her fingers over her cheeks, offering him a fake courageous smile. “For crying.”

Xander shakes his head at her. “No apologizing, but you should listen to your message. It probably has something to do with the unofficial Sunnydale evacuation.”

Willow reluctantly retrieves her phone, finds said voicemail, pushes play, and presses the phone to her ear. She listens with what she hopes is a neutral expression. Xander studies her face the whole time.

As soon as she lowers the phone, he says, “Go. I’ll be fine here. It’s not like I’m going anywhere. I’ll be here when you get back.” Willow gives him a little scowl. “I could use a nap,” he adds.

Willow knows that she has no choice, so she pulls up her metaphorical boot straps, tugs her purse strap over her shoulder, and stands. Bending to kiss his forehead, she leaves him with, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. I love you, and I’ll be back soon.”

He gives her a little salute and slides down under the covers, his white bandaged eye peeking up at her. Her shoulders hitching a little, she sighs without a sound and slips out the door.

* * *

Willow’s eye catches the hulking white U-Haul truck in the driveway before she notices the rest of her childhood home. Somehow, she’s not surprised to see that her parents are moving out, but she is surprised to see that they somehow got a moving truck. She thought most of those were long rented and far away from Sunnydale.

She pulls her car in front of the house, so she doesn’t block the truck. She unquestionably knows she doesn’t want to stop her parents from leaving.

Trudging up the driveway, she lets herself in through the garage entrance, moving past her father’s well-used station wagon and picking her way around the boxes stacked near the door. Her nose is greeted with the familiar smell of home. . . antiseptic and unwelcoming, almost like the halls of the hospital, and she suddenly recognizes why she loves the smell of scented candles and incense so much. They’re anything but like home.

She hesitates in the dark kitchen, her heart hammering. She feels like she’s back in high school and hoping that her parents will be on one of their work trips so that she has the house all to herself. Knowing that they’re inside somewhere makes her feel small and insignificant. . . something she hasn’t experienced in such a long time.

She takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders, holding her head high and setting her jaw. She’s had way too many experiences since she moved out of this cold house to cow down now.

The overhead fluorescent light comes on in a flash of blinding white, and Willow blinks and squints, her fragile confidence fading at her mother’s voice.

“Willow! I didn’t think you would come.”

Unbidden, guilt rears its ugly head. “How could I not come after your message?” She is pleased that she sounds more confident than she feels.

As her mother comes into view, Willow notices that her arms are crossed, and her hair is the same style she’s had for fifteen years. . . the way she forced Willow to style her hair. . . long and flat and colorless. “Your father and I are moving.”

Willow takes in the cardboard boxes lining every inch of counter space. They’re neatly labeled in her mother’s precise handwriting. “I can tell.”

“I don’t know if you know what’s going on in this town,” her mother’s words are vaguely accusatory, “but it’s not good. Your father and I have had enough, so we made the decision that now is the time to leave. Did you know that all the neighbors have gone except for the Hendersons? And you know how Alice is. She’s too stubborn for her own good and still growing vegetables in her front garden. She doesn’t even care that there are an enormous number of drug addicts or some strange cult members in town now.”

“Cult members?” Willow is curious about what delusion her mother believes now.

“Men in monk robes. They’ve been roaming the streets at night. Susan at the yoga studio said they have been targeting young teenage girls.” Sheila looks her daughter up and down so that Willow self-consciously puts her arms around her middle. “You’re probably too old for their taste.”

“Gee, thanks, Mom.” Her tone doesn’t exactly convey her level of annoyance.

“Still. You should be careful if you’re going to stay in town.”

Willow is silent for several seconds before admitting, “I am.” She isn’t sure she wants her mother to know anything about her.

Sheila sighs as if she hoped Willow might choose a different path. “You’re staying because of that Bunny girl, aren’t you?”

Despite her earlier and continued misgivings about Buffy’s recent actions, Willow’s response to this query is quicker, “Yes.”

“I can’t believe it.” Sheila raps her knuckles on the laminate countertop so loudly that Willow jumps a little. “You’d do anything for that girl. What is her hold on you? She’s probably the reason that you dropped out of college. I was telling your father just the other day that you should have gone to Oxford.”

“Contrary to what you might think, I do have my own mind.” This time, Willow holds her mother’s fierce gaze, and she regretfully realizes that maybe she got her resolve face from her mother.

“I don’t know about that. You always were easily influenced. No idea where you got *that* from. Maybe your father.”

Willow doesn’t say anything to this. There’s no use. Her mother believes what she wants to believe, and in some ways, she’s right. Willow was a lot like that. . . when she was a kid who didn’t know anything about the way the world worked. . . when she needed a nurturing mother who validated and guided her child. Instead, Willow had Sheila and an absentee father who blindly did whatever Sheila wanted except when it came to religious practices and work. Now that she’s older, she wonders if her father became a workaholic to avoid her mother. A wave of sadness and nostalgia for Joyce fills Willow’s heart for a moment.

Oblivious, her mother continues, “Are you still doing that magic stuff with that little girlfriend of yours. . . what’s her name? Tonya?”

“Tara. Her name is Tara.” Willow can’t help but use present tense, and she wonders if it means that she’s still in the habit of holding back information from her mother or if Kennedy is right and she’s still got a long way to go in letting go. Willow also chooses not to answer the question about magic, mostly because she doesn’t know where she stands with invoking the powerful forces that used to flow so easily through her veins.

Sheila emits a short huff. “Well. I suppose I’ll never get to meet her now that we’re moving and you’re staying.”

Willow is glad she never introduced Tara to her parents. They would have found a way to judge her, too, and honestly, she feels fiercely protective of her girl even now. “Guess not.”

“Well, I packed your things. If you want them, they’re all in your room. We’re not taking them with us. There’s not enough room in the truck.” Sheila breezes past Willow without even touching her and opens the back door.

Willow watches her without giving her the satisfaction of asking where she’s going.

“I’m going to the store for more tape and another marker. Your father didn’t buy enough,” Sheila informs her without looking back. Right before the door clicks shut behind her, Willow barely makes out, “Don’t forget to say goodbye to your father.”

As the car starts in the garage, Willow ambles down the long hallway, now bare of pictures and other knickknacks. She enters her old bedroom, her once sanctuary away from other household members, her place to escape from vampires and into novels and computers and later magic. Her mattress is propped against one wall, and boxes are stacked in the corner by the window. Her boxes aren’t taped and labelled though, so she folds back the flaps of the first box.

Her fish tank peeks out at her, the now dry gravel still in the bottom with a pile of paperback novels haphazardly thrown inside. The books are tangled up with bits of green and pink plastic plants. She shudders, remembering the time she pulled out the string of fish that Angelus killed and left for her. She closes the flap. That feels like a hundred years ago.

She pokes her hand into another box and finds a pile of her clothes, including several hats and fuzzy, colorful sweaters unfolded and jumbled together. She picks up a baby blue one that she wore several times during her senior year and brings it to her cheek, relishing the softness and picking up just a hint of Oz’s distinctive scent. He really liked this sweater. . . teased her about how fluffy it was. She remembers his gentle touch as he ran his hand over this same sweater while making out with her. She can’t help but smile. She wonders where in the world he is and what he’s doing. She wonders if she’ll ever see him again.

Her heart skips a little beat as she realizes that she might not survive the upcoming fight. She can’t help but think about how much her life has changed. . . how much she has changed since she last lived under her parents’ roof. She vaguely muses that if her parents are moving out, the ban on vampires entering will be lifted.

A soft knock sounds on her door, and the blue sweater still in her hand, she turns to find her father standing in the doorway. “Dad” pops out of her mouth before she can stop herself.

“Hi, Willow.” His green eyes, eyes that are so like hers, are soft when he looks at her. “I thought I heard you talking with your mother.”

She pushes one hand in the back pocket of her jeans and shrugs. “Yeah. She went to the store for more tape.”

“Ah.” He moves further into her room. “We’re moving.”

“I know.” Willow really doesn’t know what to say to her father. She wishes she had more time with him. He was always the kinder of her parents. She remembers the rare times when he wasn’t working late, and her mother was out of town at a work convention. He would allow her to sneak out of her room and watch old movies with him. She would sit in his lap or at his feet, and they would be together in companionable silence until she fell asleep. Somehow, she always ended up tucked in her bed with warm blankets covering her.

“We packed up your things for you. Do you need help carrying any of it to your car?” He gestures at the boxes.

Willow can’t tell him she doesn’t want any of it and why, so she nods and points to three of the boxes without caring what’s in them. “I’m taking these if that’s okay.”

“Of course, it is! They’re your things.” He brushes past her, patting her shoulder before hefting two of the boxes. Willow shoves the sweater in the top one.

As they head toward the front of the house, Willow scoots ahead to get the door for him.

“Thanks,” he murmurs.

She opens the car door for him, too, and he smoothly arranges the boxes in the back seat. As they head back to the house for the remaining box, he puts his arm around her shoulders and hugs her in a fatherly way. She finds herself relishing her father’s affection, knowing that she will probably never experience it again.

“What I want to know,” he says as they reach the front porch, “is why my only *Jewish* daughter had a cross in her room.”

His tone is light, perhaps because she’s older now. If she were still living at home, he might not be so nice about it.

So, she grins at him all the while thinking that Giles would have noticed sooner than five years later. “Don’t worry. I’m still Jewish.” He knows nothing about magic and such supernatural happenings. No need to upset the apple cart now. Plus, in her heart, she’ll always be a little bit Jewish. . . Jewish with heavy Wiccan leanings.

“Good.” He kisses her forehead and heads back into her room.

He comes back to the porch with the last bit of her belongings and a VHS tape. “Here. I want you to have this.”

Willow takes the offered tape. “Fiddler on the Roof, huh?”

“How many times did we watch it together?”

Willow tries to remember if they ever watched it together. She can’t remember. She only recalls that she wasn’t allowed to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Several.”

When he finishes loading her car, Willow hugs him again and somehow finds herself alone behind the driver’s wheel. Before she realizes what is happening, tears fill her eyes and spill in hot rivulets over her cheeks. She grips the steering wheel, her knuckles white, and she allows herself to feel the sense of loss and sadness that overcomes her.

Then, she wipes her cheeks, holds her head up high, and starts the car. She’s not that young girl anymore. She’s Willow, and she’s strong like an Amazon. She has to get back to Xander who is hurting in the hospital. She feels a pull to be with her best friend and with Giles, Dawn, Anya, and even Buffy. . . her family who loves her despite knowing every bad thing about her. Her heart is with them. They need her, and she needs them.

As she pulls away from her shell of a childhood home and heads back to the hospital, she realizes that her parents didn’t even tell her where they are going. Deep inside, she knows that she will never hear from them again, and part of her is okay with that.

The end.