Willow bounced her left leg nervously as she stared out the window waiting for the plane to take off. It had been so long since she had last been in America, had last seen her friends – or, at least, those who had been her friends before. She wasn’t too sure if they would still use that term. Only a few months before, she had nearly brought about, well, the end of the world. In her grief and rage, she had almost killed everyone, and that included her best friends. Would Buffy and Xander and everyone still want to be around her? Would they even talk to her?
She glanced over at Giles, who was busy cleaning his glasses and trying to pretend that Willow’s fidgeting wasn’t bothering him. He was dressed more casually than she had ever seen him, in grubby jeans and a well-worn pullover sweatshirt with the name of a London pub on it. Although she knew his luggage was full of the familiar three-piece suits and classy sweaters he normally donned, Willow was still thrown for a loop every time she looked over at him in his informal attire.
As she studied at him now, she thought about how he had stuck by her, patiently and calmly supporting her through everything. She had basically gone to magic rehab featuring a whole heap of therapy, and the process had not been an easy one. Her experiences over the last year had made it clear that going “cold turkey” with magic wasn’t going to work, but if she let the forces take over, she could be incredibly dangerous. Perhaps more dangerous than any demon or beastie that Buffy and the gang had ever faced before. Willow had become the villain. She lost control of everything, and that was what she went to England to regain: control.
Giles reached over a hand and gently placed it on Willow’s knee to still her. He took a series of loud, slow breaths, inhaling over five seconds and exhaling at the same pace. Willow shook herself out of her reverie and snapped back to the here and now. This was one strategy she had learned in Bath, one that she and Giles had practiced many times. Just breathe and be present. Willow matched Giles’ breathing and his face relaxed into just a hint of a smile. After another few breaths, he put his hand back in his lap.
Willow turned her face toward the window as she broke into a toothy grin; not only had Giles let her take the window on this extremely long flight, relegating himself to the dreaded middle seat, but he had also allowed her full use of the armrest between them. Giles is totally adorable, she thought. This is why you have to love him. Although he had been firm more often than not while Willow worked through her recovery, at his core he was incredibly gentle and nurturing. He and Willow had worked very closely for months, and they had become totally attuned to each other’s moods and habits. For instance, Willow knew that Giles was displeased in his very British way because the passenger to his left was allowing the strap of her bag to rest on Giles’ leg, but Willow also knew that Giles would never in a million years say something to this woman. Likewise, Giles knew that Willow’s anxiety about returning home was only temporarily eased, and he would have to keep an eye on her throughout the flight. She was prone to agitating herself and working herself up, even over small things. And going home was no small thing.
Willow’s guilt over what had happened months before had nearly consumed her. Her very public destruct-o-thon was common knowledge in Sunnydale, but the private nightmare that followed was known only to a select few. Giles was one of them. He had watched as Willow cried herself into a fitful sleep every night for her entire first week in recovery. After she had “detoxed” a little from the magic overload, Giles saw the anger creep back into her face – not directed at Warren or the world, but pointed inward at herself. For a while, Willow didn’t want anyone’s help because she didn’t believe she was worthy of that help. Although Giles had never spoken a word of this to anyone, especially Willow, he had secretly suspected that one day he’d go to her room and find her dead.
Thankfully, that never happened. The superlative care of the witches and therapists in England slowly brought Willow to a place where she was able to work through her grief at losing Tara, her anger at everyone involved, and her guilt over what she had done. The process was far from over, but Willow had reached a point where she was ready to leave the security of the center and return to her life. Or what’s left of her life, Giles thought.
Immediately irritated that he had allowed himself to think it, Giles chided himself. She doesn’t need you feeling the same doubts and fears that she’s already dealing with. Giles took off his glasses again and cleaned them vigorously.
Willow noted Giles’ movements, knowing that wiping his glasses usually indicated something bad – he was angry, he was frustrated, he was annoyed, he was bored. Willow looked down and saw that the strap of that lady’s bag wasn’t touching Giles anymore. So what is it, then? she wondered. What’s up with Giles?
When Giles had finished cleaning his lenses and replaced the spectacles on his face, Willow took his warm hand in hers, positioning both their arms on the armrest. Giles glanced over at the young witch, his smile only the slightest bit strained. Does she know what I’m thinking? he worried. No, not if she’s still calm. Okay.
After what seemed like forever, the plane accelerated down the runway and lifted into the air, taking to the sky as easily as a falcon. Willow was always a tiny bit nervous on planes, but also secretly liked this part. Being pressed into the seat and feeling her stomach bottom out always reminded her a little bit of a rollercoaster, and it was fun sometimes for your tummy to go all wobbly. She made a mental note that she should go on rollercoasters more often, even if they scared her as much as they excited her.
As the plane leveled off and began the long trip back to the States, Giles looked down as his fingers intertwined with Willow’s. Normally at this point in the flight, he’d like nothing more than to block out the world and settle into one of his books. But that would mean letting go of Willow’s hand. A nagging feeling made him reluctant to do that. If you don’t let go soon, Rupert, he told himself, it’s going to look like you’re dating this girl, and you are on this plane with all these people for far too long to let them get that impression. Besides, you don’t want her to get too attached just as you’re heading back to help her rejoin her life. The training wheels are supposed to be coming off, not getting tightened. He tried to talk himself out of holding hands with the witch, but the truth was that he simply liked holding Willow’s hand. It was soft and small and she would sometimes absent-mindedly rub his knuckle with the tip of her thumb. It was comfortable.
Willow was too lost in her own thoughts to be even realize that she was still holding hands with Giles. She was replaying her most recent talk with her counselor.
“Willow,” Doctor Lane had said to her several days earlier, “you seem agitated today. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Willow uttered as she slowly paced the length of the small but comfortable room. The make-shift counseling room was actually Giles’ study on his estate in Bath. Giles generously offered to share his home with Willow and the team responsible for helping her recover. Surrounded by Giles’ books and papers, Willow worked with Doctor Lane three days a week. This was her final appointment before her flight back to the States, and she was anxious about leaving the relative safety of the estate. Her left arm was wrapped in front of her stomach, propping up her right elbow so she could chew on her thumbnail. “Something Giles said is really bothering me.”
“What did he say?” asked Doctor Lane.
“We were talking about my experience here, and I was saying how I was surprised at how nice everyone was. I thought I was going to get, I don’t know, thrown in witch jail or tortured or something, but everybody’s just teaching me stuff and being really good to me.”
Doctor Lane nodded to show he was following.
“Well, after I said all that, Giles said, ‘Do you want to be punished?’ and I was like, ‘No’ but now I don’t even know. What if I should be punished? What if that’s what I deserve? What if that’s the only thing that’s going to make everything right?” Willow’s pacing grew more frantic with each question. She had chewed her thumbnail down to the quick and she could taste a hint of blood, but she didn’t care. Her thumb was bleeding but other people were dead. She killed Warren. She killed that scumbag Rack. And she almost killed Xander and Buffy and Dawn and Anya and Giles. Giles had gotten really, really hurt. He could have been dead. So, yeah, she definitely felt she deserved some punishment.
Doctor Lane was familiar with this line of reasoning. Willow was already dealing with the trauma of seeing Tara killed right in front of her, which would have been enough to make anyone lose their footing. But on top of that, Willow had taken the life of Tara’s killer, hurt dozens of people in the pursuit of his accomplices, including those she cared very deeply about, and then had nearly summoned a force that would have destroyed the entire world. It’s not every day that you realize you were almost the greatest mass murderer in history, so it was natural that Willow would be wracked with guilt. But Doctor Lane was determined to help Willow process these feelings so she could get through them. “How should you be punished?” he asked her. “What should we do? Lock you up? Hurt you? Kill you? Would taking your life make everything feel right again?”
Willow flailed her arms in a gesture of helplessness. “I don’t know, maybe! Don’t I deserve to die for what I did? For what I tried to do?” Her voice cracked as she felt her emotions burn hotter and hotter. “If I had gone to jail instead of being taken here, I don’t think it would take long for a jury to convict me and sentence me to death, no matter what the circumstances were. Losing Tara didn’t give me the right to do what I did. I took two lives. I almost took a lot more. That is never, ever going to be okay. I am never going to be okay.” The last few words left Willow as a sob, and she collapsed onto the couch with her face in her hands. It had been weeks since she had broken down like this, but now the tears came in earnest, her chest heaving with the sobs. Her red hair fell in front of her face like a curtain, its gentle swaying belying the agony in Willow’s heart.
Doctor Lane moved over and sat next to Willow. She had been trying so hard to assert that she was “past this” and was feeling stronger, but Doctor Lane knew better. Although Willow had made incredible strides in both her therapy and her magical studies, he knew the road to recovery was never a straight line. Willow was bound to have moments like these as she continued to heal, and he was glad to help her through one before she went back home. He waited a few moments for the worst to pass. As Willow drew a few shaky breaths, he passed her a tissue, something he had done a hundred times before. Willow actually managed a sardonic laugh. “I bet you’re pretty sick of giving me tissues, huh Doctor Lane?”
“Not yet,” he smiled. “Besides, our tissue budget is a bit bloated at the moment. We could use some help going through the surplus.”
Willow managed a weak smile at that, although her face was still obscured by one hand and her bone-straight hair. Steeling herself after the moment of levity, she cleared her throat and sat up a little. Her shaking hand reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear. “Seriously, though. I wonder if it even makes sense for me to go home. Or to keep getting out of bed. I’ve done unspeakable things. I don’t know if I still have a place in this world. On the other hand, if I do, I don’t even know if I want to be a part of a world that accepts someone like me in it.” She paused, shaking her head as if that would clear some things up. “I’m sorry, I don’t know that I’m making any sense.”
Doctor Lane turned a bit to face her. “Of course you’re making sense. You’re horrified at what you’ve done, and as far as you’re concerned, you’re basically evil. So part of you expects everyone you love to reject you, and you’re scared to death of that happening. But if they don’t reject you, you don’t want to be around them, because what would it say about them if they let you back in after everything?”
Willow nodded, fresh tears silently streaming down her cheeks. She hazarded a glance into Doctor Lane’s face and saw that he looked at her with warmth and understanding, just the way Giles did. That small bit of comfort gave her strength.
“Willow,” Doctor Lane continued, “I’m not in charge of doling out moral judgments. I’m not a god or The Powers That Be or even a pretty powerful witch like you. I’m just a psychologist. Okay, yes, Oxford-trained and well-practiced and a pretty snappy dresser, but just a psychologist. I don’t know if you deserve to die. I don’t know if you deserve to be abandoned. I don’t know if you deserve to be punished.” He took Willow’s hand in both of his and made sure she was looking at him as he spoke. “What I do know is that you being tortured or killed won’t change anything that has already happened. Tara’s death, Warren’s death, the pain your friends endured – all of those will still be there, no matter what. Your death wouldn’t solve anything. It would only hurt your friends more.”
Willow, who had been reluctantly nodding along with Doctor Lane until that last sentence, let out a derisive snort. “Yeah, right. Somehow I doubt they’d be too broken up over me getting what I deserve. When I was fighting Buffy and Giles, I could feel from them what a relief it would be if I were dead. They’d be safe and I wouldn’t be able to hurt them anymore.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s probably true.” Willow’s thin eyebrows twitched upward in surprise as Doctor Lane agreed with her, but she didn’t interrupt. “I wasn’t there,” Doctor Lane conceded, “but I can imagine that they actually were trying to kill you at one point, because you were trying to kill them. But you know as well as I do that the situation has drastically changed. Do you still want to kill Buffy?”
“No, of course not,” Willow spat out, annoyed at the doctor’s ploy.
“Do you want to kill Giles?”
“No!” Willow surprised herself with the amount of shock and fear in her voice. She couldn’t imagine hurting Giles again. The very thought stung her deeply.
“Do you think Giles wants you dead?”
“No, he doesn’t, and he has been very clear on that many times.” Willow’s tone betrayed her irritation, a sing-song quality making her sound like a child being forced to give an apology. “He says he would never want to hurt me in a thousand centuries.”
“Do you believe him?”
Willow sat stock still for a moment. She had felt a sneaking doubt on that very question for several weeks, but she took a moment and examined it with great care. She recalled when Giles had looked into her tear-streaked face, lifting her chin with his hooked forefinger. He told her that the possibility of having to kill Willow to stop her had torn him apart inside. He said that he would have gladly given his life if it meant that things would go back to how they were before Tara was killed. Facing her in the magic shop, he said, had been the most terrifying moment of his life, not because he feared for his life, but because he thought he might have to take Willow’s. He still had nightmares about it, he said.
Willow had looked into Giles’ eyes, really looked, and she saw the pain he felt. She knew he was being truthful. She blinked and met Doctor Lane’s eyes again. “Yes, I believe him.”
“Do you think it’s possible, maybe even likely, that Buffy and the others will feel exactly like Giles feels?”
Willow’s insides squirmed. Admitting that her friends might welcome her back felt unsafe. It felt uncomfortable. It felt dangerously like hope.