A/N: For those of you that haven't noticed, I messed with the timeline a little, pushing the Buffyverse forward four years so that Willow's first year of college will coincide with the first season of NCIS. Thanks so much for the reviews, everybody; it makes me feel better about writing fanfic rather than the sequel to my first book that's in the process of being published. Woot!
Willow woke to the dawn the next morning, squinting at the filmy light that broke through her French doors. It was Saturday, something for which she was thankful, and her parents were home. Sheila had made sure that their conference circuit allowed for them to come home in time for Willow’s graduation. Her mother had gushed at her over the phone as soon as she was told of her valedictorian status. Today, she would have lunch with her father, something of a tradition they had created when Sheila’s psychology lectures would take them away from Sunnydale for a good part of the year starting Willow’s first year of high school.
The walk home with Faith had been odd. Tense and quiet but no demons had bothered them. By the time they reached her house, Willow had been wound so tight she could barely think but Faith had calmed significantly. At the sight of her house in its very nice neighborhood, a place where vampires rarely hunted because the inhabitants were safe inside their homes at a decent hour, Faith had released a low whistle.
“Red’s got some uptown digs.” She had smirked in Willow’s direction.
In turn, the redhead had ducked her head slightly, feeling shame or embarrassment keenly. “My parents are successful.” Her tone was respectful but hollow. It wasn’t that she begrudged her parents their national success but it had often hurt to come home to a big empty house after a particularly brutal patrol.
It seemed that Faith saw more than she let on, apparently. “What’s wrong?”
Shame mounted in Willow’s chest, the bitter feelings clogging up her throat. It wasn’t that her parents didn’t love her and vice-versa or that she hadn’t had a say in the absences. Quite the opposite, she and her parents had had a very adult conversation in the summer before her freshmen year about her mother’s mounting success and the dwindling need of a devout rabbi in Sunnydale; they had agreed calmly that the finances would be maintained by joined the psychology circuit. Almost another year passed before Sheila Rosenberg accepted her place in the conferences.
“It’s nothing,” she finally managed. Eyes averted, she began to climb the trellis that led to her balcony. Still not looking at the Slayer, she spoke to her again. “If you want, you’re welcome here anytime.” The invitation extended, she completed the climb and tried to push down the irrational feelings that complicated her relationship with her parents.
Because she didn’t look, she didn’t know that Faith didn’t leave until Willow was safely inside. The Slayer had witnessed the hard and cracked truth beneath the Rosenbergs’ perfect surface and began to feel a kinship with her. With that kinship, the awareness of her conscience returned.
However, Willow didn’t know any of this. She only knew that her resolve in renewing her friendship with the dark Slayer was solid and that she had to endure a day with her parents and somehow convince them that her graduation had to be missed.
To this day, she had yet to win an argument with her mother. No matter who was right, Sheila merely had more experience with it and Willow was the type to take things as they were. So, she would have to persuade Ira instead. Her father was often more understanding, looking on her with gentle eyes and a soft smile.
There came a knock on her bedroom door. She shifted her eyes in the direction of the sound and pulled herself out of bed, smiling wryly at her flannel Hello Kitty pajamas. “Come in.”
Speak of the devil, it was her father. Ira grinned at her, breaking a normally expressionless face. “How do you feel about a road trip?”
Willow nodded. “That’s fine. I need to shower, though.”
He nodded and paused in the doorway for a moment. “A man called for you earlier. He said he was the librarian?”
She grinned soothingly. “Yeah, that’s Giles.” At the mention of the name she had used often in phone calls and emails and even when they had been home, Ira relaxed. “There are some books I was interested in arriving at the library today.” Even though it continually surprised her how easy it was to lie to her parents while it was so difficult with her friends, it wasn’t really an untruth, per se. Wesley had said there were some tomes arriving from the Watcher’s Council that might be of use. “It’s more important to spend time with you,” she reassured him.
It worked. He rewarded her with a smile and left her to her morning routine. She cast a glance around her before going to task. If there was a road trip involved, then he had something important to tell her.
What in the world could that be?
Faith glared at the light pouring in through that too-large window. As much as she loved that the Mayor doted on her, all of the stuff was sometimes a little overly. Sometimes it made her miss the grubby alleyways of South Boston. These days, everything made her miss home. Despite how horrible her mother could be, at least it was predictable and normal. Now, the littlest decision could have such a huge impact.
She shook the deep thoughts from her mind when she heard a key turn in the lock. Arching an eyebrow at the noise, she rose to meet the Mayor in the foyer. It had become something of a habit, these early morning meetings. They were meant to be a comfortable time before she slept off her patrols but she couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t really checking up on her. Making sure that his dark Slayer stayed… well, dark.
Mayor Richard Wilkins III looked middle-aged, his bright white teeth and traditional mannerisms making most people find comfort in him. However, like Willow, Faith could feel the wrongness, like thick slime crawling over her skin. She supposed that was the evil and her Slayer instincts fighting against its presence. After all, he was well on his way to becoming a full-fledged demon.
“A little birdie told me something interesting this morning.” Straight and to the point with none of his little quirks – almost none of his weird quirks, at least – and that meant he was bothered.
Faith knew he had eyes everywhere. Lesser demons and vampires and all kinds of half-breeds reported to him in return for something resembling safety from the Slayers. She kept nonchalant, though. “I was seen with Willow last night, I guess.”
“Yes, indeed, you were.” The Mayor walked past her and sat himself neatly on one of the comfy chairs. “Care to explain?”
She shrugged. “I was out patrolling for fledglings. Found her in one of the active cemeteries. She has a friend buried there.” By active, she meant the cemeteries that still had plots to fill. “She apologized. It was weird.”
He merely arched an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
Faith sighed, feeling a tug inside. She couldn’t tell if it was a need to tell someone or his power as a sorcerer that did it, but she did know that she was powerless against it. “I guess it’s a common thing for her ‘cause she was talking to the headstone, to… Jesse. She’d gotten some kind of vision and there was something wrong with her and it was Buffy’s fault.”
She hated telling him so much but was relieved when his smile broadened. In the good way. “I always said that Buffy girl was a bad influence.” He leaned forward. “Did she say if it was a true vision?”
Faith shook her head, not understanding the phrase. Her first Watcher had explained to her a little about magic but, like most Watchers, she felt that studies in magic use were unnecessary. “I scared her, though. She apologized about what she said and I think she might not trust Buffy anymore.” She didn’t really believe that last part but the Mayor didn’t have to know that.
He steepled his hands and pressed his lips against his fingertips. “I want you to ease her over to our way of thinking, Faith.”
She frowned but nodded decisively. “Okay, Boss. I’ll try.”
He gave her that fatherly smile and stood to leave. “That’s all I ever ask.”
Watching him leave the apartment that he paid for, the Slayer could only think one thing: that it would be a cold day in the lower depths of Hell before Willow let that man become a demon, no matter how much she might doubt the other Slayer.
An hour of driving found them in San Diego, near the border into Mexico. Another ten minutes and they were at Willow’s favorite restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory. Inside was dim, creating a particular type of mood, and cozy enough to make their conversation seem at least halfway private. On the way, she had called Giles from her father’s cell phone, telling him that she would come by the library later on if her parents allowed it or tomorrow if they didn’t.
They had ordered and Willow felt like she was at a halfway point. Being at this restaurant always made her feel comforted inside but the upcoming events were still heavy on her mind.
“So, your mother says you’ve received plenty of acceptance letters.” Ira always started the conversation because it was painfully obvious that Willow didn’t know how to lead in that respect.
In response to his comment, Willow blushed and smiled shyly. “I applied to too many places, I guess. I got accepted to everywhere I applied.”
He smiled. “I’d expect nothing less.” She knew it was supposed to be a compliment but, in her head, it sounded like a requirement she was supposed to fill. “You got into Oxford as well?” She nodded. “That’s quite a feat.” At the enthusiasm clear in that sentence, her good mood returned.
“I was thinking about going to a university in DC. A lot of Mom’s conferences are along the East Coast, right?”
Ira nodded. “That’s a good choice. I would recommend Georgetown if you plan to follow in your mother’s footsteps.”
Willow smiled, ignoring that bitter tang in her throat. “It seems like the best choice until I can broaden my horizon.”
To this, he grinned. “As long as you stay my little girl.”
“Always.” It was the appropriate response, something she’d always said.
As if someone had choreographed the entire situation, the waiter arrived with their meals. For a while, conversation stopped while both of them followed meal etiquette. They ate their food efficiently, which was followed by a coffee for Ira and a rich chocolate slice of cheesecake for Willow. While they waited, the conversation picked up again.
However, Ira began in a serious vein this time. “Willow, I need you to be calm about what I’m about to tell you.” He always started this way for big stuff, warning her that she might not like what was coming and to head off her jittery nature. It gave her time to prepare.
As such, she followed it with a deep breath and nodded. “I’m ready.”
“I’m not your real father.”
“What?” At first, what he said didn’t register with her. It was so ridiculous.
“Sheila would kill me if I told you but I think you should know. With you choosing DC and him being right there, it would be wrong for you not to know.”
“What?” Her voice was slightly more high-pitched and a voice at the back of her head was trying to figure out why her father – her stepfather? – was babbling.
“Not that he knows, mind you. It’s just that I’m sterile and—”
Willow held up a hand, effectively hushing her father. She didn’t want the details, though she was sure she would probably figure it out later. “What’s his name?”
He smiled, pride showing painfully through the gesture. “He’s a friend of mine at NCIS. Leroy Jethro Gibbs.”
She felt faint but forced herself to return the smile. “Oh, that’s nice. What’s NCIS?”
For a moment, he only chuckled.