A/N: Okay, I really haven't said this but I really appreciate the feedback. Reviews are my lifeblood! Thank you to everyone for the nice and encouraging reviews.
Willow woke early the next day, the events of the night weighing heavily on her mind. Faith had returned after two hours to find her sitting on her bed and staring into some unseen middle distance, having changed into her plaid flannel pajamas long ago. At first, the Slayer had been unduly worried but Willow had snapped back to the present relatively quickly.
“I’m fine,” she had assured the other girl firmly. After that, there had been forced light conversation, mostly about the trip to D.C. on Wednesday afternoon before Faith returned to a second patrol in the bad parts of town. The Slayer didn’t seem to want to know the details of her ritual, something for which Willow was grateful. The memories of another reality were hard enough as it was and she hoped that they would fade with time.
As it was, her whole conversation with Faith was punctuated with memories of the summer before the other Willow had begun college. She had visited her in her hospital, hoping the thoughts and intent would help her to heal. As much as that Willow hated and feared Faith, she didn’t want her to die. The fact that Buffy was the one to put her there… well, maybe that had planted the first seeds of distrust that led to secret-keeping during her college years.
With a heavy sigh that visibly lifted her chest, Willow entered the high school more than an hour before the first bell would ring. Her friends never arrived at the high school early, preferring instead to loiter in the library long after school was over but she was well aware that the ongoing research into the Ascension was probably keeping both Giles and Wesley there most nights. On the night that they did go home, they probably returned at some ungodly hour in the mornings.
Her entrance through the library’s double doors did not go unnoticed, something that surprised her. If it had only been Giles, she would have had to make an effort to achieve a small morsel of his attention. Wesley greeted her immediately, something she might not have appreciated without these foreign memories. Was her need to please Buffy so strong?
“Good morning, Miss Rosenberg,” the tightly strung Watcher said, a ghost of a smile on his face. That look of discontent hiding under a neutral expression was gone. Willow knew that Wesley wished they could have destroyed the Box of Gavrok, for it was key in hindering the Mayor’s ascension to demon state.
The sound of his voice flooded Willow with a kind of proud sadness. The memories were so strong, reminding her that he loses everything that ever meant anything to him – his job, what little respect his father had of him, eventually even the love of his life. She closed her eyes, forcing the memories and the sudden rush of sympathy back, and smiled gently at the younger Watcher.
“I need to talk to Giles. Is he in the office?” At the man’s nod, she ducked her head slightly in an unconscious signal of deference. “The pages I stole, are they helping?” She could hear the aching need in her voice, the first sign that it would be hard to hold her true emotions at bay today, and winced at the sound.
Wesley smiled, a rare and genuine animal to be revealed for the slender witch. “Most helpful, Miss Rosenberg. I believe you made our sacrifice of the Box very much worthwhile.”
Willow inclined her head, blushing habitually at the closest thing to praise she had ever heard Wesley declare. It was nice, she thought, to be wanted and useful. She glanced back at Giles’s office. Maybe her friends really took everything she did for granted. Sighing again, she turned on her heel to enter the library office. Within the small space, Giles was deep in research, his glassed perched low on his nose and his clothes wrinkled and askew.
She cleared her throat loudly. “Giles,” she called.
The older man started slightly, breath expelling from his mouth in a high-pitched noise. He turned around quickly, relaxing only when he saw her. “Oh, Willow. You’re here early.”
She shrugged noncommittally, dropping her bag to the floor in the same movement. Her reaction to Giles was much different than that to Wesley. There was a part of him that existed on a pedestal and had continued to do so even for the other Willow but seeing it all at once, reflecting on everything he had said and done, the figurative pillar of righteousness crumbled under the weight of it. When she looked at him now, all she felt was cold and abandoned, so much worse than the emotions she associated with her own parents.
“We need to talk.”
Giles frowned and sat back in his chair. There was something different about the redhead in front of him but he couldn’t seem to pin it down. “What about?”
Closing her eyes, Willow pulled together her resolve. If she could do this, she would feel better about facing her biological father, a man with no face and a hard voice. Ira supported her, no matter what she did. She needed to make Giles, this man who had become too much of a father figure in her eyes, that his lack of support was killing her spirit.
“My magic.” Her eyes narrowed when his expression turned dark and he opened his mouth. “Don’t interrupt,” she spat harshly. “I just want to say that if you don’t start to support me, whether you like what I’m doing or not, I won’t be helping any longer.” Out of all her revelations from the night before, this one had been the most important: without the necessary support, they would pound her into a mold that was both suffocating and hypocritical.
Giles was silent for a long moment. “What do you mean?”
She sighed, tempted to pinch the bridge of her nose. “I mean, I can’t take it anymore. I’m not a tool that you can use when you like.” The volume of her voice was rising incrementally as she tried to keep her anger in check.
“I’ve never thought of you as a tool, Willow.” The Watcher’s voice was gentle but the patronizing tone unsettling her control a little.
Willow forced herself to soften a little. “Then how do you think of me?” That stopped Giles cold, for she knew he didn’t have a clear answer to the question. “I’m not a Slayer, Giles, or a pawn for the Watcher’s Council or something you can only pull out when you need it.” She leaned down and picked up her bag, prepared to leave the Watcher’s domain. “Think about it.” With that said, she maneuvered out of the library and through the school to her locker.
The research momentarily forgotten, Giles stared into space and reflected on what she had said.
Xander plopped down next to Willow in the cafeteria. He was worried about her lately, since that night of the trade. Her silences were the most unsettling but he had also noticed how she stopped looking other people in the eye. Her quiet was less disconcerting than the eye thing but it was enough to cause worry all the same. The lack of bubbly babbling could mean any of several things from mere introspection to something really bad happening at home.
But Willow’s parents wouldn’t do anything like that to her, right?
Shaking his head, Xander reminded himself that Sheila and Ira weren’t like that. Sure, they’d gotten even more neglectful since they started high school but they were nothing like his parents.
“I know you’re worried,” she murmured suddenly.
Xander turned to her suddenly, his brown eyes large with worry. “What’s going on?”
Willow shook her head, her eyes darting to look at Xander for a moment. She clenched her eyes shut for a moment, sadness etched across her face. “Just… my dad told me something unexpected.”
Her halting voice made him arch an eyebrow. He was well aware that she was keeping herself from telling him anything telling, responding with vague diplomacy instead. “C’mon, Will. I’m your best bud. Best buds don’t keep secrets.”
Almost immediately, her eyes darkened and turned cold. “Really?” Somehow, in the back of his head, he knew she was remembering secrets he had unwittingly revealed, such as his memory of being a hyena and admitting the loss of virginity to Faith’s experience. Both of these times, he had hurt her deeply and he would never have done so given the choice.
He let the good-natured tone drop out of his voice. “Willow, I worry.”
That stricken look of grief was back. What had happened? “I know. I’ll tell everyone in the library after classes are over, okay?”
Xander nodded. “But we’re okay, right?”
Willow pressed her lips together, shrinking them to a thin line. “Sure.” She forced a grin on her face – he could see the falseness in the expression. “Don’t worry, okay? Everything will be fine.” She stood and walked out of the cafeteria, vaguely aware of Xander’s following eyes.
Xander looked back when he heard someone else sit down at the table. It was Buffy, the concern in her eyes not quite as deep as he thought it should be. “What’s with Willow? Is she avoiding me?” He cringed internally at the words, barely noticing the joking tone.
“Nah, she’s just Willow, y’know?” He was pretty sure Buffy would accept that. While it was true that he didn’t really know what was bugging his best friend, he was well aware that her motives were often more complex than Buffy’s single-track mind would want to follow.
Buffy nodded, easily accepting the answer. Xander smiled a little, very little humor in the expression. He knew that the Slayer often thought of him as stupid and possibly useless but there were many things that he knew that she didn’t. He knew that she would be long dead without him; he knew that Wesley respected her skill and determination, especially after the trade; lastly, he knew Willow better than anyone alive, including Oz, and knew that whatever was happening was bigger than he could begin to guess.
Willow stood at the library doors for the second time that day, trying to bring her emotions to some semblance of calm. In a few short days, her life had been flipped upside down and her new memories of the other Willow’s experiences didn’t help much. Sure, it gave her clarity but having knowledge of the future, of things that were certain not to change was more than disconcerting.
“Pull yourself together, Rosenberg,” she muttered to herself.
A light nudge at the doors opened them, revealing the inside of the library. Wesley stood at the check-out counter, looking like he was desperately trying not to wring his hands, and eyed the others at the research table. Buffy, Cordelia and Xander were sitting there, already comfortable, and Giles stood off to the side cleaning his glasses. He looked more strained than usual and Willow took a small piece of comfort in the fact that he had ignored her warning.
She had really been afraid she would have to leave the group earlier than planned.
“Willow,” Wesley hissed softly.
Willow arched an idle eyebrow. The Watcher must be really worried, for he normally called most of them by the surnames. “Yeah?”
His face was a mask of worry and apprehension. “What did you say to Mr. Giles this morning? He has refused to research a viable plan of action as to the Ascension all day.”
She smiled slightly, a gentle curving of her lips. “Don’t worry, Wes. It’ll work out.” Though her stomach had been turning in knots all day, she had felt much better after talking with Xander. Everything wasn’t so bad. Besides, if all else failed, she knew how to kill the Mayor when he reached his demon state.
After all, everything burns.
The young man opened his mouth to equivocate or something probably equally as irritating but Willow shot a venomous Resolve Face in his direction, to which he had no choice but to release his statement in a soundless breath. Nodding, she turned back to her friends.
Buffy was the first to speak, taking charge of a situation as she usually did. “Willow, what’s going on with you?”
The redhead frowned at the Slayer’s tone. It was exasperated and confused. A natural state for the blond girl, it seemed. Willow suppressed her reaction, which was to smile at the thought. “I just wanted to tell you that I’ll be flying out tomorrow but I’ll be back in time for prom.”
The reactions that followed were expected. Cordelia sighed and gazed at her fingernails, probably asking herself why she was even here. Xander stayed quiet, knowing to wait for her to clarify. Willow could see the questions in her eyes but he knew her well enough to treat these cryptic phases with patience. Buffy, however, exploded into questions. There was no telling how long her current outburst had been stewing in silence.
“What? Where are you going? Why didn’t you tell anybody?”
It wasn’t until now that the high-pitched whine of Buffy’s voice began to agitate Willow but she pushed the feeling down. Xander reached up and pulled Buffy back into her seat, having obviously noticed the subtle expression forming on Willow’s face. “She wasn’t finished, Buffy.”
The Slayer had the sense to look sheepish, at least. “Oh.” She huddled back down in her seat and gazed at Willow with an open expression. The redhead was sure whether she wanted to laugh at her or cuff her on the ear.
“I was told this weekend that Ira Rosenberg is not my biological father,” Willow began. She smiled a little at Buffy’s audible gasp and the way Cordelia suddenly sat up and paid attention. Her expression gentled at the look of sympathy that flitted across the popular girl’s features. “My parents are taking me to Washington D.C. to meet him.”
Buffy opened her mouth and asked her question before Xander could stop her again. “Who is he?”
Xander cringed silently and Willow swallowed past the lump that had formed in her throat. Would this feeling ever pass? “His name is Jethro Gibbs. He works for NCIS and used to be a Marine.”
“NCIS?” Cordelia echoed. “What is that?”
Wesley cleared his throat to make his presence known. “I’ve heard of it. It’s an American government agency that investigates crimes that have a Navy or Marine association. The acronym stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, I believe.”
Willow smiled at the young Watcher and nodded at his explanation. “Yeah, that’s what Dad said.”
Now, Xander finally spoke. “Are you okay, Willow?”
She smiled tremulously, pressing her lips together. “I will be.” Finally, she sat in front of one of the computers and looked Giles in the eye. “So, research?” That direction alone set all of them on a familiar and more comfortable path of massive research but the older Watcher and the young witch shared a long look of understanding, one that said they would talk again. Soon.