The Letter

Chapter 13:
The Prodigal

The Letter
The  Coat
The Man
The Truth
The Talk
The Visit
The Dinner
Friends Come Visiting
Epiphany
Making Contact
Back in the Saddle Again
Pennies from Heaven
The Prodigal
Revelation
Reconciliation
The Salon
A New Beginning
Tea and Sympathy
Convergence
Encounters and Interludes
Desperate Measures
Dancing in the Dark
The Vampire, the Witch and the Watcher
A Week in the Death of William the Bloody
Phoenix Rising
Picking Up the Pieces
I Love a Parade
Mr. and Mrs. Summers

Xander couldn't keep still; he paced up and down the row of seats at the arrival concourse.

"Give it a rest, Xander," Dawn teased from where she sat. "You'll wear out the carpeting."

"I can't help it," he insisted. "She's coming back. Willow's coming home and we can finally get back to the way things are supposed to be."

"Giles warned us that she was still recovering," Buffy reminded him, not wanting his expectations to make him too optimistic. "It might be some time before we see normal again."

"Whatever it takes," he maintained. "Guys, it's Willow!" He looked at his watch, then impatiently at the arrival board again. "Where are they? Their flight landed nearly half an hour ago." He threw himself into a chair that protested this cavalier treatment.

"Don't forget that they still have to clear customs," Dawn pointed out. "And maybe Giles is bringing in some strange magical stuff and they're both being searched." Her eyes lit with some glee at the prospect.

Minutes later, the doors to the customs and immigration arrivals area swung open and passengers began to emerge. Xander started up every time he saw a red-headed woman emerge, but none of them proved to be Willow. The original rush of passengers slowed to a stream, and then to a trickle, and there was still no sign of Willow and Giles. The three of them had almost given up hope when the doors opened once more and a thin, pale, auburn-haired woman emerged, clinging intently to the arm of the older leather-jacket-clad man beside her.

"Oh my god," Buffy breathed. "Is that Giles? And if it is, then is that--"

"Willow," Xander finished for her, and rushed forward to embrace his oldest friend.

Willow stiffened at first, but released Giles's arm and returned Xander's embrace.

"It's so good to have you home again, Will," he said when he was finally willing to release her.

She ducked her head. "It's good to be home again." When she raised her eyes again, she looked over at Buffy and Dawn who were standing apart from the rest of them, and her face pinched as if she were tasting something unpleasant that she'd been told was good for her. "Buffy... Dawn... I'm so sorry for everything." And then, suddenly and shockingly, she burst into gulping sobs.

**********

The drive home in Xander's car was completed mostly in silence, and Buffy cast regular anxious glances from the front seat. Dawn had offered to ride the hump in the centre seat, but Willow had insisted on being next to Giles and so sat with her legs uncomfortably folded up in front of her. She leaned onto his shoulder and kept her eyes closed.

Willow emerged somewhat from her weariness when they pulled up at the Summers home. Every tree at the house on Revello Drive had been swathed with yellow ribbons, tied in bows and draped between boughs. On the porch, like a pair of citron sentinels, stood two yellow balloons shaped like crayons.

"The crayons were my idea," Xander explained proudly, which drew the first unforced smile from Willow since she had returned. "I made the sign, too," he bragged, as they opened the door to reveal a large banner bearing the message 'Welcome home Willow'. They set to the business of sorting out coats and luggage in the foyer.

"Now everyone just get comfortable," Dawn commanded. "Dinner should be ready in half an hour." With that announcement, she marched off into the kitchen.

"Is that... really a wise idea?" Giles asked Buffy in a low voice when Dawn had left. "I've heard tales of some of her creations."

"Actually, she's improved a lot," Buffy replied. "It seems I'm always getting evening shifts, so she's been making dinners for most of the summer. We've only had one or two tragic food mishaps."

"Yeah, like that incident with the noodles," Xander added as he took a seat on the couch.

"I heard that!" Dawn shouted back from the kitchen. "That had nothing to do with me - it's not my fault we had a defective colander."

**********

By unspoken agreement, they kept the conversation during dinner to lighter subjects. Xander took up most of the main course with a description of his meteoric rise to a position of some real authority in his construction firm, and Willow and the others made appropriately appreciative noises.

While she had never doubted her friend's talent and would never have for a moment begrudged him his success, Buffy wondered to herself if his advancement weren't equally due to the fact that Sunnydale suffered from a greater than usual amount of 'environmental damage', and the tendency of skilled workers to vanish under questionable circumstances. Still, she kept these thoughts from her face and she in turn regaled the others with stories of the peculiarities of her DoubleMeat co-workers. But it wasn't until Dawn began to describe some of her classes at the rebuilt high school that Willow had begun to tentatively respond with advice for the young scholar.

I should have known that was what it would take to bring her out, Buffy reflected. Even more than the magic, academics were always what Willow loved best.

As if sensing the change in mood at the table, even Giles finally relaxed his wariness somewhat and began to spin tales of his native land. Buffy finally began to realize just how much he had ached for his home for all his years in Sunnydale doing his duty, and let slip away the last lingering resentment over his departure last year. By the time dessert was on the table, it was almost as though the events of the previous year had never occurred.

Almost. Buffy sometimes thought that if she turned around just so, she would see Tara again, moving with quiet grace, and she wondered just how much more difficult it must be for Willow to be back in this house again. She got up and began to help Dawn with the task of clearing the table, leaving Xander to try and find a way to reconnect with the friend he had almost lost and had brought back from the brink of despair.

Dawn was filling the sink and gradually loading dishes into the waiting bubbles. She handed Buffy the drying cloth with a grateful look. "You know, I'm sure we have enough money saved by now to get someone in to look at the dishwasher," she said.

Buffy smiled. "Maybe. On the other hand, I don't get to spend enough time with you as it is. Look at this as an opportunity."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "This wasn't what I had in mind when I made that complaint. I was thinking about something in a more mall-like setting."

Her sister whacked her playfully with the cloth. "Keep dreaming."

**********

Buffy left Dawn to put away the dishes and returned to the dining room, where Willow had finally relaxed enough to laugh at Xander's jokes. She turned as Buffy came in. "That didn't take long."

"Yeah, we've become an unstoppable force in the kitchen," Buffy joked. "No dishes dare stand against us." She pulled out her chair and sat down again. "There's nothing like the DoubleMeat sanitation video to improve your efficiency."

"From the sounds of things, it might almost be preferable to have demons attacking the restaurant again," Willow said. "Your abilities are wasted there - and I don't just mean the mystical ones. You shouldn't have to put such limits on yourself, Buffy. When you've got powers that most people--"

Her face abruptly lost all colour and twisted with pain. She clutched at her stomach and pushed away from the table all in one desperate motion, and then she was pounding up the stairs almost before her chair had clattered to rest on the hardwood floor. Buffy and Xander stared incredulously after her, and heard the bathroom door slam upstairs. Dawn came into the doorway, a forgotten pot dangling from one hand. "What's going on?"

It was a few confused moments before Buffy noticed that Giles showed no surprise at all at Willow's behaviour. A terrible, awful suspicion sank sharp claws into her gut and she turned to confront him.

"What the hell have you done to her?" Not her mentor anymore. He was still a trusted friend, but one whose authority was no longer even the slight hold on her that it had once been. Now that he was setting himself in opposition, outside the pale in a place where she believed him to be very wrong, she wasn't afraid to challenge him.

Long minutes passed. "It's very complicated," he began at last.

"Try me," she snapped impatiently. "You'll find I understand a lot more than anyone ever gave me credit for."

Giles removed his glasses and rubbed his face wearily. For a moment, Buffy's heart ached at the old, familiar gesture, but she quashed the emotion ruthlessly.

"Well?"

"We couldn't remove the magic," he confessed when he had himself under control again. "It had become too ingrained into her own life force, become a reflex action. Removing it would have been tantamount to killing her. So instead we... walled it off. Blocked her access to it while leaving it to sustain her life. Any attempt to directly control it causes her pain. It's a sort of geas, you could say. And it was decided to make me the key to it."

Buffy wasn't going to confess she didn't know the word; she'd get a definition later. His meaning was clear enough. "You're controlling her mind?"

"Who the hell gave you the right?" Xander demanded, surging up from the table as though about to swing on him.

"I did," Willow said quietly from the bottom of the stairs, her face pale but composed, and Xander collapsed back into his chair. "I knew I might never be able to control it, and I... I don't want to be dead." Even after all her years on the Hellmouth, Buffy thought the most disturbing thing she had ever seen was the sudden flood of tears down Willow's face while her friend went on speaking, unaware, her face untouched by any emotion. "Maybe someday I'll be strong enough, but for now this is what has to be done to me." She turned her attention back to Giles. "Rupert, get us a cab. We need to go."

"You're leaving?" Dawn protested. "I thought that you and I might bake some cookies together later. You know so many good recipes." I just want to make you feel better, somehow. "Remember how you said that baking... relieves inner turmoil?" she offered tentatively.

The sudden naked anguish on Willow's face drove them all back a step. "You think that baking cookies is going to make things all right again? I watched Tara die in front of me and tasted her blood on my face. I killed two men in the most horrible ways I could imagine because I thought that no one could possibly suffer as much as I had in that moment!" Her voice rose in shrieking crescendo. "I thought it was better to end the entire world than to go on feeling pain like that and you want me to bake fucking cookies?" Willow spun and fled the house for the relative sanctuary of the front porch, slamming the door behind her.

"I just thought it would be fun," Dawn said in a child's small voice, and crumpled in tears into Xander's embrace. Buffy moved closer to encircle the two of them with her arms. The sound of Dawn's sobs and Giles's quiet voice on the phone summoning a taxi were the only noises in the house for some time.

"There's no need to disturb yourselves further on our account," Giles said as he gathered their things in the foyer. "We'll wait outside for the cab." 

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