Willow lay on Buffy’s bed, staring out the window into nothing. She had been lying there for two days, saying nothing, eating nothing, rising only to go to the bathroom. And she only did that when she was sure that no one was around. She couldn’t face the people who had once been her dearest friends. She just couldn’t. Whatever she would see in their eyes, compassion or blame, she knew she wouldn’t be able to stand it.
Besides, even if none of that were so, there was no point in moving. No point in speaking. No point in eating. No point in anything, now that Tara was dead. Now that it was over, killing her killer hadn’t changed anything. Tara was dead, the world was over, and nothing else mattered.
Anyone looking in on Willow might well wonder if she was in a coma, she moved so little. But even people in a coma have some awareness of what’s going on around them, or so encouraging doctors say. Right now, Willow was listening to an argument outside the bedroom door. One that had been repeated many times over the last two days.
"I still say we break in there and kill her before she gets her strength back." Anya.
"And I reiterate: you go through me to do it." Xander.
"You do remember what she did, don’t you, Xander?" Dawn.
"I’m sure I remember even better than you do."
"Don’t you care that she tried to kill Buffy? And she threatened to turn me into—into nothing again!"
"And yet here you both stand, not a scratch on you, while I’m the one who needed stitches. And I forgive her."
"Buffy isn’t standing here."
"It’s a figure of speech, Anya."
"She needs to go to jail, Xander."
The first time Willow had heard this argument, she had cried herself unconscious into Buffy’s pillow. That was two days ago, only an hour or two after Xander had returned to the Summers house with her and put her to bed. She cried not because her friends hated her—well, not just—but because it forced her to remember what she had done. And why she had done it.
She didn’t cry anymore. She had no more tears left. Her body just couldn’t afford to lose anymore water and salt.
This argument was different from the ones that had come before it, though. One voice was missing: Buffy, who had been trying desperately to mediate and keep everyone calm. It hadn’t been easy. The low point had come when Dawn had shrieked at her: "Of course you’re defending her. You wanted to die! You wanted the world to end! You don’t care about me and you don’t care about yourself or else you wouldn’t have tried to leave me with Spike after he tried to rape you!"
Buffy had defended herself as best she could—something about a cellular-level "sunburn" that allowed Spike to hurt her, but no one else—but it didn’t help. Buffy was trying to be reasonable, and none of this was about reason.
Willow wondered, with a dull, apathetic sort of curiosity, where Buffy could have gone. Back to Doublemeat Palace, perhaps?
Willow was still turning this over in her mind when she realized that the argument outside had fallen silent. Had they gone to bed? Willow didn’t pay attention to time anymore. She was about to drift away into her fugue again when she heard footsteps coming up the stairs. The footsteps were heavier than any of the girls’, or even Xander’s.
Then came a knock at her door. "Willow? Are you awake? It’s me."
Giles. The friend she’d hurt worst of all. Buffy must have gone to pick him up from the hospital. Willow curled up into a tight ball and found that she had a few tears left after all.
The knocking continued. "Willow? I’m coming in."
The door opened, then closed again. Willow didn’t look up or even move as Giles crossed the room, took the chair from the desk in the corner, set it between her and the window, then sat in it.
"Sit up," he commanded. "Look me in the face, if you can."
Willow obeyed—that is, she sat up, but she couldn’t look at him for more than a moment. With his bandages and bruises, he looked too much like he had after Angelus had tortured him. Instead, she stared at her hands where they lay in her lap.
"They’re discussing what to do with you out there," he told her without preamble. "Anya, as always, favors the course of action that guarantees her safety. Dawn wants to send you to jail, Xander is defending you against all comers, and Buffy doesn’t know what to do." He paused, probably to allow that to sink in, then continued. "Jail would probably be the most appropriate. You are guilty of two murders, several assaults, numerous crimes of property damage, and even the odd traffic violation. You could be locked away for a very long time."
"I know," Willow whispered. Her voice was almost completely powerless. So different from two days ago, when she had shouted so loud that the universe had been forced to listen and obey.
None of it mattered, anyway. Prison didn’t scare her now. It was what she deserved, but that didn’t matter either. One place was as bad as another. There was no getting away from what she’d done—or why.
"It’s what Faith did when she did this," she continued. Faith. The girl she’d hated so much. The traitor. And now she’d become her.
"Yes, but you’re not going to jail," Giles said. "All of your crimes were committed with magic, which I don’t believe is recognized by any court of law. If you were to confess to a judge that you had magically skinned a man alive and then incinerated his body, you probably would be locked up—but in a mental hospital."
"Even better," Willow said dully. "I could break out of a prison, but maybe the drugs at the hospital could keep me from using magic."
Giles scowled. "No. What you’re going to do is come back with me to England."
"England?" Willow’s head snapped up, and for the first time, she really met Giles’ eyes. Before, she had been too busy looking at his bruises. Those eyes were hard and stern and brooked no disagreement. Whatever he was taking her to England for, it wasn’t going to be fun—she had no illusions about that. But there was something else in those eyes, too. Something that she didn’t recognize because her father had never looked up from his paper long enough to look at her like that. Still, it gave her the first stirrings of hope she’d felt since…since…
"Oh…okay," she said. "Wherever I go, I need to get away from the Hellmouth. I—I’m quitting magic," she declared. "For good this time—and I can’t turn around without stepping in some here. Bad place for detox."
Giles’ frown deepened, and Willow hurried on. "I’ll never use magic again, I swear. I can do it. I really can. I’d been ninety-four days magic free last time, and I was still going strong when…" she choked, then tried again. "When…" She could go no further. She burst into tears.
The world came back to her a little while later. Giles was holding her tight, letting her soak his bandages with her tears while she apologized incoherently to, well, everyone, but mostly him and Tara: "Oh, god, baby, I’m sorry I couldn’t save you I’m sorry Giles I hurt you so bad…"
"Willow," he said softly, with the kind of patience that told her that he’d said it many times already. "Willow, listen to me. You aren’t quitting anything."
Willow sat bolt upright, staring, her red eyes wide and her mouth hanging open in her tear-streaked face. Giles couldn’t have shocked her out of her weeping more effectively if he’d slapped her.
"Magic is a part of you," he said in a calm, lecturing tone. "If it were not, you could never have reached such heights of power. You could no more ‘quit’ magic than you could ‘quit’ using your right arm. You tried before, and you failed—as you were doomed to. What you need is to be taught how to use your magic properly."
"But I—" Willow tried to protest, but Giles quickly overruled her.
"Your education in magic has been a worst-case scenario," he continued. "You learned in Sunnydale, where your power was both augmented and tainted. You learned in the midst of a nightly war, where every spell had to be considered for its utility in battle. Worst of all, you had no real teacher. Jenny might have been, but she died. And I—" He paused and cleared his throat, looking away for a moment. "I believe that I failed you quite badly in that respect. I must confess that I…" He paused again, taking off his glasses and cleaning them. "I was afraid. I’d made so many grievous mistakes of my own that I felt unqualified to teach anyone. Instead, I tried to keep you away from magic entirely, as hopeless as I knew that to be. But I still—" He put his glasses back on and looked her determinedly in the face. "I still kept turning to you whenever I needed magic done. That was both hypocritical and foolish, and I apologize for it. I’m sure that in the long run, it only hurt your development."
"Giles I…I don’t know what to say. I mean, after all I’ve done, especially to you…and you’re apologizing!"
"Oh, don’t mistake me," Giles warned her. "None of this excuses what you’ve done. Bad upbringing only excuses so much. You made your own choices, even though everyone from me to Xander to Tara tried to warn you what was happening. I just wanted to own my own part in it. After all, you’re so badly educated that you don’t even know what it means to be a magician."
Willow had been called many things in her time, but badly educated had never been one of them. She was taken aback, but didn’t quite dare to be offended. "What does it mean?" she asked timidly.
Giles leaned forward, resting an elbow on his knee and looking at her intently. "Magicians have been part of humanity since the first cave person walked away from the fire and learned the language of the spirits. Since then, we have been shamans, priests, seers, prophets, pharaohs, astrologers, advisers to kings—the guides and leaders of humanity. The word ‘magi’ itself means ‘wise ones’. To some degree, we’ve been replaced in that role by scientists in the modern world. They’re the Seekers of Knowledge now. But magicians still have a role to play." He wagged a finger at her, in full Watcher-lecture mode: "That is why people like Rack exist, why the Dark Forces try so hard to corrupt a mage. Corrupting a mage, like corrupting any other leader, affects all of the people that mage might have influenced."
"A leader? Me?" Willow blurted. "No—Giles, I don’t know who else you know named Willow, but you’re not thinking about me. I’m—I was always just the net girl. Before I got on the magic, all I could do was research and hacking and…stuff. I’m no leader."
"You still think of yourself like that?" Giles said, surprised. Then he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "No wonder it happened this way…" he said, mostly to himself. "It’s always the ones who are least secure in their power who feel the need to…" Then he shook his head and turned his attention back to her. "You led us last summer," he said. "After Buffy died, we were lost. Even me. You were the one who called the ambulances that night, who went to Los Angeles to inform Angel, who came up with the new plans and methods for patrolling. You pulled us through. But then, you were never just the ‘research girl’. You’ve always been willing to step in and take command when necessary. And if your final decision as a leader was a bad one, you still did quite well until then."
"That’s just the thing," Willow protested. "That last decision—I didn’t need Rack, Giles, I was sacrificing cute animals and raising Buffy from the dead and threatening you long before I ever met him. It wasn’t about him. It was about me—me and the magic."
Giles nodded. "Good. That’s a good attitude to have—it gives us a good place to start from."
Willow clenched her fists so hard that her nails dug into her palms and drummed them on her thighs. Tears of frustration suddenly sprang into her eyes. "Don’t you get it?" she pleaded. "I tried to destroy the world! It just all hurt so much…everywhere, everyone, it hurt so much…and I…" Her voice fell and her eyes dropped back to her lap. "I killed someone. Two someones. I just…I can’t. I can’t take the chance."
Giles took her by the chin and forced her to look up and into his face again. Startled, Willow couldn’t help but meet his eyes, which had gone hard.
"Yes, you killed someone," he said in a cold-iron voice. "Most magicians do. You killed a cold-blooded killer of women who murdered your lover and a dark magic pushing pedophile. I killed friends. Sometimes I don’t think you’re a proper magician until you’ve betrayed your friends and gotten some blood on your hands." He released her chin with a sigh and straightened in his chair, but Willow kept staring at him wide-eyed.
"Killing a person, however evil, does change you," he admitted in a softer voice. "And not for the better. But I must confess that, had I been here, I might have done something very similar."
Willow’s eyes widened further. Giles noticed.
"Are you so surprised? I loved Tara, too. That bastard killed one of my children, and I’m glad he’s dead." He gave a cold, humorless smile. "The berserk rampage that followed, however, must be addressed."
"But…what about Buffy?" Willow blurted.
Giles quirked an eyebrow at her. "What about her?"
"You and her are always so much about not killing humans, about letting the system take care of it, about souls…"
"Actually, that’s Buffy. Not me. Did you think I taught her that philosophy?"
Willow nodded silently.
"Buffy kills sentient beings every night," Giles said. "She must draw a line somewhere to keep from losing herself entirely to the violence." He paused, and when he continued there was a warning in his voice. "You will not repeat this to her," he said.
Willow shook her head.
"Before he lost his soul, Angel was kind and loving—her lover and our friend. After, he was Angelus. This has led her to believe that souls are the key, that they are the line she must never cross. The difference between the demons she must kill and the humans she must not. Souls and humanity have become something of an obsession for her. But neither prevents a person from being evil." He sighed. "It’s good that Buffy places that limitation on herself. It would be all too easy for her to lose control and become like Faith. But sometimes the System doesn’t work, and you have to wonder if monsters should be allowed to escape just because they’re human."
They sat in silence for a moment—Giles lost in thought while Willow stared at him incredulously. Then Giles glanced at his watch. "It’s late," he said. "And it seems I’ve gone off-topic." He stood. "You should pack your bags and get some sleep," he advised. "We leave tomorrow."
Willow started to protest, but he cut her off with a flat sweep of his hands. "No. Enough. You’ll quit nothing. You may not have known it when you signed aboard, but you have a responsibility to the world. That’s the price of power like yours. Buffy may be our Queen Bloody Arthur, but you and I are sharing Merlin. In fact, I may look the part, but you’re the one who really fits it. You have the knowledge of both magic and science, and you’re more powerful to boot. You have a duty, and a debt to pay. After what you’ve done, you have no right to give up. Do you understand me?"
Willow nodded mutely.
"Good," Giles said. Then he crossed to the door, leaving Willow staring out the window again. "I’ll see you in the morning."
Willow nodded again.
Giles paused in the doorway. "And Willow?" He called back.
"If it makes any difference, I forgive you."
Willow’s eyes widened and she turned to him, but he was already closing the door.