The Buffy characters don't belong to me; the Highlander characters don't belong to me; and having no superfluous illusions of grandeur, I don't pretend they do. (My illusions are perfectly fluous.) Also, Richie's not dead. How and why isn't important to the story.
The stories in this series are dedicated to Pyrena, who knows that while you can't keep running, you can always move on.
by Maya Tawi
"This town will need you when you're gone...."
~The Butchies, "Population 1975"
December 15, 2006 - Day 0
"These little earthquakes, here we go again
These little earthquakes, doesn't take much to
Rip us into pieces"
~Tori Amos, "Little Earthquakes"
The phone rang, as it had been doing most of the day. Richard Ryan -- eternal teenager, professional mechanic, and accomplished slacker -- studiously ignored it.
He was, he felt, extremely justified in doing so. It had been a long day, with a steady stream of customers in and out of the shop, and him the only one behind the counter. And he'd just sat down and gotten comfortable. And he was in the middle of a really good magazine article. And the commercials were almost over.
Willow, on the other hand, wasn't doing anything but staring at columns of numbers with that little wrinkle of concentration between her eyes that meant she was about to solve a particularly difficult math problem, or else turn to the dark side and start using her powers for evil, in which case: Inadequate record-keepers of the world, beware. She actually looked kind of cute with that wrinkle. Not that he'd ever tell her.
So it was obviously her responsibility to actually pick up the phone and make nice, because she clearly needed the break. After all, if she did manage to catch Duncan off-guard and kill him, Richard didn't want to be the one to clean up the mess. It was specious logic, certainly, but that was the kind he did best.
Unfortunately, she displayed no inclination towards getting up.
Richard buried his nose pointedly in his magazine as the phone rang again, glancing at the simmering accountant out of the corner of his eye. Willow Rosenberg certainly didn't look like the starving, angry woman who'd stumbled into the bookstore down the road, and subsequently into his life, a month previous; the harsh lines around her eyes and mouth were gone, as was the air of desperate, fierce hunger she'd been wearing like a big red A. Or, more appropriately, H. For homeless.
She'd even cut her hair recently, just above chin length, and it was, Richard thought, a good look for her. It made her look older, but in a good way, not in the sad, forlorn way of being too old too soon. She looked a little like a young Gillian Anderson, which, as far as he was concerned, could never be a bad thing.
Physically, Willow was doing better; emotionally, she seemed at times content, as though the mundane daily routine of life at the shop was grounding her back in the world of the living. Still, there were moments when she looked wary of him and Duncan, like she knew everything was too good to be true and she wasn't sure if she should enjoy it while it lasted or bolt while she had the chance. Which Richard definitely empathized with. She had her moods, and she spent a lot of time alone -- he hesitated to say "moping", as that wasn't quite accurate -- prompting Methos to remark once, not very kindly, that she was definitely spending too much time around MacLeod.
The phone rang for a third time, and still the mildly content, stylishly coiffed Willow made no move to answer it.
Richard frowned, turned a page, and realized he had no idea what he'd just read.
Willow gave the keyboard a particularly vicious jab. "Where's Duncan?" she demanded.
"Out." Lucky for him.
"Out with Mac."
"Again? Who's in the store?"
"Well, I was. No one was coming in, so I closed early."
"And you manage to run a business all by yourself?"
"My customers are very understanding about that sort of thing."
"Yeah, 'cause they're all bums --"
She blinked. "Huh?"
By then the answering machine had picked up, and Duncan's voice had started echoing up the stairs: thank you for calling MacLeod Antiques, our hours are, et cetera. Richard relaxed, turning his attention back to the magazine. Mac could deal with it when he got back.
Willow stared at him for another moment, then repeated, "What's a transportist?"
Richard looked up. "What?"
"You said --"
And then the machine beeped, and a hesitant, subdued voice floated up the stairwell: "Um, Willow? Willow Ros -- um, Parsons? My name is Kerry Wethersfeld, I used to be --"
Willow was already racing down the stairs; when the woman had said her name -- hers? unlikely to be a different Willow -- she'd jumped like she'd been slapped, and now the hesitant voice cut off with an abrupt click, replaced by a familiar soft, indistinct murmur.
For a moment Richard just stared blankly at the spot she had occupied not five seconds before, as though she had simply vanished. Then, curiosity outweighing practiced lethargy, he set the magazine down with a sigh, stood, and descended the stairs after her.
"...don't know when," she was saying. "I've been busy -- yes, I know, but I'm not --" She broke off as she saw Richard leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed, and bit her lip. Willow was hunched like a turtle over the phone behind the counter, hiding it from view. Or maybe like an ostrich -- if it couldn't be seen, it was safe. When she looked at him, there was a sort of wary bleakness in her eyes, an expression he knew all too well: the look of someone outnumbered, acknowledging defeat, but still obligated by nature to fight.
After a moment, she asked quietly, "What about them? Money? Because if it's money, I could send some --"
Debts? Richard wondered. Maybe she was in debt to someone. Or involved in something illegal. It occurred to him exactly how little he knew about this woman who'd been camping out in the storage room for the past month.
He suddenly felt very uneasy.
Willow had paused again; now her face suddenly turned white, an unnatural pasty shade that made her look two days dead. Her mouth opened once, then shut again without any sound coming out.
Staring at her thoughtfully, resisting the urge to just grab the phone and demand what the hell was going on, Richard settled in to wait.
Willow said, "Ms. Wethersfeld --"
"Oh, please," the woman said, "Kerry." And Willow closed her eyes, conjuring up the image of a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman with dark hair and stylish cat's-eye glasses.
"Kerry," she repeated warily. "You, um. You worked with my mother, right?" Turning out pages and pages of feminist ideology and good parenting theory, while Sheila's own daughter sat at home alone, cooking for herself most nights. Not that she was bitter. Her mother was a quintessential academic; real life was always much less important than the latest Big Idea.
The woman was saying something, but Willow recognized it as meaningless chit-chat and listened with only half an ear, her eyes roving the small office. She felt suddenly claustrophobic. Trapped.
Parsons, Ms. Weth -- Kerry had said, and Richard had probably heard. She'd have a lot of questions to answer.
And then Kerry was saying, "When did you last talk to your parents?"
Willow bit her lower lip. "I don't know when," she said testily. "I've been busy --"
"Too busy to call home? You know what things have been like here."
It sounded suspiciously like an accusation; Willow resisted the temptation to list all the times her mother had been too busy to even come home, saying instead, "Yes, I know, but I'm not --"
And stopped abruptly as, glancing up, she saw Richard, leaning against the doorway to the staircase. He looked confused, and a little out of breath, and generally not very happy; his short red-blond curls were in disarray, his blue eyes narrowed. Willow blanked out for a moment, staring at him, wondering frantically if she'd said anything she shouldn't have -- not like she had any secrets, really, to speak of -- and Kerry Wethersfeld took the opportunity to plunge ahead.
"I'm not condemning you, Willow. I just --" She broke off with a sigh. "There's no easy way to say this. Your parents...."
"What about them?" Willow asked quietly. "Money? Because if it's money, I could send some --" She hesitated, trying to calculate just how much she could afford. She'd only had her new bank account for a couple of weeks now; she wasn't quite prepared to empty it yet. But if she had to....
She honestly couldn't recall when she'd last spoken to her parents. She'd called them about a month ago, just after moving into the shop, and had gotten the answering machine, where she'd left her new address and phone number. And they'd never called her back, so wasn't it at least partly their fault too, that they hadn't talked?
That, of course, had been after everything else in Sunnydale started happening, when the small town in southern California started making the national news. If she had the chance to talk to her parents, she'd tell them, in no uncertain terms, to leave the area. Whether they'd listen was another matter entirely.
And then Kerry Wethersfeld said quietly, in a rush, "I'm sorry, Willow, your parents are dead."
The room tilted around her. Willow stared fixedly at the answering machine, the message light blinking like an angry red eye. Like a demon eye. Funny how they'd still been alive not five seconds ago, if only in her head. Didn't someone say once that no one was truly dead until everyone who'd ever known them was told?
A few moments passed before she was capable of speaking, and she couldn't really think of anything to say. In the end, because Kerry seemed to be waiting for her to say something, she managed to blurt out a strangled "How?"
Kerry either didn't hear or ignored the question. "You're listed as their executor and sole heir, of course. I mean -- if it's too hard for you, you could sign over power of attorney to someone you trust, but otherwise you should come down here and --" She paused. "Take care of things."
"Oh," Willow said, dazed. Then, "No, of course. I'll -- I'll be there. Right away."
"Good. Good." Kerry sounded immensely relieved; Willow, still in shock, immensely didn't care. "There's a lawyer handling everything, his name is -- have you got a pen? -- Neil Goddard, telephone number...."
Kerry went on talking, and Willow fumbled for a pen, scrawling the number across the back of discarded receipt. Her mind was reeling.
Kerry Wethersfeld trailed off eventually, apparently with nothing left to say, a trait Willow certainly shared with her at that moment. Without another word, she dropped the receiver back on the cradle. Her fingers were numb; it took her a while to recognize them as hers.
Then she turned slowly around and faced Richard.
He coughed. Then he uncrossed his arms and scratched at the back of his head. His eyebrows lowered.
Willow waited dumbly, like a porcelain doll. Inanimate and emotionless. Any minute now, it'd hit her. Any minute now.
Richard said, "Mrs. Parsons, I think we need to talk."
Willow opened her mouth. The words that came out were the only ones that existed for her, the only thing in the world that mattered.
She said, "My parents are dead."
Then she turned on her heel and walked out of the room.
"I thought the name sounded familiar. And then it hit me, God knows why I remembered, but I did. You were in the papers. A few months ago."
"Five," Willow mumbled, the correction seemingly automatic. "Five months."
She was sitting in one of the velvet armchairs, still looking spaced out. Richard stood between her and the door, facing the rest of the room, and Duncan paced back and forth behind her, preoccupied, as indicated by the little vertical frown line between his eyebrows; that was Mac's Official Preoccupied Look. Methos leaned in the doorway to the kitchen, for once not saying anything. The two of them had walked in right after Willow had walked out, for which Richard was secretly grateful. He wasn't sure he could bring himself to accuse a grieving woman without backup.
Priorities. Shades of gray.
Then Willow looked up and blinked and said, in a slightly more aware voice, "I was in the papers? I didn't know."
"Just a small mention," Richard conceded. "In the business section. But it was there."
"You read the business section?" Methos, with obvious disbelief.
Richard scowled at him. "What, you think I'm not smart enough to be interested? Not as smart as, say, you?"
Methos smiled. "I didn't say that." Tone of voice implying, But as long as you did....
Richard bared his teeth.
"I didn't know," Willow repeated. "If I'd known, I wouldn't have told you who I was."
"You didn't," Duncan pointed out. It was the first time he'd spoken since Richard's explanation, and his expression was more or less inscrutable, though Richard thought he could discern a glint of concern in his eyes. Concern and indecision. And, of course, preoccupation.
Willow bit her lip. "Well, yeah. But if I had told you, and then I'd known it was in the papers, especially the Boston papers, then I wouldn't have told you. If I had."
Richard just stared at her, trying to untangle the knot of words. Eventually he just gave up and exclaimed, "You were fired for embezzling! I mean, don't you think that's the kind of thing we should know before we hire you?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Okay, well, I was fired, but they couldn't prove anything, first of all. And you know why they couldn't prove anything and why I was very much not arrested? Because I didn't do it. And second of all, you were so desperate to hire me without even knowing me, I didn't even ask for a job. And third, you didn't even hire me, Duncan did --"
"And I agree with Rich," Duncan interrupted. He seemed slightly angry. "Even if we did press you into employment, and even if -- especially if -- you didn't do it, you still should have told us. If only to prevent exactly this from happening."
Willow snorted. "Oh, right, I should've just -- I just should've been psychic, huh?"
"No, you should have displayed some reasonable foresight."
"Yeah, and now we'll have to go back through all Mac's accounts from the past month, just to be sure," Richard jumped in, folding his arms across his chest. He glared at the tired defiant woman in the armchair, feeling oddly betrayed. He'd become closer to her than anyone else in the shop. And she'd been lying all along, if only by omission.
It was almost like Felicia all over again. Except he and Willow hadn't slept together.
And, well, as far as he knew, she wasn't trying to kill Mac.
Willow stood now, looking utterly defeated. "Oh, just -- just -- you, you go ahead. Knock yourself out. It's been great, really. Maybe I'll see you around sometime." She turned and started for the stairs.
Richard reached for her, then drew back immediately when she spun around. "Where are you gonna go?" he demanded.
She looked up at him bleakly; her large hazel eyes seemed almost frighteningly hollow. "Richard," she said, with some difficulty, "my parents are dead. Both of them. I have to go to Sunnydale and -- and sign a bunch of papers, and collect all their stuff and bring it back with me even though I don't really have a place to put it since I obviously won't be here anymore, and who knows what I'll do with my mother's nightgowns and stuff and I -- I don't -- I don't even know how they died. But I have to leave right now. And unless you want to arrest me for not telling you my legal last name which frankly I hate, and I don't know if you could anyway, though I guess you could try, you can't stop me. So I'm actually gonna go and get my stuff now."
The room was silent for a moment. Richard could feel Methos's eyes on him, a critical, ruthless gaze that always made him self-conscious.
Finally Duncan spoke, sounding tired.
"Willow, it's not that big a deal. We're just reacting to the news, that's all. It was unexpected. If you say you didn't do it, then we believe you. But you should have told us. It wouldn't have made a difference. Look at Richie; I knew he was a thief and I still let him stay. Trust has to work both ways."
Richard started at his old nickname, suddenly feeling guilty. He glanced at Methos again. The old man gave him a pointed look that looked suspiciously like a smirk.
He turned and glared. Maybe he didn't have the high ground, but neither did Willow.
She bit her lower lip now, staring at Duncan; the lip turned white, matching her pale face.
"Maybe I should have," she said finally. "I always thought I was the kind of person who would. You know, conscientious. I guess I just don't trust people anymore. And I won't say I'm sorry for that, because I'm not. Not sorry. Because I have reason not to. Looking out for other people isn't worth it, and anyway it's easier not to have to."
Methos's smirk had faded; now he looked strangely thoughtful. Richard could almost hear the wheels turning.
"Okay, wait a minute," he said, feeling suddenly responsible for the whole situation. As if he was the director all of a sudden, and everyone else was waiting for their motivations.
Willow just looked at him miserably, her eyes red and her nose pink, and waited.
"Forget the whole lying thing. There's plenty of time to deal with that later, when you don't have --" He hesitated. "When you don't have to deal with this. We've heard about Sunnydale, Will. You can't go there alone."
"I have to," she said quietly. "I have to do this on my own, Richard."
"Sure you do," he agreed. "And I'm going with you."
Duncan looked confused. Methos rolled his eyes. Willow sighed and said, "Fanboy."
Richard grinned. "Well, yeah, sure, but I'm being serious here. I mean, I'll leave you alone as much as you want once we're there, but -- come on. I know what it's like to lose family. I wouldn't be much of a friend if I let you go by yourself." He paused, then added, more quietly, "And I want you to know you can trust me. As a friend."
She narrowed her eyes. "The same way you trust me?"
He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut, feeling a sudden coil of guilt tighten in his stomach. Methos's eyes felt like they were burning holes in his back.
All he could say was, "I'm sorry."
Willow's lips twisted. "I am, too," she said. "I'm sorry this didn't work out."
Then she turned and walked slowly, steadily, out the door.
Richard waited until he heard it lock behind her before he spun around to face the peanut gallery.
"Listen, old timer," he snapped, "I know you think the world's just one big show put on for your own private amusement, but your smart remarks are the last thing any of us needs right now --"
Methos's features were schooled into a perfect study of injured innocence. "Hey, what kind of insensitive bastard do you take me for?"
Richard snorted, and Duncan gave them both a sharp look. "Do I have to separate you two?"
"Mac," Richard appealed. "Help me out here."
"Yes, MacLeod," Methos said, sounding amused. "You're the patriarchal figure here. What should young Beaver do?"
"Oh, that's nice. Very flattering. Thank you so much."
"I think you're right, Richie," Duncan said, ignoring the byplay. "She shouldn't go alone. Emotional issues aside, that area hasn't been exactly peaceful lately. It's very possible she could die her first death there."
"Agreed," Richard said, still scowling at Methos, who returned the look with interest. "So what do I do? Follow her in my trusty secret jet?"
Duncan shrugged. "Or try to talk to her again? Grovel, maybe?"
Richard sighed. "Indignity, here I come."
"I have great faith in your groveling ability," Duncan assured him. "But I was thinking --"
"That's never a good sign," Methos murmured.
Duncan gave him a pointed look. "This is a new situation for Richie. A first student is always a big deal. He might need someone around with experience." He smiled. "And Methos has nothing but experience, so --"
Two different voices cut him off.
"You have got to be kidding me."
"No way, Mac."
"Not a chance."
"Not on any non-denominational creationist figure's green earth."
"So stop thinking about it!"
"Right this second."
"Oh, come on, guys," Duncan said, looking soulful. "Pretty please?"
Willow walked back in just before midnight. Richard was curled up on the couch, trying to get to sleep; when he saw her, he rose, following her to the storage room she'd been using as a bedroom without saying a word.
Her arms were full of bags, which she dumped unceremoniously on the rented bed. A couple of things rolled out -- water bottles, long wooden sticks carved sharp on one end, what looked like a large cross, although in the dark he couldn't be certain.
He had to ask. "I thought you were Jewish?"
"Jews for Jesus," Willow said without looking up. "We have joint meetings with Jews for Dental Floss Bungee Jumping. It's a thing."
"Right," Richard said uncertainly. Then, when no explanation seemed forthcoming, he plunged ahead. "Look, I am sorry."
Willow grabbed a duffel bag from the closet and started throwing stuff into it. Clothes, water bottles, wooden sticks. Cross.
"I mean, I don't think I was entirely in the wrong here, and I think you have to agree with that. But I shouldn't have jumped on you like I did. Especially not with what had just happened. And I'm sorry for that, and I don't want you to move out."
She let her breath out in an impatient huff; wispy strands of red hair blew back from her face, then fell forward again. "I can't live in Duncan's storage room for the rest of my life, you know. I have to move out sometime."
"Granted," Richard said. "I'll give you that. But you will keep working here, right?"
"Oh, now you want me to?"
Richard perched slowly on the edge of the bed. "Look, if you say you didn't do it --"
"I didn't --"
"Then I believe you. You should have told us, but we all know now. And we can move past that."
"That's very -- that's so gracious of you," she said, her voice sarcastic and a little flustered.
"Well, I think it is," he said, more sharply than he'd intended. "Considering you should have --"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I should've told you." Willow sighed. "God, I'm getting sick of hearing that. Look, I'm sorry, okay? But that's what happened, and I can't change it. And what makes you think we can just move on and pretend nothing ever happened, anyway?"
"Not pretend it never happened," Richard said. "But accept it, and get past it. We've all made mistakes, myself definitely included. And Mac, you know, he's done a lot for me. He's tried to teach me to do the same. To look past people's actions to their intentions, to what they really want."
Willow looked unconvinced. "And what do I really want?"
"You want to survive," Richard said promptly. "You want to belong somewhere. I know, 'cause I've been there myself. And honestly, Will, hard as it is to accept -- to want to believe that things could actually work out for once -- you have a place here. Whether you want it or not, you can come back here. Keep that in mind, okay?"
She sighed again, dropped the last armful of clothes in the bag, and zipped it shut. "Maybe. But I have to go home first. And it's my real home, much as I wish it wasn't. Or I wish it was, but it had stayed the way it was. Or the way I thought it was, or that anything happened except what ended up happening. You know? But --" She broke off, looking a little embarrassed. "No, I don't guess you do. 'Scuse me."
And as Richard stared at her, confused, she woke up the computer in her room -- a laptop, old and fairly cheap -- and opened a browser window, her fingers flying over the keyboard. Airplane tickets, from LaGuardia to LAX and from there on to Sunnydale, leaving the next morning.
"Round trip," Richard observed. "That's encouraging."
"They're cheaper," Willow said, still staring at the screen.
He half-smiled and said, "I want to come with you, Will. I don't want you to be alone."
She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Then, without looking at him, she said, "You'll stay out of my way, you'll let me do what I need to do."
"Yep," Richard agreed cheerfully.
"You'll do exactly what I tell you to." Her voice was sharp and unaccountably solemn. "If I tell you not to go somewhere, you don't go there. You don't ask any questions."
"I'm serious about this, Richard."
"So am I."
Willow took another deep breath, caught his gaze for a long moment, and then, slowly, reached out and changed the number of passengers to 2.
"I'm leaving at five-thirty," she said shortly. "Morning five-thirty. If you don't get up, you don't come with."
"Hey, now that I think about it, maybe this should just be a you thing --"
She punched his shoulder lightly. She was, he noted with relief, hiding a smile.
"Go pack, Richard."
Prologue | TBC