Shaky fingers fumbled with the buttons to an eight-year-old sweater coat, a favorite of hers as much for its comfort as for the fact that it was just the perfect shade of russet to match her hair. The button, a dulled copper disk threaded with a dark green yarn, slipped through her fingers and completely missed the buttonhole held in her other hand.

“Dammit,” she muttered, and closed her eyes against the tiny defeat.

“Here.” Strong, male hands slipped over hers and gently tugged her fingers from the material. In a moment he had the button done and was straightening her sweater, stepping back to admire her. “Lookin’ good,” he whistled, eliciting a small smile from her, finally, and he acknowledged it with, “Been waiting a while for one of those.”

Her eyes, tired and on the verge of tears, met his, but she didn’t speak.

“So, are we ready? Big day. Going outside.” he teased, talking to her as if she were a child.

In a sense, she was, if he thought about it. All summer it had been the same thing. From the moment he’d half-carried her off that cliff in Sunnydale, to right now, he’d been with her, at her side, her rock, her support system. He’d held her, he’d comforted her, he’d traveled halfway across the world while she got her magic-detox, a procedure that had left her a shell of the girl he’d known all his life. Gone was the lilt in her voice, the sparkle in her eye, and replacing them were a fear, a nervousness, and a desire to hide.

It had been a long time since he’d had to be the strong one around Willow. Ever since a certain Vampire Slayer had made her debut in Sunnydale, Willow had been growing stronger and stronger.

And more out of control and more out of control, he thought. And I didn’t see it until it was too late.

“Stop it,” she ordered him with as much strength as she could muster.

“Stop what?” he asked, innocent grin instantly reappearing.

“You’re blaming yourself again.”

“And you, witchy-poo, aren’t supposed to be reading me anymore,” he chastised gently.

She glanced at him cryptically while adjusting a scarf around her neck. “I don’t need magic to see that, Xander. It’s so obvious. Whenever you start feeling guilty about what happened, which is my job, by the way, you stare at me with this look on your face like any minute you’re going to tuck me into your pocket, just so you’ll always know where I am.”

“I don’t think you’d fit,” he told her, fingering the pocket of his shirt. “Even in my cargo pants.”

She spared him one more mock-glare and turned back to her image in the mirror, adjusting her scarf over and over again, then playing with the hem of her shirt, tugging it this way, then that, and he watched her as she performed this ritual. She seemed to think that the more layers of clothing she wore, the more protected from the outside world she would be…or perhaps the more protected the world would be from her. T-shirt, button-down, sweater…jacket or coat…the more she put on, the further down Willow was, the real Willow. The flesh of her.

He approached her from behind and placed a hand over hers, stopping the incessant tugging on her neckline, and they stared at each other in the mirror. “Stop,” he ordered gently.

Her heart-shaped mouth turned into a frown. “But it just doesn’t--”

“You look fine,” he assured her. “We’re only going for a walk around the block. Not even stopping.” He paused, considering. “Well, maybe if the Zoom-truck comes around. Ice cream may take priority.”

“I just—what if it’s raining?” she asked, a touch of nervousness entering her voice.

His chin came to rest on her shoulder, his arms snaked around her waist and hugged her. “It’s not. But we’ll bring an umbrella.”

“We could get mugged.”

“Distinctly possible in Giles’ section of town…those Watcher’s are tight with a pound. But that’s why you’ll have me. Me protector of tiny women, me scourge of limey muggers,” he said in his best men-are-beasts-voice.

That forced her to roll her eyes until a new thought seized her mind. “What if we get separated?”

“Why would we?”

“What if we’re walking by the zoo and an animal escapes?”

“We aren’t going by the zoo.”

“What if the streets are closed for repair and we do?!” she squeaked, panic rising in her voice.

“Willow, you’re reaching now.”

“No! I’m not! These are things that could happen! And they’re not the worst! What if…what if something happens and I use magic without thinking about it? What if we come across someone being attacked, and I just, ‘blip!’” she pointed a finger, “without even remembering I’m not supposed to?!”

“And what if the sky is falling, and what if flying hamsters attack, or what if we come across Madonna on an afternoon stroll with Rocko and Lourdes? It might happen. But chances are…not likely. Especially the Madonna thing. She lives in a big fancy London house. Nowhere near here.”

“There could be vampires,” Willow whispered, last-ditch effort.

“It’s one o’clock in the afternoon,” he pointed out, steering her towards the door.

“It’s overcast.”

“Which, even in England, still doesn’t mean anything. Vamps are sleeping. Besides…we haven’t seen a single demon in the three months we’ve been here. Remember that whole conversation we had with Buffy last week? She figures that’s why the Council is based here, where it’s safe, and she’s in Sunnydale, home of the Hellmouth.”

“This isn’t funny,” Willow told him, completely serious.

“I know it isn’t. Hence my no-laughing. Will…come on. You haven’t been out in weeks. You’re not going to lose it in the middle of Piccadilly Square and have some sort of magic fit. I’m here. You’ve been going strong for months now. Sure, you were shaky at first…but you did it. And I think it’s about time you see the sun again before I start thinking perhaps you’re a vampire yourself.”

She scowled at him to hide the smile that threatened. “We’re not even close to Piccadilly.”

He rolled his eyes and grinned. “And now she comes in with the logic. A minute ago it was all escaping zoo animals and now it’s reason.”

“There could be an earthquake?” she squeaked, digging her feet into the thinly carpeted floor.

“Then we’ll journey to the center of the earth together,” he assured her, and opened the door. The day was breezy, but the sun was hinting at making an appearance, and he stepped out, dragging her with him.

Her eyes widened in panic, but she remained where she was as Xander turned and closed the door behind them. “So,” he exclaimed, turning back to her, “where to?”

Willow’s eyes scrunched shut and for a moment he was sure she was going to bolt. Her breath came quickly and her face went ashen, but she remained where she was. A second later, as the sun peeked out and lit across her face, warming it, she reopened her eyes. Squinting at the blast of bright light her breath began to come more easily, less ragged, and against all odds, a smile slowly played across her lips, tentative at first but growing steadily. The world hadn’t exploded. There hadn’t been an earthquake the moment she’d set foot out of the door. And not a monkey in sight.

She glanced around, almost in awe of the world that she’d shut herself out of for so long now, wondering exactly what she’d been afraid of, feeling silly for irrational fear, but mostly glad that things seemed to be as she’d left them. Slowly she turned in a lazy circle, amazed at herself and at the world that had kept on going while she’d been busy breaking down.

There was a flicker of something in her eyes that Xander recognized and hadn’t seen in quite a long time.

After a moment she turned to him and gave him her quirky half-smile before offering him her hand.

He took it and squeezed it in his own, relief visible on his face, and they turned to make their way down the street, one step at a time.

As they went to turn the corner he leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “Told ya.”

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