Monosyllabic Eccentricity

Title: Terrified Heart
Author: Nongenius
Rating: PG
Spoilers: Up to Lessons
Summary: Willow run's into Oz while she's in England.
Disclaimer: I don’t own any of these characters, though I really wish I did. Unfortunately, for me, they all belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and Fox.
Author's Note: Huge thanks to hold_that_thought for pushing me to write anything, then for pushing me to write seriously, and then for pushing me to finish this. Thanks also to Shadowlass, who will one day make me remember how to use ellipses properly. Thanks to rustydog for cheering me on and making me think someone wanted to read this. And huge thanks to all the above for helping me find and fix mistakes. Love y’all.


Part 1

Sometimes, I'm terrified of my heart
How its constant hunger for whatever that it is it wants
The way it stops...and starts
--Poe, “Terrified Heart”


The wind picked up speed and sky seemed to get darker, promising rain.

No big surprise there.

Willow closed her diary and stood up, brushed the dirt from her pants, and started walking towards the house slowly. She sighed and stared up at the sky. She’d only been in England for two weeks and already she felt like she’d experienced enough rainy days for a lifetime.

She loved sitting outside, where the trees didn’t judge her, where she could write her innermost thoughts in her diary in peace. The worst thing about the rain was the way it kept her indoors, unable to escape the whispers, the stares, or the tension that seemed to surround her whenever she left her room.

She knew she had no right to complain. She should just appreciate the fact that she was still alive, and that Ms. Harkness took her in at all. And that Giles had some kind of faith in her.

She wrapped her coat around her tightly and shifted her gaze to the ground. When Giles had told her that he was taking her back to England with him, she had just assumed he was going to bring her before the Council of Watchers. After all, she was an unregistered witch, dabbling in the black arts, threatening to end the world, and the Council was like the supernatural police. Willow had fully expected to be locked up, or beaten, or even handed over to the wet works department to be taken care of for good. And none of those could possibly be punishment enough for the things she had done.

Instead, Giles had taken her to a coven, had given her another chance. And they were good to and for her. But she always saw the fear behind their eyes. The flicker of terror that would run across their faces if she expressed any emotion. She could feel their eyes on her when she left a room. Ms. Harkness had told her that it would pass, eventually, but even Ms. Harkness was careful not to do anything that might upset Willow in any way.

At least Giles was still here with her. He was the only person who didn’t look at Willow like she’d explode at any minute, the only person who was treating her like she was still Willow.

“Too bad I don’t feel like Willow anymore,” she said with a sigh.

The sound of a door closing jarred her out of her thoughts. She looked up to see a man leaving the side door. Something about him seemed familiar, but he was turned away from her so she couldn’t see his face. Curious, she stopped and stared at the figure as it walked towards the front of the house. All that was visible was the back of his coat and his head, but that was enough. She knew that head. The hair was a little longer than she remembered, and a lot bluer than she’d ever seen it, but there was no mistaking it. She quickened her pace, hoping to catch up to him.

She watched him round the corner and she began to run.

“OZ! Oz, wait!” she cried out. She reached the house and turned the corner and nearly collided with a familiar face.

“Tara,” she choked, reaching out her hand as she stumbled over her feet and fell to the ground. She swallowed hard and looked up to find that Tara was gone and a terrified young girl was in her place. The girl backed away slowly, then turned and ran.

The rain began to fall, soaking Willow to the bone. But she was too lost in her own tears to care.

***

The setting sun spread its rays over the English countryside, increasing its intensity as if to maintain its hold over the land. Willow stepped outside. She put her hand up to shield her eyes, and saw the silhouette of a lone figure. She approached the figure slowly and cautiously.

“Willow. I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Oz, what are you doing here?” Willow asked.

“I’m here for you. I heard about…I think I can help you. But not like this,” he said, shaking his head.

“What do you mean? What’s wrong?” Willow asked, bewildered.

“Just wait. You’ll see,” Oz said, glancing up at the sky.

“The sun is going down. It’ll be night soon,” Willow said, as she watched the sunset.

“Yes, it will,” Oz replied.

The sun slowly dipped lower and lower, touching the horizon and sinking into the ground, the moon becoming more and more visible.

Oz turned to Willow and smiled. “It’s almost time.”

“Time for what?” Willow asked, beginning to feel a little nervous.

“For me to show you something.”

Oz grabbed Willow’s arm and pulled her closer to him.

Willow watched the sun disappear with a bit of sadness. She sighed heavily and looked at the moon, bright and—

“Full. The moon is full! Oz, the –"

“I know.”

His grip on her arm tightened, the claws began to dig into her skin.

She turned to face him. His nose elongated. Ears sharpened into points. Hair sprouted all over his body.

“Let me go,” she cried.

“But I have to show you,” the wolf growled. “I have to show you where you belong.”

“NO!” Willow screamed. She kicked the wolf hard, clawing at the arm that held her until she was free.

She began to run, but with each step she took, her feet seemed to grow heavier. Dark clouds filled the sky, hiding the light of the moon. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Willow stumbled blindly, trying only to escape the beast behind her. She cried out for help, only no sound would leave her body. Her feet felt so heavy she was straining with every step.

She lurched forward and began to fall. She screamed soundlessly as her weighted feet pulled her further and further down into a black abyss. Her arms flailed about, looking for something to hold, to stop her descent, but finding nothing but air.

A fog appeared all around her and she came to a sudden stop, her body paralyzed. There was someone in the fog, someone who was walking towards her.

Her body ached, she couldn’t run, she couldn’t scream.

She waited helplessly as the figure moved towards her, in front of her.

Her jaw dropped open as she tried to cry out, but all the air in her body seemed to leave her completely.

“Willow, what have you done?” Tara asked.

Willow couldn’t speak. She started to cry. She wanted so badly to reach out and touch Tara, to feel her face, but she couldn’t move. Willow looked at her arms and legs, and found them encased in heavy chains.

The image of Warren appeared behind Tara, as though on a movie screen. Willow watched as Warren’s skin began to peel off in slow motion. She could hear the skin as it ripped from his body, saw the fear and pain in his eyes. She wished the screaming would end.

“You can’t be Willow. I can’t live with what you’ve done,” Tara said as she began to move backwards, away from Willow.

Willow tried to deny it. She tried to call out Tara’s name, but Tara didn’t seem to hear her.

Willow watched as Tara disappeared into the fog. She could do nothing but watch as the image of Warren reset itself. She could only scream when the Warren turned into Tara. She could only watch helplessly as Tara’s skin ripped from her body. As Tara’s muscles were ripped off one by one. As Tara’s eyes pleaded for some respite.

Tara’s skeleton began to walk towards her, bones falling off, littering the ground. Tara’s skull fell at Willow’s feet.

Willow stared at Tara’s eyes, still in the sockets. The skull grinned at her.

“You did this to me,” it said. Tara said.

“You did this to all of us.”

Willow saw that the ground was littered with the bones of her family and friends, all staring accusingly at her.

She felt like she couldn’t breath. The world started to spin. Her head filled with the pounding of her own heart.

Willow woke up screaming.

***

“Willow, are you alright? Willow!” Giles called through the door.

Willow calmed herself down as best she could, the memory of her dream still blazing in her mind and churning in her stomach. She put on her robe and opened the door to her bedroom. Giles stood in front of her, his hand reaching for where the doorknob was. If his hair was any indication, he had just woken up.

“I heard you screaming. Are you okay?” Giles asked, a look of worry on his face.

“I’m no worse than I was before,” Willow replied, unsure whether that was the truth or not. “I just had a bad dream.”

“Would you like to join me for a cup of tea? I’m wide awake now and could use the company,” Giles said with a small smile.

Willow nodded and followed Giles into the parlor. She sat on one end of the sofa, while Giles went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. She pulled her feet up on next to her, pulled her robe tighter around herself and curled into herself, trying to forget the images that were floating around her mind.

Giles returned from the kitchen and sat in an oversized armchair across from the sofa. They sat together in silence. Willow was so lost in her thoughts she didn’t even notice.

Giles let out a small sigh. Willow looked up and gave him a small smile.

“I’m sorry Giles. I guess I’m not really good company these days,” she said sadly.

“Don’t be silly,” Giles said with a reassuring grin. “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be sharing tea with at four o’clock in the morning.”

Willow’s smile widened, then faded quickly. “I dreamt of Oz, and… and Tara,” she said softly. “It was so vivid and scary and—“ she trailed off. She looked at the ground for a moment and then looked at Giles. “Giles, I think I’m losing my mind.”

Giles’ brow furrowed, concern written all over his face. “Willow,” he said with a shake of his head. “One bad dream is hardly reason to believe—" “No,” Willow said, cutting him off. “It’s more than just that. Yesterday I thought I saw them. Both of them. Oz and Tara. I’ve seen her before. When it first, when she first…” Willow stopped, closing her eyes, fighting back tears. She took a deep breath. “I used to see her everywhere, all the time.”

“I know,” Giles said tenderly. “I still see Jenny sometimes, late at night. That’s just part of the grieving process. It doesn’t mean you’re going crazy, though I can understand how it could feel that way.”

“That doesn’t explain Oz though. I’ve never, I haven’t even thought about him in so long. The only thing I can think is that I’m hallucinating. What other explanation is there?” Willow asked, slight fear in her voice.

Giles let out a heavy sigh, stood up and began to pace. “There is one other explanation.” Giles paused, removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Oz is, uh, well he’s actually here. And very good friends with Ms. Harkness,” Giles continued, avoiding eye contact.

“Oh! Oh,” Willow said, surprised. She sat up and frowned. “Does he, does he know? About what I… and that I’m here?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes,” Giles said, still not looking at her. “I told him. Not in great detail, but enough for him to understand why you were here.”

Willow’s face fell. She sunk back into the seat. “That explains why he didn’t stop when I called after him yesterday,” she said glumly.

“Not entirely,” Giles said, looking at her finally. “I told him why you were here for a reason. I wanted to ensure he understood why—"

“Why I’m dangerous,” Willow interjected, sullenly.

“Why I didn’t want him contacting you,” Giles finished.

Willow stared at him with a hurt look on her face. She felt almost betrayed. Giles was the only person on her side, but he was keeping secrets from her. She thought he had faith in her but he sounded as skittish as the rest of them. She opened her mouth to speak, but her mind couldn’t process the words and feelings she had spiraling inside.

Giles sat down beside her. “Willow, understand that I was only trying to help. I know from personal experience how delicate this situation is and how easily someone as close to you as Oz once was could hinder your progress. While I don’t necessarily think Oz’s presence would be harmful to you, it wasn’t a chance I wanted to take.”

The kettle started to whistle, but Giles waited for some response.

Willow swallowed hard, then looked at him. “What do you mean ‘personal experience’?”

“Remember Eyghon?” Giles asked.

“You mean the demon you summoned that tried to kill you and all your friends?” Willow asked.

“I was young, I didn’t know any better,” Giles answered with a glare.

“So, you had to go through magic rehab too?” Willow said, amused.

Giles let out an appreciative chuckle. “How do you think I met Ms. Harkness?” he said with a grin.

Willow smiled as she watched Giles stand and leave for the kitchen. It felt good knowing she had someone she could depend on and relate to, and though she felt guilty about it, she had to admit that it also felt good knowing that Oz was somewhere close by.

***

“Willow,” Giles walked into the room carrying tea and biscuits on a tray. “How did you happen to see Oz? He only comes to the house during your class hours.” He set the tray down on the coffee table, poured himself a cup of Earl Grey, and sat down next to Willow, staring at her expectantly.

“Well, I kind of, sort of, don’t always go to my lessons,” Willow replied, looking down to avoid his disapproving look.

“Willow—” he began, a hint of consternation in his voice.

“I just think maybe being around magic isn’t the best thing for me right now,” she said in a small voice.

“Willow, it is imperative that you go to your lessons. The coven teaches, above all things, understanding, respect for, and control of magic. This magic you have – it isn’t going to go away. Ever. It’s not something you can just swear off, like a bad habit. It’s a part of you now and it’s powerful. If you cannot learn to control it….” Giles stopped, unwilling to consider what would happen to her if she couldn’t gain control, reluctant to say any of it out loud.

“I’m sorry, Giles, I know. And I’m trying.”

“But?”

“I just, I just can’t stand the way everyone looks at me, and talks about me. I see the other girls giggling and getting quiet when I get close to them. No one talks to me because they’re all afraid if they say or do something wrong I’ll go psycho on them.” Willow began concentrating hard on pouring her tea. “And maybe they’re right,” she said, almost under her breath.

“Do you think they’re right?” he asked softly.

“It’s so hard, sometimes. Isn’t there some spell you could do? Strip me of my power or bind me forever?” she pleaded.

“It’s not that simple. Magic can’t always be the answer. And even if such spells existed I wouldn’t use them on you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I believe in your ability to learn how to control and respect the power you have, and to use it responsibly. I know it won’t be easy, but I’ve never known you to cower in the face of anything challenging and I don’t expect you to start now,” Giles answered, meeting Willow’s eyes with a gaze that conveyed pride and confidence.

“Why do you have so much faith in me, Giles? I don’t deserve you,” Willow croaked, wiping a tear from her cheek.

“I have faith in you because I know you. And you deserve better than I can give you, which is why I brought you here,” Giles said as he pulled Willow into a protective embrace.

She looked so helpless and small, like a scared child. Quentin Travers was right about one thing. Giles had a father’s love for those in his care. All of them – Buffy, Willow, even Xander. He held her for a moment, wishing he could do more for her, to make it easier on her.

“Now promise me you’ll make more of an effort to attend your lessons,” he said, releasing her.

Willow sniffled and nodded. “I promise.”

Giles stood and stretched. “I’m suddenly feeling quite exhausted. Would you like something to help you sleep?”

“No, I think I’ll be alright,” Willow said as she stood up, wrapping her robe around her tightly. “Goodnight, Giles.”

Giles watched Willow walk back towards her room, hoping he was right. His concern for her grew every day. Ms. Harkness didn’t seem to think Willow was making much progress.

He sighed heavily. He knew Willow well enough to know that she was doing the best she could, but it didn’t seem to be enough. He didn’t know how to make it any better. He only knew that something had to change.

Part 2

Oz double-checked his watch. Giles had made it clear what times were safest for these visits, but yesterday had thrown him for a bit of a loop. He slowed his pace a little as he approached the house. It really seemed a little big to be just a house. Mansion didn’t seem like quite the right word to apply, too modern and American. This was an old, stone, history-laden building. Chateau? No, it would have to be in France to be a chateau. And chateau means castle, which this isn’t. Or maybe it was manor. Manor, that sounds about right.

Oz made a mental note to ask whether the manor had a name as he knocked on the door. After he got no answer, he tried the doorknob. Open. He paused at the threshold, letting all the smells that permeated the inner recesses sink in, trying to distinguish each, to find the ones that held most interest for him. The place reeked of fear and anxiety, and had ever since he’d arrived in the area a week ago. From what he’d managed to get out of Giles, Willow’s presence was responsible for that. It seemed everyone was terrified of her, though how anyone could find Willow terrifying was beyond him. Ironically, her fear was overwhelming, so strong he didn’t even have to search for it.

He had known she was here as soon as he had stepped out of the cab. His time in Burundi had been so rewarding he hadn’t thought anything could put an end to his great mood. He was wrong. Willow’s scent had hit him like a punch to the gut. He had often wondered whether he would ever experience it again, but he never wanted it like this, laced with the musky element of fear. The smell of her fear always made him anxious, but coming so unexpectedly, it had nearly taken him to his knees. Even after two years, she had that effect on him. Two years? Three years? It seemed longer than that. Too long.

He had wanted to see her, talk to her, anything; but Giles had been adamant in his refusal to allow it, and Oz had to concede defeat. It didn’t take much to undo progress, he knew that all too well. Willow had been the one thing that had brought the wolf out of him, despite all he had accomplished. He didn’t want to risk setting her back any more than Giles did. Whatever was best for Willow, that’s what he would do.

He stepped into the kitchen, closing the door behind him. He started to call out, before the sound of voices silenced him.

“Rupert, you know I want to help as much as possible,” Ms. Harkness said.

“But?” Giles asked.

“But she’s disrupting the school. Everyone is terrified of her, and I can’t say that they’re wrong. I haven’t seen any evidence of improvement, and she’s been here for two weeks. If she doesn’t begin to make some progress soon, I’m going to have to ask that you find another place for her.”

“Ms. Harkness,” Giles, implored. Huh, even Giles called her Ms. Harkness. Her first name had always been a mystery to Oz, and he amused himself with the thought that perhaps she didn’t have one.

“Rupert, I am responsible for keeping these girls safe. From the each other as well as the outside world. Their parents would strike me down if they knew I was harboring Willow here and I’m having a hard enough time keeping the Council’s nose out of it. They gave me leave to train the girls, not to tame them.”

“She’s trying so hard—I don’t have any other place to turn,” Giles continued, obviously flustered.

“I’m sorry, Rupert. But I cannot risk the safety of the coven or of our students. How long until something sets her off again? I’ll give her another two weeks, as a favor to you, but I’m not entirely optimistic about the outcome.”

“I’ll talk to her, again,” Giles resignedly.

Oz felt he had eavesdropped too long. He walked towards the voices into the parlor to find Ms. Harkness on the sofa. Across from her sat Giles, his head in his hands, glasses dangling between his fingers.

“Hey.”

“Daniel,” Ms. Harkness said as she rose to greet him. She moved with an almost catlike grace that belied her age, which was probably approaching seventy, if not older. She smiled broadly as she lead Oz to the couch. “Sit, I’ll make some tea,” she offered, reaching for the teapot before leaving the room.

“Thanks,” Oz replied. “So what’s going on?” he asked.

“Oz,” Giles said, wearily. “Could I have a word with you?”

“Oh, actually, I kinda wanted to talk to you about something,” Oz said. “Giles, Willow, she saw me yesterday.”

“I know,” Giles said with a sigh. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”

“Well, I thought maybe it’d be best if I left. I was planning to leave in a few days to help Master Sheng with the new students, anyway.”

“There’s no reason for you to leave,” Giles protested, as put his glasses back on.

“Well, I don’t want to hinder her, and it took everything in me to keep from turning around when I heard her say my name. I honestly don’t know if I could do it again,” Oz said.

“Perhaps it won’t be necessary for you to do it again,” Giles said pensively as he leaned forward, looking Oz in the eye. “Oz, she already knows you’re here. And right now I think she could use a friend.”

“But I thought—” Oz started, a little confused.

“There is still the possibility that your presence may undo her progress, but I’m afraid I’m forced to admit that there may not be much progress to undo,” Giles said sadly.

Oz let it all sink in. He realized what it all meant, what he’d overheard, and what Giles had said. It meant that Willow wasn’t in a good place. Not even Ms. Harkness, who had helped Oz immensely, seemed to be able to help her. Giles seemed so lost. And all these thoughts kept being pushed aside by one.

He would get to see Willow again.

***

“Pluvia flosus,” the slim blonde twenty-something said in a strong, confident voice. Flowers began to fall from her open hand as she moved it through the air.

Althenia was Willow’s favorite teacher. Only a few years older than Willow, Althenia always managed a smile whenever they passed in the halls. Not that she was any less afraid than the rest of them, but it was a nice gesture and Willow appreciated it. If things were different, if Willow wasn’t the wicked witch of the west who just tried to end the world, she imagined she and Althenia would have become friends. But things weren’t different.

Instead befriending Althenia, or any of the coven women, Willow scared them. And she knew she had a lot to learn, about magic, about everything. She had to sit in a class full of teenage girls and listen to them giggle, and put up with their whispering and gossiping and pointing. And this time she didn’t even have Xander to commiserate with.

Willow thought of herself at sixteen. She would have really enjoyed having a school like this. She’d always imagined boarding schools were fun, but magic boarding schools were even more exciting. It was like a real-life Hogwarts.

“I think you’d all agree that this is a fairly simple and harmless spell, and easy to clean up after. Purgare,” Althenia said as she cleaned the petal-covered floor by sweeping her arm over it, as though the world were her Magna Doodle. “Keep in mind, however, that even the simplest of spells require focus, concentration and control. Gertrude, let’s see you try.”

A mousy looking girl, about fifteen years old—though her braided pigtails made her seem even younger—stood. She looked around the room, very proudly. Willow rolled her eyes. Gertrude was a teacher’s pet and made a point of being rude to everyone outside of her circle of friends, especially Willow.

“Pluvia flosus,” Gertrude said, watching smugly as the flowers fell to the floor.

“You can do better than that. Do it again. And do it better,” Althenia urged.

Gertrude, looking a little hurt, repeated the spell, a little unsure of herself. More flowers cluttered the floor at her feet.

“Again. Better than that,” Althenia commanded.

Gertrude’s face betrayed her agitation as she once again covered the ground with flowers.

“That is just pathetic, Gertrude. One more time,” Althenia said sternly.

Gertrude looked up, her face red, her smugness now replaced with frustration, humiliation and resentment. “Pluvia flosus!” she said in a voice laced with ire. The flowers began whirling around the room, attacking the other students, driving many of them beneath their desks. Gertrude stood stunned, unable to stop the hurricane of flora.

“Finis, purgare” Althenia called out, clearing the room. “You can come out from under your desks now,” she said. “Thank you, Gertrude.”

Gertrude sat down, a little disoriented. Willow felt a tinge of satisfaction at Gertrude’s deflation. The corners of her mouth began to turn up before the reminder of her own loss of control pulled them back down. Would she have done any better? Ever?

History showed otherwise. She nearly killed her friends when Oz left. She was developing a pattern. Apparently nearly getting her friends killed was her way of dealing with loss. A slide show of spells gone wrong ran through her brain. Had she really been that bad? That out of control?

Yes, came the answer. Yes, yes, a million times yes. Willow tried to shake the thoughts from her head and turned her attention back to the class.

“Sorry to make you my guinea pig, Gertrude, but I think you’ve done a brilliant job of demonstrating the importance of control, both mental and emotional. A simple spell can easily get out of hand without focus. It’s easy to forget that,” Althenia said.

Willow felt her cheeks burn. She looked down at her desk, certain everyone was now thinking of her, of her lack of control. Some people had even turned to look at her and snicker.

“Now I want you all to pair up, and practice this spell. Try to provoke each other and work on control. And remember to clean up after yourselves,” Althenia instructed.

Willow watched as the girls around her paired up. She watched as they lightheartedly tried to push each other’s buttons, as they giggled and talked and enjoyed their lesson. She felt like she’d always be the outside observer. And maybe it was better that way.

She sat back in her chair, glad that there were an odd number of students. Glad, for once, that no one ever wanted to have anything to do with her.

“Don’t feel like participating?”

Willow looked up, startled, to find Althenia standing next to her. “I don’t have a partner,” Willow said, hoping that would be a sufficient excuse.

“I’ll be your partner,” Althenia offered with a smile.

“Oh, well, I don’t really think that I can. I mean, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Willow said, swallowing hard.

“What’s the problem,” Althenia asked, pulling a chair over. “Anything you want to talk about?” she continued as she sat down.

“Oh, uh, it’s really not, I mean, I just don’t feel like, it’s just not a good day for me to be doing magic,” Willow answered. It was never going to be a good day for magic. Not for her.

Althenia nodded, clearly unconvinced. “Okay. But if you ever feel like talking, about anything, I want you to know that I’m here for you,” she said with a smile.

Willow watched Althenia leave to help another student and felt like crying. Why didn’t any of them understand that she couldn’t do magic? Giles, Ms. Harkness, all of them. They kept insisting that she do the very thing that had torn her apart.

Althenia was so nice, but she wouldn’t understand, no one understands.

Willow felt completely alone.

***

Willow slowly gathered her books together, waiting for the class to empty. She always did this. She waited for the classroom to empty before moving from her isolated corner of the room, so she wouldn’t have to walk through them. So she wouldn’t have to face the derision and apprehension.

She looked up and saw a group of girls dawdling at the door. Of course it had to be Gertrude and friends. The girls kept looking out the door, turning back to giggle and talk, not moving. Willow sighed. She couldn’t stay in this room forever. All she wanted to do was return to the solitary escape that was her room. But that meant passing through the giggling gaggle.

Willow stood, determined to leave the room. She hedged closer to the door, losing her resolve as she neared the girls. She stopped a few feet away, unsure how to get past them. Their backs were turned to her, their focus on the object outside, and there was no way around them.

“Look at him, he’s so….” Gertrude sighed and fanned herself.

“Doesn’t he look like he’s waiting for someone?” a blonde girl asked. Michelle? Michela? Some ‘M’ name. Willow hadn’t really learned everyone’s names yet. Of course, the fact that she avoided the students and classes so much really didn’t help.

“I bet he’s waiting for Sarah,” Gertrude said, teasing a shy but beautiful brunette girl.

“Oh yeah! Didn’t he smile and say hi to you?” M-name asked, excited.

Sarah smiled and blushed. “Well, just the once,” she said, embarrassed.

“Oh! I know his name!” M-name gushed. “When I went to the loo today, I heard Ms. Harkness call him Daniel!”

“Daniel,” Gertrude sighed. “It’s the perfect name for him.”

Willow furrowed her brow. That was Oz’s name. She stood on her tiptoes to look beyond them. All she could see was a shock of blue hair. Oz. He was waiting for her! Excitement and glee ran through her body, but was quickly chased away by an overwhelming feeling of apprehension and a tiny bit of guilt.

“It’s Oz!” Willow blurted out, shocking herself.

The girls turned to look at her. “What was that?” Gertrude asked, looking at Willow like something that had been dug out of the garbage can.

“The guy, Daniel, he’s, I mean, everyone calls him Oz,” Willow sputtered.

Gertrude snorted, disdain on her face. “What do you know?” she asked snottily. “You may not believe it, but trying to end the world doesn’t make you God,” she sneered.

The other girls got quiet. “Gertie, don’t,” Sarah whispered. “You don’t know what she might do.”

Willow’s face fell a little, hurt. Her confidence drained from her body. It would always be this way, and she deserved it. She looked at Gertrude’s contemptuous face and suddenly felt her anger flair up. Who gave her the right? What did she know about anything?

Willow pulled herself together and walked towards them. Her mind was working to find something to throw at them, unable to resist the urge to show the rat-faced girl exactly how little she knew about everything. She swallowed hard, but when she opened her mouth to speak, she was hit with a wave of shame. She shouldn’t be thinking like this. It was so petty. She needed learn how to suppress the flickers of resentment and the urges to exact some kind of revenge. This was exactly the kind of thing that got her into this. She couldn’t go there again. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing it to go away. It was so hard.

Her emotions mostly under control, she walked towards the door. She felt a tingle of triumph as she imagined their faces when Oz came up to talk to her. That would show them. But what if he wasn’t there for her? What if he really was there for Sarah? What if it wasn’t even Oz? What if he turned away from her, refused to talk to her? What if he was scared of her too? With each step Willow grew more and more anxious about seeing him. Her heart was beating fast and her palms were sweaty.

She looked up and saw him, and froze. She couldn’t make herself move. She didn’t want to know that he didn’t want to talk to her.

Oz looked straight at her and smiled. The kind of smile most people didn’t believe he was capable of.

“Hey,” he said as he walked towards her.

Willow’s tension and anxiety drained from her. Relief flooded over her and she threw her arms around him without thinking, hugging him tightly.

“Oz, I’m so happy to see you.”

Surprised but pleased, Oz returned her embrace.

The feel of his arms around her brought her back to this world. She jumped back, mortified.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—I mean, I wasn’t expecting—Giles said,” Willow sputtered.

“It’s okay, Will. I’m happy to see you too,” Oz said.

Willow looked into his eyes, looking for a trace of sarcasm. There was none. She grinned widely for the first time in weeks. It felt good on her face.

“Giles gave me his blessing,” Oz said, understanding her string of disconnected thoughts the way he always had. “You wanna go for a walk?”

“I would love to,” Willow answered, as they moved toward the front of the house.

Suddenly, Gertrude felt like a distant memory.

Part 3

Oz stepped out the front door, holding it open for Willow, who shielded her eyes from the uncharacteristically bright sun. It was a beautiful day. Willow didn’t think she’d ever seen the sky so clear or blue since she arrived in England. She smiled inwardly and wondered if Oz was magic. Magic. A wave of guilt washed over her. How could she be enjoying Oz so much when Tara…Suddenly the day seemed cold and harsh. She buttoned up her coat and hugged herself.
Oz started walking and Willow fell in step beside him.

“So what are you doing here?” Willow asked.

“Oh, I come here a lot. Every couple of months or so,” Oz replied.

“What for?” Willow asked, curious.

“Different reasons. Sometimes because I’ve got free time. Sometimes because I need something. Usually because I’ve been asked to,” he answered, vague as always.

“You never told me you came to England,” Willow said, somewhat uncertainly. The honest truth was that she didn’t remember exactly what he had told her. She looked up at him realizing just how little she knew this man. This man who used to be her everything.

“That’s because I hadn’t yet,” Oz said. He stopped walking and looked up at her. “I’ve been through a lot since then. But then I guess you have, too.”

They walked along in silence for a moment. Willow didn’t answer. She wasn’t quite ready to talk about Tara, or Warren, or anything she’d been through, all the damage she had caused. Not with Oz, not with anyone.

“You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to,” Oz said, as if reading her mind. She gave him a thankful half-smile. “It’s nice enough just seeing you again,” he said softly. “I wasn’t sure I ever would.”

Willow looked into his eyes. Those green eyes had always been expressive, especially if you knew how to read them, and though Willow was a bit out of practice, she had at one time been a pro. But they couldn’t tell her everything. They could only tell her that he missed her and loved her still. Deep down, in a place very few people could ever reach, Willow saw that, regardless of how she felt, he still loved her.

Willow looked away, a little disconcerted by what she saw. “Do you have a, a girlfriend?” she asked, trying to sound chipper. As soon as the words left her mouth she knew she didn’t want to know the answer.

Oz gave her a shy smile, shaking his head. “I’m really too much of a vagabond for that. I mean, I’ve tried and it just doesn’t work. I never really spend more than three months in any one place, and that isn’t really conducive to a romantic relationship. I’m not in a relationshippy place right now, I guess. What about you? You have a guy, or I guess, a girl?” he said with an inquisitive look that turned to worry when he saw the distraught look on Willow’s face.

“Giles didn’t tell you?” Willow asked in an unsteady voice.

“Giles didn’t tell me much,” Oz replied. “Are you all right?” he asked, concerned, tentatively touching her shoulder.

“I think I need to sit down,” Willow said, fighting tears.

“We’re almost at my cabin,” Oz said, gesturing ahead of them. “Come on,” he said gently as he put his arm around her and guided her ahead.

Willow was only vaguely aware she was moving. All she could do was whisper a single word.

“Tara.”

***

Oz walked Willow into the cabin and set her down on the old but comfortable sofa, tossing his jacket aside as he did. He wondered what he was missing. He’d obviously touched a nerve, and she looked so dazed he was beginning to wonder if this had been a good idea. He should go get Giles. He grimaced and mentally kicked himself for whatever he did to trigger this. Willow was hurting, and he was somehow the cause of it.

Oz started towards the kitchen, where he kept his phone.

“Don’t leave me!”

At the sound of Willow’s anguished voice, Oz rushed to her side. “I’m not going. It’s okay. I’m here,” he said as he sat beside her. She leaned against him and started to cry. He put his arms around her, doing his best to comfort her, feeling helpless. Her hands crept around his neck and she held him loosely. A tingle ran down his spine. Her hands were so cold.

He felt her body shudder with each sob, felt the tears begin to soak through to his shoulder. She seemed so delicate and frail. He held her, rocking slightly, instinctively, silently. His nostrils flared as resentment crept in. He was angry at the world, at fate, at whatever had brought her to this point. She didn’t deserve this. Whatever it was, whatever she did, she didn’t deserve it.

Her trembling slowly subsided. Sobs turned to whimpers. The tears stopped, and she gradually calmed down. And still they held each other, taking solace in the embrace, and for a brief moment everything was okay. They were locked in a time when nothing hurt this much.

Willow sniffled, tightened her hold and then quickly withdrew her arms. She sat up as Oz took hold of her shaky hands. He looked into her eyes, his brow furrowed.

“Are you okay?” he asked quietly.

She nodded.

He reached forward and produced a box of tissues, which she took gratefully.

“You’re shivering,” he said, as he grabbed the throw draped over the couch and wrapped it around her. “You want some tea? Or cocoa?” he asked.

“Cocoa,” she answered in a small croaking voice.

He nodded and started towards the kitchen.

“Oz,” she called out. He turned around, body tensed, ready to run back to her side.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

He relaxed and the corner of his mouth turned up. He lowered his head slightly and turned back towards the kitchen.

Willow wiped her eyes and her nose and looked around. The room was smallish, with bare but warm colored walls. She was sitting on a large, cushiony gray sofa. Directly in front of her was a small, tattered coffee table littered with books. On the other side of the table were two armchairs that didn’t match each other, or the sofa. One chair was buried under piles of paper and clothes, including the long sleeved yellow shirt that had been her favorite. Behind the chairs was a stone fireplace. A stack of wood sat to the left, suggesting the fireplace was more than just decoration. The mantel held an array of random objects, probably souvenirs Oz had picked up in his travels. An acoustic guitar bearing a few stickers in various languages sat in the corner. Sun shone in through the window to her left. Rich maroon drapes hung from either side of the paned window. Looking out, she could see the stable that stood behind the manor. Giles had tried to take her riding once, but she hadn’t taken to it well.

The sound of dishes clinking brought her attention back towards the kitchen. Her eyes lingered the entrance for a moment, waiting for Oz to appear. When he didn’t, her gaze wandered to the right, where a short hallway lead to what she guessed was the bedroom and bathroom.

Oz came out of the kitchen holding a steaming mug. Willow realized she was still wearing her coat. She started to unbutton it, but her hands were still a little unsteady, and the task proved more difficult than usual.

“Here, let me help you with that,” Oz offered, setting the mug down on the table and moving near her. She smiled weakly as he undid the last two buttons and pulled the jacket off of her shoulders. He handed her the cocoa and added her jacket to the pile on one of the chairs. She watched as he knelt and started a fire, and then sat on the edge of the other chair, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped.

“This is a nice place. Is it yours?” Willow asked before taking a sip from her mug. The warm chocolate flowed over her tongue, warming her whole body.

“Mostly. It used to be the groundskeeper’s cabin, but they haven’t had a permanent groundskeeper in years. I spend a fair amount of time here and apparently when I stay at the house I distract all the students, so Ms. Harkness told me I could have the cabin. I decorated myself. Which probably explains a lot,” Oz said, glancing about the sparse room.

“I like it. It’s cozy. How long are you here for?”

“I’ve been here a week.” He hesitated. “And I have to leave soon. Like in a day or two.”

“Oh,” Willow said, obviously disappointed.

“I made a promise,” Oz said apologetically. “But at least this time I can give you addresses and phone numbers if you ever want to reach me,” he said. His face was expressionless but his eyes were full of hope. The hope he’d harbored ever since he left Sunnydale. The hope that made him superstitiously look for redheads around every corner in Istanbul. The hope that made him call Giles every few months to ask how Willow was doing. The hope that made it impossible to get serious with anyone that wasn’t her.

“I’d like that,” Willow said with a smile. “Why do you have to go?”

“Well, Master Sheng started this whole werewolf integration program. I’m not too clear on the details. Apparently the Council of Watchers started asking various experts in supernatural occurrences to help train people. They’ve got some people up in London sniffing out potential everythings now. Not just for Slayers anymore, I guess. This school, here, for instance. The council finds the girls they think are tagged for magic and they come here. I told Master Sheng I’d help him with his werewolves.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Oz grinned. “So how long are you here for?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said with a sigh. “As long as it takes, I guess.”

He nodded, but didn’t press the issue. Willow appreciated that. She knew he never would, not unless she opened the door for it first. And she was surprised to find how much she wanted to.

He was silent, allowing her to decide the path of conversation. Willow took another sip of cocoa, closing her eyes for a minute. The crackle of the fire was the only sound she heard. She took a deep breath and looked over her mug at him. She realized he was still a part of her, and she wanted him to know everything.

She took a long look at the patient man across from her, committing to memory the way he looked at her right then, in case he never looked at her that way again.

“So, um, what did Giles tell you? About me?”

***

Willow waited, holding her breath, wondering what horrific details Giles had given, afraid of what Oz knew. But even more scared of the things he didn’t, things she would have to tell him.

“Not a whole lot,” Oz replied, gazing intently at the nervous girl across from him. “He just said you were having some trouble with your magic—‘issues of restraint’ I think was the phrase he used. He wouldn’t tell me much more than that.”

“Oh,” Willow said. She swallowed hard. “Oz, I’m…” she stopped, unsure of how to proceed. She bit her lip and fiddled with a loose strand of hair, wondering why words suddenly seemed so elusive. “I want to tell you what happened,” she said, finally.

He nodded and waited for her to continue.

She exhaled loudly and began. “Magic was always something I was good at, something that was my way of, of contributing. And it was fun,” she said sadly. “When I met Tara….” Willow trailed off, battling her emotions.

Willow never saw Oz grimace at the mention of Tara, or his quick recovery. She was staring beyond him, her mind filled with images of Tara’s sweet smile. She finally gave in to her emotions, and let herself cry. A tear trickled over her lower eyelid, running down the length of her nose before hanging precariously off the tip and falling to her lap.

“Tara,” she continued in a shaky voice, “said I was strong.” Tears drew two crooked, glistening lines on her cheeks. “Like an Amazon,” she whispered. “She said she recognized my power, my magic.”

“Will, you don’t have to—”

“No, Oz. I want to. I need to. And if I stop now, I never will. Please,” she implored.

He nodded.

“She helped me hone my powers. She made me feel so special. It was like—I can’t even describe it. We were stronger when we were together. And then, then came Glory,” Willow paused, her lower lip trembled as she recalled Tara rocking back and forth, unable to understand what was going on around her, so lost.

“Glory was some kind of evil hell god that sucked people’s brains out. Left them insane. She did this, to Tara. And that’s when I got in deep. I started using black magic, dark magic. It was more powerful than anything I’ve ever—it made me more powerful. And that feeling was…” she trailed off. She’d been hiding behind so much for so long, not willing to face the truth. Not willing to admit….

“That feeling was addictive,” she finished.

Finally facing the bare and dirty truth of it, Willow spewed out the details of the past three years, all the ugly truths, every moment she was ashamed of. Nothing was withheld. She talked continuously for nearly three hours, her voice, already shaky, began to get hoarse. The collar of her shirt and a small patch of her lap became damp from the tears that never stopped coursing down her face.

Oz watched and listened, taking in everything she said, so still he could have been a statue.

“And now I’m here, and no one seems to understand that I can’t ever let myself do magic again,” Willow finished with a dazed look on her face. Though saying everything out loud had left her feeling relieved, Oz’s continued silence invited anxiety to creep in. Her throat felt so dry. “Oz?” she asked timidly before breaking into a coughing fit. Oz jumped up, quickly moved to the kitchen and reappeared a few seconds later with a glass of water. He handed it to her silently and then sat back down, watching as she took big gulps, trying to moisten what felt like a cracked, sun-baked desert.

“I understand,” Oz said quietly, startling Willow.

“You understand what?” she asked, confused.

“Everything. What you’re going through. How you feel,” he replied.

“How can y—” she started. One look from him brought back her dream the night before, and memories of guarding her feral boyfriend, tranquilizer at hand. “Oh, right.”

“I never tried to end the world, but I did try to kill the most important thing in my world. Several times,” he said quietly. He didn’t have to say what that thing was, they both knew.

“Will, when I left Sunnydale, the first time, I was looking for control. Something to keep that part of me from coming out and hurting people. And when I came back I thought I had it, but I didn’t.”

“But, you did! You kept the wolf from…I mean…I saw you. You could make it go away,” Willow protested.

“I could suppress it, yeah. But all it took was losing control of myself for the wolf to come out. And that was worse than when it just came out with the moon. There was no telling when I’d lose it or who I’d hurt. That’s not control,” he said with a shake of the head.

“But you seem okay now,” Willow said.

“It took three years worth of opening my eyes to get here,” Oz replied. “When I first came looking for a cure, that’s what I wanted. A cure. Something to get rid of the wolf forever. I traveled the world to find out there isn’t one. Everywhere I went people had different methods of suppressing the wolf for short periods of time. I picked up spells, charms, potions, anything. I put them all together and it still wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until I met Master Sheng and learned meditation that it started working.” He paused, smiling slightly. “Turns out controlling your emotions is easy when you’re surrounded by a few monks and a lot of snow.”

He gazed at Willow, the smile fading. “Turns out I couldn’t do it around you. I should have known. You’ve always had that effect on me.”

Willow felt fresh tears springing to her eyes. She remembered how hard it had been for him to even look at her. “Oz, I—”

“It’s okay. In fact, it was probably for the best that I found out that way,” he said. “At least I didn’t hurt you.”

“So what did you do? After that? I mean, did you find a way?” she asked, curious.

“Yeah,” he said with a slight nod of the head. “I think I did.”

“Aren’t you gonna tell me about it?” she asked.

He smiled. “Yeah, I think I will. But before I do,” he said as he stood and walked to the window, looking out on the pink and gray sky, “I think dinner is in order.”

Part 4

Oz placed two steaks into the pan, listening to them sizzle as they touched the hot metal, smelling the flesh as it cooked. Though he struggled with keeping the wolf satisfied in a lot of ways, food was never one of them. A rare, juicy steak made both of them happy.
“Do you need any help?” Willow called out from the living room.

Oz stuck his head out of the kitchen. “Nope.” Smiling, he turned and opened the refrigerator door.

His smile melted away as he recalled the day he first learned Willow was here. Giles had flinched when asked what, exactly, Willow had done, then shifted ever so slightly, tensing his body and clenching his fists. Said that was none of Oz’s concern in a voice that suggested pain and fear. An attempt to push further garnered nothing but a sharp and cold response; the conversation was over, don’t let the door hit you on your way out. But Oz hadn’t left, and Giles eventually relaxed and life had gone on. They didn’t talk about it after that, but there was an underlying implication that whatever happened was bad. And now Oz knew just how bad it had been.

Oz pulled out two potatoes. He puzzled over them for a moment, before sticking them into the microwave. While he wasn’t sure a microwave could have the same effect as an oven, he didn’t have time to properly bake a potato.

He glanced over the directions as he mulled over what he’d heard. Tara kept coming back into his mind. Willow really loved her and he couldn’t deny that it was hard to hear Willow talk about his replacement with so much love in her voice; he had winced when she first said that name. Thankfully Willow hadn’t noticed, and he promised himself that she never would. She obviously had enough on her mind without adding his petty jealousy to that.

He put the potatoes in the microwave and turned over the steaks. It smelled like his was almost ready, but Willow’s still had a ways to go. If he remembered correctly, she liked hers almost well done, “so I don’t feel like the cow is still mooing at me.” Had that changed also? The thought was quickly shaken out of his head. She’d been through a lot and had become much more powerful and confident, the way he’d always known she could be. The things she’d seen and done would change her forever, he knew that well enough. But she was still Willow. He could still see her beneath the pain and the fear.

The first steak came out of the pan sizzling, making his stomach growl. At least he hoped it was his stomach. He stuck his head out again, “What would you like to drink?”

“Water, please,” Willow answered with a small smile, brushing her hair out of her face.

“Done.”

She looked so much more relaxed than when they’d first gotten here. Like a weight had lifted off of her shoulders. He had understood almost immediately that her talking was as much for her sake as it was for his. Master Sheng told him that he who could not share his past could not overcome it, and eventually Oz divulged his entire story to the old wise man. The lessons seemed so much easier after that, like everything that had been holding him back had disappeared, evaporated with each word that left his mouth. Oz was willing to bet Willow hadn’t talked to anyone about any of this before, not even Giles. And a part of him was elated that she had chosen to open up to him.

Gathering what few condiments he had, he set them on a tray along with two glasses of water, silverware and napkins. A sudden whimsical desire for candles hit him and he had to laugh at himself—commiserating over death and loss wasn’t exactly typical candlelight dinner conversation.

Then again, there hadn’t been anything typical about his life since Willow entered it.

Oz took the tray out to the living room and saw that Willow had busied herself by tidying up the table. She smiled at him when as he approached the small table. “Almost done?” she asked.

“Almost.”

“Good. I’m starving. I tend to forget about eating these days,” she said, with that guilty look on her face, the one she used to use whenever she’d forgotten about her homework in all the apocalypse.

“Understandable,” Oz replied, setting the tray down. The guilt melted away from her face, replaced by a small grateful smile. Resisting the urge to stroke her hair, he walked back into the kitchen.

Oz had spent many night wondering if he’d ever get over Willow. When he first came to work with Ms. Harkness and the rest of the coven, he spent many days poring through their massive library, reading up on wolves and lycanthropy, to better understand the other side of himself. Apparently wolves mate for life. The first time Oz and the wolf had approached anything resembling unity had been when he killed Veruca. In that moment, when he chose Willow, so did the wolf. The wolf had raged as much as he had when it caught Willow’s scent on Tara, and that territorial behavior rage was what made it so hard to control himself around Willow. Of course, Oz would never tell her that. Not until they found the right time to be together again, if they ever found it. Now was definitely not that time.

He pulled Willow’s steak off the stove, savoring the smell of cooked meat. Tonight was a full moon night, and the wolf was getting restless. Hopefully the steak would help calm it down long enough to finish his evening with Willow. Later tonight, he promised, the wolf could run.

The microwave beeped at him. Perfect timing. The two steaming potatoes were quickly taken out of their plastic wrapping and set on the plates, which Oz grabbed as he walked back out.

“Dinner is served.”

***

Willow took her last bite, the corners of her mouth turning up ever so slightly into a small, secret smile. Hard to see if you weren’t paying attention, but Oz had always noticed it. She also had a tendency to make an audible little gulp when she swallowed, though he doubted anyone else was aware of that. Not even her. His senses seemed to come alive when he ate. Meals also brought out the fairly disturbing desire to protect all food around him. It was one of those wolf behaviors he still hadn’t gotten used to, and wasn’t sure he ever would. One he was particularly careful to keep in check. There were enough things tempting his more violent half without adding stolen French fries to the list.

Their meal had been fairly silent, though not uncomfortably so. Willow wasn’t kidding about being hungry. She had attacked her food with fervor, stopping, he was sure, only long enough to breathe. It was okay. He liked watching her eat. Liked watching her, period. Liked how he could still predict some of her movements. There was the slight raise of the chin that meant she was about to swallow. She would go for her napkin or her water next, and maybe give him a small smile, just as he heard that little gulp. It was somehow soothing for him, another reminder that this was still the Willow he knew and loved.

“Wow, I didn’t realize just how hungry I was,” she said, looking slightly embarrassed, tugging on the ends of her hair.

“It’s okay.”

“But the food was good. When did you learn how to cook?” she asked.

“Well, I worked my away around the globe, usually cooking and cleaning. Wait ‘til you see my toilet scrubbing skills.”

That got a smile out of her. She was beautiful when she smiled. Well, she was always beautiful, but there was something amazing about her when she smiled.

“So, tell me about the rest of your adventures. Starting from Sunnydale, and don’t leave anything out,” she eagerly suggested.

“It’s kind of a long story,” he said. She cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Just your standard disclaimer,” he added. She hardened into her legendary resolve face, never saying a word.

He nodded. “After I left Sunnydale, I made my way back east. Spent some time in Boston, trying to earn enough to get back to Tibet. Figured I could go back to Master Sheng and at least live in relative peace with the rest of the monks. Or maybe Romania.”

“Oh yeah,” Willow interjected, with a smile. “Romania was your favorite place, right?”

She remembered. “Still is.”

“So which one did you choose?” she asked, leaning forward, hands clasped between her knees.

“None of the above, as it turns out. I got a job on a steamer headed for Dublin. Ship work tends to be harder than land work; I got worn out more easily. Stopped taking the potions and doing the rituals as often as I should have. When we docked at Dublin, I got mugged. The next thing I remember was waking up with the taste of blood in my mouth.”

Physical weariness had really only been part of it. Losing control of himself in Sunnydale had blown his whole mental state. Three months of meditation were gone in a single moment, and the nightmares didn’t help. Oz used to spring awake on the verge of screaming, tortured by his memories of that cold, white room, with the faceless men and women that poked and prodded at him with needles and electrodes. The fear, the anger, the pain would return, threatening to take control of him, to make him lose control of himself. It became harder and harder to keep the wolf at bay, to the point where he had confined himself to his tiny room on the S.S. Menalo when he wasn’t needed. Safer for everyone if he kept human contact to a bare minimum.

It was dark when they reached port, and he hadn’t even seen the man coming. Just felt the barrel of the gun jabbed into his side, smelled the stench of dirt and alcohol that exuded from the man’s clothing. The world blacked out after that, and when he came to he was lying in a woods, naked, sore, and full.

“I had no idea where I was or what I killed. Didn’t even know what day it was. I have never been so scared of myself,” he said with a shake of his head.

“What’d you do?” she asked, concerned. A pained look on her face told Oz that she was thinking about her role in what happened, and not coming to happy conclusions.

“Will, I lost control over myself. It would have happened sooner or later, even if I hadn’t come back to Sunnydale.”

“I didn’t.…” she started. Her expression softened. “How did you know I was thinking that?”

“Psychic,” he responded, expressionless.

She smiled. “Well?” She gave him an expectant look. “You have more story to tell, mister.”

“Patience is a virtue, you know.”

The response came in a balled up napkin aimed at his head, which he took as a sign to continue. “I did what anyone would do. Found the nearest town and got arrested.”

“Arrested?”

“Public indecency? Not popular over here either.”

“Oh, right, cause of the wolf thing. You lose a lot of clothes that way, huh?” she said, trying to smother a smile.

“Less now than before. Luckily I’m a thrift shopper.” He looked down at his tattered corduroys and “Bob’s Super 20” t-shirt. “Nothing says comfort like other people’s clothes.”

“So did you do jail time? Are you a hardened criminal?” Willow teased.

Oz shook his head. “I managed to talk myself out of it. Told them I’d been mugged and left for dead. I think the scratches and bruises helped. They got me clothes; let me get in touch with the embassy. They were actually really nice about it. I found out I’d been out for two days. And the town was in a frenzy over wild dog attacks. Wild dog meaning me.”

He paused, saw the headlines run through his head again—‘Wild dogs take 2 lives, several sheep’; ‘Farmer finds shredded remains of wife, town tragedy’—and swallowed hard. “I didn’t know where to turn. I was dangerous, and every option seemed too risky. Finally I called Giles, and he told me to come here,” he finished.

Willow’s brow furrowed as what looked like confusion and maybe hurt flitted across her face. “You called Giles? He never—”

“I told him not to. Not, unless you asked about me.”

“Oh,” she said, looking down, away from him. She’d never asked. While he never really expected her too, the unspoken admission was still kind of painful.

“Giles called ahead, so when I got here they already had a place ready for me,” he continued, before anything got overly awkward. He didn’t do awkward well. “I spent the next three or four months in a magically reinforced tool shed. Which was actually one of the nicer places I’ve lived since I left Sunnydale.”

“A tool shed?” Willow said incredulously.

“Well, it was big enough to give me, and more importantly, the much bigger, much hairier me, room to move around without the risks of breaking things. Good decision on their part. I can honestly say that I very rarely stop to think about the furniture when in wolf form.”

“I’m sure their furniture wasn’t their main concern,” Willow protested.

“Don’t underestimate the bonds between man and sofa. That will get you into trouble some day,” Oz chided.

“Did they teach you a new way to keep the wolf away? Some new potion or maybe a, a binding spell of some sort?” Willow asked, anxiously, almost hopefully.

“No. In fact, the exact opposite.”

Willow’s face fell and Oz understood. She was hoping for a binding spell, a way to keep the magic away. Hoping the coven would help her find it.

“I thought, for a long time, that if I could just make it so the wolf wouldn’t come back out, everything would be better. But I tried that, and things weren’t better. It took so much to keep the wolf away that if I lost my hold on things, for any reason—emotions I couldn’t handle, if I got too tired, or sick—I could lose it. I could keep the wolf from coming out, but it was always there, lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for the chance to break free. At least when the wolf only came out with the moon, I knew when to expect it. But I can’t just get rid of that side of me. It’s in me. It is me. I know that now,” Oz said, passionately, more so than he had intended. Anyone else would have been shocked by his fervor, but not Willow. She’d seen that side of him before.

“But if you could? Find a way to suppress it forever? Would you?” she asked. She was looking down, watching her finger trace invisible lines along the couch.

He didn’t even have to think about it. “No.”

Willow looked up, surprised. “No?”

Oz laughed and shook his head. “If you would have asked me this while I was in that tool shed, my answer would have been very different. But now, I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

“What changed?”

“What didn’t? When I was with Master Sheng, he tried to get me to reach out, become one with the wolf. But I wouldn’t. I didn’t want anything to do with the wolf. I wanted it gone. I didn’t have time for that. Master Sheng said he couldn’t teach someone who didn’t want to be taught, so he stopped trying and just concentrated on helping me keep the wolf down. When I came to the coven, they tried to do something similar. And this time I learned.”

“What made this time different?”

“This time I had nothing left to lose,” Oz said softly. “No where else to be. No one waiting for me.”

“Oz—” Willow had her sad puppy dog eyes, which looked like they were about to cry. Again.

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t want—I shouldn’t have said it,” Oz sighed.

“But you did.” She gazed intently at him. “Oz, do you…are we.…” she couldn’t seem to find the words, but he knew what she was trying to ask.

“Will, there’s no hard feelings. Not from me, not now, not ever. As far as I’m concerned we’re good. Even ground.”

“Are you sure?” she asked skeptically. “Because if there’s anything—I want to know.”

“I’m sure.”

She looked him in the eyes. It felt like she was trying to read his soul, something he hadn’t felt for a very long time. When she found whatever she was looking for, she sat back. “Good, I’m glad. I want us to be good.”

Oz smiled. It felt good to hear that from her. If that was the most he ever got from her, it would be enough.

“So what kind of things did they teach you?” Willow asked.

“Well that was the cool part. When I was all fine and human, Ms. Harkness would make me try to reach inside and find the wolf, find its power, use its senses. Things that had always kind of been there, like my sense of smell, started getting sharper. I can see better, hear better, even when I’m not wolfed out. I started becoming conscious of what I did as a wolf. But I still didn’t have any real control over when I changed or what I did. I just remembered it.”

Those days and nights had been longer and harder than any in Oz’s life. Constantly weary, tired of the mental gymnastics he went through to try and get in touch with his inner beast, he found it escaped much more often. No longer tied to the moon, the wolf had taken every opportunity to come out and play. And every time he woke up, he found a new set of clothes and a witch ready to work with him some more.

But in those long months, he had discovered the truth of what Veruca had told him. The wolf was always there. And so was he. Regardless of what face they showed, they were inseparable. It had been a hard truth to take, but accepting it had opened his eyes to a whole new world.

“I won’t lie. It was extremely hard and frustrating at first. But it was also the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” He glanced at Willow, who was tucking a stray hair behind her ear, listening intently. “Well, one of the best things anyways.”

Willow blushed and smiled shyly.

“After about four months or so, I got word from Master Sheng. He heard that I was ready to be taught. So I went back to Tibet. I was hesitant at first, especially since I had no control over my changing.”

“Was it a problem?”

“Not really. I found out the hard way that Master Sheng is much more in control of his wolf than I was.”

“The hard way?”

“I didn’t even know he was a wolf until I turned and found him snarling over me. You ever see wolves fight for dominance? I still get the urge to roll onto my back when I see him.”

Willow giggled. “You never struck me as the alpha male type.”

“Probably because I’m not,” Oz replied with a smile. “Master Sheng showed me how to tap the human inside the wolf. I started gaining small bits of control over the wolf. It was hard, harder than keeping the wolf contained. But slowly, I learned how to take control. I spent the next two years going back and forth between Tibet and England. About six months ago, I was given the name of a shaman in Burundi. And now….” He paused, considering his options.

“I think this is something you should see.”

***

Willow stepped out the door, enjoying the feel of the cool air on her skin. Overhead, the clouds moved aside, revealing a full, bright moon. An animal howled, probably one of the many dogs that were kept on the estate. Nothing dangerous, but it made her shiver all the same.

“It’s just a dog,” she said to herself.

“What?” came the voice behind her.

“Nothing,” she said as she turned around. Oz stood in the doorway wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. She felt the blush rise up her face. When the giggle she attempted to stifle insisted on escaping, her hand pressed against her mouth to smother the sound and hide her grin. “Oz, what are you doing?”

“I could talk all night and still not explain what I’m saying. I have to show you,” he said as he took her hand.

As those words bounced around her head, Willow’s mouth went dry. It was happening. Just like she dreamed it.

In front of her Oz smiled, sighed deeply and then began to transform.

Her scream caught in her throat and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. Her feet heavy, she felt anchored to the ground, unable to escape her fate. He was going to attack her, shred her to pieces, and she couldn’t even fight it. In fact, she deserved it.

Quivering, she closed her eyes and waited for the feel of sharp claws digging into her skin, the sound of a hungry growl followed by gnashing teeth. Any minute now he would…lick her fingers?

She opened her eyes and saw him sitting calmly in front of her. It was the same wolf she had run from so many times, only something was different; something had changed. Without realizing it, she moved closer, peering at the animal. Hesitantly, she reached out, touched its muzzle, then quickly drew her hand away. The wolf just sat, unmoving. She looked into its eyes and all her fear melted away. She could see him.

“Oz,” she half-whispered.

His eyes followed her hand as she reached to pet his head, feeling the soft fur between his eyes, running down the hard, taut, muscles of his neck. Dropping down to her knees, she cupped his head gently with both hands, and looked him over in amazement.

“Oz! It’s you! It’s really you!” she said, bewildered.

The wolf nodded, and she could almost swear she saw a smile. Not the cruel sneer she’d run from before, a real, happy smile. He began to shrink, hair receding into smooth skin. A lot of skin, as it seemed the towel had fallen off somewhere in the process, but Willow barely noticed. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from his face. The snout grew back into his nose and his hairline crept back up towards the top of his forehead. Slowly she watched the wolf’s smile turn into Oz’s, but the eyes—the eyes never changed.

“See?” Oz asked.

“See? Oz, that’s…a-amazing. I’ve never…Oh my god. Oz! How did you…when?” Willow babbled.

“Three long, difficult, frustrating years. But I feel better than I have in a long time. Peaceful, even. I wouldn’t give it up,” he said, sincerely.

The dog howled again, and Oz perked up.

“Will, it’s a full moon. I need to run tonight,” Oz said apologetically.

“Oh, right. Go, run,” she said, with a smile.

“Are you sure? It can wait a little longer,” he offered.

“Absolutely. I’m fine.”

Oz smiled. “You will be.”

She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”

“Anytime.” With that, Oz changed again, threw back his head and howled. The dogs howled in return, and the sound of barking could be heard approaching in the distance.

Willow stood back and watched as the two big German Shepherds that normally prowled the estate, barking and snapping at anything that moved, eagerly approached Oz. She couldn’t help but laugh when she realized that, for once, Oz was the biggest of the bunch. The pack, if three animals could be called a pack, began running into the open field, her large shaggy ex-boyfriend in the lead. He paused for a moment, and turned back, looking at her. “Are you sure?” he seemed to ask.

Nodding, she smiled and waved. The wolf turned and howled, then ran, the dogs trailing behind him.

Part 5

The sun snuck in through the crack in the drapes, drawing a lazy line over the bed and slowly crawling up towards Willow’s closed eyes, which fluttered open upon contact. She sat up leisurely, yawning, and glanced at the clock. Nearly time for breakfast. Her stomach growled in agreement, and she smiled.
Following the stray ray of light, she looked out the window. Big tufted cotton clouds were scattered randomly about a blue sky, and the sun was shining brightly. She opened the curtains wide, allowing the warm sunlight to fill her room.

She stretched lazily, then plodded to her dresser. For the first time since she’d arrived, she realized, she was almost looking forward to her day. She felt…not good, but better. Definitely better.

She had Oz to thank for that, she supposed. He always did know how to make her feel better. The events of the night before replayed through her head. The talking, the laughter, the feeling of comfort and acceptance for the first time since….

A lump appeared in her throat, as visions of that night played through her head. The way Tara kissed her, inviting Willow back into her world again. The talking, the laughter, the comfort of being back in Tara’s arm, the acceptance of everything that Willow was and ever would be. There were days Willow clung to that memory. Days where knowing that Tara had loved her and wanted to be with her was the only thing that could pull her through. And then there were the other days, the days when she wished with her whole heart that it had never happened. Because maybe, if Tara hadn’t come back, if she had stayed away, if she hadn’t been standing by that window, maybe Tara would still be alive.

Digging through her drawer, Willow found the picture she’d hidden away weeks ago. Looking at it had been too hard, remembering too painful. Not that she needed a picture to remind her. She still saw Tara’s face when she closed her eyes, and sometimes when she didn’t. Her fingers finally grasped the wooden frame and pulled it out from its hiding place.

Sitting on the edge of her bed, Willow looked into the bright smiling face of her girl. “I miss you, baby,” she said, running her finger along the Tara’s cheek, imagining the feel of Tara’s soft skin instead of cold glass. “You know that, right?” Willow didn’t even realize she was crying until she saw a tear drop onto Tara’s nose. Leaning forward, Willow gently kissed the tear away, just like before, just like Tara would do if she were here now. “I love you. Always.”

She hugged the picture, wiping her tears away, before moving to put it back. She replaced it beneath the pile of sweaters, but soon decided that she couldn’t bear to have Tara hidden away from her again. She pulled the picture back out and set it on her dresser. The sunlight shone off it, making Tara look like an angel. “My guardian angel,” Willow said softly. She didn’t even really believe in angels these days, but somehow it fit.

As she looked around the room, she realized it felt cold, bare and empty. Something was missing. She pulled a suitcase out from under her bed, digging around until she found her stash of photos, and the unopened going away gift Xander had given her. Flipping through the pictures, she felt new tears pricking her eyes. Would they ever forgive her? Buffy? Anya? And, oh god, Dawnie?

Setting the pictures down, she turned to the unopened package. Snoopy wrapping paper. A smile touched her lips. Xander had given it to her at the airport. Though they all came to see her off, probably happy to see her leave, Xander had been the only one who hugged her. They almost missed their flight because Xander didn’t want to let go. He had handed her the package, smiled sadly and told her to come home soon.

Slowly, she opened her gift. A pack of crayons and a Spongebob Squarepants coloring book. A note fluttered out as well.

Willow,

I wanted to give you something you could use the crayons in, but they don’t make a Simpsons coloring book, so it was either this or Pokemon. Have a good time in England, land of the Gileses. Drink of the tea and eat of the scones.

Love,
Xander


Confused, Willow opened up the box of Crayolas. Eight yellow crayons stared back at her. Her smile turned into a giggle, and then before she knew it, an outright guffaw. Picking up the stack of photos, she picked out a choice few, and stuck them into the edges of her mirror, just like she’d done in high school. The rest went into her bedside drawer, next to her diary. The pack of crayons got the place of honor, next to Tara.
She stood, wiping away the tears. She didn’t know anymore whether they were sad tears or happy ones, and for the first time, her uncertainty was comforting.

***

“Willow, you’re up,” Giles noted, a bit surprised. “Ms. Harkness said you came in late last night. I wasn’t expecting you for breakfast.”

“I had a real dinner last night and now I can’t stop thinking about food. I must have an addictive personality,” Willow said with a smile, as she took the seat across from Giles.

Giles didn’t smile. “Willow, you know—”

“I know, I know. Not an addiction,” she said with a sigh and an eye roll.

Giles pushed his glasses back up his nose. “I must say, it is good to see you in a joking mood. Scone?” he offered, passing her a plate.

“It’s good to be in one,” she said, grabbing a scone. “Could you pass the butter? Oz and I had a long talk last night, and I guess I’ve been holding a lot of things inside. Thank you,” she said, grabbing the butter plate from him.

She grew silent for a moment, staring at her plate, and Giles began to become concerned. “Willow? Are you alright?”

Willow took a deep breath. “Giles, I know I’ve kind of avoided talking about everything. Until now I wasn’t ready to. But then last night….” She paused. “I want you to know how sorry I am. For all the things I did, for nearly. I never meant to hurt—”

“More tea?” Giles interrupted. His knuckles were white around the handle of the teapot, his hand quavering. When he felt the pain of his fingernails digging into his palm, he realized his other hand had curled into a fist. He slowly put the teapot down, concentrated on opening both hands, and removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with a sigh.

“Giles?” The hurt in her voice was evident, and brought his attention back. He looked across the table to the confused and scared girl, her brow a sea of worried wrinkles, her eyes wide and wet. And though a part of him wanted only to go to her and protect her from the world, another, deeper, part of him kept trying to remind him of the cold, heartless thing that had left him for dead. He knew that wasn’t Willow, not really, but try as he might—and he had tried, had tried endlessly—he couldn’t get that angry and uncaring voice in the back of his mind to shut up.

“I’m sorry, Willow,” he said, taking her hand, giving what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. “Now’s not a good time.” He stood with a flustered smile and walked away, leaving a trembling Willow behind him.

***

Willow slowly picked at her food, but the scone seemed to have lost all flavor, and she found herself no longer hungry. She pushed her plate away and sat numbly for a moment, unsure what had just happened. The grandfather clock in the hall began to chime; time for classes. Pushing her thoughts aside for a moment, she trudged behind a clump of girls.

Althenia was teaching again today. Willow settled into her usual seat at the back of the class and tried to concentrate on the lesson.

“Class, please settle down.”

The last clump of girls finished giggling and sat down.

“Now then, today we’ll have a bit of a pop quiz,” Althenia said with a sly bit of smile.

The room began to titter with nervousness and surprise.

“What kind of quiz?” Gertrude asked.

“Remember a few weeks ago, when I gave a recommended reading list of useful spells? I’d like to see who bothered to go the extra step and read up on them. Consider this a form of extra credit,” Althenia said, crossing her arms and coming to a stop in front of the first row of girls. She looked back at Willow and winked.

“I may toss the room up a bit, so if anyone feels sorely unprepared and unwilling to face the things that may come your way, please feel free to leave the room now. No one will hold it against you, I assure you.”

Willow watched a handful of girls stand and walk out. Should she join them? The thought of being in a position where magic was necessary made her uncomfortable, still. She stood, hesitantly, looking towards the door. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Althenia watching to see whether she’d stay or go. The image of Oz, shifting in and out of wolf form flashed through Willow’s head, and her mind was made up. If he could do it, she could try. Althenia smiled as Willow sat back down.

“Very well then. For the rest of you, I’ll institute a handful of situations. You must find a way to overcome it. Work alone or in groups, either will work. Those who get past the obstacles will receive an extra mark. Those who try will also get a bit extra, but not as much as those who succeed. Feel free to use anything in the room to aid your tasks.”

With a few whispered words, the room plunged into darkness.

Someone screamed. Willow was sure it was Gertrude, or at the very least, she hoped it was Gertrude.

Another voice began chanting in Latin. At the end of their chant, a spark of light lit up the room for a brief second before extinguishing, plunging the room into darkness once more.

Willow closed her eyes, trying to screw up the courage to do this. It would be a simple spell, that wasn’t the problem. She could light the whole room with candles and add an overhead chandelier if she wanted. The problem was taking that step, opening that door she’d been blocking ever since that day on the cliff. She had tried so hard not to go back, and now she was considering doing exactly that.

Taking a deep breath, ignoring the sparks and brief blips of light coming from around the room, Willow waved her arm in front of her. “Light.”

A small ball of light swirled around the room, coming to rest near the center of the ceiling, illuminating the room.

“Very good, Willow,” Althenia said with a smile and a knowing look.

Gertrude stood to the side, arms crossed. “She didn’t use one of the spells you gave us, Miss. That’s not fair,” she groused, throwing Willow a dagger filled glare.

“I never said you had to use one of the spells I or anyone gave you. Only that those who’ve gone that extra step and bothered to learn something outside of class would be better prepared for what I planned to test,” Althenia replied.

Althenia brought the lights back up, and Willow let the ball of light fizzle out.

“Now the next one will be a little trickier. I’m going to start the smallest bit of a whirlwind inside the room. While I won’t charge you with stopping the whirlwind, as I think it’s beyond most of your talents at the moment, I will charge you with protecting this,” Althenia said, drawing out a small object.

“An orb of Thesula?” Willow asked, recognizing the crystal sphere.

“Yes, actually,” Althenia said with a smile. “Oh, but don’t worry, I have about ten of them. My mum gives me one every Christmas, ever since she found out I had an interest in magic. I mostly use them as paperweights and doorstops.”

Holding the orb up, Althenia said a quick incantation. The sphere remained in place, even after her hand had dropped to her side.

“Now then, protect the orb to the best of your abilities.” With another chant and a quick snap of the fingers, Althenia called forth a forceful gale that swirled around the room picking up objects as well as speed.

Never letting her eyes leave the floating ball, Willow did her best to cast a protection spell over the ball. It wouldn’t last long, but it would give her time to work on slowing the whirlwind a bit. Dodging the storm of books, pens and occasional chairs that flurried about her, she concentrated her energy on the spell. When she saw the faint pink glow surrounding the orb, she smiled and let go of breath she wasn’t aware of holding. Looking down, she saw her hands were shaking. Okay, now for the storm.

Taking a deep breath, she channeled as much energy as she could, while still keeping her eye on the orb. She had just begun a slow chant when a book flew at her face, against the wind. She saw it just in time to deflect it, but her concentration was lost. The glow surrounding the orb faded and she watched as a chair smashed into it. She snapped her head around, eyes burning black, anger crackling at her fingertips. Gertrude stood in the corner, in the direction the book had come from, with a smug, snotty look on her bratty little face.

With a single push against the wind, Willow brought the storm to a sudden halt. Objects fell, littering the room. Students began to run and jump about, trying to avoid the rain of schoolbooks. Willow just waved them away. She extended her arm, fingers splayed and pointed at the snotty bitch quivering in the corner. Her ire ran down the length of her arm. A loud explosion, a flash of light, screaming from all sides.

Willow was thrown across the room, landing in a huddle lump atop a chair on its side, confused. The world seemed to spin around her. The sound of frightened whispers and the sight of apprehensive faces sobered her, and she understood what had happened.

She stood slowly, backing into the wall.

“Willow, are you alright?”

Althenia. Willow shook her head. She couldn’t look at anyone. What had she done? How could she have let herself? It was too dangerous. She was too dangerous. Why had she let herself? Why? Why? WHY?

Without a word, Willow turned and ran for the door.

“Willow!” Althenia called out after her.

Willow didn’t stop. Althenia’s voice—all the voices—faded away. Everything became a blur, as if the whole world was trying to hide from her.

She didn’t know where she was going, or what she was doing. She just ran.

Part 6

Oz roamed around the small cabin, picking up various pieces of clothing and stuffing them into the duffle bag on the bed. Was he missing anything? Got the toothbrush and shaving kit from the bathroom. Got the clothes, clean and dirty. Oh, photographs on the mantel. Can’t forget those.
He moved from the small bedroom into the living room. Pausing for a final sweep, he realized the room looked wrong. Without the shirts draped over the furniture and books cluttering the table, it looked cleaner but not nearly as homey. The guitar in the corner caught his eye. It’d been a while since he played. He never took her with him to Master Sheng’s. For one thing, the old monk frowned on unnecessary noise. For another, the strings didn’t do well in the cold weather. They popped too easily, and guitar strings were unsurprisingly hard to find in those parts.

He picked up the worn instrument. An Ibanez six string, spruce top, extended fret; the tone wasn’t as rich as he liked, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. He found her at a pawnshop in Brighton, got a good deal for it. She was losing a bit of her luster, but she still played well enough. The strings she came with were terrible, but strings could be replaced. He called her Nadia. She sounded like a Nadia.

A quick strum showed she was badly in need of tuning. One thing he loved about his super wolf hearing was that he got a much better sound out of his guitar. He could pick up even the smallest changes. It was kind of cool.

He let his fingers run over the fret, plucking at the strings, bouncing through scales and exercises, loving the feel of the steel pressing into his fingertips. The sound rang out, and he just let himself go. A lot of really bad note combinations were bound to come out of free range strumming, but every now and then you’d fall into a groove, find that perfect sound.

After a few moments, his fingers found something comfortable and familiar. And before he knew it, he was singing along.

“She flies from a blinding light and spirals to my heart. I try to find my mind but don’t know where to start. Won’t ever, can’t ever find my sanity. Won’t ever, can’t ever ‘til I hear her calling for me. She knows that, she knows that, she knows that side of me.”

He stopped, putting the guitar down. That was the first song he’d ever written. Well, the first good song. Devon had liked it so much he’d asked Oz to write more. And every single good song he ended up writing had one thing in common—they were all about Willow. They weren’t all happy; in fact, songwriting had been one of the outlets he’d poured his grief into after he’d seen Willow and Xander kissing, but they still revolved around her. It had something to do with passion. You had to really care about something, really put it into your work. Otherwise it would be just another dead, empty song. And no one cared about those, at least no one over the age of 15.

Nadia went back into the corner, to collect dust until the next time he visited. He picked up the stack of photos on the mantle. They were starting to get a little creased and smudged. Worn and faded, like everything he had. The top photo was of the Dingoes, Devon hamming it up as usual. Where was he now? Where were the rest of them? Devon had been the closest thing to a best friend Oz had had, and now Oz had no clue what had become of him. Flipping through the rest of the photos was like watching someone else’s life pass by him. He hadn’t seen or talked to most of these people since he left Sunnydale. The Dingoes, the Alpha Delts, John, Jessica, Rachel, Danny, Buffy and the rest the league of extraordinary demon fighters. Just faces to go with the memories he sometimes wasn’t even sure were his. And yet he couldn’t let go of the pictures, because they were the only things left to remind him that these things did happen. That he had lived another life, had cared for people.

Near the bottom the photos were in much better shape. Only because the people in these pictures never strayed far from Oz’s mind or heart. Mom, Dad, Jordy, Uncle Ken and Aunt Maureen, Gramps and Gran. And of course Willow. These were the faces burned into his memory, faces he never needed to be reminded of. Jordy’s pictures remained especially crisp. Oz received a new one every year. The rambunctious five-year-old had grown into a respectable ten. Oz made a mental note to talk to Uncle Ken about Jordy, see if he would be allowed to spend some time with Oz and Master Sheng. The thought of Jordy having to deal with the wolf and puberty was just too much.

With a sigh, Oz stuck the pictures into his jacket pocket. It was sheer luck that he hadn’t lost them all already. And in a way he thought of them as his lucky charm, his ties to the world that made all the work and all the frustration worth it. Even if they didn’t know it.

Oz looked at the clock. He had about two hours before he had to make his way to the pier. Just enough time to go say goodbye to everyone and find Willow before he left.

He opened the door to find Willow running towards him. He started towards her, concerned. When she stumbled, he ran to her, managing to catch her just before she hit the ground. He tried to pull her up. She didn’t seem to notice.

Finally, he gave up and slid to his knees and cradled her head in his lap as she cried.

***

Willow was vaguely aware that she wasn’t moving anymore. Her vision was blurry and the world seemed to have turned upside down. As her sobs died down, she realized she was lying down. Her knee hurt. She wheezed, fighting with her body for breath. Her cheeks felt hot, and her hair was sticking to her face, slick with tears. She didn’t care.

Something stroked her hair, delicately moving it off her face. She moved her head slightly and felt the brush of fabric beneath her. After a moment it registered as a leg.

“Willow? Are you okay?” a voice asked; a familiar voice that swam through her brain, calming her somehow. A sob caught in her throat and she exhaled with a shudder.

“No,” she whimpered.

“Are you hurt?” he asked. At least she thought it was a he. And his voice was filled with emotions—concern and love and all the things she didn’t deserve to have.

She shook her head feebly.

“Do you want to go inside?” he asked. Oz asked. It was Oz.

“I’m so tired,” she whispered, closing her eyes.

“We don’t have to move.” Above her there was movement. Then a heavy warmth settled over her. A blanket. No, they were outside, no blankets. Whatever it was, it made her feel better.

“I’m just so tired.” The sobbing had stopped. Tears still streamed down her face, but she could breathe again. “So tired of trying. Of failing. I’m always failing. I’m a failure.” Her voice came out hoarse, barely a croak. She couldn’t even succeed at speaking.

“You’re not a failure.”

The tears came down harder. “Every time I think I’ve run out of tears, I find more. I’m tired of crying. What if I never get better? It can’t stay like this. I can’t. I just….”

“Sometimes I would wake up and every muscle in my body would be sore. There were scratches all over me and I didn’t think I could take anymore. But someone would be standing there, ready to make me try. And I would think of you,” he said softly.

“Me?” she asked weakly.

“Sitting in a hospital bed, head all bandaged, insisting on doing a spell that drained you completely. And I would see your resolve face and it helped me find my own.”

Willow sat up, making whatever was covering her slide to the ground.

“Really?”

Oz smiled. “Really.”

She pulled her knees to her chest, locking her arms around them the way she used to do when she was little and scared. Except she’d never felt this small before. Or this scared.

“I’m not that girl anymore,” Willow said sadly, her shoulders slumping. She rested her chin on her knees.

“Yes you are.” Oz reached behind her, and grabbed his jacket. He pulled out a stack of photographs and flipped through them quickly. Taking one from the pile, he placed the rest of them back in the jacket pocket.

An image was thrust in front of her. It was a younger, happier, more vibrant her. One arm was slung around Oz, who was laughing, the other pushing away Xander who was wet and also laughing. She remembered this. They had been at the pier, and Xander had fallen in, and had spent the rest of the day trying to get everyone else soaked. She smiled, taking the picture from Oz.

“She looks so happy. I wish I still saw her when I look in the mirror,” Willow sighed.

“I saw her last night. I see her right now. Her hair’s a little different but she’s the same girl. And she still has the same resolve face. I know, I saw it,” Oz said.

“How do you do it? How do you know what to say to make things better?” Willow asked wondrously.

“Ancient ritual. There were woodchucks, lots of chanting and bit of the hokey pokey. I don’t like to talk about it.”

She wanted to laugh but all that came out of her was a small smile. Sighing, she laid her head on his shoulder. “I’m such a mess. What am I going to do when you leave?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been the only person I’ve been able to talk to about, about everything. And I didn’t even realize how much I needed someone to talk to until now.”

“You know I’m always here for you, but I would suggest a more local alternative. I can be hard to reach sometimes. Monks don’t like phones.”

“I…I haven’t really made any friends here. The girls are all afraid of me. I’d be afraid of me too,” she said, hugging her knees tighter.

“And the coven?”

“I don’t really know. Althenia seems nice. She’s the only one who ever seems to talk to me. I don’t think Ms. Harkness likes me very much.”

“What about Giles?”

“Giles isn’t…. I tried to talk to him this morning and it didn’t go over well. I know he cares but, I don’t think he wants to hear about it and I can’t really blame him,” Willow replied, dejectedly.

“Is that why you’re out here?” Oz asked, tentatively.

“What? Oh, no. No, that’s….” She paused, remembering what had happened, how it had taken only a moment for her to have lost herself completely. “I tried to use magic again. And I—I think I might have hurt someone.” Her face began to crumple, tears filling her eyes again, the photo fluttered to the ground.

Without a word, Oz wrapped his arms around her. And she let go of everything and let herself be held for the first time in a long time.

***

Oz didn’t know how long they sat there, a few feet outside of the cabin. He was loath to bring the moment to an end, but he could feel time passing and he had a boat to catch.

“Willow,” he whispered. He silently cursed himself. Why did it always feel like he was running from her? He almost didn’t have it in him to leave again. The last few times it had taken every ounce of resolve he’d had and later, when he’d left Sunnydale and Willow miles behind him, he felt like he’d broken into a thousand pieces. And all the good parts had stayed with her.

“Willow, I hate to, but I have to go,” he said with a grimace, dropping his arms to his side.

She looked up at him with a look of distress and he cursed himself again. “Already?” she asked.

“I’m so sorry,” he said with a pained voice. “If I had known…I have to catch a boat. It leaves soon.”

“Oh.”

The resignment in her voice pierced his heart like an icy blade. His nostrils flared as his emotions welled up inside him. Don’t cry; don’t let her see you cry. She doesn’t need your pain; she has enough of her own.

Reaching into his jacket he pulled out an envelope. “Here’s my contact information. And if none of that works, just ask Ms. Harkness. She always knows how to find me. And the key to the cabin, if you ever need a place to be alone,” he said as he handed it to her.

“I’ll call you as often as I can. If you want that,” he offered. The few seconds before she answered seemed to stretch for eons.

“I’d like that,” she said. He exhaled in relief.

“Gladness.”

He stood, then helped her up. They stood awkwardly for a moment or two. Oz was in the process of deciding he should just leave when she flung her arms around him. He smiled into her hair, his hand finding the back of her neck and everything felt right.

“Oz. Will I see you again?” Willow asked, as they released each other.

“Of course. I don’t do goodbyes. Not good for my complexion.” He reached for her hand, gave it a squeeze, then turned and began to walk to the cabin.

“Oz wait!” she called from behind. He turned to find her holding up the photo. “You forgot this.”

“Keep it. I have more.” He quickly turned and walked into the cabin. If she called to him again, he wouldn’t be able to make himself leave.

***

Giles stood by the stable considering a ride when he saw a figure pass by him.

“Willow?” he called out.

She stopped but didn’t answer.

“Are you alright?” he asked as he strode towards her.

She nodded, but still didn’t speak.

Giles sighed, stopping beside her. “You have every right to be upset at me. My behavior this morning left something to be desired, I’ll admit to that. But I hope you know that I want more than anything to help you get through this.”

She turned to him this time. “Then why didn’t you?”

“Willow—”

“No. Giles, I had things I needed to say. And you wouldn’t let me,” she accused.

“I know. I have to say that I was a bit surprised myself. I thought that I had gotten past that.”

“Giles, I need you on my side. I need to have someone I can turn to and talk to about these things. I can’t do it alone,” she whimpered.

“And I would love to be that person for you, but I can’t promise that I can be.”

She nodded and they started walking, silently back to the house.

“I’m not perfect you know,” he said, after a moment.

“Xander owes me five dollars. He said you’d never admit to it.”

Giles turned his head to glare, but her smile was so infectious he found himself grinning instead.

The reached the house and paused, smiles fading. Willow looked up at him anxiously.

“Let me know when you can talk, uh, about stuff?” she asked.

“I promise,” he said with a nod.

He watched as she went into the house, hoping that this was a promise he wouldn’t have to break.

***

Willow trudged towards her room, making eye contact with the floor to avoid making it with people. So it came as a surprise to her when she bumped into someone.

“Willow, I’m so glad to see you. Are you alright?” Althenia asked, concerned.

“I, uh, I’m fine. How’s, I mean, did I… Is Gertrude okay?” Willow asked anxiously.

“Oh she’s perfectly fine. We have a fully functioning protection spell on all the students,” Althenia said. “I’m much more concerned about you.”

“Protection spell? Of course. You knew I was coming,” Willow said.

“Don’t be silly. We are in the habit of keeping many young emotionally charged girls and teaching them how to use powerful magics. It doesn’t take long to realize that a protection spell is safer for us all, and keeps squabbles over boys and clothes much cleaner,” Althenia said with a comforting smile.

“Oh.” Willow was surprised and slightly relieved. “Well, I should, you know, go,” she said as she started to walk again.

“Oh, alright. If you need to talk, feel free to drop by,” Althenia called after her.

Willow made it to her room and locked the door behind her.

The envelope Oz had given her she put in her bedside drawer. Didn’t want to lose any of that. She was tempted to write him a letter already, even though she was certain he hadn’t even left the coast of England yet.

She’d managed to make it two weeks without talking to anyone about anything, and now she wasn’t sure if she’d make the next two days without someone to help her get through this. She sat on her bed, pulling out the photograph Oz had left with her. It was fitting that, standing between Xander and Oz, the only people that managed to look at her the same as they always had even after all she’d done, she looked so very happy. What she wouldn’t give to have one or both of them here with her now.

She stood and walked to the mirror, looking at herself, then back at the picture. She tried to smile but all she got was a sad imitation of a smile. Oz’s words came back to her. “Same girl,” he had said. She looked again, but still couldn’t see it.

Then again, he had seen her much happier. Last night she had laughed and smiled and actually felt like the carefree girl she had once been, if only for a moment. Maybe he was right. Maybe she was still in there, under the tear-streaked face, somewhere. And she was going to try and find her again.

If only it weren’t so hard. If only Oz had stayed. He made things somehow easier. Talking to him made everything clearer, less life or death.

She looked back at the picture again. The happy girl had friends. Maybe Oz was right about that too. She needed a friend. Someone other than Giles. And she knew where to start looking for one.

As she headed for Althenia’s room, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. And for a moment, she saw the girl she once was.

“Same girl,” she said with a smile.