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fic: Chasing Down a Lie

Joan and God
My entry for the werewolf_inlove ficathon! I'm posting this with a giant sigh of relief, because this story has been haunting me for forever it feels like. But it's (finally) all finished, which is endlessly pleasing to me.


Title: Chasing Down a Lie
           
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
 
Characters: Willow Rosenberg, Daniel "Oz" Osbourne, Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, Kennedy
   
Pairing: Oz/Willow, implied Tara/Willow
   
Rating: PG-13
           
Words: 8,600
         
Disclaimer: I don't own anything in this unofficial fanwork, nor do I claim to or profit in any way.
 
Summary: After Chosen, Willow and Oz meet up again, after Willow's decided to quit magic, afraid that she'll lose herself in it again, and Oz has tamed his wolf, and they help each other with the monster within.
           
A/N: I'm lovingly calling this story "The Fic That Wouldn't End," because it literally would not end. It ended up far longer than I anticipated, so I'm glad that I've finally finished it. This was written mostly because I liked the parallels between Willow and Oz's character arcs in this respect, and I wanted to explore that dynamic.


Oz had been traveling for so long that some days, tired and weary, with no cash and ragged boots, he wasn’t sure what kept him moving. It was like he was looking for something, something important and wonderful, something that would make all of these weary days worth it, but he had lost his map and forgotten what he was looking for. He just remembered that he had to keep going.

He didn’t think of Sunnydale much, didn’t think of life before the road, before Kyoto and Zagreb and Lhasa and Bucharest. Instead, he thought of perfectly mundane things, he wondered how long his boots would last and how much it would cost to get from Sofia to Skopje. Three nights a month, he allowed himself to remember a world where he wasn’t the only monster, a world with a cage in a library and a redheaded girl with bright eyes like the sun. But, for the rest of the month, he tried his absolute hardest not to think of her. It was easier to try to forget Sunnydale, and all of the awful things there. He could forget about all the monsters he could sometimes sense hiding in shadowed alleyways, and he could forget the faces of all the people he’d never truly known, but he could never forget her.

She was always with him, like the creased and folded photograph of her had been, before he’d taken it out of his wallet years ago. He’d been trying to forget, trying to stop hurting, but even with her picture lying abandoned in some landfill in Albania, he couldn’t forget her face. She lived in the edges of his consciousness, always just barely there. He saw her in every flash of ginger hair in a crowd, heard her in every bell-like giggle. Some nights, he would have confusing, technicolor dreams, full of changing and moving and dying, and when he woke up, the only color he would remember was orangey-red, and the only thing he could remember was her, running away. She was always running away.

The nights after he dreamed of her, odd random nights, with no association to where he was or what he’d done that day, he saw her more than usual. She was the woman he saw briefly as she rushed past on the other side of the street. She was the cluster of orange blossoms, moving in the wind. She was crossing the street ahead of him, all of her hair tucked under an orange scarf. She was never really her.

And then, one day, it was her. This time, she was the redheaded woman standing ahead of him at the corner, hunched over a touristy map with a blue scarf barely holding back her shining clementine hair. He wasn’t surprised, like he’d been expecting to meet her here, on the busiest street in all of Istanbul. He’d always been expecting her, in some stupid, optimistic corner of his heart, so he’d never stopped seeing her, wherever he went.

“Hey, Willow,” he called, trying to sound nonchalant while still straining to rise above the city noise. He was sure it was her this time, she was exactly the figure from his memories, but a little older, long red hair and a blouse and boots. He still recognized her, from the frenzied dreams he had, the ones he’d had every night since arriving in Istanbul a week ago.

She turned to face him and her face broke into an orange peel grin and her bright green eyes still shone like the sun to him. “Oz!” she exclaimed, “You’re here!”

“So’re you.” He was a little confused by how unconfused she was by the whole thing, but dismissed it. Finally, after years of traveling, it felt like he was done searching.

“In Istanbul! And, well, my hair’s not blue, but still. That’s not the part that matters, is it?” She grinned widely at him before crushing him into her best Willow hug. One arm around her waist and the other cradling the back of her neck, feeling her head tucked in between his shoulder and neck, Oz felt more at peace than he had in any temple or ancient forest, like he hadn’t felt in years.

“I guess not,” he whispered into her hair.

Finally, he pulled away from her, already missing the feeling of her arms twined around him. “Hungry?”

“Oh, you bet,” she nodded and as they walked back down the street Oz had found her on, she slipped her warm, pale hand into his. Oz didn’t question it, wasn’t sure he wanted to know what she intended the gesture as, but just squeezed back. In his mind, it was their time once more, and he could only pray it was the same to her.

They stopped at a schwarma bar (she’d wanted to try the local cuisine) and shared a table for two out on the restaurant’s patio. Oz thought that maybe it should be a little awkward between them, but it wasn’t, like they were just picking up where they left off, even if that was a few years ago. Willow looked a little different, but she still had the sweetest smile he’d ever seen and her laugh still made him grin. That was more than enough to convince him that things were finally working out the way they should.

“What are you doing in Istanbul?” he asked as they waited for their meal. She smiled, a little sadly, into her wine glass before looking at him.

“I just wanted to get away for a while. I’m not practicing magic anymore, and I wanted a change of pace, for a little bit.” Her smile became much happier when she met his eyes. “But you were certainly a pleasant surprise.”

Oz ducked his head and smiled a little, meeting her eyes again to ask, “No magic,?”

“It was getting a little out of control. I think I’m probably better off without it, honestly.”

Oz just nodded, seemingly understanding her unvoiced worries about losing herself in her magic, the way he had once almost lost himself in his wolf. To break the silence, Willow asked what he was doing there, and he shrugged, “I hadn’t made it to Istanbul yet. I figured I oughta give it a gander.”

“So you’ve traveled a lot? Still looking for a cure for, y’know,” she lowered her voice and leaned in towards him as if they were co-conspirators, “the wolf?”

“Nah,” he shook his head languidly, feeling utterly at ease, despite the fact that his past was coming back to haunt him in a big way. “I was, but then I met a guy. Had this potion, Wolfsbane. I change, only on the real full moon, but I’m still me.”

“Oz, that’s amazing!” Willow cried, reaching across the table to squeeze her hand in his. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks.”

She tried to pull her hand away after a minute, flushing a little when she realized she was still holding on to him. Oz gave her a slow smile and gave her hand a gentle squeeze and she squeezed back, not letting go with a smile, just a little shyer than his.

“So why keep traveling?”

“Don’t know. Felt like I was looking for something.”

“For what?”

“I wasn’t sure,” he admitted, “but I think I figured it out once I found it.” He stared evenly at her, waiting for her to find the message hidden in between his words. Once upon a time, she’d been able to translate his every word and look and gesture with ease.

“Really?” she whispered, heart shining in her eyes, and he could tell in a second that she hadn’t lost it. She still knew him better than anyone ever had, and it was good, because, for all of her changes, she was still the redheaded girl he’d fallen in love with, all those days and months and years ago.

“Yeah,” he answered her. She squeezed his hand again, a little tighter than he had, and he raised their hands to his lips for a kiss. It was simple and heartfelt and genuine, which was perfect, because he’d never been one for fusses or messes. He just wanted to make sure she knew how he felt.

“I wasn’t really looking for you, not officially,” she confessed, “but I’ve been hoping that I’d find you. It’s why I stopped in Istanbul.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I, I’ve missed you, Oz, ever since you left. And I was happy with Tara, but even then, there was a little part inside of me that felt all empty and sad, all the time. Like, a lung, or something. And I got used to you being gone, but I was never really happy about it, because even though I really loved Tara, I was always missing you, somewhere in the back of my mind. I didn’t notice it all the time, but it was there. I never really fell properly out of love with you, I guess. So, yeah, I didn’t come here to find you, not officially, but I wanted to find you again. A lot.”

“Huh,” he murmured, letting her words sink in. It was a heady experience already, just being around her again, breathing her familiar strawberries and cinnamon scent. Hearing her tell him that she’d missed him, maybe still loved him like he still loved her, made the whole thing a little surreal.

“Last time, in Sunnydale, it wasn’t our time. Is it now?”

“Is it our time? I don’t know,” Willow responded slowly and curiously, testing out the feel of the words on her tongue.

“Want to find out?” Oz smiled faintly, wanting her to say yes more than he’d wanted anything in a long time.

Willow was quiet for a moment, evaluating. They were different people than they’d been in Sunnydale, but he was still Oz and she was still Willow, so they still made some sort of sense, four years later. She thought that maybe they would always make sense together.

“More than anything,” Willow grinned and she leaned across the table to kiss him.

* * *

It was true, she hadn’t been in Eastern Europe looking for Oz (although she did make the side trip to Istanbul in the hopes of finding him), but she was unbelievably glad she had found him. Even now, five years after he started, Oz was still running away from Sunnydale, from the Wolf, from the Scoobies, and, now, she was running too. It was better this way, she thought; they could run away together. Now neither of them had to feel alone.

They weren’t the same silly, love struck teenagers that they’d been when they were first together, now they were older and harder. Her hair was longer and he’d grown a bit of a beard, and they were both monsters now, with smiling, unlined human faces.

They had red blood on their hands and black marks on their hearts, the memories of the savage joy of killing that made them monsters lingering on the edges of their minds. Under the skin, they were made of the same things now, love and darkness and an awful, screaming guilt. She’d fallen in love with Oz the man, still loved the man, but she thought that maybe it was Oz the monster she needed now. Because the girl he’d fallen in love with was a monster these days, too.

“Are you ever going to tell me why you came here alone?” Oz asked lightly, walking arm in arm down the shore. They’d already talked their way through their apocalypses apart, riding in an ancient taxi down to the Hellespont, but Willow had stopped her story short. She’d skipped straight from setting up the new Council out in the Scottish Highlands to flying out to Prague, not wanting to talk about her abrupt departure, or the hastily written apology to Buffy, Xander, Giles, and Kennedy she’d left on her bed. She wanted to talk about the future, talk about catching a boat to Egypt, about sitting up together on full moons, about taking some time to be young and (mostly) human and in love. She didn’t want to talk about this.

“I just, needed some time, I guess,” Willow sighed, watching the dying edges of waves lick against their toes. “To just be Willow, not The Witch. I don’t know if I like The Witch anymore, if that even makes sense.”

“Tons of sense,” he smiled, kissing her temple. “Buffy and Xander needed the Witch?”

“I guess. Maybe they just didn’t understand why I didn’t. I don’t need all that terrible power, I don’t even want it anymore,” Willow’s voice trailed off a little, fading like curls of smoke. “Not when it’s so easy to lose your hold on it, let it hold you instead.”

“I get it,” Oz nodded and squeezed her hand, and it was the most comforting thing anyone had said to her about the magic in years. He knew what it was like to have all sorts of power that he couldn’t begin to control, to want to lock himself away, hiding in the back of a cage or thousands of miles away from everyone. He, more than anyone, knew what it felt like to be scared that he was more monster than human, but the difference was that he’d never lied to himself like she had. They both had monsters, living somewhere deep inside them and clawing desperately to get out. It had just taken her longer to realize it.

“Thanks,” Willow whispered, ready to drop the subject. Thinking about the past few months of her life was uncomfortable, it made her feel messy and destructive and awful. She wanted to think beautiful things about the here and now, about falling in love with Oz all over again, so completely that it was hard to imagine how she could ever survive without him again. She wanted to think about the feel of his hand in hers, the taste of his kiss on her lips, the sound he made when she kissed the skin just beneath his jaw, the look in his eyes when she told him she’d never fallen out of love with him. She didn’t want to remember Scotland at all.

“I adore you,” Oz said, breaking the moody silence she’d fallen into. Willow smiled at him and forgot all about everything that wasn’t Oz. It was such a perfect Oz thing to say, simple and unadorned, but with a world of meaning behind it. She really was falling more in love with him every day.

“I adore you, too.” Willow leaned in to kiss him softly, pulling away to rest her forehead against his. “You make me happier than I’ve been in a while.”

“Likewise,” Oz whispered, pulling her in for another kiss. He kissed her thoroughly, only pulling away when he was gasping for breath through swollen lips. Kissing Oz was a tiny moment of utter joy in each kiss. For so long, since the first time he drove out of Sunnydale, she’d been certain she’d never get to kiss him again. Now, she had the chance to, any time she wanted, and she couldn’t be happier.

They began to walk slowly again, releasing their embrace to slip arms around each other’s waists and pull each other close. They didn’t talk for a while, lost in thoughts and dreaming, wondering at the feel of the waves slipping over their feet and the burning pink and orange of sunset over the Mediterranean.

“We should go to Egypt,” Willow announced earnestly, coming on a stop and pulling Oz to a halt with her. Waves kept brushing over their feet but Willow ignored them, her bright, hopeful eyes locked on his. Oz’s sharp blue eyes had always looked a little bit sad or melancholy, just a touch of sorrow to balance the hint of animal that she had always seen, but when they met her gaze, even his eyes were smiling.

“Egypt. Never been,” Oz remarked, pulling his arms free to twine them around her waist.

“Me neither. We can see the pyramids, and the cities, and the Sphinx, and, Oz, there’s just so much to see there!”

“We could head out on Saturday,” he smiled softly, eyes lighting up at the sweeping grin on her face.

“Sounds perfect,” Willow grinned, kissing him quickly under the waxing moon before continuing down the shore. “Is there anywhere in particular you want to go after Egypt, Oz?”

He pondered for a moment, head cocked in serious thought. “Always thought New Zealand would be neat.”

“Oh, and South America! Have you been to South America yet?” Oz shook his head, chuckling a little at her enthusiasm.

“Hey! Don’t laugh at me! I’m just excited. I’ve always wanted to travel and now I’m going to, and I’m doing it with you.

“I get to see the world with you, Oz,” she smiled softly, stopping to meet his eyes again. “How is that not exciting and perfect and, well, lots of other really good adjectives...”

“It’s all of those really good adjectives,” Oz whispered and tucked her hair out of her eyes with one hand, trailing that hand down the lines of her face to cup her chin. “And I’m so unbelievably happy.” Oz leaned in the last inch to kiss her softly.

“I always wanted to see the world with you too.”

* * *

While Oz watched quietly from the corner he was squatting in, Willow grounded herself in meditation, reaching out to feel the earth beneath her, and the energy around her. This wasn’t the first spell she’d done since leaving the Council, but it would certainly be the hardest. She would be sustaining this one all night, feeling the coursing thrum of power for hours.

Learning from her mistakes, Willow had been weaning herself off of magic, slowing instead of stomping on the breaks. Quitting cold turkey hadn’t worked well for her. It had made her dangerous and even more out of control than when she was letting her addiction run wild. So, gradual.

She’d done small spells and blessings during her travels, nightly meditations to keep her grounded and stable, and tiny releases of power every so often. Willow had stuck to airy scraps of magic, a blessing on their flight to Egypt, a charm to strengthen the weary soles of Oz’s boots, a spell to locate him in Istanbul, and releasing her clinging hold to the magicks felt freeing. No longer living in fear of herself, it felt like she had lost a heavy burden, as if she’d dropped a rain soaked coat so she could walk lightly in the sun. The dizzy rush of power, of blood and magic singing through her veins, was nearly a hazy memory, and Willow was more than ready to finally forget it.

Releasing a final breath, Willow opened her eyes to meet Oz’s, calm and solid even when he was feeling the moon rising with every part of him.

“The potion?” she asked, rising to her feet in a single airy motion.

“Taken.”

“Good. Is it coming? The change?” Oz merely nodded, face tense, though he showed none of the barely veiled fear he’d worn the last time she’d seen the change. “Alright, I’ll only need a second.”

Resuming her meditative breathing, Willow reached deep inside to the pool of magic welling from inside her. It was getting a little farther every day and the logical, rational part of her was pleased, glad to see her weapon further out of her reach. But, no matter what she did, a little voice in her head, persistent and loud, cried out at her foolishness in giving up so much power. She had always wanted to be special, and that tiny, deafening voice she tried so hard to ignore wouldn’t let her forget that she was walking away from the one thing she’d always been the best at, the one thing that made her so terribly special that others were afraid. It was the small part of her that hadn’t cared that her power had come hand in hand with a horrifying addiction, that didn’t fear what she could become. It was scary and alarming and pulled at her every time it spoke up, because maybe she couldn’t walk away for good, maybe she needed the magic now, because, without it, who was she, but mousy old Willow?

Ruthlessly, Willow pushed down that voice, locking it away in a box in her mind, where she put all her useless fears and insecurities and jealousies, not to be examined or indulged. She had a spell to cast for Oz, and she didn’t have time to wallow. Exhaling harshly, Willow walked over to the casting circle she’d drawn earlier and sat down.

It was an easy silencing spell, nothing fancy or all that powerful, and with a simple chant and an invocation to the Goddess, she was done. The hardest part had been grounding herself, reaching inside for the magic to release just a trickle without getting overwhelmed. Even that was getting easier these days.

“Okey doke,” Willow smiled, scooting over to where Oz sat, his blue eyes locked on her. “No sound entering or leaving this room all night, until I end the spell. You’re all set to go wolfy now.”

“Thanks, Will,” he said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “Much appreciated.”

“Anything to make this easier for you,” Willow promised, making eye contact to ensure he knew she was sincere.

“It’s easier than you remember.” He stood, pulling off his faded t-shirt, green fabric emblazoned with the name of some band she’d never heard of. He folded it neatly, tucking it away in his bag. In that moment, Oz seemed so quiet and orderly and precise that Willow could barely remember the savage, irrational monster he could become. He said that he’d found control, enforced order in the one part of his life where he’d never been able to overrule the chaos, and Willow was honestly excited to see it.

“Will you be able to understand me?” she asked, natural curiosity showing like a beacon. Sometimes, she still thought that she should have been a scientist or anthropologist or anything other than runaway witch. She would have loved to investigate and hypothesize and perform tests on everything imaginable. Now, though, she was happy to settle for letting Oz satisfy all of her curiosity.

He shrugged and tugged off his pants. “I’ve always been alone.”

“Well then,” she grinned, “I guess we’ll find out!”

“See you in the morning,” he smiled weakly, dropping to all fours with a groan. The change seemed more awful than she remembered, more painful and terrifying and unnatural. Maybe she had gotten used to watching Oz writhe in pain from the change, years ago, but now, in their silent hotel room in Cairo, it hurt her just to watch him squirm.

Oz arched his back, breath coming in harsh, labored pants, and Willow could only watch as his bones elongated, muscles wrapping themselves around them while fur spread along his flesh like a wildfire. It was over with a howl, just moments after it had begun, and Oz turned to look at her with the face of a wolf, fangs and snout and shining yellow eyes in the place where her boyfriend used to be.

“Hi, Oz,” she whispered, calmly, when he made no move to attack her. He was different than he’d been in Sunnydale, she was sure. Oz looked like the same snarling monster in the library book cage he’d been, once upon a time, but now he was as calm and steady as when he walked as a man.

Still crouching on the ground, Oz leaned forward to nudge her hand with his snout. “Do you want…?” Willow trailed off, dropping to the ground beside the wolf and scratching behind his ears. The Ozwolf gave a happy bark, laying down on his side to lay his head in her lap.

“Aren’t you high maintenance?” she laughed, combing her fingers through the long fur on Oz’s head. His fur was much softer than she’d expected, a funny attribute for a beast of his kind. He was enormous, somehow far bigger than Oz had been ten minutes before, with a muzzle full of dangerously pointed fangs and claws like heavy ivory knives. The sparkling intelligence in his eyes, just enough Oz shining through to make her feel safe, was the only thing that was left of her boyfriend, but it was enough. She could love the beast he became, just as she’d loved the man.

“Oz?” she leaned down to look in her wolf’s eyes. “Do you understand me like this?” He barked happily, wet, pink wolfy tongue lolling out as he nodded his head against her thigh. “Cool!” Willow whispered, sliding away from him. She grinned, utterly thrilled by just how far Oz had come, and, if she was honest, thrilled by the curiosity of communicating with a werewolf. Clambering across their bed, she grabbed from the bedside table the book Oz had been reading through since she’d found him, and slid to the floor again.

“Do you want me to read to you?” she asked, letting the wolf curl up around her once more. He yipped again, making her laugh, and Willow opened the book. She remembered all nighters in the library, sitting in a hard wooden chair and reading their English books aloud, keeping herself awake and getting ahead on schoolwork. Oz had never remembered what she read, or even that she’d been reading, but it always seemed to calm the wolf down, so she hadn’t stopped.

This, while reminiscent of all those sleepless nights, was wonderfully different. Back in high school, she could scarcely imagine spending the whole night reading to wolfy Oz, scratching behind his ears while he lay with his head across her lap. There would be no classes to stay awake through tomorrow, either, and she was looking forward to spending the day curled up in bed with Oz.

“Alrighty then,” she cleared her throat and began. It was a volume of poetry, T.S. Eliot. Willow had never been much of a poetry person, but from what she remembered of poetry from AP Lit, Eliot was right up Oz’s alley.

She started with the first poem in the book and read through the night, not spending too long digesting the meaning of each stanza and line, and letting her voice drop to preserve it. She didn’t finish the volume, but she had hundreds of full moons to come, so she figured she’d have time to read Oz every poem in that book and them some. Both Willow and Oz fell asleep sometime near sunrise, waking up only as Oz’s body began to shift and shrink against Willow. He slept through the transformation, exhausted, and woke up only when Willow pulled away from his sleeping form.

“Will?” he mumbled, sleepy eyed and slurred, cracking open his beautiful blue eyes to stare at her.

“Go to bed, sweetie,” she answered, sitting down once more in the circle she’d set up the night before. “I’ll be there once I end the spell.”

“Good,” Oz murmured, dragging his tired bones to their untouched bed, still neatly made from when their room had been cleaned while they visited Giza, and sliding between the cool, tan sheets.

Willow watched him shift in bed, trying to fall back to sleep as she called back the magic. She kept part of her focus on him as she released the spell, letting him anchor her into the here and now, as precaution against the lure of the magics. Finished and spell ended, Willow sloppily cleaned up the circle she’d laid out and shed her jeans, far too tired to clean up or dress for bed properly. She gratefully crawled into bed the moment she was done, curling up to Oz’s still shifting body.

“Better,” he slurred as they curled around each other, fitting together like bookends. “Love you, Will.”

“I love you too, Oz,” Willow whispered, pressing a soft kiss to the top of his head.

“Thanks for staying up.”

“I didn’t mind. It was kinda nice, reading to wolfy you.”

“You are quite the human,” Oz chuckled, snuggling a little more tightly around her.

“Hmm,” she murmured, eyelids drifting shut against her will. “So’re you.”

* * *

Oz was resting, eyes on the cotton white stucco ceiling and mind on Willow, idly listening to the patter of shower water. Willow’s phone rang sharply, the sudden shrill buzz announcing itself like a stampede in the soft quiet of the Cairo hotel room. Oz grabbed the phone, checking the caller ID, and felt a nearly forgotten shiver of fear run down his spine. The name ‘Buffy’ scrolled across the tiny screen and, for a second, Oz remembered every late night call from the library and all the terrible things that had come rushing behind. That was ridiculous, though. Buffy was almost definitely calling to catch up with Willow; he hadn’t heard the two talk on the phone the entire time he and Willow had been traveling, so he picked up the phone. He knew that Willow had left on slightly uncertain terms, though he wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but he figured the two women would be glad to talk. Even if she wasn’t especially pleased with him, Oz was sure it would be good for Willow. She’d never liked being at odds with her friends.

The minute he picked up the phone, planning to tell Buffy that Willow would call her back, Buffy’s voice exploded into his ear, more noise than he was accustomed to. “Willow! Thank God you’re okay! You’re okay, right? Right?”

“Hey, Buffy,” Oz chuckled. He hadn’t really realized how much he missed the Slayer until now, volume and all. Her excited, panicked exclamations cut off the second he spoke, like turning off a faucet. Clearly, Buffy and Willow hadn’t spoken for a while if Buffy didn’t know that her best friend was involved with her ex again.

“Uh, you’re not Willow,” Buffy answered cautiously. “Why aren’t you Willow?”

“I think she’s got being Willow covered. I’m just Oz.”

Oz-Oz?” Buffy squealed again, already becoming just as excited as when he first picked up the phone. “Oz! It’s been years! How are you? What have you been doing? How did you meet Willow? Why haven’t you called?”

“Well, you didn’t really leave a number after you collapsed Sunnydale. Made getting in touch kinda difficult.”

“Well, yeah, that’s fair. But, hey! We’re talking now!”

“So we are.”

“Wow, Oz!” she laughed, happy and easy and just glad to talk to him. “How’ve you been? Seeing the world?”

“I’m pretty good these days,” Oz smiled, glancing at the door Willow hid behind. “You?”

“I’m pretty good myself,” she chuckled “I see you’re as monosyllabic as always. And here I was, thinking you’d have gotten all chatty in your advanced age.”

“Nah, not so much. Speaking of my winning conversational skills, I’m guessing that you didn’t call to catch up with me.”

“You wouldn’t be wrong,” Buffy teased. “Not that talking to you again isn’t great, Oz, because it is! Really! Just unexpected, when I was expecting to get Willow’s voicemail.”

“Understandable,” the werewolf nodded, wondering why Willow’s best friend would expect to get her answering machine. “You want me to take a message? Will can call you back in a few minutes, but she’s in the shower now.”

“Actually, that’s okay, Oz,” Buffy answered, sounding strangely gleeful. “I’ll just talk to her, talk to both of you, later.”

“Sure,” he replied, exchanging farewells with the slayer and hanging up. Placing Willow’s phone on the bedside table, he leaned back against the headboard and picked up his book. He probably had some time before Willow was all cleaned up and ready to go. It had been an exhausting three days for Willow, he knew, staying up all night and reading with his head in her lap, and sightseeing all afternoon, and she’d most likely want to take her time in the shower, just relaxing.

Oz made it maybe ten pages before he was distracted again, though he couldn’t put his finger on what was so distracting. He considered the ten pages something of an accomplishment, given just how little time to read he’d had in the past few days, but still. He’d prefer if his quiet time stayed quiet. It was the principle of the thing.

“Oz! Hi!”

Oz dropped his book, startled and instantly on guard. So this was what had caught his attention.

He hadn’t sensed anybody, but still, there were three extra warm bodies in his room; he could hear three heartbeats, sense three pulses, smell three scents. He turned whip fast, rising to his feet in one fluid motion, and instantly caught sight of Buffy, Xander, and a second woman he didn’t recognize.

“Oh. Hey, Buffy. Xander.” He should’ve never forgotten their scents, couldn’t believe he had. Even after all these years, the sight of Buffy calmed the wolf. She was pack, not an intruder. Buffy had always meant safety and strength to the wolf. Even now, when she arrived out of nowhere like a ghost. “Really wasn’t expecting to see you this soon. Or in my hotel room”

“Oz-man!” Xander cried, coming forward to clasp his hand, before pulling him into an awkward facsimile of a hug. “Man, it’s been ages! How’ve you been?”

“Been alright. I see you’re goin’ for the pirate look.”

“Yeah! I’ve been thinking about losing a hand too, getting a hook instead. Whadya think?’

“Only if a peg-leg’s next,” Oz smiled at the taller man. He’d missed his old friends.

Buffy was next, impatiently pushing around Xander to pull Oz into a bone-squeezing hug. “It’s so great to see you again, Oz. Not that talking to you wasn’t great, but it’s nice to see full-size, 3D, in-the-flesh Oz.”

“You too, Buffy.”

“While this is all great,” the third woman cut in, hands on her hips and scowling, “I thought we were here to find Willow, not meet and greet with whoever the hell this is.”

“Oz,” Buffy forced a smile with strained patience. “Meet Kennedy. She’s a Slayer. Kennedy, meet Oz. He’s an old friend of ours.”

Kennedy nodded shortly at Oz and gave him a tight lipped smile. She was certainly brusque, but, from Willow’s brief descriptions of the woman, he wouldn’t expect much else. “Great. Willow?”

“Will’s in the shower. You guys are welcome to wait in here for her, but we’ve actually gotta head out pretty soon.”

“Places to go, people to see?” Xander joked, taking a seat at the small table in the corner of the room next to Buffy. Kennedy didn’t sit, just paced in front of the other two like a caged beast. She was full of nervous energy, anxious and angry and frustrated, to the point where Oz imagined he could sense it, uncomfortable and upsetting, like the smell of singed hair.

“So, how exactly did you get here? It was a little unexpected.”

“Our witches transported us from home base. Once we got a lock on Willow’s phone, they had a location, and off we went,” Buffy smiled, leaning back in a chair.

“Huh. And how’re things in…Scotland, right?” Oz asked, hoping to steer the conversation into their court. He’d be happy to let Buffy talk until Willow was done, although he’d probably heard most of what she had to say from Willow already.

“Yeah, Scotland. Willow told you?” Buffy asked, continuing on when he nodded at her. “It’s going great! We’re really making a difference out there, I think. And we’ve got people on all the Hellmouth’s now. Teams, not just solo Slayers.”

“Wow,” Oz nodded. “Sounds big.”

“The biggest,” Xander grinned. “Things are different than when you left, man. We’re not the underdogs anymore. Well…not as much at least.”

In the other room, the shower shut off, and Oz imagined that the assembled people gave a sigh of relief. It was great seeing Xander and Buffy again, but there had been a palpable air of waiting, and it was good to be done with that. Kennedy kept pacing though, if anything more agitated in pace, and Oz wasn’t sure quiet what to make of it. Ex-girlfriend issues, he supposed, but, if things between Kennedy and Willow had really ended that poorly, he wasn’t sure why she’d come along.

“Hey,” the bathroom door creaked open and Willow slipped out, wearing only a damp bath towel. She immediately scurried over to her suitcase, not turning to look at her boyfriend. “Do you need to shower or are you all ready to go, sweetie?”

“Uh, slight change of plans, Wills,” Oz murmured, twisted around to face her. Beside him, Kennedy’s gaze flashed between the two redheads suspiciously, before coming to rest on the back of his head. She looked very strongly displeased, and Oz became very, very sure that he wasn’t going to like how this confrontation ended.

“What is it?” Willow asked, bending over her suitcase to grab the clothes she’d laid out right before her shower.

“Seems we have some unexpected guests. Might want to change in the bathroom.”

Willow froze, a flush spreading over the back of her neck and her shoulders, before grabbing her clothes and making a dash for the bathroom. “Oh, geez! I’m sorry!” she called through the door. “I’ll be out in just a second.”

“What the hell is this?” Kennedy snapped, fixing Oz with a flesh melting glare.

“Is what?” he asked calmly, raising an eyebrow at the fuming Slayer.

“Don’t play dumb,” the taller woman snarled, stepping far too close to Oz. “What’s going on between you?”

Oz just blinked at her, musing silently that he certainly wasn’t the one playing dumb in this conversation. “We’re together, again.” Kennedy opened her mouth to protest, fury etched so deeply into her features that she looked almost like the Oni masks he had seen in Japan. Oz cut her off, raising hands in the universal gesture of surrender. “Look, I’m thinking you ought to talk to Willow about this, okay?”

“And speaking of the Willster,” Xander grinned, watching as the bathroom door slipped open.

Willow emerged, hard look on her face, and made a beeline for Oz’s side. She didn’t look surprised to see their guests—she must have heard them from within the bathroom—but she didn’t look pleased, either. Buffy and Xander barely noticed her frown, or pretended not to notice, as they crowded in together, pushing and jostling for position like puppies, as they closed in on Willow for a hug. Kennedy stood behind them, not making a move towards Willow or lessening her glare aimed at Oz.

“What are you doing here?” Willow asked when Buffy and Xander finally stepped back. It was the first time she had spoken since she emerged from the bathroom, and her tone was formal and polite and completely unlike anything she’d said in all the days she’d spent with Oz, before her friends arrived. She didn’t leave his side, linking their hands between them, and just stared at Buffy and Xander while holding Oz’s hand in a death grip.

“We were so worried about you, Will,” Xander exclaimed, looking like nothing would make him happier than pulling Willow back into another giant hug. He had a huge grin spread across his face, but the longer he held it the more forced it seemed and there was a nervous, fearful cast to his eyes.

“Didn’t you get my note?” she wondered.

“Yeah,” Xander answered, brow furrowed and voice unsure. “But it was a little on the crazy talk side, Will. We thought something was wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong, Xander,” she said, almost fondly. As much as she had been dreading this confrontation, and as certain as she was that it would go downhill any second now, it was still nice to see her best friends. “Everything’s okay, I promise.”

“Then why haven’t you come back?” Buffy asked. “You needed to get away for a while, I get that, really. But, not forever, right?”

“I don’t know, Buffy,” Willow sighed. “Maybe.”

“What do you mean, ‘maybe?’” Buffy demanded, sounding a little bit lost.

“I mean I don’t know if I’m coming back to Scotland, Buffy, or if I can keep playing superhero. I meant what I said about the magic. I’m done, for real this time.”

“Okay, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come back. We don’t need another witch as much as we need a Willow.”

“Buffy, you’re my best friend, really. But you’re not just Buffy anymore. You’re a general and a leader, and you’re at war. And I understand; it’s important, and someone needs to fight this fight, but it can’t be me anymore, not like this.

“I’m not a weapon, Buffy. I’m not just the witch. I can’t be this bottomless magic reservoir that you need, because I just can’t do that anymore. I need to be Willow, not just the witch.

“And I’m dangerous, too! Addiction never goes away, and the second I go too far or get too deep in the magics, you’ll have another Big Bad on your hands. I can’t let that happen again. Not ever.”

“Willow,” Buffy tried again, “nobody thinks you’re a weapon, or that you’re just a witch. You’re Willow!”

“But that doesn’t mean I’m not a weapon anyways. You don’t understand, Buffy, because when you’re General Buffy, you get to be a different person. You can keep yourself and your fight separate, but I can’t! The magic is part of me, it’s part of everything I am, and every time I go to war with it, I become that, just a little bit more.

“I couldn’t live like that, Buffy. That’s why I left.”

“We can help you, Willow! We’re your friends!” Buffy was distraught, eyes wide and face flushed, caught somewhere between sorrow and rage. “We want to help you!”

“I’m sure you do, Buff,” Willow responded sadly, reaching behind her to take Oz’s hand, “but it’s bad strategy. You’ve got a war to think about, and the part of you that’s committed to winning that war wants a witch, not a friend. I love you, but none of you can help me the way I need.”

“And he can?” Kennedy sneered, shooting Oz a downright poisonous look. She was clenching and unclenching her fists the way she did when she was truly furious, like when she got into the sort of mood where she wouldn’t feel better until she’d destroyed a few punching bags or killed something in an especially vicious manner. Willow had always felt a little uncomfortable with Kennedy’s rage, even though it had never been directed at her, but seeing that same fury aimed at Oz pushed Willow another step closer to a truly explosive outburst of anger.

“Yes,” she hissed venomously, eyes narrowed at her ex-girlfriend. “He can. Oz tamed his monster, now it’s my turn.”

“C’mon, Will, you’re not a monster,” Xander pled, but he sounded a little uncertain to Willow’s ears. “You’re Willow!”

“I flayed Warren’s skin off,” Willow snapped, squeezing Oz’s hand so tight that their fingers started fading to white as she felt a familiar glow of magic curl around her spine. She was defensive and furious and terrified, and the magic she was so afraid of was rising up in response. This was exactly what she’d feared, that the magic would never loose its hold on her, and that the longer she held onto it, the tighter it would hold on to her. “I killed him, with my magics, and I tried to end the world. And I almost did, remember?”

“That wasn’t you, Willow,” Buffy argued, her voice firm. “That was—”

“The magic,” Willow interrupted. “I know. And that’s why I can’t use it anymore. It’s not safe. I’m not safe!”

“Okay, okay,” Xander soothed, ever the peacemaker, raising both hands in a gesture of surrender and smiling reassuringly. “You don’t have to become superwitch again, Will, nobody’s asking you to. We just want you to come home with us. Oz, too. We need you in Scotland, Willow. Not the witch, just you.”

“Thank you, Xander, really,” Willow smiled, “but right now I need to be somewhere else. I’ve spent the last eight years of my life fighting, and if I don’t step back for a little while, I’ll burn out. In a big supernova-y way.

“We’ve going to travel for a bit, Oz and I,” Willow continued, turning back to quickly glance at Oz, “Go and see some of the good things the world has to offer, instead of just the bad.”

“Oh, so that’s what this is about?” Kennedy laughed harshly, a sound like grating rocks, a cruel twist of a smile on her face. “God, Willow, you didn’t even care enough to tell me that you were leaving me for your ex-boyfriend! Or that you were still into boys! Did I even matter, or was it all some big game for you? Tara and I, were we just experiments to see how you liked being gay, is that what that was to you? Your big lesbian experience, before you went back to your wolfboy?”

“Shut up!” Willow hissed dangerously, an unnatural breeze ruffling her hair. “You don’t get to talk about her like that!”

“Did you even love Tara, like you told me you did,” Kennedy continued, either oblivious to the palpable aura of power surrounding Willow or simply ignoring it, “or was that just a big lie?”

With a crack like lightening, all of the lights in the room exploded at once, each bulb burning out like a tiny supernova. The breeze quickened, rushing around the room with a growl and tossing shards of broken lights into the air. “Not. Another. Word.” Willow growled through clenched teeth, her eyelids clenched shut and her hand squeezing Oz’s so tightly she could barely feel her fingertips. She inhaled deeply, drowning out Kennedy’s, Xander’s, and Buffy’s cries of alarm and concentrating on the breathing exercises she and Oz had been doing every night to rein in their monsters. That was the first time she had lost control since she began weaning herself off magic, and the rush of power only made her want to let go and lose herself in the magic again.

“I think you guys better go,” Oz said quietly, rubbing his free hand against the back of her neck. His voice was intentionally blank, but even through her haze, Willow could hear anger tainting it.

“You know,” Buffy sighed, “I think you’re probably right, Oz. I’ll call later?”

“Sure,” Oz nodded. “Later.”

“Bye Will, bye Oz,” Xander waved, taking a step forward towards the witch, but stopping his motion when Oz glared.

“Bye, Xander. Kennedy.”

Buffy made a quick call on her cell phone, and within moments, the three of them had disappeared just as simply as they had appeared. The others gone, Willow leaned her back against the wall and slid to the floor, burying her face in both hands and she let herself cry, for the first time in what felt like years.

* * *

After Buffy, Xander, and Kennedy had left, Willow had been quiet for a while, folding and refolding the same shirt without noticing. She’d seemed distant that whole night, with a brief period of forced cheer when they went out for dinner. When Oz asked her if everything was alright, she demurred, vaguely mentioning her fight with her estranged friends in loose terms, before kissing him quickly and promising him that she would be fine.

It had been a week since that night, and it still ate at her thoughts like a wildfire, consuming everything in its path. Buffy hadn’t called like she’d promised, and Willow couldn’t stop herself from thinking that maybe Buffy wouldn’t ever call again. She’d burned her bridges in a pretty spectacular way, even if neither Buffy nor Xander had said as much. They hadn’t said much of anything, really, but Willow could imagine all of the things they’d meant to say. She was a deserter by her own admission, giving up on a war that could never end, running away from the fighting to hide in Egyptian hotel rooms and Kenyan cafés.

“What’s on your mind?” Oz asked her over twin mugs of coffee, sitting at a table for two in a nondescript café in Mombasa, their feet twined together like the roots of a tree.

“Do you ever regret leaving Sunnydale?” Willow asked in return, reaching across the table to place her hand over his.

“I regret hurting you, but I don’t regret leaving. There was somewhere else I needed to be.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Willow slowly nodded, Oz’s first departure from her life finally making sense to her. She had been heartbroken over it, but she now understood why he had to leave. “I think I needed to leave, too.

“But maybe not forever,” Willow continued speaking to herself just as much as Oz. She’d been struggling to articulate this for days, running in loops in her head like a song on repeat, just trying to plan her next step. “I don’t want to go back to Scotland, but I want to keep helping.”

“What about Cleveland? I bet Faith could use a hand or four.”

“You know,” Willow grinned, “I bet she could. Four?”

“Maybe it’s about time I started helping again, too.”

“Maybe,” Willow smiled at Oz, her grin widening when he gave a rare smile in return. “But not until we’ve finished. We made plans, remember?”

They were going to see the world, dig deep to the underbelly to see everything the earth had to offer and spend long weeks traveling from place to place. They were going to walk in cities and climb up mountains and hike through forests and dance in deserts, experience all the many corners of this globe the way they were each meant to be lived.

Willow was realizing that nothing was ever really about the destination, that there was no distinct moment when she was suddenly free from the call of magic in her bones, but that it was about the journey. Looking for an ending was like chasing down a lie, because there were no endings, no real endgame, just the journey. It was about the steps you took from your car to your doorway and from Tibet to Prague, and it was about how you got where you were going. It was about deciding if you would take shortcuts or stop to admire the rivers, if you would work until you cried or if you’d hide behind magic until it made you weak. Cleveland wasn’t a destination or an end, it was just another step. (Just like learning to live without magic was just an endless series of steps.) She and Oz were going to go on all their journeys, then get on a plane to Cleveland and find Faith waiting, leaning against a wall in Arrivals and looking bored. They were going to live in Cleveland and train slayers and build a life together, counting down their lives in full moons and days without spells. And then, they would be a werewolf who didn’t fear the moon and a witch who cast no spells, living on a Hellmouth and already paused, one foot above the ground, ready to take their next step.

fin.

Comments

( 4 Hats Tipped — Tip Your Hat )
velvetwhip
May. 2nd, 2013 12:51 am (UTC)
This was terrific! It felt very real to me and you handled the reunion and the knitting back together of Willow and Oz's relationship beautifully. Marvelous!


Gabrielle
tiny_white_hats
May. 2nd, 2013 01:26 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! That's wonderful to hear!
jesterlady
May. 6th, 2013 05:38 am (UTC)
Aww, this is so lovely! I love the parallels you've drawn between both of their monsters. They fit so well together, even better than before.
tiny_white_hats
May. 7th, 2013 04:11 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! The character parallels were something that really stood out to me during S7, so I really enjoyed exploring them, and how Willow and Oz still made sense together, 4 years later.
( 4 Hats Tipped — Tip Your Hat )

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