Wow, only three months between updates this time. Hey, at least I'm getting a little bit better! I apologise, I do appreciate how frustrating it is. Big thanks to everyone who came back to this story and huge special thanks to those who took the time to review and PM and let me know what they thought. It really does make all the difference to know that people are still interested in this fic. Thanks again, and hope you enjoy.
Oz felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to the inside of his head.
A groggy groan escaped his throat as he struggled to rouse from the pressure of disorientation that pushed down on his mind, the dead weight of sleep that settled like lead in his limbs. Finally cracking his eyes open, he immediately wished he hadn't as blades of sharp sunlight splintered his vision, aggravating the thumping pain against his skull.
Pressing a hand to his eyes, he wearily fought the faint nausea into submission once more and released a muffled moan into his palm. He knew this headache. He'd woken up with this wretched hangover before. This was a very bad headache.
He winced as he pushed himself up from the cool marble, gingerly reaching over to feel the fresh bruise that stung across his shoulder blade and down his spine. Oz gritted his teeth through a grimace. True, he'd had a lot worse, but it was still going to hurt like hell for the rest of the day. Yet all the protests of his beaten body were momentarily silenced as his distracted gaze moved beyond the boundaries of the cage, his eyes alighting upon a sight that made his heart stop dead in his chest.
A frown passed over his face, knitting his brows together, the only breaking ripple to betray the storm of emotions that crashed through him. A painfully familiar figure was curled up in a wooden chair on the other side of the bars, only a short distance away from him but far enough to still be considerate of personal space. The early morning sunlight that filled the library glittered gently off the wine-red locks that fell across her sleeping face, bathing her pale skin with a soft golden glow and making her look even more like a lingering figment from a dream. And for a moment, Oz truly wasn't sure if he wanted the illusion to shatter or not.
She had seen.
Fearful confusion filled his veins, drowning him in anger and despair until he could barely think straight. Willow. What the hell was going on? She had seen him for what he really was, in all slobbering, man-eating glory, and – and she hadn't run away? She'd… stayed? All night by the look of it. But that didn't make any sense. Oz stared through the bars that divided them, his gaze drawing over her features with an almost helpless compulsion, straining to understand. Her head was tilted towards the cage, her body angled in his direction and cheek slumped against her hand, as if she had been watching over him when sleep finally crept up on her. There was nothing defensive or guarded in her posture that he could sense. Instead everything in her body language seemed at ease, despite her awkward poise in the rather uncomfortable chair she had chosen. Indeed, she looked deeply peaceful in her slumber, as if soothed by some unseen comfort.
It was all… wrong.
His entire body ached but Oz still forced himself to his feet, reaching clumsily to retrieve his clothes out of habit more than any conscious thought. He dressed quickly and silently, his gaze never straying from the sleeping redhead for more than a few seconds at a time. Slipping through the gap between the door and bookcase with all the care that in his newly regained human form allowed, he stepped out of the cage.
Oz felt his heart seize in his chest with an entirely different bout of feelings as he let his gaze wander over her face, the conflicting instincts strong and confusing and no less painful. Moving slowly, as if watching himself through a dream, he reached out and gently stroked a lock of hair from her eyes. His fingers barely skimmed her cheek, but he almost shuddered in the feel of the warm smooth skin that ran under his thumb, confirming that this beautiful nightmare was indeed so real.
As he did so, she gave a soft murmur and pressed ever so lightly into his touch, following the brush of his fingers unconsciously. Oz felt the rumble of the wolf from the depths of his chest, still too close to the surface for his comfort – the echo of the animal freshly banished from his skin but ever present in his bones. He could feel the dark and primal current pulling inside him, submerged beneath the waters of his human mind once more, trapped and hidden but not gone. Never gone. The wolf's reaction made him start, responding to something he couldn't see, and he pulled back with a frown.
Across the room, a tired and troubled gaze followed the tentative gesture with an equal sense of foreboding. Giles's brow creased in fresh lines of concern and he sighed under his breath, bracing himself for the undoubtedly hard decisions that lay ahead. It seemed things were quite possibly even more complicated than he had suspected. Finally, he cleared his throat and announced his presence, perhaps unnecessarily. After all, not many things could sneak up on Oz unawares around the full moon.
The boy gave a thin smile, barely there. "Is it?"
He didn't glance away from her face, speaking low enough so as to not rouse Willow. Yet she still stirred at the muttered words, a small sleepy sound escaping her, and Oz quickly moved away. She settled down again almost immediately, adjusting her head against her arms and falling quiet with a deep breath. She really must be exhausted, and Oz couldn't help but feel bitterly grateful. He was loathed to wake her until he at least had some semblance of a grip on his emotions and thoughts. Until he knew just what exactly he had woken up to.
He turned towards where Giles hovered in the doorway of the office, his expression carefully impassive. The Watcher dropped his shoulders with a long exhale, adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose in an awkward habit that the student easily recognised.
"Yes, well, all things considered. Things could've been…I mean what with… Well, you –"
"I got out," Oz finished in an empty voice, seeing no point in avoiding the obvious.
Giles gave him an apologetic glance, trying in vain to read the tone behind the deadpan statement. "So it would appear."
Oz shifted his gaze to behind the librarian, wincing inwardly as he took in the scene beyond with a needle sharp perception. "Sorry about your office."
Giles shook his head, quick to assuage such concerns. "Things are replaceable," he said firmly, offering a tired smile as he placed a reassuring hand on Oz's shoulder. He felt the teenager stiffen subtly under the contact, his jaw tensing and eyes hardening behind those familiar shutters. Giles sighed at the silent resentment that tensed the student before him, though he knew there was nothing that could be done to help it now. Of course the boy was angry. It was all too easy to overlook sometimes with his stoic demeanour, but just because Oz could control his emotions far better than the average teenager (or Tibetan monk for that matter), that didn't mean they weren't there.
Oz glanced around, frowning as something occurred to him from the jumbled recesses of his foggy mind. "Annie?" he asked at last, worry breaking through his tone as he contemplated the conspicuous absence, all too aware that she was the one who had been conscripted into wolf-watch last night.
"She's fine," Giles assured, to the boy's great relief. "She went home after I arrived. I'm afraid you have her to thank for some of your aches and pains this morning."
Oz arched a wry brow. Well, it wouldn't be the first time she'd kicked his ass. He knew that Annie was very capable of handling herself and as much as he hated the thought of her being in danger because of him, he was deeply grateful she had been there when things had gone wrong – prepared and experienced to protect the others and do what needed to be done. He dreaded to think of the consequences if she hadn't been there to act without hesitation.
"At least her aim is getting better," he remarked dryly, absently rubbing at the bruise blooming over his heart from the impact of the tranquiliser shot.
Giles dropped his gaze, pushing at his glasses with a distracted agitation, his words more than a little reluctant. "Well, actually that… that wasn't her."
Oz's expression remained inscrutable for a long moment as his mind worked furiously to process this new assault of revelations.
Sickening numbness crashed over him, almost making him dizzy. How was that even possible? Annie and Giles were the only ones who had ever successfully taken down the wolf in the full force of the moon, and even then it had taken several close calls before they could do it in one shot. The fact that Willow had… He shook his head, stepping back with a grimace as he tried to gather his exploding fears under control. She'd been here when – when he broke out? It hardly bore thinking about. The fact that she'd had to shoot him down and lock him up again hardly boded well, and for the life of him, Oz could not fathom why the hell she had stuck around after such an encounter. Why hadn't she wanted to get as far away as possible from the monster he had just unleashed on her? He pressed his eyes shut in frustration, desperate to wish away the horrors of his rampaging thoughts. Would he ever figure this girl out? Apprehension writhed uncomfortably in his stomach, shaking him far deeper than he had experienced in a long time. Just what the hell had happened last night?
He didn't look up, instead addressing the floor under his feet as he concentrated on channelling every shred of composure he had left into the effort of keeping his breathing even. "Why is she here?" he uttered softly, grinding the question out through gritted teeth.
It was a moment before Giles hesitantly answered him.
"Maybe you should ask her yourself."
Oz snapped his head up only to see that the Watcher had moved his attention over his shoulder, back into the library behind him. He quickly turned around to see Willow stirring from her place by the cage, awkwardly uncoiling her limbs from the stiff wooden chair, her gaze fixed on the young wolf with a nervous yet bewitching intensity.
The silence that fell upon the room in the heartbeat that followed was the possibly the heaviest Giles had ever experienced.
Oz didn't move a muscle, seemingly frozen in place, expression etched in stone once more as he unwillingly locked eyes with the girl across the floor. Willow opened her mouth, struggling with the urge to speak but confronted with a lack of words. Her eyes darted for a moment and she caught Giles's gaze where he stood just behind the boy, observing the scene with equal unease. He immediately cleared his throat, quick to see the looks exchanged between the teenagers and taking the hint that they clearly wanted some privacy for this difficult exchange. Putting aside his teacup on the surface of the counter, he announced, "Well, yes… I think I'll stretch my legs." Willow gave an almost invisible nod of thanks in his direction and Oz averted his gaze away from them both, but otherwise the words got no acknowledgment.
Willow listened to the muffled thud of the door as it swung shut behind the Watcher, and suddenly felt crushed by the oppressive silence. She didn't like it, nor did she know quite how to cope with the strained verbal void that she now found herself in. His quiet had always been such a precious part of their relationship, of their love, back in her own world. It was his communication, their secret to share, her harbour of balance and comfort. But this silence was different. This silence was damning.
"How… how do you feel?" Her gaze shone with concern as she watched him across the room, struggling to open up the conversation when his stance was anything but inviting.
"I've been better."
His voice was calm and cold as he kept his distance, refusing to meet her eyes. Willow flinched but forced herself to press on. "Yeah, I suppose so," she muttered as she pushed herself up from the chair. Swallowing, she took a tentative step forward, approaching the delicate tension with steady movements and words. "I'm – I'm sorry how this ended up. With me shooting you and all."
They'd had this conversation before.
A small smile crossed his lips, tinged with disbelief. "That's okay. I'm sorry I almost ate you."
Willow pulled back from the memory of their first kiss with the sinking realisation that there was no lightness in his manner now, however forced. No reprieve from the weight of loathing that pressed down on him. There was no will to even pretend. She saw now that this Oz did not share his parallel self's sense of dry irony over this subject. Bitterness clouded his piercing eyes, the dark and conflicted anger all too evident on his usually stoic features. He sighed and turned away from her, running a hand across his neck in an uncharacteristic show of restlessness.
"You shouldn't have been here."
The hard reproach in his voice took her aback for a moment, sharp and accusing and full of confused resentment. Again she was struck by the differences in their personalities, the effects and changes wrought by the tragic twists of this reality, and she fought against the encroaching sense of helplessness. It was so different from what she had known. The truth was that it stung badly to hear such words from him, though she tried valiantly not to let it show. This seemed to be a recurring echo of this world, and one that was getting harder and harder for her to shrug off. But that didn't stop her from trying with all her might.
"What were you even doing here?"
He was pacing now, and the sight was so unusual that Willow lost her voice for a moment. She'd never seen Oz so furious. His crucial control was breaking and it pained her beyond words to see it.
"You have no idea how dangerous that was," he snapped curtly. "If anything had happened –"
"But it didn't," she interjected, her voice firm as she stepped up to him, trying to get him to stop moving and just face her. "I'm fine, see? We're all okay. There's no point beating yourself up about everything that might have happened."
He shook off her assurances, beyond the reach of reason for possibly the first time in his adult life. "Stop," he ordered, almost pleadingly. "You don't understand…" He gripped the roots of his hair in frustration, as if battling to form the words, as if they were hurting him from the inside out.
She reached for him out of instinct but he pulled away violently, his entire body tensing in pain as if her touch burned.
"I could have killed you!" he burst out, the desperate words echoing off the high walls of the library like an anguished howl.
Willow started in shock at the furious exclamation. She couldn't remember the last time Oz had raised his voice in anger. She bit her tongue as she stared at him, watching as he struggled to reign in his harsh breathing. What could she say to that? It was the truth. He had come within inches of ending her life last night, and she saw now so very clearly what that would have done to him. In the second he raised his gaze to hers, all remains of composure left his face and unconcealed, consuming fear filled his eyes. He would have never forgiven himself. It would have destroyed him. Willow felt terrible. Once again, she had blundered into a critical decision and failed to grasp the consequences for the people she loved. She had been curious and stubborn and ignorant of the heartache it would unleash. She had been selfish.
Oz abruptly turned away, sighing deeply as he dropped onto the steps. He hunched over his knees, burying his head in his hands, as if suddenly defeated by it all. "Oh god…"
Willow hesitated for a moment before slowly crossing the floor, moving cautiously to sit down next to him. "Oz…" She trailed off uncertainly, determined to somehow make things better but unsure how to break him out of such a crippling cycle of guilt. Throughout all the history of their past relationship, she had never seen his temperate nature so broken, his fear so exposed. It was an honesty she was unfamiliar with and one she didn't know quite how to handle.
Her hand hovered over his shoulder but didn't make contact, as if held at bay by an invisible barrier, the easy intimacy of touch no longer open to her. That damned distance was back and it made her want to scream in frustration. Her body cried out for the comfort of his, but she harshly suppressed the selfish urge. She settled instead for wrapping her arms under her knees, locking her hands tight together against the pull of instinct that rebelled against being so close to him yet denied the simple act of comfort. His body language was closed off and she had no right to force her way through. Willow looked away, letting him reign in his control, knowing he was rarely comfortable letting people see him at the mercy of such violent and unrestrained emotions. It was a trust that had to be earned.
She took a deep breath and tried again. "You can't hold yourself responsible for things you can't control."
A bitter smile shadowed his lips as he stared down at the library floor. "Beg to differ," he muttered.
Willow chanced a glance at him, her brow furrowing in frustration. She wanted to seize his shoulders and shake some sense into him but reluctantly realised that wouldn't have much effect upon his stubbornness, so opted for a bit more diplomacy.
"It wasn't your fault," she said softly, refusing to let him wallow in self loathing like this. "You weren't in control. And the wolf…the wolf was just doing what comes naturally, following instinct. It doesn't make you, either of you… bad."
Oz frowned as he finally looked at her, surprise fighting over the guilt-ridden fear and anger that stormed through him. He could see the tender sincerity in her eyes – she really believed that, and that only confused him more. It was the first time he'd ever heard anyone speak about the wolf so gently, and it rocked him down to the core. How could this girl hold such understanding and compassion for the beast that had almost hunted her to death? He couldn't reconcile it in his head, and it only served to re-enforce the painful fact that she wasn't a part of this world, this hard and cruel reality that he called home. Not really. That kind of open and gentle heart didn't belong in this world, could never survive here, and that scared the hell out of him. He felt his own heart drop into his stomach, leaving only an icy void behind, as he realised just how different she truly was from them. This place would ultimately destroy her, everything good and kind and sweet in her, and Oz didn't think he could bear to live with that.
"And you're right," she went on quietly, "maybe I shouldn't have been here." She looked up and met his bright, almost glowing eyes which were intensely focused on her, feeling her heartbeat quicken at the echo of the wolf that stirred there. Her voice was firm but gentle as she held his gaze. "But I don't regret that I am."
She let the weight of her words settle between them, understanding veiled behind truth, as they sat in quiet for a moment. Willow watched the reflection of sadness that pooled in his eyes before he quickly looked away, leaving her stumbling to follow the subtle force of his mood shifts.
"How can you…" He gave a slight shudder but forced himself to continue, however quietly. "How can you stand to be near me?" Willow felt her heart constrict in painful empathy at the despondency in his voice. "How can you forgive me?"
Because I love you.
Reluctantly swallowing down the aching words, she smiled gently and instead opted for an answer which was no less true. "Because there's nothing to forgive. Except, perhaps, for not telling me sooner," she teased.
"What did you expect me to say?" he retorted sullenly. "Knowing doesn't make the curse any safer to be around. You're still better off away from me." He looked off into the distance, a dark cloud on the horizon that only he could see. "Everyone is."
She sighed under her breath. "You're still so stubborn."
Oz turned his head and she nearly faltered under the perception of his sharp emerald gaze that fell on her. He seemed to study her in silence for a long moment; his features carefully blank once more under that thoughtful expression she remembered so well.
"You knew all along," he said at last.
Oz was nothing if not pragmatic, and there was a history and familiarity behind her manner that he was only just beginning to understand. There was nothing accusing in the words, only an acceptance and evenness of tone that concealed all the turmoil of the thoughts underneath. It was a fact, a realisation, an acknowledgement.
She seemed taken aback by his statement.
"I – I didn't know for sure," she admitted haltingly, "but I suspected. We, we were… close." She shrugged evasively, her eyes dropping from his. "Before."
Oz frowned as he contemplated her answer.
"In your world… I was a wolf there too?" he asked, a little in disbelief. It was something that hadn't ever occurred to him until now.
She raised her eyes to his almost reluctantly and Oz blinked at the intense burst of sadness that sparkled in her gaze, her reply almost too soft to catch. "Yes."
"And I told you?"
"Well, not exactly." She glanced down at the step between them, a ghost of a smile on her lips at the bittersweet memory. "I kinda caught you at the wrong time of the month and you sort of… showed me." She saw him wince out of the corner of her eye and quickly pressed on, shifting to face him again and tackling him with the full force of her resolve mode. "So you see, it's nothing I haven't seen and done many times before. I've gone through a lot of moons with you and lived to tell about it, so don't go getting all broody and self-sacrificing on me now. You're not the only one who has a couple of bad hormonal days a month, you know." A reluctant smile flickered on his lips and she grinned teasingly. "Besides, I was never very good at staying away from trouble, so why start now."
He held her gaze for a long moment before letting out a deep breath and dropping his head. Willow took that as a grudging submission to the persuasive power of her logic, and felt herself slump slightly in relief. Yet all too soon, like a lone candle flame swallowed up by the darkness, the faint smile died from his lips as his expression turned pensive once more. They sat in quiet for a few moments before he finally spoke up again.
"So now you know my big, dark secret."
"Yeah… I guess so. Do you want to know mine?" she tried to joke.
He caught her eyes seriously, sharp but without accusation. "Are you ready to tell it?"
Willow hesitated, caught off guard. Searching his face, she opened her mouth but was interrupted before she could even try to form an answer. Both teenagers turned as the familiar murmur of voices heralded the return of the adults, giving them a split second of warning before the doors were pushed open and Giles and Jenny entered the library, deep in conversation as ever.
All discussion stopped however as the small group acknowledged each other in awkward silence. Giles seemed to cast a relieved glance over the children, apparently heartened and troubled by what he saw at the same time, before making his polite excuses and turning into his office. Willow flushed guiltily as Jenny's gaze fell on her, and quickly dropped her eyes, wishing she could shrink into the floor. Oz dipped his head in greeting but otherwise said nothing.
"Good morning," Jenny said at last, her voice calm and authoritative. Her teacher tone. She nodded to Oz before turning her attention to the redhead. "I brought something for you to change into before school starts."
Willow glanced up, blinking as she took in the duffel bag grasped in Jenny's hand. She was still groggy from her lack of sleep and reeling from the emotional confrontation she had just gone through, but she could recognise an out when she was given one. Jumping up to her feet, she cast a quick glance back at Oz before moving to dutifully take the bag, mumbling her thanks and still avoiding her friend's eye.
Oz watched Willow rush out of the library with a soft frown. Quick to pick up on the fresh tension that had entered the room and anxious for some breathing space, he stood up from the step and headed towards the doors himself, quietly announcing that he was going to get ready for class.
The locker room was quiet and empty as he slipped inside, and Oz was intensely grateful for the solitude. Pulling out the fresh change of clothes he always kept stored in school, he stripped off the outfit from yesterday and stepped under the jets of the shower. Bowing his head under the torrent of steamy water, he breathed in and out deeply and tried to drag his mind through the mire of confusion that filled his thoughts. And she had certainly given him a lot to think about.
Even knowing what he knew now, a part of him still couldn't get his head around Willow's reaction to all of this. She didn't hate him. She wasn't afraid of him. She didn't blame him… or the wolf. He ran a hand down his face, ignoring the burn of water that scorched his skin. It was against every human survival instinct and yet she had stayed by the side of a werewolf that had just attacked her in a blind fury, a creature that had so nearly been the death of her. It was a level of trust he just couldn't accept. He locked his jaw, his knuckles clenching in his hand. That kind of misplaced faith and naivety would only end up killing her in this town. Oz grimaced, his breath coming out in harsh pants as he washed away the last of the tranquilizer fog. He had so nearly killed her. That wasn't the kind of thing you just forgive. He didn't deserve her mercy, her compassion or kindness. Why would she so willingly place herself in such danger? This wasn't even her world, her friends… He could have hurt her. And Annie. He could have cursed them or worse…
The confused frustration finally broke free as Oz slammed his fist into the cracked tiles of the cubicle. He instantly swore, hissing through his teeth and clutching his bruised knuckles as they stung under the misty water. Wow, that was really stupid. And yet, he felt oddly better for it. Nothing distracts you from brooding like a little pain. A wry smile passed over his lips as he finally turned off the shower and stepped out, preparing to brace himself for the day and night still to come.
He still had seven hours of classes to get through after all.
Willow took a deep breath and tapped lightly on the office door. It was now or never, and she really didn't want to leave things like this. As much as she hated confrontation, she hated tension more. It was time to face the music.
She poked her head inside to see Jenny standing with her back to her, the teacher's hands moving in sure and neat movements as she tidied up the familiar clutter on Giles's desk. Willow hovered nervously in the doorway, twisting her hands into her jumper.
"Um, thanks for the clothes," she said awkwardly.
Jenny didn't stop or turn around, her gaze not lifting from the books and files in her hands. "You're welcome."
There was a strained pause as silence fell once more in the small office. She bit her lip, her voice small and worried.
"Are you mad at me?"
The other woman stilled without looking up, her back stiff. "Yes," she replied curtly.
Willow flinched at the disapproval in her voice, cursing herself for her rash and inconsiderate actions. Why did she seem to do nothing but hurt and upset people? But then Jenny sighed and abruptly turned around, catching the young witch in a hard hug that almost knocked the breath out of her. After blinking in surprise for a moment, Willow returned the embrace just as tightly, closing her eyes with a shaky exhale.
"Don't you ever scare me like that again," Jenny muttered fiercely, squeezing the girl in her arms with all the fear and worry that had kept her awake for most of the night. "What on earth possessed you?"
"I–I had to…know."
She knew it didn't make sense, an incoherent sentence mumbled into her friend's shoulder, but Jenny seemed to understand.
A sad sigh ruffled her hair, the words barely above a whisper. "What am I going to do with you?"
Willow wished she had an answer.