Title: See What's Coming (It's Alright)
Character(s): Buffy Summers, Charles Cornick, Oz Osbourne, Bran Cornick, The McIntyre Family, Sage Carhardt, Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenberg, Xander Harris
Summary: The road trip is over, and there is no more hiding for anyone. (Series end)
Length: ~5,709 words
Notes: This is the last story in the series. Please see the end for additional notes.
"You came back."
Surprised, Oz paused at the threshold of the dining room. Standing at the sideboard behind the Marrok was the blond female werewolf who had talked to him on the side of the road, post-freak - the one who had stood in the hall and listened to them play without ever coming inside.
"I was wondering if you would," she added
"I see you two have already met," the Marrok said from behind his newspaper when Oz didn't respond.
The woman finished preparing her plate then sat down. It was such a domestic scene that Oz stood in the threshold, silent and blinking, for a long minute. He considered going back to his room and going back to sleep. He'd been reluctant to leave his bed that morning. The Marrok's interference aside, he hadn't slept so well in two months or more. He wouldn't have minded more.
Then his stomach growled. "Get some breakfast, Oz," the Marrok said, paper lowered.
Oz ducked his head and went straight to the sideboard. Both the Marrok and the woman eyed his plate as he sat beside her. Oz looked at it again and realized he'd filled it human-normal. Even the cold remains of the Marrok's breakfast suggested he'd had a meal an active Marine would find daunting. Oz stood without a word and tripled what was on his plate.
The Marrok nodded and returned to his paper. The woman reached out to card Oz's hair. Not sure how he felt about the unsolicited contact, he dug into his food without acknowledging it.
Silence reigned for long minutes as Oz and the woman made short work of their protein-heavy meals. At one point, the Marrok put down his paper, stood, went to the sideboard, brought back the platter of Canadian bacon and proceeded to add several slices to Oz's plate. He looked at the woman, who shrugged, before adding the remainder to her plate.
Oz paused long enough to clear his throat. "Thank you."
The Marrok chuffed as he sat again. "I was beginning to wonder if you had any manners at all. They seem to be going out of fashion in the last century or so."
Which reminded Oz... He cleaned his hands on his napkin and extended the right to the woman. "I don't think I introduced myself yesterday. Daniel Osborne. Most people call me Oz."
"So I've heard," the woman said as she took his hand, smirking a little as she did so. "Leah Cornick, Bran's mate and wife."
"So I've been told," Oz said with a smile to match hers as he pulled his hand away.
"The two of you haven't met then?" the Marrok said, watching them.
"Not formally," Leah said.
"But Leah was of the wise yesterday," Oz said. When Bran raised his eyebrows, he dropped his eyes to his plate and added, "After I ran away. I had thoughts." At Leah's raised eyebrows, a very small smile pushed past Oz's lips. "Many of them."
Leah snorted and reached over to ruffle Oz's hair before going back to her breakfast.
Still unsure how he felt about it, Oz again ignored the gesture as if it hadn't happened. When he looked up from his plate, however, the Marrok was watching him. Oz's eyes dropped to his bacon. American. "Huh."
"What?" the Marrok asked.
"My plate is international."
Leah made a vaguely amused sound and reached for Oz.
The Marrok touched her nearer hand, drawing her attention to him before her hand could land on Oz. "We have guests coming this afternoon. Will you be here?"
"Do you want me to be?" Leah's words were innocuous, but her tone was anything but. Oz pretended he wasn't there and kept eating.
"They're important guests. I'm surprised you don't want to introduce yourself."
Though she'd returned to her breakfast, Oz could tell the Marrok had her attention at 'important'. "Another meeting with the Central American alphas?"
The Marrok folded his paper. "This is as important, possibly more so." He stood, leaned over and dropped a kiss on his wife's forehead. "I'll tell you about it when you get home." Straightening, he turned and left.
Leah popped up from her seat, abandoning her plate to follow behind him. "What guests, Bran?" she demanded. "Just how important are they?"
"Very," the Marrok told Leah as they left, his tone still mild.
"Then why am I only hearing about them now?"
They had passed into the hall, still talking, when Oz heard the Marrok in his head: 'I want you there, too, Oz. Don't go far.'
Not sure how to respond to voices in his head giving him non-murderkill orders, Oz tried a mental and a verbal "Yes, sir." There was no answer.
Buffy settled herself into the passenger seat of Charles' rental, snapping her seatbelt into place as Charles was hitting the END button on his cell phone. He flipped the matte black device closed before tucking it into an angled pocket on the lower dashboard.
"Fancy," Buffy said.
"Annoying," Charles replied conversationally.
"I would totally be willing to take it off your hands, y'know, as a sign of goodwill from my party to yours."
Charles glanced up from the once-over he was giving the dash (they'd stopped long enough to top off everyone's tank and switch riders/drivers as needed) into a grinning Buffy, conscientiously not showing too many teeth. He quirked an eyebrow.
Sighing, Buffy said, "So you and Wills had a nice ride?" She looked more curious than concerned, Charles noted as he signaled to Giles and the McIntyres that he was ready to pull off when they were.
"I mean...pleased. She looked it."
"In spite of riding with a killjoy like myself?" Charles supplied after parsing the awkward statement.
Buffy grinned. "I was going to call you a grumpypuss, but killjoy works."
Willow had ridden with Charles for several hours that morning after their first extended rest stop. He'd been amused, but not entirely surprised, when she'd slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow as they had all left that day's diner, her expression demanding comment from patrons and staff alike. There had been no repeat of the previous day's encounter, but the same judgmental cloud had hung over them.
On the way out the door, Charles had shared a look with a lone Latino man, although he could as easily have been of Middle Eastern or African-American descent or some ethnic mix he couldn't begin to guess. Charles' brows had lifted, and the man had shaken his head as he went back to his eggs. Seconds later, Charles had led Willow out the door behind the McIntyres and Xander, who was very carefully not staring.
More surprising had been Willow climbing into the car instead of Buffy. "So. That was, um..."
Strapping himself into his seat, Charles had been further surprised to find Willow was blushing. "Regret your decision to continue to stand up for me?" he asked, amused and annoyed. It wouldn't have been the first time.
The mild accusation had snapped her out of her embarrassment. "What? No! Never! Those people were...! I mean there wasn't a guy this time but – and besides, that guy from yesterday was...! Oh! It almost makes me want to wish."
"Wish what?" Charles had politely asked when it became obvious that she want going to say something else.
Willow had huffed. "Wouldn't D'Hoffryn like to know!"
"Long story-with-demons. The moral? Don't make angry wishes, they just might come true and then no one will ever get to eat shrimp ever again."
Staring at the young woman, Charles had silently changed his mind about his father regretting being able to listen into the thoughts of others. He might never find his way back again if he fell into the mind of the Slayer and her friends. "Would that have actually made sense if I knew the context?" he'd asked Willow.
"All the sense! All of it!"
Feeling that her response had been too emphatic, Charles hadn't pushed for more. Instead he'd started the car, signaling to the others that they were pulling off. By the time they were on the highway, Willow had begun nervously worrying the hem of her sweater.
"Tell me, Willow."
Trying to parse Willow's verbal onslaught had nearly caused Charles to miss a lane divide. If he had spent a few decades around teenagers he might have had more to work with. Many of Aspen Creek's young people found him to be a quelling presence, however, and actively avoided him when they could.
Charles had made the lane divide, but had needed to pull over with his hazard lights flashing so that Giles and the McIntyres, who, understandably, hadn't been prepared for him to suddenly lose focus, could catch up. "So," he'd said while they'd waited for the others, "you want my help finding a teacher?"
"Why not ask your friend, Mr. Giles?"
Flushing a hot red, she'd said, "Well, you knew...know...what I am just by looking. And not that Giles isn't wonderful, because he is - he's amazing! - but all this time he didn't notice this awful Big Bad Waiting To Happen in their midst! I mean, what if I'd hurt someone?" she'd added mournfully. Then, as if remembering something far away, she'd added, "These kinds of things don't just fix themselves."
The others had made it to their side of the road by then, so Charles had been shifting gears when he'd nodded in agreement. "They do not."
As he had done at the lane divide with Willow earlier, Charles smoothly pulled out of the gas station with Buffy and his small caravan in tow. "Willow and I had a nice ride, yes," Charles told Buffy, his eyes trained on the traffic ahead.
"Yay, good time! So how long before you think we'll be at Aspen Creek?"
"Can Ozzie come out and play?"
Bran looked up at Sage standing in the doorway of his study. He caught her eyes a moment before she dropped them as he set his desk phone back in the cradle. "Ozzie?"
"Adorably taciturn puppy in need of a good home and a few low-stress playdates?" Sage said, grinning all the way.
"I didn't thank you for bringing him back last night," Bran said.
"I know he would have been safe to wander in on his own, but it didn't seem right."
"Oh. Something I should know?"
Sage lifted an elegant shoulder. "I'd really look into those low-stress playdates. They're getting really popular."
Brows lifting, Bran said, "Is that what you're asking for? A playdate?"
Sage turned the full power of her Southern Beauty Queen smile on Bran.
He didn't so much as blink.
"Please." She batted her perfectly made up eyes at him.
"Oh! You could pretend to be effected."
"No I can't, Sage." Bran picked up his pen and made a notation on the paper in front of his desk phone. "If you promise not to go far and to bring him back by lunch, you and Oz may have your playdate."
Sage nearly squealed before catching herself. Instead she settled for a more restrained, "Thank you, sir!"
"He's not a pet," Bran reminded her.
"But I want to keep him."
Bran gave her a baleful look. She took the unsubtle hint and backed out of the doorway.
Bran waited until he was sure she was gone before he slumped in his chair. He wanted to keep Oz, too.
Oz eyed the guitar in Sage's hand warily. "Does the Marrok know you have that?" Oz's own guitar had been abandoned along with the remains of his van somewhere outside LA.
"His name is Bran, sugar, and he suggested you'd want it." Sage made a show of studying it then him. "Was he wrong?"
Oz shrugged, reaching for the guitar. It was the same acoustic he'd played the day before. "When he snagged you on the way out, I thought he was telling you to bring me back by supper."
She smiled her supermodel smile (which, if Oz were being honest with himself, was probably also her 'I'm quite happy and pleased with life right now' smile). "That, too. But only if supper is the same as lunch."
"Are you always this happy, Sage?" he asked out of honest curiosity, the voices of the- of Bran and Asil in the back of his head.
She shook her head, taking the question seriously. "Some people think so, but not really. No.."
"Am I happy on purpose?" Her smile turned sly. "You make me happy, Ozzie, being around you."
"Because I'm a submissive wolf?" Again, Oz asked out of curiosity, but the thread of anger running through it surprised him.
"That makes me feel protective. I don't have to like you to feel like I should watch out for you."
Oz thought of Buffy and her calling and all the people she'd saved. For some of them, maybe a lot of them in high school, the only thing they'd had in common was a mutual dislike.
"I like you for you."
"You don't know me," Oz countered.
"Not well," Sage conceded. "But if what I know so far is like the rest of you, I think we'll do alright. Although..." Hey eyes narrowed as she studied him. "I get the impression I won't be able to call you Ozzie forever."
Rather than respond, Oz reached for the guitar. "Any requests?"
"If these mountains get any higher, I think I'm gonna get a nose bleed."
Charles glanced over at Buffy who, despite her complaint, was avidly watching the scenery speed by. "Afraid of heights, Slayer."
"Afraid of my birthday, maybe, but heights?" She snorted. "Although falling would suck majorly."
"You don't fall?"
Charles felt her eyes on him.
"Between dance and cheerleading and ice skating, I used to fall all the time. Mostly while learning new routines. The bruising was for serious. Like A-League-of-Their-Own levels of bruising. Then I got Called and, wouldn't you know, falling's not really a thing anymore. Now being thrown... Different story."
Neither of them had anything to say for a while after that. They'd hashed out a number of preliminary negotiating points hours before. Charles sensed that Buffy was ready to handle the other portion of their trip and was mostly restraining herself from urging him to speed along the winding Montana roads by commenting on the scenery. It was beautiful country all year, but far more stunning (and dangerous) in the depths of a snowclad winter. Charles wasn't anticipating any serious clashes between his father and Buffy, but he was glad they wouldn't have to track an angry Slayer through snow.
"We'll be there soon," he told her.
He half expected her heart rate to pick up or for an astringent note of concern to thread her scent. When, however, her scent took on the metallic bite of resolve and her shoulders squared, Charles wasn't surprised.
Willow climbed out of the McIntyre's car with help from Mr. McIntyre, Jordy in her arms. "I can take him you know," he said as they slowly worked together.
"I'm not actually sure you can," she said, laughter in her voice. Standing now, she slowly pulled her hands away from the little boy's body. He didn't move an inch. "No hands!"
Jordy's octopus like grip tightened around her neck and waist, so Willow did her best dashboard-hula dancer impersonation.
"Hey!" he groused as he sleepily rubbed his nose into the exposed skin around her collar.
"Hay is for horses young man." She and Mr. McIntyre shared a grin.
Xander joined them from Giles' car. "Nice moves there, Wills." Giles looked on with fond amusement but, having just woken himself, didn't say anything.
Buffy, standing on the running board of Charles' rental SUV, opened her mouth to add to the good-natured teasing then frowned. "Anyone else hear music?"
The street they were on was a largely deserted, typical suburban street: The land looked spacious and well kept, and were large enough to please the native Californians in the group. "Based on the size and the number of the trees," Giles began, "Aspen Creek is a better established town than most of than most of similar size." He came to stand near the center of the loosely grouped party. "Given the time of day, and that it is midweek, it's no surprise that we're quite alone."
"But I hear something!" Buffy said as she, now on the ground beside the SUV.
Nodding, Mr. McIntyre said, "I hear it, too."
Jordy, still holding onto Willow with all his might as she made slow silly shapes with her hips, propped his chin on his caretaker's shoulder. "Hear it."
"As do I," Charles said.
Frowning, Xander said, "Maybe someone left their radio on and only the mystically enhanced can hear it?"
"My father is well known for his love of music," Charles said.
"Does he play any instruments?" Buffy asked.
As if to underline Giles' point, every head turned when a door opened nearby, loud enough for all to hear in the general quiet. Three men and a woman spilled out of the front door of the house where Charles had directed them to park. All four appearing to be in their prime or a little younger.
"What is it with the supernatural?" Xander muttered.
Brows furrowed, Buffy hazarded a glance back at him.
"In what Normal Town, USA would that many good looking people step out of a house together? And one of them is supposedly the leader of the Free Furry World."
"Only North America," Charles corrected quietly.
A smirk tugged at the corner of Buffy's lips. "Are you saying me and Charles are pretty, Xan?"
Xander blushed. "You, Buffster? Always. I guess Charles is alright," he tacked on in a hasty mumble.
"Acquired a new admirer, Charles?" the only woman, a blond, said once they were in human-normal earshot. Her tone was as far from joking as it could get without being an outright accusation.
Willow bristled, an indignant "Hey!" rolling off her lips just as Buffy bounded forward, all but bouncing on her toes.
"We, like, totally are!" A megawatt smile, bright enough for a dozen cheer squads, lit Buffy's face. Her hands were clasped behind her, as if she had to hold herself back from being even perkier still. Except to those standing behind her - which now included Charles - who could see her clenched fists. "It's been an amazing trip!"
It was obvious the blond woman didn't know what to do with all of Buffy's bubbly enthusiasm. She also seemed not to realize that it was as false as it was cheerful. Instead she looked Buffy up and down with a barely contained sneer. "I thought you didn't like blonds, Charles."
"It seemed imprudent to go after my father's wife," was Charles' response.
"And she calls you a cradle robber?" Buffy said over the sound of jaws falling to the pavement behind her. She glanced over her shoulder at Charles. "Your dad, like, totally gets carded when you guys go places, doesn't he?"
All the jaws that had made it back into their proper place went back on the ground. The youngest looking of the three men stepped forward. "How did you guess?"
"Eh, you meet one preternaturally young old guy who knows how to make his power go bye-bye, you've met them all."
"Buffy!" Giles said softly but sharply. He'd wandered closer as the two blondes had taken each other on. "Let's not cause an interspecies incident before we've even sat down at the negotiating table."
"Oh but Giles! She started it." Buffy's half-turn to look at Giles meant that she had her back towards the Marrok's wife. "I can't help it if I have overactive protective instincts. It's one of those crazy Slayer things that just comes with."
Recognizing Buffy's insult for what it was, the other woman fumed. "Bran-!" she started.
"Slayer..." he said, a touch of menace alongside his otherwise paternal tone.
She turned fully to them both, bright cheerleader smile back in place. "Yes?"
"As both my mate and my son are wolves, I believe they both fall under my authority."
Buffy rocked back on her heels. "Okay! Besides, I know I wouldn't want-"
Giles' glare behind her back was saying, Interspecies incident! rather stridently.
"-to take on even more responsibility than I have to. Freshman year...not the party fun times they promised on TV."
Charles had moved to stand at his father's side as his second while Buffy spoke. Now, with the lines more clearly drawn, silence fell between the two parties. Even the birds had stopped chattering and the breeze stilled.
"Patience Girl, I am not." Completely dropping her stance and most of the perky cheerleader routine, Buffy wrinkled her nose. "Start a fight because somebody's manners are less than par, I am also not." At the chorus of snorts behind her, she shot an affronted glance back at her friends. "Is or is not Cordy still alive? And it's totally not my fault that Snyder didn't make it out at graduation!"
"She has a point." "Not that anyone would have faulted you." "I guess..." came from Xander, Giles and Willow more or less simultaneously.
"If anyone was going to die from gross lack of manners it would've been those two," Buffy explained to the non-Sunnydalers, rolling her eyes at the absurdity of it all. "And yet one of them is currently an aspiring actress-slash-part-time do-gooder in LA."
"And the other?" the Marrok asked with studied casualness.
Buffy made a face and said, "Eaten at graduation by our mayor, an aspiring hell-demon."
Giles sighed. "I did advise him not to stand so close on the dais."
Silence fell again, but it was less tense. A light breeze shifted fly-away hair and dried sun-sweat.
"I had hoped that we could negotiate a fair treaty, Slayer, but I will not tolerate anyone insulting my wife and mate," the Marrok said matter-of-factly.
Buffy shrugged. "I won't if she won't."
"Buffy..." That from Giles.
"But I guess I can ignore whatever she gets up to when it's between you guys. Fair?"
"Sure," the Marrok said with almost as much cheer as Buffy had been leveling only moments before.
Buffy tensed. "Please don't do that again. I promise to put Perky Buffy away if you don't do that again."
Laughing, he stuck out his hand. "Deal. We haven't actually been introduced. Bran Cornick."
Buffy took his hand. "Buffy Summers."
"You know my second and son, Charles Cornick," Bran said as they released. He gestured to his left. "My wife and mate, Leah Cornick. Whom you've also met. Behind me are two senior wolves from my pack: Asil Moreno and Colin Taggert."
Buffy gave a brief nod to each wolf in turn. When Bran was done, she made her own introductions: "This is Rupert Giles, my Watcher. By the car is Xander. By the other car are the McIntyre's… Jordan and his wife Maureen."
"As wolves, shouldn't they be on my side?"
Buffy shrugged. "Figured that was part of the negotiations."
Bran raised an eyebrow but didn't otherwise respond to her comment. Instead he indicated the pair now standing furthest away. "You seem to have forgotten two members of your party."
"Show me yours and I'll show you mine."
"I forgot how good a Slayer can be."
"I bet you didn't, but it's sweet of you to sa-" Buffy cut herself off as a familiar shape filled the door of Bran's home.
But it was Willow who spoke his name. "Oz?"
She had stopped making hooping motions when Buffy had turned serious. If it had all gone south, she'd have run for it with Jordy in her arms, confident that their people could hold off the Marrok's people long enough to find a hiding place. It hadn't gone south, though. It wasn't sunshine and roses, but it wasn't silver bullets and holy water, either.
"Willow," Oz said, approaching the groups slowly with a tall, slender woman trailing behind, a guitar in his hands.
Willow hitched Jordy higher on her hip and made her own way forward. She stopped midstride when she realized she had passed Mrs. McIntyre. Backing up a step, she offered to pass Jordy to his mother.
Ruffling her son's hair, she shook her head. "This is why we're here. It can't be avoided forever," she added catching Buffy's eye. Mrs. McIntyre leaned forward and kissed her son's hair. "We'll see you later, 'kay. You're gonna stay good?"
Jordy nodded enthusiastically, but didn't otherwise make a move to be released from Willow's arms. "Is that really Uncle Oz?" he asked her.
"I think so. Let's find out!"
Oz worked his way around the knot of wolves surrounding Bran to meet them. Willow skirted around Buffy to do the same. As soon as he was close enough, Oz pulled Willow and Jordy into a strong hug. Half-turning in Willow's arms, Jordy hugged his uncle around the neck while the adults touched foreheads. Oz took a deep breath then seemed to sigh with his whole body. "Hey," he said.
"Hey," she said in return, a smile blooming on her face.
"It would appear that you two know each other," Bran said
"Three!" Jordy said, sending a ripple of laughter through the adults as Willow and Oz separated.
"Oz," Bran said, addressing him without taking his eyes off Jordy, "you seem to know everyone, and everyone seems to know you. Why don't you finish making the introductions?"
Oz shot him a look before coming forward to stand in the space between Bran and Leah. "So, um, this is my ex-girlfriend, Willow-"
"Ex-ex," Willow quickly interjected.
"Really? But, Wills, I-"
"It doesn't matter." Willow's eyes flicked over Bran and back again.
"Even if it didn't we're still-"
This time a rather loud cough from Giles interrupted Oz. Both young people colored as Buffy and Xander snickered in the background.
"Uh, and this is my cousin Jordy," Oz said, quickly getting them back on track. "Willow and Jordy, this is Bran Cornick, the leader of all the North American werewolves, also known as the Marrok.
"Everyone," he said, turning to the Sunnydale contingent, "the woman behind me is Sage. She's one of the wolves in the Aspen Creek pack. She's been my tour guide. And friend," he added softly.
"Hello." Willow tried to wave but couldn't quite muster it with the preschooler in her arms. "It's, um, nice to meet you."
Bran stepped forward, reaching for Jordy. "Let's give Miss Willow the use of her hands, shall we?"
Before Willow could protest, the youngster was twisting in her arms reaching for the Marrok in return. She threw a horrified glance over her shoulder. Buffy, Giles and Xander's expressions were shuttered, but the McIntyres were nodding.
"It's why we're here," Oz's uncle reminded her, echoing his wife. Walking hand in hand, they approached the Marrok and his group. "Everything's gonna be fine."
"Promise?" Xander called, the question directed to Bran.
Who carefully shook his head. Jordy was running a miniature toy truck around his crown while Leah and Taggert looked on in amusement. Charles and Asil never took their eyes off the Slayer. "Mind the lumps, buddy," Bran said to Jordy.
To the Slayer's group, the McIntyres and Oz he said, "I can't promise that everything will be okay because I can't know everything, but I have a pretty good feeling that they will be. Let's say we finish this inside."
With that he turned on his heel and offered Jordy to Leah to hold – who happily took the boy in her arms. If there was any doubt about the Scoobies following, that sealed it. The McIntyres led the way, until Oz stopped them. "Aunt Maureen, Uncle Jordan, I'm…I'm so sorry. I should have-"
Standing closer, Jordan McIntyre cut him off with a fierce one-armed hug. "If there's any blame, it's ours," he said into his nephew's hair. Willow grabbed at his hand.
"Even if we were scared of what our alpha would have done, we could have always come straight to the Marrok. He has a reputation for being fair. Instead we let our fear make decisions for us, and you were turned against your will."
"Jordy was just a little kid. Practically a baby," Oz said into his uncle's shoulder.
"But we weren't." Jordan McIntyre clapped his nephew on the back. "All things considered, it's pretty okay. And it's gonna be okay. Whatever happens."
Nodding, Oz stepped back from his uncle and aunt, allowing them to follow Bran and his wolves. Willow squeezed his hand.
Buffy stopped next giving him a quick, assessing once-over as she did. "First, I swear that I will not let them do anything to hurt Jordy."
"Second, and this is kinda weird, you look like you could use a good night's sleep but you also look better?" She scrunched up her nose. "Like I said, weird."
Oz smiled. "S'okay. It's cool." Then they also exchanged one-armed hugs. Buffy, hanging off his shoulder, gave Willow a thumbs up. "Stand by your man, Wills!"
"Buffy!" Willow hissed in return. "Don't you have a Jordy to protect?"
"Right! On it!"
Giles and Xander were on her heels. Giles offered Oz a handshake. "It is very good to see you, Oz. I am rather confident that this will all work out well."
Before Giles could continue, Xander edged closer. "Hey, Oz, digging your taste in new friends," he said in a stage-whisper.
"Careful. I'm pretty sure Sage bites."
"Only the pretty ones, Ozzie," Sage said, her smile perhaps a little too toothsome.
"Uh…" Xander's jaw was working but nothing else came out.
Giles grabbed Xander by the elbow. "Forgive him. He has a serious case of foot-in-mouth disease."
Sage and Willow giggled as the pair retreated to the house. "Looks like I'm next," Sage said with a grin. "It's nice to meet you, Willow. I do hope you'll get a chance to stay and visit with us for a while."
"I, uh, I think I- I mean I think we will. Be staying a bit. To visit." Willow squeezed Oz's hand between both of hers. "Um…"
"Good! I can give you the tour."
"Okay!" Sage leaned down and kissed first Willow's them Oz's cheek. "Now don't take too long out here, you love birds. Bran is going to want to say whatever he has to in front of Oz at least. Don't know how long that will take, but it's best not to keep them all waiting."
Waving her fingertips at them, she turned on her heel and hustled into the house.
Suddenly Willow and Oz were alone on the street, with only the stray breeze and errant birdsong for company. "Hey," he said to her.
"Hey," she said to him, turning to face him fully.
"So. You guys are staying awhile? Even after the Marr- Bran makes his decision?"
"Well I am. I'm staying. I don't know about the rest of the Scoobies, or your aunt and uncle."
Oz frowned. "You guys haven't talked about it?"
"I, uh, kinda discussed it with Charles."
"Why Charles and not Buffy, Xander and Giles?"
"Because, um, I, uh…" Willow began fidgeting on her feet, but Oz only ran his thumb over her knuckles in a smooth, soothing sweep.
Eventually she took a deep breath and stilled herself. "It turns out I have witchblood. Like, not just you average, happy float-a-pencil-at-a-vamp-with-handy-dandy earth-magic wiccan, but more like make-the-dead-rise-and-control-the-beasts-of-the-field witchblood."
"Your magic has been getting a lot better this year, baby."
"Apparently…apparently I'm just tapping into the surface of my heritage. And if I'm n-not careful, I c-could d-do some ser-serious damage."
Oz untangled their hands so he could rub away the goosebumps he could see forming on her bare arms. "How serious?"
"Yesterday, at this diner, I nearly shot eye-lasers at this racist jerkwad for insulting Charles."
Willow hit him in the arm. "Oz!"
Who chuckled. "If he was being a racist jerkwad, I'm sure he deserved it."
"Yeah, but what if I'm having a bad day in chem-lab and I explode, and then the whole building explodes? That's not funny anymore. That's people hurt and killed because I don't know how to handle my own DNA."
"Okay. So how does hanging around Aspen Creek help us?"
"Uh the Marrok has already sorta kinda agreed to let me stay and train with him a bit, if the treaty between him and Buffy works out. Actually, Charles was pretty sure his dad kinda wouldn't even want look at a treaty once he found out there was an untrained witch in the Slayer's circle of friends. Too dangerous."
"I know right!" Willow interjected.
"I could see it."
"Wills," he said solemnly, "Resolve Face has to come from somewhere. Imagine Resolve Face!Willow with real power-"
"-and a crisis. I'm not saying you'd destroy the world, but you might do more damage than you ever intended." He took her hands again. "You don't think you're capable of doing terrible things until someone you love is hurt or in danger. And by the time you find out what you're capable of, it's too late to take it back."
Willow folded him into a hug. "Oz, I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault, Wills. Veruca shouldn't have come after either of us. I'd…do it again if I had to, but," he pulled away to look her in the eye, "maybe if I'd had a pack I wouldn't have had to."
She nodded, then folded herself into his arms again.
"So," Oz started, "Bran is going to train you?"
Nodding against his shoulder, Willow said, "I, um, get the impression that he might be a little witchy? Maybe? Probably he knows one that he trusts."
Silence fell between them, comfortable and familiar. Oz shifted to bury his nose in her hair. "I've missed you."
"We should go inside."
Willow pouted against his shoulder. "Do we have to?"
"The Marrok is calling me. I can hear him in my head."
"Really?" Willow said as they disengaged from each other. "That would be a nifty skill to have in the fight against evil."
"Maybe that can be your first lesson."
"I'll have to ask."
"First you have to tell the gang about staying."
"Aww, do I gotta?"
"Yeah." Oz brought their joined hands to his lips and kissed her knuckles. "But I'll be right there with you."