The tiny house was dark, soft curtains blocking the streetlight outside the window. Even though they had been there for three months, Willow and Kennedy had done little to personalize the furnished house they had rented when they had all migrated to England to help rebuild the Council. Kennedy spent most of her week doing intensive training in London, making it home to Devon only on the weekends. She had just gotten back tonight and gone straight to bed, exhausted from training and traveling.
So Willow sat in the front parlor, working at the desk by the light of a single lamp. The darkness made her feel safe, enclosed, narrowing her world down to just her. Made her feel less isolated somehow. She felt lonely so often now, and she was sometimes ashamed to realize that it wasn’t usually the young Slayer she was missing. Even after all this time, all the darkness, it was still Tara she longed for, her quiet, her wisdom, the strength of her arms . . . She shook herself. Getting lost in those feelings wouldn’t help. She needed to get this research done before the meeting tomorrow.
She was just exchanging one book for another when the phone rang, startling her. She checked her watch. Probably Xander. With all the traveling around he was doing, he never remembered the time difference and often called her at odd hours. She was always so happy to hear from him that she didn’t complain. “Hello?”
“Now, I know it’s been a while, and a lot has happened to you because, well, Sunnydale’s a big hole, but I wondered if you’d like to get together for coffee.”
“Oz?” She was dumbfounded. “Ohmigosh, Oz! Where are you? How are you?”
“I’m good. How ‘bout you?”
“I’m . . . better.”
“Sounds like a story.”
“Have you got a few weeks?”
Now she was curious. “Oz, where are you?”
“Look out your window.”
She flew to the window and pushed the curtain aside. He stood in the glow of the streetlight, orange hair and a sheepskin coat, cell phone to his ear and a soft, Zen-like Oz smile on his lips as he raised a hand in greeting.
She was out the door in a moment to throw her arms around him. “I can’t believe you’re here! I’m so glad to see you!”
“So, I’m guessing this is a yes for coffee.”
She smiled impishly. “I’ll think about it . . .”
Devon wasn’t big on all night coffee houses, but the pub was open until two. They sat in the back corner away from the flow of people and, over an ale and a shandy, caught up on each other’s lives.
“So I’m still traveling a lot,” Oz explained. “Played back-up for a couple of indy tours. Mostly singer-songwriter stuff. Although I did get to lay a couple of tracks for Third World’s new album.”
“Oh, wow! What was that like?”
“Claustrophobic. I don’t think the studio’s the best place for me. And I’ve started writing. All freelance, but I like it. Gives me an outlet.”
“Totally under control. I had a bad patch about a year and a half ago; I couldn’t keep it down. I started working with ritual magic, mostly ceremonial stuff and it’s helped. Another layer of control. Only call it when I need it now, regardless of the moon.”
“Do you need it a lot?”
“Sometimes. You know, still fighting the fight. It finds you.”
She nodded, turning her glass in circles.
“But what about you? Big changes for you. Like working with a coven.”
She smiled. “You know a lot already.”
He shrugged. “Giles and Buffy gave me some of the basics when I was in London.” He paused, then took her hand gently. “I was sorry to hear about Tara.”
She squeezed back. “Kind of the beginning of the end for me. Or the end of the beginning.” And she found the words tumbling out of her, the story of that whole terrible year, the guilt for everything that happened then and what had come after. And Oz listened as only he could, not judging, just bearing witness. For the first time, she was able to recite the details, even talk about her own emotions, without bursting into tears. The remnants of darkness that clung to her lost their last grip in the face of his open acceptance.
“So since then I’ve been working with the coven here, helping find and protect all the new slayers. Some of us, mostly the younger members, but some of the more experienced ones, have started working together directly with the Council. We’re able to focus more on the needs of the Watchers and Slayers, be a stronger presence. Hey, we’re having a working tomorrow night. You should come!”
“Oh, I don’t know, you know me and large groups . . .”
“Oh come on! It’ll be fun! You said you’ve been doing ritual work, and we can always use male energy. They’re a lot more hung up on that sort of thing here than back home, gender balance I mean. It’d be great!”
He smiled, succumbing to her babble attack. “Okay, I’ll go.”
The waitress leaned over their table apologetically. “Beggin’ yer pardons, but it’s closin’ time.”
Willow looked at her watch in surprise. “Wow!” She eyed him with mock suspicion. “What is it about you that makes time disappear when I’m talking to you?”
He smiled enigmatically. “C’mon. I’ll walk you home.”
They stopped at her front door, just standing quietly. Finally she spoke. “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you again. I’ve really missed you.”
“On a cosmic scale, three years? Drop in the bucket.”
“Yeah, but in Scooby time it’s a couple of lifetimes.”
He squeezed her hand in understanding. And then, as if all that time had never happened, he leaned in and kissed her softly, generously, in the way he had that always used to make her feel happy to be alive. He rested his forehead against hers for a moment, then stepped back, hands sliding into his coat pockets. “So, tomorrow night?”
She nodded. “6:30.”
“I’ll be here.”
“Good night.” And she slipped into the house.
She went upstairs, her heart light as she got ready for bed, replaying the evening in her head. She felt complete again. Oz perfectly filled the giant Tara-shaped hole in her heart; ironic considering Tara had filled the Oz-shaped hole he had left. Maybe, just maybe she wouldn’t have to be lonely anymore.
The light from the bathroom shone across the bedroom, reminding her starkly of the presence of another body sleeping in the bed. Guilt washed away the happiness she had been feeling. What right did she have to be with someone else when she had made a commitment to Kennedy?
She sighed and slipped under the covers, staying to her side of the bed. She’d been through this before, had to make this kind of choice. And she was a grownup now.
She knew what she had to do.