Chapter 4 pt. 2


"Something's wrong."

Oz looked up from the road ahead at Willow's words, quickly turning his eyes back to his driving when he felt his van start to drift. "What do you feel," he asked, running back over the past few minutes in his memory. They'd been catting easily about the weirdness of wedding plans on the way to make a final inspection of the renovations to Angel's mansion. 'Odd,' Oz observed silently when he turned into the long driveway. Despite the fact that Buffy obviously owned the house now, and she would be the one moving in any day now, the mansion still felt like Angel's place to him. The mansion came into view again, drawing Oz's mind back to Willow's observation. There was an aura of death around the old place, but that could easily be explained by both the previous resident and a long ago murder, and Oz was sure that wasn't what had set Willow off; her senses tended to pick up emotional upheaval, and they'd been here several times in the last few weeks without this reaction.

"I don't know..." Willow's voice trailed off as she pondered the question, gazing at the mansion through the trees as they approached slowly. "Something is different about the place." They rounded the last bend in road as the sun slipped from the horizon, and stared in shock at the large hose. "Maybe the contractor's forgot something?" Willow ventured nervously, fingering the stake she always carried when she knew she'd be out after dark.

"No, I got the keys back three days ago, and then changed all the locks myself afterwards." Oz commented warily, eying the van parked in front of the garage and the front door standing wide open. Light blazed from the windows, signaling that the electricity had been turned on as requested, but Oz could detect no movement from within the house. "Well..." Oz drew out the word as he coasted to a stop and engaged the emergency brake, not wanting to turn off the engine in case they needed to make a fast get away. He reached behind their seats for the bag of emergency slaying supplies kept there, choosing a stake and a large water pistol filled with holy water, and handing a crucifix to Willow as back up for her stake. "Shall we check it out?" he asked nodding towards the open door.

Willow nodded and the pair carefully slipped out of the van, careful not to lock or slam her door, hoping to catch the intruder by surprise. Oz jumped slightly at the soft click anyway, then shook his head and did the same. They crept quietly towards the door, keeping careful eyes on the lengthening shadows and deepening darkness in the front garden. Oz frowned. Something he smelled or sensed was raising his hackles; he was jumpy, uneasy, but at the same time he didn't feel threatened. He was about to make a comment to Willow when she stopped short of the door and exclaimed, "This is ridiculous! Oz, I cast all the protective wards I could think of around this place, uninvited all vampires, got a priest, rabbi and Wiccan priestess to bless the place, than had Amy come down from San Francisco to check everything out. Whatever's in there can't possibly be evil!" So saying, Willow swung around the open doorway and glanced briefly around the foyer and what she could see of the living room. "See? I mean any vampire or demon would have...eep!"

Both Oz and Willow froze at the sight of the crossbow aimed with deadly accuracy at the witch's heart. After a moment Oz realized gratefully that the person on the other end hadn't moved to attack, and was subsequently able to focus on the other person's features. Surprised, Oz managed a sardonic grin. "S'okay Buff. We don't bite. Well, usually," he drawled in an effort to put the Slayer at ease. Because all of a sudden, the Slayer's eyes looked a little wild and she looked awfully jumpy.

"Buffy?" Willow whispered in shock, taking a cautious step forward. Drinking in the sight of her best friend, Willow was relieved when Buffy lowered her crossbow and gently set it on the floor beside her, the blond's eyes downcast.

"Hey," the Slayer managed, wrapping her arms tightly around herself, shifting her weight nervously.

Willow swallowed heard past the lump in her throat as she watched Buffy. Tears welled in the redhead's eyes as Buffy's defensive posture reminded her painfully of the scared and hurting seventeen year old that had come home after a summer trapped in her own personal hell. Determined that this homecoming would be smoother, Willow pushed any lingering pain and anger away and approached Buffy slowly, half afraid the Slayer would bolt. When she reached Buffy's side, Willow gently enfolded her in a welcoming embrace, whispering, "I missed you Buffy. I'm so glad you're back. Welcome home." The tiny blond Slayer burst into tears and Willow tried desperately to calm her friend, rocking her a little and whispering reassurances, fighting her own tears.

Oz moved towards the pair quietly, resting his hands gently on Willow's shoulder as he steered them to sit on the hearth next to the fireplace. He crouched before them, offering Buffy a tentative hand. "Welcome home Buffy," he offered quietly, knowing instinctively to not touch her when she was upset. Buffy raised tear filled hazel eyes to face him, and searched his expression carefully. Oz wondered what she was looking for, but she did eventually reached out and grasped his hand,gratefully. Oz forced himself to relax, not wanting to spook her, though his supernatural senses were in over drive. Buffy was the presence that had set him on edge earlier; the werewolf instincts he harbored always reacted to other predators. The stronger the predator, the stronger his reaction. Buffy was one of the strongest individuals Oz had ever encountered. Usually she didn't send off more than a light vibration of power, but when the Slayer was emotionally overwrought, as she was now, her control wavered and her every breath screamed 'hunter' to his senses.

Willow was relieved when Buffy calmed down and managed a watery smile, thought the blond still had problems meeting their eyes. "Sorry," Buffy managed, wiping at her tears. "That's been happening a lot lately. The tears I mean, not the crossbow."

Willow and Oz both smiled at Buffy's attempt humor, knowing that she was just as anxious about this reunion as they were. Willow's smile was watery as well as she murmured, "It's OK Buffy, we won't tell. After all, we wouldn't want to let the vampires think the slayer has a weakness."

Buffy paled and clutched at Willow and Oz's hands a little tighter. The couple exchanged concerned glances, wondering if the rumors that Angel had passed along had some basis in fact. Reading something in Willow's eyes, Oz nodded briefly. "Look, you two need to catch up, and I know enough to know that I should *not* be here for a gab fest. How about I go pick up a pizza and some drinks? After dinner, we can all inspect the renovations, and go over plans for the party." He stood slowly, still wary of startling the Slayer.

Buffy dredged up a smile for him, nodding in relief. "Thanks Oz," she whispered. "It's not that I don't trust you, it's just..."

"Having both of us here is a little overwhelming," Oz finished, nodding his head in understanding. "It's cool, and it's easier for you to talk to Willow. Besides, anything you can't tell me, she'll pass on for you." He pressed a soft kiss to Willow's forehead, squeezed both their hands, and left.

The silence in the mansion was deafening. Willow watched Buffy stare at her hands, which were clenched her lap, wondering where to start. Buffy started to fidget, unable to meet the redhead's gaze, and eventually blurted out, "Go on Will. Let me have it." Willow made a startled sound, and the tiny blond looked up briefly, though her eyes still skittered away from Willow's. "I promised all of you that I wouldn't run away again, but I did. I left you all and haven't told you where I've been, or what I've been doing, or who I've been doing it with. You've got to be angry and hurt, so let it out. I can't take the suspense. Let's get it over with now, please?"

The plaintive, fearful tone in Buffy's voice made her sound like a scared little girl instead of the confident young woman Willow knew her friend to be. The witch grasped Buffy's chin and pulled her chin up so she had to meet Willow's gaze. Seeing the haunting pain and self-reproach in Buffy's eyes, Willow let the last of her anger drain away as it dawned on her, after many years that maybe Angel had left Buffy a legacy other than eternal, self-sacrificing love. It appeared that he had taught Buffy that her own conscious was her harshest judge. Willow saw that no matter how angry or hurt the rest of them were over her decisions, they could never be as harsh with Buffy as she was with herself. When that thought sank in, Willow was able to honestly say, "No. Yes, I'm still a little hurt, because I know you haven't told me everything. I get the feeling that there is a big secret you're still keeping, but I'm not angry any more."

Buffy frowned at Willow in confusion, and the hacker tried to explain. "I was angry Buffy, but I have worked through that. I was so relieved to hear from you again, to know that you were OK, or at least as OK as you can be, that the anger just kind of went away. I *knew* you were hurting when you left, and this time I knew why. I'm a little hurt that you couldn't come to any of us, that you had to run away, but I know that none of us really understood what you were feeling. So, if you had to go away to heal, you had to go away." Willow shrugged fatalistically, though she kept a close eye on her friend. "I figured that you'd heal and come home when you were ready, though I get the feeling that the rumors of a weakness might have some basis in fact and influenced you a little."

The witch wondered if Buffy had figured out yet that she wouldn't really heal until she talked her feelings out with everyone. That she wouldn't be able to move ahead completely until she found the strength to cry about the hurt with her Angel, the only other person that might possibly understand how devastating her rape had been. In addition to the physical and emotional trauma every woman faces, the attack had made Buffy doubt her abilities and instincts. The pain had been neck and neck with the guilt of having failed to protect herself, and now the guilt of abandoning her friends and family again. Angel had faced something similar when the return of his soul brought home the realization that he had not only failed to protect his family, but had been the instrument of their deaths, or at least the demon had been. Buffy had tried to help him see that he'd had no control over the situation, and Willow hoped the vampire could return the favor for the Slayer.