by daneorange

He came back nevertheless, for Buffy's funeral.

Irony works in ironic ways, it made you meet him even, at the front door. There was a knock, and nobody was there to answer it. Xander was out with Anya -- the household needed somebody to do the groceries, and they were more than willing to do it -- and Willow was.. well, Willow needed taking care of. that was your job now in this house. The keeper. and Dawn was upstairs too, curled up beside Willow. They are wrecks, and though you are no stronger, you couldn't afford that. not now.

So you open the door, and irony is ironic, Willow used to say. "Hey," you greet, forcing a smile. "Oz."

He has grown thinner, but then, how was the last time with him, anyway? You nearly got him killed then, too, didn't you? You wince slightly at the memory, and he nods, slowly, as if reading through your contrition. "News got around," he just said. "Where is she?"

"She's upstairs, with D-Dawn..." you stutter with her name; maybe Oz hadn't met her yet, maybe they had forgotten to augment his memory by virtue of his not being there. Realizing what you had just said, all of a sudden, you are not sure anymore who he'd been really looking for.

"I meant, Buffy," he corrects quietly, and you were right -- he had not been talking about Willow. Your Willow. Red hair and green eyes, all yours now. All yours now to keep. "Where is she?" you blink as he asks again, clearing his throat.

A pause. "Do you want to come in?" you offer finally, stepping aside slowly to open the door wider. "She's in here..." The phrase gets easier to say as the numbing feeling takes over. You've said it a lot of times now. She's in here. As if Buffy were alive and sitting on the living room sofa.

Oz steps in. You recognize the brown fur coat even. "Thanks," he just says, voice growing even more softer. He seats himself on one of the sofas, then he drops his gaze on the floor, saying nothing.

You wanted to get him tea or coffee perhaps or juice -- you'll take whatever's in the pantry -- just so you could fill the painful silent gaps with something. You're overreacting, you tell yourself, and you take in a quick deep breath. "Oz," you begin. "Can I g-get you something?"

He looks up, that slow manner which told you he was sad but he was willing to deal with it in a way you're completely incapable of. "I'm fine, Tara," he replies, and you're surprised he even remembers your name. "Where's..."

He started the question, and then he stopped. This time, you couldn't be wrong.

"Upstairs," you just say again, more sure this time. "With Dawn."

Oz furrowed his brow a little -- he looked so much like a child, still so after so many years, you feel like age hasn't affected him in any way. "Dawn?" that quizzical look on his face told you, perhaps the monks did forget somebody after all.

"Buffy's sister."

He straightened out his forehead in the most fascinating manner, and now you're seeing how Willow could have fallen in love with him. "Buffy's sister?"

So many things you could tell him. So many things you have to tell him about. "Yes," you just say instead. Summarizing everything from the night he left town again to that night Buffy jumped into that vortex. "It's a long story," you sigh.

"I see." And Oz, he just nods again, as if he knew what the long story was all about. "Can I see her?"

This time, you wait for the rest of the request. Didn't want to keep on making the same mistakes.

"I meant Buffy," Oz adds, as if completely understanding your pause. It surprises you, how perceptive he actually is. "Can I see her?"

You walk toward him slowly, then you lean in a little and take his hand. "Come with," you just whisper, and you pull him with you as you walk toward the Box. He follows, light as a feather, and his boots, though they looked heavy, don't make a sound, not at all.

Giles picked it out -- white with gold lining, traditional, yes, but he said it would make Buffy happy. You haven't seen Giles cry so hard until after the picking. It took a while to calm him down, and he couldn't stay around for long even. He found it really hard to breathe in this house after everything.

"What happened?" Oz finally asked. You thought he never would. He sounded like he knew, and that he just had to come over to pay his respects personally.

"Wasn't really t-there as in... t-there..." you begin explaining. After all, you had been out of your mind because of Glory. "But... she jumped into this... v-vortex..."

Silence. "Apocalypse," all Oz could say after.

And it wasn't something he hadn't seen before, you know. After all, he was here before you were. No matter how you look at it, he'd always be first. Always.

You stare at him as he stared down into Buffy's coffin, green eyes burning into the glass. His fingernails were clean, like they were newly cut and manicured. He had shaved, and he wore less accessories, if not none at all -- something unlike him. You just attributed the whole get-up to the fact that Buffy's dead.

Everybody's changing because Buffy's dead. Xander had become more workaholic, Anya had become less talkative, and Willow...

"Willow, she's..." you broach the subject. Even you changed because of Buffy's death. Stronger now, less shy -- things you couldn't afford, really. Darwin wasn't lying, the fittest survive; the weak get eliminated, and you can't go now. Who'd be left here if you did?

Made Oz turn his head. "What?" he asks softly, not so much a demand, more a weak plea.

You bite your lip to pull the tears back up into your ducts. "Very much in shock still," you manage to complete the sentence now, impressive. You haven't gone past `very much' in recent conversations, you'd always preferred to say you didn't want to talk about Willow, or that she was just resting or something. Or some other good excuse you could invent in three seconds.

"Shock? How?" Again, with the furrowing of the brow.

You sigh, heavier this time. "Buffy was... we were there, Willow was there and she..." you pause. You were the reason, as always. "She saved me first. Wasn't fast enough to save two. Wasn't enough." Enough of the talk already, you were tired. Funny how a bunch of words could tire you out so hard.

"I'm sorry."

"I am too," you just say. You were too. So so sorry. It's a pity apologies don't bring Slayers back to life.

A pause. Oz turned away from the coffin and walked back to the sofa. "It wasn't your fault," he just said.

"Neither was it Willow's," you say softly back, still leaning against Buffy's coffin.

Oz took a moment to look at you. "She loved you that much?" he asked.

And it was so different from the last time he asked you the same question, was it really more than a year ago? you think harder, and you say to yourself it doesn't matter. the time. But it was still different. Different, in a sense that there was no accusing tone in his voice, there was no him smelling her all over you, no wolfing, no nearly trying to rip you apart in hatred. He didn't have to say it, you want to believe Oz is a good man and would never try to hurt you, but you saw it in his eyes, nevertheless. He hated you.

You look at him now and ask the same question. "Do you... d-do you still hate me, Oz?" He looked back and said nothing. "Well, I g- guess you still do, after all," you just laugh nervously to break the silence.

"I didn't come back to get her back, Tara," Oz finally said. Then you become aware you'd been holding your breath for a while now.

And you didn't know what to say in return. Should you thank him? Or probably, give him a slap for just merely considering the thought for two seconds? Should you say anything in return at all?

"She can't breathe well nowadays," you sigh, changing the topic. "The... the grief, it's like.. b-blocking her airways, or something..."

He looks at you, and it's like he could tell you're getting ripped apart inside, just by the mere sight of him, the mere thought of him being within a mile from her. He was there first. He'd always have that place first.

You close your eyes and try to stabilize your breathing. You're overreacting, you tell yourself again. She loves you.

"She needs you," Oz breaks into the mantra, and you almost burst into tears, only you can't, not in front of him. Actually, not anytime now, there's a lot of work to be done, and time could only be wasted in crying. "She needs you to take care of her."

"Y-you really didn't have to s-spell it out for me, Oz."

He stands up finally. He's leaving. Inside, you're wishing he'd never come back. You're wishing he'd never have to come back... "I should get going," he just says. "I can't stay long. I got places to be."

"Willow would have l-loved to see y-you..."

And for the first time since you opened that door, he smiles. It's warm, and endearing, and absolutely sincere, his aura was a perfect match, even. "I would have loved that too, but..." he pauses, then he sighs. "Never mind. Just tell her I dropped by..."

You nod, wordless. What else was there, anyway, to say? You were never the talker. Not most especially where he is concerned, which is such a pity, since he seemed to be genuinely nice.

At the door, he stopped to turn around a final time. "And oh," he begins, softly, like he forgot something important. "She likes her hair stroked til she falls asleep," his voice drops to a whisper, you're almost positive he was on the verge of crying.

And so were you. "I'll... I'll remember," you just say, nodding yourself.

You don't wait until he gets into the van -- you just shut the door. You lean against it for a moment, taking in his final words. It wasn't like you didn't know -- and it's not like you're at all surprised that he does. You don't forget such things. Willow wasn't something one forgets, really. And you know that too well.

You sober up -- or at least, you try -- then you get yourself onto the staircase. You reach the room, you whisper to Dawn, and you take her to the other room. She is without complaints, and you heave another sigh.

When you go back to your room, Willow is there, still curled up in a ball, slightly shaking, but it was nothing big. You lie next to her, put your arms around her as if you just had to stake your claim -- then you stroke her hair, like worship.

He was there first -- he was there in ways you couldn't be. But you're here now, stroking with your fingers like an eraser would, hoping you could be better at something he already wasn't good at first.


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