As soon as Oz walked into Willow's dorm room he knew something was wrong. Over the years, he had become adept at classifying Willow-distress levels. Right now, her slumped posture and her scent indicated about a 7 on the Willow-Richter scale, with 1 being "I dropped a jellybean" and 10 being "imminent apocalypse."
Oz sat down next to her on the bed and wrapped an arm around her. "Hey, what's wrong?"
She rested her head on his shoulder. "Professor Gonzales thinks I should apply for a summer internship at Apple. He said I'd be a great fit there. There's also a program where I could get a Master's degree in computer science by staying here another year, and he thinks I could do that, too."
"Trying hard, but not seeing existential dread here. Help me out?"
She hugged her knees to her chest. "If I do the internship, I won't have much time to go back home and help Buffy over the summer. If I do the Master's degree, it's another year away from home. It's just, the longer I stay here, the further I feel like I'm getting from Sunnydale and slayage, you know? Like I'll just get more comfortable and more connected to things here and the next thing I know I'm living in the suburbs and the biggest worry is whether my favorite restaurant is going downhill."
"You've helped from here. That thing with the demon cat army last month?"
She rolled her eyes. "That was pretty much a crazy cat lady who knew a little magic, not the next Big Bad. The Sunnydale crew could have figured out the counterspell on their own. And the women at the coven are amazing, and I'm learning so much, but I can't seem to get my spells to work the way they should. They keep telling me that I'm powerful, but what good is that if I can't do anything with it?"
Her words kept tumbling out, faster than he could interrupt.
"When we took out the Sisterhood of the Jhe, I helped save the world. And this year, even after all I've learned, I still haven't even been able to de-rat Amy. What if the Sisterhood of the Jhe was the most important thing I'll ever do? What if I peaked before I'd even finished high school? Is it all going downhill from there?"
She finally stopped to take a breath.
Oz waited for the right words to take shape. Sometimes it took a while. He was lucky to have Willow, who seemed happy to fill up the silences with whatever popped into her head, but never demanded that he do the same.
He started with the easiest problem to address: "If you and the coven can't de-rat Amy, maybe it can't be done. Maybe she likes rat-life."
He could almost see the wheels spinning in her head. Something he'd said had resonated, and she was processing it now.
Willow said, "I know you just got here, but do you mind if we go back to the coven? There's something I wanna try with Amy."
* * *
He thought about Willow's other concerns on the drive to the coven. There was a part of him that would love for her to have a calm and simple life, where the Willow-distress meter would be tripped by things as innocuous as the length of her commute or an obnoxious coworker, rather than by vampires and magic spells gone wrong.
A couple weeks ago he'd dreamed that he was playing in a club in Mountain View. Willow had been sitting at one of the tables, smiling and waving at him, when some demons burst into the club and grabbed her. He'd jumped off the stage to help her, but he was wolfing out, even though it wasn't a full moon, and then suddenly he wasn't in the club, he was in his cage, and the demons were tearing her apart. He'd howled and thrown himself at the bars until he woke up, arms and legs still thrashing. Willow had rolled over, mumbling something about training iguanas. He'd wrapped his arms around her, grateful that this was a night she'd stayed over. He breathed in her Willow-scent, felt the steady beat of her heart, until his own heart stopped pounding and he could relax enough to go back to sleep.
They arrived at the ranch that housed the coven in San Jose, and went inside the farmhouse that served as the coven's meeting area. Willow gravitated towards Julieanne, one of her mentors.
He followed her and caught the end of the conversation, "-so I thought maybe we could do a spell so I could speak to her in Rat, or so her rat-brain could understand English. There's something I want to say to her before we try again."
Julieanne and Willow consulted with two other witches who were also mentoring Willow, about the logistics and specifics of the spell. This involved a lot of technical magic jargon that Oz didn't understand any more than Willow understood the E-Flat diminished ninth, so he tuned them out and thought about cages. Amy's cage protected her from people who might hurt her. His cage protected other people from his wolf.
Maybe for Willow, normal life was a cage: it could keep her safe, but also kept her world very small and limited. Willow was fierce and brave and loyal to the people she loved, and her safety wasn't as important to her as it was to him. She wouldn't really be his Willow otherwise. She'd never have chosen to stay with him after the wolf thing happened. There had to be plenty of guys that would love to date her and didn't have any dangerous supernatural issues. For her, some things were worth the risks.
Finally some consensus was reached. The witches decided to put rat-Amy in the tub of the bathroom, which would give her some room when she turned into girl-Amy, but would keep rat-Amy from running away or getting chased by one of the coven's cats.
Oz waited in the living room. He remembered the embarrassment from Buffy's de-ratting and didn't want to be anywhere near this time. One of the younger witches walked in, saw him, and then immediately backed out. Oz pretended not to notice. He wondered if he'd done anything scary on the nights the coven had caged him.
He could hear chanting in Latin. Then Willow was speaking in English, but underneath that Oz heard tiny squeaks. He wasn't sure if the others could hear it, or if it was a frequency that his wolf heard.
"Amy, I wanted to let you know that we're in a coven a long way from Sunnydale and your mom and the demons and the crazy MOO-people who were big with the burning people at the stake. There are witches here that can help you if you want to turn back into a girl again. I'm really sorry I hadn't thought of telling you that earlier—we got so caught up in the apocalypsy stuff, I just didn't think about it."
Maybe it was his imagination, but even the squeaking seemed to have the unique cadences of Willow-speak.
"We're going to try this one more time, and if you want, you could help us change you back," and then there was more Latin.
Oz felt a crackling of energy on his skin, and heard a scream. Then there was a general commotion as the witches found some clothes and Willow filled Amy in on exactly how long she'd been a rat.
Willow came out of the room, somehow managing to look both concerned and pleased with herself.
"How'd it go in there?"
"She's kinda freaked out about how long she's been a rat, but she's going to stay with the coven for a little while until she figures out what to tell her dad. I told her I'd come see her on the weekends if she'd like. She seemed ok with that. And I'm really tired and need to go to Max's for a dessert. And we should get some brownies while we're there, and I'll bring her some tomorrow."
She was perusing the dessert menu as intently as any of her textbooks, and he saw the moment when she zeroed in the dessert she wanted. She ordered—bittersweet hot fudge sundae, coffee ice cream, whipped cream, and peanuts.
She was so intent and focused, all the time. Her drive and determination could someday take her someplace that he couldn't follow, no matter what choices she made. It might be the world-saving part of her life-he knew that his wolf made him nothing but a liability on that front for three days of the month. It might be the academics—if Willow decided to go overseas for grad school, he wasn't certain he'd be able to come along. He'd been lucky that there was a coven here that was willing to keep him caged during full moons, and couldn't be sure he'd have that elsewhere.
She was chattering excitedly about the details of the Rat-Speak spell, and then said, "And I should have thanked you earlier, for helping me figure out how to help Amy. When you said she might like being a rat, it made me think about why anybody would want to be a rat, and then I thought about how she got there in the first place, and then I thought about how you don't understand much while you're wolf-y, and a rat's brain is so tiny, she might not understand that it was ok to be Amy again. You always say the smartest things." She beamed at him.
That seemed to be as good a cue as any, so he took her hand and said, "So about the other stuff. You're not here for long. You should grab what you can now. From school and the coven."
He knew in his gut they were the right words. It was good for Willow to work with people who appreciated her talents, witchy or otherwise. He pushed away worries about whether those opportunities would set her on path away from him later on. For now, he could share a sundae with her and bask in her smile.