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Part two of two

Episode Two: Far Away, So Close

by eep

***

Oz picked up the phone. "Duckie's," he said.

"Oz?"

He recognized her voice immediately. "Will. What's up?"

"I need your help. Xander's missing."

She had been crying, he could tell by the wet sound of her voice. "Sure."

"Meet me at Russell Square?"

"Give me fifteen minutes," he said, setting his guitar down.

"Thanks." She hung up.

Oz put the phone back in its cradle and headed for the door. In a weird sort of way, he missed all this.

***

Trees loomed over their heads as the two friends crept along the forest edge. The sprawling gardens of Hyde Park shone under the half moon, gleaming a shade of silvery green in the night sky. Oz had suggested they stay under the cover of the trees, just in case anyone should spot them. The police liked having the parks cleared out at night, if only to keep vagrants and potential muggers away. Tonight, Oz and Willow needed to stay in the park. Willow made it clear on the tube ride over that she wasn't going to leave until she found Xander.

For being in the center of London, Hyde Park kept amazingly still. No sound came from the streets spiderwebbing around it; no light from the buildings penetrated the trees and lolling hills. It existed almost in a vortex, a different world from the metropolis surrounding it. Willow normally found it a relaxing escape from urban life. But tonight something was wrong.
"Oz," she said softly, "what do you think?"

"Beats me."

"Can you pick up anything?"

Oz lifted his head and sniffed slightly. He shook his head.

"Damn." Willow looked at him, disappointed. "I guess since you started controlling the wolf, you've lost your wolf-y senses?"

"Not really. I just don't smell him."

"Haven't been around him enough?" Willow asked.

His eyes swept the field on their left. "I just don't smell fear."

"Oh." She stood for a moment, processing his words, then took a few steps east, heading for the Serpentine.

"Willow." Oz's hand caught her wrist. "There's something else."

She stopped in her tracks. "What?"

"I hear something." Oz cocked his head to the side, his eyes shifting around him as he tried to focus on some unknown trace of a sound. He pivoted, watching the woods around them. He crossed a few feet, then doubled back and stood on the other side of Willow. "Come on."

He took off into the woods, darting around trees and bushes as Willow fumbled to keep up. In small clearings he stopped, either waiting for her to catch up or listening for something else. Then he began snaking between the trees again, moving in and out of them with a swiftness he learned in his years of training to keep his wolf at bay. But tonight, he welcomed that dark aspect of him, focusing on his lupine senses to help lead them to their old friend.

The sound got louder, and Oz pounced ahead, his arms batting away the branches and shrubs that stood in his way. The noise grew louder, but probably remained undetected by Willow's human ears. Even he couldn't quite tell what it was he chased. But something hummed in the air. No, throbbed. It sounded almost like drumbeats, but muffled and without any sort of rhythm. Almost like. . . hoofbeats.

Oz leapt over a small hedge and dropped into a crouching position. It was near. He was almost on top of it. He looked around. A clearing spread before him, at least thirty feet wide and eighty feet long. If anything passed by, he would see it. He would see it. He saw it.

His eyes grew wide and a snarl gurgled in his throat. The hair on the back of his neck began to rise and he raised his arm to defend himself. Too late. A blow hit him in the chest, throwing him back into the woods.

***

Willow held her arms in front of her face, trying to keep from getting poked in the eye by stray branches. She made a mental note to tell Oz to run slower from here on out. Where was he, anyway?

She plodded through the woods, her sneakers planting in the soft, pulpy ground of the forest floor. Left or right? Forward or back? Where was he? She kept moving, hoping to find him behind the next tree. Maybe if she stood still she'd hear him. She stopped, hoping for some sort of clue. Maybe this is what happened to Xander and Phillips. Maybe the woods just opened up and swallowed them, and they were just wandering around, lost like she was. Willow smiled. That wouldn't be a bad ending to this all. Maybe they'd find a trail of breadcrumbs to lead them home... Willow made a face. Except that the birds ate all the crumbs, and then the kids killed the witch.

Light glimmered through the leaves a few hundred feet away. Her face lit up, hoping this was a flashlight of a passing policeman. She turned to her right and fumbled toward it, half-tripping over tree roots as she raced to meet up with it. Her eyes darted from the light to the ground, trying to watch her footing as she ran. The light grew brighter and Willow raced forward. Then something caught her eye that stopped her dead in her tracks.

Oz lay in a bush; his arms and legs sprawled at his sides. His eyes were closed, and it looked like he was unconscious. She ran to him and fell to her knees at his side. "Oz!" she hissed in his ear. His chest rose and fell with his breathing, and she breathed a sigh of relief. "He's just knocked out. He's just knocked out."

She looked around wildly, afraid that whatever attacked him might sneak up on her next. As she looked over her shoulder, she saw the light from before expanding from a single beam to a flood of light in the trees. A fine mist rose up from the ground, swirling in the light that illuminated the forest. It was as if someone shone a spotlight between the tree trunks; long shadows moved along the ground and across Willow's face. Just like in the movies, when the aliens land.

Without thinking, she stepped in front of Oz's prone body, as if she could hide him or protect him. But the light never came closer, only moved back and forth across the trees. Willow squinted at it, then took a tentative step forward. When nothing happened, she moved again. Soon, she found herself moving toward it, almost hypnotized.

She passed through the trees and found herself in a clearing and was fascinated with what she saw.

Before her, an entire army moved across the length of the clearing, materializing from the trees at one end and disappearing at the other. Stoic faces stared past her towards an unknown destination. Each soldier in this army dressed in medieval clothing: tunics, chain mail, helmets made of metal or skulls, animal pelts draped across shoulders. They held weapons of every sort, from bows to swords, maces to axes. Some carried shields decorated with elaborate enamelwork. Others protected themselves only with layers of clothing strapped to their chests with braided cords. But what stood out the most to Willow was that they almost floated above the ground.

Her mind raced, trying to place the people before her. Elves? Fairies? Brownies? She studied their faces. Pale skin, elongated noses and chins, high cheekbones and pointed ears. Each one handsome and proud. As they moved past her, she noticed that their clothing became finer, more detailed. The armor worn by some bore engraving at the edges. The hilts of swords twisted around their hands in filigreed cages.

This army moved in ranks, and the strongest and most honored troops marched before her now. Men on horseback led their bands of soldiers along in silence. Banners waved in the air, rivers of color in the night air. Something big was coming, Willow sensed it. Whole battalions of mounted knights passed before her now, their steeds prancing under their masters. Their suits of armor gleamed the same pale white as the moon, and Willow's mouth hung open in awe. Never had she seen anything so stunning, so majestic, so breathtaking as

"Xander!" Willow cried out, her voice echoing across the field. Everything came to a halt, and all heads turned to face her, noticing her for the first time.

She barely registered her surroundings as she pushed through the troops. Her eyes remained locked on one man near the middle. There, straddling a cream-colored stallion, sat Xander. He wore a full suit of armor like the other soldiers, his face set in haughty determination. He stood out among the other men, his broad shoulders seemingly drawing the moonlight to his body. His hair gleamed black in the night, and his skin took on an almost dewy, radiant glow. He clenched the horse's reins in his hands and stared forward, still like a Roman statue. His eyes never wavered from where he stared straight ahead.

She ran to him and pulled on his ankle. "Xander! Xander!" she shouted, yanking harder with each call of his name. His weight shifted in the saddle, but he made no response.

"Be gone, girl!" a voice boomed in the night air.

Willow spun, flattening herself against Xander's leg and his horse. The sea of soldiers parted, revealing the culmination of this procession. At the back of the cavalcade, a woman perched on the back of a giant white mare. She dressed in long, flowing robes made of satin and velvet, each one embroidered with millions of stitches depicting scenes Willow couldn't begin to describe. Flowers, birds, animals, stars, comets all shone in her gown, too many to count. Willow's eyes traveled to the woman's face and she felt her breath catch in her throat.

Never before had Willow seen anyone so beautiful. Her face was beyond description, each feature a perfect example of true beauty. Her hair somehow managed to shine like the dawn and catch the deepest shade of night at the same time. And set on top of her head like the sun setting over the edge of the earth was a crown made of more jewels and precious metal than Queen Elizabeth would ever dare to dream of.

The woman prodded her horse forward, and it trotted towards Willow. When she neared the witch she pulled back on the reins, and her horse stopped without a sound. "Who are you?"

Willow felt a chill run through her body. Her mind raced to the book of folklore she read as a child. One story warned that you should never give your name to spirits in the woods, or they could haunt you forever. "I'm this man's friend," she said, setting her chin in the air. "And I want him back."

The woman laughed. "Is that right?" Her eyes locked on Willow's and her gaze seemed venomous. "You cannot have him. He is mine now."

Willow gathered her nerves. "And who do you think you are that you deserve him?"

The woman's body tensed and she stretched higher in her saddle. "I am the Queen of the Fairies, insolent human. And your friend is to become one of us, at my decree."

Instinctively, Willow wrapped her hand around Xander's leg. "He's coming home with me, where he belongs."

The queen sneered at Willow, and it felt as if every bone in Willow's body creaked under the pressure of a great weight. "I found this man in my woods, and I have decided that he shall be mine. If you value your life, you will move on."

The redhead tightened her grip on Xander. "I'm not going anywhere without my friend."

The queen's face softened, and she smiled slightly at Willow. "If you want him so badly, then you may take him. But if you let go, he will be mine forever."

Willow saw the Fairy Queen laugh as she waved her hand at them, and then she felt Xander's metal armor begin to change. It vibrated slightly under her hand, then began to redden with an internal heat. It seemed as if a fire raged inside the armor, making its surface as hot as a skillet. The skin on her palm began to blister, and Willow shrieked. She desperately wanted to let go, but she remembered the queen's words and held on.

Xander's horse began to shift under the heat, and suddenly it reared back, throwing his catatonic body to the ground. Willow clasped a second hand around Xander's leg, praying that she wouldn't lose her grip on him. As soon as her other hand touched him, the armor shifted again, breaking up into thousands of tiny particles. She watched, terrified, as Xander melted away like a pile of sand blowing apart in a wind.

The pieces of Xander fell to the ground, slipping between her fingers as millions of tiny beads. Willow dug her hands into the pile at her feet, hoping to scoop up as much as she could. As soon as her hands filled with the beads, they morphed again, this time turning into hundreds of wriggling maggots.

Willow felt bile rise in her throat as larvae squirmed up her arms. She shuddered, watching as they formed a chain and twisted into a rope-like shape, finally sprouting the scales of a snake. Her hands grasped at its body as it slithered across her, moving up her shoulders and around her neck. The snake tightened in a coil, slowly squeezing her throat. Her hands clawed at it now, trying to pull it away. She finally managed to unwrap it from her neck, and it transformed once again.

The snake stiffened in her hands, forming a long, thick icicle. The coldness of the ice seared through her burned palms, shocking her senses and causing the muscles of her arms to spasm involuntarily. She almost dropped it, but her now frozen fingers somehow clenched around the icy mass. She watched in horror as its shape shifted again, this time into a blade that cut into her hands.

Willow screamed aloud, the blood from her hands trickling between her fingers and onto the ground. But her trial had barely begun. The thing that was once Xander changed again and again - from a wild bird that tried to fly from her hands to a fish that flopped and gasped in her grip. A sprig of ivy that grew and twisted and lashed her arms together, an unruly cat that scratched her, a skunk that nearly made her vomit with its stench, a hedgehog that pricked her palms again and again. Minutes passed and the transformations continued, everyone tiring Willow more and more. But she wouldn't let go. She couldn't. She had to get Xander back. She loved him too much to lose him.

The wriggling mass in her hands fell still. She looked down, surprised by the sudden lack of movement. There, cradled in her arms, lay Xander, unconscious and lovely. Willow looked up.

The Fairy Queen loomed over her and stared at her from her horse. "You are a finer girl than most," she intoned. "Your love for this man is greater than my tricks. He is yours. You are both free to go."

Willow tugged at Xander, trying to pull him into an upright position, no simple feat considering he still wore the suit of armor. She hefted his arm above her head as he groaned slightly, bracing his weight around her body. His head lolled to one side as she gripped his waist, half-pulling, half-dragging him away from the clearing. He began to stumble along with her as he became conscious, helping to hurry them back to the woods. When they passed the first tree trunk the light behind them disappeared. Willow eased Xander to the ground and turned around. The fairy army was gone.

"What happened?" Xander moaned from the ground.

"It's a long story," Willow sighed.

"Fairies. Army. Weird mojo," Oz muttered, staggering towards them from the bushes as he held his head in his hands. He shook his head and winced, trying to clear his vision after being knocked out.

"Apparently not that long," Xander said, standing up. For the first time he noticed Willow. She stood against a tree, her body shaking. "Will! What's wrong?"

Oz beat Xander to her side. He took her wrists and turned her hands over. Her palms were a mass of blood, scabs, burns, and lesions. "Oh my God."

"Let's get her to the Council. They have the best healers," Xander said, grimacing at the all-too-familiar wounds.

Oz slid his arms around her torso and picked her up off the ground. "Let's go."

"Here, put my sweater over her," Xander instructed, reaching to pull up his shirt. His hands met metal. "What the hell is this?" he asked, noticing the suit of armor for the first time.

"Weird mojo," Willow murmured as her head bobbed against Oz's shoulder.

"Hey, you okay?" Oz whispered in her ear.

Willow nodded. "It hurts. Xander?"

"He's fine." Oz squeezed her slightly and began to walk back through the woods. "We're all okay."

"Yeah. We are," Willow whispered as she lay her head back on his shoulder.

***

Willow stared at her palms, searching for scars. It amazed her that the Council's healers did such a good job tending her wounds. Absolutely no trace of her injuries remained.

"Hey! Don't pick at that," Xander joked.

She looked up and laughed. "Ew."

He sat on the floor next to the coffee table, hunched over the furniture scrawling on a legal pad. Willow lounged on the loveseat, one leg tucked under her body. On the other side of the room, Oz studied a department store mannequin that Xander had displayed in one corner. It wore his fairy armor, its beige limbs posed like it prepared for a kung-fu showdown. At least, that's what he could make of it. For all Oz knew, Xander wanted it to look like it was orating at the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

"So what's going on with Phillips?" Willow asked, reaching to set her drink on the table. After glancing at the mess of papers and books all over it, she placed her glass on the floor.

"I don't know. I hope they won't crack down on him too hard," Xander replied.

"What are you talking about?" Oz asked, leaving the mannequin to join Willow on the loveseat. Since the night at Hyde Park, Oz had remained out of sight. He had carried Willow to the Council Headquarters, but he hadn't been allowed past the door. A security guard had taken her from his arms, and that was the last he'd seen of her. Xander had called that night to tell him she was better, but he heard nothing more over the next three days. So when she called today asking him to hang out, he had to admit he was rather surprised to hear her voice.

Xander turned his neck from side to side, trying to work out a kink. "So Willow told you about the guy I went after, right? Mark Phillips? He's the guy who got kidnapped in the first place, and I ended up trading places with him."

Oz raised an eyebrow at Xander. "Why would you do that?"

Xander shrugged. "I figured Phillips would go back to the Council to get help. But the guy wussed out on me and went home to hide. He was too embarrassed to tell them he had been captured by fairies."

Willow laughed. "Of course, you know that we're going to have to tell Spike all about this. Xander, one with the fairies. I can't wait to hear what he'll say."

Xander pointed a finger at her. "Not a word, missy."

She pantomimed zipping her mouth shut and grinned.

"So now I just have to write up a report for the Council. I guess they've been tracking this for years. The Fairy Queen shows up now and then and abducts men to join her army. But they haven't been able to pin down where or when she'll appear next." Xander looked down at the paper in front of him, then up at Willow. "So I really was turned into maggots?"

"Yup."

He gave a full-body shudder and made a face, disgusted. "I am the bug man."

"Goo goo gajoo," Oz monotoned.

Willow yawned and uncurled her legs. "I should probably get going. I've still got some work to do before my class tomorrow."

Xander nodded and held up his report. "Is it all right if I call you later about this? I'd like you to hear it before I submit it."

"Sure."

Oz stood up next to her. "Walk you home?"

She smiled. "Thanks."

***

When they reached the street outside, they walked along in silence. Oz stared at the road ahead, listening as Willow's shoes tapped against the pavement.

"I've thought about you," he finally said.

"What?" His words caught Willow off guard, and it seemed like she almost hadn't heard him.

"These past years. While I was gone. I thought about you."

"Oh?" She tried to act nonchalant. "What about?"

"Everything. How you were, what you were doing. I missed you."

Willow's face softened as she looked at him. "Oh. I missed you, too."

"I'm sorry I wasn't around."

"Don't be." She faltered, smiled sheepishly, and tried again. "I mean, don't feel guilty or anything. You did what you had to do. I think in the end it was better for both of us."

"But so much has happened I wasn't there for. I should have been there for you."

"Oz." Willow stopped, giving a quarter turn so she could face him. "You don't have to worry about me. I know you want me to be safe, and I'm sure you feel out of place now that so much has changed. But you don't have to. No one is mad at you for not being around, especially not me. I've learned to take care of things myself. I mean, after Tara. . ."

"You had to," Oz finished.

Willow nodded and began walking again.

"You really loved her, didn't you?"

She smiled. "Yeah. She was wonderful. I wish you could have known her. I think you would have been good friends."

Oz chuckled. "I kind of doubt that. She would have been the chick who stole my girlfriend."

"Hey now," Willow lightly admonished. "You left. Did you just expect me to wait around?"

He felt chastised instantly. "I am sorry about that."

"I know. And I'm kidding. It's in the past." She waved her hand in the air as if knocking away his words.

"Does that mean you want me in the past, too?"

"What? No!" Willow gasped. "How could you even think that? Oz, I love you. You were my best friend. I can't just forget about that. And there's no way I'd wish you out of my life again. I like having you around."

They continued walking in silence. Oz had never been this nervous around her. Even when he first asked her out, he had been calm, cool, the very model of self-confidence. Now, his palms were sweaty.

"Willow?"

"Uh-huh?"

"There's probably not much of a chance for us getting back together, is there?"

Her face fell when she looked at him. "Oh. . . Oz. I don't know. I. . . Probably not. I still love you, really, but it's like how I love Xander. You're my friend."

He nodded and shrugged. "I just thought I'd ask."

She smiled as he relaxed. Everything was cool between them. "Want to grab some food? Catch up? I'd love to hear why you were in Switzerland."

"The cheese called to me," he joked.

"If that's the case, I know of a good fondue place. It's a ways off, but. . ."

"I'm game."

Willow bit her bottom lip nervously before speaking again. "Are you going to be staying in London for a while?"

"Maybe. Maybe not."

"Well, Xander and I will be going home in a few weeks. You want to come with us?"

He looked at her, searching her face. "Really?"

"Of course, goofball. Come back to California. Everyone will want to see you."

He nodded a few times, running the idea through his head. California. It sounded nice. "Okay."

She grinned. "Okay."

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