Driving away was the hardest thing he had ever done. His chest hurt; a sheer and physical pain. Her face; the tears streaming, that hitch in her breath. His heart broke again at the thought.
But, at the same time there was the certain, deep-seated knowledge that he had no choice. He loved her, with every thing he was. But he couldn't be with her; not until he knew, not until he understood himself.
So he drove. Got out of town along the coast road. Trying to put some distance between his life and his future.
Now, six hours later, he was looking for a place to pause. He had four weeks to prepare.
The confusion, the fear, guilt and anger, had faded; leaving, finally, resignation underlain with despair.
He had killed.
Somehow, in the crazy two years since Jody bit him, he had avoided that. Giles had prevented it; protected him from himself. The Scoobies had caught him that first full moon and locked him up, providing a safe haven for three nights a month for the rest of that year, and for the next, until he was confident enough to build his own cave to hide in. They had blown up his first cage, and he had helped. Graduation!
But now he had killed a human being. An intelligent and sentient creature. His wolf was at war with his reason, as his mind; his twenty-first century mind filled with ideals of peace and tolerance, was at war with the under-mind; the wolf. The wolf, who knew that luxury was a temporary and false promise. Because life alone was subsistence survival; a long tiring hunt for a meal, which was never enough to satisfy. The wolf knew that the price of having no pack was a solitary slide into starvation. And he had killed his only potential pack.
Until now he had successfully forced the wolf into submission. But the cost appeared to be a conflict that had produced a rift in his mind; the human, with his high ideals, untutored philosophy, yearning for peace, the wolf, cowed but angry, gathering its energy, taunting him with the promise that one day...
Her words had made promises, calling directly to the wolf: companionship, shared hunts, running free. Things he had never allowed himself.
And God help him! Her words had reached him, although it was her he had killed. The fractured pictures that were his human memories of the wolf were as confused as his human reason. The wolf had intended to kill Veruca, even as it yearned for the belonging she promised. And eventually, as the afternoon sun began its decent towards the horizon, that thought gave him a small measure of hope; the hope that his humanity could influence the wolf.
Ahead, Oz spotted a rest area by the beach and parked behind a light screen of trees. He pulled up as close to the sand as he could and got out to stretch weary muscles, feeling all the tension of driving and agonising. The sky was clear, with a hour 'til sunset, loads of time to set up camp and loads of driftwood, thrown high above the tidemark by some winter storm.
Apart from the mattress and blankets, which lived permanently in the back of the van, he had his guitar and his bass, some music and a few clothes. No food, but he wasn't hungry, or maybe just couldn't summon the energy it would require to do anything about it. He had been loading the van before going to find her. To tell her. Somehow knowing he would need a quick get-away. But she had come to him. Too soon. And afterwards, in the face of her pleading and her tears, all he could do was grab that last, half filled bag and run.
Sitting on the beach, watching the sun set, feeling his life fall apart and away, it hit him again - the look on her face. Sitting through the warm night, blindly watching the stars, he allowed the chaos free reign through his mind. Images of the cage in the crypt. The chase. Images of the lab and her fear. After he had killed Veruca, her fear. Then the bite of the bolt and then nothing, as the tranquilliser took hold.
By sunrise he had moved on to memories
of picnics on the beach with the gang, or with
That day he fled inland.
The first week went by unmarked. He found a store in a small town, bought bread and stocked up on easy to cook, long-life food; tins and packages. The next day he found another store and bought a can opener and a pan. Each day he drove; searching continuously for a quiet place to stop, somewhere with trees to screen the van from the road. Stopping there, no matter how early in the day. Learning that such places were not as plentiful as he had imagined. It didn't matter what time it was. It wasn't as if he was heading anywhere in particular.
And then it was three weeks to prepare and he knew he had to take hold, plan and act. Another small town. He spent the majority of his money on the measures he had been thinking through, all unknowing, over the past week. Roll bars fitted inside the body of the van, welded direct to the chassis, a crossbar set in brackets to prevent the back doors opening without it being unlocked first and finally a grill, separating the seats from the cargo compartment. The manacles and chains were fixed to the roll-bars.
Driving out of town, feeling satisfaction at having achieved this small measure of security, he pulled up at an intersection to allow a mother and small child to cross in front of him and it was all gone again; lost in the wave of loss and sorrow for all the things he knew he could, and would, never have.
But, intense emotion can only last so long, before it wears out both itself and its host. He began to stay in places for more than one night. The third week he stopped for three days, long enough to earn some money waiting tables at a road-side diner, covering for the regular guy being sick. He slept well. Then it was two days to go and time to find a quiet place, where it would be safe to stay a while. He found it on the second day, just as he was beginning to feel desperate. A track heading up into the hills, overgrown enough to reassure that no traffic came this way. He drove to the end to be certain and found the derelict hut it had once served.
Parking in the lee of the hut he prepared his camp. Gathered wood for a fire, stripped the cargo space and piled everything on the front seats. The mattress was clumsy to fold, but it fit across the seats, with all his other possessions, out of harm's way. Finally, as the sun neared the horizon, he climbed into the van and locked himself in.
The next morning, feeling groggy and tired he inspected the damage. His wrists and ankles were cut and sore from the manacles, his memories were of anger and fighting helplessly, there were new scratches in the interior paint work, but he was safe. He had survived. Hope raised its tentative head.
After that, he grew more confident. He still had no idea what he was doing, where he was going, if he was going anywhere. But, he now felt he had a chance. Over the next month he worked more often. Stopping wherever he saw a 'help wanted' sign, doing all sorts of odd jobs, interacting with people again, even if only on a casual basis. Occasionally he busked in the street; until the police moved him on. After the second full moon, waking on the third morning to find another vehicle sharing his secluded rest area, he blacked out the rear windows with spray paint and acquired a cardboard sun-screen to block the front windows. After the third full moon, he felt he had his system perfected.
He wandered north for a few months, then
on a whim, turned east. Early Autumn
found him in the
The trees were turning and their rich golden colours soothed him. He woke before dawn and went for long walks before work started, scrambling over rocks and through clear running streams. He found a perfect look-out and on more than one morning sat and watched the sun rise. He chopped wood, cleaned rooms, tended the bar, served food and sold maps and tourist knick-knacks at the small gift shop. He felt comfortable there, with these people, and as the full-moon approached he almost told them the truth; opened his mouth to explain that he would have to go away for three days, but he would be back. But a burst of laughter behind him, from a group of city hunters in the bar, joking about shooting a wolf once, somewhere, on a previous trip, somewhere else, shut that impulse off and instead he quit and drove away with two days to spare.
He kept going south, until he realised he had begun to miss the ocean; its calming rhythms had meant more to him than he knew. So, he headed back west, travelling slowly, and when he hit the coast road he saw a sign for Sunnydale. It was not actually that far, in miles, but it seemed an eternity away.
The next small town looked promising for work, but he was running close to his monthly deadline, so he concentrated on finding a place he could stop for three days. A mile past the last house he found it. It was perfect; a rest area, well screened by trees, long enough to allow him to pull right out of the way. During the days, he stayed near the van and just soaked up the sun, or went for walks along the beach. Time enough to look for work once it was over.
The third morning, bleary, sore, bruised in new places, as always, he fumbled open the locks and blinked at the light. He had staggered a few steps, stretching and yawning, before he noticed the figure sitting cross-legged, twenty feet away, back resting against a tree.
"Coffee?" Xander asked, lifting a thermos "I know how you like it, but I put in a bit more sugar. Figured you might need it."
Oz took a few minutes to react and stumble over. Xander rose and passed him a cup.
"Have you been here all three nights?" Xander went on.
"Uh? Yeah. Sorry. Bit much to take in"
"Oh! You mean the whole 'wow! what are you doing here? what a coincidence' thing?"
"Yeah, 'bout sums it up"
"Saw your truck in town the other day. Didn't place it at first. Pure chance I saw it last night. I was on my way home" He laughed looking back towards the road "I needed a piss."
"Yeah. I live just up the road. Saw the truck. Man, you've sure got some strong moves. I swear it was rocking on its shocks. Anyway, I figured it was best to just wait and practice my cool opening lines. Well, I went home and made coffee, obviously. You good with that?"
Oz looked down and found the cup empty. "Uh, yeah, thanks"
"Want more? Okay, come with. You can give me a lift. I'm sort of vehicularly challenged at the moment."
Together, they restored the interior of the van to its usual state of organised chaos. Then Xander gave the simple directions that took them to a trailer park a further half a mile out of town.
Sitting at the small table in Xander's
trailer, drinking more coffee while Oz idly strummed his guitar, Xander had to
laugh. "This place?
"I've sort of just been driving for the last few months. No maps, just taking whatever road looked good on the moment. What are you doing here?"
"Well, short version. I set off on my road-trip. Got to
Oz just kept looking at him.
"Okay, I work at the Fabulous Ladies' Night-club" In response to the quirked eye-brow he added "Well, its not fabulous and its not for ladies, but it is a night-club... sort of."
Oz started to pick out a few bars on his guitar and Xander laughed as Oz misquoted the chorus line "... Don't be sad. 'Cause one out of three ain't bad."
"No, seriously" Xander laughed "It really isn't so bad. I started out in the kitchens. For the first month or so. Washing dishes. No one really bothered me, or even spoke to me. Then one night... Well anyway, I didn't have to do that again. But the point is that after that, it kind of changed and I got promoted to bar duty and I got to meet people and like I say, they just saw me as Xander, the guy with the false ID. Except I guess they didn't know that, about it being false I mean. And I was free. Free to be me. No history. No dorky school kid stuff in their heads. They just see Xander, and they like me. It was kind of weird at first. But, I got to like it and I'm comfortable now."
"A lot of people like you Xander. Maybe, you just like yourself more now?"
Xander laughed, embarrassed by how far the conversation had moved. He got up to make more coffee, just for the chance to turn his head away and break the mood that was developing. "So, what about you? What is your road-trip excuse? What happened to college? I thought you were all set to go to UC Sunnydale and do the college thing?"
"Yeah, so did I. And I was. I did most of a whole semester. Then..."
Xander looked up as Oz ground to a halt, his eyes sympathetic again as he realised this was not some light-hearted jaunt for his friend.
Oz told his story; the whole thing with
Veruca, the fact that he almost killed
Xander smiled sadly "You will. Find it again I mean. What you can't know is what it will mean when you do. Whether it will be the same, or something different."
"And your saying that it will be okay, whatever it is?"
"I guess I am."
"I do know it won't be the same. I'm too different. I've been alone for months, with nothing to do but," twisted grin, "lock myself up three nights a month. I've done a lot of thinking."
"Come to any conclusions?"
"No. Just more circular arguments."
"Maybe you should stop thinking then. Let it lie there for a while. It might sort itself out, if you don't worry at it. Suddenly, one day, it will be all clear in your head, like you always knew it, but just didn't recognise it until now."
Oz smiled back up at him "Maybe."
"You know?" Xander said "I don't think I've ever heard you say so much in one go before."
"Oh, well, that's company. I don't do so well in large groups. My company voice is mostly silence."
Xander made breakfast. A big greasy fry-up, to give them both energy he said, since neither of them had had much sleep.
Later Oz walked in to town with Xander. With his testimonial as a hard worker, from Mike and Jackie at the hunting lodge, he found short-term work in a tourist hotel; general help in the kitchen and rooms. The season had really wound down and most of the casual work had moved on. The hotel was not that busy.
Over the next two weeks they fell into a pattern. Oz started work first, so he would leave Xander to tidy away the breakfast things. Xander would walk down to work later and Oz would join him when he got off at 9pm and sit at the bar nursing a beer, ignoring the working girls, mostly ignoring the strippers and occasionally getting hit on by a customer. Those he would turn away with a smile and a shake of his head. Quite often, when Xander looked around, he would see Oz in conversation with another customer. He seemed relaxed and to be enjoying the company, although Xander doubted that the drunken meanderings of the late night crowd could be as interesting as the college conversations he imagined Oz had left behind. Then at 2am, when the club itself closed, he would drive them both back to the trailer.
Oz found that he enjoyed staying with
Xander. As he got to know him, he enjoyed
his conversation and the occasional startling insights into why people did
things, or why things were the way they were.
Before, he had always been on the edge of the group; an extension of
Some mornings they would sit over the breakfast dishes discussing the people in the bar the night before, constructing complex histories for any who had particularly caught their attention or making half-assed plans for what to do on their days off, which always came to nothing. Sometimes Oz would just listen as Xander held forth on some minor point in the lyrics of the song playing on the radio or told stories about the vampires and monsters the Scoobies had met and fought before Oz joined the group.
But as two weeks turned to three, Oz began to get twitchy. He knew he would have to leave.
It was on the Saturday morning, four days before the full-moon, that Xander suddenly broke off his description of the world tour he was constructing for Oz, for when he hit the big time, to say "Can I come with you?"
Oz paused before answering. "On the world tour?"
"No, I mean when you leave, next week." He stopped himself for a minute. "Oh, sorry. No. I guess that wouldn't work would it? Forget I said that. I just... could see you working up to it. Full-moon coming. I know you think you have to leave. I mean, your job is coming to an end anyway, isn't it? I know you were trying to work out how long you had and whatever. I just thought... Well, never mind. You'll be fine. I'll be fine. You don't want someone else along for your big journey anyway. I mean, it's not supposed to be like that, is it? It's kind of a personal thing."
"Why would you want to come with me?" Oz asked.
"Huh? Well, I like you, and I've
been here more than a year, and I did set out to do a road-trip. You know? See
"Yes, I'd like that" said Oz.
On Tuesday Oz quit his job and drove back down to the rest area.
Each morning Xander brought coffee, before heading off to work. On Thursday night Xander left the night-club bar for the last time and on Friday they packed all their belongings into the van and drove away.
Once again Oz headed inland. Xander had no desire to go anywhere in particular, that had been the point when he first left Sunnydale, but, he said, he had never seen the mountains. As for Oz, he seemed to be permanently fixed in drift mode. They stopped wherever they could find work and drove whenever they couldn't; usually sleeping in the van, but stopping at a motel when hand basin washes no longer served.
They talked idly, sometimes deeply; setting the world to rights in casual phrases. Oz set about educating Xander in as wide a range of music appreciation as his somewhat diminished collection of tapes allowed. Xander chatted sometimes about Sunnydale, wondering aloud what everyone was doing, deliberately mentioning Willow, telling Oz stories of childhood games and all-night research parties. Oz played his guitar, when Xander drove. Xander began collecting badges, with the names of towns and places on. He never wore them, just kept them in a box next to the mattress. Something to remind him he said; something small enough not to evict them from their bed.
"So what's that like?"
"You said that you remembered the wolf? I thought that when the wolf was there, you were gone?"
"Yeah. I was at first. But, it's like, in the last few months, maybe the last year, I have got a bit more."
"The memories are clearer, still fragmented, but I do remember."
"Do you think the Wolf and you are getting to know each other? Or something? What do you remember?"
Oz glanced over at where Xander was leaning casually on the wheel, using his elbows to steer as he gazed out at the empty road ahead. "Well, mainly chains and the inside of the van, recently."
Xander laughed, glanced over and returned his grin with a rueful look of his own. "Okay! Get that! But what about before?"
".... and fighting." Off Xander's glance he added "Fighting the chains. The Wolf doesn't like being locked up."
"You never felt tempted to let it out?"
"It, I, It! It killed Veruca,
"No, I mean since then. Further north, in the mountains, there must be places miles from any human. You could...."
"Yeah, I guess not. After all, there might be a family camping anywhere these days. Can't have you smorgasbording on the happy campers."
"No, I would think they would be very tasty. Once they stopped twitching."
That night, lying on their backs staring up at the roof of the van, before sleep arrived:
"Can you communicate with the Wolf?"
"No. I just remember stuff. I can't control it."
"So maybe control is the wrong idea. Anyway, that's not what I asked."
The next morning Oz woke up to find he had rolled over in the night and had his arm around Xander. He got up softly, to avoid waking and embarrassing his partner, or maybe himself.
"Do you miss it?" Oz asked thoughtfully "The Scooby stuff?"
"Oh no! After a year of not being smacked into walls, or dodging swords? I think I can safely say 'I really don't!'"
Their first full moon together they found a secluded spot, far from any town. Xander helped Oz strip the van. He set out his tarp and sleeping bag on the ground beside it and then watched Oz prepare.
Oz seemed to have a well established routine; he stripped off and Xander watched him lock on the manacles, wrapping a torn t-shirt around the steel as padding. Xander pushed the doors closed and heard the snick of the lock. Then he waited.
The risen moon was still hidden beyond the surrounding trees when he heard the first sounds of scratching, claws on metal, from inside.
Xander built a fire.
The scratching was replaced by howls and the van began to shake.
Xander pulled out a pan and cooked sausage and beans over the fire, concentrating on the flickering of the flames.
At midnight Xander gave up on trying to sleep and concentrated on keeping the fire going instead; huddled in his bag, chin resting on his knees and his arms wrapped around his legs.
About two o'clock the noise and the shaking finally lessened and then stopped. Xander slowly got up and crept around to the front of the van, peering in at the windscreen. The bright moonlight showed the wolf lying on the floor, panting. It looked as if it had fought itself to exhaustion. Hearing its low rumbling growl and breathing a prayer of thanks that Oz had proved to be a good welder, Xander finally lay down to sleep.
That proved to be the pattern for the next two nights. During the day, Oz was listless. He slept a little but, on the whole, tried to stay awake; explaining his theory that if he was tired at sunset, the wolf would tire more quickly during the night. Xander was not sure his own observations supported that theory, and said so. But, he was glad enough of even half-awake company.
After three days of boredom and three disturbed nights he was very glad to move on. "Next time we need to find a place a bit closer to a town." he said "Maybe I could get a job. You know; night-shift. Or, maybe I should find a hobby, like cross-stitch or wood carving."
"If it's something to do at night, I'd go for wood carving; cross-stitch would ruin your eyes."
They kept moving, meandering; going nowhere, slowly.
Xander was fighting a loosing battle with a map when he suddenly paused to ask "Did I ever tell you about the Hyena?"
Oz glanced away from the road to look
at him. "
"Hmm, I can guess the way that conversation went. It would have been something like; ''Bug Lady, Hyena, Incan Mummy, possibly nightmare clown, soldier'." He didn't sound the least upset by this all too accurate insight into his friend's thought processes. "At least I didn't get the computer demon or the demonic egg possession" he added smugly.
Oz grinned. "I think she was trying to warn me. Not about you, stupid! About the dangers of the Hellmouth."
"Oh, yeah, and I am a prime example to all new Scoobies; what to avoid doing in any given situation."
Oz's grin turned sly, "She gave me the full scoop on the love spell too."
"The full...? Like Cordy and Joyce and...? Oh God! Is nothing sacred to that woman?
"Forget that! I was going to say something meaningful. I was! The hyena."
"Why don't you tell me about the Hyena, Xander?"
"Right! Yes! This is important! And deep! And meaningful! Damned if I can remember it though. Oh no! Wait! The hyena. I got possessed and I told them I didn't remember it." Oz nodded his agreement that this was the story he had heard. "But I did. I kind of lied. It was all a bit embarrassing. Eating a pig and all. Not to mention pack behaviour." Xander gave an exaggerated shudder and laughed. "Actually, that was kind of nice, in a twisted, out-of-control sort of way."
Oz negotiated a tight hair-pin bend before replying "I can imagine that. Pack. It would be, seductive."
"Yeah" Xander sighed. "Anyway, they reversed it. As they always do. And I was me again. The hyena was gone. Is gone. But, it's like it left a mark. Sort of a shadow, or, or a flavour, somewhere deep inside me. Sometimes I think I can talk to it. Maybe not talk. More, feel it, what it would be thinking or what it would do. Especially when things got a bit hellmouthy. It, she, helped me in a fight. Gave me an extra burst of energy or something."
Xander laughed "Trust you to latch on to the important details. Yes. She."
"So, you are saying...?"
"Maybe you need to get to know your inner wolf."
Xander resumed his battle to fold the map and Oz... cogitated.
The first time Xander woke to find Oz snuggled up to him, still asleep, he didn't move until Oz woke up, gave a small start and pulled away.
Xander sat up, smiled at him, and went to make coffee.
Oz lay back on his own pillow with a 'Hmmph'. Then he shrugged, deciding that if it didn't bother Xander, then he wouldn't let it bother him. He had come to rely on Xander's company and really didn't want any awkwardness to mar the smooth pattern they had developed in their strange life together.
"So tell me more about the Hyena."
"What do you want to know?"
Oz was strumming his guitar, playing snatches of random tunes as they occurred to him, while Xander drove.
"You said it was female?"
"Yeah. Pack leader. Made me the leader of the little pack of five that ran amuck through Sunnydale for a short time. I wasn't there for Principal Flutie. You know that, don't you?"
Oz nodded a 'yes'.
"But I was pack leader, so I guess even that was kind of my responsibility."
"You didn't set them up to it though." It was not a question.
"No" Xander agreed "I was too busy being locked in your book cage at the time."
"My book cage, your book cage; something else we have in common."
"Cages can be good. They can save lives. As long as they don't out-live their usefulness."
"Are you getting deep on me?"
"Nah! just felt like a good line."
"With the soldier," said
Xander, reverting to topic "it was like I was trapped inside my own
body. Able to watch what he was doing,
but unable to do anything about it. He
didn't know what was going on. He didn't
"You weren't trapped and watching?"
"Yeah, that's what I mean. The Hyena sort of tapped in to my baser instincts. And maybe added a few of her own. It was fun! You know? Picking on the little kid, instead of being the kid who was picked on. Being the leader; that was a rush too. I attacked Buffy, did you know?"
"No, I didn't hear that one."
"Well good! Some things remain private. The Hyena; she was a she, but I was a straight up male. She wanted a mate. Someone as strong as her. We recognised that in Buffy. I kind of forced myself on her."
"Well, I tried. She fought me off. Thankfully! Hit me with a desk and took me to Giles. Hence the book cage."
"Plus, you were attracted to Buffy at the time."
"Oh yeah, big high-school crush. She came into our lives like a tiny blonde whirlwind and everything went to Hell. I lost Jesse." Xander paused again for a moment or two, staring blankly out at the road ahead, before he pulled himself together again. "And she was just so strong. So certain. So full of destiny. She didn't always know what she was going to do, but she always did it with determination. She was solid, and I just wanted to cling on to her. Like she was the only log floating in the ocean."
"Now you're getting poetic."
Xander laughed, a slightly choked, relieved sound, "Well, we can't have that. What were we talking about?"
Oz took pity on him and went back to the beginning of the conversation. "The Hyena."
"Oh yes! The Hyena! What did you really want to know?"
"How it felt."
"Okay. Honestly? It felt good. I said that already didn't I? You know, I spent a lot of time not really thinking too much about it. Years. But in the end I had to face up to it. What I can admit now is that we weren't separate entities in a single body. We were one. Those feelings of joy and pleasure came from me too. I know I said she added some basic instincts of her own, but once they were there, they were mine. I wasn't exactly a calm person then, you know?"
Oz quirked an eye brow "And now you are?"
Xander laughed "Well, maybe not so much. But I was worse then. I was carrying around a whole load of insecurities and resentments. I got this power, and I couldn't handle it. I went kind of mad. It wasn't just the Hyena; it was mad-Xander too."
"And when she was gone?"
"Straight into denial and repression. I think it was almost a year before I even allowed myself to think about it. Even longer before I looked at it seriously. The trouble was, you probably know this already, I had to learn it the hard way; repression doesn't work. It was all still there; a tangled mess of resentment and fear." Xander gave a short bitter laugh. "Made me a bit difficult to live with sometimes. I think, that might have been part of what made me so hard on Angel. You were around then. You saw how I was."
"You saw a similarity?"
"Maybe. He was always fighting himself. Like if he relaxed, he was afraid he would kill everyone. Yes, I suppose I saw a similarity. Didn't make me sympathetic though."
"I got that."
"Yeah. I was pretty obvious about how I felt."
"So what eventually happened to get you to this current happy state of acceptance?"
Xander laughed again. A more relaxed and forgiving laugh this time. "I took a road-trip. Okay, so I know I didn't get very far. But, I had time with nothing to do but think. I met new people, who didn't know the Sunnydale me. They accepted me for what I was and that gave me space to be myself. Haven't we done this speech already sometime?"
"Maybe, but I didn't have the background then."
Xander took a breath. "You know? It wasn't only the Hyena I came to terms with
"Yeah, you've changed a lot."
"I'm happy with myself. For the first time in my life.
"I found out I was gay too."
Xander laughed "That's it? That's all I get? I come out, for the first time to someone who has known me for years, and all I get is a 'huh'?"
Oz gave him a slow smile. "Not really in a position to take the moral high-ground; even if I wanted to" he said, and quirked his eye-brow.
"Are you flirting with me?"
Oz sighed and looked down. "No. Sorry. I..."
"Hey! Don't sweat it! I know!" Xander placed his right hand dramatically over his heart. "Your heart belongs to another." He paused and looked straight into Oz's eyes. "Seriously. Don't worry! I'm not about to come on to you. I know about not making assumptions, and not rushing people, and what do you mean 'you're not in a position...'?"
Then came the morning Oz woke up to find his head resting on Xander's shoulder, his leg slung across Xander's thighs, his morning erection pressing into Xander's side and Xander's arm around him.
He felt Xander shift, beneath him, and turn his head slightly to look down at him. "We keep waking up like this."
"I like it." Then Oz's head fell back down on to the mattress as Xander stretched, groaned, and got up; shuffling down the mattress, until he reached the open doors of the van. "I'll make coffee" he said.
When Oz surfaced, dressed and sort of awake, Xander went back to the van to find the rest of his clothes.
"Do we need to talk?" Oz asked, as they gradually re-established their humanity, with the aid of caffeine.
"Probably" said Xander.
"Go on then."
"Uh huh! You're the cuddler, I'm the cuddlee. You start."
"Okay. I like it too. Is that a good start?"
"Probably the best!"
"But, you were right too. What you said last week. At least you might have been." Xander
just looked his question, so Oz continued.
"I don't know who owns my heart right now. I feel it should be
"Hey! It's okay! No rush, no pressure. I'm not looking for you to give it to me. I mean, I like you. And cuddling is nice. Really. But, like I said, I'm not about to come on to you. I don't want to screw up what we've got here. Okay?"
"Right then! Lets get this show on the road!"
For a few days Oz delayed going to bed, until he knew Xander was already asleep, and then he tried to stay on the other side of the van. He even considered sleeping outside, but it seemed that would be making a big a thing, out of something they were both trying to play down. Xander had been so considerate, not making anything of it. Anyway, it was nice waking up in someone's arms.
Full moon was once again approaching. Their fourth, or was it their fifth, together?
Xander wasn't sure if he was just getting accustomed to the noise, but he had found it easier to get to sleep the last couple of months. He suspected that the wolf fought less in its chains. Oz was not so sure, but he agreed that he felt better in the mornings. He had taken to meditating when he first got up, while Xander organised breakfast. When asked what he meditated about, he gave a self-deprecating laugh and said that he was 'trying to learn to love his inner wolf'.
They had found work on a farm for the last three weeks. Xander wasn't exactly sure what State they were in. The two sons of the family, twin boys, had gone away to college the previous Fall and their father, Tom, was running late with the spring chores.
They ate with Tom and his wife, Marianne, and slept in the van in the barn.
The local town was a fair sized place, with a mixture of old-rich neighbourhoods, slums and a bit of industry. They went into town with Tom and Marianne one Friday night; Tom was headed to his regular bar for his weekly drink, while Marianne visited with friends. They ended up staying with Tom all evening. It was Marianne who drove them all home.
Three weeks of home cooking, good conversation over the kitchen table at night, access to a proper bathroom and regular laundry; they were once again sorry to leave a place.
Oz offered to find a spot and come back in a week, but Xander didn't feel right allowing Oz to go off on his own to face his demon. It was not that he could really do anything to help, but somehow bailing on the moral support front didn't seem right. He was surprised at the flash of relief that crossed Oz's usually calm face when he refused to countenance the idea.
"You know. You might be right."
"Of course I'm right! What am I right about?"
"Communication. I've been thinking. If I let my mind drift, I can almost feel it, inside."
"What does it feel like? And please don't drift while you're driving."
"No, not when I'm driving, but like now. I can relax and let the world drift by and feel it inside. It's almost like it's there, asleep but dreaming. Dreaming me."
"Are you a man who dreams he is a wolf, or a wolf that dreams it is a man?"
Oz laughed "Yeah, maybe. Except, there is no doubt that this is not a dream. Monthly evidence of that. But maybe, maybe I can feel it now."
"So? What do you feel?"
"As if it is warm, sleepy, but on the verge of awareness. I feel as if, if I could just reach out, I could touch it."
"You think it is warm and feels safe?"
"Yes, I think so."
"So it likes you?"
The spot they eventually found was passable, although not perfect; a rest area a few miles beyond the next town, screened by short scrub and spindly trees. But this was flat country, so the chances of finding something better, were poor. They backed in as far as they could, right up against the grass verge, away from the road, and made camp. No fire tonight, for fear of attracting attention, but the camping stove provided a hot meal, backed up by the apple pie Marianne had thrust upon them as they left.
For the first time they did not make camp for three days. The road was not heavily used, but a van parked for three days in such a spot could attract attention. Each morning they put the van back together and drove into town.
They spent the days in diners, drinking bottomless cups of coffee, in the public library, where Oz could catch a nap and in walking the streets, checking out the situation, seeing if there was any work that attracted them for the next week.
Each afternoon they drove back to the rest area and pulled back as far out of sight as they could.
It was in the dark hours of the third night that Xander was woken by the sound of a powerful engine and an anti-socially loud stereo. He raised his head blearily and peered under the van. A car was pulling in. Thankfully it pulled up near the entrance and the music stopped abruptly as the engine was cut.
Xander gave silent thanks for small mercies and snuggled back down into the warmth of his sleeping bag. The occupant of the car had not come for them; probably hadn't even noticed them.
It wasn't until one door of the car was wrenched open that Xander realised his sleep was over for the night. The argument between a man and a woman seemed to be in full flow as the woman scrambled out the car.
Once again, Xander peered out from beneath the van. He could see the car and the woman's feet as she backed away, screaming. "No! Come on! You said I wouldn't have to. You said, if I didn't want to, I could say 'no'."
The driver's door opened and a pair of male legs walked around the front of the car.
"That was before. Now it's different. He wants you.
Xander crawled forward, out of his bag, so he was peering around the front of the van.
The guy had grabbed her by the hair, forcing her head back and her back to bow, as she tried to stay on her feet.
She whimpered again. "Please
He wrenched her forward, so she staggered towards him, almost bent double. "Do you have any idea who this guy is? If he wants to fucking watch you do it with a fucking elephant, you'll do it, and smile."
Xander gasped and glanced quickly up to the door of the van and then at his watch. 3am, no help there. But he couldn't just lie here and do nothing, could he?
The woman was crying now; great sobs, still held in place by his hand in her hair.
"For God's sake woman, stop that fucking racket!" He pulled her back upright and swung his free arm wide and open-handed, to catch her hard behind the ear with a neck rocking slap. She cried out again and slumped to her knees.
Xander slowly climbed to his feet, standing in the dark by the driver's door. He glanced into the van and saw the wolf; its nose up to the grid of the cage, obviously interested, but undisturbed by the noise outside.
The man let go of her hair and lifted back one foot. "Don't worry, that won't bruise. This might though!" and his foot swung forward, slamming into her hip. She slumped sideways to the ground.
As he lifted his foot again, this time aiming at her stomach, Xander somehow found himself running. He barrelled into the guy and they both went down, rolling together in a tangled heap.
The wolf had watched the dispute with interest, but no alarm, until it saw its Pack/Human running into the fray. Somewhere at the back of its mind there was a denial; a 'no, no, no!' Agitation arose. Wolf/Oz watched Pack/Xander rush forward and grapple the man to the ground. He watched them tumble and roll to the floor. He saw them roll apart and Xander climb to his feet, just as the Other/Man rushed forward. He saw the flash of the knife. He smelt the blood as Xander/Pack staggered back, clutching his arm. The knife lay on the ground between them.
He watched as Xander/Pack began to circle, away from the woman as she lay on the ground hugging herself, facing his attacker.
Wolf/Oz felt his alarm grow. He began to pull at his bonds, crashing the chains and rocking the van.
"What the fuck you got in there?" The man asked, momentarily distracted.
"You really wouldn't believe it." gasped Xander, as he tried to pull himself together. But as he spoke the guy sprang, punching Xander in the face and following through with a kick to his body.
Xander fell, then tried to scramble backwards, out of reach, as the guy bent to pick up the knife.
Wolf/Oz was becoming desperate. The 'no, no, no' in the back of his head was still beating its back-ground tattoo. But in addition, there was the need to be calm. As this feeling grew, a new refrain took over 'think, think, think' and paws began to change, elongate and separate; still not human hands, but now able to function as such.
Oz/Wolf searched wildly, getting his bearings, searching for the hiding place where the human hid the key. As he remembered more of his human actions, he grabbed the key from the hook by the cage.
Xander was trying to get to his feet and 'oh, fuck, what do I do now?' His shoulder hit the trunk of a tree behind him and he felt the memory of the Hyena rise. He growled and began to gather himself into a crouch, to give himself enough leverage to pounce as the guy approached, ignoring the snarls coming from the direction of the van.
The knife was shaking slightly, but still held firmly, and threateningly, at waist level as the man again approached. "You should keep out of other peoples' business" he snarled. "But since you've chosen to be in; well you get this."
Xander sprang, keeping low. The knife flashed as he grasped the wrist and pushed up with his legs forcing them into close contact, the knife now above their heads as each of them strained. He lifted his knee, trying for the balls, but made contact with the guy's thigh instead. At that moment the guy staggered slightly and Xander's leg hooked around his. They both fell to the ground. In the fall Xander lost his grip on the knife hand but managed to get his elbow onto the guy's throat. He lowered his head and bit at the exposed neck beneath his arm. The guy yelled out in pain and alarm, rolling them over and trying to pull free.
"What the fuck?" he screamed. "You fucking bit me! You bastard!" His indignation seemed to give him a extra burst of strength and suddenly he was on top, bringing the knife up, intent now only on finishing this quickly.
He neither saw nor heard the growl of the approaching beast; not until the Wolf hit him hard with clawed feet, sending him rolling away again. The wolf's own momentum sent him into an ungainly somersault, but he ended on all four feet and pounced again.
Xander lay dazed for a second, but the adrenaline was still pumping fast and he staggered to his feet.
By then it was too late to do anything, even if he had wanted to, even if he could. The wolf, ignoring a bleeding slash across his own chest, was worrying the man, who's own cries were already fading.
Xander collapsed back to the ground and sat watching as the wolf finished its kill. Somewhere inside a voice was saying 'Oh fuck! Oh fuck! Oh fuck! You're next. What do you do?' but higher brain functions refused to engage.
The wolf snarled as he pulled his mouth away from the bloody neck below him. His head swung round and he gazed at Xander with glowing amber eyes.
Without conscious thought, Xander dropped his own eyes to the ground, then lowered his body, so he was lying flat on his back. He tilted his head back exposing his neck and waited, eyes closed. The faint voice inside was now screaming 'Stupid, stupid, you're going to die, he's going to rip your throat out' but Xander couldn't move. Didn't even know how to start.
He felt, rather than heard, the wolf approach. Hot breath hit his face and he screwed his eyes tighter. Then, the gentle prickle of teeth, touching but not biting, seeming to encompass his whole neck and a warm tongue against his skin. The hyena instincts were vividly forward in his mind and he began to relax.
The mouth was withdrawn and the wolf backed away slightly, sounding a low, growling rumble from deep in its throat. Xander rolled over onto his front and, keeping his eyes lowered to the ground, slowly rose to his hands and knees.
The wolf came forward again, sniffing and gently butting him with its head. Xander found himself sitting back on his feet with his arms around the wolf's neck alternately grabbing hold of its fur and stroking it.
"My god Oz. Are you alright?"
The wolf snuffled into his neck.
They sat like that for a moment or two, before Xander became aware that what he was now hugging was not the wolf he had seen in the van, nor was it a man, but something half way between the two. "Oz, can you hear me? Is that you Oz?"
The wolf-man growled again, panting heavily, as his features began to shift slightly more towards human. He opened his mouth and in a voice distorted and harsh, he growled "B' ge' me back t' the cage. K'w'kly!"
"Okay! Okay!" Xander tried to pull himself together. "Come on then, come on, this way" Keeping his back bent and one hand on the wolf's neck he half staggered, half ran, back to the open doors of the van and the wolf jumped in. "Sorry man. I can't do the manacles. I'll just have to lock you in. Please be careful. Don't hurt yourself."
He slammed the doors shut, leant back against them and began searching the camp site for anything to prop them with, since he had also not been able to set the bar in place. There was nothing. "Oz man, we got to make this operable from both sides." he muttered to himself as he scrambled round to the cab and opened the passenger door.
The wolf was back in full and jumped up against the grid of the cage. He didn't seem to be as violent as Xander had feared, which was reassuring, considering the only plan he could come up with for securing the doors. Xander grabbed the length of clothesline they used on those occasions when a stream was easier to find than a Laundromat and raced back to the rear, tying the door handles together as firmly as he could. Only then did he begin to relax, slumping back and beginning his slow slide down into a heap, head resting back against the door. He could hear the wolf, snuffling and snarling quietly inside.
He was just beginning to think that this was a good place to stay, at least for the rest of this lifetime, when a tentative voice interrupted his exhaustion.
"Hey man? You okay? Your dog, he alright?"
'Shit!' he had forgotten the woman. Wearily raising his head, he once again scrambled to his feet and walked back towards the scene. 'Scene of the crime' his inner voice noted.
"Yeah, I'm okay." 'Oh God! What do I do now?'
The woman, hardly more than a girl, had got to her feet and was slowly limping towards him on her high heeled sandals, keeping her head averted from the mangled mess that had been her companion.
"You're hurt" she observed. "Got a first aid kit in there?"
Xander rubbed his brow with one shaking hand and paused to think. "Uh, yes, I think so, uh, somewhere, hang on. You okay? He cut you at all?"
"No, he didn't cut me. But let me clean that up for you. I think you just saved my life. Least I can do, right?"
"Okay. Then I guess we need to do something about that" Xander nodded towards the body.
Half an hour later, his arm cleaned and bandaged, Xander stood contemplating the body of the guy they had killed. Nicole had offered to help him drag the body into the undergrowth, but Xander hadn't wanted her foot prints anywhere near where he was going to leave it, so he had said he could manage it alone. She had looked relieved at his refusal.
He was thankful that his hellmouth training in morgues and cemeteries had given him some immunity to the gut churning effect of mutilated corpses when he bent down to take a firm grasp of the cold dead hands.
He hadn't been a particularly big guy, and he wasn't carrying much excess weight, but it was still hard, slow, work to pull his body off the gravel, across the grass, and through the scrub and bushes. He dragged it as far as he could, then rolled it the rest of the way, to stop against the fence that separated the rest area from the field beyond, thankful that it stopped face downwards.
When he got back to the rest area she was standing exactly where he had left her, next to the car.
"We have to get out of here. Right now!" She said.
"We can't, not until the moon has set. Then we need to put the van back together. Here, help me unload the stuff from the cab, so we're ready to load it in the back, as soon as we can."
She looked as if she was going to question that, but maybe she saw the exhaustion in his face. Whatever it was, she just slipped her sandals off, shrugged, and walking along the grass verge in her bare feet, came to help him drag the mattress out onto the ground.
"That is one big dog you got there."
"Not a dog. He's a wolf. Well sometimes. Listen. Do you have anywhere to go? You could take his car."
"No. I've got nowhere to go, and anyone who knows
Xander took another deep breath and thought about it. He thought a bit more and looked at his watch. 5.30am. About an hour before Oz would be back. He didn't want to make any offers without consulting Oz, but the whole situation was a bit out of control. If he couldn't get her to walk away, she was going to see things anyway.
"Okay" he said. "Help me get this stuff stacked up near the back doors. "We'll be out of here as soon as the moon sets. And I need to explain to you why that's important."
An hour later, coffee brewed, there was a polite knocking from the inside of the van. Xander untied the clothesline from the handles and opened the doors.
Oz clambered out scrubbing his hands across his face and took in the sight of preparations. "Guess something did happen then, huh?"
"Oh yeah! Here, drink this. This is Nicole. We'll pack up. We need to move."
They didn't bother to do anything more than chuck the stuff in the back and slam it shut.
"Right! Now listen! Oz, we have a dead body. We need to be gone before his car is spotted. And we need to appear to be gone before it even arrived." He saw the shock beginning to take hold on Oz's face. "Oz! Don't think! Thinking comes later! For now, just do! Get in the van. Drive it out onto the road and get us facing out of town. Wait for us, okay? Nicole, go back over near the car and put those sandals back on. Oz! Don't drive over the car tracks!"
With Oz safely negotiating the van back on to the road, Xander went over to Nicole. "Okay! Listen! I need to have a fight with you and you need to fall to the ground right there! Okay? Can you do that?"
"Tracks! Come on, please, the sun is coming up and there will be traffic soon. Can we just do this?"
"Okay! Okay. Whatever."
Gripping hold of her shoulders, Xander started to shuffle them backwards and forwards a bit, then he said "Right! I am going to push you. You go down. Then I drag you across Oz's tracks to the road and we ride away into the sunrise. Okay?"
For the second time in two hours Xander dragged a slumped body across the ground. One of her shoes came off and she began to scrabble, as if to retrieve it. "Leave it!" he said. "You can have a pair of my sneakers until we can sort something else out"
Once onto the road, she stood up. He took he other sandal from her and helped her get into the cab, climbing in after her. Oz was behind the wheel, pulling on a t-shirt. Xander noticed a newly healed scar across his chest.
"Oh God Oz! I forgot about that. Are you okay?"
Oz shrugged "I heal quicker as the wolf" he said. "But you need to tell me what happened."
Now that they were all safe and the action was over, Xander's adrenaline rush started to fade and exhaustion began to set in. He allowed his head to fall back against the rest and recounted the events of the night. Nicole fell asleep within minutes.
"What I don't understand," finished Xander "is how you got out. And what exactly you were, when you did."
"The wolf let me out" said Oz. "I think," he glanced over at Xander and saw he was asleep. "I think I'll just drive." he said. "Put some distance behind us."
Oz drove and brooded, and brooded and drove, accompanied by the purr of the engine and the gentle snores of his companions. He glanced over at them occasionally. He had not yet exchanged more than 'hello' and 'yes' with Nicole. From what Xander had said, he gathered she was a prostitute, but beyond that, Xander had been too caught up in dealing with the situation for him to find out more.
He thought about the wolf, and the fact
that now, when he felt he was at last making progress... Now, was when he killed a man. He needed to know more about
Three or four hours later, there was movement beside him and Nicole slowly opened her eyes. She struggled to sit upright, lifting her head from where it had fallen, onto Xander's shoulder. She checked him first, then turned fearful eyes to Oz.
"You going to throw me out?" she asked.
"I don't know. I don't know what we're going to do. I don't know anything at the moment. Tell me what happened."
"You don't know?"
"I remember bits. Tell me what you saw."
"Didn't see much really.
Oz raised an eye-brow in question.
"He took me off the street. I wasn't doing so good. Got desperate. Tried to get some money off a man.
"It's okay. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. I just need to know what happened last night."
"I said 'no'. He said 'yes'. He was driving me there and I kept saying 'no'. He pulled over to, persuade me, I guess. But, I've still got my pride. Susanna, she said 'always hang on to your pride'. She said 'they can't take that away from you. No matter what you got to do to survive'. I can be stubborn. I think... Oh God! I think he was going to kill me!"
Xander stirred slightly in his sleep, but didn't wake.
"Shh!" said Oz. "Don't wake him. You're not sure?"
"Oh no! I'm sure al' right! Not at first. First he was just going to beat me up. He's never done that before. But then he pulled the knife. Yes! He was going to kill Xander, and then he was going to kill me."
"So what happened?"
"I got out of the car. He was yelling at me. I was saying 'no'. I tried to run. Then Xander was there." Her voice took on
a note of wonder. Like no one had ever
stood up for her before. "He
knocked him down. They were rolling on
the ground. Then
"Yes, it was me. Xander explained about me?"
"Yeah. Not sure I believe it though."
"Believe it! So then?"
"You killed him. Oh God! What am I going to do without him?"
"You loved him? I'm so sorry."
"No!" she said scornfully "I didn't love him." She sounded lost. "But he looked after me. What am I going to do?"
"Well. First, we are going to find somewhere to get something to eat. And I'm going to try and work out how I feel about the fact that I killed someone."
"We killed someone" said Xander, his voice slightly slurred from sleep. "Not you. We!" He groaned again. "I need coffee."
"I saw a sign a mile back. There's a place coming up soon. We can stop there." said Oz.
"You got any clothes I could wear?" Nicole asked. "These are a bit of a mess."
"Sure" said Xander. "You can borrow some of mine. Be a bit baggy on you, but better than torn glitter, I guess."
The diner came into view and Oz pulled in to the parking lot. He parked the van as far from the road as he could and they climbed out. Opening the back they reviewed the utter chaos, and began to sort it out. Xander found a pair of sweats and a t-shirt for her and Oz pulled out his spare sneakers.
"Change in there" said Xander. "You can straighten yourself up properly in the rest room, once we're inside."
Twenty minutes later Oz and Xander were sitting opposite each other at a booth table, with coffee, while they waited for Nicole to come back to order breakfast.
"We can't just dump her, can we?" Oz observed.
"No, I don't think we can. She said she had nowhere to go. I'm really sorry. I had to tell her about you. She wasn't going to go away and she had already seen you. I couldn't think of anything else to do."
"It's okay. I don't think she really believed you. She's a bit too calm."
"So, are we going to take her with us then?"
"Yeah. For now anyway."
"How far have we come?"
"About two hundred miles. I think that might be enough. We can slow down now."
"I really need to think, Xander. I need to work out what happened. Somehow, the wolf let me out. I think it was because it saw you in danger. But, I don't know. Not really. Can we park all that for a while? Just until I've got it a bit clearer in my head?"
"Sure. We need to think about what we do next anyway. Here comes Nicole."
Nicole slid into the seat next to Xander and smiled wanly at him. "I don't have any money" she said.
Xander braced himself again. "Doesn't matter Nicole. First, we get breakfast, or lunch, or whatever. Then we think."
Without her make-up she looked even younger. She smiled slightly "Thank you" she said. She took a breath. "It's not actually Nicole" she added. "It's just plain Nicola. Most people used to call me Nikki. I just thought Nicole was, classier? Like Nicole Kidman, you know?"
Xander smiled back and rubbed his hands together. "Nikki it is then! Now, I'm starving. I need food."
The food did them all good.
They were driving again when something occurred to Oz. He turned to Nikki "Do you need a fix of any sort?"
Nikki glared at him. "Yeah I need a fix" she growled. "I need a shower and some clothes that fit and all the bullshit to go away. That would be a fix."
Oz smiled, relieved. "We'll find a motel then. Maybe stop one night out of the van. What do you think, Xander? Feel like a real bed would be good for a change?"
Xander took one hand off the wheel and reached into the pocket of his jacket, pulling out his wallet. He threw it across to Oz. "Take a look. I think we can spring for a real bed for one night."
Oz pulled all the bills out of his own wallet and Xander's "Need to rustle up some more cash soon though"
Nikki scowled again. "I'm not working" she said.
Xander turned to her in amazement. "Well you're not freeloading" he retorted. "Sorry! Not part of the deal. We all need to find work if we can. There are always places that need dish-washers, waiters or sales staff. We all have to contribute to this, or.... well, we just do!"
Nikki looked slightly abashed. "Oh! yes! I can do that."
Xander went into momentary shock. "You really thought...?" his voice trailed off.
"No! Well, yes, sort of. Look, I'm sorry. I guess I didn't..."
"It's okay." Oz interrupted her stumbling apology. "We'll find some work."
The next day, clean and well rested, they did find work; picking soft fruit. It was back-breaking and left them too tired for conversation, beyond the practicalities of cleaning, cooking and sleeping. After the one night in a motel, they slept in the van; top and tail, Oz and Xander with their heads to the doors, Nikki with hers to the front seats.
The first night, as they settled down, Nikki nudged the chains, "So are you two together then? This is some kinky stuff you've got here".
"No, we aren't together" Xander said. "I told you what that was for."
"Yeah. Sure. Werewolf." Nikki shrugged. "I saw a big dog. I just don't know where it went."
When she inevitably found out; first, she was disbelieving, as Oz and Xander stripped the van, then indignant, as she realised this meant sleeping outside, and finally, amazed and fascinated, when she saw the wolf's eyes, for the first time, peering at her through the cage and the windscreen.
Nikki had been with them for four or five weeks, and they were moving again, when she began to ask questions about their past; where they came from, how they met. Never the future. But Oz saw it as progress.
Xander told her stories of their school days, or nights, hamming it up for laughs. At first Oz just listened too; concerned a little at the light weave of comedy. But, they had met nothing scary in all the months they had been together, other than himself. Slowly, he too, got sucked into the rose coloured glow of nostalgia.
"So, you really were like Ghost Busters?" Nikki asked.
Xander smirked. "Well, we didn't have any of their equipment, just stakes, swords and axes. But, yeah. We really did do that stuff."
"Just, not professionally." Oz added.
"The Master. Now there was a vampire with serious facial challenges. Face like a mouldy prune. But he almost opened the Hellmouth and he did kill Buffy. You never met him did you Oz?" Not really stopping for a reply, he went on "Then there was the invisible girl, who wanted to kill Cordy. Not sure I can forgive her for that."
"The trying, or the failure?" asked Oz.
Little by little she opened up and told them a bit about her life, where the monsters were just as real, but wore human faces. Xander recognised that the benign neglect of his own childhood had been a warm and nurturing environment, compared to Nikki's.
"Then the hyena possessed me. That was the same year the Incan mummy fell in love with me and almost sucked my life away, and on top of that we had to deal with The Master.
"You were possessed by a hyena? Did you change like Oz does?"
No, I just got an instant injection of confidence, arrogance and good dress sense. I also ate a pig and attacked Buffy; not to eat her. Afterwards I told them all that I didn't remember, but I did. All of it.
"Is it gone now?"
"Yeah. Mostly. I still, sort of, have memories. Sometimes... I can almost remember what it felt like. Sometimes it is clearer than others."
"What about you Oz? What does it feel like to you?"
"Outside of full-moon? I can always feel the wolf. Sometimes I think it's talking to me. Sometimes I think I can remember."
"You don't remember? Xander remembered being possessed by the hyena. Why don't you remember the wolf?"
"It's getting clearer with time. Easier to remember. But before, I didn't remember anything. It was like it was here, and I was gone. On the other hand, maybe I'm just getting more familiar with the inside of the van. So it feels like I remember more."
"No" said Xander. "I've noticed the wolf is quieter at night now. Doesn't shake its chains so much."
"But, what about the memory thing?" asked Nikki. "Xander remembers everything, straight off."
Oz thought about that. "I think," he said, "that the difference is that Xander was possessed by the hyena. I am the werewolf. It's not separate." Oz fell silent, thinking about the wolf, as the other two chattered on.
"I left in the end." Nikki mused, staring straight ahead across the wheel, her hands gripping more tightly than necessary. "I was fourteen. Slept rough for a while. Went hungry. Then I met Tommy. He was eighteen. He knew stuff. That was good. He looked after me. We found a squat. I got a job." she trailed off and somehow, maybe Hellmouth instinct, they knew not to ask what had happened to Tommy. "I wonder," she said "he just disappeared. Never came back."
They followed the fruit picking north.
"So," Nikki asked, "is it like, just this one place? Just Sunnydale? Because it's the Hellmouth? Or are there vampires and bug-lady teachers everywhere?"
Xander thought about it. "We haven't seen anything weird anywhere else. But, we haven't exactly been looking either. I do still have a cross and a stake in my bag somewhere. Got to admit though... I couldn't get at them in an emergency." Turning to Oz "Are we being reckless? We're being reckless, aren't we?"
"I don't know. If we had ever run into things, I suppose we would still have that stuff close. The fact that we don't..." Oz petered off, thoughtfully.
"I think it's a Hellmouth thing" Xander said. "I mean, the vampires and such must exist other places; they have to come to Sunnydale from somewhere. But maybe they're just spread thinly? What if the Hellmouth has a way of attracting the nasties? We had this swim coach. He was human. But, he had ideas with fish DNA and performance. Maybe the Hellmouth just attracts evil in truckloads? Makes things work, that wouldn't anywhere else. I don't think he could have made his ideas work anywhere else on earth. And Chris! Remember Chris, Oz? If it wasn't Sunnydale, do you think that anybody, no matter how brainy, could really build a girl out of bits of dead ones in an ordinary school science lab?"
"That was before I met you lot" Oz said. "But, I remember hearing about it. You might have a point. Pete was never that bright at school. Kind of evidenced by what he tried to do."
Nikki demanded all the details and Xander was happy to supply them, just to see her reactions.
But sometimes they were serious.
There were playing a desultory game of I-Spy, as Nikki took her turn her driving.
"C?" Xander's asked again, squinting as the afternoon sun momentarily blinded him.
"C.P." Oz corrected.
"Oh yeah. Right. C.P. C.P. C.P." frustration was beginning to tinge his voice.
"Cloud patterns?" asked Nikki.
"Corn pops? Coat pocket? Ceiling paint? Clockwork patchwork?" Xander suggested.
"No. Now you're getting desperate."
"Oh, I give up!" Nikki said. "I can't see anything that starts C.P. anywhere."
Xander nodded agreement and the Oz grinned "Cigarette Packet" he said.
"Where? There's no cigarette packet here. You don't smoke, nor does Nikki. Do you?"
"No, I don't. Though I'm thinking of taking up drinking."
"It was crumpled up by the side of the road" Oz explained.
"About ten miles back. Before the last crossroads"
"You're making that up."
"Want to go back and look?"
"Yeah! Nikki, turn around, we have to prove this. It's important! We need to find that packet, or prove it doesn't exist!"
It took them an hour, and two runs back and forth, but, just before sunset, Oz was vindicated and Xander admitted as much, with grudging grace.
Sometimes she talked about leaving them, still uncertain of her welcome, or her right to stay. But each time Oz gave her his quiet smile and a task to do. So, somehow it never happened. He taught her to sew and how to cook in one pan and she showed him how to put on make-up so you wouldn't know it was there, while it emphasised his eyes and his cheekbones. "You need it heavier for the stage" she said. "The lights can bleach the colour from your face. You need to emphasise the shadows."
Xander was coming back with an arm load of gathered wood, when he stopped and watched Oz and Nikki chatting quietly over a pan and chopping board. Nikki was chopping onions and Oz reached over, taking her hand with the knife and moved it slightly, to indicate the size he wanted them cut to, looking up into her eyes to check she understood. It was an easy, familiar gesture, and it cut Xander to the bone. So, he fixed a grin on his face and joined them; dropping the sticks in an untidy heap. "So, let me guess. Spaghetti bolognese?"
After that, he began to notice how Nikki gravitated towards Oz. How she always seemed to go and help him, when they set up camp, no matter what task of Oz had chosen to undertake that day.
But it was not a big thing. She seemed to like them both and she was obviously not interested in sex with anyone. And Xander still woke up, some mornings, to find Oz in his arms and occasionally he got a kiss for his troubles.
But, as time went by, anxiety became a permanent state; sitting at the back of his mind and in the pit of his stomach. His cheerfulness became more forced, as he felt Nikki and Oz apparently drawing closer together, leaving him outside. He knew that anxiety was blowing his every fear and self-doubt out of proportion. He knew that was what happened when anxiety became a state of mind; not a single worry, about a specific thing. He knew it wasn't real. But he could do nothing about it. He did the only thing he did know how to do. He hid behind his cheerful mask, as he had done for years. And Nikki didn't know him that well.
Xander watched Oz catch his eye across the fire; saw the swift understanding, before his features settled back into their usual calm friendliness. But, there was a touch of sorrow in his eyes as he continued to gaze into Xander's. Xander found he was waking up alone more often.
They were on the southern
The moon was waxing, but they still had three nights before full and they were walking back towards the van from the all-night diner they had spotted and investigated for a late dinner. This area of town was fairly quiet at night; some offices, closed and dark, a newspaper office and parcel couriers, both still working; light spilling into the street, then the rail yard. The chain mesh fence sagged on its struts; the occasional hole showing where local children got in to play, or maybe older residents went looking for other amusements, or profit.
They were walking three abreast Nikki in the middle, as usual, an arm through one each of theirs, when the dark figure stepped out of the shadows in front of them. Oz first registered surprise at the silence of his movements, before scent alerted him; the man smelt of earth and camphor. His suit was dirty and torn in places; his movements though, were smooth and strong.
"He's new, but he's eaten, at least once." Oz whispered across to Xander.
"Oh shit!" said Xander. "Nikki, what's behind us?"
Nikki glanced over her shoulder "Nothing." She said.
"Run! Back to the diner. Stay there!"
Then the vampire pounced. Nikki ran and Xander went down under 150 lbs of yellow eyed snarl. Oz felt a matching snarl building under his diaphragm and pounced too; jumping on the vampire's back, getting one arm around its neck and pulling its head back by a claw in its hair. Xander, pinned beneath them both, managed to get one arm free. Then Oz was on his back and someone was screaming. Oz shook his head to clear his mind of the red rage that was threatening to take over and saw the vampire scrambling backwards, on its ass, clawing at its own face, as Xander gasped and choked, still waving his water pistol haphazardly from side to side, as he tried to get to his feet.
Then it was quiet again; somehow seeming deathly quiet, in spite of the pants and growls and gasps. The relative silence was shattered, as a train hooted and clattered past, and Nikki was tentatively edging her way back to them from where she had stopped, frozen, twenty yards away.
Xander got to his feet and looked around. Cautiously he approached Oz and crouched on the ground, in front of him.
"Oz man? You okay? Oz? Come back to us Oz." Oz growled again and looked down at his front claws braced on the ground, then up into Xander's face. "Oz?"
Oz shook his head again and felt the crunch and grind of his features settling back to human. "Where'd he go? He asked.
"Don't know. He's gone. Are you okay? I'm okay."
"Think so. Nikki?"
"I'm here. Wow! That was a weird. Oz what happened?"
Oz sat back on the road and looked down at himself. His clothes were not torn and his hands now looked normal again "I don't know. I think I changed... Just not all the way."
Nikki and Xander helped him to stand. The clouds shifted and he stared up at the gibbous moon, then back down at himself. "Think I need to sit down" he said. "Think I need a drink."
Sitting in a booth at the back of the first bar they found, they tried to figure it out.
Oz felt weary. His joints ached. "I don't know if I can explain it" he said. "The wolf. It's been getting closer to the surface for months. It doesn't feel like it's trying to take over. The meditation I do in the morning, or when it's one of you driving, I sometimes feel like I'm the wolf, curled up, half asleep, warm, not quite alert, sort of watching. I'm not explaining this well. Does that make any sense at all?"
"Yeah, I think it does" said Xander.
"I don't know" said Nikki. "I understand what you saying. But I don't understand what you mean."
Xander seemed to realise that he needed time to process this. "Meanwhile," he said "we have a vampire. So, what do we do?"
"What can we do?" Nikki asked.
"Well, we can drive away, or, we can hunt it down."
"If we leave it, it will keep killing people, won't it? And they won't know what to do to stop it. This isn't the Hellmouth. There's no Slayer here."
"Oh God!" Xander sighed "I really hate this stuff! I thought we'd got away from all that. We were having fun. Minding our own business." He trailed off and an awkward silence developed. Looking between them he sighed again "Okay! I give up! I'm in. We go back and find it, yeah?"
"First, we go back to the van and see if we can find some stakes and those crosses you mentioned you still had. And maybe an axe. And what were you doing with a water pistol full of holy water, anyway?" asked Oz as an afterthought.
Two hours later they felt they had walked the whole area, at least three times, with no luck and were each beginning to make noises about heading back. The question of whether they felt they would have to do this again, the next night, was being avoided by all.
It was only a small noise. Possibly just a rogue breeze disturbing a fallen drinks can. But their ears had been straining for any unusual sound for so long, that they all caught it. Edging closer to the opening of the alley Xander peered around. Pulling his head back, he turned to the others and mouthed 'Bingo!'
Carefully placing his sneakered feet, one in front of the other, rolling from heel to toe as silently as possible, he edged forwards. The vampire had not even bothered to pull its victim far into the alley. He was just five feet from its unsuspecting back when he saw it tense. It raised its head and sniffed, before turning around "You Again?" it snarled.
For a moment, Xander froze. Then he heard Nikki rushing forward and Oz's growl and he sprang. He managed to grab an arm and swing the creature round. Oz caught it in the gut with his shoulder and the creature slammed into the wall, momentarily dazed by the attack. Nikki ran forward, stake raised.
"The heart!" Xander cried "Go for the heart!"
And she did. And then there was dust everywhere and they were collapsed over each other; hanging on for mutual support, gasping in relief and from the adrenaline rush.
"Oh wow! " panted Nikki "Did you see? Did you see? It just disappeared. Oh my god! You said. But I didn't really believe it! Oh my god! It went in so easily. I didn't think it would be like that. Oh God! I'm going to be sick!" and she was.
Oz held her up as she leant against the wall with one hand, until the shudders stopped. Xander walked over to the body and touched its neck. "We were too late" he said, dully. "Too late for this guy anyway."
"But not for the others it would have got" said Oz, offering what cold comfort he could.
"Yeah. I guess." Xander looked over at them. Oz was still holding a shivering Nikki, one arm protectively around her shoulders. "Lets go" he said.
Nikki looked up then, hair streaked and plastered to her face, a weary, washed out look in her eyes. "What about?" she asked, with a half-hearted gesture towards the dead man.
"We can't do anything for him," said Xander "and we had better not touch him. I doubt the police here are as retiring as their brothers in Sunnydale. We can't afford to leave prints. We'll make a call once we are back at the van."
Nikki had nightmares that night and ended up turned around, sleeping, huddled, between the two men.
By an unspoken agreement they did not
move on to
Oz hovered over Nikki, urging her to eat, and eventually she gave in, mainly to shut him up, Xander suspected. Oz squeezed her shoulder, then turned to Xander and grabbed his hand, giving that a squeeze too and holding on.
"We're going to be okay" he said.
They watched the day go by, through the window of the diner; saw the police head in, and then back out of the alley, saw the area return to normal. And eventually they talked.
"We don't know if it turned that guy" Xander said. "We might have just swapped one vampire for another. Maybe I should have taken his head off? I just didn't think of that. I was worried about us."
"You were right" said Nikki. "You were right! But, what does that mean?"
"It means, we might still have a problem. I wonder where the nearest morgue is."
"I guess it would be at the nearest hospital. Do you want to go and investigate?" asked Oz.
"No. It's too dangerous. I may know how to get into the Sunnydale morgue. But here, in a strange town? No. Us getting caught would lead to questions we couldn't answer, especially when the supporting evidence is dust."
"He looked like an ordinary
guy," said Nikki "like he was just coming out of work or
something. You know? I've never seen a
dead body before, before
Oz placed a comforting arm around her shoulders, pulling her towards him, making quiet 'shh-ing' noises. Xander watched them, feeling again the pain of exclusion.
"You know, there are people who revere vampires. There was a group in Sunnydale once, almost got themselves killed."
Conversation petered off, to silence, again.
Mid-morning they went for a walk, scouting the area, getting a breath of cold, and almost clean, air. They found a hospital, even saw the entrance to the morgue, but they didn't try to go in.
Back in the diner, in the late afternoon, Oz was apparently ready to start thinking again.
"From what I remember," he said "they don't tend to wander much. At least, not when they're new. That summer, when Buffy was away, the ones we missed one night always seemed to be still around the next. If he was turned, if he wakes in the hospital, we have a good chance of finding him still around here tonight, maybe? If we catch him before he feeds, he won't be as strong."
"That's a lot of 'if's' and 'maybe's' Oz."
Oz looked momentarily crestfallen "I know," he said "but it's the only idea I have."
"I could do that bait thing" Nikki suggested.
"That bait thing?"
"Yeah, Xander told me how you got your friend Cordelia to do that, in the old days. How she would sit on a park bench and the vamps would come for her and then you would dust them all."
"Er... Yeah," Oz replied "sure, we tried that, a few times." He trailed off in the face of her mounting enthusiasm.
"There's a park just across from the hospital. You saw it. If I sat there? He tries for me and you get him. You are really fierce when you change Oz."
"But, it's not a full moon. I can't do that."
"You did it last night. So, it can't be just the moon."
Xander could see problems with this plan. But he held his peace, letting them talk over him, arguing back and forth; feeling his helplessness in the face of their relationship.
"Whatever!" He said. "We have to do something."
So, come sunset, there they were, in the small park opposite the hospital morgue, in full view of the doors but out of sight of the main entrance. Xander still had an uneasy feeling. But now he was also angry. Angry with the vampire yesterday; for existing. Angry with the dead man; for possibly being turned. Angry with Oz and Nikki; for coming up with a plan he really didn't like. And angry with himself; for not saying anything. And when Xander got angry, he got stubborn. 'Mulish' his mother used to call it, and he acknowledged that. He was too honest with himself, nowadays, to try and get away with 'dignified silence', even in his own head.
Nikki sat on a bench, under a street light, her back to the road, reading a newspaper. Xander, and a semi-naked Oz, hid in nearby bushes with a view, through the branches, to the door of the morgue. Every now and then she would look over to them and one of them would quietly call out "Nothing Yet". At 8pm she complained that she was now more up-to-date with current affairs then she had ever wanted to be. At 10pm she complained about the quality of the personal ads. By midnight she had read the entire paper twice, cover to cover, and Oz and Xander were taking turns watching the door.
A few people, obviously members of staff, had come and gone, but no one else. The road was quieter now and pedestrian traffic was down to almost zero. Boredom was eventually doing for Xander, what reason had failed to do earlier, while his sense of unease was growing. Eventually the pressure grew to a point where he had to speak.
"I don't like this Oz" he whispered. "This never worked when we tried it at home and now I know a bit more; it just feels dangerous. I know Cordy never got hurt. But that was sheer luck, you know? I have a bad feeling. We should come up with a better plan. We don't even know if there is a vampire."
"But if there is, this might be our only chance to get it" Oz whispered back. "If it gets away tonight, it might head back to its human home and we don't know where that is."
"We could follow it. Ambush it as it walks. Nikki is a sitting duck out there. Do you even know if you can change?"
"I did before. I think I can again. I realise now; the wolf is not my master. It is part of me. I'm not afraid of it any more. You can't realise what that means to me. You gave me that Xander. You saw the truth. I would never have learnt to love it. I can do this. I know I can." Oz turned towards him, to emphasise his point "I'm not scared Xander! You have no idea what this means, after years of repressing it. To realise it's my friend. It really is me! I can feel it, so close. The Moon's nearly full, so it's easier tonight. I can change now if I need to. Or, I can stay like this if I don't."
Turning back, he resumed his watch of the door.
Xander glanced towards Nikki and the shock sent a bolt of adrenaline into his bloodstream. It was there! He was up and running before the words left his mouth "Change!"
Xander ran towards the bench. Nikki was struggling in the vampire's grasp. One of its hands was over her mouth, the other in her hair, pulling her head aside. The world seemed to shift into slow-motion. He could hear Nikki's muffled cries. He heard his own feet hitting the ground and he heard Oz's growl turn into a howl of savage anger. He was almost there when the wolf tore past him and pounced on the vampire's back. The blow knocked the vampire to the ground, but it dragged Nikki with it; it's feeding frenzy making it slow to react to this external threat. Oz tore into the side of its neck, forcing it to release Nikki, as it howled itself, rolling backwards, with Oz on top. Xander tried to grab one flailing arm, to keep the claws away from both Nikki and himself. But it wrenched loose and he felt the hot pain as it raked his thigh. The wolf squealed and rolled off, exposing the vampire's chest and Xander brought the stake down hard. He pulled back, expecting the dust, but the vampire merely howled again. Then Oz was there, half-human and naked. He grabbed the stake, pulled it out and plunged it back in. This time the dust did explode around them.
Xander scrambled across the ground to Nikki's still form. He couldn't tell if she was breathing or not. As quickly as he could, he gathered her up and started to run, calling back "Get dressed! Follow me!"
His thigh burned as he staggered into the hospital, shouting for help. He had a fleeting memory of another time, with a sick Slayer; the staff seemed to take so long to react, shocked by his sudden appearance. Then, just as Oz careered in behind him, they broke into rapid action. A trolley appeared. A dressing was pressed to the sluggish flow at the neck. Rapid-fire questions of "What happened?" "How long ago?" which he tried his best to answer. A call for blood. A cry for a surgeon. Someone bending over her checking for vital signs. Then it all went still. The doctor pulled back and stood upright with a sigh of regret.
Xander's brain refused to accept that. "Come on! Come on!" he shouted. "You have to do something for her!"
The Doctor turned in slow motion "I'm sorry" he said. "She's dead."
Xander felt his knees give way.
Then a nurse was helping him to sit on
another trolley and was cutting his jeans away from his leg. The doctor cleaned the wound and applied a
dressing, asking questions about tetanus shots, which he hardly heard. He saw Oz, shirt still unbuttoned, lean back
against the wall and slowly collapse.
Another nurse ran to him. He had
a claw scratch across his chest, in almost exactly the same place that
And then it was quiet.
As soon as they let go of him Xander staggered across the room and leaned over Nikki's body. There was no blood on her lips or teeth. He stroked her hair back from her cheek, and wept. Oz joined him, putting an arm around his shoulder, pulling him into an awkward embrace.
Sunnydale wits came to the fore as they explained about the wild dog attack. The nurse made some comment about it being the second such in two days. The police took their statements and promised to catch it. Nikki was wheeled away and they were guided into a quiet room away from the entrance traffic. The sign on the door said 'Family Room'.
Later, as they sat numb on the couch, hands clasped, Xander's arm around Oz's shoulder and Oz's head on his shoulder, a social worker came to talk about practical things; like funerals.
Oz pulled his wallet out and emptied it, Xander did the same and a total of $352 was collected on the seat. The social worker sighed and left, to get the forms for them to request help from the city. It all seemed to take forever, but the need to be practical pulled them out of their shock. Oz's driving licence gave his address as his dorm at UC Sunnydale and they used that. The social worker was not totally satisfied, but Xander had put his wallet away. He volunteered the trailer park in Oxnard as his last fixed address.
At last it was done and they were allowed to leave. That night, and then for another three, Xander slept with his head resting on a wolf's flanks and in the mornings, they held each other tight.
A week later, after more awkward reassurances from the police, that the dog would be caught, and a sorry funeral service, with $38 between them, they drove away; heading south.
Oz did most of the driving; his nights as a wolf having helped him to heal more quickly than Xander. The passenger seat seemed too big without a third person occupying it.
They found work again and, with it, conversation returned.
Oz berated himself for looking away. Xander blamed himself for going along with a plan he knew was flawed. But, eventually, as Oz had learned, so many months ago, the mind can only take so much anguish. Eventually, they turned to 'Do You Remember', and the tension began to seep out of their bones and their spirits.
"She was so fragile, behind the toughness" said Oz. "I don't think she had ever, really, had a friend, let alone two at once."
"There was Tommy."
"He was her protector, not an equal relationship, so not necessarily a real friend."
"Remember when you asked if she was a druggy?"
"She really liked to cook. You taught her that."
"I liked her beef stew, even with the carrots."
"Yesterday I found the bag she made me. The one she made from her hooker dress. I'm going to keep my badges in it."
"She was swamped in your T-shirt. Looked like a little girl."
"But when she got clothes that fitted..."
"She still looked like a little girl."
"I failed her" said Xander, suddenly honest. "I was jealous. I thought you were going to leave me behind."
"We both failed her," Oz said "and we failed ourselves."
"What about us?"
"We decide, what is important."
"Yes. Life is important. But, more important, is living well."
"So, how do we live well?"
Oz laughed, it felt to him like the first time he had laughed in, forever. "We decide what is important."
"You can't really run away can you? The fight always catches you." Xander paused in thought. "I wonder how the Hellmouth is. What they're doing."
"Shall we go home?"
"Yes. Let's go home. That's where our fight should be."
"Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon."
"Are you going all deep on me there, Oz?"
Oz smiled, as he put the van in gear and started to drive.
That night they made love for the first time; clinging together, searching only for comfort and release. Thrusting and rubbing against each other; they both found something else.
The next day, they started their long drive home to Sunnydale.
'Don't be sad. 'Cause one out of three ain't bad.' - a misquote of the final chorus line in 'Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad', by Meatloaf.
'Do not despise the snake...' From the introduction to each episode in the cult Japanese television series, 'The Water Margins', made in the 70's and dubbed into English by the BBC.