Almost as soon as recognition flared in Willow's synapses, she threw her arms around the werewolf's neck with a cry of "Oh my god, Oz!"
Oz's response was traditionally low-key. He simply smiled and slowly wrapped his arms around Willow in return, clearly savoring every moment and luxuriating in the feel of Willow's hair as he stroked the back of her head.
After a moment, Willow pulled away and immediately smacked him lightly in the arm. "You never wrote me back, you cad!" she chastised with a smile.
Shrugging, Oz shoved his hands back into the depths of his jeans pockets. "Yeah, AOL cut me off. It's a funny thing – when people send you bills? They actually expect you to pay 'em." Oz frowned as if to say, 'who knew?'
Xander waved his hand at the notion. "Pay? Pshaw. What do you think all those free discs are for?" Grinning broadly, Xander extended his hand. "Hey man, good to see you."
Oz clasped Xander's hand warmly. "You too. Hey Buffy," he said, nodding to the blonde.
"Hey," Buffy greeted, clearly pleased to see Oz again after so many years. "Don't suppose you've set up shop here in Trillium, huh?"
"Nah," he replied with a slight shake of his head. "Me and the band are just passing through." Turning his gaze to Willow, Oz lowered his voice slightly, seeming to block out everything in the world apart from the redhead. "We were on our way up to Cleveland, actually. I thought that's where you were."
In response, Willow poked him in the arm. "Well if someone hadn't been a little delinquent – or somehow managed to forget the wonders of Hotmail and Net Cafes," she cast him a dubious look and he had the good grace to appear at least a little chagrined, "– he woulda gotten that memo and not been all outta the loopy."
"Sorry about that." He glanced around the table, clearly searching for something. "So where's your new girl? Kennedy?"
Buffy and Xander exchanged a quick, uncomfortable look and Willow's smile faltered for just a second. "We, uh ... we broke up."
The werewolf's eyebrows twitched upwards slightly, the only betrayal of his surprise. "Oh. I thought you were doing good."
"Yeah, it's a kinda long story," responded Willow by way of explanation.
"Tell me later?" he requested gently, earning a nod and smile that he was compelled to mirror.
Reclaiming her seat, Willow tugged Oz's hand until he slid into the one next to her. "So you!" she began, very obviously appraising him up and down. "Lookit you! New band and everything!"
"Yeah. They're pretty cool." Oz inclined his head toward the bar. "Vic, the lead singer, has a voice like some sort of cross between Barry Manilow and Joe Cocker. It's interesting."
"How'd you meet up with 'em?" the witch inquired, taking another long sip of Xander's drink, heedless of his expression that indicated she might want to get her own.
"I was just driving around after Sunnydale. Goin' wherever. One night, a few days before full moon, I was in this club where Vic was singing. Turns out he's a wolf too, but couldn't control it. He asked for my help, so I did." Oz shrugged nonchalantly, as though the situation was nothing extraordinary.
Buffy, on the other hand, had a look of mild alarm at the realization there were other werewolves around.
Her best friend's distress went unnoticed by Willow, who was beaming proudly at Oz. "Wow, that's great. So you– you helped him and his wolfie's all under control?"
"Yeah, Vic's got a good handle on it. The others, it's varies."
Mild alarm climbed up one notch. "Wait, 'others'?" Buffy cut in sharply. "What others?"
"The band," replied Oz calmly. "Roadies."
"So you have, what? A pack now?" asked Buffy, an undeniable edge to her voice.
Without hesitation, Oz countered, "Sometimes we call ourselves a posse."
Ignoring the sarcasm, Xander frowned and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "Isn't that kinda ... I dunno, dangerous?"
"Not really. Those of us with more control help those with less. Keeps everyone safe."
Buffy seemed far from convinced, but she held her tongue for the moment.
"But ... tonight's a full moon. Right?" Willow frowned and tilted her head to one side as she cast her gaze to the remaining band members on stage who had been joined by a few of the group's roadies.
"Yup," confirmed Oz. "We like to play on full moon nights. Gives the sound something extra."
Her expression registering full disapproval, Buffy opened her mouth, but any possible words were guaranteed to be ignored as Oz leaned over to Willow. "Listen, we're due back on in a few minutes. Can we meet later? Get some coffee?" He looked hopeful. "Talk?"
"Coffee with a werewolf on a full moon night?" The witch's smirk said she was perfectly okay with that arrangement. "Twist my arm."
Oz's smile was subdued but genuine, and with parting nods to the others, he moved back toward the stage. Neither he nor Willow noticed the uneasy looks shared by Buffy and Xander.
The recreational room was mostly empty, something of a rarity for Slayer Central. Neither Faith nor Hazel was complaining about being the sole occupants, however. They had laid claim to the large, comfortable couch that was perfectly positioned in front of the 42" flat-panel HDTV. The exceptionally high quality of the television managed to heighten the staggeringly low quality of the kung fu movie in the DVD player
Faith contentedly sipped on a beer as she watched the film, her head tilted just slightly to the side to convey her concentration. On the opposite end of the couch, Hazel was also watching the movie while occasionally shoveling handfuls of potato chips into her mouth. The Junior Slayer's expression, however, was considerably more skeptical.
She spared a sideways glance at Faith, confirming that she was alone in her dubious viewing of the film. Still, she pressed on valiantly. "Uhm ... why are we watching this again?"
"Cuz you were bitchin' that all we ever did was train and try an' beat each other up," replied Faith, not taking her eyes from the screen.
"So ... you ... got us a movie about other people beating each other up?" Hazel summed up with a confused frown.
Glancing over, Faith jabbed her finger at the screen, the beer can still clenched in her fist. "It's not just about that. It's got ..." The Slayer searched her memory bank. "What's that thing called?"
"Kicks?" offered Hazel helpfully, wincing as a series of high-pitched, inarticulate screams ripped from the throats of the characters on screen.
Faith shook her head, still frowning as she tried to remember. "No."
Becoming frustrated, Faith shook her head again. "No, the story thing."
"That's it." Faith settled back onto the couch. "It's got plot."
Hazel regarded the movie critically. "Really doesn't."
"Sure it does! See that guy's—" Faith stabbed her finger at one of the characters, sloshing beer onto her hand "—gotta find and beat up that other guy because that guy won the fighting tournament thing, but he cheated, right, so he's gotta get his honor back by beatin' the other guy ..."
The younger girl wasn't persuaded. "Those aren't so much plot as lame excuses for more fighting."
Faith stared at Hazel, blinking. "And?"
Sighing, Hazel tossed the remaining half-handful of greasy chips into the bowl and wiped her hand on a nearby napkin. "When you mentioned movie night, I was kinda hopin' we'd get away from the all the violent stuff. Maybe see ... Oh! Finding Nemo is out!"
Hazel grinned at Faith with obvious excitement that Faith did not share, heightened by the completely blank expression the Senior Slayer wore. Hazel attempted to explain. "The animated movie? About the little fish that gets lost?" Faith's lack of comprehension was replaced by an expression that simply seemed to say 'yeah, I'm gonna watch that'.
"No, seriously, it's cute!" insisted the younger girl. "I went with my friends when it was in the theater, back home? See, Nemo's dad teams up with this really stupid fish, but she's so funny! And then they have to try to swim all the way to Sydney to find Nemo – hence the title and all – but along the way they ..."
The sounds of obviously fake and wholly obnoxious snoring began to drown out Hazel's dissertation on the movie's merits, and she threw a potato chip directly at Faith's head. Despite her eyes being closed, Faith deflected the salty projectile with ease and cracked an eye open with a grin.
"Stop that! It's good!" Hazel demanded, then her face lightened as a thought occurred to her. "Actually, you know? There's a character that kinda reminds me of you. The Willem Dafoe-fish. Can't remember his name. But he's all, like, scarred and grumpy on the outside, but—"
"But soft and chewy on the inside?" finished Faith with a slightly mocking tone.
Suddenly finding the entire conversation embarrassing, Hazel's head dipped toward her chip bowl. "Uh ... I just wanted ... You know ..."
"Somethin' besides fightin'?"
Chewing this over for a moment, Hazel shrugged. "...suppose so..."
"Well that's good. You should want more'n fightin'." Directing her attention to the television screen and its never-ending parade of violence, Faith sipped her beer. "Guess I should too."
Hopefully, Hazel regarded Faith. "So maybe...?"
"Your fish movie?" Studying the film, Faith pointed to the screen again. "Only if you can do that by next week."
Hazel threw herself back into the sofa cushions with a loud groan.
In his office, Giles was working hard on some rearranging and general upkeep. The files folders were now categorized and neatly stored in their appropriately-labeled cabinets, the surface of his desk had been polished, as evidenced by the can of Lemon Pledge and yellow duster thrown on the floor, and his next task was to hang his newly-acquired print above the bookcases built by Xander.
Giles stepped back for a moment and admired the framed poster– Gustave Moreau's "Saint George and the Dragon", the original of which hung in the National Gallery. Balancing precariously on a small stepladder, he hoisted the picture and set it carefully against the wall. Frowning, he shifted the frame a fraction to the right and eyed it critically. Shaking his head, he inched it to the left and wrinkled his nose. With a small groan, he lowered his aching arms and rested the frame momentarily on the top of the middle bookcase before hefting it upward once more. A miniscule shimmy left, an infinitesimal slew right, and Giles smiled happily at the result. Gluing his eyes to the exact point of reference, he cautiously allowed the picture to slide down the wall until it met the top of the bookcase and then reached up to his mouth for the pencil clenched between his teeth. Leaning forward, he marked the wall with the a small dot and then peered closer to make sure he could see it properly. Maintaining his focus, he felt around the top step of the ladder for hammer and nails. With precise positioning and making sure his feet were firmly planted, the Watcher raised the hammer and prepared to strike. At that exact moment the telephone rang with what seemed to be a deafening jangle in the silence of concentration. Startled, Giles glanced swiftly at his desk and muttered under his breath before letting loose with an agonized yelp as the head of the hammer met squarely and heavily with his thumb.
"Bloody hell," he cursed, clambering down the ladder and sucking on his injured digit. The throb was almost unbearable and he glared at the telephone that was merrily insistent in making its demand to be answered. He placed the hammer on his desk and gingerly flexed the wounded appendage, wincing as prickles of pain assaulted his wrist. The telephone emitted yet another cheerful jingle and an ill-tempered Giles grabbed angrily at the receiver.
"I have high expectations for this call being worth what I went through to answer it," he said icily into the mouthpiece. "Please don't disappoint me."
As he listened to the voice at the other end, his aggravation melted to be replaced by an expression of surprise.
"Ms. Harkness! Good eve—" he checked the antique clock/barometer hanging on the far wall and noted the time, 10 o'clock at night. "Well, very early morning where you are, I suppose. How have you been?" He smiled pleasantly even though nobody could see him.
Perching on his desk, the Watcher tucked the phone against his hunched shoulder, crossed his arms, and paid close attention to what he was being told. However, the pleasure initially registered on his face quickly faded to concern.
"Well, yes. I-I mean, no, not as such, but ... It was buried. The– The entire town collapsed on—" he paused, hearkening thoughtfully to the words filtering into his ear.
"No," declared Giles with much confidence. "No. It's closed. I'm certain of that."
He frowned at the response.
"We did tests. Spells, to– to test for any lingering traces, and there were none. There was nothing left," he assured, tilting his head as the faraway voice continued.
"You're sure?" he queried hesitantly before adding, "No, I understand. ... I agree, we can't risk going anywhere near it until we know for certain. ... Thank you for telling me. Please, as soon as you know anything more— ... Yes. Good night."
As the conversation ended, a look of extreme worry crossed the Watcher's face and he absent-mindedly settled his glasses more firmly against the bridge of his nose. With a series of rapid beeps, the telephone reminded him that the connection had been severed. Running a hand through his hair, Giles allowed the receiver to drop slowly back into its cradle.
Willow and Oz had sequestered a table at The Common Grounds, the local all-night coffee shop in downtown Trillium. Given the lateness of the hour, it was largely empty; only one other person was present, a young college student who was sitting in the far corner pouring over stacks of textbooks. The two redheads had seated themselves outside under the clear night sky, not seeming to mind the biting winter wind. While the coffee shop was well lit, the full moon hanging overhead would have provided more than ample illumination.
Willow had tugged off her mittens and was warming her hands on a steaming mocha, sipping it occasionally. She remained bundled in her parka, and seemed quite a contrast to Oz, wearing only a thin cotton button-up shirt that was left hanging open to reveal a well-worn t-shirt underneath. Oz showed no signs that the cold bothered him, however, and was instead focused on the cup of herbal tea sitting on the table before him.
Pulling a small leather pouch from his back pocket, Oz undid the laces and reached inside. He grabbed a pinch of some sort of powder and sprinkled it into the tea. Closing the pouch with practiced ease, he stirred the mixture, watching as the granules quickly dissolved.
Wisps of yellowish smoke trailed upwards, and Willow's nose crinkled involuntarily. "Well, that's certainly ... pungent," she commented. "What is it?"
"Lots of stuff," Oz replied, giving the tea one final swirl for good measure and taking a huge drink, oblivious to its temperature. "Arnica root mostly."
Tilting her head to one side, Willow's eyes narrowed in thought for a few seconds, then she grinned. "Wolfsbane."
"Yeah. Figured at first it was a big joke, but turns out not. Guess things are clichés for a reason." After his first initial gulp, Oz seemed content to simply sip his tea, very calm and sedate.
Willow watched every movement, and Oz watched Willow watching him. "You're doing good then?" she inquired. "No– No relapses or anything?"
"There were a few tense moments when I found out 'Charmed' was renewed," responded Oz in complete seriousness, "but I worked through it."
"You look good," the witch appraised.
The moment that passed between them was silent but charged as the two stared at one another, their gazes locked. Willow glanced away first, a faint blush painting her cheeks as she busied herself with the mocha. Smoothly, Oz resumed the conversation. "So what happened with Kennedy?"
"Oh ... well, there was a spell— Not me, though," Willow hastened to point out, despite the lack of any reproaching look from Oz. "Kenn cast it. Kinda backfired – magick's kooky that way, as you know – and we all sorta started sayin' all the stuff we always really wanted to say but never did. Led to some moderately interesting exchanges ... an' me realizing that I just couldn't love her like she wanted me to. Not right now."
Oz absorbed this for several seconds, then nodded in understanding. "Makes sense."
"Yup. Guess I'm just not really ready for the shiny new relationships right now, you know?" replied Willow with some resignation.
As Willow drank her mocha, Oz studied her very carefully, mulling over her words but saying nothing.
Once more, the witch broke the silence. "But what about you? Any new amours I gotta give the ol' hairy eyeball to?" she queried, proceeding to very exaggeratedly pantomime said hairy eyeball.
"Not so much," he replied with a faint smile.
Willow was aghast. "Oh, come on! All this time, and no one's tickled your fancy?"
"My fancy's pretty tickle-free," admitted Oz. "Haven't really been interested." Willow's face immediately became sad at this news, but the musician shrugged dismissively. "The band keeps me pretty busy. And the work's important. We've got twelve wolves with us now."
"Wow." She was suitably impressed. "So everyone in the group...?"
Oz shook his head before draining the remainder of his tea. "Most are, but some are here just to help out. We've got five people who are around because a wolf friend or family member travels with us. Anyone's welcome, though."
Beaming at this information, Willow slapped her hand lightly on the tabletop. "That's so great! You're, like, the spokesperson for lycanthropy." Her eyes widening, she excitedly suggested, "We should have a telethon!"
"Me and Jerry Lewis." Oz nodded sagely.
Already off and running with the idea, Willow enthused, "We can get some of those guys who spin plates ..."
"Put someone up in a tree for three days," was Oz's suggestion.
"Show back-to-back episodes of 'Are You Being Served?' ..." Willow was really getting into it now.
"It'll be an all-star extravaganza."
Willow laughed merrily at the picture they were painting, and Oz smiled contentedly, basking in her good mood. Finally, the witch's laughter petered out, and she returned to her rapidly cooling mocha. Raising her eyes, Willow regarded Oz fondly. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too," he replied sincerely.
Another moment of silence passed, filled with things unsaid.
"So, what day should be National Werewolf Day?" Willow finally asked, her thoughtful frown only semi-serious.
"I'm thinking the same as National Corndog Day," mused Oz. "If that's our only competition, we'll have it made."
Willow's laughter returned full force, and Oz settled back into his chair, happy to simply watch her.
"So whaddya think they're talkin' about?" asked Xander, his hot breath crystallizing in the chilly night air.
Buffy hunched further into her coat and blew upon her gloved hands. "Whatever it is, it's probably pretty serious,"
The moon was suspended like a huge silver disk as Buffy and Xander walked home. Their shadows lengthened to gigantic proportions and then shrank to dwarven size as they passed beneath the streetlamps. After she'd spoken, the Slayer glance behind her with a concerned frown. She paused for a second and peered more closely into the gloom but discerning nothing untoward, quickened her pace to catch up with Xander.
"Do you think they'll ...?" began the carpenter, his tone leaning toward the pondering side of speculation.
The Slayer halted any further conversation along those particular lines. "That knowledge is so far beyond me," she stated firmly.
"Yeah. Me too," Xander admitted.
"I'll tell you what I do know, though," she continued, "having my monster scorecard suddenly filled with werewolves is making for an edgy Buffy."
Xander nodded wisely. "Agreed it's minorly wig-suggesting, but Oz said they've got it all under control."
"Yeah," scoffed the Slayer, "and the last time Oz thought he had it under control, he nearly ate Tara." She sighed and stared at a brightly-twinkling star. "I trust Oz. I do. I know he wouldn't let himself be around people if he thought he'd hurt them. But the others ... That's a whole deck of wild cards. I just think–"
Stopping short, Buffy swiftly turned and, with narrowed eyes, surveyed the area intently. Just beyond her line of vision, a vague indiscriminate shade stealthily blended into the darkness and, ducking low, slunk furtively behind a nearby dumpster. Buffy's head snapped in the direction of the imperceptible movement, obviously sensing the action rather than actually perceiving it.
Realizing that the Slayer was no longer matching him stride-for-stride, Xander craned his neck to see where she was, finally spotting the blonde head topped by a knitted cap that sported an incredibly large bobble. "What?" he whispered covertly. "What is it?"
Frowning, Buffy held up her hand. She fixed her gaze on the dumpster and then her eyes speedily traveled to the vicinity of a neatly-clipped row of Rhododendron bushes partially encircling a front garden. She stared keenly at the shrubbery, seemingly guiltless in its immaculate innocence, and tilted her head to one side.
"Wait there," she hissed softly at the carpenter. Xander shuffled his feet uncomfortably and took a step forward, halting only when Buffy treated him to one of her 'I dare you to move' glares. He huffed a little under his breath but stayed put.
The Slayer cautiously crept toward the targeted hedge. Closer and closer she approached, soundless as a stalking tiger. Upon reaching her destination, she ripped the branches apart and stood ready to attack. But the flattened shrub revealed nothing of interest – indeed, it revealed nothing at all. Her forehead creasing deeply, Buffy tensed her muscles while her eyes rapidly darted in every direction. Still nothing. Her shoulders slumped and then she grimaced at the trampled Rhododendron. The Slayer attempted to fluff the crippled twigs back into a nice bushy shape, but they hung limply and listed badly to one side.
"Buff?" murmured Xander questioningly with something of a theatrical tone.
Sighing at the carnage left in her wake, Buffy joined Xander. Her eyes continued to appraise the immediate area but whatever she had sensed, if there had been anything at all, had made good its escape. Her expression was puzzled as she looked up at the carpenter. "I thought I heard ... I thought something was following us. Nothing's there, though."
Anxiously glancing over his shoulder, Xander stated with conviction, "Oh great, now the suggested wig is the arrived-and-moved-in-next-door wig. That's the last thing I need, to become a werewolf snausage."
The Slayer tucked her arm into the crook of his elbow and led him away. "Your confidence in my ability to keep you safe is assuring," she told him flatly with a wry smile.
"Nah," responded Xander, "it's nothin' to do with you. It's just a thing. I saw Cujo last week. Images of big, angry, flesh-rending, man-killing dogs – little too fresh in my mind."
As they made their way home, the shadows of Buffy and Xander lengthened and shortened in tempo to the light filtering down from the streetlamps – as did the dim and indistinct silhouette which followed at a very safe distance.
The full moon shed its pale illumination over the park. The night was crisp and clear with only the occasional cloud to obscure the sharply twinkling stars. The young teenage boy strolled the path in an unhurried manner, listening intently for the muted rustlings of nocturnal insects making their way through the undergrowth. In his left hand, he carried a large jar, empty and carefully cleaned, with the shreds of a mayonnaise label still attached to the outside. Clutched in his right hand was a small net. He looked up as a firefly, moving far too swiftly to be caught, darted in front of his eyes. He followed its glowing wake into the depths of the trees and failed to notice the silent parting of the tall grasses behind him. Hesitating, it appeared for a moment as though he might make chase and attempt to capture the flittering insect, but apparently thinking better of it, he moved further down the path.
A barn owl perched upon the branch of a nearby oak startled him with a mournful hoot while regarding the youngster solemnly with huge saucer-like eyes. The boy chuckled to himself for being such a wuss and then dropped to his knees as a cricket, chirping merrily, hopped across the graveled walkway.
"Gotcha!" he whispered delightedly, trapping the small insect with his net. Unscrewing the cap of his jar, he scooped the cricket up from the ground and shook it gently until it tumbled from the netting and hit the glass bottom with a tiny ping. The teenager grinned, obviously exceedingly pleased with his first find of the night. Without warning and with an ear-piercing screech, the owl took flight and the boy almost dropped the jar in astonishment at the sudden departure. Scrambling to make sure the lid was still closed, he pushed himself to his feet and looked back at the now vacant branch.
With the eruption of a stiff breeze, the leaves of the oak swayed violently back and forth. The riffle they made was somewhat eerie and the teenager shivered, looking behind him hesitantly as the cricket, seeking an escape route, leapt ever higher within the confines of the jar. From the corner of his eye, the boy discerned a shadow falling across the path, but it had vanished when he turned to face it. "Wuss," he chided again.
Straightening his shoulders, he made a fine show of nonchalance as he purposely strode forward, stopping short when he heard a snuffling coming from his left. He bent down and peered curiously into the gloomy light shrouding a row of dense bushes. Shaking his head, he was about to move on when the snuffle sounded again and he inched closer, noticing a pair of bright jade eyes watching him through the murk.
Frowning, the teenager crouched and craned his neck in order to gain a better look. A black nose, shiny and glistening in the moonlight, sniffed inquisitively as the boy shuffled nearer. With an audible sigh of relief, the youngster dropped his net and stretched out his hand.
"Aww," he murmured softly with a broad smile. "Nice puppy. Don't be scared. I ain't gonna hurt you. Are you lost?"
The boy opened his mouth in a soundless scream as the animal's pointed snout emerged from the darkness of the hedge. He appeared to want to draw back his hand, run from the spot, cry out for help, but he was frozen in panic and unable to do any of those things. He closed his terror-struck eyes and shrieked in agony as the wide jaws snapped around his wrist. A trickle of
scalding tears meandered down his cheeks and he whimpered, allowing the mayonnaise jar to drop. Upon hitting the ground, the lid flew off and the cricket, having gained its freedom, chirped merrily again before hopping away to sanctuary.
Raising its shaggy head, the creature howled at the image of the lunar goddess shining down from above as the teen's body quivered with pain. Summoning all the strength he could muster, the boy tried to scuttle away from the bushes and he screamed pitifully into the night sky. A sorrowful hoot from the returning barn owl was his only response. Tightly seizing the boy's ankle within its curving claws, the animal slowly and deliberately dragged the teenager into the depths of the bushes. The youngster snatched desperately at the small branches with his good hand, but the fragile twigs snapped easily within his grasp. His fingers trailed in the dirt as he disappeared into the undergrowth. He shrieked only once more before falling silent.
Soon, the only sounds that could be heard were those of fabric and flesh being shredded, accompanied by the sickly slurpings of frenzied feeding and the merry chirp of a cricket.