Chapter 1: Chapters 1-5
Even with her consciousness focused entirely on the destruction of everything, a part of her subconscious mind was at work at other tasks. Because her lover was dead, the empty spaces of her mind resounded with the echo of her grief, reverberating off of every emotion that felt connected to her beloved.
Tara was not her first true love. There had been another once, before he had thrown her away to go off into the world and find himself. And though he had come back and she had chosen Tara over him, a part of her would always belong to him and him alone. So when Tara died and the world was about to end at her hand, a corner of Willow's subconscious mind decided that Tara's being dead meant that she couldn't allow Oz to die. It was a kind of balance.
The magic spread outward from her in a crackling wave, calling up the power of a long forgotten goddess. And while the magic was doing as she willed, a tiny portion was separated from the rest and sent out without her direct knowledge, a piece of the old Willow that refused to let her first love die.
Tara had died. The world was going to die. Oz would live.
He was driving his van down a country road when a strange light rose up out of the earth before him. With a fast pounding heart, he slammed his foot on the brakes, but it was too late. The van passed through the ring of light.
Gold swirling with blue and purple; color drifted around him, filling him up. It was like being able to see for the first time in his life.
He knew he probably should have been afraid, but he wasn't, not really. He just drifted weightless through a sea of color, his skin tingling and melting away until he merged completely with the strangeness and the light. For the first time in a long time, he felt like himself and nothing else. There was no pressure behind his skin, no urge to Change and rip through the world a howling monster thirsting for blood. It was a wonderful sensation to just be Daniel Osbourne.
He didn't quite know what he was going to do when he had to wake up from this dream. If he could have, he would have stayed in the light forever, safe and unafraid. It felt like coming home.
Since becoming a werewolf, Jason had pretty much had to get used to weird things happening in his life. So a man falling out of the sky onto the middle of his bed shouldn't have been such a shock. But it was, especially since he was in bed at the time, naked and with one hand on his cock and a dildo up his ass.
"Holy shit!" He jerked the toy out with painful quickness, tossing it away as he sat up.
He reached out a tentative hand to touch the stranger to see if he was alive. There was just something so unappealingly gross about a dead guy falling on him while he was masturbating. There were many levels of ick in that.
The flesh he touched was warm. He was surprised at how delicate the bones in the man's wrist were. The pulse under his fingers was strong though, so that was a relief.
Climbing to his knees, he flipped the guy over onto his back. He was surprised by how young, yet ageless the man looked. He could have been a teenager or in his twenties or even in his early thirties, it was impossible to tell for sure, though his clothes and hair said he wasn't too old. Jeans falling apart at the knees, a long-sleeved grey shirt with a blue tee shirt over the top that matched his hair. A surgical steel ring shone in his left eyebrow and he had three earrings in each earlobe, with a metal cuff featuring an intricate Celtic design high on the delicate arch of his left ear.
The guy wouldn't win any beauty contests--wasn't abnormally perfect like some vampires Jason had seen--but his face was appealingly interesting. For some reason, he made Jason think of words like "charming," "adorable," "cuddly," and "elfin." Even unconscious, there was just something about him.
"Hey man, are you alive?" Jason whispered, not expecting an answer.
He jerked back in startled surprise when the man's eyes popped open and he groaned. "What hit me?" He was dazed and confused, nothing to be scared of.
"I don't know what happened to you," Jason said. "You just fell out of the air. How'd you get in my room?"
The guy sat up, clutching his forehead with one hand. "I don't know. I was driving. Where am I?"
"My room," Jason said, "at the Circus of the Damned."
The guy snorted. "Oddly appropriate name given the situation. Who are you?"
"Jason Schulyer. Who are you?"
The guy looked right at him. Jason was caught in those eyes. They were so quiet and still. The guy should have been terrified, and he was surprised, but he wasn't afraid. There was just this mild curiosity in his eyes, as though so much weird shit went on in his life that he couldn't even care anymore. "Daniel Osbourne. Oz."
"Nice name. What are you doing here?"
Oz shrugged a little. "No idea. The Circus of the Damned? What's that about?"
Jason cocked his head curiously. "Practically everyone's heard of the Circus of the Damned, especially since Jean-Claude came out as Master of the City. It's a circus, which obviously means entertainment. There's different kinds of shows and stuff, you know. Vampires and lycanthropes and zombie raising shows, all kinds of stuff go on here."
"Lycanthropes?" There was an odd note in Oz's voice.
Jason felt his spine wanting to stiffen, but held himself loose. "Yeah, lycanthropes. Do you have a problem with that?"
Oz shook his head. "No, I was just surprised. What town is this?"
"Town? What are you talking about, town?" Jason pulled himself to his feet, grabbing his robe off the end of the bed and pulling it on, not bothering to close the front. "This is the city of St. Louis."
"St. Louis? I'm in St. Louis? How did that happen? I was in Oregon last thing I knew," Oz said.
"Oregon? Then how the fuck did you get all the way over here?"
"I don't know." He didn't seem ready to say anything else.
Jason sighed in exasperation. "Well, as soon as you can stand up I better take you to meet the master. Jean-Claude will know what to do with you."
* * *
Anita let out one last soundless scream before collapsing back on the bed. Nathaniel held one side of her, Micah the other.
"Are you all right?" Micah asked.
"What the fuck was that?" Anita demanded, her voice breaking a little. Her body shook still. The convulsions that had torn through her had been both painful and exhausting. She felt like she'd run a hundred miles; her muscles were like Jell-O.
One minute they'd been having sex, feeding the ardeur, and the next it was like bolts of electricity were being driven straight up her spine. No warning or nothing, just pain jolting through her. It had stopped just as fast as it started.
"Was... did something happen to Jean-Claude or Richard?" Nathaniel asked.
Anita shook her head back and forth, sweaty hair slapping her cheeks. "No, they didn't feel a thing. This was just me. Something happened tonight, and I want to know what the fuck it was." And kill it, tactfully remained unsaid.
* * *
"...all right, and remember, don't look straight into his eyes. You got it all?" Jason asked.
Oz nodded. "Sure. Seems simple enough."
Jason punched him lightly on the shoulder. "You don't say a lot, do you?"
"Come on, then," Jason led Oz down the hallway toward a door. "This is the private entrance to Jean-Claude's office. Not many people know about it."
"Why trust me?" Oz asked.
"Because there's no way you'd ever be able to find it again later. The only way you'd be able to make it here is if I took you to the front gate of the Circus and showed you all the way through again. It's like a maze in here."
"A labyrinth," Oz said, musing. "Am I going to meet the Goblin King?"
"Huh?" Jason asked.
Oz shrugged. "Never mind, private thought. Let's go."
"All right then." Jason took Oz's arm and knocked on the door.
"Come in," Jean-Claude's rolling voice called, raising delicious prickles against the skin. Oz shivered.
"Be brave," Jason murmured in Oz's ear, pushing open the door.
They went in to meet the Master.
Jason had to admit Jean-Claude always put on a good show. He had a fine sense of the dramatic. It was a skill that had served him well, making his position appear stronger than it was.
Too bad Oz seemed completely unaffected by it all. On his first sight of Jean-Claude, and after hearing that voice, all Oz said was, "Huh, that's different." There was no trace of fear in him.
Jean-Claude looked at the stranger, propping his elbows on his desk and tenting his fingers under his chin. "Who are you, mon ami? How did you get past security? Where have you come from?"
"Born in Sunnydale, California. I was driving in Oregon, a light came up out of the road, and here I am. Lost my van somewhere." Oz shrugged. It didn't even seem to bother him.
"That is very interesting," Jean Claude sat back in his chair. "I have never heard of this 'Sunnydale' in California. Where exactly is it?"
"Little ways down the highway from L.A. Certified mouth of Hell, otherwise known as El Boca del Inferno. Convergence of mystical energy holding a magnetic appeal to vampires, demons, and any loony that wants to plunge the world into apocalyptic doom. Kind of comic book-like really."
"How do you think you came to be here?" Jean-Claude asked.
One side of Oz's mouth went up then down. "This doesn't look like the St. Louis I've seen on TV. My guess is that I'm in an alternate world."
"And that does not surprise you? Frighten you?" Jean-Claude asked tentatively, his eyes on the strange young man before him. He sounded like he was humoring a madman, but Jason could smell that Oz wasn't lying.
"My ex-girlfriend's twin from an alternate universe showed up once. Kind of used to all the strange, Hellmouth and all. This world does have shrimp though, right?"
"Shrimp? What's that?" Jason asked, then laughed a little. "Yeah, there's shrimp. Though I can't imagine what your world's like that you'd think we wouldn't have shrimp here. Are you some kind of time traveler too? It's 2004 here. What year is it where you're from?"
"Huh, that's something. It's 2002 where I'm from. Guess I lost two years," Oz said. He was glancing around the office, taking in the paintings on the wall and the dark furnishings. "You must have gone to decorating school with Angel," he told Jean-Claude.
"Who is this 'Angel?'" Jean-Claude asked.
Oz shrugged. "Vamp from home. Has the same kind of taste in decorating you do. It's... nice."
Jason barely held back a snort of laughter. The voice had been as inexpressive as his face, but Jason could smell Oz's amusement at some private joke.
By the curl of Jean Claude's lips he knew he was being mocked, but he wasn't going to do anything about it. "So you actually believe in alternate universes, do you? What proof do we have that you haven't simply broken into our establishment? Why shouldn't I call the police right now and have you removed?"
Oz shrugged. "Dunno. I don't know how I got here, and I don't know how to get back. If Willow was here, I'd ask her or the rest of the gang to go into research mode. But it's just me. Sorry."
"Who's Willow and how would she be able to help you? And what do you mean by 'research mode?'" Jean-Claude asked.
"Willow used to be my girlfriend. She and her friends are the Slayerettes, or the Scooby Gang. I used to be one of them, but I left. Willow's a powerful witch."
"'Slayerettes?'" Jason asked. "What exactly do they slay?"
Oz shrugged, a look of vague discomfort crossing his features before he went back to his usual blank-faced state. "You know, monsters and stuff. It's a different world where I come from."
Jason cocked an eyebrow at him. "Monsters and stuff? What kind of monsters?"
"You know, ones eating people and causing trouble. No big. If it's not trying to kill a bunch of people or end the world, they leave it pretty much alone."
Jason had a feeling there was more to it than that. There always was.
Jean-Claude was giving the guy a suspicious look. He knew there was a lot Oz wasn't saying, but he wasn't going to push the issue, not yet. He was probably formulating frighteningly complex plans in his brain, all to take the place of asking a simple question that might or might not be answered truthfully.
"Who are you in your world?" Jason asked.
Oz shrugged. "Played guitar. Been driving around the last couple of years, seeing stuff and working odd jobs. Guess I'm revolting against the teen angst that used to be my life."
"You don't fight monsters?"
Something like amusement crinkled the corners of Oz's eyes for a moment, then was gone. "No, I don't fight the monsters anymore. I live quietly now. I handed in my decoder ring and stopped playing hero with the rest of the gang after high school graduation."
"What happened then? Why don't you work with them anymore? Aren't they your friends?"
"I hung around awhile after graduation, but not so much for the slayage, more for the college and the higher education factor. Things got out of control, and I left. Went back months later to get my girlfriend back, but she found herself a girlfriend and didn't need me. Stuff got crazy, things got said, I left." Oz shook his head almost ruefully. "I should have left after graduation when the mayor turned into a giant snake. Things wouldn't have hurt so bad, maybe. And no, I don't think me and the Slayerettes are still really friends. We're just people that used to know each other once. It's all right."
Jason bit the inside of his lip for a second, a bright bit of pain that left too soon. "That's sad, and kind of lonely."
"You were an executioner while you were in high school?" Jean-Claude asked in that purring sex voice of his.
Oz looked at him for a long moment, effortlessly meeting his gaze. He didn't even seem to know that he wasn't supposed to look a vampire right in the eyes. At least, he didn't seem to find anything strange about it. "We weren't 'executioners,' we were the Slayerettes, backup for the man, or rather, chosen girl. Supposed to be the only one in all the world, but she died, came back though. We watched her back and she kept us alive. Pretty fair trade, I think."
"You killed vampires without an order of execution?" Jean-Claude asked.
Oz shrugged. "Don't know what that is, but I can figure. No, we didn't need any special papers. Most people didn't even know monsters are real. It was just the Slayer and her Slayerettes against the creatures of the night. Everyone else lived in bliss."
"Bliss?" Jason asked.
"General ignorance to the creatures walking the night and killing them when they weren't looking. Seems like bliss to me." He sighed a little. "Sometimes I miss those days, when I didn't have to know what was out there, waiting to kill me. There was just something so peaceful about that."
"Your world sounds so strange," Jason said. "I can't imagine a world where everyone didn't know about supernatural creatures."
"That's the way it was," Oz said. "Even when someone saw something, they would just kind of suppress all memory of it. Selective amnesia is a way of life on my Earth."
Jason wrinkled his brow. "I guess in your world I probably wouldn't have any rights or anything."
Oz looked at him for a long moment. "Lycanthrope, right? Werewolf?"
"How'd you know?" Jason asked. "Are you a psychic?"
"Yes, Mr. Oz, do you have any... special abilities?" Jean-Claude leaned forward a little bit, a subtle shifting of weight and balance.
Oz looked from Jason to Jean-Claude then back again. He shrugged. "Everyone's got something that makes them unique from someone else. Really, though, I'm nothing special. Can play guitar, if that helps."
"That really does," Jason said. "If a music critic ever goes nuts in downtown St. Louis, we'll just toss you at him to handle the situation."
"Thanks," Oz said. "My three chords ought to send him into a frenzy of such frustrated sensibilities that his head will explode and everyone else can get away."
"You're kind of a strange little person, aren't you?" Jason said.
"Little?" Oz raised an eyebrow.
Jason stepped close to show the fact that he was a few inches taller. "Yeah, shorty, you're kind of little. Though I noticed you didn't say you're not strange."
Oz shrugged. "Can't fault truth."
Jason grinned at him. Sure, Oz didn't say much, and some of what he did say was a little mysterious, but he was still a fairly likeable person, at least from Jason's perspective.
"Are you certain that you do not know how you came to be here?" Jean-Claude asked.
Oz focused on the vampire. "Obviously by magic, but I didn't see what happened."
"Hm." Jean-Claude tapped his chin thoughtfully. He turned to Jason. "Find him a room near yours. Show him around. I am certain our young visitor from another world will need all kinds of help to become used to all of this newness."
Jason nodded, then grasped Oz's arm. "Come on, let's go. We've been dismissed."
"Thank you," Oz said as he was dragged out of the office.
Once they were safely in the hall with the door closed behind them, Jason leaned against Oz with a breath of relief. "Wow, that was a good one, wasn't it?"
Oz raised a questioning eyebrow. "Huh?"
"You may not have known it, but things could have gone real bad in there. Jean-Claude may play it all civilized, but if push came to shove, he would rip your throat out before you could say 'Oops.'"
"Well that's certainly comforting," Oz said.
Jason shrugged. "It's the way of the world. Vampires, you know."
"Yeah," Oz said, something strange entering his voice for a moment, "vampires."
"Vampires!" the girl squealed.
"Yeah, they're kind of obvious with the pointy face thing going," Xander grunted as he swung his axe at the hulking demon he was facing. He was letting the girls handle the onrushing horde of vampires coming up behind him. He knew they had his back.
"I thought that after Sunnydale imploded we'd get a break, not even more of a workout," Buffy said, kicking a vampire in the face and plunging her stake into another's chest.
"Ah, come on Buff, you know you love this stuff," Xander said.
The new Slayer girl, Amelia, was looking at them like they were strange, but she was fighting like she knew what she was doing so that was all right.
With all the Slayers in the world it was getting hard to know all their names. Xander found himself wanting to call them all "Girls" as a group, and "Hey you" when he was talking to them one at a time. It was pretty ridiculous, but that was the way things stood now.
"I wish Willow was here," Buffy said, dusting another vampire. "I mean, we don't really need her for the slaying right now, but..."
"It's good to have her around," Xander finished. "I know. But Wills has things she's gotta work through and we gotta respect that, even though it sucks big donkey dick."
"Xander!" Buffy sounded outraged, though there was definite humor lurking in her eyes.
"What?" He gave her an innocent look.
She shook her head, incidentally staking another vamp and slamming her fist through a demon's stomach to rip out a length of intestines. She shook her fist clean and went on with the slaying. "Ever since you hooked up with Andrew you've been getting all with the weirdage," she said. "I don't know if I'm supposed to be worried or not."
"Not," he said. "Me and Andrew are good. We're having fun with the sexcapades and there's no worries on the anything weird looking to happen."
"Yeah, it's all fun and games till one of you loses an eye," she joked.
He rolled his one eye at her. "Yeah, it's gonna have to be Andrew, since I'm not looking forward to having to walk with a stick."
She snorted a laugh. "I can just see you guys now, with your matching eyepatches, his on the right, yours on the left."
"It would make for some good pictures," Xander said, swinging his axe.
It was strange to think, but the slaying had actually gotten fun again. Sure, it was still kind of a life and death struggle, but at the same time, not so much. They hadn't had to face an impending apocalypse in months, and with all the new girls around they could always delegate the responsibility for the end of the world. It was kind of like a vacation.
"You know, this kind of makes me think of how it used to be in high school," Xander said. "Sure, we were all with the serious when it was happening then, but now that kind of stuff looks kind of easy, you know? Giant bug people, people made out of bugs, being possessed every Tuesday, crazy Mom wanting to relive her mad days as a cheerleader; easy stuff, you know?"
Buffy nodded. "Yeah, I know."
"And now things have gotten back to that kind of easiness. We go out and kill the baddies, and there's not quite as much angst. Very with the fresh-making. It kind of makes you think."
"Yeah," Buffy said.
"It makes me wonder how Oz is doing. I mean, after the news about Cordy..." He had to pause for a deep breath. It still hurt to think of Cordelia. Even though he hadn't seen her in awhile, it had kind of been a good thing to imagine her out and about in the world, causing trouble at the side of Deadboy. Then news had trickled down that she was dead, and it was like all the fun was just sucked out of his week. He was tired of people he had loved dying. "Oz is the last of the runaway Scoobies. All the others are dead."
"Yeah," Buffy said, sounding subdued. "Maybe we should ask Willow to check around."
"Ya think?" he asked.
She nodded. "Yeah. We'll have her run a little check to see how he's doing."
"Good," Xander said. "It'll be nice to know that at least one of the ex-Slayerette's is out there doing all right in the world. No violence and mayhem for him. Just relaxation and trying not to turn into a big hairy dog when it's the full moon."
"You guys are weird," Amelia called, breathing hard as she grappled with a slavering grey demon. "Can you help?"
Xander and Buffy shared a look. "Amateur," they both said.
It felt great to be doing some everyday, non-apocalyptic slaying. Just a kill or be killed kind of fight without all the extra drama. Good versus evil and none of the rest of the crazy ass bullshit they'd had to deal with in the last days of Sunnydale.
It was almost like a vacation.
As alternate realities went, Oz had to admit that this wasn't such a bad one. Sure, it would have been better to be home, but if he had to live in a new world... this might have been the one he would have picked after a couple of stiff drinks.
Jason seemed nice enough and it felt good to have a local for a friend. At least he didn't have to face up to all this strangeness alone, and that was always of the good. It made him almost think of the "good" old days with the Scooby Gang. They had always been there to back him up, even when he was turning all furry and had to be locked up for three days out of each month, back when he was being controlled by his inner weird and had no idea how to make his life any different. The days of Willow were behind him and there was no going back.
The room he'd been given in the Circus of the Damned was large and comfortable with an attached bathroom. He was relieved that it looked like a rather normal guest room, and hadn't been decorated in the latest vampire fashion. He'd been afraid for a minute before Jason had opened the door, but after he'd walked in, everything was good.
"We'll go pick you up some clothes tomorrow," Jason offered.
Oz looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't have any money. My wallet was in the glove compartment of my van."
Jason made a shooing gesture with his hand. "Doesn't matter. Jean-Claude offered up a little money to help you get started on your wardrobe. He said he didn't want you to be walking around dressed like a homeless person."
"Gee, thanks," Oz said.
Jason laughed. "Hey, he's old-fashioned French. His clothes mean more to him than our lives."
"Typical vampire," Oz said, shrugging.
"Wow, you must have been around your fair share of the paler, blood-liking folk," Jason said.
A little smile quirked one side of Oz's mouth. "Never for too long."
Jason gave him an almost nervous look. "It's not a good idea to suggest stuff like that around all the vampires here at the Circus, especially Jean-Claude."
Oz shrugged. "What'll be, will be."
He knew he should have been completely freaked out about being in another dimension, but he couldn't really get up the fear factor. It was almost like being back on the Hellmouth... which meant all the strangeness and nerve-wracking situations were pretty homelike to him. Which just went to show how messed up he really was.
"Can I borrow some clothes to wear for tomorrow?" he asked. He tugged on his shirt. "These ones are pretty rank." He hadn't had a chance to shower at the last truck stop and it was really beginning to show, plus, his last load of laundry took place at least three weeks ago and he was on his third run through his clothes.
Jason looked him up and down, then quirked a laughing eyebrow. "Sure. We're about the same size clothes wise. No big."
Oz granted him one of his rare, bright smiles. "Thanks."
Jason blinked quickly, his mouth opening a little before closing tight. "Yeah... yeah. You're welcome. Yeah."
Oz shrugged, not even noticing the sudden turmoil he had caused in Jason. He was too busy contemplating how weird his life had become, Sunnydale weirdness seeping into every aspect of his existence even when he wasn't in Sunnydale anymore. Very strange.
He walked over to the bed and threw himself across it, testing the bounce-factor of the neatly made up queen-sized mattress. "This is pretty nice," he said. Better than a night spent on the mattress in the back of his van, that was for sure. The only trouble with the place was knowing that he wasn't in his home dimension anymore. He was somewhere else starting his entire life all over and he didn't even know if he was ever going to be able to fit into this world or not. But any way that he looked at it, there was probably no way home so he would just have to deal.
"Something happened last night," Anita said without preamble, bracing her hands on Jean-Claude's desk as she leaned forward with unconscious aggression. "I don't know what it was, but I was having seizures for nearly two minutes straight. If I hadn't been your human servant, I might have died. Several powerful magic users out there did die, and we have to figure out why."
"And good evening to you, ma petite," Jean-Claude said with that oh-so-casually non-sarcastic tone, though his eyes glinted dangerously.
They were still together, but it was an iffy thing, mostly because of recent mistakes she had made, but also because the blush had faded from their relationship and they were both coming to terms with the fact that other than sex, they didn't really have anything in common. Especially since Jean-Claude had pointed out the fact that she was more violent than he was, and he was the vampire. She really hadn't liked hearing that, especially since it had become true in recent years.
She had lost all perspective, and it showed in the way she had come charging into his office like it was a right and not a privilege he had granted her. They weren't even in a real relationship anymore, not since they had stopped having sex with each other and begun focusing their attentions on other people. She had Micah and Nathaniel, while he had Asher and a slew of others. They had pretty much given up on being together, and if it wasn't for the Marks, they probably wouldn't have had to cross paths either.
"Come on, Jean-Claude, cut the crap. Do you know what happened last night, or not?" she demanded. He could feel her poking at the Mark between them, trying to force the truth out of him with her usual lack of charm.
Looking at her, he couldn't help but to think of the woman she was the first time he saw her: beautiful, intelligent, a little self-righteous in her morality, but certainly more compassionate than this creature she had become. It was hard to admit it, but over the years she had become more of a vampire than he was, and he wasn't the only one that had noticed it.
For the last few months he had been receiving gently worded inquiries about what was making Anita so testy. Basically, everyone wanted to know why she was being such a bitch, even more of one than usual. He hadn't known how to reply, because he really didn't know.
A lot of things had happened in the past five years that could explain the differences in Anita, but she had taken the changes to a drastic degree and become a completely different person. A raging psychotic was what one of her recent denigrators had called her just before she had put a bullet between his eyes and he hadn't been able to say anything more.
It had gotten to the point where someone merely had to say something she didn't like and she had her gun out. And more often than not, she wouldn't hesitate to shoot someone.
The final straw in their relationship came because she pointed her gun at him for daring to correct one of her misconceptions. It was a few days after that--when she had had a chance to realize that what she had done was wrong and realize that she should regret it--he had told her that he didn't think they belonged together anymore. And thus the sexual portion of their relationship had died and they had begun trying to build some other kind of relationship, since the Marks meant that they were going to be together for as long as they lived.
He had come to the unfortunate realization that there was nothing about Anita that he liked anymore. She was still pretty, but there were millions of women out there much prettier than she would ever be. She was just another dangerous predator in a world filled with them, and even though she was a little more dangerous than most, the spark of uniqueness had been wiped from the image that he held of her by the fact that she was more of a monster than he was.
"I do not know what has happened," he said, though the mental flash of an elfin face and spiky blue hair gave him a suspicion. He wasn't going to tell Anita though. Her shoot first, ask questions later approach would see the young man dead with no answers revealed. And young Daniel Osbourne had piqued Jean-Claude's curiosity, and he wanted some of his questions answered.
She gave him a disbelieving look. "You always know when something's happened in the city."
"This time I do not."
She snorted. "Well that's just great then. There was some big quake on the psychic plain, and there's no clues about what caused it or if it's going to happen again. For all we know, this was some elaborate scheme to off a bunch of wizards and spell casters."
"I do not know, ma petite. I will ask some questions and have my people try to find out what happened, but what else can I do? You are the one with ties to the police and knowledge of magic."
She snorted, a rather unattractive sound. "Fine, I will figure out who did this and what happened, then I will handle the situation. You can sit around being useless yet again."
Jean-Claude's lips drew tight and his eyebrows wanted to furrow angrily. "I think that your experience last night has left you more out of sorts than you thought. Perhaps you should go now and rest, before you say something that you really do not mean."
She blinked at him, then jerked a nod and left without saying good night, the very set of her shoulders proof of her directionless anger.
Once she was gone, he allowed himself a tired sigh. It was getting harder and harder for him to deal with Anita.
There were few times that he truly regretted giving Anita the Marks, because it was her power as a necromancer that had allowed him to become Master of the City. Lately, though, he found himself wishing that they had never met. To be bound forever with Anita... he didn't know how he was going to withstand it.
He had thought that he loved her, had burned with a passion that he had thought was never going to be extinguished. But maybe the very fact that he had desired her so powerfully was why it hadn't lasted... the brighter flames often burned out fastest.
After only a few short years of dealing with "ma petite," and he was ready to move on to brighter pastures. It did not bode well for the eternity before them.
Oz buried his face in the pillow for a second to keep from groaning out loud, then forced himself to sit up. He looked at Jason. "What time is it?"
The werewolf shrugged, a big shit-eating grin spreading his lips. "Time for us to be out and about. You need a wardrobe, and I need to meet a guy about a thing."
"A guy about a thing?" Oz raised an inquiring brow.
Jason grinned and slowly lowered his right eyelid in a wink. "Don't worry about it. There won't be any trouble. I promise."
"Why doesn't that comfort me?" Oz asked, but gamely climbed out of bed and dressed in the clothes Jason had brought him. The tee shirt was a little closer fitting than he usually went for, but otherwise the jeans and tee shirt ensemble was perfect. At least he didn't have as much bare flesh showing as Jason currently did.
Looking at the other man, Oz seriously had to wonder how the guy got away with dressing like that. Sure, in certain circles Jason's outfit would have been normal, but in the everyday world... it was just a tad out there.
What looked like shiny black leather bicycle shorts that left nothing to the imagination, including the fact that Jason wasn't wearing underwear, a tight red tank-top made out of what looked like knotted bits of string, and black leather bracelets. And when Jason turned... Oz felt his eyes go wide for one disbelieving moment before he got himself back under control. Peekaboo patches of clear plastic covered each butt cheek with only a thin strip of leather between each patch to keep from showing off his butt crack.
"How do you get away with dressing like that?" Oz asked.
Jason shrugged. "I'm me."
"Okay." As though that explained it all, and in Oz-land, it probably did.
Being Jason, and having a choice about where they were going to shop, they did not go to the mall. Sure, that would have probably been where they would have ended up if Anita was in charge, but she wasn't not today.
So Jason took Oz to a little shop called Mindy's House of Horrors, a trendy boutique filled with the kinds of things that the mall normally did not carry.
"So, what do you think?" Jason asked.
Even without any expression showing on his face, Jason could tell that Oz was surprised. "Maybe it's my originally small town sensibilities, but this place just completely blows my mind."
"I can tell," Jason said, a faint smile quirking his lips.
Oz glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, then went back to examining the strange world he had found himself in. There wasn't a whole lot here that he could see himself wearing, but... it was fascinating."Why are we here?" he asked, a trace of suspicion appearing in his voice.
Jason grinned at him. "Don't worry, we're not going to get the bulk of your wardrobe from here," he said. "I told you I had to see a guy about a thing, and that's why we're here. That thing I need."
"Just to be sure." Oz wandered a little away to take a closer look at the contents of a display case.
Making sure not to stare at Oz's ass, Jason turned away to look for Hyperius Rex. He had some business to handle, serious business.
Stepping up to the counter, he knocked his knuckles against it three times, then waited.
The beaded curtain that led to the back "workroom" opened and the werecobra slipped through, dressed head to toe in a shiny leather dominatrix outfit with the chest area cut out. Little leather pasties covered her nipples, but did nothing to hide the awesomeness of her breasts. She had obviously paid a small fortune to have such beautiful D-cups.
"Neat outfit," Jason said with a wide grin and shining eyes.
She flicked her blue-black hair off her shoulder with one hand. "What do you want, dog?"
Looking directly into her slit-pupiled green eyes, Jason shrugged and let all sign of amusement slip away. "You've got something I want Hyperius. No more messing around."
She seemed to glide forward, her hips swaying gently. "Do you think you deserve it, dog-boy?"
"Eat me, snake." He let a little growl enter his voice.
She smirked. "Gladly." Leaning against the glass-topped counter, she stared directly at him with her disturbing eyes. "Now. Ask me nicely, and maybe you'll get what you want."
"Oh yeah?" his voice went low, husky.
"You wish. You know what I mean. If you ask nice, you'll get the package. Nothing more. Maybe less, if you keep pushing me."
"Fine." He crossed his arms, barely keeping the pout off his face. "Can I please, please, please have the package, dear and beautiful Hyperius?"
Her lips quirked in what very well might have been her version of amusement. "You just remember who asked who for what, dear."
She strolled back through the curtain and returned a few heartbeats later carrying a large, white paper wrapped box. "Here. I will charge it to your account."
Jason took the package from her, careful not to show how excited he was. "Thank you ever so much."
She snorted and moved away from him with a gliding grace. He was no longer worth her attention and she had no qualms about showing that fact.
Jason didn't care though. He had what he had come for. He was just glad not to have to deal with her notably bad temper.
Oz's eyes flicked over the package when he stepped up beside the other man, but he didn't ask questions. He just held up a pair of black leather pants and quirked an eyebrow.
"Very nice," Jason said. "But I thought you were more the jeans and tee shirt kind of guy."
Oz shrugged one shoulder. "I'm not in a jeans and tee shirt kind of world anymore. I might as well find the leather I'm willing to wear instead of being fitted out in total Matrix-wear. No chains and whips for me, please."
"But you'd look so pretty," Jason cajoled, before having to laugh at the total not-an-expression expression on Oz's face. "Relax. I'm not going to force you to wear anything you're not comfortable with."
"But Jean-Claude might."
"Okay then. Let's go shopping for some mildly porn-looking clothes."
"Yay! An adventure."
That night, Oz wore his new clothes to dinner. Jean-Claude passed an approving eye over him before giving Jason a nod.
"Looks like I'm pornalicious," Oz said dryly.
"What?" Jason couldn't believe he'd said what he thought he said.
Oz shrugged. "Just channeling my inner-Xander."
"Used to be a friend. He had a perpetual case of foot-in-mouth disease when it came to normal conversation. Funny though."
Jason shook his head. "You don't really say much, but wh..." His voice trailed away and he grabbed Oz's arm. "Come on, let's go over here." He began leading him away, his eyes locked on someone across the room.
"Whoa, what's with the hurry?" Oz asked, not fighting him. "Is something about to eat me?"
"No," Jason said, trying to maneuver them into the darkest corner he could find. "Anita's here, and she looks pissed. You definitely don't want to meet her when she's mad. She's been just a little too shoot first, ask question never lately."
Oz allowed himself to be tucked in the shadows. "Who's Anita?"
"Anita Blake," Jason said. "She's Jean-Claude's human servant. They haven't been getting along too well lately. You do not want to taste the fallout."
"Here, I'll go get us some drinks and something to munch on before dinner," Jason said. He squared his shoulders and called up all his courage before entering the line of fire.
He could still remember the days when he had allowed himself to be attracted to Anita. She had been pretty, brave and stronger both emotionally and physically than anyone her size had any right to be. She had definitely been a tasty treat.
That had been awhile ago, though, and things had definitely changed. Anita had stepped over the edge from strong protector to raging psycho bitch.
She didn't know it, but some people had taken to calling her the "Psycho Queen." And her title of Nimir-ra of the wereleopards only made the name more fitting.
Jason was a little sad that Anita didn't realize how far she had fallen. She still thought that she was in control, that she had managed to maintain some semblance of self even amongst the monsters. What she didn't know was that she had become one of the most monstrous of the monsters, a creature everyone feared for her complete lack of self-control. Even her leopards had taken to stepping carefully around her.
Jason crept around the bulk of the crowd until he reached the buffet table, where he grabbed a plate and began picking and choosing finger food.
"Jason, what's been going on?"
He barely kept himself from visibly flinching. Pasting a smile on, he turned toward Anita. "Hey Anita," he said, trying to sound cheerfully welcoming. It was hard when she was Looking at him like that.
"Jason," she said, her voice coming out as a low growl. "What's been happening? What happened the other night? What does Jean-Claude not want you to tell me?"
"Look, Anita, you might threaten me or whatever, but I work for Jean-Claude. If he doesn't want me to tell you something, then I'm not saying anything." Jason reached out and grabbed some crackers, adding them to his plate. "Anyway, there's nothing to tell you."
She gave him a disbelieving look. "I know when you're lying," she said. "And you're lying right now."
Putting on as non-aggressive a face as possible, Jason shook his head. "I'm not lying to you. There's nothing going on now that has anything to do with you. There are no problems for you to solve this week, Anita."
She stepped closer to him and he felt his skin wanting to crawl away. "Tell me what's going on," she demanded.
"Hey, leave him alone."
Jason felt his stomach drop as he turned to find Oz standing a few feet away.
"And who and what are you?" Anita asked, going for a normal tone but still sounding pissed.
"Uh, Anita, this is Oz and he's human. Oz, this is Anita Blake," Jason said.
"What, as in the Wizard of?" Anita said snidely.
Oz just looked at her, then shrugged. "Okay. I figure it's better than being named after a maximum security prison."
"What?" Anita looked as though she was wondering if she had just been insulted or not.
"It was a show on HBO," Oz said, shrugging again. "What were you saying to Jason to make him look that freaked out?"
"Jason's fine," Anita said, turning to him. "Right?"
Jason looked into the blank emptiness of her dark eyes and forced a nod. "Sure. I'm great."
She looked at him for a long heartbeat, then shook her head, her shoulders relaxing. "Shit. I was freaking you out, wasn't I? Dammit, I'm sorry. I just wanted to know what was happening."
"It's all right," Jason said. It felt like the air had suddenly been returned to the room. He felt just a little head-spun and drunk. It made him wonder where the next shock was going to be coming.
Anita reached out and touched his shoulder. He fought the urge to cringe back and just took it, maintaining his 'friendly, sex-fiendish, non-threat-to-alphas Jason' mask. He really didn't want trouble.
"I'm sorry," Anita said. "I do know that you're caught between two masters."
"Yeah," Jason said. And thank God you're not really one of them. It was bad enough she was Boverk and alpha to him.
Anita turned back to Oz. "What are you doing here?" she asked.
"In what way?" Oz raised one eyebrow Spock-like.
"Jason said you're human. So why are you here with the vampires and lycanthropes?" The monsters.
Jason knew that even though she sometimes thought of herself as being one of the monsters, that she didn't really mean it. In her own head, she saw herself as being better than the people around her and that she could never really be one of the monsters. She was always the exception to any situation. Anita Blake, trendsetter.
"Jason is my friend," Oz said. "Jean-Claude was nice enough to let me stay here with Jason until I find a place of my own."
"Yeah right." Anita snorted. "What do you have that he wants?"
"Nothing," Oz said. "I think that he just respects Jason enough to want him happy."
Anita's lips quirked in total disbelief. "Believe me, Jean-Claude never does anything just out of the goodness of his heart. Either you or Jason has something he wants, and if you don't watch out, he's going to get it from you.
Looking at Anita, Oz could almost see Buffy... if Buffy had ever gone on a bad power trip and lost all sense of reality. Great power corrupted by a case of terminal bitchiness.
That slow moving Other inside him wanted to teach her a lesson. Even in her strength, she was weak, and the predator in him wanted to attack. She was not good for her pack, not filled with mindless arrogance the way she was. It made her unworthy of the position she carried.
Jean-Claude was supposed to be her mate, but she stunk of other males and did not support him. In fact, she saw nothing wrong with openly moving against him, trying to goad someone into challenging him. The Other did not respect that kind of betrayal.
Oz didn't really like Jean-Claude, but even in their short meeting he had garnered a little respect for him. But the fact that the vampire had laid his Mark on such an unworthy female made him question the basis of the power Jean-Claude had in this reality.
"Huh," he said out loud.
Anita didn't know what to think about Jason's friend. There was no sense of power from the guy, but there just wasn't something right about him.
He was too quiet. Too knowing. Too comfortable surrounded by all these monsters.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Where in California?" she pressed.
Oz just looked at her out of the calmest eyes she had ever seen. "A little town a couple of hours away from LA."
Anita felt frustration drawing her muscles tight. She had the sudden urge to touch her gun for no other reason that it was there. "How did you meet Jason?" she asked.
Oz shrugged. "We just kind of ran into each other. We actually have some stuff in common. He's cool to hang out with."
"Yeah right. Seriously, why do you hang around him?" Even while she was saying it, she wanted to take it back, but it was too late.
Jason went pale and glared at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I... I'm sorry Jason. I didn't mean it."
"Then you shouldn't have said it," Oz said, sounding as calm as always, except that there was something dangerous burning in his eyes.
All Anita's danger senses flicked to high alert, which made her take an even more aggressive stance. "What do you care what I say to Jason? You do know he's a werewolf, don't you?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" Oz asked. "You're not a werewolf, but you're still a bitch."
It happened without thought. Her gun just kind of leapt into her hand and pointed itself between his eyes, her finger instinctively beginning to tighten.
"NO!" Jason screamed, lunging forward.
There was the harsh retort of the gun firing, then the quick spray of blood on the floor. Then came the screams and recriminations.
Anita felt as though she had stepped out of her regular life into a nightmare she was never going to wake from.
Moments of stillest contemplation where seconds passed like centuries and every heartbeat was a lifetime.
Flashing image of Anita raising her gun and firing. Close up view of her cold-cold dark eyes, nothing remotely human behind them. She didn't even have the joy of the most conscienceless monster. She was empty inside, just this kind of void where substance had been eaten away by circumstance.
Then Oz was on the floor, feeling the bruises forming on his ass from the hard landing. Blood was soaking into his new pants and Jason wasn't moving. Jason wasn't breathing. Jason wasn't anything. He was just red-red meat piled on the floor, his chest a mess and a ruin.
"Oh god, what have I done?" Anita whispered in horror, dropping her gun with a clatter on the floor.
Oz scuttled across the floor to Jason's side. His hand trembled as he reached out to feel Jason's neck, searching for a pulse that wasn't there. "He's got no heartbeat," he said, his voice cracking.
Drawing up his old Scooby Gang courage, Oz forced himself to ignore the blood and gore and began to perform CPR, all the while silently praying. It had only been about half a minute. If he was lucky he might be able to bring Jason back enough that lycanthrope healing could kick in.
"Someone... please..." he gasped in between trying to push air into Jason's lungs and shoving on his chest. "Call 911. Do something. Help me."
The frozen moment that had held everyone else in the room suddenly broke.
Jean-Claude filled the peripheral of his vision, Asher close beside him. "Is there any sign of life?"
Oz shook his head. "Nothing. I think... I think he's really dead."
Even though he had only met Jason a couple of days before, he had really liked the guy. He had had the feeling that they would be real friends. It had been almost the same feeling he'd gotten the first time he met Devon, and they had been best friends since forever.
It was funny, living in Sunnydale had meant that people he knew and liked died everyday. But traveling the world meant he had actually gotten used to the concept that people didn't have to die young and violently. People were allowed to grow old and live a happy life.
It wasn't until he'd left Sunnydale that he'd realized how few old people survived long in Sunnydale. Or maybe it was the fact that most people didn't live long enough to be considered old.
He should have know better than to become used to a different kind of life. Tragedy followed him around wherever he went. Anyone that he even remotely liked was destined to either die a horribly messy death or turn against him in the most emotionally damaging way possible.
Thinking of the losses in his life brought up an image of Willow, as it always did. Beautiful, sweet, beloved Willow who he had wounded then in turn been wounded by.
Red hair flashed in his mind then was superseded by blond hair splashed with blood. There really wasn't anything that Willow and Jason had in common other than that visceral sense of recognition he had gotten from his first clear view of both of them.
Don't die, he thought, staring down at Jason's still face. I couldn't bear it if you stayed dead.
A deep, urgent thrum. Something was trying to call her attention, to tell her that there was something only she could do.
Reaching out with only the most delicate traces of her magic, she tried to Feel what was calling her.
Her power had grown to such astronomical proportions that if she were to turn her full attention on one person, they would be totally and completely destroyed. Cell dispersion on the micro-molecular level, which translated as the subject of her attention completely ceasing to exist.
She knew that Buffy and Giles had no idea of how powerful she had grown but that Xander had his suspicions. He had never asked though, somehow knowing that there were some answers it really was better not to know.
The fact that his oldest friend had become the nearest thing to a god was one of the mysteries that should be kept. Just label her an awesomely powerful wicca and leave it alone.
Sometimes her own power frightened her. The fact that her most idle of whims could somehow form themselves out of the aether without her conscious control was a frightening thing.
She couldn't even allow herself the freedom of disliking someone anymore for fear that they might just suddenly burst into flame or something.
So when someone called for her attention, she had to be almost comically careful not to crush their mind when she responded.
Following the source of the call, she found a familiar gold energy swirling with blue and purple.
Oz? she thought.
The still loved mind was writhing in emotional torment, completely unaware of the psychic scream he was making.
Unable to tell what the problem was from such a distance--not without possibly damaging him permanently--she sent him a thin stream of energy. Barely a trickle to the vast ocean of her power, but more than most people ever touched in their entire lives.
She didn't know if feeding him energy would help him, but at least he would know on a subconscious level that she was there, that she would help him if he ever needed it.
With a sigh of regret, Willow broke the connection to snuggle into the warmth of Kennedy's side. The sleeping Slayer made a murmuring expression of contentment and didn't wake.
I'll find out where he is tomorrow, Willow thought. Oz...
A world where the veil between life and death was as delicate in some ways as tissue paper. With the right amount of pressure, someone could tear right through to the other side, either from life to death, or from death back into life.
He didn't know why or where it came from, but he felt a sudden burst of strength flow through him.
Not even thinking of the impossibility of what he did, he slammed both palms on Jason's bloody chest and yelled, "LIVE!"
It was as though lightning shot down his arms and through his hands. Jason's body jerked under the onslaught and there was a harsh, wavering gasp.
Terrified blue eyes popped open and stared up at him in confusion.
Chapter 2: Chapters 6-10
Pain, then fierce light. Waking up to the fact that everything was different. The world had been changed somehow.
The first thing he saw was Oz, those eyes somehow managing to be both solemn and filled with such an overwhelming relief that it was almost painful to behold.
"Wha..." He coughed to clear his throat, spitting up a gobbet of blood. "What happened?" he asked, his voice coming out weaker than he expected.
"That bitch shot you," Oz said.
"Who?" Everything was kind of blurry in Jason's head.
Oz shook his head, then pointed at someone on Jason's other side.
Moving took a phenomenal amount of effort, but Jason managed to kind of flop his head in the other direction.
Seeing Anita's guilty face sent memory bursting through him. His whole body just kind of jerked, the fight or flight reaction curtailed by his overwhelming weakness.
More than anything, he wanted to run away from the woman that had shot him, killed him.
She looked at him out of pleading eyes and reached out with her hand as if to touch him. He couldn't help the flinch, saw no reason to even try. He didn't owe Anita any kind of consideration. She had shot him.
"Get away from him, Anita." Jean-Claude's voice was harsher than he had ever heard it as the vampire stepped in front of Anita. "You have done enough here, n'est pas?"
"But I..." She lowered her head and backed away. "I'm... I'm sorry Jason." With that she turned and rushed out of the room, her heels clicking against the floor.
"How are you, my pomme de sang?" Jean-Claude asked, looking down at him.
Jason groaned. "I feel like I just died. So why am I alive?" He looked at Oz. "Oz?"
The other man just looked at him for a long moment, then shrugged. "I really don't know how I did it."
Jason tried to shift his position and had to stifle a groan. His entire body ached and he felt as though his chest had been blown open then put back together again.
"Whoa, man, don't move around too much," Oz said.
Jason smiled a little. "You're pretty chatty after someone almost dies, huh?"
"It's my thing," Oz said.
"Are you able to sit up?" Jean-Claude asked, not quite butting in.
Jason couldn't even manage an emphatic twitch of his big toe much less a shake of the head. "No."
Jean-Claude sighed, then raised two fingers at someone across the room. "Very well, then. I should like to have a small tete-e-tete with our new friend." Blue vampire eyes looking at Oz.
Jason wanted to insist that Oz had to go with him, but he knew it wouldn't amount to anything. What Jean-Claude said would go because the vampire's words held all the strength of LAW.
As Castor and Pollux lifted him up, Jason kept his eyes on Oz for as long as possible. It felt as though if he looked away the blue haired man would disappear.
His last sight of Oz as he was taken through the double-doors was of the young man still kneeling on the floor. He looked impossibly young, but those still eyes made him somehow ageless. It was kind of strange, but the image of Oz surrounded by a pool of blood and with red streaks of colors across his hands and face was somehow right.
Even though he had shown no outward signs of it, there was something wild about Oz, feral. Inside that narrow chest beat the heart of a predator.
Oz looked up at Jean-Claude, wondering what the vampire would say, what impossible questions he was about to be asked.
"Who are you, mister Osbourn? Why do I find you here in my city now?"
Oz couldn't help shivering a little at the velvet sound of that voice. Vampires in this world were definitely different from what he was used to.
"Like I told you, I don't really know how I came here. If I could go home, I would, but I can't." Oz had to practically force the words out, exerting the effort necessary to push the words out past his own laconic nature.
Jean-Claude rubbed his chin. "I do not know whether I should believe your testimonies of innocence... but I thank you for saving the life of my pomme de sang."
"I like Jason. He's cool," Oz said simply.
Jean-Claude just looked at him for a long moment, then allowed himself a brief laugh. "You amuse me, petit homme. You display a truly extraordinary amount of power, yet you still act as if you are a normal man." The vampire leaned close. "You interest me."
"I didn't plan to."
Jean-Claude looked amused. "You are in my world now. It is only a matter of time before you must reveal all your secrets."
Oz felt a nervous flutter in his belly. It was weird having those eyes look at him like that. There was no way someone like Jean-Claude should show so much interest in him. It was wrong and very disquieting.
Oz made it to the room he'd been given and stumbled into the bathroom for a shower. Dried blood was flaking around him and the smell was making him uncomfortable. Hungry.
Having saved Jason's life had gotten him a Get-Out-of-Awkward-Questions card for the night, but he knew it wasn't going to last long. Jean-Claude had seemed too interested in him to just let it go. So Oz knew there would soon come a time when he would have to offer up some kind of answers.
Standing naked under the hot spray, pink-tinged water slipping down the drain, he closed his eyes.
He vaguely remembered a time when his life was normal. Back before werewolf bites, vampire slaying, and the oddly delightful sensation of bloody flesh between his teeth. He remembered the days of Dingoes Ate My Baby, hanging out with almost-friends, and the way he had dreamed of rebelling against the boringly "normal" Sunnydale lifestyle--by coloring his hair unnatural hues and wearing too much jewelry.
All those days were passed and he was here now, a speck of flotsam in the cosmic whirlpool of life.
He didn't know when they started, but tears seeped from his eyes faster and faster until they merged with the shower spray, a never ending stream of formless grief.
He didn't know when he had completely lost control of his life, but he somehow knew he was never going to get it back.
I feel like I'm trapped in an episode of The Venture Brothers with Brock Sampson beating on me, he thought, a faint smile trying to quirk his lips. Then he was kneeling on the shower floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
He just felt so helpless, the shape of his life far out of his view and control.
Anita threw her jacket at the wall and let out a wordless yell of frustration and rage.
She didn't know who to blame for tonight's complete fiasco, but she had a niggling suspicion that it was herself. She had been the one to try and shoot Oz but got Jason instead. She was the one that had totally lost control of the whole situation. She had been the one.
Grabbing a lamp from the small table, she hurled it at the wall with all her might. There was a loud THUMP-CRASH! and the fall of plaster from the new hole in the wall.
"Dammit!" She clenched her hands so tight that she could smell the scent of fresh blood from the nail marks in her palms.
She really didn't know what was wrong with her. It was as though all the passions of her life were overwhelming her--love, lust, fear, anger, hatred--they were eating her up. And somehow she couldn't even force herself to care, not until she did something truly unforgivable. Which shooting Jason surely counted as.
Without thinking, her body just becoming this machine for destruction, she began tearing her living room apart. Inhuman strength flung couches and recliners like children's toys, and completely ignored the pain of her torn fingernails.
Finally exhausted, she collapsed to the floor in the midst of torn upholstery, shattered wood, and glass shards. Panting for breath, she stared around with blank eyes, seeing nothing.
She twitched at the tentative sound of that voice and forced herself to meet worried Easter egg eyes.
Nathaniel stood in the doorway leading from the hallway. He looked so young standing there, young and terribly vulnerable.
Staring at him, seeing his worry for her, for the first time in over a year Anita felt the rush of tears. Her breath caught in choked hitches and she began to sob helplessly, her hand raising instinctively to cover her face, hide her. She didn't want anyone to see her being so weak, human.
It was startling how fast and silently Nathaniel could cross the room to kneel by her side. "Oh Anita..."
She wouldn't have been able to say the words, but she was grateful for the warm arms that went around her, pulling her close.
Anita Blake laid her cheek against Nathaniel's shoulder and cried.
Jason was feeling pretty okay for a guy that had recently been dead.
It was almost funny how used he was to the thought of dying. It probably should have disturbed him, but he didn't even have it in him to really care.
From the moment he had been attacked by a werewolf, his entire life had become a different kind of thing and there was never going to be any going back. He was here and that was that.
Lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, he seriously had to consider the series of events that had led him to this place and time. What combination of things had brought him here as this person.
Normal guy Jason Schulyer had been eaten up by the monster and he doubted there would be any going back. He could barely remember what that other man had been like or even how he could have been that person at all.
It was night's like these that really reminded him of how different he had become. He honestly thought there had been a time when dying or even almost dying would have completely thrown him for a loop, but not anymore.
He had becomes used to a life filled with danger and he really didn't think that was a good thing. Because eventually there would come a time when he wouldn't duck fast enough and that would be the end of everything.
Jason scrubbed a hand over his face and sighed heavily. He didn't know what exactly the future would bring him, but he had a niggling suspicion it wouldn't be anything good.
Rubbing the smooth, unmarked skin of his chest, he had to wonder who Oz really was. Then he banished the questions. He knew who Oz was... his friend. And that was all he should let matter.
Jean-Claude sat behind his desk, the office light off. He didn't need it.
"*What are you thinking, my heart?*"
He turned his head to look at Asher. "*I am simply wondering what I have allowed into my territory.*"
"*He seems nothing more than human,*" Asher said.
Jean-Claude shook his head. "*There is something more in him, something powerful and strange. It disturbs me.*"
Asher pressed his chest against the back of Jean-Claude's chair and wrapped his arms around him. "*Yet you still wish to possess him, do you not?*"
Jean-Claude leaned his head back against Asher's shoulder. "*He is a fascinating creature. And the fact of the matter is, he doesn't make my skin itch as much as Anita does right now.*"
"*Ah,*" Asher sighed, his hands drifting down Jean-Claude's chest, down his belly, and down. "*Something must be done about her. The balance of her humors is severely off.*"
Jean-Claude made a wordless, murmuring sigh in his throat, spreading his legs a little.
"*She has no control,*" Asher said. "*She is not only a danger to herself, but to everyone around her. She is not the woman she was even five months ago. And what she is becoming... who is to know.*"
"*No more talking now,*" Jean-Claude ordered before he lost his voice completely.
Asher laughed a little, his chin digging a little into Jean-Claude's shoulder as he leaned closer over the other vampire, concentrating on the pleasure his hands gave.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, her hands calmly folded in her lap as she focused on the visions flashing across the backs of her eyelids.
Her body may have been safely ensconced in her Workroom, but her astral self was far away, sifting carefully through the various worlds, searching for even a trace of that familiar and beloved presence. So far there was nothing.
She had woken up this morning knowing that she was going to have to track down Oz, find out if he was all right or not. The fact that he had been so panicked the night before had left her a bit unsettled, especially once her mind had woken up enough to realize that there really had to have been some apocalypse-level badness going on for him to have lost his cool to such a degree.
Now that she knew he wasn't in the world anymore, that he was somewhere out there, hopefully on an alternate Earth, she knew she had to do whatever necessary to find him and save him if he needed saving.
Willow had long since accepted the fact that what she and Oz had shared was long over. But that didn't mean she didn't still love him, wouldn't always love him. He had a piece of her heart that he carried with him wherever he went, and no matter what happened, she would always do whatever was in her power to make sure he was as safe as she could manage.
He was still her Oz.
He was buried under the blankets on his borrowed bed when the door burst open and Jason bounded in.
"All right, no more mopey face!" Jason yelled, throwing himself knees first on the bed. Oz barely managed to move himself out of the way before he ended up a falsetto.
"What's up?" Oz said, deciding to ignore for a moment the events of the night before. That old Sunnydale mentality was raising its little head and he was going to let it.
Jason gave him a momentary weird look, then shrugged. "I just wanted to say thank you." He leaned over and slapped Oz on the arm, a very guy kind of thing to do, though not nearly as demonstrative as Oz had come to expect Jason to be.
"Okay," he said.
Jason cocked his head, as though waiting for more, then just grinned when nothing else was forthcoming. "Yeah. I'm really grateful that you did that for me. I really thought I was a goner. I just can't believe that Anita would really shoot me."
"I don't really know her, but it seems to me that she's got some control issues," Oz said softly.
Jason sighed. "Yeah. It's weird though, she wasn't always like that, you know? She actually used to be pretty cool. I just don't know what happened to her."
Oz didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything. He didn't know Anita, and that was a fact of the matter. He had suspicions, but no real knowledge.
Even though he had left the Scooby gang before events in Sunnydale really started getting scary, he had been there through enough to know the kind of horrific stress his friends had been facing. He had been there long enough to watch as they were slowly sucked out of themselves, until sometimes it was impossible to tell where the monsters ended and the people began. And the things Willow had told him about in her infrequent letters... it had made him kind of glad that he had left when he had.
Battling dark gods and killing humans, even if they were trying to get Buffy's sister Dawn... it was all very Bad News Bears. It just felt as though things in Sunnydale had steadily been getting worse, heading toward some final showdown that would probably end in dead friends and mind-crushing grief.
He didn't know what he would have done if he had had to watch Willow die and been helpless to stop it. Which made his leaving a good thing, even though he still felt kind of guilty about deserting his friends right when they were being dragged down into the muck.
So even though he didn't know Anita Blake, on one level he kind of did, because he could totally understand that stress did crazy things to the human brain. And even in the few minutes he had really seen her, it was obvious to him that she was under some serious pressure and really not handling it at all well.
"Yeah, man," he said, because really, what else could he say?
Jason shook his head and flopped forward on the bed, relaxing limply into the pile of blankets. "So, what do you wanna do today?"
Jason grinned. "Come on, man, we're young and we're breathing. Let's enjoy it while it lasts."
Oz snorted, amused. "Okay."
"Great." Displaying an entirely inhuman agility, Jason leaped from the bed to land on his feet. "Let's go have some fun!"
From the minute he had woken up, Jason had been filled with this vibrating kind of energy. The fact that he was alive just left him completely overjoyed, and he had the undeniable need to share the feeling with the people around him.
Leaning against the door with his arms crossed, he watched as Oz got dressed. He probably shouldn't have been keeping such a close eye on the other man, but there was something fascinating about the guy.
Oz slipped on a pair of black jeans and a close-fitting black tee shirt with "YES, IT'S THE APOCALYPSE ALL RIGHT (i always thought i'd have a hand in it)" on the front in electric blue. All that smooth pale skin covered up in black cotton was oddly appealing, the shine and twinkle of piercings only drawing more attention to that lean, not overly tall body.
"What?" Oz asked, catching him looking.
Jason shrugged. "Just thinking that you're tougher than you look."
"It's not hard when you consider the fact that I look about as tough as a wet noodle," Oz dead-panned.
Jason laughed a little. "Okay, whatever. You ready to go yet, or you need more time to get beautiful?"
Oz glanced down at himself. "Shoes, pants, shirt..." He looked at Jason. "I'm ready."
"But is the world?" Jason opened the door and stepped out. "Come on."
"The world, baby, the world. We shall see the many sights and visit the wonders of this earthly plain. And if we're real lucky, there might possibly be beer in our future."
Oz in a club was like a fish in water. He just seemed to fit amongst the crowd of young, happy people, even if he didn't talk a whole lot and his mere presence created a mote of silence in the otherwise hectic environment. He just kind of swayed a little, watching the band on the stage, his fingers twitching slightly as though he were the one playing guitar.
Jason danced his way through the crowd back to where Oz stood. "Here," he said, holding out a plastic cup.
"Thanks." Oz's fingers brushed his as he took the cup. Strangely, Jason felt a flash of warmth go through him.
"Yeah. So... What do you think of these guys?" He jerked his chin toward the stage.
Oz's lips quirked slightly. "They're pretty good. Guy knows his chords."
"So... you wanna dance?" Jason felt his eyes go wide and his lips twist in a grimace as the words just kind of popped out of his mouth.
Oz looked at him.
"Uh," he said, flushing. He shuffled his feet a little and took a gulp of his beer. "Yeah. Um, honest truth, man, you wanna dance... with me?"
He knew that he was kind of a flirt-slut, but there was something about Oz that made his usual lines feel completely awkward. He didn't want to come off as some horny dork, but he had a feeling that that was exactly the image he was presenting, and he really wished he could impress Oz, but that wasn't happening.
Oz cocked his head, a thoughtful look on his face. Then he shrugged. "Okay."
A wave of exultant relief went through Jason as he reached out and grabbed Oz's hand, pulling him forward through the crowd toward the dance floor. He knew he had a too-wide grin on his face, but he couldn't help himself. This was just such a perfect moment.
Writhing on the dance floor, rubbing his body against Oz's lean form, he was happier than he had been in a long time.
The last few years of his life had seemed like an out of control downward spiral. He had tried hard to hold it together, but he had known that he was slowly losing it. And somehow, the mere presence of Oz had saved him, or was going to save him, or something he just didn't have the words to express.
Whatever was going on with him, he was just happy to have Oz here with him, in this place and time. It just felt right on so many levels.
So throwing all deeper thoughts to the wind, he wrapped his arms around Oz's neck, leaned his head against the other man's shoulder, and breathed in the scent of him. There was just something so familiar about Oz's smell, something that made him think of home, which he had never really had before. Sure, being around Pack made him feel safer and more welcome than anything in his life ever had, but it was different with Oz, more realer, honest.
It was just too bad Oz wasn't a werewolf. That would be the only thing that could ever make it better. To have Oz be Pack.
They made it back to the Circus in time to be caught by Asher.
"Jean-Claude would like to see you," the vampire said, his focus on Oz alone.
Even though nothing showed on his face, Oz felt a bit of a nervous sizzle go through him. He had known this was going to happen. He had made himself too interesting the Master of the City, and now he was going to have to come up with some answers he really didn't know. "'Kay."
Following Asher through the maze of the circus, he couldn't help being a little glad that Jason was there with him. Sure, there probably wasn't a whole lot Jason could do against the Master vampire that happened to be his boss, but there were moral support issues going on and that was cool.
They reached the doors to Jean-Claude's office and Oz had to draw in a deep, fortifying breath before going in. He really didn't want to face this moment, but if there was one thing he had learned from his life in Sunnydale, it was foolhardy bravery in the face of impossible odds. All he had to do was put on his Xander face.
"Welcome, M'ser Osbourne, I hope you have had a truly pleasant evening," that smooth, sex-laden voice said.
Oz ignored the shiver that wanted to go down his spine. He knew vampire tricks when he felt them and he wasn't even going to go there. "I'm good," he said. Without waiting for the invite, he sat down on one of the chairs in front of Jean-Claude's desk.
"I have a few questions for you, mon ami."
"I thought so."
Jean-Claude crossed his hands on the desk. "How were you able to heal our dear Jason? What was that power I felt in you last night?"
Oz shrugged. "I don't know. Nothing's ever happened like that with me. It was very weird."
"You have never healed anyone before?" Jean-Claude raised an eyebrow.
Oz shook his head. "No. It felt kind of familiar, but I've never healed anyone."
"Hm." Jean-Claude looked at Jason. "And how do you feel, Mr. Shuyler?"
Jason grinned. "Never better."
"Interesting. Very interesting."
The way Jean-Claude was looking at him made Oz want to squirm. Except he didn't do things like that.
"Yeah, interesting," he muttered.
With a small curse, Willow jumped to her feet, tossing her hair over her shoulders.
No matter what she did, she couldn't focus tight enough to find Oz. Maybe if he was calling her name she would be able to reach him, but as it was... nothing but blank universal space.
Blowing out her cheeks, she tried to think of something to do. She had to find Oz. He needed her.
"Ah hah, why didn't I think of that before?" she said to herself, giving a little laugh.
She snapped her fingers and a silver bowl carved with ornate sigils for clear vision appeared on the floor before her. She concentrated and it filled with water.
Kneeling on the floor, she placed her palms on the rim of the bowl, muttering softly under her breath.
As she spoke the lights dimmed and a mix of swirling lights rose up into the air from the bowl. Higher and higher they spun until they filled the whole of her view, the lights blurring together until they became the images of a thousand worlds, a hundred thousand worlds, worlds beyond count, spinning faster and faster in a dizzying blur.
Weakness fluttered through her. She hadn't expected this spell to take so much out of her, but she knew that she couldn't stop, not until she found Oz.
Gazing upwards at the millions of worlds she almost felt despair... there were so many. But she refused to give up and began the hardest part of her task, finding the right Oz in this mass of possibilities.
Tracing the unique magical signature of her Oz, she began picking through the various worlds, marking off whole strings of realities as being too far off the mark. A world where men rode on the backs of dragons and flamed the silvery acid-drips of falling death. A world where men in black robes and white skull masks terrorized a castle full of children with slender sticks while a thin black haired boy with blazing green eyes strode forward with foolhardy bravery to face his every nightmare. A spaceship floating through the velvet dark of space, a brown haired man in red leather facing down a giant with tentacles for a goatee wielding a curved blade. A world where dozens of men and women fought to the death in a once peaceful glen, their swords flashing as they tried to behead each other, blue-tinged lightning reaching toward the sky with angry fingers. A world where strangely dressed people stepped through a metal ring and one of the figure's eyes glowed alien white. A world where dinosaurs walked the earth and a group of people leaped from a green jeep with a red sigil on the side to run for the dubious safety of the woods. A world where a woman with red hair fought zombies with a tireless strength, flashing fangs as she cursed and wove a path of destruction. Another spaceship, this one smaller and more cramped, a young girl huddled in a corner whispering to herself, her dark eyes rising in question as though she felt Willow's gaze, her lips screaming for "Simon!" A world where a dark-skinned woman flew through the sky, her eyes pupil-less and white as she formed lightning clouds around herself, preparing a large blast. A world where a dark haired girl roared through the night on a Ninja motorcycle, a barcode proudly displayed on the back of her neck as she led her people to freedom. A world where a small boy tried to duck past laser-shooting garden gnomes while a strange looking green kid posed in the open doorway of the house laughing. A world where four boys bundled up in parkas stood at a bus stop, talking and waving their hands as they waited to go to school, the fat one screwing up his face pettishly. A world where a man dressed in red and blue flew through the sky, blasting red lasers from his eyes as he fought a giant robotic creature. And even more worlds, each strange and alien and holding nothing that she really cared about, not in this time and place where she had things to do and people to find.
As she focused on the purity of water and the honesty of air, the worlds began to peel away one-by-one, two-by-two, then dozens at a time until only one world remained. Shining silvery-blue in the darkness, the shadow of a distant earth beckoning her on with the warmth of a familiar presence. Oz.
Taking a deep breath, Willow lifted her hand, drawing the world close until it almost touched her palm, then tossed it across the room where it splashed against the wall-length mirror of the closet's sliding door and sunk into it.
Willow panted for breath and threw herself flat on her back on the floor. She turned her head to look into the mirror, a slight smile tugging at her lips as everything went dark.
The last thing she saw as consciousness left her was a blurry far-off view of that other world. But she knew that it was only a matter of time for that image to become clearer and closer until Oz was perfectly in focus.
She had found him.
Rocking back and forth on her bed, Anita felt more tears seeping down her face, trying to drown her in weakness. She didn't know what was happening, but for the last few hours she had been crying without really knowing why.
There was something wrong with her and she didn't know what. It made her fingers itch to clutch her gun. She hated being such a wimp, and the fact that she couldn't seem to stop herself only made it worse.
"Why are you crying? Shouldn't you be out there doing something?"
"Shut up," Anita said, pressing her face into her kneecaps.
"Aw, poor Anita, so lost, so confused. Everyone's left you, haven't they? You're all alone."
"If I was alone, you wouldn't be here," Anita said, raising her head, blinking her eyes blearily.
The small blond woman bent forward until their faces were on the level. "I've always been here. You know that. Whispering when you couldn't hear me. But you can hear me now, can't you?"
It was true. There had always been a voice whispering in the back of her mind. She had ignored it for most of her life, focusing her attention outward rather than giving that shadow of a thought form. But something had happened, something had broken in her mind. Now that voice had burst from her full-fledged and given a human form.
"Why are you here?" Anita asked.
"To keep you company. To help you focus."
"Focus on what?"
"The task you need to perform," the woman said.
Anita scrubbed at her eyes with her hands, feeling almost like a child for a moment. But she had never really been a child, not since her mother's death. "What are you talking about?"
"You know what you have to do, Anita. There's evil out there, waiting for you to... handle it."
Anita sniffed. "Why I do I need you?"
"Every hero needs a friend. And I'm your friend, Anita. The best kind of friend you'll ever have."
A feeling of warmth went through Anita. She knew she should be suspicious of it, but it was so comfortingly natural that she couldn't even care.
"What's your name?" she asked.
The specter smiled, a disarmingly sweet expression. "Buffy."
He felt a little out of place interacting with Jason's friends since he knew most of them were his Pack mates and the rest were wereleopards. Surrounded by lycanthropes, and he knew he had a secret to keep if he wanted to make it in this world.
They were hanging out at Stephen's apartment. The guy was a friend of Jason's and seemed to be one of the only ones present not currently living with Anita Blake. Which was kind of weird, but as Jason explained it, "She offered protection and she was part of the Pack. You know, before she went psycho-bitch and started killing people for no reason."
All Oz had been able to say to that was "Huh." He just didn't have the words.
Instead of saying anything, he munched on pizza and watched the others interact. There was just this huge family vibe about it that made him think of the Scooby-gang. If the Scooby-gang was comprised of porn stars, since that was pretty much how everyone dressed.
"What are you thinking?" one of the women, Sylvie, asked, leaning against the side of the couch next to him.
Oz didn't look at her, his eyes glued to Gregory and Jason wrestling over the last Dr. Pepper. "Don't any of you own any normal clothes?"
Sylvie snorted a laugh. "What's the fun of that, huh, little man? Besides, we're monsters. We might as well dress the part."
"You don't dress like monsters," Oz said.
"And how do we dress?" she asked.
"Psychedelic porn stars. I didn't know leather came in so many colors before I came to St. Louis."
She slapped him on the shoulder. "You're a good man. Just don't try to be lupa, and we'll be all right."
Sylvie laughed and walked away, heading over to the table and more pizza. It was all very confusing.
Then the phone rang, and without knowing why, Oz felt a chill shiver over his skin. He just had this sense of impending something, maybe not doom, but something.
"Hello?" Stephen said, lifting the receiver. "All right, all right, slow down, take a breath. Okay, yeah, he's here. Gregory?" He offered the phone to his twin brother.
"Who is it?" Gregory asked, already taking the phone. "This is me."
It was strange how they all just kind of stopped what they were doing, just froze and stared, straining to hear what the other person was saying as Gregory went pale and began babbling.
"All right, I'll be there in a little while. Just hold on and keep trying to reach someone else, okay? I'll be there, but it's going to take me about half an hour. It's all right. It's going to be all right." He hung up the phone and just stood there for a moment, his shoulders slumping.
"What's going on?" Stephen asked, wrapping his arm around Gregory's shoulder and leaning against him, offering comfort.
Gregory rubbed his cheek against Stephen's shoulder, scent marking him. "That was Cherry. Nathaniel was picked up by a bunch of guys and she wants me to find whoever I can to come help save him. The guys have guns. They know he's a were and that he has friends."
"What about Anita? Why didn't Cherry call her?" Stephen asked.
Gregory shook his head. "No one can reach her. She's not answering her phone. It's just me, Cherry, and Zane. Everyone else is out of touch."
"I'll go with you," Stephen said.
"Don't," Gregory said, looking at him. "This is Pard business. Richard won't like it if you..."
"This has nothing to do with the Pack. This is me helping my brother," Stephen said, "and Nathaniel."
Sylvie cleared her throat and Stephen flushed, looking at her. "Did you forget I was here?" she asked.
Stephen bowed his head. "Please , Sylvie. My brother is going to go help Nathaniel and he could die. I can't..."
Sylvie's lips twitched. "You can't go by yourself."
She stood up. "Come on, let's get ready. You're going to need some help."
"What about Richard?" Stephen asked.
"I'll handle Richard," Sylvie said, her voice going hard. "Maybe it's time his ass received a wake up call from reality."
Oz didn't know what was going on, since there was an almost overwhelming history-vibe flowing through the air, but he stood up with the others and grabbed his jacket.
"You don't have to come with us," Jason said. "Stephen won't mind if you wait here for us."
Oz half smiled. "It's cool. I'm coming with."
Jason grinned at him. "Okay."
Riding in cars with weres. It should have been a movie or something. Though he didn't think Drew Barrymore would have been able to handle the drama of the moment, not his reality's version of her anyway. The one here might be totally bad ass.
They headed toward the warehouse district where the lights weren't quite as bright and the pedestrian traffic was nearly nonexistence. It was like entering some other kind of world, like he had left yet another reality behind.
"There, that's Cherry," Jason said for Oz's benefit, pointing to the figure of a woman standing near the curb, her arms crossed tightly against her.
Stephen pulled the car to a stop in front of her and they all piled out.
"Where is he?" Gregory asked her.
Cherry turned to the building behind her. "They're in there. Zane went in, but he said he was just going to look around, not do anything stupid."
"We better hurry," Sylvie said. "Zane isn't bright enough to not actually do anything."
Cherry glared at her. "He said he wouldn't."
Sylvie growled at her, then snapped her teeth. "Let's go."
Walking close behind Jason, Oz followed the others in through the side-door, the shattered lock telling how Zane had gotten in. He guessed that were strength really came in handy for breaking-and-entering.
The inside of the warehouse was dark, the echoing sound of distant screams and whimpers surprisingly loud as they wandered their way toward the main floor area and the light.
Sylvie held up her hand, stopping them as she peered around the corner. She cursed under her breath. "We better hurry."
"Yeah, things are getting really bad," Zane said, appearing out of the shadows with a silent tread.
"How many guns they got?" Jason asked.
Zane shrugged. "About ten, all loaded with silver."
"Shit. So how are we going to handle this?" Cherry asked.
Sylvie looked back around the corner, then drew in a deep breath. "They're very involved in what they're doing. We've got surprise on our side. So we'll hit fast and we'll hit hard. Jason will make a distraction so Zane and Cherry can come around at them from behind. Stephen, Gregory and I will come on them from above," she pointed up at the rafters.
"What about Oz?" Jason asked.
Sylvie looked at Oz for a second, squinting her eyes a little. "You untie Nathaniel and get him out while the rest of us handle the situation."
Oz nodded. "Okay."
Jason clapped him once on the shoulder, then everything really started moving into the action part of the story.
Oz watched as Cherry and Zane crept around to the opposite end of the warehouse to wait for their cue. Meanwhile, Sylvie, Stephen and Gregory climbed the rickety ladder upward to the rough metal platform along the wall, and once there they leapt across the intervening space to the framework of rafters. The metal creaked and groaned a little under the sudden weight, but the human men didn't hear it over the sound of their "play."
Suddenly there was a loud BANG! and everything really started.
Moving in a blur of speed, Cherry and Zane lunged forward grabbing the nearest men and throwing them as hard as they could toward the walls before moving on to the next. Always first, Sylvie jumped down from above to land on one man, clawing him viciously with a Changed hand, ripping his throat out in a burst of blood. He didn't even have time to scream and she was already moving on to the next. Stephen and Gregory, moving in tandem, jumped down on their own victims, animal snarls of fury escaping their still human throats.
Once most of the men were down, Oz hurried across the floor to the chained figure he had tried so hard not to look at.
What must have been an incredibly good-looking man was now nothing more than ground meat. His face had been smashed into a pulpy wreck, his almost purple eyes rolling in their sockets, so pain blurred that he probably had no idea what was happening. He had been wrapped in silver chains that were attached to loops on a large steel frame that kept his arms and legs spread wide.
From the "toys" scattered around, it was obvious that he had been whipped, slashed with a knife, burned, had his fingernails ripped off with pliers, and had had various objects stuck into every orifice until blood, shit, urine and tears were spread everywhere on him.
Wrinkling his nose at the sharply unpleasant smell and barely keeping himself from gagging, Oz grabbed the chains. Ignoring the burning pain in his hands, he began to pull with all his strength, his teeth clenching so hard his jaw ached.
Everything in him screamed for him to Change and cause some damage, but he knew he couldn't do that. He had to help Nathaniel here, and the Monster inside him would be more about causing damage than completing the mission.
With a groan of effort, the chain bent and broke. After that, he moved onto the next, and the next, and the next until Nathaniel finally fell limply to the floor. The guy didn't even have it in him to scream.
From the sounds of gunfire and screams, the human men had finally pulled themselves together enough to go on the offensive.
Oz raised his head up long enough to see that the lycanthropes were being pressed back by the hail of gunfire, but the men shooting smelled strongly of panic since they knew it was only a matter of time before they ran out of bullets and were killed. All they could do was try to take as many of the "monsters" down with them as possible.
Oz quickly unwound the chains from around Nathaniel and threw them from him. He could feel his hands crackling with burns, but that didn't matter. He had bigger things to worry about right now.
Moving behind Nathaniel, Oz gripped the guy beneath the armpits and began dragging him across the floor toward the door and out of the line of fire. Once there, he hunched over him, trying to see how bad the damage was.
He was surprised when Nathaniel moaned and weakly twitched his tortured fingers against the ground. "Sh, it's all right," he whispered, ignoring the tears that wanted to fill his eyes. "Everything's gonna be all right."
He had seen some pretty messed up things in Sunnydale, but those had all been done by soulless demons. This had been done by humans.
Waking to agonizing pain, all he knew was that he needed Anita. She would make everything all right. She would protect him and make him better.
"Hey, I think he's trying to talk!"
"How is that possible with the kind of damage he's got?" a man asked.
"Dunno, but he's trying." A surprisingly cool hand touched his shoulder gently. "What are you trying to say, Nathaniel?"
"Talk slower, form your words. It's all right."
"A... Ani'a. T'ke me to Ani'a," he managed to get out through the pain in his scream-scarred throat.
"He wants us to take him to Anita," the man said.
"Dammit!" a female voice cursed. "You know how she's going to react. This isn't going to be pretty."
"Ani'a," he insisted.
"He wants Anita," the man said. Gentle hands soothed him, wiping away the blood with a cloth. "We'll drop him off and make sure he's going to be all right."
"Fine," the woman growled. "But if she goes nuts... it's on your head."
When the sense of motion changed direction under him, Nathaniel realized that he was in the back of an SUV or van. And from the sense of warmth around him, he could tell that there were several members of his Pard around him, holding him close in their presence, keeping him safe.
Soon he would have Anita with him and she would keep him safe from what had happened. She would save him from the monsters that had hurt him.
The sound of the incessantly ringing doorbell pulled her up out of her stupor. She had been sitting on the couch staring at a book without blinking. One of her few nights without work, and all she had been able to do was not read. It was pretty pathetic.
The interruption was almost a relief, but that didn't stop her from jerking the door open. "What the fuck do you..."
The sight before her made her close her mouth with a snap. Sylvie standing in front of her with a firm chinned look while behind her Cherry and Zane held up a blood covered Nathaniel wrapped in the tatters of a blanket.
"What the fuck happened?" Anita demanded, opening the door wide and gesturing them in.
Sylvie paused for a moment at the threshold, looking her up and down with an evaluating gaze. "Your leopard got himself into some trouble. We helped him out of it. Now take him so we can go. I've got stuff to do."
Cherry and Zane carried Nathaniel inside, taking him upstairs to the spare room. She could hear them clattering around up there, trying to get him comfortably laid out.
"What happened to him?" Anita glared at Sylvie.
Sylvie smirked at her. "Looks like you haven't been looking after your kitties the way you're supposed to. He got used a little roughly by a bunch of men. But don't worry... we fixed things for you so you don't have to bother yourself at all."
Anita could feel her lips twisting. Sylvie had always kind of rubbed her the wrong way, but her current better-than-thou attitude was really pissing her off.
"Thank you for helping Nathaniel," she managed to grate out.
Sylvie shrugged. "Nate's a nice guy," she said. "We didn't help him for you."
"Thank you anyway. I'll take care of him from now on."
"Better than you have been. That's one kitty that shouldn't be out and about by himself. Unless you want him to be someone else's chew toy." With that, Sylvie turned and walked away.
Anita watcher her head down the sidewalk, feeling her lips draw back from her teeth at the deliberate way Sylvie had turned her back.
"She's a bit of a bitch, isn't she? You should teach her her place."
"What are you doing here?" Anita asked Buffy, who was standing next to her.
Buffy shrugged and crossed her arms, leaning against the door jamb. "I'm always here for you. But right now, check out who's in the car."
Anita peered at the car, and when Sylvie opened the door, she caught a flash of two pale faces in the backseat. Oz and Jason both.
"What the hell is Oz doing with them?" Anita demanded, feeling her temper rise. Looking at Jason made her feel a flash of guilt for shooting him, which just made her more pissed off.
"He's taking your place, pushing you out of your own life," Buffy said. "He's deliberately turning them against you."
"What... what am I supposed to do about it?" Anita asked, hating how unsure she sounded.
"You're gonna wait, watch, and when the time is right..." Buffy left it hanging. She looked over Anita's shoulder. "Oop, here comes Cherry."
Anita turned to look at the wereleopard coming down the stairs. "How is he?"
Cherry looked surprised for a moment. "He's hurt, but already healing. He's going to be sore for a few days, but he'll get better."
"Good," Anita said. "Now why the hell was he trolling the streets for abusive idiots?"
Cherry looked straight at her. "Because he wasn't getting something he needed from you."
It felt like she had been struck hard across the face and she didn't know why.
For years Nathaniel had lingered at her side. She knew he had been badly broken by abuse and put back together in all curves and bent angles. But she had become used to his loyalty, and the fact that he would always be there, never straying.
"What could he have needed?" she asked, hating the pain in her own voice.
Cherry shrugged. "Nathaniel may look easy to read from the outside, but he has more to him than that inside. He can be pretty complicated. Then again, that can pretty much be said of anyone. Stuffs happening that you just can't see."
"Yeah, Anita," Buffy said. "All kinds of stuff is happening that you just can't see." The blond sounded amused.
Anita rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache forming right between her eyes. "I'm going to get a cup of coffee, then I'll check on Nathaniel."
Cherry nodded. "I'll go back up with him. Zane'll need help cleaning him up. He's a mess."
Anita watched Cherry walk up the stairs, then sighed and went into the kitchen.
She thought it was maybe a problem sign when she constantly dreamed of escaping from her own life.
Oz had seen Anita look right at him and it sent a chill through him.
"You think she's gonna blame us for what happened to Nathaniel?" he asked.
"Probably," Jason said. "She really doesn't understand him all that well. She's been feeding the aurdeur on him and has started having sex with him, but she doesn't really listen to him. He's like her pet."
"That she has sex with," Oz said.
Jason laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "You're gross."
"It's a gift called testosterone," Oz said.
Jason leaned against his side, a comfortably warm weight. "I know you're probably missing your home, but I'm glad you're here." His voice lowered, "I really needed a friend. I haven't had a real one in a long time."
"Glad to help," Oz said, and wasn't even surprised that it was true.
Underneath the clothes and the irrepressibly sexy attitude, Jason was actually a pretty nice guy. And even though he wasn't quite ready to admit it out loud, Oz thought he was kind of cute.
Back at the Circus, just another animal in the zoo. He thought that maybe he should have felt weird about being there, but even after such a short amount of time... Well, it wasn't home, but it really wasn't all that different from all the places he'd called "home."
Sometimes he thought that maybe there would never be a place where he could completely and comfortably be himself. He would always be a stranger in his own skin, even though people just looking at him always seemed to think he was as cool as a cucumber.
He thought it was kind of funny that he was perceived as being totally unflappable. 'Cause honestly? Nine times out of ten, he was completely flapped.
"What are you thinking?"
"That my life can't get anymore weird," he said honestly.
Jason snorted a little laugh. "You're so funny."
Without changing expression: "I try."
They were in Jason's room this time. And even though Oz had kind of thought it would look like a bad porn set, he was pleasantly surprised to find that it was just a normal room.
Jason lounged on the bed while Oz sat on the single chair.
"You live here full time and you feed the guy the blood he needs to live, so I don't know why Jean-Claude doesn't give you your own suite or something," he said.
Jason shrugged. "I'm just glad not to have to pay rent. He gives me a wardrobe allowance and a place to live, so I've really saved up some cash."
"Still, he drinks your blood on a regular basis. At the least you'd think he'd give you a king-sized bed."
"Hey, he pays for my clothes, I have a job at one of his clubs, he gives me somewhere to sleep and keep all my crap, he lets me drive his cars when I need one and..."
"He drinks your blood and makes you deal with Loony Anita on a regular basis." Oz shook his head. "You need a raise."
Jason snorted. "When'd you get so talkative all of a sudden?"
Oz smiled at him, that peculiar slight curving of the lips that said more than a thousand words.
"All right, shut up already," Jason said. He folded his arms under his head and stared up at the ceiling. "Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if things had gone completely different."
"Me too," Oz said. "But considering Sunnydale, I'd probably be dead. I was one of the graduating minority at my high school."
"Yeah," Jason said. "I'd probably be a junkie somewhere or something."
"Or you would be in college and you'd have a future for yourself."
Jason laughed a little. "Well, might-have-beens are a joke your brain plays on you. And if you spend all your time regretting your life, then you forget to live it. And this is the only one I've got, so..."
"It's good that you're smarter than you look."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Jason demanded.
Oz just smiled at him until he hit him with a pillow.
They were watching Pee-Wee's Playhouse on Adult Swim. It was such a weird thing that it really brought home to Oz the fact that he was in a completely different dimension.
"I don't remember there being so much homoerotic underpinnings to this show when I was a child," he said.
Jason laughed. "They were always there. I mean, Pee-Wee is a guy in a dorky looking gray suit, wearing a red bowtie and white shoes. Plus, the cab lady Dixie? Totally a lesbian."
"And you like that, don't you?" Oz said, seeing his sly little smile.
Jason gave a delighted little shiver. "Oh yeah. She was so totally butch for such a pretty lady. She kind of makes me think of Anita. Just, you know, not as hair-triggered."
"Or psychotic," Oz said.
Jason shook his head. "Oh, if Dixie had had a gun, she would have been blowing holes in people left and right. That was one aggressive little lady."
"Little lady." Oz smirked.
Jason slapped him on the shoulder, but then didn't take his hand away for a long moment, and even when he did, the touch lingered.
They sat propped up on pillows on the bed, watching TV and trying to pretend that they were totally relaxed when they were so obviously not. Oz hadn't felt so totally aware of another person since he was a teenager. Not even Willow had made him feel like this.
It was almost a relief when there was a brief knock on the door before it was pushed open.
Jason came to tense awareness and almost leapt off the bed. "Richard. What... what do you need?"
From what Jason had said, Richard used to be a pretty neat guy until he'd been totally head-fucked by Anita. A calm and entirely rational junior high school teacher turned into a raving lunatic by Anita Blake. It was pretty hard to be surprised about that. Crazy people tended to rub off on the people around them.
"Sylvie told me about what happened tonight," Richard said, stalking into the room. He radiated a kind of burning tension that made Oz feel pretty uncomfortable. He really didn't want to be too close to the guy, but he figured it would look bad if he just started backing away for no obvious reason. He was supposed to be a normal, "null" human after all.
Jason shifted nervously, suddenly looking small in just his jeans and bare feet. "Look, Richard, I..."
"No," Richard growled. "I don't want to hear any excuses from you. Sylvie already tried to save your ass and I'm tired of hearing excuses. I just want to know WHAT THE FUCK YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE DOING?"
Jason flinched back from his roar and bumped into the wall. He was trembling as he slid into a huddle on the floor, his forehead pressed against the carpet, the delicate curve of the back of his neck exposed. "Please, Nathaniel was in trouble and we..."
"He's one of Anita fucktoy leopards. If he's in trouble, she can get off her high horse and go save him." Richard lunged forward to grab Jason by the neck and lift him up, flinging him over the bed and across the room. Oz had to duck out of the way of one flailing foot and winced when Jason landed against the far wall with a THUD.
When Richard stalked around the bed and started going for Jason again, Oz decided that was enough. He got up and stood in front of the larger man, raising one hand in front of him. "That's enough, man. I'm gonna have to ask you to leave now."
Richard glared at him. "And what the hell are you supposed to be? Are you another one of Anita's fuck-buddies?"
"No," Oz said. "Me and Anita don't really see eye-to-eye, but even if we did... that wouldn't matter. I'm not going to let you beat up Jason just because you're mad at your ex-girlfriend. That's crazy, man. You need to take a step back and think."
Richard growled, a low, animal sound that made the hairs rise on the back of Oz's neck and something Dark in him want to leap out, but he wasn't going to let it. Instead, he kept a calm expression on his face and didn't look away from Richard's eyes.
"I understand how pissed off you are with Anita, but you have to stop taking it out on other people," Oz said. "I've heard good things about you, but they mostly involve the you from two or three years ago. Now everyone's walking on eggshells 'cause you're acting psycho and it's time to stop."
"Who the hell do you think you are?" Richard demanded. He slammed a massive hand down on Oz's shoulder and squeezed.
Oz grimaced at the sudden pain, but didn't let it move him. "See what I mean, man? This is totally inappropriate behavior and you really need to stop right now." He kept his eyes focused on Richard, staring down those gold-edged pupils. "I heard you're a junior high teacher... is this how you want your students to act? Is this the example you want to set?"
Richard glared at him for a few more seconds, then suddenly let him go and took a few steps back. "You're right. I..." He scrubbed a hand across his face. "I don't know what I'm doing anymore. I mean, look at you." He waved a hand at Oz.
"Um?" Oz said, raising an eyebrow while he tried to rub the pain out of his shoulder. He thought that maybe he should be kind of offended, but Richard seemed just a little on edge.
"A few years ago I wouldn't even think about attacking someone, and now... it's like there's no other option for me to take. I don't know what's happened to me. How did I end up like this?" There might have been tears glimmering in his eyes, but Oz wasn't going to say anything about them 'cause he really didn't want to have his scrawny self twisted into a painful pretzel.
"Look, man, from what I've overhead people saying about this 'triumvirate' thing you've got going with Jean-Claude and Anita, it's a pretty close relationship, right?" Oz said. "And you guys are all going to be together for a long time and you're going to have to kind of get used to that fact."
"You don't think I know that?" Richard asked in despair. "If I could get away from them, I would. Maybe it would be better if I was somewhere far away from them and I didn't have to see her every damned day. If I didn't have to feel her crawling in the back of my mind like some kind of leech I wouldn't want to just... to crush her face in every time I see it. If she'd just leave me the fuck alone..." He was trembling, the skin pulled tight around his face and his teeth clenched tight together.
"But she's not going to, is she?" Oz asked. "From what I understand, you are all psychically connected. You can use each others abilities, your strengths and weaknesses are shared. Right?"
"Why are you telling me all this?" Richard said. "You don't think I already know all that? This is my life! I'm trapped forever with these people I don't even like anymore and there's nothing I can do about it? They can reach into my head and take whatever they want, yet I'm the bad guy when I get upset because I don't want to deal with their crap? How the hell am I ever supposed to make this better? I can feel it when they have sex with each other or other people or whatever. I can feel them writhing around in the back of my head all the time, even when I try to shut them out, they're always there, taunting me.
"I never wanted this to be my life," he said brokenly. "She was dying and I thought it was the only way to save her. I thought I loved her, that I wanted to be with her forever. But... but I hate her so much, and I can't even get away 'cause she's in my head. I can hear her all the time. I can feel her heartbeat. Sometimes I wake up and I can smell her on my skin. She's taking me over and there's nothing I can do about it because whenever I say even the littlest thing, I'm the bad guy. I'm the weak link." He looked at Oz out of sad eyes, the tears drying on his cheeks. "And what am I supposed to do about that, huh? We're all three of us bound together for the rest of our lives. And she's out there fucking everything that moves, yet I'm not allowed to find anyone to love because I'm afraid she's going to lose it and someone's going to end up dead because of me. I can feel her jealousy burning away at me like acid if I even look at someone else. And I'm so fucking lonely."
"Oh, Richard, why have you never said anything to me?" a voice from the doorway said.
Richard whirled around and looked at Jean-Claude out of blazing eyes. "And what the hell am I supposed to say to you, huh? How is saying anything to you going to make it any better?"
Jean-Claude held out a hand. "Come, Richard, there is much for us to discuss."
"Like what?" Richard took one stumbling step toward the door, not even seeming to be aware he was headed that way.
"Though there are no ways to completely shut her out of your mind, there are ways to keep her from controlling you," Jean-Claude said.
"What do you mean?" Richard asked.
"If I had only known what she was doing to you, I would have helped you sooner," Jean-Claude said. "Her anger, her fear, her lust, her jealousy, all of it is washing over your mind, adding to your own. I had wondered how you could turn so quickly from such a level-headed man into a... a raging maniac, but now... Now I know, and there is something we can do for you."
Richard stumbled passed him. "You can stop it? Do you promise?" He sounded like a tired child asking if Santa Claus was real.
"You are the one that will be doing all the work, but in the end, you will have much of your own control returned to you," Jean-Claude said.
Oz watched them leave, the door swinging gently shut behind them. He turned to Jason. "Just me, or was that a little weird?"
Jason pulled himself painfully to his feet. "Considering the way things usually are around here... I'd have to say it was just you."
Oz smiled a little.
Xander had left Andrew at the bottom of the stairs and climbed to the high tower which Willow had made her workroom.
Okay, so it wasn't really a high tower so much as an unused attic bedroom, but since he had started to call her the White Witch and Ms. Gandalf... well, he needed something to tease her with. Besides, the corollary between her workroom and the attic the witches used on Charmed was just ridiculous and he wasn't even going to go there.
"Hey, Wills," he called, knocking on the door before slowly pushing it open.
She was sitting cross-legged in the middle of a chalk circle, swirling blue lights orbiting around her head. Her hair had been bleached white by the power she was using and he could practically feel it like an invisible pressure against his skin.
The mirrored doors of the closet behind her showed a blurred image of some kind of room. Even as he looked, speck by speck, color by color, the image was becoming clearer and clearer, though it was still too blurred to make out any kind of detail.
"So, Wills, what you been doin'?" he asked.
She looked up from the strange tangle of string she had been sorting and flashed him a brief smile, the lights slowing their swirl around her. "Just looking for someone," she said.
"Ah," he said, "so that's why you've been disappearing so much lately? Me and Buff've been missing you, ya know?"
"I know, but I've got to find him."
"Find who?" he asked.
Tears suddenly shimmered in her eyes. "Oz. I... I've lost him and I can't find him anywhere. He's... he's not in the world anymore."
"He's not dead is he? This isn't going to be like Buffy and the whole ripping her out of eternal paradise thing, is it?"
"No, no, he's not dead. He's just lost." She rubbed the back of her hand against her eyes. "And I think I did it."
Xander made his way across the room to kneel down next to the circle, carefully making sure he didn't touch the chalk lines. "Now what were you saying? Where did you send Oz and why?"
She looked so guilty and pained that he wanted to draw her into his arms and give her all the comfort in the world, but he needed to know what she'd done first.
"I heard Oz calling for help the other night," she said. "He sounded so... frantic. I've never heard him sound like that before," she said.
"So you helped him?" Xander said. "You sent him to some other reality or world or whatever to help him?"
"No, no," she shook her head, "he was already in another world. Something happened there that made him call me for help. I didn't even know he was out of the world until he was so upset that I couldn't ignore him anymore. And the next day, when I went looking for him, I... I couldn't find him."
"So why do you think it's your fault he's wherever he is?" Xander asked.
"Because I could feel my magic signature wrapping him up wherever he is. I didn't consciously send him wherever he is, but... it's like I was trying to hide him from myself and now I have to search all of the realities he's even close to before I can narrow it down and find him."
"That's some pretty crazy McCrazy right there," Xander said, shaking his head.
Willow gave him a weak smile. "I feel so bad. He's out there, wherever I sent him, and I can't even find him and bring him home. I can't even be sure that he's all right. But don't worry," she waved a hand back over her shoulder at the mirrors, "I'm getting close. It'll be a few more days, but as more detail is added to the images of where he is, I'm getting closer to finding him. We'll have our Oz back."
"Just make sure he wants to come back first, Wills," Xander said. "I know you like to think that you know best sometimes, but... we don't want a repeat of the Buffy debacle, right? We want to be one hundred percent sure before we go swallowing snakes and ripping holes through reality and ripping people out of wherever they are."
Her look was so hurt that he wanted to take the words back for a moment, but he knew that she had to hear them. Willow had made some truly spectacular mistakes in the past, toying with the lives of her friends without a second thought and damn the consequences. "I... You're right Xander. I'll find some way to ask him if he wants to come back before I do anything. I just... I need to know that he's all right. When I felt him, he was so scared. I have to know that I didn't send him to hell or something."
"I don't think you would ever send the Oz-man to hell," Xander said. "But if you sent him to heaven, find out first before you make with the mojo, that's all I'm asking. I don't want to have him moping around here, holding in the pain and being all secret suicidal like Buffy was. We don't need that. Not again."
She shook his head. "I'll make sure he wants to come back before I do anything. But if he needs my help... then I'm gonna give it."
"And if you need any backup, you know you can always ask me or Buffy," Xander said. "We'll be right beside you."
She grinned at him. "See, that's why I love you. If I still liked the boy-sex, you'd be at the top of my list."
"And if I was still all about the girl-sex, you'd be at the top of mine," he said. Then he couldn't help the impish grin. "Though, if Andrew and Kennedy ever said it was okay, we could have a really awesome weekend with just the four of us."
"Yeah, I don't think you wanna invite Buffy to that party," Willow said, the color rising in her cheeks.
"Hey, Buffy will always be one of my best girls," Xander said. "I'd just feel a little weird if she wanted to bring Dawn or some bloodsucking freak in with us."
Willow made ew face and waved her hand at him. "Get out of here, Xander, you're putting yucky pictures in my head. Though you gotta admit, Buffy is pretty hot."
"It's the Slayer thing," Xander said knowledgeably, rising to his feet. "And I'm gonna go now before I totally embarrass myself. Just remember, there's people outside of this room, and we all love you. So come down to dinner later, okay?"
"Sure," she said. "I've just gotta finish a few more things, but I promise I'll be down."
Xander waved goodbye to his oldest friend in the world, then walked back down the stairs, where Andrew was waiting for him like a twitchy bundle of blond nerves.
"Well? Is she still the good witch, or is she stirring up some flying monkeys?" Andrew asked nervously.
Xander slung an arm over the younger man's shoulders. "All is well in the world of the Scooby-Gang. Willow was just looking for something she thought she lost, that's all. She's gonna be down for the dinnery goodness later."
"Oh good," Andrew said. "Buffy is cooking and she said everyone has to be there or she's gonna get out her axe."
Xander snorted. "Great. Buffy obsessing about the perfect peas and freaking out about non-regulation sized pearl onions."
He joked about it, but there was something oddly comforting about Buffy being Buffy, weird obsessions and all. And her freaky attention to detail ensured that the food was better than usual, and that was always of the good.
He, Willow, and Buffy were friends forever, and nothing--not even themselves--was going to stand in the way of that. And once Willow made sure Oz was all right, they could get back to friendship as usual and giving the new Slayers the guidance and leadership they needed to be the new generation of champions and world saviors.
Micah and Nathaniel were curled up together on the bed sound asleep. They looked so sweet lying there, if two guys that sexy could be sweet.
Anita pulled her silk wrap closer around her and padded down the hall to the guest bathroom. She could have used the one off of her room, but there had been an... incident... earlier and she didn't want to deal with the drama of seeing the wreckage of her once beautiful bathroom again. Just the sight of her once luxurious bathtub made her sick to her stomach.
Clicking on the bathroom light, she couldn't help her startled gasp before she got control of herself.
With a sigh, she quietly closed the door before turning to her guest. "You shouldn't do that. You almost scared the crap right out of me."
"Then this is the perfect place to be, right?" Buffy said, giving her an impish grin.
Anita rolled her eyes. "You can be such a child."
"Aw, but that's what makes me so special." Buffy leaned against the sink, the sleeves of her white cable-knit sweater pushed up past her elbows. "So, have you come up with any ideas about what we're gonna do?"
"About what?" Anita asked.
Buffy shook her head. "Anita, Anita, you should know better than anyone that there's no point putting off what can be fixed right now for later. You know that Oz is a dangerous influence on your people. Didn't you see how Sylvie was looking at you tonight? You're really gonna let her get away with that? And you don't even want to know what she's been saying to the other wolves behind your back."
"What do you mean?" Anita asked.
"Don't worry about that," Buffy said, "it'll only hurt your feelings. But it just emphasizes the fact that we have to get rid of Oz before things get much worse. He's already living with Jean-Claude at the Circus, and even while we speak, he's doing all kinds of things to bring the vampires and the wolves under his control. Pretty soon he's going to control them completely, and then he's going to use them to start killing people and enslaving the city, and you don't want that to happen, do you?"
Anita shook her head, feeling as though the walls were slowly closing in around her, muffling her like cotton.
"You have to kill him, Anita, kill him before it's too late," Buffy said. "It's your duty. And in the end, isn't that what it's really all about? You do the job first, then you worry about the rest of it later."
"My duty..." Anita whispered in a hoarse sounding voice, "is to kill Oz?"
"Yes. Kill him. Make him bleed. Hurt him in ways he'll never come back from. That's the best thing you can do, Anita, for all of your people. You have to protect them. Kill him. Kill him soon."
It felt strange to find himself fitting semi-comfortably into this new world. It was just that Jason was so entirely welcoming that it made him feel like he was part of something again, something bigger than himself.
The last time he had really felt part of a group was with the Scooby Gang back when they were in high school, before they all started growing up and reality just made everything harder to deal with.
He quirked his lips a little at the thought that slaying vampires and running around the Hellmouth felt like such a kid thing to do. Like becoming an adult had made all that supernatural stuff too hard to deal with.
Oz sighed and turned his head to look at Jason, who was sleeping really rather close to him. So close their faces could have touched. So close he could feel the other man's breath sweeping across his cheek.
They had fallen asleep in Jason's bed, and though it shouldn't have felt so absolutely comfortable, it was. Just a relaxing nap with someone that was quickly becoming a real friend.
He thought about Devon and the times they used to lie together like this, back before the band had broken up. The only other real male friends he had had other than Devon were Xander and Giles, and he'd never been all that close to either of them. They were good to slay beside, but it wasn't like they would have had anything to do with each other if it wasn't for Willow.
It had taken him a cool minute to recognize why the magical energies imbuing that strange rift in time-space had felt so familiar, but now he knew. It had felt like Willow, that odd mix of hot and cold that had always left his skin tingling with pure Want.
Even during all the Veruca madness, he had still known that Willow was always and forever going to be under his skin. He'd just needed a little while to sort his head out. He'd always known he was going to come back to her, because in the end, Willow was his world.
He had never imagined that she would ever move on without him, that she would find someone else to love as much as she loved him, if not more.
He could still feel the shock of seeing her with Tara, the rush of primal rage and the urge to destroy the interloper. But after the whole Initiative, tortured in a little cage thing... he'd been forced to let the anger go, to recognize that he really wasn't as in control of himself as he'd fooled himself into thinking.
He was always and forever going to love Willow, there was no doubt about that. But he couldn't allow himself to be in love with her. Because that route ended with madness. They were different people now on different paths, and his love for her had always been way beyond his means to control.
But here in the quiet stillness of this bedroom with this guy he barely even knew... he felt more comfortable in his own skin than he had in a long time.
Oz traced his eyes over Jason's face, sweeping across the smooth pale skin, the delicate curve of cheek with a glint of new beard growing, the curve of his neck. And he felt peaceful inside.
There was no raging beast tearing to escape his skin. There was no restless wanderer craving to taste whatever the world had to offer. There was only Oz.
And for the first time in his entire life, he thought that maybe that was enough.
A little smile quirked his lips and he settled deeper into his pillow and let himself drift back to sleep, Jason's every breath a sighing lullaby.
"Okay, what the fuck?"
Those were not the words Nathaniel had expected to wake up to. In fact, he hadn't really expected to wake up at all, yet here he was.
He slowly opened his eyes, blinking rapidly to clear away the strange lassitude that wanted to drown him. They had obviously given him the good pain meds.
His gaze was inexorably drawn to where Anita stood, her hands crossed tight over her chest in that weird self-hug she liked to do, a dark frown curving her lips. Her eyebrows were drawn together so tight that it looked like that little line furrowing into her brow was never going to go away.
He was only glad that she was glaring angrily at Dr. Lillian and not at him. In his current state, he didn't know if he would have been able to deal with her anger.
As it was, her barely bridled rage was like a furnace blasting way too hot, way too close to his already scorched skin. He couldn't handle the burn.
"He was tortured by some incredibly sick individuals, Anita," Dr. Lillian said. "The necklaces of silver they hung off of him severely weakened his ability to heal and even now you can see that he's still got burns on over seventy percent of his body."
"Silver necklaces? Why would they use those instead of chains?" Anita asked, the even tone she used obviously taking a lot of her self-control.
Dr. Lillian sighed. "You know as well as I do just how expensive silver is. Regular silver necklace chains though... They used them to keep him weak and malleable so they could transport him from where they captured him to the warehouse where he was found."
Anita's lips were drawn tight. "I want to know why no one called me to help in the rescue."
Dr. Lillian shrugged. "You just called me in as a favor to check him over. You need to ask your own people why they didn't feel the need to come to you. And maybe you should think on some of the recent behavior you've been displaying."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" The scent of Anita's anger spiked.
Dr. Lillian stood firm in front of Nathaniel's Nimir-ra, her expression refusing to change. "You may need to see Marianne again, Anita. You have definitely not been displaying very good self control of late."
Anita's face twisted so fast into something ugly and back again that Nathaniel almost wouldn't have believed he'd seen it, except that that image was burned into his brain forever.
Dr. Lilliian took a quick step back to the door. "I think that I'm going to take my leave now," she said, her voice admirably even. "I really need to get back to the clinic."
Nathaniel felt Anita's attention turning toward him and hurriedly clicked his eyes closed, praying that she wouldn't know he had been awake.
"Fine, I'll walk you out and you can tell me what I can do to help him heal," Anita said. There was the sound of two sets of footsteps walking away from the bed, then a door opening and closing.
Nathaniel drew in a deep sobbing breath and opened his eyes to peer around and make sure that he was really alone. He could still smell the sudden whiff of Dr. Lillian's fear, but like Anita's anger it was already fading without them being in the room.
He pressed his cheek tight against his pillow for a moment, then forced himself to relax.
He couldn't really explain why his heart was pounding so loudly in his ears or why his breath was coming so fast, but he was only glad that Anita didn't have the advanced senses necessary to realize how terrified he had suddenly been.
Because in those seconds when her rage had taken her over, another face had peered out of hers. It was like something out of a movie, just a quick morphing affect that he wanted to believe hadn't been real, but that he was never going to be able to forget.
For a second, her face had been thinner, smaller, her lips a little less full. Her hair had been blond then too, a pretty shimmery gold that didn't lessen the impact of her snarling mouth and the glaring red hate of her eyes.
He knew that something was terribly wrong with Anita and that he was going to have to tell Jean-Claude about it. He was going to have to pretend that he hadn't seen what he'd seen and heal up enough to get out of the house without her knowing that he had seen what had been inside her.
Because he knew more than anything that whatever had worn Anita's body in that moment wouldn't hesitate to put him in the ground in the most painful way possible.
Nathaniel clenched his hands into tight fists of impotent fear, because for the first time in his life he had seen the face of pure evil. And when Dr. Lillian left, he was going to be alone in the house with it.
He had never been so frightened in his entire life.
Richard opened his eyes to find that he was lying on Jean-Claude's bed, surrounded by a mass of blankets and overstuffed pillows.
"Wha... what happened?" he asked, forcing himself to sit up.
The cool presence at his side was thankfully a fully dressed Jean-Claude. "You fell asleep after we strengthened your mental shields. How do you feel?"
Richard thought about it for a long moment, then felt a large smile spread across his face. For the first time in what felt like years there wasn't a simmering pot of rage bubbling just beneath the surface of his psyche. When he felt around with his mind it was to feel the joy of being the only one in his own mind.
"I can't feel her," he said. "She's finally quiet."
"With your shields strengthened she should no longer be able to overwhelm you," Jean-Claude said, reaching out slowly to brush Richard's hair off his forehead. He moved carefully, giving Richard a chance to slap him away if he wanted. Grateful for the quiet in his own mind, Richard let him have the little gesture. He knew it would make Jean-Claude happy, though the vampire would never say anything about it.
"How come she was able to overwhelm the Marks like that?" Richard asked.
Jean-Claude sighed. "It seems that we have allowed her too much freedom," he said. "Because there were no limits set on her, she did not feel the need to control her thoughts and emotions. But now that we've strengthened your shields, from now on she will have to ask permission before being able to enter your mind."
"I'm just glad that she's not in here with me right now," Richard said. "I know that if I reach out I would be able to touch her, but she's not constantly in my brain. I feel like I can be a real person again."
"I am glad," Jean-Claude said, "and I'm sorry that I never realized what was going on. I suppose that I listened so much to her version of events that I just took it as fact that you had lost yourself completely to your anger."
"More like lost myself to her anger. Though I don't know how she can be so angry all the time and still manage to function."
Jean-Claude's shoulders hunched a little bit, just for a moment. "Somehow she managed to control the Marks to such a degree that she was using your mind as a kind of dumping ground."
Richard raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Huh?"
Jean-Claude looked straight at him. "Whatever emotions she did not wish to feel, she siphoned off into your mind. All of her fear, anger, hate, guilt, love, everything that she did not wish to experience herself. She has been pouring herself into you for the last few years and it is only by a miracle that you have not completely lost your mind. Because the feelings were alien to your psyche, they latched on and began to grow within you, poisoning you from the inside out."
"Cancer," Richard said slowly. "She gave me mental cancer. That's what you're saying, aren't you?"
Jean-Claude's eyes were sad. "In a sense, yes. But now that we've fixed your shields, it was an easy thing to excise the foreign emotions and free you from the... the cancer."
Richard drew in a shuddering breath, wondering if he was going to cry, then deciding that maybe he would hold that option for later. "So I'm going to be all right from now on, right?"
Jean-Claude laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Mon ami, you will once again be the man we have all been missing."
Richard smiled a little. It had been a long time since anyone had called him their friend. "I'm glad. I've been kind of missing me too."
Jean-Claude rose to his feet. "Is there anything else that I can do for you? Do you need anything?"
Richard shook his head. "No. I'm good. Better than I've been for a very long time."
"Then I shall go attend to other business and give you a chance to rest," Jean Claude said.
"You know I'm not ever going to really like you, right?" Richard asked. "I mean, I'll always be grateful, but we're not going to be best friends forever or anything."
A slight smile quirked Jean-Claude's lips. "Of course not."
"And I'm not ever going to turn gay for you or anything," Richard went on. "But... thank you anyway. Of all the vampires I had to be tied to for the rest of my life, I guess you're not the worst one out there."
"I am truly honored," Jean-Claude said, but there was a smile in his eyes.
Richard sighed and laid back down on the mass of pillows. "I'm going to nap for awhile longer," he said. "I haven't really had a full night's sleep for the last few years and I really think I need it. It might probably make me be a little less cranky. Then everyone won't be calling me a dick behind my back."
"Ah, you too have heard the whispers about you," Jean-Claude laughed.
Richard rolled his eyes. "Please. I didn't really need preternatural hearing to be able to hear what everyone was saying about me."
"Well, mon ami, I suppose that I should leave you to your rest." Jean-Claude gracefully rose to his feet and fairly glided across the floor toward the bedroom door.
Richard sighed and closed his eyes. "Thank you," he said again.
The only answer was the gentle click of the door closing, but that was all right.
For the first time in a long time he felt like himself again. Richard Zeeman, non-psychotic werewolf.
It was a truly great feeling.
She felt terrible.
Something had happened that she couldn't really explain. It felt as though someone had stuck a blade made out of ice directly into her chest and never bothered to pull it back out again.
It was after closing the door behind Dr. Lillian that it had happened, just WHAM! Heart full of cold pain.
She had tried calling for Jean-Claude, and then for Richard, but there had been no answer. No warm rush of beastly energy or cold wave of strength. It was just her alone to face whatever had happened to her.
She clutched her chest and fought the pain-tears that wanted to fill her eyes. She was too strong to let herself cry. She just kind of squatted down on the floor, pressing her back hard against the door to keep from screaming and tried to push the pain away.
"You know what happened, don't you?"
Anita opened one eye to squint at Buffy. She couldn't even talk to demand what the hell she was talking about.
Buffy laughed, a surprisingly cheerful sound. "Oz has poisoned Richard and Jean-Claude against you. They've blocked the Marks. You're all alone now."
"Damian," she ground out, "pard."
Buffy shook her head, still smiling. "Please. Having them is the only thing keeping you from shattering like an old china plate. But Jean-Claude and Richard... they were the seat of your power. They were the only thing holding you together, and now they've closed themselves off from you. You're all alone. Worthless and all alone."
"No!" Anita ground out.
"Well then. If you want to prove that you're still as tough as you think you are... maybe you should put a leash on Oz before he takes everyone away from you all together."
"Oz," Anita growled. "Oz."
Buffy just smiled.
"Where the hell is Oz?" Willow asked herself, peering into the mirror that was gradually showing a clearer and clearer image.
Right now it was showing the blurred image of a strange dark set of buildings. It would eventually become crystal clear then hone in directly on where he was, but for now she would just have to wonder what kind of world he had landed on.
She sighed and sat back on her haunches. It would be several hours before the image was clear enough for her to be able to really get an idea of what was going on.
She stood up. She might as well go get herself one of the strawberry-blueberry-kiwi-banana smoothies Xander was making a mess out of down in the kitchen.
There was nothing like smoothie goodness to be able to settle her down for whatever was going to happen.
Either Oz was going to be coming home later tonight... or she was going to have to say goodbye to him for the last time, with no chance of meeting him on some dusty street in some sun-melted country somewhere.
It made her kind of sad, since she knew there was no real letting go of a first love. But things would happen the way they were meant to happen.
"What will be, will be," she murmured, then laughed at her own foolishness. "I think I have way too many issues for a single smoothie to handle. Guess I'll just have to have two then."
Chapter 3: Chapters 11-14
He felt guilty and afraid, but he knew there really wasn't anything else to be done.
Nathaniel had known for nearly his entire life that he wasn't exactly the hero in his own story. Whatever chance there might have been that he would be one of the brave, alpha types had been beaten out of him long ago. Still, he knew when something just had to be done, and that was why he was currently hiding in the walk-in closet with the phone handset.
"Mon chate, please tell me why you sound so afraid," Jean-Claude asked.
Nathaniel knew that it was kind of ridiculous to be so relieved by the concerned attentions of a vampire, but he just couldn't help himself. "There's something really wrong with Anita," he whispered.
"What are you speaking of?"
He crouched a little tighter in the space between the shoe rack and the plastic storage bin, hanging dresses and jackets just barely brushing the top of his head. Even though Anita had left the house for the night, he still felt safer behind the closed closet door. "When I woke up Dr. Lillian was checking me out. Anita was in a really bad mood," he said softly. "Dr. Lillian said something, and Anita got really mad, and when she did..."
"What happened?" Jean-Claude asked after the long moment when Nathaniel couldn't speak.
"There was something wrong with her face," he whispered, his voice cracking and breaking in the middle. He felt tears burning in his eyes, but he wouldn't let them fall. "It was like someone else was looking out of Anita's face, and it wasn't a very nice person."
"What does that mean?" Jean-Claude sounded worried now. "What did you see?"
"You need to do something," Nathaniel said. "It's almost like when the munin would take her over, but it's so much worse too." He couldn't help looking around, as though someone was going to come jumping out at him. There was just this sense of being watched. "I think she's possessed."
* * *
He'd called together his top lieutenants and they were currently filling up his living room with nervous energy and no little trace amounts of fear. They probably thought he was going to come across all aggressive on them, maybe ream them out for a bunch of petty non-issues.
Looking around at them, he felt guilty for having been such an asshole for so long.
"Does anyone want anything to drink?" he asked, just to break some of the tension. Then he felt like a jerk after receiving their disbelieving looks. He sighed and gestured for them to sit.
Shang-da and Jamil had been his loyal bodyguards for years, and Sylvie had been the kind of second-in-command most packs could only dream of. And he'd been a complete and utter dick to them all.
"What do you want, Richard?" Sylvie asked in her usual direct way. There was maybe a whiff of unease about her though, not-quite fear peaking behind her stoic mask. She had left Gwen safe at home, he noticed.
"It's not anything bad," he said, holding his hands up. He threw himself back into his chair and blew out a deep breath. He really didn't know how he was supposed to do this, but he had to do something to bring his pack back to where it was supposed to be. Finally he decided that he was better off just being honest.
"I know that I've been a real asshole for awhile," he said. "It's just, for the last couple of years I kind of felt as though I was trapped behind a layer of plexiglass and I just couldn't beat my way through it. I knew that I was being unreasonable, just really crazy, but I couldn't do anything about it, which just made everything even worse. And last night... everything came to a head and Jean-Claude finally had to step in and help me."
"What are you talking about?" Jamil asked.
Richard rubbed his hand over his face. "It was pointed out to him that something was really wrong with me and he took a look in my head. He found out that because of the Marks, Anita has been able to kind of pour all of her negative feelings into me. Anything she didn't want to handle herself, she dumped on me.
"Now look, Anita was affecting my emotions, I know that. But I'm not going to use that as an excuse for how I've been acting. I fully realize that I haven't been the leader I could have been, and I promise that changes will be made."
He could see that they didn't believe him, and he had to be honest with himself and admit that it hurt. But he knew that he had damaged a lot of the relationships in his life. He hadn't been the man he wanted to be for a long time. But he was going to make a difference, starting right now.
"I know you don't really trust me anymore," he said. When Jamil opened his mouth to make the lie and deny it, Richard held up his hand. "You don't have to try and appease me. I know that I've been a total jerk. I've hurt people, I've ruined a lot of my relationships with other people, and I've just basically been running around like a crazy person. And even though a lot of that had to do with all the craziness going on in my head, some of it was me too. And I'm going to own up to that, because that's the first step in making things better."
He felt a bit like he had joined AA, and that was kind of how he was going to handle things too. One step at a time.
* * *
Creeping out of the closet, Nathaniel felt both as though a weight had been lifted off his chest, and as though it had been replaced by a knife stabbing him in the heart. He just couldn't help thinking that maybe he was betraying Anita's trust in him. But something really needed to be done, because he was totally freaking out.
He had just slipped the phone back on the charger when Micah suddenly popped up in front of him. "What are you doing?"
He couldn't help his startled squeak, but tried to play it cool. "Nothing. I just had to make a phone call, that's all."
Micah gave him a weird look, evaluating him in that way he had. "Seriously, what's going on with you? If something's happening, I think you should tell me about it."
Nathaniel chewed on his lips nervously, his hands twisting together behind his back. He bowed his head a little, unable to even look at Micah. "Nothing," he mumbled.
"I don't even have to smell you to know that you're lying," Micah said. He reached out and brushed a strand of Nathaniel's hair off his face. "Tell me." It was an order given in the undeniable voice of a Nimir-raj.
Nathaniel looked around the living room nervously, half-expecting Anita to pop up out of nowhere and accuse him of being disloyal. "I'm scared," he whispered.
Micah grabbed his hand and pulled him over to the couch, forcing him to sit down on it. Then he cuddled up close to him, brushing his hand up and down his back. "Why are you scared? What's going on?"
Nathaniel peeked at him, taking in those green-green eyes and that almost too-pretty face. "Anita's different lately," he said. "She makes me frightened."
Micah's hand paused and there was a thoughtful look on his face. "Me too. And I really don't like that."
"She's not like Anita anymore. I don't know who she is, but there's something wrong with her." Nathaniel curled his head and shoulders and pressed close to Micah, seeking a safety he hadn't been feeling lately.
"I've noticed something too," Micah said. "She's been changing a lot, turning into someone I never thought she'd be. But lately... just in the last few days it's like she's become someone totally different. It makes me think of the days of Chim..." he stopped himself, shaking his head. "There's just something going on with her, and I really don't like it."
"But we can't say anything to her about it," Nathaniel said softly, "'cause then she'll get really mad. And when she's mad, I get really afraid."
"Because someone usually ends up shot," Micah said.
* * *
He was lying in the middle of the big bed he'd been given, just kind of staring up at the ceiling. He felt completely adrift, his entire world ripped out from under him, and he had no idea how to get back home. Or if he even wanted to go back at all. Which was actually kind of disturbing.
He thought that maybe he should have been more upset about being lost in a world not his own, but really he wasn't all that bothered. Which actually kind of bothered him a little. Irony.
It was just that in recent years he hadn't really had a place to call his own. He had been wandering around, doing the whole "have van, will travel" thing, searching for some nameless something that he just hadn't quite come across yet. And sure, he'd gained a lot of control over his inner wolf, but that didn't really do him a lot of good when he didn't have anyone to be in control for.
Life in Sunnydale had been hard, and there'd been no guarantees that he'd lived to see another day, but it had been home. Right up until he'd thrown that all away along with the one girl he'd truly thought he was going to spend the rest of his life with.
He was just glad that the myth of wolves mating for life was just that, a myth. 'Cause he couldn't really see wasting the whole of the rest of his life pining away for Willow, who had totally moved on from him and probably wasn't feeling an ounce of regret about it.
His semi-Angelesque brooding was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Come in as long as you're not someone here to kill me," he called.
The door opened and Jason peeked around the edge, a disbelieving grin pulling his lips. "'Come in as long as you're not someone here to kill me?'" he said, amused. "Really?"
Oz did a laying down shrug. "Hey, if you were someone here to kill me, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't have bothered to knock. What can I do for you?"
Jason gave him a naughty eyebrow wiggle. "Really?"
"Not that," Oz said. "What's up?"
Jason came into the room, the guitar case in his right hand bumping against his leg as he closed the door. "I got this from someone I know. I thought maybe you were missing your own."
Oz sat up on the bed, his hands itching. "You got me a guitar?"
Jason smiled. "Yeah. I thought maybe you could play me a few songs." He brought it over to set it in front of Oz on the bed. "Open it up."
Oz looked at him for a long moment, not quite sure what to say, then slowly reached out to unlatch the case and lift the lid. The guitar wasn't really anything special, was just a normal acoustic. But it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. "You didn't have to..."
Jason waved it away. "Of course I didn't have to. I don't have to do a lot of things in my life that I do. I wanted to give this to you."
Oz ran surprisingly trembly fingers across the strings, not yet ready to pick the guitar itself up. He was happy to hear that it was in tune. "Thanks, man," he finally said. He really didn't know what he was supposed to say. There were no words for how grateful he was to have music back again.
Jason just smiled at him for a long moment, seeming to hear all the things he couldn't say. Then, almost too fast for him to feel it, he darted in close and pressed his lips against Oz's. Just a peck, barely anything at all really. And yet...
"You're welcome," Jason said, then turned and walked back toward the door. "I've gotta get to work."
Oz watched him go, his lips tingling. He just didn't have the words to explain the fact that the world had stopped spinning for a moment. Everything had just gone still and perfect and for once in his life the quiet hadn't made him want to freak out and pack up all his stuff and run away.
It had felt good.
* * *
"They're all talking about you, you know."
Anita focused on sterilizing her machete, getting ready for the raising she was supposed to be doing. A humorously named "Mr. Burns" that had left a pretty questionable will. There was a group of lawyers standing by, just waiting for her to bring back the dead man so they could hound him about every little issue he'd left unresolved.
"They're saying they think you're losing your mind. There's real big concerns going around that you're going to totally nut out or something."
She turned to glare at Buffy, glad that the lawyers were far enough away not to be able to hear. "What the fuck are you talking about?" she hissed.
Buffy smiled at her, that oh-so-sweet expression that made her back go up. "Everyone is talking about you," she said. "They're making plans about what they're going to do when you totally lose your cool."
"Who?" Anita demanded.
"Nathaniel, for one," Buffy said.
Anita scoffed. "No way, he's too loyal for that."
Buffy smirked. "Not anymore. He told Jean-Claude and Micah that he's scared of you. He thinks there's something wrong with you."
"There's nothing wrong with me," Anita said. She felt hurt well up inside at the thought of Nathaniel betraying her like that, which just made her angry. Everyone in her life always turned against her at some point, but she'd actually deluded herself into thinking that she'd found some kind of equilibrium, that she could trust the people she'd chosen to keep in her life.
She could feel the lawyers giving her strange looks and she really didn't care. To them it just seemed as though she was talking to herself, but she knew she was talking to the only person she could really trust right now.
"Tell me what everyone's saying," she ordered, giving her machete a test swing.
Another big fancy party with tons of weres and vampires all over the place. He guessed that was kind of a regular occurrence around here, nearly every meal some big production, another chance to drag out the formal wear.
He pulled on the collar of his dark red button up shirt. He didn't really like the whole having to dress up thing... but looking around at some of the nearly naked people, he would rather be overdressed than under. It looked a little chilly.
"So, how cool is this, huh?"
Oz turned to Jason and raised one eyebrow.
Jason looked at him, then laughed. "Yeah, really. Still, Jean-Claude likes doing this kind of thing so it's in all of our best interests to just play along. Now, look pretty and let's go mingle."
"Do I at least get something to drink?" Oz asked.
"Several something's if you're doing things right," Jason said. "Maybe some wine, some vodka, some champagne, and some brandy, or some rum, some whiskey, some vodka, and some tequila, or..."
Oz held up a hand to stop him. "I get the idea. This party is a perfect opportunity to explore my future as an alcoholic. Okay. But what else are we supposed to do?"
"Like I said, we're here to look pretty. We're here for ornamental purposes only. So try not to pick your nose, scratch your ass, or in any way look like you have a personality. 'Cause if you do? Some of these guys will eat you alive."
"And that's not scary at all," Oz dead-panned.
Jason shot him a grin, and though he couldn't explain it, it felt as though someone had lightly slapped him in the chest. Oz shook off the sensation as being nothing but pure imagination. Probably a side effect of being in a strange world.
"Come over here," Jason said, grabbing his arm. "Let's get something to snack on while we languish in flamingo land."
"You know. We're like those crazy pink flamingo lawn ornaments. To be seen and not heard from."
"I don't really see myself as being quite that flamey," Oz said.
Jason laughed. "Ooh, you made a funny. Now come on."
Oz let himself be dragged across the room to the buffet-like tables. He was feeling just a little snackey, so it wasn't like he was going to say no to something delicious and not-very nutritious. Like these crazy little stuffed crab shell things oozing with melted cheese.
"For a bunch of vampires, I would think they would want their food to be just a tad bit more health conscious, you know?" Oz said.
"Please. They could give a rats ass whether we're eating good as long as our blood is red and juicy."
"Excuse me? And what sort of conversation are you having with our little guest from another land?" Jean-Claude asked, just kind of appearing behind them.
Oz turned to look at him, catching him with one perfect brow arched and a little bit of a frown on his face. The guy was entirely too pretty for anyone's good. It felt like a trap.
Jason went all tensed and whirled around with a guilty smile jerking at his lips. "Oh, hey Master. Look, I'm really sorry I said that. You know me, total foot-in-mouth disease, you know?"
"Perhaps you should look into getting your disease cured," Jean-Claude admonished, then just kind of ghosted away.
Jason wiped an arm across a suddenly sweaty forehead. "Wow, that could have been a total catastrophe right there."
"What would he have done?" Oz asked, honestly curious. The vampires in this world tried to be a kinder, gentler breed, but he wasn't quite buying the hype. A convicted serial rapist would try to get the public to think he had reformed, but there was always that desire to go out and carve just one more notch in the bedpost. And a vampire was always going to want to experience the ego trip of having perfect control over someone.
"It wouldn't have been so bad," Jason said, but he didn't elaborate any further. Which kind of gave Oz the impression that even if it wasn't so bad, it was still plenty bad.
He highly doubted that there would ever be a world where he would see a vampire as being his best buddy. It just wasn't ever going to happen; though Angel was still a somewhat cool cat, just a little socially inept.
"Well, what do you want to try first?" he asked, gesturing at the spread of expensive delicacies.
Oz looked at him for a moment longer, knowing that he should probably want to say something, but not knowing what. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders and decided to let it go for now. "Those little crab cake things look kind of good to me," he said.
Jason looked relieved that he wasn't going to be grilled about what his "master" did to him, and instead led the way closer to the table. "I don't know. I think those little mini-quiche things looks pretty damn good."
"We might have to taste test everything here to find out what's good or not," Oz suggested, quirking a lip.
Jason grabbed his arm and pulled him through the crowd of people massing around the buffet table. If there was one thing to be said about a group of lycanthropes, it was that they could really desecrate a buffet.
Oz glanced down at the hand on his arm, but didn't even think about pulling away. There was something nice about the others' touch, something he hadn't known in a long time.
It should have probably been something for him to think about, the fact that while he didn't really welcome the touch of most people, he was completely comfortable with Jason being there. But it just felt so completely natural that it wasn't even a consideration.
They made their way through the buffet, the only deterrent being the tiny size of the plates.
"This stuff's really delicious," Jason said, poking his fork in a mysterious cake-like something. And it really was incredible tasting, even if neither of them knew what was in it.
Sitting next to Jason in a shadowed corner, watching the vampires watch everyone else eat was oddly relaxing. At least it meant that Oz didn't have to be at the center of things, wondering what was going to happen next.
"Ooh, what's this now?" Jason murmured, his eyes brightening.
"What do you mean?" Oz said, trying to see what had caught the others' attention.
It was Asher and some other man--woman?--gorgeous person wearing an expensive looking pantsuit outfit. They were standing not too far away, but didn't seemed to have noticed Oz and Jason in their little nook.
"Who's that?" Oz asked. The man--woman?--had a slender build and dark hair cut in a short, chic style. His makeup was dramatic and eye-catching, but really not all that feminine. There was just something about him that screamed "Beware, predator!" And Oz had never been one to ignore his instincts when it came to danger.
"That's Narcissus, the Oba of the werehyenas. He's bad news, but him and Asher had a thing awhile ago."
"A thing?" Oz asked, raising an eyebrow.
Jason nudged his shoulder. "Yeah, a thing. Really, though, Asher only had anything to do with him because Anita got herself in a situation and Asher had to bail her out. Still, I think Narcissus had some real feelings going for him. Warped feelings, but real, only Asher won't have anything to do with him."
"Until now," Oz said.
"Until now," Jason nodded. "Sh!"
Oz kind of wanted to walk away, since it was wrong to be listening in to other peoples' private conversation, but then it would just be a case of him revealing that he was there in the first place. Plus, Jason looked very sort of interested and probably wouldn't take too kindly to missing out on what was happening.
Oz felt a little as though he was caught in a never ending episode of Passions. Everything was all just witches, werewolves, and vampires--it was like "As the Coffin Turns" crossed with "Lycanthropy Now," very dramatic, but without quite the amount of probable world-endage he was used to.
He stilled, then glanced down at where Jason's hand had grasped his arm. They were sitting pretty close together, their plates on their laps and their knees brushing. Jason was leaned so far forward that his shirt was in real danger of getting red velvet cake on it. His thin face was intent, his blue eyes bright and curious as he tried to catch every word between Narcissus and Asher.
Oz thought that maybe he should have been kind of upset that Jason was such a gossip monger, but there was just something about the expression on his face that kept Oz from being able to say anything or leave. He was like a kid with a new toy, or like Willow back when she'd been his bright-eyed girl.
He flinched a little at the thought of Willow, still a sore subject even after all these years. It was just that she'd been the center of his everything and the only reason he had ever left her was the fear that he would hurt her. He had always meant to go back to her, make amends, be happy the way they used to be.
But looking at Jason's face in the shadowed corner of the large room, he felt some of the same wonder he used to feel around Willow. That strange sense where he could only ask himself over and over why someone so great would ever want to be around him, and then just had to be grateful that she was there.
Jason made him feel special in a way he hadn't for a very long time.
So he would stay quiet while they eavesdropped on Narcissus and Asher, though he barely even knew Asher. And in the meantime, he would be able to look his fill at Jason's face, tracing every line and gentle curve with his eyes.
* * *
"What do you want?" Asher demanded, crossing his arms.
Narcissus' eyes were like razor blades trying to peel his skin off so he could get at the meat underneath. "I just wanted to spend some time with you. What's so wrong about that?"
"I do not want to have anything to do with you, n'est pas?"
"But I want to have things to do with you," Narcissus' said, quirking his lip. "You are a very hard man to get a hold of, did you know that? And Jean-Claude--what a meany--he refused to arrange a meeting between us. He said that you didn't want to see me."
"It is true," Asher said. "Our agreement is over. You have nothing I want."
Narcissus snorted delicately. "Please. Wasn't it good for you? We can have such fun together."
Narcissus interrupted, "Jean-Claude doesn't give you the attention you deserve. You and I could have such a wonderful time. No strings attached, I promise."
Asher looked at him for a long moment, trying to read any deeper meaning. But Narcissus was just as cruelly amused at life as he usually was. He thought that he was probably making a gigantic mistake, but he had been so lonely for so long that any bit of something was to be grabbed onto and never let go. "Oui. No strings attached."
Narcissus smiled, a surprisingly delighted smile. He reached out and grasped Asher's arm, leading him off back toward the party so they could plan their own private afterward.
* * *
"Did they just agree to what I think they did?" Oz whispered.
Jason turned his head to give him a shit-eating grin. "Yep."
"Heavy." He felt a little weirded out by what they'd heard. Sure, Willow becoming a lesbian had been a real shock to the system, and he'd seen quite a few things in his travels, but there had just been something so real about the Asher/Narcissus thing.
"Are you totally weirded out?" Jason asked.
"I'm a little bit, but not as much as I think I should be, and that's what weirds me out the most."
"Cool," Jason said. And then, before Oz knew what he was going to do, he leaned across both their plates to steal another kiss. "Now you have a reason to be weirded out."
Oz looked at him thoughtfully. That first kiss earlier in the evening had completely thrown him for a loop, but this second one felt realer and had the added benefit of Jason not running away right after. "Strangely, I'm not."
Jason smiled at him.
* * *
She hadn't really wanted to come, was a little weary after three raisings, though they had barely tapped her necromantic powers at all. It was just that she wasn't feeling really welcome in her own life at the moment and she wasn't sure she wanted to deal with any people at all. Except she'd said she was going to show up tonight, so here she was.
She smoothed a hand down her hip, making sure the lines of her black silk dress were straight. She pretty much just wanted to get in, eat a little, and get the fuck out. She was in no mood to deal with anyone right now, especially not a bunch of people that had turned against her and were talking about her behind her back.
Anita sighed and ran her eyes over the crowd real quick, just to see who all was there.
She was surprised to see Asher talking to Narcissus next to a table covered in champagne glasses. They were standing just a little too close together and there was an air of intimacy about them that made her want to grit her teeth. There was no way they were supposed to be that comfortable with each other. Part of her wanted to stomp over there and jerk them away from each other, to tell Narcissus to leave what was hers alone. But that was pretty stupid.
She forced herself to keep looking over the crowd, then had to squint to make sure it was really them. Yep, there was Jean-Claude standing there, looking almost too-perfect to be real, and lounging against the wall next to him was Richard. They should have been at each others' throats, but instead they were just talking to each other quietly, looking completely comfortable and as though they'd never had a problem. It was pretty surprising.
She stepped further into the room, planning on going over there and asking them what was going on, why they weren't going at each other like cats and dogs. Then she saw Micah talking to Rafael.
There wasn't really anything wrong with them talking to each other, they had always pretty much gotten along. Except that she'd caught them glancing at her, and when she's tried to meet their eyes, they'd both quickly looked away. There was something definitely suspicious about it.
She thought about what Buffy had told her. There were definite signs that people were talking about her, tearing her apart with their words when she wasn't there to defend herself. Muttering behind her back like a bunch of cowards.
She caught Micah glancing at her again and tried to catch his eye, giving him a nice smile. But he didn't smile back, just looked at her for a long moment before turning back to talk to Rafael.
She felt as though she'd been smacked in the face.
It had been a long time since she wasn't the center of attention, and even though she's always said that she hated it, she hated being ignored even more.
That's when her eye fell on Oz, cuddled up all cozy in a shadowy corner of the room with Jason. They were talking to each other and nibbling on whatever they had on their little plates of food. They looked intimate and friendly and...
And more than anything she just wanted to smack that self-contented look right off Oz's face. He was the reason why everyone had suddenly turned against her. The minute he'd shown up, her life had gone to hell.
Everything was his fault and there was no way she was going to ignore him anymore.
* * *
He couldn't really explain it, but right in the middle of listening to Jason babble about his job, he had this sudden sense as if someone had just poured a glass of ice water down his back. All his Sunnydale senses were screaming that something bad was going to happen.
He quickly glanced around the room, trying to see what was giving him the wiggins.
"Oh shit!" Jason hissed just when he caught sight of Anita stalking toward them, a dark look on her face.
The way she moved was pure rage, only her high heels keeping her from stomping hard against the floor. Her dress swirled around her legs, swish, swish, fabric slicing through the air. Even the way her black curls bounced screamed "I'm gonna fuck you up!" There was definitely a very aggressive air around her.
"I think we're about to experience some trouble," he said.
"Ya think?" Jason said, his body going tense.
* * *
She couldn't have really explained why she was suddenly so angry, but there it was. Usually she was able to push down most of her rage, just squeeze it out until it was largely gone, but that wasn't really working for her right now.
All she knew was that she wanted to wipe that smug look off of Oz's face.
She stalked over to their little corner, watching them scramble to their feet in preparedness for facing her. And the way Jason stepped in front of him... just made her angrier. As though she was some kind of ogre other people had to be protected from.
She had started to think that she might be one of the monsters, but she didn't want to be treated like one. It wasn't like she was out there constantly causing trouble and just doing whatever she wanted. She was a human woman, dammit, and people better start remembering it. Or she would show them all just how much of a monster she could act like.
Before she could start yelling at Oz, Jason raised his hands in a placating gesture that honestly had the opposite effect with her. "Please Anita, I don't know why you don't like Oz, but he's a really nice guy and..."
"Shut up!" She snarled, glaring at him with the full weight of an angry alpha behind her. There was something oddly delightful about making him whimper and squirm, about bringing the dominance so heavy against him that he had to drop to his knees, then kicking it up a notch and making him squirm on his belly, whining and begging, supplicating himself before like he was supposed to. It sent a surge of dark satisfaction through her, as though things were finally getting back to the way they were supposed to be.
"Stop it!" Oz suddenly yelled, stepping forward. "Leave him alone!"
She looked at him and it was like the rage just flowered through her, turning everything brittle and bright. She felt her skin flushing with fever while her lips went white and pulled as tight as her eyes had gone.
She didn't have anywhere else to send her overpowering rage, so just this once she decided to embrace it fully. And even though she would never admit it to anyone but herself, there was something satisfying about just letting it all go.
She didn't possess her anger. Her anger possessed her. And she just didn't fucking care.
* * *
One minute everything was fine, then Anita showed up and it all went to hell.
He had opened his mouth to tell Jason that he didn't need his protection, that he could handle her himself, but by then it was already too late. Anita walked on the scene, Jason stepped in front of him, and then... it had felt like a wave of heat and pressure, this kind of dark presence that had made his beast howl in his breast with defiance. It was the kind of thing that made him want to stand up taller, to show that he was stronger and better and no bitch was going to bring him down. He had faced tougher than Anita and he'd never backed down.
But Jason... He had kind of realized that Jason wasn't the strongest of guys. He was funny, and sweet, and charming, and sometimes he could be so smarmy it was kind of annoying, yet amusing at the same time. But Jason was definitely not the alpha type.
So when Anita came on full-press alpha... It was the saddest thing ever to see Jason pressed down on the floor, whining and crying, sounding more animal than man, unable to even form words at this point. It should have been pathetic, but really all it did was make Oz want to charge forward and protect his friend.
He had always been pretty mild, but this kind of shit couldn't help but to make him MAD.
"What did he do to you that you have to humiliate him in front of all these people? What is your problem?" Oz demanded. The little power play had made the rest of the party goers sit up and take notice, and the fact that they'd attracted an audience just made things worse. Jason was in full submission mode on the floor, and all these people were just going to watch Anita abuse him? It was disgusting and infuriating.
"You. You are my problem," Anita snarled, her lips drawing back from her teeth unattractively. She practically blazed with psychotic rage, her dark eyes glittering maliciously. "Ever since you showed up everything's been all different and I can hear people whispering about me behind my back. Whisper, whisper. All the time judging and whispering and it's ALL YOUR FAULT."
Oz just looked at her for a moment, honestly surprised. This was why she was so angry, because people were talking about her? Or rather, she THOUGHT people were talking about her? That was why she was being such a bitch to him and being cruel to Jason?
He cocked his head at her, his face showing his confusion. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
He had this stupid look on his face, as though he was wondering if she was crazy or not. More than anything she wanted to reach out and squeeze his throat until his mouth was open in soundless screams and he was never able to get anything out again.
She felt the prickle of staring eyes on the back of her neck and turned sideways. "What the fuck are you all staring at? Fuck off and mind your own business," she snarled.
"Whoa," Oz said in that infuriatingly even tone, "maybe you should chill out a little."
Anita jabbed a finger at him. "Don't fucking tell me what to do. I know you've been scheming against me with this little piece of shit." She kicked Jason, who grunted and curled around himself before trying to inch back against Oz for protection. It made her even madder, that Jason had dared to turn against her along with all the others.
Jean-Claude came striding out of the crowd with a disappointed look on his face. He frowned at her. "Ma petite, you need to calm down."
Anita scoffed. "Don't tell me what to do. You don't have the right to tell me what to do."
"Perhaps you need to leave," Jean-Claude said, his eyes blazing with sudden anger until all there was was blue, a crackle of power overcoming everything else.
"What, you're trying to kick me out?" she asked, honestly surprised. She had never imagined that Jean-Claude would ever kick her out. He wanted her, needed her. Without her he was nothing but just another vampire. It was her power that had enabled him to become Master of the City. Without her he would still be nothing.
Jean-Claude looked at her for a long moment, long enough that she wondered if he had somehow managed to read her thoughts even though she was currently Shielding them. "Of course I would never do that," he said. "But perhaps it would be best if you went home and had some rest. You are weary and it shows with your temper."
"Don't try to handle me," Anita said, shaking her head. "I don't want to go home and I don't want to rest. I am having a conversation with Oz and I think you should back the hell off."
Jean-Claude's lips compressed into a thin line. "And yet your 'conversation,' as you call it, entails that you physically abuse Jason?"
Anita felt her lips twisting in a snarl and didn't even try to stop it. "He decided to get himself involved. If he had just stayed out of it, it would have been fine."
"And what exactly is 'it'?" Richard asked, stepping up beside Jean-Claude.
It was stupid, she knew it was, but it felt as though they were ganging up on her. They hated each other; they weren't supposed to getting along just so they could yell at her and try to make her feel small.
"They're trying to take away your power," Buffy said, laying a hand against her back. Anita glanced at her in surprise. It was the first time Buffy had ever touched her. She had actually begun to think that Buffy was completely
incorporeal, yet she was feeling that touch against her arm.
Buffy was real. And she was the only one that believed in Anita.
Anita drew in a deep breath, knowing that if Buffy believed in her, then she had to be right. Buffy had never lied to her, the guilty expressions of the people around her when they talked about her told her it was true. "Oz has been working against me," she said. "He came here to try and wreck my life and everything that I've ever done."
"I think you're doing a fine job of that all by yourself," Richard said.
She glared at him. "Shut up, Richard."
His skin flushed with anger, and he opened his mouth to say something else, but Jean-Claude laid a hand on his arm, stopping him. "It is not worth it for you to lose your control again," Jean-Claude said. She's not worth it, went unsaid, but Anita picked it up loud and clear.
A big part of her wanted to rip into Richard like usual, but instead she turned toward Oz. "Why did you come here? Is it some kind of plan to fuck up my life?" she demanded her hands clenching into fists at her sides.
Oz had half-knelt to check on Jason, but couldn't get the other man on his feet. "Seriously, I have no idea what you're talking about. You've been pretty aggro since I showed up, and honestly, I haven't wanted anything to do with you."
Anita felt like it was a verbal slap to the face. She just wasn't used to someone not seeing her as being important.
For the last few years she had become used to all men wanting her and all women being a bunch of jealous bitches. What she was not used to was being ignored. She was Anita Blake after all, and even the people that hated her guts still had to think about her to do it.
Looking at Oz, so worried about Jason that he was barely paying her any attention, Anita couldn't help but to think that maybe that's why she didn't like him. He didn't see her as being important, as someone he needed to respect and curry favor from. To him, she was just another person on the street, and really, that wasn't something she liked being anymore.
Have I become that much of an egomaniac? she wondered. Am I so petty that I want to kill someone just because they don't want to show me the respect and consideration that I think I deserve? Have I really become that kind of person, and when the hell did it happen?
Buffy's hand tightened on her shoulder and she glanced at the blond questioningly. "He's playing you," Buffy said as though it were perfectly obvious, and when she thought about it, it really was. "He's making you question yourself because that's what he does. But inside, he's laughing at you and calling you a sucker."
Anita looked back at Oz, seeing that same stupid "I'm so innocent and confused at your jerkiness" look on his face. But she wasn't a fool and she could see beyond that look to the fact that he was mocking her, trying to get her to doubt herself.
Just seeing that look--and knowing what it hid--she felt her uncertainty being washed away by a fresh surge of anger.
She was no one's sucker.
* * *
Oz would never say that he liked Anita, but there was definitely something going on with her. And it wasn't anything good.
"I really don't know what your problem is with me," he said, standing upright, "but Jason is my friend and I don't like that you're treating him so bad just to get to me."
Anita sneered at him. "Think pretty highly of yourself, do you? Well, it's not all about you. Jason is the one being a spineless whiner." She pulled back her foot, aiming to kick Jason again with her pointy shoe.
Oz didn't hesitate a second and stuck his own foot in the way, blocking the kick. "You seriously need to not do that anymore."
"Where did you learn your English, in Astonia?" Anita asked.
He raised an eyebrow at the question, really not sure how he was supposed to respond to that kind of childish, elementary school taunting. Then he felt a flash of regret when, by the expression on her face, he could tell that his non-answer was just making her madder.
He really didn't know what her problem was or what he was supposed to do about it, but there was no way he was going to let her hurt Jason any more. She'd already shot the guy once on accident, and he hadn't really bought her half-assed apology about it either.
He didn't know why she seemed to hate him so much, but he was going to protect Jason. Any way that he had to.
* * *
He knew quivering on the floor was absolutely pathetic and more than anything he wanted to be able to climb back up on his feet and prove he was not a "spineless whiner." The only problem was the fact that Anita was still focusing straight up Alpha displeasure at him and his beast wasn't letting him stop submitting to her. It just wasn't smart enough to handle the human side of things and kept insisting that if he abased himself enough, she wasn't going to kill him.
His wolf was pretty stupid sometimes, but he couldn't really blame it. It was working with a bunch of behavioral rules that usually only applied to other werewolves.
Sometimes he really wished that Richard hadn't made Anita his lupa. She didn't follow the rules, and even though she had a degree in so-called preternatural studies, she still just did whatever the hell she wanted to do, stepping on toes all the way. And the fact that she was still mostly human meant that she could pretend like she didn't notice that what she was doing was wrong. She just didn't get that jangling, discordant feeling most "monsters" got when they broke the rules.
Jason couldn't help thinking about Life Before, back when Marcus and Raina were leading the pack. Sure, life sucked, but the city was different then. Anita had brought aggression and danger to the preternatural world in the city, changing the inherent structures and the rules they all lived by.
From the minute she started rising up the city's hierarchy, that was when all the trouble started. As she gained power, everything had kind of shifted and all the clear-cut lines of "lycanthrope" and "vampire" and "everyone else" was blurred out and in some places broken completely.
He may not have been at the center of things when Anita had started her rise to power, but he knew how to read and he talked to people. So he had a pretty clear idea of what was going on.
He'd never said anything, but he could definitely read between the lines: Anita's move to St. Louis had been the start of a lot of stuff. And sure, she and the people she "cared" about came out on top in most every situation, but there were tons of other people that ended up as collateral damage. Tons of people that she didn't spare even a single thought for as she went about doing whatever she wanted.
When the Council had shown up was when things really started getting bad, because it was like a giant sign for all kinds of vampires and baddies to test the Master of the City and his human servant. And every single time there was a big blow up, it seemed as though Anita got yet another power up, and a bunch of other people got raped and abused in the sidelines. Most of who never should have been drawn into the bad situations in the first place. Just people minding their own business, swept up in whirlwind Anita's wake.
Anita attracted trouble. He had realized that fact early on in their relationship, and it hadn't taken him long to decide that he was going to stay on her side, because people she didn't really like somehow always managed to end up dead.
He realized it made him seem schemy, but even when his life sucked, it was still his life and it was the only one he had. So he freely admitted it, if only in his own head, that sometimes he gave up on self-respect and played the loveable fool just so he could stay on Anita's good side.
He had read her the first time he met her as one of those people that made snap decisions about other people, then never tried to look any deeper. Once she decided what someone was supposed to be, that was all they ever were to her. Depthless as a puddle of water.
He knew she saw him as a stupid stripper boy that let vampires drink his blood. And that was all she ever saw him as, nothing more. It was the same way she saw Nathaniel: as a helpless, easily victimized sex-pet--she had sex with him and set chores for him to do, but he was never good for much else than that, certainly not to be talked to or really cared about.
Sometimes Jason was frustrated by how Anita treated them all as two-dimensional paper dolls--she fucked the pretty ones, shot the mean ones, and ignored all the rest. And he had always refused to be ignored, because even though he'd known life around Anita wouldn't be the best, there were tons of worse people out there just waiting for the chance to use and abuse him.
It was just one of the facts of his life that he was never going to be alpha. And after he'd gotten over that fact--yes it sucks being everyone's bitch but there's nothing you can do about it--he'd settled in to make the best of his life. Which meant Feeding Jean-Claude, working in a strip club, and trying to keep Anita happy. And what made her happy was being able to look down her nose at him since he was nothing more than a sex-craving, mouthy, largely non-threatening fool.
But he'd read books and he'd seen plays--and in all the good stories, the fool was usually the smartest character.
He had been playing his part and playing it well for years. He had gotten handling Anita down to a science. It had reached the point where he didn't even have to think about it anymore, he knew what words or gestures to use to placate her most ever mood.
So the insane hate-on she had for Oz didn't make any sense to him and he didn't know what he was supposed to do about it. Oz hadn't done anything to her, yet she was going out of her way to push the guy.
It was kind of like being controlled by Marcus and Raina again--only worse in some ways. Because even though they could rape your body and make you do things you didn't want to do--Anita could force you to want to have sex and do all those things. And even while you screamed in your head, she'd keep raping you, and the whole time your body would make you want it.
In some ways Anita was worse than the vampires, and Jason had first hand proof about why all the old stories warned against necromancers becoming human servants of vampires. Because in the end, they weren't the servants anymore.
And the funny thing about it all, he didn't think Jean-Claude even realized what was happening to him. Jean-Claude thought he was still in control, but Anita was in his head all the time, pulling the strings and making him dance to her tune.
So lying on the floor with Anita's power pressing down on him like a choking, heavy blanket, Jason made the decision to stand up for himself for the first--and probably last--time.
With his whole body trembling and a whining-moan burbling up out of his throat, he managed to crawl across the floor to position himself behind Oz's legs.
He couldn't speak, not with her power flattening most of the defiance out of him, but was able to press his forehead against Oz's ankle a couple of times to show that he was there.
And even though Anita was probably going to end up killing him for being disloyal or something, it felt like he was a little bit free for the first time since he had been infected.
* * *
He hadn't really known what Jason was doing, though it had caused an ache beneath his breastbone when he saw Jason's muscles quivering and shaking and all the strain on his face as he crawled across the floor. There had been solid determination in those blue-blue eyes, just this will to move and keep on moving.
So when Jason crawled behind his legs, showing his support, it had been a really powerful moment. And when Jason had nudged his leg, it had actually made him madder at Anita.
There she was playing the indignant wronged party, while at the same time there hadn't been a single break in her using her power to punish Jason. He could still feel it pressing against his skin, trying to dominate him, and even though he was strong enough to shake it off, Jason was not. And she knew it and didn't care.
Oz realized that both his inner beast and his inner human were really not happy. And it was the kind of not happy where the last time he'd felt it, Veruca had ended up dead.
Once again, she was sitting cross-legged in the middle of her workroom, gazing into the depths of the long mirror. Things were coming into clearer focus--buildings, cars, streetlights--but people were nothing but flesh-colored blurs.
If she had really wanted to, she could have reached into the mirror and forced Oz out of it. But if there was one thing she had learned after ripping Buffy out of heaven... it was to always make sure that someone needed rescuing before just grabbing them up.
Just thinking about the whole "Buffy wasn't in hell, but in heaven" thing made her feel that familiar surge of regret and guilt. Her friend had been in a place of perfect happiness for the first time in her life, and with one ill-thought plan Willow had relegated her to the equivalent of a life-sentence in misery.
It had taken Buffy a long time to come to grips with her return to life and the fight they all faced. And even though she had found contentment and maybe a kind of happiness, Willow would always regret having taken her from heaven.
So there was no way she was just going to reach into that world and snatch Oz back. She would watch and wait, and if she could manage it, she would ask him what he wanted done.
There was the soft scuff of footsteps behind her, but she didn't turn. They were nearly as familiar as her own. "What are you doing now?" Kennedy asked quietly.
"Waiting for everything to become clear," Willow said distractedly, unable to look away from the mirror. Just a little while longer and she would know what was happening for sure.
"And then what?" Kennedy asked, a little bit of sharpness in her voice.
Willow knew that her girlfriend was kind of upset about being pretty much ignored for the last few days. She sighed softly and held her hand out, waiting until Kennedy took it and knelt beside her. She nestled against Kennedy's side, feeling that quiet strength the other woman exuded even when she wasn't in full-on Slayer mode. "If he's happy I'll leave him there, no harm, no foul. But I need to ask him if he's somewhere he wants to stay. 'Cause if Oz is in a bad place and I just leave him there... I would never be able to forgive myself."
"You still love him, don't you?" Kennedy asked. There was just a hint of worry and hurt in her voice, the fear that things were going to fall apart and there was nothing she could do about it.
Willow's lips quirked in a little smile. "Yes," she said honestly, "but that doesn't mean I want to be with him. He was my first relationship, my first love, and my first broken heart. At the time, I thought we were going to be forever. But we all grow up."
"Are we going to be forever?" Kennedy asked.
Willow turned a smile on her, reaching out to caress her face with the palm of her hand. "We're going to try for it."
In the quiet stillness, the only light coming from the mirrors on the wall reflecting back an alien world, Willow leaned forward to kiss Kennedy softly on the lips. It was a kind of promise.
* * *
There had been times before when he had come to the realization that ma petite was out of control, but always he had been able to push that aside, not wanting to face the truth and possibly lose her forever. But to have her bring about such madness at a dinner party? There were not enough excuses in the world that he could make.
"We should do something," Richard said softly.
"Yes, but what?" Jean-Claude asked. "She is most obviously not in the mood to listen to anyone." 'To us' went unsaid.
Over the last few years Anita had begun to do whatever she wanted with no thought to consequences. Her power had grown to such proportions that most of the time she was able to face anyone that questioned her without fear, and with that sense of mastery she had been changed into someone he did not recognize as the woman he had fallen in love with.
He had not said anything, had allowed her freedom to become who and what she wanted to be. And now he was reaping the fruits of his neglectful foolishness. Because somehow she had spread herself out across the Marks, owning them so completely that she had become the center of his and Richard's world, the core of their power, entangling them in the sticky web of her whims and desires until there was no way for them to pull free, no way for them to exert any kind of control over her. They were in her thrall, and there was nothing to be done about it as they would die without her.
Jean-Claude glanced at the side of Richard's face. The Ulfric had become a different man in the years he had known him, had grown into his power and position, and even though he had lost himself for a time, he was an incredibly admirable man. To have been overwhelmed by the Marks and Anita's power for so long, and yet to have at least partially maintained himself... it was a wonder.
Jean-Claude had not told Richard the whole truth about what Anita had been doing to him and what could have happened. He had not gone into the details of how much raw emotion Anita had poured into him, and the depth of madness that could have resulted.
He had decided that Richard did not need to know how close he had been to becoming nothing but a psychotic shell of a man, only able to feel anything at all when he indulged in the most depraved of practices. Richard did not need to know that he had been on the road to becoming everything he hated and feared, a thousand times worse than Raina or Marcus or Gabriel could have ever been, a truly soulless MONSTER that only thought it wanted to be a man.
It was bad enough that Richard resented Anita so much. It would have been worse if Jean-Claude had given the werewolf true reason to hate her. Especially now, when there was something so obviously wrong with her.
"What is she going to do?" Richard asked.
Jean-Claude shook his head. "I do not known, mon ami. It has been a long time since I have been able to understand why ma petite does the things she does."
They stood there, watching the confrontation between Anita and Oz, both hesitating to do what they knew needed to be done. It was just such an awkward situation: the woman they were to spend forever with, and the innocent young man that she was harassing for no reason.
"I knew you were trouble the first time I saw you," Anita growled.
Oz blinked at her. "I still have no idea what you're talking about. I haven't done anything to you."
Anita cocked her head as though listening to someone. Jean-Claude had noticed this strange new habit of hers in the last few days. He had even walked in on her once seemingly in mid-conversation with herself.
"You like to play that you're innocent, but I know," she wagged her finger at Oz, a deranged smile twisting her lips, "I know. You're trying to ruin my life, trying to make everyone turn against me. But I won't let you win, I won't."
Jean-Claude had never seen her looking like that, so wild and strange. It made him think of Nathaniel's phone call and the idea that Anita might really be possessed.
He had mentally scoffed at the idea, but now it had merit. There was definitely something happening with Anita.
"You're here to cause trouble, I know it," Anita said. "Everyone else has bought into your little act, but I'm not so easily fooled. And I'll stop you no matter what I have to do."
Oz shook his head. "I came here on accident. I don't have any plans against you or anything like that. You're paranoid."
Anita snarled, her expression twisting uglily. "I'm not fucking paranoid. Don't talk to me like I'm crazy or something."
"Whoa," Oz held his hands palm out, "I never called you crazy. I just want you to stop messing with Jason."
"Who are you to tell me what to do?" Anita demanded, stamping her foot. "Jason belongs to me."
Oz's voice was deeper than ever before and there was something dark in his eyes, "He doesn't belong to you. And you really need to stop what you're doing to him."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Her mock-innocent tone wasn't even close to believable.
"Don't try to lie," Oz said. "I can feel your power pressing down."
Richard interrupted, stepping forward a little, "What do you mean? What is she doing? I don't feel anything."
Oz looked at him. "Seriously, you don't feel that? She's been pressing her power down on us for a while now. It's why Jason's like that." He pointed down at Jason.
"Wait a minute," Anita snarled suspiciously, "if you were a normal human you wouldn't feel anything." She smirked. "I was right, you've been lying about what you are. You're not a human at all, are you?"
Jean-Claude had had his suspicions about Oz, but he hadn't voiced any of them, especially to Anita. He knew that when Anita classified someone as not being human, she didn't have a second thought about shooting them. He drew in a breath, feeling that things were about to get even worse. "Anita, our guest has done nothing to you."
She gave him a dark look. "Our guest? He's not my guest. I didn't invite him here. He just showed up one day."
Jean-Claude sighed. "Very well. My guest does not need to be treated in such a manner. And I must ask that you stop what you are doing to Jason." Though it was strange that she was able to do such a thing without him feeling it. In fact, if Oz had not said anything he would not have realized anything was going on at all, other than Jason being dramatic.
Anita had learned some subtlety with her power. Which was actually a somewhat worrying prospect.
* * *
"Look at him trying to tell you what to do. Can you believe this guy or what?" Buffy asked, rolling her eyes.
"What," Anita said, ignoring the weird looks she received. It was just hard sometimes to realize that no one else could see Buffy. To her, the woman was such a strong presence that it was impossible to ignore her.
"Monsieur Oz has done nothing to you," Jean-Claude said. "I do not understand your dislike of him, but it has begun to make you act irrational."
"Irrational? IRRATIONAL? I'll show you irrational," Anita yelled. She pulled out her Browning and pointed it at Oz. "He is EVIL and he came here to ruin my life." Her finger tightened on the trigger.
She vaguely heard Jean-Claude and Richard and about a dozen others scream "NO!" before the bullet struck Oz right in the chest with a meaty thud.
It was oddly cathartic.
* * *
Jean-Claude had not thought Anita would really do it. And because of that, he had made no move to stop her and now a young man was dead. He felt a surge of guilt.
Anita spun around, a jubilant smile on her face. "That was perfect! If I had known it would feel that good, I would have shot Oz days ago."
The rest of her celebrations were cut short by a low, thrumming growl. Jean-Claude's eyes were caught by the sight of Oz's body rising back to its feet, only instead of a short, laid-back musician... he was a fur covered beast. An angry fur covered beast.
He opened his mouth wide, revealing sharp meat-eating teeth, and ROARED.
Anita half-turned, her smile falling away. "Oh shit."
Chapter 4: Chapter Fifteen
If there was one thing Oz really hated, it was getting shot. It was just something that always put him in a bad mood.
And when he was in a bad mood, he tended to want to rip the throat out of stuff. Namely: Anita Blake, super bitch extraordinaire.
She'd been pretty much riding his last nerve and had finally crossed that invisible line where he wasn't about to give her anymore second chances.
Being shot really hurt and he figured he was going to be having a bad time of it later, but at least she hadn't used silver, so he was able to get back up again. Just BLAM! and through the explosive agony in his chest, he got to experience the weird star burst pain of the back of his head bouncing against the floor. He was pretty sure he might even have a concussion, though he wasn't letting the double-vision get one up on him.
He lay on the floor and let the Rage fill him until that was all there was, and through the darkness, his Beast burst out of his skin in a thunderous rush of claws, fur, and ripping TEETH.
Sometimes Changing was the worst kind of pain. It was like having all of the skin torn off his body in one swift jerk while someone pulverized all his bones and remade him as a slavering monster. And other times--this time--it was like he'd been released from some terrible prison.
The world had fallen into shades of monochrome, but scents wavered in the air as bursts of bright "color," or what his brain interpreted as color. He leapt to his feet and opened his mouth and roared as hard as he could, saliva spraying freely against her cringing face.
She made to turn and run, but he was already in motion, his powerful legs sending him hurtling at her. She shot him a couple of times--painful stings against his broad hairy chest--but he was in such a state that he barely noticed them as anything more than annoyances. He was in the kind of dark headspace where all he could hear was the snarl of his Beast reverberating through his chest and more than anything he wanted to cause lasting pain.
He hit her hard, sending her skidding across the floor as he rode her back, his claws biting into her flesh with each angry slap, tearing at her until blood was spraying everywhere. Dimly he heard the screams of the other people in the room, but his focus was centered entirely on her and causing as much damage as he could.
Rage was a song that filled his head with the thunderous beats of some fearsome drum. He'd trained himself to the point that he could retain some bit of his human brain--enough to keep him away from certain areas and to not hunt and kill humans--but right in this moment he was filled with a fierce exaltation.
He had her beneath him, writhing and screaming and trying to buck him off, but her powers had no effect on him. She controlled the dead, and he was far from it. He was all heat and energy and pure animal power, nothing of the grave lingering in him for her to grab onto and make her own.
He could taste her panic perfuming the air and the smell excited him. She tried to hit him off, tried to get her hand to her gun or her blade or anything, but he didn't hesitate to slash at both of her arms with his claws, cracking bone and ripping flesh.
Anita might have seen herself as some kind of metaphysical powerhouse, but he was a different order of beast and her powers meant nothing to him. He could feel her battering away at him, but it was like being slapped by vapor, weak and inconsequential.
He roared in her face, his slavering jaws dripping on her cringing cheeks, and lunged forward to bite.
Something slammed into him hard from the right and he skidded sideways, refusing to let go of his hold on Anita. Her scream of pain was shrill and breathy and there was a spray of bright arterial blood--he must have nicked something with his claws--and he snarled viciously and turned his head toward his attacker.
Jean-Claude's face was a mask of grief and rage, his blue eyes seeming to float on the pale oval of his skin. "Leave her!"
Oz roared at him, but Jean-Claude was foolishly brave, or maybe just that desperate. Jean-Claude ran at him again, his bare hands curled into claw-shapes. It was pathetic and weak and some darker part of Oz was wanted to see what Jean-Claude thought he could do before he died.
Instinct took over for a second and Oz batted out when Jean-Claude drew close, his arm hitting with deadly force. If Jean-Claude had been a human... It was lucky that he was a vampire, but even still he was flung across the ballroom to slam hard into the floor, his body spinning and flopping until he plowed into the legs of some of the spectators.
Oz rose up on his hind legs and roared again, his mouth opening wide to display his sharp teeth in a spray of saliva. His demonic eyes stared around, challenging anyone to step up and fight him.
There was the sound of ripping clothes and flesh and the snarls of beasts, but werewolf Oz was not afraid. He reveled in the thought of a good fight, his mouth hungry for the taste of flesh.
There was a weak cry from beneath him and he felt Anita trying to drag herself across the floor away from him. He slammed his right paw down in the center of her chest warningly, hearing ribs crack as she screamed.
She had attacked him, hurt him. She was his prey.
And he wasn't going to let anyone take her away from him. Not until he got his pound of flesh.
* * *
Jason ached. There was the hint of a headache beginning to throb behind his eyes and his stomach twisted with nausea. But there was no time for him to fall apart, not when the whole world was blowing up around him.
Once again, Anita had let her gun do the talking for her, and shot Oz. Only it turned out he wasn't the kind of guy to fall down dead. No, he decided to stand back up as some kind of hairy eight foot tall monster with a mouth that seemed to be made entirely out of teeth and a complete rage on for Anita.
It was one of the most frightening things Jason had ever seen, and he'd been rotted on by the best.
There had never been anything threatening about Oz. He was the kind of mild presence that could be mistaken for weak and never challenged anyone. Only now he was a furnace of POWER, a hungry burn that made Jason want to flinch away because there was nothing of civilized lycanthropy there; just the pure unadulterated rage of a beast that had no problem seeing humans as meat.
Jason had suspected that there was more to Oz than the guy was letting on, but he definitely would have told Jean-Claude if he had thought there was something like THIS hiding behind that painfully complacent exterior.
Anita was still making that shrill pain sound that made Jason's beast perk up with interest, but he had the control to remain in his human skin. He wasn't going to do anything that Monster-Oz would see as a challenge, because from the way Oz was laying into the werewolves and other lycanthropes nipping and lunging at him, it would have been a painful lesson in futility.
Instead Jason stayed sitting on the floor and tried to seem as harmless as possible. He couldn't help hoping that maybe there was enough human-Oz scent on him that Monster-Oz would see him as a friend and not as something to kill and/or mate with. Because judging by the size of the schlong Oz was sporting, he would end up split in half.
Oz didn't seem to be going after anyone that didn't attack him first, which was a good sign for everyone else in the room, but those that did go after him... Bodies were flung about with the force to crack bone and several wolves were sent yelping and fleeing from the fight, licking at their wounds.
Anita was lying on her back on the floor with Monster-Oz hunched over her, and he wasn't letting anyone close enough to take his playtoy away from him. There was a worrying amount of blood pooling out from under her and from the growing franticness in Jean-Claude's gestures and orders, there was a good chance she was dying.
And all Jason could think was that he wished she would just shut up already.
* * *
What had otherwise been a quiet night of watching TV and gorging themselves on candy and popcorn was interrupted by an alarm going off through the whole house. A loud, klaxon wail that made the dishes rattle in the cupboards and put everyone's teeth on edge.
"What is that noise?" Buffy demanded, covering her ears with her hands. She was sitting in the recliner, her legs folded under her and a large bowl of buttery popcorn cradled in her lap.
Xander had been looking around frantically, but then a look of understanding crossed his face. "That's Willow's Warning," he said, untangling himself from a sleepy Andrew and jumping to his feet. "Something's happening!"
He could hear Buffy and Andrew pounding after him, but his whole attention was focused on reaching the stairs and Willow. His bare feet nearly slipped on the third step from the top, but he caught himself on the rail and kept going, bursting through the door into Willow's workroom.
The only word to describe it was "pandemonium."
Images whirled and spun through the very air, angles of view caught and captured in vibrant color, highlighting the horror happening somewhere at some fancy dress party. Blood sprayed across a beautifully tiled floor, dresses and suits tattered and torn, faces cringing away from the hot meaty breath of...
"Is that Oz?" Xander asked in horror, moving out of the doorway so Buffy could bull her way into the room. "He's completely wolfed out."
"I thought he was under control," Buffy said. Her hand was clenching and unclenching at her side, as though desperate to grasp the comforting hilt of a weapon.
Willow had her back to them and was sitting cross-legged about four feet in the air. Her red hair was twisting and tangling around her head in a magical wind, streaks of darker color tumbling from her scalp to dissipate in visible wisps from the ends of her hair. She turned her head when she heard them and there were tears streaming down her cheeks, though her eyes blazed with fierce determination.
"We have to help him!" She reached out toward the largest of the images, her fingers almost touching the fur covered arm of wolfy-Oz.
"What are you talking about, Willow?" Buffy demanded. "Look at him! He's killing people. We shouldn't help him. We need to stop him."
"You don't understand," Willow said. "She hurt him first. She shot him."
"Please don't take this the wrong way, but I might have shot him too." Andrew stepped back from the fierce look Willow leveled at him, his shoulders hunching meekly. "Well, he is a big werewolf. I wouldn't want him to attack me."
"That's just it, he wasn't wolfed out when she attacked him," Willow said. "He was just standing there and she pulled out a gun and shot him in the chest. She tried to kill him!"
The large closet/storage room door was opened so hard it slammed against the wall and Kennedy came out carrying a large duffel bag in each hand, a crossbow slung over her shoulder. "I'm ready to go if you are," she said, then seemed to notice them standing there for the first time. "Are you guys coming with?"
"What are you talking about?" Xander asked. He raked a hand through his hair. "Everyone just calm down a moment, and Willow, can you turn off that ear-shattering alarm so I can think? We need to take a step back from what's going on and you need to make with some explainy."
Willow waved her hand and the teeth-grating sound abruptly stopped. She unfolded her legs and stood up, her hair falling back down around her shoulders as she visibly calmed herself. "We need to rescue Oz," she said. "We need to rescue him right now."
"Rescue him from what?" Buffy waved her hand at the soundless images of Oz flinging people around like dolls. "He looks like he's the one attacking people. I mean, look at that lady. He tore her up. I don't even know how she's still alive."
Xander walked around the floating images, examining them closely to try and put together the series of events that had to have taken place. His eyes widened when a bunch of people started contorting their bodies and ripped out of their clothes as their skin burst with fur and and their bones cracked and popped disgustingly into new alignments.
"They're wolves, like actual wolves." He couldn't help being fascinated. When he'd been a kid and he'd thought of werewolves, he'd imagined it would be like that, people shifting and turning into real wolves, not the wolfman monsters of reality.
They'd all seen so much death and destruction in their lives that it had become something they were inured too. It was probably horrible that they could look at the bloody scenes of violence happening in front of them and calmly demand explanations, but their days of leaping headfirst into an apocalypse situation without a pause for research were pretty much behind them.
Xander walked over to Willow and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "We trust you," he said quietly, "but you need to tell us what's happening and what you need us to do. We can't just run into something like this blind."
Willow drew in a large, shaky breath and scrubbed her hand over her face. "You know I've been worried about Oz and trying to see where he is," she said. "Well..."
* * *
Her world was pain.
Shattered bone shifted with every breath and she had no idea where she ended and the pain began. The floor was cold against her back and she couldn't help the idle wish that she had been wearing pants instead of the tiny backless dress that had seemed oh-so sexy earlier in the evening.
Her fingers twitched, but she was afraid to move, not without a plan. The creature Oz had become had broken her ribs with one blow. The next would probably kill her.
"See why I told you he was dangerous?" Buffy sounded amused. She was squatting next to Anita's shoulder, her crossed arms propped on her jean clad knee. "You should have put another bullet between his eyes when you had the chance. He's going to kill you now. You and everyone else here."
Anita opened her mouth, but no words could escape, just a whistly exhalation. She had screamed so much that her voice was just gone. She pleaded with her eyes instead, begging her only friend to help her.
"Really?" Buffy asked, her eyes sparkling brightly. "You really want me to help you?"
Anita jerked her chin in a shallow nod, all that she could manage. Blackness was edging around her vision and she had to face the cold reality that she was dying.
"Give me your hand and I'll help you," Buffy said, her voice dropping to a soothing purr. "Just reach out to me and we will have an agreement."
Anita's arm felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. She couldn't lift it, could only force it to slide a few inches across the floor. Frustrated pain tears squeezed out, mixing with the blood to make her eyes sting and burn. Her fingers inched a few centimeters more toward Buffy, all that she could manage before the darkness flooded her vision.
Dimly, she heard Buffy's voice say, "...sealed in blood... deal is done... devour... destroy..."
Blackness took her. A wailing dark.
Chapter 5: Chapter Sixteen
Everything was turning out so dark. It looked like Anita might be dead or close to death, and Oz was a rampaging beast.
This has been one bullshit kind of day, Jason thought. He was trying to will himself into invisibility.
Jean-Claude looked as though his whole world had been destroyed, but he was still fighting, still sending his vampires and the wolves forward, much good that it was doing. It was obvious to Jason that there wasn't anything they could do against Oz, not when he was hunched over Anita and they were afraid of him killing her. And there wasn't a doubt in Jason's mind that she was going to die tonight.
He thought that maybe he was supposed to feel bad, but he was empty inside. What fondness he'd once had for Anita had died an inch at a time with each weakness she had displayed, each bit of her morals she had thrown aside. She didn't even have the excuse of having a monster inside her. She had just liked being the strong one too much.
Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. If that didn't explain what had happened to Anita, nothing else did.
Looking at her laid out on the floor with the hairy gray furred beast hovering over her, Jason wondered what had happened to the self-righteous yet good hearted woman she used to be. Where had all the doubts gone and was it that lack that had led to this rather ignoble end?
You weren't supposed to become worse than Raina, he thought at her, wondering if there was anything left in her to hear if he said the words out loud.
He didn't think so.
* * *
Jean-Claude was horrified by what was happening in front of him. Anita was lying completely still on the floor and there was so much blood... he feared that she would truly die if she didn't receive medical care soon.
He had been the one that had allowed Oz to stay in his territory and this had been the result. Anita had a flare for making enemies wherever she went, only this time it might prove fatal for her. And the Marks might see him and Richard both dragged down into the grave with her.
He regretted so carelessly tying his life to someone he had already known was unstable and hyper-aggressive. The result was that she was reminding him more and more of his old mistress and the terrors she had leveled. He had refused to face the idea that Anita had begun to frighten him. He no longer met her appearance with delight, but with the quiet dread of bad company.
As they said, "The love was gone." Asher had been right, the warnings he had quietly whispered in French when Anita wasn't there to hear. Jean-Claude hoped Anita never learned French or he and Asher would have to find another way to converse quietly.
Anita felt that every part of his life was hers to riffle through, while he should always respect her privacy and she could freely do as she wished. It was as ridiculous as her ban on his having other lovers--Asher--while she never even tried to control the ardeur.
She was careless of the feelings of others. At some point she had decided to set aside the niceties of manners and treated everyone as her inferior. Already Jean-Claude had had to smooth the angered tempers of several allies that she had casually offended. If he didn't have such a golden tongue their list of enemies--which was already monstrously long--would have been lengthened even further.
He worried that they had lost some friends to Anita's pride. She insisted on sating her ardeur wherever she wanted and with whoever, never mind her victim's relationship status or their desire to have sex with her.
Jean-Claude had already heard the word "rapist" thrown at her back. Thankfully she had never heard it herself or he would be facing a tremendous tantrum. He might have just told her what people saw her as, but there was the concern that she might use her gun on someone.
It worried him that she saw the law as something standing in her way. As a result, she had committed several acts that would have earned her a Writ of Execution of her very own. Sexual congress with a minor wouldn't exactly help her clear her name either.
Anita had gotten herself into and out of trouble in the years that he had known her, but tonight with Oz, he didn't think she was going to get out of it.
And more than anything he wanted to feel worse about it. He wanted his heart to ache and the terror and dread to build a fire in his belly. He wanted to feel something more than the echoing void he felt now.
Jean-Claude had fallen out of love with Anita, and he didn't even know when it had happened. It was dreadful.
* * *
Gathering the troops had become frighteningly normal. It seemed completely everyday to run around grabbing weapons and gear and anything else that might be useful.
Xander had long since put together what he called a "Go bag," something he could just grab on the way out the door. So he spent the bulk of his time helping Buffy and Willow get all their stuff up the stairs to the attic. Kennedy kept saying she was ready to go and didn't need anything else and didn't need help from anyone and blah blah, he didn't really care. He wasn't going to argue with her.
"Are you ready for this?" he asked Andrew, who swallowed and gave a grim faced nod. "All right, so we're leaving you to keep the home fires burning."
"I will not fail, Xander," Andrew promised. He would be staying behind to keep the portal anchored. "I'll get you all home."
"I know you will." Xander cupped Andrew's face with his palms. "I trust you."
Andrew's smile was all sunshine, desperate hardened sunshine. He lunged forward and their lips smacked together and it should have been an awkward thing, but Andrew was about one hundred percent enthusiasm and that was good.
They kissed for a long time until there was the interrupting clatter of the girls coming up the stairs. Xander pulled somewhat reluctantly out of Andrew's clasping hands. "I have to go."
"I know," Andrew said. "Please don't die."
"That's Rule One," Xander said. It was the nearest he ever came to a promise, because sometimes the dying came easy. Andrew understood that and gave Xander a quick peck on the side of the mouth before stepping away.
The attic door opened and Buffy came in loaded down with two heavy duffel bags. "You guys decent in here? I really don't want to interrupt the pre-Slayage smoochies."
"We're fine," Xander said. "Are we about ready to go?"
Buffy thunked the bags down on the floor. "Willow said she needed some more stinky herbs, then we're golden."
Xander rubbed his hands together. "All right. It's gonna be great, doing some slaying with my best girls again."
Buffy smiled at him. "This will show everyone that wanted to put me in the Old Slayer Home that I don't need to be retired."
"Well, grab your walker," Willow said, coming through the door, "and let's go save Oz from the bad people."
"And if he's the 'bad people' in this particular scenario?" Xander asked. He didn't particularly want to slay Oz, but it might just turn out that way.
"Then we'll protect the bad people from Oz," Willow said. "We'll bring him home where he belongs." There was the glint of determination in her eyes; she would save Oz and no one would stop her.
* * *
There was a crackle of trapped lightning in the air within the ballroom. The charge was like the feel of an oncoming storm.
Richard didn't know what was happening, but he didn't think it was anything good. He's been sending his wolves forward to help Jean-Claude save Anita, but had refused to go himself.
It was probably a sign of weakness or something, but Richard couldn't stand the thought of being close to Anita. Some part of him was sure that if he got too far into her atmosphere she would suck him back into whatever deviltry she'd done to the Marks.
He didn't want to be pulled back into her wake, a slave to her angers and and passions, dancing on hidden strings. He was tired of feeling ashamed of himself and he simply refused to do it anymore.
"We're getting our asses handed to us. What do you want us to do?" Jamil asked.
Richard shook his head. "I don't even know what he's become, how am I supposed to say how to handle him?" He looked at his enforcer. "So you have any suggestions?"
"Kill him?" Jamil shrugged. "He doesn't seem to be having any problem tossing vampires around and he's taking out our wolves and the leopards."
"Maybe we should just let him keep Anita?" Richard said, then shifted under the look Jamil gave him. "I wasn't serious about that. With the Marks, I don't want to deal with some kind of aneurysm or something if she dies and Jean-Claude would be upset."
"But that's the only reason you want to look after her?" Jamil asked. He snorted. "Looks like you're finally getting over that number she did on you. That's a good thing."
"Sure," Richard said. "It's great for the pack and for me personally, but I can't help feeling as though I'm losing something as a person."
"Better than driving the pack into danger with you." Jamil was always so pragmatic. Anita hadn't been his favorite person from the first time he met her and he'd never had his opinion changed. He'd played at being a bit nicer--she expected it and it hadn't taken Jamil long to realize she wouldn't leave it alone if he didn't at least pretend to like her--but Richard had noticed that the smell of distrust was always in the air around Jamil whenever Anita was in the room.
Jamil was fiercely loyal to the pack and he didn't see Anita as being any kind of advantage for them. She pushed buttons wherever she went and lost them some of the allies they should have been able to call their own. And those that were already distrustful of the Lukoi, Anita poked and prodded at them and didn't realize why they snapped back.
Richard wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to say. Jamil was getting his hate on, but that didn't necessarily mean he was wrong. The things that had been happening the last few years had been terrible and Richard fully acknowledged that he had done his part to make things worse.
Being Marked by Jean-Claude had seemed like the only thing he could do to save Anita's life, and he'd still been in love with her and he'd never paused to consider consequences. Somewhere in his romantic heart, he'd been sure they were going to be in love forever. Everything was going to work out and they would live happily ever after.
All it had taken was his mother losing a finger and one of his brothers being raped for him to realize that things were not going to work out the way he wanted and maybe there were no happy endings for a man afraid of being a monster.
At least he wasn't angry all the time anymore, that was something at least.
As he watched, Asher was suddenly flung across the room toward the far wall.
"Is it me, or is Oz getting stronger?" he asked. He probably should be stressing out about what was going on, but he'd seen so much stuff that he'd become pretty inured to it. And maybe it felt a little good to see Anita experiencing the horror for once.
"Hm, maybe," Jamil said. "Or maybe he wasn't angry before but he's getting there now. I'd be mad if a bunch of people were throwing themselves at me."
Richard opened his mouth to respond, but accidentally caught Jean-Claude's eye across the room. "Oops, I think we need to do something now."
He didn't want to get close to Anita, but the look Jean-Claude was giving was pure poison. So it was either personally step in to help save Anita or think about moving out of town.
"Come on," he said, walking across the room. The smell of human blood pervaded everything and he couldn't help relishing it.
Jamil followed after him along with the silently stoic Shang-da, who had been watching Anita writhe and scream with a faintly amused expression. He'd probably had to bite his tongue to keep from saying anything about Anita and her forthcoming demise.
Richard was a little grateful for that.
Chapter 6: Chapter Seventeen
He wasn't going to kill her. It wasn't what he did, especially when he was in a society that could order his execution and have it backed by the entire United States government. Or what if they decided to examine what he was? He could end up back in a government lab somewhere.
As it was now, all he'd done was try to protect himself after being attacked. He could call the police on her and there would be no need for him to be arrested or checked over. He probably wouldn't even have to see the inside of a cell.
Oz couldn't help the dark thought that she was probably going to end up dead anyway. He'd done a real number to her and she need a serious metaphysical kick in the pants to heal it all.
That was the interpretation his mind decided to make of the thought processes displayed by his inner Beast. The original thoughts were more animalistic and bloody, simpler, but there was still an odd kind of intelligence. A cold kind of logic that made him think through everything and the Beast decided human Oz could better handle things.
Which left him flopped out on the floor gasping for breath and desperate for a pair of pants.
At least that itchy, crawling sensation he'd been feeling for the last couple of days had finally gone away. The Beast had really been scratching to get out and he felt undeniably soothed by having it over.
"Hey, man, you think I could get some pants over here?" he asked a Jean-Claude that looked as though he were waiting for Oz to Hulk back out. In reply to his request he received a mildly terrifying bug-eyed look.
Oz was not reassured.
* * *
From monstrous beast back to mild mannered musician. It shouldn't have been such a weird concept for a werewolf to get, but there were just a few blockages in his ability to grasp the situation. Namely wanting to know what the hell Oz was.
Jason was reeling. His body was sitting on the floor trying to become one with the background, but mentally he was completely losing his shit. It wasn't exactly something he could stop either. He'd been somewhat certain they were all going to die.
Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, Jason levered himself to his feet. He wondered if he might be in shock as he walked over to Oz and stood looking down at him for a long moment. He received a mild look in return.
"So, what exactly was that?" Jason asked.
Oz gave him the Spock eyebrow, seeming to say, "I have no idea what you mean."
"Don't go all Victorian lady on me," Jason said. "What the hell was that?"
"I think I said it before that you wouldn't like it if I got angry," Oz said. He should have looked ridiculous with his knees bent to hide his exposed genitals, but he was just so completely Zen about it that there wasn't much ground for mockery. All the blood covering him all all also drained a bit of the humor out of the situation; Anita's limp and unmoving body might have been a dampener as well.
"Yeah, but I was picturing temper tantrums and ragefits, not a big hairy monster," Jason said.
"I have some questions as well." Jean-Claude was playing it cool, his face smoothing from a mask of controlled panic to the calmly calculating visage of the Master of the City. Still there was a bit of tightness around his mouth and Jason knew him well enough to recognize his "Everything's all right, the city is only burning" expression.
Oz blinked at him. "Okay," he said mildly. "Someone might want to call a doctor for her though." He waved his hand back at Anita.
Jean-Claude gestured and Dr. Lillian rushed forward with her black medical bag to help the tattered and torn Anita. There was so much blood it streaked across the floor in ribbons of red.
"What are you?" Jason asked, not willing to be deterred. If Anita was going to live, that would be the work of the doctor and there was nothing Jason could do there.
"A little displaced," Oz said. "I'm a different kind of werewolf than you're used to. A more dangerous kind."
"I think I figured that out on my own." Jason looked over his shoulder at where he'd last seen Stephen. "Can I get your jacket?"
Considering most of the werewolves were in animal form, there was a lack of whole clothing. Stephen had been hanging back and had managed to remain fully dressed. Jason's outfit for the night didn't leave him with enough to cover himself, much less anyone else.
"What?" Stephen blinked a moment before finally understanding what Jason had asked. "Oh, of course." He hurriedly took off his tuxedo jacket and tossed it to Jason, not wanting to get too close to Oz.
Jason carried it over to Oz and wrapped it around his shoulders. "Here you go."
"Thanks." Oz gave him a wan but real smile. He pulled the jacket close before standing up, his fingers doing up the buttons quickly. "Being naked in public was the nightmare of an old girlfriend. I think it's my nightmare now too."
"Is it just me, or are you being too casual about this?" Jason asked. "You turned into a big, I don't know what, but that was no wolf, and you attacked Anita."
"Yes," Jean-Claude said, gliding forward on silent vampire feet. "Now what are we to do with you?" There was a malevolent hiss under his words that had Jason's testicles trying to claw their way back up into his body.
Oz shrugged. "I don't know, but Anita attacked me first, and with deadly intent. If you want to call the police, that's fine with me. I really think some time in prison might do her some good." There wasn't any challenge in his tone, but his eyes were level and cool. He was willing to take things as far as he had to.
Jason was getting that creeping sensation that usually presaged the kind of screaming horror he was never able to let go of afterward. It was the feeling he'd gotten when he'd heard Colin's name and he got to experience rotting vampires for the first time.
"You would really wish to invite the attentions of the human authorities, mon ami?" Jean-Claude's eyes shone with blue fire. There was a sudden heaviness in the air, his power almost becoming visible.
"Why not? I was only protecting myself when I was attacked," Oz said. "If she hadn't shot me, no one here would have been in danger. She was trying to kill me, you can't deny that. She shot me in the chest with no warning. That's the kind of thing the police usually want to handle."
Jason shaped a silent whistle. He never would have imagined Oz could be that ballsy. Especially not with Jean-Claude.
The weirdest thing was that it seemed to work. Jason could practically see the wheels turning in Jean-Claude's head.
"I suppose I would be amenable to handling things amongst ourselves," Jean-Claude said.
"You're not going to have me killed or something, are you? Because I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of finding a horse head in my bed." Oz was as laidback as always, his eyes serenely focused on Jean-Claude's. "Might give me nightmares."
There was a curious quirk to Jean-Claude's lips. "We wouldn't want you to have nightmares."
"To be honest, I'm surprised you're not more upset by what I did to Anita," Oz said, adding "not to add fuel to the fire or anything."
Jason was kind of surprised himself. All the other times Anita had gotten herself into danger, Jean-Claude had been the first one to step up to save her.
"She will be fine," Jean-Claude said. "It might take time for her to heal, but I can feel through the Marks that her life force is strong and only getting stronger while we speak. She will live and hopefully will have learned a valuable lesson." There was a nearly cruel pragmatism to Jean-Claude's views.
"Well, I suppose that's good then," Oz said. "I tried not to kill her, once I realized what was happening. It just took me a little while to get my control back."
"Yeah, Anita can have the effect on people," Jason said, then cringed at the look Jean-Claude gave him.
Jean-Claude looked to Oz, raising a censoring brow. "There are some things you failed to tell me about yourself, mon ami, and that concerns me." There was added emphasis on the "my friend," as though he was questioning the reality of it. "What else are you hiding?"
Oz clutched the front of the jacket and seemed relieved that it reached mid-thigh. "That's about the gist of it. Displaced resident of an alternate reality and werewolf. There's not much more to me than that and playing guitar."
There was a rushing, throbbing sound that reverberated through the whole ballroom like thunder in a bottle. There were screams and a mad scramble to get out of the way as a brightly backlit sickly yellow portal opened in the middle of the room.
A figure stepped through with a nearly chilling implacability. It looked as though it were walking down a long tunnel, growing larger with each step until it came clear as a normal sized woman, red hair whipping around her head in a metaphysical breeze.
"I think I mentioned that my ex-girlfriend was a witch, right?" Oz asked. "A kinda powerful one."
Jason watched as the woman stepped out of the portal and turned to face it, throwing her arms up commandingly. Her voice echoed deep, so loud that Jason covered his ears at the pain of it, unable to make out what she said, though he thought it might have been in another language.
At her command, the ragged edges around the portal smoothed into beautiful concentric circles and the color turned to azure blue.
And through the portal came others, a man and two women all carrying duffel bags and what looked like swords. They walked between worlds as though it were an everyday thing, their strides unbroken as they stepped from one reality to the next.
The redhead turned, her eyes zeroing in on Oz. She was more cute than beautiful, with the kind of face that was built more for smiles than frowns. Right now, with her eyes solid black, Jason was experiencing some definite terror chills.
"I got worried about you, Oz," she said. "We're here to take you home."
* * *
Seeping through the darkest places, filling the emptiness and claiming ownership of the Shell. It was a process that usually took hours, days, some timeless bit of eternity where patience was better than speed.
But the Slayer and the Witch were here. It... she could sense them on the periphery of her consciousness. The old foes come to play again.
She had been weakened for so long, just waiting for the chance to slide back into the corporeal world, but right now with this powerful new Shell, she was ready.
Ready for Round Three.