He didn't know why he walked exactly, yet he couldn't seem to stop the need, ever since he returned from Alaska. The events there had so torn his mind, philosophies and beliefs asunder that there seemed to be a constant fever in his brain, always there, dissecting, arguing, reasoning. The memories haunted him, even as he conducted business or had a video conference, or did anything, for that matter. Not even in wolf form could he truly escape the pain of what he now knew. He walked to the car, giving his chauffer an absent nod, and receiving one in return, then he paused, looking around.
He was in New York, at the upscale penthouse he used when he flew in for business. He was on his way to the airport, having wrapped up a meeting early and wanting to return to the house. Ever since the murders he disliked being away for more than a few days.
Still, that night, the sky seemed to call him, the vast expanse of cobalt blue above acted as a balm to his fevered soul, and with a murmured word of explanation to his bewildered driver, he took off down the road.
This was not like running, either alone or with the pack. Nothing could compare to that purity and bursting joy. This was about serenity, mindless motion, soothing cadence, so that when Garret caught up with him that night, he turned to his long time friend in annoyance.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Nicholas, what are you doing? The plane is ready. Trudeau said you just walked away...."
"Yes, I did. I felt like a stroll to clear my head. If that is within your approval I'd like to continue." His voice was too sharp, he knew, but no one had so much as given him a miffed glance in months. Having one's parents killed and surviving an assassination attempt had done wonders for his contemporary's temperament; that, and the fact that he was the pack leader, and as such, afforded every courtesy.
"This could be dangerous. There are humans everywhere. The neighborhood becomes seedy at the next block."
"I'm not afraid of humans..."
"No, of course not..."
"And it pleases me to walk this way. I will return in short order."
"We'll follow you in the car. It is my duty to protect you, Nicholas. Please understand I need to do fulfill it to the best of my ability."
He'd paused, meeting the guilt on Garret's face. Garret had found him in Alaska, and harbored much anguish at the way the events there had unfolded. Nicholas tried to tell his closest friend and second in command that nothing he could have done would have changed the turn of fate, that the way things happened had been predestined by actions of their father's fathers. Garret had humbly demurred any more vocal blame on himself, but the pain was there still; he could smell it. It was unkind to torture his friend by refusing safety standards.
"Very well." He said gently. "Please keep far enough back of the sound the engine does not disturb me."
Garret nodded, and so they began.
The urge to walk like this on came to him while in New York, the car following a few blocks behind. By NY city blocks, this was a respectable distance indeed. He found that after these excursions, the clamoring in his head and heart was appeased somewhat, calmed, and he could continue with this relief for a few days. Though he owned houses in Lyons, Beverly Hills and the compound in Alaska, the urge to walk only came to him in New York, as if that city alone, with it's clamor, energy, and innocent cruelty, could truly ease his labored soul.
Garret ceased trying to dissuade him after the first few times, and now simply drove the car himself, keeping a watchful eye on Nicholas as he roamed the streets. Not once had Garret intervened, though he could well imagine his friend's distress the time he spoke to a street musician, and the time he stopped to help an elderly human pick up some parcels that had slipped from her infirm hands as she crossed the street. No one else would stop, he knew. The City was like that, and perhaps it was that innate element, survival of the fittest, that endeared this place to a special nook in his heart. So like the law of the pack was this element. Like the pack, it was not borne of malice or artifice; it just was.
Nicholas was pulled from his own thoughts by the nauseating scent of a werewolf in pain.
Oh, he caught whiffs here and there on his walks, had actually spied some once, running recklessly along Central Park; foolish youngsters no doubt, and not of his clan. Still the sight filled him with pride and happiness even then; there was a time when he might have done the same. It didn't last long, that moment of freedom and recklessness, but the memory warmed him just the same.
No, this was pain. Keening, crippling pain, terror, panic and anger, emanating in waves from somewhere near. Tilting his head into the air, Nicholas inhaled sharply and veered to the right, his sensitive hearing picking sounds of a scuffle already.
The calm of his walk had disappeared, but all he knew now was the need to get to the owner of this torture and hope his aid came in time.
Finally he found it, the scent of wolf blood and fear, thick in the air. It was smothered by the other: glee and bloodlust very close to madness, the stench of human evil.
Three of them had cornered a young werewolf in an alley. All Nicholas saw as he soundlessly approached the fray was a small figure, no more than a pup, surely. Flash of spiky red hair and denim jacket overcome by the forms of his attackers. Hulking brutes, all of them, to descend on one so much more frail; the sheer unfairness made him sick. To the pup's credit he put up a valiant fight, but the strength and number of the humans would defeat him in seconds. Already he staggered as a ham handed fist knocked him against a grimy brick wall.
"This is hardly sporting, is it gentlemen?" his low, mellifluous voice stopped them cold, and they turned their dull brute's eyes to him as the young wolf collapsed in a heap amidst the garbage. The odor of the narrow space was fetid but Nicholas fought nausea as he met each pair of eyes with reserve.
"Mind your own business asshole." The one who looked to be the ringleader spoke up, but his hearing detected uncertainty, and he knew he cut an imposing figure. Over six feet tall in his expensive leather boots, he wore a long wool coat against the chill of the winter night, and his blond hair fanned over the shoulders in all it's splendor. He knew in the weak street light most of him would blend into the shadows showing only the luster of his mane and the cold look in his eyes.
"No." he replied at length, voice regretful "I don't think I will."
Nicholas flew into movement so fast that he managed to knock two of the louts unconscious before they even raised a fist. The heavier one tried to stand, but Nicholas swung a vicious boot heel at his jaw, and the assailant moved no more. He had broken nothing seriously, his attack formulated to disarm, not kill. It succeeded well. The last one standing, seeing the folly of resistance, began to back away, hands up in supplication.
Nicholas hadn't even broken a sweat. It was so easy as to be insulting.
"OK, buddy. We just wanted the kid's money. That's all."
"Indeed." He said, before he jabbed a snake fast uppercut at that precise point on a human's jaw that caused complete incapacitation. The man fell with a dull thud and Nicholas wiped his hand on his coat, thinking with annoyance that he'd now have to get it cleaned.
As he turned to the object of his defense a faint moan reached his ears, and he knelt next to the bedraggled figure among the swill.
"Thanks, man." the weak voice whispered.
"I'm not a man." Nicholas muttered, noting instantly the injuries were even more extensive than he first thought. "Neither are you."
But the young wolf had passed out, head lolling as Nicholas gathered the broken body in his arms. Good lord, had this one been feeding at all? He weighed no more than a pack of kindling. The sound of blood rushing to bruised organs and fractured bones almost deafened him as he exited the alley breathing in air blessedly clean by comparison. As he expected, the elegant town car screeched to a halt beside him and Garret jumped out of the driver's side in high agitation.
"Thank all that's holy you're all right! What on earth were you doing?...What is that?"
"Quit nattering and open the door!"
"I don't think..."
"The door!" Nicholas snapped and Garret pressed his lips so tight they nearly disappeared, but he complied. Sliding in carefully so the boy's head wouldn't hit, he gingerly lay the body in his arms on the leather seat.
"Drive back to the house." Without a word Garret revved the car and headed back, giving Nicholas concerned glances in the rear view mirror. If he thought he wouldn't further hurt his friend's already tender sentiments, he would have activated the privacy panel.
Nicholas searched the boy's pockets, but found no form of identification whatsoever. It seemed the thieves had reached their goal of pilfering the boy's wallet. Next he felt around the lax body, noting the multitude of cuts and bruises, as well as a few broken ribs, a sprained wrist, and a gash on the temple that would need stitches if it would not weave closed after the pup changed forms. Beneath the surface he could hear blood racing to mend broken cartilage and splintered marrow, but slowly, so slowly healing came when in human form. Of course the boy couldn't Change in front of three witnesses, so he had been trapped.
"Poor whelp." He murmured, scarcely aware he'd spoken out loud. Reaching in his pocket for his silk handkerchief he tried to wipe some blood off his charge's face, but there was also a nosebleed that wouldn't stanch.
"He's probably a stray." Garret voiced from where he maneuvered the luxury automobile ever closer to the penthouse.
"No doubt." Nicholas agreed, picking up a hand and examining it with interest. Much could be said by a wolf's hands. His own were leathery from Alaskan winters and rough housing with his brothers, though they did not approach his father's impenetrable paws, scratched and scarred from many travails. The boy looked to have capable, veined hands, with curious callouses only on the tips of his right fingers. Now that he saw the odd spiked hair, he realized the color was darker henna from the middle of the strands out, and a more strawberry red towards the roots. When he reached beneath the abused jaw to feel the thread of pulse he found a leather necklace and a small pewter medallion with Asian writing.
"Nicholas, may I ask what you are doing?" Garret deigned to ask once more, and he met his friend's eyes in the mirror with amusement.
"What I'm doing is obvious, is it not? What you mean to ask is why."
"There were three of them, humans, attacking him, yet he fought bravely." Nicholas said, looking once more at the sprawled form on the seat. "I could not simply walk away."
"Noble," Garret observed with more than a trace of cynicism, "Also unwise. You can't go around gathering every mongrel pup you run across like..."
"My father." Nicholas supplied absently, picked up the distress from the front seat.
"I meant no disrespect to Alexander."
"Nor am I insinuating you did." But he was tired of this conversation and having to defend his actions, more so because he himself was not sure why he had paused, and acted. Werewolves such as this were abundant, he sensed them time and again, those that did not belong to the prestigious clans that ran world markets, dined with Presidents, or won Academy Awards, but merely existed, eking out a living doing whatever mundane occupation among the world of humans.
Perhaps he had received some of his parent's fascination for the helpless after all.
"I can get Millicent to clean his wounds..."
"No." Nicholas said, walking directly towards his own private bedroom. "It was my decision. I will take care of it."
"For heaven's sake stop this posturing!" Garret burst out so suddenly he turned towards him rather surprised, and secretly pleased. It had been the first true emotion his friend had shown him in months, instead of the kid gloved reactions he'd been getting. At one point he considered telling him he'd be taking on a human mistress, just to get some sort of genuine rise out of the banality.
"I don't pretend to have your father's compassion or your intelligence, but I do know when you are being deliberately dysfunctional."
"I'm just concerned." Nicholas answered softly, still holding the young hurt wolf in his arms. "You know very well he can't go to a hospital."
"Other strays manage."
"He would have died." Nicholas supplied in response to Garret's juvenile sulking.
"I've had enough death. Haven't you?" Turning to resume his course he called out over his shoulder."Bring me what's necessary to dress his wounds."
"Right away." The hint of sarcasm wasn't lost on him, but as he lay the whelp on his expensive satin sheets, he smiled.
It took him nearly three hours to minister to the broken body. Despite his grumbling Garret ended up aiding him in the binding of the ribs below the thin chest where the bones of ribcage stood out in striations, and emptying the water that pinked from the blood on the wolf's face. It had to be emptied twice.
"We'll have to remove his clothes, they reek of filth and human." Garret said as he walked in holding a pair of soft fleece pants and a plain white undershirt.
"Yours?" Nicholas asked, starting to remove his patient's scuffed black boots.
"Who else's?" His friend responded irritably. "Everyone else is either too old or female. And you have nearly no casual clothing."
It was true. Nicholas spent so much time on the go he rarely had occasion for casual attire. When he Changed and ran, he, of course, needed no clothes.
"I suppose I should cancel the plane."
"Yes." Nicholas tugged the denim jacket off the listless arms, then the threadbare t-shirt with the unlikely phrase DINGOES ATE MY BABY emblazoned on the front. The bizarre things youth found fascinating these days. "Set up my laptop in here. There's nothing pressing I was to do there that can't be handled electronically, at least for now."
"I'm having Milli prepare some blood broth. If he doesn't eat he can't Change and get well."
Nicholas tossed the shirt in a pile, thinking he might burn it along with the loose carpenter's jeans and thin scuffed boots. Before Garret turned away he caught his wrist and smiled at the inquisitive glance. "Thank you for indulging me."
Garret gave him a rueful smile in return, and they were once again at ease, more so than they'd been in a long while. "You do it so seldom."
"It would seem I'm making up for it in spades."
"Surely not in spades." Nicholas reached for the scruff of Garret's neck and drew him close to press a hard kiss to his temple.
On the bed next to them, the young stray slept on.
On the bed next to them, the young stray slept on.
And on and on.
Nicholas worked at the computer deep into the morning, and paused briefly to help the servant girl Millicent try to feed the young wolf. They had only minimal success.
"Come on. Swallow, damnit." He muttered, as together they held the shoulders up, and he placed a bowl at the pale lips. After half a dozen tries the lips parted, drank, drank again, then closed once more.
"He'll need more than that to get himself up and about, that's the truth." Millicent's round girlish face opined, her cheeks pink with the effort. She was a transplant from England, and the daughter of one of their long time employees.
"Yes, he shall." Nicholas sighed, laying the boy back down and pulling the covers up to cover him. He noticed Milli standing there awkwardly, instead of giving one of her bobbing curtsies and scurrying off. He knew he intimidated most of the staff, wolf and human alike, but Milli less than most.
"Do you need something?"
"Please Sir, seeing as the boy is in your bed, where would you be sleeping tonight?"
"Oh, yes." He rubbed his eyes "Forgotten about that. One of the guest rooms will do for now."
"Very good Sir. Will the one next to Mr. Gault's be sufficient?"
But by the time Milli came to let him know the room was ready he had laid next to the boy on the King sized bed, and fallen promptly asleep.
The young ward did not awaken the next day, nor the next, and Nicholas began to seriously worry. Yet the pup drank the heavy blood broth more and more, and his skin began to gain some color. Once or twice he thought he might have seen the reddish blond lashes flutter, but the color of the young wolf's eyes remained a mystery, though nothing else about how he looked did.
He had the fair, fair skin of a natural redhead and, despite the thinness, a compact set to his shoulders that spoke of deceptive strength. The smooth line of his back sported a collection of scars silvery against the milky skin and made by a small but lethal hands. Above each buttock resided a deep dimple, and each sported a muscled indentation; flanks fit, like a runners. His face was hard to characterize, especially with his eyes closed. Fine brows the same light red blond as his lashes, gently sloped nose with slightly flared nostrils and a lush lower lip that seemed to be pouting in repose.
Sometimes Nicholas would catch himself staring at the sleeping figure for as long as twenty minutes. He kept expecting the whelp to Change, to speed up his healing, but by the end of the second day, Garret voiced what had already been zinging around his head.
"Perhaps he can't. Maybe he's a lycanthrope." It was one of the few human terms widely used among The Pack, and among them actually meant anthropomorphic; a wolf who couldn't Change. They had the strength, the resilience, the blood thirst for meat and the kill, but were unable to transcend into wolf form. Despite intense research in this area The Pack's best scientists had been unable to pinpoint the DNA element that caused the condition and only knew with certainty that it was a recessive gene three percent of the were population carried, and the propensity to show up in offspring knew no rhyme or reason.
"Perhaps." Nicholas answered, but it felt wrong, and after much brooding on the subject he realized why. The reason he had gone to the alley, the reason he had followed the scent of wolf blood was precisely because he thought he felt the vibration of a Change amidst all the pain and terror. Extreme situations were wont to bring it forth, and to do so in a side street in front of three humans would be disastrous, no matter whom the wolf was. He's smelled change; the sleeping wolf was not a lyncathrope.
Alone once again, Nicholas ran hand over that absurd hair. "Why don't you Change, my young friend?" he asked in a whisper "Change so you might be well. Change so I may speak with you."
He could not put off his travel any longer. He had postponed one meeting and done another via video conferencing using the wide screen TV set up in the spacious private boardroom, but his presence was imperative at a gathering of stock holders for his largest company, and the meeting was in Washington D.C. For some reason he could not even articulate, he wanted to be here when the boy awoke. He wanted to be the first person for the young wolf to see, and when he tore himself away from the figure on the bed and collided with Garret's knowing gaze, he realized he wasn't fooling anybody.
"Really Nicholas. He could be a complete half-wit when he wakes up. How intelligent could he be to let himself be backed into a corner that way?"
"Get the car ready. We leave this evening." Without bothering to address Garret's earlier comment he left the room.
He could have ordered Garret from the room but chose not to. He moved to the study and made several important phone calls, and spent an hour transcribing his notes on the merger with a failing software company that stood to gain Infotech even more of a foot hold in the information systems industry. When he thought he heard Garret leave to check on the car he rose and, after tucking his business papers in his leather briefcase, headed for his room.
The minute he reached for the door he sensed it: heady electricity in the air, energy, blood and life that was The Passion, and it called to him so viscerally he felt himself gasp with the strength of it. Quickly turning the knob and checking to see that no one was around to interrupt this moment, he stepped inside and turned.
A slim, elegant Red Wolf sat panting on his bed. He recognized the shape of the ears, a bit larger than on other species, and the smaller frame of the body that, at one point, had these wolves mistaken for coyotes. Close to it's ears, an even more distinctive henna hue sprouted, reminding him of the mane on lions, and it's eyes were a the most remarkable clear green color, like crisp apples or green pears.
"Hello my young friend." Nicholas whispered, advancing slowly lest the wolf misinterpret his intentions. "I've been waiting for you."
Instead of lowering its muzzle in deference to an Alpha male, the young wolf pricked its ears and made to sit up, green eyes alive with recognition. Not at all caring, Nicholas held out a hand, palm down, as a sign of congeniality and the wolf edged closer to him on the bed, still panting its half smile and dripping saliva on the silk sheets.
"I don't let just anyone drool on my bed, you know." His hand reached gently for the hair behind the ears, burying in the fissure there, while his other hand scratched the muzzle with his fingernails.
A low half-growl emitted from the young wolf's throat and he laughed, despite himself, as the wolf began to lick his hand in long, wet strokes that tickled.
"Welcome back." He sank next to the young wolf on the unmade bed that now had wolf hair on it and proceeded to stroke the wolf's fine red blond coat. He hadn't seen markings like this since Brianna, his eldest sister.
That's how Garret found them when he burst into the room at a dead run. Nicholas knew he'd be alerted by the flagrant scent of Change in the air upon his return to the apartment.
The reddish blond wolf lay half on Nicholas's lap, letting himself be petted and stroked. Quick green eyes surveyed him before the sleek head bent, somewhat imperiously, towards Nicholas's ever soothing hand.
"Could you have Millicent warm up some blood broth and the side of roast beef, please?" Nicholas said, giving only the barest notice to the stricken look on Garret's face. He could hear Milli flying about the kitchen, the stove being opened and closed, and Garret's gruff voice.
"Now what?" Garret asked as they watched the young wolf devour its fourth bowl of blood broth and a plate of raw liver. Nicholas had been wondering the same thing. "He should stay in this state until his injuries are healed, but that won't be for another day at the most."
He could, Nicholas thought, take the wolf with him. Such was the convenience of owning one's own plane fully equipped for the transportation of wolves, should that be the form someone was in. Still, he and Garret would be in meetings non-stop the whole three days and he didn't trust this with any other staff. The last thing he needed were rampant rumors about pack leader Nicholas Devoncroix picking up lower class strays. Even if they wouldn't be rumors, of course.
He felt Garret's eyes on him and turned to their appraising stare. "You think me foolish."
"I don't understand." Garret admitted. "You've no intention of turning him out, do you?"
"No." Nicholas said. He could have, he supposed, supplied some explanation about researching stray statistics. A new idea about reaching the hundreds of wolves without a clan that resided around the world and furthering the packs influence yet more. In truth none of this meant a thing to him. There was something about a life you saved, was there not? He had failed to save so many this past year by being too short sighted, acting too late, assuming incorrectly. It had cost him his mother and father, the lives of three of the pack's most brilliant scientists, and the life of one human who had cared for him when he was at death's door. He could no longer afford such arrogance. Life, even in werewolf years, was too short.
Besides, he was still pack leader. He did not need to justify his actions to anyone.
"He will stay here. Inform Milli he is to be given every convenience when he Changes back. I will return directly after the meeting in Washington."
"What if he changes back and wants to leave?" Garret asked. "True, I don't know why a stray would be so ungrateful as to turn away such generous overtures, but it is possible. It's why they are strays, after all."
The thought hadn't even occurred to Nicholas, and totally unfamiliar unease sprouted in his chest. No. He could make the young wolf understand his wishes. He was almost sure they would be followed.
The young wolf finished off the food and lay down, sated, shamrock eyes already heavy with sleep.
"Come, my friend." Nicholas said gesturing with his hand and the wolf found his feet in one graceful move. Together they walked to the bedroom.
"I have to leave tonight." He said quietly, hands smoothing the wolf's thick red blond coat. The intense green eyes met his with unblinking steadiness and he smiled, fingering the velvet of a soft ear. "Believe me, you wouldn't want to come. I'll be in endless meetings all day long and you'll be abysmally bored. I'll be back in three days and I want you to wait here. Is that understood?" even the lashes on his lids had the same pale reddish tint as his human form, and they lowered as Nicholas continued to massage the ears with his fingers. A moist pink tongue began to pant.
"I will see you when I return. You can surely wait until then." The wolf gave a contented sigh and melted into his lap where they sat on the bed, newly shedding on Millicent's fresh sheets.
"You'll be here."
But as he moved through his meetings at the nation's capital the events of those three days seemed more and more surreal. He'd only phoned the house in New York twice, not because he forgot but because his schedule was such that he left early in the morning and returned after nightfall when he knew the servants would be asleep. In between he was in the limousine or dining with Garret and he didn't want to call and ask about the wolf then.
By the time the meeting wrapped up he was high on the accomplishment of acquiring an ailing software company for Infotech and his sources told him their stock had jumped considerably the moment the news became known.
Stray wolves and grimy back alley streets seemed very far away. As he sat on the plane listening to Vivaldi and trying to sleep he wondered who he would find when he returned to New York, and what, in fact, he planned to do about him.
He came out of the Change in his sleep, the last sign that his injuries had all been mended. Stretching languidly Oz ran a hand through his hair and turned over on his back, his gaze hitting an elaborate fresco on the ceiling.
A verdant flowing landscape touched all four corners: rolling hills, a water fall, trees and flowers and a majestic blue sky with wafting clouds lit by rays of sun so ethereal they looked biblical. Men and women cavorted in various states of undress, though there was no sex, all wearing flowing robes that revealed their muscles and curves. And everywhere, among the human forms, the figures of wolves. Here a young girl slept pillowed on the body of a gray male. There a mother wolf nursed her cubs while her mate stood watch nearby. Wolves running, playing, hunting. It was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen..
"Dorothy." He whispered, his vocal cords rough from unuse. "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
Until the moment he opened his eyes all had been sensation. The last thing he remembered was the scent of another wolf, powerful and overwhelming, and that he thanked him for saving his ass even though the three punks had already taken his watch and his wallet when they jumped him on the way to the van. From then it was all feeling- warm, questing hands, sumptuous smell of leather, the inside of an expensive car. Silk sheets, warm wet cloth dabbing at his cuts and bruises, and all the while the specific scent of Him, the wolf who had saved his life. When he'd drunk enough of that rich elixir they fed him to Change, the scent of Him had blown his mind, and he tried to convey his gratitude in this form which had no words.
Sitting up on the silk sheets he looked around himself for the clothes he'd been wearing. Not the ones from the alley; those were bloodied and pretty rank. He remembered fuzzy pants and cotton and after some investigating he found them neatly folded in a bureau drawer. They were easy to spot since whoever stayed here was all about the Armani and Kenneth Cole. The simple articles of clothing glared out as if they were neon.
Slipping them on he ignored his hunger and sat on the bed, figuring someone would be along in a while. Probably the young servant girl who'd been helping Him. Sure enough, in another few minutes she entered arms piled high with clean champagne colored towels.
"Hey." He said and she gasped, flinging the towels everywhere when she whirled around. Oz held out a calming hand to her wide blue eyes.
"I'm sorry. It's OK."
"Good lord, you gave me a fright! The last time I checked you were sleeping dead away! And now I'll have to do a new load, it looks like. Oh well, no help for it, is there?" she replied cheerfully and Oz crawled off the huge bed and walked over to help her pick up towels from the floor.
"I won't tell if you won't." he smiled and she chuckled, as she accepted several from him.
"Oh, youngster, if only it were so easy! Mr. Devoncroix would smell the carpet on them at a thousand paces. Matter of pride, too, y'know."
"Right." He agreed, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that she knew he was were. He remembered her from the kitchen when he first Changed and she had fed him. An experimental sniff told him she, too, was werewolf.
"Well, don't just stand there like a lump, boy! Come, you must be starving, and what is your name? We've all been mad with curiosity from it!"
She didn't seem to need any encouragement to chatter on. He followed her into the enormous kitchen barefoot, the floor cold on the soles of his feet where the too long pants dragged. "There for a moment we thought you'd never make it laddie. Laid up something awful you were! I've never seen Mr. Devoncroix so worried, poor dear. Good thing he came upon you when he did. There, have seat, I've some quail and nice venison, got to keep your strength up."
He sat down at one of the tall black stools near the island and watched her.
Milli glanced at him as she removed trays from the restaurant-sized refrigerator.
"Goodness, you don't talk much do you? What was your name? I for one am heartily tired of saying 'him' or 'the young wolf.'"
"Oz." She mused, simultaneously punching buttons on the microwave and placing a saucepan on the gleaming chrome stove. "What a strange name for a wolf! I'll bet it's short for something. They call me Milli, short for Millicent, you see."
"Hi." He smiled, his head starting to ring a little from the constant stream of words. She could give Willow a run for her money in the babble department. "And thanks."
"The food and taking care of me."
"Pshaw." She waved him away. "No problem at all. Mr. Devoncroix's due back tomorrow. He'll be right pleased you've woken up!"
"There was another one." Oz said, finding the memory of another scent, not at overpowering as His, but present, still. "I remember."
"Indeed." Milli nodded, placing a gold edged plate heaped high with meat before him. He couldn't believe he'd heard someone besides Giles use the word 'indeed'. "That was Mr. Gault, Mr.Devoncroix's assistant. Oh, but they've been inseparable since they were cubs, I hear. Never one without the other. Go on now, eat, eat! Can't have Mr. Devoncroix thinking I didn't keep you up, now can we?"
By the time she gave him a companionable pat on the back he was already digging into the meat. The succulent fowl and the slightly wild taste of the venison exploded on his palate. While he ate a persistent thought kept tugging at his conscious.
Devoncroix, he'd heard the name before. Despite roaming around for the past few years, his favorite magazine was still Newsweek, after Guitar, of course. He remembered reading about the name, but the gist of the article escaped him. Milli refilled his plate twice, and by the end of that plate his eyes were drooping again.
"You're still not up to snuff, I can see it." Milli intoned as he walked slowly back to the bedroom, his mouth parting in a splitting yawn. "Go on and have another nap."
"Milli, do you know where my clothes are?"
"What, the rags you were wearing when Mr. Devoncroix found you?"
The corners of his lips curved in a grin. "Yeah, those."
Leaning closer she slipped an arm around his shoulders conspiratorially. "I did keep them for you, and laundered them besides. Mr. Devencroix wanted to pitch them, they were in such a state, but no fear, young Oz, no fear!" she assured at the sight of the mild distress on his brow. "These wealthy types just don't understand about some realities, do they? How was I to know you'd even have other clothes? Not that I'm sure Mr. Devoncroix won't be purchasing some more for you, but it's the principle, don't you find?"
"The shirt does have sentimental value."
"Well, there you go." She nodded, pleased with herself and bustled off to the laundry room, Oz at her heels.
"I really don't think I need Mr.Devoncroix to buy me new clothes. Why would he do that?" He asked as she handed him a neatly folded pile and placed his battered Doc Martens on top. Milli met his eyes with genuine puzzlement.
"Well at the outside just to not look at you in these, I would think, dear."
He returned to the bed and lay down to think but sleep stole over him before he even realized and he slept for another four hours, waking ravenous. Milli seemed to take this as par for the course and heaped his plate high with more delicious meat. They didn't seem too high on the vegetable wagon here, but he wasn't complaining. He'd changed into his clothes, and, yes, the Dingoe's t-shirt had seen better days, but he felt better wearing them; as if this whole situation wasn't so strange. When he finished Milli had, for once, not done one of her magical reappearing-at-just-the-right-moment acts and he walked over to the deep industrial sink to wash the plate.
"Oz! What on earth are you doing, lad?" Milli showed up instantly looking fairly scandalized.
"Cleaning up." He smiled as he squirted Dawn dishwashing liquid on a sponge that looked like it had never been used.
"Excuse me, dear, but why?"
"I've got this."
"Be that as it may." Milli plucked the dish from his fingers firmly. "What kind of servant would I be if I let Mr. Devoncroix's guests fend for themselves? Why I'd be out on my ear!"
"I don't think I'm comfortable having you wait on me." he tried to point out.
"But you're still his guest, and that supercedes any other silly ideas you might have about being helpful."
"Oh. Thanks for the feudal hierarchy lesson. I'll remember that." He deadpanned and she nodded cheerfully.
"Any time, luv."
Luv. He hadn't heard 'luv' since Spike and Sunnydale.
Left to his own devices he roamed around the place until he found a window. A breathtaking view of Central Park spread out before him and he spent a long time just appreciating it. More investigating found him in a large library with books stacked to the ceiling. He picked out leather bound edition of W.H. Auden and sank onto a velvet sofa, where he began to read.
He spent the next day fighting the urge to leave, but not too hard. There were things he'd planned to do, places he'd planned to be, but none of it was set in stone, because nothing ever was for him. Everything was loose, a perk of traveling on his own, making his own way, his own rules. He'd planned to hook up with Devon in Philadelphia at some point. They exchanged e-mails, and his ex-band mate continued reaching for the stars as head vocalist of the band on the t-shirt that Milli had washed. He would make it, his band mate. He had the look, charisma to spare, and wasn't afraid to get a little dirty in the process. At the end of each e-mail was the question, in italics 'When you coming back Oz-man? Let me know.' That was Devon, keeping the faith. At one time he thought he would be coming back. That was before Willow, and...things, in Sunnydale.
He wondered why, despite those things he didn't pull out and look at very often, the word still sounded like home.
He should find his van. It's probably towed by now, maybe stripped, but he still wanted to find it, just to see. If it was totaled, then to say good-bye to his old friend. If not, to grab his guitar case, his duffel with some clothes, if those hadn't been ripped off, and hit the road.
But he hadn't left. He was assuming he could. Milli bustled around here, and he'd caught glimpses of other people coming and going in this place, the most extravagant he'd ever seen or been in. No one guarded the door, no one would stop him from leaving this luxurious penthouse. Maybe it was because Milli just acted like his staying was a foregone conclusion. Maybe it was bad manners to leave without thanking your host. Either way, he didn't go.
All of today he'd felt like Alice in Wonderland. This place was like a maze and he wandered around for hours, peeking in bedrooms and opening doors. He found a huge room taking up one end, with a polished cherry wood table big enough to seat two last suppers and an equally imposing wide screen TV. He found a full dining room with a many tiered chandelier and doilied table with high backed ornate chairs. There were spare bedrooms galore, each decorated impeccably, the library where he'd now begun reading 1984 by Orwell, and a state of the art stereo system, with stacks of CDs, mostly classical music and opera. Mr. Devoncroix was apparently not one to get down and get funky.
He thought of asking for a phone, then for a place to check his e-mail, but didn't. It's almost as if to request these things would be to break the spell of this place, these happenings, and the existence of Him, which was, really, the reason he didn't leave.
He's just eaten dinner and was deep into the world of "Big Brother" when the atmosphere changed. Nothing overt or covert, just a spike in the aura of the room. His hearing picked up the mechanical rise and fall of an elevator door, one of the old ones, and he knew He was back.
Milli's eager face greeted him as she entered the residence, unwinding his thick wool scarf from his collar.
"Welcome back, Sir. Would you and Mr. Gault be wanting some tea, or a brandy before your meal?"
"No, thank you Milli, not now." He handed his scarf to the girl and walked over to check the messages. He didn't receive very many here, but there were some, mostly from society pillars requesting his presence at this or that gala. Besides, the act gave him time to gather himself before searching for the young wolf, and why he felt he needed this time was beyond him right now.
Garret's amused gaze felt solid on his back but he would not give him the satisfaction of looking up. His friend sighed theatrically then called, in a false, light tone "And where would our young guest be, Milli?" As if they could all not follow the scent directly to the boy.
"In the library, Sir!" the gesture was lost on the poor girl. "He's been awake since yesterday and eating and sleeping like mad. Ever such a nice wolf, too..."
"I'm sure." Garret interrupted, and Nicholas did raise his head to meet Garret's dark amused gaze.
"I suppose we should introduce ourselves properly, then." Tossing the messages on the table he walked towards the library, hearing Garret's footsteps follow.
Pushing open the ornate wooden doors he stepped in and scanned the room, immediately finding the boy, who had just put down the book in his hand. He'd marked the place with one of the many heavy personalized markers placed on the tables in crystal bowls.
He was neither as short nor as young as he first looked in a prone position, and those arresting eyes were still the color of green apples, framed by long reddish blond lashes. As in wolf form, his gaze did not lower when Nicholas approached but held, calm and unblinking. Next to him, he could sense Garret chafe at such impertinence but he was sure this was not a gesture of arrogance. If anything he didn't think he had ever encountered a young wolf with such an air of grace and self-possession. More powerful men than this child had quailed before his level gaze. He sported those abysmal clothes again, though freshly washed and ironed, but he wore them as if they were the most fashionable ensemble, hands still by his side and not a twitch of nervousness.
He walked over and closed the distance between them to nothing, and still not so much as a shuffle. Reaching out he ran both hands through the wild red brush of hair then cupped the boy's jaw, looking deeply in apple green eyes. Calloused hands grasped his wrists and as their stares played with each other he found himself unable to look away. Had he ever seen a wolf with such eyes? How were they possible?
A discrete sound from Garret drew him out of his reverie and he smiled before releasing the fine jaw in his hands.
"I wasn't sure you'd stay."
"You asked me to." Voice devoid of any discernible accent but accompanied by a slow, somewhat shy curve of lips.
"I did." He allowed before inclining his head in greeting.
"Nicholas Devoncroix. This is Garret Gault. My oldest friend and advisor."
"Oz." The young wolf extended his hand to Nicholas and he was surprised into accepting the human gesture of greeting only because he had responded to it countless times in business scenarios. Calloused fingers closed around his in a firm clasp before the young wolf offered his hand to Garret. For a moment Nicholas wasn't sure Garret would accept but, with a magnanimous cast to his features, the older man capitulated.
Oz, Nicholas thought. He'd never heard such a name, no more than one syllable of air on the tongue.
"Is that an abbreviation for a longer name, perhaps?" Garret inquired and the boy gave a slight nod.
"Yeah, it is." Nothing else was forthcoming. When Nicholas realized no more information would be forthcoming he casually picked up the reins of conversation.
"Will you join us for a meal? I know I'm famished."
"Sure." Oz gave another slight nod and Nicholas was struck by the immense economy of movement to the boy. Most wolves his age were veritable nebulas of energy, all crass motion and broad sweeping actions.
"Yes, and perhaps you could regale us with the reason you came to be in the predicament Nicholas found you in."
Garret doesn't like him, Nicholas thought, and Oz seemed to catch the mild brittleness in the comment because one brow lifted slightly, and the boy gave Garret a measured look before another sparse, small lift of shoulders.
"Poor judgment. Worse luck." Oz replied with a one sided quirk of his mouth. "I could ask you the same question."
Nicholas stifled a laugh and he thought Garret's eyes would pop out of their sockets and swing by their stalks. He ventured no one had spoken to Garret with that absence of awe in quite a while.
"He was following me. I enjoy late night walks in the City. They soothe my mind."
"Mine, too." Oz moved to take a seat in the breakfast nook where he'd been taking his meals, but Nicholas's hand on his arm stopped him.
"We eat in the dining room."
"Oh. Cool." Anyone else would have been mortified at the faux pas, but the boy obviously didn't even consider the slip as such.
Once they settled and Milli had filled their plates with rack of lamb Nicholas said: "I suppose you have questions. Feel free to ask them."
Lashes lowered on the boy's eternally placid eyes before he looked up and gave another of those enigmatic shrugs.
"I could, but it's not necessary. I think I know all I need to know."
"Is that so?" Garret mused. "And what, pray tell, would that be? Thrall us with your opinions."
The comment hung in the air as Oz proceeded to remove the tender lamb from the bone with skilful ease, surprising Nicholas with faultless table manners, then replied. "Do you impart the disdain on everyone, or just strangers who crash on your best friend's bed?"
The forkful of food on it's way to Garret's mouth stopped midair and he gaped at the boy for a moment before dropping his utensil on his plate with a clatter. The noise didn't even make the boy flinch.
"You'll have to excuse him." Nicholas interceded, watching with something like intrigue as the two male's gazes locked in the classic sign of confrontation. "He is also the head of my security division and tends towards the overprotective."
"Don't speak for me, Nicholas." His friend's voice was like ice.
Oz pushed his plate away in a slow, deliberate move and drew himself up meeting each pair of eyes in turn, first cerulean blue then darkest black. "Look. I'm grateful for your help, and for the recovery time. Staying here has been pretty fascinating. Surreal, but fascinating. But I don't want to cause trouble, and I think I should leave now."
"Nonsense." Nicholas reached over and pushed the plate of food back to its proper place. "You will do no such thing. Garret is merely being cautious. We've had trouble with physical attacks this year that resulted in some deaths."
"I can see why you considered me a threat." He didn't know how the young man could say so little and impart sarcasm so veiled the listener couldn't be sure it was there, but Garret was having none of it.
"And why wouldn't we consider you a threat? You just coincidentally happened to be in trouble at the precise place Nicholas could get to you, you are elusive in the extreme and you belong to no pack that I can see, making it impossible to check your background. Do you think I'd take a chance with our pack leader's life? Do you really think I can take your presence here as mere chance?"
"Garret that's quite enough..."
"You lost me around 'pack leader'." Oz said after swallowing a bite of food, then turned to Nicholas. "That would be you?"
"Do you mean to tell me you haven't even HEARD of Nicholas Devoncroix? Surely you jest."
"No." the boy's lips did that slight curve at the corners that passed for smile. "Not down with the jesting."
Both men stared at him as if he spoke Sanskrit. "I don't know what I'm doing here."
"My sentiments exactly."
"Dude." Oz glanced at Garret. "Disdain."
"What did you call me?"
"Dude." Oz repeated. "Term often used to placate irritability and signal surprise. It's not an insult."
"Human colloquialisms." Garret said with a bland air. "Quaint."
"Garret, this isn't necessary. I won't have a guest in my home treated uncouthly."
"I wasn't being uncouth. We can't be too careful after...." Garret faltered and Oz could almost sense the tension spike up like the lines on an EKG machine. The man's haughty dark eyes became strained and he dropped them to the table bowing his head. Nicholas reached out and buried a large hand beneath the thick black waves and curls swirling around broad shoulders. The move made Oz's heart skip.
"I know your worry. I simply don't believe this young wolf is a danger." Hand still in the depths of Garret's hair Nicholas glanced at Oz. "Am I correct?"
"Yeah, you are." But they fell into each other's stare, suspended, and Garret stood suddenly. Nicholas's hand slipped from the warm recesses of neck.
"I'd like to retire now. It's been a long trip." He spoke only to Nicholas. The blond man nodded watching his friend walk through tall dining room door, and then it was just the two of them.
They ate in silence for a bit, next to each other at one end of the expensive antique table that sat sixty, and though the food had lost much of its warmth he didn't call for it to be reheated. He had already become possessive of his time alone with Oz.
The boy spoke first. "You've known him a long time."
"Since we were cubs." Nicholas sighed. "He meant well, truly. Events last year-they've made him obsessive."
"My parents and three other wolves were killed by an intruder." The admission came easily though he had barely spoken in depth of the incident since it occurred.
Oz reached over and covered his hand, and he noticed the sparse red gold hairs over the knuckles. "I'm sorry."
"As was I. I can still feel them, sometimes." He shook his head slightly, as if to clear the painful memories. "At their death I became pack leader. That is why Garret is so overbearing."
"Garret looks like he's overbearing anyway."
Nicholas smiled at the perceptive observation. "Quite. Come. Would you like to see our private veranda?"
A long, narrow hall led to a private balcony, one he used to jump out of when he Changed. The balcony held two thick plants in heavy ceramic containers, miniature evergreens, and hardy against the icy chill. Their heels clicked on pink Italian marble. A breathtaking view of the skyline and some woods to the left lay spread before them. He let Oz walk into the evening chill then followed, coming up behind the young man.
The riotous tufts of henna barely moved in the brisk night breeze and the young man stood still against the carved railing, not closing his thin jacket against the elements.
Nicholas slipped both arms around the shoulders and lay his head in the midst of the fragrant red strands, inhaling shampoo and clean werewolf. For a second Oz tensed then the boy relaxed back into him and Nicholas tightened the hug, curving into the smaller body, wanting to warm it.
"What will you do now, Oz?"
Tiny shiver, and he ran his hands up and down the denim-clad arms. "Find my van. See if I still have any worldly possessions, then hit the road."
They watched the lights of the city beneath them, a blanket of multicolored jewels in the inky dark. At length Nicholas spoke again. "What did happen that night? Why did you not sense your attackers?"
The shoulders shrugged within the reaches of his embrace. "My mistake. I had a gig running the soundboard for a band and I had to park pretty far from the club. I'd just finished a fast, and I thought I could out run them. I couldn't."
"Fast? You'd not been feeding at all?" Nicholas exclaimed in disbelief before loosening his arms and turning Oz to face him. The green eyes looked black in the shadows.
The whole concept baffled him. Feeding was essential, critical to werewolves. The Change burned an unbelievable amount of energy and the state of Oz's body, the prominent ribs and the weakness, made more sense now.
"Not for awhile."
"For God's sake, why? And for how long?"
"Four days. Nick, it's not a big deal. I learned about it in Tibet. It helps keep me focused."
"You've been to Tibet?" he asked, only because it was the last thing he registered from all the questions and comments Oz's words has brought forth.
"Yeah. Couple of years ago."
"But Oz that's.... completely insane! Not feeding is anathema to what we are; surely you know that! Situations like the one that happened are precisely why you should always...."
"Sssh." Warm hands closed around he stopped speaking at the touch. The same slow, slow smile.
"I know. Bad move. Unwise werewolf. I'll be more careful next time."
"Pardon?" Nicholas blinked, unwilling to let go of the rough hands that languidly played with his. The reddish blond lashes lifted.
"Who are you? I thought you were a lawyer, but lawyers don't have original Fragonards and a Dalis in their libraries. I remember your name from a Newsweek article a few years back about the company that was now the major stockholder in information systems software."
"Well, there you have it." Nicholas answered lightly, thinking, in passing, that if Garret heard even part of that whole speech his paranoia couldn't be borne.
"OK." Oz said and he searched for resentment or resignation in the word and found neither. The boy was either a spectacular liar or always told the truth. The young man turned back to the view and Nicholas engulfed the smaller, compact body within his, feeling oddly peaceful out here, in the cold, holding this strange wolf who fasted and dyed his hair. They stayed that way for a while, just watching until Nicholas broke the silence.
"I want to help you."
"You already have."
"I have resources. Your vehicle can be located in a fraction of the time it would take the authorities."
"All the better for me to ease on down the road."
Oh. Of course that would make it possible for Oz to leave sooner. He didn't realize until that moment he'd been looking for a way to make the young wolf stay longer. "That wasn't my intention."
"I know." The two words were soft, the barest whisper in the night.
They watched the twinkling lights some more. Neither noticed the figure watching from just inside the French doors. In another few seconds it slipped away, unnoticed.