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Pack a Smile

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"There's someone up ahead," said Oz five hours outside Aspen Creek. A quick glance in Charles' direction told him little, so he added, "I think we should stop for him. See if he needs a ride."

Charles spared him a glance of his own then. "What if he's not going our way?"

Oz shrugged. "Then he's not and we keep going."

"What if he's dangerous?"

A snort of laughter escaped Oz. To which Charles did not react at all. Oz’s eyes snapped to him. “You were joking, right?”

But they were already pulling over before he’d finished asking. Since his window was rolling down as they pulled up close, Oz took that as the sign that he was speaking for them both. He gave the guy a quick once over as he leaned out of the window. If Oz had to guess, he’d say they were about the same age, no more than a year or two apart. “Hey…need a ride?”

“Yeah. If you’re going my way that’d be great.”

“Where ya goin’?”

“Um, Troy? You know it?”

Oz turned to Charles, who nodded. Oz passed the nod along.

The guy lips lifted in a pleased smile. “Great.”

The doors unlocked and the guy reached for the back door. Oz unlocked his door and hopped out. “Take the front seat, man.”

Frowning, the guy stepped back from the door.

Hands up, Oz said, “Hey, it’s cool. I just figured you know where you’re going, you might as well sit up front.” Actually his instincts were screaming at him that he shouldn’t have a stranger sitting at his back. If he felt that way he could only imagine what was going through Charles’ head. And if the older wolf didn’t like it, Oz was sure he’d let them all know.

The other guy nodded. “Yeah. Sure. Okay, I’ll take the front seat.”

Oz ducked back into the car. “That’s okay, right?”

Charles looked at him thoughtfully, but didn’t seem annoyed by Oz’s impulsive move. “It’s a good idea.”

Oz’s lips twitched toward a smile. Then he stepped back from the door. “If you want, you can throw your stuff in the back seat.”


Two minutes later, they were on the road.

The boy didn’t look back over his shoulder as he walked toward the rest stop, but Charles could feel that he wanted to. The errand wasn’t entirely frivolous, he needed his protein. They all did. Hungry wolves were problem wolves, no matter how calm they might be otherwise. It wasn’t the first time Charles had sent Oz inside while he gassed up the rental. The issue, of course, was their hitchhiker.

“You like him,” Bran said as soon as the boy was out of earshot.

“You didn’t hitchhike to the middle of nowhere Montana to tell me that,” Charles said as he slipped his credit card into the slot.

“Technically I didn’t hitchhike at all.”

Charles huffed a laugh.

“But you do like him.”

“He’s a good traveling companion. They’re hard to come by. And now you’re the one avoiding the question.”

“You haven’t actually asked me one, Son.”

Charles spared his father a look. Bran grinned at him, face full of college-student nonchalance. “Why did you technically not hitchhike all the way to the middle of nowhere Montana, Da?”

“I got a call from the Slayer’s Watcher. Oz is one of her people.”

Surprise raised Charles’ eyebrows. “Since when did the Slayer have people?”

Bran shrugged, watching Charles pump gas into the rental “Since this one was Called, I guess.”

Charles frowned. “When she asked me not to hurt him, I didn’t think she knew him personally.”

“Apparently she does.”

Charles finished pumping and replaced the gas nozzle. “What does that mean for us?”

“In the long-term, nothing. Right now, a little more caution is in order. Or it would have been.” He was talking to Charles, but his body was turning towards the rest-stop. The boy was coming back.

“Why would it have been?” Charles asked, although he already suspected the answer.

His father’s lips twitched. “Well if you like him, he can’t be that bad, can he?”

“He killed another wolf.”

“A rogue I myself sent you to kill. He did us a favor.”

Charles’ eyes narrowed. “This sounds like something the Slayer might have said.”

Smiling brightly, Bran opened the passenger side door. “You should introduce us.”

Charles rolled his eyes, proud of himself for not actually rubbing at the headache trying to form behind his eyes.

By the time he had rounded the boot of the car, the boy had returned with enough fast food to feed a small army, a pack of teenaged boys, or three adult werewolves. He noticed him check the passenger side door, even though he would have been able to see Bran slide inside as he walked their way.

“Everything okay?” Charles asked.

“Raised a few eyebrows, but yeah.” Leaning toward Bran, he said, “You want something? I got plenty. Paid for it out of my roadtrip fund,” he said relatively unnecessary. Except that Charles had been giving him money, the same amount of money, for all the food they’d eaten on the road, and this time had been no different.

Folding himself into the rental, Charles could hear his father smiling behind him as he accepted the offer of food.

Bran was right. He did like the boy. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to execute justice on someone that he liked, but he still found himself hoping that his father would take up the boy’s cause.

They’d pulled over into the adjoining parking lot to demolish the fast food that Oz had bought. Oz was surprised by the kid’s ability to put food away. Then again, poor hungry college student was a real thing. Becoming a werewolf had only seemed to mean he was hungry more often. Xander could still outdo him at Joyce’s dinner table.

But now they were on the road again, just an hour outside of Troy. They’d drop off their new friend and then go on to Aspen Creek.

Their new friend who kept up a steady stream of polite chatter, nothing too deep or annoying. After nearly twenty-four hours of riding in near complete silence with Charles, Oz took it on himself to keep up the other half of the conversation.

“Hey,” he said, interrupting a discussion on music that was actually become interesting. Mostly because it was becoming interesting. “Just realized…don’t even know your name. I’m Oz.”


Charles’ voice startled him.

“Yeah, Charles.”

“This is Bran, my father. The Marrok.”