Oz felt the lock on his motel room door hesitate then slip when he tried the door.
It was a slam lock. Willow and Buffy had one on their dorm room. A toggle in the lock hardware kept the door locked to the outside, but allowed it to be open from within – no keys necessary.
The door had been locked, but not against him. The warm sense of protection that had let Oz relax into sleep hours ago, riding in the rental car with Charles, rolled over him again. Oz pressed a hand over his chest and took a deep breath. It felt like the first clean breath after being stuck in a fetid hole. Traveling to music festivals on his own and with the Dingoes, he'd experienced his fair share of really grotty port-a-potties. That moment when you stepped out and away from one (and the equally rank lines of people waiting their turn) and took a deep breath of clean air was almost indescribable. Oz felt like that. Except he'd been in a fetid hole for months instead of minutes.
He took another breath and smiled. They were in the mountains of Montana. This probably was the first clean breath he'd had in months, maybe years.
A mean little voice in the back of his head, curiously husky and female, told him that it wouldn't last. He'd have to pay for killing Veruca.
Oz went the five steps forward it took to clear the little concrete sidewalk that circled the motel and sat down. He was going to leave that voice behind unless or until it was something he had to deal with. In the meantime...he was really, really naked. And locked out of his room.
Oz rested his forehead against one of his raised knees and laughed.
Charles cautiously stepped out of his rental SUV. In his experience normal humans seemed to have a fascination with testing their mortality against anything with four wheels and an axle. The University of California Sunnydale campus was no exception. They seemed to be bent on proving the rule, in fact, as Charles was swarmed with chattering, oblivious, college students halfway through opening the driver’s side door. A coed on a cell phone glared at him, annoyed to find his way suddenly blocked. Until he looked up, and up, into Charles’ stony face. The boy’s mouth kept moving but the words were mostly nonsensical as he quickly backed up and found another pair of cars to pass between.
Years ago, Charles had been in New York City on a business trip for his father. He and the New Amsterdam pack alpha, Nicolaas, and the man’s second had decided to walk from their offices in the West 30s down to Little Italy. The break had been more than welcome, and the leisurely walk through the surprisingly quiescent city had been good for all of them.
Nicolaas and his second had kept up a steady stream of conversation that was open to Charles but didn't require his participation, which he had appreciated. If not for the empty streets, he would have preferred less talking. Nicolaas hadn't been as old a wolf as most of the alphas with packs his size, but he had been – and still was – a thoughtful and insightful man.
Little Italy had been about as crowded with shops as Charles remembered from an earlier time in his life, cleaner though, but the people traffic was still unusually low. And, as always, he’d stuck out like a sore thumb.
“I don’t know if I would feel comfortable going in there, even if it wasn’t a private club.”
The high, lyrical words had pulled Charles from his thoughts. Waiting for a light to turn, the three wolves had been stopped behind a brown-skinned woman and a younger darker-skinned girl. They smelled like family. It was the girl who had spoken.
“If I only went places where I didn’t stick out, I wouldn’t go anywhere,” the woman had said, looking down at the girl. The girl had shrugged. The light changed. The woman had taken the girl’s hand, and they had gone their way while Charles and the New Amsterdam wolves went theirs, but the truth of the woman’s words had stuck.
Standing on the campus of UC Sunnydale, head and shoulders over most of the student body, and where he wasn’t taller he was broader, New York and the woman words came back to him as they often did.
If Charles only went places where he didn’t stick out, he wouldn’t go very far at all.
The words had never failed to make him smile.
Oz’s head shot up as he reflexively crossed his legs and arms against the very feminine voice headed his way.
The woman who approached him was tall and slender and, frankly, beautiful. Oz felt an uncharacteristic flush chase itself across his body. “Uh…”
She grinned. “I have that effect on people sometimes. You seem to be having a problem, darling.”
She laughed. “I didn’t think the effect was that strong. Maybe it’s the new perfume.”
“I’m…I’m usually…better? At this?”
“I do hope so,” she said, a solitary brow curving towards her sun-streaked brown hair. “Although you’re a cute little thing.”
Oz felt the blush racing along his skin again.
“I also hope you’re not in the habit of sitting on the side of the road in your birthday suit.”
Now Oz smiled a little. “Not usually, no. Locked myself out.”
“That’s okay, Ozzie. I have a key.” She jangled it for emphasis.
Oz frowned. “You know my name. Sort of.”
“Bran sent me.” At his apparent confusion, she added, “The Marrok, darling.”
“Oh.” Now that she said it, he remembered Charles introducing him that way.
“Come on. I’ve got some clothes for you, darling.”
Oz popped up to help her, noticing her bags for the first time, only to shy away when a stray wind reminded him that he was naked.
“Oh don’t you worry. Body consciousness goes right out the window when you live with wolves.”
“You…you know about werewolves?”
Smiling indulgently, she said, “Everyone in Aspen Creek knows about werewolves. You either are one or you’re kin to one.”
“So there’s a wolf in your family?” Oz asked as she stepped up to the door to lock it.
She looked at him over her shoulder. “I am the wolf in my family. Come on, let’s make you presentable.”
It was tempting to wait for the Slayer in her dorm room, but Charles thought that would be too confrontational. He was trying to get her attention, not start a war. Instead he’d made a point of passing by the windows of her class. Now he was waiting for her in the hall.
Charles wasn’t sure he’d ever lounged around a university campus before. He didn’t see the appeal.
He didn’t have to wait long, at least. Within minutes, rooms up and down the hall began spilling out students at some predetermined, but unknown to him, signal. Within moments, the Slayer was striding towards him.
Brother Wolf perked up within him. His Brother could sense the predator worthy of their notice amongst all the potential prey. Charles reminded him that they weren’t there to play either.
“I doubt you’d come all this way to tell me you didn’t play nice with Oz. Because if you did, that would be a bad idea and you didn’t really seem like a bad idea kinda guy.”
Charles’ lips quirked. “I’ve been known to make a few—“
The Slayer’s spine straightened and her stance widened.
“—but I don’t think this is one of them.”
She seemed to deflate. “Oh. Okay, then. Um…why are you stalking me at school?” she said as she turned to walk down the hall. Obviously he was meant to follow. His pride wanted him to stay. Brother Wolf found it amusing, and the Slayer intriguing. Charles fell into step just behind her.
“I thought showing up in your dorm room might be taken the wrong way,” he said, answering her question.
Half-turning to look at him over her shoulder she nodded. “And you’d be right. So what else brings you to my 11:45, other than a desire to lower your creepy guy factor.”
“The Marrok wants to find out who turned Veruca and your friend Oz. Rogues are not tolerated, especially not on a Hellmouth. No packs are allowed on a Hellmouth.”
The Slayer scoffed. “Can’t imagine why.”
“This rogue might be trying to create a pack for himself,” Charles went on, disregarding Buffy’s aside. “That can’t be allowed.”
“Uh, and what’ll you do with this rogue?”
Curiously, the Slayer’s shoulders had curled in. She’d lost much of the confident swagger she’d had only moments before.
“Kill him, probably. Rogues can’t usually be reasoned with or rehabilitated.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
“I’m Sage, by the way,” the female werewolf said as she placed the shopping bags on the bed.
“Um, Oz. But you already know that.”
“That I do,” she said with a smile. “Now you’ve got the look of a man too embarrassed to get dressed around a pretty lady—“
“A beautiful lady.”
Sage lit up with pure pleasure. “Oh I do hope we keep you.”
Oz’s answering smile dimmed a little. “Me, too.”
“Well if not Aspen Creek then maybe the Columbia Basin Pack,” Sage said as she made her way to the door.
“Columbia Basin Pack?”
“In Tri-Cities, Washington. Their alpha’s a good man.” Her eyes went soft when Oz didn’t respond. Instead, his eyes had drifted to the floor. “You get dressed and I’ll wait outside, alright darling? You’ve gotta meeting with the Marrok.”