It had been hours since Oz had fled the Marrok's house; hours since he'd given up his little cousin Jordy as the wolf who had turned him; hours since he'd had a less than satisfying chat with the female wolf about the state of his self-respect. It had the makings of a great album; all the ingredients of an hour of introspection and self-discovery were there, but Oz could barely get his fingers to settle on the most basic of Dingoes songs. Sometimes he'd stop walking and try to tease out the melody, even humming a bar or two to jumpstart his memory, but it always ended with more frustration than success. Twice, he sat on random lawns until the sense of others--wolf and regular human, both--disturbed the fragile membrane of calm he was building, note by note.
Dark was coming on quickly, especially in this mountainous, woody community. Oz’s Sunnydale instincts were telling him to get inside, but it was easy enough to ignore them. He’d spent years more or less ignoring them to gig with the Dingoes. And, of course, he was one of the bump-in-the-nights.
In spite of being in a community of werewolves, far from the Hellmouth, Oz was unsettled enough to not feel comfortable in the deepening twilight. It was somewhat relieving to find himself outside Asil’s hothouse. It was familiar if nothing else. Sage suddenly driving up would have been better, but Oz knew how to make-do. Really, he just needed to get his head on straight.
Oz found himself chuckling as he slid to a rest beside the greenhouse doors, the warmth from within leaking in tendrils that tickled the edge of his senses. He’d left Willow and Sunnydale to get his head on straight. Now here he was, doing it again not even a month later. He wasn’t even sure he’d gotten the first issue worked out.
With the hothouse's warmth curling like soothing fingers at his side, the strong scent of growing things and Asil in his nose, hard packed earth beneath and sturdy wall behind him, Oz finally felt himself relax. His fingers began to move with more purpose. The melody line had been tricking him into thinking it was an old Dingoes track. Now it slowly unmasked itself. It was in him—if he didn’t think about it too much. He began to sway to the tune, keeping time as much with his body as the foot taping against a flagstone. He didn’t know if this song had words. Devon had written a lot of their lyrics, but Oz didn’t feel the need. Not yet anyway. He could feel the notes pass through the body of the acoustic, through his flesh and into his bones. His blood flowed on the notes. His head was full to bursting with them so that he was a little lightheaded, a little drunk. His fingers played the notes and produced the sound, but he was also far away from his body, experiencing it. Willow, his slipping humanity, his fractured loyalties, werewolf politics, fear, confusion were all fuzzy colors beyond his reach as he sank deeper into the sound pouring out from within, and yet they were its meat and bones.
Oz played on.
Buffy eyed Charles from across the McIntyre’s den. He was eyeing her back, so she didn’t feel too bad about it. Even when Giles cleared his throat. Several times.
Mr. McIntyre, Jordan R. McIntyre "Sr.", returned from the kitchen with a tray. He’d been nothing but kind and, annoyingly to Buffy, deferential since stepping into their fight earlier.
She and Charles had been eyeing each other from the figurative corners they'd backed each other into, both of them trying to figure out their next move. Buffy had actively been trying not to hurt the big man-wolf-dude, because she really didn't want to get into it with every werewolf packs of North America, thanks. He hadn't been making it easy, though. There wasn't supposed to have been a fight in the first place, but not only had Charles followed them from Sunnydale, he'd gotten to the McIntyre's place first.
What was supposed to have happened was the McIntyres were supposed to have scooted, Buffy and Giles were gonna occupy, and then when Charles eventually showed up (because Charles Cornick not finding what he was looking for was never a thing) they were gonna talk some sense into him. While Jordy and his parents ran.
Only, like, one-sixth of the plan had actually worked.
To say that seeing Mr. McIntyre pop out the front door and rush between her and Charles was shocking, was to forget the way Buffy's heart had jumped into her throat. And then the stupid man-wolf-dad person had dropped to his knees in front of Charles, neck bared. "This is my fault. Spare them. Please."
Buffy had recovered quickly. She'd started forward, a plan of attack that included leaping over noble-idiot fathers more than half executed in her head. Then Charles' phone had rung. Because what's tension without a knife?
It had been the Marrok. And since everyone onstage except Giles was of the super variety, both she and Mr. McIntyre had been able to hear both sides of the conversation – especially the part where the Marrok had said "Oz confirmed that his attacker was a child."
Buffy's eyes had narrowed. "What do you mean 'confirmed'?"
But before she could act on her impulse to snatch the phone away and give the Marrok a piece of her mind or, better, beat Charles with it, Mr. McIntyre had been standing in front of her. He'd had his hands outstretched between them as if to stop her – which, looking back on it, had been the exact point. "Let's give them some privacy. Please?"
"Give them some privacy? Charles is here to take out Jordy!"
"Not necessarily." Mr. McIntyre might have been Oz's uncle by marriage, but they definitely shared a copacetic family resemblance. In the moment it had been more maddening than relaxing.
"Don't you understand what happened here? Charles followed us— No, first he eavesdropped on us, then he followed us, with the intention of getting Jordy. Your kid!"
"But Jordy and Maureen are safe for the moment. No one knows where they are, including me. If the Marrok wants to talk about this, I'm willing to hear him out."
"Do you have a choice?"
"Buffy!" That had come from Giles. But after the way Mr. McIntyre had kowtowed to Charles, Buffy hadn't been ready or willing to apologize. They'd been in the house for over an hour and she still wasn't sure.
They were waiting for Mrs. McIntyre to come back with Jordy.
Eventually Giles had convinced Buffy to give Charles and the Marrok privacy, if only because they didn't understand werewolf politics as well as they could. If there was any chance that the Marrok would show mercy, Buffy was willing to take it, even if it meant clenching her jaw until her bones creaked.
"Buffy," Giles said, touching the hand nearest him. "Staring a werewolf in the eye, North American or otherwise, is akin to making a challenge."
"Is it? Good."
Mr. McIntyre stepped in front of Buffy, breaking her line of site. "Water? Diet? Sparkling?"
Buffy frowned. Mr. McIntyre smiled. "You can't stand there forever," she told him.
"You can't order me around, Slayer."
"I'm not making with the ordering."
"Your body language is absolutely giving orders," he said as his smile turned indulgent. "Water? Diet? Sparkling?"
Buffy grumbled her request and, correctly, got a can of diet Coke.
Far more amenable than his slayer, Giles took a of bottle water from the tray Mr. McIntyre was holding. "Please try not to antagonize the nice werewolves," he said conversationally. There was no point in whispering.
"Ha." Buffy pulled the tab on her soda can and watched with quiet intent as Mr. McIntyre crossed the den to offer liquid goodness to Charles as well. Charles who could order Mr. McIntyre around.
Buffy felt her insides roil. Apparently the news that Jordy, aka the rogue wolf who had turned Oz, was only a little kid was enough to switch Charles' setting from Enforcer to Investigator mode. The question was, what would it take to switch back? And would Buffy be close enough to protect him?
Mr. McIntyre's back shifted as his tray was relieved of another beverage. When he moved, Charles was looking at her.
Buffy smiled and waved. He drank from his bottle of water, but didn't wave back.
"What are you doing here, pup?" Asil asked, coming to stand in front of Oz. "Other than playing your guitar?" he added before Oz could say it.
"Not my guitar. It's the Marrok's."
"Ah, well, pardon my mistake. What are you doing outside my hothouse playing the Marrok's guitar, then?"
"I don't know." The words surprised Oz. He'd meant to tell the other wolf that he was thinking, which wasn't a lie but... Oz's fingers stopped for the first time in over an hour. He shivered.
Making a sound of annoyance and muttering in a language Oz didn't know, Asil stepped forward with keys suddenly in his hand. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. When Oz didn't immediate follow, Asil stuck his head outside the door. "Come, little pup. You are not prepared to spend an evening out of doors."
Oz handed him the guitar when he reached for it, then accepted Asil's other hand when it was offered. Moments later he was following Asil deeper into the hothouse than he'd been earlier in the day when he'd visited with Sage. The muggy warmth was unexpectedly welcome. Oz didn't know he'd become so cold. He’d stopped noticing things like that long ago.
A sink and counter covered in garden tools solidified out of the gloom as Asil flicked on a light
"Sit," Asil said. Oz glanced around and noticed the wrought iron garden chairs around a small glass table. He sat.
Asil set down the guitar, then busied himself at the sink. Soon there was a click and a familiar burbling hiss that Oz always associated with Giles. Asil turned from the electric teapot. "Stay here," he said. He briefly rested his hands on Oz's nape as he passed beyond the ragged circle of light, into the hothouse proper.
The electric tea kettle had begun to scream when Asil returned. In his hand was a small cloth sack that smelled of fresh lavender. He took the kettle off its power source and began preparing a pot of tea. Oz watched intently as he brought first two cups and their saucers to the table, then the small cloth sack, then the teapot on a small towel.
He sat opposite Oz. "Tell me what has happened."
Oz hesitated at first, but found the story pouring out of him: being found by Charles, meeting the Marrok on the road, both dominants pressing him to talk about the "rogue" who had changed him...the "rogue" being his little cousin, and eventually giving Jordy up to the Marrok after he'd sworn to himself that he wouldn't. He didn't mention the female wolf. That encounter was like this one with Asil.
"Do not beat yourself up so much, little wolf," Asil said. "You've done no wrong."
He'd been silent as Oz spoke, only moving when it was, apparently, time to pour the tea. From the sack he had produced the lavender Oz had smelled, which he added to the already fragrant cups. Oz had held his as he spoke. The warmth and floral scent had helped ease the distress that grew as he relived the last 48 hours. Now Oz tried hard not to meet the other wolf's stare. Instead he stared at the pattern the lavender made as he said, "Someone else said the same thing to me. A female I didn't meet when I was with Sage."
At Asil's prompting, Oz described her. The other wolf made a sound of disbelief. "You must be a submissive. I don't know that Leah would have been so kind otherwise."
"It didn't feel kind."
Asil chuckled. "I'm not surprised. But, though it pains me to admit, Leah is right."
"Jordy is a little kid."
"'A little kid' whom you say turned you into a werewolf with a bite."
"An accidental bite. Jordy's not usually a biter."
Asil set down his teacup and studied Oz for a long while. Instead of struggling to watch or not watch the other wolf in return, Oz turned his attention back to his tea. It wasn't as sweet as what he might have made on his own but it tasted as nice as it smelled. He felt calmer, too. Whether because he'd finally shared his burden or the tea or Asil, he couldn't guess.
Oz finished. "Wonder what it says."
Asil reached for the teapot. "My wife could have interpreted the leaves for you," he said as he poured Oz a fresh cup.
"Sorry for your loss."
Asil's lips lifted, but it wasn't a happy expression. "You assume she is gone from this world."
"I guess she could have left you for a more beautiful wolf," Oz said, daring to make a passing go at eye contact as he lifted his cup to his mouth.
Making a sound of disbelief, Asil topped off his own cup. "A wolf with a better temperament, that I would believe, but more beautiful? Señor, there is none more beautiful."
Oz smiled into his tea.
"But for you, pup, I do not think you know how our kind are made."
"Near evisceration. "
"Dad!" Jordy McIntyre ran headlong for his father, who easily scooped up the boy. "Guess what we saw!"
"What'd my big boy see?"
And for a solid five minutes Jordy filed his father in on what he and his mother had seen on their drive to...wherever she'd gone. It was all Buffy could do not to snatch the boy right out of his father's arms and run. For the moment, though, all she could manage was a serious glare in Charles Cornick's direction.
Charles, fortunately or un, had stopped returning dirty looks the moment they could hear the McIntyre car in the drive. Now he watched Jordy with his father. Mrs. McIntyre was conspicuously absent. Buffy couldn't say that she blamed her.
"Hey, kiddo, you wanna slow down so I can introduce you to some people."
"We got guests?"
"Have guests," Mr. McIntyre corrected. "And, yes, we do." Still holding Jordy, Mr. McIntyre introduced him to Buffy and Giles first. "These are friends of your cousin Oz."
"Really?" He scrambled out of his father's arms. "My name is Jordan M. McIntyre," he said, hand outstretched to Giles.
"A pleasure, young man."
When Buffy stretched out her hand, Jordy took it in both of his and kissed her knuckles. Giggling and glancing at Mr. McIntyre, Buffy asked him where he'd learned that.
"Cousin Oz!" He said immediately and loudly. "Did I do it right?"
Jordy chortled with joy.
Mr. McIntyre dropped a hand in his son's head. "One more, kiddo." Turning them both, he said, "This is Mr. Charles Cornick."
As he had with his father, Jordy ran for Charles but this time Buffy's heart was in her throat. She was halfway out of her seat when Jordy clambered into Charles' lap. "It's okay," Mr. McIntyre said.
"Trust me, please."
Watching as Jordy whispered into Charles' ear, Buffy lowered herself into her seat. It was Giles, however, who said, "We do not believe this is wise, Mr. McIntyre."
Jordy, meanwhile, pulled back from whatever he'd been telling Charles. The big man nodded solemnly in response. "Yes. I am."
Grinning, Jordy sat back in the circle of Charles' arms and turned to his father. "Daddy, he's like us!"
"Jordy," came from the kitchen. "Come get your snack."
"Coming Mom!" Jordy scrambled out of Charles' arms, easily released by the other man.
Mr. McIntyre ruffled his son's hair as he passed. "The voice of my lovely wife, Maureen, has magical properties." It was said with laughing fondness, but no one laughed.
"And that's my son, Jordy."
Asil warmed his hands on his cup. "Little pup, imagine what Bran, the Marrok, faces. Your cousin, a mere child, is able to make werewolves from a simple bite."
"He broke the skin," Oz felt compelled to clarify.
Asil waved the detail away. "Your young cousin makes werewolves with a bite, when werewolves are generally created from the near murder by another werewolf and an equally vicious determination to live.
"You of course don't know the lengths to which Bran has gone to control the process and protect those who choose to become one of us. That's how terrible it is. And your cousin can do this with a bite. A child."
Oz clenched his hands around his teacup. It would have gone rattling out of his hands otherwise.
"So he's dead," Oz said to the still floating lavender.
"No. Werewolf justice is brutal because werewolves are brutal. But it is not wanton. Not since Bran unified the packs under his rule. If what happened with your Jordy was, as you say, an accident then it is doubtful Bran will have him killed. As difficult as it is for you to believe, having to execute justice against your cousin would hurt Bran deeply."
"But he'd have to do something, even if he doesn't think Jordy's dangerous," Oz reasoned.
Asil shrugged. "Perhaps Bran will have your cousin watched until he reaches maturity. Perhaps tutored." He spread his hands. "Who can say. There are no wolves as young as your cousin. It is likely he is writing the rules as he goes along."