"I think I'm gonna take off."
"Pretty much now."
Oz hadn't been trying for a dramatic or emotional exit, but after the hug he shared with Willow they were both tearful and he just wanted to get away. The van, though, had other ideas. It barely made it half a mile down the road before making the most horrendous noise and rolling to a halt beside the gate of one of Sunnydale's many cemeteries.
That was just one insult too much. Oz crawled into the back of the van, curled up in the nest of quilts and pillows he'd been using since he'd gotten back to town and realised Devon had moved on, and then he cried himself to sleep.
It was the sound of something heavy landing against the side of the van, just behind his head, that woke him out of his kaleidoscopic nightmare. Stark snapshots of lab-coated doctors and khaki-wearing soldiers flickered across his field of vision, interspersed with lush, Technicolor surround sound images of Willow and Tara entangled on the same bed where he'd spilled his heart and soul and then asked for a second chance.
A second thud snapped him out of his après-nightmare fog, and he scrambled back into the driver's seat to peer through the side window. Accumulated dust, from the almost non-stop road trip up from Mexico, obscured the finer details, but Oz recognised the shock of yellow white hair and the elegant swoop of leather and relaxed a tiny fraction into the seat.
It seemed like only seconds passed before Spike was tap-tap-tapping on the window and Oz wearily cranked down the dirty glass.
Spike studied the dismal creature in his view. Tearstained, and hair askew, Oz gazed back without reaction.
"Thought you'd be leaving town, Wolfling."
Oz shrugged. "That was the plan." He slapped the steering wheel. "She had other ideas. Looks like I'm stuck here for a while."
Spike's grin wasn't pretty. "I bet Red'll be happy to hear that. Or maybe not, now she's got herself a new little friend." There was a flash of pink tongue as he licked his lips. "Or maybe she'll invite you to join them. She obviously has varied tastes, and I doubt T-T-T-Tara would have the nerve to say no."
Oz studied the vampire standing outside his door. He was almost bouncing, full of violent energy, and something in his eyes was burning ice-hot and agonised.
"You want a fight."
Spike nodded. "I need a fight, just like you do. Come on." He stepped back and beckoned with both hands, hip canted at a cocky angle, full of arrogance and bravado. "Come out here and fight me. Pretend I'm your witch or her little friend from Lesbos. Make believe I'm one of those Initiative bastards with their medical experiments and gleeful looks. Imagine I'm anyone who makes you want to take a swing, because as much as you need to get this out of your system, dammit, so do I! I actually walked back into that hellhole voluntarily and it's brought back every skin-peeling, bone-breaking memory I ever managed to suppress. So yeah, I want to fight. I want to fight the wolf inside you. Not kill it, just spend an hour or two trying to break myself against it. And you need the same."
Spreading his arms wide, Spike tilted back his head and exposed his neck in a faux show of vulnerability.
"Let the wolf come out and play, dog boy. It needs to taste blood, feel flesh tear under those powerful claws. You won't kill me, I won't kill you, we'll just have some fun together."
~ ! ~
Just before dawn, two bloodied, limping figures, one unashamedly naked, clambered into the back of the broken-down van. Oz tossed a towel over his shoulder, confident it would be caught, before dropping onto the heap of comfy quilts and burrowing in. He muffled a yawn.
"I've got a First Aid box in here somewhere, if you want that cheek patched up."
"Thanks, but no." Parchment pale fingers brushed against a livid scratch along one angular cheekbone. "It's stopped bleeding already. It'll be gone tomorrow. What about you? I can smell the blood from here."
Oz glanced back and saw hunger and frustration barely veiled beneath the devil-may-care exterior.
"It's just my shoulder. I left a layer of skin on that last crypt you tossed me into." Another yawn, and Oz could feel the cables holding down his emotional baggage snapping, one by one. The bone-deep trembling shook the entire van and Spike looked back towards the doors just once before dropping to his knees and crawling closer.
"Let it out, pet. Let it all come out. Don't you dare swallow it down, you understand? It's just like poison, it'll eat you up from inside out and kill you bit by bit. Don't let those bastards win now."
Once again, Oz cried himself to sleep, but this time he was held and rocked and petted by a monster who shared the horrors in his head, and if maybe some of the tears on his cheeks weren't from his eyes, who was he to complain?
A week later they were lovers, of a sort. Nothing serious, they both agreed to that, but there was comfort there, and understanding, and some kick-ass fights and animalistic fucking that assuaged a need in both.
~ ! ~
One month later, Oz, who had made sure to keep his continuing presence a secret from the Scoobies as a whole, bumped into Xander in the last place he'd expected.
"Hey, what'll it be? Oh. Xander?"
"Xander, you okay man?"
"...Oz? Um... hi? Uh..."
"Want a beer?"
"Gods, please, yes. I..."
Oz turned and grabbed a longneck from the chiller, then popped the cap and passed it over the bar into the waiting, shaking hand.
"I haven't seen you working here before." Gasp. Blush. "Not... Not that I come here often, just... ah... Damn." Shoulders slumped, Xander took a long pull of his beer and, propping an elbow on the polished teak in front of him, dropped his head into his palm and closed his eyes. Oz smiled.
"So, guess we've both been keeping secrets."
~ ! ~
While he finished out his shift, Oz watched as Xander meandered through the club, occasionally stopping to say hi and chat a moment before moving on, and often spending time out on the dance floor, where he'd dance alone or find himself a partner from the crowd. And, as he worked, Oz wondered just how long his old school friend had been frequenting Sunnydale's only neutral territory gay bar, and if he knew the guy that he was dancing with was actually a demon.
~ ! ~
Outside, in the parking lot, once Xander had helped the staff straighten up the club, they stood and watched the clouds skim slowly over the mottled face of the full moon.
"So, you really have got that body hair problem under control."
"Good to know." Xander eyed his car, sitting alone on the lot under the sole working street lamp. "I probably shouldn't be driving. I kinda lost count after I saw you in there. Where are you parked?"
Oz angled his head towards the side of the club. "The van's stashed back there. I didn't want anyone going past and seeing."
"Willow said you left."
In tandem, they drifted across the crumbling concrete, down the shadowy side of the club and paused at the back of the van.
"That was the plan. Need a new engine block first. Hence the bar work."
"So why here?"
Xander followed Oz into the van and absently pulled the door closed, squinting into the darkness until Oz struck a match and touched it to the wick of an oil lamp hanging from the roof. He looked around at the bedding and piles of books, breathed in the scents of burning oil, patchouli, and the faint sweet tang of dope and sank down to lean back against a thin metal wall.
"You're living here?"
A shrug. "It's cheap. It's home. It feels safe."
"It's... cool. Like camping out, only no tent, and... with a roof. Anyone else know you're still in town? Devon?"
Oz looked up from where he had assembled the makings of a doobie on his lap.
"Devon's in LA, he got a gig there with the band. Spike's the only one who knows I'm here. He's helped a lot."
Too busy watching in awe as Oz skinned up completely effortlessly, Xander almost missed him answering the questions. Then... "Spike? He didn't say. What did it cost you to keep him quiet?"
A tiny crease appeared between Oz's brows, but it was gone before Xander was ever sure he'd seen it.
"Spike's a friend. He... understood a lot of what was going on inside my head. More than I did. And he helped. Not for payment, but because he knew I needed someone, needed not to be alone with the nightmares."
A flickerflash of Spike whining, whimpering in his sleep, straining against the ropes that held him bound to the old recliner, caused a flip-flopping sensation in the pit of Xander's stomach.
Spike had helped Oz. Who had helped Spike? Who had even considered that Spike needed help? Not him. Not the Scoobies. The chipped vampire was just one more complication and potential source of information to them and had been treated accordingly.
The smell of burning tobacco, and something darker, greener, richer, slipped inside his lungs and Xander looked up to see the joint held out towards him. He'd never... Well, there was that once with Jesse when they'd found a screwed up twist behind the cushions of the sofa. One drag apiece and they'd vomited for hours, or so it seemed...
A second flickerflash of tied up Spike and Xander took himself a lungful of the smoke, then coughed it out. A second draw, and another coughing fit, but by the third he'd found his rhythm, slow inhale, a count to five and then a measured exhalation that seemed to leave him limp, relaxed and slightly stoned. Damn, but wasn't he the cheapest date who ever lived?
They smoked a second joint, and then a third, and Oz expounded on his quest for lycanthropic freedom. He talked about the warlock in Romania who sent him to the monks, deep in Tibet, who helped him figure out how to balance out the beast.
Then Xander took a turn at the confessional, and talked in broken sentences and giggles, about discovering he was gay, "well, kinda bi, I guess. I still like breasts but not as much as cock... I think."
The munchies struck at that point, and they found themselves devouring bags of chips and bars of chocolate till they couldn't find another crumb to eat. Xander kicked his shoes off and curled up inside a multi-coloured quilt then waved a finger at his friend.
"You...you weren't the first guy I ever fantas-assized about, y'know?"
Oz cocked an eyebrow at that little gem, but couldn't gather up the energy to question it.
"Nope. Angel..." Xander's eyes glazed over as he slid back into memories and relived certain dreams and manic sessions of self-abuse.
"Angel?" prompted Oz, after a while, intensely curious and verging upon utter disbelief. "Angel?"
"Wha'? Where?!" Xander looked around frantically before collapsing in a giggling heap. "Where was I?"
"You were telling me how Angel was the first guy you ever fantasized about."
"Nooooooooo, I wasn't. I wasn't, was I? Cos that would be so... wrong. In so many ways." He gave an emphatic nod. "No, silly. Angel gave me to Spike on Parent Teacher Night, and even though I was scared stupid, and I really, really wanted to stake Angel for doing it, I still remember how... how pretty Spike was. Is. Can be. When he's not sneering at me and calling me names."
Xander paused to snatch up a fallen cookie and devour it in one bite.
"But... Oh, Oz, man, you shoulda seen him. The hair, those eyes, all that leather... When I got home that night, after I threw up and stopped the shaking thing, I nearly gave myself friction burns before I finally passed out. Of course, when I woke up I was in complete denial. And I would have stayed there too. But then I started seeing Anya and she insisted on experimenting because she wanted to experience everything and thought I should too. So she bought toys, lots of toys, and I realised I enjoyed it the most when she used them on me. We're friends, still, and everybody still thinks we're dating, but..." Xander tailed off into memory-filled silence again and Oz became contemplative.
"Spike, huh?" Thoughts, ideas and plans began to form in the marijuana-misted recesses of his brain, but he was distracted by Xander's hand fastening on his wrist and tugging to reclaim his wandering attention.
"He's never gonna take a second look at me. I mean, why would he? I'm Droopy Boy, human bait for the monster of the week. And after what I said to him about making that deal with Adam... And I understood that, y'know? He just wanted to get the chip out and be whole again. I know he'd probably end up trying to kill us all. Again. But I understood why he did it. But could I say that? Oh no. That would be betraying Buffy, and I can't do that, so I said stuff. Lots of stuff. So now he hates me." Pout. "Not that he didn't before." Sniff.
"He's my dream date, Oz. Kinda. Only... not the kind you take home to Mom. Maybe if he'd gotten rid of the chip I could've taken him home to Dad. That would have been fun."
Xander tugged harder on the wrist in his grasp, pulling Oz over to slump next to him.
"But he's a hot, blond, undead, vampire-y guy and you're... you. You're here, and you... you see me. Don't you?" Oz nodded slowly, and Xander mimicked the movement.
"You're... What colour do you call that, anyway? Red-y brown-y? Purple-y? Burdungy! You're a hot, burdungy wolf-y guy!"
Oz blinked and tried to make sense of the announcement.
"You mean burgundy?"
Xander knotted a hand in the Dingoes tee shirt hanging loosely from Oz's slender frame and reeled him in.
"Yeah, that." And then Xander leaned in and kissed him, fleeting contact lip to lip then gone again.
"Angel's not pretty. Don't want him." Head shake. "Spike's pretty. He doesn't want me." A nod and then another shake. "You're pretty. Do you want me?"
Oz was prevented from answering verbally, but he figured his reaction to the second kiss from Xander spoke volumes for him.
After half an hour Xander passed out cold, and Oz tried to move his focus past the most intense lip action he had ever experienced. Xander's confession had given him an idea that might just make him feel less guilty when he finally moved on.
~ ! ~
Another month or so later...
Panting and slick with sweat, Oz slowly slid off Spike and dragged a corner of blanket to cover them both as they recovered from their farewell rut.
"So, you're off to the Cascades. You sure this pack's still there? What if they've found a new Alpha? Maybe someone from the ranks has stepped in to keep 'em tight."
Oz stretched his body into an arch, sinews and muscles straining until he slumped back down onto the floor.
"They're all young, Spike. Mostly kids. I think... If I can convince them to listen, to learn, they'd have a better chance of surviving. Maybe they'd be able to come down out of the mountains for good."
"And maybe you'll get there and you'll realise the mountains are the best place for them. Best place for you." Spike shrugged, and snatched at the blanket as it tried to slide away and steal the remnants of the warmth he'd just attained.
"Whatever you decide, I wish you luck, Wolfling. You deserve a decent shot at something."
He waited until Oz was half asleep curled into his side before he let loose his next salvo.
"So, how long have you been seeing Harris?"
The full-body twitch was almost imperceptible, but it told Spike he'd made a direct hit.
"I can taste him on you, just beneath the toothpaste, and the mouthwash and the chewing gum you only ever use when you've been with him."
"Bumped into him a few weeks ago. Got talking, shared a few secrets..." This time it was Spike who twitched, and Oz hid his grin in the pillow. "Not about you, so much, more about me. Being here. And him. Being there."
Reluctantly, Oz pushed up into a sitting position, then wrapped himself up in a second blanket to keep away the chill that always seemed to seep through the metal skin of his temporary home.
"What do you think of him? Really?"
"Who, Harris? He's a git. So bloody high and mighty sometimes, calling me all those stupid names, acting like he's better than me, just 'cause I'm a vampire. He doesn't get what it's like to suddenly be... less. To go from Master Vampire: if it threatens me - kill it; if it gets in my way - kill it; if it looks bloody ugly in a revolting Hawaiian shirt - kill it; to begging my worst enemy for bags of foul animal blood because I can't even feed myself any more! And having to watch them playing nice with the bastards that did this to me..." Spike snarled and snatched up his cigarettes, drawing deep as soon as the tobacco caught the flame. He frowned.
"So, if that lot know you're still around, how come you're sleeping out in this pile of junk? I would have thought they'd want you somewhere they could keep an eye on you, make sure you're safe."
"They don't know. Xander hasn't told them."
Spike did a spit-take and then laughed. "You really think you can trust Droopy Boy to keep a secret like that for you? It's a wonder they're not banging down the door."
Oz frowned, considered, then thought 'the hell with it', and decided Xander would thank him for what he was about to do. Eventually. If it worked.
"He understood, about Adam; about trying to get the chip out. He thought that telling you would be disloyal to Buffy, and with Riley ill he wouldn't hurt her more, but he understood, even agrees. If you got the chip out tomorrow he'd be happy for you, even as he's trying to stop you wiping out his friends. He's kept that secret for a while, too."
"Oh, he's loyal to a fault, I'll give him that. He risks his life for her over and over and never gets so much as a 'thank you'. I've seen them treat him like an idiot cousin then toss him out as bait to lure the latest nasty into their trap. And, bruised or not, he's there again the next time, ready to do his bit. He's got a heart the size of Texas, he's more loyal than a puppy, he's... What?"
Too late, Oz realised he was grinning.
"He likes you too, though you'll probably have to work to get him to admit it. He's spent a lot of years denying it." Spike blinked. Blinked again. Blue eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped as he listened to what Oz was saying. Then teeth snapped shut and he sneered.
"Yeah, right. I can see it now. Me 'n' Harris going out patrolling hand in hand behind the witches, with the Slayer dragging Captain Cardboard along for the ride. She'd stake me in a second if she thought I'd even considered laying a hand on one of her merry little band. Very funny, Wolfling. Got any better jokes?"
Oz sighed and reached for his pants.
"Just... Just promise me you'll think about it, yeah? Xander needs someone to love, someone to love him. He deserves someone who'll look out for him without making him feel useless or inept. He's a good kisser too. Even better than you."
~ ! ~
"So you're leaving. Soon?" Xander ran his fingers through the blue-tipped hair that sprouted in strange angles from the head nestled in his lap. Oz sighed and nodded, rocking his head against the solid muscled thigh supporting it.
"I have to. It's a chance at..."
"Yeah." Another nod. "Maybe I'll get there and they'll chase me off, but maybe they'll let me stay and help them learn. The van's fixed, I've got enough herbs to last me until I've found a source in the mountains, or wherever I end up, and I've got friends who wish me well on my journey. I'm leaving Saturday night. Come see me off?"
Xander's fingers tangled in Oz's hair and he nodded slowly.
"Would you... I mean... Could we... Just this once, maybe..."
Oz sat up and squirmed around to face his friend, fingers lacing together.
"Xander, I know you were hoping I'd..." He stopped. Swallowed. Tried again. "I don't know that I trust my control enough for that, Xander. I know you've never..." Shrug. Pained expression. "I know you wanted me to... And if I thought there was no risk of me wolfing out, I would've, weeks ago, I swear. And that's another reason I'm going. I don't want to find out I can't control the wolf when it's too late and I'm inside you. It's too much to risk, so I need to get away and try to..."
"What about with Spike?"
The question gave Oz pause. They'd never spoken of the fact that he was spending time with Spike, and Oz had assumed that Xander thought they were just friends.
"The memories weren't the only thing the hyena left behind. I told you that already, I think." Xander frowned and touched his free hand to his temple. "I know about the 'pack' thing too, and my sense of smell gets pretty scary sometimes. I'm never going near the Doublemeat Dumpster again, I know that much." He sighed.
"I can smell him, sometimes. In the van. In your hair. Smoke and leather and hair gel mixed with copper. Not too hard to figure out." He shook his head when Oz went to speak. "I don't need apologies, or explanations. Well, okay, yeah, I suppose I would like one explanation, 'cause I asked, didn't I? So, do you? Wolf out, when you're with Spike?"
Xander looked more curious than hurt and that allowed Oz to answer as honestly as he could.
"We don't make love, Xander. We fuck and we fight, often at the same time. The wolf's always there for that, to a degree. I'm still mostly in control, but I have a bit of that 'body hair problem' going on too. We bite and claw and... I've never tried to stop it happening when I'm with Spike. I'm not sure I could, or if he'd want me if I did. It was just a chance to let out the anger and the rage and, yeah, the fear too. And we needed it, the both of us. It helped us heal."
"What about me?"
The question was so quiet Oz would have missed it if he hadn't been listening hard.
"Xan... Xander. Spike said you have a heart the size of Texas, and he's right. You let me in. Even knowing I wouldn't, couldn't stay, you let me in and let me know you cared. Do you have any idea how many times I woke up in the dark, still chased by nightmares, and you'd pull me down and hold me tight so I could hardly breathe? You kept me sane, and if there was any way I could stay here then I would."
"But you have to go."
Oz reached up and planted a gentle kiss on Xander's pout.
"Saturday night. Promise you'll come and see me off."
Xander promised, and then pulled Oz into a rib-creaking hug.
"Spike said I had a heart the size of Texas?!"
"Yeah. We talked. He likes you. Droopy Boy."
~ ! ~
The van was, for once, sitting right out front, under the solitary street lamp that graced the lot. Xander pulled in next to it and sat a moment, trying to decide just how he wanted to say goodbye. He couldn't find the words and knew that, even if he did, they'd disappear as soon as he tried to say his piece. Maybe the gift he'd brought would be enough to say what he could not.
Lifting the guitar case carefully out of the back seat, Xander rapped a swift tattoo on the side of the van then trotted round to the rear doors, which opened as he approached to show that Spike had somehow gotten there before him, though they'd left the research meeting at about the same time.
"Harris. Come on in."
Spike backed up, but not enough, so Xander was forced to brush against him as he climbed into the van.
"Hi, Oz. Got you a present. Didn't really see the point in wrapping it, there's no way I could pretend it was something else." He handed over the battered case. "It's not as fancy as the one you used to have, but it'll do the job. I got you spare strings too; they're in the corner there. I..." Xander took a breath. "Okay, I'm done babbling now. Someone else want to speak?"
Oz flipped open the lid of the case and stroked the scuffed guitar that lay inside.
"I was gonna polish it up but I wasn't sure if that would hurt it so..."
"Thank you. It looks perfect as it is." He drew a lightly trembling finger across the strings and let the notes calm him. "It's great, Xander. I've missed being able to play. Thanks."
Oz leaned forward and kissed him, ignoring the startled squeak and the furtive glance towards an avidly watching Spike.
"Well, I guess it's time I left."
Hugs and manly handshakes were exchanged and then Oz slid up behind the wheel and pulled away, leaving Spike and Xander standing in the parking lot, underneath the lamp.
"I never got a kiss for my gift."
Xander glanced sideways at the pouting vampire, trying not to sigh at the way the overhead light cast dramatic shadows beneath his razor edged cheekbones.
"What did you give him?"
"Made him a promise, didn't I? Bloody hell, I need a drink."
"A promise? What promise?"
Spike turned on his heel and stalked off towards the club. Xander watched him go, then sighed and shrugged, and began fishing in his pocket for the car keys.
"Oi, Harris! You comin' for that drink or what?"
The keys hit the concrete with a jangle as Xander jumped and twisted round.
Spike was standing, halfway to the club, arms folded across his chest, one hip cocked, a look of controlled impatience on his face.
"Well, shift your arse! It's not like you've never been inside this place before, now is it? So are you gonna sit and drink with me or not?"
Xander snatched the keys up and was jogging across the tarmac before the final words had fallen from his lips.
Looking out along the street in the direction Oz had driven off, Spike muttered something only he could hear.
"You'll owe me, Wolfling, if this whole thing goes to hell."