Oz has a sudden craving for raw meat that he'll be years finding the source of.

His mother gives him a long look.  He forgot the beauty of her.  Edging like a soft-coated animal into middle-age, but still ginger-gold, and something about her eyes.  There's a whole life of his parents that he knows nothing about.

"Is this a conversation that ends with you telling us you're gay?"

"I wasn't planning on it.  More like, 'I'm home.'" And, maybe, I missed you.

Nate slides a hand along his back, almost absently.  Rubs along his spine under his t-shirt, just above his jeans' waist.

His mother comes over and crouches in front of him.  Runs her fingertips along his cheekbones.  Oz is surprised by how sore they are.  Gets a quick flash of himself in the picture window's glass, still marked with echoes of the bruises the Initiative gave him. Has a moment to wonder precisely what impression he's left on Nate's family. 

She asks, "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I am, actually."

"How bad was it?"  Steady gold of his father's eyes.  Window's peak catching the light, more silver than gold now.  A lot of lines at the edges of his features.  His tie's off and laid over the back of a chair.

"Bad enough.  I...  Nate helped me.  Got me out."

Nate nods.  In this particular moment, he looks like any of the friends Oz brought home while he actually lived here.  The angry-musician kind of ordinary.

Oz's father comes over.  Momentary radiance of alpha-wolf while he looks Nate over.  Then just offers him a hand.  Folds it over Nate's like a special emphasis of his own size.  "Thank you."

"Are you home for a while?"

"I don't know yet.  Do you mind if we...?"

"Your bed's still there.  I'll bring down an air mattress and some blankets for Nate.  Unless he'd rather sleep on the couch?"

There's a long pause in which Nate doesn't quite look at them, and slides infinitesimally closer to Oz.  "Couch is fine.  Thanks."

And curls up and buries his face in Oz's neck as soon as his parents give them both nods and wander away into the kitchen.  Sitting behind so that Oz can't hug him back.

Just quiet for a couple of minutes before Nate sends, *I was sort of hoping to sleep with you.*

Oz twists around.  Lays him against the squishy back of the couch and kisses him for a long time.  *You're going to.  Just take the blankets.  Mom *knows* that.*

*You're sure?*

And yes, he is. He's just had A Major Adult Moment of seeing his parents as human beings beyond the traditional mom-and-dad meld, but they're still his parents. But hard to explain beyond his general feeling of contentment.

*I forgot to pretend.*


*Around you. I mean, I forgot to play it straight.*

*It's not a problem.*

*But your Mom said...*

*She's been waiting for me to come out to her since around puberty. I think she has a speech prepared for it.*


*It's kind of... well, I guess your family and friends do a lot of fighting, right?*

*Yeah. Did Jean tell you about it?*

*Nah, we didn't get to that. Everyone was just really, really developed. And then Cable had all those weapons.*

*Everybody thinks he's trying to compensate for something. Well, all right, *I* think he's trying to compensate for something.*

*But isn't he your... you?*

*You'd think I could grow a *little* taller...*

"Are you fellas alright out there?"

"Oh, we're fine, Dad. Nate's a telepath."

His mother peeks around the corner, hair flying in a way that suggests she was lying in wait just behind the dividing wall. "Oh, Oz, I'm so happy for you!" Oz thinks he maybe should've brought Willow over more often, just to get his parents accustomed to things. 

Or maybe it wouldn't have helped.

"Thanks, Mom." Turns back to Nate, who appears to be in full culture shock. 

*Your parents are... really nice.*

*Thanks. So's Jean.*

*Different universe.*

*Still nice.*


*So, it's like how your family just kinda dealt with me being a werewolf. This is the Hellmouth. There are other things to worry about. Just, you know. We can maybe introduce them to your ridiculous number of powers, like, one at a time.*

*I can do that.*

*Cool. Feel like hanging out with the 'rents some more, or do you want to meet my friends, kill the Sunnydale night life?*

*Seriously?  I want to drag you downstairs and christen your basement, but I think it might be rude.*  He scoots away from Oz and sits on the opposite end of the couch, looks at him curiously.  *Meet your friends, I guess."

So.  Outside.  Down the street, and Nate seems amazed at the sheer suburbanness of the place.  Miles of grass and identical houses that somehow shift from dumpy-and-identical like his to palacial-postmodern-pink-and-identical, where he can vaguely remember Cordelia living.  A flash of Angel chained by his wrists and the prickly, protective demon who prowled after him like a spirit-protector.  Cordelia as a harder, sharper being in the dark of Angel's offices.

By the time he's finished thinking about that, he's standing in front of the Bronze again.  Glances over at Nate, then down at himself.  There's still glitter on his knees.

And softly behind him, "Oz?"

Which he wasn't ready for.  He thought she might be on campus tonight -- he isn't sure if it's a Friday, but it feels like one.  Not ready for the way every cell of his body still responds to her voice.  The soft edges of her body the last time he saw her.  In her room, the one that mixed her smell and Buffy's, on her bed, half-wrapped in one of the afghans she refused to give up.  Remembering the feel of her breasts in his hands, the first time she'd peeled her shirt off for him.  Little shivers of her body and her laughter as he traced the undersides with his fingertips.

Prickle of her flesh whenever he growled.

Tangled up in her before he has time to sort out some suitable I'm-back-did-you-miss-me.  Too-thin arms around his neck, mouth against the side of his face.  Soft breasts against his chest, tiny and very present under her shirt, making him vividly aware of what she is and isn't wearing.

He couldn't not accept this.  Wraps his arms around her and lets the smell of her wash over him.  Crackle of new energy around her in the air.


He still gets flashes of her.  The way he imagines she'll be when she's twenty-eight, thirty-five, fifty.  Harder and brighter and more powerful, and he's always going to love her.  Always.


"God, Willow."

Taste of her, smell of her, this was his *mate*.  All of his pack instincts wrapped up in this one, tiny body.  Possessive and adoring.

Except that's what buried him, wasn't it?  That possessiveness.  His Willow.  His rage at the sudden revelation that she *wasn't* his Willow, not his alone forever.  A real and genuine person who managed a life beyond him.

Has to cling to her one more minute before he can step back.  Something like respect for the vivid femaleness over her shoulder, wide-shouldered and big-eyed and miserably hugging herself.  For Nate behind him, nearly hidden by the shadows he's stepped backwards into.

Well, that was probably exactly the wrong way to react to his ex-girlfriend in front of his new boyfriend. 

*Nate --*

*Boyfriend? Does this mean we can double date?* A parody of smirking humor, brittle underneath. 

*I'm sorry.*



*They say you never stop loving someone...* And Nate steps out of the shadows, stands close again.

"Hey, I wanted you both to meet Nate." Slips an arm around his waist, and has no idea who he's trying to reassure. Nate feels good against him, though, and immediately returns the gesture. 

Willow and Tara blink at them for a few long seconds before Tara breaks into a wide, brilliant smile of relief and puts out her hand. "It's nice to meet you."

The sound of her voice snaps Willow to attention and she smiles at Nate, as well, which seems to be the 'Okay, everything is normal now, let's move along' signal they've all been waiting for. 

"H-hey, we were just heading over to the magic shop. Wanna come with?"

"Yeah, I know Xander would love to see you. He's been complaining about the shortage of y chromosomes around under the age of forty, lately." Willow's smile doesn't have a trace of shadow.

He knows that smile, and it's still a little hard to accept that it has nothing to do with him, but it's still one of his favorite things to see. "Yeah, I wanted to give Nate the full Scooby experience, anyway."


*Pop culture.*


He's surprised how normal this feels.  Walking through the Sunnydale night, breathing mown-grass fumes and the ozone-y smell of habitual black magic.  Watching the woman he thought would be the love of his life walk with her fingers laced through her girlfriend's, while the minor deity he's sleeping with pads quietly along beside him.

Thinking that if he'd met Nate in high school, they wouldn't have been friends.  Something about Nate's startling charisma and the grace he walks with.  Like someone should give him some kind of small jewelry and send him out to seduce everyone in a hundred-mile radius.  Sweet-natured school slut.

*I heard that.*

He's surprised that Nate heard anything.  His eyes are moving like fire, scraping over everything, looking for details that Oz suspects he wouldn't be able to see with his own eyes.  Fascinated by the magic of the Hellmouth.

Like some wonderful/awful horror movie effect, watching his head swivel around to stare at the magic shop.  Big aura, maybe.  Little answering crackle from Willow's eyes, and *that* gets Nate's attention.  Enough that he pads over, all loose-limbed boy in the flat-walk of his sandals, touches her shoulder, then her face.  Cocks his head at her a bit.

"You're very powerful."

"Um, OK."

Flash of his eyes over to Tara.  "You're lucky.  She's quite something."

Tara gives him a strange look.

*Nate, I don't care whether you play it straight or not, but how about trying to hold down the cryptic-shaman thing to a minimum?*

Nate shakes himself.  Backs off and shoves his hands into his pockets like he doesn't trust them.


"No, it's cool, it's just..."

Tara says, "What are you?"

Nate looks over at her.  "I'm a guardian."  Brings his eyebrows together when she cocks her head.  "It's like.  Damn.  Trying to explain this without sounding unbelievably freakish.  My family's sort of in charge of making sure that the universe continues to exist.  In some versions of the universe, we're warriors.  In some versions we're mystics.  I got knocked loose from mine, so I'm some of both.  Mostly mystic.  But, like, I take care of people.  Protect the ones who don't deserve to suffer.  Punish the bad ones."

And Oz thinks he was doing OK right up to that last part.  Something about the flat look in his eyes.  And he knows, intellectually, that Nate must do things like that.  Oddly flat memory of being curled in the corner of his cell and watching the doors of each other cell open.  Watched demons get out, and take bloody vengeance on everything human within reach.  Too agonized to distinguish the ones they hated, though Oz was sure that some of them were intelligent enough to tell the difference.

Remembers it in that vague kind of way he settled into once he decided that maybe he didn't care anymore.  Only vaguely aware of the arms around his shoulders and Nate's voice in his ear, almost crooning to him, trying to pick him up.  Too slender and he still managed it, and something about watching that *particular* tazer-wielding grunt getting disemboweled outside the glass wall was *exactly* what he needed to see.

Nate in his ear, whispering, "We're not going out that way.  I don't think I could protect you."

Nate now, bent over him from behind and kissing his ear while everyone stares at him.  Oz glances up into mirrors of concerned grey.  "Hey.  You kinda faded there for a second."

Oz nods.  Doesn't quite flinch when Tara steps into his personal space.  Reaches out one earth-mother hand and rubs her thumb along the still-tender place on his cheekbone.

"Did they suffer for this?"

"As much as they deserved to."

There's a protective crackle of energy off the tips of Nate's fingers where they touch Oz's back.  Glitter from his eye and the palms of his hands.  Very close behind him when they walk in, and there's a flare of something just at the edges of his vision.

Anya stares at them from behind the counter.  "Will the person who just set off all my nice new wards please raise his or her hand?"

This is, somehow, a natural extension of Giles' life as a librarian.  He's only added artifacts to books, and somehow he's able to sell people the same things that he couldn't give away when they were kids.  This knowledge of the second, underlying world.

He remembers sleeping in the midst of that knowledge.  Waking caged and naked in the library with Giles or Willow or Xander watching him.  So many nights spent that way that eventually he forgot the humiliation of it, just watched them back until they decided to answer him.  Every wolfen sense wired into the smell of the books and Giles' aftershave.


Huge arms swing around him from behind and Xander lifts him off the ground.  Hugs him tight around the waist for a minute, and Oz is trying to be good-natured about it but also wondering if he'll ever breathe again.

"Xander, if you kill him, I'll have to whore myself to Giles to bail you out 
of prison."

Xander drops him and spends a minute or so trying to decide whether he just heard Anya say that.  Something about the dead-earnestness of her tone.  Oz gives her a slightly breathless nod, acknowledging a deadpan power to be reckoned with.  Staggers and finds himself braced by Nate's hands on his stomach.  Manages to straighten and leans back while Nate looks around with curious shamelessness.

*Interesting friends you've got.  You know she used to be a demon?*

*Yeah, she was pretty clear about that.*

*She's scary.*

*Coming from you, I think she'd take that as a compliment.*

*Your friend loves her.*

*Has he told her yet?*

Pause of Nate's concentration, and Oz isn't sure whether or not to feel 
guilty for this particular intrusion.  But he wants to know.

*Yes, he has.  God, that's a brave man.*

"Um, Oz.  Who's your friend?"

"What?"  Too much mental conversation.  He's losing what few verbal skills he ever had.

"The mysterious jailbait boy holding you up.  Who is he?"

*Your friends are scarier than your family, Oz.*

*Welcome to life as a Scooby.*

*I really don't get that.*

Oz sends an image of both of them tangled up together in the basement, eating breakfast cereal and watching cartoons on the old wooden-case TV.  Some kind of a promise of enlightenment, and maybe sex.  Throws in a shot of Velma the proto-lesbian overlaid with Willow, and the Scooby-Doo-and-Shaggy combo overlaid with Xander.

Who's still looking at him, concern rapidly outpacing curiosity. "This is Nate. He got me out of a bad situation. Can we maybe wait on more until everyone is around? It's kind of a long story."

Another long look and a nod to Nate, and then Xander puts on his clown face. "Sure, pull up a chair. We can be dangerously mysterious with each other until the Buffster checks in."

"Oooh, I *like* roleplaying games!" Anya announces. "Xander's Viking Warrior is particularly impressive, especially since he smells so much better than the real Vikings did."

Xander shakes himself and leads them back to the table, where Willow and Tara are already buried in massive, odd-smelling spell books. "That's me, Nate, King of Personal Hygiene and Too Much Information. So, where are you from?"

"The Age of Apocalypse."

"Any particular Apocalypse, or just a general one?"

*This is fun, Oz.*

*You're really pretty cute.*

*I know.*

"Just one Apocalypse. Kind of a great big grey guy with powers."

Xander nods slowly. "Sound familiar, An?"

"Well, it really is a popular name among demons."

"Oh, he isn't a demon. Just kind of a big immortal guy."

"He give you any trouble?"

"He blew me to Switzerland."

"Ouch."  Xander reaches out and pats him half-awkwardly on the shoulder. 
Nate cocks his head at him for a moment, then smiles and nods.

Oz sits down on a bookshelf and watches them.  Not enough chairs for everybody, not anymore, and he wants to watch Nate while he's distracted.  Still in performance, maybe, but not for him.  Sitting on one of the chairs cowboy-style, with his arms folded across the back and his head on top of them, watching Willow and Tara with a kind of sideways curiosity.

*You love her, Oz?*

He thinks about that.

*Yeah.  But it's tangled up in some stuff about me that I don't like very 


One of those pauses that lead to regrettable statements follows.

"I have this sudden and uncontrollable urge to break out the Dungeons and Dragons set," Xander says, finally.


"I left my alternate reality without my thirty-two sided dice, sorry."

*I love you.*

Which entirely unexpectedly causes Nate to swivel around in his chair like 
he's either misplaced his legs or the chair back.  He stares at Oz.


"Ooooh.  Who's the new friend?"  Buffy drops her armload of weapons onto the floor and sits on the counter.  Very pale bare legs underneath her leather capri pants.  Oz wonders vaguely how she never manages to tan in spite of the amount of flesh she shows most of the time.  Remembers Faith's smoky darkness as somehow more expected for a woman who carves up the undead.

"You don't know he's a friend.  He could be the human sacrifice part of a spell to teach white guys to dance."

"No way.  You'd have him tied up.  I've seen you dance, Xander."  She kisses at him.

"You're in a good mood."


"Any particular reason?"

"No, just feeling fuzzy.  We killed vampires.  They broke Spike's nose."  Grins at them and refocuses.  "Oh, hey!  Oz!"  She jumps down and gets halfway to him before stopping.  Looks at Willow.  "Are we still mad at Oz?"

"No, we've decided to be happy and relieved that he's alright."

She scoots the rest of the way over and crouches in front of him.  "You're alright?"

"I'm good, yeah."  Leans forward into the hug she's offering.  Acid-edged smell of Slayer on her, underneath her perfume, edging out the smell of her body.  Something in him that always flinches away from it, just a little. 
Hugs her anyway.  Over her shoulder, Nate's still watching him.

"Don't mind me.  I'll just sit here and bleed."  Swirl of black leather and Britishness.  Spike slides his back down the wall and sits, holding a crumpled piece of something frabric-y and disturbing to his face and glares 
at the lot of them.

*He's thinking of killing all of you, you know. It's pretty graphic. Tell me why I'm not ripping him into his component parts right now?*

*You know, that's a really good question. Hang on.*

"Hey, Buffy, why are we not staking Spike?"

"Oh, the Initiative neutered him. He helps us for blood and the opportunity to beat up other demons."

Anya beams. "Yes. He's really something of a quisling." 

"Oooh, big words from someone who can't even castrate a bloke anymore."

Assorted glaring and a somewhat sickly look from Xander. Oz decides to break in. "This is Nate. He rescued me when the Initiative captured me again outside of Reno."

Immediate rush of sound, Spike cursing, Willow and Tara turning to coo at him, Xander demanding they find Riley *now*, and Oz feels a little battered by it all. Life had been pretty silent, if not calm, and now everything is -- buries the sound to white noise. Nate is grimly still, obvious processing everyone's thoughts. 

No strain so much as a sudden wall of control, all around, save for a tiny connection to Oz.

*Hey, do we need to get you out of here, Nate?*

*No, I got it, but... shit. She *dated* one of them?*

*Riley saved my life.*

*Xander's remembering him having to be convinced. Xander thinks Riley might know about the Nevada institution --* "Where's Riley." Nate's voice hard, not a question.

*Hey, he changed sides, OK? We don't know --*

*You don't trust him, either.*

*We still don't *know* anything --*

"Riley has *nothing* to do with this." And Buffy's got her slay-face on, firmly directed at Nate, which brings out peacekeeper Xander in full force.

"He might know something, Buff."

She spins on Xander. "He wouldn't --"

"He *did*." And Nate's command voice sounds a lot like --

*Don't say it, Oz. Just don't.*

"And what, exactly, do you know about it?"

"Nate's a telepath. Among other things."

Instant blushes around the table, but Buffy just half-falls into a chair. "How do you stand it?"

Nate searches her face for a long moment. "You get used to it." Tosses a grin back to Oz. "Make very calm friends."

"Oz, man, this can't be helping you with that verbal thing." Xander grinning at him.

"It's pretty soothing, actually."

"That's what I'm worried about.  If you get any calmer, you might pass out." 

A barely-there crackle runs across Oz's nerves, just a vague sense of Nate hearing something.  And Xander jumps.  Turns to stare at Nate out of very 
wide eyes.  This, apparently, is what a silent conversation looks like from the outside, and Oz makes a mental note to watch his face during these exchanges in the future.  Adrenaline surge in him that's almost purely instinctive, pheromones and hostility, and he's halfway onto his feet by the time he can formulate a mental call.



*_Nate._*  Nate turns to look at him.  *C'mere.*

Holds out his arms and finds Nate almost instantly dropped into them. Sitting between his knees, actually *shaking* with rage.  This is important, do *not* let him get angry with Xander, whose mouth is just that much faster than his brain, and who hasn't yet registered that this is a dangerous 
being. Whatever it is that he's said or thought.

*He doesn't understand --*

*We can fix that without pain. He's good. Trust me.*

Oz pulls Nate in against him.  Hugs him around his neck and lays his cheek against the top of Nate's head.  Concentrates on thinking *actual* calm thoughts, make a wall between Nate and all the rage in the room.

*I'm okay.  I don't need to be protected from Xander.  He's a friend.*

*I know.  It's just--*

*High stress.  Yeah.  Do you meditate?*

*Sometimes.  Cable and Jean keep trying to teach me.  Forge taught me some stuff.*

*Work on that for a minute.  Do you need something to focus on?*

*Keep your fingers in my hair?*

*Sure.  Easy.*

Oz straightens and pulls Nate's head back a bit, starts finger-combing his hair, absently.  Xander's eyes are showing white all the way around.

"Sorry.  I think you guys were kinda loud."

Buffy says, "What just happened?"

"I think Nate kinda flipped at Xander."

"He's really charming, you know that?  He's never even *met* Riley --"

"Buffy.  Calm."  Silence.  "Nate's telepathic.  And it's been a really 
intense day."

Soft hair in his fingers.  Nate arches very slightly into the touch.

"How old is he?"  Tara, steady-grey and very obviously centering herself.

"I don't know.  Not exactly.  Maybe eighteen?"  It sounds a lot different when he says it out loud.  It's how old he was three years ago.  When his high school was still standing.  Before college.  Before Tibet and Nevada. Eighteen doesn't match the layers of scarring and trauma that Nate carries 
all over him.

"Are you guys.  You know." That look on Buffy's face that screams I'm-pretending-to-be-very-very-calm-and-I-can-kick-your-ass-anyway.


Very soft, very warm boy.

"How long?" Buffy asks.

He has to think about it.  "A couple of days."  It seems longer.  Time stretched out of all proportion.

"Oz, I hate to ask you this, but did you see anyone in the facility you were in that you recognized?"

Giles.  In a sweater and jeans, which even after a year of Giles-the-man-on-the-couch is unnerving.  Something about his posture that said tweed would protect you from all forms of debauchery. No such safety now.

Oz thinks about the question for a second.  Feels his stomach start to lurch and reels back from it.

Nate's in his mind.  Just *there*, instantly, wide-awake and paying 

*Easy.  Jean's walls won't hold if you push at them.*

*What's in there?*

*Most of what you remember about Nevada.  The worst stuff.  Just to keep you from cracking until I can come up with something better.*

*And if I ask you to take them down?*

*You're going to end up in a corner, screaming at anybody who comes near 

*Is that a guess?*

*No.  It's how you were for the first three hours, before I put the wall 

"Just a blank, Giles.  Sorry.  If Nate helps me..."

"Can you trust him?"

"I trust him."

Without opening his eyes, Nate says, "I don't think we should.  Go there now, I mean."


"Buffy, hush a moment, please.  Nate, *can* it be done without hurting him?"


*He wants to know if a certain... person was there. He's worried about what will happen with that person being free. He's worried about the person. I didn't pay attention to anyone but you, really, so I can't answer him.*

*You turned everything *loose*.*

*I wasn't thinking about it.  Just doing.  You were more important.*

Nate rolls his head to the side and lays it on Oz's thigh.  Opens his eyes and looks up at him.  Then looks over at Giles.

"How important is it?"

"If he were loose... he has nothing like remorse regarding the damage he does."

Long look and flash of something between them, and Nate nods.

*You brave for this, Oz?*

*You said bad.*

*Pretty bad, yeah.  I was thinking... we're not taking the walls *down*.  I want to go through them.*

*Will I know you're there?*

*I think so.  I'll need you, to interpret what I'm seeing.  But it's gonna feel pretty numb.*

Oz bends over, tilts Nate's head back, and looks at him for a while.  Baby-lines of his face and the fractured intensity of him.  The damage in his own head.  How it's already taken him down once.  And whether he wants to do this in front of an audience.

Holds the look until Xander coughs uncomfortably.  Straightens and stares at Giles for a bit instead.  Waiting for him to crack or look away or take back the request or.  Something.  For him to realize exactly what he's asking for.

Except that he doesn't.  Just stands there and prickles back in that vaguely disturbing alpha way that doesn't go with his glasses or the accent or the self-effacement or any of the other Giles-knowledge he has.  And finally Oz nods at him.

"There still a couch in the back?"


"Mind if we...?"

Buffy pulls her knees up in front of her in the chair.  Which should seem defensive, but instead looks like she might be coiling to jump.  "You can't do it here?"

"I don't really want to do this for an audience."

He lets Nate get up first, and takes the hand that's offered.  Vague stiffness in his back.  From the fall onto his lawn, but he's starting to understand it's from other stuff, too.  Whatever healing Nate gave him, it wasn't total.  Makes him think hard about what kind of shape he was in before.

He walks.  Lets Nate trail after him, hears Giles walking soft-footed behind.  Stops at the door and lets Giles unlock it.  Nate ducks under Giles' arm, but it drops when Oz tries to follow.

"I'm sorry I had to ask."

"Yeah. Well."  Too close.  Giles is *big*, and no one ever seems to notice. Oz snaps down as fast as he can and steps through the door and out of that body-cage.  "Keep it in mind, OK?"

Giles shuts the door.

It's a pretty large space, larger now that they've cleared all the boxes away. Mats and training stuff for Buffy, and yes, the old, random couch. Oz sits down and takes a breath. Looks within and can almost see the walls, and then *can* see them as they become more and more real. Not so different from some of the things he's tried to cage the wolf, though these look a lot sturdier.

More sure of themselves somehow.

*You get practice and making things like that when you're a telepath.*

Oz nods internally, looks around. There's a feeling to the whole place now, 
he's realizing. Beyond Slayer-sweat and magic and the everpresent evil. A feeling not so much of age as of being.  Old. Oz doesn't like it here, though he supposes it could just be because he's scared out of his *mind*.

*I'm here. I'm not going to lose you in there. Just relax. I don't like your friends.*

*Nate --*

*I know, I know. Saving the world. Sacrifices. Blah fucking blah. Are you ready?*


"I'm going in. Don't let anyone in here."

Giles nods, but doesn't take his eyes off Oz. Sad eyes that just make Oz want --

*Shh, shh, don't shift, I need all of you.*

Oz holds himself steady, waits for pain and noise and whatever else is behind those walls, but instead the link just. Opens. Wide and oddly blooming sensation, and Nate's suddenly much more *there* than he'd been before. Impossible to move his attention away from him and Oz feels.  Swallowed.

*Other way around, trust me.*


*Okay. What I'm going to do is walk through that wall, look at stuff, send it back to you, you tell Giles.*

*Wouldn't it help if I knew who we were looking for?*

*You'd just look for him yourself. You wouldn't be able to stop yourself.*


*Yeah. It's gonna be okay. You're just going to go into kind of a trance state.*



White. White.


He wakes up with the taste of bad dreams and bile, head pillowed on Nate's thigh. He can smell dried blood, and his mouth is swollen, bitten. Moves to sit up, but Nate's holding him down.

*Was he... what happened?*

*You slipped out of the trance for a while. Nobody is hurt, OK?*


*It's yours. You. You tried. You're okay now. The walls are up.*

*Did you find out about... whoever?*

And asking that question... shouldn't he be able to figure out who it is on his own? They don't really have many enemies that are still around to worry about. Not old ones, anyway. But he can *feel* the wall in his mind now, cool and smooth. Almost like he'd be able to feel it if he touched his head.

Messing with his head.

Apparently, for his own good.

*How's Giles?*

*He went back to talk to the others.*

*Nate, how is he?*

*God, you're like a little kid with a scab.*

*That's pretty disgusting. How is he? Is it Avengers Assemble time?*

*No, it isn't. And Giles is very sad, OK? Can we leave it there?*

*I guess we probably should. I have to say this doesn't seem like the healthy way of dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome.*

*Healthy is for wussies.*

*And we're real men."


*Manly, chest-hair-producing men.*

*I think I have four now.*

Oz sends Nate the memory of the walking pelt he'd met at the mansion.

*Walking pelt?! bwahahahahhaaa... I'm gonna tell Wolverine you said that.*

*It's not much worse than 'Wolverine'.*

*It's appropriate.  You know what they say about never letting go?*


*He's been after Jean for more years than I've been alive.  She semi-regularly tells him to fuck off, but I don't think she means it.  Not really.*

*You mean she--*

"Naw.  But it's not every day you get somebody who loves you unconditionally.*

*Your father?*

*I don't think Wolverine's his type.*

Nate sends him a fairly trauma-inducing image of a Wolverine in the shower.  And then another man, tall and athletic the way gymnasts are athletic, who looks hauntingly like Nate.  Same cheekbones.  Same messy hair.

*What colour are his eyes?*

*No one remembers, but Jean's are green and both Cable's and mine are blue.*

And he's calmer.  The labyrinthine complexity of Nate's family's a kind of meditational puzzle, and by the time most of the pieces are in place, his mind's a steady blank.  Nate keeps stroking his hair, and when Oz tries to sit up this time, he can.  Nate hands him a glass of water.  One sip's enough to make him aware of the blood in his mouth, and he uses the rest to rinse and spit back into the cup.

Warm fingers on the back of his neck.

*You ready to go?*

*Yeah.  I think so.*  He doesn't have any strength in his knees, but Nate's willing to support him.  One arm and a whisper of telekinetic touch.  Just once wraps himself completely around Oz in the hall and kisses him. Bloody from Oz's split lip.

Someone sniffs, a few feet away.

"You've got a mind like a sewer," Nate says.

"M'only smelling."  Spike.  Loose body in a swirl of black leather that Oz very secretly covets.

"You sat there for an hour and thought about carving internal organs out of people.  There isn't a hell deep enough to send something like you."

Long stare.  Ice blue against grey with Oz almost hidden between them, exhausted and not so much leaning as clinging.  Feels like someone worked him over with a long, long


Swirling silence.

Nate shifts him suddenly.  Gently, letting him catch the wall, and walks over to Spike.  Takes his head in both hands.  Oz can just barely watch by 
looking over his arm.

For a minute he's sure there's going to be one less vamp in the world.

Except that Nate rubs across Spike's cheekbones and says, "Wow."  Bends forward and kisses Spike very gently on the mouth.  And then steps back.  "Why her?"

"No fucking clue."  Spike pushes past, sending Nate staggering back into Oz. 

Spike bends forward and clutches his head for a minute before walking on. "Bugger off, junior.  Take the mongrel home and fuck 'im or something."

Nate leers at him. *Well, he's an asshole, but he's got a point.*

*Kiss me.*

And Oz was expecting something soft and gentle, but it's slow and hard instead, Nate's fingers in his hair and Nate's mind wide open, shockingly naked feel of it becoming something like familiar. So seductive to just be held here and kissed, loved blatantly and with desperation. Oz slips his arms around Nate's waist and leaves himself open for it.

That sleepy kind of arousal, where he thinks he could happily fuck Nate again while also taking a nap.

*yeah, *that's* flattering*

Sucks idly on the tongue in his mouth. *it's because I'm so smooth*

And Nate is laughing silently, pulling Oz closer against his chest. *I wanna 
keep you*

*mmm. not many kept boy werewolves out there*

*we can start a fashion*

*no choke chains*


Walk back out into the store proper, and only Xander and Anya are still there, obviously closing up for the night. Xander looks like he wants to hit 
something, Anya as though joy and enlightenment are in her hands with the day's take.

*He's thinking very loudly at me.*


*Take care of you. Don't hurt you or else. I don't hate your friends.*


"How's Giles?"

"In severe need of someone over the age of 30 to talk to, but then, what else is new?"

"Yeah. Do you guys need any help?"

"Nah, we're almost done here. Anya just likes having her special time with 
the money."

"Capitalism is beautiful!"

Xander shakes his head, smiling. "Yes, Anya. We can kill a few Commies before bed, if you want."


"Just you wait, Miss America. I got plans for you."

"Hot, sweaty, sticky plans?"

"The stickiest. We're gonna make a stand for heterosexuality tonight." Grinning at Oz.

"Yay! But not procreation, right?"

"Definitely not procreation."

Oz leans into Nate's shoulder. "I think that's our cue to motor."

"You're welcome to stay and demonstrate homosexual acts --"


"Right. Private thoughts. I've got it. Remember to make time for lube!"

Something warm at the way Xander's ears are always the first thing to go red. "We will, Anya. Later."

"Yeah, nice meeting you, Nate."

*He's thinking at me again.*

*Nod seriously and walk out the door with me before Anya starts offering suggestions.*

*I'm frightened, and yet also aroused. Foursome?*


*I'm coming, I'm coming.*

There's this particular kind of Sunnydale night outside.  Transparent blue, almost warm in spite of the winter, very dry.  Only the constant lawn-mowing separates them from the desert.  Big New England-simulating trees and more graceful Californian ones.  Occasional moss strands.

Nate's looking all around.  Something about his sex-drive kicking in that makes him hyper-aware, makes him pay attention to *everything*, which is 
almost certainly more detail than Oz can even imagine.  Oz is getting the strength in his legs back, and his mouth doesn't taste horrible anymore, and he's thinking vaguely about going home.  Sex in his old bedroom. Late-night TV.  Early morning TV.  Midnight raiding on the kitchen. Exploration with Nate of the possibilities inherent in his old, well-loved armchair.

Other people around them.  Friday-night people drifting home, or off to the next party.  Somewhere, miles away, the dorm parties on campus are just getting intense.  He wants to dance.

Nate slides forward.  Two steps to the side, one foot sliding behind the other.  Brush of air against Oz's ankle that Nate somehow feels too, against all probability.  Nate holds out a hand.

Oz takes it.  Lets himself be swung around backwards, slides into a couple 
of dance steps.  Dancing backwards no less.

*You could at least let me lead.*

*No way.  You look good as the girl.*

Oz kicks him in the knee.  Nate falls down and sits on the curb, clutching his injured joint and looking mortally offended.


"You're the product of generations of superheroes, you say?"

"I left my cape with my other body."  He rubs his leg gingerly.  Oz offers him a hand.  Nate glares at him and gets up on his own.  Staggers 
melodramatically and half-collapses onto Oz, who pushes him upright and 
sends him along down the street.

Strange, strange romanticism of it.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meets Early Childhood Mating Ritual.  Quip and get bopped on the head.

Oz has to run to catch up.  He's pretty sure that Nate's feet aren't touching the ground.

Gets caught by surprise by Nate, who stops dead, grabs him around the waist from behind as he jogs past, and drags him into the next alley. Pushes him up against the wall and kisses him, slowly, seriously.  Does a very thorough job of it. Tilting Oz's head back to make the kiss deeper, harder.

And Oz realizes he's being learned, body to body. He likes these kisses better than the sweeter ones, likes the stubble burn, the thick tongue fucking his mouth, likes being held still for it. Loves that it's Nate doing it, the way the snarky kid he's rapidly coming to need in his life just melts away into this powerful, hungry *creature* who's actually ripping Nate off of him and trying to eat him.


But Nate's smirking, long hair in his eyes giving him that I'm-gonna-get-you look, and the vamp, despite its best efforts, is hitting a wall of air instead of Nate's throat. Hunh. Really kind of grotesquely entertaining, especially since Nate still looks as though the only thought in his head involves fucking Oz through the wall.

*Wooden stake through the heart would do it.*

*I'm kinda curious to see how long this guy is gonna keep trying.*

*Most vampires are kinda stupid. It could be a while.*

*Damn. Oh, well.*

At which point the vampire's head forcibly separates itself from the rest of the body and, whoosh.

*Show off*

*If you got it...*

*Take me home before I swoon.*

Which he does.  With a kind of a snap of his hips, during which the world 
twists itself inside out, and after which they're leaning against the lamp post just down from Oz's house.

*OK, see, 'show off' wasn't a command, there.*

Nate kisses him again.  Draws him forward and pulls Oz against his thigh and makes several growled suggestions about fucking him there on the pavement.  Yes, in front of the neighbours.  And his parents.  And the police.  And the local news.

It's a conversation that ends with a sort of shuffle towards the back door, sometimes with both of them facing forward, but nearly always with one of Nate's hands inside Oz's jeans.  Finger rubbing at the crack of his ass.  Kiss on his ear while he unlocks the door.  Long, sliding grope that ends with his nipple clamped between two fingers and them pausing on the stairs.

And his room, his basement, is, in spite of the time that's passed and the surgical-class cleaning job, more or less the way he remembers.  Nothing as spooky as a shrine to him, but not anonymous, either.  He thinks maybe there are some old clothes of his hanging in the closet.  There are blankets and a fairly large armload of pillows stacked on the couch.

*She thinks I'm going to mummify you in the night?*

*I think some of them are for you, Oz.*

*Remember what I said about showing off?  Now would be a good moment.*

And at the edges of his vision, there's a lot of flying bedding, which ought to be distracting, but considering that Nate's busy undressing him, it's more like background art.

*It's a particular talent to be able to do two things at once.  I'm impressed.*

Nate grins into their kiss.  Breaks it briefly and pulls Oz's t-shirt over his head.  Pulls his arms up with it, making him stretch like a kid.  Bends and kisses the ribcage before Oz can bring his arms back down.


Kiss on his lips and then Nate's shirt goes flying, too.  There are more than enough shoes to trip them.  This extra little dance with Nate walking him backwards again, kissing him and stripping him and rubbing against him like this rangy, messy cat.

One shove and he's got Oz down in the bed.  Soft tangle of bedding with a lot of extra pillows, and Oz isn't sure yet whether they'll have to throw some of this on the couch later to make it look slept on, but he's thinking they won't.  He's twenty-one years old, and if it bothers his parents, they can go find a motel, or return to the Chatty Fortress of Solitude at night. His boxers, Nate's naked body, long, wet, very serious kiss.  Getting down 
between his legs, and just something about this, he *knows* he's going to be the one getting fucked.

*Are you complaining?*


Rolls Oz on top, kisses him and rubs him with hands inside his boxers and 
then strips them off, bending each of Oz's legs carefully to manage it.  Naked and touching and he remembers how *good* this was, last time.  All the rough edges of it pulling on him.

*Yeah, think about it, wanna feel it through you --*

Flash of air holding him safe and still, chill of porcelain against his belly as Nate slams in --

*Fuck gotta be inside you so hot*

Jeans flying back across the room to them and Nate produces a tiny tube of lubricant that came from God knows where and they're rocking together, cocks brushing so good so good Nate's tongue Oz remembers Nate's tongue --

*Oh God *Oz**

And now, right now, slick finger inside him, thrusting fast and deep. Little 
burn of it just making Oz want it *now* --

*Shh shh I'm gonna make it so good for you*

More slick and Oz forces himself to breathe a little slower, relax, give it up, and Nate's got a second finger in there. Twisting now with every thrust and Oz reaches back and spreads himself for Nate. Holds himself open for it and Nate knows, Nate's reading him, something -- *rougher*

*are you sure*

*wanna feel you*


And Nate's sitting up now, pulling Oz against him, pushing his fingers in that much deeper, fucking him this way and God it's just so good to be this naked. This *raw*. Cock sliding against the hard muscle of Nate's belly as Oz thrusts himself back on those fingers, forward looking for friction, anything --

*gonna do it hard be ready Oz please*

Lined up and yeah, ready for it, impaling himself as Nate thrusts up and *in*. Keeps holding himself open for one thrust, two, then has to grab Nate and hold *on*, get closer, angle shifts making him gasp and bite his severely abused lip. He will *not* scream in his parents house --

*yeah. you will*

The next thrust makes his teeth ache, but Nate's mouth is over his, catching his yell and giving it back. Not so much a kiss as another way to be locked onto each other, bent and fucking each other into shape. Short, ruthless strokes and Oz rakes short nails over Nate's back and Nate squeezes him closer and there's no *air*.

Couldn't remember how to breathe if there was. Only this, motion and counter-motion, Nate deep inside, vicious and hard.

*oh man Nate *please**

*What   anything you want anything at all*

*sit up*

*you've got to be kidding*

But he does.  Or arches up and jerks his hips suddenly back to get his shoulders up onto the pillow mountain.  Quick shift that Oz isn't ready for, and he has to follow after, raw throat entirely open and only the hand 
clamped over his mouth is keeping him from screaming bloody murder.

*sorry.  I'm so, so sorry.*

*No.  It's just.*  Aching heave of his stomach muscles.  Wraps both of Nate's arms around him, joins the hands in the small of his back and *grinds* down.  Working it into himself.

And this is not entirely alien, but still.  Feeling Nate in him, oh god *deep*, knowing *he* put it there.  Slamming his hips forward and back, letting Nate help him carry the motion.  Pet him, get his knees up to brace and lift his hips and slam *up* into him the next time Oz rises.  Kiss on his bare arm and this *tongue* tracing the vein down to his elbow.

Nate leans up and forward and

*Get your legs around my waist, Oz.*

*Don't stop, want you like this.  Want you oh *god* yes.*

*No, come on.  I'll help you.*

Still his hips, coaxes Oz's legs out in front of him.  Like sitting in somebody's lap on a swing, except Nate's *in* him, and when he moves, his cock *shifts*, and Oz can't *breathe*, no air in his lungs at all.  Moment fully in Nate's lap when all he can do is shake while Nate rocks him back and forth, kisses his ears and mutters nonsense to him.  Pulls himself back together and helps with this rocking, getting both their bodies working.  Hard to move at this angle but oh *deep* in him.

Oz laces his fingers into the white streaks in Nate's hair, uses them as grip-points to deepen the kiss.  Lifting himself up on the strength of his arms and Nate's shoulders and Nate's hand supporting him, just barely keeping Nate in him while he pushes down into the kiss.

*Trust me*


Nate wraps Oz's legs around his waist.  Arms around his neck.  Kisses him 

Flips them.

Oz lands on his back, gasping and breathless and Nate *drives* into him.  Fucks him with Oz's legs around his waist, spread open and pale and thin-skinned and his hips *hurt* from bending this way, but it's all feeding into the same place.  Smoothing his belly.  Nate braced on one folded arm, bending over him and forcing his hips up, *lifting* him, making every thrust a force of Oz's own body mass as well as all the strength in Nate's body.

God, *hungry* for this.

Fists his hands in the sheets and pushes up into it, just taking and taking because right now, right here, it's the only thing he needs. The only thing 
in the universe and

*Nate Nate Nate...*

*I'm here oh *fuck* I'm here*

Pulls one of Oz's ankles onto his shoulder and the angle makes Oz see colors, flashes of brightness and knife-sharp pleasure and he's moaning again, almost sobbing, can't close his mouth until Nate shoves his fingers in. Sucking and biting, crying out around them and if Nate could just touch him just --

Impossible squeezing stroke on his cock out of nowhere, nothing like a hand, nothing like anything and Oz comes so hard that everything goes black for a shudder-stop incredible heartbeat until he can see again. Nate's eyes so wide and dark and he's

*I love you*

screaming in Oz's head, slamming in one last time before stilling completely. Pumping deep into Oz and Christ so fucking *good*.

Comes to himself with his hands in Nate's hair, legs tangled together. Just 
watching each other through half-lidded eyes. Oz feels... completely and utterly fucked, which makes a lot of sense, actually.

Nate kisses him, slow and soft, but his hands are restless on Oz's body.  Stroking and caressing and just *holding* him until Oz can't quite remember anything that isn't about touching.

Nate slipping free of Oz's hold to nuzzle at his throat, kiss him there over and over and finally just resting his mouth there. Soft, warm breath against him.

*Sleep, Oz.*


He wakes at some point in the night.  Restlessness or instinct.  Nate's not in him anymore, but he can still feel the ache from it.  Still half on top of him with his face buried in Oz's neck.  He gets flashes of things, bleed from whatever Nate's dreaming.  Soft mouth working against his skin; he's 
going to be marked there by morning.

And his mother's on the stairs.  Two fifty-seven a.m. by the small, luminous clock on the shelf above the TV.


"It's alright, Danny."

Golden eyes in the dark.  It takes him a minute to realize that the blankets are all *under* them, still.  Both him and Nate naked in the dark.

"Shhh.  It's alright.  You aren't really awake."

And she's right.  He settles back down and drifts and at some point in the night Nate slides off him and curls up behind him, wraps up tight against his back.  Soft mind stroking his.  Kissing his neck to wake him.


"Mmm.  Hey.  Is it morning?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

Seven-fifty by the clock.  A large part of Oz is in favour of sleeping until noon.  He buries his head under his arm.  Nate butterfly-kisses his neck.

"Come on, wake up."  Whispering breath.  Not letting him slide into sleepy 

"Make me an offer I can't refuse."

"Back rub?"

"And pop tarts."


"You have to make me pop tarts.  If you want me to get up."

"I've never made pop tarts."

*It's easy."

"Oh no you don't.  Talk to me.*

"It's not hard.  You put them in the toaster.  They toast.  They pop up.  You bring them downstairs and feed them to me, bite by nutrient-free bite."

Nate pushes back and glares at him for a while.  Oz slides back down into the covers and doesn't quite go to sleep.  Nate kisses along his spine from his neck to the swell of his ass.  Gently rolls Oz onto his stomach and parts his ass cheeks.  Strokes the hole once and kisses his thigh for the answering shiver.  Sucks on the place where his ass and back meet long enough to leave a deep purple bruise.  Strokes him from behind.  Licks his ear.

Gets up, finds underwear and steals one of the blankets, and goes upstairs 
to make pop-tarts.

Oz settles down and goes back to sleep.

He wakes up again, and it's a quarter after eight and there's food.  All of it in Nate's lap.  On the couch.  Where's he's quite happily perched, watching TV.

"So explain to me why you're the Scooby Gang."

"See, the first thing -- do we still have to speak aloud?"

"I don't know, Oz, Xander would be disappointed in me if I didn't encourage you to use your vocal cords once or twice a day."

"Xander isn't *here*."

*You only love me for my telepathy.*

*I've got this whole strong, silent thing going. It's kind of my thing.*

*I like your things.*

*You're twelve, aren't you?*

*Actually, temporally, a little younger than that.*

*Do I want to know?*

*Probably not.*

*Okay, then. Scooby Gang.* Oz turns on the television, flips through the channels until he hits the neverending Hanna Barbera pimpery that is the Cartoon Network.

*Man, this animation sucks.*

*And it doesn't get any better. This is the first lesson of Scoobyness: Unrelenting Cheese.*

Deputy Dawg has just caused his nemesis to be blown into a blackface caricature.

*I'm reasonably sure that's pretty offensive, Oz.*

*Second lesson of Scoobyness: Inappropriate Thoughts/Humor. It can get pretty soap opera-esque around here between bouts of gratuitous violence.*

Nate sends the flow chart that is his family.

*Yeah, exactly.* The cartoon comes to a close, Deputy Dawg riding into the 
sunset. *And there's the third lesson: Hope. Everything works out for the annoying heroes, in the end.*

*Does it really work that way?*

*Hey, I'm not locked up in a government lab, and my friends are all reasonably okay.*

And he's being curled and tugged into something like a full body embrace, 
Nate's worry and care all around him. Oz feels... it's complicated. There's the huge wall inside him that he's come to think of in something like cool terror, and there's also the real world that he is, in fact living in. He can feel all the bruises healing. He can feel Nate, and he knows that whatever made him walk away from Oz before isn't there anymore.

*I was a complete asshole, and I know it, and I'm better than that, I swear.*

*I trust you.*

Kiss just behind his ear, and Nate's hands are very warm. Oz can hear his parents beginning to stir upstairs, the not-quite-clear hum of their voices. He could shift a little, open up his senses, but it's not really necessary.  Nothing smells wrong in the house.

*They're wondering if I'm good for you.*

*They trust my judgment.*

*Yeah, but they still worry.*

*It's a parent thing, Nate.*

*I feel like I should reassure them, somehow. Prove myself.*

*You already did.*



*Okay. So. Scoobies?*

*Fred is the big blond action guy with the swinging scarf around his neck. 
That's Buffy. Daphne is the glamour girl, also with the swinging scarf -- that's Buffy, too, but also Cordelia. She's in L.A. now. Velma is the supersmart geek with the turtleneck of maximum skin coverage. Willow used to be more like that. Also Giles. Plus, everyone knew that Velma was a lesbian, so it still works. And yeah, I do have the occasional Big Stupid Guy moment of wondering if I just wasn't man enough.*

*You can make me scream later if it would make you feel better.*

*Thanks. I think I'll take you up on that. Now we reach the heart of the Scoobys: Shaggy, the dim, cheerful, easily terrified stoner, and Scooby himself, Shaggy's faithful companion. At first, it might seem as though they don't quite fit, but they're always the ones who find the monster, and they kind of hold the group together.*

*You and Xander?*

*Well, actually, mostly just Xander. Me, Tara, Anya... we're kind of on the edges of things, like when there's a major Scooby crossover event.*

*That doesn't seem fair.*

*Maybe. But... it's kind of intense in Scoobyland, Nate. Like, all the time intense. When you're on the edges of things, you can take a break.*

*You didn't always feel that way.*

*No, I didn't. But I didn't always feel the very real need for occasional vacations from reality.*

Nate kisses him, somewhere deep inside his brain.

*Thing is, I left, and their world didn't end.*

Nate nods.

*As far as that goes, I was underground in a lab for six months, and they didn't notice.*  It's been nagging at him.  That nobody knew.  Not the Scoobies or Devon or his parents or Willow.  He suspects that he spent a long time chewing on that in the time he's now pretty successfully repressing.  Gets an image of a cartoon character holding out a bottle.  *Repressitol*, good for continued sanity and the absence of psychotic urges.

*Oz, are you OK?*

*Yeah.  This is more the rational end of Oz-got-locked-in-a-box.  None of that screaming emotional stuff.*

The TV shifts from retro-70s camp to the watercolour paleness of this year's Japanese import.  Oz twists in Nate's grip and manages to turn around to face him.  Almost nose to nose, while his feet touch the end of the couch and Nate's dangle over the arm.

*How did you know I was there?*

*It's hard to explain.*

*This isn't even your *universe*.*

Pause.  Oz gets a picture of tiny earths strung together in a double-helix like a DNA string.  *I was walking along the Spiral.  Just looking.  And I heard you.*

*I'm not following.*

*I told you, you think *a lot*.*

*But how did you know to listen?*

Nate sighs, both telepathically and audibly.

*I know it doesn't mean much to you, but I'm the Shaman.  I can just sort of *tell* when things are wrong.  Like it prickles or something.*

*So the vampires and the demons and the local gateway into hell...*

*Are absolutely normal for your universe.*

*See, now I'm scared.*

*Uh-uh.  No.*  Nate snags his arms around Oz's waist and rolls onto his back, hauling Oz up on top of him.  Strokes him with spread-out hands from shoulder to hip.  Curved line of his body, and finally just holding onto his ass and squeezing slightly.

*Oz, if it weren't normal, *you* wouldn't be.  And the thing about being a Shaman is that 'normal' is this huge, wide field, but what's outside it is 'abomination.'*

He pulls Oz's head down and kisses him without opening his mouth. Presses their foreheads together.  Soft skin and soft cotton against Oz's nakedness.

Picture in his head of the impossible walk down the spiral of worlds.  Nate 
descending not just into one, but into rock.  Underground, walking through rooms while everyone ignores him, looking at things that blur whenever Oz tries to focus on them too closely.  Some kind of a crackle in his senses, something both injured and interesting.  A plexiglass wall that might as well not be there and a sudden, vividly recognizable moment of bending over the body, hand on a shoulder, mouth at the ear, saying, "I'm gonna get you out of here, OK?"

He remembers Nate sounding very, very old when he said that.

Oz squirms out of the hug and sits up.  Waits for Nate to haul himself upright and then comes over to sit across his lap.  Leans in against his shoulder and kisses his neck, loving the shiver it draws.

*Do you have somewhere you need to be, Nate?*

*World enough and time?*


*Six months ago I had at the most four years to live.  Now I don't even have a reliable age.  And the world is something like infinite.*

*So... no.*

Nate nods, and mouths Oz's ear gently.

*I was thinking we should go out to the desert for a couple of days.*

*Your friends...*

*Are grown-ups with lives.  Apparently I'm the only one still living in my parents' basement.*

*I could take us somewhere else.*

*Actually, I was thinking road trip.*

*Your ways are strange to me.*

*You get a vehicle.  You take sleeping bags and junk food and maps you don't check, and you go somewhere.  Or you just go.*

*I think this is one of those things you're going to have to explain to me using short words.*

*I wanna fuck you in the desert    real world with nobody there.  It's big and it's dry and it's huge and I *want* you.*

Kisses him, long and fierce.  Flash of how Nate might look under a half-moon while it's rising on the edge of the night.  How he'd look crouched beside a campfire, seen through the wolf's eyes.

Natural and strange, slipping back and forth between youth and middle age.  He likes the clean lines of Nate's older face, the absolute *maleness* of cheek and jaw and lean, hard muscle. Something to butt up against, fight for control. It's still mostly an issue of aesthetics, though. Nate is *young*.  So, yes to the scars and the quasimagical brand, but yes to all the small softnesses, too.

And realizes that he's essentially remaking Nate out of component parts and the wave of self-disgust hits *hard*.

*Oz, no, it's okay --*

*You're *you*. My preferences have nothing to do with it. Fuck, I don't want to change you --*

*I know, I know you don't. You're just. Mixing and matching.* Easy smile inside them. *It's not like even I really know what I look like.*

*I don't want you to think you're not good enough, Nate.*

*Yeah, well, that's a whole different ten years of intensive therapy. Just. Think about me. What you want to do. Show it to me*

Oz closes his eyes and lets himself go there -- Anywhere But Here, now for 
two players. Nate is moving him around again, gentle pushes and nudges into position until Oz is upright.

*Keep your eyes closed*

Wolf eyes and the icy clean of the desert at night, all in greys save for the bright flashes of scent-color, the hazy tracks of living things wandering the night, like him. Not hunting so much as staking a claim, pissing on the lingering traces of a coyote, circling in closer to the fire and the man sitting there, looking into the coals.

Ruining his night vision. Guileless and waiting for Oz.

Closer now and the fire dances patterns on Nate's face, making age almost 
maddeningly indeterminable. Eyes black in the night and looking at Oz.  Bedroll laid out behind him, and the rush of wind with nothing to blow through. Just itself.

Oz opens his eyes to find Nate on the floor in front of him. Up on his knees and reaching for Oz's face. Oz scoots closer to the edge and leans into the touch, liking the feel of it against his light stubble. Nate's eyes aren't so much unreadable as very deep. Something to get lost in.

*Let me touch you, Oz*

But his hands are already on him. Over Oz's face and down, finding and holding his pulse against his fingertips. Down over bare shoulders, skimming light and almost ticklish.

Over his chest and stopping there, rubbing and flicking his thumb over Oz's nipples until they're hard and then pinching them. Tugging a little until Oz has to open his mouth. No words, just dumb with it and still lost in Nate's eyes.

*he loves me*

*oh yes*

Bright, wild realization of it and then Nate's leaning up to bite and suck.  Leave marks and

*taste you*

*God, Nate...*


mouth him and lick him and bite one nipple hard enough to make Oz gasp, tuck his chin against his chest and push his hands into Nate's hair. Hold Nate there against him and just feel. Sweet, hot mouth and the insistent scent of Nate's arousal, his own.

*you make me so hungry, Oz*

*oh God touch me*

Blanket flying off his lap and Oz barely has time to spread his legs before Nate's moving in between them, pulling away from his chest and for a moment all Oz can see is his mouth. Wet and red, soft-looking. He wants his cock there.

Watching Nate's eyes widen then slip half-closed. Watching Nate bend down to him, tongue flicking out to taste the head of his cock, again and again.

Focus of his body and he feels it all over.  That tongue.  No hands, even, just Nate with his head bowed and his hair falling over his face and gently 
tasting.  Nosing at it.  No stubble, even, baby cheeks and his mouth's so *red*.  Nate turns his head, lets the tip slide across his cheek.  Bowing just that extra bit to let it touch him all over.

Oz reaches down to catch Nate's chin.  Slips a thumb into that mouth and gasps at the feel of Nate sucking him.  Holding his wrist still and gently working the digit in his mouth.  Whimpering through closed, rounded lips 
when Oz strokes along his tongue.

Angle's awkward, though.  He's leaning and lounging at once, and when he tries to straighten, his cock slides along the inside of his wrist.  Shiver in him from the double sensation, touch and *slick*, and he jerks, but Nate 
catches him before he can get loose.  Slides his mouth carefully off the thumb, bends over Oz's wrist, and licks the damp trail.  Taste, then feel.  Veins standing up under his tongue.  Little bite on the thin skin.


*Shhh  let me do this*

Still rubbing his face against the wrist.  Kisses it, finally, all the way up to the elbow, before letting go.

Up on his knees, just high enough to kiss Oz.  Then slides his hands down 
Oz's chest, lets them rest on his thighs, bends, and takes the head of Oz's cock fully into his mouth.

Not just in, but swirled and traced and *sucked*, just that first inch.  Rubbing against the crown and along the edges of the head.

Fingers on his thighs.  On the crease where they meet his body.  Finding veins and nerves and vulnerable places and rubbing them gently.  Always with the same slow, careful attention to the head of his cock.  As good as any part of his body's ever felt, but if he could just get *deeper*, get more of himself into that warmth...  Cradling Nate's head and stroking his ears and trying to decide if he can ask for it.

*you can ask for anything*

Oz groans, bucks helplessly. Not just the words, but the feeling behind it. 
Dark and bottomless ache in Nate, begging to be filled and Nate takes him in another slow, thorough inch. Graze of teeth on the underside and Oz's hands are restless on Nate's head. Mussing his hair, tracing the side of his mouth, the full lower lip.

Nate squeezing his thighs, slipping a hand beneath to cradle his balls and Oz is sweating freely, overheating with it, need ratcheting higher as Nate.

Just worships him.

*oh jesus *Nate**

And Nate swallows, groans around him and sucks hard. Ragged breathing and that face pressed tight to Oz's body and Oz can't hold back. Fucking himself into that tight, hot throat and holding Nate's head *still*.  Control, 
something about control that Oz can't wrap his mind around, not with Nate's tongue doing slickly amazing things to the underside of his cock.

*oh, Oz*

Touch so soft on his mind and Oz curls almost double, hands on Nate's shoulders and hips pumping and random cartoon sounds and Nate's oh Christ oh fuck Nate's mouth --

*come in my mouth c'mon do it*

Cries out loud before he can bite it off, toes curling into the carpet, and Oz comes shaking, fingers digging much too hard into Nate's shoulders.


Tumbling the rest of the way off the couch and into a tangle with Nate, who smells desperately horny and extremely smug.

*I'm getting better at that.*

*Yes. You are. Jesus.*

Knows he should do something about Nate, but at the moment he's too limp.  Wants to dig a warren and nest with the wonderful being until sometime after doomsday.  Some kind of warm, dark space where they could curl around each other, licking softly for comfort and communicating soundlessly.

*And you worry about *my* Freudian tendencies.*

Oz licks him gently on the shoulder.





Nate bucks under him.  All of him smells like sex, and he's desperately hard.  This steady, hot pressure on Oz's belly.  In his boxers, but only barely.  The head's pushing out, slicking them, and Oz gets the most wonderful reactions just by shifting his weight around a bit...

*Want you Oz*

*Don't think I can.  It's this thing about night and morning and how I'm going to be raw for one if you take full advantage of the other.*

*Oh god doesn't have to be--"  Nate's eyes snap into focus.  *I hurt you?*

*Naw, just worked me over a bit.  I'll be OK.*

He stills at the footsteps in the kitchen above them.  There's no door on his end of the stairs that he can close, just the one at the top.  And that's open.  And it's one thing to be curled together in the dark, but...



Oz kisses him.  Swallows the whimpers that come with their bodies shifting.

He manages to stand, somehow.  Helps Nate up.  Gangly and long-legged and *hard*, staring at him with a kind of half-betrayed wanting that he tries to hide and doesn't manage to.  Oz steps over and slides a hand inside Nate's boxers, takes his cock in hand and lets it slide along his wrist. 
Pushes the underwear down off those skinny hips and waits for Nate to kick it away.

Kisses him and keeps kissing him while he marches Nate backwards, around the edge of his bed and through the door into the basement bathroom.  Toilet, sink, shower stall.  Towels folded on top of the shelf.

*You and *water*.*

*Wolves are almost aquatic.*

*I wanna see you *swim*.*


Gets what basic soap products are downstairs and shoves them at Nate. Though it's funny, really. Oz loves the water, but clean sex sometimes feels like it's missing something. Not enough scent and Nate's put the soap down and is advancing on him steadily.

*Shower.  On.  Now.*

*Yipe! Cold!*

*You actually thought 'yipe?'*

And the showerhead is immediately pointed directly at him and, okay, yipe.

*thought so*

Oz reaches up to push the thing back in place before they flood the basement, and they both nearly fall as Nate yanks him in and against him.

*this was supposed to help us be *subtle* mmmm*

Kissing in the slowly warming water and Nate's hands squeeze an apology to his ass that makes Oz want werewolf healing to go much, much faster.

*god can't wait  get inside you again*

Oz sucks hard on Nate's tongue and gets a hand between them. Squeezes once and starts to stroke.

*fuck yeah *Oz**

Nate kissing him wildly, licking water from Oz's mouth, his cheek, over one eye. Bracing himself against the shower wall and thrusting into Oz's fist.

*faster c'mon please*

Tempted to slow it down, make Nate really *feel* it and is suddenly hit with a lightning-harsh flood of image and sensation that makes up Nate's need, Nate's pure *want* for him and has to growl. Slam Nate back against the wall and work him, free hand twisting and pinching at his nipples. Not slow, Oz gets it. Tries to give it right back to Nate, who's arching and twisting under Oz's touch.


*Oz god OZ!*

Nate shoots up over his chest, Oz's fist, brings one hand down to hold Oz's still. Eyes squeezed shut and panting over the rush of water.

*loves me*


Oz places a soft kiss on Nate's collarbone and reaches for the soap.

The washing's a long, thorough process.  He's not sure when, exactly, *clean* became such a necessity, but he's mastered the art of bathing anywhere.  In bathtubs and washtubs and rivers, and out of the sinks of gas stations, and out of aqueducts, and with bottled water, and just *any* way to get his skin clean.  Wolfen and swimming in the ocean.  Human body, alternately swimming and baking in the sun.

Washing someone else, though.  This attention to their body.  Hollows.  Shapes.  He's spent most of the time he's known Nate being naked with him, and he still doesn't know his body well enough.  So.  Fingers on his ribs, under his arms.  Backs of his knees and the shape of his feet.  Jaw and 
chest.  Washing him with the nearly scentless ivory soap, licking him occasionally.  Comfortable, careful possessiveness in washing his genitals. 
Careful of the still-sensitive skin, rubbing gently and cupping the scrotum in his palm.

*Close your eyes for a sec.*  He does.  Feels Nate's hands soap and carefully rinse his face.  Then more lather and the soft scrape of a safety razor against his face.

Both of them just rinsing under the spray.  Single, soft kiss before Oz gets 
out and throws Nate a towel.  Stalks off half-wet to find clothes.

*We were going to dye your hair.*  Nate kisses the back of his neck.  Just a 
greeting.  Picks up his t-shirt and sniffs it. Drops it.  *Do I need to 
get us clothes?*

*I think there's something in here...* 

A few things, mostly ones he didn't want when he left.  Old shirts, a couple of pairs of pants, runners that he didn't think would be as much use as his boots.  Stage makeup in a box at the back.  Industrial-strength gel and glitter and Devon's eyeliner.  All the unnatural, unbreathable colours of nail polish that once made his grandfather glare at him at Thanksgiving and ask in a semi-whisper whether they were sure Daniel liked *girls*.

His mother had cheerfully said "no," and asked him to pass the peas.

*More mothers should be like yours.*

*Vaguely feral?*

One of the pillows comes out of nowhere and hits him on the head.  Repeatedly.

*Hey, I've had this trip before. The pillow's about to turn into a giant deer head, right?*

*Do you want it to?*

*Not really, no.*

*Then behave.*

*Behave? This from *you*?*

*Hey, don't wanna be too predictable.*

*Ah, so you won't be streaking my parents again anytime soon.*

*Not until you least expect it.*

*God, clothes for you *now**

Oz finds some jeans from his brief but traumatic hip hop stage that'll probably fit Nate and some worn khakis for himself.  Rubs the hole in the knee softly while Nate watches him.

The dyeing process is just as smelly, messy, and comforting as he remembers, his hair almost blue-black when it's done, and spiked to imperfect perfection. It's weird to look in the mirror and see no one but himself there. He doesn't look strange at all, the bruises faded almost to nothing.

Nate insists on polishing his fingernails for him, and Oz has to admit that the telekinesis makes the process a lot neater. And surreal.

*Toes, too?*


Box of jewelry in the back of the closet. He only left his best stuff behind, and there's something soothing in having it all back on. Chains and rings. A couple of bracelets.

*You look...*

*Like a freak?*

*Like yourself.*


*Only, you know, with clothes.*

*There's this thing about nakedness where it gets me arrested.*

*And sunburned.*

Nate hands him a shirt.  No one knows where the shirts come from.  From the mysterious shirt place.  From the impossible abandoned warehouse of t-shirts.  From the mind of the chatty Fortress of Solitude.

Nate's t-shirt says BOOM.  Oz throws him a button-down to wear over it. 
Nate dives in, wrestles him down, and kisses his navel pretty thoroughly.

"Did you guys need breakfast, or are you alright?" his mother asks.

Nate goes flying back.  Stands back down onto the floor six feet away and shoves his hands in his pockets, which has the effect of pushing his jeans down to a nearly pornographic level.  Oz makes a note to find him a belt before random strangers start molesting him in the street.

*Nate, she was down last night.  It's okay.*

Her mouth curls, just a little.  She really is just this golden, feral being, and even if all his senses tell him she isn't, he can't quite believe she's not a wolf.  Something latent in her blood and thought processes that took over her after Jordy bit him.

She pads soft-footed over to Nate and lays her hand along the side of his face and kisses his cheek.  Maternal and animal.

Hint of a bite.  *Behave*

Then comes over to Oz and hugs him hard.  Hangs onto him until he hugs her back, head against her shoulder and understanding some part of her missing him.  Something quieter and more primitive than *you don't write, you never call*, but expressing all of that, and her recognition that he's more damaged than he meant to let her know.  Lets him go and leaves him.

And Oz finds out, once he's outside and forced to walk through the nearly 
alien medium of daylight, just how much he misses the van.  Freedom and 
shelter and his *stuff* all in it.  Escape for the traveling man.

*Let me take us to the beach.*

*It's too cold to swim, Nate.*

Even with the brilliance of the sun.  He understands that much about the Pacific currents, enough to recognize ice-edges that invade the California winter.  Three or four degrees above freezing in the water while you grow winter fruit on the cliff-tops.

*I know.  But I wanted to talk to you, and there's a good place about twenty miles south down the coast.*


Takes Nate's outstretched hand and steps in against him and.


Scent of ocean like a giant headsmack from God. Acclimation, or the lack of it, can be a powerful thing. And Nate's right, it is a good place. Rocks worn smooth below the tide level. Sand and water as far he can see, nothing more garbage-like than drying seaweed. Oz feels the wolf stirring in him in a way that makes him think of forests and *north*.

Some race-memory pull he's never answered. Never wanted to want anything that attracted the wolf in him.

*Is it okay?*

*Yeah, I'm fine. Self-denial only works to a point.*


Oz pulls up a rock and waits for Nate to join him, but he doesn't. Walks a few steps away, instead, and stares at the ocean.

*My father was the one who released me from Apocalypse's slave pens. He 
didn't know I was his son, I didn't know he was my father. He just kinda liked me, and didn't want to see me die. It was... bad in the pens.*

Oz settles back to listen.

*Anyway. Once I was outside I just ran. I couldn't believe how wonderful the air smelled... I pretty much ran until I passed out, then woke up and did it again. And again. I didn't go looking for people until I started getting hungry. At first I just stole food from wherever I could find it before I ran and hid again, but one day these traveling actors came to the city I was in.*

And suddenly Oz is there, looking out a crack in a wall at an old-fashioned 
horse team and carriage, moving slowly through a city street. At first it's sort of like a game of spot-the-anachronism, but as Nate looks around he can get a better view. Lots of ruined buildings, cracks in the pavement. Too many ragged people in the street.

The actors are all male, all basically normal looking, though one is extremely tall.

Blinks and it's evening in the ragged, weedy remains of what must have been a huge park. The crowd is huge, but everyone is silent, watching a makeshift stage. Oz recognizes the play as As You Like It even as he hears/feels an incredibly young Nate wondering why they don't speak regular English.

Nate has to focus closely on the actors to understand what's going on, but 
there's something... off about them. Something that feels more like lying than acting. Oz feels his eyes narrowing and sees a flash of... something.  Like too many teeth in a smile. Like a shadow that doesn't quite match a body and Nate looks harder. Tugs at it with his mind and

*Careful, you fool, you'll get us all killed!*

gets slammed back into himself with a jolt.

They're all mutants, but someone is making the crowd see humans instead, and Oz understands that the human crowd would try to tear them apart if they could actually *see*.

When the show ends, Nate hangs around until everyone is gone and the leader is staring out at him from under a cowl.

"You're not very clever, are you, boy?"

"I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to.  I just..."  Things blur a little and he staggers.  Finds himself being supported by.  Hands.  Not hands.  Claws. Mechanical.  Nothing as elaborate as the cyborg implants that he's seen before, in the pens, on the guards.  These are more like the most elaborate version of clockwork.  A pure embodiment of skill.  He looks up and the face is the same, flesh and oxidized copper and a single, glittering lens in place of an eye.  And Nate's hands won't work but he needs to *touch*...

The man starts back, but doesn't drop him.  Smoothes the tangled hair out of Nate's face and looks at him for a moment.  And then picks him up and carries him into the wagon's shelter.

Nate thinks that he should protest.  He's too old to be carried like this. 
He should try to get loose.  Try to *run*.

Nobody ever did this for him before.

"That was Forge.  He exists in a lot of worlds, I found out later.  Master inventor.  He was a kind of mechanical savant.  All of the actors were mutants.  And at first I couldn't figure out *why*.  Like, why they were hiding.  If you had to live in that world, you *wanted* to be a mutant.  Apocalypse had this thing about survival of the fittest."

Images that Oz shies away from.  The darkest kind of biblical.  Crucifixion. 
Stoning.  Images rivaling everything he's ever learned of the Holocaust, people herded onto trains and taken away to be medical subjects.

"Forge thought it was wrong.  And he ended up the way most people end up in a situation like that, being one of the hunted.  You side with them... Forge and the others, you'd call them partisans.  Guerrillas fighting against 
their own people."

"Forge got me to make a psi-link with him the first night, and I think he built something to amplify it, so he could teach me."

Oz gets the slow, bone-ache of a growing teenager, overlaid with Forge's touch.  Carefully moving a tree out of the road.  Not so carefully lifting Forge, after, and dropping him from five or six feet up.  Getting wrestled none too gently to the ground and getting *sat* on for half an hour.

Waking in the night with the cart moving.  Nate's curled up into a boy-sized ball on the seat, covered with Forge's cloak, staring out at the night. 
Softly whirring fingers tangle in his hair before he slides back down.

Nate sits down cross-legged in the sand, out of reach.  Picks up a kind of alien globe that's washed up, some kind of translucent plant life, and rubs 
his fingers over it.

"They killed him.  Because of me.  Because I was stupid and let them know 
where we were.  Because they wanted to see what I could do if I was really 

Nate sighs.  Throws the sea-globe into the air and makes it flash, turns it into glass and catches it.  Blue tinge of a sphere between his palms.

"I'm not telling this right.  I mean I loved him.  Just him, for a long time.  The Jean you met, her and Scott... they remind me of my Jean and Scott.  The ones who were my parents."

"You met them."

"A couple of times.  Scott got me out.  I told you that.  But he didn't.  He liked leading people.  Liked the power.  Liked *having* power.  He wasn't really any different than Apocalypse, except that he wasn't on top.  He had
my mother with him when we met, but mostly because he broke her out too, the way he did with me, and kept her.

"She was like a doll."


"Your mom's amazing, Oz."

*I'm starting to notice.*

"I want to like Scott and Jean more than I do."

Oz nods.  Thinking that he kind of likes Jean.  How she's like a just-barely-grown-up, playful/protective sister.  Pack mother.

Nate's got his knees pulled up and his head down on them.  Listening to the ocean.  Low, almost musical note of the wind coming through the hollowed rocks, and this kind of translucent blue light.  Salt in his mouth.



*You know it isn't your fault.*

*I screwed up a lot, Oz. I screw up a lot.*

*You're what, nine? You're allowed.*

*You're not going to love a nine year old.*

Which should sound pathetic, but somehow doesn't.  Instead, it sounds very calm.  Flat-affect almost.  Nate stating a fact.

Oz gets up from his rock.  Stretches and lets the wind ruffle across his belly.  Little whispers of his shirt like an extra voice.  Then comes over and crouches, hugs Nate from behind.  Kisses his throat gently.  Strokes a hand over his face, wide open and feeling his breath between the fingers. Then lays down and pulls Nate's head onto his stomach.

Lies there, staring at the sky and tangling his fingers in those silver bangs.

Very quiet for a long time.

Nate shakes himself, finally.  Rolls over onto his stomach and looks down at Oz.  Looking *for* something.  His expression more like fifty than nine or fifteen or eighteen or thirty-two.

*Sorry.  I think I'm OK.*

*Nothing to be sorry for.  It's just suburbia getting to you.* Lays his head against Nate's shoulder.  Feels bone and very thin muscle through the shirt 
layers. *Nate?*


*I kind of had my getting-over-Willow time cut into, you know? I need some time.*

*I know. I don't mean to push it. You just make me want to stake a claim.*

Oz shares the warmth the thought gives him as best he can, the affection and want. *I'm not going anywhere.*

*You mean I don't have to take Tara up on that love spell she was thinking 

*What is it about my head that makes people want to mess with it?*

*Honestly? You've got... it's like peace and passion, all wrapped together.  You like to think it's the difference between man and wolf, but it isn't.  The wolf is just a part of you, the spirit binding to thoughts and emotions you already had.*


*She loves Willow like life, Oz. She'll never hurt her.*

*That helps.*

*I want to help you with the memories. When you're ready.*

*I don't want to hurt you.*

*I won't let you.*

And it's frightening, really, how true that is and isn't. Responsible for someone's heart again, and it does feel good, whether or not he's ready for 
it. Good because he knows himself enough, trusts himself enough to know that he'd never willingly hurt Nate. Knows that he wants that warmth and want to be love. It could be good, between them.

It's just.  As long as the wall's up in his head, it doesn't *feel* like it's been six months.  More like a week.  And he really did expect to love her forever.  Wolf in him.  Mate.  His mate. And as far as his mother is concerned, Oz really *didn't* have to bring Willow over too many times. Understands that his mother would've preferred to know her better, but that she'd probably taken one look at how Oz related to her, factored in his lack of other girlfriends, and come up with the word mate long before he would ever have wanted to hear it. 

Oz wonders what she thinks of Willow now. He'd never told her the whole story, nothing beyond "it didn't work out" and "I've gotta hit the road again," trusting her to relate the important stuff to his father. It's... weird. Her human side had clearly expected him to bring a boy home to meet them sooner or later, probably hoping it wouldn't be Devon, but the wolf in her seems to be accepting him, too. 

Maybe it really is just as simple as 'Oz needs to choose a suitable mate, and I trust him to do so.' She has, after all, never been the type to think about things like grandchildren too intensely. That's for her sisters, maybe. Something. 


And she's still there.  On some level, still loves him.  But Tara is like a being made out of light.  Fierce and powerful and this is permanent.  He's changeable.

He tries to remember the last time he cried.  Some kind of a fractured memory of curling up in his underground, overlit world and crying his heart out.  For Willow and for himself and for the sheer horror of his life.  That's on the other side of the wall, too.

Oz thinks he and Nate need to come back here later.  In a year, if they're still sympatico at that point.  Friends or lovers or something.  Come back in summer and make love here.  Sleep and bake to a slow, even sunburn that he can let Nate soothe after dark.

Nate brushes a hand over the back of Oz's neck.  *I think maybe we should 
move.  Where do you want to go today?*

*Microsoft Shaman.  You should be worth a fortune.*

*OK, see, that's just mean.*  Psychic laughter.

*I think I'll risk sounding like an adult and say I think we should go see how Giles is doing.*

Nate nods.  Stands and looks at Oz from six or seven feet away.



*What did Giles want to know?*

*Hold on, just let me get a hold on you... got it*

Exactly like being cradled, so that feeling the wind and the rock below him is just a little too strange to deal with. Oz decides to join Nate instead, get held. And Nate obliges, wrapping his arms around Oz and tangling their legs together, burying Oz's face against his throat before sending, very 

*Ethan Rayne.*

And all the previous night's strangeness slams into place, a sudden and undeniably logical order


that sends him back to his cell, and the painfully dry Englishman right next 
door, and all of his stories of London in the 1970s, of the brilliant, violent boy he'd loved then.

Oz remembers how he'd made a game with it in his own mind, every day letting himself know a little more about who the man next door really was, and who he had to be talking about. Something to pass the time, between lights-out and the table, at first, then lights-out and the chamber.

White on white on steel and no way to get a hold on the walls and the door too thick to break and the demons they'd toss into the chamber with him. Shift or die. Shift or die and the way Ethan would curse him those nights when he could only growl and whine in response and howl and howl until the gas came and the doctors came and the soldiers never looked him in the face they never *looked* it was only the other demons who looked and oh God it would've been nice to look in Ethan's eyes but Ethan's evil but Ethan talks to him and no one talks not real not human gonna die here gonna die gonna die --

*You aren't going to die.*

*I have to oh god please let me --*

Walls coming down on him gonna crush him please god not that --

*Please don't fight me, Oz, it's gonna be okay not gonna hurt you you're safe I've got you I've got you*


The walls slam into place, staggering him, but Nate's holding on, Nate's got him, Nate's not going to go away

*I won't, I won't, I'm right here, it's okay*

not going away Nate's holding him and it's warm. It's warm. Sun and air. He can do this. He's not there. Walls away from him and there and he doesn't have to go back. It's safe.

*not gonna let anyone hurt you*

Kisses all over his face, and he realizes how frantic Nate is.  Psychic bleed, or maybe just straight fear.  At having the person he was quietly holding suddenly crack.  And Oz is exhausted.  Lets Nate lay him down in the sand and kneel over him.  Still kissing him.  All over his face.  Ears and hairline and mouth and chin and cheeks and eyes.

Curls in beside him.  Nate doesn't ask anything of him, just lies there quietly and soaks up the sun, keeps one hand pressed over Oz's heart.  Oz has a faint sense of touching the cotton from both sides.

Eventually he can sit up.  Think about this something like rationally.  The walls have shifted some, and there's a lot of new/old stuff.  Like digging through boxed-up things from someone who's recently dead.  Bits of it turn his stomach, and some of it's carving little vacuums of horror into his chest, but he's alright.  Stable.

Nate helps him up.  Holds his head again for a second, staring down into his face.  Pale-eyed and serious and looking for something different, now.

Oz says, "I don't think we should leave Giles alone."

Nate nods.

*Would it make you feel better or worse if I told you that I've been keeping tabs on him since mid-morning?*

*Better.  Thank you.*

*I just.  If I'd known it was going to be that bad, I would have waited.*

*I know.*

*I didn't mean for him to get hurt.*

Oz thinks about what might make an answer to that.

*You didn't cause it.  He's been like this for a long time.*

Arm around the back of his neck.  Sand-smell of Nate's t-shirt.  Billow of the button-up around them.

*How long?*

*He's about old enough to be Buffy's dad.  Minus a couple of years for being a kid before he met Ethan.*

Nate wraps the other arm around him and kisses the top of Oz's head.  Flashes them out.

Fresh cut lawn and evil smell. Home. Or, actually, Giles' courtyard. They stand there for a moment, Oz searching for the new-Giles smell under all the old. It's there, fresh and raw like an open wound. Tries and fails to imagine knowing -- *knowing* -- that everyone who knew him, really *knew* him was dead.

Because Ethan is. That came towards the end. One morning they took Ethan away and brought back a vampire wearing his body. The hell of it was that Oz didn't know for days. There'd been no way to separate out all the different demon smells, all the pain smells. They all ran together.  He just thought Ethan had gotten tired of being nice to him.

Finally, he just takes a breath and leads them to the door. Knocks.

Giles answers the door with a stake in his hand despite the daylight, but he doesn't smell confused at all.

"Just us. Still 3/4 human."

"Oz, Nate. Do come in." Gestures them inside. Giles' guitar is out, leaning against the armchair, but Oz doesn't think it's been played.

They settle on the couch, Giles on one of the stools by the kitchen divider. 

There's a packed bag at his feet.


*He's planning to go after Ethan, sorry, I didn't get that before. I'm not sure he knows what he's doing.*

"Headed out?"

"I'm sorry?" Too long pause before Giles looks down, seems to notice the bag as an afterthought. "Oh. Well. I suppose I am. It... needs to be done."

"By you?"

Giles' smile is gently rueful. "I'm the last of us."

"But not the last of *us*, Giles, he's dangerous."

The smile never shifts. "Wasn't he always?"

*He feels like he owes Ethan this, Oz.*

"He's dead, Giles, you don't owe him anything, anymore."

"Somehow, I don't think that's quite true. Besides, if someone doesn't go after him, he'll only come here. And he's more dangerous than he's ever been before."

"Then take us with you." Nate, leaning forward, whole body reaching out.

"Yeah. Road trip. You pick the music."

*He wants to face this alone but we can't let him*

*Got it*

"Look, I know this is... I know a little about how much he meant to you. He. He used to talk to me. Tell me stories." Just so *hard*. *God, Nate, should I tell him how much Ethan loved him or not?*

*I don't know. He knows, but...*

The look in Giles' eyes... Oz has never seen him that naked before. Just pain and something like avid hope, gone in an instant, but the smile is a little more comfortable this time. "He was probably lying through his teeth."

"Yeah, I had my doubts about the Bowie stories."

Giles nods, absently.  Oz gets a strange urge to hug him.  Decides not to, more because of the ridiculous shortness of his reach than anything else. Doomed forever to hug people around the waist or stretch up against them in a way that's more suggestive than he needs it to be.

He can just about imagine what Giles must have looked like then.  A bit more hair.  No glasses.  Very brittle hair and dark leather.  Remembers Ethan's story of the two of them on one of London's mess of ancient bridges.  Not one of the big ones, just a stream bridge, centuries-old stonework pushing up out of the fog and.  Ripper.  Bending him over the balustrade.  The cigarette lighter's flame ghosting over Ethan's back.  All that water in the air, and Oz knows that sooner or later he's going to end up in London too.  Some kind of visceral attraction to a city that manages to knot Cold War houses with medieval walls, bandages on the Blitz damage, now almost totally resorbed into the city's organic structure.  Like an archipelago of towns all swallowed hundreds of years ago.

There are bits of that in the house.  Underneath the woven wool layers and the books and the polished weapons.  He wonders if Giles doesn't keep some kind of armoured, stripped-down handgun somewhere in here.

Nate's gone.  Oz remembers hearing him say he was going, actually.  Just the briefest hug around his chest before he went.

And because Giles is moving now, making tea and rearranging books and touching the knives scattered over the counter absently, Oz sits down. Picks up the guitar and strokes it, fully aware that it's too big for him. Special intimacy in touching someone else's instrument, and he probably shouldn't, but.

It's been a long, long time.  If you don't count the few minutes under Nate's disturbingly direct Mr. Sun, it's been months.

Hours when he'd sing to himself, curled up under that invasive light. Fingering chords onto his thigh and trying to maybe *write* something, anything as an alternative to the too-close-to-the-surface howl that kept trying to well up.  Soft sounds of Wizard-Ethan singing CCR and later Vampire-Ethan singing the Rolling Stones.

The difference it makes to actually *hold* the guitar, hear and feel instead of just imagining the sound, cracks him.  Stupid and irritating and he doesn't quite cry, but he's going to be in trouble if Giles starts a conversation about now.

And eventually Nate comes back.  Big shaded eyes and he throws a set of keys to Oz.

*Should I even ask?*

*They won't miss it.  And we need it.*

*Giles has a car, I'm pretty sure.*

*Yeah, but...*  Image of wrapping himself around Oz in the metal shell of a 

Giles raises his eyebrows.

"We're good to go, I guess."

And really, it's just a matter of throwing in Giles' stuff.  Nate's wandered back to Oz's house at some point, because Oz recognizes his own stuff, as 
well as a couple of the blankets from the bed.

*Your mom said it was cool.  She sent you food.*

*She thinks I'm short because she didn't feed me enough.*

The van's not quite his old one, but it has its own aura.  Rusty where the side panels and undercarriage meet, and something about the paint job suggests that it used to be psychedelic.

*Nate, tell me you didn't steal Ken Keasey's van.*

*I wouldn't.  Your world needs it.  Cultural heritage.  One of these days the Smithsonian'll adopt it.*

Giles beside him in the shotgun seat, sorting through a box of tapes that have that aura of having been dubbed off vinyl.  Messy hand-written labels that don't match the whole digital experience.  Primitive like they're one step away from enamel and wax.

When it *is* Creedence that starts playing, Oz stops thinking about meaning and history and drives. Feels the light sense of weight that's Nate behind him, leaning against the back of the driver's seat. Quiet, active hum of his thoughts. Nothing specific, just a sense of comfort and purpose and 
underlying sadness.

And Oz would think it would make it worse somehow, to feel someone's sadness along with his own. Like it would all pile up and up until it collapsed into its own singularity of depression, but it's actually a little easier.  Shared burden of emotion. Wonders if Giles could have it, too.

*Should I ask?*

*I don't know*

*I'll ask*

Movement at the periphery of his vision that's Giles being shocked into awareness of Nate's thoughts. The little shifts and motions of expression, so odd without the sound of a human voice to go along with it. Something 
he's going to have to get used to, he supposes.

*Many people who learn to talk with telepaths also learn to control their expressions, for one reason or another. You already do it.*

*Cool. What does he say?*

*He's not sure. The intimacy bothers him.*

*Damn, I should've thought of that. Still, though...*

"Oz?" Giles, sounding decisively indecisive. "And Nate."


"Could we... I'd appreciate it if we could speak aloud. I'm not especially accustomed to telepathy. Well, human telepathy, that is. Quite fascinating.  And you say in your dimension that certain humans just evolved this way, Nate?"

*Wow. He really is a librarian at heart, hunh.*

*That's our Giles. Smell the book dust and fear.*

Laughter in his head. "Okay, Mr. Giles, no problem. Sorry, we got accustomed to thinking at each other. Didn't want to leave you out."

"Yes, well. Thank you. I hope I didn't offend...?"

"No, it's okay. I'm learning that not everyone is used to being around psis."

Little moment of bright normality, Nate going into full I'm-just-a-teenager 
mode around Giles. To comfort him?

But Giles is staring into space, idly tapping his fingers on the dashboard, off-time in a way that suits the pure humid country of the music. Lost in thought.

*Well, mainly trying not to think too loud. He's. So full, Oz.*

*I always meant to get to know him better... there was so much going on...*

*Yeah. I get that. Second chances, hey?*

Continued in Part Three