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Monico Episode Three: In Confidence

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  • Monico Episode Three: In Confidence

    Episode Three:
    In Confidence


    Disclaimer: Oz isn't mine; I'm only borrowing him. The other characters all belong to me.
    Mostly plotless fluff focused on setting the scene for the future, and getting to know the characters. Please bear with me.
    Feedback: is always welcome, especially when nice things are said. Pretty please read and tell me what you think.


    Previously in Tales from the Monico:

    Emma: "Emma Gibson, and this idiot is my husband, David."
    Oz: "Oz." (off their looks) "Daniel Osbourne."

    David: "The staff walked out and left me in the lurch?you don't want a job, do you?"
    Oz (shrugs): "Okay."

    Oz: "You do know that the theatre is haunted, right?"
    Emma: "You're actually serious, aren't you?"

    (Oz, David and Emma successfully exorcise the ghost.)

    (Oz bumps into Charlie on-campus.)
    Charlie: "I'm Charlie, by the way."

    Elli: "Elli Murphy. Mrs?I was half way through a degree in fine arts back home, but I took time out to go travelling. I thought I might look into finishing it here."

    (The concussed Oz wolfs out and is battered into submission by panic-stricken thugs.)
    (Elli rescues Oz from the cage.)

    Nurse: "Wrist fracture, two cracked ribs, concussion, plus some superficial cuts and bruising."

    Elli: "I found it ? the Master's secret base. Got inside, even?they never even knew I was there. Probably do by now, though."
    The Doctor (looking cross and slightly worried): "What did you do?"
    Elli (defending her actions defiantly): "They had a prisoner. They'd been beating him. I could hardly just leave him there."
    The Doctor (still a little annoyed, but resigned): "No. No. I suppose not."
    Elli (muses thoughtfully): "He's a shape-changer. Werewolf."

    Oz (slowly): "You knew what I was the moment you laid eyes on me."
    Elli (shrugs, and casually replies): "Of course."

    Oz (slowly, thinking about it): "I don't think it's over."
    David (frowning): "Maybe we should all go find out some more."
    Emma (her face radiates disbelief and her voice runs up the scale): "What?"

    Oz: "I ? we can't just walk away from this now. In too deep, and all. Maybe we can help."

    (Oz hurls the bomb into the ornamental lake, which goes boom. Charlie stares at him in disbelief.)

    (Oz and the rest of the group sit around and watch the secret laboratory burn down.)

    Elli: "I'm just not sure I'm ready to go back yet. I think I've done enough travelling, for the time being at least. It might be nice to stay in one place for a while, and here seems as good as anywhere."


    *****

    Prologue:

    *****

    "Hold the door!"

    Emma Gibson was just arriving at the Monico Coffee Bar for her long overdue afternoon break when a voice behind her called out. Startled, she half-turned to see who was behind her, and as she did so the door began to swing shut again, catching her a painful blow on the elbow.

    "Hi." Her new friend Elli Murphy came up behind her, smiling happily and clearly in a bubbly mood.

    "Ow," said Emma, smiling back despite the bruise as she rubbed her elbow.

    "Sorry." Elli sounded entirely unrepentant, pushing the door open once more and holding it for Emma to enter ahead of her.

    "You're in a good mood today," Emma observed as they walked towards the bar where David was chattering away breezily to their friend and lodger Oz, who was trying to scratch beneath the cast on his fractured wrist.

    "I am," Elli agreed, cheerfully. Reaching the counter, she called over to include the guys in the conversation. "Hey, congratulate me. I'm official now."

    "Really? Official how?" asked David. "And what can I get you?"

    "Um, OJ please," Elli requested before explaining. "Official in the sense of being all enrolled at uni. I can finish my degree. They liked the credit I've got from university in Australia."

    "Hey, way to go," Emma congratulated her friend, before turning to Oz. "Coffee for me, please."

    "Well, in that case, Oz is official too," David cheerfully told them, as he poured a tall glass of orange juice. "He's got his enrolment sorted out as well."

    "Really?" Emma asked, teasing, "They actually let you in?"

    "Well, they looked at my record and were dubious," Oz nonchalantly told her, handing over a steaming mug of coffee. "But then they looked at my scores and decided to live dangerously. Have to start again from scratch, though."

    Oz, otherwise known as Daniel Osbourne, had arrived in San Francisco a few weeks earlier, just in time to help David and Emma get rid of the ghost that was threatening to destroy their business. Since his arrival, he had revealed very little about his past, beyond the fact that he'd dropped out of university and left his hometown after a relationship broke down. He was now trying to build a new life here, and going back to college was part of that.

    "Huzzah," said Elli, cheerfully, holding up her glass as a toast. Oz promptly picked up an empty mug to knock against it. Laughing at such whimsy, Emma held out her own coffee mug to chink against theirs, while David rolled his eyes at their antics.

    "I'm official in other ways, too," Elli continued.

    "Don't tell me you actually sorted out a visa?" David asked, in mock disbelief.

    "Ha, no," Elli snorted. "I said official, not legal. I can hardly apply for a visa when I'm already here with no record of my entry. No."

    Elli's unorthodox arrival in San Francisco was another of the bizarre sequence of recent events that Emma still found decidedly hard to believe, in spite of all that she'd seen with her own eyes. It was easier to just try to forget than it was to attempt to work out any kind of logical explanation for the weirdness.

    Elli looked serious all of a sudden as she continued. "Official because I asked my foster mum to send over all the stuff I left in storage with her. What with that and the uni thing, I suppose I really do have to acknowledge that I'm actually staying here for the foreseeable future."

    "You have a foster mother?" Emma asked in bewilderment as David disappeared into another part of the bar. The surprises seemed never ending just lately.

    "Yes," Elli made it sound like the most normal thing in the world. "Maggie. She's top."

    Before Emma could enquire further, David reappeared with four small glasses and a bottle of champagne. "A toast," he said, pouring a glass for each of them. "To officialdom."

    "Officialdom!" they all chorused, chinking their glasses together and laughing.


    *****


  • #2
    *****

    Part One:

    *****

    "What are they talking about?"

    "Who?" Concentrating on wiping down behind the bar, David looked up with a puzzled frown.

    "Oz and Elli," Emma elaborated, sitting serenely at the counter sipping a soda through a straw. "I've never seen him talk so much ever. What are they talking about?"

    David glanced across the caf? to where the two in question were sitting together at a window table with empty plates and cups in front of them, chatting animatedly. At least, Elli was chatting animatedly, but Oz was also chipping in his fair share, both of them looking comfortable and relaxed.

    "Em, if I could hear what they were talking about from here I wouldn't be running a coffee bar in suburbia," said David scathingly, distracted and still trying to work, "I'd be out there with the glamorous life spying for the CIA."

    Emma gave him a dirty look.

    David sighed, picked up a tray, and wandered across to Oz and Elli's table. He collected their empty plates, chatted for a moment, and then returned to the bar.

    "Romania," he shot at Emma as he passed.

    "Excuse me?"

    "They're talking about Romania," he explained patiently as he started pottering around behind the counter again. "They've both been, apparently."

    Emma looked slightly nonplussed, but swiftly recollected her thoughts, resting an elbow on the counter and her chin on her hand. "They look cute together, don't they?"

    "What?" David sighed with long-suffering frustration.

    "Oz and Elli," Emma nodded over at them. "Wouldn't they make a cute couple?"

    "She's married, Em," David pointed out.

    "Since when?"

    "Since she was introduced to us as Mrs Murphy," David reminded her.

    "Oh yeah," Emma sighed, and then sulkily added, "Well, she doesn't act married. She doesn't even wear a ring. And how long of a break is he having today, anyway?"

    "This is late lunch, not a break," David told her. "And its not like we're run off our feet or anything."

    Emma looked at him, and then over at the other two again. Then she slid off her stool, picked up her soda, and walked over to join them, leaving David to work in peace at last.


    *****

    "No," Elli was saying as Emma came into earshot. "But I did fall asleep on a train one time in Poland. Missed my stop completely."

    "That doesn't sound good," Emma remarked, hovering near the table.

    "Oh, it really wasn't." Elli agreed, smiling at her in welcome while Oz nodded his own greeting and pushed a chair back for her to join them. Emma sat down, placing her soda on the table and leaning back with a sigh.

    "When I finally woke up I was in the middle of the back of beyond," Elli continued. "No idea where I was, or how to get back where I was supposed to be. It was late, and there wasn't a soul who spoke English."

    "What did you do?" Emma asked.

    "I drew a picture of a train," Elli explained. "Wrote the name of the town I wanted to get to, and showed it to people. And then they pointed me towards the oldest, clunkiest, most falling-apart train you ever saw, and it was just chugging out of the station. So off I went sprinting down the platform after it like a scene from one of those French farces Maggie used to watch all the time. And it was lucky it was so old: it couldn't work up much speed and I managed to jump onto the back of it. Lucky I didn't kill myself."

    "A good time was had by all," Oz commented wryly.

    "Sounds like you've had a lot of adventures," Emma observed, envious. "Both of you."

    "It wasn't all fun and games," Elli told her with a shrug.

    Oz nodded. "Seconded."

    "But still," Emma insisted. "At least you've seen the world a bit. The galaxy, in your case, Elli, which is still so weird I can't even think about it. And look at me ? one trip overseas in my whole life, and now settled down here into cosy domestic bliss."

    "There's nothing wrong with domestic bliss," Elli murmured, wistfully. "And San Francisco isn't so bad. A bit lacking in suitable accommodations, but mostly it seems a decent enough place."

    "I thought you had a place to stay," said Emma, curious.

    "I do," Elli explained. "But it isn't really what I wanted. I need somewhere I can set up properly if I'm going to work."

    "You're looking for a job? Emma was puzzled now. "Because?"

    "Art work," Oz clarified, fiddling with the cast on his wrist again.

    "Oh."

    "What I really want is an apartment with enough space for a proper studio," Elli told her with a sigh. "I just can't find anything in my price range."

    "That's too bad," Emma sympathised, reaching across the table to push Oz's hand away from his cast. "That'll never heal if you keep playing with it," she chided. The damaged ribs didn't seem to be bothering him any more, but the cast remained as visible evidence of his recent injury.

    Holding up his hands in surrender, Oz then checked his watch, and pushed his chair back. "So, I should get back to work."

    "Okay," Elli agreed, easily. "See you later."

    Oz nodded and rose, collected together the empty cups and headed off towards the kitchen, leaving the two girls alone together to continue their conversation.


    *****

    "David and I met at college," Emma explained, picking up her latest coffee refill and taking a sip.

    Absent-mindedly playing with the large, half-consumed milkshake in front of her, Elli nodded, silently encouraging her to continue.

    "He changed everything," Emma continued. "Before that I was like?the stereotypical spoiled LA rich girl who'd never lifted a finger to do anything her whole life. I went to college to learn about a few dumb ologies just for the sake of having something to do while I kicked back and enjoyed Daddy's money."

    "And then David?"

    "And then David." Emma smiled, remembering that first flush of romance. "I had everything and he had nothing. He had to work every hour there is to pay his way through school, but he did it because studying music was something he really wanted to do, that he was passionate about. I'd never known anyone like him before. Opened my eyes to the other side of life, you know? What it means to have to work for something, instead of just having it handed to you on a plate. There was so much that I took for granted."

    Elli smiled. "What happened to the music?"

    "He still plays," Emma told her with a regretful sigh. "And writes, when he has time. If he got the break he'd go for it, no question. And I'd support him in that. I would. It would mean so much to him. But the breaks have never been there. Or the money."

    She gestured around the caf?. "He worked in a place like this all through school, and it was kinda his second ambition. To have a place of his own that he could run how he wanted. So when the music didn't pan out, he put all his energy into making that other dream come true. And then we found this place, and he's worked so hard to make it a success." She smiled, proud of David's hard work and achievements.

    "But you've put in the effort, too," Elli pointed out, mildly. "You go out to work every day."

    "Only part-time."

    "That counts."

    Emma hadn't really thought of it that way before. "I took the job because we needed the money," she explained. "We were struggling. Apart from helping out here it's the first job I've ever had."

    She laughed. "I never dreamed I'd enjoy it so much. It feels so good to be independent. Earning an honest wage. And God, if my Dad could hear me say that, he'd combust on the spot!"

    Elli laughed with her, draining her glass.

    "It's so nice having another girl around," Emma told her, feeling expansive. It had been so long since she'd been able to have a long, girly chat like this, even if the confiding was pretty much all one-way.

    "You're surrounded by other girls in work, aren't you?" said Elli.

    "I mean a friend who's a girl. Work doesn't really count." Emma leaned back in her chair and sighed, a wave of nostalgia rolling over her. "When I lived in LA I had everything, you know? Money. Influence." She rolled her eyes, remembering the parties, the glitz, and the glamour, and how much her life had changed during the last year or so. "Jet-set friends."

    Elli gave her a sympathetic smile, but said nothing, fiddling with her straw.

    "Not that I'm complaining, of course," Emma added, hurriedly. "This place is going great now, and I love my job. But I don't really keep up with any of my old friends any more. David doesn't do girl talk. Oz doesn't do talk, period, except with you, apparently. And there hasn't really been much time for socialising since we've moved here. So it's just so good to finally make a non-work friend who's a girl and knows how to talk about stuff." She brightened as a wonderful idea hit her. "Hey, we should go shopping!"

    Warming to the idea, and instantly engrossed in making mental plans, Emma failed to notice the look of mild alarm that crossed Elli's face at the prospect. "I don't really do shopping."

    "Of course you do," Emma insisted. "You're a girl, aren't you? It'll be great."


    *****

    Oz was alone behind the counter at the Monico when Elli came in the next day, looking around cautiously.

    "Hey," he greeted her, casually.

    "Hi," she replied, still looking wary. "Is David around?"

    "Kitchen," Oz told her. "I can call him."

    "No, just checking he's not in earshot," Elli said, shaking her head. She leaned towards him, conspiratorially. "I need your help."

    Oz looked at her, curious, as she continued. "Emma made me go shopping with her, so you have to help me think of excuses why I am never doing that again."

    Amused now, Oz wondered how bad it could possibly have been. Most girls, in his experience, enjoyed going shopping, although it was already clear to him that Elli wasn't quite like most girls.

    "I'm serious," Elli insisted, although her mischievous smile indicated that she was playing the awfulness of it up slightly. "Because, first of all, she kept dragging me into all these horrifically trendy stores, you know? The kind where you can buy jars of colored sand for the price of a third world country's annual debt. And then we went into a department store that had a closing down sale, and it was terrifying. Really, really terrifying. Once we were in we couldn't go back out, because once we were out we wouldn't be able to get back in again, so we had to stay in. And there were all these people, everywhere. I have never seen so many people voluntarily confined into such a small space. We couldn't move faster than a brain-dead shuffle. And, I swear to all the Mothers, she cased the entire joint at least five times before she would even start to consider what she might want to actually buy. And then there were the queues at the checkouts?"

    She gave a little shudder of exaggerated dismay. "Please don't let her take me anywhere like that ever again."

    "The joys of living in a fashion conscious consumer driven society," Oz quipped, thoroughly amused but privately wondering what kind of curse 'all the Mothers' was. "Have to say: I don't really see you as the department store type."

    Elli rested her elbows on the counter. "Nah. Give me an open-air market any day. I like me fresh air and a good haggle over the price."

    "So I guess you need something soothing to recover from the experience."

    "Please." She nodded vigorously. "Buckets of tea, preferably. One of those funky ones, I think."

    "Funky tea?" Oz asked, dubious.

    "Anything herbal that doesn't taste like mud or bark."

    Oz nodded in mock seriousness. "One funky tea coming up."

    Fixing the tea, he glanced up when he heard the door opening again and couldn't quite suppress the involuntary stab of unease that ran through him when he saw Mike Hanson and Mat Cordoba enter the caf?. They were the police officers who'd, fruitlessly as it turned out, investigated his assault the other week. They'd become regular customers at the caf?, and Oz had never quite managed to pin down why he found their frequent visits so bothersome, preferring to simply avoid both them and any consideration of them.

    Noting that David had returned to the bar and was free to deal with them, Oz quickly turned his attention back to Elli. "Can I get you anything else while I'm at it?"

    Elli gave him a long, searching look. "I could do with something to eat, now you come to mention it," she replied, slowly. "My usual?"

    Grateful for the excuse to be elsewhere, Oz nodded. "Be right with you," he told her, and headed out to the kitchen.


    *****

    By the time Oz returned to the main caf?, Mike and Mat were long gone with their takeaway order. He took Elli's order over to the window table she'd retired to with her soothing herbal tea, and then went back to the bar to deal with the next customer, instantly recognising the unruly ginger hair and ultra casual dress sense of the girl who'd just walked in.

    "Hiya," Charlie looked as surprised to see him here as he was to see her. They'd run into one another, quite literally, a couple of times on campus while he was sorting out his university enrolment and saving the city from being destroyed by an evil megalomaniac. He'd rarely been able to accuse his life of being dull although, to be fair, San Francisco was nowhere near as eventful as Sunnydale had been.

    "Hey," he replied.

    Unsurprisingly, Charlie also remembered the events of their last encounter.

    "So, Oz," she remarked, placing the crash helmet for her motorbike to one side and leaning casually against the counter. "Blown up any lakes lately?"

    Oz toyed with the idea of mentioning that he'd also helped blow up his high school on graduation day, but decided it would be a bad idea. For one thing, it could give entirely the wrong impression.

    "Not recently," he replied. "No."

    "I didn't know you worked here," she continued, taking off her battered leather jacket and draping it over a stool. "Although of course, there's no reason you shouldn't. Can I get, um?a slice of that very sinful looking chocolate cake and a black coffee?"

    While Oz was busy filling her order, David returned to the bar and noted the new arrival. "Oh. Well hey there again."

    "You remember Charlie," Oz reminded him, since he'd clearly forgotten her name.

    "I do indeed." David gave Charlie his most charming smile. "And to what do we owe the pleasure of your custom?"

    "I'm looking for a local to call my own," Charlie explained, cheerfully. Turning to Oz, she continued. "Have you tasted the stuff they serve on campus? It's horrific. And the place I spent most of my waking hours last year seems to have closed."

    "That sounds about right," David agreed.

    "College food," said Oz. "You can live on it, but you might not want to."

    "For which my profit margin says 'amen'," David added with a grin.


    *****

    Unpacking new stock was way down Emma's list of favourite chores for her days off from the boutique. Being part owner of a flourishing coffee bar came with certain drawbacks attached at times, she noted wryly as she sang tunelessly to herself while arranging the goods on their appropriate shelves.

    Finishing with the stock organisation, Emma looked at the large stack of empty boxes she was left with, sighed and headed through into the main caf?.

    Emerging from the corridor behind the bar, Emma stood behind the counter, looking all around in annoyance. A few random customers were sitting at tables, and Elli was at the bar with a soda, but there was no sign of either David or Oz.

    "Problem?" asked Elli, seeing the look on her face.

    "Only all the men in my life conspicuous by their absence just when I need them to help carry things," Emma complained.

    "David was having a catastrophe in the kitchen," Elli told her. "Can I help?"

    "Ooh, thank you," Emma was quick to accept the offer. "Yes, you can. An extra pair of hands would save me a trip or two of trekking back and fore."

    Elli obligingly drained her soda, slid from her stool, and followed Emma through to the cluttered stock room. They each swept up an armful of empty cardboard boxes and headed through to the yard out back.

    "Why is there never a man around when we need one?" Emma sighed, struggling to see where she was going past the stack boxes in her arms.

    "Because that would be too easy," Elli replied, shifting the weight of her own burden from one arm to the other.

    As they passed the foot of the stairs, Elli paused and looked around her, frowning slightly.

    "Something wrong?" asked Emma, looking back to see why she'd stopped.

    "No," Elli hurriedly brushed it off and started moving again. "No. I'm coming." She quickly caught up with Emma, and they continued through the corridors.

    "Oof." Finally emerging out into the sunlit yard behind the old theatre, Emma dropped her load onto the ground with a big sigh.

    Elli did likewise. "That wasn't so hard," she remarked. "Who needs men after all?"

    "Oh, they have their uses," Emma grinned slyly. "Speaking of which: what about you and Oz?"

    Concentrating on pulling the clutter of boxes into a neater pile, Elli looked up with a puzzled frown. "What about me and Oz?"

    "I've seen you two together." Now that she was married and off the market, Emma had to satisfy her romantic cravings by matchmaking for all her friends, which was easier said than done since the one-time social butterfly had made relatively few new friends since moving to San Francisco. She was convinced there was a spark between Oz and Elli, but wasn't getting very far with either.

    "We talk, yes," Elli replied, evasively. "You and I talk, as well. It's a thing that friends like to do."

    "Oh, come on!"

    "I mean it." Elli told her seriously as she straightened up. "He's on the rebound, and I'm?I'm really not going to get involved with anyone."

    "Okay, okay. I'm sorry." Emma held up her hands in surrender, realising that her ribbing was not appreciated.

    "Yeah, no worries," Elli was only half paying attention now, her eyes caught by something. "What's that?"

    Emma followed Elli's eye line to a ramshackle old building adjoining the theatre. "Oh, that's the old stables ? from when the Monico used to be a theatre. I think the guy who owned the place before us was going to turn it all into apartments, but he only got a part of the work done before he went bust. We've never used them for anything."

    Elli listened in silence, eying the old stables thoughtfully, and then asked: "But you own them, right? Can I have a look inside?"

    "Of course," Emma was puzzled, wondering what her friend could possibly find appealing about the derelict stables, but nevertheless headed back inside to find the keys. "I'll just go?" There'd be a key around, somewhere, wouldn't there? "Have a key hunt."


    *****

    Back in the caf? later that day, Emma, David and Elli sat around one of the more secluded tables in deep discussion.

    "It'll be perfect," Elli insisted. "I'll have fresh coffee on tap from your caf? all day while I work."

    "But they're stables!" Emma protested.

    "They're perfect," said Elli, firmly. "Look at the potential: plenty of space, plenty of light ? at least, there will be when I've finished when them. And above all: cheap."

    "Cheap?" David queried. "Says who?"

    "Only partially converted and in poor repair," Elli pointed out, dryly. "How much would you dare charge me?"

    David rolled his eyes. "Talk about being hustled."

    "But you can't live in stables," Emma protested again, still appalled at the idea.

    "Why not?" Elli clearly couldn't see what was wrong with the idea. "They're already partly converted, so it won't take that much to finish the job. And I can do the work myself, most of it."

    "But?"

    "I'm not afraid of hard work," Elli told her. "And I've roughed it before."


    *****

    Comment


    • #3
      *****

      Part Two:

      *****

      Elli's new apartment was rapidly taking shape.

      Old stables were not what Oz would have considered the ideal home, but Elli had looked beyond the disrepair and seen only the potential. Since the stables were in fairly poor condition, David and Emma had leased them to her for virtually nothing, and to their surprise she had moved in almost at once. She'd managed to transform the dilapidated premises in record time, aided by the fact that beneath the disrepair the stables had already been partially converted by a previous owner. The transformation was not complete, by any means, but the upper level was fast becoming what even Emma might consider habitable, while the lower floor was already starting to fill up with the equipment Elli considered proper for an art studio.

      The lower level also had an impressive amount of space for simply hanging out. Taking a break from both work and removals, Oz and David had brought some instruments out to the studio and were perched on the new worktables seeing what kind of noise they could produce. For Oz, this was easier said than done, since his wrist was still in a cast. He looked forward to the day it was removed, allowing complete freedom of movement. David, though, was completely engrossed in the music. It was fun to watch, and to try and join in a little, out here in the quiet.


      *****

      Sounds of the guys' musicality drifted up from downstairs as Elli and Emma sat around the old dining table Elli had acquired, both hard at work. The upper level was already beginning to look like a place someone might live, although it was still at the 'camping out' stage of moving in. It was largely open plan, and Elli had carefully placed a large screen to conceal her wardrobe and bed, which currently featured a sleeping bag rather than sheets. She now had a more or less functional kitchen, a second-hand but very comfortable sofa, and that old table with a few straight-backed wooden chairs around it.

      Elli was busily sanding down an old coffee table, careless of the mess she was making, not having bothered to put any paper down, and Emma sat near her, sorting through a bag of second-hand cutlery.

      "The guys sound like they're having fun with the jamming," Emma observed, listening to the music.

      Elli shook her head. "David is jamming. Oz is experimenting with one-and-a-half handed guitarism."

      "Sounds like jamming to me."

      Elli shrugged. "True, but I think he'll find it easier when the cast is off."

      "Well, whatever you call it, they aren't getting much work done down there," Emma continued. She looked around at the sparsely furnished apartment. "You know, I never would have believed it, but this place might actually be habitable one day."

      "Habitable one day?" Elli protested, pretending to take offence. "I'm already habiting, thank you very much!" She grinned. "I told you it would work. I am an expert thrift shop shopper. My stuff from Australia might actually arrive one day, too." She looked around the apartment, satisfied with how it was turning out. "I think I'll feel more settled when I've got all my things here with me."

      "Hey, that's starting to look pretty good now," said Emma, looking at the coffee table she was working on, the stained varnish now removed and the bare wood beneath looking clean and bright. "Where did you get it from, anyway? One of those thrift shops of yours?"

      Elli's face lit up with mischief. "I pulled it out of a skip." She loved finding old things that other people had discarded and then making them over into something new and beautiful. The coffee table would look great once it was re-varnished.

      Emma was appalled all over again. "A skip? As in, thrown out with the trash?"

      "And you thought thrift shops and flea markets were bad," Elli grinned, delighted at her reaction. "Welcome to how the other half lives. Isn't it fun?"


      *****

      Back at work once more after the removal assistance and impromptu jam session, Oz took an armful of trash out back to find Elli sitting on an upturned box outside her stable-apartment communing with a bunch of birds. They were clustered all around her, sitting on her arms, shoulder and head even, and she looked absolutely entranced, far away in a world all her own.

      Of course, the birds flew away the moment Oz stepped through the door, much to his disappointment. Looking up, Elli smiled to see him, so he quickly discarded the trash and went over to join her.

      "How'd you get them to do that?" he asked, intrigued.

      "Who to do what?"

      "The birds."

      Elli shrugged. "I've always been able to," was her off-hand reply. "I just call them, and they come."

      "That's cool." Oz was fascinated by the idea.

      "But?they won't come back with you here," she told him, apologetically. "Sorry."

      "Shy birds." It was a pity, but? "That's okay."

      "It's a wolf thing, I'm afraid," Elli told him with regret. "They can tell."

      "Oh." He should've guessed. The inner werewolf struck again.

      Elli looked around, wrinkling her nose. "I probably should be more careful ? anyone could've come out just then. I just ? I really needed some contact with nature. I'd forgotten how much I hate cities."

      "So why'd you stay in one?" he asked, curious.

      "I don't know," she admitted. "It seemed like a good idea. I was tired. I wanted to just stop, to stay in one place. And I'd already met people here, so I thought it would be easier than starting again somewhere else. What about you?"

      "Me?"

      "Why'd you decide to stay?" she clarified the question. "'Cause you haven't been here long, Emma was telling me."

      Oz thought about it for a moment. "Pretty much the same reason, actually."

      Elli nodded, looking around the yard. "You know Emma calls this a garden?"

      Oz likewise looked around. The yard was mostly just concrete, with one narrow strip of weed-filled earth and a few pots with wilting shrubs in them.

      "You don't agree." He couldn't blame her for that. It was a very poor excuse for a garden.

      "This cannot be considered in any way a garden," Elli told him. "I think I might have to take it in hand."

      She grinned suddenly. "Emma's trying to fix us up, you know."

      Oz nodded. "I'd noticed." Emma's lack of subtlety made it hard to miss.

      "I think her reasoning is that we're both alone here: therefore a perfect match," Elli continued.

      Oz had to grin at that, and they shared a moment of amusement. The attraction was there, sure enough ? it was rare to meet someone so much on the same wavelength in so many ways, but although this was as close as they'd ever come to talking about it, neither was really in any place to get into something new. Much as he liked her and despite all the water under the bridge and everything, just the thought of being with someone not Willow was still enough to send a shiver of guilt and anxiety down his spine. No, definitely not ready for another relationship yet, not with his head still full of Willow and uncertainty over his wolf issues, and he'd sensed a similar reserve in Elli. That was half the reason they got on so well, he'd decided ? however single they appeared to the rest of the world, they each saw the other as off the market and therefore completely 'safe', for want of a better word.

      "She'll probably get bored and find a new target soon enough," Elli continued, before swiftly changing the subject. "I don't suppose you could do me another favour, could you. Please."

      "This sounds like an I-need-transport request," Oz realised.

      "Got it in one," Elli told him, cheerfully. "My stuff arrived that Maggie sent over, so I need to go collect it from the depot." Her tone turned wheedling. "And maybe stop off at that art shop on the way?"

      "You practically live at that store, but sure," Oz agreed. The various local art supplies stores were fast becoming Elli's favourite haunt. That was definitely her preferred brand of shopping, much to Emma's bemusement. "Is tomorrow good? I'm not working till late."

      "That's brilliant, thanks."


      *****

      The art store detour made it a longer trip than anticipated, and then came the unloading and unpacking. Ever willing to be helpful, Oz heaved the last suitcase out of his van, locked it, and then hauled the case into the old stables that were now Elli's domain.

      Lugging the heavy case up the rickety wooden staircase, he found Elli busily unpacking the other cases and boxes that had either arrived from Australia. A couple of the bags of art supplies acquired en route were strewn around amongst the untidy piles of unpacked belongings ? mostly clothes and shoes, a few books and CDs, plus her portfolio from university in Melbourne.

      "Wouldn't like to think how much this lot cost to ship," Oz remarked as he entered the room.

      "Maggie sorted it out," Elli told him absent-mindedly, glancing up. "You should have left that one ? it's heavy for a broken wrist."

      "No, it's okay," Oz reassured her, dumping the case to one side. "The wrist feels fine. What else can I do?"

      Standing up, Elli indicated the box she was unpacking. "Tell you what: if you carry on with this one, I'll go over to the caf? and get us both a drink."

      Nodding, Oz moved across to the table while Elli headed for the stairs.


      *****

      Entering the Monico the back way, Elli felt that weird vibe again as she passed the foot of the stairs, and paused to look around, wondering once again what was causing it.

      Making a mental note to ask Oz, who seemed the most likely of her new acquaintances to know about anything remotely supernatural, she continued into the main caf?. There she found David bustling around behind the counter, while Emma was sat at the bar, deep in conversation with Charlie.

      "So if this is the summer break," Emma was asking, "How come you're still here living on campus? I thought students all went home to see their families during vacation."

      "Overseas student," Charlie pointed out. "Not so easy to go home to the family when they're all on the other side of the Atlantic."

      "I guess not," Emma conceded.

      "I couldn't have gone anyway," Charlie added. "I've spent most of the summer on a dig."

      "Dig?"

      "I'm an archaeologist," she explained. "Or at least, I will be."

      "Archaeology major, huh?" David put in. "That's different."

      Charlie shrugged. "Well, someone's got to." She spotted Elli then. "Hi. How's the move coming on?"

      "Almost there, thanks," Elli smiled. "I just picked up all the stuff I had sent on from Australia."

      "D'you need a hand with the unpacking?" asked Emma. "I have to pop back to the boutique for half an hour, but I can stop by later."

      "I think we're okay for the moment," Elli told her. "Oz is helping. But later on would be great, thanks."

      She turned to David. "I just came over to get a couple of drinks. Takeaway tea for me, please, and Oz didn't say what he wanted, so whatever you feel like making for him."

      "One tea and one coffee coming right up," David replied, smoothly.

      Glancing at her watch, Charlie muffled a curse. "Is that the time? I'd best be off." She quickly gulped down what was left of her drink. "Seeya."

      "Okay," Emma called as she headed for the door. "Nice seeing you again."

      "Bye," Elli added.

      On her way out through the door, Charlie passed the two police officers, Mike and Mat, who were on their way in, reminding Elli of another matter she'd been meaning to raise with Oz. They reached the bar just as David handed Elli her two takeaway drinks.

      "On the house."

      Elli beamed at him. "Thanks."

      She headed back out the back way as David turned to greet Mike and Mat. "Afternoon, officers. What can I get you today?"


      *****

      Comment


      • #4
        *****

        Alone in Elli's new apartment, Oz continued to unpack. Emptying the box she'd left him working on, he pulled a case from under a pile of clothes and opened it. Inside were some more clothes, which he set aside for her to put away later, and some photos, which he put up on a shelf for her to arrange later, and beneath that?oddness.

        There were other, stranger clothes ? the kind of thing you might find at a medieval faire, only more practical: hard-wearing and well-worn. A strange kind of string instrument, also well used and very carefully packed. Some jewellery, very old in appearance, and what looked like a few charms. And at the bottom there were a couple of swords, of all things, and some knives of varying length and shape, also old, beautifully fashioned, and very sharp ? clearly business-like.

        Oz already knew that Elli was not the most average person in the world. She had, after all, arrived in San Francisco by pretty unconventional means, coming from Australia via first Europe and then some weird kind of space or dimensional travel, of all things. But he was at a complete loss to know what to make of these unusual belongings she'd had shipped over from Australia and which therefore came from before her galactic travels. The weapons were the sort of thing he might expect to find hanging around Buffy's house, while the jewellery and charms were more what Giles or Willow kept around the place ? at least they looked to him to be more occult than standard.

        Buffy, Giles and Willow all had their reasons for keeping such things, so presumably Elli did too, but what her particular reasons were he had no way of knowing.

        While he was thus pondering, he heard Elli's voice chattering as she returned with two drink cartons in hand.

        "I'm back. Those two cops were in the caf? again. You know, Mike and Mat."

        Once again, he had to quickly quash that uncomfortable, involuntary twinge of a reaction to even the mention of the police, as Elli continued. "They're always hanging around?"

        Her voice trailed off when she saw the open case on the table, displaying its unusual contents to the whole room.

        She looked from him to the case for a moment, and then turned to move some other bits and pieces, quietly commenting that, "Most of that stuff will need to be locked away securely. The wardrobe'll have to do for now."

        Oz wasn't sure whether to ask questions or not. Her expression was hard to read, and he gathered he hadn't been meant to find these things. But on the other hand, if she really didn't want anyone to know, she wouldn't have asked him to help her unpack, as unpacking the wrong thing was always going to be a risk in that situation.

        "So," he observed, quizzically. "You've got some pretty unusual stuff here."

        "Yes," she admitted without explanation, her eyes wary. "That's why you're helping me unpack instead of David or Emma."

        "Now, I'm not sure if I should be flattered by that, or worried," Oz told her.

        "I knew I could trust you," she said, simply.

        He still wasn't sure whether to be flattered or worried. "You're sure about that?"

        "Well, I thought you'd be the least likely to nose about and ask questions," she replied reprovingly.

        Oz didn't feel inclined to apologise for finding her hidden secrets, since he'd been helping her unpack at her request. He stayed quiet and waited to see if she would explain further.

        Relenting, Elli continued, hesitantly. "Also, I knew if you did see all this?I mean, you know about secrets. And about less usual stuff. I thought you'd understand there are things I can't tell you. The others are great, but there's so much they don't know about."

        A long pause followed, as Oz considered the implications of this statement. He remembered seeing her do some fairly unusual things, specifically the way she'd rescued him from the Master's stronghold, and how she'd known with one glance that he was a werewolf without actually seeing him change. And then there'd been that thing about her calling birds down to the yard out back, and he was fairly sure that wild birds were not generally inclined to do that for just anyone. Those incidents, combined with this, led to some entertaining conclusions. He just wasn't sure what kind of number two and two were adding up to.

        "Okay so, forgive me for asking this," he said slowly. "But I'm remembering how you said your more recent history was less than average. Well, and now I'm guessing your not so recent history is also less than average, right?"

        "You could say that, I suppose," Elli conceded, a worried expression on her face.

        "In fact, I'd go so far to say that you yourself are considerably less than average," Oz continued, putting the pieces together.

        "Also, a reasonable assumption." Elli's voice was calm, but she was watching him anxiously: Oz guessed this was a crucial moment for her. She was clearly hiding something about her past. She'd said she felt she could trust him, but it remained to be seen just how far ? did she trust him enough to explain her secrets?

        "Are you going to tell me about it?" he asked.

        Elli shook her head. "I'd rather not," she said, worriedly. "I'm not supposed to talk to anybody about this."

        "I'm not anybody," Oz felt compelled to point out. Not that he wanted to force her into a confidence she wasn't comfortable with, but as she'd already acknowledged, out of everyone she'd met as yet in San Francisco, he was probably the only one who really knew about that other world that existed out there, the supernatural underbelly of society. If she wanted someone to confide in, and he suspected she did, he was probably her best bet.

        Elli smiled faintly. "Mr Nobody, is it? I mean?"

        She sighed, and nodded, apparently making a decision, and then looked him straight in the eye. "All right. Between you and me. No-one else hears this, okay?"

        Oz nodded, his curiosity rising.

        Elli bit her lip, and then asked: "What would you say if I told you I don't come from here?"

        "I already knew that," Oz pointed out.

        "No, I don't mean this country," Elli explained. "I mean this world."

        There was brief pause, as Oz took a moment to absorb that information.

        "Okay, not what I was expecting," he admitted, although he wasn't entirely sure what he had been expecting.

        "You do know, don't you?" Elli sounded hesitant again. "About other?other dimensions? Other worlds?"

        Oz thought about that for a moment, remembering his encounter with Willow's vampire counterpart and the lengths necessary to return her to the world she'd come from: an alternate dimension, and by all accounts not a particularly nice one. He also remembered what he'd learned about Angel's sojourn in hell. Eying the weapons and clothing he wondered what Elli's world was like. "A little, I guess."

        "I can't really?" She hesitated. "I just?that's where I come from, originally. Another world. Very different to this one."

        "So, if I can ask, why are you here?" Oz asked, wondering just how much she'd be willing to tell him.

        Elli rolled her eyes. "Mostly I'm waiting, for it to be time to go back."

        She was looking at him with mute appeal now, her eyes clearly saying 'please don't ask any more'. Oz decided to respect her wishes and drop the subject for now. After all, he had secrets of his own, and the bird explanation aside she'd never raised the werewolf thing again once she realised it wasn't something he wanted spread all around or to discuss.

        Pushing curiosity to one side for the time being, he nodded. "Okay then. Another time."

        Seeing how anxious she still was, he decided to take some of the pressure off her by treating the whole thing as an everyday occurrence, and started to unpack some of the weapons, having no trouble handling them after his Scooby experience.

        "Hard to believe all this stuff got past customs," he remarked casually, hoping to lighten the mood.

        Elli relaxed a little, clearly relieved that he wasn't going to press. "Ways and means, m'dear, ways and means."

        Taking the older looking sword from him to put away in a large sports bag at the back of the wardrobe, she paused, her back to him. Then she turned back, eying him appraisingly.

        "So, Oz," she said, still regarding him thoughtfully. "Ever used one of these?" She brandished the sword in his direction.

        "Can't say I have." He'd handled the odd sword or two, since Buffy and Giles between them had a fairly impressive arsenal, but he'd never used one in battle or anything like that. Stakes and crossbows tended to be the weapons of choice in Sunnydale. They came complete with far less risk of accidentally cutting off your own ear or hand, for one thing.

        "Ever wanted to?" she sounded hopeful.

        "Why?" Oz wondered what was coming now.

        "Truthfully? 'Cause I need someone to train with," she replied with absolute honesty. "I'm getting seriously rusty with lack of practice and I need to stay sharp."

        "Again, I'm wondering why." He didn't like to commit himself without knowing the full story.

        Elli hesitated. "It's a very long and complicated story that I really don't want to tell right now."

        Oz thought about that and nodded, reminding himself of his earlier resolve to respect her privacy. What could be the harm in being her sparring partner, he asked himself. He'd already mastered the stake and crossbow, so this would just be another weapons skill to add to his collection.

        "I mean, seriously, who else am I going to ask?" Elli was wheedling now. "Can you picture David holding a sword? Or Emma?"

        "Good point," Oz had to admit. The very idea almost brought a smile to his face. Elli clearly didn't want to talk about her past, but since she'd asked him a pretty big favour, he felt justified in asking for a little more information. "Can I ask who taught you?"

        "My grandfather, mostly," she replied easily, busy putting things into that sports bag.

        More weird. "One day, you know, you're going to have to explain all this to me," Oz told her.

        "I realise that," she acknowledged. "One day. Maybe."

        Nodding, Oz helped her hide the weapons away securely at the back of the wardrobe and for a while they continued to unpack and tidy up in silence. Then Elli changed the subject completely.

        "Oz? Can I ask you something?" she glanced across at him as he sorted through some of her new art supplies that had been brought upstairs by mistake: they belonged in the studio below.

        "Ask," he replied noncommittally, wondering what was on her mind now.

        "What have you got against Mike and Mat?"

        Taken aback, Oz kept his eyes averted for a moment, fiddling with a handful of paint brushes of all sizes, trying to figure out where the question had come from. Then he looked across at her. "Have I got something against Mike and Mat?"

        "You get?jittery every time they're around," she explained. "I mean, its kind of a fine distinction, a really fine distinction, so most people probably wouldn't even notice. But?you do. Why?"

        Oz kept silent for a moment, not looking at her, eyes focused on the paintbrushes in his hands as he continued to fiddle with them. But even as she asked the question, the reason behind his unease had become annoyingly clear to him. He'd convinced himself he was over it. Realising that she was not going to let this lie, and also that she was probably the only person around here he could ever admit this to, he quietly asked, "Have you ever heard of the Initiative?"

        Elli shook her head, looking curious. "No."

        "Secret government agency," he explained. "With license to capture demons and monsters, and experiment on them."

        "Oh," Elli's eyes went wide, sudden understanding flooding across her face. "They're after you?"

        He knew it was stupid to allow a couple of police officers to remind him of that experience. They were so far removed from any secret military organisation it was almost funny. And yet knowing that did not stop a tiny part of him feeling anxious every time they were around. It was hard to define exactly why.

        "Probably not so much now," he admitted, and yet those lingering Initiative issues refused to go completely away.

        Elli narrowed her eyes as she looked at him for a moment, frowning slightly. Then she quietly said: "But they did get you once."

        Oz wondered if it was that obvious. "They did." He kept his voice level, but looked away again and became busy organising the brushes in a container.

        Elli paused a moment, and her tone was deliberately light as she asked, "There long?"

        He shook his head. "Not long. Long enough."

        He wasn't even sure why he'd mentioned it at all, except that he'd never actually talked about it to anyone ? the Scoobies had busted him out relatively quickly, but then they'd pretty much abandoned him. He'd never had the chance to talk through those inner fears that refused to go completely away. Not that he made a habit of talking about stuff like that ever, but every time he convinced himself that it was all over and done with, in the past, those two cops would come into the caf?, and something deep down inside him would see their uniforms and feel uneasy, just a tiny bit.

        "That's not good." She was looking worried now.

        He shrugged, unwilling to go into detail. "My friends got me out."

        "I'm glad. But what does it have to do with Mike and Mat?" Elli was curious. "They aren't anything to do with this Initiative."

        "No. I know that."

        "But?"

        It was hard to verbalise a gut reaction, especially one that he tried to pretend didn't exist anyway. "It's stupid. I know. Transference." That was the shrinks' buzz word for this, wasn't it?

        "But?" she prompted again.

        "Cops. They're kind of official?" He couldn't find the words to express that subconscious anxiety.

        "You're worried what would happen if someone in a position of power knew you were a werewolf?" Elli guessed, fairly accurately as it happened.

        "Maybe," he admitted. It was the uniforms that did it, he realised. A different kind of uniform, true, but still they reminded him of waking up in that cell, surrounded by soldiers with familiar faces and men in white coats. And, of course, getting captured again recently had stirred up all those bad memories just when he'd thought they were safely buried, as well as creating a few more.

        "I get that," she mused. "There's a lot I wouldn't want men in uniform to know about me. And for you, maybe, if the news got higher up the food chain, your secret government agency might come after you again. Is that what you think?"

        Wondering again just how much Elli was keeping hidden, beyond what he already knew, Oz considered the question: "Probably not," he had to admit. "I know that, I keep telling myself?but they might."

        He knew it was especially stupid because when he'd phoned Giles to ask about David and Emma's ghost problems the former Watcher had told him about the demise of the Initiative. The organisation didn't even exist any more, so what was he worrying about? But somewhere at the back of his mind lurked the concern that the government has sanctioned experiments on 'monsters' once and could do it again. After all, who'd have dreamt that beneath the UC Sunnydale campus was a secret military organisation conducting experiments on vampires and demons, or that so many of those harmless looking students were actually highly trained soldiers prepared to torture and kill? You just never knew what was out there, and it paid to be cautious. He'd learned that the hard way.

        "The subconscious works in strange ways," Elli commented.

        "That is true." His certainly wouldn't let go of that nagging concern, not completely, not yet.

        There was a slight pause, before Oz grudgingly gave in to the searching look Elli was giving him. He hated admitting to feeling vulnerable, but also knew that it needed to be said. He needed to get it out. "It's the uniforms," he admitted. "I see them, and it's like ? just for a second, something inside me remembers. Waking up and seeing the soldiers, and?then the rest." The rest was something he still couldn't quite bring himself to verbalise, even if it hadn't been anywhere near as bad as it could have been, or would have been without the relatively rapid jailbreak.

        Elli nodded, her expression full of sympathy without pity, which was good. "You do know that people can't tell you're a werewolf just by looking, right?" She was using her most reassuring tone now. "People who aren't me, that is."

        Oz nodded. He'd told himself that many times.

        "Also, if Mike and Mat saw you wolf out they'd freak, sure, but I don't think they even know what a secret government agency is, never mind how to contact one."

        He had to smile at that, just a little. "True."

        "But it still bothers you?"

        "A little," he had to admit. Although having voiced those inner fears aloud for the first time made him feel slightly better in itself.

        Elli thought about it for a moment. "Well, we're just going to have to make sure no one ever finds out then, aren't we."

        "Safety in secrecy," Oz agreed. "That's pretty much the game plan." Elli's uncanny ability to see exactly who and what he was notwithstanding.

        "You really hate it, don't you?" she added. "Being a wolf."

        Oz wasn't sure how to respond to that. He'd never allowed himself to consider exactly how he felt about being a werewolf. That way lay madness, since it wasn't something he could do anything about anyway. He'd always focused on accepting the problem and dealing with it, and was proud of how far he'd come since that first day. The monks had taught him how to prevent the wolf from manifesting, and as long as he stayed focused on that teaching and avoided incidents like that concussion last month, the moon no longer had control over him.

        But as for how he felt about being a werewolf?

        He wasn't sure he wanted to think about it.

        Nodding, and apparently not expecting an answer, Elli continued. "Can I ask you another question? And relax, this one isn't personal."

        Calming down once more, Oz gave her his full attention, and waited to hear what she wanted to know now.

        "Tell me about the Monico," she asked curiously. "The place has such a strange?oh, I hate to use the word 'aura'." She rolled her eyes. "It sounds so new age-y, but that's what it is. At the bottom of the stairs there's this ? I don't know. It feels like there was a big burst of psychic energy there, recently."

        Oz nodded, now filled with curiosity. She must be picking up the after-effects of the recent exorcism, he realised, although he wasn't sure how. "You can feel that?" he asked. "That's interesting."


        *****

        "So you banished a shade?" said Elli. "I'm so impressed."

        The two of them had long since given up on the unpacking, and had taken their drinks over to the faded, shabby sofa for Oz to tell the story of the Monico's ghost.

        "It wasn't just me," Oz pointed out. "David and Emma were there too."

        "But you took point," said Elli. "Not many people can do that, you know."

        "Well, I don't know if we did it right." He thought about it for a moment, frowning slightly. "You might be able to help with that."

        Before Elli could make any reply, Emma's voice floated up from the stairs.

        "Food for the workers, ahoy!"

        "Hold that thought," said Elli with a rueful smile, as she rose to give Emma a hand with the tray of snacks she'd brought over.

        "So, what are we up to?" Emma asked, breezily as she came into the room. "Because you obviously aren't getting much unpacking done."

        "Oz has been telling me ghost stories," Elli replied, equally breezily. "One in particular."

        Emma shuddered. "Thank goodness that's all over. I didn't know things like that existed ? I didn't want to know things like that existed. I'd prefer my life to stay a bit more on the normal side now, thank you very much."

        Oz caught Elli's eye and realised she was thinking much the same thing as him: that those kinds of comments that both Emma and David threw in from time to time made it clear that their mutually unusual circumstances were not something they could share with their other friends. That pretending to be normal was the price they had to pay for living in normal society amongst normal people.


        *****

        Emma's arrival turned the slow unpacking-and-sorting process into a whirl of brisk efficiency that was not Oz's style at all, or Elli's, for that matter.

        Returning to the apartment after taking the box of art equipment downstairs, Oz noticed that Emma was looking at the photos he'd put up on the shelf earlier, holding one in her hand. He remembered which one it was: a snapshot of an Elli not much younger than she was now with a boy about the same age, all shaggy blond hair and smiling eyes, laughing at the camera, not a care in the world.

        Coming up behind Emma and seeing what she was holding, Elli took it out of her hand, gazed at it wistfully for a moment, and then set it back down on a higher shelf without a word, and headed back to her sorting. Watching this little interplay, Oz kept quiet, wondering how Emma would react.

        "Elli??" Emma never knew when to leave things alone.

        Elli turned back to her, a resigned look on her face. "His name was Stephen. Stephen Murphy." She half-smiled at the memory. "They called him 'Smurph'."

        Typical high school nickname, Oz thought. Of course, he still went by his. He wondered how just long Elli had been in this world, then ? she'd certainly been in Australia long enough to pick up a bit of an accent. There was a lot about her that was a mystery ? more so than ever after the day's revelations. But he could hardly fault her for that, given the secrets he chose to keep himself.

        "So you are married, then?" Emma began to say before her brain caught up with the implications of what Elli had just said. "Was?"

        "He joined the fire service," Elli explained shortly. "Loved it. Got himself killed."

        "Oh." Emma seemed stricken, almost guilty at having raised the subject. "Oh. I'm so sorry."

        Elli nodded, glanced back up at the photo, and then quietly continued sorting through a pile of clothes.

        "You don't even seem old enough to be married," Emma murmured, with all the gravitas of a scant few years' seniority. "Never mind?"

        Elli smiled at that, sort of. But it was a wistful smile, and she kept her eyes fixed on the clothes she was folding to put away.

        "We were kids," she explained. "Straight from school. Love's young dream?"

        She looked back up, glancing between Oz and Emma. "Turned out love's young dream had a nightmare in the tail."

        Oz stayed out of the conversation. He'd already seen the pictures, including a wedding photo ? teenagers clad in the most traditional finery they could afford, glowing with happiness. It hadn't been much of a stretch to realise that something terrible must have happened to bring her here.

        Emma looked abashed. "Oh. I'm?I wasn't?you don't wear a ring."

        Elli looked down at her hands. She wore a couple of rings, but no wedding band. Looking back at Emma she sighed and dug a hand into her pocket, coming out with two slim gold bands suspended from a slender chain.

        "That's always the question, isn't it?" she murmured. "How long do you carry on wearing the ring? I don't, any more, but?it is with me. Both of them ? mine and his. Good luck charm." She tucked the chain and rings back into her pocket.

        "I'm sorry," Emma repeated. She didn't seem able to stop herself asking questions, but there was sympathy in her voice as she asked: "Is ? is that why you left?"

        "Left? Australia, you mean?" Elli sounded tired now. "It was the trigger, yes, for taking off to do the backpack thing. I was all over the place, emotionally, so I thought I might as well put myself all over the place geographically as well. I thought a change of scene might help."

        Emma glanced awkwardly at Oz, looking embarrassed, and then, looking back at Elli, quietly said: "I'm sorry. About?you know."

        Elli smiled at that. "About the unsubtle would-be matchmaking? It's okay." She gave Emma a half-hearted but cheeky wink. "We were on to you anyway."


        *****

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        • #5
          *****

          Epilogue:

          *****

          Late one evening, a few days later, Oz stood at the foot of the stairs in the Monico watching Elli, who was slowly turning in a circle, looking all around and concentrating hard. He'd expected slightly more ritual than this; Elli clearly worked in a very different way than Giles or Willow had.

          "Getting anything?" he asked at last.

          Elli looked thoughtful. "Like radar, you mean? Plenty. All very hard to define."

          She sat down on the bottom step, and Oz went to join her as she gathered her thoughts.

          "Not that I'm an expert, but there doesn't seem to be anything especially malevolent," she told him. "As far as I can tell, whatever was here is gone as banished. The one that was causing the trouble, that is. So you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done."

          "But there's more?"

          Elli shrugged. "It's inevitable, I suppose, given the land this place was built on: full of the restless dead."

          That didn't sound good, although it was pretty much what Oz had worked out for himself when he was investigating the ghost.

          "The dead here are definitely restless," Elli told him, standing back up. "But only because of the manner of their lives and deaths. They aren't active." Oz also stood back up as she continued, "You'd have noticed long before now if they were."

          They started walking back through the corridors towards Elli's apartment for a nightcap.

          "But you can feel them?" Oz queried, wondering what it felt like.

          Elli wrinkled her nose, trying to find the words to explain. "I have a sort of?a sensitivity to certain things. I can feel them all over the place here ? in the caf?, out in the yard."

          "Is that a problem?" Oz asked. "Living here with it? With?them?"

          She shook her head. "It's like a background hum that I only notice when I concentrate: I probably wouldn't have noticed it at all if there hadn't been that burst by the stairs. That was really obvious."

          The 'burst by the stairs' was, of course, Oz's handiwork ? the psychic imprint of his DIY exorcism.

          "It's okay," said Elli, seeing the look on his face. "You did a good job with the banishing. It just leaves a bit of a scar, and that'll fade in time. It won't bother me so much now I know what it is."

          "So all is good in the world of ghost busting," said Oz, feeling more confident that the exorcism really had worked completely and effectively. Not that he'd really doubted it, but a second opinion was always good to have.

          Elli smiled. "Yes. All is good in the world."



          ~finis~


          ? J. Browning, September 2004; January 2005

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