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Monico Episode Ten: Auld Lang Syne

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  • Monico Episode Ten: Auld Lang Syne

    Episode Ten:
    Auld Lang Syne

    Disclaimer: Oz isn't mine, although everybody else is, and the universe in which they all live also belongs to people other than me. I'm writing for my own amusement and enlightenment, and make no profit from it.
    Feedback: Yes please, I'd love to hear what you think.

    With big thanks, as usual, to Sue - *bows in homage*


    Previously in Tales from the Monico:

    Charlie: "It's hard, once you know what's out there, to just sit back and do nothing, pretend you haven't seen."
    Oz, nodding: "We know, therefore we have to deal."

    Linda: "The old man said you might be able to help?the antique guy ? he's got a shop next door."

    Oz: "Hey. So, funny thing the other week. Met a girl called Linda, said she'd got my name from you."
    Mr Mainwaring: "Ah, yes. The sad little girl with the vampire problem. You didn't mind, did you? I'm afraid my vampire-hunting days are behind me, now, and she was so anxious?you see, people come to me when they have problems that the regular authorities won't understand. Always have, and they still do even now. But, although it pains the ego to have to admit it, there's very little I can do to help these days. You have any idea how frustrating that is?"

    Oz: "Oh, there's nothing special about me. The others, maybe. But I'm just trying to get on with my life. Only?stuff keeps happening that I can't walk away from."

    Charlie: "My mother was a vampire?I mean, not when I was born, obviously. She was turned when I was eight? every now and then, she'd remember that she had kids and come looking for us. So we had to keep moving."

    Ed: "I thought we could?spend some quality time. Isn't that what they call it? Isn't that what families are supposed to do?"
    Charlie: "You aren't my family. Not any more."

    Charlie: "Have I ever told you about my brother, Edward? He died when he was sixteen, just after his birthday. He was killed. By?our mum."
    Oz: "She turned him?"
    Charlie nods, tearfully.

    Oz is confronted by vampire Ed, and throws Holy Water in his face to aid his escape. The vampire yells in pain and outrage as his flesh sizzles and burns.

    Charlie: "He isn't going to love you, after you wrecked his face like that."

    Ed and a cohort of fellow vampires stage an assault on the Monico.
    Ed: "You."
    Oz: "Me."
    Ed: "I owe you one."
    He gestures mockingly to his burnt face.
    A fight ensues. Ed focuses on Oz, who manages to throw him off, and the vampire is impaled on a couple of chair legs. A female vampire helps him escape.


    Charlie: "That's the trouble with the world of the mystical. Once you're in, it doesn't let go? how can you live with your conscience if someone dies because you turned a blind eye?"
    Oz: "Definite lack of superheroes in this town."


    *****

    Prologue:

    *****

    The clash of swords rang out across the backyard as David was putting the trash out, and it was too enticing to ignore.

    He made his way over to Elli's studio and cautiously pushed the door open, poking his head inside to have a peek at the action.

    Elli and Oz were training together again, with those swords of Elli's. David had seen them doing this a few times now, and never failed to be impressed. The sparring looked better every time.

    Both seemed absolutely engrossed in what they were doing, but after a few moments Elli spotted him and was slightly distracted. Oz, with his back to the door, promptly pressed his advantage, and Elli raised her hands in surrender, laughing.

    "Peace. Peace. You got me."

    "Wow," said David. "That was awesome."


    *****


  • #2
    *****

    Part One:

    *****

    "So Vampire Ed has vanished into thin air?" David looked from Oz to Elli and back again, as they arrived back at the Monico for a well-deserved drink and rest after another fruitless round of vampire tracking.

    "Certainly giving a good impression of it," said Elli, dropping onto a high stool in front of the counter and frowning. "I was sure we had the right place and he was there this time."

    "Oh, he had been," confirmed Oz. His nose did not lie about these things. "Could smell him in there, over everything."

    Standing behind the counter preparing a couple of drinks for them, David looked bemused. "So what does that mean?"

    Elli sighed. "Means he's moved on. Again."

    "Man, how many times is he going to do that?" David complained, placing the drinks on the counter in front of them.

    Oz pulled his mug a little nearer. "Sky's the limit."

    David frowned. "That doesn't help."

    "True, though," said Elli, resting an elbow on the counter and her chin on her hand. "He'll keep moving for as long as he thinks we're looking, and for as long as he's too weak to do anything about it ?"

    "Is it really ethical, though?" David looked worried all of a sudden. "To be hunting him like this when he's wounded?"

    "You'd rather wait till he's recovered?" Elli raised an eyebrow. "Because, if we don't find him first, as soon as he's fully healed he'll come looking for payback."

    Nodding his acceptance, David looked at Oz. "You'll want to keep your head down when that happens," he observed.

    Oz didn't need any reminders that he was responsible for the injuries that had forced Ed into hiding, and refused to feel guilty about it. The vampire had, after all, been trying to kill him at the time. He only regretted not finishing the job when he had the chance.

    "I think we were close," he said. The scent had been fairly fresh ? or, as fresh as vampire scent got.

    Elli nodded. "I got that sense too. We didn't miss them by much."

    David wrinkled his nose. "A vampire with a vampire girlfriend. That really weirds me out."


    *****

    "So, run the vamp-chick thing by me again," said Mat, his tone studiedly nonchalant and yet deeply serious at the same time.

    Pausing on their walk to the Monico, Charlie sighed and eyed her feet for a moment. They'd talked about this before.

    "I didn't see her," she explained, again. "So I don't know for sure. I know who it sounded like, from the description. She's what you could call fairly distinctive. Becky almost had conniptions when I told her." She let out another hearty sigh. There was just no way to make this any better.

    "Her name was Laura," she quietly said, after a long pause, and started walking again, Mat at her side, with sympathy and concern written all over his face. "She was a friend of Becky's ? they were at dance class together. Her friends called her Penguin, and I never did get a handle on why. She'd just won a scholarship to study at the top dance school in England. And then when Ed was pointing his little games in Becky's direction one time, he thought it would be fun to turn her."

    She could feel a lump rising up in her throat, remembering how broken up Becky had been, softly adding, "We didn't know she'd stayed with him, or that she'd followed him out here."

    Mat squeezed her hand as they reached the door of the caf?, and Charlie managed a smile as he bent his head to kiss her farewell. She hadn't dared hope he would be so understanding and supportive about all this. It was such a lot to take on board. "Have a good shift," she told him in much brighter tones, and smiled fondly as she watched him walk away before heading inside.

    She stopped just inside the door, noticing Oz and Elli sitting together, talking quietly over an early lunch. They'd been out Ed-tracking again that morning, and asking how that had gone was always hard, especially since she was never really sure what she wanted the answer to be. She'd said she wanted it all over, and for her vampiric brother to be out of all their lives for good?but it was hard to face up to the prospect of that becoming real. Her head said yes, of course she wanted the vampire dusted and gone, but her heart remembered the brother she'd once had, and ached for him. The days when she joined in the tracking were almost easier. Almost. But nothing to do with Ed had been easy since the day he died?


    *****

    "New day, same old question," Charlie quietly said as she joined Oz and Elli at their table.

    Both shook their heads, having nothing to offer but sympathy for her difficult situation, and rather more practical support with the search for Ed ? and between them, he and Elli had a better than average chance of finding the vampire, Oz reminded himself, what with his werewolf-enhanced senses, and Elli's?otherworldly locating abilities, even if they were a bit hit-and-miss at times, although in all fairness, she'd only had a fleeting glimpse of Ed to go on. But so far they'd come frustratingly close too many times, without ever hitting the jackpot. And what they'd do about him if they did hit the jackpot was another question entirely?

    "It was the right place, again, but he'd already moved on, again," Elli quietly explained. "No forwarding address, as per usual."

    Charlie sighed. "Thanks for trying again. You're both going way above and beyond. It's so dangerous?"

    "Oh, light danger before lunch is good for the appetite," said Oz in what he hoped was a reassuring tone, spearing a tomato with his fork.

    "Isn't it, though," Elli flashed a quick, mischievous grin at him, but became serious once more as she turned back to Charlie. "And it'll be a lot less dangerous if we can face him on our terms now, rather than his later on."

    "I know," Charlie worriedly agreed. "I know I can't just sit back and wait for him to pop up again. Not this time." She chewed anxiously at her lip for a moment, fretting. "I should be free to come with you again, next time you go out."

    "Okay," Elli nodded. "But you don't have to if you'd rather not."

    "I think I should," Charlie softly insisted. "He's my brother. Was."

    Reaching across the table to swipe a few chips from each of their plates, she firmly changed the subject, remarking, "I was going to order something, but David seemed a bit?pre-occupied."

    As one, they looked across the caf? to where David was labouring away winding garlands of tinsel around a large Christmas tree that dominated one corner of the caf? ? in theory, at least. In practice, most of it seemed to be entwining itself around him.

    "We did offer to help," said Elli, shaking her head in quiet amusement. "But he insisted he could manage."

    Oz nodded, gravely. "He's having fun."

    "So, do they have Christmas where you come from, El?" Charlie asked, curiously.

    "Which 'where I come from'?"

    Charlie rolled her eyes. "The original one, obviously."

    "Not Christmas, no." Elli shook her head. "We have our own festivals."

    "So all this fuss probably doesn't mean much to you," Charlie deduced, looking around at the excess of festive decoration David had swathed the caf? with.

    Elli smiled. "It isn't new. They did have Christmas when I lived in Australia."

    "My sister Su wants me to go visit her for Christmas," said Charlie. "She keeps raving on about how beautiful Lewis is ? you know, the island she's moved to. But me, I think that's mostly just propaganda to get me out there, 'cause I've been to the Western Isles before, and yes, it is beautiful there, but not so much in December." She wrinkled her nose slightly. "I'll probably go, though. I want to see the new baby, and the girls. Amy started school already, and I haven't seen Daisy since she was the same age baby Harry is now."

    After a slight hesitation, she reluctantly added, "Of course, she's probably also thinking it'll get me out of Ed's firing line, but?" Not finishing that line of thought, she looked at Oz and, her tone a little too bright, switched the focus back away from herself. "What about you, Oz? Going home to see your family for the holidays?"

    Oz shook his head. The last time they spoke, his mom had tried to talk him into going home for Christmas and, since family gatherings had a charm all of their own, it was tempting ? a little too tempting. He felt he was putting the past behind him, building a new life and all, and moving on, so the last thing he needed right now was to run into Willow or her new girlfriend and reopen old wounds. No. He'd imposed this exile on himself for a reason, after all. Christmas in San Francisco with his friends would be both safer and, given how he felt about Sunnydale right now, probably a whole lot more fun.

    "Thought I'd hang out here," he said. "Let David take the time off."

    "You're still staying out of Professor Staunton's way, aren't you?" Elli asked, eyeing him guardedly from beneath long lashes as she sipped fruit juice through a straw.

    "Always," Oz confirmed, wondering where the question had come from and what lay behind it.

    Elli nodded. "Good," she briskly responded. "Good. Keep it up."

    Oz raised an eyebrow, wordlessly encouraging her to elaborate.

    "He collared me this morning after class," she explained. "Right before I came to meet you for our Ed-hunting session. And was asking about you."

    Charlie frowned slightly. "That can't be good."

    "That's what I thought," said Elli. "He's never done that before. Usually he makes like last summer never happened. And?I don't know. It just gave me a funny feeling."

    That really wasn't the sort of thing Oz wanted to hear right now. There was enough going on without Staunton raising his ugly head once more. But if he was, and knowing what the professor's intentions had been previously?

    "So, what did you tell him?"

    "I didn't," Elli assured him. "I hightailed it out of there. It's probably nothing, but I didn't like that he was asking."

    "No," Oz mused. "Me neither."

    Charlie sighed. "But that was your last class of the semester, right? We're all home and free for the holidays now."

    "Oh yeah," Elli sounded deeply relieved, glancing up with a smile as Emma came over and joined them, dropping into an empty chair and beaming happily as she placed a neatly packaged parcel on the table in front of her.

    "Christmas come early, or something?" Charlie lightly asked.

    "It has, yeah," said Emma, looking delighted. "This is from my grandmother in DC."

    She sat back, still happily watching the parcel. The others waited for a moment.

    Oz leaned back in his chair. "'You waiting for it to jump up and dance?"

    "Or praying for willpower to put it under the tree, like a good little girl?" Charlie added.

    Elli wrinkled her nose. "Now that's the bit I never understood: putting gifts under a tree. What's the point?"

    "Tradition," said Oz.

    "Well, this isn't going under any tree," Emma decided. "I'm opening it, right now. Just don't tell my Gran."

    Inside the neat brown paper parcel was equally neat, and very shiny, Christmassy wrapping paper. And inside the wrapping paper was a box, a little too securely taped up.

    "I think this must be some kind of initiative test," Emma grumbled as, her fingers failing to find any opening, she had to resort to the use of a table knife to try and get the box open. And then, as she finally managed to rip the tape off, the thing all but exploded and spilled its contents all over the floor, much to the amusement of nearby diners.

    "Oh no!" Emma wailed, horrified.

    "That's probably not what your gran had in mind," Oz observed as Charlie burst into helpless giggles and Elli smiled in sympathetic amusement.

    "God, I'm such a clutz today. She's gonna kill me!" Emma groaned in dismay. What the box had apparently contained, aside from quantities of those ubiquitous, tiny little polystyrene packing pieces, were some bits of very old-looking jewellery and a silver hairbrush and mirror set. The mirror and some other pieces seemed to have broken, scattering bits of glass and fragments of metal all over the floor, and Oz slid from his chair to help pick up the pieces, while Charlie and Elli both leant over to sweep up the scattered polystyrene chips.

    Carefully gathering up fragments of broken mirror, Oz noticed Charlie glancing up toward the door and frowning in puzzlement.

    "Mr Mainwaring?" she called out, bemused.

    It seemed to be the day for clumsiness. Glancing up sharply in surprise that the Old Fella should have ventured into the caf?, Oz cursed under his breath as he snagged his hand on something sharp amid the clutter of Emma's spilled present and it tore the flesh with an unexpected burning sensation.

    "Dear, dear," the old man remarked as he slowly approached them, leaning heavily on a cane. "We appear to have had a mishap here."

    "I know," Emma sighed. "I'm so clumsy. Can I get you anything?"

    Oz straightened, shaking his stinging hand, and pulled his chair out for Mr Mainwaring to sit down.

    "Why, thank you, young man," said the old man, gratefully sinking onto the seat and looking back at Emma. "And a cup of tea would be most welcome, if it's not too much trouble."

    Emma frowned slightly as Oz pulled another chair across from an empty table and reversed it to sit on. She reached for his hand. "Did you cut yourself?"

    "Oh. Yeah," Oz confirmed, glancing down at it. He'd sliced the flesh between his forefinger and thumb and it was bleeding, but not badly. "It's okay."

    "I should get you a band aid," she fussed.

    "No, it can wait," he insisted, as Elli quietly handed him a paper towel to swab the cut with. As Elli then rounded the table to help clean up the mess of scattered gifts and packaging, Emma gave in and went to get the Old Fella's tea, while the old man himself leaned back comfortably in his chair.

    Mr Mainwaring smiled indulgently and said nothing, and Oz and the two girls looked at each other helplessly as awkward silence reigned around the table.

    Emma brought the tea over just as Elli picked up the last piece of polystyrene packaging and replaced the box on the table. She also brought David, who was carrying a dustpan and brush. While he quickly swept up any broken glass that remained, Emma waved a bright blue band-aid at Oz.

    "This is for you. Hand over the hand."

    "I think I can manage," said Oz.

    "It's fiddly one-handed," Emma pointed out. "Let me do it."

    Oz gave in and let her fuss, since it was far simpler than attempting to declare independence by insisting on doing it for himself.

    "So, it's really nice to see you, Mr Mainwaring," said David, brightly. "I don't think you've been in before."

    "No, no, I haven't, it's true," the old man nodded. "Very anti-social of me, I'm sure. And here you all are. The whole little group: all together in one place. How fortuitous."

    He looked around the table at them all, and sighed. "I find myself a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth, and have come to ask for your help. It appears a somewhat sticky problem has arisen that requires rather younger and fitter persons than myself to assist with."

    "What kind of problem," Oz very cautiously asked, as he reclaimed his hand. The Old Fella had provided invaluable assistance to them in the past, on various matters, and they probably owed him for that, but that was no reason to rush blindly into something without checking the facts out first. As a group, they'd successfully tackled a few demonic and vampiric problems in the past, when it had been necessary, but that didn't make any of them experts ? just?very lucky.

    "A young girl is in danger," said the Old Fella, flatly. "And, much though it pains me to admit this, there is very little I can do about it. On a practical level, that is. I can, of course, tell you exactly what needs to be done."

    The little group looked at one another, wary but curious.

    "Go on," David cautiously urged.

    "The girl's name is Anouk McKenzie," the old man told them, with their air of one settling in to deliver a lecture. "Of Canadian extract, I believe. She is just about your age, a student, and she is in great danger." He paused for a moment to let that sink in before continuing. "Her father, you see, is a businessman: Gil McKenzie ?"

    "I know that name," Emma murmured, frowning.

    "It appears," continued Mr Mainwaring, frowning at the interruption, "That Mr McKenzie has got himself into trouble with a debt collector."

    "Gil McKenzie?" Emma was deeply sceptical. "If it's the same Gil McKenzie I'm thinking of, he's way too rich to be in debt."

    "There are many kinds of debt, my dear," the Old Fella dismissively told her. "McKenzie has a rather unpleasant demon pursuing him, and it is laying claim to his daughter. I have furnished him with all that is necessary to take care of the matter, but he needs backup." The old man gestured at his frail frame. "I find myself in no fit state to provide this, yet I also find that I cannot in all conscience leave him to face this alone. His daughter is in very real danger. I have come to ask for help."

    He looked around the table, meeting each set of eyes in turn, and, as he continued, there was a challenging note in his voice. "There are not many people in this city with the capacity for situations of this nature. I believe that you young people do ? potentially, at least. So the question is ? are you willing to put yourselves out to help someone in need?"

    And all of a sudden, there it was: out of nowhere, another one of those big decision-making moments. Did they let themselves get sucked into someone else's problem that they knew almost nothing about just because the old man had asked them to, or did they tell him it was none of their business and not get involved? Although, with him putting it the way he did, it was difficult to say no. The whole girl-in-danger part was a major guilt trip to lay on their consciences if they said no. Plus, anyone could get into trouble, and any one of them could very easily find themselves in need, reliant on the goodwill of others for help. It was kind of a karma thing: keep it rolling, because next time you might be the one in danger.

    Oz rubbed at the band-aid Emma had applied to his hand. The cut was still stinging. Then he looked across the table at Elli, who caught his eye, and shrugged.

    "Maybe you should explain the problem from the beginning," she suggested to the Old Fella. "And then we can make an informed decision."


    *****

    The meeting adjourned to more private quarters behind the caf? for Mr Mainwaring to explain matters in more depth.

    "Many years ago," Mr Mainwaring told them, "In McKenzie's youth, he cheated. He tried to get ahead in that cutthroat commercial world he was so determined to succeed in by cutting a deal with a demon, and it worked. As you know, he has gone on to achieve great wealth and success. And his demonic debt was fully accounted for, a very long time ago. But now, after all these years, the demon has returned to menace him, demanding his daughter as payment. And he has come to me for help."

    "So, where do we come in?" Emma asked, very dubiously.

    "McKenzie owes the demon nothing," Mr Mainwaring told her, very firmly. "The matter was dealt with, long ago. However, he chose his benefactor extremely unwisely. Toshok demons are powerful, but notoriously unreliable, and extremely dangerous. This particular one has chosen to pursue this man once more, and thus endangers his entire household ? the girl in particular, since it is the girl the demon wants. It must be stopped. I have supplied McKenzie with everything he needs to rid himself of the creature?but I am unconvinced he is capable of actually achieving it unaided, and indeed he has asked for further support. He is an office-bound businessman, after all, with little or no experience in this field. Where you come in, if you are willing, is quite simply to provide some backup for him."

    "You make it sound simple," said Elli, frowning.

    "There's no reason it shouldn't be." The old man sounded dismissive.

    "I can actually think of quite a lot of reasons," she retorted.

    Charlie leaned forward. "Well, maybe we should meet him," she suggested, dubiously. "Talk to him, take it from there."

    "No harm in that," David enthusiastically agreed.

    "Maybe." Oz rubbed at his hand again. "But first," he cautioned. "It'd be kinda good to know more about this demon."


    *****

    "This isn't such a good day to have non-wriggle-out-of-able commitments," said Elli, feeling worried for reasons she wasn't sure she could put into words. Satisfied that he'd successfully recruited their aid, Mr Mainwaring had shuffled home once more, leaving the team to finalise their plans for the afternoon. But prior commitments made it difficult at times to just drop everything and rush to the rescue when emergencies imposed their presence onto everyday life. "Just be careful," she warned. "We don't really know anything about this man?either of them, come to that."

    "You don't trust the Old Fella?" David asked, looking anxious.

    "No, it isn't that." Elli frowned slightly. "He's never given us any reason to doubt him. It's just, we don't know that much about him, and?I don't know. I don't like being manipulated, and there was something about the way he told the story that bothered me ? and I don't just mean the girl-in-peril emotional blackmail. Like there was a whole lot more he wasn't telling us. And he made it sound far too easy."

    Charlie perched on the arm of the sofa. "So, what are you saying?"

    "I'm saying: be careful," was Elli's cautious reply. "I know we couldn't really ignore a plea for help ? even if he hadn't hot-wired his story straight into the guys' latent chivalry," She rolled her eyes in Oz and David's direction. Girl-in-peril emotional blackmail was virtually guaranteed to get the guys going; the Old Fella had been onto a winner from the moment he mentioned that part. "But it would still be a good idea not to take everything he said at face value." She sighed, drumming her fingers on the table beside her. "I'd come with you if I didn't have this?maybe I should blow it off and come anyway."

    "But this is your last day running that stall, and you already took the morning off," David reminded her, and she pulled a face. The stall had been a good idea, and she'd enjoyed running it up to now, working either full or half days as suited to sell her wares and all. It was, after all, a fairly obvious and lucrative extension of her sideline in jewellery making, which had proved so popular at a number of different outlets. But being tied to it wasn't so convenient right at this moment. "Don't want to miss any more potential customers. Go sell things."

    "Yeah," Emma agreed, teasingly. "You can't not go out and actually do another full day's work ? well okay, afternoon's work ? after you went to all the trouble of setting it up. Pre-Christmas street fairs only come along once a year, and it's perfect for you. You said so. And it's your last day there."

    "Okay." Elli sighed, unconvinced still. But they were only going to talk to the man, so it should be okay, surely. "You know where I am if you need me."

    "Yeah." Emma bit at her lip, looking troubled. "Do I need to come for this, then?"

    Oz shook his head. "No need to crowd the guy. This is just a ? a fact-finding mission. No final decisions yet."


    *****

    "Well, it's a big enough place," David remarked, leaning slightly backward to peer up at the towering height of McKenzie's house. Mansion would probably be a better description. It was immense.

    "Business must be good," Charlie agreed. "I'd say he had a fair bit to thank the demon for, if it gave him all this."

    "Well, we don't know all the facts," Oz pointed out, pulling at the band-aid on his hand. It was itching madly. "That's why we're here."

    "True," she conceded.

    It was also a good distraction from the Ed-induced tensions of recent weeks, for all of them, but no one was mentioning that part.

    "So." David rubbed his hands together, briskly. "What exactly are we going to say to this guy?" He looked at Oz, as if for guidance. "I mean, we can hardly just waltz up to one of the richest men in the city and say, 'Hey, so an old guy called Mainwaring says you could use some help with a little demon problem you're having, and all he could rustle up was us', now can we?"

    That was a good point. Oz looked up at the towering height of the mansion once more, and shrugged. "Guess we'll just have to wing it."


    *****

    "I don't suppose he mentioned that the whole thing was his fault in the first place, did he?" Gil McKenzie fumed as he hurriedly ushered the three of them into his study before anyone else in the household could see them. "Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years I've been living on this time bomb without even knowing it. Twenty-five years, and I believed him when he said the problem was fixed."

    McKenzie was a sharply-dressed man in his 50s, with a closely trimmed beard and silvered hair worn longish and tied back in a neat ponytail, and within moments of meeting the businessman it had become clear that the Old Fella had a history with him that he'd neglected to mention.

    "I told him I couldn't do this on my own," McKenzie continued, pouring a stiff drink for himself. "I wanted him to come face the Toshok himself, after screwing up like that, but no. He sends a bunch of kids to do his dirty work instead." He scowled, and waved the decanter vaguely in their direction. "Drink?"

    When all three declined with quiet murmurs and shakes of the head, he scowled even harder, downing his drink in one. "What is your angle here? After money, I suppose."

    Oz shook his head. "Kind of owed the old guy a favor."

    McKenzie looked interested for a second, but then shook his head. "Truth is, I'll take any help I can get right now. I walked away from this mumbo-jumbo world twenty-five years ago and didn't look back, which leaves me at a bit of a disadvantage now. No contacts in this field these days. I don't know where else to turn ? even tried that occult law-firm, and they didn't want to know. Toshok's a client. But this thing is after my baby, and she can never find out. How much do you know?"

    "A lot less than we'd need to if we're going to be any actual use to you," said Charlie, leaning against his desk. "Which, I should point out, we're not sure we can be anyway. That's what we're here to find out."

    "So the favour was agreeing to come talk to me, not to actually do anything. Figures." McKenzie scowled harder than ever. "But I don't have time to find anyone else. I have to sort this out, right now. And if you want to help, you'll just have to come along with me and hear the story en route. If not?tell the old guy thanks for nothing, and I'll see him in hell. If anything happens to ?"

    "Dad?" A young girl put her head around the door, followed by the rest of her. She looked about twenty years old, slim, petite and very cute, with dark hair bobbed just below her chin, velvety brown eyes in an elfin face, and a wide, sweet smile. This had to be the girl-in-peril the Old Fella had told them about. Anouk. "D'you think Leon would mind me using his car while mine's being serviced?" she continued. "Since he's off seeing the world right now and not using it anyw?oh, hello."

    Seeing that her father had visitors, she broke off mid-sentence and smiled a bemused greeting. McKenzie looked almost frantic. "I need you to stay in the house today, sweetheart," he protested.

    "But it's Geena's birthday tomorrow and I haven't got her anything yet." She looked astonished, her dark eyes widening. "I think I know what would be perfect, but I need to ?"

    "Anouk?" McKenzie sighed, giving in with the air of a doting dad unable to refuse his daughter anything she asked for, even under these circumstances. "Take Leon's car." He gently took her arm, steering her back toward the door. "Go straight to the shop, and then straight back home, understand? Call me when you get back here ? I have to go out in a moment myself, but I need to know where you are today. Clear?"

    "Clear," she nodded. "Weird, but clear. Dad, what's going on?"

    "Nothing for you to worry about, sweetheart." He dropped an affectionate kiss onto the top of her head as he ushered the puzzled girl out of the room. "Have fun shopping, and then come home and study, or do your nails, or something. We'll have dinner later, okay."

    Closing the door after her, he leaned heavily against it, looking at them with desperation in his eyes.

    "I can't do this on my own," he pleaded. "I can't lose my little girl to this thing. I need help. Please."


    *****

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    • #3
      *****

      Part Two:

      *****

      "I was young and stupid, and got in over my head," McKenzie explained with almost brutal honesty, driving carefully but quickly through the city. "The Toshok offered me the world on a plate, and I was greedy enough to say yes without checking the fine print. They like young women?" He stopped, and shuddered at the thought, twisting his head to glance back at Charlie for a second, before quickly returning his attention to the road. "Thing wanted my fianc?e, Helen, and nothing else would do. I offered it anything. Everything. It could have taken every damn thing I had, but it wanted her. That was when I went to Mainwaring. Set himself up as some kind of authority on demons, even then. I trusted him. Why wouldn't I? He told me he'd take care of it ?"

      "How?" Charlie interrupted, looking thoroughly creeped out. "What did he do?"

      "Toshok's got some power behind it," the businessman explained. "But the old guy said there was a ritual, or spell, or some such nonsense he could perform that would strip it of those powers, destroy it ? get it off my case forever. And I believed him. I got on with my life. Married Helen, had a couple kids, built up my business. I thought that was it."

      "But now it's back?" asked David. "How'd it do that?"

      "Mainwaring wasn't quite as clever as he thought he was." McKenzie growled. "Oh, he weakened it, trapped it in some other dimension, apparently, but it wasn't quite the permanent fix he promised me. Thing found its way back, picked up the threads of all the unfinished business it left behind, and now it claims payment is due with added interest. And it's still very clear on what kind of payment it wants from me. Course, Helen's been gone years. She'd be too old for its tastes now anyway. But there's Anouk. It knows about Anouk?"

      "And it's a meeting with this Toshok you're taking us to now?" Charlie looked alarmed.

      "He's expecting his payment." McKenzie looked grim. "Gave me till today. But he isn't taking her. He can't have her."

      Serious misgivings bordering on actual regrets about ever letting themselves get dragged into this were foremost on Oz's mind throughout the conversation, but sitting alongside them was the memory of the brief glimpse they'd had of Anouk and the sweet smile she'd flashed at them, strangers as they were. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, Anouk was an innocent in all this, and in danger, and deserving of any help they could offer, surely. He just wasn't sure what they could do, amateurs as they were.

      He scratched at his hand, which still hadn't stopped stinging, and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. "Mr Mainwaring said something about a ? a ritual."

      "Yeah." Swinging the car into a deserted car park out back of an empty office block, McKenzie parked at a steep slant across a couple of bays and switched the engine off. "Same ritual he used before, more or less." He laughed scornfully. "Figures he's got the kinks worked out this time for a one way trip, except that he then leaves it to a layman like me. I wanted him to do it himself, but no. No. Too old, he says. No sense of responsibility, says I, and I'm of the opinion that hacking it to bits might be a bit more of a permanent solution come the crunch, if we can get close enough, and all else fails. So here I am, and here you are. And you kids'd better be able to handle it, because you're all I've got, and I am not letting that thing take my little girl."

      They got out of the car, and looked around, warily.

      "Why here?" asked David.

      "Because it's empty," McKenzie explained, very simply, as he opened the trunk and pulled a heavy bag out of it. "And because I own it. We should go over what we're going to do in there."

      "I think," said Oz, very slowly. "It, uh, it might be better if Charlie waits out here, in the car."

      Because if the Toshok had a penchant for young women then bringing one right to it might not be the best idea in the world, he didn't add, but saw relief flash across Charlie's face and knew she'd been thinking along much the same lines.

      McKenzie gave Charlie a long, hard look and then nodded, dismissing her completely and turning his attention to Oz and David, pulling a hefty axe out of his bag. "Before we go in," he said. "I'll just go over what needs to be done."


      *****

      "You haven't brought her, have you?" The Toshok shook its head in mock dismay and grinned a horribly toothy grin, drool dripping from the lengthy fangs that dominated its gaping mouth. "Gil, Gil, Gil?I thought we understood one other."

      Standing just outside the door of the large room the meeting was taking place in, nervously clutching the axe he'd been handed, David felt his mouth drop open at his first glimpse of an actual demon, and hoped it wouldn't notice him out here. Agreeing to do this was such a long way from actually being here doing it?

      Standing just opposite, at the other side of the door, Oz folded his arms across his chest and leaned back on his heels, looking reassuringly casual about the situation they'd so unexpectedly found themselves in. Casual seemed to be his normal state of being, and it had never occurred to David before today to wonder just how much of that casualness in situations like this was a front. If it was a front, it was a good one. He didn't seem the slightest bit unnerved at the sight of the slathering demon that stood just beyond the door, and David knew he wasn't doing anywhere near such a good job of hiding his own fear, even if the demon had shown no sign of noticing their presence so far. But that was part of the plan, wasn't it? To remain out here out of sight, even if Oz had seemed to think that the demon would probably know they were there anyway.

      Inside the room, the argument raged on.

      "I don't owe you anything," McKenzie shouted.

      "I gave you everything you wanted," the Toshok riposted. "Wealth, success?"

      McKenzie shook his head. "I built up that business myself. I owe you nothing."

      "You owe me too many years of exile to recount," snarled the Toshok. "For that alone I should take from you everything you have. How fortunate for you that I want only one thing. The girl."

      "You can't have her." McKenzie almost spat in his vehemence. "You can take anything else, I don't care, but not her. She's a child, an innocent."

      "She is a grown woman." The demon smiled, lasciviously. "Ripe, perfect. And I will have her, my payment for your debt."

      "I owe you nothing," McKenzie insisted again, signalling frantically behind his back for David and Oz to get in position. David took a deep breath. Looked like it was time to find out whether or not they were up to the job.


      *****

      "Where is everyone?" Elli immediately asked on arriving back at the caf? after work to find Emma alone behind the counter looking worried. Going to talk to a man about a demon shouldn't take all afternoon, surely. Unless something had gone wrong. The sense of mild concern that had been nagging at her all afternoon sharpened into anxiety.

      "Sylvie's in the kitchen," said Emma, her expression fearful.

      "Everyone else," Elli clarified, knowing full well that Emma had known what she meant. But it needed to be said.

      "Not back yet." The worried look intensified. "I thought for sure they'd be back by now."

      "They should be." Elli tried not to let Emma see how troubled she was. "They were only going to talk to the man. But it's never really that simple, is it? We should have realised that from the start."

      "I've just been sitting here ? well okay, standing around working here ? waiting and waiting for someone to come back." Emma gave her a pleading look. "What should we do?"

      "How long has it been?" Elli checked her watch and answered her own question. "Hours and hours. That's a lengthy conversation. We've got the man's address, haven't we? That would be the logical place to start?"

      She trailed off as relief washed across Emma's face, and turned to see their three missing friends walking through the door, looking tired and cross.

      "Well, it's about time!" Emma rushed to her husband. "We were just about to send out search parties with flashlights and sniffer dogs."

      "Only slightly extreme, too," Charlie muttered, flopping onto a stool in front of the counter. "And the sniffer dog was with us. Sorry, Oz."

      "No search parties necessary." Sounding far too cheerful, David rounded the counter and started making coffee for them all, glancing back at Elli. "How'd you get on with the stall today?"

      "Covered my costs, with enough profit to make it worth my while," said Elli. "How did you get on, and where've you been all this time, is slightly more to the point?"

      "Ah. Well." David looked at the other two, who seemed happy enough to let him continue to talk. "Remember when we said this was just a fact-finding mission?"

      Elli nodded and raised an eyebrow. Her concern had immediately died down on seeing them so clearly in one piece, and now she was starting to wonder just how much questioning it would take to extract the full story from them. But David, at least, could generally be relied on to relay every detail. Eventually.

      "Not so much, as it turns out," he sighed. "You were spot on with the 'be careful'."

      "I usually am," Elli told him. "What happened?"

      "You know that thing snowballs do," Oz took up the tale. "When they start rolling down the mountain not looking like they're gonna stop?" He nodded to himself. "The day's been kinda like that."


      *****

      "And then there was the demon!" David was getting well into the stride of his storytelling now that they had retired to the relative privacy of the lounge behind the caf?. "And, my God, was that thing huge. It must have been ten feet tall at least ?"

      "Eight feet tall," Oz quietly corrected in the interests of accuracy, although he was slightly distracted from David's highly entertaining narrative by the burning sensation that had developed around that cut on his hand, which had started to throb. He pulled tentatively at the band-aid, which had gone from bright blue to purpley-red now, where blood had soaked through it in all the excitement, and made a mental note to consult a first-aid kit when he got a chance. Even such a small cut could be a major nuisance if you kept re-opening it before it could heal properly.

      "Eight feet tall, at least," David continued without skipping a beat. "All teeth and horns and claws, great big slobbering thing snarling and demanding this girl, Anouk, and nothing else. It was like, like, straight out of a horror movie or something."

      "So what happened then?" Emma was listening to the story wide-eyed with horrified fascination.

      "Yeah, that's the bit even I'm vague on, and I was just outside feeling like all kinds of a wuss," Charlie agreed.

      "What happened next was, McKenzie started on the ritual, like Mr Mainwaring showed him" said David. "And boy was that an experience: kinda like what we had to do with our ghost. And it started to work, it really did ? all glowiness and flashy lights and sparks ? and that was cool. Almost as cool as when we busted the ghost. Almost, although the ghost wins just because it was haunting us, not someone else ?"

      "But?" Elli prompted. She'd been listening intently but silently up till now.

      "But," David pulled a face. "But then the demon started laughing and was all, 'not this again, haha', and had this mojo of its own that stopped our mojo from working. Like ? like a magical shield, or something. And then we started panicking?'cept Oz, 'cause he doesn't do panic."

      People always seemed to think that, Oz mused, and he always found it a little strange because?well, he knew he was kind of reserved. That was just who he was. But he'd been panicking pretty hard this afternoon, on the inside, and it always felt like that was showing far more than anyone else ever seemed to notice, and you'd think they would notice, given the heightened potential for wolfiness in times of stress.

      "So then," David continued. "That was where me and Oz came in, with the axes and weapons and stuff, and, while I'm on the subject, I'd kind of like to know where this guy got hold of all that stuff, and how legal it is, and why all his money couldn't buy him a few beefy bodyguards or something to help him out. But anyway, the demon had all this mojo around it and we kept bouncing off and couldn't really get near. And then McKenzie shouted out that Charlie was in the car outside and said it could take her instead!"

      "He said what?" Emma looked appalled.

      Charlie, on the other hand, seemed remarkably untroubled at being so betrayed by the man they'd been trying to help. The failure of said betrayal probably helped there. "He did apologise later," she calmly remarked. "For what that's worth."

      Oz nodded. "The guy kinda broke down."

      It wasn't really an excuse, but McKenzie had been genuinely distraught when it was all over and he realised what he had done. He'd collapsed in tears, choking out between wheezes that he wasn't usually the type of man who'd sacrifice an innocent person?but it was his daughter at stake here. And righteous outrage had been hard to maintain in the face of such obvious self-disgust.

      "So, the Toshok said it was tempting," David picked up the tale again. "But it had a reputation to uphold. It's McKenzie that owes it, so it claims, so it wants McKenzie's daughter as compensation 'cause otherwise it wouldn't be a proper payment. But then it had this creepy grin all over its face and said maybe it could do with a snack before the main course. And that was scary, what with the teeth and the imperviousness and all, and things kinda got hairy then. And then Oz said we should try again, so we did, us with the weapons and McKenzie with the mojo, and this time the demon was kinda taken more by surprise, and it roared a bit, and then it went poof!"

      "Yay you!" Emma hugged him, full of pride. "All of you."

      Oz shook his head. "We didn't destroy it." He was sure about that, deep in his gut, but wasn't sure he'd be able to explain why, if anyone asked.

      David frowned. "McKenzie thought we did. It went poof!"

      "No." That was it, Oz realised, what had felt wrong. It hadn't been a destroyed kind of 'poof', more a 'gone somewhere else' kind of thing ? and a 'gone somewhere else' that hadn't been done by them, at that, despite all their efforts. He was no expert on spell casting, and had never wanted to be, but based on what little experience he had, he was pretty sure that successfully banishing or destroying a demon in any way, shape or form should feel?different. Like you'd actually done something. "It, it went?somewhere. Tactical withdrawal."

      "It said something before the poof-and-gone." David looked troubled now, remembering. "Something about giving him ? McKenzie ? a bit more time. For old time's sake, whatever that means."

      Whatever McKenzie's past with the demon, the overarching message seemed clear enough to Oz. He leaned back with a sigh. "Means it'll be back for Anouk."

      David looked almost comically dismayed. "So we have to do this all again? Once wasn't enough?"

      Charlie smiled at him. "You did pretty good for your maiden outing."

      "I felt so useless," he admitted. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing, really."

      "I don't think any of us ever knows what we're doing really," Charlie ruefully told him. "If we did, we probably wouldn't do it."

      "We should try to find out," said Oz.

      Emma looked at him. "How and why?"

      "Well," Elli chimed in now. "The moral of today's story is: when someone comes to you asking for help and claims they can tell you exactly what needs to be done but can't actually do it themselves, be wary and ask questions." She looked around them, one eyebrow slightly quirked. "We start at the source."

      "The Old Fella," David realised.

      She nodded. "The Old Fella."

      "But why do we even care any more?" Emma wanted to know. "If the guy was willing to feed Charlie to a demon?well, shouldn't we just walk away? Forget we ever heard of him?"

      That was actually a very tempting idea, Oz ruefully thought. Except for one detail. "It isn't for him," he quietly pointed out. "It's for his daughter."

      "The girl with the weird name," said Emma.

      "Anouk." The thought of the carefree girl they'd so briefly glimpsed coming face to face with that demon was more than enough motivation to stay involved, for Oz at least.

      "Like I said."

      Oz shrugged. "She's still in danger. Not her fault. It's worth finding out more."

      Charlie glanced at her watch. "But nothing else is likely to happen tonight, is it, so d'you think the Old Fella interrogation and all the rest of it can wait till morning? 'Cause if not, I'll have to leave you to it and you can fill me in later. I'm running late already, and I still have to go home and get changed."

      "Ooh, yes," Emma's face lit up. "The double date with Mike and Shanei." She wrinkled her nose slightly. "What exactly is going on with them?"

      "Good question." Charlie rolled her eyes. "As far as I can tell, they're sort of getting back together ? almost, ish. But Shanei never finding out about the multiple mini-fling binge Mike went on after they broke up is something of a crucial factor in this. Therefore, double date, just for the safety in numbers aspect." She pulled a face. "Playing chaperone to the warring factions isn't my idea of the perfect night out, but Mat talked me into it."

      "You could have said no," David pointed out.

      "I can't say no to Mat," she sighed. "He looks at me with those puppy-dog eyes, and I just can't do it. And then Shanei asked as well, and I felt all ganged up on and had to say yes." She frowned slightly. "I probably won't mention to Mat that I was almost offered to a demon as a sacrificial lamb today. I don't think he'd feel all that forgiving and it might take what little shine there is off the evening."


      *****

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      • #4
        *****

        The first thing Oz noticed next morning was how much his hand hurt, burning as if it was on fire. It had been getting steadily worse ever since it got cut the previous afternoon, but having been slightly pre-occupied at the time he'd mostly just ignored it, and had hoped the antiseptic applied before bed would have done the trick. That had clearly been an over-optimistic expectation. He cautiously removed the band-aid, which was sodden and sticking painfully to the skin. Beneath it, his hand looked more like he'd held it against a hot iron than sliced it open with a bit of broken mirror, or whatever it was he'd caught it on. The whole hand looked swollen, and, in the midst of the burned-looking flesh, the cut itself was seriously inflamed ? red and crusty, and still oozing blood and other gunk. It had to be infected, although he wasn't sure how. He'd had far worse injuries without anything like this happening. Hell, he'd been shot without anything like this happening.

        So, the first port of call was the first aid kit down in the hallway behind the caf?, again, to find yet another bandage and see if there was anything else in there that could help fix the hand up, or at least soothe the burn, while he tried to decide what to do. Common sense said that given how it looked and felt he'd probably have to go see a doctor. But they had plans for the day that didn't include hanging around a clinic, so if it could wait?

        "What'cha doing?"

        Not paying a huge amount of attention to his surroundings while frowning into the first aid box, he almost jumped out of his skin when Emma popped up behind him. In a flash she had hold of the affected hand and was examining it with deep concern. "Oh my God, how the hell did that get to look like this?"

        "Kinda wondering that myself," he admitted.

        "Wondering what?" At least he'd been aware of Elli as she approached. He wasn't fond of being taken by surprise. "Isn't anyone ready yet? I thought we were all going next door first thing to talk to the Old Fella about misinformation and the perils of only telling half a story."

        "We were. Are," said Emma. "When Charlie gets here. Have you seen this?"

        Oz sighed as Elli now custody of his hand and examined it closely. "Wow, that looks nasty," was her conclusion. "What'd you do to it?"

        "My present, yesterday." Emma looked guilty.

        Elli's eyes widened. "That little cut got to look like this overnight?"

        "Started yesterday," Oz confessed. "Kind of a gradual thing."

        Elli regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, and then looked down at the hand again, fingers very gently probing the edges of the wound with a feather-light touch that made him wince nonetheless. "I'm no expert," she said. "But surely even if you'd got some dirt in there you wouldn't expect it to come up like this. Unless?"

        "Unless what?" He didn't like the sound of that.

        "Unless?Oh." Her hand flew to her mouth, and concern suddenly flooded into her eyes as they met his once more. "Oh, we're all idiots, aren't we?" She touched the back of her hand against his forehead as if to check for a fever. "Emma, that present your grandmother sent you ? was everything in it made of silver?"

        Oz felt a sudden chill down his spine at her words, immediately understanding what she'd realised first. He had to resist the urge to bolt, not wanting to hear the rest of this conversation.

        "My Gran isn't in the habit of sending me cheap knock-offs," said Emma, slightly affronted. "Those were mostly antiques, you know ? family heirlooms. They were fragile. I don't know how I'm going to tell her how much was damaged when I dropped ?"

        "Emma?" There was a warning note in Elli's voice.

        "Yes," the other woman replied, impatient. "It was all real silver."

        Elli bit her lip. "Damn."

        Oz felt cold. She looked worried now, and he'd already been worried enough himself, without all this fuss and without having realised what he now suspected?

        Emma was also starting to look concerned. "What?"

        Elli looked Oz straight in the eyes. "Silver is kind of poisonous to a werewolf," she explained, her tone very gentle. "It burns."

        That was exactly what Oz had been afraid she would say, and exactly what he hadn't wanted to hear. "When you say poison??"

        "Poisonous?" Emma protested. "My Gran's gift?"

        Elli frowned worriedly, still holding his hand and studying it. "Poison is the best way I can explain the effect it has. Toxic, caustic ? however you want to describe it. With mystical beings, there's a whole different set of rules. And for a werewolf, silver kills or maims."

        "But it was just a scratch," Emma murmured.

        "Bloodstream, toxin ? always a bad mix," Elli sighed, meeting Oz's eyes again. "The question is: how bad?"

        "It's just a scratch." Oz was now trying hard to convince himself that was all it was. But he knew it was more than that ? the hand was looking pretty bad, and it hurt more than a little. It burned. That wasn't normal.

        "A scratch that looks like this by the next morning is not just a scratch," said Elli.

        Emma looked stricken. "Oh God."

        "Kinda waiting for you to say something reassuring here," Oz told Elli, trying not to panic. It seemed like every time he thought he had his life under control, something like this happened to remind him just how much he still had no control over. Like, his very self, being less human now than he'd once been, being different. There'd been a time when a scratch made by silver would have had no effect on him whatsoever, other than the scratch itself.

        "You want reassuring? Okay," she nodded, letting out a deep breath. "I don't think you're likely to die from a scratch, although that's more an assumption than a promise because it isn't really my area of greatest expertise. I think we're more into maiming territory here, which is slightly better, but still not good."

        Implying that whatever damage had been done might well be permanent, which, given the current state of his hand, was definitely not good. 'Reassuring' clearly only went so far. "Will it heal?" he asked, anxious.

        "I'm not sure," she admitted, frowning with deep concentration. "I would have thought so, although maybe not completely, but it isn't showing much sign of wanting to heal any time soon, is it?"

        "Kinda the opposite, so far." Up till now it had been a fairly steady decline, which couldn't possibly be a good thing.

        She pursed her lips, thinking. "Are you sure you didn't get a fragment stuck in there? Because if there is that would make it much worse. I'm not one hundred percent sure how well it's likely to heal on its own anyway. I mean, because of how these things work, and judging by how it looks, it might not heal completely or properly. And if it carries on getting worse like this?well, you do tend to need to use your hand on a day-to-day basis, so that's a bit of a problem."

        "He needs his hand," Emma chipped in. "He's a musician."

        "Yes," said Elli. "I know."

        Not feeling the slightest bit reassured, Oz cradled his throbbing hand and let the two girls continue to talk about him as if he wasn't there.

        "What about antibiotic?" Emma suggested. "That's good for infections, or there's that other stuff they give for allergies. If he went to the hospital they could flush it out, too, just in case."

        Elli frowned again. "Washing the wound out would help if there's anything still in there aggravating it. Essential, actually, but I'm not sure antibiotic would do much good. This isn't your standard wound infection for standard medicine to cure. It does need something, though, by the looks of it. Like?like a chemical burn, I suppose. It needs some kind of antidote if it's ever going to heal cleanly."

        "Well, can you fix it, then?" Emma asked. "I mean, you said you knew about me****ing and stuff."

        "I can patch up a war wound," Elli grimly told her. "If you'd got a sword thrust in the gut, or someone shot an arrow through you, I know what to do about that ? even if it's just making you as comfortable as possible ?"

        "Comfortable?" Emma echoed, deeply disquieted.

        Elli sighed. "You'd be surprised how much of battlefield me****ing is about tending the dying. This is different. If I could remember?" She looked at Oz's hand again, and her brow furrowed with concentration as she almost visibly ran through possibilities in her mind. Then she nodded, her expression brightening. "Yes. I think I know a remedy that would work, if any of the ingredients are available in these parts. I'll have to go out for a while, see what I can rustle up. Be as quick as I can. You'll tell me later how you got on with talking to the Old Fella?"

        "Of course."

        She tapped the first aid box. "If you've got anything in here that's good for burns, that might soothe it a bit," she told Emma, adding to Oz, "Try not to scratch it." And with that she was gone.

        Oz automatically started to pick at the wound again. The burning was getting harder and harder to ignore, but Emma instantly reached over and caught his hand to stop him scratching.

        "We'd better put a proper bandage on that for now, so you don't rip your hand to bits with scratching," she said, reaching into the first aid box. "I don't think I've got anything burn related, but some antiseptic couldn't hurt?Well, okay it does hurt," she added as Oz inhaled sharply when the antiseptic was applied. "But it can't make it any worse and might make it better, is what I meant."

        "Not the best start to the day," Oz ruefully observed as Emma carefully wound a bandage around his hand.

        "No," she agreed. "I really hope Elli knows what she's on about, because you might have trouble in the emergency room trying to convince a doctor that you're allergic to silver, or whatever, if it comes to that." She snorted. "Allergic to silver. Whatever that means."

        "I guess it means I'm not quite as human in this face as I like to think I am," Oz murmured, feeling decidedly unsettled.

        "Who's not human and why?" David had come downstairs in time to hear that last comment.

        "Oz needs to go to the hospital," said Emma.

        Oz shook his head. "No, it can wait."

        "What?" David looked from one to the other, puzzled. "What's wrong?"

        "Are you sure?" Emma frowned.

        Oz nodded. "We'll go next door first. Won't take long." There was no rush, surely. He glanced across the caf?, hearing a knock at the door. "Charlie's here."


        *****

        "Of course, if it's locked," said David. "We'll all start to wish Elli had hung around a bit longer before taking off to go silver-burn cure-hunting. She's got an uncanny way with a locked door."

        As it turned out, they had no need of Elli's uncanny way with a locked door. Mr Mainwaring's antique shop was open and unlocked and, although the door stuck slightly in its frame, they were able to gain entry in their pursuit of a few answers.

        Mr Mainwaring himself was, as usual, slouched deep in his ancient armchair at the back of the store, puffing away at his pipe with a fire blazing in the grate nearby, the air around him thick with smoke. "Ah. Yes. I've been expecting you," he admitted, somewhat hesitantly. "In fact I had thought perhaps last night, but ?"

        "We thought it could wait till morning," Charlie told him in curt tones. "But there's a lot you didn't tell us yesterday that really we need to know."

        "Yes. Well. Please make yourselves comfortable." The old man peered myopically at them. "One short today. Your other friend perhaps was a little less aggrieved at my, ah?reticence than the rest of you?"

        "She had other things to do," said David, sitting down. "And while she's off doing them, we'd like to ask you a few questions."

        "Yes. Yes, of course you would," Mr Mainwaring nodded and sighed heavily. "And yes, I am fully aware of the events of yesterday. I spoke to McKenzie last night. When, that is, I could get a word in between shouts."

        "Does he still think the demon was destroyed?" Perched on a high stool, Oz curled his feet around its legs and rested his elbows on the table.

        "You believe otherwise?" Mainwaring looked sharply at him.

        Oz hesitated, fingers picking at the bandage wound around his sore hand. Just because he felt so sure about it didn't necessarily mean he was right. Maybe it was all over and he was worrying about nothing. And yet? "I don't think it's over yet," he said, slowly. "I think it'll be back."

        "Such arrogance!"

        When all four gazed at him in surprise, the old man sighed again. "Myself, that is. Not you. Fool that I am ? unwilling to admit to past mistakes, and unwilling to accept that I might be wrong. Yet all I've achieved is to make those same mistakes over again. I apologise most sincerely."

        Emma frowned at him. "Who are you?"

        "I, young lady, am a very foolish old man." He looked very tired and very old. "A foolish old man who should know better."

        "What happened between you and McKenzie?" David asked, curiously. "He was so angry ?"

        "Yes, I'm sure he was," Mainwaring wearily agreed. "And perhaps if I had paused to properly consider the situation I should have explained matters to you fully, to avoid confusion. However, as anxious as I was to avoid facing up to the failures of my past, I chose instead to 'pass the buck', as it were."

        "Passed the buck without actually telling us all the details we really needed to know." Charlie still looked cross.

        "Yes." The old man sighed deeply, and then looked hard at Charlie. "I knew your grandfather, you know," he remarked, off-hand. "And his dear wife. Yes. Charlotte Stafford. You would have been named after her, of course."

        "I know." Charlie looked uncomfortable, and David frowned.

        "Okay. First of all, how would he know your grandfather?" he asked. "And second of all, what's it got to do with anything?"

        "Oh, nothing whatsoever," the old man admitted. "Other than perhaps to explain how I came to work in this field. Or, rather, to dabble in this field. My former employers trained me well, but I was cast loose long ago, left to make my own way ? and my own mistakes as well, I might add."

        "Former employers?" Oz raised an eyebrow, suddenly suspecting whom those former employers might have been.

        "You moved here from Sunnydale, I understand, young man," said Mr Mainwaring, nodding slowly. "A town of which I have heard a great deal in recent years. Knowing as much as you do, I believe you might have heard of my former employers. And I know that Charlotte knows them well. Yes, Mr Gibson, I received my training in this field many years ago, when I was in the employ of the Watcher's Council."

        "Watcher's Council?" David looked intrigued, and looked at Oz. "Like, like you told us about ? with the Slayer, and all that."

        Oz nodded, but it was Charlie who quietly responded. "Yes, that's right."

        "You know them too?" Frowning, David asked the question Oz had been wondering about ? Charlie had heard him refer to Buffy and Giles more than once, without ever mentioning that she had any connection of her own to the Council.

        "My dad worked for them, and his father before him," she explained, sticking her chin out defiantly and giving Mr Mainwaring a dirty look. "I don't like to think about it, and I certainly don't have anything to do with them any more. Not after what happened to my family."

        A moment of awkward silence followed, which was broken by Oz, in attempt to both take the spotlight off Charlie, who looked upset, and get the conversation back on track.

        "Watcher's Council are in England," he murmured, wondering how the old man had ended up here ? unless he'd been posted out here, like Giles was.

        "Yes." A nostalgic look came into Mr Mainwaring's eyes. "I was, I believe, the youngest ever to have a Slayer entrusted to me, arrogant fool that I was. And, perhaps, still am. I was brilliant, you see." His manner was matter-of-fact rather than boastful. "Back then. That brilliance faded, later."

        "Still don't see what that has to do with McKenzie and the demon," David muttered under his breath, but Emma shushed him fiercely.

        "Carry on," she said to Mr Mainwaring.

        "My past has nothing to do with McKenzie and the demon," Mainwaring wearily acknowledged. "But everything to do with my follies and failings. I was, as I said, very young ? not many years older than Simone herself." He smiled to himself. "Sweet, conscientious Simone. Flemish, but her father was an Englishman. She'd been sent to stay with relatives in London when the war broke out?and then she was called. And I was assigned to her."

        The old man looked around the table, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "I wonder if any of you young people can possibly imagine?those were dark days. Evil was rampant. Nineteen forty-one: the height of the Blitz. Everyone was so distracted by the war, you see, they had neither the time nor the will to see danger lurking in the shadows closer to home. The bombs were falling, thick and fast. And there in the midst of it was Simone. So brave, so valiant?so young. She gave her life to save the entire world, and not a soul so much as noticed."

        Six decades later, and there were tears in his eyes at the memory. "I left the Council soon after," he said with great dignity. "And moved out here, carved out a niche for myself, and somehow stayed alive, all these years. So many years."

        "You were in love with her," said Emma, entranced by the story.

        "Yes," he replied, very simply. "I was. A cardinal sin, in the eyes of the Council."

        "But this thing with McKenzie??" David was clearly less interested in the history lesson than his wife, and seemed determined not to be distracted from the central point.

        "I was trained to be a Watcher," said Mainwaring. "And despite all that had happened, I found that training impossible to let go of. I was too aware of the evils of the world?and, gradually, people started to come to me for help. I was young, arrogant, and, as the years went by, had too many successes. I believed myself infallible and, as a result became careless. McKenzie was one of those who came to me, many years ago."

        "Twenty-five years." Oz remembered the businessman's rant.

        "Twenty-five years." Mainwaring nodded. "A lifetime, perhaps. And I believed, through all those years, that I had succeeded in ridding him of the Toshok permanently. I must admit that I didn't give it another thought ? until he came to tell me that the Toshok had returned."

        "So why come to us?" Charlie quietly asked. "And why fob us off without all the details?"

        "Perhaps because the thought of re-opening that years old case and trying to determine where I had gone wrong was too wearisome to contemplate. I am tired." He looked very, very old, and it seemed like every minute of what had to be eighty-plus years was etched deep into his face. "Tired of life. Tired of responsibility. Tired of carrying the burden alone. I wonder if perhaps you young people truly appreciate how fortunate you are, to have one other, to be able to share the load."


        *****

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        • #5
          *****

          Part Three:

          *****

          "So you didn't bother to research the Toshok any more thoroughly?" There was a note of reproof in Charlie's voice as she glanced at the innumerable books stacked around the room and spread across the table in front of them.

          "I found what seemed a reasonable, albeit somewhat tricky, solution and neglected to research any further, all those years ago," Piers wearily admitted. It was hard to define at exactly what point during the morning the old man had ceased to be 'Mr Mainwaring' and had become simply 'Piers', but that switch from the formal to the informal had happened, and there was no going back from it now. "My life was somewhat busier then than now, and I was only too glad to opt for the 'quick fix' in order to save myself both time and effort. And it was easier this time around to send McKenzie away with that same solution I had used previously than to admit I could have miscalculated. I hoped that perhaps he might be successful, and that another twenty-five years would spare me the responsibility of the situation."

          "But then you still came and pulled the, uh, guilt-trip on us," Oz quietly noted.

          "Concern over the outcome and, yes, no small measure of guilt," said the old man, sadly. "But I confess my pride would not allow me to admit my culpability until inescapably confronted by it. And now, as a result, that poor girl remains in even greater danger than before."

          "You think this demon really will go after her again then." Emma looked nervous.

          "It seems almost certain." Piers peered down his nose at the open book in front of him. "All bets are off, as they say, and the rules have changed. It is likely that McKenzie will have little or no warning this time. His period of grace has already been exhausted. Next time, the Toshok will simply take what it wants."

          "We'd better find a proper solution, then" was David's heartfelt conclusion. "Because that ritual didn't work, and neither did the weapons. We couldn't get past its shield."

          "So what we need is to?to get the defences down, right?" Oz suggested.

          Piers sighed again, despondent. "The Toshok is extremely powerful, and his magiks are tremendously difficult to counter. It was foolish of me to consider for even a second that a novice such as McKenzie could pull it off."

          "Well, we need to find something," said Emma, grimly "Or this girl is going to die."

          David leaned back with a sigh. "Maybe we should just give in, call McKenzie and tell him to stop wasting time and just get the girl out of the country."

          "Works fine until the Toshok plays stalker on them all around the world," said Oz, pulling another book toward him with his good hand.

          It was Emma's turn to sigh. "All these books. You'd think one of them would say something helpful!"


          *****

          The research continued, but every option they explored seemed to take them round and round in circles without ever leading to any firm conclusions.

          "I think I'm beginning to understand why Piers went with this spell even though it wasn't ideal," said Charlie at length, as what felt like hours of pouring over dusty old books seemed to be leading them nowhere fast. "Because it's not like there's anything else jumping out at us here, and we've been at this for a while now. So?I dunno. Maybe it is the right spell, or perhaps the only spell, but it also has to be the right person to cast it?"

          Giving up on turning pages one-handed, Oz leaned back in his chair to listen to what she had to say, although paying full attention to anything other than his hand was getting more difficult by the minute. The burning was getting worse by the minute, and seemed to be spreading up his arm. He had to wonder if it felt worse now because it actually was getting worse, or if he was just imagining that it was getting worse because he knew now what was wrong with it. These things could be psychosomatic, couldn't they? He wasn't sure how you could tell for sure, and it was really annoying. He could only hope that Elli would manage to find a cure of some sort before too much longer.

          "What do you mean?" Emma was starting to look very bored with the research, and the Old Fella appeared to be nodding off once more, in spite of everything. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his guilt-tripping them into helping while neglecting to tell them the full story, he'd been right about one thing ? he was definitely too old and frail for all this.

          "Well," Charlie explained, looking dubious. "Just about anyone can cast a spell, can't they, given the right ingredients, if ingredients are needed, and clear instructions to follow. But how well that spell works, or even if it works at all, is another matter entirely. Some people just have more of a natural affinity for it than others ? they can channel the magic more smoothly, more strongly."

          "Yeah??" David frowned, unsure what she was getting at.

          Charlie tapped the book she was studying, the one specifying the ritual Piers had opted for most clearly. "This is a pretty big spell, and it has to work through the demon's own shielding mojo," she said. "And McKenzie isn't any kind of spell-caster, is he? So it's no wonder it didn't work yesterday. Piers did a much better job, all those years ago, because he's more familiar with spell casting and how magic works. But he still didn't have enough?enough magical clout, I suppose, for it to work completely. Which is why the demon was able to get back eventually."

          "So, what you're saying is, we need our resident Miss Magic to come with us if we end up having to have another go at the Toshok?" David suggested.

          Oz could picture Elli's face if she was here to hear him volunteering her for demon-destroyal duty like that. She'd always been very vague about the extent and limitations of her magical ability, but to him this smacked of the this-worldly magic out of a book that she preferred to avoid, claiming that that wasn't how her power worked.

          Charlie shrugged. "I'm not sure what I'm saying. McKenzie's probably right ? if we could get close enough or get those shields down, hacking it to bits would be the best way to know for sure it was really gone for good. But failing that, if this spell is all we can find ? well, Elli's got more magic in her than just about anyone else I know. She might be able to make it work, if we can't find any better way. More likely than any of us, anyway. So when she gets back ?"

          "There you are! You have to do something, right now!"

          It was McKenzie, bursting into the shop at speed with a desperate note in his voice. "It's back!" He was absolutely frantic. "It's back, and it's gone after Anouk!"

          Reaching the formerly quiet corner where they were studying, he leaned hard on the back of David's chair, breathing hard. "You have to help me. Please. I'll give you anything. Please."

          David immediately looked at Oz, as did old Piers, who'd woken with a snort of dismay at the first shout. And, after glancing helplessly at each other, so did Charlie and Emma. And then McKenzie also looked at him, just because everyone else was.

          Decision-making responsibility wasn't something he'd ever especially hankered after. He'd always been happy to let other people take on that particular burden and just go with the flow. But since moving here he'd been able to get away with that less and less. He took a deep breath.

          "Okay. We're going to have to go with what we've got." He looked at Piers. "You'll keep working on this?"

          Looking thoroughly abashed, the old man nodded. "Of course."

          Oz turned to Emma. "You okay to wait next door for Elli? Looks like we could need her before we're done."

          Emma looked scared. "Okay."

          Feeling pretty scared himself, Oz turned back to McKenzie. "Okay then. Let's go."


          *****

          "Outta the way!" McKenzie yelled at the traffic holding them up in their rush across town to the exclusive little club where Anouk was helping prepare a surprise party for a friend's birthday. It was a race. The Toshok was also on his way there, and had the advantage of being able to location-shift with its magic.

          Despite still lacking any real way of countering the Toshok's powers, Oz, David and Charlie had gone with McKenzie. They had to at least try to save Anouk. Looking older and frailer than ever, Piers had promised to continue searching for an alternate way of disposing of the demon, while Emma had gone back to the caf? to wait for Elli, since they had no way of getting a message to her. Technology was only a marvellous thing for those prepared to embrace it.

          McKenzie's car screeched to a halt at a jaunty angle outside the club, and they all rushed out, sprinting toward the entrance with weapons tightly clutched in their hands, in the vain hope that they would be able to do something productive with them this time.

          As they burst into the club, which was gaudily decorated in readiness for the party, several heads snapped around in surprise at their abrupt entrance and various gasps were emitted at the sight of the weapons. Anouk was with a group of friends, helping to fix a 'happy birthday' banner across the room, and her eyes went wide when she saw her father.

          "Dad?" She sounded bewildered.

          "Oh, thank God," McKenzie let out a long, shuddering breath. "We got here in time."

          "In time for what?" Anouk looked puzzled.

          "The party isn't for hours yet," another girl added.

          But before anyone else could speak, still another girl let out a piercing scream as the Toshok demon now arrived, with a flash of blinding light and a whirl of energy that set their balloons and streamers dancing merrily.

          The Toshok glanced around at the number of young women in the room, and a delighted smile spread across its face.


          *****

          "I have it!"

          On hearing the shout, Emma paused in her impatient pacing of the caf? and glanced up sharply as old Piers came hobbling in at the highest speed his arthritic frame would allow, leaning heavily on his cane with one hand and waving a handful of papers with the other.

          "Have what?"

          Reaching the table nearest to the counter, Piers sank onto a chair to catch his breath, hooking his cane over the back of a second chair. Emma sat down opposite and repeated her question.

          "Have what? What have you got?"

          "The solution." Triumph flashed in his watery eyes. "I have the solution at last."

          "Better late than never," Emma sighed. "What is it?"

          "Here." The old man pointed out a few passages on the manuscripts he'd brought with him. It meant less than nothing to Emma. "This incantation. It should counter the Toshok's defensive powers and render him vulnerable to physical attack. So simple. If I had only found this sooner ?"

          "It's too late to worry about that now," Emma told him, excited and terrified at the same time. "Although, it might be too late, period, already. If only Elli would get here?"

          Glancing up at the sound of the bell on the door, she gasped with relief. With impeccable timing, Elli had arrived, carrying a bulging paper bag.

          "It's about time too!" Emma rushed over too her. "You've got to get a cell phone."

          "Why would I want to do that?" Elli looked perplexed.

          "So we can get hold of you when there's emergencies like this," Emma had hold of the other girl's arm and hauled her across to the counter, toward the telephone. "It's all kicking off ? the others have gone off to try and save Anouk without even knowing how, and Piers has brought me the spell for you to do, and we have to get there quicker than quick, 'cause I do not want David to get ripped to bits by a demon just because we were late!"

          Picking up the telephone, she dialled the number for a cab, hoping desperately that they would get there in time.


          *****

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          • #6
            *****

            The ear-splitting screams emitted by the girls in the room as they scattered in all directions did nothing to calm Oz's nerves at being confronted by the demon once more. Eight feet tall, he'd said, and David had thought ten. Seeing it again, a small voice somewhere at the back of his mind suggested splitting the difference.

            "Okay, maybe nine feet," he murmured to no one in particular.

            Either way, it was a lot bigger than he was. Than any of them were. And it had those claws, and teeth, and horns, plus that shielding mojo to protect it from anything they might attempt against it. And it had come here to claim McKenzie's daughter, Anouk, who was backing away from it, her eyes and mouth making little 0's of shock and fear. And whatever little they might be able to do was the only defence she had against it.

            And the Toshok had eyes only for her. "Anouk." It smiled a horribly toothy smile. "So nice to meet you at last. I've heard so much about you from your father."

            McKenzie made a strangled sound as Anouk turned incredulous eyes in his direction. "Daddy?"

            "Oh yes," the Toshok was laughing now. "Your father and I go way back. He owes me a great deal ? he might not have mentioned that. And I come now to take what is owing to me."

            Exactly what it wanted to take was blatantly obvious as it started moving toward the terrified girl, but then it stumbled to one side as Charlie brought her telekinesis into play, frowning in deep concentration as she struggled to hold onto its substantial mass. It was a pretty hefty weight for her to shift, but she succeeded in holding it back and drawing its attention away from Anouk. And as it turned away from the girl once more, growling its annoyance, the guys ? and Gil ? did their best to take it out, swinging at it with axe, sword and cudgel.

            Weapons were just about useless when all they did was bounce straight off the demon's magically reinforced hide, but they had to try ? even if they succeeded only in irritating it. The Toshok growled even more furiously than before, and swiped its attackers aside, straining against Charlie's hold on it. Stumbling from the demon's blow, Oz caught hold of a table to steady himself, firmly maintaining his grip on the sword he'd grabbed from the arsenal in McKenzie's trunk. David had an axe in each hand, apparently trying to make himself feel tougher, but Oz had opted for just the sword. He pretty much knew what to do with one of those, and couldn't grip properly with the other hand any more anyway.

            Across the little club, pandemonium reigned. Most of the girls seemed to have escaped out into the street, but Anouk had been cornered. Yelling her name in terror, McKenzie rushed at the Toshok again, and was knocked aside again, stumbling into Charlie and causing her to loose her hold on the demon. Thus freed, it roared and resumed its charge toward Anouk, who seemed to be frozen to the spot, back against the wall, screaming.

            With no one else near enough or in any position to do anything, Oz charged toward her himself, grabbing an arm and hauling her out of the Toshok's reach even as it swiped for her. As it raked its claws across her arm it also caught Oz's bad hand quite painfully, drawing blood, but he decided to channel Pollyanna and just be glad it wasn't the other one. At least he still had one usable hand, and his sword.

            His heart was pounding furiously as he turned to face the demon once more, brandishing his sword as menacingly as he could manage under the circumstances, with Anouk close behind him, hanging on to his shirt sleeve for dear life. She was trembling, and the subtle scent of her fear filled the air around him, strengthening his resolve not to let the demon take her.

            Behind the demon he could see first David, and then McKenzie rushing at it again ? and bouncing off it again. The demon leered at him and lurched forward once more, straining against Charlie's renewed mental hold on it. Gripping the sword fiercely in anticipation of its attack, Oz forced himself not to close his eyes, expecting to feel those lethal looking claws ripping into his flesh at any moment.

            And then there was a sudden, unexpected shift in the atmosphere, and the demon's attention abruptly switched away from him. Oz shifted position, trying to see past it. Emma and Elli had rushed into the club, both fiercely chanting words he couldn't understand. Elli was holding a manuscript in her hand that they were reading from, and she spoke the words confidently, while Emma cowered behind her slightly, and stammered along with the chant. Infuriated, the demon started to struggle toward them, moving almost as if it were wading through treacle thanks to Charlie's efforts, and before it was even halfway there a sudden burst of light flashed around it, just for a second. The Toshok stumbled and half fell, seeming puzzled.

            And then David charged it from the side, and this time his axe blow really connected, drawing thick, dark demon blood that squirted out in an arc and splattered across his face.

            Enraged at the loss of its magical shields and the pain of this unexpected wound, the Toshok went completely berserk, attacking randomly and turning the thrust of its assault back toward Anouk, determined to claim its prize at all costs. Seeing it rush toward them yet again, Oz steeled himself and held his defensive position in front of the girl, waiting for it to get close enough to engage?and then thrust out with his sword, slicing a deep gash across its chest and into its arm. The demon was roaring, swiping and gnashing its teeth in all directions, as it was attacked from all sides. Oz kept up the sword strokes, while McKenzie and David were now also getting in some telling blows. The girls had found weapons and joined in the assault, until David managed one last axe blow to the head that dropped the demon to the ground, dead at last.

            A long moment of stunned silence hung in the air. Everyone stood there, bruised, bedraggled, and dripping blood both human and demonic. But before anyone could speak, another figure came sidling out of a door to the rear of the room now that the fight was over, demanding to know what was the meaning of all this. The club manager.

            "I-I-I?" the man stammered, and then blustered. "What is the meaning of all this?"

            McKenzie looked nervously at his daughter, clearly wanting to sweep her into his arms and away from it all, but also afraid to face her. And then, neatly delaying the inevitable showdown and explanation, he went across to soothe the manager's ruffled nerves with a flourish of his chequebook.

            And now, belatedly, Anouk suddenly seemed to realise that she was still clutching at Oz's arm and let go, blushing prettily.

            "Oh. Sorry for being such a girl."

            Oz smiled at her. "Not a problem."

            She stared at the dead demon, wide-eyed and disbelieving. "That was?I mean, it's a, a?I don't know what that is. And you ? I think you kinda just saved my life. That was amazing."

            Oz could feel a touch of colour touching his own cheeks now. He never knew quite how he was meant to respond when people thanked him for stuff ? especially when he was kind of distracted by thinking how cute she was, all shocked and flustered like that, and yet not at all hysterical like all her so-called friends who'd just run off and left her here.

            And then she saved him from having to make any reply by frowning. "What did you do to your arm?"

            His attention drawn back to his throbbing, much-abused hand, which was bleeding again from a new, demon-inflicted wound, Oz also now noticed that she was bleeding herself. There were three deep scratches gouged into her arm where the demon had clawed her. He frowned, snatching a couple paper napkins off a nearby table to press against the cuts. "Oh. Here."

            Anouk smiled gratefully as she pressed her own hand over the wounds, the contact between their hands lasting just a moment longer than was strictly necessary. "Thank you again. But I asked about your arm, not mine."

            Oz glanced at his hand, and shrugged. "Mine's kind of a, a longer story. Not so exciting. You wouldn't want to hear it."

            "Oh, I'm sure I would." She was still smiling shyly as her dark eyes met his. And then she glanced around at the devastation around them. "But okay, maybe not right now. Look at this mess! Everyone ran away, and we were meant to be getting ready for Geena's party. What am I going to tell my friends about all this?"

            "Oh, I think you'll find their memories are kind of selective," Oz assured her.

            "I still don't even know what happened. What just happened?" Reaction was starting to set in, and she was trembling again now. Taking her arm, Oz led her over to a chair and sat her down.

            "Well, I don't know all the details. You might want to have a long talk with your dad."

            "I will." Her mouth set in a determined line. "That, that thing said it knew him. He owed it money, or something, and it wanted to eat me, or, or I don't know what. Something." And then her expression softened. "But he did come to save me. And he brought you here to help. I'm Anouk, by the way." She held out a hand.

            Oz felt a broad smile spread across his face as he took her hand and shook it. "Oz."

            Anouk smiled back. "Oz. That's an interesting name."


            *****

            Having pacified the club manager by means of a hefty cash injection and assurances that he would arrange for demon-corpse disposal, and having stowed the blood-stained-weapons away in his trunk, McKenzie draped his jacket around Anouk's shoulders and led her away. His arms were wrapped around her as if to protect her from the entire world and he was talking to her quietly as he guided her out to his car. But at least he'd remembered to say a heartfelt thank you before leaving them there, high and dry.

            Oz watched Anouk go, his mind whirring, and then half-turned his head as he felt someone step up beside him.

            "Nice sword play," Elli casually remarked. "Feel like getting your hand fixed up now?"

            "That would be good," he admitted. With new damage to add to the existing silver-burn, it felt more than ever as though it was on fire.

            "Just as well I know my stuff, then." She gave him a cheeky grin.

            "Did you see?" Emma dragged David across to them, her eyes gleaming with pride. "David killed the demon."

            "We all killed the demon, Em," David pointed out, embarrassed.

            "It was a good fight," said Charlie, with deep satisfaction.

            "It's always a good fight when everyone but the enemy survives," Elli agreed. "But I still haven't heard the full story."

            "Yeah, where were you?" David asked.

            "Pulling the city apart, mostly ? researching herbs, finding out what's comparable between here and home, equivalents of anything not available, locating and acquiring them?if we head home now we can find out if it was worth it."

            "Head home how?" Emma looked out into the street, where McKenzie's car was just pulling out into traffic. "There goes our lift."

            Oz shrugged. "Footwork it is, then. And we should, uh, drop by and let Piers know it went all right on the night."


            *****

            "Did you see Oz with Anouk?" Emma smiled, smugly, as she walked down the street with David, arms wrapped lovingly around each other, ignoring the stares their bloody and bedraggled appearances were drawing from passers-by. Having started walking, making noises about finding a taxi perhaps, David and Emma were falling behind the others, lost in their own little world of pride in one other.

            "Don't start that again, Em," David warned, but only half-heartedly, more amused than annoyed. He still felt like he was riding high on a wave of exhilaration at their success.

            "No, I'm serious." Emma grinned. "She was totally flirting with him, and he?wasn't discouraging her. And he got her number."

            She paused slightly, and David wondered what was coming next.

            "You know, I was wondering, after everything that's happened these last couple days?"

            "Yeah?"

            "Would you mind if we invited Piers over for Christmas dinner?"

            "Piers?" David hadn't been expecting that. Apparently, she'd jumped onto a different track entirely.

            "He's old, and all alone." Emma gave him her most beseeching look. "And his one true love died all those years ago, and he never got over it. I can tell. Would you ever get over it, if anything happened to me?"

            David pulled her a little closer. "I don't even want to think about it."

            "Oz and Elli will be there, anyway," she added. "And Charlie'll be in Scotland, of course. So shall we ask him?"

            David loved that she had such a generous heart. And after the exhilaration of the morning's excitement, he was in no mood to deny anyone anything. "Yeah, why not. The more the merrier."


            *****

            "Okay, so in future you might want to think about avoiding things that are made of silver and sharp edges," said Elli, head bent over Oz's hand, concentrating hard on what she was doing.

            "Agreed," said Oz, through gritted teeth. He did not want to have to go through this rigmarole again. He was sitting on one of Elli's straight-backed wooden chairs with his hand flat on the table, palm up, while she carefully and gently cleaned out that ever more unpleasant-looking wound that had seemed so innocuous when it first happened. Tussling with a killer demon probably hadn't helped, either. It was annoying, and a little embarrassing, that such a tiny cut could lead to so much fuss.

            Jones the cat had come and draped himself across his lap almost as soon as he sat down, so he petted the cat with his good hand while trying not to watch what Elli was doing?

            "Ow." His hand jerked involuntarily at an unexpected stab of pain that ran right up his arm.

            "Sorry," Elli gave him an apologetic smile. "You know, if you wanted a really professional job, you should have gone to the emergency room like Emma said."

            Oz gritted his teeth again and let her take the hand once more. "Figured this way I'd get it over with in one consultation."

            The tip of her tongue was sticking out slightly with concentration as she resumed her wound-cleansing operation. "O-kay," she said at length. "And there it is: the cause of all your problems."

            She wiped something off the tip of the very fine-nosed tweezers she'd been using onto a tissue, and peered at it.

            "Looks like the tip snapped off one of those twiddly little decorations on the mirror," she said to Emma, who was sat at the other side of the table working hard with a mortar and pestle Elli had handed to her, containing an exotic-smelling herbal mix. "And you've had it stuck in here ever since polluting your whole hand," she told Oz.

            He frowned, and pulled the tissue toward him to have a look. The tiny little sliver of silver was barely even visible. "I didn't think silver broke that easily."

            "It's really old," said Emma, subdued. "Those little bits and pieces were always breaking off if my Gran let me play with it when we visited. She was forever telling me to be more careful, but she still always said she'd send that stuff to me one day, when I was older. Now I kind of wish she hadn't."

            "Because it burned me, or because it got broke?" Oz asked, as, having finished the wound-work, Elli leaned across the table to take the mortar and pestle from Emma and check the mixture.

            "Both," Emma admitted with a rueful smile.

            Falling silent once more, they both watched as Elli carefully plastered his bad hand with her fragrant-smelling gunk, and then wrapped a bandage around it to seal the mixture in.

            "Are you sure that'll work?" Emma asked.

            Elli didn't answer for a moment, concentrating on what she was doing. Then, without looking up, she said, "Would it make either of you feel any better to know that this remedy isn't werewolf-specific?"

            "Probably not," said Oz.

            "I won't mention that part, then." She glanced up with a mischievous grin that reassured him more than any words could have. If she was confident, then so was he. "But I have seen the remedy used before," she continued, cheerfully. "For a mystical being that had silver burns, so it counts. And it healed the burns right up ? barely even left a scar. It'll work for you, too. But that was back home, so the biggest problem was being sure all the ingredients were available here, or at least something comparable. I had to improvise a tiny bit."

            "Improvise? You're sure you got all the right stuff in there?" Emma picked the pot up again and sniffed at it. "'Cause I know I didn't recognise most of what you put in."

            "I checked very carefully," Elli assured her. "Relax, it'll work." To Oz she added with mock severity, "And I hope you appreciate the lengths I went to to make sure I found everything I needed. I had to scour what seemed like every herbalist store in the city, not to mention the bookwork to make sure everything I was using did exactly what I needed it to and nothing more. Some appreciation for my excellent memory for the herbcraft I was taught back home wouldn't go amiss, either. And then everyone had the nerve to complain about how long it took!"

            "There was an emergency," Emma protested.

            "I'm very grateful," said Oz.

            Elli finished tying off the bandage, and then smiled at him. "Okay, all done."

            Oz tried an experimental flex of his fingers, surprised that the burning pain was subsiding already.

            "There's pain-killing ingredients in there, too," Elli told him, highly pleased with herself.

            "I noticed," said Oz. "Thanks." He flexed his fingers once more, pleased to have movement back again. "So, how long do I have to keep this on?"

            "Until it looks better," Elli cheerfully told him. "You're appallingly resilient, so it probably won't take too long. We'll re-dress it every day to see how it's getting on. And I'll write down all the ingredients, what they do and why, plus the how-to for you in case this happens again."

            Nodding his gratitude, Oz looked at her for a moment, and they both smiled: one of those warm, fuzzy moments where no words were really necessary. And then a few throwaway comments she'd made came back to him, demanding attention. "So," he remarked. "I'm a mystical being?"

            "Well, what would you call yourself?" She raised her eyebrows, looking amused.

            Oz considered that for a moment. "Me."

            Elli chuckled softly. "Well said."

            Emma cleared her throat before either of them could speak again, effectively breaking the moment. "Okay, Oz. Now all that's sorted out ? tell me more about your damsel in distress."

            He should have known that was coming: kind of an awkward question, under the circumstances, but also predictable, given that this was Emma. He might be the one with werewolf-senses, but she could sniff out even the faintest potential for romance at a thousand paces. Oz looked at her, one eyebrow slightly raised, not rising to the bait at all.

            "Gonna call her?" Emma wheedled.

            Torn between embarrassment and amusement, Oz glanced at Elli, who shrugged, a mischievous smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. He decided to take that as encouragement to go for it.

            Looking back at Emma, he offered her a lazy smile. Anouk was cute, and he was a free agent these days, after all. "I might."


            *****

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            • #7
              *****

              Epilogue:

              *****

              Dinner was done, the washing up was washed, and a delighted-to-be-invited-Piers had shuffled home replete and happy. And it was a beautiful Christmas evening.

              Having helped clear away after dinner, Oz and Elli had tactfully withdrawn to Elli's place, leaving David and Emma to enjoy some quality Christmas alone time. And alone time was?quality indeed. But there was still time for a nightcap with friends before turning in for the night.

              Arms around one another, the young couple wandered out back toward the studio.

              "You don't trust me even a little bit, do you?" Emma teased. "I was good all through dinner, wasn't I?"

              "Only because Piers was there," David teased right back. "I know you, Em. You're not to ask Oz about his date with Anouk. If he wants to tell us about it, he will."

              "No he won't," Emma grumbled. "Oz never talks about anything important."

              Letting themselves in, they called upstairs to let the other two know they were coming up, and headed upstairs where they found Elli curled up in her armchair sketching, while Oz was slouched across the sofa with his feet resting on the coffee table, strumming his guitar in testimony to how well his hand had healed already. A couple of coffees were cooling on the table before them as they ignored one another completely and comfortably.

              "Evening, both," Emma cheerfully greeted them, pushing Oz's feet off the table. "What'cha up to?"

              "Just, uh ? chilling in the glow of Christmas finished," Oz told her, glancing up with a half-smile as she dropped onto the sofa next to him.

              "Had an email from Charlie," said David, helping himself to a couple of cold drinks from the fridge and handing one to Emma before pulling a chair across from the table.

              "How is she?" Looking up from her sketchpad, Elli acknowledged their arrival for the first time.

              "She wishes us all a fantastic Christmas," Emma summarised the message. "Is having great fun with her sister and the kids, misses Mat dreadfully and hopes he misses her, but despite that is planning to stay on a bit longer and spend Hogmanay in Scotland. That's New Year in Scottish. She'll be back sometime after that, depending on when the ferries are running. The weather is vile, apparently ? lots of wind and rain. How was Anouk when you saw her the other night?" She eyed Oz, hopefully.

              "Em!" David protested.

              "What?" She turned an innocent expression toward him. "I'm concerned. She had a terrible experience with that demon."

              Oz had raised an eyebrow, very slightly. "Anouk's good."

              "Gonna see her again?"

              Oz looked quizzically at David. "Do I have to answer that?"

              "No," David assured him.

              He smiled, and turned back to Emma, nodding. "Yeah," he said. "I think I will."



              ~fini~



              ? J. Browning, July 2005


              With thanks to everybody who offered werewolves-and-silver theories for me to sift through. I picked one that best suited the story I wanted to tell, and ran with it.


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