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Monico Episode Thirteen: Malignancy

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  • Monico Episode Thirteen: Malignancy

    Episode Thirteen:
    Malignancy

    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 make no profit from it.
    Feedback: Yes please, I welcome constructive comments.


    Previously in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tales from the Monico:

    Oz: "I know what it's like to have power you can't control. I mean, every time I start to wolf out, I touch something?deep, dark. It's not fun."

    Willow: "So Tibet was your favorite?"
    Oz: "Well, it's where I stayed the longest. This warlock in Romania sent me to the monks there to learn some meditation techniques. Very intense. All about keeping your inner cool."
    Willow: "Good, 'cause you were such a spaz before." (Smiles.) "So that's it? You keep your cool, and no more wolfie?"
    Oz: "No, there's more. I take some herbs and stuff. Some chanting. A couple charms."
    (He shows some beads on a string wrapped around his hand.)
    Willow: "It's incredible. You've been all around the world. You've had this?complete mind-body transformation."

    Oz: "I don't change. Not any more. I can hold it in?. Except in very extreme circumstances."

    Oz: "The wolf isn't the biggest part of me."
    Elli: "It is a part of you though. It's an important part of what makes you you."

    Elli: "Oz, this is who I am."
    Oz: "Lady Eleris of Alvrestyn."
    Elli: "Eleris Talvalin, once of Alvrestyn. Dispossessed, landless, outlaw and exile. And also a soldier in a very bloody war?I came here to do a job, and that job was to not allow the Firststone to fall into enemy hands. No matter what it takes."

    Emma: "If these kinds of freaky things are going to keep on happening, and Piers next door has proved that he's fallible ? well, I don't want to get caught out again. I want to be as prepared as possible. And that means learning as much as possible in advance. So, I'm reading up."
    Charlie: "I thought you thought the research was boring?"
    Emma: "I did. Still do. But it's something I want to do, so I'm doing it anyway."

    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: "I thought I should mention that I worked it out, after our last little encounter. What you really are. And, no offence, but I prefer human blood. Tastes better; you know what I mean? So, I shouldn't worry too much if I were you, I won't be trying to bite you again." (Chuckles) "No. I'll just kill you instead."

    Anouk: "You have a vampire stalking you."
    Oz: "Not just me."
    Anouk: "And you didn't think to tell me this before now?"
    Oz: "Well?he wasn't around before now."
    Anouk (with a big sigh): "Just when I thought I knew you."
    Oz: "You don't know everything about me."
    Anouk: "But I want to. I want you to talk to me, Oz."

    Elli: "Oz, can I ask you something? Why didn't you go back to your monks in Tibet after the big bust up in Sunnydale?"
    Oz: "I don't know. I guess?I kinda thought they'd already taught me all they could?. And I got tired of chasing shadows. Time to face reality."

    (Confronted with the unexpected realisation of Willow's new relationship with Tara, Oz wolfs out and is captured by the Initiative.)
    (Concussed and captured by Staunton and his goons, Oz wolfs out again.)
    (Struck by Cain's drugged dart, Oz just barely makes it to the safety of a locked basement before he again wolfs out.)
    (Fighting off a vampire at full moon, Oz just barely manages to hold the wolf-transformation in.)


    (Sitting on his bed, Oz writes to Master Sheng in Tibet.)

    Anouk: "You will tell me, won't you? If it's bad? I don't want to open the paper tomorrow and find your name attached to a grisly murder headline."


    *****

    Prologue:

    *****

    "And that?connection that you had," said Gil McKenzie, seemingly apropos of nothing. "With old Piers Mainwaring and all that?business." There was a vaguely disdainful note in his voice on that last word, scorning to even give a name to 'that business'. Of course, it made sense that he wouldn't like to remember what had happened, given his own part in bringing it all about. A man like him wouldn't appreciate being reminded of that. "You don't still make a habit of getting involved in, uh?things like that these days, do you?"

    Dinner with a girlfriend's parents: always a tricky thing to get through. Especially when it was the first time, formally speaking. Meeting informally, no matter how many times, was never even remotely the same thing.

    And that was an awkward question to answer, Oz ruefully reflected. Because, as grateful as Gil was about the whole saving his daughter's life thing, no way would an account of the various vampiric, demonic or otherwise just plain supernatural scrapes Oz tended to find himself in on a regular basis go over well. He'd be even less thrilled to hear about his daughter having fought hand-to-hand with a bunch of vampires that one time, judging by the way Anouk was scrutinising her plate and avoiding eye contact with either of them. So, he told himself, when in doubt, be vague.

    "Haven't really seen that much of Mr Mainwaring since Christmas," he carefully replied, and it was completely true.

    Gil nodded, and appeared to accept that vagueness as proof of Oz's not still being up to his neck in dangerous supernatural affairs, without any outright lies having actually been told, which was good. Lying to a girlfriend's parent was also not something likely to go over all that well if they found you out. But fortunately, and despite his history, Gil came complete with a healthy dose of denial that came close to Sunnydale levels at times. He'd swallowed whole even the lamest excuses Oz had come up with to explain away post-fight-for-life injuries on the occasions when misfortune had caused them to run into one another while those injuries were visible. He seemed prepared to believe almost anything simply because he wasn't prepared to know the truth. And ? that kinda worked for Oz.

    Gil then changed the subject, waxing nostalgic about the early days of setting up his business while studiously avoiding all mention of his dabblings in the field of black magic and demonic assistance, and Oz got the distinct impression that something more than just sitting there nodding intelligently at appropriate moments was expected of him.

    Dinner with parents was complicated. That was why he'd been putting off this encounter for as long as possible.

    "So," Gil concluded at length. "Remind me, young man ? what was it you said you intend to do with your life when you graduate??"


    *****


  • #2
    *****

    Part One:

    *****

    "Don't pay any attention to Dad," said Anouk when they finally escaped the torture that was dinner with her father. "He doesn't mean it really."

    "Really? 'Cause I kinda got the impression he did." Oz was still feeling kind of uncomfortable about the grilling he'd been given. A low temperature grilling, but a grilling nonetheless, and the thing about that kind of low temperature was that there was always the chance the heat could get turned up unexpectedly. It had felt a bit like morphing into David under the spotlight of Emma's mom.

    "Okay, he does mean it," Anouk conceded. "He wants the best for me and he wants me to be happy. But when I'm with you, I am happy. So it's all good!"

    Satisfied with her own logic, she bestowed her widest, sweetest smile upon him, and then peered around the door of the lounge-room they'd moved into for a bit of post-dinner alone time, heading straight up to the privacy of her room not having seemed the most politically correct option, to see if her father was anywhere in the immediate vicinity. Because, as enormous as the house was, alone time while Gil was wandering randomly around the place wasn't what you'd call the most comfortable possible alone time. Girlfriends living at home had their drawbacks.

    But then Anouk turned toward him with a gleam in her eye and a smile on her face that just about melted his heart, and at that moment he felt willing to put up with any and every inconvenience, just for the sake of moments like this.

    "All clear," she said, moving closer, and all complications were forgiven and forgotten.


    *****

    And then came the embarrassment of sleeping in and being caught still in the house next morning, and having to face up to the curious mixture of paternal reproach and amusement this engendered, which was almost worse than the moral outrage that might have been anticipated. Expressions of honourable intentions and levels of commitment were asked after, and given, despite those lingering regrets about maybe rushing things slightly more than was his usual habit. But slow, steady caution and Anouk just didn't go together; that was part of what made it all so refreshing, so much fun.

    And there was still a full day of classes to look forward to ? or not, as the case may be, although that low temperature grilling had stirred up unusual levels of motivation ? followed by an evening of vampire patrol. So, hurried goodbye kisses were exchanged, and then there was just enough time to stop off at the Monico to change before heading out to face the day.

    And also to pick up the mail. Which he didn't usually receive a great deal of, but today there was a letter waiting for him. Postmarked Tibet.


    *****

    "Hey. You're back," Charlie called out, looking past Emma's shoulder toward the counter.

    Distracted from her own distraction of Charlie from whatever it was she was working on at her usual study table, Emma turned to see Elli on her way into the caf? from out back.

    "I am," Elli agreed, approaching their table.

    "We were starting to wonder if you were ever coming back," Emma pointedly remarked. "When did you get in?"

    "Just now." Elli pulled up a chair and sat down. "I'm sorry ? I didn't mean to be gone that long."

    She didn't, however, look what you'd call overly apologetic. What she did look was a lot more rested and content than when she'd left.

    "You aren't even a tiny bit sorry," said Emma. "How was escapism?"

    "Escapist. Nothing happened here I should know about, did it?" Elli looked anxious now, and Emma thought she could understand why.

    "Well, there haven't been any more monster-Morruth's come to find out why that other one disappeared, if that's what you mean," she replied. "So we're taking that as A Good Thing."

    "Good." Elli looked relieved. "I really needed to not be here for a while, but that's good. I was worried."

    "You look better," Charlie remarked, surveying her critically. "Less baggy about the eyes than before." Realising how that had sounded, she instantly looked repentant.

    "I should probably be offended by that, shouldn't I?" Elli was apparently not the slightest bit offended. Which just went to show how little she and Emma actually had in common regarding such matters. "But ? I feel better."

    "Well, so that's good then," said Emma. "Completely worth dropping enormous bombshells on us all and then disappearing out of town almost immediately before anyone could ask any more questions."

    And then she winced inwardly ? that had come out blunter than she'd intended. It had just been a lot to take in?

    "What questions?" Elli was instantly on the defensive. "There's nothing more to tell."

    Emma back-peddled. "What I meant was, if you were okay, after everything?"

    Elli obviously didn't want to talk about it again. "Some bad things have happened in my life, and those memories aren't fun to have stirred up. But bad things happen in just about everyone's life, at one time or another. It's only a matter of scale."

    "So what you're trying to say is, it wasn't all bad," Charlie helped her out.

    She smiled wistfully. "I had the most idyllic childhood imaginable."

    "I can't imagine being raised by a granddad," Emma told her.

    "It was perfect," said Elli. "I worshipped him, and he doted on me. I was spoiled rotten."

    Emma had to grin. "So was I. In fact, if you ask David, he'll tell you I still am."

    They all laughed, and the conversation turned to more random gossip as Elli asked about everything that had been going on while she was away. Which hadn't, in fact, been a great deal ? pretty much just general life. Shanei and Mike had broken up and got back together again in rapid succession, again, but there was nothing unusual about that. They'd been doing pretty much the same thing for months now, going in circles. Charlie and Mat were loved up and content, despite?other matters that were glossed over for now. David and Emma had celebrated their first wedding anniversary, which Elli was sorry she'd missed. And Oz had been for dinner with Anouk and her dad the previous night, but hadn't been seen since to tease for details they knew he'd never part with anyway.

    "Dinner with the partner's parents." Elli had a nostalgic look about her now. "I remember how that one goes."

    So did they all, which prompted Emma to point out that Charlie had met Mat's parents plenty of times now, and seemed to get on well enough with them.

    "But it's always different when you're all sat down together for a proper dinner, and everyone's all awkward, and there's no escape," Charlie pointed out right back at her.

    "That's true," Emma had to concede. "I also remember what it's like to be the one taking him home for the first time and hoping he'll make a good impression. 'So you're studying music, I hear, David.'" She remembered that fateful day well enough to quote her mother verbatim and mimic her exact tone of deep, cynical suspicion. "'How interesting?and where exactly do you see that taking you, in the future?'"

    Chuckling, Charlie turned to Elli. "Emma's Mum paid a surprise flying visit while you were away, and decided to inspect the caf? while she was at it. Fun for everyone."

    "She was making an effort," Emma protested, automatically leaping to her Mom's defence, albeit half-heartedly. It hadn't exactly been her best visit ever. "She was! I mean, at least she came?"

    But with the lighter gossip imparted, there were also more serious matters to discuss and catch up on.

    "It hasn't all been fun and games while you were away, though." Charlie became sombre once more and hung her head, biting at her lip.

    Emma helped her out. "There was another murder up at the university night before last. That's the second in a week. And there've been a couple less fatal attacks, as well. So we're all on Vampire High Alert."

    "We don't know for sure its Ed," Charlie instantly protested. "We are pretty sure it's a vampire ?"

    "Neck injuries," Emma put in. "Every time."

    Charlie bit her lip. "If it is Ed, he's found a new game to play. Not coming anywhere near us, or even anyone we know. He's just killing randomly around the university. Or, if it's a different vampire, they're just killing randomly. No evidence ? just bodies."


    *****

    Getting away from the noise, crowding and confusion of the city had been good ? probably a bit too good ? but life of what passed for the everyday variety in this world had to be got on with sooner or later. But even the news of Ed's presumed latest activities couldn't dent her good mood. Elli hadn't realised just how tightly wound up she'd been until that tension was all gone.

    And, as noisy, crowded and confusing as city life could be, it felt good to slide back into the routine she'd built for herself here: unpack, pop into college and catch up on a class or two, then back to the studio to get some work done. She was finishing up on a woodcarving that would probably end up as part of her portfolio when Oz turned up.

    "Heard you were back," he said by way of greeting.

    "Bush telegraph in these parts works fast." Since his neutral manner allowed her to set the tone, Elli opted for 'light and cheerful' to be going on with. "I've been hearing things too. Such as: dinner at the McKenzie residence, with McKenzie Senior in attendance. I'm surprised that hasn't happened before now."

    Oz found a chair and sat down. "Stall tactics successfully deployed."

    "Not to play Emma, or anything," she said. "Only I would ask how that went; except that if it went well, you wouldn't actually say, and if it went badly, you wouldn't actually say. However, judging by the look that isn't really on your face, I'm going to settle for a verdict of 'mixed'."

    He seemed kind of morose, in fact, as far as she could tell. And all he had to say about dinner with Anouk and her father was that it was 'complicated'.

    Elli waited for a moment to see if he had anything to add, and then when nothing seemed forthcoming, asked: "Is everything okay? You seem tense."

    His nostrils flared slightly, but otherwise Oz gave no sign of having heard the question. "How was the retreat?"

    "Peaceful. Exactly what I needed to clean out all the cobwebs. Fancy a drink?" Taking the hint, Elli then changed the subject completely. "Do you think I should give up math?" she asked, heading up to the apartment. She'd picked up the assignments she'd missed while she was away, and the math related work was mostly incomprehensible. It was a depressing thing.

    "Do you want to?" he queried, reasonably enough, as he followed her upstairs.

    "I've wanted to since the day I signed up for it," she had to admit, pulling a face as she headed for her little kitchenette to fill the kettle. "I've been watching Staunton for months now, and all he's done so far is bore me rigid."

    "So you think it's safe to drop the surveillance now." Reversing one of the hard-backed chairs at the table, Oz straddled it, folded his arms over the back, and rested his chin on them.

    "It would be really nice to think so?." But there it was again. She sighed. "Except that every time I start to think that, I get this nagging twinge at the back of my mind, saying 'not yet'. So, I struggle on."

    "New assignment?" He seemed amused now as he held out a hand for the assignment they both knew he'd end up doing for her, but there was definitely something bothering him.

    "New assignment." While the kettle boiled, she handed the paperwork to him, and then while he studied what was to her an almost meaningless mass of figures, she got on with making the drinks.

    "Anyway, I did some digging on the mysterious Mary MacBride while I was away," she explained. Since instinct had suggested now wasn't a good time to give up on her self-imposed Staunton surveillance, looking into his connection with the mysterious benefactor had been the next obvious move.

    Oz glanced up again, curious. "Anything interesting?"

    "Yes." Elli set a couple of mugs down on the counter and waited for the kettle to finish boiling. "I found out that she dresses for the stereotype."

    He raised an eyebrow for her to continue, setting the math papers aside.

    "Her family think she's a total crackpot." She poured boiling water into the two mugs: coffee for Oz, and herbal tea for herself. "A huge embarrassment, apparently. That's most of the reason why it's so hard to find out anything about her ? they work really hard at keeping her name out of the news and gossip columns."

    "Which kind of implies that she's likely to make the news."

    Stirring the drinks, Elli nodded vigorously. "She's heavily into the occult scene. Lots of scandals of the very black magic variety, all very much hushed up, but there's enough evidence left to point right at her, if you know where to look. I'm surprised they haven't just cut her out of the family completely, but it doesn't look like they have if she can afford to fund whole new science blocks for the university. That was family money. And why in the hells would she do that? She's got no interest in science. Or in men like Staunton ? until now, anyway."

    "So, if she's such a big secret, how'd you find all this out?" Oz gave her a quizzical look as she brought the drinks over to the table.

    "Oh, I have my ways." Elli gave him a grin and a wink. The Mary MacBride information hunt had kept her nicely occupied during the later stages of her retreat, when she'd been feeling more like herself again.

    Oz looked amused again, just for a moment before whatever was bothering him kicked back in, and then observed that it could all be innocent.

    "It could all be innocent." Elli repeated the words, tasting them, but then shook her head. "No." Not when she had that nagging twinge at the back of her mind insisting otherwise. "No, they're cooking something and it smells bad. Oz, Staunton has seen what glory looks like, he got close enough to almost touch it ? he'll want that back. How could he not, being who he is? All he needs is a way to achieve it, which means he's vulnerable, and this Mary MacBride sounds like she could be a really bad influence."

    Oz looked troubled, understandably so given his past experience with Staunton. But he'd already been troubled before they started talking about that, and they'd both been dancing around that fact since he got here, so?. Leaning back in her chair, she decided to just confront him with it and see how he reacted.

    "Okay, so this is going to be one of those 'I need to sound off but don't actually want to talk about what's bothering me' visits, is it?"

    He was silent for a moment, drumming his fingers in time to some beat inside his head. Then he pulled a roll of paper out of a pocket and handed it to her. It was an assignment, graded.

    "Wow." She peered quizzically at him. "You know, for someone who's acing every class he's taking, and at least one he isn't, you aren't exactly over the moon about it."

    Oz pocketed the paper again, and shrugged a shoulder, his manner off-hand. "School really not a problem."

    "Lucky for some." But something clearly was. "If I was to ask about Anouk, would that be taking us a bit too far into the realms of not my business?"

    Unusually for him ? although not so unusual when the subject got a bit too personal ? Oz seemed to be struggling for words. But a smile touched the corners of his lips at the mention of Anouk. "Anouk is?we have fun. It's interesting."

    And then the smile was gone again. This was Oz at his most frustrating.

    "You're going to have to help me out here," Elli told him. "Are you looking for sympathy, advice, both or neither?"

    He picked up his mug. "This'll do."

    Elli gave up, reflecting that if he wanted to talk about what was bothering him he would, and if not, that was his choice. She picked up her own drink. "Okay then. Cheers."

    "Can you read my mind?" he asked, suddenly.

    And that came right out of nowhere, except that ? he'd seen her with the Morruth, of course.

    "Right now? No." For one thing, it would be rude to even try. For another, any involvement with another being's mind always left an unpleasant aftertaste in hers. It was a very complicated last resort tool only.

    "But could you?" He seemed curious, rather than worried by the prospect. But it wasn't exactly as simple as that. An actual person was so utterly different from an unmade thing like the Morruth.

    "What do you think your mind is? A book?" she grumbled, and then relented. "I could possibly, if I really, really wanted to, search your thoughts and memories for the shape of information I needed. But it would take an awful amount of effort and energy, and, frankly, it's easier to just ask."

    Apparently satisfied, he nodded, and uneasily continued, "Gil pulled the father-routine."

    "Did he ask what your intentions are toward his daughter?" She could completely picture Oz's embarrassment in that situation, and was highly amused at the thought.

    After his initial hesitation, Oz seemed unusually forthcoming. "He wants to know stuff. Like?my plans for the future."

    "Ah." That explained a lot since, as far as she could tell?. "I didn't think you had any. What did you tell him?"

    Oz shrugged a shoulder, again struggling to find words. "He kind of offered me a job. When I'm through school."

    "I see. That was?thoughtful of him." Again, that could explain a lot about his current mood. Oz was many things, but she really couldn't see him following on in Gil's line of work.

    "It's kinda?" He frowned. "Kinda like?I'm treading water right now. Not sure what to do about it."

    And that sounded for all the world like a man standing at a crossroads trying to decide which path to take.

    "What do you want to do?" Elli carefully asked.

    He paused again, and then chuckled ruefully at himself. "Well, I'm not sure. That's kinda the problem."

    And then he pulled an envelope, postmarked Tibet, out of another pocket and handed it to her. Taking a moment to admire the beautiful calligraphy, Elli silently read the letter inside, thought about the content for a moment, and then looked at him again, curious.

    "What did Anouk say?"

    "Well, I kind of haven't seen her since it came," he admitted.

    Elli sighed. "You do know you're meant to tell her these things first, don't you?"

    Oz put the letter away, and also sighed. "It's complicated."


    *****

    Comment


    • #3
      *****

      He honestly hadn't been expecting to hear back from Master Sheng so soon. The postal service must be on some kind of roll, he guessed.

      In essence, the letter informed him that Sheng regretted that Oz had chosen not to return to the monastery where he could assess and try to help him first hand, but respected that Oz's path lay elsewhere and that monastery life really wasn't for everyone. He also reminded Oz that he'd warned him he was leaving too soon ? there was just a hint of reproach there, but overall the tone was warm and generous, fond, even.

      Sheng concluded by issuing an open invitation to return to the monastery at any time, implying that that would be his preferred option, but also by directing Oz, in the event of his not choosing to return, to another former student who'd also found that monastery life was not for him. And who just happened to also live in San Francisco. It really was a small world.

      This former student, Sheng explained, was not any kind of werewolf expert, but was extremely adept at many forms of martial art, meditation, and mental control. That, said Master Sheng, was where Oz needed to focus his energies and work hard to improve if he wanted to achieve any real and permanent success in his efforts at subduing his inner werewolf.


      *****

      There'd been a whole string of vampire-related incidents on and around the university campus over the past couple weeks, right under their noses, that even their regular vampire-lookout patrols hadn't been able to prevent. It was frustrating, and a little demoralising, and the only positive aspect anyone'd been able to come up with was that the number of actual deaths was surprisingly low compared to the number of incidents.

      So, Ed-Watch Patrol tonight consisted mostly of driving around in the general vicinity of the university and keeping eyes peeled, whatever that expression was actually meant to mean.

      Keeping eyes peeled for any sign of trouble that could involve vampires ? specifically one vampire in particular whose agenda revolved around making trouble for his sister and anyone connected to her ? tended to be a whole lot easier when David wasn't in quite such a talkative mood.

      "She's talking about coming again, you know," David grumbled, and the grumbling was completely understandable given the prospect of Emma's Mom descending upon them all once more, so soon after the last little fiasco. "Sometime soon. And Emma's got herself all tied up in knots just at the thought of it. Sorta makes me glad my lot never bother."

      So much for keeping eyes peeled for vampire activity. Oz glanced at him, interested now in spite of himself, because that was kind of a telling statement.

      "What?" Distracted from his line of thought, David gave him a suspicious look.

      "Nothing." Oz shook his head, and tried to concentrate on his driving.

      "No," David insisted. "There was meaning behind that eyebrow. I could tell. So, what?"

      "Just?family," said Oz. That pretty much summed it up.

      "Family." David rolled his eyes. "The less said about the chaotic mess that calls itself my family the better. Seems like yours never rate much of a mention, either."

      "Touch?." Oz smiled and nodded, and kept his eyes on the road. A guy had the right to keep his own counsel, after all. Families could be complicated, although he got along with his well enough, even if he didn't talk about them so much. Family, friends: two separate entities that didn't generally overlap so well.

      "I was expecting you to join with me now in the 'woe is me, for I have in-laws' chorus," David cheerfully continued. "Girlfriend's dad being the next best thing, and all. Or is Gil McKenzie a soft option compared with Diana."

      "Oh, pretty much anyone would be soft option compared to Diana," Oz gravely told him, since Gil's low temperature grilling technique really wasn't on the same scale, and David's attention was very neatly diverted back to the thorny issue of Diana's latest proposed visit and away from Oz's own issues. Since, while Gil's paternal interrogation might not have been as blatantly hostile as Diana's usual style, it had given him some stuff to think about, and Master Sheng's letter had only added to that.

      What did he intend doing when he was through college, Gil had rather pointedly asked. It was a tricky question to answer since, at this stage, he pretty much didn't have any intentions that long-term. Getting through an entire year at school, uninterrupted, was enough to be going on with for now, with the many demon-and-vampire-related dramas that kept breaking out around him, not to mention ongoing werewolf issues, and now that decision about whether or not to return to the monastery in Tibet?.

      Which he wasn't going to do. He already knew that, without any conscious decision having to be made. Already gone down that road, and it hadn't worked out. Which kinda left him with only the other avenue to explore, whatever that might turn out to entail.

      "Hey, hey, hey!" David's sharp call broke right across his train of thought, and he slammed hard on the brakes when he saw what the other man had spotted. "Action."

      Weeks of patrolling, and finally they had sight of the vampire they'd been keeping watch for, and his victim was already dead.

      "Oops!" Ed laughed, letting the girl drop to the ground at his feet as Oz trained a crossbow on him, while David wielded a large wooden cross in one hand and stake in the other. "Caught me red-handed at last. Tell my sister I said hi."

      He moved fast. By the time the crossbow bolt reached the space he'd been standing in, he was already gone.

      Oz swore softly under his breath as he got out of the van to check that the victim really was dead, while behind him David cursed with considerably more volume. And also kept him covered, just in case the vampire hadn't disappeared quite as completely as it seemed.

      "We had him and we let him get away," David was groaning as Oz slung himself back into the van. Nothing more they could do here. "He is gone, right?"

      "We'll do another sweep." Checking his mirrors, Oz pulled out again. "Be sure."

      "Okay. That terrifies me, but okay." David sighed. "God, if my mother could see me now?if my mother-in-law could see me now. If the me of this time last year could see me now ? none of 'em'd believe it."

      "Seeing is not always believing," Oz agreed. Seemed like most of the world was prepared to close their eyes to what was out there, rather than accept it as real.

      "Kinda makes me glad I have Em," David went on, leaning comfortably back in his seat. "We can do this together ? I mean, not this this, not the patrolling-and-running-into-dangerous-vampires thing. She's better with the books. Safer with the books. But the whole thing, the learning-about-and-coming-to-terms-with-the-whole-freakishness thing, it's where we're both at, together. It's good." He glanced at Oz. "I guess Anouk seems pretty understanding about the weirdness that is your life, too. That's gotta help, when there's all this."

      He gestured vaguely at the van and the street they were driving along with the cross still in his hand. Or maybe it was the cross he was trying to indicate. Either way, the point was taken. Understanding was important, when there was all this. And therein lay another of Oz's problems.

      Because Anouk gave a pretty good impression of someone who was learning to, or at least trying to learn to understand the weirdness that was his life at times, and could deal with it all. But it was starting to hit home to Oz just how much of that was surface veneer, going through the motions for the sake of what she thought was expected. The understanding didn't seem to go any deeper, and he wasn't sure either of them wanted it to go any deeper. Anouk was cute, and funny, and smart; seeing her was a lot of fun, and when they were together it was?well, he hadn't felt like that in a good long while. But there was a 'but' in there somewhere and he couldn't quite put his finger on just what that was.

      If he was honest with himself ? and driving around the streets late at night looking out for dangerous vampires seemed like a pretty good time to be honest with himself ? he'd let himself drift into the relationship without really stopping to think about what he was doing. And, in hindsight, thinking about what he was doing was exactly what he should have done. Because the kind of life he tended to find himself leading most of the time didn't exactly lend itself to string-free, uncomplicated dating enjoyment. There was always other stuff getting in the way of that, forcing more serious issues to be dealt with right from the start. And he wasn't entirely sure he was ready for that kind of seriousness, could feel himself holding back, unwilling ? albeit subconsciously ? to commit wholeheartedly in the way he usually did, the way he had with Willow.

      Part of it was the simple fact that as much as he liked Anouk, and he really did, there was still that 'but' in the mix, and it was a 'but' they both had a share in. Anouk was great, in so many ways, but?there was something missing. And what was missing was that very special something there'd been with Willow, right from the moment they first met.

      And that, right there, wasn't fair, comparing her to Willow when they were two such very different people, and each meant so much to him, in their different ways. Maybe what he had with Anouk wasn't quite what he'd had with Willow, but that didn't have to be a bad thing, and didn't have to mean that the extra-special-ness wouldn't happen, in time, as they grew closer. If they grew closer.

      Under normal circumstances that wasn't a thing that either of them would need to think about so soon. The relationship was still pretty new. But circumstances for Oz hadn't been normal for a long time, and Anouk was a part of that now. Because growing closer was the other side of his share in the 'but'. He'd been so very close to Willow. She'd been his entire world in a way that no one else in his life had ever come close to. And he remembered only too well how that had turned out, the effect it had had on his inner-wolf.

      And he was afraid of that happening again. Wasn't ready to risk it again, after working so hard to achieve the control he now had. It was dangerous: for him, for Anouk, and quite possibly for a lot of other people, as well. It was all kind of paradoxical, wanting to have that kind of close relationship in his life, and yet not wanting it at the same time, and the sheer irony of it all was something he'd appreciate a whole lot more if it weren't happening to him.

      All of which took him back to Master Sheng's suggestion: that he visit this locally based sensei, and study with him, learn from him. It could be exactly what he needed to remove that risk, if Anouk was willing to wait for the end result.

      But that, in turn, took them to Anouk's side of the 'but' in their relationship. As conflicted as already she was about the less usual parts of his life, would she be willing to stand back and watch that develop still further? Because, as wonderfully enjoyable as any time spent with her was, time together was proving hard to come by, what with one thing and another, and the confirmation of Ed's reappearance wasn't going to help matters any. And if Oz did commit himself to studying with this new sensei, the time factor could only get worse, and he wasn't sure how she'd react to that. There was just something about their lives that didn't seem to fit together so well.

      The biggest question was whether or not either one of them would do anything about it.


      *****

      "So, explain about this vampire thing again," said Anouk, feeling strongly that, since patrol and vampire watch and the rest of it was taking up an ever-increasing amount of Oz's time, taking an interest was more or less her duty, as the girlfriend. "What is it that makes this one so much more dangerous than all the rest? I mean, I get that he is ? God, I've seen that for myself. I just don't get the why. Shouldn't one vampire be pretty much like another?"

      Oz shook his head. "Way I see it, there's pretty much two kinds of vampire: the ones you run into, and the ones that come looking for you."

      Anouk wasn't entirely sure how to take that, and, glancing sideways to take in her confused expression, he elaborated a little more. "See, most of 'em tend to lay low, opportunist. Only dangerous if you're unlucky enough to run into one."

      Spinning the wheel, he took them around another corner into a part of the city that Anouk didn't know at all. This was the first chance they'd had to spend time together since her dad had busted him coming out of her bedroom the previous morning, and they were spending it?running errands. Oz was picking up ingredients for that wolf-cure remedy he was always so vague about from some herbalist on the other side of town, and, since time together was at something of a premium these days, Anouk had volunteered to tag along for the ride.

      "And the other kind?" she asked, wondering again if she really wanted to know all this.

      Oz frowned slightly. "Not sure why it is ? seem to hang on more to parts of their old selves, maybe. Obsessive. Takes the luck factor out of the equation ? the way Ed is with Charlie. Makes him dangerous to her, and everyone around her."

      No. She really hadn't wanted to have all that confirmed again. "Everyone around her meaning people like us."

      Oz glanced at her again, looking concerned about how she was taking it. "Pretty much."

      It was just not pleasant to think about, or talk about, any of it. Anouk decided to change the subject completely, picking the much safer topic of the band Oz played in with David, Charlie and Shanei, and their forthcoming gig at the Monico. Discussing the arrangements for that kept them both entertained for a few minutes. Minds well and truly taken away from less enjoyable topics of conversation.

      But then Oz, looking uncomfortable, switched the subject back away from the safety zone of normality, and told her that the master ? whatever it was he was 'master' of ? that he'd studied under in Tibet had recommended he visit some sensei here in San Francisco and resume his wolf-control mental discipline studies once more.

      She hadn't even realised he was still in touch with those people in Tibet that she barely knew existed since he never really talked about that stuff. And she was trying hard to be supportive and understanding about everything that went on in his life, but could feel her heart sink at the thought of yet another demand on his time.

      They had so much fun when they were just together and nothing else was getting in the way. And he was so sweet, and gentle, and she was pretty sure she was falling in love. No, in fact, she knew perfectly well she was falling in love?when it was just him and nothing else. But it was so rarely just him and nothing else, and how he felt was another story. She was never completely sure where she stood in his list of priorities, and there was just so much other, complicated stuff to deal with, all the time. Why couldn't it be easy?

      She kept her reply guarded and neutral, unsure what to make of this latest development, and anyway there wasn't time to push for more details that she didn't really want to hear, because they'd reached the herbalist they'd been heading for.

      It was a long way from being the most inviting store Anouk had ever visited, and the unshaven guy lounging behind the counter reading a paper dated last week was just plain creepy. She wrinkled her nose in unguarded distaste.

      "Why here?" she whispered. "Why this place."

      Oz just shrugged. "He's got the stuff."

      The guy behind the counter nodded at Oz in combined recognition and greeting, and then ignored them both completely, and Oz seemed to know exactly where to find everything he needed. Anouk left him to it and wandered further back into the store, fascinated in spite of herself. She'd never been in a place like this before ? a herbalist with a difference, since so much of this stuff was clearly mystical, now that she knew what mystical really was to look out for. How the did average person wandering by outside never get to know that?

      In a secluded back room, Anouk browsed randomly, peering at dusty jars with mysterious contents, examining musty-smelling books with unreadable titles, and gazing wonderingly at the statues, carvings and effigies dotted around the place. Intrigued, she picked one up to examine more closely?and, so doing, dislodged a large clay jar that fell to the ground and smashed to pieces, releasing a large mushroom-shaped cloud of dust and ash that puffed up into the air and startled her almost as much as the oddly muffled crash. Coughing hard, and trying not to breathe in any more of that dust and ash than she could help, she heard Oz calling her, and hastened back out of the room again.

      She completely failed to notice the faint hint of grey-black swirl ? maybe just dust and ash, but then again maybe not ? that swept out of the room in her wake.


      *****

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      • #4
        *****

        Part Two:

        *****

        "Playing hell with the investigative technique, knowing its vampires," Mat grumbled. "We can't tell anyone its vampires."

        He was right, and Charlie knew he was right, and that only made her all the more frustrated and defensive about the trail of victims Ed had been leaving of late. "I know! I don't know what you expect me to do about it."

        "Nothing anyone can do about it," Mat continued to grouse. "Not officially. Which doesn't exactly make life easy for Mike and me."

        "I know," Charlie repeated, unhappily. Lunch with Mat was supposed to be cheering her up, not depressing her all over again.

        Mat sighed, and stopped grumbling, and leaned across the table and kissed her softly on the forehead. "It isn't your fault."

        "I know," she said again. "That doesn't stop me feeling responsible. He's my brother?even if he isn't anymore."

        "No," said Mat. "He isn't anymore. Which means this isn't your fault."

        "Except that the reason he's killing people right here and right now is because of me. To get at me."

        "We'll find him." Sounding determined, Mat had arrived at the 'cheering up' place at last. "I promise you. Sometime real soon, we'll find him. And we'll have pointy wood in our hands when we do."

        Except that the prospect of this particular vampire meeting a dusty end at the point of a stake wasn't quite as comforting as it should have been, in spite of everything he'd done. He was, after all, wearing her brother's body. Charlie nodded, and sighed, and changed the subject.

        "Are you sure you can't make the gig?"

        Looking rueful, Mat shook his head. "Our shifts got switched. No switching 'em back now. I'm sorry, but Mike's kinda glad. Things got frosty with him and Shanei again."

        "I'd noticed that." Shanei's mood was hard to miss. In fact, chances were that Mike had switched shifts on purpose just to avoid Shanei and the gig. And Mat would've gone along with it because?well, because there was the girlfriend bond, but then there was also the partners-in-crime-fighting bond, and never the twain could mix.

        "And this time," Mat continued. "I'm really not going to ask why. Nuh-uh. Staying right out of that one."

        Then he looked back at Charlie with dark eyes that managed to look regretful, seductive and mischievous all at the same time, smiled his slowest, sexiest smile that she could never resist, and added, "I am sorry to miss the gig, though. Break a leg!"


        *****

        Oz checked the address he had written down again, and looked back up at the house he was standing in front of. Definitely the right place. Definitely the last chance to think twice about this and walk away. Which would get him precisely nowhere.

        He rang the bell, and waited, feeling more nervous than he'd expected. This was pretty much it ? last throw of the dice as far as total wolf-control went. Maybe that was a part of the reason he hadn't got in touch with Master Sheng again for so long ? he'd wanted to leave the possibility open for as long as possible. Once you'd tried absolutely everything, there was pretty much nowhere else to go, and the thought of that was?well. He was nervous.

        Eventually the door was opened by a woman of indeterminate age. She could have been anywhere between maybe 50 and 70; it was hard to tell beneath the layers of makeup she had plastered over her face, with masses of platinum blonde hair, which may or may not have been a wig, piled up in an elaborate and heavy-looking arrangement over her head. Dressed up to the nines and wearing enormous stiletto heels, she held a drooping cigarette in one hand and used the other to lean against the doorjamb while scrutinising him critically.

        "Yes?" she said, at length.

        Oz felt every bit as discomfited as he had being grilled by Gil McKenzie the other night.

        "Hi. I'm, uh, looking for a guy called Jim Pirie??" he began, and the woman lost interest at once.

        "Wrong door for this time of day," she unceremoniously dismissed him. "You want to try round the back."

        At the back of the building, he found a garage of the private and exclusive variety, with cars, car parts, and general, oily clutter strewn all around, and a pair of feet sticking out from beneath a van not unlike his own. He waited for a moment, and then tried clearing his throat and shuffling around a little in a discreet attempt at bringing himself to the attention of the owner of the feet. When that failed, he went over to the van, bent down to peer under it, and tried a more direct approach.

        "Hey."

        Moments later he was standing opposite the unlikeliest sensei he'd ever seen. If, that was, he had the right guy. Pushing 40, of average height, with a wiry build and scruffy light brown hair, the overall clad man was covered with oil and practically buzzed with energy.

        "Yes, yes. Hello. Yes." The manner was simultaneously verbose and brusque. "What can I do for you?"

        "Jim Pirie?" Still feeling a little uneasy, Oz hesitated slightly. "I was sent?well, kinda recommended to come. Here. To, uh, see you."

        "Recommended, huh." The man gave him a quizzical look. "Recommended as in 'I need a good mechanic'? Because if so ? come to the right place. Or recommended as in something else entirely?"

        He wasn't making any promises about having come to the right place if it was something else entirely, Oz noted.

        "Well, I don't need a mechanic," he cautiously began, unsure how much to say in case this wasn't the right guy. But it had to be, didn't it? "Now, anyway. I had a, a mutual friend suggest I come."

        The man leaned against the van he'd been working on.

        "Well, then. I'll take a wild stab in the dark and say you must be Daniel, otherwise known as Oz."

        Feeling both relieved and taken aback, Oz agreed that yes, he was.

        The man who had to be Jim looked him up and down a couple times with shrewd hazel eyes. "I would say 'not exactly what I was expecting', but that could lead to assumptions about just what I was expecting. And the truth is: I don't even know what I was expecting. So let's just say I was forewarned that a guy called Oz might call in some time. You came sooner than I thought you might. But not as soon as you could. Shall we take this inside?"

        That made two of them that hadn't known what to expect and yet still came out favouring a verdict of 'not what I was expecting'.

        Not bothering to shed any of his layers of dirt and oil before entering the house, and also not bothering to lock his garage up before leaving it unattended, Jim ushered Oz through the back door into a corridor carpeted with newspapers, and up a set of stairs also lined with newspapers, chuntering randomly all the while about the paper carpet being a protective measure against oil seeping onto the actual carpet beneath, this precaution being not exactly his own idea.

        "You met the redoubtable Mrs Glaser, I take it." The tone was amused there. "Shirley's my landlady."

        At the end of a corridor similarly carpeted with newspaper, Oz was shown into an immaculately pristine and spacious ? not to mention minimalist ? lounge room where not a paper was in sight, and left alone. This room was a lot closer to what might be expected of a sensei, ashtrays and saxophone aside.

        Jim disappeared into the next room and, raising his voice above the sound of running water, continued his stream of consciousness without ever actually saying anything of any meaning whatsoever. Oz stood and looked around while he waited, keeping half an ear on what Jim was saying, just in case any of it turned out to be relevant after all.

        "You might have noticed that I talk too much at times." Jim reappeared, hands and face now clear of all traces of oil, although there were still streaks of it running through his hair in places, while overalls and boots had been shed to reveal that the clothes beneath, while spotlessly clean, had more in common with the general style of a tramp than the average sensei. "It's a flaw. I'm working on it. Might help if you could bring yourself to toss the odd syllable into the conversational pot every once in a while, since at this stage in proceedings the word 'conversation' seems to be falling far short. We're levelling out at 'monologue', and that isn't a good place to be, so soon into our acquaintance."

        Finally running out of words, he stopped, regarded Oz thoughtfully for a moment or two, and then held out a hand. "James Pirie. Call me Jim."

        Oz shook his hand. "Daniel Osbourne. Oz."

        Jim threw himself down onto one of the large cushions that took the place of actual furnishing in the room, and gestured for Oz to do likewise. "Now, Dan, I don't know exactly what Sheng's told you about me?"

        "The word 'nothing' pretty much covers it," Oz admitted, folding his legs under him as he sat.

        Jim looked pleased. "He told me a bit about you, though. Enough. The blanks are for you to fill in."


        *****

        "Now, I was never gonna stay at the monastery," said Jim, reclining comfortably with cigarette in hand. "Not long-term. I mean, please. There's lifestyle choice and then there's lifestyle choice. So, you coming back out here into the world, I can relate. But for my safety, and yours, I need to be sure about you before I agree to anything. How long since you left?"

        "Last spring."

        "That's a good long while." Taking a deep drag on his cigarette, Jim looked thoughtful. "And no incidents? What am I saying? Of course there were incidents, relapses, call 'em what you will ? you wouldn't be here if everything was ticking over as the good master teaches, now would you? But no major incidents. Or were there??" He frowned. "Seems to me I recall reading ?"

        "That wasn't me," Oz hastily told him, remembering the headlines that had followed fellow werewolf Paul's rampages through the streets at full moon. He had been involved though, in ways he really didn't like to remember, and judging by the look Jim gave him, the sensei was clearly picking up on that.

        Jim nodded. "Strikes me that you and I have a lot to talk about. And, quite possibly, a lot of work to do."


        *****

        Working with Jim was going to involve a lot of schedule juggling.

        Feeling simultaneously enervated and energised after that first, intense meet-greet-and-meditate session, Oz helped Charlie set up her drum kit on the gallery, ready for the gig. It had felt good to work through a meditation session with someone else again, like being grounded in the discipline of it in a way that could be hard to achieve alone at times, especially when life was throwing demon-sized distractions at you.

        Jim wouldn't accept any payment for his time, nor even entertain the concept. Not even for the Aikido classes he ran at a local dojo and insisted that Oz join, for a while at least, in addition to the more specific one-on-one sessions they'd agreed on. Master Sheng had asked him to do this, so he was going to do this, end of discussion, take the karma and run with it.

        "Anouk's here." Charlie's voice cut across his thoughts, and he glanced up from adjusting the snare to see Anouk approaching the counter, down below. She looked tired. Looking up, she caught his eye and smiled warmly, and he quickly made his way back down to the caf? to join her.

        "So, did you go?" was her opening gambit once they'd greeted one another with a tender kiss.

        Oz nodded, sitting down beside her. "I went."

        "And it was okay?"

        He nodded again, hoping she wouldn't want to know too much, since although the more general details were share-able, a lot of it was pretty intense, and personal, and not easy to describe. Some things really were private.

        "Well, that's good then." Anouk looked pleased, but dropped the subject once more, as if that was all she'd needed, or wanted, to know. "Are you guys all set up for tonight now? Shouldn't you be starting soon?"

        "Soon," Oz confirmed. "You okay?" From up on the gallery she'd looked tired, and close up she seemed pale.

        She pulled a face. "Headache. Pretty much all day. It's okay."

        "You don't have to stay," he told her, concerned.

        "No, I want to," she insisted. "I want to hear that new song. Just won't stay late, is all."


        *****

        "So, there he is, waiting to speak to someone and tell them about his bomb threat," Mat was saying as he drove, keeping the patrol car to the low speed he liked to think of as shark mode. "And all he's getting is this voice telling him his call is held in a queue and giving him all these adverts and he's sitting there listening. And meanwhile, they've got a trace on his call. So he finally gets through, gives them his bomb threat and ransom demand and hangs up. Next thing he knows the cops are hammering on his door."

        Mike's smile had been growing steadily as he listened in amusement. "And I'm supposed to believe all that? No one's that dumb!"

        Mat chuckled. "Apparently this guy was. It was his third call to this place. First two were to soften them up, telling them he'd left something that could be a bomb in the building. This time was the biggie, pay up or it'll be a real bomb. Only the bank had called the cops and ?"

        "I still don't believe it," Mike snorted.

        Mat shrugged, laughing. "I got it from a friend in LA. I like it when they're dumb. Makes it easier to ?"

        THUMP!

        Breaking off mid sentence, Mat slammed on the brakes as something ? someone ? landed heavily on the hood of the car, feet first, and fell back into the windscreen, cracking but not shattering it, before tumbling to the ground at the side of the car.

        Gasping in shock, the two officers flung their doors open and dashed out of the car to see who it was and how badly they were hurt. But somehow, miraculously, the young man who'd landed on the car sprang back up from his prone position on the ground like a jack-in-a-box, grinning at them as if it were all some big joke.

        "Good evening, officers," he cheerfully greeted them, and Mat felt his stomach lurch as he suddenly realised who it was.

        "Ed."

        "Ed?" Mike looked alarmed and took a step backward. "The Ed? That's him?"

        "The one and only." The vampire's smile broadened as, not sparing Mike a glance even as he replied to him, he focused on Mat. "Officer Mat?as Cordoba. We meet at last, and not before time ? I do hope your intentions toward my sister are honourable?. Wait, what am I saying? Actually, no, I don't. Dishonourable would be fine by me. Perhaps you'd like to give her a message??"

        His forehead was contorting as he spoke, fangs extending, eyes glowing yellow?. With a nervous glance to check that his partner was keeping his distance, Mat dug into a pocket and pulled out the wooden cross he kept with him at all times these days. He'd have called it superstition, once. His deeply religious parents still would. Now, though, he knew it as an essential precaution.

        "Mike! Back in the car," he ordered as Mike took a step toward him, and was relieved that his partner didn't argue, but moved back toward the safety of the car once more.

        The vampire hissed menacingly as Mat held the cross before him like a shield while he carefully fumbled his way backward toward his own door. He'd just about made it when Ed suddenly leapt at him and swiped the cross from his hand. Acting on terror-inspired instinct rather than intervention from his brain, Mat dived into the car in one swift movement ? Mike reaching across to help drag him in ? and slammed the door shut on the vampire's arm as he lunged for him.

        Ed howled and yanked his arm free as Mat started the motor and drove, as fast as he could.


        *****

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        • #5
          *****

          "Are you sure you're okay?" Emma asked, handing Anouk an aspirin and glass of water. "You don't want to go home? It's kinda loud."

          Looking pale, Anouk was massaging her temple, elbow resting on the counter, but her eyes were fixed on Oz playing his guitar with the band up on the gallery, and she shook her head firmly. "I'll stay till the end," she insisted. "I said I would."

          Emma sighed. The wife part of her brain was immensely pleased at how good the band sounded tonight, while the business-manager part was busily noting how many customers they had crammed in, and that Sylvie seemed to be coping well at the bar. But the part of her that cared about people was focused on Anouk and how stubborn she was about staying even though she really didn't look at all well. Probably coming down with something.

          "Well, if you're sure you're sure," she dubiously began, slightly distracted by the sound of the phone ringing in the corridor behind the caf?. Too far away for her to get to before the machine kicked in. Elli was much closer, having snuck behind the bar to help herself to a snack and, catching Emma's eye with a questioning look, and being given a little nod of permission, she disappeared to answer on Emma's behalf. After all, it might be important.

          Emma turned back to Anouk, just in time to see a grey-black swirl of something appear from out of nowhere right behind her, starting as a vague shadow but within seconds growing into a huge, dark vortex that hung in the air above them.

          Nearby diners started to scream as the air around whipped up into a powerful and blustery wind, a whirlwind, almost, while tendrils seemed to snap out blindly from the vortex, sometimes connecting with an unfortunate soul, sometimes missing completely. One hit Emma right in the chest before she could duck, and she thrashed wildly at it in a futile attempt to break the hold it had on her, barely able to breathe, feeling as though the life itself was being sucked out of her?

          And then it stopped and the vortex was gone, as if it had never been there.

          Emma toppled off her stool and dropped to the floor, gasping for breath and wondering what the hell had just happened.


          *****

          "A great big indoor whirlwind made of black dust that latched onto people all around the room and sucked life and vitality right out of them?" Elli handed out drinks, and sat down. "Why am I never in the room when these things happen?"

          "Born under a lucky star?" David was holding Emma closely, as if he was never going to let go of her again.

          "Your mother said she'll call back when it's quieter," Elli added to Emma, who simply nodded wearily and tried not to think about what her mother might have said about the noise of the gig. Closing her eyes, she leaned into David and let the conversation continue around her.

          The?whatever-it-was had brought the gig to a fairly abrupt end. Emma had been dimply aware that Anouk had passed out completely, and that Oz had appeared to fuss over her, tensely worried, with David hot on his heels, frantic with concern for Emma herself. That had left Charlie and Elli to take care and get rid of the bewildered and anxious customers left milling bemusedly around in the wake of the whatever-it-was. Sylvie and Shanei had been sent home to stew in their confusion. The caf? was a mess. And now that everyone was gone they were trying to work out what exactly it was that had happened.

          "So was it a ghost?" David sounded anxious. "There could be another ghost come back? 'Cause the one we had before used to play tricks like that. Well, not quite like that. But almost like that."

          He was looking for an answer to Oz, who, focusing intently on the very pallid and distressed Anouk resting her head on his shoulder, seemed utterly nonplussed.

          "I don't know." Shaking his head, Oz looked at Elli, quirking his eyebrows enquiringly. Hopefully.

          Elli wrinkled her nose, and looked around the caf? with a thoughtful expression. Because she knew about stuff like this. It was a comforting thought, and Emma hung onto it. She knew about things like this, and she had otherworldly abilities to sense things and see things, and surely someone had to know what the hell had happened?.

          But, at length, Elli shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, wrinkling her nose and looking perplexed. "I'm not getting ghost vibes. I don't know what in the hells I am getting, but it isn't a ghost. It's weird."

          "I've never seen anything like it," Charlie piped up. "Has anyone ever seen anything like it?"

          "Well, how unique could it be?" Oz frowned, and when everyone gave him their attention, continued: "I mean, most things that happen aren't new. Stuff gets written down ?"

          "Books!" Emma interrupted, a memory suddenly jogged loose.

          "Books?" David gave her an anxious look. "What books?"

          The memory might have been jogged loose, but was frustratingly resistant to being pinned down.

          "I-I can't?" Emma stammered, trying to focus on that hazy thought she'd had, trying to remember. "I think ? I read somewhere ? saw it in a book. It reminded me?"

          "You saw that thing in a book?" Charlie leaned toward her, keenly interested.

          Emma shook her head, frustrated with herself. She'd painstakingly worked her way through so many of those musty antique books, borrowed from old Piers Mainwaring next door, for this very reason ? to help with the identifying of weird things, should anything that could be so classified happen again. And now that it had, she couldn't remember what she'd read. "Not that. But there was something about it ? familiar. I can't remember?"

          "Well, so that settles it then," said Elli. "Research."

          Hauling herself upright feeling limper than a wet dishcloth, Emma opened her mouth to comment on which books she had to hand at present, and then shut it again as the caf? door was flung open. In all the turmoil they'd forgotten to lock it when they closed up in such a rush, the business-manager part of her brain noted with disapproval, as a highly agitated Mike and Mat hurried in.

          "Everyone's here. That's good, that's great. Good," Mike began, as Charlie bounced to her feet and moved to greet Mat with a kiss and a frown.

          "I thought you were working tonight?"

          "I am working tonight," Mat babbled. "We are working. This is work."

          "Work that can't be called in to the station work," Mike interjected.

          "Your line of work," Mat finished, and then frowned around the room. "Where is everyone? All the customers? It's not that late, is it?"

          "Not late, no," David grimly told him. "We've been having excitement of our own. Wanna compare?"


          *****

          "Well, this is getting us nowhere fast." Mat leaned back in his chair, dropping a book onto the table before him with a hearty sigh. Oz could sympathise. They weren't the most reader-friendly books ever, but they did need to find out what had happened, if it could happen again. Of course, having two crises at once didn't help.

          "Staring at a bunch of old books doesn't help with the vampire problem, anyway," Mike grumbled.

          "Got to go with the most immediate danger for now." Charlie frowned at him, and Mat squeezed her arm as a gesture of reassurance.

          "You don't think a vampire out for the blood of your friends is immediate danger enough?" Mike bristled. It was getting late now: everyone was tired, and on edge, and Mike and Mat were meant to still be working anyway, which only added to their disquiet.

          "Well, we all know to step up the anti-Ed precautions now," Charlie snapped, highly defensive on the subject of her vampire brother. "But that thing was zapping people, right here, and we don't know what it was to be sure it won't happen again."

          "You know, I don't think I've got the book I saw it in anymore," Emma wearily put in. "I took a load back to Piers the other day. So maybe we could stand down for the night and then go next door in the morning?" She looked hopeful. And also very tired and pale, having been one of the people who'd been zapped. "I mean, it hasn't happened again."

          "There's still something though." Elli looked uneasy. "I can feel?something."

          "But there hasn't been another blow-up." Oz shifted position very carefully. Anouk was all but asleep, resting against him. It was a tense situation to know what to do, but his attention was mostly directed towards her needs right now. "I'd kinda like to get Anouk home."

          "So we'll call it a night then," David decided. "Go next door for more books tomorrow, and just hope that thing doesn't happen again before then."


          *****

          "Can you give me a lift back to my place?" Charlie asked Mat as Oz, a supportive arm still wrapped around Anouk, closed the door behind him. "I haven't got the bike, and it's almost on your way?"

          "Stretching the word 'almost' just a bit there," said Mat. "But if it'll keep you off the streets after dark, sure."

          Before Charlie could make any response to that Ed-dig, Elli interrupted.

          "It's gone."

          They turned to see her looking around the caf? with an air of bemusement.

          "What's gone?" Emma frowned nervously.

          "That thing that was here," said Elli. "That I could feel. It's gone."

          "You're sure?" Emma looked anxious.

          Elli nodded, puzzled. "There's just after-burn now. So strange."


          *****

          "I feel like such a wuss, flaking out like this," Anouk wearily said as she turned the key to open the front door.

          Oz's first instinct, as always, was to reassure. "No, it's not your fault."

          She turned to look at him, pale and wan, with dark shadows beneath bloodshot eyes. "Feels like I ran a marathon. No, ten marathons: end-to-end without stopping. With a thunderstorm in my head."

          Oz very gently kissed her on the forehead. "Need me to get you anything?"

          "No." She shook her head and gave him a weak smile. "I just need a couple aspirin and a good night's sleep. You'll come by in the morning?"

          He nodded. "I can drop by on my way to Jim's." And the indoor-cyclone-thing research was also going to have to fit in around all that, always supposing it hadn't blown up again before then and changed everyone's plans. Scheduling really was getting tougher by the day.

          "Tomorrow?" In her current condition, Anouk made no attempt to hide her dismay. "You're seeing him again tomorrow? You were just there this afternoon."

          Oz felt uncomfortable, as always when faced with explaining the unexplainable.

          "Full moon's coming up," he pointed out, not knowing how to get the point across. He couldn't explain it in words, even to himself, why it was so important, all of a sudden, to get time in with Jim before the next full moon when he'd managed so many on his own. It just was, and that was something you either got, or you didn't.

          Anouk obviously didn't, but again she backed away from any real debate on the subject, murmuring a subdued goodnight before beating a hasty retreat into the house.

          With a sigh, Oz headed back toward the van, wondering if a quick sweep around the block on precautionary Ed Watch would help take his mind off things.


          *****

          Comment


          • #6
            *****

            Part Three:

            *****

            "So, everyone's alive and well still, and no one got zapped to death in the night," Charlie noted as she arrived early the following morning for what promised to be a long, hard research session to find everyone else already gathered in the caf?.

            "Not unless we slept through it," David cheerfully confirmed, his good mood apparently inspired by the fact that Emma was so obviously well recovered, and Charlie grinned.

            "Well, then, that has to be a good thing." She sat down. "I'm guessing the menu for today reads 'research, research, and then more research, followed by research'."

            "For some of us," Emma confirmed, rolling her eyes. "I want to know what that thing was. And I also especially want to know it isn't going to come back ten times worse." She frowned suddenly, and turned to Elli. "It is still gone right now, though, right?"

            Elli nodded, and also frowned, looking every bit as puzzled as she had the previous night. "I can't feel anything like what was here yesterday. Which ? it's good. But strange. I don't know where it went."

            "As long as it isn't here, that's what matters." Clearly feeling that the good part outweighed the strange part, Emma turned back to Charlie and continued: "But the menfolk seem to have wriggled out of the bookwork."

            "I have to open up," David protested. "I thought we liked having a roof over our heads. And Oz has that thing."

            "Also, kinda like to see how Anouk's doing," said Oz.

            "I feel fine this morning," Emma told him. "I mean, not exactly firing on all cylinders fine, but many times better than last night. So I guess Anouk must be okay again by now as well."


            *****

            "She isn't well," said the housekeeper who'd answered the door, very bluntly, and for a moment Oz thought he was going to be turned away without any further ceremony. But then she seemed to take pity on him ? or possibly on Anouk. "Flu, I'd say. But?I suppose you could go on up. Might cheer her up a bit."

            He made his way up to Anouk's room, tapped on the door and, hearing her mumbled response, entered. Still in bed, she took one look at him and burst into tears.

            Tears tended to have an almost magical effect on him. He was across the room and sitting on the bed, holding her and attempting to comfort her, almost before he knew it.

            "I'm sorry," she sniffled into his shoulder at length. "I've been crying all morning and I don't know why."

            "Kind of a big night last night." Oz wasn't sure what to say to reassure her, worried about her still being in such a state when he'd been expecting to find her as much recovered as Emma.

            "It was." Sitting up straighter, Anouk sniffed again, and dashed the back of her hand across her eyes in an endearingly childlike gesture. "It was horrible. And now I just feel so tired, like I was running those marathons again all night. And Maria thinks I'm coming down with flu, and I keep crying all the time, and I hate that."

            She was crying again now. Feeling helpless, Oz put his arms around her once more and let her sob into his chest, and tried not to worry about a potential how long he was going to be needed here versus the time he was due at Jim's conflict.

            That weird vortex thing had zapped both Anouk and Emma. But Emma was pretty much back to normal already, while Anouk was still in this state. Thinking back, Anouk had already been feeling under the weather before it happened, though, so maybe she was just coming down with the flu, like the housekeeper assumed, and getting zapped had simply helped make that worse. Or, on the other hand, it could be some kind of hangover from last night, but in that case ? shouldn't it be affecting Emma as well?

            It was definitely something he'd have to phone in for the others to factor into their research, and he was still puzzling over it when he eventually managed to get away, leaving a still tearful Anouk to rest up and feeling guilty because she didn't want him to go.


            *****

            "You know: 'late' probably isn't the best of starts to be getting off to," Jim mildly chided when Oz finally arrived, well behind schedule.

            "No, I know. I'm sorry." Oz wondered if he should try to explain what was going on, but Jim frowned and shook his head.

            "I don't want to hear excuses, and I don't want to listen to reasons. All that got left behind at the door ? right?"

            "Right." Except that leaving problems at the door and not allowing them to weigh on the mind was a lot easier said than done. He was worried, and didn't like having to walk away from that in order to take care of himself.

            "Right then." Jim smiled. "Shall we begin?"


            *****

            "Well now," old Piers paid the makeshift research team composed of Emma, Charlie and Elli the ultimate compliment of actually opening the door when they knocked, and smiled with genuine delight to see them. "This is a nice surprise. To what deadly menace do I owe the pleasure of this little deputation?"

            "It's a long story," Emma told him. "But if you let us take a look through your books, we'll tell you all about it."


            *****

            "You know, this is never going to work if you keep thinking about so many other things," said Jim.

            Startled out of his meditation attempt, Oz opened his eyes.

            "I can tell by the way you aren't concentrating," Jim added and, while his expression was sympathetic, his tone was critical. "Not properly. And I have to tell you, it's no wonder you've been having trouble maintaining control at full moon if you can't even focus when there isn't any lunar interference."

            "I'm sorry." Oz could feel color rising in his cheeks now. Jim was right ? he'd been trying to empty his mind, a process that should be routine by now the amount of practice he'd had, but it just wasn't happening for him. Not today, with everything else that was going on.

            Jim shook his head. "Don't be sorry. That's the whole point of this, isn't it? Fixing what isn't working? And you have to establish exactly what it is that doesn't work before you can fix it. Isn't that right?"

            "I guess," Oz murmured, feeling awkward all over again at such blunt deliberation of his own failings.

            Abandoning meditation for the time being, Jim lit a cigarette and leaned back comfortably. "This is why Sheng thought you should go back to him at the monastery, you know," he remarked in a conversational tone. "To get you away from this kind of external distraction, allow you to focus completely."

            Oz felt a pang of dismay, hearing that, but then his brain took note of the words Jim had used, and he cautiously asked the question he was pretty sure the other man wanted him to ask, yet wasn't entirely sure he wanted to hear the answer to. "And what do you think?"

            Jim took a deep drag on his cigarette and slowly exhaled. "Now, I just met you yesterday, so I can't honestly say I know you all that well. Yet. But it seems pretty clear to me, even based on our very short acquaintance, that you don't belong in a monastery."

            Oz couldn't quite prevent the sigh of relief that escaped at those words, and Jim looked amused.

            "It's a vocation, that kind of life," he continued. "And it isn't your vocation any more than it was mine. Besides, controlling your emotions, blocking out the world ? it's easy when you're surrounded by a bunch of monks and snowy mountaintops. But it seems to me that if you locked yourself away someplace like that indefinitely, you'd just be swapping one cage for another. It's out here in the world, distractions, dangers, and all, that you need to be able to manage. Am I right?"

            He was very right, but Oz couldn't quite find the words to say so out loud, feeling very much on the back foot at the other man's keen insight after knowing him such a very short time.

            "Don't look so surprised." Jim was looking amused again. "This is my thing, it's what I do. Why Sheng sent you here. And so, having established that ? on the other hand," he was warming to his subject now. "You're never going to have the kind of control you need, long-term, with your concentration as scattered as it is today. And therein lies our dilemma, and there we have our first flaw to be fixed. Yes?"

            "I guess." Oz sounded dubious even to himself.

            He'd learnt a lot during the months he'd spent wandering around the globe, and especially during his time in Tibet. He'd worked hard to master the techniques Sheng had taught him to keep the wolf suppressed, and those techniques almost always worked. It was the word 'almost' that had brought him here today, though. There'd been enough near misses to bring home to him that even ninety-nine point nine percent wasn't enough, not when other people's lives were at stake, and Jim was right ? concentration versus distraction was the key issue.

            As Jim had so rightly said, controlling your emotions and shutting out the world was easy to achieve when you were in a quiet, secluded monastery in the middle of nowhere. It was also relatively easy to achieve when you locked yourself away for the worst of full moon. But he couldn't live like that indefinitely.

            And that was the problem, because how did you go about blocking out the world and focusing inward as tightly as was needed when you had, for example, a very dangerous vampire stepping up his stalking campaign, a mysterious vortex spontaneously appearing in your workplace and zapping people left, right and centre, and your girlfriend was sick? And when you wanted, badly, to be there helping resolve all that?

            Not having the wolf getting in the way of his human life, not being a burden to anyone else, in times of crisis especially ? that was such a huge part of the reason he'd gone looking for a cure in the first place. But here he was again, forced to abandon his friends to deal with all those other problems without him while he was off taking care of himself.

            And yet he was here by his own choice. No one had forced him to come here looking for help; he could very easily have continued as he was, stumbling from one full moon crisis to the next, keeping up the anti-wolf techniques he'd been taught as best as he could, and just hoping for the best. But how long might it have been, in that case, before the situation blew up on him again, and someone that he cared about got hurt as a result?

            No, he'd come here for a reason, and he had to go through with it. But that didn't mean it was easy to suspend unease about everything else that was going on at the same time.

            "So," Jim mused as he stubbed his cigarette out and waved futilely at the smoke. "The answer is to find some way to bend the discipline you need around the life you want to lead?."


            *****

            "Found it!" Emma's shout of triumph drew everyone's attention away from their own reading. "This is it." She was practically bubbling over with excitement at her success as the others moved closer to see the page she was pointing to. "This is what I recognised, what I remembered reading."

            Charlie gave the picture a dubious look. "That doesn't look much like what I saw last night."

            "Not the cyclone-with-tentacles thingy, no," Emma stuck determinedly to her guns. She'd been closest to it, and she knew what she'd seen: a grey-black swirl of something. "But before it got big and started zapping, it looked like this."

            Elli raised her eyebrows. "So what does it say?"


            *****

            Jim's techniques were different than the monks back in Tibet.

            They'd been working through the anti-wolf meditation exercises Oz had learnt at the monastery, Jim wanting to start out by learning exactly what Oz knew, what he could do. With his mind so busy right now, Oz had struggled to empty it, to still that busyness, troubled by the memory of what had happened last night, by wondering what had caused it and how the others were getting on with the research, by Anouk's continuing illness ? something about that really was really bothering him, way back in the subconscious. But finally he found his centre, found that peaceful place where nothing, not even the wolf, could touch him?.

            "So." And then Jim snapped him right back out of it again. "Now you can tell me what's been going on since we met yesterday to get you so worked up."

            Oz blinked, startled at his moving so abruptly between states of consciousness like that.

            And Jim looked amused at his reaction yet again.

            "This is what we're working toward," the older man told him. "What you need to achieve. You need to be able to switch back and fore, from peace to full alert, like flipping a light switch. On, off, on, off." He snapped his fingers in time to the words. "Just like that. Well, more than just like that, actually, but that's the first step. The more-than-that part is the second step ? carrying both states with you at all times. You have to get to a place where you can be both completely focused on and alert to what's going on around you and completely centred, completely at peace, to live the kind of life you seem to be leading and feel secure in it, as a werewolf."

            It was uncanny, the ability Jim had to read him and analyse his problems like that. It was also slightly demoralising to think of how much more work would be needed, how much time and effort they would both have to put in to achieve it, when all Oz wanted was to be able to get on with his life now. But he'd always known it would never be as simple as that.

            "Don't look so worried," said Jim. "We'll take it one step at a time, right? Slow and steady wins the race, as the tortoise told the hare. But the fact is you aren't a normal person, so there's no point treating yourself like one. And now ? tell me all about those problems you were supposed to be leaving at the door earlier."


            *****

            "Anything?" Leaving a slightly anxious Shanei ? she'd witnessed the freak show last night, after all ? to watch the caf?, David popped his head around the door of Piers' antique store to see how the research was going on.

            "We think we've got it," said Charlie, while Emma practically bounced across the room to grab his hand and pull him over to the join them at the table, where old Piers was fast asleep but the girls were hard at work.

            "I found it," she told him, so proud of herself he couldn't help but smile. "I remembered what I'd read, and I found it."

            "All that homework paid off, huh?" He sat down. "Okay, show me."

            "It's a leech," said Elli, as if that should explain everything. "According to this, anyway."

            David wrinkled his nose, none the wiser. "Leech?"

            "That isn't what it's actually called," Emma clarified. "More of a definition. It's a malignant elemental spirit." She pronounced the words with relish.

            "Maligna?" David shook his head. "We'll go with leech, huh. Okay, so you've already done the reading. Hit me with it."

            Emma pulled the book back across and read from it, still looking as proud as punch with herself for her researching success. "It says, and I quote: 'some elementals are deceitful and hateful, and love to cause problems and tragedies to humans. Although they cannot exist bodily in this world, the spirit will attach itself to a victim's aura. In this way, they can drain energy from the victim through the aura ?' And so on. There's pages and pages all about it."

            "It's a leech," Elli repeated. "It latches onto someone and feeds off them."

            David frowned. "But that isn't what happened last night. With the mini cyclone, and the tentacles, and the zapping?."

            "We think it got over-excited. That can happen, apparently," Charlie explained, and looked a little wistful as she went on. "So many people in the room, and the atmosphere ? there was a great atmosphere, wasn't there? We were really?. Sorry, that's not the point."

            "No, we were," agreed David, regretful that they hadn't managed to finish the gig ? it had been going so well.

            "So we think it was in the room with someone," Charlie continued. "But could sense how many people were around, and the energy, and it just got carried away and tried to reach out to them all, but couldn't manage it. Burned itself out."

            "Burned out?" Feeling hopeful, David raised his eyebrows. "So it's gone?"

            Elli shook her head. "Burned out in the 'couldn't handle that many people at once' sense, but it'll still be attached to whoever had it in the first place. They're harder to get rid of than that."

            "So the next question is, 'who was it attached to?'" Emma finished.


            *****

            Comment


            • #7
              *****

              "So you think the two things are connected?" Jim had a very impressive ability to hold an entire conversation without ever removing his cigarette from the corner of his mouth. "This mysterious energy-sapping vortex ? that all sounds highly dramatic, by the way ? and your girl being sick today?"

              There was no evidence to support that. Anouk had already been unwell before being zapped, and she was worse today whereas Emma, who'd also been zapped, was completely recovered. Anouk thought she had flu, her housekeeper thought she had flu, and her symptoms mostly supported that.

              Mostly. But 'mostly' wasn't conclusive, and Oz's gut instinct had been nagging at him all morning. He needed to find out if the others had identified whatever it was yet, and he needed to get Anouk and the research together, just in case, because there could be a connection. He fidgeted uncomfortably; suddenly nervous about how much time had been wasted already. Or ? not wasted, exactly. Pretty well spent, in fact. It was just frustrating, at a time like this, being unable to be in two places at the same time.

              Jim leaned back against his cushion. "Well then, if you're sure, what are you waiting for? Off you go to the rescue; we're done here."

              That was the biggest drawback about coming to someone as a supplicant, almost, placing yourself in the position of an apprentice learning at the feet of a master ? you were kind of dependent on them to set the rules and timetables, and to confirm when a given session was or wasn't at an end. Thus released, Oz sprang to his feet, and looked around for his things.

              As he hurriedly pulled his jacket back on, Jim suddenly started to chuckle.

              "You want to be in control, you don't want to be in control?you are just a bundle of contradictions, aren't you, Dan?"

              And that, Oz reflected, was a bit like hearing the pot speak out against the increasing darkness of the kettle, and he couldn't not pause in the midst of his haste to point out that Jim wasn't all that regular himself.

              "True enough," Jim admitted with another chuckle. "Reckon that evens us out a little. I figure that's maybe a good part of the reason Sheng sent you to me. And, I must admit, I'm kind of glad he did. Life was in danger of becoming tedious, and now here you are: a shiny new conundrum for me to puzzle out."

              At least someone was happy. "Well, I'm?glad to oblige."


              *****

              "It has to be Anouk," said Elli. "I don't know how or why, but it has to be her. The thing I was feeling disappeared as soon as she left the building last night. And Oz, but he wasn't anywhere near it when it happened."

              "Anouk was," Emma recalled. "It was right behind her ? almost on top of her. And she hadn't been well all day." That recollection rang bells, and she turned back a couple pages to find the reference. "It says here that 'the symptom of emotional and physical exhaustion after being in their presence for a while is typical'."

              "And she's still ill now," David suddenly put in, and looked a little sheepish when they all turned to stare at him. "Sorry, I should've mentioned that?slipped my mind. Oz phoned before. Anouk isn't any better today. Worse, if anything."

              "Well, that clinches it, then," said Charlie. "And now that we know it's with her and not here, what do we do about it?"

              Elli pulled another book toward her. "We find a way to get it off her."

              "Well, yeah, that kind of goes without saying," said David. "But how?"

              "Knowing how she managed to pick it up might help." Elli wrinkled her nose. "But we've got all these books ? they've given us a diagnosis. There has to be something in there about a cure, as well."

              "Ooh." Emma felt a tiny bit guilty about the thrill she felt. "I've got that! I mean, I saw something about that, back here someplace?"

              She eagerly leafed back through the book that she'd decided was going to be her all-time favourite, it had proved so useful today, scanning each page until she re-discovered the relevant passage.

              "It's here." She couldn't quite prevent a note of triumph at her researching success from sounding in her voice. "The spirit can be trapped ? see, there's a picture. Some kind of jar?" She turned her head to squint at the faded image and pursed her lips, thoughtfully. "Or maybe it's an urn. Jug? Whatever, we need one of those."

              Before anyone else could comment, the sound of the door banging open drew their attention and woke old Piers with a snort, and they turned to see Oz rushing into the shop, half-supporting, half-carrying a very limp-looking Anouk.


              *****

              "I think it was my fault," Anouk murmured as she sank into the comfy sofa in the lounge behind the caf?, leaning heavily against Oz still.

              "How could it be your fault?" Emma sounded like a kindergarten teacher pandering to a young child as she fussed around with cushions.

              "That jar they've gone looking for." Anouk closed her eyes, and Oz tightened his grip as she rested her head against his shoulder. But then she pushed herself upright again and twisted around to look at him, eyes wide and earnest, and afraid. "When I went to that store with you yesterday. I should have said ? I don't know why I didn't?I broke an old jar. Like the one in the picture. So I think it's my fault. I let it out."

              Regret at ever having taken her there drifted to the forefront of the turmoil of mixed emotions Oz was feeling. He gently kissed the side of her head. "Try not to worry about it."

              Having said her piece, and apparently exhausted herself so doing, Anouk settled back down again, nestling into the crook of his arm. "I just feel so weak," she murmured, faintly. "It's horrible."

              "I'll get you some water." Emma scurried out of the room.

              "Try to relax, man."

              Oz glanced up to see David leaning against the doorpost.

              "Emma's at her best when she's got someone to look after," David continued.

              "Yeah." Oz shifted position slightly, trying to make both himself and Anouk a little more comfortable.

              "And the girls'll get the stuff we need to fix things up," finished David. "And it'll all be good. Trust me."

              Oz hoped so, because right now it didn't feel all good. He could have kicked himself for not realising sooner that Anouk's illness was more than just flu, and for not staying with her when she was so ill. She deserved to be with someone who could look after her properly, not just part time and when it suited: someone who'd put her first, every time, all of the time, and for whom guilt at having gotten her into this wouldn't be the overriding emotion; someone who could love her the way she should be loved.

              And then he was angry with himself for thinking that, because he did care about her, very deeply. It was beyond that he wasn't so clear on. And he was annoyed with himself also for being so unsure of his own feelings at a time when his own feelings weren't important. Anouk was what mattered right now ? taking care of her until the others got back, and curing her of this 'leech' when they did. Everything else could wait until after that. As long as there was an after that.


              *****

              The wait for Charlie and Elli to get back with the leech-ridding supplies they'd gone off in search of was fairly nerve-wracking, yet surprising short.

              "I can't believe you got hold of one so easily." Emma shook her head in disbelief as she examined the large clay urn they'd brought back with them.

              "It's not something you'd find on your average street corner," agreed Charlie, carefully emptying the assorted contents of a large brown paper bag into the table. "But apparently not all that rare, either."

              "Well, I'm impressed." David fingered some of the packets and candles. "So, what do we do now?"

              The ritual to capture and contain the leech-like malevolent elemental spirit that had Anouk in its clutches was surprisingly simple, albeit not the slightest bit pleasant. Anouk screamed and cried, and clutched Oz's arms so tightly that her fingers left dark bruises on his skin, as the grey-black spirit was first made visible, enfolding her like a cloak, and then dragged off her and sucked into the urn, resisting painfully all the way.

              And then it was over. The urn was sealed, the leech was gone, and a very shaken Anouk was left extremely washed out but looking better already.

              "I've learned my lesson," she murmured, weakly. "Next time I break something in a store I'll own up right away, even if the store keeper is really creepy."


              *****

              "Kinda feels like one of us should be saying something really deep and profound around about now," said Anouk.

              After all the stresses and strains of recent events Oz had taken her out for a meal, feeling strongly that they needed to spend some real, genuine quality time together to try to resolve things. No more drifting. But everything that had happened, everything that was going on in both their lives, hung between them, almost palpable in the air. Apparently, neither of them really knew where to begin.

              "Okay, I'll start," continued Anouk after a very long pause. She was still very pale, with dark shadows under her eyes. That leech-like spirit had sapped her energy badly, and it would take time to build that back up. "We can't go on like this ? I can't go on like this. Something's very wrong here, and we both know it. I mean ? look at us. This was meant to be a cosy romantic dinner for two, and we're sitting here like some kind of crisis summit."

              Something about their lives just didn't seem to fit together so well. Oz remembered thinking that just a few nights ago. Everything that had happened since then had only served to drive that home.

              "I'm sorry," he said, and Anouk bit her lip.

              "So am I," she told him, but there was also a hint of anger in her voice. "I know you went to a lot of trouble for this. Re-jigged your shifts." She glanced down at her almost untouched plate, and then looked back at him. "But I think that's the problem, making such an effort when it should come naturally ? I mean, when you're in a relationship you should want to spend time together, shouldn't you? It shouldn't be about making an appointment."

              That stung. Oz knew he hadn't been overly available of late. He looked down at his own plate, avoiding eye contact.

              Anouk sighed. "You've just got so much on your plate right now. If you aren't working, you're out patrolling. Or if you aren't patrolling, you're rehearsing with the band, and if you aren't rehearsing, you're in class. And now you've got this martial arts meditate-y thing to fit in as well. And?I know I'm coming across as a big, selfish baby now, making all kinds of demands, and I don't want to be like that. I know it's important to you, and I want to be supportive and understanding, and I mean ? I have a life of my own too, but I just?. You've got such a busy life. And I don't know where I fit into that. I'm not sure I do fit into that. Just lately it seems like the only times I get to see you is if I'm in danger, or when you can fit me into that hectic schedule of yours, and I don't like being an after-thought."

              Oz felt more uncomfortable than ever. A little unreasonable, maybe, but she was also right, in part at least. He did have too much going on in his life right now to be able to put her first, but that wasn't the real root of what was going wrong between them, just the catalyst. This conversation was long overdue. He'd known this was coming, had felt their incompatibility, but still didn't want to let it happen, didn't want to lose her from his life.

              Feeling torn, he focused on the straw that seemed to have broken the camel's back. "This training is important."

              "I get that. I really do," said Anouk, but her tone was curt and he wasn't convinced that she did. "I also get that the band is important to you for artistic reasons, and that finishing school is important for educational and qualification-ary reasons, and that working at the caf? is paying for school, which makes that important too. It would just be really nice to think that I was a little bit important, as well."

              "You are important," Oz told her, feeling helpless in the face of her accusations, as unreasonable yet genuine as they were. He wanted to have Anouk in his life, cared about her more deeply than he'd really let himself realise until now, but here came that 'but' again. But what he needed was to divert all his energies into those studies with Jim now that he'd decided and agreed to take it on. It was something he needed to do: for himself, and for the safety of everyone around him. Even if ? as he now realised, painfully ? it meant letting go of what he wanted, which was to have Anouk, and everything she represented, in his life.

              If he tried to hold onto her she'd only end up resenting him more and more, every time something else came first, and every day he was unable to give her the time and attention their relationship deserved and needed in order to stand any chance of succeeding, until what they had together had been destroyed completely. Especially since she'd never really accepted the less normal parts of his life, always holding it at arms length. They'd already been struggling even before that letter from Tibet, even if they hadn't wanted to admit it to themselves. Better to end it now and save them both any more heartache. Yet he still longed to be able to make her understand, somehow, to be able to make this work, somehow. "But I have to ?"

              "Not important enough. Actions speak louder than words, Oz, and I don't want to be a part-time girlfriend. I'm greedy that way."

              There were angry tears in her eyes now, and Oz decided that taking her out tonight had been a really bad idea. She wasn't recovered enough for a showdown like this, and that could only make it harder. He should have stalled, delayed this just a little bit longer?.

              But there'd been too much of that already. They both had issues with each other that they'd avoided facing up to until now.

              There was an accusatory note in Anouk's voice as she continued, "It's just?you're juggling way too much right now. Something has to give, and if that something is going to be me I'd rather you told me now, because it feels like every time you have to make a compromise, it's me that gets shunted down the list of priorities. And now you've added training with this 'sensei' to the juggle-fest, and I just don't understand why you needed to do that. You told me you were safe, that you were in control and it wasn't a problem, but you won't talk to me about any of it, and I just don't know any more what's real and what isn't."

              "I do have control," said Oz, almost interrupting her, as the words seemed to explode out of him all of a sudden. It seemed like everything that went wrong in his life could be traced back to this one root issue, every time. "I can hold the wolf in, and it is safe, but ? it's something I have to reach for. Doesn't come naturally."

              It came almost as a relief to be able to admit that out loud. Anouk seemed startled by his fervour as much as the sudden confession. "So??"

              Oz thought back to the day he'd gone with Charlie, Mat and Anouk in search of Ed, at full moon, and how close he'd come to changing, right there in the room with them, in the midst of battle with a gang of vampires. It had been such a close thing, too close, and the prospect of losing control scared him as much now as it had the day he'd first left Sunnydale. He'd come a long way since that day, only to end up in pretty much the same place.

              "So," he slowly explained. "Working with Jim is about ? it's about: what happens on the day something throws me off balance, and I can't reach far enough?"

              Anouk looked scared, and that told Oz everything he needed to know. And then resignation flooded across her features, but the underlying anger was still there.

              "You know," she wearily told him. "It probably says a quite lot that we have to come to this before you feel you can say that to me." And then that underlying anger flashed to the forefront, and her eyes blazed. "Why are you even with me in the first place, if you don't trust me enough to talk to me about anything?"

              That?hurt. Because the communication gap kind of went both ways. Maybe there was a lot more Oz could have confided in her, but the fact that he hadn't had as much to do with her as it did him. Almost. There was a lot in his life that she wasn't ready to be a part of, and that was something she'd never been brave enough or honest enough to admit, just as he'd never been brave enough or honest enough to own up to his deepest wolf-fears, or to the fact that no matter how much he cared for her and wanted to put her first, he simply wasn't able to with the way his life was right now.

              And now he found himself flashing back to the Willow comparisons again, because even at the end it had never been this hard with her. There were very good reasons this wasn't working out.

              But he really wasn't in the mood for defending himself at the moment, and kept quiet and let her vent. After everything she'd been through, she probably needed it, and if blaming him for everything made her feel better, then so be it, because he pretty much deserved most of the blame she was heaping on his head.

              Bottom line: they'd both be better off calling it quits now, rather than dragging it out any longer.

              Anouk fell silent at last, pushing the food around on her plate, and then looked back up at him. "So what do we do now?"

              And, after everything she'd just said, that took Oz by surprise, and he wondered if there was any chance they could still work this out. But then he felt tired just at the thought of prolonging the inevitable any further, with these same issues coming between them time and again. There was way too much they needed to resolve, and they couldn't do that together.

              "I don't think this is working," he said with a heavy heart, and it hurt to admit that, yet felt like the right thing to do. He really didn't need all this right now, needed to divert all his energies into those studies with Jim now he'd taken them on. But it still hurt.

              Anouk looked unhappy. "No. It really isn't, is it?"


              *****

              "In there, you see," said Ed to his new companion, Zoe ? or maybe it was Chloe? He gestured toward the Monico Coffee Bar, across the street. "That's where they like to hang out, when they aren't out playing at being heroes."

              Zoe, or Chloe, or whatever her name was ? maybe he could persuade her to change it to something easier to remember ? had a fairly direct way of thinking. "Why not just kill them all and get it over with?"

              "Because then it would be over," he told her, his lip curling. "And where's the fun in that?"

              She was so young ? well, in truth, a little older than he'd been when he was sired, but still young, both in human terms and especially in vampire terms: barely two nights old. She had so much to learn. He'd missed having a playmate ? and other kinds of mate ? since his sister and her friends had killed the last companion he'd made for himself, Laura.

              "You see," Ed explained. "Most of the people wandering around out there are just food, ripe for the picking. Easy prey. And you can live like that if you want to, from one kill to the next. But it's such a dull way to live. Subsistence. I prefer a little more spice in my life. So what you have to do is set yourself challenges, and be prepared to put a little work into making the game more interesting. And that's what my sister and her friends are: a challenge. I hope you'll enjoy being on my team. I can promise you'll never be bored."


              *****

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              • #8
                *****

                Epilogue:

                *****

                It was a quiet night at the Monico.

                Sitting at the counter picking at a large slab of chocolate cake, Elli was grateful for that, since David had vanished out to the kitchen and Sylvie was nowhere in sight. Watching the bar while they were out of the room was all well and good, but not something she wanted to make a habit of.

                She'd no sooner thought that than the bell above the door sounded to announce the arrival of a customer. Wondering if she'd jinxed herself, she turned, and was surprised to see Oz coming in. He was meant to be out with Anouk ? Sylvie had been grumbling all evening about shifts being re-arranged at a moment's notice.

                Hello," she greeted him as he approached the counter. "Everything okay? I thought you had a date."

                He pulled up a stool alongside her, looking pensive. "I did."

                There was a note of finality in his voice that sounded ominous, especially when backed up, as it was, by attitude and expression. Elli made the intuitive leap and came to the unhappy conclusion that more than just the date had come to a premature end. There'd been a distinct impression of rockiness between him and Anouk just lately, but she hadn't realised it was that bad. They'd seemed pretty happy together in spite of it. She waited for a moment to see if he would elaborate. He didn't.

                "Is that it? Over?" She placed mental bets with herself on whether or not he'd reply, and wondered just how much he wanted, or was willing, to be pushed. Sometimes he ? anyone, in fact ? needed to talk about things a whole lot more than he wanted to.

                "Communication issues," he said, staring down at the counter. "Kind of?really don't need the head-spin right now."

                Elli waited again for an explanation that didn't come; not that she was expecting one, since he'd already said more than she might have expected, but she felt she should give him the opportunity. Then, since he didn't seem to be looking for sympathy, she adopted a more light-hearted approach and shook her head in sympathetic amusement. "I never realised you were so fickle. Yesterday she was interesting and complex."

                That raised a ghost of a smile. "Well," he said, still not looking at her. "Today it's too much like hard work."

                That seemed to be as much as he was be willing to say just yet, and Elli didn't feel inclined to push any more. If he wanted to talk about it he would, eventually. She pushed her plate toward him so he could share her cake, chocolate being the best form of comfort food, and he met her eyes at last, smiled and picked up a fork.



                ~fin~



                ? J. Browning, February 2006


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