Summary: Years after Sunnydale, Oz reconnects with the one person who changed everything for him - and it's not who you're thinking.
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine.
This is the one I was talking about that doesn't have Angel in it. It does tie in with some of my other stories, but you'd need to be fairly well-versed in my fanfiction to spot it.
In the post-tuning hush, Oz could hear distant cars, a mother at her backdoor demanding that everyone come in and wash up, a squirrel making an inadvisable leap. His ears were sensitive today, though they were competing for attention with everything his nose was picking up: the suburban union of grass and asphalt, of course, but particularly the young male beside him waiting in perfect stillness. Oz breathed it all in, tapped out the rhythm - one, two, three, four - and began to play.
His opening chords ambled into the atmosphere as if they had always belonged there, and he smiled when he heard the bass line coming in without a hitch. His cousin had some talent for this, and Oz suspected that he knew it but feared loving music too much. High school was a society of illogical but rigidly enforced rules, where having cool interests could brand you as phony as easily as nerdy interests could wreck your shot at coolness. For all the trauma that a Hellmouth education had offered him, Oz had realized in retrospect that he had been shielded from the worst of the social games by his own apathy. Jordy was different. He cared about what his future held. He wanted to be loved.
The last few notes fell away, and Oz took a moment to bask in the musician’s private reward of weaving together a song out of two instruments controlled by two separate minds. They had no audience but each other, but this concrete porch in front of a storage shack could have been the stage at the Bronze for all Oz was concerned. It was just good to be holding a guitar again. “Want to switch?” he asked, nodding at Jordy’s bass.
No answer. The boy was staring out at the terrain before them, a wide expanse of rocky soil and wild-growing ground cover, studded with trees and tilting slightly downhill. They had circumnavigated it together earlier, walking along the chain-link fence that sealed the property, and he clearly knew every inch of it. Maybe he was searching for the deer carcass that they had carried down and left just over the rise.
He finally stirred. “Jordan.”
“Sorry,” said Oz. “Jordan. Shoulda figured.”
“Well.” Jordan strummed a few flat chords, like ellipses. “I guess I was still a little kid when you left.”
That was true. A smart, playful, introverted little kid. The only thing that Oz had worried about for him was that he was too attached to his parents and younger sister. He must have endured some teasing for being a mama’s boy before he had shown any other distinguishing features, even his short stature, that could be used against him. The idea of any person in this world being ‘normal’, Oz knew, was a cosmic joke, but back in those days he had fallen for it; he had thought his cousin was normal.
Oz grinned. “Oz.”
“Oh yeah, sorry. My mom still calls you Danny.” Jordan shifted uncomfortably. “She told me I should...like...apologize.”
“So I am.”
“For biting you.”
“Ohhh.” Oz began strumming again, a fast-paced intro to a recent modern rock hit. “You know this one?”
Jordan’s response was an enthusiastic “Yeah!” and another skillful entrance with his bass. He didn’t even hesitate before picking up the vocals. Oz hadn’t intended to sing, but he was instantly compelled to join in. It could all be chalked up to the calendar, he supposed. There were times that the sound of a voice was impossible to resist.
When the music ended, Oz again gave it some space, and then said, “Y’know I never blamed it on you.”
Jordan’s hair flopped over his forehead, hiding his eyes when he spoke. “Yeah, I know. But I still kinda ruined your life.”
“Actually no.” Oz raised an eyebrow. “Why, you think someone ruined yours?”
“No one bit me. Mom bit Dad and I was born this way.”
“Huh,” said Oz. He had always wondered about that. “So, we learn to live with the way we are, right?”
“I guess,” muttered Jordan.
“I bet no one ever tried to tickle you again.”
That elicited a chuckle, at last, and then Jordan was the one who began to play again, and there was no further conversation for a while.
Eventually, Jordan asked, with an extremely casual air, “How long are you gonna stay?”
Oz had been in Cleveland for a week, and this was the first time Jordan had asked him anything about himself. Quietly, he noted it as a victory. It was also a difficult question to answer. He had no end of experience in accepting the impermanence of most things, and he knew that leaving this unlikely community wouldn’t bother him for long. Nothing bothered him for long. Even his early regrets about losing Willow had undergone a sea change over the years, and become no more than memories tinged with melancholy.
“Dunno,” he said. “Doesn’t suck around here, far as I’ve seen. Beats spending the night in a cage, anyway.”
Jordan nodded. “There’s like a syndicate or something that owns the land and they build places like this where none of the normal people can see you so everyone can go outside.” He made a sound of juvenile contempt. “Some of them still don’t believe in us.”
Oz shrugged. “So be it. I don’t believe in them.”
“I met the alphas once,” said Jordan, evidently spurred on by this show of solidarity against the incredulous population of Cleveland. “The guy is like, a tattoo artist? And the woman has this tattoo he did on her back with the whole lunar cycle, it’s so cool. He said he can do one for me but I have to get permission first.”
“Well, nobody wants to get on your mom’s bad side,” replied Oz. “So they - the alphas - they’re the ones who get the enclosures figured out? Seems like you’d need a master strategist to get everyone in their own space. Or at least someone who was really good at Settlers of Catan.”
“Yeah, but not everyone needs to be alone. A lot of the guys all go out together. And there’s another big place for females.” He ducked his head. “Before now I’ve only ever been in our own backyard, though. Mom and Dad always said it wasn’t safe with the older guys.”
“I know,” said Oz. As gently as possible, he added, “It’s not.”
“So why do they think I’m safe with you?”
“‘Cause I’m experienced. Played the game long enough to reach Level Chill. And I know you. Just like you know your sister when you change, and you won’t hurt her.”
Jordan gave a quick, decisive nod, as if that made perfect sense to him and he needed to hear no more. He began to strum, improvising a tune that was pleasing to the ear but too unpredictable to allow Oz to join in. Oz had dropped his guitar pick, anyway, and was ready to take a break instead of committing to a search for it.
Uncle Ken and Aunt Maureen had reacted to his arrival on their doorstep with their characteristic nonchalance. An observer less familiar with their ways might have thought that they had always assumed he would end up in Cleveland on that very day. He was grateful for the shelter they had offered him - both the futon in the spare room for the past week, and the fenced-in enclosure today - but he hadn’t let that stop him from asking the question that had been at the back of his mind for years. Why, if they knew what a bite from Jordy would mean for him, had they offered him no counsel at the time?
Maureen’s answer had perplexed him with its simplicity. “Gracious, Danny, you sounded like you had it all under control. If you need help, you ought to learn to ask for it.”
Indeed. He told her about his Sunnydale friends, the arrangements they had made to keep him safely locked up, and finally about his eastern travels, thinking that the ledger of people who had helped him was evidence enough that he had learned to ask for it. Instead of evaluating his progress, though, Maureen simply asked him if he would lend a hand and stay the night with Jordy, since he didn’t seem to pose a danger. Perhaps that was an evaluation in itself, though.
“You know, you’re right,” said Jordan. His music had been going strong for long enough that its sudden stop was jarring. “Nobody ever tried to tickle me again. Seriously, I haven’t been tickled since that day. Don’t you think that’s kind of weird? I mean, even when people don’t know...”
“...They still kind of know.” Oz nodded. “Once you hurt someone, you’re never the same.”
“That’s why you left Sunnydale. Isn’t it?”
Jordan stared at the ground. “I couldn’t leave. I was like, a complete runt.”
“Not that I don’t think you had it in you to hit the road and start a gang of first-grade rebels, but is running away from home really what you wanted to do?”
“No,” said Jordan, shaking his head. “I didn’t know I should have wanted to.”
Oz felt wary, like an animal newly fitted with a radio collar. He longed to return to silence, the refuge he had relied on all his life, but to do that would be to abandon Jordan. “It would have wrecked your mom and dad to lose you,” he said. This at least was a truth that had no parallel in his own past. His father had been off-panel for years. His mother treated him as a moderately close friend.
“I know. They always told me, family is the only thing we’ve got that doesn’t change, so we have to stick together.”
That was an odd way to put it, Oz thought. In Jordan’s family, change was the only constant. Of course, they all changed together, and they always changed back, and the changes never divided them. Was that what made them a family? Was that what Jordan meant? And was Oz imagining it, or had his cousin’s delivery of the adage contained a faint hint of accusation?
“Jordan,” he said. He found he had to force each one of his next words out, and he could hear the hollow, discordant tone it gave him. “Our moms were close when they grew up, but they’re different people. I don’t really have a family. Not like you do.”
The sound of accusation was clear this time. “You could. I mean, we’re related. Just for example. And you said you had friends in Sunnydale. Nobody’s going to stick together with you if you won’t stick with them. Like, obviously.”
For the first time in a long while, Oz’s memories began to hurt. He remembered Willow, tears in her eyes, not understanding why he would leave if he truly loved her. He had reasons, of course. Real reasons. He would mentally recite them every night for months after he left. I had to. I had to. I didn’t want to. I had to. He had tested the truth of it with logic and love, and it held, but he couldn’t bear to examine the relief that came with it: if he had to go, he didn’t have to stay. If he didn’t have to stay, he didn’t have to run the risk of being part of a family.
It was not that he wanted to leave his options open. He couldn’t anticipate ever wishing to be with a woman other than Willow. But commitment meant more than that. It meant that occasions would continue to arise in which he needed to ask for help. It meant that people would depend on him, not only to do what was right but to exist in each moment as the lifelong promise of Daniel Osbourne. He had spent the last few years always knowing how many days it would be until he was once again no longer himself. It was frightening to imagine that he might someday wake up human and realize that it didn’t come with a fresh start.
He acknowledged that Willow probably had no interest in him at this point. He wasn’t even sure where she was - likely Los Angeles, but he had heard she did a lot of traveling these days. With an unmistakable stab of regret, he realized that they could have been traveling together, and that they would never have the opportunity again. She might want to spend her life on the move, but he knew now, suddenly but certainly, that he didn’t.
Remembering his guitar pick, he checked the ground at his feet and found that there wasn’t enough daylight left to find it. At the same moment, a physical thrill ran down his spine, sending all of the muscles in his back twitching. “We better put these inside,” he said to Jordan, hurrying to his feet with his guitar in his hands.
Jordan made a sound of agreement, and in a few quick motions had secured his bass guitar in its case and opened up the shed. They managed to get both instruments safely inside, with the door barred from the outside with a heavy wooden plank, but Oz admitted to himself that they were cutting it close. He had to pull off his shoes and clothes in an unbalanced hopping dance, flinging them onto the ground and hoping they would survive his teeth for the night. In his peripheral vision he could see Jordan engaging in a similar dance.
Oz was the first to complete his transformation. As he stretched, sniffed the air, and scratched his neck with a hind paw, he heard a howl ring out in the distance, joined within seconds by another from the same location. Oz knew without having ever heard them before that these were Jordan’s parents, and the thin, reedy voice that soon took up the song could be none other than their daughter, a cousin that Oz as yet barely knew. As Jordan shook off the last effects of his change, he raised his muzzle to the sky and cried out with a howl of his own, reassurance to his family that he was okay. Drunk on the moon, the young wolf finished with a bark, ran in a circle, and then dropped into a play-bow before Oz, his tongue hanging out of his widely grinning jaws.
Though he had every intention of accepting this invitation to romp, Oz knew he had one duty to attend to first. His voice cut through the descending darkness, loud and clear, carrying the message that he was here with Jordan and they would stick together. The answer came quickly, but he kept on singing along, and Jordan, unable to resist the music, was howling again at his side in an instant.
For tonight, Oz would not be a solo act, but one voice in a chorus. Silence was not the only refuge.