The Fourth of July was hot, and it started early. Oz was the first to arrive at Eric and Nina’s house, thinking to help them prepare for the party, but he found it more difficult than anticipated. So, it seemed, did Eric. As soon as either of them had started on a task, Nina would take a look and stop them with some kind of criticism: “That’s not how they should be chopped” or “I thought I told you I’d do that myself” or “It’s probably more helpful if you just stay out of the way.” Each time, she would laugh as if it were a joke, but she still didn’t allow them to lend much of a hand.
When Oz had moved to Cleveland, the first people he had contacted were family: his aunt and uncle and two cousins, all of them werewolves. Aunt Maureen had personally introduced him to a tattoo artist they knew who was active in the local pack, not realizing at the time that the artist’s girlfriend had dated Angel and was friends with Faith. As Oz discovered the connections, Mr. E and Nina built on them, and before a year had passed they were appointed Cleveland’s alphas. If not for them, Oz knew, he probably would have moved on at some point, instead of coming to think of this place as home.
For everyone’s sake, he was worried about what was happening, but it especially hurt to witness the strain on Eric and Nina’s relationship. Eric didn’t raise an argument at any point, but the rapport they’d had as a couple was gone, and he kept casting embarrassed smiles toward Oz.
Before long, Oz and Eric were in an implied exile on the back porch, eating chips and waiting for guests to arrive. It was hard to know for sure if Nina was listening, so Oz was trying to avoid bringing up anything related to the Wolf, but Eric seemed to think that she wasn’t. “I told Buffy and Angel about how Nina hasn’t seemed like herself lately,” he confessed. “Now I can’t stop wondering if it’s just me.”
Oz would have dodged the topic, but it didn’t seem right to let Eric go on like this, sounding so crestfallen. “It’s not just you.”
“Everyone else’s relationships look so solid, in comparison. Like they know exactly who they are and where they’re going. Spike and Angel,” he said, as if holding up an example.
“They’re not actually together…”
Eric laughed. “No, I was going to say, they’re the only two vampires with souls, right?” At Oz’s nod, he continued, “And they’re both dating vampire Slayers. That’s whacked. That’s the kind of couple shouldn’t last five seconds, and there’s two of them coming tonight. Compared to that…” He shook his head. “Werewolf and a werewolf ought to be a piece of cake.”
“Nobody’s really got it together,” said Oz. “Trust me.”
Eric raised an eyebrow and crunched another potato chip. “So how about you? There’s a couple girls in the pack asking me to find out why you never date. Cute ones.”
Oz leaned back in his deck chair, eyes pointing at the blue sky. “I date.”
“Oh yeah? Who and when?”
“I...used to date,” he amended. “I’ve been talking to my ex lately. Kinda puts me off the scene.” Willow looked more exhausted and careworn every time she sent an astral projection to Cleveland. If they were dating, maybe he could tell her to stop, but he still wondered if she would listen.
Nina’s voice became audible inside, along with that of a new arrival and the sound of doors opening and dishes being set down. Oz turned and stood as Aunt Maureen came gliding through the open glass doors to the porch. He accepted her hug as Uncle Ken emerged, and then, lingering behind them a little, ten-year-old Kristina. “Where’s Jordan?” Oz asked.
Maureen sighed dramatically. “He’ll be coming with his friends. I suppose we’re not cool enough for him anymore.”
“I hope he’s bringing his bass,” said Eric. “Oz tells me he’s not half bad. I thought we could have a jam session.”
“Yep,” Uncle Ken affirmed, but the word was clipped and flat, as if the subject troubled him. Oz had a feeling of foreboding which had been gradually increasing since he arrived. He hadn’t planned to confront Jordan about attacking Angel, but he at least wanted to talk to him face to face to see if anything felt wrong. If his own parents had some kind of concern about him, the question was probably already answered.
Buffy and Faith were the next to show up, Buffy carrying enough wine coolers to prove she had Slayer strength, Faith with a large bowl of haphazardly chopped fruit. Both seemed slightly embarrassed about their offerings, but Eric welcomed them warmly and introduced them to the Godfreys, and Oz could sense his relief at finally having a chance to be the host at his own party.
Oz tried to relax, too. As more guests arrived, he went for his guitar, but Buffy followed him to his car and started talking business as soon as they were out of earshot for those in the house. “Check this out,” she said, laying out a few pieces of paper on the hood of the car. “Floor plans for Satellite 3.”
Interested in spite of his reservations, Oz leaned over and inspected them with her. “Are you sure this is accurate? I can’t tell what this big space is supposed to be.”
“We don’t know either,” she said. “From the outside, it looks like it’s part of the connected building on Main Street. But look at this.” She took a pen from her purse and wrote ‘S2’ in one of the rooms, then pointed to the next one. “This must be Satellite 1, right? And it’s lined up to the big empty mysterious space. I know this isn’t much to go on, but…”
“It’s plenty.” Without saying another word, Oz took the pen from her and drew a Fibonacci spiral onto the page. The line went through the main part of the club, then Satellite 2, then Satellite 1, uninterrupted, and the remainder of the spiral curled up within the big room. Oz dropped the pen when he finished, feeling cornered within the graphical walls, and it rolled down the hood and fell to the pavement without either of them attempting to stop it.
Buffy smoothed out one of the other printouts, this one showing Satellite 3’s location in the downtown neighborhood. The spiral had already been drawn on this one, and it was easy to see how the center would look just like Oz’s drawing if magnified. “Wow.” Buffy’s voice was hushed. “That big space isn’t a warehouse, is it?”
“Why not?” Oz replied. “Makes about as much sense as a high school library.”
She winced. “Good point. I better go show Faith.”
“Maybe that can wait. There’s already a lot of suspicion in the air.” Oz moved around the car and got the guitar case out of the trunk. Nearer to the house, there were a few cars more than there had been when they’d gone outside, but he couldn’t tell if any of them might have carried Jordan here.
Buffy was looking at him with a quizzical expression. “Don’t you want to work on this while we can? I know you’re booked up after sunset, and we’ve got another murder on the schedule coming up soon…”
“This isn’t the place.” He shut the trunk and started back toward the house with the guitar, and after a second he heard Buffy following.
The party was in full swing when they returned to the house, centered mostly on the back porch and the chairs that had been set out in the yard. Oz instinctively looked for Nina first, and found her pouring drinks while talking to Faith. He noticed that some of the others on the porch were looking askance at the two Slayers, the only ones there who weren’t werewolves. He mentally berated himself; someone should have been making introductions and assuring the pack that it was safe to talk freely around Faith and Buffy. Of course, that someone probably should have been Nina.
Jordan was down on the grass, his bass guitar slung over his back, setting up a place to sit with another young musician and Eric. A weight lifted from Oz’s mind, and he headed that way to meet them, not stopping to find out if Buffy was about to show Faith the Satellite 3 floorplan.
When he saw him, Jordan’s neck turned red, and he turned away, tugging bashfully at his forelock. “Uhh. Hey.” Eric immediately petitioned the other boy for help with something else, effectively granting some privacy to the impending conversation.
“Hey,” Oz replied, placing his guitar on one of the chairs and seating himself in another.
“‘M sorry ‘bout yesterday,” he mumbled in a rush. Reluctantly, he put down his own instrument and sat down.
Oz nodded. “Angel’s alright.”
“Good,” said Jordan, and he sounded like he meant it.
“Where’s Howell? Didn’t want to come?”
Jordan shrugged uncomfortably. “He got mad when he found out you didn’t send us. Kinda stormed off. Was acting kinda weird actually.”
That wasn’t good. Oz hadn’t really thought that Howell needed to be locked up in the first place, but that had come with the assumption that someone would at least know where he was. There was a fair chance that Howell would head right back to Oz’s house, but nobody was going to be there all night. “Was this whole thing Nina’s idea?” he asked, taking care to keep his tone neutral.
“Yeah.” Jordan glanced toward the house, his brow furrowed. “Is something going on with her? I mean, we figured if she was telling us something it was legit. She’s an alpha,” he added, with a kind of reverence unique to born werewolves.
“I don’t know,” said Oz. “I’m trying to find out. You guys want to get started without me?” He gestured at the guitars.
Jordan nodded and pulled his bass into his lap. “Uh. Can you not tell my folks about what happened?”
Oz clasped his hand firmly and looked him in the eye, and Jordan’s posture relaxed. The other musicians returned to the circle of chairs, and partygoers gathered to listen to them as Oz went to find Buffy and Faith.
Fortunately, they were together, and Nina was no longer with them. Both were inside near the food table, arguing about something that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Wolf. “It’s good!” Buffy insisted after swallowing, with apparent difficulty, a spoonful of something from the bowl she was holding. “Look, I’m eating a whole bowl of it! All I’m saying is you should peel the kiwis first!”
“Whatever,” Faith huffed. “I’m not a fruit ninja, okay?”
Oz decided to change the subject for them before anyone made him choose a side. “Howell’s missing. Can you call Angel, see if he showed up there?”
Buffy put her bowl down with a clatter and whipped out her cell phone. She turned away from them as she dialed, and Faith said to Oz, “You want me to go out looking for him?”
He shook his head. “How? You haven’t met the guy.”
“Buffy can, then.”
“She doesn’t know her way around town,” Oz objected, increasingly frustrated.
“Okay, then we wait for dark and send Spike and Angel,” Faith bargained, at the same time that Buffy turned back around, putting her phone back into her pocket and shaking her head.
She gave them each a wary glance. “We’re sending the boys where? I missed something.”
“No,” said Oz. “It can’t wait that long. I’ll go myself. If I don’t find him by sunset, I’ll call you before I lock up to change.”
Faith looked uncertain, but Buffy responded with surprising vehemence. “You’re just going to split in the middle of this shebang after telling me you don’t want to work the mission here? You’re our strongest link to the pack, and,” her voice lowered to a hiss, “Nina’s watching! She’s going to notice!”
He didn’t have to do anything conspicuous to know she was right. “Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.
Buffy hesitated for a moment, then said, “I’ll call Willow. She can--”
“No.” Oz wondered offhandedly if he should start counting how many times he’d had to say that since Buffy and Angel showed up. “Did you not twig how worn out she is? If you keep piling on these astral stints she’s going to tear herself apart trying not to go dark on us again. Let her be.”
He could sense the sudden change in Buffy’s mood, though he had long since stopped differentiating between the scents, visual cues, and intuition he used in reading people. She seemed to draw back as if ready to pounce, then sucked in a breath and began, “How dare you…”
“Hey,” Faith cut in sharply. “Guys, for real? The king of non-reaction and the Friendship-Is-Power spokeswoman are gonna make me step up as the peacemaker?”
Oz raised an eyebrow at her, unfazed, but Buffy looked abashed. “It’s just...I’m used to, you know, having a system. In LA, the Slayers all work together. We give them their assignments, but if things get rough, everyone pitches in even if it costs them a little extra. And Willow’s part of that team.”
“And we’re not?” said Faith. Her voice was dry, but she didn’t seem as interested in mediating as she had a moment ago.
“There’s no team,” Oz informed both of them, “so no one has to be.”
Buffy busied herself pouring from a bottle of diet soda. “Faith, you and I should both go. You drive, I recognize, nobody marks us absent.”
The girls froze as they looked up. Oz didn’t; he had noticed Nina’s approach in advance, although not soon enough to warn the others. He could tell that Buffy was about to stammer out an implausible lie, so he cut her off and answered Nina himself: “Angel’s staying at my place. Stuck there right now, obviously. All the blood he brought along got spoiled and Faith may have to take Buffy to get more. Butcher’s gonna be closed tomorrow.”
There was a pause, in which Buffy and Faith did their best to support the story by shrugging and nodding. Oz didn’t think that Nina seemed skeptical, but she didn’t look surprised, either. “Okay,” she sighed. “I mean, I guess you aren’t having fun anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Buffy replied, too quickly. “Fun? We’re having that. This is fun.”
Nina’s eyes rolled upward. “Well, you’ve spent the whole time since you got here just talking to each other indoors. And no offense or anything, but you know this is the first time any non-werewolves have been invited to this party? I told them all you were worth making an exception. Some of them were pretty interested in meeting you. But, you know, whatever.”
Faith looked aghast. “Dude, Nina. We just had to square this one thing, totally did not mean to go antisocial on you.”
“I was just getting a soda,” said Buffy, holding up her plastic cup of evidence. “Got distracted for a moment, that’s all.”
Oz looked at the three of them, caught Nina’s eye, and nodded. “I’ll go run that errand for Angel. Back before the moon.”