Avox in Arcadia (perpetual) wrote,
Avox in Arcadia
perpetual

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Wolfsbane (Part 2 of 5)

We haven't yet gotten to where I left off posting; meant to do this in three parts but LJ posts have a smaller capacity than I remember and it's going to take four.


The Wolf watched the sacrifice, and the sacrifice watched the clock, a sharp kitchen knife held in her lap. When the minute changed, she lifted the knife to her neck and slashed hard. There was time, before she lost consciousness, to question the act. She had felt fine, she thought, when she woke up this morning. For how long had she meant to do this? Why had the digits on the clock become her signal to end her life?

She saw the Wolf, naked and hungry, standing over her as she lay in her blood on the floor, and then her eyes closed and did not open again. The Wolf’s jaws lowered to her throat.

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The phone rang in the early morning, and Giles woke up wondering, as he often did, if he was about to learn of a death.

It was Faith, calling from Cleveland -- five hours behind, meaning she hadn’t yet gone to sleep. Her voice was apologetic, but tense. “Willow wants to talk to both of us. She’s coming to you, if you’re okay with that.”

“Yes,” said Giles, reaching first for his glasses and then his dressing gown and slippers. He went out to the parlor holding the cordless phone, and found Willow already there. She was sitting on the couch, looking almost natural except for the way the light hit her. In fact, he could see places where it was going right through her.

She greeted him with a small, “Hi,” but he could only answer, “Willow, are you quite alright? You look...”

“Translucent?” she suggested. “Yeah. I’m under some strain. Is Faith on the line?”

He picked up the parlor telephone, set it on speaker, and turned off the cordless. Faith’s voice came through and cut straight to the chase. “We had another murder in town. Want to fill him in, Red?”

Another murder. Cleveland. Hellmouth. Buffy and Angel. Giles wanted to ask about them, but he knew that he would only interrupt the relevant news. “She was ripped apart like all the others,” Willow said. “All alone like the others. Along the same path as the others.”

Faith’s breath gave the room a second of static. “Spike and I are at the scene, but the cops won’t talk to us. Willow, I thought you’d plotted out the spiral so we would know when the next one was coming. Did you misplace a digit or something?”

“I misplaced a whole life,” Willow confessed. Giles noticed that her face was streaked with drying tears. “It must have been a, a homeless person, or someone nobody knew about. It wasn’t in the news. The sequence is further along than we thought.”

“Can you recalculate to account for it?” asked Giles.

She nodded. “But, Giles, this isn’t about getting our strike team into the right place at the right time. The death roll will keep gaining momentum as long as the Wolf has control of at least one human body. Soon he won’t even have to send assassins; the deaths will just happen, and all he has to do is take his host to the center of the spiral and be there when it terminates.” She drew a deep breath, then looked at him, and at the phone, with an oddly defiant expression. “Isn’t anyone going to ask what happens if he completes the quest? Or is it too obvious that he’ll be invincible and we’re all doomed?”

It was no wonder she looked so tired, Giles thought. She must have been researching incessantly, in addition to projecting herself all over the world to communicate with everyone, if she had come up with this much knowledge on the ritual in play.

There was a brief pause, and then Faith said, “So we’ll skip the strike team crap and go straight for the host.”

Willow stared at the floor. “How? We don’t even know who it is.”

“We have a decent lead,” Giles noted. “Two, in fact. Buffy called tonight…” he looked at the clock. “Er, last night. The owner of the club where the spiral will end is a man named Damien Wolfe. A bit on the nose, but I would be even more surprised to find it was coincidence.”

“Howell doesn’t exactly look like a coincidence either,” said Willow. “Oz put me in touch with him, and he called me yesterday and said he knew how the ritual was supposed to work and he didn’t know how he knew. And neither of them are werewolves.”

Faith groaned. “Well, do they have to be?” Her voice became more distant for a moment as she spoke to someone on her end of the call: “I know, I’m talking to them right now. Hold on.”

Giles shook his head. He hadn’t sat down yet, and he realized that he was subconsciously hoping that his “guests” would leave before it was worth getting comfortable for the conversation. “No,” he said. “Buffy’s dream featured werewolves, but we don’t know if that’s of any importance.”

“It’s probably of any importance,” Willow countered.

“Okay, so what are we supposed to do about it?” Faith pressed her.

Willow’s form left the couch and paced the room, losing a little more opacity as it did. “I don’t know! You’re the one in Cleveland! Tell Buffy, tell Angel. Make Spike start earning his keep. Oz can get the wolfpack on your side. We’re running out of time. This is a virus. It’s only going to spread.”

There was a pause, with some unclear sounds coming from the speakerphone, and then Faith said, “Spike wants to know if the person the Wolf chose as his human body still has their soul.”

“Oh, Spike is the one concerned about that?” Willow snapped.

Giles cleared his throat and gave her a reproachful look, then answered Faith himself. “As far as we understand it, yes. But as the condition means progressive corruption, it seems that allowing a clean retreat to the afterlife would be the greatest act of mercy we can deliver.”

Both of the girls went silent. It crossed his mind that Faith was a disembodied voice, and Willow was a psychic projection. He was, in fact, alone in his own home.

He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on.

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Buffy and Angel both automatically stopped walking at the end of the long path to Nina and her boyfriend’s rustic wooden house. “Nice place,” said Buffy. She liked the wall of bamboo at the edge of the property and the rooftop solar panels glinting in the moonlight, although she knew the secluded hillside location was better suited to werewolves than Slayers.

“She’s good with plants,” Angel agreed.

Buffy eyed him sideways with amusement. “So on a scale of one to karaoke, how awkward is this going to be?”

He smiled back at her. “Depends. What are you plotting?”

“Don’t blame me, I just work here.”

“Then we should be fine.”

When Angel knocked, it was an intricately tattooed man in his twenties or early thirties who welcomed them inside, taking care to make the invitation explicit for Angel. Buffy allowed herself one sweeping glance around the interior before asking, “Mr. E, I take it?”

He nodded. “Eric, at home.”

The word home resonated with Buffy as she and Angel took the seats he offered them at the kitchen table. The house was modestly furnished, but everything seemed sturdy and hand-crafted. Art was everywhere -- big canvasses on the walls, unique sculptures on the countertops, a sketchbook left open on an armchair. There was a sense of harmony between the two occupants that instantly severed any doubts that Buffy might have had about whether Nina was truly over Angel, in spite of the absence of the ex in question.

“Where’s Nina?” asked Angel, voicing Buffy’s own thoughts. As far as she knew, the plan had been to meet both of them here.

Eric handed out bottled drinks as he answered, swiftly producing a ginger beer for Buffy when she turned down the microbrew he offered first. “She’s at work,” he said, before sitting down with them in the living room. “Her schedule’s a little haywire with these night classes she’s teaching. But I can try to help you out until she gets here.”

Buffy tried not to catch Angel’s eye. Mr. E was an important part of the Cleveland pack and she didn’t want to lose his trust, but on the other hand, it was the first time that either she or Angel had met him in person. Strictly speaking, they couldn’t even know for sure that he was the right guy. He might have broken in and killed Nina and Mr. E and was now acting the part so he could kill them too…

She tried and failed to smother a sudden guffaw, drawing confused looks from both Angel and the alleged Eric. “Alright, Wolf,” she said in her best faux-tough voice. “The Huntsman’s onto you, so cough up Red Riding Hood and Grandma before we split your belly open.”

After that -- and a timely reminder from Angel that only the real Eric could have invited him in -- the ice was broken. Eric relaxed and spoke at length about his friendship with Oz, and how impressed he was by Faith’s handling of the Hellmouth. Buffy wasn’t sure how to navigate their real purpose here, but Angel kept the conversation moving and she soon realized that he was steering it naturally toward questions about the pack. It was as good as any place to start, she thought, and sat back to hear what Eric had to say about it.

This would be their last chance to meet at night for the next few days, he reminded them, as the change began tomorrow. “It’s going to be crazy this month,” he grinned, shaking his head. “The full moon falling on the Fourth of July, that’s rare. Some of our younger members have never even seen fireworks while they’re transformed.”

Buffy blinked, imagining it. “Will they be okay?”

He affirmed that they would and explained the measures the pack had in place to keep each wolf safely contained, concealed from the public, and at minimal risk of hurting themselves or each other. When Angel inquired about the enclosures, Eric brought them out back and showed them the one that he and Nina used. Buffy couldn’t see much beyond the porch light and fireflies, but Angel pointed out a robust fence that disappeared into the darkness, and Eric described the others like it throughout the neighborhood.

“From our roof you can see two others besides ours,” he said. “One’s the biggest, too -- all the males without pack partners or families use it.” He gazed out into that direction, then swung back around to face them. “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t you two come over on the Fourth and watch? If you’re researching werewolves, you won’t get a better view than this. Buffy can come early and get a burger out of it too.”

Angel was instantly appreciative, and Buffy loved the idea. “Shouldn’t we ask Nina first, though?” she said before accepting.

“Yeah, of course,” Eric said quickly, but he sounded solemn now, and he led them back indoors to carry on the conversation in the ample light of the living room.

“It’s true Nina’s working tonight,” he said as he removed the sketchbook from his armchair to sit, “but I also planned it so you’d get here before she did. Maybe you can set me straight if this is all my imagination, but she’s been acting a little weird.”

Before she even had to hear any more, Buffy’s heart dropped. She hoped desperately that it was Eric’s imagination, but past experiences had all but ruled that option out.

Angel leaned forward, real concern written on his face. “How?”

“It seems like...” Eric sighed. “Her priorities changed. We used to be on the same page about everything. We talked about marriage and decided we didn’t need it. We’re not planning on children, but we agreed to bring it up again once a year to see if we’d changed our minds. We’re saving up to buy this place--” he gestured at the snug walls around them - “and that’s all we wanted. I would say I thought we were happy, but the thing is, I know we were happy. We can smell it on each other.”

Before she had realized she was doing it, Buffy had shifted a little closer to Angel, and his arm came down subtly around her shoulders. She had been wary about acting as a couple during this mission, but Eric had made her feel welcome, and it was impossible to not think about her own relationship while listening to him. She couldn’t sniff out Angel’s emotions, but she had a hunch that it wasn’t so different from the empathic awareness of each other that they shared. Angel had been happy traveling with her, and that wasn’t a guess. “How is she different now?” she asked Eric.

He thought about it for a second, then said, “Ambition. I know that doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but it came out of nowhere. She’s talking about our careers all the time, coming up with ways to make more money. Yesterday she told me, for the first time ever, that she missed living in the big city. And when it comes to the pack…”

Angel’s prompt sounded soft but urgent: “What about the pack?”

“Well, you know she and I are the alphas. But you know what that entails? Pretty much jack. We host a meeting once in awhile and send out a monthly bulletin. I honestly think ninety percent of the reason we were elected is because we’re both good at graphic design. But now, Nina wants to organize. She says I need to take a firmer leadership role. She’s bringing up things like combat training, with a straight face.” He rubbed a patterned hand through his hair, then looked up at Angel. “What possible use would we have for combat training?”

“Nothing I’d like to think about,” Angel replied gravely.

Eric raked a hand through his hair. “So, what’s your take? Am I just paranoid?”

“Let’s not say no to that yet,” said Buffy. “But for one thing, Eric, and I mean this, it’s good you told us. If there’s a way we can help you or Nina, we will. Just don’t go panicking yet.”

“It might not be supernatural at all,” Angel added. “Nina’s been through a lot. It can be hard to adjust to a good life.”

“I came home to Sunnydale once acting like such a creep that my friends were sure I was possessed,” Buffy piped in again. “And that was just the first time I died.”

Eric nodded pensively, then said, “...First?”

They all managed a slightly strained laugh, and the mood began to lighten. They were sharing stories and equipped with another round of drinks when Nina finally came home.

Buffy had given her feelings an honest examination before they came, wanting to know if she needed to brace herself, but she had concluded that she wasn’t jealous of Angel’s ex at all. When she took her hand and said how good it was to meet her at last, she was sincere.

However, she soon got the impression that Nina wasn’t. All of the right movements were there, the smiles and pleased exclamations, but there was a hollowed-out undertone to them characteristic of a bored spouse attempting courtesy at a social function. Buffy didn’t think Eric was the type to tolerate that in a relationship, and she knew Angel wasn’t. Nina introduced herself to Buffy with a limp hug that barely made contact, but then pressed herself to Angel in a very familiar and faintly sensual embrace. It didn’t last long enough for anyone to object, but Angel looked uncomfortable, and after that point they quickly moved on to the shop talk by unspoken agreement.

Since they hadn’t dropped any details on what they knew aside from Buffy’s Slayer dream, it was easy to keep Nina talking about her pack. “They’re wonderful,” she said with a big, phony smile. “They’re like our family. Nothing’s more important to me than the pack.”

“I know what you mean,” said Buffy. “Some of my friends have really become more like my family, too. Not nearly as many as you have in your pack, though.”

Angel came in with that tone he had that always seemed to put people at ease. “That raises an interesting point, though. Is every werewolf in the area part of your pack, or are there some that don’t associate with you?”

“No,” Nina replied. “None that we know about, anyway. Anyone in the city or the Hellmouth area is ours.”

“I see,” Angel said gravely. “I was hoping….” he sighed. “Nina -- Eric -- I know there’s been a lot of unfair discrimination toward your people lately, but we have to talk about the possibility that a werewolf really is behind some of the recent crime. Have you felt any suspicions about anyone you know?”

Eric looked distressed, Nina merely surprised, and she recovered quickly. “There’s one. Jordan Godfrey. He’s been so wild lately, and I want to say it’s just typical teenager stuff, but sometimes, really, he makes me nervous.”

“You never told me that.” Eric kept his cool, but his voice was wounded.

“Oh, I didn’t want to worry you.”

It wasn’t much later that Angel began suggesting that they had taken enough of Eric and Nina’s time, and Buffy followed his lead, wanting to talk to him privately. Before they left, they confirmed that they would be back for the Independence Day barbecue and wolf-watch -- “Won’t that be fun!” Nina cooed, and Buffy cringed and knew that the same reaction was behind Angel’s impassive mask.

Some tension seemed to leave him as they walked back out into the night, and he slipped his hand into hers as they made their way down the leafy tunnel that the trees formed over the road. “What did you make of that?” asked Buffy gently after long minutes of silence.

“Nina’s the Wolf,” he answered. “God help us.”

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Angel returned to Oz’s house in the morning hours before sunrise, but Oz was still up. He nodded a welcome from the stool where he sat in the small living room, strumming an unplugged guitar. Angel nodded back, took a few aimless steps, and opened his mouth to speak, but before the words were out, there was a knock at the door.

Oz hopped up and set down the guitar carefully before going to answer it, and Angel, lurking behind him, heard Howell’s voice, frank and urgent: “I need to use your cage.”

Between the two of them, Oz and Angel coaxed the pilot into sitting with them and discussing where this new sense of alarm had come from. Angel hadn’t even yet had a chance to tell Oz about the new prevailing theory on whom was hosting the Wolf, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to bring it up around Howell, but the man beat him to it: “There’s a woman. Young, pretty. Turns into a wolf, not a wolf, it looks like one but it walks on two legs, and she rips them up with her teeth. I don’t know why I know. She was there the last time, and she’ll be at the next one. Follow her, see for yourself. She’s been there all along. I wasn’t. I don’t know how I know.” He took a deep breath, waved away the beer that Oz offered him, accepted a glass of water from Angel instead. “That was the important part,” he added.

“What else do you know?” asked Angel.

“I know I’m not finished. I brought you here for her, and she’ll take you out, you and Buffy, when she’s ready. But I’m not done. There has to be more, more blood, more chaos. As long as I’m free I’ll be hunting.”

Oz leaned his elbows on his knees, looking grim. “That’s why you want the cage?”

“Yeah.”

“How do we know you’re not saying this to throw us off your scent?” Angel inquired. He felt terrible for the man, but they couldn’t afford to get sentimental now.

“Jesus, I don’t know. Just follow her. I know exactly where the next death will be, and when. I can take you there.”

Oz made a placating gesture. “So do we. It’s alright, Howell. I’ll go get the cage set up now.”

Temporarily left alone with Howell, Angel turned the interrogation to a more personal note. “Do you have any idea why the Wolf wanted me and Buffy to be here? Does it just make it easier for her to kill us?”

The man looked pensive, taking a few moments to consider before answering. “I don’t think you can trust me to answer that,” he said finally. “If she doesn’t want you to know something, I’ll lie to cover it up. That’s why I had to tell you the important part all at once, before I could think about it too much.”

“Okay,” said Angel. “Thanks.” He stopped himself short of asking another question. What good would it do? Anyway, if Buffy was directly in danger from the Wolf, protecting her was his own duty, not Howell’s.

Oz returned and showed Howell downstairs, explaining that a cage was a cage but he had dragged in all the furniture that would fit through the door, plus a broomstick to bang on the ceiling if for any reason he couldn’t reach Oz using his cell phone.

“This is temporary,” said Oz when he returned alone. “This has definitely got to be temporary.”

“Mm,” Angel agreed. They sat back down in the living room, and Angel summarized what he and Buffy had learned from their evening with Nina and Mr. E. Oz listened attentively, with a deepening frown on his normally expressionless face.

“So what do you think?” Angel concluded. “Have you noticed Nina acting strange at all lately?”

Oz answered with a reluctant nod. “I didn’t think it was anything supernatural at the time, but now it all makes sense.”

“They invited us to the Independence Day cookout, so we’ll be able to see if there’s anything new going on with her transformation. Other than that, I guess the plan is just to show up at the next scheduled crime scene, like Howell said.” He supposed the plan should include something about how to deal with Nina if she was there, but he wasn’t ready for that. “And Oz, I’m going to have to ask you to keep this a secret for now. At least from Nina and Eric.”

“No.”

The word was so unexpected yet so casually spoken that it took Angel a moment to comprehend it. “What?”

“I said no. Hey man, I get that cloak and dagger is your M.O., but they’re my friends. They’re my pack leaders. Take a couple days to figure out how to break the news, but make sure it gets broken, or I’ll do it.”

Angel met his eyes across the room, and neither gaze wavered as the seconds ticked by. “I’m not going to hurt Nina,” he said.

“Good,” Oz replied. He stood up. “There’s clean towels in your room. Sleep tight.”

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Buffy had settled into Faith’s study and found it more comfortable than she had expected, even though the house only had one bathroom, and Spike, as Faith put it, “takes showers so long he’s gonna drain Lake Erie one day.” There was a futon, a computer, and a window, and since she was a guest, nobody got into her space or put too many demands on her time. Her only fear was that she would overhear Spike and Faith having sex one night. If that happened, her best hope was probably to quietly sneak outside and run.

She still wished that she could have shared a bed with Angel, but he wasn’t far. Today, she had come to Oz’s house around noon and crept into the guest room, where Angel greeted her with a sleepy smile. She took a moment to rest her head on his bare chest and share a few words before leaving him with a kiss and a command to get more sleep.

Oz was waiting for her in the kitchen. He led the way out to his car, and Buffy noticed with a pang that his relative silence had a different vibe than usual. She tried to start a conversation about the vehicle having a lot of character -- it really did -- but his response was little more than a grunt.

She tried again as he took them through parts of Cleveland that would never get a mention in a tourism book. “Why do they want us to meet them there? And in the daytime? Angel would have liked to come too...”

“So would Howell. Trying to avoid that.” He kept his eyes on the road, his tone flat. “And tonight’s a lunar no-go for me and them. I would have saved it a few days but Nina called me at six this morning. Didn’t want to wait.”

Buffy’s face flushed a little as she tried to imagine how that conversation had gone. She thought she and Angel had been subtle enough about their suspicions while they were at Nina and Eric’s house, but it wasn’t likely that she was being summoned to talk about something unrelated. From what Angel had told her, Oz probably felt like he was in the middle and trying to choose a side, which wasn’t at all what Buffy wanted.

“You know she tried to frame your cousin, right?” she blurted out suddenly. “Jordan Godfrey. He’s the one who turned you into a werewolf, isn’t he?”

Oz flinched, but his voice was accusatory. “What do you mean?”

“We asked if they had doubts about anyone in the pack and she made it sound like he was dangerous. You told us before he’s a good kid. I believed you. So what’s her deal?”

“She’s infected,” he said curtly. “We have to help her. Isn’t that what this is all about?”

Buffy couldn’t think of a response. Oz pulled the car into the almost empty parking lot of Satellite 3, which looked considerably different without its festive lights and animated crowd. It was hard to tell if the place was even open until they got to the door and she saw the hours posted. They were, however, the only ones there aside from staff. Buffy was about to say as much, but Oz kept walking, beckoning her to follow, and led her up a stairwell and through a door she hadn’t noticed the first time she had been here.

The smaller space they entered upstairs appeared to be another club, entirely distinct from the main floor, but Buffy couldn’t spare a second to observe it when she saw that Nina was already there waiting for them, and that she was accompanied by someone completely unexpected.

Oz seemed as surprised as she was, but he recovered first and said, “Mr. Wolfe. Hi.”

Buffy greeted them with wary courtesy. Damien Wolfe was sitting in one of the leather armchairs, dressed in what looked like another designer suit jacket, and he appeared just as irate and intimidating as he had the night he had kicked them out of Satellite 3. Nina was standing, closer to the entrance than he was, with her arms crossed and a mean-spirited smirk on her face. There was no bartender or anyone else in the room. Buffy swallowed. “Where’s Eric?”

“Mr. E,” said Nina, emphasizing the stage name, “was not invited.”

“Okay,” said Oz. “Seems like there’s a few things we’ll have to clear up.”

Nobody else moved toward the seating. “Completely agreed,” said Nina smoothly. “Oz, Buffy, I think you guys have gotten the wrong idea from somewhere. I’ve had to keep some secrets, yeah. Most people wouldn’t be able to understand if I explained it right now. And I think we can all relate to that,” she added, raising her eyebrows at each of them in turn.

“Damn straight,” Buffy responded before anyone else could. “Look, I’m coming clean with our secret right now: we came to Cleveland because we heard about people being infected by an evil spirit. It’s happened to you, Nina. Whatever you’ve been hiding -- you don’t need to tell us, just please consider it wasn’t your own idea. And it’s not your fault.”

“My fault?” Nina laughed. “Of course not. No more than it’s yours that you’re the Slayer. Or Angel’s that he has a soul. It’s destiny. I know exactly what I’m doing, and I know it’s right.”

Oz cleared his throat. “Then why not tell Eric?”

“And why is he here instead?” Buffy added, flicking a hand in Wolfe’s direction.

Wolfe spoke at last, and his voice was tinged with a growling quality that sounded permanent. “You have a man held captive in your home. John Howell. I want him.”

“I’m not holding anyone captive,” said Oz.

Nina scoffed. “Sure, honey. Keep him, if you care that much. And hey,” she went on, “tell my boyfriend anything you want. What’s he going to do? Rally the troops and attack me?”

She was right, Buffy realized suddenly. Oz’s allegiance to his pack might be in the process of changing this very minute, but Mr. E would never take their side against Nina based solely on something he hadn’t seen with his own eyes. The Wolf’s strategy went beyond his ritual and invasion of human bodies. “Nina,” Buffy urged softly, “you need help.”

“I’ll get it,” Nina replied with iron certainty. “Believe me.”

Wolfe had finally stood up; now he turned and walked behind the little stage over the bar, and Nina followed. She was wearing a halter top, and the lunar cycle tattoo on her back stood out like a warning.

As they both exited the room through a plain black door that clicked shut behind them, Buffy heard Oz mutter a curse through the hand he had at his face, stroking his stubble.

“What?” she asked.

He was staring at the door as if he could see through it. “Satellite 1,” he said. “Nobody ever goes in there. All those times they said the boss was having a meeting...it must have been with her. Wolfe and Nina.”

Buffy considered that. “I have to talk to Angel.”

“Let’s go.”

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Angel had called hours before he should be awake, and Faith didn’t waste time asking about why he needed her. She entered Oz’s house to find Angel alone and bleeding, and looking more abashed about it than scared or angry. “The hell is this?” she asked.

He was rummaging through a first aid kit, and she took it from him and found the rest of what she needed in the kitchen and bathroom. As she cleaned his wounds -- mostly shallow ones, thankfully, though he was decorated with a few ugly bruises too -- he explained that he’d been sleeping when the intruders came in, and that they had used their numbers, and the sunlight, to their advantage. “Plus I didn’t want to hurt them,” he added, which made more sense when he told her who they were.

As Faith dabbed at a cut in his chest, he winced, and she looked up to roll her eyes at him. “Come on, it doesn’t sting that bad.”

“It’s not that. I’m just not ready to explain this to Buffy, and she’s at the door.” He pulled on a shirt, then touched his face. “Is this still visible?”

“Your lip is split wide open, dumbass.” Faith closed up the kit and went out to meet Buffy and Oz, and Angel, apparently resigned to his fate, followed.

“Angel, we’ve got a situation with Nina, we need to -- oh hi Faith, what are you doing here?” Buffy didn’t give her time to reply; she had just seen Angel, and her reaction was probably just what he had feared. “Oh my God, what have you been doing? We’ve only been gone for like an hour!” She rushed over and put her fingers lightly to his cheek, and he smiled and pressed her hand there with his own.

“He can’t hog all the blame,” said Faith wearily, washing her hands in the kitchen sink. “Bunch of pups busted in, went for Howell.”

“Howell?” asked Oz. “Is he okay?”

Angel took up the explanation himself. “He’s not hurt but he’s not here. I think they thought they were doing a jailbreak. Didn’t give him a chance to say his piece, and I guess he just got swept up in it and left with them.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Oz. I would have put up a better defense of your home, but I didn’t think you would want me using force against your pack.”

Oz nodded pensively and turned back to the door, but only to inspect the knob. “They didn’t break in. They had a key. Means Jordan was with them.”

Jordan was Oz’s cousin, though Faith knew Angel wouldn’t have recognized him by sight or smell. She grimaced, and saw her own sympathy mirrored on Buffy’s and Angel’s faces. Oz had dealt with enough already without his own family turning on him. “The hysteria in town over werewolves,” Angel suggested. “It must be hard on the young ones.”

“How would they even know about Howell, though?” Faith asked. “Who do they think he is?”

Buffy was leaning back against Angel, but now she stiffened with a sudden thought. “They don’t know,” she said. “Someone sent them. Someone who’s gathering support from the Cleveland werewolves.”

In a startling display of anger, Oz’s fist pounded into the door. Over the next ten minutes, he and Buffy shared a disturbing story of their meeting with Nina, one which all but confirmed that she was the Wolf. Faith could barely process the idea. Since she had moved to Cleveland, Nina had become one of her best friends. They hadn’t seen each other as much now that they were both involved in complicated romantic relationships, but Faith felt that if something this horribly, horribly wrong had been happening, she should have known.

“What now?” she asked as they all sat down together and Buffy fussed over Angel’s shrinking injuries.

Buffy was first to answer, her voice hard. “We grill.”

“Grill whom?” Angel replied around the icepack that she had insisted he hold to his lip.

“Burgers,” she said. “Hotdogs. We have to go to Nina’s cookout tomorrow, like we planned. It’s the only way to see if she’s up to anything while she’s transformed. Faith, have they invited you?”

Faith gave a bitter laugh that wasn’t altogether voluntary. “I’m bringing a fruit salad.”

Buffy’s eyes widened. “Oh no, I didn’t think of that.” She looked at Angel. “Should we bring something too?”

“We can pick up some bottled drinks,” he assured her, then resumed a business tone. “You two should go together. Spike and I will come after dark and take a walk around the enclosures to check things out from the ground. Act normal, but keep your eyes open. We need to find out who would stay loyal to Nina if it came to that.”

“You mean like her boyfriend?” said Oz. His voice betrayed no emotion, but Faith sensed sarcasm. Then he added something that got everyone’s attention: “Or like me?”

Angel gave him a long look, kneading the icepack in his hands. “I know this is personal for you,” he said. “It is for me too. We have to figure out how to keep everyone out of danger, but we have to do it without fooling ourselves about what the infected people have become.”

Oz lowered his gaze. “I get that. Not everyone will.” He stood up. “I’ll talk to E.”

“I’ll do some research on Satellite 3,” said Buffy. “Maybe I can find some stats on Damien Wolfe, or there’s something special about the building itself.”

“I’ll help,” said Angel, and the two of them smiled at each other.

Faith was reminded of the Scooby Gang, divvying up jobs at the end of a meeting. It wasn’t nostalgic; mostly she had to wonder if they had always been as flippant about mortal danger as they were now, as they had been during the brief period that she was one of them. She got to her feet. “I’ll go buy fruit.”

//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\


The Fourth of July was hot, starting early in the day. 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. “Believe 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 uncertain 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 circled the door that was shown in one of the rooms, which had been marked ‘S2’. “This is the door you pointed out in Satellite 2, right? And it lines 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 rough Fibonacci spiral onto the page. The line went through the main part of the club, then Satellite 2, crossing the doorway she had marked, 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 lycanthropes. 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 floor plan.

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,” Jordan 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.”

“Go where?”

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.”

//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\



Angel could hear wolves as he drove up the hill, howling from the approximate locations that Mr. E had pointed out as the enclosures they used. He still had the feeling that something was wrong -- not in a way that made him want to panic or run to the rescue, just a weight in his chest that served as an extra motivation to return to Buffy.

He couldn’t see her from the yard, but he easily found the ladder to the roof, and could smell her by the time he had silently ascended. He called her name in a low voice, just once, and her face appeared from around the corner of the second-story wall she had been leaning against. Angel made his way across the sloping part of the roof to settle down beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and scanning the neighborhood around the house.

“Can you see them?” she asked, the first words she had spoken.

The two closest werewolves, Nina and Mr. E, weren’t immediately visible. Angel could hear them, but the only way he knew that it was them and not two others was because the growls were coming from within the boundaries of their personal fenced yard. He thought that he could learn to recognize the individual voices of wolves, with practice, but he hadn’t spent too many full moons around any of them, even Nina.

To answer Buffy, he pointed in their direction, and she nodded. Then he pointed outward and straight ahead, to another, more distant enclosure. There were at least ten wolves there, but even with his night vision he could only see them as darting shadows, so he doubted she could see anything at all. There was one more area where Mr. E had told them to look, down the hill on the west side, and he found three more wolves there and pointed again. “Looks like this is all in order,” he concluded.

“A place for everyone and everyone in their place,” she agreed. She rubbed her arms absently, and Angel took his coat off to drape over her. He still thought there was something troubling her, but he wasn’t sure how to ask about it.

She didn’t make him wonder for long. “I got into a spat with Oz.”

“Huh.” Sympathetic but genuinely curious, he asked, “How is that even possible?”

Buffy chuckled sadly. “He really belongs to this place now. Like Nina and Mr. E, at least until the Wolf business. And it’s not just the pack bond thing. Faith and Spike have it too. I’ve never felt so...incidental.”

“It was your dream that brought us here,” he reminded her.

“I know. I still think we have a job to do. But I keep trying to do it my way, and my way kind of hinges on a small group of talented misfits functioning together like a well-oiled machine.”

“Well, we’ve got the misfits...”

“And the talent. Just not the oil.” Buffy sighed and pulled his coat tighter around herself. “How’s Spike?”

Angel shrugged. “Fine. I dropped him off with Faith so they can keep looking for Howell. How was the party?”

She hesitated, but then responded, “Good burgers.”

“Get anywhere with Nina?”

“Um...good burgers.”

He had hoped for some new insight on the Wolf, but Buffy hadn’t planned anything more than reconnaissance at the party anyway. She showed him the spiral that Oz had drawn on the Satellite 3 floorplan, and they traded a few theories before being interrupted by a hiss and bang coming from the sky. “You know, I’d forgotten all about the fireworks,” Buffy murmured, and that was the last thing that either of them said for some time.

The view from the rooftop was perfect; distant but without obstruction or any crowd save for the wolfpack. Angel had seen firework displays, plenty of them, but he had never watched them with Buffy, and it occurred to him suddenly that it was okay to enjoy this moment. He kissed her head as a spray of golden sparks exploded overhead, and she snuggled close and made a soft sound of delight when three more rockets blossomed, each in a different color. Between every thunderous crash, they could hear the wolves singing, conveying a kind of childlike excitement to the lightshow.

Before long, Angel began turning his attention to them instead of the sky. Nina and Eric had come out from their cover, and they were close enough to see by the moon’s illumination even when the frequency of the fireworks slackened off. He could easily tell which one was which -- Eric’s species, which he claimed to share with the majority of the pack, was colloquially known as “Chippewa Grey”, and there were a few visible differences between him and Nina’s Lycanthropus Exterus. He had thicker fur, a shorter snout, and broad humanoid shoulders. Although they were about the same size, Nina walked on her hind paws exclusively, while Eric would periodically drop down to all fours to rest or run in a manner that reminded Angel vaguely of a great ape.

More intriguing than their respective appearances was their behavior. Angel had the impression that Eric was trying to coax his mate into frolicking with him, but whenever he came too close, she would snap at him and snarl. They never broke into a real fight, but it was hard not to sympathize with Eric as his flirtations were rejected again and again. Angel remembered leaving Nina in Cleveland, her confident smile as she told him that she was where she was meant to be. He imagined the freedom she must have felt when she was first given a place to run with other lycanthropes during the full moon. He wondered if Eric would remember any part of this when he woke up human.

“The aggressive one is Nina, isn’t it?” said Buffy as the last few fireworks died, leaving only smoke and echoes behind.

“Yeah,” Angel answered, glad that he wouldn’t have to explain it to her. “And I don’t think she’s acting like herself now, either.”

Buffy subvocalized her agreement, then said, “It doesn’t look like she’s trying to escape, though.” She was right -- both wolves had been ignoring the visitors on their rooftop, as well as the fireworks and everything else outside their pen.

“I don’t think she’d have to. If it’s true she’s been present at the deaths so far, she must have gotten there as a human first. And I’d bet the Wolf infection allows her to transform at will, if she hadn’t mastered it on her own already.”

“I wonder what’s going on in her head.” Buffy’s voice was low and pensive, her two hands holding one of his like a gift. “Ever since Giles told us about the toxoplasma, I can’t stop picturing it. Imagine some garden-variety rat, no clue that it’s even sick, suddenly deciding cats are the in crowd...just sidling up to them all ‘Hey, I’ve been wrong about you feline types.’ And then getting disemboweled, all because some microscopic dictator in its blood had its own plan.”

Angel answered in the same quiet tone. “Imagine if the virus really could make its own plans. Imagine if the cats were in on it.”

“And the victim,” Buffy finished, “was too intelligent to go along with these impulses unless she made up reasons to convince herself it was what she wanted.”

There was a long silence, made eerie by the wolves’ apparent participation in it. The sky had grown blacker, the moon brighter, and Eric had settled down with a long bone, leaving Nina to pace the length of the enclosure by herself. Angel fixed his eyes forward and spoke in an unwavering voice: “I’m not going to kill her.”

“Angel?” Buffy sounded concerned. “I didn’t say…”

“You didn’t have to. Nobody had to. We all knew what this was going to lead us into. Willow said there’s no cure. Giles said it would be a mercy to release the Wolf’s host. Now we know it’s Nina, and nobody can come out and admit that the rules haven’t changed just because she’s a friend.” He felt Buffy flinch, and hung his head. “I’m sorry. I probably sound angry...I’m not. Not at you, anyway. I just know there’s going to be someone thinking this is my job, since nobody else wants to do it. And I won’t. I can’t.”

Her answer came reluctantly, though her hands didn’t move from his. “It’s funny. I...I haven’t been thinking that at all. For me it’s just been, ‘How are we going to get this done without taking an innocent life?’ The part of my brain that knows we can’t, it’s like it’s password protected. But I think you just logged in.”

Hopeless as he was, he couldn’t help appreciating that Buffy had known that a computer analogy would no longer throw him off. “The part that really scares me,” he confided, “is that I still kind of believe that it is my job. If this is something that has to happen, the consequences for it ought to go to the one who’s already doomed anyway, right?”

“No!” Without warning, she swung a leg over his, straddling him so that they were eye to eye, and held him by the shoulders. “Angel, you’re not doomed. You’re a warrior, like me. You can’t come this far just to throw it away.” She slumped down a bit, changing her grip to an embrace. “A couple days from now, we’ll save a life. Maybe we’ll learn something that helps. Maybe there really is a way out of this, and we just haven’t seen it yet. But we’re in it together, remember? I’m not going to just throw you to the wo-- ugh. I swear that was not on purpose.”

Angel slipped his arms around the small of her back, then cradled her head so that he could support her even as she leaned in the direction of the roof’s decline. He kissed her hard and passionately, and after a single second of surprise, she returned it, her tongue in his mouth and her warm fingers on his face and neck.

It wasn’t the first time they had kissed since coming back together, but it felt new, and a little frightening. Angel knew that they were in no danger of losing their senses and making love on his ex-girlfriend’s roof in full view of a pair of werewolves, but he couldn’t know for sure if this was the first step toward a mutual desire that they could only contain for so long. For now, all he could do was hope, and stand firm, and kiss.

“Hey,” whispered Buffy, long minutes later. “Happy Independence Day.”

//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\//////////\\\\\\\\\\



Part One.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Tags: wolfsbane
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