Of Treasure Hunts and Toms by Anneliese
A/N: Okay, looks like FaithUnbreakable covered all the bases. I hope you enjoy our collaborative effort … it’s the first that we’ve done that we decided to publish. And seriously, get ‘Stray’. Tis a book full of awesomeness. *nods*
+2, Of Treasure Hunts and Toms
Buffy looked down at the worn business card in her hand thoughtfully.
There was plain block lettering on the front with Nelson’s name, address and telephone number. On the back was another address and a four digit number. She’d gone to the address once, right before she’d left him. The address was to a bus depot. The number was for a safe deposit box. She’d gone up to the counter to find that out and when the clerk asked her for her name he offered to give her the key. She hadn’t taken it. She figured it was for emergencies. ”It’s just something I need to do, guys. Xander, you understand. You needed to get away once, too.” She cringed inwardly and hoped they wouldn’t bring up the summer she ran away.
It had been years since she’d seen Nelson, since she’d spoken to him. Would he still welcome her?
At first they’d talked all the time and eventually he’d convinced her to go home. Enjoy the time she had with her family because someday she’d be found and have to join a pride, simply for her own safety. His words, not hers.
There were very few tabbies, female werecats, and they all needed to be protected in order to ensure their race would continue. There were many theories on why more tom cats were born than tabbies but Nelson figured it all came down to some kind of genetic mutation. Not only that, but as far as Nelson was concerned, she was the only woman to ever successfully go through the change. All the other women who’d ever been attacked had died either from their injuries or during the conversion.
The best way to stay free, he figured, was to go back to the Sunnydale hellmouth. It was the only territory in the United States that was unclaimed and that was because, as supernatural beings, the cats weren’t comfortable there. They didn’t feel safe, they felt on edge. It had been decreed long ago that all cats stay away from that particular hellmouth because of one simple reason. The cats natural fight or flight response involuntarily kicked into overdrive thanks to all the hellish energies and it would only have been a matter of time before humans found out about them.
And that was unacceptable.”There are slayers all over the place now. I want to relax, I want to get away for awhile. I want to have something of my own.”
Buffy had been a law breaker, living in forbidden territory for years, but not once had she run into another of her kind, and that had been worth something. Then.
Now though? Sunnydale was gone and there was no other place she could go to hide. The other hellmouths simply weren’t powerful enough to keep other prides away. She didn’t want to hide though. All the things that had seemed abhorrent before had begun to appeal to her more and more and she knew why. It was the cat in her. She was a tabby and she wanted to be around others of her kind. The idea of being a part of a pride, a big old family … those were things that she craved. Not only that, she longed to be able to change at will, going from woman to cat at her own discretion without worrying about if anyone would find out her secret. Her other
secret, that is. That was something she could have. It was within her reach. All she had to do was call Nelson.”After the way things went down before Sunnydale sunk, I know you’re all aching for a change, too.”
And yet her hand still paused at the receiver. Would he remember her? They hadn’t spoken in at least three years. She had learned how to change, how often she needed to in order to keep from going stir crazy in her own body, how to disguise her scent as much as possible, how to try to control herself when she went into ‘heat’, how to find a way to sate her cravings. All the things she’d needed to know in order to keep hidden and survive.
If only she had his current address, she would lurk around for awhile and see if he really might be interested in seeing her. Being an independent werecat wasn’t an easy life by any stretch of the imagination and he had moved around quite a bit. At the very possibility that someone might suspect something was off about him, he’d take off. ”I’m not angry. I’m not sad. For the first time in a really long time, I’m excited about something. I’m happy.”
Taking a deep breath, she bit the bullet. The phone rang and rang, and then rang some more. No one was picking up.
She tried again the next day and the next and the day after that with no answer as well.
After two weeks, she decided to go to the bus depot.”Let me be happy.”
The place hadn’t really changed at all in the last few years. She knew as soon as she walked in the room exactly where the safe deposit box was and her palms were itching with the need to open it and find out what was in it.
If there was still anything in it.
She walked to the counter, told the clerk her name and signed for the key. Her legs could hardly get her to number 7209 fast enough. She bent down, put the awkward little key in the lock and opened it quickly.
It was an old cigar box. She looked inside it, saw Nelson’s handwriting, grabbed it up, closed the locker and went into the women’s restrooms. It was as private a place she could think of to sift through the contents of what the old man had left her. Because, after two weeks, she was sure he was dead. He had to be.
Buffy locked the stall door, put the seat of the toilet down and sat. She stared at the box for a moment, contemplating. If Nelson didn’t pick up the phone and left this for her to find, odds were some stray had taken him out. Either that, or he’d just died. He’d looked old for his age and he hadn’t made any bones about how hard it was to live amongst the humans. Finally, she just opened the lid. It was pointless to worry about it when the answers were sitting right there on her lap.
There, on the very top, was an envelope with the name ‘Greg Sanders’ and an address on it. That was his older brother. The one who had his own pride in Lufkin, Texas. She set it aside and saw another envelope with her name on it. She opened it without hesitation.Buffy,
If you’re reading this then I’m dead. I can only hope that you didn’t come to me hunted by a stray and in need of help. In any case, at this point in time I cannot speculate why you are here.
I do have some things that I want you to know though.
You can only go so long without your own kind before the longing to be around them, to be free in yourself becomes almost too much to bear. If you get to that point, know that you can go to my brother. I have enclosed open ended bus tickets to Texas. At the bus station there, you’ll find another safe deposit box with keys to a Jeep and directions to the ranch. The Jeep’s yours.
If you don’t decide that’s what you want, I’d appreciate if you’d give my letter to my brother. Just put some postage on it for me and drop it in a mail box.
Take care kiddo, and keep your head down.
Buffy folded up the paper and slid it back into the envelope. There it was. What she’d been looking for.
The grief of losing a good friend, a mentor, was softened by the lack of communication over time. The hope for a future as a tabby he had given her was worth more than she could ever say. After being jerked around by her friends and family, Faith and the potentials, she just wanted to be somewhere where people would accept her, welcome her. Want her.
She took out the bus tickets and put the cigar box in her backpack before going up to the clerk to use Nelson’s last gift to her.
Her bus was leaving in twenty minutes. She’d deliver the letter to Nelson’s brother herself.
It took her three days to get from California to Texas by bus and they had been very long days. She didn’t even want to think about the sorry excuse for a bathroom that there was in the back. She’d sat near it for ten minutes before the acrid smell of disinfectants and other … things, became too much for her to handle and she’d gone all the way up to the front of the bus.
It didn’t matter though. The damage had been done. She could still smell the odor’s wafting from the back as if she were still sitting next to it.
It was worth it though.
The Jeep drove really nice. She felt almost comfortable driving it but still went about five miles below the speed limit and had to keep herself from gripping the steering wheel so hard that she’d leave permanent marks in it. It was February after all, and cold. She didn’t know that it got this cold in Texas actually. There was a bit of snow left on the sides of the roads and she was terrified the entire time she was driving that she was going to slip on ‘black ice’ or whatever the hell they called it.
She looked down at the directions one last time to reassure herself that she had indeed gone the right way and moments later she saw the wrought iron gate with what the directions had called a ‘Lazy S’ on it. The safe deposit box had included a garage door opener-esque clicker that was for opening the gate. She clicked it, hoped it would work and watched the gate open.
So far so good.
She drove up the incredibly long gravel driveway. There was tall grass on either side of her and up ahead was a main house and to the side of it was a smaller house, a bunk house. That would be for what Nelson had called the Enforcers, at least that’s what she thought he had called them.
In any case, she knew she was at the right place.
She pulled up behind a convertible and a work truck and looked at the front of the house again. Someone had opened the door. There were people coming out of the other house too, cautious looks on their faces. Not only would they have heard the tires of the Jeep crunching on the gravel, there probably weren’t many people who could just mosey onto the ranch without having trouble with the gate. Plus, she was pretty sure they wouldn’t recognize her vehicle.
She picked up the letter from Nelson, zipped up her jacket and got out of the Jeep. No time like the present.
They’d gotten closer and more people had come out of the main house. Buffy briefly raised her hand in greeting and walked slowly around the vehicle, arms limp at her sides, hands relaxed. She didn’t want to show any signs of aggression.
A tall older man who looked similar to Nelson and two Enforcers came toward her. She figured the only reason she wasn’t on the ground yet was because she was a tabby. Anyone else who came onto another pride’s territory without permission probably would have been. She noticed their nostrils flaring, they were smelling her, seeing if she was from a foreign territory. She figured she was about as foreign as it got and watched as their guarded expressions relaxed by a fraction.
She may be foreign, but she was a tabby, and that made her incredibly valuable. They were careful though, clearly they weren’t stupid. She couldn’t see them all, but she was surrounded and the ones she did see had a sharp eye on her. It was like she was a bug under a microscope. Mr. Sanders had good security, er, Enforcers.
She was out of the closet now though, that was for sure. There would be no way, from this point on, to ever hide from the werecats again. Even now, from so far away, they were scenting her, categorizing her in their heads. There were about a dozen, maybe a few less, tabbies in the country. It wouldn’t be at all hard for them to pick her out of the others, especially given her circumstances. They would all know the other tabbies and they would have grown up in prides. She was an anomaly. In all the territories spanning the country, she’d be found because all ten prides in America would be looking for her.
Not that it mattered. Nelson had told her enough about these people to give her the impression that she’d never need to run.
She didn’t know much about werecat culture. Everything she knew had to do with what she’d needed to know to hide. The only extra bit of information she had was that there weren’t a lot of tabbies and that they were protected. Not that she needed
protection. If there was anything Buffy was sure of, it was that she could protect herself, so that bit of information was kinda pushed to the side. She wondered how far the toms, male werecats, would go here trying to keep her safe and how she might subvert them. She grinned inwardly. That could be all kinds of fun.
Three of them had come up to her now. She was still right by her Jeep, she hadn’t gone far.
She smiled and raised her hand to shake the older man’s. He had to be Nelson’s brother. They looked too much alike not to be brothers.
“Hi,” she said as his hand gripped hers. She kept hers limp, trying very hard to come off as non-threatening. “I’m Buffy. A friend of Nelson Sanders.”
She took in their expressions. They all kept their faces incredibly blank at the mention of Nelson. Nelson told her that leaving the pride was self imposed banishment but she didn’t realize that it went this far. She couldn’t tell if they’d even heard her.
“Greg Sanders. This is Jase and my son Ethan,” he added gesturing to the men beside him. “Does your Alpha know you’re here?” He had a nice voice. Melodic, confident, deep. It must have been a family trait that he shared with Nelson.
Buffy shivered as a brisk wind blew a strand of hair across her face.
“I’m a California girl. I don’t mean to impose but do you think we could go inside?” she rubbed her hands across her arms trying anything, even friction, to fight off the chill.
He nodded and led her inside. As they opened the door back up, Jase turned around and winked at her reassuringly. Grateful that at least one person was going to try to make things easier for her, she smiled at him and followed them inside. Almost immediately she felt warmer and more at ease. It didn’t hurt that she smelled cookies baking. She tried to get a good whiff of them to find out what kind they were and almost purred. She smelled them
. The other werecats. The scent was so potent she couldn’t believe she’d missed it before and it was wonderful. It was probably the real reason she felt so comfortable. She was in a place where she belonged, among people she belonged with.
Buffy looked to her left and saw the kitchen and a beautiful older woman looked out as they passed by. She was taking cooking mittens off her hands and smiled at Buffy delightedly.
That must have been the Alpha’s mate. There was no way it could have been anyone else. They had a daughter, Nelson had mentioned a niece he’d never met, but she wouldn’t have looked that mature.
They walked her straight into the living room. Buffy took off her coat, so she was just wearing a white turtleneck and scarf but before she could set it down the woman came in and took it from her, giving it to one of the other Enforcers who had come inside and set down a plate of freshly made cookies.
“Go hang that up for the girl, would you Owen?” she said in a voice that was sure the man would do exactly what she told him. If she wasn’t his mother, then Buffy would be surprised. Or maybe not. Prides were supposed to be families. Would that be how they all were treated? Like fathers and brothers and sisters and mothers?
Even though Nelson had said as much and she’d hoped it was true, she still wasn’t prepared for the reality of it all.
The woman took Buffy’s hands in her own and sat down next to her. “Well, it sure is a surprise to see a tabby coming here all by herself. Your Alpha allowed it?” she asked.
“We were just getting to that,” Mr. Sanders interjected.
Buffy smiled cautiously. This was the sharing part.
“Well, the thing is, I don’t exactly have an Alpha.” She noted Mr. Sanders was waiting to hear the rest of her story patiently but a few of the others in the room, including Mrs. Sanders looked more than speculative about that tidbit. She wondered if anyone was going to call her on it when Mr. Sanders nipped that in the bud.
He held up a hand, a silent warning to let her continue, and so she did.
She told them about the fight when she was seventeen, Nelson helping her figure out who she was, at least this version of herself. What she didn’t tell them was that there was the airhead blonde cheerleader version, the slayer version before her first death and after, the wounded girl who sent her boyfriend to hell version and then the tabby version.
From time to time, she’d feel Mrs. Sanders hand squeeze hers reassuringly and noticed her eyes shift to her husbands when she spoke of his erstwhile brother.
She got through it all with no questions but as soon as she finished her tale, she remembered the envelope in her free hand.
Buffy held it toward Mr. Sanders. “He wanted me to give this to you.”
He took it from her carefully and put it in his pocket. Apparently he was going to read it later.
“In our history, there has never been a woman who has survived the conversion to werecat. Your scent holds an undertone that none of the other tabbies have, something I’ve never smelled before in a tabby but I didn’t immediately associate it with you being a stray. You say that Nelson nursed you back to health? And you fought off the stray who attacked you?”
“Yes.” She swallowed before slipping her hand away from Mrs. Sanders. She lifted the hem of her shirt and pulled it over her head. Buffy was only wearing her bra and she was in a room filled with men but they didn’t seem fazed and neither was she. Buffy had been naked around Nelson often enough and felt no awkwardness. She’d asked him about it once and he said that it had to do with being a werecat. Being naked didn’t have to be sexual and Buffy wanted them to see her scars. To see the proof that she’d been in one hell of a fight and had survived.
She stood and turned around, letting them see where the rogue had ripped her skin apart, pushed its claws deeply into her, bit her. They were faded now but they had been the only scars she’d received as the slayer that hadn’t almost disappeared. They’d also been some of the only wounds she’d ever received that didn’t heal quickly. In fact they had festered and become infected before they healed. It wasn’t something she wanted to ever have to deal with again if she could avoid it.
Buffy could hear the almost simultaneous intakes of breath and turned back around.
She looked right at the Alpha. He was standing now, as was almost everyone else so they could get a better look. Jase had come closer to keep looking at her back. He raised a hand and gently smoothed it across a few of the slashes. Buffy jumped, not expecting the small touch and he grinned like a rascal before handing her back her turtleneck.
She put it back on and looked straight into Mr. Sanders eyes. “The stray attacked me, I fought back and I killed him. Nelson put me back together and taught me how to survive.”
“How did you go undetected for so long? Exactly how long has it been since the conversion? And how did you kill a stray as a human? It should have been impossible,” he asked. He didn’t so much ask really, as interrogate her.
She took a deep breath and sat down. She reached for a cookie and nibbled on it for a moment, contemplating exactly what to tell them. Deciding that this was the pride she wanted to be a part of, she opted for full disclosure.
It made her not hungry for cookies anymore. It made her nervous as to how they’d react. She set the half eaten morsel of goodness down on a napkin and started.
“I went to Sunnydale. Nelson told me it’s against the law to go there but I didn’t have any other choice.” At their incredulous looks she continued.
“I’m the Vampire Slayer. My duty was to guard the hellmouth. Nelson thinks that’s why I survived the conversion and it’s definitely why I was able to defend myself, to kill the stray. I was seventeen when I became a werecat and I’m twenty-two now. I’ve been under the radar for five years.”
“The Slayer?” another werecat asked.
“We heard that she’d settled there. Before it sunk into the ocean,” a guy who looked like a mix between a serious law student and a Chippendale’s dancer said.
Buffy looked him square in the eye. “It didn’t just sink into the ocean.”
There was a pause and then Mr. Chippendale cleared his throat. “If you’re here, then who is acting as the slayer right now? There’s only one at a time from our understanding.”
She didn’t want to get into the whole dieing at sixteen thing. If they knew about the slayer, then they knew that it wasn’t exactly the safest calling in the world. She just skipped to the end for now.
“The Sunnydale sinkage thing? There was actually a huge battle. There would have been no way for me to win alone. I have a friend,” Buffy almost winced at the word but in the end, the Sunnydale crew would always be her friends. “She’s a witch. We found a spell to activate all the other potential slayers to help fight. It was invaluable to have them there. Becoming a werecat really didn’t give me all that much of an advantage in a fight. I already had the quick reflexes, my sense of smell actually became a lot better and I could see a whole lot better in the dark but I wasn’t stronger physically after the conversion.”
She wouldn’t mention that other thing that she could do though. That wasn’t something even she was completely comfortable with.
“So you are no longer acting as the slayer? These other girls are?” the guy asked. She’d eat crow if Mr. Chippendale wasn’t really a lawyer. He was too damn good at cross examination.
Buffy swallowed as she thought of an answer. She really wasn’t the acting slayer anymore. It was hard to get used to. “No. I’m not. Sure, if I see a vamp I’ll kill ‘em but I don’t think this is an area that there’s a lot of vamp activity. They’d want to stay further away from the pride, wouldn’t they?”
“We will not have you endangering yourself,” Mr. Sanders commanded. The Alpha actually commanded her.
She leaned back on the sofa. “I’ve survived being the slayer since I was sixteen. I think it’s going to take more than a single vamp here and there to take me down.”
Mr. Sanders stood up. “You’re a tabby and you had no Alpha. Until now. You’ll stay here, we’ll work out the details later. One thing that’s for sure is that if you are incapable of keeping yourself safe and out of trouble, then we will take measures to make sure you are. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me,” he said to the room.
Buffy was going to make a remark about the whole staying out of trouble thing but he’d already left the room. What was she going to do, complain to the pride members that she could take perfectly good care of herself, thank you very much, and she didn’t need them? That would go over well.
One thing that she should have been more prepared for but wasn’t was the commanding note in his voice, the expectation that she would obey. That was going to take some getting used to. It’s not like she was going to go out looking for an apocalypse or anything. In fact, it was just the sort of thing she was going to go out of her way to avoid. She couldn’t help it though if she was genetically built to be attractive to predators and a vamp or demon popped up now and again.
She had to play nice for now but their ideas for her and her own ideas for her life were going to mesh. There were no if’s, and’s or but’s about it. It was simply truth. She could only hope that when she was forced to stand her ground that things didn’t go completely ape shit.
Buffy was surprised about one thing though. She had expected a little more disbelief about the slayer thing. “That’s it. Just like that?” she asked.
Jase and Ethan grinned at her. “He’s gonna make sure there’s no tabby missing from any other pride but that’s it. You’re ours now,” Jase said, his blue eyes darkening slightly as he said the last.
Buffy rolled her eyes.
“No, I mean the slayer thing. You just accept it, no problem?”
Mrs. Sanders chuckled. “Our kind have been in contact with your kind throughout the ages and we’ve left each other alone. We never would have expected that a slayer could be converted if injured.”
“Come, you can sleep in Faythe’s room for the moment. You’ll need your rest if you’re going to be playing with these guys tomorrow,” she added and led her upstairs.
“Playing?” she asked, interested.
“Hunting. It’s a good time of year for it and there’s a group hunt planned for tomorrow. And it’ll help you bond with the rest of the pride.”
She grinned and felt her heart rate accelerate in anticipation as she followed the woman up the stairs.
“I love hunting.”