DISCLAIMER: Oz belongs to Joss Whedon. The version of The Cat People I used here was produced in 1982, and directed by Paul Schrader.
Oz didn’t even like zoos. Particularly not zoos like this – built in the 1920s or thereabouts, little cramped brick and concrete cells with nowhere for the animals to hide. Beasts in the zoo were meant to be looked at, weren’t they? Out in the open. Pushed out and exposed where the humans could peer and see every aspect of the animal’s life. He hated zoos; they stank of despair. But he’d been drawn to this one. Something...called to him from the muggy streets of New Orleans, whispered to the wolf hidden deep in his blood and beckoned out an answering snarl.
He ran his fingers through the tangled mass of charms and necklaces hanging around his neck, slowly moving through the walkways in the zoo. A sullen looking lion lolled on the floor of his cage, back turned to the schoolchildren who were clustered around the iron bar in front of it and chattering excitedly. Oz had to smile faintly at the kids. He remembered when going to the zoo was this entire big thing, a momentous event where you could get out of school with your friends and look at the exhibits. The only difference here was there was more difference in faces then there had been in Sunnydale, cocoa, caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, all different flavours and scents and high chirpy voices sweetened with a southern accent. Creole, Cajun, straight out and out Southern, traces of east European, British, Yankee accents, Asian, you name it, New Orleans had it. He loved this city. Of course, a lot of wannabe minions came out and hung here – he’d been carrying and sharpening stakes since his first night. Well, he always had stakes; he was a well brought up Sunnydale bonafide Hellmouth boy. No silver. Silver made him itch. But holy water, charms, hexes, these new little vodoun talismans called grigris. They worked pretty fine, so far as he’d been able to tell.
The poorer people round here didn’t forget what stalked in the night, under the moon and was made from darkness. They remembered. Sure, the people in the fancier neighbourhoods lied real well to themselves. But they didn’t go out after dark, except in crowds. Mardi Gras was a smorgasboard for vampires, and the city’s reputation for being the place with the highest rate of disappearances per hundred worked for them just fine too. But the older people, the bayous people, they sure knew what it was with fangs and yellow eyes that walked around pretending to be human. He had liked the weeks he’d spent out on the bayous, but he was spending time in the city today. He’d had beignets at the Café du Monde, drank coffee with chicory and listened to some really good jazz in a tiny little bar near Bourbon Street. It had all been quite tourist-y. And here he was, walking the concrete pathways at the zoo and looking at the animals behind bars.
A disconsolate growl grabbed his attention away from the lion and his waiting audience of shrieking children, redirecting it to a black panther lying in a cage. The eyes...grey-green eyes, they caught and held him in their gaze. Sad, so very, very sad. Almost without noticing what he was doing, he walked over to the railing in front of the cage, brushing past an entwined couple and getting a muttered hiss from the boy whose arm he brushed. The mostly ex-werewolf raised one hand in apology, his eyes still fixed on the panther’s.
He was pretty sure she – she? - wasn’t just a panther.
He was more then sure once he put his hands on the bar in front of her cage and stared into her eyes from a closer distance. There was always something there in werecreatures. Some flicker. A gleam. He was pretty sure that most people never saw it, but he always did. Something that said they weren’t just animals, and he could see it lurking at the back of her eyes, those grey-green eyes. She got up from her prone position and moved closer to the bars, putting her muzzle against it and almost without his will, his hand stretched out to touch her fur.
“Hello, my sister,” Oz murmured, not really understanding why he did so. Her fur was tough, not as soft as it appeared. More wiry. She made a pleased rumbling sound and tilted her head so he could scratch behind her ears. It was getting uncomfortable, leaning this far over the railing, rusty iron pole digging into his stomach and pressing his jeans button into his stomach. But he couldn’t just go away and leave her here. “Why?” He wanted to know why. How. How could someone put another person in a cage? Was it voluntary, or had someone trapped her? He’d seen something like that in India, a man who was also a tiger. He’d been put in a cage and worshipped as a god by a group of villagers. It had never made sense to Oz when he had offered to show him a way to control the tiger and let him out of the cage, that the man had said no. But some people were just content with the way their life was.
“Hey, hey! Get away from there!”
Oz blinked his eyes and turned, fingers still buried in tough black fur and the panther rumbling with enjoyment. The man striding up to him was wearing the zoo uniform, handsome in a conventional way and sandy hair. He felt like an exotic specimen comparing himself with the older man, hair streaked with black and red this time, standing up in stiff spikes and dressed in almost hippy clothing. Hemp jeans, jangling charms and a washed out band t-shirt. It was too muggy in New Orleans to wear much more, and hemp breathed so much easier then denim.
Slowly, reluctantly he let his fingers loosen their grip on her fur. It felt like dying. It felt like breathing, after drowning and disappearing under grey-green water, staring up at sunlit circles. Sorrow. He drew his hand out of the cage gradually, her eyes fixed on him. Knowing. Cats had such knowing eyes, like they saw beyond what was there to what was true. She growled softly and turned away, tail brushing against the bars of her cage and stalking moodily to the back wall of brick.
“What did you think you were doing? She’s dangerous!”
Oz just looked at the man, and turned to go. He’d come back tonight. He could still feel her eyes on his back, pleading for something, for understanding perhaps? Freedom. He could feel that in her like a physical ache. He wished that he could just open the bars of her cage and let her out, a physical shadow loping at his side with the grey-green of her eyes gleaming. He loped away, wolf gracefulness and predator sense shadowing his strides, but a very inoffensive wolf for all that. Small men, it was often hard to see how and why they were dangerous.
Sitting at a bar later, Oz was nursing a cup of the bourbon they seemed to just down by the pint around here, when a woman came up to him. Her eyes were smoky and dark, and she smelt of wildness as she murmured in husky Spanish.
“Mi hermano...” My brother.
Oz turned, catching her gaze with his own. Something not quite human looked back at him from her gaze, limpid eyes still holding menace. She reminded him of the lazy canals that wound through the bayous, holding cottonmouths and alligators besides other more insidious mortalities. “¿Por qué me llama usted eso?” (Why do you call me that?)
“Porque eso es lo que usted es,” she replied simply. (Because that is what you are.)
He shook his head slowly. Obviously, she was crazy. “Usted se equivoca. Yo no soy su hermano,” he denied again, gently. (You are mistaken. I am not your brother.) You had to tread carefully around crazy people. He remembered Drusilla. Not to say this woman was Drusilla, but still being careful was probably the best policy he had.
“Eres uno de nosotros. Eres uno que tiene otra forma además de la humana. Pero la has domesticado, pequeño hermano lobo,” her voice purred through the Spanish like Kahlua in milk, smooth but with a bite lurking beneath it. (You are one of us. You are one who wears another shape that is not human. But you have tamed your other self, little brother wolf.)
Oz sucked in a breath, uneasy. She knew what he was, sidled up to his side in this bar and started talking cryptic. His Hellmouth senses were going haywire.
“¿La viste hoy, no? La pantera?” she continued almost wistfully. (You saw her today, did you not? The panther?) Like she was talking about someone dead and gone.
“Si la ví. Por qué?” Oz answered quietly, his voice sounding rough even to his own ears. (Yes, I did. Why?) He sounded rattled, and was mildly irritated by that fact. He was usually better at hiding what he was feeling then this. Maybe it was just the heat, or the bourbon he’d been drinking.
“Ella és una mujer, debajo de la piel. Su clan viene de Africa, donde la pantera és venerada como un diós. Alimentan sus niños a la pantera, y eventualmente... las almas de los niños hicieron la pantera un poco humana. Le dieron la habilidad de canviar de forma i de andar con dos piernas. De allí és de donde viene, esta hermana tuya,” the dark eyed woman purred, reaching out for his abandoned drink and sipping from it. Oz didn’t object. (She is a woman, underneath the fur. Her line comes from Africa, where the panther is worshipped as a god. They fed their children to the panther, and eventually...the souls of the children made the panther a little human. Gave it the ability to change shape and walk on two legs. That is where she comes from, that sister of ours.)
Her voice seemed to cast a spell of immobility over him, forbidding him to interrupt as her voice moved huskily on through the story she had to tell.
“Tan solo pueden aparearse entre ellos, de otra manera... se transforman otra vez en la bestia. I si se transforman, solo un asesinato los puede volver a transformar. Su hermano murió, i ella dejo que su amante la pusiera dentro de una caja así ella no tendria que matar más . I és donde esta ahora, pequeño lobo, Sabiendo esto, la liberarás? Le enseñaràs a domesticar la pantera? El hombre del zoo la ama, pero ella irà contigo por su libertad? Eso, lo tienes que averiguar.” (They can only mate with each other, otherwise...they transform back into the beast. And from that, only a killing may return them. Her brother died, and she let her lover trap her into a cage so she would not have to kill more then the once. And that is where she is, little wolf. Knowing now, will you free her? Teach her to tame the panther? The zoo man loves her and she loves him, but would she come with you anyway for the sake of freedom? That, you must find out.)
She turned and left, leaving the smell of incense and musk behind her swaying in the air. The black of her hair seemed to help her vanish, as Oz stumbled to his feet behind her.
“¡Espera, regresa!” he shouted after her helplessly, wanting to know more of the panther in a cage. (Wait, come back!) He looked around at the patrons of the bar, who even in usually unflappable New Orleans had turned to stare at him. He twitched slightly, then went out blinking into the harsh sunlight. His shirt stuck to his back almost instantly as he started to sweat, heat driving in through his pores and warming through to his bones. Something had come in there to touch him, make him feel again like he had something larger to do then simply try and control himself. He thought he had left that behind with the Hellmouth, but even here...even now...somehow he had to help her. He didn’t even know her name. Just that she was, someone like him. Could have been him. Would he have let Willow do that? Could he have trusted her that much, would he have given up that much? He didn’t think he could have done it. Three nights a month, he’d barely been able to cope with that and he knew what he was when the full moon shone and the wolf inside stood up and howled. And then he’d left and come back, and there had been Tara...and then he’d seen Angel and then he’d kept going off into the wild blue yonder.
He’d seen most of the world by now, except for Australia, most of Africa and parts of the Middle East that were too dangerous even for him to walk through. People had to hurt people for some reason, it was some strange sickness that didn’t exist in wolves and he didn’t understand it. Sure, packs fought packs but only over issues of territory and it never came to out and out killing. Eradication. The idea was anathema, and both the man and the wolf repudiated it utterly, choosing instead to turn away as much as they could. He’d done refugee camp work down in Pakistan, also in Thailand, and he’d seen what man could do to man and he had hated it with every part of himself. The children, scrawny and underfed, and the underage prostitutes who tagged after him because his skin was white, and that meant money. The women, with dead eyes and babies too weak to even cry while their men seethed with their inability to do anything to help their families. Murmurs of hatred and resentment, rumbling through the camps under the pleas for water, for food, for medicine, clothing, shelter, all those things which in America he’d taken for granted. Still took for granted. It wasn’t fair, and there was no way the conditions that had produced these pits of suffering humanity were going to change anytime soon.
But to get back to the woman...the panther. So beautiful, her eyes in the shimmering velvet blackness of her pointed cat face. And he didn’t even really like cats. But there was something there that called to the musician inside him. He got back into his van, opening the doors and letting some of the heat that had baked into it out, coughing at the scents that arose to meet him. Pot, unwashed clothes, fast food, sex and coffee. The smells of the indigent who get enough money to keep travelling and don’t care so much about settling down. He knew that Sunnydale had been destroyed, that and the sun blacking out had been times when he’d gone undercover, settled in with a super soaker full of holy water and a bundle of stakes, and waited. Vampires couldn’t get into his van without an invitation, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t tear it to pieces around him. That would rescind the invitation barrier sure enough. He wasn’t sure what had happened, and when he’d called Angel Investigation’s phone number in the hotel, the phone had rung on and on. So, he had no more links with the Oz of Sunnydale, really. Maybe one day, he’d cruise back through LA, but otherwise...that was as gone as the town, disappeared into the vanquished Hellmouth.
He picked up the charms that had helped him the first time round and weighed them thoughtfully in his hand. Bone and metal and wisps of feathers...all strung around on rawhide thongs, browns and blacks. He closed his hand on them and stuffed them in a pocket on his jeans, before grabbing the street directory and starting to flick through it. There had to be a good magic worker in this town, who could help him with some spells to free this woman cat he had found. There always was someone. Probably he’d do better talking with the people who’d picked him up and taught him to hunt ‘gator and go crabbing out along the bayous. Probably...yes, he knew maybe just the woman who could help. For some reason, women seemed to do so much better at magic then men. Something about their connection with the earth. Willow and Tara...the two of them had just shone with it, their connections visible and green, except Willow had been so much darker. He scrambled back out of his van, and closed it up again, resetting the wards and spells that protected it from things mundane and otherwise. No sense not being careful, and he hadn’t had to pay for most of the spells. A few days hoeing earth for a garden, chopping wood, a brace of coneys...he preferred a cashless economy. He still had enough to pay for what he needed, and worked for it as he had to, but he preferred the roughness and realness of barter rather then pieces of paper and metal that represented wealth. Rather then being wealth themselves. He wondered sometimes how humans had fallen into the trap and deception of money, but shrugged it off aloofly.
He reached the bayous before it was dark, sliding through the lazy summer afternoon sun and watching his hands dapple with spots of light and shadow under the hanging trees. Predatory eyes watched him from under the water as he slowly sculled the oars of the boat, le pirogue was the word he’d learned, and sent himself gliding slowly over water, grey-green. The slow trill of marsh birds and crickets greeted his arrival at one of the stilt houses that were so common out here, raised up above the waters and detached. The shivery music of wind chimes drifted to him, feathers and pieces of metal swaying in the breeze where they were strung all along the veranda’s roof timbers. The house seemed secretive, clutching mysteries to itself and crooning over them anxiously, as lost in rags and gewgaws as a gypsy fortune-teller. He’d spoken to a few; desultorily seeking some sort of cure to Angel’s curse. Romany didn’t write things down, and you had to be very close to them to get them to tell you anything about their magic. None of the tribes he’d spoken with had been willing to give anything away.
He tied the boat up at one of the pilings, and then climbed out and up the stairs; wooden boards creaking under his weight. The paint on the railing came off on his hand, and he brushed the dried flakes off on his jeans, dull red against the rough green-brown of his jeans. “Tante?”
“Who is it?” a cracked voice came from behind the torn flyscreen door. Oz stood there patiently and let her look him over before the door creaked open and he could step inside. He didn’t have to stoop, but a number of taller people would have. The hallway inside the house was dim and cool, with an overwhelming smell of chicken and incense. There was also an undertone of cat urine, it was just a scent that sank into the floor and never really came out. The cat in question came out and blinked at him, before meowing imperiously to be petted. He bent and did so, glancing at the woman who he had come to see. She was old, and looked it, an ancient black woman with face as hard as ebony and grey streaked hair swaying with beads. She was an obeah, a vodoun priestess. Good magic, not bad. He’d checked on that most carefully – the darker side of magic was often deceptive about what final payment would be demanded. “Oh, it’s you. Le petit loup-garou.”
“Yes. Oz,” he reminded her. They’d met; once. At a church picnic, believe it or not. Vodoun tied into Catholic beliefs, but was heavily flavoured with the beliefs of the African slaves who had been raped away from their homeland and brought their tribal gods with them.
“Oz. Ouiai. Come in, moon-runner an’ tell me what it is y’ wan’.” She shuffled away into the next room, cat abandoning Oz to follow her with a flick of its tabby tail. He shrugged slightly and padded after them. When both he and Tante Thibodeau were ensconced in chairs, mug of chicory coffee warm in their hands and the cat calmly cleaning itself on another cushion, she nodded at him to begin.
“You know what I am.” She nodded, sipping from her coffee. “I need help. A containment and taming spell. For a woman, like me.”
“You know her?”
“Ouiai, her and son frere,” Tante sneered slightly. “He killed, many, many women, American, before he was shot by de homme at de zoo. She killed a man, and y’ want me t’ free her?”
“She wasn’t in control.” Oz spread his hands slightly, and then stopped before he spilled his cup of coffee. “I can give her that. And I can give her freedom.”
“Ah, but she is imprisoned pour l’amour, homme,” Tante chuckled softly in her hoarse voice. “Will she give up love for freedom?”
“Love that cages, isn’t really love at all.”
“So wise, petit loupe...I have decided, that I will help y’. It will take a while t’ get ready, y’understand.”
“Y’ will help me.”
So that was how Oz found himself back at the cage where the panther was held, sliver of summer moon above and darkness coating the buildings like molasses. He could see her eyes, looking out at him curiously as he climbed the railing in front of the cage and placed his hands on the iron bars. “I’m going to get you out of here, Irena...” Tante had known her name, the panther woman. “I’ve got some magic that can help you control it, make sure you don’t have to kill. You can be free.” He worked methodically to get rid of the bars, smearing the salve Tante had given him along the brick. Magic might not work so well on steel, but on bricks it worked just fine. In a few minutes, he was able to scrape away the brick as easily as he would tear apart a loaf of bread, setting the bars down on the ground with a quiet clinking sound. Irena pressed up against the bars, breath hot on his face as he worked as quickly as he could.
There had to be security here. He didn’t want to be around when they found out she was gone. They’d be looking for a panther, not a woman. But better to be gone before they found the empty cage. As he got rid of enough bars, she dropped to the ground, snarling uneasily.
“Hey, it’s going to be fine. C’mon,” Oz soothed her quietly, walking towards where he had come in. There was a great gnarled tree next to a wall, he’d been able to climb it easily enough and it would be a snap for her. One hand went automatically to rest in the ruff at her neck; her head came up a little way past his waist as they both walked silently through the shadow-drenched zoo. None of the animals made a sound as they walked by, sensing perhaps that the two of them were not quite the same as what they were. Tainted. Not pure human, not pure animal. Real wolves will tear a lone werewolf to pieces if they can manage it, shun it if they can’t. Animals know, even if humans don’t. Up and over the tree, and the two of them were gone.
Oz opened the door to his van and let her in the back, allowing himself a brief smile when she hung back at the smell before resignedly getting in. He closed the doors behind her then went around to the front and got in, starting the old van with a ominous sounding rattle. Don’t you die on me, he thought at the van fiercely and it coughed, before catching and purring like the cat that was lying in its belly. He pulled away from the curve carefully and started driving, planning on heading out of the city and away. He was aware of the eyes on his back, sensed them and ignored them for the time being. They needed to get away free before anyone discovered she was gone, and they needed to get to the circle he had made up so she could change back without having to kill anyone. Well, kill a chicken rather then a human but anything was better then the way she’d had to have done it before. He’d read some of the coroner’s reports on what her and her brother in particular had done. It made for some gruesome reading. There was no doubt in Oz’s mind that her brother, Paul, was one of those crazies who should have been drowned at birth. But Irena? Irena...no, the innocence to her was obvious in the pictures he’d seen. Her brother looked sly; she looked feline and aloof, pretty and elegant at the same time she was sweet.
Maybe he was wrong. But he’d take the chance. A woman who could let her lover do what he had done, had to have more morals then her brother who had gone out into the world, and killed, and killed, because he couldn’t bear to be locked up or contained. But didn’t have the discipline not to engage in the act that led to his transformation, so he slaughtered and ate. He was sure if he had met Paul, he would have had no trouble delivering the shot. But with Irena...he would wager she had offered her lover a choice. Shoot me or cage me. And the lover had chosen the cage. Which was a good thing ultimately, because now Oz could help her but he couldn’t see any of the Scoobies making the same choice for him. Maybe, Willow could have made that choice. Xander knew what it was to be locked up when you’re a wild thing meant to be free, and he would have voted in the end for the merciful bullet. Buffy, eventually the same. Giles...well, he’d been Ripper. Tara wouldn’t have been able to understand it as a choice, he was pretty sure. Now, here and far away in time and distance from Sunnydale, he could think of her fondly. Where before all he had wanted to do was rip her heart out and feast on her insides for taking his Willow away from him into places he could never reach her.
Sometimes he felt it might even have been better if she’d turned to Xander. He could have coped with that, known how to deal with it and maybe win her back. But Tara? He could never understand her, she was too unknowable and too different from anyone he’d ever known. Well, maybe his aunt, but he was pretty sure Tara didn’t grow pot in her backyard. He still had a few bags, he was pretty sure. Wondered absently if Irena did a little grass from time to time, or if she’d object.
He slid a cassette tape into the ancient tape deck and nodded along with the music as it started to play. Irena voiced no complaint, so he left it on as they left the boundaries of New Orleans and moved out into the country between it and the next town. It was strangely empty as he pulled up off the road, tires bumping over the guttering and making noises of grievance. The panther’s eyes just regarded him calmly as he turned the engine off and then climbed out, moving around the back to open the doors and let her out.
“You need to stand in the circle,” he told her quietly, pointing at the chalk outlines on the ground. “Mind the chalk.” He had clothes for her to wear afterwards, once she’d changed back. The panther picked her way carefully through the elaborate swirlings and designs of the chalk, settling inside the circle on her haunches and watching Oz gravely. The chicken was still in the cage near by, a black rooster clucking mournfully to himself and tail feathers drooping unhappily. Well, Oz couldn’t blame the chicken for being depressed. He was just about to die in a magic ritual. It couldn’t be a good ending for a chicken. He spread his hands, then sighed quietly before dragging his tee-shirt over his head. Skyclad. It was always skyclad with this type of magic for some reason; at least this place was reasonably deserted and he didn’t expect anyone to drive by. Naked was not something he wanted to have to explain.
He ran through the ritual quickly and easily, not feeling overly exposed in front of Irena while he chanted and sang the words he had memorised from Tante when he had seen her. He had a good memory. Musicians had to. He knew over five hundred songs, chords and lyrics. This was just one more thing to remember; he worked at it steadily and had it down word perfect before he left her. Then he passed Irena the chicken and she took it carefully in her velvety looking jaws. The rooster didn’t have a chance to squawk more then once before her fangs crushed down on it and she gulped it down, feathers sticking out of her mouth. And then it was over. She hissed and spat, skin splitting and decaying as it fell off her. Oz watched nervously, wondering if his transformation were as painful to watch as hers was to him. She was as pretty as her photograph and Oz turned his eyes away as he passed her a pair of panties, a bra and a long dress.
“Tante Thibodeau just guessed at your size. Hope everything fits.” He started to get dressed himself, pulling his jeans up over his lean hips and charms still tangled around his neck. “I’ve got a few charms you’ll need to wear.”
“Why...why did you do this?” she asked in a voice hoarse with disuse. It still held more then a hint of a growl to it, something feline and rough.
“I wanted to.” He paused, shirt dangling from his hand before he pulled it over his head and settled his necklaces outside it again. “And I know what it’s like. I’m a werewolf.”
“Yeah.” He was talking more today then he had in years. “You want to come with me?” He indicated the van with a hand, tilting his head slightly and regarding her still grey-green eyes with his green ones. “Ain’t much...but I go places. I wouldn’t ask you for anything.”
“I’m dead, according to the world. Aren’t I?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” he said honestly. He could see the wheels turning over in her head. Waited for her patiently to choose. He would take her back, if that’s what she wanted. She’d be safe now, she could love and live. But having kids was probably right out of the question. He’d gotten those charms from a yogi in India, and he doubted anything the obeahs had here would be anywhere close in power. Not to disparage them, but their magic didn’t work that way. Her kids would have the same curse as she did, and he found that quite...sad. Women should have the choice to make babies, if they wanted them. But only if they wanted them. An unwanted child was one of the unhappiest beings in the world, because everyone wants to be wanted by the people around them.
“Why not?” And Irena laughed, a soft pretty sound that Oz found himself smiling to hear. She reminded him, a little, of Willow. Just in the way she held herself. “I’ll come with you. What is your name?”
“Oz.” He walked over to her and held out the handful of jangling necklaces she would need. She bent her head so he could put them on and his fingers touched briefly the wispy pieces of hair at the back of her skull as he made sure the knots on the necklaces wouldn’t scratch her. She shivered and he bit his lip. “Daniel Osbourn, but everyone calls me Oz.”
“I am Irena, and I am very glad you came to New Orleans, Oz.” She smiled at him as she straightened, a few inches taller then him but that was irrevalent. “Thank you.”
“Do you ever make a facial expression?”
“Oh...sometimes. On special occasions.” He kept his face carefully blank, inwardly laughing at her impish sense of humour. He was glad to see she still had one. Not many people could hold onto something like that after what she had been through, but it was still there. And being able to laugh was something so important. Laughter was what the tyrant feared more then anything else, because if you feared him you at least took him seriously. Ridicule removed that sense of respect, and people needed to be unafraid to laugh. She chuckled again, skipping ahead to the passenger side of the car and opening it to get in. He tilted his head slightly as she gathered up her skirts, following after her slowly as she swung her legs around and in.
She had nice ankles, he decided.
“So, where to?” Irena asked him as he got into the driver’s seat and started the car. He turned his head and smiled at her slightly, her green-grey eyes gleaming back at him as the sun started to rise.
“Wherever the road takes us.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Oz nodded once, then turned the volume up on his tape deck and manoeuvred the battered up van back onto the road. The charms around their necks hummed with an indescrible sense of magic and he nodded his head in time to the music, darting another glance at Irena as she gazed out the window with a child’s wonder. Behind them, they left the veves and the circle of chalk to be washed away by the rain, chicken feathers whisked away by the wind as the weather erased what had happened there. The magic was gone from that, used up to make a panther back into the woman she had been. But the sense of potential, of other, still lingered about the both of them.
“Maybe, we’ll find out how to let you transform without worrying about the curse,” he said out of the blue, once they were about ten minutes down the road. She nodded, looking at him for a few moments.
“I’d like that. I didn’t mind...being a panther, once I’d gotten used to it. And the fact I’d never change back, but I didn’t like being trapped. And if I had known what it would be like...” she broke off, staring down at her hands where they were clenched tight around the material of her dress. Oz nodded.
“My girlfriend used to lock me up every three nights of the month when there was a full moon,” he shared with her, letting her know he knew a little bit about what she meant. The mood of camaraderie between them grew, and he felt a quiet sort of contentment about that. “We’ll get some breakfast at the Denny’s a few miles from here.”
“Oooh, I haven’t eaten at Denny’s for, well, a really long time!” Her mood swung up again and she lifted her hands in front of her face, examining them as if not quite believing they weren’t the paws of the cat anymore. “I liked that food, but it was always so greasy I didn’t eat it often. Do they still serve those hashbrowns?”
“Great. I’ll have some of those...and coffee...I haven’t had a decent cup of coffee for so long...that’s what I ended up missing, more then not going where I wanted. Real food. And reading, lord, how I missed reading books.”
“I’ve got some in the back, if you want to crawl around and look.”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
Irena clapped her hands and beamed at him, looking so pleased Oz was glad he’d kept the paperbacks rather then passing them on when he’d had the chance. She scrambled back over the seat and he very purposefully kept his eyes on the road. She moved like a cat, all effortless grace, when she didn’t think about it. There was power in her alright, very carefully leashed and the charms hanging around her neck kept the worst of it at bay. But she couldn’t help but shine. He tapped his fingers along the steering wheel, chipped nailpolish obvious in the morning sun and felt remotely pleased about the whole business. New Orleans had been a good place to stop, and he was glad he had, but it was time to be moving on now. He was still mildly surprised that he was taking someone with him, but that was just fate. Maybe that’s what had driven the whole thing. He had had to find this woman, let her out and teach her how to control the beast she carried in her blood. He was a good teacher, he knew that. And maybe the Powers That Be had some plan for this whole thing. He wouldn’t rule it out.
Maybe he should see about finding where Willow went after Sunnydale fell into the middle of the earth. He wanted to get all that tied up – he wasn’t one for loose ends. As Irena came back to sit in the front seat, ragged looking paperback firmly clutched in one hand, Oz looked out at the road as it stretched away in front of him and faded away into the horizon. And smiled.
Note: Translation provided by Iria Alonso Acuña, to whom I owe many thanks.