Monosyllabic Eccentricity

Title: Starting Over
Author: J. Browning
Rating: G
Spoilers: Up to New Moon Rising
Summary: Following Oz after he leaves Sunnydale for the last time and tries to build a new life
Disclaimer: Oz does not belong to me. I am just borrowing him until the voices go away. The characters I made up are mine alone. I am making no profit from this in the monetary sense, although the satisfaction of completion is profit of a sort.
Author's Note: This story directly follows the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 4.19: New Moon Rising, aired May 2000.


Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Willow: Oz ... Don't you love me?
Oz: (Holding her, pressing his forehead to hers as she sobs.) My whole life... I've never loved anything else.

…Oz being captured by the Initiative, and the Scoobies rescuing him...

Oz: I shouldn't have come back now.... I just thought I'd changed.
Willow: You have changed. (Smiles) You stopped the wolf from coming out. I saw it.
Oz: But I couldn't look at you. (He still can't.) I mean, it turns out ... the one thing that brings it out in me is you... which falls under the heading of ironic in my book.
Willow: It was my fault. I upset you.
(He finally looks at her.)
Oz: Well, so we're safe then, (sarcastic) cause you'll never do that again.
(Willow tries to look amused.)
Oz: But... you're happy?
Willow: (smiles) I am. I can't explain it-
Oz: It may be safer for both of us if us if you don't.
(Willow looks sad.)
Willow: I missed you, Oz. I wrote you so many letters... but I didn't have any place to send them, you know?
(Pause.)
Willow: I couldn't live like that.
Oz: It was stupid to think that you'd just be... waiting.
Willow: I was waiting. I feel like some part of me will always be waiting for you. Like if I'm old and blue-haired, and I turn the corner in Istanbul and there you are, I won't be surprised. Because... you're with me, you know?
Oz: I know. (Pause) But now is not that time, I guess.
Willow:(shakes her head) No.
(They look at each other.)
Willow: What are you gonna do?
Oz: I think I better take off.
Willow: When?
Oz: Pretty much now.
(Willow nods. She's teary again. Oz leans over and they hug.)


*****

Part 1

*****

He had driven close to 50 miles before he realised he had nowhere to go. For so many months he had single-mindedly pursued his goal, focused on getting back to her as quickly as possible. It had never occurred to him that she would not be waiting. For the hundredth time he cursed himself for arrogance and stupidity. Then, the angry desperation that had fuelled his rush from town abating, he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the engine. Pausing for a while to collect his scattered thoughts, he realised he was in no fit state to make any sensible decisions about what he should do next, or even where to go. Steeling himself, and filled with uncharacteristic uncertainty, he turned the car around and headed back the way he had come.

He was standing on the doorstep before he remembered that his key had been with the clothes lost when he was captured, and he had already pressed the bell before he realised it was the middle of the night and that his old friends and former band-mates might not appreciate being woken at this hour. He hovered, uncertain whether to stay or go, until the door was opened to reveal a half-asleep Devon.

"Oz," Devon blinked at him, bleary eyed.

"Lost my key," Oz explained, weakly. "Sorry."

Devon rubbed the sleep from his eyes and blinked some more. "Thought you'd skipped out on us again," he said, accusingly.

Oz was too exhausted to offer any excuses. "Almost did," he admitted. "Probably still will."

"Willow?" Devon could be fairly perceptive when he wanted to be. He was also incapable of holding a grudge, especially when not fully awake.

"Willow." Oz agreed, unwilling to go into any details.

"Damn," was all Devon could say. "You're not staying then?"

"No. Sorry." He regretted it more than he knew how to express, seeing every plan he'd ever made for the future collapsing around him. "But if I can crash for the night…?"

Devon yawned. "No problem, man." He moved aside to let Oz enter, and followed him into the lounge. "As long as you want. Can't talk you into playing? We got a gig, and the new guy…"

Oz shook his head quickly. "Too high profile." As soon as the words were spoken he realised Devon couldn't know about the danger posed by the Initiative if any of their goons spotted and recognised him, and added, "Don't want to risk running into Willow again." Those two factors combined made staying in town impossible.

Devon sighed. "Damn. That bad?"

"Really is."

"Know what you're gonna do?"

"I have no idea," was all Oz could answer.


*****

After a sleepless night filled with regrets and self-recriminations, Oz said his goodbyes to Devon once again and headed for home. The family had been so upset when he took off without a word last time, he couldn't bring himself to do that to them again, despite the risks involved in staying around town too long. But even indoors, in the middle of trying without success to explain why he couldn't stay, he was unable to focus on the conversation. His eyes and attention kept wandering, to the door, to the windows…

No commandos here, he told himself, sternly. Yet that anxiety churning in the pit of his stomach remained, proof positive that running accidentally into Willow or, worse, her new lover, was by no means the only danger involved in staying in Sunnydale. Not the worst danger, either. His mind shied away from the memory of the soldiers who had captured him, and of the scientists who had poked and prodded at him as though he were of less significance than a lab rat, and he couldn't quite prevent an involuntary shudder. Those aching bruises had been another cause of lost sleep. No. It really was time to leave. The sooner the better.

His parents had been storing most of his stuff since he'd had Devon send it on to them after he left town the last time. He'd felt so guilty about leaving the guys a housemate down, with no idea when he was likely to return, it had occurred to him they might want to find someone else to cover the rent for his room and would therefore want it empty. But now that he had no reason to come back again, he could take it all with him, at least as much as the van would comfortably hold.

Loading the van was another matter, however, and he was annoyed to realise just how on edge he still was, twitching every time someone came around the corner, and flinching with every car that passed. Then, despite his cautious awareness of his surroundings, he started as a voice called his name. Firmly suppressing the urge to panic, he turned, and saw a friendly face wearing a sympathetic smile.

"I thought you'd hit the road again," Xander remarked, mildly.

Too tired to evade questioning, Oz simply said: "I did. I am," and with a tiny shiver added, "Really don't want to get arrested again." He shrugged. "Thought I should get some stuff sorted out first."

"I'm sorry," Xander told him, for once completely serious. "I mean, I'm not sure what exactly happened between you guys, but I'm sorry it didn't work out."

The conversation was fast heading into dangerous territory, and Oz was unwilling to discuss such private and painful matters. "You'd need to talk to Willow about that. Her decision."

Xander took the hint. "So, any idea what you're going to do now?"

"Avoid capture, mostly." Oz tried not to let it show how much the idea worried him. Once had been more than enough. He hadn't made any plans beyond getting out of town. "Thought I'd head north, pick up work along the road." Beyond that he'd just see what happened. In an attempt to lighten the mood, he added: "Hey, Kerouac could be my guide."

Xander smiled at that reminder of the conversation they'd had, a year earlier, in their relatively more carefree high school days. "And the open road your school. Hey, you might even get further than I did."

"Gotta be worth a shot."

"Well, good luck with that," Xander said, sincerely. "Maybe you'll even send a postcard or two this time."

"Maybe. And hey..."

"Yeah?"

"Look after her."

"I will," Xander promised.


*****

As he drove out of town he passed Willow and Tara walking down the street together, talking and laughing softly. It hurt, like a knife twisting in his gut. Just another reminder of why he had to leave. Clamping down on the pain and remorse, hearing the wolf howling deep inside, he determinedly turned his eyes away and drove on, without looking back.


*****

After several weeks of aimless zig-zagging across the state, picking directions at random without ever getting very far, Oz had very nearly stopped worrying each time he saw anyone official looking. After all, The Initiative was a secret Sunnydale outfit, wasn't it? They had better things to worry about and hunt than a single werewolf who'd escaped and skipped town, and it wasn't as if he had 'werewolf' stamped on his forehead for the whole world to see. But life as a hippy drifter had become old real quick, with no destination to aim for and no goals to pursue. There was too much freedom, too much time. Too much guilt and pain to wallow in, and this time there wasn't even the hope of winning her back to cling to. He was sufficiently self-aware to know that he was wallowing in misery in a manner of which his one-time mentor Master Sheng would disapprove heartily, and yet nothing seemed to shake the depression, the sense of futility.

He could feel the full moon growing closer once more, setting every nerve end a-tingle, and couldn't forget that loss of control last month, which had so nearly proved disastrous for so many people. Had proved disastrous. Wolfing out, as he had done, in the middle of the day was the stuff his worst nightmares were made of. He was less sure than ever where the line lay between him and the wolf, but one thing did seem fairly clear: strong negative emotion was a trigger. One he hoped to avoid ever pulling again. But the nagging fear that it could happen again, that all his struggles to find control had been for nothing, ate away at him and the temptation to just give in, to stop fighting it, was intense. He was tired of struggling, of trying so hard to control it with so little reward.

Giving in would be so easy. Too easy: to simply let go of all human attachment and run free, as fellow werewolf Veruca had. It wasn't even as if he had that many human attachments left. Willow had chosen someone else, and with that action had effectively cut him out of the group, even if he could bear to be near her and yet so far. They had been her friends first, and would choose her if necessary. And the commandos running all over Sunnydale prevented him from staying in town with his family and other friends, just as much as the fear of running into Willow or Tara did. He had been cut loose, left to drift with neither rudder nor anchor, and it scared him...

'I'm only a wolf three nights a month.' His own words, spoken months earlier, rang out in his memory, as did Veruca's fierce rejoinder. 'Or you're a wolf all the time and this human face is just your disguise. You ever think about that, Oz? I can help you… You're scared. I was, too. But then I accepted it. The animal, it's powerful, inside me all the time. Soon, you just start to feel sorry for everybody else because they don't know what it's like to be as alive as we are. As free.'

Veruca was another painful memory: the knowledge that he had killed, albeit in defence of Willow, eating away at him whenever he allowed himself to remember it, along with the knowledge that but for Buffy's arrival he would have turned on Willow next. The fight had been consciously begun, but as soon as the wolf emerged all control and consciousness was lost, and that was the one thing he had always feared most: harming someone else while not in control of his actions. It had been perhaps the greatest factor in his decision to leave Willow in search of that non-existent cure for his lycanthropy. But even then, through all those months of travelling and searching, he had never felt so completely alone.

Collecting his wage from the farm where he'd found some casual employment when his funds began to dry up, Oz glanced up at the sky as he headed back to the van, his thoughts weighing heavily on his mind. It was close to moonrise, the night before the full moon. He hadn't planned on hanging around so long on this day of all days, but the promise of extra cash had been too tempting. Now, though, he wanted to get to a more remote spot by the time the moon rose, just in case.

He had been so proud of what he had achieved, so eager to show Willow what he could do: preventing the wolf from manifesting, regardless of the full moon. In retrospect, he realised that the warning signs had been there, specifically her hesitation to allow him close, but he had convinced himself that it was understandable. After what had happened with Veruca, after the way he had left her, it would take time for him to regain her trust. But when both she and Xander assured him there was no other guy he had had no doubt that he could do it, that they could be together again. And then it had happened. Her scent, all over Tara, betraying the awful truth: that he had lost her. And the wolf, frustrated at being denied release and always lurking just below the surface, had found its way out.

All of which left him with a large dilemma now that the full moon was once again upon him. Would his hard-won control hold firm this month? Was that loss of control merely a one-off blip, caused by an intense emotional disturbance? Or was it something that was likely to occur again? Could he ever keep himself safe, and the people around him? Should he allow himself to be close to other people at all?

With the memory of last month still fresh in his mind, Oz had decided to err on the side of caution this time. Lacking any real refuge in case of need, he parked up in a secluded spot well outside of town and prepared for an uncomfortable night. He was fairly sure his control would hold this time, but shackled his wrists just in case. All at once, with the moon rising, the rumbling of his stomach reminded him that he'd forgotten to eat, and he chided himself for such carelessness tonight of all nights. It was too late to worry about it now. Determined not to sleep, for fear of changing while unconscious, he spent a difficult night chanting and meditating as the monks had taught him, and wondered in despair if this was all life could ever offer him. Was he doomed always to live apart from other people, hiding himself away?

On the second night he made sure he was well fed and left the shackles off, reassured by the previous night's success. His thoughts remained a whirl of uncertainty, however, as he tried to cling to what the monks had taught him about keeping his inner cool.

He'd told Willow she was the one thing that could trigger the wolf. Actually, that wasn't quite true. It was the intense emotion surrounding her that he found so hard to control. Since she was the only person, the only thing, he'd ever felt so strongly about, he was fairly sure he could keep his cool as long as he avoided Willow and all thoughts thereof. But on the other hand, the scientists at the Initiative had succeeded in bringing forth the wolf by judicious use of what they termed 'negative stimulation'. Pain, in other words. It was not a good memory. Keeping the inner cool had not been so easy with that going on, either.

It was worrying to imagine what else could set it off. If the wolf could emerge in broad daylight at the right time of month, could it also emerge at a totally different stage of the moon's cycle given the right – or wrong - circumstances? But those kinds of thoughts were a whole different can of worms that he did not want to open. Things were bad enough as they were. He would stick to worrying about the full moon, and keep himself as far as possible from all possibility of emotional upset until he'd thought of a better way of handling things.

But the third night presented a whole new problem for his consideration. He'd settled in for the night, relieved that soon it would all be over for another month, when a harsh voice from outside the van interrupted his thoughts.

"Well, looky-looky what we got here."

He could hear someone – or several someones – trying to get into the van, testing all the doors, rocking it on its wheels. Alarmed, he scrambled to his feet – something a taller person might find tricky in that confined space – and cautiously peered out of the nearest window.

Vampires. Three of them, in fact. And here he was all alone in the middle of nowhere, a sitting target.

He headed for the front of the van, intending to drive away from danger as fast as possible, but before he could scramble into the cab the front windshield smashed, allowing one of the vamps to crawl into the van with him. He backed away hurriedly.

"Camping out all alone not such a good idea, no?" the vampire sneered as it advanced, grinning nastily, fangs gleaming brightly in the moonlight.

Oz's heart sank, but he had little time for despair before the vampire was upon him and then it was a fight for life – no time to stop and think. All he could do was react, and try to stay alive.

Emotional control was pretty much impossible in this situation, too, a distant part of his brain reflected with clinical detachment. Frantically scrambling away, jabbing an elbow into the vampire's throat in a futile attempt to keep it off him and seeing in the corner of his eye a second vampire clambering through the broken window, he could feel the wolf rising up, threatening to take over…

It became a two-way battle – with the vampires and his own inner self. This was not a situation the monks had prepared him for. Of course, it could be argued that the vampires deserved to be ripped apart by a werewolf, but it was what the wolf might do after that that worried him too much to allow it. Struggling for control and gasping for breath under the onslaught, he forced the wolf back down with an almost physical effort, but at the same time – completely instinctively and without any intention of doing so – leaned into its strength, made use of its power. The feeling was exhilarating, yet terrifying. Throwing the vampire off him with more strength than he had ever before manifested in human form, he wrenched the rear doors open and almost fell out.

Of course, one of the vampires was still out there with him, and the other two wouldn't be long joining them.

Three against one was not a fight he had any chance of winning if it went on for too long, even if he knew how he'd tapped into the wolf's strength like that and was prepared to experiment with trying to repeat it. All he could do was duck, roll and weave, and try to get back to the van and take off before they could follow. He got lucky with one, catching it off balance and sending it stumbling into a handy tree with a wonderfully positioned low branch. By pure fluke, it was impaled through the heart and went to dust.

One down. Two to go, and they had him surrounded, cut off from the van.

Sheer dumb luck appeared to be with him tonight. One of the vampires seemed quite prepared to taunt and play at the fight all night, but the other was tiring of the game fast and rushed at him. Expecting every moment to be his last, Oz managed to duck under its grasp and swung around as he straightened, grabbing it by the arm and shoving it as hard as he could at its companion. Taken by surprise, both went down like skittles.

But they wouldn't stay down for long. Oz seized the all too brief opportunity and ran for it, scrambling back into the van and frantically searching for the keys. After what seemed an eternity his fingers closed over them at last and he dived for the front seat. Already one of the vampires was climbing onto the front hood again, while the other made for the open door at the back as his shaking fingers fumbled to get the key into the ignition.

Despite all he'd put it through over the past few months, the van started first time. Oz silently blessed it, and any deity or saint who chose to claim credit. Shoving the gear stick first into drive and then reverse in rapid succession, he succeeded in dislodging the vampire in front of him before it could climb back in through the broken windshield, while the other one was jerked back out through the open rear doors. Then he drove, as fast as he could and careless of what belongings were falling out of the van in the process, aiming for anywhere but here. He kept going until he was sure he had lost them.

Bringing the van to a halt at last, he leaned his head against the steering wheel and took a few deep breaths, fighting to regain his usual composure. That had been way too close.

Now that it was all over, he had time for some self-recrimination – as well as a moment of pride at having succeeded in preventing the change under such extreme circumstances. But he felt he should never have allowed that situation to occur. He could usually smell vampires coming if he was paying attention, but those ones had crept up on him with no trouble at all. That was what came of too much introspection, of losing awareness of his surroundings. Maybe hanging around remote areas in dead of night wasn't such a good idea after all. It certainly wasn't a practical long-term solution.

What would be a practical long-term solution wasn't something he felt able to decide just yet, but with the full moon behind him for another month he decided it was time to get away from these isolated areas he'd been sticking to since leaving Sunnydale. Maybe losing himself in a crowded city would work? San Francisco was the nearest big city – he snorted at the thought. A whole month of travelling and this was as far as his meandering path had brought him. Of course, he'd travelled slowly and stopped frequently, taking work when it was available while avoiding other people as much as possible. People had a bad habit of asking questions that he didn't feel up to answering.

The city would be full of people, but he didn't have to speak to them or answer any questions. And there would be less chance of getting caught out like last night. And he could maybe even treat himself to a proper bed for a night or two, if he had sufficient funds after getting the van fixed.

It occurred to him that if he was prepared to settle down somewhere, there would be no need to sleep in the van so often: he could get a job, find someplace permanent to stay. But that would mean making decisions about the future, and that meant facing issues he really didn't want to face just yet. It was better to just take one day at a time and keep moving.

With all this in mind, he set off again.


*****

Part 2

*****

Situated in a bustling San Francisco suburb, the Monico had once been a private theatre, small but proud and grandly decorated. And yet it had been quickly abandoned and left to rot, long years previously. Purchased recently by a newlywed couple from Los Angeles, the derelict site had been given a new lease of life and transformed into a trendy coffee bar, all leather armchairs and low tables, with candles in the window and mellow music playing. Serving light refreshment from lunchtime till late evening, it stood in an ideal location, and yet keeping it open and fully staffed proved difficult from day one…


*****

Having failed miserably to persuade his one remaining employee to stay on, David Gibson wandered back into the Monico with a hopeless expression on his face, and slumped down onto a stool in front of the bar. He was a tall, somewhat gangly young man in his mid-to-late twenties, with piercing blue eyes and close-cropped dark hair. He had ploughed every cent he owned, and a lot he didn't, into renovating the old theatre and getting it set up for its new life as a coffee bar-cum-diner, full of hopes and dreams of how it would be. But the weeks that followed had destroyed every illusion, and he was fast approaching the end of his tether.

"He wouldn't stay?" David's wife Emma asked, already aware of what the answer would be and depressed by it.

"Just kept freaking out about the place being haunted. Same as all the rest." David slammed his hands down onto the bar in frustration.

"I don't get it." The pretty young blonde was upset, seeing all their hopes and dreams going up in smoke and unable to understand why.

"Maybe we should call the police?" David suggested.

"And tell them what?" Emma asked in despair. "That our staff keep walking out? That they're all scared of ghosts?"

"About the sabotage."

"Because they were so much help last time." The lack of any real police support since their troubles began still rankled.

"Well, we have to do something! We can't afford to lose this place."

"The old guy next door keeps talking about ghosts, too." Emma found all the ghost talk unsettling.

"There's no such thing as ghosts," David insisted.

"Tell that to the people who keep walking out of here!" Emma sighed. "I should get back to the boutique. My break's over."

"I can't run this place on my own," he protested.

"You're going to have to," she told him, grimly. "We can't afford to lose my job with this place on its uppers. I'll be back to help with the evening shift."

She kissed him on the cheek and hurried out leaving David alone to wonder how much longer he could continue like this.


*****

The latest bout of inexplicable sabotage had left kitchen supplies scattered all across the storeroom, as well as driving away the last remaining staff member. With no sign of any custom coming his way – negative word of mouth had a lot to answer for – David grimly set about sorting through the mess, determined that he wouldn't be driven out of business, regardless of who or what was responsible.

Trying without much success to get a dozen things done at once, he suddenly became aware of a voice calling from the bar.

"Hello? Anyone here?"

Feeling harassed, David rushed back to the bar, full of apologies. There he saw a young man in his early 20s standing looking around the deserted café in bemusement. Short and thin, his red hair cropped short and spiked on top, he looked tired, as though he had travelled a long way.

"Oh god, I'm so sorry," David hastily told him. "You haven't been waiting long, have you?"

"Just arrived," the stranger assured him.

David was relieved. "That's good, that's great. Okay," he rubbed his hands together, hoping he didn't look quite as frazzled as he felt. "What can I get for you?"

"Advice, primarily," the young man told him. "I'm looking for somewhere to stay. On the cheap side. I was hoping you might know a place: motel maybe?"

Having hoped for a customer who would actually stick around long enough to pay for something in spite of the necessarily poor service, David couldn't hide his disappointment. "Oh."

"I could stretch to a drink while I'm here," the red head added. "Maybe even hot food, if you're serving."

Of course, the problem with customers was that you really had to serve them. Remembering the lack of staff and current state of the kitchen, David grew worried. "Ah..."

"No hot food?"

"No, no. I can get something for you," David told him, hastily. "If you don't mind waiting." Seeing the questioning look in the young man's eyes, he found himself admitting, "The staff walked out and left me in the lurch, so I'm a little short-handed." All at once his frustration got the better of him, seeing his first paying customer of the day about to walk out the door again. "You don't want a job, do you?"

The question was asked in jest, almost, but David was brought up sharp when the other man casually replied: "Okay."

"Serious? You'll take it?" With too much to do and not enough hands to do it with, David was willing to hire almost anyone.

The young man looked almost amused. "Cash is low. How desperate are you?"

"Ever worked a bar or café before?" David told himself that this guy couldn't possibly be worse than the previous one, who had walked out at a moment's notice without any kind of reasonable explanation.

"Nope." He didn't sound as though he really cared, either way.

David decided he had nothing to lose. "You're hired."


*****

David chose to regard it as a good omen that two minutes after hiring his new assistant a whole family of paying customers arrived. And stayed.

"Can you cook?" he asked after taking the meal order, unwilling to leave this new staff member alone with the cash register just yet.

"When necessary," was the measured reply.

"Excellent."

"You really are desperate, aren't you?" The newly appointed assistant looked mildly amused again, but obediently headed into the chaos that was the kitchen to see what he could rustle up. Having just that minute started work he could have no idea where anything was or how it all worked, but improvised impressively.

And, amazingly, for once nothing went wrong. The light meals ordered were easily provided for. The customers ate, drank and paid. They even seemed to have fun. Having managed nothing of the kind all week, even when he had supposedly competent staff, David was almost giddy with relief.


*****

Walking straight into a job on his first day in town was more than Oz could have hoped for, and certainly more than he'd planned. All he'd come in for was something to eat and directions to the nearest motel, but since fixing the van had all but wiped him out, he wasn't going to say no to a few day's work. Besides, despite his best intentions of losing himself in a crowd and avoiding contact with other people as much as possible, he couldn't help liking the harassed young bar owner who had taken such a big chance on him. Or, looking at the state of the kitchen and storeroom, maybe it wasn't that big a chance after all.

He surprised himself by finding his way around both kitchen and café easily enough although there were one or two puzzling hiccups. But acclimatised as he was to the Sunnydale way of life, mysterious moving implements and falling food were all simply taken in his stride, although they raised some interesting questions about his new working environment. It certainly helped to explain where all the staff had gone.

Once the last of his orders was filled, Oz headed back into the main café. "So does the advice come with the job, or do I have to pay for that separately?" he asked.

"What advice?" his new boss enquired distantly, distracted by a blockage in the coffee maker.

"Still need the name of a cheap motel," Oz reminded him.

"Oh," the older man frowned slightly at the filter and then glanced up at him, "Really no place to stay?"

"Just hit town this afternoon."

The bar owner thought for a moment. "There's actually a few empty rooms upstairs," he offered, pushing a part back into place, and then smiled in delight at the once more functioning coffee maker. "Ha!"

Oz was amazed. "So, not only do you give a job to complete strangers who walk in off the street, you invite them to move in?" He shook his head, finding such naivety oddly refreshing. "That's a new approach."

"Hey, I'm desperate," he was reminded.

Just then, hearing the tinkling of the bell above the door, Oz glanced up to see a pretty blonde woman walking in. He was preparing to greet her in the true waiter fashion he'd adopted for the part when the suddenly excited manager got in first.

"Look! We have staff!"

Oz raised an eyebrow, realising that the two were connected, and altered his greeting to a casual, "Hey."

"Staff?" she queried.

"Well, I actually came in for directions and a drink, but the job will do," Oz told her.

She looked from him to the taller man in amazement. "You hired someone who walked in off the street?"

"Hey, it works for me," Oz remarked.

She regarded him with some suspicion. "Don't you already have a job?"

"Just got into town," he explained.

"Staying long?" his new employer wanted to know, apparently realising at last just how little he'd found out about this new staff member.

"Depends," was all Oz would commit himself to. He hadn't actually thought any further ahead than finding a bed for the night, as a change from sleeping in the van. Since leaving Sunnydale whenever he tried to look to the future it just seemed blank, empty. As long as he was paid for his day's work he was indifferent to whether they kept him on or not.

"Do you even know his name?" the blonde asked her partner, in frustration.

Amused again, Oz volunteered some information. "Oz."

She frowned slightly. "Wizard of?"

That was an old one. Seeing their bemused expressions at the nickname, he offered the rarely used fuller version. "Daniel Osbourne."

The blonde seemed to be thawing towards him at last. "Emma Gibson," she held out a hand in greeting. "And this idiot is my husband, David."

As they all shook hands in belated greeting, Oz felt secure enough to tease a little, "I have to say, though, the service here is not so hot. I ordered a drink and meal four hours ago, haven't seen either…"


*****

The remainder of the evening passed with little incident, other than one customer having a fit of screaming in the toilets and rushing out without stopping to explain what had happened. Seeing the alarmed look on David's face, Oz mentally filed the incident under 'curious' and got on with his work, not that they were exactly rushed off their feet. The continuation of such minor anomalies as he had similarly noted throughout the afternoon, such as utensils mysteriously moving while his back was turned and food apparently flinging itself to the floor, were likewise noted and puzzled over but not commented on. Not yet.

Later, a full and relatively successful afternoon and evening's work completed, he found himself again the subject of enquiry by his new employers as they shut up shop for the night.

"Why did you come here, anyway?" David wanted to know, as he cleaned out the coffee filters while Emma cashed up at the till.

Oz assumed he meant San Francisco in general, rather than the Monico in particular. "Just passing through on my way elsewhere."

"Yeah, but I mean why the wanderer routine?" David gave him an inquisitive look.

"Oh. Girl trouble," he replied vaguely as he wiped down the bar, deciding that including an explanation of the secret government agency wanting to experiment on or execute him if he crossed their path again probably wasn't a good idea. Not that the other half of his reason for wandering was any easier to talk about. He still found it painful to even think about Willow, never mind try to explain their relationship and its breakdown to someone. "Sorta personal."

"Ah," apparently no further explanation was needed. "Say no more. But, you're willing to stick around?"

"For now," Oz agreed. "Why not? Hey, is that room still available, because if not…"

Emma looked surprised, and gave David a sharp look, but her husband was unabashed. "He's new in town with nowhere to stay."

"I can go," Oz offered. "Bound to be a motel around somewhere."

"No," Emma sounded resigned. "The room upstairs is empty, going to waste. It's all yours until you get settled."

"Thanks."

"No, thank you," David said. "We'd have been in big trouble today if you hadn't stepped in."

Oz gave them one of his rare smiles. "Serendipity."

"What?" David looked confused.

"Happy accident," Oz explained. "Worked out well for all of us."


*****

With the café closed for the night, and David and Emma preparing an after-hours nightcap for the three of them, Oz's curiosity got the better of him at last. Too many peculiar things had happened during the day to rationalise away.

"Okay, so," he began, sitting down opposite the couple and regarding them thoughtfully. "If I promise not to run away, can I ask a question?"

David looked nervous, but nodded. "Shoot."

He decided on the direct approach. "I was wondering: what the hell is going on around here?"

There was a moment of absolute silence.

And then it was as if a dam had burst, as weeks of pent up frustration, anger and despair poured out of the troubled young couple. Oz put on his best listening face and leaned back in his chair while they talked, seeing no need to interrupt.

It was quite a tale. They talked and talked, all about their early hopes and dreams for the Monico, which had each been slowly dashed by sabotage, mysterious happenings and staff betrayal, not to mention the increasingly imminent threat of financial ruination.

Oz found his curiosity piqued on hearing that the fleeing staff had each complained that the old theatre was haunted, remembering the curious events he'd noted throughout the day. No longer knowing what to believe, David and Emma nevertheless seemed convinced that this could not be the case: that ghosts did not exist. They clung to that apparent 'fact' with ever increasing desperation, preferring to suspect an unknown human assailant of some kind. Oz, however, had seen too much weirdness in his life to dismiss the idea out of hand, but having no proof either way he preferred not to offer an opinion at this stage. The situation did, however, add an extra, unwelcome, dimension to his new employment and temporary abode, and he started to wonder if agreeing to stay the night had been wise.

It seemed rude to back out now.

As it began to grow late, Emma took Oz upstairs to the spare room David had offered him, and it was only then that the newcomer realised just what a labyrinth the old theatre was, with only a fraction of the space available being utilised for the café and the Gibsons own living quarters. There were certainly more than the 'few' empty rooms David had mentioned. As Emma cleared a few boxes off the bed and disappeared in search of clean sheets, Oz put the holdall he'd retrieved from the van down at the foot of the bed, and thought about on the odd situation he'd wandered into.

Having a bed to sleep in instead of bunking down in the van was a welcome change, and after the lengthy conversation downstairs, Oz realised for the first time just how much he had missed real human contact, having avoided such interactions for the past few weeks. He felt that, if it wasn't for the supernatural element, this could be a good place to stay for a while and earn some money while he tried to decide what to do next. The Gibsons seemed to be a genuinely nice couple, willing to give him a chance despite clearly being in trouble. That trouble could be a problem, however. They seemed to be deep in denial but Oz had seen the damage behind the scenes and the absence of staff spoke for itself. Precisely what was causing it all remained something of a mystery, but he had a pretty good idea after the curious events of the day. The fleeing staff screaming 'ghost' was, after all, a fairly large clue, no matter what David and Emma chose to believe.

His suspicions were confirmed all too soon, as he was woken at an unearthly hour by even more unearthly noises. Caught in that hazy place between sleep and wakefulness, he listened cautiously, and then dismissed the sounds as a stray dog exploring the yard outside. Hoping to drop back off, he rolled over – but abruptly came completely awake. There was someone, something standing beside his bed.

"Huh?" Oz sat bolt upright, and the shadowy figure vanished at once as he fumbled for the light switch. Looking round the room, he saw the contents of his holdall strewn across the floor and sighed. So it was going to be like that, was it? No peace for the bar staff, chase them all away.

"No such things as ghosts, huh?" he muttered to himself as he swung his legs out of bed, wondering what to do next. Reading between the lines of what he'd seen, and what David and Emma had told him, this ghost they were so determined not to believe in was both vengeful and destructive, not to mention reclusive and apparently resentful of having to share the premises. Not the most pleasant of housemates. This was not what he'd had in mind when he agreed to take the job. Agreeing to stay the night was definitely not one of his better decisions.

Just walk away, he told himself as he picked up his scattered belongings and stuffed them into the holdall again. Don't get involved. It isn't your problem. But his conscience needled away quietly, pointing out that: If you don't, who will? And then he thought of David and Emma, so blissfully ignorant of how dangerous the world could be, trying so hard to stay optimistic in the face of total ruin, and he knew he couldn't do it. Couldn't just walk away when they had been so generous toward him.

But what to do about it? You're on your own now, he reminded himself. No Scooby Gang to call for backup. If you don't help these people, no one else will. Then he smiled to himself as Giles' voice rang out in his memory: 'We begin, not surprisingly, with research.'

Fair enough, Oz decided, resigned to his fate. Research it is.

The ghost proved a highly unfriendly housemate, and after a night of broken sleep Oz rose early, wondering how the Gibsons could continue to deny its existence so fiercely. After all, it had already chased away every staff member, and they presumably hadn't been living here with it. As he checked in to see what time he should start work, David seemed surprised – pleased, but surprised – that after a day on the job and a night on the premises he was still willing to work; he wondered just how long any of his predecessors had lasted. Mulling it all over, he headed out in search of a library.

A morning spent researching at the local library proved quite revealing, and except for the aloneness felt almost like old times. A search of old newspapers and local histories made clear how impossible the site was to live or work on. It seemed nothing had ever been able to survive there longer than a few weeks. And every attempt told the same tale: sabotage, destruction, terrorised staff, and no adequate explanation given beyond rumours of ghosts and haunting.

Curiouser and curiouser, Oz thought, pushing one record aside to begin on another.


*****

Returning to the Monico slightly later than he'd intended after an instructive morning pouring over these records, Oz found the place still closed and David staring around the café in dismay. Every armchair had been slashed open, and several tables were overturned, cutlery and broken crockery scattered all around.

Gazing at the damaged furniture, Oz quietly murmured, "Spirit's got serious issues."

Horrified at the damage, David was barely listening. "What?"

"Hey, so did you know your bar was built on top of an old graveyard?" Oz asked, opting once more for the direct approach.

In his distraction, David barely noticed. "It used to be a theatre," he replied, absently. "We got the freehold really cheap."

"I'm not surprised," Oz told him, but before he could continue a pair of police officers arrived, summoned by David when he came downstairs to find the damage.

Officers Hanson and Cordoba seemed thorough enough, examining the damaged furniture and asking all the right questions. Having arrived and seen the damage mere moments before, and only having started work the previous day, Oz could tell them very little. He answered what questions came his way as quickly as possible, and then headed back upstairs to the relative security of his borrowed room, their presence disturbing him more than the ghost's. It annoyed him that the presence of such officialdom bothered him so much, having believed his post-Initiative anxiety to be a thing of the past, and he was determined not to let it show.

Soon enough, a depressed David came upstairs and joined him. "No suspects, no fingerprints, no evidence. Nothing they can do," he moaned.

"No," Oz agreed. "The police are not what you need here."

"So what are we supposed to do then?" Emma put in, having arrived just in time to hear that remark.

"Admit defeat and shut up shop," David muttered.

"No," Emma put her arms around him for a sympathetic hug. "It won't come to that."

"Already has." He was wallowing in depression. "We can't open today, not with the place looking like this. The furniture is trashed, we can't afford to keep replacing it; we can't keep the staff…"

"Hey, I'm still here," Oz interjected, but David carried on as if he hadn't heard.

"And if we can't open, we can't carry on."

"We'll figure it out," Emma told him, firmly.

"No." David didn't seem willing to be comforted. " Someone wants to put us out of business. I just wish I knew who!"

Oz regarded the couple thoughtfully, amazed that they could continue to deny what seemed so obvious to him. "You do know that the theatre is haunted, right?"

David looked exasperated. "That's what everyone keeps saying."

Oz just looked at him, wondering how many times he would have to hear the truth and see the evidence before it sank in.

"You're actually serious, aren't you?" Emma sounded amazed.

"Deadly serious," Oz confirmed. "Had an encounter of the ghostly variety last night."

They both stared at him in disbelief.

"I've been reading up," he continued. "This whole site has got majorly bad karma, going back for, like, decades. That's why the prices are so low, why the businesses here don't survive."

"But if there really is a ghost, why haven't David and I seen it?" Emma wanted to know.

"No idea," Oz shrugged. "Maybe it gets a kick out of scaring all your staff and customers away, seeing you struggle."

"Is that possible?" Emma sounded puzzled, but her expression remained disbelieving.

"Oh, in my experience, just about anything is possible," he told her seriously, remembering some of the incredible things he'd seen over the past few years.

David seemed to be resigning himself to the worst. "So, I guess this is where you head for the hills, then."

"Why would I do that?" Oz asked.

"It's what they all do," Emma explained, looking annoyed. "Start screaming about seeing a ghost, and then make a run for it."

"Actually, I kinda thought getting rid of it would be a better plan," Oz told the couple.

There was a long pause.

"Seriously?" David sounded amazed, and looked like he might actually be starting to believe what Oz was telling them. After all, the evidence was fairly compelling. "You can do that?"

"I've seen ghosts before," Oz told them. "Never pleasant, but they can be dealt with."

Emma still seemed a little sceptical. "So what, are you like a, a ghostbuster, or something?" she asked, sarcastically.

Oz was amused by the suggestion. "Really not. But I have seen this kind of thing before. Never tried to deal with it on my own, though."

"But you can deal with it?" That was all David cared about at this stage: solving the problem and saving his business.

"I can try."

"But why?" Emma sounded genuinely surprised. "I mean, everyone else…"

"I'm not everyone else," Oz pointed out. "If I left, would you know how to even begin?"

"No," David admitted.

"That's why."

"Thank you," Emma murmured, quietly but sincerely.

Oz nodded.

"So, where do we begin?" David wanted to know.

Oz felt a smile pulling at the corners of his lips at that, remembering days gone by. "We begin, as always, with research."

The Gibsons looked blank.

Oz sighed, realising that he missed the Scooby Gang, who knew how to do this stuff and who had a Vampire Slayer to lead them and a trained Watcher to guide them. Having to be 'take charge guy' did not sit easily with him. "I hit the library this morning," he explained. "That source is all tapped out. Not the best selection for the occult. We'll need to find a place that has the resources we need for this. I'll make a call, get some advice." He surprised himself at how in control he sounded, and reflected on the way that having other people relying on them could force someone to take a positive lead. Even him, it seemed.

Emma certainly seemed impressed. "How do you know all this stuff?"

"I come from Sunnydale," he told her, simply. "Town's full of demons. I kinda thought San Francisco would be quieter."

Before they could discuss the matter any further, David let out a yell of warning. Glancing up, Oz flung himself to the side just in time as a heavy box came tumbling down from a shelf, catching him a glancing blow but narrowly missing his head. As he straightened, rubbing his bruised shoulder, he found David and Emma gaping in horrified amazement, and knew that they finally believed.

"I think discussing this here is probably not such a good idea," he suggested, cautiously looking around the room for other potential threats and reflecting on the incredible turn of fate that had taken him from the Hellmouth right to San Francisco's own house of horrors. Who'd have believed it? Sheer randomness had a lot to answer for.

Wide-eyed, Emma nodded in agreement and headed for the door, which promptly slammed shut in her face. Pale faced, she scurried back to David, who wrapped both arms around her, looking toward Oz in mute appeal.

Where were Buffy and the gang when he needed them? Oz tried the door carefully. The handle turned, but the door refused to budge. Starting to get seriously worried, Oz pulled harder, only for it to thump back into his face. As he stumbled backwards, tasting blood on his lip, the door slammed shut again. The ghost definitely did not want them to get out – not now they were planning to remove it permanently. This was not good.

Behind him, David was rattling at the window, which seemed likewise stuck solid, Emma anxiously clutching at his sleeve and peering worriedly around the room in case anything else happened.

Oz kept trying the door, hearing Emma's terrified scream followed by a yell from David as the assorted contents of the box that had fallen on him started to fly around the room in a dizzying display of aerial acrobatics. All three of them had to duck and dodge these flying objects, and both men renewed their efforts at opening up escape routes. David finally gave up on the window, which had probably not been opened since the place was built, and came to help Oz with the door, Emma lending her support also. At last, it came flying open under the weight of their combined effort, allowing the trio to make a run for it. They raced downstairs, pelted all the time by a wide assortment of items, through the café – narrowly avoiding injury as the broken crockery and strewn cutlery became instant weapons – and out into the street.

The café door slammed shut behind them, so hard the bell fell off and the glass cracked.

Oz, David and Emma stood in the street gasping for breath after their exertions, only now beginning to feel the numerous scratches and bruises each had been left with.

"I was just thrown out of my own café by a ghost!" David moaned in despair and disbelief. Still trembling with fear, Emma moved over to hug him, and the couple held one another close, each murmuring reassurances to the other. Oz gave them a moment before interrupting.

"We should find someplace safe to hole up."

"Like where?" David asked, as he and Emma turned to look at Oz.

"Anywhere," he told them, wearily. He'd been in town all of a day – how was he supposed to know? "We can take my van."


*****

Part 3

*****

At the café where they had taken refuge – much though he hated to give custom to a rival – David paid for three coffees and handed one to Emma, his hands still shaking slightly. Emma's were too, he noted as she took the cup, the coffee spilling slightly. Leaving the third cup on the counter, he blew on the surface of his own to cool it, and gazed helplessly at his wife. Emma looked as distraught as he felt, and there were tears in her eyes. Just yesterday they had been sure of how the world worked. They had been in despair, it was true, and worried about who might be attacking their business and how long they could keep it running, but they'd understood how things worked. Now everything was uncertain.

The Monico was haunted.

David wondered if that might start to make sense if he told himself often enough. On one level, he thought perhaps he'd always known. It was the only explanation that really made sense, and enough people had told him. But he'd never allowed himself to believe. It was just too ridiculous. Clinging to the belief that ghosts did not exist was far easier than confronting the reality of them in the business he'd invested so much into. He couldn't get over how calm Oz had been about the whole thing. Seen this kind of thing before? How and why? It made David's head spin just trying to think about it.

And speaking of Oz…

Giving Emma a loving and hopefully reassuring kiss on the top of her head, David picked up the third coffee and headed over to the far corner of the café, Emma close behind. In that secluded corner Oz held the payphone to his ear, listening intently and scribbling the odd note on a piece of paper.

"Thanks. I'll try that," he was saying as they approached. "Yeah. Uh…no. No need to tell anyone I called. Unless they ask. Okay. Bye." Hanging up the phone, he looked across at David and Emma, waving the piece of paper he was holding. "Got a place to start."

"Start?" Emma let out a sigh that was close to being a wail, and flopped onto a chair at the nearest table. "Start? How about starting with 'I want this all to go away now, please'?"

"Well, that's kind of the plan," Oz told her, sitting down opposite. David pulled another chair close to Emma's and squeezed her hand, physical reassurance being all he had to offer.

"What did your friend tell you?" David asked, still finding it all hard to take in. It was also hard to believe that someone who was apparently drifting aimlessly around the country and had wandered randomly into his café could have contacts who were expert ghost-hunters, or whatever. And yet here they were.

"Gave me a few leads," Oz took a cautious sip of his still too hot coffee before continuing. "Stuff we'll need to pick up before we can get this thing exorcised."

"Exorcised?" Emma looked horrified, her voice becoming shrill.

"Well, yeah." Oz gave her a quizzical look. "Traditionally, that's how ghosts are got rid of."

"I saw that film," she was shaking her head firmly. "I can't, it…it's just too much."

"Well, I don't know any other way," Oz explained as David put an arm around Emma's shoulders and gently kissed her cheek. "But as far as I know, that's not how it usually goes."

"That's comforting," David muttered sarcastically, not the slightest bit reassured.

"Your call," Oz shrugged. "It's your place."


*****

Oz slowly drank his coffee while he waited for David and Emma to return from 'getting some air'. Having made the decision to stick around and help them out, it was a little frustrating that they were having so much trouble coming to terms with what was happening, but also understandable. It was a lot to take in all at once. But on the other hand, as far as he could see, the only way to save their home and livelihood was to get rid of the ghost. That meant an exorcism of some kind. They were going to have to come to terms with the idea sooner or later.

And sooner or later seemed to be upon him already as, glancing up, he saw the couple returning. They looked somewhat shaky still, but resolved.

"Okay," David began as they took their seats once more. "We want to understand. But this is like a whole new world for us."

"I get that." Oz nodded. He hadn't found it such a leap, but then, he'd grown up in Sunnydale, home of the Hellmouth. He'd seen people possessed by the spirits of dead lovers in his High School, been attacked by zombies, witnessed every adult in town fall under the spell of cursed candy, and watched the mayor turn into a giant snake at graduation, and consequently tended to be fairly open-minded about these things.

Looking at their expectant expressions, he realised with some reluctance that he was going to have to cast himself in the Giles role and explain everything from scratch. At least, explain his working hypothesis from scratch.

"Okay, now, bear with me here," he began. "This is just from reading up this morning and getting an opinion from my friend. He knows way more about this stuff than I do."

"Okay." David nodded, listening intently, as Emma rested her head on his shoulder, his arm tight around her shoulders.

"Like I said," Oz continued. "The area where the Monico is now? It used to be a graveyard." He'd learned that there was a spot outside the walls of the old cemetery where criminals and beggars were buried, way back in the early days of the settlement – un-consecrated ground. The Monico had been built on that very spot. "So, I'm guessing the site had some seriously bad karma to begin with."

"And then the Monico was built there," David surmised.

Oz nodded. "Yeah. According to the records, it did well enough to begin with, but then something happened."

"Oh?" Emma was starting to take more of an interest, sitting back up straight and watching him closely.

"I'm not sure exactly how it went," Oz admitted. "There wasn't much evidence. It looks like there was some kind of murder, but it was all hushed up.

"Ooh," Emma's eyes went wide at the suggestion that she'd been living on the site of a murder.

"The newspapers from the time are full of rumours about the theatre being haunted," Oz carried on with the story he'd unearthed. The evidence was sketchy, but it seemed likely that something had been disturbed, restless spirits or something: either by the murder, or they caused it. "It's all kinda vague. But your not-so friendly household ghost seems to have taken up residence about that time. The theatre closed down pretty quick after that, and the place has been pretty much unusable ever since. You're not the first people to try."

"There'd been some work done before we took over," David recalled. "But I just thought we were lucky with the price."

"Yeah but…" Emma's voice trailed off and her brow knitted in concentration. "Damn."

Oz gave her a quizzical look.

"Damn," David agreed with his wife. Looking at Oz, he explained: "We had some trouble getting the renovations done. There were lots of accidents on site."

"And we had to change building firms twice mid-job," Emma added.

"And now we know why," David sighed, obviously unhappy with it all.

"We do," Oz agreed. It was hardly surprising to learn that they'd had difficulties even before opening for business. What was surprising was that they'd stuck at it for so long. Denial could be a powerful thing.

"So where does that leave us?" Emma wanted to know.

"Well, to summarise," Oz said. "Lots of serious negative energy hanging around. I'm not sure we can do much about that. But it shouldn't matter as long as we can shut down this particular ghost that doesn't like to share the real estate."

"But how?" David asked, plaintively.

Oz hesitated slightly before replying. "It's kinda dangerous. Are you sure you want to get into this?"

"Are you sure?" David turned the question back around on him.

It was a fair question, Oz had to admit. He had no stake in this whatsoever. Except that he'd promised he'd help. He wasn't sure if getting involved like this made him completely insane, or just suicidally reckless, but he knew he couldn't walk away from it now. Whatever, he nodded.

"I said I'd help. I meant it."

David and Emma looked at each other for a long moment. Then David took a deep breath and looked back at Oz. "This is our home. Our business. We've put everything into it. We're sure. Let's do it."

Oz gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment, running over in his mind the instructions Giles had given him and mentally editing the older man's wordiness into something easier to understand.

"What do we have to do?" Emma asked, her eyes filled with fear but her expression hardened into firm resolve.


*****

According to Giles, it was all about de-anchoring the spirit from the area it had attached itself to. In this case, that was the Monico. There apparently was a whole process involved in this, not to mention a dress code that was all about conductivity and natural fibres, but what it all boiled down to was basically telling the ghost it no longer belonged on this plane of existence, and to push off. Figuratively speaking. In practice, of course, nothing was quite that simple.

Giles had also said that people who attempted this and got it wrong tended to end up either dead or insane, which was not the most reassuring insight he could have passed on. Oz hadn't mentioned that part to David and Emma. They were frightened enough as it was.

They spent the rest of the day gathering the resources Giles had recommended, reading up as much as possible, and generally preparing. Having to guide David and Emma by the hand through all this brought home to Oz just how much he already knew and took for granted. Sunnydale life had been an education in itself, and so had Scooby tenure, however brief it had turned out to be.


*****

Getting back into the Monico to perform their DIY exorcism was the first problem. The ghost was now seriously disturbed, and clearly had no intention of letting them close enough to dispose of it. Battling with the front door drew far too much attention from curious passers-by and forced them to retreat around the back. Gaining entry was no easier there, but was far less conspicuous.

In the end, David simply broke a window, wincing as he did so at the thought of deliberately damaging more of his property.

The ghost did not like that. The broken glass came flying back out of the window, showering over them and forcing a brief retreat, arms flung across their faces for protection against the painfully sharp fragments. Re-grouping, they advanced again. Oz was the first to climb in through the broken window, scraping his elbow on a sliver of glass they'd missed. Turning back to help Emma through, he knocked that last tiny shard out before anyone else could be hurt by it.

All seemed quiet as the three of them final