Not far enough.
His tired body arched in the tall weeds and the pine needles, his spine bowed with the pain.
And then came the howl.
But not from his own throat.
It came from the wind. One voice. No...two. Two deep, passionate, hails to the dark Vermont forests. So free...so deliriously happy that his own blood answered the challenge. He felt the wolf rise from his flesh. Hair burst forth from his pores...his hands curled. The beads around his neck were cool and soothing, but the call of the wild was hot...like a primeval beat that fought with sense and overcame it.
He rose, as a great red beast, from the ruins of his clothes, threw back his head, and mingled his voice with the others. With the wind. With the earth. With the spirits. And then he ran. Farther and farther from the man's road. From the metal prison he'd driven across country. The woods called him deep and the grass was soft and slick under the pads of his feet.
In the distance he could smell the combined musk of female and male. Something joyous. Something familiar. He had known it once in his skin. Had he ever known it in his fur? No...not like this. Not with the full moon and the howl so right.
He ran faster and faster...the night flew by. And he sang the song of ancestors he'd never known. Of a pack he didn't cleave to. He ran into the blackness where Daniel Osborne didn't have to be "Oz"...but where he could just be.
Sunlight danced on his eyelids...forcing them open. And his delirium offered him the vision of a blond wolf. Or was it a blond girl? A blond wolfgirl? He closed his eyes again, groaning against the aches and twinges of the night's run. His conscience. That's what it was. Making him see Veruca...making him feel her blood on his tongue like he had every day for the last 6 months.
"The puppy's waking up."
He didn't remember his conscience ever letting Veruca speak. And her voice didn't sound like this. So light and full of humor.
A second voice joined it. A low growl, full of amusement. "One look at you, Little Sister, and he's liable to conk back out again."
The non-Veruca was laughing. "Don't call me that, you incestuous perv!"
"I just like keeping it in the family."
He heard blows...and tussling...and something like, "If you even look at Esme's tail, I will have your balls, Gabriel!"
"You all ready DO, my love," the one called Gabriel murmured, sounding like he'd thrown up the white flag.
Their combined laughter was like music.
Images flashed through Oz's mind. The moon. The change. The run. The two howls. Two howls. His head exploded when he lifted it, but, as he opened his eyes again, the pain began to fade. It dropped back from his pupils and everything cleared...
A girl was watching him with interest. She was indeed blond. All long limbs and sensuality. And golden. Her skin seemed perpetually golden and glowing. His nostrils flared and he felt his body stir. But he choked down a gasp as the dominating growl came from her right. A dark man with bright blue eyes and broad shoulders. He didn't look offended...just assertive.
They were both as naked as he.
If he hadn't known what he was, he would've thought he'd woken up in the middle of some bizarre pagan ritual sans his virtue. But he was wolf.
And so were they.
"Uh...hi," he greeted, sitting up slowly, feeling as awkward and dumb as a newborn pup. "I'm Oz."
"Hi." The wolfgirl gave him a dazzling smile. "My name's Vivian."
The small country inn was charming. All bricks and whitewash and wood floors. Stables and outbuildings surrounded it, as did acres of land. And nobody had seemed to care that Gabriel and Vivian had escorted a half naked young man into a back parlor. He'd even gotten a few smiles. One from a tall, blond woman whose resemblance to Vivian probably made her the "Esme" his new acquaintances had spoken of in the clearing.
Odd. Very odd.
"I just don't understand why there's pain when you shift back and forth from skin to fur, Oz. Or weakness." Vivian's blond brows knitted together as she leaned back against the arm of an overstuffed leather sofa and idled her toes in her lover's lap. "For us, the change is pleasurable...infinitely pleasurable." Her voice became smoky as she shared a knowing glance with Gabriel.
"Beats me." Oz shrugged, sipping the coffee they'd given him and letting the hot liquid soothe his howl-weary throat. "I got bit. Almost three years ago. And it's always hurt."
"Bitten?" Gabriel wondered. "I've heard of loup garou that were born of bite...but I've never met one. I always thought it was a story the elders told us so we wouldn't play with Homo sapiens." His dark brows knitted together just like his mate's. "Strange."
'Strange' didn't even begin to describe his life. Especially the past months of it. "If you weren't bitten, how'd you get it?" Oz sank down in the chair's cushions, meeting their curious eyes across the table between them.
"We are creatures of the Moon," Vivian answered, with a proud shake of her tawny mane. "We are born generation after generation."
"Homo lupus," offered Gabriel with a toothy smile. "Born of the forest and of each other. When our mates finally give in, that is." He elbowed Vivian and she looked at him with mock insult, elbowing him back.
"How long've you two been together?" Despite all the serious questions he ached to ask, Oz couldn't resist smiling.
"Not long enough."
They said at the same time...and then swatted each other with a little claw.
"Two years," Gabriel replied with more levity after Vivian had ceased her attack. "And it has done our pack good."
"Your pack?" He couldn't keep the longing out of his voice. More than two? More werewolves? Living so calmly and quietly in the Vermont countryside? Could it be possible? Was this was Veruca had spoken of when she'd spoken of being a wolf all the time? It couldn't have been...she hadn't had a pack. She'd been alone. Like him. Like killers were meant to be.
"Our family," Vivian expanded, gently. "There are a lot of us, Oz. And we've fought hard to stay together. To protect each other. We all run this inn together. A few people work in the nearest town. The children go to school there. And our secret is kept among us."
"How do you do it? How do you survive every day with the wolf?" He leaned forward, eagerly, balancing his pewter mug on his knee and ignoring the searing heat that radiated through the rip in his jeans.
Gabriel shook his head, dismissively. "The question is, Boy...how do you survive every day with the man? Being trapped in between is no joy. It's probably what causes the pain when you change." The dark-haired alpha wolf shot a mysterious look at his wife. "The change is your choice, Oz. Not your prison."
"It's hard," Vivian added, her lovely voice full of empathy. "It's hard to let go of the illusions you build up about what you are. But once you do...you can revel in the fur. And in your skin."
"I don't get it." Oz shook his head. "I just don't. It's never been that easy." Not that anything ever really was. It was easy to smile. Easy to pretend to be strong and silent. It was harder to suppress the screams.
"It will be. One day. Until then, you run with us." Gabriel's eyes held a blue light that brought up the beast. That made the hair prickle up from beneath his skin and dance back down again. "Stay here. Heal whatever wounds you have inside. And run with the pack."
A leader was speaking...and Oz's inner lone wolf was bowing.
"Okay," he murmured, finding the word to be the easiest he had spoken since leaving Sunnydale again. "Okay...I can do that."
"Good!" Vivian's smile was both canine and girlish. "Just the other day, Willem was complaining that the red wolves are outnumbered. Now, he can stop being such a puppy!"
"I doubt Willem will ever stop being a puppy," Gabriel laughed. Oz laughed, too. He couldn't help himself. He didn't know who Willem was...but just the thought...the thought of more of his kind...it helped. Just like the run. Just like the forest.
He finished his coffee slowly...and breathed.
A chorus of howls filled the air. Teeth nipped playfully at his heels and flank. He leapt away from the four, hyper, young wolves he'd joined up with to make Five. Willem...Finn...Ulf...Gregory. The loopy camaraderie and the silent acceptance of his own silence had eased so much of the last year away. It was like being in a band again. Except they were all tone deaf. He didn't mind....he didn't mind at all.
Gabriel's authoritative voice rose up and called them towards the trees. They followed their leader's command with exuberant bounds, letting the wind skim over their fur and carry them across the night. A blond wolf appeared from the underbrush. Vivian's knowing smile nearly made him trip on his hind legs. A princess in both flesh and fur. He kept up pace...running with the rhythm of the dark forest...throwing back his head and letting the howl of his pack echo through the sky. His blood was shouting. His muscles rippled with ecstasy...tight and straining. Miles and miles...over the grass...over branches and logs...bursting through bushes like puppies at play.
The blond wolf met up with the black wolf and they began to dance under the starlight. Teasing...sensual...primal...natural.
Oz, too, danced.
Until he was one with the Children of the Moon.
Until he was one with the wolf.
Until he was one with the man.
Until he was one with himself.