Nothing the Same, Book 3
Rating: PG13 - NC-17 Individual chapters will carry specific warnings.
Feedback & concrit: yes, please
Disclaimer: don't own them, never will, just playing with them
Spoilers: Primarily season 4, but anything from Season 1 on.
Summary: sequel to Nothing the Same & Nothing the Same, Book 2
Previous parts here
It took circling the crime scene twice, each time further out before Oz found the smell he was looking for. Following his lead, Xander couldn’t help feeling like the dumb tenderfoot in all those old westerns, the one who couldn’t see the trail the tracker was following even when it was pointed out to him. It was weird because Oz wasn’t doing anything obvious. As far as Xander could tell, Oz wasn’t even breathing in harder than usual, much less bending over and sniffing the ground. At one point, he just stopped and said “got it” quietly, then began walking diagonally away from the taped off crime scene as if he was simply going for a stroll. The boy had been killed on the edge of town and now Oz led the way uphill and into the woods, following the trails that wound through the sparse underbrush.
After nearly 20 minutes steady walking, they were well into the range of hills that ran almost north-south, between Sunnydale and the coast. Growing up, Xander had hiked these woods almost every weekend with Jesse, and now he wondered when they had stopped. Somewhere around 8th grade, he figured, his thoughts in the past as his feet automatically following the once-familiar trails, when Jesse had developed his crush on Cordelia and had wanted to spend the weekends going to movies and playing basketball and swimming: activities he might run into Cordy doing.
Following silently in Oz’s footsteps, lost in his memories, Xander almost ran into the other man’s back when Oz came to a sudden stop outside a cave entrance. From what he remembered of the caves in the area, it was one of the larger openings, easily tall enough for a person to walk inside without having to duck and Xander squinted at it suspiciously as Oz spoke for the first time since he’d found the scent trail:
“I can tell it went in here but the scent isn’t particularly strong. Whatever it is, it’s not real close.”
Xander chewed his lip, looking around the area and struggling to remember old landmarks. “I think this is one of the entrances to the old World War II bunkers.” Oz looked blank and Xander explained: “They built them all along the west coast in case the Japanese invaded. There are tunnels and caves all through these hills, and the army fortified a bunch of them.” He moved closer and began pushing aside the vines that grew in tangled profusion, flowing down the sides of the low cliff and softening the ominous look of the dark opening. “There used to be metal doors closing off the entrances but they got worried about people being trapped inside, so they took them down years ago.”
“I’ve read about that but I didn’t know Sunnydale had any.” Oz said absently, his eyes studying the opening. “You up for going on?”
“A lot of these caves and tunnels connect together and their pretty extensive. If this thing’s got a nest or something in here, pinning down the location would help a lot, or we could be searching these caves for days,” Xander said thoughtfully. He see any trace of the rusty metal hinges the army had left in place, the hinges that invariably signaled the cave was one of the old bunkers “You think you’ll be able to tell when we’re getting close?”
“I think so.” Oz gave him an apologetic look. “This is still a bit new to me.”
“You’re not the only one,” Xander muttered, then added more loudly. “Let’s try it. But - ready to run at the first sign of trouble?” he questioned.
“Maybe the second sign,” Oz said, once again looking a little wolfish around the edges.
Following Oz’s nose, they moved from chamber to chamber cautiously, alert for any sign of the whatever-it-was that they were tracking. Some of the rooms were simply caves, others had concrete and steel reinforcing the stone walls. The army corp of engineers had done a fairly slap-dash job setting up these bunkers, working in the panicked months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In a lot of cases, they had simply enlarged existing caves, shoring up the ceilings with concrete walls and blasting connecting tunnels through what had once been solid stone.
Xander had a sinking feeling that all these chambers hadn’t connected this neatly when he and Jesse had been exploring these caves ten years ago. Maybe as kids, they had deliberately made the caves seem more labyrinthine and complicated than they really were, but he distinctly remembered circling and backtracking and encountering dead-ends and blocked passages with Jesse that he and Oz simply weren’t running into now.
The caves were cool and damp. Enough light filtered through from the entrances and air shafts the army had installed so they could see where they were going. Roots had forced their way through the dirt ceiling in places and moss and lichen grew everywhere. The quiet was oppressive, broken only by their muffled footsteps and his own thundering heart. Oz was seeming less and less sure of himself, saying the enclosing stone walls were concentrating the smell, making it seem to come from all directions. Whatever they were following had either been using these caves for awhile, long enough for the scent to permeate the walls, or something about being indoors was interfering with his sense of smell.
There was no sign that anything had been using these caves, so they pressed on. Xander was beginning to wonder if the thing they were following had simply taken shelter in the caves and it was just passing through, when Oz came to an abrupt halt.
Looking over his shoulder, Xander blinked in surprise. In one corner of a concrete reinforced room, someone had set up what looked like nothing so much as a home office. Granted, the desk was an old door resting on sections of metal pipe, but there were two computers on it and a couple of metal storage cabinets had been set up against the walls. There were small lights mounted on the wall and the computers were on, the monitors powered down but the hard drives had red power lights glowing on their faces.
“Well, this is unexpected.”
His voice sounded unnaturally loud after the long silence and he winced.
“I agree.” Oz crossed over to the computers and switched on the monitors, while Xander checked the other two entrances to the room, relieved to find no signs of life in the connecting chambers. Finding none, he returned to the makeshift desk and watched over Oz’s shoulder as Oz settled into the chair and typed a command into the computer.
Eyes narrowed intently, Oz flicked rapidly through several screen and Xander began trying to figure out where the power was coming from, following the tangle of cords to a single extension cord that snaked along the floor, leading to a small generator in the next chamber. Xander was liking this less and less and he hastily returned to the first room, thinking it was high time he and Oz got the hell out of here. Before he could suggest doing just that, Oz sat back in the chair he’d appropriated.
“Whoa.” Oz sounded shocked and Xander looked at the gibberish on the monitor screen.
“Someone’s hooked into a lot of places.” Oz rolled the chair across to the second computer and began typing and clicking on the second keyboard while Xander puzzled over what Oz had found on the first computer, wondering what Oz had seen in the lines of code. Oz’s low whistle brought his attention to the second computer and Xander saw he’d opened a picture file.
“Security feeds,” Oz told him. He frowned. “That looks like City Hall.” They watched for a minute more. “I don’t think these are live, just stored backups.” Oz flicked a glance in Xander’s direction. “These computers have firewalls and encryptions like I’ve never seen before. It would take someone a lot better than me to crack the system. This is one of the few files that doesn’t require passwords to access.”
“I’ll have to fix that.”
Xander’s head snapped around at the sound of the intruding voice, and he stared appalled at the thing standing at the entrance to one of the tunnels. Peripherally, he was aware of Oz coming to his feet, but time seemed to freeze as his mind tried to come to grips with what he was seeing.
A combination of demon, human and metallic, was how Oz had described the scent at the crime scene. There was no question in Xander’s mind that they were looking at the source of those smells. He just had no idea of what it was. Tall, well over six foot, and built like a line-backer, was his first thought. That is, if linebackers came in shades of green and grotesque. Seven of Nine looked hot with her metal implants, he thought dazedly, this thing had chunks of metal grafted onto its head, its shoulder, its arm and metal staples holding together things that weren’t never meant to be joined. It was wearing boots and army fatigue pants and nothing else unfortunately. One side of its face was human, a good looking man with short cropped dark hair, the other side was green with a red eye that almost seemed to glow in the dimly lit room.
Xander realized he was clinging white-knuckled to the back of Oz’s chair at about the same time he heard Oz growling. Dragging his eyes away from the monster, he saw that Oz was changing, the growl becoming a full-out snarl as Oz shifted fully to wolf form before Xander could blink.
He was a lifetime too late, his reaching arms closing on empty air as Oz sprang at the monster, his wild snarl echoing loudly in the room, matched by the laughter of the monster as it casually batted Oz away, with no more effort than a child swatting an annoying mosquito.
Oz yelped as the thing’s arm connected, flinging him away with unbelievable speed and power. He crashed into one of the storage units, the metal giving way under the force of the impact and Oz crumpled to the floor, lying unmoving as his body morphed back into human form, his bare flesh pale against the dirt floor.
Xander tore his gaze away from Oz’s body, and swallowed hard as he saw the thing was looking at him curiously.
“A werewolf, I believe,” it said. “Are you one also? It will be interesting to learn if there are internal differences between the wolf form and the human.” The thing looked back at Oz’s unmoving body. “Its form reverts to human when dead or unconscious. That will be an interesting challenge.”
Xander was not liking the sound of this. His mouth was too dry to form words and all he could think was to run. With luck, the thing wasn’t as fast as it was strong.
With adrenaline-fueled desperation, Xander picked up the chair and flung it at the thing, turning to run even as he threw it with every ounce of strength in him. He heard the thing laugh again and the clatter of the chair hitting the far wall but he didn’t look back. Racing to Oz, he scooped Oz up and shoved him through the opening into the next chamber. Heart pounding, he whirled around and saw the thing striding towards him. Praying it wasn’t fastened to the wall, Xander overturned the dented metal cabinet, pulling it over so it blocked the opening, falling to the floor with a deafening crash.
Already hearing the thing shoving the cabinet out of its way, Xander yanked Oz up by one arm and hoisted him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, thanking every god he could think of that Oz was fairly small and Xander had nearly a year’s practice carrying heavy loads at the construction sites.
He took off down the tunnel in a lumbering run. It wasn’t the way they’d come in but that was less important than getting the hell away from that thing as fast as possible. He didn’t know if Oz was alive or dead, didn’t know how badly he might be exacerbating Oz’s injuries, but all of that was unimportant in the face of a Frankenstein monster that talked so casually about studying “internal differences”.
His breath was rasping in his lungs and sweat was pouring down his face when he slowed his steps, knowing he wouldn’t be able to go on if he kept up this pace. He was three chambers away from the thing’s lair when he slowed by necessity to a walk. He looked behind for the first time and was relieved to see nothing following him. Shifting his grip, he was able to circle Oz’s wrist with one hand and the wave of relief almost sent him to his knees as he felt a pulse thumping against the pale skin.
He didn’t dare set Oz down to examine him, he couldn’t risk being caught by that thing. He’d just have to hope that Oz wouldn’t be harmed by being carried over his shoulder, that Oz could hang on until he could get him to a doctor.
For now, Xander put his head down and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, on putting distance between them and the nighmare behind them, hoping to find an exit before he collapsed under Oz’s weight.
“Giles! Give me a hand here,” Xander called as he pushed open the door of the apartment. He helped Oz inside, the older man leaning heavily against him now.
Oz had come to not long after Xander had found an exit to the caves and Xander had lowered him to the ground, his back to a tree as Oz looked around with bleary, confused eyes. They hadn’t dared rest for long, and, when they moved on, Oz had insisted on walking. Xander’s trembling muscles had forced him to agree, even as he hastily tore his shirt into a makeshift sling for Oz’s badly swollen arm.
They’d stopped again at the edge of the woods, and Xander had left Oz long enough to steal a pair of pants for him, kicking open the door of an empty house without shame and rifling rapidly through drawers, finding a pair of sweat pants and a couple of tee-shirts for both of them. Oz’s clothing had not survived the transition from human to wolf and half-carrying a battered, bleeding naked man through the streets of Sunnydale was just asking for trouble they hadn’t been prepared to deal with.
“What happened?” Giles asked, moving to Oz’s other side and helping him into a chair.
“I think we found out what 314 is,” Xander said grimly.
Giles reached for the phone. “We should call an ambulance.”
“No.” Oz’s voice was faint but adamant.
“My dear chap, you’re badly injured.”
“I don’t want to be on that thing’s radar.”
“What thing?” Giles turned to look at them, the phone receiver forgotten in his hand.
“It’s half human, half demon, half machine,” Xander said. “Some kind of science fiction cyborg. It threw Oz 30 feet like he was made of paper. It’s the scariest thing I’ve seen in my life and that includes the Mayor post-transformation.”
“I couldn’t even touch it,” Oz said, still sounding dazed. “Not even in wolf-form. Attacking it was like crashing into a brick wall.”
“Are you sure you don’t need to see a doctor?” Giles asked again, gesturing with the phone.
“No.” Oz was adamant and Giles reluctantly put the phone down. “Got any aspirin?” Oz asked and Xander was relieved to see of hint of his usual dead-pan humor return.
“Yes, I should have that at least. Why are you so concerned about going to hospital?” Giles pressed.
“Giles, this thing has set up shop in a cave. He had a couple of computers going and it looked like he was tapped into just about every system in town. Oz’s right, he can’t risk there being records of Daniel Osborn checking into the hospital with exactly the injuries you’d get from being slammed into a wall by a monster. If that thing goes looking for him…” Xander looked bleakly at Giles and let the silence speak for itself.
“Well, then. Tea and aspirin it is,” Giles said, moving briskly to the kitchen.
Xander followed him and opened the freezer. “How are you fixed for ice packs?” They’d have to figure out something to do about Oz’s arm, which he suspected was broken. Maybe drive to Los Angeles and go to a hospital there?
The kettle was whistling and Oz was settled on the couch with an ice pack to the enormous bruise on his face, having swallowed several aspirin. He’d moved stiffly the few steps to the couch, obviously in a lot of pain, although he hadn’t said anything, and was lying with his eyes closed, lines of pain darkening his face. He needed to see a doctor, Xander thought worriedly, just the door swung open.
“Buffy?” Giles said, sounding surprised.
Xander looked up from fixing a second ice pack and saw Buffy at the door, one arm around Riley as she steered him inside. He swore sharply and dropped the ice on the counter, practically running out of the tiny kitchen to block them before they got more than three steps inside.
“What the hell is he doing here?” he demanded.
“Xander, get out of the way. I’ll explain.”
“This isn’t a good time,” he hissed, hoping she would get the message. Damn Buffy anyway, she knew Oz was supposed to be here and still, she’d brought the one guy they had all agreed shouldn’t associate the three of them together.
“Sorry, Oz,” Buffy said, looking over Xander’s shoulder at Oz, who’d sat up enough to see over the edge of the couch. And be seen. “I didn’t have a choice. Riley’s sick.”
“And you bring him here?” Xander asked harshly. This was not the time to be mother-henning the enemy.
“I didn’t have a choice.”
“Of course you did.”
“Xander, it’s ok,” Oz said. “Calm down.”
Realizing he was making things worse by being so obvious about not wanting Riley here, Xander backed down and tried to cover. “Fine. But Oz got hut playing basketball and we’ve got enough problems without giving him Riley’s flu or whatever.”
As uncharitable as he was feeling towards all of the soldiers right now, Xander had to admit that Riley looked really ill. He was flushed and sweating, his hands shaking uncontrollably and he looked unsteady on his feet. He was resisting Buffy’s efforts to get him to sit down though, looking suspiciously from one to another of them with blood shot, red-rimmed eyes.
“I don’t know why she brought me here,” he complained, trying to pull out of Buffy’s grip and ending up having to cling to her to keep from stumbling when she refused to release her grip on his arm. “I should be with my friends.”
“Riley, I told you, you can’t trust them. They’ve been drugging you.”
“They wouldn’t do that,” Riley said stubbornly. It sounded like they had been arguing about this for awhile.
“It’s true.” Oz sat a little straighter, wincing as he did and Riley stared at him suspiciously.
“How would you know?” he began, then said: “Wait - I know you. You’re the guy that was hanging around our House the other day.” He looked accusingly at Buffy. “You’re sending people to spy on us now?”
Riley cut her off. “Who’s side are you on? You said you kill demons but every time I see you you’re with them. First the vampire, then that bar, and now - what? Who are these guys.”
And suddenly Xander was staring down the barrel of a gun. Riley had pulled his weapon with surprising speed and was pointing it in Xander’s face with one shaking hand. “Are you people even human?”
“Riley, don’t.” Buffy’s voice was somehow both soothing and commanding. “Xander’s human, I promise. Put the gun down.”
With slow, easy movements, Xander put both hands up in a surrender gesture. “Riley, we’re not a threat. Everyone’s human here.”
For a long, tense moment no one moved, no one even seemed to breathe. Xander sure wasn’t. He’d never had a gun pulled on him before and it was scaring the crap out of him, especially a gun in the shaking hands of someone who looked like they were on the verge of losing it entirely. He could see Buffy’s muscles tense, judging her moment and was worried that if she knocked the gun away, Riley would end up shooting Giles instead. Or all of them. Buffy was fast but not bullet fast.
Riley spun away suddenly and slammed his hands down on the dining room table and Xander breathed again for the first time in what felt like hours. He leaned against the back of the couch, his legs trembling and unable to hold him up. Buffy had her arm around Riley and was speaking softly, reassuringly in his ear. Screw comforting him, Xander thought. Get the damn gun away from him.
“Riley, you’re sick. You’re not thinking straight.”
Giles cleared his throat. “Buffy’s quite right,” he said in his most reassuring British tones, “I’m afraid you do look rather ill.” Moving slowly and calmly, keeping within Riley’s line of sight at all times, he approached the two of them, his eyes mild behind his glasses, librarian personality front and center. “I have a spare room upstairs, if you would like to lie down for a few minutes.”
“Come on, Riley. Let’s get you to bed.”
His body racked with tremors, Riley straightened slowly, moving like an old man. Xander’s lips tightened as Riley automatically re-holstered his weapon but he didn’t say anything to break the fragile spell that Buffy and Giles had created between them. With Buffy gently urging, they mounted the steps to the second floor together, Buffy’s arm around Riley’s waist as she supported his shaky steps.
Just before they were lost to sight around the corner, she looked back and mouthed: “Wait for me” at them.
Xander wasn’t the only one who breathed out a silent sigh of relief as the two of them disappeared into the guest bedroom.