After they retrieved Xander's car, the two arrived at Oz's aunt's house
and found her staring into space at the kitchen table. She pulled herself
out of the trance long enough to ask, "Oz, can I talk to you for a
Xander watched Oz follow her out of the room. After a few minutes of
quiet discussion Xander couldn't actually hear, Oz reentered the kitchen.
"We need to talk."
"Okay." Xander wasn't quite sure what was coming, but he couldn't
remember the last time those four words preceeded anything good.
Oz took a deep breath. "Well, Molly has this friend's party -- a
barbeque, really -- to go to tonight, and we're invited to go with her,
but there's going to be drinking and drugs and stuff. It's not like a
frat party where everyone is drinking just to get as drunk as possible and
maybe puke on the couch, but it's still going to involve a lot of alcohol
and probably pot. If you don't want to go, just say so. We can hang here
or go to a movie or something else."
Xander was silent for a moment. "Oh. No, it's cool. Sounds like fun."
And here he thought he was going to be treated to a lecture about sexual
interaction between males and how they would have to cool things off as
long as they were there. Maybe longer. "So why are you telling me this
and not her?"
"Because she thought it would be inappropriate for her to tell you without
knowing how you felt about this sort of thing. She's offended more than
one person with her moral stances. She lost one of her best friends
because of her liberal leanings. She didn't want to add you to the list
of people horrified by her position on issues. She already knows how I
feel about this stuff, and I know what she thinks, so she's free to talk
about things without fear of driving me away. So I got to be the sounding
board. Oh, and it won't run too late. Most of these people have to work
tomorrow, so they want to get to bed early after this weekend."
"The curse of being an adult?"
Oz smiled. "Yeah. Something like that."
Molly chose that moment to pop back into the kitchen. "Okay, are you guys
ready to roll? Oz, you're driving." She tossed her car keys to Oz.
"What? You know I hate driving downtown."
He just rolled his eyes. "Yes, Auntie M."
After lunch, the two teens found their way to a nearby park. A park that,
oddly, consisted of a beach. A beach. In Seattle. Every time he thought
he had seen it all, Xander always discovered something new. "So, Oz,
what's the deal with your aunt? I mean, you guys are closer than any
other two people I've ever seen. At least any other aunt and nephew."
He sighed. He had known the question was coming. He had hoped that it
would be later rather than sooner, but here it was. "Okay. First of all,
no one else knows about this, and no one is to know about it."
"No one knows? What about --"
"No one. Not even my parents. I've thought about telling Giles. In
case anything went wrong with the werewolf thing, so he would know about
my fallback thing. But that's it." He stared straight ahead at the
horizon. "Four years ago, I decided that I couldn't live at home any
more. I don't even remember why now, but it seemed incredibly important
at the time. So I packed up my guitar and a backpack and left. Somehow,
I ended up here. Sleeping under bridges, begging for change in the U
District with all of the other Ave rats because I had already pawned my
Xander stared in shock. "Oz, I had no idea."
"I know." Now he turned his gaze to Xander. "But that's not the point of
this story. See, Moll had moved up here a couple of years before to go to
school at the University of Washington. She was still going to school
back then, so she spent a lot of time on the Ave between classes and
stuff." He dropped his eyes to his hands. "One day, she saw me spare-
changing it. I wanted to die. Seriously. I was so humiliated that I
actually thought about all the various forms of suicide that I had heard
about. It had been cold, so I needed money for a coat. So I sold the
guitar that she had bought me when I was eight. I knew she had to have
known that. She got her first job just so she could buy that guitar for
me for my birthday. Did you know she's the one who named me Oz?" Xander
shook his head. "She's always had this thing for Seattle. I guess she
announced she would live here when she was two years old. One nickname
for this town is the Emerald City. She decided she wanted to be an Auntie
M when she grew up, and she decided to call me Oz, just to keep the theme.
Anyway, when she saw me on the street, she just looked at me, smiled, and
said, 'Oz, I didn't know you were in town. You should have given me a
call.' That was it. No accusations, no lectures. I knew that everyone
had to have been freaking about me, but she just acted like I was some
friend that she hadn't seen in a while. Then she said, 'Hey, I was just
going to grab some lunch. Want to join me?'" Now he wiped the tears from
his eyes. "We ended up at this sausage place near the U. I had about
three sandwiches and two bowls of chili." He smiled. "She lied to me
there. Told me that the guy working there was her boyfriend, so he gave
her food for free. Later, I found out that she had spotted me earlier
and gave him forty bucks and asked him to play along."
Oz paused, so Xander took the opportunity ask the first question that
popped into his mind. "How did you find out?"
"A few days later, I went back to thank him and to find out how I could
repay him. That's when he told me. Anyway, after lunch, she said that
she wanted to hang out with me, but she didn't have much time between
classes and work, so, hey, why not stay at her place? She lived in this
house with five other people, so crashing in the living room wasn't
exactly a good idea, but they had this little spare room that they
sometimes used for storage, and she had this bed with a rollaway trundle,
so I could sleep on that. And she never once mentioned the whole pawn
shop thing. But I know she knew because the next afternoon, my guitar was
sitting on my bed."
Now Xander wiped his eyes dry. "Wow."
"Yeah, wow. I don't know how she could have afforded it. I mean, she was
going to school full time and working just barely enough to cover her
bills. She was working in a cafeteria in one of the dorms at the U, so
she brought home food every night to save money. She was broke when she
was going to school, so she usually just ate whatever was left over and up
for grabs at the end of the night at the cafeteria while she waited for
one of her housemates -- who just happened to be a coworker; that's how
they met -- to end her shift so they could go home together, but when I
was there, she also brought food for me home, too. And then the closest
she came to actually saying anything about the guitar was, 'I've got some
friends that I think you'd get along with.' At first, I thought, great,
intervention time. They're going to all swoop down on me and tell me the
horror stories they had about the time they, too, ran away from home.
But as it turned out, it was a night that she had plans. Her friends were
ticked off at her because she hadn't been spending much time with them
because of school and work, and there was this party that she had been
invited to. When she said that she couldn't go because I was in town and
she didn't want to leave me alone and bored that night, they told her to
bring me along. They just drank beer and smoked pot and talked about
music, movies, the evilness of Microsoft and the Eastside in general,
books, other friends, stuff like that. She hadn't told them why I was
there. Just that I was her nephew, and that I played guitar. I think she
only said the guitar thing because some of the people there were in bands,
and she wanted them to know that I had something in common with them." He
smiled. "And that was the year she taught me how to drive a stickshift on
her little hatchback. It was illegal -- in Washington, you're supposed to
have a learner's permit and drive with someone who had been licensed for
at least five years, and I didn't have a permit, and she had only had a
license for four years. But she just shrugged and said that it was one of
the more minor laws she's broken. And she introduced me to the wonders of
hair dye. She hasn't seen her own natural hair color since she was
fourteen. And nail polish. I'm not sure she owns any that couldn't be
used as car touchup paint. Mostly blues and grays."
"So why did you go back home?"
Oz shrugged. "I wanted to have what they had. A band, friends, a home.
And I wanted to show her -- and prove to myself -- that I deserved her
kindness. That I was worthy of it and that I understood it was a gift.
Maybe even repay her some day." Back to the sighing. "And then the next
year, I did it again. But that time, instead of joining the ranks of the
homeless like the first time around, I called her as soon as I got here.
And the year after that, I called her before I left."
"Whoa, you ran away three times?" Oz nodded. "So why did you stop?"
"You guys." A simple answer to a complicated question. "Honestly, I
think I would have left again last year if Buffy had been around. But she
wasn't, and you needed help, so I stayed. And it seemed like a good idea
that there be someone around that had been there when she got back."
"There's one more thing. I had always thought that Moll felt sorry for
me. That she decided she needed to 'save' me from whatever mess I had
gotten myself into. That her help was just because I was her nephew or
because she felt sorry for me. But that last year -- the year she got the
cats -- I got to see her do a similar thing for one of her friends. This
friend lived here with her boyfriend during the school year and in Alaska
during the summer with her parents. This happened in the summer. One
week when I was staying with her, Kim -- the friend -- came down for a
visit. She had been in an accident or something the previous winter and
had to see a certain doctor and a lawyer to try to get things settled.
So she had arranged her schedule so she would be able to get those things
dealt with first thing and be able to spend the rest of the week with her
boyfriend. But the first day, he broke up with her. He had packed up her
stuff and put it in their spare room before her visit. Kim spent most of
the first day crying. She had thought they were a serious couple. They
had even talked about getting married and starting a family after she
graduated that next year. Then after she calmed down a bit, she started
sending email to her friends, asking if she could stay with them for the
rest of the week until she had to go home. Moll not only said that Kim
would stay with her but that she could store Kim's stuff for the rest of
the summer until she came back for school. It was about one in the
afternoon when Moll found out about the guy dumping Kim, and as soon as
she got off work at five, she went to Kim's and started moving stuff out.
Four hours' notice, and she rearranged the rest of her week just to help
Kim. We were up until eleven that night, driving back and forth, packing
and unloading that little car, storing everything in Moll's little storage
space in her apartment building's garage. Kim slept in the living room,
and I slept on the balcony." He laughed. "That was the time that I woke
up in the middle of the night and saw two kitten faces at the door, just
sitting there, watching me. It was slightly creepy, but more than
"The kittens. Gonzo and Lucy?"
"Yeah. Anyway, the point is, that's just the kind of thing she does.
One time, I asked her why she didn't do some sort of social work. Run a
shelter or something. She said that she couldn't help everyone, and that
depressed her. Made her wonder why she should keep on living if she
couldn't make a difference for everyone she tried to help. So she just
concentrated on the people she knew. Like me. And Kim."
"Okay, you said that no one knows. Not even your parents. So how could
you just resurface without explanation?"
"Molly. A friend of a friend of hers lived in San Francisco, and she
convinced this person to let me stay there for a few days. The cover
story was supposed to be that this was a friend's cousin and that I had
been there the whole time. As it turned out, my parents were just so
happy to find out I wasn't dead or injured that they didn't even care
about where I had been. I didn't have to tell them the story. They never
"But you left again the next year."
"Yeah. I did. And the next year, too." Oz shrugged. "I wish I could
figure out why I did it, but I don't think I'll ever figure that one out.
But at the same time, I'm glad I did. I wouldn't be who I am now if I
hadn't made the mistakes I have. And I'm glad she's only eight years
older than me. I mean, she's the same age as actors who play people our
age on tv. It's like she's just a cool older sister, but without the
usual sibling issues. If she was my mom's age, it would seem like she was
just trying to be hip with the kids today, but she's just being herself.
Showing me what her life is like, not trying to be anything she's not, and
not trying to mold me into something I'm not. Just influencing me by
example, showing me where the path she has found has led her. She's left
her mark on me without trying."
Xander sat silently for a long moment, absorbing all of the information.
Finally, he spoke. "So your fallback thing is to come up here when
things get out of hand?" Oz nodded. "So what happened this year?"
"Oh, this year was different. It was all about the music festival this
weekend. Nothing emotionally wrenching. A vacation, pure and simple."
"Ah." Once again, Xander considered all he had been told. "Is that
everything? I mean..."
"I know what you mean." Oz stood and stretched. "Yeah, that's pretty
much it, except for the most important lesson she taught me. It's
actually a quote she found at a Grateful Dead shop, but it originally came
from a book. 'Not all those who wander are lost.' She has it on a
t-shirt and a license plate holder, although the holder isn't actually on
her car. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring. The line before it is 'All
that is gold does not glitter.' It took a long time for me to figure out
why she loved those lines, but I think I've figured it out. Some people
wander through life, drifting from one thing to another. They look
lost, but the reality is that they have their own path to follow. It's
just that their path is behind them, showing where they've been, rather
than stretching out in front of them, demanding that they follow someone
else's plan, proclaiming failure if they go off the path. So I'm making
my own path. It doesn't involve a career path, but it does involve being
"And the gold thing?"
Oz frowned. "I'm still working on that. It would be easier to explain if
it was 'Not all that glitters is gold,' meaning that sometimes things look
wonderful on the surface but turn out to be not good once you go in depth,
but that's not the line. I'm thinking that it means that sometimes the
good stuff looks useless or worthless at first." Now he turned to face
Xander. "But once you get closer, it becomes clear that it's priceless."
"Oh." Xander shifted uncomfortably. Surely Oz couldn't mean him. "You
know you've talked more today than all the other times we've talked put
"Yeah. It's the air up here or something. It encourages writing and
music. And talking, I guess." Now Oz's hand reached out to Xander,
pulling him off of the log they had been sitting on and back to the
parking lot. "Xander, you need to figure out where your path is. Get
moving, not just stand there like a tree on the side of the road, watching
everything pass you by. Right now, mine is college and music. I'm not
sure exactly what I'm going to be doing after I graduate. I don't even
know what I'm going to major in. But I know what feels right for me now.
And that's to go to school and play guitar. At least that's what I'm
supposed to do for now. It might change in a month. Maybe your path is
to just work at random jobs for a while before finally getting fed up and
going back to school. Maybe it's to go to college for a while, meet some
girl, drop out of school because she breaks up with you, get back together
with her, talk about getting married, break up with her, meet another
girl, get married, buy a house, go back to school, and have a baby, all
before you're twenty-five. Maybe you're supposed to work two jobs at once
and save money to backpack through Europe for a year, but then get
sidetracked and never leave some little town in Italy, skipping college
entirely." He smiled half-heartedly. "Maybe you're supposed to steal
Willow away from me during our senior year of college."
"Oz, I could never do that to you. Not after everything we've been
through. Please believe that."
"I know." Oz paused as if trying to put his next thought into words, but
then he just shrugged. "I was just giving examples." He grinned again.
"Hey, maybe you're supposed to steal me away from Willow. But back to
your destiny. You won't know until you start wandering." He stopped when
he realized Xander had stopped. "Are you okay? I mean, is everything
"Oh. Yeah." He stared at his shoes before finally raising his eyes to
meet Oz's. "Thanks. For telling me this. You really didn't have to. It
makes me feel like you trust me and consider me a friend."
Oz stepped closer, hurt by the doubt in the statement. "I do consider you
to be a friend. Xander, I wouldn't waste anyone's time by pretending to
be something I'm not just to make them feel good. And that includes being
your friend. I'm not telling you this stuff to make either one of us feel
better or because you just happen to be here at the moment. In case you
hadn't noticed, I'm not exactly the most talkative person around. It's
easier to keep all this information to myself, locked away from people who
don't need to know or who would be disappointed in me if they knew. If no
one knows this stuff, they can't use it against me. To hurt me. I'm
telling you this because you asked, and I think you deserve to know. And
because I do trust you."
"So I should take all of this personally?"
"Yeah. Is that okay?"
"I don't know. Let me think it over for a while." At Oz's injured
expression, Xander's voice softened. "Hey, that was sarcasm. Yeah.
"You know you have all the power now, right?" Xander shook his head,
confused. "You know all these secrets about me. You could go back home
and tell the whole town about me. Or at least the rest of the gang. Or
just Willow. And I really don't want her to know about this. It was bad
enough when I had to explain the whole repeating senior year thing. Her
disappointment was bad enough. I can imagine what pity would be like."
Slowly, ignoring the fact that they were standing in the middle of a
crowded parking lot, Xander wrapped his arms around Oz's small frame.
"Hey, I know all about disappointing people. It's really something you
have to do yourself. So don't worry. You're safe with me." He paused,
realizing what he had just said. "I mean, your secret's safe with me."
Oz smiled, resting his head on Xander's chest. "You were right the first