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 minute?"

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 guitar."

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 slightly funny."

"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 asked."

"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 happy."

"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 together?"

"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 cool?"

"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. It's okay."

"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 time."