Thanks to Perri, Celli, Tara, the other Horsechicks for comments and editing, and Em for brainstorming. This story was partially written more than five years ago; I pick it up now so as to finally finish this sucker.
Disclaimers: I own neither Mutant Enemy Production, nor the cast of characters. Nevada does not host a town called Serenity, nor are the denizens of Nevada accurately represented here. All legal and police procedural mistakes are my own.
No jackalopes were harmed in the making of this story.
Spoilers: Summer 2003, Post-"Chosen" but no Season 8 spoilers for Buffy. And no real spoilers for Firefly, aside from the characters' existence.
Summary: Oz's summer road trip takes him to a sleepy little town in Nevada-- one that just woke up with a big new problem, and the local sheriff and citizens may have to face a reality they never expected before the closing credits.
"Hunh. That's... interesting."
Sheriff Malcolm Reynolds stared down at Terence McDonald's body, tilted his head in consideration, and tapped the gun at his hip. "Zoe, you wanna say what you make of this?"
"Can't say as I do, sir."
"Jayne? You ever seen this before?"
"Hell no. Damn creepy, but it ain't familiar."
"Right. So that leaves you as my last resort here, Doc. Please tell me that you've seen this kinda dried-up, pasty-faced, sucked-out corpse before in the big city. That it's some kinda virus you've got a vaccine for in your fancy clinic stores. Notice I'm saying 'please', and keep in mind how often I use language like that."
The young man crouched by the dead body shook his head in slow amazement. "I wish I could, Sheriff, but honestly, this is a first. I'm just surprised the deterioration hasn't advanced further, but I have to put that down to the lack of fluid left within the cell tissues, as well as the dry weather we've been experiencing lately—"
"Ain't much in the way of flies, neither." Jayne toed at McDonald's leg with his boot and earned himself a glare from the coroner.
"Flies are attracted to blood, and seein' as how this man doesn't have any left to offer, I can see why he don't have many customers." Mal pushed his hat back and squinted at the smashed furniture and belongings in the small house, noting that everything breakable had been shattered, all items that could be ripped were torn apart, and that remnants of a fire were still smoldering on the back porch. If it hadn't been for last night's quick burst of a thunderstorm, the place would probably have been consumed by morning. It was purely malicious, pointless destruction, like leaving the owner's body on the porch in a heap for the paperboy to find when the sun came up.
It was also something he'd seen before, and had hoped to never see again.
"Who the hell would want to kill Terence?" he wondered aloud. "Harmless old guy livin' alone, keeps to himself, doesn't go pissin' off his neighbors... It don't make sense."
"The Johnsons up the road say they saw Terence get home around ten, but they didn't notice anyone stop by the house later. Of course, they go to bed early, and if Doc's right and this happened around midnight or so, they would've been tucked in bed with their hearing aids off by then." Zoe adjusted her reflective sunglasses. She was not meeting his eyes, Mal noticed. Probably for the same reason he was avoiding hers.
They watched the part-time deputies seal the front-door with crime-scene yellow tape as her husband zipped the body into a bag and motioned for Jayne to help him load it in the ambulance before his Chief Deputy spoke again, her voice carefully neutral. "Dispatch says there's a Nevada State Police bulletin that just hit your desk; it mentions there've been three-four of these in the last few days, just south of here. Most likely a serial killer, working his way north, they've been keepin' it quiet, and could we keep our eyes open for him, please."
"And we didn't get this sooner than today? Ain't that just peachy." Mal restrained the urge to spit with disgust. Serial killers. Could the NBI maybe be more stupid if they tried just a little harder? "Goddamn State Police are never any help, but they're always wantin' us to pick up their slack, as bad as the Feds... Zoe, remind me again, why do I have this job?"
"Public service, sir."
"No, that can't be it."
"Twenty-eight dollars an hour and benefits?"
"No, no, that's nice, but that wasn't it."
"Free beer at Silverheels Bar & Grill," Jayne volunteered, stalking back toward the jeep.
"Maybe." The Sheriff sounded doubtful.
"You didn't want one of Vince Niska's relatives to get the job," Wash volunteered as he climbed into the ambulance and slammed the door, then fired up the engine. "And nobody else did, either. You swept the election without having to campaign."
"Now, was that a nice thing to remind him of?" Zoe scolded her husband, leaning in the open window and pecking him on the cheek as she went by.
"So you're sayin' I got no one to blame but myself?" Mal asked plaintively as he followed his deputies back to the jeep.
"I'm afraid so, sir."
"Damn. I'm thinking Silverheels should be throwing in free onion rings. Bloodless bodies and serial killers and such-like. Add in the Mayor, and I am not gettin' paid enough for this crap." All of which kept him from swearing out long curses in Arabic, the ones he'd learned in that hell-hole bar twelve years ago. Because damnit, that was a long time ago, and there was no reason to remember why he and Zoe had been drinking back then, and learning those curses.
None at all.
The sounds of the fight could've been heard from a half a mile away, if anyone else had been in that patch of desert to listen to them. The half-moon was still falling slowly down a patch of sky over the Sierra Nevada, and the sands weren't hot enough yet for all of the creatures to be under shelter from the sun; but any that could hear what was happening in the dry creek bed off State Highway 95 had scampered away as fast as possible hours ago.
Feathers floated up on the air, along with small tufts of fur, accompanied by growling. Bird-like screams, pitched somewhere between a peacock and a hawk, pierced the silence occasionally, along with the impact of flesh hitting flesh, hissing noises, and a random canine yelp. Panting, harsh and fast, then another spate of screeching and snarls. Sand was being kicked up twenty feet high, and the air carried the smell of blood. The fight had been going on for hours.
Finally, one last, prolonged shriek vibrated through the desert, shutting off even the insects chirping a quarter mile away. Stillness, ominous and deadly, settled back in, and the feathers drifted down like snowflakes, a few spiraling down with a gust of wind before hitting dust.
Several long, nervous minutes later, a naked young man climbed out of the creek-bed, brushing sand out of the scratches on his chest, and spitting feathers out of his teeth. Squinting up at the sun, he put up a hand to shade his eyes and tried to remember where he'd parked his van.
"Mountains. Cacti. Big red stone... Right. West."
He shrugged all over in a manner not dissimilar to a dog twitching water out of its fur, and began carefully walking toward the rest stop he'd parked at the night before. He really hoped no one else was there at the moment; confronting strangers without his clothes was always... challenging. Maybe he'd be able to tell them he was on a vision quest, and the worst he'd have to deal with was some embarrassment. Hopefully.
That one other time before he'd mastered the changes, when he'd been caught outside his van in Peoria, had been really awkward.
Daniel Osbourne - Oz to everyone he knew, including his parents, who'd given up on calling him Daniel when he played deaf for a month to any other name than the one he'd chosen when he was twelve - settled into a mild jog as he headed back to his long-term home and shelter, feeling rueful. He hadn't meant to get into a fight with a mutant cross between the Road Runner and a pterodactyl the night before, but the thing had been sneaking up on some campers a little way down the road. And it wasn't like High School, when he could've called up Buffy and everyone else, and they would have shown up with tranquilizers or crossbows and taken the thing out. He really wished he hadn't used up the last of his crossbow bolts in Tucson. But that bar bet had been too good to pass up. So that left him to make like Wile E. Coyote in order to keep the thing from lunching on tourists, since there hadn't been a Ranger station to call for help anywhere nearby.
Oh, well. At least now he had a new answer to 'why did the chicken cross the road'... 'To get takeout on the other side.' He grinned. He'd have to remember that one for Xander, next time he saw him.
Much to Oz's great relief, the rest area was deserted when he got back, and he was able to slip into his van and pull on a pair of jeans before having to deal with anyone else. He turned on the air conditioning for several minutes, reveling in the blast of cold air as he centered himself.
It was always hard, coming back from being the wolf. Especially someplace like out here, with only wilderness for miles, no people to set off his aggressive instincts... just this feeling of being free, and a wide, wide sky to follow to the horizon...
He snapped his eyes open again. "No."
Oz. Oz. Oz. He could be the wolf now, sometimes, when it was safe, when he chose and not just keep it locked away. He could admit that it was as much a part of him as his fingernails and the desire to discuss the perfect guitar pick with Santana. The things he'd learned in Tibet, in Belarus, in Istanbul, in Macedonia-- it all stayed with him. He was the wolf. The wolf was him. Control himself and he controlled the wolf.
It was just hard, sometimes.
But he was out here for a reason, not to go primeval. Looked like Giles had been right: this part of Nevada was... funky. Not really like Sunnydale, just a very weird vibe. Kinda like the Bermuda Triangle, but not.
Maybe the next town would have more definite answers to the new Watcher Council's questions. Pulling on a T-shirt then fumbling on his shades, Oz turned on the ignition and put the van in gear, turning onto the highway after waiting for the traffic to pass, and headed north. He glanced at the sign at the side of the road, and nodded in approval.
And under that, in much smaller paint: Serenity, Nevada. 15 miles. A great place to take a break!