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The Boy in the Bubble
Thanks to Wendy for betaing.

Oz had decided to travel only at night. Less traffic and less people meant less that might set him off. Deserted stretches of interstate, empty coffeeshops...those were just safer. People were a global epidemic, but the later it got, the less obvious that was.

It was new, having to think about these things. "The world bores you when you're cool"--it had been an old Calvin & Hobbes comic that Dev had handed to him, laughing: "They got you, man." He'd smiled, but inside he'd thought: the world doesn't bore me. It just doesn't upset me, either.

He'd never really understood how anyone could live in Sunnydale and not be that way. Now that he wasn't, he couldn't stay.

His stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten anything since Giles had made him have a sandwich before going to see Willow. Giles had piled it high with roast beef, which had made Oz wonder if he'd thought there was a possibility he might eat Willow instead. He hadn't asked, though. Giles might've been offended, and he was operating on a strict no-conflict-allowed basis.

There was a truck stop up ahead. Hot food would be nice, and he'd been making pretty good time. So he took the exit and pulled into the little clump of buildings, half-sinister in shadow where the florescent light of the gas station didn't reach. He avoided walking under the light when he went into the cafe. Just the thought of that color flooding over his skin, exposing him, made him want to bolt and run.

Inside, the cafe was dingy and half-empty. Older, tough-looking men hunched over coffee and burgers. A few of them glanced at him as he came in, then flicked their eyes away. He resisted the sudden urge to say "Large Marge sent me," and settled down at the counter instead.

A heavy-set middle-aged woman came over. "What'll it be, hon?"

He ordered without really looking at her and lapsed into staring at the formica of the counter. It was oddly quiet, almost as if he were underwater. Easy to convince himself that there was no one else there.

Until the woman came back with his cheeseburger and coffee, anyway. "Thanks," he said, but she lingered.

"You're awful young to be out traveling this late, aren't you?"

"I'm used to it."

"Are you a salesman?"

She actually sounded interested. He broke down and made eye contact. "Musician."

She smiled in a motherly way. "Oh. Now that sounds exciting. You're on tour?"

"Yeah."

"What do you play?"

"Guitar."

"That's nice. Do you like it?"

"Mm-hm."

She seemed nice enough, really, but he had to keep to himself, so he returned his attention to his burger. She went to refill someone else's coffee, and he ate as quickly as he could. He wanted to be a little further out of the Initiative's reach before he went to sleep. After he finished, he pulled out his wallet to pay.

The little picture of Willow inside smiled up at him, and he couldn't do anything at all. Over, it was all over, and he had to accept it, but she had been the linchpin, the thing that his world had ordered itself around. Without her, there was only chaos. An endless string of nights like this one, in an endless string of anonymous little restaurants, and nowhere to belong at all.

"Old girlfriend?"

The waitress was back. He must have actually been cracking an expression. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

She patted his hand. "I'm sorry, dear. It happens to everybody."

It was surprising, to be reminded that he could share anything with all the normal people out there. Dangerous, too, that flash of human sympathy in the night. Exactly what he was supposed to be trying to avoid. But the interstate was deserted and the coffeeshops were empty and he was fleeing the only real connections he'd ever known. So he looked down, but he didn't pull his hand away. "Thanks."

She squeezed his fingers briefly and went back to work. He shook himself and dropped some bills on the counter. Then he went into the restroom and out to the gas station to pick up some junk food for the hours ahead.

When he came back out, the waitress was standing outside with a large man. "--wasn't flirting with him," she was saying. "He's just a kid."

"Don't lie to me, bitch," he snarled.

"I'm not. I was just trying to cheer him up a little! Look, I have to get back to work." She turned to go back inside, and he caught her arm, jerked her around, and hit her in the face.

She fell to the ground. "I wasn't flirting with him!" she groaned, bringing her hand to her mouth.

He kicked her, making a sick wet thump. "I told you not to lie to me."

She rolled onto her back. "I'm not, I'm not..."

Oz took two steps in their direction. Two steps, and he could feel his heartrate increasing, his breathing speed up, his stomach tighten. He frowned, turned, and headed off in the direction of his van, trying to ignore the woman's soft cries behind him.

It was just another woman having problems with her boyfriend, and when he slammed the van door shut, he couldn't even hear her anymore.

The world bores you when you're cool. He'd get there.


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