Oz discovers that the sun sets slowly in the mountains in general, not just in Tibet. Pinks and purples bleed out of the clouds into shaded patches of snow. Pockets soften the knifelike ridges that hold treasures like tiny bluebells, and when Oz is lucky, mice nests and rainwater puddles.
Insects thrive this far above the tree line. Storm systems stretch across the entire sky, unhindered. Oz explores while he can, gets his wind, lets nature thicken his blood. He tells himself that the super-oxygenation keeps him warmer. His shivering when he foregoes a fire tells him otherwise.
Summer nights this far north are short. Even so, once in a while, they still get to him. There is no safe cave to barricade himself in, no expanse to ground him, humanize him. So he fights it. Change means changing back, and it's too easy to get lost up here.
Oz suspects sometimes that he's lost anyway.
He follows the birds out of the peaks, leaving when they do at season's end. It isn't possible to travel across country and stay out of towns. Oz doesn't try. They sprout like flowers along the stem of the railroad he walks and sometimes rides. There's always a part that's considered the bad side of the tracks, where the lights aren't as bright and the liquor's cheaper and the tricks are easier. He still plays the guitar when he can, mostly in pawn shops, someone else's abandoned dreams.
He drifts and thinks of weighted blood.
It doesn't take long to realize that, like the migrating flocks, he's returning home. He remembers warmth and soft felted air and sky delimited by ocean. Monstrous kin and red-headed girls and champions and causes. Doesn't want to go back. But like the tide, feels compelled to traverse along the same path.
He hadn't realized home was now a hole in the ground.
Oz doesn't know how long he's stood there, pebble in hand, ready to cast it into the abyss, how many hours and days and millennia the abyss had been staring back.
Xander's voice has deepened. Grief or age or maybe some permanent Hellmouth-induced feature.
Oz feels he must acknowledge that information, freely given, the words obviously cutting Xander's throat. He nods, hopes it's enough. Sniffs, hopefully unobtrusively, but doesn't scent her on Xander.
"She's full-on with the gay now, hanging with a slayer named Kennedy."
Not as sneaky as he had wanted to be. The acknowledgment of his lack of success breaks his obsession, and with a grimace finds he can finally turn away from the tear in the earth.
The obscenity of the black eye patch shocks him as much--more--than the stream he used to clean himself in, sucks away breath and numbs extremities.
"Huh. Didn't know they still made pirate accessories," Oz says, scrambling, covering, claws inexplicitly closer to the surface than they'd been since that drunk tried to rape a little girl in the boxcar next to his.
Xander shrugs. "Yeah, and all I need is a bird." He cracks up at his own joke. Oz hears undercurrents he can't track, rivers no longer mapped.
"Why not a glass eye?"
"Too easily magicked." Which tells Oz that Xander is still fighting the good fight, still following a cause, while Oz . . . drifts.
"You hungry?" Xander asks.
"Always," Oz admits, truthfully. Xander is wearing an ice green button-down, clean jeans, leather boots, and for once, looks as though he could afford it.
Xander grins, and Oz feels like the 16-year-old he never was.
"Come on then. Let me buy you a burger." Xander easily lays an arm across Oz's shoulders, as if to guide him away. Oz turns it into a hug, suddenly craving contact like air, and Xander's grip metamorphoses into something just as fierce.
He can't cry. Won't. Lives get lost all the time. And he isn't found. Xander is no shore. Oz just stays, still, letting companionship buoy him up for a bit.
Before they leave, he tosses the stone he'd been holding into the pit. It's nothing, a pebble against a raging stream. He can't--doesn't really want--to fill the space in again. Yet, it needed to be done. The symbol, the gesture, the closing.
They tell each other traveler's tales over burgers and fries and many bottles of beer, stories of border guards and temples, crazy beach parties in Thailand they'd only heard about but never attended, motorcycle trips across India, dying boats in Laos. So many slayers to find, train, or at any rate, guide. Their calling makes them dangerous, and they keep coming into being. Oz wants to make a joke about how Willow never did things by half, but through their whole conversation, she's just "she," the unnamed ghost hovering above, between them.
Xander watches more than Oz remembered, anticipating slips and quiet, letting them fall or catching them with uncanny grace. The boy's clawing need for attention is still there, the jokes rise unheeded, and occasionally Oz feels schmoozed, but mostly, it's just the kid he knew grown into a man, with a cause that actually uses him, that he isn't failing at.
It doesn't surprise Oz when Xander invites him back to his hotel room to crash for the night, or that the first thing Xander does is direct Oz to the bathroom. Hot water is civilization as far as he's concerned, and he worships at the altar of the shower god as long as he can in good conscious. From the sounds of Xander's travels, Oz is certain the young man understands.
More beer, low lights, each lazing on their own bed. Oz wants more, wants to sink into contact as deep and hazy as the ocean floor. Teases Xander into a pillow fight, puppy nipping and tickling. Can't help the happy sigh when he's pinned by the larger man's bulk, can't explain about wolves dying out because they're pack animals and can't change their habits while solitary coyotes can follow washes out of the hills into cities and dine on poodles. Can't express his surprise when Xander's sole eye turns as black as the patch over the other and his lips are captured for a kiss. Doesn't stop the thrust and twist until he's on top, pale white hands contrasting sickly against glowing golden skin. He closes his eyes to hide the differences, moans and sinks further as clothes are shed and Xander opens and Oz is where he wants to be, pushing in, riding waves up and down, passion sweeter than rainwater, his bare ribs pillowed by meat and muscle and slicked with sweat. Bobbing laughter chases after him, joy he'd forgotten about with johns and mere survival. Climax of sunburst behind his eyes, happy kisses, a tangle of legs. Cuddling, letting himself rest on skin not weathered or paper-thin as his own, laying his cheek against a healthy heartbeat, maybe hoping some of it--this, life, direction, whatever--will soak in through osmosis.
He's gone in the morning. Knows it won't be a problem. Xander has to go too. Doesn't know why Xander came back, still doesn't know who the other man lost. Revisits the hometown pit and drops in another stone. Wishes his blood were still thick, that it could filter smog and fill the holes in his heart.
He leaves, but now he knows he'll return, come crashing against these rocks
again, throw more pebbles against the tide.
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