sparrow2000: (sparrow)
[personal profile] sparrow2000
Title: Absence Like the Sky
Characters: Xander, Oz
Type: Gen
Warnings: Character study
Disclaimer: Joss and Mutant Enemy et al, own everything. I own nothing.
Summary: Xander seeks out an old friend to give some bad news. This is a one shot set after the end of my story Memento Mori
Comments and feedback are cuddled and called George
Beta extraordinaire, as always: [livejournal.com profile] thismaz

Title is from a quote from CS Lewis’ Grief Observed. “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

A/N
2016 is my 10th anniversary of writing fic – really of any kind of creative writing since I left school, which wasn’t just yesterday. I started writing again for two reasons. One, I had an idea in my head, but no confidence to realise it. Then I met Maz, whose writing I already admired and she persuaded me to be brave. The scene in my head was the ‘too many ties’ scene from Memento Mori, but I had no idea how to write the story that went with it. So I finished up writing Perceptions because doing a season rewrite seemed less daunting somehow. When it was finished, I realised I felt confident enough to try writing Memento Mori.

That’s all a long-winded way of saying that I still think of Memento Mori as my first story, because it was the first story that I wanted to write. For my 10th anniversary year of writing fic, it felt like the right time to revisit that ‘verse, so here’s a one shot of what might have happened a few months after Memento Mori finished. You don’t have to read MM to read this one-shot, although you’ll get more colour to the narrative if you do, and I’d be delighted. I hope you enjoy.


Absence Like the Sky

The town is just beginning to wake and stretch when I park up across the street from the old-fashioned toy shop. The drive through the Kootenays the day before took longer than expected so I camped by the river about 20 kilometres out rather than wander around unknown streets in the dark. Not that Nelson has that many streets, and I’ve only met a few vampires so far on this trip, but after years running from the things that go bump in the night I don’t see any point in taking unnecessary risks.

I spread the map out on the hood of the car and check the street layout against the note Giles gave me. I’m definitely on Ward Street, but after walking down one side and then the other, I don’t see any likely venues. I can’t really see Oz working in a shoe store or a chiropractor, although having the whole bone cracking skill might be useful after he changes back from being the wolf each month. All that stretching was probably hard on the back. Mike’s Pub, just across the road, attached to a fading Victorian hotel is a definite possibility, but not surprisingly it’s shut tight at this time of day and isn’t due to open until 11.00.

From the alley at the side of the pub, the heavy scent of garlic floats by on a gust of wind. It’s a good smell and I fold up the map, stuff in in my pocket and follow my nose. Even though it’s daylight I take it cautiously, because in Sunnydale alleys usually lead to badness, but I’m thinking that, daylight aside, there aren’t going to be many vampires where there’s that much garlic hanging in the air. I pass by a few closed back doors to stores that front onto the main street and can’t hold back a grin when I track down the source of the smell. There’s an open, roll up garage door and a small rusting bronze trailer with aspirations to be a food truck when it grows up parked sideways on to the alley, next to a battered old combi van. The trailer’s got a serving hatch cut into the side that’s propped half open, even though the sign next to it still says closed. A blackboard is propped up against the front wheel advertising fresh made hummus, falafel and other things I’m pretty sure you can’t get in Sunnydale.

I pause in front of the hatch and take a breath. I can do this. “Anyone home?” Even though I’ve come all this way, part me wants no one to answer.

“I’m open in half an hour,” a voice replies from inside the trailer.

“Well, I figured you weren’t open yet. What with the whole closed sign thing you’ve got going. It kind of gives it away.”

A pale hand attached to an even paler arm pushes the hatch prop until it was fully open and Oz appears in the space it leaves behind. “Xander?” he says.

“That’s me.” I rock back on my heels, aiming for casual. “Looking good, Oz man. The green hair tips look particularly stylish. Guess it helps you blend in with all the trees around here.”

“Thanks. I’ve been working on that. Trying to get in touch with my inner Ent.” He pauses. “So did my hummus’ reputation get so big you had to check it out? I’ve only been advertising locally, but I guess I’ve got a few folks in the wiccan community here hooked on it, so you could have heard about it that way.”

“All things are possible on the Hellmouth. You’ve got your tasty snack full of garlicky goodness, that also helps with the local wildlife and I’m not talking about bears and cougars. Got to love a multi-tasking snack food.”

He nods. “Or for dealing with local politicians with delusions of immortality and eating the local school populace.”

“I never did think your plan got enough consideration, because you know-”

“What’s wrong, Xander?” It’s not like Oz to interrupt, but he knows a distraction when he hears one.

“What?” I know I’m not fooling him for a second, but now I’m actually here, even a nano second is a welcome delay.

“What’s happened?” he says. “Or is about to happen. Or might happen. I’m kind of assuming you being here isn’t coincidence, so I guess it’s just a matter of tense. You didn’t come all the way to the Kootenays to talk about old times.”

“I might have.”

“Did you?”

Trust Oz to ask the hard questions, but do it in a cool, really understated way. “No,” I reply. Even a nano second feels like a really long time before I can get the word out.

“Hang on,” he says. “I’m coming out.” He grabs the prop holding the hatch open and it clangs shut. A few moments later he appears around the side of the trailer. “Come on, I’ve got coffee in the van.”

“But don’t you have to open?”

“I make my own hours. Folks will come back. It’s not a big town.” He moves towards the old combi.

“Oz.”

He pauses and looks back.

“Willow’s dead.” There, it’s out.

He freezes, one hand hovering over the door handle to the van. “How?”

I can’t look at him and a pile of alley detritus has never seemed more fascinating. But I know he’s waiting and I take a deep breath and look up. “I killed her.” My throat starts to close up as I force the words out, and I say them again to be sure he understands. “I killed her. I thought you should know.”

I watch the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes. His t-shirt has a tracing of a steam train on the front. After a count of five, he reacts with a small, decisive nod. “I need coffee,” he says and opens the sliding door on the side of the van.

He disappears into the van and just as I’ve done in all the years since I first knew about the Hellmouth, all I can do is follow.

On first view, standing on the outside, the van looks cramped, but surprisingly tidy. A long bench seat with an upholstered and wooden edged back is covered in a sea green velvet throw. It runs the width of the space behind the driver and passenger seats and obviously pushes down into a bed at night. The floor is covered with a large black sheepskin rug and a narrow wicker hamper on the far side, under the window, doubles as a side table and probably a place to store stuff out of the way. I’m not surprised to see a guitar propped next to the hamper. I’d be more surprised not to see one and for a moment I can see Willow standing near the stage at the Bronze watching him play. It’s enough to make me want to turn and run before any more memories creep up and blindside me, but I breathe through the sensation and make myself stand still.

“I’m not going to bite” a voice in my ear says, and I turn quickly. He’s standing by the open door, next to a small hotplate, coffeepot in hand.

I duck my head and step fully up into the van. “Yeah, well it’s not full moon for another week, so I guess I’m safe there.”

“You timed your visit.” He makes it a statement rather than a question. Turning away, he pours the coffee slowly like he was trying to give me time to get my thoughts in order. The velvet clad bench seat beckons and I slid down onto it, fingering the nap of the material between my fingers as he busies himself with the coffee pot.

“Does that make me a good planner, or a crappy friend?” I ask. “Knowing when the moon is, I mean.”

Turning back, he hands over one of the coffee cups and stands, hip propped against the small fridge next to the hotplate. “It could just make you sensible,” he says. “I’m not trying to push the wolf down anymore. Didn’t work so well, but here there’s a lot of wilderness. I can run when I feel the need, feel the call. There’s things up here bigger and meaner than me in a bad mood three days a month.” He smiles. “Even the wolf knows better than to argue with a grizz.”

“Good to know.” I take a sip of coffee. It’s good. Strong and black and just a hint of bitter. It feels right. “I just told you I killed Willow and we’re making small talk about bears and drinking coffee. It’s not really how I thought this would go.”

“How did you think it would go?”

“I don’t really know.”

“You must have thought about it. Maybe a better question is why did you come to tell me?”

“Someone else already told you? I mean, Giles knows where you are, he gave me your address, so obviously he knew you were here.”

He shrugs. “I keep in touch with Giles a couple of times a year. He’s interested in hearing about the wolf. I scratch that itch.”

“And the image of you scratching anything of Giles is in no way disturbing.” It’s a pretty lame joke, but he does me the courtesy of a chuckle.

“You’re prevaricating.”

“You noticed that.”

“I don’t say much, but I’m kind of observant.”

“Just as well I say enough for both of us.”

“Xander.”

“Yeah, right - prevaricating. So Giles - he didn’t tell you about Willow?”

“Maybe he didn’t think it was his place.” Oz takes a sip of his coffee.” Maybe he thought it was something you had to do.”

“He’s been great. Giles, I mean. Listening to me. Just being there, you know?”

“I can picture it.”

“He offered to buy me a lock pick.”

Oz raises his eyebrows. Somehow it makes the wolf look closer to the surface. It works for him.

I picture Giles sitting in the cemetery next to Willow and Tara’s graves and I can feel my knife, hard and tantalizing in the hip pocket of my jeans. “You kind of had to be there,” I say, finally.

“I get that.”

“I need to come to terms with her death. With what I did. With what was done to us. The others know, but you weren’t around. It’s been going around in my head that I had to tell you. A while back Giles put an address in front of me. Said it was yours. He just put the paper down on the counter and left it there.”

“He let you make up your own mind.”

“Yeah.”

“And you decided to come here.”

“Yeah. Took me a month of thinking and wondering and pulling your address out of the pocket of my jeans and then shoving it back in again. A week ago I told Giles I was going to make a trip. He just nodded and asked me to check in regularly.”

“Why did you wait a month?”

“Because I was scared.”

“Of me?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because I killed Willow.”

He puts down the coffee cup on top of the camping fridge. “I’m not a priest, Xander.”

“What?”

“I’m trying to figure out why you came. Sure, to tell me Willow’s dead. And I don’t know how I feel about that. Sad, obviously. But she stayed on the Hellmouth and it’s dangerous and I’ve always worried that one day I’d get news like this. I don’t know how I feel about this news. That you killed her. But this isn’t a confessional. I’m not sure if you want absolution, or if you’re looking for some kind of penance.”

I lean forward, elbows on my knees and stare at the rug on the floor. It looks like it would feel nice under bare feet. The kind of rug you could curl your toes in. “I don’t know,” I say finally. “I really don’t.” I raise my head and scrub one hand through my hair. The other cradles the cup, and I’m grateful for the heat soaking into my palm. “It sounds stupid, but I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. I just knew I needed to tell you. I guess it was selfish, because I didn’t stop to think whether you’d want to know. I mean, I know you’d want to know, but knowing comes with all the other stuff attached to it, like grieving and regret and anger, and I didn’t think about that. That’s me all over. Just don’t think.”

“Sounds to me that all you’ve done is think. Maybe too much.”

“Not something anyone in high school would ever have said.”

“But you’re not in high school any more.”

“Sometimes I think I’d rather be back there. At least when the bell rang, you knew you could walk away from whatever the crap of the day was.”

“And there aren’t any bells in adulthood.”

“Something like that.” I pause and take a sip of my coffee. “I guess this is where I do the adult thing and tell you what happened.”

“Not necessarily.”

“What?”

“The adult thing was plucking up the courage to come and tell me she died.”

“You mean, that I killed her.”

“That too. Did you have a choice?”

That’s the $64,000 question. I close my eyes and I picture her - back arched insanely as the magic screamed through her. I’m back in the church, crawling towards her, begging her to fight. My hands start to shake and I open my eyes, shocked at the fleeting touch of fingertips, and Oz is crouched in front of me, my coffee cup in his hand.

“You were going to spill,” he says.

I stare at my hands. “I did it with these. I put them around her neck and I grasped and I gripped and I twisted and I broke her neck." My hands shake even more. “She asked me to do it,” I whisper, “And I did.”

“She was dying?”

My throat is tight and the only thing I can do is nod.

“And you did what she asked?”

“I tried to think of another way. I did. But she was begging me. Begging me to stop the pain. To cut the magic off at source.” I run the back of my hand across my cheek and it’s wet. “She asked me to be strong and I couldn’t bear to see her in such pain. So I did as she asked.”

He leans across and puts my coffee cup down on the wicker hamper and for the first time I register that it’s white china. In my head, another white china cup, in a cell, in another country, tumbles to the floor and breaks on hard grey flags and I sit upright and cross my arms, hands shoved under my armpits to try to stop them shaking.

“Xander?” His voice is soft and the china cup in my head shatters again.

“They wanted her magic. They didn’t care about her. Didn’t see her as Willow. Just as a source of power. They were sucking her dry.”

“And she needed you to make it stop.”

“Yeah.”

“There was no other way?”

Sighing, I unfold my arms and settle my hands back in my lap. They lie there, baby birds fluttering and teetering on the edge of the nest. “I’ve been asking myself that for months.”

“And?”

“She was begging me and it was killing her. They were killing her.”

He slides from his crouch down onto the floor, until he’s leaning back against the hamper, legs stretched out in front of him on the black sheepskin. He reaches behind him, grabbing his guitar and cradles it in his arms. He runs his fingers across the frets. There’s a capo about half way down but it’s not fastened tight. “I tried to write a song for her once,” he says. His focus is on his fingers, deft and sure on the neck of the guitar.

“I thought you had.”

He shakes his head but he doesn’t look up. “Just derivative stuff. But I couldn’t get to the heart of it. Couldn’t find the right words, or the right notes to make it real. Maybe it was the wolf getting in the way, or maybe it was just me, I don’t know.” He picks slowly at the strings. It’s a quiet, soft sound. “I bet you could have written it.”

“What?”

Finally, he looks up and his fingers continue to move without his attention. “You and Willow,” he says. “Footy pyjamas, eating paste, the whole nine yards of knowing each other forever.”

“And the fluke?” Salt meet wound.

“That too,” he acknowledges. “You knew each other. She asked you and you answered her.”

“I didn’t want to.”

“That’s why she asked.”

“It could have been you.”

He shakes his head again. “No it couldn’t. We never got that far. I couldn’t write her song.”

“But you loved her.”

“I did, but so did you. And you stayed. You’ve always stayed.”

I slump back on the bench seat and the velvet throw slides under me. “I didn’t want to stay. I wanted to run. I wanted to not be in that church watching her suffer. I wanted to not be in that graveyard seeing her headstone. I wanted to not have to come and tell you that she was dead.”

“You wanted to be with her.” There’s no judgement in his voice and the slow picking on the strings never stops.

I close my eyes and lay my head back on the back of the bench. I can feel the hard edge of the wood surround digging into the base of my skull. “I have a knife. Sometimes I stare at it. Sometimes I open it and test how sharp it is. Sometimes I’m so close and all I can think about is the edge of the knife.”

“There’s a road in town called Jam Factory Lane,” he says. “It’s down by the rail tracks.”

I open my eyes and squint at him. “Um, okay.”

“It’s a cool name,” he continues. “It’s the kind of name that makes me want to take a picture of the street sign and send it to a friend. You know, for no other reason than to share something neat with someone who’d appreciate it.”

“Not really getting the analogy, Oz man. And I can’t believe I just said ‘analogy’. That’s what you get living with Giles for a few months. Infected with words.”

“When you get back to Sunnydale, I’ll send you a photo of the sign.”

“Oz, I…”

“Because you’ll appreciate it. You’ll think the name is neat too.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“You’ve got your knife and it’s sharp and seductive and it sings to you sometimes. You carry it with you, don’t you?”

I shift on the seat, the velvet sliding with the movement again and the edge of the knife in my pocket digs into my hip. “Yeah.”

“It’s like the wolf. I carry it with me. It’s part of me and it whispers in my head and I feel its power and its seduction humming under my skin. I tried to run from it, but now I’ve had to accept that it’s there and it has wants and needs, but it’s not all there is to me. It’s one part of me, but it’s not all that I am.” He glances down at his fingers and stops playing for a moment while he shifts the capo on the neck of the guitar and tightens it before he starts to play. The tune has a higher pitch than before and a lilt that makes me think of running water. Then he’s speaking again. I pay attention. “You killed Willow because she begged you to do it,” he says. “That knife is part of you now. You can feel its edge, its sharpness. But it’s not all you are. There’s a part of you that thinks it would be cool to get a photo of a neat street sign. You’d probably put it up on a cork board and make up a whole history behind the reason for the sign.”

“It is a neat name,” I reply.

“Yes, it is.” He pauses, his attention on his fingers for a complicated chord. “I can show you it in person later if you like.”

“But then you’d have to find something else to take a photo of, to send me.”

He smiles. “I can do that.” He stretches his legs, the heels of his sneakers buried in the dark curl of the rug. “And maybe you can take your own photo as well. See it through your own lens, not just through mine. Who knows how it might look?”

I want to answer him, something deep and profound, but just like Giles' words are infectious, so I’m rediscovering are Oz’s restful pauses, and perhaps between the two, there’s a balance I can begin to call my own.

I shift on the bench again, slumping a little further down and the knife slides a little deeper into my pocket, away from the hard bone of my hip. The velvet throw is soft under my fingers and the back of my neck finds the edge of the hard wood on the top edge of the seat. It settles into the groove at the base of my skull as if it was always meant to be there and I shut my eyes and listen to him play - the sound of tumbling water, the wind in the big trees and the sound of predators baying at the moon. And I think about magic and the shattering of white china cups on hard stone flags, and Giles with his gun and his hip flask and his lock pick. About street signs and photographs and the possibility of having rediscovered a friend. About hope and forgiveness.

And finally I think about Willow, and laying rocks onto gravestones and for the first time in eternity the pain is softer and kinder and further away.

And I think about going home.


Fin

A/N 2
I really never thought I'd revisit Memento Mori as it felt complete to me, but I was in Nelson briefly this summer and was just the sort of place I could see Oz settling down in - especially when I saw this little food van. And it got me thinking that Oz probably didn't know Willow was dead, so the story started from there. And yes, there really is a Jam Factory Lane. I took a photo just because I thought it was a terrific name *g*

Nelson photo P1010445_zpsepskyxfc.jpg

Nelson photo P1010442_zpsujsmcgqp.jpg

Date: 2016-11-13 09:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brutti-ma-buoni.livejournal.com
Oh this is lovely. Reflective and healing, though it comes from such a tragic place. I love your measured, cautious Oz, who isn't going to leap into anything. Xander ending up so much in the moment, so free of the past for a moment, felt profoundly right.

Date: 2016-11-13 09:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sparrow2000.livejournal.com
Thank you hon. I don't write Oz very often, but I always enjoy him when I do, and he's such a perfect foil for Xander. And it was lovely to give this Xander a moment to breathe, even just for that moment. I messed with him big time in Memento Mori, so he really deserved a break.

Hugs you hard for the wonderful comment.

Date: 2016-11-13 09:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] baudown.livejournal.com
First of all, happy anniversary! Second, I'm so grateful for a chance to revisit this 'verse. Third, this is beautiful, and it feels so timely to me: this sense of living with guilt and grief but learning to hold on to hope as well.

I needed this today.

Date: 2016-11-13 09:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sparrow2000.livejournal.com
Thank you hon. 10 years - I have no idea where that time went.

I was really glad to find a way to visit this 'verse again. I remember so clearly being half way through writing MM and it was going to have a happy ending, and then I couldn't find the bridge from where I was to where it needed to be. The moment I realised it couldn't have a happy ending was the moment I was able to complete the story.

I'm so glad this ficlet to revisit this 'verse worked for you and that I could offer you some respite, even in a minor key.

Hugs you
s xx

Date: 2016-11-14 06:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thismaz.livejournal.com
Really nice visit back to that world. I do love Xander and Oz interactions and older, sadder and wiser, they are still good together.
And I love that first photo.

Date: 2016-11-15 12:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sparrow2000.livejournal.com
Thank you love. As you know I have a soft spot for Memento Mori, so it was lovely to get this opportunity to see how Xander was doing.

When I saw that van I just had to take a picture! *g*

Date: 2016-11-14 10:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dragonyphoenix.livejournal.com
Aw, what Xander needs to heal. Lovely.

Date: 2016-11-15 01:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sparrow2000.livejournal.com
I was thinking of you as I posted this after your lovely rec for MM at Buffyversetop5. I was tempted them to tell you I was writing in this 'verse, but I was worried I'd jinx myself if I said it out loud! *g*

So glad it worked for you. Smiling like mad here. :)

Date: 2016-11-16 04:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] texanfan.livejournal.com
I, for one, am extraordinarily glad that Maz talked you into being brave. Such tragedy in Momento Mori and such healing in this one. I adore Oz's reaction and Giles' method of sending him to Oz's doorstep. That food truck is so the type of place Oz would run! And, of course, he makes hummus. :) The C.S. Lewis quote (I'm a huge fan) is perfect. Both these men loved Willow deeply and it is right that they grieve together. Interesting how Oz acknowledges that Xander's grief and guilt will always be a part of him but it doesn't have to be all that he is, just like Oz isn't only the wolf. I like that acknowledgement that these are things that will never go away, Xander isn't going to "get over it" and move on, but he can live with it and have a life worth living. Thank you, as always for sharing your wonderful craft with us.

Date: 2016-11-17 03:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sparrow2000.livejournal.com
I am very glad she did as well - it feels like forever ago and just yesterday at the same time.

I'm also so glad this one fitted and moved forward from Memento Mori. I wanted Xander to have some mechanism for beginning to think about moving forward and Oz just shouted at me in a mellow, understated way that he might be the way to go.

I was struggling for a title for this and when I saw the Lewis quote I knew I'd found exactly what I was looking for, so I'm really happy it resonated.

Thank you so much for all your support over these last 10 years, hon. You really make my day with your comments.

s xx

Date: 2016-12-26 06:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] postholedigger.livejournal.com
How in the world did I miss this? Fabulous my dear, as always. Have a wonderful holiday and a very easy, comfortable and creative 2017.

Date: 2016-12-26 06:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sparrow2000.livejournal.com
Well, I'm very glad you found it now. It was lovely revisiting this 'verse after all this time, so I'm really happy you enjoyed it so much.

You too, have a great holiday, and here's hoping it is indeed a good 2017.

s xx

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