Captain Picard Orders A Slushie
by glossolalia

Reality had been restored, their fears neatly packed back into the unconscious, and Xander should have been happy - Buffy and Giles were - or at least exhausted, like Willow.

All he was, though, was fidgety. Like he was still stalking that clown, or standing in front of the class in nothing but his BVDs. Squiggly itches ran up and down his skin, heat breaking like fever, making him shiver.

He'd come too close, to too much.

As a rule, Sunnydale was a horrible enough place. Today it was - horribler. He didn't, couldn't, trust anything he saw, as they walked down the hospital corridor, not the sober-faced orderlies or grinning candystripers. Definitely not the pale little sick kids, all bundled up in pastel blankets, their eyes big as half-dollars. Sure, they looked twiggy and innocent and harmless, but Xander didn't trust them for a second.

He hurried along behind the other three, only half-hearing whatever they were talking about - The Mikado, blindness and illiteracy, zombies: Stuff he could barely process on a good day.

He stopped, all his muscles going heavy and rigid, as they rounded the corner to the ER waiting room. Hospital air, sicklysweet and cold, lodged in the middle of his throat. Maybe, like with Ms. French, with the hyenas, he was more susceptible to magic and horror. Maybe it took time for the effects of things to wear off for him. Maybe he carried around so much fear in the normal course of events that he was prone to having his nightmares come true, whether or not supernatural mojo was afoot.

Maybe he just had really shitty luck.

Oz was sitting there. Over in the far corner, next to the water cooler, staring at the magazine in his hands. His hair - purply red, like a plum that only seems black until you take a closer look - was reflected in a thick, curved stripe over the surface of the cooler.

Oz looked up and he must have seen Xander; his eyebrows moved together like a fold-in at the back of Mad and Xander's mouth opened. All on its own, too.

"Xander?" Giles was coming back through the whoosh-whoosh automatic doors. The girls stood outside already, blurring as the doors closed again.

"I'm okay!" Xander said. Too loudly, of course, and he turned a little to block the sight of Oz.

Giles frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. "Are you sure?"

"Oh, yeah. Yeah. Just - think I left something in Billy's room. Or possibly the bathroom. Need -" Xander's mouth dried out at the same moment his brain stopped.

"We'll wait outside, then," Giles said.

"No, it's cool -. It's fine. I'm okay." His voice swooped up and down the register a little like it hadn't done for a couple years. Xander swallowed and gave Giles a careful, I'm okay, really grin.

"You're sure, then?"

"Sure as a sure thing," Xander said. "Certain, cool, confident."

Giles gave him one more frown, adjusted the earpiece of his glasses, then squeezed Xander's elbow and, sighing, left. Running both hands through his hair, Xander sucked in a deep breath and turned around, expecting Oz to be in the corner still, waiting.

"Hey," Oz said from behind him. "Freakass day, huh?"

Xander whirled, head swinging from the doors - Giles joining the girls, the three of them laughing about something - to the spot where Giles just was, where Oz was now, hands in his pockets, cucumber-cool.

"Could say that, yeah," Xander said. Oz nodded, once, carefully and Xander flexed the fingers on both hands. "Of course, right. You did just say that. Forget it. What're you doing here, anyway?"

"Hmm?" Oz was looking out the doors, maybe at Giles' retreating back, his eyes narrowed and darker than usual, but that had to be Xander's imagination, since Oz didn't know the others. Xander was determined to keep it that way - last thing he needed was answering Willow and the rest about his suddenly-revealed interest in the boyish of the species.

"Hospital. ER, actually. You don't look -" Oz looked far from sick, in fact. He wasn't even sporting the tape on his left elbow, covering an insane web of scabs, that Xander had seen on him last.

"Oh, right. Trina tried a varial flip," Oz said, looking back at Xander, head tipped back a little, his eyes back to their usual spooky green. "Wrist-fracture. Seven places."


"Yeah. Not for the faint of heart."

Xander wasn't sure who Trina was, let alone what a varial flip might involve. Oz moved in a weird, always-shifting group of people, their faces and hair bright and jumbled as spilled crayons, and his language was - Xander didn't know the right word. Somewhere between obscure and eclectic. "Trina? Or the flip?"

"Both, I guess." Oz scratched the side of his head, his bracelets catching the light, and shrugged. "Walk with me?"

"Yeah," Xander said. "Sure."

"Like a feeble grind," Oz said as they hit the pavement and he turned left, back towards Smithson, and Xander followed. "But with a little more spin and grab."

Xander, walking beside him, kept nodding, more than lost. He always got like this with Oz - then again, always suggested that they hung out all the time, and that wasn't true. It couldn't have been more than ten, fifteen, times, but from the get-go, when Oz started talking to him in the line-up at the AM/PM - Think they'll ever stock that maple turkey jerky again? - it had been like this. From turkey jerky, Oz moved on to observations of Picard's masculinity and dreams of a family. In the Nexus, all he wanted was a passel of kids. In reality, he got, what? Wesley. Xander bit his lip, not ready to admit that he'd always kind of liked Wesley, even though he was smart-ass. But Oz, accepting his change from the bored clerk, smiled a little at Xander, almost apologetically. Wesley was cute, he said. When Xander stared, Oz just shrugged. Just more a Picard man, myself.

Talking to Oz was easy; sometimes, like with the Wesley stuff, it was like he read Xander's mind. It was probably more like Oz's mind was so open, permeable like a cell membrane, and Xander just got sucked in. Like floating, like getting lost, like kite-flying, listening to Oz's soft, staccato words, pretending that Xander had some clue about what they were doing and what they were talking about.

Maybe he'd met Oz and forgotten it, because Oz seemed to know him. Seemed to assume they were acquaintances, and maybe practice made perfect, because Xander had been acting like they were, and now they were. Maybe. Maybe he just spent too much time with girls; maybe guys never wondered if they were friends, let alone why. Probably not.

They ended up walking past school, past the public library, all the way to the far edge of Wilkins Park, where Oz bought a lemon slushie and offered to get Xander something.

"Nah, I'm okay," Xander said, licking his lips, trying not to want his usual blue-raspberry and black-cherry swirl. "Yeah. I'm good."

Oz's left brow canted up, and Xander had watched Oz skateboard enough times to know it was at about 48 degrees, and ordered him the swirl. "Get me later," he said when Xander made a show out of pulling out his wallet - it was empty, but he figured Oz knew that. "Or don't. Whatever."

So it was probably the direct sugar-ice comet to the brain that made Xander sling his arm around Oz's shoulder and pull him off the path toward the tiny, algae-slimed duckpond behind the knot of trees. "Cooler back here," Xander said, taking a deep breath of the humid air and holding it for a bit. Exhaling, he added, "Shadier, too. You're -"

"Sunburn, freezerburn," Oz said, touching the tip of his long nose and lifting the cup in his other hand. "Six of one." He dropped bonelessly, folding his legs as he went, and Xander joined him on the ground. Slow as a hawk on a branch, but not scary-predator-like, just musing, Oz looked around and said, "Pretty back here."

"Yeah." When he closed his eyes, Xander could still see the clown, laughing and scowling. But if he breathed slowly, concentrated on the wide-sky calm of Oz next to him, he could relax a little. At least that's how it usually worked.

"Still freaked?" Oz asked a little later, softly and vaguely as ever.

Xander opened one eye. "Huh?"

"Freaky day. You said so, too."

"Oh. Right. No, I'm better." Okay, so he was freaked, still, by the day. By his life lately. But it wasn't the nightmares, he started to think, opening his other eye, looking at Oz. It was just - now he got it, maybe, in a way he hadn't before. He was getting the divide between good and evil. It wasn't a line, nothing so simple, but more like a window. Like coming out of the school and seeing the nighttime graveyard right there across the street. Like tasting blood in his own mouth and getting hard. Like whaling on that clown in the school corridor. Like talking to Jesse in the Bronze, then watching him dust out.

There's no halfway, Giles said about Angel a couple weeks ago. It was his standard remark, but Xander wasn't so sure that Giles was right any more. Because that was Jesse, for one thing, and Xander himself pulled some seriously wrong shit when he was a hyena, stuff he still remembered and thought about, stuff he'd always wanted to do. After today, he was all the surer. Things weren't cleanly divided like the border between Mexico and the States. Everything bled together, best friend and demon, Xander and predator, reality and graveyard.

"Haven't seen much of you," Oz said. Xander's chest heated up in a blanket of pinpricks and his fingers curled. Being around Oz reminded him of - nothing he could name, not really, but he did know he was warm and full of spinning needles. Needs.

Oz sucked noisily on his straw, then rolled the cup across his forehead. It left a wide trail of sparkling drops on his pinkening skin.

Haven't seen much of you. Usually when they met up, Xander and Oz were relatively alone, like now, or cutting boys' gym, taking a drive in Oz's mom's sedan - but the last time he saw Oz was at a band rehearsal and they were really definitely not alone. The band played down at their new space in the personal storage units off Highway Six, and the metal room was packed with people in an impromptu party.

It got hot with the doors only half-open. Oz wore long brown cut-offs and one of his girl-small t-shirts, dark blue, so his skin glowed brighter than usual, made Xander think of ricepaper lanterns and that fire-balloon in Danny, the Champion of the World, taut shining paper and light glowing within. Oz didn't look hot, just illuminated, but everyone else was flushed, sweating, sticky like syrup.

Girls tied their shirts around their waists and danced in their bras, guys stripped down, too, tossing shirts into a general pile on the love seat next to Xander. Rehearsal seemed to be over - Black Sheep was passing the forty on the speakers now - and Xander couldn't look at Oz safely any more. When he had the guitar in his hands, Oz didn't see a thing, but without it, he was bound to notice. And Xander was frozen, so overheated that he was thinking more muzzily, even, than usual, and Oz slid onto the arm of the couch, plucking at the neck of Xander's shirt. Comfortable in that?, he asked, smiling a little with his eyes, and his fingers were icy on Xander's skin. Xander couldn't answer, just nodded furiously and gulped and nodded some more, like he was doing right now. Want a drink? Oz eventually asked, standing, gliding away.

"I'm here," Xander said now and shook his slushie cup like it was proof of his existence. "Dressed, but -"

Oz leaned back and pulled one knee up to his chest. The corners of his mouth deepened, and that was almost a smile. "Around," he said. "Haven't seen much of you around."

"Oh, yeah. See, there's a lot of, um, group projects this year, and then our bio teacher left -" Died. Twice. "And I've been busy with other stuff, and sometimes I'm in the library, which is just strange in and of itself, don't even ask -"

"Missed you."

"Oh." Hard to imagine Oz noticing Xander, or his absence, but on second thought, that just wasn't true. Oz noticed everything; his eyes were wide and deep. It was hard, though, to imagine Oz caring one way or the other. Missing. "Really?"

Oz didn't say anything for a while, and Xander began to think he was drifting back down his own mental yellow brick road. That made him feel relieved - less attention, the better - and sad - less attention, period - all at once.

"Yeah," Oz said finally. The shade of the hedges and trees around them was doing interesting things to his face, deepening the hollows under his cheekbones and around his eyes, triangles and lozenges of light skating over his nose and mouth.

The last time he saw Oz, Xander made a break for it. Soon as Oz left the couch, Xander got to his feet and ran for the parking lot. He wouldn't take off his own damn shirt, let alone drink, and he was a fool and stupid. Best to get out of there before he revealed the deepest depths of his dorkiness; Oz wouldn't even notice that he was gone.

Or maybe - definitely - Oz had noticed. Which left Xander gnawing like a learning-disabled puppy at the basic question of why again.

Right now, Oz wasn't glowing, not like he had been that night. The light inside and on his skin was quieter, almost restful. Nightlights, Xander thought, ivory Christmas lights, steady and persistent. Reassuring.

"You, too," Xander said, swallowing the bitter chips of ice from the bottom of his cup. He coughed hard enough to bring up a quick burst of tears, then beat on his chest. "I mean, I -"

"Yeah," Oz said. "Got it."

If he was a girl, or at the very least, with a girl, Xander figured he could ask. What's going on?, he wanted to say. What the hell is this? But he wasn't, and Oz was lying on his back now, one arm under his head and his eyes half-closed so his lashes caught the light and glowed bright as tangerines. His t-shirt, yellow today, rode up a little.

The skin on Oz's stomach was very pale. Pale as dead things, Xander thought, thinking of Angel's unearthly skin, but not like them at all. Pale but alive - a faint fuzz of dark hair, burnt-orange, right under Oz's belly button, the tracery of blue veins under the skin, the steady hollowing and inflation of Oz's stomach, all these things told Xander that Oz was very much alive.

Also very much a boy, which went back to the original problem. One of the original problems, anyway.

"Freaky, freaky day," Oz said. "Went really weird. Had this thing -"

When Oz broke off, Xander took a deep lungful's worth of air and lay down, too. On his side, looking at Oz. Inside, where he should have been really nervous and maybe even sick to his stomach, he felt quiet and kind of wide. Expansive, maybe. Scary to think, though, that Oz's nightmares had come true, just like Xander's had. "What happened?"

"No one knew me. For a while there, no one noticed me. Knew who I was. Like I disappeared."

"Rock star's worst nightmare, huh?"

Shading his eyes, Oz turned and looked at Xander, then breathed out a chuckle, slow and rumbly. "That's Devon. No, me -"

He stopped again, squeezing his eyes shut, pressing his lips together so hard that they went white around the edges. His whole face looked like a mask, like an old statue worn down by rain and streaks of pigeon shit.

"It's okay," Xander said, softly. He reached out and petted Oz's stomach like he would Willow's back when she was upset. It wasn't that different. "It's okay."

"Like I'd never been there," Oz said. "Like it never mattered."

"Not true," Xander said. His thumb caught the hem of Oz's shirt and skimmed over bare skin. Oz shivered, breathing out a faint, whimpering sigh, but his face was loosening. "It's okay. Really."

He could tell Oz everything - he could already feel the words inside his throat, half-heard explanations from Giles, examples of Buffy and vampires and nightmares - but Xander swallowed and didn't say anything else. Under his palm, Oz's stomach was warm, not at all icy like his touch at the party had been. Hairless chest, like Xander's own, so lightly muscled you might be forgiven for thinking Oz was a weakling.

He'd seen Oz on the quarter-pipe. He was no weakling.

"Fucking freaksome," Oz said. Startled, Xander had the inner-vertigo feeling he usually walked around with, like internal elevator cables were snapping and dropping him. Oz caught Xander's wrist as he tried to grab back his hand. "Day, not you."

"Oh. Really?"

Deeper smile now, and Oz's face was back to normal. Loose and mobile, and his eyes were shining like the pond in front of them. He pressed Xander's hand harder against his stomach. "You want it to be really?"

Xander's hand found the curve of Oz's rib-cage and gripped hard, pulling his body closer alongside Oz. This close, Oz's lemon-ice breath was very sweet, and his lips were the color of strawberries.

"Yeah," Xander said. "Think so."

Oz blinked once. His eyes looked deeper than anything, like oceans trapped there, swirling and swallowing light. "Make it so."

Xander started laughing then - he couldn't help it - and Oz shrugged, which looked weird when he was on his back, but it dragged his shirt up further and then he was laughing, too, pushing Xander's own shirt up, and wrapping his arm around Xander's waist.

"Slushie, lemon, cold," Xander said in his terrible British accent - hanging out with Giles hadn't helped his Picard-voice at all, which really wasn't fair - but Oz seemed to understand. He nodded and his face rose, or Xander's descended, and then they were kissing. Really kissing, not like the pecking Xander had practiced with Willow, not like the soft romantic melting things he imagined Buffy gave Angel, imagined Buffy giving him.

Kissing, and Xander wasn't going to tell Oz anything. Oz tasted way too good, noticed too much and felt too much for him to be safe anywhere near the crap of fighting evil.

There might not be a line between safety and danger, good and evil. Xander got that now, knew it was a window, tissue-thin and delicate as a Holodeck sim, but that didn't mean he had to knock out the glass and crank up the reality.

Oz rolled a little under him and bit Xander's chin as they gasped for breath; when Xander pushed his hand through Oz's stick-stiff hair, feeling the hot scalp underneath, round edge of his skull like a different world from the sharp, stubbly edge of his jaw, he knew a couple things for sure. Laughing during kissing was an unbeatable combination; his Picard-voice was way better than he'd ever dreamed; and he was going to work his ass off to keep Oz away from the sordid blood-soaked mess his life had become.

It was the least he could do.


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