Slow Learners
by glossolalia

He was looking for someone who wasn't here. Maybe he was looking, Xander thought, for the space left behind. He wasn't sure. He'd been circling town for several weeks now, looking for a place to plop down and think.

You'd think the cemetery would be a fine place to start.

The useful thing about graveyards, of course, is that they're pretty much a final destination. Oh, so-and-so died, you can find him in the graveyard.

You can't mourn when there's no body, though. He learned that with Jesse, and he's not too quick, so he was learning it all over again with Oz. Not that Oz was dead, which was part of the problem, maybe the core of the problem, but he might as well be, since he wasn't ever coming back. Xander didn't dare say that to Will, just like he never mentioned Jesse to her. He'd like to think that he keeps his own counsel, but it wasn't anything that good-sounding and honorable. It was just -- despite appearances, despite whatever the others said about babbling and the burbling Xander-brook -- he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Mostly.

Without a body, there were either an infinite numbers of places to find the missing person or none at all. Cockeyed optimist, that's Xander, so he went with infinite. Besides, it kept him busy. Looking for a place to park himself and think-mourn-ponder Oz was like the world's best and longest scavenger hunt. Except there was no prize at the end, and he was the only player, and it was actually kind of terribly sad.

But he kept looking. He had to.


He tried the band's house first. Devon answered the door, still half-asleep. It was past four in the afternoon, but Xander knew what it's like to need lots of naps. He was looking Xander up and down like a housewife picking up and studying every single orange in the produce aisle, nose crinkled up, dubious. He was shirtless, and his jeans were half-undone and hanging off his hips, and he just scratched his belly while he squinted at Xander.

"Hi," Xander said.

Finally, Devon moved out of the doorway, turning, fumbling for something on a low table. "Yo, Oz isn't here," he said over his shoulder, and as he stepped inside Xander heard cellophane crinkling and the scratch of a dead lighter trying to catch.

"Yeah, I know." Xander drove his hands into his pockets. "I -"

"Little fucker cleared out," Devon said, turning around, sitting on the edge of the table, lighting a cigarette. His voice went high and wheezy and he bent at the waist, coughing, waving the smoke away from his mouth. "Last week."

Xander was frozen where he stood, but he liberated one hand from his pocket and patted Devon on the shoulder. This was a bad idea, he thought, stupid pointless fucking dumb idea. Devon didn't even seem to know his name; why the hell would he care about Xander showing up on his doorstep, looking to complete his quest?

"Um, I should go -"

Devon straightened up, running his hand through his hair (it didn't help, just added to the riotous disorder of curls), and shaking his head. He was as tall as Xander, but leaner, finer-built, and Xander stared a little too long at the patch of dark-gold hair descending from Devon's belly button.

"Nah, man," Devon said, and he must have known Xander was looking, because his hand drifted back over his stomach and circled. Looking back at Xander, he blinked slowly and smiled even slower. "Hang out. S'cool."

"I'm not -" Xander tried to say as he followed Devon upstairs. They turned right and Devon knocked open the door to Oz's room with his shoulder. I'm not gay, he wanted to say, I wasn't looking at you, I just wanted - But he didn't know what he wanted, that was the whole point of being on this scavenger huntquestpointless errand and now he was standing in the middle of Oz's old room, looking at scraps of tape on the wall and a few posters hanging crookedly and his mouth was really dry. Devon dropped backward onto Oz's narrow mattress, bouncing a little, kind of vacantly grinning at him.

"Think he ran off with that chick," Devon said.

"Wha -?" Xander was frozen again -- always -- several beats behind everyone else. "No, Will's still here."

Red-eyed and silent and trembling like Xander's grandma with Parkinson's, but here.

Smirking, Devon patted the mattress and sucked another drag. Xander complied, moving through confusion thick as syrup that clogged his eyes and coated his tongue. "Not her. The other one. Hot blonde, kind of dykey. Crap singer."

The mattress sank under Xander as he settled in and he understood perfectly.

Oz didn't leave with Veruca, and Xander knew that better than anyone except Oz and Veruca. And she was dead, really dead.

"What's so funny?" Devon asked and Xander hadn't even known he was laughing.

"Nothing," Xander said and reached for Devon's cigarette. Devon had his thumb hooked into the pocket of his jeans and Xander's hand brushed his thigh in transit. Devon thrust back and grinned and rolled his hips again.

Christ, he had a crazy-bright smile, made for spotlights and magazine covers. His jeans were velvety, so faded and worn, and Xander's hand stayed where it was.

"I'm not gay," Xander heard himself say. "I mean, I came over because - just want -"

"Yeah." The word was a sigh. Devon covered Xander's hand with his own, holding it there on his thigh. "Me, too."

"What do you want?"

Devon plucked at the hem of Xander's shirt and looked up at him through heavy gold lashes, the exact same shade as the hair on his belly. "Want him to come back. You?"

Xander curved his palm over Devon's thigh, moving up to his stomach, brushing warm skin and crinkly hair, and he said, "That'd be good, yeah."

Usually, Devon moved like the pothead rockstar he was, all loose and slow, but he was a flash now, sitting up, reaching over Xander and stubbing the cigarette out on the windowsill and curling his hand around Xander's neck and pulling him down and --.

Pulling him down and kissing him. Panic sheeted through Xander, brightening and stiffening him, even though Devon's mouth was soft and right, and what was the deal with people jumping his bones all of a sudden, anyway? Most of high school, he was grosser than a carnie's kid, but lately there was Anya and now Devon moving in on him, confident that he'd respond.

Because he was responding. He flattened his hand on Devon's chest (warm, a little sweaty-damp), intending to push him back, because Xander was not gay, he was just looking for Oz (in all the wrong places) and this was a very bad idea that was just getting rapidly, thrillingly worse. But then Devon bit Xander's lower lip, sucked at it hard, and Xander's fingers closed on Devon's arm and pulled him in.

"Fuck in his bed," Devon muttered, pushing Xander's shirt up. Curled fingers like claws, stripping him bare. "That'll show him."

Not gay, definitely not fucking, except Xander helped Devon with his shirt and kissed some more and wiggled out of the damn shirt so he could feel skin on skin, simple and warm. "That doesn't make sense," he said when they broke for breath again.

Devon stared at him, mouth swollen, eyes sleepy in his flushed face. "Fuck're you talking about?"

That was the question, after all, and Xander wanted to answer, but he had pictures in his head -- Devon's mouth, and the dip of his stomach at his hipbones, and the shine of dark blue eyes under golden lashes thick as woolly-bears -- instead of words.

His mind was, apparently, a rebus. Good to know.

"I miss Oz," he finally said and Devon just shook his head slowly and pressed his palm over Xander's crotch. His thumb ran up Xander's zipper and Xander felt his hips twitch and roll in response.

"Can see that."


So there was no Oz in Oz's room. Oz's room was memorial and museum, not Oz. Like the whale skeleton at the natural history museum, so big you walk inside under its ribs like it's church, and you stand and look up at what's left after death.

Devon was there, though, and he tasted good and didn't say much that was all that memorable. Still, Xander knew he was looking in the wrong place. Plus, not gay.

He tried the Bronze, because music was Oz's atmosphere, his water and air. He swam in it and lived in it and breathed it out. It made sense to try there. But the Bronze wasn't right, either. It may have been because it was 80s night and crammed with high-schoolers in bright pink and green and Oz had always hated 80s pop. Except for the Thompson Twins, but Xander figured that was redhead solidarity more than it was good taste in music.

He walked the edge, all the way around, of the ruins of the high school. Oz wasn't there; stupid to even think that was the place, since Oz hated school. Smart as Giles, but anti-school: Xander had always liked that about Oz. It gave him hope that maybe he, too, was a (undiscovered) genius underachiever.

He went back to visit Devon a couple times, but never went back into Oz's room. Devon's room was bigger, and he had a double futon, and several bottomless bottles of bourbon and whiskey. Also a black light, which made Xander giggle unbecomingly.

"C'mon," Devon said, hand on the doorknob to Oz's room. "You know you want to."

That was the thing; Xander didn't want to. He didn't know what he was looking for -- displaced air? negative space? molecules left behind when Oz quit town? -- but he knew it wasn't in there. Arguing with Devon, though, was pointless, so he walked down the hall and waited for Devon to join him.

Devon's room smelled like old laundry and gym socks and sea water. And smoke, new, old, future, smoke. All in all, it was a million times better than the basement. It also had light in it, which was, Xander realized, turning his hand to and fro in the sunbeam, a very nice thing. If he had light, Spike couldn't come over.

"How much do you pay for this place, anyway?" Xander asked when Devon came in and kicked the door shut.

"Four-fifty? Something like that. You looking?"

"Maybe." He was lying. He was looking, but he couldn't even pay his parents, let alone a real landlord. And he'd probably end up in Oz's room, in the belly of the whale, and he had enough problems as it was without literally entering Old-Testament land.


He liked being in Devon's room. Light, and weird-smelling, and Devon with the tan skin and slow, smoky kisses and hands that knew what to do with Xander's twitching, nervous body. When Xander was there, he didn't think about Oz. He didn't think about much, truth be told, just tasted and drank and groped Devon in return and came hard enough that for several blessed seconds at a time, his mind went totally, perfectly blank. Blank as paper, unwritten, no stories and history just a fairy tale.

But Devon was -- Devon was Devon and one afternoon Xander pushed open the door to his room with the edge of a pizza box and Devon was sleeping next to a girl with short red hair and black lacy bra, and Xander took the pizza back outside and ate it himself in one sitting. He didn't even like black olives on his pizza, that was for Devon, but he ate it anyway.

He couldn't feel jealous, because he didn't care about Devon. He liked stuff about Devon, textures and tastes and touches, not to mention his lifelong knowledge of all things Oz, but Xander wasn't gay. Hence, not caring. And he had Anya. And he missed Oz like, like. Like a lot. Oz was a whale, a dolphin, some distant relative returned to the sea, alien and brilliant, speaking his own incomprehensible language.

Xander had always figured Oz'd just be there. Like Willow and Giles and Buffy.

He really should stop taking things for granted. He needed to find the right place, some place perfectly Oz, and then he could think and feel stuff and be done with this.

This was getting to be like his ballyhooed roadtrip, just him stuck in a town he hated, looking and looking and telling himself that he'd know it when he found it.

"Grief is a long and irregular process," Giles had told him, years ago now, when Jesse dusted and Xander wanted to punch every wall he saw.

He wasn't in a hitting mood this time. Hitting was Buffy's gig. Xander wasn't even really backup, he was the unemployed guy running this endless errand. Keeping busy, keeping moving, a shark so afraid of death that he wouldn't stop for breath.

Grief was for the birds, it really was.


When he patrolled with Buffy one night, his face bruised up and chest pounding from one more narrow escape, that was when it hit him. They were leaving the cemetery and Buffy was fixing her ponytail and complaining about bargain scrunchies that lost their inherent scrunchiness, and they passed the old crypt. Xander stopped short, looking at the crypt.

Not the one Spike had moved into, the other one.

Where Oz built his cage after the high school burned. Behind which Xander buried Veruca. The last place he would have thought of. That one.

Because he was slow, and the dullest knife in the drawer as well as the dimmest bulb on this or any other block, or maybe just because crap happens on the hellmouth, Xander only got it now.

"Gonna double back," he said. "See you tomorrow?"

Buffy looked up at him, pretty and surprised, her mouth opening into a perfect little O, and he was never going to forget the feeling of wanting her. Not that he'd felt in a long time, probably not since Angel came back, but the memory of it was lodged behind his eyes and down the back of his throat.

"Sure," she said and shook out her hair. "You going to be okay?"

"Never better."


When there is a body, you know exactly where someone is. Veruca was in a hole behind this crypt. Giles had met him right here, flashlight in hand, when Xander delivered her body for disposal.

"Fascinating," Giles had said while Xander wrestled the body out of the back of Rory's old taxidermy van. He used that tone, the one so flat and dry that he might as well be back in England, picking out tea and feeling perfectly unfascinated.

The tarp he'd brought to the science lab and wrapped around the wolf's was loosening and Xander nudged it back in place with his toe, covering her face. Snout. Giles kneeled down and pulled it back as Xander leaned over him to grab the shovel. Whatever Giles said, Xander wasn't fascinated, not at all. He just wanted to get the hole dug and be done with it.

"Generally, werewolves are thought to revert to their human form when -"

Strangled growl, wet like blood running over gravel, and as Xander turned, the wolf was moving, wriggling on its back, bloody teeth bared. Giles was stumbling backward, hand over his mouth, and the wolf's jaws snapped open as it twisted over. Growling again, black eye rolling wild, and Xander brought the shovel's blade down hard on the top of its skull. Once, then again, and Giles froze as the wolf twitched and gurgled. The shovel came away black and wet; one more hit, crunching and moist, and she lay still, the change he'd seen (spied) move over Oz so many times shimmering and rippling like water, like runoff full of mud and motor oil, up and down fur and claws until she was just a girl again. A dead, naked girl without a face, shining splintered bone and pulpy meat.

Veruca was back there, then, under sandy dirt, human bones gradually emerging from rotting flesh, human skull shattered into chips and shards.

He knew where she was; Xander didn't need to look.

Oz left, Willow had said, because there was no more divide between him and the wolf, human and monster. But Xander was the one who killed, and he was just a guy. He never had a divide. He did clean-up, back-up and now, apparently, wetworks, as well as grave-digging and corpse disposal. She should have died as a wolf. He wondered if Oz knew that you go back into your body when you die. Probably not; if he did, he might not have left.

He held the cross, his oldest one, his Nighthawk one, out in front of him as he stepped carefully down into the crypt. Probably nothing here, not after Buffy's patrol, but it would be just like Xander to die before he ever got a chance to think. Something there about bad luck or pure dumb luck and irony.

Dark in here, nowhere near a full moon, and chilly. This place should have felt skeletal, empty and dark, the bars of the cage standing out like ribs picked clean in a nighttime desert. It didn't feel like anything, just empty. Empty and quiet. Quiet as the.

He tucked the cross into his pocket and closed his fingers around a bar in the door to the cage. Tugging gently, like Oz used to do before moonrise, just testing. Cool metal, slick to the touch except for a single patch of rust right under the center of his palm. He pulled harder, the rust licking roughly at his hand, then harder yet, and nothing.

His hand was streaked with red-black rust, faintly glittering, and Xander started laughing as he shook at the door. Stigmata, hysteria, it was all the same thing when you got down to it. Trust him to find the place, big roomy cage perfect for curling up in, crypt-den made for thinking and howling, and he couldn't even get in.

He gripped the bars again, laughing and shaking and pulling, and nothing budged except the sour rock lodged right under his breastbone. The one he'd been carrying around since before Veruca changed back, since Oz left. That moved, bouncing around his chest and knocking ribs, lungs, heart, and he tasted it, metallic like blood, burning like bile. He kept on shaking, pulling on the door, laughing and cursing until he lost his breath and his face stung.

He slid to his knees, pulling his hands down the bars and knocking his forehead against them until his teeth rattled and his brain shook like Santa's belly.

Oz was gone and Xander couldn't get inside.


He slept on the marble floor. It hurt everywhere, made every sheet of muscle as cold-hard-flat as itself when Devon woke him up. Toe of a Doc Marten nudging Xander's shoulder gently and too much light and "Dude, are you drunk?"

"I wish," Xander said and struggled to sit up.

Devon grimaced around the lip of his coffee cup, took a long, sucking sip, then dropped down to a crouch next to Xander.

"Couldn't get in?" he asked. Xander shook his head. Devon reached up, twisting at the waist, and punched numbers into the lock. He glanced back over his shoulder. "6-9-15. Les Paul's birthday."

"Of course," Xander said and knuckled his eyes. "That was my next guess."

He was sick of looking, and this didn't count as finding.

Devon twisted back and slid down until he was right alongside Xander, holding his coffee in both hands, staring at it like it was a crystal ball.

He was not the first guy Xander ever kissed. That dubious honor went to Oz, but Devon was the first guy Xander didn't flee from afterward. Because he didn't care, not like that. Hell, he did the opposite of fleeing; he came back.

"Heard anything?" Xander asked as Devon stretched his neck and shoulders.

"Nah. You?"

Xander snorted. It'd be nice if that was possible, if he found himself on Earth Prime and Oz would drop him a line, call him from the road in the wee hours just to hear his voice, buy him a crappy souvenir from Patsy Cline's hometown. Not in this dimension, though. He snorted again and Devon passed him the coffee; hot and highly sugared, just like Xander liked it.

"What're you doing here?" he asked, handing the cup back.

Devon kicked out one leg and tipped his head back against the bars. "Tripped my face off last night. Speed's still...doing that speedy thing."

He had a fine profile, and Xander wondered what it felt like to live inside a shell that handsome. Long, graceful nose, dimpled chin, full lips chapped a little in the corner.

"First guy I ever kissed was him," Xander said and Devon rolled his head, looking at him. Smiling, slow and sex.

"But you're not gay."

"Yeah." Right, of course. Never mind the hard jutting angles of Oz's body against his, his rough kisses, the burr and rasp of stubble against Xander's cheek.

Devon's head was tilted towards Xander, his neck long and bright, tendon standing out and skin like brass in the morning light, and it was so easy, effortless and flowy, for Xander to tilt the other way and kiss him.

Pulling away, Devon left his hand on Xander's neck and set down the coffee. He turned, pushing open the door and pulling Xander down and inside. His mouth tasted sour, Camel Lights and coffee, and his grip was strong. Xander guessed he was hoping for a revelation, one of those epiphanies from English class, where Devon would mutter he always wanted you or it's not too late and that would let Xander suddenly see everything clearly, anew and for the first time, Kerouac on the fire-spotting platform glimpsing samsara rising over the forest.

What he got instead was an armful of long, wriggling Devon, hot morning-breath and cold marble floor, and when Xander ran his hand down Devon's back, then under his shirt, the hollow right below his waistband was warm and soft, fuzzed with invisible hair, and Devon raised his head, little moans escaping from his mouth like tendrils of smoke.

"Close your eyes," he told Xander, then chuckled low and rough. Fingers pushing up under Xander's shirt, skating, painting hot shivery trails.


In the cage, back where Oz had slept and paced and howled and woke up naked and hurting, but no one was there except for Devon and Xander. And Xander was almost naked now, both of them were, pants down around his knees and his mouth and hands full of Devon, golden skin and little chuckles and Devon raised himself up on one arm, lids drooping as he smiled.

"Y'know, man, I think you might be bi."

Xander closed his fingers in the soft, oddly silky curls at the back of Devon's head and pulled him back down. Tongue thrusting up into a mouth whose sourness was rapidly melting, leaving behind only sweet and musk, cock mimicking tongue under Devon's palm, and then he bit down and made Devon tremble.

"Maybe, yeah," Xander said and licked down the length of Devon's throat, hot-slick and soft, as he rolled onto his side, biting again, knocking his head on the floor. He winced. "And maybe we should, like, find somewhere more comfor--"

Devon flicked his thumb over the head of Xander's dick and Xander echoed, mirrored, the gesture, figuring it out as he went along.

Trick was, do what felt good, push yourself a little harder, and you might luck out. Might find yourself half on top of Sunnydale's biggest non-supernatural celebrity, laughing and rocking in time with him, and it was far, far easier than Xander'd ever thought it would be.

Just find some ease, pleasure, and a good rhythm: Oz would approve, he knew that much.


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