Empty Chairs At Empty Tables

I could see where he knelt at the grave as I approached from behind. His head, covered by bleached white hair, was bowed as though in prayer. His hair was slightly longer than I remembered it; it was thick and wild, waving a little at the spiky tips in the wind.

From what I could see he was nearly as pale as his hair, but I didn't need to see to know that. I knew his light skin, slender body, and haunted eyes as well as I knew my own face.

None of the others except for Xander had known about my collection of clippings. I could still remember the curious look on Xander's face from when he had stumbled upon them. He had raised an eyebrow, and I was expecting a sardonic comment on it, but he had had the tact to say nothing. He simply put the folder back in the drawer where he had found it and left the room, leaving me a little embarrassed and alone. Neither of us had ever said anything about the incident, but sometimes after that I would find little clippings left behind. I liked to think that he had understood. Every picture and article on Oz had been collected over the years with Xander's unspoken help, as though by surrounding myself with reminders of his existence I could draw him back to us.

And now here he was.

Unfortunately it had taken death to bring him here.

He had fulfilled every one of his few spoken ambitions. The band had taken off, drawing him farther and farther away from here. He was hailed as one of the greatest guitarists of the new millennium, in typical journalistic hyperbole. But it was deserved, in my eternally favorable opinion.

He tensed suddenly, sensing my approach even though I had remained silent. Perhaps his lycanthrope-enhanced senses had grown more acute over time, or I had simply not been as quiet as I thought. When he had tensed he had been in the midst of tracing the name on the headstone, his callused middle finger stayed frozen on the curve of the "s" for a moment before he drew his hand up to rest on the top of the stone.

"What happened?" he asked in a hoarse, emotion choked whisper. He didn't turn to face me, though, and his head remained bowed.

I strode the last few feet over to him and crouched down behind him before answering, "It was a demon." He nodded slightly and I continued, "It was much more powerful than any we had come up against before, and bent upon the end of the world. It was... awoken by other, lesser demons, in Italy. This hellmouth was the key to its goal."

"But you won." His voice was so quiet, at first I wasn't sure if he had said it or if I had imagined his reply.

"If you can call saving the world at the expense of three human lives a victory." Even to my own ears my voice sounded bitter.

He finally turned to look at me, actually facing me for the first time in years. His face was thinner, more angular now, and his eyes were shadowed. He hadn't been eating well, and I wonder now if he had been doing drugs. But such superficial appraisals weren't reflected on until much later. All I could really see when he turned was the fact that he was crying. Tears ran down his pale cheeks and his eyes glittered like jewels with the tears that had not yet been wept. He was a vision of helpless mourning. He was old beyond his years. But most of all, he was beautiful and made my heart ache with the need to hold him.

"Did they suffer?" he asked, and it suddenly struck me that he was holding himself up with the hand on the headstone. It seemed to be a great effort for him to even speak, and his grief was so fresh, so raw. He must have only heard recently.

I took a deep breath, weighing my words carefully. "Xander... lingered. I had hoped he would pull through, but in the end he simply... never woke up. I can not say how much he was truly aware of. Buffy went quickly, her... her neck was broken."

"And Willow?"

I swallowed and closed my eyes, the vision of her gruesome end returning to me once more. It had been horrible. She was in the midst of casting a containment spell on the demon when the lessers had caught her. She'd been gutted like a fish and her internal organs used to decorate the room, but I couldn't possibly tell Oz that. "I wasn't with her when she died," I said truthfully, hoping he would leave it at that.

He looked down for a moment, silent and still. Aside from the gentle rise and fall of his chest under the blue silk shirt he wore he might as well have been a statue. Finally, he looked up and met my eyes. "Giles?"

Yes?" I said softly.

He took his hand from the headstone and slipped his arms around me, crumpling against me as he buried his face against my shoulder and sobs began to rack his body. I hugged him in return tightly and we sat like that for what seemed like hours, just holding each other and sharing our pain.

When he pulled back he seemed to be in control once more; his face was that blank mask that he had mastered so well, keeping his thoughts and feelings insulated from the world. "Oz..." I began, but was silenced by his lips covering mine. I was stunned for a moment, then slipped my hand behind to cradle the back of his neck and let my tongue play against the seam of his lips. His lips opened to me, accepting my tongue and greeting it with his own. Against my face I could feel the roughness of his five o'clock shadow as we kissed, a sensation I hadn't felt for years. Not since one last, stolen kiss from Ethan. The fingers of his right hand delicately stroked my cheek, tracing the curve of my cheekbone and exploring the contours of my face as his tongue explored my mouth. When I felt a hot tear from him run off from his cheek to my own I gently broke the kiss, mentally cursing myself for kissing the boy, man really, and taking advantage of his grief.

He stared at me in confusion, then turned away, facing the grave of his former love. That hurt, that wordless reminder of where we were and why we were here. "Take me home," he said, wiping his tears away.

I frowned. "In... in LA?"

He shook his head and turned back to me. "No. Your home."

"Are you... sure, Oz? You certainly can afford a hotel room."

He laughed shortly, bitterly. "I don't want a hotel room. Please, I just want to be with someone tonight."

"If... if that's what you want."

He nodded slowly, moving to cup my cheek in his hand. "That's what I want."