(End of Summer) Summertime Blues
Oz walked into the loft, dropping his bags on the way to the couch. He didn't really take a look around until after he had relaxed for a few minutes. He had driven the extra four hours to make it home tonight instead of in the morning. When he did look around, he groaned and searched for his sentinel. "Xander!" he called eventually, not seeing him through the vines surrounding the couch. "Why are we living in a jungle?"
"John suggested it," floated through the greenery from the direction of the easel.
"I'm going to kill him," Oz muttered. He got up with a grunt of pain and headed for where the younger man should be, plopping down beside him and resting his head on the artist's shoulder. "Why did he want you to live in a jungle?"
"He said that plants are good for people. They give us a sense of life and balance. And air, which would be a good thing. Also, he said it'd give me something to focus on besides the damn problems." He slashed a bright streak of blue across the canvas he was working on.
"Were you going to do that before?" Oz asked, taking the brush from his hand.
"Maybe. I'm not sure what the muses wanted to do with this one." Xander shrugged, then turned to hug his lover. "Hi. How was the tour?"
"Crappy. I was bored."
"Hey, trade ya. I got to do student teaching this summer." Oz pulled back to look at him. "They wanted to make sure that I would be able to handle the classroom environment. I got kindergartners." He shuddered. "Fifty of them a day."
Oz pulled him into a hug, gently rubbing his back. "You survived, that's the important thing, right?" Xander nodded, relaxing into his body. "What else do I have to yell at John about?" He looked at the plant nearest them. "Besides not making sure that you took care of them."
"I did my best," Xander said, reaching out to pull off a dead leaf. "I don't do well with growing things."
"Gonna teach high school art?" Oz quipped.
"Yeah, maybe. Or at least junior high. I can deal with hormone problems, but I can't deal with the question 'why' anymore."
"Hmm. You'll figure it out," Oz promised him, pulling back to get a kiss.
"So, who was it?" Xander asked, licking his lips. Oz looked confused. "The one with the cherry lip gloss?"
"Groupie about four days ago," Oz told him, giving him a smile. "Not dialed down at all?"
"Nope, I was waiting for you to come in and relax before pouncing you." He grinned. "So, how old was this girl and do I get to behead her?"
"Nope." Oz stroked through the dark hair. He had noticed that Xander had been getting more and more protective about him, even before the tour had started, but this was the first time he had joked about killing someone that had touched him. "She was just a fourteen year old girl that wanted to go on tour with a major band, she was practicing on us." He didn't get a smile so he made it into a joke. "I gave her to Willow to deal with."
"Uh-huh. What did Buffy do to her?"
"She warned her off and they got into a fight. Dev pulled them apart. He yelled at the little girl, told her to go home." He shrugged and leaned in for another kiss but it was avoided. "What's wrong?"
"Don't know," Xander said, giving him a mild pout. "I feel strange."
"Well, not having felt you recently, I think you feel normal." He got a gentle shove for it. "What? Not what you meant?"
"No, not what I meant," Xander agreed. "I mean the 'us' part is strange."
"Oh." Oz backed up some but he was pulled closer. "Make up your mind, Xander."
"You're not moving. Get over it." He snuggled in, forcing Oz to lay back and be his pillow. "See, now I'm feeling better."
"Can we do this on a bed?" Oz suggested. "Dev's staying with Buffy tonight so we can be loud," he added when he didn't get an answer. He looked down to see Xander asleep on his chest and sighed. "Never mind. I can lay here for a little while longer." He looked around the area, expecting to see new art, but nothing new was in sight. He turned his head the other way, looking at the drying rack in the kitchen, but he couldn't see anything on it either. "No art?" he muttered. "That's definitely a bad." He massaged the stiff neck, making Xander mumble into his stomach. "Huh?"
"Sleeping," Xander said again, looking up. "Can't I?"
"Only if I can get off the floor. It's not real comfy right here." He was allowed up so he led his sentinel into their bedroom and got them lying down together, and holding Xander as tightly as the younger man needed to be held. "You sleep," Oz murmured, kissing Xander's temple. "Just rest. I'll be here in the morning."
Xander wiggled around until he was on top of Oz again and wrapped himself around the older man as best he could. "Stay," he mumbled.
"I am," Oz soothed. "Not going anywhere." He looked around their room, noticing how clean it was, how very unXanderlike it looked. He decided to tackle the problem in the morning; he needed a nap just as badly as his lover did.
Oz woke up to someone pounding on the door to the stairs. He grunted in annoyance as he got out of bed, trailing behind Xander, who was already half-way to the door. "Who is it?" he yelled just before Xander opened it.
"John," Xander told him. He let his advisor in and headed for the kitchen, going to find something to drink. "Want something?" he called.
"Coffee," Oz called back.
"Water please," John called, frowning at the plants he was examining. "And the watering jug too, Xander. These poor plants are screaming for some attention." He took the bottle of water and the pitcher, going around to all the plants.
Oz looked at his lover, who stared at him. "Coffee?"
"Machine broke and we're out," Xander said through a yawn. "Sorry."
"I'll get some later," Oz yawned. He watched John wander around his apartment, giving Xander a questioning look.
"He comes over to check on me," Xander told him quietly, leaning against him. "I've been doing okay, except that I've had some problems with my art."
"Because you haven't been doing any?" Oz asked. Xander looked down. "Ah. Want me to sit and help you paint later?" Xander nodded. "Then we'll do that." He gave the younger man a hug before heading for the bedroom. "I'm going to get dressed."
John looked over at Xander, giving him a slight smile. "Feeling better yet?"
"Nope. The muses still aren't screaming at me." He shrugged as he flopped down into the chair. "I tried last night but nothing came out."
"It'll come," John said, giving him an encouraging smile. "Now that Oz is back, everything should be fine again." He handed over the watering pitcher. "I'm going to leave you in his capable hands. Call if you need me." He left the loft, leaving the couple alone.
Oz walked out of their room in a pair of sweat pants and looked down at the easel. "How long has it been since you painted?" he asked, walking over to sit on Xander's lap.
"I get like that sometimes. Mostly when I'm suddenly someplace comfy and not moving." He gave Xander a calm, little smile. "Answer the question."
"Since about a month after you left," Xander admitted in a whisper. "The muses dried up."
"Was it because I was gone?" Oz asked gently.
Xander shoved him off his lap and stood up, walking toward the werewolf cage and bringing back three paintings. "These were the last three I did," he said, spreading them out on the back of the couch. "They're very bad crap. I started out okay, but things went downhill really fast."
"When I didn't call?" Oz suggested, looking down at the paintings. The best he could say about them was that they were awkward. The worst being that they looked like the kindergartners Xander had taught had done two of them, and a blind man the other one. He turned away from the hideous paintings and gave his sentinel a hug. "Let me get something to drink and we'll go see if I can't help you find a muse." He let Xander go so he could walk into the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of water and bringing it back to where Xander was still standing. He took a sip, waiting for the younger man to pull himself out, but he didn't. He covered Xander's eyes, moving closer to him. "Xan?" he whispered, dropping his voice down into the 'guide' range. "Come on, Xander, it's time to come back home again." When he didn't get an answer, he put down his water and pulled his guideling over to the chair, pushing him down so he could kneel in front of him. "Come on, man, no time to do this today." He picked the Xander's hands to stroke over them, hoping some tactile contact would help. "Come on, man, don't do this to me. Come back to me here, Xander." He moved the massage up to the limp wrists. "Come on, Xander. You have to come back now. Your whole day's gonna be ruined if you stay in there."
Xander blinked and looked down at his guide. "How long was I gone?"
Oz checked the watch on Xander's wrist. "About twenty minutes." He pushed himself up by bracing on Xander's thighs. "Been happening a lot?"
"Not really. I've had a few, but not really. Not that I know of anyway." He looked at Oz. "I don't even know what I zoned on."
"Me either. It wasn't your sight, I blocked that and you were still gone."
"I was doing the hand-rubbing thing and you were still gone. I'm guessing it was a hearing thing."
"Maybe," Xander conceded. "Can we go try and force me to paint now? I miss my art."
"Sure." Oz stood up, getting out of the artist's way, letting him pick the spot they were going to sit in. He sat down behind Xander, wrapping himself as best he could around the stiff body. "Relax," he reminded. "You can't paint when you're upset." He started a gentle, soothing stroke over Xander's stomach. "Relax," he whispered. "Let the muses dictate your painting, let them tell you what to do." He didn't get a response so turned his lover's head to look into his eyes, seeing him gone again. "Wow, you haven't zoned on me in almost a year." He backed away, making Xander whimper and wiggle toward him. "Nope, gotta come back to get cuddles." He shifted a little farther back.
Xander growled and got to his knees, crawling after his guide. "No!" he said forcefully, landing on top of him. "No go."
"Okay," Oz sighed. "You really were against the tour and you were just being happy for me." He let the younger man zone on his presence for a few more minutes. "Xander!" he said sharply. "Stop it, now," he ordered. Xander lifted his head and looked at him. "Back again?"
"Yeah, for a little while. Weren't we over there?" He pointed at the easel.
"Yeah, and then you zoned on me. Which impresses the hell outta me still," Oz added, patting his sentinel on the back of the head. "After I moved to break it, you followed me." He looked around. "Is all this about me leaving?"
"Maybe," Xander admitted, rolling onto his side so he wouldn't smoosh his friend. "I wasn't really happy with you going, but I thought I got over that."
"Apparently not." Oz gave him a hug. "What would help you most right now?"
"Not forcing anything," Xander said slowly, closing his eyes, "and getting long hugs?"
"Sure." Oz hated how unsure Xander sounded, it was almost like they were in their first six months again. He nodded at the couch and moved to sit on it, Xander right behind him. As soon as he sat down and got comfy on the pillows, his side was plastered with the younger man. He shifted a little more, sliding down so he was lying down, letting Xander affix himself however he wanted.
Xander sighed and snuggled in, closing his eyes. He started with his sense of smell, reimprinting Oz on all of his senses, putting him in that special place that was only for his Guide.
Oz waited a half an hour before looking down at his lover, smiling at him when he noticed he was asleep again. "Well, maybe that's part of the problem too," he said, pulling a throw down over them so they could both nap. It was good not to be sleeping in the back of the van, and it was especially nice that the couch didn't move under them.
Oz woke with a groan and an attempted stretch but he found himself mostly held down. He looked at the heavy thing resting on top of him and shook his head. Xander was rubbing his face across where he had lifted Oz's shirt up, making nice tracks of beardburn on his stomach. "Xan?" Oz asked gently. "Could you maybe not do that? I don't want to have to explain the rash."
Xander made a chuffing noise and settled back down on his chest, smiling at him. "Good kitty," he purred, stroking down Oz's arm. "Good kitty."
"Not a kitty," Oz said dryly, wiggling until he got free of the younger man. He actually got two whole steps away from the couch before he was pounced on. He landed on the floor with an 'oof' and a head shake. "I was only going to the bathroom!"
"No leave. Kitty stays!" Xander said firmly. "Oz stays!"
"I'm not leaving," Oz explained. "Just going to the bathroom."
"No, Oz stays!"
Oz heard a slight sound from behind them but when he turned to look for it, it was gone. He shrugged it off and relaxed under the weight. "I'm not leaving," he repeated, "but I won't move if you'd let me breathe." Xander shifted back, laying his head in the middle of Oz's back.
They lay there for at least an hour, until Willow came up. "Hi," she called out cheerfully.
"Hey." Oz gave her a bland look. "He didn't want me to move."
"Okay." She sat down next to them. "He's had a lot of that recently. When did you get back?"
"Last night. Dev's at Buffy's." He tried to move but the arms around him tightened. "I shouldn't have left without him."
"But he got a comfort Oz," she told him.
"A comfort Oz?"
"He didn't tell you about his purr-Oz?"
"No, but would it be a cat?" She nodded, smiling brightly. "Nope, haven't seen it, but apparently he's been confusing us."
"But his purr-Oz is cute. A dark tortoiseshell - sable, gold, and a white mask." She looked around then got up and headed for Devon's bedroom, coming back with a struggling body. "She doesn't like being held." She sat back down, trapping the kitten in her lap. "She's a good girl. Very quiet, likes to watch and learn." The kitten finally escaped. "Doesn't want petted unless she's in a 'pet me' mood though." She grinned. "She's one of our last litter."
"Cool. Where's the litter box?"
"Dev's room." Xander sat up and let Oz go. "Sorry."
"S'okay." Oz ruffled Xander's hair. "You needed it. Cat?"
"Yeah, my purr-Oz," Xander said, looking embarrassed. "She's a good cat."
"As long as you change the litter box," Willow added, snicking at the dirty look Xander gave her.
"I had to toss those pillows. Even the odor-killing spray wasn't strong enough."
"And now you remember to clean that litter box, don't you?" He nodded.
Oz looked at the kitten watching him, slowly holding a hand out. "I'm not going to hurt you. Smell me, we've got the same name." The kitten backed away. "Okay." He looked at Xander. "When did you get her?"
"Right after you left."
"About three weeks after you left," Willow corrected. "He needed something here with him." She looked around. "Plants notwithstanding."
"Yeah, we saw John this morning." He patted Xander's shoulder. "She's cute."
"Thanks." Xander smiled at his cat. "See, I knew he'd like you." He grabbed her and gave her a hug before giving in to her struggling and letting her run away. "Go find the Chocolate and play with it."
"Cats aren't supposed to have chocolate," Oz said, watching her. "Is it safe?"
"It's her sister," Willow said as she stood up. "I'll let you two bond. Buffy will want to drop by later so we'll come back around dark, that way Devon can come home too."
Oz waved, waiting until they were alone to look at his sentinel. "Two cats?"
"Oz would have been lonely by herself," Xander justified, grinning slightly but looking down at his hands. "They're good cats, Oz. A little hyper when they chase each other, but otherwise they're good little girls."
"Yup, as soon as we get paid for this semester." Xander shrugged but still didn't look up. "They've already been in heat once, right before you came home."
Oz reached over and tipped Xander's chin back up. "Thank you. But you're going to have to move the litter box. Dev doesn't like cats."
"Oh." Xander looked back down.
Oz shifted closer, pulling him into his arms. "He'll deal with it, we just have to move the litter box."
"'Kay," Xander agreed quietly. "You're not mad that I named her the same name?"
"Nope. You said she acts like me so it's all good." He gave the younger man a little squeeze. "As long as they're good and they use the litter box all the time, we'll be fine. Just remember, they're your cats. I'm not going to take care of them for you."
"Yeah, I will," Xander said. He leaned his head on Oz's shoulder. "Can I do this?"
"As much as you need to for a little while. At least until we go get a new coffeemaker." Xander grinned, but it was weak and hesitant. "What's wrong?"
"I don't feel so good," Xander admitted. "It's like something's off. Again."
"I'm sorry. If I had known all this would have happened, I would have arranged to have you come for a few of the dates." He looked over at the cat, who was trying to catch some of it's hair that was floating around the room. "She needs brushed."
"Usually. She doesn't let me though. She doesn't seem to like me."
"I like you, that's what matters though, right?" Oz asked him.
"Yeah, I guess."
Oz tipped Xander's face back up. "Why are you so unsure of that? You know I like you."
"You didn't call," Xander pointed out.
"The cellphone broke when Dev drove over it. And every time I tried to call collect, no one was here to pick up."
"I must have been out," Xander said, looking at him. "You really wanted to talk to me?"
"Yup, almost every day." Oz kissed him on the cheek. "Why would you doubt that?"
"Because I didn't get a postcard."
"Ah." Oz shifted Xander around until he could look into his eyes. "You not getting a postcard had nothing to do with anything, other than the stingy one saying that we couldn't afford to send you one a week."
"Oh." Xander gave him a hopeful look. "Really?"
"Really. Mike, the bass player, got really hyper about the money this summer. He wouldn't let me send you postcards from everywhere. He told me to call you collect." He tweaked Xander on the nose. "He even yelled because I called from the motel room. We got a fifty cent charge because of it."
"Wow. What's his problem?"
"He was sure we were going to run out because a few of the concerts were canceled." Oz shrugged. "Wasn't me in this case. I wanted to talk to you, it was just bad luck."
"We get a lot of that," Xander reminded him.
"Yeah, but that means that we'll get better luck later on."
"Point." Xander gave him a small grin. "Are we really okay?"
"We'll be fine, as soon as you tell me what else is wrong."
"Nothing," Xander said, looking around. "Where're the kittens?"
"In the kitchen. Two little brown blurs chasing each other, and one had something that jingled."
"Must have stolen keys." Xander started to get up but he was pulled back down. "What?"
"You're not supposed to lie to me, Xander," Oz said, getting serious. "Every time you do, you get nightmares."
"I'm not," Xander said, getting up and going in search of his kittens. "Here, guys," he said, picking them up and showing them to Oz. "See, this one," he said, holding one up higher, "is the Chocolate kitten. And you've met Oz."
"Yup, have, but you didn't answer me." Oz got up, coming over to stand on the other side of the counter so he could pet each kitten. "Why are you so upset?" He looked directly into the dark eyes, noticing the fear in them. "Hey, I'm not going anywhere," he said, reaching farther to pet his sentinel. "Not even for another gig."
"But then you're giving up too much again," Xander pointed out. "And I never wanted to be that sort of burden on you." He put the kittens down, watching as they ran to go hide. "See, I'm even a burden to them."
"No, you're not a burden," Oz sighed, walking around the counter. Xander backed away from him so he steered their progress until he had Xander backed into a corner. "Not a burden," he repeated, tapping his finger on the younger man's forehead with each word. "And if I ever have to leave again, you're coming with me."
"Nope," Oz interrupted, "yours is a cute butt but I'm not leaving you alone again. Deal with it." He stepped back, watching Xander's reaction. When he saw the fear in his eyes easing, he nodded. "Now then, I could use some cuddling to get my non-moving stride again." He led the way to the couch.
"Is that like sea legs?" Xander quipped.
"Very," Oz said, lying down and patting his chest. "Come here, we'll nap."
"Coolness." Xander laid down on top of his guide and closed his eyes. "Thanks for understanding, Oz," he said quietly.
"Hey, anytime. We'll do this for as long as you want. Eventually, the muses will have to come back and give you grief."
"And you'll be there?"
"Just like old times. Sitting right behind you if I have to."
"'Kay. I think I'd like that." Xander turned his head in the other direction. "Night."
"Night, Xan. You nap, I'm here again." He stroked through the dark hair. "Everything's going to be fine again, Xander. No more boogie men, no more leaving you alone, and especially no more worries about me interrupting your life again."
"Or the reverse," Xander reminded him.
"Yeah, or the reverse. Now, nap."
"Yes, sir." He kissed the warm skin. "I'm napping."
"I noticed." Oz pulled Xander's head up, kissing him on the forehead - the only place he could reach. "Tune in on me again. I won't let you zone," he added when he saw the fear coming back. "Just tune in and lose yourself in my body rhythms."
"Say it again and force me to cook you real food," Oz warned. "Like a full, real food meal, complete with veggies."
"Ohhh, meany." Xander put his head back down. "You won't let me zone?"
"Not if I can help it," Oz told him. "Now, you need a nap, I need a nap, so let's nap." He closed his eyes, continuing to keep a firm hold on Xander.
Xander waited until Oz was asleep to get up and clean their room again.
Xander considered the rooms around him, then decided to stare at his kittens for a while. They were napping, but hey, it was better than thinking about what was wrong in his relationship with Oz, right? He sighed and rolled onto his side, having to scoot backwards so he wouldn't fall off the couch. He didn't want to think about what was wrong between him and Oz, it was a depressing subject and he had enough of that in his life right now. He sat up, pulling his knees up under his chin. "If only I could paint it out," he muttered, looking out the window. "I know I could get it out if I did that."
He checked on the open curtain into Dev's room, making sure the vampire was still asleep. Yup, still dead, no pun intended. He went back to watching his kittens sleep the sleep of the exhauted, smiling at how Chocolate was curled in a perfect diving posture. "Why can't I paint his out? Nothing's coming, there's not even a hint of color in my head anymore. This really isn't fair." He glanced around the room again. The loft was so clean it was squeaky, literally in a few places. Every time he thought about art, he wanted to clean. He was really starting to get worried about himself now. "Cleaning isn't good," he reminded himself as he reached for the remote, turning on the local news to stare at. At least he could probably keep up with what Jim and Blair were doing now since there was a mad bomber lurking around again.
After an hour of senseless tv, he got up, heading into the kitchen. "I suck," he decided, talking to himself again. "Not only do I suck, but I do it so well that I've managed to screw everything up. Again. And I don't even have a clue why." He felt a tug on his mind and groaned. "Not now, Darrien," he sighed, wandering back to the couch. He really didn't need to fall over when his Spirit Guide called him to wherever again. He sat down and closed his eyes, letting his mind flow freely to the place where the mixed up kitty creature lived. "What?" he asked, sounding surly. He stared down Oz's Spirit Guide. "Why did you call me up here, Sascha?"
She morphed back into her human form, the small, redhead that Oz had fallen for on the tour last summer. "I thought you might like to talk," she offered, waving at the soft grass. "Sit and talk?"
"Sure," he sighed, sinking down. "Why can't I paint?"
"Because something's gone wrong with your bond," she told him, giving him a smile. "And it's not your fault this time. You didn't do anything wrong, and neither did Oz. It was the distance."
"I needed to center and no one was there, so my body's gone back to being used to not having a guide?" She nodded. "And I can't paint why?"
"Because your art flows best when your guide is there with you, or in contact with you." She shifted closer. "Think of your bond like a big piece of taffy, or better yet, silly putty that's been stuck to a Garfield cartoon. It's stretched so far that you can't tell what the orange blob is anymore."
"Oh." He shook his head. "I was drawing before I met Oz though." He looked down at the ground, picking some grass to pull apart at the veins. "I mean, it makes sense on some level, but not on all of them. I shouldn't be thinking about cleaning whenever I try to paint."
She chuckled. "Really, Xander, that's just your subconscious speaking to you. You need to clean, but you need to clean up what you and Oz have, not the loft." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Now go back and *talk* to the man about this."
"I'm not so sure that's the answer," he said, looking up at her. "I can't get close to him. He's distant to me now. And it's all in me."
"Hmm." She shook her head. "Then I don't have a clue, dear. But I would still say to talk to the guy. Keeping this from him will just make it worse." She faded out, and let him go back to the extremely clean loft.
Xander opened his eyes to find Oz looking down at him. "Hey," he said tiredly. "Sascha said hi."
"You were talking to my Spirit Guide?" Oz asked as he sat down beside his friend. "Why?"
"About my cleaning problem." Xander shifted until he was facing Oz. "She said we need to talk, but..."
"Can we do this tonight? After I get back from class? I'll have a few free hours then, as opposed to now, when I have all of ten more minutes."
"Sure," Xander said softly. He looked around. "Where are the cats?"
"Snuggling up to Dev. They seem to like the fact that he doesn't move when he sleeps." Oz gave him a slight shrug. "Don't understand cats, man, don't ask."
"Okay." Xander stood up, walking into his room. "When will you be back?"
"About nine-thirty." Oz got up and followed him in, wrapping his arms around his sentinel's waist. "Whatever's wrong, we'll fix it."
"I guess." Xander looked around the room, trying to find even a little bit of himself in what was supposed to be their space. He was turned to look at his lover, giving him a sad look. "I don't feel very connected," he admitted.
"Yeah, I've been feeling it too. Want to do something this weekend, just the two of us?"
"Maybe," Xander agreed, giving him a hint of a smile. "Go to class, Oz, it'll be okay."
"Sure." Oz grabbed the book he needed and headed out. "I'll be back in a few hours," he reminded.
Xander waited until he was alone to turn back to the room. Everything of his was gone, he had put it all away. Every memento of his life was now put away so he didn't have to look at them. He turned away from the sad sight, going to make sure the area where he painted was still clean. Not that he had used it.
Xander sat on the chair he had pulled over to the window, considering what he was feeling at that moment. And it was scaring him. Nothing felt the way it was supposed to, nothing felt safe and calm to him, not even the cats felt right. He looked down at his hands, wondering why they wouldn't pull the images from his head anymore, but gave that up when he couldn't even remember the last time they had been covered in paint. He shook himself lightly, trying to pull himself from the remembrances of feelings past. He sipped his water while he brought that thought up front. He didn't feel the same anymore. There wasn't any more centeredness in him. No safe place within in his mind that he could cling to.
With a sigh, he let himself remember the long two months he had just went through. All the loneliness, the frustration when things started to break down for him. How much the sound and sight of the happy children bothered him because he wasn't happy. He took another sip of water then threw the bottle at the window. "Why does this crap happen to me? Whenever I get comfortable, something happens to destroy it." He checked but he was still alone. "At least I can get something done," he muttered, standing up and going over to where the litterbox was now resting so he could clean it. "This is my life," he reminded himself. "There's no more color in it, at least not until I can find that place where everything has forms and colors, but until then, I need to figure out what the hell is going on here."
"It might help to talk to someone else," a deep voice said from behind him.
"Hey, Darrien, sit and help me scoop." He didn't look at his spirit guide, just kept up with his cleaning. "Did the lightbulb burn out again?"
"Nope. Just a few connections inside you." The spirit guide sat down next to his guideling, giving him a pat on the shoulder. "Xander, you have to fix this. And I'm going to repeat what Sascha told you. It's not either of you this time."
"But it's gotta be me," Xander said quietly. "This is all in me. How can it not be about me if all the problems are in me?" He looked up but his spirit guide was gone. "Gee, thanks," he muttered, closing up the bag and putting the hood back on the litter box. "Lots of help there." He walked into the kitchen, tossing away the plastic bag of dirty litter and washing his hands. He jumped as the elevator started, looking at the clock. "Not time for Oz," he noted, walking over.
Devon came off the elevator, giving Xander a small grin. "Hey. I only got an hour." He headed for the curtained off area that was his bedroom, closing the tapestry so he could have some privacy.
"Did you need something from me?" Xander called, heading for his chair.
"No, dude, I just gotta change." Devon came out pulling on a new shirt and winked at the young artist. "I spilled crap on it. Gotta be pretty for the ladies, you know." He walked out with a wave, leaving Xander alone.
"Yeah, you got to impress them," he said, going back to staring out the window.
Oz walked in and flopped down on the couch, one arm flung over his face.
"Bad day," Xander asked from his position next to the window.
"Long." Oz looked up at his friend. "You okay now?"
"No." He walked back into the kitchen, going back to scooping out some wet food as a treat. "How was your class?" He looked over, shaking his head when he saw that Oz was asleep. "Yeah, we'll talk," he told himself. "Of course we will." He set the bowl down and turned back to the counter, frowning at the kitten sitting on the counter who was licking the bottom of the can. "I got you more than that," he said, picking Chocolate up and putting her in front of the bowl. "Eat that." He grabbed the can and tossed it in the overly-full trash can, sighing as he went for another bag. He tied the bag off and put it beside the can, it was Devon's week to take out the trash, putting in the new bag but scaring the kittens when he snapped open the plastic.
"Huh?" Oz said, sitting up. "Sorry," he said, rubbing across his face. "How long was I out for?"
"Few minutes," Xander told him as he washed his hands. "Go to bed, Oz. I've got stuff to do for class tomorrow."
Oz nodded and dragged himself into their bedroom, closing the curtain.
Xander looked around their home, his heart starting to hurt as he saw how clean and empty it was. It was almost like no one lived there now. He spied his camera and grabbed it, grabbing his jacket on the way out the door. He had to remove one of the kittens from the elevator when Oz ran after him, but she was content to lay on his jacket. He closed the gates and headed down to his truck.
Xander walked around the club, looking at his work. He smiled at a bouncer he knew, getting out of his way as the older man helped a drunken singer out of the bar. He stopped in front of the stage, staring at his work, ignoring the man beside the drum kit.
One of the bouncers walked up beside Xander and touched his arm. "You did good work," he said, nodding at the drummer to relax. "Gonna do some more?"
"Not right now. I'm searching for a way to break a mental dam. A really thick mental dam." He looked over at his former coworker. "I don't know what I'm doing anymore, all I know is that I spend too much time cleaning." He shrugged at the smile. "I need some care right now."
"Yeah, but you could always get someone to do that for you," the bouncer reminded him. He walked closer to the stage, saying something to the drummer before going back to the crowded seating section.
Xander thought about what his friend had said as he walked out of the bar, finally nodding to himself. He walked down the street to his truck, getting in and starting the engine before he buckled up and shut the door, narrowly missing the fingers that were trying to grab him. He backed out of the parking space, ignoring the man standing in the shadows of the parking lot. Xander went to another bar he knew, one where other art students hung out. He didn't expect anyone to be there tonight, there were too many welcome-back-to-school parties going on tonight for any of his fellow students to be in this place. He parked outside of the small club and considered bringing his camera, but decided against it. He got out and locked his truck up, heading inside. He had to go back for his wallet, but he remembered to lock the truck up again. He paid his cover charge and walked in, heading for the bar. "Hey, soda?"
"Water or Coke?" the bartender asked, sounding very bored.
"Coke please." Xander took a seat and looked around at the murals on the walls. "This is some killer work."
"Yeah, it is," he said, putting down the glass. "You an art student?"
"Xander Harris," he said, holding out his hand.
The bartender smiled at him. "Oh, you deign to visit us now? What's wrong, got a block?"
"Needing human environments where I don't have to clean." Xander put a few bills down on the bar and went over to the nearly empty tables, with a short stop at the jukebox. He sat down at a corner table, enjoying the quietness of the music. He smiled at the crayons and butcher paper on the table, ready for any sudden attack of muses, and picked up the green one. He drew a bold line diagonally across the section in front of him, bending down to draw some more.
The bartender shook his head and went back to checking the glasses for defects.
Xander looked up as someone sat down across from him. "Hi," he said, going back to his drawing.
"Didn't think I'd find you in here, the superguy of the art department," she said, pushing some of her red hair behind her ear.
"Never been here before. You?"
She laughed. "Honey, I'm part of the regular crowd. I'm known as a muse fixer."
Xander dropped his crayon as he looked at her. "You do?" She nodded. "Why am I *cleaning*?" he asked, reaching over to touch her hand because it felt right.
"Because your muses are frustrated and feeling disconnected. That's a matter of degree."
"I have two kittens and not a spec of hair anywhere," he told her, relaxing as she chuckled again. "You've seen this before?"
"Yeah, I have. Usually, it requires some human contact to break the blockage. Do you have any of that?"
"It's kinda on the fritz," he said, blushing lightly. "How did you know who I was?"
"I'm a Junior right now, we have a class together this semester. I noticed how Doctor Semenara was sneering when she announced your name and how she looked at you. What'd you do to upset the uptight Vestal virgin?"
Xander snorted. "I have a muse that didn't like her figures class a few semesters ago. I brought in completed works and did little touches in class."
"Ah, you follow your muses, that's usually enough." She reached over to brush down the side of his face, sighing as he leaned into her hand. "How long has it been since anyone touched you, Xander Harris?"
"Damn long time," he said, looking down at what he had been drawing. "My lover was on tour this summer with our other roommate and my kittens don't like to cuddle." He tipped his head as he figured out what he was drawing. "A Picasso Snoopy."
She tipped her head the other way to look at it. "Yeah, it kinda is. That's a strange place to put an ear though. Right over his eye?"
Xander shrugged. "Don't ask me, I followed the crayon's will." He looked up as the strobe light started to flow around the walls around them, smiling when the light hit her a certain way. "Would you mind if I took pictures of you? I've been working my paintings from them recently."
"Sure. If it'll help." She watched as he ran out of the club and came back a few minutes later with his camera, which he was checking. "If you run out, there's film under the bar. It's majorly pricy but it's the good stuff." She leaned back in her chair, watching him. "How do you want me?"
"Um, naturally?" He sat down across from her, the camera held tightly in his hands. He gauged the strobe light and timed the picture to capture her at the right moment, when the light made her hair light on fire. "Hope you don't mind, I have really strong muses."
"Hey, it's all good for me," she agreed. She turned slightly to the side so he'd get a more flattering view.
"Nope, move back," he ordered, standing up to get her from another angle. "I'm not going to show these, I need them." He moved around her, getting a closeup shot of the highlights in her hair. He ran out of film so walked over to the bar, where the bartender had a box of film already out. "How much?"
"Cool. Much cheaper than I usually use. I've been getting the new color stuff from my art store." He loaded as he walked back over to the table, smiling at her. "Wow, these lights do you justice."
"Usually, that's why I had them installed."
He sat across from her. "This is your club?"
"My father's. He understands though, he's a architect." She winked at him. "How together are you and your girl?"
"Guy, and we're having a rough time right now." He checked the settings on his camera again, fiddling with them to buy himself some time. "We kinda fell apart a little over the summer. He's taking a nap right now."
"Wow. And you have another roommate?"
"Yup, Devon. He's in the art program too, kinda. He's taking two classes this semester, both in photography. He's really good at it. He took some of the pictures that I painted off of for the last show we were all in."
She nodded. "That's cool. At least they support you."
"More than ever, until they got back this time. See, Dev and Oz are in a band together, so they went on tour this summer. I didn't hear a word from them until Oz walked in the door." He pushed his camera out of the way before he could break the expensive piece of equipment. "I spent a lot of time with my advisor, John. He's been really great, but I keep killing the plants he gave me."
"Ah." She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. "It'll be okay. I could talk with him if you wanted. Your friend wouldn't be the first spouse that I've had to discuss my hobbies with."
Xander shook his head. "I can't ...." He shook all over. "I don't even know what you're offering so please don't hurt me, but I couldn't cheat on Oz. Not even for a beautiful woman that my muses seem to like."
"Okay. Not an issue." She reached up to pinch his cheek. "I think you're a cute kid, Harris, but I'm not your type anyway."
"Yeah, mostly." He looked up, seeing her gentle smile and no ridicule. "You really understand?"
"Honey, how many people like you are in the program?" she asked.
"Not too many," he said quietly. "I'm kinda very different than most."
She squeezed his hand again. "We figured that much out as soon as you got here. There's no shame in being different unless you live for the differences." She let him go and stood up. "Go wake your man up and yell at him. It'll make you feel better."
"But he's one of those quiet guys," Xander protested. "We don't ever fight. We get icy, we get snotty, but we don't fight."
"Then it's about time, isn't it?"
Xander gave her a head shake. "He said it wasn't his fault this summer."
"Xander, did he have money of his own?"
Xander sat up straight as he thought about that. "Yeah, he did." He gathered up all his things, taking the paper off the table.
"Nope," she said, taking the paper from him. "Sign it and it goes up on the wall. All first timers get a place up on the wall for a month. You have to come back in during that time though. It's mandatory."
He smiled at her, picking up a green crayon to sign the bottom corner. "Oh, I'll be coming back. This is *so* much better than the Flame."
"Yeah, and it has less explicit artwork too," she noted. She didn't see his blush.
"But I liked doing those," he said as he walked past her.
She stopped and stared at his back. Then she looked over at the bartender. "*He* did those?"
The bartender tossed the towel at her. "Yeah, he did those. He's the department's hotshot. The one that was in the show with the Chair. A lot of kids don't like him because they think he's privileged."
"Not with his home life. He and his man don't even fight." She shook her hair out of her face. "Thanks for the call, I always enjoy helping you guys. He'll be back though."
"Good, he needs us." The bartender walked out from behind the bar, going to turn off the signs. "There's no use keeping this place open." He wrapped an arm around her waist and led her toward the back. "What does a Psychology student like you get from lying like that?"
"Experience in the real world of counseling." She giggled as he pinched her. "And I don't have to put up with a steady boyfriend." The door closed behind them.
Xander walked into their loft, smiling at his kittens, who had come to meet him. He petted them as he walked over to the couch, but they had lost interest and had wandered off to search for bugs. He looked around his loft, and toward his bedroom. He sighed, going to fight with his love. As his hand touched the curtain, his muses flashed him a picture, making him stop. An airplane sitting in the jungle? He looked at his easel, but there wasn't a desire to paint, still, it was just some information. He picked up the phone book and walked over to the phone, dialing the airport. "Hi, I'm not sure which one I need to speak to, but I want to go to Peru, and I have two kittens."
A little while later, he had everything he needed all packed up, including his kittens. He had grabbed his bag of clothes from the shelves beside the dryer, they were all clean and comfortable. These were his moping clothes after all. He had even been hopeful and packed a sketchpad and some pencils. He grabbed Darryl's letter and the cat carrier, going to take a vacation to think.
He remembered not leaving a note when he was in the truck three blocks later but shrugged it off. Oz wouldn't worry too much. He flipped on his turn signal, taking the turn out to the airport.