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Dismantle the Sun

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In Giles' dreams, the sun shines all night long. Inescapable, godlike bright, reaching its saving fingers into every dark corner. It kills the things that live in the dark, and then the light-loving things too. Plants shrivel to straw and break apart in the hot wind; people stagger, crawl, die, and turn to dust. Salt plains stretch to the pale blue sky, dust-dunes form and settle until storms pluck them up, whirl them, set them down again in new shapes. There is no life; even viruses have died of thirst. The world is as sterile as a test tube cleaned after a failed experiment, ready for the next attempt.

Giles wakes sweating on sheets that are greasy with other nights' sweat. He lies in the distorted squares of afternoon sunlight that fall on the bed and unbuttons his shirt to let the sticky heat evaporate. Only a dream, after all. The same dream he's had for two weeks, the one that always proves false when he stutters awake in the mocking, inadequate California sun. The sun still sets every night, having achieved nothing.

Every day is pointlessly bright, living up to the town's lying name. Sunnydale. They might as well have called it Eden, this anteroom of hell. Thirty thousand people lived here once, poor bastards, letting themselves be fooled. Only Giles came here for the dark things; when hell spilled over, broke loose, he wasn't surprised. He knows nothing now that he didn't know two weeks ago, or even two years. He's always known about death, always, and Sunnydale had nothing new to teach him.

He's starting to shiver now, so he buttons his shirt, works his legs off the bed, and stands up slowly. Pounding head, stomach full of wet slugs and metal shards, shaking legs, and he has to sit down twice before he can even get to the bathroom. He'd like to puke, but his body won't let him. It's holding on to the cheese sandwich he ate last night, which is probably some kind of self-preservation, but then why is it also keeping the whiskey he washed it down with?

Showering tires him out more than seems reasonable for a man who used to kill vampires. Used to rescue people, on good nights. While he soaps himself, slow-motion with clumsy fingers, he rests against the gritty tiles. Grayish water half fills the slow-draining tub by the time he's done. It smells, to his nose or his imagination, like sweat and alcohol. He showers every day, or almost, but somehow he's always filthy. Perhaps he collects dirt like sellotape collects lint, or perhaps it's inside him, pushing slowly out through his pores. That's what a body is, after all--sweat and snot and earwax, the home of millions of bacteria that rot us, make us stink even before we die.

Several Advils and a Seconal finally ease Giles' headache, and he manages to go back upstairs and get dressed. Warm clean clothes, corduroys and a thick shirt and a jumper over it. Then he sits in the living room, in an armchair he's pulled up to the window. He likes to let the sun pool and soak into his cold skin--he's always cold these days, except in his dreams. Corpse cold. Reptile cold, as though he's gone back through the evolutionary timeline, lost fur and body heat for scales and basking. Every day he's a little more primitive, spiraling back towards the single cell, towards perfect empty solitude.

At this time of day, Giles should be in the library with the others, getting ready for patrol. He should be at his desk double-checking last night's reports and planning the route. Oz should be sitting at the table with Larry and Nancy, sharpening stakes and readying crossbows. He should be joking about things Giles doesn't quite understand: cartoon coyotes, Acme remote-controlled stakes, balloons full of holy water shot from canons. Oz should be giggling unstoppably, the way he always did right before they went out into the dusk. So stoic the rest of the time, but starting a couple of hours before dark, he told jokes as though his life depended on it.

It's quiet in the flat, and dustmotes swirl like specks of gold in the light. They bobble and float--is that Brownian motion like particles in a cup of tea, or just a draft too slight for him to feel?--and fall, thickening the fine layer that now covers the crossbows and stakes on the coffee table. Giles could patrol on his own; he's still got the equipment and a spare set of keys to Oz's van. Instead, he sits all afternoon in the sun and draws the curtains tight when it sets.

At night, he sometimes hears people scream; it's always a surprise. It seems impossible that there could be anyone left to scream. Two weeks ago the school was already three-quarters empty and most of the houses in Sunnydale were abandoned, their broken windows like the eyeholes of skulls staring blindly at the empty streets. Eventually, Giles supposes, there won't be any more screams. In the meantime, he's taken to putting on some records just before dusk, and playing them at full volume until the peak feeding time is over.

Occasionally he wonders why he doesn't just go walking one night. It would be simple. But except for a couple of daylight supply runs to the convenience store by the highway, Giles hasn't left the flat at all. Not since Oz's funeral, two weeks ago.

Funeral is probably not the right word. There was no body to bury, of course, no mourners but Giles, no sacred text to promise consolation and reward. But Giles needed a funeral, needed the feel of earth on his hands. Needed to dig a hole and bury something.

The cemetery belongs to the vampires now, and it would have been obscene to hold Oz's funeral there. So Giles went to the park in front of city hall, where Oz used to skateboard illegally on the sloping pavement by the fountain. That was before Giles knew him, and it's hard to imagine Oz playing like a boy, scraping his knees and laughing. Hard to imagine bruises on his skin that didn't come from combat.

In a bed of bleached, wilted stalks that used to be zinnias, Giles buried what he could: Oz's guitar, vaguely human-shaped and unexpectedly heavy, the lacquer smudged in the places Oz's fingers used to rest. He wrapped it in one of Oz's old shirts first, tenderly, the way he would have dressed Oz's body had circumstances been a little less cruel. He wouldn't have incinerated Oz's corpse, not like they did Cordelia's, Nancy's, a thousand others. He'd have put it in the earth, even though he would have had to cut Oz's head off first.

After patting the dirt mound back into place, Giles soaked the ground with holy water and planted sunflowers. When he thinks of Oz's grave now, he thinks of huge yellow blooms like floral daylight. Tournesols, the French call them, because they turn their faces to the sun.

He hasn't been back to see if they're sprouted. Probably not. It is winter, after all.

Half-dozing in his chair as the Seconal works through his bloodstream, Giles can almost feel the wet dirt under his nails and the seeds between his fingers. He can almost see them grow, feel them split, feel the pale shoots push through the earth, break into the light and turn it to food and life. If Oz's body were under there, they'd take nourishment from him, turn his molecules to stems and leaves and petals, to seeds that would fall and grow again. Perhaps that's why people plant flowers on graves, for this pale resurrection. If Oz's body were under there, he'd be a little less dead.

The sun's setting now, and the cold wakes Giles and gets him moving a little. He can't remember a Sunnydale December this cold. The thermostat insists that it's seventy degrees in the flat, but perhaps it's stuck, perhaps the furnace has gone out. Shivering, Giles heats up a tin of beef stew and eats it. It's warm, although it doesn't taste like anything in particular.

As twilight blackens and decades-old guitar solos drown out the sounds of people he can't save, Giles sits back down in the armchair (always the armchair, never the couch where Oz used to stretch out with his head on Giles' lap), under a blanket this time, and sets about drinking. Methodically, at a moderate pace, taking no more than he needs. Cold though he is, he puts ice in the liquor to chill the taste out of it. It's been a long time, years, since he's cared about any pleasure that might be had in a glass. Once, he was something like a connoisseur. There's still half a bottle of Laphroaig at the back of the cupboard, but he's saving it. For something.

For his everyday, purposeful drinking, he relies on Jim Beam, or, lately, the syrupy Southern Comfort that Oz liked, and which gives Giles worse hangovers than usual. After a few doubles, his fingers and toes go numb. Then he can coast through the night with a swallow here and there, greasing time's wheels to let it pass. Every dawn, Giles has a last double, crushes and swallows an Oxycontin tablet, and sleeps. Safer to sleep in the daytime, of course, and he tells himself that's why he waits.

It's not that Giles is waiting for him (not him, it; he must remember that) to come.

Tonight the knock happens fairly early, while Giles is still working through his third tumblerfull of Southern Comfort and watching Law and Order with the sound turned off. He never used to watch television, but now it's mingled torment and miracle, this reminder that there's a world outside Sunnydale. Every time he switches it on he expects nothing but static, like one of those end-of-the-world films. Instead, there are chirpy ads and pseudo-gritty police programs, all broadcast from Los Angeles, just two hours away on the freeway. The rest of America is watching The X-Files while Sunnydale bleeds out and dies. Giles wonders if it felt like this to be in Sarajevo a few years back, dodging sniper bullets and listening to the nightly shelling, knowing that the peaceful capitals of Europe were only a few hundred miles distant.

Although the first tap is quiet, Giles jumps. Just adrenaline, just fear and shock, that's where the feeling in his chest comes from. If he didn't know better, he might mistake that cramping, breath-catching heat for relief. He might imagine it felt a little like that first moment back from patrol, he and Oz safe behind their own door, alive for one more day. Or worse, infinitely worse, he might mistake it for longing.

Giles doesn't speak, doesn't move. Soon the quiet knocking gets louder, becomes insistent blows that make the door shiver and the walls echo. The neighbors would be dialing Giles' number to complain, if there were any neighbors left. Against the thudding of the door, the creaking of hinges and locks, Giles covers his ears like a stubborn child. But the instant Giles moves, the instant he admits that he's hearing something, the pounding stops. It always does.

Such hearing Oz must have, now, to know the exact moment when Giles raises his hands in surrender.

The pounding stops, and then he, it, speaks. "Hey, Giles, it's me. Come on, talk to me this time, okay?"

Although he's struck the door harder than any human bones could tolerate, although he can hear Giles' movements through the walls, although he's nothing now but dead flesh and hunger, Oz's voice sounds just the same. Soft tenor, gentle, cool as water. A voice to wash in, to drown in. When he and Giles would stumble into bed at sunrise, bruised, half-drunk, gritty with dust that smelled of burnt flesh, Oz used to settle in with his mouth to Giles' ear and talk. Random memories--going to San Diego once with his father, or ordering Sea Monkeys out of the back of a comic book, or skipping school to smoke weed down by the pier—from when he was a normal teenager who didn't believe in vampires. From when he had parents, and a friend called Devon, and wanted to be a rock star. Tales of wonder out of the Thousand-and-One Nights, and sometimes Giles would fall asleep in the middle and dream that the whole world was different.

"Giles, open the door, okay? Or a curtain, or something? Please let me see you. Kinda weird, talking to the door."

Giles doesn't move, except for the shivering, except for gulping down the rest of his drink and refilling the glass. Not moving is what Giles does now. Negative action, stillness, no effort. Giving in to entropy, slowing, stalling, his energy draining away into the neutral universe. Not moving, he tells himself, is the easiest thing in the world.

"Why won't you even talk to me?" A pause, and then the voice adds, "I'm not really that different."

Slowly, through a throat that aches and a jaw so tight he can barely form the words, Giles says, "You. Are. Not. Oz." He doesn't need to speak loudly. The thing at the door will hear.

"But I am. I've just been . . . upgraded, that's all. Oz 2.0."

"Oz is dead." Giles knows he should never have spoken. If he hadn't, maybe Oz (it) would have gone away. "You are a monster."

Oz is dead. Oz has been dead since the night he didn't come back from patrol, the night the Slayer went to the Master's warehouse and never returned. The night Giles failed to change the world. Oz is dead, and the body outside Giles' door is not him. It's no different from an abandoned house that fills with spiders and rats. Seeing that body, touching it again, kissing it . . . none of it would bring Giles any closer to Oz, who's dead, whom Giles will never see again.

Oz is dead, and Giles shouldn't be getting out of his chair, but he is.

"Come and talk to me, Giles. Wanna talk to you. See you." His voice is so quiet that Giles has to come close to the door to hear him. "I can't stop remembering stuff. Like the first time you kissed me, when you were bandaging my face in the office. Larry walked in on us, and it scared the hell out of you, but he just laughed." Larry must be dead now too. Eaten or turned, dead either way. "And when I had nightmares, you used to rub the back of my neck until I fell asleep. Do you remember?"

Most nights Giles was foggy with interrupted sleep, sometimes with drink and painkillers, but he remembers. He'd whisper to Oz, sweet little falsehoods like it's all right and you're safe, give him a few swallows of scotch if the dream was very bad, stroke his neck and back. Oz's skin always felt so good, so warm. He's cold now. Lying next to him wouldn't be the same. "Yes."

Oz is cold, dead, and he used to be warm. His hair smelled like mint and smoke, and his mouth tasted sweet. He used to sleep with his head on Giles' chest. Giles puts his hand to the place, presses down. He's leaning against the door now, weak as a dying man. Cold as a dead one.

"I miss you so much," Oz's voice (not Oz, not Oz) says, and Giles crosses his arms over his chest, although it doesn't warm him. "Don't you miss me?"

"Oz. I miss Oz." Oz who's dead, who's not standing outside his door. Oz isn't lonely, Oz doesn't miss him. Oz is gone, and if there's a better world, a world like the one Giles could have made if he hadn't let Anyanka rip the necklace out of his hand, then maybe Oz is there now.

"I am Oz." The voice catches, goes high and plaintive, and dear god, maybe this thing believes what it's saying. "Giles, I fucking love you." Giles hears snuffling noises, a ragged and unnecessary breath. He's crying. This monster, this demon that is not Oz, is crying. Bait, crocodile tears, vampire tears, and it's only a kind of reflex that Giles' hands shake and his eyes burn and his chest feels hollow. "Please let me in."

"Let you in?" Giles' hand is on the doorknob, but that's only for support, only because his knees are too soft to hold him up. "Let you -"

"Wouldn't hurt you. Love you." So sad, it sounds so sad, this monster. "Want to be with you. Forever."

Oz is dead. He'll be dead forever.

The monster at the door, the monster that has Oz's skin and hair and voice and all his memories, is not Oz.

It doesn't love him. It can't, no matter how much it weeps.

He doesn't love it.

He loves Oz.

Oz is dead, and he's never coming back, and Giles is opening the door, saying "Come in," and he'll never see the sun again, now, but he can almost believe that the beautiful teary-eyed monster is Oz. And whatever it is, whatever it does to him, he'll love it just the same.