Characters: Xander, Oz
Warnings: Nothing to worry about. Pre-slash
Disclaimer: Joss and Mutant Enemy et al, own everything. I own nothing.
Summary: Xander goes on a little recon mission and discovers something unexpected.
Word Count: 3,970
Beta extraordinaire: thismaz
Written for 2011 spring_with_xan
Compared with the angst I normally inflict on Xander, this is unadulterated fluff! *g*
Tools of the Trade
There were a lot of places Xander had pictured himself jetting off to, since Sunnydale imploded. A much played and now lost tape of the Gotan Project’s first album, had conjured up fantasies of Buenos Aires and small, smoky bars, hypnotic music and the kick and slide of heels on wooden floors as he expertly manoeuvred his partner in yet another a devastating tango move.
Willow got South America.
Then there was Italy, where the possibilities for glamour and adventure were endless. He could lose himself in the Carnivale in Venice, admire the architecture of Brunelleschi in Florence, revel in the excitement and madness of the Palio in Sienna, or just stand at any point in Rome and pretend he was Gregory Peck, waiting for his Audrey Hepburn.
Buffy got Italy.
Xander didn’t want London. He didn’t want the damp and the traffic and the driving on the wrong side of the road. He didn’t want congestion charges and warm beer and he wasn’t really interested in that Dr Johnston dude’s opinion, anyway.
He was happy when Giles got London.
Xander settled on Africa. If he couldn’t be Gregory Peck, he’d be a mixture of a debonair Indiana Jones and Tarzan, the Johnny Weissmuller incarnation, of course. He'd swoop in to save the day, bantering fluently with the locals, vanquishing the demon du jour and sweeping the swooning damsel off her feet in one effortless motion.
Aberdeen didn’t look anything like Africa.
Aberdeen was grey. It was the stone, the granite. In the sun, he’d been told that it sparkled and gave the silver city the name the tourists loved. But in November, the drizzle was fairly constant and the haunting sound of the fog horns, warning of an encroaching Haar, made him shiver and contemplate the possibility of dead sailors lurching up Union Street.
It was all Dawn’s fault. She’d been honing her Sumerian and had come across a cryptic prophecy with the usual doom, gloom and disaster, possibly originating from a city of silver, so he’d been dispatched to do recon before he could actually do anything constructive about making his African fantasies a reality. Of course, the minute he’d arrived she’d called to say that Andrew had transposed some letters when he’d transcribed her notes and it should have been ‘sliver’ and not ‘silver’. Tricky thing, transcription, especially when poor Andrew had been faced with Dawn’s chicken scratches. He’d no idea where they’d find a city of sliver, but that really wasn’t his problem.
His problem was being stuck in Aberdeen, waiting for the next set of instructions. He knew he could do the trains, planes and automobiles thing back down to London. It wasn’t that far, but it was further than it looked on the map. From bitter experience, he also knew, the minute he turned southwards there would be a pressing need for him to be in Wick, or Fort William, or somewhere in the Hebrides. More or less anywhere but Africa. If he had a suspicious nature, he’d almost think there was a conspiracy to keep him out of Africa, and not in a cool, Robert Redford kind of a way. But he chose not to be suspicious, although he was going to have a little chat with Dawn when he got back, just to be sure.
In the interim, the question was how to spend the time? The tourist office was shut. So were the local museums and the art gallery, and he really wasn’t in the mood to go shopping. The Ingmar Bergman retrospective at the Odeon was a definite turnoff, and the Capital was showing Gone with the Wind in all its Technicolor glory. He gave it momentary consideration, before realising that the fact that he even contemplated it demonstrated that he spent far too much time around girls.
Having exhausted most of the obvious options, he realised that wandering the streets in the drizzle wasn’t appealing either. He hunched his shoulders, pulled his collar up and was hurrying up Union Street, hands in his pockets, keeping a lookout for a Starbucks and the lure of good old, franchised, caffeinated goodness, when something bright and shiny caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He stopped, turned, and stared, before closing his eye, counting to three, and opening it again. They were still there and he didn’t know whether to giggle or scream. He split the difference and settled on a manly chuckle.
The statues were, unexpected – that was the word that popped into Xander’s head. Giles would have said they were anachronistic. Buffy would have said tacky. Spike would have pursed his lips, taken a drag of his cigarette and called them a fucking nightmare, before striding away from the main street in search of an old fashioned pub with a selection of decent beer. But Xander liked unexpected. It appealed to the part of him that would have stopped to check out the giant Gum Drop, in Massachusetts, or the Second Oldest Continuously Burning Light Bulb, in Texas, if he’d ever got that far on his road trip.
He stood on the cracked grey pavement (he’d learned to call it pavement instead of sidewalk) the heels of his boots just grazing the edge of the puddle, where one flagstone had sunk below the level of the others. He stared up at the statues of ancient Gods – Osiris and Anubis - they towered over their fiefdom, staring down at their subjects, judging who was worthy to pass through the portal to their domain. It would have been daunting in times past. Their glassy, disdainful stares would have been enough to send Xander running in the other direction. But he was older now; he’d faced down vampires and demons and hell gods, so a couple of Egyptian has-beens didn’t daunt him. Much.
Counting off the steps, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight, he felt like a supplicant at a temple gate climbing the broad stone stairs that took him ever closer to the deities. On the last step he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, smoothed down the front of his jacket and checked his fly, just in case it really was an inter-dimensional portal, and plunged over the threshold of the tackiest theme bar north of Cairo.
As he entered he was half expecting to hear The Bangles on a continuous loop so it was a pleasant surprise to realise that the music in the bar was mellow. It sounded like a weird hybrid of jazz and big band, played on an accordion and possibly a fiddle. It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it did and it curled around the back of Xander's neck and trickled down his spine, making him feel looser and more relaxed than he’d felt in days.
Pausing in the shadow of a giant palm, he listening to the beat and automatically noted the position of the fire door and the large tinted windows that would make decent alternative exits if necessary. Not that he intended it to be necessary, but after all he’d seen and gone through in the last seven years, checking his perimeter was as automatic as breathing. Once satisfied, he took stock of the rest of the room. It was almost empty, with just a few tables occupied by students and the inevitable old guy propping up the end of the bar with his pint in one hand and the sports pages in the other. Despite the emptiness, Xander got the feeling it was the type of place that would be full to bursting with young blood on a Friday and Saturday night, and would probably need a couple of bouncers to keep order, once closing time came around. But on a wet Wednesday afternoon it looked cavernous and kind of sad. The black and white checked tile on the floor was scuffed and in need of a polish, as were the gold painted tables, which looked like they belonged to a Pharaoh with really bad taste. The saving grace, to Xander’s craftsman’s eye, was the beautifully polished, semi-circular, granite topped bar, which looked like it was designed to deal with anything the customers could throw at it. It had nothing to do with Egypt and, in Xander’s opinion, was all the better for it. In the rest of the room, the Egyptian theme was reduced to stencils of scarabs around the faux marble painted walls, the odd plaster statues of Bast on plinths placed at random intervals, and pictures of Isis and Tutankhamen on the bathroom doors at the far end. Obviously, the owner had blown the decorating budget on the giant statues at the entrance.
His survey complete, Xander decided that since he was here, he might as well get a drink, to while away a bit of time until, hopefully, Dawn phoned and told him to come home or, even better, sent an itinerary that included flight times to Cape Town. He ambled across to the bar, shrugged off his damp jacket, and slid onto one of the wooden, high-backed stools, pointing at the Stella pump when a positively huge bar man with a ring through his nose and a large tattoo of a particularly vicious looking snake on his right bicep appeared in front of him. It wasn’t that he particularly wanted a Stella, but his only experience with Tennants had been one he really didn’t want to repeat, and it was far too early start indulging in IPA, even if Ross, the Edinburgh Watcher, had spent some considerable energy trying to educate him in the wonders of the brew when he’d come down to London a couple of months before for the inaugural briefing of the shiny new Council. He had the feeling that the barman would not be impressed if he started getting maudlin after one pint, so after some almost deep thought, he decided that Stella was a safe bet for a mid afternoon indulgence.
Handing over a fiver to the giant, Xander shuffled his stool until he was facing the room where he could keep an eye on any comings and goings. He took a slow sip of his drink while he waited for his change. The Stella was cold and wet, a bit like the weather on Union Street, and it didn’t taste too much like wet socks, so he counted that as a win. If someone asked him how he knew what wet socks tasted like, well that was a story that they would only get out of him if he was really, really drunk.
“You sure you’re old enough to drink that? I might have to card you?”
The voice was soft and coming from somewhere on his blindside. “What?” he asked, startled by the intrusion to his meandering thoughts and started to swivel towards the voice.
“Inappropriate banter with clients,” said the voice. “I’ve been told it’s an essential tool of the trade.”
Xander completed his swiveling manoeuvre and the owner of the voice came into view. “Oz?” he said, turning the squeak in his voice into a manly cough that partnered nicely with the manly chuckle from earlier. Now that was unexpected. Of all the people he could possibly dream of running into in far flung places, Oz wasn’t exactly top of his list. Which just proved that both his expectations and his list needed work, because Oz was standing behind the bar, cleaning a glass in the time honoured fashion of barmen everywhere. His hair was black, with a subtle pink stripe running along the crown. Apart from the different hair colour, he hardly looked like he’d changed since Xander had last seen him, back in Sunnydale, the year after graduation. “Oz,’ he said again. This time it was more of a statement than a question.
“Last time I looked.”
“And what trade would that be? That you have to have the essential tools of, I mean.” Xander knew that the glass cleaning kind of made it a stupid question, but he was still working through seeing the werewolf so unexpectedly.
Oz looked down at the glass in his hand, then glanced at the bottle gantry behind him before turning back around. “Well, I'm hoping bartending, because otherwise I’m here under false pretences and Callum over there.” He nodded his head towards the other bartender. “He’s a bit too big to snow.”
“That’s a point,” Xander acknowledged. “So this is when I ask you what you’re doing here?”
Grinning, Oz tilted his head to the side. “If you’re following the script.”
“There’s a script?”
“There’s always a script. Depends if you want to play the scene, or go direct to the outtakes.”
Xander hunched over the bar, his beer forgotten to the side and looked Oz in the eye. “DVD extras or full director's cut?”
The glass cloth paused mid polish while Oz seemed to give the question serious consideration. “Hard to say at this point, but I’d put some money on an Easter Egg, if it wasn’t November.”
Xander laughed and sat back up, raking his fingers through his hair. “Man, that has got to be the most surreal conversation I’ve had in months. Good, but definitely surreal.”
“I think I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Believe me, it’s a compliment. A backhanded one, maybe, but genuinely meant.”
Oz carefully put the dry glass down in the rack behind the bar, picked another damp one from the drainer next to the sink and started the drying process again. He watched Xander for a moment, like he was trying to decide on his next question and Xander could almost see when he settled on his approach. “So, fit like?”
“Fit what?” Xander asked, pronouncing the words slowly, testing how they felt on his tongue.
“Fit like? How are you? Blending in with the locals, picking up their vernacular, it’s another handy skill.”
“If you’re talking to one of the locals, maybe,” Xander said dubiously. “But a random jumble of vowels and consonants doesn’t make a sentence.”
Oz raised an eyebrow.
Xander rolled his eye in return. “Well, obviously it does, if you’re being that picky. But only if the other person understands the code. I kind of forgot to pack my decoder ring.”
“Fit Like – it means ‘how are you’. They often change ‘h’ or ‘w’ into ‘f’ – so Fit Like – What Like – How are you - you see the progression?”
“Okay.” Xander was conscious that his dubious voice wasn’t going away.
“I could have said ‘Fit like, loon?’”
“Now you’re just being potentially insulting, which isn’t nice considering I haven’t seen you in years and it’s raining outside.” Xander waved his hand in the general direction of the door.
“Loon means boy,” Oz replied, putting the glass and cloth down on the bar. “Be glad I didn’t say ‘quine’ because then I’d be calling you a girl and that could have been insulting. It’s interesting,” he continued, not giving Xander time to interject, “The Scandinavian word for woman is Kvinna, so you can see the way language works with the north of Scotland having a Viking connection.
“You’re just full of useless information and random historical references, aren’t you?”
Oz shrugged. ‘Not so useless here, where the references are actually used, but pretty useless back in California, I agree.”
“Which is where you’re not.” Xander waved his hand again, this time the gesture encompassing the whole of the bar, to illustrate his point.
“You’d noticed that.”
“Well, you could be some kind of hallucination, or temporal anomaly, but I’m leaning towards not.” Xander wanted to giggle insanely at the sheer absurdity of the conversation, but he was enjoying himself too much to interrupt the flow. From the concentrated look on Oz’s face, it was obvious he was doing the same, but in a cooler and more understated manner.
“Always good to consider the options.” Oz said, picking up the glass cloth again. “But I could just be working behind a bar and making conversation with the clientele.”
Xander shook his head. “That had crossed my mind, but I ruled it out as being a bit too out there.”
“That’s fair. Have you settled on an explanation?”
“I’m thinking worm hole, or possibly Stargate. With those big, funky statues outside, it could definitely be a Stargate. You could actually be being controlled by a Goa’uld.”
“It’s possible, but from my limited knowledge of Goa’uld, which I grant you, mainly comes from random reruns, I get the impression they’re more about the taking over the world and enslaving people. Not a lot of enslaving going on right here.” Oz echoed Xander’s earlier gesture by waving a hand in the general direction of the almost empty bar. “For a really good enslavement, in this city, you’ve got to go over to the Rubislaw area. A lot of the granite there is pink. It looks very well to do, but there’s a dungeon that will do practically anything you’re after.”
Xander raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said slowly. “I’m almost scared to ask how you know that.”
“A good barman always knows, Xan. It’s one of the tools of the trade.”
“I’ll bear that in mind, if I ever decide to take up bartending again. Because you know, that one time with the cursed beer and the Neanderthal frat boys, although that’s probably a tautology, and not forgetting cave Buffy, I can’t say I’m that eager to be pulling the pumps again.”
“You’d be a good barman. You’re good at listening. But you always did march to your own drum.”
Snorting, Xander shook his head. “Not so much. You’ve seen me dance, remember. Never had much rhythm on my own. I think I’ve always needed someone else’s beat to follow.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Knowing that about yourself is what’s important. You chose your drumbeat. The fact that it happened to belong to someone else, is neither here nor there.”
“So, deep psychiatric analysis, is that part of your trade as well?”
“Nope, that’s just me.” Oz grinned, and Xander realised that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat like this, just sat and chatted with a guy and been relaxed. It felt kind of nice. He picked up his glass and took a long swallow, finishing the remainder of his beer in one go.
Oz nodded towards the empty. “Do you want a refill? I’ve got a bit of work to do, if you can keep yourself occupied for a while.”
“Sure, why not. And don’t let me keep you from your work. I wouldn’t like to get you into trouble.”
“No trouble. It’s not exactly jumping in here today.” He picked up a clean glass from the shelf, pulled at the beer pump and put the new drink down in front of Xander. “This one’s on me.”
Xander thought about arguing, but decided against it. He lifted the glass, saluted and took a long drink.
Oz tipped an imaginary hat and moved off to the other end of the bar. Xander sat, sipping his beer and watching his old friend stacking glasses, changing bottles on the gantry, and in one memorable five minute segment, talk the very mellow, elderly drunk at the end of the bar out of trying on the papier maché death mask that was mounted on the wall next to him. Xander could think of worse ways to spend a damp November afternoon. After half an hour, Oz reappeared back at Xander’s end of the bar.
“So, what are you going to do now?” he asked.
Xander shrugged. “To be honest, I have no idea. It’s not like I exactly know the place. I’ve got my bag stashed in a locker at the station; I didn’t plan on hanging around.Though I guess you know what they say about the best laid plans…”
Oz nodded. “’They ‘gang aft aglay.’ At least you’re in the right country with that thought, but your geography is a bit off. Burns country is further south.”
“I’ll take your word for it. But I bet it’s raining down there as well.”
“Scotland in November, I’m not going to bet against a sure thing. I’m just about finished my shift and I’m thinking Callum will let me off early, since it’s so quiet. If you haven’t got any plans, we could do something.”
“Okay, that sounds like the beginnings of a plan. What are you thinking – food, more drink, a movie perhaps? If there’s somewhere that’s not showing the Seventh Seal, because I’m not big with the existential chess games and I’m not watching Gone with the Wind with you, unless you buy me flowers and candy beforehand.”
“Roses or Lilies?” Oz asked with a smile. “Although I think you might be a Gladioli kind of a guy and they might be hard to get here at this time of year. Alternatively, I was thinking we could walk over towards Rubislaw and see the pink granite. I feel like working on my inner Goa’uld.”
Xander stared pensively into the bottom of his empty glass before looking back up. “I could have been in Africa, you know,” he said plaintively.
Oz grinned wolfishly. “But where would be the fun in that?”
Xander waited while Oz collected his coat, said his goodbyes to big Callum and skirted around the end of the bar, carefully avoiding the old drunk who still didn’t look happy at not being allowed to model the latest in fake funeral relics.
Xander pushed himself off the barstool and shrugged on his jacket. When Oz reached him, they walked side-by-side to the door and paused at the top of the steps leading down onto the street. They stood in the shadow of the giant Egyptian statues and Xander blinked at the unexpected sunshine that temporarily blinded him, before taking in the scene outside. While he’d been in the bar, the rain had stopped and the strong north-east wind had blown the clouds and the threatened fog out to sea. A pale, late fall sun hung in the sky and Xander looked at the buildings across the street, then turned his head slowly, looking all around him. The granite shone like an over-zealous cleaning lady had been hard at work with her duster and polish. The previously cold, grey stone reflected the rays of the sun and the walls gleamed and sparkled like silver.
“Wow,” he whispered. This is amazing. I didn’t realise it would look so beautiful.”
“It is kind of cool.” Oz ambled down the steps onto the pavement, turned and looked back up at Xander. “Come on. Follow me. If you think this is neat, wait until you see how the pink granite looks in this light.”
Xander looked down and noticed that the pink stripe in Oz’s hair was flecked with silver. It sparkled in the afternoon sun, glinting as if it was in sync with the stone.
“Wow,” he said again. “I just noticed the full effect of the hair.”
“Neat isn’t it? Doesn’t always work, but on an afternoon like this, when the sun comes out, it really helps you blend in with the scenery. In a job like mine, it’s – “
“Don’t tell me,” Xander interrupted, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking down at Oz with a grin. “I’m guessing that it’s one of the tools of the trade.”
Oz just smiled, then wandered off down the street without looking back.
Shaking his head, Xander took the steps to the pavement, two at a time, and followed. Willow had South America. Buffy had Italy. Giles had London. But Xander had an appointment with some pink granite and a werewolf. He decided that Africa would still be there in the morning. And possibly the day after that.
Want to know what happened next? Go to chapter 2 of this 'verse - Measure Twice, Cut Once. I hope you enjoy... :)
A Haar is a coastal fog coming in off the North Sea, usually in eastern Scotland. The Haar in Aberdeen rolls up through the harbour and into the city. When it’s thick it really is very creepy.
I lived in Aberdeen for a while, back in the late 80’s and yes there was an Egyptian theme bar. It was called The Nile (original huh!) and while there were no statues at the entrance, it really was very tacky, but then it was the 80’s. I’d kind of blanked it out of my memory for obvious reasons but when I started to write this fic it popped back into my head for some strange reason and demanded to be used.