It's bitterly cold in Washington, a harsh, biting cold more appropriate to Boston or even Edinburgh. Or so it seems to Rupert as they cross Independence Avenue against a rush of wind-driven litter from a recent protest. Fingers of icy air insinuate themselves between the layers of his scarf and up his trouser legs. His eyes water behind glasses fogged by his own breath. For Xander, just a few hours off the plane from Nairobi, it must feel even colder, but he doesn't complain, though he hisses through his teeth when they turn west, towards the Mall, and take the full strength of the wind in their faces.
Rupert slows his steps a moment. "Perhaps we should go to the Native museum instead? It's closer."
Xander shrugs. "Indian," he says, half a block later.
"Sorry?" Rupert puts the collar of his burberry up, then balls his hands in his pockets once more.
"Museum of the American Indian, it's called. I think."
"Ah. Of course."
"It's one of those touchy subjects. What to call… yeah." With the last word he sounds for the first time almost like his younger self, like the boy with bright, hungry eyes, kind hands, and irrepressible humor. A boy who'd only seen a few apocalypses, only lost a few friends.
"As Willow said. That Thanksgiving." Rupert steals another look at Xander and has to look away quickly when he finds Xander's sharp brown gaze already fixed on him. He wonders what Xander sees, whether he thinks he, Rupert, looks better or worse than when they parted in Cleveland more than a year ago.
They pick their way around the thigh-high concrete barriers at each intersection, heads down, neither sparing more than a glance for the dome of the Capitol on one side or the stately congressional office buildings on the other. Rupert keeps his eyes on an odd structure just ahead, a giant glassed-in Victorian birdcage edged on two sides with low neoclassical blocks.
Another gust of wind, this one with a razor's edge of sleet, catches them, wringing a groan from Rupert and a strangled "…fuck!" from Xander.
"Screw the museum," Xander says. "In here." He nods at the birdcage and breaks into a jog.
Rupert follows a little awkwardly, hampered by his long coat and dress shoes, the proper uniform of a man in somewhat-more-than-nominal charge of an international organization. Still, he's only half a stride behind Xander as they round the corner of the building and enter under a sign welcoming them to the United States Botanic Garden.
Stepping out of the wind feels like falling into an eiderdown. Their breath sounds loud in the marble foyer as they stumble away from the doors. Rupert's glasses instantly turn opaque with condensation, and he pushes them down his nose until he can get out his handkerchief to clean the lenses. Xander pulls off his gray stocking cap, runs a hand over the short brush of his hair. His eyepatch has shifted, showing a crescent moon of shockingly pale skin between the black material and the deep tan on his brow.
There's an elderly man behind a desk nearly covered with racks of pamphlets, and a woman in the brown-and-green uniform of the Park Service in a corner eating her lunch, but it seems Rupert and Xander are the only visitors.
"Huh. Not much crowd to blend in with, huh?" Xander keeps his voice to a murmur. He adjusts his eyepatch, covering that sliver of vulnerable white, then loosens his scarf. Taking a few steps towards an open arch leading further into the building, he continues, louder, "Wow, it smells good in here."
It smells better than good. It smells like every description of tropical paradise, like hibiscus and orchid and other blooms too exotic to identify. As they step out of the lobby into a hall lined with palm trees and benches, Rupert realizes that it's not merely the transition from outdoors that's fogged his glasses, but the humidity in the building. The air is not merely perfumed, but soft and heavy, the breath of a equatorial forest.
"Sorry," Xander says softly. "Guess we need to go find a crowd so I can report."
"N-not necessarily." His glasses finally clean, Rupert settles them back into place. Once again, he finds himself under that disconcertingly steady eye. "Let's take a turn, at least. I'm sorry," he adds, as they move down the hall, under the arching palm fronds. "It is necessary to take some precautions, though it does perhaps seem, ah, silly." Suddenly he's speaking like his old Sunnydale self, the shy, tweedy librarian, something he usually does only when in an uneasy social confrontation with Roger Wyndham-Pryce or one of the other few survivors from the old Council. What reason has he to be nervous with Xander, even this strangely silent Xander?
"Silly?" Xander follows Rupert into the next room, which is full of potted plants and laminated boards of text. "Weird, maybe. I mean, I'm used to us doing the cloak-and-dagger with actual daggers. So, it's unusual, but not in a bad way. A little low-budget James Bond never hurt anybody."
"Sorry," Rupert murmurs again, watching Xander's tanned fingers drumming on the edge of a terra-cotta pot of hibiscus. "You seemed… quiet."
"Yeah, I've been getting that a lot. Willow thought I was really mad at her or something. Xan the Man who Can't Shut Up is on limited engagements these days."
"Any particular reason?"
Xander shrugs. "Not so much to say. Also, lack of starting material. Little known fact – they're not big on doughnuts in Africa. Or moon pies. Or English. So, I'm a little rusty."
"And perhaps changed. A bit," he amends when Xander tenses to speak.
"A little bit." Xander draws ahead, crossing into the next room. He stops so suddenly that Rupert can't help colliding with him. He opens his mouth to apologize, then stops in surprise.
The next room is a jungle. At their feet, a path lined with railings leads among flowering shrubs and over a narrow stream fed by a small waterfall. Trees of all heights, hung with flowering vines and creepers, stretch up overhead, nearly brushing the rime-covered glass high above. The perfume and warmth are even stronger here, inside the birdcage Rupert had noted before. "Good lord," Rupert murmurs.
Speechless, Xander turns in a slow circle, staring up into the leaves. After a self-conscious moment, Rupert does the same. Almost immediately he bumps into Xander and they blunder together against the railing that keeps them out of the surely-fragile undergrowth. For an instant they stand still, far too close together, and then Rupert pulls away.
"I, uhm." Rupert's voice fades, and he coughs to bring it back. "There seems to be a gallery… do you see any stairs?" The flowers, he thinks, the humidity, the change of temperature. Surely something must be going to his head, to make his heart beat so fast.
"Yeah. This way." Xander's hand closes around Rupert's arm, drawing him along the path. His touch is warm, even in the jungle atmosphere, and firm. Rupert follows, suddenly not clumsy at all, not even when their fingers brush together after Xander lets go to take hold of the railing.
As they climb up into the canopy of leaves, Rupert keeps his eyes on the back of Xander's neck. The skin is tanned even darker there. Rupert wonders where the deep gold glow gives way to ivory, then looks away. Stop it. He's just...
"Hey, is this place on the catalog?" Xander tosses the question over his shoulder.
"That source catalog for mystical ingredients that Willow was putting together?"
"Right. I imagine so, but I'll check, and mention it to the local team when we meet later."
"Local team." Xander savors the phrase as they step out onto the balcony that circles the room at treetop level. "Never thought I'd be part of anything that was anything but a local team." He leans on the railing; Rupert leans beside him. "So." Xander elbows him and moves a little closer. "How is it being in charge of something with local teams?"
He starts his usual response - challenging, quite satisfying, good to be back in England - then lets out his breath in a sigh. "Damned if I could tell you. Odd. Exhausting. Complicated." He glances at Xander. "Probably not unlike searching an entire continent for Slayers and demonic activity."
"Except with more paperwork and less time boiling water. And, I hope, less sand down your shorts."
Rupert laughs. "I expect so."
Xander is grinning at him. They're so close, elbow to elbow, sleeve to sleeve, alone in this tropical oasis in the cold city. Rupert can't pull his eyes from that smile.
"Giles." Xander glances away. " You've been looking at me funny since we met at the hotel. And you should go ahead and give me a right British thrashing if I'm reading this all wrong, but..." He turns his eye back to Rupert. "Are you gonna kiss me or do I have to do it myself?"
"I-I-I..." Rupert's hand tightens around Xander's sleeve, but he can't make any other sound. He should laugh it off. He should demur. He should assert his authority, demand a report, ask questions about the Slayers still in Africa and the ones sent to England and Cleveland. He should do anything but let this damning silence stretch between them.
He shouldn't feel the word yes rising to his tongue.
Xander's watching him, his gaze steady, though with his far hand he's drumming again, a quick nervous tattoo.
"I-I," Rupert stutters again, and then Xander leans in and stills his lips with a kiss.
He's just a boy. The protest is as familiar as it is untrue, but it tightens Rupert's chest even as he turns his body to let Xander move even closer. Xander isn't a boy, not now, perhaps not ever in the time Rupert's known him. There are no children in their world. Rupert knows this, knows the evidence of his own eyes, but still he stiffens as if waiting for a blow, as if expecting condemnation. I'm an adult. I should be responsible. I'm the one with the power...
"Okay?" Xander's voice is serious. "Giles?"
Rupert still can't speak. He fits his hand around the angle of Xander's jaw and brushes a thumb over his lips.
"I want this." Serious, and deep. "If you want it."
It's so warm, but Rupert feels frozen.
Xander drops his gaze. "Giles..."
"Harris," Rupert whispers. Then, again, stronger. "Harris." Naming him, a man, an equal. "Yes." And simple as that, he can breathe again, can draw that enticing mouth to his own and taste it. "Harris."
He can feel the smile on... Harris's... lips. "Okay?"
And then it's warm in Washington, warm and quiet and still.
My beloved has laid me down in sweet breathless clover and I have
Drawn the cursive lines of disparity over each bleeding inch of skin