Warming the Pot
Giles glared at the front door. The 10 o’clock news was just about to start and he had an edict, that for half an hour every weekday evening he wasn’t to be disturbed, so that he could catch up on how the non-supernatural world was killing itself, before he went back to worrying about the latest apocalypse. Of course, the get out clause was that he could be disturbed if the apocalypse was going to happen within the next half hour. So the front door bell ringing at 9:58 on a Wednesday evening either heralded impending doom, or possibly, insomniac Jehovah’s Witnesses. He wasn’t sure which was worse.
He glared again, but that didn’t stop the ringing sound, so with a grunt of disgust he turned on the hall light and peered through the spy hole. It wasn’t Jehovah’s Witnesses, but Giles wasn’t entirely sure what he did see didn’t signal something even more ominous. Hastily turning the key in the lock, he pulled back the door and stared at Xander, who was standing on the doorstep with a big smile on his face and a duffle in his hand. “Surprise, Giles!” he said brightly.
Giles eyed his visitor silently for a moment before replying. “Surprise, yes, I’d definitely say this is a surprise.”
“So, can I come in?” Xander asked, his smile slipping slightly before coming back at full throttle. “Or have you got your love groove on? Because if you have, I can totally go to a hotel.”
“Heavens, Xander, don’t be silly.” Giles stood back and Xander stepped over the threshold with a chuckle.
“Sorry to barge in on you, but after I dropped Sasha off at Slayer Central I needed a little sanity. When I couldn’t find any there, I decided you were the next best thing.”
“I suppose I should be thanking you for the honour,” Giles replied. “Come through to the kitchen and we can at least act as if we’re civilised.” He gestured down the long narrow hallway and Xander ambled towards the brightly lit room at the end. Giles closed the front door of the flat and followed. By the time he reached the kitchen, Xander was already slumped in a chair at the small table, his battered duffle and his jacket dumped at his feet.
Giles leaned up against the door jamb and looked at his guest. “I thought you weren’t due in until next week? Has something happened? Are you alright? I’m assuming Sasha is fine since you said you dropped her off.”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Xander replied. He rolled his head from side to side and Giles could see the play of muscles on his shoulders and upper arms under his crumpled, blue tee-shirt. “Well, as okay as a twelve hour fight, an eight hour layover and a seat in front of a woman with triplets can leave you. Using that as a bench mark, I’m peachy, with a side of keen.”
Giles pushed himself off of the doorjamb and strolled forward until he reached the kitchen table. “Yes, well, perhaps now you know how I felt back in Sunnydale, when the whole lot of you would invade my flat and all start talking at me at once.”
“Harsh, Giles. Really harsh. And you know you miss it really. When was the last time we all invaded you and started yammering? Bet you can’t even think!”
“Nowadays you do seem to specialize in individual attacks, rather than resorting to the all out assaults of previous years.”
“See you miss us!” Xander waggled his finger at Giles. “I knew it!”
“Alright, I admit it,” Giles acknowledged. “I miss it. Sometimes. I miss all of you, when you’re not here. However, I do get to see Willow almost every week. London isn’t as big a city as it first appears. And I see Buffy every month, in person, and talk to her on the phone on a regular basis.” He folded his arms and looked down at Xander. “You, on the other hand, I haven’t seen in nearly a year. And your check in record hasn’t been exactly stellar. So yes, I think I can say with some honesty, that I missed you.”
Xander leaned back in his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankle. “Like I said, I knew you missed us. You love us really, even when you’re being grumpy.”
“Yes, Xander, I will satisfy your hugely inflated ego and have my British passport withdrawn by admitting again that I do love you all and I do miss you all when you’re not here. And that brings me back to my original question. You weren’t expected for another week. I had planned to do some shopping. Lay in supplies, as it were, for your arrival.”
Straightening up, Xander scratched absently at several days growth of beard. “There was a rumour of some trouble brewing. More than a rumour, to be honest. More of a given, complete with pompous, self important demony mojo to go.” he said. “I wanted to get Sasha out before it came to a head. She’s going to be great, Giles. She’s already great, but at the moment she thinks she’s invincible and you and I know that isn’t true.” He hunched over, suddenly looking very young, before looking back up. “I didn’t want her getting killed by some two-bit demon lord with delusions of grandeur, just because she thinks she’s fireproof. The rest of the team that’s there are more than up to handling anything that goes down, so I decided discretion was the better part of valour and told her that I was needed back here early. I asked if she would she keep me company to make sure my demon magnet status didn’t get me into trouble.”
Giles nodded. “Sneaky,” he said. “I’m impressed.”
“I’ve always been sneaky, Giles. It’s just legitimate now. It’s not quite sneaky with a British accent, but give me another couple of years and I might surprise you.”
“You’ve always surprised me, Xander,” Giles replied. “Sometimes in pleasant ways, at other times... Well, let’s just say there are some things best left forgotten.” He hitched his hip onto the edge of the kitchen table. “With the laudable goal of encouraging you to develop your inner Brit, can I offer you some tea? I’m afraid I can’t offer you beer. It was on my shopping list, but as I say, I wasn’t expecting you just yet.”
Xander blinked. “Did you just say that you’ve got a shopping list just for me, ‘cause that’s what I think you just said, but the jetlag might just be making me a little punch drunk, even without the beer."
“It’s what civilised people do when they are expecting guests. They stock up on things their guests would appreciate. You don’t really think I had all those carbonated drinks in my fridge back in Sunnydale because I liked them, did you?”
Chuckling, Xander shook his head. “No. But then we were self centred teenagers, so we just assumed it was all about us. Now look, I’m all growed up and I notice stuff that used to go over my head.”
“Since you are so grown up now, I’ll assume I’ll only have to repeat my previous question once more before I actually get an answer. Would you like some tea?”
“Again with the sarcasm, Giles. But yeah, tea would be great.”
Giles filled the kettle, put in on to boil and pulled out mugs and a teapot from the shelf above the hob. He opened up a kitchen cupboard and Xander stared at the array of small metal tins filling the shelves.
“So what are you in the mood for?” Giles glanced over his shoulder. “I have Earl Grey, which I know you’ve had before. Or Lady Grey if you prefer something with a little less bergamot. Lapsang Souchong, I suspect is a little smoky for your taste. I recall you saying you couldn’t acquire a taste for the Islay whiskies and they have some similar undertones.”
Xander blinked again. “I’m surprised you can remember anything about that whisky tasting, never mind remember my likes and dislikes. I don’t think I’ve ever had a hangover like it, and you weren’t much better.”
“I steered clear of whisky for months afterwards, I can tell you that.” Giles rubbed his forehead absently as if he could still feel the traces of a phantom hangover. “You are a bad influence. Perhaps we can change the subject and get back to your choice of tea. Darjeeling is a classic, as is Orange Pekoe. If you prefer Green Tea, I have an interesting combination of Earl Grey and Green Tea called Earl Green.” He pulled out a tin and stared at it before putting back on the shelf. “Personally, I think they could have used a little more creativity with the name, but that’s neither here nor there. I’ve become very fond of Green Yerba Matte recently. It has a very delicate flavor. I find it soothing in the evening. Or if you would like something more robust, I could recommend a South African Rooibos. But I expect you’re more than familiar with that, from your travels in that part of Africa.”
“Whoa, Giles. I think I’m in tea overdose right now and I haven’t even had a drink yet. You seriously have all those different types of tea here?”
“Well,” Giles paused, suddenly embarrassed. “That’s the top shelf. I have an interesting collection of white teas in the caddies on the lower shelf, but it didn’t seem like the time to get into that.”
“Haven’t you got, like normal tea?” Xander queried. “Like tea-bag tea, you buy at the corner store, tea? I mean, what do you give the plumber when he comes round to unstuck your toilet?”
“Well, first of all, I wouldn’t presume that just because he was a plumber, he couldn’t appreciate the finer points of a decent pot of Earl Grey. Or that he wouldn’t be a she. But I admit that I do keep a packet of standard tea on standby for those moments. Builders brew, some people call it.”
“Builder’s brew,” Xander echoed. “I ran into a guy in Pretoria, a Kiwi, doing his gap year backpacking around Africa. He called it ‘Gum Boot Tea’. Something to do with guys wearing gum boots in really bad weather on job sites, or something like that. I guess it’s the same concept.”
Giles nodded. “Gum Boot tea – I like it. It has a certain resonance. The concept would get lost in translation here. Wellie-boot tea doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”
“Wellington Boots,” Giles explained. They’re what the British call gum boots – rubber boots – colloquially known as wellies to every British child who ever got a chilblain after being forced to wear them through a British winter.”
“Chilblains?” Xander asked dubiously. “That will be another of those weird British things that I don’t want to know any more about.”
“Chilblains are a circulatory ailment and one that’s hardly unique to Britain.
“Don’t think I’ve had any circulatory issues, I mean apart from that one time… “ Xander coughed, then ploughed on before Giles could get a word in. “You were talking about tea, British man. There’s been lots of tea talk, but very little with the actual creation of hot beverages."
“Well, that’s possibly because you haven’t actually stated a preference. Although perhaps the choice is a bit bewildering. I could choose for you, if you like?” He glanced briefly back at the array of tea on the shelves behind him. “Take out the complicated bit,” Giles finished with a grin.
“Hey, I resent that. No mocking the jet lagged afflicted. I’d normally say Rooibos, but I think I’m all Rooibos’d out, so maybe some of that mellow stuff you talked about.”
“Yerba Matte. Excellent choice and I think I’ll join you.” Giles pulled down a small steel tin from the top shelf before turning back to Xander. “I like to think that if Lapsang Souchong is the Islay whisky of the tea world, then Yerba Matte is like a perfectly made Martini. It makes you relaxed and just a little bit boneless.”
“I’m trying to visualize 007 asking for a Yerba Matte, brewed, but not stewed, but…” Xander rocked his hand from side to side, “it’s not really working for me.”
“Alright, the metaphor was a little over blown, but you understand what I’m trying to say.”
“I get what you mean, Giles.” Xander grinned. “It’s just far too much fun to mess with you. I’m out of practice, because punning by email just doesn’t cut it.”
“I’ll take your word for it, but I don’t recall much punning. In fact, I don’t recall much emailing over the last three months, so I will expect detailed reports over the coming days, on both your Watcher duties and how you are doing personally.”
The kettle finished boiling and Giles poured a little in the pot and swirled it around before adding a teaball stuffed with leaves and poured in the rest of the water. As the tea brewed, he busied himself with pulling a biscuit tin from the cupboard next to where he kept the tea and laid out some dark, rich looking cake.
“Ginger cake,” Xander said. “I thought you said you hadn’t shopped yet because you weren’t expecting me for another week.”
Giles turned around, his eyebrows raised and a plate with thick slices of cake in his hand. “For someone who said a few minutes ago that they realised the world no longer revolves around them, it might have occurred to you that I have ginger cake because I like it.” He put the plate on the table along with the butter dish and went to pour the tea. By the time he returned to the table, the first slice of ginger cake, laden with butter was disappearing into Xander’s mouth.
“Sorry,” Xander mumbled, his mouth full. “You know how crappy airline food is. I couldn’t resist.”
“Why do you think I cut more than two slices?” Giles replied. “Drink your tea. Then you can tell me why you're here, because I can think of other places you could seek refuge, if you didn’t want to stay with the Slayers.”
Xander grabbed his mug and sniffed it, before taking a sip. “Wow, that’s really good,” he said.
Giles smiled and watched Xander as he buttered another piece of cake, but then laid it back on the plate and took another sip of tea.
“You can have that second piece. I do have another unopened packet,” Giles said with a small grin.
Xander blushed, picked up the slice again, took a large bite off the corner and chewed slowly. “Can I ask you a question?” he said when he’d swallowed. “And don’t say, you just did, because that would be too librariany of you.”
“It’s a word. Just because it’s not in your dictionary, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s how languages evolve.”
“True,” Giles replied. “But before we get diverted into Saussure’s concept of treeness, or other linguistic concepts ranging from Chomsky to Volosinov, may I drink my tea and you can ask your question?”
“Saussure’s concept of treeness?” Xander asked, the rest of ginger cake hovering half way between the plate and his mouth.
“Question, Xander! You wanted to ask one, yes?”
Xander swallowed the rest of the cake in one bite and licked the crumbs off his fingers. “Yum, that was good. So, question, right. Hmm, well, did you ever think you saw things one way and then all of a sudden you see them another?”
“I think you’ll have to be a little more specific,” Giles said slowly.
Sitting back in his seat, Xander stared at his mug before looking back up. “You mentioned treeness. That’s like how it’s only a tree because we call it a tree, right?”
“That is the general concept, yes, although it is a little more complex than that.”
So it’s all about labels isn’t it?” Xander ploughed on. “About how we make sense of the world.”
“That’s true,” Giles agreed. “We need the same codes as our peers to communicate. If one of our friends, for example, starts to call a tree, a table, then we have a conversation fraught with possible misunderstanding, frustration and confusion.”
“So yeah, that’s what I mean. So if I’ve always called something one thing and others call it something else, that’s a problem. But what if I think someone else calls it the other thing as well? But I’m not sure, because we’ve never actually talked about it.”
“About whether your friend calls a tree, a table?” Giles said.
Xander flushed. “Well, maybe not so much with the wood metaphors, because that kind of complicates things and it’s kind of complicated enough.”
"Alright, so what kind of metaphor are you more comfortable with?” Giles asked. “If we’re still talking in metaphors?”
Xander gazed into his mug again. Giles was intrigued by the way Xander wouldn’t look him in the eye. “What if, instead of calling a person, a person, we called them a cup of tea?” Xander said finally. “So if a person is actually a cup of tea, that means I’m a cup of tea as well. And what if those two cups of tea were compatible?” His fingers drummed against the side of his mug. “Or what if they’re not? Because non-compatible cups of tea would be messy and leave stains on the tea pot and probably clog up the sink with soggy tea leaves.” He looked up and sighed. “I’m totally not making sense am I? And you’re going to make me come out and say what I’m really trying to say, which is going to totally suck.”
Giles sipped his tea, but his eyes were fixed on Xander over the rim of his mug. Xander looked longingly at the last piece of cake on the plate and Giles could almost see the wheels turning as Xander worked out whether it would be rude just to take it. Instead, he grabbed his own cup and gulped his tea, regardless of the fact that it was still too hot to gulp.
Giles smiled to himself as the pieces of the conversation started to rearrange themselves in his head and his inward smile became a grin when Xander took another defiant semi-gulp. Giles was sure that the redness creeping across Xander’s face had nothing to do with how hot the tea was.
Putting his mug back down on the table, Giles leaned forward, his hands fisted, propping up his chin. “It’s not a bad metaphor, you know. Your tea metaphor, that is. You see, that’s the thing Xander, tea, like people, doesn’t come in just one flavor, as you can tell by the number of caddies in my cupboards. And like people, different teas need shorter or longer times to brew before they’re ready. Drink them before they’re ready and the flavor isn’t fully developed. Let them brew too long and they can become too strong and often bitter. It’s a delicate balance. You can spend a lifetime getting it right.”
“But how do I know if what’s my cup of tea, is the same as someone else’s?”
“In the same way as you learn anything. Trial and error. Practice makes perfect. And any other cliché that you can possibly think of.”
“And I’m guessing that practicing is half the fun. Trying out different flavours.”
“I would say that practicing is all the fun. It’s also nerve-wracking, but that’s part of it as well.”
“So you’ve tried lots of varieties of tea?” Xander asked.
Giles settled back in his chair and smiled. “They say variety is the spice of life. I happen to think it’s an excellent philosophy. I don’t always wear tweed and I don’t always drink the same type of tea. Over the years I’ve tried more or less everything, from Gunpowder Green to Spiced Chai, to English Breakfast.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of different types of tea.”
Giles nodded. “Some of them I’ve only tried the once. But others I go back to again and again. I think, if push came to shove, I’d have to say that English Breakfast is my all-time favourite.”
“Is there an American Breakfast, too?”
“Possibly, although I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. Not yet, anyway,” Giles chuckled. “But it’s not the English part that’s important.” He tilted his head and looked at Xander from a different angle. “Or maybe it is.” He straightened up again. “For me, it’s always been the ‘Breakfast’ part of the name that hits the spot. It’s a very pleasant way of starting the day.”
Xander cupped his hands around his mug but didn’t take a drink. He eyes were fixed on Giles’ face. “Are we still talking about tea?””
“I don’t know, Xander, are we?” Giles shrugged. “Teas, trees, tables, people, as you so rightly said, it’s all a matter of linguistics. What matters is that the conversation is always two-way.”
“Good. I’m glad we had this little chat.” Giles glanced at his watch. “I’m conscious that it’s getting late. I’ve missed the news, you’ve had a long flight and you made your feelings about staying with the Slayers very clear. May I offer you a place to stay tonight?”
Blushing, Xander nodded again. “That would be great.”
“Excellent, the sheets on the spare bed should be clean.” Giles picked up his cup and stood, rinsing it out under the tap so Xander couldn’t see the smile on his face.
When he turned around Xander was standing, his duffle in his hand, looking as awkward as he’d ever been at sixteen. Giles almost laughed, but bit his lip instead and beckoned Xander to follow him back down the hall and into the spare room. “I’m just next door, if you need anything, and the bathroom is opposite. I’ll get you settled and you can enjoy a decent night’s sleep. I’m sure you’re exhausted.”
“Thanks Giles,” Xander mumbled and put the duffle down on the bed.
“You’re welcome, Xander,” Giles replied with a smile. He turned to go, then paused, one hand on the door handle. “Get some sleep. If I’m going to give you proper instruction in how to make decent tea, you’re going to need your wits about you. We’ll start in the morning. I told you English Breakfast was my favourite.”
Xander stared at him, his mouth open, but no words came out.
Giles grinned. “And here’s the first lesson that you can think about as you fall asleep.”
“What’s that?” Xander almost squeaked.
“The most important lesson of all. Whatever type of tea you’re making, the first thing you need to do is warm the pot.”