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Act of Nature

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Act of Nature


Someone said I should hear
Warning cries soft and clear
Whispered in the calm before the storm

Cherry Wheeler ‘Act of Nature’.

 

Giles waited for the Iona ferry to dock with a passivity that might have passed for patience to the casual observer. He had left London early that morning, each leg of his journey becoming shorter and slower as he swapped plane for car and car for boat. The driving urgency to reach his destination had left him with his first glimpse of the island, and now feet that had paced an airport lounge and pressed hard against the accelerator pedal in his hired car felt rooted to the rough concrete.

He looked beyond the looming, sturdy lines of the ferry to the small island. Iona’s white sand beaches lay wind-smoothed and soft and the rocks and thin, short grass were a blur of grey and green to his tired eyes.

As if the volume had been suddenly turned up, he realised that he’d spent the last few minutes with a verse running through his head and allowed his lips to silently shape the words, hoping that would stop their endless loop through a mind that wanted nothing but emptiness for a while.

"The earth, it is the Lord’s,
The sea and all that it contains;
Except the boats and piers,
And they are all MacBrayne's"

The ferry docked finally, nudging against the mooring with an ominous grinding noise as the swell of the waves rocked it back and forth. Giles bent to pick up his suitcases as the gangway was lowered. The worn leather handles cut into his palms. They were heavy; they had lain open in his flat for two days as he packed them with the thick sweaters and jeans he knew he’d need for a Christmas in Scotland, carefully folding, tucking and smoothing. He’d taken pleasure in the packing, making it part of his holiday as he tried to guess what he’d need. Binoculars and guide books, camera and walking boots... all there between the layers of warm, casual clothing and brightly wrapped gifts for Xander. This morning, he’d tossed a random selection of last minute items on top in a careless jumble, and closed them both, hearing them snap shut without being able to picture himself opening them.

Because that would happen after he’d arrived, after he’d spoken to Xander, and somehow his thoughts couldn’t push past raising his hand to knock at the door of Traighshee House, and unpacking the cases he held was impossibly distant in space and time. And now that his journey was almost over, and what had been distant was half an hour away at most, he still couldn’t imagine the smooth slide of metal clasps under his fingers and the familiar creak as the lids were raised.

The clear, pale sky was scattered with mackerel clouds, a warning sign of rain, and the thin winter sunlight was bright without warmth. Giles forced himself to walk onto the ferry, squinting up at the man who stood at the top of the gang way, waiting to cast off on the short trip back to Iona.

The ferry man was as well-weathered as one might have expected -- probably no more than ten years older than himself, but looking far older, his face cragged and lined from what Giles presumed was decades, if not a lifetime, living by the sea. He nodded his head slightly and stepped to one side as Giles reached the top of the ramp and the barely-steadier footing of the ferry itself.

"Don't get a lot of visitors this time of year," the man said in a rough voice. "Hard to keep a regular schedule." It sounded as if it might have been an apology.

Tiredness made the unfamiliar accent hard to understand at first. Giles let the words run through his mind, sorting them out until they made sense, knowing that once he adjusted to their rhythm he would appreciate the musical lilt that made even this man’s husky voice appealing after the sharp, clipped London voices he was used to. Finally, after a pause that seemed too long to his ears, he answered, “I’m sure it must be, but there’s no rush, is there? Not here.”

"Not here," the man agreed, as Giles moved over toward the overhang that would, in bad weather, protect the rows of seating from the rain and set down his suitcases there, where they wouldn't be in anyone's way.

Not that that was likely, as it seemed to be just the two of them.

As the gangway was raised again, the man asked, "Come for the holidays, have you?"

Giles leaned against the railing, staring down into water as clear as glass. Fronds of seaweed, black and slimy, lay in ribbons on the rocks piled up around the pier, but in the water they floated in a dense mass. The sun went in and the water turned opaque and grey. Giles glanced up at the dark clouds rushing in from the mainland and shivered.

“Yes.” Seeing faint disapproval of his brief answer, and driven by politeness to respond, no matter how much his own inclination was for silence, Giles added, “I’m spending Christmas at Traighshee House. Do you know it?”

As soon as the question left his mouth, he realised how foolish it would sound.

The groan of the ferry's engines changed to a deeper rumble as it moved away from the pier and started for the opposite shore, and the man had to raise his voice slightly over them to be heard. "I've delivered some supplies for there over the past months. Doing a big renovation, I've heard."

Relieved that the man was courteous enough not to point out that on an island barely four miles long, there was little that wasn’t common knowledge, Giles nodded. Selecting his words, he replied, “That’s right. The house belongs to the company I work for, but it’s not been used for some time. The report we had seemed to indicate problems with damp, some rooms need extending, and we need to add more bathrooms -” Xander had been quite vocal about that, and remembering the hell of Buffy’s house first thing in the morning, during those last weeks in Sunnydale, Giles couldn’t disagree. “It is a big project, but from what I hear, it’s going well.”

That wasn’t quite true. Xander’s phone calls to Giles in the first weeks had been full of frustration at the slow, leisured pace the workmen set. He had a crew of five, but it was rare for all of them to show up, especially if the fish were biting or there was more money to be made ferrying tourists around. Giles had counseled patience and tact, then watched, amused, as the island cast its spell on Xander. When Xander spent ten minutes telling him about the salmon he’d caught, before moving on to the impossibility of getting Fergus to take lunch breaks shorter than two hours, he’d been pleased and a little envious.

"Haven't heard any complaints," the older man answered, as if he had his pulse on the heartbeat of the island and would be the one to know.

The smell of salt in the air was stronger now, as if droplets of water encrusted with it were suspended all around them. It was a fanciful thought, one that Giles had to attribute to the long day of travel and the vaguely magical atmosphere that resulted from being in such a remote location.

"Spot of bad weather coming in, they say," the ferry man said.

Giles glanced at him. The temperature had dropped in the last few minutes, but he’d put that down to being out on the water. A brisk breeze lifted the edge of a yellow tarpaulin covering a coiled rope, as thick as Giles’ wrist, and it began to flap wildly, the sound lost in the thrum of the engines.

“Rain?” he asked, seeing the heavy clouds roll towards them, as though intent on reaching the island before the ferry.

For the first time, the other man gave him a look that was something other than impassive. "It's Scotland," he said, still mildly enough. "There's always rain. No, wintry storm -- sleet, strong winds. Tide's meant to be higher than usual. You know, typical severe weather warning stuff."

The ferry lurched as though in agreement, now far enough out into the channel of water that swimming to shore would be unpleasant to say the least, and Giles gripped the railing firmly. “I see.”

The last snow he’d seen had been in Sunnydale; soft flakes, falling gently and persistently from a dim sky, and gone by the next day; snow called by the Powers to save Angel. The memory of that day left him wondering what this Christmas would bring in the way of weather. From that description, they were in for something less benign.

“This is such a short crossing though; I suppose the ferry won’t be affected no matter how bad it gets?”

The ferry man grunted. "Depends. If the waves get high enough, have to stop running. Otherwise you chance ending topside down in the bay, which I don't recommend."

They seemed to be nearly equidistant from both shores at that point, although admittedly it was difficult to tell, what with the salt spray and the darkening skies behind them.

Giles turned to peer at the approaching shore, feeling something very like panic rise up at the thought that once he stepped off the ferry, he might not be able to leave at will. His visit had been planned to last until the New Year; it was Hogmanay, not Christmas, that was celebrated the most up here, and he’d been looking forward to that. But he was two days early, arriving unannounced, and he felt as unsure of his welcome as his footing on the slick deck. The first spattering drops of rain reached them, carried on the wind that seemed to be pushing the ferry towards its destination, as though eager for it to arrive.

Turning back to the man beside him, he said, “Is there a taxi on the island? It’s a few miles to Traighshee from what I’ve been told, and it looks as if your storm’s arriving.”

"Top of the pier," the ferry driver said, gesturing with his head as if this could somehow clarify the location. "Martyr's Bay. They've got a phone you can use to call the McIntyres. Unless you get lucky and John's already there."

The engine noise deepened and got momentarily louder as the boat began to slow, swinging around to line up with the dock. Giles’ glasses were smeared and sticky with sea water, but cleaning them seemed pointless until he was off the ferry, and his hands were trembling with tiredness. He looked at the shore and tried to see a splash of colour amongst the uniform greyness of rocks and scattered houses that would tell him that John was waiting.

"John's car," the ferry man said with a nod, obviously spotting it himself although he was also busy easing the ferry up to the dock. Boat met wooden pier with a gentle bump despite the growing height of the waves, and the engine dulled its grumble as the gangway began to lower again. A young man on the pier, dressed in a yellow oilskin, had appeared as if from nowhere to lash the ferry to the pier.

“Thanks,” said Giles, stepping out of the man’s way. He went to retrieve his cases and prepared to disembark. The rain was heavier now and though his own coat was supposedly waterproof, he felt damp and cold. Bracing himself as the weight of the cases dragged at his arms, he turned and nodded in farewell. He could – just – have summoned the energy to smile, but the man had been helpful and he deserved better than an empty gesture.

He received a nod in return, then started up to the long wooden pier to the road. As he reached the top, another man, this one wearing an unfastened mac and an attitude so casual that he seemed not to feel the rain at all, came out of the large building headed toward the minicab.

The man looked at him, nodded, and reached for one of the cases, taking it from Giles' hand before he could protest. "Needing a ride?" the man asked, not waiting for an answer as he unlocked the boot of the taxi and set the case inside as if it weighed very little. "John McIntyre," he said, holding his hand out toward Giles.

“Rupert Giles,” Giles replied automatically. The hand he grasped was warm and calloused and the handshake friendly and brisk. John looked as if he was in his mid thirties, with eyes that were very blue against his tanned face. “Yes, thanks. I’m staying at Traighshee House and I’d rather not arrive soaked through.”

He wondered if John would consider that reluctance strange, given that the man was oblivious to the rain, but he knew he was incapable of walking any distance, with or without the burden of his luggage.

"Well get in before you're washed away then," John said, taking the other suitcase from him and putting it in the boot with the first one.

Giles had often found himself opening the wrong car door since his return to England and being greeted by an empty space where he’d expected a steering wheel. Today he didn’t even have to pause to think about that, as John slammed the boot shut and disappeared to the right, leaving Giles to go the other way and climb inside a vehicle that smelled strongly of fish.

Forcing himself to speak, Giles fastened his seat belt and said, “I suppose you don’t get many visitors this time of the year?”

"Not ones we don't recognize," John said with a wink. He started up the car and glanced backward over his shoulder casually, as if it were a mere formality, before pulling onto the road. The windscreen wipers began a speedy back-and-forth that pushed sheets of clear water off to the side. "First time on Iona?"

“Yes, it is,” Giles said. “I spent some holidays in Scotland as a child, but we never left the mainland.” He looked out of the window as the last house vanished behind them and the narrow road led them into a landscape bare of trees. The island looked weathered and worn, with rock outcroppings amongst the grass, as though a giant hand had rubbed away at the soil in places. A gust of wind pressed against the car, making it swerve slightly, and Giles folded his hands in his lap, determined not to reach out to steady himself. Then three sheep ambled across the road and Giles was thrown forward as John braked sharply.

He didn't notice that John had thrown an arm in front of his chest until they'd slid to a stop. The wipers continued their quick rhythm as both men caught their breath and the black sheep -- quite wooly, and sporting short curved horns -- sauntered calmly across the road, seemingly unmindful of the accident they'd nearly been the cause of.

"All right?" John asked, glancing at him.

Giles nodded, forcing himself to smile reassuringly. “Took me by surprise, that’s all. I suppose training them to look right, then left, might be a bit ambitious?”

John waited for the sheep to clear the road before he started the minicab moving forward again. "You'd have better luck training the cars not to hit them," he said lightly, but Giles could see that his hands were tense on the wheel. "Hope you're planning to be here through the holidays -- I'm not sure you'll be able to get off the island over the next few days, what with the forecast."

“So I was told.” Giles paused. Habit and training both urged him to say as little as possible to John, but it occurred to him that the man must have met Xander many times in the weeks that Xander had been on the island. He frowned, trying to remember the names that had cropped up in his phone conversations with Xander. John... yes, he recalled Xander trying to say the name as the islanders did, with a soft sound that turned the name into ‘Chon’, and getting it hopelessly wrong and laughing at himself. “I’m staying with Xander, Xander Harris. Are you the John who took him salmon fishing by any chance?”

The man nodded, then adjusted the speed of the windscreen wipers as the rain eased briefly. "I thought you must be a friend of Xander's. Everyone else working on Traighshee House's a local. Well, other than that man that came out to inspect the boiler, but I didn't figure you for that sort of thing, not with Christmas so close." John looked at his sideways. "You've known Xander a long time?"

Answering that without snubbing John with too brief a reply, or giving too much away, required some thought, and Giles wasn’t sure he was capable of it right then. The rhythmic swish of the wipers and the stuffy warmth of the car were making him feel sleepy. “About eight years, yes.” More seemed required and he added, “I worked at his school in California and we... kept in touch after he graduated. His fiancée was my partner in a shop I owned after I left the school.” The silence from John was encouraging, but Giles was incapable of anything more beyond a quiet, “He’s a remarkable young man and the organization I represent thinks highly of him, as do I.”

The road turned sharply to the left and headed up a hill. "As far as I know, everyone on the island thinks pretty highly of him as well. He's a hard worker." That last was said as though it would cover a multitude of sins.

When they reached the top of the hill, John slowed the car cautiously. Ahead of them was what Giles took to be Traighshee house -- he'd seen photos, but seeing it in its actual setting, the building was more imposing in size than he'd realized. He'd been picturing it smaller. Also in front of them was the sea, a good acre or so behind the house, with white sand beach looking nearly gray under the darkened skies.

"There you are," John said, as he stopped the minicab and put it into neutral, pulling the parking brake. He glanced through the windscreen and upward. "You just might have enough time to get in there before the storm picks up again."

Giles fumbled for the handle and opened the door, fighting the wind which seemed determined to keep him inside the car. He climbed out, letting the door slam shut behind him, and looked around. There were signs of renovation; a neatly piled stack of lumber and a cement mixer were visible at the side of the house, but he couldn’t hear any voices and guessed that the workmen had gone home. The early dusk would make the working days short here.

A second, louder slam had his head turning and he saw that John had lifted out his cases and was carrying them to the door. Following him quickly, Giles felt in his pocket for his wallet.

“Sorry! I was just woolgathering, I’m afraid.” He pulled out his wallet and then hesitated. “How much do I owe you?”

John bent and set both cases on the porch, close to the building where they'd be a bit protected from the rain, which had slowed to a fine mist for the moment at least. "Think I'll leave you to fight that out with Xander," the man said, clapping Giles on the shoulder. "He has an account with us." He looked at Giles appraisingly for a moment, then nodded his head. Giles almost fancied that he could read John's mind. You'll do. "Have a good holiday, if I don't see you again."

“Thank you, and the same to you,” Giles replied, letting the banality of the exchange distract him from the knowledge that in a moment he’d meet Xander. He sensed that John was conveying more in his words than a conventional farewell, but pushed that thought to one side for now, unable to deal with anything but getting through the next few minutes.

He stood there through a few deep breaths as John went back to the minicab, turned it around, and started back down the hill. As the sound of the car's engine faded, the sound of the sea became more distinct, the rolling crash of the waves against the shore almost soothing.

He raised his hand and knocked at the door and then waited, staring at the unpainted wood, weathered to grey by the salt air. His entire concentration was focused on the door as he waited for it to open, and the sound of quick footsteps approaching from behind the house took a moment to register.

He turned and saw Xander come around the corner.

Dressed in a dark brown mac and wearing the eye patch that never failed to startle Giles, even if only for the briefest of instants, Xander looked at him, did a double take, and stopped dead in his tracks. "Giles! You're... here. I mean, you're early. Unless I did that thing again where I lost track of time, because you know, out here when they say they're going to deliver something on Wednesday, they might mean Wednesday, or they might mean next Wednesday. Or they might mean some random Wednesday a few months from now." Xander closed his mouth as if aware that he was babbling, then opened it again and said, more slowly, "You're here."

He looked puzzled but a smile was beginning to spread across his face. Giles knew that he could not remove the bewilderment without taking the happiness with it, and for a moment he was tempted to accept the hug Xander was moving to give him, go into the house and agree that a cup of tea would be most welcome - but he’d reached the end of his endurance. It wasn’t right that Xander should hear this when he was smiling, but Giles had to tell him before he came any closer.

“Willow’s dead, Xander. I found out last night and I told the others, but I couldn’t tell you on the phone, I couldn’t – oh God, Xander, I’m so very sorry.”

* * * * *

We are on the brink
We are floundering
Spinning in this dark and rising tide

Xander was dreaming.

He had to be dreaming, or more accurately having a nightmare, because otherwise what Giles had just said was actually what Giles had just said, and there was no way that could be true.

The rain started up again, harder, and with the way the wind was blowing, around the building and toward the hill, it almost was raining up, instead of down, and a minute ago Xander had been complaining about the way Wednesday didn't mean anything, and now Willow was dead.

Only not, because this was just a dream.

Giles waited a long moment without saying anything and then repeated, “I’m sorry,” in a tired whisper that was still loud enough to be heard over the rising wind.

For almost another minute they both stood there, kind of looking at each other and kind of not, while the rain fell heavily. Xander tried to remember, just as an exercise in futility, or maybe denial, what he'd been planning on doing for the next half hour, and discovered that he had no idea. It was like the rain had washed everything away.

"We should go in," he said, and walked past Giles to the front door.

The door wasn’t locked of course – nothing ever was up here – and that was a pity because it meant that in a very short space of time Giles and his luggage were inside, the door was closed and someone had to speak. Giles cleared his throat and said, “Is this – shall I put these somewhere, or –”

His voice broke off and he looked helplessly down at the cases as if deciding what to do with them mattered more than admitting he’d made a mistake.

"Just leave them for now," Xander told him, and his own voice sounded rough and strange too. "You want to sit down?"

Giles nodded but didn’t move. “Xander, I shouldn’t have just told you like that. Are you – no, of course you’re not all right. God, this is so difficult!”

He almost laughed. "Of course you had to tell me like that. What else were you going to do? 'I had a nice trip, I hear this is gonna be quite a storm, oh, and by the way, your best friend's dead?'" Okay, sitting down sounded like a really good idea. He realized he was still wearing his dripping coat, and peeled it off, hanging it on the coat rack that never held anything but his own stuff. "Here, take that off," he said, gesturing at Giles' jacket.

Giles took it off, moving slowly and fumbling with the zip, and once his hands were free cleaned his rain-smeared glasses. He put them back on and blinked, looking tired. “Where can we go? I think I would like to sit down, yes.” He glanced around. “There’s no one else here with you?”

"No, just me. Colm went home about an hour ago." Xander was starting to feel something, finally, and he thought it might be shock. He was cold, and his lips were kind of numb. "Come on back to the kitchen -- it's warmer."

He'd left a light on in there earlier, and he automatically moved to the stove to put the kettle on now, gesturing at a chair wordlessly to tell Giles to sit. Facing the wall, with his back to Giles, he forced himself to ask for information other than the actual details.

"How'd Buffy and Dawn take it?"

He got the impression that Giles was reluctant to answer because there was a long silence. Finally he said, “I phoned them last night, as soon as I heard. Dawn was asleep. I spoke to Buffy and she was – she didn’t believe it was final. Kept asking questions, wanting to know what she could do... she couldn’t accept that it was over. That there was nothing any of us could do. Then she started to cry, and I just sat there listening to her, and it was unbearable.”

Xander felt his stomach twist in sympathy, for Buffy and for Giles both. He wanted to say something to Giles, something comforting that would make him feel better, but he had no idea what that might be. Instead, still with his back to the room, he reached for the container he kept the tea bags in. "I hope you don't mind that it's not real tea," he said. "I mean, the loose kind. Did you know I have to -- " His breath hitched in his chest suddenly, painfully.

“Xander –” A chair scraped along the floor and he heard Giles walk over to him. “Would you prefer to be by yourself? I can go upstairs for a while.” He felt a hand touch his shoulder and then move away. “It’s just – when I heard, I wanted someone to be there with me and there wasn’t anyone. I wanted to spare you that, at least.”

The last thing Xander wanted was to be alone, and his stomach did that twisting thing again at the thought that Giles had been. He brought a hand up and ran it through his hair, trying to settle himself down enough so that he could turn around and look at Giles without losing it. "You shouldn't have been alone," he said gruffly, finally turning to meet Giles' eyes.

“I’m not now,” Giles said quietly. “And I can’t tell you how much that helps. Even if I don’t deserve to feel better.”

"Hey," Xander said, his gut doing that twisting thing again in the face of Giles' obvious misery, and that was okay. It was actually easier to focus on Giles than on what had actually happened. "You weren't even there. This wasn't your fault."

Giles flinched. It wasn’t anything obvious but it was there in the way the skin around his eyes and mouth went tight for a moment. “You don’t know what happened. I’m not sure I do, not completely, but I know enough to be sure of one thing.” His voice was remote and uninflected. “Willow died because I failed her, Xander. I’d love to be able to blame someone else, but it was my fault. And the only excuse I have is that I was very busy that week. Somehow, that’s not making the guilt go away.”

"Okay, I think you need to tell me what happened," Xander said, still not really wanting to hear it, but starting to get that it was eating Giles up inside. He'd worry about his own reaction later.

Giles looked at the kettle and his mouth twisted. “I think I’m going to need something a little stronger than tea to do that. I’ve got whiskey in one of my suitcases, even though it’s coals to Newcastle bringing it here.”

"There's some in the cabinet," Xander said, moving over and getting it. "I assume it's the good stuff, not that I'd know the difference -- one of the guys left it, the first night I was here. I think it was some kind of housewarming present." He offered the bottle to Giles and turned to get some glasses. "'Coals to Newcastle?'"

“What? Oh... coal came from Newcastle; it had mines and it was the biggest exporter of the stuff, so taking it there is the definition of pointless. It’s a town on the border - and perhaps I should keep in mind that you’re American and stop babbling.” He studied the label on the bottle. “You must have made an excellent first impression; this is a single malt. Was it from John, by any chance?”

"Actually, yeah." Light dawned. "That's how you got out here. Yeah, that makes sense." Since Giles seemed determined to just keep standing there with the bottle of whiskey, Xander held the glasses out at pouring level, not realizing until right then how much he could use a drink too.

Giles raised his eyebrows. “You’re going to join me? Well, why not?” He tipped up the bottle over each glass in turn, pouring out generous measures and then walked to the table and put the bottle down with a careless thud. “You haven’t asked how she died. I suppose after all we’ve gone through, one does tend to dismiss the mundane, and you’d be quite right. It was a spell. One I should have told her was dangerous.” He sat down and drank from his glass. “She might even have paid attention to me this time. Isn’t that ironic?”

Going over and sitting down across from Giles at the small table, Xander took a decent sip of the whiskey and barely managed not to choke. He was more a beer kind of guy. "I don't get it -- a spell? How could a spell kill her?"

“In this case, mercifully quickly. I don’t think she would have felt any pain...though there must have been a moment when she felt her control slip, when she knew –” Giles tossed back the rest of his drink and refilled his glass. “In general, you know damn well how.” His voice was angry now. “It’s magic, Xander. It’s not all sparkly lights and fairy dust. It’s power, taken and used, and it’s dangerous. You know that.”

Starting to feel pissed off -- because who the hell was Giles to talk to him like that? -- Xander put his own glass down. "Yeah, and I also know how powerful she is. Was." He was mad at himself for the slip, and that just fueled his fire. "She almost destroyed the world. And you're telling me that one little spell had the power to take her out?"

“But it wasn’t, ‘one little spell’, Xander! Far from it. It was the enjoining spell we used – all four of us - to defeat Adam. If you’ve forgotten how that one ended, I can assure you I haven’t.” Giles looked down at the table and rubbed at a smear with his thumb before glancing up. “I’m sorry. It’s hard for me not to feel angry, but I shouldn’t be taking it out on you. Only myself.”

"Okay, hang on. Back up a minute here. What you mean it was the spell we did to stop Adam? That was..." Xander had to pause and count back in his head, "almost four years ago!"

“Yes. And it resulted in a Slayer with unimaginable power. Can you not see how that idea would be attractive to Willow? She’s – she was in love with someone who is still, like every other Slayer, unlikely to live for long if she’s doing her job correctly. Willow had lost one lover. She was desperately worried about it happening again.” Giles picked up his glass, studied it, and placed it back on the table, centering it precisely and then pushing it away. “So she changed the spell. Tweaked and twiddled at it and poured her power into it.” Giles rubbed his forehead. “I think if the spell had worked, it would have killed Kennedy. Luckily – no, that’s really not the word I need, is it? – Willow’s death cut off the transfer of power before that happened.”

As what Giles had said started to sink in, Xander felt anger flare up again. He slapped his hand down flat on the table, hard. "God, how could she be so stupid?" He pushed his chair back and paced to the other side of the kitchen just as the kettle startled to whistle, then stalked over there and jerked it off the burner. "She should have known better."

I should have known better,” Giles said quietly. “As head of the Council, I should have forbidden it. I didn’t. I accepted her assurances that it was safe, trusted her when she told me she’d researched it thoroughly - delegated research she asked me to do, instead of doing it myself in fact. I should never have allowed it in the first place, but I was so pleased to see her confidence restored that I gave her too much freedom. Don’t waste your anger on her, Xander. Not when I’m sitting right here.”

Xander responded to that quickly and firmly. "Bullshit. You think forbidding her would have done any good?"

Giles finished his drink and refilled his glass at once. “We’ll never know, will we? Because I didn’t even fucking try.” He looked up. “Sorry. Not supposed to swear in front of you lot, am I? Supposed to be a good influence. I don’t seem to be any better at that than I am at keeping you alive.”

Leaning back against the countertop, Xander rubbed his hand over his face. "Jesus, Giles. Willow's dead -- I think you can swear if you want to." He wasn't unaware of the amount Giles was drinking, but he could get why the other man would want to. Swearing seemed like a lesser evil.

“Oh, I want to all right. I want to swear, I want to hit things, I want to wake up and not have Willow gone.” Giles stood up and gripped the edge of the table. “I’ll settle for being able to forget it’s all down to me that she’s dead for longer than thirty seconds, but I’d have to drink more than this to get that blissfully out of it, and then I’d be imposing on you even more than I am now.” He moved towards the door. “I can’t imagine having me here is helping. Where – which room were you going to put me in?”

Xander followed him wearily out to the foyer. "Come on -- I'll show you what you need to know. We can skip the full tour until tomorrow." He brushed past Giles to pick up the suitcases -- they were heavy, but not anything he couldn't handle pretty easily -- and that was when it happened, the thing he'd known was coming.

Willow's dead stopped being words and started being real.

He straightened up, one arm wrapping around his own waist like that could keep the hurt in, like it could keep him from falling apart. "This can't... there must be something we can do," Xander said, desperate.

“There isn’t.” Giles’ voice had lost its bitter, angry edge now. “The spell might have been the conduit for the power, but the damage that it did to her body was very real. No loopholes, no second chances. And, God forgive me, but if there were a way, I’m not sure I’d take it, and you know why.”

Xander wasn't sure right then if he cared about the reasons not to do it -- he didn't want to be reasonable and practical and all those words that ended with an 'L' sound, he just wanted Willow to be okay. "You don't know that for sure," he argued, his voice rising. "You haven't seen her. Maybe there's a way -- "

The hand that came out and grabbed his arm hurt. Giles’ eyes were glittering now, the way they did when he’d forgotten he was supposed to be reassuring and grown up, with all the answers right there. “No, I didn’t see her – but Kennedy’s description left me profoundly grateful for that. The magic ripped through her, Xander. Literally. She’s dead, I killed her, so just stop going on about ways to bring her back. Just stop.”

Fighting the instincts that told him to pull away from Giles' hand, and refusing to let his mind show him the pictures of Willow's body that it tried to conjure up, Xander stayed still. Gently, he said, "You didn't kill her, the spell did." That, at least, he firmly believed.

“I wish I could accept that, Xander.” Giles was still holding onto his arm but his grip had relaxed so that his fingers were clinging, not digging in. “Wish I could feel no responsibility and you all weren’t going to end up hating me once the shock wears off.” His face twisted. “I spoke to Buffy a second time, very early this morning. Asked her not to call you until I’d had chance to get here. She was... inclined to agree with me, not you, I’m afraid.”

"She's upset," Xander said, thinking that if Buffy had been able to see the look on Giles' face, she would have been a little bit understanding. "You've got to cut her some slack under circumstances like this." He put his other hand over Giles', just resting it there, hoping it would be comforting.

The hand underneath his turned and clasped his fingers gratefully, as if the small gesture had done more to convince Giles he didn’t blame him, than anything he’d said.

"Hey," Xander said gently, and pulled Giles into an awkward one-armed hug. "Will it help if I promise not to hate you?"

Giles nodded, his head close enough that the small movement made his hair brush against Xander’s face, and tugged his hand free so he could return the hug.

“Should have done this when I saw you,” Giles said, his voice rough. “Not retreated into self-pity and a bottle. Sorry.”

"It's not your fault," Xander said. He wasn't stupid enough to think that would be enough to convince Giles -- well, maybe if he said it a hundred times, but that could take days -- but it seemed like the thing to say. He closed his eyes and pulled Giles closer. "I don't want to believe she's really gone," he whispered.

Giles’ arms tightened around him at that last word. “I wish you didn’t have to.”

He was tempted to stay like that -- just holding onto Giles -- but after another few seconds he let go and stepped back. "Let me show you upstairs," he said. "Then maybe we should get some food into you. Otherwise you're going to feel like hell in the morning."

“Feel like that now, but it probably would be a good idea to eat. I don’t think I have, actually.” Giles frowned as if he was having trouble remembering. “There was food on the plane, but that was hours ago, and two slices of bread that managed to be both stale and limp aren’t going to soak up the rest of the bottle.” He rubbed his hand across his face. “I want to talk about her, Xander. To you. Remember her, mourn her...” He turned away abruptly and picked up one of the suitcases before moving towards the staircase. Following behind him with the other suitcase, Xander waited until the hallway at the top of stairs widened to pass the other man, leading them to the right where most of the bedrooms were and then turned into the room he'd figured Giles could stay in.

"I was going to turn down the bed and air the sheets out. Not that I'd think of that on my own, but Mrs. Stewart said she'd tan my hide if I didn't remember." The little Scottish woman would have been scary if she hadn't been such a good cook, and the fact that she did the laundry was a godsend.

Giles followed him, dropping the case and then wincing at an ominous crash from inside it. “Lord, I hope that wasn’t the one with the whiskey in it. Don’t worry about the bed; I’m so tired I wouldn’t notice if it was wringing wet. She sounds as if she’s got you well-trained though; did she recover from the time you scaled a fish in the kitchen, and she was finding the scales for days after? I half expected you to be looking for another housekeeper after that. Or have you charmed her as much as you have the other islanders?”

"I had to agree to let her teach me how to make toast," Xander admitted. "After that she stopped complaining about the scales. Mostly." He glanced around the room, then went over and turned on the lamp on the dresser. "You want to get changed into some dry clothes while I go down and see if I can rustle us up some dinner?"

“Is that a polite way of telling me that I’ve arrived before you had chance to shop and I’ll be lucky if I get beans on toast?” Giles said, kneeling down to unfasten a case. He turned his head and smiled up at Xander, clearly making an effort to sustain the lighter mood, no matter how little they both felt like joking. “Seriously; anything will do. Don’t go to any trouble.”

"Don't worry -- despite what my Sunnydale pizza box collection might have indicated, I can actually cook. Not to mention make toast in the oven."

Heading back down, Xander had just reached the foyer when there was a knock at the side door leading into the kitchen. He quickly went and opened it, revealing a rain-soaked John, who looked, as usual, totally happy no matter what the weather.

"Jeez, come in," Xander said, backing up to make room.

John hesitated, looking past Xander. “No; you’ve got company, right? I don’t want to intrude. Just thought you might be glad of a few supplies.” He lifted up a bag he held. “If this storm gets worse, you’ll lose your power. Wasn’t sure if you had any candles. And... well, your friend’s turned up a bit earlier than you expected, hasn’t he, so there’s a wee bittie salmon in there. He’s English; he’ll like that.”

Xander backed up another step and gestured with his hand. "No, come in. You want some tea? It's getting cold."

The innate good manners of most of the islanders, a formality Xander had taken a while to get used to, made John hesitate a moment longer, but as Xander turned away to get mugs, he stepped inside, closing the door behind him.

“Tea, aye, if it’s no bother.” John’s eyes flicked to the whiskey bottle on the table but he didn’t comment.

The water in the kettle was still hot enough for tea, so Xander poured it and handed a mug to John as the other man set the bag on the table. He left the other mug to steep for Giles -- he really wasn't in the mood. "Thanks for the candles. I hadn't even thought about that. The power going out, I mean."

“You’re lucky it’s not happened before this.” John sipped at his tea and glanced over at Xander. “And your friend’s lucky he took a notion to come a few days early. The ferry isn’t likely to be running if this keeps up.”

Any semblance of a good mood Xander had been managing vanished. "Yeah, well, turns out there was some bad news from back home." It was still 'back home,' even if Sunnydale was gone and they'd all moved on to different places.

John pushed back his chair and stood, walking over to Xander and resting a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll not be wanting company then and I’ll be on my way. Unless there’s anything I can do?” There was sympathy and concern in his voice, but any curiosity was well hidden.

"Well, you could drink the perfectly good tea I made you," Xander said, trying to sound like his normal self and totally failing. He couldn't help but feel like John, who was pretty much the closest thing he had to a friend on the island, deserved to know, especially with the way things had almost gone between them.

But he knew if he wanted to say it, he needed to get it out fast. "Willow died."

“Willow? The wee lassie you grew up with? Och, Xander, that’s just terrible!” There was no reserve in his shocked voice, no attempt to disguise his horror. The hand on Xander’s shoulder moved up to cup his face gently. “You’ll be missing her, I know. Will you be telling me what happened?”

"It's kind of a long story," Xander said, his voice cracking. It was too hard to keep the pain at a distance when John was so warm and understanding. "Basically, there was an accident."

“A car crash, was it? No, never mind. That’ll keep.” John didn’t even hesitate but pulled Xander to him, stroking his hair as Xander’s head dropped to rest against his shoulder. “There’s no shame in grieving, lad. I’m thinking she was worth your tears.”

Xander hugged John back tightly, grateful for the comfort from someone he didn't have to worry about comforting back. He felt real tears threatening for the first time, his eye socket behind the patch prickling in sympathy, but he didn't want to cry.

Until he cried, he could still pretend it wasn't true.

* * * * *

The lights are out and everybody's home
It's you and me and we are both alone

Cheryl Wheeler. 'Act of Nature'.

Giles walked down the stairs, feeling a little better now that he was in dry clothes. He’d taken the opportunity to wash, eying the trickle of pale brown, peaty water that came out of the tap without surprise, remembering it from his other holidays in Scotland. It was soft water and its coolness felt good against his eyes, burning with tiredness. He’d thought he’d heard Xander’s voice over the running water and wondered if Xander had called Buffy while he was upstairs but the house was quiet now, the thick stone walls keeping the sounds of wind and rain at bay.

He was too tired to think about anything much; his mind kept slipping away from Willow and then returning, the rediscovery of his loss as fresh and raw as it had been the night before. Xander’s efforts to reassure him had been more than he’d expected; far more than he deserved, but they’d left him feeling worse. Xander was – had been – closest to Willow; he should be the one getting the comfort, not giving it out.

Giles shook his head impatiently, trying to clear it as he reached the corridor leading to the kitchen. What was done was done. He couldn’t change the mistakes he felt he’d been making ever since he arrived, but he could at least make an effort for what remained of the night. For a start, he could stop burdening Xander with his remorse and relax enough to give him a hug without making them both feel awkward about it. That brief moment when Xander’s arm had lain across his back had come close to breaking down his resolve not to give way to tears, but Christ, why not? Willow was – and the wave of sorrow broke over him again.

He took a steadying breath and pushed open the door, walking through quickly. Xander was in the middle of the room, his arms around a man who was murmuring to him in a low voice, holding him close.

John. Giles closed his eyes and, in the brief darkness before he forced them open again, fitted images to the handful of times Xander had mentioned the man.

There’s this local called John who’s been really helpful... bit older than me... taking me fishing... only visitor he knows who doesn’t get bitten by the midges; says I’ve got islander blood... John came over last night... you’ll like him, Giles.

Giles let the door swing closed behind him and waited for the urge to pull John off Xander to subside before speaking. “Hello again, Mr McIntyre. Did I leave something in your cab?”

Xander stepped back immediately, giving John a glance that was difficult to read before looking at Giles with an expression that might have been equal parts guilt and embarrassment.

The other man turned slightly and gestured at a bag on the tabletop. "I knew Xander might not have been prepared for the storm, so I brought by some candles."

"And a fish," Xander added. "For dinner, which is a good thing, because otherwise it would have been canned -- um, tinned -- meat for us."

Giles nodded, trying to keep his face neutral and aware that he wasn’t behaving at all well.

“Very kind of you, especially on a day like this,” he said. “Can we offer you a drink before you go? Or were you planning to join us?” He looked directly at Xander. “I wouldn’t want my early arrival to upset any plans you’ve made. You must tell me if I’m in the way.”

John broke in before Xander could say anything. "No, not at all -- I'm the one who came unannounced. Just didn't care for the thought of you being out here with no power and no candlelight." The man looked at Xander meaningfully and reached out to touch his shoulder. "If you need anything, call me? As long as the phone lines hold, that is."

Nodding, Xander brought his own hand up to cover John's briefly, a gesture that seemed somehow even more intimate than the earlier embrace had. "I will. Thanks."

Feeling excluded wasn’t doing anything to improve Giles’ mood but he had enough sense to do no more than nod in farewell as John left through the kitchen door, turning up his collar as he did so, in mute testimony to the worsening of the conditions outside. Giles avoided Xander’s stare and walked over to pour himself some whiskey, before remembering who’d brought it to the house. His gaze fell on John’s abandoned cup of tea and he sighed.

“I’m sorry. That was unforgivably rude of me.”

"Yeah, it was," Xander said rather flatly, but then he smiled in a strained sort of way. "Well, not totally unforgivable, since I guess an apology gets you off the hook." He came over to the table and opened the bag, taking out a flat, paper wrapped package that had to be the fish. He unwrapped the paper and they both looked down at the fresh salmon. "Which is more than I can say for this poor guy. Or girl. I guess it's hard to tell."

“If there’s a real chance we might lose the power, perhaps we should cook it now. Unless you’ve developed a taste for sushi?” As well as other things, he added silently, wondering what was hurting the most; Xander’s reticence over the last weeks, or his unwillingness to share now. Rebuking himself for assuming that he had a right to Xander’s confidences, Giles tried to smile. “Looks like a fair size. How big was that one you told me you’d caught from the boat?”

Xander picked up the fish and paper and carried it over to the range. "Not much bigger than this one," he said, bending over and looking in a low cupboard. When he stood up again he was holding a pan, which he then set down on the countertop next to the fish. His shoulders slumped suddenly. "Giles... I don't think I can do this."

The last flicker of ill temper died away in the face of Xander’s distress. “Then don’t,” Giles said gently. “Don’t cook a meal neither of us wants to eat, don’t put up with my inconsiderate behaviour – ” He took two steps forward and reached out, turning Xander to face him. “And I’d like to say, don’t turn to someone else for comfort when I’m right here, but I think that would qualify as more selfishness on my part. Do you want to go to him? I promise I’ll be fine.”

He could feel the hitch in Xander's breathing, then the younger man shook his head slightly. "No. I don't... it's not like that. I mean, it could have been, but it's not."

Eight years of practice let Giles fill in the blanks and work out that John and Xander had come close to – something – but no more than that. Which raised more questions than it answered, but he wasn’t going to ask a single one. Not yet.

“Why not?”

Apart from that one.

Xander took another shaky breath and shrugged slightly. "I wasn't ready?" It was as much a question as an answer.

Giles opened his mouth and closed it again, eyeing Xander a little quizzically. “This is either going to be a long conversation or a very short one,” he said finally, still standing very close to Xander, though he wasn't touching him at all, “and if this isn’t the time – which I can quite see it might not be - I’ll be happy to postpone it indefinitely, but tell me, is it just John you're not ready to be with? Or anyone?"

There was another long pause. "I don't know," Xander said. "If I say it's just John, then that makes it sound like there's something wrong with him, and there isn't. Or like maybe tomorrow I'll change my mind and decide I am ready, and that's not going to happen. I care about him -- a lot -- but not like that."

The breath Giles took after that was careful and deliberate, more to calm himself than anything else. Xander was leaning against the countertop behind him, unable to step back, with Giles making it impossible for him to step forward. Slowly, not taking his eyes away from Xander’s face, Giles placed his hands on the counter, on either side of Xander, and said quietly, “That only answers the first part of my question. Is there anyone you are ready to be with?”

Xander swallowed. "I don't know," he said again, although barely above a whisper this time. "I think 'ready' implies, you know, actually being ready, whereas I'm more in the state of readiness commonly thought of as sheer terror."

Giles let everything go – the constant feeling of loss over Willow’s death, wrapped around with guilt, the physical tiredness that dragged at him, the buzz from the whisky that was freeing him in some ways, hampering him in others, because he wasn’t sure he could trust his judgment at the moment – let it all go, and focused on Xander. ‘Tense’ was probably a better description than ‘terrified’, but Giles felt remorse that he’d pushed Xander even that far.

“I think I’ve moved from making you angry to making you uncomfortable,” he said, matching his voice to Xander’s. They were so close now that a whisper was all that was needed. “I’ll stop there before I say – or do – something an apology won’t make better.”

The counter was about the only thing holding him up at this point but he let go of it and straightened, putting a little more space between himself and Xander.

He could see the confusion on Xander's face, as well as what he liked to think might have been regret. "So... what do we do -- " The sharp, shrill ring of the phone made the both of them jump slightly, the sound unexpected and loud in the otherwise quiet kitchen.

With an apologetic glance, Xander moved around Giles toward the rather old-fashioned telephone on the countertop near the hallway and picked it up. "Hello?"

Giles watched as the other man listened for a moment, then said, "Buffy, hi. Hang on a second, okay?" He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and said, "It's Buffy."

Giles refused to let any of the frustration he was feeling show on his face. Xander needed to talk about Willow to someone whose grief was uncomplicated by guilt and that was more important than anything else right now.

“I’ll just –” Giles didn’t want to listen to this conversation, didn’t want to talk to Buffy again when she was likely still angry with him. “I’ll have a look around. Finish unpacking. Give Buffy my love.”

He left the room after giving Xander one quick smile.

The house was quiet. Giles wandered around the ground floor. Some rooms were in good condition -- clearly evidence of Xander's hard work, as he'd seen photos of the interior that had been taken before reconstruction had begun -- whereas others were still in various states of repair. The wind and rain blew fiercely against the windows, occasionally causing them to rattle, but for the most part he didn't feel much in the way of drafts.

It was larger than he’d expected, but then he supposed it had to be. The Council had been using it for years as a place to send retired Watchers and once here, in the peaceful surroundings, they seemed to perk up and live until they were ninety. As many as seven had been here when storm damage to the roof forced their relocation to Hampshire, near the Watcher’s Academy, and rather than be repaired, Traighshee had been left to get steadily more rundown. Giles suspected that Travers had preferred to have them closer to hand than this remote island. Elderly they might be, but they were still valuable sources of information.

Now the house was intended as a place to train Slayers. Not all of them, by any means, but those who had shown signs of being... different. As a place to develop more than the physical side of their capabilities, this island, steeped in mysticism, was perfect. The utter lack of distractions, the peace – Giles allowed himself to picture Faith here and smiled wryly.

The darkness of a northern winter’s night had fallen now and Giles turned away from a blank window and went back upstairs. He hesitated outside the door to his room, but decided to leave any unpacking until tomorrow. He’d already salvaged his toothbrush from the jumble of oddments thrown in at the last moment and that would do for tonight. Most of the rooms up here were empty and some showed signs of water damage, though the roof had been the first job Xander had tackled when he arrived so none of it was recent.

Giles pushed open the door to Xander’s room and stood on the threshold. It was opposite his, and as he flicked on the light he saw that Xander had chosen one of the largest rooms and made it into a bed-sit of sorts. Clothes were scattered about, and the bed was unmade, but it was far from being messy. On a large table underneath the window he could see a stack of blueprints and notes, orderly and organised. Giles hesitated, unwilling to enter when Xander wasn’t there, but his gaze fell on a cork board on the wall. It was covered with photographs, secured by push pins and so numerous that they overlapped.

Photographs of all of them. Giles walked towards the board and stared at Willow, long red hair caught back in an Alice band, shy, sweet smile and large dark eyes...he lifted up his hand and touched the photograph with gentle fingers, feeling tears sting his eyes. Blinking them away, he glanced at the other faces smiling down at him. Most of the photographs were his; Buffy and Willow had taken so many over the years and pressed duplicates onto him, ignoring his protests that he had no room to store them, no time to organise them...he’d taken them back to England when he left, and found the box when he got his belongings out of storage. He remembered Willow’s face as he took her aside and silently passed her a handful of pictures with Tara in them, and the hug that had left him breathless.

Not all of the photographs were familiar though. Giles saw one of Xander holding up a fish, with John beside him, smiling faintly, and stepped back, sitting down on the bed because the armchair was covered in clothes.

Buffy’s phone call had probably been a blessing, he thought. He wasn’t sure how the conversation with Xander would have resolved itself if they hadn’t been interrupted, but it wasn’t how he’d imagined it going. He’d never even thought about the possibility of Xander with someone else for one thing.

In the weeks that Xander had been gone, Giles had found himself looking forward to his calls, the brief chats getting longer, Xander’s jokes raising his spirits, his problems so far removed from the ones Giles was facing that they were a welcome distraction... then Xander had told him that he couldn’t leave the house empty over Christmas and invited Giles to stay. The uncomplicated rush of pleasure he’d felt at the idea of spending time with Xander had been illuminating but once it had receded he’d been left uncertain and only too ready to convince himself that he was reading more into it than Xander intended.

He’d thought about not going; easy enough to come up with a reason, fake an emergency...but he’d learned to grab at happiness when it came and pushing doubts aside, he’d booked tickets and made plans, telling himself to take things easy, not risk a friendship for the sake of something that when he thought about it seemed so unlikely.

A sound in the corridor made him look around and Xander walked in. Giles stood abruptly, feeling as if he’d been caught doing something wrong.

"Hey," Xander said, pausing just inside the room. His face looked flushed, but more as if he'd been holding back tears than indulging in them.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to intrude, I just –” Giles looked at the photographs. “She looks so young in those.” His voice shook slightly and he took a deep breath, trying to steady it. “How were Buffy and Dawn?”

Xander shrugged a bit, sticking his hands into his trouser pockets. "You know. Not great, but... life goes on, right? Isn't that one of those things you're supposed to keep telling yourself?" He came over and stood next to Giles, both of them looking at the cork board covered with photographs. "Buffy says sorry."

“She does?” Giles waited a moment to see if that lifted any of the weight from his shoulders, and couldn’t decide, as Buffy could be feeling regret for speaking her mind while still feeling that he was largely responsible for Willow’s death. “She really didn’t say anything she needed to apologise for. Well, apart from the suggestion that I step down and let Andrew have my job. I have to say that rankled a little.”

"I'm pretty sure she was just venting," Xander said, not picking up on the opportunity to tease Andrew, even in his absence, the way he usually would have. After a moment, still looking at the photos, he put his hand on Giles' shoulder and squeezed, his grip strong and warm.

It means nothing, Giles told himself, as his body reacted at once, his breath quickening and a tingle of heat spreading out from where Xander was touching him. It wasn’t what he believed though. After the conversation in the kitchen, every action, every word, seemed to have taken on a greater significance. He could have returned a gesture that was still capable of being interpreted as friendly with one equally so, but the need to know, to have his questions answered, was too strong.

Without letting himself think about what he was risking, Giles turned to Xander, slipped one hand behind his neck to hold him still, and kissed him on lips that parted in surprise beneath his.

***
And in the dark I know that I can't see
Cause here you are and still don't see me

'Act of Nature' Cheryl Wheeler

For just a second -- even though it felt like a really long second -- Xander froze, way more surprised than he should have been that Giles was kissing him. But it only took that second for him to figure out that Giles was quite possibly the best kisser ever, and then one more to start to return the kiss tentatively, his hand that had been holding onto Giles' shoulder sliding down to grip onto his upper arm.

Giles’ hand was moving slowly on the back of Xander’s neck, possessive and reassuring, until it tightened and then slid away, moving down Xander’s back until it reached his ass. That wasn’t reassuring; that was wet finger in a socket shocking, and if his hips couldn’t decide which way they wanted to move, so that he ended up wriggling against that warm, wide hand, no one could blame him, right?

He groaned softly into the kiss and then broke it off with a gasp, trembling just a little bit, too many emotions too close to the surface for him to let it continue. With his forehead leaning against Giles', Xander took a deep breath then said, "Okay. Um... wow. That was... kind of unexpected."

“Yes, it was.” Giles moved his hand up until it was in the small of Xander’s back and sighed. “Is that the same as unwelcome?”

"What?" Xander was more startled about that than he'd been about the actual kiss. "What gave you that idea? Oh right, it must have been the way I yelled and pushed you away." He gave Giles a stern look. "No. Definitely not unwelcome."

“And not more than you’re ready for?” Giles asked, placing the faintest emphasis on ‘ready’. His other hand came up to cup Xander’s face and his thumb brushed lightly over the mouth he’d just kissed.

That just made Xander want to kiss Giles again, but instead he rubbed his hand up and down Giles' arm in what he hoped was a comforting way. "I'm not sure either of us is ready for this right now. Don't get me wrong, I'm..." He had to search for the right words. "I'm really glad you're here. And I think maybe it might not be a bad idea to kind of, you know... wait. Just for things to be a little less..."

Wow. It was hitting Xander all over again exactly how bad at this kind of thing he really was.

Giles nodded and stepped back. “I agree with every word, but I still want to do that again.” He smiled a little ruefully. “Perhaps you should feed me and sober me up, then I’ll have an early night.” The smile slipped a little. “Putting this day behind me might be the wisest thing I can do.”

Xander felt his own heart do that desperate clenching stutter it did every single time he remembered again that Willow was dead, the one that explained the low nagging feeling that something was wrong even in the moments he wasn't remembering.

Then he thought about the fact that Giles had a whole day's head start on feeling that way, and instinctively moved forward and pulled the other man into a tight hug. "It's gonna be okay."

Giles hugged him back, but something had changed, and the awkwardness returned for a moment before Giles relaxed, turned his head enough to kiss Xander briefly on the cheek, and then let his grip loosen. “I can’t think that far enough ahead just now, but I’m sure you’re right about that too. I just - I feel as if we’re surrounded by ghosts. How many people have we lost in the last few years? Now this. It makes me feel... overwhelmed.”

"Yeah," Xander sighed, letting Giles go and running a hand through his hair. "I'm with you there. So. Food?"

“Food,” Giles agreed, walking towards the door. “So what were you planning to serve with the fish? No, wait, don’t tell me. Toast?”

Xander snorted. "That would require bread, and sadly, I ate the last of that this morning. Mrs. Stewart will be by in the morning with the shopping though, so we'll be okay for breakfast."

This was easier to concentrate, the normal everyday stuff. He'd just think about that for a while, and deal with everything else later.

In the kitchen, he started some rice and then cleaned the fish expertly -- he'd learned his lesson there -- and got it into the oven while they made small talk about Giles' trip. Then all there was left to do was wait for the food to cook.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cook,” Giles observed. “Eat, yes, and the memory of you and the chocolate glazed donut Buffy bet you couldn’t eat in one mouthful will stay with me for many years to come, but cooking – that’s new.” He tilted his head and said quietly, dropping the lighthearted tone, “This place has changed you, Xander. In so many ways.”

"You have no idea," Xander said, thinking about the fact that he'd had to go to Tobermory three weeks ago to buy new pants -- slacks, he corrected himself -- because he'd gone down two sizes and belts just weren't cutting it anymore. He didn't think he'd lost much weight, just that what he carried had kind of redistributed itself. He sat down at the table and looked at his hands, calloused and more than a little bit scarred in places. "Can I ask you something?"

Giles looked a little startled but he didn’t hesitate. “Anything. Really.”

"When was the first time you, you know..." God, this was hard. "With another guy?"

“Ah.” Giles fell silent for a moment and then looked up at Xander with a faint smile. “Would you believe me if I told you that what’s making me pause isn’t an unwillingness to answer so much as acute embarrassment at telling you his name? Or is that enough for you to guess who he was?”

Xander couldn't say that he was all that surprised, once he'd thought about it for a few seconds. "Ethan? But... I mean, it didn't seem like you... liked him very much."

“I didn’t - how could I? He was endangering my Slayer, for one thing.” A flicker of anger Xander hoped was never directed at him went over Giles’ face and then faded. “And when I was younger than you; nineteen or so, I still didn’t like him sometimes, but I couldn’t keep my hands off him. I was rebelling, remember, fighting a destiny that irritated me every bit as much as Buffy’s did her. Ethan was only too happy to help me.” Giles looked wistful for a moment. “We had fun. Right at the start, we had fun.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Why do I think you’re dying to ask me what happened the night before I woke up turned into a demon?”

Strangely, Xander hadn't been thinking about that at all, but as soon as Giles mentioned it, he got curious fast. "Did you? I mean -- wait a minute! That wasn't some kind of a kinky sex spell, was it?" Oh God, did he really want to know?

Then he pictured the two of them together -- Giles and Ethan, who okay had been kind of hot in a naughty-older-guy kind of way -- and shifted a little bit in his chair.

Yeah, he wanted to know.

Giles placed his hands on the table, his fingers locked together. “No. Fairly straightforward potion in my beer, triggered by an incantation after I’d passed out. I worked that out afterwards, just out of curiosity.” He rolled his eyes. “I cannot believe I was stupid enough to drink with him. He played me. Saw how useless – how old - I was feeling, and used it to get me remembering the good old days.” Giles glanced over at Xander. “Which, beside raising demons and killing friends, included sex with Ethan at every available opportunity. So I’d like to be able to tell you that, remembering all his misdeeds, when we left the bar, I went home alone, but I can’t.”

"So you didn't like him, but you still wanted to have sex with him." Xander tried to work that out in his head.

“Lust doesn’t have to go hand in hand with love – or liking. Nice when it does, but they’re very different things. And it was like fucking a shadow. Part of it was the fact that we were both drunk. I don’t know if you’ve ever... maybe not. There’s this point you reach where you could go on for hours, but it’s just because you’re not really feeling anything anymore. Everything’s distant... far away.” Xander got an apologetic look. “Am I shattering every illusion? The main problem was that it wasn’t Ethan as I remembered him. Not because he was older; that didn’t matter. No. I’d always had this idea that beneath it all, he was still reachable – now that was really stupid of me.”

It wasn't like Xander hadn't had sex with people he wasn't in love -- or even in like -- with, so he got that. It was more the thought that Giles would do something like that. He'd always thought, well, that Giles had better sense. "That's what happened with John," he offered, looking at his hands again. "The drunk part, I mean."

Giles seemed to tense up at that, as if it was one thing to discuss ancient history – and four years felt like that after all they’d been through – and another to talk about something that had happened just a few weeks ago. He sounded cautious when he answered, as if the way he’d behaved earlier made him wary of stepping over a line only he could see.

“But not the – the rest of it?”

"You mean did he turn me into a Fyarl demon? There I'd have to say no." Xander grinned sheepishly as he remembered that night. "No, we didn't... I mean, I've never. With a guy."

He got up abruptly and went over to check the rice even though it didn't really need checking. "We got drunk, we kissed. Um, kind of a lot. And there may have been some groping involved." There had definitely been groping involved, and more of it had been him groping John than the other way around.

Giles sounded as if he was trying to keep his voice under control but he wasn’t doing a very good job of it. He sounded hurt, maybe even a little bit angry. “I can see the attraction – for both of you. What I can’t see is why you’ve never – or was he the first – God, I’m sorry. I’m usually capable of forming complete sentences. I think you just gave me rather too much to think about there.” He rubbed his hand across his mouth. “You didn’t mention it. All the times we talked and you never said anything.” It was almost a question but not quite.

"What was I supposed to say?" Xander asked, reaching up and adjusting his eye patch nervously. "I was kind of freaked out at first. Okay, very freaked out. I needed some time to think about it. And then once I had -- once the freakage faded -- it didn't seem like there was anything to talk about. It happened, and it wasn't going to happen again." He cleared his throat. "Not with John."

Giles stood up, which wasn’t usually enough to make the air leave the room, and walked around the table then paused and leaned back against it. His arms were folded and he looked as if he was about to deliver a lecture, but Xander didn’t remember any that were about him groping men and failing to report back. “I think we’ve talked about John for long enough. At the risk of making myself look like a fool, do you think it’s likely to happen with me? When we’re not so – when the timing is a little better? Or am I reading too much into what happened upstairs? Was it just another trial run?”

"I'm not drunk," Xander pointed out. "And at the risk of mentioning his name again, what happened with John wasn't a 'trial run.' I wasn't just... experimenting on him. I wouldn't do that to someone I cared about. I wouldn't do it to anyone." He knew he sounded angry. "Anyway, what about you?"

“Why did I kiss you, you mean? Because I wanted to. Because I’ve been thinking about kissing you for weeks now, and no, I didn’t tell you about that, did I, so I suppose we’re even.” Giles unfolded his arms but didn’t move away from the table. “I didn’t mean to insult you. I just – why John? If you’re saying you have... feelings for me, not that you have yet, then why did you – oh God.” Giles’ lips twitched in something that might have been a smile. “I think I’ve regressed to a teenager again. Randy, jealous and overly emotional. Yes. All present and correct.”

Xander sighed and turned off both the burner under the rice and the oven, figuring the food could sit for a few minutes without anything terrible happening to it. "Why John? Because he was... I trusted him. I already knew he was gay, so it wasn't like he was going to beat me up for touching him, and... wait a minute. You've been thinking about kissing me for weeks?"

“Amongst other things, but I wouldn’t want to umm, freak you out, by going into details,” Giles said. “Not when you’re giving me such an excellent deer in headlights imitation already.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and said quietly, “It’s not something I expected to happen, Xander.”

"Me either," Xander said. "But--"

Before he could finish his sentence, the power flickered and went out, leaving them in the dark.

“Well, I can reach the candles, but do you remember where you put the matches?” Giles asked, sounding resigned. The kitchen was dark in a way that made coal cellars at midnight seem bright.

"There were some in the bag with the candles." He made his way gingerly in the direction of the table, sure he was going to slam into it. "Hey, at least the food's done cooking."

He collided with Giles after two steps and felt Giles’ hands come up automatically to grab him and steady him. The darkness made everything more somehow, so that Giles only had to shift his grip a little for it to feel like a caress, only had to murmur, “Xander?” questioningly for it to sound like an invitation to show him just what that hour in the dunes, with the marram grass coarse and springy and sharp against his bare back, had taught him.

"Sorry," he said gruffly. He had to force himself to move away from Giles' touch, because this was still too soon. Not to mention Giles was drunk, and if they did something now and in the morning Giles regretted it, Xander wasn't sure he'd be able to handle it. "At least we know this is the storm and not some nefarious plot by vampires to take us out," he offered, wondering if he sounded as flat as he felt.

The hands had dropped away as soon as Xander shifted back so obviously Giles felt the same way. Too soon.

“Yes, I don’t think there’s ever been any recorded demonic activity on the island. It’s why this was thought such a good place for the retirement home.” Giles sounded discouraged and tired.

There was a rustle of plastic and then Giles reached out and pushed something into Xander’s hand. “Here. You hold the candle in place and I’ll try not to open the matchbox upside down.”

"As if that would be the worst thing this floor's ever seen."

Still, Xander did as Giles had asked, and within a minute or so they had a few candles lit and had propped them up in makeshift candleholders.

Xander went to dish up the food, urging Giles to sit down and relax. "You had a long day," he said. "Let me do this. Besides, I know where everything is. Don't worry, I'll press you into domestic servitude in the morning."

Giles swallowed a mouthful of fish and gave him a serene smile. “I’m on holiday. And a guest. I’m also spoiled rotten by finally being able to afford a cleaner, so you can do your own drudgery. I intend to sit right here, sipping a drink, working my way through the After Eights, and offering valuable pointers if I think you’ve missed a bit when you’re washing up.” He took another bite. “And as this tastes so good, I’ll trust you to do all the cooking too.”

He tried not to snicker with food in his mouth, and had to choke down the next bite before he could talk. "You haven't tasted what I can do to a pot of oatmeal, and believe me, you don't want to."

“Then I just won’t get up until Mrs Stewart arrives with the bread for you to toast. You can give me breakfast in bed.” Giles stood up, carrying his plate over to the bin and, despite his words, scraping it clean and putting it into the sink. “Speaking of bed, I think I’ll call it a night, even if it’s barely nine o’clock.” He picked up a candle and walked back to the table, cupping one hand around the flickering flame. “Good night, Xander,” he said, his voice as tired as his eyes. “You’ve been – you’ve helped. A lot. Thank you.”

And the crushing reminders just kept coming. "Yeah, well... thanks for caring enough to come and tell me in person."

Xander watched Giles retreat into the hallway, then sighed and started to clean up.

It wasn't like he expected to get much sleep anyway.

***
So bolt the door, seal the cracks
Close your eyes don't look back

'Act of Nature' by Cheryl Wheeler.

Giles stripped down to shorts and the t-shirt he’d worn under his shirt, climbed between sheets that were a little clammy, and waited for the room to stop spinning. Not the whisky; he hadn’t had that much. Grief and guilt and ...

he kissed me... wanted him...in the midst of life, we are... not her, not now... hair so soft... red hair... dark hair... my fault... he tasted so good....

Between one thought and the next, he fell asleep, his body tiring of waiting for his mind to quiet, threads of regret, remorse and desire tangling and binding him even as he slept.

He dreamed of Xander. Not for the first time, but not something that happened often. Dreams can’t be bidden or summoned after all. Giles could spend half an hour lying back on his couch, Xander’s voice clear in his ear, and almost as long remembering that voice as the hand that had held the phone dealt with the resultant erection - and still dream of nothing worth remembering past his first yawn. But sometimes he’d felt the weight of a strong body pressed against his, an eager mouth and hands teasing harsh moans from him as he remembered how it felt to be touched and tasted there... and there....

It wasn’t like that now. Xander was over him, pinning him down, hard inside him, but Willow was there too, standing in the corner, screaming and bleeding, skin peeling from her in strips. Every thrust tore skin from flesh and he was trying to make Xander stop, because they were hurting Willow, trying to push him away, but Xander was falling forward, dead weight, dead, Xander was dead and he couldn’t breathe...

Giles woke into darkness and panicked, his body shaking and his mouth dry. A match scraped and a yellow flame illuminated Xander’s worried face. The bright light moved to the candle Giles had left beside the bed and lit it. Xander shook out the match and turned to Giles, standing beside the bed in sweat pants that were just too big for him, hanging low on his hips.

“I was...” Giles swallowed, trying to rid his mouth of sour dryness. “I was dreaming. Sorry. Did I wake you?”

"No. Couldn't sleep." Xander had something clenched in his fist, and it wasn't until he'd brought it up to his face and settled it there that Giles realized he'd been missing the eye patch until that moment. "I heard you moving around in here, and I thought..." His shrug didn't seem to mean a great deal, not in the darkness. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."

Giles tried to relax against the pillow, his body trembling with reaction. “Not really, but it’ll pass. God, that was horrible.” He decided not to describe the dream; they always sounded so foolish pared down to a handful of stumbling words; ‘the monster under the bed reached out and grabbed me’ wouldn’t have had Stephen King snapping his pen in half with chagrin, but the dream that inspired it might have made any horror film seem pastel shaded in comparison because of what it meant to the child who dreamed it.

Giles wasn’t a child and he wasn’t about to give the dream substance by telling Xander half his guilt over Willow’s death was caused by the knowledge that he’d been distracted from work by thoughts of the upcoming holiday – which had led to it piling up, which had meant he was too busy to personally oversee all Willow had asked him to, which meant....

“Do you want to stay a while?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ll be going back to sleep just yet.” He shuddered and felt the cool air raise every hair on his arms.

As if Xander had seen the shudder -- and for all Giles knew he had -- he sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out to rub Giles' arm with a warm, work-roughened hand. "Sure. You want to talk about it? Or is this one of those things where we pretend it didn't happen?"

“I don’t want to pretend with you about anything,” Giles said slowly, “but I’d rather not talk about it. It was a nightmare, that’s all. About Willow. Hardly surprising that I’d have one, but it’s fading now.” Xander’s hand was chasing away the chill that seemed to be deep in his bones, but only where he was touching him. Giles looked at Xander, willing him to understand that this wasn’t an attempt to force him into an intimacy he clearly didn’t want, and said, “Would you just – hold me? For a moment?”

Xander hesitated for only the briefest of moments before nodding and nudging Giles' thigh with his knee. "Move over."

Giles shifted obediently across the bed, wincing as he reached sheets that hadn’t been warmed by body heat. “Remind me to buy a hot water bottle,” he murmured, feeling the shivers chase over him again as he turned slightly to face Xander.

"Shh. Come here." Xander slid between the sheets and then pulled him closer, somehow managing to get one arm underneath his head so that Giles found himself cradled on Xander's shoulder as if it were a pillow. Xander's other bare arm wrapped around his waist. "Is this okay?"

Giles nodded, moving his head just enough for his answer to be clear. He’d been expecting a hug, no more, with Xander and he separated by sheets. This was wonderful – warm skin and soft fabric against him, and Xander so close that each shiver was almost instantly calmed, until Giles sighed and allowed himself to relax completely. The arm he lay on was folded between them and he moved it so that his palm lay flat against Xander’s chest, his other arm loose around Xander’s back. He felt the heartbeat push against his hand and, almost without thinking about it, timed his breathing to match Xander’s.

"This is nice," Xander said quietly a short time later. With their combined body heat beneath the covers, Giles was comfortably warm. "You can go back to sleep, if you want? I mean... I could stay."

“I want you to stay but you need to sleep too,” Giles said, the words coming out in a slow murmur. “Can you in here? With me?” He was too tired to hide behind evasions. “And I won’t assume it sets a precedent and expect this tomorrow night, don’t worry.”

"I wasn't sleeping before. I might as well not sleep in here with you, instead of in the other room by myself." Xander sounded as weary as Giles felt.

That was enough to rouse Giles from the drowsiness that tugged at him seductively. “True, but if you think I can sleep knowing you’re lying here trying not to disturb me, well, I can’t. And if you go back to your room, I have a feeling I’ll wake us both up again... so the only solution is that we both start counting sheep, or whatever you do to relax.”

The arm he lay on was getting cramped and he eased back enough to be able to bring it across his body, brushing Xander’s stomach as he did so with the back of his hand. Xander inhaled sharply as if startled, and his stomach muscles contracted. If Xander hadn’t reacted it wouldn’t have mattered, but discovering that even a fleeting, accidental touch was more than Xander was prepared to tolerate sent a flash of despair tinged with frustration through him.

Biting his lip, he said, “I’m sorry,” in a voice that sounded unconvincing even to him.

But Xander's tone was quite possibly amused when he responded. "Is there some kind of a precedent for counting cold showers?"

“As opposed to sheep?” Giles said with a small chuckle, the despair having vanished as suddenly as it had arrived. He let the arm around Xander tighten slightly, bringing them a little closer together. “I don’t think so. In the middle of a December night, in a chilly bedroom, why should the thought of cold showers be in the least relaxing?”

"I didn't say relaxing," Xander pointed out. He shifted his hips just the smallest fraction of an inch away from Giles in a way that made it completely clear what his problem was, even though it was just as clear that he didn't want to refer to it directly.

“Necessary before you can relax, then?” Giles wasn’t sure he could cope with this – the knowledge that Xander was lying next to him, aroused and hard, had made his own body respond instantly - but he schooled himself to keep anything but a teasing amusement from his voice.

Xander sighed, and it seemed as though there were layers of meaning in the sound that Giles wouldn't have been able to interpret no matter how well he knew him. The hand behind him rubbed at his back briefly through the cotton of his t-shirt.

“Xander –” A dozen sentences rose to Giles’ lips, only to be discarded. Instead he moved back, just a little, hoping that would reassure Xander, and let his hand drift up to rest at the base of Xander’s neck. With a slow, firm pressure he began to work at the tense muscles with his fingers.

It was dark in the room, the light from the candle flickering but enough to let him see Xander's eye close. "Thanks," Xander muttered after a moment, tilting his head slightly to allow Giles better access. His hair, long and surprisingly soft, lay across the back of Giles' hand.

The tension left Giles. He still wanted more – wanted to kiss Xander without holding back, to touch him without hesitation – but this was enough for now. He couldn’t resist moving his hand up, threading it through the thick hair and spreading his fingers wide. He carried on moving his fingers in slow, short strokes and rubbed a little harder with his thumb, just behind Xander’s ear.

Eye still closed, Xander's lips parted as he sighed again, although this time it seemed relaxed, simpler. Xander's hand, still resting near the small of Giles' back, began to move again, mirroring the movements of Giles' own hand, thumb moving in small circles over his vertebrae.

Xander tilted his head a bit more and raised his chin until his mouth brushed over Giles', so very lightly that it could barely be considered a kiss.

The memories that awoke of kissing Xander earlier made it impossible for Giles to keep the regular, soothing rhythm of his hand from faltering, but he disguised it by bringing his hand around to cup Xander’s face. As he’d done before, he stroked his thumb gently across Xander’s lips, feeling them part slightly, so that when he brought it back his thumb dragged and caught against the moist skin. Xander’s hand on his back was making it very difficult to stay in control, but he risked one kiss, trying to make it as brief as Xander’s had been. It was no good. He could keep the kiss light; lips closed, nothing but the slightest pressure, but once his mouth was on Xander’s he couldn’t help lingering.

As it turned out, all his caution was for naught, because a moment later Xander's tongue flicked across his lower lip, turning the kiss into something else altogether. Xander caught Giles' mouth with his own and held it, not aggressively but determinedly, the hand on Giles' back pulling him a bit closer as Xander made it very clear that Giles wasn't the only one craving more contact.

With a rush of relief, Giles returned the kiss, letting his hand slip around Xander’s shoulder to lie against his back. That moved him forward just enough that his thigh brushed against Xander’s and he let it stay there without doing any more to bring them together. For tonight he was more than willing to let Xander set his own pace; give him whatever he wanted without pressure.

Slowly, languidly, he nipped at Xander’s lower lip, kissing and biting it gently until Xander’s mouth opened for him.

The inside of Xander's mouth, warm and inviting, tasted faintly of mint, and his tongue met Giles' in a way that was both tentative and strongly arousing. They took their time about getting to know each other -- long, slow kisses accompanied by the occasional gentle sound of pleasure. Giles felt Xander's hand move to the waistband of his t-shirt, then slide up underneath it, caressing the bare skin of his back.

As he had done since this began, Giles followed Xander’s lead and added a little extra, letting his hand wander over Xander’s back, blunt nails scraping and digging in just enough to be pleasurable, as his hand went lower, teasing the skin just above Xander’s sweat pants but never going beyond that.

Xander arched against him, allowing Giles to feel the iron evidence of his desire plainly for just a moment before Xander's lower body moved back again, almost as though Xander weren't sure that his reaction had been acceptable. This assumption was confirmed when Xander murmured, "Sorry -- couldn't help it."

Giles couldn’t answer immediately because he was dealing with the flood of sensation that brief contact had sent washing over him. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so aroused from just kissing and holding someone. Wanting more now, and praying Xander wouldn’t pull back, he shifted forward until his erection was firm against Xander’s body and murmured, “I’m not sorry, and I did that on purpose.”

He felt Xander shudder, felt Xander's hand slide down the length of his spine and still lower until it was cupping his arse. "Tell me if you don't want..." Xander groaned softly as his hips pushed forward, and he seemed to forget what he'd been planning to say. "God you feel good."

“I want you, Xander. God, can’t you tell?”

The waistband of Xander’s sweatpants was loose enough that sliding his hand down and inside was easy and Giles didn’t hesitate, letting his palm curve against the flesh it held. He wanted to see Xander, strip them both bare and explore every inch of a body hid from him by clothes, sheets and the near darkness, but, holding desperately to a control that was close to slipping from his grasp, he settled for kissing Xander, trying to make him see how willing he was to have this go as far as Xander wanted.

He could feel Xander hard against him and, almost without thinking about it, twisted around just enough that his erection lay against Xander’s, rubbing against him with an urgency he couldn’t hide any longer.

Xander clutched at him, his other hand going around to the back of Giles' head as they kissed more fiercely now. "If you don't want me to come we'd better stop," Xander managed. "It's been a long time. Not sure if I can -- " He gasped, trembling as he clearly fought off the release that his body so desperately needed.

“I do want you to, and if you want us to stop now, you’ll have to come up with a very convincing reason,” Giles said, his mouth a bare inch away from Xander’s, kissing him between words because he couldn’t not kiss Xander when he was right there. “But not like this – ”

He moved his hand up, gripped the top of Xander’s pants and tugged at them, sliding them down a little, with Xander’s help, and leaving him to deal with them while he rolled away and stripped off his own shorts and top. The cool air made him shiver as the sheets slipped away but he hardly noticed. Even a few seconds without touching Xander seemed unbearably long but it was worth it to have nothing between them.

Giles turned onto his side while Xander was still on his back and bent his head to kiss him, letting his hand trail up Xander’s thigh.

Xander kissed Giles' mouth, sucking on his lower lip and catching it briefly between his teeth. Every muscle in the younger man's body was tensed as if holding back was almost more than he could handle, Xander's hands reaching to touch Giles greedily, running over his skin as if he needed to touch everywhere at once. Upper arms, shoulders, chest, stomach, and each place he touched left Giles warmed and aroused, aching.

Giles groaned, his hand on Xander’s hip and his thumb making restless circles in the hollow beside it, longing to slide it across and touch Xander, feel him hard and hot in his hand. “You’re just – Xander, I can’t –”

Giving up on any attempt to be coherent, Giles moved down a little and kissed Xander’s chest, open mouthed kisses that let him taste the skin against his lips, his hand moving slowly across Xander’s stomach, trying not to lose himself so much in the pleasure he was feeling that he missed any sign that Xander wanted him to stop.

Not that there seemed to be indications of that, not with the way Xander was writhing slowly against the sheets, one hand gripping onto the pillow beneath his head while the other continued to touch Giles. "Please," Xander gasped. "God, Giles..."

That was too much for Giles to take. He reared up, throwing the sheets off them so that he could see Xander properly, one swift, possessive glance that left him shaking, because if Xander was close to pleading, Giles was ready to beg.

But he didn’t have to. He lay against Xander and reached down between them, running his fingers over Xander’s cock without any attempt to be gentle or to tease. Not now. He felt it jerk and twitch and jump in his hand and smiled down at Xander, holding it tightly and stroking his thumb along the underside from base to tip. He was so close to coming just from that, just from touching Xander and feeling his own erection against Xander’s skin. He moved across enough that their cocks touched and let his hand slip to the side.

Xander was panting, desperate needy breaths accompanied by soft whimpers on the exhale, twisting beneath Giles. And then all at the same time his hand grabbed onto Giles' hip hard enough to bruise, and he thrust upward against Giles' body, the head of his cock bumping slickly along Giles' own erection.

A low groan escaped Xander, and Giles felt the hot wet throbbing of the other man's release along his own skin.

It was all Giles needed. Slick skin to thrust against, the sounds Xander was making – no, sounds he was making - and he felt his hips jerk forward helplessly, his hands clutching at Xander, needing to anchor himself against him as he came, needing to watch Xander’s face twist and slacken, Giles a step behind him all the way, so that when the last shudder left him, Xander’s arms were around him, holding him close.

Sated, he listening to his own breathing gradually slow and the sound of the wind outside blowing the rain against the windowpane. Xander's hand stroked along his back gently, making him feel cared for, cherished. "Okay, that was way better than counting sheep," Xander said after another minute or so, his voice sleepy.

Giles smiled against Xander’s shoulder and kissed it gently. “Better, yes, you’ll not get any argument from me there... but slightly messier. Let me find something –”

He summoned up a last flicker of energy and lifted his head. Beside the candle were his glasses, and in front of them a box of tissues, new and with the first tissue neatly pulled out. Somehow Giles felt he had Mrs Stewart to thank for them, even if she’d probably not expected them to be put to this use. Grabbing a handful, he took care of Xander, who looked as if he’d be asleep in minutes, and then himself, before blowing out the candle.

He was pleasantly surprised when, even half asleep, Xander pulled him close again, settling them into a comfortable position. "You okay?" Xander mumbled.

Giles brushed back a lock of Xander’s hair that was tickling his nose and smiled into the darkness. “Far more than that. I –” He hesitated. No. Telling Xander he loved him wouldn’t be a lie; it’d been true on a different level for years now, after all, but not tonight. “Thank you. Now sleep, or you’ll make me think you do prefer sheep after all.”

He could feel Xander's answering smile against his temple. "Haven't been in Scotland that long," Xander said, but almost immediately afterward Giles felt him relax into sleep with a gentle sigh.

Giles closed his eyes and pushed everything from his mind but Xander. He half wanted to stay awake because he couldn’t recall the last time his body had felt like this; relaxed, satisfied, alive, and if he could have seen Xander and watched him sleep, he might have tried, but the darkness was absolute and he fell asleep almost at once.

His sleep held dreams, but no more nightmares.

***

Xander knew as soon as he started to wake up that he wasn't in his own bed, because there was someone else with him, warm and actually really comfortable. Then he remembered that it was Giles, and simultaneously realized that the reason he'd woken up was because someone was standing in the doorway to the room.

And that someone was Mrs. Stewart.

He only thought about trying to hide for like a second, he told himself.

“Imph.” It’d taken him a while to get used to that sound, which had about as many meanings as she wanted it to. Today it seemed to be disapproving. “There’s food on the table, and I see you left me a sinkful of dishes and not put them into soak, either.” Giles stirred beside him, all sleepy murmurs and hands in all the wrong places. “And if that poor gentleman catches his death from those damp sheets, I’ll nae have it on myconscience and that’s a fact.”

With great strength of will, Xander resisted pulling the covers up over his head. "Right. Sorry. I'll, um... what time is it?"

Mrs. Stewart made that sound again. "It's nearly nine or I wouldn't be here."

He groaned slightly, then immediately felt guilty even despite the distraction that Giles' hand was providing. "Okay, sorry. I'll... um, we'll be right down."

She swept out, closing the door behind her with a firm click, grimly victorious, and Giles, without even opening his eyes, said, “I take it that was the redoubtable Mrs Stewart? I’d have introduced myself, but I’d prefer to meet her when I’m dressed and shaved. First impressions are so important, don’t you think?” His eyes opened and he grinned at Xander, looking relaxed and rested. "'Alex'? I suppose that makes sense up here."

"Yeah." Xander smiled back and leaned in to give Giles a quick kiss because somehow it seemed rude or something not to. "I'm just gonna go take a quick shower before she comes back up and starts asking what's taking us so long."

Giles quirked an eyebrow. “I think if we failed to show up, she’d know perfectly well why, and not come anywhere near us, but by all means, go ahead.” There was a faint trace of disappointment in his voice and the laughter had gone from his eyes.

"You just don't know her yet," Xander said, like he was being reassuring, and got up, pulling on his sweatpants quickly so that he could go across the hall to his own bathroom. "Go ahead and grab one too if you want -- there's plenty of hot water, and clean towels and everything."

He was grateful to be able to disappear under the spray of hot water, to try to pretend like the night before hadn't happened. But he couldn't completely manage it. He kept thinking about the way Giles smiled, and the way Giles touched him, and how John had said something about the reason Xander wasn't ready had been because John wasn't the person he was ready for.

And then he thought about how everyone he cared about died. Jesse. Anya. And now Willow. Heck, even Buffy had died, more than once. Him caring about people -- loving them -- was like a death sentence. Thinking about how something could happen to Giles made him feel sick, and scared, and sick again.

Xander spent way too long in the shower, dried himself off while repeating that the night before had been a one night thing and that was all, that it wasn't going to happen again, then pulled on some clothes so that he could head downstairs.

So of course he met Giles in the hallway right outside his door.

“I was hoping I’d catch you before we went downstairs,” Giles said. “My courage fled at the last moment when I thought about meeting Mrs Stewart by myself.” He stepped closer and touched his hand lightly to Xander’s face. “You’re looking a little stressed yourself. She really didn’t seem all that bothered, you know. I’d say she was the unflappable sort.”

"Oh, she's flappable," Xander said, wanting instinctively to lean into Giles' touch but reminding himself that it wasn't a good idea. "It's just hard to know what's going to make her flap."

“From what you’ve told me, making a mess might do it... oh. We’re doomed then.” Giles smiled, smoothing Xander’s damp hair back. “Kisses aren’t terribly messy though.”
He leaned forward and kissed Xander with a confidence he hadn't shown the day before.

You have to protect him, Xander repeated to himself, letting the kiss happen. God, this was harder than he'd thought it would be. When it had ended, he said, "Look, Giles... about last night. It was good... great, even. But... I don't want us to, you know, rush into anything." There, that was good, right? Breaking the news gently?

So how come it hurt so much?

Giles didn’t do more than step back, but suddenly it was as if he wasn’t there anymore, not the way he had been. He looked as if he was working something out, and Giles was good at that, so it didn’t take long for his eyes to go distant. Then he said quietly, “I think you told me that yesterday, didn’t you? I’m sorry you had to remind me.” He moved to the side and nodded at the stairs. “After you.”

God, he couldn't do it, couldn't let Giles just....

Xander reminded himself that he'd walked on out Anya on their wedding day to protect them both. Somehow, even though it seemed like it should have been, this wasn't any easier. "I think I'm going to skip the breakfast thing -- there's some stuff I need to check outside. The supply shed, make sure everything's still okay and..." He was babbling, and he knew it. "Go on and eat, I'll find you in a little while, okay?"

Knowing that it was probably totally obvious that he was running away, Xander fled.

***

Giles watched him go and resisted the urge to slam his fist against the wall – which wasn’t plasterboard and would hurt like hell. That wasn’t why he didn’t though. He’d have welcomed the physical pain if it would wipe out the emotional, but he was old enough to know it wouldn’t.

A door slammed, caught by the wind perhaps, as Giles could hear that the storm hadn’t blown itself out yet by any means. He stood in the hall, torn between confusion and dawning knowledge. He should have expected this. What had he been thinking would happen? That Xander would wake up, all over Willow’s death, and ready to spend the day in bed fucking? Giles forced himself to put it like that, bringing everything down to the simplest level he could, trying to see....

He walked into the bathroom he’d just left and took off his glasses, staring into the fogged mirror. Then he splashed water over his face to give himself an excuse to wipe it dry with the towel.

Through the connecting door to his bedroom, he could see the edge of his suitcase. Just as well he hadn’t unpacked.

Meeting Mrs Stewart alone proved to be easier than doing it with Xander would have been. She was about Giles’ age, perhaps a little older, a short, slight woman who bustled about the kitchen with an efficiency that was more than a little intimidating. As Giles walked in, she glanced around and met his smile.

“Good morning,” said Giles.

"Morning," Mrs Stewart said. "You'll be Mr Giles then? I thought you weren't expected for another day or two."

Giles hesitated and then shrugged mentally. Willow’s death wasn’t a secret after all and he could save Xander the ordeal of telling people. He could do that much at least.

“There was bad news, I’m afraid. A friend of Xander’s – a childhood friend. She died –” Giles tried to control his voice so it didn’t shake. “She died abroad. I was notified as she... I knew her too. I didn’t want to tell Xander over the phone, but the news couldn’t wait so I changed my plans. I got here late yesterday.”

He gave her an assessing look. Kind beneath the snappiness. Xander would need that. “Unfortunately, I have to leave again right away. Funeral arrangements –” That was a lie. Willow’s body had been cremated and the ashes scattered. Kennedy had been sent to Buffy, and all had been smoothed over in a matter of hours. The Council still had influence and in these early days Giles was using it without caring that he was seen as ruthless in some quarters. “But I can see I’m leaving him in good hands. He’s told me how kind you’ve been to him. Thank you.”

"He's a good lad. I thought there might have been something wrong -- this is the first time I've known him to miss a meal." Yes, definitely sympathetic, and obviously concerned. Mrs Stewart finished wiping off the countertops, dried her hands on a towel, and nodded. "I've another house to take care of, so I'll be off." She looked at him speculatively for a moment. "I'm sorry for your loss," she said formally.

“Yes. She was – I’m going to miss her more than I can say.” Giles took a deep breath. “It seems to have stopped raining; do you know if the ferry is running again? I really should make an early start.”

Leave. Leave Xander before he did any more to hurt him, before Xander had to spell it out that he’d no interest in the man who’d killed Willow, and then try, at a safe distance, to salvage something from the ruins of their friendship.

To his dismay, Mrs Stewart shook her head slightly. "Winds are supposed to pick up again -- this is just the eye of the storm, as it were. Don't imagine the ferry will run again before tomorrow afternoon." She finished putting on her boots and paused to tie her hat firmly onto her head with a scarf. "You have a good day, and be sure to look after that young man while you're here."

She opened the side door, and then paused with her back to Giles. He heard her say something to someone and felt his heart stutter briefly with the assumption that it was Xander, but then John McIntyre slid past her and entered the kitchen.

"Good morning. I just came by to see how you and Xander weathered the night, what with the storm and all."

Giles gave into the inevitable and abandoned all hope of a quiet breakfast. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t got used to people barging in when he lived in Sunnydale after all. Mrs Stewart had started off a pot of coffee, and it had just spluttered out the final drops, so he walked over to it, snagged two mugs from the drainer and lifted an eyebrow at John. “Coffee? Xander’s outside, but if you have a minute perhaps we could talk.”

He wasn’t quite sure what had prompted that; John was the last person he felt like talking to right now, but he owed the man an apology if nothing else. And yes, he was curious. He hadn’t felt comfortable asking Xander much about John; none of his business, not really – but he still couldn’t see why nothing had happened between them. It didn’t make sense, and he realised that at the back of his mind he’d been trying to work it out without success.

John and Xander had kissed. A lot. That meant it hadn’t been a disaster, and now Giles knew first hand how well Xander kissed, that didn’t surprise him. It wasn’t unlikely that they would have left it at that on that first night, but why never try again? They were clearly still close and comfortable enough to hug without – Giles forced the memory of Xander in John’s arms out of his head and waited for John to answer.

The other man accepted the cup of coffee and nodded cautiously. "I suppose that depends upon what you want to talk about."

“The weather?” Giles said sarcastically, setting his cup down on the table and sitting down. John sat too, still looking cautious. “No, perhaps not.” Giles made an effort to control his temper. He’d liked John and he could appreciate the loyalty that had made John speak of Xander as no more than a casual acquaintance, but he still felt somehow betrayed. Foolish. Which was ridiculous. “Look, I wanted to just – I wanted to apologise. Last night, I was tired and you know why I came here. Xander told you about Willow. Seeing you and Xander was – a shock. One too many. I had no right to be so – I’m sorry.”

Giles wondered how many times he’d said that since he arrived. Too many.

"I'm sorry. About the lass," John said, as if he was still testing the waters of the conversation. "I know Xander cared for her a great deal, and I'd the impression that you did as well. That you were all... close." It sounded as though there were multiple layers of meaning to his words.

“’Close’? Well, yes, we were all very –” Belatedly, Giles realised how that must sound to an outsider and tried to clarify it. “What I told you yesterday was true, as far as it went. I met Xander – and Willow – when I was a librarian at their school. There were a small group of special students and I had quite a bit to do with them after school –” and I sound like someone who should be locked up. God. “- helped them with... projects – oh for God’s sake. I was their friend. No more than that, and yes, I’m well aware that I’m old enough to be Xander’s father –” Which was factually true, though he’d never felt like that, not really. Fathers didn’t shove their children into situations where they could get killed, didn’t teach them to fight demons. “It’s really none of your – it’s complicated.”

Giles took a gulp of coffee to shut himself up, as nothing he was saying seemed to be remotely helpful.

The way John was watching him made him supremely uncomfortable. "Complicated, aye. That's one word for it." The man sipped his coffee, then offered, "I wanted him, you know. I'd imagine you'd have guessed that sooner or later, if you haven't already."

It would have been giving too much ground to splutter and choke on his mouthful of coffee but it took all Giles’ willpower to swallow, replace his mug on the table, and meet John’s gaze without flinching.

“I didn’t need to guess. Xander told me. Oh, not when it happened.” Yes, that still rankled, didn’t it? Giles wondered bleakly which night it had happened and if he could remember Xander sounding different when he called next.... “He told me last night. Said it hadn’t gone far and it hadn’t worked out.” Giles waited for any tell-tale flicker in John’s eyes that would made Xander a liar. When none came, he added, “I’ve known him for eight years and never realised he was interested in men. Too close to him, perhaps. You knew right away?”

"Suspected right away," John said, looking down at the surface of his coffee. "You never know for sure until someone comes right out and says it, do you." The man was holding his mug between both hands, and when he spoke next it was almost casual... but not quite. "I should have known from the way he talked about you that I didn't have a chance. But I wanted him, you see, and sometimes, when you want someone like that, you work hard at not seeing the things that are right in front of your eyes."

“The way he talked about me?” Giles stared at John in some confusion. “Xander didn’t know the way I felt about him – nor did I until recently, come to that - and now he does, now we’ve – well, he’s made it fairly plain he’s not interested. I think you must have misunderstood him.” Giles looked across the table, feeling unwilling sympathy for the man. "I think we both did."

But strangely, John was giving him a look that said quite plainly that he thought Giles was terribly, terribly stupid. "No. I've never heard anyone talk about someone the way he talks about you. Oh, I did wonder if he even realized it, what with the way he never came right out and said it -- but there's not a doubt in my mind."

“But what did he say?” Giles felt the hope John’s words had kindled flicker and die. “Not that it matters now. Willow’s death – he blames me, I know he does, now he’s had chance to think about it.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Last night – I woke up after a bad dream. Xander came into my room and ended up staying the night. Too soon... stupid of me, but it wasn’t planned... now this morning he’s telling me to back off, not rush it –” He took one last swallow of coffee and finished rather bitterly, “And Mrs Stewart walking in on us didn’t help.”

John set his mug down on the table. "Sounds to me as if he finally realized what I've known for weeks, and it scares the hell out of him." The man stood up and took the mug to the sink, then he turned and leaned against the countertop. "I'm thinking he's probably feeling as if he's lost a lot recently. Too much."

Giles twisted around in his chair. “He has. You’ve really no idea how much. Being here’s helped him though; somewhere different, doing a job he loves, making new friends. Like you. Now I’ve come and brought nothing but trouble. I can’t leave today, because of the ferry, but as soon as I can, I’m going to give him the space he’s asked for.” Maybe if he said he was leaving often enough, it’d stop feeling as if he was turning his back on something good, and more like the right thing to do.

"I'll ask you to forgive me for saying so if it offends you, but you're acting remarkably like a stupid fuck," John said bluntly, crossing his arms and frowning at Giles. "He's afraid -- afraid of losing one more person he cares about. No -- one more person he loves." Giles opened his mouth to protest, but John held up a hand to silence him. "I may not be brilliant, Mr Giles, but I'm right about Xander. And if you leave here without getting him to admit it, well... then I guess you don't care for him the way I think you do."

Giles stared at him, wanting to be convinced and, just because it was what he wanted, struggling against it. Finally he spoke. “I’m not at all offended and if I were, I’d deserve worse than that from you. I just can’t believe –” He grimaced. “You’re standing there wondering what the hell Xander sees in me, aren’t you? Never mind. I can’t say I’m as convinced as you, but I’ll try and see if I can reassure him that he’s not going to lose me. Given recent events, that’s not as easy as it sounds.” Giles stood up and looked out at the rain that was beginning to patter against the window. “I’ll get my coat and see if I can find him.”

John nodded without smiling, turning towards the door, and Giles said, “And you can’t call me a stupid fuck and Mr Giles in the same breath, you know.” John swung back to look at him and Giles smiled. “Up to you, of course, but maybe next time we meet, you could make it ‘Giles’ or ‘Rupert’?”

"I suppose I might be able to do that," John acknowledged, then paused before adding, "He's a good man. Don't you let him get away." Without another word, he slipped out through the doorway into the rain.

***

The silence of the house settled around Giles, peaceful rather than lonely, quieting the thoughts that were chasing around his head. Deciding that going without breakfast wasn’t really a good idea, and that the steady rain would probably bring Xander inside soon enough, he set about making himself some toast and topping up his coffee. As he chewed the thick, dense bread, apparently baked on the island from the wrapper, he let John’s words run through his mind. They were less convincing without John right there, but after he’d listed half a dozen reasons why it would be best for everyone if he left, all answered and dismissed by an inner voice that seemed to have developed a Scottish lilt, Giles gave up trying to argue with himself.

It might well not work out, but they’d never know until they tried. Giles stood up and had a brief flash of Xander lying beneath him, coming so hard Giles still had bruises where Xander’s hand had dug into his hip. Give it time? Give him space? He’d had an hour. That was plenty.

Giles walked into the hall and reached for his coat. As Xander seemed to have developed the same indifference to the weather that John had, perhaps he was still outside, in which case – a rhythmic thudding noise began and Giles frowned. He walked around the ground floor without finding the source and then saw a door he hadn’t tried. He opened it and looked down a flight of stairs. Realisation dawned; Xander had told him that the house had a huge cellar, surprisingly dry and airy, and perfect for a training room. The thuds took on a familiarity that made Giles smile, remembering hours of watching Buffy train, small fists slamming against a punching bag and producing just those sounds.

He walked down the stairs and stood half way down, looking around. Xander had put his heart into renovating this room, just as he’d done with the one on which it was modeled. If not for the size – this had easily three times as much floor space – he might have thought himself back in the Magic Box. Then he turned his head enough to see Xander and felt a surge of uncomplicated lust that left him breathless.

Xander was barefoot and bare chested, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans that managed to cling to him and still ride low enough for Giles to be fairly certain they were all he was wearing. It didn’t take much to work out why they didn’t fit. Xander had lost enough around the waist for them to be loose, but the weeks of hard work had added muscle to his body. His back was turned to Giles, darkly tanned and smooth. He was driving his fists against the canvas with enough force to make it swing in ponderous circles, forcing him to shift position every few punches. Giles could hear his breath rasping out and the grunts he made as his fists connected. Xander’s long hair was damp from the rain and it clung to his neck in thick, dark strands. Giles remembered how it had felt against his hand the night before and bit his lip. God, how was he supposed to go over to Xander and produce rational, logical arguments – or even heartfelt impassioned pleas – when all he wanted to use his mouth for was getting more of those whimpery, desperate sounds out of Xander?

Then Xander turned enough to see him and Giles straightened up and walked to the foot of the stairs and over towards him.

Xander gave a small nod, acknowledging his presence before shifting to the right and hitting the bag again in a series of punches that sounded loud despite the size of the room. "Hey," he said. "Did you get some breakfast?" He sounded as if he were trying very hard to act normally, to pretend as though nothing had happened between them.

“Got some toast – you should have made it, I burned the edges a little – and coffee to wake me up. Had a brief conversation with Mrs Stewart who said I had to look after you while I was here –” Giles stepped out of reach of the bag which swung wildly after a punch that was strong but uncontrolled, “- and a somewhat longer, and considerably more frank, discussion with John in which he told me much the same thing but using words I doubt Mrs Stewart would approve of.”

The bag came right at Giles then and he leaned back without giving ground and then reached out to brace it so Xander could stay still and hit it as hard as he liked.

Xander faltered briefly, looking at him as if trying to assess whether or not this was a serious conversation. "John said what?" he asked, taking advantage of the pause in movement and hitching his jeans up a bit higher.

“You’re lifting your shoulder too much,” Giles said, feeling that Xander’s jeans had looked better where they were. “Hmm? John? Oh, nothing vital. Ferry’s not running, more rain coming – no, that was Mrs Stewart. John’s the one who told me you were in love with me. As you can imagine, he had my undivided attention after that. Just out of curiosity, were you planning to mention it yourself at any point?”

Instead of answering immediately, Xander rocked his weight forward again and hit the bag three times, all with his right hand and with enough force to make the tendons in his neck stand out in sharp relief. "John," Xander said through gritted teeth, "needs to mind his own business." Giles couldn't help but note that it wasn't a denial, and that gave him hope that he was on the right path.

Xander stepped back, forward again, and slammed his left fist into the punching bag, this time dropping his shoulder instead of lifting it.

“Better. Try and aim though; you’re a little wild at times. Focus. Yes, I told him that too, and mentioned that I was planning to leave as soon as the ferry was running, at which point he called me a stupid fuck and we parted best of friends.”

Giles realised that he was enjoying himself because this was a fight, yes, but it wasn’t one he planned to lose. Exhilaration fizzed and sparkled through him, countered by an ache low down every time Xander snarled and thumped the bag. As foreplay, it was proving effective, if violent.

"Well good," Xander said, shifting to the left before giving a quick series of jabs, narrowing his eye. "I'm glad you and John are getting along so well." He punctuated the words with swift punches, then surprised Giles by spinning and adding a kick to the mix.

Giles rode out the kick. It had hurt, but as he’d been very close to delighted laughter before most of his breath had been knocked out of him, that was probably for the best.

“You’d rather we came to blows over you? Pointless. Even if he won -and he might be younger than me, but I doubt he would, and if you disagree, I’d rather you kept silent on the matter to spare my ego - I still wouldn’t let him near you.” Xander glared at him and Giles gave him his most charming smile. “It’ll probably wear off, but right now I’m feeling more than a little possessive. Comes of being so close to losing you, I suppose.”

The next punch went wild, striking a glancing blow that caused the bag to rock awkwardly and made Xander bring what were presumably skinned knuckles to his mouth briefly. "You never had me," Xander snarled, shaking his hand and stepping in to slam it into the bag again. "Trust me, I'm doing you a favor."

“’A favour’? Not from where I’m standing. And what about last night, Xander? Was that a favour too? Show me what I could have had? Send me away with a happy fucking memory? Remind me to thank you properly for that little Christmas present.”

Giles was getting angry now, losing the fine edge that had let him goad Xander so effectively, and discovering what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a few well-chosen words.

"Last night was because -- " Xander started defensively, then he cut himself off and shook his head. "It doesn't matter." Two more punches that weren't nearly as effective as they should have been. "This is... it's just better this way, okay? Just let it go."

Giles schooled his voice back to the cheerful breezy tone he’d been using. “Oh, I’m sorry; did I miss the part where that made any sense at all? Let’s see. I come here, desperately in love with you, find out you love me too from someone you’ve apparently been boring to death by talking about me, have sex that, yes, was over just a little too fast, but I’m sure with practice we’ll improve, and if I let my mind wander just a little bit, it seems to default to a picture of you on your back moaning my name for some reason, can’t think why that stuck with me, and – go on, tell me again why I should walk away from that? From you. Because I just can’t see it, Xander.”

Giles moved back and punched the bag savagely, stepping past it as it swung to the side, and pushing Xander back out of the way of the return swing with a hard shove.

The expression Xander turned to him then, little as Giles liked knowing he'd had a hand in putting it there, seemed to be the first honest one he'd seen all day. Desperate, haunted, hurting. "I can't dothis again," Xander said, his voice raised. "I can't. Giles, I -- " He turned away, his back to Giles, visibly trembling beneath the fine sheen of sweat on his skin.

“Do what, Xander? Tell me? Please?” Giles’ voice was calm now and as gentle as he could make it. He lifted his hand and then hesitated and let it drop back. Not yet.

"Can't -- " But Xander stopped himself again, turning to drive his fist into the bag so low and off-center that it rocked on its chain and spun in a lazy spiral. "I'm not stupid, you know." He reached out and steadied the punching bag with his left hand, then hit it again with his right.

“You’re hurting yourself for nothing,” Giles said. There was a red sheen of blood across Xander’s knuckles now and the skin was fretted and raw, but that wasn’t what he meant. “Sorry, but I can’t see that as being particularly clever.”

"For nothing?" Xander turned to face him, fists clenched. "I'm trying to -- you think I can just stop? Well, sorry to have to tell you, Giles, but it's not that easy."

“Tell me? You’re not telling me anything, that’s the problem. Just what exactly are you trying to do? Give me details, and forget the not rushing, need space crap because that’s all that is.”

Giles didn’t take his eyes off Xander’s face, searching for something amid the confusion and pain that would make sense of all this. John had said Xander was scared of losing him – hadn’t he made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere? What was stopping Xander from seeing that?

"I'm trying not to lo--" Xander stopped, looking down at the floor. Giles began to think that he'd gladly give any sum of money for Xander to just finish a bloody sentence, but he waited, hoping that his continued silence would allow Xander to complete his thought. Finally, Xander said roughly, "Everybody dies, right?" His gaze flickered up to meet Giles' for the briefest instant. "Or maybe just everybody I love."

“Everybody dies?” Giles grasped that dangling end and began to tug at it, trying to unravel the knot Xander had made. “Yes. Everybody does. It’s what happens. To some people – Willow and Tara, for instance – it happens sooner than we’d like. Sooner than they deserve. Agreed. But you love plenty of people who are still alive, Xander, so don’t make it sound as if you’re some sort of jinx – oh. You do, don’t you? You think there’s a connection. You love them; they die.” Giles felt the surge of satisfaction he got from knowing he’d translated something correctly; an unshakable certainty. Then it was lost in anger. “Of all the arrogant, idiotic assumptions! You’re scared I’ll die if you love me? Is that it?”

Xander didn't respond, just stood there with one arm wrapped around his torso, hand gripping the opposite elbow. He looked for all the world like someone waiting for a lecture that he was determined not to listen to, but there was something about the way he was breathing -- just the tiniest bit unevenly -- that let Giles know that Xander was more upset than he appeared.

“You loved Willow all her life, Xander. You saved her life, if it comes to that. You didn’t take it from her. Her own –” Giles forced himself to say it, knowing Xander wasn’t the only one who’d been hugging guilt to him like a comforter. “Her own actions did that. You had nothing to do with it. Loving me won’t doom me. It’ll make me happy. Make me proud. God knows, we’ve earned some happiness.” He stepped close to Xander, still not touching him, and stared at him, willing him to understand. “Do you think Willow and Tara would have chosen not to have loved each other, if they’d known how short a time they’d have together? I don’t. I can’t promise you years, I can’t swear I won’t die, but I can tell you whenever it happens I’ll die loving you and you can make all the decisions you want, but you can’t make me stop wanting you, needing you.”

Empty of words, Giles stood and waited for Xander to speak. Outside, the storm was sweeping over the island, and the cold rain was whitening to sleet, but here, protected by thick walls, built to withstand worse than this, there was nothing but an expectant, charged silence.

Xander's breath hitched, his arm tightening around himself. "It's not fair," he said in a small voice that clearly revealed his misery. "Giles..."

To Giles' relief, Xander stepped forward, allowing himself to be wrapped in a comforting embrace.

"I need you too," Xander whispered against Giles' shoulder, and then he began to weep almost silently.
* * * * *

 

The crying thing took Xander totally by surprise.

He hadn't cried in the hospital, not even when Willow had sat next to him holding his hand, trying so hard not to cry herself since she knew that if she did, he would, and he couldn't. It hurt too much.

He hadn't cried for Anya either. That had been more a numb, disbelieving kind of grief, a sorrow he'd kept at bay with many bottles of strong liquor that he hadn't ever totally known the name of, just drinking it down during the long nights in Malawi until he'd finally fall asleep just before the African dawn rose hot and bright. He'd been a mess there, but he'd never cried, and after a few weeks he'd shaken himself into something like normal and gone on with his life.

So the fact that he was crying now was, strangely, more of a shock than the fact that he was doing it with his face hidden in the curve between Giles' neck and shoulder.

He could feel Giles’ hand stroking his hair and hear Giles murmuring to him; not trying to stop him crying, not even making much sense, just letting him know he was there. There was something familiar about it all and for a moment, Xander was on a hill, with the sun rising behind him, rocking Willow in his arms as she wept.

Remembering that, and so vividly, just made it that much harder to stop crying. One of his arms was still wrapped around himself and not Giles, but he was afraid if he moved it he'd just fall apart completely, so he held onto Giles as best he could with the other one as Giles' shirt grew damp under his cheek.

Crying helped. He wasn’t sure why, but it did. It was letting go, it was giving in, it was accepting that something awful had happened. Every tear that fell was proof that, yes, Willow was dead, and Anya was dead, and every kiss against his hair or whatever part of his head Giles could reach without ever, for a second, letting go, was proof that life went on. Eventually they balanced out.

After a little while, Xander managed to slide his other arm around Giles' waist too, deciding to trust that he'd fallen apart as much as he was going to. His throat felt swollen from the sobs he'd managed to hold back and his bad eye ached fiercely, like it didn't know how to deal with the whole tears thing now that the socket was empty.

He wanted to say something to Giles, something like "Thanks," but he knew his voice would break if he tried to say anything, so instead he just tightened his arms around the other man gratefully.

Giles rubbed a hand down his back, as comforting and reassuring as any words, and then pulled back a fraction, tightening his grip as if to compensate, as one hand dropped away. Before Xander had chance to feel bereft, a handkerchief appeared and Giles said firmly, “Blow, because I’m going to kiss you when you feel up to it, and I’d prefer you slightly less soggy.”

A little half-laugh escaped Xander at that, but he took the handkerchief and stepped back a tiny bit so that he could blow his nose and wipe his eye. He tucked the damp square into his own pocket. "I'll just give that back to you later," he said, his voice sounding just about as bad as he'd thought it would. "Thanks."

Giles brushed his fingers over Xander’s face, as if checking to see if it was dry and then smiled. “Better.” It was half a question, but he didn’t wait for an answer, taking hold of Xander’s right hand instead and studying the raw, scraped skin across his knuckles. “I think the punch bag won,” he said. “Want to put something on it?”

Xander had to fight the urge to pull his hand back self-consciously. "Nah, it's okay." He shrugged slightly with the opposite shoulder, suddenly keenly aware of the fact that he was only wearing a pair of jeans that didn't quite fit. He wanted to kiss Giles -- actually, he wanted Giles to kiss him. But first there was something else he needed to hear. "You're -- you're in love with me?"

Giles nodded. “For quite some time now.” He smiled, and the hand he had on Xander’s bare back began to move again. It still felt good – really good - but it didn’t feel comforting any more. “Want me to show? Or tell? Perhaps both.” He cupped Xander’s face with his free hand and said, “I love you, Xander.”

That would have been convincing enough, given the way he said it, but Giles obviously believed in doing a job thoroughly, because he followed it with a kiss that started out as gentle and stayed like that for about one second before Giles made a desperate, yearning sound and pulled Xander to him roughly, with his hands sliding and grabbing and his mouth hungry and hard.

Xander whimpered into Giles' mouth in surprise and arousal, his own hands sliding around to grab onto Giles' ass to pull him closer. The smooth fabric of Giles' shirt was soft where it rubbed against his bare chest, and he shuddered as the memory of what it had felt like to have all of Giles naked against him the night before flashed through his mind.

Giles pulled his mouth away and stared at Xander as if making sure they were both in the same place, then moved his head and began to kiss Xander’s neck. “Do you have any idea what you looked like when I came down those stairs?” Giles murmured, biting down just hard enough to send shivers of pleasure through Xander’s body. “How much I wanted you?”

He ran his hand across Xander’s stomach as he moved back to kiss his mouth again, letting his fingers dip inside jeans that were loose enough, and had slid down far enough, to make it easy for him to curl his fingertips around Xander’s cock in a brief, fleeting caress, before sliding them out again.

Xander's hips moved forward involuntarily -- he really needed to have a talk with them about that -- and he made a little sound of frustration when Giles' hand stopped touching him. "Please," he said desperately, biting at Giles' lower lip and fumbling with the front of Giles' trousers, not even knowing exactly what it was he wanted, just knowing that he needed more.

And then he got his hand inside the front of Giles' boxers, and Giles' hard smooth cock, the end of it wet and slick against his palm, was in his hand.

Giles' soft groan was enough to make Xander smile, even though part of him was stunned at the thought that this was the first time he'd ever held another man's naked erection like this. He slid his hand a little bit further down, feeling the weight and warmth of Giles' cock with a sense of wonder, then stroked it gently from base to tip.

“That’s – God, Xander –” Giles’ voice had gone hoarse as though he was concentrating on something and didn’t have anything left over to make himself sound other than needy. Giles tilted his hips enough that his cock rubbed against Xander’s palm and then made that sound again, the one that made Xander’s skin feel tight and hot.

“Need to see you,” Giles said, reaching out with one hand and dealing with the fasteners of Xander’s jeans then tugging at them hard. Giles being so impatient would have made Xander laugh any other time, because usually he was caution man, look before you leap man... not today though. His jeans came off easily enough, though he had to let go of Giles to step out of them, which didn’t seem fair.

"Okay, this is a little too much like that dream where I show up to work naked," Xander said, self-conscious again, aware that he probably looked really stupid standing there in nothing but an eye patch and a hard on.

Giles looked at him – and then looked at him, up and down slowly with an appreciative smile growing, and Xander stopped feeling ridiculous. “Well, you can get dressed again, if you feel uncomfortable, but would it help if I told you that you look good enough to eat?” Xander opened his mouth and couldn’t manage a reply that didn’t sound suspiciously like a whimper. Giles’ eyes darkened and he started to unbutton his shirt. “Or I could just join you, though I don’t think you’ll have half as good a view as I do.”

That was enough to snap Xander out of his momentary freeze-frame -- he stepped in closer and started to undo the buttons on Giles' shirt from the bottom so that they'd meet in the middle. As soon as the last button parted Xander pushed the shirt off of Giles' shoulders impatiently, his lips brushing over the tender spot he'd shed his tears on earlier.

It only took another minute or so at most for Giles to get the rest of his clothes off, but it felt like a lot longer. Giles straightened up, eyes moving over Xander's body in a way that made him even harder -- and he probably would have said that was impossible. An incredible rush of love swept over him, so intensely that he pressed his body to Giles', clinging to the other man with a desperation that wasn't just physical.

He wondered afterwards if there would ever be a time when Giles didn’t know what he was thinking and know what he wanted. Maybe – but it wasn’t then. Giles held him close, but not so close that he couldn’t capture Xander’s lips in a kiss that began and ended with Giles whispering, “I love you,” as though he’d been waiting a long time to be able to say it as often as he could.

Xander wanted to say it back, but he couldn't stand to stop kissing Giles long enough to say anything. Instead he ran his hands over the other man's body, loving every part of it he touched and hoping that Giles would be able to tell that was what he was thinking. He was so hard that it hurt, so aroused that he was leaking pre-come that was making his cock slide over Giles' skin wetly everywhere it touched, and he couldn't help but make an eager little sound as their kiss deepened.

The floor was carpeted, but in a thin, hardwearing matting that just wasn’t going to be comfortable to lie on. Xander wanted to be able to do more than this with Giles – even if he wasn’t quite sure what more was - but he knew he’d never be able to make it up two flights of stairs to a bedroom; his legs felt as if they were about to give way completely. There was an old couch in the corner that he’d dragged down from upstairs, and sat on when he whittled stakes, which as hobbies went was boring, but it kept him busy and the Slayers would need an ample supply when they arrived and started training.

“Giles – couch?”

“Hmm? Oh, right....”

Giles gave him a look that promised he’d make the endless walk to the couch worthwhile, and they reached it in a controlled stagger, because neither of them wanted to let go for even that long and to stop kissing each other just wasn’t an option.

He sank down onto the familiar couch gratefully, pulling Giles along with him, and kissed him again, even more thoroughly. Kissing was -- well, this kind of kissing was amazing, and Xander wasn't sure he ever wanted to stop. What were things like food and sleep when you could have these talented lips on yours?

Xander slid his hand down Giles' chest, pausing at one nipple and letting the edge of his thumb rub over it roughly.

Giles arched his back in wordless encouragement of that, thrusting his tongue against Xander’s and letting his hand stroke across Xander’s stomach, lightly enough for it to make him shudder, needing more. Giles repeated the caress, this time more insistently, dragging his nails over the sensitive skin. Xander broke the kiss to gasp for air and found himself being pushed back a little against the couch as Giles bent his head to lick, and then bite, at first one, then the other, of Xander’s nipples, teasing them to hardness.

This new position meant that it wasn't as easy for Xander to touch Giles in the ways he would have liked, but he was so distracted by what Giles was doing with his mouth that he couldn't find it in him to complain. He had to content himself with running a hand through Giles' hair, curling his fingers in and hanging on as Giles flicked his tongue over sensitive skin.

"God, Giles..." He hadn't even known he was going to say anything; the words just came out.

Giles lifted his head and drew his hand up to tease at the damp skin he’d been tasting. “Tell me what you like. What you want.” His eyes were the same green as the sea off the island but warm where it was icy. “There’s so much I want to do with you – to you – and we will, but right now, tell me what you want.”

He eased back a little and Xander let his hand slip around until it lay against Giles’ cheek. He rubbed his face against it before drawing it to his mouth, kissing the palm and then separating out Xander’s index finger and sucking on it gently while his tongue swirled around it.

Xander groaned. There were plenty of things he was willing to let Giles do to him, but right at that moment he had an erection so hard that it hurt, and in the spirit of horny young men everywhere, he didn't want to wait. Giles sucked a little bit harder on his finger and his cock throbbed in sympathy, making him groan again. "I want anything you want," he said. "But basically, at this point I don't think you're going to be able to touch me without making me come, so..."

Giles bit on the very tip of Xander’s finger before taking his mouth away, and arched his eyebrow. “I just get one touch? Then I’d better not waste it.” He kissed Xander again and as he did, moved him so that Xander was half sitting, half lying in the corner of the couch with Giles between his legs. “God, you look so good,” Giles murmured, stroking his hand down the side of Xander’s face. His eyes narrowed. “One touch....”

"Or maybe not even one if you keep looking at me like that," Xander said shakily, feeling his control slip another notch. Heck, forget slip -- it was plummeting, like everything was falling away and all that was left was the sound of the rain and the look in Giles' eyes and the painful longing to be touched.

“You think it’s any different for me?” Giles said, sounding intense. “It’s not. I’ve been hard since I walked over to you thumping away at that bag as if you wanted to punch right through it. I’m amazed I managed to get out any words at all, when all I was thinking about was how much I needed to touch you, hold you, stop you hurting....”

He slid back, going to his knees and placing his hands high up on Xander’s thighs, rubbing them slowly backwards and forwards, never taking his eyes off Xander’s face until his hands framed his cock. Then he curved his right hand around the base of it, glanced down and lapped gently at the top, too lightly to be counted as a touch, but only just. He shivered and looked up at Xander without moving his head away from where it was. “Xander? Let me?”

Swallowing hard around the lump in his throat that felt like it was the size of... well, something really big that he couldn't think of right now because Giles' mouth was inches from his cock, Xander whimpered.

Giles’ eyes closed for a second and then flickered open again. “If you do that again, I’ll come,” he said, in a conversational tone of voice that did nothing to disguise the feeling behind it. “But I want to hear you too much to care....”

He kissed where he’d licked, kissed with closed lips that parted slowly to let his tongue flick out and across the slick head of Xander’s cock, then let the involuntary jerk of Xander’s hips – because he couldn’t have stayed still if he’d wanted to, and he didn’t – do the rest, so that Xander felt himself slide into Giles’ mouth in one smooth surge.

"God... oh God, Giles..." Xander trembled, wanting to hold back because this felt so amazing and if he came it would be over, and he didn't care if they could do it again in half an hour, or every half hour -- he wanted it now. The wet heat of Giles' mouth around him, the feel of Giles' tongue swirling around the head of his cock just like it had been doing to his finger a few minutes before, only this was so much better... Xander took a careful, deep breath and let it out, trying to find even a little bit of control as his hands closed around Giles' wrists just for something to hold onto and, okay, maybe as a way of letting Giles know to take it slow.

He felt Giles’ wrists flex as though testing the strength of his grip and squeezed just a bit harder. That meant that the hand Giles had curled around his cock, holding it steady, tightened too, but he hardly noticed because Giles moaned when he did that and it sent a quiver through him that nearly shattered his determination to hang on just a little longer.

Giles raised his head slowly, letting Xander’s cock slip out of his mouth, and the cool air brushed over the wet skin that was left exposed, making it tingle. Without looking up, he tilted his head and started to lick and kiss at the sides of the cock he held, which felt good, but not as intense, giving Xander chance to breathe again.

Which didn't mean he wasn't panting just a little bit, even if he was doing his best not to squirm. But then Giles licked the ridge of skin just under the head of his cock and Xander's hips rocked slightly, which in turn pushed his shaft forward against Giles' teeth in a vague scrape that felt so incredible that he whimpered again. He needed Giles' lips around him again, needed to be inside that slick warm mouth, and all he could do was whimper and bite his lower lip and squeeze down on Giles' wrists again in a wordless request for relief.

As if Giles couldn’t wait any longer either, he took Xander back inside his mouth, not even trying to be gentle now, as though some restraint had been snapping, thread by thread, and that last helpless, hungry sound Xander had made had broken the last one. Xander felt his cock slide past teeth and tongue and nudge against the back of Giles’ throat and then Giles was moving his head up and down, in a relentless, steadily quickening rhythm, somehow managing to use his hand too, so that every inch of Xander’s cock was being touched, licked, sucked....

"Oh yeah, Giles, God, please, I -- God, yes..." Xander came, snapping his hips even as his back arched, feeling the pulsing hot waves roll through him and trying not to hurt Giles' wrist with the strength of his grip.

Giles stayed with him, swallowing in a way that coaxed out one last jerk of Xander’s hips, and licking gently at him as he moved away, timing it perfectly, neither rushing nor lingering, because right then Xander wanted holding and he wasn’t sure he could move enough to go to Giles. In an hour or so, maybe.

He looked down and saw Giles drop his head, resting it against Xander’s leg, his shoulders rising as he took a long, shuddering breath.

Jesus, Xander thought, I can be such a selfish fuck.

Letting go of Giles' wrists, Xander slid down off the couch onto the floor next to him, pulling the other man into his arms and kissing him. "That was... well okay, 'incredible' somehow seems pretty inadequate." He ran a hand up and down Giles' back while the other twisted in Giles' hair to tilt his head for another long kiss, one that Xander kind of let take over, lips parting and tongues meeting. The inside of Giles' mouth tasted different now, and Xander thought he kind of liked that.

He slid a hand down between Giles' thighs, gripped onto his cock and stroked it lightly, and he liked how that felt too. Warm and hard, with a tiny drop of fluid at the end that he rubbed a fingertip over before moving his hand lower to fondle Giles' balls.

Giles’ head went back and he cried out, a soft sound that contained so much need it made Xander want to hurry up and make him come...and at the same time go slower, tease out more of those sounds and make Giles’ eyes go dark with arousal again. “Please, Xander,” Giles said, as near to begging as Xander had ever heard him,“Please... so close....”

Xander shifted his position enough to be able to wrap both hands around Giles' cock, one stroking the shaft and up and over, manipulating the foreskin over the tip while the other tugged at his balls. Then as Giles tensed and shuddered, Xander lowered his head and licked just the tip, a quick swipe of his tongue to see what it would taste like, to see what Giles would do.

It tasted, well, familiar. It’d been a long while since he’d had that strong, slightly bitter taste in his mouth, but you didn’t forget it. Made a difference when it was your own though, and you were curious, and a little embarrassed, but you just wanted to know...

“You don’t... have to,” Giles said, stumbling over the words as he reached out and ran his hand through Xander’s hair, keeping his body still, though Xander didn’t know how he was managing that, “but, God, I wish you would.”

Xander gave another lick in reply, still quick and kind of experimental, and the taste was less noticeable this time, so he did it again, more slowly. It was fine once you got used to it -- and the way Giles responded made it all worth it, the way he twitched and shivered and made those little sounds. Xander circled the head of Giles' cock with his tongue, trying to remember what Giles had done to him, then slid his lips down the shaft. Not too far, because he was afraid he might choke and he knew that would ruin the mood, but enough so that he could use his hand to stimulate the rest of the shaft and basically have the whole thing, well, covered.

Giles still had his hand in Xander’s hair but he let it slip down until it was cupped against the back of his neck, a light, reassuring touch until Xander got brave and tried using his teeth, just a little, and then it clamped down hard and sent shivers over him because Giles was being very careful and that wasn’t, that was Giles getting to the point he’d just been at, where the house could have fallen down and all he would have cared about was coming before the rubble hit. He might have worried if it’d stayed there, but he eased off, licking instead of biting, no matter how gently he’d been doing it, and the hand moved again, this time to his shoulder.

There was a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach -- good-funny, not bad-funny. A little fluttering sensation. It happened every time Giles made one of those sounds, and it made Xander want to coax more of them out of him. He pulled back far enough so that he could flick his tongue around the head of Giles' cock, then he slid it inside his mouth deeper and sucked, hard.

He did choke then, just for a second, because Giles’ hips jerked and lifted as he groaned out something that didn’t sound like words but did sound like ‘more’ and ‘please’ and that meant his cock pushed forward too much for Xander to cope with. He fought back the instinctive urge to pull away and swallowed instead. The hand on his shoulder squeezed in what might have been an apology, and he did it again, this time ready for that answering surge.

The sound Giles made was higher-pitched this time, more desperate, and Xander couldn't help but respond by sucking harder, concentrating most of his attention on the tip and foreskin as his hand caressed and squeezed. He wanted to say something encouraging, to let Giles know that it was weird but okay, that he could handle it, but he couldn't talk without pulling back and he definitely didn't want to do that.

Instead, Xander took Giles in a little bit deeper and groaned in the back of his throat, hoping that would get his message across.

He wanted to see what Giles looked like, but it was easier if he kept his eyes shut, concentrating on what he was doing without letting himself think about it too much, because then he’d probably lose this rhythm he’d fallen into, and it was working too well for him to want that to happen. Giles was panting now, both hands on Xander’s shoulders, gripping him hard enough for it to hurt but nothing hurt right then.

And suddenly, impossibly, Giles’ cock got even harder and everything paused. He heard Giles gasp and then he felt him come, felt the ripple and spurt, felt his mouth fill, and swallowed fast, with the smell and the taste heavy and thick in his throat.

Xander pulled back as soon as it was over. He rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth, unable to keep himself from wondering if he looked like a complete moron. "Sorry," he said, keeping his gaze mostly down, even if he did have to glance up at Giles just once. "I mean, I know that wasn't a master craftsman kind of job. Although if it's any consolation I've been told I'm a fast learner."

Giles sat up and stared at him, then shook his head. “Come here,” he said, reaching out and pulling Xander to him, letting him snuggle his head down against Giles’ shoulder. “You really do talk the most utter nonsense sometimes, you know.” Xander looked up at that and saw Giles smiling at him. “You were... God, Xander, I’m still seeing stars.” He grinned and kissed Xander, a quick, hard kiss. “But feel free to practice on me as often as you like.”

He grinned back and ran a hand down over Giles' chest slowly. "Is it just me, or did we somehow end up on the floor?" It was kind of cold underneath his naked ass actually, but he wasn't sure he wanted to move just yet.

“We did, and though I’m sure this carpet’s very practical, it’s not exactly soft.” Giles gave a resigned sigh. “And our clothes are out of reach. Typical.” He rubbed his hand down Xander’s arm. “You’re shivering. Want to get dressed?”

"Not really," Xander said, wrapping both arms around Giles and holding on instead. "Well, I mean, yeah. But I don't want to get up."

Giles hugged him back. “At the risk of sounding besotted, I don’t want to do anything that means letting go of you, but I think once my legs feel less like rubber, I’ll start to notice that my backside is numb.”

Xander managed not to make a comment about backsides, despite the fact that having orgasms with Giles brought other thoughts of what would make asses sore to mind. This was helped by the fact that he was suddenly painfully aware that he'd skipped breakfast. "Clothes first, food second," he said, reluctantly letting go of Giles enough so that he could haul both of them to their feet.

“Yes; Mrs Stewart seemed more shocked that you’d missed breakfast than the fact you’d spent the night with me.” Giles walked away and retrieved their clothes. “You’ve really settled in here, haven’t you?”

"Yeah, I guess I have." Xander went over and took his jeans from Giles' hand, starting to pull them on. "I mean -- there's something nice about having a job to do, and... knowing it has an end. You know?"

Giles sighed, sitting on the couch and pulling on his socks. “I do know – but mine hasn’t. I never thought I’d say this, but I understand Quentin a little better now. Still think he was a prat, but there’s a certain fellow-feeling mixed in with the dislike. But what I meant was the way you’ve made friends. We’ve all been such a tight group for so long; it’s good to see you doing that.”

"I've been lucky," Xander said, fastening the front of his jeans and going to get his own shoes and shirt that he'd abandoned just inside the bulkhead after having come in from the rain outside. "Everyone here is great. I mean, they could have played that whole 'you're the outsider' game, but they didn't."

Giles smiled, smoothing back his hair and walking over to the stairs. “Have to climb up your family tree; with a name like yours, maybe you’re not an outsider so much as a long-lost relative.”

Following, Xander nodded even though Giles had already started up ahead of him and couldn't see. "Yeah, I have an island," he said. "Not to mention the whole Harris tweed thing." He frowned to himself. "You don't think that means I should be wearing it, do you? Tweed, I mean?"

Giles stopped climbing the stairs, turned around and stared down at him. “I don’t think it’s obligatory,” he said carefully, with his lips twitching. Xander had figured out that meant he was trying not to laugh a long time ago; in fact, it was what had started him liking Giles, when before that he’d seemed a little scary – the man who was making Buffy go out there and risk dying every night. Hard to think back to a time when Giles hadn’t been a friend.

"What? You don't think I could pull it off?" Xander asked, mock-offended, even though he was pretty sure he was grinning and obviously that would spoil the effect.

Giles finished climbing the stairs and looked at him, serious suddenly. “I know you could. If you wanted to, that is. I’ve seen you dressed up, remember, at the prom.” The smile returned. “And now I’ve seen you naked, and I’d better stop thinking about that, before you miss breakfast altogether because I’ve dragged you back to bed.”

Now Xander knew that he was grinning. "At this point it's more like lunch," he said, as his stomach rumbled in anticipation of a meal. "Plus that dragging thing is going to have to wait -- I've got a ton of stuff to get done today, and then add a bunch on top of that because of the storm. We lose branches every time there's anything stronger than a breeze -- you don't even want to know what it looks like out there after last night." Not to mention it was cold, and still raining. He hadn't gotten used to the rain yet -- he'd learned to tolerate it, but he never managed to forget that it was there the way John did.

Giles looked pensive. “It just occurred to me that as your employer I should be applauding this responsible, industrious behaviour and instead I want to give you the afternoon off.” He shrugged, the humour leaving his face. “Not that I can afford that luxury myself. I – well, I left quite a few loose ends with leaving so abruptly. Unless you need me to help – are your crew working today? – I’d better make some phone calls.”

Flicking a light switch on as they went into the kitchen to make it seem less gloomy, Xander headed straight for the coffee pot, not caring that the stuff had been sitting there for a couple of hours probably. He just needed to feel the rush of caffeine in his veins, especially if he was going to do a day's work on the amount of sleep he'd had. Failed to have. Whichever.

He poured himself some and took a gulp. "I've got a couple of the guys coming around this afternoon to help me with some stuff, yeah, but that's it until after Christmas. Tomorrow, for example, I'm all yours."

Giles gave him a look that did more to wake him up than the coffee. “Really? Then I’d better start planning what to do to you. With you, that is. Wouldn’t want to waste any time.”

Taking another quick swig of coffee, Xander set the mug down and pulled out the nearest chair so that he could put his socks and shoes back on. "You're going to be a bad influence on me, aren't you. I can tell." He gave Giles a quick smile to let him know that he was teasing.

“So far, you’re managing to resist my attempts to tempt and seduce you during working hours,” Giles assured him. “Well, mostly.” He smiled. “I’ll make those calls and there’s some work I brought with me – I’ll keep busy.” His smile faded, leaving him looking tired. “Willow – there needs to be something, some memorial service. We should all get together. I’ll try and reach Buffy and see if she has any ideas where we can meet. Will you think about it? What she might have wanted?”

"I think what she'd have wanted was not to be dead," Xander said, without thinking about how it would sound before he said it. He sighed, finished tying his shoes, and stood up. "Sorry," he offered, rubbing the back of his neck. "Yeah, I'll think about it. Maybe Kennedy will have some ideas."

“Perhaps,” Giles said, his tone neutral. “She was barely coherent but I’m sure she’s calmed down now.” He glanced at the clock that hung on the wall beside the fridge. “The Council operative should have brought her to Buffy’s apartment. I need to speak to her – get some details beyond the bare facts of what happened.” His face went hard. “I’m going to have to prepare a report, you see. On Willow’s death. Oh, no chance of any repercussions falling on me; there are even some who’ll be relieved she’s gone. She frightened people a little. People who didn’t know her.” He turned towards the door, his movements abrupt. “I’ll just unpack first. Get settled in.”

"Giles. Wait." Xander went over and pulled Giles into his arms, holding him close. Felt the tension in Giles' body, then felt it relax a little bit -- not enough, but a little bit. "Look, if there's anything I can do to help, tell me, okay? You don't have to deal with this alone."

“Grieving for her, we can share. The guilt I’d rather be just on my shoulders.” Giles sighed and hugged Xander back, but without any passion, as if the bare mention of Willow had put them back where they’d been the day before. “And you still need to eat. Leave it for now. Please.”

It wasn't like he wanted to just let it go, but the reality was they both had work to do. Plus it wasn't like talking about it was going to make it go away -- it would still be there.

Willow would still be dead.

"Okay," Xander said. "You go do your stuff, and I'll go do my stuff, and we'll meet back here at the end of the day. Okay? And if you need anything, just stick your head outside and yell."

Giles glanced at the window, streaked with rivulets of rain and grimaced. “I showered once today, thank you. I’m sure I’ll manage. If not, I’ll stand at a window and use semaphore or something.” He gave Xander a small, tight smile and walked out of the room.

Not hungry anymore, but not stupid enough not to at least eat something before he went back to work, Xander grabbed a slice of bread, shrugged into his mac, and went out into the rain.

***

Giles walked up the stairs quickly, not letting himself look back. He had a feeling that if he did, he’d go back to Xander, and that wasn’t what either of them needed right then. A few hours apart, time to adjust, time to make sense of what had happened. He reached his bedroom and sat down on the bed, still feeling tired. Tempting to stretch out and sleep for a while, but he forced himself to stand up after a moment and begin unpacking.

There was a chest of drawers against one wall; wooden, with drawers swollen by the damp conditions that screeched and fought him as he pulled them open. They were lined with faded, floral paper, peeling up at the edges. Giles unpacked, methodically sorting out socks from sweaters, jeans from shirts...A wardrobe, in much the same state as the drawers, but with an incongruous row of white plastic hangers where he’d been expecting three bent wire ones, took the rest of his clothes and he tucked Xander’s presents at the back, on the floor.

After that he couldn’t find any more excuses not to stop and think.

Xander and Willow... they’d always been linked in his mind. So close, always so close. He remembered feeling vaguely distressed in the aftermath of that ill-timed, doomed flirtation of theirs, when they’d been jumpy and awkward around each other for weeks. Now one was gone and the other... warmth flooded him as he thought about Xander, happiness sweeping away the tiredness as the wind outside was clearing away the brown, winter-dry leaves.

Then the wind dropped, the swirling leaves settled back on the earth, and Giles felt the guilt and doubt return.

He picked up the book he was reading – one from Quentin’s private stock; a scurrilous, scandalous account written by a Watcher whose Slayer had been at the court of Henry the Eight. She’d died after a few months, trapped in the maze of alleyways behind Hampton Palace, too inexperienced to fight off a vampire who’d lived as many decades as she had years. The Watcher had remained at court, observing events with a cynical eye that made for entertaining reading now, but which had led to his death when his barbed insults irritated an ailing monarch. Giles had found the book when he went through Quentin’s home office, desperate for anything that would help him make sense of what was left of the Council. He wasn’t sure it would hold his attention today though.

He went out into the hallway and paused, looking out of a narrow window at Xander in the garden below, brown mac flapping in the wind, dark hair blowing, as he tied a tarpaulin down, weighing it at the edges with rocks. Giles stared at him, caught up in a longing that, for the moment, left his body unmoved. Then Xander turned his face up to the sky as the rain began to pelt down, his wet hair sleeked back, lips parted, and Giles remembered that hair lying against Xander’s bare shoulders and those lips on his body and was hard before he reached the top of the stairs.

He made the phone calls, dealing briskly and curtly with his secretary, who had her hands full with appointments to be cancelled, and wasn’t pleased at the extra work, and making three other calls to confirm that Willow’s death had been officially classed as an accident and the paperwork on it closed. Then he rang Buffy and spent twenty minutes trying not to mention Xander, as his voice softened when he did and that was one piece of news Xander could give out. If he wanted to.

Doubts returned and Giles buried them in activity, wandering around the house and making notes about the progress Xander had made – it really looked as if he’d finish ahead of schedule – and then cooking something for them to eat for supper, using the remnants of the salmon. The kitchen didn’t have much, but Mrs Stewart had brought up some vegetables as well as the bread and he managed to produce a fish pie, topped with mashed potato. He’d packed several bottles of wine, more for himself than Xander, and he put a Chardonnay in the fridge, thinking that he’d better steer clear of the whiskey, no matter how tempting it was.

Then the side door opened and Xander walked in, wet and windswept, bringing in mud, leaves and fresh air, and Giles decided whiskey needed a new word to describe it.

Xander shut the door behind him and stepped back onto the mat just inside the frame, clearly trying not to track too much water into the rest of the kitchen. He slipped the mac off and hung it on a hook on the wall, toeing his boots off at the same time in an uncoordinated sort of multi-tasking that brought back memories of his more awkward teenaged years. "Hey. Something smells good." He ran a hand through wet hair and adjusted his eye patch slightly. "You didn't have to cook."

Giles said dryly, “To quote my host, ‘Don't worry, I'll press you into domestic servitude in the morning.’ Besides, I was getting hungry and I’ve just been sitting around reading; you must be starving.”

He was having trouble keeping his words light, and even more difficulty in not going over to Xander and kissing him, just because he could now. If he could. Maybe Xander had spent the day regretting what had happened, wondering how to tell him it wasn’t going to happen again....

“Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

"Only if you want me bouncing off the walls all night," Xander said. He touched the eye patch again, almost as if it were a nervous habit, and stepped a little bit closer.

Giles closed the gap between them, feeling caution vanish. “I had other plans,” he said, reaching out and running one hand lightly up Xander’s arm. “I think they involved you being a little more relaxed than that.” He let his hand cup Xander’s face, looking for any hint that Xander didn’t want him this close, saw none, and leaned in for a kiss that he intended to be warm without giving away how much he needed Xander right then.

To his relief and pleasure, Xander pressed into the kiss eagerly, sliding an arm around his waist while the other hand rested at Giles' hip. The kiss was rather long, as it seemed neither of them wanted it to end to soon, and when it finally did, Xander asked, "You okay?"

Giles smiled at him. “Let’s just say that relieved my mind of one worry.” Xander gave him an enquiring look and he sighed, stepping back and rubbing his forehead, feeling foolish. “I’ve – spent the last few hours convincing myself that you’d be having second thoughts. This has all happened so fast and you must feel – how do you feel? I never got around to asking, did I?” He took a deep breath. “You said yesterday you wanted to take it slowly and I seem to have ignored that completely. Maybe I’m making assumptions I shouldn’t be?”

Xander looked at him, concern and a mild sort of confusion written all over his face. "Assumptions? You mean... oh." Xander grinned a bit wearily and moved in closer again, and Giles found himself being wrapped in a careful embrace. "No," Xander said, his voice tender and affectionate. "No, you're not making assumptions you shouldn't be."

“Oh, good,” Giles murmured, letting his hand slip down Xander’s back but not going lower than his waist. “Then that means I can kiss you again – but I think I’ll hold that thought until you’ve changed and eaten. You look exhausted.” He gave Xander one more kiss anyway, this time pulling back before it had chance to deepen. “I think we could both do with an early night.”

"Yeah, you're probably right." Xander seemed reluctant to go, but after a moment he did.

Giles listened to the sound of him going up the stairs and tried not to think about the fact that Xander was stripping off his clothes to put on clean ones. Instead, he focused on getting the casserole dish from the oven and setting out plates and silverware. By the time he was hesitating in front of the refrigerator, contemplating whether or not the wine was a good idea, Xander had returned, wearing yet another pair of slightly ill fitting but comfortable looking jeans and a soft sweater.

"Are you communing with the fridge?" Xander asked, gesturing to indicate that Giles was standing in front of the open door.

“Yes, and it’s very sad you never put anything interesting in it,” Giles replied. He decided to open the wine and if Xander didn’t want any – and Giles couldn’t recall ever seeing him drink it – it would still be just about drinkable the next day. He straightened up, holding the bottle, and raised an eyebrow. “Corkscrew? Glasses? Or am I expecting too much? And feel free not to join me. I just thought it would go well with the meal.” He studied Xander more closely and grinned. “Your hair’s sticking up, and I have this overwhelming urge to tell you that you look adorable. Please stop me, using extreme measures if needed.”

"What kind of extreme measures?" Xander asked, using one hand to straighten his hair as he moved across the kitchen and opened a drawer. He rifled around inside it for a moment. "Aha! Or, you know, eureka. Something like that." He turned around, shutting the drawer with his hip, and came over to offer Giles a small utilitarian corkscrew.

Giles took it from him, and frowned thoughtfully. “Hmm. For something that dire, I think you’d have to threaten me with tickling at the very least. Of course, you don’t know where I’m ticklish, or even if I am. Tricky problem, really.” He eased the cork out and gave Xander a sidelong glance. “I think you’re safe now. It seems to have settled down.”

"Which?" Xander asked, looking at him rather strangely and going over to take two wine glasses from a cupboard. "Me being adorable? Or you feeling the urge to tell me that I am? Because I'm not sure you should get the credit just because I fixed my hair."

Giles took the glasses from him, set them down, and turned to face him again. Reaching out, he ruffled up Xander’s hair gently and said, “You’re adorable,” smoothed it back again as Xander started to grin, and added, “you’re still adorable. Now let’s eat before I manage to convince you that you’ve made a huge mistake.”

Xander's grin was enormous as he pulled out a chair and sat down, but even still he looked weary. "I don't think you're gonna be able to convince me there," he said, watching as Giles poured some wine into each glass and slid one across toward him. "This is... good. You know? It feels right." He might have been blushing the tiniest bit as he glanced down at the table.

“It does,” Giles said quietly, sitting down and brushing his hand across Xander’s. He helped them both to the casserole and said, “Do you think it helps that we know each so well? Or not? I suppose we’re saved the excruciating round of questions about star signs, favorite colors and an amusing anecdote from childhood, but this – this is so new that even eight years of friendship doesn’t seem enough to make it less so.”

He took a sip of his wine, deliberately avoiding making a toast. It would have to be to Willow’s memory and somehow, selfish though it was, he wanted to have a space of time that was just about both of them. The guilt of that soured the wine but he forced himself to take a second sip before placing it back on the table.

"This is good too," Xander said, taking another bite and, it seemed, barely chewing before swallowing. "And please tell me that we don't have to swap childhood anecdotes." It was said lightly, but something crossed over his face, something dark and full of sorrow, and Giles wondered if it were because the memories that sprung to mind were bad, or if it were just that they included Willow.

He shook his head, using the excuse of a mouthful of food to avoid answering in detail. Not if it puts that much sadness in your eyes, we don’t.

“Oh, I spoke to Buffy at some length; you’re right, she seems to have forgiven me, though it was a little awkward at first.” Giles felt he was going from one awkward subject to another, but at least this one was only a problem for him. “She seemed to think us all meeting in the New Year was an excellent idea; probably in London. You could travel back with me, if you liked?”

Xander looked somewhat surprised at the suggestion. "I won't be done here by then."

“If you flew, as I did, you’d only be away about three days at most,” Giles said with a frown. “From what I’ve seen, you’re well ahead of schedule. Why is it a problem?”

Part of him felt a little hurt that Xander wasn’t pleased at the idea of extending their time together, and it didn’t help when he wondered if Xander was worried about Buffy and Dawn finding out about them.

“We don’t have to tell them, you know,” he said. “About –us. If that’s what’s troubling you. You could stay at a hotel with them...”

"What? No." Xander didn't seem upset by the idea. "I mean, unless you don't want them to know." When Giles' expression made it clear that this wasn't the case, he went on, with a little smile playing at the corner of his lips, "You don't seriously think that me being with you is going to be a bigger shock than finding out I was seeing Cordelia, do you?"

“Well, thank you for putting me well and truly in my place,” Giles said. “I was looking forward to rendering Buffy speechless for once.” He grinned. “I have a feeling Cordelia would be in whole-hearted agreement, though for slightly different reasons.” He topped up their glasses, although Xander had done no more than take a few sips from his. “Would you prefer it if it was later on then? After you’ve finished here?”

Xander picked up the wine glass, taking a larger swallow this time and then looking down into the pale golden liquid as if he might see the answer to the question there. "No," he said finally. "No, I think it's better to, you know, get it over with." He set the glass down again and pressed the heel of his hand over his eye patch with a sigh. "Which makes it sound like it's something I don't want to do, when that's not it. It's just... it keeps hitting me, you know? I keep thinking about how she wasn't in the last time I called, and... what if she'd been there? Or what if I'd called at a different time? Maybe she would have said something, maybe..."

He sighed again.

“I should have mentioned it to you,” Giles said bitterly. “I don’t know why I didn’t when we were speaking.” He pushed his plate away and picked up his glass. “No. I do know. Those conversations with you... they came to be something I looked forward to, as a time when I wasn’t thinking about work. Willow, the spell – that was work, you see? God, could I have been more selfish? Falling in love with you wasn’t wrong – I’m not sunk that deep in guilt that I could ever think that – but letting it put Willow at risk? I don’t know why you’re being so – do you not see how wrong it was of me? You should hate me, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

He looked at Xander, feeling the same confusion he’d experienced yesterday at the lack of reproaches from him.

The look he got back held nothing but warmth. "I don't think you could do anything that would make me hate you. And if you think I'm going to give you more ammunition to make it easier to hate yourself, you're nuts." Xander stood up and began to clear the table, motioning to Giles that he was stay where he was. "You're not in charge of the world, you know. It's not your job to keep track of every little thing everyone's doing, and it's not your fault that things go wrong sometimes."

“No, but – ” Giles took a deep breath, twisting around in his seat to look at Xander, desperately afraid that any moment he’d succeed in convincing him of his culpability, but finding it impossible to stop talking. “I let her down because I was thinking about you to the exclusion of everything else, every chance I got. The last six months... the huge job of rebuilding the Council, dealing with people who whine that I’m not more like Quentin, or those who complain because I’m worse... it’s not something I ever expected to be doing. I’ve been sleeping in the office, working weekends... God, listen to me make excuses! But, don’t you see; if I had time to spare for you, I should have had more for her. I didn’t really listen; I just gave her what she asked for, the way a parent gives into a nagging child, just for the sake of peace. She deserved far better than that from me.”

Xander shut off the water and turned to face Giles, wiping his hands dry on his jeans. "She deserved to have you treat her like an adult, what with her being one and all, and that's what you did. You trusted her to deal with it, the same way you trusted me to deal with this place." He came closer, stopping about a foot from Giles and looking at him steadily. "I didn't realize how much stress you've been under. You could have told me."

Giles shrugged a little helplessly. “What good would it have done? You couldn’t have helped with the problems themselves, and I didn’t want to bore you to death, so you stopped calling me.” He shook his head. “I just wanted to forget all about that bloody place. Believe me, hearing about your trials and tribulations finding the perfect fishing spot was just what I needed.” He stood up, wanting to get comfortable if they were going to talk. “I lit a fire in the room next door. I wasn’t sure if you used it or not, but it was about the only one with any furniture in it. Want to finish off this wine under the beady gaze of that rather moth-eaten stag on the wall?”

***

"Sure." Xander picked up his own wine glass and preceded Giles into the sitting room, where the fire had burned down just about enough to require another log. As Giles added one, Xander sat down on the sofa that faced the fireplace, and when Giles turned Xander was looking at the stag's head up on the wall. "I'm thinking I should have taken that down," he said. "Because right now? It's giving me the creeps."

Giles studied it, trying to see why. The expression on the animal’s face seemed one of mild surprise and resignation – hardly frightening. “Really? Well, it’s a little late now, but I’ll help you take it down tomorrow if you like.” He walked to the couch and motioned to Xander to move over. “Sit with your back to it then, and I’ll try and take your mind off it.”

Xander slid over cooperatively, turning to face Giles. "Promise you'll tell me if it starts to look shifty?"

Giles couldn’t help the snort of laughter that escaped him. “I refuse to sit beside you with my eyes fixed on the wall. I’d much rather be looking at you.” He swallowed the last of his wine and put the empty glass down beside him. Xander was leaning back against the high arm of the couch with a cushion shoved behind his neck, looking relaxed. Giles sat close enough to him that he could pull Xander’s feet up and into his lap and then stared into the fire, watching the flames leap and dance. He found himself reluctant to carry on the conversation they’d been having. He didn’t think it was as simple as Xander made it seem, but perhaps he wasn’t as much to blame as he’d thought? Deciding to leave that for the moment, he said instead, “The night you invited me to come up here for Christmas, I got about three hours sleep, you know. I came so close to calling you back and telling you I couldn’t make it.”

The worn jeans Xander was wearing were soft under Giles' hands. "Okay... I guess the obvious question to ask here would be 'why?'"

“I’d think the answer was obvious, too,” Giles said, leaning back against the couch and running his hand slowly along Xander’s thigh and back again. “I’d got to the point where I was rehearsing ways to tell you how I felt. Even with me making up your lines – and I didn’t do a very good job of it – it never ended well.” He leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling, remembering. “It might have been as clear as day to John that you... liked me, but it wasn’t to me. Not that way.”

"I guess we were both doing a pretty good job of being oblivious there. I mean... if someone asked how I felt about you, I probably would have listed twenty things I liked, but... I still don't know if I would have put the pieces together." Xander took another sip of wine, his expression thoughtful. "It wasn't a picture I was expecting to see."

“Six months ago, I’d have said the same about you.” Giles shifted slightly so that he could look at Xander without twisting his head and smiled at him. “You stayed with me for a week, remember, just back from Africa, waiting to start this job, and I honestly don’t think it occurred to me to see you as anything but a friend. Who’d brought back a lot of sand in his luggage and clogged up the washing machine. And kept getting lost and calling me for directions in the middle of meetings. Then you left and – I missed you.” He reached for the wine bottle, sighed when he discovered it was just out of reach, and moved Xander’s legs so that he could go to fetch it. After retrieving his own glass, he split what was left in the bottle between them, and sat down on the floor beside Xander, grabbing a cushion to lean against.

"It's not my fault you freaky British people have a thing for roundabouts," Xander complained good-naturedly as he settled a hand on Giles' shoulder and began to rub gently. "I missed you too."

Xander swallowed the rest of his wine, balanced the empty glass on the somewhat flat arm of the sofa in what Giles could only assume was an action destined to result in broken glass.

"Stay there," Xander said, squirming around until he had a leg on either side of Giles' body. "Okay, now just... move like this..." And Giles found himself shifted until his back was against the sofa, both of Xander's hands on his shoulders. He felt Xander's thumbs press firmly into muscles in his back that he hadn't even realized were tense. "What's the worst thing? About your job, I mean."

Giles thought about it for a moment, letting his head sink forward a little. The strength in the warm hands on his neck was reassuring, and it felt so good to be touched after weeks where the only physical contact he had with others was a brisk handshake or the impersonal, intrusive press of bodies on the Tube. “I don’t know... the fact that it’s not my job, I suppose. I was a Watcher, Xander. I was responsible for one Slayer; now I have hundreds to care for. Everything’s on a larger scale; the shop had a turnover of a few thousand dollars a month – do you know how much money the Council has? Millions. It’s been around for ever, it’s got power that scares me to think about it... and I’m clinging on grimly as it flails around wildly trying to re-grow the head Caleb and the First chopped off. I’m out of my depth, but there is no one else. We lost so many....”

"Yeah," Xander said, his voice a bit rough as he filled in the silence left when Giles ran out of words. His hands continued to rub Giles' shoulders and neck, slowly and with a sort of innate talent Giles wouldn't have expected, even though that was absurd. Of course Xander would be good with his hands. "Can't you delegate some of the work? I mean, I know there aren't... I mean... what about me?"

“You?” Giles heard the note of surprise in his voice and realised too late how it would sound, as Xander’s hands went still and then slid away. He turned around and reached up to stroke the side of Xander’s face, cursing himself as he saw the hurt on it. “Sorry. That sounded as if I didn’t think you’d be up to it, and that’s not true at all. I just – Xander, you’d loathe it! Tedious routine, never-ending forms... death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s not what you’re used to.” He searched Xander’s face for some sign that he’d repaired the damage he’d caused by one thoughtless word and saw none. “Working with you would be wonderful. Someone I could trust completely, someone utterly reliable and capable of thinking for himself? You’d be a godsend.” Giles allowed himself a moment to think wistfully about Xander working with him and all the benefits. Then another thought occurred to him and he grimaced. “And how long do you think it would be before it leaked out that we were involved? Your position would be untenable.”

"I'm already working for you," Xander pointed out. "And this job -- this house -- is going to be done sooner or later. What were you thinking would happen then? I mean, if you have plans to send me off to Egypt or India or something, I'd appreciate some advance warning." His expression was slightly less hurt, but still troubled.

“Did it ever occur to you that I can’t send you anywhere?” Giles said curiously. “Only ask you to go? And that I sent you here less to oversee the renovation than to give you a breathing space?” He slipped his hand into Xander’s, linking them, needing to touch him. “You looked ready to drop in your tracks, to be honest. No one lost as much as you in Sunnydale and no one showed it less. I thought a few months up here would help – and it did. Listening to you sound brighter every time we spoke was very reassuring – quite made up for the fuss everyone made when they found out I’d sent you to the back of beyond.”

Xander's next words nearly echoed his. "Did it ever occur to you that I'd go wherever you asked me to? I mean... what else am I supposed to do? Get a job somewhere building bookcases and dining room sets and pretend that everything I know was just some nightmare?" Xander's fingers moved restlessly in his. "I tried that in Africa -- believe me, it doesn't work."

Acting on instinct, and a need to comfort, he moved to sit beside Xander on the couch, wrapping one arm around his shoulders and pulling him in close with the other. “I barely spoke to you while you were out there; the time difference for one thing, and that bloody crackle on the line... when you said you tried to pretend, what do you mean?”

Giles tried to keep the depth of his concern from his voice, but it wasn’t easy. His hand tightened on Xander’s shoulder and he forced himself to relax.

"You know," Xander said. "Typical stuff. Drinking, mostly. Trying to forget."

The impatience that filled Giles surprised him. Not with Xander, but with himself, for not getting what Xander meant so that he had to keep asking him questions....

“I can think of a lot you’d want to forget; Anya’s death, the loss of your home –” Giles brushed gently at the patch covering Xander’s missing eye, “- this. Or was it something else that bothered you?”

Xander shrugged slightly under Giles' arm. "I don't know. All of it. Mostly Anya, I guess. She was..." He was quiet for a long moment, then said, "I think she really loved me." He glanced at Giles. "Or maybe I just wanted to think that."

“She adored you,” Giles said, remembering long hours in the shop trying to close his ears to her overly frank chatter about Xander, “but you don’t need me to tell you that you hurt her badly. If it’s any consolation, I think she forgave you.” I can tell by the way you’re still human-shaped.

"Anyway, that's not the point." Xander sat up a bit straighter, not pulling away but moving enough so that he could look at Giles properly. "The point is -- you can't forget. You just have to deal. And part of that includes doing what you can to help. I might never be a crack shot with a crossbow again, and it's entirely possible that only lamps will ever tremble before me when I'm holding a sword, but I can still see what's what. Even with just the one eye." He smiled a little bit. "That's what I do."

Giles traced the arch of Xander’s eyebrow with one finger and smiled. “I think you’re severely underestimating both your ability to inspire terror and the contribution you can make.” He stared at him thoughtfully. “I told you I got criticized for sending you here; I didn’t mean by Buffy and Willow, you know. It was Simpson – remember him; the one who came back from retirement to help us out, and will probably be with us for another forty years...the one who made Andrew cry three times in one day?”

"Why? What did he think I was going to screw up?"

Astonishment held Giles silent for a second or two. “Nothing. Why would you -? Never mind. His exact words were, ‘Whilst I bow to your considerable expertise in the efficient deployment of your work force -’ he really does talk like that, you know –‘I cannot but feel that sending young Mr Harris away when we have need of him here, is both indefensible and shortsighted. Get him back at once, Rupert.’ At which point I respectfully pointed out that you needed to rest and he stared at me for a minute, without blinking once, and muttered something about sentimental nonsense and coddling, then gave me a salmon fly he’d made himself and told me to give it to you for the next season.”

Giles took a certain perverse satisfaction in watching Xander’s jaw drop. “It’s been a while since the Council saw you as a civilian, Xander,” he said gently. “Little matter of saving the world single-handed?”

"But..." Xander didn't seem to know what to say. "Do you -- I mean, what -- this is a vacation? Is that what you're telling me?" His voice lowered. "I can do whatever needs to be done. And if that's being in London, and pushing papers to help take the stress off you... that's where I want to be. And I don't care if people think it's because we're... involved." Xander looked a bit worried then. "Unless you do."

Giles leaned forward and kissed him hard, pulling back at once. “That was for offering to help with the paperwork,” he said. “And think of this as a holiday if you like – you’ve certainly benefited from it, as I’d hoped you would – but, yes, if you want it, there’s more you can be doing.” He shrugged apologetically. “I didn’t want to rush you or force you before you were ready.” He moved Xander’s wine glass to the floor before it got knocked over, and slipped his arms around Xander. “And forget what I said about us being involved being a problem. It might make for some office gossip, but as most of it would be concerned with how you could do much better for yourself....”

Xander leaned into the embrace at once with what certainly sounded like a relieved sigh, one arm settling warm around Giles' waist. "What are you, nuts? I'm just a hack who barely managed to graduate high school. You're the one who could do better -- someone with depth perception, for example." He didn't sound upset or even particularly self-deprecating, just matter of fact.

“I could do better? Xander, that’s –” Giles checked himself. “I’m going to set aside ten minutes a day for telling you just why that’s a ridiculous idea, until it sinks in, but can we take it as read for now and move onto the part where I kiss you? Please?”

"Yeah, I think we can do that." Xander didn't wait for Giles to move, instead shifting closer to press their mouths together in a soft, rather gentle kiss that lasted quite a bit longer than Giles had anticipated, not that he was likely to complain. "Was that what you had in mind?" Xander asked, running a hand back into Giles' hair.

“Oh, yes,” Giles said, wondering if he looked as content as he felt. “Very much so.”

A log crackled and spat in the fireplace, sending sparks up the chimney, but neither of them noticed. Drawing Xander to him, Giles kissed him again, moving his hands over Xander’s back slowly. This body – he would have said he knew it but he would have been wrong. Close enough that he was aware of every breath Xander took, Giles was discovering all manner of details he’d never noticed before, letting his hands explore what his eyes had seen.

Xander's gentle murmurs of pleasure at each touch only made Giles want to draw more out of him. Xander tasted of the Chardonnay, warm and silky smooth, and he sighed when Giles slid a hand beneath the soft sweater and ran it along his spine. "You win the prize," Xander said gruffly, brushing his lips over a pulse point on Giles' throat. "Best kisser ever."

Giles tilted his head back, wordlessly inviting Xander to continue, and chuckled a little breathlessly. “If that’s so, it’s more to do with the fact that I’m kissing you, than any particular talent of mine. What do I win?”

Xander’s kisses were addictive, he decided hazily. After each one, he wanted another... and another....

"Hmm," Xander said thoughtfully, breath warm just beneath Giles' ear. "Good question. What do you want?"

“You’re making it hard for me to concentrate,” Giles said, easing his hand around enough to rest on Xander’s hip and blessing the fact that Xander’s jeans gaped so invitingly at the waist now. He ran his thumb in teasingly light circles in the dip beside Xander’s hip bone. “What do I want?” It occurred to him that Xander had never said he loved him, but that wasn’t something he could ask for. That had to come from Xander. “Three kisses,” he decided. “Anywhere you like.”

Xander didn't seem to require any time to think about it -- he pulled Giles closer with one hand on the back of his head and murmured, "Close your eyes." When Giles obeyed, Xander pressed a feather-light kiss onto each eyelid, first right, then left. "You try to keep these, okay?" he asked, his voice rough. "I'm kinda used to looking at them." And then, before Giles could say anything in response, Xander kissed him on the mouth with parted lips and what felt like love, even if the word hadn't yet been spoken.

The kiss ended and Giles smiled up at Xander. “Thank you. The last prize I won was a book, for coming first in the long jump at school, and much though I love books, I have to say I prefer your way.”

The fire was dying down now and the room cooling quickly as it did. Giles sighed regretfully. “We have to either build up the fire, freeze, or give up and go to bed. Two of those options require moving, which I’m firmly against on principle, but the third isn’t appealing either.”

He didn’t want to assume that they’d be sleeping together, even after all that they’d gone through that day, but he hoped they would. Xander was looking drowsier by the minute so Giles didn’t expect that they’d do more than sleep, but sharing a bed with him would be more than enough.

Attempting to hide a yawn behind one hand, Xander patted Giles' thigh with the other. "Well I was hoping I could talk you into keeping me warm tonight, but if you want to stay up, I think you're gonna have to do it alone because I've got maybe ten more awake minutes left in me." He stood up. "I can attempt to bribe you with the promise of not particularly scintillating conversation during those ten minutes though, if that helps." Xander's expression was hopeful.

Giles grinned. “I think you’ll find I’m very open to bribery if it gets me into your bed.” He stood up. “If I stop replying after eight minutes, don’t feel your conversation put me to sleep, will you? I swear there’s something in the air up here... they should bottle it.”

"Yeah -- I don't think I've ever slept better," Xander said, going over to adjust the screen in front of the fireplace. "Of course I've been blaming it on all the exercise." As he straightened up again he hitched up his jeans, the motion looking at though it were becoming second nature.

“I could do with some of that myself,” Giles admitted. “I’m not getting to the point where my clothes are all but falling off me, as yours are. Far from it.” He turned towards the door. “Perhaps we could walk into the village tomorrow? Get a few last minute things before Christmas Day?”

"Sounds good." Xander yawned again as they started into the hall and then up the staircase. "Mrs Stewart will be by in the morning with some groceries -- she said something about a ham. Or maybe it was lamb. Anyway, food, but yeah, I wouldn't mind picking up a few things I actually got to choose."

“Do you think she’ll let us sleep in past nine, with it being Christmas Eve?” Giles asked plaintively. He was damned if he’d spend his holiday marching to someone else’s idea of good timekeeping. And he couldn’t imagine being too keen on getting out of a warm bed with an equally warm, and hopefully well rested, Xander in it, just because their porridge was getting cold.

"Yeah -- she always lets me sleep in on the weekends, or the couple of times we've had a day off because we were waiting for supplies to be delivered or something." Xander shrugged. "Anyway, we'll just shut the door." In the hallway outside their rooms he paused. "You need anything?"

Giles nodded. “I’ll go and brush my teeth and join you in a moment. If you fall asleep before that, try and leave me an inch or two of mattress?”

"You got it." Xander stepped into the room, pulling his sweater over his head as he went and exposing the smooth line of his tanned back to Giles just before disappearing from view.

Wondering if it would really matter if he skipped brushing just this once, and deciding he’d better not, Giles walked away. When he’d finished brushing and washing, he stripped down to shorts, picked up his robe and went quietly into Xander’s room. As he’d expected, Xander was already asleep, lying sprawled out on his back. One brown arm lay on top of the quilt and the bedside light on Giles’ side of the bed threw deep shadows over his chest and face.

Xander’s eyes were closed and though Giles knew that beneath the left eyelid lay emptiness, without the patch across his face, he could almost trick himself into thinking that if Xander opened his eyes, he’d be whole again.

Giles got into bed beside Xander and leaned up on his elbow, staring down at Xander’s face, relaxed in sleep. He didn’t want to risk waking him but if he’d dared, he’d have returned the three kisses Xander had given him, in the same places. He settled for one against the silky, dark hair and turned out the light.

***
The day had dawned a little bit brighter than the few before it -- not exactly sunny, but at least not raining. By now Xander had learned that 'not raining' was usually about the best you could hope for, so the fact that the familiar sound had been missing as he gradually swam back up to consciousness had sort of set the tone for his mood.

He'd slid an arm around Giles, not trying to wake him, just wanting to be that close, and when Giles had stirred and turned in his embrace and kissed him -- well, that had been even better than what he'd hoped for. They'd spent almost an hour just talking -- and sometimes not, sometimes just lying there together -- and just when they'd started to get other ideas of the naughty touching variety, the sound of Mrs Stewart in the hallway outside the room had stirred them out of bed.

Xander hadn't even been upset by it.

It was the day before Christmas, Giles was there, and as far as Xander was concerned, they had plenty of time.

A long leisurely breakfast, with eggs and toast and bacon, had been accompanied by a pot of coffee and the same kind of conversation he and Giles had been having on the phone for weeks. Mostly casual, occasionally more serious, but punctuated by some laughs. It felt unbelievably good. Xander didn't have any trouble thinking that he'd been happy to do it for the rest of his life.

Finally, a little bit before lunch time, they managed to get themselves together enough to set off on the walk to the village.

"It took weeks to get used to the whole not having to lock the house thing," Xander said, as he closed the door behind them.

“I can imagine,” Giles said. “It’s going to be quite a culture shock for you when you come back to London.” He took a deep breath of the salt-laden, damp air and sighed happily. “I can smell the sea. Proper sea. Sunnydale might have had a beach, but it wasn’t the same, somehow.”

"Yeah, what with it actually being hot and sunny," Xander said, grinning to show Giles that he was mostly kidding. Everything was green here, the grass always long and thick and perfect like on a golf course -- or okay, maybe a neglected golf course -- and as they started down the road they could hear the sea birds calling overhead and the crunch of the rocks under their feet.

“It’s not natural,” Giles said, sounding very English as he strode along. “Hot and sunny should be restricted to three weeks a year at most, so it’s properly appreciated.” He gave Xander a sidelong glance and then confessed, “Well, possibly I miss the sun a little... but not at Christmas, though I doubt we’ll get much seasonal snow here now the storm’s moved on.”

Three sheep scrambled out of their way, bleating frantically as they scattered in all directions. Giles laughed. “I wonder if they’re the same ones who nearly got run over by John’s cab when he was bringing me to the house. I don’t know how he missed them, but I suppose you get used to it after a while.”

"It's weird how they run away from people like we're scary, but they act like the car isn't even there," Xander agreed, thinking of the times John had been giving him a ride and they'd had to wait while the sheep decided to get out of the road. The ones that had just trotted off stopped and bent their heads to the ground again, munching on what he thought might be thistle. "I wouldn't know what to do on Christmas if there was snow," he admitted. "I think we only ever had it in Sunnydale that one time. Not that it wasn't festive."

“Festive? Mystical snow designed to keep Angel alive was festive?” Giles shook his head, grinning. “Not the word I’d have chosen myself. And if we get enough to make a snowman, I’ll be surprised, so don’t panic that you’ll have to dig us out of a drift.”

"It's not like I'd mind being snowed in with you," Xander said, feeling kind of shy all of a sudden. He glanced at Giles quickly before looking back in the direction they were walking.

A hand on his shoulder brought him to a stop. Giles was smiling at him as if he’d just had an early Christmas present. “If I could arrange that, I would,” he said. “I can’t think of anything I’d like better than it being just the two of us... but even without the snow I’m looking forward to the rest of the holiday.” The road was empty; even the sheep seemed to have wandered away. Giles stepped in close enough that he could kiss Xander briefly, with lips cooled by the wintry air, and said softly, “Especially if I can persuade you to stay awake a little longer tonight.”

Being young and able to get an erection in about three seconds came in handy a lot less often than one might think, and this happened to be yet another one of those times. "Considering I don't have any plans to work for six straight hours today, I think I can probably manage to stay awake at least until you get into bed this time. Once you're there it'll be up to you to keep me occupied." He reached out to rub his palm over Giles' slightly scratchy jaw. "And since no one's supposed to come around tomorrow, we could always pretend that we're snowed in."

He was aware of how close together they were standing, and of how really good Giles' eyes looked behind his glasses, and how much he really wanted to kiss Giles and keep kissing him until it got dark, or someone came along and threw rocks at them, or... something.

And hey, look at that. Thinking about the whole rocking-throwing thing seemed to be at least a partial cure for an untimely erection.

You learned something new every day.

Giles shivered and somehow Xander knew it wasn’t from the cold, which made him wonder if Giles was dealing with the same problem he was – which made him want to offer to help, but he knew how a truck could appear out of nowhere, and the island was flat enough that anyone in that small white house half a mile away would probably get a great view if he tried.

“Well, if I get a moment, I’ll give some thought as to what I can do to you that will keep you up,” Giles said, keeping his face straight for about two seconds longer than Xander managed.

He snickered behind his hand and nudged Giles' shoulder with his own. "Come on, get moving. Don't you know standing outside in Scotland is like an open invitation for rain?"

“I wasn’t aware it needed one,” Giles replied, setting off again. “It’s more like a gate crasher. Speaking of water; tell me there’s a pub in the village? London beer isn’t much of an improvement on American, and I’ve been looking forward to a decent pint.”

Xander nodded. "Not an actual pub, but there's a restaurant at the hotel with a bar. Good food, too. I was thinking we could have some lunch while we're there, what with it being your last chance to both not cook and not have to eat my cooking until the day after tomorrow." He figured he wouldn't mention that it was the same bar where he'd gotten so very, very drunk with John the night they'd almost gotten together.

“Fine.” Giles turned his head to look out at the sea and then asked, “I don’t imagine there’re all that many hotels on the island, so would this be the one that you used to go to on a Friday night with the work crew?”

Damn. He should have made a list of all the things he'd told Giles, because trust someone like Giles to remember every little thing he'd mentioned. "Yeah -- it's pretty much the only place to go if you don't want to drink at home alone." Xander heard how that sounded and hurried on past it. "The hotel's closed over the winter -- until March, I think -- but the bar and the restaurant are open because it's where everyone hangs out. I sort of get the impression that it's a lot more formal during the tourist season."

“Xander –” Giles sounded as if he was going to say something that would take them right back to that night, do not pass go, do not collect... but just as Xander was starting to feel a flush creeping over his face, he finished his sentence by nodding at a bird circling high over their heads. “I should have brought my binoculars. I think it’s a black-throated diver though.”

Wondering if he was supposed to ask what else it would be but not figuring he'd know the difference anyway, Xander said, "You have binoculars? Why Giles, how James Bond of you. Are they those high tech ones with infrared?" He had to be being totally obvious in not wanting to talk about John, and he wasn't even sure if avoiding the topic was the right thing to do.

“Just the regular sort, sadly lacking in anything but the ability to magnify,” Giles said, a little dryly. “Xander, I’m not entirely certain what’s troubling you, but if you’ve just realised that the bar’s likely to be full of people you know, and wishing we were going somewhere else, we can do. Or just shop and eat back at the house.” He stretched out a hand as if he was going to give Xander’s arm a reassuring pat, clearly thought better of it, and let it drop back. “Sorry.”

"The bar is never full -- at least not at this time of year, chances are good I'll know everyone there, and it doesn't have anything to do with me not wanting... whatever it is you're thinking. For people to know about us, or whatever." Xander tried to remember if he'd forgotten anything. "I don't want to go anywhere else. This is, you know... where I always go." He wasn't sure that would be enough to clue Giles in on the topic he didn't exactly want to mention directly. "Oh. And don't be sorry."

Giles still looked a little concerned. “Xander, there’s no need for anyone to know anything about us, other than the fact that I’m your friend and employer. None of their business. I’m not telling you to lie, but you’re going to be here for a while finishing the renovations, and I’d rather not have your job made difficult by gossip.” He glanced around at Xander. “Though after yesterday morning’s wake up call, perhaps it’s too late for that?”

He shrugged a little bit and watched as a bigger rock skittered along in front of his foot. "I don't know. I sort of get the impression Mrs Stewart doesn't talk about the people she works for. But then she knows about John. Um, I mean, not about me and John. Not that there's a me and John to know about." He was babbling again. Great.

“Xander!” Giles sounded exasperated now, though still with enough love in there that Xander didn’t feel like cringing, the way he used to way back in school, when Giles got mad at him. “I get it. You and John used to drink together in the hotel, there’s every chance he’ll be there now, and you think it’s going to be awkward. Well? Did I miss anything?”

And of course that thought -- that John might be there -- hadn't even occurred to Xander, which just made him feel stupid. He made himself keep walking, hunching his shoulders a little bit. "Okay," he said, like he was admitting that he killed puppies in his spare time, "maybe I'm a little freaked out." He quickly added, "But not because we might see John there. More because that's where I was -- where I got drunk -- the night he and I... you know. And then there's the whole you being there, and me being there, and I didn't want you to feel weird about it... which obviously you wouldn't have if you didn't know, and you wouldn't have known if I hadn't opened my big mouth." He glanced at Giles hopefully. "This would be where you do me a really big favor by telling me to shut up."

Giles made a sound that reminded Xander of Mrs Stewart when she got worked up over something he’d done, or not done, or done wrong, and shook his head.
“No. This is where you do me a favor by telling me when something like this is on your mind, instead of letting me think up explanations that just make things worse.” He shook his head, a smile beginning to curve his lips. “Look on the bright side though; at least now, when I unerringly choose the seat John was in that night, I’ll know why you turn pale with shock.”

Xander smiled back, relieved that Giles wasn't mad. "Well it's not like we did anything at the bar," he said, trying to joke a little bit. "Other than get drunk, and I'm not planning to do that today."

“So where did you – no. Forget I asked,” Giles said, looking as if he’d give anything to have not asked that question. “It doesn’t matter.” He gave Xander a rueful smile. “I think getting freaked out is catching, and it’s not even in my vocabulary. I’m trying not to think of you with John in any number of places around the house right now.”

He wondered if maybe he should take a lesson from before and not say anything, but this might actually make Giles feel better. "It wasn't in the house," he offered. "If, you know, that helps."

“I can’t believe I’m admitting it, but it does.” Giles gave him a despairing glance. “Can we talk about something else? Tell me in great detail about your plans to improve the central heating system in the house, or something equally fascinating.”

"Sure. Yeah." Xander rubbed the back of his neck as they turned a gentle curve in the road, then pulled his collar a little bit higher. "Nothing wrong with the central heating. It's more the insulation that's an issue, but I've got someone coming out the second week in January to blow some in. See, it doesn't make sense to do it until the electrical work is finished, because the insulation makes it harder to deal with the extra wiring, so it's one of those things where it really does matter which order you do stuff in. Actually that's the case with a lot of construction and renovation, which is why you can get so thrown off schedule when something's delayed." There was a bird eyeing them from the branch of a nearby tree, and he figured he might as well take advantage of that to try to get Giles talking. "What's that one?" he asked, gesturing at it.

“Hmm?” Giles stared at the bird for a moment and then watched it fly off. “Oh... a kittiwake, I think. Fairly common. Speaking of wildlife, we must go down to the beach behind the house sometime and see if we can spot any seals; have you ever seen any?”

Xander told himself, very firmly, that he wasn't going to get all weird about every place he'd been with John -- not even if the beach near the house was where they'd... almost... "Seals?" he said, secretly impressed with how normal his own voice sounded. "Yeah, a couple of times. Usually in the water though."

“The cold water,” Giles said with a shiver, glancing at the sea, which was a chilly green today, reflecting the clouds scudding overhead in the brisk wind. “I don’t think the Slayers we send here will be doing much swimming somehow.”

They had reached the outskirts of the village and were walking past small houses in grey or white painted stone. “Want to shop first or eat first?” said Giles, looking around curiously.

"Shop first, if that's okay," Xander said, pointing toward the low building that housed the only decent sized store on the island, unless you wanted to count the one that was part of the Abbey.

Inside, the general store wasn't any bigger than a convenience store would have been back in California, but the selection wasn't bad. It didn't carry anything except non-perishable food -- and Xander figured that was one of the reasons the restaurant at the hotel did such good business, at this time of year anyway. He and Giles strolled down the first aisle, which was mostly touristy-type gift items like knitted sweaters and jewelry, then paused at the end as Xander picked up a can of cocoa powder.

"This could come in handy," he said. "You know, what with pretending we're snowed in and all."

Giles smiled at him, reaching past him for a packet of Jaffa Cakes. “It doesn’t come with the marshmallows in over here, does it? Was that a terrible shock?”

Xander looked at the back of the can. "I don't think this kind even comes with sugar. This is serious cooking we're talking about here." There was a recipe though -- a little more complicated than 'just add boiling water,' but still not too hard. He could deal.

“I’ll hold your hand through the complicated bits,” Giles said, “but you can wash the saucepan afterwards.” He glanced around the shelves. “I brought a Christmas pudding with me, though you’ll probably hate it. Can you think of anything else we need for dinner tomorrow?”

"What is with that whole Christmas pudding thing anyway?" Xander asked, distracted by a glass jar filled with weird brown lumpy things in what might have been syrup. "Is it just one of those traditions? Like fruitcake?" He looked up at Giles. "Wait, maybe they're the same thing."

“Not exactly, but perhaps you have to grow up here to be able to cope with that much dried fruit in one place.” Giles reached out and tapped the jar. “Chestnuts. Again, very traditional, though we used to roast them, then burn our fingers trying to peel them.” He smiled at Xander. “Do you feel as if you’re a long, long way from home? Is there anything traditional you want to do tomorrow? I noticed you didn’t decorate or put up a tree yet, but we don’t have to bother as it’s just the two of us.”

Xander set the chestnuts -- if Giles was even telling him the truth about what they were -- back on the shelf. "I thought about a tree, but... I don't know. I mean, we could still get one if you want to. It's not like cutting down one little tree would be that much work, I just..." He shrugged, not even sure why he didn't care about having one. Maybe it was that being here, so far away from everything he'd ever known, actually felt safe, and he wasn't too anxious to recreate the traditional Harris Christmas if he didn't have to.

“Seems a shame to cut one down. And the needles get everywhere.” Giles sounded comfortably indifferent and Xander relaxed. Then Giles lowered his voice slightly, though the background music blasting out carols was loud enough that he really didn’t need to bother, and added, “And I draw the line at mistletoe, as that implies there’s a special place to kiss you, when I plan on kissing you in all sorts of places.”

Giles shouldn’t be able to get him hard just by looking at him in a meaningful way and trying not to grin. It wasn’t fair.

On the other hand, it definitely held a lot of promise as far as the bucking of traditional Harris Christmases went, and Xander was all for that.

Sadly, he'd also totally lost his train of thought. "What are we looking for again?"

Giles did grin then, but it softened to a smile. “I can’t think of anything else I need,” he said, making it plain he wasn’t talking about self-indulgent festive goodies. “Unless –” He looked a little flustered suddenly, and Xander wondered why he was blushing when he wasn’t the one standing there thinking about which bits of him were going to get kissed in the hopefully near future. “Xander, I’m not saying we’ll need them, but I didn’t think to bring any, uh, supplies, not expecting, I mean, not wanting to assume, and it occurred to me that – unless you have some on hand? Otherwise – oh bloody hell, stop grinning.”

Flustered was, quite possibly, the best look ever on Giles. It made his eyes look really soft, and he got these little worry lines around them that Xander wanted to smooth away with his fingertips, and... well, there was just something about Giles looking so vulnerable that made Xander's heart melt. "It's okay," he said, tempted to tease Giles but thinking that with his luck karma would come back and bite him on the ass if he did. "We're covered." He considered the wording there and grinned wider in a self-deprecating kind of way. "In both the metaphorical and literal senses."

He was glad he’d been kind because Giles gave him a look of whole-hearted gratitude and admiration that melted into a distant, speculative stare, as though he was revising plans now he knew Xander had been a hopeful Boy Scout. “Neatly phrased, Xander. Good. Well, if we’re done here, shall we get some lunch?”

After a brief argument about who was going to pay, which Xander finally let Giles do with the understanding that he was going to be the one who paid for lunch, they walked the quarter mile to the hotel. The wind was starting to pick up again, and it was bringing a collection of suspicious looking gray clouds with it that Xander didn't like the look of, but he reminded himself that all that had to do was walk back to Traighshee House and they were home free. Pretend snowed in, even.

They swept into the hotel with the wind at their backs, Xander putting his free hand on Giles' arm for a few seconds to guide him in the direction of the small restaurant.

As he’d expected, it wasn’t full, though there were people at a few of the tables. No sign of John, or anyone he knew well enough to do more than nod at, which made things simple. He steered Giles to a table by the window, so they could look out at the bay and watch the white-tipped waves as they curled and crashed against the rocks.

Giles picked up a menu and scanned it. “Anything you recommend?”

"Pretty much everything I've had is good." Xander looked quickly at his own menu. "The Angus fillet -- that Glenmorangie sauce is amazing. And the venison casserole." He looked up at Giles, feeling ignorant. "I don't even know what you like."

Giles didn’t even look up from his menu. “Yes, you do,” he said. “In fact, you’re an authority on the subject.” He put the menu down and gave Xander a direct look. “The fillet sounds delicious.”

You'd think Xander would be used to directness, what with Cordelia and Anya, but for some reason when Giles was looking at him like that, he had a hard time figuring out what to say. Or thinking at all, actually. "Uh-huh," he managed to get out, then he realized that there was someone standing at his elbow, and turned his head to see one of the two regular waitresses.

"Glad to see you've weathered the storm all right," she said, smiling at him. "Can I start you two off with a pint?"

“Do you have any 80 shilling ale?” Giles asked. “I remembering trying that some years back and liking it.”

“In a bottle, aye; will that do?”

Giles nodded. “That’s fine, thanks.”

"Make it two?" Xander wasn't really in the mood for a beer, but he didn't figure one would hurt.

The waitress nodded. "Specials are on the board," she said, indicating the little chalkboard on the wall. "Only two today because of the holiday. I'll be right back with your drinks."

Xander shifted the bag of stuff they'd bought so that it was under the table and out of the way, then grinned at Giles.

“This place seems nice,” Giles said, “even if they go in for decorating with animals as much as the person who did Traighshee.”

He nodded at the far wall which was wallpapered in a deep red and decorated with antlers and some large fish mounted in a glass case.

"At least we can change stuff around at the house," Xander said. He hadn't given much thought to decorating, figuring that whatever he liked would end up being stuff that the Slayers who wound up staying there permanently -- well, not permanently, but more permanently than him -- couldn't stand. "But yeah, I don't know about the fish watching you eat your dinner thing. I mean, what if you were having fish? It's a little weird."

“It is,” Giles agreed, “but if you promise not to laugh, what really used to upset me as a child were the restaurants where you chose which lobster you wanted from a tank, and it was whisked away to be boiled alive.” He grimaced. “I’ve chopped demons limb from limb without a quiver, fished and hunted, so it’s totally illogical to be bothered by that, I know.”

"Nah, I get that. I mean -- they're all helpless in a tank. It's not the same as a demon that -- " Xander broke off as the waitress came over to their table with their bottles of beer and two glasses on a tray. "... was in that movie," he finished lamely.

"Are you ready to order?" the waitress asked, setting the second glass down and tucking the tray under her arm.

He'd forgotten about food. "Oh. Um..." Xander glanced at Giles quickly, hoping Giles would actually know what he wanted and give him a few more seconds to think.

“I think I’ll go with the steak,” Giles said, after a glance at the specials. “Medium rare, with potatoes, please.”

He gave the waitress a friendly smile and began to pour the beer, tilting the glass so that the head built up slowly, ending up as a thick, creamy layer on the top of the reddish- brown liquid. It looked as if it was something he'd done often enough that he could make it look easy. Xander was more used to beer you drank from the bottle, and he wondered if Giles would pour his for him, or if he should have a go and risk it overflowing. Either way he'd end up looking stupid.

Oh geez, he was supposed to be ordering his lunch. "Um... the venison casserole?" He handed over the menu. "Thanks."

Once the waitress had gone away again, Xander said, "You're supposed to stop me when I do stuff like that."

Giles took an appreciative sip of his beer and then tilted his head slightly, looking confused. “There’s so much that puzzles me about that sentence that I don’t know where to begin. Help me out by telling me what you think you did wrong.” He took another, longer drink from his beer and raised an enquiring eyebrow.

"Talk about demons in front of waitresses," Xander said, gesturing in the direction she'd gone. He picked up his own beer, looked from the bottle to the glass and back again, then just took a sip directly from the bottle.

“Well, I did it first,” Giles pointed out. “And I was talking about rending them limb from limb, so I’m the one who should have got a stern stare and a swift kick on the ankle, not you.”

"You were done talking before she got close enough to the table to hear," Xander said stubbornly.

“And you covered it up perfectly well, not to mention the fact that people hear what they want to, so she would have translated it into something innocuous in her head anyway.” Giles shrugged. “I don’t see why you’re being so hard on yourself about it, but consider yourself forgiven.” Xander felt a gentle tap against his leg and jumped. Giles smiled a little wickedly. “And kicked, if that makes you feel better,” he added.

"Gee, thanks," Xander said dryly, taking another sip of beer. "Hey, you know, this stuff is pretty good."

“Comes with having centuries to get it right, I suppose,” Giles said as the waitress appeared with their food, fragrant steam curling up from the laden plates.

Even though they'd had what Xander considered a decent sized breakfast and it wasn't much past noon, they both reached for their plates pretty eagerly. It wasn't until he'd had at least half a dozen bites of his rich gravy-thick casserole that Xander gestured at Giles' food. "You like?"

“I certainly do,” Giles said, “though the walk was supposed to get me fit, not build up an appetite.” He sighed. “I hadn’t appreciated how much benefit I got from training with Buffy until I stopped. There’s a gym at the London office, but it’s always full of Slayers, and I find that slightly intimidating to say the least.” He grinned, looking a little embarrassed. “Though after years of being called, ‘Giles’ at best, and ‘G-man’ at worst, ‘sir’ is a refreshing change, especially when they get all wide eyed when they say it.” He speared a baby carrot on his fork and said wistfully, clearly trying hard to keep a straight face, “None of you ever used to stare at me worshipfully. Total lack of respect. Shocking, really...."

Xander was aware that he was probably staring at Giles kind of worshipfully right that very minute. "You can train with me if you want," he offered, dropping his gaze back down to his plate and taking another bite of venison and pastry. "But seriously, I don't think you should worry about it. I mean... you look good to me." Better than good, and he felt his cheeks flush.

“I do? Really?” Giles looked as if he didn’t believe it, but he was definitely pleased, Xander could tell, and suddenly he stopped feeling anything but in a hurry to get home. “I’m still bruised just from holding onto the punch bag you were hitting,” Giles said, sounding as if he was making an effort to change the subject. “Possibly we could train in the same room, but I think I’d find you too... distracting.” He rolled his eyes. “I suppose that’s better than adorable, but feel free to tell me to stop going on about the effect you have on me.”

"Why would I want to do that?" Xander asked. "Besides, if I'm remembering right, the last time this happened you said I might need to tickle you to make you stop, and I'm thinking you really don't want me to do that here."

“I really don’t,” Giles said. “I’m too full to defend myself for one thing.” He pushed his plate away with a sigh. “That was delicious. Well worth the walk in.” He glanced around the room. “We seem to be about the last people here. Did you want dessert, or coffee? Or shall we get the bill?”

Xander looked out the window at the now gray sky. "I'd say let's get out of here before we get totally rained on on the walk back," he said, nodding at the waitress across the room to indicate that he wanted the check. At the same time, someone familiar walked into the dining room from the bar beyond it. John spotted them right away and smiled a little bit, but hesitated like he wasn't sure he wouldn't be interrupting, and Xander didn't want to wave him over if the whole thing was going to be awkward and if it would make Giles uncomfortable, and...

“You just froze,” Giles said, without turning his head, or altering his expression. Xander was pretty certain Giles couldn’t see John from where he was, but Watchers must get training in looking around corners, because he said quietly, “If John came in, and it wouldn’t bother you, by all means ask him to join us.”

"Thanks," Xander said simply, and made a little motion with his head, a 'come on over' kind of thing, and John came across the room toward them. "Hey."

"Hello, Xander. Mr -- " John paused, a look passing between him and Giles, then said, "Giles. How are things at the house?"

Xander took the bill from the waitress, who came up and smiled at them without saying anything before disappearing again, glanced at it, and took out his wallet. "Good. Well, you know, the roof didn't blow off or anything in the storm, although from how it's looking like rain out there I guess it could always surprise us." He put some cash inside the small leather folder and set it down on the table.

"And how are you liking the island?" John asked Giles.

“Very much,” said Giles. “Though I imagine I’m seeing a different side to it than the summer visitors do. I’d like to come back some day.” He stood up, stepping away from the table, and said, “I think the restaurant seems to be closing, but if the bar’s still open, would you take a drink with us before we go?” Xander couldn’t hear anything in his voice but a casual friendliness but he had a feeling that there was a whole silent conversation going on over his head.

"Actually there are some things that I need to tend to, but I appreciate the offer." John glanced at Xander, but for the most part his attention was on Giles. "And in any case, I wouldn't want to intrude."

Xander really wasn't sure if it was a good idea or not, but he didn't like the thought of John feeling unwelcome. "You wouldn't be intruding," he said.

“No,” Giles said, and he made it sound convincing without making too much of it. “You wouldn’t be, John, but I understand if you’re busy. Another time, perhaps?” He paused and then added, “I really would like to buy you a drink before I leave.”

John nodded. "I'd like that."

Xander snagged their bag from under the table and stood up too, stepping sideways to move in closer to Giles and telling himself it had nothing to do with the thought of Giles and John drinking together. He did feel like he should say something to John -- to thank him, or something -- but he had no idea what. Which seemed to be his problem a lot of the time, actually. "Thanks," he blurted out. "I mean... well, you know. Thanks. For everything."

He got a slow smile and an understanding look. John always did seem to understand Xander, no matter how drunk, rambling or just plain stuck for words he got, which was handy at times like this. “You’re welcome, Xander.” John glanced between them both, as if he was checking that they weren’t in need of any more help from him, and said, “You’d best hurry if you want to stay dry. Rain’ll be here soon. I’ll wish you a Happy Christmas, then.” He held out his hand to Giles, who shook it, and then turned to Xander, hesitating a little before gripping his shoulder for a moment and then patting his arm. “You’ll do,” he murmured, turning away.

And Xander was still stuck in not knowing what to say mode, so he just moved a little bit closer to Giles again, until their sleeves were touching. He waited until John had left the room, then glanced at Giles. "Home?" he asked.

“If you think we’re done here,” Giles said, his tone a little gentler than usual. He turned around and stared out of the window. “We’re going to get wet, aren’t we?” He sounded resigned to it rather than regretful.

"Probably. But then again, think about it this way," Xander said, as they started for the hotel's foyer, "once we get back, we don't have to leave the house again for at least two days." They stepped out the front door, and it was raining and windy and all the things it had been off and on -- and a heck of a lot more 'on' -- since he'd arrived in Scotland.

For once, Xander didn't care.

***
The storm has blown this great big beauty down
The branches all confusion on the ground

Cheryl Wheeler ‘Act of Nature’

 

Giles stared at the door of the house through rain-spattered glasses and increased his pace just a little now his goal was in reach. He wasn’t the sort to complain about a bit of rain, but this was a drenching, steady downpour, and the wind made sure it got into more places than it would normally have done. Giles could feel it trickling down the back of his neck in icy rivulets and it wasn’t pleasant.

Xander opened the door and slammed it closed as soon as they were both inside, the warm silence of the house welcoming after the rush of chill wind against them. Giles turned to look at Xander and forgot about damply clinging clothes because they were finally home and he could do what he’d been wanting to do for hours. He took off his jacket and hung it up, waiting until Xander had done the same before pulling him close and kissing him, in one eager, impatient movement. He supposed he should have waited until they’d changed into dry clothes, or at least moved a few feet further into the house, but the need to feel Xander’s mouth on his had been with him too long for that.

The hesitant, gentle kisses they’d shared had been good, but Giles wanted more than that now he was certain of Xander. The memory of Xander standing beside him, close enough that their arms brushed, as they spoke to John, making it clear that he was where he wanted to be, was sharp and bright in his mind as he felt Xander’s lips open under his.

Rainwater dripped onto his hand as he slid it under Xander’s hair to stroke the back of his neck, but all his attention was focused on a kiss that was rapidly becoming far more than that. He couldn’t get close enough to Xander, pushing against him until Xander was backed up against the wall and then sliding his leg between Xander’s, never taking his mouth away, never breaking the kiss to do more than bite down on Xander’s lip or lick at it. Nothing mattered but Xander arching and pressing against him, making frantic, hungry sounds, nothing at all....

He couldn’t remember sliding his hands under Xander’s sweater, only the shiver his cool hands forced from Xander, couldn’t remember whose hands had fumbled and tugged at buttons and zippers so that they could reach each other, only how hot Xander’s cock was against his palm, hard and wet-tipped, shifting in his grip as he squeezed and worked it with an insistence that stopped just short of demanding.

It took all his willpower to pause, but the need for more- more bare skin to touch, to kiss – meant moving somewhere else and as soon as Giles thought about that, he was distracted enough for it to dawn on him that he’d just grabbed Xander and practically thrown him against the wall.

He pulled back, gulping in air, trying to calm down enough to speak. “Sorry – just, God, Xander, I want you... sorry -”

Xander didn't let him get any further, just used his fingers entwined in Giles' shirt front to pull him in close again. Giles found himself being kissed, perhaps a bit more gently than before, but with no less desire. "Don't tell me you're sorry and that you want me in the same breath -- you might give me a complex." He could tell from Xander's tone that the younger man was amused. "You don't seriously think," Xander murmured, moving his mouth to Giles' throat and nipping at the sensitive skin there, "that I'm not just as desperate, do you? That I haven't been thinking about touching you all day?"

“Still shouldn’t have just –” Xander bit down harder, as if in warning, and Giles moaned, feeling the small, perfect pain shiver through him. “That’s... very convincing, Xander.”

"Oh, you have yet to see how convincing I can be," Xander said, sliding his hand down to cup Giles' arse. "So what do you say? You think we should--"

Whatever Xander had meant to say was cut off by a dull roaring sound that seemed to make the house tremble slightly, and ended with a sliding crash and the tinkle of shattering glass.

"What the -- " Before Giles could move, Xander had pushed past him, disappearing further into the house without apparent thought for his safety.

Giles took a deep breath, slammed his hand against the wall as an effective, if painful way of relieving some of the frustration he was feeling, and walked after him quickly, zipping and buttoning as he went.

Xander wasn’t hard to find, nor was the reason for the noise. Its roots weakened by the rain and gales, the tree planted to protect the house from the sea winds had finally torn free of the soft earth and fallen, close enough that the upper branches had smashed through a window in one of the empty rooms. As Giles came through the door, his body already shifting into readiness to fight, assuming the worst because that was what he was used to dealing with, the tree sighed and settled as its own weight bore it down and a branch sticking into the room slipped sideways, catching Xander’s arm.

“Xander!” Giles went to him quickly. “Are you hurt?”

Seeming more interested in assessing the damage to the house than his own body, Xander shrugged off Giles' concern. "I'm fine, but I'm going to need something to put over this frame temporarily." He considered the problem for a moment as the wind blew rain into the room. "There's some plywood out in the shed -- I'm gonna go grab it and some tools. Can you grab the dustpan and brush from the cupboard in the kitchen and try to sweep up some of this glass? Just be careful -- don't cut yourself."

Without waiting for a reply, Xander went back the way they'd come, surely not pausing long enough to put his jacket on before there was the sound of the door opening as he went out into the rain.

Giles stared after him and then turned to look at the damage. It would be easy enough to saw off the branch, but from what he remembered of the tree, hauling it away from the house would require more than a little effort. It wasn’t how he’d planned to spend Christmas Eve and as it was getting dark outside, he had a feeling Xander’s temporary fix was going to have to do for now.

Dustpan and brush. And he had to be careful. Shaking his head, Giles went to the kitchen, doing what any Englishman would and putting on the kettle. Disaster required a cup of tea to make it better. The way he felt right then, it’d take a potful.

He’d just finished sweeping up the glass, with nothing worse than one tiny nick on his finger, when Xander came back, dragging a sheet of plywood over to the corner and vanishing again, this time returning with saw, hammer and nails.

“Can I help you at all?” Giles asked politely. “Perhaps I could hold the nails for you?”

"I think I've got it," Xander said. It wasn't dismissive, but it was clear that he was distracted, so Giles stood around a bit and watched as Xander took care of the branch and tossed it back outside.

The kettle came to a boil about then, and by the time he came back from having taken it off Xander had begun to hammer nails into the window frame, the plywood propped with one knee. He worked with a sense of self-confidence that seemed admirable despite the relative simplicity of the task, seemingly ignorant of the fact that he was dripping wet.

He'd got down to the last two nails before he said anything. "Giles?"

"Yes?"

"I love you." Xander was still looking at the job in front of him. "In the 'in love' kind of way. I mean... I don't think I've ever been good at saying that. And maybe I won't ever be, which I realize doesn't count as an excuse or anything, but... well. I just thought I should tell you."

The mild annoyance that in a household emergency Xander seemed to see him as, well, not useless perhaps, but superfluous, had been fading in the face of Xander’s competence. Giles had seen Xander work before and found it satisfying to watch in the same way that watching Buffy fight was – smooth, effortless and coordinated. Now the annoyance left him entirely, along with the ability to speak for a moment, because he hadn’t realised how much he’d needed to hear Xander say that. Xander had shown him he was loved, but Giles knew he hadn’t trusted his interpretation of Xander’s actions. He’d needed it said and that left him feeling as if he owed Xander an apology, but there had been enough of those.

Xander’s fingers, steady and deft, positioned the last nail and he tapped it home in a series of hammer strokes, perfectly graded in strength, driving it deep into the wood.

Giles spoke into the silence. “I don’t how you could say it any better than that, Xander. Thank you. And just so we’re clear about it, I’m in love with you, too - and it’s not all that easy to say, you’re right – but I am, and it feels –” he hesitated, trying to find the words. “It’s making me feel very happy,” he finished. Which was about as eloquent as he was capable of right then, and he hoped it was enough.

Turning, Xander set the hammer down on the nearest tabletop. "Me too." He glanced down at himself. "Of course, right now I'm also feeling wet, and since that's a feeling I could live without..."

Giles shivered, suddenly becoming aware of his own damp clothes. “I think getting changed out of our wet clothes before we sprout mildew might be in order, yes.” He walked over to the door and paused. “Do you think if we tried to finish what we were doing, the roof would fall in? Or should we, uh, take a rain check - and I can’t think why that’s not a British expression; I’m sure we’d have more occasion to use it than you do.”

"Actually, I think if we don't finish what we were doing I might not be able to sit down," Xander said, moving behind Giles and slipping an arm around his waist. The position, with Xander's front pressed against Giles' back, made it clear what Xander was referring to, although it did leave Giles to wonder if Xander had been hard all that time, a thought that made him shiver again with something other than the chill. "I don't suppose there's any way I could convince you into taking a shower with me?"

“I think there are plenty of ways you could,” Giles said, feeling his own arousal return at the thought of Xander against him, naked and wet, smooth skin made smoother by water and soap, “but as I don’t need any convincing, you don’t have to. You do have to let go of me though, or we won’t make it up the stairs.”

He turned within the circle of Xander’s arm and let his mouth brush against Xander’s, ignoring his own advice because he couldn’t wait that long for another kiss.

Xander groaned in what Giles thought was frustration. "I don't want to let go." he said, but then reluctantly did so.

They made their way up the stairs quickly, not pausing more than once or twice to touch and exchange brief kisses, and soon enough they were in Xander's bedroom, and Giles found himself being undressed by eager hands that didn't seem content until they were against his bare skin.

Not that he was any less eager himself. He’d gone to sleep feeling content to do no more than curl against Xander, tiredness taking him quickly into a sound sleep, but since they’d woken up it’d been an endless pattern of arousal thwarted by circumstances and Giles had reached his limit of patience. He matched Xander’s actions, resisting the temptation to snatch more than a kiss or two as he pulled at the damp clothing that was stopping him from seeing and touching Xander.

Yet once they were naked, the need to hurry left Giles. He was certain they weren’t going to be interrupted now, and though the arousal that had driven him to the point of desperation when they got home was still there, making him ache, making him harder than he could remember being for a very long time, it wasn’t ruling him now.

He stepped back, not out of reach, just far enough to be able to look at Xander. It wasn’t something he could imagine getting tired of doing, especially when he could follow the track of his eyes with his hands and fingers, sliding them over broad shoulders and strong arms, dipping his head to kiss where he’d touched...

Xander stood still for him and Giles slid to his knees, kissing his way down a flat stomach, following the trail of fine dark hair with his tongue, lapping at Xander’s cock and going just a little further down, catching the warm, musky scent of him and almost regretting the fact that it would be lost in a few minutes.

He stood then and said in a voice gone husky with need, “Are you ready?”

"Ready for what?" Xander asked. "Not that it matters, since I'm pretty sure the answer is 'yes.'" He ran a somewhat less than warm hand up Giles' arm, then turned away to turn on the water in the shower, providing Giles with a view that he was more than happy to look at. Steam began to fill the room almost immediately, and Xander reached for Giles' hand and drew him under the spray, the two of them both relaxing as the hot water poured over them, driving away the last of the lingering chill that their rainy walk had left behind.

They didn't seem to need to speak at first. Xander had a bar of a glycerine soap in his hands, rubbing up a thin lather before sliding his palms over Giles' chest. He seemed to be concentrating quite determinedly on the task, as though it were both enjoyable and mesmerizing. His fingertips found Giles' nipples unerringly, circling them with a teasing touch before pinching more firmly.

Even slicked with soap, Giles could still feel the slight roughness of Xander’s fingers, calloused from his work. They felt perfect against his skin, scratching at it just enough to make him keenly aware that it was Xander touching him, not his own smoother hands. He’d imagined this sometimes; showering alone in his London flat, with nothing but memories and guesswork to go on, closing his eyes and trying to fool himself that the hands that touched him were Xander’s. He hadn’t come close to the reality. The sound of the water washed away his gasp of pleasure as his cock throbbed as if it, not his nipples was being teased, but Xander glanced up as if he’d heard it, and smiled.

Xander stepped to the side a bit, one arm going around Giles' back to pull him in for a kiss while the other hand slid lower and wrapped around his cock, squeezing expertly and making Giles very glad for the support of Xander's arm.

Their mouths met, hot and slick, tasting like the water that was pouring over them.

The urgency returned with the kiss and Giles reached down, running his thumb along the underside of Xander’s cock with a steady pressure, letting his fingers curl loosely around it until Xander pushed against him eagerly, his tongue darting inside Giles’ mouth. Giles let his grip tighten then, flicking his thumb up to rub across the head, feeling a wetness that he knew was from more than the water. He moved his other hand from Xander’s shoulder to his back, dragging it slowly down his spine, nails digging in slightly, until Xander arched against him and the back of Giles’ hand rubbed against Xander’s stomach.

His other hand moved lower, fingers grazing the cleft of Xander’s backside, palm flat against one cheek, wanting to see how Xander would react before doing anything else.

Xander groaned softly, caught between both of Giles' hands as he was, hips rocking as if he was searching for just the right touch. His own grip on Giles' erection was perfect -- fingers wrapped firmly around the shaft, slow strokes that weren't too gentle and that moved slickly over the tip. Every third or fourth stroke Xander's hand would pause, fingers sliding down to the base of the shaft to pull at his balls with a sweet insistent pressure.

Stroking Xander's cock again, Giles felt it throb in his grip, and Xander groaned into his mouth again. "God, Giles..." Lips that were water-slick traveled over his cheek to the side of his throat, sucking and biting. Xander shuddered again. "I was hoping we'd, you know... be able to do--" A gasp as Giles' hand, seemingly with a mind of its own, squeezed. "More stuff." Xander sounded nearly breathless. "But I'm... oh God..."

Xander wasn’t feeling anything that Giles wasn’t, and hearing him say it like that was as arousing as feeling him move, unconsciously rubbing against Giles in a restless, desperate search for release. “Oh, we will,” he said, gritting out the words and trying to hold onto his control for just a few moments more, because Xander felt so good and what he was doing felt even better – “Promise you, we will –”

"I want... oh God -- " Xander seemed to have been reduced to incomplete sentences. His hips pressed forward against Giles, the curve of his backside suddenly tensing under Giles' palm, his cock throbbing once more in warning of the inevitable before he came over Giles' hand with a series of small wordless cries.

Giles turned his head to watch him, loving the vulnerability of his face, open and lost in sensation – then Xander’s hand tightened and jerked at his cock and that was all it took. He came with an intense rush of pleasure, clutching desperately at Xander, holding him as close as he could. As he felt the first surge of warmth spill from his cock, he dropped his head to bite down on Xander’s shoulder, hearing himself making sounds that blended with the ones Xander was voicing, losing himself in the shared moment until it passed and left him trembling with reaction. He turned his head and captured Xander’s mouth with his, kissing him because he couldn’t speak right then.

He felt Xander's hand release him gently, felt it slide up over his stomach and chest, up the side of his throat until it was cupping his face, all while they continued to kiss slowly. "So much for getting clean," Xander murmured, with humor in his voice. "Now we have to start all over again."

Giles glanced down and grinned a little weakly. “Better hurry,” he managed to say, feeling his heart rate slow down to normal. “Water’s cooling off.”

It didn't take long, now that they were at least temporarily sated, to wash themselves down. Xander turned off the water and stepped out onto the mat, grabbing one towel for himself and handing a second to Giles as he got out as well. He could feel Xander giving him thoughtful glances as they dried themselves, so it didn't surprise him when the other man asked, a bit hesitantly, "So... any chance you might still, you know, want to..."

Giles threw his damp towel over the railing and looked at him. “Let’s go and lie down,” he said, seeing Xander shiver in the cooler air. “That’s not an answer to your question,” he added, seeing something that might have been anticipation or apprehension cross Xander’s face. “I just want to –” He hesitated, wondering why it was so difficult to say something so simple. “I want to hold you,” he finished. “Just lie down next to you for a while, hold you, and wait for my legs to stop feeling the way they do.” He moved towards the door and took Xander’s hand as he went past him, drawing him into the bedroom. “And yes. Every chance.”

He drew back the covers and pulled Xander down into the bed with him, the two of them curling up together cautiously, still trying to get comfortable with each other. Once the blankets were settled over them, Xander's arm around Giles' waist and his own hand resting on the side of Xander's face, thumb tracing over the skin there, he felt better.

"You okay?" Xander asked, his hand sliding across Giles' back in little soothing movements.

“Very much so,” Giles replied. “Just a little... overwhelmed, perhaps?” He tried to put what he was feeling into words, glancing at the clock beside Xander’s bed. “It’s been just over two days since I first kissed you and this – all of it – is so much more than I’d ever imagined....” He thought about that and grinned reluctantly. “Well, maybe I imagined it. You’ve had a starring role in quite a few fantasies of mine in recent weeks. And yes, what we just did was one of them and it was far better in reality. You’re just so....” He kissed Xander, a slow, gentle kiss that turned eager in moments, until Giles broke away. “See what you do to me?” he said softly.

Xander's hand moved lower, caressing the curve of Giles' hip in a suggestive way that made him shiver. "I like that I do that to you," Xander said, tilting his head for another kiss, this one longer, their tongues flickering over each other. "I'd like to do more stuff to you," between more kisses, with a salacious grin curving his lips upward into something irresistible. "And vice versa. Speaking of which..."

Without further discussion, Xander pushed gently on Giles' hip, rolling him flat onto his back and keeping him pinned there. Then Xander slid down in the bed and Giles felt warm breath moving over his cock, as Xander murmured, "Thought I'd give this another try," and then took the shaft in hand and licked the tip wetly.

Giles wouldn’t have thought it possible for him to be aroused again so soon, but he was happy to be proved wrong. It was as if what they’d just shared had done no more than taken the edge off a hunger that had been building for too long to be satisfied so easily. He knew he wasn’t going to come as fast this time, and he was looking forward to this lasting. Though if Xander carried on like that –

“You’re very – good at that,” he said, his words catching in his throat as he tried not to whimper, stretching out his hand and tangling it in Xander’s damp hair. “God, Xander –” The breath shuddered out of him as Xander started to experiment, his teeth circling the head of Giles’ cock as his tongue lapped at it. Giles trusted him not to bite down on purpose but wondering if he would accidentally certainly wasn’t helping to keep him calm – and yes, it was turning him on too.

Xander pulled his mouth away long enough to ask, "You didn't believe me when I said I was a fast learner?" His tongue probed the head of Giles' erection, darting into the little hole at the tip several times, and when he shifted his position slightly Giles could feel Xander's own length brush against his leg. Xander's hips moved again restlessly, and when he took Giles' cock deep into his mouth he groaned a bit, the sound reverberating through Giles and drawing an answering gasp from him.

“Oh, yes, I did.” Giles bit down hard on his lip, letting the sharp pain distance himself from what Xander’s mouth was doing, so that he could focus on more than the slide of lips and tongue against his erection as Xander’s head moved up and down, each time taking in more, until Giles could feel the head of his cock brush against the back of Xander’s throat. He glanced down his body at Xander and grinned, loving his confidence and remembering how it had been for him in those early days with Ethan. He felt excitement sweep through him, brushing aside his faint concern that Xander was pushing himself too hard.

“Want me to teach you some more?”

"Tell me," Xander said, the soft rumble of the words through his vocal chords creating yet another sensation along Giles' shaft. "You know, what you like. Feels like I'm working blind here." He glanced up and met Giles' gaze. "Well, half-blind."

The final words made Giles wince inwardly, though he kept his face from showing it. Xander was doing that too much; drawing attention to something that didn’t need mentioning, joking about it the way he did when he was hiding how he felt. Now wasn’t the time to discuss it, but Giles promised himself that they would.

“I could tell you,” Giles said, propping himself up on his elbows. “I could tell you that I like it when you tease me, light, flickering touches with your tongue until I can’t stand it any more and I just want to hold you still, my hands against your face and push inside your mouth, feel you surround me. And I could tell you how good it feels when you use your hands at the same time as you’re licking and sucking me, tight around my cock, my balls. But you know that. You’ve had this done to you. I can’t imagine we react all that differently to each other.”

He hadn't counted on his words making Xander flush -- hadn't anticipated it at all actually -- and he immediately reached down to touch the side of Xander's face.

"It's different," Xander muttered, closing his eye briefly at the touch, but then opening it again. "You know, being the one doing it. How do I know if..." He trailed off, looking suddenly insecure.

“If you’re doing it right?” Giles said, not moving his hand away. “Making me whimper isn’t enough of a clue? Getting me hard again this soon?” He touched himself with his other hand, running a finger slowly along his erection then gripping it and pumping it fast, flicking his thumb casually over the head when his hand got high enough, just as he would have done if he’d been alone. “I do that and it feels good, yes, but if you did it we’d be back with me not being able to much more than moan. You can’t do anything wrong, Xander. Not with me.” He paused and then said simply, “And if you do, I’ll tell you if you promise to do the same. Any time, every time. If I’m doing something you don’t like, or don’t want, tell me and I’ll stop.”

Xander was watching Giles' hand as he worked himself, seemingly transfixed at the sight. "It's not so much that I think I'm doing it wrong," he said, rather faintly. "It doesn't matter what people in general might like -- I want to know what you like."

“Well, I think I’d have trouble telling you while you were doing it,” Giles pointed out, keeping his voice solemn but aware of the underlying humour in the situation. He was old enough not to take sex quite as seriously as Xander seemed to, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t just as keen on them getting past this mild awkwardness. “In fact, as you render me speechless, why don’t we take advantage of that?”

Without waiting for Xander to ask him what he meant, he rolled onto his side. Xander was lying across the bed, his head resting on Giles’ thigh. “Turn around so I can reach you,” he said, tugging at Xander’s leg gently. “We don’t have to take it in turns, after all.”

After a moment Xander seemed to understand what he was getting at, and moved so his head was pointing toward the foot of the bed. Almost immediately Giles felt Xander's mouth close around him again, hot and wet, but just for a few seconds. Then Xander pulled back, licking at his foreskin as gentle fingertips rubbed along the underside of his balls, and although the sensation made him shudder, Giles leant forward and closed his own hand around Xander's shaft. He smiled at the low-pitched sound that escaped Xander.

He shifted so he was comfortable, feeling Xander do the same, both of them settling into a position that let them touch and be touched. Taking his time, he slipped his hand down to circle the base of Xander’s cock, holding it so that he could lick the tip, his tongue tracing circles around the head but not touching it with his lips. It was difficult to concentrate, because what Xander was doing to him was demanding his full attention, but well worth the effort. Xander was so responsive... Giles opened his lips a little, keeping his teeth together, and let the head of Xander’s cock slip between his lips to rub against the hard smoothness for a moment. He felt Xander’s hips push forward and put his left hand on his hip, holding him in place.

Xander made a little sound of protest, then seemed to relax a bit, his hand moving to Giles' hip as if mirroring the position. And as Giles pulled back, and then let the head of Xander's cock into his mouth again for another brief moment, he realized that Xander was doing the same, copying what was being done to him on Giles' own erection.

Clever Xander, Giles thought, opening his lips just wide enough, no more, and feeling his teeth scrape gently against the sides of Xander’s cock as he took it inside his mouth. Xander tried that too but bit down a little too hard. Giles had been expecting that and didn’t flinch, settling for lifting his hand a little and tapping it against Xander’s backside in a gentle warning, before doing it again and waiting.

This time Xander managed it nearly perfectly, the barest scrape of teeth along his shaft, just enough to make him want to groan. Giles next tried taking Xander deep into his throat and then pulling back while applying a fair amount of suction, something that he himself enjoyed and couldn't imagine Xander not liking.

If the sound that escaped Xander then were any indication, he liked it very well indeed. Then Xander mirrored the move on Giles' erection, improvising with a gentle tug at his balls at the same time, and Giles was the one making sounds of unexpected pleasure.

It was turning into a game of ‘follow-my-leader’, with just the barest tinge of competition spicing it as Xander’s confidence grew. Giles felt the unspoken challenge and answered it by letting Xander’s cock slide from his mouth so he could move down to swirl his tongue around his balls, still slightly damp from their shower. He took one carefully into his mouth, sucking and licking at it gently, feeling it tighten as he moved his hand from Xander’s hip to curl around his shaft, stroking it hard. Nothing he was doing was new to him, but because this was Xander, it felt as if it was, as if this was the first time he’d felt the soft tickle of hair against his tongue, the shifting hardness encased in soft skin rolling inside his mouth.

Xander groaned, and then moved his mouth down to Giles' balls, licking and sucking more tentatively than was strictly necessary, although Giles appreciated the caution. He both felt and heard Xander's next groan, felt Xander shudder under his hand as the younger man got that much closer to the place where release was possible. "God, Giles," he said, pulling back a little bit, his breath warm over Giles' skin. "This is..."

Giles freed up his mouth and rested his head against Xander’s leg, letting his hand drift idly across Xander’s stomach, enjoying the way it tensed under his touch. “Fun?” he suggested, turning his head to kiss just where the skin was soft and smooth, high up on the inside of Xander’s leg.

"That too," Xander agreed. "Although I was going to go with something more like 'unbelievably hot.'"

Giles licked where he’d kissed and blew on it, kissing it warm again before Xander had time to shiver. “It can get hotter,” he said.

"Yeah, I kind of figured." Xander's fingers played across the sensitive skin of his balls, distracting him. "Was there something in particular you had in mind?"

“If you keep doing that, I’ll forget my own name, let alone my plans for your seduction.” Giles said, nudging his hips forward. “Let me see... I want to fuck you. There, I knew it’d come back to me eventually.” He shrugged. “Or you can fuck me. I find both, ah, hot, but I imagine you’ll want to try it both ways a few times to decide for yourself.” He glanced down at Xander who looked a little stunned. “And if you’ve changed your mind, or I’ve misunderstood you, it can wait,” he said. “There’s no rush at all.”

"No," Xander said, blinking. "I just didn't... I mean, do people actually say stuff like that? Actual people? Because here all this time I'd thought Faith and Anya were exceptions to the rule. You know, that it was some kind of Slayer, Ex-Vengeance-Demon thing." He covered his face with one hand. "Oh God, I didn't mean it like that. I mean, I'm sure this is totally normal. I just... didn't know."

Giles felt the laughter build up until he couldn’t hold it back. “Yes, Xander, they do, or possibly I fell in with a bad crowd at an impressionable age.” He moved, twisting around to lie beside Xander. “I’m sorry,” he said contritely, kissing him, “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s just that after years of you all calling me a stuffed shirt and the man who put the fuddy next to duddy...well, shocking you without even trying struck me as amusing.” He kissed him again, stroking his hand down Xander’s back. “It’s a perfectly good verb, you know.”

Xander moved in closer. "Oh, I know." He collected a kiss of his own, this one significantly longer and more passionate than the two Giles had just initiated, then bent his head to catch Giles' earlobe between his teeth briefly. "Think we could put it into practice?" he murmured.

Giles shivered from both the nip at his ear and Xander’s words, but held back on the enthusiastic agreement he wanted to voice. “Once you promise you’ll ask me to stop if needed, yes,” he said firmly. “And we’re going to need those supplies you said you had.”

"Oh! Yeah." Xander gave him a quick kiss before getting up out of bed and going to retrieve said supplies, allowing Giles a long look at his naked form while he rummaged through two drawers. When he came back over to the bed holding a small bottle and a few small foil packets, Xander looked more than a bit apprehensive. He sat down on the side of the bed, the mattress dipping under his weight, the sound of the rainfall outside a soft hush. The mid-afternoon light was grey at best, and as they hadn't turned on any lamps in the room, there were shadows across Xander's face and chest. "Sorry," Xander said. "I guess I'm just having one of those moments when this all seems kind of unreal."

“Whereas I’m cool as a cucumber and perfectly relaxed?” Giles said, raising his eyebrows. He shook his head. “I’m not, you know. This is... I’ve never done this with someone who hadn’t already tried it and knew what to expect. I’m – really not helping, am I?”

He couldn’t help noticing that neither of them was fully erect anymore; too much talking, he supposed, and now Xander was looking as if he’d rather be anywhere but here.

"No, you're helping." Making an obvious effort, Xander reached out and ran a hand along Giles' arm. "This is just proof of something I learned a long time ago -- too much talking? Bad. Rates right up there with too much thinking." He shoved the things in his other hand underneath the pillow that was nearest to him and pushed at Giles' hip playfully. "Move over. Bed hog."

Giles pretended to glare at him. “I’m not the one who sleeps diagonally,” he said sternly as he moved across the bed. “And believe me, you won’t be getting away with it a third night in a row.”

Xander opened his mouth to reply and Giles cut him off with a kiss, drawing it out until he was fairly certain Xander had forgotten what he was going to say. It took no more than that for him to be as eager as he had been ten minutes before, with Xander’s erection rubbing against his stomach and Xander’s thigh between his, high enough that it brushed against his balls with a maddeningly light touch.

Then Xander shifted back slightly, putting enough space between them so that he could snake a hand down and wrap his fingers around Giles' aching cock. His lips parted, inviting Giles' tongue to dart in and taste the inside of that warm mouth. "Don't stop this time," Xander said, when the kiss had finally broken. "I want to do everything."

For a moment, Giles thought about what that meant when applied to his own experience, and shivered, remembering. Not a lot he and Ethan hadn’t tried, when he’d been younger than Xander, but a lot less innocent... and some of it had been good, bad or indifferent - and some of it still featured in his dreams now and then, until he woke half regretful, half relieved, into a reality that had narrowed until there was no going back, even if he'd wanted to.

And this wasn't a return. This was a fresh start.

The light was perfect now; not dark, and he didn’t want it to be, but dim and soft. He’d left his glasses off and the corners of the room had receded, until all that he could see with any clarity was contained in the reach of his arms, on an old cotton quilt washed to the texture of silk.

He bent his head and kissed Xander’s throat, until he tilted his chin to let Giles kiss under his ear, around to the back of his neck, turning to his stomach almost without realising it as Giles carried on kissing him through the thick hair that brushed his shoulders, holding his attention, slipping his hand under the pillow and taking what he needed.

Giles smoothed his hand down over one buttock, letting his palm curve to the shape of it. Then he slid the same hand up the back of Xander's thigh, smiling gently at the soft sigh Xander gave as Giles brushed his fingers against the back of his balls, the soft skin there drawing up further at the touch.

The sound of the cap on the bottle of lubricant flipping up seemed loud in the quiet room, but Xander didn't flinch when it came, and he didn't flinch at the first touch of Giles' slick fingers over his balls and perineum. There was no reason not to take their time about this, so Giles spent long minutes gliding his wet fingertips over the sensitive skin near Xander's entrance without actually touching it, waiting for something to tell him that Xander was ready.

And all the time he was kissing Xander -- the side of his throat, his shoulder, listening to the sound of Xander's breathing, and when he finally heard a tiny moan of need and noted a restless shifting of Xander's hips, Giles finally rubbed a finger over the small tight opening.

Xander moaned again, a bit more loudly.

Giles had been concentrating so much on Xander’s reactions that the jolt of arousal he felt at that took him by surprise, as he became aware of the insistent signals his own body was sending. He paused for a second, trying to regain a measure of control. Kissing Xander once more on his shoulder, he placed his hand in the small of Xander’s back, spreading his fingers wide in a reassuring caress and then started to slide his finger inside him.

Xander tilted his hips, pushing back just a little, making it easier than Giles had expected, and it was he, not Xander, who voiced a soft, wordless sound when his finger worked deeper in, clenched and held by the tight muscles.

Seemingly incapable of staying still, Xander shifted his hips again, the movement accompanied by a soft gasp. "God... Giles."

Giles began to slide his finger in and out slowly, going deeper on each gentle thrust. That had really been the most difficult moment for Xander; that first intrusion – not painful, not really, not yet - but there was that sense of a line crossed.

“Need to do more than this, if you’re ready,” he murmured, never stilling his hand, “I want to be inside you, Xander... you’ve no idea how much.”

Xander had turned his face into the pillow, using it to stifle the soft sounds he was making, his shoulders tense but not distressingly so, and Giles felt him shudder in response to his words. "Do what you need to," Xander said, rocking his hips again. "God... this is... it feels..."

Giles knew just what it felt like. It wasn’t something he’d forget, no matter how long it’d been - that need for more building up inexorably, the awareness of pleasure waiting, gathering strength...so he drizzled a little more cool liquid over his fingers and gave Xander more, letting him adjust to a second finger, then a third, until there was no need to wait any longer since the only tension in Xander’s body was from the same desperate need Giles was feeling.

From the sounds Xander was making now it seemed that he might be biting down on the pillow in an attempt to stop himself from being so vocal. His hips were moving regularly with the rhythm of Giles' hand, pushing his erection against the mattress.

Suddenly, Xander shifted his weight, pushing himself up onto his forearms, although his head was still low. The new position prevented him from rubbing his cock against the sheets, and at the same time seemed an invitation that was then reinforced when he spoke. "Please," Xander said, his voice strained. "Giles, just... I need..."

“I know,” Giles said, his voice hoarse, “I know what you need, Xander.”

He let his fingers slip out and moved to the side to reach for a handful of tissues, drying his hand so that he didn’t waste time trying to open the condom with slippery fingers. He didn’t look at Xander as he rolled it over his erection and used more lubricant, trying to find some measure of the control that he knew he was close to losing. Then he knelt behind him and ran his hands from Xander’s shoulders to his hips, feeling Xander shiver as he touched him.

Giles didn’t make Xander wait any longer. Bringing his hands across, he laid them against Xander’s backside, parting it and rubbing his thumbs over Xander’s opening before letting the head of his cock rest against it. As soon as it was in place, he pushed forward just a little and dropped his hand to grip the base of his cock, guiding it inside Xander in short, gentle strokes, gritting his teeth against the need to thrust deeply.

Xander was making little pained noises, but they seemed to be as much from desire as from discomfort if the way his body was moving to meet Giles' cock was any indication. "God," Xander said, and Giles pushed in a bit deeper. There was plenty of lubrication, and that combined with the delicious heat of Xander's body made it so very difficult to stay in control. Xander's legs were trembling, his breathing a series of small harsh groans as if he couldn't find enough room for air in his lungs.

Giles slid his hands over to grip Xander’s hips, trying not to hold him too tightly because the friction of Xander’s skin sliding against his palms was something he could focus on, a needed distraction. They were finding a rhythm now and that felt unbearably good, so much so that it took Giles a moment to realise that they’d reached the point where he was deep inside Xander and could finally stop holding back.

He paused, feeling the sharp bones of Xander’s hip rub past his fingers, holding him still for one long moment, until Xander made a sound of protest.

Then he pulled back and thrust forward at once, repeating it over and over, fast, deep thrusts, hearing the sounds he was making, deep, guttural moans that he couldn’t have held back if he’d tried, because Xander was tight around his cock, moving with him towards a release Giles could feel waiting for them both.

The sounds Xander was making just spurred him on, and when Xander began to rock backward to meet his thrusts, Giles thought for a moment that he'd lose all control.

"Oh God." The words were shaky and desperate. "God, don't stop, I... Giles, I can't..."

Giles reached around and curled his fingers around Xander’s cock, feeling a pang of guilt that he’d neglected him. It was rigid and hot in his hand and he squeezed it hard, stripping it with fast, short jerks of his wrist as he continued to drive into Xander, feeling his climax build. He was curved over Xander now, his fingers digging into his hip, his breath torn out of him in gasps.

“Xander – going to come – come with me, Xander – please –”

Why it mattered so much that this once they came together, he didn’t know, but it did.

He felt Xander begin to come, the cock in his hand pulsing strongly like a heartbeat as fluid shot out over his fingers. Xander's cry, a hoarse shout, was, Giles thought later, what pushed him over the edge, more so than the feel of Xander coming in Giles' hand or the way his body clenched enticingly around Giles' own cock. It was like an incredibly perfect dream, something he'd despaired of having and even now had difficulty accepting the reality of.

And maybe that was why it mattered -- because it made it all the more perfect.

But then it ceased to matter, because Giles felt his own release begin to sweep through him as Xander's body contracted in a series of shock-tightening ripples around him, and he was lost.

He cried out, and it was Xander’s name in his head, no matter what came out of his mouth, came in that first long, endless surge that should have been enough, but his hips jerked forward again and again, until he was hollowed out and empty.

Giles pulled out of Xander slowly, feeling his legs trembling with reaction and knelt beside him, head down, taking deep, shuddering breaths. He peeled off the condom, wrapping it in the tissues he’d used earlier, and lay down by Xander, wrapping his arm around his shoulder and kissing the side of his face.

Xander stirred after a moment, shifting and seeming to sink even more heavily into the mattress, were that possible. His expression was dazed, pleased, a bit as if he'd had a dose of an opiate and was still reeling with the effects. "That was..." He cleared his throat and smiled beatifically. "Wow."

“Is that better than ‘unbelievably hot’?” Giles said, smoothing the hair off Xander’s face and kissing him again. “Because if it isn’t, I’m going to have to disagree with you.”

"Mm. Not better. Shorter." Xander turned some more and slid an arm around Giles' neck, pulling him closer for a longer kiss. "Short words good."

“I love you,” Giles said as if testing the words. “Yes, they are, you’re quite correct.” He smiled, shifting closer, letting his hands rove across Xander’s back in slow, gentle sweeps. “I love you, Xander - no, Xander’s one syllable too long. What a pity, when I’ve set my heart on you.” He looked thoughtful. “It can be the exception that proves the rule, perhaps.”

Xander blinked and looked at him. "You said 'syllable,'" he pointed out, reasonably enough. "And 'exception.' Those both have three." His hand slid up the back of Giles' neck into his hair, cupping the back of his head, and gave it a gentle shake back and forth. "I love you too. And those are all one." He blinked again. "And so are those. I'm good at this." Again that smile, wide and peaceful.

“So you are,” Giles said, smiling back. The cool air made him shiver and he tugged the quilt down, so they could get underneath it. The room was dark now and he couldn’t see Xander’s face clearly, but it didn’t matter because his eyes were closing anyway, and he knew just where Xander was because he was holding onto him.

***

Xander wasn't sure how long they'd been lying there -- he thought at one point he might have dozed off, but it was one of those things where he wasn't sure. Which, come to think of it, probably meant he had.

At some point he'd turned over so that he was facing away from Giles, and now the other man's arm was over him, holding him close, his back against Giles' chest. He could feel Giles' chest moving gently as he breathed, so regularly that he wasn't sure if Giles was awake or asleep either. Not that it mattered, because he couldn't remember the last time he'd been so comfortable.

Every once in a while he'd get that little stab of guilt that he'd forgotten that Willow was dead. It wasn't getting less painful, but he was maybe getting used to it. It hurt like Anya's death had hurt at first, or like Jesse's had a long time ago, and he'd gotten used to those too. The realization -- that some day it wouldn't hurt so much -- made him feel worse instead of better, because it was supposed to hurt, wasn't it?

So much for being comfortable, Xander realized, and sighed quietly.

“That didn’t sound very happy,” Giles said, in a voice that was low but not particularly sleepy. “Or am I reading too much into the way you’re breathing out?”

Xander slid his hand down over Giles' arm and then linked their fingers together. "I'm fine," he said, because he couldn't say 'it's nothing' and he didn't want to remind Giles if he was in the blissful not-remembering zone.

“You went to sleep feeling better than fine,” Giles said. “Unless I misread the situation. What changed?” He tightened his fingers for a moment and said softly, pressing his lips against Xander's shoulder in a brief kiss. “Was it what we did? If you didn’t like it, we don’t have to do it again, really.”

A sound kind of like a laugh escaped Xander. "What are you, nuts?" He turned around in Giles' embrace even though it was awkward. "No. It doesn't have anything to do with that. I just..." It was difficult to look at Giles as he said it, so he dropped his gaze to Giles' chest and ran his fingertips through the soft curly hairs there. "You know. I keep remembering all over again, about Will, and then I feel guilty for forgetting in the first place. It's that whole grieving thing."

“I’m a fool,” Giles said with a sigh of his own. “And now you’re probably thinking I’ve forgotten what happened too, but I haven’t. It’s always there, at the back of my mind, but I quite see what you mean; it should be all we’re thinking about, this soon after it happened. Except it isn’t, and she wouldn’t want it to be, and she’d be glad we were happy, if I can drag out a platitude or two, and God, I wish she wasn’t dead. I can’t believe it, that’s why it’s so easy to forget.”

He pulled away from Xander and rolled onto his back, looking up at the ceiling.

That was all way too much for Xander to wrap his brain around. "Willow knew what it was like," he said tentatively, even though Giles knew this stuff. "To lose someone you loved that much. I mean, Tara... not that I don't like Kennedy, but Tara was special. And Willow was ready to go on without her, because she had to. Because that's what you do."

Giles twisted his head around and gave him a look that bordered on incredulous. “Xander, Willow killed Warren, smashed up the shop, came damn close to killing me – all of us – and that was just for starters. I don’t think she’s – she was – a shining example of someone who dealt well with grief.”

"I know that," Xander said, pushing himself up onto his elbow. "I was ready to let her kill me first, remember?" He wasn't sure why he felt so protective of Willow now, but he was careful to speak more softly when he said, "I meant after. She did the best she could. I'm not saying she was perfect or anything. I just..." What was the point? He should just swear off trying to make people feel better, since he obviously sucked at it.

“I’m sorry,” Giles said, turning back to him. “I didn’t mean that she didn’t try – I was with her all that summer, remember? I know she did...I’m just saying that it was a lot longer than a few days before she was anything like rational on the subject. For you to feel guilty because you allowed yourself to be happy for a short while seems – well. Not so bad in comparison.”

Xander sighed and slid back down, pressing closer to Giles again. "How about we both try not to feel guilty? How does that sound?"

“Difficult,” Giles said, slipping his arm around Xander and looking relieved, “but as that came far too close to us disagreeing, I’ll do my best.” Xander felt Giles’ lips warm against his in a brief kiss. “I’m sure we’ll have some interesting arguments from time to time, but I don’t want them ever to be about Willow,” Giles said, sounding as if he meant every word.

"She wasn't a saint," Xander said. "I know that. Doesn't mean I didn't love her." He thought about his choice of words. "Don't love her." Going back to what he'd been thinking about on and off, he suggested, "Buffy and Dawn might have some ideas too -- about the memorial thing."

“We can talk to them later,” Giles agreed. “This is something we need to do together. Kennedy too, of course.”

That sounded like an afterthought, though he’d never got the feeling Giles didn’t like Kennedy exactly – she just wasn’t – she was just new. And now she’d probably drift away and they’d never get the chance to see just what Willow had seen in her.

"So I'll go to London with you for that, then come back here to finish the house," Xander said, thinking aloud as his hand slid up and down over Giles' hip. "And then..."

“Then,” Giles said, not making it sound like a question, “you come to me.” Even in the darkness Xander could tell he was smiling. “Or, I should say, Mr Simpson. He can’t wait to start training you – if that’s still what you want?”

Xander smiled too -- he couldn't help it. "Yeah, that's what I want. Wherever you are... that's where I want to be." And he pulled Giles closer and kissed him, kissed him hard without holding back, letting his hands run over Giles' body, loving how it felt against his.

“You’ve no idea how appealing that sounds,” Giles said after the kiss ended, still so close that when he spoke his lips brushed Xander’s cheek. “How much I’m looking forward to it.” His hand came up to cup Xander’s face, his thumb travelling in slow, gentle strokes across his lips. “Light the candle? I want to be able to see you.”

"Okay," Xander said, sliding away and sitting up on the edge of the bed. "Just don't try that one too often, or I might start to suspect that all you want is a quick look at my bare ass." An ass which, come to think of it, still ached in a vague and pleasant sort of way. Thinking about it made him start to get hard again, so he lit the candle and then half turned on the bed, drawing one leg up underneath him. "Not that I mind," he added, for the record.

“Mind me looking, or mind it just being quick?” Giles asked, stretching his arms above his head for a moment, so that the quilt slipped down to his waist. “Because I’m quite happy to stare at you naked for any amount of time, believe me.” He rolled over and gave Xander one of those lazy smiles that didn’t do anything to stop him getting harder. “And since you mentioned your, uh, ass, how does it feel now?”

Xander wriggled a little bit as if he was checking, when actually he was just really aware of how that probably looked. "Feels good," he said, leaning over to kiss Giles. "Want to give it another test drive?"

He felt Giles’s hand slide down his body and grinned when it slapped his backside. “That’s for being insatiable,” Giles said, biting down gently just where Xander’s neck met his shoulder and making him shiver. “And you deserve another for being irresistible, but I’ll let it go just this once.”

"Oh no," Xander murmured, grabbing hold of Giles' hair and using it to keep him still for another, deeper kiss. "Don't let it go." He moved back down beneath the quilt and rubbed his body against Giles', feeling his cock respond pretty eagerly to both the feel of it and the idea that it was going to be getting some more action soon. And the whole time they kept kissing -- he didn't think he'd ever get tired of kissing Giles, not with the way his lips moved, and his tongue, and... yeah, that thing he did. God. "Tell me what I have to do to convince you," he said, pushing his hips forward again and feeling Giles' cock slide up beside his.

“Exist?” Giles said, smiling at him. “Xander, I really can’t – God, I can’t think when you do that – can’t imagine you ever needing to convince me to make love to you.” His hand was still resting on Xander’s backside and he used it to pull them even closer together, rocking his hips slowly against Xander so his cock nudged and bumped into Xander’s. “Though it’d be interesting to see you try... I’m sure I could pretend not to be enthusiastic about the idea for, oh, two minutes at least. Possibly three.”

"Three? Really?" Xander slid down in the bed a little bit more and licked Giles' nipple, flicking it with the tip of his tongue as Giles' erection pressed against his ribcage. "Are you sure?" He was aching with wanting to feel Giles inside him again, especially now that he knew what it was like.

Giles made a soft sound that wasn’t quite a moan and brought his hand up to curve around Xander’s neck. “I was until you did that... perhaps I meant seconds, not minutes? I can’t imagine what I was thinking about.”

Xander bit down softly, licked, bit down again. He wondered what it would take to make Giles so eager that he'd just roll him over and fuck him -- not that he was sure he'd want that, but the thought of it did make him that much harder. With one hand cupping Giles' ass he used it to rock Giles' body in against his own, providing what he knew from personal experience was sweet rhythmic pressure on Giles' cock as he continued to tease first one nipple and then the other.

“Can I admit I’m convinced now?” Giles said, sounding as if he was having trouble forming his words. “Because I am.” His hand travelled down Xander’s back, fingers curved, scratching at it, leaving a tingling line of sensation, and then moved between them, searching for Xander’s cock. He was too far down in the bed for Giles to be able to reach more than the tip of it but that didn’t stop Giles from circling his finger over the head, in a slow, deliberate pattern.

Biting back a groan -- on Giles' chest, since it was so conveniently located -- Xander reached down and grabbed Giles' wrist, pulling his teasing hand away. "I don't need convincing," he pointed out, then rolled the both of them so that Giles was on top of him. "Uh-oh," Xander said, feigning innocence. "Look, we're diagonal. I seem to remember someone saying something about that not being allowed."

“We’re not trying to sleep,” Giles said, dipping his head to bite at Xander’s chest, sucking hard at the skin he’d caught between his teeth and then staring at the mark that left with something that looked like satisfaction in his eyes. “And if you don’t need convincing, what do you need, Xander?”

Giles leaned on an elbow, which lifted him up so that he wasn’t touching Xander above the waist, though he was still lying on top of him. That might have been bad – less contact had to be bad, right ? -but Xander wasn’t complaining because right then Giles used his knee to spread Xander’s legs apart and his hand went right back where it had been before. “Maybe this?” he said, letting his fingers curl around Xander’s shaft fleetingly. “Or this?” One finger slid down and rubbed and pressed and slid inside Xander, just a little. “Do you need this, Xander?”

Xander gasped and arched his body, trying to get that finger to go deeper. "Yes," he said, finally remembering that there was a question he was supposed to answer. "God yes."

That earned him a kiss, with Giles’ tongue darting into his mouth at the same time as his finger pushed in just a little more. “Oh, good answer, Xander... now stay right there, would you?” Then Giles rolled away which would’ve had Xander complaining, but he guessed what he was doing, and the small noises of foil ripping and bottle tops flipping weren’t even a little bit scary second time around.

He reached down and gave his cock a couple of rough pulls while he waited, because... well, because it felt good, and why not? Then he rolled toward Giles a little bit and ran a hand down along the outside of his thigh. "You are planning on coming back, right?"

Giles turned and gave him an amused look. “Insatiable, irresistible and impatient? The list just keeps on growing.” Xander let himself be pushed gently back on the bed. “And you can’t seriously think I’d leave you like this....” He dragged his fingers down Xander’s cock and ran them under his balls in one swift, continuous movement. “All needy and wanting and so very, very hot. And one of those ‘very’s would have been a ‘fucking’ but you’re being a good influence on me. Mostly.”

Xander wanted to say something witty, but it was too hard to think of anything except his cock, what with the way Giles was touching him and what he knew was coming next. "God, I want you," he said instead, reaching down to catch Giles' hand between his legs and pull it away, because it wasn't Giles' fingers he wanted inside him. "Don't make me wait."

Something that looked like frustration flashed over Giles’ face, which was weird because he wasn’t the one aching and empty. “I’m not going to make you wait. I am going to make sure I don’t hurt you.”

"Oh, believe me, I'm all about the not-hurting," Xander said, hoping he was being reassuring. "Look, just -- kiss me, okay?" Because kissing Giles, he was quickly becoming convinced, was a cure for pretty much anything that was going wrong.

It wasn't a long kiss, but it was a heartfelt one, and when Giles pulled back slightly, Xander said, "There. I love you, and anything you want is what I want. Okay?"

“Thank you,” Giles said, stretching out a hand for that little bottle that Xander was wishing he’d got more of now. “I love you too. And I think –” One finger, cool and wet and Xander felt his breath catch. “We both want –” Two fingers and Xander stopped trying to breath. “- the same thing.” Three, then nothing for a moment that lasted no longer than an eternity or so, and then it was Giles inside him at last.

Just like before, only this time Xander wasn't worried about if it was actually going to fit or not, even if it felt like such a close thing that for a long minute he couldn't move at all. He had to take shallow panting breaths to adjust to the stretch of it, but that was okay, because he knew that any second it would go from being too much to being... perfect, and then Giles moved in a tiny bit deeper and it was perfect. "Oh God," Xander whispered. "God, Giles..."

Giles reached out almost blindly, and touched Xander’s face for a moment with the back of his fingers. “You feel – Xander – you feel wonderful –”

His lips curved in a wavering smile that vanished as he began to move in slow, deep strokes, his eyes, intent and distant at the same time, fixed on Xander’s face.

There was nothing else like it, having someone inside you like that, Xander thought, with the part of his brain that was still capable of thinking. Not just how it felt -- incredible sweet aching thrusts that made his cock harder and his fists want to clench and, okay, his eyes want to roll up into his head -- but what it meant, that he loved Giles that much, trusted him that much. And in a world where trust seemed like a pretty rare thing, Xander wasn't going to take it for granted.

Giles pulled out again, almost all the way, before sliding back in, so deep that it forced a groan from Xander. Without even needing to think now he spread his legs a little bit more, forced the small of his back straighter and changed the angle of Giles' thrusts right along with it, and on the next one he didn't just groan, he cried out.

Giles’ hand slid down his thigh to cup the side of his ass and stayed there, his arm braced against Xander, helping to hold him in place so every stroke, every deep, perfect stroke, ended with that flash of something Xander didn’t have a word for because it was so many sensations mixed up together that he couldn’t have picked one. He just knew it felt good and he wanted more of it, and Giles was moving faster now, his face tight and his eyes half shut, harsh sounds escaping from his clenched teeth, so he was feeling it over and over....

It occurred to him briefly that it was a good thing they were alone in the house, because his own cries were getting loud enough that his throat was starting to get hoarse. He was rocking his body to meet every thrust, and he couldn't wait anymore -- he reached down and grabbed onto his cock, stroking it roughly. "Giles... feel so good..." Giles' cock was pushing into him hard, hitting just the right spot inside.

Xander felt himself come, his cock throbbing in his hand as he shot onto his stomach and Giles kept right on fucking him, the shudders rolling through him with a series of desperate cries and unbelievable pleasure.

“Xander... oh God... want you -” Then Giles came too, throwing his head back as his body stiffened, every muscle rigid, hips jerking forward in helpless, uncontrollable spasms that made what Xander was still feeling get even more intense. “Xander...oh God, yes...”

Giles collapsed down on top of him, which was just fine with Xander, who was basically only concerned with breathing at that point. He wrapped his arms around Giles and held him, one hand moving in little circles at the small of Giles' back and the other playing with the hair at the nape of his neck as they both tried to recover. "Love you," he murmured, the words easier to say than he'd thought, even if the emotion itself scared the hell out of him. It was terrifying to think that some day Giles was going to die.

Giles turned his head enough to kiss him; a soft, warm kiss that lingered, as if Giles didn’t want this moment to end, even though Xander knew they’d have to move eventually. “Love you too. I can’t remember my own name right now, but I remember that.” He eased out of Xander and lay beside him, his arm across Xander’s chest and his hand stroking his arm.

"Mmm. That's nice." Xander felt kind of drowsy again -- mind-blowing orgasms had a tendency to do that to him -- but he was also getting hungry. "I don't suppose I could convince you to go make me some food," he said jokingly.

Giles closed his eyes and snuggled his face against Xander’s shoulder. “No. You couldn’t persuade me to do anything right now. I’m not even sure I’m still conscious. Possibly a cup of tea would bring me around. I seem to recall I boiled a kettle about three hours ago. Milk, no sugar, and I prefer it strong, not weak, but not stewed.”

Xander snorted quietly. "What makes you think I'm getting up? If we're voting, I vote we just stay here until tomorrow." He wasn't totally serious, but it amused him to say it.

“Carried unanimously,” Giles said, kissing Xander’s neck, more, Xander guessed, because he could reach it without moving, than because he knew it made him shiver. Not that shivering in that kind of a way was possible right now. Probably not until tomorrow. Giles stirred against him, dragging his hand across Xander’s stomach. Okay, maybe that was a bit of an overestimation, but right now Xander felt happy to be just holding Giles.

The rain outside seemed to have stopped -- at least, Xander couldn't hear it anymore -- and he thought that he could see a little bit of pale light coming in through the window from the early evening sky. Very faintly, if he listened hard, there was the sound of the ocean crashing against the shore. It was a soothing sound, but one he'd gotten used to pretty fast, so that now it was just something he expected to hear. Like his own breathing as he was drifting off to sleep.

Like, he hoped, the sound of Giles' heartbeat, the reassuring steady thud that meant life.

His stomach chose that moment to growl, and Xander chuckled at it and turned his head to kiss Giles' temple. "Come on, get your lazy butt up," he said, dragging his own to the edge of the mattress and sitting up, trying to remember where he'd last seen the flannel pants that he wore on the rare occasions he hung out in his bathrobe. "If we don't have something to eat before we go to sleep we're going to be in rough shape for Christmas morning."

Giles rolled over and looked at him. “Do you promise that’s all we’ll be doing? Eating? No plans to chop that tree into firewood, mend the window, or anything else that interferes with a nice, idle, Christmas Eve lying in front of the fire, with a whisky I’ve more than earned and you within reach? Because I’m not moving for anything else.”

"I promise," Xander said, as he spotted his pants in a tangle on the floor and got up to put them on. "As long as no more trees decide to crash the party, we're cleared for a completely, one hundred percent peaceful evening."

“Oh God. You had to say it.” Giles sat up and began to get dressed in whatever clothes he could reach without standing up. “I give it five minutes before the first carol singers arrive.”

"Nah. That's the beauty of being in the middle of nowhere," Xander pointed out, feeling kind of giddy with happiness. He started for the bedroom door, then had a thought and paused, turned around. "You're right," he said, because he thought it needed to be acknowledged out loud. "About Willow... she would have been happy for us."

“She would,” Giles said quietly, coming over to him and patting him on the shoulder, then slipping his arms around him. “Wide-eyed, lost for words, and then incoherent for about five minutes, but after that, yes, I think she’d have been glad to see you –us- happy.” His arms tightened. “And that seems inadequate for the way I feel, but it’ll do.”

It sure would, Xander thought, leaning his chin on Giles' shoulder and imagining that Willow was smiling at them.

"Yeah," he said, smiling back at her -- a little bit sadly, but hey, that was normal, right? You picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and went on.

You went on with the people you loved.

"Yeah," Xander said again. "It'll do."

Act Of Nature
Words And Music By
Cheryl Wheeler

The wind came round and blew this place apart
It's you and me now sitting in the dark
The lights are out and everybody's home
Its you and me and we are both alone

The lines are down there's just no getting through
You stare at me and I stare back at you
And in the dark I know that I can't see
Cause here you are and still don't see me

(Chorus)
Act of nature, act of god
Raging through our sedentary lives
We are on the brink
We are floundering
Spinning in this dark and rising tide

The storm has blow this great big beauty down
The branches all confusion on the ground
I've watched it grow and thought I knew it well
I never dreamed I'd see the day it fell

So bolt the door, seal the cracks
Close your eyes don't look back
Hold your ears tight against the roar
Someone said I should hear
Warning cries soft and clear
Whispered in the calm before the storm