The phone rang as he was matching the blade of his razor to a stubborn patch of dark stubble tucked under his chin. He knew the stubble was there, because he could feel it with his fingertips and see it in the mirror, but his shaking hand and his imperfect vision combined to make it tricky to shave it smooth.
And now he was bleeding, bright red blood staining and spreading and stinging, because the imperious, unexpected ring of the old-fashioned phone always made him jump when it echoed around the empty house.
"Xander?" Giles sounded startled, which wasn't surprising given the irritated snap in Xander's greeting.
"Giles! Sorry, just wasn't expecting --" He took a quick look at his watch. Seven. Giles usually called around now; after they'd both eaten and before they went out. Not that either of them went out very often, but even so... "I mean -- look, can we start over?"
Giles chuckled, the sound managing to make it from London to Iona without losing any of its familiar warmth. "I suppose we can. Hello, Xander. How are you?"
Xander felt the towel slip from around his waist and grabbed at it hastily. He couldn't talk to Giles when he was naked; it just didn't seem right, somehow. Even if Giles didn't know that he was.
"Fine. Just had a shower and I'm going -- fine."
Xander heard a faint creak as if Giles was settling back in the leather chair in his front room, but the abrupt ending of his sentence passed without comment, even though Xander was miming banging his head against the wall and gritting his teeth with frustration. Why the hell didn't he just tell him, for God's sake?
"I hope I didn't get you out of the shower," Giles said, sounding a bit odd somehow. Distant.
"No. I'm only wearing a towel and I'm a bit damp around the edges, but I was already out." Wasn't going to mention the practically naked. Why did I --? Oh, shit. I'm over-compensating... babbling in ten, nine, eight.... Did I just tell Giles I was out? I did, didn't I? Now, why would I say that? Come on, Xander, you can tell me, I'm you, you total, complete --
"So what's new on your end, Giles? Heard from Buffy? Or Willow? How's Dawn? Been a while since I spoke to her. And didn't you say Andrew's working for you now? How's -"
"Xander!" Giles' laughing expostulation halted him mid-flow. "What on earth is it? You're just -- not yourself at all. Would you like me to call you back? When you're less, uh, naked, perhaps?"
He was about to say 'yes' when he realised that he wouldn't have time. Giles and he usually chatted for half an hour, or longer, and he liked that. He liked it a lot. Looked forward to it, even.
But not tonight.
"Giles, look, I'm in a bit of a rush here. Can we do this tomorrow, maybe?"
"Oh." Giles sounded hurt. Did he? Did he sound hurt? Why would he --? "Of course we can, Xander." No, he was just Giles. Normal, comforting, reliable Giles. "I wasn't calling for anything important. Just to say hello, and I think we've covered that." Saying hello is important, Xander wanted to say. I'm on an island, thousands of miles from home, which isn't there anyway, hundreds of miles from anyone I know -- well, almost -- and I get lonely, damn it, which might be why --
"Yeah. Guess we did."
Giles had barely finished speaking when Xander hung up and sank to the floor, resting his head on his knees and groaning. God, what the hell was he doing? Somehow, it was turning out to be even harder than he'd expected to tell Giles that he was, well... gay. Or at the very least bi, although it had been a while since he'd been interested in a woman. It could probably be blamed on the fact that he was in the middle of nowhere and there weren't all that many people around, let alone people that were interested in hanging out with him, what with the whole outsider, missing eye thing. Or it could be blamed on the fact that John McIntyre hadn't at all tried to hide the fact that he was interested. Or it could even be blamed on the fact that he was young and horny and sometimes the thought of anyone else touching his dick -- even another guy -- was enough to make him hard. On the other hand -- and that was an awful lot of hands, now that he thought about it -- it could just be that he was gay. And John was really, really attractive, and studied Xander's face when he talked, like Xander was the most interesting person he'd ever met. It was hard not to be flattered.
Xander got up and went back to the bathroom to finish getting ready. He kept telling himself that it wasn't a date, but it was. He'd met up at the hotel bar with John before, lots of times, but there'd always been someone else with them; usually some of the men working on the renovations to Traighshee House, most of whom seemed to be related to John in one way or another; all of whom had known him for years by the sound of it.
Tonight, it was just going to be the two of them. John couldn't have made it any plainer that he'd wanted it that way and Xander, after a moment of wondering what the hell he was doing, had stared back into John's blue eyes, expectant and hopeful, and nodded agreement because he hadn't trusted himself to speak.
Which could've had something to do with the fact that John's hand was warm against his leg under the table and he was dealing with a sudden surge of arousal that had kept him sitting there for a good five minutes after John had left.
He changed shirts twice before settling on what he was going to wear. Oh, yeah. Definitely a date. By the time Xander walked to the bar, his hands were sweaty with nervousness, but as soon as he saw John sitting at one of the tables, his smile open and friendly, he relaxed. It was fine. He liked John. A lot, actually. And talking to him was the easiest thing in the world, like talking to Giles. Most of the time, anyway. When he wasn't trying to figure out how to tell Giles that he was going on a date with another man. "Hi," Xander said, sitting down and noting for future reference that guys didn't stand up when another guy joined them, even if they were on a date. "Am I late?"
"I don't know," John said. "I was too busy staring at the door and hoping you'd be coming through it soon to waste time looking at my watch." He was halfway down a pint of bitter which, assuming it was his first, meant -- well, nothing, since John could spend an hour sipping at a beer or down it in a series of smooth, unhurried swallows in less than thirty seconds.
"I'll just get a drink," Xander said, starting to stand up again.
John shook his head, reaching out and catching Xander's wrist to keep him in place. "No need. Shona's bringing one over for you and another for me." He nodded towards the bar and Xander twisted around and saw Shona walking towards them with a tray, deftly snagging empties off the tables as she passed by, and then depositing the two brimming glasses in front of them with a smile.
"There you go, lads," she said, moving on before Xander had time to do more than smile and murmur 'thank you'.
Xander took a sip and then grinned at John. "Are you trying to get me drunk?" he asked, moving onto teasing him, just a little, with a small quiver of anticipation uncurling in his stomach because, damn, it'd been a long time since he'd... flirted? Was this what this was?
"Depends," John said slowly. "Do you want me to try to get you drunk?" It was weird how John always seemed to know what to say to make everything okay again. Just a few words and he made it clear that the ball was in Xander's court, that nothing was going to happen unless Xander was okay with it. "I don't think I'd mind," he said, shifting his chair a little bit and letting his leg slide forward under the table until it was touching John's.
John smiled. "Maybe I don't want you too drunk," he said thoughtfully. "Or me, for that matter." His knee was definitely pressing against Xander's, but again, there was no feeling of being rushed, nothing to make Xander feel panicky. John raised his glass to his lips and took a small sip. "It's been a busy week for you, hasn't it?" he asked, changing the subject. "I'm not surprised you're feeling a bit rushed."
"Yeah," Xander said, thinking a little bitterly about deliveries that didn't show up and workmen who did only to disappear when the lumber finally arrived. "It has, but I was late because, well, a friend called and I was -- I didn't want to just tell him to go, and --" He ran out of words and then met John's eyes and let out a long sigh. "He -- Giles -- he's known me for a long time. Years. We've been through a lot. It's just -- he doesn't know I'm -- I couldn't tell him where I was going, and it felt weird lying to him. Not that I lied, I just didn't say why I couldn't talk like normal, and --" He gave John a beseeching look. "You know, people who know me, friends, I mean, they usually kick me around now and say, 'Xander, stop talking.'"
"I like listening to you talk," John said. "And if I told you to stop, then I think we'd both be sitting here staring at each other. Not that I mind the view." God, the way John looked at him made Xander hard. He didn't want it to -- not here, this wasn't the time or the place -- well, maybe it was the time but it definitely wasn't the place -- but it did. The front of his jeans, jeans that had been getting looser in the time he'd been here, felt pleasantly tight as his cock swelled. "I feel stupid," he admitted. "I should have just told him."
"I don't think you're stupid," John said. "Maybe not too sure about yourself?"
Xander thought about that and then shook his head. "No... I know how I feel right now about being here with you and I'm sure enough about that." John's face relaxed into a smile, and for some reason that made Xander panic more than the brush of John's hand against his as they both reached for their drinks, because they were moving, moment by moment, word by word, to a time when they wouldn't be talking, and for someone who'd been blessed with an uninhibited, practical and lusty girlfriend, he really shouldn't be this nervous about the thought of kissing and maybe touching -- Oh God. Touching John. Dry-mouthed with longing and terror, Xander took a long swallow of his beer and drained it just as Shona walked by.
"Another, lads?" she murmured, not waiting for a reply.
"So did you go to school with this Giles, then?" John asked when they'd both got fresh drinks in front of them.
Xander almost choked on his beer. "Um... sort of," he said. "It's kind of hard to explain." He felt strangely protective of Giles, and he knew it would seem weird to someone who hadn't been there. Well, you see, he was the librarian. Yeah, like a teacher. But yes, we're friends. It just sounded... wrong. Like Giles was some kind of pedophile, or maybe like Xander hadn't been able to make friends his own age. "You don't have to," John said. "No, it's just..." Xander frowned and drank some more, trying to find the right words. "We've known each other a long time," he said finally. "But it's one of those things where first it was just that we were kind of thrown together, you know? But then we started to be friends. And since I've been here -- he's kind of in charge of the company that's doing the renovations on the house, did I tell you that? -- we've been talking a lot. At first I thought it was just because he felt kind of sorry for me, being out here alone, but then it started to feel like we really were friends. We talk about everything. It's good." It was. He hadn't realized it until he'd just said it, but it was true -- it was like he and Giles could talk about anything. Which was maybe why their conversation earlier had been so weird.
There was a slightly perplexed look on John's face now. "I'm not quite seeing why you mind him knowing that you're gay. He's not likely to sack you, is he?"
"No, no," Xander said. "It's not that."
"So he'll be a fair bit older than you, then?" John was clearly groping for an explanation that made sense. Xander wished him luck. "Maybe a bit narrow-minded? Set in his ways?"
A vision of Giles brandishing a sword encrusted with demon-blood, green eyes blazing with determination and exhilaration rose up in front of Xander, and he shook his head. "No, not at all. And when my friend Willow came out, he was fine about it. I'm not even -- well, I think he might have -- years ago, there was this man -- oh, I don't know! It's just -- I can't --"
"Stop talking," John said, and kicked him gently.
* * * * *
The beach at night was eerily beautiful. Low clouds were scudding fast across the face of the moon, and the waves sounded sleepy as they surged and tugged at the shore. Lying back on their coats and staring up at the stars, sheltered between the dunes, Xander almost wanted to drift off to sleep, which had a lot to do with the five or six pints of beer he'd had.
But John was beside him, and it turned out Xander'd drunk just enough to have lost his doubts.
He rolled his head to the side to find John already looking at him. "You got me drunk," Xander said. "You said you didn't mind," John pointed out. "I know. I didn't. I don't." Talking was a lot of effort, and when Xander shifted onto his side to face John the sand crunched underneath his coat deliciously, making him shiver even though he wasn't cold. "I want to kiss you." Xander said it without thinking.
"Do you, now?" John murmured. "Well, I'm right here."
His hand came up to stroke slowly across Xander's lips, which shouldn't have been enough to make Xander moan. But it was. Something sparked deep in John's eyes, and his hand slipped behind Xander's neck as he did what Xander had been just about to do himself, really he had been, and tugged Xander towards him so that their mouths touched, and after that it was easy.
It turned out that kissing a man was different in the details, but not enough to take Xander right back to his broom closet, nose-bumping days. It turned out that John liked a lot of the things the girls Xander had kissed had liked; slow, sure slicks of tongue over dry lips; the bites and nips and kisses that left lips tingling and swollen -- and the hard, desperate kisses when kissing stopped being enough.
"Xander," John said hoarsely, with his hand warm against Xander's bare back and his mouth busy finding all the places along Xander's neck that really, really appreciated the attention. "Was there anything else you were wanting to do besides kiss me?"
"I hadn't... hadn't thought that far ahead," Xander gasped. He moved closer until they were touching all along the length of their bodies, his arm around John's waist. "God, that feels good." He shut his eye tightly and tilted his head to the side as John's lips found his ear.
John's hand slid a little further up inside Xander's shirt and then ran down his side, touching skin that hadn't been touched by anyone else but Xander for way too long. The gentle tug of his teeth at Xander's ear lobe was sending all sorts of messages directly to Xander's cock but there was enough alcohol in him to make his arousal just distant enough to be manageable.
"It does." John sounded a bit hesitant somehow, and Xander opened his mouth to ask him why when John shifted so that Xander was left in no doubt about how John felt. There was something about that hard, solid erection snug against Xander's belly that was sobering him fast. This was real, not some fantasy to jerk off to, with strong hands on him and the scrape of an unshaven chin against his as he was kissed, with everything else blurred out until the moment before he came when he imagined, just for a second, that the cock he was working was someone else's. This was John, in his arms, or maybe John had hold of him, and they were kissing and John was going to expect more and somehow Xander wasn't sure he could give it to him.
And he didn't know why, which was driving him crazy.
Then John's teeth bit down on his ear again, hot breath blowing over Xander's skin, and Xander forgot to care. He was half hard, and rubbing against John felt pretty good. Curious, he got a hand between them and cupped John's erection, feeling it press against his palm through the layers of fabric and hearing John's soft groan. The sound did more to arouse him than anything else, and John's lips found his again, and kissing was good. Kissing was very good. John tasted like ale and Xander rubbed at John's cock, tracing it, running the heel of his hand lower to feel John's balls, too. He loved the noises John was making, hot and desperate, and he rolled onto his back, letting John lie half on top of him and thrust against him, grinding their bodies together. That felt good, too, but deep down Xander was starting to realize that he couldn't do this. Oh, his body probably could, even despite how drunk he was, but in his heart he knew something wasn't right.
John's hand came down and fumbled at Xander's zipper and he tensed, his hand batting frantically at John's fingers. "John -- no! I can't."
John sighed and his hand twisted, grabbing hold of Xander's wrist. "Stop that," he said, sounding resigned. "It's all right. I won't touch you." He waited until Xander relaxed, his thumb stroking gently against the pulse beating fast at Xander's wrist, and then let go of him and rolled to his back with his arm flung across his eyes.
"John -- " Xander sat up, hugging his knees. "I'm sorry. God... I'm so fucking sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Xander. It's my fault." John didn't move or look at him. That set Xander back on his heels, figuratively, at least. "No, it's my fault. Wait -- this is the part where we're supposed to argue about whose fault it is, right?" He tried for a light tone, but his voice was strained. "No. This is the part where I apologize for pushing you into something you didn't want, and you forgive me," John said, turning toward Xander again and meeting his gaze now. "If you can?"
"I did want it," Xander said desperately trying to work out when that had stopped being true. "I -- God, John, I don't know what the fuck's wrong with me, but you didn't push me at all, and there's no forgiving because there's no wrong here. Not from you. Just me. Because I'm apparently so fucked up I can do this to a friend and I am so very -- God, what the hell is the matter with me?" He pushed his hands through his hair and then slammed his fist down against the sand. Because it was that kind of a night, his hand found a stone, sea-rounded and mostly buried but still hard enough to send a shock of pain up his wrist and arm. "Oww. Oh fuck that hurt."
He wasn't the crying kind, but pain, embarrassment, and a residual, thwarted arousal because his dick hadn't quite gotten the message were teaming up to make him want to bawl like a baby. Damn. Send him anywhere, even a tiny island in the middle of the sea, and he'd ruin someone's night for them with his total inability to follow through on what he'd started.
"Let me see," John said gently, taking his hand and turning it, pretending to look at a mark that was probably invisible. He brought Xander's hand to his mouth and kissed it. "There we are. All better." The flare of pain had been fleeting enough that it really was. "Thanks," Xander said. "John... I'm really sorry." "I know," John said, putting an arm around Xander's shoulders and looking out to sea. "I know you are. It's all right."
Xander held himself stiff for a moment, feeling that he didn't deserve people being nice to him, and not wanting to send the wrong signal no matter how much he needed to crawl into John's lap and be hugged, but John's arm was comfortingly heavy and his hand was rubbing slowly against Xander's arm, and Xander sighed and huddled closer in a sudden surrender.
John said something that might have been the all-purpose 'imph' that the islanders used in and out of season, sounding pleased, and Xander let his head drop to John's shoulder and brought his hand up to clutch tightly at John's sweater.
After a while, John gave the top of Xander's head a soft kiss, tilted his chin up in a hand that wasn't quite steady and gave Xander's mouth a much harder one, like he knew it was the last he'd be getting, before moving away a careful yard or so.
"I'll be sorry if this costs me a friend," John said. "Are you going to sober up and take a solemn vow to avoid me because it's all a wee bit awkward now? Because you don't have to, you know. It might be someone else you've got your heart set on, but I'm thinking we can still be friends?"
In John's soft, sincere voice, the words were stripped of cliche.
Xander got up, glad that he was a little less drunk now. "There's no one else," he said. "I'm just... I'm too fucked up. It's too soon." John didn't ask too soon since what, another thing that Xander was grateful for. "I really want us to be friends. If I didn't piss you off with my amazing on-again off-again action."
John looked up at him. "I'm not angry with you," he said. "Might have been if you'd let me do more than I did because you felt guilty or obliged, though." He got to his feet and they began to walk back to the road with Xander shivering slightly in the September breeze.
"This friend of yours," John said. "Giles. Is he likely to be visiting the island soon?"
Xander shrugged into his jacket. "I'm not sure. He was talking about maybe coming to see how the renovations were going, but I'm not sure if he really meant it. I'm supposed to take pictures." He rubbed his mouth, still feeling the press of John's lips. "Guess maybe I should actually do that, once things get going."
"Aye," John said thoughtfully. "He's not got family, then?"
"Only us," Xander said without thinking. "I mean, no, not really. Just me and a few friends and we're, well, we're the closest he's got, I guess."
"If you're still here in December maybe he'd like to come and help you see the New Year in," John suggested.
It was an idea that never would have occurred to Xander, and he wasn't sure if that was a bad thing. Giles must have other people he'd rather spend Christmas with -- Buffy, for one. Plus he must have other friends. Council friends. Well, okay, most of them had died in a really big explosion, but still, Giles had to have friends, even if he never mentioned them. "I guess," Xander said doubtfully. "No harm in suggesting it," John said. "Look, John..." They were almost back to the house, and it was clear that John was going to go home, that they were going to go their separate ways. "Thanks. For everything." God, this was awkward. "For being my friend."
John didn't stop walking. "You're an easy man to like, Xander." He nodded at him and then veered to the left. "We're still going fishing tomorrow night?" he called back over his shoulder.
"Taking worms for a swim, you mean?" Xander said with a grin. "Yeah, sure. Goodnight, John."
The house seemed lonely, empty. He walked around turning on lights, then decided there was no point, shut them all off again, and went to bed with a huge glass of water. It was late, but not that late, and suddenly he really needed to hear the sound of Giles' voice. His hands were actually trembling as he dialed and listened to the other end of the line ring once, twice. A muffled voice answering the phone. "Hello?" "Giles, it's me."
"Xander?" Giles sounded sleepy and as irritable as Xander had earlier. "What on earth is it?"
Oddly enough, Giles talking to him like that was reassuring. Familiar, even. "I wanted to say sorry. For earlier."
"For God's sake," Giles growled. "Do you know what time it is?" Xander didn't say anything, and after a few seconds, Giles said, more gently, "What's wrong?" Part of Xander wanted to tell Giles everything, but it wasn't the right time. He was too freaked out, and he didn't know where to start, and he suspected that once he got going he wouldn't know where to stop, either. "Nothing. I just... I had kind of a bad night."
He heard Giles sigh, and then the rustle of sheets. He pictured Giles sitting up in bed, blinking, maybe, in the light of a lamp, his hair rumpled and his eyes sleepy, with the striped pajamas he wore open at the neck, and felt a wave of homesickness, even though he'd only spent a short time at Giles' London apartment before heading north.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Xander. Is there anything I can do to help?"
Xander shook his head. "No. I just -- I couldn't go to sleep."
"Strange," Giles said dryly. "I wasn't having any problems until two minutes ago." He cut off Xander's muttered apology. "Actually, that's not quite true. I was -- well, I'm glad you called. Really. I was a little worried in case I'd upset you in some way."
Something tight eased in Xander's chest, leaving him more relaxed than he had been all day. "I don't think you could, Giles," he said.
"Really? Well, that's disappointing." Giles' voice was warm. "What?" Xander said. "Never mind. What happened?" "Nothing," Xander said again. "Well, I had a little bit too much drink. I guess I'm feeling kind of maudlin." It felt weird admitting it. "You know." "I do. It must be very difficult, being alone there. We all appreciate you being willing to take on the job," Giles said.
"I like being here," Xander said, a little surprised. "Most of the time. It's peaceful, and the people are --" He swallowed, feeling an ache of pity for John because he knew that John wasn't happy right now, no matter how well he'd taken it. "They're really nice."
"It's very beautiful up there, I know," Giles said wistfully. "I spent holidays in Scotland as a child and loved it. London has its advantages, but it's certainly not peaceful."
"You could..." Xander couldn't believe that he was about to suggest this. He'd blame the beer if Giles laughed at him. "You could come here, if you wanted to. For Christmas, maybe?"
There was a silence that stretched out way too long for Xander's nerves, and then Giles said quietly, "I'd like that very much, Xander. Thank you. Are you planning to invite the others? I'm not sure what they have planned, but --"
"No," Xander said. "I was thinking that maybe it could just be you and me."
There was no hesitation at all when Giles replied. "I'd be delighted to be your guest, Xander."
Xander smiled. "That's great! I'll be... that's great. Really."
There was a distant creak, as if Giles had moved suddenly, and then he could've sworn Giles chuckled. "I think I'll resume my interrupted sleep now. I'll talk to you in a few days?"
"Okay." Xander felt better; like he'd be able to sleep,
too. "Thanks, Giles. Night." He hung the phone up gently and
turned over, snuggling into his pillow with a contented sigh. His
last thought before he fell asleep was that John and Giles were going
to like each other.