Giles read the short paragraph, tucked away at the bottom of page five of what Sunnydale optimistically called a newspaper, for the third time, rubbing his finger over the print until it smudged, as if that would draw out more information. Only ink. Pursing his lips in annoyance, he pulled out his handkerchief and cleaned his finger with spit and cotton.
This being summer recess, the school air conditioning wasn’t switched on, and the library was hot, but the sparks floating dizzily in front of his eyes were down to more than the temperature. Passing the back of his hand across his clammy forehead, Giles wondered if this was doing him good by sweating out the whisky he’d drunk, oh at least two glasses too many of, the night before. Or possibly it was speeding up the dehydration process and the returning students would find his desiccated corpse in September. A strangely comforting thought, that. Reaching for the bottle of water he’d brought with him, he took a long, reluctant swig of tepid tastelessness and tried to summon up the enthusiasm to begin research.
Far too quiet, he thought. Not used to that anymore. To think it had come to this; missing the buzz beyond the doors as a thousand students milled about, missing the excited chatter inside the library even more. He was supposed to like it quiet; enjoy the peace; revel in the opportunity to catch up on paperwork. He supposed a day or two after term began he’d find himself looking back on these days with wistful yearning, but right now he was bored.
On cue, earning a grateful smile, Willow and Xander walked in, chattering in the inconsequential way they had that always made Giles feel a step behind.
“Giles!” Willow broke off a denunciation of something Giles assumed was an ice cream flavour, though why anyone would do that to a banana he couldn’t imagine, and beamed at him. “We came to see –”
“About the evil afoot,” Xander finished, dark eyebrows wiggling in what Giles assumed was an attempt to look knowing. “Hit me, G is for Giles.”
“Almost certainly, if you say that again,” Giles said obligingly, letting himself slip back into the patterns of conversation they’d built up in the last few months. “But there is something that might warrant investigating –” He pushed the paper over to them as they sat down at the table, tapping his finger on the relevant part of the page. “Tell me what you make of that.”
They read it, dark head and auburn close enough to touch, and looked up at the same time. Giles was certain Willow had finished reading it for probably the third time to Xander’s once, but said nothing. Willow’s protective instincts when it came to Xander went bone-deep.
“Bodies mauled?” Xander made the face that went with ‘eww’ and then looked puzzled. “Vamps don’t go in for that, do they? Just two holes in the neck?”
“They can feed from a number of places on the body, and I imagine a freshly turned one might be a little clumsy, but yes, this doesn’t sound typical.”
“Want I should hack into the records at the morgue and delve deeper?” Willow asked eagerly, her gaze drifting to the computer, silent and dark as it had been since school ended.
“I hate to impose when you’re on vacation,” Giles protested with a complete lack of sincerity.
Xander reached over and patted his arm. As Giles had conceded defeat to the extent of leaving off his jacket and rolling up his shirt sleeves, that meant that for a moment Xander’s hand was against his skin, leaving a lingering sensation as though he’d pressed down much harder. “She loves it, Giles,” Xander said. “It’s meat and drink to her, but – Willow?”
“Yes?” She sounded distracted already, fingers drumming against the desk as she waited for the computer to whir its way to life.
“No actual nibbling of the mouse, okay? That way lies problems.”
“I’ll be strictly veggie,” she assured him, her fingers beginning to patter like raindrops against the keyboard.
They watched her for a moment and then Xander took a yoyo from his pocket and began to play with it, flicking it into motion with a practiced ease. “So, if this is a major big bad, shouldn’t we get Buffy back?” he said, looking hopeful and not bothering to conceal his motives for asking.
Giles shook his head. “I think her exact words were, ‘If the world ends I still don’t want to know about it.’ She has a summer of shoe shopping planned and heaven forbid anything interferes with that.” He tried to keep the exasperation from his voice. His Slayer should be with him, training – so much they could be doing in the break from school! – but he’d seen the desperation in her eyes and he’d let her go.
Xander’s transparent disappointment was either pitiful or amusing, Giles couldn’t decide which.
“Oh!” Willow said, in an echo of Xander, but with considerably more enthusiasm. “They were drained! Massive blood loss, way more than there should have been. Something drank them.”
"And we're back at vampires?" Xander asked. Giles' face must have shown his doubt because Xander added hopefully, "Very, very thirsty vampires, feeling the heat? Ooh, water!"
"My water," Giles said, grabbing for the bottle. "Get your own."
Xander pouted, which looked disturbingly good on him, although it wasn't behaviour that should be encouraged of course.
"Here." Giles fumbled in his pocket for some money. "The drinks machine in the canteen is still plugged in. Get us all a can of something cold."
Xander waited until he had the money in his hand before raking his eyes over Giles and asking sweetly, "Diet?"
He tried sucking his belly in and then gave up. It was too hot and Xander wasn't there to notice. Besides, he wasn't in that bad a shape. Not at all.
For a man his age.
Bloody cheeky brat.
Giles looked at him, his forehead furrowed, his lips tight with worry. “It has to be you, Xander. Buffy could have handled it of course, if she were here – but in any case, you're ideally suited for the job; with my assistance of course.”
“Why?” Okay, that was weak and kinda girly high. Xander cleared his throat and dropped down an octave. “Why? I mean; this is unauthorised slayage, Giles. That’s bad. I could get into trouble.” The kind where you get grounded in the literal way.
An expression of deep offence passed over Giles’ face. “’Unauthorised’? When I’m authorising it? I hardly think so, Xander. I had hoped that you’d rise to the challenge a little more readily than this, but I quite understand if you feel it’s beyond you.”
He rose, gave Xander a curt nod and turned to pick up a bag that looked heavy.
“What’s all that?” Xander felt a creeping inevitability start at the base of his spine and head north.
“Weapons,” Giles said, “and a small amount of fruit, grass; bait, if you will. I’m not sure it’ll still respond to that, but it’s worth a try. And an extra long stake of course. Now, if you’ll excuse me...”
“I’ll come with you,” Xander said with a sigh.
Giles bent down to the open bag, pulled out a leather collar and walked towards him. “I might not have made it quite clear in what capacity I wanted you to help me, Xander,” he said, with a faint hint of an apology in his quiet voice. “It’s going to be temporary, so I won’t begin the incantation until we’re close, but I’ll need you to wear this...”
“Whu?” That wasn’t even a word. “Why do I need – oh God.”
“You’re inclined to it already, Xander. Lingering traces in your sense memories, primal instincts stirring beneath the surface...it’s not been that long after all...”
Giles’ voice was soothing, even hypnotic; caressing and stroking along Xander's skin. Lost in it, Xander followed him in silence, and, when they reached the place it had claimed its last victim, he let Giles buckle the collar, attach the leash, murmur the words ... then he went down on all fours, whining and mewling until he caught the scent of the vampire zebra.
After that, it was the feel of the grass that he remembered, wet and coarse against his hands, the air turning into a dense soup, thick with scent trails, one shining red, glossy and bright. The animal erupting out of the bushes was larger than he’d expected, fangs twisting and distorting its face, hooves slashing down at Giles, who fell beneath them, crying out in alarm...
Xander wrenched himself free of the leash, caught up the stake that Giles had dropped, and threw himself at the zebra, howling with rage. It took a long time to remember to use the stake because his teeth and hands were there, but the cool blood tasted wrong...
The dust showered over him, clinging and sticking to sweat and blood and he screamed up to the stars, cheated of his prey.
Dim words, faint and faraway, circled him like smoke and he felt the hyena snarl and sleep again.
Giles staggered towards him where he crouched on the red-slicked grass, and wordlessly reached for the collar, clumsy fingers trying to unbuckle it. Xander’s hand came up and brushed Giles’ fingers away.
“Leave it,” he whispered. “Until I’m sure it’s not coming back.”
“You wouldn’t hurt me, Xander,” Giles said softly. “You just saved my life.”
Xander took the end of the leash and wound it around Giles’ fingers, feeling their strength beneath the tremor that made them shift against his, frowning as Giles winced, his hand going to his arm and then falling back.
“Take me back to the library and lock me in the cage until I believe that, then.”
Giles hesitated and then nodded. He didn’t have to tell Xander that he’d be right there all night with him. Xander knew that.
And, after that flash of yearning, darkly intense and rich with need, he’d sensed when the collar went around his neck, he knew more than that, but it could wait.
Xander was silent, hunched up in the corner of the cage, the collar dark around his neck. Giles couldn't stop looking at him.
He'd tried. Had made excuses and retreated to his office, or the stacks. Had been drawn back to the table nearest the cage.
Had sat with his back half-turned and babbled, an inconsequential flood worthy of Xander himself, until the words had dried on his lips and then shifted, inch by inch, to face the cage.
Had taken comfort in the fact that he was still a good many feet away from the cage -- and then drifted, drawn, until he was standing beside it, breathing in drugged, deep sighs and knowing that his body needed very little to jerk in profound, dark release.
He hadn't told Xander to strip.
Didn't know what had prompted him to do that.
Just wished he'd not been in his office when he did. Or, no. Because if he'd seen Xander start to tear off clothes that must have felt alien and were, after all, blood-spattered and stiff with it, he would have had to tell him to stop, even though he didn't want to. And Xander would have obeyed him, because right now he didn't have any choice, it seemed.
Giles assured himself that he would have spoken the words for perhaps the sixth time and carried on staring.
Tanned, yes of course he was, but with the tan line fading at the waist, leaving his arse pale and the top of his thighs likewise. Why that made his backside look vulnerable, Giles didn't know. Perhaps because, singled out as it was, by the way Xander lay curved, it made a tempting target.
Curved. Hidden. Giles stared at Xander, willing him to straighten and stretch...
"See anything you like?"
The words jolted him -- not with shame, or embarrassment, because Xander sounded matter-of-fact, mildly curious, if that -- but because they were speech, coherent and questioning, and he'd been thinking of Xander as beyond words since he'd caged him, shaped by the spell into something not quite Xander, something other than the boy he knew.
Something unprotected, transient. Something he could stare at with impunity. The reminder was timely, he decided. He'd done nothing wrong yet, nothing that couldn't be excused, explained away.
And that's what he'd do now.
"I see you."
Or perhaps not. Perhaps he'd fucking flirt instead... Giles clenched his hand into a fist and saw Xander's gaze shift to it and then flick up to Giles' face, tense with inwardly-directed anger.
Xander's eyes widened, misunderstanding, and he whimpered, and then Xander was turning, presenting himself, hands and knees and head hanging down, and he wasn't there after all, he wasn't human, wasn't Xander, oh God --
The leather of the collar was damp with sweat. Giles' fingers hooked under it, caressing chafed skin gently as his other hand carefully hurt pale, pale skin, making it wince and shudder away from him but collared and held, Xander had nowhere to go.
Xander's mouth was open, wet and pouting lips swollen and rich but Giles didn't kiss them, although later, after, he brushed his lips over the tears that were trickling steadily over flushed cheeks, tears that had stopped him as Xander's guttural cries hadn't because animals didn't cry, did they?
And when the tears had stopped and Xander was blinking at him, wet eyes grieving, betrayed, Giles brought water in a bowl and washed away the blood, all of it, before it could dry and flake and itch.
Because it was hot in the library tonight.
And the bite on his arm was throbbing.