Of Rain and Marshmallows

by Wolfling

This, thought Giles, was the kind of weather that had inspired the old cliche, "It was a dark and stormy night."

It was dark, pitch black, the absence of light almost a tangible physical thing. Even the streetlights didn't seem able to pierce the gloom.

And it was definitely stormy, the wind was howling through the streets, rattling the windows in impotent fury at being shut out. The rain was coming down in sheets, barely above freezing, the driving wind turning each drop into a tiny icy dagger.

It was the kind of night that any sane person would want to be inside out of the cold and wet. Which was exactly where Giles was, ensconced in front of a cheerful fire in his favourite chair with a book he was reading for no more dire reason than he wanted to.

He should've been content, happy even. There was no impending apocalypse, no fiend trying to take over the world, not even any mysterious, possibly cursed, object that needed identifying. Things were quiet.

Peaceful.

Boring.

Giles sighed and closed his eyes.

The truth was he was restless. He had to admit it, at least to himself -- he missed Sunnydale.

Not just the people -- that was to be expected -- they were friends, damned close to family in some ways. He would've been surprised if he hadn't missed them.

But the place itself with its nightly dangers and regular catastrophes... He missed the excitement, the knowledge that he was doing something important, making a difference.

His life since he'd come back to England had been dull and pedestrian. It was safe and secure, but it was slowly driving Giles crazy.

Not to mention he was lonelier than he'd been in...well, years.

He sighed and closed his book, resting his head against the back of the chair. He'd made the right decision in leaving, he still believed that. But going and staying away was harder than he had ever imagined it being.

Trying to put the whole thing from his mind before he ended up in a full fledged brood, Giles put his book aside and got up to head for the kitchen. Maybe fixing some tea would help distract him from his thoughts.

He was halfway across the living room when there was a knock at the door. Changing his course in mid step, Giles went to answer it.

Standing on his doorstep was a thoroughly bedraggled, thoroughly soaked, thoroughly miserable Xander Harris.

Giles stared.

"H-hi," Xander stammered, with a game attempt at a smile. He was shivering violently from cold. "W-was in th-the neigh-neighbourhood and th-th-thought I'd st-t-t-top b-b-b-by..."

"Come inside before you freeze to death," Giles said, shaking off his momentary paralysis and pulling the younger man through the door before closing it again, shutting out the wind and the rain.

"Th-thanks," Xander said as Giles grabbed a blanket off the end of the couch and wrapped it around him. "Awful lot of weather you have here."

Giles steered him towards the chair nearest the fire. "Sit. I'll go get something dry for you to change into."

"Thanks," Xander repeated faintly, settling in the proffered chair.

Giles went upstairs and dug out a pair of sweat pants and a warm sweater. He was doing his level best not to think about why Xander was there or what might have put that look in his eyes. He needed to concentrate on taking care of Xander's physical needs first than he would question the young man.

He went back downstairs and gave Xander the clothes and pointed him in the direction of the bathroom to change.

"Thanks, G-man." Xander managed a shaky smile as he headed off to get changed.

Giles continued with his policy of not thinking about it, busying himself in the kitchen. By the time Xander came out of the bathroom, looking even younger in the slightly too big clothes, Giles had two steaming mugs ready, one of which he handed to Xander.

At Xander's dubious expression, Giles said, "It's cocoa."

"Oh." It was hard to keep from smiling at the way Xander's expression brightened. "Thanks."

"They settled in chairs in front of the fire. Xander didn't seemed inclined to talk, but Giles could only not think for so long.

"Is everything all right back-" Giles bit off the final word, not all that surprised to realize that he had been about to refer to Sunnydale as home.

Xander sipped his cocoa. "Depends by what you mean by all right."

"Buffy isn't-?"

"Buffy's fine," Xander answered sharply. "Your slayer is kicking demon butt and making the Hellmouth safe for the innocent and only slightly guilty. And even managing a semblance of a life. Though can't say much for her taste in boyfriends. But that's nothing new."

Before Giles could do more than open his mouth to ask, Xander continued, "But that's not important. The important thing is this isn't about Buffy. As radical a concept as that may seem for you."

Giles frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

"You don't see it even now, do you?" Xander shook his head. "Is Buffy the only one you care about?"

Startled by the vehemence in that plaintive question, Giles stammered, "Of course not. I- I don't--"

"You left us!" Xander yelled. "Not just Buffy, but all of us. Twice!"

"Xander, I didn't--"

"Think of us? Yeah, I know. The only one you were thinking of was Buffy -- and yourself. I guess the rest of us non-Slayer, non-Watcher types should just be grateful we at least rated a goodbye."

Giles stared, taken aback at both the bitterness of Xander's words and the hurt in his eyes. As well as the cold realization that there was more than just a hint of truth in what he was saying.

Xander took a deep, shaky breath. "I know that Buffy is special, that you feel responsible for her in a way that you don't for anyone else. I never expected you to think of the rest of us the same way, but I had thought...hoped...that you'd give us some consideration. We deserved that much."

"You're right," Giles said quietly.

"I mean it's not like we've just been bystan... What did you say?"

"I said you were right." It shamed him to admit it, shamed him to realize he'd done it in the first place. To have not even thought of Xander and Willow and the others long enough to even consciously dismiss their needs from consideration... It was far more callous than he ever wanted to consider himself capable of being. And it was the bitterest realization, finding out that he was and that he had.

"I owe you an apology, Xander," he continued quietly. "Perhaps..." He paused, shaking his head, not allowing himself the luxury of qualifiers. "No perhaps. You are right. And I am sorry."

"Oh." Xander blinked, seeming off-balance at Giles' sudden agreement. "Well...thanks. For admitting it."

He looked at such a loss that Giles felt obliged to offer, "If you'd like to continue berating me..."

Xander sighed. "No, that's okay. It's no fun when you're agreeing with me. Not that having fun was the point. Nothing about this whole thing has been fun."

"No, it hasn't," Giles said softly.

Xander narrowed his eyes. "You're agreeing with me again."

Giles managed to keep a straight face though it was difficult; the conversation had a slight edge of the absurd to it that was very familiar from countless "Scooby" briefing sessions and that he hadn't realized he would miss as much as he had.

"So I am," he murmured. "My apologies."

"Just don't let it happen again," Xander replied gruffly, although there was a spark in his eyes that hinted at an enjoyment in the exchange that matched Giles' own.

But as Giles watched Xander sip at his cocoa, the spark faded, and Giles found himself looking into dark eyes that seemed full of secret pain.

Maybe he could ask the right question this time. Leaning forward and holding the young man's gaze, Giles asked, "Why are you here, Xander?"

Xander's mouth tightened and for a moment Giles thought he wasn't going to answer. But then all the tension seemed to go out of him at once and Xander hunched in on himself miserably. "Anya left me."

Giles felt a start of surprise ripple down his spine at that; when he had left Sunnydale Xander and Anya had just announced their engagement and they'd had a solid -- if colourful -- relationship. The last thing Giles would've expected was them breaking up.

"My condolences," he said softly, wondering if he should say any more. Xander may not want to dwell on something that was obviously very painful. On the other hand, he may have been feeling the need to talk.

Giles opened his mouth to say something encouraging without being pushy -- what exactly, he wasn't sure, but he trusted the words would come.

He didn't get the chance. Xander jumped up and began pacing. As he paced, he talked.

"It's probably for the best, right? Better to find out now she doesn't want me than after we'd said our 'I do's.' If we'd actually had to get a divorce, it would've gotten...messy. Well, messier."

Giles could feel the pain radiating off the younger man that the words didn't come near to expressing. Without a word, he got up, went to his small liquor cabinet, and poured Xander a stiff drink.

Xander looked blankly at him when he handed him the glass. "You looked like you could use it," Giles told him.

"Um...yeah. Thanks." Xander smiled humorlessly. "I definitely need something." He downed it in one swallow and coughed, though not as violently as Giles might've predicted; either Xander had more experience with hard liquor than he'd known, or Xander was numb enough that its effects were muted.

Giles rather feared it was the latter.

Xander handed him the glass back and resumed pacing. "The worst part about it is why she left. If she'd left me for another guy, or even if it was because she'd decided she didn't love me any more...well it still would've hurt. But not like this."

"That's not what happened?" The question, rich with surprise, slipped out before Giles could stop it.

"No -- you don't know, do you? Of course you don't -- how would you, being over here in England and all. And I'm babbling, aren't I?" The speed of Xander's pacing increased along with the speed of his words.

Then he stopped in front of the windows suddenly and stared out into the darkness. His voice, when he spoke was quiet and totally void of its earlier manic state.

"In a weird way it's sorta my fault," he began. "Willow's been getting...out of control with the magic stuff. I was trying to talk sense to her and we ended up arguing. She said that she wasn't doing anything wrong or even abnormal -- that anyone who had access to power would use it. I was stupid -- I disagreed. And I guess she decided to prove it to me or teach me a lesson or something.

"Willow somehow found or recreated or did something to get Anya's power focus back. Gave her the chance to go back to being a vengeance demon. All she had to do was give up her humanity and everything that goes with it. Like loving me."

Xander fell silent briefly and Giles watched the young man's reflection in the window as his expression twisted with bitterness.

"I have to give Anya credit," Xander continued finally. "She didn't just grab the necklace and leave. It took her a whole two days to make up her mind. Not that I knew that any of this was happening at the time. The first I knew anything was wrong was when I woke up one morning and found a 'Dear Xander' letter on my pillow."

The scene was easy for Giles to picture -- Xander waking up to an empty apartment, a curious event but nothing to inspire worry -- at least at first. Then him finding the letter and the gradual horrifying realization that the woman he loved not only had left him, but in a very real sense didn't even exist anymore.

It made Giles' heart ache in sympathy, made him want to reach out and comfort.

"The strange thing is, I didn't doubt it for a minute. As soon as the words registered, I believed. It was like part of me had been expecting it, like I'd just been waiting for her to leave me. Not even her becoming a demon surprised me, not really."

Xander glanced over his shoulder at Giles. "You know the history of my love life." He laughed humorlessly, bitterly, the sound seeming harsh and loud. "I mean doesn't 'Xander's ex-demon fiance leaves him to become a demon again' just seem like another sad chapter? Doesn't it make the whole thing almost inevitable when you take that into account?"

It took a few seconds for Giles to find his voice, and when he did it was soft and full of all the sadness he was feeling for his young friend. "No. I don't."

That seemed to take Xander aback slightly. "Oh. Well you must be the only one. Because no one else seemed surprised when they found out either. Actually no one seemed to have much reaction at all." He started pacing again, brushing by Giles as he moved restlessly. "Buffy's all preoccupied with slaying and Sp...um...other stuff, and Willow..." He stopped and swallowed hard.

"She said she was sorry but..." He swallowed again. "She said that it was better that I find out now. That she knew that it hurt, but I'd be better off in the long run. That sh-she was d-doing me a fa-favour..." Xander's voice broke, as finally his pain began to spill over and he closed his eyes and turned his head in an effort to hide.

When faced with that, Giles wasn't able to continue to resist the urge to comfort, even if he had wanted to.

Stepping over to Xander's side, he first laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder, then, when Xander seemed to lean into the touch, Giles tugged gently and pulled him into a hug.

At first Xander stayed tense and stiff in his arms but all at once he relaxed, the tension melting away, leaving behind a fine trembling in his muscles. He'd buried his face against Giles' shoulder and, other than one harsh sob, was absolutely silent. His arms had come up around Giles in turn, holding on with a fierce desperation.

The body language spoke quite eloquently of a intense overwhelming need for physical contact and comfort, of having suffered alone and isolated for far too long.

In response, Giles held him tighter, determined to do that all night if that was what Xander needed.

It wasn't all night, but it was some time before Xander pulled back, raising a hand to brush a lingering telltale dampness off his cheeks. "Sorry, I-" he muttered, glancing up at Giles' face. Giles didn't know what his expression he was wearing, but whatever it was it stopped Xander mid-apology. "Thanks," he said quietly instead.

Giles nodded and moved back to the liquor cabinet and poured them each a drink, then moved back to hand one to Xander.

"You trying to get me drunk?" Xander teased weakly as he took the glass.

Giles answered with a half-shrug. "I needed one and it would have been rude to drink alone."

"Oh. Okay, then." Xander looked down at the glass in his hand, then raised it in salute. "Um, cheers."

He downed the contents only slightly slower than the last time as Giles watched then handed the glass back.

Giles quickly drank his own and then held up the glasses questioningly. "More?"

"You *are* trying to get me drunk!" Xander accused, something very much like wicked delight beginning to shine in his eyes.

"I'm not trying to get you--" Giles began, then stopped with a sigh as the ghost of delight on Xander's face became something less faint. "Why would I try to get you drunk?" he asked, trying for his most patient tone.

"I don't know," Xander replied cheerfully, "but I'm tempted to let you so I can find out."

Xander moved away from him and over to the liquor cabinet where he proceeded to fidget and fumble with the various bottles there.

The returned manic-ness and sudden cheerful joking were behaviours that Giles had seen many times before, ones that he easily recognized as Xander's oldest coping mechanisms. When things cut a bit too close to the bone, or Xander felt especially open and vulnerable, that's when he wouldn't be able to sit still and when he'd talk and joke incessantly. Well, more than he usually did.

Sometimes an edge would show through the jokes, but on the whole, Xander's mask was remarkably complete and firmly in place. In the years that Giles had known him, he could count on the fingers of one hand the times he'd seen it slip.

He wasn't sure if it was good or bad that Xander had found it again now.

But one thing Giles was sure was a bad idea would be to let Xander get drunk when he was already manic.

"How about some more cocoa instead?" he asked, reaching over and taking a bottle of expensive scotch from Xander's grip, before he could either drink it or drop it.

Xander looked at him a bit squirrelishly and Giles wondered if maybe a drunk Xander was already a foregone conclusion. "How are you going to get me drunk if I'm drinking cocoa?"

Giles sighed and counted to ten. "I'm not trying to get you drunk."

"Oh, sure. *Now*."

Giles opened and closed his mouth once, then said as firmly as he could manage, "I'll get you some more cocoa." He started for the kitchen.

"Giles?"

Giles stopped and looked over his shoulder rather suspiciously.

"Do they have marshmallows in England?"

"England, yes, my kitchen, no."

"Oh." Xander's expression fell briefly, then he shrugged. "It was worth a try. I never would have thought you'd have cocoa either."

Giles waited for a moment, but when no other comments seemed to be forthcoming, once again he turned towards the kitchen.

And that's when Xander called out, voice so innocent it would immediately make anyone suspicious, "How about whipped cream?"

This time Giles didn't answer, merely continued onto the kitchen, muttering under his breath about annoying Americans and their equally annoying sweet tooths.

Despite the exasperation, or maybe because of it, Giles found himself in a better mood than he'd been in months.

As irritating as Xander could be, as sorry as Giles was for the circumstances that had driven the young man to make the long trip here, Giles could not find it in himself to be sorry that Xander had made it, had decided to seek Giles out.

Xander felt like...like home. His presence there brought back all of the feelings Giles had been doing his best to suppress since he'd realized he would have to leave Sunnydale. The danger, the exhilaration, the exasperation, the humour, the camaraderie, the love.

It wasn't just his Slayer that had made Sunnydale so special. The friends she'd made who had become his friends as well were just as important.

They had become something of an impromptu family, bound together by all the things they'd been through that no one else would understand -- if they even believed.

Shame filled Giles again for forgetting that or, more accurately perhaps, at least disregarding it when he made his decision to leave. But he shook off the guilt after a moment; there would be time enough for self-recriminations later.

Right now he was supposed to be making cocoa, and whatever else he could do to help Xander.

Barring of course going out and buying marshmallows.

When he returned to the living room with the drink a few minutes later, Giles found Xander back in front of the window, staring out into the night.

"It's really nasty out there," he commented when Giles joined him. His voice had gone quiet and reflective, the manic energy from earlier seeming to have disappeared again.

"Yes, it is," Giles agreed, handing over the mug. "Not fit for man, beast or demon."

Xander chuckled. "So if Sunnydale had lousier weather, we would have less of a demon problem?"

"Perhaps." Giles sipped at his own mug and stared out into the night himself. "Or we would have been a lot more miserable fighting them. And sunny days do have their advantages in fighting vampires."

"You realize we're standing here talking about the weather?" Xander asked. "Okay, in a weird demon fighting tactics sort of way, but still..."

"We should be talking about something else." Giles didn't quite make it a question.

Xander took a deep breath and nodded. "We should. Except..." He turned to look at Giles. His eyes were a bit wild, as fear warred with determination. "I'm not sure I can. At least not yet."

Giles nodded. He wasn't willing to push -- how could he? He couldn't blame Xander for being reluctant to share confidences, not after all the recent betrayals he'd suffered -- including Giles' own leaving. "Take whatever time you need."

"It's not you -- nothing about you. Well, nothing bad at any rate," Xander rushed to reassure him. "I just... I can't... I don't know how..." He stopped another deep breath and gave Giles a rueful look. "Guess I'm just proving my point."

His curiosity piqued even more now by that stumbling non-explanation, Giles offered, "You can tell me anything, you know. And if it doesn't come out exactly right, we can work on it until it does."

Xander smiled. "Thanks. But I think I'd rather get it right the first time. I'd like to skip the comedic stumbling over my own tongue for once in my life."

"You don't--" Giles began, but stopped as he thought about it, reviewing his memories. "Well perhaps you have on occasion," he admitted, " but that doesn't mean we haven't taken what you said seriously. We-- I-- never laughed at you."

"I know." Xander reached out and laid a hand on Giles' arm. "I know you never. And that has always meant a lot. Really. I just... I need a bit more time."

"All right." Xander's hand was still on his arm and Giles was finding the warmth of the touch...distracting. More distracting than he had any right to.

"Thanks." Then Xander seemed to realize his hand was lingering perhaps a bit too long because he pulled it back with a quick jerk.

"Sorry. Um...not to be presumptuous or anything, but can I crash here -- at least for tonight? I think I'd probably drown if I went back out there. Either that or turn into a Xander-shaped block of ice."

"Of course you can stay -- for as long as you want." Giles turned and looked at his living room as he continued. "I'm afraid there's only the one bed, but I can vouch for the comfort of the couch. I've spent more than one night on it when I've fallen asleep reading."

"Falling asleep on the couch?" Xander repeated teasingly. "You're just living the wild and crazy, aren't you? How do you stand the excitement?"

"Some peace and quiet can be a nice change--" Giles stopped at Xander's head shake and wide grin. "All right, it's been damned boring. Happy now?"

"Ecstatic." Xander's grin widened, if possible. "You're in danger of losing your stuffy British Watcher guy status."

Giles frowned. "Stuffy?"

"Sorry, G-Man. If the shoe fits..."

"Stuffy?"

"Well, not a terminal case," Xander relented, eyes twinkling with humour. "With the proper treatment, I'd say you could have a complete recovery."

"I shudder to contemplate the answer, but what do you consider proper treatment?" Giles kept his expression serious only with great effort.

"Hanging out with me, for starters." Xander gave him a teasing smile that Giles couldn't help but return.

"I'll let you know when you're slipping into stuffiness. Quick correction is key, after all. Don't want you slipping into old bad habits," Xander teased.

"Lucky for me you came along then." Though Giles had meant for the words to be ironic, they had come out sincere and heartfelt. He couldn't regret it, not when he saw the way the admission made Xander's eyes light up and the slight slump to his shoulders disappear.

It made him realize for the first time how unsure of his welcome that Xander might have been. That he might have thought he would show up on Giles' doorstep and Giles would turn him away.

Maybe Xander had a point about him needing someone to keep him from being an ass.

"I *am* glad to have you here, Xander," he said quietly, wanting to make sure that Xander had no doubts about that point.

Xander looked down, a tiny pleased smile on his lips. "Thanks. It's good to see you too. Really."

Giles felt a pleased smile of his own at that. He met Xander's dark eyes, but quickly looked away again.

There was something... Something in Xander's gaze... Something that Giles wasn't sure he was willing to admit he saw, something he knew he wasn't ready to acknowledge.

Turning away from those disturbingly intriguing eyes to look at the much safer living room, Giles cleared a throat that had become suddenly tight.

"It's getting late. You must be tired."

Xander didn't answer for a few seconds, long enough to make Giles glance back and catch a strange mixture of relief and disappointment on his face. "Yeah," Xander finally replied. "It's been a really long day. Or maybe two -- I'm still fuzzy on the whole time zone change. But yeah, I could sleep."

"Good. I'll go get some blankets and pillows for you-" He paused, realizing for the first time that Xander was missing something. "You didn't bring a bag?"

"I did." Xander grimaced. "But I haven't seen it since I checked it at Sunnydale Airport. I got on the plane, but my bag didn't. At least it didn't get on the same plane. The airline didn't have a clue -- could be on a flight to China for all they could tell me." He shrugged rather fatalistically. "It was just one more thing that went wrong. Didn't really surprise me with the way my luck's been going lately. I'm counting my blessings that the plane didn't go down."

Giles had to suppress an instinctive shiver at that; the thought of any of the "Scoobies" dying was not one he wanted to dwell on. Losing Buffy that way had been...difficult; his mind shied away from losing anyone else.

Especially Xander.

He blinked. Where had that thought come from?

"The day's got a lot better since I got here," Xander said, bringing Giles' attention back to the present. "Warm room, dry clothes, good company, cocoa...even if you don't have marshmallows. Makes up for the rest of it."

"Does it?" Giles asked softly.

"Well...yeah." Xander smiled and gave a half shrug. "I really needed to get away from...everyone. Everything. I needed..." He trailed off with another shrug.

"A sympathetic ear?"

"That got him another smile. "Yeah." Xander yawned suddenly, then looked sheepish. "Sorry. Guess I'm more tired than I thought."

Giles nodded. "As you said, you've had a long day. I'll get that bedding for you."

He headed upstairs and gathered not only some blankets and pillows but some basic toiletries as well: a spare toothbrush, razor, things like that. Things that Xander would need both that night and in the morning.

He went back down and handed Xander everything but the bedding. "You can go get ready for bed while I make up the couch."

Xander blinked down at the things, then smiled shyly. "Thanks."

Giles nodded as he started to spread out the sheets. "We can go shopping tomorrow to get you some clothes and other essentials."

"Hey, you don't have to--" Xander began, but subsided when Giles turned and frowned at him. "Um. I mean thanks."

"You're welcome. Now go get ready for bed."

Xander gave him a dazzlingly bright smile. "Yes, Giles," he said obediently then turned and headed for the bathroom.

For a long moment Giles stood there staring after him, then determinedly turned back to what he was doing. He tried not to think, but the image of Xander's smile was lingering in his mind.

He refused to look too closely at why and how that smile was affecting him. Refused to acknowledge the revelation that his brain was trying to have.

It made Giles hurry to finish, made him say a quick, almost brusque good night when Xander came back out, made him retreat upstairs as soon as he could.

Mechanically he got ready for bed, climbed under the blankets and turned out the lights.

All the time ignoring the voice in the back of his head telling him that he was only running away in a different way.

*******************

It was over.

Standing over his Slayer's grave, his heart a tattered ruin in his chest, those three words kept echoing through Giles' mind.

It was over.

The wild ride of the last five years, facing vampires and demons and gods, apocalypse after apocalypse, and emerging from each one, if not unscathed, at least with everyone alive.

Not this time.

It was over.

His job, his calling, his life of teaching, training, protecting. Watching. Watching over his Slayer, shepherding her, making sure she had whatever she needed: training, spells, knowledge, backup, self-awareness. Making sure she could defeat her enemies and stay alive while doing it.

He was supposed to watch over her.

He had failed.

It was over.

The young girl he had watched mature into a woman was gone. He'd watched her grow into her power and responsibilities, watched as she withstood traumas and losses that would have destroyed a weaker soul. He'd watched her struggle to have a normal life, dealing with all the ups and downs of living while saving the world on a regular basis. She had been more than a Slayer, the Chosen One; she'd been a friend, the daughter he'd never had, so full of love and light and life...

Not any more.

It was over.

Buffy was dead.

Giles stood at her grave, alone even though he was surrounded by her friends and family -- who had become his friends as well. They were all grieving together, but each locked in their own skull, own heart, own soul.

They stood together in silence, the words not coming when they tried to speak to him. One by one they faded away, leaving him alone in the night.

Alone with his dead.

Alone with his failure.

For the first time, he allowed that there may be some merit to the Council's admonishment to maintain an emotional distance, to not get attached to the Slayer. To see her as a weapon, not a person.

You don't cry when a weapon is destroyed.

But even though Giles understood it, he knew he could never do it -- not and maintain his humanity. Not and be able to look at himself in the mirror.

And, this then, was the price he paid for his humanity. The pain, the guilt, the loss, the sadness, the anger, the grief.

And most shamefully of all, the relief.

Relief because he no longer had to worry about the worst happening -- because it had already happened. He could deal with the pain, find a way to somehow live with it and go on with his life.

It was over.

Except that it wasn't.

Giles turned around and found himself at the entrance of the Magic Box, staring across the room at his Slayer. Alive.

Even as he moved to hug her, feeling her warm and breathing in his arms, feeling overjoyed and grateful that she was back, there was a part of him that was cringing.

Because having her back meant facing losing her all over again. A fear that he couldn't shake, that kept growing in his subconscious every time Buffy leaned on him. Every time she left something up to him.

He was suddenly in Buffy's bedroom handing her a cheque, then in the kitchen facing a contrite Dawn he had to discipline. He blinked and was back in the Magic Box, in the training room with Buffy. She was smiling at him, telling him that she knew she could rely on him to take care of everything.

And Giles knew then he had to leave.

The weight of his own responsibilities as a Watcher was heavy enough; to take on any more, to "take care of everything," was a weight that would surely crush him.

Failure was no longer an if, but a when: when would he hesitate too long, when would he not know the answer, when would he say the wrong thing, when would he misstep, when would he fall?

When would he falter and fail, and who would pay for the inevitable mistake?

Because it wasn't just himself and his Slayer who were in the line of fire.

He walked through the training room door into the kitchen at Buffy's. There was Dawn, sitting at the counter, depressed and alone. In desperate need of a parental figure. Another thing that he was needed to do, another position he was needed to fill.

Another place where he could fail.

He turned and went back through the door and found himself somewhere he had hoped never to see again. Smokey, dingy, it was full of loud music and dim lighting.

And magic, rippling through the air as the room's occupants cast spell after spell.

Giles could feel it against his skin, tiny prickles, each an itch he couldn't -- daren't -- scratch, a craving scrabbling at his soul, even after all these years.

He was standing in a haven for junkies as sure as any crack den.

And in the middle of the room, the center of attention, the center of power, was Willow.

Wilfully losing herself, descending onto that dark path that had almost cost Giles his life, his sanity, his soul.

Another person that he cared about that he was failing. Another responsibility that would have dire consequences for others if he fell short.

Willow turned to look at him, her eyes dark with power, her expression one that was all too familiar to him: he'd seen it on Randall's face, and on Ethan's -- and on his own reflection.

He backed up slowly, shaking his head. This wasn't-- He couldn't--

Hating himself, he turned and fled.

He ran through the door and found himself back at the Magic Box, with all of the others watching him expectantly.

Taking a deep breath, he told them, laying out all the reasons, logical, measured, necessary. Everything but the real reason. Oh, he had become a master at making excuses -- even to himself.

The others reacted with disbelief, bewilderment, anger, betrayal. It was no more than he had expected, and a part of him was feeling pretty much the same things, whispering bitterly, "Coward," over and over somewhere in the back of his mind.

But he ignored it as best he could. He*
had* to leave. If he stayed, they would continue to rely on him, lean on him, and he was already failing miserably. If he left, then maybe they would find their strength elsewhere. It was shock therapy, but it was all he was capable of administering.

And, if they didn't find their own strength, at least he wouldn't be there to see them fall...

"Coward. Traitor," the voice in the back of his mind whispered louder.

He closed his eyes against the shame and when he opened them, he was back where he'd started -- in the cemetery, standing in front of Buffy's grave.

Alone.

"You're not, you know," a familiar voice said directly behind him.

Xander. The one person he hadn't worried about when making his decision to leave. Xander, who in the last couple of years had gotten his life together, and had done it pretty much on his own. Xander, who despite his deserved reputation for being the comic relief, was more responsible than Giles had ever dreamed of being at the same age. Certainly he was the most responsible of his age mates.

Giles hadn't worried about him because he hadn't had to; whatever happened, Xander was a survivor.

Of course, that didn't explain why the hurt look on Xander's face was the one that came most quickly to mind when he thought about everyone's reaction to his leaving.

"I'm not what?" he asked, when Xander made no move to elaborate on his cryptic statement.

"Alone," Xander replied, his brown eyes burning into Giles' own with an intensity that held him frozen. "Not if you don't want to be."

Giles shook his head. "I can't--"

"What? Can't carry the rest of us? No one but you expects you to." Xander sounded exasperated. "We're all responsible for ourselves and our own actions. If there is any joint responsibility it belongs to all of us, not just you."

It sounded...right. It sounded in fact an awful lot like what the voice in the back of his head had been trying to tell him.

"I'm her Watcher," he tried to protest.

"You're her friend," Xander countered. "We all are. That's far more important." His voice went soft and he reached out and laid a hand on Giles' arm. "We're your friends too. You should be able to come to us for help. But you haven't been."

Giles didn't answer; he didn't know what to say and Xander's touch on his arm and his gaze holding his own wasn't making it any easier to think.

Xander moved a step closer. "What do you need? And don't tell me distance because there's been too much of that already. Distance is the last thing you need."

Giles tried to take a step back but his feet wouldn't obey him. In fact his body didn't seem to be listening to him at all, as he found himself actually leaning towards Xander.

Swallowing hard, Giles had to clean his throat several times before he was able to speak. "I need you--" to give me some time and space, he meant to say but didn't get that far.

"About time," Xander interrupted with a sudden bright grin, and slid a hand behind Giles' head, pulling him into a long, lingering kiss.


******************

Giles woke with a gasp, mind and spirit both reeling.

Sitting up, he reached out with a shaking hand to turn on the lamp on the bedside table.

It was just a dream, he tried to tell himself. Just a dream, but his lips still tingled from the dream kiss and other parts of his body were also reacting as if it had been real.

He shifted uncomfortably and glared down at his lap. He would've thought he was far too old for this kind of foolishness -- getting hard from a dream, and a dream of no more, no less, than a simple kiss.

From Xander.

Was he really that out of touch with his own feelings?

Giles had never allowed himself to think of Xander that way -- at least not consciously. He'd very deliberately put Buffy and all her friends in an 'off limits' category in his mind long ago. He was their "grownup friend," no lusting was allowed.

Unfortunately, his subconscious was apparently not very good at respecting boundaries -- even the ones he'd set up himself.

He sighed and ran his hands through his hair wearily. His subconscious had been working overtime lately. But did it really have to let him in on everything at once?

He truly had believed the reason he'd given for leaving was, if not the only one, at least the main one.

He'd gotten too good at hiding his fear, especially from himself. But looking back now, with his eyes open and the blinders removed, Giles could clearly see how the fear had coloured everything he'd done, every decision he'd made.

It also made his total focus on his Slayer, to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, more understandable to him. By making it solely about a Watcher doing what was best for his Slayer's growth and development, it was far easier to live with the fact that he had left.

It didn't seem as bad as leaving a friend when she needed him.

Leaving friends, he corrected himself, because he could no longer deny it was more than his Slayer that he had abandoned.

First and foremost, there was Buffy, who besides being his Slayer was like a daughter to him. She was suffering, struggling to break out of a depression that was smothering her. There had to have been a better way of helping than leaving. He should have stuck around and tried to find it.

And Willow -- he saw all the signs and knew the kind of slippery slope she was on. Knew what kind of addiction she was falling into. He'd been there, himself, after all. Indeed, watching Willow struggle with the temptation of losing herself in more and more magic was in many ways like watching himself.

Then there was Xander.

Giles sighed, leaned back against his pillows and closed his eyes.

Well, the dream certainly threw a whole new light on *that* question.

He tried to look objectively at his feelings about the young man sleeping downstairs on his couch.

Giles snorted at the thought; he sounded like his father: categorize, analyze, quantify. Treat emotions as just another stimulus.

He'd hated it when his father had picked apart his feelings like there were just another school assignment. He supposed he should just count his blessings; his father hadn't tried to deny their existence, but he had insisted that Giles understand them and where they had come from.

As a result, Giles had gotten very good at analyzing his feelings and motivations -- and even better at hiding them from himself.

Like now, for example.

Xander.

He had certainly grown into quite an admirable young man, Giles mused. Loyal to a fault, brave, smart -- maybe not the traditional book smart, but smart about people, which in many instances was more valuable. He wasn't afraid to see with his heart and never had been -- a quality that was all too rare, especially among those who had lived through what they had.

And, though Xander had never said anything explicitly, there had been enough hints that Giles was sure his life had had its share of demons even before he had gotten involved with the literal Hellmouthy types. Demons that had left their mark on him in insecurity, empathy and strength of spirit.

Giles wanted to protect that open heart, share in that strong spirit, bask in that joyous presence...

Dear Lord.

It was worse than he'd thought at first.

It wasn't just lust. He was in love with Xander.

When had this happened -- more importantly how had it happened? How had he let himself...

And most important of all -- what was he going to do about it now?

Giles could really have used a drink right about then, to blunt the shock and help quell the incipient panicked hysteria he could feel crawling in the depths of his soul.

But his liquor cabinet was downstairs in the living room -- where Xander was sleeping. Not a good idea. He had to work this out before facing the object of his affections -- the object of his dilemma, awake or asleep.

At that point he wasn't sure which would be worse.

With a sigh, Giles tilted his head back and stared at ceiling.

What was he going to do?

All of Xander's relationships to date had been, as far as Giles knew, with women. And while Xander had always been open minded, that didn't mean this wouldn't...wouldn't 'freak him out' as Xander himself might say.

Still, there had been...hints. Signs -- a gesture here, a comment there, things that made Giles wonder if Xander might be more open to the concept than would first seem apparent.

But even if that were the case, and Xander was willing to entertain the thought of...err...switching teams, now would definitely not be the right time to broach the subject.

Xander had just been dumped by his fiancée. He had been ignored if not outright rejected by his friends -- so much so that he felt the need to travel halfway around the world in search of a sympathetic ear. Not to mention the added insult of the airline losing his luggage. To say that he might be emotionally vulnerable right now would be something of an understatement.

Besides, the last thing that Giles wanted was to be considered the rebound fling.

That was assuming, of course, that Xander would even want a fling with him.

Even if Xander was inclined to get involved with another man, there was no guarantee that he'd be at all interested in Giles.

Giles was, after all, old enough to be Xander's father. Old, worn, tarnished and...stuffy. Why would Xander feel anything for him beyond friendship?

Giles sighed again, feeling about a hundred years old and bitter, cynical, and jaded.


He was beginning to see why he'd pushed his feelings so deeply into his subconscious.

He couldn't do anything about it. First because Xander wasn't in any condition, mentally or emotionally, to be approached that way. Secondly, more selfishly, Giles didn't want to be put in the position of having Xander reject him -- whether he did it gently or not.

So he did the only thing he could: he turned out the lamp and tried to go back to sleep.

He doubted that he could repress his feelings so completely, now that he was aware of them. But if he couldn't hide from himself, he could at least hide his feelings from Xander.

It wasn't like he hadn't enough other new things in his psyche to focus on after all.

Rolling over, Giles pulled the blankets up and chuckled ironically.

At least he couldn't complain about being bored any longer.

********

When Giles woke next, morning sunlight was streaming through the bedroom for the first time in over a week.

And despite the troublesome revelations of the night before, Giles felt better than he had in rather longer than a week.

When he'd managed to get back to sleep the night before, his rest had been deep, refreshing and dreamless.

It was only now, after the fact, that he realized how badly he'd been sleeping practically since he'd come back to England. Tossing and turning, nights full of restless sleep plagued with dreams he could never remember, Giles had been waking up more tired than when he'd gone to bed. Eventually he had gotten used to it, so much so that he hadn't even noticed the exhaustion any more.

Until now, when it was gone.

It seemed like maybe his subconscious had been trying to make him face certain facts for longer than he'd thought.

Now all he had to do was deal with the fallout.

Giles got up and put on is robe, shaking off that train of thought for the moment in favour of more -- safer -- mundane concerns. Spiny personal issues aside, he had a guest and it would be rude not to offer breakfast.

And, from what he remembered, Xander's appetite made breakfast a rather mandatory concept.

With that thought putting a smile on his lips, Giles made his way downstairs.

Only to find that Xander had beat him to it.

Xander, hair all rumbled and still wearing the clothes Giles had loaned him the night before, was in kitchen, humming tunelessly as he busied himself with something on the stove.

For a long moment, Giles just stood and watched him, the first chance he'd had to do so since he had become consciously aware of his own feelings. Taking inner stock as he watched, Giles confirmed that, yes, he was hopelessly besotted.

How else could he explain the fact that he would be perfectly content and happy to stand there and just watch Xander for the foreseeable future?

Or until Xander noticed him, which was a few minutes later, as Xander reached for some seasonings.

"Oh, hi," he said brightly, all manic energy and enthusiasm. "Um, good morning, I mean."

Giles couldn't have kept from smiling, even if he had wanted to. "Good morning," he replied. "Making breakfast, I see."

"Yeah." Xander glanced down at the pan he was tending, then held it up a little, gesturing with it. "I made omelettes. I hope you don't mind -- I didn't want to wake you and I was hungry enough to eat a small equine or large dog, so I just sorta..."

"Helped yourself," Giles finished, then smiled again. "It's fine."

"I made enough to share. I've kinda got used to making breakfast for two..." Xander's enthusiasm faltered a little at that.

Trying to distract him from the depression that was threatening, Giles stepped further into the kitchen, and briefly clasped Xander's shoulder. "Is there anything I can do to help -- with breakfast I mean?"

Xander blinked at him for moment, it seeming to take that long for the words to register. "Um, no not really. I got everything under con-" he began, then quickly interrupted himself, "Unless you have some coffee?"

"I think I have some somewhere," Giles replied dryly, thinking of how many mornings lately he'd relied on the caffeine jump start. He had needed it to help him wake up sufficiently to make it to the library in Watcher Headquarters and do his job.

"Great," Xander said with some of his earlier enthusiasm as Giles went to the cupboard and got the coffee out. "I saw the coffee maker, but wasn't sure if it meant you actually had some... England being the great land of tea drinkers and all."

"Coffee drinking hasn't been illegal for at least a decade," Giles teased, deadpan.

Xander grimaced slightly in embarrassment then his expression smoothed out, only the twinkle in his eyes hinting at his mischievous good humour. "Yes, but what about cocoa? Is that legal over here yet?"

Still maintaining his deadpan expression, Giles answered in kind, "Only without marshmallows."

"And you call yourselves civilised," Xander scoffed, turning off the stove and dishing up the omelettes."

Giles chuckled, pleased that he had succeeded in lightening the mood for the time being.

The time being lasted all the way through their shared breakfast, the good food made all the better for the company it was eaten in.

And that, ironically, was what led to a return to the more serious emotions and issues that they had to deal with.

Popping the last bite of omelette into his mouth, Xander leaned back in his chair with a contented sigh. "This has been real nice. Thank you."

Giles waved that away as he chewed and swallowed. "I should be thanking you. You were the one who cooked breakfast, after all."

"I wouldn't be too impressed. It was just omelettes," Xander demurred. "Anyone can make a half-decent omelette. And the food wasn't what I'm talking about."

"Perhaps, but it was a good meal nonetheless." He got up and started gathering the dirty dishes, carrying them over to the kitchen sink.

Xander followed with his own dishes. "Yeah, it was. But that had more to do with the company than the eggs."

Giles glanced over at him, but Xander's gaze was on the plates he was placing in the sink. "Yes," he agreed quietly, trying to sound sincere without revealing the depth of his feelings. "It was...nice, having someone to talk to."

"Exactly," Xander said with an emphatic nod. "I've missed that. I think that's one of the things I miss the most."

Giles nodded, thinking of his usual breakfast routine, eating here alone and how...quiet it was. "Yes," he murmured softly.

"And not just at breakfast," Xander continued, moving across the kitchen to grab the dishes he'd used cooking earlier and add them to the pile. "But...just having someone to talk to, someone to listen...who actually *hears* what I'm saying, even if it's something stupid." He stopped and looked up at Giles, expression rueful, but his eyes showed how much what he was saying really meant to him. "Everyone's just so wrapped up in their own problems, y'know?"

Yes, he did. Giles had seen that starting to happen when he had still been in Sunnydale, everyone withdrawing into their own little world, their own concerns and problems. He had been just as bad as any of them -- worse, as he had actually physically left. "I'm sorry."

Xander shook his head, a quick smile appearing. "You apologized last night. Besides you were more honest about it: you didn't hang around pretending you wanted to help, you just made with the leaving." He winced as he heard his own words. "Sorry, that was kind of harsh wasn't it."

"Perhaps, but it is not undeserved." Giles couldn't deny that the words hurt, but he also couldn't deny that Xander was fully justified in feeling that way.

"Maybe," Xander allowed, "but you're listening now. That means something. That means a lot." He averted his gaze as he spoke the last, voice getting softer as he looked down at the dishes in the sink.

Giles reached out and rested a hand on Xander's shoulder, hoping he could convey his feelings through touch alone. He didn't trust his voice just then enough to answer aloud without giving away too much.

Xander leaned into the touch briefly without looking up. When he did move away -- slightly -- and raise his head to meet Giles' gaze, his brown eyes were bright with emotion and his smile was a bit wobbly. "Thanks."

"Any time," Giles replied, voice fierce, which made Xander's smile less wobbly and made Giles smile back.

A moment passed while both of them just stood smiling and staring at each other. It should have felt weird and awkward, but it didn't. Instead, it felt...right. Proper. As if standing and staring at Xander while Xander stared back was what he was supposed to be doing.

Finally, Xander cleared his throat and broke their joined gazes. "I...uh...I'm going to need to pick up some stuff -- since my luggage went walkabout without me. You know where I can pick up some half decent clothes for at least a quarter decent prices?"

"I can think of a shop or two. We can make a day of it, if you'd like. I can show you around, we can grab some lunch somewhere," Giles found himself offering.

"Um, sure." Xander sounded surprised, but not unpleasantly so. He grinned. "Suppose I should do some sightseeing, what with being in a foreign country and all."

"Are there any sights in particular you would like to see?" Giles ran through a mental list of the places Xander would have heard of and would probably like to visit. They could take the train into London, and play tourist... It would give them something to focus on, something safe to talk about. They could both forget the...issues...hanging over their heads for one day and just...

Xander's answer, however, took him by surprise. "I'd like to... Could you show me where you hang out? I mean, England is England and it's nice enough, I guess, but..." Xander shrugged diffidently, not quite meeting Giles' eyes. "I'd rather see *your* England. Where you came from." At the end, he did meet Giles' gaze and what Giles saw in those dark eyes drove all thought of playing tourist right out of his head.

Drove away all thought entirely in fact except the wistful look of longing and desire that Xander seemed to be directing his way.

But Giles didn't -- he couldn't -- trust that he wasn't just seeing what he wanted to see. He had to be sure.

"Why?" he asked, watching Xander's expression closely.

"Why?" Xander repeated, gaze skittering away from Giles' and back again. "I just-- I want to know more about you -- your past, what you like. I want to know if you... Oh hell."

And with that, before Giles had a chance to react, Xander had stepped closer to him, slid a hand behind Giles' head and kissed him.

The action took Giles completely off guard and he froze for a moment too long.

When he didn't kiss back, Xander let go and practically leaped back from him, eyes wide with panic. "Oh, God. I didn't-- I was just-- I thought-- You're not going to hit me, are you?"

Giles shook off his shock-induced paralysis at that. "Of course not," he said, reaching out to reassure the young man.

Only to have Xander shy away from his touch. "You sure?"

"I'm sure," Giles repeated, backing off carefully so as not to spook the young man further.

Xander stared at him for a moment, then relaxed slightly, running a hand through his hair. "Of course you're not," he said with a sigh, shaking his head. "Of course you're not," he said with a sigh. "Sorry, Giles. Can I claim temporary insanity?"

"For thinking I would hit you or for kissing me?"

"Um..." Xander blinked. "Both?"

Giles sighed and chose his next words with care. He didn't want to spook Xander any more than he already was, but he needed more information before he could figure out how he should react. "I will accept that for the hitting, but I would much rather you told me why you decided to kiss me."

"Can't we just pretend it didn't happen?" Xander asked hopefully.

"I don't think I could -- at least without knowing why." Giles kept his voice gentle and still made no move to approach him.

Xander sighed. "Right." He turned away, focusing on the sink and fiddling with the dishes piled there. "You are going to think I'm crazy, y'know."

"It wouldn't be the first time," he remarked dryly.

That earned him a brief glare, though as usual Giles could tell by Xander's eyes that it wasn't a serious one. "Thanks a lot."

"Xander, given what we've been through in the last six years, I would be more worried if the question of sanity had not been raised once or twice."

Xander tilted his head to the side thoughtfully. "You may have a point." With another sigh, he looked down at the sink again. "I've been having...dreams. Ever since you left. Maybe longer, I don't know."

"About me?" Giles asked softly.

"Yeah. About us, actually."

"Kissing."

He watched as Xander's face grew red. "Um, something like that."

Giles felt a similar heat gracing his own face as the meaning of Xander's words fully sank in. "Oh."

"Yeah." Xander dared a glance at him and assayed a brief half smile. "Told you that you were going to think I was crazy."

"No, not at all," Giles replied, then heard himself offering without conscious volition, "I've been having dreams as well."

That got Xander to look at him full on, eyes wide in surprise. "Really."

"Yes, really." Suddenly it was Giles who discovered an inability to meet his companion's gaze. "Well, one dream. And it was only a kiss. Not anything...Well. But the point is, I've dreamed of you as well."

"So we're either both crazy or we're both perfectly sane men having erotic dreams about each other." Xander's voice was at its driest, a bit of humour beginning to creep back into his tone.

Giles considered the statement for a moment. "Err...essentially, yes," he finally replied.

"Oh." Xander didn't say anything else, instead looking pensive as he turned back to the sink, staring once again down at the dirty dishes.

"Xander?" Giles asked softly, the "are you all right?" implicit in his tone. Despite his reflexive need to reach out and comfort, he still made no move to touch him.

"I'm fine," Xander replied quickly. "It's just... If we were both having dreams and feeling the same thing, why didn't you kiss me back?"

Giles blinked, the plaintiveness of Xander's tone a bit unexpected. "You took me by surprise."

Xander turned to him, eyes narrowed. "You mean you want to kiss me?"

Giles started to answer in words, then changed his mind and instead moved closer. He rested a hand gently against Xander's jaw and leaned in to kiss him.

For the first few heartbeats Xander froze, much as Giles had earlier. But when Giles didn't pull back, Xander made a small sound in the back of his throat and brought a hand up to cup the back of Giles' head, holding him in place.

The kiss deepened, Xander's mouth opening under his own. Giles brushed his tongue against Xander's lips then slipped inside to explore.

Xander tasted of light and hope, darkness and grief, the sweetness of youth with the bitter under taste of regret. It was utterly compelling, impossible to turn away from or ignore, and Giles knew he could become quickly addicted.

What added to the compulsion was that Xander was not just standing there, meekly allowing his mouth to be plundered either. He was giving as good as he got, his tongue following Giles' home and exploring Giles' mouth as thoroughly as Giles had explored his own.

Giles heard someone moan, the sound low and desperate, and realized with a start it was coming from him.

When the kiss finally ended and they pulled back from each other, they were both panting like they'd been fighting a nest of vampires. A large nest of vampires. Giles was hard as a stone and he suspected if he glanced down he would see evidence that Xander was in a similar state. He didn't look, however, because to do so would require that he look away from Xander's dark brown eyes -- eyes that shone clearly with everything he was feeling. Losing himself in that gaze, Giles wondered idlely if the same shell-shocked awe he saw there was visible on his own face.

He suspected it was.

"Um...wow," Xander finally managed after clearing his throat several times. "Consider your point taken. You did want to kiss me."

"Yes," Giles replied, not surprised in the least at how husky his voice sounded.

Xander nodded, then grinned suddenly, eyes alight with a familiar mischievous look, one that had always made Giles worry in the past and now just made him...interested.

"Wanna do it again?"

It was all Giles could do not to take Xander up on that invitation, but he knew if he did he wouldn't be able to stop. And he had to make sure Xander knew what they were getting into first.

Xander took his hesitation for approval and began to lean in. Giles stopped him with a hand pressed against Xander's chest.

"Much as I'd like to -- and before you start doubting, I *do* want to -- we need to talk first."

"Talk." Xander took a deep breath. "Right. Somehow I knew you were going to say that." He took a step away from Giles, heading in the direction of the living room. "I have the feeling this is going to take a while so we might as well sit down and be comfortable while we do it."

"Yes, why not?" Giles asked, bemused at Xander's attitude as followed him into the living room and over to the couch.

"So," Xander began decisively as they both settled on the couch cushions. "What do you need me to say?"

Giles blinked. "I...uh...You're taking this all rather well," he finally managed, thrown a bit off balance by Xander's straight forwardness.

"Why shouldn't I? You kissed me -- and may I say it was one hell of a kiss at that -- and that told me all I needed to know. You wouldn't have done it if you didn't...y'know...have feelings for me. If you didn't like me. That way. I don't need to talk about it. But you do. So we'll talk until you're as convinced as I am. Just tell me what you need to hear."

Giles found himself caught by Xander's dark gaze, a gaze that bore into his own, brown eyes trying to impart Xander's belief by the intensity of their stare alone.

He only wished it was that easy.

"I'm not sure what I need to hear," he finally admitted with a sigh. He also wondered just when exactly he had lost control of the situation. He was beginning to think it was when he had decided to kiss Xander -- or when Xander had kissed him.

Or maybe it was when Xander had shown up on his doorstep.

Quite possibly it was five and a half years ago when he had first met him.

"Okay." Xander took another deep breath as he settled back further into the couch cushions. "How 'bout I just start talking and you can tell me when you've got what you needed?"

Before Giles could respond, Xander had plowed on ahead. "Right. Where to start? I've been having dreams -- I told you that. I haven't told you that I...um...talked in my sleep. And...um...at other times. Or so Anya informed me in her Dear Xander letter. So this isn't something that's just happened. It just took me until now to realize it."

And didn't that sound familiar to Giles.

But Xander was still talking. "I'm not a child. This isn't just a crush -- I know the difference between a crush and a real attraction, and I know the difference between an attraction that's physical and one that's something...more. And I wouldn't risk our friendship for something that was just physical. It -- you -- mean too much for me to do that.

"Yes, I like guys -- have for a very long time -- and no, I haven't done anything about it before. This isn't just me on the rebound and I want more than just a fling. I've never felt quite like this about anyone before. I- I want to wrap myself up in you, or wrap myself around you, I'm not picky. Either way I don't want to ever let go. And I'm running out of things to say here so any time you want to stop me..."

It was the waver in Xander's voice as much as his words that caused Giles to move, leaning over and kissing Xander gently. "I believe you."

He felt the soft puff of Xander's sigh of relief against his lips. "Oh good. Does that mean we can get back to the kissing now?"

Smothering a laugh at the plaintiveness of Xander's tone, Giles answered by once again taking Xander's mouth in a deep and passionate kiss.

It was just as sweet as the first time, and Giles quickly lost himself in the taste, the feel, the entire experience of kissing Xander. Everything else vanished: his surroundings, time, reality. The kiss was all encompassing. It was followed by another and another, each one melding into the next.

When they finally came up for air, they were half-reclining on the couch, Xander underneath Giles, leaning against the couch arm. The young man was a study in arousal: lips swollen from the kisses, eyes dark and heavy lidded with pleasure. Giles caught his breath at the sight and was hard pressed not to dive right back in again. It was only the fear of overwhelming his less experienced partner that gave him the strength to hold back.

Xander was running his hands up and down Giles' arms, kneading restlessly like an anxious kitten. The edges of his mouth were turning downwards in a faint frown. "You stopped," he accused. "Why did you stop?"

"Relax," Giles reassured, giving in to the desire to run a finger along Xander's lips, smoothing away the frown. "I have no intention of stopping."

"Good." Xander leaned up and tugged on Giles' shoulders trying to get him to resume the kiss.

Giles pulled back and placed a hand against Xander's chest, trying to keep away from that dangerously distracting mouth. "But I think we might want to slow down."

The look of dismay Xander gave him was almost comical. "Slow down?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You want to talk some more don't you?"

"Not necessarily," Giles said softly. "I just don't want to go further than you're comfortable with."

"Oh." Xander's eyes widened. "Oh! You mean you think I'm going to freak if we have sex."

"Well, you did say you haven't done this before," Giles defended, feeling a bit foolish under the look that Xander was now giving him. It didn't make his doubts or fears vanish. It just made him feel foolish for having them.

"But I'm a fast learner -- or I can be when I'm properly motivated," Xander amended quickly as if afraid Giles was going to contradict him. "And believe me, I'm motivated." His expression turned serious. "Besides, I trust you. You're not going to do anything I don't want."

Xander's belief should have reassured him, but Giles still couldn't shake his worry.

Some of that must have shown in his face, because Xander sighed and kissed him again, short and quick. "And I may be ready, but you're not." Another kiss just as brief. "It's all right. I can wait." He grinned and winked. "Though I'm going to need a cold shower before we go out."

"Out?" Giles repeated, finding himself terribly distracted by Xander's squirming out from under him.

"Yeah, out." Xander slid off the couch and stood and stretched. "For the shopping for the clothes and the seeing of the sights, remember?" His voice softened. "I still want to see your England, if you'll show it to me."

There was something about the partly assured, partly hopeful, and wholly sincere look that accompanied those words that did as much to convince Giles of Xander's seriousness and readiness as all of the words and actions before. He was tempted to pull Xander back onto the couch and pick up where they had left off, but he restrained himself. Xander did need some more clothes after all, and showing him around would have its own rewards and pleasures. The rest could wait.

"I'll show you anything you want," he finally replied.

Xander grinned wickedly, eyes dancing with delight. "I'm going to remember you said that, G-man." Then he was heading for the bathroom. "Dibs on the shower!" he called over his shoulder with an expression that Giles had long since learned was his cue to metaphorically duck and cover. "Unless you want to share?" Xander winked and was off again before Giles could even sputter in reaction.

Which left Giles sitting on the couch feeling bereft, bemused and a little bewildered. Possibly bewitched and definitely besotted. He shook his had and laughed at himself, finding a definite fondness for the insanity that Xander was making in his recently very proper, well ordered, and extremely boring life.

It had been a very...interesting morning and he rather suspected the day would be even more so.

Giles was looking forward to it.

**********************

After a brief discussion they decided to go shopping first and save the sightseeing for later.

As they headed out the door, Giles caught Xander checking his wallet with a worried frown.

"Don't worry about the cost," Giles told him.

That just made Xander's frown deepen. "Giles, I can't--"

"You can and you will. You're entitled to some compensation from the airline for losing your luggage; you can pay me back with that if you insist. But I by no means expect you to. I gave Buffy far more to help her get back on her feet financially; the least I can do is buy you a few clothes."

Xander shot him the strangest look at that: he still wore a faint frown, but there was something very much like a shy pleasure in his eyes. "I will pay you back," he said, acquiescing.

A moment later as they were getting in Giles' car, Xander added in a much softer voice, "Thanks."

Giles had the wisdom to let it lie at that, merely acknowledging Xander's words with a nod and a small smile as started the car and pulled out.

He took Xander to one of the shops that he knew catered to students and it wasn't long before Xander had a couple pairs of jeans and some sweatshirts picked out, along with other, more personal essentials.

Giles added a jacket he'd seen Xander eyeing, stilling any protests by pointing out that Xander would need one in the English weather. He paid for everything, but gave the receipt to Xander at the young man's insistence.

They ate lunch at a nearby pub that Giles had frequented when he'd been a student. He mentioned that fact rather diffidently to Xander, and braced himself for the inevitable crack about how long ago that was...but it never came.

Instead Xander looked around the place with a thoughtful expression, then merely asked him what was good on the menu.

Lunch was enjoyable, the conversation light and pleasant. Both of them seemed to be making the effort to avoid anything that could possibly be disturbing; things like "Sunnydale" and "Slayer" and "Anya" were avoided.

Xander also seemed determined not to talk about or in any way remotely refer to what had happened between them that morning. It was like he was afraid of spooking Giles, and privately Giles admitted that his being spooked may have been a valid worry.

Regardless, Giles was content to let Xander direct the conversation and consequentially spent most of it answering question after question about his student days and how the pub they were sitting in had figured into his life back then.

Somewhat surprisingly Giles discovered he was rather enjoying answering them. Xander seemed honestly interested and it had been a very long time since he'd had anyone who'd wanted to reminisce with him.

The afternoon continued in the same vein as Giles showed Xander other places that had made up his world during his student days, and Xander continued to ask questions designed to elicit even more memories than Giles had thought still lurked in his mind about those long ago days.

It was only when Giles pointed out the main building of the Watcher's Headquarters that Xander's chatter dried up.

"We're not going inside are we?" he asked eyeing the rather forbidding building dubiously.

"Good Lord, no," Giles replied, the denial coming out a bit more heartfelt than he had intended. "I try to avoid it unless I have no choice. The council and I are much happier with each other when I am somewhere else. I was thinking you might want to see where I've been working since I came back, though."

"Oh. Um, yeah, that would be great." He paused. "It's not in there?"

Giles chuckled at the look Xander shot the building. "You know, I do believe I've seen that same expression directed at Sunnydale HIgh, especially when you had a test."

"It's the Xander Harris patented 'there are really annoying authority figures in there that I don't want to deal with and hope get eaten by a giant snake' look." He grinned, looking very much like the wise-cracking, insecure-but-I'll-be-damned-if-I'll-admit-to-it teenager that Giles had first met over half a decade ago.

Giles smiled back, feeling a sudden surge of affection for the young man. "I'm glad you never consider me as one of the annoying authority figures." His smile faded as a thought occurred to him. "You didn't, did you?"

"Never," Xander reassured him. "You were strange and weird and very, very British, but you were only ever annoying in the best possible way." A beat. "So, we're not going in there are we?" he asked again.

"No. The library is housed in its own building." He gestured in its direction.

"Good." Xander repeated the gesture. "Lead the way, G-man."

Giles did so, Xander falling in beside him as they walked. He tried not to think about how good, how right it felt to have the younger man there, just as he tried not to think of all the times in the past Xander had been at his side, along with the rest of the Scoobies, on their way to fight some kind of horrible evil.

He wasn't ready yet to admit how much he missed that.

Fortunately, either by design or luck, Xander broke the silence and Giles' train of thought with it.

"Library, huh? So this mean you've gone back to your roots and become a librarian again?"

"Actually, I'm more of a researcher these days. And an archivist."

The kind of work that kept him away from other people, an arrangement that suited both the Council and him at the time the position had been offered to him. Though Giles was beginning to wonder if giving him a place to hide away from everything had been the worst thing they could've done.

"So you do here basically what you did back in Sunnydale, only without the 'find the answer or the world will end' urgency?" Xander asked.

"Well I've never quite thought about it in that way, but essentially, yes." A moment of candor impelled him to add, "It's been damn boring."

Xander chuckled. "Until I showed up on your doorstep," he teased.

"Just in the nick of time," Giles replied in kind. At least that was his intention, but it came out sounding more heartfelt than teasing.

Xander just gave him another one of those shy smiles that were quickly becoming familiar and they walked the rest of the way in a companionable silence.

As they neared the building, Xander's pace slowed as its true size became apparent. "That's not the library, is it?"

Giles smiled faintly. "Yes it is."

"All of it?"

His smile became less faint. "The Watcher archives are quite substantial."

Xander muttered something that Giles didn't catch, but then fell silent again until they actually made it inside. Then he stopped dead, staring at the many stacks of books and papers before them.

"Do they hand out maps or just maintain a search and rescue team to look for scholars lost among the tomes?" he asked, sounding half-serious.

"Neither," Giles replied, then continued, expression deadpan, "Though back in '73 a Keshik demon expert disappeared in the poltergeist section.

Xander laughed, but when Giles didn't change his expression, he abruptly stopped. "You're kidding, right?" he ventured uncertainly.

Giles smiled ever so slightly. "Yes."

"Thought so. But, you know, never can be too sure. I mean, the last library you hung out in was on a Hellmouth."

"This one is a bit less prone to demonic activity," Giles assured him. "Remarkably so, considering some of what is stored here, actually. It's quite an impressive collection with many powerful and..." He trailed off as he noticed Xander smiling at him. "What?"

"Nothing. You just went all Librarian Giles. I'd forgotten how cute you are like that, all enthusiastic and earnest."

Giles felt his face heat at that and part of his mind was wondering exactly how long Xander had thought he was "cute." "Well I- That is, I-" he stammered.

Xander's eyes sparked with delight and mischief. "You're cute when flustered, too." He glanced around them, then leaned in and quickly kissed Giles.

It was a fast, barely there brushing of lips, but it tingled along every nerve ending Giles had, leaving him far more breathless than such a brief touch should.

"Sorry," Xander apologized, sounding anything but. "Just realized I could do that -- kiss you when you're looking cute. Action kinda followed thought." He gestured, illustrating the point.

"It's--" Giles' voice threatened to crack and he cleared his throat before trying again. "It's all right. Just-" Give me some warning, he was going to say, but looking at Xander's happy, hopeful expression, he didn't have the heart. "Never mind. It's fine."

Xander grinned and went back to looking around them. "So, you were showing me where you work... Do you have an office?"

The look that accompanied that innocent sounding question made Giles swallow hard.

He had to clear his throat again before he could speak. "Of a sort," he admitted.

It was actually a room that had been used for storage of some of the older writings the Council had on Slayers, before it had been given to him. In fact, most of the old texts were still stored there, packed into boxes and pushed against walls or into corners. The resulting work space was small and had quickly become cluttered, but it suited Giles' purposes well enough.

"So are you going to show it to me?" Xander asked, when Giles didn't say anything more.

"Of course." The speculative look in Xander's eyes was still making him a bit...twitchy, but surely he could handle it. He thought. He gestured to the aisle that ran along the stacks to their right. "It's at the back."

They started the walk back, Xander craning his neck to look at the shelves high above. As always, Giles felt the atmosphere of the place settle over him as they moved deep into the library. All that knowledge gathered in one place, waiting in patient silence be needed, to be rediscovered. It was here where he first got a glimpse of what it would feel like to be a Watcher: to be a resource with whatever was necessary always at the ready, be it facts, training, a shoulder to lean on or a push for the Slayer to stand on her own.

He tried not to dwell over much on all the times he failed to do so.

"This place doesn't have a dress code or anything, does it?" Xander asked, breaking his train of thought before it could get too maudlin.

Giles glanced sideways at his companion. "What makes you ask that?"

Xander's right shoulder jerked upward in a half-shrug. "Dunno really. Just got the sudden urge to run home and change into something tweed -- and I don't even own any."

That pulled a smile from Giles. "No," he said dryly as he recalled the times he'd come here in his younger and wilder days clad in leather and attitude. "No dress code."

He added, as they continued, "This place can be rather...overwhelming, especially the first time you see it."

"Can't argue with that," Xander was back to craning his neck to look at the stacks above them again.

"I was ten the first time I came here," Giles offered. "My father brought me the day he told me that I was to be a Watcher." Saying the words brought back the memory of that day and how he had felt: the disbelief as his father laid out plans for the rest of his life, his father's anger at his protests, the stubborn rebelliousness that had made him run and lose himself among the library's stacks.

Xander had stopped looking around them and instead was watching Giles closely. "I'm guessing from your expression that you weren't exactly leaping into his arms with gratitude."

"Hardly." He smiled, the gesture only slightly forced. "No child likes being told that their entire future has been mapped out for them. I reacted rather badly. I all but threw a temper tantrum then ran away." Reaching out, he let his fingers trail along the spines of the shelved books as they walked, a calming habit that had started the very day he was speaking of. "I was able to stay lost among the stacks for several hours, which seems like an eternity when you're ten." Giles smiled again, this time warm with irony. "And so began my lifelong habit of hiding in libraries."

Xander nodded, looking thoughtful, but made no more answer than that.

Luckily for Giles' peace of mind, they reached his makeshift office before he could start worrying about the concept of Xander thinking.

"This is it," he said, opening the door and letting Xander precede him into the cramped space.

Xander looked around as Giles, stepping in after him, turned on the light and let the door swing shut. "It's...um..."

"A closet?" Giles suggested with a bit of a smile.

"I was going to say cluttered, but now that you mention it..."

"It's small, but it's suited my needs." He watched Xander move around the limited space, touching some things, picking up and fidgeting with others before putting them down again.

"Yeah, closets are good for hiding in," Xander murmured, barely audible.

"What?"

Xander shook his head. "Nothing important." He turned back to Giles with a speculative look, and Giles was suddenly reminded why Xander had wanted to see his office. "There's other things I'd rather discuss right now."

"Really?" Xander took a step towards him and Giles automatically took a step back and ran into the door.

"Really." Wearing a rather predatory grin, Xander continued advancing on him, quickly running out of room. "Much more interesting things," he murmured, leaning in until his mouth was hovering a breath away from Giles' own.

Giles swallowed, his body reacting to Xander's closeness in spite of his best efforts at controlling it. "Xander, I-"

His words were stopped by a quick, nipping kiss. "You don't need to hide from me," Xander told him, then kissed him again, this time anything but light and brief.

Giles found himself getting lost in the kiss despite thinking he should be analyzing what Xander had just said. But Xander's lips were warm and alive against his own, and Xander's hair soft under his fingers, though Giles couldn't remember raising his hands to grasp it.

It was almost impossible to think with Xander filling all his senses. After a moment Giles didn't even want to try.

Xander was pulling at his shirt, sliding his hands up underneath to skim over Giles' ribs. The involuntary sound that action pulled from him was swallowed by Xander's mouth and their continuing kiss.

The touch of Xander's fingers against his bare skin was having far more effect than Giles would have ever predicted. Muscles twitched beneath the gliding caress and every movement seemed to go straight to his groin. He was already hard and aching and he felt like all it would take to set him off was a single touch.

That thought, coupled with the realization that Xander's hands were now at the top of his jeans fumbling with the button, paradoxically brought Giles to his senses: they couldn't do this here.

He put his hands on Xander's shoulders and gently pushed him away. "Xan-"

"Unless you're going to say, 'Xander, we have to stop because we're on a security camera somewhere giving some guard a heart attack,' you can save your breath." Xander glared at him fiercely. "I told you -- no more hiding, not from me."

Any reply Giles might have made went stillborn as Xander sought out his mouth once again. A second later Xander's hand was back working on the fastenings of his jeans once again.

Giles made one more attempt at getting him to stop -- or at the very least slow down -- breaking free of the kiss long enough to protest, "Xander, I..." before his words trailed off into a moan as Xander's fingers slid inside his now-opened jeans and curled around his length.

Despite his assertiveness up until now, Xander's touch was tentative. He pulled back enough to be able to watch Giles' expression, his own slightly hesitant, and Giles was reminded that Xander had never done this sort of thing before.

But whatever it was that Xander had been searching for in Giles' face, he must've found because he suddenly smiled and gripped Giles a bit tighter, showing more assurance as he began to move his hand.

Giles' head fell back, connecting with the door behind him with a soft thud. If it hurt he didn't feel it, didn't feel anything except the fingers that were so determinedly exploring him, driving him to the brink far too quickly.

It had been far too long since he had been touched so intimately by any hand but his own, too long since there was anyone watching as he lost himself in the pleasure running through his body.

And he was losing himself in this, in the reality that was Xander stroking him, Xander's hand he was thrusting into, Xander's mouth once again covering his own.

He didn't remember doing it, but his own hands were holding onto Xander again, almost desperately as if he was afraid the young man was going to disappear if he let go. Xander pushed himself closer in response, a small whimper escaping him, breathed directly into Giles' mouth.

It was that whimper that did it. Swallowing that sound, taking it into himself, even as more desperate noises were drawn from him. Somehow it allowed Giles to let go, let himself be swept up in the experience, the pleasure building and pouring out of him all at once.

He shook as he came, feeling something break open inside, a barrier that he hadn't even been aware of existing.

When it was over, he opened his eyes -- which he didn't remember closing -- feeling rather vulnerable and exposed and more than a little self-conscious.

He found himself looking directly into Xander's dark eyes, which was full of wonder, pleasure, and an almost smug satisfaction. Before Giles could say anything, Xander smiled and kissed him, this time only a quick gentle peck. "There you are," he said, some of that smug satisfaction finding its way into his voice as well.

Giles' mind, still rather dazed by what had just happened, wasn't quite up to figuring out the meaning of Xander's words. "Did I go somewhere?"

"It doesn't matter," Xander told him, kissing him again fiercely. "You're here now and I can see you. I mean I can *really* see *you*."

Giles frowned as he tried to get his sluggish and sated brain engaged enough to decipher what exactly Xander was trying to tell him. "Implying that you couldn't see me before?" he asked slowly.

"I couldn't." Xander pressed affectionate kisses along his jaw line. "Not with the way you've been running." The last kiss was dropped once again directly on Giles' mouth. "You've been hiding. Hiding for a very long time. You didn't need to, you know. Not from me. Not from any of the gang." A sharp nip to Giles' lower lip punctuated this last assertion.

Giles would've shook his head if not for Xander's continual touches holding him in place. "I don't--"

He was cut off by another kiss. "You said it yourself: you have a lifelong habit of hiding in libraries especially *this* library. That's why you came back here -- to hide."

"I didn't..." Giles instinctively protested, then stopped as he admitted that he had. Hadn't he come to that realization just the night before? "It wasn't a conscious decision," he said instead in a much quieter voice.

"I know." Xander smiled and kissed him again. "It would be the only way you would leave -- if you had yourself as bamboozled as the rest of us. You wouldn't abandon us unless you had a damn good reason -- even if you had to make up one to tell yourself first."

"I fear you may be overestimating my integrity," Giles said, not at all sure he wouldn't have still left if he had become conscious of being ruled by fear in his decision. But the look Xander gave him shone with so much belief and affection that he knew he wasn't going to convince him otherwise.

The love in Xander's eyes also reminded Giles that there was some other things he should be attending to. "Speaking of abandoning people..." he began, letting a hand trail slowly down Xander's chest.

Until Xander's hand covered his, holding it still. "That's okay. You don't have to. I'm good."

Giles raised an eyebrow. "It is customary to reciprocate -- at least it is for me."

"And I'm glad to hear that. Really, really glad. My gladness knows no boundaries. Just... not right now."

"Xander, if you're uncomfortable with this...." Giles frowned as he began to worry that his companion might have pushed himself further than he was ready for in an effort to prove something to Giles.

 

To be continued...

 


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