Title: Walking Higher (The Childhood's End Remix) — Part 3/5
Author: Lizbeth Marcs (liz_marcs)
Summary: There’s only one person who’d ask you to give up heaven, and there are four people for whom you’d do it.
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series
Characters: Xander, Dawn, Buffy, Giles, Willow, Cordelia
Pairings: Primarily gen; Buffy/Xander UST; light Giles/Xander slash
Title, Author, and URL of the original Story: Winter Garden by kivrin
Warning: Disturbing imagery and violence. Vague spoilers for all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
iii) let good men push and elbow one another as they may
during their earthly march,
all will be peace among them when
the honorable array of their procession
shall tread on heavenly ground
You’re dreaming; you’re awake. You’re both and you’re neither.
And you’re waiting.
You’re everywhere; you’re nowhere. You’re both and you’re neither.
And you’re still waiting.
You’re alive; you’re dead. You’re both and you’re neither.
And still you wait, staring at the sky.
You can’t see any stars, but you can feel them. They’re so close. If you lift your hand, you’ll be able to touch one, grab one, and hold on to it with everything you are.
There are shadows around you, screaming in rage — How do we interrogate a corpse? Answer me that, you berk! — panicking in whispers — It’s a bleedin’ cock-up. If his lot don’t kill us, ours will string us up by our testicles. — and issuing orders in cool tones — The cloaking spell won’t hold with this many of us. You, take his clothes and get back to base. Search them there. You, you, and you, go with her. You and you, contact our people in Tanzania and tell them to send the message out: Odysseus. Never you mind what it means, they’ll know. You, get the petrol from the runabout’s boot. You, reinforce the cloaking spell. I want it strong enough to hide what’s left of this bastard until morning. You and you, stay here. Help me clean up this mess.
The shadows and their words don’t matter. The stars that are just out of sight are what matters.
She’s frowning as she leans over and stares in your face. “God, you look like crap,” she declares.
You know her; you don’t know her.
She’s unfamiliar in a completely familiar way.
I can’t carry bloody clothes through the streets. Some bugger’ll notice.
Then wrap the lot in his shirt to hide the worst of it. Use your brain, woman. Now move! We haven’t much time.
“I know I’m asking the impossible, but could you try to focus?” She phrases the question like an order.
She shines just like a star.
You think that she must be a star, so you should reach out, touch her, grab her, and hold on to her with everything you are.
Because that’s what you have to do with stars.
One gas can coming right up, boss.
Good. Soak ’im.
Sure you don’t want to search the body again before we do him?
If he’s secreted something in his person rather than his clothes, it doesn’t much matter does it? So long as whatever he pilfered doesn’t get to London, I’m not much fussed.
The shadows close in and something wet rains down from above.
She looks up and her beautiful face is marred with…
This is wrong. Stars should not be sad, nor should they be desperate. They most certainly should not be afraid.
She bends low over you, blocking the shadows from your sight.
“We’re running out of time,” she whispers. There’s a hitch in her breath, and an unspoken ‘please’ in her voice. “You’re running out of time.”
A series of splashes falls on your body and flows across your skin. The greasy wetness soaks into you; through you.
Yet she remains untouched by it all.
The cloaking spell will hold?
Till morning as you requested, so long as the flames don’t pose a danger to life and property.
Fair enough, I suppose. By the time anyone stumbles across this gruesome bit of business, there won’t be much left. Buys us time enough to set matters in motion before Rupert discovers his minion won’t be returning with his ill-gotten gains.
She holds her hand out. “Take my hand. Now! Now! Now!”
There’s no denying her.
One of the shadows move and there a flash of red, gold, and blue that’s bright enough to pierce the grey.
You reach out for her.
Your fingers touch hers.
You grab her hand.
And you hold on to her with everything you are.
Xander shivered in the shelter of the doorway and did his best turtle impression by hunching his shoulders up as far as they could go.
Jesus, the weather was awful. Out beyond his tragically inadequate cover it was sleeting hard enough to shroud everything in watery grey. The damp, freezing air outmatched anything he had experienced in his too-brief stay in England before heading off to Africa. The general gloom of the storm seemed to cut through his clothes, diffuse through his skin, and settle into his bones where it appeared ready to take up long-term residence.
At least he hoped it was the weather causing him to feel like he’d lost all body heat. The alternative and equally plausible explanation was more than he could bear thinking about.
Somewhere along the way he had picked up a hat, scarf, and gloves to go with the coat, but had lost the duffle bag. While he didn’t even want to begin trying to figure out how that had happened, he was grateful just the same.
A taxi cab pulled up to the sidewalk in front of him. He could dimly see inside the cab that the passenger in the back seat was talking and passing something to the driver.
Xander crossed his arms and awkwardly shoved his gloved hands underneath his armpits to keep them warm and waited for Giles to come to him.
Giles soon emerged from the sheltered cab and slammed the door shut behind him. His loud exclamation at being slapped in the face by sleet was loud enough that Xander could hear it over the mushy sound of the cab moving away.
Giles practically ran with his head bowed from his spot on the sidewalk to Xander and his semi-sheltered spot.
“Hey,” Xander greeted him through chattering teeth.
Instead of responding, Giles merely stared as he wasn’t sure Xander was ghost or not.
Just like that, Xander’s shivering went from teeth-chattering to bone-rattling. Giles couldn’t possibly know. There was no way in hell news had reached him that quickly from Nairobi. If Giles knew for sure, it had to mean one of two things: either more time had passed than Xander thought, or someone called in to brag.
Finally, Giles seemed find his voice. “I wasn’t entirely sure if — I thought that it was a — How did you— When did you —”
“Careful there, Giles. All the questions are getting mix-y in your mouth and having babies.” Xander immediately winced. “And if that doesn’t sound like a thousand shades of wrong, I don’t know what will.”
Wonder of wonders, Giles actually grinned at his weak joke. There were shades of relief and pleased-to-see-you and something else that Xander couldn’t quite put a name to in Giles’s expression. “Forgive me. I’m still in shock. When I heard your voice on the phone telling me that you had arrived and giving me particulars of your close escape from Kenya, I thought sure it had to be a trick.”
“A trick?” Xander faintly echoed. It didn’t help his state of mind at all that he knew the phone call was a trick. He certainly didn’t make one, so he had to wonder who actually did.
“I’m sorry I doubted you, but given the Council’s fractured state I was rather certain that someone was attempting to lure me out into the open. I was still half-convinced of it, in fact, even as I hailed a cab. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d find when I got here,” Giles quickly apologized, although for what Xander honestly couldn’t say. Giles’s suspicions just happened to have a rock-hard basis in truth.
Not that Xander was going to tell him that.
Still, he had to wonder: What on earth did his vocal doppelganger say to convince Giles that he was dealing with the real thing? It had to have been beyond fantastic to get Giles to not only believe it, but to also draw him out into the hellish weather.
Xander just hoped like hell that there wouldn’t be a test, like Giles asking him to repeat information from a phone conversation that, from Xander’s point of view anyway, never happened.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting too long for me,” Giles said. “It took awhile for the concierge to hail a taxi. It appears that the entire DC fleet is engaged in sparing the denizens from the need to walk in this horrid weather.”
Xander shrugged. “I don’t think I’ve been waiting all that long, but my sense of time is a little bit weird. If I had my trusty Tweety Bird watch, I could tell you how long I’ve been here down to the second. Since I don’t have it, or any watch whatsoever I might add, I have no clue how much time has passed.”
A gust of wind blew sleet into Giles’s back, resulting in a loud exclamation.
“Are you okay?” Xander immediately asked.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go directly back to my hotel?” Giles asked. “I know you’re concerned that someone may have followed you out of Nairobi, especially given your lucky escape, but I feel rather more exposed here than I would with four walls around us.”
“Ummmm, yeah. Going inside a safe place sounds definitely high on the agenda, if only so I can get something resembling warm, but no to turning around and going straight to your hotel,” Xander said. “I want to be sure that we don’t have unwanted company.”
“Yes, yes. Of course. That’s wise,” Giles mumbled.
Xander had to fight against showing any surprise. He expected more of an argument. Giles must be lot more worried than he let on about the not-so-loyal opposition’s capabilities in tracking down all of the pieces on the chessboard.
“I have a notion that’ll help set your mind at ease,” Giles said. “I have contacts within the Hirshhorn Museum. I propose we lose ourselves in the crowds there. Once we’re certain we’re not being followed, I can ring one of my contacts in the administrative office. They certainly won’t begrudge us a quiet corner for our conference. They are extremely loyal to our side in this business.”
This business. That must’ve been what the Council was now calling it. It sounded so much better than “civil war,” even if the euphemism didn’t even begin to capture the horror of the thing.
“Sounds like plan,” Xander agreed.
“Now, before we brave the elements unprotected, are you absolutely certain that Mr. al-Busiri got out of Nairobi safely?” Giles asked.
“Oh. Yeah. Of that I’m 100% sure,” Xander emphatically nodded. “I was playing hide-and -seek with the black hats for hours to make sure they stayed off his trail. As soon as his plane was taxiing off the runway, he called me on his cell just like we agreed. When he gave me the word, I got the hell out of there.”
Jesus, he hoped he didn’t just give too much information, or at least information that contradicted whatever Giles heard before.
Giles’s expression went blank. “Yes. I remember you saying so on the phone when we spoke earlier,” he said in a monotone that frankly worried the hell out of Xander. “I just want to be certain that you were able to confirm that it was him.”
Xander swallowed. Okay, maybe Giles didn’t actually talk to anyone. Maybe he’d been mojo-ed to think he did. Either way, it appeared that there was absolutely nothing Xander could say about Nairobi that would contradict Giles’s memories. Freaksome in the extreme, but good to know.
“I spoke directly to Omar himself. There was even an exchange of safe words and everything, so yeah, I can totally confirm,” Xander said.
Giles gave him a look.
“And by ‘safe words,’ I mean secret phrases I made up for him to repeat back to me so I’d be sure it was him and not someone pretending to be him,” Xander said. “Seriously, stop me now because I’m so tired that everything is coming out wrong or dirty, which is so not where I’m trying to go here.”
Giles surprised Xander again by grinning, only this time with some shaking-of-the-head action. “I must admit, I’ve rather missed your malapropisms and colorful turns of phrase.”
“That’s good, right?”
Giles’s grin disappeared. “Depends on your point of view, I suppose.”
Giles opened his mouth to say something harsh; he looked like he wanted to say something harsh, anyway.
Xander braced himself.
Giles closed his mouth, cleared his throat, and instead said, “We best go. Neither one of us will be getting any warmer or drier if we stand here.”
Xander resisted a sigh of relief. “You lead the way. I have no clue where this museum even is.”
Without another word, Giles turned and marched out into the storm. Xander had to jog a couple of steps in the slush to catch up. Thank heavens the battle with the weather was too engrossing for any attempt at starting a conversation, because Xander had no idea what he needed to say to Giles, let alone how to say it. Granted, the last 3 months hadn’t been easy for anyone in the Council, and he was sure Giles had to have his moments of doubt just like everyone else did, but how on earth was he going to be Mr. Helpful Comfort to Giles, of all people?
Buffy, Dawn, Willow…no problem. But Giles? He wasn’t sure Giles would listen to anything he had to say, assuming he could even begin to think of what he needed to say. He didn’t know why, but no matter how hard he tried he kept drawing a blank. It’s was more than just a little disturbing.
Instead of starting a conversation like he probably should, Xander kept his mouth shut, his head down, and the sleet out of his face. The wind kicked up and several pieces of wet trash glued themselves to his leg. He did a hop-step-shuffle move to try getting it off without using his hands, and was only partially successful. Eventually, he had to stop and peel off everything, or risk tripping and falling flat on his face in the slush.
Once free of what appeared discarded protest literature, Xander jogged to catch up with Giles just as the other man turned west toward the mall and right into the wind’s teeth. Xander got a face full of stinging sleet, which prompted a painful hiss from between his clenched teeth. He lifted a hand in front of his face to protect it from more abuse, like he was trying to ward off a blow.
Stupid sleet. It still found a way around his hand and still managed to slam into whatever exposed skin it could find.
Giles came to a quick halt and turned so that his back was to the worst of the wind. “Perhaps we should go to the Native Museum instead? It's closer. Unfortunately my contacts there are currently elsewhere in the city with Robin to plan our defenses, so we’ll have to find a quiet corner in the public portion of the museum.”
Afraid of getting a mouth full of sleet to go with the face full he already had, Xander emphatically nodded.
“Follow me,” Giles said as he turned back into the wind.
Xander bowed his head to protect his face once again, a move that worked only somewhat since he was now walking into the wind, and trudged along next to Giles. He wasn’t entirely sure what a Native Muesum was since the name didn’t ring any bells, but he trusted that Giles knew what he was talking about. But still, Native Museum sounded wrong somehow and—
“Indian,” Xander suddenly blurted out.
“Pardon?” Giles asked as he hunched his shoulders against the weather.
“It’s the Museum of the American Indian,” Xander elaborated.
“Are you certain? That sounds rather, well, I don’t wish to say insensitive, but I seem to recall that Willow was rather emphatic about using some variation of ‘native peoples’ that fateful Thanksgiving.”
“Yeah, well, that Smithsonian. Not so much down with the PC-ness of PC, unless Native American is out and American Indian is back in, which is entirely possible,” Xander said, “but yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the name. Willow and her parental units came here on vacation when she was a kid. Even back then Mrs. R and Willow were ranting about the American Indian thing. That’s how I know I’m right.”
“Perhaps they’ve changed the name,” Giles said.
“Giles, this is the U.S. Government we’re talking about crossed with a cultural institution,” Xander pointed out. “There’s no way they changed the name in the past 15 years. In fact, by the time the name gets changed to something that doesn’t make everyone cringe, the cockroaches will have inherited the earth and our bones will be in their version of the Natural History Museum right next to the T-rex skeleton.”
Giles barked a laugh. It was cut short by coughing fit as the sleet shot into his open mouth.
Xander couldn’t help but grin at his feet as he slogged along next to Giles. This he could do. This was so easy, that it barely registered as effort. So why did he think that this was not what he actually needed to do?
Xander turned his head to the right so he could get a better read on Giles’s profile, hoping that a more direct view would spark some ideas. It sparked ideas all right, but nothing that could be called helpful.
He looks tired, Xander thought. No. Not tired. Old. Beaten-down. Isolated. The last time Xander remembered Giles looking this bad was after Buffy died. No. Not after Buffy died, because after Buffy died everyone understood his grief. Giles seemed more like he did after Buffy came back, which was an isolation of a completely different sort and one no one — not even Buffy — ever entirely understood.
Xander shivered, as much from the cold and wet as from realization. This was bad. This was badness squared. The last thing anyone needed was Giles to withdraw into himself even more than he already had and stiffen the already stiff upper-lip thing. Things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better, and if Giles couldn’t go into share-mode with someone in the inner circle the worse was never going to get better.
Giles glanced in his direction and caught Xander staring at him. He stumbled a little bit before coming to a stop.
“Whoa! Watch the footing,” Xander said as he caught Giles by the arm.
Giles stiffened against the contact, prompting Xander to let go like Giles was a man on fire.
“Ummmm, sorry,” Xander apologized. “It’s just that I’ve noticed that there’s actual cement underneath the soft, slushy surface.”
“That’s quite all right.” Giles looked like he was talking to the ground instead of at Xander. “Your assist is much appreciated.”
Right. No physical contact. Check, Xander thought as he and Giles re-started their torturous walk.
As Xander worked his way around the latest set on concrete barriers set up to ward off both domestic and foreign car bomb threats, a fresh gust of wind sent the razor-sharp sleet into his face.
“Fuck!” Xander exclaimed. He had enough. It was time to stop fighting the elements and start hiding from them. “Screw the American Indian Museum. I’m going for the birdcage right there.”
Xander just knew that Giles would be going on and on about safe environments and the need for caution, but right now he didn’t give a flying fuck. What he wanted was warmth, what he wanted was dry, and what he wanted was out of the weather. If a giant birdcage was going to give him that, so be it. Besides, if Giles was all that concerned about staying under the watchful eye of loyal Council members, he would’ve stuck with the original museum in the first place, instead of proposing the American Indian Museum as a closer alternative.
Xander purposefully strode under a sign indicating that they were actually walking into the “United States Botanic Garden,” and not, as he originally thought, a giant birdcage. He was moving so fast that once he managed to get inside his wet boots squeaked and slipped on the marble floor of the foyer, prompting a momentary demonstration of klutziness in an effort to stay on his feet. When he finally felt surer of his footing, he brought his hands down from their elevated positions and breathed a sigh of relief.
It took a few moments to register that his visual horizons were much broader than they should have been and that the world had suddenly gone all 3-D.
Oh, shit! Xander desperately thought as he reached up to push the eye patch up over his left eye. Once it was in place, he quickly glanced at Giles to see if the other man noticed. He let go of the breath he was holding when he saw that Giles’s glasses were solidly fogged and that Giles was busy digging through his pockets, probably for a handkerchief so he could wipe the glasses.
Xander pulled off his hat and ran his hand through his hair to drive away the hat-head feeling. The gloves came off next and were summarily shoved into the hat for safekeeping. Satisfied that Giles completely missed seeing his exposed left eye, Xander glanced around.
This couldn’t possibly be good. There was no one around, except for one old guy flying a desk loaded with pamphlets and a Forest Ranger-type person in the corner eating her lunch. Given the sparseness of the crowd, which at the moment seemed to number exactly two, there was no way Giles would agree to stay here. The second Giles caught his breath, it was back to fighting their way through the sleet to the American Indian Museum.
Xander turned back to Giles, ready to list the reasons why even attempting to fight Mother Nature was a bad idea. The arguments died before they ever reached his mouth.
Giles was staring at him again, like he still couldn’t entirely believe that Xander was really there. That expression was mixed with something else, something emotional, that Xander couldn’t quite name.
He had no idea what to make of it.
Just act naturally, Xander thought as he shuffled over to Giles’s side. “So much for that idea. Looks like we are the crowd,” Xander quietly said.
“What?” Giles startled.
Xander adjusted his eye patch, a nervous twitch that he’d picked up since he started wearing it. “What I mean is, it’s hard to blend in when we’re the only blend-ees.”
Giles’s eyes seemed glued to his face. “I’m prepared to accept any port in a storm.”
“A-men,” Xander agreed with a relieved grin as he gratefully loosened his scarf, shoved the hat-and-gloves combo in a coat pocket, and began unbuttoning his coat. He turned around to get a better look at what he had to work with. An open arch leading further into the building caught his eye and he took a few tentative steps toward it. As he got closer, the overwhelming, chaotic smell of life finally penetrated his nose. “Wow, it smells like heaven in here.”
“Like every description of tropical paradise,” Giles softly agreed.
The pair of them drifted out of the lobby and into a hall lined with palm trees and benches. Away from the doors, the air began to take on a completely different quality. It was as humid and as lush as any equatorial forest that Xander had ever been in, only far more heavily perfumed. He felt light-headed and overwhelmed just by drawing breath, and they weren’t even in the main part of the museum yet.
Speaking of which…
“I don’t see a ticket counter.” Xander’s voice was hushed, even though there was no one around. He couldn’t help it. He felt like he’d stepped on holy ground. Talking in a normal tone of voice seemed wrong.
Giles chuckled. “I believe our entrance fee has already been paid, courtesy of the taxpayer.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.” The benches looked pretty tempting, but he suspected that Giles would insist on walking even deeper into the museum. He wasn’t entirely sure if his overloaded senses could handle it, but if Giles needed more privacy so he’d actually open up and talk, then he’d just have to live with it. “I know I need to get down and dirty with the details, and there’s a lot to talk about. Doing it here might not be the smartest thing we could do.”
The stuttering coming out of Giles’s mouth was so uncertain, so young, that Xander sharply focused his attention on Giles to make sure he was okay.
Giles was once more busy cleaning his glasses and not at all paying attention to his surroundings. As impossible as it was to believe, Giles’s face was still red from the raw weather outside. He looked like he was blushing from embarrassment.
Apparently satisfied that he’d finally be able to see where he was going, Giles settled his glasses back into place and glanced around the empty hallway. “However, I agree. I think it may be best if we take a turn through a deeper section of museum at the very least.”
“You just want to see if the museum has any really weird plants, don’t you?” Xander joked.
Instead of smiling, Giles reached out and gently touched his forearm. “I’m sorry. I know you’re rather exhausted and would much rather sit here for our talk, but we do need to take at least some precautions. And walking around the museum is the least we can do.”
Xander didn’t say anything, mostly because Giles was still touching his arm and looking directly into his face. If that didn’t scream, “I have something more I need to say,” then nothing did.
Suddenly Giles started as if he’d been hit by a jolt of electricity and he looked away. The hand took a little longer to let go of the forearm.
Xander was now officially confused. What the hell just happened?
“I suppose you think it’s all rather silly,” Giles said to the closest palm tree.
“Silly?” Xander echoed.
“Yes.” Giles began walking into the next room, leaving Xander to follow or not. “After the last 3 months and what you’ve experienced, you must think I’m being rather paranoid, especially given all of the mystical protections that Robin and Willow have insisted placing on me. Frankly, there are days I feel as if I’m walking about with an invisible fortress surrounding me that nothing can penetrate.”
“Whoa. Not so much with the silly, especially after the last 3 months I’ve had.” Xander followed Giles into a room chock full with potted plants and laminated boards. “My cloak-and-dagger these days seems to involve the actual having of cloaks and the actual using of daggers. I’m more than willing to go with a little low-budget James Bond just for a nice change of pace.”
“Sorry,” Giles apologized yet again.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, Xander thought with irritation. Giles had turned into an apology machine sometime after entering the botanic garden. How on earth was he supposed to have any sort of conversation at all if Giles’s answer to everything was “sorry”?
Xander stopped and glowered down at an over-sized planter overloaded with plants. Nope. Staring at plants wasn’t helping him come up with any ideas at all. Stupid flowers.
“You seem rather quiet,” Giles said.
Xander looked at Giles like the Watcher had gone completely insane. Last he checked he was pretty sure he was holding up his end of the conversation pretty well. More than, in fact. It made him wonder if Giles was involved in a completely different conversation.
“What I mean is, you seem quite changed since we last saw each other 14 months ago,” Giles continued.
Xander stiffened. Giles was picking up on something. He was sure of it. First Buffy noticing that he was in much better shape than he should’ve been if he’d been running for his life over a 24-hour period, now this. He so sucked at this.
“I don’t mean…what I mean is y-y-you’ve changed. A little,” Giles haltingly amended.
Xander relaxed. Oh. What he means is that I seem like a grown-up now. Okay. I can deal. “A little,” he echoed aloud.
Giles looked away again. “I’m sorry” — that stupid phrase again — “but I couldn’t help but comment.”
“I’m not sure what you want me to say.” Xander hoped he didn’t sound as irritated as he felt with Giles’s constant apologies.
Giles contemplated one of the crowded flowerpots. The laminated board next to it claimed the plants were called hibiscus. “I’ve asked quite a lot from you, more than I had a right to ask.”
“I don’t recall saying no,” Xander countered.
Giles looked to the ceiling. “I daresay that when I sent you off 14 months ago to help the scattered Watchers in Africa seek out Slayers and fight demonic influences, you did not foresee our current predicament.”
“Well, no.” Xander gave himself a mental slap. Of course. He was an idiot. “And neither did you, so let’s skip the part where you blame yourself for everything that’s gone wrong, okay? I’m pretty sure no one saw a civil war coming.”
Giles winced. “We’d still have no notion of trouble, were it not for Roger Wyndham-Pryce’s warning.”
“Still not your fault,” Xander insisted. “Let’s just stick the blame where it belongs, okay? As in, not on you, but on power-mad Watchers who should’ve never been welcomed back into the fold, which they were, true, but only because we were desperate.”
Giles glanced at him before looking away. “You sound rather sure of yourself about where to place the blame.”
“That’s because I am,” Xander firmly said. “I have more perspective than you can imagine on this issue. I’m so overflowing with the perspective that it’s leaking out of my pores while I stand here.”
Giles glanced at him again, this time with that achingly familiar expression of irritation mixed with the usual whatareyoutalkingaboutXander.
“Too much?” Xander cheerfully asked.
“Your loyalty does you far more credit than it does me,” Giles said as he turned back to planter. “I’ve ordered you to put yourself into mortal danger again and again over the past 3 months. Alone. With precious little by way of a safety net should the worst happen. Yet I’ve seen no sign that you’re so much as put out by the bother.”
“Hey,” Xander said as he slid over to Giles’s side, “your bother is my bother. Last I checked this was my fight, too. If I didn’t want it, I could’ve walked at any time.”
Giles jerked his head, as if he wanted to look at Xander, but couldn’t quite bear to do it. “Could you? I’m not entirely sure it’s in you to do so.”
Once more, Xander was completely at a loss.
“Furthermore, even if you were so inclined to ask for aid or at the very least for a leave of absence, you had no opportunity to quietly approach me,” Giles continued.
Clearly, Giles was going somewhere with this. Much as it galled Xander to do it, it was probably for the best if he went with the flow. It was the only way he’d ever be able to figure out what he needed to tell Giles.
“Okay, you have me there,” Xander said. “You’ve been the master of the voice mail, email, and brief phone contact since I left for Africa, but last I checked you were pretty busy being leader of the New and Improved Council Empire, complete with needing to rebuild Rome in a day even though we all know that’s not possible. Really not your job to hold my hand.”
“You’ve hardly been less busy than myself, and yet you’ve managed to maintain close ties to—” Giles snapped his mouth shut and became very interested in one of the laminated boards. The flush was back in his face, as if he were embarrassed, or possibly angry.
Xander pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to sort out all of the weird signals he was getting from Giles. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think that Giles was hurt that he hadn’t made more of an effort to treat him more like Buffy, Willow, and Dawn. It didn’t make sense. Giles was never big on being treated like “one of the guys” before.
Xander dropped his hand back down to his side as light finally dawned. Sonofabitch. Giles was lonely. Well, they all were in different ways these days. Then again, all of them had ways to relieve the loneliness. Dawn had college, and classes, and friends, and a normal life. Buffy had other Slayers she actually got along with, and days off where she could do the tourism thing with them, and plenty of shoe shopping in Rome. Willow had Kennedy and friends among her witch-y peers in Brazil.
And he had…
Well, he had regular contact with all of his friends, didn’t he? Given the spread of time zones among the Scoobies, there was always someone he could call anyone using the Council’s sat phone day or night, even if he was in the middle of nowhere. Then there were the long emails that zipped back and forth between himself and everyone else. While it didn’t make up for the loss of day-to-day contact, it was enough to keep him from going crazy when life got to be too much for him to handle on his own.
He never called Giles just to say “hey,” though, and all of his emails were strictly business with no friend-like chatter thrown in. It never even occurred to him to do more than that. He figured that Giles was too busy to spare the time.
Now that Xander thought about it, he didn’t recall Dawn, Buffy, or Willow mentioning that they spoke to Giles about more than business since he started his African trek, either.
Then he remembered Dawn accusing him of falling down on the keeping in touch part of their friendship over the last 3 months.
“That’s…not entirely true,” Xander said.
Giles looked at him in surprise.
Frankly, Xander was surprised himself. He had no idea what he was going to say when he opened his mouth. He tapped his fingers on the lip of a terra cotta planter as he considered his next step.
The hell with it. He should just go with his gut, especially since his gut seemed to know what it was doing where his brain was drawing a blank.
“About being so great in maintaining ties, I mean. If I have, it’s been just barely.” Xander stuck a finger in the pot’s soil and dug around. “You’re not the first to mention that Xan-the-Man-Who-Can’t-Shut-Up seems to have gone on permanent hiatus. Did you know that Dawn thought I was mad at her the last time we talked?”
“I…I wasn’t aware,” Giles answered. “I suppose I thought much the same. Rather, I supposed you were furious with me.”
“I’m not,” Xander quickly assured him. “It’s just that I figured you were busy. Besides,” here he shrugged, “my talent for sparkling conversation is beyond rusty.”
Giles took a step closer. “Any particular reason?”
“My life these days is pretty much work, work, and more work, so I don’t have a lot to say outside of that.” Xander shrugged again. “Also, my best lines don’t work anymore. Little hard to make jokes about moon pies and donuts when the person you’re talking to doesn’t even speak English. And my French? While not high-school levels bad, it still ranks below most 3-year-olds. As for Spanish, I can swear fluently but not much else, so I can’t even use that. If I can’t even get the basics, linguistically speaking, you can pretty much forget every other language I come across.”
“Quite understandable,” Giles looked down at the floor. “I didn’t mean to…what I’m trying to say is…” Giles sighed and focused once more on the hibiscus. “I should have realized that I may have misread the state of affairs between us.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Xander said he headed for the next room. “We haven’t seen each other in 14 months. It’s hard to get your communication bearings when you’re used to me being in your face and I’ve suddenly gone all-electronic. I’m convinced that constant communication using email and cell phones put up a wall where there wasn’t one before, even if the wall’s totally imaginary.”
“Yes. It seems all my communication these days is electronic. I’m beginning to suspect that all technology is demonic in origin,” Giles remarked from behind him.
Xander opened his mouth to make a crack about demonic technology, but upon entering the next room the words died in his throat. All he could do was stare at the artificial jungle in front of him, and drink in the sight, smell, and sound of it. It had about as much of a relationship to reality as a Superman comic did real life, but he didn’t care.
Out beyond the glass overhead, the day was still dank and grey. Xander could sense that it was still sleeting and that the weather was making life miserable in general, but in here it was totally different. The air was humid and warm, but rather than oppressive it was like being wrapped in a comfortable baby blanket that he didn’t even realize that he’d missed, despite the fact that he was still wearing his coat.
Giles brushed against him, but Xander barely felt it.
“Good Lord,” Giles breathed.
Xander vaguely nodded as he turned in a slow circle to let his visible eye drink it all in. Everywhere there were vines and creepers stretching up overhead, high enough to touch the glass above them. There was a path that wound through flowering shrubs and over a narrow stream fed by a tiny waterfall. Flowers of every description and color heavily perfumed the air, giving it a thick, almost narcotic quality.
If Buffy’s apartment in Rome was heaven, then this was the view he’d see if he looked out the window.
He was so lost in his thoughts, that he didn’t even realize that he had collided with Giles. The pair of them tripped over each other and fell against the railing that stopped them from falling on the delicate plants at their feet. As Xander tried to figure how the hell he managed to blunder into Giles, he realized the other man was practically standing nose-to-nose with him.
The flash in Giles’s eyes, which looked a little bit like fear and whole lot like need, flickered so quickly that Xander wasn’t entirely sure that he had actually seen it.
Giles pulled away like he was burned, leaving Xander once more speechless and confused as hell.
“I…ummm…” Giles’s voice faded. He coughed and started again. “There seems to be a gallery and…do you see any stairs?”
The blush was back — and it was a blush, Xander could tell. He mentally took a step back and considered that. He was so sure that his first conclusion was wrong, that he had to think again, and again.
Yet no matter which way he looked at it, he kept coming up with the same answer.
Xander swallowed and thought, Oh, hell. The loneliness had to have been getting to Giles worse than he thought, because if Giles was looking at him like he was the best thing ever, then life for the G-man had to truly be in the suck.
“Unh, yeah. Stairs. This way.” Completely flustered and utterly overwhelmed by both Giles and the sights, sounds, and scents of the faux jungle, Xander grabbed Giles by the arm and led him along the path to the stairs.
When he got to the foot of the stairs, he let go of Giles’s arm so he could grab the railing. He wasn’t entirely sure that when he brushed Giles’s hand during the operation that the skin-on-skin contact was entirely accidental on the Giles side of the equation.
Xander hauled himself up the stairs, not daring to look back at Giles even though he could feel the other man’s eyes boring into the back of his neck. But Giles was straight, right? There was Jenny, and there was that girlfriend in England who stuck around for a few weeks. He was pretty sure that—
Except there was also Ethan.
While Xander never had proof that Ethan was anything more than a friendship gone really bad, he always suspected there was more to it, largely because Giles was just a little too angry at Ethan whenever they crossed paths. Yet, despite that, Ethan was able to lure Giles into a trap over some friendly drinks at a local Sunnydale watering hole. That kind of hate, and that kind of quick-if-temporary forgiveness, pointed to something just a little bit more than friendship.
Okay, so not entirely straight. Bi, at the very least.
When he reached the landing at the top of the stairs, Xander turned to look at Giles.
He was right. Giles had been staring at the back of his neck.
“Hey, you think this place is in the catalog?” Xander blurted out, now even more flustered by the fact that Giles may have been entertaining sexy notions about him.
Giles startled on the last step, as if Xander had just snapped him back to reality. “The what?”
“The source catalog for mystical ingredients that Willow planned to put together,” Xander answered.
“I believe it’s been temporarily put on hold,” Giles said.
“Maybe it should be put back on the to-do list,” Xander remarked as he stepped forward. Out of habit, he scanned the surrounding area to see if there was anyone else around. Thankfully, the balcony that circled the upper level of the faux jungle canopy seemed utterly devoid of any sentient life.
Giles circled around behind him and landed on his right side, a courtesy for which Xander was grateful. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. We’re going to need every resource we can get if things progress to an open shooting war.”
Hate to break it to you Giles, but we’ve already there, Xander thought as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on the railing. “Things must be odd and complicated for you right now. This is a little bit beyond Scooby infighting.”
“Life must be much the same for you,” Giles responded.
Xander chanced a glance at Giles, only to find that Giles was staring at him again. Now that he had figured out where Giles’s headspace was, he didn’t find the expression odd or even disturbing. It was actually kind of flattering.
“Yeah, well. Your job has more paperwork involved, and you probably deal a lot more with demonically-inspired infernal technology,” Xander said, which earned him an appreciative chuckle from Giles. “I probably spend a lot more time boiling water and getting sand out of my boxers.”
Chuckling turned to full-on laughter. “I should hope so, but that may be a temporary state of affairs.”
“Nah. It’ll work out all right. You’ll see,” Xander said as he nudged Giles was his elbow, which earned him an appreciative smile and yet another blush from Giles.
Xander understood where Giles was coming from, maybe more than he wanted to admit. There were days — a little bit after he and Cordelia called it quits in high school, a lot after Anya died and he left for Africa — when he would’ve sold his soul for just a little bit of human contact and a little bit of skin on skin.
Giles had been trapped in a cocoon of technology and spells for God knew how long. He supposed it was normal. Giles was head of the Council, even if it was an embattled and not-united Council. Of course everyone’s first thought was to keep him safe. It probably didn’t cross anyone’s mind that the lonely at the top could get too lonely for one person to bear. Giles would be the last person in the world to take refuge from loneliness by going for a temporary, no-emotion-involved fling.
What Giles needed was the human contact he’d been missing for far too long. What he needed was real intimacy. If that was what was called for, then Xander was prepared to deliver.
“Is something amiss?” Giles asked.
“Hunh?” Xander startled.
“You seem rather lost in thought.”
“Oh, you know. I occasionally get one or two.” Xander turned a smile on Giles. The two of them were leaning against the railing, and leaning against each other shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow. The contact felt…good. In a weird way.
“Giles, you’ve been in stare mode since you got out of the cab, so I think it’s time I’ve said something,” Xander looked away. “Now, if I’m reading my signals wrong, feel free to go ahead and give me a right British thrashing.”
“Signals?” Giles faintly echoed.
Xander turned and looked Giles square in the eye. “Are you going to kiss me now? Or do I have take charge and kiss you?
Giles’s eyes got wide behind his glasses. “I…I…I…”
Xander noticed that Giles wasn’t exactly laughing it off, or denying anything, or even circling the word ‘no.’
Giles fell into an embarrassed silence. It seemed like he wanted to look away from Xander’s steady gaze, but couldn’t quite manage it.
Giles took a deep breath, and tried again, “I, well, I…ummm…I…”
Xander leaned in and shut him up with a kiss.
While not exactly the greatest kiss in all of kissingdom, it wasn’t entirely awkward either. Sure, Giles stiffened with shock, and there was too much mashing of lips and teeth involved for Xander’s taste, but an out-of-the-blue kiss was not likely to be the best kiss either. However, Giles turned into him instead of away, and leaned into him instead of breaking away. Xander could feel a tentative hand touch his right elbow, and another brush his left hip underneath his open coat.
Xander broke the kiss and slightly stepped back.
While Giles’s hands weren’t in any hurry to let go, the expression on the other man’s face registered shock, confusion, and pure need.
“Hey, you okay in there?” Xander gently asked.
Giles’s lips parted. At first Xander thought there’d be more kissing, only this time Giles would take the lead. Instead, Giles fit his right hand underneath Xander’s jaw and brushed his lips with a thumb.
“It’s okay. If you want this, I want this,” Xander whispered.
“You’re tired. Perhaps before we…you should rest. Think on things. Perhaps tomorrow...” Giles didn’t mean it, and Xander could see it so clearly that his chest ached. Giles was trying to give him an out, a chance to change his mind before it was too late.
Except that it already was too late.
Xander reached up and captured the hand that was still curled around his jaw. “I don’t want to wait. I don’t need to wait. Let’s pretend that tomorrow’s never coming, okay?”
Before Giles could protest, before he could list of the reasons why this was a bad idea, Xander leaned in and kissed him again.
The kiss was a lot better this time.
And when Giles’s arms snaked around his waist and pulled him closer, Xander couldn’t resist smiling into the kiss.