Act Of Nature - Chapter 3
written by Jane Davitt & WesleysGirl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Very kind of you, especially on a day like this," he said. "Can we offer you a drink before you go? Or were you planning to join us?" He looked directly at Xander. "I wouldn't want my early arrival to upset any plans you've made. You must tell me if I'm in the way."
John broke in before Xander could say anything. "No, not at all – I'm the one who came unannounced. Just didn't care for the thought of you being out here with no power and no candlelight." The man looked at Xander meaningfully and reached out to touch his shoulder. "If you need anything, call me? As long as the phone lines hold, that is."

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

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

"I'm sorry. That was unforgivably rude of me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why not?"

Apart from that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He left the room after giving Xander one quick smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read: Chapter 4