Act Of Nature - Chapter 9
written by Jane Davitt & WesleysGirl

Giles walked up the stairs quickly, not letting himself look back. He had a feeling that if he did, he'd go back to Xander, and that wasn't what either of them needed right then. A few hours apart, time to adjust, time to make sense of what had happened. He reached his bedroom and sat down on the bed, still feeling tired. Tempting to stretch out and sleep for a while, but he forced himself to stand up after a moment and begin unpacking.

There was a chest of drawers against one wall; wooden, with drawers swollen by the damp conditions that screeched and fought him as he pulled them open. They were lined with faded, floral paper, peeling up at the edges. Giles unpacked, methodically sorting out socks from sweaters, jeans from shirts... A wardrobe, in much the same state as the drawers, but with an incongruous row of white plastic hangers where he'd been expecting three bent wire ones, took the rest of his clothes and he tucked Xander's presents at the back, on the floor.

After that he couldn't find any more excuses not to stop and think.

Xander and Willow... they'd always been linked in his mind. So close, always so close. He remembered feeling vaguely distressed in the aftermath of that ill-timed, doomed flirtation of theirs, when they'd been jumpy and awkward around each other for weeks. Now one was gone and the other... warmth flooded him as he thought about Xander, happiness sweeping away the tiredness as the wind outside was clearing away the brown, winter-dry leaves.

Then the wind dropped, the swirling leaves settled back on the earth, and Giles felt the guilt and doubt return.

He picked up the book he was reading - one from Quentin's private stock; a scurrilous, scandalous account written by a Watcher whose Slayer had been at the court of Henry the Eight. She'd died after a few months, trapped in the maze of alleyways behind Hampton Palace, too inexperienced to fight off a vampire who'd lived as many decades as she had years. The Watcher had remained at court, observing events with a cynical eye that made for entertaining reading now, but which had led to his death when his barbed insults irritated an ailing monarch. Giles had found the book when he went through Quentin's home office, desperate for anything that would help him make sense of what was left of the Council. He wasn't sure it would hold his attention today though.

He went out into the hallway and paused, looking out of a narrow window at Xander in the garden below, brown mac flapping in the wind, dark hair blowing, as he tied a tarpaulin down, weighing it at the edges with rocks. Giles stared at him, caught up in a longing that, for the moment, left his body unmoved. Then Xander turned his face up to the sky as the rain began to pelt down, his wet hair sleeked back, lips parted, and Giles remembered that hair lying against Xander's bare shoulders and those lips on his body and was hard before he reached the top of the stairs.

He made the phone calls, dealing briskly and curtly with his secretary, who had her hands full with appointments to be cancelled, and wasn't pleased at the extra work, and making three other calls to confirm that Willow's death had been officially classed as an accident and the paperwork on it closed. Then he rang Buffy and spent twenty minutes trying not to mention Xander, as his voice softened when he did and that was one piece of news Xander could give out. If he wanted to.

Doubts returned and Giles buried them in activity, wandering around the house and making notes about the progress Xander had made - it really looked as if he'd finish ahead of schedule - and then cooking something for them to eat for supper, using the remnants of the salmon. The kitchen didn't have much, but Mrs Stewart had brought up some vegetables as well as the bread and he managed to produce a fish pie, topped with mashed potato. He'd packed several bottles of wine, more for himself than Xander, and he put a Chardonnay in the fridge, thinking that he'd better steer clear of the whiskey, no matter how tempting it was.

Then the side door opened and Xander walked in, wet and windswept, bringing in mud, leaves and fresh air, and Giles decided whiskey needed a new word to describe it.

Xander shut the door behind him and stepped back onto the mat just inside the frame, clearly trying not to track too much water into the rest of the kitchen. He slipped the mac off and hung it on a hook on the wall, toeing his boots off at the same time in an uncoordinated sort of multi-tasking that brought back memories of his more awkward teenaged years. "Hey. Something smells good." He ran a hand through wet hair and adjusted his eye patch slightly. "You didn't have to cook."

Giles said dryly, "To quote my host, 'Don't worry, I'll press you into domestic servitude in the morning.' Besides, I was getting hungry and I've just been sitting around reading; you must be starving."

He was having trouble keeping his words light, and even more difficulty in not going over to Xander and kissing him, just because he could now. If he could. Maybe Xander had spent the day regretting what had happened, wondering how to tell him it wasn't going to happen again....

"Can I get you anything? Coffee?"

"Only if you want me bouncing off the walls all night," Xander said. He touched the eye patch again, almost as if it were a nervous habit, and stepped a little bit closer.

Giles closed the gap between them, feeling caution vanish. "I had other plans," he said, reaching out and running one hand lightly up Xander's arm. "I think they involved you being a little more relaxed than that." He let his hand cup Xander's face, looking for any hint that Xander didn't want him this close, saw none, and leaned in for a kiss that he intended to be warm without giving away how much he needed Xander right then.

To his relief and pleasure, Xander pressed into the kiss eagerly, sliding an arm around his waist while the other hand rested at Giles' hip. The kiss was rather long, as it seemed neither of them wanted it to end to soon, and when it finally did, Xander asked, "You okay?"

Giles smiled at him. "Let's just say that relieved my mind of one worry." Xander gave him an enquiring look and he sighed, stepping back and rubbing his forehead, feeling foolish. "I've - spent the last few hours convincing myself that you'd be having second thoughts. This has all happened so fast and you must feel - how do you feel? I never got around to asking, did I?" He took a deep breath. "You said yesterday you wanted to take it slowly and I seem to have ignored that completely. Maybe I'm making assumptions I shouldn't be?"

Xander looked at him, concern and a mild sort of confusion written all over his face. "Assumptions? You mean... oh." Xander grinned a bit wearily and moved in closer again, and Giles found himself being wrapped in a careful embrace. "No," Xander said, his voice tender and affectionate. "No, you're not making assumptions you shouldn't be."

"Oh, good," Giles murmured, letting his hand slip down Xander's back but not going lower than his waist. "Then that means I can kiss you again - but I think I'll hold that thought until you've changed and eaten. You look exhausted." He gave Xander one more kiss anyway, this time pulling back before it had a chance to deepen. "I think we could both do with an early night."

"Yeah, you're probably right." Xander seemed reluctant to go, but after a moment he did.

Giles listened to the sound of him going up the stairs and tried not to think about the fact that Xander was stripping off his clothes to put on clean ones. Instead, he focused on getting the casserole dish from the oven and setting out plates and silverware. By the time he was hesitating in front of the refrigerator, contemplating whether or not the wine was a good idea, Xander had returned, wearing yet another pair of slightly ill fitting but comfortable looking jeans and a soft sweater.

"Are you communing with the fridge?" Xander asked, gesturing to indicate that Giles was standing in front of the open door.

"Yes, and it's very sad you never put anything interesting in it," Giles replied. He decided to open the wine and if Xander didn't want any - and Giles couldn't recall ever seeing him drink it - it would still be just about drinkable the next day. He straightened up, holding the bottle, and raised an eyebrow. "Corkscrew? Glasses? Or am I expecting too much? And feel free not to join me. I just thought it would go well with the meal." He studied Xander more closely and grinned. "Your hair's sticking up, and I have this overwhelming urge to tell you that you look adorable. Please stop me, using extreme measures if needed."

"What kind of extreme measures?" Xander asked, using one hand to straighten his hair as he moved across the kitchen and opened a drawer. He rifled around inside it for a moment. "Aha! Or, you know, eureka. Something like that." He turned around, shutting the drawer with his hip, and came over to offer Giles a small utilitarian corkscrew.

Giles took it from him and frowned thoughtfully. "Hmm. For something that dire, I think you'd have to threaten me with tickling at the very least. Of course, you don't know where I'm ticklish, or even if I am. Tricky problem, really." He eased the cork out and gave Xander a sidelong glance. "I think you're safe now. It seems to have settled down."

"Which?" Xander asked, looking at him rather strangely and going over to take two wine glasses from a cupboard. "Me being adorable? Or you feeling the urge to tell me that I am? Because I'm not sure you should get the credit just because I fixed my hair."

Giles took the glasses from him, set them down, and turned to face him again. Reaching out, he ruffled up Xander's hair gently and said, "You're adorable," smoothed it back again as Xander started to grin, and added, "you're still adorable. Now let's eat before I manage to convince you that you've made a huge mistake."

Xander's grin was enormous as he pulled out a chair and sat down, but even still he looked weary. "I don't think you're gonna be able to convince me there," he said, watching as Giles poured some wine into each glass and slid one across toward him. "This is... good. You know? It feels right." He might have been blushing the tiniest bit as he glanced down at the table.

"It does," Giles said quietly, sitting down and brushing his hand across Xander's. He helped them both to the casserole and said, "Do you think it helps that we know each so well? Or not? I suppose we're saved the excruciating round of questions about star signs, favorite colors and an amusing anecdote from childhood, but this - this is so new that even eight years of friendship doesn't seem enough to make it less so."

He took a sip of his wine, deliberately avoiding making a toast. It would have to be to Willow's memory and somehow, selfish though it was, he wanted to have a space of time that was just about both of them. The guilt of that soured the wine, but he forced himself to take a second sip before placing it back on the table.

"This is good too," Xander said, taking another bite and, it seemed, barely chewing before swallowing. "And please tell me that we don't have to swap childhood anecdotes." It was said lightly, but something crossed over his face, something dark and full of sorrow, and Giles wondered if it were because the memories that sprung to mind were bad, or if it were just that they included Willow.

He shook his head, using the excuse of a mouthful of food to avoid answering in detail. Not if it puts that much sadness in your eyes, we don't.

"Oh, I spoke to Buffy at some length; you're right, she seems to have forgiven me, though it was a little awkward at first." Giles felt he was going from one awkward subject to another, but at least this one was only a problem for him. "She seemed to think us all meeting in the New Year was an excellent idea; probably in London. You could travel back with me, if you liked?"

Xander looked somewhat surprised at the suggestion. "I won't be done here by then."

"If you flew, as I did, you'd only be away about three days at most," Giles said with a frown. "From what I've seen, you're well ahead of schedule. Why is it a problem?"

Part of him felt a little hurt that Xander wasn't pleased at the idea of extending their time together, and it didn't help when he wondered if Xander was worried about Buffy and Dawn finding out about them.

"We don't have to tell them, you know," he said. "About - us. If that's what's troubling you. You could stay at a hotel with them..."

"What? No." Xander didn't seem upset by the idea. "I mean, unless you don't want them to know." When Giles' expression made it clear that this wasn't the case, he went on, with a little smile playing at the corner of his lips, "You don't seriously think that me being with you is going to be a bigger shock than finding out I was seeing Cordelia, do you?"

"Well, thank you for putting me well and truly in my place," Giles said. "I was looking forward to rendering Buffy speechless for once." He grinned. "I have a feeling Cordelia would be in whole-hearted agreement, though for slightly different reasons." He topped up their glasses, although Xander had done no more than take a few sips from his. "Would you prefer it if it was later on then? After you've finished here?"

Xander picked up the wine glass, taking a larger swallow this time and then looking down into the pale golden liquid as if he might see the answer to the question there. "No," he said finally. "No, I think it's better to, you know, get it over with." He set the glass down again and pressed the heel of his hand over his eye patch with a sigh. "Which makes it sound like it's something I don't want to do, when that's not it. It's just... it keeps hitting me, you know? I keep thinking about how she wasn't in the last time I called, and... what if she'd been there? Or what if I'd called at a different time? Maybe she would have said something, maybe..."

He sighed again.

"I should have mentioned it to you," Giles said bitterly. "I don't know why I didn't when we were speaking." He pushed his plate away and picked up his glass. "No. I do know. Those conversations with you... they came to be something I looked forward to, as a time when I wasn't thinking about work. Willow, the spell - that was work, you see? God, could I have been more selfish? Falling in love with you wasn't wrong - I'm not sunk that deep in guilt that I could ever think that - but letting it put Willow at risk? I don't know why you're being so - do you not see how wrong it was of me? You should hate me, and I wouldn't blame you if you did."

He looked at Xander, feeling the same confusion he'd experienced yesterday at the lack of reproaches from him.

The look he got back held nothing but warmth. "I don't think you could do anything that would make me hate you. And if you think I'm going to give you more ammunition to make it easier to hate yourself, you're nuts." Xander stood up and began to clear the table, motioning to Giles that he was stay where he was. "You're not in charge of the world, you know. It's not your job to keep track of every little thing everyone's doing, and it's not your fault that things go wrong sometimes."

"No, but -" Giles took a deep breath, twisting around in his seat to look at Xander, desperately afraid that any moment he'd succeed in convincing him of his culpability, but finding it impossible to stop talking. "I let her down because I was thinking about you to the exclusion of everything else, every chance I got. The last six months... the huge job of rebuilding the Council, dealing with people who whine that I'm not more like Quentin, or those who complain because I'm worse... it's not something I ever expected to be doing. I've been sleeping in the office, working weekends... God, listen to me make excuses! But, don't you see; if I had time to spare for you, I should have had more for her. I didn't really listen; I just gave her what she asked for, the way a parent gives in to a nagging child, just for the sake of peace. She deserved far better than that from me."

Xander shut off the water and turned to face Giles, wiping his hands dry on his jeans. "She deserved to have you treat her like an adult, what with her being one and all, and that's what you did. You trusted her to deal with it, the same way you trusted me to deal with this place." He came closer, stopping about a foot from Giles and looking at him steadily. "I didn't realize how much stress you've been under. You could have told me."

Giles shrugged a little helplessly. "What good would it have done? You couldn't have helped with the problems themselves, and I didn't want to bore you to death, so you stopped calling me." He shook his head. "I just wanted to forget all about that bloody place. Believe me, hearing about your trials and tribulations finding the perfect fishing spot was just what I needed." He stood up, wanting to get comfortable if they were going to talk. "I lit a fire in the room next door. I wasn't sure if you used it or not, but it was about the only one with any furniture in it. Want to finish off this wine under the beady gaze of that rather moth-eaten stag on the wall?"

"Sure." Xander picked up his own wine glass and preceded Giles into the sitting room, where the fire had burned down just about enough to require another log. As Giles added one, Xander sat down on the sofa that faced the fireplace, and when Giles turned Xander was looking at the stag's head up on the wall. "I'm thinking I should have taken that down," he said. "Because right now? It's giving me the creeps."

Giles studied it, trying to see why. The expression on the animal's face seemed one of mild surprise and resignation - hardly frightening. "Really? Well, it's a little late now, but I'll help you take it down tomorrow if you like." He walked to the couch and motioned to Xander to move over. "Sit with your back to it then, and I'll try and take your mind off it."

Xander slid over cooperatively, turning to face Giles. "Promise you'll tell me if it starts to look shifty?"

Giles couldn't help the snort of laughter that escaped him. "I refuse to sit beside you with my eyes fixed on the wall. I'd much rather be looking at you." He swallowed the last of his wine and put the empty glass down beside him. Xander was leaning back against the high arm of the couch with a cushion shoved behind his neck, looking relaxed. Giles sat close enough to him that he could pull Xander's feet up and into his lap and then stared into the fire, watching the flames leap and dance. He found himself reluctant to carry on the conversation they'd been having. He didn't think it was as simple as Xander made it seem, but perhaps he wasn't as much to blame as he'd thought? Deciding to leave that for the moment, he said instead, "The night you invited me to come up here for Christmas, I got about three hours sleep, you know. I came so close to calling you back and telling you I couldn't make it."

The worn jeans Xander was wearing were soft under Giles' hands. "Okay... I guess the obvious question to ask here would be 'why?'"

"I'd think the answer was obvious, too," Giles said, leaning back against the couch and running his hand slowly along Xander's thigh and back again. "I'd got to the point where I was rehearsing ways to tell you how I felt. Even with me making up your lines - and I didn't do a very good job of it - it never ended well." He leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling, remembering. "It might have been as clear as day to John that you... liked me, but it wasn't to me. Not that way."

"I guess we were both doing a pretty good job of being oblivious there. I mean... if someone asked how I felt about you, I probably would have listed twenty things I liked, but... I still don't know if I would have put the pieces together." Xander took another sip of wine, his expression thoughtful. "It wasn't a picture I was expecting to see."

"Six months ago, I'd have said the same about you." Giles shifted slightly so that he could look at Xander without twisting his head and smiled at him. "You stayed with me for a week, remember, just back from Africa, waiting to start this job, and I honestly don't think it occurred to me to see you as anything but a friend. Who'd brought back a lot of sand in his luggage and clogged up the washing machine. And kept getting lost and calling me for directions in the middle of meetings. Then you left and - I missed you." He reached for the wine bottle, sighed when he discovered it was just out of reach, and moved Xander's legs so that he could go to fetch it. After retrieving his own glass, he split what was left in the bottle between them, and sat down on the floor beside Xander, grabbing a cushion to lean against.

"It's not my fault you freaky British people have a thing for roundabouts," Xander complained good-naturedly as he settled a hand on Giles' shoulder and began to rub gently. "I missed you too."

Xander swallowed the rest of his wine, balanced the empty goblet on the somewhat flat arm of the sofa in what Giles could only assume was an action destined to result in broken glass.

"Stay there," Xander said, squirming around until he had a leg on either side of Giles' body. "Okay, now just... move like this..." And Giles found himself shifted until his back was against the sofa, both of Xander's hands on his shoulders. He felt Xander's thumbs press firmly into muscles in his back that he hadn't even realized were tense. "What's the worst thing? About your job, I mean."

Giles thought about it for a moment, letting his head sink forward a little. The strength in the warm hands on his neck was reassuring, and it felt so good to be touched after weeks where the only physical contact he had with others was a brisk handshake or the impersonal, intrusive press of bodies on the Tube. "I don't know... the fact that it's not my job, I suppose. I was a Watcher, Xander. I was responsible for one Slayer; now I have hundreds to care for. Everything's on a larger scale; the shop had a turnover of a few thousand dollars a month - do you know how much money the Council has? Millions. It's been around forever, it's got power that it scares me to think about... and I'm clinging on grimly as it flails around wildly trying to re-grow the head Caleb and the First chopped off. I'm out of my depth, but there is no one else. We lost so many...."

"Yeah," Xander said, his voice a bit rough as he filled in the silence left when Giles ran out of words. His hands continued to rub Giles' shoulders and neck, slowly and with a sort of innate talent Giles wouldn't have expected, even though that was absurd. Of course Xander would be good with his hands. "Can't you delegate some of the work? I mean, I know there aren't... I mean... what about me?"

"You?" Giles heard the note of surprise in his voice and realized too late how it would sound, as Xander's hands went still and then slid away. He turned around and reached up to stroke the side of Xander's face, cursing himself as he saw the hurt on it. "Sorry. That sounded as if I didn't think you'd be up to it, and that's not true at all. I just - Xander, you'd loathe it! Tedious routine, never-ending forms... death by a thousand paper cuts. It's not what you're used to." He searched Xander's face for some sign that he'd repaired the damage he'd caused by one thoughtless word and saw none. "Working with you would be wonderful. Someone I could trust completely, someone utterly reliable and capable of thinking for himself? You'd be a godsend." Giles allowed himself a moment to think wistfully about Xander working with him and all the benefits. Then another thought occurred to him and he grimaced. "And how long do you think it would be before it leaked out that we were involved? Your position would be untenable."

"I'm already working for you," Xander pointed out. "And this job - this house - is going to be done sooner or later. What were you thinking would happen then? I mean, if you have plans to send me off to Egypt or India or something, I'd appreciate some advance warning." His expression was slightly less hurt, but still troubled.

"Did it ever occur to you that I can't send you anywhere?" Giles said curiously. "Only ask you to go? And that I sent you here less to oversee the renovation than to give you a breathing space?" He slipped his hand into Xander's, linking them, needing to touch him. "You looked ready to drop in your tracks, to be honest. No one lost as much as you in Sunnydale and no one showed it less. I thought a few months up here would help - and it did. Listening to you sound brighter every time we spoke was very reassuring - quite made up for the fuss everyone made when they found out I'd sent you to the back of beyond."

Xander's next words nearly echoed his. "Did it ever occur to you that I'd go wherever you asked me to? I mean... what else am I supposed to do? Get a job somewhere building bookcases and dining room sets and pretend that everything I know was just some nightmare?" Xander's fingers moved restlessly in his. "I tried that in Africa - believe me, it doesn't work."

Acting on instinct and a need to comfort, he moved to sit beside Xander on the couch, wrapping one arm around his shoulders and pulling him in close with the other. "I barely spoke to you while you were out there; the time difference for one thing, and that bloody crackle on the line... when you said you tried to pretend, what do you mean?"

Giles tried to keep the depth of his concern from his voice, but it wasn't easy. His hand tightened on Xander's shoulder and he forced himself to relax.

"You know," Xander said. "Typical stuff. Drinking, mostly. Trying to forget."

The impatience that filled Giles surprised him. Not with Xander, but with himself, for not getting what Xander meant so that he had to keep asking him questions....

"I can think of a lot you'd want to forget; Anya's death, the loss of your home -" Giles brushed gently at the patch covering Xander's missing eye, "- this. Or was it something else that bothered you?"

Xander shrugged slightly under Giles' arm. "I don't know. All of it. Mostly Anya, I guess. She was..." He was quiet for a long moment, then said, "I think she really loved me." He glanced at Giles. "Or maybe I just wanted to think that."

"She adored you," Giles said, remembering long hours in the shop trying to close his ears to her overly frank chatter about Xander, "but you don't need me to tell you that you hurt her badly. If it's any consolation, I think she forgave you." I can tell by the way you're still human-shaped.

"Anyway, that's not the point." Xander sat up a bit straighter, not pulling away, but moving enough so that he could look at Giles properly. "The point is - you can't forget. You just have to deal. And part of that includes doing what you can to help. I might never be a crack shot with a crossbow again, and it's entirely possible that only lamps will ever tremble before me when I'm holding a sword, but I can still see what's what. Even with just the one eye." He smiled a little bit. "That's what I do."

Giles traced the arch of Xander's eyebrow with one finger and smiled. "I think you're severely underestimating both your ability to inspire terror and the contribution you can make." He stared at him thoughtfully. "I told you I got criticized for sending you here; I didn't mean by Buffy and Willow, you know. It was Simpson - remember him; the one who came back from retirement to help us out, and will probably be with us for another forty years... the one who made Andrew cry three times in one day?"

"Why? What did he think I was going to screw up?"

Astonishment held Giles silent for a second or two. "Nothing. Why would you -? Never mind. His exact words were, 'Whilst I bow to your considerable expertise in the efficient deployment of your work force' - he really does talk like that, you know - 'I cannot but feel that sending young Mr Harris away when we have need of him here, is both indefensible and shortsighted. Get him back at once, Rupert.' At which point I respectfully pointed out that you needed to rest and he stared at me for a minute, without blinking once, and muttered something about sentimental nonsense and coddling, then gave me a salmon fly he'd made himself and told me to give it to you for the next season."

Giles took a certain perverse satisfaction in watching Xander's jaw drop. "It's been a while since the Council saw you as a civilian, Xander," he said gently. "Little matter of saving the world single-handed?"

"But..." Xander didn't seem to know what to say. "Do you - I mean, what - this is a vacation? Is that what you're telling me?" His voice lowered. "I can do whatever needs to be done. And if that's being in London, and pushing papers to help take the stress off you... that's where I want to be. And I don't care if people think it's because we're... involved." Xander looked a bit worried then. "Unless you do."

Giles leaned forward and kissed him hard, pulling back at once. "That was for offering to help with the paperwork," he said. "And think of this as a holiday if you like - you've certainly benefited from it, as I'd hoped you would - but, yes, if you want it, there's more you can be doing." He shrugged apologetically. "I didn't want to rush you or force you before you were ready." He moved Xander's wine glass to the floor before it got knocked over, and slipped his arms around Xander. "And forget what I said about us being involved being a problem. It might make for some office gossip, but as most of it would be concerned with how you could do much better for yourself...."

Xander leaned into the embrace at once with what certainly sounded like a relieved sigh, one arm settling warm around Giles' waist. "What are you, nuts? I'm just a hack who barely managed to graduate high school. You're the one who could do better - someone with depth perception, for example." He didn't sound upset or even particularly self-deprecating, just matter of fact.

"I could do better? Xander, that's -" Giles checked himself. "I'm going to set aside ten minutes a day for telling you just why that's a ridiculous idea until it sinks in, but can we take it as read for now and move onto the part where I kiss you? Please?"

"Yeah, I think we can do that." Xander didn't wait for Giles to move, instead shifting closer to press their mouths together in a soft, rather gentle kiss that lasted quite a bit longer than Giles had anticipated, not that he was likely to complain. "Was that what you had in mind?" Xander asked, running a hand back into Giles' hair.

"Oh, yes," Giles said, wondering if he looked as content as he felt. "Very much so."

A log crackled and spat in the fireplace, sending sparks up the chimney, but they were too busy to pay it any attention. Drawing Xander to him, Giles kissed him again, moving his hands over Xander's back slowly. This body - he would have said he knew it, but he would have been wrong. Close enough that he was aware of every breath Xander took, Giles was discovering all manner of details he'd never noticed before, letting his hands explore what his eyes had seen.

Xander's gentle murmurs of pleasure at each touch only made Giles want to draw more out of him. Xander tasted of the Chardonnay, warm and silky smooth, and he sighed when Giles slid a hand beneath the soft sweater and ran it along his spine. "You win the prize," Xander said gruffly, brushing his lips over a pulse point on Giles' throat. "Best kisser ever."

Giles tilted his head back, wordlessly inviting Xander to continue, and chuckled a little breathlessly. "If that's so, it's more to do with the fact that I'm kissing you than any particular talent of mine. What do I win?"

Xander's kisses were addictive, he decided hazily. After each one, he wanted another... and another....

"Hmm," Xander said thoughtfully, breath warm just beneath Giles' ear. "Good question. What do you want?"

"You're making it hard for me to concentrate," Giles said, easing his hand around enough to rest on Xander's hip and blessing the fact that Xander's jeans gaped so invitingly at the waist now. He ran his thumb in teasingly light circles in the dip beside Xander's hip bone. "What do I want?" It occurred to him that Xander had never said he loved him, but that wasn't something he could ask for. That had to come from Xander. "Three kisses," he decided. "Anywhere you like."

Xander didn't seem to require any time to think about it - he pulled Giles closer with one hand on the back of his head and murmured, "Close your eyes." When Giles obeyed, Xander pressed a feather-light kiss onto each eyelid, first right, then left. "You try to keep these, okay?" he asked, his voice rough. "I'm kinda used to looking at them." And then, before Giles could say anything in response, Xander kissed him on the mouth with parted lips and what felt like love, even if the word hadn't yet been spoken.

The kiss ended and Giles smiled up at Xander. "Thank you. The last prize I won was a book, for coming first in the long jump at school, and much though I love books, I have to say I prefer your way." The fire was dying down now and the room cooling quickly as it did. Giles sighed regretfully. "We have to either build up the fire, freeze, or give up and go to bed. Two of those options require moving, which I'm firmly against on principle, but the third isn't appealing either."

He didn't want to assume that they'd be sleeping together, even after all that they'd gone through that day, but he hoped they would. Xander was looking drowsier by the minute, so Giles didn't expect that they'd do more than sleep, but sharing a bed with him would be more than enough.

Attempting to hide a yawn behind one hand, Xander patted Giles' thigh with the other. "Well I was hoping I could talk you into keeping me warm tonight, but if you want to stay up, I think you're gonna have to do it alone because I've got maybe ten more awake minutes left in me." He stood up. "I can attempt to bribe you with the promise of not particularly scintillating conversation during those ten minutes though, if that helps." Xander's expression was hopeful.

Giles grinned. "I think you'll find I'm very open to bribery if it gets me into your bed." He stood up. "If I stop replying after eight minutes, don't feel your conversation put me to sleep, will you? I swear there's something in the air up here... they should bottle it."

"Yeah - I don't think I've ever slept better," Xander said, going over to adjust the screen in front of the fireplace. "Of course I've been blaming it on all the exercise." As he straightened up again he hitched up his jeans, the motion looking at though it were becoming second nature.

"I could do with some of that myself," Giles admitted. "I'm not getting to the point where my clothes are all but falling off me, as yours are. Far from it." He turned towards the door. "Perhaps we could walk into the village tomorrow? Get a few last minute things before Christmas Day?"

"Sounds good." Xander yawned again as they started into the hall and then up the staircase. "Mrs Stewart will be by in the morning with some groceries - she said something about a ham. Or maybe it was lamb. Anyway, food, but yeah, I wouldn't mind picking up a few things I actually got to choose."

"Do you think she'll let us sleep in past nine, with it being Christmas Eve?" Giles asked plaintively. He was damned if he'd spend his holiday marching to someone else's idea of good timekeeping. And he couldn't imagine being too keen on getting out of a warm bed with an equally warm, and hopefully well rested, Xander in it, just because their porridge was getting cold.

"Yeah - she always lets me sleep in on the weekends, or the couple of times we've had a day off because we were waiting for supplies to be delivered or something." Xander shrugged. "Anyway, we'll just shut the door." In the hallway outside their rooms he paused. "You need anything?"

Giles nodded. "I'll go and brush my teeth and join you in a moment. If you fall asleep before that, try and leave me an inch or two of mattress?"

"You got it." Xander stepped into the room, pulling his sweater over his head as he went and exposing the smooth line of his tanned back to Giles just before disappearing from view.

Wondering if it would really matter if he skipped brushing just this once, and deciding he'd better not, Giles walked away. When he'd finished brushing and washing, he stripped down to shorts, picked up his robe and went quietly into Xander's room. As he'd expected, Xander was already asleep, lying sprawled out on his back. One brown arm lay on top of the quilt and the bedside light on Giles' side of the bed threw deep shadows over his chest and face.   

Xander's eyes were closed and though Giles knew that beneath the left eyelid lay emptiness, without the patch across his face, he could almost trick himself into thinking that if Xander opened his eyes, he'd be whole again.

Giles got into bed beside Xander and leaned up on his elbow, staring down at Xander's face, relaxed in sleep. He didn't want to risk waking him, but if he'd dared, he'd have returned the three kisses Xander had given him, in the same places. He settled for one against the silky, dark hair and turned out the light.

Read: Chapter 10