Rating – UK 15, or FRT
Warnings – Not really. Everybody is of age, even if only just.
Summary – American traditions aren’t the same as British ones. Or so I’m told by cdangerfield.
British spelling. You should be used to it by now.
The characters you recognise belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. The ones you don’t belong to me.
The story is mine; please do not take it and post it anywhere else without discussing it with me ahead of time.
Feedback: oh, yes, please, by comment or message on LJ or to thea_bromine @ fastmail.fm (without the spaces), whichever suits.
He heard them coming down the corridor – the hall, he reminded himself, they called it the hall – and prepared himself for the bang of the door being flung back. Willow, at least, broke off what she was saying to smile at him, and then interrupted herself mid-sentence.
“Well, duh, guys, it should be Giles. Obviously.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What should be me, Willow?”
“You should totally spank Xander.”
The other eyebrow went up. “Well, I, I can’t say that I’ve never been tempted. There has been more than one occasion on which I’ve thought that somebody... But don’t you think he’s a little old for it, Willow? Xander, what have you done to annoy Willow so much, and why does she think that I should be involved?”
“Love the way you assume that I’ve done something,” observed Xander, without heat. Buffy took her share of explanation.
“Xander's birthday, Giles. Tomorrow.”
He nodded, enquiringly. Buffy and Willow had appropriated one of the library cupboards as a store for various party decorations and supplies, and Xander was pretending not to know about it, just as he was almost certainly pretending not to know that Giles had, without argument, funded what was going to be a comprehensive pizza order. Giles’ gift for Xander was already wrapped and secured in the bottom drawer of his desk; he thought that Xander didn’t know that. “I am aware of the occasion.”
“Well, somebody has to give Xander his birthday spanking,” explained Willow, seriously, “and you’re the oldest, Giles, so it ought to be you.”
“Just want to point out here that there’s a degree of not-fair-ness happening,” objected Xander. “My birthday, tomorrow. We know when Willow’s birthday is, and how old she’ll be; we know how old you are, Buff, and when your birthday is. A bit short on data regarding Giles, though. When’s the big day, G-Man, and how old? And who gets to give you your birthday spanking?”
He shook his head, seriously. “I’m, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Xander, but I decided early on that I, I wasn’t going to go native while I was in America. I’m not taking on all your traditions, and birthday spankings aren’t a British custom at all. I have no experience and I’m happy with that.”
All three of them stared at him. Buffy blinked owlishly at him. “You’ve never had a birthday spanking?”
“And I see no need to start now.”
Willow hitched herself onto a desk, and smiled at him. “How did you celebrate your birthday when you were small, Giles? What do you do that we don’t?”
He leaned back against the issuing desk; the others followed Willow’s example. “I had a birthday party every year when I was very little. Silly games, junk food... yes, Xander, I too ate junk food. My mother made the best birthday cake. There was one decorated with dinosaurs that was talked about for weeks. Another one had a little wind up train that went all the way around the outside of the cake. I was very scornful of those of my friends who got bought cake on their birthdays – my mother made the cake, designed the icing... Once we were eight or nine, most of us stopped having parties at home, but there would be an outing with some friends. The, the cinema was popular, or the swimming pool. My father took my best friend Jack and me to one of the big horse shows one year, and somebody’s parents took a group of us to the funfair, I remember that.” He smiled reminiscently, polishing the lenses of his spectacles.
“Then when I was eleven I went to boarding school, and my birthday was during term time. No party, but my parents would always come up the weekend after, and take me out, usually with a friend or two. A trip somewhere, the theatre or the cinema maybe, dinner out. We went to the motor racing once; my mother was bored out of her skull, but she didn’t let it show. She always brought a cake too, for me to take back to school and share with my dormitory or my study landing.” The spectacles were replaced on his nose.
“When I got to Oxford, birthdays were a curry and a pub crawl, and then once I went into Watcher training... well, they died off a bit. A few quiet drinks with a couple of colleagues.” He didn’t mention the years between his first and second times at Oxford, and nobody was impertinent enough to ask, but the memory of Ethan and... and the others intruded. Their first attempt at demon raising had been to celebrate his birthday: a little Charku spirit that had inhabited him for 24 hours, for no better reason than the sexual thrill. He remembered the blonde in his bed – Helen? Hannah? – gasping beneath him, her legs locked around his back. She’d been willing and he’d been able, and she hadn't been the only one; Ethan had walked a little unsteadily when eventually the spell had worn off and Giles had come to himself with a pulled muscle, a raging thirst, and a huge appetite that demanded to be satisfied in the nearest greasy spoon. “I admit, I do still look for cake on my birthday. Without ice cream.”
“Without...?” prompted Willow, curiously; he smiled at her.
“It’s not a combination we go for, cake and ice cream. We would usually have ice cream, certainly, but quite commonly the cake was wrapped and given to us to take home afterwards. Having them together always seems a little odd to me. Not unpleasant, just odd.”
“Weird,” commented Buffy, and the conversation moved on. He made nothing much of it; chat about how things in the UK differed from their US equivalents wasn’t uncommon between them. Willow, in particular, always wanted to know. It wasn’t important.
Consequently, he was rather surprised when Xander raised the subject again later, after the girls had gone, while he was reshelving books and Xander was hanging around the corner of the stacks, and rather being in the way.
“So when were you tempted?”
He actually failed to make the connection with the earlier conversation. He thought, for a heart-thumping moment, that Xander was asking him about demons, and his repetition of the question was nothing more than a play for time.
“When was I...?”
“You said you were tempted to spank me more than once. When? What for?”
He blinked, foolishly, and caught up with what Xander meant. “Oh... well, there was an entire can of some sort of fizzy pop spilled over my library catalogue about the third time I met you. There was the discovery of half a pizza capricciosa, a week old, and with the artichokes from the other half piled beside it, underneath a pile of magazines at the back of the sociology books, and I’m damn sure that I didn’t leave it there. There was the occasion not a month ago on which I discovered that you had filed an entire bookcase-worth by cover colour and height rather than classification or author. I’m sure there were other times, but those are the ones that immediately come to mind.” He didn’t mention a certain love spell; it had certainly made his palm itch, and if there hadn't been witnesses, he might just have... He shook his head, chasing the thought away. Xander hadn’t asked about his demon raising days earlier; he could be equally restrained.
“Pi... I beg your pardon?”
Xander shrugged. Giles thought it was supposed to look unperturbed and insouciant; somehow it didn’t.
“Was kinda hoping that you just wanted to because... well, that you just wanted to.”
Absolutely no words came to him. Nothing coherent at all. He thought that his mouth fell open and he gaped like a fish. Xander let him hang for a moment and then grinned at him. “Gotcha, Big Guy.”
He rolled his eyes. “Pillock. It would serve you right if I did turn you across my knee. You’d have a hard time convincing a jury that it wasn’t justified.”
“Can’t be; you’ve never done it.”
“My self-control is legendary,” Giles assured him.
Xander smiled again. “Yeah, we know.” It sounded... odd, somehow, but he flapped a hand at Giles in farewell, and wandered off to wherever he should have been ten minutes earlier.
When they met later, though, Xander was... well, was still odd. Giles wondered vaguely if he’d regretted having a conversation with Giles that was, however indirectly, about sex. He knew that all the, the, the Scoobies – he hated the term, but he wasn’t comfortable any longer calling them ‘children’ and he didn’t have another noun, except possibly ‘friends’ and somehow he wasn’t comfortable with that either – believed, or claimed to believe, or wanted to believe that Giles was a sexless being. For Xander to have suggested that Giles might be interested in something kinky with him, even when his intention had only been to get a rise... He hastily recast that sentence. To tease... That was hardly better. To make fun of Giles... Xander was probably embarrassed now and regretting it.
By the next morning, Giles knew that Xander was embarrassed. He had seen him come into school; their eyes had met across a crowded corridor, and Xander had flushed and looked away. The next time they had encountered each other had been between classes; Giles had smiled at Xander as he hurried from the staffroom to the library, and Xander had pretended, badly, not to see him. At lunchtime Giles had been on duty, patrolling the hall; he had come upon Xander with Willow and had stopped to wish him, in a quiet voice, many happy returns of the day, and Xander had blushed again, his ears and throat an ugly, blotchy red, and had made an excuse to move away. Whatever Xander had thought yesterday, he was regretting it today, and the best thing Giles could do was ignore his ill-considered joke, and pretend it had never happened. Everybody knew that Rupert Giles didn’t understand the conversation of anybody under thirty-five, and disregarded most of it.
By the late afternoon, it seemed that Xander had also managed to move past whatever he had been thinking; his birthday celebration in the library was a success, with only one awkward moment when Buffy had made some remark about visiting relatives and childhood birthdays, and Xander had admitted that his parents had never thrown a party for him. Willow had broken the rather uncomfortable silence with a question to Giles, pitched a little too high and uttered a little too fast, about English party games, and somehow they had ended up playing Blind Man’s Buff around the stacks and the weapons cage. Naturally, Oz had won, but even Cordelia had ended up laughing.
Eventually, of course, they had gathered around the library tables, eating pizza and drinking what he had learned to call soda; Xander's eyes widened when Giles ducked back into his office and emerged carrying a cake.
“I’m sorry, Xander, I couldn’t manage ice cream as well. No way to keep it cold.”
Xander shook his head. “Giles, I’m just... Cake? For me?”
Giles shrugged, mildly embarrassed. “I wasn’t certain what sort of cake was traditional; I asked the lady at the bakery, and she suggested chocolate fudge and candles. I, I know you like chocolate, so...” He reached into his pocket for the cigarette lighter he still carried, despite having long since given up smoking. Too many rituals involved candles for him not to have some means of lighting them; it was a relief that this was a small celebration rather than an apocalyptic sacrament. Xander had his head dipped and his eyes hidden behind his hair, but he was smiling, and Giles recognised it as a combination of pleasure and embarrassment, and bit down on a flare of dislike for the adult Harrises. No teenager should be so surprised and gratified to receive something as simple as a birthday cake; no 18-year-old’s birthday should be devoid of the presence of even one family member.
No young man should have to navigate his coming-of-age aided only by his school librarian.
He lit the candles carefully. “In, in England, you would make a wish as you blow them out. Do you do that here?”
Buffy nodded. “And your wish comes true if you blow them all out in one go. Whatcha gonna wish for, Xander?”
“Good lord, he mustn’t tell,” objected Giles, mock-scandalised. “It definitely won’t come true if he tells.”
Buffy blinked. “Won’t it?”
Cordelia looked down her nose. “Don’t you know anything?”
Buffy looked around at the others. Oz shrugged. “Don’t think I ever heard that. Didn’t matter if you told or not. Willow?”
She shook her head, seriously. “Mustn’t tell, or it doesn’t work.”
Xander gazed from one of them to another. “I’m not telling, then. I need all the help I can get with wishes.” He leaned forward and took a breath, and then let it go and looked back at Giles. “Is Buffy right about I gotta get them all in one go?”
“As far as I’m aware, yes,” he confirmed, seriously. Xander nodded, and drew breath again, steadily. The last candle flickered, and he had to pant at it, but they all went out, and his audience applauded; he straightened and grinned at them.
“Got a knife, Big Guy?”
Naturally he had a knife. He had even, he assured them, straight-faced, washed all the demon blood off it. Xander punched him on the arm, and he pretended to be injured; everything was back to normal.
Well, as normal as you got on a Hellmouth.
He did notice, the next day, that Xander was rather quiet – for Xander; for anybody else, it would have counted as uproarious. He noticed it, but he didn’t make much of it. Anybody was entitled to, to, to... Giles had days when he didn’t feel like talking, when he couldn’t keep up with their raucous joke-telling and constant chatter. The boy wasn’t... well, wasn’t a boy any more, he was a young man, and if he was growing up at last, becoming more mature, that was perfectly normal and to be expected, and Giles found that he didn’t believe it for a moment. Xander was subdued, and Giles didn’t understand it.
Didn’t, he discovered, like it.
When it continued a second day, and then a third, and then a whole week, he was first concerned and then flat out alarmed. Once or twice he tried to address it with Xander – he hoped that if something were seriously wrong, Xander would think of him as a sympathetic ear – but he couldn’t quite find the words. “You know the way I’ve always told you that you should behave? Well, you’re doing it. Stop it at once.” Yes, that, as Buffy would say, was so going to work. Not.
He found his eyes on Xander more often than usual, and he was uncomfortably aware that Xander knew it – and that Xander looked at Giles much less often than Giles discovered he had come to expect. Well, that was a question he couldn’t possibly ask. “I say, Xander, why don’t you look at me any more?” In any event, he knew the answer to that: Xander had played a joke on Giles, and then had second thoughts about it – and Giles, wincing at the recollection of some of the things he had said and done at 18, didn’t blame him. It didn’t help, though. Something was wrong with Xander and whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be passing.
Still, he wasn’t the only one to have noticed. Willow had been turning an increasingly concerned gaze on her friend. Giles could do nothing himself, but he could create an opportunity for Willow to talk to Xander. He pointedly – well, no, not pointedly. He didn’t want either of them to think that he was aware of something amiss. He refrained from any obvious interference, but when Willow drew Xander into the library and put on her Resolve Face, Giles made an obvious exit, muttering something vague about an appointment. There had been several incidents in the past involving conversations which didn’t include Giles, but which were carried on in the library by individuals apparently under the impression that because Giles couldn’t see them, he also couldn’t hear them. The discovery later that Giles knew all about whatever it was had more than once caused awkwardness, before Giles had managed to make it plain that although he wouldn’t deliberately eavesdrop, he would assume that a conversation carried on in the stacks was not intended to be secret or confidential.
Nonetheless, if Willow wanted to interrogate Xander, Giles was quite willing to be conspicuously somewhere else.
He rather suspected that it had served very little useful purpose: when he returned, allowing the door to bang loudly and whistling to himself, Xander looked uncomfortable and Willow dissatisfied. The problem, plainly, had not been solved.
It was eventually through eavesdropping – inadvertently – that he brought everything into focus. Dr Noah’s workbooks were delivered from the printer, and by some oversight on the part of the office, they ended up in the library. Giles had left his share of the print order to the end of the day; by the time he became aware that half of it belonged to someone else, there were no students left who could be conscripted as deliverymen. He huffed, in mild annoyance. Well, he supposed that the workbooks could sit in the library until the morning... but the idea irritated him. He disliked leaving a job unnecessarily incomplete. If those workbooks were out of the library, then everything on his To Do list for the day could be ticked off. No, he would just make the delivery himself, on his way to his car. He tucked the package under one arm, and juggled the library keys.
Dr Noah’s room was at the very end of the hall, in the opposite direction to the car park. It wasn’t a corridor Giles generally had a reason to use; nobody expected to encounter him there. He wasn’t actually sure that he had ever had cause to enter the rooms in that part of the school and it occurred to him as he strode down the hall that the room might be locked, but he could hear the janitor somewhere close by and the handle turned easily under his palm. He glanced briefly around; Dr Noah, presumably, was long gone, but his room was clean and tidy, chairs tucked beneath desks, windows safely closed. Giles placed the workbooks in the centre of the desk, scribbled an explanatory note, and jumped convulsively at the sound of Buffy’s voice. He spun, startled, mouth opening to answer her, and found himself looking at a board covered in equations, flanked by bookshelves.
For a moment his lack of comprehension was complete; then he spotted the ventilator. He relaxed, smiled to himself and began to turn away, only to hesitate when he heard Xander's deeper tones. Even then, he was more amused by the fact of being able to hear them than actually intending to listen to a conversation to which he was never intended to be privy.
“Xan, you gotta tell us what’s wrong. You don’t talk, which is weird. That vamp on Monday? Nearly got you, and you didn’t even seem... I dunno, you weren’t scared, it was like you... I guess like you didn’t even care. Like yeah, sooner or later some vamp’s gonna get lucky and you’re not, and sooner or later might as well be now.”
“Buff, it’s just... stuff.” Xander sounded weary, not with the exhaustion Giles had seen in him more than once after a strenuous hunt, or a week of desperate all-hours research. This sounded more like something every Watcher knew: the effect of week after week after bloody week, going just a little short on sleep – just an hour or two every night, but every night. Skipping meals, not often enough to compromise health but enough to cause slight physical discomfort. Working just that little bit too long and too hard, going just slightly short on leisure and relaxation. Every Watcher knew it; every Watcher was warned against it, because it resulted in a Watcher who would make a bad decision in a crisis, or a slow decision, or no decision at all, with no warning. It frequently resulted in a low grade depression, and more than frequently led to prescription drugs or – as Giles knew only too well – alcohol.
(In his experience, a better cure was a large takeaway meal, one strong drink, and 24 hours of as much acrobatic sexual activity as he could... Not, of course that that had any bearing on the case in hand.)
He pulled Dr Noah’s chair clear of the desk and sat down shamelessly to listen. Discretion and minding his own business was all very well, but if Xander was still out of sorts about something, Giles told himself, he needed to know, needed to know why and if anything could be done about it. It was, he thought, a matter of straightforward safety. However peculiar he thought it, however unprecedented, Xander and Willow – and to a lesser extent, Cordelia and Oz – were a back-up crew, a support mechanism for Buffy. Giles’ duty was to keep the Slayer alive and that meant swallowing his dismay at Xander's impudence, at Cordelia’s insolence, and Willow’s incomprehensibility, and Oz’s peculiarity. If Buffy wanted them, Giles would make it possible. If something was wrong with Xander, Giles needed to know, for Buffy’s sake.
He had to admit that even to himself, that wasn’t convincing. He had tried to tell himself to leave Xander alone, to allow him to sort out whatever problem he had. It hadn't worked. Now he needed to know. For his own sake. For Xander's.
“Xan, it’s not just stuff.” That was Willow. “You’ve been acting real weird for... since your birthday.”
Giles frowned. He had known that Xander had been behaving oddly for several days, but he hadn't associated it with his birthday. He wondered if perhaps Xander was in difficulties regarding his living or schooling arrangements now that he was technically an adult. He could believe anything of the Harrises, even that they would evict their son.
“C’mon, Xan, talk to us.” Buffy again. “You’re not happy, we get that. Why not? What’s wrong? Is it... is something wrong at home?” Yes, her thoughts were running along the same lines as his.
“Nothing more than usual.” Xander sounded blackly amused.
“What, then?” Willow’s voice carried an uneasy mix of concern, despair and irritation.
“Nothing.” Giles glowered at the wall beneath the ventilator. That was a lie and if Xander thought he could get away with it, he was sadly mistaken. Willow wouldn’t stand for it, Giles could have told Xander that. He didn’t have to see her to know that she was wearing the Resolve Face again.
“Xander, something’s wrong and ... and we can’t help you if we don’t know what it is. You gotta tell us about it.”
There was a double heartbeat of silence and then Xander's voice, dragged with weariness and... it almost sounded like desperation. “Willow, it’s... it’s not something I wanna talk about. Yeah, O.K., things aren’t great for me, but it’s... it’s a guy thing, yeah?”
There was another silence and then Buffy said, cautiously, “O.K., so you don’t wanna tell us about it. You could maybe talk to Giles?”
Somebody – Giles couldn’t tell who – made an odd sound, and Buffy went on, her voice determined. “No, Xan, really. I know Giles is all up-tight English guy and he doesn’t get the... he doesn’t always get us. But hey, every time it goes apocalyptic he’s there. And when it’s just... when it was Angel, even after the Angelus thing, and demons and Acathla and torture and, and stuff... Giles came through for us. After... after I was gone, Giles was... Giles,” and suddenly her voice was strong and Giles bit his lip and swallowed hard, “Giles didn’t judge. I told him stuff, I told him stuff I never told anybody else. You could maybe talk to Giles?”
The sound Xander made was like a wounded animal. “No. God, no. Not Giles.”
Willow interrupted. “But, Xander...!”
“No!” Xander's voice pitched a little high. “I can’t... I won’t talk to Giles. I don’t want to talk to anybody but no way am I talking to Giles!”
Giles frowned. He could understand that Xander didn’t want to talk, however much everybody – including Giles – wanted him to. He could certainly understand that Xander might not want to talk to him. Somehow, though, Xander's tone was too... His Watcher senses, which were at least as strong as what Buffy called her Spidey-sense, told him that he had all the texts on his desk and that he was simply being stupid about the translation.
“Is it,” Willow was going to persevere. The Resolve Face must, thought Giles, be a lulu; “is it something to do with Cordelia? I mean, I know you guys split up, but were you wanting to get together again or something?”
Xander laughed, uneasily. “No. Not Cordelia.” There was a long silence, and then for some reason Giles didn’t understand – he suspected tears on Willow’s part – Xander capitulated. “O.K. I guess... I guess I gotta tell somebody some time. No. Not Cordelia, not likely to be Cordelia ever again. Or any other girl.”
Buffy was quicker than Willow. “Any other boy?”
Another long silence. Buffy again, cautiously. “Is somebody giving you a hard time about it? Like, at home?”
Yes, Giles wanted to know that too. He’d been right about having all the texts and missing the translation. He had completely missed that one. Even given Xander's joke, he had been so bewildered by the text that he had totally missed the subtext.
“They don’t know,” said Xander, hastily. “And I’m good with that.”
“Well, you ought to talk to somebody,” insisted Buffy, stubbornly. “And... well, I still think you could do worse than Giles. I mean, he... um... I kinda assumed that he and Ethan Rayne had a Thing, even though he’s all about the ladies now. He’s not gonna judge.”
Xander could out-stubborn Buffy. “I don’t want to talk to Giles about this. I’m cool with not telling people.”
Willow sounded as if she was frowning. “So... what? You want... not to be? Because, these days, Xan, so not a big deal. And Russell, in my English class, he’s... and he’s real cute.”
Buffy agreed. “That tall boy who plays cornet in the band, he’s cute too. And he’s,” and she said the word, only a little too forcefully, “gay.” Giles, remembering the first person he had told of his own interest in men as well as women, and wincing at the recollection, was proud of her.
“Yeah, well, been made plain to me that I’m not the great catch. Not by them. By... There’s a guy I’ve... I never said anything. Wanted... Really wanted. Like, couldn’t imagine wanting to be with anybody else, wanted, for ages. For about a year. And he doesn’t want me.”
“Did you tell him?” demanded Willow. “Maybe he’s just really, really oblivious.”
“Couldn’t tell him before. He’s... he wouldn’t have. I know he wouldn’t. He’s a bit older, see, and what with the under-age and the illegal and all that, no point in saying anything because he wouldn’t. Just not something he would do. And then I did say something, and he was all horrified guy – I mean, totally – so the best I could do was pretend I hadn't meant it. And now I wish I hadn't said anything because if I hadn't I could have gone on... kinda imagining that I could have him if... and now I know I can’t.”
Willow, thought Giles confusedly, had put her finger on it. Really, really oblivious. And Xander was bang on the money too – under-age and illegal and not an option. At some point he had to talk to Xander about timing. 24 hours later and they might have had a conversation, and he knew how ridiculous that was: one day made no real difference but he pictured himself sitting in the library waiting for midnight, for ‘now you’re 18 and you’re legal’. It made him shudder; he wasn’t the kind of man who could do that. Illogical, because now, with Xander 18 plus a week, he could think about it, but Xander 17 plus 364 days? He couldn’t have done.
He heard them move away from their position beneath the ventilator and rose silently from his chair. At some point, not now, it would only complicate things if he did it now, he would have to talk to Buffy about how to find a safe place in which she couldn’t be overlooked or overheard. Talking beneath a ventilator was a basic error – although one that had given him something to consider. Xander had been perfectly serious: what Xander was suffering from was unrequited love, and what Xander wanted, apparently, was Giles.
Well, Giles was inclined to think that for once, Xander Harris should be allowed to have what he wanted. He didn’t think it happened very often. Yes, he knew all the arguments against. Xander was only 18, and only just 18, but he was 18. He was less than half Giles’ age, but he was a capable researcher, he fought bravely against creatures of the night, and although he complained incessantly about both the slayage and the research, Giles was quite well aware that he didn’t expect to be taken seriously. Giles wouldn’t continue to insult him, as he was conscious that he had been doing, by thinking that Xander was anything other than adult and capable of making his own decisions. If he was old enough to choose to put himself in danger of death or worse, he was old enough to decide whose bed he wanted to be in. Strictly speaking, Giles ought to warn him off: he had no illusions about what Snyder would think of the librarian entering into a relationship with a student. Not, he thought, that there was much to fear in that. Xander was capable of discretion regarding demons and vampires so he was certainly capable of discretion regarding sex with his school librarian. And on the question of Xander before his birthday, Giles’ conscience was clear. He hadn't thought about Xander that way, so he wasn’t going to lose sleep worrying about it. No, the only difficulty now would be in finding some means of reopening negotiations with Xander himself.
When it came to personal interaction, Watchers and Slayers tended to fall into two camps. Some refused to enter into relationships at all, because their lives were filled with peril and they might be dead tomorrow. Others grabbed at every possible contact, intellectual, emotional or physical, for precisely the same reason. Giles had tried both and thought that there wasn’t a damn thing to choose between them. He had no problem with the idea of a relationship with Xander, not now that he’d had a chance to think about it, and now that he had established to his own satisfaction that it was something Xander wanted. If Xander hadn't wanted it, Giles wouldn’t have wanted it either. He knew something about wanting what you couldn’t have, and having what you didn’t want, and the idea of getting from somebody something that they didn’t want to give you made him shudder. And now he had to stop thinking in bloody circles about who wanted what and to move on to how to arrange for them to get it.
Nothing useful came to him. He couldn’t go to Xander and say “Hey, I heard what you said, and it sounds like a good idea.” He couldn’t start with “I know I sounded horrified a week ago but I’ve had a chance to think about it and I’ve changed my mind.” Some conversations were better not held out loud, ever. Somehow, he had to get Xander on board, preferably without using any words at all, and ideally with Xander thinking that it was all his own doing.
He spent most of the next week trying to engineer a meeting with Xander and failing. Xander came to the research parties, and out on patrol, but somehow there was always someone else close by. Xander wouldn’t quite catch Giles’ eye. He answered politely, if Giles spoke to him; he never addressed Giles. If he wanted the answer to a question, he threw it out generally or aimed it at Willow, even when he must have been aware that she didn't know the answer and that Giles, of course, did. He was never the first to arrive, nor the last to leave; he only went into the stacks when they were all retrieving books, and then he followed Buffy or Willow, making a joke about being their pack-animal, staying close.
To begin with, he was simply not where Giles wanted him to be, but Giles saw him realise that Giles wanted to get him apart from the others and refuse to allow it to happen. After two days Giles was wondering blackly if Xander's experience with hyenas gave him an unfair advantage when it came down to seeing off the predator who was trying to separate him from the herd. He could hear a whispered commentary at the back of his mind, in the unmistakeable accents of David Attenborough. It wasn’t helping. He was sure that it was wasn’t helping.
He wasn’t sure about Buffy and Willow. They had been slower than Xander to pick up what he was trying to do, but once they did realise, they circled Xander and drove him towards Giles, who mentally rolled his eyes. Buffy had always had the subtlety of a Chieftain tank, and Willow, although capable of more by way of craft and guile, had such a strong bond with Xander that she struggled to reconcile her desire to have Xander helped – and even with nothing expressed between them, it seemed that she believed Giles’ intention was to help and trusted him to get it right – with her predisposition to be on Xander's side, to back him up in what he wanted, even when his friends (and Giles counted himself in that group) had other interests. She couldn’t bring herself to choose; as a result, half her time was dedicated to driving Xander towards Giles and the remainder to helping him escape.
In any event, none of it helped. Xander displayed a skill at ducking and weaving that amused and impressed Giles. He would have been much more amused and impressed if the ducking and weaving had been aimed at somebody else.
A little later he too abandoned subtlety completely.
“Xander? I, I think we, I would like, can you, I want to talk to you, please.” Not one of his more intelligible statements, he had to admit. Always the bloody same: the more he wanted to keep everything smooth and discreet, the more he stammered and hesitated and generally sounded like an idiot. Still, he got the phrase out in the end, for all the good it did him. Twice, Xander slipped away, once avoiding giving any answer, and once refusing the encounter. The third time, Giles struck neatly beneath the belt, making the request in school, in front of both Willow and Buffy, for a meeting immediately after school ended for the afternoon. That, he thought, would leave Xander too tight for time to arrange to be somewhere else. Buffy’s gaze was fulminating; Willow’s was sympathetic; Xander plainly saw that he was outgunned. His face darkened, but when Giles, with a glance at the girls, suggested that Xander should come back to the library at the final bell, Xander set his jaw, let his hair swing over his eyes to hide some emotion, and agreed.
Then he walked out into the hall, smiled brightly at Principal Snyder, and said something Giles didn’t catch. By the time Giles made it out of the library, Xander was apparently under arrest; somehow Giles was unsurprised to discover that his appointment with Xander had been overtaken by Snyder’s desire for Xander's attendance in detention. Giles made a desperate attempt to rally by exchanging detention supervision duty with Miss Lancaster, but it didn’t help: Xander appeared with thirty seconds to spare, and was gone by the time Giles had risen from his chair after dismissing the students.
Well, if that was where unsubtlety got Giles, he would have to go for plain blatancy. The next time they were all due to gather in the library, Giles slipped in last and set his back to the door. “Xander, when we’ve finished here, I want to talk to you. In private. Tonight. No more running. No hiding. No more avoiding me.”
Xander looked from Giles to Oz and opened his mouth; Giles cut in again. “It’s all right, there’s no need for you to worry about inconveniencing Oz. We won’t ask him to wait. You can spend the night at mine or I’ll take you home if you’d rather. Or I’ll drop you at Willow’s or anywhere else you want to go. After we’ve talked.”
Wesley’s eyes were wide, and slightly amused – he plainly thought that Xander was in trouble and he wasn’t sorry; Faith’s head was cocked to one side and she looked enquiringly at Buffy, who refused to catch her eye. Xander set his gaze at something past Giles’ ear. “I don’t think...”
“Oh, I do,” Giles assured him blandly. “I won't keep you long, but I do need to talk to you.”
“Giles, it’s not really a good time. I wasn’t exactly planning to hang around later. Got... got stuff to do, yeah? Maybe do this another time? Can’t really stay late. I’d allowed research time, yeah, but, well... Another time, hey, Giles?”
Giles, who was beginning to enjoy himself, shook his head and smiled benignly. “I’m sorry, that doesn’t suit me. But not to worry. The research has gone really well this week; we’re ahead of schedule. We can afford to be flexible on the timetable. If you’ve allowed yourself just the research time, we’ll use that. The rest of you, if you want to, to, to go, we’ll give ourselves a night off. All work and no play and all that... Anyway, I’m, I’m sure you can all think of something you would rather do than research... Wesley, that includes you. You know that regular breaks are, are important to allow you to maintain concentration. Perhaps you could patrol with Faith and Buffy? Then you would all have it finished early.”
Buffy and Willow were already on their feet; Wesley pursed his lips, but he nodded; Faith had the expression of someone who knew that something was going on that she didn’t understand; Oz simply looked amused and turned an enquiring glance on Willow, who snatched up the book in front of her and bolted for the stacks; two minutes later the door banged behind Faith and silence settled over the library again. Xander, his face sullen, his hair swinging into his eyes, found his tongue before Giles could line up his first sentence.
“Did they put you up to this? Buffy and Willow? Have they been telling you I want to... I need to talk to somebody? Because it isn’t true. I told them that I had some... some guy things to... that it was... and they wanted me... Buffy thought I should talk to you. Has she been... Did she say something to you?”
Giles chose his words with some care. He wasn’t going to lie to Xander. Not lie, precisely.
“Neither Buffy nor Willow has said anything to me about you.” It was all in the prepositions.
Xander glowered again. “Good.” There was a moment’s silence; plainly if Giles wasn’t going to start the conversation, Xander wasn’t either. Giles backed up to a desk and propped himself against it; he considered Xander. Now that Giles had persuaded – had caught him, he could afford to look at him properly and...
He blinked, startled. “I, I beg your pardon?”
“You were staring. Have I got something on my face?” Xander scrubbed a hand nervously across his mouth, which still looked uncomfortably tight.
“I... no. I’m sorry, Xander, I was just... I haven’t really looked at you recently, have I? You’ve changed.”
Xander looked away, uncertainly. “Don’t think so.”
“Oh, I do. You, you grew up, and I missed it. That was careless of me. It, it caught me by surprise, and I didn’t handle it well.”
Xander wrinkled his nose; Giles thought that he was teetering between hurt and offence, seasoned with suspicion at the way Giles was acknowledging his right to be hurt and offended. Neither of them, it seemed, knew quite where to go next. Giles found his hands full, as usual, of handkerchief and spectacles; Xander fidgeted nervously from foot to foot. One thing was plain: Xander was absolutely not going to open the conversation. If they were to make any progress, Giles had to drive it – and he had no idea at all of how to make that happen. He had exhausted himself in getting Xander present and everybody else absent; unfortunately it appeared that he had forgotten to plan where they were going after that.
“Xander, I, I wanted to talk to you because I, because, I wanted, I thought, because, oh bloody buggering hell!” He thought that Xander's mouth twitched, but then Xander had always found it amusing when Giles reverted to English expressions of annoyance. He smiled back, deprecatingly, but Xander's eyes flicked away again, and Giles sighed. “God, Xander, I wish... I wish...”
“Don’t,” snapped Xander bitterly. “Don’t wish, Giles. We already know where that gets us, yeah? Creepy Willow biting people? And yeah, I know, creepy Xander biting people too. Bad stuff. And even when there isn’t an incredibly pissed vengeance demon making the wishing go all wiggy... when it’s just ordinary wishing, it doesn’t work, not to give you any of the things you really want. I guess wishing is just pointless. Done enough if it to know that. It doesn’t work.”
And suddenly Giles could see where to go. He settled his glasses carefully on his nose and gave Xander his best patented Oxford don look. “Well, I appreciate that it’s an unreliable way to, to, to clear your personal agenda, to tick off your To Do list, but I think that you’re being a bit unreasonable, you know. Wishing is, is something of a blunt instrument, I grant you, but I, I’ve had some success with it.” He offered the hook as delicately as he could, dancing the feather across in front of Xander's nose, and trying not to disturb the water.
“Yeah, well, I haven’t. Don’t get good results from wishing.”
Giles shook his head disapprovingly. “That suggests to me that you’ve missed some part of the ritual.”
Xander frowned, interested despite himself. “The... ritual?”
“The wishing ritual. Casual wishes, no, I grant you, they won’t work. But ritualised wishing? It ought to, if you’re doing it right.”
“Rit... ritualised wishing?”
“Well, yes. I mean, you made a wish on your birthday, didn’t you? And did it come true?”
Xander's expression darkened into suspicion again, and he glanced over his shoulder at the door, but Giles kept his own face set in mild interest, and waited.
“No,” said Xander flatly. “It didn’t.”
“And you know, the most likely explanation for that is that you didn’t complete the ritual properly.”
“The ritual,” observed Xander, still flatly. “You think I got the ritual wrong.”
“Well, not wrong, precisely. I think it most likely that you missed something. Left something out.”
Xander's shoulders lifted a little and dropped again. “Go on,” he said, unwillingly interested, and plainly not at all sure how seriously he should be taking Giles, who smiled blandly at him.
“Well, we talked about this a few days ago, didn’t we? Willow was, was asking me about British traditions. I’ll admit, I was thinking about the differences between American traditions and the ones I know, but I didn’t carry it any further than that. It didn’t occur to me that there might be a difficulty consequent on leaving either ritual incomplete.”
Xander looked doubtful. Giles gave him the bland smile again. “What did we do that wasn’t what you were expecting? Or what did we not do? Gifts, cards, pizza... A gathering of celebrants... We played silly games. Buffy had brought those, those exploding plastic things. Um, when I was a child, we only used to take home cake afterwards, but I believe party bags have rather expanded since my day. I, I don’t think we did those, did we? Perhaps we ought to have done?”
Xander shook his head. “Most kids give them up about the time they start going to the movies or out for pizza rather than having a proper party. Wouldn’t expect them for somebody’s 18th.”
“Well, then, what? General expressions of goodwill, we had those, and cake, with candles, and the obligatory singing of Happy Birthday to You.” He paused, provocatively, and Xander was duly provoked.
“So what do you reckon we missed?”
Giles put on his most reasonable librarian-and-researcher expression. “Did you ever get your birthday spanking?”
Xander froze; Giles saw him swallow hard before he spoke, and it was plain that he had begun to understand where Giles was taking this. Giles refused to relax; Xander had been emotionally insecure for ten days: if he fell on the side of offence, of insult, there would be nothing more that Giles could do. Xander had to be willing, had to be generous enough to allow Giles to save them both. They stared at each other for a long moment; Xander's tongue flickered over his lower lip. “You said you didn’t do that in England.”
“No more we do, but we aren’t in England,” Giles pointed out, unarguably. “Of course, if somebody else... Did anybody else?”
Xander, speechless, shook his head slowly; Giles smiled at him, gently and approvingly, and with the expression he knew he wore when they, as a group, solved some problem of translation, or revelation, or comprehension. “Well, there you are,” he said, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world. “I expect that explains it. I do apologise, Xander. I had been thinking of the whole thing from the point of view of the outsider. Because my rituals are different, it didn’t occur to me that I might be interfering with yours. Stupid of me. Thoughtless. I should have known better.” He smiled encouragingly. “Mind you, it probably isn’t irrecoverable. At least, I have to admit that I don’t know how, how time sensitive the whole ritual is, but we could make an argument that, that any time within six months of your birthday would do it.”
He barrelled on regardless. “Now I appreciate that as a general rule you might just be inclined to let it drop. Some birthdays are more, more significant than others. I, you, in England we would be looking at 16, 18, 21, maybe 40 and probably every 10 years after... well, anyway. Your significant dates are probably different, though.”
“18 is important here too,” said Xander, a little too loudly.
Giles nodded, seriously. “I’m always suspicious of incomplete ritual, Xander. Sometimes, it just ebbs away. Sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t even hazard a guess about this. I wouldn’t imagine that... Well, it’s up to you. Let it go, if you want. Or if you want, if you think you want to finish the ritual, we could, we could...”
Xander's tongue touched the centre of his lower lip; Giles could see his uncertainty but he had to stop there. He had to let Xander... he couldn’t just push. He could only hold out the possibility, show himself willing. Xander had to take it. Or not. Already Giles was skating along the edge of the law, of conventional morality. The final decision had to belong to Xander. He eased himself back onto the desk behind him, and turned a little, hooking his right knee over the corner. Then he looked back at Xander. The invitation was there.
“You... wanna?” That last word was half choked. “I mean... I guess... hell. If you’re just... Do you want...?”
Ah. It seemed Xander's issues with consent were much the same as Giles’. “I want you to have whatever you want. Whatever you wish for. If you’re still wishing for it, that is. If you haven’t changed your mind.”
That was apparently enough. Xander stepped forward, close enough to touch, touching, and laid his chest down the length of the table, hips canted up over Giles’ thigh. Giles was quick to touch back, to rest a hand above his waist, but whether he was reassuring Xander or himself he couldn't have told.
“Now,” he pronounced seriously, “in England we would count one per year and one for luck.”
Xander twisted to look over his shoulder. “You said you didn’t do this in England!”
“Well, we don’t,” agreed Giles, “but actually I can remember being given the bumps – lifted off the floor by a group of friends and bounced on my arse, usually with an adult or two to oversee and prevent hospitalisation if they dropped me, and we counted that way. You don’t...?”
“Not one for luck,” Xander contradicted. “One to grow on.”
“A distinction without a difference,” agreed Giles, his right hand kneading at Xander's spine. “I think we can take that as the approved technique.” He was beginning to enjoy himself – to allow himself to enjoy himself. He snapped his fingers lightly in front of Xander's face. “Eyes front, then. Count for me. Count aloud.” He felt Xander shiver, and smiled. Time enough for games later. Possibilities opened in front of them, and Giles planned on exploring all of them. “Ready?”
Xander trembled, perhaps eyeing possibilities of his own, and nodded wordlessly – and Giles brought his hand down firmly. Xander jumped, and a breathless “oh!” broke from him. Giles waited, and Xander squirmed briefly. “One.”
Giles smacked him again, a little lower, a little harder. “Two.” A little harder again, and again. He was trying to find the point at which he was just making Xander flinch. Not hurting him – that might be for another time if Xander turned out to be interested in such things – but just providing a little heat, a little sting. It would be easier on bare skin, but he hadn't liked to push so far. Hadn't been sure enough.
He had it by the time Xander's voice said “seven”, accompanied by a decided rock of the hips. Xander was beginning to push up to Giles’ hand as well as jolting away. Giles’ could feel every impact from his fingertips to the pit of his stomach, and lower. He struck and Xander rocked. “Fourteen.” It was a breathy whimper. Giles leaned over, his left hand curving possessively around Xander's arse, rubbing slowly, his right hand sliding to grip Xander's shoulder. His breath stirred the fine hairs on the back of Xander's neck when he spoke, low and purring.
“That’s wrong, you know. That was fifteen. Another time, if you make a mistake like that, I’ll make you start again from one and I’ll add something to the tally for carelessness.” His fingertips slipped easily over the sweet curve and burrowed between Xander's thighs, eliciting a soft mewling cry. He pressed the fabric seam and Xander bucked. “Fifteen! Giles, fifteen!”
“That’s better,” Giles approved, amused – and aroused. He drew his fingers out, slowly, keeping the pressure on until the last second, and Xander squirmed again.
“Harder. Please, harder.”
He let his hand fall lightly, and the squirm was impatient.
“Count it, Xander.”
“Sixteen! And it’s not fair!”
He laughed aloud, and smacked harder; Xander groaned. “Seventeen.” He rubbed, and Xander arched his back enticingly. Giles obliged him, his hand coming down with a solid thwack. “Ah! Eighteen!”
“And one for luck.”
“One to grow on.”
“Same thing,” grunted Giles, and put as much force as he could manage into the final blow. Xander yowled, his hips driving hard into Giles’ thigh; Giles hooked his forearm over Xander's shoulder and round to grip his chest, pulling his head up. Then he leaned close, his mouth next to Xander's ear.
“Now you make a wish. ”