"Horse head. That one. See it?" Xander pointed. He was flat on his back in a field, an impossibly green grassy field, with wildflowers and bees and somewhere over the hill, wooly sheep with black faces. He was flat on his back, stretched out alongside Giles. They both had hands behind their heads, and were looking at the clouds. They were little fluffy clouds, mixed with bigger more bulgy clouds, and they seemed to rise a hundred miles into the sky above the field. Xander was still getting used to not having depth perception, but that didn't matter looking at clouds, so far up.
Giles had assured Xander it was unlikely he'd be rained on, but he'd been wrong at least twice before on that issue. The wind gusted up today. It gave them a never-ending procession of clouds to watch, but it also meant things were changeable. That was another thing to get used to, weather that changed several times a day, not just twice a year.
"This is going to sound awful. It's probably going to sound awful because it is awful," Xander said. "But about half the time when I think about it, I realize I'm relieved she's dead. 'Cause it means I don't have to feel bad any more. Except then I do, about a million times worse than usual."
"Survivor's guilt," murmured Giles.
"But I am relieved. I was relieved not to marry her. Relieved when she died and she wasn't mad at me any more. There was no way I was going to fix things with her."
"No. Couldn't. I loved her, but I couldn't fix it."
Next to him, Giles stretched, then bent one leg. Xander could see his jeans-clad knee sticking up. "Cat," said Giles. "Pointed ears, muzzle."
"Yeah, I see it. Why didn't you show up for the wedding, anyway?"
"Ah. That's complicated. There was in fact a demon, but... I'm not sure how to explain."
Giles didn't seem inclined to go into more detail, and Xander didn't feel like pressing him.
"That one looks like a sheep. Poofy body, legs sticking out that way."
"They all look a bit like sheep."
"Be like that."
The minutes flowed by. Giles seemed not to want to do anything more strenuous than lie in this grassy field with him, so Xander let them flow. It had been like this for several months now. Giles' place in Westbury was the loose home base of the Sunnydale survivors. They would appear every couple of weeks for a day or two. Eat Giles' cooking, drink his tea, relax on his comfortable furniture. Then they'd be off again. Sightseeing in Rome, in Buffy's case. Swanning through Paris with her rich girlfriend, in Willow's.
Of the three friends, only Xander seemed disinclined to wander far from the still center of Giles' farmhouse. He had learned how to help Giles and his single hired hand with the daily chores: mucking out stalls, feeding the horses, feeding the sheep, tending animals and tack. Periodic inspection of the paddocks and fields. Giles had even had him up in the saddle a few times. He'd liked it fine. It wasn't a hobby he needed two eyes for. Unlike shooting a crossbow. He'd never be good at that again.
The work was what Xander needed right now. He'd begun losing the weight he'd gained in Sunnydale-depression, regaining muscle and some amount of physical confidence. He felt better. He wasn't sure what Giles made of it, but Xander had decided that this was what close friendship felt like. Not that it needed a label.
Dawn stayed near Giles as well, in deference to Buffy's demand that she be locked into a convent. She'd made friends in Giles' village already, and spent the day giggling with them more often than not. Dawn wanted to finish school here in England, as Giles' ward, and it seemed like she'd get her wish. The two of them were good for each other, in Xander's expert opinion.
Today was a lazy day. The two men had walked out to the field after lunch, checked on the sheep, then become distracted by clouds on the walk back. Eventually they had lain on their backs on the hillside to get a better view.
Giles pointed left. "Dragon. See the wing? Oh, it's changed already."
"Trust you to say dragon and not bird."
"Why were you relieved not to marry her?"
"Complicated. But basically... well, okay, the deal is that Anya and I had an open relationship. The whole time. She liked sex too much to stick with just me, and I, um, I liked guys too much to stick with just her. We kept it quiet. Figured nobody would understand. People might get judgmental."
Though Giles hadn't been one of the ones Xander had worried about. He'd always just rolled with whatever strange thing the gang had chosen to do this time. And he didn't seem particularly judgmental now. He said merely, "Couldn't you have continued the arrangement?"
The low cloud blowing over them now was darker than the others. Xander smelled the rain before he felt the first spatters on his face. He stood, and pulled Giles up along with him. The two men ambled toward the door of Giles' farmhouse. Neither was in much of a rush to escape the rain. It was warm rain, summer rain, gentle on Xander's hair.
"Maybe," said Xander, holding the back door for Giles. They shed their muddy boots just inside the door and stepped into the huge kitchen. Xander sometimes thought Giles lived in this room. He cooked here, ate here, sharpened his weapons on the table here. The whole house was wonderful, comfortable, intensely homey, but the kitchen was its heart.
They sat at the table. Xander put his chin on his arms and thought about how to say this. "Maybe. But I was starting to get the idea that maybe I was more into men than into women. I wasn't sure. I'm still not. I like both a lot. I couldn't figure it out, and I had been doing some intense thinking there right before the big day. I'd always labeled myself as being a straight guy with a sideline in sucking cock, pardon my French. I was shocked spitless to think that maybe I was a gay guy with a sideline in enjoying girls. I felt it wasn't going to be fair to either one of us to go through with it. Hard to know what this feels like, maybe, if you're into the one flavor."
"I do know."
Xander sat up straight. "Woah, really? You?"
"I had no idea. We only ever saw you with the chicks."
"Well, I must confess that my bisexuality is, at this point, theoretical."
"A couple of years ago, I came to realize that my... attentions were drawn to another man. It was quite alarming at first, let me assure you. Then I decided to simply accept it. To admit that one can still surprise oneself at the age of forty-five. Though it did rather explain some things. Recurring, uh-- Well."
Xander leaned his arms across the wide boards of the table. "So shocking myself at twenty-one isn't so weird."
"Goodness, no. You might be shocking yourself routinely for another decade. Longer."
Giles stood and filled the kettle. He used a match to light the ancient gas stove, with its huge burners and blackened metal top. Kettle on the burner; tea measured into the basket for the pot. Xander went to the cupboard to pull out a pair of mugs. He chose his favorites, blue stoneware. He rummaged in the drawer for a pair of battered spoons, then set them all out on the table. Giles got the milk out of the fridge. He leaned against the counter, hands braced back against the edge, while they waited for the kettle to go.
Giles was as casual as Xander had ever seen him, and that included his lost year spent watching Jeopardy. He was in baggy button-fly jeans and a rumpled t-shirt; his hair was curling over his ears, and a little green jewel seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his ear. He was more like his old self every day, and less like the shellshock victim he'd been at the start of the summer. Like they'd all been. Relaxed Giles looked a decade younger than he'd looked standing on the edge of the pit. Xander looked at him with his one eye and thought maybe he'd never really seen Giles properly when he'd had two. He was handsome, all chin and cheekbone. The sort of face that would stay handsome, so that at seventy you would look at Giles and react.
Xander found himself reacting now. Giles apparently pushed his buttons. It added to the thrill to think that Giles was interested in men but was completely inexperienced. Xander could imagine himself showing Giles how to do it. Making it more than just theoretical. But Giles deserved more than an "exchange nods, meet in the alley behind the Bronze for a quick blowjob" thing. More than a "hi, my name's Chad, I'll stay overnight, eat your omelet in the morning, then never see you again" thing. And that was all Xander had experience with. Besides the relationship with Anya, and he'd screwed that up royally.
The kettle whistled. Giles shoved himself away from the counter and took it off the flame. He poured. Xander made himself useful pulling out two of the scones he'd baked yesterday. Giles had taught him how to do that, too. He was getting good at it. Another thing he could do that didn't need depth perception. He could bake scones, and ride a horse, and read the book on Slayer physiology Giles had given him. Phase one in turning him into a Watcher, his new self.
"So you think I shouldn't feel bad?"
"Hmm." Giles poured hot water. "About the decision you made? No. It's always useful to ask if you could have handled things better, announced your decision in a better way. If you treated her as well as you could. But that choice was your right to make."
Giles' cat Milos appeared on cue, summoned by the kettle. Xander poured milk for him, then put the pitcher on the table for their tea.
Tea and scones with fresh butter, eaten at the huge wooden table in the Giles family house. Simple things, so new to Xander, childhood comforts to Giles. Giles had grown up here. Generations of Gileses had. Giles had dismissed it as a "hobby farm," had said they'd been Watchers and academics for several hundred years and kept the land just so they could have the horses a gentleman ought. His grandfather had modernized the place, so it was a mix of new and old, all of it comfortable. Giles had paid somebody to live there and maintain it while he was in Sunnydale.
There were other signs that Giles had money, but none of them mentioned it. It didn't matter. The new Council had them all on salary now. For the first time in Xander's life, money wasn't an issue. Anya would have loved it. She'd have been the Council's new CFO and been in heaven. She'd probably have irritated the hell out of him by comparing her salary to his and pointing out how much more she made.
Xander blew across the surface of his tea. "What about feeling relieved she's dead?"
"Normal part of grieving, I'm afraid. It'll pass, and you'll be able to think of her and remember the good things. We're all still mourning the year's losses, Xander. Do you remember the Council people who shut down the Magic Box that time?"
Xander laughed briefly at the memory and drank.
"They're all dead now. Every one. In the explosion. Quentin Travers, no longer a thorn in my side. I mourn him and I'm relieved at the same time."
"Harsh. Wow. I hadn't thought about--" He felt a little ashamed, that he hadn't thought about what had been going on with Giles back in the winter.
"I chose not to talk about it. There would be time for all that after we defeated the First. If we did. And--" Giles spread his hands. "Here we are. With the time."
Giles' cellphone went. He answered and immediately dove into a conversation about site inspections and demolition. The slow-motion rebuilding of the Council had begun with the dismantling of the remains of the old one. Robson had had a team sifting through the rubble for a couple of months now, attempting to recover what they could of the Council's library and artifacts. They were done; new construction would begin soon.
Giles gulped the rest of his tea, then stood. "Yes, yes, let me just verify that." He moved down the hall to his office, still talking. The kitchen windows brightened with sunlight. The rainstorm had blown over. Xander collected mugs and spoons and washed up. Then he wandered to the window and watched the moving clouds. Giles came back into the kitchen, in the middle of his goodbyes to Robson.
Xander beckoned him over. "Vampire. Ridged forehead, one fang. Check it." It really did look like a fang.
Giles came up close behind him to look. He laughed. The two men stood and watched the cloud slowly shift in the wind, moving across the sky. Xander was conscious of Giles standing close behind him, warm and solid. Present. Reassuring. Proof that survival was possible. And reconstruction. Giles had been through some stuff, far worse than what Xander had. And here he was.
Xander turned partway and leaned a shoulder against the window. Giles stepped forward and pulled the window open a few inches. "Hey. Why'd you let things stay theoretical?"
"Oh, you mean, ah. Well. I never said anything to the, um, object of my, uh." Giles broke off and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.
"And he was the only guy you've been interested in?"
"Only person I've had feelings for in the last few years, yes." He was now staring fixedly outside the window.
"But you said nothing."
"At the time I believed him to be both straight and in a relationship. So no, I said nothing."
"At the time?"
"I learned, uh, quite recently, that my affections might be, n-not unwelcome. One of my assumptions turns out to have been wrong. So perhaps we-we might... If he could be interested in someone so much older than he." Giles looked steadily at Xander for a few breaths, then returned his gaze to the window.
Xander didn't even consider pretending not to understand him. This was one of those moments where everything came together in a perfect coherent picture, for a few seconds looking exactly like a sheep or a cat. Several things about the last few years made sense now. And the last couple of months, why Giles had just accepted him without question.
He considered pretending to think it over. But really he'd made his decision in that first second. Time for reconstruction, relationships, relaxation.
"Yeah, I think he could be. A little surprised, but... interested."
Giles grinned, just a flash, a wide grin that lit the room for a moment. Then he flushed, and looked down. "Oh! Well, um."
"He knows you pretty well. And thinks you're swell."
"Flattered, I'm sure," said Giles, drily.
Xander nudged him with a shoulder. Giles cleared his throat, then slipped an arm around Xander, a bit awkwardly. Xander leaned forward, and kissed him. He responded tentatively, then Xander eased back. Giles' hands were trembling.
"Yes. I-- just nerves. Theory becoming practice."
"Hey, man, no rush. We have all the time in the world." And they did, for once. For now. Xander pulled Giles's arms around his waist, then turned and leaned back against his chest.
The clouds were still scudding past. Xander pointed. "That one looks like a dog. Floppy-ears kind."
Giles' chest shook against his back for a moment, and Xander felt breath on his ear from Giles' silent laugh. "If you're daft, it does."
Continued in Slow Rise