Xander made it all the way to sixth period before he collapsed. And he didn’t collapse, exactly, nothing so unmanly. He maneuvered himself to a library study table chair before he let the dizzies get to him. He let his forehead come down on the table itself more gently. His forehead would explode if he wasn’t careful, because it was stuffed with gunpowder. Sometime in the last hour, his throat had begun to feel like the aftermath of an accident with cactus needles. It had felt like that when he woke up in the morning, if Xander were honest. Though he hadn’t been when Willow had asked him if he was okay. Because if he said he wasn’t, he’d be back home where the fresh quart of vodka was. Only by now it wouldn’t be so fresh. It’d be half-gone, he guessed.
“Xander! You look like hell.”
Xander opened an eye and saw tweed.
“Always with the compliments from you. It’s enough to turn a guy’s head.” Then he regretted saying so many words. His throat wasn’t up to it. Needles. The fine fuzzy kind that looked all soft and friendly until suddenly there were four million of them in your skin.
“What’s the trouble?”
Xander shrugged. “Head cold?”
“You ought to go home.”
That alarmed Xander enough that he sat up. “No! No. I’m fine here,” he said, willing his throat to cooperate and make the words come out sounding un-hoarse. If he showed a moment’s weakness, they’d be on him. But the room did the spinning thing again and Xander had to brace his hands on the table to keep himself in his chair.
Giles laid a hand over his forehead. His fingers were like ice cubes. Xander shivered. “You’re burning up,” he said, and Xander was probably imagining the accusation in his voice.
If you showed a single sign of weakness, the hyenas would eat you. Not that Giles was hyenoidal, but he was over thirty. Xander couldn’t trust him. The hand went away. Xander whimpered and pulled his sweatshirt hood up over his head. Giles hovered and eventually emitted a harrumphing noise. He vanished into his office and Xander heard his voice talking to somebody. His parents? Then the phone clicked down.
“Nurse says she has an office full of cases like you.”
“Is this Hellmouthy?” Xander said, pulling out his hole card.
“It’s just the flu, Xander. Going round earlier this year than usual. Might as well stay here.”
Xander mumbled something that even he wasn’t sure made sense. He rested his head on his folded arms and let himself zone out. He dozed through the last two periods, through the noise of Buffy training with the bo staff and the quiet of Willow studying Latin. Then the library went hushed enough that Xander mostly woke up again. Giles, even quieter than Willow, was moving around his office. Xander heard the sound of the office door closing, and the jangle of Giles’s keys. Shoes clicking on the floor, and Giles’s hand on his shoulder again, for an instant.
“Xander? It’s time to go home.”
Xander didn’t lift his head. “Leave me your office key. I’ll sack out on the floor.”
Giles sighed. “Xander–”
“If you don’t trust me with the key you can just lock me in.”
“I meant my home.”
“Oh.” Xander sat up and pushed the hood off so he could see. He was still cold and the room was still not entirely stable. Giles took Xander’s bookbag from the table, but he made no move to offer it to Xander. Instead he slung it over his own shoulder and stood looking expectantly at him. Giles’s house. Okay. Xander had slept on that sofa before, and had learned the fun way that Giles could cook. Not that he felt in the least hungry. He hauled himself up and did a balancing act on the tilty floor. It was like the one jetplane ride Xander had taken, back to see some cousins on the east coast. There’d been turbulence, or so they’d called it. Turbulence in the hallway, tossing the school around under his feet. Xander wondered where the barf bag was.
Giles’s apartment was Xander’s third favorite place in the world. Number two was the library. Number one was the place behind the bushes at the very back of Willow’s yard. He hadn’t been able to crawl through the branches to get inside it for a couple of years now, but it was always there in his head as a just-in-case place. It turned out that Giles’s place was also good for just-in-cases, though Xander was careful not to over-use it. Giles had only so much patience for people who were not named Buffy, and most of that seemed to be used up on Willow with about zilch left over for Xander. Which made this whole gig weirder than weird.
Xander performed an emergency landing on the couch and curled his hands inside his sweatshirt sleeves. Warmer that way. He watched Giles do what had to be his usual gyrations around the flat. Keys in the bowl by the door. Tie knot tugged down, jacket over the back of the desk chair, vest unbuttoned. Giles sorted out his mail, then seemed to notice Xander again.
“Ought I to ring your parents?” he said, hand already reaching for the phone.
“They’re not home,” Xander said, quickly. “Left for Vegas for the weekend. Gamble away my inheritance, you know the deal. Greyhound straight to bankruptcy.”
Too many words. Xander’s throat was sorry now. Then he realized he’d forgotten whatever he’d told Giles earlier. He watched in as much terror as a flu-stricken boy was capable of as Giles’s hand continued to hover over the big black phone on his desk. Then Giles smiled in a way Xander couldn’t interpret at all, because it wasn’t exactly a nice smile, but then a second later it was gone.
“Right. Let’s get you settled,” he said, in that mild voice he used when he was being extra-careful with Willow sometimes. Xander didn’t think he’d ever heard Giles use it with him. Giles used Annoyed Voice, Out of Patience Voice, and Sarcastic Voice.
Giles piled pillows on one end of the couch. Xander let himself go blissfully horizontal on them. Clean pillowcases. Crisp and nice-smelling. Giles probably had a linen closet with actual linen in it. A blanket appeared over him while he was still grooving on soft pillows. Warm and just heavy enough that he felt he was underneath something. He gripped the blanket and tugged it all the way up to his chin. Warm. Light but warm. Xander rubbed his face against it. His skin felt weird, hypersensitive and yucky, but the blanket wasn’t to blame.
“It’s not scratchy,” Xander said.
“The blanket. Not scratchy.” Giles’s face had an expression that translated to ‘well duh’, so Xander went on. “Rule of blankets. Warm ones are always itchy and scratchy and heavy. Not this one. Must be made of some alien substance. Anti-blanket.”
“Right,” said Giles, in Humoring the Madman Voice, which ought to have been on Xander’s first list of patented Giles voices. Much more reassuring than Extra-Nice Voice was, because it didn’t make him wonder if Giles had gone crazy. “You just rest. I’ll make some soup for you.”
Xander didn’t think he was going to be able to eat anything, but by “soup” Giles apparently meant really weak salty brown broth in a mug, which Xander could handle. Swallowing the aspirin was not so fun, because his throat felt even more like it was lined with cactus needles. But Giles insisted, so Xander did it, and then there was something that looked like candy but tasted like metal that Giles said would make his throat feel better. And it did, though Xander wasn’t sure cherry-coated numb was good in an objective sense. He shut his eyes while he thought about “better” versus “good”.
Xander woke up a few hours later to a dark apartment and the sweats. His t-shirt was soaked through. He dragged himself into the bathroom to mop off his face. The light was on in the bathroom and a pair of pajamas was laid over the edge of the bath. Xander stared at them, wondering why Giles had forgotten his pjs. He stole a squirt of Giles’s toothpaste and rubbed his teeth with an index finger. That was all he had the energy for. He found his way back to the couch, wrapped himself in an alien blanket cocoon, and fell asleep again.
Giles was talking at him, muttering something about how he’d take the day off to be home with Xander if he needed it. Xander forced his eyes open and tried to wake up. Good as Giles’s hand felt on his forehead, checking his temperature again, the idea of concentrated Giles-attention all day long made him all panicky. He protested as loudly as his throat would let him, which wasn’t very.
“Be fine,” he said, or croaked.
“If you’re sure.”
“Sure,” Xander said, or tried to anyway.
Giles took a book out of his pocket, a small hardcover. He stuck a finger into it, and shuffled pages for a moment. Xander remembered Buffy arming herself for a patrol: stake in the purse, in the jacket pocket, in the side of her white vinyl boots. He imagined Giles arming himself exactly the same way, with books instead of stakes. Paperback in his boot, just in case. Xander giggled, then groaned and curled around himself. His skin felt weird.
“Some light reading, if you feel up to it.”
Giles stuck the book on the coffee table, next to the glass of OJ and the aspirin bottle. Reading. Not Xander’s idea of sick day entertainment.
“TV?” he croaked, hopefully.
Giles shook his head. “Take aspirin every few hours if you remember. More lozenges there. Tissue box. Ring me at the library number if you need anything.”
The door closed behind Giles and the apartment went completely silent. Not completely, Xander amended. Somewhere a clock was ticking and the fridge was humming in the kitchen. A day at home, with everybody gone. Normally the TV would be blaring over everything. Xander reached for the book. The Hobbit. Apparently Giles thought he was into children’s books. Xander read the description of the author on the jacket, then put it back on the table. He wondered if Giles really had no television, and how he was going to survive being sick without cartoons and M*A*S*H reruns.
He closed his eyes to ponder this, opened them a few hours later to pop more aspirin, then closed them again because he still couldn’t decide what to do. Was he asleep? Jesse was there, only he was a vampire in a big black coat and Buffy was dating him. She wasn’t going to go out with him, she told Xander, until she’d dated every single vampire on the Hellmouth first. And then Jesse bit her and this time Xander didn’t have a stake.
Xander woke up in a panic. He was all sweaty again, and the room was pitch black. He thought about getting up to turn on lights, but decided it could wait until he next had to get up for the bathroom. Assuming he lived so long. The OJ was long gone; had he drunk it? Probably. Every single part of his body hurt. His bones had been replaced by ground glass. There was no way this wasn’t Hellmouthy.
Banging at the doorway, a mild oath, and Giles was coming in the door with his arms full of brown paper bags. The light went on and Xander wrapped an arm around his head. His eyes had been replaced by, by-- Xander ran out of metaphors. His throat hurt too much.
Xander waved and pointed at his throat and shook his head. Pantomime sick guy.
Giles carried his groceries into the kitchen and came back with a fresh glass of OJ. Xander could barely hold the glass. Swallowing hurt, but the juice tasted perfect. Vitamin C. Giles made him take some cold medicine with it, then put the medicine package down on the coffee table next to the book and the aspirin.
Giles stood next to the couch and loomed over Xander. “I rang your parents this morning,” he said. “I had a most unsatisfactory conversation with your mother.”
Xander got very interested in the pulp clinging to the side of his OJ glass. Hiding his head under the blankets would probably be too little kiddish, so he didn’t do that, but not having to look at Giles’s face just then was nice. It was all stony and dangerous-looking. Was Giles mad he’d lied about his parents? Well, duh.
“Xander–” Then Giles shook his head and once again his face was what Xander was used to. He took the glass away from Xander and said, in Sarcastic Voice, “What do Americans eat when they’re sick? I was led to believe that peanut butter is your cure-all. Surely not.”
“Chicken soup,” Xander tried to say, but failed. Peanut butter, forsooth. The one thing he knew about being sick is that chicken soup was supposed to be involved. Or cough syrup with codeine. He’d heard good things about that.
“Would you like some dinner?”
Xander shook his head. Hunger, his faithful companion for the last few years, had ditched him totally for some other guy. He made a drinking motion.
Giles shoved his hands into his pockets and took them out again a few times. “Oh. Ah. Right then.”
He vanished into the kitchen and Xander heard clanking and running water. Then the sound of a man singing softly to himself, snatches of things, lines of a song Xander had heard on the radio before a million times but couldn’t place. In a bit he came out with another mug full of that broth, which was just about the only thing in the world Xander could cope with. Giles ate dinner sitting in his armchair next to the couch while Xander drank his broth. Practically the same thing as chicken soup. Salty. Hot.
The humiliation phase came after dinner, when Giles whisked the blanket away.
“Bath,” he said. “You’ll feel better. And I can wash that shirt.” Giles pointed at the sleeve, where Xander had maybe wiped his nose a couple of times when he couldn’t get to the tissues in time.
Xander opened his mouth to protest, then closed it. Talking wasn’t so good with the cactus needles. But he felt like a little kid, dragged into the bath and unceremoniously dunked. How could Giles respect him as a guy now that he’d drawn Xander a bath? But his shirt was seriously gross. It wasn’t unmanly to admit that.
Giles helped him up and propped him up with a hand under his elbow all the way to the bathroom. He poured something into the water, something that looked like little rocks. Pop rocks. They made the water fizz and turn faintly green. Xander eyed it suspiciously, but it smelled manly enough that he decided not to complain.
“Oh. The pajamas are for you.”
Giles closed the bathroom door behind himself. Xander peeled off his clothes. Dried sweat, weird-smelling. Fevers were weird, from the dreams to the strange way your sweat smelled to the way your skin felt like it was going to peel off, move to LA, and start a hair metal band without you.
Giles’s tub was pretty big and Xander let the water run until he was covered all the way up to his neck. He finally felt warm enough, with the water almost hot enough to hurt. He floated for a long time, soaking in the heat, daydreaming about a house with this bathtub in it and parents who noticed that you needed to be fussed over. Buffy’s mom was like this too, according to Buffy’s complaints about being treated like she was ten instead of sixteen.
Giles’s pajamas were also big, as in too long in the arms and too wide in the shoulders, but fortunately the pants had a drawstring. They were also as much like Xander’s pajamas as that blanket was like the blankets on his bed. This was what flannel felt like when it had been to heaven and come back all transfigured and glowing. How did Giles make this stuff happen? How’d he have perfect pajamas? Xander had been doing his own laundry for a while, and it never came out like this. Adults knew something he didn’t about how life worked.
Wrapped in flannel heaven, Xander shuffled out of the bathroom. He felt almost human again and he had enough energy to sit on the couch instead of collapsing. This bath thing had been a good idea.
Giles handed him a mug and held on until Xander had both hands around his. Xander bent his head and breathed in. Fresh tea, the mug wonderfully warm in his hands. Xander tasted cautiously. Sweet, milky, aromatic, about as unlike the paint-stripping Lipton his mother drank sometimes as to make him wonder if they were the same thing. Xander had another sip, because it made his throat feel better not worse. There was honey at the bottom of the mug. He used his finger to get that, then looked up guiltily to see if Giles was making disapproval-face at him. But Giles had his back turned to Xander, sitting at his desk writing something. The honey was way better than the cherry-metal numbness candies, in Xander’s opinion.
Xander cleared his throat.
“Wow. I can talk. Sorta.”
Giles capped his pen and turned a smug expression on him. “Tea. The true cure-all,” he said.
“Tea junkie,” said Xander, but in a friendly way. He was going to be a tea junkie too if this was what it tasted like. He cleared his throat again. It hurt, but it was now more or less functioning as a throat.
He fell sideways and got horizontal on the couch again. The pillows had fresh covers on them. Did Giles have a linen closet full of pillowcases?
“Giles? Don’t ever get sick.”
Giles’s shoulders shook. “I shall try not to.”
Blankets up to the chin again. Warm. Still mysteriously not scratchy. Giles wasn’t looking, so Xander rubbed his face on them. “I’d have no clue what to do.”
“It’s not that difficult.”
“How you even learn how to do it? How do you know that tea with a lot of honey in it is good for your throat? Or that soft blankets exist?”
Giles swiveled his chair around and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “One usually learns from watching one’s parents.”
“Oh.” Xander sagged. He was doomed, then. “Did your mom make you tea like this when you were sick?”
Giles fiddled with his pen. “No. My parents divorced when I was young. When I was sick at school, I went to the infirmary. Boarding school, you see.”
“So you didn’t learn from your parents.”
“I had other role models. And there was my father. He was often busy with his Slayer, but he made time for me. Though I was nearly your age by then.”
Funny to think about Giles not having a perfect childhood. Xander wondered why they got divorced, what Giles had thought about it at the time, and what life had been like at boarding school. Watcher school? Like Harry Potter, maybe. Xander thought about asking Giles for a story, but his eyes felt heavy. He closed them, and imagined that somebody was sitting next to him stroking his hair.
Breakfast was buttery toast and more honey-thickened tea. This time there was a spoon in the mug so Xander didn’t have to get his fingers sticky. He ate the toast and didn’t feel in the least like hurling, so that was good. The toast was pleasantly-scratchy on his throat instead of being sandpapery-scratchy, so that was good too. After Giles took off for school, Xander was almost restless. He could sit up for half an hour at a time without needing to power-nap. Definitely he was bored. It would be the Road Runner and Radar all the way if he were at home. He reached for the book on the coffee table in a state of complete desperation.
Xander read the first page and was gone.
He interrupted himself around lunchtime to heat up the soup Giles had left instructions for. He made toast around mid-afternoon. And then he had to stop long enough to turn on the lights in the early evening. When he heard the sound of a key in the front door, Xander put the book down reluctantly. He was just up to the part where Bilbo had a really bad cold and was making a speech with his nose stuffed. Thag you very buch. Xander could relate.
Giles came in and did his routine with jacket and keys and briefcase. He sat himself down right on the coffee table, elbows on his knees, casual and relaxed. His tie was loose and he had a faint smile on his face. He reached out and took the book from Xander’s chest and then put it back.
“Are you enjoying Tolkien?”
“Yeah, I am. Feel sorry for Bilbo, though. There he is, having a good time chilling out, blowing smoke rings, and the next thing he knows he’s got a houseful of dwarves. And then he’s fighting monsters and in constant danger.”
“And him without his pocket handkerchief,” Giles murmured.
“Total disaster for you Brits, yeah?”
“Utter. Would you like some proper dinner tonight?”
“Not really. Toast and more of that tea, maybe?” Xander waggled his eyebrows in hope. Giles looked pleased.
After dinner Giles took a shower and came out again in a different suit and tie than the one he was wearing before. He looked less nerdy than he had just half an hour ago. Xander couldn’t figure it out. Suit, tie, shoes, adding up to dressy instead of geeky. Why?
Miss Calendar appeared around seven, all dressed up, and the lightbulb went on in Xander’s head. Giles kissed her just inside the door, one hand resting on her waist and the other still in his pocket. Then he cast a glance back at Xander on the couch and blushed. But Xander’s mind was somewhere else, on a fantasy that was biting into him with sharp teeth. How old was Giles? A little older than Xander’s dad, just north of forty. Miss Calendar was too young to be his mom, probably, but close enough for fudging. No, wait, not his mom. His father’s steady girlfriend. Divorced dad? Got it. Widowed dad, because of some tragedy far in the past. The setup would be that his clumsy, stuttering father was dating again for the first time, with his wise-cracking yet lovable son giving him advice. The question was, half-hour sitcom or full hour with some drama? Xander thought sitcom was the way to go.
The leading lady had perched herself on the coffee table in the same spot Giles had earlier. Xander got a good view of a pair of lovely legs under the dark red skirt. Lucky dad. Oedipal complexes weren’t a big sitcom theme, were they?
“How’s my favorite disease vector tonight?” said a voice from somewhere above the knees.
Xander dragged his gaze up and managed a smile he hoped was charming and suitable for the wise-cracking son role. “One degree less feverish than last night,” he said.
“Mind if I take Nurse Ratched away for the evening?”
“You gotta have him back before his midnight curfew.”
“What’s it gonna be? Monster trucks? WWF wrestling?”
“Snobby made the plans tonight. That means film at the art cinema. I bet it’s going to be something with subtitles set in Iceland. Probably heavily allegorical.”
Xander made a face. Miss Calendar winked at him conspiratorially.
“Snobby has his points, you know,” she said.
“Name one.” Though of course Xander wasn’t serious.
“Well, he was pretty angry yesterday morning when he talked to your folks on the phone. Never seen him so worked up. Willow told me he broke his favorite mug by throwing it at the wall.”
Xander just stared. Giles didn’t throw things. Ever. Except maybe at Xander. Things had been thrown at Xander before. He had target experience. But Giles?
Giles came over and hovered and fidgeted with his shirt cuffs. Xander eyed him carefully. He didn’t look like he’d ever been mad in his life.
“Ready if you are, England.”
Miss Calendar stood up. Xander reached out a hand to stop her. “Why?”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
And then the apartment was quiet again. Xander sighed to himself. He was never, ever going to ask. Giles might answer, and Xander was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. Why embarrass the both of them? Guys didn’t do stuff like that. Find your role models where you can, and when he asked his inner John Wayne, he got the answer “shut up”. Not that he managed it, usually.
He dug for The Hobbit where it had fallen between the sofa cushions. Now to find out what happened next. There was supposed to be a dragon under the mountain still to go.
He was done with the book a couple hours later. He read the book jacket again, about Professor Tolkien, and found out he’d written other books. Then he saw the note in pen on the title page: this copy had been a birthday present for Giles in 1964. How old had Giles been then? Ten, maybe? He was counting years on his fingers when Giles came back into the apartment alone. Giles bolted the door and undid his tie. He came over and plunked himself down on the coffee table again. Xander shoved himself up until he was half-sitting on the pillows.
“The film was quite interesting.”
“Not spending the night with Miss C?” said Xander.
“I shall pretend I didn’t hear that question,” Giles said. “Did you finish reading?”
“Yeah.” Xander handed the book over. He could probably find the others in the library.
“What do you think of Bilbo now? Not sorry for him any more?”
“He kinda kicked it up a few notches, didn’t he? He took charge of stuff. He was a totally different hobbit by the end.”
“Gandalf would say, I think, that he was the same hobbit all along, but he just wanted the opportunity.”
“He needed somebody to rescue him from his comfy hobbit hole?”
“Say rather from the rut he was in.”
Xander shook his head. “Nah. He changed. Giving away the Arkenstone at the end was a big deal.”
“The two interpretations aren’t at odds. That potential was in him all along.”
Giles smiled at him oddly, then rested a hand on Xander’s forehead. It was just as comforting now as it had been before Xander got used to it.
“You’re on the mend,” Giles told him. “You’ll be able to go home tomorrow.”
He took his hand away from Xander’s forehead. Now Xander’s stomach had a different kind of sinking feeling in it. Turbulence ahead. Fasten seatbelts.
“Oh,” was all he said. Maybe if he exaggerated it, maybe if he had a relapse, he could stay longer. But Giles made no moves to throw him out of the house right that instant, so Xander figured he’d be safe until tomorrow morning, maybe, if he played his cards right. Safe until tomorrow.
“Oh. I nearly forgot.” Giles stood and dug into his trouser pockets. “Had these cut today. I was thinking that, that perhaps, there might be times when-- Well. Just in case.”
Giles set a key on the coffee table. Xander slid it closer to himself. It was a heavy chunky slab of metal. It had DO NOT DUPLICATE engraved on it, and a number underneath that.
“Library back door,” Giles said. He laid another key next to it, a smaller one without any fancy markings. “The front door of my flat. Rather not have you sitting at the back door waiting for thrushes to knock. Yes?”
“Would save me having to burgle you,” said Xander, and then he had to blow his nose, and that was totally the cold or whatever it was and nothing unmanly in the slightest.