Giles was whittling stakes, seated on a stool with a box to catch the shavings between his feet. Xander was across the little attic room at the desk he’d made for Giles from an un-hung door. He was wading through the household mail, slogging through a three-week backlog. It had turned out that Andrew, so handy in the kitchen, had not been the right choice for secretarial duties. His method of coping with bills the household had no money to pay had been to hide them in the breadbox. Buffy had had to restrain Giles from strangling Andrew when he’d discovered this. His manicotti earned him forgiveness, she said, and so Giles had relented.
Use the right weapon for the job, Buffy’d said. Which did not satisfactorily answer the question of why it was Xander sorting mail and Giles whittling stakes. Xander had insisted he needed to learn these skills, and that it made a nice change from sanding wood. Giles, who could keep books and file records while half-asleep, consented, and took the wood-working tools into his own hands.
It was soothing, perhaps more soothing than keeping books would have been. The shavings smelled good, sharp and resinous. Xander had found pine scraps for this batch.
“Hey. Giles. This one’s for you.” Giles turned. Xander was holding a large manila envelope. “From your mother country. Financial, but without the shape and form of a bill or a desperate last notice.”
Xander scraped his chair back and padded over the bare floorboards to him. He handed over the envelope; yes, from Bath, from his lawyer there. Giles extracted the packet of papers through the neat slit along the end. He sorted through and found the summary paper, read it. Then read it again. He let the packet rest on his knees and took his glasses off for a good polish until he could calm himself.
Xander hovered anxiously near Giles’s stool. “Not a bill?”
Giles re-perched the glasses on his nose, once again serene. “Far from a bill. The insurance payout for the last of my property in England.”
“Insurance? What happened?”
“It blew up,” Giles said, simply. “A year ago. I was supposed to be at home at the time, I believe. Instead I was on a demon hunt that had run late, and so I lived. The Bringers killed my retriever, my horse, and the caretaker Markham, who was a perfectly decent fellow I’d known since I was a boy. And incidentally burned everything I owned.”
“Man. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Xander fell silent, and let a hand rest on Giles’s shoulder.
Dates, addresses, monetary values listed on the paper in front of him, a dry recitation of loss. Giles remembered a call coming in on his mobile, vibrating in his pocket, and his irritated fumble to turn the thing off so he could concentrate on setting up the demon-trap. He’d merely deferred by a few hours the beginning, for him, of the war against the First. The first shock, notable for that reason, but not the worst one. Not by a long chalk. The conversations with the dead that had followed had been worse. He looked up, and saw Xander contemplating him, his face entirely solemn. A rare sight. It made Giles uncomfortable.
“You seriously need to talk more about yourself, Giles.”
Giles ignored that remark. Shows of emotion weren’t his style, and they’d shared enough of the misery of the last year. No need to wallow, Giles felt. Let time wear the memories away.
“It’s long over,” he said. “One carries on. The point is, we have cash now.”
“Enough to invest and live on?”
“No, but I believe… enough to start a small business. And a cushion in case of disasters, if I invest wisely.”
Xander squeezed his shoulder and let go. “Magic Box Two, Electric Boogaloo!”
“Perhaps. I was thinking more of a martial arts studio. Specializing in exotic weaponry. And employing as its head instructor a lovely and deadly woman. I should think young men would pay extra for the privilege of learning saber from her, wouldn’t you?”
“Aha, you are clever, sir, so very clever and fiendish! Because I too have seen the Buffster’s work uniform. And something has to be done.”
Giles sighed. He wanted Buffy back at university, but until this moment they’d been in straits too desperate to refuse any contribution. Most of the Slayers were still in school, and unable to assist with more than chores. Xander was odd-jobbing with construction firms, and Giles had taken office temp work himself. His degree and library accreditations were useless in a city that had cut funding to public libraries and public schools both. This check represented freedom to Giles. Or self-determination, at least. He could use his more esoteric skills again. Teach young women how to fight and, perhaps, how not to die. Teach other humans on the Hellmouth how to live.
He rose and carried the check back to the desk, where he signed it carefully. He folded it away in his wallet. Xander had returned to sorting out the bills, but he seemed far more relaxed. Giles couldn’t blame him. He took up his half-finished stake and the whittling knife. Then he stopped and looked again at what Xander was doing.
“Xander? What are you using to open those?”
Xander held it up. “One of your knives. Your many, many knives.” He turned it over in his hands, then held the metal grip gingerly. “This one’s weird. Sexy swoopy and a really sharp point. But seems like it would hurt your hand to stab with it.”
Giles glared at him. “That’s a throwing knife. One of Buffy’s good throwing knives, in fact. You oughtn’t to use it to open envelopes. Disrespectful.”
“Huh. Okay. I can see that. Grip it here, throw like that?”
Giles groaned. “No. Entirely wrong. My first class at the studio will have to be a knife-throwing class, I can see.”
“I’d rather have you teach me about the knife you’re holding now.”
Xander’s voice was husky. Giles went very still, then slowly raised his whittling knife to heart level. “This knife? What do you want to know about it?”
“Anything. Everything. How sharp it is. What you can do with it. How much I trust you.”
Xander set the throwing knife down on the desk, carefully, then held his empty hands out to Giles. An invitation: bind him. Giles wondered what he was about. Distracting him, perhaps, from this pit of melancholic self-absorption he was teetering over. Xander had a habit of doing that to him, of noticing when he was working himself into a state over something foolish. Giles set aside his mood with an effort, and tried to think what he’d do with a knife. He’d played that way with Ethan, more than once. Xander was more bent than Ethan had been, far more bent than Giles had suspected. Far more bent than Giles himself, though he would never admit it. He’d risen to every challenge Xander had set him. At least this challenge was on ground Giles knew.
He knew what to do. Not quite what Xander wanted, not yet.
“Strip,” he said. “And lie on your back on the bed.”
Xander pulled his shirt over his head immediately. Giles left him to undress while he tidied away the wood shavings from the stakes and put away the knife he’d been using. It was unsuitable for what Xander wanted. He went to the closet. His bowie knife hung there, in its leather sheath, on a peg. The broadsword he’d carried with him from Sunnydale hung next to it. Giles took the knife down and shut the closet door. He nipped downstairs to the little washroom on the third floor and nicked the rubbing alcohol from the first aid supplies there. He locked their door behind him on his return.
Xander was nude, reclining on one elbow on the bed, head craned to watch Giles as he moved around the room. Giles came to light next to Xander. He removed his boots and socks, but nothing else. He wanted formality for this.
He turned to Xander and gently pushed him flat onto his back. “Do you want to be bound?”
It was an egalitarian relationship; they’d each spent time spread out helpless while the other took charge. The bed’s metal frame, such a beastly nuisance to wrangle all the way up three flights of stairs, had proved itself strong enough to withstand the struggles of two grown men.
But Xander shook his head. No bondage tonight.
“Then I suggest you hold yourself quite still.”
Xander lay quiet on his back, entirely compliant and relaxed. He rested his hands palm-up where Giles indicated, arms straight out from his sides, thighs together. He was erect already. Giles climbed onto the bed and knelt over Xander, straddling his thighs. He was hard as well, hidden away in loose trousers under a baggy jumper, but no doubt Xander could see it in him.
Giles unsnapped the sheath and drew the knife. He made a show of examining the blade before Xander, inspecting the sharp edge. He knew it was in good condition without needing the show, however. It was a lifetime’s habit to keep this knife properly. Was this the only thing that had survived the loss of his family home? Perhaps. It was certainly the only reminder he had left of his father. Giles’s chest felt strange as he realized this.
He held the blade where Xander could see it easily.
“This is my bowie knife. I’ve had it since I was fifteen, when my father gave it to me in honor of my first vampire kill. I carry it with me always, which is why I still have it when I’ve lost everything else.”
“I’m sorry,” Xander said again, but Giles shook his head. He didn’t want Xander talking.
“I killed a man with it once. I won’t tell you the story now, but I will tell you that he deserved to die. And I did it rather than make the girl who was the Slayer at the time take life.”
Xander swallowed and nodded. It had been a long time since Giles had thought about that deed, about that Slayer. Not his Slayer, but he’d seen her fight. Had whittled stakes for her.
“It’s let my blood as well. And Ethan’s, in bed just like you and I are now. It’s so sharp you won’t feel it cut you. Not at first.” Giles held the blade just over Xander’s face. “Kiss it.”
Xander lifted his head gracefully and kissed the blade. His eyes were open and fixed on Giles’s. Giles stroked down Xander’s chest with the flat of the blade, blunt edge leading.
“Trust,” he said, in a cool voice. “It goes both ways in this encounter. You think you want to prove to me how much you trust me. I already know you do. You’re aroused, after all. What you don’t realize is how much you demand of me. The burden of your trust is on me now. Not to let my hand slip, or my attention waver. Your life is in the palm of my hand now. At the tip of my blade.”
Stroking over Xander’s stomach now, gliding the blade over tender flesh. Xander’s stomach contracted as the knife traveled over it. The throat was an obvious vulnerability, but a blade into the gut would be agonizing for days before death came. Giles wondered if Xander knew that. Down, down, to his straining erection, oh so carefully over it, while Xander groaned in fear or desire or both. Then up again, to safer places, to Xander’s chest again. Around and around.
Xander was not a hairy man. He didn’t need to shave every day. His chest hair was scanty, just a dusting around his flat dark nipples. There was more on the stomach, a line leading the eye down to the dusting of hair above his sex.
“Look at this chest, this lovely lovely chest. It would look so much better bare.”
Giles shifted his grip so he had a thumb braced against the knife blade. He flicked it at the hair around a nipple, taking care and breathing out before each flick. The blade scraped, and hairs fell free. Xander’s nipples stood erect and his flesh was goose-bumped. His breathing slowed, and Giles synchronized his movements with it. Xander breathed out, and he breathed out with him. Flicked the knife, baring another patch of skin. Just a few minutes’ work to shave it all clean, demonstrating how very sharp this blade was.
“And now you’re ready.”
The knife was set aside for a moment. Rubbing alcohol, cold on his fingers, cold on Xander’s chest. He gasped and flinched as he hadn’t under the blade. Giles took up the knife again and set it to Xander’s throat once more. Xander swallowed.
“I’m not going to leave permanent marks.”
“Would be okay if you did,” Xander said.
“Next time,” Giles said. Xander’s cock twitched, and he choked off a groan. “Close your eyes.” And Xander did so.
Giles turned the knife in his hands and set the blunt edge against Xander’s breastbone. The blunt edge would feel sharp as it slid over skin. Giles knew that from experience. Lean into it, and it could break the skin. The tip would slide between ribs before Xander had time to open his eyes. Xander knew that, and let him do this anyway.
He stroked down and Xander sucked in a breath that he only let out when Giles lifted the knife. And again, following the track he’d left on the skin, pressing down a little harder this time. Again, Xander’s gasp and slow exhale.
Simple sweeping lines, things Giles could repeat over and over. A straight line, down his chest. A curve joining that. A stroke curling around one dark nipple and sweeping across to the other. Giles drew each line again and again on Xander’s skin until reddened welts appeared, until blood appeared until the back of the blade as it swept. Then he moved on to the next. Xander was silent throughout, silent and still and hard under him, just his harsh breathing audible.
Finally Giles saw what he wanted. He sat back and let the knife rest beside them on the bed.
“You may open your eyes.”
Xander’s eyes fluttered open. Eye. He’d lost part of himself during that long year. Pain and terror and screams. Was that why he sought this with Giles? No. Something in Xander was essentially whole, no matter what his body had suffered. Xander’s heart was unharmed. Unlike Giles.
Xander looked down at his chest, at the red lines scored on his flesh, and he smiled up at the man pinning him to the bed.
“It’s a knife. You drew your bowie knife on my chest.”
He touched ginger fingers to the center of his chest, where the marks were darkest.
“You’ll have white lines there for a few days. They’ll fade. No scars.”
“Just the start. I didn’t cut you at all.”
“If you want. If you trust me.”
“You shouldn’t. I’ve killed five men. One with this knife, one with my bare hands, one with a sword. The other two were with guns. I cry when I remember Randall. The others I don’t regret. I’m a killer.”
“I trust you. I know you. I think I know you better than you do.” Xander’s voice was steady.
Giles leaned over Xander’s body, the blade against his throat again, gripped in steady hand. “It’s so easy to kill, Xander. A moment’s work and a life is gone. A lifetime afterward of knowing that you’re capable of it. A lifetime to bear it.”
“I’ve never killed anyone.”
“You will. I am sorry, but it is what we do. We take this burden on, you and I. It’s part of what it means to be a Watcher. We’re guilty from the start. Our fathers made them Slayers and condemned them to early deaths. It’s the least we can do to atone.”
Xander’s face had changed now. Whatever it was he was feeling, it wasn’t fear or arousal any more. Was it pity? Something like that. Giles looked back down at the knife. He eased it away from Xander’s throat. His hands were wet with sweat. He was, he thought, more afraid than Xander was. Xander trusted him. Xander didn’t know any better. And God help him, he didn’t want Xander to learn the truth, save that he’d already confessed himself and Xander knew. Had he thought, earlier, that Xander knew everything important already? He was a fool.
Giles rolled off Xander and knelt on the floor by the bed. The knife was still in his dripping, trembling hands. He might be required to use it again. He would, to spare Buffy. Such a simple thing. Steel blade, blackened hilt. His father had given this to him and told him he was a Watcher now. Had his father known who made the Slayers? Giles hadn’t, not until Buffy had told him. But he’d always known the guilt was his.
“We’re weapons, too,” he said. “That’s what your chest means.”
“I know. Give that to me.” Xander’s hands closed over the hilt and gently pried it away from him. He slid it into the sheath and snapped it closed again. Safe. Not dangerous any more. Unlike him. Xander was kneeling next to him and holding his shoulders.
“Sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean it to turn so–” He gestured with his empty hands. He shouldn’t have used that knife, should have stuck with the lifeless cheap thing he’d been using on the stakes.
“S’okay. We never know what’s going to come out. It’s always more emotional than we think it’s going to be.”
Giles shook his head. It was true, like so many of the things Xander said after these scenes, but uncomfortable. Why was he always the one shaking afterwards, and never Xander? Xander was fussing with his hair, rubbing at his temples. Giles studied his handiwork, the blood-red lines. He was still hard, despite his near-breakdown, though Xander was no longer.
“Your chest is stunning. Can’t believe how sexy it is. Is it wrong for me to like it?”
“I think it’s sexy, too, and it’s my chest. You’re going to do this to me again. But not for a while. Giles. I love you, you know that? But you seriously need to talk more about yourself. You’re not getting away with distracting me any more.”
Giles almost laughed. Whatever Xander wanted, whatever challenge he set.
“I’ll try. I don’t know how to do it.”
Xander tugged him up onto the bed and helped him lie down. “Start by telling me about Randall,” he said.