Rupert groaned, rubbing his sore neck as he went to open the door. It’s what he got for believing he was six-bloody-teen again, he supposed. “I’m not buying anything,” he said before it was fully open. His words weren’t petulant, precisely, nor were they sarcastic either, but lodged somewhere in the middle. “Nor am I selling.”
“What, you mean you don’t want to sell me back the leftover chocolate bars?” Xander, grinning sheepishly on his doorstep, rocked back and forth on his heels, hands thrust firmly inside his pockets. Dark eyes glinted under the harsh flourescent porch lamp, strained beneath the usual attempts at humor.
Giving him an exasperated look, Rupert waved him inside. “It’s late, Xander, you know it’s not safe to be wandering around after eleven at night.” He sounded like a nattering, worrying mother. Lovely how he was going through extremes, tonight. Couldn’t he just be Rupert Giles, middle-aged Watcher and librarian? “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I did kinda want to make sure you were chocolate-free for a while.” Xander hunted through his cupboards, finding the last two remaining chocolate bars Rupert hadn’t know he still possessed, waving them. “Ah ha! There we go. I was thinking bonfire? Maybe some marshmallows?” Glancing at the contents of the cupboard, Xander glanced back with a rueful, “Do you have marshmallows?”
“Let’s see: small, gummy, and pure sugar. No, Xander, I don’t have any marshmallows.” Closing the door, Rupert leaned up against the bar. Watching Xander usually made his head spin, the boy nervous and often fidgety as the girls were not. This time, though, there was something different. Wrong. None of the children could hide much from Rupert, nor did they actually want to—he was the parent, and parents were supposed to know, even if the children in question were subconsciously dropping more hints than a cartload of bricks. There was something much older in Xander’s eyes. “It’s rather late,” Rupert repeated diffidently.
“Yeah, but you’re such a night owl I figured I wouldn’t be bothering you.”
A sharp edge of nervousness there, marbling the apparent indifference. A lie. One Rupert was supposed to have believed—and before tonight, probably would have. It had been such a long time since he’d been young enough to really get inside their heads. Now that he remembered. . . “Can I do something for you, Xander?”
Lips thinned with worry and a fear Rupert couldn’t quite recognize twisted into a grimace before relaxing into their customary affable grin. “Bonfire! C’mon, I know you’ve got stuff to burn here.” Looking directly at a volume worth more than Xander’s weight in gold, he continued, “Tinder everywhere. So lets get melting!”
He’d been serious about that? “Xander, melting the chocolate isn’t going to destroy its potential harm—it will cool, eventually.”
“Oh. Right.” Broad shoulders slumped for a moment, a short enough time that had Rupert not been looking for it, he would’ve missed it. Curious. He knew that Buffy was significantly disturbed—wigged, as she put it—about his brief return to adolescence. He hadn’t thought that Xander would be bothered.
“Would you like to sit down? Some tea, perhaps?”
Xander sat, giving him an odd look. “I haven’t done anything to make you flustered, yet.”
“Flustered? I’m not—well, yes, all right, I suppose I am. Usually, near-midnight visits from any of you involves monsters.” He busied himself with making a pot of tea, one eye on the boy slouched on his sofa.
“What, I can’t just want to spend time with you?” Accepting his mug with a grimace, Xander simply held it. “I’m friendly!”
“Yes, you are,” he said calmly. Looking.
Xander offered a shadow of his normal grin. “I’m fine.”
“I never said you weren’t.”
“Yeah, you—okay, no you didn’t. But there was tone there! I definitely heard tone.” Xander sipped the tea and then made a face. The boy had no appreciation for a fine drink, but that was hardly news. The fact that he was drinking it, if rather absently, was, however, worthy of notice. Xander liked having things to do with his hands. “You didn’t—”
Rupert leaned back, a snatch of memory prompting his arms to spread across the couch-back, his legs spreading. It was very much a ‘macho’ position, and Rupert wondered why he still felt the need to adopt such posturing. “I didn’t what, Xander?”
This time Xander gulped, face turning red before paling down to a pasty color that highlighted the circles under his eyes. “Nothing!” he blurted, jumping onto his feet and splattering good tea all over his shirt. “I’m sorry, I should—I’m just gonna go, and—”
“Xander.” Exasperated, Rupert removed the mug before Xander actually crushed the plastic or spilled it over more than just his own garishly colored shirt. “Something is bothering you, Xander,” Rupert added as he pushed the boy back down onto the sofa. “You came here for a reason, and I can’t do anything about it if you don’t tell me what it is.”
“You didn’t come to us,” Xander blurted, lower lip trembling as he realized what he’d said. “I mean, I—when you were—” He clearly wanted to get up and run away, but with Rupert between him and the door, he sat frozen with indecision.
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” Rupert said carefully. “I didn’t come to you when, Xander?”
“Forget it.” Bluster firmly back in place, Xander stood back up and neatly skirted Rupert’s belated attempt to stop him, again. “I’ll just take these,” Xander continued, waving the chocolate bars, “and be out of your hair. Or, hey, I can eat them since immature-boy here, and they don’t bother me at all.”
Reaching the door first, Rupert firmly pushed it closed. “Xander. It’s late, and I’ve had a rather exhausting day. What do you mean, I didn’t come to you?”
“Just forget it!”
“No, I won’t.” If the boy thought that Rupert was going to be less stubborn as a result of the day’s hijinks, then he had no idea just how much of his stubbornness came from his youth. A thread of his old impatience, however, prompted him to add something he probably shouldn’t have. “Why was I supposed to go to you, Xander?”
“Me?” Xander laughed, the slightly hysterical sound convincing Ripper more than ever that something was very, very wrong. “Not me. Us, you know? The guys. Buffy.”
But it wasn’t Buffy here, almost twitching from nerves, expression flitting between so many emotions that Rupert barely caught one in four. No, Buffy was at home, snug in her bed, disturbed but not truly upset now that the disaster had been averted. The babies were saved, Rupert was an adult again, and she would never know about Joyce’s trick with her tongue and the hood of a police car.
“I was under the influence of a spell, Xander,” Rupert said cautiously. “I wasn’t interested in, well, much of anything, except having a—”
The light dawned suddenly, and Rupert cursed himself for being all kinds of fool. Xander wasn’t moving anymore, standing quite, quite still, his face almost green as he understood that Rupert had figured it out.
“Ah.” He was reaching for his glasses before he realized that Xander knew what that particular gesture meant, and would interpret it badly. “I, ah, I must say I’m rather surprised. I hadn’t realized that you valued my friendship so highly.”
That earned him a double-take straight out of a Benny Hill episode. “Your friendship?” Xander repeated slowly. “This isn’t about—okay, yeah, fine, friendship. Yeah, Giles, I’m really upset that you wanted to hang around with Joyce instead of the actual seventeen year olds that you already knew. Those being, of course, the losers a hip cat like you used to be wouldn’t have bothered to spend time with. I get it, really.”
Oh, dear lord. Rupert proceeded to clean his glasses, hoping that Xander didn’t take that as his moment to escape. More smeared than clean, he blinked behind the lenses he’d refused to wear in his youth despite still needing them, trying to decode the current expression Xander sported. It wasn’t really mulish, although there were elements of that angry kind of stubbornness there. Nor was it petulant, or frightened, or disgusted, but all of those and more beside.
“I’m nearly three times your age.”
“You weren’t then,” Xander shot back.
Oh, that was far more than mere appreciation. He had to stop this, and he had to do it now. Unfortunately, the only possible method he could find was anger: “No! Then I was an insufferably immature street-punk, Xander, who prided himself on avoiding all of the potentially good things he came across! I am not actually schizophrenic, but there are many times when I wonder if calling myself ‘Ripper’ then was more than just a silly, childish nickname.”
Xander’s jaw dropped, swinging open in the force of Rupert’s tirade.
“Look, Xander, I am very flattered that you regard me so highly. Truly, I am. But you’re a young man who is part of something often very difficult to handle and—”
“Oh, please,” Xander sneered. “If that was true, why isn’t Buffy in love with you?”
Rupert hated that word above all else. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in love—or more specifically, Xander’s depth of emotion—but Rupert had learned not to allow himself the romantic notions of a child, and the finality that that kind of love offered. He couldn’t afford to, particularly when his Slayer had sacrificed and gone through so much because of it. Rupert loved, and had been loved in return. But that wasn’t necessarily what Xander was talking about, and he owed it to the young man to treat the admission seriously.
“I didn’t actually mean the more life-and-death aspects, Xander,” he said a bit caustically. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to explain that sentence, something he was quite sure neither of them wanted to speak about. “I meant that I’m someone you trust, and who trusts you in return. Sometimes the novelty of having someone so completely there for you, well, it can be mistaken for other. . .”
He trailed off, too startled to be offended at Xander’s silent laughter.
“I always knew you thought I was stupid,” Xander said, the giggle trembling inside the self-loathing.
“I beg your pardon!”
“Oh, come on.” The laughter fled, leaving behind a boy much too young to be so bitter—reminding Rupert again that it hadn’t been association with himself or Buffy that had forced Xander to grow up so quickly. “I get it, okay? I always did. But I know what trust is, how it’s not actually lust, and I know what love is.”
“You’re sixteen years old, Xander, how can you possibly know what—”
“Seventeen. And just because I don’t have Buffy’s doom, tragic love affair doesn’t mean I don’t want it. Or know what it is when I—” Turning red, this time, Xander turned away, arms crossed over his chest. “Look,” he finished stiffly. “I’m gonna go. Just forget I came.”
“You were worried about me.” He hadn’t meant to belittle Xander’s opinion, of course, but being confronted with youthful romance was a disconcerting experience. Except that this wasn’t precisely youthful romance, was it, Rupert? “You were worried and hurt that I ignored you, and you came here tonight to see if. . .” Trailing off, Rupert gave Xander a very long look. Strange, that spending nearly every day for the past three years hadn’t given him the understanding he needed now. “To see if things were the same between us.”
Xander nodded once, miserably.
Once Rupert had outgrown the destructive period of his life, he’d spent a great deal of time apologizing for it. Oh, he never regretted it, not even when it came to bite him so spectacularly on his arse last year. It had been a necessary part of his life, one that afforded him an outlook that was more appropriate for a Slayer that refused to toe the line, as well as many fond memories and experiences he wouldn’t trade for anything. That didn’t mean, however, that he didn’t feel guilty for the things he’d done, both then and more recently. “Xander, I honestly don’t know what to say. You can’t really want. . .” Me, being the obvious answer, but that wasn’t quite what Rupert meant. ‘Me’ being a relationship with someone more than double in years, and a man to boot.
“No. I’m not a complete idiot.”
Rupert had called him that once, in a fit of childish rage over something inconsequential. “No, Xander, you’re not.”
“I just wanted to know. If it was, was even possible that you could, I dunno, see me as. . .”
Xander’s embarrassment was palpable, as was the eager, desperate need for approval. He understood, finally, that Xander wasn’t asking for a real chance. He didn’t actually want one. He just wanted to know that he was, well, worthy. That Ripper’s slight had more to do with an adolescent’s self-absorption and less to do with Xander’s own lack of worth.
When looked at in those terms, it was an easy decision to make.
Xander jerked backwards when Rupert closed the distance, fearful that this would be the final blow. And, in a way, it was—just not the utter rejection that Xander seemed certain he deserved. Gently cupping the boy’s jaw, Rupert pressed his mouth to Xander’s, waiting for the moment when the boy would realize this wasn’t a literal type of kiss-off, or whatever convoluted slang that was applicable to the situation.
Ten seconds, and then thirty passed before Xander’s arms finally slid around his waist, mouth opening with a groan of longing and relief that resonated through Rupert’s bones. Nothing about Joyce’s then-girlish seduction compared to the heat, the desire of someone who didn’t want a casual fuck—someone who wanted Rupert as much as he wanted to be wanted by Rupert.
It was a heady combination, and the two of them were flushed and slightly breathless when Xander finally pulled away. Rupert gave him a faintly approving smile, absently cleaning fogged glasses while Xander smoothed down his shirt and tried to regain a hint of decorum. His hair was rumpled near the bottom and Rupert had to forcibly restrain himself from smoothing it down, or from remarking on how charming Xander looked when so disheveled.
“It’s late,” he said, trying to ignore how hoarse he sounded. “So if you’ll give me just a moment to find my shoes, I can drive you home.”
“Nah.” Xander sounded dazed, but very pleased. “It’s good. I’ll be okay.”
“Xander. I’m not going to let a vampire snack on you, simply because you’re still flustered.”
That prompted one of the oddly blinding smiles Xander could produce, one that said ‘thank you’ even as it said ‘I’m highly amused by you’. “Stakes, holy water, and crosses are a go, Giles. Plus, I think Buffy’s still out there patrolling—something about needing to get away from her mom.” Shrugging affably, Xander turned and headed towards the door.
Rupert waited until Xander was halfway out the door. “Thank you,” he said in a voice just barely audible five feet away. “Your affection, Xander, and your trust mean a very great deal to me.”
Xander paused, and nodded. “Yeah. Same. Except less British and stuffy sounding.” Grinning a cheerful goodbye, Xander bounced out onto the street, head moving in the automatic pattern that all of Buffy’s friends had picked up over the last few years.
Watching until he disappeared around the corner, Rupert then poured himself a cold mug of tea and sat staring at the amber liquid for a very long time.