Many thanks to Lady Galadriel04 for kindly beta reading this story for us and to Stumbelina for providing the lovely banner. All chapter headings are taken from the lyrics for 'Act of Nature' by Cheryl Wheeler. The story is set post 'Chosen' on the Hebridean island of Iona; that's real, Traighshee House and the islanders are not.
Someone said I should
Warning cries soft and clear
Whispered in the calm before the storm
Giles waited for the Iona ferry to dock with a passivity that might have passed for patience to the casual observer. He had left London early that morning, each leg of his journey becoming shorter and slower as he swapped plane for car and car for boat. The driving urgency to reach his destination had left him with his first glimpse of the island, and now feet that had paced an airport lounge and pressed hard against the accelerator pedal in his hired car felt rooted to the rough concrete.
He looked beyond the looming, sturdy lines of the ferry to the small island. Iona's white sand beaches lay wind-smoothed and soft and the rocks and thin, short grass were a blur of grey and green to his tired eyes.
As if the volume had been suddenly turned up, he realized that he'd spent the last few minutes with a verse running through his head and allowed his lips to silently shape the words, hoping that would stop their endless loop through a mind that wanted nothing but emptiness for a while.
"The earth, it is the Lord's,
The sea and all that it contains;
Except the boats and piers,
And they are all MacBrayne's"
The ferry docked finally, nudging against the mooring with an ominous grinding noise as the swell of the waves rocked it back and forth. Giles bent to pick up his suitcases as the gangway was lowered. The worn leather handles cut into his palms. They were heavy; they had lain open in his flat for two days as he packed them with the thick sweaters and jeans he knew he'd need for a Christmas in Scotland, carefully folding, tucking and smoothing. He'd taken pleasure in the packing, making it part of his holiday as he tried to guess what he'd need. Binoculars and guide books, camera and walking boots... all there between the layers of warm, casual clothing and brightly wrapped gifts for Xander. This morning, he'd tossed a random selection of last minute items on top in a careless jumble, and closed them both, hearing them snap shut without being able to picture himself opening them.
Because that would happen after he'd arrived, after he'd spoken to Xander, and somehow his thoughts couldn't push past raising his hand to knock at the door of Traighshee House, and unpacking the cases he held was impossibly distant in space and time. And now that his journey was almost over, and what had been distant was half an hour away at most, he still couldn't imagine the smooth slide of metal clasps under his fingers and the familiar creak as the lids were raised.
The clear, pale sky was scattered with mackerel clouds, a warning sign of rain, and the thin winter sunlight was bright without warmth. Giles forced himself to walk onto the ferry, squinting up at the man who stood at the top of the gangway, waiting to cast off on the short trip back to Iona.
The ferry man was as well-weathered as one might have expected – probably no more than ten years older than himself, but looking far older, his face cragged and lined from what Giles presumed was decades, if not a lifetime, living by the sea. He nodded his head slightly and stepped to one side as Giles reached the top of the ramp and the barely-steadier footing of the ferry itself.
"Don't get a lot of visitors this time of year," the man said in a rough voice. "Hard to keep a regular schedule." It sounded as if it might have been an apology.
Tiredness made the unfamiliar accent hard to understand at first. Giles let the words run through his mind, sorting them out until they made sense, knowing that once he adjusted to their rhythm he would appreciate the musical lilt that made even this man's husky voice appealing after the sharp, clipped London voices he was used to. Finally, after a pause that seemed too long to his ears, he answered, "I'm sure it must be, but there's no rush, is there? Not here."
"Not here," the man agreed, as Giles moved over toward the overhang that would, in bad weather, protect the rows of seating from the rain and set down his suitcases there, where they wouldn't be in anyone's way.
Not that that was likely, as it seemed to be just the two of them.
As the gangway was raised again, the man asked, "Come for the holidays, have you?"
Giles leaned against the railing, staring down into water as clear as glass. Fronds of seaweed, black and slimy, lay in ribbons on the rocks piled up around the pier, but in the water they floated in a dense mass. The sun went in and the water turned opaque and grey. Giles glanced up at the dark clouds rushing in from the mainland and shivered.
"Yes." Seeing faint disapproval of his brief answer, and driven by politeness to respond, no matter how much his own inclination was for silence, Giles added, "I'm spending Christmas at Traighshee House. Do you know it?"
As soon as the question left his mouth, he realized how foolish it would sound.
The groan of the ferry's engines changed to a higher-pitched rumble as it moved away from the pier and started for the opposite shore, and the man had to raise his voice slightly over them to be heard. "Aye. I've delivered some supplies meant to be going there over the past months. Doing a big renovation, are they?"
Relieved that the man was courteous enough not to point out that on an island barely four miles long there was little that wasn't common knowledge, Giles nodded. Selecting his words, he replied, "That's right. The house belongs to the company I work for, but it's not been used for some time. The report we had seemed to indicate problems with damp, some rooms need extending, and we need to add more bathrooms –" Xander had been quite vocal about that, and remembering the hell of Buffy's house first thing in the morning during those last weeks in Sunnydale, Giles couldn't disagree. "It is a big project, but from what I hear, it's going well."
That wasn't quite true. Xander's phone calls to Giles in the first weeks had been full of frustration at the slow, leisured pace the workmen set. He had a crew of five, but it was rare for all of them to show up, especially if the fish were biting or there was more money to be made ferrying tourists around. Giles had counseled patience and tact, then watched, amused, as the island cast its spell on Xander. When Xander spent ten minutes telling him about the salmon he'd caught, before moving on to the impossibility of getting Fergus to take lunch breaks shorter than two hours, he'd been pleased and a little envious.
"Haven't heard any complaints," the older man answered, as if he had his pulse on the heartbeat of the island and would be the one to know.
The smell of salt in the air was stronger now, as if droplets of water encrusted with it were suspended all around them. It was a fanciful thought, one that Giles had to attribute to the long day of travel and the vaguely magical atmosphere that resulted from being in such a remote location.
"Spot of bad weather coming in, they say," the ferry man said.
Giles glanced at him. The temperature had dropped in the last few minutes, but he'd put that down to being out on the water. A brisk breeze lifted the edge of a yellow tarpaulin covering a coiled rope as thick as Giles' wrist, and it began to flap wildly, the sound lost in the thrum of the engines.
"Rain?" he asked, seeing the heavy clouds roll towards them, as though intent on reaching the island before the ferry.
For the first time, the other man gave him a look that was something other than impassive. "It's Scotland," he said, still mildly enough. "There's always rain. No, wintry storm – sleet, strong winds. Tide's meant to be higher than usual."
The ferry lurched as though in agreement, now far enough out into the channel of water that swimming to shore would be unpleasant to say the least, and Giles gripped the railing firmly. "I see."
The last snow he'd seen had been in Sunnydale; soft flakes, falling gently and persistently from a dim sky, and gone by the next day; snow called by the Powers to save Angel. The memory of that day left him wondering what this Christmas would bring in the way of weather. From that description, they were in for something less benign.
"This is such a short crossing though; I suppose the ferry won't be affected no matter how bad it gets?"
The ferry man grunted. "Depends. If the waves get high enough, have to stop running. Otherwise you chance ending topside down, which I don't recommend."
They seemed to be nearly equidistant from both shores at that point, although admittedly it was difficult to tell, what with the salt spray and the darkening skies behind them.
Giles turned to peer at the approaching shore, feeling something very like panic rise up at the thought that once he stepped off the ferry, he might not be able to leave at will. His visit had been planned to last until the New Year; it was Hogmanay, not Christmas, that was celebrated the most up here, and he'd been looking forward to that. But he was two days early, arriving unannounced, and he felt as unsure of his welcome as his footing on the slick deck. The first spattering drops of rain reached them, carried on the wind that seemed to be pushing the ferry towards its destination, as though eager for it to arrive.
Turning back to the man beside him, he said, "Is there a taxi on the island? It's a few miles to Traighshee from what I've been told, and it looks as if your storm's arriving."
"Top of the pier," the ferry driver said, gesturing with his head as if this could somehow clarify the location. "Martyr's Bay. They've got a phone you can use to call the McIntyres. Unless you get lucky and John's already there."
The engine noise deepened and got momentarily louder as the boat began to slow, swinging around to line up with the dock. Giles' glasses were spattered with rain and salt water, but cleaning them seemed pointless until he was off the ferry, and his hands were trembling with tiredness. He looked at the shore and tried to see a splash of color amongst the uniform greyness of rocks and scattered houses that would tell him that John was waiting.
"John's car," the ferry man said with a nod, obviously spotting it himself although he was also busy easing the ferry up to the dock. Boat met wooden pier with a gentle bump despite the growing height of the waves, and the engine dulled its grumble as the gangway began to lower again. A young man on the pier, dressed in a yellow oilskin, had appeared as if from nowhere to lash the ferry to the pier.
"Thanks," said Giles, stepping out of the man's way. He went to retrieve his cases and prepared to disembark. The rain was heavier now, and though his own coat was supposedly waterproof, he felt damp and cold. Bracing himself as the weight of the cases dragged at his arms, he turned and nodded in farewell. He could – just – have summoned the energy to smile, but the man had been helpful and he deserved better than an empty gesture.
He received a nod in return, then started up to the long wooden pier to the road. As he reached the top, another man, this one wearing an unfastened mac and an attitude so casual that he seemed not to feel the rain at all, came out of the large building headed toward the minicab.
The man looked at him, nodded, and reached for one of the cases, taking it from Giles' hand before he could protest. "Needing a ride?" the man asked, not waiting for an answer as he unlocked the boot of the taxi and set the case inside as if it weighed very little. "John McIntyre," he said, holding his hand out toward Giles.
"Rupert Giles," Giles replied automatically. The hand he grasped was warm and calloused and the handshake friendly and brisk. John looked as if he was in his mid thirties, with eyes that were very blue against his tanned face. "Yes, thanks. I'm staying at Traighshee House and I'd rather not arrive soaked through."
He wondered if John would consider that reluctance strange, given that the man seemed oblivious to the rain, but he knew he was incapable of walking any distance, with or without the burden of his luggage.
"Well get in before you're washed away then," John said, taking the other suitcase from him and putting it in the boot with the first one.
Giles had often found himself opening the wrong car door since his return to England and being greeted by an empty space where he'd expected a steering wheel. Today he didn't even have to pause to think about that, as John slammed the boot shut and disappeared to the right, leaving Giles to go the other way and climb inside a vehicle that smelled strongly of fish.
Forcing himself to speak, Giles fastened his seat belt and said, "I suppose you don't get many visitors this time of the year?"
"Not ones we don't recognize," John said with a wink. He started up the car and glanced backward over his shoulder casually, as if it were a mere formality, before pulling onto the road. The windscreen wipers began a speedy back-and-forth that pushed sheets of clear water off to the side. "First time on Iona?"
"Yes, it is," Giles said. "I spent some holidays in Scotland as a child, but we never left the mainland." He looked out of the window as the last house vanished behind them and the narrow road led them into a landscape bare of trees. The island looked weathered and worn, with rock outcroppings amongst the grass, as though a giant hand had rubbed away at the soil in places. A gust of wind pressed against the car, making it swerve slightly, and Giles folded his hands in his lap, determined not to reach out to steady himself.
Then three sheep ambled across the road and Giles was thrown forward as John braked sharply.
He didn't notice that John had thrown an arm in front of his chest until they'd slid to a stop. The wipers continued their quick rhythm as both men caught their breath and the black sheep – quite wooly, and sporting short curved horns – sauntered calmly across the road, seemingly unmindful of the accident they'd nearly been the cause of.
"All right?" John asked, glancing at him.
Giles nodded, forcing himself to smile reassuringly. "Took me by surprise, that's all. I suppose training them to look right, then left, might be a bit ambitious?"
John waited for the sheep to clear the road before he started the minicab moving forward again. "You'd have better luck training the cars not to hit them," he said lightly, but Giles could see that his hands were tense on the wheel. "Hope you're planning to be here through the holidays – I'm not sure you'll be able to get off the island over the next few days, what with the forecast."
"So I was told." Giles paused. Habit and training both urged him to say as little as possible to John, but it occurred to him that the man must have met Xander many times in the weeks that Xander had been on the island. He frowned, trying to remember the names that had cropped up in his phone conversations with Xander. John... yes, he recalled Xander trying to say the name as the islanders did, with a soft sound that turned the name into ‘Chon', and getting it hopelessly wrong and laughing at himself. "I'm staying with Xander, Xander Harris. Are you the John who took him salmon fishing by any chance?"
The man nodded, then adjusted the speed of the windscreen wipers as the rain eased briefly. "I thought you must be a friend of Xander's. Everyone else working on Traighshee House's a local. Well, other than that man that came out to inspect the boiler, but I didn't figure you for that sort of thing, not with Christmas so close." John looked at him sideways. "You've known Xander a long time?"
Answering that without snubbing John with too brief a reply, or giving too much away, required some thought, and Giles wasn't sure he was capable of it right then. The rhythmic swish of the wipers and the stuffy warmth of the car were making him feel sleepy. "About eight years, yes." More seemed required and he added, "I worked at his school in California and we... kept in touch after he graduated. His fiancée was my partner in a shop I owned after I left the school." The silence from John was encouraging, but Giles was incapable of anything more beyond a quiet, "He's a remarkable young man, and the organization I represent thinks highly of him, as do I."
The road turned sharply to the left and headed up a hill. "As far as I know, everyone on the island thinks pretty highly of him as well. He's a hard worker." That last was said as though it would cover a multitude of sins.
When they reached the top of the hill, John slowed the car cautiously. Ahead of them was what Giles took to be Traighshee house – he'd seen photos, but seeing it in its actual setting, the building was more imposing in size than he'd realized. He'd been picturing it smaller. Also in front of them was the sea, a good acre or so behind the house, with white sand beach looking nearly grey under the darkened skies.
"There you are," John said, as he stopped the minicab and put it into neutral, pulling the parking brake. He glanced through the windscreen and upward. "You just might have enough time to get in there before the storm picks up again."
Giles fumbled for the handle and opened the door, fighting the wind which seemed determined to keep him inside the car. He climbed out, letting the door slam shut behind him, and looked around. There were signs of renovation; a neatly piled stack of lumber and a cement mixer were visible at the side of the house, but he couldn't hear any voices and guessed that the workmen had gone home. The early dusk would make the working days short here.
A second, louder slam had his head turning, and he saw that John had lifted out his cases and was carrying them to the door. Following him quickly, Giles felt in his pocket for his wallet.
"Sorry! I was just woolgathering, I'm afraid." He pulled out his wallet and then hesitated. "How much do I owe you?"
John bent and set both cases on the porch, close to the building where they'd be a bit protected from the rain, which had slowed to a fine mist for the moment at least. "Think I'll leave you to fight that out with Xander," the man said, clapping Giles on the shoulder. "He has an account with us." He looked at Giles appraisingly for a moment, then nodded his head. Giles almost fancied that he could read John's mind. You'll do."Have a good holiday, if I don't see you again."
"Thank you, and the same to you," Giles replied, letting the banality of the exchange distract him from the knowledge that in a moment he'd meet Xander. He sensed that John was conveying more in his words than a conventional farewell, but pushed that thought to one side for now, unable to deal with anything but getting through the next few minutes.
He stood there through a few deep breaths as John went back to the minicab, turned it around, and started back down the hill. As the sound of the car's engine faded, the sound of the sea became more distinct, the rolling crash of the waves against the shore almost soothing.
He raised his hand and knocked at the door and then waited, staring at the unpainted wood, weathered to grey by the salt air. His entire concentration was focused on the door as he waited for it to open, and the sound of quick footsteps approaching from behind the house took a moment to register.
He turned and saw Xander come around the corner.
Dressed in a dark brown mac and wearing the eye patch that never failed to startle Giles, even if only for the briefest of instants, Xander looked at him, did a double take, and stopped dead in his tracks. "Giles! You're... here. I mean, you're early. Unless I did that thing again where I lost track of time, because you know, out here when they say they're going to deliver something on Wednesday, they might mean Wednesday, or they might mean next Wednesday. Or they might mean some random Wednesday a few months from now." Xander closed his mouth as if aware that he was babbling, then opened it again and said, more slowly, "You're here."
He looked puzzled, but a smile was beginning to spread across his face. Giles knew that he could not remove the bewilderment without taking the happiness with it, and for a moment he was tempted to accept the hug Xander was moving to give him, go into the house and agree that a cup of tea would be most welcome – but he'd reached the end of his endurance. It wasn't right that Xander should hear this when he was smiling, but Giles had to tell him before he came any closer.
"Willow's dead, Xander. I found out last night and I told the others, but I couldn't tell you on the phone, I couldn't – oh God, Xander, I'm so very sorry."
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