Giles lifted his eyes as the library doors swung open and looked back down again when he saw who it was. “I thought you’d gone home.”
“Got half-way and came back.”
“And why is that?”
He made his voice hard, inflexible, not allowing even a hint of mercy to soften its harshness. Xander stopped, the distance between them daunting, and then swallowed audibly and came closer. Giles gave him credit for having that much courage and rewarded him by finally glancing at him. He watched as Xander shrank a little and wondered just how forbidding he looked to him.
“I couldn’t – Giles, I’m going to have to spend tomorrow grovelling to just about everyone I know. I’m prepared for that. I give good grovel. Willow, Buffy, Cordy, Oz; the list is –”
“A long one, yes. I think you’ll find that most of the students will have forgotten, or be unwilling to listen. If I were you, I’d confine your apologies to those most affected. Your friends. The ones you had dancing to your tune today.”
“Giles, that’s not fair! I didn’t mean –”
Giles slammed his hand down on the table beside him, the flat slap echoing in the silent room. “Xander, you planned to make Cordelia hopelessly, desperately in love with you so that you could reject her, so that you could hurt her. That was despicable. You blackmailed Amy into doing a spell that was far too powerful for her to attempt and may have consequences for her that neither of us can predict. You had two girls who care about you – oh, what’s the use? You know what you did.”
“I fucked up.”
Giles smiled; a humourless twitch of his lips that didn’t lift the tension in the room at all. “Indeed you did. Am I to assume you’re here to begin your apologies with me?”
Xander’s eyes fell. “Not as such.”
Giles felt his temper rise. “Endangering my Slayer and enchanting my girl- Miss Calendar, that is –”
Xander’s head jerked up. “Did that. Yes. They get apologies, no arguments there. But none of that’s something you’re owed one for.”
“I am responsible for Buffy –”
“Giles, I’m not going to apologise to you for something I did to them.”
Giles felt his hand curl into a fist and deliberately straightened his fingers, placing his hand on the table again. “Then why are you here?”
Xander moved closer still. “Because you were angry with me. Because all I can see is the look on your face when you told me to get out.”
Just go, get out of my sight
Giles sighed, remembering the stunned hurt his words had put on Xander’s face. “I was angry with you. People say things they don’t mean when – Good Lord, Xander, you know that! What usually happens when you mess things up?”
Xander smiled crookedly. “Nice to see you assume it happens a lot. Let’s see; you mean my parents, I guess? Nothing. If it’s really bad, Dad screams, Mom cries, but usually? Nothing. They don’t care, you see. Don’t care if I do bad, don’t notice if I do good. It’s a big old bundle of not giving a shit.”
Giles wondered which hurt the most from a parent; indifference or violence? Not a question he’d ever had to answer, but he remembered another young man twisted by neglect, and he was damned if he’d sit by as Xander followed in Ethan’s footsteps. He might not have Ethan’s talent for magic but he had traces of his tendency to self-destruct.
“What about you?”
Xander’s question jolted Giles out of his reverie. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’ve done it too, right? Fuck – I mean, messed up?”
Impossible to lie when the memories were vivid enough at that moment to make him wince. “Oh, yes.”
“So what happened to you afterwards?”
Giles relaxed a little and sat on the edge of the table, reaching for his glasses in a gesture he knew he made too often.
“When I was younger than you, when I was at school, I’d have ended up in the headmaster’s room, gripping the back of a chair and counting to a hundred in Latin to try and take my mind off things.”
“And can I just say, ‘oww’ at this point.”
Giles smiled at him, reflecting on the difference a few decades made in social attitudes. “Quite. At home... well, my father wouldn’t have struck me, especially not when I was as old as you. Lectured me for what felt like hours, possibly, which was worse, because after he’d made me feel silly and childish, he’d move on to my duty as a Watcher, family tradition, responsibilities... all concepts I was conditioned to believe were paramount.”
Xander frowned. “You don’t think they are?”
Giles shrugged. “Of course. I just had to find that out for myself and eventually I did. Never mind that now.”
He got off the table and began to stack the books he’d been reading.
“So do you think either of those would work on me?”
“Giles... I’m still not... I still feel bad. Really bad. You’re the only grown up who’s ever bothered with me and now I don’t know if you still want to bother after what I did.”
Giles hesitated for a long moment, seeing the misery gather like clouds on Xander’s expressive face. “Talking to you is pointless; you know what you did and why it was wrong. As for the other, well, I doubt there’s a cane in the entire school and it wouldn’t be an appropriate punishment for you.” Xander looked at him questioningly and Giles smiled. “Children of five used to work in the mills and mines; now they’re finger painting and digging in sand boxes. I expected physical pain and a rather intense humiliation to be the closing act of any particularly imaginative mischief; you don’t. It would be overly cruel. If you want a penance -”
“Think I do.”
“You can keep on wanting.”
Giles studied him. “You want me to inflict something on you, something unpleasant, so that you can feel you’ve wiped out your transgression.”
Xander worked this out. “Yes...” he said cautiously. “Especially now we’ve decided it won’t get painful.”
Giles gave him a cheerful grin. “Sorry. I’m still far too angry to assist in lifting you out of the Slough of Despond.”
“The what? Giles, you’re –”
“Teasing you,” Giles said, taking pity on him.
“Right. I knew that.” Xander coughed and smoothed back his hair. “So, we’re good then?”
“Indeed. I feel a real warmth returning. So much so that I’ve thought of something you can do.”
“Uh, you have?”
Giles waved a hand at the main desk. “The events of today meant I never got chance to finish cataloguing the new books. I find shelving them to be tiresome –”
“God, yes,” Xander agreed fervently. His eyes narrowed. “No, wait; I can see where this is going...”
Giles smiled at him. “Smart lad.”
He patted Xander’s shoulder and for a moment their eyes met and held.
“I still want to be bothered, Xander.”
He hadn’t expected the sudden hug, but he returned it anyway, just for a moment, feeling the weight of another responsibility settle on him but not finding it more than he could bear.
“At this point in the proceedings, my headmaster would walk away and give us some uh, alone time,” Giles said, edging towards the door and hearing the siren call of a strong drink, a hot bath and a good night’s sleep- though he knew nightmares about having to tell Travers his Slayer had been eaten by a cat would haunt his dreams for weeks.
Xander looked curious. “Why?”
“Opinions varied on his motives,” Giles said cautiously, a dozen scurrilous rhymes surfacing from the depths of his memory, “but I think he meant well.”
“I don’t need alone time,” Xander said. “I need help.” He waved a hand at the neat stacks of books, looking pitiful and lost and making a fairly good job of it.
“What happened to this being your penance?” Giles said.
“It’ll only make more work for you,” Xander said. “You know I never got the hang of how you file them.”
“Alphabetically within subjects?”
“The alphabet I can do; listen –”
Giles raised his hand in a warning. “Not the song, Xander. You know I can’t abide hearing you finish with ‘zee’.”
Xander did something with his mouth that deserved to have a label reading ‘pout’ attached to his full lower lip. “Can’t do it then.”
Giles glared at him, marched over and stabbed a finger into his chest. “You are a manipulative, cheeky, infuriating brat, Xander.”
Xander’s smile slipped and he looked at Giles. “I know. It’s all I have.”
Giles looked at him. “It’s really not, you know.” He sighed. “You give yourself too little credit, Xander, and you don’t get given enough either. I’m not sure I ever thanked you properly for saving my Slayer’s life for instance.”
Xander glanced away, shrugging his wide shoulders uncomfortably. “That was ...”
“Enough to cancel out turning her into a rat. Off you go, Xander. Never mind the filing.”
Xander smiled at him gratefully and walked to the door. He paused and said, without looking back, “I’m free second period, Giles. I’ll swing by and give you a hand.”
Giles had had time to reconsider his choice of task. Xander hadn’t been lying about the chaos he could cause; maybe he had more in common with Ethan than Giles had realised. “Really, no need,” he called after Xander. “Really...”
“See you tomorrow!”
Giles took a moment to breathe deeply and then turned to the books. There was only one way to stop Xander.
It took him until midnight to finish the filing but it was worth it.
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