Bait and Switch



John gave Giles a look that blended affection with amusement. "You'll be fine," he said. "Let the lad have his way. He's got his heart set on it."

They glanced at the hotel bar where Xander was standing holding a tray of drinks and chatting to the girl behind the bar who didn't seem to care that he was edging backwards slowly, trying to escape.

"She's new, I take it," Giles asked dryly as the girl giggled and gave Xander an unmistakably flirtatious look.

A slow smile spread across John's face. "Aye. Came over from the mainland a month ago." His eyelid drooped slightly in a wink. "Going to give the lassie a hint?"

"Well I could grab his arse when he finally gets it back here," Giles said, keeping his face straight, "but I'd hate to risk spilling my beer and your dram."

John nodded and patted Giles' knee. "For an Englishman, you've got a fine grasp of the priorities," he said approvingly. "Besides, from the look of her – and him - Xander's done it for you."

Xander came over to them, his face heated. "Well, that wasn't awkward," he muttered, putting the tray of drinks on the table.

Giles carefully avoided looking at the girl who was polishing a glass with considerably more energy than was needed, her face set. "I'm sure you dealt with the situation with your usual charm and tact, Xander."

Xander took a long drink of his pint of bitter before replying. "And you'd be right as usual, Giles. I was charm itself as I explained that the man over there was my partner. She just decided that meant we were in business together and asked –"

"If it was a father and son company?" Giles guessed, his lips twitching slightly as Xander's sentence ground to a halt. "It's perfectly all right, Xander; it's a natural assumption to make."

"No, it isn't!" Xander snapped. He took a deep breath and an even deeper swallow from his glass. "She didn't listen. She just heard what she wanted to. I hate it when people do that."

"Xander-" Giles said gently. "She's bored, hopeful and you're an attractive young man –"

"I'm not available," Xander said flatly. "Shouldn't people be able to tell?"

John settled back in his chair, taking a careful sip at his whisky and staring out of the window at the warm, endless twilight of a Hebridean summer night, looking, Giles thought, as blandly inscrutable as it was possible to be when two friends – one of whom you were still a little in love with – were arguing in front of you.

"It doesn't work like that," Giles said. "You know that."

"I can tell," John said quietly, without looking at them. "You two – I can tell."

An awkward silence fell but when John turned and smiled at them, his blue eyes kind, Giles felt his slight embarrassment melt away.

"John was trying to convince me that my misgivings are groundless," Giles said to Xander, not changing the subject as much as detouring around it. "He wasn't succeeding at all, but perhaps together you can allay my fears."

John chuckled. "And what do you think will befall you anyway?"

"Bitten to death?" Giles enquired coldly. "I stink of insect repellent –"

"Yeah," Xander said. "You really do."

"Just because the midges don't find you tasty, whereas I'm apparently slathered in the midge equivalent of chocolate sauce –" Giles said. "And anyway, the bloody stuff doesn't work." He made a valiant effort not to think about the three bites on his left ankle that were itchy enough to be a continual torment.

"I have some that does," John offered. "Call by before you leave and I'll give you a bottle. It's a recipe my grandmother used and it's magic stuff."

"Literally?" Giles asked suspiciously, forgetting that John wasn't aware of the real nature of the work he did.

John blinked. "Well, no, Rupert." He finished his drink and then added, "But there's a wee charm you can chant as you apply it, if you like. Let me see now, how does it go –"

"No!" Giles and Xander chorused.

John looked slightly hurt. "Verra weel," he said, sounding very Scottish suddenly. "But you're more than welcome to the lotion."

"I'm sorry," Giles said apologetically. "That's very kind of you. I'm just a little –"

"Uneasy. Aye." John stood up, shaking his head. "You're only hiking over to Falston Loch to do some night fishing, you know. If you're lucky, you might catch yourselves a fine breakfast when the fish rise at dawn. I'd join you myself if I thought I wouldn't be, well, imph." He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. "As welcome as yon lassie."

"John –" Xander glanced up at him, his voice emphatic. "You're more than welcome. Always."

Giles nodded. "Absolutely," he echoed sincerely. "In fact, I've just had a marvelous idea –"

"No," Xander said firmly. "John and I are not sleeping rough while you're here at the hotel in the lap of luxury."

"Hardly that," Giles protested. "The bed's a little lumpy you know."

"It'll seem softer tomorrow," John prophesied with a small grin. "And I thank you, but I'll not intrude."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Giles said, after a swift glance at Xander. "I'll go if you will, John; how's that?"

As the smile widened on Xander's face, John sat down again, looking slightly taken aback. "Aye, well. I'm not sure about that."

"It's settled," Xander said, sounding satisfied and draining his drink. "Let's have another drink to celebrate."

"Only if you go and get the round in," Giles said, pulling out a ten pound note and handing it to him.

"No way," Xander said.

John sighed and tweaked the note out of Xander's fingers. "The lassie'll be calling last orders by the time you two have done arguing," he muttered.

***

The heather around the edge of the loch was springy and scented faintly where their feet had bruised it. John breathed in the familiar smell and settled back against his knapsack, his eye going to his fishing rod, propped up in a stand with the line trailing out on the stillness of water before him.

"It's beautiful here," Rupert murmured, passing along the bottle of whisky they'd packed. "So achingly quiet..."

Above them the deep green of the sky, still tinged with light although it was close to ten at night, was cut by the wings and skirling cry of a cormorant. A single star hung gleaming above the horizon, bright enough to be visible in the dusk. The eye, deceived by the false day, complacently viewed a landscape where much was hidden in shifting shadows and thought it saw all.

"I've missed it," Xander said, his voice as soft as Rupert's. "Didn't realise how much until we got on the ferry from the mainland and I smelled the sea."

John smiled, remembering his return to the island after a week in Glasgow once. "It's somewhere you called home," he said. "Even if it was just for a short while."

"I was only here a few days," Rupert objected, "and it feels that way to me as well."

Turning to his right, John passed along the whisky to Xander. "You fitted a lot into those few days, Rupert," he said dryly.

"He's not wrong there," Xander said, abandoning his attempts to attach a fly to his line and setting his fishing rod aside. "Do you notice how you think it's light until you try to do something and then you realise it isn't?"

'Take the whisky away from him, John," Rupert murmured, lying back on the heather, his hand brushing against John's leg. "He's not making sense, or maybe he is. I can't decide which is more alarming."

"Ha. See me laugh? Oh, wait; you can't."

"No..." Rupert said, apparently sinking into a comfortable doze. "Got my eyes shut."

"Yeah..." Xander said, sounding sleepy himself. "Lot of that going around."

"It's early yet," John protested, rescuing the whisky from Xander and making sure the cork top was firmly in.

"It's this air..." Rupert said with a yawn. "I don't see how anyone up here can ever get insomnia."

"There've been nights I couldna sleep," John said, the words slipping out despite his resolve never to make the two he was with feel at all guilty. He'd never hated Rupert, ever, which helped when he was in his company. Envied him, yes, but once he'd met the man – och, he could see well what Xander saw in him. See it and feel a tug of attraction himself.

Although it paled to what he'd felt when Xander had smiled at him. God, nothing would ever – well -

"That wasn't because –?" Xander's words stumbled and fell and he rolled to his side, reaching out to grip John's sleeve. "John – "

"Well of course it was," John said matter-of-factly. "But you mustn't be thinking I went into a decline, laddie." He shook his head, settling himself more comfortably against his knapsack and stretching out his legs. "I wished things had been different, aye, but they weren't, and no one with sense could wish the pair of you with anyone but each other."

"Thank you," Rupert said.

With a small start of surprise, John realised that his left hand was now in the warm, strong grip of Rupert's hand. Clearing his throat and glancing uneasily across at Xander, he murmured, "Think nothing of it. And there's a bite, if I'm not mistaken –"

He tried to sit up, but Rupert's grip tightened. "Ah, Rupert –"

Xander's hand slid up to John's shoulder, pushing him back. "John, if you don't want this –"

"Want what?"

Xander's mouth came down on his in a kiss stripped of all the clumsiness and uncertainty of two summers ago, when John had held him in his arms in the shelter of a dune, with the marram grass piercing the soft, cool sand and kissed him into an awareness of his feelings for two men. John had never forgotten the hours they'd spent kissing and talking and finally parting as friends, nothing more.

He hadn't been the one for Xander. He'd known it, even if Xander hadn't –quite- been ready to admit who that one was.

John twisted his head aside, panting with astonished horror. "Xander – Rupert – God, no."

"No?" Rupert said, sounding doubtful and a little hurt, which Lord knows made no sense.

"No!" John struggled to sit up, wrenching his hand free. "You canna think I want this!"

"Two years," Xander said, sounding older somehow. "I hadn't been back on the island an hour before I'd been told how you'd met someone who liked you and you'd turned them down flat."

"You'll be meaning Ian Adair," John said carefully, cursing the insularity of the island life. "Aye, I did, at least - What of it? I'm not the kind of man to lead someone on. He wasnae the one, or so I thought, and I –"

"How do you know?" Xander said. "You never gave him a chance. You meet a man with the good taste to want you, it's all looking good, and then you panic and don't do more than have a few drinks with him in the bar? You're on a remote island, John; you're not exactly making it easy for yourself, you know."

"Maybe I don't want easy," John said. He took refuge in crudity. "I know where I can get a shag if needed, you know. You needn't think I've been –"

"Turning a summer romance that didn't work out into a reason to put your life on hold?" Rupert interrupted, his voice mercilessly kind.

"I wish you'd both stop this," John said desperately, wishing he could find the words he needed. "You know how I feel for you, Xander, and I've never forgotten you, no, but you canna be thinking I've let it prevent me –"

"Yeah, I do," Xander said. "And I'm not worth it."

"Yes, you are," John blurted out without thinking.

Beside him, Rupert sighed. "To me he is, so perhaps I've no right to tell you that you're wrong, but I will."

"Never mind all that," John said harshly. "What d'ye think you're doing with the kissing and such? I wouldn't have thought  - I thought we were friends."

"We are," Xander said. "If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't be together."

"Well, I don't know about that," Rupert murmured, "but you certainly pointed us in the right direction and we owe you a debt of gratitude."

"Enough that I get a pity-fuck?" John demanded. "I don't think there's enough gratitude in the world for that."

"You'd be surprised what people will do for friends," Rupert said. "Or did you really think I was such a southerner that I minded a night under the stars? I've spent nights sleeping rough in deserts and forest and on mountains. This is remarkably tame in comparison."

"You lied?"

"I was trying to get you and Xander here alone," Rupert replied with a sigh. "But you were being very noble about it."

"I still don't see –"

"I thought that perhaps the problem was that you and Xander had... unfinished business. That once you'd finished it, perhaps you could move on."

"So you'd let me and him – och, you're mad!"

"Perhaps. But Xander seemed to think it was a good idea."

John turned his head to stare at Xander who shrugged. "I did kinda think we'd be double dating by now, John. Didn't think you'd still be alone."

"Maybe I like it," John snapped.

"Ian Adair's still on the island, isn't he?"

"Aye..."

"People seem to think – well, when I say 'people', I mean Mrs Stewart but she's good enough for me – that he's fallen for you with a thud we could probably have heard in London if we'd been listening."

John lay back and closed his eyes, defeated. "I like him fine," he said grudgingly.

"I've seen him," Xander said. "If I wasn't addicted to older English men named Giles, I think I could do better than like him."

Rupert snorted. "You can lust after him all you like," he said equably. "From a distance."

"Oh, like you weren't eying up his ass when he pulling on that mooring rope!"

"Enough," John said firmly. "I'll ... I'll think on it. I'll talk to him." They both seemed to want more and he added, "Ask him on a... a date maybe. Give him a chance."

"Really?" Xander sounded suspicious. "No fooling yourself that there's no spark when there's sparkage all over the place?"

"No, I'll not do that," John said heavily. He took a deep breath. "And now, it's an apology I'm wanting from the two of you."

"You won't get it," Rupert said lazily.

"What for?" Xander asked, reaching across John and punching Rupert's arm. "And he will, Giles. Maybe."

"It wasnae kind to tempt me with something I cannot have," John said, hoping he came across as dignified, not maudlin. "Kissing me like that, Xander and saying – well, you know what you said."

"We weren't joking, you know," Rupert said. "We discussed it and we agreed. I trust Xander implicitly and, as I said, I owe you –"

"Liar," John said, breathing hard with his rising indignation. "You love him too much to ever share him! I never would –"

"I love him enough to have always felt a deep insecurity when it comes to you, John," Rupert said. Xander stirred but said nothing. "Letting you both find out for certain that there was no... spark, would relieve me. I wasn't being entirely selfless."

"Suppose there had been?" John demanded.

Rupert's gaze flicked between them. "I just watched you kiss," he said. "It told me all I needed to know."

"You didn't answer my question."

"I don't need to. Thank God," Rupert added devoutly.

Xander laughed. "Giles, you'd fight tooth and nail for me – or at least I hope you would."

"True... but if you ever think that your happiness comes below mine in my eyes – well, it doesn't."

Rupert sounded definite enough about that and John found himself nodding approvingly. Aye. Xander deserved to be happy.

A thought occurred to him. "Rupert –"

"Yes?"

"I'll let you off the apology and leave you two alone for the night if you answer me one question."

"Yes?" Rupert said, sounding cautious. "If I can, I promise I will. Although you don't have to leave, you know."

John shook his head at the idea that he'd stay after all this but asked, "Where were you planning to go when Xander and I – when we – seeing as it wasn't just the two of us here –"

John was thankful for the deepening shadows that surely hid his scarlet face.

"Going?" Rupert said, and his hand slid into John's again, Rupert's thumb tickling the palm of John's hand and making him shiver. "I wasn't planning on going anywhere."

"Oh God," John said weakly.

"Want to change your mind?" Xander said with a wicked grin.

"No," John said, wishing he could make his voice as firm as his cock suddenly was. "But I'd like to know who taught you to kiss like that, Xander."

"He's right there," Xander said, nodding his head at Rupert. "Why don't you see if I've still got a way to go before I'm as good as him?"

John turned his head and saw Rupert smile before his head came down and his mouth – oh God, yes, Rupert could kiss. John broke away when oxygen became an issue and heard a vaguely needy whimper. He'd have thought it was from him, given how he felt, but he was too busy trying to catch his breath to waste it on sound. Had to be Xander.

"Well?" Rupert said, with an amused look in his eyes.

"You're good," John said, sitting up. "And the pair of you deserve each other, so you do," he added with austere disapproval. He found the whisky, uncapped it and took a long swallow.

"But Ian kisses better than the both of you." Their faces showed identical expressions of surprise and he grinned. "What; you think Mrs Stewart has my bedroom bugged?"

"You –"

"And him-"

"Aye," John said with a deep, abiding satisfaction. "Twice."

"Then why –"

John sighed. "I knew you were coming over to the island. I didn't – aye, at first I was thinking of you, Xander, which is why I wouldn't - but Ian's well, he's verra persuasive and once I'd seen you, seen how happy you two were, I – I went to him last night and – well." He smiled up at the stars he knew were there, waiting for the long winter's nights to be able to shine.

He'd have someone lying beside him this winter. Someone to keep him warm, body and heart.

And if a little of that heart still belonged to Xander, he didn't think it mattered.

A man should love his friends.

The rod jerked and John forgot doomed romances, the pleasant ache in his arse and the fading arousal from two - friendly - kisses.

"Tight line," he murmured, gripping the fishing rod eagerly and feeling it thrum a promise of silver scales and juicy flesh. "Aye, they're rising to the bait tonight."

In and out of the water.


1/4/05


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