One Year On

by Jane Davitt and Wesleysgirl

Xander woke up with his front pressed to Giles' back and one arm around Giles' waist. It wasn't an unusual way for him to wake up – for the most part, he was wrapped around Giles, or Giles was wrapped around him. It was kind of weird, actually, because, before Giles, he'd never been much of a cuddler. Sure, he'd been happy to snuggle up to someone warm and affectionate, but once he wanted to go to sleep there had to be as little body-touching as possible.

With Giles, it was different.

Even, he'd learned recently, when he was feeling what Giles would probably call 'out of sorts.'

There were only two more days of work until the Christmas holidays and he still didn't want to go in. Xander slid a little bit further under the pile of wool blankets and pressed his cold nose to the back of Giles' shoulder.

The flinch and protesting murmur from a sleepy Giles sounded reproachful, and Xander felt a tiny twinge of guilt, but the alarm would've woken him in ten minutes anyway, he reasoned.

"There are more pleasant ways to be woken up, you know," Giles said, without turning over, the words punctuated by a yawn. His hand reached back and slid along Xander's leg, pulling him in even closer. "And I seem to recall you're rather good at them. So why the ice cube on the back approach today? Did I keep you awake snoring? Steal the covers?"

Giles' warm hand was moving in slow strokes and circles along Xander's thigh as he spoke and was doing a good job of making Xander want to stay exactly where he was for the rest of the day.

And making it even harder to deal with the fact that they couldn't.

"No," Xander said, shaking his head, which meant rubbing the tip of his nose over Giles' skin. "Sorry. I guess... I just wasn't thinking." Which, really, was what he wanted to be doing – not thinking.

Giles shifted away to squint at the clock, taking his back out of reach and allowing the cooler air of the bedroom to work its way under the covers. "No wonder. You're awake early; I can't remember the last time that happened. These days I have to kick you out of bed bodily. I'm still leaning towards the theory that you're hibernating."

He rolled over, all sleep-rumpled hair and drowsy green eyes, and gave Xander a tentative smile before brushing a kiss over Xander's nose. "God, you're freezing," he said, tugging the covers around them both. "And no wonder. It's bloody cold in here."

"I know," Xander said, burrowing further down under the blankets and tugging at Giles to come along with him. "And what's wrong with hibernating? Sounds good to me."

Pretty much anything sounded better than getting out of bed and going into the office. He tugged at Giles again, and Giles obliged him by sliding down, too, so that they were both underneath the covers.

"It's nice and warm in here," Xander said seductively, ghosting his mouth over Giles' in a faint kiss.

"It's supposed to be nice and warm out there, too," Giles said, with a slight frown that vanished when Xander made his second kiss more insistent, though still teasingly light. "Are you trying to distract me and make us late?" he asked, running his fingers up Xander's spine to cup the back of his neck and hold him in place. "Because didn't you do that last Monday?"

"Who, me?" Xander kissed Giles again, then pulled back as what Giles had said filtered through to his brain. "Actually, it wasn't anywhere near this cold on Monday, was it?" He threw off the covers and got up, shivering as he quickly put on a pair of sweatpants and his bathrobe, which was cold, too, after lying on the floor all night. "Yeah, something's wrong. You think it's the boiler?"

"I don't know," Giles said, "but can't it wait?" He sounded slightly indignant. "It's still early... come back to bed. With fewer clothes on?"

Xander ran his hand over an icy radiator and shook his head. "Looks like it can't. You start breakfast, and I'll see what I can do. Maybe the pilot light went out or something."

Half an hour tinkering with the boiler didn't get it going. Not, of course, that Xander knew what he was doing; mechanical stuff was a little bit out of his field of expertise, if he even had one of those anymore. Grabbing a clean rag from the pile on the workbench and very deliberately not looking at his long-neglected woodworking tools on the other end, Xander wiped his hands and started up the narrow staircase.

The kitchen, at least, was a little bit warmer; Giles had made coffee, and the smell of that was enough to cheer anyone up. "The water heater's still going, at least," Xander said, gratefully taking the cup of coffee that Giles handed him.

"Small mercies and all that, yes," Giles said. He was paging through the phone book, scribbling down some numbers. "I'll start calling some repairmen, though this close to Christmas... well."

Xander knew what he meant. With Christmas just a few days away, the city seemed to be one giant confusion already, with all the frayed tempers due to stress and over-indulgence that went with the season. No one seemed interested in working, just winding down, and he couldn't blame them.

It hadn't been like this last year, though.

"It's too bad this place doesn't have an open fireplace," he said, remembering the crackle and hiss of the logs burning in the fireplace at Traighshee House and how the scent of the wood smoke had lingered in the air. Giles had taken him to a Guy Fawkes party on November fifth, and the smell of the bonfire had brought back so many memories that he'd spent the night waiting impatiently to get Giles home so they could make some new ones.

"And what would we burn?" Giles asked. He brightened. "I could bring home the contents of my overflowing in-tray."

Xander sipped at his coffee. "You don't have to do that," he said, gesturing at Giles' pad of paper. "I can take care of it."

"Don't be ridiculous – you have enough to deal with at the office. The last thing you need just before the holiday is to spend extra hours on home repairs when there are people well-qualified to make them." Giles didn't even look up at him, focused on what he was doing.

Without saying anything else, Xander set down his cup and went upstairs to take a shower.

Under the hot water, with soap stinging his eyes, he could almost pretend that he was somewhere else. Back on Iona, even, where every night he'd gone to sleep tired, that good kind of tired that you felt right into your bones after a hard day's work. Here, in London, it was just his brain that got tired. Sometimes his eye ached from hours of paperwork and staring at the computer screen, and he felt... well, restless, and frustrated. The training sessions that he and Giles had started when he'd come to London had stopped shortly afterwards, because they were just too busy, and, even though Xander snuck in an occasional run at lunch time when Giles was in a meeting or something, physical activity was few and far between.

He wasn't sure why he hadn't said anything. Oh, sure, he'd complained, but the way Giles had responded made it clear he thought it was just the normal grousing about work that everybody did. And Giles, for all the petty irritants of his job, was loving the chance to prove himself after the way the Council had treated him in the past.

And if he couldn't tell Giles, because, as well as he knew Xander, he seemed to have this blind spot that made him think Xander was doing really well, then who could he tell? Buffy was never around and Willow – Willow was gone. Which made him think back to the day before; the first anniversary of Willow's death. Had to be that which was making him feel this way. Couldn't be –

"Xander? We're going to be – no, we are late," Giles called out, tapping on the bathroom door but not coming in.

He dropped his face down into his hands for just a second, aware of the fact that he wasn't wearing his eye patch, something he only did when he knew he was going to be alone.

Then Xander sighed and straightened up. "I'll be right out," he called to Giles and gave a quick rinse of his hair before shutting off the shower to get ready for work.

* * * * *

Giles let himself into the flat, cursing because the man who'd come out – at double the hourly rate – had left the thermostat turned up so high the place was unpleasantly airless and stiflingly hot. He adjusted it and walked over to the window in the sitting room, opening it cautiously because a rain-laden wind was buffeting the building. The gust of fresh, cold air was welcome, although he knew it wouldn't be long before he'd be forced to close the window again.

The breeze was doing more than cool down the flat; it was blowing hard enough to send the papers scattered over the desk Xander used to the floor. Giles walked over and bent to pick them up, automatically shuffling them square. Something in the middle of the sheaf of paper resisted his efforts, and he tugged it free.

It was a Christmas card, still inside the envelope, which had been torn open carefully. The post mark was Iona, and it was addressed to 'Mr A. Harris' in a neat handwriting Giles had never seen before but had no difficulty in recognizing because he couldn't think of anyone likely to send Xander a card from the island but John.

The Slayers sent there to train barely knew him, Mrs Stewart – well, possibly, but the writing was indefinably, but certainly, masculine. No, it must be from John.

Giles shoved the papers and the card back onto the desk and slammed the window closed.

He told himself, later, that of course he wouldn't have opened it, no matter how much time had gone by while he waited for Xander to get home. In any case, it didn't matter what the card said – it was enough to know that Xander hadn't mentioned it. Had, in fact, tucked it in amongst a pile of other papers where Giles was quite unlikely to have ever seen it, save for the series of events that had unfolded in complete coincidence.

What mattered was that Xander had been distant for days, and Giles wasn't in any way convinced that it had anything to do with Willow's memorial service. Xander had been honest about his feelings there – had spoken about them more openly than Giles would have expected him to. The two of them had spent more than an hour the night before her memorial talking about her, sharing memories of her, but, last night, Xander had seemed distracted from the moment they'd got home, not paying attention to the conversation and barely touching his evening meal. At the time, Giles had written Xander's behavior off as a result of the rather grueling emotions of the service, but now he wasn't so sure.

As it was, he barely had time to bolt the window and turn back around before the front door opened again, admitting Xander and another gust of wind. "Wow. Is it just me, or is it like a sauna in here?"

"It is," Giles said, "but my attempts to change that weren't too successful. I've turned the heating right down; it should cool off soon." He hesitated. "If I'd known you'd be so close behind me, I'd have waited and we could've come home together. Weren't you supposed to be dealing with the last-minute changes to the on-call list over the holidays? Or did you finish that?"

"It's done," Xander said, giving him what seemed an odd, almost hurt sort of look. "I wouldn't have left if it hadn't been. But yeah, it went quicker than I thought it would." He shrugged out of his jacket and brushed his hair back. "I take it the boiler's fixed?"

Clearly, Xander wasn't interested in discussing the other issue any further.

"I think it's safe to assume that, yes," Giles said dryly. He loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves, having discarded his overcoat and suit jacket on entering. "I think I might have to change into shorts or risk heat stroke."

"Nothing wrong with shorts," Xander said, toeing off his shoes and not taking the opportunity to tease Giles for not even owning a pair of proper shorts or to comment on the fact that it would be the only time in London that one might even have the chance to wear warm-weather clothing, both things that he would have done under normal circumstances. "Did you adjust the thermostat?"

"Yes," Giles said, but Xander was already moving over to check it. That done, the younger man turned and looked at him, not quite meeting his gaze, and Giles' stomach twisted. Something was definitely wrong.

"It's my night to cook," Xander said.

"Let me help," Giles said, even though they'd fallen into a routine of taking it in turns because the kitchen was too small for both of them to do more than bump into each other – not that they'd considered that a flaw exactly.

Giles felt a warmth that had nothing to do with external temperature as he recalled several times when they'd let a meal simmer away to a scorched mess because they'd taken accidental brushes of hand on hand and made them deliberate. Which had led to kissing and urgent, fumbled, desperate kissing at that, because, Christ, they just couldn't keep their hands off each other...

Except, apparently, for now, when all Xander did was shrug and say, "It's okay. I can do it."

Still, Giles followed him into the kitchen and stood in the doorway, watching as Xander took a package from the freezer and looked at it for what seemed an inordinately long time.

Xander looked up at him finally. "I'm not really hungry. I think that curry I had at lunch might be staging a revolt." It was difficult to tell if he was serious or just making an excuse.

"I'll make myself a sandwich later," Giles said reassuringly. "Sit down if you're not feeling well; shall I get you a cup of tea? Some water?"

Or a hot water bottle, perhaps a blanket... I sound like his bloody mother, Giles thought ruefully. He gave Xander an appraising look. He didn't look unwell, but claiming to be nauseated was an effective way of fending off someone, and he was starting to wonder if that was what Xander wanted to do.

Xander shook his head and put the package back into the freezer. "No. Actually, I think I might just go to bed." He made a visible attempt to sound more like himself. "Maybe if I can get a good night's sleep I'll feel better in the morning."

"Of course," Giles said, trying not to let his disappointment and concern show. He flinched inwardly as Xander walked past him with a sidelong glance, not pausing for the touch Giles was longing to give him. "We're still going to brave the crowds and search for a Christmas tree aren't we? If there are any left, that is. It's a little late, but we've been so busy..."

They had been busy, Giles thought suddenly, realizing uneasily just how many nights they'd both arrived home with barely enough time to eat and shower before falling into bed to do no more than sleep. Perhaps Xander was simply tired, and he was reading too much into this situation?

"Yeah. We should definitely get a tree." Something in Xander's voice reminded Giles that they hadn't had one the year before. Xander hesitated, then said, "Come to bed soon, okay?"

"It's still a little early," Giles pointed out with a smile, "and I might take advantage of you not being around and wrap some presents. But I won't be long, I promise." He hated himself for what he did next, but jealousy he'd thought long-dead prompted him to nod towards Xander's desk. "Are the tape and scissors in there? I think you used them to wrap the parcel you sent to Buffy and Dawn, didn't you?"

Xander blinked and frowned, rubbing his brow over his eye patch as if he really weren't feeling well. "I think so. Let me know if you can't find them, and I'll try to get my brain to work." Without another word, he turned, and after a moment Giles heard the creak of the third step as he started upstairs to the bedroom.

Xander's complete lack of self-consciousness about the possibility of Giles rummaging around in his desk wasn't needed to make Giles feel both pathetic and guilty – he'd felt that way since the moment he'd seen the card – but it added a gloss of contempt to his self-loathing.

Pouring himself a measure of whiskey – and scowling because, as chance would have it, it was the same single-malt John had given Xander over a year ago – Giles sat down in a chair with his back to the desk and sipped at it slowly. The silence of the room after a day spent with a phone that rang seconds after he'd hung up and a secretary who'd succumbed to the Christmas spirit and spent the day humming carols wearing a red hat with a white pom-pom was welcome, but he couldn't quiet the jangle of his thoughts.

It had been a good year. Oh, there'd been awkward moments, and, although he'd shielded Xander from the gossip as much as possible, spiteful comments that verged from the slanderous to the scurrilous, but they'd weathered them. Xander's competence and the undeniable cachet of being one of the Slayer's inner circle – and somehow, when people spoke of Buffy, one could almost hear it as 'The Slayer,' because, shared power or not, she was still special – had stilled the wagging tongues without Giles having to exercise his authority, which he hadn't really wanted to do.

Harder to deal with had been his own doubts about the wisdom of beginning a relationship with someone so much younger and so emotionally damaged.

That Xander had never shown any signs of regret had helped to lull him until he'd almost, God forgive him, taken it for granted that he was sharing his life with someone he loved, respected and liked. Someone who could arouse him with almost embarrassing ease, too, which was perhaps less easy to take for granted.

With a small, icy shock, Giles realized that he and Xander hadn't made love for days. Every night for the last week there'd been some reason, some delay that had meant by the time they got into bed one of them was already asleep or too tired to do more than murmur a 'good night'. They'd kissed and held each other, and Giles was used to waking up with Xander curled close, but there was something distancing them, and now Giles was aware of it he couldn't see how he'd been so blind.

He heard the sound of water running in the bathroom upstairs – Xander brushing his teeth, something he never failed to do no matter how tired or ill he was – and then the toilet flushed. The rain outside covered up the squeak of the mattress as Xander got into bed, but Giles could imagine it well enough that he didn't need to hear it.

Now that Giles really thought about it, he realized that Xander had been a bit distant, a bit unreachable, for weeks. Possibly longer. Why hadn't he seen it? The thought that Xander might be unhappy with him, ready to move on, made him feel ill, and, at the same time, resigned, because there'd been a small part of him that had suspected all along that this would happen sooner or later.

Getting out of his chair, he went over to the chest by the wall – 'his', in much the same way that the desk was Xander's – and took out Xander's Christmas presents.

He liked wrapping presents as little as the next man, but he'd told Xander that was what he was going to do, and he was damned if he was going to add lying to the tally of his misdeeds.

* * * * *

"There's a card from Kennedy," Xander said, returning to the small dining area with the morning's mail. He offered the card and envelope to Giles, then sat back down and sipped at his coffee, wanting to prolong breakfast as long as he could, even though he knew that this was their last day of work before the Christmas holidays. It would have made more sense for him to be eager to get in to the office and get it over with, but instead he was taking his time, putting the inevitable off for as long as possible. He took a small bite of the toast that was the only breakfast he'd been able to stomach the thought of and refused to let his brain wander in the direction of work, since that would just tie his stomach up in more knots.

"Kennedy?" Giles said, sounding surprised. "That's very kind of her." He studied the card, which was unexpectedly glittery and festive, and then stood up. "Any more to hang up while I'm here?" he asked, reaching up to hook the card over the string they'd put up above the mantel. It was sagging under the weight of cards from all over the world, but there was still room for some more.

"What?" Xander said, cursing himself for not paying attention to the conversation. "Oh, no, just that one. And some bills, but I left those on the phone table." He was too distracted, he told himself. It was one thing to be not that thrilled about work, but it was another when it started affecting his relationship with Giles. That just wasn't okay. Plastering on a smile, he said, "So... Christmas tree today? Assuming we can both get away, I mean."

Giles didn't turn around, just stood there fiddling with the cards. "Of course. We can try the market at the end of Lewis Street; it's on every day this week, and they're sure to have a stall selling them." He turned, and Xander couldn't help noticing that his smile wasn't quite natural. "And we must have holly – wonderful for keeping out evil if it's hung over doorways, and one can't be too careful – and mistletoe if that isn't too scary a thought." He shook his head. "I could never get used to the tiny sprigs of the stuff they sold for exorbitant amounts of money in the States; here it comes in huge bunches for a pound." He frowned. "At least it used to..."

"Even if it's two pounds, I think we can afford some," Xander said. That reminded him that at least money wasn't much of a concern these days – that was one good thing about this job. There had to be others, even if he couldn't think of any just then.

He managed to make small talk until they got to the office and went their separate ways. He had plenty to keep him busy, and for once none of it was do-or-die kind of stuff, so it didn't even have to be all that stressful. It still kind of was, though, and Xander didn't know how to make it not be. A couple of times during the course of the day, he and Giles crossed paths, but they were both preoccupied with work and didn't have more than ten seconds to say 'hi.'

Late afternoon, Xander was sitting at his desk, his head cushioned on his hand so that the heel was pressed to the ache just over his missing eye as he tried to concentrate on some requisition forms. Everything at the Watcher's Council had to be filled out in triplicate, no mistakes, and he had a tendency to miss some of the finer details unless he gave the forms his complete attention.

"Mr Harris?"

He glanced up and groaned as the one person in the place who was resisting the urge to party, Mrs Westingham, bustled in bearing, not a partridge in a pear tree, but a stack of files.

"You'll need to do these before you leave, I'm afraid," she said in a firm voice.

"He most certainly does," said Giles, appearing in the doorway wearing his coat and holding Xander's jacket. "Sadly, he won't be able to." Xander reached up his hand automatically and caught his jacket as Giles threw it over.

"Mister Giles," she said, drawing out his name and giving him what Xander had to admit was a pretty scary glare. "Work has to be done, no matter what the season, as your predecessor was only too aware."

Giles took the files from her and flipped through them as Xander watched in delighted horror. "This can wait until next week... and this... and this. This is urgent and – " He reached out for a pen and scribbled, 'Approved by R.G.' across the last sheet, " – now it's done." He thrust the remainder of the files back into Mrs Westingham's hands and gave her a dangerous smile. "And those shouldn't be anything Mr Harris needs to be troubled with, as any half-competent clerical staff can clear them. Let me see, that would be the staff you're in charge of, am I correct?"

Mrs Westingham blinked in what looked like disgruntled outrage. "I am. And as such, it's my job to make sure that these things are done in a timely manner."

"Then I'd suggest that you find someone else to do them," Giles said, walking determinedly over to Xander and taking him by the arm. "Mr Harris and I have a previous engagement."

Astonished, Mrs Westingham could only stammer as Xander found himself being walked through the doorway and out into the hall.

"I can't believe you just did that," Xander said, surprised and thrilled and, he was sure, doing a terrible job of hiding it.

"Harridan," Giles muttered. He gave Xander an exasperated look. "Why didn't you tell me she was loading you down with all that junk?" He shook his head. "Never mind, I know why; you're so determined not to ask for favors, not to take advantage of our personal relationship, that you'd have let her convince you it was part of your job to empty the wastepaper bins."

The corridor was empty, but Xander didn't think Giles even checked before yanking him close and giving him an irritable, bruisingly hard kiss.

"You owe me," Giles said with his lips hovering an inch away from Xander's, a mischievous grin replacing his stern look. "I suggest you start thinking of suitable ways to repay me for rescuing you."

Still kind of stunned, Xander nodded and closed his fingers around a fold of Giles' coat sleeve. "This is... are you sure we can do this?"

"Leave? Yes. If anything really urgent occurs we can be back here in under twenty minutes." Giles smiled a little grimly. "And if that wasn't what you meant, I'll point out that kissing seems to have replaced a nod, smile or handshake around here. I don't think anyone's likely to raise an eyebrow about us when Angela's demonstrating mouth-to-mouth on everyone who wanders past the reception desk."

In reply, Xander leaned forward and kissed Giles, just as quickly and fiercely as Giles had kissed him half a minute before. "Let's get out of here," he said, feeling light-hearted for the first time in days.

He started towards the stairs, and Giles cleared his throat. "You really don't want to go that way. Trust me."

"Emergency exit?"

"Excellent idea."

It didn't take them long to get to the market. Giles drove, which was, as always, just fine with Xander, even if there were times when it kind of made him feel like he was a kid and couldn't be trusted behind the wheel. Which wasn't Giles' fault – Giles didn't treat him like that. It was just that Xander still felt out of place in London, like he didn't belong, and like maybe he never would. Like maybe he'd never fit in here, and it would always feel like someone else's home. Not his.

Xander gave himself a brisk mental shake as Giles deftly maneuvered the car into what looked like too small a parking space a few blocks from the market. "Hey, it's not raining," he noticed for the first time, getting out onto the street side carefully and pulling his hat down over his ears, because, even if there wasn't any rain, it was darned cold.

"Good," Giles said, locking the car up and pocketing the keys. "You've no idea how messy it can get with a wet tree." He laughed. "Once, when I was a child, we cut our own from the wood behind us; simpler times and no one minded. It was covered in snow and looked very festive. We thought we'd shaken most of it off, but as soon as it was placed in its bucket beside the fire, every particle of snow melted and we had a brief indoor monsoon."

Xander laughed, too, recapturing some of the care-free mood he'd had in the hallway at the office. "I was picturing kind of a small tree. More spring shower than monsoon."

Giles began to walk, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I think we'll have to go with whatever's left – and whatever we can fit in the boot of the car."

It took them a while to navigate the crowds of shoppers, who all seemed to have tense, harried faces and were clutching bulging bags, and get to the market. The stalls were starting to close up, and it was getting dark. As luck would have it, the stall with the trees was at the far end, and they walked as quickly as possible along the muddy street, littered, around the produce stalls, with squashed and slimy fruit and vegetables.

As soon as they got near the trees, one of them caught Xander's eye. There was something Charlie-Brown-Christmas-y about it – it was a little bit lopsided, and not quite as full as it could have been. In short, it was perfect. "This one," he said.

"Really?" Giles sounded a little surprised. "That was very fast. Going by the length of time it takes you to choose a DVD to rent, I'd expected us to be here for hours." He glanced at the rather pitiful choice. "Well, fifteen minutes, perhaps," he amended.

Xander reached in to the trunk and gave the tree an experimental heft – it was heavier than it looked but still light enough that he'd be able to carry it by himself. The smell of the sap, faint but acrid, clung to the tree. It made him feel right again, in a way he didn't think he had for some time. "Definitely this one," he said. "It's perfect. Don't you think?"

"It's got a certain charm to it," Giles allowed. "Fine; I'll get the holly and the mistletoe while you pay for it, shall I?" He moved a few steps away, studying the bunches of greenery hanging from the roof of the stall, dotted with red or white berries.

Xander stopped, watching Giles now that the other man's attention was on something else. He felt two totally opposite things – a sweeping, almost scary rush of love, and an equally terrifying sense of being trapped, of crushing himself into a mold in which he didn't fit...

And then the scent of the tree washed over him again, and everything was okay. For that moment, at least.

By the time he'd finished paying for the tree, Giles had a wrapped bunch of green viney things and was just pocketing his change. He was still, Xander noted, standing underneath the roof.

"You do realize where you're standing, don't you?" Xander asked, stepping closer and speaking in a low voice.

Giles gave a startled glance upwards, as if he was expecting something to fall on him. "What? Oh..."

Giles flushed slightly, one hand coming up and then falling back in what Xander knew was an aborted attempt to polish the glasses he'd stopped wearing six months ago. He knew why Giles was acting so spooked. They weren't big on the romantic gestures in public, for several reasons, but right now none of them seemed to matter much to Xander. He leaned the tree up against one of the support poles of the stall, half-screening Giles, and waited.

"It's traditional..." Giles said thoughtfully, the tension leaving him as Xander watched. "I'm a great believer in tradition."

He took Xander's hand and tugged him closer, linking their fingers as their lips met in a brief, warm kiss.

"See, now this is the kind of tradition I can get behind," Xander murmured, sliding his hand inside Giles' coat in a brief caress. "Okay, we'd better go before we tempt fate any more."

He picked the tree up again, brushing off Giles' offer to help carry it, and they started back through the market. It was late enough that the market was emptying out, and, by the time they got back to the car and Giles unlocked the trunk, it was pretty dark.

"It's not going to fit, and I don't want to break the branches," Giles said, helping Xander to push it inside. The tree seemed to be protesting its imprisonment, with branches springing up every time they tried to close the trunk. "We could do with some string to tie the lid down."

"It's okay, I've got it," Xander said, shoving the tree far enough out of the way to grab the ball of twine that he'd seen earlier. Once he had it, it didn't take long to secure the trunk with a couple of quick knots, the tree's branches tucked carefully out of the way.

He stood up, brushing off his hands, which were still kind of sticky with pine sap, to find Giles looking at him with a funny expression on his face.

"You know, when you do something like that, you look so – " Giles broke off and gave a rueful head-shake. "So competent. It would have taken me twice as long, and I'm fairly certain I'd have turned the air blue and ended up scratched if not actually bleeding. I don't consider myself all fingers-and-thumbs by any means, but you – well." He stared off into the distance and then gave himself a little shake. "I do pay you the oddest compliments, don't I? I'm sorry."

Xander felt competent. Underneath that feeling was a vague sense of unease, but he was nothing if not good at repressing, so he grinned at Giles. "Hey, better an odd compliment than none at all, right?"

"I'm sure I can come up with better ones," Giles said, giving him a quick smile. "It's really not difficult." He opened the door and slid behind the wheel, waiting for Xander to get in before starting the engine. "I could start with the obvious and tell you that after a year I've still only got to be near you to want you. I can get very detailed about those sorts of compliments. Or I could focus less on your charms and more on your strength of character and really make you feel uncomfortable."

"I vote for an evening without discomfort," Xander said, remembering to put on his seat belt as Giles pulled out onto the street. "If we're voting."

"Is that a polite way of telling me to save the compliments? Because I'll try, but I'm not sure I'll be entirely successful." Giles sounded like he was having difficulty keeping his voice light, and he came close to crashing into the car in front of them – which kept braking for no apparent reason – when he turned his head and gave Xander a perturbed look.

"Watch the road," Xander said, keeping his voice gentle because he wasn't sure what Giles' problem was. When Giles had turned his attention back toward his driving, Xander said, "Okay, what was that look about?"

"What look?" Giles said automatically before sighing. "I shouldn't try and hide anything from you, should I? It's just – is there anything the matter? You seem a little – have I done something wrong?"

"What?" Xander's frown deepened. "No. What could you have done wrong?" It seemed easier, instinctively, to concentrate on that part of what Giles had said.

"You really want to know?" Giles asked. He sounded – bitter? Xander wasn't sure. Definitely not happy. "I suppose you're entitled. Last night – well, let's just say I came very close to doing something I would've regretted, prompted by jealousy and frustrated sentimentality." His hands tightened on the wheel as he turned off the main road and into the street where they lived. "To say I'm feeling ashamed of myself is an understatement, and perhaps it's led me to wonder if you somehow know and are... disappointed? Even angry?"

Genuinely confused, Xander said, "Wait. What? What did you almost do? Why would I be disappointed?" He turned in his seat so that he could face Giles.

Giles didn't answer until he'd parked the car and turned off the lights and the engine. The interior of the car was dark; the nearest street light was flickering with a pale orange glow that meant it was unlikely to last the night. The shadows that cloaked them seemed to match Giles' mood.

"As I forgot your birthday until the post arrived with cards from Buffy and Dawn, I suppose it's a little strange that I remembered that last night was the anniversary of the first time we kissed, slept together. But I did. And it's very selfish of me to have regretted your tiredness not out of concern for you – though I was, of course – but because I was hoping – never mind."

Giles had turned to face Xander when he started speaking, resting his elbow on the back of his seat so that his hand was close to Xander's shoulder. He reached out and Xander reacted instinctively, lifting his hand to cover Giles' as it gripped his shoulder.

"I forgot," Xander said honestly, feeling guilty because he should have remembered. "I was just... I guess I've been..."

There, he ran out of words. What was he supposed to say? That he wasn't sure he was cut out to be a Londoner, that there were days when sitting behind that desk felt like a prison, days when the piles of paperwork made him feel like clawing his other eye out? None of those things would change the fact that he'd stay, for Giles, no matter how bad it got.

"Preoccupied?" Giles asked. "I've noticed. And been too much of a coward to ask why because I thought I knew. Knew that you were feeling – dissatisfied – with some things. With me. And that brings me rather neatly to what I'm feeling guilty about. Xander, when I got home last night it was so hot I opened a window. Which led to everything on your desk being blown off it. When I picked the papers up – Xander, I didn't open it, I do ask that you believe me. I would never – but I – God, this is so pathetic! I'm so..."

Giles stopped speaking and pulled his hand free, turning away to fumble with the door as if he were desperate to get as far away as possible. "I'm sorry. Look, let's just get this blasted tree upstairs shall we?"

Xander let him get out, because having this kind of conversation in the confines of the car didn't seem like a good idea. He quickly opened his own door, crushed himself against the car when one driving past was a little too close for comfort, then slammed the door and strode around to the sidewalk, getting in Giles' way so that the other man had no choice but to stop. "Okay, maybe I'm just being slow, here, but what the hell are you talking about?"

"You. Getting cards from John. Getting tired of me. Getting – going away." Giles stared at him, a deep weariness in his eyes. "It's nothing I didn't expect, Xander. Please don't think I'm going to make it difficult for you if you want to leave."

What Xander's brain heard was pretty much: Card. John. Leave. What his mouth said was, "What?" even as he figured out what Giles was talking about – the Christmas card from John, the one that he'd forgotten about. The one that had both their names in it. "Stay here," Xander said.

Without any more explanation, he turned, fumbling in his pocket for his keys and dropping the ball of twine onto the ground. He stormed over to their front door, unlocked it, and went inside, flicking a light on and heading straight for the desk, where he immediately spotted the envelope in question. He started back for the doorway, but Giles was already standing there, looking upset.

"Here," Xander said, tearing the envelope in his haste to get the card out. "It's to both of us. I wasn't hiding it, or... whatever you thought I was doing. I just forgot."

"I just – I only saw the envelope," Giles said. "Oh God, of course he wouldn't have addressed it to both of us – Xander, I'm – " Without taking the card from Xander's outstretched hand, he walked over to the couch and sat down heavily. Staring down at the floor he said softly, "I'm sorry. I made a mistake. But it doesn't change anything." He glanced up, meeting Xander's eyes squarely. "Do you think I don't know when you're unhappy?"

Oh God. "What?" Xander said faintly. He knew he'd already used that word way too many times that afternoon, but apparently it was all he could come up with. He walked over to the desk and set the card and envelope down on it, then went to the couch and sat down next to Giles. The front door was still open, but he didn't care. This was more important.

"I'm fine," he said, almost to see how it sounded.

"Of course you are." Giles said, nodding. "Absolutely fine, if that's defined as withdrawn, depressed and – Xander, you're just not yourself these days. I can't point to anything in particular, can't give an example, which is probably why it's taken me so long to realize it, but you're just – you've changed." He looked down at his hands, clasped loosely in his lap. "And I'm wondering if it's because this isn't where you want to be any more. With me, I mean."

Xander shook his head. "No. You're the only... I do want to be with you. I love you. That hasn't changed."

Giles gave him a small, rather half-hearted smile. "I think you know what my next question will be." He stood up. "Why don't you think about your answer while we unpack the car? If we leave that tree out there much longer I think we'll be lucky to have more than a few stray needles left. It might be Christmas, but this is still London."

"Yeah, but they'd have to have a knife or something to cut the twine," Xander said, trying to sound more like himself, and, to be honest, trying not to think about the whole kettle of worms – wait, fish – Giles had just brought up. Still, he got up and followed Giles back outside, where he used the tiny jackknife on his key chain to free the trunk – of the tree, since technically the trunk of the car was called the 'boot,' something he'd learned but not really absorbed – from the car.

Carrying it up the stairs with Giles following him in silence, his arms full of the festive greenery which was starting to seem a huge mistake, Xander tried to think how he could make Giles see –

"I love you, too, you know," Giles said quietly.

Xander let the tree take its chances leaning against the wall and turned to Giles, who had deposited his burden on the table and was shrugging out of his coat. There weren't any words to tell Giles how that still made him feel as if the sun was shining, he'd won the lottery and it was his birthday all rolled into one – so he didn't say anything as he crossed the room to Giles, shedding his coat as he walked.

He grabbed onto Giles' upper arms, feeling the thin, fine fabric of his dress shirt under his palms, and kissed him.

It was a thorough, deep kiss, Xander's lips encouraging Giles' to part so that he could flick his tongue inside, tasting Giles in a way that their earlier kisses that day hadn't allowed for. He pushed his hips forward, rubbing his swelling erection against Giles' thigh so there'd be no question as to his intentions.

The tiny moan Giles gave as his eyes closed was encouragement enough, even without the hands that slid around to cup Xander's ass and pull him closer still.

Any hint of hesitation that had been lingering vanished in that moment, and Xander kissed Giles harder, walking him backward until he was pressed to the door frame. He swallowed the small gasp of surprise that Giles uttered and reached between them, cupping Giles' erection with his hand, feeling it throb and harden at his touch. "You taste good," he murmured, then realized that wasn't enough and fumbled with the front of Giles' trousers, struggling to undo them.

Xander dropped to his knees as the trousers slid down Giles' thighs, nuzzling the front of his boxers, blowing warm air through the fabric and mouthing at Giles' cock.

He half-expected Giles to protest – although given the way his cock was reacting, it would have had to be a token protest – but Giles seemed too stunned to do more than accept what was being done to him, encouraging it wordlessly by dropping his hand down to knead Xander's shoulder almost painfully, even as his other hand fumbled to free his cock from the thin fabric.

Xander grabbed Giles' wrist, stopping him from taking even that much control, and pinned it to the wall. He felt it tense, as though Giles was thinking about struggling, and then relax. Trusting that Giles would get the message, Xander released him and saw to stripping Giles of everything he was wearing below the waist, pushing it aside impatiently.

Giles moaned his name, his hips arching just enough that the head of his cock, slick already, slid across Xander's mouth, painting his lips with the taste he'd been craving.

Giving one quick lick, Xander then took Giles into his mouth with a groan, sucking and sliding his tongue around, dropping one hand down to adjust his own aching erection to a more comfortable position in his pants before using both hands on Giles, one on his balls and one on the base of his cock. Giles moaned again, and there was a dull thud as Giles' head tipped back against the door frame.

Giles was making an effort to hold still, Xander could tell, but he seemed unable to stop himself from pushing forward just a little, small thrusts that sent his cock deeper into Xander's mouth. Xander shifted his hand from Giles' balls to his thigh, fingers spread against it, holding Giles in place. The whimper he got for that left him tingling, and if he got any harder he didn't think he'd be able to go much longer without unzipping.

Lifting his head, he used the tip of his tongue to trace a pattern across the sensitive tip of Giles' cock, glancing upwards as he did so and taking in the sight of Giles, panting, open-mouthed, his hands curling into fists at his sides.

Xander slid his lips down along Giles' cock again, sucking harder, using his hand to increase the amount of skin that was being stimulated. He could feel how close Giles was to coming by the tension in the thigh under his hand, by how hard Giles' cock was and the sounds Giles was making. All he could think was that he was determined to prove to Giles that he loved him, to drive any lingering doubts from his mind.

He'd never done anything like this before, mostly letting Giles take the lead, though it wasn't as if Giles ever acted like this with him, not really. And just thinking about how it'd feel if he did, once in a while, made his cock throb with an insistent urgency. He'd been given the confidence to do this through panic – and if he wasn't entitled to panic when Giles was talking them into breaking up for no good reason, then he didn't know when he was. Which made no sense and all the sense in the world.

Giles was close now, and Xander finally let him move, slipping his hand around the back of Giles' leg and using the leverage to pull Giles towards him. A year ago he'd have been choking, but a lot had changed in a year.

Giles' hips gave a couple of short, quick jerks forward, his cock sliding between Xander's lips, and Xander couldn't help but groan softly. His hand clutched at the back of Giles' bare thigh, encouraging Giles to do whatever he needed to do, to fuck his mouth hard, if he wanted to, and that thought made Xander groan again.

As if Giles had been waiting for some signal that the rules had changed and that sound was it, he moved, resting his hands on Xander's shoulders. He didn't press down, but Xander could feel the weight of them. Strong hands. He'd seen those hands doubled into fists, seen the knuckles skinned and bloody. He'd seen the scars left by Angelus, felt the small bumps left where broken bones had reformed. He knew those hands. He'd kissed them, tasted himself on each finger, felt them touch and caress and slip inside his body.

Giles didn't need to do more than rest them like that, palms curved, fingers spread, for Xander to wish he could feel them against his skin.

He had to remind himself that it wasn't just about him – it was about Giles, and them, together. He slid his other hand around to Giles' ass, cupping it, feeling taut muscle under the skin, and wordlessly told Giles to move.

Giles did, his cock slipping deeper into Xander's mouth for a second before withdrawing, hot, swollen skin slicking wetly through Xander's lips and then in again, even deeper this time. Giles groaned, his hands tightening on Xander's shoulders, and fucked his mouth again. Xander was an eager, willing participant, sucking as hard as he could.

Giles' movements began to speed up as the fine line of his control began to blur. Xander could feel it shred with every thrust, every choked gasp that forced its way past Giles's lips. He couldn't look up now; all his concentration was needed to make this perfect for Giles, for them, so that each surge forward was met with his tongue, swirling and lapping, each swift jerk back with the faintest scrape of his teeth.

He felt Giles' cock harden still more, and Giles froze for a second, then cried out Xander's name, his hands clutching hard enough to hurt, not that Xander cared right then. He could feel the shudder that went though Giles, feel the moment when he began to come, his back arching so that his cock went deeper still. Xander pulled back just a little so he could swallow, his own arousal so intense that he had to fight not to follow Giles over.

The taste was familiar, almost reassuring, and it made Xander's mouth fill with a rush of saliva as he determinedly coaxed every last pulse from Giles, whose hands were loosening on his shoulders.

When Xander pulled back to look up at Giles, the other man was looking down at him, eyes dark.

Without speaking, Giles fell to his knees, gathering Xander to him and kissing him hard. Xander had never gotten used to the way it felt when Giles kissed him. Even a brief, almost friendly kiss was something to savor, but when he was being kissed like this, Giles' mouth hungry and demanding, his tongue sliding against Xander's, it was overwhelming.

Giles' hands were on him, tugging impatiently at his clothes. "Want these off," he told Xander hoarsely, breaking the silence. "Want to see you, touch you..."

Xander was just as anxious for more – between the two of them, it didn't take long for him to shed his clothes, although it did require some rather awkward contortions because they just couldn't seem to stop kissing each other. "Just... here," Xander said, almost tearing the sleeve of his shirt in his haste to get it off, and then Giles' hands were on his bare chest, and he groaned.

Giles had taken off his shirt, too, which meant Xander would've had something good to look at if he could've brought himself to move away from Giles. Wasn't going to happen. He happily swapped the pleasure of looking at that solid, deceptively strong body for the immediacy of being close enough for Giles to touch him.

And Giles was taking full advantage of that. His hands were skimming over Xander's body, caresses that were on the rough side, but Xander wasn't going to break, and knowing that he could do this to Giles was driving him crazy.

"You do realize," Xander said finally, between heated kisses, "that we're naked on the sitting room floor?"

Giles made a small sound of agreement, which was pretty much all he could do, since he was kissing Xander again, his hands on Xander's back, pulling him closer. Xander's erection was pressed to Giles' abdomen, and, God, it felt so good.

Then Giles reached down, running the edge of his thumb up the length of Xander's cock and across the head, and good just got better.

Xander wrenched his mouth away from Giles' to gasp out his name, needing to say something to make Giles do that again, but Giles already was, repeating the slow, firm pressure, watching Xander's reaction as he did it.

"What do you want, Xander?" he murmured. "What do you want to do now?"

"I want... Ahh, God, I can't think when you're doing that." Xander reached down and stilled Giles' hand, and Giles let him. Xander couldn't resist the impulse to kiss Giles again, hard, and, again, Giles let him take the lead, let him control the force of their mouths against each other. "I want you," Xander said, meaning something he'd never meant before when he said it.

Giles gave him a look that came close to making Xander come right then, narrow-eyed and oddly satisfied. "I wondered how long it would take you to tell me that," he said, cupping the side of Xander's face and dragging his thumb lightly across Xander's mouth. "Here? Or do you think we can make it to the bedroom?"

"The bedroom," Xander said, caught up in the moment so entirely that nothing else mattered. He got to his feet, pulling Giles up, too, then led the other man toward the stairs. "I want to do this in our bed."

In the bedroom, he didn't even bother to turn on the lights, just pushed Giles down onto the bed and climbed on top of him, rubbing against him, feeling the soft inside of Giles' thigh against his hard cock.

He kissed Giles' mouth again, roughly, then moved his lips to Giles' neck, licking and biting. "I want to fuck you," he muttered. "God, I want to. Want you so bad."

Giles moved his head restlessly against the pillow, "That feels so – " He made an inarticulate sound, raking his nails down Xander's back hard enough to leave a sting behind. "Fuck me, Xander. Want you to. Please."

Xander groaned and reached for the lube. Surprisingly, he didn't feel particularly nervous, even though he'd never actually done this before. On the other hand, he'd been on the receiving end a hell of a lot of times, and it couldn't be all that different.

He slid slick fingers over Giles' balls and then below, teasing Giles gently, and Giles moaned and rocked his hips. They'd done this much before, sometimes when Xander was sucking Giles off, but he'd never put more than a finger inside Giles' ass, and now he could only wonder why, when it was so tight and hot in there...

He tried to imagine what it would feel like to have that heat against his cock, how relentless the pressure would be, and had to stop everything for a moment, stilling the gentle movement of his hand, resting his forehead against Giles' shoulder as he regained control.

Then, just as Giles shifted and began to speak, Xander added a second finger, pushing in firmly and slowly, lifting his head so he could watch Giles' face as he did it.

And he wondered if he looked like this when Giles was fucking him; open, vulnerable, expectant. Maybe he did. Because there was always a moment when Giles smiled down at him reassuringly, lovingly, and he could feel that smile curve his own lips now as he drew a moan from Giles with a twist of his wrist.

Xander withdrew his fingers, stifling Giles' slight whimper with his mouth, kissing him gently. "You sure this is okay?"

"God, yes," Giles said hoarsely. "Don't stop. Please." He wrapped his hand around Xander's wrist, rubbing his thumb over the pulse point and in circles on Xander's palm. The unexpected caress sent a small shock of arousal through him, sweeping away any doubts.

He reached for the lube and passed it to Giles. "Put it on me," he said. "I want to feel your hands on me." And he echoed back Giles' last word. "Please?"

Giles seemed happy to oblige, even if the first wet touch of his fingers made Xander gasp and twitch and close his eyes. He had to breathe slowly, concentrating so that he wouldn't come right then, as Giles spread lube over skin that felt so tight and sensitive that Xander wasn't sure he could stand it.

"Keep breathing," Giles advised, sounding... God, so turned on and eager, his left hand sliding down to coat Xander's balls with lube, too, even though that wasn't really necessary.

Xander watched as Giles reached over and let the lube drop to the floor, heard the muffled thud as it hit. The smell of the lube, vaguely medicinal, struck Xander as he took his cock in hand and guided it to the right spot, and he groaned as he started to push inside, forcing himself to keep control.

It helped that he knew how Giles would be feeling – well, it helped him not to worry that he was hurting him, although it didn't do much to take the edge off his arousal. It let him be there with a kiss as Giles gasped at that first wave of sensation, half burn, half tickle, weird though that sounded, maddeningly not enough and too much all at the same time. It let him remember to take it slowly, nudging, gentle thrusts, eased by the generous coating of slick.

And when Giles' fingers dug into his arms and his hips tilted just right, it let him know that he didn't have to go slowly any more, and he drew back just enough and began to fuck Giles, lost in the look of pleasure that spread over Giles' face.

"God, you're so..." But Xander didn't really have words for it, for the strength and heat of Giles' body around him, for the way Giles moved to meet every thrust, for the fact that he was actually fucking someone again instead of being fucked, and everything that went along with that. And Giles was letting him – no, not just letting him, but loving it, and him, and Xander crushed his mouth to Giles' and thrust faster, letting his body take over, take control.

He'd been too close to coming for too long to make it last, but it didn't matter. Giles was doing nothing but encouraging him, with his hands, his mouth and the sounds he was making; guttural, urgent noises that wrapped around Xander the way Giles' body was.

He wanted to come, but not until – he reached between them and palmed Giles' cock, fitting it inside the tight circle of his fist and working it in time with his own final thrusts until he lost the ability to do more than cry out as his climax rolled over him.

Xander's cock throbbed so strongly that he wasn't sure he was going to stay conscious, and then he felt a warm wetness against his abdomen and the almost painful tightening of Giles' body around him, and everything went gray and fuzzy for a few seconds.

When he was able to remember to breathe again, he was collapsed on top of Giles. He gave a great gasp for air, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. "You okay?" he murmured.

Giles' hand moved in slow strokes on his back. "God, yes," he sighed. "More than that. You were – Xander, are you all right?"

Xander moved to the side so that his weight wasn't pressed down on Giles, grabbing a handful of tissues from the night-stand and passing some to Giles, who took them with a murmured word of thanks.

"All right? Yes. Hovering on the edge of consciousness, but otherwise okay." Xander smiled at Giles reassuringly. He felt like maybe part of his brain had melted with the force of his orgasm and taken with it whatever it was they'd been talking about before, which he had a vague feeling should be just fine with him. When they were both as clean as they'd get without a shower, he put his arm around Giles' waist and snuggled close. "That was... wow. Do you think we could do it again some time?"

"As long as you're not talking about in the next hour or so, most certainly," Giles said, stretching out with a contented murmur. He gave Xander a gentle kiss, holding him close. "I love you. I don't tell you that often enough. And it's not just because of times like this, wonderful though that was. You, in my life, it's just – " He shook his head. "It's more than I deserve."

But Xander knew that he was the one who should feel grateful – he wasn't stupid, after all. He knew exactly how lucky he was, and there was no way he was going to take any chance on screwing things up. No way at all. "Hey," he said, keeping his tone light and joking. "You deserve all kinds of good things. Possibly the kind that don't leave wet towels on the bathroom floor and forget to write 'sugar' on the grocery list."

"I didn't say you were perfect," Giles pointed out with a straight face. He ran his hand down Xander's back until it rested snugly against his ass. "But I'll overlook your many flaws – "

"My what?" Xander said indignantly.

"Many flaws," Giles said. "Like the way you interrupt me when I'm about to tell you how they don't matter because I wouldn't want them to change. Wouldn't want you to change."

Xander pressed himself more closely to Giles and sighed. "I think we should wait until tomorrow to put up the tree. We could order in some dinner and come back to bed early?" That thought made his cock give a half-hearted twitch of interest.

"I think you're absolutely right," Giles said, tilting his head to bite down gently on the curve where Xander's neck met his shoulder, the one spot guaranteed to make him shiver. "The tree can wait. Food we don't have to cook sounds like a good idea, too." He nuzzled into Xander's neck. "Going to be difficult ordering it, paying for it, and eating it, when I'm not inclined to let you move an inch, though."

Xander rolled on top of Giles again, pinning him to the mattress. "Who says I'm going to want to let you move?" he asked, and kissed Giles hard. By the time he pulled back, Giles' eyes were dilated. "Well, I might let you go as far as the shower. But only because I'm thinking I might like to fuck you again in there." The thought of being in control like that sent a delicious shudder through him, and he grinned to make sure Giles knew he wasn't turning into a different person or anything. "And then maybe you could fuck me in here. I guess we'll have to find time in there for dinner..."

"To keep my energy levels from flagging?" Giles said, arching an eyebrow. He gave a slightly shaky laugh. "That sounds exhausting and wonderful at one and the same time." He turned his head to place a kiss against Xander's hand, still wrapped around his wrist and holding him in place. "I'm going to place myself entirely in your hands then." His green eyes were half-closed as he relaxed, and the glance Xander got from them was half challenge, half surrender. He wasn't sure which turned him on more.

This was definitely going to be an interesting evening.

* * * * *

"It looks perfect," Giles said for the sixth time, hearing the desperation creeping into his voice. He took a sip of the whiskey that he'd allowed himself after the late lunch that had followed an even later breakfast. And a very late night. He stared appreciatively, not at the tree, swaying dangerously as Xander twisted it around on the stand, but at Xander himself, letting his gaze go from dark hair, still slightly too long for the office, not that he gave a toss about that, down to an arse he had fond memories of touching and kissing and – well, there really wasn't anything he hadn't done to it... Not after the night before...

"Just perfect. Can we start to decorate it now?"

He transferred his gaze to the box of decorations, all new of course, with a soft dazzle of silver tinsel cloaking the rainbow assortment of balls and lights.

"No," Xander said, giving the tree one last adjustment before crawling backward and looking up at it. He'd rolled his shirt sleeves up and looked fairly relaxed. "Well, okay, yes. But only because at this point there's so much sap on my hands that if I touch the trunk again I don't think you'd be able to pry me off with a crowbar."

Xander stood up, hands at his sides. "You go ahead and get started," he told Giles. "I'll be right back."

Giles didn't, of course, want to start without Xander, so he contented himself with lifting one ornament from the box and fiddling with it while listening to the sounds Xander was making washing his hands in the kitchen.

In moments, Xander was back, sliding an arm around Giles' waist from behind and hugging him close. "Okay, what's first? Is there a special order?"

"You never – ?" Giles remembered too late to censor himself that Xander's Christmases hadn't been the kind that involved much participation in rituals like this. "I think it's supposed to be best to put the lights on first." He turned his head to give Xander a kiss and smiled at him. "New as they are, they should all work."

Xander moved around and dug through the box until he came up with the three boxes of lights. "Better plug them in and check first just to be sure." He opened the boxes and took out the lights, going over and sitting on the floor beside the outlet and plugging in the first string. It lit up in a brilliant bundle of color.

The second string lit as well, but the third flickered and then went out. Giles was busy by that time spreading a blanket underneath the tree, so he didn't know anything was wrong until he heard Xander say, "Hmm."

"We could always make do with two strings?" Giles suggested.

"No, it's okay," Xander said, fiddling with the string, which he'd unplugged. "It's just... there's this loose wire... I'm gonna get some electrical tape."

"Really, we could just make do... or I could try the corner shop; they're bound to have some..." Giles let his voice trail off. Xander was already heading towards the cupboard where he kept his battered but neatly arranged toolbox and looking, not happy exactly, but purposeful.

The same way Xander'd looked when he'd been trimming the branches so that the tree fitted perfectly into the corner, with room for the star on top. The same way he'd looked when he was trying to fix the boiler, tying knots, fucking Giles into a state of blissful incoherence.

The way he never looked at work.

Giles turned away with a muttered excuse Xander barely heard and went to their bedroom. They'd not given it the customary, if cursory, tidying it usually got in the morning, and he moved around, opening the curtains, smoothing the bed covers – before changing his mind and stripping the sheets, as they needed to be washed – and picking up scattered clothes for the laundry basket.

All make-work while he tried to decide exactly when Xander had started to hate the job he was so very good at.

Because it wasn't as simple as him not being suited for it; he'd done so well that the dubious looks had turned to approving smiles within the first month. As he'd told Xander, he had a certain glamour about him that worked in his favor, and Xander's natural instinct when faced with a job was to do it and do it properly.

It just wasn't what he wanted to do.

There were no more Council-related jobs like the renovation of Traighshee House, and if there were Xander's rank was too high for him to be assigned to them. Not that Giles would have let that stop him, but... And Xander could have looked for a job outside the Council, but somehow Giles didn't think that was what he wanted, either.

The night before had convinced him that Xander wasn't unhappy with him, but he was unhappy with something, and Giles wasn't about to let that situation continue. He couldn't protect Xander from everything – didn't want to – but this job had been his idea, and if it wasn't working out, then he'd have to find another one, make it right –

Revelations shouldn't come in pairs. Giles sat down heavily and rolled his eyes at his own stupidity.

"Giles? They're fixed."

"I'll be there in a moment," Giles called back.

His briefcase was in the corner. He walked over to it and picked it up.

* * * * *

Groaning mildly in contentment, Xander pushed his plate away and laced his hands over his stomach. "Oof. I think I ate too much."

"You always say that after we have a big meal," Giles said, looking at him fondly. "Perhaps I should remind you when you're ten bites from finishing, so that you can stop then."

"But the whole point's to eat until you're stuffed." Xander grinned and finished the wine in his glass. "Besides, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who ate too much." He looked pointedly at Giles' plate, which was, in point of fact, just as clean as Xander's was.

Still, despite Xander's attempts at good humor, Giles couldn't help but notice that the small lines around his eye were back, and that he occasionally rubbed at his temples.

It was stress, Giles was certain of it. "Wait until tomorrow," he said. "I guarantee after a traditional English Christmas dinner, you'll be incapable of doing more than stagger from table to couch. It's the mince pies. They're lethal." He picked up the bottle and refilled their glasses with what was left of the wine before standing and pulling Xander to his feet. "Let's have a trial run, shall we? Sorry, trial stagger, I mean."

Xander came along with him cooperatively enough, even if he did sound confused. "Trial run – stagger – of what?"

Giles gave him a puzzled look. "I just meant moving from table to couch. Is the lack of sleep catching up with you?" He placed his wine glass on the end table, and took Xander's from him and put it beside his own. "Let's sit down; I want to talk to you." He watched Xander's mouth tighten, not with annoyance, but tension, and as soon as they were seated, leaned over and kissed him firmly until he felt the mouth against his soften and respond.

Xander's hand settled on the back of Giles' neck, and when the kiss had ended, Xander pulled back just far enough so that their eyes could meet. "I love you," Xander said. "I do. Please tell me that's not the thing we're going to talk about, because I don't know how else to convince you." It was clear that the subject bothered him a great deal, which just made Giles more sure of what he was doing.

"Is that what you were doing last night? Convincing me? Or was there more to it than that?" Giles lifted his hand to cup Xander's face. "I know you love me. I shouldn't have doubted you, but you've been behaving differently and it's troubled me even when I didn't fully appreciate it was happening." He slid his hand behind Xander's neck, moving his thumb in a slow, reassuring slide against the sensitive strip of skin beneath his ear. "I don't want to force you to talk to me if you're not ready, but I can't help blaming myself for putting you in a position where you can't. That is why you've been so reticent, isn't it? You think I'll be hurt, even angry, if you tell me what's on your mind."

"I don't want to screw this up." Xander's voice was a bit unsteady, his eye bright and anxious. "I can... All that matters to me is that we're together. I can't lose you."

"That's not going to happen," Giles said quietly. "I'll always be here for you – but that's part of the problem. You were so – this was all so new to you that I took over, tried to make it easy for you because I loved you. Saw you weren't comfortable with driving because of this – " he brushed his fingers underneath the patch he so rarely saw behind, "or our insistence on driving on the wrong side of the road, and instead of encouraging you to face the problem I made it go away by always being the one who got behind the wheel. I've been doing that far too much, haven't I? Being the one calling the shots." He hesitated and then, before Xander could reply, he added, "In bed, as well as out of it?"

Xander shook his head. "No. I just... I just need some more time to get used to, you know, the change. Of being here. But I'm not... whatever it is you're thinking. Not living up to your expectations, is that it? I'll do better, I promise." He sounded as desperate as Giles had ever heard him.

"That's not it," Giles said soothingly. "It's nothing like that. You're everything I want. I just don't like seeing you so unhappy."

Sighing, Xander leaned in against Giles, one arm slipping around his waist. "I don't know what to say."

Frustrated because everything he said seemed to be worrying Xander, Giles grimaced. "I'm not sure either," he admitted. "Possibly I'm misreading the situation – " He shook his head. "No, I'm not. Last night – what made you finally decide to take control to that extent? And, no, don't you dare apologize, because I think I made it quite plain I enjoyed it – I'm just concerned that – you did it to please me, the way you do so much these days. Not because you wanted to."

Xander brought his hand down to rest on Giles' shirt sleeve, fingers plucking at the fabric. Finally, he said, "I guess... because it felt good? I mean, not physically – well, that too – but... I don't know." He shrugged. "Because I wanted to feel in control, maybe? Is that what you mean?"

Giles nodded. "You were trying to assert yourself in one area of your life, at least?" He gave Xander a wry smile. "And you're more than welcome to drive the car, you know. And pick a movie you know I'll hate, wear that shirt I told you made my eyes bleed, drink beer not wine, eat pizza not curry..."

Xander looked up from the cuff of Giles' sleeve. "I know. I just... I don't know. I guess I'm still waiting to feel settled." When Giles made a small questioning sound, Xander elaborated, "You know, how when you first get to a new place, you're waiting for everything to feel familiar. But the parts that do..." He trailed off.

"It's been a year," Giles pointed out gently. "And I do know; Sunnydale might not have been as large as London, but it was equally bewildering and challenging." He put his hand over Xander's, putting a stop to the restless movements of his fingers. "And there were these awful, cheeky teenagers to deal with, making jokes about my accent, my tea-drinking, my clothes..."

"Look... whatever it is you want me to do, or say, or... just tell me. Please." Xander turned his hand underneath Giles', holding on.

"I don't –" Giles stood up, removing his hand from Xander's after a gentle squeeze. "Wait here. I want to get something."

He walked to their bedroom quickly, feeling the pressure of Xander's startled, upset face and castigating himself for letting it go this far, missing so many signs –

Reaching into his briefcase, he took out the envelope on top of the papers he'd brought home and tapped it against his hand for a moment before shrugging. If this didn't work, he'd try something else, but he hoped...

"Here," he said when he got back to the living room, holding out the envelope. Xander was exactly where he'd left him, looking up with a stricken expression on his face. "Consider it an early Christmas present. And one you can definitely return if it's not what you want... but I think you do."

Xander looked confused, but he reached out and took the envelope slowly. "What...?"

Giles put his hands into his pockets and said, "Just open it."

"Okay." So slowly that Giles was tempted to shout at him to get on with it, Xander opened the envelope and took out the slip of paper inside. Giles watched his eye travel from left to right as he read it, lips slightly parted. "You're firing me?" Xander asked, still staring at the piece of paper as if he were dazed.

"Not exactly. If you decide to go, it'll be presented as you resigning." Giles crouched down beside Xander, resting his hands on Xander's knees. "If you decide. Whatever you choose is fine. I'm not going to make the mistake of forcing you into something again, but I am going to give you complete freedom to decide, and as much time as you need to do it in." He searched Xander's face, and saw nothing but confusion. "If you want to stay within the Council, you know the set-up well enough to know where you'll be happiest. If you want to leave altogether and go back to construction, set up on your own – anything, you can." He dropped his eyes and swallowed. "And if that means that we won't be together as much as we have been, well, we'll manage. I can't leave London, not really, but you can. Make this your base, not your home." He tilted his head back and met Xander's gaze. "And none of it means losing me, unless that's what you want."

"You know I don't want that," Xander said, his voice stronger now. He still sounded a bit bewildered, but Giles could almost hear his brain turning. "I want to stay here. I don't want – I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I chose this. Well, part of it. I just didn't realize..." He patted Giles' hand, looking at him. "I didn't want to lose you. It felt like..."

The silence grew longer, until eventually Giles prompted, gently, "It felt like what?"

"Like this was a package deal," Xander whispered.

Giles gaped at him in silence. "A – bloody hell!" He stood up and stared down at Xander, completely dumbfounded. "You thought – how could you think that? I wanted a way for us to be together, yes, and I sincerely thought you'd be good at it – which you were, no question about it – but to think that me loving you was conditional on –" Realizing that he was shouting, he closed his mouth on any more angry words, turned and walked away, ending up at the Christmas tree, serenely glittering, the spicy scent of the branches oddly soothing.

"I thought I'd be good at it, too," he heard Xander say. It was clear from his voice that he'd stood up as well, but when Giles turned his head, Xander was still standing just in front of the sofa. "I am good at it. Kind of. I just... don't like it. I guess maybe I'm not..." Xander sighed, and Giles inhaled the scent of the tree again. "There are different kinds of smart. Willow... she was the real thing. Give her a book and she could learn anything. A week later it'd be like she'd known it all her life... she wouldn't have to think about it, it was just... hers. I'm not like that."

Concerned at where this seemed to be headed, Giles did turn around properly, but Xander held up a hand to stop him from saying anything.

"I can do this stuff," Xander said. "Paperwork, requisition forms... but it never gets easier. Every time it's like I just learned it."

"Your job was supposed to be more about dealing with people," Giles said. "That bloody woman's been loading you up with paperwork she should have been dealing with herself... but there'll always be some, of course." He frowned. "And wasn't there when you worked in construction? Was that as difficult for you?"

Xander shook his head. "That was different. Wood and nails, they're... concrete. Well, they're not actual concrete, but... you know what I mean."

Giles nodded, staying quiet in case Xander intended to say more.

"I don't think I'm ever going to get good at this." Xander shrugged miserably. "And yeah, I know this... us... isn't really contingent on me working for the Council. But what else am I supposed to do? I mean, I couldn't just come to you and say, 'Hey, Giles, this job's making me want to slam my head against the wall.' It makes me sound so... stupid."

"No," Giles said tiredly. "It makes you sound like someone with enough common sense to realize you're in the wrong place. God, Xander... that's exactly what I need to know; as your employer, as your partner, as your friend, damn it."

"I didn't want to disappoint you," Xander said.

"So instead you worry me half to death thinking you're bored with me and wishing you'd taken John up on his offer?" Giles snapped, miserably aware of the fact that this wasn't how he'd thought they'd be spending Christmas Eve.

Xander flinched, but stood his ground. "You're the only part of this I've never regretted," he said softly, in a way that made Giles feel ashamed. "I still want to be with you. I never thought – not for a second since we've been together – about being with John. I'm not saying... Look, I know I screwed up. But this isn't about us. It's not."

"It is when you don't feel close enough to tell me how you're feeling, and I'm too blind to notice," Giles said. A tree ornament, intricate patterns of silver over an ice-blue snowflake, spun idly in the warm air, catching his eye. He flicked at it moodily and sighed as a shower of needles cascaded onto the presents stacked around the base of the tree. "You know, it occurs to me that you've had more practice at this than me. The living together, having arguments bit, I mean. I've never really – well, never had time for that." He reached out and touched the snowflake, stilling it, and then glanced at Xander. "Help me out? Are we at the kiss and make up stage yet? Because I'd like to be."

Smiling hesitantly, Xander shrugged with just one shoulder. "That depends," he said. "On whether you're still mad at me."

"I was never mad at you," Giles admitted. "More at myself, really."

"Well, I was never mad at you," Xander said, taking a step toward Giles. "And I didn't not tell you because I don't feel close enough to you. It's because I do, and I don't want to lose that. I like that we work at the same place and can, you know, have conversations about work that we both get." He moved closer still, pulling Giles into his warm, strong arms.

"I like that too," Giles replied, allowing himself to be held and comforted, resting his head against Xander's wide shoulder. "Just not so much that it's worth making every day a Monday for you." He straightened. "We'll – you'll think of something better. Something you want to do."

He felt Xander tense slightly, then relax again. "I'd better think of something quick," he said, "or you'll have to find a new roommate."

"Why would I want to do that?" Giles asked, feeling lost. "I don't want to do that," he added more firmly.

Xander fixed him with a stern look. "I was kidding," he said. "You know, exhibiting a sense of humor? I thought it was one of the things you liked about me."

"If you make any more jokes like that, it's going to rank below your less-than-endearing habit of putting a virtually empty milk carton back in the fridge," Giles said, returning the glare for about a second before it melted into a smile, because he didn't want to even pretend to be arguing with Xander right now.

Hugging him more tightly, Xander said, "I'm sorry. I should have said something, I just didn't know how."

Giles lifted his eyebrows. "An inter-office memo – a D3 as it was to me personally, not to be circulated, for which you'd have needed a D3a of course – would have worked admirably well. Let me see, how could you have phrased it? 'Dear Giles, this job sucks. Xander.'" He nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, that would have done the trick."

"Okay." Xander cleared his throat, hugged Giles again, then took a deep breath. "Giles?"

"Yes, Xander?"

"I hate my job. I hate the paperwork, and the way it never gets any easier, and I hate that it makes me feel stupid." Xander's chin was resting on Giles' shoulder, and as he spoke, Giles could feel the movements of his jaw. "In short, the job sucks. But I love you enough that I'd keep doing it if that's what it took."

"It doesn't," Giles said, lifting his hand up to stroke Xander's hair back off his face. "It never did. It never will."

"Good," Xander said. "Then you can't fire me – I quit." He grinned, his expression filled with wonder, and pulled Giles back over to the sofa and down in a tangle of limbs that ended with Giles very nearly in Xander's lap.

Then Xander's lips were on his, and very little else mattered.

* * * * *

Giles could hear Xander getting ready for bed, and it didn't make him inclined to linger, but he conscientiously turned off the tree lights and stacked the dishes in the small kitchen before moving towards the stairs.

On a sudden impulse, as the clock struck midnight, he went to the window and stared down at the empty street. No snow; no chance of it either, but high above a star shone brightly enough to defeat the artificial glow of millions of street lamps.

Turning, his hand brushed against Xander's desk, and he paused. The card from John lay there, and it occurred to him that he hadn't actually read it. It was a local artist's pen and ink drawing of Traighshee House, drawn some time before, as it still showed the tree that had come crashing down. Opening it, he read the formal greeting, addressed to 'Xander and Rupert' in a neat, careful script, and then glanced at the short message on the opposite side.

I'm thinking the island will seem far from you these days but you're both remembered and missed.

Rupert, the young lassies are settling in well, and Xander, you did fine work; we've had some fierce storms, but Traighshee weathered them all.

The fish bit well this summer.

Giles walked over to the mantelpiece and placed John's card beside the clock, which was busily ticking off the minutes of the second Christmas Day he'd get to spend with Xander.

He didn't know what was waiting for him under the tree – although the shape of the present from Dawn looked depressingly like socks – but he knew who was waiting for him upstairs.

Hopefully unwrapped.

He poured them both a measure of whiskey for a nightcap and then changed his mind. Xander didn't really like it. Tipping the contents of one glass into the other, he raised it in a silent toast and drank.

And wished, not for happiness for himself and Xander – he thought they could manage that for themselves – but that next year the card from John would have two signatures on it.

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