Fic: A Single Stick of Kindling
Characters: Xander, Giles
Written for 2013 summer_of_giles
Disclaimer: Joss and– Mutant Enemy et al, Shine and the BBC, own everything. I own nothing.
Summary: Xander finds out a bit about Giles’ past and looks to the future
Comments and feedback are cuddled and called George
Beta extraordinaire: thismaz
This is a follow up to my earlier fic The Lightening Spark, in which Xander takes on an assignment at Giles’ request and encounters Merlin in an Edinburgh garden. (don’t you hate it when that happens...) You don’t have to have read The Lightening Spark to read this story (although I’d be delighted if you felt moved to do so), you just need to know that Merlin makes a passing comment that he once did Giles a favour. The following morning Xander decides he has to find out more...
A Single Stick of Kindling
The traffic report after the seven o’clock news had just finished when Xander heard the shower turn on in the bathroom down the hall. It wasn’t often he was up before Giles, but the events of the evening before had lingered in his mind and, after a fitful night’s sleep, he had eventually got up in search of coffee and something to stop the growling in his stomach.
The shower turned off as he took a sip of his second cup, so he switched on the kettle, laid out the teapot and the English Breakfast tea that Giles favoured first thing, and put two slices of bread in the toaster. He glanced at the clock when the kettle boiled and swirled a little hot water in the teapot before adding tea and more water. Giles was nothing if not a creature of habit and, even though he normally beat Xander to breakfast, two months of living in close proximity, in a very small Edinburgh apartment meant Xander knew exactly how long Giles took to finish his morning bathroom routine, get dressed and make it into the kitchen. Sure enough, as the toast popped up, Giles wandered down the short hallway, his eyes fixed on the local newspaper that was delivered on a mysteriously random basis to their door.
“Morning Giles,” Xander said.
Giles looked up. “Good morning Xander. You’re up early?”
Xander shrugged. “I like to keep you on your toes now and then. Tea’s in the pot and the toast’s ready.”
Giles raised an eyebrow in a way that reminded Xander disturbingly of Spike. “Thank you.” He put the newspaper down on the kitchen table and settled down opposite Xander, busying himself with buttering toast and pouring tea before he pulled the paper back towards him.
Sipping his coffee, Xander watched the clock tick down to 7.15 while Giles finished his first slice of toast, topped up his tea and worked his way through the obituaries. He judged it was time for his opening salvo. “Did you do anything interesting last night?”
“Not particularly,” Giles replied, picking up his second piece of toast. “I spent a tedious hour at Deacon Brodie’s with Matheson, talking about body snatching while he tried to persuade me that the machinations of Burke and Hare were just an urban myth. Then I went to the university for a discussion on modern day alchemists and I topped it off with a quick lecture to one of the trainee watchers on why climbing up the Scott Monument was not an adequate, or indeed an appropriate, means to dramatise Buffy’s climb up Glory’s tower.” He nibbled the corner off his toast and frowned as if he’d bitten something nasty. “I have to say that I was tempted to let the little pillock climb and jump, for sake of Darwinian expediency, but the sensible senior watcher in my head reminded me that we have limited resources and that such imprudent, if perfectly understandable, behaviour would not be a wise course of action.”
“So, the wise, prudent, senior watcher was in charge last night?” Xander asked.
“For the main part, yes.”
“Good to know.” Xander took a sip of his coffee and nodded as if Giles’ answer was no more than he expected.
Giles paused, the toast in his hand half way between the plate and his mouth. “I’m glad you find it comforting. It was a slightly trying evening. Over the years you’ll discover that having that kind of focus and discipline to draw on is a comfort in the face of provocation.”
“You’re an inspiration, you do know that?”
Depositing the half eaten slice of toast back onto the plate, Giles eyed Xander curiously. “Thank you. I appreciate the sentiment, although you’re not normally so forward with your compliments, so I am forced to wonder if this sudden appreciation has an ulterior motive.”
“You wound me, Giles, really you do. I’m just calling it as I see it. You’re out there, day after day, night after night, glad handing, dealing with the high life, the low life and all the life in between, trying to get the Council back on its feet, dealing with the money men and the politicians, while Buffy and Willow do the hands-on training. You’re putting all the stuff in place so the Council has a real, solid foundation to help the slayers do their job with proper support. I reckon that deserves a little applause now and then.”
“Again, I say thank you. I must admit, it’s nice to feel that all the hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.” Giles fingers crept back towards the remains of his toast.
“No problem. Kudos where kudos is due.” Xander put down his coffee cup and absently scratched under the elastic of his eye patch. “So, I guess I should report in - junior watcher to senior – give you the skinny on last night’s mission?”
“You know, while you were talking about body snatching and alchemy and stuff, remember I was taking the funky amulet up to Kay’s bar to do the hand-over to the contact?”
“Of course.” Giles picked up the toast again. “I take it the delivery was a success?”
“Piece of cake,” Xander replied. “Had a beer. Met the contact. Had another beer. Had a chat. Did the tests, and easy as a really easy piece of pie, one amulet delivered, job done.”
“I’m relieved to hear that it went off smoothly. Hand-offs can be tricky, although I had every confidence that you would handle it admirably. Congratulations.”
“I’ve just got one question. Sort of a debrief if you like. Just so I’m sure I don’t make any mistakes if I go into the same situation again.”
“Of course. You can’t be too careful. What would you like to know?” Giles took a large bite of the toast in his hand.
“How exactly did you meet Merlin and what kind of a favour did he do you...?”
Xander had to give Giles extra points for not spitting the remains of his toast all over the table.
“Ah.” Giles said, once he’d finished swallowing. He contemplated the table top before looking back up at Xander. “So I suppose my question in return is, did he introduce himself or did you deduce who he was?”
Xander pursed his lips. “What do you think, big guy?”
“He introduced himself,” Giles replied.
“Eventually,” Xander acknowledged. “After he’d done the whole flashy arrival with the funky lights and I’d risked my neck swinging off tree branches, and getting my feet wet, and having a really frustrating one-sided conversation. By the way, can I just say, if we were that annoying back in high school, I apologise.”
Giles smiled. It was the kind of smile Xander remembered from days in the library when he’d been given a particularly obscure text to read, just to keep him out of mischief. “I wouldn’t dream of bringing up old complaints,” he said. “The past, as they say, is another country. In our case, literally. So let’s leave it there. At least until I’m really cross about something, in which case I reserve the right to use it any way I see fit.”
“You’re all heart.”
The smile became a small grin. Giles folded his arms and sat back in his chair, every inch the senior watcher. “I’m glad you appreciate it. But rewinding the conversation slightly, you mentioned Merlin’s flashy arrival and something about you swinging on the branch of a tree? The rendezvous was supposed to be at Kay’s Bar.”
“Oh, it was, and that’s where I went to start with. But he didn’t show, so after an hour I abandoned the meet.” Xander wagged his finger in response to Giles’ sudden frown. “Shocking I know, before you say anything. Young watchers today, no patience or dedication. Anyway, as I was walking back here I saw some weird lights and went to investigate, which consisted of me grappling with an over-hanging branch to get into that railed off garden at the bottom of India Street because the gate was locked. Then I ran into an annoying guy in the garden who eventually confessed to doing a portal spell.”
“A portal spell?”
“Yeah, to get into town from Arthur’s Seat, where he’d been talking to the Great Dragon. And you notice that I said Great Dragon, complete with capitals, not just any common or garden dragon.”
“And that was when he introduced himself?” Giles asked curiously.
“Nope.” Xander knew he should get on with it, but it wasn’t often that he knew something Giles didn’t. And a little part of him wanted to make the point that Giles had known the contact was Merlin and hadn't warned him, even if he understood why. “First he invited me for a drink. Then he introduced himself. Well, he told me his name after I’d given him mine. It was a bit later we got to talking about his identity.”
“He must have felt he could trust you to have that conversation.” Giles smiled. “I always knew he was a good judge of character.”
“You’ll have me blushing here.” The trouble was, Xander could feel himself flush. It was amazing how, after all these years, praise from this man still meant such a lot.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed by the truth. I wouldn’t have charged you with this particular meeting if I didn’t trust you.”
“But you didn’t tell me who I was going to meet.”
“No, no I didn’t.” Giles took a sip of his tea then looked back at Xander. “To be honest, I asked you to go, rather than doing it myself, because I hoped that he would feel comfortable enough to introduce himself. He has far too few people he can talk to and I thought you might get on. But I had to leave that decision in his hands. It was not my secret to tell.”
Xander nodded. “Yeah, that’s what he said. He respects you and like you say, he knew you would leave the choice to tell me, or not, down to him.”
“And he obviously decided to tell you.”
“Yeah. Still not sure how I feel about that. Don’t get me wrong, the trust thing is awesome. But it’s the rest.” He rubbed his finger restlessly across his cheekbone under his good eye. “I mean, we deal with the weird and the wacky all the time. After a while, you can’t help getting a bit ‘been there, done that’. But Merlin...that’s a whole different level of out there, you know?”
“I know,” Giles agreed. “Despite all we deal with on a day to day basis, there are some things that still have the capacity to throw us. It’s a good thing when you think about it. If we were ever to become blasé in this job, we might forget the reason we do it in the first place.”
Xander leaned forward, his chin resting on the knuckles of both hands. “So, how did you meet him? Did it rock your world?”
Giles lifted the teapot and poured the remaining half cup of tea into his mug. He took a small sip. “I don’t think I would have put it quite so colourfully, but it was startling, yes. I met him while I was at Oxford. We talked. We agreed to keep in touch.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Xander opened his mouth, then shut it again as he gathered his thoughts. “You met the legendary Merlin in Oxford,” he said eventually. “I suppose you had tea and scones and agreed to be pen pals?”
Giles put down his mug and fingered the edge of his glasses, as if he was going to remove them, then his hand fell back to the table top.
“Oh...” Xander leaned closer. “That’s a tell, Giles. Fiddling with your glasses is part of what makes you, you. But almost fiddling with them and then changing your mind, that’s a definite tell. If we were playing poker, I’d be all over your ass right now.”
“I’ll have you know that I’m very good at poker.”
“So not the point, and stop trying to change the subject.” Xander tilted his head to the side, then pointed one finger at Giles. “Talking of changing the subject, when I first mentioned Merlin and asked what favour he’d done for you, you immediately started asking me questions. So with my powers of junior watcherly deduction, I’m coming to the conclusion that you were trying to avoid my question.”
“That’s absurd, Xander.” Giles voice was firm and positive, but Xander had become something of an expert in Giles-speak over the years and something about the tone was a little off.
“Absurd?” he echoed.
“Absurd.” Giles repeated. “You said that Merlin introduced himself. That he acknowledged that I knew him. The fact that he entrusted you with his name and identity is incredibly significant and worth discussing.”
“And we can discuss it,” Xander agreed. “Ad nauseum. Ad infinitum. Ad something else that I can’t think of right now, but it’s bound to be in Latin. We can even do it in triplicate if you like, but not until you’ve answered my questions.”
“Really Xander, I don’t...”
“Cut the bullshit, Giles.” Xander pushed back his chair and contemplated standing up and looming, but he knew that for all that he was supposedly a grown up now, he still couldn’t pull off intimidating Giles. He settled on sitting back in his chair and annoying him instead. “I smell a rat,” he said. “Maybe even a rodent of unusual size. So spill.”
“It’s nothing,” Giles insisted.
“I’ll set Andrew on you.”
“There’s no need to get nasty.”
“You use the weapons at your disposal. You taught me that.”
Giles glared. “There are weapons, and then there are blunt instruments. I would say Andrew falls into the latter category.”
“Hey, whatever gets the job done is fine in my book. And you’re trying to distract me again. How did you meet Merlin?”
Giles sighed. “Very well. It was Oxford. I was in my second year.”
“Was this before or after you went off the rails on your funky satanic groove thing?”
“After. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make it sound like a joke, even if the idea of me having a less than stellar past seems to be an endless source of amusement to you all. We had raised Eyghon and Randall had died. It was a shock and was the impetus for me leaving London and going back to Oxford.”
“Sorry,” Xander said softly. “You know I didn’t mean it like that. It must have been difficult. Going back I mean.”
“It wasn’t easy, I admit. There’s nothing wrong with being a black sheep. It even has a slight caché. But being regarded as the wolf in the middle of the flock is another matter. It took a long time to regain the ground I’d lost.” Giles took another sip of the remains of his tea and looked at Xander over the rim of his mug. “Trust and respect take time to re-establish and there were times when I wondered if the effort was worth it.”
“But you kept on trying,” Xander replied.
“I did,” Giles agreed. “I went to every lecture and tutorial. I handed my papers in on time. I took feedback seriously and tried to learn from it. But there was always a voice in the back of my head whispering that I was going to be shrivelled and empty of anything but arcane knowledge by the time I was 21. So to shut up the whispering, I threw myself into the non-academic side of university life. I went rowing. I was never very good at it, but it tired me out. I was already in the fencing club, because every watcher needs to learn how to use a sword. Finally, I joined the dramatic society, because I still had one night free every week and I needed to fill it with something.” He paused and smiled across at Xander. “Now I suspect you’re going to make some joke about not being able to picture me up on stage.”
“Actually, I think I could see you on stage,” Xander replied. “You’ve always been a good actor. Not just doing the tweedy undercover librarian schtick in high school, but you’ve always been able to put on the face that’s needed to deal with any situation. When you came in, you said you wanted to push one of the trainee watchers off the Scott Monument for being a dick, but your senior watcher voice told you not to. So you pulled on your senior watcher persona and told the guy he was a moron in your best authoritative Giles’ voice.”
“It’s as if you were there.”
Xander smiled briefly. “I can just picture the scene, so yeah, I can believe you were an actor. But I don’t get what all this has to do with meeting Merlin.”
“We were doing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Giles closed his eyes for a moment and Xander tried to picture what he must have looked like as a student. Not the Ripper that they’d met as a result of the band candy, and not the priggish watcher who had first come to Sunnydale, but someone in-between who was still struggling to find his place. He wondered if Giles had any photos of that time, but decided that it wasn’t the time to ask.
Giles’ voice in the present pulled him out of speculation about the past and he focused. “I was stage managing, because there wasn’t a part I was really suited for,” Giles continued. “It was the last day of the Trinity term, what you would call the summer semester, and it was the final night of the production. The boy playing Bottom the Weaver decided to celebrate one night too early, in anticipation of the summer break. He fell over in the pub and finished up with concussion, so I stepped in and took his place for the last performance.”
Picking up his coffee cup, Xander lifted it in a mock salute. “Giles to the rescue. I sense a pattern. Although did you really have to play a character called Bottom?”
“Yes, well, you can blame Shakespeare for the name,” Giles replied. “I won’t go into the plot of the play, because it’s extremely convoluted, but at one point Bottom encounters Puck, jester to Oberon, King of the Fairies, and Puck decides to give Bottom the head of a donkey.”
“Not your most dignified moment, I’m guessing.”
“It’s a very well-known moment in Shakespeare, so I wasn’t particularly bothered by having to don the costume.”
“Why do I hear a ‘but’, coming?”
“Because you grew up on the Hellmouth. Ethan was in the audience that night. I think he thought that being the last night of term, I’d probably go to the pub after the play and once I’d had a few drinks to soften me up, he’d have a chance to persuade me to have some of what he would loosely term as fun.”
“Okay,” Xander replied. “Ethan in the house is never good news, so what happened?”
“He thought it would be funny to make the costume I was wearing real. You might call it a practice run for what he did to you all at Halloween, when you were in high school.”
“And wasn’t that the fun time,” Xander said ruefully. “So, you’re saying he... shit, you mean he turned you into a donkey for real?”
“Now you realise why I didn’t want to tell you.”
“But that’s...that’s... Okay, it’s funny in a twisted kind of way, but since I’ve shut my 16 year old self away in a box, and since you’re my boss and have more magic in your little finger than I’ve got in my whole body, I’m going to say that it was a terrible thing to do. So what did you do?”
“There was very little I could do at the time. The rest of the cast didn’t notice any difference and neither did the audience, because I didn’t have any lines at that point, but that’s Ethan all over, just doing things for the hell of it. I knew it was him the minute the spell hit and there was nothing I could damn well do, because I couldn’t speak.”
“Not many spells that need you to neigh, I’m guessing.”
“And again I point to the reason why I didn’t want to relive this particular incident.”
“Sorry, I’ll be good.” Xander bit his lip. “So what happened?”
“Merlin happened. He had been visiting the Bodleian, doing some research, and he felt the spell being cast. So he came looking for its origin. We were performing the play outside in Port Meadow, so once he found us, it wasn’t hard for him to pin point where the spell had come from.”
“So he confronted Ethan and made him reverse the spell?”
“No, he counteracted it himself. He was trying to keep a low profile, so a confrontation with Ethan in the middle of the play would have been counterproductive.”
“Wow, I bet Ethan was pissed.”
“To put it mildly,” Giles replied. His mouth quirked into a half smile that had nothing to do with humour and Xander wondered why the hell Ethan had ever thought it was a good idea to mess with Giles. “I know he’d have removed the spell himself,” Giles continued. “But only at the last minute, once he’d let me sweat a bit. He didn’t know about Merlin because chaos magic can’t fathom the kind of magic Merlin can access, so all Ethan knew was that the prank was over and that perhaps I had managed to reverse it myself. I’ve often suspected that his puerile shenanigans when you were in high school were his very petulant way of getting his own back at me.”
“So Merlin saved the day, Ethan slunk away with his tail between his legs and all’s well that ends well.”
“Since we’re talking about Shakespearean plays, that seems to sum it up, yes.”
“I guess you and Merlin got chatting?”
“He came to see me after the play was over. He could tell I had some magic, so he told me he’d broken Ethan’s spell and we got talking. He didn’t tell me his name at first. All I knew was that he had helped me and that we had magic in common, so the conversation was easy. After a while, and after a few drinks I admit, I found myself opening up to him. Telling him about my frustrations with the future that was mapped out for me, and how I’d kicked over the traces with disastrous results. That I’d finally come back to Oxford, but was finding it hard to fit back in when I knew that everyone was just waiting for me to fall flat on my face. How I hated the feeling of not being trusted.”
“That must have been some conversation.”
“It was. That’s when he told me who he was. That he knew what it was like to worry about having a destiny when one is young. To have to hide one’s true self and worry about whether people trusted you. But that he’d found a cause worth putting all his doubts aside for and found someone to believe in.”
“He found Arthur,” Xander said quietly.
“He found Arthur,” Giles agreed. “He acknowledged they’d had they’d had their ups and downs. Amongst other things he told me that a goblin had once given Arthur donkey’s ears, which was one of the reasons Ethan’s spell caught his attention.” Giles chuckled softly. “I admit he made it sound funny and made me see the funny side as well. But he also told me about Arthur and Camelot and all the challenges they'd faced. The mountains they'd climbed. He made things sound possible. That no matter the struggle, there were some things worth striving for. So I kept striving. All through Oxford I kept going, even when I wished I was anywhere else. Finally I arrived in Sunnydale. You know the rest.”
“You found Buffy,” Xander said. “Just like Merlin, you found someone to believe in, that wasn’t just a prophecy in a musty tome. You found a person.”
“I did. I found Buffy in all her ridiculous, frustrating, wonderful glory. Ethan and his blandishments, and my doubts and fears, seemed a world away. But it was Merlin who made me see that it was possible.
Xander picked at the edge of the formica table top. “He seemed lonely,” he said eventually. “Merlin, I mean. He said he wasn’t, but I’m not so sure.”
“He carries an enormous weight,” Giles replied. “Sometimes I think he needs reminding that he doesn’t have to carry it alone.”
“Reminds me of someone else we know.”
“He said the end of the world is coming.” Giles stiffened. “He didn’t say when,” Xander continued hastily “I guess I should have mentioned that up front, rather than prodding you for tales from your past, but you know it’s in the Scooby code that we’ve got a duty to go for the gossip and the joke, before we get down to the doom, gloom and coming apocalypse.” He smiled at Giles. “Maybe that’s another reason you thought we’d get on. I think we’ve got kind of the same sense of humour.”
“It had crossed my mind,” Giles replied. “So now that we’ve fulfilled our honour-bound quota of levity, perhaps we could talk about the end of the world, just for a moment.”
“We can do that,” Xander replied. “He said it’s not going to happen in our lifetime. That we have to continue doing our work and let him do his.”
“Give him the space and freedom to prepare, you mean?”
Xander could almost see Giles move into senior watcher mode, mulling over the potential consequences. “I guess that’s what he meant,” he replied. “So he can concentrate.”
“Did he say on what?” Giles asked.
“Waking Arthur.” Xander was surprised by the way that a statement with such huge implications slipped off his tongue with the same ease as his teasing of Giles just a few minutes before. Life as a Scooby really did make you take the oddest things for granted.
“What?” Giles obviously didn’t think the explanation was in any way common place, which was, of course, why he was the senior watcher and Xander the junior.
“The amulet,” Xander explained. “That’s why he had you keeping an eye out for it. He said it’s like a trigger, or maybe a match. It’ll light a pile of mystical beacons across the country and eventually the signal will make Arthur rise again. He said it could be centuries before it works. Before it needs to work.” Xander picked a little more at the formica. A thin strip peeled away from the edge and he rolled it between his finger and thumb for a second before looking back at Giles. “I asked him what we could do and he said finding the amulet for him was more than enough. But it doesn’t feel like enough.”
“No, no it doesn’t.” Giles pushed his chair back from the table, stood and wandered over to the kitchen window overlooking the street. “I’m glad I trusted my instincts when I asked you to go to the meet last night. I admit, I was tempted to ignore my other obligations just to have some time with him, to catch up, but the senior watcher in me whispered that you might be on the same wavelength. That you might get him to open up. It seems that the senior watcher voice is worth listening to.”
“I could have told you that,” Xander replied. “What do we do now?”
Giles turned away from the window. “What we always do? We research. We patrol. We combat next week’s localised apocalypse and the one after that.”
“That’s business as usual.”
Giles nodded. “It is. And in between, we leave messages at Kay’s and at a number of other contact points I can think of.” He looked at Xander speculatively. “I think you might take a walk up Arthur’s Seat and have a chat with the dragon. Since it would appear that you are on the same wave length as Merlin, I think the dragon will listen, even if he doesn’t answer directly.”
Giles lifted the kettle, filled it from the tap and switched it on. His back was rounded and his head was down, as if he carried the weight of the world on shoulders, but as Xander watched, he straightened up and when he turned back towards the table his head was high and his gaze was direct. “Then we work out how to help the world’s greatest mage stop the end of the world,” he said. “Even if it isn’t going to happen for centuries, it’s our duty to do what we can.”
Xander couldn’t help smiling even though he realised how crazy their conversation would seem to outsiders. “You make it sound simple, Giles,” he said, and the hint of a laugh bubbled in his chest.
Giles shook his head and the urge to laugh vanished like vampire dust. “I wish it was. But we have the resources, the belief and the knowledge. We can offer them to Merlin. Help him understand that he doesn’t have to do this alone.
“If Ethan only knew,” Xander said.
“If he hadn’t cast that spell, you might never have met Merlin. If you hadn’t met Merlin, you might not have had the balls to get through Oxford and qualify as a Watcher. You might never have come to Sunnydale and met Buffy. There wouldn’t have been anything for me to overhear in the library that day. We might never have had the chance to be here now.”
Giles folded his arms, his head cocked to the side and watched Xander. “I suppose if you want to break it down like that,” he said. “History is a continuum of cause and effect. It’s just that we don’t always know what the effect will be.”
“So how do we know, Giles?” Xander asked. “We can plan all we like and try to make things better while we’re here, but how do we know it will turn out right?”
"We don’t. We can hope to instill a sense of purpose in the next generation and trust that they will do the same in the ones to come after them. That’s all we can do. From the Watchers in years past who thought they were doing the right thing, even if we disagree with them in hindsight, through our own words and deeds here in the present and on to those who will carry on the fight after us. Just as the knights of Camelot once pledged their swords to Arthur, we pledge our faith and our hope and our passion for the cause we think is just. Merlin has kept his faith for hundreds of years. Can we do any less?"
Xander found himself on his feet before he’d realised that he’d moved. The early morning sun slanted through the kitchen window and for a fleeting moment he thought he saw a glimpse of an older Giles in chainmail, a Great Sword by his side, superimposed on the Giles he knew. Then the sun disappeared and it was just Giles standing, familiar and solid, in the same spot in the middle of the small kitchen. Just Giles, Xander thought and his brain paused and circled the thought until it crystalised in his head. That was what Ethan hadn’t understood and what Merlin had known from their first meeting in Oxford – it was what Xander was finally coming to understand. There was no such thing as ‘just’ Giles.