Summary: Xander's carelessness with magical artifacts might have got him in more trouble than he can reasonably escape, even with Giles's help.
The Range Rover Giles had hired for the drive out of Asyut was seventies vintage, indestructible but with aircon long since defunct. The air streaming through the open windows was hot, but it mercifully dried as he got further from the Nile valley. Once he was past El Kharga he was well aware he was in the Sahara. The view through the windscreen was of heat, sand, and glaring sun. The road was in good repair, at least, and his portable satnav told him he was now only a few miles out from the oasis village and the dig site.
His nerves tweaked him. He'd be seeing Xander within the hour. Even without the panicked call over the satellite phone, Giles would have been nervous to see Xander now. The moment between them just before Xander had been called away, the moment that might have been an overture and might not have been. Xander had touched his fingers to Giles's lips, nothing more, but he'd left them there and Giles had held his breath. He could feel them on his lips even now as he drove. He could see Xander's face so close to his, so serious and puzzled. Then the door had banged open, Andrew had banged in, and Xander had left.
But something had gone wrong.
The town was in clear view now on the road, marked by the first greenery he'd seen in some time. He saw palm trees and white buildings, a grove of olive trees extending away from the road. Giles sat up straighter in the car and slowed as he passed the first buildings. His plan was to locate the dig site first, well outside the town, and inquire there for the Council contact and further directions. Dry, dusty, a maze of low buildings under harsh sunlight. Buildings of tan stone, or whitewashed mud bricks. Awnings over street markets, a camel or two tethered nearby, dogs, children running, men on bicycles. Modernity showed itself in the form of Coca-Cola signs and the odd satellite dish, and in solar panels on the roofs of several buildings. He slowed the truck to walking pace through what seemed to be the central square, where a fountain boasted of how wet this oasis was.
Someone ran out into the street waving at him: a Western girl with bare head and in jeans, hair in long braids. It was the Slayer who'd accompanied Xander on the trip. She leapt onto the side of the Rover and had the door open before he'd quite pulled to a stop. She hopped inside and grinned at him.
"Hey, Mr Giles. Been hanging out at the cafe watching for you."
"Er, Jennifer, is it?"
"Yeah. I'll show you where we're staying. Kinda on the edge of town. That way."
Jennifer sat with her feet on the passenger seat, gripping the top of the door. She pointed at a street leading off to the right and Giles set the Rover in motion again.
"How is he?" he said.
Jennifer shrugged. "Freaked. Can't blame him."
"Has anything changed since we last spoke?"
Jennifer snorted. "Yeah. You could say that. You'll see."
Giles pursed his lips, but she wasn't to be budged. She answered his questions about the village but refused to speak of Xander for the rest of the short drive. She directed him to stop the Rover beside a building just outside the town. It was old, though Giles had no way to guess how old. The cracked plaster over the stone walls had been painted white once, as had the door. The sand had long since worn them bare again. But the little house was tidy inside. He set his duffel bag down on a tiled floor beside a little palm tree in a clay pot. A broad wooden table was in the center of the room, with long benches on either side of it. One end of it was covered with messy stacks of books and a topographic map of the area. The other end was clear save for a candle stuck onto a brass holder. The home of Ranulf Carter, he guessed, the Council's contact on the dig team.
The heat of seven thousand years radiated from the walls. Giles crumpled his hat in one hand and wiped his forehead with the other.
Jennifer shut the door behind them and called out to Xander.
Xander came through a curtained doorway from a room in the back and stopped. Giles felt his stomach go strange again. Or perhaps that was his heart going dicky on him. Giles opened his mouth to speak, but could not. Xander looked rather wonderful with his shirt off. Giles gawked for an instant, then he looked again and saw the dark circles under his eyes.
Giles cleared his throat. "Your call. It sounded urgent."
Xander barked out a laugh. "Urgent. Yeah. You could say that."
"Take a look."
Xander stepped forward into the room into the patch of sunlight from the window. He turned and presented his back. Giles sucked in a breath. Wings-- Xander had begun to grow wings from his back. He stifled his first reaction, which had been a deep oath, and went closer to look. Wings, tiny as yet, maybe eighteen inches long. Longer, if spread. They were covered in downy gray feathers. He reached out, then stopped himself.
"May I touch them?"
Xander shrugged. Giles stroked. Soft down, very soft. Indistinguishable from goose down, as far as he could tell. Like a bird's wings, except that warm blood pulsed through them, and that was like no bird. They twitched under his touch and beat for a moment. Giles saw strange muscles move in Xander's back. Then he saw the scabs underneath the down.
"I was bleeding when I called you. They'd just ripped through, I guess. Still sore."
Giles supposed they were, for the skin was still red and healing on Xander's back. The skin on the wings themselves was fresh and pink, as best he could see under the down.
"Tell me how it happened. Your call was, ah--"
"He was hysterical," Jennifer said, flatly. Xander grimaced at her. He pointed Giles to the broad wooden table, and sat himself down the bench facing the front door. Giles sat down opposite him and folded his hands. Keep him calm, get him talking, and perhaps something would come to mind. Some solution.
"Details, please. Just as it happened."
Xander reached over his shoulder and scratched at his back. Then he shuddered and stuck his hands under his knees. "We'd been here, what, one day? Two? Just enough time to unpack and meet people and start Slayer-hunting. I'd just spent the day trying to get this family to talk to me about their super-strong daughter, which let me tell you, was high on the suspicious activities list here."
Giles made a sympathetic noise. Not that suspicion would have remained an obstacle for long. Xander's skill with people was the reason he was sent on these missions. He would succeed here eventually as he had with the families of a dozen other girls.
"Your buddy Carter was kinda distracted, I think about something going on at the dig. We were back here eating dinner. He had this thing he'd brought back from the site. He was playing with it while we ate. A cross on a chain, gold with red stuff on it."
Giles frowned. The only artifacts Carter would remove from the site would be magical ones; that was his brief. Giles had been in that role many times in the years before Sunnydale: archaeologist, curse-breaker, and thief by turns. The goal was to protect the unwary, and allow the tales of cursed tombs to dissipate into myth. Though of course they were true. And perhaps true in this case as well.
"Did he say anything about this object? Or about anything going on at the site?"
Xander shrugged. "Nothing. I had no idea it was any big deal. He had it on a chamois sitting on the table here."
"He held it first?"
"Yeah, poked at it a bunch trying to read the inscription. Then he tossed it back on the table and I just, you know, picked it up to take a squint."
Giles pushed up his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Xander had always been careless with the magical items. Playing with them, speaking Latin to them, sometimes using them as props for action figure tableaux. Giles had caught him licking an icon once. "Xander--"
"Don't say it! I know what you're going to say."
"I wasn't going to say anything," Giles said, as mildly as he could bring himself to say it. "I might have done so myself. Especially if I'd seen someone else touching it. Odd that it affected you and not Carter."
Xander buried his face in his hands. "So, okay. I didn't just pick it up. I put it on."
"You put it-- Xander, that was criminally stupid!"
Xander whimpered. "Thanks. I needed you to tell me that."
"Good God, man!" Giles paced away from the table, across the room and back. Xander was crumpled in place on the bench, curled up around himself. The little wings jutted out from his bare back. They were oddly appealing, Giles thought, covered with fluffy gray down as they were. They looked as if they belonged on on a baby bird. A cygnet, he thought, absurdly. He had a vision of Xander transformed into a swan, paddling across the pond back home, trailed by a dozen dog-paddling Slayers. He laughed, but it was more bitter than amused.
He sat again on the bench across from Xander and unzipped his bag. He extracted his latest journal and uncapped his fountain pen. When in doubt, write in one's Watcher's diary. Date of incident. Method of activating the object. Nature of transformation. Xander and Jennifer watched him write in complete silence.
"Right. You put on the necklace. What happened first?"
Jennifer answered. "He shouted and fell down on the floor and rolled around and squeaked a bunch. And the necklace was glowing."
Xander hid his face behind a hand but did not offer a more flattering description. Glowing. That was typical of an activated talisman. Giles noted it. "Where is it now?"
"It vanished," Xander said. "Just melted right into my skin. Hurt like a mofo for like an hour. Carter was really pissed. Screamed at me for a while. But I thought it was over. Escaped by the skin of my teeth, phew. Then in the middle of the night, my back ripped right open and these things started poking out."
"That's when you called me."
"Didn't know they were wings until a few hours later," Jennifer said.
"I called again, but you were already traveling by then."
Giles capped his pen and tossed it onto his open journal. He said, "We need to get you to England now. Where my resources are. My library."
"How are you going to do that? There's no way I can get on a plane. Or even sit in a normal chair. Not with..." Xander jerked his chin around at his shoulder. "They're growing, Giles. They're like two feet long now."
"We'll need to teleport."
"Cool," Jennifer said, from her corner.
"The trouble with that plan is that Willow is... incommunicado for a few days more yet."
"Explains why you took so long to get here," Xander said, and Giles was definitely not imagining the sullen tone.
"Screw it. Let's go now. You can just stick me in a crate like you do with vamps. I don't care."
Giles slapped his hand on the table. "Vampires are shipped as corpses because they are corpses. You're a living being. We wait for Willow."
"How long is that going to be?"
From his voice, Xander had yielded. Giles hated hearing the discouragement there, but he couldn't help. He sighed, and let Xander have the bad news. "I don't know. She had to-- suffice to say, there was dimensional travel involved. It might be as long as a week or two."
Xander groaned. "Meanwhile I'm turning into a freak."
Giles looked at Jennifer, crouched in the corner of the room, arms around her bare knees. She was watching Xander oddly closely, as if fascinated. Or as if watching her prey. "Is there anything cold to drink?" he said to her.
She nodded to him and left the room. Giles moved around the table to sit on the bench next to Xander, careful to avoid his blind side. He slid as close as he thought propriety would allow. He touched Xander's bare arm and Xander snatched it away. Giles swallowed his hurt; this was not the time. Xander's shoulders were hunched and his arms were wrapped around himself defensively. The man was upset and he ought to get himself under control.
"Is there anything you're not telling me? I need to know, if I'm to help." He kept his voice as soothing as he could.
Xander uncoiled, at least a little bit, but he still wouldn't look at Giles. "Not really. That's how it happened. Except, well, the thing tugged at me, somehow. I just had to pick it up. And once I touched it I just kind of had to try it on. Stupid, I know."
Giles laid his hands flat on the table and considered this. "It sounds as if you were under a mild compulsion. Carter as well. The object was likely cursed."
"Where is he?"
"Carter? That's the other thing you're not going to like. He took off. Right after we called you. I was writhing around on the floor of his bedroom while my back split open and he was really pissed off. He stormed out. Hasn't showed up since."
"Perhaps he's staying with one of the people from the university."
"Maybe. But he hasn't been back for his stuff."
Giles took off his glasses and tossed them onto the table. Carter had been put in place on the dig team to be on the lookout for artifacts of precisely the sort he'd found. Precisely because of accidents like the one Xander had had. He might be fleeing from Giles's justified fury about his failure, but he was compounding it by not being here to help. The magnitude of the problem Giles had before him was unknown without Carter there to give him any sort of data about the object. Despite what he'd said earlier, he couldn't be sure Xander's life wasn't in danger. Or his humanity. He might find himself the victim of a permanent demonic transformation. Or simply the possessor of an absurd pair of downy cygnet wings.
Giles fought back an urge to laugh hysterically. Of all the predicaments-- He'd fallen in love with a swan. Then he sobered. So yes, he was admitting to himself now that he'd fallen in love. But Xander had flinched away from his touch. He'd misinterpreted the incident in his study. Once again, he'd mistaken a touch for a sign of interest.
Giles set it aside ruthlessly. His mooning about wouldn't get rid of Xander's curse, if that's what it was. He had to focus.
Jennifer came into the room carrying a pitcher of water and three glasses. The water had ice and lime in it. Giles watched Xander drinking, his throat working as he swallowed. There was a faint red line around his neck, probably where the amulet's chain had rested before it had worked its magic. And Giles could see, very faintly, a circular mark on his breastbone.
Without thinking, Giles leaned forward and pointed. "There's a mark on your chest. Can you see it? Just there." Giles hovered his fingers over the place, careful not to touch Xander again.
"Shape of a cross," Jennifer said. She nodded at Xander, who looked down at himself.
"I can't see anything. There's nothing there. You're full of it." He groaned. "I need to find a shirt I can put on over these things. I feel all naked. You guys staring at me is not helping."
Giles stood abruptly. "I need to check in. Where does Carter keep the phone?"
The satphone was on the roof along with its fold-out antenna and a little solar panel system for charging it. Giles sat with his back against the low parapet under an awning, and dialed. He had to raise his voice to a shout before Andrew stopped talking and started listening. He did his best to give clear orders that Willow was to come to teleport them home the moment she was available. He gave Andrew a list of books to send, on Coptic iconography and the magical practices of Christian Rome, then demanded to speak with Dawn, whom he trusted rather more. He repeated the list to her along with some suggestions for how she might widen the scope of her own research if his guesses were wrong.
By the time he was done, the sun had dipped close to the horizon. It burned red through the shimmering wavering heat rising from the desert. They were on the edge of the Sahara here, right on the edge of habitable land. A harsh place, but civilization had begun here, so many thousands of years ago, and humanity had lived here longer yet. Lived, and died, and fought demons, and left traces of themselves and their obsession with the afterlife. With the underworld. Artifacts. Traps.
They ate dinner by candlelight. The power from the solar cells on the roof were best used running the icebox, he was told. He was in no mood to disagree about the importance of ice. Giles watched Xander eat his beans and bread, seeking signs of demonic disinterest in human food, but Xander seemed to be as enthusiastic as he'd ever been about eating.
There were two sleeping rooms in the little house, up on the first floor. Jennifer used the one that had been Carter's before he vanished. Giles carried his duffel into Xander's room and set it in the corner. There was a single narrow metal bedstead under a open window, a wooden chest of drawers, a table with a thermos flask of water. Xander inflated an air mattress with long steady breaths. Giles was relieved; he'd slept on worse. Buffy's bedroom floor, for instance, had been hell, as had been that wet basement in Moscow. When Xander was done, he took the spare pillow and a sheet from a stack of clean bedding in the corner and laid them out on the mattress. He turned his back on Xander to strip down to his boxers. He couldn't imagine sleeping in anything more in this heat.
Xander blew out the candle and the room was utterly dark. The Saharan night was deep dark in a way it never was in England. Deep dark and silent. No droning traffic, no hum from electrical gadgets, just the buzzing of an insect he couldn't identify. He was long past feeling uneasy about sleeping in strange places; his year on the run rescuing potential Slayers from the First had cured him of that. But had he been so far away from cities during that year? He had not. Girls who would be Slayers tended to be found near vampires, and vampires loved cities. Strange that there would be one here, odd coincidence that they'd sent Carter here so soon before they'd detected the Slayer. Xander. What about Xander? It would be good to rescue Xander.
Giles's mind slowed and drifted into pleasant byways, misty fantasies of rescuing Xander, of sleeping curled up with him afterward. A Xander with two working eyes and a smooth back. Lovely back. He should like to kiss it. He turned onto his face to sleep.
He was awakened some time later by a noise just above his head. He froze in place and felt fear shoot through him. Where was he? The noise repeated: the metal bedstead, Xander's bed, creaking and squeaking as Xander shifted in it. Giles came more fully awake and remembered where he was. He heard Xander swear and the bed jounced again. Giles put his head under his pillow, but it was no use. He groaned.
"Sorry. Can't sleep."
"Lie still and it'll happen."
"Been trying that. I like sleeping on my back and these things are in the way. Plus they itch. Like mad. Dammit, I knew I should have brought my Gameboy."
Giles let himself slump back onto the air mattress. What to do? Distract him, if he could. Get him thinking about something other than his back. He cast about for something that might work.
"Did you find her? The Slayer who was supposed to be nearby."
Xander grunted. "No. I'd just gotten started with the knocking on doors and being called names when this happened. My Arabic sucks once I get past hi, hot enough for ya? I totally want a refund for that Berlitz course."
"How many people in the village?"
"More than I thought. Couple hundred. It's big as oasis villages go."
"Not so many. We'll find her, if she's here." The thought of occupying himself with the search was attractive. His Arabic could stand to have the rust knocked off.
"You will, you mean. I can't take these out in public."
"Er, perhaps you could hide them under a robe."
"Tie 'em up in a harness like Archangel did. Hey!" The bedsprings scraped and Giles felt Xander poke his shoulder. "Maybe it's exactly like Archangel. Maybe I'm a mutant."
"You know, X-Men. One of the originals. Also known as Angel, but there's no freakin' way I'm going by that. Don't roll your eyes at me. I can hear you rolling them."
"I sincerely doubt you can hear me rolling my eyes."
"But you're not denying it. Quit it! This is how I'm coping here."
"By imagining yourself as a mutant in a leotard."
"You are absurd."
Xander laughed, and for the first time he sounded like himself. "Giles? I'm really glad you came."
He reached down and touched Giles's shoulder again. Giles covered Xander's hand with his own and squeezed. He was glad he'd come. Of course he'd come. He always would. Their friendship was intact, at least. He squeezed again and let go. What was it he would say now, if he weren't sick with worry? Something from near-infinite wells of sarcasm. He could manage that.
"Will you let me sleep now? Or do these X-people do without?"
Xander was still sleeping when Giles left the house the next morning. His plan was to talk with the archaeological team to learn what he could about what Carter had been working on the day he'd found the amulet. He found a happy and preoccupied team hard at work on what was a previously unknown monastery site from the fifth century Coptic church. It had been a tiny group in a remote spot, but prosperous for a century or so, and they'd left well-preserved textiles behind. The team had in the last week found an entrance into a network of tunnels into what they suspected was system of catacombs. Or more likely a necropolis that predated the monastery, given that it was Egypt.
The bad news was that they hadn't seen Carter in two days. He had indeed appeared the morning after Xander's incident, and had been disgruntled about something he wouldn't speak about. No one remembered seeing him after lunch that day, however. And then they'd discovered the tunnels, and had forgotten about him. Would Dr Giles like to tour the site? They could spare an undergraduate to guide him.
Giles deferred that pleasure for another day and carried his news back to Xander and Jennifer with sinking heart. He'd pinned more hope than he'd realized on being able to confront Carter and extract more information from him. By any means necessary, the more violent the better. Giles would have liked to punch the man in the face for being so careless with magical artifacts. So careless with Xander's life. Yes, that would be satisfying.
He was quite far gone, it seemed. Marvelous.
In the afternoon Jennifer took him to the cafe in the center of town. They drank tea and Giles ransacked his memory for the remains of his conversational Arabic. It was patchier than he'd hoped, but he found it trickling back as he eavesdropped on the men talking at other tables. The town was not aware, it seemed, that anyone was missing or that anything unusual was happening.
He woke the next morning by something tickling at his nose. He sneezed and rubbed, and found a few downy feathers scattered over the floor. He caught one and examined it as closely as he could, under one of the magnifying lenses Carter had used for his work. As best as Giles could tell, it was a bird feather. He was no expert, however. He bagged it and some other samples and tucked them away for analysis back home. That day he toured the portion of the catacombs the team had pronounced safe and agreed with them that yes, this site far predated the monastery, and yes, it was a most excellent find. The area had been bursting with early monasticism, often on the same sites as more ancient religious groups, and it was all most fascinating. At any other time he'd have been glued to the site and thrilled by the discovery in progress.
The three books he'd requested arrived by courier arrived a couple of days later. Tucked inside was a note from Dawn, outlining her typically sensible plan for widening the area of research from Coptic history to more general legends of winged things. Giles postponed his morning trip to the dig site in favor of tucking in immediately into research. He was up long into the night reading the text on supernatural transformations by torchlight. Xander was up with him, not reading but instead pacing the room. He was still awake and pacing when Giles gave into exhaustion.
Xander slept until noon, long after the day's growing heat had driven Giles from the bedroom. When he finally woke, he complained he was starving. He ate every date in the house and emptied the tiny icebox for his lunch. Giles stood behind him while he ate and tried to get him to hold his wings still long enough for the daily measurement. Xander had very little control over them and Giles begged him to stop fidgeting to no avail. Three feet now, he guessed, when extended.
"Hullo!" The shiny points of pin feathers had begun to emerge from the wings and from the skin of his back around where the wings were rooted. The skin itself was well on its way to healing.
"Er. You've begun to molt."
"Oh. That's what that itching is. It's a new kind of itching."
Giles tapped at a pin feather. Xander wriggled his shoulders. His wings flapped weakly, and Giles dodged back from them.
"Also, I'm still hungry. What do birds eat when they're doing the feather thing?"
"Cat food," Jennifer said, from the corner where she perpetually lurked. Xander groaned. "We always fed cat food to our parakeets when they were molting."
Giles cleared his throat. "We'll skip the cat food and stick with bread and beans, shall we?"
He cooked twice as much as he normally would have for dinner that night, with more meat than he usually liked, but none of it went to waste. Xander ate like a starving man and continued to do so every day for the next week. His wings grew six inches or more every night. No wonder he ate. And it likely wasn't enough, because his face sharpened and his ribs poked out. He was almost gaunt.
By week's end, Xander's wings were as long as he was tall. His pin feathers had grown out into magnificent flight feathers. They were a dark rich brown that gleamed in sunlight. When he spread them, a white bar was visible on the undersides. Giles rather liked them, but Xander was distressed. He'd wanted white.
"Why white, particularly?" Giles asked.
"Black feathers are bad."
"Your feathers aren't black. They're more a sort of dark brown." Very close to the color of Xander's hair, in Giles's opinion. He resisted the urge to stroke them. Xander had exploded in anger at Jennifer when she'd tried to do so once. He'd apologized immediately, but they'd learned their lesson: don't touch. So Giles merely gazed in longing, faintly ashamed of himself for admiring that which caused Xander so much pain.
Xander craned his head back to look. The expression on his face was doubtful. "Angel wings are supposed to be white. Black is the color of evil."
"Xander, devil wings are bat wings. Yours are feathered. Ergo."
"They get hot when I stand in the sun," was all Xander said in reply. He sounded sulky.
That night he stalked out early and stayed out late. Giles remained awake until he returned, reading at the big common table by candlelight, taking notes in his journal. He'd moved on from the books Dawn had sent to Carter's collection, which was unfortunately focused on much older history of the area. Surprising, really, given that he'd known he was being sent to work on Coptic material. Perhaps he'd anticipated the discovery of the more ancient necropolis? This speculation kept Giles occupied into the small hours, when the door finally scraped open to admit Xander.
His silhouette was strange: Xander's shaggy head and broad shoulders, with those great dark wings looming behind. Giles felt that now-familiar stab of admiration. Xander had grown into a good-looking man even before this had happened to him, but now he was striking. Beautiful. Giles flushed and looked away before Xander could guess what was on his mind.
Xander broke the silence. "You don't have to stay up waiting for me."
"I got absorbed by the reading," Giles said. It was only a slight exaggeration. "Did you have a nice walk?"
Xander shrugged. "Took two big circles around the town, then went all the way to the site and back. I feel cooped up here during the day. Stir crazy."
In the candlelight, Giles could see that Xander's eyes had become reflective, like a cat's. Whatever he was becoming, it was nocturnal. He made no comment on this but merely stood and picked up the candlestick. "I can imagine. Shall we go to bed?"
The next day Jennifer went with him on his morning walk to the village cafe for a Turkish coffee and a bit of breakfast. Jennifer tasted his coffee and made a face at him. Giles laughed and fetched her sweetened tea instead. But his good mood vanished when he attempted idle conversation with the cafe owner. The news of the morning was gloomy.
He carried the gossip and the tea back to Jennifer. "The cafe man's father-in-law is missing. Went out last night to see why the chickens were making noise and never came back."
"Huh," Jennifer said. She bit into her morning fatir and chewed.
"Have you sensed anything?"
"Right now you mean?"
"Anything, since you arrived."
Jennifer had another thoughtful mouthful of bread before she answered. "I was pretty sure there was a Slayer around somewhere when we got here. Or something interesting anyway. Then Xander had his thing happen. That's kinda distracting."
"I can't sense anything other than him. He's loud, if you know what I mean."
Giles did. He pushed his hat back and scratched at his head. Slayers reacted to the supernatural, not merely to the demonic, but Jennifer did ought to be able to sort out the inputs. Buffy could, he knew. Perhaps Buffy's years of practice told here. He resettled his hat and turned to her.
"Remember what you learned about honing. You can tune him out."
"I'll give it a shot." Jennifer shrugged. She didn't seem particularly worked up, but Giles suspected she never got particularly worked up about anything. He rather liked that in her. Teenagers could be so dramatic, and he had his hands full with Xander's emotional troubles just now. Fortunately he had an idea about what to do with Xander. Perhaps. He would give it a shot.
When they returned to the house, Xander was at last awake. He'd bathed and was wandering about the common room in baggy worn jeans and bare feet. His wings were exactly the color of his hair in the sunlight, dark, deep, lush, startling against the lighter tan of his skin. The reaction Giles had had to Xander last night was nothing compared to his reaction now. He felt a wave of desire that was completely inappropriate and foolish. And doomed to fade unrequited. He made a great to-do of kicking the sand from his perfectly clean boots until he'd recovered his composure.
Xander watched him bemused. "Morning to you, too."
"I've had an idea," Giles said. At least he wasn't stammering.
"Yes. It's, well, do hear me out, would you? I was thinking that what you ought to do is practice using your wings. Learn to control them. Fledglings need to learn to fly, after all. Why should you be different?"
Xander snorted. "Great. Now I'm a baby bird."
"Or were, anyway. Now you've got adult wings. Give it a try. It's something to do with your time."
"I'll stick with reading comic books, thanks."
"Xander, you're going to have to face the reality sooner or later. We might not be able to find a cure for this. You might, might be permanently changed."
"Don't say that shit, Giles. Just don't."
"You need to learn to use them."
"I don't need to do anything with them but get rid of them! They're useless for anything but making my life hell."
"How do you know? Have you tried to fly?"
From her corner Jennifer snorted faintly.
Xander stared at him. "They're too short. Willow worked it out once in science class. They'd have to be forty feet before a human could fly. And my breastbone would be out to here." He waved a hand far in front of his chest.
"But they're supernatural. Like, like Jennifer here. Her strength is granted to her by supernatural forces, so a girl her size could lift me with no trouble."
"Want a demo?" Jennifer said. Giles glared at her and she stuck her tongue out at him.
"The point is that your wings might, ah, work. If you learned to control them. If you practiced." Then he drove it home with an argument Xander could not resist. "Didn't you want to be a mutant in a leotard? Learn to use your powers."
Xander seemed completely taken aback by this idea, but then the smile crept out on his face. Giles felt smug, for it was the first helpful deed he'd managed since he'd arrived. After sundown they went up to the roof to get started. Xander was now quite distracting in a pair of canvas shorts.
"Right then," he said, pretending an expertise he didn't quite have. "You are a baby bird. A nestling. I know it's undignified, but pretend you're one."
"I have no idea what baby birds do."
"They, er, stand in the nest and flap. Go on. I shan't laugh."
How could he laugh at the sight of that set jaw, those clenched fists? Xander stood and flapped. Slowly at first, unevenly, and he was out of breath after five minutes of the exercise, but it was something. And Xander was completely distracted by the task. He was up there on the roof with Giles for hours, deep into the night, though he was soon trembling with exhaustion and dripping with sweat. They repeated the exercise the next night, and Giles was taken aback to discover how much strength and endurance Xander had gained overnight. Perhaps whatever supernatural force had given him the wings was assisting him here, too, now that he was attempting to use them. Or perhaps it was simply part of the transformation process.
Whatever the reason, by the end of their second session Xander's control of his wings was drastically improved. He could spread them one at a time as slowly or as quickly as he liked, and fold them again the same way. He could stretch them out behind himself or over his head. And he could beat them hard and fast enough to sweep the sand from the rooftop.
When Xander left for his walk that night, he was cheerful. Jennifer held a fist out to Giles, and he bumped his own against it. It was a breakthrough and he was justly proud of himself. He fell asleep on his thin air mattress and lumpy pillow easily, and if he woke when Xander returned that night, he did not remember it.
The next morning Xander was asleep face-down in the bed as usual, sprawled out on top of the sheets, wings akimbo. Giles regarded him with no small amount of satisfaction, then set off on his morning walk with Jennifer. Their plan was to have breakfast at the cafe as usual. They made their way down the road into the town square, amiably bickering about ways of tricking Xander into flying before he'd realized he done so.
There was a crowd of people moving slowly along the main street. The men at its center were carrying something wrapped in dark cloth. Giles couldn't see what it was, but from the shape he thought he knew what it was. He moved in closer to hear what they were saying. His Arabic had improved in the last couple of weeks of intensive use, and what he heard made his heart sink. He took off his hat in respect. He found a man standing apart at the edge of the crowd, watching, and asked what had happened. It was the body of a girl, a teenaged girl, who'd gone missing from her home overnight. She'd been found at the dig site by the university students arriving in the morning.
Jennifer tugged at Giles's sleeve and pulled him away from the crowed.
"That's the family Xander talked to the first day, the one that told him they didn't have any daughters and didn't know what he was talking about. He told them he'd come back. Only he didn't, 'cause, you know."
The dead girl had been the Slayer, then. Giles held his hat over his heart for a moment longer, then turned away and shoved it back onto his head. A strategic retreat seemed wise, for the man he'd spoken with had not been particularly welcoming. For the first time, Giles was aware he was a stranger in this town, a complete outsider. He walked back to Carter's house with Jennifer trailing gloomily at his heels. Three missing people. One found dead. The others? Giles guessed they would turn up as corpses as well.
A series of failures all around: Carter had failed to secure the dangerous artifacts he'd been sent to secure. As a result Xander had failed to make contact with the Slayer he'd been sent to help. The Slayer was dead, and Xander was-- what was Xander? Whatever he was, Giles had failed to halt the transformation or help in any way.
Giles broke the news to Xander as gently as he could, but no words could soften the blow. No true Watcher would ever take that news easily. And Xander had his own ideas about where fault lay, and who was to blame.
He refused dinner. When pressed, he became angry. Did his eyes flash red, or had Giles just imagined that? Instead of heading out on his usual walk at nightfall, Xander went upstairs and hid in his bed. Who knew what he was feeling? Giles knew what he'd felt in similar circumstances. Grief, self-pity, self-hatred, frustration. He'd lost too many Slayers himself during that year of fighting the First.
What had killed her anyway? Had she taken her own life? Too many new Slayer had done so before they could be found, confused and frightened and all alone. Giles resolved to investigate further the next day if he could. He would resort to using his official credentials to gain the confidence of the local police. Perhaps he could learn something that would comfort Xander.
Giles was awakened in the small hours by the sound of Xander getting out of bed. He stepped over Giles's mattress quietly. Giles heard the sounds of him zipping his jeans, then the slap of bare feet on the stairs. A few minutes later the front door creaked open and shut again.
Giles got out of bed and lit a candle. He padded his way out of the bedroom. Jennifer met him at the top of the stairs. She was fully dressed, and holding a stake.
"There's something out there," she said.
Something out there. What could be out there? Scorpions in the desert? They wouldn't trouble a Slayer. Giles well knew that when a Slayer got that itch, it was because she sensed evil. The villagers, the archaeologists, the scorpions, and Xander.
Jennifer tossed her stake into the air and caught it. "Come for a patrol with me, Mr Giles?"