Pairing: Giles/John Strange (friendship, mostly, but a slashy one:)
Disclaimer: BtVS characters belong to Joss Whedon (almighty creator!!!), Kuzui, Sandollar, WB, Fox, ME, Etc. ad nauseum. “Strange” characters belong to the BBC, and Big Bear Productions, etc.
John luxuriated in the steaming hot spray of Giles’ shower. It sluiced over him, leaving a grimy trail of water running into the drain as he soaped up.
Hot water. How long had it been since he’d enjoyed such a simple pleasure? It felt so good he thought he might just stay in the shower forever. Then he caught a whiff of roasting chicken coming from the kitchen and he thought he couldn’t possibly get out fast enough.
John poured a healthy dollop of Giles’ shampoo into his palm and quickly lathered up. He felt a wave of guilt pass over him. It wasn’t because he thought Giles would object to him using his shampoo. It wasn’t that…it was more the long-buried memories the familiar scent had awakened in him. Funny, that after all these years he still used the same shampoo. Despite the connotations (or, perhaps, because of them), John found the fragrance soothing.
He wondered if Giles remembered him now. Really remembered…
“So…since when did history students warrant the stalker treatment?” asked Xander. He was in the kitchen, ‘helping’ Giles. In truth, he was just standing around toying with various condiments, hoping to squeeze a morsel of juicy insight out of Giles on the subject of his past. The man had as many dark secrets as the FBI, and he was much better at keeping a lid on them.
“John was not a stalker,” said Giles. “He was just an innocent and impressionable young man, and I fear I was a bad influence on him.”
Damn—again with the red tape, thought Xander. “So what did you do, peer pressure him into illegally photocopying textbooks?” he asked, prying a little further.
“It was all a very long time ago, and definitely none of your business,” Giles replied, unwittingly throwing more fuel on the fire.
The chicken was cooking, and Giles had somehow managed to prepare a fresh salad and uncork a bottle of white wine, even with Xander persistently underfoot. And the boy kept looking at him expectantly, as if he might accidentally let slip some sordid detail from his past. But Giles was resolute—there were some things that needed to stay buried.
“Xander, I know you’re anxious to hear what John has to say, but given his current state of mind, I think it might be best if we were alone for now.”
“Are you sure you’ll be safe? I mean, he’s not gonna go all American Psycho on you, is he?” asked Xander.
“I think it highly unlikely,” Giles replied. “But thank-you for your concern.” And with that, Giles prodded Xander out of the kitchen and shooed him out the front door.
“Okay, fine. But if you need my help…” Xander said as the door shut in his face.
“I won’t hesitate to call,” said Giles to the closed door.
Giles was starting to worry. Dinner was prepared and the table set, but John had yet to appear. He’d been holed up in the bathroom since their arrival almost an hour ago. Giles had no idea of the extent of his friend’s injuries, and images of John sprawled bleeding to death on his tiled floor nagged at him until he could no longer ignore them. At last, Giles worked up the nerve to go and knock on the door.
“John…? John, are you alright?” he asked. “Dinner’s ready.”
There was a long pause during which Giles could hear the muffled sounds of hurried activity from the other side of the door.
Finally the door opened a crack, and John’s face, scrubbed clean and framed by a curly, wet mop of hair, appeared in the gap. “Sorry, Rupert. I seem to be in a bit of a predicament,” he said.
“Are you alright? Do you need a hand?” asked Giles.
John seemed to think for a moment before opening the door all the way to let Giles inside.
Giles stepped into the steamy, soap-scented room and immediately saw what John’s ‘predicament’ was. In a heap on the floor were John’s clothes, filthy and torn, and definitely not fit to wear. John stood before him, wrapped in a towel from the waist down and pink with embarrassment.
“Of course, you need something to wear,” said Giles. “You’re more than welcome to borrow something of mine.”
“Thank-you,” said John, turning a deeper shade of pink. “But I don’t want to ruin any of your clothes.”
“I don’t see how…” said Giles, but he was silenced as soon as John turned around to expose his back. Deep gouges—which looked unmistakably like claw marks—stood out angry red and bleeding against the pale skin of his back.
“Good Lord, John—what did this to you?” asked Giles, his mind already going into analytical research mode.
“They’re old wounds, but they’ve never really healed,” John said. He expected Giles to insist on taking him to the hospital, but instead, his old friend got up close and began inspecting the wounds. John would have felt tremendously self-conscious had it been anyone else. But there was something about Giles that instilled a sense of trust in him, despite the amount of water under the bridge.
Gentle fingers prodded the inflamed skin around the scars, making John flinch.
“Sorry,” said Giles, hastily pulling his hands away.
“No, it’s alright,” said John. “It doesn’t hurt much.”
Giles resumed his inspection, prodding even more gently than before. “You haven’t answered my question, John. What did this to you?”
“Well, that’s part of the long story I was telling you about,” answered John.
“The one you think I won’t believe?”
“Yes, that one.”
“Was it a demon, then?” asked Giles. His mouth curled up in a smile at John’s astonished, sputtering reaction.
“You—you know about demons?” said John, but it came out as more of an accusation than a question. “I mean real demons? All that talk at Oxford…all those things you said you did…that was all true?”
Giles nodded, but his smile slipped; “You’re not the only one with a long story to tell.”
“I don’t believe it!” John laughed. “I always thought you were just making those stories up to impress me.” He was grinning as though he’d just been told that Santa Claus was real.
At Oxford, Giles had been known as quite the storyteller, especially when plied with enough alcohol and given a receptive enough audience. It was his trademark method of seduction—many a girl had fallen prey to his outrageous accounts of the witchcraft and wild living of his ‘Ripper’ days.
John had hung on every word, especially on those nights when the liquor had had a stronger pull than the girls. On those nights, when it was just the two of them holed up in a dark corner of the pub until closing time, his tales would become darker. His stories of witchcraft would lose the veneer of humour, and his voice would become taut with the telling of them. John had chalked it up to showmanship. He’d even fooled himself into thinking Giles had saved these stories for him because he was somehow special…that he meant more to him than the casual acquaintances that peopled Giles’ world. No one ever really got close to Rupert. It just wasn’t done.
John had made the mistake of thinking he was the exception.
“Oh, I was definitely trying to impress you,” said Giles, snapping John out of his thoughts. “But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t telling the truth. Hang on a minute…” Giles slipped out of the bathroom and returned a couple of minutes later, his arms laden with first aid supplies.
“Now I’m really impressed,” said John. “What did you do, knock over a chemist’s? You’ve got enough supplies to start a field hospital here.”
“It may not look it, but Sunnydale is a dangerous place to live,” said Giles, spreading the collection of bandages and salves on the tiny counter. “Sadly, I’ve needed these provisions more often than I’d care to admit.”
“Have you thought about moving?” asked John. It seemed the logical solution, especially given what he knew of the town’s future. “I keep a close eye on demonic activity, and no offense, Rupert, but you picked a real hell-hole to live in.”
Giles laughed. “You’re more right than you know. But it’s not as simple as that. I can’t just leave Sunnydale. I’m needed here.”
“You’d stay even though it’s clearly hazardous to your health?”
“That’s part of my long story,” Giles answered, and picked out an antibacterial cream he thought might do the trick.
“Salt works better,” said John, nodding at the tube of ointment in Giles’ hand.
“I find if I pack the wounds with salt and then bandage them, it staunches the bleeding for a while,” John explained.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” asked Giles.
“Like a bugger,” he replied, then felt his face flush hot—he hadn’t used language like that in years. Giles seemed not to notice, though, so he continued. “I’ve tried everything else; salt’s the only thing that works half decently.”
“Well then, if you’re sure…” said Giles. He gave John’s shoulder a quick squeeze and left him to get some salt from the kitchen.
As soon as he was alone, John slumped against the sink and rubbed his face in his hands. He was weary to the bone and totally unprepared to deal with the emotional upheaval caused by being around this man. He’d thought he’d moved on—thought those feelings were long dead. Obviously he was wrong.
Giles reappeared a few minutes later with a box of table salt in one hand and a small spice jar of sea salt in the other.
“I wasn’t sure what kind you’d prefer, so I brought both,” he said, holding the choices out for John to see.
John eyed the coarse salt uneasily, the thought of packing such large and jagged looking stuff into the wounds made him cringe inwardly. “I think I’ll just stick with good old-fashioned table salt,” he said. “You know, you don’t have to do this,” he added. “I’ve done it by myself many times.”
“Don’t be silly, it’ll be much easier if I help,” Giles answered. “You might want to sit down, though.”
Giles waited for John to get comfortable, or at least as comfortable as one could get, perched on the edge of a bathtub. He saw John’s hands grip the porcelain, as he mentally prepared himself for what was coming.
Giles took a deep breath and shook some salt into one of the wounds. John made no sound, but the muscles in his shoulders and jaw bunched and his knuckles were turning white with the strain of his grip. Giles worked quickly, knowing there was nothing he could do to make the experience less painful. When he was done, and the last bandage had been taped into place, Giles put his hand on John’s shoulder and gave it a pat.
“We’re done,” he said.
“That wasn’t so bad,” John lied bravely. He pried his fingers off the tub and stood, swaying slightly as the blood rushed from his head. Giles caught his arm and guided him out into the hall and through the apartment to his bedroom loft.
As John stood by and watched, Giles rummaged through his dresser and closet to find something suitable for him to wear. At last he seemed satisfied with his selection and he laid the clothes out on his bed.
“Take your time. I’ll be downstairs in the kitchen if you need anything.” Giles smiled warmly at him, and then headed off to reheat their dinner.
Giles had just placed the steaming plates of food back on the dinner table when he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. John appeared, looking just a bit waifish in the oversized clothes. Giles looked him over appraisingly, thinking that the blue pullover and black trousers suited the younger man better, even if they were a size or two too large.
“Are you feeling any better?” asked Giles, pulling a chair out for his friend.
“Much better, thanks,” he answered. But before he took his seat, he stopped right in front of Giles, took him by the arm and looked him straight in the eyes: “I really appreciate all your help, Rupert. You’ve been more than generous, and I want you to know how much that means to me, especially considering how long it’s been. And considering…well…all things considered,” he said, sputtering to a halt.
Giles looked away from John’s intense blue eyes and smiled a shaky little smile. He hadn’t forgotten how things had ended between them. It was not something he was proud of. But it seemed that John, at least, was willing to forgive, if not to forget.
“It’s the very least I can do,” answered Giles, and he began pouring out two glasses of wine. “You’re more than welcome to stay here with me…”
John sat down, his stomach grouching audibly as his senses were assailed by the delicious smells of a real, home-cooked meal.
“…if-if you need a place to stay, that is,” Giles added in a near-mumble.
“Sorry, Rupert, I forgot my manners what with the food and all. Are you sure you wouldn’t mind putting me up? I’d hate to impose…”
“Not at all. I could do with a bit of adult company,” said Giles, getting a raised eyebrow from John in response. “It’s part of that long story. Please, help yourself—you must be starving.”
Giles proceeded to grab a bun from the basket and butter it when he noticed that John wasn’t eating. With his head slightly bowed, John was giving thanks for his meal. Giles put his bun back down and waited for him to finish.
“Don’t tell me you’ve found religion,” said Giles with a chuckle—it seemed absurd, considering how unholy they’d been at University.
“That’s a bit of an understatement, actually,” replied John with a twinkle in his eye. “I went into the C of E. Became a priest.” John delighted in the shocked look on Giles’ face at the news.
“You’re a priest?” asked Giles, clearly doubtful.
“Was a priest. Past tense. I was defrocked a few years ago after…” he choked up, unable to speak Helen’s name out loud. “Well, that’s also part of the long story.”
“Then I suggest you start at the beginning now, or we’ll be up all night,” said Giles.
“You first. How did you get caught up in all this demon business?” asked John before shovelling a huge forkful of chicken into his mouth.
“Have you heard of the Council of Watchers?”
John nodded and swallowed his food. “Yeah, I’ve heard some stories—rumours mostly. Some sort of secret society of demon hunters, set up to watch over the Vampire Slayer. Course, no one really believes they exist. And the Slayer? ‘One girl in all the world with the power to fight the vampires’? No one actually believes in vampires anymore, let alone the Vampire Slayer.” It was his turn to chuckle.
“Don’t laugh, it’s all true,” said Giles, taking a bit of offence at the slur on his profession.
“Vampires—real?” John scoffed. “I suppose you’ll be telling me you’ve met Dracula, next.”
John was openly laughing now. “Okay, now I know you’re joking,” he said, but Giles just looked back at him, stony-faced with seriousness. “You are joking, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not,” answered Giles.
“So you belong to this Council, then?” he asked, barely controlling his giggles.
Giles shifted uncomfortably in his seat before answering. “Well, not any more. I was…fired.”
That got John giggling again. He felt bad—he knew it was rude—but he’d had so little sleep, and it was pretty funny.
“We’re a right pair, aren’t we,” Giles said with a smile.
“I’m sorry, Rupert, I didn’t mean to laugh at you.”
“It’s quite alright. I imagine from your point of view it would sound almost as ridiculous as me saying I was a fairy godmother, but I’m no longer allowed to grant wishes.”
“So, this Council is real? And the Slayer?” asked John, taking a renewed interest in his dinner.
“She lives here in Sunnydale. I’m her Watcher—unofficially, at least. The young man you met earlier is a friend of hers.”
“Do you think I’ll get a chance to meet her?”
“Undoubtedly. I imagine Xander’s already spread the news of your mysterious arrival. The whole lot of them will probably show up on my doorstep in the morning to pry into your business.”
Giles spent the rest of the meal filling John in on the events of his life leading up to this point. He carefully edited his account, avoiding the whole Angelus incident and some of the sadder aspects of his life. Mostly he talked about Buffy and the others—the triumphs they’d shared and the demon’s they’d faced. John made him go into great detail when he told him the story about being turned into a Fyarl demon. And just like in times past, John hung on every word.
Leaving the dishes for later, John and Giles retired to the living room. It was John’s turn to fill in the gaps. Giles brought the half-empty bottle of wine with him and began refilling their glasses.
“None for me, thanks,” said John before Giles got to his glass. “I really don’t drink much these days.”
“Things have changed, haven’t they?” said Giles, taking a seat next to him on the couch. “The priesthood was one thing, but you not drinking? It’s unthinkable.”
“I only drank that much to keep up with you,” John argued. “Besides, I didn’t want to become a drunken priest—it’s such a cliché.”
“I still can’t believe you became a priest at all,” said Giles. “No offense, but you were so heavy into the occult—that’s quite the leap of faith, so to speak.”
“Not so big a leap as you might think, actually,” John answered. “Anyway, it’s all your fault.”
“Oh? How so?” asked Giles.
“Do you remember that night when we…when I asked you to teach me magic? Do you remember what you said to me?”
Giles shook his head, but he remembered that night perfectly well.
“You told me I was too young and too stupid to dabble in witchcraft. You said that if I kept hanging out with people like you, I’d either lose my life or my soul, and you wanted no part of it.”
Giles hung his head, his eyes fixed on the golden liquid in his glass. “I never should have said those things. I’m so sorry, John.”
“Don’t be. I’ll admit, at the time I was fairly crushed; my world pretty much revolved around you, and you knew it. But you were right—I was heading into a very dark place, and if you hadn’t pushed me away, I probably would have fallen off the edge. In a way, you’re responsible for straightening me out.”
John leaned back on the couch, digging himself into the cushions until he was comfortable. Giles followed suit, and waited for him to speak. John had put it off long enough; it was time to bare his soul.