At first Xander had stuck his nose to the cold pane of glass, and watched the clouds, so white and bright beneath the airplane. He imagined himself flying through them. Willow’d told him once they were frozen water, tiny ice crystals free-floating in the stratosphere, but he imagined them as warm, fluffy things, made of cotton and dust. He’d soar through them and never come down and be wrapped in a deep warm blanket and never wake up.
Then the sun had set, and he’d had to slide the shade down over the window. It sank in that he was trapped in a little chair with nothing to do but think about it for twelve hours. Think about Anya. About what had happened, that moment when Buffy had-- About how it was his fault. He’d taken one of his anxiety pills and zoned. He couldn’t manage to sleep, with his knees jammed up against the chair in front of him. The only good part was not having any choices more complicated than chicken versus pasta. Sit here. Drink this. Shuffle down this walkway. Wait in this line.
He’d have no choices again soon. Giles would take over.
Xander cleared customs, then paused for a moment in the middle of the swirling crowds. He tucked his no longer virgin passport into his pants pocket and wondered what to do now. Giles would be waiting for him on the other side of the security barrier, but he wasn’t ready to face Giles yet. Now that he was here, eight thousand miles from home, his stomach felt funny. The narrator inside his head was telling him that this was a mistake bigger than any he’d ever made, that Giles would not be happy to see him.
Xander pulled his heavy suitcase into the men’s restroom. He washed his hands and threw a handful of cold water on his face. He looked at himself in the mirror over the sink. Shaggy hair, deep circles under his eyes. Thin face, thinner than he’d been in a while. His face was tinged blue and green in the light. He looked like hell. No point trying to comb the hair. Time to head out. Face his benefactor. Face his lecturer. Face the guy who would straighten him out and tell him the error of his ways. Not loudly. Oh no. Giles wouldn’t yell. He’d be soft and infinitely accepting and so, so disappointed in Xander Harris, terminal screw-up. That’s what the voice in his head said, repeating it, whispering it.
Gray corridor, dogleg right, through the gate. Lots of people moving, some of them standing waiting with signs. Nobody looking for him. Xander moved further out into the swirl and looked around. He spotted Giles, sitting at the end of a row of chairs, in a tan leather coat Xander recognized, nose in a paperback. Xander hovered, watching Giles for a minute. He looked good. Younger. Relaxed. Xander trudged over. Giles looked up and his eyes crinkled, not in a smile, but with warmth and affection. Then Xander found himself pulled into a tight hug. He pressed his face into Giles’ shoulder, into the scent of tea and leather and that weird cologne Giles had always worn. A strong hand braced his back. He didn’t want it to end, and it didn’t. Not until Xander pulled away self-consciously and scrubbed the back of his neck.
“Hey. Hey. Hi.”
“Hello,” Giles murmured. “I’m so sorry, Xander. So sorry. I-- Well. Flight okay? Do you need anything? Breakfast? Something to drink?”
Xander shook his head.
“Come on. Let’s get you home. We can talk as we go. It’ll be a couple hours yet of traveling, I’m afraid.”
He turned to head off and took two steps. Xander stood motionless, watching Giles move away. He wasn’t sure he could take another step. He was so tired, and it was so pointless.
Giles was at his side again, murmuring something. Xander felt a hand stroke down his back. Then Giles took the handle of the suitcase away from him and slipped his free hand under Xander’s arm. He led the way gently through a mess of airport stuff.
Xander peeked, interested despite himself. Heathrow. Pretty big place. LAX had been big too. People, rushing around looking stressed, or blank, or distracted. Xander searched for signs he was in a foreign country. Fashions were different; people wore more clothes. Everybody was a lot paler than he was used to, a lot more white. This was what British people looked like, he guessed. He wondered if he’d get a chance to ride in a car on the wrong side of the road.
“Did you drive?”
“No, not this morning. Took the train. Don’t worry, just follow me. Got all the tickets ready.”
They went down an elevator and along more corridors to a subway station. A long train was already there, doors closed. It didn’t look much like the subways Xander had seen in movies. Way more high tech. Xander had never ridden a train before either. Never been more than fifty miles from home before. Lots of firsts this week, in his starved sucky life.
Some announcement thing happened, and the train doors opened. Giles led him in, tucked his bag away on the luggage rack, and sat Xander down. He sat right next to him, close enough to touch. His shoulder and leg were warm. Solid. Xander looked at his hands. When he glanced up, he saw Giles watching him, patient and quiet. If he was disappointed, there was no sign of it on his face. The refrain in his head had shut up, which was a relief. Xander was getting tired of what his subconscious had to say to him.
Xander looked away, trying to see out the window. All he could see was his own reflection, and he didn’t want to look at that. The tunnel flashed past, outside the train, dimly lit pillars and pipes flickering by. Then the walls brightened. The train emerged into daylight. Xander could see why Giles had told him to bring a warm coat. It was snowing, the air filled with white flecks drifting down, like dust from the sky, smearing over the roofs. Another first for SoCal Xander. He looked over at Giles and cleared his throat.
Giles seemed to take it as some kind of invitation to talk, because he said, “How are you feeling?”
Xander wasn’t sure, but he answered anyway. “Kinda numb. It cycles in and out.”
Giles nodded, as if Xander had said something meaningful. “I’m so sorry, Xander. I shall miss Anya deeply. She was a friend.”
“Yeah. She, she liked getting your letters.” Xander wrapped his arms around his stomach.
“I enjoyed hers. She had a unique perspective on humanity. I mourn with you.”
“Humanity,” said Xander, softly. The outsider’s view.
Giles leaned closer to him. “I know… perhaps not exactly how you’re feeling, but very near. I also lost a lover to… to the Hellmouth.”
Miss Calendar. So long ago that sometimes Xander forgot. So long? Four years. Not so long. Giles had also tried to kill himself afterward, though he’d been way less lame about how he’d tried to do it. The reminder helped. He’d always known he could trust Giles, but now he remembered that Giles would understand. Everything. He relaxed inside, a tiny bit. Giles might even let him do it, all the way.
“It does. In fact, it–” Giles stopped himself again. “It’ll do you good to be away from it for a while.”
“You know what happened, really?”
“I know.” At Xander’s look, “I talked to Dawn. Extensively.”
Xander watched the buildings slide by. It looked like they were in a city now. After a while, he said, “It was probably worse than Dawn told you.”
Giles said nothing, but he slipped his hand down and gripped Xander’s wrist. On the outside. No pressure on the stitches. Just like Giles, to avoid them without needing to be told.
“Buffy blames herself, but it wasn’t her fault, not really. She just did her thing, even when she was stoned out of her mind. But she’s freaked. Once she came down from whatever it was Willow did, and she figured it out, she freaked.”
“Angel is with her now. She’ll be all right.”
“Who’da thunk I’d be grateful to see Deadboy? But I was.”
“I rang him the moment I got off the phone with Dawn.”
Giles must hate Angel less than Xander did. That was odd, given the reason why Giles and Xander now had something in common. But Xander had been grateful to see him, grateful that he’d taken Buffy and Dawn off his hands. It had freed him to lock himself in the bathroom and do it. Or try to do it, anyway. Xander flinched away from that memory. Next time, another method. No more razors. No more blood, for obnoxious interfering vampires to smell. He shifted uneasily in the seat.
“Surprised you didn’t come yourself.”
“It was Angel’s idea that I not, that instead you come to me. He thought you needed, ah–”
“Yeah.” Angel. Swooping in on dusty black wings to save the day.
Giles put his arm around Xander’s shoulders and squeezed, gently. Xander leaned against him and soaked it in. It was weird how everything felt better with him around. Everything. Even incredibly sucky things. They’d been close once, Xander and Giles, before Anya had come along and monopolized his attention. Before he’d figured out some things about himself that had him staying as far away from Giles as he could. Xander had missed it.
The train was moving through real city now, and slowing down. It pulled into a station. It looked like a big one, huge arching roof over the top, lots of parallel tracks. Long platforms, lots of people, moving steadily along the platforms. So many people. Xander had been to LA a few times, but never to crowded places. Giles led Xander toward the busy part, the part with kiosks selling magazines and coffee, and video displays listing trains going to places that sounded like they were on the east coast. Bristol. Reading. Oxford. Giles stared up for a moment, then found what he wanted. He tugged Xander gently back into motion and led him to the right, to the first platform. A train was waiting there. They walked along it, past a string of cars marked first class, to a regular car. Giles released his arm, and Xander stepped up into the train.
Xander sat next to the window. Giles was once again next to him, close enough that they were touching.
“Ninety minutes,” he said. “We can talk more, if you like. Or save it for when we’re home.”
“Home,” said Xander. “Long way away.”
“No, just a short ride away.”
How long was he supposed to stay here? Xander was unsure what he’d agreed to when he’d listened to Giles’ plan on the phone. He’d been doped up on whatever the hospital had given him. He’d ask Giles eventually.
The train began moving, sliding out of the station. Faster. Through tunnels and the ass-side of a city. Xander zoned out and watched it roll away. Towns passed. Stations. Trains on other tracks.
He glanced to the side, and saw Giles watching him.
“Are you just going to stare at me the whole way?”
Giles’ mouth quirked. “I haven’t seen you in months. I… I was thinking about how much I missed you. Everyone, really, but especially you.”
“You’re bs-ing me, but thanks.”
“Why do you say–”
“Cause you missed Buffy more.”
Giles snapped his gaze away from Xander at that, and looked at his hands clasped in his lap. “You may be right. But she… she made her feelings quite clear. Before I left. And in answer to my letters. Dawn asked me to stop writing her.”
“Oh.” Xander had known Buffy’d been upset, angry even, but hadn’t thought her capable of staying mad at Giles. “Why did you leave us?”
Giles shook his head. “I thought… thought it was time for separation. Buffy needed to learn that she’s strong. I second-guess that decision every day, Xander. Never more than now.”
“You screwed up.”
Giles did not look up from his hands. “Yes. I did. Though not perhaps in the way you think.”
Xander clenched his fists. He was so angry he wanted to smash the window next to him. He imagined himself doing it. Pounding it until it shattered and sliced through his hands and arms. Leaping through, streaming blood, and flying through the air. Coming to land next to the train, blood on his hands. He wrapped his arms around his stomach, wrists protected tight against his sides, anger held in just as tight. Everything had started sucking the moment Giles had moved back here. Everything between those two airport hugs had been something Xander could do without.
He was shaking. Giles touched his arm. Xander flinched and turned away from him. Pressed his nose against the window glass and tried to get control again. He breathed himself down. He had pills in his shoulder bag, for when he had attacks like this, but he didn’t like to take them. They made him feel strange. He counted to one hundred, then counted up again. It faded slowly as they fled London. They were well out of the city now, running through farmland. Or something. Bare trees, open sweeps of land and hedges. There was snow on the ground in patches. Dark gray skies. More snow, dusting over the fields.
They arrived in Bath around noontime. Giles got Xander’s attention with a touch on his elbow, then took care of the suitcase for him. He carried it down and out from the station, with Xander trailing behind uselessly.
The snow fell around them as they emerged from the station onto the street. It wasn’t thick. Softly falling snow, whispering down like dust from the sky. It melted on Xander’s hands. Giles led him away from the station along a street that curled around what looked like downtown. They walked for maybe a mile, mostly uphill, through falling snow. Xander was breathing deeply, pulling cold snow-scented air into his lungs, sweating despite the sharpness in the air. He looked at the brick sidewalk in front of him, at the snow silting up in the interstices, at the snow ghosting over on the curb and on the bare branches of the trees. Falling softly, over everything. The buildings were all alike to him. Everything around him looked old, older than anything he’d ever seen before. Old gray stone, dead and chilled. Except for the street signs and the lights, they might have been deep in the past.
Giles lived in the bottom floor of one of those old buildings, on a street that looked like it hadn’t changed in two hundred years. They went down six steps from the sidewalk to a little entryway. Giles unlocked the door and ushered Xander in. Warm. Xander rubbed his nose, then unbuttoned his coat. Giles showed him where to hang it up.
It was small, more cozy than cramped, but still not the airy space that Giles had lived in back in Sunnydale. Giles showed him around quietly: living room, with sofa and armchair; little kitchen; office; bedroom. Bookshelves on all the walls, except in the kitchen. Even there, a short shelf held cookbooks, and the remainder of the walls were covered with hanging pots and pans, a spice rack, a barometer. The office was crammed with books and notebooks and strange objects. Xander recognized a bunch of stuff from Giles’ office at the library. There were windows high up on the walls, open to the street.
“I work here, from my flat,” Giles said. He was standing in the doorway just behind Xander, very close. “Translation, mostly, and some research for the Council. I’ve put your bag in the bedroom, if you’d like to shower and change. I’ll make some lunch for us.”
Xander didn’t bother to tell Giles he wasn’t hungry. He just nodded and slouched off to get clean. The bathroom held a huge clawfoot tub and not much else. The toilet was in a different room. Weird places, these old buildings. The bathroom was older than most of Sunnydale. The shower part was kinda grafted onto the tub, one of those old-fashioned metal showerheads, like a sprinkler head. Xander pulled the plastic curtains around the tub and let the hot water run down his face until it went cold. And then he stood there some more, until he was shivering. Not as cold as Anya was. Unless she was in hell, and burning. Hell was real, wasn’t it? Yes, it was, the voice in his head said. She’s there, and you sent her. Your fault.
The shower curtain shot open. “Xander? Are you–?”
Xander cupped his hands over himself and flinched away. “What the hell?”
"Sorry, sorry. You didn’t answer my knock, and I-- " Giles pulled the curtain closed again. “Please come out now, Xander. Lunch is ready.”
Giles reached a hand in through the curtain and spun the water off. He handed in a towel next. Xander took it and rubbed his face dry, reflexively.
“I’m sorry,” Giles said again, from outside the curtain. “But you must understand we’re all worried about you. You’ll have to expect some, ah, hovering from me. After your attempt.”
“I get it. I’m sorry. I didn’t come here so I could… I’m not gonna.” Well, he might. But not on the first day. Not without telling Giles why.
The door snicked shut again, and Xander stepped out of the bathtub to dry off the rest of the way. He put on warm clothes. Baggy jeans and a flannel shirt over a t-shirt. Thick socks. He was deep-chilled after that shower.
Out in the kitchen he wrapped both hands around the mug of tea Giles handed him, drank it without thinking. It tasted good. Xander had never had tea before, he realized. He’d always reflexively refused it in favor of soda. This stuff was warm, sweet, milky, and fragrant. Xander remembered Giles saying once that tea was soothing. He could buy that.
He sat at the little table when nudged, and picked up his spoon. Dipped it into the tomato soup, ate some. Ate the chewy wheat bread Giles set next to the bowl. He dropped the spoon. It was wrong to enjoy things, wrong to like the taste of the soup, the bread, the tea, when Anya was dead because of him.
“Done?” Giles raised his eyebrows over his glasses, then, when Xander didn’t answer, took Xander’s bowl away.
Xander sat and listened to Giles washing up. He was being a bad guest. He ought to be doing the dishes for Giles. But even when Giles came back, and asked him what he’d like to do with his afternoon-- do a little sightseeing, talk, shop for some warmer clothes-- Xander didn’t have an answer. He didn’t deserve any of it. Not that he could tell Giles that. So Giles told him that he had some translation to do, part of the work he was doing for the Council. He led Xander into his office, to watch while Giles translated.
The office smelled like incense and books. It was cluttered, comfortable, and being inside it was like being hugged by Giles. Giles sat Xander down in the armchair tucked in the corner, between two shelves. The desk was against the wall of the house, under one of those high windows. Cold gray light filtered in. Giles switched on his desklamp. Hovering yellow glow from the lightbulb. Giles then surprised Xander by sticking a CD into a little stereo. There were a pair of speakers mounted on his walls.
There were surprising things in this apartment. Like the CDs. Giles had a couple of shelves of them. Xander poked through them. Some of the same stuff he’d had on vinyl in Sunnydale. Classical stuff, Mozart and Beethoven and Bach. And a bunch of names Xander didn’t recognize that looked modern. He didn’t recognize what they were listening to at all. It was very quiet and slow, with pianos and bell things. Echoey.
Hanging from the ceiling was a huge kite, six feet wide at least. A simple triangle shape, rainbow stripes across it. It swayed gently in the room’s air currents. Xander couldn’t remember anything like it in Giles’ Sunnydale apartment. He’d never flown a kite. Was it one of Giles’ hobbies? Cross-referencing, translating from the Greek, killing demons, flying kites.
Xander slumped in the armchair and watched Giles write, fountain pen in his left hand, right forefinger tracing his progress across the scroll. Warm room, warm light, warm music, his friend nearby, snow flickering down outside the window. Xander slowed down, stretched out. He stared up at the ceiling and watched the kite. His mind went quiet for the first time in a long time.
He woke to find the room dim and a wool afghan tucked around him. He couldn’t remember where he was for a second. Then he remembered everything. His chest hurt and he curled around it for a minute before he could move again.
He stood and shuffled toward light and the sounds of life. Giles was in his kitchen, doing something. Xander stood in the doorway and blinked in the light. He rubbed his eyes.
“There you are. Good nap?”
To Xander’s surprise, it had been a good nap. He hadn’t dreamed. Or if he had, he didn’t remember it, which was just as good. “Yeah, I guess. What’s up?”
Giles had a row of pill bottles set across the counter. “Looks like it’s time for your antibiotics. Do you have any special instructions for these, other than what’s on the bottle?”
Those were his pills. That meant-- “You went through my stuff!”
“Xander. You attempted suicide. For a while, until you’ve regained perspective, you’re going to be under… a certain amount of scrutiny. I went through it myself. After Jenny.”
Scrutiny? He couldn’t remember that. Xander thought back. He hadn’t been paying much attention. He’d only started getting close to Giles after the torture thing. “Buffy?”
“Buffy. She spent three days glued to my side. Didn’t leave me alone for a second. Bloody annoying at first.”
Giles came over to Xander and took his face in his hands. Warm hands, dry. Xander met Giles’ eyes. “You’re my friend, Xander. I do this because… because you’re my friend. I want you to live. All right? Now. Did you get any special instructions for your pills?”
Xander sighed. Might as well give in. “Nothing. I don’t have to take the Xanax all the time. Just when I start freaking. Mostly it’s just the stuff for the, um, stitches. And the daily happy pills.”
Giles handed him two pills and a glass of water to take them with. Xander swallowed them down and drank the water.
He said, “Wesley packed my bag. I don’t even know what’s in there.”
“Ah,” said Giles. “Well. It’s all unpacked into a drawer in my bedroom. I’ll show you later. Hungry? It’s dinnertime.”
Xander was, a little bit, to his surprise.
“Go out or eat in? I have some shepherd’s pie I could warm up.”
“Whatever you like. I don’t want to put you out.”
Giles considered him for a moment. “Let’s go out, then. Take a little walk in the snow, while it’s still pretty.”
It was cold outside, even with the winter coat. It had stopped snowing, and the sky was cloudless and black. Xander’s breath puffed out in front of him. Snow on the ground glittered in the light from streetlamps. The magical snow that Buffy had said the Powers sent to save Angel, that stuff hadn’t been real. Hadn’t been like this. Cold air in his nose, stinging his face. A sharp smell in the air, woodsmoke and something else, something he’d never smelled before. Was that what snow smelled like? He breathed in deep.
“Wow! Wow. It’s-- it’s cold.”
“Won’t last,” Giles said. He was smiling, and looking around himself. “Need to go north a bit if you want real snow, deep snow. But s’pretty now.”
Giles led the way down the hill. Xander walked alongside him, listening to the snow squeak and crunch under his shoes. He thrust his hands deep into his coat pockets. He’d known in the abstract what cold weather, real cold weather, would feel like, but the reality was annoying at the same time that it was neat. He wished he had a hat.
It was about a mile of walking. At the end of it Xander was feeling much warmer, and strangely good. Almost hungry. Then they were stepping through a door into a restaurant, into warmth and the steamy smell of garlic sauce. They knew Giles, and stuck him into a table in the corner where he had a good view of the door and the whole room. It was much smaller than it would have been in Sunnydale, almost like a little house had been converted into a restaurant instead of the building being made for it. Which Xander supposed might be the case.
Giles ordered for both of them. Xander felt the ghost of pleasure passing through him. It was exactly like it had been in Sunnydale, only with forks instead of chopsticks. Giles didn’t eat his eggroll, but Xander had to steal it from him anyway, exactly as he always used to. Back when he and Giles hung out together all the time, talking about the world and people and things. Back before Ahn–
Xander dropped his fork and pushed his plate away. Giles signaled for the check, and paid it while Xander stared at the table in front of him. He was staring at Anya’s body. At the amount of blood there could be in a body. At the color of it, which wasn’t quite human. The smell. Nobody ever mentioned that blood smelled like that. It had been one of the first things he’d learned, hanging out with Buffy. Buffy killed things. Buffy killed everything. Buffy was death.
Giles led him out of the restaurant and into the street. Xander followed. He was still thinking about what it meant.
He was tired again when they got back to Giles’ flat. Tired and more than a little freaked. His thoughts kept going around in little circles. The voice was silent, but it had been treading that path so much that he could follow it just fine all by himself.
Giles dropped his keys into a bowl by the door, and took off his coat. After a moment, Xander did the same. “Where do I sleep?” he said.
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose, under his glasses, a gesture so familiar that Xander’s heart constricted in his chest. He’d missed Giles so badly, worse than he’d known. “Are you going to be all right alone?”
“No, I mean… can you promise me you will not attempt to harm yourself?”
“I … yeah. Jeez. I can promise that for tonight.”
Giles searched his face for something, then nodded. “Here, then. The sofa. Let’s get some things from the bedroom.”
He showed Xander the drawer where his clothes were. Xander pulled out his sweats and a t-shirt. Giles took an armful of heavy blankets from his closet. They carried the lot back to the sitting room.
“Bit cold at night this time of year, I’m afraid. But these should do you. The flat is well-insulated, at least. Please, wake me if you need anything. I mean that.”
He touched Xander’s arm, and went off to his bedroom. Xander heard the door snick shut. He was left alone in a strange place at night. He had a light on at the end of the sofa, but it felt strange. Smelled strange. Sounded strange. Unfamiliar things ticked. Hissing pipes. Something groaning and clanking. The noise of a car driving past, coming from a strange angle from the high windows. Xander climbed under a pile of the wool blankets and tried to get comfortable. The sofa was okay. He’d slept on worse. But the place… He hadn’t felt this scared at night since Angelus had been rampaging around Sunnydale. Since he’d discovered vampires existed. He pulled the blankets over his head and told himself not to be an idiot. He was with Giles, the safest man in the world. But Giles hates you, the voice said. Because you killed his friend Anya.
Xander shot out of bed. This sucked. Just as bad as it was before. He needed a pill. Where had Giles put them? He stumbled down the hall and fell into Giles’ door. Opened it and went in. Giles sat up in bed and clicked on the light. He was in pajamas. Blue striped pajamas. Xander stood staring.
Giles got out of bed and came over to him. “Xander?” He put a hand to Xander’s head and held his wrist. “Hell, you’re-- Come here.”
He helped Xander down into the bed and pulled the blankets up over his shoulders. Xander was shaking so hard that they slid down again. A moment later, or an eternity later, Giles was at the bedside with a pill and a glass of water.
“Your anxiety pills.”
Pill in the mouth, gulp of water, swallow. Xander drank down the water and handed the glass to Giles. The light went out. Then the other side of the bed tipped down, and Xander felt Giles slide in next to him. He sat up hard. Giles touched him.
“What the fuck? What are you trying to do? Drug me and take advantage of me? What do you think I am? I’m not gay!”
“Xander! Where the bloody hell did that come from?”
Shit. Shit. Xander knew, but couldn’t tell Giles. Giles had no clue, and it had to stay a secret. He tried to slow his breathing down. God, he was so screwed up. “Nowhere. It’s nothing.”
Giles shook his head. “It’s not nothing, but leave it for now. Xander, stay here.” Xander felt himself held, pulled tight against Giles’ chest. “You’re having an anxiety attack. I’m going to hold onto you until you feel better.”
Xander slumped against him. Couldn’t admit it felt good. “Might take a long time.”
“Might take less than you fear. It did for me. A couple of weeks. What you’re going through is an acute phase of grief. You’ll pull through it. It’s hell now, but you’ll feel differently in a little while.”
“How do you know? How do you know this will work?”
“I don’t. I-- I’m simply doing for you what Buffy did for me. She just… she held me.”
“What the hell good does that do? It can’t help.”
“It feels good. It told me that somebody cared. That I did have a reason to live, that she was the reason, and going on another day wouldn’t be an unbearable burden.”
Xander stopped struggling, and let his head slump onto Giles’ chest. “Buffy? Our Buffy? She’s a different person now.”
“I know. Poor sweet girl.”
“She’s not. Not sweet. She’s a killer. I’m a killer. Trail of dead people behind me. I hate it, I hate it, I hate myself so much. Let me end it, Giles, please, just let it all be over.”
"No. I won’t. You’ll feel differently in a little while. I know it doesn’t feel possible, but you will. You must trust me, Xander. "
He was shaking again. “Buffy cut her head off. Right in front of me. It landed on the ground in front of me. Her eyes were still open. Buffy laughed and told me to thank her. Then she skipped off. Skipped. Giles. I keep seeing it. Demon blood and Anya’s face gone half-veiny and Buffy laughing.”
“I know. I know.”
“You don’t, you can’t–”
“Yes, I do. How many times did I see her face, her body lying in my bed? Her face, so, so, so-- How many weeks did it take before I could sleep in my own bed?”
“I used to dream about her and wake up so grateful, because it was the only way I was ever going to talk to her again.”
“I wish I could, I wish. I get only nightmares. I’m having nightmares about her.”
“They’ll pass. Trust me.”
It was so tempting, the idea of trusting Giles. Just resting his head against his chest and letting him handle everything. Except–
“Yes, she is.”
“No chance of coming back.”
“What do I do now?”
“You learn to live without her.”
“But I killed her. Shouldn’t somebody be punished for killing her?”
“But this wasn’t an accident. She was killed. Deliberately. Somebody cut off her head with a sword.”
Xander shifted in protest and tried to pull away. Giles held him tighter. “Buffy. Buffy killed her. But she was smacked out.”
“Oh? Does that absolve her? If a drunk driver kills someone, do we let him off because he was drunk?”
Xander whispered, “No. Oh shit. Giles. She murdered Anya. I hate her. I fucking hate her. She’s… she’s wrong. Bad. Shit. I can’t. This hurts too much. I can’t feel this and keep living.”
“I’m here, Xander. You’re with me now. We’ll get through it. It’ll be all right. Lie down. There. Get some sleep now.”
Xander turned his back and let Giles lay a heavy arm across his waist. He couldn’t get away, couldn’t move without Giles knowing and waking up. Giles had him. Slowly, slowly his heart stopped pounding in his ears. It was either the drug calming him down, or the warm body next to him, but he was finally able to release himself and fall asleep. He dreamed of the kite hanging from Giles’ ceiling, carrying Anya somewhere far over the ocean.
That was Xander’s first day living with Giles in England. His first week was much like the first day, only without long train rides. Slow quiet days, in the warmth of the little apartment, spent reading and thinking. Calming down. Crying, sometimes, while Giles sat with him quietly. Sleeping. Watching Giles work. Some days he felt numb. Some days he felt as if everything were too much. But mostly, he felt a little better day by day.
Giles had some project he was working on, maybe for the Council, maybe for himself, maybe for some combination. He had a cellphone, which he carried around everywhere. Xander built up enough spark to mock him for it, which Giles seemed to enjoy. He talked on the phone in his office to people. Sometimes he shut the door on Xander when he did it, with an apology. Sometimes he had the conversations with Xander right there. Though the ones that he had in Latin might as well have been behind a closed door. Xander didn’t ask what they were about, though Giles dropped hints more than once that he’d be willing to answer questions.
He didn’t seem to be big on forcing anything on Xander. Other than the daily pill regimen, and food at least once a day whether Xander wanted it or not.
He met Giles’ landlady, who lived in the main part of the house over their heads. She was weird, sort of one of those gray-haired ladies in a BBC drama, only more eccentric and dressed like she had money. She walked with a cane. She hugged Xander when Giles introduced him, saying that she’d heard his story and was so sorry for him, losing his fiancee like that. Xander flushed, and hugged back without thinking. Later Giles told him that she was from a Watcher family, though not associated with the Council. She was vaguely magical in some way that Giles didn’t specify.
They went on walks through the city, one long walk a day, sometimes two. To sight-see. To go out to eat. To buy groceries. To walk the landlady’s dog Puck. To spend an hour at a pub, where Giles seemed to know people. Xander drank Coke while Giles absorbed a pint of some black beer, and ate peanuts. It was strangely like hanging out at the Bronze had been, only with warmer beer and way more cigarette smoke. Xander now understood why Giles sometimes had showed up at the Bronze. He’d been jonesing for this hang out and play pool or darts with friends thing. For the first time, Xander suspected that Giles had maybe been lonely back in Sunnydale. He didn’t seem to be here, at least.
Xander asked Giles once if he didn’t have a car.
“I do. Garaged in the back of the house.”
“So why aren’t we driving it?”
“I like the walks,” Giles said. He shrugged. Xander said nothing further.
The upshot was that Xander walked about two miles a day, sometimes more, in the January cold. He got used to it fast, though the scarf and gloves Giles bought for him the first week helped. He found himself feeling hungry more, and even enjoying Giles’ cooking, to his dismay. He still didn’t deserve it. The voice in his head that was himself, hating himself, was silent, but he didn’t really need it talking to know what it would say.
Giles tried talking to him, now and then, but Xander wasn’t ready to talk. He was still trying to work out a way to explain things to Giles that wouldn’t give away the secrets, but would convince Giles to let him kill himself. So Xander sat on the armchair in Giles’s office and watched him work, every day. Giles had given him a book to read, some thing about carpenters by the guy who wrote the Catcher in the Rye thing. Sometimes he read that. Sometimes he watched Giles. Sometimes he watched the kite swaying against the ceiling, and imagined it huge. Like a hang-glider. Big enough to carry him somewhere far away. A thousand miles away.
On Monday night Xander was chopping peppers under Giles’ careful watch, because he still wasn’t trusted with sharp things, no matter what he said about not wanting to hurt Giles like that. Giles grated cheese, Xander slowly sliced up veggies, and rice steamed in a pot on the stove. The doorbell rang, and Giles smiled and ran to answer it. He returned to the kitchen with a woman in tow. Short, cute, wavy dark hair, glasses, maybe a decade younger than Giles. She was nicely dressed, but gave off the same vibe that Giles did sometimes in his tweedier moments: abstracted, distracted, and conjugating Sumerian verbs in her head.
It was the first time Xander had seen anybody other than the two of them in the house, and it felt strange. She seemed surprised to see him, too, which was odd.
“Marta, I’d like you to meet my friend Xander Harris. We were close when I was in the States. I mentioned him to you, yes? And told you about his fiancee?” Giles completed the introductions and Xander shook Marta’s hand.
Sure enough, she was a classics professor at the local university, which seemed to involve the Greek and Roman thing, and Giles had been dating her since the fall when he was out here the first time. And Giles had warned him she was coming to dinner, but Xander had zoned out for that or something. He resolved to pay more attention to life around him from now on. He’d missed quality Giles-teasing time, it seemed.
Giles poured wine for Marta and for himself; Xander declined. He was still taking the Xanax often enough that he didn’t want to risk it. He finished cooking the dinner with occasional nudges from Giles. He’d done a lot of the cooking when he lived with Anya, enough that he could follow a recipe and maybe even stray from it now and then to make things better. Giles sat at the table with Marta, and they talked shop. Students, badly-written papers, some kind of mistake in translation a student had made recently that had Giles giggling as Marta told the story. She seemed nice, and Giles seemed relaxed with her.
Xander hadn’t seen Giles with anybody since Olivia, who had shocked Xander and Buffy both by being so good-looking and so obviously into Giles for the sex. They’d marveled over it until Willow had told them to wake up and look at Giles. Xander hadn’t needed to be told that, had already taken a good long look at that face and had a few good long fantasy sessions, but he covered it well. That hadn’t been it; it had been more wondering how a guy who acted like total tweed-man could meet model-chick in the first place. And get her interested.
Later he’d figured out why a model might go for Giles. He was handsome enough to get a second look, and then if you talked to him you discovered more. Women liked nice guys with a streak of darkness. Men liked… anything that said yes. This was his current working theory, anyway. But Marta seemed more like a long-term kind of choice. Like she’d be the one Giles married, or shacked up with.
Xander wondered what he’d do if Giles wanted to move in with her while he was still all messed up. Would they stick him in the basement, so he could play the crazy uncle for their kids? His stomach started feeling strange.
And just at that moment, Marta asked him, “Where are you staying, Xander? Do you have a flat in town?”
“Naw, I’m staying here. Crashing on the big guy. Until we figure out what’s what.”
“You’re much younger than I expected.” Marta laughed. “When Rupert said he’d have a friend visiting, I was expecting somebody closer to his age. Some one more, ah–”
Xander pasted on a grin. “More tweedy? Yeah. It’s an Odd Couple deal, ya know? I was a friend of, of Buffy’s, and when she spent a year distracted, we hung out a lot. Discovered our mutual liking for dan-dan mein.”
Giles spooned rice onto his plate. He looked flustered. “Buffy. The, er, the young ward I mentioned to you.”
Which made Xander flash on images of Buffy as Dick Grayson, complete with Robin outfit, which cheered him up. But this also moved him to deduce that Marta had no clue about Watchers and Slayers. Hadn’t Giles gone that route with girlfriends once before? It never worked out. Xander met Giles’ eye and made a face at him.
“The flat’s a bit small for two, I’d think. Are you looking for something more permanent? I have a student who’s looking to sublet.”
“Oh, jeez, no, I’m living with Giles for the duration, I think.”
Xander and Giles both flushed, then Xander felt like an ass, because turning so red his ears glowed made it look like something it wasn’t. “It’s not–” he started to say, then he sighed, and looked at Giles. Giles gave him a tiny shrug, then turned to his girlfriend.
“The part I didn’t tell you is that Xander attempted suicide, just before he came here. I’m, ah… We’re getting him through a bad patch.”
Marta looked puzzled, but polite. “Surely you should be in hospital, then? Forgive me, but you need professional help, not–”
“The trouble with the hospital is that once they got me in and heard my story, they’d never let me out again. No, I saw some doctors and got some meds. Before I flew out here.”
He looked down at his plate, then up again at Marta. “Giles calls it an intense phase of grief. Survivor’s guilt. I saw the, um, assault. So, hey, lemme get the dishes. You two kids can sit in the living room and watch TV.”
He stuck a grin on his face and bounced up to carry the dishes to the sink. Giles touched him on the elbow on his way out. Later Xander vanished into the office, door closed, to read and give them some private time. Marta stayed for a couple of hours, then a rumpled-looking Giles appeared in the office doorway, looking sheepish.
“Thank you, Xander.”
“Hey, no problem. Gave me a chance to finish this.” Xander held up Catcher. He’d been baffled by Roof beam, and decided to start over with Salinger. “I was supposed to read it sophomore year, but vampire stuff happened and I didn’t. Willow wrote my paper for me. The great thing about Willow was that she wouldn’t just write papers for me, she’d write them in my style. With the spelling mistakes I always used to make. So nobody ever caught on. Now that was genius.”
His voice started wanting to hitch, remembering a Willow pre-magic, pre-drugs, pre-whatever the hell it was she’d been doing to herself. He tried to cover. “So. Marta seemed nice. Your type.”
Giles flushed. “Oh. Yes. Rather. I’ll, ah, head to bed, then. I’ll be sitting up with a book. Um. Xander? If you feel you’d like to try sleeping on your own again, I, ah… I’ll support you. Not that I’m pushing you out in any way. Just if you felt… Right, then.”
Xander wondered if Marta had said anything to make Giles feel awkward. He had to admit it was weird, and Giles was being entirely normal to want his bed back to himself. Or for himself plus girlfriend some time. So he set himself up on the sofa again. This time at least he was clued enough to know that the knocking and groaning was just the steam radiator. But nighttime was when the voices woke up and spoke, when the temptations were worst. The self-hatred.
Xander made it until four before he broke down and moved his nest of blankets to the hallway outside Giles’ door. When Giles tripped over him in the morning, he told Xander to get into bed and stay there. There was no more talk of Xander sleeping on his own.
After that, Marta started coming over every couple of nights. On her third visit, Marta appeared in the early evening, more casually dressed than before, with a book bag slung around her neck. The plan was an evening at the local, which Giles had kindly explained meant his usual pub, that was, the Bronze plus warm beer plus cigarettes experience.
They were pulling on coats at the door when the bell went. Giles looked puzzled, but pulled it open.
Giles stopped himself and stepped aside from the doorway politely. Xander watched as a man stamped through the doorway and then shuddered delicately. Flakes of snow clung to his hair. He was slim and dark-haired, a few lines on his face, maybe Giles’ age. His eyebrows quirked, and he smiled at Giles in a way that bugged Xander. It was an insulting smile, a mocking smile. He smelled like cigarettes and bitter herbs. Like magic.
“What, no hug?”
Then, to Xander’s shock, Giles hugged the guy, who went on to hug Marta. Xander felt the man’s eyes on him, evaluating him. “You must be Xander.”
“Yeah. Who are you?”
He stuck his hand out and Xander reluctantly shook it. The guy had a strong grip. He remembered that name. Buffy’d had a lot to say about him, and about what Giles did every time he saw him. It did not involve hugs, as Buffy told it, more like boots to the groin. But as that was not happening at the moment, Xander had to guess there was some part of the story he hadn’t heard. Or that things had changed.
“We’re about to pop out for a pint or two. Come along, Ethan, and we’ll, ah, catch up.”
Giles and Ethan looked at each other, and Xander swore they talked without moving their lips. What? He was starting to get curious, and for the first time in ages he wished he had one of his other friends with him so they could elbow each other and compare notes. But who could he do that with now? Tara, maybe, and she was busy demonstrating that Spike wasn’t entirely evil after all, and doing the college thing at UCLA, and not about to hop all the way over to England just to hang out with him. But he really wanted to talk to somebody about Giles, and Ethan, and the funny feeling in his stomach he got sometimes.
They walked the few blocks to Giles’ pub, which had a name more like something he’d expect from California than from England. The pubs mostly had names like The Old Green Stag or the Rose and Cudgel or whatever, not the Rifleman’s Arms. Whatever it was, it had a room where people didn’t smoke, and beer Giles approved of, and that Marta didn’t mind, and a dart board that Giles sometimes did scary things with. They sat at their usual spot, in the non-smoking section, because Giles and Xander had major aversions to clouds of stink. Marta and Ethan both insulted them for being delicate Californians, but they wouldn’t budge.
They started in on the first round of beers. Giles usually had two, slowly over a couple of hours, then called it quits. Marta would have one, and Xander would drink Coke. Sometimes he had lemonade or water, but tonight he wanted the sugar-caffeine rush. He wanted to keep an eye on this Ethan guy. Who was not drinking at all.
Instead, Ethan stood. “I need a smoke. Come with me, Xander.”
Xander looked at Giles, who was busy looking at Marta and fiddling with her hands. No help there. He stood and followed Ethan to the other side of the room, where there were some other people smoking. Ethan flagged down two pints; drinking after all. Just not with Giles and Marta. Xander didn’t want to get into explaining why he was reluctant to drink, so he tasted it. It was less horrible than he expected. Bitter, warm, opinionated. So little like Bud that Xander wondered why people called them both beer.
Ethan downed half of his pint in the time it took Xander to have two sips.
“Ah. That’s proper. I’ve just been in LA, and everything is served damn near frozen. Beer slush. I wonder Ripper stood it as long as he did.”
“You visited him a few times, didn’t you. To liven things up.”
“Mm, yes. The glower you’ve been giving me has the distinct aura of someone who’s heard my name before. You needn’t worry. Ripper and I are on good terms these days. We’ve been on good terms since his Slayer died and he turned up on my doorstep in London, sozzled out of his mind with a great hole ripped in his side.”
When? Oh. Giles had made a quick trip to England right after Buffy’s big jump. To tell the Council. Nice time in all their lives, that first week without her. Xander had a healthy gulp of warm bitter opinionated memory. That had maybe been the worst week of his life, until Buffy had given him a week that beat it hands-down.
He had another gulp, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Why the hell would he go to you and not to one of his friends? You’re the guy who turned him into a demon, right?”
“Oh, surely you know. Surely you must have guessed. I’m more than a friend. We’ve been lovers all our lives, Ripper and I. Off and on. Every few years we meet, and either Ripper beats me into a bloody pulp or we spend a night shagging until we’re senseless. Only that visit we did neither. I called a doctor and got him patched up while he sobbed into my best shirt.” Ethan’s voice was mocking.
“No way. No. You’re lying.”
Ethan had another deep swallow of beer, then lit a cigarette. “I’m not, my boy, and if you asked him the right way, he’d confess to you.”
“Can’t be. Giles is straight.”
“You’re sleeping with him, and you say that?”
“It’s not like–” And how the hell had Ethan known that? Had Giles told him?
Ethan lifted an eyebrow. “Whatever you say. He’s never cared whether his lovers are men or women. He likes them dark-haired and free-spirited. Wicked in all the ways he’s not. You’re exactly his type.”
Ethan kept the eyebrow up. Xander knew what he was thinking. Xander shook his head. Even if it was true, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t that way. Giles thought of him as Buffy’s friend, not as a possible boyfriend.
“Look at him over there, big masculine Ripper, broad shoulders, strong jaw. Arm around his bird. Wouldn’t think to look at him that he’s a bottom in bed, would you? Likes being turned face down and ridden hard into the mattress. Ah, and how sweet it is to ride him.”
Xander turned away from Ethan. “Shut up.”
“Why are you being such a jackass?”
Ethan blew out cigarette smoke. “Am I?”
“Yeah. You are.”
Ethan chuckled, in a smoke-roughened wheeze. “Want to let you know who your friend really is. But you didn’t know. You truly didn’t. Well-disguised, is that man. You think he’s a simple thing, books and training and tea to finish up, milk in first, dear. He’s not. He’s complicated. Layers. Did you know, for instance, that Marta wants to get married but he won’t?”
“No. And it’s not my business, either.”
“I think it is. And mine. Because we’re his mates.”
Xander glanced over to the corner of the pub where Giles was sitting with Marta and some friends. Giles had his arm around her, but he was looking over at Xander and Ethan. Xander gave him a thumbs-up sign, and Giles nodded. He turned back to his girlfriend. Whom he didn’t want to marry. That was odd. And how was it his business? He and Ethan were Giles’ friends, as Ethan said.
“Why won’t he marry her?” Xander said, blurting. “I know he likes her a lot.”
Ethan shook his head. “He might have, once. If he’d met her before Sunnydale. That’s what surprises me. Now, now he knows he can’t. Good thing, too. He shouldn’t marry her. She’s not wicked enough for him, that one. Too domestic.”
“He’s pretty domestic.”
“With fits of being quite the reverse. Ripper has shown himself again, for some reason I can’t make out. He can’t be himself with her, can’t show the half of himself that likes to brawl with demons. He can’t settle down. If he does, it’ll be bad.”
Xander knew how that went. You obediently built bookshelves and put up wallpaper and bought a refrigerator. And every couple of weeks you went out of your skin and fled to the skankiest bar you could find, or to the highway rest stop, and gave blowjobs to strangers. Or went to flea-ridden motel rooms with them, because they didn’t want their wives to know either. Or you did it on the cheap, in parks and empty cemeteries, bent over a sarcophagus by some guy while you wondered if you’d live through the night or if this would be the time the vampires caught you. Better to end it than get stuck like that.
Though that had been the choice he made, and look where it had gotten him. Giles should marry her. Keep her happy. Or she’d die. Xander shook his head. That was magical thinking, pure nonsense. Maybe sanity was starting to return, despite everything.
Ethan was staring over at Giles, chin on fist, another cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth. Xander coughed and waved the smoke away. He considered pointing out that those things killed you, but he was pretty sure that Ethan knew that already.
Ethan’s spoke, and his voice was far more serious than before. “Is he all right? Seem on an even keel to you?”
Now Xander was sure Ethan was nuts. “Yeah. I mean, yeah. He’s Giles. He’s solid as ever.”
Ethan shook his head. “No, he’s not. He’s not the same man he was before he went out there. Something happened to him, something worse than losing his Slayer. Wouldn’t have thought that was possible, but it’s true. He hasn’t been right. And he won’t tell me.”
“Jenny Calendar,” Xander said, before he could stop himself.
Ethan spoke around the cigarette in the corner of his mouth. “Who?”
“His girlfriend. Deadboy snapped her neck and left her in Giles’ bed to find.”
“Angel. He’s a vampire who–”
“We’ve met. Recently.” Ethan had that faint smile on his face on his face again. He’d just been in LA, he’d said. What was he doing talking to Angel in LA? “Do continue.”
Xander pressed on. “Then… some other stuff happened. Angelus got Giles. Look, this is complicated and a total soap opera. Most of the time Angel has a soul and he’s okay. But Buffy slept with him and he lost his soul and he was really amazingly evil. And about twice as smart as most vampires are. He got to Buffy through her friends. Giles got the worst of it. Angelus tortured him.”
Ethan wasn’t smiling that crooked smile any more. He look grim, and faraway. “Explains a great deal. He changed so much in the time he was there.”
“I never understood why he didn’t just stake Angel when he came back, soul or not. I wanted to, for Giles, so bad.”
Ethan ground out his cigarette and thought. Then he said, “I understand. It’s his Slayer. Quite a bind for poor Rupert. Caught between self-preservation and his training. They’re taught to put the Slayer first, you know. Over themselves in all ways. It was one of the reasons I wanted him out of the family business. I couldn’t see how a teenaged girl was worth more than Rupert.”
Ethan watched Xander carefully. Xander watched him right back. “This is where you protest that your lovely Buffy is worth everything.”
Xander shook his head. “Maybe. Once. Not any more.”
“Buffy mark two,” said Ethan, and the grim was back full-force. “This is serious business, Harris, this thing with Buffy. Ripper has a job that he can’t do, and he’s trusting me to do it for him. To my everlasting surprise. But I have a hunch… Never mind that. He’s my best mate, Xander. Take care of him.”
And that, Xander believed Ethan meant, though he had no idea why he believed it. He thought Ethan had dragged him over here for no other reason than to deliver that message. And maybe pump him, which had worked, because Xander wasn’t as smart as that twisty fellow across the table from him.
When they left the pub, Marta went off home alone, and the three men went back to Giles’ flat together. Xander went to bed by himself, and lay awake for a long time listening to the muffled sound of voices in Giles’ office. They weren’t upset or angry with each other. He recognized the tone. They were in heavy research mode. They made frequent trips out of the office to fetch books. They were arguing with each other in an intense calm way, as if it were important but not desperate. Xander decided it was time to try asking a few questions.
He drifted off in the darkest hours of early morning, still alone in bed. When he woke up in the late morning, Giles was asleep beside him, fully dressed save for his shoes, and Ethan was gone.
Xander slipped out of bed quietly and made coffee for himself. He had every intention of pumping Giles about Ethan, and about what he was alluding to with Buffy the killer, Buffy the murderer, but he didn’t have much chance that day. Giles woke up in the afternoon then was on the phone non-stop, or so it seemed. And in the evening, he showered and got dressed up more nicely than usual. Jacket and tie.
“I have a date,” he said to Xander. “Sorry not to have mentioned it. Today’s been horrid. I-- I owe you an explanation, Xander. And I’ll give it to you soon. If you’ll be all right with me gone tonight?”
He gave Xander a slip of paper with the name and telephone number of the restaurant he’d be at, and the number of Marta’s flat, and of course the number of his cellphone, which made the other telephone numbers pointless. He asked Xander over and over if it would be all right. Xander got frustrated, and pointed out to Giles that he was twenty-one. He’d be fine. He wasn’t going to off himself while Giles was gone. He swore it, hand on heart and eyes steadily meeting Giles’.
But it felt different once he was on his own. The demons were in the shadowy corners again, and danger lurked everywhere. Rattling steam radiators were bombs about to go off. Traffic in the street outside was going to plunge through the walls and knock the house down. Xander slept uneasily. This was the first time in several weeks that he’d slept alone. He’d grown used to Giles’ presence next to him, to that warm arm over his waist. Something woke him in the middle of the night: noises in the room. Rustling. His heart raced. Threat? Vampires? He listened, tense and stiff under the blankets, then opened his eyes. A figure by the bed, unbuttoning its shirt. It was Giles. Xander blew out a breath, and sat up.
“Xan? Didn’t mean to wake you.” Giles finished pulling on his pajama bottoms. He slipped into bed next to Xander. “You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. You smell like cigarettes.”
“Sorry. We ended up at the pub. I can shower if it bothers you.”
“Nah, man. S’okay. Gotta be three in the morning. Get some sleep.”
Xander felt Giles’ weight on the other side of the bed, pillows being moved into their usual spots. Giles smelled of more than just cigarettes: wine and perfume and, to Xander’s surprise, sex. Giles smelled like he’d been with a woman. Not strongly. He’d washed up afterward. But it was distinct under the soap. Xander felt funny, thinking about Giles in bed with Marta. He didn’t begrudge Giles the pleasure. He hoped he didn’t. It made him feel uneasy. A little hurt. Oh, god, jealous. That’s what he was. Xander sat down hard on that feeling, and made himself say exactly the opposite of what he wanted. Because what he wanted was wrong.
“Giles? You could have spent the night.”
“I worried about you.”
“Thanks. But you’re a grownup now. You can stay out all night. No curfew once you’re past forty.”
Giles snorted. “Perhaps next time.”
Xander scooted back in the bed until he was snugged against Giles’ chest. That arm slipped over his waist again, and pulled him tight. Giles’ soft voice in his ear bid him good night, and Xander drifted away.
A week later Ethan reappeared unannounced on their doorstep, a suitcase in hand and dark circles under his eyes. He’d come straight from the airport, he said, by train. Xander recalled the trip. How long ago? A month ago? Less. An eternity ago. Giles made tea for the three of them, and they sat around his kitchen table and drank it. Ethan refused to say anything until they were settled. Xander watched him swallow his tea, upending it as he’d upended his pint in the pub that time.
Giles poured a second cup for him, then said, “You’ve seen Angel?”
“Yes, talked to him less than a day ago. Angel, and that young witch Tara. And I made my little visit to charming Sunnydale. I ran the tests.”
“And?” Giles said.
“You’re right. The Hellmouth is poison.” Ethan slammed his mug down. “I ought to have sussed this out myself, last time I was there. I knew something was going odd with my spellwork.”
“Yes. Though once I was sure what was going on, I didn’t dare exert more than the minimum. It’s unclean, Rupert. Once you know what to feel for.”
Giles sighed. “Thank you for going. I’d have done it myself but-- I trust you.”
“Trust?” Xander said. “You trust this guy?”
“Yes,” said Giles, absently. He had another gulp of tea. “You talked to Tara, on the other issue?”
“Yes. Though I think she’s right; it’s the same issue. The key is distance from the Hellmouth, and distance from the Slayer. Then steps can be taken to clean up the damage. Or kill the intruders.”
Xander had no idea what this conversation was about. He thought about asking, but Giles looked too serious and strained for Xander to even contemplate interrupting. “She’s clean?”
“Yes. Now. She saw a cleanser. That vampire fellow, Spike, was also clean, but he’d never been infected in the first place. He didn’t participate in the spell, I take it?”
“No. It was just the four. Anya, Tara, Willow, and Xander here.”
“Ah,” said Ethan. “He’ll need checking.”
Giles’ hand got tense on his mug, then he abruptly drank the rest of his tea down. “Yes. Of course. There’s bound to be something going on.”
Ethan reached out a hand, and Giles took it. Then Ethan set his free hand against Xander’s forehead. He opened his mouth to protest, to demand to be told what the hell they were talking about, but then he shut it. The air got oddly thick, hard to breathe and staticky. Xander realized that Ethan was using magic somehow, with Giles’ participation.
Giles shook his head. The static faded. “Nothing.”
“I wonder… Get out of the room, Ripper. As far away as you can get. Piss off.”
Giles muttered a bad word under his breath, but he obeyed Ethan and vanished down the hallway and into his bedroom. He called out, “Far enough?”
Ethan had his eyes on Xander’s head. The air went odd again. Ethan shouted, “Yes. Stay there.”
Xander fidgeted in his chair. What was the point of this? What was the point of anything? Why not just give up? Perhaps that was the point. Ethan would see how useless he was, and help him end it. Or maybe Ethan could summon a demon using Xander’s blood. Make his death useful.
Xander shuddered. Something was going on. He hadn’t had those thoughts in days–
“Copped you, you little buggers,” said Ethan. The air crackled around his hands, and the hair on the back of Xander’s neck stood on end. “Ripper! Get in here.”
Giles came down the hallway at a run. He stopped in the doorway and swore. “Two of them. Bloody hell.”
“Tara had a different sort, I think. And only one. Notice how you cow them? Being a Watcher is good for something.”
Xander finally couldn’t take it any more. “What in the merry hell is going on? What are you talking about?”
Ethan sighed. “You have two demonic hangers on. I expected to find one. Tell me, Mr Harris. Have you been seeing unpleasant visions? Hearing voices?”
“I–” Xander stopped and looked at Giles. “Yeah. Um. I thought it was just, um, bad self-talk.”
Giles shook his head. “Xander. You should have–”
“Yeah. I know. I thought you’d have me carted away in a straightjacket.”
“Please trust me. I can tell the difference between genuine insanity and demonic influences. Or at least I can definitively diagnose the latter.”
“But it’s been so much better in the last couple of weeks. I thought I was getting better.”
“You were. You are. Much better. Don’t doubt that.” Giles’ eyes went unfocused, and he brought his hands up. The air went fizzy again. “Marked. Can’t hide now.”
So he had demons on his shoulders. He didn’t rate the angel and devil combo, one with halo and one with trident. No, Xander Harris, screw-up, got two devils. No good guy saying nice things, telling him to give his parking space to the handicapped dude. “You getting rid of them?”
Giles looked at Ethan, who said, “Don’t stare at me. Wrong sort of power. Your department, mister Watcher.”
“Can’t do it on my own.”
“You need a Slayer.”
“No,” said Giles, sharply.
“Take the lad to church. That’ll work.”
Xander shivered. Didn’t like that idea. “I’m not religious.”
“Why on earth not? Gods are real.” And Ethan’s hands glowed with power for just a moment, strong enough that Xander shrank away from him. Then he ignored Xander to say to Giles, “Any holy place.”
Giles shrugged. “In the meantime, Xander, stick close to me. This is why you’ve been feeling better since you arrived. And this is why you’ve needed to stay physically near. I suppress their activity.”
“It’s because I’m from a long line of Watchers, and I’m a consecrated Watcher myself. I have an intrinsic power that suppresses demonic action. Makes them weaker. It’s… one of the reasons Slayers need Watchers.”
Xander stared for a moment, then shook his head to clear it. He wanted to know again, more urgently before, just why Giles had come back to England. If Buffy needed him so much, why was he here?
Giles sucked on the earpiece of his glasses. “The question remains, where did those things come from? Same place as the demon Buffy killed the day she was resurrected? Does Willow have one?”
“That’s a list of questions, Ripper.”
"And what about Buffy?
Ethan’s face changed. “I didn’t see her. Angel refused to let me. Said she was still, what was his phrase, medicated up to the eyeballs.”
“I should go to her. Get one of your friends to magic me a passport.” Giles made a face.
“Let them try to clear her of demons first. She threatened your life, Rupert.”
“She wasn’t herself.”
“Excuses. By your own report she meant it.” Ethan stood. “Well. I have a warm bed calling to me. And jetlag about to hit me in the back of the head.”
The three men trooped to the front door. Xander followed, wondering when Buffy had threatened Giles’ life. Nobody had mentioned that before now. Giles didn’t seem to be taking it seriously, but Ethan was. Which was strange. The whole thing was Ethan was weird. The guy was being human, not trying to ruin Giles’ life at all. And Giles was definitely not punching him out.
Giles helped Ethan into his coat. “I trust you’ll have a report in the post to me this week.”
Ethan laughed. “Why should I bother? I’ve just told you everything you need to know.”
“Ethan. If you don’t write the report I can’t get your travel expenses reimbursed and–”
“Yes, I’ll write the bloody report for you, Rupert. I swear, you’ve gone so dull in your middle age. Speaking of which, say hello to Marta for me, would you?”
And Ethan was gone, disappearing down the sidewalk in the direction of the city center.
Xander shut the front door. “Time to come clean,” he said to Giles.
“Yes, past time, I think.”
Back in the kitchen, Giles ran water into the teakettle and set it on the stove. This was a two pot afternoon, apparently. Major amounts of soothing needed. Xander did his half of the tea ritual: clean mugs, spoons, more milk in the little jug, sugar bowl. Giles measured leaves into the strainer. He had the same china pot Xander had seen him using in Sunnydale. He leaned back against the counter and stared into space. He looked worried, Xander noticed.
“Spill. What’s this about Buffy threatening your life? She didn’t mean it, right?”
Giles sighed and took off his glasses. He inspected them, then tossed them onto the counter. “She did mean it. We fought about… Dawn, and other aspects of her life. I felt she was, ah, abusing my good will to take care of things she ought to. Though I was willing to help, to teach her, she had to make some attempt. And I insisted she seek professional help. For her emotional issues. Her depression.”
“And she threatened you?”
“She accused me of trying to take Dawn away, which was pure madness. Took an axe from the Magic Box wall. I thought my time was up. Killed by my own Slayer. Then she just… switched off. Threw the axe into the floor at my feet, left. I was badly shaken by it.”
Xander watched Giles, standing with one hip against the kitchen counter, toying with the lid of his teapot. His shoulders were slumped. This was not easy for him to talk about.
He’d met Giles a couple of weeks before Buffy, because Willow always had hung out in the library, but he’d only got to know the guy when Buffy had showed up. The two of them had always been a unit in Xander’s mind. The Slayer came with a Watcher. He had clear memories of the Giles and Buffy alliance against the world, the pair of them wordlessly scheming to keep Wesley alive and under control, Dawn safe, the demon threat of the moment contained. Buffy loved Giles, just a fact of life, though if you asked her she would wrinkle her nose and insult the tweed even though he hadn’t worn it in years and she knew it. And Giles loved Buffy, though the repression aura around him kept you from asking him because it just wasn’t talked about. That love was gone. Shattered. Smashed into a million pieces by that leap from Glory’s tower.
No. Not smashed by that. Smashed by what they did when they resurrected Buffy. Xander had smashed it, when he’d agreed to help Willow. Didn’t that just make him sick.
Xander watched Giles fidget, and wondered how you apologized for something like that. He had no idea. Instead he said, “Can’t blame you. I’ve had a Slayer try to kill me. I had no chance.”
“Indeed. I… that was when I made my mistake. I rang the Council, using the emergency line. Reported it. Reported all my fears about her mental state. They sent an observer over to confirm. He wrote a report that gave them a major wiggins, as you’d say. The Council decided they’d had enough of this particular situation. What did they call it? Our dysfunctional relationship. They recalled me. I refused to leave, naturally, so they pulled some strings with my visa. I’d foolishly given up my residency after, um, after her fall, and I was vulnerable.”
The teakettle went. Giles spun off the gas and poured water.
“Rather than get involved in a deportation mess and a legal wrangle, I chose to retreat and sort out my visa. Which I’ve been unable to do. They’ve been preventing me. For my own good, they tell me.”
“Why do they care?”
“They’ve given up on Buffy. Written her off. But I’ve got training and skills that they, ah, value.”
Giles’ disdain was evident in his voice. So he still loved Buffy, then, despite the axe. Loved his Slayer, distrusted the Council. Situation normal; Buffy fucked up.
“And… the threat is still real to them. Buffy calmed down, but never took it back. And then when she heard I was leaving, she leapt to conclusions I was unable to talk her out of. She renewed the threat, to me and to the fellow they’d sent to replace me. Then he disappeared. They suspect her.”
“I think she’s innocent. I think she’s… I started looking into what might be affecting her the moment I got back here. I contacted Ethan, because he’s trustworthy, skilled, and not associated with them.”
“And he’s your best mate.” Xander imitated Ethan’s voice on that phrase.
Giles looked at Xander oddly for a moment. “Yes. I have a couple of best mates, you know.”
He poured tea, and there was silence for a few minutes, broken only by the clinking of teaspoons and the sound of Xander’s breath across the top of his mug.
Giles said, muttering almost, “I’ve had a theory for some time, about the effect of the Hellmouth on magic. I didn’t cast much while I was there, because it always felt wrong. Odd. And spells had side effects I couldn’t recall from their descriptions. I started looking into it when I got here. To see if that resurrection spell might have… brought Buffy back wrong. Because the alternative was…”
Too nasty to think about. If that was really just Buffy being herself. Xander understood that particular urge for denial.
“We’re still unsure about that. Ethan’s confirmed that the effect goes in at least one direction. The caster is, ah, cursed, the degree and duration of the curse affected by the magnitude of the spell.”
“Jesus. Willow’s been using a lot of magic this year.”
“Yes.” Giles was looking at him sadly.
“What? Don’t tell me. Don’t fucking tell me. What happened to her?”
“No, nothing! Nothing like that. She’s doing just fine, according to Ethan’s report. In rehab.”
“She’s been taken away to magical rehabilitation. The coven I’m associated with now sent some people. There’s a facility in New Mexico.”
“How’d I miss–”
“We timed it for just after you left for LA.”
“Oh. Okay.” Xander thought about that, and was okay. Mostly he didn’t care. Willow with a magical smack habit, Willow sober, Willow alive, Willow dead. He hadn’t wondered how she was doing since he’d gotten off the plane. She’d burnt the last bridge. He’d been acting as if she were dead. Was that the curse thing? Acting to break up his oldest surviving friendship?
“This curse. It’s affecting me too? Because I helped Willow?”
“Why? I mean, I’ve helped her do magic before, but this?” Xander gestured to his head, to the demons that Giles seemed to keep looking at, warily.
“What’s the largest spell you’ve seen performed on the Hellmouth? The most difficult? The one that used the most magic?”
Xander was starting to get a clue. “Buffy’s resurrection. Willow… Willow had snakes running around inside her. It was seriously freaky.”
“Yes. A great power exertion produced an equally great curse. The four of you have all been suffering. The Hellmouth is having its revenge on you.”
“And this is what’s screwing me up. You’ll get rid of these things and I’ll feel better.”
Giles shook his head again. “I wish it were so simple. The damage done to your, ah, emotional state was all real. The demons pushed on you, and suppressing them has obviously already allowed you to begin recovering. But the events of the last year-- they’re real. Anya is truly dead. You truly attempted suicide, because of something inside you. Some real urge they were able to work on.”
Xander stared at his dirty spoon. “The sucky thing inside me. Like everything about me. Broken and useless.”
Giles sat back in his chair and braced his hands on the edge of the table. “Xander. I’ve been where you are. Twice, in my life. After my foolish and selfish demon-raising killed a friend. After Jenny, though that was a bit, ah, more of an overreaction in the moment. Both times… there was something about my life that was unbearable to me. Not about me. About my circumstances. What I was doing. I wanted to kill the life I was leading, not myself. Not truly.”
Xander thought about that. Giles reached over and took his hand, and continued.
“Find that thing, kill that, not yourself. Remake your entire life, if you must. Dedicate yourself to something outside yourself. It’s what I chose to do. The way I found to keep going.”
Giles laughed, a bitter little laugh, and Xander echoed it. He squeezed Xander’s hand. “It hasn’t entirely been easy. But I’m here, with you, my dear friend, and I’ve had a lot of wonderful moments in those twenty years. You, you–”
“Giles. I get it. I’m gonna think about it. The other thing I think about… I figured out why you had me read those stories about that Seymour guy. The hole he left in their lives.”
“They’re weird. But. I’ll think about it. What I want to kill instead of me. But mostly… Giles, I want to kill these, these things. Shoo!” Xander pointed at his shoulders.
Giles smiled, a quick nervous thing. “They’re more, ah, up here.” He indicated the air just over Xander’s head. One of the benefits of being a sorcerer, or maybe of being a Watcher, being able to see the undead.
“Can we do it soon?”
“We’ll go to the early Sunday service at Christchurch. It should be quiet enough. I know the rector. I attend, now and then.” Giles cleared his throat, and Xander thought he looked embarrassed. “I need the extra jolt of power that being on consecrated ground gives me. Not powerful enough by myself. In the meantime, stay close to me.”
Giles made him get dressed up to go to church, which Xander thought was fair. He was even able to do it. Wesley had packed a suit, at least, though Xander couldn’t find any ties. He didn’t own any that weren’t clip-on, so maybe Wesley had sneered at them and refused to touch them. Giles gave him a tie to wear, then showed him how to knot it.
They walked, as they walked everywhere. It wasn’t far, though it was pouring rain. Giles had an enormous black umbrella, spring-loaded, industrial. The rain spattered onto it. His legs got wet from the knees down. Puddles, water rushing in the gutters, cars driving past on wet streets. The bricks of the sidewalk were slick under his dress shoes. More than once he slipped and had to grab onto Giles’ arm. Why was Giles so solid? He never wavered, never showed any signs that this was going to be awful. Every step closer to the church started to bother him. He had no idea why. He walked slower and slower, until Giles stopped and asked him what was wrong. Xander just shook his head.
Giles raised his hand and said something in another language, in a commanding voice that echoed in dimensions that didn’t strictly exist. Xander went weak at the knees for a second, then shook himself all over.
“They’re kicking up a fuss. Know what we’re about to do. It’ll be over permanently soon.”
Giles took his elbow, just as he had that first day in Heathrow, and led the trembling Xander up the steps into the church. He put them near the back, where they were mostly inconspicuous. He did it during the service, while the priest was praying and they were all on their knees. It didn’t take any Latin chanting or hand-waving, just Giles’ hand laid on the back of his head. Xander felt it build and surge and then roar in his head. One last burst from the voices, telling him it was no good, he might shut them up but he’d always know they’d told the truth, that he was useless, that he was stupid, that he’d killed Anya, that he’d failed Buffy, that Giles secretly hated him.
Giles slumped, and blew out a breath. “Done,” he said, under his breath. Sweat was dripping down his face.
And Xander knew it was over. It was like walking out of a club where the music had been blaring so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself think. Silence ran around inside his head now, just a faint ringing remaining, echoing. Xander slumped on the bench and huddled in on himself, listening to himself think. He stayed that way for the rest of the service, unmoving, while Giles stood and sang. Even when Giles had suppressed them, they’d still been there, eating his hope. They’d been with him for months. Since September. So long that Xander had almost forgotten what it was like without them, without demons whispering in his head. How had he not noticed this?
Because before then he’d had his grief for Buffy weighing him down. He’d traded grief for a curse. He’d never do that again. Grief was painful. Grief was awful. But it was human. And it ended.
Giles led him out afterward, and they walked back home, west across Bath, still in bucketing rain, even colder than before. Gray skies and falling water, and the scent of snow in the air. It would probably freeze overnight, but that was okay. It was supposed to freeze in winter.
Xander blew out a long breath. It plumed in the air in front of him, and was gone.
“Yeah. Jeez. You know what it feels like when you wear a hat that’s too small? And then you take it off, and you realize you’ve had the world’s worst headache because of it? I feel exactly like that.”
“Thinking clearer now?”
“Lots clearer. Giles, oh, man, Giles. Thank you.”
“You’re most welcome.”
Xander shook his head. It wasn’t enough, just saying thank you. He’d find a way to repay Giles some day, for all this. For letting Xander come here and live. For figuring out what was wrong. He spent the day lost in thought, sprawled out in the armchair in Giles’ office, drifting with the kite, turning over possibilities in his head. Visualizing himself in a dozen different futures, and imagining which ones he could live with.
That night he slept on his own, on the living room sofa, and did not dream. He missed being next to Giles, but it felt so good not to need anybody else that he decided he could do without. So good to be able to stand on his own again. When he woke in the morning and felt that, for the first time since Anya’s death Xander knew he could live.
It had snowed overnight, then the clouds had been blown away by a brisk wind. It was cold but sunny, so after breakfast they took the landlady’s border collie for a long walk along the river path, along paved paths where the snow was already melting in the sun. The walk slowly warmed them. Puck seemed not to notice. He ran ahead of the ambling men to nose around, then circled back periodically to herd them forward. Xander liked the dog. He was opinionated and bossy and had a sense of humor. Xander hadn’t known dogs could be like that.
Xander watched him snuffling at the base of a tree, busy decoding the messages left for him by dozens of passing dogs.
“How are you feeling this morning?” Giles said.
“It’s like you said. Anya’s still dead. I’m still fucked up. But now there’s nothing making it worse. It’s like somebody stopped punching me in the face every five minutes.”
“Why do you keep saying you’re, er, fucked up?”
“'Cause I am, dude.” Xander stuck his hands in his coat pockets. Time to go for it. “I’m going to tell you the real story now, and we’ll see if you can stand being near me after this.”
Giles whistled, and Puck bounded over to his heels. The three resumed their slow progress along the path toward the city center.
“I killed Anya. I started the whole thing. She’s dead because of me.”
Xander lifted a hand to stop Giles. “I know what you’re going to say. I didn’t swing the sword. I didn’t make the Slayer so high on magic that she couldn’t tell a friendly demon from a vampire.”
“So in what sense did you kill Anya?”
“I set the whole thing in motion. I panicked and broke up with her. That’s the part nobody else knows. I broke up with her. And that’s why she went demon again.”
“No. Listen. There’s a reason it freaked her. She wasn’t the first for me.”
Xander took a deep breath. “First lover to die because of the Hellmouth. Jesse was.”
Xander watched Giles think, and saw the moment he remembered. He’d only met Jesse a few times, back when he was new to Sunnydale. “Your friend. I remember thinking, when I met you, that you were inseparable. You and Willow and Jesse.”
“Death did a pretty good job separating us. I staked him myself.”
“Jesse was already dead. You know this.”
“Yeah, I know. But it talked like him. Looked like him. And I staked him. He was my first. You didn’t know that.”
Okay, that hadn’t been so bad. It helped knowing what Ethan had told him, that Giles wasn’t straight himself. “Nobody did. Not even Willow. There were lots of others, later, but he was the first.”
Giles touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I-- I might have been able to help, if you’d confided in me. But we didn’t know each other yet.”
“Yeah, s’true. But see, the point is, I’ve known I was gay all along. Every single second that I was with her. Every time we had sex, I thought about guys to get through it. She was my cover. Every so often it would build up and I’d go find some guy to do it with. Stranger, preferably. Lots of fifteen-minute stands in restrooms, ya know? And then something happened to make me just explode.”
They came to rest alongside the weir. Xander turned his back on it and sat on the rail. Puck kept going, and fetched up near a bench about fifty yards further along.
“Tell me,” Giles said.
“Willow told me that she wasn’t gay. But it was cooler to be gay. More Wiccan cred, she said. None of the real witches were straight.”
Giles spluttered. “That’s utter bosh.”
Xander shrugged. “She believed it. Told me Tara was a prop. She was high as a fucking kite when she said all this. Don’t think she’d have said it sober. Dunno if she’d have believed it sober. Dunno if it was even true. I think Willow loved Tara for real, before she went nuts. But I went and told Tara all of it.”
“Tara left when you did, you know? Moved out to a cruddy little apartment near the campus. She started having a life. Willow was trying to get her back, though. To use her some more. When she said that, I went over and told Tara. 'Cause I couldn’t stand the idea of Willow using her again, casting magic on her to keep her in line. Tara cried, but… she got over it. She started hanging out with Spike when Buffy was beating him up every night and he couldn’t take it any more either. And then one day, bam, they were both gone. In LA. She wrote me a sweet letter.”
“She wrote me as well,” Giles said, quietly, “But she didn’t tell me why.”
“Willow and Buffy, what a pair. Tara said nice stuff in the letter, about how she appreciated what I’d told her, that it had to have been hard to do but it was important. But then I realized I was just as bad. Just as fucking bad. I just about crumpled from guilt. I couldn’t do it any more. And the voice in my head was… you know what it was doing. That’s when I told Anya. And. She freaked. And.”
Xander waved a hand in the air. And then it had all gone to shit. Twisted. He’d used Anya to desperately reassure himself he wasn’t gay. Willow had used Tara to reassure herself that she wasn’t straight. Anya had used him to reassure herself she wasn’t a demon. Except that it wasn’t so.
“That’s the part of my life I want to kill. The secrets and lies and hurting people when they find out part. I’m out now. Not going back in.”
Xander turned around and watched the river cascade over the weir. He breathed in. It was nippy, but warmer than it had been his first day. There was water in the air, a different scent. The river in motion.
Giles came up and stood next to him, his shoulder brushing Xander’s. Xander said, “Three out of four Scoobies, fucking twisted and insane and broken. You’re the only smart one of us. You got out.”
Giles sighed. “Barely, Xander. Barely. Trial by fire, for all of us. It’s over now. For… most of us. But Xander. You must understand. You did behave badly. But how Anya reacted was her choice. She could have cried and insulted you and broken crockery like the rest of us do. She didn’t have to go demon again. Her choice.”
“Maybe. But I was still a jerk to her. And now I can’t ever say I’m sorry.”
Giles whispered, “All the more reason to say it to each other while we can. I’m sorry I left, Xander.”
“You didn’t have a choice.”
“I’m still sorry.”
Xander leaned against Giles’ shoulder for a moment. “It’s okay.”
“You aren’t entirely responsible for what happened, Xan. We all bear part of it. And part of it was the bloody Hellmouth, twisting everything around it.” Giles growled, and then swore. “I hate it. Hate that place.”
Xander nodded. “Yeah. Never want to see it again. Giles? I want to help. I need to help. With this research thing. I know I’m not much use, but I’ve got a lot to make up for. That’s what I want to do with my life. The dedication thing you did. I’ve decided. I know it might take a lot of work. School, maybe. But if I’m going to reinvent myself… why not go all the way.”
Giles looked surprised. “Thank you. I… Xander. You can do that. You’re entirely capable. We’ll find a way.”
Puck came running back to them. He nudged at their legs, and Xander obediently shoved himself up from the railing. Puck had decided that was enough walking for the morning, and heaven help them if they disagreed with the dog. They retraced their steps in silence. Xander was thinking about what Giles had said, about choices. And evil influence. Maybe it had been an accident, as Giles had maintained all along. Maybe it had just been a Hellmouth-maneuvered series of coincidences.
A thought occurred to him, and it was out of his mouth before he could stop it. “You gonna kick me out of your house?”
Giles laughed. “Why would I do that?”
Xander felt silly. “Cause, I don’t know, 'cause I might hit on you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Xander. You know I’m dating someone.”
“Yeah, well… Some guys freak about other guys, you know.”
“I should tell you that I, ah… I’ve been known to… Some of my lovers have been men. I don’t call myself gay, more bisexual, but I, ah–”
Xander took pity on his stammering and interrupted. “Gotcha. You wouldn’t be offended. Not that it’s going to happen, 'cause, as you say, hello, dating already. Cool. All clear.”
“Good, good. Right.”
Giles was, for some reason, blushing. Xander looked away and watched his feet. Step, step, on the cold hard path. He thought about it. “You know, I do feel better. Just saying it out loud. That’s…”
“That’s an improvement,” Giles said, and Xander could hear that he was pleased. “Let’s stop for a coffee. My hands are frozen solid.”
Puck knew the word coffee, and led the way, tail swishing. Xander followed, shoulder to shoulder with Giles, feeling strangely okay.
Xander lay on the floor of Giles’ office. He had in his hands a survey of hellmouths through history, but he wasn’t reading it. Instead he was watching the rainbow kite, gently moving against the ceiling. He’d been assisting Giles with his work for two weeks now, scanning through texts in English and making notes on index cards. Cross-referencing, in point of fact, which amused Giles greatly. Xander enjoyed doing it. For one thing, he felt useful, for the first time in a couple of months like he wasn’t a waste of food and water. He was a human being again.
Giles’ chair squeaked, and Giles leaned back and stretched. Xander looked at the clock. Break time. Possibly for lunch, if Giles felt it was going well. If he didn’t move, Xander would get up and make lunch for him. He set the book down on the floor. In a second he’d get up. He did love looking at the kite, and imagining it in the air.
“Hey. Giles. Have you flown this?”
Giles swiveled the chair around to look at Xander. “Pardon? Oh. Oh, the kite. No, I haven’t. Haven’t had the chance.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“It was a gift from my nephew. He’s eight. He’d been given it for his birthday, but-- When I came back here, immediately after Buffy’s, ah, fall, I was… He said I looked like I needed to be cheered up. So he gave me his kite. I tried to refuse it but he insisted. Sweet lad.”
“I like it. It cheers me up.”
“You look at it quite a bit, I’ve noticed.”
“I… I dunno, this is going to sound stupid, but I imagine flying away on it. That it’s big enough to lift me and carry me somewhere. Or lately, just flying it. You know, standing in a field holding a string. I always wanted to fly a kite. When I was a kid. I never got to.”
Giles sat forward in his chair and looked down at Xander. “Never? Truly?”
“Nah. My folks, they weren’t into that hobby stuff. And then when I grew up, I had other stuff to do. Forgot about it.”
“We’ll have to fly it. When the weather gets better.”
“Cool. I’ll hold you to it. Lunch?”
“Mmm. Let’s go out and get something. I need the exercise.”
Giles stood and stretched again, then stuck a hand down to pull Xander up from the floor. His fingers tingled against Xander’s palm. Xander had moved to the couch immediately after his demon hangers-on had been killed. He no longer spent his nights being hugged by Giles, and paradoxically every touch had started to loom larger in his mind. Every time Giles’ hand held his, or any time they sat together with shoulders brushing, Xander was acutely aware of it. Focused on the places where they touched. Tingles and butterflies. Giles had never been a touchy-feely guy ever, in Xander’s experience. Buffy was the only one of them he got near casually. Except that now, they were constantly in each other’s space.
It didn’t help that as Xander’s will to live surged back inside him, the tides were rising on some other wills as well. Urges. He’d started guy-watching again, in a casual way. Checking out what Britain had to offer in the stud department. Which was not so much, with everybody all wrapped up in warm coats and rain gear. Maybe the spring would give him more to look at.
He was guy-watching now, as they ambled down the street to a place that made something approximating a burrito. Xander sneered, but Giles said it was better than nothing. They ordered their usuals, and sat themselves at a window table and waited for their number to be called. Xander watched a pair of teenagers walk past. Nothing tasty there. Too young and weedy.
“Hey, haven’t seen Marta in a few days.”
“Mm. Been out of town at a conference.”
“How’s it going with her?”
Giles sighed. “Mixed. Decidedly mixed. I seem to have lost the knack of sharing my life with somebody else. I overlooked Valentine’s Day. Failed to plan.”
“Uh oh. That’s a big one, dude.”
“I made up for it well enough, I think, but the air was distinctly chilly. She said-- Never mind what she said. A comment about my priorities that was more on target than I liked.”
“She still doesn’t know about things that go bite in the night?”
“How do people not know? Never mind. I grew up on a Hellmouth and I didn’t clue in.”
Their number came up, and Giles went to retrieve their burritos. Which had lettuce in them, and a watery salsa. But at least they were spicy, and the chicken ones were okay. Xander peeled the tinfoil away from one end and bit in. He chewed for a while, people-watched out the window, and watched Giles eat. Giles ate only half his veggie burrito, then wrapped up the rest in the foil.
“Giles? There’s something I’ve been wanting to say to you. Can’t figure out how, and I kinda decided that I wasn’t ever going to figure out how. So I’m just going to blurt it.”
Giles looked at him with mild alarm. “All right. Blurt it, then.”
“I’m sorry about Buffy. What we did to her. What I did to her. Bringing her back.”
Giles’ face changed and he moved abruptly in his chair, almost as if he wanted to get up and run.
“It was wrong. And it started all this. I figured out later how much it hurt Buffy. And I’ve only now figured out how much it hurt you.”
Giles wasn’t looking at Xander. “Why? Why did you agree to do it?”
Xander shoved his burrito away from him. The smell was making him sick. “Willow. Willow talked us into it. And made us wait until you were gone. Keep it a secret. We knew you’d flip. And Anya. Anya knew what the spell was. I think… Giles, I think she was unsure, but she talked herself into it. When we were all sure there was no other Slayer called, she decided. I think she wasn’t surprised to learn Buffy was in heaven.”
Xander shook his head. “Duped by Willow. She lied to us about what the spell needed, and what was going to happen. We only found out when we were in the middle of it. And then it was too late to stop.”
“It was evil.”
Giles was whispering. “Evil and arrogant. An act of pure hubris. And like all acts of hubris, the result is tragedy. Pain. Death.”
“More than she ought to have. Willow is alive, which is more than she deserves. She’s been given God’s grace, to recover and build a life and make amends. Buffy–”
“Is Buffy going to be okay?”
Giles shook his head. “We don’t know. Ethan is there now. Angel called to say he had some information. He’s noticed more demons appearing in LA recently. He suspects Buffy is the focus, either their target or attractive to them in some way beyond the usual.”
That was interesting. Giles had once told him that it was normal for vampires to be attracted to the Slayer, like moths to a lightbulb. Lemmings to a cliff. It was a gift, he’d said, from the Powers to the Slayer, to make her job easier. Though Xander had deduced from the expression on his face that it had a downside.
“How is she doing?”
“She’s patrolling every night. Bravely. As always.”
“God, I love Buffy.”
“As do I,” very softly, from Giles. As he said it, Xander knew it was true, and that he’d stopped hating her, and that Giles never had, not even when she had an axe raised over him.
“Not, I mean, it’s just… It’s 'cause she’s so… she’s really fucked up right now, but she still does the important stuff. She’ll slay vamps every night until she dies again.”
Giles made a little sound. His eyes were closed. But Xander couldn’t stop.
“No apocalypse, next time. No hellgods or master vampires. I want it to be a regular fight. Quiet.”
“Not gently. Blazing. Raging. Falling at the moment of victory. Oh, God.” Giles hid his eyes with a hand.
“May it be years from now. Many years. Please, Lord.”
Xander didn’t say anything. Something about the way Giles said that was scaring him.
Giles wiped his face. “I need to be there, with her. Now. It’s getting dangerous. She needs a Watcher. She has Wesley, but he’s not hers, not enough. Quentin tells me he’s waiting for the final report. When he’s reassured she wasn’t the one who killed Robson, when he admits she’s safe, he’ll stop interfering. I’ll go.”
“Can I come back with you?”
Giles touched his arm. “Xan. Of course.”
“Let’s go get it done.” And at that moment, Xander believed there was nothing the two of them couldn’t figure out together.
The next weeks saw the days lengthen, the air warm, and the weather turn blustery. March was rainy and argumentative and muddy, Xander learned. Spring didn’t ease in; it was dragged into the south of England fighting all the way.
The news from Angel in Los Angeles was neither good nor bad. Buffy was definitely suffering the effects of some kind of black magic. It didn’t appear to be the Hellmouth curse that Xander, Tara, and Willow had all been cleansed of. It was something else, something resistant to Ethan’s attempts to cleanse it. He’d brought in a specialist, a woman whose life’s work was curse-breaking, but she had eventually shaken her head and gone away defeated. Buffy had lost patience with all the magic being cast around her and announced she wasn’t sitting still for it any more. She wasn’t going to worry about anything she didn’t need to stake.
She and Angel had become involved again, which Ethan reported upset Cordelia greatly. It upset Giles nearly as much, and he spent an hour on the phone with Angel, spitting tense words into the mouthpiece, eventually pleading with Angel not to allow himself to risk the gypsy curse again, for as much his own sake as Buffy’s. This Buffy would stake him and not even notice. When she was on the hunt she was pure Slayer, with no humanity left. And she was on the hunt more and more often as the weeks past, driven by the increasing numbers of demons in Los Angeles.
She was, in Ethan’s words, burning away. But not quickly. They had time.
Giles came home early from his date with Marta one night. Xander had been stretched out on the couch, doing some reading. An translation of an account of a hellmouth near Rome, first century. Giles hadn’t thought it would have much, but it was worth scanning through anyway. And Xander had found himself interested despite himself. He finished the paragraph he was on before he looked up and saw Giles standing in the doorway of the sitting room. He was leaning against the doorpost, hands in pockets.
“Hey. It’s only eight. Wasn’t sure you’d be home at all tonight.”
Giles came into the room. Xander sat up and made room for Giles on the couch. He flung himself down in the corner and lay there, head tilted back.
“You guys have a fight?”
“You could say that.”
“Flowers. Chicks melt when you apologize with pretty yellow things.”
“She doesn’t like 'em? Candy?”
“No point getting anything. It is rather definitely over.” Giles pulled his tie off and tossed it at the coffee table, to punctuate.
Something inside Xander leapt. “Oh. Um. Sorry to hear it. You or her?”
“It was mutual. I told her… I would never want to marry her. Not in so many words. Bloody stammering Rupert took five minutes to say that he didn’t think we suited. God.”
“You’re smarter than I was. I said yes. I bought a ring. And all the time my stomach was telling me no.”
Giles sat up and rubbed his hands through his hair until it stood on end. “Yes. Well. I was experiencing a similar sensation. I’m not in love with her. And… I knew I had to tell her about, ah, my vocation before I could even consider it. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Destroy her innocence.”
“Don’t get involved with civilians.” Xander said this with the air of a wise old man giving sage advice to kids, and Giles made a face at him.
“I ought to have told her straight away. The fact that I didn’t… Well. I couldn’t even offer her a decent, face-saving excuse. Idiot.” Giles let his head thump back again.
After a while, Xander said, “Hey. It’s traditional to go drink beer after something like this. You are even entitled to one roaring drunken binge. I promise to roll you home and not take pictures.”
Giles laughed, a sad little sound. “I’ll skip that, thanks, but wouldn’t say no to a pint. Can’t stand to be cooped up just now. If there were any vampires in Bath, I’d-- Well. Shall we? Let me change out of this jacket.”
Xander was nervous that it would turn out to be one of those morose sniffle into your beer things, but Giles didn’t seem to be all that bad. Down, yes, but not crushed. He was even talked into a round of darts with one of the people they knew in passing from hanging out here.
Xander drank his bitter ale and watched Giles over the rim of the glass, throwing darts and making conversation. Laughing at jokes. He was in baggy corduroys and one of those dark over-sized sweaters he’d worn so often during his slacker year in California. They didn’t look so out of place here, now, in the pub. Giles was in place, comfortable, at ease. He wasn’t slouching too much, or slumping his shoulders to make himself look smaller than he was. Broad shoulders, like Ethan had said, yes. Completely masculine, strong chest, strong arms, and that jaw. He was, so far, Xander’s favorite bit of British eye candy, his favorite guy-watching target. It was easier to enjoy some quiet lusting now he knew Giles was bi and wouldn’t freak. Had, in fact, dropped more than one hint.
Xander worked his way down his pint slowly and considered those hints. Considered his tingles. Giles had been giving him a message, in an oblique way, the whole time.
Giles won his game, was stood a pint by the genial loser, and returned to Xander looking happier than he’d been before he played. So he was going to get over Marta pretty fast. And that would leave the field open. Maybe a couple of weeks of mandatory cooling off period. And what the hell was Xander doing thinking those thoughts? He needed his own cooling off period. It had only been two months since his fiancee died. No. Be clear. Two months since he’d broken up with Anya because he was gay and had finally admitted that it couldn’t work. That it hadn’t been working. Two months since his friend had died in a really nasty way that he still had nightmares about sometimes. The old-fashioned non-demonic kind, that he could at least think about the next day.
There was rebounding going on with both of them. Xander knew he had to wait. And if in a month or so he still wanted the guy as much as he did at this moment, then it would probably be real, and he could be patient. As patient as he could manage to be. He’d never gone more than about half an hour from lust’s first mutual stare to first grope. He’d never deferred desire before. Never allowed himself to be in love with another man since Jesse. Xander watched Giles drinking his third pint, throat working as he swallowed, hair sweaty and face flushed, and began to learn that the slow simmer had its pleasures.
Giles had four pints and went home drunk after all, but a singing drunk, walking under his own power, one arm draped over Xander’s shoulder, his hip against Xander’s. Not too much to handle, and he was half-sober again before they got home, but that hip and that high breathy voice did nothing to cool Xander’s blood.
He lasted another week before he broke down, convinced that he was boiling alive with the lust and the heat and the little thumps his heart made when Giles smiled at him. Which Giles did a lot, though he was also frowning at his research more and more, and frowning at his cellphone, and frowning at the letters that arrived from Dawn.
When Xander snapped, he was in one of his favorite places, slouched in the armchair in Giles’ office. He was painfully, and with many erasures, working on an outline for his very first paper ever, on the life cycle of a hellmouth, and the signs that might indicate a hellmouth was closing. Xander had learned far more about the minutiae of hellmouths than he had ever expected to know. Enough that he’d begun to point out patterns to Giles, things the other writers had missed calling out, trends. Eventually Giles had told him to just write it up, so that’s what he was doing. Slowly. Agonizingly. With the erasures that left his legs covered in pink rubber snow.
Periodically he’d look up to watch the back of Giles’ head while he thought. And as always, when he began to feel himself truly stuck and frustrated, he looked up at the kite and drifted for a while, dreaming things over. This afternoon, the dreams bubbled up into outright fantasy. Visions of Giles underneath him, like Ethan had described him. Or on his knees, using that wonderful mouth. Or taking charge and pushing Xander onto his knees with insistent hands on his shoulders. Xander ran with that fantasy for a while, starting it out with Giles swiveling the chair around and standing up and pulling his sweater off. He’d have a tight t-shirt on underneath. But when Xander unbuttoned his jeans, he’d find out Giles had gone commando, and he’d nuzzle his nose into–
Oh hell. Xander sat up and rearranged himself inside his pants. He couldn’t stand this any more. Time to try the blurt again.
“Hey. So. Been thinking.”
“Hmm?” Giles set down his pen and looked back over his shoulder.
“I was thinking that it might be nice to share a bed again. Sleep together.”
“I-- beg pardon?”
“Only this time, you know, we could wear fewer clothes while we did it.”
Giles flushed red to the tips of his ears. “Dear Lord. That was… right to the point. Xan. I don’t think–”
“Don’t. Think. Just, you know. Do it.” Xander stood and spun Giles around in the chair. Giles allowed him, but held his glasses in place when Xander tried to take them off.
“I’m flattered. More than flattered. But we can’t. It would be a bad idea. The timing is…”
Now Xander’s face was burning. He’d misread those signals in a very big, embarrassing way. He slumped back down in the armchair and picked up his book again. “Okay, no problem. Forget I said anything.”
Giles was stammering badly. “Xan. This is not a rejection. I’m not saying no. I’m saying not now. Please, if you can wait for me, I’d like you to.”
“Oh.” That wasn’t what he’d expected.
“This is… I’m… The last two months, I I I-- Oh, Lord, for once let me get out a complete sentence without stuttering like a fool!”
The outburst seemed to settle him, and he went on more calmly.
“It’s too soon. Too soon after January. The man I met at Heathrow in January wasn’t recognizable as you. You’re Xander again now. Grown into a, a, a rather wonderful man. But we’re both a bit of a mess still. Marta, when we ended it, told me that you had my entire attention. I had none to pay to her. That was… more true than I wanted to think, but it was completely untrue in another way. It’s Buffy. I can’t… I can’t allow anything to distract me from her. And if you and I were, well, ah, I would be utterly distracted.”
Xander now understood exactly what had chapped Ethan’s hide about Buffy. Giles had priorities, and they weren’t negotiable. Being a Watcher beat everything. Xander opened his mouth to complain, but then Giles flashed a little smile at him that made his heart turn over.
“We’ll resolve this curse problem, and then I’ll give you my full attention. I swear.”
Xander absolutely could not stop himself grinning. It almost made his face hurt.
“Oh, Xan. I haven’t seen you look like that since, since you got here. Since last spring.”
“Sucky year. But now it’s over. Gonna be okay.”
Xander bounced out of the chair over to Giles and before he could react or move away, leaned down and kissed him. Giles was frozen for a moment, possibly in shock, and then he tilted his head and opened his mouth and kissed back. It didn’t last long, a few dozen heartbeats of sloppy hard wet frantic snog, then Giles pulled back. He was breathing hard, and his pupils were dilated. Xander knew he looked the same.
“We have to wait. We’ll know when. Maybe… when we get to LA? We’ll make it a proper holiday. Get Buffy sorted, eat burritos, and, ah–”
“Kiss like that again.”
“Bloody hell, yes.”
Something to look forward to. It did nothing to settle Xander’s resurgent lust. Every touch was now like being hit by static electricity. And no touch was accidental. Xander would find Giles’ flashpoint before too long, he was betting. One of these days, right here on the floor in Giles’ office.
March roared itself to exhaustion, and was gamboling away like a lamb. Xander had begun to see signs of what Giles kept promising him would be a proper springtime, with showers and bright sun and the birds returning. Not like the California springs, which heralded bone-dry summer and a scorching bronze sun in a hazy sky. Not here. It was too wet here to be dusty like that, to be hazy so far up. The air smelled sweet, like flowers, not like heat and eucalyptus.
They read, they wrote, they walked the dog, they flirted. They hadn’t kissed again, but they’d come close. Giles was exerting self-control far beyond anything Xander had thought human beings capable of. It was maddening. It was delicious. It was falling in love. Xander had never experienced before how frustrated desire burned hotter and hotter, until a single touch was enough to set you gasping and panting. He said this to Giles, in stumbling words, and Giles just laughed. Laughed and touched his fingers to Xander’s lips, and said that it would be soon. He’d just done an analysis of the final incursion data, and Quentin had been persuaded at last. It had been a demon that killed Robson, almost beyond doubt: the Hellmouth had been swarming with them, in turn because of the side effects of the resurrection.
The man himself came in from the street, sorting what Xander had been learning to call “the post”. The mail. He tucked a thick packet under his arm, and held out a plain white envelope to Xander.
“One for you.”
Xander hadn’t gotten anything since he’d moved here, not even junk mail for home and garden supplies. He took the envelope. The handwriting on it was instantly familiar, from a lifetime’s exposure. Cribbing class notes. Rewriting papers from kindly-written outlines. Reading the long messages inside girly birthday cards. He held it like it was a thing that might explode.
What would Willow have to say to him? Last time he saw her, she’d been puking her guts up coming down from whatever she’d done to herself and Buffy, whatever spell she’d cast to send them zooming, and telling him that it was just something she ate and it wasn’t her deal, whatever it was Buffy had done. He needed to go bitch to Buffy and would he get out of the bathroom?
This handwriting was younger than that. Steadier.
Xander retreated into the kitchen and sat down with the ticking bomb. He stuck his index finger into a gap in the glued-down flap and slowly ripped along the top fold. Delaying it. He pulled out the paper. Plain paper; Willow always liked cute stuff, normally. Plain paper and a ballpoint. And plain words. He read it, then read it again, then leaned his forehead onto the kitchen table and cried.
A touch on his shoulder. “Xander? Is everything all right? Did anything happen?”
“Yeah, s’okay. Just… It’s from Willow.”
Giles handed him a handkerchief and politely turned his back. Xander blew his nose messily and got a grip on himself. He shoved the soggy wad of linen into his back pocket. He heard the kettle clank onto the stove, and the gas whump on. He laughed, and rubbed at his nose. Giles was reliable. Emotional crisis? Time for tea.
“She’s feeling better. A lot better. She says it’s been tough, but she’s on the way back up and out. She’s… oh, man.” Xander yanked out the handkerchief again.
Two mugs appeared on the table. “The report I got from the coven was good.”
“Yeah. She’s apologizing to all the people she hurt. She says a bunch of stuff. I, oh man, Rupert. I didn’t expect this.”
The sugar bowl. Two spoons.
“It’s so hard to keep hating people. They’re just. I dunno. People. They screw up. Most of them aren’t evil. They just panic. Or they feel crappy and they get drunk and then they run over a toddler or they poison your best friend and she… It’s just people.”
Giles said nothing, but set the milk jug down next to the sugar.
“The point is what they do afterwards, isn’t it. And what you do.”
Giles sat, leaning onto his elbows. He took off his glasses and rubbed his face. “Something like that. Ethan… It took us a long time to forgive each other. To understand what the other one had been thinking, feeling at the time. I don’t know any more. I used to want justice. Now I just want forgiveness. For everyone. Mercy. Some kind of peace.”
“No point hating.”
Giles had nothing more to say, apparently having run himself out of philosophy and energy. Xander thought about Ethan and about Angel. About dead people.
“Have you got some paper? I want to write back.”
It took him the rest of the day to figure out what he wanted to say, and another whole day to get it right, but Xander wrote back to Willow. Somebody else would read it first, Giles had said, to make sure it would be okay for Willow, but he didn’t let that bug him. He’d have said these things out loud in front of anybody. He wrote postcards to Buffy, and to Dawn, and to Tara. It was past time to tell his friends that he loved them and was okay again.
He made Giles take him to the post office immediately so he could send them all off, before he second-guessed himself. He had Giles show him which stamps to use, then he mailed everything off. New Mexico. LA.
They stopped for coffee on the way back from the post office, and it took them a while to get back. When they did, they found Ethan standing on their doorstep, fidgeting. He looked exhausted and grim, rumpled as if his last few hours of sleep had been snatched in economy class. They let him in.
“Forgive me, I need to talk to your boyfriend alone,” he said to Xander.
Ethan pulled Giles into the office and shut the door. Xander shrugged. Jackass. Giles liked him, for some reason Xander couldn’t quite guess. He’d kept expecting Ethan to make a play for Giles after Marta exited the scene, but apparently Ethan had another thing going. Some guy he’d been living with, according to Giles. One of the reasons the two of them weren’t fighting, apparently, was that sex was no longer a possibility.
Or maybe they were fighting again. Xander heard raised voices behind the office door. He stood in the hallway, ready to burst in if he needed to, to beat Ethan to the usual pulp. But it was Giles who was yelling, not Ethan. Then a shout, and a thud. The office door slammed open. Ethan came flying out backwards. He hit the wall and slid down.
“Ripper! Don’t be a fool!”
The door slammed shut again.
Xander helped Ethan up. His lip was split and bleeding.
Ethan took a deep breath and let his shoulders slump. “Damned heroic idiot,” he said, more to himself than to Xander. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it to his mouth.
“What’s going on?”
“Ripper is not happy with the final results of our investigation. Thinks I’m telling him this to hurt him. He should know–”
Ethan shook his head. He reached into his pocket and extracted a card from his wallet. He handed the card to Xander. “My contact information, email and mobile. You’ll want it, when he comes down from that blind rage he’s in. And possibly after it… resolves. If you need help coping with him, call me. Please.”
Xander looked at the card, then stuck it into his wallet. “What’s going on? What’s he so mad about?”
“We definitely concluded our research on the effect of the Hellmouth on magic. Ripper will get a nice monograph out of it, when he calms down enough to write it. It twists magic to evil, as it twists everything around it, proportional to the strength of the magic. I have exact parameters, thanks to some lovely young thing Angel has working for him.”
“That should make you happy.”
Ethan answered sharply. “Don’t be a fool. I serve chaos, not evil. And I don’t like it when a spell I intended to spark a little benign rumpus goes bad. And I especially don’t like it when… it hurts my oldest friend this badly.”
“What? Rupert has been away for months. How can it–”
“That bloody fucking stupid resurrection your friend performed.”
“But, what-- I mean, Buffy didn’t cast the spell.”
“The power used. It was cataclysmic. A spell that large hadn’t been performed in the last century. And never before on a Hellmouth.”
Xander knew, in a sick moment of certainty, where this conversation was going. “Shit.”
“Yes. The magic works, but its results are perverted. Bent to evil. And in the case of that spell, bent to great evil. Buffy is… she is a rift through which the malign enters our world. She’s upset the balance.” Ethan shook his head. “The first sign was the demon that came along with her right off. There’ve been others. More and more. The rift is widening. And Buffy herself is affected. She is not who she was before her death. She’s not whole.”
“Can they stop it? Close the rift?”
Xander shook his head. That sounded good. “So… what’s the deal?”
Ethan stepped over to Xander and took his chin in hand. Xander shrugged him away. “She has to die to close the rift. Her life, her soul, is the hold the First Evil has in this dimension. Don’t ask me to explain the First Evil. Suffice to say… it’s too powerful for us. For all of us. Ripper might be able to smother a hellgod when she’s down, but nobody can smother the First.”
“I-- shit.” There was something about Ethan’s tone that suppressed argument. He believed what he was saying, and it made him deeply unhappy. Xander’s stomach flipped.
Ethan put his hands on Xander’s shoulders. This time he allowed the touch. “She shouldn’t be alive. It grieves me to say this, but Buffy should be dead. Enjoying her eternal reward, her hero’s reward. Because she was one, once. Before. This is what I had to tell Ripper just now.”
Xander shook his head again. “How do you know? How are you sure?”
Ethan sighed. “It came from Angel’s people, the final answer. Ripper himself analyzed the incursion patterns, and then Wesley localized the source. That she isn’t whole is glaringly obvious to anyone who can see auras. Even Ripper saw it, though he refused to let himself think about what it meant.”
“Oh, God. No.”
“Yes. It’s apocalypse if she lives, Xander. That’s what Ripper has to admit. If he tries to keep her alive, we have to stop him. Do you understand?”
Xander stared. He thought they’d hit rock bottom before, that they’d all suffered as much as they could. Now he understood that they’d just bounced off a ledge and were still in free-fall. Still on the way down. No bargaining out of this one. Just as there was no bargaining for Anya’s life.
“Do you understand? Or do I have to have the coven add you to the list of enemies of life?”
Xander hugged himself. “I understand. I get it. I get why he’s freaked, but I’ll make sure he… deals.”
Ethan studied his face, then apparently decided to trust Xander. Something thudded and then smashed in the office. Ethan sighed.
“Good luck with that. I’m off to London again, to make damn sure the Council berks don’t let him leave the country.” And he was gone.
Xander tried the office door, but it was locked from the inside. He knocked, but Giles didn’t answer. Xander sat himself down in the hallway with a paperback, to wait. So long as he was locked in there, he probably wasn’t going to get up to much trouble.
There was shouting for the next hour or two, from behind the closed door of Giles’ office. He was on the phone, talking to people. To Travers, to other men whose names Xander didn’t know. He was shaking down everyone he knew, apparently, demanding to be allowed to go to Los Angeles immediately.
Then another conversation, longer than the others, and much quieter.
Then Giles emerged, moving fast. Xander flung himself in the way, to trip him up, but found himself on the floor gripping his wrist where Giles had twisted it and tossed him aside. Without thinking, without pausing. The front door slammed shut, and the flat fell silent. Xander got up, cradling his wrist against his chest, and went to the door. Giles had taken his coat. No point running after him; he’d only get karate-chopped down again.
Xander called Giles’ cell. It rang once, twice, and for a second Xander was certain that Giles wouldn’t answer. But he did.
“Bloody stupid question.” Silence for a moment. “Going to London. Back… tomorrow. I’ll get a plane ticket for you. Pack for us both.”
He’d hung up, and Xander’s attempts to call him back went directly to voicemail. Xander stood for a minute, thinking hard. Ethan was off doing his best to prevent Giles from flying or teleporting back. Giles might be able to bribe his way around the British government, but he probably couldn’t weasel his way around Ethan and the Council working together. That meant Xander’s job was to wait. Wait, and pick up the pieces of Giles’ broken heart when he finally returned.
He went into the office. Might as well get some writing done on his paper: future generations needed to be warned not to cast on the Hellmouth. He stopped in the doorway. Jesus, Giles had made a mess. Books on the floor, papers scattered. He’d thrown the dragonfly lamp against the wall, apparently, and shattered that lovely glass. Xander had a moment of a panic and looked up. The kite was okay. Giles hadn’t ripped it up. Or done anything truly stupid, other than smash the lamp and kick over his chair.
Xander spend the rest of the afternoon piecing the dragonfly lamp together again. Superglue and patience, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and the phone handset. Just in case.
Ethan called, near midnight, to say that Ripper had most magnificently brawled his way into Quentin Travers’ office, where Ethan had stopped him cold. Xander was not to worry about his well-being. Physically, anyway. Xander thanked him, and went to bed.
Giles appeared some time around noon. He had a black eye and his sweater was torn and blood-stained. Not with his own blood, Xander suspected. He thumped himself down at the kitchen table and examined his knuckles. They were bruised. He was crumpled in on himself. Xander had seen him like that once before, when they’d buried Buffy. The first time. He hadn’t said a word since he’d come in.
Giles shook his head. He cleared his throat. “I, ah, we will not be going to LA. I have been persuaded it would… violate my oath.”
“I don’t know, Xander.” His voice cracked. “I think I could kill just about anyone else, myself, you, Ethan, even Dawn, to save the world. But I can’t kill my Slayer. Can’t stand by and watch it happen again. I can’t harm her. Or watch while she… The best I can do is stand aside and close my eyes.”
“I talked to Buffy. Rang her. In front of Quentin, to prove she wasn’t dangerous. She’s forgotten our argument. Asked me how I was doing, asked after my girlfriend. Told me to write her a letter. She missed my letters. She was… she doesn’t know.”
“Is Angel going to tell her?”
“No. He’s going to let her be happy. The, the benefit of this that the two of them can be together without danger of… the curse ending. He loves her. I gave him my blessing.”
Xander had an idea of how much that had cost Giles. They sat for a while. Xander thought about what he’d want, in Buffy’s position. To know, or not? If he knew, he’d have no choice but to kill himself right away. Maybe it was better to not know, to have death come as a shock. A surprise. A moment of knowing, then it was over.
“Buffy will find a hero’s death again, eventually. Angel is allowing her to fight. She’s driven, he says. She’ll go to heaven again, Xan. I know this. I can’t be there. If I’m there I’ll keep her alive, and I can’t. I have to let her go. I have to let her die. Xan, I-- I don’t get to see her again.”
Giles stood, knocking over his chair, then turned away to lean against the wall. He was shaking. There it was, like Ethan had said. His Slayer was coming first, in the most awful way possible. Xander jumped up and wrapped himself around Giles, holding as tight as he could. Giles slid down to sit on the kitchen floor. Xander held on and helped him down. They leaned against each other for a long time, and Xander wasn’t sure which one of them was crying harder. Finally Giles wiped his face and leaned closer and kissed him.
Their second kiss was not anything like what Xander had dreamed, like none of his fantasies. But he was glad to have it, glad to return it, glad to hold Giles close. Then Giles stood and lifted Xander up with him.
“I don’t want to wait any more,” he said. “There’s no point. Life is too short. I don’t want to be saying sorry to any more graves, to memories I can’t touch. I can hold you now.”
The third kiss was passionate, wild, more like what he’d imagined, and it ended in the bedroom. Or it didn’t end, and exploded out into a thousand kisses. Flashpoint at last. They stripped each other with trembling hands and fell onto the bed still half-tangled in their jeans. Xander ran his hands all over Giles, thrilled to see that body naked at last, to wrap his hand around Giles and hear him groan. To feel Giles’ hand on him. Taste him and explore him and make him forget, at least for a few minutes, what he was losing. What might be happening right that second eight thousand miles away, in LA.
Xander could lose himself in this, in the pleasure of doing these things to somebody he loved. It had been so long, so long since he’d been able to touch somebody he loved and desired at the same time.
“What do you want? Tell me what you like.” He would do anything.
“I want to be taken. Want to feel you inside me.”
“Whatever you need.”
Giles made as if to roll over, but Xander stopped him and pushed him to lie back. He wanted to hold Giles, as close as he could. See his face change as Xander entered him and slid deep inside. Feel his legs wrapped around his waist. See everything that went through his mind as Xander made love to him. Xander moved steadily, slowly, watching the man beneath him. Giles’ head was thrown back. His hands gripped the sheets at his sides. He was groaning almost under his breath, constantly, with every move Xander made. He wasn’t sure Giles knew where he was or who he was with. He was lost in the pleasure. The moans seemed to come from the deepest saddest part of him.
It had been a long time for him, and he couldn’t hold out, not with that amazing man gasping beneath him, but that was fine. It was their first time, and there’d be many times to follow it. They were the ones who got to live.
Spring came and grew, and brought more rain and mud and crocuses peeking out the damp earth. Daffodils. More flowers. The trees on the plaza by their favorite cafe were budding and leafing out. Things settled down to a comfortable place, between the two of them. They talked about long-term plans. They decided that Xander would apply for residency, sponsored by the Council, and go to university. Giles continued to translate, to work on the problem of casting magic safely near hellmouths, to write his monograph on the research he’d done with Ethan. They walked for exercise, jogged a little now and then, often with Puck at their heels. They ate at their regular restaurants, where the proprietors knew them by name. They drank once or twice a week at their local, a pint of warm beer each, then an early night.
And Xander learned that Ethan hadn’t told the whole story about what Ripper liked, and how Ripper loved with other men. Or he hadn’t known the whole story. Everyone had layers, and everyone was complicated. Sweet milky tea, and sweaters with leather patches on the elbows, and kites hanging on the ceiling because his nephew had felt he needed to be cheered up. And hard insistent kisses, hands demanding and receiving response. A bed that was a times a place of soft repose, and at times a place where two men sweated and strained and cried out together. Sometimes it was Xander, pinned beneath Giles’ solid body, ridden hard, or loved slowly and tenderly. Sometimes Giles gave himself to Xander. It didn’t signify.
They waited. There were no more outbursts, either of violence or of tears. Giles seemed to have himself contained, coiled. Waiting.
At last the phone call came. Giles happened to take it, in his office. Xander was studying at the kitchen table. He put down his pen and listened to Giles’ quiet voice. Giles came out to him. His hands were in his pockets. Something about the way he moved told Xander what he was about to say.
“That was Cordelia. It’s over.”
Xander nodded, then felt inane. “Did she say how?”
“No. Only that it was… it was quick. Angel is on his way here, with her ashes.”
No chance for a repeat. Not that Willow would want to, any more. But Angel was careful. Xander opened his mouth to say this, then closed it when he saw how white Giles’ face was. He took Giles’ hand and tugged him into the bedroom. He laid him down and spooned up behind him, and tightened an arm over Giles’ waist. He didn’t say anything, just held on tight, tethering Giles so he could feel what he had to and stay safe.
Buffy’d been his friend, but he hadn’t been as close to her as Giles had. And he had no idea what went on between Watchers and their Slayers, how they felt about each other. Xander suspected Giles grieved as he would for a daughter. It was a little easier, at least for Xander, than it had been the first time, over the summer. Almost a relief that it had finally happened. He’d done all his suffering in advance. But Giles had more to get through. Xander would get him through it.
There was a memorial service, held three days later in the Council chapel on the London grounds. They held it at night, in extraordinary deference to Angel. Xander thought it was not voluntary, that Giles had beaten it into them. He’d come out of a meeting with Travers the day before with barked knuckles, a bruised jaw, and a satisfied look. Xander said nothing. Ethan had told him that Ripper reacted this way to grief almost always. It was better to let him get it out. And when Travers attended the service with a white bandage over his nose, Xander thought it a fitting tribute to Buffy.
The service was foreign to Xander, a Baptist Christmas-and-Easter boy, but it was somehow right. There was a choir singing, a bunch of little boys with voices that ripped Xander’s heart right out of his chest. Then the priest read beautiful and depressing stuff from the Psalms and the words of a service that sounded timeless, with rhythms more like poetry than like the church services he’d heard as a kid. Then a solemn procession, of men in dark suits, and Giles set Buffy’s ashes into a niche in the chapel wall, with her name and dates on a shiny plaque next to them.
Ethan was there, hovering at the back, with a younger man at his elbow. Xander had called him, using the number he left, and told him about the arrangements, reassured him that Giles wasn’t freaking out. Ethan came over to Xander afterwards, and hugged him. He stayed away from Giles, though. “Not my place,” he said, quietly, to Xander. “Too much history. Call me later.” And he was gone, his lover trailing after him.
Xander stood alone afterwards, when the Watchers had all gone, looking at Buffy’s plaque. There were other Slayers memorialized there. He read names and years chiseled into marble, with lists below of other names, demon species, names of people, vampire counts. And underneath each one, a single man’s name, sometimes with an end date that matched his Slayer’s. The dates made Xander’s heart break. So young, all of them. Younger than he was. Buffy was one of the few to reach twenty-one.
Wesley joined him. The two stood shoulder to shoulder for a few minutes.
“Not all of them are here,” Wesley said, quietly. “Just the ones who distinguished themselves somehow in the eyes of this lot.”
“They get marble.”
“This is a temporary plaque. Buffy will have her feats recorded here in stone when the stonemason is done. And Rupert’s name will be here as well. He fought it, but tradition won.”
Xander heard a streak of bitterness in that voice, and remembered that he’d been introduced to Wesley’s father before the service. A git in a suit with a pompous manner. Xander had wanted to hit him when he’d expressed his condolences.
“The Watchers keep their priorities clear,” he said, guessing.
“Precisely,” said Wesley.
Wesley turned, and Xander saw that Giles and Angel had come up to join them, silently. Four somber men, in somber dark suits and somber muted ties. Angel looked haggard, and Xander felt sorry for him. His hatred for Deadboy had apparently run its course.
Angel spoke. “I think she knew. At the end. She overheard something, or she guessed. She was broken, burnt out, but she was never stupid. She went out to find her death honorably. And she won it honorably. At last.”
“Were you with her?” Xander said.
“Yes. I shadowed her, when she went out to fight. Because sometimes the rift would open near her, and release things. More and more often. That night, five vampires. They overwhelmed her right away. And I… let them. Then we staked them, Wesley and I. She was already gone. The rift had closed.”
“Circular,” Giles said.
Xander didn’t understand what that meant, but Angel nodded. “Only at least she went to heaven. It’s consolation.”
Giles spun and walked away. Xander could see him standing tense and still over by the altar. Then he knelt down at the rail. Xander turned and took a couple of steps away, to give him some privacy.
But Wesley, watching, said, “It was hard on him, not being allowed to see her again.”
“You could say that.” Xander was still bitter about it, even though he understood why.
“At least I was with her.”
Wesley went over to Giles and knelt with him. Then Xander understood. Wesley had been Buffy’s Watcher as well, if only for three months. This was something Xander couldn’t share. And that was all right. He was content to have been Buffy’s friend, to have saved her life by mouth-to-mouth once, to have made her laugh and kissed her a few times. And he was ready to call himself her friend again. His hatred had run its course here as well. Dust to dust. Ashes in the little urn.
Xander watched Giles pray, or whatever it was he was doing, and thought. Anya didn’t get a memorial plaque. Buffy’s would have annoyed her. Xander had another idea.
Two days later, Angel and Wesley returned to Los Angeles. Wesley would be back in England in two weeks, with Dawn and a stack of legal papers drawn up by the Council. Her choice, among her absent father, Angel, and Giles. She’d said, on the phone with Xander, that it was an easy choice. Xander thought it would help both of them cope. He said this to Wesley, while he was seeing them off at Heathrow, nighttime flight, special arrangements made to keep Angel in darkness in the baggage compartment. Wesley agreed, then shook his hand, formally.
The next day, Giles drove Xander in his little car west, to Cornwall, to the sea. The beach at Porthcurno. Giles had said, during the long drive, that it was near the westernmost point in Britain, close enough as made no difference. And they’d be alone, almost certainly, at this time of year. The day was clear, the spring sun warm. They parked in an empty lot, and walked along a path down the cliffs to the beach. The wind was strong. It whipped Xander’s hair in his face, and made carrying the kite tricky, even half-disassembled.
He’d never seen the Atlantic before. It was an ocean: blue stretching away forever into haze. Waves, rolling onto the beach. The smell of salt. Seabirds. Heavy cold sand shifting under his feet. They were alone, as Giles had promised.
Down on the beach, near the water, they knelt on the sand and assembled the kite. Giles tied the line to it with one of his tidy knots, while Xander held the kite down. Then Xander pulled a heavy black marker from his pocket, and a fistful of ribbons, in a rainbow of colors. He chose a red ribbon and printed a name on it, as neatly as he could. He tied the ribbon to the kite’s cross strut. Giles took the pen, and wrote on a yellow ribbon. Then Xander wrote on the blue one.
Anya Jenkins. Buffy Summers. Jesse McNally. Jenny Calendar. Joyce Summers.
Five ribbons. They stopped there. If they’d written as many as they could, the kite would be too loaded to fly.
Xander stood up and gripped the kite tight in his hands against the wind. Giles held the spool and let it spin in his hands as Xander backed away across the sand. The wind was in his face, and he squinted. He went about thirty feet, then Giles raised a hand. The kite strained upwards in his hands, eager to slip its bonds.
Giles shouted with the wind, and Xander tossed the kite up. It caught and lifted. Giles tugged at the line and walked backwards. Xander ran across the sand to him. He shaded his eyes and looked back. The kite mounted into the air in a series of loops, as Giles tugged and backed up.
Giles flew the kite for a few minutes, paying out more line, until it was high in the air and hovering steadily.
“Would you like to?” he said.
He handed the spool of line over to Xander. The kite tugged at his hands, nearly slipped away, but he shifted his grip and held on. The wind was a steady vibration in the line. The kite felt like it was alive, humming down the string to him. Xander grinned. This was as wonderful as he’d thought it would be.
Giles stood close, a hand on Xander’s waist. They were alone on the beach, Giles and Xander and the kite carrying the names of their five friends. Xander imagined them flying, way up there, much higher than the kite. Up somewhere where the clouds were warm cottony things.
“Catch and sing the sun in flight,” Giles said, softly, as if to himself. His free hand shaded his eyes as he looked up. “Ready, Xan?”
“Yeah. Let’s let them go.”
Giles unfolded his pocket knife and gripped the line. Xander closed his hand over Giles’.
“We’ll miss you,” Xander said.
“We’ll always love you.”
Giles kissed Xander on the temple. Then he cut the string. The line ran through their hands and out, and the kite leapt higher into the sky. The wind blew it steadily north and out over the Atlantic. It disappeared from view. Xander slipped his arm around Giles’ waist. Giles stuck the spool in his jacket pocket, then rested his arm across Xander’s shoulders. They stood silent for a while. Giles watched the sky, the glitter of the sun on the sea. Xander watched Giles, the glitter on his face.
“You okay?” Xander said.
“No. But I will be.”
Xander nodded against Giles’ shoulder. “Let’s go home, then.”
25170 words; reading time 84 min.
tags: authors-favorite, c:angel, c:buffy, c:ethan, c:giles, c:hurt!xander, c:wesley, c:xander, character-death, genre:angst, genre:hurt/comfort, issues:glbt, season:06, suicidal-ideation, f:btvs, p:xander/anya, p:giles/xander, p:giles/ethan, p:giles/ofc, p:buffy/angel