The apartment hallway was dark save for the glow from Giles’s skin. The lights, Giles presumed, had burned out when Willow’s last act had surged power through the town and wreaked its anti-havoc, repairing everything from Giles’s broken ribs to the smashed walls of the Magic Box. And leaving him in this absurd state.
Giles followed Xander down the hall to his doorway, hoping they wouldn’t encounter anyone else. Mercifully, they did not. Xander sorted through his keys and made a noise of frustration. Giles spread his hands open over the doorknob. Xander found his key and slid it into the lock. The sound of the bolt turning was loud in the silence of the hallway.
The door creaked open, and Giles preceded Xander into the empty apartment. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find. Certainly not this orderly room, nothing like the basement room where he’d last spent private time with Xander. No clutter, no books, no mess associated with the young bachelor, no empty pizza boxes. Xander had grown into a tidy man. Though perhaps that was due to the breakup; surely he’d had more furniture, the last time Giles had visited, near on a year ago.
Inanities. The mind seized upon inanities at times like these.
Giles stood in the center of the nearly-bare living room, lighting it with that odd glow from his skin, wondering what to do with himself. Sparks shot from the ends of his fingers without his conscious volition and darted about the room like fish. They flickered and vanished. Xander shook his head. Giles shrugged.
“Where shall I–”
“Couch,” said Xander, pointing unnecessarily.
Giles sat gingerly. He was as yet unsure what his subconscious might do, if indeed it was involved. The power Willow had bequeathed to him was quite beyond his comprehension and certainly out of his control as yet. He suspected that Willow’s final moments of intent informed the power’s expression even now. Xander’s battered pickup had transformed itself in small ways during the drive from downtown: dents unbending, paint chips vanishing, the engine smoothing into a well-tuned purr. And as for what it had done to Giles himself, as it had streamed into him, he wasn’t yet letting himself consider. Though Xander’s constant sideways glances were disturbing. Xander usually looked past him, or around him, never at him.
Xander came back from the kitchen with two brown bottles in hand. He handed one down to Giles, then collapsed next to him.
“To Willow, my best friend,” Xander said. He clinked his bottle against Giles’s, then tipped it to drink in long slow swallows.
Giles followed Xander’s example and drank deeply. Ale, too cold, but appropriately bitter and hoppy. The Americans could brew beer after all.
Fortunately he was restraining himself from the obvious ones, such as babbled questions like “how are you holding up?” and and so on. Xander was in shock, as Giles himself was. He was in the numb phase, when one was not quite sure the loss was real, never mind what it was going to do with one. Or the gain, in his particular case. Willow’s bequest to him, this power fizzing along his skin, making the hair on his arms stand on end. Lighting the room.
“Two funerals,” said Xander. He had another long swallow of beer. “Both of them here yesterday, gone now. Two funerals. In a long procession of funerals.”
Giles opened his mouth to say he was sorry, then closed it again. He was one of the bereaved himself. No need to share with Xander condolences he did not possess. Sweet Tara gone, his beloved Willow gone. His first Sunnydale friend, his first protege. Cocked that one up, hadn’t he. Though Willow had been leagues beyond him. Until now. He held up his hand and watched the light glow out from under his skin. More sparks, snapping out and arcing into the ceiling. The power had perhaps found another target in the apartment building.
Xander was staring again.
“Sorry,” Giles said, quite pointlessly.
“That’s… that’s Willow’s magic?”
“Yes. Along with a great deal of power from other sources, near as I can tell. Everything she’d gathered to herself.”
“You won the jackpot.”
Giles laughed, but perhaps not for the reason Xander was expecting him to laugh. Willow had rigged it, stuck her thumb most definitively on the roulette wheel. “I did, yes. I’m alive.”
“You were expecting to be dead?”
“Thought it was a certainty. Touch and go, there, for a few minutes. Until you saved us all.”
Xander shook his head, then had another pull on his bottle. His knee was bouncing next to Giles’s knee. Inches away. It was the magic, Giles told him, making his skin hypersensitive. It had taken him this way in the past, too. Magic and sex, hand in hand, leading him to places he wished afterward he’d never gone. He’d given them both up for long years. He sighed. Willow had other plans for him.
“Was this your plan? Was this the big witchy idea?”
Giles shook his head. “No. This wasn’t-- it wasn’t a resolution that occurred to us.”
“But you dying did.”
There was accusation in Xander’s voice. Giles sighed. Though as directions for anger went, it was acceptable. Later Xander would think to be angry with Willow.
“There were many scenarios that ended with my death, I’m afraid. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make. And there were a number that ended with hers, though not this way. We’d hoped-- What we’d hoped was strangely near what happened.” Giles laughed. “The pure magic broke through. It opened a door inside her heart, and you were able to walk in and find Willow. You brought her back to herself.”
Xander shook his head, though Giles wasn’t sure what he was disagreeing with.
“And then she did… whatever it was she did.”
“She, she-- It was the most beautiful thing to watch, Giles. She stopped slashing at me, and she was letting me hug her, and she said something about how she was going to fix it all. Make amends. Make it all better. And then–”
And then the light had shone out, and pulsed over the town, and Giles had felt himself filled with pure magic, pure life essence, healing him in a long moment of what he could only call ecstasy. When it was over, Willow’s body was gone. Burned clean away by the energy. Where Willow herself was, they weren’t sure, but Giles thought it was not on this plane of existence. He knew it the moment it happened. He’d been unable to explain why to Buffy. She’d refused to believe him. Xander, who’d been holding her when it happened, had also simply known. It was Xander’s certainty that had finally convinced Buffy. Xander, who was still dry-eyed and numb.
And now Giles was left with the sparks and glow and the niggling sense that Willow had not, in fact, gone yet. Not entirely. Why Giles? Why hadn’t she given all this power to her friend Xander? Why had she cursed him with this damn glow?
Xander was favoring him with another one of those looks, the looks that said he was doing something strange again. Shooting sparks, he saw, sparks from his left hand. Giles held up the hand, and they both stared at it. The scars from where they’d put the pins in to repair the fingers were gone, and Giles knew that the pins were gone as well.
“They’ve stopped aching,” he said. “Perfect eyesight. No scars. My left shoulder has been weak since I was at university, from a karate injury. Not any more.”
Xander waved his hand around his face. “And then there’s the, you know.”
“Your face. No glasses, fewer wrinkles. Kinda weird, and not just because you’re still glowing. To look at you and see…” Xander trailed off.
Giles looked at Xander’s face. There was something in it Giles had never seen before there. Fascination? Desire? Giles sat up, suddenly afraid. “What did she say, precisely? Her exact words, Xander.”
“Something about fixing things, making people happy, giving them–”
“What they wanted?”
“No. What they needed. She said needed.”
Giles subsided onto the couch and had another long swallow of beer. It made her gift to him of a repaired body easier to bear, thinking that it wasn’t the result of a selfish wish, but Giles was still uneasy. What might she have decided they all needed to be happy? That could be more alarming.
Giles looked sidelong at Xander, next to him on the couch. Xander was looking right back at him, under a shaggy fringe of hair. Lovely dark eyes. Giles had wanted to drown in them, once. Years ago, now. He looked at his beer bottle instead, at the condensation on the label. Product of the Sunnydale Microbrewery. A hometown product. A Hellmouth product. Bottled brimstone. He seemed to have drunk nearly all of it.
The drinking was traditional. The Irish wake, the celebration of a life. But to Giles, Willow’s life didn’t seem entirely ended yet. Something hovering around him, attempting to get his attention. Willow, or the ghost of her intentionality, present in the power as it soaked into him. What?
“So. Eternal youth for you? Fountain of youth, philosopher’s stone, eternal life?”
“No.” Giles upended his bottle.
“Why not? It looks like–”
Giles shook his head, then swallowed the last of beer. “Because,” he said, very clearly, “the universe is rigged. Entropy always increases. Time has an arrow.”
“Oh. But meanwhile–”
“Meanwhile, I enjoy perfect eyesight for the rest of my natural lifespan. Which should be quite long, given the history of the Gileses.”
“And you get to look hot while you do it.”
“Objectively speaking, you’re pretty hot without the specs. Just so you know.”
“Oh. Er.” Giles supposed it wasn’t surprising, not the fact of his attractiveness. He’d been told he was good-looking when he’d been twenty, though he’d always thought of himself as too chinny. All defiant jaw under untameably curly hair. No, the surprising thing was that Xander was saying it, since he’d never shown the least sign of noticing Giles as a sexual being. And Giles had been watching for it.
Xander took the empty bottles and stood. Giles did not watch his backside disappearing into the kitchen. He wondered when Xander’s numb phase would end. Buffy’s reaction had been more complicated, once she’d calmed down from fight mode. The loss of a friend, the loss of an enemy, the removal of a threat to Dawn, the removal of a piece from the chessboard in Buffy’s mind. Her reaction would be delayed, Giles thought. He could see it playing out, knew what he had to do to help Buffy cope. In about two weeks. The patterns were clear to him. The power welled for a moment inside him, like liquid fire surging through his veins, and his breath caught in his chest.
“Dear Lord,” he said. “Now I know why they go mad.”
Xander handed a second beer down and folded himself on the couch again, nearer to Giles this time. Giles drank. It seemed to be having no effect. Body heat, rippling along Giles’s arm and leg, where Xander almost brushed against him. Giles refused to think what it meant.
“Who? Who goes mad?”
“Sorcerers. Anyone with great power. They go mad, attempt apocalypse, burn themselves out in great blazes of glory. Just like Willow did. A few integrate it and survive. Those are the famous ones.”
Xander’s head thumped back against the couch alongside Giles’s.
“So mondo magic power makes people go crazy. And Willow left you hers, the mondo-est of the mondo.”
“That appears to be the case.”
“Hell of a last will and testament.”
“Too bloody right,” Giles said, with feeling.
He held up his hand again. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but the glow appeared to have subsided a little. Was the power leaving him? Then he felt another ripple inside, and another spark slowly emerged from his palm. He turned his hands palm up and cupped them. This one wanted to stay with him, apparently. And so did the power.
“Can you fix things?”
“Pardon? Been mending everything around me by accident ever since.”
Xander put his beer bottle on the floor and held up his right hand. “Yeah. I saw that. Can you do it on purpose? I broke my pinkie playing baseball in junior high, and it never bent right after that. Can you fix it?”
“Intentionally? I, er–”
Giles reached out and pressed Xander’s hand between his. He had no idea how to do this, and Xander’s closeness was beyond unnerving. He was aware his body was trembling. He stroked over Xander’s crooked little finger. There was the break. Once, years ago now, Giles had shown Xander how to reload his Colt 1911 semi-auto, and his hand over Xander’s on the gun had lingered, and it had felt like what the magic felt like now. Giles had been careful in Xander’s presence from that moment on: no accidental touches, no gazing into those lovely eyes, no close contact unless someone else was present. It had been half-mercy, half-torture that Anya had made her appearance in Xander’s life just then, and those lazy afternoons together had ended.
Not an inanity, but this too needed to be set aside. Giles had much practice with this task.
Giles closed his eyes and steadied his breathing. In, out. Relax. Count heartbeats. He went to a quiet place inside, his center, his meditative heart. He’d spent months at the coven learning to visualize his safe place, his private refuge. It was near what he remembered: a copse in woods in spring, with trees in leaf and the quiet sound of birds, but at its center was a bubbling spring. That was new. Water welled up and ran down the hill. Clear water, cleansing, cool. He could smell it in the air.
Something prickled along the back of his neck. He was not alone. He spun.
Willow was there, smiling at him. She glowed much as he had in the hallway, more, as if she were made of light. Giles blinked.
“What? How?” he said, but she shook her head and put her finger to her lips. Then she pointed to the water bubbling at his feet.
“Drink,” she said, and shimmered away. The sound of her laughter rang in the air where she had been.
Giles went to his knees and filled his cupped hands with water. Strange, electric and sparkling and clear blue and marvelous. And all he need do was share it. He drank deep, and found the secret of healing, of remaking flesh. It was so easy, so sweet, so satisfying. Xander’s hand in his, Xander’s finger remade, Xander’s body perfected.
Giles let go and fell back on the couch. His skin tingled, but the euphoria was back. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at Xander’s marveling face. The magic had its price: what had been dead memory buried under dead leaves was now alive again, alive and bursting young and strong from damp earth. Life and energy and desire, reawakened and almost painful. Like the erection straining against his jeans.
That was not so much inanity as simple embarrassment.
“Willow, what have you done?” he murmured. Then he opened his eyes wide and sat up again. He would have sworn in a court of law that she’d just laughed at him. Willow, who was dead by her own hand. Or… Giles found where he’d left his bottle. The alternative was that she wasn’t dead, not as one usually understood the term. The alternative was that Willow had in fact become one of the famous ones.
Xander was gazing at his own hand now, flexing the fingers. His pupils were huge. “That was wild,” he said to Giles. “Sparks and glow and full body tingles. I say again to you, you won the jackpot.”
“Assuming I stay sane.”
“Assuming you stay sane.”
Giles’s entire body was buzzing, but that was not the magic. That was simple arousal. He hadn’t been this turned on in years. Circuitry long left open and dead, in his body and mind, now sang electric, closed and brought to life by Willow’s last act. Everything was alive and humming inside him. Like the sound of an amplifier, turned on and plugged in, waiting for that first touch of fingers on strings. Giles shivered. He hungered for touch, yes, but it was impossible.
Xander vibrated next to him, wriggling on the on the sofa, beer entirely forgotten. He touched Giles’s arm for a moment. Giles jerked as if he’d been shocked.
“So that’s what you needed? To be Mister Sexual Healing?”
“I mean, uh, Doctor Mojo Magic?”
“No, that’s not quite it. Though it’s close.” Giles pondered this a moment. What did he need most in the world? To know his Slayer was safe. Willow had to know this; it was easy, even for someone who had not read his heart. Her game had to be deeper. And Giles had tired of it. Tired of his glowing skin, the sparks, the power flooding through him not yet under his control.
He tipped his head all the way back to look at the ceiling. “I know you’re there,” he said.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Hush. Buffy is going to live a very long and triumphant life, and die of old age surrounded by great-grandchildren. That’s what I’m going to do with this bloody power. That’s why I needed it, yes? Do I have it right? Willow, please answer me.”
Xander went still next to him. “That’s it, you’ve lost it. Three hours with the power, and it’s melted your brain.”
Giles ignored Xander, and shook his head at the ceiling. She wasn’t yet satisfied, though his plan had her strong approval.
“What does Xander need? Must I work that out as well?”
There was a moment when he was certain he could hear Willow’s voice, saying something exasperated. Giles knew he was being deliberately obtuse, deliberately slow to take her point. But the risk seemed too great. Xander had, until this moment, never given him any signs, and he couldn’t trust the signs he saw now. The both of them were drunk. Drunk on beer, on magic, hearts and souls stunned by grief. He couldn’t trust it.
Then another bright spark snapped from his fingertips and drifted to Xander’s face, where it brushed his lips then faded. Xander touched his fingers to his mouth. Giles bit his own lip in an effort to keep himself from groaning aloud. Bloody hell. If desire might be allowed to rise to the level of need, he knew what he needed now.
“That’s-- wow. Is that what it feels like to you? Tingly and zoomy and the single most exciting thing ever?” Xander’s voice was full of wonder and thick with something Giles could identify if he wished to, which he didn’t.
“Something… something like that.”
Ask him, dummy, Willow said to him, as clearly as if she were standing in the room.
Giles sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He gave in. “Very well.” He sat up on the couch. He tugged at the hem of his jumper, enough to ensure it hid the worst of the evidence. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, attempting to put himself into some kind of reasonable array. It was no bloody use. He was doomed to have this conversation drunk, high, and randy. He sighed.
“Xander,” he said. He finally looked at Xander. Xander had his feet up on the couch, and was hugging his knees to his chest. His eyes were wide and he looked worried.
“Giles, man, you’re wigging me badly. What’s going on? Who are you talking to?”
“Xander. What did she give you?”
“Huh? I don’t know. I guess-- the world didn’t end? You fixed my finger?” Xander’s gaze slid to the side.
“Yes, yes, but you said needed. What do you have now that you needed before?”
“Oh,” said Xander. He chewed on his lower lip for a moment, and Giles squirmed in his seat. The man had no idea. Simply none. It had always been part of his charm. “Oh.” Then after a moment, “How much did she know? How much about us did she see?”
"You know just as well as I do. She was in your mind and mine, at the end. She saw everything. About all of us. Perhaps about the universe. She transcended, Xander. That wasn’t death. That was ascension. "
“Oh. Yeah, okay, I knew that, I think. I felt it. It’s what I tried to say to Buffy. Willow’s somewhere else. But Buffy–”
He fell silent. Giles watched Xander’s thoughts flicker across his face. He’d always been fascinated by Xander’s face. It hid nothing. Every emotion Xander felt was immediately obvious. And was obvious now. Giles bit the side of his finger. Odd, this, that two men who’d faced death bravely just hours ago could dance so nervously around the question of feelings. Odd, too, how useless all this energy was at such a moment. He could knit broken bone, tune carburetors, blow fuses, but he couldn’t make himself less afraid of revealing his heart.
“This is stupid,” said Xander. He stood up. Giles kept a close eye on him as he paced, back and forth across the bare living room. Xander had always been the courageous one of them, the one of them who knew his own heart best.
“She sent me to you. One of the last things she said. He’s in the Magic Box. He’ll be okay. Then the light show started. But… Okay, look, let’s have it out. Are you straight? 'Cause I’m not entirely. Kinsey two, Anya said, after she administered exhaustive tests from this textbook. To both of us. She tested about a Kinsey minus three and I had to admit that yes, sometimes about once a week or maybe more often I’d think about sarcastic knife-throwing Englishmen instead of her. And what I need is for you to be back here and be my best friend and help me keep Buffy’s house fixed so she can slay stuff and have a life at the same time, and raise Dawn right, and keep the world from ending every time some yahoo tries to hit the off switch. And I’m pretty sure Willow knew every single little bit of that before she pulled that apotheosis stunt. Are you getting me, here? You can stop me any time you need to.”
Giles turned away to hide his smile. The well of his laughter threatened to overflow. “No.”
“What? I mean, no to what? I forget what I just said. And you can as well, if you need to.”
“No, I won’t forget. No, I won’t stop you. No, I’m not straight. And yes, I’ll come back.”
“Woah.” Silence from both of them, stretching out. Xander had ceased pacing, but had not returned to his place on the couch. Giles’s side was cold where Xander had been.
“That was easy,” Xander said.
“Yes. Come back here.” Giles patted the couch. Xander came to him, but didn’t sit next to him. Instead he knelt astride Giles’s lap, and Giles could feel for himself that the sparks had done to Xander what they’d done to him. And it would be all right. He let himself look deep into Xander’s eyes now. They were calm, and certain, so Giles would trust it. Trust Xander.
But there was one thing left unsaid.
“Willow? Dearest, meddlesome girl. Go to Tara now. Yes, I’ll take care of him. I love you too.”
And with those words, Giles felt her presence for one last moment, a touch on his shoulder. And then she was gone.
“Are you sure you aren’t gonna be one of the ones that goes crazy?” Xander said.
“Quite sure. Quite, quite sure.”
And because further speech would have been inane, Giles pulled Xander close, and kissed him. Drink, Willow had said. Giles drank deep and let himself drown.
Much later, when they had at last had their fill of each other, Giles let himself sprawl across Xander’s messy bed. He was exhausted but deeply satisfied. And he’d stopped glowing: the power had settled itself deep inside him. In his blood, his nerves, his bones. Curling the ends of his hair, like as not. He sighed, and let his hand drift down Xander’s arm. He wasn’t sure if Willow had left Xander to him, or had left him to Xander. He didn’t suppose it mattered.
“Thank you,” he said, to the ceiling, but it was another inanity. She’d moved on to wherever it was she was going. She was not dead, not exactly, but still he’d never see her again. Never lecture her, never growl at her for stealing his books. The tears came, then, not yet a flood, but the promise that he’d grieve as he ought. He wiped his face, then drew a deep shaky breath.
Xander rolled over and rested his head on his hand. He looked down at Giles, solemn. Giles smiled up at him through tears.
“Hello,” he said. He brushed the hair away from Xander’s face, and his fingertips sparked blue where they touched.