Warnings: The aftermath of character death, suicide attempts, angst, hurt/comfort. Death of another major character (not Xander or Giles).
Disclaimer: I claim no ownership and am making no money.
Continued from part four.
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 from 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. He had Giles show him which stamp to use, then he mailed it off to an address in New Mexico. 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.
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 in 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? Ripper has been away for months. How can it--"
"That bloody fucking stupid resurrection your friend performed."
"But, what-- I mean, Buffy was resurrected."
"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 stand by 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 the point. 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.
Concluded in part six.