It had been the home of his childhood, this Tudor set in gently rolling hills a hour west of London, but it had been too large for the family even then, and utterly impractical for a single man, a teacher, to live in on his own. So he had leased it out ever since his parents had died. It had brought in a tidy sum each year, for it was exactly the sort of thing social climbers seized upon eagerly, with its steep roof, its exposed timber, its twenty-four rooms. "Stately Giles Manor," he could hear Xander saying, but somehow in the still, cool air of the high-ceilinged hall his imagined voice was muffled, the sarcasm hard to catch. Well, much to his own surprise, the heir to the manor had survived the wars and returned to reclaim it. Against all odds, this was going to be home once more. "Hello," he said, and his own voice reverberated among the beams.
He considered phoning Buffy, but decided against it. He didn't think she was waiting by the phone to hear if he had arrived safely. He went upstairs into one of the bedrooms and dropped his bag on the large, old-fashioned four-poster bed. The view out of the windows caught his eye, and he stepped over to stare out at the sweet, soft green, quietly regulated with fences and hedges and topped off by a clear blue sky, which surrounded, and belonged to, Holmwood House. No more dreary view of modern pseudo-colonial structures cluttered in an ugly street. No more prying, officiously cheerful American neighbors. No more teenagers--
The phone rang, and he sighed, going to answer it. "Giles here."
"Hi, Giles," came the voice, determinedly cheery.
He sat down on the bed. "Hello, Buffy."
"You made it, huh."
"Yes. You were right; those flying machines grow more and more reliable each year."
She chuckled, a little uncertainly. "Well...good. Is everything, you know, together there?"
"Yes. In fact, the previous tenants left the house in superb shape. Is everything all right there?"
"Sure. It's fine." There was a long pause.
"I just...it's strange to think of here as being there for you, if you know what I'm talking about, which you probably don't, 'cause I'm babbling here..."
"No. I know. But we were right, Buffy; it's for the best."
"Giles, you know you can, can always..."
"I know I can." That was a lie. How could it be true when she couldn't even find a verb to finish the sentence with? There were no verbs left for him in Sunnydale anymore, except perhaps for "drink" and "sit alone" and "look at the clock" and "'make time with the Dracu-babes'." He'd had enough of those.
"Well, um, Willow says hi, and Xander, and Tara, and even Anya, though I think she mostly wanted to know if you'd joined the mile-high club..."
He winced. "Let her down gently, can't you?"
"I think Xander already explained that you..." Her voice trailed off again, guiltily, and he couldn't bring himself to imagine what the boy had said. Unkindness paid for with unkindness; it was the old story, wasn't it? "Anyway, I just wanted to be sure you were okay."
You're not obliged to worry about me, Buffy, he didn't say. I'm not helpless without you. I managed to leave Sunnydale only a whole year after outliving my usefulness, didn't I? "I'm fine, Buffy. But I really should get started on the unpacking."
"Oh, right, of course. Go ahead. Get all those weapons and books and...and...Gilesy things into their new home. And then have a nice hot cup of tea."
"I will. Goodbye, Buffy."
He pushed the button on the phone and let himself fall back on the bed. Home. This would be home now. It had to be.
It took a few false starts to begin writing--a few days of staring at the blank paper and twisting the cap of his pen anxiously and wondering if he could do anything, anything, to justify his existence anymore, now that destiny had left him behind. But the thoughts that had been fermenting quietly in his head, so quietly that he hadn't even realized they were there, began to accumulate and web together, and one day it was astoundingly easy to set them down. The malaise of the previous year, when he'd been gripped equally by the inability to contribute much to the group and the inability to concentrate on the research he might have done for himself, vanished in the hush of the house. Giles left most of the rooms closed up, going from his bedroom to the library in the morning, spending most of the day there working, except for visits to the gallery to exercise, and preparing frugal meals in the kitchen at night before retiring to his room again. In that peaceful atmosphere, it somehow made sense that he could write of the approach of the Ascension--those terrifying, lonely months when his inadequacy had become almost unbearable--with calm and detachment, distilling the chaos of events into a few, simple, clear lines. The Mayor had to acquire the Books of Ascension, he wrote, making a careful footnote of their description and the few surviving references to them in the literature, but saying nothing of how he'd gotten them. The story of a troubled girl with dark eyes and tumbled hair did not belong there. Nor that of a blonde girl, her friend and enemy, and all the anguish that had resulted from that doomed association. Now that he was clear of Sunnydale, he could order things properly once more. The past seemed to fall so neatly in place.
The days moved forward with a stately march as he followed his rounds. At first, he had called Sunnydale once a week, but somehow the idea became less interesting to him over time, and he let the machine take their calls often enough, listening just long enough to determine that there was no edge of panic in the voice before drifting off again into his own thoughts. The mail piled up in a drawer, only bills extracted and answered. He went to the town on occasion to pick up supplies, and once the villagers had determined that he was the Mr. Giles of Holmwood House, come back at last, they were happy to leave him be. The world pressed no claims on him at the house, and thus he wrote and fenced and ate and slept in the embracing silence, and was, almost, content.
So when, one day, during a fierce downpour, Giles heard a rapping and looked out one of the arched windows of the library to see Ethan Rayne, resembling nothing so much as a drowned kitten, peering inside, he had risen calmly, led him into the house, taken off his sodden clothes, and drawn him close, warming that wet body with his own.
He thought he understood, but he was nonetheless a little surprised to find Ethan still in his bed the next morning. Ethan seemed to feel the same way, too, because when his eyes opened, he gave Giles an anxious look that was all too easy, in conjunction with the new, decidedly non-magical, scars he'd discovered the previous night, to decipher. Giles answered it by pulling him back to him.
Afterwards, Ethan said softly, "What are you doing here?"
"Writing a book."
The shoulder Giles was stroking grew tense. "For the Council?"
"Oh," he said, and then a minute later, in a different tone, "Oh."
"And you, Ethan?"
"And me, what?"
He sighed. "All right, let's start with something simpler. When did you...get out?"
"Last week. I went to Sunnydale, but I gathered that you were here. Finally got fed to the teeth, did you?"
Giles tried to chuckle, but it caught in his throat. So did his voice. He closed his eyes, swallowing. After a minute, he found he had stopped stroking the other's arm and was instead gripping it tightly. He made himself let go, then said, "They didn't need me anymore, Ethan."
Ethan said nothing, but made a murmuring noise and pressed himself closer against him, warm and lean and so fragile.
He lay quietly for a while, accepting it, but then stirred, opening his eyes again. He had to exercise this much care, at least. "You still haven't answered my first question."
He gently reached down and pulled his chin up, looking into his brown eyes. "What are you doing here?"
Ethan tensed again, his gaze appealing to him. "I'm resting, Ripper," he offered tentatively. "Resting quietly."
"Resting quietly," he echoed, and felt Ethan relax at his tone. "I think I like the sound of that."
So Ethan was quiet. He fit himself into Giles's routine much more easily than Giles could ever have imagined possible. Apparently he had his own reading and thinking and roaming to do as he recovered, and little energy to spare for mischief. He went through most of Giles's small fantasy collection, lying on the floor of the library reading them while Giles worked, and then had more delivered. He spent hours casting stones on the same floor and studying the patterns. On fine days, he often went out onto the land, gathering herbs which he brewed into peculiar-smelling teas. Most of them he drank himself, but some he brought to Giles, as well, and he accepted them without asking questions, letting himself slide easily into the slightly skewed states of mind drinking them induced. Ethan never stayed away long, though; he grew tired and chilled easily, and after one of his expeditions, he was too evidently glad to curl up next to Giles in front of the fire and drink his new concoction. At night, their lovemaking was contemplative, slow, and soothing. Later, sometimes, Ethan woke up shaking and sweating, and Giles held him and listened to him pouring out stories in which he could not distinguish the vision-elements from the flashbacks and prayed to whatever god might listen that there were more of the former than the latter. Those were the only times they ever spoke of the Initiative. Giles wanted to know how he'd escaped--his own efforts to liberate him had been entirely unproductive--but he was afraid to disturb Ethan with further questions.
They ate better now; Giles liked cooking, but with only himself to think of, he had fallen into old bachelor ways, eating barely-noticed food out of tins while standing up in the kitchen. With Ethan's voracious appetite to feed, he started making more elaborate meals that they lingered over in the smaller dining room, washing the food down with plenty of wine. He liked the feeling of mild, innocent intoxication in the evenings: Ethan resting his head on his shoulder while Giles read to him aloud from one of his novels til they both dissolved into chuckles, or the two of them playing endless games of backgammon which Giles usually won, except when he chose to overlook Ethan's cheating. But for all the time they spent together, they actually spoke relatively little. They instinctively understood that the quiet of the house was their accomplice; they had no wish to dispel it.
How long it might have gone on like this if it hadn't been for the phone calls, Giles didn't know. Longer, he thought later, looking back, and not long enough.
The phone had rung while they were in the kitchen making dinner, and he had started at the strange noise before picking it up reluctantly. It was Buffy, and he struggled, with some guilt, to remember the last time he'd talked to her.
"Is, is anything the matter?"
"Nothing. Except that it's been two weeks since I called and you haven't called me back. I was starting to think I was going to have to mount a rescue mission, Giles."
"No, of course not. I've just been very busy."
"Too busy even to pick up the phone? That's pretty busy." For a minute, there was mild reproach, even hurt, in her voice, but then she audibly put on a more upbeat tone, saying, "Giles, you haven't been letting flossing slide, have you? Because when I come visit, I don't want to see you with Austin Powers teeth."
He chuckled, warming a little and leaning back against the table. "Never fear, Buffy. My standards of personal hygiene are intact. One simply gets used to the peace and quiet..."
They chatted over trivial concerns--her new classes, Tara's cat, the death of yet another magic shop owner--for a few minutes more before hanging up. Smiling, Giles glanced over at Ethan. He was standing frozen at the counter, knife plunged into a sausage, shoulders drawn in with tension. Giles's smile died. "Are you done there?" he asked, walking to the oven and trying to sound casual. "I'll be needing that soon."
Ethan didn't answer.
Giles sighed and took off his glasses. "Ethan, it was a routine call. Buffy and I speak every week, or we're supposed to, anyway. It doesn't, it doesn't mean..."
"What? What doesn't it mean? Do tell me, Ripper."
He hesitated, searching for something he could say, then moved behind Ethan and set his hands on his shoulders, feeling with dismay how tight they were. "I'm not going anywhere, Ethan."
Ethan shrugged his hands away and began chopping at the sausage again. "Right."
Dinner was unusually quiet that night, though not tense, and Ethan went to bed early without comment. But when Giles came in and tried to hold him, he rolled away, bunching the blankets around himself. Giles stared at his back. He couldn't tell Ethan what he wanted to hear, and he wouldn't take the only kind of assurance he could offer. Frustrated, he buried his face in the pillow and tried to sleep.
The next morning, Ethan was gone. Giles cursed softly as he looked at the tangled blankets. He didn't know what to think, and that alone was enough to keep him in bed for a while. When he finally got up, the whole house seemed quieter, larger. He worked on his book in complete silence for three days, waiting, wondering if he even should be waiting. On the fourth day, he came out of the library for lunch to find the front door open. Ethan was kneeling on the floor with a new bag next to him, marking out what looked to be the outlines of a very complex warding system with chalk. He didn't look up, but kept his attention fixed on the threshold, with a grim, determined expression on his face. Giles considered briefly. Although he recognized the designs involved, the wards were too complex for him to decipher the exact nature of the threats they protected against without consulting his manuals. He did not, however, return to the library to do so. Instead, he laid his book aside, knelt down, took some chalk and a compass, and began to help with the tracing. That finally got him a guarded look, and when, a good hour later, they had finished the outline, Ethan let him take him right there on the hall floor.
"Don't do that again, Ethan," he whispered, rubbing the other's flank. He'd grown more solid since his arrival.
"But I rather fancy the response," Ethan said, and Giles couldn't decide whether he sounded more insouciant or sorrowful.
Ethan spent the next two weeks warding the whole house. After that first afternoon, Giles let him handle it all himself, bemusedly watching him lay out the lines with those clever and sensitive hands. It was strange to think of Ethan as doing anything so...disciplined. The project clearly tired him, but he came into bed nights with more of the old self-satisfaction around his mouth than Giles had seen since he had arrived. Meanwhile, Giles worked on preparing the house against winter. The physical labor that this meant felt clean and honest and good to muscles he had strengthened through his regular bouts in the gallery. So good that he decided, without telling Ethan, to rake out and mulch the neglected gardens behind the house before the ground froze. When he came in, glowing, from this task and dropped down into his chair to let his tired muscles rest, Ethan was waiting for him with a particularly heady tea which made him forget all his aches and pains in a glorious stupor. When he'd finished it, Ethan crawled into his lap, where he stayed for what seemed like hours, just pressing softly sucking kisses against Giles's skin. After what had happened earlier, Giles was only too glad to lie there and take them, staring glazed-eyed at the fire and thinking of nothing at all.
But the next day, Buffy called again. "Happy Thanksgiving, Giles!"
"Oh, yes," he mumbled, strolling out into the hall where Ethan was working. "Thanksgiving. That's today?"
"Of course it is. What, don't you guys celebrate the great day when you got rid of those unsightly colonies?"
"I'm afraid not, Buffy." He looked over at the other, who was scratching something into the wall with particular determination now and frowning.
He realized that she'd been speaking for some time. "Sorry...what?"
"Are you okay? You sound kind of...out of it."
"No, no," he said distinctly and loudly, "I'm perfectly fine. In fact, I'm very comfortable here. I think I've gotten quite used to being back."
"You don't feel bad about being alone? I mean, on a holiday?"
It almost annoyed him. "It's not a holiday. And I'm not alone, Buffy. Really. Give me a little credit."
Ethan stopped pretending to work. He got up and came over to Giles, putting his arms around his waist and resting his chin on his shoulder.
"Oh, really? Who's there? Olivia?"
"Buffy, you do remember when you told me that I was too old for you even to think about my having a personal life? I haven't gotten any younger."
She was quiet, then laughed. "Okay, bad Buffy, no Watcher gossip for me." Her tone sounded a touch forced--perhaps he had offended her--but he didn't care to pay it much thought. The conversation wandered off into the usual small doings of Buffy's life, and Giles conducted his half rather absently as Ethan nuzzled at his throat, especially once the subject of Dawn came up. Apparently she was being even more trying than usual, and one of the things Giles was most grateful for was that she was no longer his problem.
"Yes, well, Buffy," he said, trying to end the call, "I'm sure Dawn will..." Ethan made a strangled gasp in his ear and let go of him, teetering, then falling over, clutching his head and moaning. "Ethan. Ethan!"
"Buffy, I have to go. I'll--I'll call you later--"
He punched the button, tossed the phone away, and knelt down next to Ethan, supporting him. His eyes were clamped shut, his face ashen and screwed up tightly, but there were no obvious signs of injury. "Ethan. Ethan, can you hear me? Ethan, speak to me."
Ethan gripped his face, digging his fingers into his cheeks, making no reply.
"Come on, Ethan, don't make me take you to hospital."
Ethan shook his head violently, taking in a hissing breath, then letting it out slowly. Then another, then another, and his eyes flew open. "No. I'm--I'm all right." He tried to sit up, and fell back.
"What's happened to you?"
"Nothing." This time, he made it to an upright position, and flashed him his old, quick, utterly unreliable smile, starting to rise. "Nothing. Just a touch of migraine."
Giles restrained him. "Ethan, you don't get migraines."
"How would you know?" he snapped, pulling away. "You haven't exactly always been around to--" He stopped. Giles stared, letting him go. Then Ethan gave him that horrible smile again, standing up. "Let's just pretend I didn't say that part, shall we?"
"I'm tired, Ripper. These headaches take a lot out of you. I'm going to have a bit of a lie-down."
He was on the stairs before Giles could say anything. Feeling very tired himself, Giles moved over the chill wooden floor to collect the phone. He called Buffy back, composing some excuse that sounded weak even to him, then went back into the library. He had been excited about the book--he was drawing near the end--but he hardly wrote a word for the rest of the afternoon. Ethan did not make an appearance. At sunset, Giles went upstairs, and found the other sitting in the window of the bedroom, following the movements of some wheeling birds intently.
Giles sat on the bed. "Ornithomancy, Ethan? I didn't think that was quite your style."
"Well"--Ethan did not turn around--"it's made great strides in the past decade, actually. I knew a homeless chap down by Pimlico who could predict every race by watching the pigeons beforehand. Fortunately, I was the only one who listened to him, so I--"
The unaccustomed volubility was worse than the smile had been. "Ethan. Just tell me you're all right."
"Didn't I already say that, several times? You used to be a quicker study, Ripper."
"You were panicked and in pain then. Tell it to me now."
Ethan looked at him, raising his eyebrows. "You have no idea how complicated it is, making a statement like that--"
"Oh, very well, if you insist." He drew the curtains. "I'm all right. In fact, I'm ducky. Satisfied?"
"Yes," he said, lying down, but it was a lie. It only became more of a lie later on that night, when Ethan tried, for the first time since he'd come to Holmwood House, to get him to hurt him.
It was after that night that Ethan had given up on his light reading and started in on serious books again. Giles very determinedly did not pay attention to the titles on the spines of his selections as he sat across from him in the library, pinning his concentration instead to his final chapter, which was taking shape slowly. The foul weather finally came, but Ethan went out, if anything, more frequently than before, returning wet and muddy and cold and withdrawn. There was an undercurrent of nervousness in his words and actions sometimes now that Giles could hardly stand. In bed, Ethan was alternately desperate and sullen, and Giles often wanted to tighten his grip and force some answers from him, but he made himself turn away instead. A coerced confession might assuage his anxiety, but it would not help with the larger problem.
Christmas was coming, and though Giles could not contemplate it with real pleasure, he did want a decent meal; they had more or less ceased their dinners together, eating absently off trays in the library instead, but that was too grim a prospect to consider for the holiday itself. So he took the car and went into the next town over, which had a better Sainsbury's. Of course, on his return, the car broke down, and he had to hike across the fields, clutching the bags awkwardly. As he made his way along a ridge above the stream, his feet slipped on the wet grass and he slid all the way down to the bank, scattering plum puddings behind him in a most humiliating manner. He forgot the pain and embarrassment immediately upon looking up, though. For Ethan was kneeling beneath an overhang in front of a small shrine, whispering something impassionedly.
Hearing the noise, he squinted up at him, confused. "R-ripper?" he said, then blinked and actually focused on him. "Oh--Ripper--I--"
"I'm sorry to have disturbed you," Giles said evenly, rising to his feet and dusting off his knees. "Why don't you bring these groceries in when you're done? I've gotten rather soaked."
He jumped up. "Ripper, I wasn't casting a spell, I was--"
"Praying. Divining. It doesn't matter."
"I said, it doesn't matter. I'll see you back at the house." Giles turned and started to trudge back up the ridge. Ethan was suddenly beside him, grabbing his arm, swinging him to face him so that they both almost lost their balance.
"Damn it all, Ripper, why are you trusting me?" he cried.
Giles looked at the ground for a minute. There was a can of cranberry sauce there. He looked up again. "Because, Ethan, I choose to believe that you value this...this...whatever it is...enough that you wouldn't do anything to jeopardize it."
Ethan laughed, but his nails dug into his arm. "What if that's the problem, Ripper? What then?"
He had been calm before, he thought, but that made him angry. "What? That you value this? What's the matter? It's too square for you, Ethan? Or for your sodding Janus?"
Ethan frowned. "No. Janus likes this. He approves," he muttered.
"Then what--No, leave it. I don't want to know." He pulled his arm away, and Ethan did fall, but he kept on going.
Even an hour in the bathtub didn't make him feel better.
Christmas Eve came, with nothing resolved, and Giles decided to go to the service at the village church. He'd no appetite for dinner. Ethan stopped him as he was putting on his boots. "Surely you haven't taken up believing in such things," he drawled, leaning on the stairs with his hands in his pockets.
"No," he said defensively, "but the choir has always been splendid, and...besides..." A small boy, tucked in safely between his parents in the pew, staring at the candles til the whole world seemed aglow. His voice softened. "It reminds me."
Ethan's mocking expression faded to something very nearly wistful an instant before he turned away. "Oh." He started up the stairs, but stopped, sighed, and glanced back. "Can I...can I come with you?"
He almost hesitated. No doubt some of the sharper-eyed villagers had deduced that there were two men living in Holmwood House, but they had never gone anywhere in public together. It was easily the most sociable thing Ethan had wanted to do in weeks, though, and so he spoke without debating the matter with himself further. "Can you behave?"
"Now, Ripper, when have I ever not?"
"Goodness, I can't recall," he said dryly, and Ethan went for a sweater.
The church had changed little since he had last been there, at least ten years before. He was grateful for that, and for the slow, solemn, joyful service, the shine of light on polished wood, the chill of the rough stone, the strange mingling of the smells of must and wax. Small certainties offered up against the all-encompassing dark. They weren't true, of course, but perhaps, for that night, they could be true enough to give comfort. Ethan had gone in with the ironically wide-eyed look of a clever child taking a tour, but something in the air seemed to reach him, too, though he sat silent with his hands politely folded as the rest of the congregation stood and knelt and prayed and sang. Perhaps it was only from watching sidelong as some measure of peace descended on Giles, but he was stiller, somehow, and gentler, at the end, more than he had been since the first headache. As they moved towards the exit, Giles felt him tentatively slip his hand into his, and, for all the villagers, did not pull away.
Outside, the air was crisp and chill. He looked up, bemused. "It's snowing."
"So it is," Ethan observed. "All those good little boys and girls, getting their wish. And the naughty ones, riding on their coattails. Sharp little buggers."
"It's beautiful. I haven't seen snow since..."
"No. Sunnydale. Two years ago." That had been the first year that Buffy had given him a Christmas present. It hadn't been much--a scarf in a strange orange hue that only a teenage girl from California could love--but the awkwardness with which she had offered it, the affection and regret conquering the embarrassment, had made it his most cherished possession. He had packed it away when he came to England, put it in a cellar full of things he would never touch again.
They walked on for a while, and then Ethan asked, with difficulty, "You would still rather be there, wouldn't you?"
Giles looked up at the sky. "Do you want me to lie to you?"
"No," he said, "No. I want the truth to be different."
Giles heard the shakiness in the voice and turned, surprised. Ethan's eyes were huge. "But here is where I am, Ethan." He kissed his forehead. "Here is where I am."
"And will be, now and forever, world without end?" Ethan stepped away and dropped onto a nearby bench.
Giles didn't understand the bitterness in his voice. "Who can ever promise that?"
"I would, Ripper. I did. But it hasn't made a ruddy bit of difference."
"Oh, Ethan." He sat down next to him, drew him against his coat, felt his convulsive swallowing. "It's all right."
"No, it's not," he gritted out, "and you don't even know what's wrong."
"Then tell me," he said, stroking his hair, baffled.
Ethan took a shaky breath. "This isn't, this isn't real."
"What isn't?" A horrible thought came to him, and he stammered, "Ethan, you didn't--haven't been--"
"No. Not that I haven't been tempted. You've been so damned trusting, Ripper. You should know better by now."
"Very probably," Giles conceded. "But if it's not that..."
Ethan sat up, staring off into the night. "Chaos is before reality, Ripper, and beyond it. People like me see the multiplicity, the flux of things. We don't cling to the idea that there can be only one truth, and so our minds aren't frightened into cooperating when someone makes a change in reality."
"And...someone's made a change?"
He nodded. "A terrible, violent, powerful change, so effective that it nearly caught me, too. But not quite. I wish it had."
He was afraid to ask. There was only one thing he could be leading up to. "What sort of change?"
"In Sunnydale. The slayer's sister. She's not real."
"What? Of course she is."
"Well, she's a solid enough little girl, I suppose, but she wasn't always there."
"Yes, she was. I could wish that she wasn't, but..."
"I remember her, Ripper. She turned into a Powerpuff Girl that Halloween and damned near broke my nose. A spunky little thing, but when you ate the candy, you teased her til she cried. I remember all that. I also remember those things could never have happened, because Buffy Summers is an only child. It was a very powerful spell, so strong it hurt to see through it at first, but I've got the hang of it now. Janus helped."
"Who did it?"
"I don't know, but I can't imagine anyone running about creating teenage girls just for larks. You need a good excuse to bring that sort of monster into the world."
"Oh, God, Buffy." Giles jumped up. "I, I, I have to warn her. I have to go back. I have to figure out what's going on. Willow's not up to something like this."
He was already half a dozen yards down the path before he realized that Ethan wasn't with him. He turned back. The other was sitting on the bench, staring down, rocking back and forth slightly, hands clenching the stone.
Of course. He came back and knelt next to the bench, gently prying one of Ethan's hands loose and enfolding it in his own. "It...it could be only temporary."
"Please, Ripper," he said bitterly. "I've heard this story before. Don't try to pretend it has a different ending."
Giles gestured, suddenly frustrated, at the world, at the powers, at everything. "How long did you think this could last, Ethan?"
"I didn't think about it like that!" He jerked his head up and glared at him. "Were you thinking that way, all this time? Just having a little fun over the vac?"
"No! No." He sighed. "I suppose...I suppose if either of us had been thinking, it never would have happened at all."
"I came here to hurt you, you know. But you, you clever bastard--you had to be good to me. Did you plan it that way? Ethan's out of prison, we need to develop some marvelous new way to make him suffer--let's try kindness?"
"I needed you, Ethan." Giles looked away. "I needed you so much."
"Don't I know it. One fucking taste of that, and you hooked me all over again, Ripper. I never stood a chance. And now you're going to cut me off."
"You can't come with me."
"You know I can't."
"And yet..." Giles marveled, the full implications finally dawning on him. "You still told me."
"Absurd, isn't it?" Ethan gave him a painful smile, all his antagonism suddenly draining away. "I told you I was hopeless."
How strange it was, to be found worthy of love after all. He pulled Ethan down to him. "We're all hopeless about something," he said against his shoulder, thinking of an orange acrylic scarf wrapped up like something infinitely precious. "Come on, let's go home."
It had already begun to seem infinitely far away when he emerged from the gate at LAX to see Xander and Willow waiting for him.
"Giles!" Willow squealed, and darted forward to give him a hug.
"Hello, Willow," he said, squeezing her shoulders.
"Willow thought we should make one of those signs with your name on it," Xander said, "but I knew you could find us. Your glowering instincts would kick in even if your memory drew a blank."
"Hello to you, too, Xander," he said, and it was entirely possible that he was glowing.
They collected his luggage and piled into Xander's car, which now sported a Playboy bunny dangling from the mirror. Xander saw Giles make a face and said, "Anya's idea. She's trying to get over that whole bunny phobia."
"I see. How is she?"
"She's good. Working for the DMV now. But enough about us, G-man. How have you been? How was Merrie Olde England? Merry?"
"What've you been up to? Hobnobbing with the princes, eating scones, watching 'Red Dwarf'..."
"I've been writing a book. Fencing. And drinking rather a lot of tea."
Xander glanced back over his shoulder at Willow. "And you thought he'd be leading a quiet life. Shame on you, Willow. Shame!"
"It sounds good to me," said Willow. "Can I see the book, Giles?"
He felt a slight twinge. "When I finish it. It's nearly complete."
"Okay. Ooh, and let me know if you need any indexing done. I've been working on a spell for that."
"Well, there's a certain artisanal integrity that comes from hand-indexing your work, but thank you for the offer."
"Come on, Giles, what's the worst she could do to your book?"
"That's a question perhaps best left unexplored," he said mildly. "But tell me--how is Buffy?"
"She's good," Willow said. "She's a little wigged by the whole Dawn thing, though. We all are."
"Tell me about it," Xander said. "She's always been like a little sister to me. Suddenly I find out the whole thing is a fake, just another weird Hellmouthy twist in our personal lives."
"It feels so strange. I mean, I like her. I like her a lot. And now I don't know whether I really do like her, or I'm just supposed to like her from some weird mojo, or if I'll even remember liking her once we break the spell--"
"You like her, Willow," Giles interrupted patiently. "As do you, Xander. And, God help me, so do I. It seems to me that what you feel is real to you, no matter how...peculiar...or temporary...the circumstances that give rise to your feelings are."
"Does that mean that Buffy really was in love with Spike last year, then?" Xander asked, and Willow hit him, and the conversation veered away. Giles leaned back and let his thoughts drift back to Holmwood. He'd told Ethan he could stay as long as he wished, and Ethan had said he might finish the winter there, but now that his strength was almost regained, Giles didn't know how long he would remain. Ethan was a wanderer, and always would be. It had probably been years since he had voluntarily spent that much time in one place.
And it would probably be years before he had a reason to again. He shook his head, and rolled down the window. The air, impossibly sweet and warm after the damp English climate, rushed at him like Willow's hug earlier, and he tilted his head back and welcomed it.
"Home sweet home, eh, Giles?" Xander asked.
"Home," he agreed.