The aftermath of saving the world wasn't very exciting compared to the . . . beforemath? (Was saving the world "the math"? Sometimes it felt like the world's worst geometry problem, only all the points were moving fast and carrying sharp objects.) Xander had that Christmas Day, 'after the presents but before the drunken family fight over who let the turkey burn' feeling. That little letdown, like a spot of mildew that spreads until it covers everything. Demons dead, hellmouth quiet again, world as safe as it ever got around here, now what?
Getting out of the school seemed quicker than getting in, even though they still had to step around broken concrete blocks, nails, and hunks of rotting snake meat. Xander kept sneaking looks at his companions. Spike was growling and muttering to himself about killing demons—he sounded just like the homeless guy who hung out near the Bronze and wore a winter coat in July. Buffy and Riley were going to be kissing any minute. Like that was hard to predict. You didn't even have to look at them to know that. Willow was frowning her "not going to cry" frown. She'd been not-going-to-cry ever since Spike called her a loser, a few hours back. He'd called Xander a loser too, and God knows he wasn't exactly wrong, but Xander could not-cry much less obviously. He had more practice.
Leaving the school and coming out into the fresher air took some of the edge off the letdown. It was like finding one last chocolate Santa in the toe of your stocking, late in the afternoon when Christmas dinner was over and Dad and Uncle Rory were arguing over who should drive to the 7-11 for more beer.
The group split up a little at a time. Spike took off without a word, shadowboxing excitedly under the streetlights. Should have let him stake himself, Xander thought. Why didn't I? Now that he's the Great White Demon Hunter, I'll never get rid of him. When I'm forty and still living in the basement, he'll be right there next to me on the couch, dipping Tostitos into a mug of blood and then trying to double-dip in my salsa.
At the corner of College Street and Larch Avenue, Buffy and Riley said goodnight and walked away hand-in-hand towards the campus. Their shadows were joined, like Siamese twins.
"You okay, Xander?" Willow asked. She'd started noticing him again. That was good. Missing Oz wasn't the only thing in her head anymore.
"Totally okay. The okayest guy on the hellmouth, that's me." He just didn't want to go home. The basement was so cold and damp even Spike complained, and his parents were yelling every night lately. It was way too small, and Anya wouldn't come to see him while Spike was there. And compared to Spike, even Buffy's first roommate, the demon chick, sounded like good company. Spike laughed at him for watching old Star Trek reruns, and if he ate a cookie or a potato chip Spike said he was getting fat. It was like his parents' marriage, only without the . . . ugh. Not thinking about that. Not thinking about sex and Mom and Dad. Really not thinking about sex and Spike. Not thinking about how Spike always knew when Xander jerked off, no matter how quiet he tried to be, and gave him dirty looks the next day.
"Somebody should tell Giles about the world not ending," Xander said. "He's probably waiting to hear. Since he's Watcher Guy and everything. I bet there's a rule, even, no going to bed unless you know the world's not ending."
"I'll call him when I get back to school," Willow said. She was shifting her feet, wanting to say goodnight and go home.
"That's okay. I'll go over. I'm not tired, and somebody should see how he's doing. Those demony guys really pounded on him." Something awful could be happening to Giles. He could have a concussion or a subdural hematoma or any of those things that sounded so scary on ER.
"Sure," said Willow. "Night, Xander."
He'd go over and check on Giles to make sure he was all right. Out of concern. It was nothing to do with how Giles smelled like wool and scotch, a smell Xander kept thinking of as fatherly even though that wasn't exactly the right word. Xander's father smelled like Pabst Blue Ribbon and shirts so old that the reek of sweat never washed out. Giles had the smell of an imaginary father, from one of those movies where a father takes his son out camping and tells him big manly secrets. Xander's throat always got tight and achy, watching those movies. He daydreamed sometimes about going camping with Giles, sleeping in one of those two-man tents that's barely big enough for one. Lying around half-dressed in the hot sun. Skinny dipping in a cold mountain lake. Just like fathers and sons do, right? But not exactly.
Going to see Giles was nothing to do with that. It was nothing to do with the crinkles around Giles' eyes when he smiled, or the muscular arms he hid under long sleeves. Nothing to do with the dry warmth of his skin or the sadness in his face. Nothing to do with how rough and miserable his voice was today, when he explained how the demons had stolen the talisman from him. Or with how he sucked in air through his teeth, painfully, holding the icepack to his clawed face. Nothing to do with the way Xander's hands tingled after touching him.
It took a long while for Giles to answer the door, long enough for Xander to wonder just what this visit was to do with, then. When Giles did answer he looked like some weird horror movie bad guy, with half his face purple and swollen under the claw marks, and the other half normal. "Xander. Hello," he said, stepping aside to let him in.
"Hi, Giles," Xander said. "I wanted to tell you that the world didn't end. Maybe you figured that out, what with the total lack of blood, guts, screams, and demons. And the not being dead. But I thought you might wanna know for sure."
Giles almost smiled, started to nod, then winced and put a hand to his forehead.
"You okay, Giles? No, stupid question, a face like that doesn't equal okay. Not even the way I do math. But are you not-okay enough to need a doctor or something?"
Giles was still rubbing his head, eyes closed. Xander put an arm around his waist, just to be helpful, and led him over to the couch. "Do you want advil or a cold washcloth or something? Or I could make some tea?"
"Tea would be nice, Xander." He sounded more tired and sad than ever, not impatient the way he usually got when Xander said too many words to him. He hadn't asked why Xander was there. He hadn't asked him to leave. He was letting him make tea.
Xander went into the kitchen before Giles could change his mind. As quietly as he could, he filled the kettle and looked into cupboards until he found tea bags and mugs. There was a teapot, too, but he wasn't trying for extra credit points. There was milk in the refrigerator, so he added some to Giles' mug. He couldn't find the sugar.
When the tea was ready, he carried the mugs into the other room. For a minute he thought Giles had gone to sleep, but he opened his eyes when Xander set the mug in front of him. Xander even remembered to use a coaster. Giles hated marks on his furniture.
"Thank you," Giles said. "If you don't mind, would you bring me the bottle of Percodan from the bathroom cupboard?"
The medicine cabinet was filled with half-empty bottles of painkillers and sleeping pills. It took Xander a minute to find the right one. What would Giles say, if Xander dared to ask about it? What voice would he answer in? His Watcher voice, telling Xander it was none of his business? His librarian voice, stuttering out some obvious lie? Or the newest voice, the sad one, the one that might be his real voice and that might tell the truth?
"Thank you," Giles said again when Xander handed him the bottle and sat down next to him. Close enough to be in touching distance, but not so close that Giles couldn't ignore it if he wanted to. Just like always. Sipping his awful, unsweetened tea, Xander watched Giles fumble the cap open and take a pill. Afterwards he sighed like he felt better already.
They didn't talk. Giles looked too tired to talk, too tired to listen. Drinking the tea seemed to hurt. He held the cup to the right side of his mouth, and made a little painful gulping sound each time he swallowed. There were rusty bloodstains on his sweater.
Every couple of seconds a stupid, nervous remark trotted through Xander's head. He let them pass by and didn't say any of them. He didn't fidget. He sat, finishing his tea, glancing over at Giles sometimes. All through junior high and high school Xander had perfected the Stealth Glance. It let him look at girls without getting laughed at, and guys without getting beaten up.
Sometimes he felt Giles looking at him. Obviously the Stealth Glance was one skill they didn't teach in Watcher boot camp. Or maybe Xander was imagining it. He imagined all kinds of things. He imagined he'd get a good job soon, and an apartment of his own. He imagined Buffy and Willow were still his friends even though they were in college. He imagined he had a future.
Giles set his mug down and leaned back, closing his eyes.
"You should go to bed," Xander said.
There was a long silence. The words "Giles" and "bed" chased each other through Xander's mind like kids playing tag, only Xander was definitely It. He prayed not to blush. Literally prayed, please God please, like he hadn't since he was nine. Why didn't Giles say something? Had one of Xander's thoughts hijacked his voice and been spoken out loud? Could Giles see the images in Xander's mind, strobe-lit flashes of bed, nakedness, touching?
"Too far to walk," Giles said, very quietly. One of his hands moved, shifting maybe an inch closer to Xander.
From anybody else it could have been an accident that meant absolutely nothing. From Giles it was a multicolored neon sign, the biggest billboard on the freeway, puffy letters skywritten in the wild blue yonder.
Holding his breath, sure that the world was really ending now, Xander slid over and put an arm around Giles' shoulders. When Giles shifted and leaned into him, Xander split into two people. One felt Giles' weight against his body and breath against his ear, the other watched it all happening, as unreal as a movie. Xander caught a fistful of Giles' sweater and clung.
When Xander had first kissed Cordelia and first made love to Anya, time had flown past just like the cliché said. Time didn't fly now. It flowed slowly, sticky and opaque as cold honey. The feel of Giles' hand resting lightly on Xander's thigh brought it almost to a stop. Each breath took hours.
Nothing happened. Not a kiss, not a touch beyond that sleepy hug. Giles was too bruised to kiss anyway, too bruised for the things Xander was rigid and aching for. Xander's desire grew and grew until it crowded the oxygen out of the room, but somehow he breathed anyway, breathed desire and felt happy.
A soft snore told him Giles was asleep in his arms. Xander wouldn't sleep tonight. He wouldn't move until morning. He'd hold on to this, because tomorrow things were bound to get complicated. Maybe they'd get impossible, the way Xander's wishes usually did. But right now he didn't hurt, and Giles didn't hurt, and that was as much as he'd ever hoped for.