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 over them.
"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."