Hecate's Challenge

by Wolfling

(Rated PG)


Dying was far easier than Giles had imagined it would be. There was surprisingly little pain, and no gasping for air or other stubborn involuntary clinging to life. There was just a growing feeling of cold, his entire body having long gone heavy and numb. His sight and hearing were slowly fading, like they were on a dimmer switch that someone was implacably turning down.

His perceptions of his body and that reality were fading out quicker than his awareness linked to the essence that Willow had stolen from him; Anya and the wreckage of the Magic Box disappeared into the dimness, while the events at Proserpexa's temple remained clear in his mind.

When Xander succeeded in getting through to Willow, and she let go of her rage together with all of the power she'd stolen -- including what she'd taken from him -- he felt it more than he saw it, the connection with Willow snapping with an almost physical jolt and his essence floating free.

But it was too late; the connection to his body had weakened to the point where it could no longer draw his essence back to save himself. Instead he felt a moment of extreme disorientation -- like his soul was being caught and spun in a dust devil. His last awareness of the world as he knew it spun away violently as whatever hand was controlling the dimmer switch on his senses turned it all the way to off...

He was left in a silence so profound it could drown out the largest roar, a darkness so perfect it was smothering. A void, a nothing that had grown to be all encompassing, that had swallowed... everything.

The only thing left of him was his thoughts -- He thought therefore he was -- and Giles wasn't sure how long those would stay intact, especially without any outside stimulation.

There was no real sense of time in the midst of that nothingness, but it didn't seem that long to Giles before things started to change.

The dark became less thick, less cloying, gradually lightening, but so slowly it was difficult to tell when it had started or to pinpoint any immediate progress. By the time it had lessened to the consistency of merely a darkened room, the silence had also begun to fade. The ghost of a sound slowly grew louder until it finally became recognisable as music. It was a record playing, Giles realised, Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was part of his own collection.

And as if that realisation had been a trigger of some sort, light came up, chasing away the last of the dark, revealing to Giles that he was standing in the entranceway of his own flat.

Not his current flat in Bath though; the place he was standing in now was the apartment he had kept when he had been living in Sunnydale, a place that he could still close his eyes and remember every detail of, despite not having lived there in almost a year now.

But despite the impossibility of his being in this particular place, every sense was telling him that this was real, every detail matching the ones that were in his memory.

Aside from the man pouring himself a drink from Giles' makeshift bar. That definitely was new.

The man was a bit shorter than average, but of average build. He had dark, dark black hair, cut to the nape of his neck, and pale, flawless skin of the kind that many women lusted after and used makeup to try and create. He was dressed in dark brown trousers and a short sleeved red shirt, and Giles noticed a tan leather jacket had been thrown over the back of his sofa.

The man turned around just then, holding a glass of brandy and spotted Giles. "Oh, there you are," he said, his voice holding a distinct Irish brogue. "You took your sweet time getting here. I was starting to wonder if you were going to be one of those souls who get lost on their way." He raised his glass in a toasting motion to Giles. "Glad to see I was wrong about that."

"I..." Giles cleared his throat and tried again to say something that would actually be useful. "And here would be where, exactly?"

The man smiled, the expression warm and inviting on his mobile features. "Where do you think it is?"

Giles crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, it looks like my old Sunnydale apartment but-"

"But you don't live there anymore?" the man finished for him as he moved to lean against the window ledge that separated the kitchen from the rest of the downstairs. "That's true as far as it goes -- this place doesn't exist -- at least not in Sunnydale, not like this. In your memory, though, that's a whole other story."

"So this is all illusion then." It certainly seemed real enough to Giles, but he was aware that he was swimming in uncharted waters. He couldn't take anything at face value.

"It's as real as your thoughts." The man drained his glass, then turned back to the counter and poured himself another brandy, filling a second glass as well. Crossing over to where Giles was standing, he held that glass out with a smile. "Trust me, it's easier if you just accept all of this as real. You start doubting what your senses tell you and it'll drive you to drink."

Giles looked at the glass being offered to him for a long moment, before slowly reaching out and taking it. He had the feeling that, doubting his senses or not, he was going to need a drink.

The brandy tasted just as real as the rest of the room seemed to be, and Giles held it in his mouth for a moment before swallowing, savouring the flavour and the burn as it went down his throat. If this were an illusion it was a damned good one.

The man watched him drink then crossed over to the sofa and sat down, slouching back into the cushions. "Nice couch," he complimented. "A man could spend the night on this without finding he'd totally put his back out the next morning."

"Who are you?" There were a lot of questions that wanted to tumble out along with that one, but Giles restrained himself.

"You can call me Doyle. I'm what you might call an advisor of sorts."

Giles put the now empty brandy glass down on the counter and crossed his arms in front of him. "The logical next question would be an advisor of what, exactly?"

Doyle grinned at him. "'Fraid that would be a bit difficult to answer in ten words or less. Depends on the person. Most of the time it's just a nudge in the right direction, sometimes it's a bit more... complicated. And before you ask, I'll be happy to tell you what I'm supposed to advise you on -- it's what we're here for, after all." He gestured to the other end of the sofa. "You might want to sit down. This could take a while."

It wasn't like Giles had much in the way of other choices; after all, he wasn't sure if he could even walk out the front door and was less than eager to find out what would happen if he tried. The absolute nothingness he'd found himself in before being here loomed large in his mind, and he certainly didn't want to go back to it.

Still, there was a strange reluctance to do what he'd been told, and it was only grudgingly that Giles moved away from the door and into the living room proper. However he chose the recliner in the corner instead of the sofa to sit on. Some instinct was telling him distance would be important in the impending conversation, be it physical or alcohol-induced.

Doyle said nothing about Giles' choice of seating; he merely leaned back against the sofa's cushions and got down to business. "You, Rupert Giles, have a choice to make."

"Which is...?" Giles asked when the other man didn't continue.

"The kind that deserves a dramatic pause," Doyle said with a smile. He gestured extravagantly with a hand. "Y'know, nothing big; just life or death, forward or back, beginnings or endings.The usual." The smile again, somehow managing to be mysterious and knowing, and open and friendly all at the same time.

Giles wanted to remain wary and guarded, but found himself relaxing and trusting Doyle regardless. The other man seemed to have a way about him for putting people -- or at least Giles, although he didn't think he was particularly special -- at ease. There was an air about him that seemed to acknowledge how absurd the situation was, while at the same time managing to impart that what he was saying was actually serious.

Although he still hadn't said anything specific.

But before Giles could ask again for clarification, Doyle continued. "You, Rupert, are standing -- or sitting as the case may be -- at a crossroads. Everybody finds themselves here eventually, but most of them don't have your options. To most of them it's a one-way road and the only choice they need to make is how to go forward. You, on the other hand, can make a U-turn and go right back where you came from." Doyle slouched back further against the sofa cushions and put his feet up on the coffee table. "That is, if you want to."

"Go back?" Giles repeated.

The utter casualness of Doyle's posture and demeanour could not lessen the impact of his next words. "To living."

"So I am dead." It shouldn't have come as such a shock -- after all hadn't he pretty much assumed that? But somehow it did. Apparently there was a difference between assuming and actually knowing.

"No, not quite." So it seemed like he didn't have confirmation after all. "Not yet anyway. But you're not exactly alive either. You're sorta in an inbetween place, the space between one breath and the next." Doyle tilted his head to the side. "Or not. All depends on what you decide."

"Whether I live or die."

"Yeah. Big decision, that." Doyle looked at him shrewdly. "Or maybe not. After all, you never expected to live out the day, did ya?"

That wasn't something Giles could deny. "The situation was... extraordinary. I did what I had to."

"You'd think a smart man like you would be able to come up with a less suicidal way of stopping the young witch from destroying the world," Doyle said, then held up his hands. "But I'm not judging. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time."

"It was a good idea," Giles defended. "It was the only idea that had a hope of saving Willow as well as stopping her." Or, at least, he added mentally, the only idea he'd been able to come up with in the limited time that he'd had.

"I'm sure it was. But you embraced it with a bit more enthusiasm than you really needed to."

"Are you accusing me of having a death wish?" The irony of asking that question given where he was wasn't lost on Giles.

Doyle visibly thought about the question before answering. "No, not really a death wish. After all, you haven't been chasing after death. You just didn't make much of a move to get out of the way when death tried to catch you."

Giles considered that accusation, but wasn't able to honestly deny it, no matter how much he felt like he should.

"Don't go beating yourself up about it too much," Doyle told him before Giles could begin with the mental self-recriminations. "Anybody who's had to carry the weight you've carried is bound to get tired. No one can blame you for wanting to rest." He paused. "No one will blame you."

Giles frowned. "Are you saying that I should choose not to go back?"

"I'm saying that it won't be held against you if you don't."

He turned that over in his mind, giving it serious thought. Giles couldn't deny that there was a strong lure to the idea of being able to stop. Stop fighting, stop worrying, stop being afraid -- of failure, of obsolescense. Of being needed too much and not needed at all, the two fears ran neck in neck. There would be relief in letting go of all of that.

But Giles, being who he was, couldn't make a decision without all the facts. "What happens if I do go back?"

Doyle gave him a half smile. "Life goes on."

"Yes, one would expect that," Giles said, a little irritation slipping into his voice, "but I don't suppose you could give me something that is a little less vague?"

"I can't give you any details, part of the rules." Doyle turned serious. "I can tell you there's going to be... challenges. You think you carried a lot before, what's coming is going to make that feel like a couple of feathers. Metaphorically speaking."

Part of Giles, the part that the idea of stopping most appealed to, shrank from what Doyle was saying, but another, bigger part of him heard the words differently.

"What you mean," he said slowly, "is that they're going to need me." Doyle didn't answer, but then he didn't really need to. Why else would Giles be given the option of going back if he wasn't going to be needed?

Which meant that there wasn't really a choice at all. No matter how attractive the thought of stepping away from his burdens was, he knew he couldn't do it.

"Send me back," Giles said quietly, looking down at his hands clasped around each other in his lap.

"You sure?" Doyle asked, and out of the corner of his eye, Giles could see him leaning forward, expression carefully neutral.

"You said no one would blame me if I didn't go back." He looked up, meeting Doyle's gaze squarely. "You're wrong. I'd blame me. Send me back."

Giles thought he saw approval flash through the other man's eyes as Doyle smiled. "All right." He gestured at the door behind him. "You walk outside, you'll find yourself back in your body. Alive and kicking. Or at least alive. You're probably not going to want to do any kicking for a few days."

"I'm probably not going to want to do much moving for a few days," Giles replied ruefully, getting up and starting across the room to the door. He stopped halfway and looked over his shoulder at Doyle. "That's all there is to it?"

"That's all there is," Doyle confirmed. "Oh, there's a lot of more complicated stuff going to happen on a metaphysical level, but the Powers will take care of all that. For you it's as simple as walking through a door."

Giles nodded, accepting that. After all, the getting here hadn't been all that difficult on his part either.

His hand was on the doorknob when Doyle called out, "Rupert." When he turned back, the other man continued. "It's not all going to be bad. There'll be highs to match the lows."

"There usually are," Giles replied, thinking of the list of "highs" he hoarded in his mind for moments when he needed a reminder that it wasn't all pain and sacrifice. It was a habit he had got out of this last year and one now he realised he needed to make sure he got back in.

"Not like these." Belief seemed to shine out of Doyle's face and it took a second for Giles to realise that the man was actually glowing, a soft light surrounding him and slowly getting brighter. "And Rupert? You're going to have to wait a little while yet, but ultimately you won't be facing either the highs or lows alone."

The glow continued to brighten around Doyle until Giles had to shield his eyes and turn away. The last thing he heard as he turned the knob and stepped outside was Doyle promsing, "You'll be able to see through the masks even more than you used to. And he won't run. Not this time."

Giles didn't have much of a chance to ponder that cryptic statement because as soon as the door started to open he was caught up in a hurricane of darkness and light and for a endless moment there was the disorientation of feeling like he was falling and being hauled upward at the same time. It all ended in a rush and Giles found himself lying on the floor of the Magic Box once again.

He took a few seconds to just lie there and take stock, then slowly levered himself up on his elbows.

Around him the Magic Box -- his shop even if he'd relinquished day to day running of it -- lay in ruins. His body felt much like the shop looked -- broken and possibly in need of being condemned.

But he was breathing, his heart was beating, he was moving. He was alive. And that, he was certain, made all the rest of that irrelevant.

Because this was where he chose to be.




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