He knew that living in Sunnydale had changed him, but Rupert Giles would never have believed that he'd ever feel guilty about doing research. Yet he couldn't shake the feeling that poring over the latest books on tripartite deities in the silence of his own home was somehow self-indulgent. He ought to be doing something to comfort Buffy, instead. Wasn't reading about Glory just an excuse to withdraw into peace and quiet? But there seemed to be precious little he could do for her, now that the funeral was over. She couldn't be sobbing on his shoulder every minute. She needed time with her sister. And, like it or not, someone did have to be concerned about the Key--
Giles's thoughts were interrupted by a loud rapping on his door, the kind that five years of Sunnydale life had taught him to hear with grim expectations. He dropped his book and went to answer it, only to find a brusque-looking man in a military uniform standing on his doorstep.
"Yes?" he inquired in what he hoped was not too testy a manner, feeling his hackles rise as they always did these days when facing the U.S. military, but suddenly fearing that Riley Finn was dead...or worse.
"Yes?" He could see now that there were two more men standing a little further back, supporting a third, with his head down, between them. The figure was, however, far too thin to be the sturdy Midwesterner.
"We have instructions to release this prisoner into your custody."
"Into my custody?"
"Yes." The first man stood aside and the other two came forward, brushing Giles out of the way and dropping their burden unceremoniously on his couch. He was about to protest, but then the prisoner's head fell back, and he saw it was Ethan Rayne. He stood gaping for a moment, then collected himself and said, "Are you sure he was supposed to be brought to me?"
"I'm sure. Will you sign here, please?" The man offered him the clipboard, but Giles was peering at Ethan, who didn't seem to be conscious.
"Is he...quite all right?"
"We had to sedate him for the journey. Standard procedure. He should wake up soon. Sign, please?"
Giles took the pen and scribbled his name without really paying it any mind, and the soldiers left. He heard the roar of their vehicle departing as he stood looking at the figure flopped on his couch.
He had thought about it very little, but on the few occasions he had considered it, he had never imagined events would unfold in this fashion. He had, on impulse, persuaded Buffy to let him add Ethan's freedom to her list of demands from the Council, but he had assumed that the warlock would go off and nurse his wounds elsewhere. They'd have months, at the least, before whatever scheme of vengeance he would concoct was put in motion. Weeks had passed, and Giles had heard nothing, not even confirmation that he had been released, and it had been so easy to let it recede to the back of his mind. But clearly the Council had disapproved even more than Travers had intimated they would, and had decided to make its point plain by having him dumped here upon release. He scowled almost reflexively. It had not taken long for them to return to their old hauteur. However, there were more pressing concerns at the moment.
Ethan didn't look at all well. He had always been thin, but now he had wasted away to the point that he looked more like some sparse pen-and-ink drawing of himself than an actual person. His skin was terribly pale, as if he had not seen the sun in months. There was an ugly bruise on the apple of his cheek. He sprawled limply on the couch as if he hadn't the least reserve of energy. If not for the rise and fall of his chest, Giles would have been inclined to think he was dead. He considered the possibility of taking him to hospital, but that would surely raise more questions than he could answer. No, best to make him comfortable there and wait to see if he would awaken.
Giles went upstairs to fetch bedding, then took off Ethan's shoes and socks. One of his little toes stuck out at a strange angle, as if it had been broken and badly reset. His body was unresisting as Giles lowered him into a prone position and lifted his head to slide a pillow underneath. He was wearing a rough, plain blue cotton shirt that was most unlike him, but the top two buttons were unbuttoned, as usual, and the shirt fell open as he shifted him. There were burn marks in a neat curve along the base of his neck and the collarbone. Small and precise. Not from cigarettes; no, they were clearly the work of some well-calibrated device under careful control. And further down...Giles buttoned up the shirt and pulled the blanket over him, tucking it in around him with steady hands. He brought a glass of water from the kitchen and put it down on the end table, then considered and went back to root through his refrigerator for his last jar of Marmite, which he carried in with a plate of crackers and set down next to the water. He turned down the lamp and pulled the shades.
Then he went into the bathroom and was sick until there was nothing left in his stomach. After it was over, he stood up, clutching the sink, knees shaking. He wet a washcloth and pressed it against his mouth, closing his eyes so he didn't have to look at himself in the mirror.
...They had become separated in their flight, and he had gotten back to their flat before Ethan, but not quite early enough, unfortunately. He heard the door bang open. "Ripper? Are you there?"
Unwillingly, he answered, "Yes."
Ethan murmured something of which Giles caught only the fervent, grateful tone, then asked as he threw his bag to the floor in the hall, "Are you all right? No nasty, nasty demon-bites?"
"Are you sure? I was worried. I've been looking all over for--" He came to the door of the bedroom, saw what was happening, and broke off. "What are you doing?"
He shoved a shirt into his suitcase. "What does it look like? I'm getting out of here."
"Oh, don't be silly, Ripper. The police will never work out what happened last night, and the demon won't track us now. We're perfectly safe here."
"That's not why I'm going. And stop calling me Ripper."
He tilted his head. "Then why...?"
"I'm leaving, Ethan," Giles said bluntly, but without meeting his gaze. "I'm going back to Oxford."
"Back?" Ethan tried to laugh. "You must be joking. After all we've done, the Council will never take you."
"They already have. I'm expected at a quarter of eleven in the SCR."
"Ex-expected?" His eyes were very large.
"We killed Randall, Ethan. For our own selfish amusement. We've been chasing these sick pleasures for months, with no thought of the consequences, and that miserable fool paid the price. I've learned my lesson. You do as you like, but I'm stopping now, before I get any more blood on my hands."
He hurled a book into the dustbin for emphasis, and the clang woke Ethan from his daze. "You can't throw that out! I gave it to you for your birthday!"
"I'm going back to the Watchers, Ethan. I can't have unauthorized books on the dark arts lying about my rooms. It would cast rather a lot of suspicion on the sincerity of my reform."
"What about a practitioner of the dark arts?" he asked, in a low, determined voice, coming into the room. "Because I will follow you. We're bound together, you and I. You promised. You can't just pretend that that never happened." When Giles didn't answer, he grabbed his arm, his voice rising. "Ripper, you promised!"
That name and Ethan's words and his clinging hands were like a net, tangling him, dragging him back down into the filthy murk, making him choke in the foul water. In blind panic, Giles struck out, and the pain of his knuckles against Ethan's teeth felt for a moment like the way to freedom. Ethan staggered back into a chair, blood coming freely from his split lip, astonishment in his eyes. Their play had always been rough, but it had never been like that, and Giles saw the sick realization wash over his face before he returned to his packing. "I told you to stop calling me that," he muttered fiercely. "I have to go. Don't even think of following me. I never want to see you again. You're revolting."
He thought he could hear Ethan beginning to sob breathlessly, but he did not turn around.
Giles splashed some water onto his face and rinsed out his mouth. On Halloween night, 1997, in Sunnydale, California, seven children and four adults had died while out trick-or-treating in an inexplicable spree of brutal murders. No suspects had ever been apprehended in the killings. He had gone to eight funerals in three days.
His business was the survival of the slayer and the world, not the welfare of evil sorcerers who turned small children into murderous demons. They had handed Ethan over to the Initiative in good faith. They couldn't be sure that it was treating him the way it had treated Oz--he was, after all, human. He himself had had Adam to worry about, and Buffy's strange behavior over the summer, and then Glory. He hadn't even known where to begin inquiries about Ethan's whereabouts, much less how to stage a rescue. He had been deeply relieved that the Initiative had been shut down, and didn't wish to further pique the government's interest in the supernatural. Trying to free Ethan simply would not have been a responsible way to spend his scarce time. And yet there was a sweet-sick burn of acid in his esophagus and his throat was aching. He ran his fingers through his hair and threw the washcloth into the bin.
As he came back downstairs, he noticed that Ethan seemed to be stirring, so he went into the kitchen to make some Bovril. Halfway through, he heard a thud and turned around to see him, clutching the blanket, struggling towards the door. He hastened over and caught him before he fell. He smelled, Giles was suddenly aware, of lye and harsher things. "You can't go out there, Ethan."
Ethan turned his head towards him, and Giles braced himself for a corrosive glare strong enough to take the skin off his face. But Ethan's eyes were dull and empty. "Am I a prisoner here?" he asked, as Giles had expected, but his voice was all wrong--as if he were not particularly interested in the answer.
"No." Giles settled him back on the couch, surprised at his lack of resistance. "But you can't go out there in your condition. Not at night in Sunnydale. You wouldn't make it fifty meters." He thought he heard the teakettle whistle, and quickly went back into the kitchen, but the water was not yet boiling. He stood there with his back to the living room, watching it. "Eat some crackers. I'll have something for you to drink in a minute."
There was a long pause. Then Ethan asked, in the same incurious tone, "What am I doing here, then?"
"Buffy and I persuaded the Council to have you set free."
"That doesn't sound like them."
"Well, we, we had leverage for once." The water finally boiled and he mixed the drink. "Although I didn't actually expect them to bring you here."
"Ah." Another silence. "What's the date?"
Giles came back into the living room. "It's March seventeenth. Here." He offered him the cup. Ethan blinked at it, and suddenly Giles remembered that Ethan thought Bovril ridiculous, hopelessly middle-class--had, in fact, laughed at Giles when he'd caught him drinking it once in London. The sudden embarrassment of the memory must have been what was making his hand shake as he held it out. But Ethan took the cup without comment and sipped at it desultorily, staring off into the distance, apparently completely uninclined to further conversation. Giles got up and began refiling the books he had been working on. Ethan was normally keenly conscious of everything in his environment, but he gave little sign he was even aware Giles was in the same room with him. He didn't even flinch when he dropped two books right behind him with a loud clunk.
"You're going to let me go?" he finally said, some time after finishing.
"It would probably be best if you stayed here a day or two."
"Stayed here. Ah."
Giles moved to pick up a volume on the table near him. "Just, just until you regain your strength."
"My strength." Ethan's mouth twitched, then he made a noise halfway between a laugh and a gasp of pain. "What strength would that be?"
"Well, your, your physical strength, of course. Once that's returned, your mastery of your powers will be commensurate, of course."
"I haven't got any powers, Rupert."
The brief flash of life had already faded from Ethan's face, leaving it bleak and wintry. "They've gone. Those people drugged me one night last week and when I woke up, something was wrong, twisted, in my head. They left some components in my cell, and I tried to do a simple casting, and I couldn't. They took the ability to do magic out of me somehow."
"But...how? Surgery? A spell?"
"I don't know. Perhaps both."
"You're sure it's permanent?"
He shrugged and sank further back into the covers, closing his eyes.
Giles stared at him, speechless. He was almost glad when the phone rang, and he had to answer it. Buffy's voice came over the wire, shaky.
"Giles, you have to come. I need you."
"What's the matter? Is it Glory?"
"No. It's--My--Hank's here."
It was Tara who opened the door at the Summers home. "Mister--Mister Giles," she stammered, ducking her head and giving him a look which was unusually apologetic, even for her.
"Hello, Tara." He stepped inside and instantly realized what had given her that air--the raised voices coming from the kitchen.
"You ignore us for five years, and now you just want to take her away?"
"I'm Dawn's father, and it's my job to give her a good home. I know you love her, Buffy, but you can't take care of her."
"Wow, that's really responsible of you. Where was all this responsibility before Mom died?"
"Has this been going on long?" Giles asked Tara, who had been cringing at every word, softly.
"We were just about to go patrolling when he came. That was about a half hour ago, but they only started arguing later. After she called you."
"Oh." Giles began contemplating flight. Of course, that would mean going back to..."Perhaps I shouldn't--"
But Buffy was calling from the kitchen. "Who's that? Giles?"
"Yes, it's me."
She came into the living room. "Giles, you have to talk to him." Her face was flushed and her eyes hard, a look he recognized only too well and strongly preferred to have aimed strictly at the undead. She was followed by a man Giles recognized from photos as Hank Summers. He was handsome in a typical, domineering American way, and he too was obviously angry, though he smoothed out his expression at the sight of the stranger.
"Who's this?" he asked.
"This is Giles. He's the one who would help with looking after Dawn."
Hank flicked his eyes over him suspiciously. "Your mother's boyfriend?"
"No," Giles said hastily, coming forward, "just a friend of the family. I used to be the Sunnydale High School librarian while Buffy was there. That's how I met Joyce. We shared an interest in tribal art."
"Giles has been here for us the whole time," Buffy said. "Ever since Mom got sick. He visited the hospital, he took care of the bills, he watched Dawn. He's the executor of the estate, you know. Hey"--her tone suddenly became a parody of cheeriness--"he even came to the funeral. Go figure!"
Giles winced and glanced at Tara, who was pressed against the wall, apparently trying to merge with the paint. Hank said, "Buffy, I've already told you twice I'm sorry I missed the funeral. Getting away wasn't easy."
"No, it never has been, has it?"
Hank shook his head and looked back at Giles. "And what do you do now, Mr. Giles?"
"I run the town magic shop."
"Magic shop. I see," he said in a carefully bland tone all too familiar to Giles.
"God, you're so narrow-minded," Buffy snapped. "There's nothing wrong with owning a magic shop. It's just a business. And his business doesn't keep him too busy for us. Maybe you should try it."
"Buffy!" Giles exclaimed.
"Giles, he thinks he can just swoop in here out of nowhere and carry Dawn off to LA."
"Yes, I know. I heard. I couldn't help hearing it," he said gently. "If Dawn is in her room, I imagine she couldn't help hearing it, either."
Buffy did look a little abashed, but the hardness lingered in her eyes. "He can't. He just can't. Not after what's happened. He doesn't get to show up and just...just pick up a family!"
"Buffy, these are matters we should discuss when you're not so...over-tired. I imagine your sister could use your company right now."
"I'd rather pat--" she started to say, but cut herself off.
"Buffy," he said warningly, "promise me you'll stay in tonight and look after her. I don't think you're in the proper state of mind for anything else."
"Fine." She spun on her heel and stomped up the stairs. "You deal with it."
Giles sighed and turned back to the group, wishing, not for the first time, that he had spent more time teaching Buffy tact. Tara was taking the opportunity to sneak into the kitchen, and he hoped she wouldn't escape out the back door; he was going to need her later. Hank was giving him a hard look to rival his daughter's, but though he had comforted Buffy often enough when her father had cancelled plans with her, he felt oddly unable to summon any rancor. "Mr. Summers, could we sit down?"
Hank shook his head. "I don't think you'll change my mind, Mr. Giles. Dawn belongs with me now."
"Please," Giles gestured, trying very hard to keep his tone from being too urgent. "With all due respect, I'd very much like to discuss this with you."
He frowned, but dropped impatiently on the couch. Giles silently gave thanks to PBS for the authoritative effect of his accent on some Americans. "Well?"
"I understand your feelings regarding Dawn, but you may be unaware of certain facts that would make it best for her to remain here. She, she's grown very attached to Sunnydale. She has many friends here, and it would not be wise to interrupt her schooling--at which she is doing quite well."
"I know she is, but there are good schools in Los Angeles, too. Buffy can't take care of her here. She's a college student. You know what they're like. It wouldn't even be fair to ask her to give up that lifestyle to look after her little sister."
"Buffy's been caring for Dawn ever since Joyce fell ill, Mr. Summers, and she's done an excellent job. With my assistance, she should be able to manage. I know you haven't seen the will yet, but Joyce asked that you consider letting me take over as Dawn's guardian. I was very fond of Joyce, and I've grown attached to the girls, as well. I've no children of my own, and I would be honored to fulfill her request."
"Look, Mr. Giles," Hank leaned forward, "I appreciate the way you've helped the girls. But I'm Dawn's father. She's my responsibility. I know I haven't been around a lot, but now I will be. I'd invite Buffy to stay with me, too, but she--I know she wants to stay here. It may take a little while for Dawn to adjust, but it will all work out eventually."
Giles frowned. This was unfortunate. It seemed they were going to have to tell him the truth, but that would have to wait until Buffy was a little calmer. He didn't want her demonstrating her slayer powers by knocking Hank down a flight of steps. "Very well, Mr. Summers. The decision is, of course, yours. Good evening." He rose and called, "Tara? Would you like a ride home?"
Fifteen minutes later, Giles paused outside his door and looked at Tara. "Are you ready?"
"Y-yes, Mr. Giles," she answered, though she looked a little pale. "But are you sure we shouldn't get Willow, too?"
He tried to sound nonchalant. "I'd rather not bother her with this. And, well, it's...rather private, actually. Not something she needs to know about. But I don't want you to do it if you're not...comfortable with it."
"No, no." She lifted her chin. "If you need me to, I will."
"I appreciate it, Tara." He wished he didn't have to involve her at all, but from what Willow had said, she had this sort of sight. He didn't, and he had to know. He pushed the door open and they entered. The room was darkened, and for a second he was afraid that Ethan had simply slipped out into the night, but then he saw his head resting on the arm of the couch. He was dozing. "Tara?" he asked softly, turning to her. "Can you--?"
She had backed against the door, looking terrified. "What's--what's happened to him? It's awful!"
"What do you mean?" He motioned for her to be quieter, but her eyes were fixed on Ethan.
"There's something missing. Like a void. It hurts," she moaned, and hugged herself.
Ethan seemed to be shifting position, so Giles hastily led her upstairs into his bedroom. In the brighter light there, her skin was ashen and her eyes distressed. "His power is gone?"
She pulled at a tendril of hair. "It's worse than that. His native power is gone, but so is...I don't think he could cast a spell at all, Mr. Giles. Something was ripped right out of him."
He patted her shoulder. "Thank you, Tara. That's all I needed to know."
"The poor man. Who is he?"
He found himself flailing for an answer. Suddenly, all the old ones seemed no longer to fit. "He's...he's...someone I know. He is...used to be...a powerful sorcerer."
Her eyes were large. "What happened to him?"
"The Initiative. They captured him. I believe they did that to him."
"But you got him out before they killed him? Like Oz?"
He could hear Willow telling him with proud eyes, "When they grabbed Oz, she came right for me. She didn't even stop to think, or be jealous, or anything. Oh, she's such a good person, Giles--" "I, I did get him out." He stared away. "However, I probably could have done more to help him beforehand."
"Oh, no." Tara touched his hand shyly. "I'm sure you did everything you could. You always help people. You'll help him now. I'm sure he needs it."
The kindness and confidence in her tone burned like acid. "Of course, Tara. Of course. It's, ah, it's getting late. Shall I call you a cab?"
"No, I'll walk. I've got the stakes and holy water left over from patrol." She squeezed his fingers slightly. "Don't blame yourself, Mr. Giles. You didn't do this to him."
He just nodded and shepherded her downstairs. There was so little he could say.
After he had seen her up to the corner, he returned inside and rested his head against the door, overwhelmed.
"So now you know I was telling the truth," Ethan said softly from the couch.
"I had to be sure," he said, turning around.
Ethan was sitting up now, but though he was looking directly at him, Giles could not make out his eyes. He was like an extinguished candle. "I suppose I have rather forfeited any claim to trust from you," he said, musingly.
Giles half-stumbled into the chair nearest the couch. "Yes," he said almost at random, "after what happened last time..."
Ethan shrugged again and closed his eyes, letting his head drop once more. The silence was dreadful. If only Ethan would accuse him, he could offer a defense. If Ethan would just be his old self, bitter, scathing, witty, he could be his, too, could justify, excuse, explain. He could hold his own in any argument with Ethan, repel any attack of his, and the very struggle would fortify him in his position. But this...he could not defend himself against the voices inside his own head.
"You know," the other man said after a while, his voice far away, almost sleepy, "I dreamed of you a great deal at the beginning. Sometimes you were in my cell with me; sometimes, we were outside and free. It was a comfort--one way or the other--depending on how I felt about you the previous day, of course. Then...one day I met a new prisoner. He told me that he had just been transferred from the Sunnydale facility. There'd been a great deal of excitement there a few days before, because they had been holding a teenage boy, a werewolf, for some particularly brutal testing, and some other teenagers had broken in and rescued him. Led by a blonde girl who everyone whispered was the slayer. After that...I waited. I waited for weeks. Then I stopped dreaming altogether."
He had not helped Ethan. Kind, considerate, dedicated Rupert Giles, protector of innocents against the forces of evil, had unknowingly handed his oldest friend over to a maniacal band of torturers and had not lifted a finger to save him after he'd discovered what he'd done. He'd still been too angry, too humiliated, over the Fyarl-demon incident to even allow himself to consider the implications of Oz's imprisonment at first, and after those emotions had faded away, he had been too much of a coward to face the meaning of that lapse. He could never have done something so terrible. He wasn't like that anymore. So letting the Initiative take Ethan away must have been the right thing to do. And the more time passed, the more horrible the thought that it had not been became, and the easier, the more absolutely necessary, to avoid it. But with his handiwork before him, he could avoid it no longer.
"Ethan," he said in a choked voice, and slid to his knees before the couch, wrapping his arms around him. The other man remained perfectly still. The awful smell of harsh detergent wafted to him again, and he made himself bury his face in Ethan's hair and inhale it several times, the unpleasantness of the odor an odd contrast with the softness of the hair. But as he continued to hold him, he became aware that he was getting no reaction at all. He pulled back and tentatively lifted Ethan's chin. He had not even opened his eyes. Giles knew that at any time before this incident, even when they had been most estranged, Ethan would have been eagerly trying to turn the contact into more, and the thought caught and tore at things in his chest. He kissed him once, gently, then again, more desperately, trying to evoke a response. They had not been together in twenty years, but he would do this, he had to do this for him, if only Ethan would allow it. However, he might as well have been asleep.
He was about to pull away and give up when his hand brushed against what must have been one of the bruises on Ethan's shoulder, and the other man flinched. Giles froze. All he could do, it seemed, was hurt him. He tried to take his hand away without causing further pain, but Ethan said suddenly, in a fierce voice, "No," caught his hand and pushed it back into the same position, his breath catching as Giles's fingers prodded the injured flesh. All at once, he understood, and his stomach twisted.
"Are you sure?" he whispered.
"Just do it," Ethan muttered.
The very thought made him feel faint, but he knew he did not have the right to refuse. He brought his thumb up and dug it into the bruise on Ethan's face as he kissed him again tenderly. Ethan jumped, but Giles held him firmly in the kiss, then pushed him back onto the couch, sliding in next to him and unbuttoning his shirt. He had thought it might not be so terrible in the dim light--he would not have to see--but in some ways it was worse, more dreadfully intimate, feeling his way blindly over Ethan's flesh, seeking out the pain by his reaction alone. He scratched along the line of burns, feeling the skin catch beneath his fingernails, hearing Ethan sigh raggedly, then moved his way slowly up and down his chest, pressing hard, searching ruthlessly for old aches to evoke. There would be no mercy in gentleness here. He found the scar just below the ribcage which he'd glimpsed earlier and punched his fist into it. Ethan made a strangled scream and tried to pull away, but Giles locked his other arm around his shoulders and made him hold still as he punched him again, all the while nuzzling against his neck. Ethan shuddered and stopped struggling, though Giles could still hear his panting in his ear.
"Good--very good," he made himself say through clenched teeth, and kissed him once more for reassurance. This time Ethan responded passionately, but Giles did not hold the kiss for long. There were so many places, he thought. He had to claim them all before the other could rest, and he did not know how long he could continue this. Each little cry he provoked was another unbearable reminder of his crime. But they had also played this game too many times under different circumstances, and already every squirm and moan was making him remember things he thought he had put away for good, as well. The pleasure of ravaging another's vulnerability was as ferocious as it had ever been. The trembling responsiveness of the wounded flesh beneath his fierce hands and mouth could not have been more delicious. He knew with cold certainty that he could make him feel anything he wished, and the bone-deep sense of authority made him growl with delight. Yet even more dizzying was the way that the pain broke Ethan open so that Giles could devour...and cherish...everything within. They had been apart for so long; Ethan had grown foreign to him, hidden behind a mask of bitterness and flippancy and pride. But now he was revealed, in his vitality and his fear, letting Giles see without shame, as he had before. It had never been like this with anyone else. And it was all right this time. Ethan needed it. His strange Ethan, so brittle and so flexible, had to take the pain back, had to feel again that the blow could hurt and heal, that cruelty could merge helplessly with tenderness. Giles didn't have to look to be sure that they were both painfully aroused. He didn't know whether he was going to be violently sick or climax without even touching himself.
But he did know which Ethan had to have. He pulled at Ethan's trousers and underwear until they were down around his knees and let his fingers walk roughly along the exposed skin, deliberately brushing against his erection as he did. The touches told him that Ethan's captors had done terrible things to his inner thighs. So he moved to crouch on the floor between his legs, massaging them deeply. Ethan grabbed the back of the couch and arched into each rub. "It's all right," Giles murmured, "it's all right, you can take this for me, Ethan, I know you can." In a horrible flash, he recognized the parody of himself training Buffy, and he nearly lost his balance under a wave of revulsion. But the drag of his fingernails along the barely-healed wounds on the other's legs as he sought to remain upright was enough for Ethan, who cried out, "Janus, Janus, Janus!" and came.
Giles sat down on the floor with a thud, but got up at once. There was a dustrag in a drawer, and he cleaned up quickly, then discarded it. Ethan hadn't moved. The couch was narrow for both of them, but somehow he managed to ease him down and curl himself around him. Ethan pressed against him, shivering, as he stroked his hair. Giles's throat suddenly relaxed and he said, "I'm sorry, Ethan."
The other man kept his face against his chest and said nothing.
"This--this is all my fault. I should have come for you."
The silence persisted.
"I was angry and afraid and I made you suffer for it. It was inexcusable."
Ethan finally said, muffled against the fabric of his shirt, "And all this time I thought I wanted to catch you doing something wrong."
The slight touch of drollery in his voice nearly made Giles weep with relief. He kissed the top of his head. "Is there anything I can do?"
Ethan hesitated, then raised his eyes to his face. They were pleading. "Help me get my magic back."
"Is that even possible?"
"I've heard rumors of a spell which might be adapted to the purpose. But even if they're true, I'd need you to fulfill its conditions."
Giles tried to keep his expression neutral as Ethan watched him. Ethan, poor mutilated Ethan, could be whole again, at least in the ways that mattered most. He could undo the harm he had inflicted. And then he could stand by as Ethan went back out into the world and hurt others for his own profit. He swallowed. "I can't do it."
Ethan's face darkened instantly. "Don't tell me 'can't' when you mean 'won't,' Ripper. Not after this."
"All right," he said, "I won't. Not when I know precisely what will come of it."
"Then you might as well kill me now. At least you'll be quick about it."
"What--what do you mean?"
"Open your eyes, Ripper!" Ethan pushed his arm away in frustration. "I have powerful enemies, and many more powerful acquaintances who will be my enemies once they find out I'm powerless. If I go back out into the world defenseless, it will only be a matter of time."
A matter of time. Thomas had said that to him once. "He's been in a bad way ever since you left, Rupert," he'd declared, scowling around at the decor of Giles's rooms in college. "It's gotten very tiresome. He's being unbelievably reckless with the magic, the drugs--he brought a troll home with him one night last week, for pity's sake. He's even been sneaking off to that house in Warham Court. You know what that means. Those vampires say they won't drain you completely, but something always goes wrong sooner or later. None of us fancy the idea of being his first meal if someone turns him. You have to come back and talk some sense into him. If he keeps up like this, it's only a matter of time."
"Then it's only a matter of time," he'd answered with studied indifference. "I'm sorry you had a wasted journey, Thomas. Good day."
Giles pushed the memory away. "I'm sorry, Ethan, I truly am, but I can't--won't--be a party to this. Do you have any idea how many deaths you've caused in Sunnydale alone? I shudder to think what the Council would say your total is. I won't help you regain your power to work such harm."
Ethan rolled away as far as he could and stared at the ceiling. "It is absolutely unbelievable," he said, "that even now, you still think you can hold onto your precious moral superiority. Go to hell, Ripper. Go to hell!" He turned his face to the back of the couch.
Giles sighed and rubbed his eyes. It had hurt Tara just to look at him. He could not imagine how it felt to be him. Ethan had never been like other people, but the magic had given him strength in his very strangeness. It had been the lover that would always accept him, always cherish him, always care for him better than anyone else could. But the price had been forsaking all others, turning inward and cultivating his soul in unnatural patterns so that he became less and less fit for any other way of life each day. The thought of Ethan as merely ordinary, a solitary, no-longer-pretty middle-aged man subject to all the everyday shocks of life, was...inconceivable. He felt a wash of pity he did his best not to betray and touched the other's shoulder. "Come upstairs, Ethan."
"I'm perfectly comfortable here. Or will be, once you've gone."
He recognized the stiffness in that tone: Ethan gathering up the shattered fragments of his dignity. The dignity he would not help him restore. Giles could not get away fast enough, and he hated himself for it.
"I don't want him to know," Buffy frowned the next morning as they sat around the table at the Magic Box. "He doesn't deserve it. I mean, to know that much about me."
"Perhaps not, Buffy," Giles conceded, "but it would seem to be the only way of keeping Dawn here and safe."
"And, hey," Xander said, "when you think about it, it's mostly vampires and demons and other bad guys who know what you are, anyway. Putting him in the same category as Spike isn't exactly a big compliment."
"Right," Buffy shrugged. "I just...I don't like it."
Willow touched her arm soothingly, then turned to Giles. "So, how are we going to tell him? I mean, this isn't something most people are willing to believe."
"Actually, we're lucky in that respect. When Joyce was settling her affairs before the operation"--he saw Buffy flinch a little, and paused--"I suggested that she write a letter to Mr. Summers on just this subject to leave among her papers. In case this circumstance arose, as she couldn't exactly give her reasons for wishing Dawn to remain here in the will."
"Good old Watcher practicality," Buffy muttered. "You have a plan for everything."
Giles looked down at the table. He didn't have a plan for the man who had still been asleep on his couch when he had left for the store earlier that morning. "I'm sorry, Buffy, if it seems cold-blooded of me, but it is my job to think of these things."
His voice must have sounded more stung than he'd intended, because the room fell silent for several seconds. Then Buffy offered him a small, apologetic smile. "No, I know, I'm just--having Hank around seems to be making me lash out at all male authority figures. I'll probably take out the postman next."
"You think of the postman as an authority figure?" Xander asked.
"Yeah," she said, still looking at Giles. "I mean, he does wear a uniform. When I was a little kid, I, uh, I thought he was a general."
Giles nodded, accepting it. "I have the letter here with me. I thought I would give it to him and let him read it. Then, Buffy, you will probably have to demonstrate your abilities to prove it to him."
"Oooh! Can Tara and I do something, too? We could put on a great show for him."
"No, Willow," he told her, over Xander's strangled cough, "I think it would be best to let him absorb the facts gradually. Accepting that his elder daughter is the chosen one and his younger the Key will no doubt present enough of a challenge to Mr. Summers for one day."
"Sounds like a plan," Xander said. "Should we go now?"
"Yes, I think we'd better take care of this before Mr. Summers starts taking action," Giles said, rising. "Anya can mind the shop. Tara, perhaps you'd like to help her?"
She flashed him a grateful smile. As he'd surmised, yesterday had been quite enough Summers family drama for her. If only he didn't have an ulterior motive as well. The last thing they needed right now was a confrontation over Ethan, but he didn't exactly enjoy causing a good girl like Tara to deceive her girlfriend.
Hank was having lunch when they came in. "Well," he said mildly enough, "this is a crowd."
Buffy's eyes had gone hard again, no doubt at the sight of her father making free with her kitchen. "Hank, you remember Giles. And these are Willow and Xander. They're friends of mine. We need to talk to you."
"About what?" He frowned. "Not Dawn."
"Buffy, I really don't think we need to drag every single one of your friends into our family difficulties--"
"They're already involved," she cut him off, "in ways you don't even begin to understand. Giles, give it to him."
He'd been hoping for a rather less abrupt approach, but there was no going back now. He took the letter from his jacket. "Mr. Summers, before your wife went in for her operation, she gave this letter to me, to give to you if...if anything should go wrong. I think you should read it. It contains information about your family that you ought to know."
"This is all very dramatic," Hank said, but he took the offered letter and opened it as he took a bite of his sandwich. After a couple of minutes, he stopped chewing and stared, then looked up at Giles. "Is this some kind of a joke?"
"No, it's deadly serious."
"But...'Vampire slayer,' 'Hellmouth,' 'Key'...she must have written this while she was out of her mind from the tumor."
"No, I'm afraid it's all quite true. Buffy is the chosen one, the one girl in all the world who has the strength and skill to fight the forces of evil. And Dawn was put into your family for her safety."
Hank looked at the letter again, then threw it on the table. "This is insane! Buffy's just an ordinary girl! So is Dawn! There's no such thing as vampires! I don't know what you're up to, Mr. Giles, but you're--"
"Buffy," he said, suddenly very tired, "show him."
"Hit me," Buffy invited, coming forward.
"What? I'm not going to--"
"Just go on and try."
Hank frowned. "If it will convince you that this is all nonsense..." He threw a weak punch at her. She easily caught his fist and twisted his arm behind him, forcing him to his knees.
"See? Superpowers," she said conversationally. "I'm much stronger and faster than the average girl. Or the average top military agent. I could break your arm in two if I wanted to."
"Buffy," he gasped.
"Go on, try to get up." She bent her head down near his ear. "I'll bet you custody of Dawn you can't."
He tried, but she forced him back down. "Buffy, that hurts."
"Come on, where's that adventurous spirit that took you all the way to Spain with your secretary?"
"Buffy!" Giles finally interceded. "For heaven's sake, let the poor man go. You've more than proved your point."
"Yeah, Buffy," Xander said, "Nothing says, 'I'm the slayer and you're not' like a little trip to the emergency room for the not-guy, but maybe we don't need to go that far, huh?"
"Whatever," Buffy snapped, letting him go, stepping back, and folding her arms.
Hank got up slowly and threw her a wary look. "You are different."
"More than you can imagine."
He glanced back at the rest of the group. "And you are...all slayers?"
"Not precisely," Giles said.
"There's exposition a-comin'," murmured Willow to Xander.
Giles stopped to glare at her, and she subsided. "We are Buffy's...colleagues, if you will. We help her fulfill her mission. I can explain to you in as much detail as you would like, but the absolutely essential part is that you understand that we are the only ones who can keep Dawn safe for now. You must let her remain here, at least until we've dealt with the situation. Afterwards, if she is still even manifest in this dimension--"
"Whoa! Back up there, you're losing me."
"Like it said in the letter," Buffy said icily, "Dawn is the Key. We don't know if she'll stay in this form permanently or not. It's really not that hard to follow."
Xander murmured, "Actually, Buffy, it kind of is."
"Not if you care enough to pay attention."
"Buffy," Giles said, "I think I'd like to try to explain all this to your father alone. It might be less...distracting."
"Like you explained to Mom?"
"Actually, yes." He tried to keep the irritation from his voice. "While you were...away, if you'll recall."
"Fine." She stepped away. "I have a class. But Dawn is staying here, Giles. You make sure he understands that, even if he can't be bothered to get anything else." She swept out of the room, and Willow and Xander followed in her wake.
Giles looked at Hank, who had begun rubbing his wrist and looking angry. "Let's begin with the vampires."
Several hours later, Giles returned to his apartment. It had been a long afternoon; first, more than two hours going over the basics of the supernatural with a skeptical and then alarmed Hank; then, another five working in the Magic Box while Buffy wreaked havoc on the training equipment in the back. At least the shop had been in relative order when he'd returned. He supposed he had Tara to thank for that. She'd stayed the afternoon, too, buried in his books. He found it rather soothing to watch her as he turned plans over in his mind--certainly more soothing than listening to the sounds of carnage coming from the back room, which were clearly making some of his customers uneasy. But eventually he hadn't been able to stand it anymore and had slipped out, asking Anya to close up for him.
He sighed as he came inside and registered the condition of the place. His living room was a catastrophe, books strewn everywhere with a total lack of regard for their condition. Ethan was, of course, in the center of the maelstrom, at his desk. He had nodded off over a particularly thick volume. As Giles closed the door, he sat up, rubbed his eyes, and said crossly, "This can't be your entire library."
"You shouldn't be up."
"Bugger that. Well?"
"You're right. It's not." Giles set down his bag and headed upstairs, where he found some older, shrunken clothing in the back of his closet, and carried it back downstairs. He set it down on the couch next to Ethan, who was following his movements intently. "These should fit you, more or less. I imagine you'd like a shower as well. Feel free. I'm going to make dinner."
Ethan looked at the sweatshirt on top of the pile. "New College. Well. Such lovely memories this evokes."
"I imagine so." Giles went into the kitchen. Judging by its spotless condition, Ethan hadn't eaten a thing all day. He put a pot of water on for pasta, then took some ground beef from the refrigerator and began browning it.
Ethan called to him across the counter, "So, you're not even going to look the other way while I research it."
He got up and came into the kitchen. Giles concentrated on the cooking, trying not to notice how slow the other was on his feet.
"A hot meal and a change of clothing are not going to make things all better, Ripper."
"I'm well aware of that," he muttered, breaking up the beef.
"Then what are you going to do about it?"
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. He felt tired just contemplating it. It would be such an entanglement. He could foresee nothing but complication after complication resulting.
Ethan started to leave, and Giles cleared his throat and turned. "You could...stay."
A look of absolute astonishment passed over Ethan's face. "What?"
"Stay, stay here." A certain disgraceful part of him, remembering the feeling of Ethan trembling in his arms the previous night, wanted to add, "With me," but he stifled it. Winning him over with those sorts of expectations, which would have to be false, was not going to be helpful in the long run. Ethan would no doubt form his own ideas on the matter without additional encouragement, anyway. "Though we are on the Hellmouth, you'd be more protected from your enemies here than anywhere else, with the slayer in town. As for work, I own the local magic shop now, but I've recently been reinstated by the Council and I have a great many other cares. You certainly have the expertise to run it for me. As long as you don't cause any trouble, you should be as well off here as anywhere."
As he finished, Ethan burst into laughter. "That's your solution to the problem? Retail? Keep my nose clean, provide good customer service, and stay home after dark? And, in return, perhaps once in a while I'll get a pity fuck for being such a good boy? Thank you for the kind offer--it was such a Lthoughtful suggestion, really--but I think I'd prefer to be eviscerated by a Tyndall demon. There's one just clamoring to do it, too."
Giles set his teeth, returning to the frying pan. "The life you describe is not so very different from my own. And I don't think you'd be missing a great deal not to have to fight the forces of darkness every evening."
"You actually believe that it's a life suitable for anyone of any imagination or power? They have gotten to you at last," he said contemptuously. "You know, I'm starting to think that Thomas was right about you all along. He never wanted you to join us. He said, 'Down deep, he's sensible, and you can never trust the sensible ones. They'll sensibly stab you in the back at the first sight of danger to save themselves.'"
"I didn't stab you in the back, Ethan," he growled, savaging the beef with the spatula. "I let the authorities take you after twenty years of wrongdoing. As you'll recall, you turned me into a Fyarl demon for the amusement value. I could have killed someone. I very nearly did. The year before that, you tried to help demons massacre half the infant population of Sunnydale. And before that, you did your best to sacrifice Buffy's life to Eyghon, while incidentally nearly causing the death of the woman I loved. Do I even need to mention that first Halloween? Or all the things that happened before Sunnydale? It was about time someone took some action. I'm sorry that matters ended as they did, but did it never occur to you that perhaps this was meant to happen? That after so many years of abusing the magic, the karmic consequences have finally caught up with you?"
He could see the perverse satisfaction in Ethan's eyes at his success in provoking the argument. "You'd like that to be true, wouldn't you? You're glad this happened to me. I understand; I do make a wonderful scapegoat. If I'm punished enough for doing what you wish you had the nerve to do, then perhaps someday you'll stop wishing. If I'm forced into a humiliating reform, why, that's the icing on the cake. Isn't that it?"
"This may come as rather a shock to you, Ethan," Giles said coldly, "but you are not the center of the universe. Not even of my universe. There are incredibly important events transpiring in Sunnydale right now, and I just lost a friend. I am trying to provide for your comfort and safety--with an arrangement that would certainly do nothing for my peace of mind, I might add--because I do feel considerable responsibility for what happened to you. I am not engaged in some bizarre scheme to, to exorcise my private demons through turning you into a member of the establishment; I haven't the time to bother."
"'Considerable responsibility?'" Ethan mocked. "How magnanimous of you. But I've been doing some thinking. Tell me something, Ripper. Why do you suppose they only crippled me like this last week?"
"I haven't the slightest idea why the U.S. government does anything it does when it does."
"Well, it's quite a coincidence, isn't it? That they would do it right before releasing me?"
Giles frowned. "You're saying..."
"That your little belated attempt to clear your conscience by having me freed caused this whole mess. They were only willing to release me if they could believe that I no longer posed a threat. I shouldn't be surprised to hear that it was the Council who taught them how to manage that. You've taken everything from me, Ripper, so don't talk to me about your 'considerable responsibility!'"
Aghast, he reached for the other's shoulder. "Ethan..."
"Don't touch me!" He shook him off, and his face was white. "I've had just about enough of your ham-handed attempts at compassion. Restore what you took or don't trouble yourself further."
Giles heard the hiss and splash of the water boiling over. "Damn!" He turned around to turn down the heat. After he was done, he leaned on the stove, keeping his back to the other man. He couldn't help him, and he couldn't face him.
"I thought so," Ethan said behind him, and walked out.
The problem, of course, Giles realized, was that while Ethan was furious, he was not actually suicidal, and thus, ludicrous as it might be, he truly did not have anywhere else to go that night. So he settled for storming up the stairs. Giles heard the bathroom door lock and the waterstart running. It continued for the next half hour or more, as he ate dinner and reshelved the books lying about the living room. When the phone rang, he wearily hoped it would afford him some excuse for going out that evening; the prospect of spending the night in that strained atmosphere was almost unendurable.
"Giles," Buffy said, "it's Hank. He took Dawn."
"I just got back from Willow's. They're gone. The car, some of Dawn's stuff--they're just gone."
It made no sense. That afternoon, Hank had certainly expressed the concern any father would for his children's safety, but he had betrayed no inclination to flee with his younger daughter. "You had better try to follow them, to make sure no harm has come to them. Go up Ravello towards the interstate. I'll be there as soon as I can. But, Buffy, if he has taken her out of Sunnydale..."
"He'll be sorry, that's all," she said, and hung up.
Giles seized his keys and raced out the door. It was a short trip to Buffy's house. Willow was waiting out front, waving frantically at him. "I heard some noises coming from up the street," she said, jumping into the car as he pulled up. "Let's go!"
Hank had not, in fact, gotten very far before the Sunnydale nightlife had caught up with him. His rental car lay on its side just four blocks from Buffy's house. It had been opened like a sardine tin. Buffy was menacing the creature that had apparently done the opening with her largest battle-ax. It was at least eight feet tall, greenish, and had three arms. As it advanced and retreated along a lawn, the grass beneath its feet crisped. Giles recognized it as a Tyndall demon, and groaned inwardly, thanking Ethan for his contribution to the problem. Dawn was cowering behind another car; Hank lay in the street, unmoving.
Giles ran the car into the curb. "Willow, find a phone and call 911."
He got out of the car. Buffy had gotten in a few good hacks, but he could see even from there that the metal of the blade was warping, and the creature relatively unharmed. He ran up to crouch behind the car Dawn was using for cover. "Buffy!" he yelled. "Water is its weakness! Get a hydrant! Then cover up!"
As he peeked over the hood of the car, she did, luring the demon within range and then smashing the nearest hydrant. Giles threw himself on top of Dawn, tucking his face under his arm, as there was a tremendous sizzling explosion and bits of acidic demon corpse rained down around them.
"Are you all right?" he asked her when the deadly shower had ceased.
"Yes," she said, though her voice was full of tears and he could see a gouge on her cheek. "But Dad--"
Giles got up and hurried over to the injured man. There wasn't much blood, though he'd taken a nasty hit of acid on his forearm, but he was out cold, and his leg was lying in such a way that there could be little doubt that it was broken in several places. He could hear the wail of a siren approaching, and looked back over at Dawn. Buffy had joined her and was talking to her gently, leaving Hank to him, even after the paramedics had arrived and began attending him frantically.
The ride to the hospital was a short one. Hank was whisked away by the doctors, as was Dawn. Buffy paced up and down angrily until a young dark-haired doctor came over to her. He was clearly inquiring about a gash she'd gotten on her hand, and finally persuaded her to follow him, blushing. Willow and Tara turned up about fifteen minutes later. Giles waited with them for a little while, then decided to check on Hank.
"They've stabilized him," the nurse told him. "He'll be out of it for a little while, though. He was pretty roughed up. If you want, you can sit with him."
He looked around for either of the Summers girls, but neither was to be seen. "All right."
Hank was waking up when he came into the room, but it took a good ten minutes before he was aware enough to recognize him. "Mr. Giles," he said feebly. "Is Dawn okay?"
"Yes, she's quite all right. How are you feeling?"
"Not so great." He looked down at his arm, which was bandaged, and shook his head. "What happened?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that, actually. Where were you going?"
"Out of Sunnydale." He looked abashed. "I had gone to pick up some groceries, and when I came back, there was a man...lurking, I guess you'd say...outside the house. Naturally, I asked him who he was, he asked me who I was, and I told him. He said his name was Spike and he was a vampire. One who had worked with you." Giles pulled off his glasses and grimaced. Harmless creature, indeed. "Once he found out that I was the...the slayer's...father, he wanted to know what was wrong with me--why I hadn't taken Dawn the hell out of town. I told him what you said, and he said that you were wrong about Dawn being safest with Buffy. He actually lived among the supernatural community, and he knew better than any stuffy intellectual how dangerous the town was." He swallowed. "No offense, but it seemed like he had a point. He said I should see for myself how bad Sunnydale could be. Then he showed me his true face." He shuddered.
"But, Mr. Summers, we talked about all this this afternoon. It shouldn't have surprised you."
"Well, hearing about it is different from seeing it. It was...horrible. So ugly. I guess I panicked. I could never have forgiven myself if something had happened to Dawn because I let her stay. I know you said not to go out at night, but I thought it was the best way. She didn't want to go, but I got her into the car. After that..." He trailed off. "There was some sort of green creature. It grabbed the car. That's really all I remember. How did I get here?"
"Buffy came home and found you'd gone. She tracked you down just in time and killed the demon."
"Oh. That was nice of her, considering--"
The door slammed open, cutting him off, and Buffy strode into the room, eyes flashing. "How could you?" she demanded.
"He'll recover, Buffy," Giles assured her. "The doctors say--"
"That's not what I'm talking about. What were you thinking?"
Hank actually flinched. "Look, I know it was stupid. I just wanted Dawn to be safe."
"So you decided to feed her to a demon? That's your idea of safe?"
"I thought you said she was all right!" he exclaimed to Giles, trying to sit up and falling back, wincing in pain.
"Oh, she's fine," Buffy cut off his reply, "no thanks to you. What part of 'don't go out alone at night' didn't you understand?"
"Buffy," Giles interjected, disturbed by the tone of the conversation, "Spike misled him. Something he is rather good at."
"That's no excuse," she said.
Hank rubbed his face with his uninjured hand. "I'm sorry, Buffy, but I thought--I just thought she'd be safer somewhere where they didn't have rules like that."
"You're sorry, all right." Her voice sounded exactly as it had when she had confronted the Council, but this time Giles found he could take no pride in it. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised, though. I never should have trusted you. You're a coward and a liar, you always have been, and you always will be. I won't let you put Dawn or my friends in danger again. You're going to leave Sunnydale as soon as you can walk. You're going to write Giles a support check every month, and you're not going to have any other contact with us. I want you out of our lives for good."
"Buffy..." he said helplessly. "Please. I'll do anything you want. I made a mistake. But I'm you girls' father. Don't shut me out."
Buffy's eyes were ruthless, her fists clenched, her entire body stiff with hostility. Though he felt more than a little disloyal for thinking so, Giles had never seen her look so unattractive. Her face was disfigured with hate. Was that, he wondered with a surge of vertigo, how he looked in Ethan's eyes? "You're not my father. You're just someone who was married to my mother for a while."
But she had turned on her heel and marched out of the room. Heedless of Giles's presence, Hank put his hand over his eyes and groaned, his shoulders slumping. He truly did look pathetic, Giles thought. To be the target of such relentless anger and contempt, to be so summarily excluded from forgiveness...it was pitiful. Hank was deeply wounded, and, as he looked at him, it didn't matter to Giles how much of Buffy's reaction had been justified. Sometimes righteousness counted for so little in the end.
"Mr. Summers," he said quietly, "I'm sorry. I have to go. But I'll return to check on you later. I'm sure that Buffy will..." But he wasn't; he couldn't finish the sentence.
Hank didn't appear to have heard him, anyway.
As he walked along the corridor, Tara approached him, blushing, a book tucked under her arm. "Mister Giles...I wanted to talk to you. If that's okay."
"Yes, Tara? Do you and Willow need a ride home? I left my car behind, but we can share a taxi."
"No, we're okay. It's about your friend." She looked down. "You know, the one I saw yesterday. I felt so sorry for him, I wanted to help him somehow, but I couldn't think of a way. Then I remembered hearing once about a spell that might heal him. A spell to restore lost gifts. It wasn't specifically for magic, but I thought I might be able to adapt it. I've been looking for it all day. And I found it." She held the book out to him. Giles accepted it automatically, thunderstruck. "I made some notes on how you could get it to work. I--I hope you don't mind."
"No, not at all."
"It's just--I don't know if it will do him any good, though. I think it would have to be performed by someone who once cast major spells with him. Is, is there anyone...?"
"I might be able to find someone, Tara." The book was slim for something that carried so much weight with it. "Thank you very much for your help. But you mustn't get any further involved. I'm afraid it's terribly complicated and I..." He didn't want her further compromised. He and Ethan had woven this hopeless web of wrongs themselves, and it could not be allowed to entangle anyone else.
"All right, Mister Giles. Good luck." She smiled at him shyly, and he managed not to recoil before she turned away to go back to Willow. He deserved no one's faith anymore.
It was well past midnight when he strode through his door, full of resolution. Ethan was asleep again in the living room, the lights still on, a half-eaten plate of food on the table in front of him. He had clearly gone through Giles's closet after his shower to pick clothes more suitable to his taste than the ones he'd been offered. His still-damp, spiking hair and the way the oversized sweater he'd taken ballooned around him would have given him a raffish air if he were not sleeping compacted as tightly as possible into the angle between the arm and back of the couch, twitching painfully in his dreams. Giles stopped at the sight, frowning. He briefly considered the possibility of just letting him sleep and waiting until the morning to accomplish his purpose, but he couldn't be sure that he wouldn't falter in the meantime. If it was going to be done, it had to be done that night.
So he sat down on the couch and laid his hand gently on the other's shoulder. "Ethan?"
He jerked up and away, nearly toppling to the floor, his eyes confused and full of fear. "Don't--please--don't--"
"It's, it's all right, Ethan. It's only me. Ripper." He steadied him. "You're safe."
Ethan stared at him, blinking, for a long moment before realizing where he was and pushing his hand away. He let out a long, shuddering sigh, and rested his face in his hand. "Where have you been?"
"Taking care of your friend the Tyndall demon."
Ethan smiled with faint malice. "How terribly convenient it must be," he murmured, "living on the Hellmouth. There's always some nasty creature turning up that you can kill to get catharsis."
"You're welcome, Ethan."
He pressed his fingertips against his eyelids. "Forgive me if I'm not quite in the mood to burst into song over your heroism, Ripper."
"What were you dreaming about?"
"Oh, nothing special. Just the taser. Though you can be much more creative with the taser than you might think, actually."
He spoke lightly, but Giles saw the shiver run through him. There was no answer he could make to that, so he handed him the spellbook instead.
Ethan took it without any great curiosity. "What's this? A nice racy bedtime story?"
"I found the spell. Or, rather, one of the children did."
"The spell to...You're not serious." Ethan began flipping through the pages. He found what he was looking for, and his face froze as he looked down at it. Then he touched the page, fingers trembling. "You bastard. You won't--you won't cast it, and you still--" In an abrupt spasm, he threw the book across the room, then wrapped his arms around himself, staring at nothing.
Giles got up and retrieved the book. "You're wrong," he said quietly. "I am going to cast it."
"And why in the world would you violate those much-vaunted principles of yours for a self-centered, sadistic killer?" he asked, his voice hollow.
"Does it really matter?"
The grim determination in his voice finally registered on the other. He turned his head and looked up at him in shock. "You're serious."
For a second, wild hope flashed in Ethan's eyes, but then they became guarded. "Then...then it matters more than anything, as you should know." He wet his lips nervously. "I won't be the subject of such a powerful spell without understanding the motives of the caster. I may be in a dreadful predicament, but I'm not suicidal yet."
Giles looked away. "I simply can't go on hating you."
"Oh, but you're so wonderfully good at it, Ripper."
He didn't smile. "I've been your enemy for twenty years, Ethan, twenty years of bitter private war. One can't live like that for so long without consequences. Out of anger with you, I've done...terrible things." He ran a hand across his forehead. "I've taken any excuse to hurt you and convinced myself it was justified. I've exacted vengeance and called it justice. I've turned against every demand of human feeling and prided myself on the strength of my convictions. It has to stop, Ethan. I can't carry on like this--I can't be like this any longer. I want a clean slate between us. And I will do what needs to be done to achieve it."
Ethan looked at the book, unconsciously rubbing at his mouth . "Even this?"
"Then let's get on with it."
Giles nodded. "Help me move the table."
He had thought more than once that the spell might fail--the fabric of the magic twisted and rippled awkwardly under his touch several times--but when it was done, Giles was in no doubt that it had worked. His vision had gone black and white; he could see the power crawling over Ethan's skin like drops of mercury. He could feel every stroke of the pen as the other man bent over a sheet of paper, feverishly scribbling a sigil, and when he finished and the paper curled and crisped into nothingness, the surge of energy knocked him reeling onto the couch with a feeling like an ice-cream headache.
Ethan let out a cry of triumph and rose, looking over at him, eyes alight. In an instant, he was on him, kissing him, and at the touch of his mouth the shock came again, sweeter this time. Trailing each of the other's movements was a ghostly after-image of silver, making it seem to Giles that he was being enfolded in a dazzling cloud of Ethans. The urge to merge himself into him, to bring every possible surface into contact, was sheer blinding magnetism. "Ripper," he purred, nuzzling his neck, "Ripper..."
But underneath the fireworks in his skull, the knowledge of what he had done lay cold and clear and heavy, holding him still with its weight. It had been absolutely necessary and unquestionably wrong, and there was nothing in him that could respond to this...this jubilation. So he lay unmoving under Ethan's passionate caresses until the other recognized his quietness and drew away a little. "This is your idea of a clean slate, then?" he asked, frowning.
Giles took the idea up with some relief. It would be best to put it that way. "I said a clean slate, Ethan, not a romance."
Ethan looked at him closely, keeping his fingers curled around the back of his neck. "No. That's not it. It's..." Realization dawned in his eyes, and he shook his head, giving a short laugh. "You've forgiven me, yes. But you'll never forgive yourself for doing this, will you?"
Giles grimaced. "No. I don't believe I will."
"Oh, Ripper," he sighed. "It was a true gift, then." Suddenly, he was kissing him again, firmly and thoroughly. "Thank you," he breathed against his cheek when he was done, stroking his hair. "Goodbye."
Giles had closed his eyes for the kiss, and he kept them closed until he heard the door bang shut behind him. When he opened them, the world was in color once more.
Hank had signed all the papers and left Sunnydale, sunk in gloom, the day after he was released from the hospital. Giles tried to speak to Buffy about it on several occasions, but he found himself consistently veering off without ever broaching the topic. He had counselled her to make many sacrifices, but he could not urge this one. There were some realizations she did have to reach on her own. Given time, he had faith, she would.
He lived in dread of contact from the Watcher's Council, of the latest news from the supernatural grapevine. But no rumors came of the sort of chaotic magical disaster that was Ethan's specialty. As the days passed one by one, each fraught with its own sense of guilt and impending doom, he began to appreciate the real extent of the sacrifice he had made. The gentle, knowing smiles Tara gave him whenever she thought the others weren't looking only made matters worse--as did the certainty that he would do it all over again, if need be. Well, he told himself night after night, it was simply another burden he would have to learn to bear.
Three weeks after Hank's departure, the package appeared on his doorstep, labelled in the familiar handwriting and lacking a return address. It wasn't ticking or radiating any obvious energy, and it didn't explode when Giles poked it with his umbrella, so he picked it up and carried it inside. Setting it down on the desk, he slit the paper wrapping with his letter-opener to reveal a book inside.
It was large and bound in something that looked like red leather but danced with strange black designs that slipped away into his peripheral vision whenever he tried to fix them with his gaze. As he pulled off the paper, the book fell open near the middle, and a card which had been tucked there tumbled out. The heading of the page said in a heavy Gothic script, "Glorificus, called GLORY," and underneath it ran densely-printed column after column of information. Giles gasped and looked at the card. So it was for the good cause after all, it read.
Though it was irrational, it somehow did ease the pressure in his chest, if only ever so slightly. "Idiot," he said out loud, caressing the binding with his thumb and blinking hard.
Then he picked up the phone to call Buffy.