The car pulled up abruptly at the curb in front of the house, making Giles lurch against his seatbelt. Against his will, he made a small sound of pain deep in his throat.
"Sorry--sorry," said Cordelia quickly. He didn't look at her. He knew what he'd see: eyes ever-so-slightly wider with a mixture of fear and pity, the look of a child realizing just how fragile an adult could be. Another reminder that he had not failed, was not failing, Buffy alone.
"It's all right, Cordelia," he said. "Thank you for giving me a lift."
"Do you want to me to come by again tomorrow?"
"No. If we were going to find Buffy in this fashion, we would have done so by now." He released the seat-belt and opened the door, gingerly setting his foot out onto the sidewalk. "Don't be alarmed; I'll think of some other method of locating her."
"All right." The subdued quality of her voice made him climb out of the car as quickly as he could in his injured state. He never would have thought he'd actually be eager to hear her tiresome teenage attempts at wit. He heard the car drive off while he limped up the sidewalk and down the stairs to his door. But as he was fumbling for his keys, struggling awkwardly with his splinted fingers, a voice spoke behind him.
"Been playing with the rough boys again, Ripper?"
He jumped, dropping his keys, and turned around, backing against the door.
Ethan was half in the shadow of the stairs, regarding him with a hungry curiosity that somehow made all his wounds ache afresh, but making no overtly threatening move. "Damn it, Ethan--"
The other man's eyes took in the full damage to his face and hands, and he smiled. "Oh, my, you certainly have been. And I see you're still too stubborn to use your safeword."
He wanted to tell him, even to beg him, just to go away, but that had never worked once in twenty years. He made himself stand straighter instead. "What are you doing here?"
"Would you believe I was just passing through and wanted to look up my old mate for a night on the town?"
"Not for a moment."
He shrugged. "I didn't think so, but I had to try." He looked around. "Let's go inside. Unless you'd care to share this with all your nosy American neighbors."
Giles looked at him helplessly. After what had happened with Eyghon, he would have been more than glad to have another chance to...discuss Ethan's behavior with him, but he was hardly in a condition for that. All he wanted was to go inside, close the door, and shut out the world in which Buffy Summers was a runaway, a kidnapping victim, or a corpse. He did not want to closet himself with a half-lunatic servant of chaos. He did not want to bear the lies, the insinuations, the malice, as he tried to work out what he was really after. He did not want it to be his responsibility to ensure Ethan wreaked no further havoc in Sunnydale. He wanted no more of responsibilities.
"Has the cat"--Ethan made a languid gesture of snatching, too close to Giles's mouth--"got your tongue?"
"No." He gritted his teeth and bent to pick up his keys, keeping his back to the door. "Very well, come in. If you can behave yourself."
Of course, Ethan was incapable of that. He began offering a string of witticisms about his changed taste in home decorating as he followed him inside, but Giles ignored him as he hung up his coat and went to make tea. Ethan did not care for tea, of course, at least not without something stronger in it, but that was his lookout. He bent his head in concentration on the simple, soothing ritual, watching the clear water bubble its warmth with tired eyes. Its innocence was reassuring, in about the same measure as it was clearly making his guest restive.
"Put that back," he said wearily, turning towards Ethan, whose hand had just slipped into his pocket.
Ethan merely smiled and deposited the rough-worked bronze ward on the table again. "So you're awake, then. I was beginning to wonder. Whiskey in mine, if you'd be so kind."
"I haven't any," Giles lied.
"Ripper, that's positively disgraceful."
Giles put the cup down in front of him, ignoring the face he made, and settled into a chair with his own. "Do you actually have anything to say, or did you come here simply to register complaints about my hospitality?"
"I'm sorry, but you make it too easy for me. Which reminds me, my condolences. I had no idea that the Watchers made it a condition of taking you back that you keep a Tiffany lamp on permanent display in your home."
Giles dropped his cup on the table with a clatter and seized Ethan by the collar. "I've had a very long week, Ethan," he said through his teeth, "and I've no time to waste on you. If you've something to tell me, do so. If not, stop trifling and get out."
Ethan chuckled, though his breathing was coming a bit more quickly. "Oh, I don't think you count any time you get to spend abusing me as wasted, do you?"
His fingers tightened. "Ethan--"
"All right, all right. You can let go, you know. Unless you prefer it this way."
Giles pulled away. "Don't fool yourself."
"But self-delusion makes my world such a nicer place," the other man said softly, and sipped his tea for a moment longer. When Giles stirred impatiently, though, he said, "Even you must know that there was a tremendous upsurge in magical energy here three days ago. A portal was being opened."
"I don't think it opened all the way, because, well"--his smile flashed keenly--"Sunnydale is still here, more's the pity. But the air is singing with the magical energy that was released. I want to claim it. You've heard of the rituals, I'm sure."
No, the world had not come to an end, despite...everything. Sunnydale was still there. Students still wandered in and out of the high school, teenagers continued to dance to that noise they called "music" at the Bronze, the adults led their own peculiar American lives and the vampires kept hunting as they always would. Life went on, in its strange, ruthless way, indifferent to absences, oblivious to pain. He was lost in wonder at it all.
"My manners may not be as polished as yours, but I do think it's rude to beat a confession out of someone and then refuse to listen to it," Ethan's voice broke into his reverie.
And Ethan, still trying the same old tricks as if nothing had happened in Sunnydale since his last visit--nothing that would ever matter to him, anyway. Giles's head jerked up. "Forgive me if I can't take a sporting interest in whatever pathetic little game you happen to be playing at the moment, Ethan," he snapped. "Cast your spells, bind your energy, give up whatever shred of your soul remains to chaos--I simply don't care. But don't do it here. I want you out of town by tomorrow night. Or I'll provide you with the painful death that it's well past time you met."
He got up and walked out of the room without even looking at the other man. He made it up the stairs and to the doorway of his bedroom on pure adrenaline. Rage had always given him more strength than he cared to contemplate. But the sight of his bed shocked him, made him suddenly weak in the knees. Since the night at the factory, he had not allowed himself to think of it, and there had been more than enough to distract him, but now--How could it be so neatly made up, so tidy and blank-looking, like a clean slate? Jenny had lain there, neck twisted, sightless eyes staring past him as the Puccini soared in a mockery of romance. Jenny, who had died trying to prove her love for a man who hadn't even had the courage to express the depth of his own feelings. Perhaps Buffy was lying the same way, in some roadside ditch, because that same pompous fool hadn't even been a good enough Watcher that she could come to him with her pain.
He put his fist on the doorframe for support, then pressed his mouth into the back of it. He had been breathing a little more quickly from bounding up the stairs, but now he was gasping as if he would never get another breath, and that would not do. He had to be quiet, because Ethan would hear and he would use it, would take it as an invitation to do as he pleased in Sunnydale, and once again his weakness would mean suffering for innocents. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and tried to strangle into silence the sounds that were bursting out of his throat. But, of course, there came the steps on the staircase, which paused halfway. He swallowed hard and raised his head defiantly to see the other man staring at him, expressionless. As he met his gaze, Ethan hesitated, then raised an eyebrow.
"My, aren't we in a mood tonight?"
After a moment, his breathing slowed enough for him to speak, and his voice was fierce. "Don't you have somewhere to go?"
Ethan shrugged, apparently not at all perturbed by his tone. "Not particularly."
He couldn't keep it up. It hurt too much to breathe. "Fine," he said curtly. "Sleep up here. If you must. I'll be on the sofa."
He waited a minute, then said, "Or we could--"
"No." That was easy, and almost made him feel a trifle better. "Good night, Ethan."
The other made a wide berth for him on the stairs as he passed.
"It's summertime, school's out, the sun is shining, and I'm sitting in the library, studying. Are we sure the world wasn't sucked into hell?"
Giles didn't even look up at Xander, who was slumped halfway across the table. "You can go home if you like. I doubt your fighting technique will benefit much from reading books." The boy could not do much fighting at present, anyway, with his arm broken. Yet they all had to prepare as best they could. For much as he dreaded the thought of risking these children again, with Buffy gone, they were all that stood between the poor, innocent, ridiculous citizens of Sunnydale and the forces of darkness. He knew it was not the policy that the Council would recommend, but he could not, would not, abandon this town to its fate simply because the slayer had...moved on. He simply did not think in that way any longer. So he had to lie to the Council and organize his little force and--well--hope for the best. He snorted and glanced up to tell Xander he'd changed his mind.
"Yeah, unless there's a 'How to Slay' comic book in that pile," Cordelia chose that moment to say.
"Hey!" Xander sat up. "Not everyone can save the world by dressing like a hooker, you know."
"Oh, I don't know. You might look good in a dress."
"Giles, I've got an idea," Willow cut across Xander's sputtered retort, emerging from the stacks with an armful of books and a bright expression on her face. "Why don't I perform a spell to send Buffy a message? I found one in one of Ms. Calendar's books--"
"No. That is absolutely out of the question," Giles said sharply, turning to her. "That last spell nearly killed you. I will not have you risking yourself again."
"But I think it could work. We might be able to contact Buffy. You know," her voice softened wistfully, "'Slayer, phone home!'"
"Or you might contact that spirit that possessed you last time, and this time it might not let go. No, Willow, it is far too dangerous. This is going to be a difficult enough period as it is, with Buffy--away for the time being. I don't want any of you risking yourselves any more than you have to before she returns." If anything should happen to any of you, as well..., he knew he could not add.
"She is going to come back, isn't she, Giles?" Willow's dark eyes seemed even larger with the purple bruises ringing them. "I mean, she knows that we're waiting for her."
"Of course she's coming back, Willow. I expect she just needs some time to, to think things over. Whatever happened, it must have been very trying for her. But Buffy knows where her duty lies, and where her friends are. She wouldn't forsake either of them." He became aware that Cordelia and Xander had broken off their argument to listen to him, and found himself taking off his glasses to wipe them as the doors to the library swung open.
"She said, 'If Giles dies, she dies.'"
Giles hastily put his glasses back on and blinked at Joyce Summers, who had stormed up to the counter and was standing there, hands on her hips, staring at him fiercely. "What?"
"I just remembered. When that blond man was at the house the night Buffy ran away. She told him that if you died, she was going to kill someone else." She leaned forward. "You were involved somehow. You knew about this...this 'slaying' business."
Was fate conspiring to make all his worst nightmares come true at once? He stammered, "I--I--"
"Oh! Mrs. Summers, I can explain," Willow began, but Giles recovered himself and lifted a hand.
"Willow, Xander, Cordelia, will you excuse us, please?" They filed out hastily, Willow giving him a horrified glance as she left. He took a deep breath, trying to summon Rupert Giles, harmless, mild-mannered, thoroughly normal high-school librarian. "'Slaying,' Mrs. Summers?"
"Yes. Buffy told me. I saw her kill someone. A vampire, she said." Giles winced. The cat was out of the bag, then. Yet another thing to hide from the Council as long as possible. Through his dismay, he tried to think what would be the safest version to give her, the one which would expose her to the least danger from either side. "She thinks she's some kind of superhero, that it's her job to kill them. She told me she had to go save the world. And then she left the house and never came back. Except to leave the note."
Giles narrowed his eyes. "The note?"
"Yes. She...we had a fight. I told her she couldn't just run out and..." Joyce made a helpless gesture. "Leave me with that story. She wrote me a note the next morning saying that she had done what she had to do, and she was leaving Sunnydale forever."
Then Buffy was alive. Or, at least, had survived her battle with Angelus. Giles shut his eyes, exhaled, and walked around the counter, pulling his jacket on with hands shaking with relief. "Mrs. Summers, I--I--I can explain everything later, but at the moment--"
"No!" She grabbed his arm, ignoring his flinch of pain. "I want to know what's going on right now. Who are you? What have you done to my daughter?"
He stopped dead in his tracks, his elation vanishing instantly. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, but he could find nothing to say. Finally, he looked away and whispered, "I don't know."
"Then it's true. About the...slaying."
"Yes. It is." He looked back, fumbling for his authoritative, Watcherly tone. For the past two years, he had striven to moderate it to meet the needs of the situation with precious little success, and now, when he needed it most, it deserted him. It made him want to laugh. "Buffy is the vampire slayer, the one girl in all the world who can fight the forces of evil. I'm her Watcher. I was chosen to train and guide her."
"You're supposed to train my daughter? Who gave you permission?"
"It's my--" He could hardly push the words out. "It's my sacred duty."
"Your...sacred duty." Joyce shook her head and snorted in disbelief. "Just how long have you been doing this behind my back?"
Giles stared at his feet. "Two years. Since you first came to Sunnydale."
"Two years? Well, she's run away. She may be dead. I don't think you've done a very good job."
Giles pulled away. "I'm sorry, I have to--"
He nearly ran out of the building. As he backed his car out of the parking lot, he saw Joyce emerge onto the steps of the school, sink down, and rest her head in her hands. He gripped the wheel more tightly, ignoring the stabbing pain in his fingers, and stepped on the accelerator.
There were only a few places he might be. Ethan never was too keen on activities in the fresh air and sunshine. Unsurprisingly, it was at Willy's that he found him, intent in conversation with two vampires at the bar. They stepped away with snarls as Giles crossed the floor to him. At least there were a few benefits to being a Watcher.
"Ah, Ripper," Ethan said with a slight slur in his voice, "how lucky for me. I was beginning to run low on cash."
"Come on," Giles replied, seizing him by the scruff of the neck. "We're going."
"Are we playing a guessing game about what we're up to?" Ethan asked a few minutes later in the car. He had performed a small sobering-up ritual that Giles remembered only too well, and was now leaning back calmly in the passenger seat, his arms behind his head.
"We're going to do some spellcasting," Giles said tersely.
"Well." Ethan smiled slowly and broadly. "That does take me back. What do you want? Vengeance on whoever did all that to you? That could be quite enjoyable."
His eyes glinted, almost ferally, and for a second Giles quailed. Then he remembered Joyce sitting on the steps of the school. "No. I want to try a scrying."
"Oh." Ethan shrugged, looking a little disappointed. "That's simple enough--and white magic to boot. You don't need me for that."
"I can't do it. Every time I try, I...I see Randall."
"That again?" He rolled his eyes. "Still, even with your hyperactive conscience, I don't see why it should be happening over a mere scrying. Who are you looking for?"
Giles hesitated, then brought it out. "Buffy Summers. She's run away."
"Your little slayer ran away? Did she do that to you? Oh, my dear me. Have you been a bad, naughty, wicked Watcher, Ripp--"
Without even looking at him, Giles sent the heel of his palm flashing into Ethan's face. He felt a satisfying thud jarring all the way to his elbow. Ethan gasped, but said nothing more for several minutes. Finally, he murmured sulkily, "If you didn't feel guilty about her, you wouldn't be seeing Randall instead."
"Whatever guilt I may feel is none of your concern."
"What is my concern is my reward."
"Money," Giles spat contemptuously. "You can have as much as you like."
"No." Ethan sat up straighter. "I want a place to stay. Your place. I want to remain in Sunnydale and conduct my rituals without interference, and I want to leave unharmed."
"You won't hurt anyone while you're here."
"If you like."
He knew what the Council would say to this, and he knew also that at that moment he did not give a fig for their opinion. "Done."
"I'd ask you to clasp hands on the bargain, but I don't think you deserve another chance to hit me." Ethan looked out the window. "Turn right here."
"Perfect," he breathed about ten minutes later, inspecting a small, clear pool of water deep in the woods. "Right on a ley line."
"Really?" Giles looked more closely, but he knew he would not be able to see the signs. It was more than slightly disconcerting that Ethan could. Had he truly gone that far?
"Oh, yes." Ethan hardly seemed to hear him, his eyes distant and shining. He took off his jacket and spread it on the ground with an air of ceremony, eyes still fixed on the pool, then sat down on it cross-legged. He gently scooped a leaf from the water and laid it aside. Then he held his hands out, palms up, furrowing his brow in concentration.
Giles gazed down at him. He was struck by the other man's resemblance to a piece of Hellenistic statuary he had seen once, of an old priest, worn but full of dry, spare strength. It had been a long time since they had cast spells together. As a young man working magic, Ethan had been all glitter and tremor and bright, bright fever, greedy for power and fumbling it away as often as he grasped it. Now his breath was a little quick, but otherwise he seemed serene and sure. Far more than he could be.
Giles knelt down on the other side of the pool and laid his hands on top of his. He was conscious of how maimed his fingers looked against Ethan's, of the brush of the very tips of Ethan's fingers against his pulse, of the tingle of the joining beginning. Something like panic started to rise in him, but then the other man began whispering the Latin, and the familiar words drew him into the ritual, his voice falling naturally into place after Ethan's. He thought of himself as a boy in the village church with his mother, losing himself in the cadence of the congregation following the Prayer Book, unaware then of his destiny and the other powers he was meant to serve. He'd loved the stern, archaic beauty of the ritual phrases, their authority and certainty, and he'd yearned to believe. But he never had, not in blood and marrow, not as he did in this. The rest of the forest had grown hushed, stilling for them, and now Giles could feel the line, too, and see it refracted in the water, as the words opened him up to the unseen world around them. The incantation ceased, and Ethan slowly drew a circle around the edge of the pool with his thumb, the impression this created holding in the water. When he was done, Giles leaned over and breathed onto the circle, watching with a sense of inevitability as a mist settled onto its surface and it grew perfectly still and glassy. Let it be done, as it must be done. Let Buffy be revealed to us.
It was but a small spell, and he was not prepared for the abrupt ache of the circuit completed. It hurt like homesickness, the feeling of connection as power passed out of both of them flaring and then vanishing in the space of a single breath. He glanced across at Ethan, who met his eyes silently for a moment, then bent over the pool to study the image.
"Well?" he prompted almost at once, hopefully, his thoughts instantly returned to Buffy.
Ethan raised his head. "See for yourself."
He lowered his eyes, seeking eagerly for the gleam of blond hair in the water. But what met his eyes was only solid silver grey that yielded up nothing but blankness, no matter what angle of approach he took. He continued to move his head intently over the water--the spell had been correct, they must have been able to raise an image, if only a fugitive one, if only his eyes could see it--
The wind pushed a small ripple across the pond, their scrying surface suddenly beginning to crack and shimmer. But Giles kept his eyes fixed on it, searching, until Ethan touched his shoulder.
"The moment is passed," he said.
Angrily, Giles struck his hand away from him and rose. He strode across the clearing until he stumbled over a tree root, falling to his knees, then began pounding his fist into the tree, feeling himself on the verge of tears. One of his bandages caught on the bark and pulled away, and he felt a splint crack, but he continued, glad for the pain.
Ethan was suddenly there, sliding his hand between Giles's fist and the tree. "Don't," he said urgently, but as Giles blinked at him, he said in an entirely different voice, "don't waste the pain on her, Ripper. She's not even here to feel it." He wrapped his hand around Giles's, squeezing it, and shut his eyes, taking in a hissing breath, abruptly looking very much like that young man of so long ago, seemingly delicate, but fiercer than even he had been in pursuit of sensation.
Again, Giles felt that throb that was more than physical pain, but he gritted his teeth and endured the grip. "Is she dead?"
"No," he whispered. "Not--dead. Something blocked us. Maybe even her."
"Let me go," Giles said, pulling his hand away and getting up. "I need to get back." He turned and began to walk back towards the place they had left the Citroen.
After he had gone a few hundred yards, Ethan fell into step beside him, adopting a light tone. "You're very prodigal to suffer in exchange for nothing at all. There is always some power willing to make a bargain for it."
"I don't choose when I suffer," Giles said tightly.
"No, you don't, do you? You never did. You suffer for a saucy little teenager who's taken off and left you behind. You suffered for the fate of humanity, even when you ran away from your responsibilities as fast as you possibly could. And I believe you even suffered for me, afterwards, a little, while I was cursing your name and plotting vengeance. All that lovely pain wasted. You're a fool, Ripper. And the strangest creature I know."
"I'm a Watcher. Nothing more."
"It's comforting to try to believe that, isn't it?" That made Giles look at him, but the strange smile on Ethan's face tightened into his usual expression of malicious amusement as he caught his eyes. They had reached the car, and Ethan halted as Giles extracted the keys from his pocket with his other hand. "How are we going to get back?"
"You'll drive. On the right side of the road, thank you very much." He handed him the keys. "And don't do anything foolish."
"Oh, I've done quite enough of that for one day," he said, opening his door. "You're such a bad influence on me."
Giles did not ask him to explain.
Joyce Summers was pacing in the little patio outside his door as they arrived back at his apartment. "We need to talk, Mr. Giles," she said.
"Of course, Mrs. Summers." He glanced back over his shoulder at Ethan, who had stopped upon hearing her name and was regarding her with an idly curious look that did not bode well. "You've been very helpful," he said to him. "I won't keep you any longer."
"You're too kind," Ethan answered, "but you'll let me powder my nose first, won't you, dear Rupert?"
Giles grimaced and unlocked the door, wondering which of his spell components he was going to help himself to. Ethan started for the entrance, but paused in front of Joyce.
"Excuse me, did I hear that right? Mrs. Summers?" He caught her hand and kissed it. "Charmed. I'm a big fan of your daughter's. I hope she doesn't hold that little Eyghon incident against me."
"You know Buffy?" Joyce asked, a little dubiously.
"Why, yes. We've shared some positively...transformative...experiences."
"And there was...an eggroll incident?"
"I'm sure she's forgotten all about that," Giles interrupted. "I thought your nose needed powdering."
"Oh, yes. Excuse me." Ethan smiled at him and ducked into the building. Joyce turned to him, baffled.
"Who is that man? Is he a vampire?"
"No, he's not a vampire. He's..." He paused, remembering that Willow and even Xander talked to her from time to time. "...helping me to locate Buffy."
"But there is something funny about him."
He was sure Ethan was hearing every word, but he tried to keep his annoyance out of his voice. "I fear there's something 'funny' about all of us who are involved with the supernatural, Mrs. Summers."
"Oh. If you say so. He just seems...strange."
"My ears are burning," Ethan said cheerfully, reappearing. Joyce at least had the grace to blush a little.
"Shall we, Mrs. Summers?" Giles said, and she quickly went in.
"Defending my honor," Ethan muttered under his breath to him as he left. "That's very sweet of you, Ripper."
Seeing Joyce's determined face as he entered, he wished he could call him back. Instead, he turned on the lamp. "May I offer you some tea, Mrs. Summers?"
"Joyce. No, thank you. I just want some answers."
That was unfortunate. He'd been planning to pour some whiskey for himself. "All right. I'll--I'll tell you what I can." He sat on the couch and peered up at her. "What do you want to know?"
"You know, you really ought to lock this door. All sorts of terrible creatures could just waltz right in."
"So I've been told." Giles looked up from his book at Ethan, who was poking his head in the door. There was something strange in his tone, and the last thing he wanted was to have to deal with some sort of substance overdose. He appeared normal, but Giles still remembered all too vividly the night an infelicitous combination of stimulants and a levitation spell gone awry had had him literally bouncing off the walls, screeching with manic laughter. Giles had had to bar the door--and the windows--and the chimney--and spend the night trying to convince him he didn't really want to go down and pinch the bobby's helmet. Eventually, they'd ended up--
"Is the coast clear? I've seen many dreadful things in my time, but none more gruesome and terrifying than the American soccer mom."
Giles had to smile. "I believe the feeling is mutual. Yes, she's gone." It had been a more civil discussion than he'd had any right to expect. But her concluding words--"Don't tell me again how sorry you are. She's not your daughter, Rupert, she's mine. I don't want to hear about how much it hurts you that she's gone"--still rang in his ears. "You're safe."
"Good." He opened the door and entered. Seeing what Giles was doing, he slid onto the arm of the couch. "What are you reading?"
There was no harm in telling him. It might well be that he'd have to resort to him for further help in finding her. "I'm doing some, some research on the slayer, trying to see if there's any reason she'd be resistant to scrying."
"Oh. Of course. Finding anything?"
He paused, then admitted, "Not much."
Ethan shrugged. "It wouldn't have to be because she was the slayer. Hiding from that sort of spell, even when I cast it, isn't that hard."
"But she would never--" He stopped, and shook his head. "Never mind."
"You're worrying too much, Ripper. If she's truly good, she's bound to come back. For that sort of person, running away from his responsibilities can never be more than a fling. He can't give his life to it."
Giles surprised himself by saying, "It wasn't a fling, Ethan. It was very, very stupid and it was even more wrong, but it wasn't a fling."
"Ah, of course. I've been mistaken all this time." His smile was bitter, but it quickly disappeared. "Speaking of pleasant lies, do you have Ashriman? I need to consult him before the rituals tonight."
He sighed. "It's on the top shelf back there."
"All right." Ethan went in that direction. After a couple of minutes, there was a crashing of books to the floor . "Damn!"
"What's the matter?"
"It's the wrong book. I could have sworn this was the title the demon told me."
"Did you get a cross-reference?" Giles asked, putting a bookmark into his own reading and glancing back.
He spread his arms, looking martyred. "What do you take me for?"
He sighed. "What is it you're looking for?"
"The proper protection spell, of course. I'll be binding powerful energies, and I'd be crushed if anything were to happen to me."
"Of course." Giles got up and went over to his index, then began flipping through the appropriate letters. Ethan came and stood behind him, reading over his shoulder.
"'Pewter, use of during incantations?' 'Power centers, removal of?' Ripper, I have got to get you out more."
"'Protection spells, specialized,'" Giles read pointedly, giving him a triumphant glance over the top of his glasses. "'See Ashton, Greyman, Ars Anciliorum.'"
Ethan clapped him on the shoulder. "Good show. I could have used you earlier this year. Or, at least, I could have used--" He reached to take the file box, then recoiled as it sent blue sparks into his hand.
"Never meddle with a librarian's reference works, Ethan," Giles said, calmly setting the box down.
"Ripper, dearest," he said, wringing his hand, but smiling wickedly, "do you really think pain would discourage me? You should know better than that."
"Ashton's over--over there." Giles hastened back to the couch. He put his head down over his book and read with determination, Ethan having fallen blessedly silent after finding the volume he was looking for. He was almost able to forget about his guest as he sank into the account of a seer who used to work for the Watcher's Council in the thirteenth century. Translating was like travelling in a remote country; the abstraction and loneliness of it had always been able to distract him from whatever might be happening in his own life. Then, absent-mindedly, he reached to push his glasses up his nose, and the splint on his right little finger took the opportunity to fall off completely.
"Oh, dear," he grimaced, and began half-heartedly trying to coax it back onto his finger. It was awkward work, though, and he began to dread the idea that he might have to return to hospital. The images were still fresh in his mind: Xander, arm in a sling, saying, with an edge in his voice, "Can't you give him anything else for the pain?" Willow, looking like a ghost, her skin pale, her eyes huge and sunken, wheeled in and whispering, "I'm sorry, Giles. I thought I could do it--" All of them waiting and waiting for a Buffy who never came back...
Ethan said quietly, making him jump, "I wish you'd let me take care of that." Somehow, he had managed to move behind the couch without his hearing it. "All of it."
"As I recall, the last time you tried to heal one of my injuries, I had horns for three weeks." Giles kept his eyes fixed on his task.
"I've gotten much better since then." He reached down and gently pulled Giles's hand away from the splint. "I promise."
"Ethan..." he said softly, tensing.
"Be sensible, Rupert. You can't save the world when you can't even wield a weapon." He released his hand and returned to his perch on the arm of the couch, patting the pillows that Giles had not put away that morning.
He longed to accept the offer, to fall back on the pillows, close his eyes, and let Ethan work his magic. He knew what it would be like to lie under Ethan's spell, that wave of power crashing over him and pulling him into the depths of oblivion, where all was warm and dark and still and he had no need to breathe, until he rose again, renewed. He had drawn strength from these depths in the past, and he could do so again. But he also knew the surrender it would mean. He could not tell himself that he could ensure the consequences would be for him alone. It was the nature of the power that the other man served that they could not be controlled. Ethan thought that this did not matter, that he had no connection with the rest of the world, would feel no reverberations, but Giles understood better. He got up. "I'm sorry. I appreciate the offer, but I can't."
"I--I don't think you'd understand."
"Oh, I understand perfectly." Ethan rose himself, suddenly sparking again with malice. "It's the same old story. It's against the rules, and you'd never dream of breaking those, would you, Ripper?"
"So poor, brave Rupert Giles treasures up his suffering, because it helps him convince himself that he's not like sick, brutal Ethan Rayne anymore. But it doesn't matter how much torture you put yourself through--it's still a lie, Ripper. I know you. At bottom, you're no different from me."
"It's not to do with what I think of myself," he answered. "It's to do with my duty. I can't pretend I don't have one. Much as I might wish to sometimes."
Ethan threw up his hands. "Your duty? Your slayer has left you, Ripper, left you alone with the wounds her lover inflicted. She doesn't want to be found. Her mother despises you. Those other children don't appreciate you in the least. Sunnydale doesn't give a damn about you. The Watcher's Council is using you, and when they're done, they'll cast you aside like the cat's paw you've been. How can such people possibly be deserving of your duty?"
The familiar, oppressive sense of the futility of trying to talk to Ethan descended on Giles. Twenty years and nothing had changed. He would always refuse to see. Perhaps it was only the oddly plaintive note with which his question had finished, though, but the feeling was not tinged with the usual anger and frustration, only something very like regret. "I have to go." He took his coat and headed to the door, where he paused on the threshold. "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten our bargain."
"Nor have I, Ripper," Ethan said tightly. "Nor have I."
"Oz, are you still there?" Giles asked, for the fortieth time, into the walkie-talkie as he crouched behind a shrubbery near the cemetary.
He frowned, tapping the gadget, trying to decide whether a critical remark would be out of place. He hadn't adequately calculated how nerve-wracking it would be to have Oz out on patrol, as the young man felt no need whatsoever to speak and thereby reassure him that he hadn't fallen prey to one of Sunnydale's less wholesome denizens. Then the speaker crackled, and a different voice came in.
"Of course he's still there. We haven't seen anything all night. Can't I go home now? Thanks to Buffy, I haven't been able to watch TV all week!"
About Cordelia, on the other hand, he had yet to have more than two minutes' worry. He wouldn't have brought her along, but she and Oz were the only two members of the group who had survived Acathla relatively intact. It was little wonder she hadn't seen any vampires, but it was more than slightly odd that Oz hadn't. With Spike and Drusilla gone, the local community should have been thrown into chaos, stragglers hunting on their own on every street corner. Yet there had been nothing. Well, there was no point in wasting their energy if nothing was afoot; there might be a long stretch of service ahead of them. Giles pressed down on the button again. "Yes, Cordelia, Oz, you can go."
He tucked the walkie-talkie into his jacket pocket and began strolling down the street, back to the car. The emergency-room nurse had chastised him for using his injured hand so much as she'd resplinted his finger, but, he'd thought dryly, the injuries resulting from relying on Cordelia for transportation for any longer were likely to be much greater. He was just unlocking the door when he heard the faint shuffle of a footstep, and turned around to see someone heading up the other street, keeping to the shadows in a most suspicious fashion.
A Watcher's work was never done. Giles sighed and moved to follow, trying to keep quiet himself. At several intervals, the man turned around, peering into the darkness, and he was only able to get under cover just in time. The last time, the man's face was partially illuminated by the moonlight, and he could see the demon brow and flashing fangs. A vampire. He looked strangely familiar, as if Giles had seen him before, and recently, but he couldn't place him. He'd seen enough of them, the past two years, that this wasn't too troubling. The vampire, apparently satisfied that he was alone, ran across the street and ducked into a deserted warehouse. Giles followed cautiously, finding an open window and peering in.
A number of vampires--twenty at the least--were waiting inside, milling about. Giles's heart sank. This looked like serious trouble. Was there a new vampire come to town, to claim the authority abandoned by Spike and Drusilla? Or something worse? He considered calling back Oz and Cordelia, but decided it was too risky. Best to reconnoiter quietly until he knew what was going on. And then hope it was something they could manage without Buffy.
Giles's attention was called back to the scene inside when a cloud of smoke exploded at the far end. The vampires themselves quieted a little. As the smoke cleared, he saw a figure standing there, with a satchel over his shoulder, raising his arms for silence. A very familiar figure, thin and dark-haired, wearing a shirt unbuttoned too far. Ethan.
He barely stopped himself from cursing aloud. So much for asking him for more help. Bloody bugger, when he saw him next he was going to--Well, he wasn't quite sure what he was going to do, but he was certain it was going to be very, very painful. He leaned in a little further, trying to hear his words.
"Greetings. It's wonderful to see so many of you here. You'll thank yourselves for coming later, once you've tried what I have to offer. But first things first. Cash on the floor there, please." Ethan pointed, and the vampires came forward, tossing money into a pile. "Now, don't get any funny ideas about getting too close, unless you fancy being disintegrated," he continued in a conversational tone. "A friend of mine who you all know of, the Watcher, has given me a lovely protection spell and while I wouldn't mind trying it out, I'd rather have your money."
"You're a friend of the Watcher?" a large, burly vampire growled. "Why should we trust you?"
"Well, you know the saying, 'With friends like these, who needs enemies?' I'm that sort of friend."
Indeed, Giles thought, and you clearly need reminding that that can work both ways. The vampire looked confused, but finally added his money to the pile.
"Very good. Now, who wants to be first to free himself and manifest his true nature?" Ethan opened his bag.
The familiar-looking vampire shouldered his way forward, and Giles remembered where he'd seen him before: at Willy's, talking to Ethan, earlier that day. He should have realized something sinister was happening. His mind was racing. Free himself? True nature? The true nature of a vampire was demonic--the vampire was a demon possessing a human form from which it had driven the original soul. Could Ethan possibly be trying to free that demon from the encumbrance of human flesh? Who knew how terrible a being might be unleashed on the world in that way? He only had a few stakes and an axe back at the car, he couldn't possibly handle twenty demons--
Ethan handed the vampire a small sachet. Giles watched, horror-struck, as he opened it and upended it over his head, some sort of blue dust falling all around him. Ethan said something Giles couldn't quite catch, and the vampire began to shake, then fell to the ground. After a minute, Giles realized that he wasn't simply convulsing--his body was actually distorting. Huge bulges moved along his body as he made strange choking noises. His back arched for several seconds, and the flesh cracked open, a brilliant light from within suddenly illuminating the warehouse. A form seemed to be rising out of the vampire's body, ghostly but twisted and awful--
And then it shrieked, and began to writhe itself, and vaporized.
One of the vampires, who had all retreated during the pyrotechnics, tentatively approached the split and motionless form of the first. "Bill? Bill?" he asked, prodding him with a toe. There was no response. He looked back at the others. "He's dead." Then he turned around again to address Ethan, who was already gone--along with the cash. "He ripped us off! Come on!" he roared.
Giles had already started running. He rounded the corner of the warehouse--and had to shrink back, as the mass of vampires burst out the back door and tore down the street. He was waiting, wanting to be sure they were all gone, when he heard a distinctly unvampiric chuckle and peered back around the corner.
Ethan was stepping away from the wall, his skin fading from the mottled brownish grey of the warehouse's paint to its normal color. A chameleon spell, of course. They'd used it often in their younger days. He grinned, patted himself on the back, and started in Giles's direction, only to freeze as he stepped out.
"R-Ripper," he said weakly. "Enjoy the show?"
Giles had him in three strides, throwing him up against the wall. He really thought he might kill him this time. He could feel the anger he would need building and building. To do this now, to take advantage of Buffy's absence and his weakness--"You bloody sod," he snarled. "You were going to unleash a pack of demons on Sunnydale."
"Well, yes." Ethan's eyes darted from side to side. "Isn't it lucky for all of us that it doesn't seem the vampire-demon can exist independent of the human host?"
"You didn't know that."
"True. You learn something new every day, don't you?"
Giles kneed him in the groin. Ethan cried out and would have fallen if Giles hadn't been holding him up. "You promised me you wouldn't hurt anyone while you were here," he said through his teeth.
"And, and I didn't," Ethan said in a strained voice, grinning. "Vampires don't count, surely."
"It wasn't for want of trying. I trusted you, you pillock!"
"Is that my fault?" Suddenly, Ethan's eyes widened again. "Ripper, I hate to interrupt this marvelous beating, but--behind you!"
Giles spat at him, "What kind of fool do you take me for?" and drew back to kick him once more, but something caught his arm, spinning him around. He caught a glimpse of a vampire's demonic face, full of rage, before being tossed to the ground. He landed on his right hand, and for some indeterminate time could do nothing but curl up in pain. When he was able to look up again, he saw that the vampire had grabbed Ethan and was holding him up against the wall, feeding.
He didn't stop to think about it. He just fumbled the stake out of his jacket with his left hand, got up, and lunged forward, burying it in the vampire's back. It disappeared in a cloud of dust, letting Ethan slide slowly down the wall of the warehouse, leaving a trail of blood behind. His eyes were closed, his head sagging to the side.
Giles stood still, looking down at him. After their last horrible break following his return to Oxford, he had often imagined Ethan's death as a result of some dark magical exploit gone wrong. Such thoughts had given him a feeling of grim justification, even satisfaction, as he had bent his head over his books and told himself that he would never do anything like that, ever again, and it would serve Ethan right if he kept it up. Bleeding to death in some filthy alleyway, friendless and alone, killed by a vile creature of the dark whose rage he had brought down on himself by his own folly...wasn't this the way he had known it would end, even back then? Shouldn't he let events take the course that Ethan had chosen for them so long ago?
But...certainly he had never imagined it happening quite like this, not in Sunnydale, not on his watch, not with his blood spilling onto his own hands. He was shocked by the sense of loss that suddenly choked his throat. He hadn't loved so very many people, and most of them were already gone. It was a part of his past, a part of his self, that sat crumpled there, and though he might wish that part gone with all his strength, he could not destroy it and still be whole. So he knelt down next to Ethan, feeling for his pulse. It was still there, though weak and thready. He had no idea how much the vampire had been able to take, but it had been more than a little. He grabbed the other's shoulders. "Come on, Ethan, don't do this to me," he said. "Please."
Ethan's eyelids fluttered open, and he smiled, very slowly. In the dim light, the bones of his face were sharp, his cheeks hollow. "Ripper..."
"I'm, I'm taking you to the hospital," he told him, pulling off his jacket and draping it over him.
Ethan laughed faintly. "I'm beyond hospitals. What they'd find--"
"But I can't just let you bleed to death here."
"Don't worry. He didn't take enough. I'm a little stronger than that, Ripper." He sighed, then coughed painfully. "He must have knocked me out first, though. My ears are still ringing."
"Can you stand?"
"I hardly think so."
"Then I'll have to carry you." Giles slid his arms around him and tried to lift him, Ethan clinging weakly to his shirt as he did. With the adrenaline racing in his veins, Ethan was so light he felt like scarcely any weight at all, but it was still awkward work with his injured hand, and he had to let him fall twice before he could get to his feet. Yet Ethan did not complain. In fact, as he nestled his head on Giles's shoulder while he staggered back towards the car, he looked as contented as Giles had ever seen him.
Giles stopped the car in front of his house. It had been a long, slow trip home. He had bandaged Ethan's throat and given him fluids--the first-aid kit in his trunk was rather more extensive than that of the average resident of Sunnydale--then gotten him into the car, with the other man, for once, making no difficulties, allowing himself to be moved about passively. Ethan had huddled under his jacket, sucking desultorily on a straw stuck into a bottle of orange juice, as Giles had struggled to handle the steering wheel. Once a police cruiser had passed, striking panic into Giles's heart and making them both hastily sit up and try to look as normal as possible. But the car had kept going, and they had finally made it home.
Giles looked over and saw that Ethan's eyes were closed, his head resting on the strap of the seat belt. He reached across and gently touched the other man's shoulder. "We're here."
Ethan sat up with an effort and stared out into the night. "You know," he said after a moment, "I wasn't sure you'd come to my rescue. --Though I suppose..." he added hesitantly, "being a dedicated Watcher, you were just doing your job." He glanced at Giles sidelong under his lashes.
"I couldn't bury anyone else," Giles said flatly, holding the wheel and staring straight ahead.
"Anyone else?" Ethan looked puzzled. "Buffy isn't dead. I'm sure of it."
"Not Buffy. Jenny Calendar."
"Jenny. The dark-haired woman?"
"The one Eyghon possessed, yes."
"You...had a relationship."
"Of a kind." This he had not even tried to explain to Joyce. He was not sure why he was doing it now. What did Ethan know of guilt, of regret, of hopeless longing? Nothing, but of anger, frustration, self-loathing, perhaps..."She did...something wrong. There were reasons that I could not forgive her at once. She tried to, to make it up to me by finding a spell that would give Angelus his soul back. Angelus found out and he killed her. He...he broke her neck, and left her body in my bed for me to find." Ethan made a small sound, but Giles paid no attention. "We never even got to--" He shook his head. "I shut her out, and, as a result of who and what I am, she died. I want no more deaths to come of this."
"So that's why you've been sleeping..." Ethan let the sentence trail off. "Poor Ripper."
Giles glanced at him sharply, searching for any trace of sarcasm or amusement, but Ethan was simply looking back at him with a solemn face. He had been a good listener, once. "She was so young, and vibrant, and alive, Ethan. She opened up possibilities in my life that I'd thought had passed me by for good. I miss her so much. You can't imagine."
Ethan did smile then, wryly. "Oh, but I think I can."
For a moment, Giles thought, repelled, he was talking about his rent-boys. Then he realized his true meaning and looked away, hoping that the darkness hid his flush. "Ethan..."
"You can believe it or not, Ripper, but I have felt...that sort of loss, and I am sorry. For Jenny, for your slayer, for all of them."
"Then, for God's sake, Ethan, you might try acting like it."
He laughed bitterly. "What do you think I've been doing?"
"This evening has not been a notable success." Giles got out of the car and came around to help Ethan up.
"Not for either of us. Two beaten-up, middle-aged warlocks. There was a time when that vampire wouldn't have lasted twenty seconds against us," Ethan muttered, standing up uncertainly, then leaning heavily on Giles.
"I remember, Ethan," Giles said, steering him towards the house. "I remember."
There was a strange, acrid smell in the air. Giles rolled over and buried his face in the pillow, trying to shut it out. What in God's name could he be smoking now? Couldn't he at least wait until reasonable people were out of bed and had had their fry-ups before he started polluting the air? No matter how he burrowed, however, the smell persisted obstinately, till finally he sat up, blinking. "Ethan? Open a window, damnit!"
But, he realized as he looked around, he was not in the hideous little flat they had shared in London, and it was not 1974. Alarmed, he put on his glasses and moved to the stairs. He paused at the bottom, but couldn't hear anything. It could be no ordinary fire. He knew that smell too well. Anger clenched in his stomach. He ran up the stairs and threw the door open.
Ethan was sitting on the floor in the middle of a pentacle outlined with candles, chanting. "Let my will be done, let his heart be fr--"
Giles tackled him, knocking him over. Magical energy sizzled into him as his foot dragged across a line of the pentacle. His vision went white, then cleared. Ethan was lying on the floor, mostly under him. He looked up, half-dazed, and said, "Ripper. Good morning."
"Good morning, Ethan," he answered, getting to his feet and glaring at him. "Would you be so very kind as to explain to me what you think you were doing?"
"Just a little spell-casting to greet the dawn," he returned, sitting up. "It's better than aerobics for getting the blood moving in the morning."
"That wasn't just any magic. You were casting a will-be-done spell in my house! Have you lost your mind?"
"Oh. Ah, yes. I was. And, no, I haven't."
Giles balled his fists up in frustration. "How dare you?"
Ethan tried to smile. "You told me to act like I felt sorry. Well...I was. I was doing it for you."
"For me?" His heart... Giles nearly gagged on the feeling of violation. He demanded, "You were casting a spell on me?"
"Nothing dark," he said with haste, cringing back a little. "Just...just something to take away the pain."
"So you could be free."
Giles took off his glasses and pinched his nose. He didn't know whether to pat Ethan on the shoulder or kick his teeth in. "Oh, Ethan. Free of my, of my grief? That's not freedom, that's...emptiness. We feel pain because our losses are real, because whatever is gone meant something to us. Strip away the pain, and you strip away that meaning. Even you can't want that, for me or anyone else."
"Oh, no?" Ethan's laughter was agonized. "I've wanted nothing else for myself for twenty years. You have no idea how hard I've tried to achieve it, Ripper. But it's been made clear to me that I have no choice in this matter. It will never leave me. I must follow wherever it leads."
"Wherever--" The realization stopped Giles cold. "You spoiled the scrying, didn't you? You were trying to keep me away from Buffy."
"I have to take my opportunities where I find them."
He couldn't even be bothered to look at him. Of course. Why was he even surprised? This--this was Ethan. Worshipper of chaos, enemy of the good, lover of nothing but himself. That was his true nature, what he had chosen to be. Everything else was just a game, a whim, an illusion cast to ensnare the innocent. How could he ever have spent even the slightest bit of care on this miserable creature? "Get out."
Panic was growing in Ethan's eyes, but he persisted. "You can't tell me this isn't something you would have wanted."
"You think you know me so well? So intimately? And yet you don't know that nothing short of death will ever separate me from my duty to, my love for, Buffy?" He shook his head. "You don't know me at all, Ethan. And you never will. You're not capable of it. Now get out."
"What"--Ethan's smile was ghastly--"doesn't this even merit a good thrashing for old times' sake?"
Giles looked right through him. "I don't see that you merit the slightest consideration from me. Go."
His mouth opened and closed a few times. Giles stood and waited expressionlessly. Finally, he got up and stumbled out of the room. A few minutes later, Giles heard the door slam.
He sank down onto the bed, resting his head in his hands, where he remained for a long time. Finally, he burst into shaky laughter. "Oh, excellent show, Giles," he said aloud. "Your girlfriend is gone and your slayer is missing, but you did manage to save the life of an evil warlock, who repaid you by trying to rip out your heart. You've done a great service to future Watchers by providing them with such entertaining reading in your diaries. No doubt essays will be set in future on whether you made the whole thing up." He fell back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Marvelous. Surely, today of all days he could be justified in going back to sleep--
To sleep. In this bed. He didn't feel--
It was like a numbed tooth touched with his tongue. He thought, Jenny died here, and the image came, but without the unbearable spike of grief and self-recrimination. Sorrow there was still, and regret, but not the searing, paralyzing sense that he could never rest here again.
Some of the spell had been completed. This...this was Ethan's accidental gift to him. His expression of gratitude, and God only knew what else. Something he could not reject or send back. And, he realized suddenly, it was true--he was not sure he would want to.
He was not entirely certain who it was he was weeping for.