California is a summer that never ends. It used to be so appealing to him, but now that he's actually in it, stuck in summer like a piece of fruit in gelatin, he no longer understands why he felt such an attraction to this place. Outside, the air is bathwater-warm, mellow and dressed with pollen. It's early October, and the leaves cling to their branches as though glued there. Ethan knows that if he snapped off a twig, the inside would show the tacky green of spring. Inside the house, there's no relief. The air conditioner has to be broken. The sad little gasps it releases are barely cooler than the breeze outside. He can't help but admire Ripper's dedication to abjuring almost all of life's comforts. It verges on religious, but of course, he would have never allowed himself the luxury of actually believing in anything.
Though modern science tells us that consciousness is little more than a lucky coincidence of chemicals and electricity, it was held for centuries that the 'us' of us was nothing less than divine essence bestowed by some deity or other. When one became a vampire, that divine essence was expelled from the human body, allowing the demonic component of the vampire to take full control. What became of the human consciousness, though, the soul? There have always been those who have argued that what we understand to be the soul is, in fact, the assembled memories, personality, character of the human-turned-vampire, and that the soul is not expelled, but merely polluted by the demon's energy. The viral model, if you will. The popular belief, however, has always been that the soul is expelled and departs- possibly to Heaven, possibly to Hell, possibly, even, to a kind of Purgatory or Limbo. Some say that these souls must wait, like all others, for the day of Judgment. There are those who say that it cannot find rest, either in a determined location or in awaiting Judgment, but that the death experienced by the newly-turned vampire is so inherently traumatic that the spirit is doomed to wander the earth. The revenant is even less moored to the mortal plain than an ordinary ghost, and thus, cannot manifest itself except on those occasions when the veil between the material and spiritual worlds is so thin as to be almost dissolved. Thus, came into being the belief that, should a vampire be abroad at these times- Halloween is the most well-known, but there are also the Equinoxes and Solstices and the various holy days of the many religious traditions- they might be so unlucky as to meet their own soul.
“Cool,” says Dawn, “But what about demons and things? Did they used to have souls?”
He takes off his glasses and fusses at them vaguely. For some reason, he finds it difficult to focus around the little girl, Buffy's sister. She's too much, somehow. “That is a subject that has also been debated for the better part of the last millennium, but it's commonly accepted that they simply yield the day to humans out of a sense of fellow-feeling with vampires.”
“Solidarity,” says Anya, who used to be called Anyanka. He and Deirdre knew a woman called Paulette who had a shrine to Anyanka. At the center was a very artistic statue of the lady, herself. The proportions were flattering, but Ethan has noticed, incorrect. “Demons are big on solidarity.”
“That's why you always see them at all the big rallies and marches,” Xander adds. Paulette ended up settling, as well.
“Don't be silly. Do you know how hard it is for a demon to get the appropriate permits? We aren't very well-represented in city planning.”
Buffy walks into the room, polishing an apple between her hands. “They can't all be success stories like the Mayor.” She shrugs. “How come you never told me that, about vampires and Halloween?”
“I never took you to be interested in the minutiae of the supernatural world.”
“I am when it comes in neat fairy tale form.” She bites into her apple.
“What are you going to be for Halloween, Giles?” asks the little sister.
“Hmm? Oh. Myself, of course.”
Against his instincts, he keeps putting her off. He wants to tell her. He really does. It's been so long since he had, if not a friend, a colleague. That's what she is. He could be precious, condescending, and imagine her as an apprentice. Slip into the role that his age would allow him. Teacher. But he's so old that he's slipped right out of that role, slipped right out of caring. And, of course, when he was her age, he was drawing down primal forces from the dawn of recorded history and using them like most people used pharmaceuticals. He doesn't know that he could set a good example if he tried. So, 'colleague', it is.
He wants to tell her. Aches to. Down to his very bones, which are still his, behind the mask of Rupert. But what would she do with the information? Harm him, perhaps. He finds that he doesn't mind. He's never had much of a sense of self-preservation. So, let it happen. But there's no reason to hasten his doom. It's more fun to draw it out, anyway. More of a chance for something unexpected to happen.
“How do you imagine I did it?”
Tara frowns. “Well, it's some kind of glamour, isn't it? You aren't in his body; you're just you, wearing a Giles costume. You still feel like yourself.”
“And what do I feel like?” Her face reddens. Oh, dear. “He asked in a way that couldn't at all be mistaken for a charmless sexual overture.”
There's no resemblance between her and Deirdre, but when she smiles, in the momentary closing of her eyes and the ducking of her head and the threatened release of a trapped laugh, for a second, the former evokes the latter. And Ethan's cup of tea suddenly feels very heavy in his hand. He tries not to shake it as he sets it down, and then, sets his equally ponderous hand in his lap. He closes his eyes, then opens them again. He tries to smile back at her.
“You're colder. There was something warm about Giles.”
“Like a blast of air from a furnace. Heat with mass, with presence.”
“And what do you imagine would happen if all of that heat were turned upon itself?”
She thinks for a moment. “It would collapse? Like a star dying.”
“Yes. It wouldn't push outward, at all, but inward, creating an impossibly dense reservoir of energy.”
“Its surface area would be greater than its volume,” she muses.
“Very good,” he exclaims. “He said in a way that didn't at all seem as though he were surprised by a young person's intellect. Yes, its surface area would be greater than its volume, meaning that though the container for this energy might be very small, its capacity is,” he shrugs, “almost infinite.”
“Is there anything left of him?” Her voice is a fine, a delicate thing, and it catches as though her throat were filled with thorns.
“There always will be.”
“Is he a ghost, now?”
“Who can say? It depends upon what one means by 'ghost'.”
“I can feel him.”
“And what does he feel like?”
“He's still warm. He isn't cold, at all.”
It's all becoming something like those dreams he, even at his age, still sometimes has: he's back at school, about to take an exam in a class he hasn't attended for an entire term and to fail miserably. Only, in those dreams, he's able to comfort himself with the knowledge that he could enchant the test papers to look as though they bore the correct answers. Though, not too many correct answers, for verisimilitude.
He's awoken to an unending series of exams, but none of them are written. He finds himself having to recite, on demand, the names of people he's never heard of and places he's never been and dates that mean absolutely nothing to him. No wonder Ripper didn't put up much of a fight. Ethan is beginning to feel defrauded.
And now there's this new person to worry about. If, indeed, she is a person. According to Buffy, her distinguishing features are great beauty, great strength, great malice, and quoth the Slayer, 'extreme skankiness'. Sounds rather him, actually. Though, he can't say that. Early on, one particularly trying night, someone- possibly Buffy's great dense edifice of a boyfriend- asked what the lady could want from the seemingly random people she'd been attacking, and Ethan had sighed, “What we all want: respite from this endless fucking toil.” Tara had been quick to stutter out something about everyone being tired, and Buffy's face had softened into a custard of sympathy, and they'd all gone home and left him alone with Ripper's not-inconsiderable collection of whiskeys. If he's not on thin ice, he will be, soon. He can only continue to patch this facade for so long.
And then, what? Typical of him, he hadn't thought of that. Get a bit of revenge, have a bit of a laugh at everyone's expense, and then- it's all a blank. He hadn't actually considered that he might have to live in the life he was stealing. For a while, he'd been angrier than ever- that this was what Ripper had escaped to. This was what was worth abandoning him and their surviving friends to an uncertain, but probably horrific, fate. Ripper had had to do all of that groveling and pleading just to end up here, unemployed twice over, friendless, with nothing to show for anything but some disturbing medical records indicating a lot of bumps to the head. The anger, of course, had faded, in the face of the hopeless reality that all of this was now his.
Jesus Christ, but he had to do something.
Then, the final indignity: he's debriefed. Which sounds filthy, but is actually just boring. An unmarked car comes for him at an unbearable hour of the morning. He has to drink his coffee in the car, from a plastic travel cup, like a junior investment banker scurrying to catch the train to work. Hadn't his entire life been one long, bloody struggle to avoid just this kind of scenario? It's a long drive into nowhere and nothing; the car windows are so tinted that they completely obscure the world outside. After what could be an hour or five, they arrive at their destination, he and his minders. One of them opens the car door for him in what he's sure is not a display of courtesy. They're in a covered parking structure, which leads into a nondescript building. It could scarcely be anything else. Then, he's led down a featureless corridor, and into a featureless room, where a lot of featureless men- and the one entire woman they managed to scrape up for the occasion- all of them white and somewhere between middle-aged and ancient, sit at a table. For the next few hours, they ask him various versions of the same questions, always returning to the same one: were he, Rupert Giles, and the late, lamented Ethan Rayne fucking? How much, and for how long? Was it love, or just something to do on rainy days? There's only so much blushing and stammering he can do, but he thinks he manages to look sufficiently mortified and contrite. Was this what Rupert had to do, thirty years earlier, in order to get back his life? To get back all of this.
Finally, they seem satisfied, and he's allowed to go. He and his minders make their journey in reverse, and he's deposited on his doorstep, the sun now as low in the sky as it was that morning. He's unlocking the front door when he hears something in the stand of ornamental shrubberies. He knows without looking that it's Spike.
“You're living dangerously, being out this early. You might as well come in,” Ethan says, “Better than leaving your fag ends out here for the landscapers to find.”
“Oh. Well, yeah, thanks,” says Spike, and galumphs over, his coat making a rubbery flapping sound.
“Drink?” asks Ethan, closing the door behind them and throwing his keys onto the small table. They slide off and hit the floor with a bright jingle. He sighs.
“Yeah. Very decent of you.” As he's pouring the drinks, he hears Spike pick up his keys and place them on the table.
He hands Spike his drink and takes long sips of his own.
“Saw you being carted off this morning. Didn't know if you'd ever come back.”
“Hoping to take the place over if I didn't, and invoke squatter's rights?”
“That, or tell people I was your son, or something. Dummy up a will, and say you'd left it to me.”
“Thanks. Made it, myself.”
“I'm very tired, Spike. If you've come for conversation, I'm afraid I can't help you. I can only offer you liquor and silence.”
“Two of my favorite things.”
“Good. Get me another, please.” He hands Spike his empty glass, and sits down in what looks like a chair but feels like a dessiccated animal carcass- old leather stretched over a skeleton. “Now, I'm a masochist, and even I wouldn't buy something this painful.”
“Here, comfort yourself.” Spike hands him the glass.
“Thank you. Don't be distressed if I fall asleep.”
“I'll just drink all your booze and search the house for valuables.”
“I beat you to that. The second one. Never try to sell ancient esoteric texts at a pawn shop.”
“Well, I could have told you that. Why'd you want to go and do that, though? I'd think you'd want all the spooky knowledge you could get your hands on.”
“Hmm? A lot of them were elementary texts.”
“The Idiot's Guide To Opening Hell Dimensions?”
“Something like that. Didn't want to hang onto them.”
“Too many memories,” Spike clears his throat, “What did those soldier boys do to you, anyway? Couldn't have been worse than what they did to me.”
“It was more the principle of the thing.”
“Ah. So, it was the betrayal that made you so angry.”
“Something like that.”
“I enjoy a little revenge, myself, but I have to ask- did he deserve this?”
He lets his eyes slip shut. Let Spike think he's falling asleep. He hums noncommittally. Let Spike think what he wants.
He awakes in the chair, covered in a throw. Spike is on the couch, limbs splayed, head lolling to the side, his coat draped over him. Sometime during the night, he dropped his glass on the floor, but it didn't shatter. Ethan raises his eyebrows. Fine craftsmanship. He should probably get up, but he doesn't feel like it, just yet. There are some teaspoons sticking out of the pocket of Spike's coat. Laughter rumbles to life behind his sternum, but he's too sleepy, yet to let it out. He smiles. It's too late to un-invite Spike. At this point, it'd be rude. It's too late, also, to un-invite himself, he supposes. Though, theoretically, it's still possible-
“Ah,” he says softly.
Spike stirs, and the spoons tumble out of his pocket onto the floor. He awakes with a jerk, shouts, “Who's that?”
“It's me. You're in my house.”
“Technically, that's not really true.”
Ethan sits up. “Prove it. Do you drink coffee?”
“Couldn't hurt. Give it a little kick, would you?”
“Er- sorry about the-” Spike's picking up the spoons.
“Think nothing of it. Those are worthless, anyway.”
“Wouldn't know where he kept the good stuff, would you?”
Ethan laughs. “As though he'd ever had anything worth stealing.”
He thinks to ask Tara if anyone is beginning to suspect anything, but upon reflection, he realizes that he'd rather not know. The uncertainty is more entertaining. Let them turn over in their heads all of their interactions with him, looking for the give-away, the thing that just doesn't fit. Let them question each other, seeking validation and finding none, because all they have to compare are shadows. Whether you shine a light on them or remove all illumination, they disappear. Let them imagine that he is exactly what he seems to be. Let the conclusion, when it comes, in whatever form it comes, take them by surprise. Let it take him by surprise, as well. He offers her more tea.
“No, thank you. We were talking, last time, about thinking about a spell as a tapestry. I was wondering if we could talk more about that. I don't think I really understood.”
What's there to understand? It was a tired metaphor he used because it was easy. He shrugs. “There isn't really much to say. Just that it's vital to understand the way a spell has its own kind of internal tension or gravity.”
“One element supports another.”
“That's right. And if you take one away, even if the whole thing doesn't collapse, there will be a change.”
“Oh. I get it, now.”
“How is everything going?”
“Oh, it couldn't be better. It's nice to settle down in a home of my own.”
“It's not exactly yours, though.”
The cafeteria is way too crowded. Somebody could hear. The hallway is also too crowded, plus, walking and speaking tends to result in huffing and puffing. No, she has to wait until they're in their room. Dinner is unbearable. She can't eat, and she can't really talk, either, because there's only one thing she could talk about. It's all she can think about. She tries, though, to keep up with what Willow's saying, to make it a nice evening for her, but-
“Are you okay? You look like you're not feeling too well.”
“I'll be fine,” Tara already feels breathless, sounds it, too, “I just need to tell you something.”
“Okay.” The color drains from Willow's face.
“It's not bad- I mean, it's not a bad thing about us. It's important, though. So, finish eating, and then we have to go back to the room. I can't talk here.”
“Okay. Can you tell me what it's about?”
“I don't want to get into it too much. Just-”
Willow swallows another spoonful of pudding. “Done.”
In the hallway: “Is it about Buffy?”
Tara looks around. “No. But,” she takes a breath, “let's just wait a second.”
“But Buffy's okay, right?”
“No, you're right.”
Tara drops her keys on the threshold before the door. She and Willow bend down to grab them at the same time, and collide. A passerby yells, Good one!
“Jerk,” mutters Willow as Tara picks up the keys and unlocks the door.
“Okay,” says Willow, “can I find out what the big secret is, now?”
“Sit down,” Tara says, almost in gasp.
“Okay.” Willow sits down on the edge of the bed.
“Those are a lot of 'okay's. I'm starting to think that everything isn't.”
“You're right. It isn't. Willow. Giles is dead.”
“What? When? You just saw him yesterday.”
“He's been dead for months, since Ethan did that spell. It isn't Giles; it's Ethan. Ethan's been impersonating him.”
“Wha- what? How?”
“I knew it had to be some kind of glamour, or perception-altering spell, but I didn't figure it out until today. It was something he said-”
“You mean, he just told you how he did it?”
“Sort of.” Tara frowns. “Now that I think about it, it was too easy.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“Something about spells being made of interlocking parts, and how if you pulled one out, you could make the whole thing come tumbling down. I started to think- what if we could do some kind of spell to, to-”
“Show his work.”
“Yeah. To show his work. We could remove one or more of the components.”
“But Giles is dead. We can't raise the dead. Can we?”
“I don't think he's really dead.”
Willow smiles. “He's pining for the fjords.”
Tara laughs, then clears her throat. “No- it's like, the spell rests on the fact that he's dead, but the fact of his death rests on the spell, so if one of these conditions is removed, the other one is also removed. It's a paradox.”
“And Xander used to complain that we'd never use science in real life. So, what do we do? How do we begin?”
“Books. We need books. We need to find a way to make it visible, so that we can find the right part to pull out.”
“Except less with the party game, and more with the, with the-”
“Life and death.”
The neighbors will think there's something wrong with him, but he walks out to the front of his house, and stands for a long time, watching the sun set. He's done this the past couple of nights, but tonight, there are people to see him. He didn't even know this many families with children lived in his neighborhood. They move from house to house, their costumed offspring in tow, silent and graceful at a distance as though in a masque. They seem to know without being told that it's pointless to come to his house. Anya and Xander stop by, though, she dressed as Lucille Ball (“That way, if we get turned into our Halloween costumes, I'll be a madcap wit with just a dash of zany sex appeal”) and he, as a construction worker (“Just got off work; didn't have time to change.”). They're on their way to a party at some young peoples' night spot, and don't really want to linger. He's not entirely glad to see them go.
Once it's properly dark, the children and their parents evanesce, and he's alone in front of his house. He sighs, a sound as gray as the air around him, and goes in. He doesn't bother to lock the door.
And not long after, it opens.
“Thought I'd spend the happiest night of the year with the only person I know who's sadder than I am.”
“It's nice to be thought of,” he says, and gives Spike a drink. Good hospitality is important. Even if it isn't actually his hospitality to give.
“Anything on the telly?”
“Dunno. See for yourself.”
Spike begins changing channels, exclaims, “It's the Great Pumpkin!”, then composes himself and says, “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Used to watch this every year with Dru. That's my ex-girlfriend, Drusilla. Before your time. Anyway. No idea why she liked it so much, but, y'know,” he sits down, looking pensive and a little deflated, “tradition. Don't have any candy, do you?”
“I'm afraid not.”
“Just as well. Those little brats out there can scent it on the air, like a shark with blood in the water. Any of the Scooby Gang stop by?”
“Buffy and her friends.”
“Just Anya and Xander. They were going to a party.”
“Bobbing for apples and erotic charades into the wee hours.” Spike yawns.
“Something like that.”
“No one else? I reckoned you'd be Mr. Popular. All of your children assembling under your roof in the festive holiday spirit.”
“That's really more appropriate to Christmas.”
Spike finishes his drink and gets another. “Given any thought to how you're going to handle that? Or are you just going to do a runner sometime in November?”
“I hadn't actually thought about it.”
“Yeah, I was never much of a planner, either. That's how I ended up here. Though, this place has a way of trapping you. My theory is that whatever oogedy-boogedy there still is, gestating or hibernating or what have you, underground, sort of feeds on us, as much as we feed off it. What's it called when two parasites feed off of each other?”
“I believe you mean symbiosis, but that's not with parasites. With parasites, it's just parasitism.”
“Well, that, then.”
“Spike, why are you here?”
Spike fixes him with glare that must have been terrifying, once. “Why are you here, mate? You've done your bit, wreaked your havoc, had a few laughs- isn't it time to move on? Unless you're planning something big, building up the suspense.”
“Yes. That's precisely what I'm doing.”
“Oh. Well, then. My hat's off to you. Patience is an admirable quality. Boring, but admirable.” Spike stops speaking then, temporarily silenced or just bored, and watches the television.
“I'm just going to go to the little sorcerers' room. I'll be right back.”
He doesn't know whether or not Spike is actually listening, but he leaves him in the living room with the liquor and the television. He goes into the bathroom and locks the door, but doesn't turn on the light. He looks into the mirror, and even without illumination, he sees. He sees a face. It's the one he's seen in the mirror for the past few months, but it's not. The eyes are different. Reproachful. So reproachful.
He laughs to himself, and whispers in his own voice, “Hello, Ripper,” laughs again and adds, “Are you the soul I lost?” There's no answer. He stares at Rupert's face until he can't bear it. He closes his eyes, but still, he sees.