Ethan found himself in a church. It was one of those English country churches: cold stone walls; the few lit candles made it seem even darker as arches vanished up into shadows. The only real light came from the altar where blues and reds shimmered, much like the northern lights, casting an unearthly glow.
Before the altar stood a silhouette, taller than a man, of folded wings. A voice echoed around him. “O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining.”
“Ripper?” Ethan called out.
As great wings spread out with a crack, Ethan felt the brush of wind against him like a caress. The angel turned and approached with a leonine grace that reminded Ethan of his youth. With the words, “A thrill of hope,” the angel stepped out of the shadows.
It was Ripper, as beautiful as he'd ever been. Young and, not pure, not with that expression, or not pure as in innocent but pure as in driven to one specific purpose. His muscles seemed to have been carved, like Michelangelo's David, but oh, stone couldn't even come close to that perfection. Bronze wings fluttered behind him, seeming so natural that Ethan couldn't recall what he'd looked like without them.
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!” Ripper's arms and wings swept upwards as he knelt at Ethan's feet.
Ethan closed his eyes, just for a moment. “O night divine,” he whispered, reaching down towards the angel. His hand found only air. As his heart tightened in his chest, Ethan opened his eyes. “Damn!” he shouted, bolting up in bed. “Just as it was getting interesting.”
* * *
As Rupert stepped down the two stairs into the crypt, waving a flashlight around chaotically, Ethan felt a stab of disappointment. He shouldn't have been expecting the angel from his vision but he realized, then, that he had been. Watching Rupert rummage through a bag, Ethan thought, at first, that he'd forgotten how old Rupert had gotten but no, that wasn't quite it.
Carefully watching the scene play out, Ethan saw Rupert become more and more confused. The children had a confident grasp of the situation, working out who had taken out the demon more quickly than Ethan would have expected them to, if he'd given it any thought at all. Apparently Rupert couldn't even keep up with their explanations. Ethan was appalled at the change in him until he heard, “No one bothered to tell me Buffy's dating one of them?”
No one bothered to tell me? Ethan smiled. Trouble in Watcherland could only work out to his benefit. Even Rupert's confusion would be a plus. The last time he'd seen Rupert, Ripper had been at the fore and Ripper had always been confident and in control. Rupert was clearly out of touch, disconnected. Detached. Which would only make it that much easier for Ethan to get Buffy's claws out of him.
As Rupert dismissed the kiddies and sat down, looking defeated, Ethan began to feel disconcerted. That old man wasn't what he'd come to claim. It's the Hellmouth, Ethan decided. It's draining him, making him old before his time. Once I get him away, I'm certain to get my Ripper back.
“Who am I kidding?” Rupert asked himself as he grabbed his bag and climbed up the few steps out of the crypt. “Nothing interesting is going to happen.”
Ethan stepped out of the shadows. “I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't say that at all. In fact, Ripper, old mate, I'd say something rather interesting is about to happen.”
Ethan saw the angel again, in his mind's eye, so real he could almost touch it, which is why Ethan was caught off guard when Rupert came back through the door, waving his flashlight. “Is someone...”
“Oh, bugger,” Ethan exclaimed. “I'd thought you'd gone.”
“Ethan Rayne, you have no idea how much thrashing you is going to improve my day.”
As Ripper closed in, Ethan dodged for the door. Unfortunately, Ripper had always been the better fighter. A punch to the gut dropped Ethan to the floor. He scrambled to get away but Ripper grabbed him, pulling him back up to his feet. As Ethan tried to find his balance, Ripper readied a punch.
“No wait,” Ethan shouted, raising his hands defensively; Ripper relaxed his punch. “Hang on. You can beat the crap out of me, go ahead. I can't stop you.” Ripper readied another punch. “Or you can listen to what I have to say. Find out what's going on.”
“What are you talking about?”
Oh good, Ethan thought, we're talking. You can beat me to a pulp, given half a chance, but I could always talk circles around you, once I got you listening. Now, what the hell do I tell you? “Something bad is happening, bad for the both of us,” Ethan improvised.
A half hour later, a waitress was settling beer before them. The decor, red paint over brick walls and plants lit by Christmas lights a month after the holiday, left a lot to be desired but it certainly beat being pummeled. “Brilliant,” Ethan said as he picked up his beer. “Now isn't this more fun than kicking my ass? No? Oh, well, it's more fun for me.” He finished off with a bit of a seductive tone.
Rupert wouldn't even look at him. “Just tell me what you want to tell me.”
Oh no, Rupert, and give up a chance to seduce you? “Oh, so crass,” he said. “We used to be friends, Ripper,” he added, meaning we used to be lovers.
Rupert glanced at him, just for a moment, showing he'd caught Ethan's meaning, before looking away again.
“When did it all fall apart?” Ethan asked.
Rupert turned his head away. “About the same time you started worshiping chaos.”
Now this I can work, Ethan thought. Back to the old arguments. “Ah, religious intolerance. Sad that.” He leaned across the table, towards Rupert, before relaxing against the wall. “I mean, just look at the Irish troubles.”
As Rupert started to get up, Ethan thought quickly: give him what he wants but drag it out so he'll stay a bit longer. “Oh hang on, I'll tell you.” Rupert sat back down and, after a pause, looked at Ethan expectantly.
“Something is happening in the dark world. It's all whispers and rumors out there but only one thing comes through clear. That something's harming demons and it's not the Slayer.” As Rupert took a drink, Ethan decided to draw him out. “Know anything about it?”
“What are they saying?”
Fine, Ethan thought. Don't give anything away. “You know demons. It's all exaggeration and blank verse: pain as bright as steel. Things like that. They're scared. There's something called 314 that's got them scared most of all. The kind of scared that tends to angry,” he said.
“I know we're not particularly fond of each other, Rupert,” Ethan probed, hoping to see a glimmer of old affection. Rupert laughed derisively into his beer.
“But we are a couple of old mystics,” he tried again, going for camaraderie. Rupert looked away. “This new outfit is blundering,”he said and Rupert looked back. “Into places it doesn't belong.” We don't belong together, Ethan thought. Not anymore. “Throwing the worlds out of balance and that's way beyond chaos, mate.”
“We're headed, quite literally, for one hell of a fight,” he finished. I promise.
* * *
He'd gone looking for an angel.
He'd found an old man: muddled; defeated; broken. Ripper should know better than to disappoint.