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Masks

Chapter Text

Now...

Ethan groaned and attempted to roll over on the cot bed, but the permaplastic chains caught tight. They used them to keep him stationary while the drains were in.

Every day it grew harder to distinguish the real from the delirium, but he thought he heard a door open and footsteps approaching. Something about the steps didn't sound like soldiers. Perhaps he was to be granted one of those infrequent medic check ups. Important not to let him die while he still had depths not completely plumbed, after all.

"Dear lord."

Eyes closed, Ethan smiled humourlessly. So today it was to be voices that his mind conjured up. Or more accurately, voice, singular – the one that had already haunted his dreams long before he'd ended up in this hell. He wondered if the phantom was going to comfort or torment him this time.

The voice continued, full of the power and authority of Ripper at his most glorious. "Get him out of that obscene device now."

Ah. It was to be the valiant rescue fantasy then. As his hallucinations went, this was quite possibly the worst. Try as he might, he could never stop the surge of hope that this was real, that he really was being freed from the torture, and Rupert Giles genuinely cared enough to come for him.

He groaned and, in a voice so rough it sounded alien to his own ears, he said, "Go away, Ripper. 'M not up to this today."

There was a pause. Then Rupert's voice, sounding as if he was swallowing either tears or laughter, came again. "For once in your life, Ethan, stop being so bloody contrary."

Then came a loud snap accompanied by short bursts of pain as the drains piercing his skin were removed. Nausea washed through him as it always did when they came out. That much, at least, felt real. After the chains were also taken away, he turned painfully to his side and curled up. "Not contrary," he muttered. "Just don't take orders from mirages."

A creak of springs and the shifting of the mattress told him someone was now sitting down beside him. A hand, gentle in a way he hadn't felt in far too long, stroked his face, fingers brushing against his shaven skull.

"I'm not a mirage," Rupert said softly. "I'm here to get you out."

Ethan couldn't quite stop the sob that broke from him. Still, what did it matter if the soldiers saw him cry? The tears would hardly be his first in this place. "You always say that," he pointed out bitterly, keeping his eyes tight shut.

"This time it's real." There was an earnest fierceness to Rupert's voice that Ethan had rarely heard directed at him. Or at least, not for a very long time. "We're getting out of here now." Hands gently but insistently rolled him over onto his back. Then, before he could protest, Ethan felt himself being lifted, finding himself held like a child against a warm, familiar body.

Either his hallucinations were becoming more real, or... Could this possibly be happening? He felt himself being carried out of the cell, his supporter turning sideways to get through the door, and then along the corridor he'd been dragged or wheeled through many times on the way to sessions in the labs. He supposed he could open his eyes and look, but the light beyond his eyelids seemed very bright.

Nuzzling instead into the body holding him, Ethan croaked, "Took your time, Ripper. Thought you didn't love me anymore."

The arms holding him tightened at that. "I never thought they'd be able to hold you for this long. I'm sorry. I should've checked sooner."

"You're better than the last one."

"I'm not a hallucination, Ethan," Rupert told him patiently.

"Of course not," Ethan tried to smile sardonically, but he was out of practice. "It, of course, makes perfect sense that you would rescue me. I see that."

"Apparently it makes enough sense that you've been imagining it," Rupert pointed out.

Ethan made a noise somewhere between a giggle and gurgle. It sounded disturbing, so he quickly stopped it. "I don't think 'sense' had a whole lot to do with that, Rupert, old chum."

The arms holding him tightened again briefly in reaction to that. "Perhaps not. I quite probably should have my head examined, but you always seem to bring out the more... foolhardy aspects of my personality."

Hmm, a hallucination that misunderstood his meaning. That was unusual. Ethan felt himself being carried through another door and then they stopped. A dull hum of machinery could be heard, and the room seemed to jerk slightly. Lift then. Going up.

He thought he'd try something he'd tried before, to see what this version would say. "How does it make you feel, Ripper, seeing me like this? Knowing you were the one who put me here."

Rupert sighed, and Ethan was close enough to feel the warmth of his breath. "It's not like you were a total innocent, Ethan. You changed me into a demon and then urged Buffy to kill me. I wasn't exactly in the most giving of moods after that." Another sigh. "But I had no idea that this was what would happen to you. If I had... I would have probably just beaten you to a pulp and run you out of town on the proverbial rail and called it a day."

"The usual then," Ethan said with a hoarse chuckle. It wasn't as if the Fyarl spell had been anything much more than a plea for attention. Not that he had any intention of telling the hallucination that. Just in case.

The lift doors opened, and Rupert, or whoever this really was carrying Ethan, began to move again, shifting Ethan in his grip first. "I really did think you'd get yourself free before the first week was up," Rupert said softly after a moment. "I never wanted this."

"Too weak," Ethan admitted. "They took... everything." He heard a quiet whoosh like that of an opening air seal. Then the sounds around them took on a different quality. "Is that fresh air? Oh, this really is very impressive."

Rupert chuckled, the sound vibrating through Ethan's form. "Trust you to pat yourself on the back for the quality of your own hallucinations. And yes, that is fresh air."

Ethan heard the distinctive sound of a car door opening. Then Rupert was bending and placing him on, he assumed, a car seat, letting go of Ethan long enough to climb in beside him. Ethan slumped against Rupert, marvelling that even the pain levels seemed right in this one, more was the pity. "Do you think that if I never open my eyes again, this dream might never stop?" he asked wistfully.

Rupert's arm moved around Ethan's shoulders, pulling him closer. "Open your eyes, Ethan," he said softly, thumb moving in gentle circle on Ethan's cheek. "This is real. It's not going to stop."

"Can't be real," Ethan denied mildly. "You haven't touched me like this in decades, not even..."

"You haven't let me," Rupert countered. "Been too busy pushing my buttons for all you were worth."

"Chance would've been a fine thing," Ethan said with a smirk. Still not opening his eyes, he snorted and instantly regretted the action as he began to cough.

Giles immediately shifted their positions, moving to support Ethan through the spasms. "Easy," he said, voice low and reassuring, one hand stroking Ethan's chest in an effort to ease the coughing. "Just concentrate on breathing."

His lungs hurt; they had done for endless days now. They felt full of something heavy and liquid, and he was so very weak. He was beginning to lose patience with this extended hallucination; it was too good, and it would only hurt all the more when it was over. So Ethan opened his eyes.

They were, it seemed, in the back of something only a little smaller than a limousine, luxurious and roomy. He turned to look at the person holding him and saw Rupert smiling back at him, although his eyes were murky with what looked like worry and concern. Rupert looked older: more grey in his hair, deeper lines on his face, signs that he hadn't been getting enough sleep. But despite all that, his spirit still shone through. It was the most detailed waking hallucination Ethan had ever had.

If it were an hallucination.

Tentatively, he reached out and touched Rupert's face with trembling fingers, brushing over the other man's cheek and lips. He swallowed. "If you're not real, I'll have to kill you, you know," he said in as conversational a tone as he could muster.

Rupert held still for Ethan's explorations. "I can assure you I'm real; just as long as you give me the chance to prove it before you start planning a murder."

"If I can kill you while I'm in this state, that'll prove you aren't real."

"Fifteen minutes, and you're already threatening to kill me. And you wonder what happened to our relationship." The words were teasing, but the smile had a bit more emotion in it than simple teasing could account for.

Ethan blinked, trying to encourage his eyes to focus better as he gazed at Rupert. "I don't wonder; I know. You turned your back and walked away. And much though I've always appreciated the view of your arse, Ripper, I–" He could feel the desire to cough building up again so he stopped talking and swallowed.

He saw what he couldn't help but imagine was old regret flash through Rupert's eyes. "We would've torn each other apart if I'd stayed." There was a tightening of his mouth, a stillborn grimace. "Not that we haven't done a good job of that over the years anyway."

"Should've stayed then," Ethan grated out, his throat feeling increasingly raw as he fought the coughing impulse. "Had some fun along the way."

"There were things I had to do." Rupert sounded weary. "You never understood."

Which was true enough. Ethan looked down and didn't try to speak anymore. He hurt, and everything seemed too bright and too loud. Had he any pride left, not to mention the necessary strength, he would have tried to push away from his gallant rescuer and sit without support. Instead, he simply closed his eyes again.

Rupert sighed, his hand still moving lightly over Ethan's chest, soothing. "I had thought, last time... But then I woke up with horns."

"It was too late by then," Ethan admitted. "If you'd been kind enough to inform me ahead of time that we were going to end the evening in bed together, then I'd never have–" He broke off, coughing helplessly again.

Rupert tightened his grip on him, volubly cursing the American military in general, and the scientists in particular, who had done this to Ethan.

Ethan smiled slightly to himself, despite the coughing, enjoying the touch of Ripper in the other man's voice. When the spasms died down again, he asked very quietly, "Not that I care over much, providing it's 'away', but where are you taking me?"

"Home. London."

Still talking barely above a whisper, Ethan asked, "Home's not Sunnydale anymore? Oh dear, don't tell me something unfortunate has happened to the poor little girl."

"Would you care if it had?" He could hear a sharpness and defensiveness in Rupert's voice that spoke of some past trauma. Given the circumstances, it was probably better not to answer that, so Ethan didn't. After a moment's silence, Rupert spoke again. "A lot has happened. Things have changed."

Ethan nodded. "I've been rather shamefully out of touch. Can't think why."

Rupert tightened his grip briefly in response to that, then offered, "The Council was destroyed."

Interesting. "I truly don't wish to upset you, Rupert, not when you're being decent enough to rescue me, but you can hardly expect me to be traumatised by the loss."

"No, I don't suppose you would be," Rupert said sardonically. "But how about the news that I'm in charge of the new Council?"

"Now that is traumatising, yes."

"I'm sure you'll find it even more traumatising that you have that fact to thank for my being able to get you out of that place."

As his short supply of energy dwindled, Ethan found he was becoming cynical again about the reality of all of this. "I think I'm losing my touch. It's taken far too long to think up this latest excuse explaining how my dashing hero was able to march into the lion's den and retrieve me from its jaws."

"This isn't a hallucination," Rupert told him again, patiently. The car stopped, and he sighed in what sounded like satisfaction. "We're here."

Ethan kept his eyes shut. "Here being the middle of the Nevada desert?" They hadn't travelled far enough for it to be anywhere else. "Are we going to have a picnic?"

"Here being the airfield." Ethan felt Rupert move and then the car door opened, letting in a breeze and the kind of loud background noise that did seem to confirm their location. "I rather thought we'd have a plane ride, instead of a picnic."

"Might there be some drugs aboard?" Ethan asked weakly. "The pain you see. It's painful. Painful pain. It's the worst kind." He smiled raggedly up at Rupert, opening his eyes just a slit.

Rupert smiled back at him, although his eyes remained worried. "There's full medical facilities aboard. You're going to be fine." He slid out of the vehicle and then reached back in to pick Ethan up again.

Closing his eyes fully once more as he had no wish to see the outside world just yet, Ethan leant against Rupert's shoulder as the comforting motion of being carried by a walking man began again. "Have I lost obscene amounts of weight, or have you been working out?" He could hardly hear his own voice. Had he really said anything?

"Both," Rupert replied. "I've been doing a great deal of Slayer training lately."

Which had to mean Buffy Summers was dead. "Ah, poor Ripper. I am sorry. Well, I'm not really, but it seemed like a nice thing to say."

"Thank you," Rupert replied as Ethan felt him start up some stairs. "But things aren't quite the way you'd expect."

"Care to enlighten the sick man? And while you're at it, do try not to sway so."

"Complain, complain, complain. I'm rescuing you, aren't I?"

"Ingratitude is unforgivable, of course. It's just–" Ethan could abruptly hear his own voice again as they entered what was presumably the plane, and the door was closed "–I'm feeling a trifle nauseous."

"We'll see what we can do about that." Rupert was putting him down on some kind of padded table or gurney as he spoke.

Ethan peered out through cracked open eyes. He couldn't stop himself from reaching out and feebly grasping at Rupert's sleeve. The human contact, after so long without it, was hard to let go. "Oh, I doubt your shoes are in any danger. I've been nil-by-mouth for some time, you know."

"We'll see what we can do about that as well," Rupert said, taking Ethan's hand in his own. "Although that will take longer. It will be a while until you're up to your typical diet."

Ethan dared to open his eyes a little more, but immediately regretted it as the interior of the small jet seemed to be spinning alarmingly; he shut them tight once more. In a tremulous voice, he said, "At this moment, I'd settle for a weak cup of British Rail tea."

And then people who were not Rupert were touching him. Strapping things to his arm and pressing something cold to his chest. He whimpered. This had been a perfectly lovely illusion and to wake up in the labs again now would just be too much to bear.

But his hand was still being held, and he could still hear Rupert's voice, reassuring him that everything was going to be all right. Something sharp was pressed into Ethan's arm, and he felt a coldness there. The darkness behind his eyelids somehow became darker still, and he heard his own voice, sounding as if he were on his own in a big, empty room. "Don't leave me here alone, Ripper. Not again."

As the dark undertow pulled him under, he clung to Rupert's response, whether it were real or imagined. "You're safe, Ethan. I promise."

***

"Mr Giles, I've brought you some tea," said the prim, well-spoken tones of Pamela Smythe-Tompkins, the young woman Giles had chosen, from a meagre selection of junior Watchers, to be his assistant in his new position.

"Thank you, Pamela," Giles said, glancing up and taking the cup of tea from her with a smile. He took a sip of the tea, his gaze drifting back to Ethan's unconscious form.

Pamela hovered, hesitating. "If I may ask, sir, what are the Council's plans for this individual when we get him home?"

Unfortunately, that was not a question that Giles could answer, not having thought beyond getting Ethan out of that hellish place. "Tell me, Pamela," he said instead. "Do you think that," he nodded towards Ethan, "is something deserved by anyone?"

The young woman, hardly much more than a girl really, stiffened as if she felt criticised. "Of course not, sir. It's just that rather a lot of Council resources, what are left of them, have been spent on this mission. I'd rather assumed that you had some purpose in mind for a corrupt magician."

"Not that many resources," Giles corrected her. "A favour here, a word there, not that difficult a task for the Council, even deplenished as it is. And Ethan isn't corrupt so much as... unpredictable."

"Really, sir?" Her tone was disbelieving. "His file listed a number of crimes and activities that seemed clearly to be the product of a polluted soul."

Giles smiled to himself, wondering not for the first time what his young aide would think of his own past. "There's much more to Ethan than what's in that file," he told her, his gaze once again trailing back to the man in question. "Although admittedly the Council has never been high on his list of favourite organisations."

"If you say so, sir," she said, clearly too well brought up to argue further. She was quiet for a few moments and then asked, "What did they do to him? He looks, well, like those appalling photographs one sees from the Nazi concentration camps."

Indeed he did. Ethan had always been on the thin side, but now he was positively skeletal. A concentration camp victim, as Pamela had said, was the most apt description that Giles could come up with. When he had first seen Ethan in the cell, Giles had been afraid that the other man's mind would be as ravaged as his body, but the conversation they'd had on the way to the plane had quieted that fear. Fragile and weak maybe, but he was definitely still Ethan, despite the horrors perpetrated upon him.

And those horrors... "They were draining his magic."

"How... unpleasant." Despite the prim words, there seemed to be some genuine disquiet in Pamela's tone. "As if he were some kind of dairy cow? Did they have a use for it – the magic?"

"I'm sure they did, but I haven't been able to obtain that information just yet. If you want something with a corrupt soul, however, a good place to start looking would be the American military's covert operations."

"Indeed. This man may be... unpredictable, but he still presumably has a soul. The Council would never treat a souled human like this. A clean and merciful killing perhaps, but not this kind of barbarism." As Pamela spoke, one of the medics came forward and checked the various monitors they'd attached to Ethan's body.

"How is he?" Giles asked him as he watched the man frown and adjust one of the drips attached to Ethan's arms.

In cool, professional tones, the medic replied, "Severely malnourished with signs of significant anaemia. The muscular atrophy is obvious, and I suspect the tests will indicate chronic pneumonia too; his lungs are certainly very congested. His heart seems sound, however, which could explain how he has lasted so long."

"That and he's just too bloody stubborn to give up," Giles muttered. Raising his voice, he asked, "He'll recover?"

The medic pursed his lips, considering the question. "Yes, he should, providing we can clear his lungs sufficiently. They'll always be scarred now, however. He'll need recuperative care for a long period of time."

"He'll get it." At least for as long as Ethan would accept such. Giles feared that Ethan would pull his usual disappearing trick as soon as he was strong enough to do so.

Pamela stirred beside him. "Are you intending to take him home, sir? Will that be quite safe?"

"Quite safe?" He let his mouth curl upwards in a ghost of a smile. "Nothing about Ethan is 'quite safe'. But it will be fine."

"You talk as if you know him very well," Pamela straightened her skirt in a way that seemed to suggest she didn't really approve, or at the very least found it confusing. "Is he an old... acquaintance?"

The ghost of a smile became the real thing. "Something like that."