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Chaos continued

Chapter Text

“I take it all back” Ethan says, stretching out luxuriously on the sand. “Staying in California was a wonderful idea.”

“Yes, I thought so.” Giles is sitting up beside him on the beach, glasses on, focused on his writing.

Ethan rolls over onto his stomach. “Now, if only we could extend our stay…” A hand makes its way up Giles’ thigh. Giles sighs and sets his notes aside, then gently detaches the hand. “Ethan, you were the one who didn’t even want to come here!” This place is a compromise: Ethan had wanted to go to Tijuana for a week. Instead they’re spending a long weekend staying with Stephen in the quiet Californian costal town he moved to soon after graduation, a town that Ethan had initially been rather dismissive about. Of course, get him on the beach in the sunshine and Ethan turns into the proverbial putty.

Picking up his notes again, Giles tries to ignore the soft, derisive huff his lover makes.

Ethan rolls onto his back again, and shields his eyes with one hand as he looks up at Giles’ papers. “That’d better not be a training schedule, love.”

“I’m almost done.” Giles crosses out some time set aside for demonology and replaces it with mixed martial arts. Better for Buffy to have practical knowledge than another class to skip. Faith, on the other hand, once she’s back, might do well to learn the worst demons are capable of, to keep her from being seduced again. He scribbles a note on her schedule, which is currently far sparser than Buffy’s. No word yet on when she’ll be back, after all.

“Rupert, we’re on holiday! Put it down!”

“This is important, love. I want Buffy to receive as much training as possible over summer, and then being at college should afford her more time than when she was at school. This is a chance to really prepare for the next threat.” He frowns, considering the practical implications of more hand to hand training. No library means such training will take place at the flat, which means more privacy but also less space. Still, Giles intends to make the best of it, especially given that college will change patrolling. The campus is further out the town centre than Buffy’s home, allowing the vampires more opportunity to take cover before she reaches the cemeteries and jump out at her once she does. Not to mention, any vampires living nearer the campus themselves won’t be able to rely on the opportunist tactics of those in the more populous downtown area: they may even employ the complex con-artistry of the rural vampire, luring victims in whilst avoiding any attention to themselves. That or not killing at all: Much as it pains Giles to expose Buffy to that sort of thing, it might be time to make her aware of the bite-house, just do give her a more detailed understanding of the habits of the undead.  “Ethan, how do you feel about an excursion to the vamp house once we’re back?”

“Why? You feeling the need to spice things up?”

“Thank you, but I’ve quite outgrown near-death experiences. No, I was wondering if Buffy should see the place.”

Ethan laughs. “Ah, yes, I’ll just go up to a gang of vampire and say, “Just giving the slayer a tour of the establishment, don’t mind us” and then they can kill me, Buffy can dust them and carry my corpse home and you can start organising the funeral.”

“Ah. Yes, well, I suppose I’ll just tell her about it instead.” Giles writes another note.

“Rupert, how about you put that down? We’re on a beach in California – blue sky, blue sea, white sand and all you can think about is the bloody undead!”

“I’m just doing my job.”

“We’re on holiday! No-one’s supposed to do their job on holiday!”

“If I write this now, Buffy can start her training the day we get back.”

“But we only have three days! Gods, I’d have gone away with Oz and Xander if I’d known you’d be this dull all summer!”

Giles shakes his head: the postcards Xander has dutifully sent from each state the two young men have reached so far might make their trip seem fun but, “You’d rather spend hours on end in Oz’s van listening to Xander talk?”

“Well” says Ethan, “when you put it like that…it still sounds more fun than watching you plan a training schedule. Put it down.”

“I’m almost finis – oi!” Giles snatches at the pages Ethan has unceremoniously plucked from his hand. Before he can grab them, Ethan is up and sprinting towards the sea. “Ethan Rayne, don’t you bloody dare!”

It's too late: Ethan is in, and chuckling gleefully as he submerges first the pages and then his himself. Cursing, Giles follows. “That’s three hours work, you bastard!” Only as the water hits his knees does he realise that – unlike Ethan – he’s still fully clothed. Coming up for air, Ethan grins and presses close, getting him soaked anyway. Giles tries unsuccessfully to shake him off. “Ethan, you sodding git! Now I’m going to have to write it all over again! You realise that was completely counterproductive to me spending more time with y –” He’s cut off by a kiss. Suddenly the new training schedule doesn’t seem so terribly pressing.

*****

The Strolak demon who always comes in for virgin saliva after the shop closes to humans looks so miserable that Ethan risks asking, “Something wrong?”

The Strolak blinks at him. “’S’not for unbloods to question” it says easily, the standard reply to a being of another species prying into a clan matter.

“Ah, I see.” Ethan sets out the vials on his counter. “That’ll be Thirty-seven dollars.”

“Price’s gone up” the Strolak complains.

Ethan shrugs. “My source moved away.” He takes the money, waiting patiently as the demon counts it out, its clawed fingers clumsily rooting through a leather pouch. Human currency is unfamiliar to most demons but Ethan insists on it, unless they really have an alternative of value to offer. No damn kittens for a start; he’s not running an animal sanctuary here.

“My clan-chief” The Strolak grunts as it hands over fistfuls of small change. “Got taken by those bastard soldiers.”

“Sorry to hear it” Ethan counts through the cash and opens the till.

The demon nods the glum nod of someone confiding it a near-stranger for the sake of simple unloading. It adds, “Now the whole clan’s fighting over should we rescue him or give someone else a go.” It shrugs its massive shoulders. “Me, I say let someone else take the chiefship. Guy was a first-class bastard but we can’t go losing any more.”

Ethan frowns. This isn’t the first time this summer he’s been listening to a demon complain about a military presence, but this Strolak is as massive and mystically powerful as any of its brethren.

Then again, so was its chief.

“I’m sure you could take them” Ethan replies, carefully wording it as a statement of faith in the Strolak rather than a question as to whether they’re a match for a bunch of humans. But the Strolak just shrugs again. “I dunno. They took a Ghora last week. Don’t want to go messing with those things and they just snapped it up. Shit’s getting real.”

Ethan nods and packs up the vials in silence.

Honestly, he’s starting to wonder if he ought to tell Buffy about all this. If some idiot soldiers have decided the magical world’s ripe for invasion, it won’t lead anywhere good. On the other hand, the soldiers are human so there’s not much Buffy will be able to do.

No, Ethan decides, this doesn’t quite seem like slayer territory. He’ll wait and see what happens.

Chapter Text

When Buffy comes round unannounced to find Ethan standing in the kitchen wearing nothing but Rupert’s shirt and his own bare skin, Ethan is in no mood to ease her embarrassment. After a dull summer of waiting for Rupert to finish training the wench, could they not spend fresher’s week undisturbed? Especially since half the time Rupert’s been preoccupied it’s been just waiting for Buffy to bother to show up so training can even start.

So Ethan stands in the kitchen doorway and leans in a way that hides his manhood without really looking like he’s trying to hiding it and says, “Hello, Buffy. And there was me thinking we’d have a break from the hellmouth.”

“I can just come over to visit” returns Buffy. “It doesn’t have to be hellmouthy.”

“So this is a social call? Wonderful. Not a great time, but I’ll tell Rupert you stopped by and –”

“It” Buffy’s eyes dart over his outfit and she blushes. “It actually is hellmouthy this time.”

Ethan sighs. “Of course.”

“Vampires on campus” she tells him apologetically.

“Well there would be.”

“Is Giles home?” She eyes the bundle of bedding on the floor suspiciously.  “You guys got company or is something wrong with your bed?”

“Yes – to the company. And Rupert’s in the shower. Maybe you could go slay them and go to a decent sorority party to celebrate, and come back next week?”

Buffy stares him out levelly. “I will. As soon as I’ve spoken to my watcher.”

“Right. Try coming back in an hour or so then.” And then, just as it looks like Buffy might leave, they both hear the bedsprings creak as Olivia stands, and the padding of her feet on the stairs.

“Giles?” asks Buffy, and her eyes widen as Olivia comes into view. Unsurprisingly after the night of alcohol-aided reminiscing they had, she is rubbing her temple, but she still smiles easily at Buffy and tells her, “Sorry – I think he’s showering. Morning, Ethan. Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

Ethan issues a put upon sigh, but replies, “Olivia, Buffy. Buffy, Olivia. Buffy’s Ripper’s sl – err – student, from the high school.” Always so hard to remember who from the old days are in the know and who aren’t. Ethan generally isn’t very careful because he couldn’t care less who knows about the supernatural, but with Buffy watching, he makes the effort.

Buffy, of course, is so well versed in the leading of a double life that she immediately adds, “Giles tutored me in English lit, and I was wondering if he could give me some advice about a college project.”

“I see. Well, he’ll appear soon, right Ethan?” Olivia steps past them and into the kitchen. They hear the fridge open and the kettle click on.

Buffy mouths, Who’s she? And Ethan replies, “Olivia’s just passing through from London.”

“That’s right” Olivia adds from within the kitchen. “I couldn’t visit the state not call in to catch up with Ethan and Ripper.”

“Ripper?” Buffy repeats worriedly. To Ethan she asks, “What kind of catch up was this?”

“Don’t worry.” Ethan grins. “We haven’t had a threesome…”

“Well yeah! I didn’t think it was that bad!”

“…for at least fifteen years now.”

Buffy goes bright red.

Emerging from the kitchen with a steaming mug in hand, Olivia touches his shoulder and murmurs, “Rayne, stop torturing the child.”

At the same moment, Rupert comes out the shower. “Torturing?” he asks.

“Your fiancé’s winding your student up.”

“My student? Ah” Rupert smiles vaguely at Buffy. “Hello, Buffy.”

Buffy, still red, stares mutely at him.

Ethan studies Rupert critically. Honestly, he’s only been in the bathroom ten minutes. Ethan hopes he at least shampooed his hair. Left to his own devices, Rupert has a terribly spartan habit of washing it in soap, which makes it course and wiry, like Ethan imagines tiger fur feels.

Rupert is mercifully brief with Buffy – well, mercifully from Ethan’s perspective. After she’s scuttled off, Ethan slings an arm around his partner’s shoulder, nuzzles his neck and asks, “So. Where were we?”

Olivia laughs. “That’s my cue to shower.”

“Don’t go on our account” Ethan says.

She shakes her head. “I’m not falling back on bad habits! At least not when I’m this hungover.” As she heads off, Rupert, still looking at the door Buffy exited by, says, “I hope I wasn’t short with her.”

“You were wonderful, Rupert. Very commanding and manly. Now where.” (kiss) Were. (kiss) We?” (kiss, teeth catching on Rupert’s ear just so…)

“Oh sod it. Ethan, with you around it’s a wonder I stayed a watcher as long as I did.”

Ethan grins.

Chapter Text

“Morning Buffy” greets Ethan as he looks up from an alfresco breakfast to see the slayer enter the courtyard.

“Hi” she returns. “Please tell me you and Giles have no threesome friends staying this time.”

Ethan rolls his eyes. “Honestly, child, you’re a student now. You ought to be openminded and experimenting.”

Humouring him with a smile, Buffy perches on the edge of the fountain. “After the way this jerk treated Amy this week, I’m all for the non-experimenting life.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, let’s just say college guys aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Or actually, I guess the only ones I met before actually starting college tried to feed me to a giant snake demon, so I guess they are all they’re cracked up to be.”

Ethan frowns. “But in this case the snake demons were strictly metaphorical, yes?”

“Yeah. Just your standard hot guy sleeps with girl, says he’ll call her, doesn’t call her melodrama. Poor Amy though. Rough start to campus living.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

“Yeah. Oh, hey, and Xander’s back. Maybe I could set her up with him? He’s a non-college boy; I hear those are nice. But then, what with the whole love-spell truth-spell history, maybe not.”

“He’s back? Since when?”

“Only last night” Buffy replies. “Not Oz, though, he stayed in Oregon; some werewolf there owns a nightclub or something. Very Oz-friendly. Xander Greyhounded it back.”

“Oregon? So they did the full loop.”

“I think they skipped a few states in the middle.” Buffy’s eyes widen suddenly. “Oh – I was supposed to tell you; Willow’s not coming over for her magic lesson today. She’s hanging with Amy. You know, to cheer her up.”

“Oh. Right.” Unsurprising, Ethan realises, that with the combined effects of having learnt most of what he can teach her and exposure to the lure of college, Willow should lose interest in his tutelage, but it still hurts. 

“Yeah” says Buffy, evidently aware of this, “But, look, I’m sure she’ll be over soon.”

“Yes” Ethan replies. “I’m sure she will.” Or not, but change is Chaos, all consuming and inevitable, so he fixes his features into a smile and asks, “But I take it that’s not all you came over for?”

“No. Is Giles in?”

“He’s out for a jog. Should be back any minute.”

“He’s what? He’s out for a what?”

“I don’t know why you’re surprised; how do you think he keeps in shape for training you?”

Buffy pouts. “I guess I just thought…I mean I figured he exercised at home where no-one could see him or…Actual jogging? With sweatpants and everything?”

Ethan nods. “Alas, it is so. He looks like a twerp but sacrifices have to be made in the fight against evil.”

At that moment, Rupert appears, running somewhat agilely down the steps and coming to a stop in front of them with his hands on his knees. “Oh” he manages. “Buffy. Good. Hello.”

“Hi” Buffy regards Rupert with amusement.

“Is something the matter?” Rupert asks with something not unlike hope in his voice. He’s been horribly at a loose end over summer, and a start of term he can’t join in with hasn’t helped.

“No” replies Buffy. “Well, demon. But mainly I came by to see if you’ve heard from Faith?”

Rupert’s expression shifts subtly. “I’ve heard from Wesley again” he answers, “But Faith’s still not, err, able to get to the phone.”

Buffy sighs heavily. “Still busy being interrogated?”

“I think they’ve moved on to counselling now” says Rupert, and Ethan, gathering his breakfast things, wonders exactly what that’s euphemism for. Still, at least it seems they won’t have to deal with a certain renegade slayer any time soon.

“You told him we actually want to speak to Faith?” Buffy is asking. “Fun as reminiscing with Wesley isn’t.” 

“I told him” Rupert confirms. “Now, about this demon…”

Ethan heads inside and leaves them to it.

*****

When he next sees Buffy, she is under a net on his living room floor, with Rupert and Xander bundling her upright, tying her hands. “Um” manages Ethan. “Hello all.”

“Ethan” Rupert commands tersely, “give us a hand!”

Ethan looks from Rupert to the very angry slayer in Rupert’s grip and replies, “Actually, don’t mind me. I only popped home for lunch, but I could just go to the Espresso Pum –”

“Ethan!”

“Alright, alright” Ethan joins the other two in steering Buffy into a chair and securing her to it. “Care to explain what’s going on?”

Before Rupert or Xander can answer, Buffy chimes in with, “Yeah: these guys are going to pay!”

“Buffy’s possessed” Xander tells him. He turns to Rupert. “Right?”

“Yes, probably” Rupert whips off his glasses to avoid meeting his slayer’s eye as she yelps, “I am not! I can prove it! Giles, look in my bag!”

“Alright” Rupert moves to Buffy’s abandoned bag, adding, “Ethan, would you be able to put a barrier spell around Buffy? I don’t want to trust the ropes alone.”

“You didn’t look in my bag yet!” Buffy is indignant.

“Sorry, Buffy” Ethan tells her, pulling his chalk from his pocket, he adds to Xander, “Hello, by the way. Good trip?”

“The best” the boy replies. “Not that there’s been much competition. Oz says hi.”

“What on earth did you come back here for?” Ethan asks him. “No offence.”

“I promised Willow. Besides” Xander gestures to a bound and livid slayer “there’s the draw of the glamorous world of demon fighting.”

Ethan acknowledges the sarcasm with a smile before kneeling, focusing on the magic. Janus agrees quickly and somewhat gleefully to encircle Buffy with a ring of thickened air. As Ethan opens his eyes, he finds Buffy glaring at him through a shimmer.

“They’ve grown?” Rupert is asking, examining the contents of a little bag.

“Uh huh” Buffy’s voice sounds distant beyond the barrier but she nods emphatically. “And she flosses her teeth on the bed! I have to kill her!”

Looking to Ethan, Rupert asks, “Could I borrow the keys to the Magic Box? There’re a couple of things I’d like to look up and you should stay here to maintain the barrier.”

“Yes” Ethan grumbles, “and have lunch.” He hands the keys over. “Hurry, could you? In case she’s still in a bad mood after she’s trans-possessed, I’d like for her not to associate me with all this.”

*****

Ethan and Xander, and later Willow, pass a relatively pleasant lunchtime until Rupert returns talking about demons and toenails. Surprisingly, it seems Buffy – who shrugged off the ropes at some point but is still glowering behind the barrier spell – is right about her roommate being evil, though whether or not the same can be said of Celine Dion is debatable. Rupert has found a ritual to restore the slayer’s stolen soul, and he and Willow crack on with it while Ethan readies the barrier spell reversal. Xander and Buffy watch, Xander blank faced and Buffy still murderous. This mellows to merely annoyed when her soul returns to her in a rush of light that leaves a sting in the air. Dropping the barrier, Ethan says, “Welcome back.”

“Right” she mutters, before adding a grudging, “Thanks, guys.” Stepping over to the weapons chest, she selects a large axe. “Now that’s done, it’s time to give Kathy what she deserves.”

“Um” squeaks Willow, “in a non-psychotic, not at all personal, just a slayer killing a demon way, right?”

“Right” says Buffy. “Absolutely.”

*****

A large axe not being an easy thing to walk down the street with, Rupert drives Buffy, along with Willow, back to campus. Ethan and Xander come too and it strikes Ethan en route that this is the first time they’ve all been together since graduation.

At Buffy’s door they are met by a drawn and nervous-seeming Amy. She greets them with, “It wasn’t me.”

“What?” asks Buffy.

“I only came round just now – the portal was open already.”

Frowning, Buffy opens the unlocked door to reveal belongings scattered around a central point and a faint smell of sulphur. The air hisses in a way that is tantalisingly just off the human frequency level, but close enough to know it’s there.

“I think your roommate had to go somewhere” Amy says grimly.

*****

“She sounds better” Rupert tells Ethan the following evening, putting the phone down as Ethan steps out the kitchen.

“Which slayer was that?” asks Ethan.

“Buffy” Rupert replies. “Faith may or may not be better – I can’t seem to get a straight answer out of Wesley. It’s possible the Council aren’t being entirely open with him either.” He frowns. “I think they’re weening her off the sedatives.”

“Sedatives?” Ethan feels an unexpected flicker of sympathy for the second slayer. “Have you told Buffy they’ve got her drugged?”

“What could she do if I did?” asks Rupert. “No, I think once Faith is back, she’ll share what she’s comfortable sharing. In the meantime, I’ll keep Buffy informed enough not to worry her and no more. It’s not my story to tell.”  

“Right.” Sensing his partner’s melancholy, Ethan tries to refocus him on the non-straitjacketed slayer with, “But Buffy’s alright?”

“Yes. Willow should be moving in this week.”

“Good” Ethan replies.

“Yes, poor Buffy. I think she was rather hoping that not standing directly over the hellmouth, things might go more smoothly at college.”

“And instead she got the very worst kind of demon: A Lite FM listener.” Ethan steps over to the door, pulls on his coat. “Well, I’m off out. Got to pick up an order at the shop.”

“Oh” Rupert looks a little crestfallen.

“I won’t be long” Ethan reassures him. “We could go for a drink if you like.”

“Yes” says Rupert, “That would be nice.” He sounds a little relieved, and well he might; he has barely left the flat all week except to jog or pick up groceries. Drinking aside, Ethan reflects as he leaves, what his partner really needs is a project. Possibly it wouldn’t be a bad thing for Faith to return soon after all.

Chapter Text

Having declined Ethan’s suggestion he help in the shop for yet another day, Giles had planned to be passingly productive, to justify the refusal. Somehow, though, he still hasn’t finished sorting through the remaining books from the library by the time Ethan returns home, even with Xander’s help, or perhaps because of Xander’s help. Ethan, of course, doesn’t help either.

“About time” he says, watching them. “We’ve had books under our feet all summer.”

“This is the last box” Giles reminds him.

“These are all yours, right?” asks Xander, putting a set of Hatherley’s Demonology Encyclopaedias on the wrong shelf. “’Cause there is technically still a high school, it’s just squished in with the middle school now.”

“They’re all mine” Giles confirms, moving the encyclopaedias to their correct place. “Oddly, the school didn’t have” He picks up a volume at random “Customs and Uses of Sacrificial Magicks stocked before I arrived.”   

“Oh, I don’t know” says Ethan. “It was a hellmouth school.”

“Yeah” echoes Xander. “I think maybe you helped yourself to a few kickbacks. To which I say bravo, by the way.”

“And yet you continue to mock me.” Giles confiscates Rituals of the Underworld before Xander can shelve it under the author’s first name. “Xander, do try to pay attention to where you’re putting them.”

“Yes, he’ll want it in alphabetical order” Ethan puts in. He picks up a copy of the motorcycle magazine Giles bought a subscription to over summer on a whim, and flicks through it. “Even his records are alphabetised. It’s bizarre.”

“Not really that bizarre, Ethan.” Giles doesn’t stop Xander when the boy wanders over to the sofa to look at the magazine over Ethan’s shoulder, even though he’s paying him to complete this chore. Riddiculous that he, and not the boy’s parents, should pay him to do jobs around the house, but Xander – like him – is yet to find work, and, apparently returned from his American road trip utterly broke. With books still to sort through and it being nice to catch up, it made sense. As do a lot of things that turn out to be actually very misguided, because, examining the shelves, Giles realises that around a third of the books are shelved under the author’s first name, another third by title and most of the remaining third seem to have put in order of estimated age of the picture on the front.

Sighing, Giles kneels by the shelf to set things right, not looking up when the door opens until Ethan says, “Hello Anya. I’m not sure we’re on don’t bother knocking terms yet.”

The ex-demon stops short. “We’re not? But we had an entire conversation at prom!”

“Yes” agrees Ethan in an amicable tone, “about how you used to kill people, as I recall, which actually makes it highly unlikely we’ll ever be on don’t-knock terms.”

She looks puzzled. “You’ve got wards on this place, haven’t you?”

“Well yes, but it’s more the principle of it.”

Anya shrugs, then addresses Xander: “I need to talk to you.” “You do?” Xander looks mildly alarmed.

“Yes” Anya pauses, and glances between Giles and Ethan.

“Outside” Ethan tells her.

“Sure” she says. “Go where you want.”

“No, I mean, you’ll have to go outside.”

“Oh” She frowns and takes Xander’s hand, leads him outside with a muttered, “That’s not very polite.”

Watching them go, Giles asks, “They didn’t keep things going after prom, did they?”

“I doubt it” replies Ethan. “I don’t think a long-distance relationship is Xander’s thing.”

“I don’t think a relationship with a former vengeance demon should be anyone’s thing” says Giles, “especially not anyone I care about. Then again, Xander has made a pig’s ear of stocking our bookshelves, so I’m still in two minds about whether he still fits that description.” But Giles still keeps an eye on the situation outside, going over to the window every now and then. “It looks like they’re just talking.”

“Well, it’s not like Anya could do anything to him.”

“Perhaps not personally, but she must know demons who’d do her a favour.”

“Actually, hardly anyone seems to know her” Ethan tells him. “Vengeance demons are fairly rootless. Besides, I think the consensus is she lost her powers pretty carelessly.”

“I wonder how she did?” asks Giles. He studies the now-woman talking to Xander with an appearance of disappointment rather than murderous rage. “She wasn’t very clear about that part when she helped us send the vampire Willow back.”

“No idea” is the reply. “But vengeance demons are a force to be reckoned with. Whoever took her down must have been truly fearsome.”

“I suppose so” agrees Giles. “Now, I think I’ve done my book-shelving for the day. Cocoa?”

*****

Researching the Gem of Amara keeps Giles busy all the following day, which is mostly quite a relief after an idle summer, but it tilts into worrying when he discovers a text that indicates that it could actually exist, and be located in Sunnydale. Hence how he comes to be sat at the desk in Buffy and Willow’s shared dorm room, speaking with Buffy when Willow walks in.

“Hello, Willow” Giles greets, before taking the girl’s appearance in properly and frowning.

“Oh” She is obviously flustered. “Um. Hi, Giles. I, um, I didn’t realise you’d be here.”

“Early morning research party” Buffy explains.

“Oh. Right.” Her pupils are too large and her hands shake a little as she adjusts her clothing.

Her clothing, Giles notes, is actually very neat considering she has been out all night. This is not the result of a heavy drinking session or a romantic tryst. He asks, “Where were you?”

“Um” Willow seems to notice her twitching hands and hides them behind her back. “Out with Amy. She needed cheering up because of – err – well, it’s not really a librarian-friendly story.”

“I think I get idea” Giles says. “Willow, are you –”

“Oh!” Willow claps a hand to her head dramatically. “I left my purse in Amy’s dorm! I’ll, um, see you guys later.” She hurries out before Giles can question her further and – with Spike potentially about to become unkillable – Giles has no choice but to let her go.

*****

Ethan looks up sharply as the shop bell clangs. With Spike still unstaked and racing towards being unstakable, he isn’t sure it’s wise to even be here alone.

But it’s not Spike, thank the Gods; it’s Willow. “I did something bad!” she tells him, stepping quickly into the shop, her hands twisting together in front of her.

“That big a night, was it?” Ethan replies.

“What?”

“Rupert told me you did the walk of shame. Well, not the expression he used, but congratulations on a milestone passed.” Actually, Rupert had seemed a little alarmed by the whole thing, but with Buffy racing Spike to the Gem, he hadn’t had time to properly explain why. Probably standard Rupert-overreaction.

“Oh” Willow is saying. “No, not the other night. I mean today. Just now. I did something bad. Or, really, Amy did something bad and I watched. But still, it’s bad!”

Honestly, bad in Willow’s world still generally means a late assignment. But she has also been known to unleash Angelus, so Ethan’s voice betrays a little trepidation as he asks, “How bad?”

“We, um. We turned a student into a weasel?”

Ethan laughs reflexively and stops himself. Willow tells him, “I’m not joking.”

“Oh, I know. But really, is that all? We’ll reverse it in no time and –”

“We used Cu Sith blood.”

Ethan, half way to the counter, stops and turns to look at her, all humour gone. “Cu Sith?” he asks. “Why would you do that?”

“I didn’t realise” Willow tells him miserably. “I didn’t know that’s what it was until we were done.” Her hands twist and twist.

Ethan leans back against the counter and puts a hand to the bridge of his nose. “You used Cu Sith blood in a transmogrification spell?”

“I didn’t know” Willow repeats, sounding tearful now. “Amy didn’t tel –”

“Where did she even get it?” Ethan doesn’t stock any Cu Sith parts. He values his relationship too much. “Actually, why didn’t she just rat him? It’s more instant.”

“She said she wanted to try something new” Willow replies. “We can undo it, right? He’s not going to be stuck like that?”

“Possibly” Ethan heads to the bookshelves and starts searching for anything useful. “When did this happen? Literally just now? In the last hour?”

Willow nods. Ethan plucks a book from the shelf, telling her, “We may have a chance.”

“Just a chance?” Her voice is small.

“We’ll need to prepare a thrice blessed Luhani offering so you get working on that and I’ll see if I can find the standard supplication ritual for this sort of reversal. Oh, and we’ll need to smear some tears of repentance on the, um, student.” He glances up “Where is he, anyway?”

Willow looks down. Ethan lowers his book in exasperation. “You lost him?”

I didn’t lose him. It was sort of a, a teamwork thing.”

Ethan sighs heavily. A location spell is useless for a transmogrified subject. “Right. Can you at least tell me he’s not outside?” Only so many weasels running round inside a college building, after all. Outside, and he has no idea how populous they are. If they manage to find one, it might not be the right one.

“I can tell you whereabouts he is outside?” Willow tries for a smile that looks sickly, and no wonder – if they don’t find this poor chap before nightfall, he really will be doomed to live out his life as a weasel.

“I see” Ethan manages. “We’ll have to think about how to get around that. In the meantime, get started on the offerings.” They’ll need the Gods in a good mood.

*****

Arriving on campus some time later, laden with a bag of spell ingredients, they find Amy hanging around by some bushes. She leans side to side slightly, staring into the shrubbery without touching it.

“It’s in there?” asks Ethan, and then, remembering the creature’s original form, “Um, he’s in there?”

Amy shrugs. “Possibly. I lost track of him near the parking lot.”

“The parking lot?” squeaks Willow. “What if he gets squished?”

Amy shrugs again, an elaborate show of a shrug, but her expression is uneasy. To Ethan she says, “Look, I didn’t know it would be permeant. I just wanted to show him what a jerk he is.”

“Or rather, what a weasel?” Ethan kneels and peers under the hedge. There’s no sign of a weasel in there but it could just be camouflaged. 

“He’s lucky I didn’t make him a skunk.”

“As someone who’s here to help you find him, I must say I’m grateful you didn’t. I can’t see him, by the way.”

Willow asks, “Do you think we could call him? Being a rat’s a bit of a blur but I think he might remember his name.” Experimentally, she calls, “Here, Parker, Parker” into the bushes.

Ethan glances up to see Amy roll her eyes. “People are staring already.”

She has a point: around them people are glancing at Ethan kneeling on the grass. He stands up and wipes his knees, says, “Well, we can’t cast a glamour –it’s going to be difficult reversing this hex. We’re going to need as much magic for that as possible.” He scowls at Amy. “Why couldn’t you have just invoked Hecate?”

Amy scowls back at him. “Because she’s not nasty enough for Parker.”

Ethan shudders. “Care to tell me what this chap did so I can be sure to never do it?”

“Unless you’re a lying scumbag, you won’t do it.” Amy turns her attention back to the bushes.

Willow, hovering nervously, gives Ethan a bright, false, smoothing-things-over sort of smile and says, “We found a way to find him with magic.”

Amy looks at her. “You mean like a location spell?”

“Something like that” replies Ethan. “It would still be easier if we had some idea where he is, but if not, the sooner we start the better.”

“Well, like I said, the bastard was heading for the parking lot, but I’m guessing a weasel would hide in there.” Amy gestures at the bushes again.  

“Right” Ethan hands her an empty vial from the bag of ingredients. “I’m not particularly optimistic you’ll be able to provide any, but we need some tears.”

She stares at him. “I’m done crying over this creep.”

“You’re the caster – your tears will help more than anyone else’s.”

Amy’s mouth twitches into a humourless smile. “Only me that can save him? I kind of like that.”

Pulling the vial she filled in the car from her pocket, Willow says sternly, “I’d like it more if there was no way he’s going to be stuck like this.”

Amy sighs and studies her empty vial. For a moment, she does seem to be trying, closing her eyes, ignoring the students walking past. Then, opening her eyes, she admits, “I don’t think I can cry in front of all these people.” She hands the vial back. “Plus I have to go. I promised to meet someone.”

Willow stares at her. “You’re not going to help him?”

“I didn’t say that – I’m going to find the guy that sold me the blood. He might be able to help, but not if I keep him waiting.”

“Who is he?” asks Ethan.

“You wouldn’t know him” is the reply. Turning to Willow, Amy says, “I’ll explain later. You’ll keep looking in case he can’t help, right?”

“Of course.” Willow nods.

“Thanks” To Ethan, Amy adds, “I really didn’t know” and then she is gone.

Willow turns to Ethan and holds a hand out. “Should we start now?”

“May as well.” Ethan hefts the bag of ingredients and pulls out two pellets of compressed herbs, encased inside a leaf that he tears in two, kneeling again. Placing the leaf halves on the ground, he adds symbols in chalk on each one, wraps them round the pellets again and hands one to Willow.

Willow stares down at the pellet in her hand. “How intense is this going to be exactly?” Standing and shouldering the bag, Ethan examines his own pellet. “No way of telling.” He swallows his down.

The first thing he’s aware of is light. Light and a pulsing, almost magnetic pull as his magic strums inside him, alive with sensation at the presence of Willow’s. All around him, the buildings, the people, even the plants, fade to greyish shadows. He can see them, but not in detail, as though he’s looking at a photocopy of a lightly drawn sketch of an old black and white photo.

All sound is muted and distant until the wavering, pulsating light beside him speaks clearly: “Ethan?”

“Oh! It’s you, Willow! Hello.”

The light shivers in a concerned sort of way. “You didn’t realise it was me?”

“You’re more shiny than usual” Ethan explains. Looking around, he adds, “Well the bad news is, I can’t see anything that looks like it could be a recently transformed weasel. The good news is, it is working and I don’t think it’s affecting me badly enough that we need one of us to stay unhexed.”

“Okay. I’ll take mine then.” There is a munching from somewhere within the light. Then a gasp, and Willow says, “Ethan, you’re all sparkly!”

Ethan looks down at himself to find that a red, glittery shimmer is emanating from his chest. He is at least still visible, though, unlike the brilliance that is Willow. Ethan isn’t sure it’s wise to look at her directly.

“We should stick together” Willow decides. “I can still see everything non-magic, but it I’m still not completely sure I won’t bump into something.”

“Alright” Ethan replies and they set off, stumbling together through the grey world. Faces are blurred and voices too indistinct to pick out words. The sky appears overcast, reminding Ethan of winter back home, though it’s still perfectly warm. Perhaps seeking reassurance, Willow touches his shoulder now and then, but he doesn’t respond in kind: he can’t see the shape of her, she is all light. Brilliant, white light that almost eclipses his red glow. If only Rupert weren’t both busy and bound to fret about the whole thing, he could have joined in. Ethan would have liked to see how Rupert’s magic manifested.

“Anything?” Willow is apparently looking around for the weasel, though it’s hard to tell, what with her having no real form.

“Nothing so far.” Actually, aside from him and Willow, everything is bland and grey, washed out. Until…

“I’m getting something!” Willow says, just as Ethan notices it himself. A sort of pull, towards something out of sight. Willow moves ahead of him, looking, from his perspective, like a miniature galaxy floating along. Rounding a corner, she exclaims, “Oh! You’re not a weasel!”

“Y-you were hoping for a weasel?” asks a gentle-eyed girl with shimmering magic rising like mist from her skin.

“Transmogrification gone wrong” Willow explains. “A friend’s, that it, but I should have stopped it.”

Glancing between Willow and Ethan, the girl says, “Your friend’s been turned into a weasel?”

“No” Willow clarifies, “My friend turned someone into a weasel.” At the girl’s look of alarm, she adds, “Oh, god, that makes my friend sound bad, but really the weasel’s the bad one and he’s going be fine so really, it’s not as bad as it sounds because we can reverse it. Right Ethan?” To the girl, she adds, “This is Ethan, by the way. And I’m Willow.”

“Tara” the girl tells them. “A-are you guys okay apart from all that? Because you sort of look a little, um, spaced.”

“Spell to see magic” Willow explains. “To find the weasel.”

“Oh – you lost him?”

“Okay” says Willow, “Bad again, but there’s this whole context that I don’t really have time to go into right now, but really, I’ve never been involved in any gone-wrong transmogrification at all. Well, apart from that time that I got turned into a rat and this other time when Amy got, um, turned into a rat. But I wasn’t really involved that time. And the time that I was the, um, ratted one, really, but I was under a love spell so it was probably for the best.”

Ethan feels but doesn’t see an elbow nudge at him, as Willow whispers, “Help me out here?”

“We’re more responsible than we’re probably coming across” Ethan supplies.

“I’m sure” replies Tara in an encouraging tone. To Willow, she adds, “I’ll help you look.”

“You will?” The light that is Willow flares enthusiastically.

“Sure.” Tara smiles, and studying Willow, falls into step with them.

“I take it you’re a witch?” Ethan asks her.

“On my mother’s side” she confirms.

“Oh” says Willow, “I’d love to be a hereditary witch. My parents don’t really know anything about the supernatural.”

“It was nice h-having someone to learn from” Tara tells her, “But I’m enjoying breaking away from the past, you know? Finding my own way.”

“Are you in the wicca club?”

Ethan lets the girls talk, and, being as someone ought to be looking for poor Parker, studies the flowerbeds dotted around the campus, the low hedges at the edges of buildings. Even flowers look dull under the influence of this hex.

It is not long, however, before the flowers fade entirely and the ground becomes a soupy blur. Apparently, the herbs didn’t take their full effect right away. Reaching blindly for the swirling light beside him, Ethan’s hand encounters a shoulder. A hand closes on his wrist and he and Willow guide each other, faltering, through a forest of blank faced people, who gradually become harder and harder to distinguish from the foggy nothingness all around them.

“Should I go for help?” asks Tara.

“We’re alright” Willow reassures her. “Just help us find Parker, please? I don’t want anything to happen to him. Well, apart from what’s already happened to him.”

Nodding, Tara moves a little ahead of their uncertain pace and becomes a twinkling light, like a star or a Disney fairy, in the distance.

Speaking in an undertone, in case the young witch is not as far away as she seems, Ethan says, “She likes you.”

The more overpowering pulsating light besides him shivers in a way that he takes to mean Willow has turned her head. “What do you mean?”

“She was giving you the look.”

“The look?” Willow repeats blankly.

Ethan sighs. “Perhaps magic isn’t the only thing I should have taught you.” He stumbles forward, recoiling slightly as a figure materialises from the mist of non-magic, moving very fast. Probable that he couldn’t see a hand in front of his face now, so he checks, sticking his arm out in front of him.

His hand makes contact with a leather jacket. “Oh, sor –” Ethan lets his apology die as someone screams nearby.

“Tara!” yelps Willow, and Ethan sees their guiding light hit the ground a few feet away. Willow starts running – Ethan hears her footfalls though he can’t see her feet – but is apparently knocked back by something because her light wavers suddenly and then dims, bumps along the ground.

Unable to see what the threat even is, Ethan turns back to the pale grey nothingness in front of him with a general defensive spell on his lips – and is smacked around the face before he can complete it, with a force that spins him around and leaves his brain rattling in his skull. Next, he is lifted clean off the ground by the leather wearing something.

Leather wearing? Oh, Gods. Spike.

Before Ethan can so much as scream – which is really the only plan he has at this juncture – he is airborne. Hitting the ground with painful force, he covers his head and lies still.

Somewhere very far away, Buffy’s voice commands, “Ethan, run!” but Ethan isn’t sure if the slayer really is here, or if his survival instinct just sounds like Buffy these days. Either way, he staggers to his feet to flee, stopping when he remembers, “Willow! Willow?” He turns with no way of telling what he’s turning to – between being punched, being thrown and the world being a grey mess anyway, he’s lost all sense of direction – but what he sees isn’t Willow’s light, or even Tara’s.

On the ground, under a patch of darker grey that could be a bush or a car, trembles a little bar of weak yellow light. Parker.

Ethan is not the only one who’s seen it. As he watches, Willow’s radiant manifestation floats towards it, along with the sparkling humanoid shape that is Tara. The two seem to be clinging on to each other, which makes it look as though Tara is burrowed into Willow’s light, half coated with it.

As they close in on the weasel, Ethan steps forward to help, but is again knocked back. This time he suspects something is thrown into him accidently rather than Spike actually punching him, given that he is still conscious and he really wouldn’t be if the vampire hit him twice. He finds his feet again.

Over by the car/bush/clump of flowers, Willow and Tara are splitting up, surrounding the cowering weasel. As soon as Tara has hold of the struggling creature, Ethan calls, “Willow!” and throws her the bag containing the ingredients for the reversal. Then he steps sharply to the side out of the way of whatever battle is raging – very quietly from his perspective – between Spike and whoever has challenged him.  

It must be a battle, he decides, because he is just about able to make out punches landing amid the silence of the non-magic, though Spike remains dangerously invisible.

“I guess the hex doesn’t think vampires count as magic” Willow is suddenly beside him.

“It’s only for human magic” Ethan explains, as she pulls him over to Tara and Parker. “I think someone’s fighting him.”

“Must be Buffy.”

Reaching Tara, they bump into something that Ethan takes to be a low wall.

Good – something to hide behind. Feeling his way around it, he crouches down and examines the bag of ingredients. It is open now, and its contents glow like jewels. He reaches in and takes out the thrice blessed Luhani, sets it on the ground.

“W-wait” says Tara, “Shouldn’t we get to safety first?”

“I can’t see where safety is” Willow replies as Ethan finds a candle, feeling up the length of it to locate the wick.

“I can – I’ll guide you.”

“And keep hold of him?” Ethan nods to the squirming weasel. He reaches in his pocket for his chalk, hastily draws a sacred circle. He can’t see the markings but he knows the pattern, and once the circle is closed, the magic unfolds and the chalk-marks glow.  

“Tara” says Willow, “is there a blonde girl fighting with the vampire?”

“That’s a vampire?! But it’s daylight!”

“Long story. But is a blonde girl fighting him?”

“Y-yes”

“Then we’ll be okay to do it here. I don’t want us to let Parker escape again. Um, hi Parker, if you can hear me.” A tendril of light, perhaps a hand, gives the weasel a tentative pat on the head. It hisses.

Ethan lights a match, which flames greyly until it meets the candle and absorbs the magic of the circle, glows yellow at last. The world around them is becoming spotted with colour as the spell takes shape. Ethan jumps as Willow’s hand finds his. “Are you ready?”

“As I can be” he tells her. The hard part isn’t even started yet; they still have to find it in them to reverse the Cu Sith spell.

“I already put the tears on him” Willow says. “Tara, could you hold him over the circle?”

“Sure” The girl shifts to her knees to position the weasel, flinching at the sounds of fighting, which must be louder, and are presumably also newer, to her.

As Willow’s grip on his hand tightens, Ethan channels his magic. Amid all the grey, there is a sensation of fireworks, a popping and flickering of reds, oranges, vivid pinks. Then Willow’s magic surges, obliterating everything in a tide of white light. There is a twisting sensation, the world seems to crack and rearrange itself, and sound floods in. It is Ethan’s turn to flinch as he realises how close they are to the fighting. Then, another twisting, popping sensation and the magic washes over and away from them, a receding wave. Ethan opens his eyes to find that the circle is suddenly very full of naked young man.

“Parker!” says Willow brightly. “I never thought I’d say this, but it’s good to see you!”

The young man looks from her to his naked body and, eyes widening, lets out a shriek, scrambles up and runs off.

“Um” says Tara, “The vampire’s started smoking now…and, and it’s dived into a manhole.”

“That’s okay” Willow tells her, “We can see now. And, also, yay. Hi, Buffy”

“Hi” says Buffy, coming over. “Was that Parker? Was Parker naked?” She fixes Ethan with a look. “What did you do?”

“Why do you assume it was me?” asks Ethan. “Willow was the one who…” Not wanting to make Willow look bad in front of Tara, he trails off.

“Actually, it was Amy” says Willow, hurriedly.

Buffy looks doubtfully from Ethan, to Willow, and then to Tara. “Hi. Have we met?”

“I’m Tara” says the girl. “And, um, I promise th-they were like this when I found them.”

“That, I can believe” Buffy mutters, as she stoops to help them up.

*****

Assurances aside, Giles can’t help but think the Gem should have been destroyed. Instead Buffy has arranged for Jenny to visit and collect the damn thing, which currently sits like a target inside his desk drawer.

Giles can feel it down there, itching to lend its strength to something evil. Waiting.

When Jenny arrives tomorrow, he’ll have to talk to her about all the implications of it, so she is forewarned. After that, all they will have left to do is hope that between Jenny and the halfling she and Angel have befriended, Angel can be kept in command of the invincible body that will otherwise fall to Angelus.

Angelus with the Gem of Amara. It’s enough to give anyone nightmares, let alone he and Ethan.

Giles finds he has wrapped an arm around his partner at the thought, despite being officially angry with him. Ethan snuggles up, grateful for the reprieve, closing the space between them on the bed. Giles sighs. “Alright. I suppose you were only trying to help.”

“Bloody right I was. If it wasn’t for me, that young man would still be a weasel right now.”

“You’re going to have to talk to Willow. And Amy.” Or he is, and soon. But what could he say, beyond offering himself up as an example of how not to be? Ethan has made a career of magic. All Giles has done has been minor, strictly necessary spells, ever since Eyghon.  From Amy’s perspective, he is probably a sad, gun-shy old man, and Willow is bound to respect Ethan’s opinion more in this matter.

Mistaking the source of his frown, Ethan whispers. “We do know how to destroy the Gem. We could do it right now.”

“Buffy’s made up her decision.”

“Ah, yes, I forgot how Buffy has the inherent right to inflict an unkillable Angelus on future generations.”

“He knows about the curse now, Eth. He can ensure his soul stays in place.”

“Yes, until he succumbs and it isn’t.”

Raised as he is to prize courage, Giles bites back the urge to ask his partner not to say that right before they go to sleep. Apparently, the request still shows on his face, because Ethan switches to soothing: “Buffy wouldn’t have left it here if she didn’t want you to make the final decision.”

“Buffy already made the final decision” Giles repeats patiently. “She left it here because she lives on a university campus where any student might walk in and take it.”

“So, she could have left it with Xander.”

“You’ll have heard about his parents’ proclivity for drink? Not to mention, they aren’t in the know, they could invite vampires in. No, this is the only place she could have left it, and she’s trusting us to keep it safe.”

“I suppose so.” Ethan sits up with a sigh.

“Where are you going?”

“Well, possibly all this talk about unleashing Angelus is getting to me, but I rather need to piss.”

Giles waits for him alone, trying to quieten his mind and listening to the comforting sound of Ethan pottering about downstairs.

He is almost drifting when a burst of magic illuminates the flat. The smoke alarm goes off, the incessant screech almost covering the sound of Ethan swearing. As Giles scrambles out of bed and down the stairs, there is a padding sound as of someone smothering a fire with a towel and Ethan yells over the blare, “I’ve got! It’s out!”

Giles turns back up the stairs, silences the alarm and goes down again. In the living room, Ethan is pressing a wad of tissues to his face to stem a nosebleed and studying the scorched surface of the desk.

“What happened?” Giles steps forward to check Ethan for injuries other than the obvious. It is only when he sees Ethan’s eyes – magic darkened – that he realises the nosebleed is due to performing yet more magic after an already full-on day. Stepping back again, he opens the desk draw. The Gem of Amara is gone. Giles can see now some greenish smears amid the black streaks on the desk. “I asked you not to destroy the Gem.”

“No you didn’t” reasons Ethan. “You told me Buffy had made her decision. Well, I made mine.”

“You’re an incorrigible prat who’s going to be the death of me.” Giles hugs him hard. “Also, thank you.”

Chapter Text

“Rupert, what are you wearing?”

Rupert looks down. “It’s my costume.”

“That’s the most ridiculous hat that ever paid for a milliner’s hooker. You’ll have trouble getting through doorways.” Rupert looks a little deflated so Ethan relents. Rupert tells him, “I just thought I’d be, err, festive for the trick or treaters.”

“Since when did you like Halloween?”

“Well, it, um, it breaks things up a little to have a celebration.”

Ethan glances at him, frowning. Since when did the day to day minutiae of their lives need breaking up? But all he says is, “Oh? Even if it’s a celebration of cheap tat?” He tugs experimentally on the string protruding from a plastic Frankenstein’s monster hanging from the ceiling and rolls his eyes at the results. “I wish you’d come with me to the shop. You’ll be bored here on your own.”

“I’ve been working in your bloody shop all week, Eth. Tonight I’m going to find a decent film to watch.”

“Suit yourself.” Really, Ethan knows why Rupert never puts a shift in at the shop after dark: he doesn’t care for Ethan’s clientele after dark. Then again, it is true his fiancé has been working at the shop all week, and though he seems happy enough, his is too active a mind to be content to assist in his partner’s business endlessly. He is still awaiting a project of his own.

Unfortunately, said project is still undergoing questioning under truth spells and lessons into the history of the Council that probably borders on brainwashing, not to mention routine sedation. No, it will be a long while before they see Faith again. And when they do, how likely is it that she’ll meekly submit to training?

“Well” he tells Rupert, “I’ll see you later.” A quick kiss on the cheek and he’s gone.

*****

Ethan gets home later than he’d planned, a few of his less-than-human customers having decided the Magic Box is a good place to congregate on a lazy Halloween night. Rupert greets him with, “If it wasn’t Halloween, I’d be worried. I thought we always call if we’re going to be late?”

“If it wasn’t Halloween, I would have” Ethan stares around at the assembled scoobies. “Hullo, all. No campus parties to get horribly drunk at?”

Xander shakes his head. “The first campus party I ever go to and it gets crashed by a fear demon. Lucky Anya here with her thousand years’ experience knew to go get Giles.” He indicates the ex-demon, who is dressed in an outfit that makes Rupert’s costume from earlier look positively toned-down. She gives Xander a withering look. “It’s not my fault I couldn’t help. I don’t have any powers any more. I needed Giles and his chainsaw.”

“You did help” Xander reassures her.

Raising a shy hand in greeting, Tara says, “Hello again, Ethan.” She is radiant in a medieval-looking gown.

“Oh – hello, Tara.” Ethan smiles at the girl and, when she looks away, widens it knowingly at Willow. She makes an urgent, hushing gesture. Ethan nods to her costume and guesses, “Joan of Arc?”

“Yeah” she confirms. “But Tara’s the Lady of Shalott, so I thought I could be Launcelot as well.” As she speaks, red feathers sprout from the chainmail at her head, forming a striking crest. Tara smiles after a moment of wide-eyed surprise.

“And before you ask” Xander pipes up, “I’m James Bond. Not head waiter guy. I figured I’d go to the Magic Box on the way and ask you to change me into my costume like you did with the Buffster, but someone” He glances at Buffy “might have talked me out of using magic for a party.”

Willow’s feathers wilt a little.

Ethan tuts, sitting down and helping himself to a handful of some dubious American sweets. “I’m not sure I could do that again in any case. Janus is bored easily, you know.”

“How psychopathic of him” says Rupert, sitting down opposite.

Ethan magnanimously ignores that. Eyeing Buffy’s costume he can’t resist saying, “Though if I we were to cast it again, I can’t say you’d fare better than last time, Buffy.”

She fixes him with that look she reserves just for him. “Don’t even go there, Ethan.”

“Yes” says Rupert, “please don’t.”

“It was Buffy’s idea as I recall” Ethan protests. “You wanted to be princessified.”

“It’s true” she admits. “I did. But seeing you, Giles and Amy trapped in a fire and my damsel streak not letting me help? Not a great advertisement for magical party tricks.”

Willow’s feathers disintegrate into reddish wisps.

Then again” Xander adds, “There were a few guys who’d have fun with the whole costume possession deal – imagine getting soldiery know-how. Why cooler than Ancient Greek.”

Ethan frowns. “People were dressed as soldiers?”

Buffy nods. “All sneaky and camouflaged.”

“Yeah” Willow says, “They were really in character, all posing and stuff.”

Anya’s gaze flickers to her hands in her lap and then restlessly around the room. Ethan asks her, “You’ve heard the rumours too?”

Reluctantly, she nods, before adding, “But I haven’t been to a demon bar in a while. They don’t like me now I’m human.”

Buffy asks, “Rumours?”

Rupert frowns. “Ethan?”

Ethan steels himself for some interrogation and explains, “A few of my…more interesting customers have been mentioning some sort of military operation that started up over summer.”

“Military operation?” Buffy frowns.

Rupert asks, “You didn’t think to mention this sooner?”

“Well I did think to, I just decided not to.” At Rupert’s pointedly questioning expression, Ethan adds, “Well, it’s hardly a mystical thing! Just humans with guns, so welcome to America.”

“It still seems the sort of thing Buffy should have known about.”

“Why, so she could sign up?”

Willow says, “Wait, we’ve always had a military base. What’s with the worry?”

Ethan explains, “My customers aren’t all human. The military seem suddenly interested in Sunnydale’s demon population.”

Buffy shrugs. “About time”

Anya, Ethan notes, looks uncomfortable at that. Buffy adds, “Also, I’m with Giles – I should have known about this. When were you going to tell me?”

“I’m telling you now.” Ethan folds his arms and forces himself not care one way or the other. It’s safer than pointing out he judged her likely to side automatically with the humans, no matter how foolish their endeavour.

Rupert says, “Well it is true that if these men are human, Buffy, I’m not entirely sure what you could do to stop them. Or why you’d want to.”

Ethan rolls his eyes. “Bugger that, Rupert.”

Rupert glares. Ethan tells him, “I expected Buffy to be all naïve about this –”

“– hey! –” Buffy pouts.

“Sorry Buffy. But Rupert, you’ve got years on her! You ought to be able to see how dangerous this is.”

“How dangerous it is depends on what their motive is” Rupert argues. “If it’s simply to clear the area of demons, I say bravo.”

“Well it’s not” Ethan tells him. “They’re not killing demons – they’re capturing them.”

“Ah” Rupert frowns. “Yes, that is a little more complicated.”

“Maybe they’re studying them?” Willow asks. “Trying to come up with better ways to kill them.” Beside her, Tara shudders.

“Sure, that’s all kinds of disturbing” puts in Xander, “But, military back up? That’s got to be on the plus side – when fighting current demons, that is” He nudges Anya shyly and she offers a tight smile.

“That’s true” Buffy nods, looks thoughtful.

“You sure about that?” Ethan asks, “A lot of macho-men rolling up to do your job?”

“The way I see it, the more people on my side the better. Sorry if that’s naïve, but unlike certain shopkeepers, I don’t hang out with demons.”

“I hope you’re right” Rupert tells her. “But best to, err, get a feel for their activities before we consider what to do.”

Ethan grimaces. “Make sure they’re not weaponising the hellmouth or anything, you mean.”

At that, everyone looks just a little uncertain and the subject shifts away from the newcomers.

Chapter Text

Really, it’s too quiet at the shop to justify them both being here but it breaks up the monotony of being at home. So Giles is pleased to see Buffy, even when it turns out she is only calling in to ask if he has heard from Faith.

“Not directly” Giles admits. “But Wesley –”

Buffy rolls her eyes. “Is Wesley ever going to let her come to the phone?”

They are in the back room, seated among boxes of crystals and figurines. Buffy scowls at a representation of Woden, the closest stand-in for Wesley to hand.  

“I doubt it’s up to him.” Giles tells her. “Wesley’s role is purely supportive at this stage.”

“Is he even still her watcher?”

“I don’t know.” Honestly, Giles doesn’t imagine the younger man would tell him if he lost the position. He supposes, “They might want someone – err – more experienced in the circumstances.”

“You don’t say.” Buffy frowns. “But he still has access to her, right?”

“Yes. The last time we spoke he told me she’s still having reflex training and I imagine there will be further truth spells and tests before she’s declared fit to return.”

“But they’ll let her go soon, right?”

“I’m sure they won’t hold her indefinitely, Buffy.”

“Yeah, ’cause this is Faith we’re talking about. Kind of a documented history of breaking herself out.”

“Yes, but, that aside, I’m sure they’ll let her go eventually. So far as they’re concerned, every day she stays in there, she’s not doing her duty. She will be back.”

“We hope” says Buffy glumly.

“I’m sure” Giles repeats.

“You think they’ll hire you back to watch her, if Wesley gets sent back to the tweed store?”

“I don’t know.” It seems unlikely, but Giles can’t help but hope so, given that Buffy’s interest in training has wavered significantly since she started college. “If they do, I’m sure I can find the time for two slayers.”

“Yeah, what with the gentleman of leisure thing. How’s that going, anyway?”

“Rather too much leisure and not enough gentleman. But I suppose I shouldn’t complain about a quiet hellmouth.”

“Throw a giant snake at it and it shuts right up. Why didn’t we think of it sooner?”

Giles smiles in what he hopes is an encouraging rather than an eager way, and says, “Was there anything else? No other supernatural goings on to report?”

“No” Buffy gathers her things. “All quiet on the college front. Maybe too quiet.” At Giles’ questioning look, she pulls an it’s nothing expression and adds, “It’s just that between Tara and Amy, Willow’s been Miss Popularity, and I’ve been Miss Oh Look I’ve Got The Dorm Room To Myself Again. No big.”

“Buffy, it’s hard, but starting higher education, people branch out and –”

“– meet new people, try new things, etcetera? Yeah, I know. I’m not about to sulk at Willow. Actually, I’m about to sulk at Xander – I’m going to the bar he’s working at tonight so we can hang in his downtime. It’s actually been a while since we’ve caught up.”

“He’s working at bar now? I wondered why he hadn’t been round to pester me for chores.”

“Oh shoot!” exclaims Buffy, “I wasn’t meant to tell anyone actually responsible!”

Giles is baffled for a moment before remembering the ridiculous drinking age this side of the Atlantic. He says, “I’m sure you’ll be sticking to soft drinks, yes?”

Another eye roll. “Whatever you say, Ripper.” Buffy smirks at his fluster, and then relents: “Relax, Giles, we’ll be safe. I’ll stick to coke and anyway, Xander’s working. How trashed could we get?”

*****

Very, it turns out, is the answer to that question. Giles next sees Buffy while out for a pint himself with Ethan that evening. Heading to the bar, he pauses at the sight of his slayer wandering in, hair a mess, gait unsteady. “Buffy?”

She eyes him suspiciously. “Want beer.” She pushes past him to the bar.

Giles retreats to the booth he left Ethan in and whispers to his partner, “I think Buffy’s drunk.”

Ethan grins approvingly and cranes his neck to watch Buffy. Over by the bar, she is quite literally scenting the air, hands pressed on the bar top to hoist herself up and examine the bottles behind the counter. Giles tries, “Let me rephrase that: Ethan, the slayer is drunk, and –”

“– and Xander’s a caveman.”

“And Xander’s a – what?”

Ethan nods to the door where a rather troglodytic looking youth has entered. Frowning, Giles recognises, “Xander! Good God!”

The young man lights up at the sight of him. “Giles! Giles get beer!”

“No” says Ethan, “I think you were right the first time – they’re just drunk.”

“Wipe that smirk off your face” Giles tells his partner. “We need to get them out of here before –”

There is a loud smash over by the bar. “Want beer!” Buffy, now on top of the bar, yells at some poor barman.

“Buffy!” Giles hurries over. “Get down from there, you can’t just –”

“No!” She shoves him back, hard enough that he stumbles. “Don’t tell Buffy what to do! Buffy strong.”

“Oh, ah” Giles takes a few hurried steps back. “Yes, yes, noted, but –”

“Buffy” Ethan is suddenly beside him. “I know where we can get much better beer.”

“Beer?” Xander joins them.

Buffy turns slowly away from the unfortunate and cowering barman. “Buffy want beer.”

“I know you do” Ethan says encouragingly. “I can give you lots. Much better beer than anything you’ll find here.”

“Ethan magic” Xander points out.

“Precisely” coaxes Ethan. “I can magic us up some. Really good stuff.”

“I’ve seen him do it” Giles joins in the ruse. “An endless supply.”

Buffy slips off the bar top. Around her, patrons give her a wide berth as she approaches them. “Take Buffy to beer.”

Ethan gestures flamboyantly that she should lead the way out. Buffy stares at his fingertips. After a moment’s obvious frustration, Ethan sighs. “This way.”

“Our place?” asks Giles in an undertone, as they head outside, followed by the newly prehistoric Buffy and Xander.

“Magic Box is closer” mutters Ethan, before switching on a bright smile as Buffy joins them. “We’re very close, just step this way.”

*****

“No!” Buffy pounds on the magical barrier that envelopes her a few minutes later. “Said beer! Want beer!”

“Man witch tricked us!” Xander bellows from his own prison across the room. Initially the plan had been to contain them together, but then Buffy had started to complement the boy’s scent most unsubtly, and separate prisons had to be arranged.

“I’m sorry” Giles tells his slayer. “But I’ve got to keep you from hurting someone until you’re yourself again.”

“After which you can be trusted to hurt the right someones” adds Ethan.

Giles asks, “What caused this? What changed you?”

“Want beer! Want outside! Giles bad!”

Giles removes his glasses. “I don’t think we’re going to get very far with this.”

“We could go to Willy’s” Ethan suggests, “ask around.”

“Or the college” Giles slips his glasses back on. “Buffy said they’d be drinking at a bar Xander works at. I imagine a, err, a young persons’ pub would be less discerning about who they serve, and, by extension, hire.”

“I think there’s only the one pub up by college” Ethan tells him. “A bloke who drinks at Willy’s sometimes has a brother who works there.”

“Let’s start there then. Phone Willow and get her to meet us, could you?” As Ethan goes over to the phone, Giles studies Buffy who glares mutinously at him through the shimmer of the barrier. After a moment, she screams, “Let Buffy out, old man!”

“Certainly not after that remark.”

“Want beer!”

“Buffy, you’ve been turned into a cave dweller; I don’t think this is the time for beer!” Behind him, Ethan puts the phone down and announces, “No answer. She must be over at Tara’s.”

“Or out with Amy” says Giles, remembering the girl’s bedraggled, post-spell state when he last visited campus. “We’ll just have to manage without her. Let’s go.”

*****

Entering the bar, they encounter a middle aged man whose smug nonchalance at his patrons turning into cavemen is quickly replaced with cowering co-operation with a little persuasion from Giles.

Xander and Buffy, it quickly transpires, spent the evening sampling a magic-spiked whenever a lull in customers allowed Xander to escape the bar. Unfortunately, a group of as yet unaccounted for young men were also drinking the stuff all night.

“So” says Ethan as they leave, “back to the bar with the non-cursed beer?” At Giles’ look he adds, “Sod it, you want to go and look for the cavemen, don’t you?”

“I do seem to recall swearing an oath to protect the innocent, yes.”

“These youths weren’t innocent, Rupert, they were out drinking under age. They’re probably off somewhere being only slightly more idiotic than they’d be on regular beer, so I say let’s resume our evening and leave them to it.”

“Ethan” Giles puts a hand to his head. Where to start? “Evolutionary regression is not an ethical punishment for flouting a frankly puritanical age limit – something you did regularly yourself at a far more tender age, I might add – and besides, they might hurt someone else.”

“I suppose I did” Ethan admits. “And I suppose they might. Fine, fine, we’ll drop everything and be unsung heroes. And unpaid, I might add. Where do we start?”

Giles looks around, considering. “It seems quiet here, so let’s walk back into town and see if they’ve wound up there.” He sets off.  “We can check and see if Buffy’s dose has worn off while we’re at it. A cognisant slayer would be useful when we find the rest of the cave dwellers.”

*****

They return to find the Magic Box door ajar. Freezing instinctively a few feet short of the entrance, Giles asks Ethan, “Willow?”

His fiancé shakes his head. “She still doesn’t have a key.” Ethan takes a cautious step closer – and then retreats quickly. “The wards are down.”

Giles frowns. There’s no way magically bound cavepeople could do that. Stepping in front of Ethan, he approaches the door and slips through it, fists balling until he sees, “Oh! Amy.”

The girl doesn’t respond beyond a vague smile and for a moment Giles suspects they have another cave dweller on their hands, until he sees her eyes. Her pupils are black discs, her irises eclipsed. Dark magic, a lot of it, and recently.

Buffy and Xander are nowhere to be seen. Giles asks, “What happened here?”

Amy smiles again, and the silence stretches for a long moment before she seems to understand that it is she who is being addressed. “Oh. I accidently broke a few spells when I came in. I’m vibeing all wrong; I need something to steady me.” She looks around the room.

Stepping into the shop behind Giles, Ethan asks, “Where’s Willow?”

“I don’t know” Amy spins in a languorous circle. Possibly she is looking for something, but she gives the impression of simply wanting to spin.

Giles asks, “Amy: Buffy and Xander, where are they? Do you do something to them?”

“Why would I?” Amy stops spinning and heads around the counter, reaching up to lift a statuette down from a high shelf. Ethan hurries forward to confiscate it. “Gods, child, what are you on?” He replaces the statue as Amy leaves the counter, wanders to the shelves. “Where did you lose Willow?”

“Somewhere. Somewhere near campus.” Amy waves a hand. Sparks fly from her fingertips and Ethan grabs a fire blanket. “Is she as bad as you?”

Amy simply looks at him. Ethan says to Giles, “This puts cursed beer in perspective.”

Ignoring that, Giles focuses on the children who they at least know the most recent location of, asking Amy, “Are you saying you freed Buffy and Xander? Which way did they go?”

“Somewhere that way.” Amy gestures to the street beyond the window. More sparks. Ethan swears under his breath and pats them out as they hit the table. Amy adds, “I can sense them. They had magic coming off them.” She takes a book from the shelf. “What’s this abou – oh, shit, sorry.” She steps back to let the rapidly melting book drip to the floor.

“Right” says Ethan. “That’s it. Outside.” He wraps an arm around the girl and steers her to the door.

“What?” she says, digging her heels in. “It was an accident!”

“Amy” Giles puts in, following, “If you can still sense Buffy and Xander, I need you to show us where they are.”

“Alright, alright, you don’t have to force me out the door!” Amy stops suddenly as they all get outside, turning to say to Ethan, “You need to lighten up a bit. I could do some swapsies, if you like.”

Inwardly, Giles groans. Swapping magic is a sure way to send one’s powers into a destructive tailspin and for all they know, Willow is Lord knows where suffering the aftermath of it. Stepping quickly between his rattled-looking partner and the swaying witch, he says, “You’ve done quite enough of that already. Come on, show us where Buffy and Xander are.”

*****

Approaching campus via a different route, they notice a point where two trails of destruction seem to combine. “Well” says Ethan, as one kicked-over bin becomes five and an abandoned, smashed up car, “Either Buffy got really angry or they met the other cavepeople.”

“I’m hoping for the latter” Giles tells him. “If we can just contain them all, it should wear off by morning.”

“What’re you guys even talking about?” slurs Amy. She walks unsteadily, weaving along the path. Sparks still issue alarmingly from her fingertips, changing colour as they go, from pink as they leave town to a vibrant green by the time they reach campus. Then she stops. “There.”

“I don’t –” begins Giles, but then he hears what could be the sounds of a raucous party or the sounds of a raucous cave-celebration, coming from a nearby building. “I see. Thank you, Amy.”

“Now can I go?”

“Not until we know where Willow is” Ethan replies, taking her arm.

She scowls. “I didn’t do anything to Willow. She’s fine. Look, there she is!” She points to a figure emerging from the darkness off to the side of the building. Letting go of Amy, Ethan hurries to meet the newcomer. “Willow?”

“Ethan!” Giles calls, catching sight of the second figure following the first.

Pushing Amy out the way, he runs towards Ethan and Willow as they meet a little way off, apparently oblivious to the thing behind them.

Ethan stops being oblivious just before he reaches them, tensing noticeably.

“It’s okay” Willow says as Giles reaches them, pulls them behind him and towards the buildings. “He’s not real.”

“You sure about that?” Amy followed him, Giles notes. Good. Then all they need to do is… “All of you, get inside. I’ll hold it off.”

“Rupert, no way –”

“Ethan, get the children inside. Now.”

*****

Unarmed, all he can do is try to hold the thing’s attention until the others retreat. Hard that, since it seems fixated on Willow, demanding to know why it’s been summoned. Well might it ask, Giles thinks.

He throws a few insults at it in the handful of demonic languages he knows, which distracts it just enough to let Ethan pull the two witches away. At some point as they flee, Willow seems to realise that the thing is real, and Giles hears her wail briefly before a door is slammed. At that sound, the demon hurls him aside and turns its attention to pursuing her.

Giles, head throbbing, struggles to his feet. And falls back. “Damn.” As he loses consciousness, all he can do is hope that Ethan manages to erect a barrier.

*****

“No, no” Willow struggles against Ethan’s hold. “I have to help Giles – I – oh, God that thing – I didn’t mean –”

“You didn’t mean” Ethan soothes hurriedly, “But you did, and here we are, and I really need to stop that thing eating Rupert, Willow, so will you stop struggling and – oh, bugger it” He pushes Willow back and into a startled Amy. “Amy hold her, could you?” Turning back to the door, he pauses as Amy says, “Sure, but what about them?”

Slowly, Ethan turns back around to examine the room they’ve just taken cover in.

A circle of prehistoric faces glare up at them from the basement common area below them. At the head of them, Buffy smacks a hand to her chest.

Behind them, the door rattles suddenly and sickeningly in its frame.

“Ah” says Ethan. “Buffy, I –”

“Ethan bad!” Buffy shouts, and around her, the young cavemen whoop and jeer, jumping up and down. One drops a flaming something or other which quickly catches on the smashed-up remnants of a chair. Xander adds, “Trapped us in the air! Promised beer! No beer!”

“It…um…it wasn’t me!” Ethan protests, stepping in front of the now shuddering door to block Willow’s exit. “A, err, a really bad demon made me do it, and it’s out there right now!”

The cavemen chortle at this, slapping one another and hissing in a way that conveys disbelief. But Buffy’s stance shifts and she stares past Ethan to the door. Clearly none of Buffy Summers is left in there, but the slayer is alive and strong and scenting blood. Hopefully not his.

“Yes” Ethan reiterates. “It’s out there right now! And it’ll take your beer and kill us all unless someone stops it!”

Besides him, Willow murmurs, “What’s going on?”

There is a hideous creaking as the door bends, allowing a few growls to enter through the growing gaps. Amy stumbles down the stairs quickly and the cavemen don’t stop her. A few of them look alarmed now, scenting the air as the growls fill the room. Behind them, the fire rises unnoticed. Buffy thumps her chest again, a warlike gesture.

Without further ado, Ethan opens the door. The demon tumbles into the room. Buffy leaps to meet it and they slam to the floor together. Around them, the cavemen jump back, and then notice the fire, jump forwards again, and start to panic.

“Outside!” Ethan yells, pointing emphatically to the door. It’s all the encouragement they need, and they push past him and Willow in seconds, followed by Amy.

“Ethan?” Rupert stumbles in as they leave, shrieking, into the night. He looks tellingly concussed but otherwise okay. “I tried to stop it” he says, “It knocked me out, I – oh” he glances back “You found the cavemen, I see.”

“And Buffy” Ethan points to the fight going on in what is fast becoming a fiery pit. Rupert stares in horror. “Good God!” He starts forward and Ethan catches hold of him, letting go of Willow. “It’s alright, Rupert, she’ll be done in a minute and – Willow!”

Willow is halfway down the stairs.

“Willow!” Rupert calls, “Buffy! Get out of there! Leave it!”

But as he shouts, the fire changes, twisting, retreating and compressing itself into…

“Buffy!” Willow commands, “Move!”

Whether Buffy understands, or whether some deeply ingrained slayer instinct simply allows her to tell that something is headed her way, is not entirely clear, but she dives aside as the fire rises up, human shaped, and charges at the demon. Howling, it is reduced to ash in seconds. The fire vanishes as the ash hits the floor.

They are left with stunned silence. Willow breaks it first, sinking to her knees. “Oh God” she moans. “Buffy, I didn’t mean to, I swear I didn’t mean to!”

Buffy approaches her slowly and asks, “Hurt?”

“Ethan” Rupert gestures to the door. “Get the others contained and find Xander. I’ll try to get the girls to follow me back to ours.”

*****

“I let him go out without me for one night and he turns into a caveman?” Anya, arms folded, surveying her sleeping boyfriend. “Was he always like this on a night out? How did he even survive before I met him?”

Ethan joins her in looking down at the rumpled young man. “ All questions I asked about Rupert when we first started dating” he tells her.

“Ethan” Giles reprimands half-heartedly. “Just help Anya get Xander to the taxi, could you? I’ll check on Buffy and Willow.”

Upstairs, Willow is prone on their bed, crying quietly to herself. Her head is in Buffy’s lap and Buffy rocks her slightly, stroking her hair and studying her face. She looks up with a soft, protective snarl as Giles approaches. He raises a placating hand and creeps away again, leaves them to it.

*****

“Ow” Buffy mutters, emerging finally from upstairs the following morning. Standing in the middle of the living room, she regards Ethan blearily. “Why am I feeling so awful?” She frowns, looking around. “Why am I feeling so awful here?”

“Think back” Ethan prompts, and then enjoys the look of horrified realisation on Buffy’s face.

Buffy puts a hand to her hair. She groans again and starts attempting to stroke it back into tameness. “Damn it, Ethan, why didn’t you tell me I have cave hair?” She stops suddenly. “Where’s Willow?”

Ethan is saved from answering by Rupert, who enters from outside at that moment. “She’s just out there” he tells Buffy. To Ethan, he adds, “She wants to talk to you.”

*****

Willow is sitting on the far edge of the fountain, her back to him. Ethan heads around it to see her face. Pale, and she is shivering in the sunshine. Withdrawal, which must mean, “That wasn’t your first time at Rack’s, was it?”

She shakes her head slowly. Ethan sighs heavily and sits down beside her. “I suppose Rupert gave you the lecture?” At her nod, he says, “Good. Saves me the job.” There is a short silence then, and then a lecture bursts out of him anyway: “What were you thinking? Did it not occur to you that messing with that sort of high might come with a price? Did you not wonder why he hides the place? Willow, you could have died!”

“Who cares if I could have died? Giles could have died!”

“That too.” Ethan shudders. He tells her, “You won’t be going back to Rack, of course. And I say we make the theory lessons a regular thing again. Weekly, say – I’ll even be organised if you want it the same day every time.”

“I’m giving up magic.”

“And I really think leaving the hellmouth for a bit wouldn’t be a bad thin –” Ethan stops. “Wait, what?”

Willow draws a shuddering breath. “I’m giving up magic.”

“Right, and I’ll give up breathing” scoffs Ethan, before frowning at the look on Willow’s face.  “You’re serious.”

“Majorly serious. I almost killed people, Ethan!”

“Oh” Ethan waves a dismissive hand over his shoulder at the flat. “Rupert’s fine.”

“I don’t just mean Giles. That thing probably followed me back from Rack’s place. If it wasn’t interested in me, it could have attacked anyone, and I led it right to you guys!”

“Yes, and it’s horrible to think about, but we’re all okay, and you know not to do it again.” Ethan pats her shoulder before continuing, “Now, I’m sorry to say it, but there’ll probably be some withdrawal, so you really should leave town. Go stay with Stephen maybe – it’s a quiet place but there’s a beach and there’s definitely no-one peddling Rack’s brand of suicide, even if you do cave.”

“I need to stay here for college. I’ll just have to be strong.”

“But if you leave the hellmouth, you can let your magic develop free of it for a bit. It could do you wonders.”

“Did you miss the part where I said I’m giving up magic?”

Ethan sighs again. “Willow, what happened last night isn’t all magic.”

“But it’s the magic I did! I was so focused on trying new magic, a part of me didn’t even care if it was dangerous. Not until I actually realised that demon wasn’t just in my head.”

“Look. You’ve been giving Rack a taste of your core power in return for a superficial high. It messes you up, and it doesn’t exactly encourage you to think straight. Give it a couple of days before you give away your spell books.”   

Beneath her pallor, Willow is starting to look annoyed. “I’m decided already. I can’t put the people I care about in danger again.”

“Willow, you’re not making sense! It’s like reading the words of a spell aloud, summoning a demon and saying “that’s it, I quit reading!”

“No it’s not, everyone reads! Hardly anyone does magic.”

“Your girlfriend does” Ethan points out. It is a comment born of a growing unease that Willow might actually go through with this. Willow seems to realise this and visibly pushes down her anger, simply saying, “Tara will understand.” She stares off across the courtyard and adds, “I’ll have to tell her about Rack.”

“Willow” Ethan’s voice has a trace of desperation now, “You’re too good to just quit. You could waste years denying it.”

“I’m going to do better than years. I’m doing life.”

“But people can’t just give up magic, don’t you see? It’s part of who you are.”

“Exactly! It’s all I am now! It started off as fun but now it’s all I think about!”

“That’s Rack’s cheap buzz talking.”

“No, it’s not; it’s been happening for a while.” Willow wraps her arms around herself. “I love it so much that for a while there I started not to care if hurt me. Or someone else. Look what I did to Angel.”

“That was ages ago!”

“And I’m only clearheaded enough now to even see it! Doesn’t that tell you something?” Willow stands, then bends down to hug him. “Sorry Ethan. I’m got to do this.”

Ethan doesn’t return the hug. Finally, Willow drops the embrace and leaves with a sad smile, climbing the steps and walking off into the sunshine.

Chapter Text

Rack’s place is cloaked in that way that isn’t really a proper cloak but just about close enough to one that it isn’t possible to find it unless one is looking. Ethan locates it at the edge of the woods without much difficulty; a hot patch of air as if a fire is burning unseen. What he will not admit to later is that he then pauses for a good stretch, hyping himself up before he bursts in.

The lost causes in the waiting area mostly ignore him, too strung out to see what he’s about. They only react when he heads straight to the door, and someone yells out, “Wait, it’s not your turn!” too late as Ethan shoves it open.

Rack is prone on a pile of cushions, watching a giggling young woman levitate unsteadily between the ceiling and floor, bobbing up and down languidly like the contents of a lava lamp. She hits the carpet with a thud as Ethan breaks Rack’s gaze, lifting him by the collar and throwing him to the ground.

Instinctively, Rack shoots out a bolt of magic – borrowed from the girl, as it turns out, and she screams behind Ethan as it is plucked from her. Ethan deflects with a curse of his own before sending a ripple of a pain over Rack’s skin. Rack howls pleasingly.

Bending close, Ethan tells the prone man, “Let Willow in here again, and I’ll come back and try out worse. You leave her alone, do you hear me?”

Rack, eyes screwed shut, nods. Ethan steps away and, glancing at the girl crawling away from them, rolls his eyes. “Amy. Come with me.” Grabbing Amy’s arm, he pulls her to the feet, out the door, through the waiting lounge and back outside.

Only as the air cools around them does she react, plucking her arm from his grip and taking a step back. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Saving you the trouble of getting yourself killed is what. Now run off home. Isn’t your dad expecting you?”

Amy shrugs, folding her arms, rubbing pointedly at the spot Ethan gripped. “He doesn’t mind what I do” she mutters. Then, in a quieter voice, “Not since he found out I’m a witch like her.”

“You’re not a witch like her” Ethan returns, “She at least knew not to share her power with creeps like Rack.”

Amy glares and Ethan stares her out. Finally she says, “I know what I’m doing. Just because Willow got carried away.”

“Willow wouldn’t even know about this stuff if you hadn’t pulled her into it” Ethan counters. “You know what, you can keep away from her too!”

“Oh trust me, it’s done!” Amy stomps away, back towards campus. “The idiot was on the phone to me all last night going on about how I should quit with her. What, does she think it’s as easy as that?”

“Yes, well, don’t get me started on that.” Etan trails after her, relenting with, “Let me walk you home at least.”

“Why? I can handle myself.”

“Not if you accidently summoned something while you were levitating in there.”

“I didn’t.” Amy scowls at him over her shoulder. “I have self-control, unlike some people.”

“Oh, Willow has control.” Ethan draws up alongside her. “What do you think this giving up magic thing is all about?”

Amy glances at him. “You’re not down with the cold turkey either, then? Gods, I don’t blame you. It’s fucking pathetic.”

“It’s tiresome, is what it is.” Ethan shoves his hands in his pockets. “Just because she made one mistake, she thinks she has to stop altogether. Fear of things being just a tiny bit unpredictable is what it is.” He stops suddenly. “Of course, one can have too much of a good thing.”

Amy stops too. “What?”

Ethan nods towards the building. “You did summon something.”

“I did not!” Amy turns to look where he’s pointing. “That’s not mine.”

“Well you would say that.”

“That’s a werewolf! You can’t summon a werewolf.”

“Is it? Oh, yes.”

Amy folds her arms again. “You need your eyes tested, old man.” She steps towards the woods. “I’m going home a different way. Good luck, Ethan.”

She is gone suspiciously quickly. Ethan wonders if she’s learnt that shadow trick Dunsnarl’s always doing.

He eyes the distant werewolf. Instinct tells him to step back and under the cover of the trees, but that’s probably where the thing’s headed.

Or not: as Ethan watches, the werewolf bounds away around the side of a college building. Allowing himself to relax a little, Ethan gets out his phone and dials home.

“Rupert” he says, as soon as his fiancé answers, “I’m at the college. Any chance of a lift? There’s a werewolf, you see, so I don’t want to risk walking.”

He hears Rupert remove his glasses. “Ethan, you’re on the same college campus as the slayer and it doesn’t occur to you to call her when you see a werewolf?”

“Oh right.”

“I’m on my way.” The line goes dead.

Ethan is about to call Buffy and Willow’s room when there is a scream from the direction the werewolf disappeared in. A part of him wants to help and a thankfully larger part of him knows that making the call will help more. He presses call and sets off towards the path that encircles the building, bending when he reaches it to scoop up a fistful of gravel in absence of a weapon.

“Hello?” greets Buffy.

“Buffy, I’m outside the main lecture hall and there’s a werewolf running around. I just heard someone scream.” As Ethan speaks, a door slams and he adds, “I think they just got inside.” Which, it occurs to him, means he’s the only one out here with the bloody thing. “Hurry, could you?”

“Ethan, get inside. I’ll be there in like three minutes tops.”

“Right. Thanks.” Is it him, or is something growling nearby? Ethan stares around, sees nothing. But there is, he realises with a shiver, something shuffling around in the bushes perhaps ten feet away. Ethan looks at the building in front on him. How long would it take to break a window? Too long. He runs.

For a horrifying moment, he is aware of something leaping and following, but werewolves are not built for speed and Ethan can get a good sprint on when he has to. Racing around the building, he circles it completely and runs towards the halls of residence. Just as he’s starting to flag, Buffy appears. She holds an arm out to stop him and he swings around to see –

Nothing. “It was definitely there” he gasps. “It was just behind me a moment ago!”

“Distracted by something maybe?” Buffy steps forward, peering into the darkness.

“Or someone.” Ethan hangs back.

“What were you doing hanging around the edge of campus anyway?” Buffy sets off the way Ethan came. Ethan can’t tell what she’s armed with, but her jacket bulges ominously.

Ethan follows reluctantly. “I had to see a man about a drug den. And I am allowed to be here, you know. It’s not my fault there’s a werewolf roaming about.”

“Drug den?”

“Mystical kind.”

She glances at him. “I hope you told them to stay away from Willow.”

“Told and demonstrated.” As they leave the better lit part of the campus, Ethan gestures to the bushes. “That’s where it came from.”

Buffy approaches the shrubbery cautiously, leaving Ethan on the path. He sees her shoulders relax as no wolf appears.

A new voice sounds beside him. “Can I help you?” A shorthaired, middle aged woman is coming up the path. Seeing the way he’s facing, she looks around and spots Buffy. “Buffy?” she calls out. “I wouldn’t go that way. There’s some sort of wild animal on the loose.” “Professor Walsh” Buffy quickly hides whatever weapon she’s got behind her back. “I, um. We heard a sound.” Glancing meaningfully at Ethan she adds, “But it looks like whatever it was has gone back to the woods.”

“Good” replies the professor. “But I still don’t recommend you linger.”

“Agreed” says Ethan. The professor looks at him curiously. Buffy says, “Right. Right, we’ll, err, we’ll head back then.”

Walking off in a different direction to the professor, she whispers, “Location spell?”

“Won’t work unless I know its name” Ethan tells her. “And probably not even then – they tend not to work on anything where there’s some sort of split of personas, you see, and with a werewolf –”

“– You’ve got a person and a wolf” Buffy concludes. “Great. So all we know is werewolf, somewhere.” She stops walking and glances back. “I think Professor Walsh is gone, so I’m going back there to see if I can find any sign of it. You get to safety. Tell Giles I’ll be in touch, okay?”

*****

“So all we know is someone in Sunnydale is a werewolf” Buffy concludes the following day in the Magic Box.

“Yes” agrees Giles. “We could probably say it’s most likely a student. Near campus, and the fact there haven’t been attacks or sightings until now suggest that it’s someone who moved here recently.”

“That or a townie got out of their cage” Buffy points out.

Giles nods. “Or that. It’s not much to go on.”

They spent hours last night looking for the thing, a foolish endeavour in hindsight, since Xander and Oz took the tranquilliser gun with them around half the country and it never returned. “We’ll have to find something to knock it out.”

“Does chloroform work on werewolves?” Buffy shrugs. “Wait, do we have chloroform?”

“I’ll find us something today” Giles promises.

“Something not as close quartersly as chloroform? Because, thinking about it, I’m not sure how I’d use that on a werewolf.” Buffy sighs, leaning forward over the table to study the cover of a book discarded by a customer. “Even once we find out who it.”

“I’m sure there’ll be a way.” Giles reassures her. Truth be told, he feels a little invigorated by the mystery. Werewolves are a classic, after all.  

Directing her attention to Ethan, who is replenishing a jar of newt eyes on the other side of the empty shop, Buffy asks, “Is there any spell to detect werewolves? Like the turning witches blue thing we did when Amy was her mom?”

“Probably” Ethan joins them at the table. “But what would you do, accidently spill a potion on the entire student population?”

Buffy deflates a little. “Point taken.” Standing, she tells Giles, “I’m going back to the woods, see if I can find any sign of which way it went. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find it dropped an earring or something, or trampled down the undergrowth back to its dorm.” Another sigh. “Or, you know, scratched its address and phone number on a tree.”

Giles smiles. “I’ll come with you.” He stands up too. “Two pairs of eyes are better than one and all that.”

“Yeah, and you can’t pretend you’re not really enjoying this.”

Giles faulters – he had thought he was hiding his enthusiasm well – and Buffy takes pity on him with, “And, yeah: extra person, always useful. See you later, Ethan.”

*****

The woods yields nothing: no earrings, no trampled undergrowth and definitely no address and phone number. “Great” Buffy mutters after they finish up in the same clearing a second time. “You think we might find something to help in the Magic Box after all?”

“It’s worth looking” Giles agrees.

“I guess we ask Ethan then.” Buffy sets off towards the paths. “I’d ask Willow too, but…you know.”

“Yes.” Giles risks a glance at Buffy as they make their way through the trees. She looks straight ahead. “How is she coping?”

“She’s tired” Buffy answers. “Kind of non-focused. She even skipped a few classes this week which is a scary level of non-Willow like behaviour.”

“I’m afraid some withdrawal is to be expected. Lethargy can be a symptom.”

Buffy looks at him. “So it really is like that, like an addiction?”

“With certain kinds of magic, yes. Not all.”

“But she’s still giving up all magic.” Buffy sounds faintly puzzled but not disapproving. She asks, “Is that even possible?”

“For some people.” There had been a time, not long after Eyghon, when Giles had considered stopping himself, but he doesn’t tell her this. “Some people find it useful.”

Buffy steps carefully over a fallen branch. “Can’t say a magicless Willow would be a bad thing.”

“I suppose not” replies Giles, thinking of the Angel incident. “Besides, if this is what Willow’s chosen, we should support it.”

“Yeah. Absolutely. It’s just…”

“Just?” prompts Giles.

“Just she seems so sad.” Buffy steps back on to the flattened grass of the path and looks around. “Look, I’ve got a lecture this afternoon. Could you get on the werewolf case?”

“I’ll start looking for a spell” Giles tells her.

“Thanks, Giles. I’ll be over as soon as I’m done with psych.”

*****

By the time Buffy has finished her lecture, Ethan and Rupert between them have adapted the spell for seeing human magic and prepared a pellet of herbs for someone – probably Buffy – to force down.

“It was only possible because werewolves are so close to human anyway” explains Ethan. “All you need to do is swallow it and you should be able to see it standing out from the crowd. They’ll probably be shiny or brightly coloured or something.”

“Probably best to get to campus before you take it” Rupert adds. “I’ll come, of course.”

“Right” says Buffy, staring down at the pellet in distaste. “Because why eat this here when I could do it in front of a load of people?”

“It’s not as bad as it looks” Ethan tells her. “I’ll come too, if you like. I’ve an idea what to expect from the spell and it’s quiet here.”

“Sure.” Buffy grimaces at the pellet one final time before slipping it into her pocket. “No time like the present I guess.”

*****

Seeing the spell done from the outside is odd. Buffy moves cautiously as though on ice, staring around her at what Ethan knows must look like a mass of grey, but which is in fact a crowded campus. Beside her, Rupert says, “Perhaps if we head towards the lecture hall.”

“No” murmurs Buffy. “No, I think I see something over there.” She sets off towards a seating area where students are milling with take aways and drinks in Styrofoam cups. “Unless it’s just a reflection from you guys, of course. You realise you’re both majorly sparkly right now?”

Rupert glances at her worriedly and takes her arm. “Watch the step.”

“There” says Buffy. “She’s sitting over there at that table.”

“She?” Rupert turns to look.

“I think…” Buffy squints, studying the young woman. “Giles, I think I know her. She plays at the Bronze. Her and her band, I mean. I think they’re called Shy? Or Cry, something like that. They’re pretty intense.”

“What is it with werewolves and music?” asks Ethan.

“Ethan” Rupert helps Buffy edge cautiously closer to the werewolf, “I don’t suppose there’s a way to break the spell early?”

“I don’t think so” Ethan replies. “You’ll just have to put up with shiny for now.” Out of interest, he asks, “What does she look like?”

“Like there’s something trapped in there” Buffy murmurs “Something fiery.” Gripping Rupert’s arm, she steps over to the table and switches on a smile, greets the wolf with, “Hi there. Can we talk?”

*****

They can, as it turns out, talk. What they can’t do is have a constructive conversation. The young werewolf – Veruca – turns out to have no interest in keeping herself from maiming people, instead waffling on about giving in to the beast. It’s all very tiresome and absolutely reckless.

After some initial interest – how do they know? Are they werewolves too? But surely she’d sense it – she becomes defensive. She will not consent to be caged. She will not tell them where she spends her wolf nights or if anyone else is aware of her situation. She leaves quickly, after a few threats that at least tell them she’s never heard of a slayer. Buffy, to her credit, does not threaten back. With students all around, they have no choice but to let her go.

As she stalks off, Buffy twists in her chair to study Ethan with a frown. He smiles back with that forced look of innocence he gets when he is being anything but.

“What did you do?” Giles asks as soon as Veruca is well out of earshot.

Ethan opens his palm to show them a sprig of Lethe’s Bramble. “So she doesn’t decide to come after us tonight” he explains.

“What is it?” asks Buffy, squinting through the hex she’s still under. “Other than really glowy, I mean.”

“Memory modification herb” Ethan explains. “She might have some hazy recollection of meeting us, but she won’t know that we know what she is.”

“Good thinking” Buffy says. “I wouldn’t want her leaving town.” She rubs at her forehead. “Or maybe I would. It would save having to decide what to do with her.”

Ethan huffs. “I think we know what to do with her.” At Buffy’s glare he adds, “Well, what’s the alternative? Wait for her to kill someone?”

“Ethan might have a point” Giles offers reluctantly. “Unless she agrees to be locked up for her transformations, it’s only a matter of time before she causes a death. We’re lucky she hasn’t already.” He watches the deepening realisation of what she must do play out on Buffy’s face, but he stops short of naming it. Cowardly, but what words can he use to tell her to kill someone essentially human?

After a pause in which she rubs at her eyes as the hex wears off, Buffy says, “What if we capture her tonight? Hold her until morning and talk to her again? Maybe she’ll listen if we show we actually will just keep her restrained unless we have to.”

“I think that’s worth a try” Giles agrees. He stands up. “Which means I’ll have to get us a tranquilliser gun quickly. I’ll see you later.”

*****

Fortunately, a contact has a contact who has a tranquilliser gun. Best not to ask too many questions in that sort of situation, especially as his contacts are not so numerous as they where when he was still in the Council.

“Okay, I’m in the college intranet” Willow announces from the sofa, where she is hunched over her laptop. She looks tired and unwell but smiles triumphantly as she announces, “She lives in New Building, room 108.”

Buffy looks at Giles. “Right by the woods. That’s probably where she goes every transformation.”

“That narrows it down a little” Giles says, “But still not by much. It’s quite a large area.”

“She’d probably avoid the caves” Ethan says, “There’s usually something living in them that’d make a werewolf’s fur stand on end.”

Buffy nods. “Faith and me turned out nests over there a few times. So we know woods, but not by the caves.”

“Thinking about it, she’d probably stay close to the campus side” says Giles. “They’re drawn to humans, especially to, well, humans giving off a significant amount of pheromones. Willow, I don’t suppose Oz could help us work out more specifically where she might go?”

“I emailed, but he doesn’t remember his transforms. Besides, his wolf never really got to see much of Sunnydale.”

“Then I say we start off on the college edge of the woods and work our way in.” Buffy glances at the clock. “Willow, you’d better get back – it’s not long ’til sundown. Giles, are you sure you want to come with me?”

“Buffy, I’m not about to let you face an unleashed werewolf alone.” Giles studiously ignores Ethan’s exasperated sigh.

Buffy smiles. “Thanks, Giles.”

*****

A tranquilliser gun and a net seemed adequate protection before sunset, but, moving through the woods in search of a transformed Veruca, it suddenly seems rather flimsy. Still, Giles reflects, he’d rather be doing this than having yet another quiet evening at home. Not something he’d share with Ethan, that, least his partner take it personally or, worse, point out all the personality flaws such a mindset probably reveals.

“Anything?” whispers Buffy.

“I think you’d sense her first” Giles whispers back.

Buffy shakes her head. “Well then either my sixth sense is broken or she’s nowhere near here.”

They step carefully around a thorny patch of undergrowth, which Giles shines his torch at, stopping when he spots a tuft of snagged fur. “Buffy.”

She follows his gaze to the fur. “That could be werewolf.” Examining it, she adds, “Or, a really blonde bear.”

“We don’t know it’s from tonight” Giles cautions.

“But we know this is somewhere she’s been at least once” Buffy replies. “I say we circle round and come back here before we do the rest of the route.”

“Agreed. Failing that, we could –” Giles breaks off with a jolt as something howls up the path ahead of them. Buffy spins towards the sound. “Come on!” She sets off at a sprint. Giles follows, struggling to keep up. Glasses slipping, he almost crashes right into Buffy when she comes to a sudden halt. “Buf –”

“Shh!” A finger to her lips, Buffy puts a hand to Giles’ chest, keeping him from moving forward. Puzzled, Giles turns his attention to the sounds up ahead; the thrashing and rustling of undergrowth being trampled mingled with yowls and snarls. But no screaming. Giles shifts his weight slightly to signal to Buffy that he knows not to step forward. Her hand leaves his chest. Noticing that the torch is facing the ground, Giles switches it off before the beam gets them noticed. They stand in renewed darkness, listening.

At first, Giles presumes that there is more than one creature not far off, one presumably Veruca and the other, something else non-human. Humans, after all, would scream. But then human-sounding voices and the footsteps of humans – clumsier, generally, in this sort of environment than vampires – sound close by, moving in and out of clear earshot as whoever it is makes their way through the trees. With a rush of blood to his face, Giles wonders if they’ve accidently stumbled upon a liaison. That would explain the sound of thrashing.

But not of growling. No, that was definitely a werewolf. A werewolf now apparently silenced and surrounded by unafraid humans. Werewolf hunters? Or perhaps they are vampires after all? Giles strains to hear what they’re saying but can make out only a few snatches:

“…call it in…”

“…never seen this type…”

“…a wolverine?”

“…fucking city boy…no, it’s definitely a sub-T…”

Giles and Buffy step back sharply as a beam of light slices through the trees. A new, more authoritative voice joins the conversation: “A Team, standard transportation procedure. B Team, go on with the patrol. Keep alert; might be more of these things.”

By the new torchlight, Giles sees a group of khaki-clad men lift what is unmistakably an unconscious werewolf. They carry her off out of the circle of light.

Buffy steps silently into a thick patch of plant life, pulls Giles with her and into a crouch. They kneel unnoticed as a second group of men traipse past, quieter now than when they were approaching Veruca, weapons raised.

It is the sort of weaponry that rather puts the tranquiliser gun into perspective.

Once they are gone, he and Buffy emerge and make their silent way to the spot the men had congregated. There is no sign whatsoever that a werewolf was ever there.

*****

“Fucking outrage is what it is” says Ethan in the Magic Box the next day.

Buffy, sat at the table with Xander and Anya, stares at him. “You were all ready to kill her!”

“I never said –”

“No, but you were right there with the implying!”

“This is different.” Ethan folds his arms, leans against the counter.

“Yeah” says Xander, “Different in an at least this way no-one dies way, right?”

“But they do get carried off by armed humans” Anya mutters.

“Better than what she’d have done to an unarmed human” Xander points out.

Ethan shakes his head. “That rather depends on your perspective.”

Giles, sat on the steps, removes his glasses to avoid seeing the young people’s reaction to his partner’s callousness. “Ethan, say your perspective was staring down the business end of a werewolf?”

“…point taken.”

Buffy sighs. “I kind of think it is for the best. I mean, I’d have probably had to kill her eventually.”

“And then she’d be dead” Anya supplies.

“Well, yeah.”

“No” says the ex-demon, “I mean, she’d be dead then as opposed to whatever she is now.”

Buffy frowns. “What do you think she is now?”

Anya shrugs. “At their mercy.”

Xander shakes his head. “Still better than being dead.”

“Is it?” asks Ethan.

“Again” Buffy rolls her eyes. “You wanted her dead.”

“I didn’t want her dead” Ethan insists. “I just know you’d have the right to do it if it came to it. Those soldiers, on the other hand, don’t have the right to carry her off to Gods know where.”

“She is human most of the time” Giles acknowledges. He is aware, suddenly, that the girl probably has parents who will report her missing, lecturers who will wonder why she’s absent, and all the while an unaccountable group of presumably government-sponsored humans know exactly where she is. It’s not a comfortable situation but still, “We don’t know what they’ll do with her, which means we can’t assume anything good, but we can’t assume anything awful either.”

Immediately Anya supplies, “Except that they’re operating in secret which tends not to lead to good.”

“Yes, well. Obviously we need to find out more.”

“Maybe they’ll give her some sort of rehabilitation like those creepy guys did with Marcie” muses Buffy. “That’s way preferable to me killing her, right?”

Ethan shakes his head. “Marcie was a freakish human, Veruca’s a werewolf. Those men could want nothing but hugs, puppies and rainbows – which is, as we all know, what the US army always wants – and they still don’t have the right to take her, mystically speaking.”

“I don’t care about mystical rights” returns Buffy. “I care about people not being dead.” She straightens up in her chair. “This way, Veruca’s not dead and all the people she could have eaten get a share of the not-deadness. I call this a win.”

“Rainbows and puppies all round” adds Xander.

No-one looks especially convinced. 

Chapter Text

Giles is rather pleased with the sketch. Despite what Ethan may say, he can draw something more detailed than a stickman when he puts his mind to it, and this drawing records his brief torch-lit view of the soldiers fairly accurately.

“That’s them” Buffy says, standing behind the sofa to look over his shoulder. Then, “Have you heard from Faith?”

“Not since last time you asked” Giles tells her. Honestly, it is not always easy to co-ordinate international phone calls, and Wesley’s schedule seems to be busy. Certainly busier than Giles’, though that is admittedly not saying much these days. He asks Buffy, “Perhaps I could come with you on patrol tonight? It might be worth seeing if we can find any more of these men, get an idea what they’re up to.”

“Tomorrow, maybe” Buffy replies. “Tonight, I’m party bound.”

“Oh?” Giles looks up at her. “Is that wise, given we still don’t know what these soldiers want?”

“We’ll go tomorrow, Giles. Or, you guys could go tonight – you don’t need me to keep an eye on a bunch of humans. Meanwhile, I’m taking Willow to a party because she really needs one.”

“The lack of magic still a suck fest?” Xander infers.

“In a big way” Buffy confirms. “So will you guys patrol?”

“Alright. I’ll, um, call you, shall I, if we find anything?”

“Sure. Thanks guys.” As Buffy leaves, Giles looks to Xander, suddenly aware that he might have just volunteered the boy to miss the party, but he is rubbing his hands together in anticipation and talking about which weapons they could bring. Apparently, Xander is as bored as he is and wasn’t expecting to be invited to the college party.

Nor is he likely to be feeling particularly able to help Willow, and Giles feels a rush of sympathy for him. So when Xander reveals that the rocket launcher wasn’t all he stole from the military base two years ago, Giles lets the illegality of that slide and agrees to take some guns and a distress flare on their scouting mission. Depressingly enough, it will be a relief to have something to do.

*****

“Hi, Ethan”

“Willow!” Ethan beams as the girl enters the shop, carrying a large cardboard box and accompanied by, “Tara, good to see you again. Willow, I found a book about earth magic that might –”

“I quit, remember?” Willow’s voice is subtly edged as she sets the box down on the counter.

“But it’s gentle stuff” Ethan argues.

“I thought you could use these things” says Willow, ignoring that. “Half of it you sold me anyway and I don’t really want reminders around.”

Opening the box, Ethan finds several years’ worth of herbs, candles, crystals and talismans, not to mention a book or two. “I can’t give you a refund for all this.”

“I know. It’s just…Well, I don’t want it in my room. So if it’s useful…”

Ethan closes the box again. “I’ll keep it for when you’re ready to use it again.”

Willow gives him a frankly peeved look. “Not gonna happen, Ethan.”

Scowling, Ethan shoves the box back towards her across the counter. “Well if you’re so sure about that, you can put it all back in the basement yourself.”

Briefly, Willow looks alarmed. Then her mouth sets into a thin, determined line and she hefts the box and heads for the stairs.

Once she’s gone, Tara, still standing at the counter, tells Ethan, “You…You shouldn’t test her. Sh-she’s doing really well.”

“Yes, I can see that. Really well at denying her true nature.” Ethan studies Tara. “You didn’t want any of that stuff?” If Tara’s quitting too, it will only make matters worse.

“I took m-most of the books. B-but I’m trying not to have too many reminders for Willow in, in my room.”

“You can’t think she’ll actually stop for good. You must be able to sense her power.”

“I…Yes. W-when we d-did spells before she quit, she…she is powerful. B-but people do give it up.”

“Not often forever” Ethan argues, “But it’s always a waste either way.”

“W-Willow is good at other things.”

Ethan deflates a little. “She is. It’s still a waste though. And so very unlikely to work.”

“She…she’s managing. We’re going to a party tonight and –”

“And she’ll spend the whole night itching to cast just like she would anywhere else.”

“W-well, she’ll…she’s…”

“It will take more than a party to distract her.”

“W-we’re trying to help R-Riley talk to Buffy, so there’ll be something for her to focus on.” Tara looks down at the counter. “And me.” She blushes. “Sh-she can focus on me. I’m…I’m helping her. You should too.”

As Ethan and Tara look at each other unhappily over the counter, Willow returns, boxless. “Done” she announces. She says to Ethan, “So I’m guessing I was stupid to hope you’d help me talk to Amy.”

“What Amy does is her business” Ethan replies. Then, seeing her hurt expression, he adds, “She won’t stop going to Rack until she’s ready and trying to tell her otherwise will just suck you back in. You should stay away from her.”

“Right. And so will everyone else that could help her.” Willow takes her girlfriend’s hand. “Come on Tara.”

They leave Ethan alone to go down to the basement and refill the box with the contents Willow put away on the shelves, set it aside for when she comes back to herself.

Chapter Text

Through the depths of sleep, Ethan is passingly aware of a hammering on the door, and of Rupert leaping up beside him and hurrying downstairs. As a low, urgent conversation sounds below, and the kitchen light is switched into glaring life, Ethan rubs his eyes and reaches for the bedside alarm clock. It’s 4.25 a.m. Groaning, he shifts himself to see what’s going on.

Downstairs, he finds Rupert in the kitchen, in conversation with, “Angel, what a displeasure.” Ethan smiles benignly and looks from the vampire to his partner and back again. “What brings you here at stupid o’clock?”

“My friend had a vision” Angel replies.

“Something so intricate that it couldn’t be conveyed on the phone?”

“I’m here to help.” The vampire turns awkwardly to the side. “Would you mind putting some clothes on?”

Ethan looks down at himself. “Yes, I would actually.”

Glancing up from making tea, Rupert says, “Put some pyjamas on, Eth.”

“I don’t own any pyjamas.”

“Yes you do – I bought you some last month. I did show them to you.” At Ethan’s thoughtful frown, Rupert rolls his eyes and adds, “They’re in the bottom drawer.”

Nudity thus properly hidden away, Ethan returns downstairs. Rupert, now seated at the desk and taking notes while Angel examines the bookshelf, tells him, “There. They look good on you.”

Ethan acknowledges this a non-committal hum and goes to look over Rupert’s shoulder, pointedly placing himself between his partner and Angel. After scanning the notes, he says, “This is all far too vague to justify waking us before dawn.”

“I couldn’t exactly come after dawn” Angel points out. To Rupert, he adds, “I’m going to have to stay here.”

Rupert looks a little taken aback, but responds, “Of course. Unless you’d prefer to find somewhere, um –”

“Dank and mouldering?” Ethan supplies.

Angel shakes his head. “I want to be on hand to help fight this thing.”

“Very well” Rupert agrees. “As it happens, Buffy is going to make thanksgiving dinner here tomorrow, so you can discuss with her how t –”

“– I don’t want her to know I’m here” Angel interrupts.

Rupert shuts up to stare at him. Ethan says, “What, so your plan is to hide in our bathroom all day and jump out to save her at the last minute?”

“If she knows I’m here, it’ll be a distraction. With danger headed her way, that’s the last thing she needs.”

“Danger’s always headed her way!” Ethan counters. “She lives on a hellmouth! Not to mention she’s a slayer. Actually, how is it you plan to protect someone stronger than you?”

“Like I said, I’m here to help her any way I can.”

“Honestly? I don’t think she’ll need you. But thanks for the heads up, and if you leave now, I’m sure you can find a nice crypt before the sun rises.”

“Ethan” cautions Rupert tiredly. He has removed his glasses, and wipes them before telling Angel, “You worked alongside her for years before you left for LA. It doesn’t seem necessary to ask us not to tell her you’re here.”

“It’s better this way” Angel insists. “Trust me.”

*****

“Hello Buffy” greets Ethan as soon as the slayer gets through the door the following day. “Angel’s in the bathroom – he’ll be out in a moment.” As the vampire steps from his hiding place looking murderous, he adds, “I don’t trust you, incidentally.” He smirks at the glowering vampire and attempts to look passably chastened at Rupert’s glare.

Buffy is staring at the vampire. “Angel?”

Angel seems to make an effort to look less angry. “Hello Buffy.”

“What are you… I mean…” She steps towards him but stops suddenly short of him, reaches out to touch a hand but settles for a sleeve. It is hard to tell if she is thrown by the fact that Ethan and Rupert are in the room, because this is their first interaction as exes or simply by how long it’s been since she last saw Angel. Ethan grudgingly allows his smirk to mellow into a knowing smile and busies himself with research.

*****

Not that he’ll admit it, but it isn’t long before Ethan is regretting outing Angel. Vampire and slayer talk intensely and with a considerable degree of melodrama, voices occasionally raised, more often lowered, and sometimes unused in favour of lingering gazes. Naturally, Buffy has a lot to say about Angel’s original plan of keeping the visit strictly stalker-esque, and about Angel’s determination to protect her after nearly a year apart in which she managed not to die, but mainly there is just the ongoing emotional turmoil that seems to come with being Buffy and Angel. Not what one really wants playing out in one’s living room.

Finally, they head out to speak to a Father Gabriel, leaving Ethan and Rupert with some merciful quiet before returning to report that Professor Gerhardt isn’t this week’s sole murdered citizen.

The following morning, the lovelorn ritual begins afresh while Ethan and Rupert are left to alternate between looking into the murders and following Buffy’s brief instructions about how to prepare a thanksgiving dinner.

When Willow and Tara enter with history books, there is some debate about how to proceed (in regards to the vengeance spirit, that is, not the dinner, which is by now in the oven). Things erupt between Angel and Buffy, with the former somewhat hypocritically keen to kill the killer and the latter thrown by a conversation she had about historical atrocities with Willow the night before. Willow, for her part, is quiet, standing apart with her arms folded and a slightly nervous expression, though she does, when asked directly, say she won’t help kill the spirit. Tara stands shyly by the desk, watches Angel and Buffy argue with some alarm, and gives no opinion.

In all likelihood, Ethan decides, Willow is just not thinking straight because of the strain of suppressing her magic. If anything is going to twist a person’s mind into excusing murder it’s that. Willow is so far from thinking straight that she is unmoved when Xander shows up with syphilis.

As Rupert, Buffy and Angel disappear off into the kitchen, Ethan takes Willow outside, leaving Tara alone with Xander and Anya’s bickering. They sit by the fountain, grateful for the fresh air after the heat from the kitchen and the heated conversation inside. “If this is thanksgiving” Ethan decides, “it’s not what it’s hyped up to be. I don’t see why I should be stuck cooking a meal to celebrate the fact that your ancestors buggered off across the ocean years ago and left my ancestors wondering where all the religious types had got to.”  He glances at Willow but she doesn’t respond. Her arms are finally uncrossed, one finger trailing the water behind her. Watching the ripples, Ethan makes a small noise of realisation. Looking tactfully away across the courtyard, he tells her, “Willow, you’re turning the water pink.”

“Oh!” Willow plucks her hand from the water as if scalded, and Ethan senses a rush of unsteady magic as she corrects the mistake.

Unsteady as in, not hers. “Willow” begins Ethan sternly.

“It wasn’t me!” Willow’s face crumples, and she hides it in her hands. “It was Amy!”

“Amy?”

“I went to see her this morning. I thought what with her being at her dad’s for thanksgiving she might be in a, a better frame of mind for –”

“For being told to quit?”

“Well, yeah. Look, I know you told me to stay away from her, but you’re not the boss of me and she needs help!”

“And I’m guessing it went swimmingly?” Ethan prompts.

Willow scowls at him. “You’ll be pleased to know she gave me some…a, like a zap of magic. I didn’t want her to!”

“I know you didn’t. And I’m not pleased to know.” Ethan pats Willow’s shoulder and, after a moment’s hesitation, puts his arm around her. She asks him, “You won’t tell the others, will you?”

“They’d understand. It’s not like you asked her to.”

“I know, but I don’t want everyone to worry.”

“So you’ve just been hiding it?”

“Yeah, it’s why I’ve been going around with my arms folded. I think Tara’s just been putting it down to withdrawaly stuff, but really, it’s because I’ve been melting things I touch.”

Ethan hastily detaches himself and shifts away, and Willow gestures at him, saying, “See, there you go with the worry! I didn’t want anyone to worry! Especially not now, with Xander getting sick being more worry than we were looking for anyway.”

“We really ought to deal with this vengeance spirit, you know. You don’t want Xander to be the first person for a hundred plus years to have smallpox on his death certificate.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“It’s not a joke.” A horrible though occurs to Ethan. “And, actually, if it’s contagiou –”

At that moment, a robed figure crashes into the courtyard. Or, on second glance, not a robed figure but someone with a blanket over his head. Smoke emanates rather alarmingly from whoever is underneath. Whoever it is knocks, somewhat hesitantly, at the door before stepping away sharply into a patch of shadows. Willow stands up quickly. “Spike?!”

Ethan stands too, looking closer at the slither of face they can see under the makeshift hood. When Buffy opens the door, the blanket falls back a little as Spike steps to the threshold with a plea for help. Ethan takes the opportunity to pull Willow into the brightest stretch of sunshine in the courtyard.

“Spike?” Angel has come up behind Buffy and stares at his kinsman. “Since when were you back in Sunnydale?”

“I thought I’d scared him off again” Buffy says.

“Yeah?” says Spike, pulling the blanket over further over his head, “Well turns out, you’re not the main problem in this town. Look, let me in, can’t you?” He glances up, stepping back into the shade. Tells them, “I had a run in with the same blighters you were fighting. The soldiers. They messed me up. I’m not a threat.”

“You’re always a threat” Angel says.

“Not now” Spike presses himself against the wall as what little cloud cover Sunnydale ever has shifts menacingly, flooding the courtyard with renewed light. “Oh for pity’s sake, let me in! I can’t hurt you!”

“You can’t?” Rupert takes his place in the doorway.

Spike shakes his head. “The bloody soldier boys caught me, didn’t they? Bolloxed me up good and proper.”

“Oh” Willow edges forward. “Like when you couldn’t kill me?”

“Yes” Spike seems to seize on this hopefully until Buffy snaps, “You were going to kill Willow?! I thought you were after me!”

“I was, but you weren’t there! But I couldn’t, could I, pet?” This to Willow, whom Spike fixes a pleading gaze on.

“It’s true” Willow tells them. “There were some performance issues.”

“He wouldn’t come to us if he wasn’t desperate” Ethan points out.

“There is that, I guess” says Buffy. “We do get to enjoy the desperation.”

Rupert sighs. Asks Spike, “Information?”

The vampire gives a quick nod. “I saw their base. I was right in the thick of it, for days.” This to Buffy, who rolls her eyes and remarks, “Great. Like that’d be worth not staking you.” At the fear that crosses Spike’s face, she relents with, “Fine. I’ll hear you out.”

“Buffy” Angel puts in, “You can’t trust him.”

“Oh, I’m way ahead of you there” Turning to Rupert, she adds, “But if he has seen anything, it’s not like we’re overloaded with intel.”

“Quite” Rupert looks over to Ethan. “Eth, are you okay with having him in our flat?”

“So long as he’s tied up” Ethan agrees.

“Naturally. Very well, come in Spike” Rupert steps aside as the smoking vampire dives through the doorway. “I’ll get some ropes.”

*****

“What if I need to take a piss?” asks Ethan.

“Then just walk in there and take one” Giles tells him, straightening a chair. He supposes a lot of households look like a battle have been raged in them immediately post-Thanksgiving. But his literally.

The children are gone now, Anya and Xander dropping Willow and Tara off at college while Buffy left with Angel for a private goodbye.

Ethan fidgets, glances at the bathroom door and whispers, “Rupert, you know I can’t piss with someone watching! Why couldn’t we tie him up in the kitchen?”

Giles sighs. The vampire has been secured in the bathtub for a few hours now despite Ethan’s ongoing protests, and he has no interest in moving him. “You agreed to invite him in” he points out.

“He has information.” Ethan fidgets some more. “And any chance to know what these bloody soldiers are up to is worth almost anything. But not him watching me piss.”

“Information he hasn’t shared thus far.”

“Oh, I’ll do a truth spell” Ethan waves a hand dismissively. “After I use the toilet with no-one watching!”

“We are not moving him, Ethan.” Giles casts a glance to the bathroom door and adds, “Besides, he’s just fed after apparently a long time without, so chances are he’s asleep. I’d go now if I were you.”

Ethan looks about to argue for a moment, before nodding and scurrying away. Once he re-emerges, Giles tries to keep from grinning as he asks, “Success?”

“Yes” Ethan tells him, “but only because he was asleep.” At Giles’ growing smirk he adds, “You’re a sadist, Rupert.”

Chapter Text

“Can you get that?” Rupert calls through from the kitchen when the phone rings one morning. Ethan, already reaching for it, lifts the receiver and answers, “Hello?”

“Ethan” There is a mournful sob.

“Willow, are you alright?” Behind him, Ethan senses Rupert abandoning the washing up and coming to the counter.

“I can’t do this” Willow tells him.

There is no need to ask what she is referring to. “Well of course not” Ethan tells her. “I told you that giving up magic is –”

“No, I will do it!” Another sob. “I just need a little help.”

Ethan sighs, taking pity on her. “Is Buffy with you?”

“She’s in a lecture.”

“Can’t you just hold on for a bit until she gets back? Maybe if another person’s there –”

“I need someone who knows what it’s like” Willow’s snuffles shift into trying-to-stop-crying sounds, which is an improvement from crying sounds. Ethan rolls his eyes, turning around so that Rupert can’t see. “What on earth makes you think I’d understand what it’s like?”

“Well you know about magic at least.”

“But not about giving it up.”

“Well, no-one I know knows about that. You know?” Willow gives a shaky sigh. “Please Ethan, I just need someone to sit with me for a bit until I get it back under control.”

“Where’s Tara?”

“She already sat with me yesterday, and I don’t want our whole relationship to be about her stopping me doing magic. Look, Ethan, if you don’t want to get involved, can you pass the phone to Giles?”

“We’ll both come” Ethan turns to Rupert and finds he is already pulling his coat on. “We’ll be with you in a bit.”

*****

A bit, it turns out, is long enough for Willow to do magic. This is clear when Ethan knocks on her dorm room door and she opens it seeming relaxed and comfortable as opposed to jittery and restless.

“Well, I knew you were coming” she tells him when he asks what she cast. “So that helped me calm down is all. Hey, where’s Giles?”

“He’s parking the car” Ethan takes a seat by the computer. “Willow, it doesn’t matter that you cast, but –”

“Yes it does! It matters because it means I screwed up!”

“So you did cast something?”

“Yes” Willow flops down on to the bed. “It didn’t work anyway.”

“Well, maybe you’re just rusty or something. I don’t know. Once you get back into the swing of it –”

“No! I’m not doing any swinging back into all that! I’m done with it.”

“Willow, magic isn’t –”

“Isn’t what?” Willow is up again, and pacing. “Isn’t dangerous? Because I seem to remember summoning a demon!”

“That wasn’t magic, that was –”

“That wasn’t magic?” Willow rounds on him. “Well, if magic’s so safe, why don’t you just go back to summoning things for fun with it?” There is a knock on the door and Willow answers it, while Ethan finishes, “…it was the way you were using it!” As Rupert steps into the room, he adds, “Hello, Rupert. Talk some sense into her, could you?”

Rupert turns to Willow. “Are you alright?”

She offers a small smile. “I’m okay.”

“She’s okay” declares Ethan, “because she did a spell. Willow, that’s the only reason you’re not a shivering mess right now.” A shame he reflects, because were it not for such side effects magic – all magic, even the dark stuff – would be such glorious fun.

“What spell?” asks Rupert, while Ethan wonders where that thought just came from.

“Just a…” Willow waves a hand. “Just something I thought might actually help me stop but it didn’t work. So, back to willpower.”

“You did a spell to stop yourself doing spells?” asks Ethan, distracted by the irony from a growing, almost long-forgotten craving. “Good luck with that.”

“It was going to be just one last spell” Willow counters. “But it didn’t work anyway.”

“It did something” Ethan shoots back. “It got you fired up after all this moping.”

“Oh, gee, I’m really sorry if my crisis is boring you!”

“It doesn’t have to be a crisis!”

Ignoring that, Willow turns to Rupert. “It was a mistake, Giles. I promise that was the last spell.”

“Willow” Rupert begins. “While relapses do happen –” Ethan snorts derisively and gets up, starts pacing. Rupert continues, “You’ve been struggling with this for some time now. I think we do need to ask whether this is the right approach for you.”

“What?” Willow looks horrified.

“I told you so” says Ethan. He glances around, hoping to find a crystal he could hold to quell his energies, which seem all over the place all of a sudden.

“You have a lot of power” Rupert goes on, “It was always going to be difficult to stop altogether.”

“But I have to stop altogether! It’s the only way.”

“I can see you think that, but –”

“No, you don’t! You don’t see anything!”

“You know” Ethan says suddenly, “I just remembered, I need to go to Willy’s today. I said, um…I said I’d help him with some wards. I’ll meet you back home.”

“What?” Rupert has removed his glasses and blinks hard a few times. “Yes, um, see you later.”

Ethan bolts from the room and heads straight for the Magic Box.

*****

It transpired soon after Spike’s arrival that truth spells and vampires are, as Buffy so helpfully put it, unmixy things. Last night Rupert found one that might be useful and today he sets about performing it, while Ethan searches through the books for reference to what he might need to complete a spell of his own. The restricted section of the Magic Box only goes so far. The best, the most dangerous books, have always been here.

He’s been getting ready all day and now the magic is building. He can feel it humming in every atom of his being, itching to get out…

“Bloody hell” Rupert pulls off his glasses and rubs his eyes. Glancing up, Ethan tells him, “Love, if you’re going to need to adjust your prescription, can we wait till we visit home? I don’t want to blow our savings on your crap eyesight.” He turns his focus back to the shelves, pulls a book onto his lap.

“My glasses are fine, Ethan” Rupert replies. “Usually.”

“Usually?” Spike splutters. “I won’t have you doing mojo on me if you can’t see what you’re doing! You’ll turn me into a stink beetle or something!”

Ethan shakes his head sadly. You’d think with more than a hundred years’ experience the vampire would know how impossible it is to get a transmogrification out of a truth spell gone wrong. Like buggering up baking a cake and accidently constructing an A-bomb. No, he’ll show Spike magic. With a slow smile, Ethan turns the pages of the book to the chant he’s after, faithfully transcribed in Latin.

Behind him, Rupert bumps into something and swears. Tucking the book under his arm, Ethan climbs to his feet and touches his partner’s shoulder. “Do you have something in it?”

Behind him he hears Spike sigh and tut. “That’s right, sorcerer. You take good care of him. Two of you might as well be married.”

“That’s the general idea” agrees Ethan.

Spike nods and then – without warning – springs to his feet. Ethan can only gape. Before he can think of any defensive hex, he’s pushed – surprisingly gently – aside. Spike grabs his coat and flees before he or Rupert have quite caught up with things. “Bugger!” Ethan starts to follow but then finds he doesn’t care enough to abandon his spell. Automatically, he puts a restraining hand on Rupert’s arm. Rupert asks him, “What are you doing? We need to go after him!”

“What, before he gently shoves someone to death? He can’t do any harm.”

“Not being able to kill is a very different thing to not being able to do any harm, Eth.” Rupert rubs at his eyes again. Ethan sighs and tells him, “Love, you can’t go out there if you can’t see anything.”

“I suppose you’re right. I’ll call Buffy. Oh, and she was going to spend time with Willow! I really don’t like dragging her away from that. Are you sure you can’t do a location spell? Or go out there and cast an illumination?”

“Sorry, I need to get over to the shop” Ethan lies, “Late customer.”

“I don’t think any of your customers should take priority over finding Spike. Especially not the late ones.”

“You say that now, but next time we need information, you’ll be glad I kept them on-side.” Ethan folds his arms. “Why can’t Buffy just look for him tomorrow?”

“No, I think tracking him as soon as possible is the order of the day. Well, I’ll phone her. You…could you look in the first aid kit before you go, see if we have, erm, an eye bath or something similar?”

Ethan frowns. “It’s that bad?”

“I’m afraid everything is rather blurry, yes.”

Ethan nods, torn between worry and a stirring awareness that, bedroom-wise, this could be even better than a blindfold. If only he didn’t have his spell and bloody William the Bloody to worry about first. “Alright, love, I’ll find you something.”

*****

“Oh, Spike! Of course it’s yes!”

Ethan, standing in the kitchen, stares at Buffy and Spike with his mouth open. He shuts it. Opens it again. Shuts it. Manages, “Got to say, I didn’t see that coming.”

“See what?” Rupert, who has no hope of seeing anything right now, emerges from the bathroom, feeling his way.

Buffy and Spike break apart, and Buffy gushes, “Giles, Spike and I are engaged! Look!” She holds up her hand, expecting them to admire the ring. Poor Rupert is stuttering vague exclamations along the lines of “What? But…what?”

“I know it will take some getting used to” Buffy adds, “but I need you to try to be happy for us.”

Ethan reassures her quickly, “Oh, we are happy”. No point antagonising the hexed slayer, especially not when, now that she’s here, she can take over looking after Rupert while he gets back to making final preparations for what should be a brilliant bit of magic. He comes out the kitchen to give her ring the examination it deserves. “A skull. Lovely. I’d have gone for diamond myself, but –”

“I will get her a diamond” Spike tells him. “This was just what I had on me.”

“I don’t need a diamond. This is perfect.”

“Oh, good lord” Rupert stumbles his way to the sofa.

Ethan tells him, “You can’t judge, love. You proposed with a ring made out blutack.”

“Blutack!” Spike giggles. “And here I thought watchers are cheapskates!”

Buffy elbows him. “Spike! It was probably just a moment of spontaneous romance, like with us.”

From the sofa, Rupert gives a hollow laugh. “Not quite as spontaneous as that, I suspect.”

Ethan tells them, “It was very romantic.” He grabs his bag from its hook by the door and pulls his coat on.

“I’m sure it was” Buffy heads to the sofa. “And, Giles, I know you’re surprised but I really do want you to be happy for me. For both of us.”

Rupert gives her an unfocused stare and addresses Ethan. “Eth, please tell me we have scotch.”

*****

Given that his evening has narrowed to the sofa and the sound of Buffy and Spike snogging far too nearby, Giles is rather relieved when Xander and Anya burst in, even if it’s to report a demon attack. After the understandable revulsion in response to Buffy and Spike’s display, they pool their information and work out the source of the mischief: Willow.

Willow who told Giles he can’t see anything. Willow who, in frustration at his lack of understanding, called Xander a demon magnet. Willow who said Buffy should marry Spike, though Buffy seems unable to see the connection between that and her sudden desire to marry Spike.

Willow who said, what, exactly, to Ethan? “Ethan’s been acting strangely” Giles says.

Xander replies, “So at least he wasn’t affected.”

Giles glares, though he isn’t sure he’s looking at the boy. “This is serious” he says, “Ethan’s been distracted today” Thinking about it, he’s sure Ethan would ordinarily stick around to help when his fiancé is completely blind, not that there’s any frame of reference. “Lord knows where he is now” Giles decides, “so it’s probably best to find Willow first. She may not be aware she’s doing this.”

“I thought she wasn’t doing magic anyway?” Anya asks. Presumably to Xander, she adds, “You said she quit.”

“She did a spell to have her will done” Giles realises, “It must have worked after all.”

“And it backfired on you guys” Buffy concludes grimly. “Come on, we have to find her.”

*****

Perhaps, Giles thinks as he leans in the doorway of Buffy and Willow’s room, he ought to have stayed behind. He can’t even see if Willow is in her dorm room or not, though not seems more likely, judging by the children’s reaction.

All he can be sure of is the door frame. But he can’t wait at home. Not with Ethan missing.

“Amy” Buffy says.

Giles becomes aware of a presence behind him. He stumbles into the room to let Amy in. Someone – hopefully not Spike – takes his hand and guides him to one side. Giles breathes deeply and catches a whiff of cigarette smoke. Spike, then. Damn.

Well, that or Amy smokes. She is audibly ruffling as Buffy interrogates her.

“Why would you give Willow this stuff?” Buffy is asking.

There is a noise like a heavy box being dumped on the floor, and Amy replies, “It’s not for Willow, it’s for Tara. She’s a witch, right?”

“Then why didn’t you take it to Tara?” demands Buffy.

“Yeah” echoes Xander, “and since when were you all giving away with the magic stuff?”

“Since I talked to Willow this morning” Amy answers Xander’s question first. “She said I should just give it up for a while and see how it goes, and I thought, hey, well I can do awhile.”

“I’ll bet” murmurs Buffy. Amy continues, “And I did take it to Tara, but she was out. What was I going to do, just leave bottles of demon blood on her doorstep?”

“You could have done that” Anya says. “The milkman does it all the time. Only with milk.”

“Whatever” says Amy. “Do you guys know where either of them is? I don’t want to lug this stuff around all night.”

“We need to find them too” Buffy tells her. “If you want to quit the quitting for like, a minute, we could really use a location spell.”

“Oh, I see” says Amy, “So when Willow quits, you guys all support her, but when I quit –”

“Amy” Giles interrupts. “We have reason to believe Willow may be a danger to herself. If you don’t want to cast a location spell, could you at least help us work out where she might be?”

There is a pause, and then, sounding amused, Amy replies, “Since when is that wardrobe called Amy?”

With a frustrated noise, Giles shifts to face where she seems to be now. Buffy puts in, “Sorry, Amy, I didn’t mean to be all do a spell now, it’s just…”

“We need someone to do a spell now” finished Spike.

“Exactly” says Buffy. “Amy, have you met Spike? He’s my fi –”

“Hey” says Amy suddenly. “Was the sky always that colour?”

There is a lot of shuffling, four pairs of feet turning to the window. Spike swears, and Xander says, “Yeah, that about sums it up.”

“What?” asks Giles, who hasn’t bothered turning.

“Sky’s gone purple” Anya tells him.

“Purple like a sunset?” asks Giles hopefully.

“No, purple like an apocalypse. Oh, and now there’s blue smoke!”

Buffy says, “I need to get over there!”

What follows is, from Giles’ point of view, a confusion of running in darkness. Initially he thought he couldn’t possibly keep up, but Spike, who seems to have rather taken this son-in-law thing to heart, grips his wrist and pulls him along. After clattering gracelessly down the stairs, Giles has a moment to recognise from the suddenly-fresh air that they are outside, and then there is a shriek.

“Oh, man” he hears Xander say, “Where do they keep coming from?”

A demon then, presumably. Giles hears it growling. Around them, students react with a flurry of screaming and running feet.

“Get in!” yells someone as a car pulls up. Giles finds himself bundled in. From what Giles takes to be the front seat, Amy says, “Sure, bring the old blind guy, that’ll help.”

“Are they following us?” Buffy’s voice.

“Looks like.” That’s Xander.

“Good” says Buffy. Then, presumably in response to the looks she’s getting, “Well at least they’re not staying on campus.”

It seems to be a small car, and there are four of them crammed into the backseat. Anya seems to have hogged the passenger seat, and starts up a litany of panicked guesses as to what the purple sky might mean. On Giles’ left, Xander leans forward to comfort her, while on his right, Buffy and Spike seem to be kissing again. Giles sighs pointedly and braces himself against the seat to avoid being knocked against them as the car speeds towards the blue smoke.

At some point, the sound of traffic becomes louder and more urgent, as even Sunnydale’s usually oblivious population realise the need to put distance between themselves and whatever is now looming over the town. Above the screech of traffic, Giles picks out a more animalistic screech. A clatter of clawed feet sounds briefly on the roof, before whatever it is is thrown off. Xander mutters, “Can they not just leave me alone?”

“Demons?” Giles guesses.

“Still following” Xander confirms.

“Some of them are turning round” Anya observes.

“Yeah” says Amy, “’Cause they don’t want to go towards it like us idiots.”

The car comes to a sudden stop. Giles hears the unpleasant lip-noise of Buffy and Spike disengaging before someone yells a warning and he is dragged from the vehicle in something of a hurry.

They tumble onto tarmac – disturbingly warm tarmac – and Amy immediately screams, “My car!”

Buffy shouts, “Take cover!” and pushes Giles aside as a blast of hot air shoots down from somewhere. Overhead, there is a leathery flapping sound, as of monstrous bat wings.

“Giles, this way!” Xander pulls Giles aside, onto thankfully cooler ground. Amy and Anya follow, pulling Giles into a crouch. Amy is muttering, “Shit, my dad’s gonna kill me.”

“I don’t think so” says Anya. “The dragon might.”

“Dragon?!” yelps Giles.

“Yup” Xander confirms grimly.

Footsteps, and suddenly Buffy and Spike are close at hand. Buffy says, “Giles, any tips on dragon slaying? Like a nifty trick that doesn’t involve getting too close to them?”

“Is it still airborne?” Giles asks.

“Yeah it’s – oh, it just set fire to the factory!”

“Factory?” Giles has no idea where they are.

“We’re at the abandoned factory Moloch had a go at trashing” Buffy explains.

“At least it’s abandoned” Giles says. He frowns, trying to think of anything nifty about dragons from his training. Funnily enough, nothing comes to mind. Perhaps because, “Dragons are extinct in this dimension. Someone must have summoned it.”

At that moment, a familiar voice sounds: “Rupert! Hello” Ethan sounds so cheerful that Giles can’t help but picture him smiling and waving as he joins them. Buffy greets him with, “Tell me this isn’t your fault.”

“What isn’t my fault? Rupert, did you see the dragon? I got it for you.”

Xander asks, “Which anniversary is dragon again?”

Above them, a shriek issues far too close and Giles feels the air pulse as beating wings swoop past. Around him, the group instinctively duck and cower, except, Giles assumes, for Ethan, who comments, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Buffy tells him, “I am so going to kill you.”

“Clearly” Giles puts in hastily, “Ethan is under Willow’s spell.”

“I’m not under a spell” Ethan says, “I just wanted to try something new.”

“Right” Buffy seems to make an effort to control her slayer instincts. “You’re right: He’s under a spell and he’s just to stupid to see it.”

“Oi!” says Ethan. “I’ll have you know, I just pulled off some extraordinary magic!”

Spike says, “Any chance you could extraordinarily undo it? Because I don’t fancy fighting that thing.”

“No-one’s fighting my dragon! It’s a present for Rupert!”

“Ethan” Giles reaches for his partner and is rewarded by a firm hand gripping his own. “Just tell us how to kill it.”

“You don’t like it?”

“I rather think if we’re going to be pet owners, we should start off with something fluffier and less flammable. A rabbit, say.”

Anya gasps. Giles continues, “So how do we kill it?”

Xander adds, “And tell us you haven’t named it.”

“Well naturally it’s called Puff” says Ethan. “And it can’t be killed; that’s rather the point of dragons.”

Buffy asks, “How come it’s staying here? A whole town to ravage and it’s just flying in circles above us.”

“Probably just deciding which one of us to eat first” says Amy.

“No” Ethan explains, “It can’t stray too far from the summoning circle – it isn’t really in this dimension until all those herbs are burnt.”

“Cover me” commands Buffy, before darting away from them with a crescendo of hurried footsteps. Giles tightens his grip on Ethan’s wrist, but Ethan doesn’t follow, only shouts outraged complaints in Buffy’s wake, while Spike, his voice growing distant as he presumably darts away from them and into the dragon’s path, calls up insults to the beast. Whether the dragon understands, or is simply drawn to the fast-moving object below it, it seems to follow Spike, screeching and roaring like a sentient thunder storm, before a sudden snap seems to split the air and they are left with a ringing silence.

“Oh, come on!” exclaims Ethan. “I worked really hard on that!”

“You owe me a car” says Amy.

Buffy comes back into hearing range, having presumably put out the fire at the centre of the summoning circle. “Where’s Spike?” she demands.

“He went that way” Anya tells her.

“Where?” Buffy’s voice seems to come from several directions at once as she darts about looking. “Spike? Spike, sweetie? Oh, God!” Closer now “What if he burnt? Spike!”

“I’m right here, baby” Spike’s voice sounds from some distance away. There is a sound of footsteps as Buffy runs to greet him.

Shifting himself from the tarmac, Xander says, “I’m going to find a phone booth, call the fire brigade. Then we really need to find – Willow!”

“Guys!” Willow has joined them, sounding harried. “Are you all okay? We came as soon as we saw the dragon. Was it apocalypsy? It’s over now, right?”

“No thanks to you” says Anya.

“Well we came as soon as we could” Willow sounds offended. “What happened?”

“Ethan summoned a dragon” Xander explains, “But only because –”

“Why would you do that?” Willow’s voice re-orientates towards Ethan, who is still being gently restrained by Giles.

“Don’t give me that!” replies Ethan. “You were the one who told me to do it! You said I should summon things for fun.”

“I didn’t mean you actually should!”

“Guys” Xander sounds suddenly alert. “I hate to break it to you, but – demons!”

“What?” A new voice, possibly Tara. “Oh, there’s so many of them!”

“They’re after Xander” Anya explains.

“Why?” asks Willow, “What did you do?”

“What did I do?!”

“Willow –” begins Giles, but he is cut off by Amy calling over them, “Buffy! We need help here!”

There is a pause in which a growling noise creeps closer, and Buffy doesn’t reply. Just a pause, that is, before Willow exclaims, “Wait, Buffy and Spike!? What’s Buffy doing with Spike? Ethan, why would you do this, how could you?”

“Hey, don’t put this on me!”

“Willow” Giles snaps. “This is your doing: Your will-be-done spell is effecting everyone!”

“S-spell?” Tara asks quietly.

“That spell?” asks Willow. “But it didn’t work!”

“What sp-spell?”

At that moment, fighting breaks out as the demons attack. Ethan presses himself against Giles, Xander screams, Amy calls for Buffy again and Tara whispers a protection spell. Anya, pushing past Giles, apparently grabs Willow, who yelps, “What are you doing?”

“Undo it” Anya commands. “Whatever you did, stop it before Xander gets hurt!”

“But it wasn’t me!”

“Willow” Giles tries, “Could you at least try ending your will-be-done? Under the circumstances –”

“Right, right.” Willow quickly reels off a rhyming counter hex. It sounds like she’s making it up on the spot, but she has such power that it works all the same.

An indefinable something passes through them, and Ethan suddenly inhales sharply. “Oh Gods! Rupert, are you alright?”

“I’m fine” Vision floods back. Giles finds himself beside a chain-link fence behind some dumpsters, a building burning steadily some feet away. A few feet away from that, Buffy and Spike are springing apart with exclamations of disgust. The demons, mercifully, are gone.

“Oh” says Amy quietly. She looks down at her fingertips as they spark in response to the end of the magic. “Oh. It was a hex.”

“My hex” says Willow quietly. “Oh Gods, you guys – I’m so sorry.”

“You did a spell?” Tara puts a calming hand on her shoulder.

“Just one last one! I thought if I did a spell to get my will done, I could will my magic away and everything would be alright!”

“Some flaws there” mutters Amy. She steps slowly away from them and towards her ruined car, wrapping her arms around herself as she goes.

“I didn’t think it had worked!” says Willow tearfully.

“It’s over now” Giles tells her quietly. “Come on, let’s get out of here before we’re arrested for arson.”

They call the fire brigade from a booth on the next street before walking back to town, Tara’s arm around Willow’s shoulder the whole way.

*****

“Eat a cookie, ease my pain.”

Ethan smiles at Willow. “You needn’t feel any pain over me, sweet child. I rather enjoyed the whole thing.”

Xander pauses with his cookie halfway to his mouth. “You including the part where we almost got incinerated by a dragon and ripped apart by demons in that?”

Ethan shrugs. “We live in Sunnydale; it probably would have happened anyway.”

“I can’t argue with that logic.” Xander bites into his cookie. Buffy folds her arms and adds, “But I can argue that you’re sick, twisted and mean to laugh at me for kissing Spike.”

Ethan smiles and nods. Noticing that Willow is apparently feeling about as much sympathy over Buffy’s embarrassment as he doesn’t, he winks at her and points out, “And Tara was okay about it, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah” Willow sounds doubtful. “And at least I didn’t tell her to do anything except miss a lecture to hang out with me. But that’s bad enough!”

“Well, you got Amy to leave town” Buffy says. “That’s a good thing.” She frowns. “That came out bitchy, didn’t it? I mean, it’s the best thing for her. A fresh start.”

“Amy left town?” asks Ethan.

Willow nods. “She came round last night and said the magic induced non-magic was refreshing and she’s going to take a break from it somewhere Rack isn’t.”

“Good for her.”

Willow regards him tiredly. “So you think Amy can do it but I can’t?” she asks, “Not that I’m disagreeing at this point.”

“I think she can and should take a break” Ethan says. “That’s not the same as quitting for good.”

“Right.” Willow gives a small nod. Buffy squeezes her shoulder in comfort until some remark from Spike, who is back to being tied to a chair, draws her into a round of bickering. Ethan indicates the door with a sideways nod and Willow sets the cookies down, follows him out the door.

*****

“It’s not working is it?” Willow asks as soon as they’re outside. “I can’t get rid of it, I can’t quit it. It’s in me.”

“That’s a good thing” Ethan tells her encouragingly.

“Is it?” Willow sits down at the edge of the fountain. “’Cause I hate it.”

“No you don’t. If you hated it, you really would have gotten rid of it with that spell. But it wasn’t really your will.” “I guess. But I hate what it could make me do. Like, remember yesterday, when I almost killed you all?”

“Only indirectly.” Ethan sits down beside her.

“Not really looking for a qualifier on the almost-killed-my-friends front.”

“Well, we’re all okay, aren’t we? No harm done.”

“Tell that to the factory.”

“Willow, you’ve come back to magic and all it cost was an empty building that was just waiting to be a vampire nest anyway. It’s a small price to pay.”

“It could have been a lot bigger.”

“If you do insist on fixating on what-ifs, imagine what could happen if you don’t start casting again” Ethan counters. “Think about all the demons you won’t be able to ward away and all the apocalypses you won’t be able to help stop.”

“I guess.” Willow sighs. “I guess I’m back to it whether I like it or not. I can’t stick to quitting. I know I can’t. It wasn’t working. Even casting without knowing it, I felt all whole and like me again.” She gives Ethan a sidelong look. “Feel free to start gloating, by the way.”

“I don’t want to gloat. I’m just glad you’ve realised at last.”

“And you’re not worried I might actually kill everyone next time?”

“The only thing I’m worried about is how you will insist on controlling everything. A spell to stop yourself doing spells, really?”

Willow pouts. “Well, call me strange, but I don’t like my life being out of control.”

“You are strange. Everyone’s life is out of control.”

“And everyone’s scared by it.”

“I’m not.”

“Whatever, chaos-guy.”

“Look, you want to take control of things? Fair enough. Not my cup of tea, but it’s your life. But Magic isn’t the way to do it.  And that doesn’t mean magic can’t help you with anything else.”

“I guess.”

“Well you said it yourself, quitting didn’t work.”

“It didn’t” Willow agrees, frowning. “I guess I need to find a new mojo for my mojo. A non-controlly, new-me kind of thing.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Maybe. It’s just…How?”

Ethan sighs. “By not being scared of it would be a start. By leaving the hellmouth for a while if you possibly can. And by getting to know your powers again, stop treating them like a problem.”

“You say that like it’s easy.”

“Well it will get easy. You could try studying your history and theory again.”

“With you?”

“If you like.”

“I would like.” Willow smiles.

Chapter Text

Ethan rolls over sleepily to find Rupert awake and smiling at him. He smiles back and says hello. Or tries to.

That’s odd. He’s completely lost his voice but his throat isn’t sore at all. Now Rupert mouths “Are you okay” at him and frowns. Seems to try harder to speak.

Ethan hopes he wasn’t talking Latin in his sleep. That would be embarrassing. He tries coughing and feels himself cough but produces no sound. Bugger. Pen and paper then, hastily retrieved from the bedside table where he keeps them to scribble down spell ideas and the occasional sketch. He writes, Possibly you could have taken Buffy’s prophetic dream a little more seriously, love.

Rupert gestures helplessly. Snatches the pen and paper to write, I did research it.

Ethan snatches it back to scribble: You hung out with Olivia all day!!!!

Rupert rolls his eyes, takes the pen and responds: I know things are bad, love, but you really don’t need to resort to more than one exclamation mark. 

*****

While Olivia, quiet beyond merely being unable to talk, is in the bath, Rupert scribbles a note in the back of the phone book: The news is calling it an outbreak of laryngitis. Make sure Olivia doesn’t have reason to question that, won’t you?

Taking the pen from him, Ethan writes, I suspect she might in the circumstances.

Rupert’s reply: Try not to encourage it.

Ethan doesn’t have to ask why. Rupert will stick to the bloody council protocol of telling no-one unless there is no other choice, even when not taking a wage from them. Thinking of the council, he writes, You think the boys in tweed could help?

Rupert shakes his head, but replies: I’ll email them, but they don’t always reply very promptly. Frowning, he adds, It will be someone’s job to monitor news coming out of Sunnydale in any case. Switching to a fresh page, he asks, Could a general reversal spell help? He passes Ethan the pen.

Ethan replies, I could try.

Try in the shop, is the reply. And thank you.

Right – Olivia. Even counter magic can’t be done at home. Not that it would be a bad idea to look through the books in the Magic Box for any clue as to what’s causing this.

Whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like magic.

At that moment, Olivia appears, towel-clad. She raises a hand in greeting and smiles a strained smile, then mimes drinking. Nodding, Rupert pours them a whisky each and settles at his desk to start researching, with only the word “gentlemen” to go on.

*****

Counter magic proves futile, in part because Ethan can’t speak the incantation. Possibly if Willow were here they could manage to offer enough wordless magic between them, but she and Tara are at least well out of this, holidaying in LA to let Willow’s magic unfurl away from the hellmouth. Ethan wonders if they’ve seen the news.

The town is sealed off – they couldn’t return if they wanted to – but in case they have any insight he sends them an email anyway. It ends up being longer than it needs to be simply because by this point it’s a relief to be addressing someone, even by writing.

Email sent, Ethan goes into the back room to see to the shrine. Janus, it turns out, isn’t interested in prayer put to him in the form of voiceless yearning. Always was fickle like that. Ethan leaves a little blood from his palms in the dish by the shrine, but neglects to change the candles.

He reads for a while before taking a break to explore a town altered, familiar rendered strange the way it would be after snow-fall.

Unlike a snowy day, this is not quiet. Trying to make up for the bewildering absence of speech, people pummel their car horns, slam doors and tap their fingers against the solidity of park benches. Those who are out, that is. Most seem to have stayed at home. No children out to play in the silence despite the unasked for holiday. A man with an admirable sense of opportunism sells boards and marker pens. The street preachers are marginally less annoying than normal.

Willy’s Place, is busier than usual. Eric, a huge Lava Demon from the caves, holds court over by the juke box, playing a succession of cheesy eighties pop songs at high volume, warding away any quiet. Seeing Ethan enter, he extracts his arms from his folds and addresses him with a series of specific gestures. Ethan gapes: since when do Lava demons know sign language? He shrugs to convey that he doesn’t understand. Looks over to the bar when Willy taps the counter.

Turning to the board that usually displays the cocktail menu, Willy writes, He wants to know did you do this?

Ethan writes on the whiteboard he purchased from the entrepreneur: You understand him? Am I the only person who doesn’t speak ASL?

Willy writes: I took a course at the college.

Ethan rubs out his questions with a sleeve, and replaces them with, So what’s Eric’s excuse?

You might want to answer him, Willy writes. He’s not good with quiet.

I hadn’t noticed, writes Ethan, aware that writing might be the best way to communicate in here right now even if they could talk, the music is that loud. And obviously I didn’t do this! Why would I? I came in to see if anyone knows what’s going on.

Eric shrugs his massive shoulders and turns back to Madonna. Willy writes: You think it’s those soldiers meddling?

Ethan shakes his head. Writes: Can’t see how they would.

Willy shrugs. Scribbles: It’s just it’s normally someone who’s at least stopped by. Whatever it is, it hasn’t been here.

Finding no further answers at Willy’s, Ethan returns to the Magic Box, where he resumes his research without much hope of success. To his honest surprise, a few customers turn up. Some are in the know, looking to fix the situation with magic, while others are just calling in because his is the one shop open and not selling booze, and, given the strangeness of the situation, they want to go somewhere.

Could be that a few of them are seeing magic in a new light since they woke up voiceless, but if that is so, they do not show it. Sunnydale selective observation prevails. Really, Ethan decides, Sunnydale is always silent in a way – silent on the subject of the supernatural, certainly. Perhaps this is just the hellmouth taking that truth and reducing it to its purest form, like that time it made that unfortunate girl invisible.

Rupert and Olivia show up with lunch, a good thing as the café across the road is closed. Ethan smiles at them and clasps Rupert’s hand, and they settle down at the table.

The children arrive later, first Xander and Anya, then Buffy, who had the forethought to purchase a whiteboard.

Showing Buffy his own whiteboard, Ethan writes, Know what’s causing this?

Buffy shakes her head. Scribbles on her own board, Is it you?

Ethan grimaces. Why does everyone keep asking that? He shakes his head just make sure it’s clear. Writes: Believe me, I’d make this more fun.

Her response: Don’t get any ideas.

*****

Getting up in the night, Ethan finds Olivia up and peering out the window. Automatically, he tries to speak to her and then remembers. She senses him anyway, and looks around, blank-faced, then points out the window.

Stepping closer, Ethan can see something moving out there. He can’t see it clearly, but something about it still makes him shudder. Literally shudder, that is, and Olivia puts a comforting hand on his shoulder.

They both jump back when a demon glides past the window. Instantly, Ethan’s body lets loose a scream which of course Rupert, asleep upstairs, can’t hear. That’ll be the point, he realises, chilled. No-one can hear him scream. Any of them scream. Shit.

But – thank you, Janus – the creatures don’t seem interested in them. They just smile their grim smiles and drift away, leaving Ethan and Olivia gasping and shaking and still alive. Before Ethan can calm himself down enough to think, let alone move, Olivia has a pencil in hand for sketching.

*****

Rupert and Ethan are cuddled up in bed the following night, listening to the silence of the flat, interrupted here and there by the watery music of Olivia showering. She’s been doing that more than she has too since this started, using the mundane ritual of it to escape the unnerving situation. All the more unnerving for her, with no previous knowledge of the supernatural. And she can’t even ask questions, poor thing, without the hinderance of a pen and paper.

For that reason, or perhaps simple dread of the possible answers, she hasn’t asked questions yet. Ethan suspects this will be her last visit.

All of a sudden, there is a brief glimmer in the air and then a soft – but audible – sigh escapes Ethan’s lips. He sits up and tries, “Love?”

“Ethan?” Rupert sits up too. “Good. That’s a relief.”

“Thank the Gods for slayers, eh?”

“Indeed. I wouldn’t have wanted to find out what they needed those hearts for.”

“Me neither. Though I’ve got to say, I rather wish we’d tried keeping words out the bedroom while we had the chance.” Ethan lets a hand trail down Rupert’s bare chest. Rupert looks put upon and slips into sarcasm. “Yes, I suppose there’s always an upside.”

Ethan nuzzles him. “Upside. Yes. Appropriate word, that.” And his hand slips lower.

Chapter Text

“You could come with me if you like” offers Ethan, standing from the breakfast table and ready to head to the shop.

“Thank you” replies Rupert, “but I think I’ll have a quiet morning.”

These days, Rupert doesn’t have any other type of mornings, but today he’s recovering from dropping Olivia off at the airport for an early flight, so Ethan nods understandingly. “Alright. Well, I’ll –” And then the earth shakes.

Ethan gasps and stumbles sideways. He’s caught by Rupert, who pulls him under the table. They crouch there together, breakfast things shattering around them, until the shaking stops. “Bloody California!” exclaims Ethan as soon as it’s over.

Rupert helps him up. “Are you alright?”

“Fine, fine. I’d better get over to the shop and clear up. You sure you’re not coming?”

“I’ll clean up here.” Rupert bends to pick up broken china, stacking brittle shards into the bowl of a larger piece. “I may call round later.”

“Later then” As he leaves, Ethan doesn’t hold out much hope of seeing Rupert before he returns home. Now and then, his partner seems to find helping in the shop a distraction from his unemployment-bred boredom, but recently he just seems to resent being unpaid labour. It has crossed Ethan’s mind to offer him a wage but he’s not sure how he’d take it. Not to mention, having Rupert muck in every now and then is one thing, but if Rupert had regular hours they’d be on top of each other, and not in the good way. All the time they’ve lived together, they’ve had at least a few hours a day apart. Ethan doesn’t know what working together might do to them and, with Rupert in the mood he often is these days, he isn’t sure he wants to find out.

*****

It’s a good thing he gets to the shop when he does, because some of the things the shaking earth flung from the shelves really shouldn’t mix. When Ethan enters, tentacles are growing out the floor and some of the crystals are glowing ominously.

Fortunately, he’s got it more or less under control by the time Willow arrives.

She looks well, the colour back in her cheeks and bounce back in her step. She chats about her holiday as she helps sweep up, and bemoans coming home to find that the earthquake saw her lectures cancelled.

“Well you missed fun here” Ethan tells her.

“The voice thing? Yeah, I was going to reply to your email but then the town opened up again so I figured you guys fixed it.”

“I hope we didn’t cut your holiday short?”

“No, we were coming back today anyway. Hey, do you know where Buffy is?”

Ethan frowns, suddenly aware that he doesn’t even know if she came through the show down with the gentlemen in one piece. Rupert must have heard from her, though, or he’d be worrying. “I haven’t seen her since yesterday.”

“She wasn’t in the dorm room when I got back. Must be a Riley thing.”

Behind them, the bell clangs and Rupert comes in. “Ethan, have you – oh, Willow, hello. How was L.A?”

“Demon free and fun. I’ve got loads of photos to show you guys. Giles, do you know where Buffy is?”

“She just left our flat.” Rupert looks at Ethan. “She’s very worried that the earthquake may be foretelling something. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything?”

“No” replies Ethan. “Though with the recent mutism that isn’t surprising.”

“I suppose not.”

Willow pipes up, “I bet it’s just regular tectonics. But I’ll go find her and do the listening thing – I must have just missed her.”

“Yes” says Rupert as Willow goes, “Well, good to see you.”

“You too. Bye, Ethan.”

“See you, Willow.” Ethan frowns at Rupert. “You don’t think it was a portent, do you?”

“Not really. Not without other signs. But Buffy is a little sensitive to earthquakes, as you can imagine.” Rupert frowns. “So much so that wasn’t especially interested in my theories about what the soldiers might be up to and where.” He sits down, lost in thought. Ethan sweeps up around his feet, and replies, “Well those must be shaky theories, to be fair. All they seem to do is pop up, be annoying and bugger off again.” “I was going by Spike’s information. And our sightings.” Rupert sighs. “She didn’t ask after Faith either, though I can’t say I’m not a little relieved about that.”

“She not adjusting well to the no-killing lifestyle?”

“It won’t be possible to tell how she’s adjusting unless they stop using magical means of mind control whenever she puts so much as a foot out of line. Or at least, that’s the impression Wesley gave me when we last spoke. And if even Wesley’s having qualms…”

“Then Gods help the girl” Ethan concludes grimly.

“I wouldn’t mention it to Willow. Not at this stage in her recovery.”

Ethan forces a smile without abandoning the grimness. “Wouldn’t want her to know that the dear old council can be all for reckless magic when it suits them?”

“I’m not about to defend their every policy. But it’s not as though there’s a precedent for discipling a slayer like Faith.” Rupert stands. “I should research the earthquake, if only to put Buffy’s mind at rest. Keep an ear out for rumours, won’t you?”

“Will do. See you later.”

*****

“Cheer up” Ethan tells Giles a few hours later, once Buffy has gone off to the library and Xander, Willow and Tara have left to search the museum for the book the Vahrall demons need to complete their ritual.

“Cheer up?” echoes Giles. “Yes, because that’s what one needs in the face of the apocalypse: good cheer.”

“At least you’ve got something to do now.”

Giles is a little stunned by that and it must show on his face, because Ethan hastily amends with, “I just mean, you’ve done this before and all we need is to find this book and it’s all sorted. There’s no need to act like it’s –”

“The end of the world?” finishes Giles dryly. Entirely possible, he reminds himself, that Ethan is scared and covering it with false optimism, so he sets annoyance aside and sticks to practicalities: “It would help if we knew where the Word of Valios is.” He picks up a book and thumbs it open.

Ethan stares. “Wait, what’s it called?”

“The Word of Valios” Giles repeats.

Ethan raises an eyebrow. “That thing you got in that estate sale?”

Giles gapes. “What?”

“That thing from the estate sale you took me to in Bristol, remember? Looks like a fancy arrow head.”

Giles takes off his glasses, trying to picture it. “A book with an arrow head on the front?” He’s fairly sure he didn’t buy any books at that sale.

“It’s not a book.” Ethan steps over to a chest by the counter and starts pulling things out, scattering them across the floor. “I’m sure the bloke called it the word of something.”

“But we didn’t get anything useful at that sale” Giles reasons, joining the search nonetheless. “It was mainly fakes, wasn’t it? We only bought the hellhound fang and the…and the…”

“Word of Valios?” Ethan holds it up with a triumphant grin.

Giles takes the talisman. It does look a little like an arrow head, a small tube, flat at one end, the other end pressed into a point that is topped with a symmetrical symbol. “You’re certain this is it?”

“More or less.”

“Right” Giles gets to his feet hurriedly. “You call Xander, I’ll take the car and catch up with Buffy.”

*****

“Why is he here?” asks Buffy, leaning against a tree in the woods some time later, indicating Spike, whose half-hearted attempt at cynical commentary seems to be finally grating on her.

“And why is he wearing that?” adds Ethan, glancing up from the incantation he’s scratching into the soil around the edge of the sacred circle with a twig.

“Sod off” mutters Spike with a lack of threat that is characteristic of him these days.

“He was g-going to stake himself” Tara explains.

Buffy doesn’t appear particularly distressed at the thought, but she makes no further comment, perhaps not wanting to upset the witch, who stands a little closer to Spike than anyone ought, as though to offer comfort. Spike makes a show of looking disgusted by the concern, but doesn’t step away.

“Done” says Willow, setting the last ritual candle in place.

There is a howl a little way off and they all freeze and look towards where it’s come from. An owl. Hopefully an owl.

“Tell me again why we’re doing this outside” mutters Xander.

“Because the ritual calls for it” replies Rupert, studying the book in his hand for the next step, his other hand holding the torch. “Now lay out the crow bones to the north of the ram skull.”

“Which way is north?” asks Willow.

“It’s, err…” Xander puts a finger in his mouth and pops it out again, holds it up. Willow tells him, “That’s for wind direction.”

“Right” Xander hastily dries his finger.

Seeing Rupert look to him, Ethan says, “I’m not sure.”

“Well, we need to know for certain” Rupert tells him. “Unless the Word of Valios is properly destroyed, it’s only a matter of time before the demons find it.”

Tara steps over to a clearing and looks up at the night sky. “Which one is the north star?”

Joining her, Willow stares around for it, before murmuring, “I think that’s Leo, but…oh – guys!”

Stepping over to see what she’s pointing at, Ethan backs away at the sight of the demons advancing through the undergrowth. “Rupert!”

“We need a barrier!” Willow hurriedly grabs supplies from the bag, crouches to get started, as Buffy hefts her weapon and marches towards the attackers, undergrowth crunching in her wake.

Doubling back to stand behind a tree, Ethan pushes past Spike, who has leant against it with the chuckle of someone expecting a good show.

“Where’s Faith when you need her?” murmurs Willow, glancing up as Buffy gives the three demons a traditional slayer greeting. Tara asks, “Shouldn’t we wait until she’s back here before we get the barrier up?”

“She can manage” Rupert tells her. “And our priority has to be destroying their means of ending the world.” But then he steps away from the ritual circle as though to help, and Ethan has to halt him with a hand on his arm and prompt, “Rupert, the ritual.”

Rupert looks torn for a moment before snatching up the crow bones, making a quick judgement call as to which way is north and crouching to set them out one handed, the other hand still clutching the torch, book balanced on his knees. Seeing this, Ethan hurries over to help him. A little way off, Willow and Tara have started the barrier spell. Xander, stupid boy, seems to have run after Buffy. The slayer is not visible now, but the frenzied rustling of undergrowth, the sporadic thuds and growls paint as clear a picture as any view of the battle. Just as Ethan is wondering whether someone should pull Xander away before he is trapped on the wrong side of the barrier, the boy returns, slamming through the undergrowth with a yell of, “Buffy says hurry!”

Ethan finds the stick and completes the written portion of the incantation. Magic swells beneath his hand. Standing over him, Rupert draws breath for the chant.

And that is the moment one of the Vahrall demons gets past Buffy and crashes into their midst…just as the barrier spell goes up, trapping it inside.

“Uh oh” Willow manages, before the demon lunges. Springing to her feet, Tara pulls Willow back as Xander jumps into the demon’s path, crumpling as it strikes him.

Rupert gives the torch and spell book in his hands to Spike of all people and, joining the fray, yells over his shoulder, “Ethan, finish it!”

“Right” Getting to his feet and taking a few quick steps away from the unfolding fight, Ethan turns to Spike and explains, “It takes two – I need you to read this part of the chant” He reaches for the Word of Valios, which Rupert tucked into the pages of the book, pointing to the chant as he does so.

“Are you insane?” counters Spike, attempting to hand the book to him.

“You can follow a basic spell, can’t you?” Ethan argues. He crouches down again and slides the Word of Valios under the ram skull, kneels with his hand on it. “You did that whole thing with Drusilla and Angel.”

“Yeah, back when I could fight! I don’t fancy standing in front of that thing doing exactly what it’s here to stop.” Spike gestures to the demon, who seems to be enjoying itself throwing Rupert and Xander about. Huddled under a low hanging branch, Willow and Tara are working on getting the barrier down again. “You’ll do fine” Ethan insists.

Spike, after staring incredulously at him for a moment, begins the chant with an air of one unfairly put upon.

For every word from Spike in Latin, Ethan adds a line of Greek. It is stilted at first but the waiting magic swells again, responding to it and lifting it, forcing them into a more flowing supplication.

Then the demon crashes through the sacred circle. Instinctively ducking down and to the side, Ethan tightens his grip on the skull, the magic demanding that the ritual be complete.

Spike, apparently, has no such intuition, and abandons his chanting just because the demon picks him up and throws him against a tree. Pages of the dropped book flutter to the forest floor as the magic dissipates and Ethan lets go the skull, scurries behind a nearby rock and away from the demon.

The demon looking for the Word of Valios, he realises belatedly. Which he left underneath the skull in the centre of the chalk circle, not a foot from where the demon is standing. Bugger.

At least it’s hidden. And the demon hasn’t spotted it yet, seems more interested in beating up Spike. Standing up behind the relative safety of his rock, Ethan shouts, “Rupert – a little help here!” But then he spots Rupert, unconscious on the ground, and Xander slumped against a tree, groaning. Willow and Tara are deep into their chant.

“Damn it” Ethan looks round to the demon, the skull and the currently-being-pounded vampire. If the barrier were down, the heroic thing to do would be grab the Word of Valios and run. Thankfully, it is not down, because Ethan isn’t sure he could pull that off. Isn’t sure what he should do instead either so he settles for running over to Rupert, cradling his head in his lap. “Rupert?”

Rupert groans reassuringly.

Ethan glances over to the demon. Its foot is dangerously close to the skull but it still hasn’t noticed the talisman beneath it. Having caught Spike with the book, it seems fixated on punishing him, and Spike finally retaliates, twisting with a growl to give himself leverage to throw a punch that knocks the demon back and over the skull, flipping it over.

Next, several things happen at once: the demon sees the talisman, Spike, apparently not in pain, gives a triumphant whoop and lunges at it, and Willow and Tara’s chanting reaches a peak that sends magic pulsing through the night air and tears the barrier down. Buffy appears, rushing in from the other side to get the last demon, but, honestly, Spike has this in hand. Watching the fight unfold, Ethan jumps when Willow touches his shoulder. “Is he okay?” she nods to Giles. Behind her, Tara is reviving Xander.

“He’ll be fine” Ethan confirms. “Someone needs to do the ritual.”

“On it” Willow nods. “Come on, Tara.”

*****

“Buffy!” A muscle-bound young man hastily lowers his torch as they emerge from the trees. Ethan freezes as he clocks the camo.

“Riley” Buffy blinks at him for a moment. She doesn’t seem surprised to see him but neither does she seem to know what to say.

“Is everything alright?” he asks, and the question seems coded, as though he’s not sure how much to say in front of strangers.

“Yeah” Buffy replies. “Everything’s sorted.”

“Oh. Good.” The young soldier nods shyly at the others and smiles widely when he recognises, “Willow, hi! And Tara, good to see you.”

“Hey Riley” Willow grins at him. “You just out for a walk in your camo gear?”

“I” Riley glances down at himself, eyes widening. “It’s just, err...”

Ethan, deciding that the newcomer is not about to shoot, doesn’t stay to hear the rest. Supporting Rupert who is conscious but not necessarily coherent, he edges sideways and away, towards the safety of the well lit campus. Spike comes round to Rupert’s other side to help, obviously keen to escape the soldier’s notice, and Ethan doesn’t begrudge him this.

*****

“Very convenient, us having the talisman in our living room” Rupert comments later. It is the second time he’s said it in as many minutes and Ethan looks at him worriedly. Replies, “I suppose so. Except for it leading directly to your obvious concussion that is. Come on” He stands up. “Hospital, now.”

Rupert, sprawled on the sofa, waves a hand dismissively. “I’m fine. I just mean to say, if we had more artefacts like that…”

“Then you could enjoy even more concussions, yes.” Ethan pulls his fiancé to his feet and steadies him, guides him towards the door.

“I mean” murmurs Rupert, “Just think of the Gem of Amara, just sat there for who knows how long! If we’d known about it, we could…Where are we going?”

“Hospital. We could what?”

“Well we could prevent things before the demons even start causing trouble. And it would give me something to do.”

Ethan nods, not necessarily understanding, but keen to be supportive for as long as it takes to get Rupert in the car. “That sounds like a good idea, love. Come on, let’s get you patched up.”

Chapter Text

“So then I thought it might be worth checking the catacombs at the convent” Rupert tells Ethan, side stepping slightly to let the young partygoers mill more comfortably around them. “I’ll have to come up with a suitable cover story, of course. Tell them I’m a historian or something.”

“It seems like a lot of trouble for one chalice” replies Ethan, looking around. Over on the other side of the room, Buffy is entwined with the muscular soldier. Probably not the best time to go up and wish her a happy birthday.

“Not at all, when it has the mystical potential of this one” says Rupert.

He’s been at this all week, pouring over his books for obscure references to obscure artefacts hidden in Sunnydale, things that could be used by or against them. Already they have a cursed urn hidden behind the kitchen bin and now it seems Rupert is pretty close to finding this chalice that may or may not be referenced in an ancient text he visited the museum to study.

Really, Ethan can’t help but be a little worried about having all these appealing little apocalypse starters just lying around the house, but better they be in Rupert’s possession than anyone else’s, he supposes. That and its given Rupert a purpose at last. One that involves both books and a lot of exploration of old tombs no less. “Remind me to start work on that protection spell” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before you disturb something’s nap.”

“I think I can manage a demon or two” replies Rupert loftily.

“Oh, I know you think that.”

“I’ll be alright, Ethan. Besides, I do wonder if the soldiers haven’t reduced the demon numbers a little – I’d have thought I’d have come across some by now.”  

“I wouldn’t talk about that too much here.” Ethan nods to Buffy’s new squeeze. He still has his arm around her and is talking to a group of other young men. Probable they’re all soldiers.

Rupert looks puzzled, and Ethan suddenly realises, “Oh – you don’t know!”

“Don’t know what?” Xander joins them, trailed by Anya.

“About” As a group of men wander past, Ethan drops the comment, but nods meaningfully to Riley.

“Oh” says Xander with a look of dawning understanding. “That”

“Yeah, that” mutters Anya.

“That?” repeats Rupert, “That what? What are you all talking about?”

“You don’t know?” asks Xander. “But you were there when we all left the woods.”

“And he’d just taken a blow to the skull, remember?” Ethan says.

“Oh, yes. How’s that healing, by the way?”

“I’m fine” replies Rupert, coldly. “Except for not knowing what you all apparently know, that is.”

“Well, the thing is…” Xander goes quiet as the music cuts out briefly and a track is changed. He looks to Ethan for help.

“Well” Ethan tries, “You recall how your slayer has a tendency to sleep with the enemy?” Again, Ethan nods meaningfully at Riley.

Rupert’s eyes widen. “But…I can see his reflection in the window!”

“Not that kind of enemy” says Anya.

Rupert’s wide eyes narrow again with understanding. “Oh.”

“Yes.” Lowering his voice, Ethan says, “We’re essentially partying at base camp.”

“While things get dissected right under our feet” Anya concludes.

Rupert says, “And none of you thought to tell me this? Not even with all the theories I’ve been working on about” Glancing around, he lowers his voice “about this matter?”

“Well technically, you were there when we all worked it out” says Xander. “Just not all there.”

“Sorry Rupert” says Ethan. “I should have realised you hadn’t taken it in.”

“But really” adds Anya, “we haven’t known long and there’s plenty of time for them to capture us all either way.”

“I’m sure it won’t come to that” Rupert reassures her. He watches Buffy and Riley. “And he seems a nice chap in himself, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah” says Xander. “He’s pretty solid.”

“Sweet to her” agrees Anya. She catches Ethan’s eye, and they share a look that acknowledges how little it matters unless these muscle clad boys stop whatever it is they’re doing in the town’s underworld.

*****

Giles is woken by badly supressed giggling, to find Ethan standing over him with a camcorder. “Wake up Rupert…Rupert…ha…ha ha…”

As Ethan finally dissolves into helpless laughter, Giles sits up. “’m awake. Ethan, what on earth are you doing?”

“Rupert, you…” Ethan laughs, “You…you might want to look in mirror…”

Giles stands and, with a disorientating feeling of bigness, heads to the stairway mirror.

At the sight of his demonic reflection, he roars and charges back to the bedroom. “Ethan, you arse, undo it this minute or I swear to Go –”

“Rupert, I don’t know what you think you’re saying, but it’s coming out all growls.” Ethan finally sets the camcorder down. “It’s rather lovely actually.” His hand ghosts over leathery skin. “You know, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to bed a fyarl demon. Care to help me find out?”

Giles sinks to the mattress, head in hands. “Oh God, and once again your depravity leaves me wondering if I feel more pity, amusement or disgust.” Or arousal, but he’ll leave that part out even if Ethan can’t understand him. Apparently he really can’t because the hand on Giles’ scaly shoulder now slips to his back and Ethan purrs, “Can I take that as a ‘yes’?”

“No you bloody can’t!” Giles smacks the hand away. Looking around, he spots the circle Ethan apparently used to transform him as he slept. He points emphatically at it. “Undo this or it’ll be the couch for you tonight! Unless I decide to eat you that is.”

Apparently his tone if not his language is familiar, because Ethan rolls his eyes and kneels down by the circle. “Alright, alright. I’ll have you back in your usual gorgeous body before you know it. Happy anniversary, Rupert.”

Giles sits down across from him, the circle between them. “You’d better have got me a present too” he grumbles.

*****

“Well” Rupert says, when he’s seen Buffy and Riley out the door, “Buffy obviously trusts him.” It had taken a lengthy phone call to convince Buffy that she ought to formally introduce her new beau, but the afternoon had gone well. Except for the inconvenient fact that, “He has the IQ of a Labrador” Ethan points out, “and he’s the one that’s told her to trust the rest of them.”

“Be fair, Eth.”

“I am: I said ‘Labrador’. I wanted to say ‘sea cucumber’.” He could swear he sees a smile play at the corners of Rupert’s mouth but his partner keeps it out of his voice as he replies, “Buffy can think for herself.”

“And when it comes to romance her thoughts tend to run along one track.”

“I said be fair.” Rupert warns. Sitting down, he adds, “I’m just happy she’s found someone new at last.”

Ethan sighs. “Don’t get me wrong love: any sea cucumber is better than Angel as far as I’m concerned. But I might just revise that principle if I find myself, say, being dissected.”

Chapter Text

“Well” Ethan snaps the book closed. “That was dull, wasn’t it?”

Willow smiles gamely. “It was okay. I mean, kind of stodgy, but I know I need to know this stuff so I can understand the Macaria Ritus Mortem manuscript.”

“True, and that is vaguely interesting. For a set of rules that mostly tell you what you can’t do, that is.”

“What we can’t do like can’t be done or can’t do because really bad idea?”

Ethan frowns at her, and cautiously replies, “Because it has a tendency to go catastrophically wrong. Really, there’d be no need for a manuscript to say what can’t be done; people can work that out from trial and error.”

“Right.” They are seated at the table in the Magic Box, and Willow’s gaze flickers guiltily to the restricted section.

Ethan asks, “Are we going too fast here? I mean, this stuff is –”

“No: I can handle it.”

“You’re sure? Because we could go back to scrying.”

“No, no. I mean, I get all the principles behind that stuff, it’s just the deeper stuff where I really need to know the rules. Sorry – I know you don’t like rules, but for some of us? Really useful.”

“Well, to each their own, I suppose.” And really, it is high time Willow had the core philosophies of ressurection magic conveyed to her, even if the ground work is terribly dull. He asks, “How are you doing with all this? Are you alright being in here?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it actually helps in a weird way. I’m not craving the bad stuff so much anyway, now, but being here with all the energies, it’s soothing, you know? Like a sort of magic comfort blanket.”

“Good” Ethan stands up and heads over to the shelves, slides the book they were reading back into place. “Not exactly the vibe I was going for with this place, but…”

“No, it’s a good vibe.”

Rejoining her, Ethan asks, “And how’s college going? Not adding too much stress?”

“Nope, just lots of distraction. But less good vibes, what with Buffy all hooked up with the Initiative.”

Ethan glances up. “Wait, what?”

“Well” Willow shrugs. “I’m not saying she’s joined up or anything, she’s just hanging with them a bit. And, you know, beating them up.” Seeing Ethan’s confusion, she adds, “For training.”

“For training them, yes? Because Buffy doesn’t need to practise to beat up a load of human men.”

“I’m not sure. Maybe it was more like a demo. I’ll ask her more about it tonight at the Bronze – we’re all meeting up, just scoobies and love interests.” She pauses. “Which I guess means she’ll bring Riley. Maybe we should have made it just the three of us? But I couldn’t not invite Tara, and Anya seems to come with Xander these days. You know, like a free gift in a cereal box where it catches your eye but then it just hangs around criticising human society while you’re trying to hang out with the cereal.”

“Honestly? It sounds like you could all do with going out and getting wasted together.”

“No thanks – I’ve done my getting wasted. We’ll just hang out. And maybe Riley won’t come anyway if it’s his go out and be commandery shift.”

“Let’s hope.”

“Right, and then I can actually talk to Buffy with her looking at me and see how deep she’s in.”

“Good. Warn her while you’re at it not to give all her secrets away. I’m not one to endorse the secret identity rule but even I know there are limits to who should know about the slayer.”

“And a secret military operation who experiment on demons might not make the cut? Right there with you. I mean, Buffy was all I used a guy to block a taser and I’m thinking right, so now they know a taser would affect you. But that’s probably me being paranoid and anyway I couldn’t say because then Riley walked in and had a twinkie for lunch.”

“I see” says Ethan because he mostly does. “Look, you should call her out on it if she’s ignoring you as soon as Captain America walks in. Back when I was at uni, no-one ignored me just because their boyfriend was around.”

“Didn’t you meet Giles at Oxford? Because I’m thinking maybe you were the one ignoring them.”

“Oh” Thinking about it, Ethan realises that he can remember Rupert’s bedroom in more detail than he remembers his housemates’ faces. “Well maybe, but I bet Buffy’s worse. Listen, I was thinking we’d do a bit of practical next lesson. I know you don’t exactly need practice, but a demon at Willy’s has a load of frozen Gaiafor tears for sale that I thought we could do something with.”

“Aren’t Gaiafor extinct?”

“Maybe that’s why they were crying. We’ll need a Doll’s Eye Crystal before we can get anything out of them, so I’ll buy the tears and keep them in the freezer here until –”

“Oh” Willow beams. “Tara has a Doll’s Eye Crystal. I could ask her along, maybe?”

“Alright, then I’ll just get the tears. See you tomorrow afternoon?”

“Great, see you then.”

*****

Unfortunately, the Ranlir demon who was selling the tears is not at Willy’s when Ethan calls in the following morning. Neither are Harux, Marvin or anyone else worth talking to, just a bad-tempered screegrol behind the bar and a few hungover vampires who have apparently been here since last night. Deciding that he doesn’t want to be forced out, or to end his days as a hangover cure, Ethan buys them a round and sits down to wait for his supplier to show up.

Show up he does, not half an hour later, by which time Ethan is engrossed in a discussion about the Doobie Brothers with one of the vampires. They all look up as the demon stumbles in, clearly exhausted.

“Took you long enough to get here” grumbles the screegrol at the bar. “Left me with the blood rats and the fucking human.”

“Sod off” Ethan tells it easily. Noticing the newcomer’s limp, he asks, “What happened?”

“Soldiers” yelps the demon. “I just” He stops to gasp for air. “I just gave the soldiers the slip. They were out” Another gasp “chasing this vampire, he led them right to me” He gasps again, stumbles to the booth. A few vampires shove over to make room for him. One asks, “They’re not still following you, right?”

“Nah” pants the Ranlir. “I just lost ’em. Been running hours.” Bending sideways, it clutches the scaly section of limb that serves as its ankle. Ethan asks, “Do you still have the Gaiafor tears?”

“Dropped ’em” is the grunted reply.

“You what?”

“You think I had time to stop and pick them up? You know how fast those bastards come at you?”

The vampire with strong opinions on music apparently has strong opinions about where the Initiative should stick those tasers too, and begins to loudly share them. Over this spiel, a shouted command sounds from outside, and then another. They all pause, the vampire stopping mid-sentence, crude hand gesture still in place, frozen in front of him. Over by the bar, the screegrol stops unloading bottles of something unidentifiable from a crate and slowly puts its claws out.

“Shit” says a vampire. “You told us you lost them!”

“I did!” says the injured Ranlir. “I swear I did!”

Scrambling to their feet, they freeze again, this time in something not unlike horror as footsteps, heavy but rapid, sound in the street outside. “Back door?” asks Ethan.

The screegol jabs a clawed finger over its shoulder. “Sewer entrance that way.” The vampires run for it. 

“Sewer entrance?” Ethan repeats, aghast. “Do I look like I’m dressed for the sewers?” But the footsteps are on the stairs now. Thinking better of pointing out the glaring health and safety failings of the establishment, Ethan runs for the back room, the injured Ranlir hobbling in his wake.

Before Ethan even reaches the back door, the front door is down. Within a second, humans outnumber demons for the first time in Willy’s Place’s history. The screegrol leaps over the bar with a roar and grabs one of the invaders, to much – but brief – commotion.

“Thank God!” says Ethan, spinning round as a group of young men overtake him and pour into the backroom. “You have to help me! I was on my way to work and these monsters grabbed me and –”

“Fuck you, Rayne!” exclaims the Ranlir. Ethan offers it an apologetic shrug.

Then they are both blasted with electricity.

*****

“Thank you, Willow” Giles, phone in hand, glances over at Anya, Xander and Spike. Spike is swinging the cognac, watched by Xander who keeps turning worriedly to the door while Anya busies herself readying the area around the vampire with towels and extra lights, something only someone who has seen surgery performed at the kitchen table would know to do. “Hurry” he adds, “won’t you?” In an undertone – he shouldn’t care if he alarms Spike or not but he has no desire to do it gratuitously – he explains, “If it really is a tracer that we’re dealing with, we might not have much time.”

“Sure, I’ll be over right away.” Willow puts the phone down, leaving Giles wondering if he should have asked whether she knows where Ethan is. Naturally he had called the shop first, not wanting to bother Willow for a spell when she’s still trying to find a balance when it comes to using magic to solve problems. But there had been no answer, and in this case, magic might be the only way. To help Spike, that is, and Giles still isn’t entirely sure they shouldn’t just hand him back to the Initiative, but something about the idea is unpalatable. Spike is harmless now, after all.

And meanwhile, where is Ethan? Giles sets the question aside for the time being. There is much to do and his partner is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. 

*****

Ethan opens his eyes. For a moment he can see nothing but grey metal, as though he’s been swallowed whole by a giant, robotic demon. Which would explain why everything hurts.

Then he notices feet, booted feet with camo-clad trousers rising up from them. And the tip of a gun, a large and complex one, trained on him, and on a mangled screegrol, which lies beside him, vibrating slightly as the floor rumbles. Van, Ethan notes with the detached lack of urgency of the recently electrocuted. They are in a van.

His mouth tastes of blood. He closes his eyes again.

*****

Ethan opens his eyes again. For a moment, all he can see is glaring light, but then he sees Buffy. For a distorted second, he thinks she’s walking upside down on the ceiling but then the picture corrects itself and she is walking high above him, on a ledge or mounted walkway, or maybe he is in a pit. She is carrying a gun (a large and complex one) and doesn’t look down to notice him, so he calls up to her – or tries to. He can’t speak. Bugger.

Oh well, she was probably a hallucination anyway. Ethan does feel a little stoned.

Now the woman Buffy was marching away from leaves her collection of monitors and descends to Ethan’s level. She is the same woman he met when he was showing Buffy where the werewolf was, that same professor. Wash? Walsh? Something like that. But that is probably a hallucination as well.

She asks for a report, and a man in a white coat steps into view and starts describing a series of sedatives some poor bloke has been pumped full of.

Oh. That would be Ethan, then. Well, that explains a lot.

Ethan closes his eyes.

*****

When he next opens his eyes, Ethan feels more clear-headed, and, therefore, more alarmed by his surroundings: a cell-like interrogation room with a set of manacles (which he is unfortunately wearing) looped through openings in a steel table, and stains on the far wall that he decides are best not examined. He clears his throat and manages to speak this time, addressing whoever might be listening beyond the steel door: “Hello? Anyone out there? I want to call my…” He stops, unsure who he wants to call. Not Rupert – these bastards can’t get their hands on him too. Maybe Willow? Between tech know-how and magical prowess, she’d be useful right now. But what if the soldiers think so too? Or he could call his lawyer. But then, tell him what? I’m in the custody of a top secret demon research branch of the US military complex?

Besides, they’re not going to let him make a phone call.

Ethan tries again: “You’ve made a mistake here! I’m human!”

Nothing happens. Some unmeasured stretch of time passes, during which Ethan studies the stains on the wall despite himself, internally laments the Gaiafor tears currently defrosting somewhere in Sunnydale, hopes that Willow might be discovering that the shop is still closed and raising the alarm right now, and tells himself that he doesn’t need to piss.

Beyond the walls is silence, broken once, dramatically, by a cry of “Agent Finn I order you to stop!...Riley!”

Ethan sits up at that. Riley? If Riley finds him here, this whole debacle could be sorted out. He tries yelling again: “Riley? That you? It’s Ethan in here – remember me? Ru –” and he stops, loath to mention Rupert.

More time passes, and Riley doesn’t appear like a Labrador in shining armour to save him.

By the time the door opens, Ethan has moved past horror at the stains’ probably-blood status and started to notice that one of the splatters looks like a hedgehog. He looks up to find himself face to face with Buffy’s professor.

So she wasn’t a hallucination. Honestly, he hadn’t realised anyone on the faculty was involved with all this, but it makes sense. Ethan greets her with, “I need to speak to Buffy Summers. She’s a friend of mine.” Not how he’d usually characterise his relationship with Buffy, but she’s my watcher fiancé’s slayer and went to school with my magic tutee would just take too much explaining. He adds, “She can vouch for me. I’m human. I run a magic shop in town and I sometimes go to that” He makes a quick decision to not say demon bar “bar for supplies. Also, is there any chance I could use the men’s room?”

Looking pokerfaced from him to the clipboard in her hands, the professor replies, “Our tests indicate that you’re human.”

Tests? A shiver runs down Ethan’s spine and the need to urinate is suddenly more noticeable. “I don’t remember agreeing to any tests” he replies, his voice aiming for light-hearted and hitting shaky.

“We are also aware that you have supernatural abilities.”

How? “Look, we’re agreed I’m human, so how about you let me go? No hard feelings, of course. I mean, your boys found me with those demons, what were they supposed to think?” Where are those demons now? Did they catch the vampires? “Or could you at least let me speak to Buffy Summers? She knows me.”

“I’ve made arrangements for you to be transported to a facility in Nevada.”

“On what charges!?”

“I’ve been asked to inform you that how comfortable your stay there is depends largely on your attitude upon arrival.”

“Just let me speak to Buffy Summers! Or Riley Finn – he met me at a party. He came to –” Ethan stops before he tells her that Riley knows where their flat is. Keep them away from Rupert, he tells himself. Just keep them away from Rupert.

“If you are able to share with my colleagues in Nevada any information they are interested in, you will find the experience mutually beneficial.”

Rupert will come, Ethan tells himself. As soon as Willow goes to the shop and realises he’s missing, as soon as Buffy goes to Willy’s Place to find out where he might be. But just in case, “I’d like to call the British Embassy.”

“If you choose not to co-operate, you will find the experience less fulfilling” the professor concludes. “I’d think about it carefully, if I were you.” At that moment, an alarm starts buzzing somewhere, a low but persistent drone. The professor looks round as a young man enters behind her. “Professor!” He hurries forward and takes her aside. Even Ethan can see this is a breech of protocol, but there’s an urgency about the soldier that cannot be ignored.

Speaking of… “I still need to use the toilet” Ethan tells them. Maybe he can escape through a convenient bathroom window or something? It seems a little far-fetched.

The alarm cuts out, as the solider continues whatever he is saying: “… wrong with the 314…”

That number, that little reference to what the psychic demons all over town have been so panicked by lately, would catch Ethan’s attention if he wasn’t busy panicking somewhat himself. Setting aside nerves, he makes a show of being in a huff, leaning back as far as the restraints will allow so as to appear casual while listening in. His alarm ratchets up just a little when he hears, “…awake…”

There’s only so scared you can be on a full bladder. “I’ve decided” announces Ethan loudly, “that if I’m not taken to the loo in the next minute or so, I’m going to go anyway just to piss you off. Um, no pun intended.”

The professor, suddenly harried, says to the soldier, “Just take him, Private. I’ve wasted enough time here. I would have been there to stop this if it wasn’t for this batch of arrivals.” She hurries out while the soldier removes Ethan from the restraints protruding from the table to cuff his hands in front of his body. If he were Rupert, he would be able to take advantage of the millisecond’s freedom, but he is not.

He is so far from being Rupert that he is not even able to take advantage of being flung into a porta-loo-like cubicle so small, cold and white that it feels horribly like being in a refrigerator. Once he’s seen to nature’s call, he stares around for a bit but there is no convenient window.

Unless he finds some magical supplies soon, that’s him out of ideas. Experimentally, Ethan runs a hand on the metal seam of the sink, hoping to draw blood to offer Janus. When that doesn’t work he searches his pockets awkwardly, still in handcuffs, to see if they’ve left him with any talismans. Nothing. Not even chalk.

The door opens (they don’t, Ethan notes, knock to check he’s finished) and the young soldier who escorted him here pulls him out and hands him over to an even younger soldier with an even bigger gun, on orders to take “this hostile” to “the loading area”. 

Being thus walked down one white corridor towards another, Ethan becomes aware of a commotion, somewhere not far off in the building. The young soldier seems aware of it too, and glances around at a series of bangs and crashes behind them. Hopefully, Ethan reflects, that will be Rupert’s band of warrior teens come to save him. But then the growling starts and he realises it can’t be. Then, closer, a shout from the professor: “No! No tasers, he feeds on it!”

Alarmingly, the noises seem to be moving closer, not further away. When Ethan glances round at a particularly loud crash, his escort barks, “Keep moving!” and shoves him along, but when an almost desperate sounding professor shouts, “Adam, stand down!” Ethan and the soldier turn as one.

“Damn it” mutters the soldier, then quickens his pace until the corridor gives way to a short flight of stairs, going up. A buzz from some intercom at the soldier’s belt and he soldier pauses, glances back towards the commotion, and then takes the stairs tugging Ethan along. From here they turn a sharp corner and emerge in another white corridor, and then another, wider now, with multiple routes leading off it, going who knows where. There is a large set of doors at one end and a small military vehicle overtakes them, moving the opposite direction. “Come on” calls a solider within it to Ethan’s escort, “All personal to the research area!”

“Yeah, I need to get this hostile secured first.”

“Aren’t you going the wrong way for that?”

“Freak human – going to the boys in Nevada.”

“Fine. Just hurry.” The vehicle moves on. Ethan’s soldier continues to march him towards the imposing doors which, as they draw closer, Ethan realises has a series of what can only be called cages set to one side of them.

They are all empty, but he has a horrible feeling they won’t be once he reaches them.

“You said it yourself” he tries, turning to the soldier. “I’m human.”

The soldier ignores him, quickens the pace as brakes screech against a sound of gunfire not far off.

Then the lights go out. Ethan makes a grab for the gun.

Of course he doesn’t succeed. The soldier flings him to the ground where he instinctively curls up, protects his head as the soldier yells.

Around them, there is a mechanical sigh and the lights come back on, different now, warmer. A back-up generator, perhaps. It sets in just in time to illuminate something barging into the corridor in a series of heavy footfalls.

Whatever it is, it is huge. Ethan, from his vantage point of the floor, has a brief impression of a muscular, multicoloured, heavily sutured chest, strong limbs, metal and a military haircut before it slams into the young soldier, hurling him to the ground. Ignoring Ethan (he doesn’t seem very noticeable today) it then runs on to the doors, stops when they don’t open. Examines a control panel on the wall beside it and starts pressing buttons in a quick but precise-seeming procession.

“Christ” the soldier on the ground mutters, semi-conscious. Ethan reaches over and slides the dropped gun away from him. The monster looks round. “You” it addresses Ethan, “What am I?”

“You’re about to open that door” Ethan replies. “Right?”

“Yes. That is my intention. But it is not my being.”

“Well now we’re getting philosophical” Ethan gets painfully to his feet. “Honestly, I could have stayed in the pub for that.”

The monster looks at him blankly. “The pub?”

“Well, the bar.”

The monster studies him. Ethan finds his own attention snagging on the spear like bone jutting from its arm.

“What are you?” asks the monster.

“He’s not important” a voice answers at the end of the corridor as a group joins them. Ethan identifies Professor Wash-or-Walsh but doesn’t turn around: he doesn’t want to turn his back on that spear.

“Mother” says the monster, possibly just for the sake of making things more unnerving than they already are.

“That’s right, Adam.” Wash-or-Walsh addresses the monster, coming closer in a series of cautious, light steps. Behind her, Ethan can hear the shuffling of many booted feet, the click and slide of big guns being readied. “You know me, don’t you?”

“Yes. But I don’t know me. Why is that?”

“There’s been a malfunction in your programme. You weren’t supposed to wake up yet. Come with me and we’ll sort this out.”

Ethan shakes his head, regaining the monster’s attention. “You don’t want to do that. Seriously, old chap, open the door.”

“Private Green” the professor calls back, down the corridor. “Shoot this hostile.”

“No, no!” Ethan yelps. He spins round, finally, side-steps to block the professor’s path, placing her between himself and the soldiers behind her. One of them, gun aimed, pauses. Ethan meets the professor’s eye and mines a zipping motion over his mouth.

She glowers at him, but says, “Private, at ease.” The gun is lowered.

Behind Ethan, there is welcome grating of metal on metal and cool, fresh air, blissful stuff, breezes into the corridor as the light alters again. There is bird song and Ethan – not daring yet to turn around – senses the monster’s head turn in the direction of it.

“Adam” the professor commands, “Walk to me and we’ll get this sorted out. I’ll answer all your questions.”

Ethan turns slowly, unchallenged with everyone’s attention on Adam. The monster is still in the doorway, staring around. Looking from it (him?) to the soldiers, Ethan makes a quick decision. Being careful to keep the professor between him and her backup, he walks up to the monster. Adam turns at his approach. Behind him, the outside world is tantalisingly close, a welcome square of forest slicing into the white-tiled wall.

Just a few steps and Ethan would be free, but Adam is blocking his way, studying him intently. Making eye firm eye contact with the mismatched eyes, Ethan nods meaningfully towards the other humans assembled. Unlikely that Adam understands what a meaning nod is, but it directs his attention none the less. Ethan takes the opportunity to shuffle sideways, one foot encountering soft soil and leaf litter.

Adam’s hand shoots out and holds him in place. Ethan flinches, but the monster’s attention is still on the professor.

“Adam” the professor tries again, “I know that you’re disorientated. That’s because of the malfunction. Let me examine you and we can sort out the confusion. I can give you access to your files.”

Adam looks from her, to the soldiers beyond. He takes a step forward, his hand dropping from Ethan’s shoulder.

Ethan runs.

Chapter Text

“Ow”

“Sorry” Giles adjusts his position to dab more gently at the cut at Ethan’s temple.

Ethan flinches again. “I said ow!”

“I know love, but if we let your pain threshold set the pace, we’d be at this all night.” Giles lets his actions become gentler still nonetheless.

“I’d be in favour of that” replies Ethan sulkily. He eyes Xander’s basement room with an unimpressed air. Giles points out, “At least we’ve got the bed.” With Ethan turning up in the state he was in, all mud and shallow cuts and needle marks, just as they were starting to worry, it was inevitable they’d been granted the sofa-bed. Xander has even cobbled together privacy curtains out of spare sheets and towels. Giles says, “As soon as I’ve done this, you can get some sleep.”

“As soon as you’ve done this, I’m starting a cloaking spell.”

Giles shakes his head: cloaking spells take time, and starting tomorrow rather than tonight makes little difference. Then again, he would think that, from the privileged position of not having been held captive by an unaccountable branch of the military all day. He says, “They don’t know that we know Xander. No-one will think to look for us here.”

“Ah, yes, because no-one from the US military has any ability to spy on anyone. They’ll never find us all the way across town in a friend’s basement.”

“They may not even be looking for you.” Giles ignores the icy sarcasm. He finishes cleaning Ethan’s cut and sits down beside him on the bed, pulls him into his arms. “You may be more trouble to recapture than you’re worth to them.”

Ethan shrugs. “Just because you think I’m more trouble than I’m worth.”

“Oh, come on!” Giles pulls his partner closer still and plants a kiss in his hair. He smells of disinfectant, but also of the forest he ran through and the sweat it cost him. Giles rubs his arm, fingers lingering at the crook of Ethan’s elbow, where the mark left over from an IV line is obvious. “You know that’s not true. Now. How about you try to sleep and I’ll wake you up when Xander gets back with supplies? You can start your spells then if it puts your mind at ease.”

“No. I’m too worked up to sleep.” But Ethan doesn’t protest when Giles starts stroking his back in a well-practiced way that he is bound to succumb to eventually, beyond muttering, “That’s cheating, Rupert.”

“So be it. You need sleep.”

There is a tap at the wall on the other side of the “curtains” and Buffy steps into view. “Hey. Feeling better?”

Ethan scowls at her. “I’m fine. No thanks to your boyfriend.”

“He didn’t know.” Buffy puts the case Giles packed earlier on the bed. Giles asks her, “Are the three of you all sorted?”

“Yup. I get the chair, Willow gets the sleeping bag and Anya gets the bean bag. We’re not really sure what Xander gets yet.”

Ethan stares at the case. “So were the lot of you just remarkably well prepared for me becoming a fugitive, or am I missing something?”

Buffy leans against the wall, folds her arms. “Professor Walsh tried to kill me.”

Ethan looks from her to Giles and makes a there-you-go sort of gesture.  “I knew it!”

“Well you might have warned me!” pouts Buffy.

“I did! I told you I didn’t trust them.” Ethan shakes his head. “So now we’re all in hiding?”

Giles nods. “I’m afraid we were already packed to come here before we even realised you were missing. Willow hadn’t been able to get to your lesson because Spike turned up with a tracer that required magical intervention.”

Ethan looks despairing. “I don’t believe this. I leave you people alone for one afternoon and you get yourselves wanted by the US army?”

“Like you can talk!” Buffy retorts.

“It was different for me! I had circumstances.”

“Circumstances like hanging out with demons? If we’re having an I-told-you-so fest, I did tell you that might be a problem.”

“It’s not just demons they take” points out Ethan. “It turns out they’ve got a whole facility in Nevada for humans.” His expression is sombre all of a sudden, his tone slipping from triumphant to troubled. “It was where they were going to send me before Adam interrupted.”

Buffy takes this in, straightening up, apparently unconsciously, into a battle stance. She tells Giles, “Now I don’t know if we should focus on that or Adam.”

“We can’t focus on that, Buffy” Giles replies heavy-heartedly. “We don’t have the power to take on the army. But I will report to the Council; it could be that they have the resources to change things.”

Ethan tuts. “They’re probably in on it.”

“They wouldn’t do that to humans” Giles insists and wishes he could be more than seventy percent certain he’s right. Seeing that Buffy doesn’t look any more convinced than his partner sounds, he adds, “And there’s a coven in Devon that might be able to do something. I really don’t know what, but they are powerful.”

“Oh, that’s right” Ethan mutters, “Set the hippies on them.” But he sounds marginally relieved.

Buffy says, “Good. So I guess that leaves us with Adam?”

“Adam’s their problem” Ethan tells her. “He went back to them. Our problem is staying out of their way.” To Giles, he asks, “What supplies did you tell Xander to get?”

“Basic ingredients for memory charms and some things for cloaking, though whether you’ll really need to do both is –”

“I’ll do both.”

“And I’ll help.” Willow enters their sheeted-off cocoon. Anya follows with refreshments, setting a plate carefully on the bed and looking around for somewhere to put the mugs.

Buffy says, “Actually, Will, I was thinking you could deal with the computer stuff. You were right – we need to find out what their goal is.”

Anya puts the mugs down and says, “I’m betting it has to do with Adam.”

“Yeah” Buffy frowns. “Willow, if they have any convenient files marked Frankenstein that’d be…way too easy I guess.”

“’Fraid so” Willow retreats back behind the curtain.

“Frankenstein’s monster” corrects Anya.

Buffy responds, “Huh?”

“It was Frankenstein who built the monster. Except that was out of dead people, not demon parts and robots. Weird book, but then, what do you expect from a woman who lived with that poet voluntarily. I kept waiting for her to summon me, but no…”

Willow reappears, cradling a laptop. “I’m not sure they’ll be a demon parts and robots file either”

“I imagine there’s a code name” says Giles, keen to refocus the group.

“314” supplies Ethan.

“Like pi?” Buffy asks. “Evil pi?”

Ethan shrugs. “It’s what the demons have been on edge about lately.”

Watching Willow set the laptop down as she types, Anya asks, “Are you in?”

“In as in got the laptop on? Yep. In as in currently hacking a secret demon-hunting branch of the military? That might take longer.”

“Well we don’t need to wait for that, do we?” asks Ethan. “Last I checked, Buffy was still dating one of these soldiers. Where is the lovely Riley?”

There is an awkward silence, in which Giles watches his slayer slip from battle stance back into merely defensive. His arm has slipped from Ethan’s shoulder during the conversation, but he pulls him close again now, subtly reminding Buffy that Ethan needs allowances made today. Willow types in silence, eyes on the screen. Anya explains to Ethan, “See, the thing is, last you checked was before he went storming out the flat in a mood because Buffy had the nerve to almost get murdered.” To Buffy, she adds, “I agree with Spike. Your choice of boyfriends is tragic at best. Have you ever considered vengeance?”

“He’s just confused” mutters Buffy. “He’ll come around.”

“I hope so” Giles replies, letting it sound simply supportive, but also aware how useful an informant would be, someone with access.

Ethan frowns, then looks at his suitcase at the end of the bed. Pulling it towards him, he opens it up and examines the contents. “This is all you packed for me?”

“Sorry if our need to escape capture took priority over ensuring you have a full wardrobe, love.” Giles keeps his voice light, glad to see Ethan distracted.

“Rupert, I mean that I need spell ingredients – probably more than whatever Xander will find. Although, now you mention it, these are a little drab.”

Buffy rolls her eyes. “We were going for incognito, not Disco Stu.”

“Oi, watch it, Buffy. Look, can I make you a list? I’ll need galena and some Hertanian offering beads for confusion hexes.”

Buffy looks dubious. “Can’t we just send Xander out again for that? He’ll be back any minute.”

“He won’t find those anywhere in town that I know of but it’s all in the Magic Box. And since that might be being watched…”

“Got it” Buffy straightens up. “Sewer entrance, not Xander friendly. Not me friendly either, by the way, but at least I won’t be eaten by anything down there.” She pauses, frowns. “I’ll go look for Riley first though, see if he’s ready to talk. I don’t want to do that post sewer.”

“Good luck” Willow tells her.

“Thanks. And you guys will be okay here?”

“We’ll be fine” Giles assures her. “We’ve all got research to keep ourselves busy, except for Ethan who needs to sleep.” He directs the end of that sentence pointedly at his partner, but Ethan smiles thinly and corrects him with, “except for Ethan who’ll be working on defensive spells. Just as soon as Xander brings my supplies, that is.”

“Just as long as they’re defensive” Buffy tells him as she sets off. “Remember, these guys may be sketchy but they are human.”

“The best monsters always are” Ethan murmurs.

*****

Ethan, despite his best laid plans, is sleeping off his adventure by the time Xander returns with magic supplies sourced from dealers all around Sunnydale.

Letting him sleep, Giles directs Xander to leave the supplies at the foot of the bed and resumes pacing. As soon as Ethan was out, the anger hit. What those bastards had tried to do, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

What they could still do.

There isn’t much room to pace, between all their luggage and bedding, and the rounded-up mystical artefacts he’s been gathering from around Sunnydale, an enchanted dagger now joining the urn and the chalice. He’d had to bring them, of course – a poor show to track them down for safekeeping only to let them fall into the hands of the Initiative.

Finally, after more skirting around bags and boxes than his nerves can tolerate, Giles stops pacing. He hears Xander let out a long-held breath as he ceases.

Willow looks up from the laptop. “You want me to start on some spells?”

“No thank you, Willow” replies Giles. “Ethan can start on that once he’s awake.”

“Are you sure? Because I can handle it. I’m doing better with magic.”

“I know you are, but frankly I think Buffy’s right – we need to know what their agenda is.”

“Yeah, but we also need to not get captured.”

“They don’t know we’re here, Will” says Xander. “Or they’d have waltzed on in here before now.”

“I guess” Willow supposes, “I guess we don’t know that this isn’t Professor Walsh’s vendetta. Maybe with Adam awake, things change anyway. I mean, that’s got to be what Buffy was getting too close to, right?” She focuses on her work again, leaning closer to the screen. “That or what they’re going to do with him.”

“So don’t want to think about that” says Xander.

“I’m going to call the Council” Giles decides.

*****

Getting through to anyone in a position to do anything takes some time. Explaining the situation takes more time and then Giles is dismissed, left to wait while the Council consider the situation.

Maybe he should get Ethan on a plane, send him home? Get him away from Maggie Walsh and her plans.

He joins Xander and Anya in researching known examples of humans, governments especially, using the demon world for their own gain, but such accounts are poorly sourced and patchy. None of them end well.

Giles paces again. Willow, still working on the computer, glances up nervously.

There are far too many of them in a small space. It reminds Giles a little of the squat he and Ethan lived in briefly when they first arrived in London. No wonder they kept getting high back then: it distracted from the smell of cooped up humans and the lack of comfortable seating to go round.

When Ethan finally emerges, he is carrying the magic supplies and asks, “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Because you were kidnapped and injected with God knows what” Giles tells him. “You needed to sleep.”

“I needed to be working on wards.” Ethan roots through the bag. “Is Buffy back yet?”

“Not yet.”

“I’m getting worried” Anya comments. “I bet they’re dissecting her.”

“That or she’s fighting Adam” echoes Xander.

“She may still be looking for Riley” Giles tells them, quashing down his own growing worry. “She’ll be fine.”

Ethan starts pulling packs of herbs and crystals from the bag, starts pushing the mess of blankets on the floor aside to chalk out a rough circle. “Alright. We’ll do memory charms first.”

“Will you be able to be precise enough with that?” Giles asks. The last thing anyone needs is a building full of armed men who’ve forgotten how to control the mechanical monster in their midst.

“Possibly” Ethan replies, off handedly. He uses memory magic, Giles is aware, to ensure that the more dangerous creatures in Willy’s Place don’t remember him, but that is done in the moment, with the creatures in front of him. From a distance – of time or space – the spell is more complex.

Willow speaks up: “If we throw in a supplication to Mnemosyne and mix the lemon balm in with the Lethe’s Bramble, we could at least make them a bit confused about who they’re looking for. Maybe not have a clear idea of what you look like at least. Buffy, they’ll probably remember, what with talking to her over days and everything. I don’t know how to change that from a distance without general memory loss, which…”

“Which probably isn’t a good idea” Giles agrees.

“It isn’t?” asks Xander. “Because having them forget all about us doesn’t sound like a bad plan.”

“We couldn’t do it without them forgetting a lot else besides” Giles explains. “What these strange creatures in cages are or why they all have guns, for example.”

“Ah”

“Would that be so terrible?” Ethan muses. “Letting them panic and kill each other off honestly has it’s appeal to me after the day I’ve had.”

“You don’t mean that” Giles tells him. He sees Ethan consider the matter, his thoughts flickering over his ordeal and what he could do in response behind his carefully closed expression. “I suppose not” he decides, grudgingly. “Alright then. What about their computer records? I can’t be sure they didn’t take photos.” He shudders, and Giles puts a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Willow replies, “It’ll take a while before I’m in but maybe I could at least corrupt some of what they added today if I infect a computer virus with a target-specific Erisian hex. It’s what I did to get the government to give you your green card back.”

Ethan shudders again, but more for show this time. “Gods, child, are you sure you don’t want to work for them?”

Willow grins. “I didn’t hear you complaining back then.”

“And you won’t now. But it is extraordinary.”

“Wait” says Xander, “You changed more than a day’s worth of records then. Why not now?”

“Because we want to know what their plan is” explains Anya. “We can’t do that if all their computers turn to mush.”

“That’s right” says Willow. “Plus, I’m guessing they have the best protections out there. Maybe mystical stuff too.”

 “Do you have what you’ll need here?” asks Giles.

Willow examines their supplies. “Probably not. Maybe I could go to Tara’s? They haven’t met her any more than Xander and I don’t like to think of her out there on her own.”

“But she lives on campus” Ethan points out.

Anya shakes her head. “You don’t want to risk that.”

“I kind of do for Tara. Or maybe I could call her and invite her over here?”

“Sure” says Xander. “One more fugitive won’t make a difference.” Beside him, Anya looks around at the limited space and raises an eyebrow doubtfully.

*****

Tara’s arrival makes the room more crowded but significantly calmer. Between her help and Willow’s, Ethan has soon cast enough spells to feel safe from imminent abduction.

Which leaves them with nothing to do but watch Willow work her other magic on the computer and grow increasingly worried about where Buffy has got to. It’s been hours now.

Giles is just about to suggest a location spell or a search party when she comes down the stairs. From above, Xander’s mother loudly announces her arrival, and Xander yells up, “Thanks, mom!” before greeting Buffy with, “Jeez, Buff, what took you so long?”

“Got chatting to some creepy men in black types.” Buffy empties her pockets, hands Ethan a packet of beads and a chunk of mineral. Ethan tells her, “I don’t need them anymore” and Buffy glares at him. Xander asks, “Men in black as in top secret with snappy suits?”

“Yep” Buffy sits down. “Oh, hi Tara. Welcome to outlaw central.” She looks at Giles. “Not that we’re that apparently.”

“According to the men in black?” Willow sets her laptop aside.

“Yep” Buffy folds her arms. “I was just done looking for Riley and these super conspicuous guys come up to me and want to go somewhere to talk. I figure why not because I could take them.”

“Did you find Riley?” asks Anya.

Buffy grimaces. “I’ll get to that. Anyway, these guys took me off to an office in town that they’d blatantly only moved into, like, today. They gave this totally non-threatening speech about how Professor Walsh decided to kill me all by herself and she’s going to back off now because “we” have no interest in interfering with the slayer.”

“Who’s we?” asks Willow.

“That’s what I wanted to know” replies Buffy. “Guess how much they told me.”

“I’m gonna go with diddly squat” says Xander.

“Not even that” Buffy brushes a strand of hair from her face, folds her arms again. “But they kind of implied that I don’t get murdered as long as I don’t tell anyone about the Initiative. And let’s face it, who’d I tell?”

“Giles told the watchers” Anya supplies.

Buffy asks Giles, “Do you think they sent the creepy guys?”

“Doesn’t sound like them” mutters Ethan sarcastically.

Ignoring that, Giles replies, “I’m really not sure. But given how quickly they arrived, I’m inclined to think not.”

Ethan nods grudgingly. “That’s a point. The council’s many things, but it’s not fast.”

“Indeed” Giles admits.

Ethan asks Buffy, “Did these men happen to mention if the Initiative are still after me?”

“No. I mean, they didn’t mention you at all. Just did this whole you-back-off-we’ll-back-off dance. Except not an actual dance.”

Willow asks, “Does that mean we can leave? No offence to your basement, Xander.”

“None taken. I mean, much as I like having this exciting lack of floor space…”

“I’m still going to cloak the flat when we go back” says Ethan. This seems excessive to Giles, but after what Ethan has been through, he can’t blame him for wanting to do it. He says, “Alright. And Willow, your um, your intervention will…”

“Will hopefully make sure they just vaguely remember they arrested some random human but they won’t know who. They’ll probably put all the vagueness down to the massive distraction that is Adam.”

Giles asks Buffy, “Did you find out anything else about him?”

“Nothing” Buffy shrugs. “I guess they put him back in his cage.”

“H-he sounds scary” murmurs Tara.

“Well he’s a mix of demon, robot and military-type” says Ethan. “All the worst things.”

“M-military type? Did they u-use one of their soldiers?”

Buffy’s eyes widen. “I hadn’t even thought! I guess I just assumed they used a dead guy, like our science fair Frankensteins.”

“I sure didn’t need to know different” mutters Xander with a shudder.

“We’ll probably find out once we’re in their system” Willow gestures to the laptop. “Um. You said you’d get to Riley?”

Looking briefly cornered, Buffy glances around at her assembled friends. “Yeah. Um. He’s not talking to me. I found him on campus and it’s like I wasn’t there. Completely blanked me.”

“Classy” says Xander.

“Spike was right” Anya says grimly.

Buffy glares at her. “Spike’s never right” she retorts. “Especially not about my love life. No, Riley’s just confused is all.”

Ethan looks incredulous. “Confused about whether to side with his girlfriend or the people who tried to kill her?”

“He wasn’t there” Buffy says defensively. “He’s been working for these people for years, he trusts them.”

“Oh, I see: he’s confused about whether to believe his girlfriend or the people who tried to kill her.”

“Ethan has a point, Buffy” says Giles. “It sounds to me as though he’s made his choice.”

“Yeah” counters Buffy, “after years of brainwashing! Look, I’m not saying he’s not majorly in the doghouse, but this is hard on him too. As far as he’s concerned he was G.I. Good Guy and now his boss wants me dead for finding out she stitches monster parts together in her free time?”

“It’s got to be a mind fuck” concedes Xander.

“Yeah” says Willow, “but still. He must have seen Adam by now, shouldn’t he be all eep I’m on the wrong side?”

“He might still get there” says Buffy.

“And if not” says Anya, “there’s always vengeance.”

Frowning, Buffy asks, “What if it’s not just confusion? What if they’re controlling him somehow?”

Giles asks, “Do you have any reason to think that’s the case?”

“Other than wishful thinking” mutters Ethan. Giles elbows him gently and Buffy glares. Buffy replies, “Well, there’s the fact that there’s a monster made of probably-soldier bits lurking somewhere under campus. These guys aren’t exactly signed up to employee rights.”

“So he’s scared” finishes Xander. “Well can I be the first to say big whoop? I’ve been scared plenty of times being in your life and I never said Oh golly gee I might get hurt, I’d better blank her.”

“But we don’t know what they’ve threatened” argues Buffy. “Maybe he’s got to do what they say or they’ll go after his family. I mean, it’s not like he attacked me, he just ignored me. If it’s a choice between an upset girlfriend and his family and all their dogs being fed to Adam, I can see why he’d pick angry Buffy.” Quietly, she explains, “He has a lot of dogs.”

“And no balls” Ethan adds. Buffy glares again. Then she asks them, “But could it be more than that? I mean, he was behaving like a robot, what if they did something to him?”

“Like mind control?” asks Willow.

“Like they weren’t scary enough” murmurs Tara. Willow takes her hand.

“Something like that” says Buffy.

“I’m not sure we have proof of that” says Giles. “Buffy, I know it’s hard, but you do need to face the possibility that he may simply not be the man you first thought him.”

“The man she first thought him” Anya puts in, “is a nice bland TA from Iowa. He lied pretty well then.”

“Yeah” Buffy retorts, “Because he’s a secret agent; it was his job. He thought he was keeping people safe, going after demons. Thought he was keeping me safe from it until he found out I’m the slayer. This was different.” To Giles she adds, “And what with the whole monster made out of partly human parts, I’m not going to put anything past them.”

Giles nods, considering this. “Then you’ll have to try to speak to him again.”

“In a sneaky way” adds Xander. “What with the back-off-and-don’t-get-murdered dance.”

“Check” Buffy agrees. “Sneaky rescue of Riley coming up.”

Chapter Text

“So this Hula necklace is powerful?” asks Buffy, shining a torch around the subterranean temple as she and Giles step over the threshold.

“Hulechla” says Giles. “And yes, it is. Nothing we can use but it’s prophesised to play a role in an apocalypse around the turn of the next millennium.”

Buffy gives him a sideways look. “Giles, you know I love that you’re organised, but isn’t that taking things a little far?”

“We may not be around by then but I’d like the human race to be.” Giles examines a carving in the wall, running the beam of his own torch over the length of it.

“And this thing will help?”

Giles nods. “Or dramatically hinder. I do wish prophesies were clearer but this one has been rewritten several times over the years.”

“So it’s either good powerful or bad powerful and we don’t know which?” Buffy slips a hand gingerly into an opening carved into the wall by the shrine.

“The Council will be able to guard and study it.”

Buffy looks over with a scowl that he catches briefly in a sweep of his torch. “We’re giving the potentially world endy jewellery to the watchers? Not much that could go wrong there.”

“Well we mustn’t destroy it in case it turns out to be world – err – world savey” Giles scowls himself at his language. Ignoring Buffy’s laugh he goes on, “I’m having a few things collected by the Council that shouldn’t be laying around Sunnydale for the demons to find.”

“You’re really into this ancient artefact quest, huh?”

“I am rather.” Giles steps over to the shrine, stoops to shine the torch underneath it. “It gives me something to occupy myself with, given that um, that –”

“That the library blew up?”

“Yes, well that did rather leave me at a loose end.” Giles glances up. “Thank you for coming with me, incidentally. I know you’d probably rather be, well...”

“Stalking Riley? Nope. I’m backing off for now. Only so many times you can get the brush off before you actually brush off.” Buffy’s light tone hides a depth of pain.

“He’s still not talking to you?” Giles asks gently.

In the torchlight, he sees Buffy look down before turning back to the roughly carved wall. “Not talking, not looking, not answering his calls. I can’t help him unless he speaks to me.” Quieter, slipping her hand into another crudely hewn hole in the wall, she adds, “Maybe he doesn’t need rescuing after all. Or if he does, I need to find a different way to do it. I can’t just grab him and put him under a truth spell. Unless I just grab him and put him under a truth spell?”

“I’m not sure that wouldn’t make you a target again.”

“I guess.” Buffy doesn’t sound remotely convinced. “Also, I haven’t exactly had time to talk to him alone – he’s always surrounded by other Initiative types and they’re all acting weird. Or maybe I’m just noticing the weird now.” She heads over to the shrine and examines the wall behind it. “How’s Ethan?”

“Still a little paranoid” Giles replies. “I’ve been keeping him company in the shop all week.” Admittedly this has been only partly Ethan’s reluctance to be left alone – the rest has been Giles’ reluctance to leave Ethan alone.

“I’m sure he’ll – oh!” Buffy reaches into the mouth of a carved demon head at the back of the shrine. “Found it!”

“Oh!” Giles hurries over and shines his torch on the gold and ruby necklace. “Excellent. That’s –”

“Slayer” A low growl from the entrance way has them spinning round to face a group of demons.

“Great” mutters Buffy. “Why do creepy artefacts always have horny things guarding them?” She pauses, fists raised. “Um, forget I said the horny part.”

“Happily” Giles reaches around for a weapon, his hand closing round a ceremonial club at the side of the shrine.

A demon steps forward from the rabble. “Your soldiers took five of my boys” it grunts. “It’s time you paid.”

“Seriously?” Buffy rolls her eyes. “Where were you when I stopped working with the army? And they were never my soldiers!” She adds to Giles, “How convenient would that be?”

“Very” says Giles, hefting the club. “But, err, given that we’re outnumbered…”

“Time to focus. Got ya.” Buffy steps towards the demon. It swings a massive fist and she ducks neatly, sends it toppling with a kick.

Giles quickly loses track of Buffy’s side of the fight, taken up, as he is, with the need to not be killed himself. The club is adequate but clumsy, useless unless he has room to swing it, so he has to constantly keep moving, keep space around him and stop them from closing in.

There are five of them, he works out, but one is big enough to count as two. Briefly, the doorway is clear, but Buffy is being grabbed at by the big demon, and then Giles too finds himself clutched at, pinned to a wall as one demon hits him round the face and another prises the club from his hand. Over his assailant’s shoulder, he can see the doorway is blocked again, and that Buffy is also being lifted off her feet. Then the demon in front of him leans in and Giles tilts his head back to try for a headbutt.

Before he can swing his skull down, the demon yowls. Blood hits Giles’ face and, a second later, so does the demon’s head. Giles recoils, pulling free of another demon’s grip in his haste to get away from the falling corpse. The other demon grabs at him until it, too, sinks to the ground with a spurt of blood. With both of them fallen, Giles is able to see past them to, “Faith!”

“Hey G-man” Faith winks at him. “Long time no see.” Casually, she frees Buffy by decapitating the demon that has hold of her.

Stumbling forward, Buffy gasps, “Faith?!”

Faith grins. “Do I get a hug?”

Buffy looks so delighted that Giles is sure for a moment that they will hug and leave him to handle the two remaining demons. But then Buffy leaps backwards, clobbers the demon behind her, and Faith takes her blade to the final one.

“I see Sunnyhell hasn’t changed” says Faith, slinging her weapon back into a sheaf on her back, once they are standing among demon corpses.

Buffy gives her a shaky smile and then the suggested hug. “How are you here?” she asks. “We weren’t told…” She looks to Giles, as though suddenly remembering he is there. “Were we?”

“No-one told me” he replies. Then, least Faith feel interrogated, he asks, “Do you still have the necklace?”

“Um, yeah.” Buffy hands it over. Glancing at it, Faith says, “That’ll suit you, Giles.”

“Well” Giles slips the necklace into his pocket, deciding in the moment not to tell Faith what it is. “Let’s go somewhere more comfortable, shall we? Faith, how did you know to find us here?”

“I just arrived in town and I figured, what fun place might B and Giles be hanging out in tonight?” Faith follows them out, torchlight mapping a path down a pitch tunnel, and Giles can’t help but wish she had gone in front. Faith elaborates, “Nah, seriously, I got to town, thought I’d find you guys patrolling and saw you come down here. What was that stuff about soldiers?”

“Long story” answers Buffy.

“Well” says Faith, “it’s been a while since I had anything to do.”

*****

“So” says Giles, setting the phone down after a series of illuminating calls. “You didn’t actually complete the rehabilitation programme?”

“Hey” Faith, looking as harmless as she ever has on their sofa with her arms wrapped around her torso, shuffles under his scrutiny. “I rehabilitated the hell out of myself at least ten times over, and they still wouldn’t let me leave.”

“So you escaped?”

“I had to” Faith looks around, taking in Giles’ carefully blank expression, Ethan’s look of unease and Buffy’s sympathetic frown. Reaching for Buffy, she says, “B, they were using this spell on me, making me all spaced and useless. They could have told me to jump off a cliff and I’d have done it.”

“What did they actually have you do?” asks Giles.

“Training and a load of question answering” is the reply. “Which, fair enough, but as soon as I had questions of my own, they hit me with all that mind-control crap. And then there was the drugs.” To Buffy, she adds, “Not as fun as it sounds.”

“So you had to get away from them” Buffy concludes.

“Did you do it without killing anyone?” asks Ethan.

Faith nods. “Wesley helped.”

Buffy offers a hollow laugh. “It must have been bad to make Wesley rebel.”

“Well you say that” Ethan tells her, “Personally I find watchers rebel rather impressively. And the tweedier they start out the better.”

“Thank you, Ethan” Giles quickly intercedes. “Faith, the Council have decided that now you’ve, err, got yourself here, it would be best to see how you cope in Sunnydale rather than intervene.”

“Let me guess” says Buffy, “that decision comes with a big old We’ll kill you if you screw up?”

“I imagine so, yes.”

Faith shrugs. “So, I won’t screw up. Only put the pointy things in the bad guys, right? I got this.”

Really, if that little gem of wisdom is all the Council have managed to impart, Giles wonders if Faith might have been better off staying in Sunnydale after the ascension after all. He continues, “Yes, well. As I understand it, opinions have been divided as to whether you should be sent a watcher. The compromise is that I should watch you in a voluntary capacity.” He feels a tentative hope as he says it, which fades a little as he takes in everyone’s expressions.

“You’re not going to be paid?” asks Ethan.

“What about me?” asks Buffy.

“I don’t need a watcher” declares Faith.

Giles sighs. Deals with his partner first. “Ethan, I lost my job when the Council decided I’m not fit to be a watcher. Really, I’m lucky they’re letting watch Faith at all.”

“I’m not sure luck in the word.” Ethan shakes his head despairingly. “We’re never going to leave this town, are we?”

Faith scowls at him. “Is that code for hurry up and die?”

Ethan shrugs. “You just said you don’t need a watcher. Now it’s life and death?”

Letting Faith dwell on that, Giles turns to Buffy. “Buffy, you know I’m here for you if you need anything at all. You knew Faith was coming back and that I might have a role in it. You thought it was a good idea.”

“I know” Buffy’s tone slips into petulant. “But I guess I didn’t think they’d really…”

“What?” asks Faith, “Make you share?”

“No, no” Buffy protests. “No, I just mean…Look, it’s okay. Absolutely, Giles should be your watcher. He’s a great one.”

Giles feels a smile spread over his face. He asks Faith, “So, what do you think? It might be beneficial for you to have a, a point of contact.”

“Contact with what, the council?” Faith rolls her eyes disgustedly. 

“I’m hardly the Council” Giles points out. “Technically, I’m just a volunteer.”

Faith looks torn for just a moment, looking from Giles’ eager face to Ethan’s disgruntled one, to Buffy’s look of forced supportiveness. “Fine” she decides. “I’ll give it a go. No early morning training, all right?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Okay then” Faith settles back into the sofa, making herself comfortable. “So, what’s been happening while I was gone? Did I miss much?”

*****

“It’s pretty fucked up when you think about it.” Faith crosses her legs on her motel bed, staring off into the middle distance.

Ethan, kneeling by the door in preparation to cast wards, glances over. “You mean Joyce?” After some apparent internal debate, Joyce had decided not to invite Faith back into her home just yet. Honestly, Ethan gives it a month before the two slayers are snuggled up with their mum/pseudo-mum for a film night after all, but Faith still took the rejection with an expression of abject hurt.

“Nah” says Faith, all forced nonchalance. “I get that Joyce wouldn’t trust me after…I get I fucked that up. It’s what I do.”

Ethan, knowing nothing to the contrary, limits his reaction to a noncommittal hum and focuses on his task. Faith continues, “No, I mean these army guys are fucked up.”

“Ah, well, we’re agreed there.”

“Trapping things and poking them with needles and spiking them with downers when they could just kill them? Takes a real piece of work to think of that.”

Clearly, she is speaking from her recent experience with needle-wielding, tweed-wearing thugs and terribly polite and proper sorcerers with mind control spells at the ready, but Ethan doubts she wants to relive that experience, so he says nothing. Concentrates on the growing magic thrumming within the circle he’s chalked out.

Wards set, there is briefly a sense of calm and security in the dingy room. It is somewhat spoilt when a demon casually strolls in. Ethan scuttles out the way.

Rising from the bed, Faith exclaims, “Oh, what? I thought you put a barrier up!”

“A barrier to anyone who intends to hurt you” Ethan explains.

“Well that’s a waste of magic. They never intend.” Fixing the newcomer with a death-glare, Faith demands, “What the hell do you want?”

The demon offers her a parcel. “Got present for you. From the Mayor.”

Faith looks like she’s been slapped. Gaze swivelling downward to the proffered parcel, she takes it, and stares at it while the demon turns and leaves. Ethan locks and bolts the door behind it. Then he wonders if he shouldn’t have left with it.

Turning, he finds Faith still staring at the parcel. “What is it?” asks Ethan.

Opening the parcel carefully, Faith extracts a video and a something else. The something else is mechanical, a small gadget of some sort. Faith sets it to one side. Studies the video. She asks Ethan, “Will you help me break in to some place with a video player?”

“Sorry” Ethan replies. “My days of petty housebreaking are long past. I could drive you back to the flat if you like? We’ve got a video player.”

“Nah, Giles doesn’t need to know about this.”

“Um, I do sleep with the man. I’m inclined to share things with him.”

With a frustrated gesture, Faith casts the video aside and runs a hand through her hair. “Whatever, it’s probably just some messed up weapon.”

“Shouldn’t your watcher get to examine your messed up weapon?”

“It’s not my anything. I just want…” Her gaze flitters to the video, lingers there hungrily.

Hit by a sudden understanding, Ethan finishes, “You just want to see his face.”

Faith shrugs, jolting her shoulders harshly. “He’s probably not even in it. Might be he just got Trick to record something.”

“But what?” Ethan wonders.

Faith shrugs again. “Some message for if the whole apocalypse thing didn’t work out I guess. It’s probably nothing.”

“So no harm in Rupert seeing it” Ethan concludes.

Faith nods. “Yeah. Absolutely. But I want to get settled in to my exciting new pig sty, so I’ll show him tomorrow. Hey, maybe it’ll tell me how to get my apartment back?”

Ethan shakes his head. “Last I heard, a lot of what the Mayor owned was taken back by the city. Turned out he was on the make, who’d have thought it?” At Faith’s despondency, he adds, “Your best bet for getting a decent place to stay is grovel to Joyce.”

“I don’t do grovelling.” Faith is still looking at the video and the hand-sized weapon, both strewn across the bed. “Look, if you’re done, I’ll say goodnight. I’m kind of jetlagged.”

“Alright” Ethan agrees reluctantly. “And you’ll show Rupert this stuff first thing?”

“Bright and early” Faith’s voice is lousy with forced cheer and her eyes are tired.

*****

“So I heard from Willow” Buffy tells Giles and Faith when she meets them the following afternoon in the woods. “She’s not been able to hack her way through to the Initiative computer system yet but she’s thinks she’s getting closer. And she already sent some digital hex their way to get rid of their files on Ethan.”

“Good” replies Giles. “Buffy, I was just talking to Faith about a parcel she received yesterday.”

Buffy glances at Faith. “You’re getting mail already? You’ve been back in town for like, a day.”

Faith shrugs, folding her arms and casting a sulky expression Giles’ way. She had been openly annoyed to discover that Ethan had indeed told Giles about her late-night delivery and reluctant to say what was on the video, just as Giles was reluctant to insist he show it to her. And according to Faith the device that had accompanied it was “a dud”.

“I’m telling you” she says now to Buffy, making an effort to walk a little faster than easy conversation allows, “I couldn’t get it to work. Maybe he there was something else with it and the delivery demon stole it or something.”

“So what was it supposed to do?” Buffy hurries to keep up, Giles following behind her.

“I dunno” Faith repeats. “He was vague.”

“So what did he say?” Buffy stops suddenly as Faith does.

“That’s personal” mutters Faith. Then, staring ahead into the undergrowth, “Listen – is that them?”

“Probably” Buffy admits, as the sounds of male voices permeate the surrounding woods.

“Finally” Faith’s voice drops to a murmur and she proceeds quietly, stalking closer to wherever the soldiers are heading.

Hanging back a little, Buffy whispers to Giles, “Should we make her show it to us?”

“Make her how, exactly?” Giles whispers back. Seeing Buffy’s troubled expression, he adds, “It could be that she’s just keeping hold of it for, err, sentimental reasons.”

“Because she’s sentimentaling about that creep? See, that’s worrying all by itself.”

“Agreed. But we need to give her time. Once she’s adjusted to being back, she may hand it over voluntarily, without us having to undermine her trust.”

“I guess” Buffy looks unconvinced. “But I don’t like it. And I don’t like how keen she was to come here and spy on the Initiative.”

“Personally, I take that as a good sign; we are concerned about their activities, after all. And having a slayer that the Initiative haven’t encountered is certainly useful.”

“Maybe” says Buffy. “Just so long as she doesn’t do anything reckless like –” and at that moment, there is a scream and a burst of gunfire. Buffy rolls her eyes heavenward. “Like attack them at random” she finishes with a sigh. Then she bolts in the direction of the commotion.

Racing to keep up, Giles arrives out of breath, in time to witness Buffy joining the fray.

There are perhaps ten soldiers, all armed, though this is a situation where long-distance artillery is useless, and there is no further gunfire. Instead the men reach for their tasers, and Giles, seeing that, smacks one around the face before he can turn it on either slayer, and is hurled against a tree for his troubles. Buffy is quickly beside him, pulling him out the way before lifting a soldier off the ground and throwing him at his fellows. “Faith, come on!”

Faith, a little way off, is busy punching some unfortunate young man. He, somewhat to his credit, Giles feels, gives as good as he gets, swinging at the attacking slayer, flipping to bounce to his feet as soon as Faith knocks him down.

Only as he regains his footing does Giles recognise Riley. Beside him, Buffy catches her breath and tenses. Sensing that she is too thrown to get through to Faith, Giles calls out, “Faith, we need to leave!” Impossible to imagine that none of the fallen men around them called for backup. A few are stirring now, one sending a bolt of electricity crackling through the air, heating it inches from Giles face when Buffy knocks him sideways. Giles calls again, “Faith!”

Ignoring him, Faith punches Riley yet again. Somehow, he still stays on his feet, but does stagger briefly allowing Faith to grab hold of his arm. There is a glint of metal at her palm before she is gripping Riley’s hand fiercely. Something, something not quite magic, or perhaps something magic but tainted, pulses through the air.

“Faith!” Buffy knocks a weapon from a soldier’s reach, stepping closer to Giles. Behind her, the last of the soldiers are down but the sound of backup approaching through the trees is growing.

Faith ignores them both, fixated on Riley, who looks oddly blank faced, simply watching Faith grip his hand hard, light pulsating around them, until she breaks the connection. Dropping Riley’s hand, Faith throws yet another punch, knocking Riley back. He staggers and she stares at him in apparent amazement. Looks slowly down at herself.

“Faith” Buffy darts forward and grabs her, pulls her back until she is standing beside Giles staring at her raised hands.

Turning to Riley, Buffy says, “Riley” and then pauses, as though trying to work out whether he is still ignoring her. Which they don’t have time for: the hurried footsteps of approaching soldiers are growing louder still. Reaching for Buffy’s wrist, Giles tugs her away and they run, dragging Faith with them.

They make it safely to campus, the backup apparently stopping to help the soldiers Buffy and Faith incapacitated between them.   

As soon as they are among the student body, Buffy turns to Faith, gripping her shoulders. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“What was that thing?” echoes Giles.

“What thing?” Buffy asks him.

“The device you had” Giles addresses Faith. “Was that what the Mayor gave y –” He stops when he sees the look on her face.

She is frightened. Her hands shake and her expression is frantic. Before Giles can say anything, Buffy is asking, “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Buffy?” Faith seems to properly take in the fact that Buffy is standing in front of her. She reaches for her. “Buffy! Oh God!”

“Faith” Buffy returns her embrace mechanically. “What’s going on?”

“Faith?” repeats the other girl, blankly. “Faith who? I’m Riley!”

Chapter Text

“This is so bizarre” Faith (Riley?) studies her hands and then glances up, flustered, to accept a mug of coffee from Willow. “Oh, thank you.”

Willow smiles nervously and then, returning to stand beside Giles, mutters, “Definitely not Faith.”

“You sense something about her?”

“No, but she’s being polite.” Willow stares across the dorm room to where Buffy watches Riley-or-Faith watch Ethan prepare a reveal spell. Bundling a frightened Riley (Faith?) into Buffy’s dorm room and calling Ethan had seemed like the only option earlier, but now Giles feels uncomfortably close to the soldiers they’d just been fighting. He glances at the door.

Draws back a little when it opens, aware that Buffy, too, looks over sharply, but it is only Tara. She offers her shy, sideways smile and then frowns when she takes in the figure on the bed. “Oh yes” she says. “You, you’ve definitely been body swapped, h-haven’t you?”

“Is it even possible?” asks Faith/Riley.

Ethan asks Tara, “You can tell just from looking?”

Tara nods. “It’s in her aura. Um, h-his. Is it his?”

“I’d prefer his.” Riley nods Faith’s head.

Ethan decides, “We can probably skip the reveal then. Just err…” He gestures from Riley/Faith to Buffy. “Tell us something only Riley would know, perhaps.”

Riley contorts Faith’s expression into something shyer than it’s ever been and beacons Buffy closer. He whispers in her ear. Buffy straightens up and offers a guarded smile. “Hello, Riley.”

Ethan mutters, “I don’t want to know.”

As the situation sinks in, Giles sinks into the chair by the desk. Seeing that Willow was working on something that could possibly be hacking, he turns her laptop away from Riley’s line of sight. “Foolish girl” he murmurs.

Buffy looks hurt. “What did I do?”

“Not you, Faith.”

“Oh” says Buffy. “I need to get used to someone else being your slayer.”

“And I need to get used to a slayer who throws herself into an undercover mission without running it past me, apparently” replies Giles. Foolish, foolish girl. Could she not have waited for Willow to tap into the computer system? To learn more about the situation and plan what to do once she was in?

Could she not have asked him first?

“How’d she even do it?” asks Willow.

“Gadget from the Mayor” Buffy explains. “This must be what it does.”

Riley asks, “Is there a way to put me back?” and then Faith’s cheeks pale a little, and he adds, “Um, not that I want to go back like that. I mean not if…” Faith’s voice fades as Riley stops speaking.

Buffy asks, “Riley, what’s wrong?”

“You mean apart from me being trapped in a girl’s body?”

Ethan rolls his eyes, reaching into the bag of magical supplies he brought from the shop. “That girl’s body is stronger than you’ll ever be in your own.”

“What?”

“Faith’s a slayer” explains Buffy.

“Oh. But still, I’m not a girl.” Riley glances down at his new form and quickly away again.

“Huh” murmurs Willow, “So Faith can blush.”

“We’ll get you back to your own body as soon as we can” promises Buffy. “We just need –”

“No” says Riley. “No, I don’t want to – I mean I can’t – I mean I just don’t want –”

Buffy puts a firm hand on Faith’s shoulder, and asks Riley, “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“What they’ve done to me.” Riley moves Faith’s hand, apparently without meaning to, to her chest, then yelps when it makes contact with a type of anatomy he is not accustomed to having.

Catching hold of his hand, Buffy asks, “What did they do?”

“A chip” Riley replies. “They put a chip in me like they did with Hostile 17. But here.” He indicates the place on Faith’s body, more precisely this time.

“When did this happen?” asks Giles.

“I don’t…” Riley seems to pause and consider, Faith’s voice catching as he forces himself to calm down. “I had a surgery before I was deployed to Sunnydale. Routine stuff…Or that’s what they told me. They must have put it in then. And then they activated it when I went back that day Professor Walsh tried to have Buffy killed…Oh God, Buffy, I should have listened to you.”

“It’s okay, Riley.” Buffy sidesteps to allow Ethan to set up a new spell, sprinkling powders in a circle around Riley. She ends up sitting on the bed beside him, close enough to Faith’s body that their shoulders press together.

“What did it do?” asks Willow, “The chip, I mean.”

Faith’s hand drifts again to the indicated spot as Riley absorbs the question. “It forced me to obey them” he replies. “Everything they said, it made me do. It’s plugged into my central nervous system. I couldn’t even talk without their permission. That’s why –” He turns to Buffy. “Buffy, I’m so sorry I’ve been ignoring you. I didn’t want to, I wanted to talk to you, but it wouldn’t let me. They wouldn’t let me.”

“I know” she reassures him. “I mean I know now. I’m sorry I didn’t realise.”

“How could you?” Riley shudders, shaking Faith’s form. “I tried to cut it out at first. They’ve kept me under watch since then.”

Stepping closer to the sacred circle Ethan has traced on the floor, Tara asks, “B-but what about Faith? If she’s in the body with the chip…”

“She’ll be forced to obey them” Giles realises, meeting Buffy’s expression of sudden horror with his own. “And she won’t be able to get back to us to reverse the swap.”

“Or to get Riley’s body to us so we can get this thing out of him” adds Buffy. “And after what Faith went through with watcher-flavoured mind control, I’m not sure the Initiative version will do to her.”

Giles frowns. Seeing that Ethan has finished his preparations, he asks, “A different reveal?”

Ethan nods. “To see what type of bodyswap spell that gadget used. That’ll show us how to reverse it.” He kneels and lights a candle. “Of course, getting Riley’s body here is another problem entirely.”

*****

“Okay” says Buffy heavily after the video ends, the picture disintegrating into white noise, a welcome alternative to the smug palliness of the Mayor. Extracting the video from the player, she says, “I really want to smash this up.”

“Me too” Giles admits. “But I doubt Faith would thank us for it.”

“Right. In her own time, blah blah blah.” Buffy tosses the video onto Giles’ desk, not troubling to set it down gently. Rather, she treats it like some particularly unpleasant insect she doesn’t want to handle. “You know what this means?” she asks, “It means that creep was all set to let me take the blame for everything he did trying to ascend! If Faith hadn’t come back to our side and hadn’t been hurt, he was for her just stealing my body and walking away in it while I got arrested. I mean, she’d have been arrested, right?”

“I’m not sure” admits Giles. “As I understand it, the Mayor disposed of the evidence connecting her to Mr Finch’s death, but I suppose had she not been among the wounded someone might have realised she was connected to the events at graduation in a causation capacity. Or perhaps the Mayor assumed that if he failed, you’d kill Faith. You had the backing of the Council after all, not to mention friends. Faith would have been quite alone.”

“So switch our bodies and Faith could get you to kill me.” Buffy shudders. “Can I just say how glad I am the guy exploded?”

“He was as soulless a monster as any other we’ve faced by the end” Giles agrees. He wonders if there’s a warning it that. The creatures they’ve faced seem to be getting progressively more human, the youthful, naïve but combat-trained Initiative soldiers a far cry from the Master.

Though even he must have been human once, one supposes. Startling the extent to which humanity can be eroded.

To Buffy, Giles says, “Of course this means that the Mayor realised you were likely to stop him.”

“Gee, I’m flattered.” Buffy scowls. Then she says, “Nothing about how to reverse it.” In sudden alarm, she adds, “God, what if it isn’t reversable?”

“It will be” Giles reassures her. “No bodyswap spell is irreversible; Faith’s natural state is in her own body.”

“Do you think it will just switch back spontaneously like with me and Willow? With the slayer power just having enough?”

“I doubt it” Giles admits. “From what Ethan’s reveal discovered, this is a stronger, older magic than the spell he used then. Whoever made that device for the Mayor, it was obviously infused with something ancient.”

Buffy turns her attention to what is left of the body-switching gadget, scrapped from the forest floor before they’d searched Faith’s motel room for the video. Apparently crushed underfoot by retreating soldiers, it is reduced to a few benign clogs and wires. “I’m guessing superglue isn’t going to cut it” she says.

“No” agrees Giles. “And I suspect it worked by somehow containing a spell anyway. With the spell cast, there’s not much left – just the container.”

“Single use evil” muses Buffy. “Right. And the Mayor wasn’t all and this is how you reverse it because the plan was I’d be dead in Faith’s body. God, what is she thinking?”

“I imagine she wanted to gather intelligence.”

“Well, she could sure use some! Who just jumps into an undercover recon mission in someone else’s body without running it by anyone?”

“I agree” says Giles. “It is reckless. But being imprisoned and unable to fulfil her destiny as a slayer for so long doubtless left her impatient, and then there’s the fact that she’s probably keen to show you she can be useful. It’s made her reckless.”

“Made her more reckless” Buffy corrects him. “She wasn’t exactly Jane Sane before.” Her frown deepens. “And now she’s trapped in Riley’s body being forced to do God knows what and we don’t have any way of getting her out of there.”

“We don’t have any way yet” Giles amends. “We will get her back, Buffy, and we’ll do it without sending Riley back to them.”

Buffy nods, and seems to make an effort to shake her thoughts from whatever dark path they are headed down. “You’re right.” She heads towards the door. “I should get back to the dorm. I’ve left Riley long enough.”

“I’m sure he’s fine with Willow and Tara there” Giles reassures her. Or at least, his mind adds, as fine as one can be when washed up in the wrong body after a week or so of total loss of autonomy.

Pulling her jacket on and opening the front door, Buffy says, “Hopefully they’ve found something to undo the swap, or Ethan’s turned up something at the shop. Because God knows we haven’t found any answers.”

*****

“Will it work?” Buffy asks. Beside her, out of place in the Magic Box, Riley looks unnerved by the idea that it might not.

It’s odd, seeing Faith look lost, even if it’s Riley powering it. Ethan wonders if this was how she looked at the hospital straight after graduation – like a child.

Not that Riley is a child really. Just led like one.

Rearranging a sales display, Ethan answers Buffy: “It should be fine, just time consuming. Accessing the nether realm is rather involved and then they’ll actually have to forge something to use in a reversal spell out of whatever they find there.”

“And once that’s done” Rupert adds, “We still need to find a way to get Faith and Riley in a room together.” He smiles reassuringly at Riley. “Which I’ve no doubt can be done, but I do think you should prepare yourself for a couple of days in Faith’s body.”

“Okay” replies Riley, contorting Faith’s voice into a tone of forced cheer. “It beats being chipped at least.” And with that, the false cheer falls away entirely but he powers through with, “But what if she, err, needs to go to the bathroom? And what about showering? I don’t want to give her body back dirty but I don’t want to…”

Buffy looks a little stricken. Probably she hadn’t thought about just how well Faith and Riley would be getting to know each other. Ethan rolls his eyes and replies, “Whatever else she’s doing, she’s probably getting a good view of your body in all its glory. I wouldn’t worry about that.” He joins them at the table.

Buffy smiles a tight smile and says, “Thanks, Ethan.”

“Well, I’m just saying. Or you could blindfold Riley here and wash Faith’s body yourself but then that’s getting into kinkier territory and I imagine that’s not your style.”

“Stop imagining!”

“It’s okay” Riley tells her. “I’m just trying to get my head around the etiquette here. I’ll just have to man up and take a quick shower tomorrow.”

“Or woman up” Ethan supplies. Riley gives him a look that implies he’d thank Ethan not to supply anything in this conversation. Coming from Faith’s features, the expression is a little unnerving, and Rupert, bless him, steps in to say, “Well, yes, quite, the, err, etiquette of a bodyswap is rather unchartered territory, especially when opposite genders are involved. But I’m sure so long as both sides are respectful it’s a surmountable problem.”

“Sure” says Riley. “And it’s not like it’s anything I haven’t seen before.” Catching sight of Buffy’s expression at that, he amends, “I mean, I have sisters – I mean, not that I’ve seen my sisters’ – I mean, you know, since we were small, but – Look, this is just a lot to take in, okay? And I’m not Mr Articulate at the best of times.”

“Yes” says Rupert. “Well, moving on.” Spotting Ethan’s grin, he nudges his partner under the table.

Buffy nods hurriedly. “Right. Well, I’m not Miss Articulate either so…Look, Riley, the best chance we have to get your body here to reverse the swap is for Willow to hack the system and override whatever’s controlling the chip remotely. At least that’s what Willow said.”

“Can she do it?” asks Rupert.

“Give her enough time and Willow could hack like, NASA or somewhere” replies Buffy. She frowns. “Which makes me think maybe you guys should be the ones visiting the nether realms so Willow can get started on that straight away.”

“Ah” says Rupert. “Well, that’s…it’s…”

“It’s more likely to work when a hereditary witch like Tara is involved” Ethan explains.

Buffy asks, “Couldn’t you have done it with Tara?”

Ethan feigns indignation. “And here you were insecure about your boyfriend showering in your friend’s body!”

Buffy looks puzzled for a moment, and then blushes. “Oh” she says. “Oh, well Willow did say it was intense but I didn’t realise, um. Oh.”

“Indeed.”

Still frowning thoughtfully, Buffy moves her hand unconsciously to Faith’s hand but Riley pulls it away restlessly. “Sorry” he says. “Just processing here.”

Buffy studies him. “Hey, you want a work out? It could be the slayer strength being all pent up.”

“Maybe” Riley sighs. “You know I said I got it before? Well I really get it now. Buffy, how do you live with this much strength just day to day? I feel like I’m always on the brink of breaking something.”

“And on that note” says Ethan, standing, “Maybe you would like to leave my shop and go off on patrol.” “No” says Rupert decisively. Buffy and Riley pause, their chairs half-pushed back, and look at him. Rupert goes on, “Riley, I know it’s probably not easy to talk about, but we do need to know what the Initiative are doing, aside from chipping you.”

He has a point, Ethan has to admit. Aside from anything else, he’d like to know if he is being tracked. He gestures for Buffy and Riley to sit back down and Riley tucks his chair in again with a heavy sigh. “I guess I had to tell someone eventually” he says, “But can you guys even stop any of it?”

“Not if you don’t tell us what it is” Rupert points out.

“And it’s not like you can report it to anyone else” adds Ethan. “It’s government sanctioned.”

Putting a hand on Faith’s shoulder, Buffy asks, “Do we really need to do this now? He only just got out.”

“No” says Riley, “it’s okay.” Looking across the table at Rupert he asks, “What do you want to know?”

*****

“Well” says Rupert later, once Buffy has taken Riley, in his borrowed slayer form, to unleash some tension in Sunnydale’s night-time cemeteries. “That was unpleasant.”

“Not really surprising.” Ethan replies. So far as he is concerned, the main thing to take from the revelations is that he is not – so far as Riley knew at least – being actively pursued by anyone. Distracted with cashing up for the night, he is surprised when he glances up to find Rupert looking at him questioningly. But perhaps it is not so surprising – Rupert is council born and bred, trained to do awful things on the understanding that no-one else in the human race ever will and that is why they deserve protection. Monstrous humans with demonic victims doesn’t fit comfortably into his worldview. Taking a patient breath, Ethan reasons, “Well think about it, Rupert. Why would they want to put behaviour modification devices in vampires?”

“Possibly just to see if it works. For all we know a lot of what they do is just to see what happens, so…” So very like he and Ethan when they first summoned Eyghon, Ethan watches Rupert realise. Rupert stalls.

“Or maybe the US military doesn’t fund idle curiosity” Ethan tells him. “Remember, governmental bodies have budgets.”

“I suppose so” Rupert concedes, looking troubled. He draws closer to the counter, apparently wanting comfort as well as to help close up for the night. “I suppose it was too much to hope that they might have been looking for effective ways of killing demons. Staking vampires is cheap.”

“Exactly”

“Really, I just assumed the chip was simply a way of keeping Spike from hurting anyone while further research was conducted” Rupert says.

That at least is a reasonable theory, but Ethan is not shocked by the revelation that some of the previous sixteen hostiles survived the process, and the collection of chipped vampires is now up to Hostile twenty, all taken from around Sunnydale, nine of them still in the bowels of the Initiative complex. Rupert adds, “I wish Riley had an idea what they’re planning on doing with them.”

“I imagine they don’t talk about it in front of foot soldiers often” replies Ethan. “Even chipped ones. Probably don’t talk about it out loud at all any more than they have to.” That is how inhuman humans work after all; by pretending everything is normal. He concludes, “But we can fill in the blanks, can’t we?”

Cautiously, Rupert asks, “We can?”

“Well I don’t know for sure. But if I were some military top brass with a load of chipped vamps I tell you what I’d do – I’d keep them hungry and come the next war I’d parachute them into a town I wanted to capture. And then I’d turn the chips off remotely.”

Rupert stares at him for a moment. “Thank God you don’t work for the army.”

“Oh come on, Rupert. Can you see me in the army?”

“I can see you socialising with demons. Maybe that’s where you get ideas like that, but –”

“– But can you think of anything else they’d do with nine vampires with chips in their brains?”

Rupert frowns. “No” he admits. “No more than I can imagine what they’re thinking chipping Riley.” He comes round to stand beside Ethan and starts moving the bowels of talismans from countertop to the lockable cupboard beneath it. “At least they haven’t done it to any of the other soldiers” he says, and then looks startled for a moment, adds,  “So far as we know, that is. They wouldn’t be able to tell each other, would they?”  

Ethan nods grimly. “At least we know what they’re doing with Adam” he says.

This is what Riley was able to shed the most light on: Adam’s daily routine of tests and training. A good deal of military knowledge seems to have been built into him, but Walsh is improving it alongside testing his reflexes and stamina on a series of unfortunate demons. Some reprogramming has seen him become more compliant than when Ethan encountered him, though he gets the impression that Walsh is the only one who can reliably control him. Maybe they can at least hope the mess of a monster will eat some soldier-boy while she’s not looking. Preferably the one who called him a freak, but Ethan isn’t fussy. “What I want to know” he says, forcing himself to voice what he’d really rather not think about, “is where they plan on getting the humans from.”

Rupert doesn’t need to ask to know that he is referring to the grisly demon parts Riley has seen stored in freezers, the electronic parts in restricted areas, waiting, apparently, to become parts of new Adams. “Perhaps the next creatures they make will be only demon and android” he replies, but even as he says it, he seems to realise it is a futile hope. After all, some human is needed for the higher level co-operative abilities required in any military exercise, and for the empathy needed to, if nothing else, predict how an adversary might behave.

Ethan says, “They have humans in Nevada.”

“That’s in hand” Giles reminds him, and Ethan tries to be reassured by this, as though the council have given him reason to think they’d want to help or the coven reason to think they can.

As they finally close up and leave, Rupert asks Ethan, “Will you still do a cloaking spell?”

“No” replies Ethan. Honestly, he hadn’t found one he’d be capable of performing that wouldn’t hide the shop from customers. He could ask Willow, of course, but she might well have to alter an existing spell, or create a new one, and that’s a lot to ask someone who so recently tried to quit. “I doesn’t sound like they’re looking for me, after all.”

“Indeed.” Rupert wraps a reassuring arm around him. “We will sort this out, Ethan. It’s going to be okay.”

*****

“So reversal is going to be easy” Willow concludes, opening the wooden box in her hands to reveal a glowing presence trapped within. “But the problem is the chip is proving kind of unoveridable and we still need to get Faith-in-Riley here.”

Buffy, shifting closer to Riley-in-Faith on the sofa, says, “Can we maybe not call her that?”

“Sorry” Willow takes a seat at Giles’ desk and glances around at the assembled group.

Anya asks, “So how do we get Faith-in-Riley over here?”

“Anya!” Buffy’s rebuke is more resigned than annoyed. In answer to the question, she says, “Well the men in black won’t help. I checked their offices today and they’ve cleared out.”

Xander says, “Maybe we could just try to grab Faith-in-err – we could grab Riley’s body.” Ignoring Ethan’s smirk and Willow’s blush masterfully, he continues, “I mean, they can’t be guarding you all the time, can they?” This to Riley, who contorts Faith’s expression into one of extreme doubt. Xander adds, “And even with the chip not letting her help, Faith’s not going to attack us.”

“Unless they tell her to” points out Riley.

Willow nods. “Plus, Faith’s not going to attack us might sound more convincing if she’d actually finished that How Not To Murder Everyone course we sent her on.”

“Be fair, Will” cautions Buffy. “She did this to try to help.”

“Without telling anyone” points out Willow, not unreasonably.

“We’ll have to have a conversation about that when she’s back” Giles agrees. “But for now, getting her back must be the focus.”

Buffy asks, “I’m guessing there’s not a convenient spell to override the chip?”

Willow shakes her head. Tara adds, “Not one that we could find.”

Giles turns to Ethan. “Eth?”

Ethan, too, shakes his head. “Nothing springs to mind. And there aren’t many summoning spells that can be used on a human, and they all assume that the subject will be in the right body.”

“And magic that meshes with tech is still in the early stages” Willow adds. “Not to mention Faith being a slayer is going to affect any spell we try.”

“Makes sense” says Riley, turning Faith’s head to glance at Buffy. “I thought I understood before but this is something else. I mean, the power is –”

“Not something you’re going to wax lyrical to the Initiative about” Ethan finishes for him. He has a point, Giles supposes: no need to build supernatural soldiers if one were to find a way of distilling slayer strength. Perhaps he ought to suggest that to the Council – it might motivate them to intervene promptly if they think the Initiative might be such a direct threat to Buffy. And it may or may not be true.

“I’m not having anything to do with them ever again” Riley is insisting. “After what they did to me…” Automatically, he starts to move Faith’s hand to that certain spot on her front where the chip is in his own body. Buffy intercepts it. Riley concludes, “No. I’m through with them. And there is a way to get the chip out, right?” When no-one answers immediately, he asks, “You’re not just going to send me back to them?”

“No” Giles reassures him. “We’ll get it out, it’s just, well – as you can see, this isn’t an ideal place to perform surgery.”

“Believe me” replies Riley, “I’d rather have surgery on that table-top than not be in charge of my own self again.”

Willow says, “I guess I just have to keep trying to override the chip remotely. But if I thought hacking into the Initiative computers was hard…”

“Sounds like you could use my help” says a voice from the doorway, and everyone turns, relieved, to welcome Johnathan.

Chapter Text

When one invented the internet, taking control of implanted behaviour modification technology remotely and without being noticed is straightforward. All Giles can do is watch in bafflement as Jonathan does just that, and it is not long before there is a knock at the door.

Opening it, Giles finds a blank-faced Riley, or, to put it more accurately, Riley’s body. Still seated in the living room, Riley gives an exclamation of surprise at the sight of it, twisting Faith’s body around to look.

Smiling as Riley’s form steps inside, Jonathan says, “You can speak, Faith.”

“Thank fuck!” The exclamation is anomalous coming from Riley’s mouth. “You have no idea how much I’ve been needing to swear!” As Buffy and her own body enter her line of sight, she adds, “Riles, your boss is a mega-bitch. Hi, B.”

“Hi Faith” Buffy seems to try and fail to hold back a smile. Jonathan adds, “And feel free to move as much as you want as well.”

“Thanks” Faith makes a show of stretching Riley’s muscles. “Hey, nice six pack by the way.”

“Um” manages Riley. “Thanks.” Buffy elbows him.

“So are you going to all stand gawping or get this chip out of me?” demands Faith. “Because, Johnny-boy, much as I love and owe you one big time, I seriously don’t want you in charge of when I’m allowed to pee. Or you could just switch us back. I don’t care if you tell Riley when to pee.”

“We’re doing both” Jonathan tells her. “The only question is, which first?”

*****

In the end, Riley plays the gentleman and agrees for the bodyswap to be reversed before his body undergoes the surgery needed to remove the chip. This is a more communal effort than hijacking the thing, and not without its risks, given that this is surgery to remove a foreign object from the boy’s central nervous system performed at the dinner table with nothing but alcohol as anaesthetic.

“Man” says Faith, now back in her own body and watching Riley swing brandy, “We should have let me do the drinking part and then switch back before the hangover.”

“Missed opportunity” Ethan agrees.

“You got no idea. Trying to get drunk with slayer constitution? Practically have to steal the bar. Am I right, B?”

Buffy, crouched beside Riley, acknowledges the comment with a huff and returns her focus to Jonathan and the incision he’s making in Riley’s chest. Following her gaze, Ethan says, “Really, the way things are going round here we should just buy some medical anaesthetic.”

Willow pulls a face. “And just work out how to use it through trial and error?”

“It could be fun trial and error.”

“Actually” Jonathan tells them, “I’m a trained anaesthesiologist.”

“Oh, right. Good idea then.”

Watching the procedure a little longer, Giles finally says, “Faith – a quick word?” He gestures to the door.

Faith rolls her eyes and follows, waiting until they are out in the courtyard with the door shut before saying, “Look, I know what you’re going to say but it was a good plan – go in, get info, maybe screw them over a bit and come back and tell you guys everything. I didn’t know they’d gone and chipped him, did I?”

“If it was a good plan” Giles reasons, “why didn’t you involve us from the start?”

“’Cause I knew you’d try to stop me.” Faith shrugs.

Giles sits down at the edge of the fountain, leaving the possibility of her sitting beside him unspoken but obvious. She remains standing. Taking his glasses off, Giles asks, “Why would we stop you if it was such a good plan?”

“Okay so it wasn’t a great plan.” Faith shrugs again.

“It was extremely dangerous. You could have been killed.”

“I could have been killed any day I’ve been alive. Only safe people are the dead ones.” Tentatively stepping closer, Faith sits down at last. “Anyway, like I said, I didn’t know about the chip. You think I’d have done it if I did? I’m through with mind control. It’s just not my scene.”

Putting his glasses back on, Giles points out, “Even without the chip, there’s a world of things that can go wrong with body swaps. You could both have ended up in a stranger’s body, you could have shifted one of the bodies into a different dimension or one of you could have been injured by the spell itself. Not to mention you didn’t know it was Riley you were fighting – you could have picked any soldier who didn’t know Buffy and how could you predict how he’d behave in your body?”

Faith looks unimpressed in a theatrical, demonstrative sort of way that hides whatever she is really thinking. Giles tells her, “You aren’t expected to atone, you realise. You have a new start moving forward.”

“Really? So everyone will stop looking at me like I’m about to stake them? Anyway, not sure I believe in new starts. There’s always baggage, you know? Well, I guess you would know.”

“All I’m saying is we aren’t expecting you to take unnecessary risks to make up for anything that’s past.”

“What’re you calling unnecessary? I got the intel, didn’t I?”

“Yes, and it’s useful, but the price could easily have been too high.” Giles watches Faith closely as he says this, but she gives nothing away. He asks, “Are you alright?”

“You know me” she replies breezily. “Five by five.”

*****

Heading back inside, Giles half expects Buffy to want a word herself, or to be perturbed by the second slayer having had what could only be perceived as – and arguably was – a watcher/slayer heart to heart. But Buffy barely acknowledges their entrance, distracted as she is by Riley, now chip-free and hugging her. Behind them, Willow is cleaning up the chip, apparently keen to take it home and study it, and asking Jonathan how to ensure it won’t be traced. It’s an ominous thing, small and grey, curling to a talon-like point where it had been embedded in its host.

Next comes the question of where Riley can hide now he’s essentially a fugitive, but fortunately Jonathan solves this by offering both Riley and Buffy a room in his mansion. That settled, it’s not long before everyone has gone home for the night.

“I hope Faith’s alright” Giles says once they’re gone. “I wonder if we ought to have offered her the sofa.”

“As comfortable as I’m sure an underground lab is” replies Ethan, “I imagine she’ll appreciate her own bed tonight.”

“The whole thing must have been an ordeal. She might have preferred not to be alone.”

“She’d have probably refused if you had offered” counters Ethan, and Giles supposes he is right. He says, “At least Riley’s free now.”

“He was always going to be, with Jonathan on the case.”

*****

They go to bed soon after, and are awoken not long after that. Summoned to the mansion, it is not long before they, along with Buffy and Faith, are seated before the fire in the pallor, listening to Jonathan’s explanation of why Riley is sick: “It’s been clear to me for a while that the Initiative has been drugging its soldiers. With the physical demands of fighting demons each night, they wouldn’t want to rely on weaponry alone when oral genetic editing, pain-reflex suppression and heightened stamina are all on offer with the right combination of pills.” Jonathan sits back. “I’ll have my lab work on finding out exactly what they gave him, but in the meantime, I can treat him for the withdrawal symptoms.”

“Damn” mutters Faith. “I didn’t even realise. I mean, they sure gave him a lot of vitamins, but that’s all they said it was.”

“At least he can get clean now” Buffy says, looking shaken.

“Yes” Giles reassures her. “I’m sure he’ll be fine in a few days.” He tries not to wonder what permanent changes the lad will be left with. They’ll find out in good time.

“So” says Ethan. “We don’t have gangs of soldiers running round Sunnydale, we have gangs of stoned soldiers running round Sunnydale?”

“Way more fun” Faith deadpans.

“Actually” Jonathan tells them, “I don’t think what Riley’s been given has had a significant impact on his behaviour; it’s more physical.”

“So at least he hasn’t been high the whole time I’ve known him” says Buffy.

At that moment the phone rings. Jonathan, seated beside it, answers with his usual dazzling smile, but that soon slips when he hears whatever he’s being told on the other end. Improbable, but Giles is sure that for a moment – just a moment – Jonathan looks afraid. “Trouble?” he asks when Jonathan puts the phone down.

“Just a demon” Jonathan replies smoothly. “Nothing I can’t handle alone. You guys need to focus on taking care of Riley.”

*****

So they do, or rather, Buffy does, and everyone else pops in as needed to keep her – and Riley once he’s improved – company. Actually, Giles gets the impression that the pair don’t want to be alone together just yet. Buffy must have been hurt by Riley not believing what she told him about Walsh for all that he more than paid for it, and Riley’s recent experiences of the supernatural world that Buffy is so clearly a part of have hardly been positive.

Nonetheless, life returns to what might more or less pass as normal in Sunnydale. The Initiative are doubtless hunting for Riley, but are hardly going to search Jonathan’s mansion. Some soldiers – or at least, Buffy takes them to be soldiers in suits – arrive to question Jonathan (The nerve, Giles thinks, to question the man who gave the world punk) but Jonathan is of course more than capable of sending them away without suspicion. And with Faith unknown to them – it seems the description given by the soldiers she fought amounted to little more than “strong brunette chick” – they have at least one slayer who can patrol unimpeded.

Unfortunately, she is not patrolling in the right place to prevent a horrible demon attack on Tara a few nights later, and that is the point when Buffy confesses to be worried about more than Riley: “He blinked” she tells them at Giles and Ethan’s flat the following evening. Jonathan hasn’t arrived but everyone else is here except for Tara. Willow keeps glancing at the clock, apparently keen for Jonathan to show up and start the meeting so that she can go home and take care of her. Everyone else is focused on Buffy and the bizarre theory she is attempting to convey.

Except for Faith, that is: she, Giles realises, looks resigned rather than incredulous. “Do you believe any of this?” he asks her.

“I dunno.” Faith pushes off from the wall she’s leaning on. “I don’t want to think badly of the guy. I mean, he did the whole second chance thing, got me away from the watchers.”

“He killed Eyghon” Ethan points out. “We’d be six feet under without him if we were really lucky.”

“He’s saved all our lives” agrees Willow.

“But what if he hasn’t?” presses Buffy. “What if we’re all seeing what he wants us to see?”

Faith shakes her head sadly. “I dunno, B.”

Buffy says to her, “You must sense something off.”

Everyone is looking at Faith now. She scowls at Buffy. “Yeah” she admits at last. “I mean there’s something…But he’s not like other people anyway so it’s not weird that he weirds the slayer senses.”

“He weirds Adam out too” Buffy tells them. “I heard those soldiers who came to the mansion tell him that Adam called him a lie.”

“Adam?” Xander repeats. “We’re basing this on what Adam said?”

“He’s got parts from demons with psychic abilities in his brain” Riley says quietly. Xander goes quiet himself at that.

Buffy says, “Right. And it’s not just what Adam said, it’s what Anya said.”

“Don’t bring me into this” Anya mutters.

“Tell them about alternate realities” Buffy instructs.

As Anya launches into some odd, shrimp-based analogy. Giles murmurs to Ethan, “What do you make of this?”

“Well I imagine life without Jonathan would be more chaotic” replies his partner. “So there’s that. Unfortunately for us we’d all die screaming with no-one to save us too soon to enjoy it for long.”

“Is it even possible?”

“For us to die screaming without Jonathan? Yes, certainly.”

“I meant is a spell to change reality possible?”

“Oh.” Ethan thinks for a moment. “It would take some doing, but yes. Anything’s possible. That’s the beauty of magic.”

Surely they’d know? But then, Giles reasons, of course they wouldn’t. One can only deal with reality as one perceives it.

“Ethan” says Buffy suddenly, “pass me that calendar.”

Ethan detaches the swimsuit calendar from the wall and hands it over.

*****

“I sure wish I could help” says Riley some time later, once both slayers have gone with Jonathan.

“Help with what exactly?” asks Xander. “Ending the world as we know it?”

“I can’t take just sitting here” Riley replies. “I need to do something.” He paces a little. Giles wonders if he misses the slayer powers he got a taste of in Faith’s body. But whatever the cause of his restlessness, he is still healing and doesn’t actually make a move for the door. Keeping an eye on him, Giles lets his thoughts stray to Buffy and Faith, wherever they are. Slayer strength will be a match for a spell-born monster, surely? The strength of two slayers, no less.

Clearly thinking along the same lines, Willow says, “They’ll be fine, right? I mean, I know, monster, scary but there’s two of them.”

“I think it rather depends which side Jonathan picks” says Ethan.

“He wouldn’t hurt Buffy” dismisses Xander. “Or Faith.”

“I don’t know” Ethan counters. “He did go to all the trouble of changing everything to make himself a virtual god and all it cost was one little monster. And slayers die all the time, don’t they? So what do we do if he comes back and says oops, they were both killed?”

“He wouldn’t do that” insists Xander.

“And if he does” Giles decides, “I’ll kill him myself.” He studiously ignores the scandalised gasps from the children, but hazards a glance at Ethan, finds him sporting an odd look, somewhere between fear and awe.

“You couldn’t take him” points out Xander.

“We’d be stuck in the wrongness then” says Willow.

Xander says, “I’m still kinda rooting for that. But without the dead slayers, obviously.”

“They’ll be fine” repeats Willow. Behind her, Riley paces.

*****

“We found somewhere for Riley to hide” Buffy tells Faith and Giles the following day. “Decidedly non-mansiony, but it will do.”

“How is he?” asks Faith.

“Still kind of shaken. I mean, they completely took him over for a while there.”

“Yeah, I’ve been there.”

“You took him over too? Yep, I got that part.”

“No, I mean I know what it’s like to be all chipped up and drugged up.”

“I guess so.” Buffy eyes her sister-slayer cautiously. “And then there was the whole magic can change reality thing – kind of a brain-ache for us all but worse for him. I’m thinking he’s not a magic fan after all that.” She sighs. Asks Faith, “You think he’ll ever come round from the whole don’t-trust-anything-vaguely-connected-to-the-supernatural thing? Because I’m done with being side eyed anytime I bring him food.”

“I don’t know” replies Faith. “Everything supernatural he’s seen lately was fucked up. And guys are pretty simple.”

Giles coughs slightly. Faith adds, “Most guys, anyway.”

“Thank you, Faith. Buffy, perhaps Riley just needs a little time?”

Buffy shakes her head. “What he needed was for me to realise something was up and I didn’t.”

“Well, how could you?” Giles points out.

“I guess.” Buffy seems to focus on the present with some effort, fixing Giles with a forced and tired smile. “So, what am I doing here?”

“Helping me train Faith” Giles explains. “I thought an hour or so a week with an opponent who matches her in strength would be useful. If that’s alright with you, that is?”

“Sure” Buffy shrugs.

“Is it alright with your living room?” asks Faith. “Because, two slayers going for it, I think you can kiss goodbye to that lamp.”

“I’m hoping to persuade Ethan to let us have the back room in the shop” Giles tells them. “Really, he doesn’t need the storage, he just thinks he does because it doesn’t occur to him to organise the space. Today we’ll stick to basic sword play techniques. And stay away from the lamp.”

“I get to use the swords?” Faith asks, and for a moment, her smile is not the smile of a would-be killer, but of someone much younger and keener to please. “I didn’t think you’d let me so soon.”

“Given the things you’ll have to face here, I see no use in delaying these things.”

Faith looks at Buffy. “You sure you want to do this, B? I mean, I get it if you’d rather go hang with Riley.”

Buffy shakes her head. “Faith, if it wasn’t for you, Riley would still be a prisoner. I kind of owe you. Not that I’m giving you a pass on the whole jumping into danger thing, by the way.”

“Great, another lecture” Faith mutters. She accepts a sword from Giles and studies it’s hilt, swings it experimentally once he’s out of range.

Buffy looks at Giles. “You already did the lecture?”

“I did” Giles confirms.

“A lot of blank slate crap” Faith elaborates.

“Faith” says Giles, “if you’d rather I was firm –”

“Trust me” Buffy interrupts, “Firm Giles is no fun.”

“Thank you, Buffy.” He is, Giles realises, going to have is work cut out with two of them. Not that Buffy has turned up for a training session in a while. He hands her the second sword. “Really, you’re just here for the physical side of the training.”

“What, I don’t get to impart any wisdom?” She pouts.

“Well” says Faith, “If you ever get any…”

“Hey!”

“Enough” Giles tells them. Gods, he’s tired already. “Shall we begin?”

Chapter Text

“All that for this?” Faith wrinkles her nose at the Saint Menas Stone, as Giles wipes the last of the vampire dust from it. Who knows how long the vampires were here with the stone sealed in the wall beside them but the nest seems long-established. Giles points out, “You did seem to be enjoying yourself.”

“Well, yeah” concedes Faith. “I like me a good brawl, but do you really face things down for a load of stones and bits now? What happened to librarian-man?”

“The library blew up” Giles replies, and then sees the quickly-buried pain pass behind her eyes. He adds, “It’s just something to occupy my time now I’m a, err, a gentleman of leisure. And it will hopefully keep some powerful objects from falling into the wrong hands as well.”

Faith eyes the stone doubtfully. “It’s really that powerful?”

“It has considerable magical properties, yes. I wonder if Ethan would be interested in it.”

“Does he get everything you steal?” asks Faith as they leave the ruined building, stepping back into glaring sunlight.

“It’s not stealing” Giles replies testily. “The last guardian of the Saint Menas Stone died years ago. For all our sakes, it should be passed to people who can properly secure it.”

“Like Ethan?” The doubtful look is back as Faith slips into the passenger seat of the car for the drive back to town.

“Not in the long term.” Giles takes the driver’s seat. “I’ll probably send it to the Council.”

“Right, so they’re the ones who profit.”

“We all profit from the stone being out of harm’s way. It could be used for great good or great ill depending on who wields it.”

“Sounds like even more reason the watchers shouldn’t get this stuff if you ask me.” Faith slouches in her seat as they set off, puts her feet on the dashboard. Giles coughs loudly. Her feet stay where they are. Giles says, “Well, I may yet decide to send it to the Devon coven. Some of the things I’ve found have gone elsewhere. Other benevolent covens, or to people already tasked with protecting sacred artefacts. Faith, get your feet off my dashboard.”

Reluctantly, Faith does. As Sunnydale comes into view in the distance, she comments, “Shame B couldn’t come. I’d have thought she’d be up for a training field trip.”

Giles shifts gears, considers how to reply. He doesn’t especially want to tell Faith that the times Buffy has been round to help with training her have also been the only times Buffy has really shown up for any training since she started college. Better for Faith to assume the only potential role model she has is more conscientious than that. He says, “She’ll be around for patrol.”

“Yeah, she’d better. I’m going to be partying tonight – someone’s gotta do the staking.”

“Partying?” Giles asks sharply.

“I don’t need to ask your permission do I? ’Cause I’m not gonna.”

Really, Giles doesn’t know if she technically should ask. He is the adult in charge of her, but it’s not as though she lives with him, so to call himself her guardian would be going a bit far. (But if he isn’t, who is?) And it’s not as though he’s even being paid to watch her. He decides, “I think so long as you’re safe and either you or Buffy is, as you put it, doing the staking, you can do what you like.” Within reason, he almost adds. But that would sound like he doesn’t trust her.

“Sweet”

“Do check with Buffy, though, won’t you? In case she has other plans too.”

“Uh huh. I’ll go find her when we get back. Hey, could you lend me some money before you drop me off?”

“It’s paid entry?”

“What?”

“Your party.”

“Oh. No, that’s at the frat house. I just mean for food and shit.”

“Lowell House? You’re going to be partying right above the Initiative?”

“Well, they don’t know me. Hey, remember when I said I needed money for food?”

“I’ll take you shopping before I drop you off” Giles tells her. Perhaps it is time the girl found a job. Unpaid as he is, Giles can’t really offer her an allowance. But before he can suggest that, there is the problem of, “Just because you’re not wanted by the Initiative doesn’t make socialising with them a good idea.”

“Why not? I might find out stuff.” “More than you found out during the bodyswap? I doubt they’ll be talking about classified mission statements at a party.”

Faith shrugs. “So I’ll just go and party. Some of those guys are hot.”

*****

“It’s beautiful” Willow studies the Saint Menas Stone, hand hovering to trace the swirled mineral layers without actually touching it.

“One of Rupert’s better finds” Ethan agrees. He hands her the book they’ll be wading through today, a stodgy ethics volume that Willow really should read at some point.

Still focused on the stone, she asks, “It was really just stuffed into a wall in some vamp nest?”

“Lucky they didn’t want to remodel the place” Ethan confirms.

“Is it yours now?”

“Alas, I’m just borrowing it until Rupert gets it shipped over to hippy central.”

“I’d like to meet this coven.”

“Especially now they’re getting their hands on this, you would.” Ethan sits down opposite her. “Lucky bastards.” At Willow’s raised eyebrow, he explains, “Earth magic. Slow and boring, and a lot more orderly than it looks from the outside.” “But peaceful?”

“Far, far too peaceful. Now” Ethan indicates the book. “Shall we start? I was thinking we’d skip to chapter four, since you already got the memo on not turning people into animals.”

“Right” Willow opens the book and reads the title. “Oh – mind control.”

“The whole chapter is a rambling way to say don’t do it” Ethan tells her. “Though there are a few examples of some of the more benign mood control alternatives. We could skip another few chapters but –”

“But it’s probably best to actually read it” Willow agrees. “Right”

“We can discuss the finer points once you’re done.” Ethan pulls the Saint Menas Stone towards him. “If we don’t do some discussion work to break up the reading, you’ll die of boredom.”

“It can’t be that bad” says Willow, though she does frown as she reads, and doubles back here and there to re-read sections of the stodgy text. Ethan rests his hands on the stone and feels the steady beat of magic within, and waits.

The peace is broken by Buffy, who wanders in to the jingle of the shop bell. “Hi guys. Oo – shiny.”

“The Saint Menas Stone” Ethan tells her proudly, handing it over.

Buffy frowns as she touches it. “It feels sort of hummy.”

“It’s super-powerful” Willow tells her enthusiastically.

“What’s it for?”

“Oh, a whole range of spells” replies Ethan. “We’re going to have to find something to try with it.”

Buffy nods, but her frown stays in place. Her eyes flicker to Willow’s book and, seeing the subject matter, she relaxes a fraction. “Ethics, Will? You should get credit for these lessons.”

“I wish” replies Willow, cheerfully. “Hey, how’s Riley?”

“He’s all better.” Buffy sounds, not dismissive exactly, but as though this isn’t her first choice of conversation. “Bored being all cooped up. I’m wondering if I should help him leave town?”

“Not many places where the US army won’t be” Ethan tells her.

“Doesn’t he want to stay with you?” Willow asks.

“I guess” Buffy frowns again. “But I want him safe.”

“He’s probably safer where you can rescue him if he got caught.”

“Could I, though? Maybe he’d be better off with those guys in Devon. I mean, they got the place in Nevada shut down, right?”

“I’m assuming with outside help” says Ethan. “Like I said – earth magic is slow.”

“Giles was saying the watchers took over custody of some prisoners?” asks Willow.

Ethan replies, “Don’t get me started.”

“Well” says Buffy, “only the really dangerous ones. And much as I don’t have a lot of time for the council, it’s got to be better than being held captive by the brains who brought us Adam.” She drops the topic of watcher-sponsored incarceration quickly, though, when Faith walks in. “Hey, Faith.” “Hi, B.” Faith breezes in, nodding to Ethan and greeting Willow with, “Still geeking?”

“That’s me” mutters Willow, returning to her book.

Faith tells Buffy, “We missed you in training.”

“Welcome to Rupert’s world” mutters Ethan. Faith frowns. Turning back to Buffy, she says, “I’m at a party tonight. You’re patrolling, right?”

“I am?” Buffy asks. “Don’t I get some nights off for patrolling all the time you were away?”

“Come on, B, it’s been ages since I went to a party. Like, a year.”

“Where is it?”

“Lowell House”

Willow says, “Not a lot that can go wrong there.”

“Well, no” Faith shrugs. “They don’t know me. But I know them. Hell, I’ve even peed next to some of them. I’m thinking it could be fun.”

“And I’m thinking I don’t want reminding of how you peed in my boyfriend’s body” Buffy replies, before colouring starkly. “Oh god, forget I said that.”

“Forgetting” says Willow hastily.

“You know” says Ethan, “I don’t often say this, but Buffy’s right.”

“Hey!” Buffy sits down besides Willow, mock-scowling at him.

“You’ve already spied on them from inside Riley.” Ethan tells Faith, before pausing to grin at a disgusted Buffy. “You’re not going to get more useful information than that at a frat party.”

“Yeah, but I will get a frat party” says Faith.

“Well there is that, I suppose.” “And they don’t know you” concedes Willow.

“But what if you get into trouble?” asks Buffy. “What if they’ve been monitoring me and seen you patrolling with me, and they decide to take you in for questioning?”

“Well, when you put it like that” Ethan says, “It may not be worth it for a booze up.”

“Well” says Willow, “maybe she could reach out to some of the soldiers? If it comes up, I mean. Some of them have got to be having qualms about the whole what’s-that-creepy-Frankenstein’s-monster-for-and-who’s-he-made-of thing.”

“But it’s not going to come up” says Buffy. “They’re not going to be talking about the secret lab at a party.”

“But they might be looking for parts” muses Ethan. “I’ve just thought – with the prisoners in Nevada out of their reach, how are they going to get the human parts for more Adams?” It is, he thinks, something he should have thought of sooner, but then, Rupert only heard from the council yesterday.

That and the question is one he really, really doesn’t want answered.

“Ew” mutters Buffy. “I so didn’t need to think about that.”

“Well I’m thinking they’re going to want human prisoners” says Ethan, looking meaningfully at Faith.

“Or maybe Adam 2.0 won’t have human parts” says Willow hopefully.

“All the more reason to get close to the guys” argues Faith. “If I can get into their pants at this party, maybe they’ll want to hook up again sometime and I can get more intel. Or Ethan can cook up a truth spell.” “Faith” says Buffy slowly, “We don’t do sex-based espionage.”

“Pfft. Maybe you don’t.”

“We could use a truth spell” suggests Willow.

“Why?” counters Buffy, “In case they’ve sat their soldiers down and told them everything? We’re talking about people who chipped Riley without telling him.”

“I guess” Faith muses. “Actually they didn’t seem that big on the Q and A from what I saw.”

“We’d just get lies they’ve swallowed and think is true” Ethan concludes. “Nothing like propaganda to bollocks up a truth spell.”

“Well” says Faith. “What if I get a soldier onside who could spy for us? Long shot but worth a try.”

“And this has nothing to do with you wanting a party” Buffy deadpans.

“Hey, I’m totally in this for the party! I just think I might be able to get something else out of it and then you and Giles’ll get off my case about it.”

“Faith, I’m all for you having fun at a party, it’s –”

“– That why you’ve invited me to the Bronze so much since I’ve been back?”

“Faith that’s not fair. I’ve been sorting things out with Riley.” Beside Buffy, Willow raises her eyebrows in a way that implies that isn’t the sole reason. Come to think of it, Ethan can’t recall Willow mentioning them all going to the club since before he was captured. Buffy continues, “It’s just that at this party, you’ll need back up. Which, by the way, no-one should need at a party. And I can’t be back up gal because they all know me. I’m supposed to pretend I don’t know the Initiative exists or Walsh will have me arrested.”

“Not arrested exactly” says Ethan. “When you’re arrested, you get your rights read.”

“Well” says Willow, leafing through the book, “What if we cast a glamour? Get you looking unBuffified?”

“The ones that change your entire appearance are too unreliable” says Ethan. “They don’t last long and they don’t work well on people you know. They’re more for getting past someone than holding a conversation with them.”

“Oh. Well…Hey, what about that spell we cast on the regular army base when we stole the rocket launcher?”

“Man” mutters Faith. “I missed some good times.”

“It was pre-calling for you” Buffy explains. “We used it to stop the Judge.”

“What did it do?” Faith asks, “The spell I mean.”

“It just made people kind of loopy” Willow shrugs.

“It causes confusion and a general relaxed mood” says Ethan. “But it wouldn’t last long enough for you to go to a party.”

“Plus you can be relaxed and confused and still put me in a cell” says Buffy.

“Maybe you’re freaking about nothing?” suggests Faith. “I mean, they haven’t kidnapped you yet, have they?”

“Not officially, but if I go to their actual building? Not sure they’d be pleased to see me. And they’ve got to be wondering if I know where Riley is. I’m already worried I’ll lead them right to him when I bring him supplies; really not looking to draw attention to myself right now.”

“Wait” Willow is still leafing through the magic book. “What about this? The Liber Incantation. It sounds like a longer lasting version of what we cast to get the rocket launcher.” She passes the book to Ethan.

“And it’s in the ethics book?” asks Buffy. “As in, don’t do this, it’s unethical?”

“No, it’s there as an example of a mood-changing spell that doesn’t infringe on free will.”

“Oh. And it would really stop them arresting me?”

“It could do” says Ethan, scanning the page. “If we added a little chaos to the mix, that is.”

“We could add in a protection spell too” says Willow. “Just to be sure.”

“Is it safe to just slam all that magic together?” asks Buffy.

Ethan taps the Saint Menas Stone. “With this to channel it? Certainly, it is.”

“Well, B” says Faith, “looks like you’re all out of excuses. It’s time to party.”

*****

“Can you believe her?” Willow asks, once the two slayers have left. “All ready to sleep around just in case she ends up in bed with someone who knows something!”

“There are worse ways to get information” Ethan points out. He places the Saint Menas Stone in the centre of the arrangement of candles and sands on the shop floor. “Now. It’s important for this part that we clear our minds so that –”

“And then Buffy’s acting like she’s just been away on vacation! Since when is learning to not murder people a vacation?”

“Willow”

“Okay, okay, I’m clearing.” Willow seems to make an effort to let go of her annoyance. They sit down in the circle and join hands.

“I used to sleep with people so they’d teach me magic, you know” says Ethan.

“So didn’t want to know that.”

“Well, I’m just saying.”

“You were in the sex, drugs and rock and roll era. Faith’s just in a look-at-me-I-used-to-work-for-the-mayor-but-I’m-just-skanky-now phase.”

“Willow”

“I’m clearing! My mind’s totally clear now.”

“Good.”

“Hey, Ethan? You can come to the party too, if you like. You know, if you and Giles want to go back to rock and roll. Just not the other stuff.”

“Thank you, sweet child, but I’ve a prior engagement at the Espresso Pump.” Besides, he knows she doesn’t really want to party with two middle aged blokes.

“Okay” Willow closes her eyes. “Are you ready?”

“Absolutely.”

“Let’s get started then.”

*****

Sitting in the Espresso Pump that night, Ethan savours Rupert’s voice as it lifts the room, casting a subtle magic so that the ordinary scene feels transformed. This is a treat: Just a lucky few, these days, who get to hear Rupert sing.

And that lucky few apparently includes Tara: Glancing to the side, Ethan sees her standing in the entrance way, looking a little stunned.

Ethan stands as quietly as he can and makes his way over. Whispers, “You not at the party?”

“I, I was” Tara replies. “But, but something’s gone wrong w-with the spell. Everyone’s acting crazy, and the way Willow is right now, she won’t change it back.”

“Damn” mutters Ethan. Over by the counter, Rupert has spotted Tara but carries on masterfully. “Alright, I’ll undo it. But I think I’ll need Willow’s help.”

“Sh, she won’t.”

“Could we come with you, try to persuade her?”

Tara nods. “There’s more” she whispers. “There’s a, a presence in the house. Something that’s been woken up by, um, I’m not sure if it was woken up by the spell going wrong or if it’s what c,caused it to go wrong.”

“Bugger. Demon?”

“I d-don’t think so.”

Rupert finishes his song and hurries over. “Something wrong?”

“Rupert” Ethan takes a deep breath. “I’ve got something to tell you.”

*****

“I can’t believe this” Rupert grumbles as they approach the house, drawing close enough that the air pulsates with the music booming from the place. “You cast a spell that will affect both my slayers and it didn’t occur to you to tell me?”

“I didn’t think you needed to know – it was only supposed to be something subtle, so Buffy could go to the party.”

“You used the Menas Stone, Eth; it amplifies everything!”

“Well, you didn’t tell me that!”

“I didn’t think I’d have to!”

“Here” Tara leads the way in.

Inside, Ethan half expects to see someone with glowing eyes, so strong is the olfactory memory triggered by the place. Incense, smoke, sweat, the earthy scent of sex, and the sight of it, right here in the hall. Rupert and Tara both flinch away. “Th-this is bad, right?” asks Tara. “Willow told me the spell wouldn’t affect free will!”

“It won’t” Rupert assures her grudgingly. “If the spell was to make people relaxed, I suspect along with chaos magic and the Saint Menas Stone, it will have removed inhibitions entirely. People will do what they want to deep down anyway” He casts a disgusted glance at the figures on the floor. “Even if it is…”

“Group sex” Ethan finishes.

“Quite”

“O-oh” says Tara. “So, so it’s taking the sense of societal pressure from everyone in the building? No-one cares what people will think?”

“That’s right. I’m afraid we’ll be affected too, now we’re in here. We’ll lose our sense of shame.”

Ethan shrugs. “I don’t feel any different.” Rupert eyes him knowingly.

“W-why isn’t anyone fighting?” asks Tara. “The way some people were arguing when I left, if they’ve lost their inhibitions…”

“The protection spell must be holding” Ethan tells her.

“Thank the gods for small mercies” says Rupert. “We need to find –” He is cut off by the sound of breaking glass as a wineglass, abandoned on the stairs, shatters spontaneously. “The presence?” he asks Tara.

She nods. “I-I think it’s a ghost. Maybe a poltergeist?”

Behind her, a young man walks past, smoking something bitter-scented. He addresses the hallway in general: “Dudes, you’ve got to check out this wall” and wanders through to another room. From in there, the sounds of a messy break up compete with the music until that is turned up higher still. Tara flinches. “I think Xander and Anya went this way” She leads them further down the hallway, stepping over discarded bottles and clothing, stepping around people. “Y-you’d think” she says as she hurries along, “that people would want to do something more worthwhile with no social pressure. L-like write a book and who cares what people will think of it.” She stops suddenly and announces, “I need a pen and paper.”

“Tara, dear” says Rupert, “That’s the spell influencing you. Try to focus on finding Willow.”

“O-of course, Willow.” Tara resumes walking. “It’s j-just, I worry it’s silly usually and I always tear up my first draft. I wonder if there’s a phone here? I need to call my dad and ask him –”

“Tara, focus”

“Right. Okay, focus.”

They hurry on, past two young men who are having a heated discussion that the protection spell is straining to contain; Ethan feels the multi-threaded magic in the place squirming and distorting around them. Further on, another youth appears to be declaring his undying love to the young woman in his lap while she openly lists the pros and cons of being with him. At the end of the corridor, two men seem to be trying to dissuade another from leaving the military and another two are kissing passionately. All in all, it’s quite a party.

It’s only as they reach the far side of the building, that Ethan starts to feel the effects himself: a loosening up, a slipping away of pressures and worries, leaving him lightheaded and quietly exuberant. Beside him, Rupert takes his hand.

They find Xander and Anya in a small games room, entwined on a couch. “Hey, guys” Xander greets them.

“Xander” says Rupert, “are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Kind of a wild party.”

“We just had make-up sex” Anya informs them.

“Xander, we need to find the others – you’re all under a spell.”

“Well, Willow and Ethan put a spell on the whole building, right?”

“It worked a little too well” Ethan admits. He slips his hand into Rupert’s back pocket and Rupert shifts closer to him, snuggling up, unconcerned for once with how the children will react. He tells them, “You’ve lost your inhibitions.”

“Well that explains a lot” murmurs Anya, glancing at Xander.

“That doesn’t sound like a problem” Xander reasons. “I mean, it’s kind of nice to let loose like this.”

“N-nice until you remember that it’s your inhibitions that k-keep you alive” says Tara.

“But there’s no danger here.”

“I think there is” the witch replies. “Where’s Willow?”

“Not sure.”

Rupert asks, “What about Buffy and Faith?”

“I dunno about Faith, but Buffy went off somewhere with Spike.”

“They were fighting something crazy” Anya adds. “Spike’s lucky no-one seems to be able to do actual violence.”

Around them, the walls shiver ominously, rippling and bending. “Um” says Xander, “What was that?”

“The thing that will break through the protection spell any minute” Rupert replies. “I’m going to find Buffy. You lot, get out of here.”

“No way” says Xander, struggling up. “I’m not leaving you and Buffy if something’s about to attack.”

“And I’m not leaving you” Anya tells him.

“L-let’s look for Willow and Faith then” says Tara. “Giles can find Buffy.”

“Good thinking” Rupert agrees. He heads for the door and then hesitates, takes Ethan’s hand again and leads him away.

*****

“I must say” says Ethan, once Rupert has released him from a fierce kiss to carry on down the hallway, “This social-niceties-free version of you is rather fun.”

“Shut it” replies Rupert, focused on the doorways around them. “Buffy?”

Ethan rolls his eyes. “She’s not even your slayer anymore, you realise.”

“She’s still my responsibility, Ethan.” Rupert starts pushing doors open, disturbing the semi-clad party goers within.

Ethan shakes his head despairingly: take away societal pressure and Rupert still has a sense of duty. It’s in his very soul. “Alright” he mutters, and says nothing more as Rupert searches. Ordinarily he’d try (a bit at least) not to sulk but right now he feels no such motivation and lets Rupert know through his silence exactly what he thinks about this ongoing, unpaid commitment that ties them to the hellmouth.

Every room, it seems, is occupied. In most, they find couples or groups enjoying themselves in various adventurous ways. In one, they find a young woman proposing to her boyfriend, and in another, a young man seems to have abandoned any pretence at cool and is quietly reading a book.

“This is fun, isn’t it?” comments Ethan, casting his sulk aside. “If it wasn’t for this presence, it could have been brilliant.”

“Yes, wonderful” Rupert deadpans, “take away everyone’s sense of responsibility, what could possibly go wrong?”

“You really are a boring old git at your core, aren’t you Rupert?”

“Unapologetically so.” Rupert turns a corner and exclaims, “Faith! Excellent. Are you alright?”

“I’m good. This is Paul.” Faith lounges in an armchair someone apparently decided to drag into the hallway, indicates a young man leaning against the window beside it. For all her bravado, it turns out that what Faith wants to do, when induced to care about no-one’s opinion but her own, is not have sex.

Rupert ignores Paul. Faith adds, “He’s a –”

Rupert interrupts, “Have you seen Buffy?”

Faith scowls. “I guess I knew you wouldn’t be here to find me.” She leans back sulkily. “She went in there with Spike.”

Rupert pushes against the indicated door, while Faith, with a shrug, returns her attention to Paul, pulling her feet up onto the chair and twisting round. After an apparently dazed moment, he continues, Ethan, leaning beside the door, catching snatches of their conversation between Rupert’s hammering:

“…wouldn’t believe the things they do…”

“…think I can imagine it…”

Ethan frowns. “Wait, what was –” He is distracted by Rupert getting the door open to reveal a laundry room, currently occupied by one slayer and one vampire. “Hey, Giles” Buffy greets them, “Ethan.” She stares around the room, studying light fixtures, air vents. “I don’t think we can use anything here” she says to Spike.

“It’s like I said, pet” he replies. “We need to get into the lift shaft.”

“Too obvious. And don’t call me that.”

“I’m not scared of them.”

“Because you’re stupid. You can’t hurt them, remember? Not that I’d even let you.”

Rupert steps into the room. “We’re discussing what, exactly?”

“I’m taking on the Initiative” Buffy tells him. “Spike’s helping.”

“I’m getting the chip out” Spike adds.

“Like hell you are” Buffy replies. “Giles, do you think I could get into their ventilation system from in here?”

“I have no idea, Buffy, but I know it’s not safe to try. Come on, we need –”

“No, I’m done with them! I’m going to get back at them for what they did to Riley and then I’m going to end this before something worse than Adam happens.” To Spike, she adds, “And I’m going to have to kill Adam.”

“I can help there” the vampire replies.

“Just as long as you don’t punch the human parts” points out Ethan.

Buffy shakes her head. “From what you said, I’m prepared to bet there’s nothing human about him. Not anymore.”

The lights flicker on and off. From across the building comes a sudden crescendo of shattering glass and a smattering of screams. Buffy turns to the noise. “What was that?”

“That is one of many good reasons we need to leave now” Rupert tells her. “You’re all under a spell and this building is likely haunted.”

Buffy shakes her head. “I’ve been in this building plenty of times. The only creepy thing about it is the secret lab underneath. Why’d there suddenly be ghosts?”

“All the sex” replies Ethan, suddenly struck by the idea.

Buffy stares at him. “Ew”

“What do you mean?” asks Rupert.

“Sexual energy” explains Ethan. “Poltergeists, apparitions – they’re all drawn to it. Feed off it, don’t they?”

“Do they?” Buffy asks.

“He’s right” says Spike. “Bad as bloody succubus, that lot are.” Another rumble echoes round the building and Spike scowls around at the walls. “Piss off can’t you?” he calls, apparently to ghosts in general. “We’re busy here!”

Beside him, Buffy rolls her eyes. “Yeah, that’ll do it!”

Faith comes in behind them, followed by Paul, who is wearing an odd, bland smile. Faith asks, “You guys hearing that?”

“Ghosts” explains Rupert shortly. “Or similar, hence our need to leave.”

“Shouldn’t we slay them?” asks Buffy.

“They’re already dead” points out Ethan. “That’s rather the point of ghosts.”

“Stop them, then.”

“We can’t from in here” Rupert tells her. “They’re feeding off the sexual energies in the building” He scowls at Ethan “which given this we’re at a college party where everyone has lost their inhibitions, is considerable.”

“I wondered about the orgy in the lobby” says Faith. “Want me to go throw a bucket of water over them?”

“I don’t think that will cut it” Rupert replies. “Our best bet is to encourage everyone outside and perform an exorcism. Come on, we need to find the others.”

*****

Possibly they are not the only ones noticing something off about the building, or at least about the electricity in it, because as they pass the back door, a horde of party goers are moving the festivities outside. Once the partiers are out the building, of course, the spell no longer affects them: through the open door, Ethan watches them slip into awkwardness as their inhibitions return, voices dropping and body language shifting into something shyer and more formal than the handsy embraces and showy gymnastics displays they left with. As they gather on a patch of grass a little way off, laughter picks up again and they stand chatting with their arms folded, perhaps wondering how they got carried away.

Paul stands briefly in the doorway too, but then takes a step back and Ethan, turning to him, sees that the others a little way ahead, hurries after them. Don’t want to be separated when there’s a haunting going on. Paul walks with him, staring blankly ahead and saying nothing. Really, Ethan thinks, he’d have expected Faith to find someone more interesting to talk to.

The lights go out again as they near the front of the building, flickering disorientating before plunging the place into a lurid half-light, the bulbs glowing an eerie deep orange that they are not designed to go. More people head for the exits, confounded by the unnatural plant life that seems to have invaded the lobby, cocooning the embracing couples and groups who are suddenly visible only as glimpses of naked flesh among the shrubbery. Puzzlement turns to fear when the ground shakes again, violently this time, as though the party has its own private earthquake. Startled, Ethan dives for Rupert and buries his face in his shirt, not caring what the slayers, Spike or Paul think. Rupert wraps his arms around his fiancé and manages to keep them upright as the shaking increases, a few people around them losing their footing altogether. For a moment the air is rich with groaning earth, screaming young people, creaking vines and, beneath it all, a sinister howling. Finally, it ceases, and Ethan lifts his head from Rupert’s shoulder, steps away. “Rupert, are you alright?”

“I’m fine.” Rupert dust a fine powder from Ethan’s shoulders. Ethan has a horrible feeling it fell from the ceiling. What if this whatever it is brings the building down on them? The protection spell is gone; he knows that with a cold certainty, the absence of it lending a chill to the air. “I love you” he tells Rupert.

“I love you too.” Rupert side steps a swell of people doubling back down the hallway, searching for a way out. “We need to find a way to get these people outside.”

“I was only winding you up when I said you were a boring old git” Ethan tells him.

“Yes, love.” Rupert pats him and turns away, steps over to where Buffy is helping fallen people up, Faith and Paul are attempting to cut through the vines with what looks like a kitchen knife, and Spike is laughing at the panicked humans. Ethan follows, adding, “You know I don’t really think you’re boring, don’t you? I couldn’t stand for us to die with you thinking that.”

“We’re not going to die, Eth. Buffy, we need to break a window or something.”

Ethan takes Rupert’s hand. “I’m only in this hellhole because I love you so much.”

“Ethan” Rupert detaches his hand. “I love you too but I need to focus. And we’re only in this hellhole because you put a spell on the party.”

“I meant the whole town.”

“Oh. I see.” Rupert turns to Paul as the young man speaks: “All the windows are blocked. Back door too.”

“How do you know?” asks Buffy with a frown.

There is a pause, as though the lad is processing the question. Before he can answer, the students who fled for the back exit return, doubly panicked, talking about more vines. Some hurry up the stairs and other mill about, scared, calling out for friends lost amid the press. As the hallway floods anew with frightened people, Ethan feels someone knock into him in the crowd. “Careful” he says, turning to face them. Then, “Oh, Xander. Hello.”

“Hey guys” Xander shuffles sideways so that Anya, Tara and Willow can join them. “What the Holy Santa’s happening?”

“Ghosts” explains Faith.

“Well we knew that” Anya retorts. “All I want to know is, is this Willow’s fault?”

“It wasn’t” Willow, folding her arms, replies. “Buffy, I swear it wasn’t me! Me and Ethan did the Liber Incantation, but I don’t know anything about any ghosts, I swear!”

“She’s telling the truth, Buffy” adds Tara. “The ghosts, or whatever they are, are, are something different.”

“I know” Buffy assures them. “Look, guys, we need to find a way to get these people out of here.”

“The people screaming” asks Xander, “or the people boinking?” He points through a gap in the swelling plant life to the continued liaisons. “Because how the hell are they still doing that in the middle of all this? It’s got to be supernatural.”

“It is” says Rupert grimly. “I doubt they can hear any of this commotion. The spirits have cut them off from everything else so that they’ll continue, err…”

“Going at it” supplies Spike.

“Yes. So that the ghosts can feed off their sexual energy.”

“So at least someone’s having fun” says Faith.

“Until all the energy is gone and they die” concludes Rupert.

“Well” says Ethan. “They’ll die doing what they love.” As the lights flicker again, he adds, “Unlike me who’s probably about to be killed by this building.”

“We could get everyone down into the lab” suggests Faith.

“Where we can die being eaten by Adam? Wonderful.”

In the blinking light, Ethan sees Faith scowl at him. She replies, “At least then they won’t be crushed if the building collapses. Me and Buffy can handle Adam.”

“Can you, though?” asks Anya.

“Yes” says Buffy firmly. “And Faith’s right – it’s safer than being trapped in here.”

“No it’s not” says Ethan. Deciding he’s now very much done with this spell, he says to Willow, “We need to end this.”

“Agreed” says Willow. “But I don’t know any anti-ghost spells.”

“I mean we need to end the Liber Incantation so no-one thinks a visit to the Initiative is a good idea.”

“But it is a good idea!” says Buffy.

“Even if I wanted to lift our spell the ghosts would interfere” Willow points out.

“Isn’t the first thing to do getting outside?” points out Xander.

“No!” Buffy pouts. “We need to get down to the facility. If they’re distracted by all this chaos it could be our best chance!”

“Buffy” pleads Rupert, “That’s the spell talking. You’re not thinking straight.”

“Giles, I’m thinking if the building shakes like that again we’re all going to be crushed unless we’re sub-basement level. I know where the lift shaft is; we need to get people down there.”

“We don’t know that they’re not affected by this haunting too” Rupert tells her. “Not to mention the Liber Incantation.”

“Well I’d rather take that risk than leave everyone here!”

“No” says Paul suddenly. “We” He pauses, seems to focus on some internal calculation. “They can’t breach protocol to let this number in and we can’t sneak them all in.”

There is a silence (or a relative silence – everyone not in the know is still panicking at the lack of exit), which Buffy breaks, asking Faith, “Who even is this guy?”

Faith addresses Rupert: “I did try to tell you, but you were all focused on Buffy.”

“I work for the Initiative” explains Paul, quirking a sickly smile. Beside him, Spike growls softly.

“So why’d you help us?” asks Xander.

“If you could see what they’ve got down there” Paul tells him, “You wouldn’t need to ask the question.”

“Stuff like what?” asks Tara. “Adam?”

Paul nods. “That’s just for starters.”

“So they’re evil” says Anya. “We knew that already.”

“Right” says Xander. “I’m still thinking we should be focused on getting everyone out the way of the earthquake-happy ghosts?”

“Agreed” says Rupert. He adds to the slayers, “Let’s at least get these people to safety first and see if you still want to take on the Initiative tonight once you’re out of range of the spell and you’ve got your inhibitions back.”

“Screw these people” says Faith. “They’ll find their way out. I say we let Paul get us down there and take on Walsh while we’ve still got the nerve.”

“You mean the spell-stupidity” says Xander.

“Look” says Buffy, “I guess we could –” And then the lights go out. Around the building, the trapped party goers react with a flurry of exclamations and curses, grabbing at friends so as not to lose them. Just as the commotion dies down, the building shakes again, and fresh screams erupt. In the sudden darkness, Ethan can find no handhold and falls, finds himself trampled as people try to take cover. Instinctively, he covers his head. Amid the screams and clatter, the smashing glass, Buffy is yelling, “Everyone stay calm! Stop pushing!”

“Oh God” moans Tara somewhere off to the side, “Oh God, oh God…”

“Tara?” Ethan risks rising to a crawling position on the rumbling ground, shuffles sideways, feeling his way in the dark.

“Ethan?” he hears Willow call out.

“Eth!” Suddenly Rupert is beside him – almost tripping over him, in fact. He crouches down. “Here, I’ve just realised!” He pulls Ethan to his feet and almost unbalances himself. The shaking is so continuous it almost feels like they are on a fairground ride. Except not fun. “Realised what?” Ethan asks, as they find their (relative) balance.

“The door – you can open it!”

“I can open it? You’re the big strong watcher – if you and your slayers can’t get through those vines, what am I supposed to do?”

“You worship a God of doorways” Rupert reminds him, staggering as someone pushes past them in some desperate bid for freedom.

“Oh” Ethan finds the vine-coated banisters, clings to it. “Well, yes. But he’s not a doorman, love, he doesn’t just spring things open on command.”

“Try?”

“I’ll need a knife” Ethan tells him. “For the supplication.”

There is just enough light to see the shape of Rupert’s brow shift as he frowns. “Faith had one, didn’t she?” he says, and moves off to find her, swallowed quickly by the darkness. Ethan hears him stumble as he goes, knocked off his feet by the constant shaking, rising again somehow. For his part, Ethan stays where he is, gripping the banister and trying not to be sick. Even the screams are dying down now, replaced with despairing moans and crying as the ghost-induced earthquake goes on and on. Thanks to the spell, people don’t even try to hide how terrified they are. Several feet away, someone is reciting some sort of last rites while someone else yells at them to stop. “Rupert?” Ethan manages after a prolonged and hellish stretch of shaking and darkness, “Love? Wher – argh!” He lets go of the banisters as a thorn grows up and pierces his hand, and promptly falls over.

“Ethan?”

“Willow!” Ethan struggles into a seated position, gripping his hand. “Where’s Rupert?”

“I don’t know. I can’t find anyone with all the shaking. These ghosts want us dead or out.”

“Well as they’ve trapped us here” says Ethan, “my money’s on dead.”

“I’m not sure if that’s how it works” says a third voice – Tara – beside them. “If they really plan. But we have to get out of here.”

“There must be some spell –” begins Willow.

“Janus” says Ethan, realising suddenly that he doesn’t need to cut his palm anymore – the damn supernatural plant life has done it for him. Scrambling to his knees, he crawl-stumbles into the apparently growing tangle of monstrous vine, as close to the front door as the spirits will let him get. It’s a little disconcerting, the thorns scraping at him, the stems shifting, and the fleshy scent of the plant reminding him a little of the first thing out of the hellmouth last year. At least this way, he thinks, as the shaking tosses him to the side, he is cushioned by the plant instead of trampled on by fleeing people. The thorny plant, that is. Which has stabbed him once already. At that, Ethan decides he is close enough to the door and slaps his bloodied palm against the plant with a flinch. Closes his eyes against the dark-anyway surroundings and focuses through the fear, reaches out to Janus.

The God is close by, enjoying the blend of enhanced enchantment, ghostly visitations and unforeseen consequences. Must be like a pick and mix for him, Ethan realises, and quashes brief bitterness; Gods don’t experience these things in quite the same way, after all. Ethan lets his mind latch onto Janus’ power and hold on.

Nothing happens. Or rather, nothing practical. Gods don’t just do things; rituals are required, the muscle and tangibility magic lends to deities in the human realm. Desperate to escape, for Rupert to escape, Ethan offers Janus everything he has and Janus takes it. Magic swells through Ethan, flares and fades, leaving him drained and to no avail: The vines stay very much solid and the door doesn’t open. Ethan tries again. Still nothing.

“Here, use my power too.” Willow must have followed him through the thorns. Her hand closes round his, offering a well of magic to draw on.

Draw on it Ethan does, channelling it, adding his own, offering all of it for Janus’ use. Within the enormous vine before him, something creaks and snaps. Ethan ducks, covering his face as the smaller vines recoil like cracked whips, flicking and zipping around them as the bulk of the plant trembles and recoils, snaking across the floor as if to escape. Behind them, a series of thuds as people are caught up in the plant’s transit, topple as it recedes.

The earth stops shaking, the sudden cessation laying bare the sounds of fear. Then the plant shrinks, a distant howl – audible only as the shaking stopped – ceases, and the lights come on. The door swings open. Rebounding magic bolts through him, and Ethan topples forwards into the space that is suddenly no longer cocooned by evil vines but is still very much occupied by couples who up until this interruption were very much occupied with one another.

“Rude!” snaps a girl, shoving him away, while her boyfriend lifts a dazed face to the crowd. “Fuck is going on here?”

Realisation that the doorway is clear ripples through the crowd. Ethan, along with the previously-busy couples, dives sideways to avoid being crushed underfoot. Then, groaning, he gets to his feet. Beside him, the couples do the same, murmuring confused questions. Some follow the others outside and others make their way up the stairs, leaving behind them a silence broken only by the music, which is, remarkably, still playing.

Only the scoobies are left in the place, Ethan notes. Well, and Paul. And Spike, though whether he is a scooby or not is sort of debatable in Ethan’s mind. What is not debatable is that all he wants to do is find Rupert and go home. “Rupert?”

There is a tell-tale groan from the living room doorway. “Ethan?”

Ethan hurries over to find his partner looking a little crumpled and rubbing his head. “Knocked out?” he asks.

“Think so” Rupert feels around for his glasses, finds them mercifully unbroken under a side table and slips them on. “Last I remember, I was looking for a knife so you could use your blood to get the doorway clear. I take it you managed anyway?”

Ethan holds up his hand in answer, but finds it is healed. Probably just a little side effect of Willow’s magic.

Realising exactly what just happened, Ethan turns to the girl. Her power, laid completely bare, was deeper and stronger than anything he’d known. Janus hadn’t freed them alone. Willow had helped. Drawing power from her, a God had found strength he didn’t have alone.

Who is this witch?

“What?” asks Willow, catching him staring. She pats her hair uncertainly, then turns to her girlfriend. “Tara, you okay?”

“I’m fine” says Tara. “But can we get out of here now?”

“Agreed” says Ethan.

“Not yet” says Faith, as the others join them. “Not until we get inside the Initiative.”

“No” says Tara. “N-no way. It’s too dangerous.”

“It’s dangerous not to” Buffy counters. “Willow, if you do a new protection spell and we make sure the Liber Incantation’s affecting them too –”

“It is” puts in Paul. “The no worries, no cares thing? Everyone’s doing whatever they want down there.”

“Sounds fun” mutters Ethan, because nothing, ever, has sounded less fun. Behind Paul, Spike seems to be thinking the same thing. He eyes the soldier speculatively and then steps silently through the open front door and away.

Rupert takes the opportunity to stand up and turn the music down. Then he puts Pink Floyd on and turns it back up again. “It would be remarkably dangerous –” he says.

“Exactly” says Xander.

“– but if the Liber Incantation is affecting them too, it might be possible to get some information, or even do them some damage. Now the civilians are safe, we could at least consider it.”

“G-man, so not where I was hoping you were going with that.”

“So you’re in?” Buffy asks.

“In what?” snaps Anya, “The Let’s Get Captured suicide mission?”

“But if they’re under the spell too…” says Willow.

“…Then loads of them will still want to capture you!” Anya concludes. “They’re scientists, remember? They pull things apart all day down there to see how they work; do you think they’ll all stop because Willow and Ethan took their shame away? They’ll step it up! Or the soldiers will open fire as soon as you get down there.”

“So we use a protection spell” argues Buffy.

“Unreliable and short term, remember? Or you’d be under one every time you went on patrol.”

“She’s right” says Ethan. “You don’t want to go gambling your life on a protection spell being all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Well” says Willow, “Maybe not a protection spell. But a protection spell plus barrier spells if they attack, plus a lot of confusion hexes…”

Beside her, Tara folds her arms. “I th-thought you were being careful with magic now?”

“I am! But… I mean, shouldn’t we take the opportunity to get something useful out of tonight?”

“Useful like two dead slayers?” asks Anya.

“Be fair Anya” says Ethan. “It might be useful like two dissected slayers.”

“There is that” Anya concedes. “Or useful like two slayer-based Adams.”

“Not going to happen” Faith intercedes. “We go down there while they’re under the spell, we use magic if we have to –”

“Oh!” yelps Willow, “Glamours! I could hide us as we go in and then we can look around the unguarded parts. I bet there’ll be some, what with the Liber Incantation.”

“…That” finishes Faith. “We get some info and we get out. Maybe we get a few chipped soldiers out of there. Maybe we end a few of their cut and paste monster projects.”

“But not with glamours” Rupert adds. “Willow, I don’t want you going down there.”

“Oh, but you can go?” Willow retorts. “Because you’re going, right?”

“No” says Ethan, at the same time that Rupert says "Yes".

“He’s not” says Buffy. “Neither are you, Will. This is a slayers only thing.”

“Oh, because that always ends well!” says Xander.

Ignoring them, Rupert answers Willow: “We’ll go with them; don’t worry.”

“Giles!” Buffy snaps.

Rupert turns to Ethan. “How much longer will the Liber Incantation hold?”

“It won’t, once me and Willow reverse it.” Ethan turns to the witch. “Willow, this is madness. You go down, you die. If you’re lucky.”

“I don’t need luck, Ethan. I can do this – with the spell distracting the soldiers, plus my magic –”

“We don’t know the spell’s distracting anyone!” argues Tara. “We don’t know what they’ll do to you if they catch you.”

“Exactly!” says Ethan. “We only have that” He waves a hand at Paul “randomer’s word for it.

“There’s no need for magic” Paul intones. “Everyone’s distracted already.”

“Willow” Tara tugs her girlfriend aside. “Please don’t do this.”

“I have to” Willow tells her. “I have to actually use my magic for something good for once.”

“N-no. Sweetie, you don’t have to prove anything.”

Faith interrupts, “But you do need to decide quickly.” Taking Paul’s elbow, she steers him out the room. “Anyone in, follow me.”

Don’t follow her” Buffy fixes them with a glare. “Remember: This is slayers only.”

*****

“Remember what I said about slayers only?” Buffy asks half-heartedly when Giles and Willow join them in wandering down the hallway.

“I’m not letting you go in there alone” says Giles. He tries not to remember the fear on Ethan’s face when he left to follow her. With the spell still affecting him, it is unnervingly easy. “The others will alert the Council and come after us if we’re not back in three hours.”

“You told them to come after us?!” Buffy slaps him a little more than lightly on the arm, drops her voice to a hiss so that Paul, up ahead with Faith, won’t hear. “They can’t come after us!”

“So your plan is to surrender ourselves to our fate if we’re captured?” returns Giles.

Buffy scowls, then turns to Willow. “What’s your excuse?”

“You need me in case the Liber Incantation isn’t enough to distract them” points out Willow. “We’re not going back, Buffy.”

“Fine” agrees Buffy, with every sign of reluctance. “Stay close to me and keep an eye on Paul – I don’t trust the guy.” Her voice drops as, up ahead, Paul stops by a mirrored panel. Beside him, Faith steps away and comes closer to them. “What’re you talking about, B?” she murmurs. “He’s a useful idiot.”

Slayer hearing, Giles realises; Faith had been nodding along to whatever Paul was saying while listening to the three of them too.

Faith is not, of course, a renowned judge of character.

It is only as a beam of light slices through the mirror and a robotic voice greets “Agent Pilinszky, Paul” that Giles really allows himself to acknowledge the danger they could be in. They have only Paul’s – the useful idiot’s – word that the Initiative were effected by Ethan and Willow’s spell, and no idea what they face down their if it is. And yet Giles finds he is not afraid. Rather, he is eager to finally see the place and get the measure of it. Actually do something about it at last. And if they do get caught, so what? They have two slayers on their side. 

The mirror slides away to reveal a lift, a blank white box. The five of them step into it, the scoobies exchanging glances, Paul staring straight ahead. Giles is beginning to wonder if the boy is stoned. Or possibly injured: he moves a little oddly.

At a robotic prompt, Paul says his name into a grid on the wall, while Willow takes something from her pocket and blows it at the camera, which promptly dies with a flickering green light.

“Nice going, Will” murmurs Buffy.

“They won’t be watching anyway” Paul assures them, as Willow starts chanting a simple glamour to hide their entrance.

“Still” says Buffy, “better safe than –” At that moment, the lift opens, and ten guns are trained on them “sorry”.

For a moment, all they can do is stare at the guns. The soldiers pointing them are expressionless, somehow barely looking at them. Behind them, the facility is noisy, growls, laughter and screams all mixed together.

Faith turns to Paul. “Bastard.”

“Willow” mutters Buffy, “glamour?”

“Sorry, Buffy” murmurs Willow, “I thought I’d have longer to finish it.”

Giles addresses the soldiers: “We’re unarmed. It was my idea to come here – I insisted the girls join us.”

“Giles!” says Willow.

“Don’t take the credit, Giles” says Faith. “It was my idea.”

“Yes” says an oddly detached voice from somewhere beyond the soldiers, “Yes it was.”

They see his shadow before they see him. He looms. “Adam” Buffy realises.

“Buffy Summers” he replies. There is a mechanical sound as though a disk is turning in his head. “Vampire slayer and partner of my brother, Riley Finn. I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

Buffy shrugs. “I’d have been happy to keep waiting.” She and Faith inch forward, almost imperceptibly, but not imperceptivity enough. The guns click menacingly.

“Guard the entranceways to levels six and ten” Adam commands. “Let nothing past. Agent Pilinszky, return to your unit.”

Paul steps out the lift and moves off with the other soldiers. Only seeing them all move in that same stilted way, with the same blank expressions, does Giles realise: “They’re all chipped.”

“Not all” says Adam, almost conversationally. “Only a few so far have the honour.”

“Some honour” mutters Faith.

“Faith” Adam notes, “Known to us only as of tonight. Another vampire slayer. Interesting.” He tilts his head. “You’re scared.”

Buffy glances at Faith and briefly takes her hand.

“Glad I’m not the only one” murmurs Willow. Giles steps sideways slightly, placing himself between her and Adam.

Adam steps back a little, almost courtly, and gestures into the facility with a sweep of muscular, spear-tipped arm. “Follow me. Mother would like a word.” He turns, leaving them to step into the facility.

Presumably an orderly place when not hexed, the entire complex is currently in uproar. A large, metallic-walled pit in front of them seems to have been made into an arena of sorts, in which three demons prowl, sizing each other up. Above them, leaning over railings, scientists and soldiers whoop and cheer.

A little way off, two white-coated men are doing something with a scalpel to a figure strapped to a table that Giles doesn’t want to look too closely at. Beyond that, two soldiers seem to be racing little golf-buggy-type vehicles, while another wanders around topless, whistling. Only the chipped soldiers stand to attention, blocking exits that lead off this main area where, presumably, demons languish.

Adam leads them down a white tiled hallway. He doesn’t look back, but Giles gets the impression that making a break for it wouldn’t be wise. The soldiers milling about seem not to be functioning as a cohesive unit, but they are all armed, and all it would take would be for just one to decide to intervene if they fled.

Besides, Adam looks as though he could catch up to them in a few strides unaided. Giles sees Buffy studying him, wonders if she’s thinking along the same lines. Faith barely glances at Adam or their surroundings, stares straight ahead. Nothing she hasn’t seen before, Giles supposes, though Adam doesn’t know that, which is oddly heartening.

He tries to keep track of the turns they make, first right, then left, down identical corridors, past soldiers bickering, wrestling, two firing guns at empty shells of body armour stacked onto crates. Male voices bounce from tile to tile, and behind them, to great jubilation from the onlookers, one of the gladiator-demons moves in for the kill, it’s unfortunate competitor letting off an unearthly shriek that follows them into the labyrinth.

Gods, but this place is a hell-hole. Giles wouldn’t wish it on any demon.

Maybe Angelus.

Adam knocks on a door and enters. “They are here, mother” he announces.

Faith enters first, balling her fists. Buffy lets Willow and Giles enter next so that they are sandwiched between slayers.

The room is a small office, lousy with filing cabinets, some of which have papers staked on top of them. The desk – too big for the room – is also overburdened with papers, mainly brown envelopes and long reams of small print schematics. A computer with two screens (really, thinks Giles, who needs two screens) rises from it as though keen to escape and a series of computer disks sit to one side of it, a pop of colour amid sepia and brown. Professor Walsh moves as though to pick these up as they enter but pauses at the sight of them. “This is everyone?” she asks.

“Yes, mother. The others left the building after the infestation was cleared.”

With four of them plus Adam – who takes up rather a lot of space – in this small room, they are obliged to arranged themselves in a line before her desk, like naughty schoolchildren sent to the headmistress.

“Professor Walsh –” Buffy begins.

“Let me guess” the professor responds, “You walked brazenly into a secret military instillation but you were just curious and meant no harm?”

“No” says Buffy. “We totally meant harm.”

“What you’ve done to those soldiers is sick” adds Faith.

Giles finds that for all his rage at what these people did to Ethan, he doesn’t need his lost inhibitions – only his gradually returning common sense – to tell him that there is little to be gained from attacking Walsh. Other than all their deaths, that is. He exchanges a glance with Willow that speaks volumes about their shared lack of faith in this confrontational approach, but they have two spell-reckless slayers on their hands. Really, they are lucky no-one has launched herself across the desk.

“I’ve done nothing that wasn’t state sanctioned” Walsh declares.

“Then the state’s an ass” says Faith.

Walsh smiles a tight, dangerous smile. “That’s your perspective. You don’t know the full scope of what we hope to accomplish, and nor will you, Miss…?”

“Miss Fuck You” supplies Faith, voice flat and uninterested. Surprisingly, Walsh’s smile slips into something more genuine. “And” she checks a note, “from what you were saying tonight at the party, you’re a slayer.” She turns to Buffy. “I thought there was only one of you?”

“What can I say?” Buffy shrugs “You thought wrong. But I guess wrong is familiar territory for you?”

Walsh turns to Giles. “I don’t think we’ve met?” Perfectly pleasant in tone, as though she were going to do nothing but make them tea. Clearly, she is expecting an answer, but Giles finds himself defiantly staring her out. After all, he can say nothing about Ethan – she’s likely to barely remember him, of course – but to say anything else seems a betrayal. He sticks his chin out, a throwback to youthful gambles, nights of picking fights and hoping for the best. After a while, Walsh’s smile takes on a poisonous edge and then she turns to Willow. “And you’re Willow. I don’t know your last name and I doubt you’ll tell me, but I will find out. Adam tells me you stopped the infestation. How?”

“Not something I could teach you if I wanted to” Willow assures her. Oddly, she manages to match Walsh’s menacingly friendly tone. “Not that I would.”

Walsh makes a note on the paper in front of her. “It’s a shame you couldn’t join us a month or so ago. We had the most impressive facility in Nevada. Nevertheless, here you all are. The question is, what to do with you.”

“And what is that?” asks Faith. “Chip us?” Her voice shakes so slightly, that Giles doubts he’d hear it if he wasn’t standing next to her.

Walsh replies, “Our behaviour modification devices are used only in exceptional cases.”

“An honour” echoes Adam. Somehow, despite his bulk, Giles had almost forgotten he was there.

Walsh inclines her head in agreement. “Not even all my men have implants, or I could override the effects of this” A shudder, as though talking about something unseemly “spell. So no, we won’t chip you. It will have to be something else.”

“Something else state sanctioned” says Buffy grimly.

Walsh looks up at that, something calculating in her face. Her hand moves again to the computer disks, but at that moment, there is a commotion outside and a soldier bursts in. Immediately, it is clear he has not had the honour of a chip. His uniform is in disarray, his hair ruffled, and he speaks without being directed to: “Sorry to interrupt, Ma’am, but we’ve got a lupus-category hostile causing mayhem out here.”

Walsh glares. Adam, meanwhile, steps out of the office to stare down the corridor, towards the source of the shouts and growls. Walsh asks the soldier, “What exactly happened?”

“Lewis and Hunter, ma’am, they’re under the effects of infringement. Well, we all are.”

“Is it in its secondary form?”

“Yes”

“I see. Well –”

“Hey B” says Faith, “cover me” She leaps across the desk, grabs the computer discs and bolts from the room.

“Run!” yells Buffy and Willow and Giles obey, Giles pulling Willow to the side as soon as they clear the doorframe so that Buffy can launch herself at Adam, who is already swinging at Faith as she ducks and darts out of his lumbering way.

“After them, private!” Walsh commands the soldier still in the office, and Giles swings, catches the man on the chin as he bursts into the hallway, scrambles for his gun as he drops. The soldier is not unconscious, but is dazed enough that he lets it go without much of a struggle. Giles finds himself with more fire power than he knows what to do with, so he points it at Walsh.

“Giles!” gasps Willow, and Giles wonders distantly why she cares. For a tense moment, Walsh, frozen in the doorway, stares at him and Giles thinks of the needle marks on Ethan’s arm. Then Willow pulls him away. “Giles, you’d just get us killed!”

They skirt out of range of the fight between Adam and the slayers. One glance is enough to tell Giles that this is not a situation where he can assist – Adam is simply too powerful, he’d only get in the way, and Faith has told them shooting the monster does nothing. So he darts over to retrieve the disks where Faith dropped them at some point while dodging blows, and focuses on the only worthwhile thing in his power: saving Willow. Shoving the disks into his pocket, he takes her arm and runs, giving her no choice but to run with him, for all she is trying to focus on a spell. Spells are slow, and they could be fired at or charged at by Adam right now. Giles follows the pattern of turns down white tiled corridors in reverse, aware of footsteps behind them, a gasp as someone stumbles. Chancing a look back, he finds Buffy helping Faith up. Giles covers them, pointing the gun over there heads until they catch up. “You got the disks?” Faith shouts, and Giles nods, out of breath. Buffy, meanwhile, has taken over herding Willow, who still seems lost in a cloud of magic, eyes closed, Latin on lips.

“He’ll be following.” Faith stares back the way they came.

“Then we need to hurry” responds Buffy. “Let’s –” That is when a werewolf appears, pursued by a handful of soldiers. “Oh great!” says Buffy. “Because that’s what this needed!”

Instinctively, Giles raises the gun, but then pauses at the sight of the soldiers. He has no experience firing a gun so large and knows his aim will likely be less than perfect. Rather than kill humans or a werewolf with stray warning shots, he turns and fires back the way they came. It won’tl slow down Adam, but it has the desired effect of sending the werewolf back the way it came. Faith takes the opportunity to jump on it’s back, pinning it down. Buffy charges past her and knocks out the soldiers in moments. “Faith, we don’t have time for this, let’s go!”

“What do I do with this?” asks Faith.

Buffy pauses, and Giles can see the dilemma: a conscious, angry werewolf will slow them up at best (and, more likely, kill them at worst) but it is too close to human to leave in here.

“Oh wait” says Faith. Raising her fist, she clobbers the wolf. It whimpers and falls forward, unconscious. Faith stands and lifts it with a grunt, just as rapid footsteps sound from several directions. “Man, do we not get a break down here?”

“Let me take it” Giles offers Faith the gun, holds out an arm for the werewolf. “You’re hurt.” The bruises on the slayer’s face are rising fast.

“No way, Giles. You’re slow enough already.”

“Faith, I’m your watcher. For once in your life, do as you’re damn well told.”

She doesn’t, of course. She steps deliberately back, away from him.

“Guys, come on” Buffy pulls Willow with her further down the corridor, Willow whose eyes are tightly closed now, furiously chanting. “We need to – oh!”

Giles follows Buffy’s gaze to the wolf, which is shrinking and paling in Faith’s disgruntled grip. Soon what the slayer is carrying is not a wolf but a bruised and naked woman.

“Leave her” says Buffy. Giles frowns but then recognises, “Veruca!”

“Yep. Faith, leave her, I’ll explain later.”

“No way. I’m not leaving anyone down here.”

“Faith, I don’t like doing it, but none of us are going to get out of here if we don’t –” And the hallway fills with soldiers.

There is a snap in the air, as though all the atoms blinked. The soldiers all fall forward, unconscious. Willow falls too, pale, nose bleeding, into Buffy’s startled arms. “It won’t have worked on Adam” she tells them, sleepily, before fainting away.

Buffy lifts her. “Okay, Will. Let’s get out of here.”

*****

“How is she?” asks Ethan.

Buffy rolls her eyes. “Are we talking about the homicidal werewolf or the suicidal witch?”

“I’m not suicidal” comes a weak voice from behind a makeshift curtain.

Buffy offers a grudging smile. “Go see for yourself.”

She exits the basement. Fortunately, Xander’s parents are out of town, leaving the small army of fugitives from injustice with an entire (appallingly decorated) house to invade. Only those unable to move – Veruca in her magic-forged cell and Willow in the pull-out bed – are confined to the basement.

As Ethan passes, Veruca looks up, wild eyed, before letting her head drop again. Her hair is shaved unevenly, little patches of thinker growth here and there and, curving round her ear and down her neck, a raw, badly stitched scar. Ethan can’t see where else she’s hurt.

Stepping past the sheets hanging round the bed, he switches on a smile for Willow. “Awake at last?”

“Kinda. Hi, Ethan.” Her voice is still horse, but at least her nostrils are clear of blood at last.

Ethan sits down beside the bed, in the plastic garden chair Xander dragged down here. “I was thinking” he begins, “For our next magic lesson we might go over how not to do stupidly reckless sleeping spells that could kill you, and how, if your magic tutor acts like hexing an entire building of soldiers is ever a good idea you shouldn’t listen to him.”

“Well” says Willow, then pauses, swallows painfully and tries again, a little louder, “You didn’t know what would happen.”

Ethan shakes his head. “That sleeping spell could have killed you.”

“I know. But the one you taught me wasn’t going to cut it with that many and, well, they were going to capture us.” Willow sighs, then winces. “No, the badness started with my hey-let’s-just-hex-everyone idea. Because it was all my idea. Like I’ve learnt nothing.”

“The Liber Incantation isn’t an unethical spell” Ethan points out. “Really all it should have done was make everyone relaxed and confused. Like grass back in the day.”

“But it didn’t.”

“Well even the no inhibitions thing wasn’t awful” Ethan reasons. “No-one did anything they wouldn’t anyway if they decided to really let loose.”

“Like how Buffy and Faith decided to really let loose and go down to the lab?” Willow sighs again. “I should have undone it as soon as it didn’t go the way we thought.”

“Well you can’t give yourself a hard time over that; you were affected too.”

“Exactly! I was being stupid.” Willow pauses for air, drawn painfully through mouth and nose as though to stave off another fainting fit. “And it didn’t even do what it was meant to, did it? I mean, I think I dealt with the cameras, but they all got a good look at us. They’ll have remembered after the happy-no-hang-ups passed and they’ll be coming after us.”

“I’ve cloaked us; don’t worry. Or rather, worry about Spike because he’s not here, but we’ll be okay.”

“Oh, Spike will be okay too: When I garbled their records on you, I did his too. They don’t know him anymore.” At Ethan’s questioning frown, Willow adds, “Well, I figured he could be useful.”

“I suppose so. Don’t worry about anyone then.” Maybe Veruca, but with the girl possibly listening a few feet away, Ethan says nothing.

“At least we got the disks” says Willow heavily, after a while. “Tara said they’re encrypted?”

“Yes” Ethan replies. “If only we knew someone good with computers…” He smiles.

“I could give it a go.” Willow grins. Grin slipping, she adds, “Too bad I’m not as good with magic.”

Gods but if she knew what her raw power, shared, felt like, she’d never doubt herself again. But Ethan senses such an insight would scare her, so he merely replies, “You’re an incredibly talented witch, Willow.”

“Powerful” she responds, “not talented. I know I’ve got power. I just wish it would do what I ask it.”

“Willow, the spell would have gone fine except for the Menas Stone.”

“But there’s always an except for! Doesn’t it ever scare you?” Willow shifts painfully, pulling herself a little closer to upright in her nest of pillows. She adds, “Magic I mean. Any magic. Didn’t it scare you, your first few years of it?”

Ethan thinks back to those days. “Honestly, back when I was starting out, I was too out of it most of the time to care.” High, or half-delirious because he’d forgotten to sleep all week, or just too pleased with the mayhem he’d spread to worry about a few glitches here and there. He’d barely registered that magic could be dangerous before Randall was taken. “And you know Chaos magic tends to the unpredictable anyway. Not controlling it is rather the point.”

Willow nods, her face pinched by a frown. “Right. Only me with the magical meltdowns then.”

“Hardly. Every witch and warlock that ever was made mistakes.”

“Mine seem pretty big.”

Ethan shakes his head. “You’re an exceptional witch, Willow. Don’t let anyone tell you that’s a bad thing.”

“You mean that? ’Cause it looked pretty bad from where I was standing right before I fainted and almost died.”

“Hence, you’re never doing that spell again. But like you said, they were going to capture you.”

“…Because I’d cast a spell that got everyone reckless enough to go down there in the first place – Exactly.”

“But you’re all safe now. Look, Willow, it was one spell gone wrong: learn and move on. That’s the way to be.” Warming to his subject, Ethan adds, “I mean, look at me: I’ve had my share of mistakes.”

“Yeah, like truth-spelling the whole school.”

“No, that was deliberate. I was thinking more of the time I turned the entire watcher’s council into woodland animals.”

Willow immediately claps a hand to her mouth, stifling her giggles. “Really?”

“Oh yes. Ages, it went on, before I even realised.” Seeing her mirth increase, Ethan explains, “I’d only been trying to change this one jumped up little git into a ferret because, well, he was asking for it. I believe they almost had me assassinated.”

“Didn’t you feel bad after?”

“Well, I did when I realised Rupert had spent the entire day as a hedgehog.”

Willow finally gives in to laughter and hastily stops herself as Rupert comes down the stairs. Stepping round the curtain, mug in hand, he asks, “What’s the joke?”

“Nothing” Ethan tells him.

“You’re not telling Willow anything inappropriate, are you?”

Ethan attempts to look innocent. “Of course not! No need to be prickly.”

Behind him, Willow cracks up.

Rupert looks between them in confusion for a moment and then hands Willow the mug. “Tara sent me down with this. She’ll join you in a moment, after she and Anya have had a go at the disks.”

“Tell her I can help now.” Willow sips her steaming drink.

“Not until you’re healed” replies Rupert.

Willow takes another sip and then adds, in an undertone, “Will you get a coffee for Veruca? Because she hasn’t had anything since that juice when she first arrived.”

“I’ll find her something.” Rupert matches the whisper. Beyond the curtain, Ethan senses Veruca lift her head again, listening. “Has she spoken to you?”

“Once or twice, but I was kinda out of it. I think she was too.” Willow lets her whisper drop to a mere breath. “Giles, what are we going to do with her?”

Rupert glances back at the werewolf. The barrier spell around her contain the chair, and she is seated in it, curled around herself protectively. She looks small in Tara’s spare clothes. “I don’t know” answers Rupert.

Chapter Text

With Willow still recovering, it falls to Ethan to cast a truth spell on Veruca. The young werewolf is clearly unhappy at the prospect, but, bound as she is, she is in no position to stop him. Soon her eyes glaze over and her obstinate expression goes dreamy. She turns to Buffy, Faith and Rupert, as though the spell can tell where the questions will be coming from.

Buffy asks, “Are you alright?”

Briefly, Veruca looks angry, but the spell reduces her voice to a monotone as she answers, “I will be.”

“What did they do to you?” asks Faith, in a tone that implies she doesn’t really want to know.

“Tests” is the flat-toned response. “They took samples from me in human shape and wolf shape. They electrocuted me to bring the wolf out. They filmed it all.”

Individual truth spells don’t bring about the glorious chaos of truth that similar spells cast en masse create. They are dull things that quash the creativity and spirit needed to lie.

Veruca’s information is limited. She knows no specifics as to what type of demons the Initiative has or what they are doing with them. Has seen no proof of more parts being harvested for more Adams. Hasn’t even seen Adam, come to that. No human prisoners that she’s seen, so that’s something.

Buffy asks, “Do you know what they wanted with you, ultimately?”

Veruca shakes her head slowly. Everyone waits but she doesn’t elaborate. Rupert asks, “Do you have any theories?”

“They wanted a weapon” is the reply.

Rupert frowns. “The wolf?”

Within her small encasement of magic, Veruca stands and stretches.

And changes. With a tearing of fabric and a bristling of skin, a bearing of teeth, the wolf supplants the girl and then, just as quickly, the girl is back. Veruca makes no attempt to cover the patches of skin exposed by the ripped clothing. She simply stares at them through the barrier spell.

“Crap” says Faith. “How’d they do that?”

Veruca shrugs. “I don’t know.”

Ethan concedes, “I doubt they explained it all in the consent form.”

Rupert asks, “Can you control it?”

“I think so.”

Buffy asks, “Do you want to?”

Veruca nods and starts to speak, shuts her mouth again and twists her face. Buffy looks at questioningly at Ethan.

“She’s fighting the truth spell” he explains. “Just give it a moment.” They wait, watch as Veruca screws her eyes shut, paces in her small space. Then she changes back into the wolf, dropping to the floor.

“That might bugger things up” admits Ethan. “Try asking something else.”

Buffy raises an eyebrow. “She’s a wolf now.”

“Worth a try. Maybe she’ll change back.” Addressing the growling animal, Buffy asks, “If we release you, are you going to hurt anyone?”

The wolf merely howls.

*****

Having the run of the entire Harris home in Xander’s parents’ absence had seemed to provide them with more than enough space when they began hiding here. A few days in, and the illusion has cracked. The place is in sore need of refurbishment, the washing machine is noisy and unreliable, the shower is low pressure enough as to be a lukewarm trickle and there is no kettle. And there are far too many of them sharing two bedrooms and a basement.

Veruca is still stubbornly in wolf form. Giles isn’t sure if this is a choice on her part, a way of avoiding more truth spells, or simply because it is actually full moon now. At least Ethan cloaked the garden too, such as it is. After a few hours of listening to Veruca growl, Giles heads out there for some peace, but it turns out Xander’s neighbourhood isn’t particularly peaceful, even if one is out of a werewolf’s vocal range – or at least, further out. He can still hear the howling, but it is muffled now.

“You getting fed up too?” Ethan joins him, and places one of Xander’s father’s icy bottles of cheap and foul beer in his hands. Giles accepts it. Gods, it’s been four days since he last had a cup of tea – it’s enough to drive any man to drink.

For a moment, they are quiet, listening to the howls from the house and the sirens and shouting from all around.

“I’ll cloak our flat tomorrow” Ethan tells him. “Then we can finally sleep in a decent bed.” Willow and Tara have been in Xander’s parents’ bed since the former grew well enough for the latter to let her leave the basement, leaving the rest of them to manage with the limited sleeping options remaining. Going home is tempting, especially as, “They don’t seem to be actively looking for us.” Giles replies. They haven’t seen any soldiers on Xander’s street, nor have there been any appeals on local television. Giles had expected trumped up charges, and for local law enforcement to get involved, but they’ve had nothing of the sort. But, he reasons, the Initiative must be searching for them; they broke into the base, after all. Perhaps they haven’t involved the police or the regular army simply because what they have planned for them is too dreadful to involve people trained in due process. He asks Ethan, “Do you really want to risk it?”

“Well we need to leave eventually” Ethan points out. “We’re running out of food.”

This is a good point. Soon after they arrived, Buffy contacted Riley, who risked a journey from his own hiding place to theirs, using his Main Street master key en route to bring a few supplies. Now, though, between nine people, they are running low. Ordering food in isn’t an option – cloaking spells are strong but lack nuance; a delivery person wouldn’t see the house if they were looking straight at it. Even Xander’s parents won’t see their home if they return while the spell is still in place. And every night they stay here is a night with no slayer patrolling the hellmouth. The situation is hardly sustainable.

“And you need tea.” Ethan opens his own beer, swigs from it and pulls a face, sets it aside on an upturned bin that serves as a garden table. “Hello, all” he says as the back door opens.

Giles tries to be pleased that the young people are joining them although, honestly, he could do with a break from their company after almost a week of confinement with them all. Catching Willow’s eye, he asks, “How is the err, hacking going?”

“Decrypting” she corrects, “and it’s not, really. There’s some really high-level protections on there; it’s going to take me a while to get in.”

“And in the meantime, we’re all stuck here” Anya concludes grimly.

“We don’t even know if what’s on there will be useful” Buffy points out. “Especially not if…well.”

“…And we’re back to conspiracy theories” Riley mutters. He tries to temper the comment with a smile, but Buffy looks hurt all the same. She says, “I’m telling you – Adam was holding back. They wanted us to get those disks.”

“Or Adam did” Faith agrees. “Maybe not Walsh.”

“She kept reaching for the disks” Buffy argues. “Like she wanted us to notice them.”

“Maybe” Faith shrugs.

“Well if she wanted you to have the disks, she won’t be after you for stealing the disks, right?” asks Anya. “So we can all leave?”

There is a pause in which no-one leaves. Riley breaks it with, “I’m not going to risk being captured on the off chance Professor Walsh has had a change of heart. And if she did, wouldn’t she have just handed you the disks?”

“Maybe not with Adam there” replies Buffy.

“Or” says Faith, “She didn’t want me to snatch the disks but Adam did want us to make a get away.”

“So you agree he was holding back?” asks Buffy.

“Fuck, yeah. He could have thrashed us.”

Ethan says, “Maybe with the spell making everyone do what they wanted to deep down, what Walsh or Adam wanted to do deep down was pass you information without the other knowing.”

Buffy glares at him. “Or maybe the spell is just the reason I can’t go patrolling right now.”

Ethan scowls. “It’s not my fault that what you really wanted to do was barge into the Initiative.”

“But it was your fault I was reckless enough to do it!” Buffy snaps back. Beside her, Willow wilts. Seeing this, Tara pulls over a plastic chair from across the lawn and helps her into it. Buffy, looking a little guilty, reaches for her friend’s hand. Giles tells them, “I think we need to see what’s on the disks before we can jump to any conclusions.”

“Let alone leave” Riley agrees.

“We need to leave eventually” Faith points out.

“I’m going out tomorrow to cloak the flat” Ethan tells her. “I could do your motel room too if you like.”

“And increases the risk of being captured” Giles points out.

“I’ll come too” Willow speaks up. “I want to help do some cloaking.”

“You can help by unencrypting the disks without stressing about more magic” Buffy tells her.

Willow looks a little hurt at that. “We could cloak our dorm rooms too and then I can use my laptop. No offence to Xander’s dad’s computer but it’s kind of tired.”

Anya says, “Or maybe you’ve just been too into magic this last year or so to keep your computer hacking skills honed.”

Willow’s hurt expression deepens. “Decrypting” she repeats. Beside her, Tara says, “Willow can be good at two things at once, you know.”

“We know” Xander agrees quickly, “Don’t we, An?” Anya offers a tight, too-bright smile.

“If you do insist on leaving the cloaked area” says Giles, “You should take Faith or Buffy for protection.”

“Bagsy” Faith blurts. “I stay cooped up in here one more day and I’ll go crazy.”

“Again” Willow mutters. For a moment a moment Giles, standing beside her, thinks only he has heard, but then Faith (of course, her slayer hearing) asks, “You say something?”

“Nothing” Willow replies hastily. Giles is almost relieved when a particularly loud howl echoes around them. The edges of the cloaking spell amplify the sound, bouncing it around them as they pause and listen. “Only two more nights of this” says Xander with false cheer. “Well. And all day if she wants to drive insane.”

“Unless we kill her first” Anya murmurs.

Xander shifts uncomfortably. “We won’t kill her, An. We’re the good guys, remember?”

“You think it will be easier to wait until she’s back in human mode?” asks Anya.

“No-one’s going to kill her” Tara says uneasily.

Giles wishes it were so simple as that. But the young werewolf clearly has no interest in caging herself during full moons. Freed, she’d pose an immense danger to any innocent who strayed across her path on nights like these.

“I heard back from Oz” Willow tells them. “He said the people he lives with now – werewolves he lives with, I mean – they won’t take in a werewolf who won’t try to fight her wolf side. Some of them haven’t always been…well, some of them might be tempted back into giving in to it if she was around doing the tempting.”

“And there’s the whole how would we get her to Oregon thing” Xander points out. “What with being wanted fugitives and all.”

“So far as we know” Giles cautions.

“So we’re back to give her back to the Initiative or kill her?” Buffy asks. “I was really hoping Oz could be another option.”

“Sorry, Buffy” says Willow.

Buffy asks, “Giles, what about the Council?”

“I haven’t even been able to get hold of them to help us get the army off our backs” Giles admits. “They may have helped with the Nevada situation but it’s not as though any of us are employed by them anymore. And closing the Nevada facility left them with more than enough prisoners to manage.” As to what they’d do with a werewolf who can transform at will, Giles doesn’t know and doesn’t want to. A relief, really, that he hasn’t been put through to anyone at a decision making level.

Apparently Faith is of the same opinion because she says, “Lucky for her. Kinder to kill her.” Noticing their expressions, she adds, “I didn’t say I want to!”

“So what do we do with her?” asks Xander, at least partly, Giles thinks, to break the uncomfortable silence that greets Faith’s assertion. More uncomfortable silence is all that answers him.

It is broken by Willow. “Well” she says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I was wondering about mind control.”

“No” replies Ethan immediately. “Your clue’s in the word control, Willow. As in, you’d lose yours.”

“As in, you don’t like it because you’re allergic to control” she corrects him. “I’d keep mine.”

“No you wouldn’t” Ethan replies. “Mind control never goes well.”

“Ethan’s right” says Tara. “A-and Veruca needs to decide for herself how to behave. A spell to take that from her…it would just be wrong.”

“Wronger than killing her or giving her to people who’d lock her up forever?” asks Willow. “All I’d change is making her not want to hurt people.”

“B-but doing that would hurt you” Tara points out. “Mind control spells always have a price.”

“A high one” echoes Anya. “I’ve seen it with vengeance. The people who called on me because they found out their warlock hubby took away their free will? Very angry people. One girl asked me to –”

“But hang on” Xander jumps in quickly, “Yeah, sure, taking away free will sounds kind of dark but it’s only Veruca’s free will to kill people.”

“Magic doesn’t work like that” says Ethan grimly.

“Precisely” agrees Giles. “When it comes to dark magic, motive makes little difference.” Lord knows he, Ethan and their friends were just trying to have fun. 

“I don’t want you hurting yourself, Will” says Buffy.

Faith says, “Much as I’m not in favour of Willow going dark mojo on us, isn’t giving her back to the Initiative kind of taking away her free will too? Even if they don’t chip her, I mean. They’re not exactly poster children for freedom and love.”

“Exactly” Willow says. “But if I magic her so she’s compelled to always lock herself up at full moon –”

“She could change any other time” Buffy points out.

Willow shakes her head. “Not if I change that too. Make her not want to hurt anyone.”

“Mind control’s never that neat” Ethan tells her.

Willow makes a gesture of frustration. “How is that not neat? There’s nothing neater than not ripping someone to shreds!”

“You think a werewolf that’s been let out in daylight’s going to just lie dormant in-between it’s big nights in the cage? You’re going to have to change the wolf, and change how she sees people, and stop her seeing the wolf as who she is and is this messy enough for you yet?”

Willow glares.

“So we’re back to killing her?” asks Faith tiredly.

“Unless we just lock her up forever instead” Anya concludes. “Anyone would think she’s a murderer.”

“H-has she killed people?” Tara asks.

Buffy frowns. “Not that we know of. But back before the soldiers caught her she was all ready to just run around being a werewolf and who cares who she meets. If she hasn’t already, she’ll kill someone eventually.” Another howl rings out, slicing through the night air. Buffy adds, “Maybe she deserves to be locked up forever”

“By people who’d torture her to see how the wolf works?” Ethan asks.

“Well no.”

“Why not just keep her here?” asks Riley. “Maybe she’ll change her mind eventually.”

“Eventually could be a lot longer than I’ve got the house to myself” says Xander. “Uncle Rory’s divorce is only going to drag on so long and then my parents will be back to remind me about the no pets rule.”

“We can keep her somewhere else” says Tara. “S-somewhere else the Initiative won’t find her. Maybe she will change.”

“From what I’ve read on the subject” says Giles, “werewolves who embrace the wolf rarely return to a more human way of thinking. It’s becomes a type of demon possession, you see, if the person lets it.” Thinking of it that way reminds him, suddenly and brutally, of Randall. Randall with glowing green eyes, so close to human but irreversibly not. Veruca is the same; the wolf never goes away. Literally, now.

“That’s not what you told Oz” Willow says.

“Well there are exceptions” Giles concedes. “Strong people who push the wolf to the corners of their minds. Would it have helped Oz to know the alternative?” In fact, he had deliberately played down the implications of his condition to the young werewolf, hoping that ignorance if nothing else would ensure his humanity remained untainted.

“We don’t have the right to keep her here indefinitely” Buffy decides.

Riley asks, “But you’ve got a right to kill her?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“We’re slayers” declares Faith. “We’ve got the right. Just not, you know, the pleasure.”

Ignoring that, Buffy says, “We’ll find another way. But it’s not like there’s whole load of options for the ethical imprisonment of renegade werewolves.”

“Which is why we have slayers” mutters Anya. Buffy glares at her, but Anya doesn’t seem cowed. Buffy says, “She’s a person.”

“Not right now.”

“She has a soul. And right now she’s trapped. I couldn’t justify…” Buffy trails off, troubled.

Ethan tells her, “It is the better option really. I do feel for the girl, but if the alternative is sending her back to the boys in khaki, well, she’d probably rather die than end up spare parts for Eve. You’d be doing her a favour.”

“A favour?” Buffy glares. “Ethan, she’s bound down there; you want favours done, why don’t you go down and murder her yourself?” She turns to Anya. “Or you.”

“I’m not the slayer.” Anya shrugs. “And I don’t have my powers anymore, so unless you want her to go out being pounded with Xander’s father’s power tools…” Beside her, Xander shifts again, studies the sky.  

“Buffy” puts in Willow, “Couldn’t I at least try mind control?”

“Sweetie, even if it was white magic, it would put your recovery way back” Tara takes hold of Willow’s hand and stares at her imploringly. “And you’re still weak.”

“She’s right, Willow” says Ethan. “Plus, what do you think you’d do anyway? Hard to control someone’s thoughts forever when they’ve left town to avoid being abducted and experimented on.”

“I’d find a way” Willow insists. “I’d make a way, invent a spell if I had to.”

“Ah, yes, wonderful idea, that, when you’re weak.”

There is a shiver in the air around them. For a moment, Giles thinks the weather is on the turn, but then he realises: magic. Around him, the young people notice it too, and glance up, stare at the night sky to try to work out what the change is. Suddenly, Ethan laughs, not his usual giggle but a cold, humourless grunt. “You could have at least made it dramatic” he says.

“That’s more your thing” replies Willow, who is suddenly several shades paler. Beside her, Tara looks horrified. “The cloaking spell" she whispers.

Gods, Giles realises: she’s right. The cloaking spell has been broken. Which is to say, the stones have crumbled at Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids just rose up, spun round and sat back down again. Cloaking spells are old magic, one of the first spells invented when magic was still being tamed. They can’t be broken except by their creator, that’s one of the rules. It’s simply how magic works. Willow has just changed how magic works.

The other youngsters don’t get it, of course. “Great” says Buffy, “now Ethan has to redo it.”

Anya is not young for all she looks it. She stares at Willow, appalled.

“I told you I was close to doing it” Willow tells Ethan, her voice growing fainter. “I knew when you gave me the impossible homework that I’d make it possible for me. I could change things for Veruca too. We don’t have to kill her…” Her voice fades entirely as she slumps back, unconscious.

“Willow!” Tara exclaims. Ethan rolls his eyes and says, “She’ll be fine. Just wasted her strength on melodrama.” He takes a step towards the house. “I’ll get us recloaked.”

“Wait” says Buffy, “She hasn’t freed Veruca, has she?”

Ethan pauses. “No” he decides after a considered moment, “I’d feel it if she had.” As he heads towards the house, Giles decides to follow, just in case.

*****

In the basement, the wolf has given up howling and simply paces, growls. Sitting on the end of the pull out bed and watching Ethan lay out the required items for the fresh cloaking spell, Giles asks Ethan, “Are you alright?”

“Yes” is the grudging reply. “Pissed off, but other than that.” Ethan lights candles and takes his chalk to the basement floor, sketching out symbols that were, until tonight, a guarantee that he alone could reveal their location.

Thinking again of Willow, Giles says, “I had no idea she had that much power.” Unnerved by Willow’s power already, this little demonstration has left him chilled, and therefore numb. The sort of power it takes to change the rules of an ancient spell is too much to think about amid everything else they have to contend with. And, more than that, it is too big to think about, the way the size of a planet can’t be fully comprehended by a creature simply living on the surface of one. Perhaps the gods could consider all of Willow’s power at once, but not Rupert Giles.

Perhaps she could do something about Adam. Perhaps she could do something about Veruca, after all. But Giles doesn’t suggest it. The last time he suggested magic be cast and the best blindly hoped for, a young man died.

Completing the symbols and sitting back to check them over, Ethan comments, “I’d worry but we’ve got more immediate problems.”

“Adam” says Giles heavily.

“Screw Adam – he’s not the real danger.” Ethan finally leans forward to arrange various stones and bones in the centre of the chalk circle. “Actually, don’t screw Adam. He’d hardly be a considerate lay, let’s face it.”

Giles rolls his eyes. “I’ll bear that in mind.”

Ethan steps back, surveys his arrangements again and then does the spell. Watching, Giles senses the magic settle itself around the building, seemingly a little disgruntled, like an elderly beast briefly disturbed by a much younger animal.

Sitting down at last, Ethan asks, “What are we doing, still here?”

“I’m not sure it’s necessary” Giles agrees, “I don’t like to run the risk of being captured, but I am starting to think that if they were looking for us, we’d know about it by now.”

“Oh, very reassuring.” Ethan takes Giles’ hand. “But I mean, why are we still living in Sunnydale?”

“Oh” Giles sits up straighter, edges away ever so slightly.

“I mean it Rupert: Buffy’s not been round for training in an age and it’s not like you’re even being paid to be here.”

“I have Faith to train” Giles replies. “And my helping either slayer isn’t dependent on being on a payroll.”

“Buffy doesn’t need help, and Faith doesn’t want it.”

Giles flinches and stands up. From the bed comes Ethan’s standard conciliatory tone. “I’m sorry, Rupert, I didn’t mean it like that. Of course you can help them; Buffy should be coming to you for help. But she isn’t, really, is she? And Faith can just look to Buffy. And failing that they’ve got a historically powerful witch who doesn’t listen to her tutor anymore. We might as well go home.”

“Ethan, when we came here, we agreed: we’d stay here while I watched over Buffy until she…for as long as…until a new slayer has been called.”

“Well that ship’s sailed already.”

“You know what I’m getting at, Ethan, so don’t make me say it out loud.”

“Alright” Ethan stands and runs an appeasing hand over Giles’ arms. “I know. But when we agreed to stay until she…until the big cheer squad in the sky gets a new recruit, I don’t think either of us were thinking she’d end up a student with a team of friends helping her with the slaying and enemies that are mostly human in any case.”

Nor did Ethan expect her to live this long full stop, Giles knows. Didn’t think he’d end up hiding out in a grotty basement with his own freedom potentially on the line either. But none of that negates duty. To leave now, with both slayers facing so many dangers, is unthinkable. Unthinkable too, that Giles should give up his calling as a watcher entirely, even in an unofficial capacity. “I’m sorry, Ethan.”

Ethan scowls, shakes his head and turns away. “Right.”

“Love, we did agree we’d stick it out.”

Ethan sighs heavily. Giles tries, “It’s been a long day. Why don’t we go to up and see if we can find somewhere passably comfortable to sleep?”

A short silence, and then a small nod. When Ethan turns back to him it’s with an only-slightly-forced smile. Giles leads the way up the stairs, horribly aware that this won’t be the last time they have that conversation.

*****

There is no rest for the wicked, or for Rupert Giles, so, getting himself a drink from Xander’s increasingly understocked kitchen, barely past sunrise the following day, he finds Buffy waiting. “What do you think we should do? Really, I mean.” she asks.

“Well…” Reluctantly, Giles takes a seat at the table.

“Don’t say I have to kill Veruca.”

“No-one has to” Giles clarifies. “But we do need to accept that unless someone does, she will spread the curse and doubtless end up killing someone.”

“I don’t get it” Buffy says. “Why not just get a cage?”

Giles sighs. “Some werewolves think more with the wolf than the soul, and the idea of a cage becomes unpalatable.”

“And she’s not going to palate it now she’s tried out the Initiative version” Buffy concludes.

“Exactly.”

Buffy runs her hands through her hair. “Is the mind control stuff really not going to work?”

“I’m not sure” Giles admits, “but the effect on Willow could be extreme.”

“What if you and Ethan helped?”

“We can’t change the way magic works.” Though apparently Willow can. Again, Giles wonders briefly about letting her try. Wonders about telling Buffy exactly how extraordinary the young witch’s demonstration last night was, too, but a careful look at her tells him she has enough to cope with already.

“I don’t know what to do, Giles. I can’t kill someone with a soul but I can’t let her hurt anyone. And it’s kind of shirking the whole sacred duty thing to give her back to the Initiative. Anyway, how’d we even do that?”

True, that; they can hardly get a secret government agency that may or may not be hunting them down on the phone. And letting Veruca leave in hope she will be recaptured is tantamount to simply releasing her. Really, that option was always a false hope. Only one thing to be done.

Buffy says, “Let’s wait and deal with the whole Frankenstein’s-monster-mad-scientist problem first. Maybe she will change.”

Reluctantly, Giles tells her, “I’m afraid I don’t think that’s likely.” “I know” says Buffy. “She’s let it win. But we might at least get a chance to do another truth spell if she ever goes back to human form. We can at least give her a chance.” She looks at him. “Don’t tell Faith, okay? If we have to…Not until it’s over, I mean.”

“Agreed” says Giles because killing something so nearly human is the last thing Faith needs. Not that it would be good for Buffy either. But Buffy won’t have to do it, Giles decides. He will.

*****

With so many young people traipsing about, the basement – even with Veruca in it – is a better place to sit and read than the rest of the house. Besides, Ethan finds when he goes down there, Veruca is asleep, curled up with her head tucked under her tail.

Willow, awake at last, is upstairs focused on decrypting the disks and speaking only as much as she needs to. Hard to tell if she’s in a sulk with him, Tara, both or everyone, but at least after that row with her girlfriend last night (just what they needed, cooped up here together), she has stopped talking about mind control.

After Ethan, stretched out in the beanbag, has read for twenty minutes or so, Veruca stirs. Sitting up, she shifts back into human form and eyes him speculatively, shifting her naked limbs. “So when are you planning on letting me go?”

Ethan glances at her. “I’m not the person to ask.”

“You put up this barrier” she points out, and, when he doesn’t reply, “You don’t have any right to keep me here.”

Ethan looks away. “When did right come into it? I’m not the one ready to turn werewolf on some poor sod.”

She shrugs. “Like people are so great. And being a werewolf is just how I am, I didn’t choose it.”

“And you’re obviously cut up about it.”

“Literally” She indicated the scar curling round her skull. “Curtesy of your precious humans.”

From the stairs, a new voice says, “She’s got a point there.”

“Faith, hello.” Ethan sets his book aside, giving up on reading. Faith steps past Veruca encased in her shimmery barrier, studying her carefully. She gives Ethan a sideways nod, indicating the sheets hung up around the pull out bed. Following her out of Veruca’s sight, Ethan raises a quizzical eyebrow.

Faith whispers, “B’s going to kill her.”

“You know that for sure?” Ethan asks, matching her pitch.

“You know it too. Where else is this going?”

“I don’t know” Ethan admits.

“This mind control crap definitely won’t work?”

“Not without sending Willow over the edge.”

“Last thing we need” Faith agrees. “Could you do it?”

“No, I rather value my sanity.”

“Hm” Faith nods, glancing back at the fabric screening Veruca from them. Turning back to him, she asks, “So are you going to get that barrier down, or do I have to ask not-nicely?”

Ethan blinks. He finds his fists are curling instinctively and he makes an effort to relax them: This is a slayer. There is no fighting, no running. Best to just go along with whatever she wants. But he does risk saying, “I wouldn’t have thought you’d care.”

Faith’s flinches. “Yeah” she replies, “You and everyone else.” There is a pause in which Ethan becomes aware of just how close she is standing. But when Faith speaks, it is in a subdued tone: “I’m done with killing. And I know it would screw Buffy up. I don’t want that for her.” She studies Ethan. “So unless you’re going to do it, I say it’s time to get that barrier down, don’t you?”

Ethan glances meaningfully at the ceiling and Faith says, “No-one’s around. Your hubby’s in the garden watching Anya and Xander have a domestic, Buffy’s off with Riley pretending like they still have a domestic, and the witches are shut away doing tech stuff and, well, probably having a domestic because there’s a lot of that going round. So if we’re going to do it, we better do it now.”

Ethan nods. “Alright then.” Pulling back the hanging sheets, he heads over to the corner where he’s stashed his supplies. Faith follows, eyes trained on Veruca who watches them cautiously. Ethan wonders how much she overheard.

“Get your clothes on.” Faith indicates a change of clothes – Tara’s again, apparently the poor, generous girl will lose two outfits from this – that sit ignored just inside the barrier.

“Not really looking to looking to dress like a freshman” Veruca tells them.

“It’s that or be naked.” Faith replies. At Veruca’s sly smile, she shrugs and murmurs, “Huh.”  Then she adds, “I see you again, you’re dead. Don’t want to do it, but I will if you try anything in this town.”

“Like I’d stay here” Veruca returns.

Watching them, Ethan wonders about running upstairs after all, now that Faith is distracted. Entirely possible he might make it.

But he finds he doesn’t want to. Not because he especially wishes a werewolf on anybody but because Faith is wrong: Buffy won’t kill Veruca. Rupert will. Ethan has seen where that leads.

Taking down the barrier is simple enough. Once it drops, Veruca steps through the patch of air it once occupied, stretching gracefully. She looks at Faith for a long moment and Ethan imagines she’s about to thank her, but the slayer pre-empts it with a scowl. “Like I said” Faith tells her, “I never see you again.” Once Veruca has nodded her understanding, Faith indicates the stairs. Veruca turns away from them, and again it crosses Ethan’s mind that he could reverse this. The basement is full of excess kitchenware and the odd power tool – he could grab anything and swing it, and knock Veruca out before she goes off to hurt anyone.

But then, of course, he’d have to deal with Faith. And then if she didn’t thrash him and let Veruca go anyway, he was back to watching Rupert kill the girl and implode under the weight of the guilt. Only difference would be, he’d have a few bruises to wear while it happened.

Veruca climbs the stairs noiselessly and Faith and Ethan follow. The front door is already open, a bid to get some fresh air into this overpopulated house.

Veruca steps over the threshold, her nudity starkly absurd until she drops to the ground in wolf form. She shouldn’t be able to see the house on that side of the cloak, her gaze ought to slide over it and on to something else. Yet when the wolf turns, she stares straight at them for a moment. Then she turns and scampers to the middle of the road, and trots quickly away.

Chapter Text

“You let her go!?” Buffy stares at Faith. As does everyone else in their overcrowded temporary household.

Faith shrugs. “Better all round, B.”

“Yeah” says Xander weakly. “Except for whoever gets mauled by a werewolf.”

“At least Buffy doesn’t have to kill her now” says Faith.

“I wasn’t going to!” says Buffy. “Or at least not…right away. I was going to wait and see if anything changed first.”

Faith rolls her eyes. “Oh, now you tell me!”

“I didn’t tell you anything – ”

“– Yeah, I noticed –”

“– so I’m wondering how you got so convinced I was about to kill her!” 

“Not to mention” Anya adds, “Killing monsters is a slayer’s job. If Buffy was going to do it, it’s not exactly off point.”

Buffy asks, “Faith, what were you thinking?” and, turning to Ethan, “And how could you let her?”

“Buffy” cuts in Rupert, “be fair; it’s not as though saying no to a slayer is particularly easy.”

Buffy stares at him, then at Faith, before turning back to Ethan, gentler now. “She threatened you?” and to Faith, “You threatened him!?”

Easy, of course, to say that she had (and she had, sort of. She’d implied.) but Ethan finds himself saying, “I wanted to help.”

Faith looks at him, taken aback, and Ethan shrugs. Everyone’s against the girl, after all. Why not side with her a see what happens? Not to mention, a slayer who thinks well of one is never a bad thing. And Rupert will get over it.

Rupert and Buffy both turn on him as one, the former saying, “I don’t understand” and the latter snapping, “Help!? Help the out of control werewolf?”

I could have actually helped her” Willow tells them. “I could have designed a spell that would –”

“Would kill you or change you?” asks Ethan. “And we could take bets on which one?”

“I thought you liked change.”

Buffy cuts in, “I can’t believe this. I need to go after her.”

“I’m coming with you” Rupert steps forward, but stops when Buffy shakes her head. “Sorry Giles; if I’m going to find her, I’m going to need to move at slayer speed.” She heads for the door, but Riley catches her arm. “Buffy, you can’t leave – Walsh will find you.”

Shrugging him off, Buffy responds, “Sorry – duty, etcetera.” Looking pointedly at Faith, she adds, “There’s this whole protect the innocent thing I don’t get a lot of say over.” As her sister slay steps forward as though to go with her, she holds up a hand. “No. Stay here. If I get caught, the others are going to need you. Plus, I really don’t want to be around you right now.”

*****

After Buffy has left, Willow scoops up the laptop and, not meeting Ethan’s eyes, heads upstairs, followed by Tara. Riley wanders off in the direction of the living room and Faith heads back to the basement, leaving Anya and Xander with Rupert and Ethan. “So” says Anya. “Are you two going to yell at each other now?”

“Anya” mutters Xander, warningly.

To Ethan’s surprise, Rupert shakes his head.

“Are you sure?” asks Anya. “I mean, he did help our prisoner escape. And it is your turn to yell.”

“I don’t think more yelling is what we need in this house” Rupert tells her. He exits, beckoning Ethan to follow.

The kitchen is the only room free. As soon as they reach it, Rupert rounds on Ethan, his voice ominously level. “What in Gods’ names were you thinking?”

It crosses Ethan’s mind to say he was threatened after all. He could swear Rupert to silence somehow perhaps, get him to think that keeping an eye on Faith without confronting her is the best course of action. That way Faith still feels indebted to him and his currently angry partner is appeased, perhaps even protective. But the idea of so many different half-truth-based versions of events floating about in a house overcrowded already is far from appealing. “What were we supposed to do?” he asks. “I might be a selfish old git but I don’t especially want to help you all bury a missing student.”

“She’ll kill people, Ethan!”

“Then she’s a nasty piece of work but since when were we the supernatural police?”

“We protect the innocent!”

“Like the girl we had trapped down in the basement who’d just been tortured by the military?”

“A werewolf who refuses to make herself safe at full moon!” Rupert runs a hand across his face, leans back against the counter. Glaring, he adds, “It wasn’t your place to do this.”

Ethan says nothing. Honestly, he’s rather wishing he had gone with the a volatile slayer made me do it line. Too late now.

Glancing to his left, Rupert reaches over and uncovers a hidden bottle of whiskey, opens it, scowls at the contents. He doesn’t offer any to Ethan, but turns the scowl on him. “Is this about you wanting to leave Sunnydale?”

“No.”

“So you’ve sent Buffy off into danger on some other whim?”

Oh Gods, where to begin? “I didn’t send Buffy off anywhere. And wanting to not be in a town where a secret military branch are hunting us down isn’t a whim! And if any of the children had not wanted to kill someone, you’d have been all oh bless them and their morality!”

“Not if they’d unleashed a murderer, I wouldn’t!” Rupert glares. “And, frankly, why am I not surprised that a rare display of “morality” on your part results in a killer on the loose?”

“She hasn’t killed anyone!”

“Yet!”

“We don’t know that she won’t just live out her days as a wolf just roaming round the wilderness now! Now she can change at will, she might not have anything to do with humans ever again!” Ethan pauses. “Anyway, why isn’t Faith getting any of this lecture?”

Surprisingly, Rupert’s angry expression slips. “Yes” he replies, crisply sarcastic, “because she’s so likely to listen to me.” He eyes Ethan.

Ethan opens his mouth to explain that Faith had only been protecting Buffy, but then Rupert adds, “About as likely as you, I suppose” and he closes it again. Let Rupert stew for a bit; he deserves it. Ethan turns and walks away.

*****

“Ethan?” Buffy announces her return after nightfall.

“Buffy!” Xander hurries out the kitchen, followed by Rupert and Riley. Rupert leans in doorway, still clutching the now less than full whiskey bottle. Riley embraces Buffy but she breaks away quickly, turns to Ethan as he wanders through from the living room, were he’s been curled up with a book for the last few hours, trying hard to ignore everyone, especially Rupert. “Ethan, can you make it so Spike can find the door? I’m thinking some extra muscle that’s been inside the Initiative wouldn’t be a bad idea. Plus, he has the shopping.” To Xander, she adds, “He has an invite, right?”

“He does” agrees Xander, “And can I just say, a bitter, soulless vampire is just what this place needs.”

“Or not” states Riley. “Buffy, we can’t trust him.”

Letting them bicker it out, Ethan heads out the house and steps through the cloaking spell, which sends an electric tingle through his skin. Standing on the pavement a few feet away is Spike, overburdened with shopping bags and looking put upon. “Warlock” he greets.

“Spike, hello. Good to see you’re still not in a cell.”

“Same to you.” Spike nods in the general direction of the house, his gaze sliding over it. “This will be the reason then? Can’t see the damn place.”

“I’ll sort that. Not that I can recommend a visit.”

“Cabin fever?”

“That’s just for starters.” Ethan sets about altering the cloaking spell so Spike can enter, a simple enough procedure with a little of his blood and the right chant. Leading the way to the house once that’s done, he asks, “So how’d she drag you into this?”

“Caught me trying to scare a few dollars out of people leaving the Bronze” Spike explains. “Made me join in a werewolf hunt, then forced me back here. Even stopped for supplies on the way and had me pack the bloody bags for her. Slayers for you. Can’t exactly say no to them unless you’re looking to lose a lot of weight very fast.”

“The day I’m having, I can relate more than you’d think.”

Stepping back into the house, they find two slayers in the hallway, all but squaring off as sniping scoobies cluster around them.

“…so she’s still out there!” Buffy is saying, “And if she hurts anyone –”

“B, she was basically human! It would have killed you to slay her!”

“But kind of her job” mutters Anya, who is seated on the stairs watching the whole thing.

Buffy rounds on her. “Can you stay out of it? I know you like killing people and all but this is slayer stuff.”

“You said it yourself, B – people!”

“Come on Buffy” Xander steps closer to Anya.

“And you’d know all about killing people” puts in Willow, eyeing Faith.

“I’m sorry, Anya” Buffy holds up her hands. “It’s just, the day I’ve been having –”

“Would have been easier if you’d let us help you” points out Riley. “Instead of running off on your own –”

Meanwhile Faith glares at Willow. “Hey, if you’ve got something to say –”

“Just said it.”

“Is that the best you can do?” Anya is demanding of Xander, “Come on? I give you sex night after night –”

“Anya!” Xander yelps, “Could you not –”

“You didn’t want to help!” Buffy is telling Riley. “You wanted me to hide in here!”

“I wanted to help!” Willow exclaims. “I wanted to do a spell that would stop Veruca hurting anyone!”

“Yeah, and you hurt yourself just demonstrating your power!”

“I can handle it!” Willow bristles.

“Not what I was seeing! Look, if I want someone reckless who’s going to get people killed, I’ve got Faith –”

“B, I’m standing right here!”

As the completing rows spiral, Spike looks from face to angry face and grins. “I don’t know” he decides. “Hiding out here for a bit might just be fun after all.” Heading into the kitchen, he dumps the shopping bags. “Hello, watcher.”

Rupert, is slumped at the table listening to the children fight, but when Spike enters he gets up and heads through to the hallway. “That’s enough” he tells the children. He sways slightly as Ethan confiscates the whiskey, but goes on, “We still have the matter of the Initiative to tackle.”

Anya asks, “Is that why you’ve been drinking all day?”

Xander tells her, “Well, it’s not like we can fight Adam; we might as well get wasted.”

“We can fight Adam.” Buffy tells him.

“How?” asks Willow, “How long are we going to be stuck here?”

Faith responds, “As long as it takes you to figure out what’s on those disks.”

“I’m trying! And it’s not like I’m getting any help!”

“Because what could we do, Will?” asks Xander.

“Maybe stop telling me I can’t be a witch and good computers?”

“I never said that!”

As their voices escalate, Rupert stares at them, groans and heads back into the kitchen, wrestling the whiskey back from Ethan on his way past, and saying, “If those lot keep this up, we’ll never stop Walsh!”

“Leading the charge were you?” Spike opens the fridge and helps himself to a beer.

“I had to wait for Buffy!” Rupert sits down at the table, completely misses the chair, and topples to the floor. Ethan rolls his eyes. “Right, that’s it – bedtime. Up you come, Rupert.” Rupert twists crossly out of reach as Ethan crouches beside him but doesn’t – or can’t – stand up. Over his shoulder, Ethan tells Spike, “Don’t rush to help or anything.” Spike grins.

Ethan glares at him and turns back to Rupert. “Sod it. Up you come, love.” Finally getting hold of Rupert, he pulls his partner to his feet. Rupert brushes him off and staggers to the door, slips past the rowing young people and heads up the stairs. “Ethan, get up here, it’s time for bed.” He begins to shed clothing as he ascends, tossing his t-shirt on the steps beside Anya, who wrinkles her nose at it. Ethan trails after him, muttering, “Yes, that’s what I said.” He hesitates before heading upstairs himself, doubling back past the warring scoobies to fetch Rupert a glass of water.

“Is he alright?” On the first floor landing, Tara emerges from the bathroom, staring after Rupert in concern as he blunders into the master bedroom. Judging by the book in her hand, she’s been hiding in there for a while. Ethan rather wishes he’d thought of that. “He’ll be fine” he tells her. “Well, grumpy.”

Tara nods. “There’s a lot of that going around.”

Wishing her goodnight, Ethan follows Rupert and find sprawled across the bed in the nude. As Ethan sits beside him, he stirs and groans, “I think I may have overdone it on the whiskey.”

“Yes, I thought you might have.” Ethan strokes Rupert’s hair and presses the water on him. As Rupert hauls himself up to drink it, Ethan asks, “What started all that anyway? Aside from me.”

Rupert waves a hand in a sweeping but not particularly illuminating gesture and tells him, “No-one takes me seriously anymore. I’m useless.”

“No you’re not. And I take you seriously.”

“I know you do.” Rupert leans sideways, resting his head on Ethan’s shoulder. “I’ll feel this in the morning” he comments, miserably.

“Try not to think about that. Anyway, I can make my hangover cure.”

“I don’t deserve your hangover cure.”

“You bloody masochist.”

“Hm.” Rupert shifts about, lifting his head. “I s’pose I should sleep somewhere else.”

“No, you’re sleeping right here” Ethan grabs his shoulder before he can get it into his head to go back downstairs, and eases him down to lie on his side.

“But I’ll snore.” Rupert tells him.

“Never mind, I’ll put up with it.” Honestly, if Ethan thought moving Rupert to the sofa would block the sound of the inevitable snoring, he might do it, but on the rare occasions that Rupert is drunk enough to snore, he snores for England. They’ll all be able to hear it from any part of the house.

Rolling on to his back, Rupert asks, “Why’d I do it, Eth?”

“I have no idea, love. You’d already done it by the time I noticed.”

“No, I don’t mean the drinking. I mean just being here. Watching. Why?”

“Masochist, like I said.” Ethan feels suddenly very weary. He’s spent decades telling Rupert the council don’t appreciate him and the sod couldn’t see it even after they fired him and here they still are. And now Rupert asks him to explain it?

“Well I shouldn’t” Rupert says, “I mean, it’s not as if Buffy needs me. Buffy’s never needed me.”

“She has.” Ethan very carefully avoids the present tense.

“Yes, but not now. And Faith’s…” Another expansive, dismissive gesture. “We should go home, love. I miss home.”

Ethan smiles. “I miss home too.” He starts undressing as Rupert adds, “I even miss grey skies. And I really miss decent pubs.”

“And decent beer” Ethan pulls the duvet out from under Rupert and lies down, covering them both in it.

“And Yorkshire pudding. Except we could make Yorkshire pudding here. We should do that in the morning.”

“Janus, but you’re wasted.” Ethan ruffles Rupert’s hair. “We can talk about this another time, alright?”

“About Yorkshire puddings?”

“About home. Just get some sleep now, love.”

“’m sorry, Eth.”

“It’s alright. Just sleep it off.”

Rupert does so, but not before he’s rolled drunkenly into Ethan and kissed his shoulder. “Iluoo.”

“What?”

Rupert shifts his face away enough to talk. “I love you”

“Oh. Good. I love you too.”

Chapter Text

“Gods, I’m too old for this” Giles groans, coming reluctantly to full and miserable consciousness. Ethan doesn’t answer but reaches over to grip his arm, squeezing it a few times in pace with Giles’ breathing. It’s oddly soothing.

“Drink this.” Ethan holds out a steaming mug from which wafts the earthy scent of his infamous hangover cure, invented many years ago at a time of great need.

Giles doesn’t sit up to take it. “No. I’ve brought this on myself.”

“For gods’ sake, Rupert!”

Giles flinches. “Do you have to shout like that?”

“I’m not shouting.”

“Yes you are. Please, I just need a quiet day.”

At that moment, a triumphant shriek permeates the walls: “I did it! I did it!”

Groaning again, Giles reaches for the hangover cure. “On second thoughts…”

Ethan grins before climbing out of bed to see what Willow is yelling about.

*****

Feeling human enough to show his face after downing Ethan’s concoction, Giles joins the rest of the group in the living room. Willow’s laptop is the centre of attention, in part, Giles suspects, because it provides an excuse to avoid eye contact. Those not clustered around the screen are standing apart, arms folded. Faith has wedged herself against the window frame and eyes Willow disparagingly. “Well, if you’d done it sooner…” she says.

“I did it soon enough!” Willow retorts. “I mean it…sort of did itself soon enough.” To Buffy, she adds, “It was designed to unencrypt itself at a certain point.”

Buffy frowns. “A certain point when it hasn’t happened yet?”

“What hasn’t happened?” asks Giles.

An amused chuckle issues from a dark corner and Giles scowls: of course Spike would have to be here. “Look who’s up at last” says the vampire. “How’s the head?”

“I’m quite well, thank you.”

Ethan adds, “I made him a hangover cure.”

Frankly, Giles would rather his hungover status wasn’t common knowledge, but if his vague and embarrassing memories are anything to go by, the children know already anyway.

“Magic can do that?” asks Faith. “Wills, I take it all back.”

“Stop calling me Wills” says Willow. “And it was tech that got us the information.”

“And I’m guessing it will take magic to stop them” mutters Xander. “Cause I’m not keen on going up against Adam, Walsh and the spare parts army.”

“’Specially not with the chipped soldiers” Spike agrees, his hand drifting unconsciously to his head. He catches himself and turns the motion into fixing his hair. Keen or not, Giles suspects he will use whatever is happening as a distraction while he tries to rid himself of his own chip.

“I can’t believe she’s doing this.” Riley shakes his head. “I’ve got to warn Forest and Graham.” “No” says Buffy.

“But Buffy, they’re –”

“We can’t let it get back to Walsh that we know.” She steps away from the group, retreating to the far side of the room, apparently to think without their input.

“What do we know, exactly?” asks Giles.

Everyone glances at each other and the screen. Grudgingly, Anya tells him, “Walsh is going to turn the entire Initiative into one massive meat grinder and squish everyone back together in different shapes.”

“Anya” Xander shudders. “That’s…well, actually pretty accurate. But did you have to put it like that?”

“She’s going to open up the holding cells” Faith explains. “Set everything they’ve caught on the humans down there and use the leftovers to make an army of super soldiers. Fun times.”

A wave of nausea that has nothing to do with his hangover washes over Giles and he sinks into an armchair. “Good Lord.”

“That’s about what I said” says Faith.

“Yeah, except you said it in prison slang” mutters Willow. To the room in general, she adds, “What I don’t get is why be so brutal about it?”

“Yeah” says Xander faintly, “because what’s mass murder without a little decorum?”

Willow rolls her eyes. “I mean, even with the whole use everyone as a spare parts store, couldn’t she just drug everyone she wants to, um, use? Having them kill each other, it’s not just evil, it’s icky.”

“Survival of the fittest.” Faith shrugs, but her expression is troubled. “The ones that aren’t too bashed up are going to have the strongest parts, right?”

Spike chuckles again, but without humour. “I’ve got to hand it to you humans. When you try your breakable little hands at evil, you certainly give us monsters a run for our money.”

Ethan shudders and steps over to Giles’ armchair, perches on it beside him. Giles wraps an arm around his shoulder.

“She wants us there too” murmurs Buffy. She turns to Faith. “Doesn’t she? She knows we know – she planned for us to know. She wants us there to even the kill rate – that’s why Adam was holding back; she’d told him to let us get away with the disks!” Turning to Riley, she adds, “I told you – that whole thing was staged!”

“So…robot parts, monster parts and slayer parts?” Xander is all but hugging himself at the thought.

“And then what?” asks Tara. “What’s she g-going to do with an army of Adams?”

“It doesn’t say” replies Willow, scrolling through the computerised records. “With a big side of I don’t want to know.”

There is more silence then, an uncomfortable, contemplative one.

“So…” says Anya at last, “How are we going to stop it?” Looking around at their anxious faces, she adds, “We’re going to stop it, right? I’d really rather not be eaten by demonoid, humanoid robots with super strength please.”

“Agreed” says Ethan, “And I’m not sure what exactly we can do to stop it, but we could contain it: barrier spell.” “Yeah” mutters Faith, “because those are never broken.”

“They’re locking them in anyway” Buffy tells him. “At least until it’s over.”

“But I can keep them locked long after that” argues Ethan.

“Forever?” prompts Anya.

“Until I die” Ethan concedes.

“Which might be soon” concludes Buffy grimly. “Ethan, can you hear yourself? We can’t just let those people get slaughtered down there!”

“But we can’t warn them?” asks Riley.

“We’ll think of something” Buffy reassures him. Turning back to Ethan, she adds, “But that isn’t it. We need more than a containment strategy, we need to actually stop the massacre.”

“We could at least stop it spreading” points out Ethan.

“Not forever” points out Willow.

“But until whoever casts it dies” Ethan insists. “Maybe even a little longer with the right spell and a powerful caster.”

“Don’t look at me” Willow returns, “Buffy’s right – we can’t just leave those people to die.”

“Actually, pleasant as they were while trying to imprison me without trial, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.” Ethan leans back against the armchair. “Certainly I don’t want any of us dying for them.”

“So don’t help” Riley tells him. “But I’m not about to let her do this to my friends.”

“So they’re your friends now? Do you remember being chipped?”

“Do you think the regular soldiers know about that stuff? It’s all Walsh.”

“And whoever she reports to. And whoever funds them.”

“Those chipped soldiers won’t listen if we warn them” muses Faith. “If we can even get to them. Actually, no-one will listen – who’s going to believe their boss is about to feed them to demons?”

“She’s not their boss” Riley corrects her. “They’re soldiers, remember? They work for the good of their country.”

Willow adds, “And remember how you worked for a guy who literally wanted to become a demon and feed on people that time?”

“That’s it” declares Faith, taking a step towards Willow. “I’m sick of Miss Goody Two Spells here acting like I’m about to go psycho on everyone – I’ll give you psycho!”

“What?” asks Willow. “That doesn’t even make sense!”

“Enough” Giles tells them, tiredly. “Ethan, I understand if you don’t want to help. Willow, do you know any spells that could be useful?”

Of course, Willow ignores him, telling Faith, “This really isn’t helping with the trust building, you know.”

“Oh, so you’re making an effort with the trust building?”

Beside Giles, Ethan announces, “I will help. Not for the government-sanctioned vivisectionists; I just don’t want any of you getting hurt. Besides, I rather owe it to those other guys from Willy’s Place that day.”

Buffy blinks at him. “You’re doing this for the demons? Seriously?”

“You know” says Spike, “If you want to help demons, I’d wager there’s a spell somewhere to shut down my chip…”

“Enough with the chip” Buffy tells him. “You help or you don’t, but you are not getting it out.”

“Alright.” Spike makes a show of considering a monumental decision. “I won’t help.”

“What? That’s the only reason I brought you here!”

“You sure it wasn’t the conversation?” mutters Riley.

Spike raises an eyebrow at Buffy. “Evil, remember?”

Buffy folds her arms. “Spike, you’re trapped in a house with two slayers in the middle of the day! You do what we tell you, and help us defeat Walsh.”

“You said it yourself, pet – it’s daylight. How am I supposed to get there?”

In answer, Buffy picks up a throw from the sofa, scrunches it into a ball and hits him in the chest with it. Spike doesn’t catch it but lets it pool at his feet. “Oh yeah?” He smirks. “Not exactly a comfortable way to travel with no cooling chiperectomy waiting for me at the other end.”

“Think of the violence” Anya prompts.

“What violence? Not like I can hit the soldiers.”

“But you can hit the demons. A whole collection of them.”

“There is that” Spike muses. He brightens. “Place is gonna be a bloodbath, innit?” 

Buffy rolls her eyes and turns to Faith and Willow, who are still bickering. “Guys, stop it. Willow, Ethan, do we have any spells that will help?”

Exactly what he had asked and been ignored for his trouble, thinks Giles, bitterly. But they have more than his irrelevance to worry about so he pushes it aside and considers spells he knows will be in the books they brought with them.

“Well” Ethan is saying. “Nothing really comes to mind aside from my barrier spell idea, and that seems to have been deemed a little controversial.”

“Maybe we should warn the Initiative” says Tara.

“Faith’s right” Buffy tells her. “They won’t listen.” Before Riley can disagree, she adds, “And we don’t know who’s chipped and who isn’t.”

Riley seems to swallow whatever he was about to say and changes it to, “What about shutting down Adam before it all kicks off? We at least know how he works, we could get rid of that threat.”

“We know he runs on uranium” Ethan agrees. “So I guess all we need is some sort of nuclear decontamination kit.” He smiles at Willow. “Shall we magic one up?”

Willow rolls her eyes. “Very funny. But there’s got to be some spells that will help. Tara?”

The witch shakes her head. “With all those different demon species, they’ll be something that’s immune to protection spells.”

“What about a paralysing spell?” suggests Giles. He selects a volume from pile dumped on the coffee table when they first moved in. “But this one needs to be performed by an experienced witch.”

Ethan wrinkles his nose. “A gender specific spell? I hate those.”

“Well I think it would be strong enough to affect Adam. For a short time at least.” Giles glances at the two witches. “But you would need to be within striking distance of Adam…”

“No way” says Buffy.

“…and speak Sumerian.”

“Oh” says Tara. “Well, I’m afraid I-I don’t. Willow?”

“If it was ancient Greek we’d be set, but Sumerian? Not so much.”

Ethan nudges Giles. “You speak it though. Maybe just think feminine thoughts or something?”

“Yes, because tricking primal forces always ends well” Giles replies.

“Doesn’t matter anyway” Buffy insists. “None of you guys are going anywhere near Adam; I am.”

“What?” Faith asks, “You get all the fun?”

“That would be you – or at least you get Spike’s idea of fun. You’re going to be fighting the demons.”

Faith scowls. “Can’t Spike do Spike’s idea of fun? B, taking down Adam’s going to take both of us.”

Buffy nods. “Which is why we can’t give him a chance to kill both of us at once. I fail, at least I can weaken him, and then it’s your turn. In the meantime, we are not trusting Spike to save the soldiers solo.”

“It’s like you know me” admits Spike.

Buffy continues, “It’s going to take three of you to help them: Riley to get any he can onside, Spike to help hold off the demons, and you’re going to have to fight the chipped soldiers without killing them as well as slaying whatever’s in those cells.”

Faith looks about to argue but makes an apparent effort to quash it. “Fine” she says, glancing at the man and vampire Buffy’s volunteered for her. “We’ll teamwork it. But if I hear you scream? I’ll come running.”

“Doubt she’s much of a screamer.” Spike smirks.

Riley looks about ready to stake him, but merely says, “I’d make myself very useful if I were you. No use for a chipped vampire once the facility’s shut down.”

Buffy tells him, “Let’s just concentrate on doing that without bloodshed.”

“Spoilsport” mutters Spike.

“So that the violence side sorted out” says Willow. “Maybe we need a different spell for the magic side?”

Giles hands her the book with the Sumerian spell. “If you were to quickly, um, brush up on your Sumerian, then this would work, Willow. I can’t ask you to put yourself in harm’s way, but perhaps with a protection spell or a barrier spell. Ethan?”

“I could seal off a space around her, but there’re no guarantee she’d be able to do a paralysing spell on something outside the barrier.”

“So we don’t use that spell” concludes Buffy. “I’ll just have to slay him the old fashioned way.”

“Plus” says Willow, reading through the spell, “This looks like I’d have to actually understand it, not just say it.”

“Well then what we need is a combo Buffy” jokes Xander. “Her with slayer strength, Giles' multi-lingual know how, and Willow's witchy power.”

Giles turns to stare at him.

“Don't tell me” adds the boy, “I'm just full of helpful suggestions.”

*****

“It’s kind of ironic really” comments Anya as they follow Rupert, Buffy, Willow and Xander up the hallway to the hidden lift. “They’re going to fight a monster who wants to mix everyone together by mixing themselves together.”

Tara whispers, “What if it goes wrong?”

Faith frowns. “Like if they can’t change back or something? Then I guess you guys’ sex life gets really weird really fast.” She glances at Spike. “Not counting vampires.”

“Bloody right” Spike grumbles. “None of them are my type.”

“Not insane?” asks Ethan, and ignores the look this earns him. Not able to hurt him in any case, Spike looks particularly unthreatening with the throw from Xander’s parents’ sofa bundled up under his arm.

Anya, meanwhile, carries Willow’s laptop, since she got the cushy job: following Willow’s careful instructions to try to override the Initiative’s computer system and prevent Adam from shutting the place down. Something she can do remotely, in fact, which makes Ethan a little jealous until he sees the look she is giving Xander and remembers what it’s like to wait helplessly.

“Here it is” murmurs Riley as, up ahead, Buffy stops by a mirror. “Do you really think this will work?”

“Course it’ll work” Faith tells him, “You’ve been bodied swapped; you know magic’s a thing.”

The young man shifts a deep sigh. “I’m still not sure if it’s a thing I’m comfortable with.”

“Well it’s the best chance we’ve got” says Anya as Buffy, Rupert and Willow begin their descent. “Even if it means I might have to date a Xander-Willow-Buffy-Giles combo.”

“What makes you think you’d get to date it?” asks Ethan. “I’ve had Rupert longer than any of you’ve had yours.”

“We’ll draw straws” says Anya diplomatically, “or take it in turns.”

“C-can we not talk about this?” asks Tara. She steps aside to let Xander embrace Anya.

“Agreed” Riley steps forward to enter the lift shaft. “Well, it’s now or never, I guess.”

*****

The mood of the whole venture is boosted a little when Rupert and his children manage to sort out their differences in a lift shaft of all places. Then they spend a few minutes at the base of the thing, carefully casting a glamour to hide their entrance into the facility. The spell is well chosen, skilfully set and strong, and fails utterly to hide them from Adam, who is waiting, along with a dozen soldiers, when they open the doors.

“Crap” mutters Faith.

“You should learn not to enter that way” Adam tells them. “There are tunnels. I’ll show you them once you’re suitably evolved.” He indicates the soldiers around him, their guns trained on the newcomers. “They cannot see you, but they’ll fire on command. I suggest you lift the spell.”

Willow blows out the candle in her hands. The soldiers do not react beyond a subtle refocusing of their deadened gaze. Chipped, Ethan supposes.

Adam tells them, “Escort the prisoners to the restricted area. Mother will want to speak with them.”

Nothing to do but comply with that number of guns. Buffy and Faith relinquish their weapons when the soldiers come forward to take them, unaware that the slayers themselves are weapons. Ethan feels less confident about letting go his magic supplies, but what can he do? Grateful for the reassuring nod Rupert slips him, he watches his herbs, gourd, crystals and candles being manhandled by a soldier who walks in front of them, the only one without his finger on a trigger.  

They cross an open area, busy with soldiers who seem to have a little more life in them than their escort. Most turn to look as they are marched past and a few stop what they are doing to openly stare – not only at them, Ethan realises, but at Adam too. Understandable really; a patchwork demonbot can’t be the most likable of colleagues.

Glancing at the others, Ethan finds to his mingled relief and alarm that no-one seems about to make a grab for a gun or a rush for the exit. Everyone except the slayers (who are watching Adam the way the soldiers are watching them) look around at the facility. For Ethan – and presumably Spike – it is somewhat familiar. Not that he remembers this cavernous room but the atmosphere of the place is unmistakable. As they pass a silver-walled pit, Ethan notes demons of various types being studied less than gently and can’t help but feel a little smug at the approaching role reversal. He turns to Spike – the only one present likely to sympathise – but finds the vampire has his eyes trained on Buffy now, flawlessly alert. Beside them, Riley looks horrified and stares wildly about, his gaze finally snagging on, “Forest? Forest!”

A young man leaning against the railing around the pit straightens up at the sound of his voice and looks over, but makes no further response. Riley yells, “Forest, you’re in danger here, man, you’ve got to listen to –” Riley struggles as Adam’s big hand closes over his mouth and he is dragged along, Adam barely breaking his pace, Riley half-strangled by the embrace. Buffy takes a step toward him but is instantly surrounded by guns. Reluctantly, she falls back into step, following Adam across the facility. Over by the pit, Ethan notes Forest’s flinch when Riley is restrained, but the young man turns his back as the deserter is dragged away.

“So much for warning them” Xander mutters.  

On the other side of the room, Adam leads them through a set of heavy doors into a non-descript darkened room, and then down a white corridor that they enter through a door so innocuous that Ethan wonders how many non-chipped soldiers even know it’s there.

Only chipped soldiers are visible now: they stare straight ahead, guns still ready, as they organise their prisoners into single file, a soldier each side of them. Ethan finds his breathing coming quicker than it should as the sounds from the main facility grow dim. In front of him, Rupert’s hands are steady at his sides. Ethan focuses on them, on the calluses on Rupert’s fingertips.

Finally, they reach a sterile room with medical equipment at one end. It is lined with what appear to be operating tables. Realising what these are intended to be used for shortly, Ethan takes an automatic step back and is immediately shoved forward by the soldier behind him. Rupert’s hand shoots out to grip his wrist.

At the far end of the room, Maggie Walsh turns around to greet them, her gaze resting on Riley. “Agent Finn, I was hoping you’d join us.” She moves forward to examine the supplies they brought with them, the soldier who hands them over stepping seamlessly back into the group, hoisting his gun.

“Mother” Adam begins, “All units are in the facility. Sub-Ts ten-three-twelve and six-oh-nine are in the main research area, and Doctor Angleman is dissecting a Type C in Laboratory Six.”

Walsh glances up. “In that case, I think we’re ready to begin. Make me proud, Adam.”

Grinning an unnerving grin, Adam moves off and disappears through a door behind her. Walsh turns her attention to her prisoners. “So” she murmurs, “You knew you were facing a dangerous situation down here and you brought with you…” She examines their supplies “a collection of trinkets and a dried vegetable?”

“It’s a gourd” mutters Willow. Glancing sideways at the rest of the group she mouths, “Plan?” Ethan doesn’t dare answer, or dare look around to see if anyone else is looking optimistic. Certainly he doesn’t have plan beyond panic; he suspects that Rupert’s hand at his wrist is the only thing holding him up. What were they thinking, coming here? Of all the horrific situations the hellmouth has put him in, Ethan decides, this is by far the most horrific, this horror-story lab and the blank faced soldiers who are probably screaming inside, who know what’s about to happen and can’t stop it, like men possessed by demons they badly underestimated. 

Riley steps closer to Walsh, or at least as close as the armed men around him with allow. “Professor Walsh, you can’t really want to do this.”

She studies him for a moment. “I’m sorry you think so. It seems I overestimated you.”

“This is evil!”

“This is part of a wider plan with a noble goal that I don’t need to explain to a deserter.” Walsh sets the magic supplies down and takes up a clipboard, studies the paper pressed against it. “But you’ll see for yourself soon enough. Kent, Vazquez, restrain him.”

“No!” Buffy kicks out at the soldier in front of her as Riley is dragged over to one of the tables, but, with guns immediately trained on her head – on all their heads, actually – she has no choice but to back off, hands raised. Ethan lets himself exhale; for a moment there, he’d thought she was about to get them all killed. Probable that they will all die, but please, Janus, not for Riley. Buffy tries, “Professor Walsh, this is murder!”

Walsh glances her way. “I’ve worked on this for a long time. I’m not especially concerned with how it looks from a civilian perspective.” As Riley is wrestled into restraints, she set her clipboard aside, checks her watch and announces, “It should be any minute now.”

Ethan prays that Anya has control of the computer system, but his prayers flounder in the face of Walsh’s smooth confidence. This is the final plan of a well-funded, highly-prepared military installation. No amount of hacking is going to cut it. Suddenly, Ethan wonders if Buffy suggested it would merely to keep at least one civilian out of harm’s way.

“You can’t do this!” insists Riley from the table.

“Riley” Walsh sounds fondly exasperated. “It will be alright. You’ll see.”

“No! No, I don’t want to be a part of this.”

“You can still stop this” Buffy tells the professor. “Call Adam back, call it off.”

“Miss Summers – Buffy. I can assure you that this is for a greater good. The part you’ll play is –”

“Oh, I’m not playing.”

“No-one but you can put an end to this” Rupert tells Walsh. “Whatever purpose you think you’re solving, nothing can be worth this. Please, we implore you –”

Walsh holds up a hand. “Enough of this. I won’t be lectured by you people.”

“Fine” decides Faith, “If you’re not going to listen to us, we’ll just have to stop you the hard way. Getting us down here? Big mistake.”

“It was part of the plan” Walsh tells her. “Of course, I hadn’t factored a slayer – let alone two – into our original strategy, but once I’d seen you in action, Buffy, I realised how useful you could be.”

Glancing at Buffy, Ethan, more to quash his panic than anything, murmurs, “Is this a good time to say I told you so?” Rupert’s grip tightens in warning on his wrist.

“No” Buffy glares at Walsh, but Ethan is sure that for just a moment it is meant for him.

“Save it for later” Faith tells him, “After we stop this.”

“There is no stopping it” Walsh says. She studies the rest of them, her gaze lingering on Ethan briefly to recognise and dismiss him. “I’m sorry about your friends. I had hoped you two girls would come alone.”

“We’re not just girls” Buffy replies. “You remember I said you’d find out what a slayer is? Get ready to learn.”

At that moment, the lights go out, plunging them into darkness for a frightening second until a reddish half-light kicks in. “Uh oh” Tara mutters. Ethan pulls his wrist from Rupert’s grip to grab his hand. So much for overriding the computer system. An alarm sounds down the hallway, closely followed by distant screams and growls. Buffy and Faith turn instinctively towards the sound, and are nudged back by the ends of the waiting guns. Walsh addresses the chipped soldiers: “Asimov Team, return these humans to the main research area. Put Hostile Seventeen by the entrance to containment area V where the other modified vampires should be making their way to the main facility. Then split into two groups and ensure an equal ratio among the fallen. Bring the fallen here to me.”

“Actually” Adam steps back through the door, “To me.”

Snatched at by the soldiers around him, Ethan finds himself released – but still surrounded by guns – as the soldiers pause when Adam enters the room. Beside him, Rupert brushes off his own assailant just enough to step imperceptibly closer. 

Addressing the surrounding soldiers, Adam tells them, “Asimov Team: I am commencing phase B.” What follows in a list of numbers, reeled off Adam’s tongue faster than a human could speak, or follow. Briefly, it sounds like he is humming. Around the room, the soldiers flinch, shift on their feet, fix their attention more keenly on Adam.

Walsh also focuses on her creation, staring up at him blankly. “Adam?”

“Cerebral component three-two-oh-nine” announces Adam, turning to her, “Series eight, constructed offsite and delivered here when you were building my mind.”

“It’s in your frontal lobe” Walsh confirms. “But what –”

“It contains information on an aspect of the 314 project you are unaware of. It ensures that I knew my duty at this stage of the mission.”

Staring up at him, Walsh seems to think twice about asking what exactly that is. Ethan can’t really blame her though he can guess. Beside Rupert, Buffy glances quickly back the way they came, the way the screaming is coming from, and then over to Riley on the table. Like Faith, she adjusts her stance ever so slightly, not enough to draw the soldiers’ attention, but enough to look like a predator to anyone who’s seen her fight.

“Adam” Walsh is saying, “Listen to me, I –” She flinches as Adam grabs her by the throat, forces out a command: “Asimov Team, stop him!”

Around the room, the soldiers remain still, guns still trained on their prisoners. They give no sign that they’ve heard her. Walsh manages, “Adam –”

“You have great intelligence, mother, but like any human you are prone to certain weakness. The world is as you have always said: humans are weak and emotional, demons, disordered and primitive. If we are to be delivered from this imperfection, we will need your mind free of its human weakness.”

“But Adam, I –”

“Goodbye, mother.”

Ultimately, Ethan supposes, Maggie Walsh does learn what a slayer is, because in the second before Adam slits her throat, Buffy and Faith do all they can to save her, breaking free by kicking out at the soldiers around them. Apparently, the chips have left the soldiers with just about enough free will to not pump the contents of those big guns into the confined space. Instead they reach for their tasers, and the air jumps with bursts of blue light.

Diving for the shelter of an operating table, Ethan yells out, “Rupert? Rupert!” He stares around wildly until he spots his partner disarming a nearby soldier with a roundhouse punch. Damn him – leave it to Rupert to get involved in a fight between two slayers and a load of soldiers in their prime and unable to slow down for pain.  Even Spike is taking cover, pulling Tara with him to hide beneath the table opposite Ethan’s.

Before Ethan can call Rupert over and get him to shelter like a person who actually has survival instinct, Adam, of all people, puts a stop to the violence by calling out, “Leave them! Get to the main facility and proceed with the project!” Stepping back through the door at the end of the room, he adds, “There’s nowhere left to run.”

At his command the soldiers disengage, turning like clockwork parts toward the door they entered through and the screaming beyond it. Faith manages to knock out one more as they leave, and takes his gun from him, while Buffy hurries to help Xander free Riley.

Ethan climbs out from under his shelter and Rupert hurries over. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine” Ethan tells him, “I’m not the one who decided to take on a mind-controlled army.”

Tara, emerging with Spike from their own hiding place, asks, “Why did he send them away? Wouldn’t he want us, um, dealt with?”

“Nah” says Faith, “he’s counting on us to go kill some demons for his little project.” She indicates the handful of unconscious soldiers on the floor. “What do we do with these guys?”

Buffy answers, “We can’t leave them here: I don’t want Adam to get his hands on them.”

“We all really need to get out of here” Willow adds, “This is kind of spare parts central and the spell won’t work if we’re disturbed.”

“Yes” agrees Ethan. “Also we’ll all die.”

“We can’t let them bring anyone back here” Buffy tells them. “Faith, I know this is pretty much what Adam wants you to do, but –”

“I need to go and kill demons? On it.” Faith picks up her confiscated weapons and sets off the way they came.

Riley tells Buffy, “I’ll go with her. It’s a little late to warn anyone but I can still help get the men to safety.” He kisses Buffy, selects a gun from the floor and sets off to follow Faith. Buffy stares mournfully after him for a moment before she seems to recollect herself. “Spike – go with them.”

“Thought you’d never ask.” The vampire trails after Riley, hands in pockets. Buffy turns to Rupert. “Okay. I’ll get after Adam; you guys find a place to do the spell.”

*****

In the end they use the little room in-between the main facility and the snaking white corridor that leads to the grisly operating theatre. It is reasonably quiet (the competition is not strong) and erecting a barrier spell here means the chipped soldiers will be unable to drag the dead and wounded to Adam. They lay the unconscious men, sans weapons, along one wall, just outside of the barrier Ethan and Tara magic up to shield them should anything get in.

Beyond the door, battle sounds grind and scream and howl. Still gripping Tara’s hands to reinforce the magic, Ethan doesn’t dare glance at Rupert and the others least he disturb the enjoining spell. All he and Tara can do is wait.

Well, wait and try not to listen to the noises beyond.

Chapter Text

“Next time there’s an apocalypse” Anya decides, “I’m joining in.”

“Ugh” Faith throws herself onto the Summers’ sofa. “Please don’t talk about the next time.”

Anya tells them, “I couldn’t stand just waiting to see if you all got horribly slaughtered. I guess that means I’m growing.”

“Yay?” puts in Willow. She and Tara are curled up together in an armchair, and Tara adds, “You did try to help.”

This is true: On finally reaching the lift shaft they had been greeted by Anya on her way in, all set to rescue them with half the protective talismans from the Magic Box. As it turns out, she knows more about magic than she’s been letting on, though Giles supposes that’s not surprising given her age. Anyone would pick something up.

Then again, anyone, one would think, would develop better taste in men, and yet Anya is letting Xander paw at her and pull her into his lap on the sofa, even squeals gamely. Giles shakes his head despairingly but can’t help but smile too. This evening, even the annoying is touching given how easily they could have been a monstrous amalgamation of human, demon and – he shudders – computer by now. Beside him, Ethan nestles closer.

Entering the living room with snacks, Joyce is saying to Buffy, “Well he seemed nice. Maybe the next time you date someone I could meet him before you break up?”

“Sure, mom” replies Buffy, setting a tray of drinks down. “It’s just been a crazy year.”

“Yeah” Xander echoes, “What with the Frankenstein and all.”

Anya rolls her eyes. “Frankenstein’s monster” she reminds him.

Faith shrugs. “Frankenstein was scary enough on her own.”

As Joyce retreats to the kitchen and leaves Buffy with her friends, the various couples in the room shift away from each other tactfully. Before Giles can follow suit, Ethan tightens his embrace, holding him in place. Easy enough to shrug him off, but Giles doesn’t, stays where he is with Ethan wrapped around him, as Ethan asks Buffy, “So Riley’s set off?”

“Yeah. He said he’ll check and see how the unchipped guys are doing and then it’s back to Iowa until he figures out how not to be a soldier.”

“Sorry Buffy” says Willow. “Was it you or…”

“Kind of a joint decision” Buffy tells them, “He was still weirded about the supernatural after the whole mind-control thing and that’s really not something you’re going to get over dating me with the supernatural coming at you every day.” She sinks into an armchair. “I guess that’s it: I’ve officially burned through all the supernatural knowing-about guys I know.”

Faith helps herself to a snack from the selection on the coffee table. “You’ll just have to rescue someone cute next patrol.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll take a break from dating for now.”

Willow nods sagely. “Nothing like a secret government conspiracy to create an army of super soldiers to kill the mood.”

“At least we stopped them” says Tara. She looks around at the four people involved in the enjoining spell. “I’m tired just from running through the place; you guys must be exhausted.”

“You didn’t just run through the place, baby” Willow reminds her. “If it wasn’t for you and Ethan, something would have got in and eaten us.”

“And I’m not tired” Buffy muses. “You guys?”

“Nope” says Xander.

Remembering his London days, Giles admits, “Sometimes until the magic dissipates, people who’ve been involved in a significant ritual can be a little, um…”

“Hyper?”

“Well, yes.”  

Ethan tightens his grip around him. “Poor hyper Rupert. We’ll just have to think of something to burn off that extra energy…”

Predictably, as Giles blushes and tries to keep Ethan’s hands from straying where they really shouldn’t in company, the children make their various ew-noises. Buffy exclaims, “Just not in front of us!”

“Oh please” says Ethan. “You’re all adults now.” He slips his hand under Giles’ shirt.

“Yeah” says Xander, “Traumatised adults.”

Anya, looking from Giles and Ethan to the rest of them, suggests, “We could have an orgy” and Xander amends, “Make that very traumatised.”

Blushing again – though at least it’s not because of Ethan now – Giles manages, “Anya, people generally don’t, um, well…do that sort of thing…um, with their friends.” Beside him, Ethan is seized by a coughing fit that sounds suspiciously like an address they used to frequent in their youth. Giles elbows him.

“What?” asks Anya. “It would get all the magically induced energy out of your systems so you can sleep.”

“I think I’ll just stay awake” says Buffy.

“Suit yourself, B” says Faith, standing. “Me, I don’t have extra energy from fighting the selection box of demons so I’ll get back to the motel. See you guys.”

“Oh” Joyce has walked in (hopefully not during the orgy part of the conversation, but Giles isn’t sure) “Faith, you’re going back on your own?”

“I can handle myself” Faith tells her cheerfully. “Super strength and all.”

“Well I suppose so. But you know if you’re not sure, you could always stay the night.” Joyce looks at Buffy. “Couldn’t she?”

Buffy grins. “Definitely.”

Joyce turns back to Faith and tells her, “The spare room is – well, your room is – pretty much the way you left it.”

Faith stares at her. “Really?”

Smiling, Joyce nods. “Come on, I’ll remind you where everything is.”

Watching them head up the stairs, Buffy mutters, “Well, looks like I’ve got a sister again. She’d better not hog the shower tomorrow.” Focusing again on her guests, she adds, “What about you guys – want me to walk you home?”

Xander shifts uncomfortably. “Thanks, Buff, but I’m not really in a hurry. Fun as I’ve always found visits from post-divorce Uncle Rory.”

“And he can’t stay with me” Anya tells them. “My landlord’s defumigating. The building, that is, not himself, but he’s part slime demon so really…”

Buffy frowns. “So you guys don’t have anywhere to go?”

“Oh I wouldn’t say that” explains Xander. “Just not, you know, anywhere comfortable. But it’s not like I’m ready to sleep.”

“I’ll say” Willow agrees. “I really could just stay up all night.”

“Well that makes one of us” says Tara. “I’m past ready for bed.”

“Well I could walk you guys back to campus” says Buffy. “Or, Will, if you want to hang with the hyper, I could take Tara and you could stay here.”

Willow smiles. “We could have a sleep over, with a traditional lack of sleep.”

Xander adds, “And midnight feasts.”

“That’s an idea” says Buffy. “We could rent some movies.”

“Will your mom be cool with it?”

“My mom has Faith back to smother. She’s on so much of a high we could probably get away with that orgy.”

Willow turns to Tara. “Sweetie, you sure you’re ready for bed? You could stay here too.”

“I-I’m sure” says Tara. “Maybe it’s just that I’m a novice at apocalypses – um, apocali? – but I’m completely wiped. You guys have fun though.” She looks at Anya and adds, “Hey, if these guys are going to be here, I’ll have half a bed free if you want it?”

“Thanks” Anya stands, shrugging on her coat. “But let’s not have sex. An orgy’s one thing, but I don’t want Xander to be left out.”

“Um” says Tara diplomatically, “Sure.” She and Willow exchange a knowing, loving look as Tara extracts herself.

Standing up too, Buffy asks, “Okay, so I’ll get you guys home and pick up some videos.”

“Oo” Xander gestures wildly. “Can you get Apocalypse Now?”

Giles says, “I’d have thought you’d have had enough of apocalypses.” To Tara, he adds, “Generally it is apocalypses, though apocali is also accepted.”

“Oh. G-good to know.”

“It’s a war movie” Xander is telling them. “Only the best ever, in fact.”

Willow pulls a face. “I think I’ve seen enough soldiers being massacred today.”

“Trust me this is one of the best movies ever made, and it’s about way more than the violence. Buffy, can you at least pick it up and we’ll decide when you get back?”

“Sure – I’ll get us a few. I bet we’ll have time for at least two movies before we crash.” Buffy turns to him. “Wanna join us, Giles?”

“Thank you” replies Giles, touched that she’d ask. “But I, err, I rather think Ethan has other ideas about what to do with my excess energy.”

Buffy raises an eyebrow and stares down at Ethan. “You sure about that?”

Giles turns to his partner and find that, at some point in the conversation, Ethan has quietly fallen asleep, his hand still under Giles’s shirt. “Ah. Um, in that case, a film night would be lovely.”

*****

“I thought you were staying the night?” Ethan asks blearily as Giles joins him in bed hours later.

“I was. But then the first slayer tried to kill us all in our dreams, so I thought I’d head home.”

“Honestly, Rupert. You can’t even have a sleepover without it being eventful.”

Chapter Text

“So, have you ever tried shamanism?” Willow asks.

Ethan, standing amid piles of boxes at the other end of the Magic Box’s back room, looks over to catch her turning a page of the heavy book she’s holding.

“Now and then back in the seventies.” Ethan joins her and taps the book, breaking her focus. “Remember, you’re supposed to be packing the books, not reading them.”

“Yeah, says the guy who took half an hour to pack the last box.” Willow reluctantly puts the book in the basement-destined box. “It’s a shame to pack them all away.”

“Well, I’ll put them out in the actual shop as space appears on the shelves. I just need to sell more.” Ethan starts to page through an interesting volume on rituals for communing with the Norse Gods.

“And I need to buy more. Except not, because there’s also food.” Willow pauses, then, stepping forward, extracts the book from Ethan’s hands. “We should have found someone less bookwormy for this.”

“Where’s Xander when you need him?”

“At work.” Willow places the book in the box and piles a few strings of beads on top of it, then turns to survey the room. “We’re doing okay, though. Look, you can see the floor and everything.”

Ethan scowls at the surface. “I suppose I did let the place get a little cluttered” he admits.

“Well I think Giles is right: we can fit this stuff in the basement if we’re organised.”

“I’ll leave that to you” Ethan tells her.

“I can’t do it all – I need to help Giles with the books from the library this week.”

Willow has been coming over all summer to help Rupert scan his books into a computerised database, ready for the young people to use when Ethan and Rupert take the actual books away with them when they return to the UK.

Not that Willow knows that, which makes things awkward. Ethan keeps thinking he should tell her, but with Rupert determined that the slayers shouldn’t know yet, it would put her in a difficult situation with her friends. Better to wait until Rupert stops pussyfooting around.

It will seem real then, once they’ve finally told everyone. And once it’s real, Ethan will finally be able to look forward to it.

Willow sets the box down by the door aside and picks up another. Ethan, meanwhile, glances round the soon-to-be-training room. With their departure set for early autumn, he’ll have to find a manager for this place soon. Willow is the obvious candidate: she has grown up this summer even in comparison to all of last year, a new confidence settling around her like an aura. And her knowledge of magic is growing daily. But she has her university studies, not to mention there is the lure of the restricted section, and its proffered taste of magic’s knife edge. For all Willow has recovered from her dalliance with Rack’s brand of magic remarkably well, Ethan still isn’t sure he wants to hand her the keys and the accompanying unsupervised hours with those books and relics just sitting up there.

Maybe he should just take the contents of the restricted section with him? But then, anyone running the shop could get things just as bad from his suppliers. And even if Willow – Willow who casually rewrote the rules of an ancient spell to prove a point not long ago – ignores that temptation, there is still her education to consider. Not to mention the after-hours crowd. Willow doesn’t speak any demon languages, she could be left out of pocket at best and hoodwinked into helping with something apocalyptic at worse. Simply turning the less than human customers away wouldn’t be safe either.

No, it will have to be someone else. Someone who knows their way around basic spells, speaks a few demonic languages and who, ideally, knows a little of demon customs as well. “Hm.” Ethan frowns.

“What?” asks Willow.

“Is Anya busy these days?”

*****

“I got a new job” announces Faith.

“I thought you were working at that bar on campus?” Giles pulls the new vaulting horse towards its allocated place in the newly cleared back room, huffing a little with the effort.

“Got fired.” Faith casually pushes the thing into place one handed. “Kept wanting me to turn up when I was busy slaying things.”

“I’m sorry, Faith. It’s not easy trying to balance a civilian life with…”

“Having actual fun? Yep, got that memo. But, hey, I figure if I stick to daytime shifts in the Espresso Pump, I can’t go wrong. Well, I could sleep in, but apart from that.”

The Espresso Pump? Gods, she’d better stick to daytime shifts or she’ll hear him sing. But not, Giles reminds himself, for long. Only a few more open mic nights to go before he and Ethan head home.

A part of Giles can’t wait, but another part is uneasy, especially in Faith’s presence. A few minor setbacks aside, Faith has trained diligently this summer: he will be leaving just as she is seemingly finally willing to accept some guidance. Her moving back into the Summers’ household has only improved her attitude.

Which, he tells himself, means she’ll be fine. She’ll still have Buffy and Joyce providing the stability that regular training sessions were her only source of when she first returned. Not to mention Buffy and her friends are experienced enough to offer all the support he would, and he’ll be only a phone call away. And it could be that Faith will benefit from the show of trust implicit in his leaving.

Leaving. Giles smiles. It’s been so long, and so endlessly dangerous, and he and Ethan are finally going home.  

Chapter Text

When Buffy starts with, “You haven’t been my watcher for a while”, Giles thinks for a wild moment that perhaps she – and Faith, who sits nodding in agreement every so often – have reached the same conclusion as him. But it turns out that an encounter with Dracula of all things has made Buffy decide, “I need you to be my watcher again.”

For a moment, he’s speechless. Buffy, gesturing to Faith, adds, “Well, we do.”

“It’s Buffy’s idea” Faith tells him. “She’s been all weird and hungry for patrol since that spell; I’m still just enjoying myself in cemeteries.”

“You weren’t a part of the enjoining spell” Giles notes absently.

“Nope. Kinda busy fighting on my lonesome. Well, and Spike and Riley were there, but really, I was doing the hard work.”

“Enjoining spell wasn’t easy” Buffy points out, her smile becoming a little fixed.

“Never said it was, B. Just way different to a standard fight or it wouldn’t have you on this know-your-slayer-roots trip.” To Giles, Faith adds, “But, hey, we can share. You and B can talk history during my training sessions. That way you’re not overloaded with time alone with hot chicks.”

Giles winces at the phrasing. “I see.”

“What Faith means is, you’re already watching her, so we can double up.” Buffy smiles at him, then prompts, “What about you – you had something you wanted to say?”

Tempted as he is to pretend it was nothing, Giles knows he owes it to Ethan to at least tell them, “Actually, Ethan and I have been talking about going back to England. Planning to, actually.”

The pain on Buffy’s face is reply enough. Beside her, Faith becomes very still, and asks, “What about watching me?”

“That was only on a voluntary basis” Giles reminds her, “which made it somewhat temporary. And over summer, you’ve proven that you don’t really need it.”

“What about all the weird stuff you’ve been going round town finding?” argues Faith. “Shouldn’t just be left for the demons.”

“I’ve typed up my notes on the artefacts I’m looking into at the moment” Giles explains. “I was thinking that between you, you could take over the search for the more potent ones.”

“I see. You got it all figured out.”

“But this changes everything in any case” Giles tells them. “I only considered it because neither of you have needed my help of late.”

“Neither meaning Buffy?” asks Faith. “’Cause I’ve been showing up for training.”

“Faith, there’s nothing I can teach you that Buffy can’t, but as I said, this changes matters: I’ll stay to help. I have a duty to support the two of you, if that’s what you want.”

“Yes” manages Buffy, seeming to wake up from her shock. “Yes, we do want. But you don’t have to…” She turns to Faith. “I mean, I know it kind of sucks but…” (turning back to Giles) “Well, we like having you around and all. But if you and Ethan want to go home, we’ll find a way to manage. Get the gang to help.”

“I want to help, Buffy. And you may well be right that knowing more about your heritage as a slayer could be to your advantage.”

“Giles, I don’t want you to stay here just for duty.”

“It won’t be just for duty.” Giles makes sure he locks eyes with her as he says it, tries to convey in that look what he could never say aloud. She seems to understand but still asks, “What about Ethan?”

“I’ll talk to him. He’ll understand.”

*****

“I don’t understand.”

“Ethan, Buffy wants me back. As her active watcher. You know I can’t just –”

“– oh, I understand that. What I don’t understand is what makes you think I’ll agree to this.” Ethan stands abruptly from the sofa and paces.

Giles tells him, “I can’t ask you to agree to anything. If you’ll be happier at home, then…” He trails off, not wanting to finish that thought, let alone voice it. Ethan has stopped pacing and is watching him intently. Giles manages, “I just mean, I know I’m asking a lot. I know you miss London and –”

“And Sunnydale’s bloody dangerous.” Ethan resumes pacing.

“Yes, and that.”

“With no decent pubs.”

“Agreed.”

“And boring people.”

“That’s a little unfair.”

“No, Rupert, what’s unfair is you want me to overturn a summer of planning on the whim of a teenage girl!”

“Buffy’s hardly a teenager anymore. And I believe she’s very committed to this new venture.”

“What, to find out about the old slayers? I’ll make it quick: they died!”

Giles flinches. Tells him, “If she and Faith research the slayer line, they’ll feel more ownership of their powers. I have to help them with that if it will make them better slayers.”

“Why can’t they do this research on their own?”

“Because Buffy asked for my help.”

“And your ego couldn’t resist?”

“As a watcher, I have a duty to –”

“You’re not a watcher! You’re not being paid! What’ll you live on if I go back to England without you?”

Giles actually hasn’t thought about that. Nor is he prepared for the surge of pure horror at the idea of Ethan returning alone; it’s one thing for him to say it, quite another to hear it from his partner. “You want to go back without me?”

“No, I want to go back with you.”

“But that’s not an option, Ethan, I’ve told you.”

“Right, so you’re turning this into me having to choose between you and living away from this literal hellhole, when really it’s about you choosing what Buffy wants over what I want.”

“It’s about me fulfilling my duty, Ethan.”

“You’re not a watcher anymore, Rupert!”

“I’m a watcher by training and heritage! Since when do you care what the council thinks?”

Ethan lets out a frustrated sigh and sits down again. “We were going home.”

“I know. I’m sorry: if I’d had any clue Buffy was about to ask for my assistance, I wouldn’t have got your hopes up.”

“Well of course you had no clue: She’s barely trained with you for a year.”

“I think she’s only recently come to realise it might be wise to resume. Something that Dracula said.”

“Oh, I see: this isn’t about Buffy’s whim after all, it’s Dracula’s mind games. That’s much better.” Ethan is still seated, quiet now and as far from Giles as he can get without falling off the sofa. His arms are folded. Reluctantly, Giles asks him, “You’re not going back without me, are you?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Of course not! But if you’d be happier…I mean…I could visit…”

“Oh, you could visit! We didn’t even go back for Christmas last year and it’s not like you were rushed off your feet watcher-wise. No, let’s face it, if I go back alone, I’d never see you again.”

“That’s not true, Ethan.” Giles takes off his glasses and rubs at them, pointlessly. “I won’t lie; I’d be devastated if you left without me. I’d miss you terribly. But I can’t force you to stay.”

“I’d miss you terribly too” replies Ethan grudgingly.

“I should think so.” Giles replaces his glasses.

“You owe me a back massage after a stunt like this, you know.”

“Oh certainly. Possibly several and a candlelit dinner.”

“And we go home for Christmas this year no matter how busy you are digging up past slayers.”

“Alright.” Hopefully the hellmouth won’t open. But then, knowing their luck…

“And if I get eaten by a demon” adds Ethan, “after we almost left, I retain the right to be supremely pissed off and come back to haunt you.”

“Don’t say that, Ethan.”

“Well, it’s worth saying.”

“I’d never forgive myself if something were to happen to you.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have to miss me long: I’d be haunting you” Ethan shuffles closer, leans sideways against Giles. “Now. What were we saying about back massages?”

Chapter Text

“You wanted to see me?” The shop bell jangles as Anya lets the door swing closed behind her, shutting out the warm Californian night.

“Anya! Um, yes. I did.” Ethan, pulling his coat on for the journey home, attempts an appeasing smile.

Anya sees straight through it, of course. “You don’t anymore?”

“Well, not really.” Ethan notes Anya’s explain please expression and adds, “I was going to offer you a job as manager of this place. Rupert and I were going home, you see. But now Buffy has some little history project going on so I’m stuck here.”

Anya studies him. “Well, not really” she says, “You could just leave him.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Oh” Anya gives a puzzled little shrug and glances round the shop. “So you don’t need a manager?”

“Not anymore, I’m afraid.”

“That’s a shame. I’m starting to need money.”

“You are?” Ethan frowns. “If you don’t mind me asking, what have you been living on since you lost your powers?”

“Oh, I had some antiques and things. Not deliberately because anything I bought while I was looking for men to smite, I could just put on expenses, but you know how it is – you see a trinket you like, and five hundred years later the value’s gone up.”

Ethan nods. “Perk of immortality.”

Anya returns the nod and wanders over to a shelf. “Plenty of those. Still looking for some perks of mortality and now my money’s running out.” She picks up a statuette. “It’s too bad you’re not leaving; I’d be good at running this place. You’re aware you need to smear honey on this thing’s lips on solstice, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” Ethan gently takes the statuette and sets it back on the shelf. “Listen, Anya, thank you for coming, but I’m off home now. Do you want a ride?”

Frowning over his shoulder, Anya steps towards another shelf. “Is that a Gemini urn next to dried marjoram? Are you trying to summon a Troloth?”

“Of course not! Do you see any polgara blood anywhere near it?”

In answer, Anya extracts a red-filled vial from behind the urn and holds it up. Ethan scowls at it. “Well that’s not supposed to be there. I keep blood under the counter unless it’s out on display.” Plucking the vial from Anya’s hand, he skirts around the counter and puts it in the fridge tucked underneath, explaining, “Dawn must have moved it.” The child was in earlier, putting her sticky fingers where they don’t belong until Buffy had saved his merchandise by letting her sister sit in on the slayer training in the backroom.

“Well, it’s a good job I found it” says Anya. “And the Gemini urn shouldn’t be on display anyway.”

“I can’t see why not. I wouldn’t sell it with anything for summoning and it wouldn’t be dangerous without that. Not unless the customer had a time machine to save the Hadian Index from the Library of Alexandria.”

Anya shakes her head. “The Hadian Index didn’t burn in Alexandria. The Shanleic Circle used the whole thing as a cover and got in there and stole it.”

Ethan stares at her. “They did? You’re sure?”

“Yes. Well, I should know; I was there. This librarian had cheated on his wife with his cousin – the whole incest equals icky thing is kind of new – and so she summoned me and –”

“– Wait, Anya…Are you telling me the most prestigious library in the ancient world burnt because you granted a wish?”

“Well it’s not my fault what she wished for.” Anya folds her arms. “Really, I was trying to steer her towards something more boils-based.”

“Never tell Rupert that, will you?”

“Why not? I’d thought you wouldn’t mind him getting upset if he’s making you stay here.”

“Well I’m not thrilled to be staying” admits Ethan, “but there is a limit.” He double-checks for his keys, patting his pockets. “I might tell him about the Hadian Index, though. Could be something to add to his list of old things to track down.”

“You’re so angry about staying you’d rather the Shanleic got him?” Anya shrugs. “I can’t blame you. Being human’s bad enough, but human in Sunnydale? I sometimes think me and Xander should leave, what with the disappearances and demons and” she glances to the window “hordes of vampires –”

“Well you’ve survived so far” replies Ethan, rather wishing she wouldn’t point out all of Sunnydale’s flaws right after he almost escaped.

“No, I mean, there’s a horde of vampires outside.” Anya gestures to the window. When the door opens, her nonchalance turns to anger and she smacks Ethan non-too-gently. “They can get in?!” she exclaims in a muttered whisper, “I thought this place was warded?”

“It is! Nothing can get in that intends harm!” Ethan whispers back.

“Since when does something need a plan to turn dangerous?”

Ignoring her, Ethan turns a professional smile to the newcomers. “Welcome to the Magic Box. Anything in particular I can help you with?”

“You got anything on slayers?” grunts a heavy-set male in what appears to be a Sunnydale High football shirt. Either he is an alumnus or he’s recently eaten one. Given the slight lisp – not used to the fangs yet, apparently – Ethan reassures himself that it’s the former. Reassurance that is welcome, actually, since he doesn’t like the way the vampire is looking at him. Or the way the others file around him and Anya, who steps closer, trying to keep them all in sight at once. The regulars from the bite-house usually come alone or in pairs: It’s not often Ethan has this number of bloodsuckers in the shop at once. And Ethan’s regulars know better than to ask about “Slayers?” Ethan manages. “I wouldn’t go messing with them if I were you. Didn’t you hear what happened to Dracula?”

“Have you got anything on them or not?” is the reply. “Any books, I mean. She wants to turn the whole thing into study hall.” The vampire gestures to the one female in the group, who is admiring a ceramic unicorn in a case.

Turning with a huff, she tells him, “Mort, you don’t have to make out like I’m some loser nerd just because I want to do things properly.” To Ethan, she adds, “Hi by the way. You’re Mr Giles’ boyfriend, right?”

“He’s gay?” The other vampire – Mort – smirks.

“I am Mr Giles’ fiancé” Ethan replies. To Mort, he adds, “And a proud bisexual, actually.”

Beside him, Anya mutters, “Maybe don’t get out the pride flag? We’re outnumbered here.”

Reaching into his pocket without breaking eye contact with Mort, Ethan hands her the keys. “Anya, why don’t you go and wait in the car? I’m sure this transaction can be concluded swiftly.”

“You got that right.” Mort takes steps subtly closer, while the female vampire flounces over and snaps, “We’re not here to eat an old guy – oh, um, no offence, Mr Giles. Is it Mr Giles?”

“Mr Rayne”

“Oh, good. ’Cause that would be confusing.”

Glancing from vampire, to vampire, to Ethan, Anya takes the keys and moves to go past the newcomers. Immediately, Mort sidesteps into her path. “Who said you could leave?”

The female vampire scowls. “Mort, let her go.”

“She could be going to get the slayer.”

The female vampire frowns at Anya. “Are you?”

“What’s a slayer?” asks Anya, straight-faced.

“It’s okay, Mort, let her go.” The vampire steps back herself, and Anya skirts around Mort and past the two of them. The bell jingles a farewell as she leaves. Ethan hopes she’ll fetch Rupert. Mort, merely disgruntled and thuggish when he entered, is now watching him intently. He’s still standing too close. Ethan takes a step back and Mort grins. Ethan forces himself to look away from him and address the vampire girl. “You went to Sunnydale High, didn’t you? I think we met briefly at –”

“– At graduation! Yes!” She bounces up and down a little. “I’m Harmony.”

“Of course. I’m sorry you didn’t come through it, by the way.”

“Oh” Harmony makes a little flapping gesture. “I’m not. I mean, being sired’s not the end of the world, just kind of a learning curb.”

“I imagine so.”

“Right? I mean the fashion is completely different! We’re talking a whole new palette.”

“And no reflection. That’s got to be a bugger.”

“Oh, I just use this polaroid camera. Or I get Brad to be honest with me.” Harmony shoots a sultry look to one of the excess vampires still prowling round the shop, picking things up and putting them down in the wrong place.

“Well” Ethan concludes, “You seem to have settled into things.”

“Oh, you mean my minions?”

“Minions already? Congratulations.”

“Thanks! I’m trying something new.”

Mort puts in, “Which is why we need books about the slayer.”

Ethan considers this. As it happens, Rupert had him bring all those books to the flat last week. And this little gaggle of the undead are no real threat…to Buffy or Faith that is; Ethan has no desire to piss them off. Probably the best course of action is to say, “I’m afraid they’re not in stock. But I do have a supplier with a few titles that might interest you: History and Lore of the Slayer Line, that sort of thing.”

“Sounds great!” Harmony enthuses. “When can you get them in?”

Mort, though, shifts close again, all the better to loom. “He’s probably lying. Cyrus, Brad, stop messing around – search the place.”

“Hey!” Harmony protests, “I give the orders.” To Ethan, she asks, “Can I just have one of everything with slayer in the title?”

“Hey look!” A vampire who has wandered round the counter stoops and opens the fridge. “There’s blood in here.”

“Pass me some” demands Mort. He catches the vial that’s thrown in one hand without fumbling. Harmony rolls her eyes.

“Um” manages Ethan. “Behind the counter is really a staff only…” He trails off at the look Mort is giving him. “Err, you know what, never mind.” Focusing on Harmony again, Ethan says, “Books. Well, thinking about it, I think there are five about the history of the slayer. You really want them all?”

“Uh huh. Oh, and the unicorn.”

Ethan eyes the thing. “Happy to throw that in for free, to be honest.”

“Really?”

“Of course. But the books aren’t here right now. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.” Ethan glances at Mort, who finishes opening the vial and tosses the lid to the floor, glaring at Harmony’s crestfallen expression. “Don’t even start” the bigger vampire tells her. “This is supposed to be a raid, not a shopping trip.” “It is?” asks Ethan. He glances at the counter where the holy water is kept, but there is still a vampire there filling his pockets with blood from the fridge.

“Well yeah” says Harmony. “But it was open so we didn’t need to. You even agreed – we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Yet.” She gestures to Ethan. “Plus, I know the guy.”

“We fought the Mayor together” Ethan agrees hurriedly. “That’s not the sort of thing you just forget.”

Shaking his head despairingly, Mort steps away from the pair of them and raises the vial to his lips.

Turning back to Harmony, Ethan tells her. “I’ll have to insist you pay half now. That way –”

“Fuck!” bursts out Mort, spitting blood onto the floor. “What the hell is this?”

“Oh” stammers Ethan, “That’ll be the polgara blood.”

“Fucking gross!” Mort spits again.

“Ew!” Harmony wrinkles her nose. “Mort, that’s disgusting.”

“This crap’s what’s disgusting!” Mort hurls the vial to the floor.

Managing not to flinch (good for him, really), Ethan tells him. “Since I’m going to have to restock anyway, there is hare blood, or –”

“Nah, that’s alright.” Mort grins.

Harmony asks, “You don’t want something to wash the taste out?”

“Oh, I do” Mort brings his big hand down on Ethan’s shoulder. “But I thought of something better.”

*****

Bursting through the door, Giles barely has time to take in the scene – vampires clustered around Ethan, Ethan on the floor, oh God – before he lunges. Between holy water, fists and sheer bloody rage he drives them off, before kneeling beside his partner. “Ethan? Christ – Ethan?”

“I’ll call an ambulance” Anya tells him.

“Thank you. Ethan?”

“Yeah…” Ethan winces and turns his head without opening his eyes. His neck is red from the blood sucked toward it, leaving the rest of him chalky. A little black ooze pools beneath his head, stains his hair. Giles clamps a hand over the deepest wound. “Hold on, love. You’re safe now.”

*****

“It was Harmony” Ethan tells him later in the hospital. “You remember Cordelia’s understudy? Spike’s ex?”

“She attacked you?”

“Actually, she didn’t join in. She was pissed off because we’d been reminiscing about graduation, and then the big guy decided he was hungry. I think she didn’t want to begrudge them though.” Turning his head as much as the stiches will allow, he asks, “You didn’t stake her, did you?”

“I’m not sure I even saw her” Giles admits. “I did see a rather well built one – I’m afraid he got away. With at least one other. I’ll send Buffy and Faith to look for them.”

“No need to bother with that” says Ethan. “No harm done.”

“You’ve been hospitalised, love.”

“But apart from that. Oh, she has minions now. Harmony I mean.  I told her congratulations from both of us.”

Giles gives Ethan a sideways look, not sure if he’s joking or serious, or perhaps serious but only because he’s drugged to the tonsils. Ethan is, of course, completely unaware how dangerous his condition was half an hour ago. He’s had four pints of blood transfused, Lord knows how many stiches in his neck and now he’s strung out on some heavy-duty painkiller which is making him a little giddy and has him reaching out to absentmindedly twist Giles’ hair into knots. Giles gently guides his hand back towards the bed and holds it. Ethan tells him, “You’ll have to run the shop tomorrow.”

“I will.”

“It might need a bit of a tidy.”

“I know” The whole place had been in disarray.

“If we need to make an insurance claim, let Mrs Dumitru know in case it gets back to her.”

“Will do.”

“She worries.”

“I know, love. I’ll give her a ring.”

“She stole a unicorn figurine.”

“Mrs Dumitru?”

“No, Harmony.”

“Well, I’ll, err, I’ll pass that information on to Buffy and Faith. Just try to rest now, Eth.”

Watching Ethan sleep, Giles thanks every god he’s ever heard of that he got to the shop when he did and not just five minutes later.

*****

“What am I meant to do with those?” Ethan asks of the flowers Giles brings to his bedside.

Buffy frowns at him. “He’s not supposed to bring you flowers?”

“I’m going home tomorrow.” Ethan frowns at the bouquet and then a thought seems to occur to him. “I am going home tomorrow, aren’t I?”

“Yes” Giles looks around for something to put the flowers in, locating a dusty vase on the window sill. 

“Good.” To Buffy, Ethan adds, “I told Rupert everything I remember if that’s why you’re here.”

“No” Buffy sits down in a rattly chair by the bed. “I just came to see how you are.”

“Oh. Well, that’s sweet.”

Buffy smiles. “And to tell you we dusted them. Well, not Harmony – she ran off – but the others.”

“The big guy?”

“Yeah. Impaled him on a unicorn actually.”

Ethan laughs uproariously and then flinches, puts a hand to his neck. “No, really?”

“Really” Buffy confirms. “Part of Harmony’s collection I guess.”

Joining them with vase in hand, Giles asks, “Ethan, are you sure home tomorrow is a good idea? You’ve barely had time to recuperate.”

“I can recuperate safer at home with the nasties needing an invite. I feel like I’m on a platter lying here.”

“Have you seen any demons?” Naïve to think nothing would wander in to prey on the sick.

“No but I’m not taking any chances.” Ethan surreptitiously taps the statuette of Janus by the bed, the first thing he’d asked for from home. Next to it is a large wooden cross and a collection of dove bones and feathers tied together to form a protection talisman. Giles shakes his head, “The staff must think you’re quite mad.”

“Actually, most of the staff wear crosses – I think they’re a little more aware than the average Sunnydale citizen.” Ethan pauses, then adds, “Or possibly just Christian.”

“Possibly” Giles rearranges the collection of talismans to make room for the vase. “Buffy, I don’t suppose you could find some water for these?”

“On it” Buffy stands up, adding to Ethan, “Gives me a chance for more cute doctor ogling.”

“Oh” says Ethan, “you’ve met Ben, then?”

“Mm-hm” Buffy grins. “Some perks to being injured, I guess.”

“He did almost die” Giles chides, while Ethan tells her, “I think we’re just borrowing him from ER, which is a waste when you think about it – half the people he treats are probably in no state to enjoy it.”

“I am standing right here, you know” Giles puts in.

“I know, love” says Ethan, “But you know I don’t mean anything by it.”

“Do I?”

Looking between the two of them, Buffy decides, “I’ll go track down that water.”

Giles is left alone with Ethan and his typically poor attempt at an innocent expression. Given recent events, all he can bring himself to say is, “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’m fine” Ethan tells him. “Or I will be when you stop fussing. How’s my shop, by the way?”

“Alright.” Giles wanders over to the end of the bed to examine the charts, hoping to get some insight into whether home tomorrow really is a good idea. “I’ve been sending your demon customers away under the circumstances. Except for one Hanol because it turns out Anya speaks Hanol. And drives a hard bargain, come to that.”

Ethan nods. “I knew it was a good idea to hire her after all.”

“Well it will give you some time to recover before you go back to the demon nest.”

“It’s not a demon nest, Rupert. Most of my customers are human. Look, sit down, will you.”

Giles sits down in the chair beside the bed and then, when Ethan rolls his eyes and pats the mattress, on the bed itself. Ethan shifts sideways to make room for him. Giles wraps an arm around Ethan’s shoulder, partly to avoid falling off the narrow bed and partly because Ethan is wonderfully warm and alive and it might have been otherwise.

Chapter Text

Having survived her brief encounter with Mort in the Magic Box, Anya had somehow encountered him again while Ethan was in hospital. Ethan isn’t sure how – something about Dawn running out the house. Either way, she is effectively minus one arm at the moment, and so has to work the till while Ethan does everything else. She’s enjoying it a little too much.

Unfortunately it does put her directly in the eyeline of the demon who sweeps in in broad daylight, ignoring Ethan who is tucked away in a corner and who quickly steps deeper into the shadows, hoping he hadn’t been seen. With some of them, you can just tell when they’re on a warpath. Anya seems to sense it too, and looks alarmed even before the thing comments, “The slayers are not here.”

“No” Anya manages, her good hand reaching for the shelf behind her.

Stepping out of the shadows, Ethan informs the demon, “They train Tuesday and Thursday evening, and Saturday morning.”

The demon studies him for a moment, nods gravely, and sweeps out again, robes swirling at his feet.

As soon as he is gone, Anya clonks Ethan on the shoulder with a statuette.

“Ow!”

“Are you insane?” she asks, “We’re supposed to be the good guys! You can’t set Buffy and Faith up to be attacked!”

“I’ll tell them to expect him! And in the meantime, we can enjoy the refreshing not being dead.”

“There is that.” Anya frowns, the sniffs. “Not that refreshing though. That guy stank.”

Ethan inhales deeply and scowls. “I think we’ve got some air freshener in the basement.”

“You realise this is my second time being attacked by a demon while working here?”

“No, it’s not; Mort didn’t attack you here and that thing just made a polite enquiry and left again.”

“Yeah – with a plan to come back later and kill our friends! And Mort almost attacked me here.”

“Still, it’s not your second time” Ethan insists. “It’s not even your first time.”

Anya frowns at him before turning to rearrange the items on the shelf behind her, a few of which had been knocked over as she felt behind her for a weapon. “I guess” she admits, “But the point still stands; this place is dangerous. I’m going to need to review the wards. Especially as we’ve got such a short time anyway.”

“We have?” Ethan stares at her. Surely he’d have heard any rumour of an oncoming apocalypse?

“Just a handful of decades” Anya tells him, “before disease and death claim us.”

“Oh.” Ethan frowns. “What a cheerful thought.”

“It’s not just a thought; it’s the hard reality.” Anya turns back to face him. “Mortals get practically no time.”

From her perspective, Ethan realises, it must be so: Summers rush by these days, in contrast to the languishing eternities they were when he was a child. A human lifespan must seem like a long weekend to someone who is over a millennium old. From Anya’s perspective, she has found new purpose and true love at the very close of her time in this world. And there is nothing he can say to change this. So he says, “The demon customers bring us in a good profit. We can’t shut them all out.”

Anya eyes the till. “There is that, I suppose. By the way, I need a pay rise.”

“What?” Ethan splutters. “Anya, you’ve been working here for less than a fortnight!”

“But I need money! Xander and I are planning on getting an apartment.”

“Well, congratulations. But you’re not getting a pay rise.”

“But you pay yourself more than me. It’s not fair.”

“Capitalism, Anya. Look it up.”

“I will.” Anya frowns. “And in the meantime, you’d better call Buffy and Faith. You know, as you’ve sent a loose demon their way.”

“I will. But there’s no way that thing could hurt them. What could it possibly have that they haven’t faced before?”

*****

“He can split his opponents into their separate weaknesses and strengths” Willow tells the group in the Magic Box later that afternoon. “If he really is the last survivor of the Tothric clan, that is.” She glances at Buffy. “It’s um. It’s what I based the spell to split Angel and Angelus on.”

Buffy looks quickly down at the book in her lap. Setting aside his own book, Giles asks Ethan, “And you told him when to find Buffy and Faith here? It didn’t occur to you to lie?”

“Hm” Ethan leans against the counter. “Did it occur to me to have him come back sometime when no-one with super powers is around? Well, yes, but I decided I quite like my spinal cord where it is, on balance.”

Giles looks down at the book again, conceding the point. Gods know running a magic shop has proven itself dangerous enough for his partner recently. Apparently Faith agrees, because she says, “He’s got a point. I mean, it’s not like we can’t take Toth, right B?”

Buffy glances up. “I guess. As long as he doesn’t do this splitting spell, right?”

“Why does he even want to do that?” asks Xander. “Wouldn’t that just give us four slayers? I mean, even on a bad day, you guys kill butt.”

Willow replies, “I’m guessing he wants to split them into a slayer half and a…non-slayer half, so he can kill the non-slayers and then the slayer halves die too.”

Giles nods, thinking over this plan. Without Willow’s familiarity with this curse, it could have been a real threat.

“I don’t have a non-slayer half” states Faith.

“I do.” Buffy looks down again.

Willow tells her, “But, hey, you’re forewarned. So even if he splits you guys, the slayers can protect the…”

“The normal girls” concludes Buffy quietly. Faith snorts.

“Yes, well” begins Giles, keen to turn the conversation from introspection that could border on hopeless wishing. If it were up to him, these two young girls would not be burdened with the responsibility of the Slayer, but they are. If Angel’s misadventure has taught them anything, it is that separating themselves from that would not be sustainable. “Luckily, you are forewarned” Giles concludes, “You know he’ll turn up here if we don’t find him first.”

“I’d rather you not do the actual fighting here” Ethan puts in.

“Yes” says Anya. “I’ve just done the inventory.”

Buffy glares at them both and, likewise irked, Giles asks, “Well, did he say anything that gave you any indication of where to find him?”

“The dump” Anya replies.

“He stank” clarifies Ethan.

Anya nods. “We had to open all the windows.”  

“Great” Buffy concludes. “As well as the weirdness of maybe winding up in two bodies, we get a field trip to garbage central.”

“Back to the you in two bodies thing” Xander muses. “The slayer half would be…well, I love you, Buffy, but scary is the word.”

“Don’t worry, Xander, I’m not going to let…” Buffy trails off, frowns. Turning to Giles, she exclaims, “Or we are!” Looking over to Faith she adds, “We’re trying to learn about the slayer powers, right? Wouldn’t talking to a pure no-normal-here slayer be a good way to do that?”

“Beats reading about it” agrees Faith. But she crosses her arms defensively. “If we let him split you, that is. Like I said, I’m not up for ditching actually being able to fight.”

Buffy appears to have a lot to say to that. After a loaded pause, she limits her answer to, “So we could let him split me and then you take him out before he kills non-slayer me.” Looking to Giles, she asks, “What do you think?”

“It could be useful” Giles agrees, “but risky. We’d all need to be there ready to keep him from hurting your more vulnerable self.” Turning to Willow, he asks, “The curse would be easy to lift?”

She nods. “Really easy. Harder to make it last actually.” Apparently thinking of Angel, she adds, “But I guess we knew that already.”

Turning back to Buffy, Giles asks, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

She nods. “I’m up for it. Faith?”

“Yeah” Faith nods, clearly scared, and hiding it so well that Giles doubts the other children – who unlike him in his younger days have little need for bravado – can tell. “Let’s do this.”

*****

“Why did I have to come?” Ethan asks, wrinkling his nose as they pick their way around one of the numerous piles of rubbish in the city dump later that night.

“Because we may need a barrier spell” Rupert replies without looking at him. Instead he eyes their surroundings, and Ethan, for all he feels neglected, is a little grateful for that. No telling what might be living here besides Toth.

Behind them, Willow is telling Buffy and Xander about some nose amputating spell that honestly wouldn’t be a bad idea right now. Well, except that Rupert’s glasses would fall off.

Up ahead of them, Faith turns a corner and greets, “Spike.”

“Sodding hell” The vampire comes into view as they follow Faith. “Can’t a fellow enjoy a slayer free night even in this stink-hole? Why aren’t you in the cemeteries?”

“Why are you climbing Mount Crap?” returns Faith.

Spike waves what looks like an old lamp. “Just getting a few supplies.”

“Recycling” Ethan realises.

“I suppose so” says Spike, “Yes. Being an upstanding citizen.” He eyes Faith. “And not expecting to be harassed for it.”

Buffy rolls her eyes. “Yeah. You’re an upstanding citizen and I’m Madonna.”

“In your dreams, slayer. Like you could pull off those high notes.” Spike adds something to his shopping trolley of rubbish and Ethan notices a shop mannequin, a plastic approximation of a human, amid the tat. He frowns. Is the vampire still dreaming of getting that chip out? Makes sense, but still. Ethan doesn’t like to picture the fantasies that must go on beneath the peroxide.

“Spike” begins Rupert. “We’re looking for a demon called Toth.”

Spike glances up, then freezes, points. “That him, or are you lot just really unlucky?”

Turning, they find an alarmingly tall, robed demon bearing down on them. Scattering as he blasts something – the spell, presumably – at them, they are quickly spread out, providing Toth with clearer targets. Above Spike cheering the damn thing on, Buffy yells, “Everyone, take cover! Faith, we need –”

At that moment, Xander shouts out a warning and dives in front of her. The next blast lifts him off his feet. Ethan shoots his hand out to his side to stop Rupert running into the line of fire to help the boy. Shaking him off, Rupert starts forward but then changes course and Ethan, seeing what he’s about to do, shouts, “Rupert, just let it go!” If the demon wants to leave, what on earth would possess Rupert try and stop it? But of course, Rupert is too focused on this plan to actually let Toth curse one of the slayers to stop and think how rarely they are gifted with a demon in retreat. Ethan can only watch as his partner jumps into Toth’s path, grabbing a piece of bent piping from the ground and whacking the demon round the head with it. Toth staggers back a step or too, off balance before rounding on Rupert with a glare. Ethan yells, “Buffy!” and – mercifully – Faith responds, grabbing the demon and swinging it bodily around, the implement in its hand letting off another blast, which Buffy dives deliberately into.

“Buffy!” Willow yelps, rushing forward. Behind her, Xander takes an unsteady step or two. Behind him, Ethan spots another Xander, this one unconscious. Willow helps Buffy to her feet as Faith tackles Toth. “Buffy, are you alright?”

“I am” Buffy replies, turning to look at the other her, the one still on the ground. “I’m not sure about –” Before she can finish, the other Buffy leaps to her feet, shoves them both aside and lunges at Toth. He doesn’t last long.

“Wow, B” says Faith when it’s over. Her gaze travelling to the Buffy that stands with Willow, she amends, “Bs.”

*****

“She’s joking” one of the Xanders assures Ethan and Willow some time later.

“No she’s not!” realises the other, “She entirely wants to have sex with us together – which is wrong and…and it would be very confusing.”

“Wrong how?” asks Ethan. “You’d all be agreeing to it.”

“And it’s not like it would be cheating” points out Anya. “You’re both Xander.”

“You know” Willow, glancing up from the five-pointed star she’s drawing on the Magic Box floor, eyes Anya and Ethan. “I’m kind of worried about you guys working together. You’re a bad influence on each other.”

“No more than the Xanders” points out Ethan. Already the two have become indistinguishable in terms of maturity level.

“Well they’re the same person” Willow replies, “so I guess that’s not surprising.”

“Completely identical” one of the Xanders confirms. “We checked out some stuff in the car.” There is a pause before he hastily adds, “Fingerprints! Oh and, hey” turning to Anya, “we figure we could afford that apartment. Or at least, if they keep us – err, me – on for the next job.” He jerks his head at the other Xander. “And this guy thinks they will.”

“Really?” Anya beams. 

“Well he is a pretty good carpenter” Willow says. She focuses again on readying the reversal spell, glancing every now and then to the closed door of the back room. Shadows moving under the door suggest someone inside is pacing, and Ethan wonders whether it is the pure-slayer version of Buffy (who, frankly, seems like a pacer) or Faith, Rupert or the non-slayer Buffy as they try to glean something useful from their conversation with her. What little he has overheard so far has seemed rather intense.

“I’m so glad” Anya is telling the Xanders, “And after we’ve lived there for a year, we can move into a two bedroom and have a baby. Or buy a boat.”

One of the Xanders is incoherently panicked, but the other manages, “Wait, what?”

“Well we don’t have much time” Anya reasons. “I’m dying.”

Quickly, Ethan asks, “In the sense that all mortals are dying?”

“Exactly” says Anya. “We’re all dying even before you factor in the demons.”

The more competent-seeming Xander gently puts his hand on her good shoulder. “I think we should talk about this later, okay?”

Anya looks a little mollified, and steps aside when Willow says, “Xanders, come stand in the circle.”

It is a simple spell to undo: at Willow’s command, the two Xanders merge seamlessly together, leaving the now-four of them to wait for the Buffys’ turn.

“What do you think’s happening in there?” the newly reformed Xander asks, eyeing the door to the backroom.

“They’re probably trying to convince the slayer-Buffy to not murder us all” replies Anya, casually. At Xander’s stare she adds, “What? That’s what slayers do. We only like Buffy because of the other half.”

“You just think that because you used to be a demon” Willow tells her.

“You think a slayer is all that different to a demon?” counters Anya. “Maybe you only don’t think that because you didn’t use to be a demon.”

“The non-slayer version did seem more like our Buffy” muses Ethan.

“Yeah, and the slayer version seemed a lot like Faith” says Xander. “Who in case you guys forgot, doesn’t try to kill us.” He looks briefly confused at his own words before Willow mutters, “Except for that one time.”

“Exactly” says Anya. At Willow and Xander’s renewed accusing stares, she adds, “Look, I’m not saying Buffy would usually try to murder us! I just don’t want to be alone with the pure slayer version.”

“She was a little intimidating” Ethan agrees. It had been something about the way she moved. Something predatory. He frowns, asks Anya, “Do you know anything about the slayer line?”

“Nothing that isn’t common knowledge” she replies. “One in each generation, strength and skill, blah blah blah. But I’ve been around long enough to know that sort of power doesn’t come from anywhere good.”

“Guys” Xander argues, “You’re just working yourselves up over nothing. Both of me were me, remember? So it’s only Buffy in there.”

“But that’s just the thing” Anya replies, “The Slayer isn’t just Buffy. There’s a whole line of them.”

*****

“It’s certainly given us some new avenues to explore” says Giles later, when he and Ethan are home. It is partly true; Buffy’s slayer form made several references that he plans to pursue in his research. Of course, she didn’t know anything that Buffy in her intact form doesn’t know: It was more a matter of focus. Buffy minus, well, Buffy, was nothing but her awareness of her slayer heritage, her connection to slayers past. She remembered more of the slayer dreams, untangled, in her mind, from Buffy’s mundane dreams. Things that were usually in Buffy’s subconscious had come to the fore in her double’s mind.

Just as illuminating – and disturbing – was her general presence. Minus Buffy’s compassion, her personality, her loyalty to her friends, what was left was almost primal in her single-minded purpose.

Ethan sinks down in the sofa beside Giles and leans against him. Giles shifts to accommodate him, wraps an arm around him. Ethan comments, “You know, it was clever of Buffy to think of it, but I’m surprised you agreed – it rather strikes me as an example of using magic to solve a problem, which someone on this sofa has a history of being averse to.”

“Not solving a problem” Giles points out, “It was just a way of continuing the research.”

Ethan shrugs against him. “Well, I’m not complaining. If it helps get this whole History of the Slayers thing out the way, I’m all for it.”

Caught up as he is in Buffy’s quest, Giles hasn’t really considered what they’ll do when it’s over. Looking at Ethan, he realises suddenly that his partner is most likely expecting them to return home as they’d planned once the interruption of his being a watcher again is over.

But for Giles it is more than an interruption. Being a watcher was always his calling and watching Buffy again – and, to his surprise, watching Faith – has engrossed him past the point of thinking about what he’ll do once the two girls – inevitably – no longer need his help. “Well” he manages, “I think we’ve still got a way to go.”

Ethan glances at him and sighs. “Of course you do.” He shifts, snuggling into Giles’ side. “Has it occurred to you that you’re not going to find answers about this – just more questions?”

“Yes. It has. But we have to try.” Tonight’s events seem to have brought the true scope of their research home to Buffy and Faith as well. Faith, for all she’d seemed nervous about the idea of being split, seemed merely grimly resigned in the presence of Buffy’s slayer half. The non-slayer half of Buffy though – who was very much the Buffy they all knew and loved except for the lack of physical prowess – had seemed unnerved as she watched her slayer half prowl, and only relaxed once they were rejoined. At first, Giles had assumed that was because the pure slayer was rather intimidating. Only when Buffy had stretched her newly strengthened muscles and murmured, “That’s better” had he realised her unease had been down to wanting that prowling warrior within her once again. Because, much as the slayer is a consistent presence throughout history, protecting humanity from all the darkness out there time and time again, she is also Buffy. A part of Buffy. And much as they’d always known that it was a different matter to see it demonstrated, to pick Buffy apart and piece her back together like that. Perhaps Ethan is right. Perhaps magic is best avoided in this situation.

“By the way” murmurs Ethan. “That thing you did, going after Toth? Promise me you won’t do that again.”

“Given that that was the last surviving member of the Tothric Clan, I feel confident making that promise” replies Giles, though he tightens his hold on Ethan before his partner can protest, and adds, “Sorry. I know what you mean. But I can’t promise not to fight demons, Eth. You know that.”

“Could you at least not be quite so reckless, then? You could have been killed.”

“He wasn’t interested in hurting me. He was after Buffy and Faith.”

“He was a demon, Rupert, what did he care?”

“Says the man who has demon customers and drinks in a demon bar.”

“Well I wouldn’t drink at Willy’s if we were back in London, would I?”

“No, you’d drink at a different demon bar” Giles replies. “And when are you going to stop holding that against me?”

For a moment, Ethan looks as though he’s on the verge of saying a lot that Giles doesn’t want to hear, especially not after such a long night, but all he comes out with is, “Just be careful, love.”

Giles kisses him. “I will. I promise.”

Chapter Text

“How is your mother?” Giles asks Buffy as she and Faith arrive in the backroom of the Magic Box for training.

“She seems better” Buffy tells him. “But we’ve got a strict no stress policy going on so we brought Dawn along – she’s hanging with Willow and Ethan.”

“Ah. Well, I’m sure she’ll enjoy that.”

Faith smirks. “And they’ll just have to deal, right?” She shrugs. “Better them than Joyce.”

“Faith” Buffy mutters, her face a warning. For all she rarely has a positive word to say about her younger sister, she is defensive when Faith oversteps the line in that department.

Faith looks unconcerned but says no more, heads over to the weapons stand and selects a few axes.

Giles tells Buffy, “I understand if you’d like to miss training to look after her.”

“Yeah” says Buffy, “The thing about moms is they suck at being looked after. I figure she’ll actually rest more if she doesn’t have us crowding her.”

“I still say we should make this quick” Faith adds, coming over to join them. She is swinging an axe absentmindedly, and Giles takes a quick step back. Faith raises her eyebrows but sets it aside. She tells him, “And by the way, if you’ve got any old stuff you want us to dig up, maybe put it on hold for now.”

“Actually, I’ve put all my investigations into Sunnydale’s hidden artefacts on hold for now; your research into the slayer line takes priority.”

“Yeah” says Faith, glancing at Buffy, “About that. We’re going to need to take turns if Joyce gets worse. Separate training, solo patrols, all that.”

“But only if she gets worse” Buffy hastily adds. “Which she won’t. We’re just hypotheticalising.”

Faith offers her an appeasing nod before returning the axe to its case, but not before Giles has seen the solemn expression that she hides from Buffy.

*****

“Joyce had better be actually ill” mutters Ethan, “or why are we putting up with this?”

“She is” Willow whispers back, leaning across the table so he can hear her without Dawn overhearing. “I mean, she collapsed and everything. It must have been really scary for Dawn.”

A little chastened, Ethan says nothing and returns to keeping an eye on his stock, a necessity when Dawn is here. The child is incorrigibly curious about magic and has a horrible habit of picking things up and moving them around. Inevitably, she heads over to the table and leans over Willow’s shoulder to read the book in her hands. “What’s that?”

Willow glances worriedly at her. “The illustration? Um, that’s…that’s nothing.” She snaps the book shut.

Dawn glares, and folds her arms in a decidedly settling-in-for-an-argument sort of way. “I’m fourteen now, Willow. I’m old enough learn about magic.”

Willow shakes her head. “Not this sort of magic.”

“It’s just history” Dawn reasons, “Buffy said you and Ethan only study history now.”

“Really? She said that?”

“Well not to me” Dawn admits. “But she said it and I can’t help it if I heard.” She reaches for the book. “So what is it?”

Willow places her hand on the book, pinning it to the table. “Sorry Dawn, it’s just not for kids.”

Ethan can’t help but grin as Willow realises her mistake a fraction of a second before Dawn, in that grating warning tone, replies, “I’m not a kid.” Nevertheless, he helps Willow out with, “You’re fourteen, Dawn. Which, last time I checked, makes you legally a child.”

She turns her sulky glare his way. “I bet you did magic when you were fourteen.”

“Well, I…”

“Did you?”

“Well. Not good magic, if that makes you feel any better.”

“You mean, like, black magic?”

“I mean like crap magic. I was too young to control it so it always went wrong. I couldn’t even levitate anything without it crashing back down and breaking.” Admittedly, that had been part of the attraction at the time.

“You should have floated feathers” supplies Dawn. “Like Willow did when she first started.”

“Which was when I was sixteen” Willow points out.

“Exactly” rejoins Ethan. “Dawn, we’ve been through this before: When you turn sixteen, I’ll start teaching you if you’re still interested and I sense any power worth honing.”

“How do you sense it?”

“I just will.” Ethan nods across the table. “So will Willow.”

“Absolutely” says Willow. “And you know, Dawnie, even if you’ve only got a little magic, we can build on it. If you still want to, I mean.”

“Obviously I’ll still want to” replies Dawn, “The sixth Harry Potter book will be out by then.”

“Oh Gods” mutters Ethan.

Dawn turns to him. “Is there at least a spell we can do to see if I have power?”

“Quite possibly” says Ethan, “but with your sister in the next room, I’d rather not incur her wrath by performing it.”

Dawn casts a grumpy look towards the closed backroom door. “She always ruins everything.” She turns away to examine a jar of newt eyes, which at least allows Willow to open the book again.

Chapter Text

“Hello, love” Ethan kisses Rupert when he appears unexpectedly in the Magic Box, carrying, “What’s that?”

Rupert hands him a glowing orb. “That’s what I was hoping you could tell me. Buffy found it in a derelict factory last night and brought it over.”

Ethan turns the sphere over. “Well it’s pretty. We could probably invent a name for it and sell it as a decorative item.”

Rupert takes it back. “Do be serious, dear. Do you know what it is?”

“Not a clue. Was it in a vamp nest?”

“No, apparently a security guard found it on the ground. Buffy had been slaying a vampire beforehand, so I suppose it might have dropped it.” Rupert looks up as Anya comes into view. “Anya, I don’t suppose you have any idea what this is?”

Anya examines the orb. “Should I?”

“Ah” Rupert turns to Ethan. “In that case, I’ll stay here and research it. It could be something significant.”

*****

Whatever the orb is, something significant is apparently going on, if Buffy’s urgency when she enters later, followed by Faith, is anything to go by. By this time, Willow has arrived for her magic lesson and been roped into Rupert and Anya’s impromptu research party instead. Ethan has been left to deal with customers alone, and is seeing the last one out when the slayers enter. Joining them at the table, he lifts the orb – still glowing – and considers it while Buffy speaks. Fortunate that the place is empty since what she is speaking about is some new idea that her mother’s recent illness is supernatural. Not exactly a great advertisement for a magic shop, that. Not to mention, “It’s very rare for magic and sickness to be connected” Ethan tells her. Glancing at Willow, he adds, “Physical sickness, I mean. Other than bloodstone curses and few misadventures here and there, we’re talking two separate realms.”

“But he said they’d come at me through my family” Buffy tells him.

“Who?” asks Rupert.

“Some crazy guy she met at the hospital” Faith replies.

“I met him before that” says Buffy. She gestures to the orb in Ethan’s hands. “He’s the one who found this and he went crazy overnight.”

Ethan throws the orb. It hits Anya who jumps up with a defensive “Hey!”, letting it tumble onto the floor. It rolls to Buffy’s feet and she picks it up. “Guys” she says impatiently, “I had it on me all night and I’m fine.”

“So it’s not that that’s making your mom sick” Willow concludes, “But you think it’s something?”

“Exactly” says Buffy. She sets the orb on the table. “Whatever touched this guy, it made him see through what the rest of us are seeing.”

“A spell, you mean?” asks Ethan.

Willow frowns. “We’re under a spell?”

“We could be” Buffy argues. “Something that’s stopping any of us from noticing whatever’s hurting my mom.”

“She could just be sick” mutters Faith.

Buffy asks, “But what if she’s not?”

Faith straightens up a little. “Then we kill whatever’s doing it, use magic to bring it back and kill it again more slowly. But, B, she could just actually be sick with something with no ass to kick.”

“You don’t want to check?”

Faith turns to Rupert. “Is there a way to check?”

Rupert looks at Ethan. “A spell, perhaps?”

“Oh” says Willow, “What about that spell we used to find Parker when he was a weasel?”

“That could work” agrees Ethan.

“Or” says Anya, “If you want something stronger there’s that spell Cloutier invented.”

“Cloutier?” asks Rupert. “That would be the tirer la couverture, yes? It’s rather advanced.”

“I’ll manage” decides Buffy. “It’s for mom.”

“If you’re sure” Rupert stands up and heads to the bookshelf. “It will take a bit of preparation. You’ll have to go into quite a deep trance.” He glances at Buffy. “For an amateur to attempt it, it’s…”

“I can help her” Faith tells him. “Make sure she doesn’t sleepwalk out the house or anything. She’d have to do it in the house, right?”

“Yes” Rupert retrieves a book and begins to look up the spell. “But as for you helping, I’m afraid the ritual has to be done alone.” “Okay” says Buffy. She turns to Faith. “And one of us should patrol – it might be dark by the time I’m doing it if it takes a while to prepare.”

“You want us to try the other spell in the meantime?” asks Willow.

“Maybe” says Buffy, and Rupert, glancing up, adds, “Yes, that might be an idea. Buffy, assuming the trance works, you’ll be looking for any trace of the magic that’s affecting your mother. It could be, say a pair of hands choking her…”

“Or a mist around her” suggest Anya.

“Yes” Rupert continues. “So if you’re only able to make the trance last a short time, if Willow and Ethan have had look with this other spell…um, what’s it called, Ethan?”

“Quaerentibus lucem” Ethan supplies.

“Snappy” mutters Faith.

“Yes – well, Buffy, that could give you an idea of what to look for if the trance doesn’t work or time is short.”

“Absolutely” Buffy replies, “Whatever helps.”

“Definitely” adds Faith. “Listen, I got to get to work, but if this thing does have an ass? I’m first in line to kick it.”

“Second” corrects Buffy, but she smiles at the other slayer as she leaves, before turning back to Rupert. “Let’s get started. What do we need to do?”

*****

“So…Who’s going to actually eat the pellet?” asks Willow as they approach the Summers’ front door.

Ethan and Buffy pause. Ethan asks, “Um, rock, paper, scissors?”

“Okay” Willow closes her fist and turns to face him. After three beats, Ethan’s scissors cut Willow’s paper. Willow asks, “Okay, but were we playing to eat the pellet or not eat the pellet?”

“Guys” Buffy asks, “Can we just hurry?”

“Sorry Buffy” says Willow.

“Here” Ethan takes the pellet from his pocket. “I don’t mind.”

Willow and Buffy watch as he forces the thing down. It is not more than a moment or two before the world goes grey, illuminated only by Willow’s luminescence. Her power has grown since they last did this. It’s like standing next to a bonfire that gives off, not heat exactly, but the tingling sensation of having just touched scalding water, that second before the pain hits.

“Ready?” asks Buffy, an he turns to find she is as blurred as any other person would be, albeit slightly green.

Beyond her, the Summers’ home is shrouded in green light. Ethan frowns at it, takes a moment to compare it to the neighbouring buildings. Looking closely, he can see the faintest green shimmer on them, too, but it’s nothing like the forest shades lingering on Buffy’s home.

“What is it?” Buffy asks.

“Ethan?” adds Willow, “Is it in there?”

“Yes” Ethan murmurs. He takes a step towards the house, but Buffy overtakes him, hurries to the front door with green still around her head, like glitter in her hair. Ethan draws closer to it, stumbling slightly on the path, which is faded enough to be practically invisible. Willow catches his arm and supports him as he steps closer to Buffy.

Yes, it is the same green light as whatever is making the house look more like a barrow. All around her like a halo. How had he missed this before? Is whatever spell this is so strong that it repels even a subtle reveal?

“Ethan?” Buffy’s voice. “You’re getting a little up close and personal there.”

“Sorry” Ethan draws back.

“What is it?” Buffy asks again.

“I’m not sure. But there’s something there.”

Buffy opens the front door and leads them inside. Here the green is stronger than ever, like they’ve stepped into a jungle. Before now, Ethan had associated this spell with grey, interrupted here and there with bursts of magic. Now, the world is emerald. He doesn’t move because the magic is so overwhelming, he knows he’d crash into something.

Somewhere off to the side, Buffy is talking to Joyce. Ethan peers among the green, but can’t make her out.

“Ethan?” murmurs Willow. She tugs him deeper into the forest and he hears the door shut behind them.

“Take me to Joyce” he whispers.

Willow guides him, haltingly, to what he estimates to be the living room.

“Ethan?” Joyce’s voice drifts up from what could be the sofa. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine” he tells her, finally locating her. “Just waiting for a spell to wear off.”

“A spell? Nothing’s happening, I hope?”

“It’s nothing to worry about” Willow reassures her. “Just a mix up in the shop; it’ll wear off soon.” Her own radiance competes with the green. Ethan suspects the latter would otherwise be beautiful, but the sunlight-sphere that is Willow renders it dank, almost swamp like, in comparison. Ethan thinks of serpents and crocodiles, and other green things he wouldn’t want to come across, as Willow steers him into a chair.

“Well, if you’re sure” Joyce is saying. “Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea?”

“I’ll do that” says Buffy. “You’re resting, remember?” She may or may not get up and leave the room and Joyce and Willow may or may not make polite conversation in her absence or presence: With the spell intensifying, Ethan can’t tell. Whatever magic is infecting the house, it is powerful, and as his own spell reveals more and more of it, everyone other than Willow is blending in with the overwhelming colour of the magic. His own hands, when he looks down, trail tendrils of green light, the same light that snakes its way around his shoulders, around his legs… Ethan runs his hands through his hair, hoping to keep it from claiming his head, even though, of course, it doesn’t work like that. His own red magic isn’t even visible: he is as deep under the spell as anyone or the green light wouldn’t coat him like this. Even Willow, presumably, is under it, though with her power visible, it is hard to tell. Except…

Gods, except that, as Ethan stares, even Willow’s white light starts to take on a greenish tint. When his own revealing spell reaches its peak, he realises, he won’t be able to see anything but green. The world will be a block of it.

“Ethan?” Joyce’s hand is on his. He can tell it’s her hand because it is rougher than Willow’s, the nail that brushes his knuckle slightly longer, varnished. He can’t see her. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

From somewhere to the side of her, Buffy’s voice speaks: “Maybe you need some air.”

Ethan finds himself hoisted upright in that unceremonial way that only slayer-strength can achieve.

“What is it?” Buffy asks, as soon as they are in what Ethan estimates to be the hallway. “Tell me.”

Ethan turns back towards Willow’s magic, still visible through what must be the doorway. It is definitely greenish now, as though her power has been covered in moss. Or started to decay. “Is Joyce in there?”

“Yeah” Buffy keeps her voice low. “She’s on the couch.”

Ethan can’t see the couch. He can’t see Joyce. She is no more or less visible than Buffy or – he notes, looking down – his own body. But there is something… Ethan turns around, looks up. Above him, the green is deeper. Or rather, there are sparkling dots, twinkling like emeralds on green velvet. He takes a step towards one and crashes into the stairs.

“Ethan!” Buffy manages to sound simultaneously annoyed and concerned as she lifts him back to his feet.

“What is that?” Ethan asks, pointing at the gem in what he realises now is the wall.

“That’s just a photo” Buffy tells him. “Ethan, you’re supposed to be focusing on my mom.”

“It’s not your mum.” Ethan reaches for the banister, finds it after a few attempts. Starts to climb.

Upstairs, he can make out a rectangle. Vertical, a little more than man height. A door, then. Apparently open, it lets out a steady stream of sparkling green light that flows like enchanted seawater from some unseen point and on, to the rest of the house, its inhabitants, the wider world. Whatever is in there, it is emitting a magic more ancient than Ethan – or possibly anyone – has ever known. So Ethan is cautious as he steps inside.

Inside, Ethan thinks, must be what the centre of the sun looks like, if the sun was green. Distantly, it occurs to him that he may or may not be blind when this is done, but it honestly doesn’t seem to be his most pressing concern. In front of him is something that is beyond form or age, or any other such human limitations. Even Janus, deep in Ethan’s mind, recoils from its power.

“Ethan?” it asks in Dawn’s voice. “Who said you could come in my room?”

Ethan faints.

*****

“Ethan?” Buffy is shaking him, none too gently. For a moment, Ethan is annoyed, but then he remembers what he was doing before this unscheduled loss of consciousness, and the terror kicks in. His eyes snap open.

Above him peer Joyce, Buffy, Willow…and Dawn. Ethan sits up and scrambles away from her.

Dawn’s features shift into what could only be called worry if it was on a human face. “Are you okay?”

“Yes” Whatever she wants to hear, he decides. Probably best to treat the child the way one would treat an A-bomb if it was prone to teenage mood swings. Or are the teenage mood swings part of some act?

“Has the spell worn off?” Buffy asks.

“Yes. Um.” Ethan glances at Dawn. “I didn’t see anything.”

“Are you sure?” Willow frowns. “Because it seemed like it was working.”

“Working?” asks Joyce, “I thought it was just a mix up?”

“Oh” says Buffy, “Yeah. A mix up.” To Ethan, she tries, “How about you just describe what happened?”

“Do you know why you fainted?” asks Willow.

Joyce asks, “Should I call Rupert?”

“Yes” answers Ethan automatically, because right now he needs Rupert the way Dawn needs – or pretends to need – the teddy that he can now see through the open doorway, on her bed, in her viscously mundane bedroom. But then he remembers that if Rupert comes here, he’ll be in the same building as Dawn. Much as the spell has already got to all of them, Ethan really doesn’t want Rupert closer to…to it, than he already has been. “I mean…Um. Excuse me.” Getting to his feet, he makes his way down the stairs and out the house.

“Whoa!” Buffy catches up with him because of course she does. “Ethan, what is it? What did you see?”

Glancing back at the house (it had been so smothered in green, like a crouching rock covered with seaweed) Ethan checks that Willow, Joyce and, most importantly, Dawn didn’t follow. Finding they are alone, he admits, “Your mother’s fine. Or at least, it’s not magic. Not centred on her, at least.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s Dawn.”

Buffy stares. “It’s after Dawn now too?”

“I” Ethan pauses. How to say this? What is this, even? And how will Buffy take it? “I’m not sure” he admits, “But the magic was centred on her.”

Buffy’s frown deepens. “So it’s infected Dawn too? She’s going to get sick?”

“No, that’s not what it was.”

“Then what is it?”

“She… It’s coming from her.”

Buffy grips his arm. “Dawn’s casting a spell? To hurt our mother?”

“No!” Ethan frees himself from her grasp. “You don’t understand. She’s not casting the spell. She is the spell.”

*****

“I don’t understand” states Buffy sometime later, once she, Ethan, Giles and Faith are gathered in Giles and Ethan’s flat.

“Nor do I” admits Giles. “All this time and no-one realised she was such a powerful witch? Even without training, you’d think it would come out eventually.”

“It’s not like that.” Ethan sits apart from the others, staring down at his hands. Whatever he saw, it scared him. Giles goes over and wraps an arm around him. “Then what is it?”

“It’s not her power” Ethan explains. “She didn’t cast the spell –”

“– she is the spell” cuts in Buffy. “Yeah, you said. And it didn’t make sense then either.” At their blank stares, she reasons, “She’s my sister. She’s not a spell or a witch, or…She’s just Dawn.” Looking at Ethan, she concludes, “Your spell probably just went wrong.”

“Yeah” says Faith. “Or you just didn’t know what the vision or whatever meant. Like Giles said, we’d know if Dawn was some mystic power thing.”

“That isn’t quite what I said” says Giles, though he can see the girl’s point. Dawn has always been a perfectly ordinary child. For all Ethan seems convinced otherwise, something affecting her would seem to make more sense than her affecting everything else. “I need to research this orb” he decides. “If it’s connected to all this, it could give us some clues. Meanwhile, Buffy, you should try the tirer la couverture, see if it gives us a new perspective.”

“What about me?” asks Faith. “And if you say patrol, I’ll kill you.”

“You stay with mom” Buffy replies, before Giles can reprimand the second slayer. “Don’t let her out of your sight. Not until we figure this thing out.”

*****

“Here” Giles hands the book he’s been reading to Ethan, who reads over the indicated passage with a frown. “Ancient primordial evil? Any idea which ancient primordial evil?”

“No idea, but it seems to be nameless. Which never bodes well.”

Ethan shudders. Then, a though apparently occurring, he asks, “Could it be Dawn?”

“She has a name” Giles points out. “And a birth certificate.” Clearly, Ethan saw something overwhelming when he entered the Summers’ home, but Giles isn’t sure they should all blithely assume that Dawn is anything other than human just yet. At the very least, they need more proof than spell-induced green light.

“I suppose so” says Ethan, looking unconvinced. “It wouldn’t be the first time something ancient’s reinvented itself though, would it?”

“You’ve known her since she was ten years old, love.”

“I’m not saying I know what’s going on, Rupert, just that Dawn’s something…” Ethan’s eyes widen. “Could she be something this evil is after?”

Giles considers this with growing concern, then reaches for the phone.

It rings quite a few times before Buffy answers. “What?”

“Buffy” Giles says, “I’m glad I caught you. We’ve found out what this orb is.” He describes the Dagon Sphere as succinctly as he can, before asking, “How did the trance go?”

“Ethan was right” Buffy replies grimly. “There’s nothing on mom. It’s all centred on Dawn.”

“Where is she now?”

“With Faith.” Buffy pauses, before saying, “She kept zoning in and out, Giles. Like she wasn’t really there.”

“An illusion” concludes Giles, frowning. Beside him on the sofa, Ethan looks over.

“Dawn’s an illusion?” Buffy’s voice masks fear with incredulity.

“Well, no” replies Giles, because it is beyond him why anyone would seek to trick the world into thinking a teenage girl who isn’t there is. “But possibly…” He draws a deep breath, realising how much this idea will horrify her “But it could possibly be that something – this ancient evil perhaps – has, um…taken Dawn off somewhere and replaced her with this spell.”

From the clatter on the other end, it seems Buffy almost drops the phone. “What? Giles – what is this thing? Where will it have taken her?”

“I’m not sure, but –”

“How long has it had her?!”

“Buffy, we’ll find her. Ethan is doing a location spell right now.” Giles glances at Ethan, who takes the hint, and stands up, heads over to the bookshelf for a map.

“Tell him to hurry” Buffy replies. “And call Faith the minute you find anything. In the meantime, I’m going to check out this factory. Whoever planted the Dagon Sphere must have answers.”

“Alright. But be careful, won’t you? It could be dangerous.”

“Giles, the only thing in danger is whatever’s taken my sister.” Buffy hangs up. Putting the phone down in his turn, Giles watches Ethan spread the map on the hastily cleared coffee table, along with a few other items. Ethan asks, “Who are we looking for?”

“Dawn” Giles tells him. Ethan looks up sharply, so he adds, “We could be dealing with a doppelgänger.”

Nodding, Ethan focuses on the magic. Giles waits quietly, knowing better than to disturb him. Soon, a little dot – green – appears on the map. “I don’t understand” says Giles, leaning forward to study it, “It says she’s at home.”

“So the Dawn at home is the real one?” Ethan stares at the dot as it fades.

“She’s what the spell recognises as Dawn” Giles tells him. “Whether that’s the real one depends rather on exactly how strong this illusion is.”

“Or if there is a real one” adds Ethan grimly.

Chapter Text

Giles can barely admit it even to himself, but it does cross his mind that if someone were to go upstairs and smother the child – the energy, the key – in her sleep, some great and as yet unspecified danger will never descend. Just as quickly as the thought arrives, it passes. The monks have done their job well: this is an innocent, wherever she has come from.

Though there is a limit to that. If he didn’t believe that even innocence must make way at times for the greater good, he wouldn’t be a watcher.

“…and not Faith either” Buffy is saying. At Giles’ stare, she elaborates, “I told her your theory was right and the real Dawn was a hostage somewhere and it’s all better now except this demon gal wants her back.”

“You don’t think Faith might pick up on Dawn not remembering being captured?”

“I told her the magic wiped Dawn’s memory and I didn’t want her told.” Buffy smiles sadly. “See? I thought of everything.”

“Except the possibility of trusting Faith with the truth, apparently” Giles points out gently.

Buffy looks down at her interlocked hands. “I know. It’s not that I don’t trust her, Giles, it’s just…This is Dawn, you know? It’s a family thing.”

“It will get bigger than that.”

“I know.”

“Would you like me to tell Faith? Or be there when you do?”

Buffy draws back a little. “I don’t know.”

“Buffy, Faith is a slayer too. She has the same duty to –”

“No, she doesn’t. Dawn’s my sister.”

Giles nods, not in agreement (or perhaps partly in agreement because until tonight that seemed so transparently true) but in understanding. “What about Ethan?” he asks. The idea of keeping such a secret from his lover is daunting.

Buffy seems to consider this. “I guess I can’t tell you to lie to him.”

“Aside from anything else, Buffy, it seems a rather complex lie to keep track of. The whole charade could collapse if he and Faith compared notes.”

“Plus he’s never needed a how not to be evil intervention” Buffy replies.

“Faith has proved herself a changed person since her return.”

“I know. But this is different. This is Dawn. And Dawn’s not her sister, and if it comes down to it…I just need time, Giles, okay?”

“Alright.” Giles promises. “But in the meantime, I can tell Ethan?”

“Sure. Just don’t let him tell the others. I need to get my own head around it first.”

Giles leaves the Summers’ house feeling the weight of his responsibilities as never before. And if he feels like that, Lord knows how Buffy feels.

*****

Ethan, who had reassured Giles that he would stay awake until he returned, is sound asleep on the sofa. Reluctantly waking him, Giles puts off the inevitable by making cocoa. Then, sitting down and with Ethan clearly waiting for him to speak, Giles finds himself asking, “That Halloween that they all came to your shop, what was Dawn?”

Ethan frowns. “What on earth makes you ask that?”

“Oh just…a conversation today, made me wonder.”

“She was a superhero. A generic one, cape and mask, not something from a comic book.”

That makes sense, Giles decides. Understandable that Dawn should want to be the hero for a change.

Except that it doesn’t make sense at all because Dawn hadn’t existed then.

Such awesomely powerful magic, to change the way so many countless people perceive reality. Buffy, her parents, her friends, Dawn’s friends and teachers. Someone somewhere must remember recording the birth. A paediatrician must recall treating the child at some point. The man who comes to the school to take the photos for the year books, he must believe he’s met Dawn. Every neighbour on her street must be under the impression they’ve known her for years. This is magic on such a monstrous scale that Giles shudders to think why it should be necessary. What is that thing hidden like a cuckoo in Buffy’s home?

“Rupert?” Ethan cuts through alarm that rises like a mist if Giles concentrates on it. “What’s going on?”

Giles tells him everything. When he’s finished, Ethan’s face has taken on an expression of awe. “The key? Dawn?”

“You know about it?”

Ethan shakes his head. “Only that it’s holy. Its existence is a catalyst for chaos.”

“That would explain the amount Dawn’s broken in your shop over the years.” As he says it, Giles realises Dawn hasn’t even existed for years. Constantly baffling, this whole thing. “Do you know what this key is for, who created it?” he asks Ethan before an unpalatable thought occurs. “It wasn’t Janus, was it?”

“Wouldn’t put it past him.” Ethan shrugs, before catching Giles’ expression and saying, “Oh come on, Rupert – with a million Gods creating a trillion miracles a millennia, how do you expect me to know?” He smiles appeasingly and sips his cocoa. He is, Giles notes, remarkably calm about the whole thing. Giles supposes Ethan has had more experience than any of them, given his line of work, especially back in London, of magic bending the very fabric of reality. Now that they know Dawn herself isn’t dangerous (Do they know that, a part of Giles thinks), Ethan seems almost cheerful. “It’s quite some magic, isn’t it?” he comments. “They changed practically everything.”

Giles glares at him. “I’m not sure that’s the part to focus on.”

“How can we not?” asks Ethan. “It’ll be worse for the children, you know – we’ve had just a fraction of our memories meddled with, but they’re younger. Buffy can’t trust anything she remembers since she’s – what, six – to be unaffected.”

It is true, Giles realises with a fresh wave of, not horror, exactly, because this is Dawn. Perhaps the demise of the monks, much as it leaves them with unanswered questions, at least saves Buffy from having to protect men who used her entire experience of the world as a mere screen to hide their secrets behind. Entirely possible, he realises, that Buffy’s personality was partly shaped by being an only child, that her relationship with her parents was different before to how it is now. She could be an entirely different person, whoever she was before the monks’ spell effectively murdered unremembered. The Buffy they are left with seems not to have fully comprehended the enormity of the monks’ violation and he has no plans to tell her.

Ethan is saying, “What I’d like to know is how did these holy men manage to cook up such a convincing teenage girl? That’s rather worrying in itself when one thinks about it.”

“Rather less worrying than the fact that a ferociously powerful demon is after Dawn” Giles tells him. “We’re going to need to reinforce all the wards.”

“Of course”

“Including the ones at the shop: I’d like for no demons to be able to enter.”

“Oh, come on Rupert! Nothing that intends harm can enter. But I’d quite like for the ones who intend to make purchases to be able to get in.”

“What if this demon woman intends no harm in the shop? What if she just wants a look at Dawn?”

Ethan shrugs. “I could bar Dawn.”

“That’s hardly fair, Ethan.”

“Well, she’s broken enough!” Ethan takes in the look Giles is giving him and relents. “Alright, fine. I’ll punish all my demon customers. But you realise this means I’ll have to go to them more?”

“I hope you won’t.”

“Do you? Because the way I see it, I can’t burn all my bridges. You’ll be needing information on this demon woman sooner or later.”

*****

If only Rupert hadn’t been in the shop, researching this demon woman with Buffy, Faith and Xander when the brutish young man mocked the idea of turning people into frogs, Ethan might have provided a demonstration. As it is, he catches Rupert’s eye at the last moment and takes a reluctant step away, instead asking the youth, “Are you actually intending to buy anything? Because hilarious as I’m sure this for you, we’re a little busy” To Rupert, stepping fractionally closer, he adds, “You realise my demon customers are all polite, yes?”

“But are they all barred yet?” asks Rupert in an undertone.

“As of this morning” Ethan confirms, heavy hearted. He watches the young representative from the human race continue to not take the hint that the scoobies don’t want to talk to him. Only the entrance of Willow and Tara refocuses his attention.

It seems Tara got the brains of the family. Well, and the looks. Ethan would feel a little sorry for her brother receiving such a genetic short straw were it not for the fact that Tara is plainly terrified of him.

Willow and her young friends don’t seem to notice. But Faith does. When old man Maclay enters with some miscellaneous but pretty cousin, Ethan sees the second slayer’s glare intensify. Carefully, he tugs a few extra books from a nearby shelf and sets them on the table next to Faith. They are not relevant to the research but their appearance distracts her a little.

“This is Mr Rayne” Tara tells her father as Ethan turns around. “He runs the shop, and this is Mr Giles, his – err – his friend.”

Ethan flinches. Rupert, with a deliberate deafness born of many a council gathering, smiles politely and greets Mr Maclay.

The greeting is returned, curtly. As Mr Maclay conducts an oddly formal exchange with his daughter, Ethan toys with the idea of stepping over to Rupert and giving him an all-out snog. He only holds back out of some vague fear of somehow inadvertently outing a clearly closeted Tara, not to mention an awareness that Rupert might not co-operate for the same reason.

Expertly brushing aside any conversation about her relatives – one might assume this isn’t her first time deflecting questions – Tara sits down once her family have left to help with the research. Willow, clearly a little hurt, puts a brave face on it, and Buffy and Xander follow her lead. Ethan follows Faith’s lead by asking and saying nothing, and Rupert is his usual, quiet, reassuring self. Tara is restless, and when Ethan goes into the backroom to make them all tea, she follows.

“I’m sorry” she says, hovering out of arm’s reach (how, Ethan wonders, has he never noticed before that she always stands just a little out of arm’s reach?) “About, um, I mean, about calling Mr Giles y-your –”

“Oh don’t worry about that” Ethan replies, turning back to the tea preparation. “We’re all friends here.”

“I-I am worried. Because you’re upset.”

Ethan decides against trying to hide it (never a strength of his) but finally replies, “You know why I’m upset? Because it’s so rare now. It never used to bother me: it just meant we were safe. No-one beats you up for having a friend, do they?”

It is Tara’s turn to flinch. Forcing his tone into something gentler, Ethan asks, “You don’t think they’d take it well?” She actually smiles, like he’s asked whether they’d be happy with her breeding dragons in the living room instead of whether they’d accept her for who she is. “It’s n-not an option” she tells him.

Ethan considers the girl. Perhaps her nerves around the brother and – differently but still there – the father were merely a panic about trying to hide something she then seemed to successfully hide. But what if there’s more to it than that? Not sure that he wants an answer (what would he say? This is really something Rupert would be better at), Ethan asks, “What else don’t they take well?”

Tara looks sharply at him for a moment, before stepping away (two arms’ lengths now, out of lunging range) and says, “Um, actually I, um…I need to g-go. I just remembered I h-have an assignment.” She hurries out the room and, after some garbled explanation to Willow, the shop as well. Ethan sighs and tips one of the mugs of tea down the sink.

*****

“What I don’t get” says Faith, “is how come this chick’s still after Dawn.”

Giles and Buffy look at her uneasily. They are alone now, Willow having taken herself off unhappily quite soon after Tara, and Xander having accompanied her, Giles suspects, to escape the research. This had apparently upset Anya, who elected not to stay after her shift had ended, and Ethan, somewhat pointedly, had left for Willy’s Place to deliver an order to a demon who can no longer pick it up. That leaves only Giles and the slayers to carry out the inevitably fruitless research and hear Faith’s musings. “Faith” Giles begins awkwardly, “This demon woman threatened Dawn directly.”

“Yeah” says Faith, “But why?” Turning to Buffy she adds, “’Cause you said it was a trap to get you over there, so isn’t she really after you? Using Dawn didn’t work, so she’ll probably just leave her alone now.”

“She said she’d get Dawn back” Buffy replies, not meeting the other slayer’s eyes.

“What, that whole revenge threat? Buffy, she’ll probably just come after you; you don’t need to worry about Dawnie. I mean, you kinda do, but not specifically.”

Giles carefully sets aside the book in front of him. “Buffy” he says, hoping that will be hint enough. Buffy looks at him, fear and resignation in her eyes. It is Faith who answers: “What? What’s going on?”

Reluctantly, Buffy turns to her. “Faith, she is very specifically after Dawn. She said so.”

“Yeah, okay. But why? Why Dawn? If her whole plan of kidnapping the kid was to get you to her, she’ll probably just go with whatever plan B works. It might not involve Dawn.” Seeing Buffy’s expression, Faith adds, “Don’t just worry about Dawn, okay? Worry about whoever this bitch is and how come she she’s so strong.”

“Faith” Buffy sighs and selects another book. “Can you just trust me on this?”

“Sure” Faith shrugs. “Just don’t be a big sister when you kind of need to be a slayer is all I’m saying.”

“Right.” Buffy continues to stare at her book, but her eyes aren’t moving.

“Buffy” Giles stands. “A word?”

“What’s going on?” demands Faith, as Buffy rises to follow Giles into the training room at the back.

“Just one moment” Giles tells her.

As soon as they are alone, he says, “We need to tell her, Buffy.”

For a moment, it looks as though Buffy will disagree outright. But then she wilts a little and says, “I’m not sure, Giles.”

“Not sure about what, exactly?” Giles asks. “We agreed to trust Faith when we welcomed her back.”

“With slaying, yeah! But this is a family thing.”

“One that happens to intersect with both your duties as slayers” Giles points out. “Not to mention, you already trust her with Dawn: She lives in your house.”

“But this is different! This could be life or death!”

“Life or death, huh?” A hollow voice sounds from the doorway. Faith adds, “Then maybe you better tell me about it.”

*****

Faith is calm as Buffy, haltingly, unfolds the real story of her encounter at the factory. When the truth is laid out like a glass wall between them, Faith concludes, “So you just decided not to trust me? I can be the muscle but I can’t be told what the hell’s going on?”

“No-one knows except the three of us” Buffy tells her. “Well, and Ethan. I haven’t even told mom and you can’t either.”

“Right” says Faith, drawing back a little, “because she’s got enough going on, and not the others because who cares. But I’m a slayer too – this is my business. When were you planning on telling me? Right before I went up against demon gal? Never?” Faith turns her glare on Giles. “And you – you’re supposed to be my watcher! Where’d you get off not even telling me what we’re up against?”

“Faith, he wanted to tell you” Buffy interjects, “I wouldn’t let him because I needed time to get my head around my sister being –”

“But she’s not your sister” states Faith.

Buffy makes a there-you-go gesture. “See, this is what I was afraid of.”

Faith retorts, “Or maybe it was what you needed to hear!”

“Faith” Giles tries, “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you right away, but now that you know –”

“What? Now I know we can be all paly? Yeah, I don’t think so. You either trust me or you don’t.”

“Faith” says Buffy, “It wasn’t like that. It’s just, this is Dawn. She is my sister, wherever she’s come from and –”

“And she’s also a mean piece of primal energy mojo that some shit-strong demon psycho wants to get hold of, and you’re happy throwing me at that, but actually telling me the truth, that’s going too far, am I right?”

“No” Buffy doesn’t break eye contact. “Definitely not right about that. I just needed time to get my head around the family stuff.”

“And if you needed me to fight demon-lady in the meantime before I even knew what’s what, so be it?”

“No”

“Faith” Giles puts in, “The important thing is you know now.” He risks stepping slightly between the two slayers. “Now we can face this threat together.”

Faith steps back, looking him up and down. “Oh, so now there’s a together.”

Buffy snaps, “If you’re not going to help, there’s no point you knowing!”

“I’d be happier about helping if you’d just told me the truth from the start!”

Giles tries, “This isn’t an ideal situation, Faith – for any of us. But as you’ve said, you are a slayer. Your duty is to –”

“And now you’re going to tell me about my duty! It was your duty to tell me!” Faith snorts out a bitter laugh. “I guess you never really did leave the council, did you?”

“Faith” Buffy steps around Giles, closer to the other slayer. “I’m sorry: I should have told you.”

“Yeah, well, you didn’t.” Faith takes a step back. “I’ll help you stop this demon chick. But don’t expect me to act along with this whole Dawn’s still your sister shit. You can’t cut me out of this ‘family stuff’ and expect me to hop back into it when it suits you.”

“Will you tell her?” Buffy looks aghast, as well she might.

Faith replies, “No, but only because that’ll just add to the mind fuckery.”

“None of this is Dawn’s fault” Giles tells her. “One thing that is clear, is that she’s an innocent.”

Buffy adds, “And it’s our duty to keep her safe.”

“No” says Faith, “It’s our duty to stop demon lady getting hold of the key. Dawn’s just the packaging.”

Buffy flinches. “Faith, don’t.”

“What? She’s not my sister. Hell, she’s not even your sister, but I’m not going to lose sleep over that, am I? I’m just some stranger who lives in your house.” Faith exits, slamming the door behind her with enough force to rattle a few daggers from their hooks.

“Well” says Buffy into the silence. “That could have gone better.”

*****

Ethan finds it easier to interact with Dawn post-revelation about the nature of her existence than he’d envisioned. It stands to reason that an instrument of Chaos would make a likable child, and her ignorance of the matter forces their interactions into a semblance of normality. She badgers him with questions about magic just as she always has (except not really) and eventually follows Buffy’s instruction that she sit down and help with research with an eye roll that is just as typical of her now as it is in all Ethan’s false memories.

Faith is cold towards her, but then, she is cold towards Buffy too. Ethan judges it best to speak to the slayers as little as possible tonight.

Rupert opens the meeting, which is essentially a summary of the nothing they know about the demon woman Buffy encountered, and Ethan tries to school his face into neutral when Rupert describes the key as mystical energy that has been hidden, without mentioning that, by the way, it’s Dawn. In particular, he is careful not to look at Dawn throughout, a task that is made more difficult when she nudges him and slides a scrap of paper with a noughts and crosses grid his way. She has already filled the central square with a little O and he wonders again at the power of the monks’ spell: she is so human, right down to noughts and crosses. He adds his own X to a corner square.

Then, briefly, there is a moment of confusion, and Rupert stops talking. Everyone blinks at each other. Thinking they’ve been caught not giving their full attention, Ethan covers the scrap of paper and smiles appeasingly. But it’s not that. It is, he realises, magic. The taste of magic, recently cast, in the air. Probably some of his stock is reacting to whatever it’s next to, or responding to some alignment in the stars. No harm done, though – Ethan looks around to find everything still in its place and nothing nasty seems to have been summoned. Rupert has found his lost thread and resumed. Dawn places an O next to the X.

Meeting concluded, they resume research. The books stacked on the table have been mined for information and found lacking, so there is much scrapping of chairs and toing and throwing as everyone searches for other volumes that may offer insight. There is some noise outside and Willow goes to answer it, is greeted by nothing. Perhaps they’re all a little paranoid. Willow returns to the bookshelf and continues stacking relevant tomes in Ethan’s waiting arms. She nods to the table, where Faith is uncharacteristically studious, using her book as a shield against conversation with Buffy and ignoring Dawn’s prattle as the latter flits about. “You know if something’s happened between them?”

“No” says Ethan, though he happens to know that the second slayer was initiated into the elite circle of Those In The Know this afternoon, and didn’t accept the dubious honour graciously. “Probably some slayer thing.”

Willow scowls. “Something I’m not a part of then.”

“You wouldn’t want to be.”

“I guess not. I guess I’m just a little off today because of the whole it turns out Tara’s still in the closet with her family thing.”

“She’ll have her reasons, you know.”

“I know. And I’m trying to be supportive but it still kind of sucks that they don’t know about me.”

“Seeing her face when they walked in, I’d say you should be happy they don’t know about you in the same way you’re happy this demon woman doesn’t know about you.”

Willow frowns. “What do you mean?”

And that is the moment the wards are activated by something trying to get inside. Willow and Ethan both feel it; a skin-crawling sensation of a magical barrier resisting a breech. Something screams just the wrong side of the range of human hearing. Across the room, Rupert gasps. Willow yelps, “What the jeepers is that?”

“The wards.” Ethan finds he has dropped all the books. He bends to gather them up, as Buffy and Faith spring into action. Buffy pulls Dawn aside and, after a moment of confusion, has her climb the stairs to the restricted section. Ethan feels obliged to call up, “Dawn, don’t touch anything up there, I mean it!”

Rupert, emerging from the backroom and handing something complicated and pointy to Faith, asks, “How long will the barrier hold?”

“Depends if they have counter spells” Ethan tells him.

“Well, we can counter the counter spells” reasons Willow. She joins Anya behind the till, starts to select items from the shelves while Anya creates a little barricade of protective talismans. Ethan chooses one himself and heads for the ladder with it. Behind him, Xander says, “I don’t see anything.”

“Well it can’t get in” replies Ethan, turning at the base of the ladder. He finds Xander is peering outside, and adds, “Oh. Maybe it was just one of my regulars.”

“A demon” concludes Buffy.

“Well, yes, but hardly a ferocious one if it’s just buggered off.”

Rupert joins Xander at the window, but pulls the boy back as a rather threatening noise permeates the room.

“Do your regulars all growl like that?” asks Xander,

“Well, no” Ethan frowns and climbs the ladder, leaving the others to decide what to do.

Dawn is moving things around up here, which makes whatever is lurking outside the second least dangerous thing in play. Ethan tells her, “Don’t do that. There’s things up here that could melt your hand off.”

Dawn’s hand snaps back from the shelf, closes around the talisman that Ethan places in her hand. “What is it?”

“Something to keep you safe” Ethan pulls a chalk from his pocket. “Unless whatever’s out there is too strong for it or happens to be a gnarl. But really, what are chances?” He kneels and draws a circle around the girl. “I don’t think another barrier will sit well with all the energies up here, but stay inside the circle and you should be alright.” He adds runes to the curving chalk line.

Dawn asks, “It can’t get in anyway, right?”

“Not technically. I’m just covering our bases.” Something old, was all they’d found out. Too old to be subject to a barrier spell? Almost certainly not, not unless this demon woman views the Master as an infant. But knowing their luck, and knowing that the key is unlikely to open the door to the land of kittens, Ethan is taking no chances.

Dawn asks, “Shouldn’t the others get a circle too? Why’s it only big enough for me?”

“Because you’re the only child. Now, just…sit tight, I suppose.” Ethan retreats, as Dawn calls after him, “Don’t you at least want to hide up here?”, a question he can’t answer because the answer is, I’m not hiding with you because it’s probably you they’re after.

Downstairs, the slayers are at the open doorway, weapons raised, apparently trying to locate the source of the growling out in the street. Anya greets Ethan with, “We’ve got invisible demons.”

“Oh, joy.”

“I tried a reveal spell, but it wouldn’t work. Something’s blocking it.”

Rupert adds, “Probably whatever’s made them invisible in the first place.” To the slayers, he asks, “Any idea yet how many there are?”

“More than three” answers Buffy, and Faith says, “I’m getting out there.”

“Faith, wait –” Buffy begins, but Faith is already charging the invisible enemy with an impromptu battle cry. Buffy mutters, “Or not” Turning to Rupert and Ethan, she says, “Guard Dawn” before running after Faith. The growling beyond the wards intensify. Everyone flinches as Buffy and Faith are thrown into the air in quick succession, hit the pavement hard. They right themselves quickly, but there is only so well anyone can do in a fight when their opponent is invisible. Those remaining in the shop eye each other nervously.

“Why just Dawn?” wonders Anya.

“Dawn’s a kid, Ahn” murmurs Xander, but he looks puzzled. Puzzlement is mirrored on Willow’s face as she says, “But we’ve got the wards. Dawn will be fine.”

Ethan sends a knowing glance Rupert’s way but his partner doesn’t return it – because he is halfway to the door and the fighting beyond.

“Rupert, get back here!”

“I have to help them, Ethan” Rupert picks up an enchanted axe from a display case as he passes it. “They’re outnumbered.” He pauses and meets Ethan’s eyes, glances subtly but meaningfully to the ladder up to the restricted section.

Ethan shakes his head. “No. No, you stay here.”

“They need help, Eth” Rupert turns away and steps out the door.

“He’s right” says Xander as Rupert disappears from sight. He heads for the backroom. “I’ll go round the alleyway – element of surprise.”

Anya tries to grab at him. “What do you think they’ll be surprised by? How breakable you are?”

He shrugs her off. “I have to try, Anya.”

Willow nods. “Absolutely. I’ll…oh, the reykhalishu hex!” Grabbing a few items from a shelf, she runs out into the night.

“Great!” Anya exclaims as Xander also disappears. “Now they’re going to die and we’re going to be trapped here unless the wards wear out and if they do, we get to be eaten by invisible demons!”

“They won’t get in, will they?” pipes up Dawn from above.

“Dawn” Ethan calls up, because her voice is far too close, “Stay inside the circle!” He and Anya both flinch as a particularly loud crash sounds outside. Dawn asks, “What’s happening out there?”

“They’re probably all being killed” Anya steps in and out of her own ring of talismans, twists her hands. Dawn shouts down, “Then we have to fight too, right?”

“No” Ethan hurries to the base of the ladder. “Us defenceless types are better off staying put.”

“Half the defenceless types are outside!” whispers Anya. Twirling around, she picks up a vial of powder, and then sets it down again in favour of a heavy statuette. “I need to save Xander – you stay here and guard the kid.”

“I’m not a kid!” Dawn snaps, her face appearing above them. “And I don’t need guarding!”

“Stay inside the circle” Ethan reiterates. “Anya, can’t you –” The shop bell rings as Anya runs out. “Oh wonderful. Dawn, you and I are the only ones in this little circle of idiots with any sensible degree survival instinct.”

“Speak for yourself.” Dawn lands beside him with a thud, skimming down the handrails and skipping the last few steps. Ethan throws up his hands in frustration. “That wasn’t supposed to be an insult! Get back up there!”

“Why? There are wards up.” Dawn holds up the talisman he gave her. “Plus I’ve got this.”

“That will work better inside the circle.”

“I don’t need to be inside the circle.” Dawn nods to the window. “What’s happening out there?”

Stepping closer to the window, Ethan peers through the blinds. Apparently still outnumbered, Rupert and his children are taking a beating. Willow has retreated behind a car and is casting the hex, but it seems to be having little impact except the keep whatever it is from approaching her specifically, if how free whatever-the-demons-are seem to be able to toss Rupert and Xander around is anything to go by. Spike has appeared from somewhere and seems to be holding his own, but he is the only one. Buffy is pinned down by at least one of the unseen adversaries on the other side of the street. Ethan has half a mind to get out there himself, but without time to prepare a stronger defensive spell, what can he do, exactly? Not to mention, he is now the only person making sure no-one inserts Dawn into any sort of lock.

Not that he’d be able to prevent that anyway. “Believe me, we’re better off in here. So let’s –” He turns back to the room. “Oh shit.”

Dawn is gone.

A clatter in the backroom disperses Ethan’s brief confusion. Running at his top speed (which is a not bad getaway sprint) he hurries to catch the child, but all he catches is the slam of the back exit as Dawn runs out the shop, and outside the protection of the wards. “Buggeration, child!” Ethan dithers for a moment, before reaching for something that fills the niche between dagger and sword from the weapons cabinet, and running after her.

Outside, the alleyway is empty, Dawn having apparently already raced round the side of the building. Ethan follows, not sure if he’s more afraid of the invisible demons, or of how angry the slayers will be to see Dawn outside. Then, as he reaches Main Street, something formless lifts him off his feet and throws him back through the Magic Box window, and he decides, no, he is definitely more afraid of the invisible demons.

“Fuck” Ethan staggers to his feet, brushes broken glass off his torso, and promptly slips off the window display and onto the floor. Getting to his feet, he calls, “Dawn?” The fight is still going strong and he can’t even see the child amid the struggling scoobies. Not that he’ll admit it later, but Ethan tries briefly to climb back through the broken window before he remembers, oh wait the door. Doubling back and pulling it open, he ducks as Faith flies past, flung by one of the aggressive patches of air that are thrashing everybody.

“Ethan?” She gets to her feet quicker than he did. “What the hell are you doing out here? Where’s – Dawn!” Pushing Ethan aside, Faith leaps back into the half-visible fray and pulls something unseen off the child. Apparently there was more than one of them, because Dawn is then pushed over, screaming, as Faith fights the other whatever-they-are. Ethan raises his weapon and hurries over just as Dawn brandishes the talisman where she must estimate the demon’s face to be. It works: Ethan can tell the demon recoils, because it steps backwards and into him. He feels it turn a second before it yanks the blade from his hand and pushes him over, holding it to his neck and pressing down. Ethan pushes back, trying, as soon as his windpipe is clear enough, to form the words of a defensive spell. It is a last resort one, next to useless, and it keeps getting mixed up with another, equally impractical hex in his panic.

“Ethan!” Dawn is suddenly above him and Ethan realises that she has her arms around the invisible demon’s neck, trying to pull it off him. “Dawn!” he manages. “Get back in –” Dawn screams again as the demon throws her off, knocks her to the floor. It must turn its attention to her, because Ethan is suddenly no longer held at blade point. Where the blade goes is less promising: it floats in mid-air a few feet away, above Dawn, and rising…

“Dawn!” Faith leaps in from the side, sending the blade – and, presumably, the demon – toppling. Grabbing the weapon, she hacks at the invisible mass beneath her. Ethan flinches as something wet hits his face. Then he crawls around the mass of slayer and yowling space to reach Dawn. “Are you alright?”

“Ethan, I – yes.” Dawn’s voice wobbles and her eyes are wide, glazed in the shock of what must be her first fight, even without her memories being fake.

“Good” says Ethan, “Let’s get – oh!” In that moment, the demon beneath Faith becomes visible. This is a technically welcome development, but also puzzling and disturbing. At the sight of the newly-visible demon blood hitting them from Faith’s efforts, Dawn begins to cry. Ethan pats her ineffectually, and looks around to check no more are coming but, now that they can be seen, the remaining attackers are quickly succumbing to Buffy and Spike. Rupert – thank the Gods – is on his feet, and Willow, Xander and Anya don’t look too worse for wear.

Tara has joined them. And her family. Her brother and cousin cower in a car that apparently hit a demon as it pulled up, and her father is frozen halfway out the door and staring about. Tara stands in the middle of the fray, having apparently cast a spell. Or, Ethan realises, lifted one. She is crying too.

Faith seems to see none of this. Finally inflicting the mercy of death on the demon beneath her, she turns to Dawn and engulfs her in her arms, pulls her close. “It’s okay, Dawnie.” Pulling the child closer, she rocks her. “You’re safe now, it’s okay.”

*****

One family breakdown and a lot of sweeping up of glass later, and they are all in the Bronze. Dawn, having turned down Ethan’s offer of illicit alcohol, is chatting on the other side of the room with her sister and pseudo-sister, though really, Ethan reflects, Buffy and Faith are both pseudo-sisters to the child, aren’t they?

Or perhaps both sisters. He decides it doesn’t matter much and turns to an approaching Tara with a smile. And a cherry martini, which he hands to her. “Happy Birthday.”

She accepts it with her own sweet lopsided smile. “Thank you. And th-thank you for the present. I’ve been meaning to find a protective amulet.” Her hand ghosts over her new and powerful necklace, adorned with a token of Hephaestus.

“Just remember, it’s only good against metal” Ethan warns her. “If something comes at you with only its teeth, run away.”

“Planning to anyway.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get anything more general, but a lot of demons do use weapons. Or use your own against you, apparently.”

“I-I’m sorry about the spell. I had no idea it would –”

“I know. And no harm done.” Except to his shop window, that is, but the witch clearly feels guilty enough already, so Ethan doesn’t mention it. Instead he changes the subject with, “I noticed the levitating earlier, by the way. I take it all your guests are in the know about magic?”

“Um. To, um, to one degree or another.” Tara nods. “I, I know we should have been more careful but –”

“Oh, screw careful. The more who know about magic the merrier as far as I’m concerned. And” Ethan takes a sip of his own drink, “that’s only partly because it increases my customer base.”

Tara giggles. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s had more than a few cherry martinis himself, but Ethan decides to say, “Incidentally, congratulations on losing the clan.” Seeing her expression sober he adds, “Sorry. I know that’s not a happy topic, but, really, cutting your ties with them will be the best thing you ever did. Well short of meeting your match that is.” He nods to Willow who is across the room talking to Rupert. Tara follows his gaze. Hesitantly, she asks, “Did, um, did you and your family…”

“Part ways? Yes.” As Tara is watching him, asking without actually speaking, Ethan explains, “They didn’t approve of magic. Or of young man they came home to find me in bed with one day. They were tediously conventional people.”

“Do you ever miss them?”

Ethan choses an easy lie. “Never once.” Slipping into the truth, he adds, “Especially not after a met Rupert: now he’s my family.”

Tara sends a smile across the room to Willow. “I get that.”

Chapter Text

After Buffy leaves, Giles gathers up the Watcher diaries and puts them neatly away. Studying them, he’d always found the final few pages before the last entry, no matter how mundane, terribly poignant. Sometimes the final battle was impressive and dreaded, preceded by weeks of waiting, and training and knowing. In other cases, it really was very ordinary: scuffles with lesser demons, a vampire here and there, potential threats that turned out not to amount to much. And then the last battle, the brief, insufficient praise, and the watcher would have then have begun training his next charge, taken up a quiet post in the Council or retired. Or died with the slayer, of course. (Perhaps that was easier). In that case it would be left to others to make a final, formal note at the back of the diary before it was added to the Council’s library.

His own final entry, had Buffy’s near-miss gone worse, would have fallen somewhere between the epic and cruelly typical, the ominous arrival of the Key recorded amidst more routine reports of vampire dustings. Had Faith not been there to intervene, Giles might have concluded his own journal with a report of a mere vampire, an ordinary patrol, finally getting the better of the relatively long-lived Buffy Summers. It would have been rather less dramatic than the fate of twenty-one year old Neske van der Heide, whose prophesised death, willingly embraced, had been the catalyst for magic that had felled an army from a demon dimension, yet rather less pitiable than the quick and predictable death of Ceridwen Moss, who, at eleven, holds the dubious double title of youngest called and shortest lived slayer in recorded history. Like theirs, Buffy’s end would have been passed down for future watchers and slayers to read and – if they were anything like Buffy – lament the brevity of. And it would have destroyed him to write it.

*****

“I lost my job” announces Faith, when she turns up in the cemetery that night.

Giles looks at her sharply. “Why was that?”

“CCTV caught me fighting those Lei-Ach demons out the front. “Of course the boss figured they were just guys in really weird outfits but still, now I’m one job down.”

“I’m sorry, Faith.” Giles truly is; Like Buffy, Faith benefits from having ties to the world, and with Dawn, and, by extension the Summers household, becoming entwined with her duties as a slayer, the Espresso Pump had been Faith’s final piece of ordinary to have just for her own. “Perhaps if I, um, had a word?”

“Maybe” Faith considers the idea. “Don’t think it will work though. They love your singing and all so maybe if I’d called you instead of swearing a bunch and punching the coffee machine…”

“Ah. Perhaps not then.”

Faith shrugs. “Anyway, with everything going on with Joyce and Dawn, it might be an idea for one of us to not be out in the daytime, and Buffy’s got her college stuff. And I’m not sure all that’s for me anyway.”

“What, employment?”

“Exactly” Faith leads the way through the newer graves towards the crypts, coming to a stop near a particularly vine-clad monument and looking around. “He ran off this way. I should have just dusted him.”

“You were a little busy saving Buffy’s life, I gather.”

“I should have found a way to do both.”

“Buffy’s still alive, so I say you did the right thing.” Giles looks around. “The question now is where did he go?”

Faith takes off again, stopping and starting, searching. “Could be any of these.”

“Why don’t we stop and listen for a moment? See if your slayer senses pick anything up.”

“Sure” Faith stands quietly for a moment. Then she asks, “You think Spike will even tell her the truth?”

“I think he might provide some useful insight” Giles replies, “Of course, that’s not quite the same thing. History is written by the victor, and all that.” “Who’s Victor? Hey, listen.” Faith gestures to a crypt to their right. Stepping closer, Giles is just about able to pick out a few jubilant voices starting to sound within.

Faith twists her features in disgust. “They’re fucking celebrating it.”

“Yes” Giles sounds calm, he notices, but anger is waking up like a sleeping beast within him. Had Buffy really died, these vampires really would have considered that a victory, a happy occurrence. Well, of course they would. He knows that. But it is one thing to know it, and another to hear the laughter.

Faith steps past him, leading the way. “Let’s get this done so I can get back to Dawn duty.”

Pulling his own stake from his pocket, Giles follows.

*****

It is over quickly. The vampire who Giles estimates to be the one to injure Buffy is the first to succumb to Faith’s stake and the others follow without any notable fight because, at the sight of them, Faith transmutes into something openly deadly. Officially only there to advise Faith on technique, Giles had hoped to get his personal revenge for Buffy’s injury on one or two but everything in Faith’s radius becomes so much settling dust before he can act on the impulse.

Once it’s over, all Giles can manage is, “Very good. You did let a few get behind you, but…”

“But it didn’t do them much good.”

“Well, I suppose not.”

“Slayer senses, Giles. They might as well have been playing the drums behind me with how loud they were coming.”

“Still, slayer senses don’t give you eyes on the back of your head. Best not to let them take that advantage.”

“Not really an advance with how fast I can spin round on them.”

“Still.”

“Alright, alright.” Faith heads for the door. “Can we make it a short patrol? I don’t want to leave Joyce and Dawn on their own.”

“If you think that’s best.” Giles will, he decides, see to the cemeteries they miss himself.

“Yeah, I think that’s best” Faith replies. Pausing to glance at him, she adds. “I don’t just mean for Dawn. Joyce is really sick, Giles.”

“I know. But you need to remember that the doctors are looking into it and –”

“And at least it’s not Kakistos” Faith concludes. “That was slower. I mean, it didn’t take as long, but it was slower, you know?”

“Faith” Giles stops walking, forcing her to turn and face him. “There’s no reason to think Joyce will be killed by this or anything else any time soon. And she isn’t…” About to say that Joyce isn’t Faith’s watcher, he trails off: it would sound petulant and besides, Joyce has become a guardian of sorts to the girl. “She’s strong” he amends. “Determined.”

Faith takes off again, picking her way through the gravestones. “See, I don’t get that, all that they’re strong crap. You can be all ready for a fight and if it’s a bad enough illness, it doesn’t give a fuck. It’s not all positive thoughts and everything’s fine, that’s just a con people use on themselves.”

“Well as I understand it, there’s research that…” Giles trails off, uncertain suddenly. Rallies with, “It doesn’t hurt to try it.”

“Yes it does” says Faith darkly. “With my mom…” She stops talking, eyes widening as though she had just sworn colourfully and was the sort to be embarrassed by her language. Giles reminds her, “Joyce may turn out to be just a little under the weather. Or ill with something easy to treat.”

“Yeah. That’s right. Hey, maybe we could split patrol? That way all the vamps get dusted, I get home quick and I get to kill something in a meaner way than you like watching.”

*****

Returning home after a bracing patrol, Giles is greeted by Ethan, who glances up from his book with a casual, “Still alive then?” and a relieved expression that doesn’t match his tone.

Giles shrugs his coat off. “Just about.” He hangs it up. “I don’t suppose Buffy’s called?”

“Why would she?”

“Well” Giles sits down, shifting Ethan’s feet to make room for himself. “I wondered if she’d call if Spike had anything insightful to offer.” He runs a tired hand across tired eyes until Ethan, leaning over, stills the motion. “She’s alright, Rupert.”

“She’s hardly alright – she’s been stabbed in the torso.”

“But she’s alive.” Ethan frowns thoughtfully before adding, “She’s hellmouth alright.”

“Thank you, dear, that’s most comforting.”

“Well, you’re the one who insisted we live here.” Seeing Giles’ expression, Ethan adds “Slayers heal fast, you know that. She’ll be doing flying kicks and decapitating demons again before you know it.”

“I hope so.” It is an odd hope to have, Giles notes, but this is their lives. He puts on a smile for Ethan and takes his hand. “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Faith is business-like and mostly silent throughout training and Giles doesn’t pry. The poor girl is, he realises, in the grip of a double loss: She is as scared for Joyce as Buffy and Dawn, but with this discovery of serious illness comes a tightening of familial bonds that somewhat squeeze out a young woman who sees Joyce as something of a mother figure but who is, in practise, arguably more of a lodger. The dummy takes something of a beating.

“I take it you’ll be going back to the hospital?” Giles risks asking as they exit the training room.

“Later” Faith replies. “Thought I’d do a sweep of a few vamp nests first, give them a daylight wake-up call.”

“Do be careful. If you’re worried, it could distract you or –”

“– Or make me good and ready for a fight with something that hits back” Faith retorts. “And that can’t run away because of the all the fun sunlight.”

“I suppose so” Giles concedes. “But nevertheless, take care, won’t you? And give my love to Buffy and Dawn when you do reach the hospital.”

Faith offers a curt nod in response and marches out with a purposefulness that would make Giles feel a little sorry for the vampires if he ever allowed his thoughts to stray in that direction. With the brilliant daylight outside, they will be like so many trapped insects.  

Willow is here for her history lesson, but it has apparently turned into a research party with Anya into the still-unidentified demon woman who bested Buffy and seeks the Key. Ethan stands at the counter looking thoughtfully at the sunlight streaming through the window. When Giles joins him, he comments, “It’s a little jarring, isn’t it? Having such nice weather when something awful’s going on. At least back home we’d get rain.”

“It may turn out to be treatable” Giles reminds him.

“What’s the opposite of pathetic fallacy? Heroic fallacy? Pathetic truth?”

“You make tea and we can apply ourselves to the research” Giles replies firmly. “Do something useful to distract ourselves.” How useful it will be, given the very little they have to go on, is dubious. But Giles is more interested in the distraction part of the equation right now.

*****

How Rupert, or any of the others, think they can identify this demon woman with no more to go on than that she looks like an attractive young human is beyond Ethan, but over the course of the day, they are joined by the full set of scoobies, sans Buffy and Faith. Tara turns up around lunchtime with snacks and, after reading for half and hour or so, her own grim theory that perhaps this demon is older than any word written. “Well so are dinosaurs” Ethan points out. “But people write about them all the time.”

“Not always accurately” reasons Tara. “There’s prob-probably a lot we don’t know about them.”

“The fact that many of them were actually pure demons for one” points out Rupert.

“And whole species we haven’t heard of” adds Tara. “Maybe no-one’s heard of this demon lady to write about her.”

“Giles” says Willow, “The Dagon Sphere: You said that was created to repel…”

“…that which cannot be named” finishes Rupert.

“Older than language” Ethan concludes grimly. He considers the phrasing to distract himself from horror. “That which cannot be named? You’re saying we’re fighting fucking Voldemort?”

Willow looks briefly sympathetic. “Dawn made you read them too?”

“Wait” puts in Xander. “Does this mean we don’t have to read anymore?” He flips his book closed triumphantly.

“It means we’re up against something fairly terrible” says Ethan. But then again, he realises, what less than terrible would consider itself entitled to the Key? Ordinary demons wouldn’t dare.

“If Tara’s right” Rupert is saying, “We’re blind…”

Ethan turns around at a tap on his shoulder. He finds a striking customer waiting to be served. “Oh, hello.”

She gives a quick, fake smile. “I want these.”

Not for the first time, Ethan finds himself a little thrown by the directness of a certain class of American. Matching the lack of basic pleases and thank yous, he gestures to the counter, and steps behind the till. The woman says no more as he tallies up her purchases. Apparently she isn’t aware that the Sobekian transmogrification spells are lost to the annals of time, which is a little surprising given that she has the self-possession of a young sorceress who actually has more than a little magic at her disposal and who is used to success more generally. Probably her looks are responsible for the latter. With full lips, curled hair and sculpturally curved figure, she looks not unlike a Sindy doll, if one were brought to life and dipped in a vat of conventional sex appeal.

As she saunters off, Ethan rejoins the others in time to listen to them realise just how doomed they might be and how this demon could be just about anywhere.

*****

“You sold someone a Khul’s amulet and a Sobekian bloodstone!” accuses Anya some hours later.

“Well yes” Ethan glances guiltily at Rupert, who has come over to the till along with the other scoobies at Anya’s growing litany of exclamations.

Anya asks, “Are you stupid in some way?”

“Stupid to make some money selling something that’s been completely harmless for thousands of years?” retorts Ethan. “Unless the customer happens to be more ancient than the…” Brain racing towards an unwelcome conclusion, he trails off quickly.

“Ethan” says Rupert slowly, “Tell me this customer wasn’t a young woman.”

“Well” manages Ethan, “Yes. But. Well, it can’t have been her! No demon can get in here since I strengthened the wards!” Nevertheless, he feels a twisting revulsion at the memory of his half-hearted attraction to the woman, the way he’d feel if he saw a handsome face in the paper, only to read that it belonged to someone wanted for homicide.

“If she’s really as old as we think” Willow is saying, “Maybe she’s older than the wards recognise?”

“Nothing’s older than those wards” Ethan tells her. Thinking of Willow’s casual throwing over of the ancient cloaking spell, he adds, “Only you could do it”

“Then maybe she’s not a demon” Tara concludes. “What if she’s a witch?”

“One so powerful she’s found a way to live past five thousand or so” says Xander.

Rupert shakes his head. “Far longer than that, if she’s older than language.” He turns to Ethan. “Perhaps given that we knew that we’re up against a powerful enemy, you might have restrained yourself from selling the more powerful items?”

“There’s nothing powerful about a Khul’s amulet or a Sobekian bloodstone!” argues Ethan. “Not unless…”

“Unless you sell it to a really old demon” finishes Xander. Ethan glares at him. “Not a demon” he reiterates. “A demon couldn’t get through the wards. And we don’t even know that it was her.” Seeing the doubt on their faces, he adds, “And if it was, what was I supposed to do, say no? She thrashed Buffy, what do you think my chances would be?”

“That’s true” Rupert concedes. “But I think we can assume this was our, um, unidentified foe. The question now is, what is she planning?”

*****

What she is planning results in rather a mess at the Magic Box before the close of the day. Thankfully, no-one is hurt and Buffy and Faith stop the transmogrified snake from reaching the now-identified Glory. Identified, that is, in that they know her name. Who she is or why she wants the Key remain a mystery.

After dropping Buffy and Dawn – Buffy with bleeding knuckles, Dawn tearful but smiling – back at home, Giles returns to the shop. Faith insisted on walking home via a few unlucky vampires and – Giles suspects – a not very discerning bar. Given everything, he doesn’t begrudge her that.

Entering the shop, Giles finds Ethan, broom in hand, cleaning up the mess left by the serpent. “Are you alright?” he asks.

Ethan glances up. “Yes. I sent the others home. Though I suspect they’ll find their way to Buffy’s before long.”

“I imagine so” Giles finds a dustpan and brush on the counter and picks it up, sets about helping. “Unfortunate that the wards don’t work on magically-altered animals.”

“Or ageless witches. If that is what she is.”

“Glory. Apparently that’s what her minion called her.”

“She has minions? Oh, goodo.”

“Does ‘Glory’ ring a bell?”

“No” Ethan shakes his head. “I’ll ask next time I’m in Willy’s or the bite house.”

“Just so long as you’re careful.”

“You know me.”

“I mean it, Ethan. If she’s powerful enough to hurt Buffy…”

“…I’ll be sure to get nowhere near her, you know that.”

“You were just the other side of the counter from her earlier” Giles points out.

“And if I’d known who she was?” says Ethan, “I’d have still served her. I’m not picking a fight with that.”

Giles is a little reassured, though he doesn’t say so. What he does say is, “Just be aware of the loyalty demons might have to her, given her age.”

Ethan shakes his head again. “If she were a demon, then yes. But if she’s a human – or close enough – with that much power? They’ll probably resent her for it.”

“I can’t imagine she could actually be human” Giles argues. “She didn’t fight Buffy with magic, and how else could a human threaten a slayer?”

“Maybe by doing a strengthening spell before Buffy arrived?” Ethan guesses.

“You’re certain no demon can get through the wards? Not even a very old one?”

“Rupert, there’s no way any demon would get through these wards – these are Janus’ strongest barriers. Whatever she is, she’s not a demon, I’ll tell you that for free.” Ethan sets the broom aside. “How is Buffy?”

“Don’t worry about her – it didn’t hurt her. And it didn’t get a chance to tell Glory about the Key.”

“That’s not what I mean” says Ethan. “I mean, now she’s cleaned up my mess and there’s only Joyce to worry about.”

Which is worse, Giles knows. It’s a problem that cannot be punched. “She’ll be alright. We’re all here for her, and she’s stronger than she realises. In more ways than one.” Still, he feels a fresh flood of worry wash over him thinking about what could be ahead of his slayer.

Chapter Text

“Joyce?” Ethan approaches the bed.

She turns and smiles up at him, looking tired. “Oh – hello, Ethan. Where’re Buffy and Dawn?”

“Rupert’s taking them to dinner. But they’re only over the road if you want me to go and fetch them?”

“Goodness, no.” She sits up, with some apparent effort. “I’m glad they’re getting something decent to eat.” She frowns, then asks, “What about Faith?”

Ethan gestures to the door. “Finished patrolling about half an hour ago, now chatting up some hapless but handsome doctor.” The same hapless but handsome doctor that had caught his eye during his brief stay in fact. Thinking of that reminds Ethan, “I got you those, by the way.”

Joyce looks where he’s pointing to examine the collection of talismans. “Oh. Thank you. They’re, um…”

“A few protective charms in case…” It occurs to Ethan that knowing what might visit won’t help her rest. “Just good luck charms really.”

“Thanks, I’ll need it.”

“No you won’t” Ethan puts on a smile. “With the doctor as confident as he seems, who needs luck?”

She smiles herself, pasting it over her worry. “How’s the gallery doing?”

“It’s fine. I sold that rather garish abstract thing.”

“You did? I’ve had some trouble shifting that.”

“Magic may or may not have been involved.”

She laughs. “And is Karen taking over tomorrow? Because I don’t want you to neglect your own store.”

“Don’t worry about that. Anya’s enjoying running the place herself. Rather too much in fact.”

Joyce’s smile is genuine now, but she flinches. “Sorry. Listen, do you mind sending Faith in? I’m thinking sleep’s not a bad plan but I’d like to talk to her first.”

Ethan stands. “Of course. ’Night, Joyce.”

“Goodnight, Ethan. Give my love to Rupert, won’t you? Tell him thank you for looking after my girls.”

“It’s what he does.” Ethan quietly shuts the door.

*****

“Glory?” Marvin takes a deep swig from of his beer an hour or so later at Willy’s Place. “What do you want to know about her for?”

“Professional curiosity” Ethan replies. “She got some of my stock to work in a way it shouldn’t have been able to without the caster knowing rather a lot that’s been lost to mankind for the last thousand years or so.”

“Well that checks out” Marvin confirms. “She’s scary-powerful.”

“What is she?” Ethan moves to pour his own beer into a glass, then thinks better of it and drinks from the bottle. “What species?”

“Fuck if I know. Something strong is all.”

“You’ve seen her in action then?”

“No and I don’t want to. I’m staying out the way.”

“She can’t be all that bad” counters Ethan, testing.

“She is and then some. Even most of the ones who usually get hyped to serve whoever’s new and strong, they’re keeping their distance. ’Specially after what happened to the Lei Ach.”

“I wondered about them. Thought they didn’t bother with politics so long as there’s bone marrow to leech?”

“Yeah, me too, but Glory must have said something to persuade them. Or not left them with much choice.”

So, Ethan mused, they were up against something powerful enough that the usual nasties didn’t want to get involved, but persuasive enough that demons who usually didn’t interact with outsiders anyway are recruited to whatever her cause is. “Is she even a demon?” he wonders, trying to sound like the idea is just now occurring to him. “She waltzes into my shop for supplies, how can we be sure she’s not a witch?”

Marvin pulls a face. “A witch couldn’t get everyone scared of her like this. But I though demons couldn’t get into your shop now?”

“Well, so did I.”

“What’s that about anyway? Fucking specist.”

“Sorry, but almost being drained makes one cautious.”

“You know we’re not all like that. Being attack’s no excuse to get prejudiced, you know.”

“I know, I’m just…” He could, Ethan realises, lift the wards now they know that Glory can breeze in whenever she wants anyway. “Look, I’m pretty close to readjusting the wards anyway.”

“Good. ’Bout fucking time.”

“But before I do” Ethan adds, “I’m going to need to find out more about Glory. Find a way of keeping her out while letting you in.”

“I doubt you’ll keep her out” says Marvin. “But I’m all in favour being allowed back in soon.” He takes another swig of his drink.

“If someone were to ask around for me it would help” points out Ethan.

“About Glory?” Marvin looks apprehensive.

“Just subtly” Ethan reassures him. “Anything you happen to pick up. It’d help me adjust the ward.”

“I guess I’ll do it then.”

“Would you? Thanks.”

“Anytime” Marvin shrugs. “But once you know, I say sort your wards and stay away from Glory. You don’t want to go messing with someone like that.”

“Believe me” says Ethan, “I won’t –” He pauses as someone screams on the street outside. “What was that?”

Marvin stands as the noise increases, setting his drink aside. Ethan – and a collection of horned and scaly regulars – follow him out in time to see the sky light up with an impact that shakes the distant woods and the ground beneath their feet. 

*****

“So we’re saying Glory decided to summon this queller demon to get rid of all the mad people” muses Ethan after some discussion in the university library about whether or not this is a two slayer level of emergency, “But why would she? What does someone as powerful as that care if there are more or less unstable people around?”

The group consider this. “Random cruelty?” Xander guess after a while.

Willow shakes her head. “Someone like her always has a plan. Hey, what if one of these people saw something Glory didn’t want them to see?”

“Maybe even went crazy because of it” adds Anya.

“Whatever the case” says Rupert, standing. “We’d better get over to the hospital.”

“Yeah” Faith rises too. “Stop anyone from being quelled first, whys later.” She freezes suddenly. “Hey, what about Joyce?” At Rupert’s frown, she adds, “The tumour’s got her doing a pretty good crazy person impression.”

Willow stands too. “I’ll call Buffy. What’s the hospital’s number?”

“No” Faith backs away from the table. “She’s home. Hey, look, you guys get to the hospital, I’ll take Joyce watch.” She leaves before anyone can reply.

*****

The demon beats them to the hospital and Ethan finds himself, some time later, in a mental ward, surrounded by corpses and thanking multiple gods that Joyce was allowed home overnight.

All the poor sods here were suffocated by something unspeakable, their bodies left without visible injuries, just horror-struck expressions. Lingering after the hospital security have left and before the police move in, Ethan notices with a shudder that all the victims were restrained. All sick with the same thing, perhaps? But what? There are usually more humane ways now, surely, to keep someone in bed than there were the last time the queller visited. Or perhaps, Ethan tells himself, that’s just what he wants to think.

And why are there so many of them?

Putting it from his mind, Ethan hurries to rejoin the others in the hospital’s anonymous network of corridors.

*****

The palm sized, double-faced carving that Ethan hands Joyce before she says goodbye to her daughters and is wheeled away to the OR isn’t part of a protection spell. It won’t ward away queller demons or anything else Glory can summon, or anything that lurks here anyway. It really is just for luck. For all he pretends otherwise, Ethan thinks Joyce might just need it.

Chapter Text

“So while I’ve been camping out at the hospital, you guys have been finding out…pretty much nothing?” concludes Buffy. She, Faith and Giles are at Giles and Ethan’s flat having a combined toast to Joyce’s newly restored health/recap of what has been uncovered about Glory. The two occasions aren’t natural cohabiters and Buffy seems grimly resigned as she looks from the limited selection of books that contain any information whatsoever about the Dagon Sphere to Faith and Giles seated on the sofa.

“Pretty much” confirms Faith. “But, hey, we know her name now.”

“Because we both heard the scabby guy call her that” says Buffy. “That doesn’t even count.”

Faith indicates Giles. “And Giles got a good look at her when he watched Ethan sell her stuff.”

“Still doesn’t count” says Buffy.

“And I’m not sure I’d call it a good look” admits Giles. He’d been a little too busy summing up why Glory is dangerous to notice his partner serving her at the till.

“Okay” says Faith, “then we found out pretty much nothing.”

“At this point” Giles tells them, “we’ve exhausted the books here and at the Magic Box.” Carefully meeting Buffy’s eyes, he says, “I think it’s time we contact the Council.”

Buffy’s expression tightens but it is Faith who answers: “No. No way. They’ll cart Dawnie away and work all that sick mojo on her.”

“I wasn’t planning on telling them about Dawn” Giles reassures her. To Buffy, he adds, “They have a vast library. If anyone has anything on record about who or what Glory is, it will be them. We can’t defeat her until we know more about her.”

“So we’ll find out about her some other way” argues Faith. “Look, Buffy’s out of the Council and unless you count them being all Keep an eye on her for us when I rocked up here, so am I. Ran away and everything. I’m not about to go crawling back just because the latest big bad seems bigger and badder than we’re used to.”

“I am” says Buffy.

“Exactly” says Faith. “Wait, what?”

“I am.” Buffy looks Faith in the eye. “It’s Dawn at stake. Not much I wouldn’t team up with if that’s who it took to save her.” To Giles, she adds, “But you won’t tell them about her, will you? Promise me.”

“I won’t” Giles offers one of what he suspects will be many reassurances. “I’ll be sure to keep them focused on Glory.”

“They’ll definitely have something useful on her?”

“I can’t guarantee it. But they have kept detailed records of most of mankind’s adversaries. If anyone encountered Glory in times past, they’ll probably know about it.”

Faith asks, “Couldn’t you just get them to send more books without saying what it’s for?”

“With over twelve million books at their disposal?” Giles replies, “The chances of them sending the right ones with no information would be small even if they did just blithely hand them over. Which they won’t: I’ll have to go there.”

For just a moment, Faith looks panicked. “You’re leaving?”

“Just for a week at most. And that’s even if they agree to see me.”

“They’ve got to, right?” asks Buffy. “I mean, they made you Faith’s watcher.”

“Only unofficially. And as this pertains to you as well, and you’re, um –”

“– Out the Council –”

“– Yes. I, um, I’m not sure they’ll have the same sense of urgency as they might have if things were more, well, conventional.” “Uh huh” says Faith. “Well, it was good plan. But if that’s how they’ll see it –”

“– On the other hand,” continues Giles, “They have made it their business to safeguard the world. If the threat posed by Glory is on an apocalyptic scale – which it very well might be – I think they’ll help us.” Noting Buffy’s torn expression, he adds, “You said it yourself, Buffy, we’ve got nothing. If they can give us the information we need…”

“Then almost anything’s worth it” Buffy concludes. “Anything except telling them about Dawn.”

“I won’t.”

“And you’ll go to them, right?” asks Faith. “You won’t ask them here? Or take me there?”

“Why would I take you there?”

“I’m just checking.”

“There won’t be any need for you to go to England, Faith.”

“Good, ’cause I’m not in a hurry for to go back there. No offence.”

“That’s agreed then.” Buffy stands up. “You’ll make the call?”

Giles nods. “I’ll speak to Travers tonight.”

“Right. Faith, come on. We should go relieve Spike from Dawn duty before she gives him a makeover. I hate the guy, but I’m not that cruel.”

“You had Spike guarding Dawn?” Giles asks in surprise.

“Well when both of us are out the house, what are we supposed to do? He’s the only one even possibly strong enough to hold Glory off for a few seconds of escape time. Plus mom and Dawn don’t seem to find him as repulsive as we do.” Leading Faith – who has gone very quiet – out the door, Buffy turns to hug Giles briefly and ask, “You really won’t tell them?”

“I won’t tell them anything about Dawn, Buffy. I promise.”

*****

The bite house is in a part of town that tends towards narrow alleyways and poorly lit areas. Ethan always carries holy water or a defensive potion here, and keeps a hand in his pocket, closed around the neck of the small bottle. When something lithe leaps from a low wall into his path, Ethan shrieks and wields it, only to find himself on the receiving end of a sardonic look from Faith. He asks, “What are you doing here?”

“Patrolling. Vamps don’t just live in cemeteries, you know. Seems like plenty of them live round here. Or unlive.”

“That’ll be the bus station” Ethan gestures in the vague direction of the road that leads up to the depot. “People arriving at all hours who don’t know to carry this.” He holds up the bottle again before slipping it into his pocket. “Plus there’s the bite house.”

“The what house?”

For a moment, Ethan’s instinct is to lie or change the subject but bugger it – the children aren’t really children anymore, and Faith hasn’t been a child in all the years he’s known her. “A brothel but without the fun stuff” he explains. “Though I suppose that depends on your idea of fun.”

“Wait, there’s a brothel in town? Then how come all that screwing happens at the motel?”

“Vampire brothel” Ethan clarifies. “People pay to get bitten.” Realising that he might be endangering certain useful informants, he adds, “The vampires don’t kill anyone: They get cash and get to avoid the inconvenience of corpse disposal, and a few fetishists get a high. It’s win-win.”

“Huh” Faith digests this. “People really are freaks, aren’t they? Where is this place?”

“Just round the corner. It so happens I’m heading there myself but I can’t exactly show you: They wouldn’t thank me for bringing a slayer in.” Or rather, they would, just not in a way he’d like.

“You’re into that shit?” Faith asks, “Does Giles know?”

“What? No! I mean, no I’m not into that shit, yes Giles knows I’m heading there. I’m just going to catch up on the gossip.”

“Alright.” Faith frowns. “Couldn’t you do magic so they don’t notice me? I kinda want to see this.”

Ethan issues a put upon sigh and searches his pockets, handing her chalk, a small jar of sand and a bundle of dried herbs as he finds them. Faith asks, “You ever been searched by a cop? ’Cause this crap would be hard to explain.”

“Hard to explain but probably enough for a quick glamour” Ethan tells her. “If you really want to see the bite house, that is.”

“Yeah, I’m in.”

“And you promise not to stake anyone?” Ethan glances around, in case of others headed the same way, and steps closer to add, in an undertone, “Because they can’t give us any information on Glory if they’re dust.”

“Wait, you’re going for that? Then I’m definitely in. If we get the info on her from a load of vamps it’ll really freak out the Council.”

“That would be a bonus, yes. Now” Ethan sets about putting things in place for the spell, “hold still.”

*****

As it turns out, all Marvin has to offer on the information about Glory front is a long list of things that are scared of her. Some of them are scary themselves, even to other demons.

“They’re actually leaving town?” asks Ethan.

“Some are.” Marvin glances away as a young man staggers past, but another vampire stands to intercept the visitor. Turning back, he adds, “The Sluugorthian demons all went back to their home dimension when she arrived.”

“Wait – their home dimension where that civil war’s going on?”

“The same.” Marvin shudders. “Nothing would go back there unless they thought whatever’s about to happen here is going to be hellish. Literally, and then some. And Rack’s left town.”

“Has he now?” Ethan frowns, then explains to Faith, “That old bastard always knows when something big is about to happen.”

“Well we know it’s big” says Faith, “But what about what she actually is? Witch or what?”

“Not a witch” says Marvin decisively. “Humans don’t scare Sluugorthians like that. Well, I mean” he laughs “unless they were the slayer or something, right?”

“Right” Faith offers a falsely sweet smile.

“What are people calling her?” Ethan asks. “Just Glory?”

“Glory mainly. Couple of the guys down at Willy’s were calling her Glorificus. The interdimensional types are freaking out.”

“So she’s travelled? Or from somewhere else?”

“Something like that. Something like her has probably been all over. Probably done a lot of damage to other places and now she’s turned up here.”

From across the room, a scruffy vampire calls out, “Marvin – you’re up” and indicates an even scruffier human. Marvin moves to stand and Ethan shoots an arm out to stall him. “Keep an ear out, won’t you?” He slips a few twenties into Marvin’s jacket pocket.

Marvin shakes his head sadly and pulls the money out again, hands it back. “Sorry, Ethan. I want to keep out of this thing’s way. Whatever she’s got planned, it’s big, and I’m not going to be the guy who was passing information on to humans right before she took the town.” With an apologetic shrug, he is gone, submitting to the lecherous embrace of the waiting human before leading him out of sight.

“Classy place, ain’t it?” Faith settles back in her chair and frowns thoughtfully. “Whatever Glory wants to take, I’m guessing it’ll be more than the town.”

“The Key I suppose.” Ethan is careful, very careful, not to use Dawn’s name here. “But then, to do what with it?”

“Fuck if I know.” Faith shudders. “Maybe Giles is right: time to get the watchers involved.”

“You sound thrilled at the prospect.”

“What, while you’re dancing a happy jig at the thought of them?”

“Touché.” Ethan grins. “Though I must say, I am looking forward to going home for a few days.”

“Just don’t go bringing any tweedy types back with you. Except Giles.”

“Not if I can help it” Ethan agrees. “Best leave the watchers where they’re useful: surrounded by books and very far away.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Faith pauses, looks around. “Or I would if I trusted the drinks in this place. Wanna go somewhere else?”

Ethan, noting that a few suspicious glances are being directed their way, nods and rises. “I think we’re about to outstay our welcome here in any case, so by all means. I take it I’m paying?”

“Hell yeah” Faith stands and leads the way out into the night.

Chapter Text

“So you won’t tell me anything?” Giles asks, catching himself rubbing at a temple and lowering his hand hastily. Truth be told, he’s horribly jetlagged.

“I didn’t say that” reiterates the young man opposite him (some apprentice of Travers’. After a day of meetings, they’re all blurring together into a tweedy, bureaucratic mass.) “The Council simply feels that the situation needs further assessment before important information can be handed over.”

“Further assessment? We could be facing an apocalypse before further assessment is done!”

The young man hastily checks some notes. “Nothing you’ve told us suggests that Glory intends to do that, only that she’s after this key. You really have no idea where that is?”

“No” Giles wonders what Dawn is up to right now. What time is it in the U.S.?

“Well” concludes the young man, “While whatever she wants with the key is likely to be far from pleasant, we see no apocalyptic urgency. No, Mr Giles, I sense that your urgency is more personal than that: you’re scared for your charges.”

Well of course he is. But Giles, in deference to why he was fired, manages to say, “I have no doubt that Buffy and Faith are capable of defeating Glory. But they need information to do so.”

“Which they will receive if our assessment concludes they can be trusted with it. Now, as to your other request, I’m afraid we can’t help you: The Council told you all that is known of the origin of the Slayer Line when you became the active watcher of Buffy Summers. You already know as much as we do on the subject.”

Virtually nothing then.

“I wouldn’t say nothing” says the young man, and Giles realises that jetlag has him griping out loud. Travers’ trainee, puffing himself up like the self-important prefect he probably was at one point, continues, “One thousand years of history culminating in the largest society of benevolent mages and occult scholars in the world is hardly nothing.”

“But that’s the history of the Council” Giles tells him. “I asked for information on the Slayer Line.”

“Is this something to do with the fight against Glory?”

“You tell me: You’re the ones with information on her. Is she something to do with the Slayer Line?” Given that she is beautiful, strong and unlikely to take kindly orders she would certainly fit the bill in Giles’ experience.

Travers’ young man is shaking his head. “What little is known about the origin of the Slayer was shared with you years ago. There’s no further secret pertaining to the subject.”

“So far as you know.” Giles sighs. “Look, I made the second request just on the off chance of uncovering something that might be useful one day. Really it’s the information about Glory that I’m here for. We don’t have time for further assessments.”

“Mr Giles, you said yourself that you don’t know what Glory’s plan are or if we are working against the clock. Her quest for the key may take many more years.”

Many more years of Dawn being hunted. Giles shudders. “She’s determined. She’ll find it before long or do something catastrophic to try to uncover it, and Buffy and Faith will need to know all they can about her to put a stop to whatever she’ll do with it.” Hard to call Dawn “it” but he manages, his promise to Buffy trumping the jetlag.

The young man ignores him, writes a note. Giles sighs again. “When is Quentin getting here?” The use of Travers’ first name is deliberate, a reminder to this pup of their respective places on the hierarchy.

The young man doesn’t even look up. “Mr Travers has you pencilled in for this afternoon. In the meantime, Mr Honeycutt needs to speak to you regarding…”

Inwardly, Giles groans as the list of people he needs to get through to speak directly to the top brass grows. It’s going to be a long day.

*****

“So, do you want the good news or the bad news?” asks Willow, her apologetic tone familiar even from across the ocean.

“The good news” Ethan replies, deciding to cushion the bad in advance.

“Okay, well the good news is, no-one got hurt. Well, apart from Xander, but not life-threatening hurt.”

“Ah” says Ethan. “This means my shop is trashed, doesn’t it?”

“Kinda” confirms Willow.

“What happened?”

“Well, you know that big crystal on the counter?”

“The Troll Crystal?”

“You knew it had a troll in it?! Ethan, couldn’t you have put that on the label or something?”

“Well I didn’t know you were going to release it, did I?” retorts Ethan. Then he curses, remembering, “And it’s a troll god! Is the place even still standing?”

“Well the counter’s a bit – Wait, Olaf was a god?”

“Oh, you got to first name terms then!”

“Anya knew him from her pre-pre-human days. So, god?”

“Well it doesn’t take much to be a troll god. You just need to be bigger and hairier than the other trolls.”

“Huh. Kind of like with high school guys.”

“Essentially, yes. But the building’s still standing?”

“Yeah. And a massive clean-up operation’s under way.”

“Much obliged. And Xander’s not badly hurt?”

“Well, his arm’s broken, but it’s nothing a cast won’t fix. And me and Anya made peace. Sort of.”

“And Olaf’s slain?”

“Teleported.”

“Oh. Close enough.”

“I thought so. So, how’s England?”

“Well, it’s –” Ethan catches sight of Rupert, across the room, looking pointedly at the clock. “It’s lovely, Willow, but I’ll tell you about it when we get back. Rupert’s expecting a call.” Putting the phone down after a mutual exchange of platitudes and farewells, Ethan hands the cordless device to Rupert, who sets it down beside him and asks, “Something happened to Xander?”

“Broken arm. Troll.” Ethan lifts his drink, abandoned when the phone rang. So many wonderful beers just haven’t made it to the new world yet. “Standard Sunnydale really.”

“Was it sent by Glory?” Rupert asks.

“Escaped from a crystal in the shop.”

“You had a Troll Crystal in the shop?!”

“A conversation piece! I wasn’t going to sell it!”

“Ethan, why –” The phone rings. Rupert scowls at it then scoops it up and retreats to the bedroom, leaving Ethan alone in their living area section of their hotel suite. Ethan isn’t sure if his partner is really in a huff over one little troll god, or if the call is likely to be confidential. Probably the latter; at some point in their childhoods, the Council higher ups seem to have read too many Boy’s Own Papers, and nothing that could possibly be coded and flanked by secret handshakes isn’t.

Ethan drinks his beer and watches the rain make a smeared mural of the Christmas lights across the streets. It’s turned out to be a wise move, booking a complex of B and B style rooms complete with a utility area, rather than just a double bed: it’s miserable outside and they’ve stayed in more than they’d originally planned, only venturing out twice between Rupert’s Council meetings to catch up with friends.

It’s a little disorientating, having to think about hotels in London, when it still feels like the home they shared here is waiting for them. Ethan has found himself thinking of that little, now-sold terraced house with its magnolia tree in the front garden more during this visit than he has for years in Sunnydale.

“You’re taking phone calls from the bedroom” Ethan comments as Rupert returns. “Should I be worried?”

“That was Quinten Travers.”

“I’m not worried.”

Rupert leans over Ethan’s chair, wrapping his arms around him. “How would you feel about extending our trip? Just by a few days.”

Ethan twists to look at him. “They’ve found something?”

“They’ve moved my meeting with the research department, so I assume so” Rupert explains. “I’m not sure if they’ll actually share anything helpful with me, of course, or if this will just be more quizzing.”

Ethan scowls and asks, “Well, when are they ever helpful?”

“More than you give them credit for” replies Rupert wearily. “They do rather have a vested interest in the world not ending.” Pulling away and taking his seat again, he admits, “Not that they’ll tell us everything they know until after they’ve followed us back to Sunnydale.”

“Oh gods, Rupert, please tell me they won’t be on the same flight.”

Rupert waves a dismissive hand. “They’ll use the Gamayun.”

“How flattering.” Ethan is surprised: The Council don’t use their largest private jet unless the matter is of highest importance. “What will they do in Sunnydale?”

“An assessment, apparently” Rupert grinds out.

“Well, if that’s the hoop they want to wave before they help us, I suppose the best thing to do is let them.” Ethan frowns. “I won’t have to talk to them, will I?”

“I’d really rather you didn’t.”

“Good. Even better."

Chapter Text

“Arrive?” Buffy repeats as soon as Giles breaks the news to the children. “They’re coming here? Now?”

“You said they wouldn’t” chimes in Faith. “You said you’d go to them and we’d stay out of it.”

“I assumed they’d give me the information in person while I was there” Giles tells her. “But they decided to do more research first.” And see for themselves what two slayers and an unofficial watcher get up to without the support of the wider Council, of course, but he refrains from mentioning that just yet.

“Don’t they have phones?” Xander is asking.

Giles lets the group react to the news for a moment or so, working through shock and concern before arriving at…well, just concern really. Perhaps it will be a useful wakeup call for the delegation to see the reaction the Council inspires in those at the business end of the fight against evil. But who is he kidding with that hope?

Ethan, meanwhile, is sitting back and letting the conversation flow around him. Enjoying the freely-voiced opposition to the Council, no doubt. He catches Giles’ eye and smirks. Giles glares at him.

Then Dawn’s voice sounds in the hallway, and Buffy’s worry – ever present these days, poor girl – briefly shifts its focus from the watchers to her sister.

“Does it matter?” asks Willow. “I mean, is she really gonna set the junior high school buzzing with Ooh, there’s a delegation a-coming?”

“Exactly” Ethan puts in. “We weren’t talking about anything, um, nightmare-inducing.”

Buffy seems reassured, but the room has, nonetheless, been seamlessly divided into the half who know and the half who don’t. Giles finds himself mentally checking over what has been said – Did they mention the Key while Dawn was listening? – until Buffy prompts him to return to the topic of the incoming delegation. The lack of horror from upstairs reassures him that Dawn continues to assume she is a human child the same as any other, for now at least.

*****

“Faith…Faith, I think that’s…Faith, stop!” Giles takes a hasty step back as the punches register through the padding.

“Sorry” Faith offers grudgingly, backing off herself and pacing. In this mood, she is like a big cat on the prowl.

Giles sheds the padding. “Well, I think they’ll be impressed with your hand to hand.”

“What, do they want to know about my hand to hand? They’re here to freak us all out a bit, tell us what they know and leave again, right?”

“So far as I know.” Giles stacks the protective gear in a cupboard. Beyond the door, the shop sounds busy; he hopes the sound of their training session didn’t disturb any customers. “I know they’ll conduct an assessment – presumably of our research so far – and I imagine they plan to formalise my role somewhat before they trust me to oversee whatever you and Buffy need to do with the information they have.”

“Yeah, if they give it.” Faith stops pacing, hops up on to the vaulting horse and crosses her legs. “You think they’ll start paying you again?”

“I don’t have high hopes of that” Giles admits.

“Well, what about…What’s that?” Faith hops down from her perch.

Frowning as he registers the commotion her slayer senses picked up on before it grew, Giles follows her into the shop.

“– no need to do this” Ethan is telling Quentin Travers as a group of people in suits herd the customers out the door. “Rupert!” Ethan abandons Travers and hurries over. “Rupert, tell them!”

From behind the counter, Anya adds, “They’re scaring away the customers, Giles!”

“Quentin” Giles asks, “What’s going on?”

“They’re shutting down the shop, is what!” Ethan leaves Giles’ side to slide closer to the ladder to the restricted section. “Travers, in case you hadn’t noticed, you’re a long way from London! You don’t get to snap your fingers and get your way here.”

In answer, Travers glances round the shop, now empty but for the regiment of watchers, some of whom are now taking items from the shelves and examining them. Ethan sighs his frustration and inches closer to the ladder.

Hastily sidestepping himself and taking Ethan’s arm, Giles tries, “Quentin, other than the training room in the back, the slayers and I have nothing to do with the shop. And even if we did, I fail to see why closing it is necessary.”

“We need use of your training area for our review, Rupert” replies Travers, “And we’ll doubtless be discussing matters that aren’t for public ears.” To Ethan, he adds, “It’s just for the duration of our stay. There’s no need to make fuss.”

“A fuss?” Ethan tugs a little but Giles maintains his grip on his partner’s arm. “You come into my shop and clear out my customers, what did you think would happen?”

“You can leave Ethan out of this” Giles adds, “You can use the back room but you’ve no right to shut his business down.”

“As I said, just for the duration of our review.”

“Review?” asks Faith. She has, Giles noticed, slunk behind the counter and is now standing next to Anya with her arms folded. “What review?”

“Miss Lehane, lovely to see you” greets Travers. Turning back to Giles, he asks, “Why don’t we sit down?”

“Because it’s not your shop” says Ethan.

Travers ignores him and takes a seat at the table. Around them, the nameless watchers busy themselves making tea and digging out papers from briefcases.

Before Ethan can inch any closer to the restricted section, Giles steps around him, baring his way, and murmurs, “I am sorry about this, Ethan. Look, how about you and Anya go and get an early lunch and I’ll see if I can talk them round?”

Ethan casts a final, pointed glance at the restricted section before responding: “Ah, yes, because the watchers’ council is famous for its responsiveness and flexibility. Did you know they were coming here, to the shop?”

“No. I promise.”

Ethan studies him for a moment and, apparently reassured, steps back. “Right. See you later, Rupert. Anya, come on – we’re going to Willy’s.”

“We are?” Anya scurries around the counter, talking loudly. “Because I was thinking the Doublemeat Palace. Growing up in south eastern Indiana, I used to go there all the time with my mother and my father, because, you see, we all lived in the same house and –”

“Yes” mutters Ethan, “Most convincing, but even the council aren’t enough to drive me to that dive.” To Giles, he says, “Don’t let them steal my stock.”

Travers chuckles as they leave. “Your friend seems to think we’re petty criminals, Rupert.”

“Fiancé” says Giles. “Are you telling me you don’t plan to confiscate anything?”

“Not unless we find anything dangerous. Take a seat. Faith – come join us.”

Faith responds with all the promptness of one who spent half a year learning Council protocol. Halfway to the table, she stops and flinches, catching herself at it. Giles offers the smallest of nods and she continues, reluctantly now, to the table.

As she sits down opposite Travers, Giles tells the other watchers, “You all stand around and look sombre.” He takes a seat, gratified at Faith’s small smile.  “Good job.”

“You used to respect us, Giles.” Travers reminds him.

“Yeah” says Faith, “Maybe until you called his fiancé his friend. What’s with that? You guys have a problem with two guys fu –”

“Thank you, Faith” cuts in Giles. “Now, about this review?” “Yes” Travers accepts a cup of tea from a tweed-clad young woman. They still have the ladies on tea duty then, Giles notes. Some things never change. He wonders if this woman is a potential who was never called, but on further glance notices the broach at her collar, a family coat of arms – she’s a Hobson-Post, and brave to wear the family crest in view of Gwendolyn’s actions.

“Lovely” Travers murmurs, setting the tea aside. Finally, he explains, “We have information on Glory, some of it vital. The rest, merely extremely disturbing. And it won't be handed over until we're convinced that you and your slayers are prepared for it. Thus, the review.”

“Not another test” Giles tells him, reigning in anger for Faith’s sake. “You’re not putting them through anything like the cruciamentum.”

“It's not a test.” Travers insists, “We simply need to know that this information, if handed over, would be safe.”

“Safe?” repeats Faith. She glances at Giles. “Look, I am safe. I’ve been fighting with Buffy ever since I got back. Side by side with, I mean. And you guys can trust B – you’re crazy if you think you can’t!”

“I don’t mean merely safe from deliberate misuse, Miss Lehane, though that is an aspect of the review –”

“Nonsense” cuts in Giles, “If you thought Faith was working for Glory, you’d have been here weeks ago.”

“Service to Glory isn’t the only temptation in Sunnydale for those who’ve proven themselves inclined to give in to the lure of supernatural powers, Giles, and you well know it. But that isn’t the main focus of the review: We’re mainly here to look at both slayers’ methods. In your voluntary position, you’ve been less than prompt with your reports, and of course these have only pertained to Miss Lehane.”

“Because Buffy quit the Council” says Faith. “But this isn’t about who’s in and who’s not, it’s about how we defeat the Queen of the Skanks.”

“Quite” agrees Giles. “Glory poses a real threat and we need to know how to stop her, regardless of what you think about how I’ve trained the girls.”

“We are talking about the fruits of weeks of research using the Council’s most valuable books. It can’t be handed over to just anyone.”

“It won’t be” Giles argues. “It will be handed over to the people on the front line of the fight!”

“Yeah” adds Faith, “The ones who need it.”

“Hm. People.” Travers sets down his tea and pulls a pen from his jacket pocket, makes a note. “The people who so regularly join you in the fight will be another thing we look into. Civilians in the slayers’ inner circle; it’s most unorthodox, Rupert.”

Ignoring the undermining intended in that slip into cosy first name terms, Giles asks, “Look into them how?”

“Nothing drastic.” Travers smiles. “We’ll talk to them.”

“Talk to Anya?” Faith asks with a frown.

“And Ethan?” asks Giles.

“Naturally.”

*****

“What?”

“Ethan, I know I said –”

“You said I wouldn’t have to talk to them, and now they’re going to interview me from the shop they invaded?!”

“They haven’t invaded it, Eth.”

“Well they’re there and I’m not, correct? That seems like an invasion to me!”

“It’s temporary. But I am sorry.”

Ethan fixes him with a scowl that isn’t entirely free of suspicion, and mutters something about his demon customers.

“The wards are still in place” Giles reminds him. “And stay in place at least until they leave.”

“And when is that?”

“After they’ve done this blasted review.” Giles sits down on the sofa, breaking eye contact so that Ethan can’t see the full extent of his anger. The last thing Buffy and Faith need now is for him to inadvertently give Ethan licence to misbehave.

Licence, apparently, is not needed, because Ethan, sitting down beside him, asks, “How about a truth spell? Make them tell us everything they know about Glory?” He smiles thoughtfully and adds, “And possibly one or two national scandals as well.”

“They’ve already threatened to deport me” Giles replies, still not meeting his partner’s eye, as though the matter is of no importance, as though it is a routine thing to be threatened with deportation by the organisation that has enabled one’s entire career. “Do you think they won’t be able to tell they’ve been put under a spell?”

“Not if we change their memories.”

“We’re talking about the Council of Watchers. They’ll have wards.”

“Something to counter the wards then?”

“Ethan”

“Alright, I know. That does all smack of control rather. Besides” He pats Giles on the back “your slayers will dazzle them, I’m sure.”

There is a knock on the door and Ethan, rising and peering out the window before opening it, says, “Speak of the devils. Or one of them.”

“Who’s the other devil?” Buffy wanders in.

“Faith.”

“Oh. So you’re already on the slayer talk.”

“I was just telling Ethan about the review” Giles explains.

Heading into the kitchen, Ethan says, “I have to talk to them. I hate doing that. Tea?”

“Think how I feel” murmurs Buffy. “And no thanks to the tea. It’s kind of reminding me of a certain tweedy guy who isn’t my watcher at the moment.”

“Dear Quentin?” Ethan leans back through the internal window “Try going to his niece’s wedding with all his tweedy relations and then coming home and shagging Rupert.”

“I’ll pass.” Buffy sits down, and tells Giles, “Faith’s freaking.”

“Oh” Giles sits up a little straighter. “Um. Freaking as in…?”

“Not joining forces with Glory, skipping town freaking, but there’s definite freak-out vibes. She keeps going from scared she won’t be able to do what they say to really not wanting to do what they say. I kind of feel bad for the vampires we met on patrol.”

“Should I talk to her?”

“And tell her your master plan for making them just tell us what they know and then go away?” Noting Giles’ resigned expression, Buffy concludes, “No, I didn’t think so. Giles, why are they even doing this? It’s not like they can fight Glory themselves if they decide not to trust us.”

Ethan mutters, “But I’d like to see them try.”

“Me too” admits Buffy. “Sort of. But they can’t, so what if we fail? They just don’t tell us anything and go home – what’s the point in that?”

“I have some theories” says Ethan darkly, and then moves off back into the kitchen without sharing them. Giles watches him emerge with three beers and accepts one gratefully. He takes a swig and then wishes it were stronger.

“Care to share?” Buffy accepts her own beer and sets in firmly away from her on the coffee table.

“Not especially” Ethan sits down with his own drink.

“So being annoyingly unforthcoming is an English thing?”

“Gods, don’t compare me to them” Ethan mutters. When Buffy continues to stare at him, he explains, “I was just going to go into what prats they are.”

“Already got that memo.” Buffy turns back to Giles. “I’m guessing they can have you deported? Like they did with Ethan.”

“Well I came back, didn’t I?” Ethan points out. “If they deport us both, it could be like a holiday.”

“Not a great time for you guys to take one” Buffy points out.

“No” agrees Giles. “And as for what they did to Ethan, they could have done it again if they wanted to. The only reason they didn’t retaliate when you came back, Eth, is because they’d already achieved what they wanted – you were inconvenienced and I was put in my place. It was a power play, just like this review is.” He holds his bottle in one fist and channels his rage into the other, feeling it tremble at his side.

*****

Of course it’s Quentin-bloody-Travers who interviews him. Everyone else gets Philip or one of the other lackeys, but Ethan has to sit down – in his own shop – and answer inane questions from this puffed up, pompous, narrow-minded git.

“Rayne?”

“Hm? Sorry, I was distracted by” (how much of an idiot you are) “something”

“I asked you how often the slayers require you to do magic for them?”

“Oh, not often. The very occasional ward or reveal. Really it’s –” Ethan stops himself. Best not to draw the attention of these self-important twits to Willow. The prospect of another young woman with power might well put them in early graves but, tempting as that is, it will also inconvenience Willow no end.

“Have you ever performed chaos magic for them?”

“No. Sunnydale has chaos aplenty without my intervention.” Ethan studiously ignores the raised eyebrow this provokes from Rupert, who is seated over by the bookshelf and continues, “But really, what would it matter if I had? If you’re trying to work out how good Buffy and Faith are, I’d have thought the answer can be found in the fact that they’re still alive and the hellmouth is still closed.”

Rupert nods slightly while pretending to read and utters a small, “Quite.”

Travers glowers. “Our intentions are none of your concern. But you feel confident in the slayers’ abilities?”

Ethan shrugs. Travers and Rupert both scowl at that and he grins. You can’t fault neutrality when it comes to winding people up. Travers tries, “You’ve seen them in battle?”

“In all their glory. Not that ‘glory’s the right word these days, I suppose. Tell me, if you do end up deeming the girls wanting, what then? Fight Glory yourself?”

“That’s not your concern. Now –”

“Send the special ops team, perhaps?” Ethan goes on, grinning slowly as Travers tenses. “Take the current pawns off the chess board and wait for a new one to rise. Someone well behaved this time. That’s it, isn’t it? Because it will take a slayer to stop Glory, but there’s always more of them waiting in the wings, isn’t there?”

Rupert is staring openly now, not at him, but at Travers. Ethan honestly doesn’t know if he’s hit on the truth or just wound the old git up: The Council would kill two slayers without even cancelling the annual croquet match out of respect, but whether Travers would be directly involved, Ethan is less certain.

And Travers is giving nothing away, of course. He regards Ethan coldly. “If you’re in doubt that the Council has resources at its disposal besides the slayers, Rayne, I could always arrange a demonstration.”

“Could you now?”

Rupert switches his gaze sharply. “Ethan”

Ethan rolls his eyes: trust Rupert to worry. Much as they might posture, the council would never kill him. A slayer, maybe, but they’ve practically trained themselves not to think of slayers as human. A human, maybe, but someone who is both living with one of their own and not a direct threat, well, they are a little too squeamish for that. Or most of them are.

Not to mention, having him around makes them feel so morally superior. And probably secretly tantalises them, come to think of it. Or perhaps it is fear of how much of a scene he’d kick up if they fail on the first attempt: the stories he could tell about old Quentin’s nephew…

Not that they would fail the first attempt if it did come down to it, not really. So if he’s gone too far, Ethan thinks, he might as well tell those stories now. He smiles at the thought, but then realises that Quentin does look rather angry right this moment, and so does Rupert.

Perhaps safest to leave that reminiscing for another time.

*****

Faith is quiet as Travers explains – as though to five year olds, Giles notes – that the two slayers are to take it in turns to protect the dummy, which has been dragged from a corner of the training room for the job. Buffy is to go first, and Faith watches impassively as a blindfold is placed over her sister-slayer’s eyes. Giles wonders if this was how she was in England; respect conveyed through a self-preserving silence which hid her true thoughts safely away and which she hasn’t needed to use since her return.

That theory seems a little less likely when Travers mentions the Japanese instructions, and Faith bursts out, “Oh come on! Japanese?! If we wanted to speak Japanese we’d go to Japanesia!”

“…And begin” says one of the junior watchers who line the room, starting a stopwatch. Buffy’s polite protestations are cancelled out by Faith’s “Giles, come on! Tell them!” Stepping forward, she intercepts Philip’s bow, gently but firmly levering him upright as he glares at her. Next, she peels the blindfold off Buffy’s face. “What is this a language class?”

“Evidently not” murmurs Travers.

“Faith” whispers Buffy, “We have studied –”

“Yeah, but not languages!”

Travers turns to Giles. “You’ve not taught them Japanese?”

“I didn’t need to” Giles replies. “As Faith says, the hellmouth isn’t in Japan” (Faith rolls her eyes) “and a second human language wouldn’t be any use to two people bound to protect this small corner of California.”

“Demon languages then?” Travers turns to Buffy and Faith. “You are familiar with Sloguthrian? Or Nu’ahik?” At their blank stares, he turns back to Giles. Giles wishes he could feel the indignant anger that has flavoured the world since the Council’s arrival, but some long-buried academy-tinged memory has him floundering to justify his performance as though he has just received a bad grade for a Sumerian paper. “Well, hundreds of demon species are drawn to the hellmouth! I could teach them Nu’ahik and they’ll meet something that speaks Fluuvosian, or visa versa. Besides” regaining some of the familiar rage “I’ve taught them to fight! Not to jump through hoops in some artificial controlled test!”

“So, the slayers are lacking in basic language skills” concludes Travers.

“Um” says Buffy, “Standing right here. Talking and everything.”

Ignoring her, Travers asks Giles, “Are there any other parts of the curriculum you’ve decided to do away with?”

“Oh, fuck this” mutters Faith. Picking up an axe, she slices the dummy’s straw filled bowels open on the way out the room.

“Faith!” Buffy takes a step towards the slammed door.

“Buffy” Giles intercedes quickly – it wouldn’t do for Travers to think that Faith can be controlled only by another slayer – “Stay here. Take your turn defending, um” He eyes the mangled dummy “that.”

Heading into the main shop – mercifully not followed – he spots Faith pacing on the pavement outside. Hurrying out, he quickly hides his hurry when she turns to look at him, leans in the doorway and greets her with, “Officially, I should reprimand you for your attitude in there. Unofficially, bravo.”

Faith turns away. “You getting sick of them too?”

“I’ve been getting sick of them since the seventies.” Giles comes to stand beside her. They watch a handful of midday shoppers wind their way from the bookshop to the hardware store. Giles comments, “They’re not just testing your physical prowess, you know. It’s also your ability to, um…”

“To not make a scene?”

“Well, yes.”

“I’m gonna fail, then. I’m a scene maker.”

“Faith, in the past year, you’ve proven yourself capable of self-control. Show them that.”

Faith’s fingers twitch. Giles wonders if she is craving a cigarette – he hasn’t seen her smoke, but thinking about it, she is bound to – or something to punch. Wonders if he ought to take a step back, but knows that that is the last thing she needs and stays exactly where he is, at her side.

After flexing her fingers out into claws, then back into fists, and chewing ferociously at her lip for a moment, Faith declares, “I’m not going to do the self-control thing for them. I’m sorry and all but they’re just not worth it.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy” Giles murmurs.

“Self what now?”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy – they think you’re unable to control your temper so you take offence and lose control of your temper.” He looks at her. “Or you could prove them wrong.”

“Imagine that’d piss them off” Faith admits, grudgingly.

Sensing an advantage, Giles glances back inside to check for eavesdroppers before saying, “This is for Dawn, you know. And, by extension, Joyce.”

“Yeah” says Faith, with a heavy sigh. She watches the passing cars and people for a moment longer before sighing again and turning back to the shop. “Then let’s go prove them wrong, I guess.”

*****

“At least they’ve left this section alone” Ethan whispers when, seated in the restricted section with their legs hanging down into the shop, the scoobies commiserate with him over his manhandled shop. “Rupert managed to convince them it’s just extra storage up here.”

“There is that” Xander agrees.

“An-and at least it’s nearly over” says Tara.

“Yes” says Anya, “But nearly over and they give us the information, or nearly over and we’re all about to be eaten by Glory?”

“Be fair” Ethan tells her. “We’ve no proof she eats people. She might just eviscerate us or turn us to vapour.”

Tara flinches. “I-I’m usually all for having an inquiring mind, b-but I’d really rather not think about that.”

“It’s okay, baby” says Willow. Slipping into a whisper, she says, “They’ll give us the information. I mean, we all answered their questions and Buffy said the physical tests went okay after they agreed to speak English.”

“I bet they were all judgmental about that though” says Anya quietly. “Academic occultists love their demonic languages.” A little louder, she adds, “Not that I’d know anything about demon languages. We don’t hold with that demon nonsense in Indiana.”

“Ahn” murmurs Xander, “You ever heard of overkill?”

“When someone wishes their ex could be killed but then resurrected and killed again a different way? Ye – ah – nope. Never heard of it.” Anya watches the watchers below them, swinging one leg nervously.

The slayers are getting late, Ethan notes. Travers is fidgeting irritably, and Rupert looks worried.

“It will be fine” Tara is saying, her voice dropping further still. “The-they want to stop Glory, don’t they? They can’t fight her, but Buffy and Faith can.”

“Yeah” says Xander, “and failing that, Buffy and Faith can fight them.”

“Except not really” Anya says. “Human morality clause.”

“Right, that.”

“Bugger of a thing” agrees Ethan.

“Or” says Willow quietly, “We could use magic.” Glancing down at the watchers, she whispers, “I mean, it would be for the common good, right?”

“Sweetie” whispers Tara, “If you’re thinking mind control –”

“Well, what are the options?” Willow glances behind her at the books of darker magic, and Ethan wonders if she’s ready to be up here, after all. “If they don’t tell us what we need to know to stop Glory –”

“Let’s give them a chance, Will” murmurs Xander. “They might be shop invaders but they kind of are the good guys. The snobby but good guys.”

“Yeah” mutters Anya, “On paper and if you squint.”

“But mind control is never the answer” insists Tara.

“Not ever?” Willow whispers, “Not even to defeat Glory?”

“We’d get the information another way” says Tara.

Willow turns to Ethan. “You’re with me, right? It would be for the greater good.”

“It’s not really my style” Ethan reminds her.

“Come on, you’re not even a little bit tempted?”

“No” lies Ethan. “Not even a little bit.”

Before Willow can reply, Buffy walks in, carrying a sword of all things, and without Faith. Faith, it transpires, is at home guarding Buffy’s family after a visit from Glory. Buffy is, if anything, invigorated by this latest encounter with death in a red dress, and manages to explain Faith’s task without hinting at Dawn’s nature effortlessly, before launching into a speech about exactly what role in her life the council should play. Watching her assert herself, Ethan has to admit the girl has her moments. It’s an admittance made easier by the fact that he’s had to compete with the council for Rupert’s attention much longer than he’s had to compete with her. And everything Buffy has to say to old Quentin is perfectly true, of course. Sometimes the girl really is every bit as brilliant as Rupert always insists she is. Ethan tries not to grin too obviously.

Chapter Text

“So it won’t actually keep her out?” Ethan asks, watching the young witches prepare something not dissimilar to a barrier spell.

“No” admits Willow. “As far as I know, there isn’t a barrier spell that will work on a god, but this will give us some warning.”

“And we’ll keep researching something stronger” adds Tara. “Will any of the books in the shop have anything for that?”

Ethan shakes his head. “We can look, but I don’t think we have any handy anti-god hexes.”

“Then we’ll just have to invent some” says Willow, pouring the last of her sand.

Tara looks a little alarmed by that, but says nothing besides, “How’s the revised protection spell going?”

“Fine” replies Ethan, kneeling to light a candle. “But again, nothing that will stop Glory.”

“I’m still not sure letting demons back in is the best move” says Willow with a frown.

“Some of my best customers are demons” Ethan reasons. “Plus it’ll mean Spike can get in if we need extra muscle to protect Da – err – the Key. Hello, Dawn.” The girl is approaching from across the street, greeting them with a remarkably normal smile. Ethan returns it and does his best not to let Willow and Tara’s nerves affect him: Buffy chose last night to tell her friends who Dawn really is, and the news is still raw and has the witches stammering until Dawn heads inside. Ethan can’t really blame them, so he says nothing and concentrates on his spell as they complete their own, various protection spells and warning systems thrown up to the sky like so many futile prayers.

*****

“She’s even less entertaining than we thought” Ethan glances over the sample of the reams of notes the council handed over that are currently scattered across Giles’ desk.

“Yes” Giles rubs at his forehead. “She’s certainly…one of the worst things Buffy has faced. And the worst thing Faith has faced, though don’t tell either of them I said that. It wouldn’t do them any good.”

“I suspect they may have worked it out in any case.” Ethan offers a smile that doesn’t quite take, and adds, “Come on, off you go. Hell gods can wait but Buffy’s birthday can’t.”

Giles smiles. “Yes. Thank you for, err, for picking out a present.”

Ethan shrugs. “I’m good at gift buying and crap at wrapping, you’re crap at buying and good at wrapping. It’s one way to tell we’re made for each other.”

“Now you’re just being sentimental.”

“We’ve a hell god after us: I’ll be as sentimental as I please.”

Giles frowns. Tempted as he is to try to reassure Ethan, he doubts he’ll manage. “Yes, well. Perhaps not the best statement, from a morale perspective.”

Ethan hands him his coat. “There’s no-one here but us, love. Say happy birthday from me.”

“You’d be welcome to come, you know.”

“I know. But – things to do.”

Giles nods. He knows what Ethan’s planning, and he doesn’t like it. Especially not here. But best to say nothing and let his partner get on with it, unless it actively causes trouble. Which it might. “Alright. I’ll see you later.”

*****

When Giles returns, Ethan is still in the sacred circle he’s drawn on the living room floor, deep into the trance and surrounded by an aura of magic. He gives no sign that he’s noticed Giles’ presence. He sits very still, the calm, black-eyed centre of magic that has the room trembling, shifting the paper on the desk and humming round the rims of the glasses on the sideboard in the kitchen. A book on the coffee table flips open, pages riffled by a non-existent breeze. Giles takes a cautious step closer, aware that it is unwise to interrupt and judging that quietly sitting down is probably the best course, not to mention what he actually wants to do after the way Buffy’s party ended. Poor Buffy.

Easing himself into an armchair, thoughts still on his slayer, Giles flinches when Ethan suddenly grabs his arm. Ethan’s blank-eyed gaze swings his way and a decidedly menacing smile lights his lover’s face. Giles whispers, “Ethan?” Ethan’s grin widens. “Hello, killer.” The voice is not Ethan’s own, but something ancient and flowing.

Giles recoils. It is as if something – whatever is in Ethan – has reached into his soul and pulled out the very worst thing, the very thing he would least want to be defined by. Excuses, explanations, gather on his tongue – he was young, scared, foolish, Eyghon would have killed them all – and die unsaid. What would this creature care?

What is this creature? Cautiously, flinching as Ethan’s grip on his arm tightens, Giles hazards, “Janus?”

Ethan laughs, or rather, something laughs. A disarmingly innocent sound. The hand on Giles’ arm heats rapidly to an unbearable point and Giles gasps, tries to pull away before –

And the spell breaks. Suddenly the magic crawling the room is gone and Ethan slumps back, raises a hand to rub his brow. Giles finds his arm is unburnt and takes Ethan’s hand, pulls it closer to examine it. Ethan frowns. “Rupert. Hello.”

“You’re alright.” Giles releases the hand.

“Well yes.” Ethan looks puzzled. “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”

“Nor was I” Giles replies. He pauses, unsure what to say about what just transpired, and settling on nothing. It would just drag up unpleasant memories, and since Ethan is unharmed, it is best not to dwell. Instead he says, “Dawn found out that she’s the Key. She’s very upset, understandably.” He runs a hand over his face. “She’s with Buffy and Joyce now.”

“Oh.” Ethan picks himself up off the floor and joins him on the sofa. “Well that would put a dampener on the celebrations.”

“Yes. I suppose she was going to find out eventually.” Glancing at Ethan, Giles adds, “She found my notes – I left them in the shop.”

“Ah. Still, as you say, she had to find out eventually. Better to hear about it from your notes than from Glory showing up to claim her.”

“I suppose so. But still…” Better to hear about it from someone being honest with her. But how could they be? How does one tell a child her existence is a lie? Forcing himself not to think about that (It does no good), Giles says, “Buffy says thank you for the locket, by the way.”

“I thought she’d like it” says Ethan. “I have a great talent for picking out jewellery, you know.”

Giles smiles, thinking of but not mentioning that cursed ring Ethan gave him for his ill-fated birthday of ’86. It is a welcome distraction after the events of the night, but he is dragged back to the most recent of these when Ethan crouches and begins to clean up the remnants of the sacred circle. Watching, Giles asks, “What did Janus have to say for himself?”

Ethan gives him an uh-oh-caught-out sort of look. “How’d you know I consulting Janus? I could have been casting anything.”

“I know that look you get. I do wish you’d done it at the shop – you could have intercepted Dawn aside from anything else.”

“And she’d have interrupted us. Or anyone else could have.”

“Especially now that demons can wander in again” Giles supposes.

“Look, this is my home too, you know” Ethan gripes. “I can pray here if I want.”

“It’s more than a prayer” Giles counters, but lets the matter of location drop to ask, “So. Where does he stand on Glory? If they’re allies…” Giles doesn’t want to finish that thought. Much as he feels more or less assured that Ethan would pick him over Janus, it would be so much better if…

“Oh, he never likes the scarier demon-dimension divas or I’d have asked him sooner. This was just good manners really; checking in.”

“And it was definitely him that you, err, checked in with?”

“Obviously it was him, Rupert. Hard person to mistake.”

A killer in the eyes of Janus, then. Giles relaxes a little. Janus is not an entity whose opinion he particularly values. “Good. So you won’t be aligning yourself against Chaos if you use magic against her?”

“Nope. No chaos demons coming to get me – I even earn myself brownie points, what with the Key really being chaotic rather than evil. Glory’s got no rights over it.” Ethan sighs. “On the other hand, if I help you fight her, I might be, say, murdered horribly.”

“Welcome to Sunnydale.”

“I know, but this feels worse.”

“I don’t suppose Janus told you how it ends?”

“He doesn’t really go in for premonitions and forewarnings, love.”

“No, that’d be far too convenient and organised. What about weaknesses? Any way to fight Glory?”

Ethan gives him an odd look. “You think Gods go around just casually telling people how to kill them, love?”

“I thought they weren’t allies?”

“No, but they are both Gods.” Ethan frowns.

“So, nothing useful at all, then?”

Ethan looks a little put out. “Oh, give over. I’d like to see your Church of England deity riding in to save us. At least mine picks up the phone. Metaphorically speaking.”

There’s a lot Giles could say to that, but he leaves it for now. Keeping the conversation civil he says, “Well, I’m glad you can use your magic against her at least.”

“Me too. Though I suspect I’ll be playing second fiddle to Willow.”

Giles frowns. “Well, however it works out. The more of you to share that burden the better, so far as I can see.” Yet he still shudders to think of the potential cost to all of them.

*****

“We should have told her sooner” declares Faith the following day in the Magic Box. “Could have avoided all this drama.”

“I think there was always going to be drama” says Ethan.

“Yeah” says Willow. “It’s a lot for her to get her head around.”

“I was going to tell her when she was older” Buffy tells Faith, with just the slightest hint of an emphasis on the I – this is still her sister, for all Faith has a not dissimilar honorary role. Addressing the group, she adds, “We need to know more about the Key. Something that’ll give Dawn answers about who she is.”

“Or was” says Anya, “before the monks came along and squished her into a human shape.”

“And maybe don’t put it like that around her” says Ethan, noting Buffy’s troubled expression. Xander sees it too, and looks a little shamefaced on behalf of his girlfriend, but Anya, busy rearranging things on a shelf behind the counter, doesn’t see it.

“I’m not sure we can offer further answers just yet” Rupert tells Buffy. “If we thought there was limited information on Glory, we’ve even less about the Key.”

Anya makes a disgusted noise, and Rupert adds, “I know it’s frustrating.”

“Not that” Anya is focused on something on the shelf that has her wrinkle her nose as she lifts it. “Someone’s been using the Urn of Ishtar as an ashtray.” She holds out the offending item.

“It wasn’t me” says Faith.

“No” says Rupert. “I think we all know who it was.”

Buffy is already looking murderous. Ethan just has time to feel sorry for Spike before the look is turned his way. “Ethan, if you hadn’t lifted the demon-barrier…”

“…Then Spike would have just waited outside” finishes Rupert gently.

There is a tense pause before Buffy admits, “I guess.” She stands abruptly. “He is so going to pay.”

As she heads out the door, Anya asks, “Pay for the urn, right? Because it won’t be able to channel anything now.”

“You might just have to be happy nothing else is broken, mood B’s in” Faith tells her. “Are you guys okay to research? ’Cause I mainly just tagged along to use the training room. Way Dawn’s been acting since this all went down, I’m about ready to work off some tension.”

“You’re not going to follow Buffy and hit Spike?” Xander asks.

“Nah, B will hit him enough for both of us.”

*****

Understandably, but also very recklessly, Dawn goes missing that evening. Giles, aware that he himself ran away at a slightly less tender age for a much less devastating reason, feels nothing but concern for the child, along with a desperate need to find her. It is a need shared by all of them, even, apparently, by Spike, whom Buffy dragged to the Magic Box to join the search, but who doesn’t complain about the dragging.

Before Buffy can divide the town into portions for them all to search, Ethan produces a rolled-up map from under the counter. “Or” he says, “We do a location spell.”

“Or that” says Buffy, and helps him clear the counter, lay the map flat.

After a few moments of concentration on Ethan’s part and silent impatience on everyone else’s, a green pinpoint of light appears amid the paler green of the map that denotes the park.

“Great” mutters Buffy, her tone a mixture of annoyance and fear. “Couldn’t she pick a less vampy place?”

“In this town?” says Anya.

“There are vampires everywhere” Faith states. “What, did you think she’d be in a church?”

“She’ll be on the move” Willow says, “I don’t think she’s going to want to sit down on a park bench by herself at night.”

“Yeah” says Tara, “She’s heading somewhere.”

“I guess” Buffy murmurs, eyes still on the green dot. When it vanishes, she gasps, and demands, “What does that mean?”

“Just the spell wearing off” Ethan reassures her.

“Right.” Buffy nods, still looking at where the green light was. “Right, let’s get to the park. If she’s moved on by the time we get there, Spike can track her scent.” She heads for the door. “Let’s get her home.”

*****

“What I want to know” says Faith the next day, “is how come Glory was at the hospital?” She feints to the left and knocks the dummy into Buffy’s path, as her sister slayer advances on her, club in hand. Giles, leaning against the vaulting horse to observe a training session that has somewhat escaped his authority, replies, “It must be a coincidence.”

“Yep” Buffy steps neatly over the dummy and swings the club at Faith, who knocks the blow aside with her own. “That or she was reading to sick people.”

Giles comments, “We’d be naïve to think she doesn’t have a watch on your home.”

Buffy swings the club in a killing sweep, pulls it back at the last moment. Faith, looking somewhat put out at her untimely death, drops her weapon to the ground and hoists herself on to the vaulting horse, crosses her legs. “We should get Spike to spy on her spies while he spying on you, B.”

Giles glances from slayer to slayer. “Spying on you?”

Buffy has picked up the fallen club and puts both weapons away in the cabinet. “Some weird Spike thing. And, Faith, how do you know he’s not spying on you?”

Faith shrugs. “Whichever. All I know is he’s got a slayer fixation and your tree out the front’s growing out an ashtray these days.”

Buffy joins them, leaning against the wall to say, “I so don’t have time for Spike’s issues right now. If he wants to hang around, fine: it gives us a bloodhound if Dawn takes off again.” Her expression sobers. “Which she better not.”

“She seems to be over the worst of the shock” Giles tells her.

“Yeah” rejoins Faith, “Now she’s on to the shock of hanging out with Glory and watching Willow teleport her.”

In all honesty, Giles was still processing some shock over the latter himself. Not so much the teleportation – though that was a monstrously ambitious spell – but the chill he had felt when Willow had collapsed as Glory vanished. “Yes, well” he finds himself saying, “it was necessary under the circumstances.” And would he, he asks himself, accept the same necessity if it were Ethan doing the magic? 

Possibly Buffy is thinking along the same lines, because she meets his eyes for a moment before looking away, stares pensively at the prone dummy.

Faith looks from one to the other of them and declares, “Look, she’ll be fine. Kids are like…putty or something. In a tough way.”

“Resilient?” Giles supplies.

“Yeah. So don’t worry, B. She won’t take off again.”

“I hope not” says Buffy quietly. Apparently catching herself looking tired, she straightens up. “At least she went to the hospital. Phones, security guards, minimal vampires.”

“And Ben” adds Faith. Buffy gives her look, but Faith ignores it and nudges Giles. “Giles, tell her she has to call him.”

“Um” Giles manages, “Call…?”

“The doctor who looked after Dawnie before Glory showed up” Faith explains. “I got his number ages back.”

“Back when mom was sick” mutters Buffy.

“What, I’m not allowed to score for you when life’s a bitch? You’ll be in a nursing home before you get some, B, if that’s –”

“I don’t need you to score for me!” Buffy looks, if anything, as mortified as Giles feels. It’s a welcome change from seeing her so worried, but Giles still straightens up and heads for the weapons cabinet, busies himself checking that the clubs are properly secured and that everything is facing the right way.

Behind him, Buffy says, “Anyway, I thought you liked him?”

“Well yeah” replies Faith, “But I can find someone else with a face and a butt. You want someone who’s actually looking to stick around come hell or hell gods.”

“Faith, you realise you are allowed to find a nice guy to date long term. You can have romance.”

“Nah, I’ve seen how that goes. I’m just in it for the grunt and grind.”

Coughing instinctively, Giles fumbles for a dropped dagger. “Right” he says, turning back to his slayers. “V-very good technique today, but I think we’ve done enough. More than enough.”

Faith grins at him. “What’s wrong Giles – you scared of a little girl talk?”

“Like you’re not” mutters Buffy.

Faith rounds on her. “What?”

“You’re scared to call him yourself because he’s the kind of guy who might actually want to stick around come hell or hell gods.”

Faith snorts out a note of laughter. “I’ve got better things to be scared of than some guy.”

“You won’t have a problem calling him, then.”

“Buffy” Giles attempts, “If Faith doesn’t wan –”

“You’re on, B” Faith interrupts. “If you’re sure you don’t want him.”

“Like I said” Buffy tells her, “I don’t need your help finding a guy.”

“Okay.” Faith hops off the vaulting horse and heads for the door. “I guess if you’re really desperate, there’s always Spike.”

Buffy is still frozen in disgust when the door slams. “I don’t think ‘ew’ is a strong enough word.”

“Agreed” says Giles. He may be back on the Council’s payroll, but they are really not paying him enough to contemplate that.

Chapter Text

Never an easy thing to persuade a generally animated young woman to undertake, meditation has become a harder activity to insist upon since Buffy and Faith started training together. Neither are naturally inclined to embrace the benefits of the various meditative techniques, and the limited progress they made in utilising the practice in their early days of exploring the slayer line was swept aside with Glory’s arrival. These days, both slayers are keen to prioritise fighting techniques. Setting a crystal on each of a pair of yoga mats, Giles frowns when he hears his slayers approach through the shop: they seem to be chatting cheerfully, all the better to distract each other.

“…Seriously” Faith is saying as they enter the back room, “it’s been two days. Isn’t there, like, a rule or something?”

“But if you call him back, he’ll know you’re keen” Buffy argues.

“I don’t want him to know I’m keen.”

“Oh, so you are keen?”

Faith punches Buffy on the arm, then examines the mats. “Meditation?”

“Yes” Giles confirms, and the younger slayer takes a small restless step back, folding her arms. Buffy smirks at her, “Don’t change the subject.” To Giles, she adds, “Faith had a date.”

“Wonderful” responds Giles without enthusiasm. “Now if you could –”

“It wasn’t a date.” Faith hurriedly retraces her steps and sits down cross legged on one of the mats. “We didn’t even screw.”

“Well no” says Buffy, “Not on a first date.”

Faith glances up at her, an interested-despite-herself expression on her face. “Seriously? You actually just hang out screw-free every single time with every guy before you get to the flip n’ grunt?”

“Right” says Giles, in what he hopes is a decisive voice, “Buffy, if you could sit down, we can begin.”

Buffy eyes the empty mat doubtfully. “Begin meditating? Can’t we practise with the clubs again, what with the hell god situation?”

“Meditation with improve your focus and strengthen your connection to your power” Giles reminds her, “thus increasing the benefit you derive from combat training.”

“Yep” says Faith, “Plus this we can all shut up about my date with Ben.”

“That too” agrees Giles wholeheartedly.

“So it was a date” says Buffy. Catching Giles’ eye, she relents and sits down, but tells Faith, “I knew it was or you wouldn’t have done the whole coffee and him phoning you up thing.”

“I know” replies Faith in the tone of one acknowledging a significant flaw, “This whole thing’s wicked weird. It’s like I’m turning into you.”

“Or any other normal person.”

“It’s if you start getting straight to the screwing, that’s when we know we’ve done a personality swap.” Faith looks up at Giles. “Are we starting yet?”

“Yes” Giles confirms, and talks them through the process of sinking into the reverie, grateful for an end to the conversation. It is not that he is generally squeamish about sex talk, but listening to Buffy and Faith engage in it is uncomfortable to say the least. Hearing people so much younger than himself speak so casually on the subject is an unwelcome reminder that he is entering middle age – if not, as Buffy and Faith themselves would see it, fully immersed in that time of life. Given that he didn’t actually have significantly younger friends in London, it is an unfamiliar sensation.

But, more crucially, it is also a reminder that the children are no longer children. School students not so very long ago, they are now undeniably adults whom he cannot protect simply by issuing good advice. They are free to make their own mistakes now, and, much as that is only right, it is also worrying.

And most slayers, Giles reflects, would be dead before they were old enough to have the conversation Buffy and Faith just had. As a watcher, he is incalculably lucky to still have the slayer he was assigned to when she was sixteen sitting across from him, trying to meditate while clearly itching to do some weapons training. How much longer, these adult conversations make him ask, can he be so lucky? Clearly he will never hear Buffy and Faith talk about childcare, or about which retirement home to consign him to. Clearly he won’t hear them bemoan their greying hair. Nor will he attend either of their weddings unless it is a shotgun affair.

Well there’s always that: Only once both slayers are serene and statue-still does Giles think to wonder whether Faith’s bravado during these sorts of conversations is merely a front or something he ought to worry about. The last thing they need now is a pregnant slayer. Years ago, long before anyone imagined that the returned but disgraced younger Giles would be entrusted with a slayer of his own, Giles’ father had told him a little of the turmoil the Council had been thrown into when Nikki Wood became, as his father put it, “in the family way”. Older Council members were still bitter at having to send a task force to take over slayer duties during the third trimester. Mandatory sterilisation for all future slayers had been openly suggested. Giles did not want to be the one who had to tell them it had happened again. Good advice may not always work on his slayers, but some sort of conversation is in order.

Fortunately – from a practical standpoint that is, this not being a conversation Giles relishes the thought of having – Buffy leaves the training room as soon as her meditation is done, keen to get back home to Dawn. Left alone with Faith, Giles asks, “So your date with this Ben chap went well?”

“Even you’re interested now?” Faith, rather disconcertingly, picks up an axe and spins it. “You and B need to get yourselves a life.”

“I don’t suppose Joyce has already spoken to you about, well…”

“What?”

“You will be careful, won’t you? You are careful?”

Faith puts the axe down again. “Giles, don’t worry: Ben isn’t a demon. I think he wouldn’t know a demon if it came up to him and offered to buy him a drink.” She frowns. “Maybe I should warn him?” She does a little gesture then, a flip of her hand to signal an idea discarded. “Nah, I don’t want him to think I’m crazy.”

“Actually, that’s not the sort of careful I meant.”

Faith considers him. “This a secret identity thing? You let Buffy date.”

Let isn’t exactly how I’d put it.” Giles removes his glasses to avoid her puzzled stare. “I meant, are you being careful with yourself? Personally.”

“Huh?”

Enough of this prudishness, Giles decides. “Faith, if you do…If things progress, do you know about protection?”

“Like weapons and stuff?” Faith asks blankly.

Giles forces himself to say, “Like condoms and, err, stuff.” With any luck, she won’t ask him about the stuff part of that equation: he is in no way qualified to tell her about all that.

Faith’s stare wavers into incredulity and she bursts out laughing. “Oh fuck! Is this The Talk?”

“I need to know you’ll be safe” Giles reasons. “Able to fight and not incumbered with…”

“With a brat?”

“Well, yes” Giles insists. “The last thing I want is to tell the Council that you can’t join the coming battle with Glory because you’re…”

“Because Ben didn’t wear a raincoat?” Faith can barely contain herself. “You should call them up and tell them that anyway, just hear them drop their tea!”

“Faith, be serious!”

“Oh, I am!” But Faith calms herself down.

“Well?” Giles asks once she is quiet.

She looks a little surprised. “You’re actually asking me if I can put a condom on a guy? It’s not degree-level stuff, Giles. And I popped the cherry long before Sunnydale.”

Giles isn’t sure if he is imagining her amused tone becoming just a little forced. He asks, “So you don’t have any, um, questions, or, or anything, in that regard?”

“Giles, I think if I was going to get myself pregnant, it would have happened already. Besides” Faith shrugs, taking a step towards the door “it’s not like I just got engaged or anything. I’ll probably be done with the guy soon.”

Or he’ll be done with her. Belatedly, Giles realises he may have been focusing on entirely the wrong risks: For Faith, commitment and affection are new and frightening. “Or” he says gently, “he may like you and you may like him. Stranger things do happen.”

Faith pauses halfway to the door and pulls a face. “Not much stranger” she says. 

*****

Pregnancy risks aside, Faith dating also comes with the downside of there being no-one to guard Joyce and Dawn when Buffy has a well earned night out with her friends, and so it falls to Giles and Ethan.

“As if we’d be any match for a hell god” gripes Ethan as they make their way over to the Summers’ house.

“We could buy some time” reasons Giles. “You might be able to slow her down with magic while I distract her.”

“By letting her kill you?”

“I’d think of something” Giles replies, because Ethan would do what Buffy calls freaking out if he said yes.

Existential fears notwithstanding, the evening is a pleasant one. Joyce and Ethan quickly fall to talking about art and Giles is left to talk books with Dawn. They may read very different books, but Giles likes simply knowing that at least one teenager in this world still enjoys reading. Possibly, he supposes, the monks did too, but the thought is so strange that he puts it out of his mind.

When the front door opens and closes, it is too mundane a sound to signal Glory’s arrival, and Ethan confirms this, glancing over to say, “Hello, Buffy. Oh, and Faith – date moved on to the Bronze?”

“Nah” replies Faith, stepping awkwardly into the room. “Just ran into B on the way back here.”

“But it went okay?” asks Joyce.

“We just hung out a bit.”

“At his place?” asks Dawn, apparently unaware of the implications of that question.

“He doesn’t have a place” Faith tells them. “Lives with his sister so we just went to a bar.”

“Did you drink?” asks Joyce.

Faith frowns thoughtfully. “No. I actually didn’t. Booze, I mean. I had a coke.”

Giles actually believes her. She seems both sober and a little surprised at herself for it. He asks, “What about you, Buffy – good evening?”

“Yeah. Fun was had.” Buffy looks at Faith with a knowing smile. “So you got into the whole family stuff? Know his life story already?”

“Hardly. Just that he has a sister.”

“Older, younger?”

“He just said he lives with her is all.”

“She’s probably older” says Dawn, “if she’s too annoying to talk about.” Buffy scowls at her. Faith replies, “He probably just mentioned it to explain why he didn’t invite me back to his.” 

“Where’d he grow up?” asks Buffy. “Did he come here for college?”

“Did you kiss?” interjects Dawn.

“Jeez, if you guys want his life story, go ask him! I’m not gonna stand here and recap the whole thing kiss by kiss.”

“So there were kisses?” asks Ethan.

“Hey” Faith manages to inject the hint of a threat into the syllable, the way a rattle snake might shudder its tail just slightly. “How were things here?”

“Fine” Joyce replies, “No epic battles.” She smiles at the two slayers. “So, it seems like everyone had a nice, normal evening.”

“Exactly” Buffy grins. “Completely hellmouth free. Unless you count Spike.”

Giles notices Dawn take interest at that, but before she can say anything to explain said interest, Buffy is turning to Faith again and adding, “Or unless you count Faith actually having a date with a non-vampire, non-secret agent guy.”

“A Sunnydale slayer first” Ethan agrees.

Faith glances round at them all. “Okay, enough of the vicarious Ben-dating. I don’t even know if he likes me.”

“Of course he likes you” states Buffy. “You just had a second date, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, and it didn’t exactly go anywhere. We mostly just talked.”

“So, he’s obviously interested, and wants to get to know you” Joyce tells her.

Faith gives a dismissive laugh, but she seems to like the idea. She offers a confused smile and heads upstairs, leaving Giles and Ethan to witness some minor drama about a missing sweater before making their own way home.

*****

“Ethan, I need a location spell – Dawn didn’t come home.” Buffy enters the shop and steps behind the counter in one fluid movement before Ethan can respond. She retrieves a map stashed in a drawer and spreads it out.

Ethan and Anya hurry over. “I’m sure she’s fine” reassures Anya.

“I hope so” says Buffy. “Faith’s checking around where we caught that giant snake.” She watches as Ethan lays out the spell and sinks into the trance. “And mom’s at home in case she turns up there, but she must have left school hours ago. If Glory found has her…”

“She won’t” insists Anya. “She is still a teenage girl, remember. She’s probably off doing teenage girl things like shopping, or sneaking into the movie theatre, or –”

“Or hanging out with Spike” finishes Ethan.

“Exactly” says Anya. “Wait – is that a teenage thing?”

“Apparently for Dawn” Ethan nods to the green bead of light on the map, nestled in a very particular corner of the cemetery.

Buffy sighs heavily. “I really should beat him up more often.” She heads for the door. “Could you guys call my mom? Just let her know Dawn’s safe and Spike really isn’t.”

“On it.” Anya heads for the phone. Ethan is left to roll up the map, feeling, not for the first time in recent weeks, a little sorry for a certain chipped vampire.

*****

“How many?” asks Giles, looking over the newspaper article that first alerted Buffy to the massacre.

“Not more than three” Buffy replies. “It could even have been one especially nasty one. Obviously, a moving train, not like anyone could escape.”

They are in the courtyard outside Giles and Ethan’s flat, sipping coffee and studying reports of the bloody final moments of the train’s passengers. Giles comments, “Definitely vampires – this is the third article that mentions neck wounds.” He looks over at Buffy, who is subdued, seemingly troubled. “So, nothing to do with Glory at least.”

“Right” she murmurs. She came here straight from the crime scene, and it occurs to Giles that she may simply be shaken by the loss of human life on this particular scale; a scale large enough to be shocking, but small enough to be personal. Giles begins, “Buffy, I know what you and Xander saw in that carriage must have been harrowing –”

“No. I mean, it was horrible, and I am totally going to kill what did it, but I was actually thinking about something else.”

“Do you mind me asking what?”

Buffy looks a little hesitant. Finally, she says, “Spike.”

Giles blinks. “You were thinking about Spike?”

“Dawn thinks he’s…well she says he’s in love with me. Xander thinks it’s nothing, and God, I want to believe him, but I just keep thinking…Why he does always seem to be around? There’s that whole standing outside my house thing and when you think about it, he’s never actually tried to get other vamps to kill me…Probably because the other vamps hate him now” She puts a hand to her head. “Look, just ignore me: weird life stuff. We were talking massacres?”

Giles stares at her, not sure how to mentally unpack all that. He sets the papers aside – they’ve learnt what they can from them really, and a chipped vampire with an obsession seems the sort of thing a watcher should offer guidance on. Except he isn’t all that clear what he should say, other than, “Buffy, a soulless being simply isn’t capable of love.”

“I know that” Buffy replies. She lifts one of the papers and shows him its photograph of the cordoned off train. “Kind of got a reminder of that today complete with body outlines. But they can get fixated on people, right?”

“Yes, I would say so. Spike, in a way, was fixated on you before he met you: he was determined to kill a third slayer.”

Buffy folds the paper again. “I’m his one that got away.” She looks up, seemingly struck with sudden insight. “And now he’s had time to actually get to know me, he’s not just fixated on the slayer anymore; he’s fixated on me!”

“Possibly.” Giles removes his glasses as the implications sink in. Without them, his worried expression can be taken to be merely a response to blurring vision, and therefore not worry Buffy in turn. She asks, “Could he think it’s love? Like, do they think they feel it?”

Entire hours of Giles’ training went into the psychology of vampirism and yet the question has Giles think of Drusilla, and of the disarmingly human distress Spike had apparently displayed at her leaving him. “I haven’t the faintest idea.” Focusing on Buffy, he adds, “But obsession isn’t love, or even whatever passes for it in a vampire’s mind. He may have an unhealthy fixation on you, but I can’t imagine he’s envisioning actually dating you.”

“Oh God, I hadn’t even thought of that!” Buffy groans. “I was just thinking how icky it would be if he actually said the words!”

“Well, I doubt he will if that’s any comfort. He used to be a feared creature of the night and now he’s unable to kill and obsessed with a slayer who is so beyond too good for him she’s essentially on another plane of existence. He’s probably too embarrassed to bring it up.”

*****

“He’s not embarrassed” Buffy tells Rupert when she marches into the Magic Box the following morning. “Really not embarrassed. Like, tie-me-up-and-kill-his-ex not embarrassed.” Behind her, a customer hurriedly leaves.

“Are you alright?” Rupert asks, standing up from his research.

“She’s alright enough to scare away the customers” points out Anya.

“I’m alright” says Buffy.

“Who’s not embarrassed?” Ethan asks.

“Spike” Buffy spits the word. “I need you to de-invite him from here.”

Rupert seems to be piecing something together. “He dusted Drusilla?”

“He tried to” Buffy clarifies. “Some demonstration of love but if I didn’t go gooey for him, he was going to set her on me. Luckily there was option three – punch a lot of things and get the hell out of there.”

“Wait” Ethan is struggling to follow all this, “Spike wanted you to go what for him?”

“Gooey” Buffy repeats, “lovey-dovey, ga-ga. Well, I’d have to be ga-ga to sweet talk Spike – I’d rather Drusilla ate me.” To Rupert, she adds, “I’m thinking she killed the people on the train, and I’m also thinking she’s left town now, but Faith and I are going to check tonight.” She throws herself into a chair. “So it looks like I don’t even get to kill anyone for that.”

“I’m still confused” states Anya. “Spike wants you to love him? What’s wrong with him?” Seeing Buffy’s expression, she adds, “I mean, not that you’re not attractive – to humans, I mean – but he’s supposed to want to kill you.”

“And he can’t, so it’s evolved into lust” muses Ethan.

Rupert nods. “A complete perversion of the predator instinct.”

Buffy shrugs. “Well, complete perversion pretty much sums up Spike. At least he unchained me when Drusilla broke out, or it could have been really nasty.”

“So he actually does love you?” asks Anya.

Rupert shakes his head. “Love doesn’t generally involve chains.”

There is a lot Ethan could say to that, but he manages to hold it in. Rupert sees his growing smirk nonetheless, and adds in a tight voice, “Ethan, do grow up.”

Buffy follows his gaze and pulls a disgusted face. “I don’t want to know so much I’d actually rather go back to Spike’s than know. At least there it’s okay to punch things.”

“Indeed” says Rupert hurriedly. “Well, obviously things will have to change in terms of how we deal with Spike. Given that he did threaten you with a non-chipped vampire, I wonder if staking would be justifiable.”

“No” Buffy shakes her head wearily. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m tempted, but he can be a useful informant. Plus, with him not able to fight back, it would feel ooky.” She asks Ethan, “So, can you disinvite him?”

“Not really” Ethan replies. “He doesn’t need an invite for a public place so I’d have to change the barriers all over again and keep out demons in general.”

“And they do make surprisingly regular purchases” adds Anya. “Some of our best customers – isn’t that right?”

“Absolutely” says Ethan.

Buffy looks from one to the other of them. “So, I just have to put up with a creepy vampire stalker so you guys can sell some extra healing crystals?”

“Oh no” reassures Anya, “The demons don’t buy healing crystals. It’s more hare blood, virgin tears and –”

“– and we could bar Spike nonmagically” puts in Ethan, aware that Rupert is looking unimpressed, and Buffy, murderous. “Make it clear he’s not welcome here, refuse to serve him and so forth.”

“And throw him out into the sunlight if he doesn’t leave of his own accord” mutters Rupert.

Buffy looks placated. “Good. You guys do that, and with him already disinvited at home, I think we’re good to let his weird crush just wither. With staking being plan B, if Faith has her way: She’s all set to kill him.”

“Sensible girl” Rupert joins her at the table.

Buffy offers him a small smile. “So, you’re just going to go over there and take him on with him all chipped?”

“I suppose not” admits Rupert. “But after what he tried to do…”

“Yeah” Buffy looks down at the table. “Well, he’s out of our lives now.”

Rupert says, “Possibly we let him in a little too freely. Underestimated his potential to cause harm.”

“Yeah, and to be really weird.”

“Not weird for a vampire” Ethan tells her, “Twisted love is rather their thing.” You’d think the girl would know that after Angel, but Ethan values his looks too highly to be the one to draw that analogy.

“It isn’t love” Rupert tells him.

“Nope” Buffy agrees, “Just twisted.” “Of the people here, who actually socialises with vampires?” asks Ethan. “Trust me, vampire break ups are too big a drama for it not to be love. You don’t get that worked up over someone you just shag now and then.”

“It’s not love” Buffy reiterates with deliberates slowly and clearly. “Just Spike finding a way to be even more of a creep than usual.” Obviously after a change of topic, she gestures to the research Rupert abandoned when she came in. “Is this about Glory?”

“Yes” Rupert tells her. “I’m just doing some cross referencing from the books the Council supplied. Nothing useful yet, I’m afraid.”

Buffy scans a page of notes, nods. “Well, Faith’s with Dawn so I can stay and help. Since I can’t kill Spike, I’m all the keener to kill Glory. I can just pretend she’s him with a perm.”

Chapter Text

Generally, Ethan tries to avoid entering the shop’s backroom when the slayers are training, the better to avoid flying axes and excess sarcasm, but when Rupert emerges asking for ice, he is curious enough to go in.

He finds Faith causally doing flips while Buffy hugs a padding-clad Xander. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah” says Faith. “Buffy just beat up Xander.”

“Only a little!” squeaks Buffy.

“She was thinking about Spike” Xander explains. “I can relate.”

“Here” Rupert re-enters with an ice pack and sets about helping Buffy peel Xander out of his suit.

“I keep telling you, B” Faith stretches, her legs sliding in two different directions on the mat. “Stake him or ignore him, but don’t go having a freak out over it. Who cares what that creep thinks?”

“Easy for Ms Third Date to say” retorts Buffy, helping Xander sit down. “You’ve got a regular human guy admiring you. All I’ve got is Spike.”

“Third date?” asks Ethan.

“Yep” Faith finally leaps to her feet. “But don’t start or Buffy will start reading loads into it again.” She smiles a small, unbidden smile before turning away.

Buffy sighs. “Right now, the only thing I’m reading into it is everyone has a guy in their life except me.”

“And me” adds Xander.

“Buffy” Rupert begins, “I understand this thing with Spike has phased you, but please don’t go thinking it’s a reflection on you as a person. As I said, you’re not responsible for what goes on in his sordid mind.”

Buffy shudders. “Don’t make me think about what goes on in his sordid mind.”

Faith heads over. “B, relax. You just need to go out tonight and get good and trashed.” She catches Rupert’s eye and amends, “Or something responsible.”

“I will” Buffy replies. “The going out part, I mean. And speaking of responsible, you’ll finish your date before mom starts hers?”

“Joyce has a date too?” asks Ethan.

“Like I said” Buffy tells him, “Everyone has a guy except me. Faith?”

“Sure” Faith nods. “I’ll be back in time for Dawn-watch. I could even bring Ben so me and Dawn aren’t on our lonesome. I mean, he’s a doctor – you don’t get more responsible than that.”

*****

“Joyce, nice to see you. Especially here.” Ethan heads round the counter and smiles at her. “You know, I’m not sure you’ve been in a shop of mine since I got back into the magic business.”

“It’s not really my scene” she confirms, glancing round at the stock. “But I need a spell. Or something. Just for peace of mind, really.”

“Is this about your date?”

“Buffy told you?”

“She may have waxed lyrical about everyone having a man in their life except for her. With any luck she’ll hook up with someone tonight.”

“Yes – well, except for the hook up part. I’d rather she meet the man for her when he’s doing something kind and helpful, not having a night out. But I guess that’s how people meet these days.” She pauses, adds, “And in my day too, actually.”

“I have to admit, me and Rupert didn’t meet volunteering at a food bank.”

“And I didn’t first clap eyes on Hank when he was rescuing kittens. But you’d think in Buffy’s line of work, she’d have plenty of opportunity to meet a lovely fireman or police officer.”

“Give it time.”

“That’s what I tell her. So” Joyce seems to brace herself “I need a spell to check that someone’s human.”

Ethan frowns. “Who do you suspect’s not?”

“It’s not a suspicion, really, I just…Well, I want to be sure. I know it’s crazy, but ever since Ted, I haven’t dated a whole lot. Or at all.”

“And you don’t want to start with lots of What Ifs?”

Joyce nods gamely. “What if I say the wrong thing, what if we have nothing to talk about, what if he’s a robotic serial killer…”

“Standard Sunnydale dating worries.” Ethan comes back around the counter and heads for a shelf. “Try this.” He hands her an amulet. “It won’t specify if something’s human, but give it a little blood before you put it on, and it’ll let you know if someone in the immediate vicinity doesn’t have a soul.” He doesn’t add that it was Buffy’s love life that initially inspired him to purchase the thing a couple of years ago.

Joyce studies it. “How?”

“It’s supposed to glow.”

“And I have to dip it in blood?” Joyce sounds uncertain, so Ethan takes the amulet back, and uses a sharp edge at its base to prick his finger. The blood flows up the metal, settling against the stone for a moment before sinking in with a shiver. “That should do it.” He heads back over to the till.

“Thank you.” Joyce follows. “How much do I owe you?”

“Let’s call it ten dollars, if you give me a review. I haven’t actually seen one in action before.”

“Deal.” She pays. “I’d better get home and find something that matches this.”

“Or you could just keep it in your purse and keep an eye on it.”

“No” Joyce holds it up, considering. “I like it – Thank you, Ethan.” She steps away from the till. “Well, wish me luck.”

“You won’t need it” says Ethan, and then, as Joyce heads for the door, “Just stay away from the Kahlua, yes?” and she laughs, glancing back over her shoulder as she leaves.

*****

“Hi, Giles” Buffy steps through the front door of the flat just as Giles is finishing a late breakfast.

“Buffy, hello. Is everything alright?”

“Kinda. Faith’s date hit some sort of weird blip, so she’s upset, but I got to watch Spike being thrown through a window by a teeny lady robot, so it’s not all bad.”

Giles sets his tea aside. “Robot?”

“Uh huh” Buffy sits down and recounts her strange encounter, finishing with, “So we figure we should find out who made it and…well, get him to switch it off, I guess.”

“Him? You’re assuming it’s this Warren character?”

“Yes. Plus only a guy would make a robot instead of just going out and meeting someone. Um, no offence.”

“No, it, um. It makes sense. Warren, whoever he is, has committed the ultimate objectification of women when you think about it.”

“Ew. Well, that makes me want to find him even more. Not that I can do anything to him – I’m guessing he’s human.”

“And probably very lonely and misguided.” Giles nods. “Now, is Faith okay?”

Buffy shakes her head. “Not really. She doesn’t even know what went wrong. Apparently, it all seemed like it was going well, she even brought him back home to help her Dawn-sit, but as soon as they got through the door, he got jumpy and made some lame excuse and left again. And now he’s not even returning her calls.”

“How strange.”

“Yeah, I mean, I know Dawn’s scary but not leave-the-house scary.” Buffy shrugs. “Maybe he’s commitment shy and the whole meet the family thing was too much.”

“Possibly” Giles concedes. “In which case, he’s not worth getting upset about. Faith deserves someone who truly wants to be a part of her life.”

Buffy nods. “That’s what I said. I wish I hadn’t made a big deal of all this – I let her get her hopes up.”

“You weren’t to know.”

“I guess not. I’d better get back to her. I’ll um, keep you in the loop on the robot situation.” And with that, Buffy is gone. Giles shakes his head at the thought that other people simply don’t have to worry about robots and slayer-dating woes, and resumes his breakfast.

*****

“He should come in more often” says Ethan, “You looked wonderfully manly kicking him out, Rupert.”

Giles pulls himself from the research that still takes up an entire table in the Magic Box to regard Ethan and Anya blankly. “Hm?”

“When you kicked Spike out” supplies Anya. “We’re thinking there might be some way to keep him out without shutting all the other demons out.”

“Alternatively, we could just have you around more often” adds Ethan.

“Alternatively” says Giles, “You could just change the wards so no demons can enter.”

“No” decides Anya. “There’s regular demon evil and there’s chaining up Buffy evil.”

“True, I suppose.” Giles returns to his book. It is mainly supposition, based on references to what seems to be common knowledge about demon dimensions if one happens to be a demon, pieced together for the human reader from apocalyptic prophesies and demonic texts. None of it is particularly reassuring.

“Anything useful?” Ethan has come over.

“Nothing much” Giles replies. “Just theories about what her home dimension might be like.”

“Cosy yet stylish?” asks Ethan mock-hopefully.

“Unimaginably hellish.”

“Ah. Well maybe – oh, hello, Faith.” Ethan turns with a smile as the bell jangles, but Faith marches past without returning the greeting, and enters the backroom. She doesn’t actually slam the door in her wake – with her strength, that could cause structural damage – but she shuts it hard enough that the floorboards seem to quiver and the couple perusing the merchandise by the window leave rather quickly. The bell jingles anew as they exit, competing with a rhythmic pounding that implies the punchbag is being put to good use.

“What was that about?” wonders Anya.

“I’d better talk to her” murmurs Giles, getting to him feet.

In the backroom, he finds Faith offering the poor punchbag no mercy. The dummy watches uselessly, not robust enough to accept the pounding Faith is in the mood to dole out. “Faith?” Giles crosses to the utility unit in the corner and puts the kettle on.

Faith ignores him, so he tries again: “I’m sorry. Buffy told me your date ended abruptly.”

“Everyone knows, huh? Great.” Faith adjusts her pace, punching harder still, but slower, giving herself time in-between each blow to gather her full strength behind the impact. “He just called. Broke up with me. Coward couldn’t even do it face to face.” She throws another punch. “My own stupid fault.”

Giles risks stepping closer to lean against the vaulting horse. “How could this be your fault?”

Faith gives the punchbag another jab, rattling the chain it dangles from. “Let myself get stupid.”

The kettle boils and Giles goes over to it. “Faith, trusting a person is not stupidity.” “And you’re basing that on what, exactly?”

Giles spoons instant coffee into two mugs and pours. “You trust me and Buffy, don’t you?” He pauses, waits for the answer.

Faith mutters, “Maybe you guys are the stupid ones, trusting me.” She resumes her relentless punching, giving Giles no time to follow up on the comment.

Really, he isn’t sure he wants to. He doesn’t want this to be a confrontation, especially with her more likely just angry than actually inclined to render anyone’s trust in her foolish. Instead he asks, “What happened, exactly?”

“Said he had family stuff on and it wasn’t a great time to be dating anyone.” Faith delivers another vicious punch and the chain trembles. “Anyway, he’s history.”

Giles bites back a query about Ben’s welfare at that comment. Thankfully, Faith uses the present tense when she comments, “Maybe he’s boning his sister. Or she’s actually his wife or something and I was just meant to be his bit on the side. Either way, there was something going on there.”

Giles judges it best to draw out the poison. “Oh?”

“Yeah. He didn’t talk about her much ’cept to say she existed. Only he said it like how I say chlamydia exists, you know?”

“No” says Giles, “and please don’t explain.” He does know, though: It sounds like how Ethan talks about his family on the rare occasions that he does. That reluctance, that measured statement of bare facts with all the weight hiding behind it. Giles glances over to Faith and finds her watching him. He asks, “Is that all he said?”

Faith’s lip twitches and she turns to the punchbag again, but doesn’t hit it, merely picks at a seam. “Yeah. Just family pressures.” She tries out the phrase with the same game caution with which Giles’ older relatives might try an exotic dish. She abandons the punchbag and adds, “So screw him.”

“Yes. Well, I mean –”

“Yeah, yeah, you’d never suggest such thing.” Faith hops up on the vaulting horse and crosses her legs. Giles hands her a coffee and she reaches to take it without so much as a hint of a wobble. He tells her, “I am sorry that it didn’t work out. If it’s any comfort, these things do get easier.”

Faith gives a slight nod, mulling that over, and sips her coffee. “I guess. It’s just weird is all. I’m thinking I’m just gonna go back to having fun and then pointing at the door, ’cause I don’t think guys are worth more effort than that. No offence.”

“None taken. Young men can be…Well, dating certainly comes with its challenges. But he was bound to have his reasons, and it’s better to part ways now rather than later if those reasons mean it wasn’t going to work out.”

“Right” Faith murmurs. “Reasons.” And she sets her coffee aside, slips off the vaulting horse and resumes her punishment of the punchbag.

*****

Ethan keeps his distance from Faith while she works out her disappointment on the unsuspecting punchbag that morning, in much the same way that he’d give an angry bear a bit of space. She leaves without lingering for conversation, but when she returns, after Rupert has headed home and Anya is off on her break, he has little choice but to talk to her. “Any luck on the robot front?”

“It’s dead” she states, sitting down at a table. “Or powered down, whatever. Probably felt like dying.”

“I’m not sure they feel an awful lot, if that’s any comfort.”

She shrugs. “I sat with it, anyway. Weren’t sure what to do with it after that, so we hid it in some bushes in case anyone thinks there’s a dead girl on the swings. Willow around?”

“Not today.” Ethan busies himself rearranging the display of chicken feet by the till.

“Well that’s my idea out, then – I thought she could do something with it.”

“I’ll mention it if I see her. But she’s not as taken with robotics as she used to be.”

“I just don’t want that creep to come back and scrap her for parts.”

“Creep?”

“Warren.”

“Ah, I see. But Willow would just scrap her for parts too.” Ethan notices his sympathetic switch from her to it and pulls things back to normal with, “It won’t know anything about it either way.”

“At least Willow won’t fuck it” Faith mutters. Then, decisively, “Guys just suck. Maybe I should get a robot. Wouldn’t have to bother with them anymore.”

There’s only so much rearranging one can do with chicken feet. Ethan turns round to give the girl his full attention. “You shouldn’t let one bad experience put you off, you know. He was just some arse.”

“Yeah, like all guys. Never met one who wasn’t, except…” Faith twists her hands in her lap, catches herself and slaps them on the table, opens a book. “Never met one who wasn’t.”

"You are aware I’m a guy, yes?”

“You don’t count. You’re old.”

“I’m only forty-five!” Ethan bristles.

“What, and you can be just as much of an ass as the rest of them? Just be glad you’re old and wise and all.”

“Forty-five is not old and wise! Trust me, when you get to forty…” Ethan trails off, realisation hitting without mercy. Faith smiles coldly and tilts her head. “What?” she prompts.

Ethan flails for a moment, before his mind settles on reassuring flippancy. “Oh, don’t look at me like that! There’s two of you, you’ll probably be staking vampires when you’re little old ladies with dentures. And by then, you’ll have both had plenty of human boyfriends, some of whom will have proven not to be cretins.”

“Well, I won’t hold my breath.” Faith examines the book she’s opened for a moment, shuts it again with a shrug.

“No, I wouldn’t either. But it will happen one day.”

“Or not. I don’t even care.”

“You care that you let myself care” Ethan realises. He sits down, pulling out a chair.

Faith shrugs defensively. “I just liked the idea, I guess. Haven’t ever really had a guy who didn’t act like a jerk before we even hooked up. Seemed like the sort of thing Buffy gets.” Faith glances up quickly and bites her lip, as though she wishes she could have caught the words before they were out. “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid to want to be with someone” Ethan tells her. Really, he doesn’t mind what Faith does so long as she doesn’t keep bringing it here, but she seems almost forlorn suddenly, and it’s possible to feel some concern, innate toughness and slayer strength aside.

“It is for me” she says. “I mean, I’ve seen what people do. It’s all kisses and sweetness at first and then you’re just someone they can send out to get stuff they don’t want to be caught with. That or they just go off you, go screw someone else. Usually someone thinner and blonder.” She coughs out a bitter laugh. “Ben will be with Buffy next.”

“Buffy wouldn’t do that” Ethan chides gently. “And much as Ben is clearly a pillock, he didn’t cheat so much as break up with you rather suddenly. Unfair, but hardly part of a pattern.”

“Yeah, because he’s more her pattern. People like him don’t date people like me.”

“Except he did.”

“Like three times and then he wants out. Can’t exactly blame him. I mean, he’s going to be a doctor, and I don’t even have a job.”

Ethan shakes his head. “Faith, you’re better than that. And if he’s not, you’re well shot of him. Anyway, you do have a job.”

“What, slaying? That’s not a job.”

“No, but – Oh” Ethan stands up when the phone rings. “I’d better get that. It could be Willy saying he’s found a griffin feather supplier at last.” He heads over to the phone. “Hello?”

“Ethan. Is Giles there?” Buffy’s voice is flat and hollow.

“No, he’s at home” Ethan tells her. “Is everything okay?”

“Get him here.”

“Here, as in your house? Faith’s with me, by the way, do you want to talk to her…?” Faith stands up as Ethan says this and comes over.

“Bring her too” says Buffy “And Giles. Get them here now.” The line goes dead. Ethan replaces the receiver and finds Faith staring at him. “What’s happened?” she asks. 

Chapter Text

That night, Giles holds Ethan so close that he can feel every bone in his partner’s body pressed against him. Ethan doesn’t seem to mind.

Much as Giles doesn’t like to think about it, there’s no avoiding the fact that one of them will go first. Tonight, he lets himself wonder things he usually avoids dwelling on: Who will be left alone? And for how long? No way of knowing. Perhaps mortal men aren’t meant to know such things, but it seems a cruel trick of the heavens, to make humans mortal but not able to accept it, to surround them with ageless, infallible monsters and the only sentient creatures with a lifespan of a mere eighty or so years are also the only creatures that can love.

“She was going to give me a review for that amulet” Ethan says, more to himself than to Giles.

“That hardly matters now” Giles chides. He doesn’t ask what amulet. It isn’t important.

“No, but I keep thinking, she needs to come back to the shop and give me that review. So she can’t really be dead. Because she hasn’t given me the review yet.” Ethan frowns. “It must be horribly annoying, aside from anything else. There you are one minute thinking about your new exhibition, or if you should call your fancy man, or what to cook for dinner, and then suddenly you’re called off to another plane of existence when actually you were in the middle of doing something else.” He snuggles closer to Giles. “Or maybe it just feels inconvenient for a moment. Like when you dream and you hear the alarm go off by the bed, so you say to the people in your dream oh, I’ll just get that, I’ll be right back, but then of course, you’re awake and you can’t go back, and before it starts to fade, you’re annoyed you can’t. Maybe that’s what life looks like from the other side. Like a dream you forget about after a while.”

“I have to believe it matters more than a dream, even in hindsight” says Giles. “And we need to remember, Joyce led full life.” Except she didn’t, he thinks privately; she was too young. There was more she could have done. With him still able to do those things, saying that she, who can’t now, had a full life, seems uncharitable somehow, even hypocritical. He wouldn’t be happy to be called off to another plane of existence right now.

Ethan asks, “I wonder where she is?”

The question is unanswerable, and serves only to emphasise that Joyce is gone. Giles replies, “Somewhere she’d like to be, I imagine.”

“Hm. Yes, birthing a slayer has to be worth a few ticks in the plus column.” Ethan swallows thickly. “I wonder what the chances are of us seeing her again?”

“What review was she supposed to give you?”

“Feedback about this amulet she bought to check her date was human.” Ethan’s voice regains some briefly-lost steadiness, but he frowns. “I wonder if anyone’s told him?”

Giles honestly doubts it. Only the merest beginnings of all the necessary arrangements have been tackled so far. “I’ll tell him. I’ll be going over there tomorrow to, well, to help. Obviously Buffy hasn’t ever had to make these sorts of arrangements before.” He sighs. “There’ll be a phone book to go through to start with. And I imagine she had made some arrangements when she became ill.”

“Hm” Ethan shifts against him. “I hate that you do know what do. We both used to not.”

“True.” They had known nothing of it with Randall. In the case of that first and most brutal loss, the deceased was simply suddenly gone, and his remains cleaned up by, Giles presumes, members of the Council’s task force. But that had been a mystical death. More generally, Giles has discovered since, human life never ends cleanly. Instead there is always a great deal of phone calls, and sortings through of possessions and co-ordinating of catering for the wake. Formalities and legalities. It just goes to show the hold that humanity has on this realm, that no one individual will leave without a fuss. “I suppose it happens by our time in life. If we didn’t know what to do, we’d be the ones other people were making arrangements for.”

“Please, Rupert, don’t talk about our time in life – We’re still young. We’ve still got a lot to do before we go off to another plane ourselves.”

“We have” Giles agrees. They are silent for a while then, each of them cocooned in their thoughts. Then Ethan comments, “For one thing, if something like this happens to one of us before we can get married, I really will be cross.”

Giles blinks at him. Odd that Ethan should care about marriage, all things considered, but he does. Easy much of the time to think that Ethan just wants the party, the presents, the attention, and doubtless he does, but he also wants the commitment. Except, “We virtually are married already, Eth. We may as well be.”  Unnecessary, really, to promise a lifetime of loyalty to someone to whom he has already been loyal for a lifetime. “Besides, it’s not legal. At least not yet.”

“So why don’t we do a pagan ceremony? Be married in the eyes of Janus, if not church and state.”

“I rather prefer church and state to Janus.”

“Well, that’s a rare cause of intelligence-failure on your part.”

Giles sighs but says nothing. He doesn’t want a row. Not tonight. “I was raised an Anglican, Eth.”

“So was I. I out-grew it.” Ethan pulls away a little, just enough to trace a finger over Giles’ chest through his shirt. “Besides, the church doesn’t want you. So sod it. Don’t want them right back.”

If only it were so simple. And for Ethan, of course, it has been. Finding no acceptance of anything he naturally was in the Christian deity, Ethan simply chose a god more to his tastes. Giles rather envies that cat-like sense of entitlement.

“So what do you say?” purrs Ethan.

Giles considers, but admits, “I’m sorry, Ethan: put it down to upbringing, but I just won’t feel married unless it’s under British law.”

Ethan pulls away. “Damn it, Rupert! You’re actually rejecting my marriage proposal?”

“It wouldn’t feel like marriage to me” Giles explains, reaching for him. “Besides, we don’t need to make promises in front of anyone to be committed to each other. We don’t need a piece of paper. We already have been committed, so the main advantage of marriage is the legal side, which we won’t get from rams’ skulls and nudity in the wilderness, or whatever a pagan ceremony would involve.”  

Ethan seems to fight a grin for a moment. “I wasn’t exactly picturing rams’ skulls and nudity, dear, but now you mention it…” Ethan settles back down into Giles’ embrace.

They lie quietly for a moment. “I’m sorry” Giles murmurs eventually.

“I know.” Ethan shifts, making himself fit more snugly against Giles. “You’re just determined for me to have single written on my death certificate, aren’t you?”

“Much as that thought fills me with dread, Eth, marital status isn’t listed on death certificates.”

“Obituary, then.”

“I’d set them right.”

“Only if I die first.”

“Keep nagging at me and I’m sure it could be arranged.”

“Wonderful. A rejected marriage proposal and a death threat, and all between cocoa and sleep. Some people are spared this sort of drama once they’ve got their pyjamas on, you know.”

Giles sighs heavily. “It just wouldn’t feel right. If we ever get married, I want to do it properly in a licenced venue.”

“Even though it’s only about the legal side?”

“Especially when it comes to the legal side – we won’t be legally recognised as married otherwise.”

Ethan rolls his eyes. “Honestly, Rupert, where’s your romance? It isn’t about the legal side; it’s about sanctifying our union.”

“Well, being someone’s next of kin isn’t especially romantic” Giles agrees. He finds Ethan’s hand and plants a kiss on it. “Just terribly dull, and important and practical. Besides, our union is already fairly sacred to me” And he pulls Ethan closer, doesn’t let him go until morning.

Chapter Text

The funeral is unspeakable. A simple service, the standard dreary committal, and then, one by one and in small groups, everyone walks away. Ethan doesn’t want to know how long Buffy, Dawn, Willow and Tara lingered after everyone else had left. Faith was the first to go, though not in the direction of the cemetery gates. Ethan pities any vampires lurking in the crypts at the graveyard’s far perimeter.

Xander, it transpires, needs to return to work, which leaves Ethan, Rupert and Anya to have dinner at the Espresso Pump. No-one eats much.

“I don’t understand why Joyce didn’t want a get together afterwards” muses Ethan. “That’s usually the only good part.”

“There is no good part” chides Rupert.

“You know what I mean” says Ethan. “People remember together. They comfort each other.”

“That or get horribly drunk if Xander’s family anecdotes are anything to go by” puts in Anya. “Still, must be better than that depressing ashes to ashes speech.”

“It’s circular” Rupert tells her. “It’s supposed to be comforting.”

“Well I for one wasn’t very comforted.” Anya shakes her head and gazes across the road to the Magic Box. “We should be getting over there soon to make up for being closed all day. Joyce wouldn’t want us to be closed all evening too.”

Ethan nods even though Anya is basing that on nothing at all. Joyce probably wouldn’t have an opinion on whether they took a day off or not.

“I mean” adds Anya, “she wouldn’t want us sitting around brooding, or she would have wanted a wake.”

Rupert sets aside his half finished drink and stands up. “I should head back to the cemetery. Double check that Faith finished her patrol okay.”

“See you later” Ethan tells him. He watches Rupert until he is out of sight, then realises, “We should have done a toast – to Joyce.”

“It doesn’t feel right to do that with coffee” Anya points out.

“Well then…Willy’s Place?”

“Alright.”

*****

By the time Giles arrives at the cemetery, the sky has slipped from navy to darkness, and he realises he ought to have brought a stake. Usually he is never without one, but of course he is wearing his funeral suit. He relaxes when he spots Faith stalking up. “Are you alright?” he asks.

“Great” she retorts flatly.

“I just meant a-after the patrol.”

“You should see the other guys. I’d have stayed longer but I wanted to give B some space.”

“Good Lord!” Giles takes an automatic step towards the cemetery gate. “Buffy’s still there?”

Faith takes his arm and pulls him away. “It’s okay, watcher-man; Angel’s with her.” Seeing Giles’ expression at that, she adds, “It’s just for one night.”

One night is all it takes, Giles reflects, but it would sound crude said out loud, and wouldn’t change the situation. Besides, it seems unlikely that anyone would feel perfect happiness tonight. Reluctantly, he follows Faith.

They take their time walking back to Revello Drive and it occurs to Giles that Faith may be hoping something jumps out at them. She is palpably tense, her mood almost a physical presence. It reminds Giles uncomfortably of the days immediately following Alan Finch’s death. So it is only partly out of concern – with the other part motivated by disaster prevention – that he asks, “How are you bearing up now the funeral’s over?”

“Well, B’s kinda…What’s the word? Comotose? But I think she’ll get it together tomorrow once she’s done her vamp themed vigil. And Dawn’s really quiet but she’ll get there. Probably be less of a kid by the time she arrives, but we all have to grow up.”

“I didn’t mean ‘you’ as a group” Giles tells her. “I meant ‘you’ as in Faith. How are you bearing up?”

“Oh. Well. She wasn’t my mom.”

“She may as well have been.”

Faith throws a bitter smile sideways; Giles sees it in flashes as they step in and out of pools of street light. “Come on, Giles, I’m not stupid. I know she only wanted me to move in because I was the one who could fight evil instead of Buffy one day.”

For a moment, Giles isn’t sure what to say. It is just a moment, but it is long enough that anything he does say will feel forced. He manages, “That doesn’t mean she didn’t care about you deeply.” Too late, he wonders whether Faith perhaps wasn’t sure of Joyce’s motivations for offering her a home, and was just testing her worst suspicion.

Faith’s expression is inscrutable. “I guess” she says. Then, “I’m not saying it isn’t shit. It’s just, what am I supposed to do?”

Again too late, Giles realises that may not be rhetorical.

*****

“Hi Ethan.”

“Hello, Willow. I’ll make us some tea.”

“Thanks.” Willow trails after him into the empty training room. Faith was in here pulverising the dummy earlier and the air is dusty with fallen straw. Ethan makes tea in silence and they sit side by side on the couch. After a few sips, Willow says, “I came to give you a heads up about Dawn: She was asking about resurrection spells this morning.”

“Ah.” Unsurprising really. “Well there’s not much here on that. Except for the Macaria Ritus Mortem manuscript.”

“Doesn’t mean this won’t be the first place she comes.”

“But it does need to be the last” Ethan agrees.

“Exactly.” Willow frowns. “And there’s Air Aiseirigh upstairs. Not to mention some of the books in demon languages.”

“Half of those, she couldn’t get the ingredients to start” points out Ethan.

“And the other half?”

“…Point taken.”

“And that’s even before she tries somewhere else” says Willow. “You don’t think Rack…I mean, Buffy wasn’t home a lot while that was going on, but it’s not impossible Dawn’s heard one of us mention him.”

Ethan shakes his head. “He doesn’t have that sort of power. Plus she could never find his place on her own.”

“I’m more worried about him finding her. A grieving little girl ready to hand over all the money she has and do anything else besides? He’ll think Beltane’s come early.”

Ethan shudders. “We won’t let him near her.”

“Easier to do if she isn’t trying to find people like him. Will you talk to her?”

“Alright.”

“I’ve tried, and Tara, but I’m not sure if she took it in. She just wants her mom back.” Willow bites her lip anxiously. “Which can’t happen I guess.”

Ethan stares at her. “Don’t tell me I need to give you that talk too.”

“You don’t” Willow replies quickly.

“You didn’t tell her anything?”

“No! I mean. I was tempted. But I didn’t, Ethan, I swear. I know it’s wrong. And dangerous. I just…I wish it wasn’t, you know?”

Ethan nods, allowing himself to relax. “Everyone’s got someone they’d bring back if they could.” (Randall flickers across his mind, face fuzzy because Ethan has never allowed himself to recall the details.) “But you know what happens when people try.”

“Right.” Willow nods. “Not an easy lesson to forget. You won’t show Dawn those illustrations, will you? I don’t want to give her nightmares.”

“Nothing like the nightmares she’d get if she tried the spell” Ethan tells her.

“Well, yeah” says Willow resignedly. “Let’s just make sure she doesn’t.”

*****

“I’ll get these.” Giles notices the cashier give him and Buffy an odd look and wonders what she makes of them, Buffy with her trolley full of items that imply a household of young women, with him, decidedly not a young woman, hovering anxiously and helping her pack.

Buffy glances at him. “You don’t have to, Giles.”

“Yes I do” says Giles decisively, and she argues no further, lets him pay and help her with her bags. Outside, they load up the boot of his waiting car.

“I’m gonna need to learn to drive” Buffy muses as they pull out of the supermarket car park.

“I don’t mind giving you a lift for your groceries” Giles tells her. “Ethan and I shop here anyway.” It’s the only place in town that sells anything resembling real cheese.

“Thanks. But now I’m Dawn’s grown up, I’m going to have to do the dropping off and picking up thing that…” she swallows. “That mom used to complain about.”

“Dawn’s main grown up?” Giles asks gently.

“We heard from dad at last” Buffy explains. “He’s happy for Dawn to stay with me.”

Giles fumbles the gear change, distracted by his sudden anger, and they jolt in their seats. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. It would be awful if she had to go away” says Buffy, apparently under the impression that he means sorry about her shiftless father rather than the briefly bumpy ride. Actually, Giles doesn’t feel sorry about Hank Summers so much as righteously indignant. Buffy adds, “Not to mention it would turn keeping her safe from Glory into this huge long distance slaying extravaganza. As opposed to this huge here in Sunnydale slayer extravaganza” She closes her eyes briefly, opens them. There are pale blue shadows beneath them, Giles notes. Buffy asks, “I guess we could do it, though? Faith could guard the hellmouth and I could take Dawn to Spain.” She frowns. “Only Glory would notice, and wonder why am I skipping town with this one person. And he didn’t ask.”

“He’s a fool” Giles tells her. At Buffy’s sharp glance, he explains, “To have not one but two daughters who’d make any man proud, and choose to live on the other side of the world from them? You couldn’t pay me to do it. I mean, if I had…I-I mean…”

Buffy smiles. “I know what you mean.” She settles back in her seat and watches the bonnet eat up the road. “Hey, Giles? Do you wonder if…I mean, I’ve been thinking: Dad was on the other side of the planet when the monks cast their spell. Do you think maybe it didn’t quite take right from that far away?”

“Does your father know that Dawn isn’t his daughter in the traditional sense, you mean?”

“Kinda. I mean, not consciously. But could that be why he’s making with the absenteeism? Some sort of subconscious weirdedness?”

“I doubt the spell would fail just because of distance, Buffy” Giles tells her, because she deserves the truth. “It changed so much of everyone’s perceptions of our personal history, after all; I doubt it would be phased by the other dimension.”

He senses Buffy process this, can almost feel the answer turning over in her mind before settling cold. “Just him then” she says.

“He may come round” Giles reasons.

“And I’m guessing I’ll need to get you out the room before he does?”

“I’ll behave myself.” They share a rare smile before Buffy’s expression slips back into melancholy. Giles hopes she knows that it is okay to smile again, to let happiness mark her mood now and then as she grieves, but he suspects she does. She was never afraid of her feelings. Thoughts turning to practicalities, he asks, “Can Faith drive?”

“No. Cost issues, I think. Plus, can you imagine Faith with a car?”

Privately, Giles reflects that it couldn’t be any more frightening than Buffy with a car. “I’m sure she’ll cope” he says. “I’ll see if she wants lessons. That way, you can take your time if you want to give driving another go, but you will have a driver in your house.”

“Uh huh” decides Buffy, thinking this over. “I guess that could work. Unless the sucky driving is a slayer thing and not a Buffy thing.” She sighs. “Probably a Buffy thing.”

“We can’t be good at everything.”

“Yeah, but I had to choose the basic life skill to be bad at. I couldn’t just suck at French? I mean, not that I don’t.” Buffy shrugs. “We should have got post-Toth pure-slayer me to borrow your car.”

“No we shouldn’t have” replies Giles. He turns his underappreciated vehicle in the direction of Buffy’s home, and adds, “You wouldn’t need to drive in most of Europe.”

“Yeah, but I would need to speak French. Anyway, run away to Europe is off. I’ll have to stick with the original plan of staying and fighting evil.”

“For now. But one day. As you said, Faith can guard the hellmouth.” As he says it, Giles feels a flicker of guilt, and wonders if Joyce ever felt it too. To be fair to his second slayer, he adds, “She owes you a few months, at least. Once the threat from Glory has passed, you and Dawn might benefit from a change of scene.”

“Maybe” Buffy shrugs. “It has been literal years since I got further than L.A. But maybe don’t mention it to Faith just yet? She’s in this feel nothing power on mode since mom…And it hurts to watch because you’d think she’d care a bit, you know? But in case it is just a front, let’s not find out. Because as fronts go, kinda useful.” She flinches. “Okay, that made me sound like a crappy person.”

“I think it made you sound like a person trying to cope with far too much.”

“I don’t mean I don’t want Faith to be able to grieve. Kinda wish she would, actually. I just mean, she’s keeping it all in at the moment, which means at least one of us is functional.”

“You’re functioning” Giles points out.

“Yep. Functioning Buffy. Getting groceries and everything. But I’m just play acting, Giles. I don’t know how to be mom.”

“Then try being Buffy. I always find she’s more than capable of any challenge.”

*****

When Dawn comes into the shop, Ethan lets her slip up to the restricted section before following her up. “No” he says, making her jump, “you don’t want that one.” He replaces the book in her hand. “Take a look at this one. You’ll get a zombie either way but at least with this, that will be all you’ll get. Well, probably.”

Dawn shoves the book back at him like it’s contaminated. “I don’t want a zombie! I’m trying to get mom back!”

Ethan piles the second book on top of the first, reaches for a yellowed scroll. “I’m afraid that simply can’t be done, Dawn. Like Willow told you.”

Dawn pulls a resolute expression. “Well I’m going to find a way. All this magic in the world, it’s got to be possible.”

“That’s not how it works. If magic made everything possible, we’d turn Glory into a little umbrella and stick her in a cocktail.”

“This is different. People die all the time; someone must have done something about it by now.”

“Exactly: If it was possible, someone would have come up with something better than this before now.” Ethan nods at the discarded books and hands her the scroll. “What about this one? If you get everything exactly right, you might have a few seconds to talk to something that looks just like your mum before it turns into a vessel for the God Aita. Who isn’t on the top of anyone’s dinner guest list, to put it politely.” He risks a glance at Dawn, who looks stricken, before powering on, reaching for a third book. “Of course, it is hard to get everything just right, so chances are Aita would just send Vanth instead, and at that point, having a tea party with Glory would seem fairly pleasant in light of what would start happening.” He hands Dawn the next book. “Or if you decide against that, there’s always Mephistopheles. Sickeningly traditional, in my opinion, but it might work. Word the deal right, and you might even have time to see your mum before you’re sucked into hell. Just be sure to think through all the ways your words could be interpreted before you start, though, or Joyce might end up joining you there. Old Harry is a tricky bastard and he couldn’t care less about how much you’re hurting right now. And nor could anyone else who tells you any of this will end well.”

Dawn is crying now, not the sobs of a child, but the quietly flowing tears of someone who is not quite a child anymore. Ethan reaches for her across the books but she bats him away. “I just want her back!” she gasps. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with wanting. Just doing.”

“Someone has to get this right one day! Why can’t it be me?”

“Aside from anything else, because you’re not a witch. Do you really think you can do what generations of sorcerers couldn’t?”

“Yes! Because I want it more!”

Ethan shakes his head. “So said everyone who lost anyone ever. Look, Dawn, your mother loved you. Loves you, wherever she is. She wouldn’t want you putting yourself in this sort of danger. You don’t want to put her in this sort of danger, do you?”

Dawn shakes her head miserably. Her fingers find the spine of one of the books and she strokes it gently, as though it is a furry animal rather than a book of darkness written by a demon prince. “No.”

“Okay then.” Ethan relaxes. “So, um. Tea?”

Dawn looks up at him with something dangerous in her gaze. “I get it now: I’ll have to learn magic if I’m going to do this right.”

Ethan deflates. “You won’t do it. I’ve done magic all my life and I couldn’t.”

“So I’ll have to get better than you. Like Willow.”

Ethan refuses to show the flicker of resentment that echoes through him at that. He says, “Willow couldn’t do this.” And therefore, no-one can. 

Dawn shrugs. “Then I’ll have to get better than her. Ethan, someone has to pull this off eventually – I’m going to make sure it’s me. Because you’re right, I do love mom. I don’t care how hard it is, or how long it takes, I am getting her back.”

“Dawn: No. You’re not. Look, sweetheart, I wish I could tell you something else.”

“So, you say I can’t do it but you won’t teach me magic? If I can’t do it, why does it matter?”

“Because you might try. But I didn’t say I won’t teach you magic, did I?”

“Right. When I’m sixteen.” Dawn pushes the pile of books and they tumble, dark incantation over ancient curse. Dawn looks a little shamefaced – perhaps she hadn’t intended for them to fall, and just wanted them away from her. Ethan gathers them up before they can do any damage. Really, these are not books one wants to piss off. Dawn adds, “I might not live that long anyway. Not if Glory…” She sighs, looking up at the ceiling so that fresh tears catch the light. “There’s nothing good left, is there? Even Buffy’s acting like... It’s all ruined, Ethan.”

Ethan considers telling her it isn’t. It would only be the truth after all. And what Joyce would want him to say. But Joyce, with her superior knowledge of this tempestuous child, is not here, and it seems better to say, “I know. So, how about that tea? And your first magic lesson.”

Dawn blinks up at him. “What?”

Ethan gestures to the restacked pile of books. “I’m not saying I’ll help you with a resurrection spell. I’m saying that if I’m going to go into more detail about why you can’t do something, it’s only fair I show you what you can do.”

“What if I do a resurrection spell anyway?”

“Then enjoy hell. But we’ve established you’ll need to be a witch to even try, and if I’m going to teach you, I’m trusting that you won’t try anything that dangerous for at least a few years.” By which time, the edge will be off her grief and he’ll have filled her with every shred of knowledge he has about why she shouldn’t try. Illustrations and all.

Dawn considers him. “Okay.”

*****

“Check in your wing mirror” Giles cautions as Faith wrestles with the gear stick before swinging the car around with alarming force. Perhaps it is a slayer thing.

“Giles, relax, there’s no-one else here.” They are in the surprisingly large car park that flanks the mall. It being midnight, the place is deserted.

“But if there were” Giles points out, “you’d need to check your wing mirror.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Faith accelerates sickeningly before arresting the movement with a jolting brake. “I don’t see why I have to do this anyway. Sunnydale’s teeny. We can just walk and save some cash.”

“It’s a useful skill to have if you can manage it.”

“’Course I can manage it – check this out.”

“Faith…F-Faith, don’t –” Giles grits his teeth through the skidding spin Faith sends them on. “Faith, pull over!”

“Alright!” Faith seems to make an effort to rein in her laughter with mixed results. Giles allows himself to glare as they swap over, settling himself back into the driver’s seat to announce, “Right. Concentrate this time.”

He goes over the basics again, throwing in several pointed references to road safety. For all she responds with sarcasm and a pretence of somehow knowing it all already, Faith seems interested. Once they are back in tutorial position, Faith in the driver’s seat, Giles on the passenger side, Faith remarks, “You can’t tell me you’ve never stolen a car either, so you can’t judge me for having some fun.”

“Not with my car” replies Giles through gritted teeth. “Switch to third.”

Faith tugs experimentally at the gear stick. “You know they do this amazing thing called automatic nowadays, right?”

“If I wanted to drive a bumper car, I’d go to the fair.”

“Well, Joyce’s car is automatic, and that’s the one I’ll be driving right? Maybe we should be using that.” Faith breaks off to swear as the car stalls. Stamping on the pedal, she adds, “I don’t think Buffy would like that though. Me practicing on her mom’s car.”

“Perhaps not yet, but give it time. Depress the clutch.”

Faith wrestles the car back into motion and comments, “Well I’m going to have to drive it eventually. Not like we can afford a new one.”

“Oh?” Giles feels a shiver of concern, but doesn’t let it show in his voice.

“Come on, Giles, you’ve got Buffy in college, Dawn in school and me being my ever-employable self. Buffy’s acting like all she needs to do is learn how to cook and we’ll be like the Waltons if they staked vampires, but I know better. We’re gonna need money.”

“Joyce will have made arrangements. And there’s Buffy and Dawn’s father –he has to play his part.”

“He’s a guy. He played his part and then he put his pants back on. ’S’how it works.”

Legally, he’s financially responsible for Dawn while she’s a minor” Giles argues, setting aside, with some effort, Faith’s depressingly jaded outlook. “Park here.”

“Here?” Faith eases off the pedal and frowns at the parking space. Backing up after a few attempts to approach it nose first, she says, “Maybe he will send some money but don’t hold your breath is all I’m saying. It’s wicked easy for guys to not pay here, you think anyone’s going to try and chase him down in Spain? He’s got two whole systems to play before we see any green out of him. There.”

“You’re not in the lines.”

“Doesn’t matter: no other cars about.”

“Try again, Faith.”

“Fine, whatever.” Faith reverses unsteadily.

“Check the mirror.”

“I look fine.”

“For obstructions.”

“There’s no-one else here, Giles.”

“You need to get into the habit of checking before you reverse.”

Faith sighs dramatically and makes an exaggerated show of checking, before reversing and then sliding haltingly into the space.

The lesson, such as it was, concluded, they swap back and Giles drives her home. Staring out the window, Faith wonders, “Maybe I should move out? One less mouth to feed.”

“I think that’s the last thing Buffy needs right now.”

“Yeah? Seems to me like she might want it to be her and Dawn now. She doesn’t want some stranger around.”

“You’re hardly a stranger.”

“Not in the family, I mean.”

“Joyce chose to make you a part of her family.”

“Only so I could fight monsters instead of Buffy.”

“Not only. You became a part of that family.”

“Yeah, right. Giles, I’m like the lodger and not a paying one, so now they need money, most useful thing I can probably do is move out.”

“I think you’re underestimating how useful you could be if you stay. And if Joyce only saw you as a lodger, she wouldn’t have taken you back after you worked for the Mayor.”

He senses Faith’s flinch. She retorts, “Doesn’t matter now anyway. Not sure if you’ve noticed, Giles, but Joyce is dead. ’S’what Buffy needs now that counts.”

“Faith” Giles glances over to her, despite his earlier protestations that she keep her eyes on the road, and notes the pain showing through the carefully composed expression before turning back. “After the funeral, you asked me what you’re supposed to do. The answer is, it’s not for me to tell you. It’s your decision. But if you decide to help Buffy, I suggest continuing to live with her and Dawn, and allowing yourself to grieve with them. Scary as that may be, and I’m not saying it won’t be. Buffy has lost a mother and she may as well have lost a father. Don’t let her lose you too.”

Faith is quiet for so long that it seems she won’t answer. When she does speak, it is in a nonchalant tone that Giles isn’t fooled by. “Okay” she says. 

Chapter Text

“I’m still not sure how exactly you got from Don’t raise the dead to Hey, let me teach you magic” Willow states, frowning at Ethan from across the Magic Box’s central table.

“It, it might not be the best time for her to learn, Mr Rayne” adds Tara. “Even with you to guide her, sh-she is grieving.”

“Technically” says Ethan, “it won’t be just me guiding her.”

“Only if we agree” Willow retorts.

“Willow, you’re more than ready to teach someone else. And I thought you liked tutoring what’s-his-face.”

“Percy. But that was school stuff. This is powerful mystical forces that I haven’t had a safe relationship with in the past stuff.”

“You’ve got things under control now” Tara tells her, which is not how Ethan would choose to phrase it, but he sets his own issues with control aside to add, “Exactly. You know how dangerous magic can be, which makes you the ideal teacher. If you do some lessons and I do some lessons, and Tara does some, it will be three people to keep an eye on Dawn and make sure she doesn’t do something we wouldn’t.”

“It w-would be better than her trying magic unsupervised” Tara acknowledges. “If Buffy says it’s okay…”

“She won’t” says Willow. To Ethan, she adds, “You know that, right?”

“Bugger.” Buffy’s views on the matter had slipped Ethan’s mind. Really, it’s none of her business if Dawn learns magic or not, but she doesn’t see it that way, and she has super strength. Not that she’d really use it against him, but Ethan likes to keep the slayer on side. “She’d probably be alright with it if we focus on defensive spells” he muses. “Last line of defence against Glory.”

“Defensive spells that work on gods?” Willow repeats. “That’s some high level stuff to throw at Dawnie.”

“We’d best start soon then.”

“Maybe. If Buffy says it’s okay. But even then, we’d better really watch her, Ethan.”

“I think I scared her off resurrection spells, if that’s what you’re worried about” Ethan tells her.

“It’s not just that” Tara reminds him. “The grief affects everything – her energies are unstable.”

“I guess you remember how it feels” Willow says. “You could help her through that side of it.”

“I could do that without teaching her magic” points out Tara. “I-I was thinking I should offer to spend some time with her.”

“Well you can” says Ethan. “And teach her magic.”

“It could be dangerous for her.”

“She lives in Sunnydale” replies Ethan. “Everything’s dangerous. At least this way, we can teach her to protect herself.”

“I’m in if Buffy’s okay with it” Willow decides. “But we need to be careful.”

“Of course” agrees Ethan. “When are we not?”

*****

“No”

“It’s what she wants, Buffy.”

“Ethan, she’s fourteen. She doesn’t know what she wants.”

She already has a grasp of parenting then, Ethan concludes from that comment. Cruel to point it out, so instead he says, “Fourteen year olds know what they want.”

“When I was fourteen, I wanted to win the World Figure Skating Championship and go to prom with Billy Fordham.”

“Well I didn’t say they all want sensible things.”

“You want sensible?” Buffy brushes past him and opens the training room cabinet, starts wrapping her knuckles in protective bandages. “Try not teaching magic to a fourteen year old. Especially Dawn.”

“I could teach her defensive spells.”

“Oh no” Buffy swivels, holding up a pre-emptive finger. “That’s what you said when Willow started learning – it was supposed to be all protective spells and before we knew it, it was addiction and accidental demon summoning and me getting engaged to Spike.”

“Well, alright, so the remit grew a little in Willow’s case” admits Ethan. “But it will be different with Dawn – For one thing, what are the chances of Dawn turning out to have Willow’s ability? There can only be so many geniuses in one small town.”

“Ah, yes, what are the chances of a girl who’s really the Key having special powers?” Buffy frowns. “Wait, are you saying Dawn isn’t a genius?”

“Not when it comes to magic. Probably. What I’m saying is Willow’s a special case. Usually magic isn’t particularly dangerous.” Ethan notes the knowing look emitting from Buffy and repeats, “Usually” before powering on with, “Look, all I know is Dawn could stand to learn some protection spells. And I doubt being the Key will make much difference to anything.”

Buffy seems to be at least considering the idea. “And Willow and Tara will teach her too?”

“Yes. Not that I wouldn’t be capable on my own, by the way.”

Buffy sighs. “I suppose she could do with the distraction. You won’t be teaching her anything that could make Glory back off, will you? Not that you’re Mr Reliable, but even you would have told me if you had something that would work on her. Right?”

“Buffy, dear, your faith in me is so touching. And yes, fighting-Glory-level magic is a whole other league I wouldn’t try to catapult Dawn to even if it was a league in my sights. But she could at least learn something that would buy her a minute or two, if she applies herself.” More like a second or two. But sometimes that’s all that is needed. Ethan adds, “And it’s not like there aren’t other nasties in this town.”

“I suppose” Buffy allows. “And it’s not like she’s never run off and hung out with a peroxided example of them before. I guess defensive magic might be of the good.” She snaps the roll of bandages off her knuckles with a brutal wrench and faces him intently. “That and the history and ethics stuff you should have done with Willow from the start. That’s it, okay Ethan? Teach her to defend herself and why she shouldn’t mess around with dark forces. I hear that you’re teaching her anything else and they’ll be hell to pay. She doesn’t even read books that mention anything else.”

This seems a little draconian, but it’s not as though Ethan’s original aim of steering Dawn away from resurrection magic doesn’t fit the brief. “Alright” he agrees. “You have my word.”

“I’d better. ’Cause I think Giles would be with me on this one.”

Ethan agrees, so he offers a bland smile and says nothing.

*****

“I agree with Buffy: It could be very dangerous.”

Ethan sets his magazine aside to scowl at Rupert from across the living room. “To be fair, love, you always think what I want to do could be very dangerous.”

“It usually is.” Giles takes off his glasses and polishes them. For a moment, Ethan is concerned at this reluctance to meet his eyes, but then he notices Rupert’s concentration and relaxes: sometimes Rupert really is just cleaning his glasses. Without looking up, Rupert points out, “She’s only fourteen, Ethan. And grieving. When you think about what we got up to at a less tender age…”

“…We need to remind ourselves that we were idiots back then” Ethan tells him. “Besides, Dawn’s so young, there’s a chance she might do what she’s told.”

“I think you’re being a little naïve about the typical obedience of fourteen year olds, dear” says Rupert. “And of the two of us, I’m the one who has worked in a high school.” He slides his glasses back on to his nose. “And you’re the one with a history of inspiring acts of rebellion in potential slayers.”

“Getting them to have fun for an hour or so is hardly inspiring acts of rebellion, Rupert” Ethan dismisses.

“I don’t think their watchers saw it that way.”

“This isn’t rebellion” Ethan insists. “This is teaching Dawn to defend herself.”

“Something you very suddenly want to do” Rupert points out.

Ethan opens his magazine again. “Well, we do have a hell god after us.”

Rupert isn’t persuaded. “We’ve been dealing with the threat from Glory for sometime now. Why does it occur to you to teach Dawn magic now?”

Ethan studies a picture of something very pretentious at the Tate Modern.

“Ethan?”

“Maybe I just wasn’t very quick with the idea.”

“What are you not telling me?”

“Have you seen this?” Ethan waves the magazine. “Since when is –”

“Ethan.”

“Alright” Ethan tosses the magazine to the coffee table. Truth be told, he’s a little relived to have to share this. “I caught her skulking around in the restricted section. She was planning to raise Joyce.”

“Good Lord.” Rupert sits back with an unnerved expression.

“She wouldn’t have managed it.”

“She might have come close. Too bloody close.” Rupert stares at him. “And you took this to mean she needed more access to magic?”

“She needs to know how dangerous it can be. And I need to know what she can and can’t do.”

“What she can do and what she should do are very different things. What she should not do in these circumstances is spend hours at a time in a magic shop.”

“If I didn’t have her in the shop, she’d go somewhere else – to someone who won’t enlighten her on what resurrection magic actually involves.” Sensing Rupert waver, Ethan continues, “Look, this is like when kids drink in a pub, and at least in the pub, the adults know where they are.”

“Not an especially reassuring analogy” Rupert points out.

“Well, no.”

“Does Buffy know about this?”

“No” Ethan admits.

Rupert seems to weigh something up. “How likely do you think Dawn is to try a resurrection spell now?”

“I think I’ve put her off. Or if I haven’t, she seems to want to wait until she’s properly tapped into her power, which gives me plenty of time to show her what a bad idea it is.”

“History and ethics?”

“Yes, and protection spells. Nothing else, I promise. I promised Buffy.” Ethan studies his partner. “Are you going to tell her about the resurrection plan?”

“No” Rupert murmurs, “I don’t thing so. She’s had more than enough to worry about lately.” He looks at Ethan. “And you’re certain that Dawn won’t try anything reckless before you have a chance to show her why she shouldn’t?”

“Virtually certain.”

“If that changes…”

“You’ll be the first to know. You and Buffy.”

“Good. Because for all it’s something of a cover story, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Dawn to have access to some defensive magic, given everything that’s happening.”

*****

“So” Dawn regards the waiting crystal “is this like the troll thing?”

“No” says Anya, abandoning the window display before Tara has a chance to reply and coming over to watch the magic lesson. “That was a lot more complicated. Trolls are pretty thick skinned so it takes a lot of magic to trap one. Actually, a whole range of things can be trapped in a crystal.”

Dawn eyes the crystals on a far shelf. “Like demons and things?”

“Yes” says Tara. “B-but there are no demons in these. Right, Ethan?”

“Not so far as I know” Ethan glances up from the till.

“But it’s not just demons” adds Anya. “You can put almost anything in a crystal – a spell, an emotion…”

“Sunlight” puts in Tara. “Willow’s been working on that to fight vampires.”

Dawn asks, “Could we stick Glory in one?”

“We wish” mutters Anya.

“Let’s just try this feather first.” Tara produces a feather and sets it down next to the crystal. “You remember the spell?”

Dawn nods. “I’m still not sure how it’s supposed to work with no words.”

“Not all spells require words” Anya explains. “Just concentration and innate talent.”

Dawn bites her lower lip. “Just being real here, I’m not sure my teachers at school would say I have either. At least not these days.”

“Well we’re your teachers here” Tara tells her. “And we say you can do this.”

Dawn closes her eyes. “I just do the appeal? In my head?”

“Yes, silently.” Ethan heads round from the counter and comes over.

“Are you guys all watching?” asks Dawn, her eyes still closed.

“No, no” Ethan reassures her. He and Aya watch the now-trembling feather with professional interest, while Tara looks away and out the window.

“I can’t do it if you’re all watching.”

“Just concentrate, Dawn” Ethan urges. He studies the dark circles under the child’s closed eyes and senses the disturbance in the growing magical energy surrounding her. Tara wasn’t wrong to say grief affects magic. It affects it the way impurities render a crystal flawed, creation skipping a beat to lose an atom in a gemstone here or drop new meaning into a spell there. Dawn’s magic is latticed with pain.

The feather is starting to blur a little now, not from speed of trembling but something else. The sunlight hitting the table around it starts to look a little green, as though it’s been filtered through sea glass.

Suddenly, the lightbulb over the table explodes. Everyone jumps back with exclamations and scrapings of chairs. Smoke rises around the table, and Ethan would worry about an electrical fire were it not bright pink.

“I’m sorry!” gasps Dawn.

“It happens.” Ethan flaps a hand, dispelling the smoke. “Oh, look, and you almost did it.”

“I did?” Dawn lifts the crystal, which now appears to have half a feather sticking out the side of it.

“You were thinking too literally” Anya tells her. “It’s about the energies of the crystal symbolically trapping the object in a pocket dimension, not actually cramming something in there. Otherwise Olaf would never have fitted.”

“W-well it’s still good for a beginner” says Tara.

“Well” says Dawn “I’m still sorry about the bulb.”

“Not to worry” says Ethan, “but, ah, best not mention it Buffy, okay?”

*****

“…and then the light bulb exploded” finishes Dawn at dinner. At Ethan’s pointed cough, she adds a guilty, “Oops.”

Buffy sets her fork down. “What did we say, Ethan?”

“It is defensive magic” Ethan quickly explains. “One day she could trap an attacking demon in a crystal.”

“Or a feeling or a feather” puts in Dawn.

“Ethan” Rupert glances up from his food, “I’m not sure crystal magic is entirely –”

“– related to self defence?” Ethan finishes. “Arguably so, but it involves all sorts of basics that she needs before we go on to more practical defensive spells.”

Buffy nods to an invisible audience. “Exactly how it started with Willow.”

“What’s the big?” asks Faith from across the table. “If she learns how to squish something nasty or annoying into a stone, I don’t see the harm in it.”

“I could practise on Spike” adds Dawn.

Buffy seems to consider this suggestion with some revision of opinion, but all she says is, “Just be careful.”

“I will” says Dawn, even though Ethan is fairly sure the warning was for him. He says, “Anyway, it’s not as though Willow is an irredeemable dark sorceress.”

“I know that” says Buffy. “It’s just that she’s been through a lot of danger thanks to spells going wrong, and it’s not as though we’re not swimming in danger as it is.”

Dawn looks a little apprehensive.

“Well” says Rupert, “That’s in the past and Willow seems to have things under control now.”

“Yes” says Buffy, “which is why I don’t want a new wave of teenage magic mishaps.”

“You said I could study magic” points out Dawn.

“Yeah, for protection. Hence me not wanting it to turn into something I have to protect you from.”

“Right” says Dawn, “Because there’s plenty of those.”

“Exactly.” 

“Are we all done?” Rupert stands to clear the plates, looking, Ethan notes, a little worried. Gods, but one would think he was entitled to a little trust! Then again, magic and trust haven’t gone together according to Rupert’s worldview for years now. Ethan is simply the exception. As Rupert collects his cutlery, Ethan smiles appeasingly at him. Rupert smiles back but there is something reflexive about it; Rupert’s mind elsewhere behind his gaze.

“Talking of studying” says Faith, as Rupert leaves the room, “How about a full day of school tomorrow?”

“I don’t know” says Dawn.

“You should give it a try, Dawnie” says Buffy.

“Full day?” asks Ethan.

“I’ve been coming home at lunch time” Dawn explains. “Ever since mom…”

“Ah, I see.”

“It’s to ease me back into it.”

“What do you think?” Buffy asks her.

“I…I guess. Then you can go back to college.” Dawn’s smile is so thin that Ethan can see through it to the flaw at its centre. 

Buffy smiles proudly. “Thanks, Dawn. And hey, if it’s too much –”

“No, no – it’s fine.”

“Good.” Buffy stands up. “I’d better go help Giles. He shouldn’t wash up when he cooked.”

“I’ll help” Faith rises too, grabbing what remains of the cutlery.

Dawn and Ethan are left sitting across the table from one another. Ethan asks, “Are you alright?”

“Sure.” Dawn nods.

“I’m sure you could still go home at lunch if it’s too much.”

“It’s not that. It’s just…it’s like some of the kids at school think I’m cursed or something. No-one knows what to say. So some people don’t say anything.”

“That will pass” Ethan tells her. He doesn’t know that it will, but he manages to sound sure of it. “But I’m sure no-one will mind if you need more time.”

“That’s just it: They won’t mind, but they will worry about it. It’s not like Buffy doesn’t spend enough time worrying about me. Or Faith, what with Glory.”

“Worrying is what big sisters are meant to do.”

“It sucks all the same. Hey, Ethan?”

“Yes?”

“When things are trapped in crystals, can they be unleashed? Like, set on something?”

“I suppose, theoretically. But the sorts of things that would be useful in a fight aren’t easily trained, and being trapped inside a crystal tends to piss them off.”

“Could emotions be unleashed? Like, could you make everyone really happy for a party if you had a crystal with some happy trapped inside?”

“I like the way you think.” Ethan raises his glass to her. “But one thing at a time, yes? Buffy wants us to concentrate on protection spells, and so we shall.”

“Right” Dawn’s eyes glaze. “Me being the source of the stress again.”

*****

Once the washing up is done, Ethan and Dawn dry up and tidy it all away, leaving Giles to talk to his slayers in the living room. Or rather, listen to them, as Buffy convinces herself that her understandable numbness is somehow related to her being a slayer, and Faith tries to dissuade her of the notion.

“B, this is BS!” Faith exclaims at last. “Tell her, Giles.”

“It is” Giles agrees, before noting Faith’s crude phrasing. “Um, that is, I don’t think you’re right, Buffy. Being a slayer must have had an impact on some girls’ emotional stability” (he carefully doesn’t so much as glance at Faith) “but you’ve always been a very empathetic person.”

“Well I don’t feel like one now” Buffy tells him. “I feel like the space between me and everyone else just keeps on getting bigger.” “Because you’re grieving” says Faith.

Buffy shakes her head. “It doesn’t feel like an individualised thing. Maybe this is just what happens if you’re a slayer as long as I’ve been.”

“I’ve been a slayer almost as long” Faith points out.

“And you always play well with others?” Buffy responds.

Faith folds her arms with a grunt of acknowledgement. “Well, I’m different from you.”

“Not so much. Not anymore.”

“Is being me that bad?”

“No” Buffy tells her. “You’re exactly what a slayer is supposed to be.”

“Well so are you. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

“Well I need to find my way” says Buffy, and then pauses, wrinkles her nose. “I mean to balance the slayer thing with the sister thing, not the cat thing, which, by the way, ew.” Noticing Faith’s confusion, she explains, “I just feel cut off from people –”

Faith shrugs. “Helps with the hunt.”

“But it doesn’t help me raise Dawn.” Buffy wraps her arms around herself. “Which is maybe not something the Slayer Power planned on anyway.”

“Buffy” Giles tries, “If this is really something you want to look into, there is something we could try.” He tells her briefly about the spiritual journeys he has read of in the Watchers’ Diaries, and of the sacred place in the desert that might be suitable for summoning a spirit guide.  When he is finished, Buffy looks doubtful. “I’m not sure I could leave Dawn that long.”

“You don’t need to, B. You’re talking crap anyway.”

“Yes” says Giles. “Um, that is, you’re mistaken. You’re perfectly capable of love.”

“Not that it’s all it’s cracked up to be anyway” Faith mutters. At Buffy’s sharp look, she adds, “Oh, come on! You had Riley, I had Ben: The only guy who even wants to stick around for either of us is Spike. We’re better off without the whole love thing.”

“I shouldn’t have mentioned Riley” Buffy concedes.

“Yeah, that’s ancient history.”

“But it shows that romance isn’t exactly compatible with being a slayer” argues Buffy. “That’s got to have an effect.”

“Nonsense” says Giles. “There are lots of people who set aside a robust love life to focus on the calling without being emotional dysfunctional. Where it not for Ethan, I could have been one of them.”

“It’s not romance so much” Buffy admits. “Not that that wouldn’t be nice. But I’m thinking more about everything else. How I treat my friends, how I treat Dawn.”

“You’re fine with Dawnie.”

“Buffy, you’ve been through a lot of late. It’s natural that you should feel this way.” Giles sighs. “Nonetheless, if it would put your mind at rest, I’m happy to take you to the desert. Given our research into the slayer power, it could be useful in any case.” 

“I can stay with Dawn” Faith reminds her.

“Okay.” Buffy thinks it over. “Okay, we’ll give it a go.”

*****

“You’ll be careful, won’t you?” asks Ethan as he watches Giles pack.

Giles glances up at him. “We’ll be away from the hellmouth, Eth. Not to mention Glory. I should be the one telling you to be careful.”

“All the same.” Ethan hands over his horrifically modern mobile phone, and adds, “Take this, in case you get into trouble.”

Giles takes the thing reluctantly. Really, can’t anywhere be unreachable anymore? Not even a sacred place in the desert? “I don’t see how we could get into trouble” he argues.

“I know you and Buffy, Rupert: You’ll find a way.”

“You’re one to talk.”

*****

“Maybe we could try another crystal thing” says Dawn after another futile attempt to float a feather. “At least I could do that.”

“Not really” says Anya from the counter.

“We just have a few more basics to get through” Ethan tells her. Frankly, he suspects the girl didn’t sleep last night. She’s in no state for successful casting: if she doesn’t manage something soon, they may as well stop for the day.

“What, and then I’m fine to fight Glory?” Dawn is asking, tiredness crumbling to sarcasm.

“It will never be a good idea to fight Glory” Ethan replies. “Only a last resort.”

“Right” Dawn sounds almost bored. She focuses on the feather again but it doesn’t budge. After a while she asks, “So what else can you squish into a crystal? Could someone put a house in one and just carry it around?”

Ethan considers this. “Possibly” he concludes. “If they were powerful enough.” Maybe he could ask Willow to give it a try. Ethan takes a moment to reflect that Willow has become his marker for the concept of power. If can’t attain something, it is not for mortals to attain. 

Dawn asks, “But you guys don’t even want to try to trap Glory in one?”

“It’s not something you can try without being noticed” Ethan explains.

“Plus, it would never work.” Anya comes over. “We’d just have a really angry hell god on our hands.”

“We already have” Dawn points out.

Really angry” Anya reiterates. “And don’t forget the it would never work part.”

Dawn sighs, and reaches for the feather, lifts it and studies it. “I wish it would.” She frowns thoughtfully. “Hey, maybe I could trap my fear in a crystal? Then I’d still have an angry hell god after me, but at least I could be brave about it.”

“Well” says Anya, “soldiers in the thirteenth century used to do that before they rode into battle. Left their fear behind so they’d be more useful to whatever cause they were fighting for. Usually a religious thing, back then, but one time, this girl wished –”

“For a coffee break” Ethan interrupts. He smiles meaningfully at Anya. “And her boss said yes.”

“Okay” Anya takes the hint and heads for the door. “But she has to learn about vengeance sooner or later, you know.”

“It’s okay” Dawn tells Ethan as the bell jangles in Anya’s wake. “Between Buffy and Faith, I’m used to scary stories.” She frowns. “And Spike that one time.”

“Dawn, Rupert and Buffy are already worried enough that I’m going to corrupt or traumatise you, without you coming home with stories about Anya starting the Dernbach Feud.”

“The what now?”

“Soldiers back then only set their fear aside, for the record.” Ethan stands to tidy away the books they used for the lesson. The magic doesn’t seem to want to happen today. “They didn’t throw it away, they just saved it for a more convenient time. Because generally, fear is useful. It keeps you alive.”

“Good” mutters Dawn, “Because being scared is about the one thing I’m good at.”

“Dawn, that’s nonsense. You’re good at a lot of things.”

Dawn waves the feather. “Not this.”

“You’re having an off day. It happens.”

“I’m having an off life.”

Ethan abandons the clear up and sits down again. “Dawn, I know things are tough now, what with Glory and –”

“It’s not her” Dawn emphasises the denial by dropping the feather with an eloquent little flick. “She’s nothing.”

“Joyce” Ethan realises.

“Nothing’s been right since…” The tears are back, lined up along Dawn’s eyelids like little glass beads in a case. She doesn’t blink, keeps them where they are.

Ethan wonders if he should tell her it will get better. It is true, but it sounds facetious when he tries it out in his head. Instead he says, “I’ll make tea.”

Dawn lets out a bitter laugh. “That’s really your answer to everything, huh?”

“Honestly? It’s just something to do when there’s nothing to say.”

Dawn nods her understanding as he leaves.

*****

“Rupert?” Ethan waits as a scuffling series of noises issue down the phone, until Rupert says, “Ethan?”

“Yes, it’s me.” Ethan relaxes against the Magic Box counter and surveys the empty shop. “You worked out how to answer the mobile then?”

“Just about.”

“Buffy with you?”

“No, she’s just left me actually. Headed for the sacred place under the guardianship of the spirit guide.”

Ethan doesn’t like the idea of Rupert alone in the desert. “Did she take the car?”

“She can’t drive” Rupert points out. “Besides, I’m not sure a vehicle wouldn’t ruin the spiritual experience. Or if the sacred place can be reached by road, for that matter.”

“So you have the car? For when it gets cold?”

“Yes, Ethan, I have the car. Don’t worry.” There is whistling at the other end, signal lost and found. “Ethan?”

“Still here.” Ethan starts closing up for the night as best he can while attached to the phone, reaching for potent items that are stored out of sight overnight and tucking them under the counter and into boxes on the floor.

“How are things going there?” Rupert asks.

“Oh, it’s been fine.” Ethan reaches absently for a recently acquired dolorem comedenti manuscript, a compact carving etched onto oak wood and imbued with the blood of a sorrow-feeder. His hand encounters an empty space. He glances round, looking. “No hell gods or unexpected demons.”

“Good. I was wondering if you could patrol with Faith tonight?” asks Rupert. “I don’t want her to feel that Buffy and I have abandoned her entirely.”

“What?” Ethan stares up and down the length of the nearest shelves. Has Anya moved the carving up to restricted section? That would arguably be the best place for it.

“Patrol” Rupert repeats. “With Faith. Just to let her know there’s still a, well a more experienced adult around, willing to help.”

“But there isn’t” argues Ethan. He crouches down to check he didn’t pack the carving away already. “I’m not remotely useful on patrol. You know that.”

“Really, Ethan, I’m only asking you accompany her there. You can bring protection charms.” Rupert pauses. “I take it someone will wait with Dawn?”

Dawn. Shit. “Yes” Ethan manages. “I think Willow and Tara are going over. Listen, Rupert, I’ve got to go. Take care, won’t you?”

“We’ll be fine, Eth. Have you got something for dinner tonight?”

“What? Um, yes, yes. Will you be back tomorrow, do you think?”

“That really depends on the spirit guide, but I can’t imagine it will take more than a day.”

“Right. Um, good.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Yes. I just remembered I need to go and meet a customer. To, err, sort something out.” Ideally before Rupert and Buffy get home.

“Be careful, won’t you.”

“You know me, dear. See you tomorrow.” Ethan puts the phone down and grabs his coat, hurrying out the shop to see exactly what Dawn thinks she’s going to do with a dolorem comedenti manuscript.

*****

“Hey” says Faith as soon as she opens the door. “I’ve been trying to call you but you were on the phone.”

“Is something wrong?” Ethan steps through the Summers’ front door.

“Yeah” says Faith, at the same time as Dawn, from the living room, answers, “No”. Leaning forward to wave at him in the hallway, Dawn adds a chirpy, “Hi, Ethan.” She is at least in one piece. Ethan relaxes a little. There is only so much damage she could have done with the carving: Certainly, it wouldn’t be suitable for a resurrection spell.

Taking his arm and drawing him away from the living room doorway, Faith whispers, “There’s something wrong with Dawn.”

“Really?” Ethan stares at the child, who is still visible, seated in an armchair and smiling contentedly.

“Yeah, she’s smiling!”

Ethan feels a pinch of sadness. “Is that really so unusual?”

“Recently, yeah. And it was a freaky-sudden switch – one minute she’s all quiet and serious and then she pops upstairs, comes back down with this creepy smile all over her face.” Faith frowns. “You think she’s got drugs up there?”

“I doubt it. I could look.” Best to find any evidence of a spell before Faith does.

As though reading his mind, Faith asks, “What happened in her magic lesson today?”

“We floated feathers. Or tried to.”

“Oh yeah, that’ll scare Glory off.”

Ethan sighs his frustration. “Look, when are people going to understand, there are some basics we need to cover before we can start on protection spells?”

“Basics like getting high?”

“No” Ethan glances again through the living room doorway. Dawn is still sitting there, still smiling. “I’ll talk to her.”

“You do that. And then you tell me what she said. I’m not patrolling ’til this is fixed.” Faith marches off towards the kitchen, leaving Ethan to approach a still-grinning Dawn. “Hi Ethan. Again” she greets.

“Hello, Dawn.” Ethan sits down on the coach. “So. What did you do?”

“Nothing” Dawn replies. “I didn’t do anything.” She continues to beam, bounces a little as though unable to contain some childish excitement.

“Alright” says Ethan, “then try not smiling.”

Dawn’s expression falls swiftly, wavers, then with a twitch of her lips she is grinning again. She giggles and puts a hand over her mouth.

“Dawn” Ethan warns.

“What?” asks Dawn, lowering her hand. “I can’t be in a good mood?” Her hand drums on the arm of the chair, the other reaching for a pendant at her throat, tugging it free of her collar and encasing it in her fist.

“This ‘good mood’ seems to have happened suspiciously quickly” Ethan tells her. Glancing to the door, to check Faith hasn’t snuck in, he adds in an undertone, “And my dolorem comedenti manuscript is missing from the Magic Box.”

Dawn’s smile falters and then recovers. “Sorry to hear that” she says.

Ethan reaches for the hand at her front, uncurls it gently from her necklace. On seeing it, he sits back, frowning. It is the amulet that he gave Joyce, the one that supposedly glows in the presence of a being without a soul.

Dawn glances down at it. “I didn’t steal it. It was mom’s.”

“Yes, it was.” Ethan sighs. “It’s also a crystal.”

“Well. Yes.” Still that smile.

Ethan nods slowly, thinking back over the child’s handful of lessons. “I should have wondered why you were so interested in what can be trapped in them.”

“Just the feelings part” Dawn tells him cheerfully. “You know, trapping fear, or anger, say –”

“– or grief –”

“– and letting it out again” Dawn powers on. “Not losing it, just keeping it safe, because it’s important. Keeping it for a more convenient time.”

Ethan flinches at his words. “I didn’t mean…”

“You didn’t mean” agrees Dawn. “But it is kind of an inconvenient time to be grieving.”

“Dawn, no. There’s no convenient or inconvenient with loss. It just happens when it happens and you have to cope as best you can, and process how you feel about it.”

“And I will” Dawn explains, still smiling away, like a teacher explaining something unfortunate but hypothetical to a child. “I will grieve. Just not right now. Because right now I’m being hunted by a hell god and Buffy has enough to worry about with that, without me being all…” She waves a hand in a flippant gesture that doesn’t remotely sum up what she was being.

Ethan tells her, “But, Dawn – aside from anything else – that amulet already has mystical properties. It’s for identifying what has a soul and what doesn’t. You can’t just take something that’s already being used for magic and use it for different magic at the same time; it’s like building a house on top of another house. You’re going to end up with some structural issues.”

Dawn nods grudgingly. “I think I did it wrong anyway. I just wanted to take the grief out, but I think I ended up taking out any bad feeling.”

“Well, grief is too complicated to just ‘take out’” Ethan explains. “And there’s no such thing as a bad emotion. Emotions just are.”

“Look” Dawn giggles a little, her mind apparently reaching for frustration or annoyance and finding no suitable substitute. “I didn’t say my grief isn’t important, did I? I’ve got it safe. It’s right here.” She closes her fist around Joyce’s amulet.

“You’d best not lose that” Ethan tells her. “And you’d best show me where you did the spell. The sooner we undo it –”

“Wait – undo it?”

“Yes, Dawn. You can’t just not grieve.”

“I’m not not grieving” Dawn’s smile is manic now: she would be angry, but it’s just not in her – it’s being sucked into the crystal instead. “I told you, I’m going to grieve as soon as Glory is dealt with. Once she’s gone, I can grieve without it being more stuff for Buffy to worry about.”

“Buffy’s grieving” Ethan points out.

“Exactly, and it’s killing her, and she’s got Glory to fight too – she needs me to be strong. It’s the least I can do.” Dawn sighs. It would be a sign of sorrow, ordinarily, but it comes out contented. “Can I at least wait until tomorrow before we break it?”

“No. We undo this now.”

“What, before Faith kills you?” Dawn asks cheerfully. “Ethan, if she realises something’s up –”

“– Oh, she realises –”

“– I can just tell her it’s because I haven’t been sleeping. Because I haven’t been. It’s been maybe fives hours a night if I’m really lucky, usually less. Ever since mom died.”

This is indisputable, Ethan accepts: Those shadows under her eyes can’t lie, for all Dawn might have a stab at it. He tells her, “Show me what you did.”

“Why, so you can undo it? Ethan, I’m just asking for one night, so I can sleep.”

Ethan considers this. On one hand, the sooner this spell – made unstable by the use of the amulet – is broken, the better. On the other hand, he can’t sense any imminent magical implosion and it could be that talking Dawn into undoing the spell will be easier if she has a good night’s sleep. Of course he could just undo it himself, and he will, if needs be, but it would be better coming from her. If he’s going to avoid her messing around with spells above her level again, he needs to know how far she’ll go now. “Fine” he decides. “One more night, and we undo it in the morning.”

It would be that Dawn grins at him, except that this has been her expression the entire conversation. “Great” she says.

“And show me what you did” he tells her. “I can show you how to undo it earlier if you need to.”

*****

Dawn’s room is a teenage mess, and Ethan wonders if it has always been this untidy, or if Joyce was the one who used to clean it. Dawn indicates a cleared patch of carpet and Ethan’s sympathy sours just a little at the sight of not only the dolorem comedenti manuscript, but several bunches of herbs, charms and an open book, all from the Magic Box. “You’re good” he tells her. “I can usually tell when someone plans to shoplift.” Not that he usually looks at those entitled to the friends and family discount with the same suspicion he reserves for local teens, that said. Maybe he should. Ethan glances at Dawn and finds that the good cheer that is all her current emotional spectrum seems to currently contain doesn’t know how to substitute embarrassment or remorse: She simply smiles blankly at him.

Picking up the book, Ethan examines the ingredients Dawn used and concludes, “Alright. I know what to do.” He talks her through the reversal spell, should she need it before morning, concluding with, “And first thing tomorrow I’m getting over here and you’re going to undo it whether it’s going wrong or not. Wronger than it inherently is, that is.” He glances at the smiling teen. “And I’ll take all this away with me unless you want to pay for it.”

“No thanks.”

“Well then. We can talk about it once you’ve got the full human range of emotion back.”

“Thanks for not telling, Ethan.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t tell; I said I won’t tell tonight.” Hearing the front door open downstairs, and Faith’s greeting, Ethan adds, “That will be Willow and Tara. Say hello, act sad, and then put yourself to bed. Since you’re getting a grief-free night, you may as well make the most of it.”

“Okay.” Dawn follows him out into the upstairs corridor and pauses halfway down the stairs while Ethan descends to join Faith, Willow and Tara in the hallway.

Faith asks, “You fix her?”

“Nothing to fix” replies Ethan. “Just your standard teenage mood swing.”

Faith eyes Dawn, who smiles, then bites her lip. “You sure?”

“Has something happened?” asks Willow.

“Nothing” says Ethan.

“I just haven’t been sleeping” Dawn explains. The grin beams out again and she covers it by saying, “Hi Willow, Tara.” She waves at them.

“Hi, Dawnie” replies Tara, before turning to Ethan. “A-are you sure everything’s alright?”

“It’s fine” Ethan repeats, growing uncomfortable with the lie.

“No it’s not” argues Faith. “Dawn’s been acting weird all evening.”

“I’m really okay, Faith.” Dawn smiles down at her, managing to make it look reassuring. “I just haven’t been sleeping, and with the stress, and there’s hormones all over the place.” Catching Ethan’s eye, she concludes, “So I’m going to bed now. Goodnight.” She turns and heads back up the stairs. 

Before anyone can comment, Ethan turns to Faith. “Rupert asked me to come with you on patrol.”

“Right” she replies, “We’ll make it quick so I can get back to Dawn and see why she’s so not fine.”

“She says she’s okay” Willow points out, but she glances at Ethan with a frown. Ethan doesn’t meet her eye. Maybe he should have just undone the damn spell.

“Yeah” Tara is saying, “And sh-she doesn’t seem hurt or anything.”

“She’s all hyped and chirpy all of a sudden” Faith tells them. “And I mean all of a sudden.”

“Maybe she’s trying to bury her feelings about everything that’s been going on” reasons Willow.

“Something like that” Ethan can’t resist saying.

“Whatever” mutters Faith. To Ethan she says, “Let’s just get this over with.” She pulls him out the door, telling Willow and Tara, “Keep an eye on her.”

*****

“There’s something you’re not telling me” Faith complains as she marches through a night time graveyard that would unnerve almost anyone else a few minutes later.

Ethan hurries to keep up. “Dawn is okay” he says evasively.

“No she’s not. A few magic lessons from you and you manage to get her high as a fucking kite.”

“I did not get her high” retorts Ethan, adding in an undertone, “Arguably she got herself high.”

Faith immediately turns on him. “Oh, so you admit she’s high?”

Damn slayer hearing. “It’s just a…It’s just a minor thing.” Ethan decides to come clean with, “We’re going to fix it in the morning, but in the meantime, she really could use a decent night’s sleep.”

Before Faith can reply, a third voice rings out: “Faith, Ethan.” Buffy steps into view, wearing a pleated skirt that doesn’t look particularly practical for either patrolling or the spirit quest she has presumably returned early from. She stops in front of them, smiling expectantly. “Hi.”

“Great” says Faith, “You’re high too.”

Buffy looks slightly perplexed by this, but continues to smile. “It’s time to kill evil things. Are you here to help?”

“Um” manages Faith. “Yeah. See, thing is, B, I thought I was going to do all the killing tonight.”

“I think it’s better to share, Faith. You’re my friend. You used to be evil.”

“Oh, you’re kidding me! After all this time, you’re still going to throw that back in my face?!”

“I don’t understand that question, but thank you for asking.”

Faith lifts her hands in a despairing gesture. “Whatever. Look, you should get home. Dawn’s acting weird.” With that, she shoves past Buffy, and stomps off in the direction of the crypts.

Buffy turns to Ethan, “Did I do something wrong?”

“Well you did call her evil” Ethan points out. He wonders if Buffy could actually be under the influence of some sort of confusion hex, but dismisses the idea: If whatever they cast in the desert could cause that, there’s no way Rupert would let her out of his sight.

Buffy asks him, “How’s your shop?”

“It’s good, thank you” and no thanks to your sister “Listen, did everything go to plan with the spirit guide?”

Before Buffy can answer, Spike comes running up, jabbering some story about there being a lot of vampires around tonight, which turns out to be not entirely false. Ethan misses most of the ensuing fight, being kicked behind a gravestone early on and judging it best to stay there. He is aware of Faith returning at some point, summoned by the sounds of violence as only a slayer can be.

Once it’s all over, he stands up. “Right” he announces, “That’s me done for the night. Buffy, I take it Rupert’s at home?”

“Maybe” replies Buffy. She skirts around Faith to stand next to Spike. Faith glares. “That or he’ll be at ours” she says to Ethan. “And we’re both going back there anyway. I think we’ve reached our dust quota; now it’s time to fix whatever Dawn’s done to herself.”

“Something wrong with Nibblet?” asks Spike, frowning.

“Shove off, Spike” Faith stalks away from him in the direction of the gates. “Now, Ethan. Buffy, you coming or what?”

“No thank you, Faith. I’m going to stay here with Spike.”

Faith turns. “You’re kidding me? I tell you something’s up with Dawn and you’re not going to come home?”

“Nothing’s really ‘up’ with Dawn” Ethan puts in. “At least nothing unfixable.”

“Shut up” snaps Faith.

“I’m sure you can handle it” Buffy tells her. “You’re a slayer.”

“Yeah. So at least one of us is.” Faith turns around and trudges off. Ethan hurries after her. “You really don’t need to worry about Dawn” he tells her.

“Is that code for Don’t tell Giles about Dawn?”

“Well…possibly. I’m not saying I won’t tell him, just all in good time, yes? Look, this time tomorrow, she’ll be back to normal.”

“Will Buffy? I mean, what was up with her?”

“She’s probably just having an off day. I imagine trekking through the desert with a spirit guide could put anyone out of sorts.”

“Maybe” Faith stops. “Weird she didn’t come back with us though.” Apparently deciding something, she tells Ethan, “Wait here” and turns, doubles back. Noticing Ethan following her, she reiterates, “I said, wait there.”

“Alone in the cemetery at night? I don’t think so, Faith. I could –”

“Shh!” Faith holds up a hand.

Ethan frowns, listening. “What is tha...um.” Realising what that is, he shuts up quickly. Faith is creeping round some shrubbery, and Ethan follows. He can’t move as soundlessly as Faith, but that doesn’t matter: Buffy and Spike are making too much noise to notice them. Faith takes in the scene and then stomps away with a noise of disgust. Ethan pauses just to check he isn’t imaging things. No, he has to admit to himself, Buffy really is…Well, doing what she’s doing. With Spike. “Ah.” He hurries after Faith.

*****

“I don’t believe it” says Faith as they walk home. “She’s actually doing it. Him, I mean. Doing him.” Glancing at Ethan, she adds, “I mean, I’ve joked about it, but she’s always acted grossed out. Who does she think she is anyway? If you want to screw a guy, just screw a guy, don’t make all this noise about how you’re too good for him and do it in secret.”

“She is too good for him” Ethan points out. “She has a soul.”

“Yeah, well, it’s just a grind-off among the gravestones. Not like they’re getting married.”

“I suppose so. Here we are.”

Faith speeds up and heads into Summers’ house ahead of him. Ethan follows and is surprised to find, “Anya, Xander. Hello.”

“Hi” Xander looks up as Ethan and Faith enter. Willow is sitting beside him while Tara and Anya are opposite, all of them clustered around steaming mugs on the coffee table. Willow explains, “I invited them round. We’re kind of worried about Dawnie.”

“Yeah, that makes all of us except Buffy” mutters Faith. “Well, and Ethan.”

“I didn’t quite say that” Ethan tells her.

“You saw Buffy?” asks Willow.

“She’s back early” Ethan explains. “Has Rupert been round?”

“No” Tara tells him. Xander asks, “So where’s Buffy now? She’s the best one to talk to Dawn.”

“So Dawn’s still acting weird?” asks Faith.

“She seems a little, um, hyped” says Tara.

“And she’s all cheerful and awake, and refusing to come downstairs” adds Anya. “It’s creepy.”

“And I can sense magic” puts in Willow, “Ethan, I’m worried she’s been up to something without us knowing. Is anything…” She pauses, glances at the door, and frowns. “Wait, where did you say Buffy was?”

Ethan replies, “She’s with –” and gets no further, since Faith grabs his wrist none too gently and pulls him away, telling Willow, “We didn’t. You guys wait here a moment.”

In the kitchen, she rounds on Ethan. “Okay, Willow senses magic, which means something is definitely up and I need you to tell me what.”

Ethan sighs, unsure how much to share. All this worry isn’t helping anyone, but he did promise Dawn one grief-free night. Stalling for time, he asks, “You’re not going to tell them about Buffy and Spike?”

Faith draws back a little. “No” she says, “It’s wicked fucked, but it’s not like he can bite anyone. ’Sides, they’d freak. And it kinda seems like B’s business to me.”

“Yes, I suppose so. There were at it outside though – they’re hardly keeping it secret.”

“Look, whatever B’s up to is her business. All I know is we’re on our own here, so whatever’s going on, you need to tell me.”

“Agreed.” Willow has appeared in the doorway. Coming into the kitchen, she asks, “What’s going on?”

Faith swears. “Could one person tonight stay where they are when I tell them to?”

“Sorry, Faith, best friend thing. Where’s Buffy?”

“She’s in the cemetery with Spike” Ethan tells her. “Doing, um, something.”

“Sorting something out” amends Faith.

“Something we should all know about?” asks Willow.

“Really not.”

“Oh. Well okay, then what’s going on with Dawn? And don’t tell me you don’t know, Ethan, because I can tell you do.”

Ethan looks from her, to Faith, and sighs. “Alright, I’ll tell you. But I did tell Dawn we could wait until morning to undo it.”

“Sure” says Willow. “If it isn’t dangerous.”

“It’s not dangerous” confirms Ethan. “It’s –” And at that moment, the house shakes. Ethan falls sideways just as Willow grabs him, and they both go down. A rumble bursts from the upper floor and something rushes down the stairs, bursting lightbulbs into tinkling showers as it goes, and cutting through the front door with a crunch. It leaves in its wake the sense that someone has screamed. No-one has screamed, but a scream seems to hang in the air.

Willow scrambles to her feet. “What in the name of Hecate was that?!”

“That” says Ethan heavily, “would be Dawn’s grief.”

Faith leaps up and heads for the stairs. “Dawnie?”

Willow and Ethan follow, just as Dawn appears at the top of the stairs. Her easy smile is still in place. “Oops” she says.

The rest of the scoobies emerge, a little dishevelled, from the living room. “Are you okay?” Willow asks Tara, who nods. “I’m fine but what was that?”

Willow shoots Ethan a look. “I’m guessing long story.”

Faith clambers up the stairs and grabs Dawn by the shoulders. “Did that thing hurt you?”

“No” Dawn shrugs. “I made it.” At Faith’s expression, she adds, “Oh, by mistake.”

“What is it?” asks Anya. “A demon?”

Xander, meanwhile, is stepping over what is left of the door to watch the thing disappear down the street. “Looks like smoke.” He slaps the gaping doorframe. “But surprisingly solid.”

Ethan steps outside to look. Something between a dust storm and a writhing grey river is barrelling down the street. As it passes, car alarms shriek and streetlights burst into showers of glass. As it turns the corner, a woman screams and grabs her boyfriend’s arm. They turn to watch it stream out of sight.

“Where’d it go?” Faith leans out the door.

“It won’t hurt anyone” Ethan tells her.

“What is it?” asks Xander.

“Dawn’s grief” Ethan tells him.

“Dawn turned her grief into a monster?” asks Willow.

“I didn’t mean to” Dawn repeats. She is, Ethan notices, still wearing the amulet, but it has cracked now, a grainy gash cutting through the stone. The colour has changed subtly and it is duller. Nodding to it, he says, “You tried to change the spell.”

Dawn’s fingers find the amulet and she twists it in a way that might indicate guilt of self-consciousness were she not still smiling. “I just wanted to try and get it right” she tells him.

“Get it right how? We were going to undo it in the morning!”

“Get what right?” asks Faith, “What’s going on?”

“Dawn trapped her grief in a crystal” Anya realises.

Dawn’s shoulders slump, but whatever she feels at being caught seems to seep away quickly enough into the immutable cheerfulness that now reigns unchallenged over all her mood. “Yeah” she admits. “But it went wrong.”

“It took all her negative emotions” Ethan explains. “And a fair bit of common sense too, it seems.” He glares at Dawn who grins right back.

“And you thought you’d wait until tomorrow to fix this?” Willow sounds incredulous.

Ethan waves a hand at the grief’s trail of destruction. “Well, I didn’t know this would happen!” He gestures at Dawn. “I thought she could have one grief free night to catch up on some sleep, and then in the morning we could undo it together. We agreed.” He stares at Dawn pointedly. “And the way I see it, this is a situation where it’s far better for Dawn to make the decision herself.”

“I did already” argues Dawn. “I decided to wait until we stopped Glory.” She smiles around at them, eyes wide. “So I thought if I just adjusted the spell, I could make it so I was acting more normal and you’d think I’d undone it.”

Tara wraps an arm around her. “You needed to actually undo it, Dawnie. Denying your emotions, it, it never leads anywhere good.”

“You don’t say” mutters Faith. To Ethan, she asks, “How’d I kill this thing?”

“You can’t kill it” he tells her. “It’s Dawn’s grief; it’s part of her.”

“True” echoes Anya. “We need to find a way of cramming it back into her or she’ll be stuck like a mini Stepford wife.”

“I wasn’t denying anything” Dawn is reassuring Tara. “I just didn’t want it to be in everyone’s way – Buffy has to be strong.”

“Yeah” says Faith, “so you don’t have to, Dawnie.”

“But I want to. I want to help instead of being someone everyone worries about.”

Xander turns to Ethan. “You let her do magic in this state?”

“I didn’t let her do anything! I was only planning on teaching her protection spells!”

Xander waves a hand in the direction the grief disappeared. “Yeah? Good job!”

“I-it’s not Ethan’s fault” says Tara. She indicates Willow. “We were all teaching her magic, we should have known she wasn’t ready.” Quieter, she adds, “I should have realised. I know what it’s like to grieve.”

“It’s okay, sweetie.” Willow takes her arm. When she looks at Ethan, it is with an expression that doesn’t quite accord with Tara’s equal apportioning of blame, but all she asks is, “Okay, we know Dawn’s grief was trapped in a crystal, so how did it get out?”

“Yeah” adds Faith, “And what’s with the rampage?”

“Well” says Ethan, “Dawn seems to have unleashed it and, um, accidently weaponised it.”

“Weaponised it?” repeats Faith.

“I did say oops” says Dawn.

“It wasn’t your fault, Dawn.” Tara tightens her grip on the girl.

Judging it best to stick to practicalities, Ethan powers on with, “It could be because of Dawn being a teenager – emotional instability and all that” (Dawn, he notices, shrugs and grins at that) “or it could be due to her subconscious guilt about cutting herself off from her feelings for her mother.”

“I don’t feel guilty” says Dawn with a playful frown. “I don’t think I can feel guilty.”

“Subconscious guilt” Ethan reiterates. “You’ve still got a subconscious, it’s just that some of it is, well, elsewhere.”

“Yeah, where elsewhere is what I want to know” decides Faith. She heads back into the house. “I’ll get the weapons.”

Ethan indicates Dawn’s amulet. “Using that didn’t help either.” At Willow’s questioning stare, he explains, “It’s already bewitched to show if someone has a soul or not.”

“Great” mutters Xander, “So there wasn’t much that could go wrong!” He raises a hand. “All in favour of fetching Buffy?”

“We’ll call in at the cemetery” agrees Faith, reappearing with an armful of weapons. “But if we can’t see her, I’m not hanging about. The main thing is to catch this thing and, well…”

“Squish it back into Dawn” finishes Anya.

“Yeah” says Faith, “Any idea how we do that?”

“Well, you’ll need Dawn” says Ethan.

“No way – I’m not dragging her into danger!”

“You don’t need to drag me” says Dawn. “I’ll come. But I don’t really want it back in me.” At their concerned frowns, she adds, “Well you guys saw the size of it! You try having that in your head.”

“Let’s just try and contain it” says Willow. “Faith, me, Tara and Ethan can come along and try some magic.”

“Uh huh” Xander sounds a little hysterical. “Because that’s always complication free!”

“Well…And you guys can wait with Dawn.”

“These guys and Ethan” Faith decides. She glares at him. “We need someone who can do magic in case Glory decides to use all this as cover. And anyway, I am so not ready to stop you getting eaten by Dawn’s grief.”

“It won’t eat people” Ethan tells her. “It’s grief, not a Ghora. Anyway, you’ll need Dawn to lure it back.”

“I don’t want to lure it back” Dawn tells him pleasantly. “I’m happy without it.”

“You have to have it back” Ethan tells her, “or it will be gone.”

“Good. I want it gone.”

“Not permanently, you don’t.” Ethan adds to Faith, “You could try to coax it back into her.”

“I’m not putting her in danger – I just told you so!”

“It won’t hurt her it’s her grief.”

Faith points in the direction the personified mass in question left. “I’m not letting that thing near Dawn!”

“It’s not dangerous, it’s only grief: It’s a perfectly normal thing.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah I see things like that go down the street every day!” “

“It won’t hurt her – it’s a part of her”

“Not gonna risk it on your say so, Eth – the wiccas can fix it.”

“Well” murmurs Willow, “Try to fix it.”

“There’ll be stuff at the Magic Box” says Anya, pulling her keys out her pocket. “Here – let yourselves in.”

“Thanks.” Willow turns to Ethan. “You can talk to Dawn about all this. Get her to us when she’s ready to help reign it in.” To Faith she adds, “And in the meantime we can pacify it somehow.”

“Oh yes” mutters Anya. “Because grief is an easy thing to pacify.”

Faith ignores that. “Okay then. Let’s go.” She ushers the witches to Joyce’s car and they speed off in the direction the personified grief went, leaving Ethan, Dawn, Xander and Anya staring after them.

“Well” says Anya heavily, “Anyone hungry? I for one don’t want to educate Dawn on the importance of the grieving process on an empty stomach.”

“Nah” says Xander. “I’m going to head to the cemetery. Those guys won’t have time to look for Buffy properly, but she needs to know what’s going on.”

“She was with Spike last time I saw her” supplies Ethan. He makes an on the spot decision to not antagonise the boy with the details.

“Well she’ll have moved on then. She won’t want to be near that creep.”

“Oh, I think you’d be surprised.” Ethan sighs, then trudges back inside the house. “I’m going to phone Rupert.”

*****

Rupert doesn’t answer the phone at the flat, or the mobile. Ethan hopes he didn’t leave the latter in the desert. When Xander shows up without Buffy (“But I did see Spike: He’s acting shiftier than usual if you can picture it”), Ethan wonders if perhaps Rupert has gone in search of her. He isn’t worried. Really. If something had happened to Rupert out in the desert, Buffy would have told him.

Then again, she was acting strangely. You don’t get stranger than sex with Spike.

But, Ethan tells himself, Rupert can handle himself and – assuming he hasn’t lost the mobile – it is not as though he’s without means of communication. And surely, no matter what’s gotten into Buffy, she wouldn’t leave him in danger? He’s bound to show up soon.

For the next few hours, Ethan, Xander and Anya alternate between trying to persuade an aggressively cheerful Dawn to help them break the spell, and watching the course of Dawn’s grief on television. After tearing through the town, smashing windows and overturning parked cars as it goes, it races through the woods plucking up trees, and slamming them down again in twisted splinters. Every now and then, the local news crew pick up Joyce’s car in pursuit but amid all the chaos of people rushing around to avoid the “freak storm” (“See?” asks Dawn happily, “Even the news people think I’m a freak!”) no-one takes notice of one vehicle. Finally, after rattling the ruins of the school (“It must be drawn to the hellmouth” muses Anya, and Ethan repeats yet again, “It isn’t dangerous!”)  it heads out to sea where it stops on the horizon and, for want of a better word, howls (“It’s grief, Ethan, of course it’s dangerous!”).

Eventually, Xander stands up. “Dawn, come on.”

“I’m not going” Dawn tells him calmly, and with the same indifferent smile she’s worn all night.

Xander indicates the TV. “It hasn’t hurt anyone” (“See?” mutters Ethan) “so I’m sure Buffy won’t mind me taking you to the beach so Willow and Tara can reverse the spell and…”

“And what?” Dawn asks with a giggle, “get it back into me?”

“Dawn” says Ethan wearily. “If you don’t get it back into you soon, it could disappear out to sea.”

“So, let’s trap it in a crystal again.”

“We’ve been over this. It’s already been uprooted enough. More magic could be dangerous.”

Xander glares at him. “You couldn’t have thought that oh, say, yesterday?”

“I didn’t know she was going to do this!”

“But you helped her cover it up!” Xander argues. “Man, Buffy is so going to kill you.”

Anya asks, “Where is Buffy anyway?”

Xander gestures again to the TV, to the little clump of people gathered along the shore. When the camera swings in a certain way to take in the scene, they can make out a flash Willow’s red hair as she readies a spell. “Probably already on the case. Come on, Dawn, you know this is the right thing to do.”

Dawn seems to waver, biting her lip to hold the smile down. Finally, she says, “Well…”

The remnants of the front door clatter to the floor as Buffy enters none too carefully. She is still in her impractical skirt and doesn’t strike Ethan as being fresh from the battle. He gets to his feet. “Buffy, I can explain –”

“You know where Spike is?”

“Well no, but –”

Buffy addresses the room. “Spike’s gone.”

“Buffy” Dawn sounds almost shy, her smile wavering very briefly, then recovering as she scrambles up. “I didn’t do it to forget mom, Buffy, I just wanted to be strong like you. And I couldn’t stand having all that mess inside my head anymore.”

Buffy frowns at her. “Hello, Dawn. You’re my sister.”

“Um. Yeah.” Dawn hugs her. “Always.” Then, mid-hug, she flinches. “Oh” She pulls away. “Buffy!” For just a moment, there is horror in her voice. Then it is whipped away by the spell and when she turns to Ethan the cheerful, childish smile is back. “Look” she says, holding up the amulet.

Ethan looks the amulet, telling himself that that can’t be right. It can’t be glowing. Buffy has a soul. He lets out a frightened giggle. “That must be something to do with it being used for your spell.” He looks at Buffy whose smile, he suddenly realises, has nothing behind it. He shoots out a hand, grabs Dawn’s wrist and pulls her back.

“What?” asks Xander.

“Spike’s gone” Buffy tells him. “We have to find him.”

“The amulet” Ethan explains. “It glows when someone doesn’t have a soul.”

Xander and Anya stare at the amulet that Dawn presents with a grin. The room pulsates with magic as whatever she really feels about this development is swallowed up, joins the massing grief that’s currently blurring the horizon. From the TV, weather reporters remark that the storm is growing.

“Oh, God, Buffy” murmurs Xander. He stares at Buffy, who smiles sweetly back.

“Oh Gods” adds Ethan. “Rupert!” He grabs the soulless slayer’s shoulders. “Where’s Rupert? What happened out there?”

“Is this to do with the grief spell?” asks Anya. She slips in-between Xander and Buffy and steps deliberately backwards, forcing him to do the same.

“No” says Ethan, “No, this must have happened in the desert. Buffy, what’s going on? Did something attack you?”

“I don’t think so. But when I woke up, Spike was gone.”

“Spike attacked them” Anya concludes grimly. “He’s sired her.”

“I wish” says Buffy.

“But” Xander manages, “the chip.”

“Well, yes, but how else do explain it?”

Ethan nods, stepping away from Buffy and towards the weapons chest. Then he stops, catching himself. He can’t fight Spike on Spike’s terms. He needs to get to the Magic Box. He needs a location spell. Find Rupert. Know the worst. “If he’s hurt Rupert, I’ll kill him.”

The next thing he knows, Buffy’s fist is connecting with his skull.

*****

“Ethan?”

Ethan opens his eyes to find himself on the sofa, with Dawn smiling at him. She is pale, he notes, and the magic in her aura is stronger than ever. Not much left of the poor child but grief, and that is – he turns his face to the TV – still tossing the ocean about while Willow’s magic (or lightening, as the presenters put it) flashes futilely from the beach. “Rupert?”

Dawn shakes her head. “We can’t get hold of him” she says cheerfully. The magic flares again, she pales, and the writhing shape on the TV swells.

“The good news” says Anya, coming into view, “is Buffy isn’t a vampire.”

“Xander waved a cross at her” Dawn explains.

“Yeah” says Xander from across the room, “but the bad news is Buffy still doesn’t have a soul.”

“Maybe the amulet’s broken” suggests Dawn, hope colouring her cheeks for a moment and causing a lull in the storm on the TV.

“It’s more like Buffy’s broken” says Anya.

Sitting up carefully, Ethan finds the slayer in question sitting across from him. “Hi Ethan” she greets. “You’re my friend. And a shop keeper.”

“Yes” Ethan confirms. “A shop keeper you just threw across the room.”

“I’m sorry about that but I can’t let you kill Spike. I love him.”

“You do?” Apparently Dawn is still able to feel confusion.

“Yes” declares Buffy. “I know he’s evil, but you should see him naked.”

“Ew, Buffy!” Xander, who is rooting around in the weapons chest, rounds on her. To the others, he adds, “Let’s get out here. Whatever’s going on, it has to be a spell Spike’s done.”

“More spells?” asks Ethan. This is getting to be a little too much magic even for him.

“Yes” explains Anya. “We figured if Buffy has no soul and likes Spike, there has to be dark magic involved and he’s the one who’s got a vested interest in a loved up soulless Buffy.”

“It’s true” says Buffy, “He is very evil. And we do need to find him.”

“Oh” Xander lets out a bitter laugh, “We will!”

“We will?” Buffy jumps to her feet. “Great!”

“And Rupert” Ethan stands up too.

“We tried calling him” says Anya apologetically. “No answer.”

“Let me try again.”

“Yes” says Buffy, “and then you can do a location spell to find Spike.”

“Not a bad idea” concedes Xander. “We can beat – err” (He eyes Buffy nervously) “get him to undo whatever he’s done to you and then we can join the others on the beach and get Dawn’s grief back into her.”

“But first we find Rupert” Ethan picks up the phone.

“Giles can handle himself” says Xander, “He’s probably on Spike’s trail right now.”

“I don’t want my grief back in me” Dawn tells them. “Not if I’ve lost Buffy too. I don’t want to feel that.”

“You haven’t lost me, Dawnie. You’re my sister.”

Making an effort to tune them all out, Ethan dials his mobile number. It rings grainily, signal dipping and swerving as though Rupert is in the car. Ethan feels a thrill of relief: If Rupert’s driving a car, he can’t be dead.

Then, finally, someone answers. There is a scrambling sound, as though the phone is being dug out a bag with some difficulty, and then a voice: “Hello?” It is a familiar voice, but it isn’t Rupert. Ethan’s relief melts into fear and he can’t stop himself from saying, “Buffy?”

“Yeah, hi Ethan. Listen, me and Giles just got back into town and there’s something going on down at the beach, so we’re heading over there. Is Dawn safe?”

“Dawn?” Ethan’s mind is racing. “Yes, she’s right here” As are you “Um. Is Rupert alright?”

“Yeah, he’s fine, he’s driving. Listen, Ethan, do you know what’s going on? I leave town for one day and when I get back it’s all chao –” Buffy breaks off with a sudden sigh. “What did you do?”

Offence cuts through Ethan’s nerves. “What makes you think it was me?!”

“Is it a spell?”

“Well – yes – but – Look, Buf –” Ethan breaks off, catching himself, and stares at the Buffy-double in the living room, but she doesn’t seem angry at being discovered. She and Dawn are both smiling benignly, while Xander and Anya exchange a puzzled glance.

“Ethan?” Buffy – the Buffy on the phone – asks.

“I’m here. As are you, actually.”

“Wait, what?”

“There’s another you here. And I promise that isn’t a part of the grief spell.”

“Grief spell?”

“Long story. Look, get over to your house, could you? The worst the grief’s going to do is run off and knock things over. It’s just angry and lashing out” Ethan glances at Dawn “Anyone would think it was made by a teenage girl.”

“Dawn” Buffy breathes. Ethan hears her say something to Rupert, followed by the screech of tyres. Into the phone, Buffy says, “We’re on our way.”

“Good.” Ethan hangs up and turns to the Buffy-double. “So…Who are you?”

“I’m Buffy” the thing grins.

“Really? Because I’ve just been chatting to Buffy on the phone.”

“You have?” Dawn’s beam is natural now, and beside her, Xander huffs out a sigh of relief and asks, “So Buffy’s okay?”

“Yes, so is Rupert, and they’re on their way here.” “I’m already here” says the Buffy-double. “But I can’t stay – I need to go find Spike.”

“We should still do that” points out Anya. “It still has to be him who made this copy.”

“I don’t think I’m a copy” says the Buffy-double.

“I’m going to go with evil-Buffy-clone” says Xander.

The Buffy-double shakes her head. “Spike’s the one who’s evil. But sexy. And Anya’s right – we do need to find him. Ethan can do a spell to find him because he’s a chaos mage.”

Ethan turns to Dawn. “Dawn, I don’t suppose you’ve stolen something I can use for a location spell?”

“Um, maybe” The girl hurries off to get it.

“Stolen?” repeats Anya, and Ethan shakes his head: “Really, the least of our worries right now.”

*****

“There” says Ethan sometime later, once a location spell has been cobbled together using Dawn’s loot, Joyce’s candles and a map Anya printed off the home PC. “He seems to have gone up in the world.” The light that represents Spike is glowing from a section of upmarket housing.

“Where is that?” asks the Buffy-double.

At that moment, a voice sounds in the hallway: “Oh, God! Dawn?”

“Buffy!” Dawn hurries out. “I’m okay.”

“What happened to our door?” Buffy embraces her. Dawn hugs back hard, pulls away to check the amulet and grins when she finds it has stopped glowing. “You have a soul.”

“She usually does, yes.” Rupert steps in through the hanging shards of the door. Ethan gets up to embrace him, and Rupert returns the hug after a moment of confusion. “You missed me?” he murmurs, before asking, in a harder tone, “Ethan, what precisely is going on at the beach?”

“I can explain everything. But later. First you need to see –”

From over his shoulder, Buffy, now in the living room exclaims, “Oh my God! What is this?”

“She’s an evil clone” says Xander.

Ethan takes Rupert’s hand and tugs him into the living room, where he stares at the two Buffys, who stare at each other, one smiling and the other horrified.

“We think Spike did a spell” Anya is saying.

“No” says Buffy in a voice universally reserved for slow children, “Spike built a robot. Or more likely, he made Warren do it. You guys couldn’t tell me apart from a robot?!”

“Well we have had a lot on our minds” says Anya defensively, “Dawn’s grief’s gone on a rampage.”

Rupert and Buffy turn coldly to Ethan, who manages, “I did say I was going to explain!”

“It was my fault” puts in Dawn helpfully.

“People” says the Buffy-bot, “We’re forgetting the most important thing: We know where Spike is now.”

“Good” says Buffy, “I’ll make a mental note so I can kill him later.”

“I won’t let you kill him, me. I can’t. But can you tell me where this place is?” The Buffy-bot points to the formerly glowing part of map, which is no longer glowing, but does have a little burn mark in it.

Buffy frowns. “He was there?”

The Buffy-bot nods happily. “If you tell me where it is, I can go and get him.”

Rupert is studying Buffy as she draws back, suddenly solemn. “What is it?”

“The snake demon” she tells him. She pushes past Ethan, and gathers up the weapons from the chair Xander dumped them in. “That’s where the snake demon was heading when Faith and I had to stop it reaching Glory.”

“Glory?” Dawn’s fear flares briefly, interrupting her smile before it is whisked away by her spell and she beams again. Buffy’s frown deepens but she makes no comment. To Rupert, she adds, “If Glory has him…”

“He knows about Dawn” Rupert murmurs.

“Exactly. And there’s no way he’s not telling.” Turning to the others, Buffy says, “Xander, go and get Faith and the others. Whatever mess Ethan’s spell is making can wait – it won’t even matter if Glory comes for Dawn.”

“It’s not my spell” Ethan gripes. “But Dawn’s grief has been flying about for ages now – they obviously can’t catch it.”

Buffy silences him with a look and instructs, “You and Anya take Dawn to the Magic Box. You’ll have a more supplies there for a barrier spell. Seal yourselves in.”

“I’ll drop them there” says Xander.

“Good. Giles, come with me.”

“Right you are” Rupert relieves her of some of the weapons and Ethan watches, horribly aware that nothing he can say will dissuade Rupert from running off to fight a god.

“I’ll come with you” announces the Buffy-bot. “We can’t let her hurt Spike.”

“It can fight” Ethan tells Buffy. “It was slaying in the cemetery when Faith and I saw it.” He frowns. “Um, you may want to patch things over with Faith.” If either of them survive, that is, but Ethan doesn’t want to say that in front of Dawn, even if she can’t feel fear right now.

“Okay” says Buffy, “Then robogirl, you’re with us.”

*****

“The crucial thing with barrier spells, Dawn” says Ethan sometime later, “Is the more faith you put in Janus, the stronger they are. So barriers you’re inside of are the strongest.”

“We’re hiding from a hell god in the shop basement” points out Anya. “I don’t think we can turn this into a teaching moment.”

“Well. I suppose not.” Really, Ethan had been trying to reassure the girl, but it’s not as though she’s actually scared. All her fear is out at sea with her other negative emotions, stirring up storm waves and hopefully not sailing off for good.

When the barrier spell encases them, he feels a snatch of relief, but only a snatch: Janus may be powerful, but Glory is a god too.

A compromised god, Ethan reminds himself, a banished god.

Who could trap them in here. Ethan curses inwardly: Why didn’t they do this upstairs, by the back exit?

Because it doesn’t matter how many exits you have when a god is after you, he reminds himself. What matters is trusting the spell, trusting Janus.

Dawn, he notices, is fiddling with the broken amulet. More to distract himself than anything, Ethan says, “It suits you, you know.”

Dawn smiles and shrugs. “It’s broken.”

“Adds to its character.”

“I didn’t mean to break it – it was mom’s. It’s a shame.” Dawn uses the same cheerful tone she’s employed all the way here and the magic around her twists and churns, stealing whatever she’d really feel at this juncture.

“It was only your mum’s for one night” points out Ethan. “And I’m sure she’d want you to have it.”

Anya nods. “Whether she’d want you to use it for magic is more debatable.”

“It was already magic” Ethan reminds her. “For her date.”

Dawn nods happily. “With Brian. I didn’t meet him.” She glances down at the amulet again, smile slipping and reforming as feelings flicker away, add to the mass of grief wherever it is now. She is horribly pale. She asks, “I wonder what life would have been like if mom hadn’t died and that had lasted?” Her tone is detached, but the magic swells around them.

“Your mom would still love you” says Anya.

Dawn nods casually. “Of course. It wouldn’t make much difference for me and Buffy. Mom would always put us first.” She frowns and it lasts a moment this time, fighting the spell before it is whipped away and replaced by a yet another smile. “I wonder where my grief is now?”

“Making landfall in Tokyo for all we know” mutters Anya.

“Will we be able to get it back? For later, I mean.” Another frown, another struggle, another smile, a thoughtful one this time. Dawn turns to Ethan. “Because I didn’t mean to lose it, you know. I didn’t want to, because it’s what I have left of her.”

Carefully, Ethan replies, “I suppose it was.”

She nods. “I think it’s what my love turned into. It’s the love I would have given her if she hadn’t died.”

At that moment, the building shakes. “Oh God!” yelps Anya. “Glory!” She reaches for Dawn and pulls the child tight to her. For a moment, Ethan feels nothing but blind panic, but then he realises, “No, it’s not her, it’s –” And then a smoky mass comes pouring down the stairs. Grief, it turns out, does not even notice barrier spells, or chaos mages for that matter – it passes through Ethan like a ghost and he experiences a wordless longing, and a flash of Joyce’s smiling face in his mind as it goes. Dawn gasps as it pours seamlessly back into her, and Ethan, reeling from his brief taste of it, knows to hug her as she bursts into tears.

*****

“The best thing to do” says Giles as they speed towards the row of expensive villas, “would be to burst in, stake him with the crossbow and leave as quickly as possible” He remembers the infatuated robot just in time to flinch, but it doesn’t reprimand him or, worse, hit him: It is leaning out the window shouting, “Spike!” and doesn’t actually have slayer hearing for all it looks just like a gormless version of Buffy.

“Good plan” says the real Buffy.

“Which one is it?” asks Xander as they approach, “Which mansion?”

“Hell if I know” replies Faith, staring at the burnt map the location spell was done on. “Burn mark’s too big.”

“Give it here” says Willow, reaching for it. Once she has it, magic tingles in the air. Glancing back in the rear view mirror, Giles sees her perform an anagnóstis token before pressing her fingertips to the map, effectively plugging herself into the document. “Careful Willow” he says, because she has been casting for hours.

“Not the time, Giles” puts in Faith.

Willow’s eyes flash black and her head swerves unnaturally fast to face a nearby building. “That one!”

Giles brings the car to a halt and they all tumble out, slayers, witches, himself, Xander and the robot, weapons raised.

They lower them briefly in puzzlement as a cracking sound issues from an upstairs window. “There he is!” yells Faith, and she raises her axe, darts forwards, followed by Buffy. They are almost at the building when Spike breaks the glass he’s hammering his fists against and topples forwards, tumbling several floors. Presumably he had planned to crawl out the sunlight, but on hitting the ground with a sickening thud, he doesn’t move, and it is left to Buffy to cover him with her coat and drag him to the shade.

They gather around him. “Did you talk?” demand Faith.

“Of course he talked” says Buffy. She prods the semi-conscious vampire. “Let’s get him in the car before Glory gets here.” She pulls her coat over Spike’s head. He groans drowsily. Buffy wedges herself under his shoulder and Giles takes the other shoulder, while Xander scoots round to lift the vampire’s feet. “Uh, Buffy, I think he’s broken his leg.”

“Too bad for him” Faith nudges Xander aside and helps them carry Spike to the car. Sliding him in, she tugs the coat off his face, but he is still unconscious. Glancing round, Faith nods to the robot. “What’s with that?”

Giles turns to find the robot staring down at Spike in puzzlement, or at least a robotic approximation of puzzlement.

Willow says, “Maybe the facial recognition technology is stumped by the bruising.”

“Yes” says Giles, looking down at the vampire himself as a worrying thought occurs. “For it to be this bad, she’s obviously had him some time.” He meets Buffy’s eyes as a grim resignation settles. Faith puts in, “Let’s find out what she knows at least – get in the car.”

“I think someone’s coming” says Tara turning to the mansion.

Xander readies his weapon. “I guess gods can get down stairs pretty speedily.”

Thankfully, though, what appears at the building’s entrance is not Glory but a group of her robed worshippers. Giles drops Spike and joins the fight, which, between Faith lifting the robot and throwing it at the demons, and Willow’s quick casting, doesn’t last long. As soon as they get a chance, they all retreat to the car and speed away, the robot jerking and smoking a little, eyes glazing as it settles back in the seat.

“Is she coming?” asks Buffy from the back seat, twisting around to look.

“I can’t see her” says Faith.

Willow and Tara have joined hands, Willow leaning forward, over Spike who lies across the laps of the backseat passengers, to reach Tara in the front passenger seat. Giles can hear their low murmur but can’t make out their words. He hopes it is a spell that is both strong enough to cover their tracks, but not strong enough to strain them after all the spells they cast to try to recapture Dawn’s grief. Speaking of: “Done?” asks Giles. At Tara’s nod, he switches the radio on.

“I’m not sure we need get away music” pipes up Xander.

“I want to know where Dawn’s grief is” Giles explains. If it has become damaged or lost somehow, he doesn’t want to think about the implications for Dawn.

Giles’ stress levels are high enough that he takes a moment to register that the news reader is talking about the “storm” in the past tense.

“It’s gone?” asks Buffy, “Is that a good thing?”

“If it’s found it’s way back to Dawn, then yes.” “Right” replies Buffy, “I guess we’ll know when we see her.”

“Buffy?” comes a hoarse sound from her lap. Buffy rolls her eyes and looks down at Spike. “What?”

“Is you” Spike mumbles through broken teeth. “I thought…”

“Spike, what did you tell Glory?”

“I tried to get ’way earlier…caught me in the lift…bloody arse lickers…”

“Spike, what did you tell her?” Buffy jostles the vampire, then sighs, sits back. “He’s passed out.”

“We’ll get it out of him when he wakes” Giles reassures her.

“I hope so. Let’s just go find Dawn.”

*****

Only when they reach the Magic Box to find Dawn’s emotions intact and no-one following them, do they really consider where to put Spike.

“We can’t dump him back in the crypt” Faith points out. “Not with a broken leg. Something will come along and stake him and then we’ll never know what he said.”

“I was planning to know before I stake him” says Buffy darkly. Catching Dawn’s eye she relents with, “I guess you’re right. Giles, could he stay with you?”

Ethan answers for him: “We’ve only got one bed.”

Buffy’s issues a withering glare. “He stayed with you before.”

“Yes” argues Ethan, foolishly or bravely depending on whether he’s noticed the glare, “but now he’s injured. He’ll need somewhere to lie down.”

“He’s a vampire” Buffy shrugs. “If they broke easily, my job would be a lot simpler.”

“Your job right now is to find out what he told Glory” reasons Anya. “It’s probably more convenient to do that from home.”

“We do have the basement, B.”

“It saves him bleeding on our sofa” puts in Ethan, earning himself another glare.

Buffy considers for a moment, before saying, “Fine. Fine – we’ll invite him in again. Let’s get him back in the car.”

*****

Whatever passes between Buffy and Dawn once everyone is back at their house safely, Giles isn’t sure, but when he glances through the doorway at them on his way to the kitchen, the two of them are embracing.

Ethan is in the kitchen, mixing something lurid blue and strange smelling in a clay bowl. Watching dully from a corner, the broken and now powered-down robot adds something unnerving to what would otherwise be a scene of harmless sorcery. Giles taps the edge of the bowl. “What’s this?”

“Something for Spike’s teeth. I think if they weren’t so smashed, he’d be able to at least speak coherently.”

“Not that that means he’ll tell the truth” Giles concludes.

“Well, quite.” Ethan adds a sprinkle of herbs to the mixture. “Though I can’t help but think that if he had told Glory about Dawn, she’d be here by now.”

He has a point, Giles reflects. Unless of course Glory is now plotting something subtler than simply showing up a grabbing Dawn, which seems uncomfortably more likely.

Apparently that thought hasn’t occurred to Ethan, because he changes the subject with, “You’re annoyed with me, aren’t you?”

“Not really” Giles replies. That Glory may know Dawn’s secret is too frightening a prospect to leave much space for concern about Ethan’s tutoring exploits. “Though you might want to rethink your habit of teaching magic to volatile teenage girls.”

“Rupert, I really had no idea she was planning that.”

“Which is rather the problem, isn’t it?”

Ethan folds his arms defensively. “I still say it’s better than her trying resurrection magic.”

Again, he has a point, but Giles isn’t sure he wants to tell him so. When it comes to expectations they have of Dawn, that she avoids raising the dead really ought to be a given. Before he can say anything, Buffy enters. Ethan pushes the clay bowl towards her. “Here. Just give him half to start with.” To Giles, he adds, “I’m not entirely sure that more won’t turn him blue.”

Buffy takes the bowl, pointedly not looking at Ethan. “He’ll be able to talk after this?”

“Should be.”

Giles adds, “Physically able to, yes. But it won’t make him any more reliable a source than he currently is.”

“Well I have to try” replies Buffy. “I need to know what he told her. If he talked, we’re running out of head start.” She frowns. “Where’re the guys?”

“Still outside, I think.” Faith, last Giles saw her, was prowling the garden’s perimeter with a sword like a medieval sentry, while Willow and Tara were testing their magic early warning system, watched by Xander and Anya from the porch. Anya, Giles suspects, is following some instinct, born of Viking raids, that outside is safer when danger may be heading their way.

“Good.” Buffy nods, apparently thinking something over. She sets the bowl down again. “Don’t let them back in for a moment, okay? I don’t really want an audience for this.”

“For what?” asks Giles.

In answer, Buffy heads over to the slumped robot and hoists it up into her arms, carries it out the room.

*****

“Don’t say anything” Buffy warns them sternly when she reappears, dressed in the robot’s clothes. “And don’t go into my bedroom – I left a naked robot in there and it’s scary realistic.”

“Right you are” murmurs Giles. He seethes inwardly at the thought of Spike and Warren constructing such a thing.

As Buffy disappears down the stairs to the basement, Ethan comments, “He’ll be able to smell her.”

Giles shakes his head. “Not with his face as bashed up as it is.”

“I suppose not. You realise even if he did talk, it must have taken a while if she got him into this state first?”

“That’s assuming she didn’t just torture him gratuitously” Giles points out. He feels a flicker of painful recollection at the idea of anyone – even Spike – bound and senselessly abused, but he quashes it. They have bigger things to worry about now than the welfare of a soulless vampire.

Giles watches the basement door, waiting for Buffy to return. Doubtless this trickery will take a while, but he finds himself restless, impatient. “I’ll go down there myself” he decides at last. “If I stay on the stairs, I doubt Spike will notice me, the state he’s in, and I want to hear what he has to say for himself.”

“Alright” Ethan hands him the bowl. “Take this. It really might help.”

Pushing the door soundlessly open, Giles heads down carefully, aware that Spike’s hearing may still be passably functional for all he’s confused and concussed. Buffy is, of course, too professional to let her act falter if she hears him coming.

Which she usually would, except that she is a little distracted. Giles finds his grip on the bowl tightening reflexively and he has to make a conscious effort not to drop it: Buffy is bent over the fold-out bed Spike was dumped on. He is awake and they are engrossed in a kiss.

Before Giles can decide what to do – Clear his throat? Head back upstairs and pretend he never saw this? – Spike breaks the kiss with a start and stares hard at Buffy. Buffy stares back. Then, straightening up and turning wordlessly away, she catches sight of Giles and her calm expression breaks into horrified.

“Buffy…” Spike twists as she steps guiltily away from him, trying to keep her in his compromised sight.

Buffy glances from him to Giles and heads for the stairs. “I was just grateful” she explains as she sweeps past. Giles isn’t entirely sure who she is addressing.

Chapter Text

“Dawn, don’t do that at the table.” Buffy’s reprimand rings out down the hallway.

Faith, letting herself and Giles in following a driving lesson-turned-patrol, rolls her eyes and explains, “Dawn’ll be levitating things again.”

Sure enough, coming into the dining room they find Dawn doing just that to a mug that Spike, seated at one end of the table, tries and fails to catch hold of, grinning as Dawn giggles. At the other end of the table, Buffy looks exasperated. “Dawn, what did I just say? And Spike, stop encouraging her.”

Spike lets his hands drop. “Sorry, pet.”

“Not a pet” Buffy mutters, rising, but she looks nowhere near as angry as she might, and smiles as she turns to the newcomers. “How was driving?”

“A lot like slaying” Faith sits herself down “’cause I aced it.”

“It’s great that you’re so modest about it. Dawn, what did I say?”

“What?” asks Dawn, letting the mug sink unsteadily to the table top. “I’m just practising.”

“You’ve practised that one enough. Hi, Giles.”

“Hello, Buffy.”

“Hey” Faith asks, “We got any food?”

“No, Faith, we’re completely out” Buffy retorts sarcastically. “Yeah, there’s food, I’m about to cook.”

“I mean like a snack – I’m starved.”

“Try getting a chip in your brain” mutters Spike. “You’d know what starved is then.”

Buffy gives him a look. “We fed you.”

“Yeah – gravy. Hardly counts.”

“You’ve got blood now” Dawn points out.

“Maybe he misses the gravy” supposes Faith.

“Maybe” Buffy agrees. “This could be his way of hinting.”

Spike mimes zipping his lips and drinks from the mug. Buffy smiles with some satisfaction before heading into the kitchen. Giles follows. Once they are out of what he judges to be earshot, he asks, “He’s well enough to be back in his crypt now, surely?”

“Almost” agrees Buffy. Seeing Giles’ expression, she adds, “As soon as his leg is completely healed.”

“Well he can walk on it now, can’t he?”

“Yeah, but in a limpy kind of way. He might as well stay until he’s fight ready.” She shrugs. “And he’s good with Dawn.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” One of the things. Giles carefully doesn’t mention the kiss he witnessed. He has to believe it was what Buffy said it was – a one off reward for not telling.

Exactly why Spike didn’t tell Glory about Dawn, Giles still isn’t entirely clear. Most likely he wanted exactly what he’s getting now – Buffy’s gratitude, a place at her table, her smiles. A harmless enough desire for soulless, innately self-serving creature to harbour, but he still is just that. “It’s not a good idea for Dawn to be growing so attached to a vampire.”

“I know” Buffy concedes. “I will turf him out. Just in week or so, okay?” She opens a cupboard and started getting utensils out. Willing to let the subject drop for now, Giles asks, “Would you like help cooking? Ethan isn’t expecting me back until late.”

“No, that’s okay.” Buffy glances round with a smile. “If I need help, I can get Faith and Spike to pull their weight for once.”

Giles nods wearily, struck by the odd mix that now inhabit this house: two warriors, one of them with a history of unwarranted violence, and a sadistic, soulless killer. It would be uncharitably to think that Dawn may as well be growing up on a pirate ship, but not entirely inaccurate. Until he remembers how devoted and fundamentally decent Buffy is, of course.

Interrupting his thoughts, Buffy tells him, “I dropped out of college today.”

Giles feels a rush of pity. “I am sorry, Buffy.”

“It’s okay” she replies. “I’ll go back one day.” She doesn’t meet his eyes.

Unable to fix the relentless lack of her mother and the growing infringement of new parental duties, Giles says, “I do wish you’d let me cook.”

“Nah.” She offers a brave smile. “I could use the distraction.”

Giles nods his understanding. “Well, I’ll be off then. Perhaps some other time.”

“Absolutely. Goodnight, Giles.”

*****

On arrival in the Magic Box, Buffy shuts herself away with Rupert, leaving Ethan and the rest of the scoobies to half-hearted research (they haven’t found a spell to stop Glory yet, they won’t now) while Dawn does her homework.

“Oh, by the way, Dawnie” says Willow, “I won’t be able to do your magic lesson tomorrow: Tara and I are going to the World Culture Fair.” She turns to Ethan. “I don’t suppose you could do it? We were just going to go over the history of equilibrium theory.”

“Sounds thrilling” says Ethan drily. “I’m in.”

“Thanks, Ethan” says Dawn.

“I’m surprised Buffy’s still letting you learn magic, Dawn” puts in Xander, mildly enough, but with a telling glance at Ethan.

“I didn’t think she would” admits Dawn. “But then she said I could have one more chance.” To Willow, she adds, “I think maybe it was seeing you use magic against Glory’s minions: She saw how it could keep me safe.”

“Only if you get freakishly good at it” mutters Anya. Seeing Dawn’s hurt she adds an insincere, “Not that you won’t.” She smiles fixedly. “Keep it up and you’ll be freakish in no time.”

Willow scowls. Xander looks uneasily from her to his girlfriend. When Dawn gets stuck on her homework, everyone seizes on it as a welcome distraction.

*****

“I don’t suppose Dawn has ever turned up at the shop during school hours?” Giles asks that night.

“No” replies Ethan. “Should she have?”

“No.” Giles sighs. “But she’s been truanting. Really, Eth, much as I wouldn’t be impressed if you were letting her hide out in the shop, at least we’d know she was safe there.”

“Well, relatively” Ethan agrees. “But she hasn’t been round.”

“She’s terribly reckless, to not let anyone know where she is in this town. Even before you consider Glory.”

“I imagine that’s part of the problem” supposes Ethan. “This place is all she knows. Well, other than whatever the Key knows.” He frowns. “Perhaps she should try meditation? See if she can tap into something mystical.”

“Best not to try just yet, dear. Between Glory and her learning magic, I think the last thing she needs is to be in touch with her Key side.”

Ethan considers this. “You may be right, Rupert.”

“I usually am. How are Dawn’s magic lessons going, by the way?”

“Alright. I want to teach her the dissiungo hex next. It would probably just bounce off Glory, but it’s worth a try.”

Giles nods, and prays it doesn’t come to that.

*****

Anya doesn’t see what Rupert does to the minion he caught loitering outside the shop, but Ethan does. For a moment, Ethan isn’t sure who’s standing in front of him – the act has a flavour of London street fights of old about it but even Ripper would never be so brutal – and then the minion starts babbling about Glory finding the witch, and questions about Rupert’s capacity for violence are suddenly the least of their worries.

For one world-crunching moment, Ethan thinks Glory is after Willow, but then it turns out she has got it into her permed head that Tara is the Key. Which is just as bad actually.

Leaving Anya to call Buffy and Faith, Rupert and Ethan head to the culture fair, Rupert breaking the speed limit, Ethan frantically preparing untested spells using ingredients grabbed on the way out. Whether any of it would be remotely effective against Glory is debatable at best, but they don’t get to find out.

They are too late.

*****

Willow is discharged from hospital within hours. She is really very lucky, thrown aside by Glory against a tree and knocked out until it was over. Luck, Giles reflects, has new parameters now that Glory is in their lives.

After some emotionally charged discussion with Buffy, Willow leaves alone, not wanting any of them with her. Faith, too, declines a lift, wanting to “go kill some things”. Xander and Anya, for all they encouraged Willow to let the doctors wheel Tara away to the psych ward, linger as if hoping she will come back, and Giles is left to drop Ethan off at the shop to lock up, before driving Buffy home.

“This is my fault” Buffy says, once they are alone in the car.

“You know that’s not true” Giles chides.

“If I could kill her…”

“We’ll find a way to do just that. But we haven’t yet, and that’s hardly your fault.”

“Then if I hadn’t been the slayer” says Buffy plaintively, “if I had just been a normal girl who moved to Sunnydale, my friends wouldn’t be in danger just from knowing me.”

“Becoming the slayer was beyond your control, Buffy.” “I know that. I just wish it wasn’t.”

“I know.” So does he.

*****

Initially on returning to the shop, Ethan distracts himself effectively by packing away the potent items for closing time. It’s not closing time, technically, but the theft of Tara’s sanity has thrown everything, including the concept of time, into a sort of fog, where nothing is clear or makes sense in any way. Staying open would be impossible.

Ethan finds he has stopped packing things away and is standing aimlessly, tears threatening. He stares hard at the shop counter until the prickling behind his eyes lessens. Shiny till, scissors left out from haphazard gift-wrapping, all very ordinary. Ethan pinches up a little powdered garnet from a pot by the till, smears it on his finger tips and clicks them, creates a crimson flame. Watches it.

He’s still at it when Willow bursts in. Ignoring him, she rushes upstairs to the restricted section. Ethan dithers for just a moment, unsure what to do and partly hoping that someone more qualified in the empathy department will show up to handle this. Then, snapping the flame into nothingness, he clambers up the stairs after her.

Willow is demolishing the dark magics library, pulling books off the shelves without troubling to read the titles. And why bother with reading, when she can probably sense the power of volumes like these? Ethan’s skin always prickles up here. “Willow?”

“Ethan, I need a paralysing spell.” She grabs the Dagger of Vijaya and shoves it into a hexed bag. She must already know, Ethan realises, that anything that goes into that bag comes out multiplied. She’d been snooping about up here more than he’d realised, back in the day.

Not that that feels in any way relevant right now. “Willow, are you sure this is a good idea?”

“If you’re not going to help me, get out of my way!”

“Sorry, let me rephrase that: Willow, this isn’t a good idea.”

“She’ll pay for this! I’m not letting her get away with it!” More books tumble to the floor.

“She’s a god.”

“And I’ve got nothing to lose!”

“That’s not true.”

“Ethan, help me or not; I’m doing this! She doesn’t get to hurt Tara and face nothing in return.”

Ethan crouches, trying to look her in the eyes, but her gaze is swinging wildly from curse to curse. “I can’t let you go and get yourself killed” he tells her.

“You’re as bad as Buffy.” She grabs another armful of books, glances at one, tosses it aside. “This is my choice.”

“What about Tara? What happens to her if you die?”

Willow actually looks at him now. “You’ll look after her” she tells him. The confidence in her voice allows for no argument. It simply doesn’t occur to her that he wouldn’t. Would he, Ethan wonders.

Best not find out. “Listen, Willow –”

“Ethan, I have to do this. What would you do if it was Giles?”

Just the thought is painful. Ethan tries, “Willow –” and pauses. Gods know the girl has power. What gods don’t know, so far as Ethan can tell, is what it feels like to be human and angry and helpless.

Or maybe not so helpless, not in Willow’s case. He sighs. “Fuck it. If you live, I didn’t see you.”

“Fine.”

Ethan nods and turns to a low shelf, pulls the books away to reveal the heavy, leather bound volume pressed against the wall. “Pass me the axe.”

*****

Ethan is restless, putting his book down at intervals to pace, glancing at the phone, before returning to the sofa, lifting the book again. He doesn’t turn the pages.

Giles rather wishes he’d go to bed, since he’s clearly not in the right frame of mind to focus on anything, but he lets him be. It could be Ethan wants to be near him, and he knows he couldn’t sleep if he took them both upstairs now.

Finally, Giles gets up from the desk and draws Ethan into a hug.

“Sorry” Ethan mumbles into his shoulder. “I’m disturbing your research.”

“It hardly counts as research” Giles replies. They have by now read every book that could possibly be useful on the subject of Glory. Giles is simply re-reading the more complex volumes in search of some detail or interpretation he missed.

Ethan’s arms snake around his back, one gripping him tightly, the other stroking him, straying closer and closer to his belt with each sweep.

“Ethan” Giles mutters, “this is hardly the time for sex.”

“Then what is it time for?” asks Ethan. He seems to genuinely want to know. And he has a point, Giles supposes: There is nothing they can do right now for Tara, who is forever hopelessly beyond reach, or for Willow who is understandably devastated. Nor can they focus on research or other practicalities after a day like this. Nothing left but to comfort one another. Giles finds himself returning Ethan’s embrace more earnestly. Ethan, speaking into his neck, adds, “Maybe I just want you naked to check you’re real. Nothing seems real today.” “I know” Giles murmurs. He plants a gentle kiss on the side of Ethan’s head.

The phone rings and they break apart a little reluctantly despite knowing that any call today is likely to be urgent.

Giles answers, “Hello?”

“Giles, it’s Buffy.”

“Are you alright? Has something happened?” Not more, please.

“No, nothing’s…Well, something’s happened but it’s all okay now.” Buffy draws a deep breath and lets it out with, “Willow went after Glory. Fought with her, actually. But I got her out – She’s staying at mine tonight, and then we’ll go together to the hospital in the morning.”

“She’s not hurt?” Giles asks.

“Amazingly, no. Close thing though.”

A close thing, undoubtedly, but simply that Willow survived a fight with Glory unharmed feels like a victory. As if sensing this line of thought, Buffy adds, “She slowed Glory down too.”

“Oh? That’s, well, that’s promising, isn’t it?” But a thought for another time. “Thank you for letting me know, Buffy.”

“Sure. Are you guys okay?”

“We’re fine. We’ll be in touch tomorrow.”

“Okay. Bye, Giles.”

Putting the phone down, Giles senses Ethan watching. Realising that his restlessness may not have been entirely down to horror over Tara’s condition, he watches his fiancé closely as he tells him, “That was Buffy. It seems Willow went up against Glory and escaped unscathed.”

“Oh?” Ethan’s posture relaxes just a little. “Good for her.”

“It was an incredibly reckless thing to do.”

“You’d do it for me.”

Giles draws him back into a hug. “That’s different” he says into his shoulder. “Willow is still young. She’s still got things to live for without Tara the way she was – we’ll make sure of that.”

Ethan says nothing, but holds on to him tightly.

*****

That night, it seems they are as they were in their earliest days, when one another’s bodies were still something new to explore and each caress was shy. Giles doesn’t think about the threat of Glory again until the phone jars him awake. Sitting up and scrambling for it, Giles says, “Hello?”

“Giles” Buffy’s voice is tight with some badly suppressed dread.

“Buffy, what’s happened?”

“She knows Giles.”

“What?”

“Glory. She knows about Dawn. Pack a bag and meet me at Xander’s.”

Chapter Text

The atmosphere in the motor coach is of that quietly strained variety that threatens to boil over into blazing rows. Everyone hates the whole situation and everyone’s trying not to show it. A truth spell right now would be truly diabolical.

And truly unhelpful. Ethan mentally shakes himself: with a god at their heels, now isn’t the time for fun. He’s standing up and griping the back of the driver’s seat, having surrendered the passenger seat to a slightly green Xander. From the driver’s seat, Rupert is speaking quietly, so that only Ethan and Xander can hear him: “Buffy just needs some time, a chance to plan. Things have been more than difficult of late.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining.” Ethan tells him. “Personally, I think we should have tried the running away approach to battling evil much sooner.”

“We can’t stay away” Xander tells him. “There is the whole hellmouth being unguarded thing. Plus, I’m not in favour of living in this pile of junk forever.”

“I’m with you there” Ethan admits. To Rupert, he asks, “Maybe we should find a hotel?”

“Do try to take this seriously for a moment, dear.”

“Actually, I take us staying alive very seriously. If we get ourselves a few hotel rooms, we could actually sit down and start planning. I could help Willow look through the books for spells without getting car sick. We can shroud our location once we’re stationary. And we’d still be within a day’s drive of Sunnydale if we do need to go back.”

Xander nods. “That actually makes a lot of sense.”

“Yes” agrees Rupert, “The small flaw being that we’re nowhere near a hotel.”

“Well where’s the nearest one?” Ethan reaches for the road map. “Preferably the nearest one with a minibar.”

“The nearest one without a minibar will be closer.”

“Bugger!”

“You can survive without a minibar, Eth.”

“No – I mean – horses!” Ethan points to the vehicle’s side mirror.

So much for running away.

*****

The last horseman appears out of dusty nowhere, heading right for them, just as they think they’re safe. Ethan gets just the briefest glimpse of him in the clear square in the foil covered windshield as the vehicle tumbles sideways: hooves and armour, like something from a history book.

Rupert’s blood hits his face.

*****

“I thought healing magic’s a dud?” Faith eyes Ethan as he stands over Rupert.

“Worth a try” Ethan grinds out before continuing his spell.

The patch of blood on Rupert’s side is bigger than the width and length of two hands now, and a pile of bloodied pieces of cloth – t-shirts, rags, bandages from the uselessly understocked first aid kit – are crumpled on the floor around the table he’s lying on. Ethan has been sat here holding Rupert’s twitching hand and muttering this half-remembered spell ever since they barricaded themselves up in this gutted mess of a building. An old petrol station of all places, and they’ve got thugs with flaming arrows outside.

“Uh huh” Faith sounds doubtful but lets him keep trying. Ethan can sense her pacing behind him, never straying too far away.

Finally, he stops, the rest of the spell forgotten. It was only ever supposed to be for the worst a pub brawl could do in any case, an abandoned experiment from more reckless days. Free to focus on his fiancé now, Ethan clasps Rupert’s hand in both of his.

Rupert seems more peaceful now, but Ethan doubts this is down to his attempts so much as the fact that the bleeding has slowed and they are no longer trekking through the desert. Really, Ethan isn’t sure if his spell made things barely perceptively better, achieved nothing at all or almost summoned a blood imp.

“Ethan?” Rupert’s voice is a shaky whisper.

Ethan plasters on a smile. “Hello, Rupert. How do you feel, aside from speared?”

“Speared?”

“Um. Best not worry too much about it.”

“Alright then.” Rupert grimaces. “I’m sure Buffy has it under control.”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Possibly their last conversation and he’s talking about bloody Buffy. If Rupert dies here, Ethan will never forgive him. He can’t hold back a sob, presses Rupert’s hand to his face partly to hide the tears.

Rupert’s fingers stoke his eyes. “Shh. It will be okay Ethan.”

“Oh yes” Ethan manages another manic smile, lowering Rupert’s hand. “Of course it will.”

“Yes. I’m just…I’ll just rest my eyes, alright?”

“Alright Rupert.” Ethan watches as Rupert slips back into something that looks like sleep but probably isn’t.

The sounds of the knights outside has grown distant, and it takes Ethan a while to realise that this is down to a barrier spell rather than them retreating. No, they are still trapped, hence Faith pacing like a caged, well, slayer, and the others, scattered around the room, looking various shades of fear. Wait. Ethan turns without relinquishing Rupert’s hand, and looks around the room again. Half their party are missing. “Where is everyone?”

Faith gives him an odd look and gestures to a door. “In the backroom with the chainmail chief. Where’ve you been?”

“Trying not to let Rupert die is where I’ve been. Chainmail chief?”

“Some top brass knight of the round face tattoo. We’ve got him tied up in there.”

Ethan nods his understanding and finally sets Rupert’s hand down. “Stay with him, could you?”

Faith moves closer. “Sure.”

Ethan moves to go, hesitates, plants a kiss on Rupert’s head and then leaves him with Faith. If Willow’s barrier doesn’t hold, Ethan wants a slayer near Rupert.

But of course Willow’s barrier will hold. It is the sum of the joint efforts of Ethan’s second and third favourite people – Willow and Janus. Unfortunately, if he is to save his first favourite person, Ethan needs to get them both on the other side of it.

Stepping into the backroom, Ethan finds Buffy standing in front of a muscular, middle aged man wearing an outfit that went out of style several centuries ago. Xander and Spike stand to either side, each trying to look menacing, which doesn’t suit Xander and which Spike manages all too well. Dawn lingers to the side despite probably being better off out the room. Ethan knocks on the wall as he enters. “I hope I’m not interrupting something unconstitutional?” Then, taking in the armour and remembering the horseman, “No, wait; I don’t really care.”

Buffy asks, “Is there a problem, Ethan?”

“Well you might have noticed that Rupert’s lost rather a lot of blood.”

Buffy flinches, but asks, “Is he any worse?”

“How should I know? I’m not a doctor.”

Spike asks, “Heart beating, is it? He’s breathing? Just give him time, mage.” To Buffy, “Humans are tougher than you give them credit for.”

Xander shifts his weight uncomfortably and mutters, “You’d know.”

Ethan begins, “We need to –”

At that moment, there is a cry, and Buffy rushes out, followed by Dawn and the two men (well, boy and vampire). Ethan starts to follow, but, realising that it’s only Tara in some distress, stays where he is. Nothing he can do for the poor child, and Willow is with her. Besides this leaves him alone with the knight. Ethan smiles in what he hopes is a reassuring way, though really, the day he’s having, he’s not sure it hits the mark. The man responds with a blank stare.

“So” Ethan tries. “You chaps are human?”

“We are” the man replies. “A group of human warriors sworn to protect our fellow man from the evil of the beast.”

“Oh. Well, you’ve plenty in common with Buffy then. Or would, if only you’d try to stop murdering her –” Ethan stops short, unsure how much these men know.

The knight tells him, “One murder to save millions. Responsibility for the Key’s current form lies with the monks. I don’t relish the task, but the girl must die.”

Oh good, thinks Ethan, so they already know about Dawn and he hasn’t given it away. Also, these men seem to have priorities that could mesh with theirs. Well, except for the murder and chainmail. “That’s a conversation you’ll need to have with Buffy” he says. “All I need to know right now is, will I be attacked or captured if I go out there?” He thinks for a moment. “And do you have a first aid kit?”

“One of you is hurt” It is hard to tell from the man’s tone if he knew that already.

“That tends to happen when people mess around with spears.” A spear, thinks Ethan, sharp and aerodynamic, designed to find its target, sink its teeth in and kill. “Will you let me take him to a hospital?”

“Perhaps. In return for the girl.”

Ethan sighs, steps back. Considers. He knows he should care about all these mystical happenings – for the Key’s sake and Dawn’s – but – honestly? – he doesn’t. Not right now. These knights can have the Key, for all he cares right at this moment, and right at this moment, with Rupert in this state, all he cares is only just enough not to bundle Dawn out of the building himself. Gods help him, it’s the truth. Because Rupert could die here, and it’s hard to care about anything besides that.

Hard, but not impossible. “Sorry, I’m not really in the business of child murder.” Except Dawn isn’t a child, is she? She is a spell. Spells break.

A spell he’s seen squeal in delight when she gets a spell right. A spell who’s talked his ear off about children’s books and appalling music. No, he can’t.

“You wouldn’t need to do it” the man tells him calmly. “Just untie me.”

Ah, and now they are back in the safety zone of practicalities. “You wouldn’t get near her” Ethan points out. “We have two slayers.”

“Slayers who’ve sworn to protect humanity. Surely they must see that our interests align?”

“They’re not in the business of child murder either.”

“And nor was I until I found out the monks have fashioned the Key into a child. A child so dangerous, she could end the world – and all the real children in it.”

For just a moment, Ethan is shocked. But then, he thinks, was all of this ever building towards anything else? Glory was never going to be a minor threat, something containable that affected only their little group. This always had the skin-crawling sense of an apocalypse.

The knight asks, “You didn’t know?”

“No” says a voice from the doorway. Buffy steps into the room. “Tell me.”

*****

“So, let me get this straight” says Faith, once Gregor has finished explaining Glory’s odd living arrangements, “Some guy is born, what sixty, seventy years ago at most, with Glory wedged in him, and you guys band together to stop Glory, and you just decide to do it in a sort of crusadery way?”

“Our brethren formed in 1106.” The knight draws himself up as best he can while tied to a post. “The beast is but the latest threat we’ve faced.” He stares at the slayers and adds, “And the worst. Since she entered our realm, scores of my men have fallen, not even counting those you slaughtered today.”

Buffy flinches and glances away from the group. Faith stares at her for a moment, but says nothing. Keen to refocus the discussion on the little matter of the still-living, still-armed men preventing them from leaving, Ethan asks, “Why not just go find this poor bloke with a god inside him and leave us to go to the hospital?”

“Because we don’t know who or where he is” is the answer. “Finally, though, we have a chance to destroy the Key and prevent the beast from wielding it.”

“Why?” Another voice from the doorway. Dawn has entered without anyone noticing.

Buffy says, “Dawnie, go back in the main room” just as Ethan says, “You probably don’t want to know.”

“I do” insists Dawn. Looking past them, to their prisoner, she asks, “What does Glory even want with me?”

Gregor tells her.

*****

It isn’t long before Ethan gives up on negotiating with the knight. Next, he runs a series of half baked schemes through his mind, considering and then dismissing each one. Release the man and use some sort of mind control spell to make him think he has Dawn and call off the troops? Too risky, if it fails, and it would with most of the magic supplies sitting in an upturned camper van in the desert. Play on Dawn’s guilt and have her pretend to give herself up to the man for as long as it takes to get past the knights? Well, then there’s the little matter of two slayers who would never allow it. With Dawn already in a state over her new world-ending status, Buffy has barely left her side. Open up a doorway and hope for the best? Desperate, and destined to end in bloodshed.

No, for all trickery of some sort might be an option if anyone else had been speared, this is Rupert. It has to be guaranteed to work, or Ethan won’t take the risk. And nothing he can think of would work: Even if he somehow got Rupert on the right side of the barrier without killing Dawn, Ethan can’t see how they’d get through the waiting army to the taxi that probably wouldn’t come this far anyway and probably wouldn’t wait once the driver caught sight of the army.

In the end it is Faith who comes up with a solution, phoning Ben, who agrees to drive out to the petrol station. What he must think of the crusade re-enactment when he arrives is anyone’s guess, but he patches Rupert up as best he can, watched by Ethan and assisted by Dawn, who is keen to do something other than get them all hurt or killed.

Poor child. It’s rather a lot for her to get her head around.

A lot for any of them to get their head around, thinks Ethan as he grips Rupert’s hand and watches the doctor work. Gregor’s view is that Dawn must die to save humanity. So far, the alternative offered by Buffy has amounted to a day of carsickness followed by a siege. And running forever isn’t an option, not with Rupert like this. Ben is helping, but he’s not a miracle worker.

“At least we know the truth now” Willow says some time later. “Just another apocalypse.” She wasn’t in the room for all the knight had to say, but the pain behind her light tone reveals that she has worked out for herself how likely they are to emerge from this unscathed.

“Yes, nothing we haven’t seen before” says Ethan, willing to play along now that Rupert is out of immediate danger. Across the room, Ben is still with him, but he’s just tidying things up now, and monitoring the wound. Ethan shifts in his seat to watch more closely.

“It’s okay” Willow tells him, following his gaze. “Faith will make sure he does the best for Giles.”

Faith, it is true, is standing beside the young doctor, also watching intently, as only a scorned slayer can. Perhaps that’s why Ben seems nervous.

Well, that and the army outside. Finally trusting that he can turn his back on Rupert, Ethan comments, “Your barrier’s held nicely. Janus clearly likes you.”

Willow smiles. “Well, that or he hates Glory.”

“That too, but I try to stay away from divine politics. It doesn’t end anywhere good.”

“Huh, I hadn’t noticed.” Willow grins. “So how –” She breaks off, stares as a shriek issues from Ben. Ethan spins round, gets to his feet. The young doctor is now openly panicking. And changing, pretty rapidly, into…

No. Gods, no.

Chapter Text

“You don’t need to stay out here” Spike, focused on the innards of Ben’s car, tells Ethan, “I know what I’m doing.”

“I know you do. But can you do it with your fingers bandaged is the question.” Ethan doesn’t look at the vampire as he talks, but around them at the tangled and contorted bodies of the fallen Knights of Byzantium. He’s never seen so many dead people at once. Actually, he doubts most vampires have seen this many dead people at once, not unless they worked for the master or some other ancient and feared legend.

Graduation day wasn’t nearly as bad as this. And at least then, the fallen had had a chance to fight back, some comfort, however futile, in a sense of control over their fates. Glory had simply ploughed through these men, dragging Dawn in her wake. The poor child must have seen it all happen.

And where had Glory come from? Where has she taken Dawn?

Come to think of it, where has Ben gone? Why are they hotwiring his car instead of just asking him for the keys? Perhaps he was slaughtered with all these other strangers – It’s all a bit of a blur. Ethan glances around to try and spot the doctor amid the limbs, the torsos, thinks better of it.

“What happened to Ben?” he asks. Spike, still hunched over in the car and focused on the wires, glances up, looking puzzled. Ethan explains, “I can’t remember. Must be the shock.”

“Well yeah” says Spike. “Watching a hulking bloke magic into a petite little hell god right in our midst? New meaning of shock.” He nods to the dead men. “Brassy of him to walk past this lot. Then again, you share your body with Glory, you probably need to get some balls. Hypothetical ones, I mean, once she’s in the driver’s seat.” Spike shrugs, resumes his work.

Ethan stares at him. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Ben” Spike glances up again, then gives Ethan his full attention, looking at him as though he’s being rather stupid. When Ethan stares blankly back, Spike prompts, “You know – he’s the bloke, the poor sod with Glory living inside of him.”

“Since when?”

Spike sighs in frustration. “Since we watched her burst out of him just now inside! Don’t tell me you’d nipped to the loo or something.”

“No, I was right there. Ben came to treat Rupert and then…” Ethan trails off suddenly confused. “And then Glory got in somehow.”

“Yes” Spike uses his best talking-to-a-slow-child voice, “because she’d hitched a ride in on Ben.”

“He snuck her in?” Ethan is aghast. “He’s working for her?”

“No, he is her. And she’s him.”

“So…They aren’t working together? But…Are they connected in some way?”

Spike stares at him a moment, and shakes his head. “Right then, looks like I’m the only one immune to whatever forgetting spell she’s wrapped the whole thing up in. Also the only one with a chip that stops him killing humans, very fucking useful.”

“You’d never kill Dawn anyway” Ethan tells him. He’s actually almost certain of it: Soulless or not, vampires are social animals, and Spike seems to like the child.

“Course I bloody wouldn’t. I was talking about Ben.”

“Ben? What’s he got to do with any of this?”

“Go inside, Ethan.”

*****

Stepping inside, Ethan tells the assembled scoobies, “Spike doesn’t need help out there. How is she?”

Willow shakes her head mutely and continues her examination of Buffy, who sits, unnaturally still and quiet, and allows it. Had he not known better, Ethan would think this was the robot.

“No sign of it being anything physical” Willow announces, “But I guess Glory could have hit her without us seeing. It all happened so fast.” She buries her fingertips gently in Buffy’s hair, withdraws them, checks for blood, moves on to a different section of her friend’s head.

“It’s nothing physical” Faith decides. “Just all got too much for her.”

“Yes” says Rupert, sitting up gingerly with Anya’s help. Ethan hurries over to him and chides, “Lie back down, you prat.”

“Yes dear, it’s good to see you too.”

“I mean it – You should save your strength.” Ethan places a hand on Rupert’s good shoulder and tries to steer his partner back to a horizontal position but Rupert, ever the martyr, is having none of it, telling him, “We’ll be off soon anyway. Spike has few talents, but I suspect hotwiring a car is one of them.” On cue, they hear the engine, and the vampire appears to summon them. Spike being Spike has a go at reviving Buffy too, and is almost punched by Xander for his efforts before Willow separates them and takes charge. Then they all have a brief bicker about Ben working with Glory, or possibly shagging Glory – Ethan isn’t really following. Really, it’s all just time wasted before they pile in the car.

Ben’s car is small for an American model, so not small, but not comfortable for nine adults, one of whom has had recent encounter with the business end of a spear. Ethan spends the journey with a rapidly numbing arm wrapped around Rupert, who flinches as they go over bumps and keeps his eyes closed for much of the time. Next to them is Buffy, who remains still and silent. Perhaps Rupert was hoping she’d revive in her own time if they let her be, because it is only as they near Sunnydale that he tries talking to her, rousing himself to reach across Ethan for his slayer’s hand, which he holds lax in his own as he makes occasional remarks along the lines of, “I know you’ll get through this, Buffy” and “I’m so proud of you.” Ethan wishes he’d save his breath: Buffy clearly can’t hear him.

*****

Ethan has various cover stories prepared, but no-one at the hospital asks questions. Perhaps not everyone in Sunnydale is as oblivious as they seem, especially not if one of their colleagues happens to have a hell god living inside of him. Ethan blinks. “Oh!”

Rupert, prone on the bed, turns to him. “What is it?”

“Ben’s Glory!”

The nurse gives Ethan an odd look. Ethan returns his gaze to Rupert’s wound and waits quietly for her to finish her work and move on to other patients. As soon as she has, Rupert asks, “What was that about?”

“Glory’s Ben – He’s the human boy she was tethered to.” Ethan thinks back over the horrible moment the god had materialised. “Why did I not realise before?”

“Probably because some spell prevented us from seeing it” Rupert supposes. He lies still but his eyes are moving as ideas flitter behind them, brighter now, less dulled by pain. “I remember it now too.”

Ethan nods. “Spike was talking about it, but I thought he was just being an idiot.”

“Well, Spike can do more than one thing at once.” Rupert frowns suddenly. “Good Lord, and we took Glory straight to Dawn when we contacted Ben! And that was for me.”

Ethan takes his hand, relinquished briefly so the nurse could check his stiches, and warns him, “Don’t you dare go feeling guilty, Rupert. You’d been impaled and Ben is the only doctor we know. And there was no ‘we’ – Faith made the call, and you just lay there.”

Rupert nods, though Ethan isn’t sure that he’s really absolving himself so much as setting guilt aside for when an apocalypse isn’t looming. He murmurs, “This explains why he broke things off with Faith so suddenly.”

“Well, yes. Hosting a banished god must do all sorts of unwelcome things to one’s love life.”

“Faith said he left suddenly when he saw Dawn, mentioned some complication involving a sister.” Rupert’s frown deepens. “Which implies he’s known about Dawn for some time, doesn’t it? And kept it from Glory.”

“I suppose” says Ethan. “If they can even communicate.”

Rupert sits up stiffly. “Do we have any leads at all on where Glory is now? Anything you can remember now the veil between her and Ben has lifted?”

Ethan shakes his head. Rupert sighs and concludes, “We’d best get searching, then. I’ve lounged around here long enough.”

“You weren’t lounging, Rupert – You were recovering from a spear wound. There is a difference, you know.”

“Just help me up, Ethan.”

*****

“Okay” says Xander as they leave Willy’s Place, “so not only was that a bust, but we’ve probably all got tetanus.”

“I can’t get tetanus” says Spike.

“To be fair” adds Ethan, “that’s the cleanest I’ve seen the place look for a while.” He glances back to the bar to see a hand inside flip the sign at the front to closed. There is a rattle of locks hurriedly reinforced. “We could try the bite house but I don’t think they’ll know anything.”

“That’s if they haven’t left town already” mutters Spike. “Bloody wimps and weirdos in that place; they’re not fighters.”

“Yes” says Ethan, “because you came off so well against Glory.”

“I was tied up!” The vampire retorts. “And I didn’t talk, did I? I’d like to see your blood-for-rent crowd stand up to her!”

“We don’t need them to stand up to her” puts in Xander, “We just need them to tell us how to. Will they?”

“No” Ethan admits. “Even if they knew. But other than them, I’m out of ideas.”

“There is someone else” says Spike slowly, “Not sure how useful he’d be, but it could be worth a try.”

“Who?” asks Ethan.

“Bloke called Doc. Into dark magics and the like. You know him?”

“Only by reputation.” Ethan frowns. “I can’t picture someone like that wanting to stop the apocalypse.”

“Oh great” says Xander. “So we’re down to someone who’s all for it?”

“Might be” replies Spike, “But he might know something, unlike that sorry lot at the bite house.”

“And we could always try there afterwards” concedes Ethan, “if Doc won’t help.”

“If he won’t, I’ll make him.” Spike sets off. Ethan and Xander exchange a glance and follow.

Chapter Text

“He is dead, isn’t he?” asks Ethan.

Xander glances back at the door that conceals what is left of Doc. “Definitely.”

Ethan follows his gaze. “He was a demon.”

“Well, yeah” Xander sounds faintly scandalised. “I wouldn’t kill him if he wasn’t.”

“I just mean they’re hard to kill.”

Spike, loitering a little way off of where Ethan stopped, clutching the box and waiting, comments, “He looked dead enough.”

Xander agrees, “I’m guessing impalement kills most things.” To Ethan, “You wanna go back and check?”

Ethan looks again back the way they came, to the dark room, the entrance in shadow, and shudders. “Not especially.”

“Well then.”

*****

They reach the Magic Box to find Faith back just before them, returned from stalking Glory. “She’s moved out the mansion” she reports. “Got the crazies to build her some tower – like a massive diving board? With a platform sticking out into the sky.”

“Is she going to throw Dawn off?” Xander guesses, paling.

Faith shivers and turns to Rupert. “I wanted to make a dash for her. But if I didn’t make it…”

“We’d be one slayer down and Glory would probably make things worse for Dawn in retaliation” Rupert finishes for her. “You did the right thing.”

Faith looks briefly about to argue, but turns suddenly to Spike. “What’s that?”

“Something one of Glory’s lowlife worshipers had hidden for her.” Spike places it on the table in front of Rupert, who pulls it towards him. Spike asks, “Where’s Buffy?”

“Still, um, unreachable” Rupert informs him. To Ethan he adds, “Willow’s doing a spell to enter her mind.”

“Oh” says Ethan, “Nothing that could go wrong there then.” For just a second, he feels guilty for pointing out the danger – it will scare Dawn – but then he remembers that Dawn isn’t here. Shaking the thought, he asks, “Now we know it’s Ben, is there a spell we could do? Something that will bring him to the surface?”

Spike replies, “Even if we do, he’ll be surrounded by minions. You think they’ll let him just run off with the bit? Even if he would – might prefer to save his own skin.”

“Seems to me his own skin is as doomed as ours if Glory gets her way. It might be worth a try.”

Xander asks, “Have you ever affected her with magic? Even once?”

“No” Faith answers for him, “but Willow has. We could find something for her to do when she’s done yanking Buffy out her own brain.”

Pushing aside a brief, unnerving professional jealousy – they could all die, this is hardly the time for competition – Ethan agrees, “Yes. I’ll have a look.” He turns to step towards a bookshelf.

“Have a look for what, exactly?” asks Rupert, glancing up from the box’s contents, now laid out on the table. “The magic used to bind Ben and Glory was created in another dimension and is unique in any. Therefore, I can’t imagine anyone has ever tried to counter it.”

Ethan pauses. “There is that, I suppose.”

Spike nods. “And if there was a spell for it, the Knights of Byzantidumb would have used it by now and saved us the hassle.”

Faith nods reluctantly, takes a seat and lifts an aged scroll of paper for examination. “So it’s down to this then?”

“I think so” confirms Rupert. “If there are any answers, we’ll find it here.”

*****

Interrupting him as he rereads a page, Ethan asks, “Are you sure you’re fit for this, love?”

Giles sighs heavily, not meeting Ethan’s eyes, and tries for sarcasm. “No, actually, you have a point. The twinge in my side really is bad enough to throw the towel in and just let the world end.”

“Twinge?! Rupert, you were speared!”

“Just a little taster of what we’ll all suffer if the key is activated.” Giles turns his attention back to the back to the text. Rereading it doesn’t change the words, alas. It still means what is meant before. “If those wretched monks hadn’t…” he begins, and then stops. Glances around the shop to check the others haven’t heard. They haven’t: Spike, not one for research, is in the backroom readying the weapons and Faith and Xander are reading through some scrolls they’ve flattened against the counter. Besides, he and Ethan are hissing at each other in undertones, as they’re wont to do when under stress.

But Ethan’s heard, obviously. He frowns and asks, “You wish Dawn hadn’t been created?”

“She wasn’t always Dawn.” Giles winces to hear himself say it. “She was – is – a powerful mystical force that could destroy us all.”

Ethan has nothing to say to that. They return to their reading. And rereading, hoping, only to be horrified anew.

Finally, Giles has to tell the others his conclusions about blood and rituals and little girls who weren’t always little girls.

“Oh God” mutters Xander, taking a hasty seat.

Spike nods mutely and plucks a cigarette from his pocket, goes to lean against the steps to the restricted section.

“No” says Faith simply.

“Faith, if it isn’t done, everyone on this planet will die” Giles tells her.

Faith shakes her head and repeats, “No. No way, Giles. I’m not going to do it.”

Hating himself, Giles forces himself to ask, “Would you rather let Buffy do it?”

“Do what?” asks a voice from the door. Buffy has returned.

*****

After he leaves Buffy slumped on the sofa, Giles finds Faith in the alley with Spike, sharing a smoke. At his approach, the vampire backs off with suspicious glance and heads inside, leaving Giles alone with his second slayer. “No” she tells him again.

“You didn’t hear what I was going to say.”

“You were going to ask me to kill Dawn. No. Not going to happen.”

Giles stands beside her, studying the brickwork on the opposite building and inhaling her second-hand smoke. He tries, “Faith, we’re talking about the end of the world here. I know we’ve always found a way, but every apocalypse we face could be the last one. The one where they win.”

“It won’t happen Giles. We’ll get to her before the ritual starts.”

“I hope so, and I know we’ll all do everything in our power to make it so. But we need to ask ourselves, what if we don’t?”

She glances at him. “We will.”

“But if we don’t? Faith, I know it’s a horrible thought, but a slayer has to –”

“To what? Do what no-one else can? Newsflash, Giles, it doesn’t take a slayer to kill a kid, it just takes some guy. Happens all the time.”

Giles lets that sink in, feeling it filter through his thoughts and into his soul. She is right, of course. In this instance, averting the end of the world doesn’t take slayer strength. Just an adult man. “I was going to say that the Slayer has to make choices no-one else can.” But then, so do watchers.

“Yeah?” Faith retorts, “well I’ve made mine. Answer’s no.” She drops her cigarette and stamps it out with a twist of her foot. “I can’t do that again.”

“Faith, what happened to Alan Finch was a horrible mistake. The circumstances here –”

“– don’t mean jack. It all feels the same.” Another glance at him, a searching expression.

Does she know, Giles wonders, about Randall? He has the impression that Buffy, exposed to the whole thing when Eyghon made his reappearance, told the other children, but Faith came along later. Did anyone ever tell her what he found himself capable of? Eyghon wearing Randall’s face and forcing Randall’s feet to carry him step by staggering step closer until Giles swung the sword… Returning Faith’s gaze before they break eye contact, stare at the wall again, Giles wonders if he should share his shame. It might help the girl process her own fears and reach the same grim conclusion about what their duty will be if the ritual begins that he has.

But he stays silent. Tells himself that now is not the time for navel-gazing or for scraping raw old wounds.

“You know what I wonder?” asks Faith after a while, “I wonder why the monks didn’t make Dawn my sister? Why did Buffy get a sister when she already had a mom?”

“They wanted to ensure everyone had a wealth of memories about her, I suppose, and placing her with the slayer who’d been in Sunnydale the longest was the way to do that.”

“I’d have loved a kid sister.” Faith finally steps away, back towards the shop. She pauses to add, “Buffy’s got it screwed up, you know. If you’re not going to kill humans, you’re not going to kill humans. It’s when you start picking and choosing that things get fucked.” At Giles’ questioning stare, she elaborates, “I won’t kill you, is what I mean. She will, if you try to take out Dawn, but I won’t, even to stop you. I won’t stop you but I won’t help either.” She frowns. “I guess I’m just a coward when it comes down to it.”

“I don’t believe that’s cowardice.”

“Whatever. See you inside, Giles.”

*****

“There, baby.” Willow eases a necklace around Tara’s throat. Stepping closer, Ethan realises it is the protective amulet he got Tara for her birthday, the token of Hephaestus. The poor girl tugs at it, threatening to snap it off, as Willow strokes her hair. Ethan tells them, “That’s only effective against weapons made of metal. If you want her safe, best leave her here.”

“I can’t” replies Willow. “I’ve made a spell that could undo what Glory did to her, or at least reverse it a bit, but I’ll need her with me.” She glances at him, abandoning her attempts to soothe Tara. “Besides, if we don’t stop the ritual, I don’t want her to be alone. If anything came at her, then, then it’s better if I…”

She returns her attention to Tara, pulling her into an embrace. Ethan takes a step back. He doesn’t want to consider what Willow might be prepared to do to Tara rather than let a demon do worse. What, he wonders, would he do for Rupert?

Rupert meets his eyes meaningfully from across the room, and steps into the backroom. Ethan glances about, wanting, instinctively to not be too obvious about following. He needn’t worry: Willow is distracted by Tara, Buffy’s gone with Spike to fetch weapons, and Anya and Xander are down in the basement, so there is only Faith, leaning against the counter with her back to the room, sharpening a blade with quick, brutal strokes.

Stepping into the backroom, Ethan shuts the door before he says, “Either you want a pre-apocalypse quickie or I’m about to be recruited into a plot to kill Dawn.” He keeps his voice light, but it still hurts to say it. Rupert’s pained expression echoes the feeling. Ethan says, “Oh.”

“Yes.” Rupert sits down heavily on the battered sofa.

Ethan stays by the door for a moment before stepping over to the punch bag. It still has little dents in it from Buffy’s earlier work out.

Really, he’s very fond of Dawn. She always seems to him to greatly resemble the child he and Rupert would have had together if such a thing were either biologically possible or remotely interesting. She has Rupert’s determination and bookishness and talent for languages, his interest in magic and tendency to cause trouble without even meaning to. Her drawings aren’t all that bad either. Really, the monks couldn’t have made a child he’d be keener to protect if they’d tried. Which of course they bloody had. 

Rupert says, “Ethan, if we can’t stop the ritual, Dawn will…If that happens, nothing will save her. You know that. It’s Dawn or all of humanity, including Dawn.”

Ethan sits down beside him, and sets fondness aside with less effort than he feels it should take. “I know. I’m not saying I can do it, but…I know.” He wasn’t wrong back at the gas station: Dawn is a spell. Spells break. The Key will live on either way, probably reverting to its true form just like the subject of any transmogrification.

Quietly, Rupert tells him, “We can’t allow the world to fall.”

“I know that. You’re preaching to the converted, love.” Ethan glances at Rupert and realises his partner is speaking to more to himself, falls silent.

Ethan hopes Rupert realises he’s not being entirely selfish. Because much as self-preservation is a big factor here, Ethan also thinks that Buffy is the one being selfish, in a way. Ethan has a sister himself. He hasn’t seen her for decades and doesn’t want to but she’s out there somewhere. Probably living in suburban Nothington-on-Thames and married to some office-working, golf playing twit. Has children, for all Ethan knows. It’s not just his own life Buffy’s telling him to sacrifice: it’s Buffy’s sister or his. Or rather, everyone’s sister, and his, and Rupert, and all because she can’t bring herself to kill Dawn, and Ethan understands that, he does, only, “What do you want me to do?”

Rupert looks heavy-hearted. “Hold Buffy back with your magics. Trap her, confuse her, just don’t hurt her seriously. Or at all if you can help it.”

“Fine. I’ll do that. And what will you be doing?”

“You know what I’ll be doing.”

Ethan nods. Reaches across the small space between them to grasp Rupert’s hand. He wonders what sort of monster it makes him that what he feels is relief, but he does: The world won’t end. If Buffy can’t save it, Rupert will. “Do what you need to do, love. I’ll be here for you afterward.” Just like he was after Randall.

*****

As they leave, Tara suddenly turns to him and calls him a killer, and Giles, for one bewildered moment, wants to deny it but can’t. He glances at Spike and wonders if he knows – he spent a century with an insane psychic, after all, if anyone is going to give credence to Tara’s ramblings, it is him – but the vampire stares past him to Buffy, and follows as she leads them out the door.

*****

Really, a part of Ethan, on agreeing to help Rupert, hadn’t thought it would actually come to this. He hadn’t realised it at the time, but a part of him had assumed that they would stop the ritual before it began because of course they would. They always did. Apocalypse after apocalypse and the slayer of the time always stopped it, and they have two slayers, and a robot for distraction, and a brilliantly powerful witch – two, now Tara is cured – and a vampire with pent up aggression and a seemingly unquenchable surely-more-than-crush-at-this-point. And a wrecking ball. How can they lose?

But they are losing. Because, “There’s someone up there” says Willow.

Ethan and Tara, huddled in the shelter of some rubble now that Glory’s minions have beat them all back, peer up at the platform. Stark against the sky, a figure makes its way calmly towards Dawn. Tara asks, “Who is that?”

“Can’t tell from here” Ethan admits. “Not one of us.”

Willow goes very still, and it takes the other two a moment to realise she is holding a telepathic conversation. Tara, impressively with it considering how disorientating sudden sanity amid a life or death battle must be, catches on in time to help her part the crowd of demons at the base of the tower. Ethan watches Faith and Spike run up, before the minions, angered by the infringement, throw bricks and fire a fresh wave of medieval artilleries, forcing him to cower.

From his position pressed against the rubble, all he can see is the top of the tower, and how menacing the figure becomes the closer it stalks to Dawn. When Spike and Faith reach them, they are greeted by a comically long tongue, lashing out at them like a whip. “Nunguul demon” Ethan realises.

“What?” asks Willow.

“That’s a Nunguul demon. They look human but they’re strong, reptilian. Tongues are their main weapon. And venom, I think.”

“Do you know how to kill one?”

Ethan shakes his head, helplessly. “I’m not sure they can be killed. Hurt, maybe. Pushing him off the edge might put him out of action, but I think they got that message.” As he speaks, a figure does indeed fall from the tower, and for an elated moment, Ethan thinks it is the demon, but then he takes in the coat, the flash of platinum.

“Spike!” realises Tara. She moves as if to run and help him, but something sharp shoots past from the minions – an arrow? – and she is forced to press herself against their almost-barricade again.

Reaching for her girlfriend, Willow is still focused on the platform, as Faith, silhouetted above them, stands between the Nunguul and Dawn. “I’m out of spells” she tells them, turning to Ethan. “You?”

“I don’t know what I can do” admits Ethan. “A barrier maybe? Seal Dawn off? I’d need to be up there to do it, but you wouldn’t.”

Willow nods and takes his hand. Together, they focus on the magic, gathering the last of their strength to attempt to combine a barrier spell with anything that will carry it up the tower. Combining spell isn’t easy at the best of times, and they are both exhausted. Ethan’s appeal to Janus is frantic, a child reaching for a parent at a time of great fear. Janus responds, magnificently calm amidst all this violence, letting the magic swell up until –

“No!” shrieks Tara. The spell is broken as the witches’ pure horror, laced with magic released accidently out of sheer panic, cuts through it. Opening his eyes, Ethan realises it is too late anyway: the demon is standing in front of Dawn, raising a knife that is already dark with blood. Above them, the sky shivers open.

“Oh Goddess!” Willow gasps, and clutches at Tara. Above them, Dawn’s body jolts and for a horrible moment, Ethan thinks she is fatally hurt (not that it makes a difference, a part of him, stunned into detachment, notes. Nothing will save her now) but then she writhes, twisting against her bonds as the demon slashes again, methodical.

It’s over then. Where is Rupert? Wanting Rupert because they are all about to die, so of course he wants Rupert, Ethan stares around before remembering that oh yes, Rupert was going to stop this. So where is Rupert? He risks standing, and the minions, bowing as the sky breaks apart, do nothing to stop him. Ethan yells, “Rupert?”

Still crouched down, Willow asks, “Where’s Faith?” and Tara points to a crumpled form at the base of the tower. Instinctively, Ethan steps towards her, and is sent reeling as the ground shakes. A crack splinters the earth and Ethan darts sideways, dives to avoid crashing down into the darkness. Looking back, he can’t see Willow and Tara but the fracture in the ground has mercifully swerved jaggedly away from where they were hiding.

Not that it makes any difference. They are all dead, unless, “Rupert!”

Hold Buffy back, Rupert had said. Ethan looks around. Can’t see Buffy anyway. He crawls to where Faith is now groaning, turning herself painfully over to watch the sky bleed. “Fuck…”

“Faith?”

“Ethan? I’m sorry.” She grips a wound at her side, and Ethan notes that her dark clothes are darker than they should be, wet. He tells her, “It’s okay” because that’s what you say to little girls who are about to die.

“Tell B, okay? I’m sorry.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll tell her.” Ethan watches Faith pass out and moves to go past her, grabbing a beam of the tower as the earthquake continues.

But he can’t just leave Faith. Looking back at the unconscious slayer, Ethan debates sliding her under the tower to shield her from the lighting that seems to be streaming from the opening in the sky (except when was lightening red?) but that wouldn’t protect her from the crevasses opening at random on the ground.

He steps back to Faith, scoops her up. It’s a stupid thing to do. They are all doomed anyway and this slows him down – he has to find Rupert, Rupert will stop this – but he can’t bring himself to drop her.

The lightening hits the ground in front of him, forcing him to change direction. Somewhere up above, there is a howl, and Ethan twists to see a dragon circle with a swift beat of massive wings. Squealing erupts to his left as a patch of rubble is suddenly coated with something alive, so Ethan swerves to the right, comes up against the minions. They are still too busy praising Glory’s victory to notice him. Falling – falling lava? – spilling from the lips of the portal has him ducking sideways again, searching for somewhere safe despite knowing there isn’t anywhere. This is what insects under a lifted rock must feel like. “Rupert!” A half-standing wall creaks, and Ethan pulls away from it, almost dropping Faith. Something – something scaly – barges past him, and he has a brief impression of snapping jaws before a flash of light from the void in the sky transforms it to stinking, smouldering meat that would have been him if he’d run just a few paces further. Ethan finds his legs giving way, landing in a heap on top of Faith. “Rupert!”

Where is Rupert? Where is he? Ethan doesn’t realise he’s praying, until Janus answers with a surge of awareness that slices through Ethan’s fear and has him picking up Faith, and navigating a path through the lightening and chasms that he wouldn’t have found on his own.

“Ethan?” Rupert is suddenly in front of him, and darts forward to pull him and Faith to the relative safety of a pillar. Ducking behind it, Rupert props Faith up and examines her, lifting her top to find a deep, oozing wound.

Ethan, meanwhile, stares around them, his gaze snagging on, “Is that Ben?”

“Yes” replies Rupert, still focused on Faith, He peels his coat off, presses it to her abdomen. 

Killer Janus breathes, and Ethan understands. “That means Glory’s dead, doesn’t it? So we can stop this?”

Rupert pulls his jumper off and places it behind Faith’s head. “She’ll live” he breathes to himself. “At least, she would have. At least she’s unconscious.”

“But we can stop this, can’t we?” begs Ethan. “We can get up there and –” He stops, looking up at the tower, and the destruction waging around it. How can they get up there?

“We’re too late, Ethan.” Rupert straightens and steps around Faith. Reaches for Ethan and envelopes him in a hug. “I love you.”

“And I love you.” Ethan finds he is crying. He closes his eyes, buries his face in Rupert’s neck and breathes in his smell. Hopes Rupert will show him the mercy he showed Ben but can’t bring himself to ask for it. Hears the dragon shriek and tells himself to find somewhere else to be, in his mind. He doesn’t want to stay here. His thoughts skim over memories but in his panic, he can’t grasp at them. Finally, he finds an image of Rupert’s smiling face that he can cling to. It’s getting too hot. He holds Rupert tighter.

Silence. The heat drains rapidly and the sounds behind them change, the triumph of the demons shrivelling into despair. A human-sounding shout from somewhere. Xander?

“Ethan” murmurs Rupert, breaking their hug.

It is over. Ethan looks around to find the sky unbroken and daylight reigning. He isn’t sure how much time has passed but doesn’t think it was long. It must have been daytime already, but the sun couldn’t penetrate the portal.

The portal is gone now. So is the dragon, though Ethan doesn’t want to think about where. Distant, scattering footsteps as the surviving minions retreat. A little way away, lies Ben, still very much dead. Rupert, Ethan realises, just killed a god. He giggles, then shuts up quickly.

“What’s going on?” Faith is stirring. “What happened?”

Rupert crouches to steady her as she tries to rise, his jumper slipping from her shoulders. “The ritual ended.”

Horror floods Faith’s face. “So Dawn’s dead?”

“No. That is, I don’t know. They wouldn’t have intended to do it so quickly – Glory wanted time to get back to her own dimension.”

“So how is it over?” asks Ethan.

“I’m not sure” replies Rupert, but his grim expression suggests he has some theories. He stands, and Faith tries to follow suit, wobbles. Rupert slips his arms around her. “Let me help.” He lifts her.

“Oh, this isn’t embarrassing” mutters Faith, but she lets it happen. As they step into the welcome sunlight, she suddenly asks, “Where’s B?”

*****

Staring down at Buffy’s body, Ethan thinks about the girl she was when they first met, so delightfully vibrant and witty, with a not-quite-done-growing look about her. That bright smile at the thought of her watcher having someone in his life.

Sometimes he wonders what Randall would have looked like if he’d gotten old, or about how his interests and character would have changed as middle age settled around him. He wonders if he’ll have similar thoughts about Buffy but he doubts it. She was always going to go out like this, in a storm of magic and fate and – quite literally – glory.

She was never going to grow old. Unlike him and Rupert. 

Chapter Text

 “So she’s not here anymore?” Faith, small in the hospital bed with her legs drawn up, asks.

“No” admits Giles. Glancing around, he explains, “With a bit of magic, we were able to, well to carry her out. We’d have told you, but we had to do it before she was identified, you see.” She had been light in his arms. Just a child really. Her eyes peacefully closed. She had almost seemed to be smiling.

“I kind of liked knowing she was in the same building” Faith admits. “But I guess bodies go missing all the time in this town.”

“Yes.”

“Seems kind of an overreaction. It’s not like someone’s going to swoop in and take Dawn into care. Trust me, you need to practically be coming at your kid with an axe before they get taken off you.”

“I think it’s more complicated than that, and Dawn doesn’t want to risk the authorities being involved. Besides, until you’re better, it’s probably best the underworld believes that Buffy is alive.” It is painful to say it: believes she is alive. Because she is not.

“So she doesn’t even get a funeral?”

“She will” Giles assures her. “We’ll give her a proper memorial when we bury her.” Feeling a need to defend choices made quickly and in the midst of crippling grief, he tells her, “She wouldn’t have wanted Dawn’s life to be any more disrupted than it already has been. She’d tell us to prioritise that.”

Faith frowns. “So her body’s not identified and all the neighbours and stuff just assume she’s around, but what about the demons? They’ll notice no-one’s patrolling.”

Giles pulls off his glasses. “That’s where the robot comes in.” Unnerving, that side of things. Well, the whole situation is unnerving. A world without Buffy is unnerving.

“Robot?” Faith’s frown deepens. “Wait, the Buffybot? What about it?”

“Willow’s going to, err, fix it and alter it, so that it can, well, stand in for…Be a decoy. So demons will still see Buffy patrolling.”

Faith shudders. “Oh, that is fucked up.”

“I’m inclined to agree.”

“That thing isn’t Buffy!”

“I know.”

Faith stares at him for a moment, then sits back, sighs. “Soon as I get out of here, it’s trash.”

“We need the humans in Buffy’s wider circle to believe she’s still alive” Giles reminds her, “or Dawn will have to go and live with her father.” When Faith doesn’t answer, he puts his glasses back on and examines the charts by her bed. The hospital won’t cure her, of course. Hit directly by a Nunguul demon’s tongue, she could have been killed were it not for her slayer strength. All there is to do is wait until the venom wears off and let the doctors – who are baffled as to the cause of Faith’s ailment – treat the symptoms. So far, Faith is still hurt enough to be unable to stand, prone to occasional, frightening episodes of breathing paralysis, and well enough to feel frustrated by all of it.  

After a moment, she says, “I won’t be able to come, will I? To the memorial.”

“I’m not sure it would be wise” Giles admits. “Unless you improve over the next few days…I’m sorry.”

“’S okay. I’ll remember her anyway. I don’t need some funeral play acting.” Rousing herself, she asks, “How’s Dawn?”

“Eating, at last. Her stiches will be out in a few days.”

“You’ve just been in and out of the hospital, huh? Between me and her and Buffy. All the Revello Drive chicks keeping you on your toes with the damseling.”

Giles smiles. “I couldn’t think of three less likely damsels.” Buffy is no damsel. Buffy will never keep him on his toes again. “I’d best get back. I’ll see you tomorrow, Faith.”

“Uh huh. You don’t need to come every day, you know.”

“Yes I do; I’m your watcher.”

*****

“She’s in her room” says Willow, of Buffy, which sounds cruelly as though Buffy is alive. Less so when Willow adds, “I changed the atmosphere to, well you know. To keep things cool. Actually, it’s snowing a bit up there. Like around a frozen lake. Buffy loved ice skating.” She blinks rapidly and bends over the robot, which is rent open to reveal inhuman innards. Above these, the plastic face beams manically.

“That sounds sensible” Giles tells her. So far, Willow has been the sensible one. He has been the one who itches to lose himself in a bottle, and only doesn’t because the children seem to want to be around him all the time, the one who is constantly blinking back his own tears. Eyghon once mocked him for crying. Eyghon knows nothing of love.

“Hey, Giles” asks Willow, “I’ve been wondering…”

“Yes?”

She keeps her gaze focused on a string of blue wire. “How do we…Well, can we be sure about…about where Buffy’s gone?”

“Which dimension, do you mean?”

“Yes. Well, not specifically. Just generally. It will be a heavenly one, right? Because I’ve read that with mystical deaths, it can send people to some places they wouldn’t want to go.”

Inwardly, Giles shudders. Pushes past horror with, “Mystical forces can complicate a spirit’s journey, yes. But Buffy died saving us all, and I have to believe she will be rewarded for that.”

“Believe? Not know?”

“No-one can know for sure, Willow. Sometimes we just have to trust that the good we fight for will reach us.”

Willow’s mouth twitches a little, and Giles isn’t sure if she is about to argue or almost offering a brave smile. “I guess you’re right” she says.

*****

They bury Buffy in an unmarked grave, in a leafy corner of the cemetery her mother rests in, on such a brutally sunny day it feels as though the heavens are mocking them.

Afterwards, Willow and Tara take Dawn home, and Anya takes Xander to the Magic Box, telling him it will be a distraction. He doesn’t look convinced but follows all the same. Ethan and Rupert are left to drive home, and Rupert doesn’t comment when Ethan drives the wrong way.

“Bugger” says Ethan, when they clamber out the car at the beach.

Rupert glances around questioningly, and Ethan explains: “I didn’t think it would be so full of kids. I was sort of imaging just you, me and the eternity of the ocean. Thought it would be soothing.”

Rupert studies the scene. “It still is” he decides, which means little coming from a man who’s given no indication over the last week of having any opinion about where he wants to be or what he wants to be doing whatsoever. He has simply done what is required, even training the robot, before the surrealness of that sent him scurrying off to the bedside of his remaining slayer.

Ethan points out, “It doesn’t seem right though, does it? All these teenagers having fun when she’s…” He trails off: He doesn’t know what Buffy is doing. He finishes, “Well, not here.”

“It’s alright” Rupert replies. “It’s what she died for: So these children wouldn’t have to.” Put that way, it’s rather striking. Ethan looks around: a girl wading into the waves squeals as cold water smacks her stomach, a boy yells to a friend as he tosses a beachball, a baby struggling in its mother’s arms, cries stickily. None of them in hell.

He’ll never see Buffy again, Ethan realises. Little chance of her reward having anything to do with wherever he winds up. He breathes deeply around the pain of it, gets a lungful of sea air, tear-scented. “She did well, Rupert. You gave her more time than slayers usually get, you realise that?”

“Yes, and then I sent her off to her grave like a good watcher should.” Rupert’s fists clench, and for a moment, Ethan is in the company of twenty-year-old Ripper, seething for a fight. Then the energy seems to drain out of him, and his middle aged partner is back, looking weary.

Ethan tells him, “She couldn’t have asked for better than you. You let her have friends, Rupert. She was lucky. Relatively.” All things are relative. Somewhere, some parallel Buffy is happily getting on with her life, with no idea vampires exist. Winning the World Figure Skating Championship and going to prom with Billy Fordham.

Rupert nods slowly, but Ethan isn’t really sure he’s taken in what he said. Then he glances at his watch. “Thank you for bringing me here, Ethan, but we should go. I told Faith I’d visit.”

“Alright then.” Ethan sighs and turns back to the car.

Driving back into town, he risks asking the question that has been occurring now and then all week but which he hasn’t judged safe to ask so far: “We’re not going home, are we?”

“I still have a slayer, Ethan.”

Ethan glances at him, then watches the road. He can’t exactly say We agreed we’d go home when Buffy died. Faith wasn’t in the picture when they agreed that. And Buffy was still a novel idea, not an actual person they’d met. Besides, “It wouldn’t feel right anyway, I suppose. The rest of them still need us. They are all annoyingly lovable, in their way. And there’s a lot I still want to teach Dawn.”

“Protection spells only, Eth. You promised Buffy.”

“Yes, dear, of course.” Trust Buffy to spoil his fun even from beyond the grave. Ethan feels a rush of mingled annoyance, fondness and sorrow, like a swallowed handful of pick and mix.

Quietly, Rupert says, “I wish we could take them all home with us. Get them on a plane to London and away from the hellmouth. If only Faith wasn’t a slayer too.”

“Still battles to go” Ethan agrees grimly. Hard to face that just yet. But one day they’ll have to.

“If only she’d just been another one of Buffy’s friends, we could take them all away from this.”

“Well, possibly. But I’m not sure I can imagine us all just moving into a cosy flat share in London together.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do when Faith dies. I can’t lose another one, Eth.”

“Rupert, that could be years.”

“Could it be seventy?”

Ethan stays silent at that, concentrates on driving. After a while, Rupert says, “Sod it, maybe we should leave. Let them send another watcher for Faith.” He shakes his head. “Not that she’d allow it. No. And Buffy would want me to be the one to watch her.”

Frankly, Ethan decides, Buffy can keep her opinions to herself now that she’s dead. How long is she going to linger, whispering in Rupert’s ear? Mixed as his feeling about returning home are, it’s still home, and he’d still felt elated for a moment when Rupert said it. He sighs heavily. “You want me to drop you off at the hospital?”

“Yes please.”

*****

“I’m not sure I can do this, Giles.”

“Faith, you’re a perfectly capable slayer, and there isn’t a major threat at present. You’ll be fine.”

“I’ve never been the only slayer before. There was always B there too. Never just this it’s up to me alone crap.”

“It’s not you alone. We’re all still here.”

Faith gives him a quick, searching glance, and Giles remembers that the remaining children are, really, more Buffy’s friends than Faith’s. He adds, “I’m still here.”

“Yeah, I know you are. Man, is this how Buffy felt when I screwed up and went off to Richa – The Mayor?”

“I think she was disappointed” Giles replies honestly, “and delighted when you came back. But she’d already been the only slayer before that.”

Faith looks away despondently. “I haven’t.”

Giles leans forwards in his seat, and hazards, “Perhaps a part of you has wondered what it would be like?” Certainly a part of him has always theorised that that wonder played a part in Faith’s decision to join the Mayor; all the power a slayer has, doubled, was bound to leave one feeling surplus and restless, wanting to channel her strength elsewhere.

Faith replies, “Maybe. Not in a wishing Buffy dead way – just what if she’d stayed dead after the master, you know? And then it’d be Kendra, and then it’d be me, on my own, like my real – uh, like my first watcher always said.” She glances guiltily at him. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright” Giles soothes. Truthfully he is a little hurt. Being Faith’s watcher matters a lot more in the wake of Buffy’s death than it ever has before, but Giles is aware that that very fact means Faith doesn’t owe him the esteem she holds her first watcher in. Sophia Chadwick was assigned to Faith when she was just entering her teens and only left her via bloody death. No-one else in Faith’s life has shown her such consistent support and loyalty.

Well, he realises, except for Buffy. Buffy never gave up on Faith. To her, Faith was never irredeemable; she was always “deemable”.

“Faith, you’re a competent slayer. You’re more than up to the challenge of being the only one.”

“Yeah? G-man, if I was the only one, we’d have been sucked into hell by now – I fell off that tower.”

“I’m not sure fell is the right way to put it. You were thrown off by a formidable demon.”

“Yeah, who Buffy defeated!”

“Just the way the fight played out” Giles assures her. He stops short of saying Buffy simply got lucky where Faith didn’t: Of the two of them, Faith is still alive and Buffy isn’t, making it an odd sort of luck. A slayer sort of luck. Giles insists, “Faith, if Buffy were here, she’d tell you you can do this. And she’d tell me to help.”

*****

“I guess we’d better get her room ready” says Willow a week later, when Faith has been given the all clear to leave the hospital. Standing at the sink in Revello Drive, she glances guiltily at Giles as he takes a freshly cleaned mug from her, dries it. These days, everyone seems to spend a lot of time looking guilty. Survivors’ guilt, Giles supposes. Willow adds, “I’ve been sort of using her bed so the books don’t take up floor space.”

“I suppose you’ll have to find space for the in Joyce’s old room” Giles comments, putting the mug away in what he hopes is the correct place. “If you’re staying, that is?”

Willow frowns. “Actually, I was thinking we should move back to campus. Faith can take care of Dawnie.”

“It is a bit of a commute for your classes” Giles acknowledges. “But I’m not sure that Faith is ready to care for Dawn alone on top of being the only slayer left.” Really, he is a little disappointed that Willow would think so, given the ample evidence that parental role models have been thin on the ground for Faith. Willow and Tara, on the other hand, have managed admirably. But then again, they do have their own lives to pursue.

Perhaps Willow is thinking along the same lines, because she says, “Well, why don’t you and Ethan move in? I mean, Faith’s more likely to listen to you than to me, with how close you’ve been getting.” Her voice trails into something that is almost a question, as though she hopes he will deny being closer to Faith since they lost Buffy. As though such a thing would be disrespectful rather than a survival mechanism, which it isn’t. Even if it feels like it is. Pushing past that, Giles manages, “Well, I suppose…I hadn’t really considered... All I know is, Dawn could use more support than Faith is able to give alone.”

Willow nods to the basement door. “I guess. Well, her and Spike.”

Giles finds his expression souring as he follows her gaze. He hopes the allegedly sleeping vampire is indeed sleeping, and not eavesdropping. “Spike will have to move out soon. He’s recovered from his injuries.”

“Yeah, but, what about Dawnie? She likes having him around.” Willow lets the water drain and peels off her rubber gloves, takes a seat.

“But she shouldn’t” argues Giles, pulling out a chair for himself. “It shouldn’t be encouraged.”

Willow looks apologetic as she tells him gently, “Probably best to leave that to the people actually living with him.”

“Which could include you and Tara” counters Giles “Faith has enough to contend with, and Dawn needs people who are, well, perhaps more dependable than Faith has ever learnt to be.”

“Well, you know who’s dependable? You and Ethan.”

“Willow…”

“Okay, so you. And Ethan has his moments.”

“I’m not sure living with her magic tutor will be conducive to Dawn taking things slowly on that front. Besides, I’m sure she can relate better to you and Tara than she can to us.” And Willow and Tara are still young, he thinks, still adaptable enough to live in a shared house with other young people. For him, it would be a hellish shock to the system.

But then, this is for Buffy. If Willow won’t do it, he will simply have to manage.

“I don’t know” Willow is saying, “I was just reading this paper about research into intergenerational bonds that showed…um, that I’m channelling my mother. Sorry.”

Giles returns her smile. Admits, “I haven’t lived with teenagers since I was one. But I do see that that’s not to say it isn’t a big ask for you.”

“I did think about not moving back to campus. But I have a lot of research” Willow looks briefly evasive. “You know, for college and stuff. New modules this year.”

“Well, yes, you do have every right to get on with that. I’ll talk to Ethan.”

*****

“Hey, Ethan?” Willow speaks from the book she’s poring over. Ethan, closing the till up as a customer leaves, turns to her. “Yes?”

“Do you know any spell to…well.”

Ethan comes over, examining the book properly. “That from upstairs?”

“Downstairs – it’s from this little basement level shop across town.”

“Willow, I’m hurt. You want magic books, you come here, you know that.” Ethan takes the volume, flips through a few pages. “Though if I did stock this, it would be kept in the restricted section.”

“I know.” Willow reaches for it.

“New project, or do we have a new demon come to town?”

“No demon. No project really, I’m just wondering.”

“About…?”

“Is there any spell to tell where a dead person’s gone?”

Ethan takes a seat, and gently explains, “Willow, if it were as easy as doing a location spell, we’d never let anyone go.”

“It’s not like I’m asking to speak to her. I just want to make sure she didn’t end up anywhere bad.”

“Why would she? She’s a slayer.” Was.

“But that’s not a guarantee, is it? Especially not with a mystical death.”

“Not a guarantee, but sometimes the gods do show mercy. I know you’ve not met any that would give you that impression, but it is so.”

“Great, so instead of guarantees, I get a lecture about Janus.”

“If I had guarantees, I’d give them, sweet thing. But I do have hope.” Ethan stands up again, as a new customer enters. “Don’t you?”

“I don’t know” Willow admits. She slides a hand over the spine of the book. “It’s like you said – I haven’t met any god that makes me think we can just blindly hope like that.”

“I’m afraid in this case, we don’t have any choice, do we?”

Willow is still frowning down at the book. “No” she says, “I suppose we don’t have a choice.”

*****

“It’s not staying down here.”

Faith shoots Spike a dirty look. “Spike, you had the thing made as your glorified vibrator. Don’t tell me now you’re scared of it watching you sleep.”

Spike eyes the robot unhappily. “It’s different now” he argues. “Put it in the attic.”

“You want to stay here, you let me chose where we keep our decoy robots.” Faith turns to Giles. “Right, Giles?”

“Well…” Honestly, Giles had just been expecting to drive her home from hospital, maybe make her and Dawn dinner. He is a little taken aback at how quickly she switched the robot off and bundled it into the basement. “Shouldn’t we keep it switched on in case someone comes round?”

“Someone comes round, we’ll tell them Buffy’s out and get it out in case they come back. Same if Hank calls.”

“I’m with you there, pet” rejoins Spike, “It’s no good for the bit having it hanging around. But that doesn’t mean we need to keep it –”

“Spike, I’m not dragging it up to the attic, okay? Pain in the ass to get it back down again.” Faith eyes the thing. “You want to, you can throw a blanket over it or something. I don’t want it here smiling at me every time I come down here to do laundry.”

*****

“Willow’s taking it hard” Ethan tells Giles as they lay in bed at night, not sleeping because they don’t do much of that these days.

“They all are” Giles reminds him. “We all are.”

“You don’t think…”

“What?”

In the darkness, Ethan seems to be pondering something, turning it over in his mind. “I’m not sure” he says at last. “I just worry about them all.”

“So do I.” For a brief moment, a part of Giles makes a mental note to call Buffy in the morning, his subconscious’ reflex response to distress. How long, he wonders, before that wears off? “Try to sleep, Ethan.”

Ethan reaches for him; Giles doesn’t see the movement but feels Ethan’s hand close around his own. “Only if you try too.”

*****

He visits Buffy’s grave only when the weather is warm. He doesn’t like to think of her lying alone in the cold. Fortunately (or not – perhaps he’d torture himself less with memories then), it is virtually always warm in Sunnydale. Occasionally, Ethan comes with him, but more usually, Giles goes alone. When Ethan does come, he tends to stand back, as though this is Buffy’s bedside and she might desire some privacy. Or perhaps as though he, unlike Giles, is able to detach himself completely from the practicalities of things and view the grave for what it truly is – a storage for a body discarded like an old coat, shrugged off and abandoned. Not Buffy herself, but something she has finished with.

Somehow, Giles’ visits rarely coincide with the children’s, though he is aware of Willow’s little cairn growing, and of Anya’s flowers, medieval in their carefully chosen symbolism. Dawn brings letters that she clears away with each visit, so that there might now and then be a sealed envelope, dew-soaked, weeping inky tears, that vanishes before the next visit. Spike leaves other people’s flowers, which Giles feels obliged to return (he’s getting to know the layout of the cemetery rather too well) and the occasional bottle, empty but for a daisy-stopper. Faith’s bottles are full, pagan-like grave goods that Ethan might say Buffy is able to enjoy in the beyond. Perhaps Ethan and Faith’s idea of heaven involves a range of alcoholic beverages, but Giles prefers to picture Buffy at peace, finally free of duty to focus on something beyond mere material concerns and hedonistic pleasures. 

So far as he is aware, Xander hasn’t brought anything until today. Giles greets the young man with, “That seems a little noticeable.”

Xander looks up guiltily (They all seem guilty these days) and responds, “I know. But I couldn’t just leave it unmarked.” Turning back to the headstone, he explains, “I ordered it from a stone mason who’s worked on a few builds with me. He didn’t know Buffy, so he’s not going to suspect. And when people see it, well I figure there’s more than one person called Buffy in the world. Not that people stop and read all the stones anyway.”

“I suppose not.” The stone even has the dates on it, which is a little risky in Giles’ opinion, but he says nothing. Gods know he can relate to not wanting Buffy’s grave to remain unmarked, letting her be entirely lost to history when the rest of them die or move away. Reading the words, he tells Xander, “Thank you. It’s how she’d want to be remembered.”

Xander doesn’t respond beyond a little nod, and Giles looks tactfully away, lets the boy wipe his eyes. Finally, Xander says, “It doesn’t stop hurting, does it?” in an almost accusatory tone, as though he had expected Giles to have some way of fixing everything that he’s been falsely promising them.

“No” Giles admits. “No, I don’t believe it does.”