Rest for the Wicked
Ten linked drabbles by Aadler
Copyright November 2019
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, and the WB.
– i –
“You’re my punishment,” Ethan complains. “For doing a good deed, even if that was just to cheese off your family.”
It’s a familiar lament, and Tara can’t really argue. He set her free, and now she keeps him … not jailed. Muzzled, maybe. Instead she points out, “The sign says there’s a Thai place in two miles.”
That perks him up. “Hmm. Been awhile since I had any decent nam ngiao.” Then with a quick grimace he adds, “Too bad it comes with a side order of virtue.”
They pass a small gas station. The pumps don’t explode. Ethan grimaces again.
– ii –
He’d spied her among her kin, unpolished gem in an uncultured setting, and thought to corrupt her. (Mystical terms only, he early sensed her physical disinterest and in his own way he’s a gentleman. The thought would horrify him.) She let him tempt her away, learned as happily as he taught; he watched her blossom, shedding her family’s strictures. Failed to note the limits she set herself.
She had no taste for the wild joy of chaos. Freedom, but on her own terms. Breaking boundaries, but not for the pleasure of breaking. She had … scruples.
Bitter disappointment. Not his last.
– iii –
They’re shown a table, make their order, duel all through the appetizers. No glass cracks, no cooking oil ignites, hurried feet land on nothing slippery. The chimes tinkle with unusual animation, though, and other diners find themselves feeling whimsical, exhilarated.
The irony is that Ethan’s getting better in his imprisonment. Fighting against her limits sharpens his wits, strengthens his will, firms his control. He could go on a real tear, now … except, of course, Tara is growing even more rapidly.
They pick different entrees, but they’ll share the khao man gai.
(They share a lot. Damn it to bloody hell.)
– iv –
Eventually he’d had to recognize that she would never embrace vibrant disorder. Sighing, he left her. She followed. He slipped her scrutiny a dozen times; she always found him. He set snares to impede her; she evaded them, nullified them, or broke free before he could complete an escape.
And, wherever he went, she blocked him from doing what he does.
He wasn’t ruthless enough to kill her (or, perhaps, reckless enough to try), and it seemed nothing less would stop her. Her obstinacy was endearing, infuriating, at least a bit frightening.
And — however he hated to admit it — impressive.
– v –
The server introduces herself as Prija, and she and Tara recognize each other in a way neither could describe but both understand: glances, tone, timing, even words not said when normally they would be. Ethan seems not to notice… which is unlikely, so either he’s saving it for later use or is simply being considerate. (Also unlikely, but then, Ethan.)
Tara feels a pang but no temptation, because it’s just not possible. She’s already committed, perhaps for life. It would be nice to reach for someone, but it can’t be: not now, not here.
Still hurts. She’s used to it.
– vi –
She’s no less captive of her chosen course than he is. Might even be easier for him: he’s free if he can only escape her. She, by contrast, is her own jailer. She made a deliberate choice, knowing that linking herself to Ethan meant foreswearing other possibilities.
She had dreams once, and she misses them. All the “could be”s that never will be, and no reprieve because those are the terms she set. She spent so many years under her family’s control, and now she’s bound by her own.
Yet bound she is. Because that’s how it has to be.
– vii –
“We can still get to Raleigh today,” Tara says as they leave. Peace offering.
Ethan shakes it away. “What’s the point? You’ll keep me to heel regardless.”
She shrugs. “Maybe not.” She allows some things; even joins him sometimes, as long as it hurts nobody and isn’t … tasteless. His idea of fun isn’t hers, but she tries to indulge him occasionally. “There are things we both enjoy.”
Ethan actually gives it thought. “No,” he decides. “This’ll do for now. Hit the big city early tomorrow.” A theatrical leer. “New day, new opportunities.”
Incorrigible, always. Even so, she lets him dream.
– viii –
After weeks of flee-and-follow, they’ve gradually found a routine. Share the car, compromise on a schedule, even lodge together: convenience, comfort, economy. She wards the motel room while he watches and assesses; naturally, she’ll layer on more later, in privacy. (Then she’ll work to scry out the little frills he weaves in when he can sneak it past her.)
It makes the struggle between them no less genuine, no less grimly serious. It does, however, make it all a great deal less wearying. And, oddly, civilized.
Ethan has always loathed domesticity, mocked it. Somehow, it’s caught him nonetheless.
– ix –
She owes him more than she can ever repay. He gave her what she’d always yearned for; she denies him what he most loves.
She has to. What he loves, damages his soul. She can’t allow this.
Evening rituals done, she joins him in the bed. Comfort of two bodies together, never more than that. She doesn’t need more, and he doesn’t seem to resent the lack. (Of course, she’s given him abundant cause for other resentments.)
He turns out the light, and says again, “I’ll never be good.”
No, she doesn’t say to him. But you can be better.
– x –
It’s not pretense, on either side. Ethan genuinely seethes at having his beloved mischief curbed. Tara truly misses the life she could live if her life weren’t committed to neutralizing the chaos he generates.
Even so, what they have in each other is something neither of them sought, but neither of them could leave behind without knowing the loss.
This isn’t love as anyone else would recognize it. Not love of a man for a woman, or a woman for a man. But it’s part of them now, and neither of them can (not fully) want to be free of it.