She got her own hotel room. There was a moment, hanging on a silver thread for what felt like forever, when Spike’s eyes had narrowed at Giles’ query about sleeping arrangements and Buffy was certain that he expected her to sleep with him, but she’d swiftly turned away and asked for someplace private. Sooner or later, Spike would have to see that she was using him just as much as he was using her. The sex was good, amazing even, but that’s all it was. The light of day would elucidate their roles in this little melodrama and clear any remaining confusion. Even if she was the only one of the two of them who was confused.
Giles was the one who trailed after her when she got her key, though. Buffy did the only thing she could under the circumstances. She lashed out.
“Do you like getting hurt?” she demanded, whipping around to face him as he hovered in the entry. “Because I’m beginning to think yes. That’s got to be the only reason you’re risking life and limb by annoying me this much.”
He stiffened, but didn’t move. “I was hoping we could…talk,” he said carefully. “I understand you’re tired, but surely a few minutes won’t do any harm.”
“You tell me,” she replied, folding her arms over her breasts. “You’re the one who went all Watcher on me and told me I needed some rest.”
Something contrite flashed behind his glasses, but it was gone before Buffy could name it. “I am not your enemy---.”
“Funny, but where I come from, hiring an assassin to kill someone almost always puts you in the enemy camp.”
“That was before. The Council was unaware of Ethan’s involvement in your life. Knowing you’ve been his pawn---.”
“Oh, put a cork in it.” With a heavy sigh, Buffy crossed the few feet to the bed and collapsed onto it, her hair splaying against the floral bedspread. “I told Spike, and I’ll tell you, and then I’m not saying this again. Trying to convince me that the Council is in any way not after me and Ethan is a waste of your time. I know for a fact that they’ve been trying to kill the both of us for at least three years.”
Her eyes fluttered shut. “Yeah, since Cleveland.”
Now that she was lying down, the prospect of sleep was increasingly enticing, and Buffy waited for Giles to get bored with her non-cooperation and leave her alone. There was a faint shuffling at the doorway, and then the sound of the rain pelting against the metal balcony faded to a distant sting. But when she opened her eyes again, he was still standing there.
“You’re not going away, are you?” she commented, dryly.
She hadn’t turned the light on, and with the door closed, the only illumination came from the fluorescent that streamed through the sheer curtains she hadn’t yet covered. Giles was a walking shadow as he pulled the lone chair in the room closer to the bed, and, when he sat down, all she could see were the glint of the light off his earring and the dull outline of his head against the window.
“I know you’re in pain…” His voice was gentle, soothing, and Buffy squeezed her eyes shut against the onslaught of fragility it encouraged. “Spike told me about…how Ethan controlled you.”
“Don’t.” The single word was meant to slice into the Watcher. Instead, it seemed to change course and chip with icy fingers into her.
He took a deep breath. “It’s understandable that you’re confused. Your feelings are…complicated. You hate him, and yet, at the same time, you still care for him.”
Buffy summoned the last of her strength to try and goad him into shutting up. “Gee, do they make you take psychobabble 101 when you become a Watcher?” she said, her voice so bright it made her face ache. “Because you’re just so good at this. Thanks. I feel tons better. Go now, please.”
“You’re not the only one Ethan’s disappointed, Buffy.”
“I guess he’s going to be the highlight of the next When Watchers Go Bad, then, huh?”
“Ethan was never a Watcher.”
That got her attention. She propped herself up on her elbows and stared at him. “But…he had a handbook.”
“Then he must have stolen it. He never worked for them.”
“He saved me.”
Giles sighed and leaned forward, bowing his head as his forearms rested on his jean-clad knees. “Yes, that he did,” he said quietly. “But we have no way of knowing whether or not he actually had a hand in orchestrating your death. The Council always thought the circumstances were…unusual. Nobody ever knew why you were in that particular nest, facing so many vampires all on your own. It’s possible Ethan had a hand in it.”
“No.” Vehemently, she shook her head. “Ethan’s a sleazebag in a lot of ways, but I can’t believe that he’d be capable of something like that.”
“Then why was he there to bring you back?” Giles pressed.
“I don’t know.”
But images were already gathering momentum inside her head, memories she’d hoped to suppress long enough to get a good night’s sleep. Remnants of Ethan’s voice, coaxing her back to life, nursing her back to health, telling her how the vampires had slaughtered her parents, how they were hunting her down even as she regained her strength. According to him, there was no choice but to run. To stay still meant to welcome another death.
Falling back onto the mattress, Buffy gazed sightlessly at the ceiling. “You said you knew Ethan,” she murmured. “If he wasn’t a Watcher, how is that possible?”
Giles cleared his throat. “We grew up together,” he said. “He was…my best friend until I joined the Council.”
“We chose different paths. We became two very different people.” He paused. “It is possible, Buffy. You can choose to turn your back on the wrongs you’ve committed---.”
“How did your Slayer die?”
She didn’t want to talk about her past any more. See how the stuffed shirt liked having his own pain dredged up for a change.
“The same way you did. Doing her duty.”
Rolling onto her side, Buffy tucked her legs up so that she was curled into a tight ball, watching his outline through the murk. “Would you have died to save her life?” she asked. “Would you have done everything in your power to protect her?”
She saw his shoulders slump and knew she’d struck a nerve. She hoped it hurt.
“Yes,” Giles whispered.
“I don’t think you and Ethan are that different after all,” Buffy said.
Neither spoke for a long time. Someone walked by the window, blocking out the light for a fraction of a second, and then, it was light again.
“I’d like to go to sleep now,” she finally said.
Giles rose to his feet. He seemed taller to her, for some reason. “I’ll start the research on the ring.” He crossed the few steps to the doorway, and hesitated. “Sleep well, Buffy. Tomorrow will likely be a long day.”
Buffy had to bite her tongue upon his exit. She had a feeling they were all going to be long days from now on.
Vampire dust coated her skin, a thick veneer made worse by the grime from the abandoned warehouse. Blood dripped down Buffy’s leg where the vampire had sunk its teeth into her calf, but the sting from the bite was miniscule compared to the ache permeating her bones. The fight had been long, far too long, and she’d been forced to take it on alone. She was getting weary of Ethan and his never-ending research sessions.
The house was silent when she slipped through the front door, and the heel of her boots seemed to pound against the hardwood floor. A sliver of light glimmered from beneath the study door, but Buffy ignored it, heading straight for the kitchen and her bottled water in the fridge. She needed a long drink before she could do anything else. Her throat was parched.
Steam was just starting to curl along the bathroom floor from her running shower when he knocked on the door.
“I hope you’re not decent,” he said with a chuckle.
“Never,” she teased in return.
Her back was to the door when he entered. “I expected you to return this morning,” Ethan said. Though his tone wasn’t accusatory, his words were, and Buffy stiffened.
“Some of the vamps didn’t really want to die,” she replied. She tossed aside her bra and slipped her fingers into the waistband of her panties to slide them down. “It took me a little while to convince them it was in all our best interest if they did.”
She could feel him behind her, feel his breath so warm and near. Every second she waited snapped and crackled, but not once did Ethan reach to touch her, and, in the end, Buffy gave up on waiting to step into the shower.
His dark shadow remained on the other side of the curtain. “You need to pack your things,” he said. “We’re leaving Portland tomorrow evening. I don’t wish to linger any longer than necessary.”
“Got another collection agency on our back?” she joked.
Silence. He wasn’t even rising to her gibes.
“What’s wrong?” Buffy asked, now all business. The water was swirling in grey eddies around her toes as she scrubbed away the top layer of dirt and dust.
“We’re going to Los Angeles.”
Though the water was scalding, she felt like ice, barely cognizant of turning to stare through the opacity of the shower curtain. “What? Why? You always said…” Her head was spinning just as rapidly as the water down the drain. “This better be an apocalypse, Ethan. You know how I feel about that place.”
“I know.” The resignation in his voice stabbed through her heart. “It can’t be helped, my dear. I’ve located a little trinket there that will be invaluable to us.”
“You have enough little trinkets!”
More silence. But as it stretched on and on, a warmth began to return to Buffy’s body, starting in her fingers and then suffusing entire limbs until she couldn’t remember feeling cold at all.
The ring on her finger felt heavy, and she twisted it as she turned back under the spray. “Do we have to go?” Buffy asked.
Ethan sighed. “Yes. But I promise you. If we’re able to get this, you won’t have any reasons to be afraid any more. This will change everything.”
“If you say so.”
His shadow sharpened, darkened, as his fingertips ghosted over the opposite side of the curtain. If she looked closely, she could even see the worn lines of his fingerprints where he made contact. “I shan’t let anything happen to you, Buffy,” he murmured. “You know that, don’t you?”
She didn’t voice her agreement, just nodded her head. His hand fell away, and his footsteps rang against the tile as he exited the bathroom.
The water ran clear down the drain.
Her eyes opened of their own accord, as if her body was telling her that it had had its full of sleep. It lied. All she had to do was look at the clock with its angry red numbers to see that she’d rested for less than an hour.
She should’ve expected the dream. With so much on her mind, it made sense that Buffy’s subconscious would continue to try and process it all while she slept. But she’d hoped for an escape, just a brief respite from the memories. It didn’t seem that much to ask for. Didn’t Slayers ever get any extra consideration from the cosmos?
A crack of thunder outside her window seemed all too fortuitous. Buffy almost laughed out loud at the sheer irony.
Kicking off the blankets, she hesitated only a moment before swinging her legs over the edge of the bed and sitting up. She needed to sleep but her body wasn’t going to cooperate without a little help. A relaxing shower was out of the question; her dream/memories were still too fresh to make anything associated with the bathroom soothing. Something else then.
She didn’t even bother with her shoes as she slipped from her room. The overhang protected the balcony from getting wet, and taking the time to even change out of her tank and shorts would’ve been too much. Her feet were silent as she walked along, and when she stopped in front of the closed door, she was relieved to see the light still gleaming through the drawn curtains. He was still up. Then again, she’d known he would be.
The door opened before she could knock.
“I can’t sleep,” Buffy said.
He gazed down at her, his blue eyes dark and unsurprised. A book dangled from the hand at his side and the illuminated lamp next to the window betrayed just where he’d been doing his reading. Without a word, Spike pushed the door further open, allowing Buffy room to enter under the bridge of his arm.
Neither of them spoke as he closed it shut behind her.
Though his resources were limited, Giles found what he was looking for almost right away. It was called Jutta’s Ring, and apparently was quite renowned for its type of magical capabilities.
It was when he read the further descriptions that he began to frown. He had to go back and read the passages two more times before the implications of what Ethan had wanted it for completely sank in.
Buffy had referred to it as the master of all riddles. In actuality, it served to cloak answers, and in its long and colorful history had most often been utilized as a means for camouflage. Taken in conjunction with Buffy’s assertions regarding being hunted by the Council for longer than this most recent mission, it appeared as if Ethan was interested in obtaining Jutta’s Ring in order to make them invisible. A permanent means of hiding, or at least, as permanent as could be found without actually dying. This cast an entirely new light on his relationship with the Slayer.
The Ethan that Giles had known put self-preservation as his number one priority. While this was likely very much along the same lines, the fact that he was including Buffy had to mean that it was more than just a business partnership that they maintained. There was affection there. There was feeling. That changed things dramatically.
But the ring was not his only reason for research. Setting aside what he’d already learned, Giles picked up the phone and punched in the number for his office back in London. He needed details on the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart, and he needed them before Buffy did something rash. Drawing upon Council resources would get him the quickest answers.
Lives would likely depend on what he discovered.
He was fast thinking that this was a Slayer he needed to save, not kill.
Lilah looked like hell, and worse, she felt like it. No sooner had she arrived at her apartment, but Wolfram and Hart Security was on the phone, telling her that Ethan Rayne had woken from the effects of the wine. If she wanted to take advantage of the wine at its strongest, she had to get back to the offices as quickly as possible.
Someone should’ve told that to the idiot who crashed into the sign at her exit, completely blocking up the traffic for almost an hour. By the time she got through, Lilah was ready to get out of her car and kill the driver herself.
She still wore the cocktail dress and heels she’d worn in an attempt to seduce Ethan into drinking the wine. It wasn’t the costume of choice she would’ve selected, but in light of how short she was on time, she was going to work with what she had. If the wine was working properly, it wouldn’t matter anyway. He would be so far gone that Lilah could be wearing a muu muu and feather boa and still get what she wanted. She hoped.
Taking a deep breath, Lilah focused on her objective, visualizing her success, before pushing open the door of the holding cell. She had to fight not to wrinkle her nose at the growing stench of blood that filled the room, and instead, paused in the entrance, waiting for him to look up and recognize her presence.
He did so almost immediately. Haggard in just the few hours of his imprisonment, Ethan gazed at Lilah with blackened eyes, lids heavy. When he blinked, he seemed to do it in slow motion, and she wondered if that was an effect of the wine or a result of the torture. Confusion made him blink more than once, and she refrained from speaking while she waited for the fog that enveloped him to clear.
The manacles clanked against the wall as his arms twitched, and when the seconds stretched into minutes, Lilah began to think that perhaps the science division had miscalculated on the effects of their drug. She was halfway through mentally writing a scathing memo to the science head when Ethan finally spoke.
“You…came,” he rasped. His tongue darted out to lick his lips, like he’d been without fluid for days. “I didn’t…you came.”
Lilah took a step forward, her hope returning with an angry vengeance. “I did,” she replied, carefully.
He tried moving against his bindings, but only succeeded in drawing a fresh line of blood on one of his wrists. “We must be quick, my dear,” he said. “That dreadful lawyer could be back at any time.”
“Which lawyer are you talking about?” Her fingers were crossed behind her back as she awaited his answer.
“Lilah Morgan, of course.” A devious smile softened his features, dropping years from his true age. “She wants the ring back. Pity she’ll never get it. That’s just for us, Buffy. Just like I planned. Now. Stop dawdling and get me out of here.”
To be continued in Chapter 10: Kiss the Hunter…