Playing Dead part 15
The radio gets all static-like and I finally relax, dropping it away from my ear. I check over my shoulder and notice that Willow and Rayne didn't seem to hear it. Good! They didn't need to. Let the demons threaten all they want. Let them brag about their prisoners all they want. It changes nothing. We have a job to do and we're going to do it. It's what Buffy wants.
The sky looks strange, like a solar eclipse trapped under a blanket of clouds. The huge swarm of vampires in the lot below is growing, like ants invading a picnic. If this plan works, we could be dusting the entire vampire population of Los Angeles in one clean sweep. Good riddins! Then I could finally get home to Sam, where I belong.
Thinking of her suddenly makes me nervous. I begin to pace along the rooftop ledge, practically bouncing in my boots as Willow and Rayne continue their chanting. I've never felt so useless, listening to words I don't understand being spoken by my best friend and a sorcerer vampire I don't trust as far as I could stake him. Uncomfortable doesn't begin to describe it.
I watch them work it for a moment, wondering if I could even tell if something was going wrong… like if Willow went all veiny again or if Rayne tried to hurt her somehow. But they look like they're playing nice together, speaking in tongues together, each centered in their weird zones of concentration. I so don't get it.
Then it dawns on me that Rayne is glowing… well, flickering anyway, like one of gramps dollar store light bulbs. Willow is another story. She is radiant, beautiful with a consistent iridescent haze swirling around her. I look up to see the clouds grow a little brighter with each completed chant. For a microsecond, I consider interrupting the odd couple engaging in tag-team casting to inform them of the unscheduled radio programming announcement but as far as I can tell, whatever they're doing is working and I don't wanna monkey-wrench their mojo. What good would it do now, anyway? As I see it, if the spell is broken, here comes the sun and ashes all vamps caught unawares, leaving Buffy a front row seat at the dust bowl. Not such a bad plan, even if the Rayne man doesn't get his end of the bargain. I'll help him get over it with the business end of a stake.
Yeah, I'm doing the right thing.
Suddenly, Ethan breaks out from his trance-like state, pushes himself to his feet, and rushes frantically over to the ledge.
"What?" I ask, backing away just a little, unsure what the sorcerer was preparing to do.
"He's down there," Ethan growls, eyes searching the crowds.
"What?" Willow comes out of her concentration and joins him at the rooftop ledge. I back away a little more, wishing I could slip into the shadows.
"Rupert is out there, in the center of the crowd."
"I think that's Buffy with him," Willow says.
"But that's a check in the plus column, right?" I say as innocently as I can. "Means if you guys hit pay dirt with the unveiling spell, then the Buffster is sitting pretty for a tan."
Willow looks worriedly at Ethan and I'll be damned if she asks the question I'd hoped she wouldn't. "But if the sun… what about the chaos magicks… does he…"
"I don't know," Ethan interrupts anxiously. "He's nothing close to what I'm capable of."
"You can't stop now. We'll never get another chance like this," I urge them and get a glare from Rayne. "I mean, we have a pond full of sitting ducks out there."
"Rupert is one of those ducks, boy!" Ethan barks.
"Yeah, well… does he have sunscreen?" I shrug.
"This wasn't part of the deal," he snarls, storming after me with fury in his black eyes.
"Tell you what…" I hold my hands up passively as I back away, hating being forced to compromise with this gutter trash, "I'll take care of it."
"How?" Willow asks, hurrying over to try and step between us.
"I dunno. I just will, okay?"
Rayne continues after me and finally, I lose my patience and draw my pistol, aiming it square at his heart. He stops, eyes narrowing to read my resolved face.
"How many holes will it take to convince you, chaos chump? You know I'm ready and willing."
"Xander, no!" Willow objects.
"I'm telling you I will handle it," I repeat very slowly and very clearly as the barrel of the pistol dimples the battered skin of the sorcerer's chest. "You have my word." Whatever good that is.
"I'll remember that, Xander." The way he says my name sends a chill up my spine that I try hard to ignore. That together with his black-shifting-yellow-shifting-back-to-black eyes is enough to set me in motion toward the exit.
"Be careful, Xander." Willow hollers and I couldn't be more grateful to hear a concerned voice following the sorcerer's threat.
"Hey… it's me!" I flash a smile and a nonchalant shrug then rush down the stairway.
"Think they want us to fight to the death or something," Buffy mumbles and runs her fingers through her hair, not daring so much as a stray glance to me.
"I believe that is their intention." I look over expectantly at her, wondering if that's what she wants, to end it here and now in one finale glorious battle between Slayer and vampire. I could give it to her if she truly wished it.
"Fuck ‘em!" she says with a defiant spirit that brings a smirk to my lips.
"My feeling exactly."
"They'll kill us anyway."
"Maybe we can bore them to death."
"One can only hope."
There is a long pause and I find myself missing the spontaneous banter that had sparked between us. She looks as if she wants to say something more but doesn't. Instead, she takes to idly nudging her boot against some pebbles on the pavement. In another attempt at distraction, she determinedly works her fingertips along a crease in her jeans in trying to straighten it. Then, I see her face bow forward to rest on her knee, surrendering to her stern silence again. I watch my shoe inch along the cement, corralling pebbles into a small pile.
"You're still a monster."
"So I've been told." I have no sanctimonious sermons left to give, shamed to silence with her verdict.
There's another long pause as she traces the outer edge of the metal clamp on her wrist.
"I think I may be one, too."
I would apologize if I thought it could bring her some peace. But I know better than to ask forgiveness from those unwilling to give it. Besides, I don't deserve it and never could.
"Everyone is these days, I suppose," I bargain.
"Yeah, I guess." She takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "I don't want be one anymore."
I know the feeling.
"Reflections," I remind her gently. Now is not the time for ‘I told you so' or pettily won satisfactions. I simply want her to understand.
"Not sure I want the opinion of the evil dead right now but thanks anyway."
"Wasn't an opinion, more of an observation about us both. Besides, knowledge knows neither good nor evil."
"Its how you use it. I get that." She finally looks over at me, begging honesty. "So are you good or evil?"
I stare gently at her, offering her a chance to see into my soul or whatever has taken residence there. "That's for you to decide."
"I'm sick of being the one who has to make that decision." She shakes her head and examines the crowd for a moment. The clouds are thinning with every passing minute and she squints from the increasing brightness.
"She loved you, Giles."
It takes a moment to register what's been said. But when I hear her say the name I'd nearly forgotten since my death, it brings a tear to my eye that evaporates before given a chance at freedom.
"Dawn told me so a few weeks before she came to LA. Father's day was coming and she'd gotten you a card. One of those real tear-jerker, half a box of tissues, weeping Hallmarks. She was way proud she'd found just the right one. Said it took her over an hour at the shop but she knew she was getting warmer with every card. Lo and behold, there it was… * the* card, * your* card." Buffy smiles with the recollection and it pleases me more than I have a right to. But the happiness vanishes as quickly as it came and she continues on in a quiet, hurting tone. "She gave it to me to mail to you but I never did. I was still angry over…" She pauses, considering. "God, I can't even remember what the argument was about."
"Branch office being opened in…"
" Las Vegas … that's right. Man, we would fight about anything, wouldn't we?"
"My favorite being the heated debate involving pencils verses pens in regards to the Times crossword puzzles."
"I still say there is no disgrace in using pencil." Her snicker melts into sigh.
"Agreed." I lean back to absorb the impending sun. "It's beautiful."
"Yeah, we shoulda enjoyed it more."
"Yes, we should've."
A breeze tangles through her hair. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"So am I." For what goes unsaid because the details don't matter anymore. Our mutual forgiveness adds enough weight to our words and I am more contented than I would have thought possible.
The crowd grows restless and I wonder if they notice the temperature changing as I do. It won't be long now.
She tosses a stone at her shoe and smiles sadly. "We were good, you know?"
"Yes," I smile. ", we were."
It comes in a manner more befitting a natural disaster than an atmospheric alteration. In a brilliant burst, the sky erupts with sunlight, evaporating every shade of gray inhabiting the blue above. I hear panicked howls as Buffy and I are suddenly trapped within a frenzied ring of fire. Demons are set ablaze by the cleansing illumination. It's both glorious and miserable as I watch beasts I once befriended burn to cinders and ash.
"They did it." Buffy winces only for a moment as she works to get to her feet. Her head falls back, admiring the sky with a welcome smile.
"Good man," I whisper congratulations to Ethan wherever he is. It's blinding, humbling me to divert my unworthy eyes. Then the skin of my exposed chest and hands begins to smolder as the chaos quiets to no more than a murmur within. The irony of my blistering flesh stings yet I manage a smile. I struggle to my feet to join Buffy in her appreciation of the days return, determined to face my fate standing by her side.
"Tell them I'm sorry." I hope it's not too much to ask. She owes me nothing.
Buffy's eyes go wide in witnessing my roasting. Thickening wisps of smoke rise up to mask her face from me. The pain is luminous, flesh sparking into flame. And as the light torches me toward darkness, my thoughts are of Ethan and all fades to black on the memory of his smile.
One minute, the man who would be king monster sits at my side, listening patiently to my babblings, showing me all the understanding I remember from my mentor before. The next minute, I see him burning, green eyes staring apologetically as they disappear behind a billow of smoke and flames. At that moment, I'm torn between celebrating and grieving as the demon meets his punishment by sunlight.
I hear a mechanical sound in the clutter of inhuman screams coming from the ring of fire surrounding us. I realize it's the sound of an engine and the squeal of tires as a truck plows through the dusting wall of vampires and barrels down on us. Brakes screech, sending the truck veering sideways as it comes to a wobbly halt and casts a short stretch of shade enough to shield Giles from certain death. The cab door swings open and Xander hops out, vigilantly securing the location. His gaze falls to the scorched figure lying unconscious and helpless at my feet, wrist still chained to mine.
"Took you long enough." I smirk.
"Sorry Buff, hit a bit of traffic and the potholes around here must be relations of the Sunnydale sinkhole."
"Where's Willow ?" I hope she's alright.
"She's still with Rayne."
"So they did this together?"
"Yeah, high marks all around." His eye never leaves Giles.
"So I guess Ethan wasn't lying then."
"Nope, guess not." He says distractedly. Giles groans, revealing white fangs within a face of black. Xander retrieves his pistol and takes aim at Giles' chest. "Too bad I was."
"Deal breaker, huh?" I'm not surprised.
"Just completing our mission."
"Is that what you're going to tell Ethan?" I barely sound as if I care.
"Does it matter? He'll get the same. Same as all of ‘em, right? Wasn't this your plan the second you saw Rayne anyway?" He gestures towards Giles with his pistol. "Do what it takes to get to Mister Big, here, and then show them both some Slayer justice? Then you, me and Willow go back to a heroes welcome and wait for the next batsignal of impending doom. All in a days work for the Scooby's."
"Yeah, guess it was." I admit it honestly.
"Well, I for one, happen to like that plan. Full supporter of the ‘one-less-baddie' maneuver. I mean, it's not like we can let them go, two magicks-a-packin vampires with long lists of massacres between them just strolling off into the sunset like a couple of redeemable outlaws?"
"Why not?" I'm not arguing, I'm asking. Not sure I know the answers any more. Xander's mouth drops open, appalled.
"You know damn well why not!" His pistol sways above the unconscious vampire.
As if somehow sensing the danger he's in, the beast retracts, leaving behind the wounded features of the man we're haunted by. For a second, I see sadness in Xander but then it's gone.
"Regardless of the face he's wearing, that *thing* lying there is a vampire… a vampire that's done many very bad things. It's your job to take out the bad vampire so he can't be bad again. It's what you do, what you've always done. And as always, Buffy, it's your calling, so it's you're call."
"Not anymore." It's a vow. I won't be their executioner any longer. I won't be the Council's monster anymore.
He's in shock. With a shake to clear his head, he barks out, "Fine! You're not willing to do what needs to be done here, then I will… again!"
The gun hovers over Giles' chest, just above his heart and I know the vampire is seconds from permanent death. I recognize the lethal look in Xander's eye. It's the same one he wore after discovering his Slayer dead by Giles' bite, the very same one he wore as he thrust the stake into Dawn, finally putting her to rest. I wouldn't blame him for doing it. He's earned the right to suffer revenge. Though I can't help the pity I feel for all involved.
Xander flinches and I see him battling between hate for the monster and memories of the love he once held for the man. It's not my place to stop him but instead to be his witness or his friend. I give him the choice I was forced to make most of my life. I give him his moment to play god while I stand silently chained to the beast he intends to slay. His finger tenses, compressing the trigger a splinter before squeezing it tightly. A single deafening shot fires, echoing around us.
I stare at him for a long moment before my lips curl to a smile.
"Thank you," I say softly.
"Thank * you* ," he says genuinely, returning the pistol to the holster and kneeling down to brush away the remnants of the chain that once bound Giles to me. "Little help?"
I limp over to help Xander heave Giles within the cab of the truck. Neither of us is sure of our grip or our movements as we manage to hoist him up on the seat edge.
"What are we doin', here?" He asks as our shoves elicit a muffled growl from the unconscious vampire.
"I don't know." I shrug helplessly. "Never really do."
Xander helps me into the cab and we work to scrunch in as best we can. Giles shifts, his head falling to rest on my shoulder and I feel myself tense at the unwanted closeness. With a nudge, I send him leaning the other way against the window. I still don't trust him. I don't think I ever will.
"If they stayed put, Willow and Ethan should be on the roof of the Union Gospel two blocks down."
"Yeah, part of it. Keeps them outta reach of vampires while they cast. I guess chaos is the cure-all for houses of the holy."
"Ethan never was the god fearing sort." I chuckle at the thought.
"If you ask me, everyone could use a little fear of fill-in-your-chosen-deity here. Keeps you behaving." Xander starts up the truck and glances over at me. "Maybe we should just dust Ethan. He's always been a bad influence on Giles."
I notice smoke rising from the side of Giles' face exposed to the sunlit glass. I pull him in to rest against my shoulder, safe from the sun.
"Not this time." I remind him.