Willow came out of the back room with Dawn following shortly after. The young lady quietly closed the door and immediately noticed the absence of the three Big Bad school dropouts.
“Darn, did I miss the cops dragging the creep boys off to jail?” Dawn pouted.
“Afraid so, Dawnster. Too bad Anya didn’t install that security system she was considering after the last time. You would have had a video scrapbook of the entire occasion,” Xander grinned. “Sort of an ‘ America’s Funniest Security Camera Bloopers Reel’.”
“Not really giving with the funny but I’m sure the local news will run some sort of ill-informed and highly speculative news report tomorrow,” Willow suggested.
“Our top story tonight; more unexplainable shenanigans strike a small town business. Police are baffled.” Xander shook his head. “Inquiring minds want to know as long as they can remain buried in the sand. Gotta love the deaf, dumb and blind Sunnydalians… or should that be Sunnydalites?”
“Personally, I like Sunny D’s.” Dawn scanned the progress of the Magic Box cleanup. “Well, on the plus side, it’s almost looking like a magic shop out here.”
“And will look even better with your help.” Anya marched by, passing off a bucket and mop along her way. Willow smirked and took up a dusting wand, targeting some nearby shelving being overrun by an army of rabid dust bunnies.
“Maid brigade at your service.” Dawn saluted.
“How’s party animal Rupert doing?” Xander asked, taking the opportunity to break from his sweeping.
Willow smiled sympathetically as she peeked back at the training room. “Well, the room is spinning in a counterclockwise motion, the lights are too loud, he had a heated disagreement with the training dummy, the sigils are making his head pound and he’s worshiped the porcelain goddess for the third, and let’s pray final, time. All and all, he’s hangovering big time.”
Ethan shook his head, paging halfheartedly through a mystical supply catalog spread out on the table before him. “Pity, if he were half the prat he was in his youth, he’d have drank the vampire under the table.”
“Not a chance. Iron gut, mate, courtesy of the after un-life.” Spike patted his belly and grunted at the discomfort it caused his bruised body. He overcame the pain to flash an inviting grin to Buffy. “So what’ll it be now, eh? Touch of patrol before daybreak?”
“I think you’ve done enough damage tonight, Spike,” Buffy grumbled, continuing to sweep the debris from the doorway towards her impressive mound of wreckage.
“Damn straight, showed them demony sods a good time, didn’t we?”
Buffy stopped her chore and glared at the cocky vampire. “I meant Giles and his condition, Einstein. Get out.”
“Was nothing but a bit of drink and fun, Buffy. You and I’ve done the same, if you’ll remember. Nothing came of it.”
The door to the training room cracked open a sliver as Rupert listened in on the debate, unnoticed by the others.
“He could have been killed tonight,” Buffy barked.
“And he wasn’t thanks to yours truly playing chaperone.”
“Chaperone? Next to you, the Cat in the Hat looks like a competent home health care provider. You got Giles drunk, Spike! Drunk, and you have no idea what complications could happen with the meds he’s on or what lasting consequences it might have with his condition. Not only that, but you decided to bring him to a demon raid. Bravo, Mrs. Doubtfire!”
“What are you getting at, Slayer? I saved you and your slacker cheering squad’s arses tonight.”
“Hey!” Willow objected.
“Point is, if I hadn’t turned up...”
“Spike, I don’t want to hear anything from you but departing footsteps. Go, before you’re gone in the permanent sense.” She gave her broom a sideways kick, sending it spinning in her hand. With expert execution, she seized it tight in her grip, holding it as if it were a staff, ready to strike.
Spike gathered his leather coat and yanked it on in frustration. As he strutted toward the door, he lit up a cigarette and paused beside the Slayer.
“Before you go all self-righteous guardian and blame me, you better rewind, princess, and take a good, hard look in the mirror. We both know who’s responsible for Rupert’s great escape tonight. Why don’t we just skip to the finale? I’ll go pick out a shiny, fresh plot and you can bury him yourself.”
“Get out,” Buffy growled.
“Maybe neighboring the spot where they laid your conscience to rest.”
Buffy pivoted fast and landed a sweeping blow with her broom. The attack sent Spike stumbling and he crashed against the door. The cocky vampire chuckled as he straightened up and brushed off the dust from his coat. He blew a mocking kiss, pried open the broken door and stormed off into the night.
“Where’s a sunrise when you need one,” Xander growled.
“Don’t listen to him, Buffy. Giles will be fine.” Willow tried her best to sound reassuring but the doubt was there, hidden in her bright eyes.
“Yeah, G-man’s bouncing back like a pro. He’ll be right as rain in no time flat,” Xander added with forced confidence as he returned to sweeping.
“Buck up and hang in there, chaps. The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Silver lining ... et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” Ethan moaned his repulsion at the gang’s support. “Shall we hug now or after the inspirational musical montage?”
“Shut up Ethan, I’m in no mood for you right now,” Buffy warned, continuing to build upon her debris pile.
“When are you ever?” he said, goading her further with a sly grin. “Rupert’s not a bloody invalid, you know. He’s made quite a lot of progress.”
“No ... not this from you. God, have I really sunk so low as to be getting reassurance from a freelance evil sorcerer?”
“What’s with the doomful, Buff? Way I see it, we came out on top,” Xander smiled. “The Troika has a one-way ticket to jail and we’re all in one piece.”
“Tell that to the local branch representative from my insurance agency when they come to investigate this catastrophe tomorrow,” Anya winced. “Earthquake stories can only take you so far. At this rate, I’ll need a new cover story, some juicy natural disaster if I want coverage at all.”
“Sorry Anya. Seems like this place has the worst luck,” Buffy said regretfully.
“No luck about it. It’s a curse, is what it is. The last owner was murdered in cold blood and the shop has been attacked twice since then. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Me!” she squeaked, obviously frazzled more than she’d previously let on. “I’ve got a big old bull’s-eye on me, like I’m fated for an unfortunate end. Or worse yet, I could end up a slow-witted and reckless dependant, like Giles.”
Everyone stopped with her outburst and an awkward silence fell over the room, unintentionally punctuating the point even further. Rupert’s forehead bowed forward, pressing against the crease of the door as he took in a ragged breath. That’s how they saw him and it stung.
“I meant slow-witted and reckless dependant in a good way,” Anya tried to recover. “Giles is great. Giles is just dandy. I’d be lucky to have a future as bright as Giles’ with all the ... “
“It’s okay, Anya. You’re right.” Buffy released her broom, ignoring it as it toppled uselessly to the dusty floor. The gang, as well as Rupert, watched anxiously as she wandered over to the round table and slumped down into a seat across from Ethan. With a heavy sigh, she sat back, folded her arms before her and stared frostily at the sorcerer.
“Pardon?” He asked, brows arching in confusion.
“To fix him, how much?”
“Buffy,” Willow gasped. “What are you doing?”
Buffy stopped her with a raised hand. “Don’t, please. We all know Giles could have died tonight and might any night here. He can’t live this way, not with us doing what we have to do.”
Tara took a step forward. “Buffy, I don’t think ...”
“This isn’t working. Even with all the treatment, the reeducation, the super-sized inventory of medications, not to mention the endless work it takes just to…” She stopped and heaved a sigh, sinking further in her chair from exhaustion.
“It’s hard on all of us, Buff, but we’ve faced worse,” Xander urged. “We can get through this.”
“I know we can, Xander, but we’re not the problem.” The Slayer’s sober glare returned to Rayne. “How much?”
“Buffy, you don’t understand what you’re asking,” Tara pleaded gently.
Buffy slammed her fists to the table, pushing herself to her feet with the fury of the motion. The action startled everyone, including Rayne, who skidded a few inches in retreat from the table.
“Don’t tell me it can’t be done! I’m resurrected proof positive that even more is possible when it comes to magicks.”
“That was different,” Willow said quietly, trying to calm her friend. “That was a…”
“Mistake,” Buffy concluded harshly. Willow went silent, shrinking back a little in hearing Buffy’s opinion. “I’m not asking you for this, Willow. I know how hard it is for you.”
“It’s not a matter of hard, Buffy, it’s a matter of right and wrong,” Tara argued.
“For you, it is. Not for him.” She pointed to Ethan who cocked his head aside, intrigued. Buffy crossed her arms, preparing herself for a difficult argument she never wanted to instigate. “Tell me how right was it for Giles to become a human piñata for some bat-crazed demon? How right is it that he can’t remember anything? How right is it for us to be punished with worry that the next time Giles takes off on his own will be the last?”
Buffy was letting her anger get the best of her and she knew it. Going ballistic wouldn’t help anything. She took a deep breath and tried to calm down. They didn’t understand. How could they? She was the one losing her Watcher, not them.
“I’m not asking you for your opinion or even your consent, Tara, because I know how you feel. And while I envy you in your crystal clear ideals of right and wrong, this has overshot both by miles. You don’t want to cross the moral boundaries you believe in and I respect that, I do. But it’s not that easy for me, not anymore. Not when the lines are blurred like they are now. Not when I’m drowning in a world of grey.”
Tara listened, hearing every sob held back in Buffy’s breath, seeing tears restrained by weary eyes. She’d known this was simmering below the cool exterior of her friend, threatening to boil over ever since that first day Buffy went to visit Rupert in the hospital. Now all Tara felt she could do was watch the emotional meltdown and hope Buffy would somehow come out alright.
“Damn it, I want my Watcher back!”
Rupert’s hand gripped the door knob, knuckles turning white with strain as he watched the hero unravel before his very eyes. There was such hurt there, such sadness in her voice and he was causing it.
“Forgive me for thinking outside the box on this one, guys, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Buffy waited for a suggestion, any suggestion, but no one had answers, only apologetic glances. She returned to her chair and scooted it forward.
“What do you say, Rayne? What’s it going to cost me? Name your price.”
A grin curled the corners of Ethan’s lips as he considered the request. “I’m flattered.” He mirrored her pose, leaning back as if preparing for negotiations.
“Please ... don’t start with the ...”
“No, honestly. That you would think such a thing was within my power. It’s, well, to put it mildly, intoxicating.”
“You’re loving this way too much,” Buffy grumbled.
“Wouldn’t you were the roles reversed?”
“I think I’d take the high road and try to be considerate to our situation in the most gracious way possible.”
“Well that’s one way to go about it.” Ethan’s smile widened for a moment then turned he serious. He brought his hands to the tabletop, fingers entwined together before him as he leaned in. “You’re correct in that it can be done.”
“Ethan, no!” Tara insisted and went quiet when she received an indulgent nod from the sorcerer.
“But at great cost and even greater risk.”
“Anything, I’ll do anything,” Buffy bargained.
“I’d suspect nothing less but I’m afraid the risk would be to Rupert, not to you.”
“What kind of risk?” Willow asked anxiously.
“If not successful, the procedure would most likely kill him.”
“What are you saying? It’s all or nothing?” Xander asked.
“That about sums it up, yes.” Ethan shrugged and gave Buffy a sympathetic look. “Rather goes against that whole protecting him rant you were spouting off earlier, doesn’t it?”
Buffy leaned in, her hope dissolving with her words. “So if we don’t risk it all on this chance ...?”
“Slim chance,” Ethan added.
“Slimmest chance,” Tara amended. A poignant silence fell over the room again as everyone waited for Buffy’s response.
“He’s going to stay this way, isn’t he?” Buffy asked in a small, pained voice.
“Would that be so bad?” Ethan asked with the faintest of smiles.
“We don’t know that, Buffy. We don’t know anything yet,” Dawn argued. “With more treatment and therapy and time, Giles could be Giles again. I’m sure there are tons of cases where ...”
“I don’t need statistics, Dawn. I need the truth.”
“The truth is we don’t know. He may regain some memories, some functionality or he may not. It’s a crap shoot.” Willow shrugged helplessly. “But if anyone can do it, Giles can.”
Buffy sat for a long moment, face wrought with worry as she considered her options. If they tried the spell and it failed, Giles would die. If they didn’t try the spell, her Watcher was as good as dead anyway. If not symbolically, actually when the next demon has itself a ‘good day’, as Spike once called it. She suddenly felt as if having Giles released from the hospital was a huge mistake, one she was personally responsible for. And now she faced making a life and death choice for someone else and it was just too much to bear. It was suffocating her. She pushed her chair away from the table, practically leaping to her feet as she headed towards the main door.
Xander walked after her. “Buffy, where are you ...”
“Patrol.” She snipped and hurried her pace.
“But what about Giles?” Willow asked.
“Let him sleep it off here. I’ll be back in the morning.” Before anyone could object, the Slayer took off through the busted door. As it swung shut, the hinges gave way and the entire door collapsed to the floor with a loud thunk.
“I wonder if those mousy nerds had any money? Just once, victim restitution would be a plus, you know?” Anya muttered as she sought relief in securing the unmolested funds in the register.
Rupert let out a heavy sigh as he quietly shut the training room door.
“Is it safe to assume that was a no?” Ethan asked, looking to Dawn for an answer.
“It’s hard to tell. My powers of translation haven’t been all that reliable lately when it comes to Buffy.” Dawn shrugged. “But yeah, I’d vote veto on the risky spell proposition.”
As everyone else tried to distract themselves with returning to their chores, Tara took the seat across from Ethan and said quietly, “Thank you.”
“What for?” Ethan asked, feigning innocence.
“For being honest with her, you could have lied, taken the money or whatever and run. But you didn’t.”
“Bugger, why didn’t I think of that?” he smirked and shrugged apathetically. “Something tells me the Slayer doesn’t have much to offer anyway. More trouble than it’s worth, really.”
“Still, it means something, even if you don’t want to admit it.” Tara smiled.
“You think that’s the last we’ll see of the trio?” Xander asked, taking over sweeping Buffy’s abandoned post. “There’s not much evidence linking them directly to what happened tonight.”
“I believe the term was Troika,” Ethan corrected, grateful to have a distraction from the witch’s meddling. He sat back in the chair and returned his attention to the catalog. “And take it from someone who’s had the pleasure of the local law enforcement’s company, they’ll be released by morning.”
“Well, in the mean time, feel free to help with the clean up,” Willow grumbled.
“Think I’ll pass, the dust aggravates my allergies. But while you see to the good housekeeping, I think I’ll go check in on my patient.” Ethan pushed back from the table and stood.
Willow stepped forward to impede his path. “As much as you helped tonight, even though one could easily argue it’s all your fault to begin with, you’re crazy if you think we’ll let you anywhere near Giles.”
“Has the thought occurred to you that I wouldn’t be here if I intended to hurt him?” He sighed impatiently. “I think I might have a little something to deaden the hangover he’s suffering from.”
“If I were you, I would avoid using the word ‘dead’ when referring to Giles or you might end up that way yourself,” Xander threatened.
“My instincts and past experience tell me your little somethings turn out to be not-so-little-somethings,” Willow challenged.
“I can go along, Willow ... keep an eye on him.” Tara offered. “I mean, he hasn’t tried anything shifty. I can keep it that way.”
“Okay, but if he tries anything ...”
“I’ve come to understand the whole threat/cooperation dynamic. It’s a bloody waste of time to remind me of it every waking moment, don’t you think?”
Tara gave a polite wave, directing him toward the back. As they headed towards the training room, Tara gave Willow a reassuring nod.
Ethan examined the training room as he quietly strolled in. It was a contradiction of space, trace scents of both violence and peace tickled his nose. The brick walls were adorned with racks presenting weapons, blunt and sharp, for power and precision. Worn mats supported the weight of a pommel horse showing signs of abuse. An unnerving, homemade scarecrow-looking dummy stood stiff and off to one side, wearing Rupert’s cast off collection. An exercise bike was readily available but the thin film of dust that had collected there told Ethan it was by and large ignored. The most dilapidated piece of equipment was the heavy punching bag, its midsection wrapped with layer upon layer of duct tape.
Of course Rupert would take refuge in such a room. It was a Watcher’s wet dream, he supposed. Toss in a few old texts and you have yourself a clubhouse. Was it Rupert’s instinct calling him home, Ethan wondered, or was this his well-meaning friends doing?
Rupert lay crooked along the short stretch of couch. One forearm draped over his eyes, the other drooped along the back of the cushions. His legs dangled over the side, one foot solid to the floor, grounding him in his storming sickness. Ethan couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sympathy for him. The first hangover is always the worst.
“Who’s there?” Rupert grumbled drearily, not bothering to move anything but what was absolutely necessary.
“An old friend,” Ethan responded softly, stepping further within the room. Tara remained at the door, wanting to give them as much privacy as she could but still keep watch over the sorcerer.
Rupert’s arm fell away from his face as he tried to focus on the visitor. He struggled to sit up, glaring narrowly at Ethan has he hurried to his side. The sorcerer encouraged Rupert to remain still with a gentle grip to his shoulder.
“No need to get up on my account.” Ethan’s grin paled as Rupert recoiled. “How are you feeling?”
“What are you doing here?” Rupert asked weakly, pushed himself from the couch and took a few unsteady steps toward the punching bag.
“Nice to see you as well.” Ethan teased but the humor was lost on Rupert. “Fine, right to business it is then. I needed to see you, to clear up a few things.”
“What things?” There was no friendliness in his tone or welcome in his eyes. Rupert looked hardened somehow. Had he changed so much since the hospital?
“Well, for starters ...” Ethan glanced quickly to Tara who gave a gentle smile of support, “I’m not who you think I am.”
“I know who you are.” Rupert traced a finger along a separating seam of the bag.
“Not quite. My name is ...”
“Ethan Rayne.” He looked sideways at the sorcerer, as if challenging him to claim otherwise.
“Why yes, that’s right.” Ethan didn’t know whether to be concerned or pleased with Rupert’s miraculous recollection.
“I read about you ... wrote about you in my journals.” Giles was obviously bothered by the thought and took it out on the bag with a half-hearted punch.
“Ah, well…” the sorcerer smirked with odd satisfaction, “Glad to know I was worthy of a page or two in the old chronicles.”
Rupert turned to face off with Ethan. “Did you do this to me?”
It was a valid question, one the old Rupert never would have asked. When it came to Ethan, jumping to conclusions and guiltyuntil proven innocent was more the Watcher’s style. So Ethan considered the question for a moment before answering. While his first impulse was to deny it, he decided on another tactic. “I guess that depends on what you’re specifically referring to.”
“Did you take them away, the memories?” Rupert asked, unsure of his question.
“No Rupert, I didn’t. Those where taken from you before I came into the equation. Believe it or not, your injury was just an unfortunate opportunity for me.” The disgust on Tara’s face didn’t slip passed the sorcerers notice.
Ethan began to wander the length of the room, browsing the weaponry as he went. “I happened to be passing through when word of your attack came via the local demon grapevine. Sad to say, my initial reaction was one of celebration more than remorse. After all, it’s rather difficult not to harbor a few grudges for a man that had me locked away for over a year, as well as cost me more than my fair share of broken ribs, not to mention my critically bruised pride. Then came news of a possible job and I couldn’t help but be curious. Imagine my surprise when that job turned out to be none other than you.”
“You mean those young men, the ones at the hospital and here tonight?” Rupert waited until he got a confirming nod, then asked, “What did they want you to do?”
“To kill you,” Ethan said bluntly then amended, “That’s not entirely true. You were one foot in the grave all on your own. They simply wanted me to hurry you along.”
“You were going to kill me?”
“I accepted their proposition in hopes to fulfill their wishes and mine.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Again, it was curiosity. One evening, I’d managed to bypass hospital security and make my way into your room. I read the less-than-optimistic diagnosis and when I saw you laying there, battered head bundled in white and a breath away from death... well, let’s just say the job description changed in your favor.”
“Why did you lie? Why did you pretend to be my friend?”
Ethan shook his head and said with all sincerity, “It was never pretend, Rupert. I am your friend, regardless of what those biased pages of your journals say.”
“You were hired to kill me and now you claim to be my friend. How can I believe you?” Rupert’s expression held such disappointment and confusion.
“Because you’re not dead.” Ethan said, subtly pleading for Rupert to understand. “I spent years plotting; hoping that one day I’d have my revenge. Then, when it was within my reach, fate intervened, no doubt inspired by a kiss of chaos. You see, Rupert, you didn’t remember me. And with that, I realized that you weren’t the same man I held a grudge for. I’d lost my chance at vengeance in meeting you because I lost my taste for it.”
Confusion creased Rupert’s brow. “But the vampires that came for me?”
“Another lesson in choosing your enemies wisely, I suppose. Seems the boys didn’t care much for my passive approach.”
“I was casting to help you along in your treatment. Those pills, the chocolate, everything was mystically laced in one form or another. The new plan was to get you out of the hospital and under Buffy’s care so she wouldn’t…” Ethan paused, uncertain he should admit the rest.
“So she wouldn’t what?” Giles urged, wondering why Ethan had stopped suddenly. Then it came to him as he reflected on her words just moments before. “So she couldn’t do what she needed to. I’d be in her way. I am in her way.”
“Rupert, I don’t expect you to trust me. You’ve won the right to doubt my motives, I understand that. But honestly, I’m here to help.”
“Then make me what I was?” Giles asked meekly, eyes pleading as he approached the sorcerer
Tara cringed at the request but held back from responding as she saw the sorcerer’s sympathetic expression.
“You heard that conversation, did you?”
“You said you could do it. Make me right again.”
“No, Rupert,” Ethan declined gently.
“It’s too dangerous,” Tara explained. “And it’s very unlikely it would work.”
“I don’t care. Buffy wants it and I want it.”
“But I don’t,” Ethan replied.
Rupert was thrown by that and asked, “Why?”
It was a question he knew was coming and even with the answer, would remain a mystery to his old friend. Ethan pondered how best to respond, absently rubbing at a burning itch developing along the bicep of his left arm. When he realized what was causing the irritation, he smirked in appreciation of the irony and let his hand fall away, inviting the discomfort.
“Some things are better off forgotten.” Ethan sighed as he saw the misery on Rupert’s face. “Perhaps not remembering is a gift, Rupert; one that shouldn’t be squandered for another’s agenda. You say you want to be right again, but there isn’t anything wrong ...”
“Leave,” Giles growled, jaw clenched as his hands curled to tight fists.
“He’s trying to protect you, Rupert,” Tara defended. “We all are.”
“Get out.” Giles turned his back on them to slowly make his way back to the couch.
“Right,” Ethan sighed. “What else could I expect?” Tara could see the sorcerer working to hide his disappointment as he turned and crossed the room to the door. “Be seeing you, Rupert.”
“Rupert, if you need anything…” Tara started but gave up in seeing Rupert collapse onto the couch and roll on his side to bury his face into the cushions. She sighed and followed Ethan out.