One for a burnt offering
June 17, 2003
Disclaimers: If they were mine, I'd end it differently.
Spoilers: Vague season seven-ness.
Summary: This is the way it ends.
Ratings Note: R.
Author's Note: When the Spike gave me the title for the last one, she also happened to assume there would be a sequel. Who am I to disagree?
Acknowledgments: To Pearl-o and Branwyn for audiencing.
Feedback: Always. email@example.com
"You know, it's funny," she said, and propped herself up on her elbows, trembling everywhere she wasn't putting any pressure. "I remember... I remember wanting this more than anything."
Giles forced himself to hold her gaze, even though she wasn't looking anywhere in particular.
"I remember hating myself because I wanted it more than Tara. To just be Willow, with no magic I couldn't forget about, and no connection to anything... bigger than myself." She smiled, a shaky, rough parody of her usual ruefulness. The scar on her cheek dragged it out of true.
"Willow... we don't know it won't come back." Giles thought of the old magic shop, of being surrounded by rubble and unable to feel anything in particular but the aching lack inside of him where once there'd been... connection.
She looked at him, then. Really looked at him, and it was hard to watch. She seemed to be dragging her focus out of the grip of something painful and sharp, and it was as unsteady as everything else about her.
She hadn't been out of the bed to do more than go to the bathroom since they'd found her.
She didn't always make it.
Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them for a distraction, feeling again how much thicker they'd gotten, and watching the world blur into something safe. "The spell he used --"
"He made himself into the spell, Giles, I told you. There wasn't..." She didn't so much lie back against the pillows as fall.
He put his glasses back on and moved to arrange her, avoiding the bleak look in her eyes. "I... I'm familiar with what he. What he must have done."
Choked laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll just bet you are, Ripper..."
And that... that wasn't new. There was something in her that was almost entirely like a link to Ethan, save that she knew more than she ever had about the man. His magic, and perhaps his memories. Ethan had never paused with magic, never hesitated to twine the essence of himself with power, especially if it meant that it would give him more. "Willow," he began, but he had no idea what to say.
"You could've taught me this, Giles." Her voice was weak and quiet. The rune on her cheek glowed with a sickly and hectic light of its own.
He closed his eyes against it. "You know why I didn't."
She was silent for long minutes, eyes closed and lashes fluttering against her cheeks. He knew she wasn't sleeping. Sleep... looked very different.
"Poison in me..."
"It will --"
Her eyes flew open and she grabbed for his wrist, grip hard and obviously hard on her. "You have to... he has so much power now..." Tears on her cheeks, sizzling where they touched the rune. "Hecate..."
He patted her awkwardly. "We'll find him."
Her expression slipped like water, and suddenly she was grinning, familiar and so very, very wrong on her face. "Oh, I think I'll find you, Ripper..."
He yanked his hand back and stood quickly, chair hitting the floor with an irrelevant crash. "Willow!"
She blinked. Smiled as though she'd merely made a rude noise, and sighed. "I think I'm going... I think. Yes..."
He left the room before she could say anything else.
It was time to pack.
He'd set a small, quiet alarm for just before dawn, but when he got downstairs there were still people waiting for him. Rona, head shaved to a rough buzz with the scar moving over her scalp like a part. Down her face like an accusation. Faith smoking steadily and surrounded by a cloud of her own making.
Dawn on a battered laptop, one hand wrapped protectively around a mug of coffee.
He gave them a nod and stood awkwardly, wondering exactly how to say what he needed to.
"She's not getting better." Faith, speaking to the room and staring out the window.
"No. No, she's not. But there's still --"
"A chance. Yeah. You said that already." She ground her cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray and lit another.
Giles shifted his bag to his other hand. "I'm serious about that. All of you, and everyone who joins us here later needs to understand that --"
Rona snorted and grabbed another sword to sharpen. "She smells like she's dying."
Dawn stopped typing, but she didn't look up. Didn't look at anything or anyone but the computer screen and was very obviously listening just the same. A lock of hair fell out of her bun and Giles wanted, very badly, to push it behind her ear.
He took a better grip on his bag, instead. "If she lives... if she heals, the power will come back quickly. Perhaps too quickly for her to be able to control it. You all need to be on your guard."
Faith blew a smoke ring. "Because you're leaving."
Giles forced himself to look at her, and then... beneath. He'd spent the night in the sort of meditation he'd given up before anyone in this house had been born. He'd spent the night feeling, gingerly, for every scrap of remembered power and feeling. He could feel the lack of control, and the general sense of rustiness. But more than that...
He could feel power. Two slayers, one in her prime and the other with more control and knowledge than any other slayer living. And then there was Dawn, with her human skin and the cool green force of what she could do. What she could be made to do, even if Giles himself lacked the power to bring it out.
The temptation was more about getting that power than anything else. Getting him to a point where he could do anything, anything at all.
Even un-knit the fabric of the universe.
Somewhere, at the very edges of his ken, there was something like a guttering candle. A flickering irritant, too weak even to be drained.
He shook it off and met Faith's gaze as evenly as possible. Out of the corner of his vision, Rona was sniffing at the air like an animal and scowling. "Ethan is more powerful than he has ever been, and more dangerous."
Faith narrowed her eyes at him. "You're not."
Giles thought: I will be. I could be, so easily. "I'm the only one who knows exactly what he can do."
At that, Dawn finally looked away from the computer. "You don't think you're coming back." It wasn't a question.
"I... many things can go wrong..." And then he had to stop, because... because there had been too many years, and too many losses for this kind of equivocation. "No, I do not."
Faith got up and hugged him, smelling of smoke and a shampoo he remembered from Buffy. "We'll take care of Red."
"I... yes. I know you will."
And then Dawn looked back at the laptop, and Rona went back to sharpening her sword, and Faith closed the door behind him and locked it.
The hardest thing about the trip was that it wasn't hard at all. Hotels with too soft beds, hotels with too hard beds. Wild-eyed men and women on the streets, full of tales of a black-eyed man with the power of a goddess.
Runes carved on alley walls, glowing with power coded to a man he hadn't been in thirty years.
All of them said the same thing: "do you remember?"
And he did.
He remembered nights spent riding the trains with his head tilted back and his neck exposed, coming down or getting up again, Ethan at his side spinning tales of dreams he'd had or dreams he'd plucked from the minds of random passers-by.
"She wants to be a superhero," he'd say, and laugh liquid and low into Giles' ear.
"He's terrified of the man at the next desk, or maybe he's in love with him -- it's hard to say," he'd whisper, and run his scarf around their wrists and clasp their hands together.
"I will always love you," he'd promise in the tracing of a temporary rune on the face or the back of whoever or whatever he was fucking.
Giles remembered the way they would fight, truly fight, and how it was always about... religion. Ethan's belief and his own cynicism. All that faith, and there'd been a time when Giles had honestly thought it all came down to power. What Ethan could take and what he could use on everyone else.
And it was so easy to look at it that way, wasn't it? To make Ethan out to be just another casual sadist with ambitions, to make him something other than what he was, and perhaps always been.
When they'd met, Ethan had been... something like a revelation. So in touch with everything about himself, confident and sexual and utterly, dangerously open. And yes, there'd been arguments about that, but everything Giles had heard himself saying had sounded out like his professors -- or worse, his father.
It had been even easier to shake that all loose and be the man Ethan wanted him to be and think it was entirely his own idea.
Giles has had years to think on that, to really focus on it and who he'd become, and in the end... in the end, he was the sum total of everything he'd wanted and everything he'd tried to avoid with the fire of youth. He had been made as all adults were -- life and experience and knowledge and fear.
And in that, at least, Ethan was no different. He'd just figured it all out much, much sooner.
And waited for Giles to make his own decisions. No, to see it. To love it.
Because want was never the problem, and even need... God, so many nights alone, so many cigarettes and so many tumblers of whiskeys and so much need. For Ethan's power twined against and through his own. For Ethan's sleek skin and soft mouth...
And it would have been one thing if it ended there. If the years had passed and the Ethan in his fantasies had stayed young, unscarred and easy with himself. Perhaps a little pathetic, but...
But the years passed, and Ethan would find his way into Giles' life, one way or another, one spell or another, and he got to watch the man age. Watch his mouth harden (except when he smiled) and his skin darken and go slack around the edges.
Got to feel it all, and know the changes for his own and... Ethan.
The mistake he'd made was to imagine 'forever' to be a word the man tossed around as casually as his own body. One of the mistakes.
Because he'd never been entirely about power, or even about saving his own skin. Long before they'd met, Ethan had dedicated himself to chaos like a young girl eager to be the bride of Christ. Like... like nothing in his own life had ever been, or would ever be.
A family of Watchers, yes. And the duty was sacred, but Giles thought that his family had forgotten what sacred truly meant generations ago. Certainly, his own life was too full of cynicism and doubt to be anything like... religious.
Ethan had reasoned to him about Chaos, and tried to seduce him, and finally offered up his own faith with the halt and trembling hesitation of any virgin. And when Giles had rejected it... well.
If he thinks back quite hard, if he opens himself to himself with a hint of wish and quite a bit more pain -- Giles had never understood the people who spent their lives walking within their own minds. It seemed rather like cheerfully agreeing to stab oneself in the foot with several different varieties of fork -- he could remember a day that, at the time, felt like every other.
The sky had been pissing down rain, the green outside his flat had been churned and muddy from football-playing kids, and the flat itself had reeked of cigarette smoke, incense, and spilled wine.
And Ethan had been there, backlit grey from the window and smoking something narrow, dark, foreign and sweet. His makeup had been smudged almost completely off, and he'd been wearing... yes. Giles' own robe, tattered and stained and utterly disreputable.
Moreso on Ethan than it could ever be on Giles himself.
"Ripper," he'd said. "You truly don't believe in anything at all, do you?" And there'd been a smile on his face that had seemed like... nothing, really. Something due to a hangover, or perhaps just exhaustion.
And he'd said... "nothing I can't control." And he remembered thinking, yeah, that was a good line. That was... just what the name Ripper called for, right? Something callow and stupid and young as he was. Infatuated as he was -- with himself and with everything he could do to Ethan. Everything Ethan would let him do.
And there had been a beat, and then another, and then Ethan had uncrossed his legs and slipped the knot on the robe. "Then why don't we see if you can believe in me?"
And that had been that, and the moment had passed long before Giles had ever realized it had been a moment, but now he thought... He thought there'd been something there.
Something he'd been supposed to see, and missed, in the rush of sex and smoke and Ethan's increasingly mad and cruel little games.
Giles walked through the Village and thought to himself, "I was too young," and even though it was true, it felt too much like an excuse. Perhaps too much for both of them.
The advertising mural on the wall had a perfect representation of Jenny in a bikini, doing something truly obscene to a Coke bottle. Only, she should be older. If she were alive...
The mural shifted to an unfamiliar woman with grey-streaked hair and the beginning of a double-chin, and her eyes accused Giles of crimes un-numbered. And followed him as he went.
For a moment after he got out of range of the mural, everything felt normal -- if not especially sane -- and then the fights started all around him. Hunched, elderly women kicking high into the air and turning their purses into bolos. Children ripping straggly trees up by the roots and crying and bleeding and beating their fellows.
Men running up to him with any weapon they could find, and Giles had a moment to try to think of an effective spell that wouldn't damage anyone more than they were already damaging themselves, but when they came close they would... stop. Look confused, not as though they were realizing they were under a spell, but rather more like...
As though Giles was someone they all thought they should know.
"... I meant --"
"... something I wanted..."
Giles pushed his way through them and watched the light change. The sky was brightening, every star picked out like a freshly-shined diamond, hard and sharp.
And Ethan was standing where the crowd ended, leaning against a shattered streetlight with one ankle crossed over another, a lit cigarette between his fingers. His hair hung loose. Longer than when they'd last seen each other, and shot through with grey.
"Hello, Ripper," he said, and smiled vaguely up at the sky.
Crash of broken glass, and the smoke Ethan blew out curved and solidified into... something. Something that seemed to yank itself together out of tatters and fly wildly to freedom. "The power isn't yours."
"Mm. Isn't it?" When he turned, his eyes were a solid black. Only...
They were wide and wet and... liquid. Like a skim of oil. Like colors could be swirling within them if Giles could only just -- he forced himself to look away and backed off a step, stumbling.
"You're not ready for this, old man..." Ethan took one more drag off his cigarette and tossed it over his shoulder. A puddle of what had seemed like water instantly burst into flame.
"And you're going to lose yourself, if you're not careful." His father, leaning over to jab at his chest with blunt, nicotine-stained fingers.
Ethan laughed. "Lose myself. Lose... that's..." He walked closer to Giles, the easy slow stalk of a much younger man. One without pain. "I suppose you're right. But... mm. What I'm losing myself to..."
Wash of light over those wrong, terrible eyes. "Yes?"
"You once told me that I'd never have to worry about you trying to do anything as epically stupid as trying to destroy the world. You told me you had too much use for it."
Ethan tilted his head and smiled something infinitely more familiar. Invitation and tease. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you actually listened to everything I said."
He wanted to close his eyes. He didn't. "I heard enough."
Another laugh. "Did you? All my little messages..."
"You didn't have to scar her." I would've known it was you, he didn't say.
Ethan waved a hand. "The heat of the moment." He ran the hand down the center of his chest, a looping line familiar to Giles. The feel of a knife in his hands, illusory and painful as a phantom limb. "You know how it goes."
"Ethan..." And he had to stop, because suddenly the knife was there, a perfect enough replica to be the same one, right down to the stains on the blade. The slight stickiness of the hilt. And Ethan is looking at him steadily, rocking back and forth on his heels and radiating happiness like heat.
"You do remember..."
And all at once Giles could feel it. Singing in his veins and rooting him to the spot. Ethan was... calling him. Making the magic rise within him, teasing it out in his sweat and the stink of his own fear. "I remember," he said, and wanted to run. Wanted to... stay.
"Everything?" A shimmer that he could almost taste, like bitter on the back of his tongue, and the man in front of him was... young.
Smooth-skinned and lean as a whippet. Soft-mouthed and. Black-eyed. The hair fell into thick, dark, strangely rough-looking curls Giles knew would stretch right down to the fall of Ethan's back if he pulled. He reached out before he could stop himself, only pausing when he saw he was still holding the knife.
That generous mouth twisted, and there was a hand around his wrist. Soft even there, as if this wasn't just an illusion. "It isn't," Ethan said, and took the last few steps closer.
"What... what did you do?"
An eye-roll, or at least something like it, judging by the muscles of Ethan's face. The black eyes were still too hard (dangerous) to look at. "I don't think even she knew how much power she was sitting on."
"She's still alive." Pissing the bed and hallucinating Giles' own memories and -- he yanked his hand away, but Ethan just stepped closer. Body to body, and slinked like a woman. Draped against him like a glam refugee.
Like a joke about older British men. "Is she? I had hoped..."
"Don't pretend you give a fuck --"
"I wouldn't dream of it. Ripper. Do you feel it? Really feel it? You never taught her how to handle power, how to handle power that wasn't her own to start with... now why is that?"
Arms around his neck and a kiss waiting for him and Giles was aware of his hopelessly thinning hair and his paunch and his softening muscles and the body in his arms -- when?
He struggled, but Ethan was strong, and God, young and leaning in...
Tongue in his mouth and the taste of ozone and smoke, blood when he bites and his own acid need. Ethan. Ethan and all that power flooding him, rousing him, prickles at his scalp he knew was hair growing in brown and thick, twists in his muscles and firmness in his bones and Ethan groaned into his mouth and pressed closer still.
Giles opened his eyes and started to move away, push back, but the sky was lighting up like the entire universe was on fire, and there were screams and shaking and.
And he realized it was him. Just him, and that the feeling was pain, and that Ethan's eyes were his own again, Ethan's mouth wet and pink and Ethan's ridiculous shirt soaked in blood.
And there was nothing but burning, a coat of fire licking at Ethan's fingers and shriveling him down to nothing and --
"How long has it been since you've studied your Kabbalah...?"
Ethan's smile so gentle, so rueful, so...
"You always save the best for god."
And as Ethan disappeared in light, Giles understood.
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