Ethan washed his hands with Rupert's bar soap-- lavender, so predictable-- and left the hand towel on the floor. He took a moment to cast a clever little hex on Rupert's can of shaving cream: the next user's face would be turned bright green. It would only last ten minutes, but that should be sufficient time to bring Rupert close to apoplexy. He ducked out of Rupert's bath ready and willing to resume the bickering they'd just been in the middle of, about whether saffron improved the taste of rice or not.
A stranger's voice said something. A man. An upset man. Inside the flat. Ethan froze, then took two silent steps down the hall.
"You think that's something you ought to have?" Rupert's voice, tense, like nothing Ethan had ever heard from him. And he'd heard Rupert in extremis.
Ethan moved a step further down the hallway, where he could see. Giles held a crossbow, aimed at a dark man in a black coat in the doorway. The stranger was looking behind Giles-- not at Ethan, but at something neither of them could see. He looked familiar, but Ethan could not place him.
Rupert leaned his crossbow against the side of the sofa. He spoke, again in that tight voice. "Because, sir, to be blunt, the last time you became complacent about your existence turned out rather badly."
The man in the black coat again reacted to something behind Giles, though nothing was there. Ethan recognized the signs of a man seeing hallucinations. He stayed back; if the stranger were a threat Rupert could defend himself quite well.
"I can't!" the stranger said, and fled through the open door.
Ethan emerged into the main room. Rupert bent, and picked up the crossbow. Loaded and cocked with a wood-tipped arrow, Ethan noted. Ethan slipped past him and shut the door. Rupert was still holding the crossbow, staring into the middle distance, his face white. Ethan gently took the crossbow from him, and aimed it at the ceiling. He studied the mechanism for a moment, then released the tension. He laid it on the low table beside the couch. Rupert held his left hand cradled in his right, and was rubbing the two middle fingers. His eyes still hadn't focused on anything in particular.
"Don't suppose you'd care to tell me what that was about."
Rupert closed his eyes. "No."
Something was very wrong here, and Ethan would be damned if he would let it rest without finding out what. Liquid fizzled and spat in the kitchen. Rupert didn't move.
"I'll just get that, shall I?"
Ethan dodged into the kitchen. The saucepan with the vegetables had boiled over. He pulled it off the heat for a moment while he reviewed what Rupert had been up to. Simple enough; the usual Rupert health-food saute, under-spiced and over-vegetabled. He returned the pan to lower heat and finished cooking dinner. Rupert was not the only one who knew his way around a kitchen. Ethan sang to himself as he stirred and doubled the amount of spicing in everything.
He dished it out and set the plates onto the little counter that was where Rupert ate. The last time they'd sat there together had been when? A bit over a year ago. A most unsatisfactory visit. Rupert had refused to let Ethan anywhere near him, saying that he was courting a woman seriously and wasn't of a mind to cheat on her. Ethan wondered where she was now. Rupert hadn't mentioned any relationships this time. He'd just sighed, and stood aside from the doorway in the cautious way all Watchers had, and set out another plate. The usual comfortable wrangling had begun moments later.
Ethan had assumed the evening would go as they usually went: they'd bicker, and the tone of the argument would drift. Sometimes it would drift to uneasy reconciliation, in which case they would fall into bed for a night or two of flame re-kindling. If Rupert happened to be on his high horse about ethical uses of magic, it would end badly. And Ethan had learned that he would react with his fists to any threat to his Slayer, and that the martial arts training made his punches rather better aimed than the punches of most angry men. Rupert was a Watcher first, and a human being second. Which was, and always had been, the sticking point between them.
This evening, however, the pattern of the last decade would not obtain. Rupert stared at his plate as if he were seeing something else. Ethan rolled his shoulders and relaxed his hands, prepping himself for another sort of struggle. He ducked around to the other side of the counter and sat himself next to Rupert.
"Who was our little guest, then?"
Rupert's mouth twitched. "My guest."
Ethan waved his fork. "Your guest. Who was he?"
"Who's he when he's at home?"
"A vampire. A famous one."
"You invited a famous vampire into your flat. And did not kill him." Ethan chewed a bit of eggplant and rice. Much better; loads of saffron and cinnamon. "And you seemed to have a bit of history with him."
Rupert pushed his own rice around his plate. He didn't seem to have eaten any of it. "That's one way of putting it."
Sarcasm, bitter sarcasm. And something else beneath that. Ethan put down his fork to look at his friend. Rupert's face had gone odd again, blank, as if he were working to prevent himself from showing anything to Ethan.
"Care to tell me about it?"
"You will, you know. Might as well get it over with."
Rupert sighed. "It's complicated."
Ethan indicated the quiet flat. "We seem to have no other engagements this evening."
Rupert put his fork down and straightened on his stool. He stared down for a moment, then began. "Angelus, or Angel as he now calls himself, is unusual. Unique among vampires. He's well over two hundred years old."
His voice was dry, his manner distant. Ethan recognized the intonations of their history master, pacing back and forth in front of rows of boys, so long ago.
"We studied him, you know. What was known about his, his career. In a seminar on famous vampires. Scourge of Europe. Missing, presumed dust, some time in the eighteen-nineties. It turned out he hadn't been slain. What actually happened was most intriguing."
Ethan raised an eyebrow. Rupert's tone as he said "intriguing" had been bitter, but his face had not twitched.
"He'd been cursed with a soul. He's now a strange amalgamated being, a parasitic demon with a soul riding atop it. That means he's not evil. At least, no more so than a human might be. Guilt-ridden. Conflicted. Rather a mess. Trustworthy, to a point. He showed up in Sunnydale around the time Buffy did. In love with her already, though how he knew who she was I've never quite understood."
"Surely that's a bit odd."
"No, not at all. Vampires are always drawn to the Slayer. They crave her and fear her. It's something we warn them of, early on. But Buffy didn't grow up in our care. I never could convince her to read the handbook."
"And he's a handsome bloke. All forehead and muscle, with a romantic past."
"As you say." Rupert's voice was desert wind. Ethan blinked.
"Her head was turned?"
Another sigh. "Yes. I ought to have forbidden it, but it wouldn't have done any good. And she, well, I wanted her to have somebody."
Ethan snorted, very quietly. Now that was pure Ripper, sentimental to the core, wanting his charge to have a bit of fun before fate's ten-ton lorry flattened her. "It ended badly?"
"That's one way to put it." Rupert hesitated. "She slept with him. He... the curse terminated, and his soul was released. Leaving the demon, un, un, unfettered."
"Buffy did not stake him, I take it. Sentimental fool like you. And then?"
"I was-- What happened was-- He was, he was--"
Rupert's stammering was as bad as Ethan had ever heard it. He laid a hand on Rupert's arm, intending to calm him, and was shocked to feel Rupert flinch. And then turn away, head down.
"What happened? Rupert. Tell me."
Rupert told him. Or at least told him a version of it, in terse words, increasingly bitter as he went. Short sentences, disconnected phrases. His lover's part in the curse and her betrayal. The campaign of terror. The attempt at apocalypse, with Rupert holding the secret the vampire so desperately wanted. The trap. The night in captivity. Buffy's victory over the vampire, and his banishment to another dimension. And the reappearance, so mysterious to all and so upsetting to some, kept secret by his Slayer for long weeks.
"You have no idea what brought him back?"
Rupert shook his head. "That seems to be rather preying on his mind tonight."
"And you're not inclined to help him."
Rupert shrugged, and refused to say any more. His voice was tight again, and his hand was cradled against his chest. Ethan wondered what had happened during that night of captivity, to make the stoic Rupert refuse to talk about it. To make him crop his hair so short, dress himself in even more layers than had been his wont, baggier clothing than ever before, to put that wary look in his eyes. Rupert was a brave man at heart, behind the stammer and the glasses and the piles of books. Ethan had seen it with his own eyes, seen Rupert stand up to a demon-possessed man with a sword in his hands.
But he was also a complete berk at anything to do with his feelings. For instance, his grief about needing to cut off that fool Randall's head with a sword. Twenty years had barely sufficed to get him over it. This situation had the same feel: Rupert's kettle had boiled dry again. What happened next would not be pretty, if it were allowed.
Ethan decided his stay in Sunnydale would be longer than planned. A week, two, maybe a month. Maybe-- He stopped himself from wishing for that. He slid down from the high stool and yawned ostentatiously.
"I'll just pop out to the car and get my bags, shall I?"
"I thought you said you'd booked a motel room."
Ethan smiled easily, covering the true lie, and ducked out to extract his suitcase. Clothes, toiletries, a few magical items that might come in handy. He had even more gear in the trunk, but that was warded. He let himself back into Rupert's flat, and locked the door behind himself. He left the suitcase in the hallway.
Rupert had nearly finished washing the dishes. His color looked much better.
"Oh, I'd have done those."
"No, you wouldn't." The grumble was almost normal.
Ethan leaned against the kitchen doorway and watched him. Such unconscious grace. Rupert had no idea he was a handsome man, no conceit at all. It was one of many traits that had sent Ethan over the moon so long ago, back in that dreary prep school. Every lover Ethan had ever had, man or woman, had been compared to Rupert and found wanting.
Ethan studied his own face in the mirror while he cleaned his teeth and changed for bed. Another handsome devil, this one conceited and self-aware. And worried. There was a line between his eyebrows. He was troubled, deeply troubled, so troubled that he undid the hex on the shaving cream. Rupert didn't need an apoplexy just now. What he needed, Ethan wasn't sure. A friend, perhaps. He stood contemplating the blankets and pillow Rupert had laid out on the sofa, then took a resolution. Fates and this vampire had handed him an opportunity. If Ethan was anything, he was an opportunist; hadn't Rupert told him so himself?
He crept up the stairs, as quietly as he could. Rupert was on his usual side of the bed, curled on his side, facing away from the stairs. Was he asleep already? No. Rupert stirred, and said, "What do you want?"
"The left side of the bed. Rather more comfortable than the sofa."
Ethan folded back the duvet and slipped in. Rupert did nothing to stop him, which was surprising. He would have expected at least token protests. The last time this had happened, it had taken a blazing row before Rupert had satisfied the demands of his guilty conscience, and let Ethan touch him. The rules of the game had changed, apparently. No row this time.
No touching, either. Rupert did not roll over to face him. He lay motionless next to Ethan, eyes closed, pretending sleep. But his breath was too shallow and uneven. Too many hitches. Ethan reached out and brushed a hand over his back.
"Not tonight," Rupert said. And with that Ethan had to be content, though it was not what he wanted.
Rupert rose obscenely early, for a man who'd had no sleep to speak of. Ethan didn't bother getting up. Instead he stretched himself diagonally across the bed, nose down in pillows that smelled comfortingly of Rupert, that indefinable essence that was his oldest friend and lover. Ethan wriggled a moment in pleasure, and fell back to sleep.
He woke in mid-morning to find the flat quiet, save for the ticking of the wind-up clock in the kitchen.
Ethan showered (Rupert's soap), shaved (Rupert's un-hexed cream), anointed (Rupert's bay rum, a favorite), and dressed-- his own clothing, since Rupert's was too dreary and colorless to be tolerated. Breakfast was Rupert's eggs, scrambled, with a generous helping of cheddar grated in, and Rupert's whole grain bread toasted lightly. He slathered what looked to be homemade raspberry preserves onto his toast, and munched. He read the copy of the Sunnydale Herald Rupert had left folded neatly on his desk. Boring little town, aside from the death notices and the missing persons notices. Astonishing crime rate. But that was a Hellmouth for you.
Ethan left the breakfast things scattered and contemplated his next step. Rupert had not thrown him out. Rupert had not locked up his desk. Rupert, in fact, was hanging out a shingle that begged plainly for someone to nose around in his business. Perhaps no one else would have been able to interpret the signals; perhaps Rupert would not have hung the shingle for anyone but Ethan.
Another tickmark in the worry column.
Ethan settled himself with his feet up on Rupert's desk, cup of tea at his elbow, and a stack of Rupert's journals on his lap. The pages were covered closely in that handwriting Ethan had once known well, the spiky upright lovely Giles letterforms. The entries were mostly tedious descriptions of the Slayer's training and battles, and gave no evidence that the author had any kind of life of his own. The prose was interrupted here and there by pencil sketches or ink drawings of demons and artifacts. Rupert had always had a gift; it was what had drawn the two of them together at first, back in their school days. Their mutual missed calling as artists. Though Ethan's was not precisely missed, these days.
But there was nothing here that would explain last night's behavior. Ethan jumped forward to the most recent journal and skimmed backwards, scanning for notable incidents. He found his target nearer in time than he'd expected. May, just over six months ago.
Rupert had recorded the incident in minimal detail. Partly this was the fault of his injuries: he'd written with his right hand because, as he noted, two fingers on his left hand were broken. He mentioned no other injuries, at least for himself. He cataloged the broken wrist of someone named Xander, and the head injuries of the girl Willow. He spent most of his awkward words on speculating where his Slayer had got to. She'd run off. Her mother had discovered she was the Slayer and thrown her out of the house, and that on top of the business with the vampire had been too much.
Ethan skimmed ahead, but even when Rupert's fingers had mended enough to let him swap back, he hadn't written about what happened. He'd written little enough over the summer; the entries were dried twists compared to the ones before the night of captivity. Ethan skipped backward further, seeking Rupert's description of the soul-loss incident, and uncovered another secret: what had happened to Rupert's lover. The woman he'd been courting. Ethan had assumed the affair had ended after her betrayal, but it had not.
Rupert had again had difficulties describing it, even in the privacy of his journal. His handwriting had been unsteady.
"Poor devil," Ethan said, addressing the ink on the pages before him.
He sipped at his tea, but spat it back into the cup. It had gone cold. Time had passed while he'd been absorbed by Rupert's shattered life. The afternoon light had died. He switched on the desk lamp, but found he'd lost the heart to continue prying. He'd learned what Rupert had been unable to tell him last night, or part of it. There remained the question of what had been done to Rupert while he'd been captive, but Ethan suspected the details wouldn't matter. Torture was torture was a night screaming under the hands of a demon.
He availed himself of the contents of Rupert's kitchen, which included some remarkably fine Assam and a stash of chocolate digestives. Several hours later, when Rupert had still not appeared, he raided the refrigerator for raw ingredients, and made himself a nice bit of lamb with potato. To occupy himself he read the rest of Rupert's journals, which took him up through October. There seemed to be nothing more recent; Rupert must carry his current journal with him.
Ethan sat at Rupert's desk, well-fed and warm, glass of whisky in hand. He pondered the problem of his friend. What Rupert needed was a month with a counselor and then a month in the south of France with a pretty young thing. What he would get was a jail sentence on the Hellmouth, bound to his Slayer until one or both of them died. It was this sort of thing that had sent Ethan into frenzies of anger and frustration, back when they'd been at school. The idea that his best mate would waste himself on this life, on a girl who couldn't live long enough to appreciate it.
He slammed the glass onto the desk. It shattered. Whisky spattered out onto the blotter. He'd sliced a finger. He stuck it into his mouth and sucked. Waste. Bloody-handed stupid waste.
Ethan stood and went to the kitchen to get a dustpan. He cleaned up the thick shards of crystal, mopped up the rest of the mess. Then he cleaned the kitchen and washed the dishes. The mindless chores calmed him, and allowed him to begin pondering exactly what he might do. He left everything more or less where he'd found it. Minus the spot of rearranging he'd done to the spice rack, to make things more sensible. The alphabet was decidedly overrated.
Rupert had not returned home by the time Ethan clicked off the bedroom light and rolled himself up in those deliciously sweet-smelling sheets. He hadn't wanted to sleep alone, hadn't planned on it, but he could be patient.
The next morning, Rupert had still not reappeared. Ethan went out for groceries and other errands. It would be Christmas Eve, and he didn't want the pair of them caught without. He did hate having to go without creature comforts. He loved the small extravagances: good whisky, fine wine, well-prepared food, clothing that felt good against the skin. Rupert was the sort who'd switch to oat bran hairshirts if he learned it was better for him. He returned to Rupert's flat with armfuls of bags, hid all the goodies away in cabinets, and made himself a nice pot of coffee. Freshly-ground beans, rich cream, real sugar, not that fake rot Rupert kept for the sake of his waistline.
He was deep into a close reading of Rupert's copy of the The Three Musketeers when Rupert trudged through the front door. He hung up his jacket and rattled a stake into the umbrella and sword rack at the front door. He walked into the flat and stopped by his desk. Ethan looked up, but did not take his feet down from the sofa.
"You're still here."
"Yes, I am."
"And my flat is still intact."
"Yes, it is. What do you suppose it means?"
"I can't imagine. I don't want to imagine."
"You look dead on your feet. Shall I brew us a cup, then?"
Rupert pulled off his tie and flung it across his desk. "No. I'm going to bed. Alone."
Rupert went up the steps, shedding clothing as he went. Ethan listened until he heard the light snoring that meant Rupert was truly asleep, then turned back to his book. He was about halfway through by the time Rupert woke and stumbled down the stairs again, bleary-eyed and rumpled. He'd slept in his clothes, it seemed.
"You're still here."
"Mmm. Observant. Now I will make us a cup."
Rupert didn't object. He rubbed the back of his neck with a hand, making his hair stick out at all angles. Most attractive, though he likely didn't realize it. Ethan put the kettle on and began pulling ingredients out of the icebox. A head of garlic, potatoes, the whole chicken he'd bought earlier. Rupert slid himself onto a high stool and watched. He still had lines from the pillows on his face.
"How was your day?" Ethan said.
"Yes, your day. And night, I suppose. How did it go?"
"It didn't. Research. At the library. Unsuccessful."
"Research into the vampire's predicament, I presume?"
Rupert made a sound that Ethan took to mean yes. Ethan found Rupert's vegetable brush and got to work on a potato. "I had a quiet day. Spent it reading some most interesting material. Personal journal of a Watcher."
Ethan turned, half-washed potato in hand, to see what Rupert made of that. He was glowering, predictably enough, but at his own folded hands. As clear as invitation as he could allow himself to make, perhaps.
"And?" he said.
"And... what are you doing over the holidays, Ripper?"
"Ah, I thought so. I'll be staying, then, and doing my best to relieve the otherwise endless olive drab of your existence."
A smile ghosted over Rupert's face, a little thing, but Ethan knew it for what it was. He'd read Rupert correctly. He turned back to the sink, looking down to hide his own triumph.
Rupert was again washing the dishes while Ethan lounged, replete and self-satisfied, when the front door slammed open. Ethan was on his feet, hands raised and the words of a spell on his lips, but it was only Rupert's Slayer, the blonde chit with the attitude and the weakness for vampires. She arrowed straight to Rupert and seemed not to notice Ethan at all. Rupert dropped the sponge and fairly leapt out of the kitchen to meet her.
"Giles. We have to do something. Soon. Now."
Rupert took off his glasses and rubbed his face. "I'm still not sure what."
"Find me these priest guys. Find me something I can pummel."
"Let's not lose our heads."
"Giles, he's slipping. I think we're losing him."
Rupert put his glasses back on. He was tense, but contained. The Watcher. "Look. You realize if he... truly becomes a danger, you may have to kill him. Again. Can you do that?"
Buffy had no answer for Rupert, and Ethan lost patience with the pair of them. He popped up from the sofa and confronted Buffy.
"If you have trouble slaying the vampire, my dear, I suggest you just picture your Watcher the morning after a night of torture. You should find it--"
Ethan slammed back against the wall and slid to the floor.
"Inspirational," he finished. He raised a hand to his jaw. He hadn't seen the punch coming. She'd improved since the last time he'd seen her in action.
"Are you doing this to Angel? If this is your fault, I swear I'll--"
Ethan raised his hands, palms forward. "Not my fault. Scout's honor. I wouldn't toy with Rupert like that. Ask him."
Buffy turned to Rupert, who shook his head.
"It's not Ethan. The First is not the sort of power he can command."
Ethan pushed himself to his feet, cautiously. The room tilted, and he braced himself against the wall. Punch-drunk. Again. "The First? Nice class of enemy. How do you know?"
"Bringers are involved."
"Bugger," Ethan said, with feeling. "What do they want with the vampire?"
"To kill him," Buffy said.
"And we're fighting them because?"
Buffy and Rupert stared at Ethan with identical expressions of disdain. They turned to each other, and Rupert brushed a hand against Buffy's shoulder.
"We'll solve this, Buffy."
"Research time," Buffy said. "Again. We have to find those priests."
Research time. Rupert went to his attaché and pulled out the texts he'd lugged home with himself. Buffy got the one in English, and Rupert took the one in Greek. He then tossed another book at Ethan, to his surprise. It hit him in the stomach and he clutched at it reflexively. Latin. Bede's guide to the emissaries of the enemy.
"Me?" he said.
Buffy glared at him. "Yeah. Him?"
"He reads Latin as well as I do."
"And my German is better," Ethan said, before he realized he was arguing on the wrong side.
"And his German is better. Buffy, trust us."
She snorted. Ethan echoed her, then reluctantly sat below Rupert on the steps. The sacrifices he made for this man, nobody knew. Buffy was on the floor at the bottom, stretched out on her stomach. They worked for a couple of hours, finding fits and snatches of information, reading aloud to each other now and then. Rumors and speculation, mostly; Ethan had his doubts about how much of the information had sane provenance. As did Rupert, judging by the tone he used reading aloud.
Bede was a well-known confabulator. Ethan set him aside in frustration, in favor of a German text. A compilation of older works, but it had a better feel. He found himself excited by the hunt, despite himself.
"Hullo! They prefer darkness, according to this," said Ethan. He trailed a finger under the lines, and translated from the German. "Being blind, they care not for light. Being evil, the sun cares not for them. Thus they crawl as worms and hide from the eye of the Lord."
Buffy smacked the wall. The noise was shockingly loud in the quiet flat. "Underground. His priests are underground somewhere, according to Willy."
Rupert pinched the bridge of his nose. "The network of tunnels and sewers under this town is too large. We need to narrow it down. Some kind of indicator. Let's read through again, with an eye to locations."
Ethan and Buffy groaned as one, but turned to the books in their laps again anyway.
Rupert found it, of course. He'd always had unerring instincts for this work. The priests killed growing things by their mere presence, and Buffy had seen a place earlier where Christmas trees had been dying inexplicably. She was off, moving as quickly as she had when she arrived, door shivering on its hinges behind her. Rupert slowly went to close it and lock up. He came back holding a package wrapped in shiny green and silver paper. He was smiling in a way Ethan had rarely seen him smile, his face entirely soft as he read the attached card.
"She's left me a present," he said to Ethan.
Ethan had his own present for Rupert, hidden in his hip pocket, but somehow this didn't seem the right time. "What has she given you? Oh, go on! It's Christmas Eve."
Rupert opened the box. Tissue rustled. He lifted out a jumper-- greens and browns, a rather good color for Rupert. And then underneath that, a watered silk tie, also in a tasteful muted green.
"It's traditional," Rupert said, with an aggrieved voice. "She gave me a scarf last year, quite a lovely thing."
"Traditional? Oh, my, Ripper. Playing the father for your Slayer? They wouldn't like that. You're supposed to be able to send three of them off to their deaths in a typical career, isn't that right? One death by drowning already on your account; two to go."
Rupert's hands were deep in his pockets. He was glowering at the floor. "They can go hang." Rupert yanked his hands out of his pockets and moved back to the books he'd left on the staircase. "Are you going to help me research this?"
"It's Christmas Eve, and your Slayer has sussed it out. Either the vampire that tortured you dies, or it doesn't. I fail to see what we have to research. I am going to build a fire in your poor disused grate, pour us both a glass of something very expensive from the back of your drinks cabinet, and have a nice evening. Play some Bing Crosby on your ancient hi-fi."
Rupert snorted, but he carried his book over to the sofa and sat. Ethan suited deeds to words, and built a little fire. Once it was popping, he poured two generous slugs of the Jura sixteen-year and handed one to Rupert. He took the opposite end of the sofa, and draped his stockinged feet over Rupert's lap. Rupert glared, but said nothing, did nothing. Ethan ignored him. That was the trick with Rupert. He was an alleycat. He wanted your cream, but didn't want to be caught needing it. Or begging. If you caught him with his nose in the dish he'd turn tail and saunter away. Or claw you. So when Rupert took Ethan's foot and began a gentle massage, Ethan did not react. He looked up cautiously, under his eyelashes, and saw that Rupert was staring at his propped-up book, not at what his hands were doing. He did one foot, then the other, with skill that had improved since the last time Ethan had enjoyed his attentions.
Ethan hadn't been this happy in years. It was perhaps not how he'd want to present himself, a man content with a fire in the grate and a nice novel to read, a lover caressing his knee absently, but apparently it was who he was. It wanted only a nice hot cup of tea to make it the perfect evening. Rupert had infected him.
Ethan laughed at himself, silently, then closed The Three Musketeers. He stretched his arms behind his head and listened to his joints pop. Cursed middle age. It was nearing dawn, but Rupert showed no signs of sleepiness.
"Shall I make a pot?"
"I'll do it," Rupert said.
Ethan casually shifted and bent his legs, as if by accident removing his feet from Rupert's lap. Rupert as casually set his book aside and got up. Ethan heard him rummaging around in the kitchen. Ethan dozed. Whistling kettle, some clanking about, and then Rupert was holding down a mug to him. Ethan took a cautious sip. Just enough milk, not too much sugar. Rupert always remembered. He returned his attention to the Dumas.
"Here. That's odd."
Ethan looked up. Rupert was at the window, mug to lips. The window had glazed over white. White? Rupert reached up and rubbed at it, to no avail. Ethan uncoiled himself and padded over. Jack Frost had been busy tracing designs upon all of the windows looking out on Rupert's courtyard.
"Temperature at eight this evening was seventy degrees balmy Fahrenheit," Ethan said.
"Judging by the glass, and the arctic blast coming through the dreadful glazing, I'd say it's mid-twenties now."
"Nice night for a snowfall," Ethan said. He gazed out at the courtyard, at the snow mounded on the bench, on the lip around the fountain.
"Did you feel anything being cast?"
Ethan raised his eyebrows. "No. Not a tremor." And that was most interesting. Weather magic was powerful magic.
"Local phenomenon? Or long-distance disturbance of weather? I wonder--"
"Oh, do stop thinking, Rupert. Put on your shoes. We're going out in it."
Rupert pulled on the jumper his Slayer had given him, with a glare at Ethan that he no doubt felt made some kind of point. It was a deep mossy green, and it did things to his eyes that Ethan had felt certain the girl had known would happen. Which made him feel better disposed toward her, even though she was still a chit. Ethan ran upstairs to find a jacket in his suitcase, then came down to find Rupert standing in the doorway.
The air was indeed cold in his nose. It smelled of fresh snow. It squeaked under their feet as they advanced cautiously into the courtyard. Rupert's fountain was running, but it would freeze if it stayed this sharp. Ethan's breath plumed out in front of him. He bent and scooped up a handful of snow from the fountain's rim. Fluffy, light, too cold even to pack into a snowball.
"This will be death to the local fauna," Rupert said.
"Not to mention your jasmine."
Rupert made a chuffing sound, and put his hands on his hips. He looked up at the sky-- low clouds, growing light toward the east. Dawn would be hidden from them. The moment felt right. Ethan thrust his hand into his trouser pocket and came out with the little box. He pressed it into Rupert's hand.
Rupert snapped the box open. He stared down at the earring, at the little green stone winking in the light from his front door. "Jewelry?"
"What can I say? I'm a romantic."
They'd known each other most of their lives. Since they were thirteen years old, and grubby boys with cracking voices and spotty faces. They'd been each other's first love, first heartbreak. Best mates even when they'd been bedding other people. In thirty years neither one of them had settled with anyone else. Ethan didn't need to tell Rupert what he meant. He shoved his hands into his pockets in unconscious mimicry of Rupert's normal stance, and waited.
"Is this a good idea?" Rupert said, eventually.
Ethan shrugged. "It's what I want. Question is..."
Rupert took out the earring and put it on. "All right, then."
Ethan closed his mouth with a snap. Whatever he'd been expecting Rupert to do, it hadn't been that. Rupert stepped closer. They were nearly of a height; Ethan reached over and cupped a hand on the back of Rupert's head. The kiss was tentative. Soft. Almost chaste. Nothing like Rupert's usual demanding, insistent kiss. Rupert's eyes were open. Ethan closed his, and kissed Rupert again. His heart was hammering. At last, at last.
Rupert pulled back, and Ethan opened his eyes.
"I haven't got anything for you."
"You'll think of something."
They came in from the cold. Rupert locked his front door and turned off the lights, dimming now in the blue-gray dawn. They went up the stairs to Rupert's bed hand in hand. More kisses at the head of the stairs, shoes hastily kicked off, jumpers pulled off and dropped where they stood. Ethan reached for Rupert's belt buckle. Rupert froze, then backed away, fast. The bed caught him in the back of the knees and he fell.
Ethan cautiously lay down next to Rupert. He was careful to touch him only above the waist. Rupert's breath was shallow and fast, and his pupils were blown.
"Don't--" Rupert began, then stopped. He shifted himself on the bed, so he was curled up, facing Ethan, knees to chest. "Sorry, sorry. I'm no use to you."
"By all the gods in heaven, Rupert, stop apologizing. Talk to me."
"I can't make love with you," Rupert said, simply. "I'm sorry. I thought I could, but I can't."
"Can you tell me why not?"
He wouldn't meet Ethan's eyes. "You know what I would say."
Ethan blinked, then understood. He'd just been told what else had happened during that night of captivity.
"Yes, I think I do, but I need you to tell me anyway. Tell me."
Rupert flinched hard, twice, in response to something Ethan couldn't see. He curled his left hand against his chest, sheltering it in his right. He was massaging the knuckles of the two middle fingers in a gesture he probably hadn't realized was now habitual. Ethan grasped Rupert's hands in his own. Rupert shifted and interlaced their fingers. Ethan could think of nothing to say, so he merely brought Rupert's hands to his lips.
When Rupert spoke again, his voice was different. "He didn't break me that way. He didn't break me at all. It was the other vampire. She read me. She made me see... made me see Jenny."
That he would not have guessed. Rupert had held out. But then, that was the Ripper he knew. He'd have been spitting challenge in the vampire's face until the moment he died. Ethan wasn't sure what to say to make it better. If he could say anything at all. He was almost vibrating with anger. He tried to stuff it down. Rupert wouldn't be able to cope with it.
His anger boiled over. "I can't believe-- gods, Rupert, I can't believe she hasn't avenged you."
"Buffy doesn't know. And I won't tell her."
"Why on earth not? She needs to know."
"Can't. Can't let her think that poorly of me."
"Rupert--" Ethan broke off. No point giving him the lecture. If one of his collection of children went through it, he'd be saying very different things to them, thinking very differently about it. And at some level he knew this.
Rupert moved closer and buried his face in Ethan's shoulder.
"God, you smell right. You're Ethan. Can tell. Can't trust anybody else. Just you."
"Hush, Rupert. I'm here."
"For how long? A weekend and then you'll blow something sky-high and leave me, leave me to clean up your mess."
The bitterness in Rupert's voice was painful to hear. Ethan hadn't realized it was still so raw for him. Guilt stung him. "Rupert. No. I'm here as long as you'll be. If you'll put up with me."
"Just lay off my Slayer. Can't bear it."
"I'm angry with her."
"You mustn't be. I haven't forgiven him, Ethan. But I have forgiven her. And so must you."
"Yes, I suppose," said Ethan, softly. But forgiving Buffy did not mean forgetting. Or releasing the hatred he'd been carefully nurturing for the demon. Or the idea that had come to him earlier. The Slayer was not avenging her Watcher. So he would. He was obliged to, because he hadn't cleaned up his own mess so long ago.
He set it all aside with an effort. Here and now was Rupert, in his arms. Rupert with his short hair and his wary eyes and his baggy clothing, who'd finally told him what the trouble was.
"You're a complete and utter berk, you know, Ripper."
Rupert snorted softly. Ethan felt the tension in his hands ease. "Feeling's mutual."
"Come here, then."
Rupert shifted and let his head rest on Ethan's shoulder. Ethan felt his heart crack. He pulled Rupert close, and swore an oath to himself and to his god. If the vampire survived the day, Ethan would make him rue it.
The snow vanished by noon. In its place were chilly puddles and streams running fast along the gutters and gurgling into drains. Sunnydale glittered wet and clean in clear sunshine on Christmas Day. Rupert went out to fetch his morning paper and came in with a waterlogged roll of newsprint that he dumped straight into his recycling bin. He harumphed and then occupied himself making the pair of them some lunch.
Ethan had his own plans for the afternoon. He helped himself to Rupert's book on the symbology of warding and reviewed what he needed. His own texts on magical ink-making were up in his flat in San Francisco, but he was already something of an expert on the topic. He knew his own trade well.
Shortly after they'd finished their lunch, Buffy appeared, rumpled and tired-looking, wearing the same clothes she'd been in the night before. She was moving more slowly than she had on her first appearance, and her frantic edge was gone. Rupert drew her into the flat with the same expression of concern he'd worn the night before. Buffy nodded to him, then stopped. She scowled at Ethan.
"Are you still here?"
"Yes, I'm still here. We haven't beaten each other to death yet."
Buffy looked at Rupert, head cocked. Rupert shrugged.
"Where is he sleeping?"
Buffy looked at Rupert again, and Ethan watched her work it through and come to a decision. Possibly an inevitable one; despite her callow insensitivity, Ethan could see the that she was still tiptoeing around her Watcher. If she was not making amends, at least she was not adding to her list of offenses.
Buffy reached her decision and made an entirely teenaged face at Rupert. "Don't ever, ever let me see you two touching each other. I may be scarred for life."
Rupert rolled his eyes. "We'll maintain perfect discretion in your presence."
Ethan folded his arms and flashed her a fake smile.
"Anyway. Giles. The snow. It was the Powers. Angel was going to commit suicide by sunlight, but the clouds hid it. So they saved him. He's okay."
"Pardon? What about the Bringers?"
Buffy told the story rapidly, with much repetition and backtracking, guided by Rupert's questioning. He eventually pulled out his journal and began making notes. Buffy was convinced the snow was sent by the Powers and that Angel had a higher fate. Ethan rolled his eyes. Rupert expressed no reaction to the theory. She expounded on this for a few minutes, oblivious to Rupert's stiff face, then wound down at last.
"So, hey, I'm beat. Gotta head home and spring Faith from mom-watching duty. Merry Christmas, Giles."
She hugged Rupert for an instant, and was gone.
Rupert sat at his desk and bent to his journal, no doubt writing up the resolution of the tale in earnest, complete with cross-referenced data on the Bringers. Ethan paced from door to fireplace and back again, thinking. He had his answer: the fates had not punished Angel. So Ethan would. And he knew exactly how.
"I'm going into town for a bit. Stretch my legs. Want anything? Should be a Chinese restaurant or two open."
Rupert looked up. "What? Oh. Nothing, thanks."
Ethan bent to kiss him, and was gratified by the response: a hand on the back of his neck, pulling him down. Open-mouthed, sloppy, intent. A flash of promise, of reassurance that Rupert was unbroken underneath his bruises. He would heal. And he would heal all the sooner with Ethan's help.
Ethan put on sunglasses against the glare and drove to downtown Sunnydale, the older part of the town, away from the university campus. He found parking on the street near the quiet cafe he'd frequented during his first residency in Sunnydale. It was open at all hours, even on Christmas Day, without regard to city law, for it catered to the magical trade. And non-humans. He extracted his kit from the boot. Not the tattooing rig, neatly packed into a carrying case, but his design materials. Sketchbook and soft wooden pencils, compass and protractor, tracing paper and thin plastic sheets, Rapidographs and X-acto knives.
Ethan went into the cafe and ordered tea. He carried the little pot to a table in the corner. He got himself settled in, tea at his elbow, sketchbook opened, pencils sharpened. He bent to his work.
Ethan woke in the pre-dawn gloom and slipped from Rupert's bed. Rupert muttered something and turned over, but did not wake. Ethan paused a moment at the bedside to watch his lover sleep. They had talked more last night, and taken a few steps closer to the consummation he so devoutly wished, but not all the way. Some fervent snogging, and bodies pressed close enough together that Ethan was reassured Rupert wanted him, if he could not yet act on it. No matter. Ethan had found hidden wellsprings of patience.
He left Rupert sleeping, dressed, and slipped from the house.
The mansion on Crawford Street was simplicity itself to break into. Strictly speaking, Ethan didn't need to break in. Angel left everything open. There weren't even any magical defenses. Ethan disapproved on principle-- that principle being his desire to leave an enormous expensive mess behind. Front door opened, front door closed, and then he was prowling around the lower floor of the mansion, searching for the ideal space.
The beautiful thing about vampires was their stupidity. Rupert had told him once that it was what truly kept their population in check, in a world with only one Slayer. Most of them did not survive their first week of unlife. Only the clever ones survived more than a year; the ones that lived more than a hundred years were formidable foes. Relatively. They were never comfortable using tools, and preferred to steal rather than to create. Left to themselves, no vampire would ever have invented the wheel.
Angelus was a particularly intelligent example, according to Rupert's journals. The demon animating Liam's corpse was vicious and ambitious. It freely borrowed from the knowledge of the man, even improving on it. The hybrid entity of demon plus soul was another thing entirely, an entity unheard of before the Romany curse constructed it. Rupert had speculated about Angelus's drives and motivations, before other, more urgent concerns had distracted him.
But even so, Angelus proved easy for Ethan to capture.
One did not knock vampires unconscious. One trapped them, the same way one trapped any demon: in a pentagram. In this case, in one made of red sand that had been made sacred with human blood. Ethan's blood, for the caster's own offering was always more powerful. He bled himself onto the sand, prayed briefly to the trinity god, and bandaged up his arm. It was something he'd rather not do all that often, but he did it for Rupert, and would do it again.
He marked out the pentagram in the center of the main room and placed candles at the points. A heavy table to the side of the room would be a perfect work table. Ethan affixed chains to the four legs and dragged it into the center. He prepared the rest of the spell ingredients, and settled in a corner to meditate and wait.
The vampire appeared minutes before dawn. Ethan heard the door creak shut. He stood, and deliberately let his bag thump down onto the table. The vampire appeared in the doorway.
Angel brought his eyebrows together and appeared to be thinking. "You were in Giles' apartment."
"Yes. I was."
Angel advanced a step into the room. "I know you. You're the Eyghon guy. Rayne. Ethan Rayne."
"Indeed. And you are Angelus the vampire."
Another step, and Angel was within the boundaries of the pentagram now. He hadn't noticed it. He was glowering. He said, "Angel. My name is Angel."
"Angelus, Angel, what's the difference?"
"Kind of a big one."
"Really?" Ethan smiled, letting his teeth show. He spoke a word of command. The pentagram flared. Angel snarled and changed to his demonic form, and lunged at Ethan. He bounced harmlessly off the boundary. Another word, and a pinch of dust cast into the trap, and Angel was unconscious.
Ethan did not use sorcery casually, despite all his posturing when he argued with Rupert. He had learned his own set of lessons from the accidents of their youth. He used it now, however, to raise wards around the pentagram, to arrange the vampire upon the table, and to strengthen the chains that bound him tight.
Angel's shirt he removed the old-fashioned way, by cutting it to ribbons with a knife. He studied the existing tattoo with a professional eye: a gryphon from the book of Kells. Nice work. Magically inert, but pleasing. And showy. What Ethan had in mind was a more modest piece, though more colorful.
He traced the design he'd labored over onto the skin of Angel's back, just below the nape of the neck. The plastic stencil guided the lines that needed careful measurement. The rest Ethan could do free-hand. He busied himself with the fine-lined marker. He took his time and laid out the lines carefully. There was no sense spoiling the work with haste.
"Ah. You're awake. Just in time!"
Angel shook his head and blinked. He stirred, and the chains rattled. He narrowed his eyes, and pulled with demonic strength. The table creaked, but held.
Ethan ignored it to open up the case with his machine and his inks. He was careful to do so just out of Angel's line of sight. He talked while he set up the machine.
"Quite an adventure you've had this week. Buffy told us the Powers That Be saved your miserable undead self. Thus condemning your soul to more long years tethered to your corpse."
"What a charming way to put it."
"I'm not arguing. Though, ah, I gotta ask. What's with the chains? I kinda can't help but notice that they're magically strengthened."
"Oh, those. Pay them no mind. They're just there in case you struggle."
Angel laughed. "What is this, some kind of torture deal? You trying to finish what the First started? 'Cause Buffy--"
"Buffy has faithfully sworn to her Watcher that she will be avoiding you from now on. Your deliverance does not lie in her, dear vampire. It lies in me."
Ethan plugged the machine into a socket in the floor. He pulled a chair over next to the table, and set the stand down upon it. He walked around to gaze at the vampire's face.
"I'm curious, Angel, Angelus, Liam, whatever your name is. Have you ever apologized to Rupert?"
"Apologized. Expressed your regrets. Attempted to make amends."
Angel looked away. "No."
No answer came. Ethan look at the handsome face, at the expression of piteous misery, and lost patience entirely. He slapped Angel hard, twice. "Why. Not."
Angel shook his head. "What could I say? What would be the point? Sorry the demon inside me tortured you? What good could that possibly do?"
"Ah. Yes, I forgot. You are the being that spent a century crawling in sewers feeling guilty for your demon's crimes rather than attempting to set them right. Well. I'm going to do you a favor today. I'm going to give you some new ink."
"No, thank you."
"I do beg your pardon. Did I accidentally do anything to lead you to believe you had a say in this?"
Ethan pulled on latex gloves, making sure to let them snap. The vampire flinched, a guilty thing on fearful summons.
"I keep the gear for a side-line in magical tattoos, you see," he said, conversationally, as he might to anyone who'd contracted with him for art. "I used it to do a job in LA last week, and I had the equipment with me when I stopped to visit my dear friend. So it's no trouble. The ink, now, the ink I mixed specially for you. Tell me when you work out why."
He turned on the machine and began. Blackwork first, the intricate bones of the design he'd conceived sitting at Rupert's desk, in the room that still echoed with Rupert's distress. Smoke rose with each press of ink into flesh. Angel was stoic at first, then he growled.
"You bastard! Holy water!"
Ethan let his teeth show, though the vampire could not see him. Holy water, and more of Ethan's own blood. "Well-spotted."
"It'll evaporate. It'll stop hurting."
"Indeed it will," Ethan said. "Hold still, or I'll botch the details. Wouldn't want that."
Angel tensed underneath him, and flexed. The chains creaked, but held. Ethan set the iron into its stand and took a cross from his little bag. He set it in front of Angel's face, just close enough to make the point.
"This will not kill you. If you continue struggling, I'll make you wish I'd chosen to kill you instead. Understood?"
Angel growled, but subsided. Ethan picked up the machine again, and resumed.
"I ought to kill you, though. For what you did to my friend. Have I ever mentioned how long I've known Rupert?"
"No," said Angel, through stiff lips. "Nor I am particularly interested."
"Known him since prep school. We were best mates then and afterward. He, of course, went on to honors and whatnot at Oxford. No doubt you're familiar with England's more famous scholastic institutions. Eaten a don or two, maybe? A trifle port-sodden, were they?"
Ethan chuckled at his own joke, since the vampire shuddering under the needle didn't seem inclined to oblige.
"Anyway. Rupert enjoyed a, shall we say, more mainstream success than I, before he went on to his Watcher training."
"Yes, indeed. Double first. Dead languages and dead people. He's quite a scholar, is our Rupert. Bit of a waste, many people thought, to see him off training to teach a teenaged girl how not to die quite as quickly as she normally would. To see that mind put to work running a library in an American high school, where the literacy rate can't quite be fifty percent. And where his lovers are murdered and dumped into his bed to find. Not that you feel remorse for that. It wasn't you, after all."
Ethan pressed the needles rather deeper than he ought, then got control of himself. Stay cool, stay calm. Do a clean job of the work. He had his own amends to make.
"But I was speaking of my friend Rupert. Allow me to tell you about his first magical casting. We tried to levitate a rose, the two of us."
Ethan warmed to his subject, then, and chattered on about Rupert while he inked the outlines. Tattooing a vampire was not particularly difficult. For one thing, blood was considerably less of a problem than it could be with living humans. The needle drew blood, but the body had no pulse. The skin was strange under his hands. Rubbery, almost. Ethan wondered if this was what it would be like to tattoo a corpse. Then he laughed. Of course it was.
He finished the blackwork in fair time: he'd chosen a compact design. It was all about placement. And the details. The fine knotwork around the pentagram, the carefully accurate anatomy in the figure splayed out in it. He took a break to massage his hand and change the needle bar for the colors he wanted to use.
The vampire had been still for some time. He stirred when Ethan did.
"What is this design?" Angel said.
"It's my own work. Entirely original, though there are some classic elements present. The pentagram, for instance. The male figure within its bounds. Fascinating, isn't it? Well, it's fascinating to one aspect of you. Irresistible, in fact. Now. Red for binding first."
He finished the red and stopped to rest his hand. He pulled on his magic for a breath, took just a taste of power to soothe his cramping muscles. He'd pay for it with exhaustion tomorrow, but he considered the price small.
"Yellow," Ethan said to Angel. "The color of will. My will, worked on you."
Angel grunted in reply. His face was dripping with sweat, and his jaw was clenched. Tiny curls of smoke rose from where the needle pressed into the flesh.
"I'm going to kill you," he said, through gritted teeth.
"Words, wild and whirling words. You're in chains, and I'm not. So you might as well calm down and let me work. Nearly finished."
Ethan changed out the yellow for the white, the last color he needed. He put in the final touches, shading in color here and there.
The tattoo was done, and it was done well. It was right. The design was a figure of a man spread-eagled inside three geometric figures. Two were the familiar circle and square of the Vitruvian Man. Head, hands, and feet were also at the points of a pentagram. Knotwork swirled around it and bound the figure at the five cardinal points.
"Can you feel it? You're drawn to it. Explore it, Angelus. Touch it."
The tattoo was a demon trap. The pentagram bound the demon; the knotwork tied the demon to the figure of the man; the figure fed the demon's energy to the corpse. It was, Ethan thought, his greatest triumph as a tattooist.
Angel transformed into his demon's face, ridges and fangs and yellow eyes. Intelligent eyes. Ethan smiled into them. The demon knew what was coming, though the human had not yet understood. The demon struggled, making a last supreme effort to break the chains. The wood of the table groaned, and Ethan suspected it would give.
Ethan smiled again, all teeth and fierce joy, and reached for his power. His blood, in the ink, water holy to many gods, his labor and his love: he called to them all, and spoke the words.
"May Angelus be drawn to its light as a moth, may he be walled within its bounds as my prisoner, may he be shackled to my will. So mote it be!"
The tattoo ink glowed in unearthly spectra, and seemed to writhe and crawl on the skin. Angel screamed. His face blurred, and smoothed out. He slumped. The glow faded. Ethan leaned close to look. The lines had changed; the face was a closer likeness of Angelus in his demonic form. It seemed to move before Ethan's magic-changed eyes. And then the power faded, and all was still.
Ethan straightened, and flexed his cramped hand.
"It's done," he said to the man on the table. "It even worked. Don't worry. You'd be dust if the demon were dead."
He tucked away the breakables, the bottles of ink and the needles, and released the chains. Angel-- Liam, whatever his name was-- was limp and motionless. Not breathing, of course, but still alive, or whatever the word was for his state. Ethan packed the machine away in its case. Chains into the duffle, once again wrapped in towels. All tidy and ship-shape, Rupert-fashion.
"It is ended," he said. The pentagram on the floor sighed quiet.
He found his coat in the corner and pulled it on.
The man on the table stirred.
"Whisky," Angel said. Or Liam, Ethan supposed. His accent had shifted, not all the way to County Cork, but a good ways closer. "Whisky. Just a taste. My head. It isn't right. Buffy?"
"And thus we see that the human soul is fully in charge again. Marvelous work, if I do say so myself."
Liam pushed himself up, and attempted to stand. He fell off the table onto the floor. "What have you done to me?"
Ethan laughed, and kept on laughing as he carried his bags out of the mansion.
Rupert held a match to the newspaper crumpled at the base of the stack of driftwood. The paper flared up, yellow and orange. The smaller bits of driftwood caught. The flames hissed and the wood popped in the sudden heat.
Ethan watched the fire spark from his position sprawled on the cold sand. Ten feet away, shallow brackish water ran from cliffs to sea along a stony channel. Ethan listened to the water running under the ceaseless roar of the waves. The fire already felt good. Jeans, heavy boots, and a fleece weren't enough to keep off the damp chill of a California beach in December. Rupert had on the jumper Buffy had given him; he'd scarcely taken it off since. Not that Ethan minded. It did wonderful things to his eyes.
Rupert let himself fall back down onto the sand, stretching out on his side with his head at Ethan's feet.
"Clever," he said.
"Of course. I am a clever fellow."
Ethan reached down and rubbed Rupert's temples in little circles. His hair was still thick, with gray just starting to show in flecks. Eventually Ethan would coax him into letting it grow out a bit again. Eventually he'd coax Rupert into many little indulgences. He'd already coaxed him into one: Rupert had put on the earring and left it there. It was as close to a declaration of intent as Rupert would ever make to him. Enough that Ethan had arranged to have his San Francisco flat packed up. He knew his Ripper better than Ripper himself did, at times.
"I'm more an antique Roman than a Dane."
Rupert reached up and brushed Ethan's fingers with his. "Oh, Ethan."
"Though your Slayer has cast me more as a villain than a loyal sidekick. More Don John. I am a plain-dealing villain, ruining all around me."
"Bosh. You're more Benedick than John."
Ethan tapped the top of Rupert's head. "Paper bullets of the brain. You're the one who's been railing against, well--"
Rupert rolled onto his back on the sand. He looked up solemnly at Ethan. "Doth not the appetite alter?"
Ethan rested a hand on the center of Rupert's chest, but said nothing. Any answer he might make would be too complicated. And there was no point to discussing the past. He'd laid his guilt-offering at Rupert's feet, and they were both done with it. Faces forward.
Rupert sighed. "Buffy might come 'round in another year or two. She says Liam is rather sweet, once he's been forced to sober up. Though she did say something about a sack of wet mice."
Rupert rolled his eyes. Ethan snickered. Rupert shifted himself to face the fire again, and propped his head on his elbow. They were silent for a while. Ethan watched the flames rise. A salty wind ruffled his hair. He could smell rain in it. Honest rain, true rain. He rubbed his hands on his jeans.
Rupert said, "Liam himself is-- well, a bit of a mess."
Ethan shrugged. "Good."
"Eth. I, I can't tolerate too much of that sort of thing. Buffy questions my judgement. Because it was, ah, him; because it's you. I need you to promise me. You cannot interfere with her."
"I will be on my best behavior. Such as it is. If you're hurt again, I make no promises."
Rupert said nothing at first, then simply, "Well. Shan't argue."
The fire burned higher. Strange colors twisted in it. Rupert would no doubt have had an explanation for the greens and blues, something about metals and salts and the sea rushing beyond the flames. Ethan was content to watch it flare and burn, so pretty. The sand under his hand had warmed, and Rupert's shoulder was hot.
"It's high enough. Let's get it over with."
Rupert rolled to his feet in answer.
Ethan opened the knapsack at his feet and pulled out the Bringer artifacts Rupert had retrieved from the tunnels. They were unclean in his hands, oily, stinking of the evil they had served. Ethan handed them to Rupert, who made a face.
Both men moved upwind of the bonfire and approached as close as they dared. Rupert held high the axe, the robes, the candles. Rupert spoke the words of ritual cleansing and the invocation of the Powers to preserve them from the First, the Adversary. He flung the relics of evil in the fire, where they lay untouched, unconsumed.
They clasped hands and the magic flowed from man to man as it had so often in the past. Ethan spoke the words that called down holy fire. The Bringer relics caught and burned. Foul smoke boiled up and out, and was carried away on the wind.
Together they spoke the closing words of the ritual. Rupert nodded to Ethan in satisfaction. Partnership. They were working together again. It felt good. Ethan didn't yet have all he wanted, but he'd made a start.