Ethan was waiting in the coven’s ritual room when Giles arrived. He’d participated in the teleportation spell, Giles guessed, for he was not among the group that surrounded him immediately and prized Willow’s clutching hands from his arms. Gently, as the people of the coven did everything, with the steel of the crowbar hidden behind fringes and shawls and earth-toned layers. But afterward, when they eased Willow down the hallway and away, and Giles swayed on his feet, Ethan was there, catching him by the elbow. Giles allowed himself to be held upright.
“Hail the conquering hero. You lived,” Ethan said, with mockery in his voice that Giles knew to read as relief.
“And so did she.” His own relief, expressed more directly.
Ethan snorted, and there the mockery was genuine. “Another broken-winged dove taken under care.”
As they’d taken in Giles, when he arrived sick to the core of his soul by what he’d survived in Sunnydale. Ethan had been waiting for him then, too, to his lasting surprise.
Giles touched a hand to the side of his face, where it hurt. Though he had his choice, there: most of his body hurt. “Dove?”
Ethan’s eyes swept over Giles. He took a firmer grip on his arm, which was all that was keeping Giles on his feet. “Say, rather, a hawk. No, hang on a tick, I know what to do with this metaphor: a cuckoo in the nest. Stealing your books, your care, starving your children–”
Giles shook his head, then winced. “That’s you.”
For they’d taken in Ethan as well, a year before, when he’d escaped from the Initiative’s prison in Nevada. Taken in, forgiven, repaired, rehabilitated. Though they were never quite at ease with each other, the coven’s witches and warlocks in their hand-dyed cotton, and Ethan in his flashy red silk shirts. But here Ethan was, leading Giles limping down the hallway to the residential side of the great house, where he and Ethan kept a little room. More Ethan’s room than Giles’s, truthfully, for Ethan was more fully a member of the coven, despite Giles’s barb and Ethan’s posing. He’d quirked his smile at their instructions, mocked their culture, and done everything they’d needed from him. And more.
It had taken Giles some weeks to trust this reformation, but eventually he had. Reconciliation had followed.
Ethan led him not to their room, but to the little shared bath on their corridor. Giles collapsed onto the little wooden stool in the corner and allowed Ethan to undress him. Layers of clothing were stripped painfully and tossed into a hamper. Everything was bloody and dusty, and the knees of his jeans had been torn open. Giles could barely lift his arms shoulder high to allow Ethan to pull his shirt off. His ribs were cracked, rather worse on the left side, he decided. Ethan clucked to see the bruising darkening his back, then made a noise of pure anger when he got a clear look at Giles’s chest.
“Don’t say it. It was what we planned. I expected it.”
“I-- Never mind. Do you need to go to hospital?” Ethan’s face was serious now.
“Ribs aren’t broken, I think. Nothing lasting. The worst is the ankle.” And the place where she’d burned him, but there was nothing a doctor could do about that injury. Giles brushed fingertips across his chest, just to the side of where it hurt.
“I reserve the right to disagree with you and haul you away.”
Ethan helped him into the shower. The water ran clear for a moment then mud-red down the drain. Blood-red. Giles leaned against the wall and let Ethan work soap into blood-stiffened hair. The soap stung, but the hot water was balm to strained muscles. He’d be moving like an old man for a week. It would be longer weeks before his natural store of life-essence replenished itself. The coven would help with that. Ethan would, as well. There were things lovers could do for one. When he felt up to it again, which would be some days. Giles closed his eyes and let the water stream onto his face. Ethan’s hands moved on his back, over old scars, new bruises, washing him clean.
“How many people did she kill? This little witch you were so set on rescuing.” Ethan’s voice held no mockery but no kindness, either. He wasn’t happy about something. The risks Giles had taken? But he’d agreed, along with the others, that it was a reasonable plan.
“One, for sure. There might have been some incidental deaths. She was set on two more at least.”
“Not to mention the whole of humanity. Oh yes, we noticed that. That announcement was a great stone heaved into the center of the pond. I should think every mystic on the planet sat up and blinked when she announced herself.”
Giles foresaw consequences from those ripples, though exactly what he couldn’t see. But the magnitude of it-- he drew breath to sigh deeply, then froze when his ribs protested. He spun the taps shut and spoke into the silence.
“Rather difficult to wrap one’s mind around that. Wanting to destroy humanity. Having the power to do it.”
Ethan laughed, and helped Giles out of the tub. The front of his shirt was soaked through, but he didn’t seem to mind. Giles leaned against him and got him even wetter.
“There are ways to destroy humanity that require much less power. I once worked it out. Exactly how many minds I’d have to influence, to turn America’s nuclear arsenal on itself. Foolish of her, really. Wasteful. Inelegant.”
“Yes,” said Giles. “Those were the words that leapt to mind.” He braced a hand on the wall while Ethan toweled him off and he reminded himself exactly what had moved Ethan to make that calculation. Why Ethan had forgiven him for that, he would never understand. But he had. Giles sat on the stool again, warm, clean, dry, and aching. He watched Ethan fuss about with the medical supplies. Giles, with his EMT training, lost patience and began giving directions. Ethan met him glare for glare, but obeyed.
Forehead bandaged. Ankle strapped. Knuckles swabbed. Assorted cuts and bruises outraged with antiseptic. Then a towel wrapped around his waist, and a slow shuffle along the hallway to their room. Ethan’s room. An oasis of sybaritic pleasures, a splash of scent and color and sensation in the heart of the homespun coven. Their oasis. The bed where they’d revisited whatever it was they’d had before, and rebuilt it into something saner. Giles felt himself relax further at the sight of that bed, where he knew he would be safe. Where he could rest, with the man he’d always wanted to trust.
He’d need to leave it again soon. That was a bitter thought.
Ethan cleared his throat, and Giles turned. He was holding out a pair of pajamas, striped flannel, too warm for June normally, but Giles was glad to see them. He braced himself on Ethan’s shoulders and stepped painfully into the pajama trousers. He pulled the drawstring tight and knotted it. This time his hands had survived unharmed; the last time he’d been so badly injured he’d been unable to do such simple things for himself. He curled his fists against his chest in reflexive protectiveness. Ethan had his back turned, and would therefore not ask him yet again questions Giles would never answer about that experience. Giles watched Ethan move, bending to fetch himself a dry shirt from a drawer, a plain black pullover. A flash of Ethan’s bare chest, as slim as it had ever been, hair still dark where Giles’s was long since gray.
Then Ethan was back at bedside, holding a little ceramic pot of something. He pulled the cork stopper out, and Giles smelled mentholatum and bitter herbs.
“This won’t be pleasant,” Ethan said.
Giles bit his lip to distract himself, but he gasped at the first touch on the burn anyway. The pain surged through him until he could think of nothing else, nothing but that long moment of agony when she’d sucked him dry. Then the magic in the salve took effect. Or perhaps it was some humbler magic, simple medicine, numbing his skin, soothing away the memory of feeling his soul abrade away from his body.
“Very black,” murmured Ethan. “Not sure she deserved it, Ripper. This was a monstrous deed. And not her first time doing it, I suspect.”
“No,” said Giles, through set teeth. “Too practiced. Too quick to it.”
“Not worth it. She wasn’t worth it.” Ethan was muttering. “Not worth the risk.”
Giles felt a flash of outrage, but stifled it. Ethan didn’t know Willow. “Had to stop her. If only because she nearly killed Buffy.”
“You needed to rescue your Slayer, of course.”
“Not to mention the bloody world.”
Ethan rolled his eyes. “Ah, yes, that. Not worth it there, either, if you ask me.”
“You did your bit anyway.”
“From the safety of the ritual chamber, cross-legged on a comfy pillow, yes, I did. Enduring the interminable positivity of my compatriots here is the worst torture I’m willing to put up with these days. I’ve had enough physical danger for a lifetime. As have you.”
Ethan pushed the stopper back into the jar and whisked away to his workshelf. He returned with another bandage, a square of gauze that he taped over Giles’s heart. Giles let himself slump back on the bed, then, under Ethan’s silk comforter.
“It’s usually not all that dangerous. Buffy takes the brunt of it. Haven’t been banged up this much in years.”
“Your implication is that it’s been this bad before.”
“Near enough,” Giles said, curling his hands together again, under the blankets. His ribs had been broken outright that time, but the fingers would always be the worst memory. The rehabilitation had taken months.
“Bloody Hellmouth. You’re well away from it.”
Giles sighed. He couldn’t put off telling Ethan. They were too close, now. He had the right to know. “Going to have to go back. To stay, I think.”
Ethan went still for a moment, then finished buttoning the pajama shirt. “Oh?”
“She’s sorted out what needed sorting. But she still needs a support system. Deserves one.” Giles didn’t bother saying who she was; Ethan knew.
“You’d best go earn your salary, then.”
Ethan’s voice was unreadable. Giles couldn’t make out if Ethan was angry or relieved or simply thoughtful. They hadn’t talked about whatever it was they were doing together. Neither one of them was any good at talking. They’d simply done it.
Ethan pulled blankets up to Giles’s chin and adjusted the pillows under his head. “Settled for now?” he said.
“Think so, yes.”
Ethan sat next to him on the bed and was silent. Giles watched him, but he had retreated deep inside himself. Giles had seen that look before, and he hated it.
“Will you come with me?” Giles squeezed his eyes shut. That had come out far more plaintively than he’d intended it. He waited for a long minute, until he was at last convinced that Ethan’s loyalties to the coven had won out, and Ethan was searching for a scathing yet face-saving rejection. Then Ethan’s hand touched his face, just for a second, and was away again. Giles opened his eyes. Ethan wasn’t looking at him, but Giles could see his smile.
“Damn and blast you. Yes. Only way to save you from stunts like this. Heroic idiot.”