As They Danced
As they danced, the lights dimmed and the maudlin music stirred sediments of sorrow. Buffy placed her head tenderly to Angel's chest, his arms encircling her as their bodies swayed together, not in time with the intended rhythm, but to some imagined notes in their minds. All was as it should be. It would be a perfect memory, as immortal in her mind as the demon that held her just a touch too close.
The apartment was overflowing with books pouring over every piece of furniture. Stacked knee high in some corners, piles of texts threatened collapse, yet the room seemed empty to Giles. With a kick of his heel, he sent the door slamming closed, triggering a small avalanche of papers to the floor before him. He shuffled his way through it and towards his overburdened desk, tossing his keys upon a stack of old texts and watched them tumble over the edge. The jangle of the cheap metal echoed, as if reaffirming just how empty the space was.
He was sure his adopted circle of friends were still celebrating. Thanks to Buffy’s dedication and determination the school event had gone off without incident. Surely they were all enjoying a much deserved chance to let loose, to savor the last moments of their adolescence. Then again, he thought sadly, they had all been forced into maturation earlier than most their age. Even he felt like he’d aged decades during the past three years of service on the Hellmouth.
Giles hung up his raincoat, slipped off his suit coat and draped it over the back of the couch cushions. With a turn of a switch, the desk lamp lit the immediate area with a soft glow. It was enough. Giles wanted to remain in shadows. He loosened and removed his bow tie, flinging it aside to land on the steps to his loft, relieved to finally be free of it.
Perhaps that’s what left him feeling so profoundly apart from the rest of them, that he had nothing to celebrate. With the coming apocalypse, he needed every moment to research and to prepare them for the battle to come as well as the aftermath. There would be casualties and, if they survived, clean up to be performed. And it was his duty.
Of course there was Wesley, but he was too distracted with Cordelia and his raging hormones to bother wasting precious time considering his Council responsibilities. Giles couldn’t blame him, if he’d had any chance to set his duties aside he would. But his duty wasn't to the Council, it was to her, his Slayer, and he would not fail her again.
Besides Prom night was for the young and Giles felt his years alienated him from participating in the festivities. That’s why he had slipped away as his charge danced securely within the arms of her love. At least that’s what he told himself as pangs of disappointment ached in his chest.
Freeing himself from his glasses, he began to roll up his sleeves as he moved toward his antique turntable, the selection of music already playing in his mind. He separated the album from the rest of his collection, slipped the record out from its cover and placed it on the turntable. With a flip of a lever, the player came alive, setting the record spinning. Giles placed the needle gently to the vinyl and it glided inward, caught within the groove and the music began to play, helping to drown out the empty noise of silence.
He moved to the kitchen, retrieved a glass from the cupboard and removed the contents of the paper bag sitting atop his counter. Giving the wrapped cap a twist, he felt some strange sense of satisfaction as the label ripped beneath his hand.
"Wild Horses, Rolling Stones 1971, if memory serves. I thought you despised this song?"
"Renewed appreciation for it." He didn’t bother looking over at his uninvited guest. It would only encourage him more. "How did you find me?"
"Come now. You know I will always find you, Rupert." The sorcerer released the doorknob and gestured to it. "I'd have thought you'd be smarter than this. To leave your door unlocked is unwise in any neighborhood these days, let alone in a town situated on the mouth of Hell."
"You'd think so, wouldn’t you? Luckily I’ve nothing to fear from you." Giles poured a shot and gulped it down. He stared at the droplets coating the glass, rolling it along his fingertips, imagining shattering it in his hand. "Go away, Ethan."
Ethan wore a thin smile of defiance as he shut the door behind him. Giles’s shot a glare to him, charged with anger but it hadn't been enough to send Ethan on his way. "Just a social call, old man. No need to get your knickers in a twist."
"Not in a sociable mood at the moment, especially for the likes of you."
"Too bad, mate. Word has it something rather unpleasant is about to go down in Sunnydale and I just couldn't help satisfying my curiosity."
"Need I remind you of what curiosity brings its bearer?"
Ethan’s eyes seemed to twinkle with glee as he got a better look at Giles’ tailored attire. "My, now don’t we look the part of the distinguished gentleman? All dolled up for a night out. So why aren’t you? Out I mean? Or did curfew come early and you had to rush home before you turned back into a pumpkin?"
"Something like that." Giles poured and gulped down another shot.
"Or perhaps your Slayer stood you up?" He laughed. "Always the bridesmaid never the bride!"
"I’ll take that as an open invitation to knock your bloody teeth out." The Watcher stormed around the dividing wall of his kitchen, causing a screech as a careless bump sent the record player needle skipping across to the album to the edge of the label. With a shove, he sent Ethan’s back slamming hard against the wall, pinning him there with his forearm. Giles could hear the shifting of his texts behind him. Ethan let out a chuckle of approval, enjoying seeing Ripper simmering just below the surface of the tuxedoed gentleman accosting him.
"I’ve a better idea." Ethan slipped his hand within his raincoat pocket and revealed a bottle of scotch. "Let’s get good ‘n pissed."
Giles eyes narrowed as he examined the peace offering. "What makes you think I’d want to do that?"
"Oh, I don’t know... perhaps the bottle of poxy rat piss you have there? Mine’s much better, mate. Willing to share if you’ll allow me to join you."
Something made Giles release Ethan. Perhaps it was his fatigue, perhaps his loneliness. One thing was certain, it was time to deaden his senses before he came to them.
As they danced, one song washed into another. Couples flowed in as others drifted off. The only constant was Buffy and Angel, unwilling to give up the moment just yet.
Ethan shifted his stance, leaning forward on the kitchen counter as he poured himself another shot. He could see the liquid working its charms on Giles. His old friend’s eyelids were drooping, sluggish watching from across the counter.
"We’ve had this once before. That night we broke into that old estate on the Haver's Hill and made short work of that gent’s liberally stocked bar." Ethan positioned the bottle closer to Giles, encouraging him to partake of more.
"I remember; nicked a bit of the good stuff." Giles gulped down his shot and moved to pour himself another.
"This is the good stuff, old man." Ethan sipped his scotch, carefully assessing his companion's mood as he tended to his drink. There was sadness there, like he was in mourning. "So what's with the long face, Rupert? Usually the prospect of beating me to a bloody pulp lifts your spirits."
"Want me to guess, eh?" Ethan said, chipper, pouring another shot. "Judging by the attire, you were amending your list of Watcherly duties to include chaperone. What was it then, some sort of affair for the wee kiddies?"
"A dance. There was an attempt to assault the students attending the senior prom. Buffy managed to put a stop to it."
"She always does, clever girl." Ethan raised his glass. "Here’s to her."
Giles stared across at the sorcerer, studying him with a suspicious glare. "Why are you here, Ethan?"
Ethan swallowed down his scotch and set the glass down on the counter, spinning it with his fingertips. "I thought we’d covered that."
"What have you heard?"
"Ah, it’s time for you to pump me for information, then." Ethan eagerly removed his leather coat and draped it through the counter. "Shall we make ourselves comfortable here or would you prefer to take this upstairs to the bedroom, where it belongs?"
Giles set his glass aside and curled his hand to a fist beside it in an obvious display of hostility. "I won’t ask twice."
"You never have to with me, dear boy," Ethan winked. "Come now, Ripper, it's been a while." He could see the anger of Giles’ sharp stare and it fueled him. "Oh, I see. There’s some one else, isn’t there?"
He never saw the strike; only felt the crack of unforgiving knuckles hit hard on his jaw, jostling his mind faster than any alcohol could. He stumbled back, stopping as his backside collided with the opposite counter. It took him a moment to recover but when his did, he grinned proudly at what he’d accomplished.
"What do you know of the Ascension?"
Ethan feigned disappointment as he returned to the other side of the kitchen to pour himself another shot. "Not a bloody thing. That’s why I’m here. Care to share?"
"Not even remotely," Giles reached out and took Ethan’s freshly prepared drink and drank it down.
"Then let’s discuss Buffy, shall we? How’s that perky little Slayer doing these days?"
"We’re done here." Giles grabbed Ethan’s coat and heaved it at him. "Leave."
"That’s what you’re on about, isn’t it? That she’s the belle of the ball and you’re nothing but the bloody fairy godmother."
"Get out!" Giles stormed over to the door and pulled it open.
"No!" Ethan stated, receiving a stunned look from Giles.
"I come here bearing gifts, offering an empathetic ear and tender affections, I might add, and what do I get in turn? Your bloody fist rammed down my throat." Ethan crossed his arms, determinedly taking a stand. "I’m not leaving until you talk to me."
"You can’t be serious?" Giles shook his head in frustration.
"You and I were friends once. Don’t you remember?"
"What I remember are cruel magicks and pranks testing my patience, much as you’re doing now. Leave or be thrown out."
"Tell me why you’re here, trying to dive into a bottle while they all trip the light fantastic? At the very least, you could have enjoyed punch with the more sophisticated skirt-wearing crowd of faculty. Bed yourself a plump, undersexed English teacher."
"There’s work to be done."
"There always is, isn’t there? And yet they party."
"They deserve it."
"And you don’t? You obviously attended, assuming participation to be expected. But you never fully participate, do you Rupert? Never taste what life has to offer. You used to." Ethan smiled at the recollection. "We used to. And now your little corner of the world is marked for extermination and you fail to savor the slightest drop of what you're fighting so hard to protect?"
"You know nothing of it."
"What made you leave, I wonder?"
"As I said, there was work…"
"Yes, yes, work to be done… on that second rate bottle of scotch, I suppose." Ethan dismissed the excuse with a gesture. "It was her, wasn’t it?"
'Damn you Rayne!' Giles thought, letting out a long breath as he closed the door and made his way back to his seat at the counter. "My services weren’t needed."
"Are we referring to your functions as a Watcher..." Ethan grinned slyly, "...or as a man?"
"Both." His voice was barely a whisper.
"I see. Have you told her?"
"There is nothing to tell. Besides, she wouldn't want to hear it."
Ethan poured Giles another shot and slipped it to him. As Giles reached for it, Ethan caught his hand cupping the glass and held it there, pinning him with his dark stare. "Then she isn't worth the fuss, Ripper."
"You don't know her." Giles pulled his hand free and drank down the scotch.
"I know enough. That she is an ungrateful, blind bitch."
"Fuck you, Ethan." Giles growled. "Buffy is a champion."
As they danced, the final notes played off into the air. The crowd evaporated into the night as the streamers sagged and the lights came up.
Ethan listened to the slurred tale told by his sole friend in the world. The drinks were finally catching up with him and he decided it best to not tempt fate. He would leave the rest of the bottle for his companion who was caught within the wind of his own words.
"When she approached me with that whimsical prize on her fair shoulder, those wondrous eyes full of humbled pride and so much more, I could have sworn that in that moment there was something… something inexplicable. And though I knew it foolishness, I thought she might actually want me to ask her to dance." Giles paused as a hiccup passed his lips, and he continued on. "But when I'd finally gathered the nerve to open my useless mouth, he walked in; Buffy's tragic bloody Prince Charming, and the moment was lost."
"Pah, you're better off without her, mate. Tasty lil' trollop like her brings nothing but hurt. She'd only break your heart, Ripper."
"She didn't have to, I did that well enough on my own."
"Not to worry. She'll be getting hers soon enough and then you'll be free to take up those old habits you've been neglecting for far too long."
"What do you mean?" Giles slurred, his lazy gaze lifting towards Ethan.
"I'd rather hoped you might be intrigued by a touch of travel. Like old times, mate... join me in..."
"I meant about Buffy getting hers. What does that mean?" Giles felt his lips go numb as a swell of dizziness sent his head swaying forward. He tried to steady himself and focus on his glass. Then realization sunk in and his eyes shot back to Ethan’s. "What have you done?"
'Bugger!' Ethan worked to hide his nervousness, his face wearing a mask of indifference. He reached for the bottle. "She's good, Ripper. Too good. You know as well as I that nosing about in others affairs is bound to come back on you."
Giles lunged forward, snagging Ethan's shirt and jerked him forward. Ethan gasped as he felt the hard edge of the counter pressed into his ribs.
"Tell me what you've done!"
Ethan winced with pain. "It was either you or the Slayer. What choice did I have?"
"Former associate of mine. Did some previous work for him as you might recall? Cursed chocolate bars and some kind of sewer beast."
"Wilkins, the mayor," Giles growled. A surge of nausea washed over him and he released Ethan, lurching forward on the counter and swallowing down the sour taste in his mouth.
"Agreeable chap, the Mayor. Generous as well; paid me quite handsomely, in cash, no less. Told me to keep you in for the night, entertain you for the evening like old times. Gave me the scotch, nice label, top shelf, spared no expense." Ethan paused, glancing over at the sickly stunned face of the Watcher. "If it's any consolation, they promised it would be quick for her... very little pain." Ethan poured himself another and drank the amber liquid down in a single gulp.
"You bloody fool." Giles whimpered, bowing forward again, burying his face in his hands. At first, Ethan thought he was weeping, or choking or perhaps struggling with a weak cough, then he realized what he was hearing was chuckling. Giles was laughing.
"Think I'm missing the joke, old man."
"You're the joke, Ethan." Giles sat upright, a helpless smile curling along his lips as he let his chuckle subside. He slammed his glass to the countertop and slid it across to the sorcerer who stopped it just shy of the edge. "It was never their intention to target Buffy."
"I don't follow."
"They're taking the path of least resistance... tidying up loose ends." Giles sluggishly gestured towards the bottle of scotch. "Killing two birds with one very appropriate stone."
"What are you talking about?" Ethan asked, weary confusion crossing his face.
"Allow me to spell out for you." Giles reached out and with a sweeping graze, snagged the bottle of scotch from Ethan's grip. He poured another shot, took up the glass and sent the glass edge clinking against the rim of Ethan's tumbler.
"Your scotch is poisoned." Giles tipped his head back and downed the shot good-humoredly. "Perfect end to a perfect day."
"You're wrong." Ethan's eyes went wide as he sniffed the remaining alcohol. Nothing seemed amiss. "It's the Slayer they want."
"They don't need to kill her to beat her, you bloody git. They need to wound her. Chisel away at that solid foundation of confidence. How better to do that than to strike at the weakest link and take out her worthless ex-Watcher?" Giles smiled insincerely as he stared into the bottom of his empty glass. "I'd feared they would eventually target Willow , Xander or Joyce. I'm actually quite relieved they chose to take me instead. It should be far easier for her."
"This is madness." Ethan staggered around the kitchen, trying to make it to the couch. "We need to get to a hospital."
"It's too late, old friend." Giles spoke his words like daggers, hoping they hit their mark. "Mystical poisons work fast and are quite hard to treat with conventional medicine. Even if we managed to somehow miraculously make it there, all they could do is induce a coma to try and stall the spread of the toxins with antiserum. Fancy spending the rest of your days as a garden variety vegetable?"
Ethan stopped his charge for the door, midway between the couch and the stairs to the loft. He swayed on his feet, looking over at his surprisingly composed companion.
"So this is it, then?" He sighed. "All these years and it comes down to you, me and a eighty quid bottle of ruined scotch?"
"Sounds about right to me," Giles agreed with a burp.
Ethan swayed in his spot a moment longer, contemplating the state of affairs. "Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t seem particularly bothered by our impending deaths."
"Most likely a symptom of the poison, but I really couldn’t care less."
"Oh, I wondered why I couldn’t seem to raise the appropriate amount of panic for the situation."
"Probably the best high we’ll ever have, mate, bloody well enjoy it."
Ethan chuckled weakly. "Brilliant." He tripped over some books, kicking them out of his path as he made it to the couch and slumped down into the cushions. After a moment, he let out a long, drawn out sigh.
"I'd always aspired to die in bed, surrounded by beautiful, big breasted women, being sucked off by an experienced mouth. Or perhaps while trapped within the euphoric high of casting one final Chaos spell, sending the whole bloody world to hell. Look Ma... top of the world, and all that." Ethan gave a halfhearted salute. "But for the end to rear its ugly head like this, with you and me in a drunken stupor." He chuckled feebly, "...serves me right."
"There does seem to be some sick logic to it all." Giles reached for his cheap brand of scotch and poured himself a shot. "To the entire drama of this evening, no doubt. I mean... first Buffy's pet vampire admits he's skipping town. I'm there for her... always there for her. To console her, to comfort her, then the poof shows anyway."
"That would be the broody, abundantly brow-endowed chap who foiled Eyghon from taking that charming teacher friend of yours. What was her name?"
"Ah yes. How is the old cow, anyway?"
"Oh, bugger that. How'd that happen?"
"Aforementioned pet vampire?"
"Huh... and yet they are still together, Buffy and the vampire. Curious."
Giles eyes widened with a thought. "Wonder if I should... if I should leave some kind of note. Instructions for Buffy and the others of what happened and how best to proceed."
"Better yet, a love poem, admitting your heart with your dying breath." With an overly dramatic sweeping motion, Ethan brought his hand to cover his heart.
"Waste of paper."
"Bollocks! You could make them swoon with the best of 'em, Ripper. A wink and a praise and you could have your way with anyone you wished, even me as I recall. Where's the old romantic I once knew and loved?"
"Fatally wounded by cupid's arrow."
"So you'd rather she never knew, then? Leaving her nothing but your pickled corpse as a memento?"
"I should leave a note, shouldn't I?" He staggered groggily to his desk and fell into the chair, teetering precariously on the verge of tipping over but managing to overcome the imbalance. With a hurried shove, he sent month's worth of research crashing to the ground, clearing a spot on the desk. He shuffled through the drawers and retrieved paper and a ballpoint pen. Once equipped and ready, he held the pen over the paper, working to focus on the blank sheet before him. "How should I begin?"
"My dearest Buffy..."
"Do shut up."
"I was being serious. You asked." Ethan pondered over the question for a moment. "How’s about, ‘My illegitimate legacy’..."
"Fine! How 'bout 'Slayer, have a good life. Yours truly, Giles. P.S. Don't drink the scotch.' Happy now?"
"There's so much she needs to know, so much I never told her. Where do I begin?"
"Perhaps if you make a list?"
"You're not helping!"
"Well pardon me. I'm a bit busy dying here to help with getting your affairs in order. Doesn't the Council have some sort of official procedure for this type of thing?"
"Normally, yes. But as I was recently fired..."
"For fucks sake, Rupert." Ethan threw up his hands in frustration. "What holds you here?"
As they danced, they kissed, full of tenderness and regrets, begging promises for more tomorrows but they knew it was the last. She should have been weeping.
"What have you managed so far?" Ethan mumbled tiredly, barely able to lift his head to look at the troubled Watcher.
"Not a bloody thing. I can't do this." Giles felt the pen slip from his quivering hand as he stared down at the empty page. "I've spent my life seeking out all forms of knowledge, learning countless languages, memorizing endless passages in hopes of preventing the inevitable fate of mankind. But of all the words I've learned in all the tongues I speak, not one has ever come close to describing how I feel about her."
"You’re awfully long-winded for some one who can’t find the proper words, Rupert." Ethan tried to shift in the cushions, finally settling on comfortably leaning his face to his bent wrists on the back of the couch to glance over at his old friend. "Admit that you love her. What risk comes with that admission now?"
"Risk? Not to me, our minutes are numbered. What concerns me is her future, her perception of what we've accomplished together, of what I was to her."
"You were a man who cared for her more deeply that you can admit to."
"A perverted old sod that lusted after his student, his charge... his friend." Giles' voice trailed off into a whisper. "I think I love her, Ethan."
"You're human, Ripper, with human emotions and needs. It's not beyond me to confess I'd shag her had I the chance. She's a beauty; delicate yet powerful. I can see it, I’d have to be blind not to. Tell her, Ripper. Leave her the legacy of your love rather than an assumption of your failed duty."
"Perhaps the shield of my failure would make it easier for her. I don't want her to mourn me."
"Rupert, you are, without a doubt, the most stubborn, self important, narrow minded, sickeningly passionate hero I have ever had the unfortunate privilege of knowing."
"Anytime." Ethan's hands slipped down, flattening on the cushions as his head sank to join them, his eyes battling to stay open. With a choppy gasp of breath, he struggled to lift himself enough to catch a glimpse Giles’s concerned features staring at the nothingness he'd created on the paper. "Stop searching for the right words, Ripper, and tell her your heart."
Giles could see fatigue swallowing up the sorcerer as his head bobbed forward only to be caught falling and lifted again. Gravity soon won out and Ethan's face pressed to his hands, motionless. Silence fell over the room.
He was alone with his thoughts, with his regrets, and he prayed for the words to come to him.
"Rupert?" Ethan called out in a pitiful peep, like the panicked call of a child lost in the dark, blindly lifting his head a few inches from his hands.
"Yes," Giles answered softly.
"You're there... I thought that was it... the end." He shifted slightly, barely managing any significant motion as he fought to move the weight of his own failing body. "Anything yet?"
"No." Giles couldn't help but smile at the inquiry.
"Be sure to tell me when you have something." He mumbled with a smile. "I'm knackered... bloody tired, mate. Think I'll just ... I'll just close my eyes for a second... just a moment... to catch my breath."
"I'll be right here," Giles reassured him softly, watching as Ethan's head fell heavy again, finally dipping against his hands under the burden of exhaustion.
"You're a good man, Rupert Giles." He mumbled, with a ghost of a smile fading on his words. "You are... you know? That's why I came back." He struggled to take in a ragged breath, voice growing faint. "If things were different... you and I... we were... meant... to..."
Giles waited, anticipating the rest of Ethan's thought but the final word never escaped the sorcerer's pale lips. And in that moment, he realize he was alone.
Giles tilted his head, staring into the ashen and lifeless face of his past, trying to feel the faintest shred of sorrow he should have been stricken with at his companion's passing. But in the final moments of his friend's life, he could offer little more than his company.
Long, sunset lit motorcycle drives to the countryside, crashing high social gatherings to rummage up free meals for the coming week, casting dark magicks together to experience the unknown and travel beyond it, daringly. He remembered a better time with the eccentric wizard who'd unintentionally cost them both their lives in a misguided effort to spare him his. In all the good and all the bad, Giles found he couldn't pity him as he once did, he couldn't hate him as he once did, and he couldn't love him as he once did. All he was left with was a dull, stale grey; drowning in apathy.
Giles took in an uneven breath, fighting off the pressing need to rest and lifted up the pen, positioning it to the blank page.
Buffy walked though the door without so much as a single knock or peep. He’d be there; he always was, for her.
The place was in shambles, buried under heaps of books. He’d been working overtime again. Her stomach lurched at the sight of Ethan collapsed on the couch and Giles falling forward onto his desk, two open bottles of liquor sitting on the counter beyond him. Shaking her head disapprovingly at her Watcher and his taste in companionship; she decided to rid him of his temptation once and for all, choosing first to target his crutch then, to tackle his darker half.
The half finished bottle of scotch sent her nostrils flaring as she moved toward the sink. Glancing backwards to her unmoving Watcher, she tipped the bottle over and listened as the liquid drizzled down the drain. An eerie feeling struck her, a morbid shudder that warned something wasn't right and never would be again.
Buffy never felt the shards of broken glass burrow deep into her palm as the bottle shattered or the sound of her cries as she pleaded from across the room for Giles to wake. In a cloud of shock, she ran from the kitchen to his side, begging for him to answer. She stopped, unable to move as she gazed down at him. He looked so peaceful; face free from the hardened lines of worry and shadows of obligation normally burdening his handsome features. Eyes gently closed as if only sleeping and waiting for her to awaken him. She reached out but couldn't bring herself to touch him, fearing what lay inches from her. It wasn’t real if she didn’t touch him. Her eyes fell on the message positioned beneath his colorless face; pen still perched in his stiff, dead hand.
The phrase was barely legible, excruciatingly scribbled with a trembling hand that had labored to leave her something, anything, everything. Eyes filling with tears, Buffy silently read his final words:
"If only ..."
It's the path she chose, telling herself she did not take the other.
And it happened as they danced.