Faith’s eyes slowly opened and focused. It took her a moment to place herself. Hospital bed, hospital room, the sounds of girls in the hallway… Buffy sitting at the foot of the bed looking down at her like she wasn’t the world’s biggest idiot, but close.
“Everyone… Good…?” she tried to ask through the gravel in her throat.
Buffy smiled. “You guys held them off. None of the bomb boys made it through.”
“’Cause you showed up to pull our butts out,” Faith muttered. “Glad you decided to come after all. Guess I messed up again.”
“What are you talking about? Looks to me like you did great. The place is Fort Knox. The girls are organized. And you did what you had to when an attack came.”
Faith’s sigh was grateful. She gave a begrudging smile as she shifted to a more sitting position. “Don’t give me all the credit. Dawnie’s a badass little dictator when she puts her mind to it. And my girls were right there with me for a fight.” She frowned. “How many more did the exploding pants brigade get?”
Buffy slid a hand up to squeeze Faith’s reassuringly. “You all did awesome. A few rung bells, some hearing loss, couple singed eyebrows. But, it looks like the only one who didn’t know how to hit the deck was you.”
“I don’t believe it,” the wounded Slayer whispered. “There were so many.”
“Well, something tells me we weren’t meant to lose that one. It was more to give me some targets to test out a new little toy I picked up.” She lifted the scythe leaning against the bed and placed it across Faith’s lap. It was obvious the second Slayer felt the same bond to it she had.
“Where did you get it?”
“The Chuckle Brothers needed me to pull it out of a rock for them. I think the attack here was set up to show me what it could do.”
Faith slid her hand reverently over the shaft. “They just let you walk off with this?”
“Yeah. The First seemed really miffed about that, too. But we still don’t know anything about it or where it came from. And the only people who might be able to figure it out are gone.”
“I’ll take a shot,” Dawn said from the doorway. “I might not be a researcher extraordinaire, but…”
“Thanks, Dawn.” Buffy smiled proudly at her sister. “If anyone here can figure it out, you’re the one.”
“Did he say anything at all?” Faith asked. “Even one of his stupid riddles might help.”
“All I got was that this thing is somehow powerful enough to level the playing field. This gives us a chance at winning.”
Dawn walked closer to the bed. “Did you see Willow?” she asked softly, afraid of the answer.
“She wasn’t there,” Buffy shook her head. “And by the time I had the chance to say anything, he was pretty much telling me you guys would die if I didn’t move my ass.”
Faith frowned. “It’s kinda weird that he didn’t at least brag about taking her. And if he’d already… you know. He’d probably be showing her off.”
“I don’t wanna think about it,” Buffy stood and picked up the scythe. “But don’t worry. I’m taking Spike and going back. If she’s there, we’re gonna find her.” She looked the weapon over for a moment before cocking her head to the side. “Where is Spike?”
“Where do you think?” Her little sister gave her a patented duh look. “As soon as we got here, he went back for you.”
“Damn. He must be back at the house.” The Slayer took a deep breath. “Right. Now that Faith’s done with her nap, I’m going to get him and we’ll go after Willow. You guys have everyone ready here. Hopefully, another attack won’t come until we get back. But keep the guards on lookout tonight. You’ll see us before sun-up.”
“Be careful,” Dawn said softly. “He might be telling the truth about that thing, but you know Magister and Ethan aren’t going to make anything easy for us. We… I need you to come back alive.”
Willow landed with a thud on the Summers’ living room floor, Giles still clutched in her arms. She glanced around the dark, empty space for only a moment before her focus returned to him. Tears were leaking from his eyes and his body visibly shook as he tried to hide his face in the satin gown she wore.
“No,” his moan held both anger and mourning. “Not again. Not again…”
“It’s all right, Giles,” Willow murmured to him, holding him tight. “You’re safe now. You’re you.”
He peeked up at her from the corner of one eye, anger winning out in his voice. “Me? I killed, and maimed, and did unspeakable--”
“You did nothing!” Willow insisted calmly. “You were the victim. And now you’re back and free.”
“Ethan,” Giles growled, pushing himself upright. “He… He…” He blinked, seemingly confused by his own memories.
“He saved you.” His lover gently held his face to stare reassuringly into his eyes. “He did the only thing he could to protect you.”
“No,” the vampire pulled away from her. “He put the rest of you in unnecessary danger. I—He could have prevented it all.”
Tears gathered in Willow’s eyes. “What did you want us to do? The First wasn’t going to stop. It was going to take you from us. It was in your mind.”
Giles shook his head angrily. “All of that could have been solved by killing--”
“Don’t say it!” she shouted. “Nothing would be better if you were gone.”
“Principal Wood? Dr. Pryce? All those innocent children? How can you say their deaths were worth the price of my existence?”
Willow blinked some tears loose and they ran down her pale cheek. More than she knew must have happened after she was taken. Bowing her head, she whispered, “Ethan thought you were worth the price. He’s not here with us. That means he hoped the First would focus on taking revenge on him instead of coming after us. Right now he must be--” She swallowed hard. “And the others didn’t die just for you, Giles. They died fighting against evil. Isn’t that why we’re all here?”
Another voice came from the darkest corner of the room. “They told me you lot knew how to make an entrance. See what they meant.”
Giles’ gaze shot over to Spike, then down at his own nakedness, then to Willow before returning to Spike. He shifted to cover himself for a moment before deciding he didn’t really care what the other vampire saw.
“Spike,” Willow sighed in relief, scrubbing at her tears. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Moved out,” Spike sat in his corner and took a drag from his cigarette. “As for Buffy… No idea. Maybe you’ve already killed her, maybe not.” His eyes glowed intently at Giles.
“Buffy… Buffy was fine when I, he, we… Oh god, the attack on the hospital. She went to stop it.”
Willow glanced back and forth between them before asking Giles, “That’s where everyone went? Could she have stopped it?”
“Yes. I believe--”
“Then that’s what she did.” She stared intently at Spike until he gave a tentative nod.
“Right. Girl does anything she puts her mind to. ‘Specially spoiling Big Bad plans.” He took another puff, his face still a careful, neutral mask. “So… Our little witch managed another miracle. Thought you said the Watcherman was gone for good this time.”
“It was Ethan,” Willow explained with excitement. “He only pretended to banish Giles. He hid his soul where he knew I’d find it. And now he…” Her face fell with a thought and she screwed her eyes shut.
Giles slid a comforting hand onto her drooping shoulder. “It’s not like Ethan,” he muttered. “The man always has an exit plan. Some back door…”
“He does?” Willow looked up at him
The Watcher nodded. “As long as I’ve known him.”
Her eyes went wide. “He did! I mean, I’m almost sure. We need to find Dawn!”
“Nibblet’s with the rest of ‘em,” Spike said.
“Then we have to get there.”
“Sorry, Luv. We’re goin’ nowhere for a good twenty minutes yet. Two of us are stuck here, and buggered if I’m gonna let you out there alone. I lose you again, and I’ll be answerin’ to people who scare me more than the First.”
“You could find no protection?” Giles asked.
Spike shook his head. “Why do you think I’m still hanging around this damn house? There’s nothing big or thick enough left in the whole place. When the army bugged out, they stripped it bare.”
“Then we wait.” The Watcher looked understandingly into Willow’s huge, panicked eyes. “The First will want to make an example of Ethan. It will take It’s time. We have to believe he can hold out.”
“I know,” he whispered. Lifting his hand from her shoulder, he couldn’t escape seeing the dried blood still under his nails. He reeked of sex and blood, and it turned his stomach. “If you’ll excuse me. I’ll return before sunset.” Giles stood and slowly walked up the stairs. His companions soon heard the bathroom door shut.
Spike gazed knowingly at Willow, whose eyes lingered at the top of the stairs. “Go on,” the vampire nodded. “There’s time. He needs you to let him know he’s a man again. More importantly, he’s still your man.”
The young redhead blinked at him for a moment before she stood and dashed up the stairs.
Giles leaned heavily, his outstretched arms braced against the wall as water pounded over him. He knew it was all just superficial. He would never be clean, never feel clean. The blood of so many would always be with him, reminding him of the monster, the killer, the thing he was.
He didn’t move when he felt the air pressure change in the room. “Not now, Willow,” Giles mumbled. “This isn’t the time.”
“When will be the time?” her voice was soft over the sound of the water. “When we have to put our problems aside to deal with the next crisis, or the next?”
He slowly slid the shower curtain open. Her glistening green eyes shown up at him from her pale face. “Neither of us are ready. Look at you. You’re trembling at the sight of me.”
Giles slammed his fist into the shower wall, making a hole and causing Willow to jump uncontrollably. “Don’t lie! Not to me and not to yourself. Not an hour ago you were in the clutches of the monster you still have nightmares about. Witnessing his evil all over again. Knowing you would again be the next victim of his cruelty. This face. This body.”
She shook her head rapidly.
“We both know it’s true, Willow!” His voice softened when a tear rolled down her cheek. “I can hardly bear to look at myself. I don’t expect you to for quite a while.” He pulled the curtain closed between them.
A few moments later she snapped it back open. Her slender body still shook, but more anger than fear burned in her eyes now. “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t deal with! I’m standing here now because now is what we have. Here, together, right now.”
“I know you’re scared of the future, but--”
“You don’t know!” she interrupted. “You don’t know anything. I lost you! Understand? There was never ever going to be a good time to talk to you because there was no more time. No more you.”
The vampire clenched his jaw. “Willow, I can’t do this right now. Not after…”
“I don’t care,” more tears ran down her cheeks. “Everything else is out there. Demons, and apocalypses, and nightmares, and the past. Here there’s just us. Something I believed we’d never have again.”
“I’m here, Love,” he tried to sooth her obvious pain.
“I grieved for you. To me, the whole world might as well have ended in that moment. You were gone. And I don’t mean it like it felt like you’d died again. You weren’t gone in that way that we can make ourselves believe bull-pucky like, “he’s in a better place,” or, “we’ll see him again someday”. You had been banished to some hell that I could never reach, never get to, and never help you. I’d lost you forever and there was nothing I could do. Now tell me you understand how I felt.”
Giles’ features softened as his anger melted away in the face of her fire. “Willow, I didn’t mean to--”
“And I don’t want you to stand there and make apologies like it was your fault. Of course, it wasn’t.”
He gently cupped her cheek, brushing a tear away with his thumb. His own were threatening to mix with the water on his face. “Tell me, what do you want me to do?”
She attempted a hopeful, watery smile. “I want you to be here with me, alive and safe for just a moment out of time. I want… I need you to say you still love me. Just like I need you to know that I’ll always love you.”
Giles stared at her, his mouth hung slightly open. “Oh, My Darling, I do love you. Nothing can ever change that. Just like no hell could ever keep me from finding my way back to you.”
Lunging forward, she wrapped her arms desperately around him, not caring about the water now running over her as well and soaking into her gown. He tenderly returned the embrace.
“Just let me stay and feel you. Let me be sure you’re real and here. Please… Hold on to me and don’t let go.”
“I won’t, My Love.” He bent his head to softly kiss her cheek, her lips. “I promise I’ll never let go again.”
Standing under the quickly cooling shower, both held on. Neither moving for fear reality would sneak in and pull them apart again. But, for just a little while, with the rest of the world somewhere else, they found the moment of peace they both desperately needed.
“Damn,” Giles muttered suddenly as he dried his hair with a hand-towel.
“What is it?” Willow chirped, attempting to dry her own body and his at the same time with the only bath towel they could find. Really, it was an excuse to stay as close as possibly for a moment longer.
“It just hit me… Those were the only clothes I had. I don’t suppose I’m very likely to find something to fit me around here.”
“I don’t mind the way you’re dressed right now,” his lover smiled flirtatiously up at him.
“Yes,” he made a show of looking over her own nakedness. “But not very practical for fighting evil.”
Willow pouted, “Back to the real world, huh?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Oh!” her eyes lit up. “Follow me!” She ran across the hall to her room with Giles dutifully in tow behind her. “Wow. They really did raid the place.” The room had been stripped of all bedding, anything useful, along with everything Kennedy and the other potentials had stored there. Willow tugged open her closet door. It was nearly empty to.
Giles shrugged when she glanced back at him rolling her eyes. “Many of them did come with only the clothes on their backs.”
“They could have asked,” she pouted.
Sticking her tongue out at him, she pulled out a mismatched outfit of a technicolored shirt and old dress pants for herself. She then disappeared for a moment, searching the farthest back corner. When she emerged, she proudly held her found treasure out before her.
Giles sucked in a reflexive breath of air. “Why on earth do you have that?” He looked fondly over the complete tweed suit.
“I know you told us to donate them all back when you got your new suits to run the Magic Box. But there were just so many memories.” She ducked self-consciously. “It’s weird that I kept one, isn’t it?”
The Watcher smiled as he took his old uniform from her. “I can’t imagine what Tara must have thought at the time… But I do understand the sentiment. Thank you, Love. This will do just fine.”
“What do you mean, she’s here?” Buffy asked in exasperation.
Spike’s lips twitched as he fought a smile. “I mean, little witch just popped in outta nowhere.”
“’Bout twenty minutes ago.”
“And she’s was okay? She wasn’t…?”
“Smelled like a human to me.”
Buffy hugged him for lack of any other way to express her happiness. For the vampire, the warm embrace ended much too soon. “She must have escaped somehow,” the Slayer babbled excitedly. “Wil must have outsmarted them all. That’s my best friend. This is the best news I’ve had in months. Heck, maybe years.”
“Pet,” Spike’s gaze fell to his shoes as she bounced toward the stairs. “She didn’t come alone.”
“What…?” Buffy’s breath caught as she looked up the staircase. Standing there was a vision she hadn’t seen in years. She was transported back in time to the high school library. An easier and even safer time when bad guys could be fought and killed, and she trusted others to guide her and share her responsibilities. Giles stared back at her. Not the monster, not the vampire, not even the ally in battle. It was just Giles… librarian, teacher, confidant, and sage. The only thing he was missing was a pair of glasses. The Slayer swallowed hard and whispered hopefully, “Giles?”
He smiled kindly down at her. “Yes, Buffy, I’m… it’s me.”
Tearing up the stairs, his Slayer hit him with a force that would have sent the man he once was flying. But he caught her in his arms and hugged her back with enthusiasm. “I thought…” she began to cry.
“I know, Love. But, once again, it was Willow and--”
“Buffy!” Willow stepped out of her bedroom. She, too, was caught up in the tearful hug and pinned against both strong bodies. “Normal person here. Crushable,” she squeaked.
“Don’t care,” the Slayer mumbled. “You’re back. You’re both back.”
“I know,” Willow reluctantly began to pull away. “But there’s still one more miracle rescue out there. We need to get to Dawn.”
“I don’t--” Buffy began.
“Spike,” her friend was already headed down the stairs. “Time?”
“We’ve got shadows,” he answered from the doorway. “Vampire friendly.”
The Witch looked around at her companions. “I know you’re all faster. If I fall behind, don’t--”
Giles scooped her up into his arms. “I did promise never to leave you again,” he grinned at her. His love wrapped her arms around his neck and they were off at a run.
“Incoming from the West,” Molly called. She was quickly joined at her post on the roof by Faith, Dawn, and Xander.
“Long range at the ready,” the Slayer ordered. “How many?”
“I don’t know. Maybe three… No, four.”
“Only four?” Dawn questioned.
“Hey,” Xander put in. “Let’s count our blessings.”
Kennedy approached with another pair of binoculars. “She’s right, four. Looks like two smaller girls. A blonde and redhead in neon. A Billy Idol wannabe. And a total dork.” A huge grin spread across her face as she realized.
Dawn snatched Molly’s binoculars. “I don’t believe it. It’s them! All of them!”
“You sure?” Faith asked. “I mean, we’ve been tricked before.”
“No,” Dawn cried. “It’s really them.”
Kennedy snorted. “Is it just me, or are they really doing the slow-motion hero walk.”
Faith let out a relieved breath. “That’s them.”
“No, wait,” Willow wiggled out of the joyful hugs. “You guys don’t understand. We need to save Ethan!”
Her statement was met with only blank stares. Dawn was the one who finally muttered, “Why would we want to do that?”
Willow’s breath caught at the agreeing nods around her. “Because he betrayed the First for us. And now he’s probably being tortured for it, if he’s not already dead.”
“Serves him right,” Xander growled.
The Witch shook her head at the unexpected resistance. Giles bent close to her ear. “They don’t know, Love. You have to explain.”
“Of course,” Willow puffed. “It seems so long ago to me, but… Okay, Cliff’s Notes. The First promised Ethan all kinds of things if he delivered Gil… the other Giles. Ethan knew there was no way to get out of it. If he didn’t do it, the First would find another way and we’d never get Giles back and probably all be killed. If he did, he could hide Giles’ soul and we could save him.” She took a deep breath. “When the First started getting into Giles’ mind, that was when he knew for sure. The only way to drive the First out for good was to let the more… let’s say ruthless version handle it. So, Ethan went ahead with the spell and hid Giles in the safest place he could, himself.”
“It doesn’t excuse him,” Dawn frowned.
Xander stepped supportively behind his young friend. “Even if he was acting, the fact that he could do all those horrible things means he never was anything but bad.”
“You don’t understand, Dawn,” Willow whispered. “Can I see the crystal he gave you.”
The girl crossed her arms angrily. “I threw it away.”
“No,” the Witch cried. “It was our only chance.”
“Check your pockets, Nibblet,” Spike said.
She did, and pulled the pendant out in astonishment. “I didn’t want…” She glared at the vampire. “Why?”
“Because I know a few things about love. I’ve been evil, and I’ve been good, but love is a powerful force either way. Magic Man loved you, Girl, good or bad. If he wanted that bobble to protect you, so did I.”
“If he loved me so much…!?” she began to cry.
Willow whispered tenderly, “Can I see it, Dawn?”
“You can have it,” the girl tossed the pendant at her.
The Witch studied it closely, then show it to Giles who confirmed, “It’s a Spirit Crystal.”
“Do any of you know why human souls don’t just hop around the Earth?” Willow glanced around the group. “Why they have to go to another plane when they’re released? A heaven or a hell?” The blank stares were back. “It’s because of how powerful they are. More than one can’t share a human body, they would burn through it too fast. That’s why people suffering from split personalities seem to have one overwhelming emotional state or characteristic to go with each. There are pieces of souls trying to inhabit the same body.
Ethan knew he could never carry two complete souls for long enough to give me time to rescue Giles. So, he made room. He split his own soul. He kept what he would need to convince the First he was the same as he’d always been. His logic, knowledge, ruthlessness, humor, and lust. But everything else… His compassion, his empathy, his love... Everything that would keep him from doing what needed to be done. He took all those things and gave them to the person who made him want to be those things. The one person he trusted to keep his soul safe.”
Dawn’s eyes went wide and shone with tears. “I… I didn’t know,” she breathed. “I was so angry. I threw it out like garbage.”
“That doesn’t matter now.” Willow rolled the pendant into her young friend’s hand. “You are the one who can save him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Spirit crystals can be used as vessels, but they can also be conduits for travel. Hold onto it and want Ethan to be here. Make this part of his soul call the rest of him so he can be whole again.”
Dawn nodded and closed her eyes to concentrate. Nothing happened. “I can’t,” she cried. “I don’t have any power like you guys.”
“Back up,” Spike whispered to the gathered group. “Let’s give Little Bit some room.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she moaned, dropping to sit on the floor.
“Hey,” Xander unexpectedly knelt down in front of her. “I don’t know anything about this magick stuff. But, if there’s one thing I’ve seen time and again, it’s that you don’t need any power stronger than yourself.” His good eye twinkled at her with pride. “The guy knew you could do it. He knew your love would save him. Do you love Ethan, even though he doesn’t deserve it at all?” Dawn nodded slowly. “Then don’t think about wanting him here. Need him. Need him to be with you and safe.”
He shifted to her side as she closed her eyes again, tears dripping from them. Her hands trembled as she squeezed the crystal in her palm. “Please,” she begged.
Blinding light flashed and Ethan fell on the floor in front of her. Dawn gasped in astonishment and clambered forward to touch him. Ethan wasn’t moving. She gently rolled him onto his back. Many in the group had to look away. Ethan was still naked, but that wasn’t the disturbing part. He was black and blue from head to toe. His face was swollen almost beyond recognition. And he bled from symbols carved deep into his chest and abdomen.
“The Hellmouth,” Spike whispered to Buffy. She nodded, also recognizing the wounds.
Dawn searched frantically for a pulse, a breath. She looked up, announcing, “He’s alive, just barely.”
“All right,” Kennedy began signaling the other potentials to go. “We’ve got a NC-17 situation here, and you all have posts to man. Safe to say the First is really pissed off right about now. Eyes peeled for anything coming our way.” She turned to Dawn. “I’ll help you with him. Luckily, he’s not my type.”
Dawn bent and put her ear to Ethan’s swollen and split lips. She couldn’t contain a barking laugh. Glancing at the questioning looks around her, she explained, “He said he’s everyone’s type.”