Willow walked up to the Coven Shop and cocked a brow at the closed sign hanging in the door. She checked her watch and frowned. "Half past one... the shop should be open by now."
She peeked through the glass door and examined the interior.
"No obvious damage so there wasn't a break-in. The lights are off and the closed sign is up. Car's still here," she mumbled to herself. As she studied the area, another car pulled in and parked beside hers. Willow smiled at the frequent customer to the shop who got out.
"Hello Mrs. Hutchinson, how are you today?" Willow smiled politely.
"Fine, just fine. But I'll be much better after I pick up my special order from Jo." The older woman stepped up to the storefront. "Oh dear, is the shop closed? Did I forget one of those smaller holidays? Hard to keep up with all of them these days."
"It's not a holiday." Willow laughed. "I'm not sure what's going on. Did Jo know you were coming?"
"She certainly did. She called to let me know my things were ready." The woman checked her watch. "She's always back from lunch by this time."
"Maybe she had to run up to the coven house for something. Tell you what, I'll check into it for you and deliver your order to your house. Door to door service," Willow offered.
"That's so sweet of you but it won't be necessary. I'll simply stop on by later on my way home from bingo."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh yes. I enjoy visiting with Jo. She's such a lovely woman, so full of spunk and spirit."
She turned and began to return to her car. "If you see her, let her know I stopped by, would you dear?"
"You're very welcome. Have a nice day, Mrs. Hutchinson." Willow gave a friendly wave and watched as the car pulled out and drove off.
"Maybe I should call them." She pulled out her cell phone and frowned when she heard a busy signal. "Too strange! I know Lessa said they had call waiting and voice mail." She walked out to the street and stared up the road to the coven house.
"Something isn't right."
Buffy’s face was pale as she traced the pair of fang sized marks on Giles' shoulder. "I suddenly have this overwhelming urge to send Angel to a hell dimension again."
He shrugged lightly. "It was a different time, a different place. That's all in the past, now."
"But what they did..." Buffy shook her head. "I didn't know."
"In truth, I never intended for you to learn any of the details. I asked for Xander and Willow and the others to keep it to themselves." He let out a long, drawn out breath. "There was no need for you to know."
"Doesn't make me feel any less guilty."
"Oh no, Buffy please…" He pulled her closer, wrapping her within his bare arms. "You mustn't blame yourself."
"I'm so sorry." She nuzzled against his bare chest, breathing deeply.
"Don't be. It's not for you to be sorry about." He assured her, placing a kiss to the crown of her head. "As I said before, I accepted the risks of being a Watcher long ago. Every one of these scars is the result of my decision."
Buffy pulled back slightly and let her finger graze the ragged scar mass along the side of his stomach. "How close?"
"How close did I come to losing you that day?"
Giles cleared his throat and began to speak in the low drone of a dispassionate doctor. "The spear penetrated the right lobe of the liver..."
"Not like a medical report, Giles." Her fingertip drew along the outer edge of the mark. "You said you ripped the stitches?"
"That and…" His gaze fell away, uncertain.
"And?" Buffy gently prompted him to continue.
"And when I carried you from the yard the day you died."
She pressed her hand flat against his skin and lifted her gaze to meet his. He stared back at her, eyes pained. "Oh, Giles," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay now. You're back, my miracle returned to me." He smiled softly.
She continued her exploration, thin fingers tracing along his dimpled flesh. "I think it’s safe to say we’ve both seen things we don’t deserve to. But you're right; it's all in the past."
"Yes, it is," he agreed softly.
"But these scars don't remind me of the badness in the world, Giles. They remind me of the good. They remind me of how amazing you are to fight as hard as you do no matter the costs. And for that, I love every single one." She gave the Zrockar demon scar a gentle kiss as her nails gently trailed along his ribs.
"That tickles," he chuckled, stopping her hand with his and pulling away.
"Ticklish?" She smiled mischievously. "This could come in handy during training."
"Years of Council specialized training have made me impervious to such assaults," he responded smugly.
"Are you saying they make you take classes like ‘Triumph Over Tickling 101’?"
"A Watcher must be prepared for any and all possibilities."
"So which is it? To tickle or not to tickle, that is my question?" She ran her finger lightly up his side. He remained still, staring at her calmly. "You're not ticklish!" Disappointed, she gave him a playful slap on the arm.
"I am," he whispered conspiratorially, "when properly motivated."
With an impish grin, Buffy pounced.
Ethan tugged the curtain cord tight, binding Jo's hands together behind her back. All the coven women, save Katrina, were secured similarly to their chairs and spaced evenly around the rectangular dining room table. An empty chair was next to Jo.
"How's that?" He asked cheerily as he shuffled around to stand beside Jo. He looked down at her concernedly. "Feeling comfortably captive, I hope? Bindings not too tight?"
"Why are you doing this?" Jo asked angrily.
Ethan watched as Katrina, her hands trembling in fear, placed the final candle before Elspeth and struggled to light it. He smiled with satisfaction.
"You have a gift, my dear. Preparing for castings is an art form, really. Most rarely give it the reverence it deserves." He sighed. "It's all just a means to an end for them; bloody weekend wizards. But there is much to take pleasure in with the act itself. You should take pride in amassing the right ingredients. Shape the atmosphere, the scent, the..."
"What do you want with us?" Jo interrupted.
Ethan glared angrily at Jo, then took a deep breath and continued politely, "What I want is to introduce you lovely ladies to what real magic is all about. I feel that…"
"I'm well aware of your brand of magicks… self-serving and immoral. I know the dark deeds you've done and the chaos you've inflicted on innocents," Elspeth cut in. "We aren't interested in your corrupted abilities here, Rayne."
Ethan turned furiously and stormed over to Elspeth. He grabbed hold of the arms of her chair and with a jerk, the legs screeching as they scratched along the wooden floor, pivoted her to face him head-on. She flinched but met his eyes.
"Please, call me Ethan," he said with a patient smile and no trace of the rage he’d just shown. He then carefully turned her back to the table and continued, "Katrina, thank you for your kind help, couldn’t have done it without you. Now, if you would be a doll and take your seat." Ethan motioned toward an empty chair. "Places everyone; the stage is set and the performance is about to begin."
"So much for the miscellaneous fixes. I better get to the faculty lounge and scrounge up some dimensions," Xander said as tucked his multipurpose tool back into the pouch on his belt.
"Thank you for all this." Carrie said, crossing the room to him.
"You're very welcome. Have I earned my way out of the dog house yet?"
"You were never in the dog house. Believe me, you'd know if I sent you to the dog house." She stepped up and wrapped her arms around his waist, pulling him closer. "As a matter of fact, I think you've just been upgraded from budget class to executive suite accommodations."
"Does that come with room service?" He slipped his hands to her hips.
"And a full honor bar."
"Mints on the pillows." She inched closer.
"How about laundry service?"
"Don't push your luck." Carrie leaned in for a kiss, gentle and unhurried. She pulled back with a contented smile along her lips. "I mean it. Thank you. I know I was a bit overly possessive with the whole dead-ex stopping in for a last hurrah. But I really do understand."
"As long as one of us does," Xander teased. "You never know what's gonna happen next in Scobie Manor. Gotta love the unexpected , because it's part of the full meal deal of the Xan-man."
"Get fries with that?" Carrie giggled.
"We could keep this up all day, I'll bet." Xander stepped back and reached for his jacket. "But I really should get back to work."
"How 'bout we continue this over dinner. Chinese sound good?"
"Better than good and teetering toward terrific."
"It's a date, then. Wonder what fun-filled adventures are in store for us tonight?"
"Don't know, don't wanna know." Xander opened the door and glanced back at Carrie with a happy smile. "One thing is for certain, you couldn't write better stuff than this."
Willow frowned as she pulled into the driveway of the coven house. Her eyes quickly scanned the exterior windows. All the curtains were drawn, and all the doors were closed. There was no one visible in the garden or yard.
"Okay, this is weird." She pulled up and shut the engine off, applying the parking brake as she examined the exterior of the house again. "I wonder what’s going on?"
She got out of the car and stood there for a moment before heading up the walkway to the front door.
"And what it this?" Ethan stopped his preparations and closed his eyes. After a moment, he smiled and turned to stare at the dining room door. "My, my, my... little Red Riding Hood comes calling at the coven. And what powerful energies you have." He winked at Lessa. "Seems you lovely ladies have a visitor. I'll just go see who's about to rap on our parlor door."
Jo began to whisper rapidly under her breath. Just as she reached the final stanza, the back of Ethan's hand crashed into her face, sending her head snapping back. Katrina gasped and Sarah choked back a sob as Jo lifted her head to reveal a freshly cut lip. A trickle of blood dripped down to stain her light blue shirt.
"There'll be none of that, now! No wasting that precious magic on useless cries for help."
"You reveal your weakness with your brutality, Ethan," Elspeth scolded him.
"Care to test my patience with your tongue again?" He raised his hand, threatening to strike Jo a second time.
"Leave her alone," Deborah ordered.
Ethan whirled to glare at her and then slowly turned to look at each woman in turn. "Listen and listen well. The rules here are quite simple. No spells, no words, no movement, or I will punish you. And trust me when I say you don't want that. Now, if any of you tries anything of that sort again..." Ethan retrieved his pistol from his coat and waved it about unconcernedly. "I shall be forced to extremely shorten her stay."
A succession of quick knocks sounded, and Ethan moved to the dining room door. He glanced quickly down the hall and saw a shadow shift in the front door stained glass window.
"Now then, let's all give her the proper welcome she deserves." He hurried back around the table to where Katrina had just taken her seat, gripped her arm and forced her back to her feet.
"Katrina, dearest, since you are still free to move about, you will have the honor of inviting our new arrival inside and escorting her here to the dining room." He hurried Katrina along with a tight grip to her arm. She whimpered as his gun pushed into her ribs, nudging her forward through the hall. "Oh, and don't play the hero and let news of our little surprise party slip out. I wouldn't want to see what sort of interior redecorating a 45-caliber might require in such close quarters."
The door pulled back to reveal the tearful eyes of Katrina. Willow stepped forward concerned, but was stopped by the frightened young woman.
"What's wrong?" Willow asked quickly. "What is it, Kat?"
Katrina shook her head slightly as the door opened another inch.
"Katrina, tell me what's wrong? Maybe I can help," Willow repeated.
The young wicca let a tear fall with the nervous blinking of her eyes and silently mouthed the word "Go."
Willow started to reach out for Katrina's arm when a black, oblong cylinder was abruptly pressed to the back of Katrina's head. She let out a sob and the tears began to flow.
"That will be all, Katrina." A masculine voice came from beside her as the barrel dug into Katrina's hair, pushing her out of the way. "I'll handle it from here."
Crackles and snaps of static filled the air behind Willow as the atmosphere went electric. She turned around just in time to see the explosive burst of an energy barrier blockade her just within the front stoop. As she turned back toward the front door, a tall dark figure stepped out and raised a gun to her face.
"Welcome… Willow, isn't it?" He smiled graciously. "You're just in time."
Willow’s eyes widened in shock. "Ethan?"
Recovering quickly, she charged, ramming as hard as she could into the door. Ethan dodged and as Willow stumbled inside and past him, he sent the butt of the handle into the back of her neck. She collapsed to the floor, unconscious.
Ethan chuckled as he knelt down to check her pulse. He shook his head as he tucked his gun away in his belt. "Lively little robin. Come join the rest of the nest."
"This changes everything; you realize that, don't you?" Buffy asked softly, her fingers tracing the thin claw-like scar running down his sternum. They sat facing each other on the training mat.
"How so?" Giles was breathing quickly as he watched her investigate him.
"You and I, it's so different now. We've been doing this for a long time, working side by side through multiple apocalypses. Sure, I worried about you then, just as I did the rest of the gang. But now... now that I've seen what can happen... what has happened to you."
"We'll make this work. As with all things, this change requires some adjustment time."
"Giles, I'm not sure how to handle those changes. I was protective before but now, if anything ever hurt you I don't know what I'd do."
"Buffy, please listen to me." Giles took her hand and held it tightly. "That is a risk we both face each and every day as Slayer and Watcher, and it will never change. I wish I could promise you nothing bad will ever happen again, but there will always be dangers. We can't shut ourselves away simply because we've opened our eyes to what happiness we can have together."
"I'm not saying I want to shut myself away. It's just... you shouldn't have to face it. I don't know… couldn't you just duck behind a tree or something instead of rushing straight into every fight right alongside me?"
Giles smiled. "Being a Watcher is as much a part of me as being a Slayer is a part of you. I could no more hide or walk away from it than you could turn your back on your calling."
"I get that, I do but I'm selfish when it comes to you, Giles. I don't want to risk losing you."
"This isn't a Hellmouth, Buffy, and the world is populated with Slayers now who have a Council committed to supporting them. The burden of the fate of the world is not yours to bear alone." He spoke calmly and seriously. "I'm not suggesting that we should turn our backs to our responsibilities. But we've fought our battles and earned the right to try to have a somewhat normal life. And we cannot let our fears of losing something keep us from ever having it in the first place."
Buffy nodded. "I know. I guess I just want us to have a normal life."
"I'm not sure what the definition of normal is for people like us. But I do know that this is the only life I can conceive of." He cupped her cheek and smiled.
Buffy leaned in closer, her grey-green eyes staring into his. With a sigh, she lifted her hand up to curl around the back of Giles' neck and drew his face to hers. Her lips brushed his, kissing him lightly.
His large hands moved to frame her head, encouraging her to kiss more deeply. He pulled her slight body to his bare chest as his lips began to venture down to nip at her chin and then her neck. Delicate fingers crawled along is abdomen, unflinchingly gliding over the scars. His mouth returned to hers and as her lips parted and her tongue dipped in to tangle with his, he cupped her bottom and lifted her onto his lap. She raised her leg and curled it around his back, locking him to her. Buffy began to rock, the rhythm quick and intense. Giles gasped and pressed back against her and then slowly rolled them over so he was lying on top of her.