Willow awoke, groaning to the sound of strange foreign words being spoken by a familiar masculine voice. She tried to rub her head but couldn’t move her hands. She struggled for a moment, squinting and blinking. She was tied to a chair in the coven dining room.
A sharp clap of the hands echoed through the room, cutting through the nervous breaths and mutterings of the coven women. Willow looked to see Ethan standing atop the sturdy wooden dining room table, captive women surrounding him.
"Please pardon the disruption. I've seen to it that it won't happen again. Shall we begin the final step again, my lovelies?" He strolled along the length of the table, his polished black leather shoes scuffing the tabletop, scattering some green herbs as he went.
Willow blinked and shook her head again. The room was dimly lit; all curtains drawn closed and all lamps off. The only source of light was the flickering candles placed in front of each prisoner. Obsidian stones and crushed crystals were placed carefully at the base of each candle. Bundles of herbs and roots tied together with what looked to be hair lay beside each candle. The air was thick with the scent of sage and bitter smoke. Willow’s eyes teared as a tendril of smoke drifted past. It originated from something boiling in the small pot heated by a single candle below.
"What are you doing Ethan?" Willow mumbled. Ethan whirled to face her and grinned broadly.
"Willow, are you okay?" Lessa asked with concern. She struggled against her bonds and tried to shift her chair to see Willow better.
"Yes, Willow, do tell. I didn't dent that endearing little head of yours, did I?" The sorcerer strolled over and knelt down on one knee before her.
"I'll be fine." She spoke reassuringly to the women around the table and then focused back at the man in front of her. "Ethan, these women don't know you. They're innocent and peaceful. They've done nothing to you. What do want with them?"
"If you, my little party crasher, would allow me a moment without interruption, I will make my motives clear." He stood up and resumed his pacing, pausing above each of his captives as he crossed in front of them. "I need help from every single one of you. You see, it just so happens that you have something I need, something you all seem to ignore or deny or perhaps simply don't recognize you have. But it is a very special something that lies within you, and I value it more than you could possibly imagine."
"We have nothing for you," Elspeth insisted.
"Ah, but you do. And I will take it with or without your cooperation." He pulled back his jacket and gave the gun tucked away in his belt a few pats. "Though I would much prefer your full cooperation seeing as how the alternative can be quite... messy."
Willow wrestled with her bindings, fingers stretching to reach the knots, wrists twisting to regain space, but the cord was secure. She stopped and began to study the room. A thin line of black powder encircled the table as well as each of the captives surrounding it. Her eyes shot back to Ethan.
"Don't even try it," Willow warned.
A smug smile lifted the edges of his lips. "Do you honestly feel as though you are in a position to demand anything?"
"I know what you intend to do and I won't let you do it."
"Is that so?" He raised a brow, amused by her determination.
"Stop this now, before anyone gets hurt."
"Interesting proposal. I'm thinking no." Ethan knelt down before her again, his expression strangely empathetic. "You're just feeling left out since you weren't invited. I do apologize for that; a slight oversight on my part. Allow me to make it up to you. Perhaps you'd like the pleasure of acting as my sanctified one?"
"You get away from her, you bastard!" Jo demanded.
"So much for polite conversation." Ethan shrugged helplessly at Willow. "I’m sorry, she’s very possessive, you see. She's been like this the entire time, demanding my attentions every waking moment. Do try to show a little respect, Jo dear." Ethan didn't even bother looking at Jo as he addressed her; rather, he kept his cold, black stare pinned to Willow.
"Ethan, listen to me. The magicks here in Whispering Pines are messed up. You're liable to turn yourself into a slug or something. Trust me, you don't want to try this."
"Thank you for the kind warning. It's rather considerate of you to be so genuinely worried about me. But if it's all the same to you, I think I'll be going through with my original plan." He jumped off the table and landed beside her, leaning down to whisper in her ear. "But not to worry, Willow, my sweet. I'll have you here to watch my back and make sure nothing at all goes wrong."
Mark slammed the locker door shut, turned around and found himself nose to page with the same fashion magazine Dawn had shown him earlier.
"What do you think about this one?" Dawn's voice asked from behind the spread pages.
He pushed the magazine back far enough to focus. "Uh…. Wow!"
Dawn lowered the magazine and looked at this stunned expression. "So you like it?"
He swallowed and then slowly nodded. "Do you mind if I ask a question? Strictly as a scientific inquiry."
Mark's eyes were drawn back to the picture. "That top…"
"You mean the strapless satin bodice glittering with rhinestones that embodies glamour and excitement?"
"I suppose." Mark nodded. "I was just wondering what keeps it in place? It looks like it's defying at least one… maybe two… of the basic laws of gravity."
Dawn leaned in closer and lowered her voice. "Are you sure you want to know?"
He looked from her face to the picture and back again. "It's one of those girl things that's really embarrassing, right?"
Dawn grinned. "Absolutely."
"Then just forget I asked."
Dawn closed the magazine and linked her arm though him. "Already forgotten. C'mon we're going to be late for English."
Ethan laughed as the potion boiling within the small pot began to spill over the rim onto the tabletop below.
"Sorry about that. These pesky spells can be quite temperamental, depending on the freshness of ingredients." He turned and grinned at Jo. "Compliments, milady. It looks as if I managed to acquire a most potent batch of goods. You have the finest quality stringers root I’ve found yet."
Willow leaned as far as she could towards Katrina who was tied beside her and spoke reassuringly. "Don't worry. I'm sure Buffy and Giles are on their way."
"Are they now? This should be fun." Ethan leaned forward to sprinkle grains of sand into the potion, causing flames to dance and flicker high in the pot, instantly casting an eerie light on all the coven women's faces. As it settled back down into a simmer, he returned to Willow's side and gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze.
"It'll be like a family reunion." He walked on, placing his hand to Katrina's shoulder. She jerked sharply away from him.
"You don't need this," Willow pleaded. "Please, don't do this. Let them go."
"So many to choose from." He wandered around the perimeter of the table, leaning forward to study each of his hostages one by one. "And all with such unique qualities."
"Stay away from them!" Willow yelled, straining against her binds as he approached Elspeth.
"I hate making decisions like these. Call it buyer’s remorse, but I always feel as though I could have chosen better."
"You can walk away from this, Ethan." Willow urged him.
"I believe you will do nicely." Ethan took up position behind Lessa and gripped the back of her chair. When he jostled her, she gasped.
"No! Don't!" Jo ordered.
"Not to worry, luv, you'll get your turn. You will all share in this. But the first must be untouched." Ethan drew his lean finger along Lessa's damp cheek. She jerked away and he smiled, amused. "This one is so ripe with innocence. On the other hand, I'm afraid I can smell the sin on each and every one of you. Some fresher than others." He gave Jo a knowing wink.
"Don't do this, Ethan. You don't want this." Willow said frantically.
"And of course you know what it is that I want." He combed his fingers tenderly through Lessa's long hair then used it to suddenly pull her against the back of her chair. She cried out. He held her tight against him and slipped his free hand within his coat pocket. "Enlighten me. What do I want?"
"Let her go." Katrina pleaded.
"Ethan... take me instead..." Willow pleaded.
"Such courageousness. You hear that, Lessa? Daring Willow is willing to offer herself in your place." Ethan said calmly, placing a gentle kiss to Lessa's cheek. "But I like you, you're bright and clean while she's tinted with the dark."
"P-please don't hurt m-me." Lessa stammered tearfully.
"Sshhh.... don't fret, my sweet," Ethan whispered to her ear. "Be brave. Show your friends just how strong you are."
"Lessa, it'll be alright," Willow called out. "Be brave! We’ll get through this."
"Yes, Lessa... everything will indeed be alright." Ethan nuzzled her neck tenderly, closing his eyes. "That scent.... you remind me of someone..." He breathed in deeply.
There was a flash of movement as he brought his arm around front of her, then sharp metal punctured the milky skin beneath her left ear. Lessa tried to scream only to be silenced by Ethan’s hand quickly clasping over her mouth. He forced her head back to expose her neck. The blade sliced deeply, parting the flesh of her throat and her eyes widened with horror. A spray of blood splattered across the table, the chair, and wooden floor and every where it touched, a silver mist began to drift upwards. Screams from the other prisoners filled the air as Ethan finished the motion with a grunt, the knife having filleted her cleanly from left ear to her right. Lessa struggled briefly but he held her motionless, her neck pulled back so that blood continued to spray. Her shuddering body slowly stilled; her panicked eyes still wide. The spray of blood slowed and stopped.
Ethan gradually loosened his grip. Strands of her hair were entangled in his fingers as he drew them down to carefully cup her chin, avoiding her dissected neck. He cradled her head with apparent compassion.
Willow's eyes filled with tears and her wrists began to bleed as her binds cut into her wrists. "No..." she gasped.
"That'll do, child," Ethan whispered softly in Lessa's ear. He grinned, delicately combing strands of hair from her face with his blood coated fingers. His eyes shifted across to the shocked face of Willow as the silver mist drifted ominously around him, curling and twisting about his hostages.
Ethan released Lessa. Her body fell forward, her head hitting the table with a loud thump that echoed above the sobbing of the women. He looked at Willow and shrugged. "Wasn't meant to be, pet."
Dawn grabbed her books, her afternoon snack and shut her locker door, grinning flirtatiously at Mark as he waited patiently for her to gather her things. Just after she spun the dial to her lock, she suddenly fell forward, clasping one hand to her head and bracing herself against the lockers with the other.
"Dawn, are you okay?" Mark reached out to steady her.
"Yeah, just a little... um... dizzy. I think it’s passing." She rubbed her forehead and frowned in a mix of frustration and fear. "Um, look Mark, I think I may have forgotten my cell phone in class. Would you mind..."
"Naw, I saw you slip it in your purse." He continued to watch her carefully.
"Oh yeah," she nodded. The motion increased the throbbing at the back of her head. "I think I'll just go freshen up in the little girl's room."
"Is something wrong?"
"No, just wanna look my best for you."
"You look fine. I mean, actually, you're not looking so good. Are you sure you're alright? Maybe we should get you to the nurse’s office."
"It's nothing. I get these little headaches sometimes. Haven't had one in a while is all. They go away fairly quickly." She shrugged and tried her best to smile. "See... I'm all better..."
He waited for her to continue and when she didn't, he stepped in closer supportively.
"I think... I think you may be..." Dawn took one blind step forward then threw her head back, crying out in agony. Her knees buckled and she began to fall, books tumbling to the floor. Mark grabbed her and pulled her into his arms. As she passed out, he quickly swept her up and cradled her securely. She convulsed in his arms as her face went deathly pale.
"Help!" he yelled out, rushing as fast as he could through the high school halls.
A tempest of magicks raged through the dining room.
Ethan had returned to stand atop the table, arms stretched out into the silver mist. His eyes were closed and he shivered and jerked as if shocked each time the mist stroked his skin.
The silver smoke appeared to be alive, sending tendrils of energies whirling around the table, striking each hostage and sending her into convulsions of pain. Moments after a strike, she would seem to wither slightly, shrinking further in her chair, and the mist would curl backwards and twist itself around Ethan’s body before striking out at another victim.
Willow screamed in pain as the smoke struck her chest and danced around her face. Little bolts of energy sparked outwards as her magic was drawn out of her. Her body shook and she clenched her teeth in pain and fear. She saw Ethan shudder as her energy moved into him. The smoke returned to twist above her and the silver darkened slightly, sparks of coal black and emerald green flashing in the air around her. Her eyes flashed black for a moment and she shuddered.
"NO!" Willow screamed again. "I won’t allow this! This is mine, this is me! You can’t have it." She drew a deep breath and cried out for help.
Giles gasped and pulled back from Buffy. "I think we... we better stop training for the day." He pushed himself up and stepped back. Buffy reached out for him and then let her hand drop back to the mat.
"Giles…" She shivered. "You’re probably right. It's just... when you're near me all I can think about is you kissing me and touching me."
Giles cleared his throat with a cough and reached for his shirt, quickly pulling it on. "Routine training has become quite an exercise in frustration, I know. Some of our recent training sessions have been reminiscent of the opening sequence of an adult cinema."
"There's been plenty of moaning and heavy breathing," Buffy agreed. "Since we seem to agree that we want to be together, why aren't we?"
"The time needs to be right."
"The time is right, Giles. It couldn't be any more right. It's absolutely perfect." She stood up, fingers fidgeting with the seam of her shirt. "I want to be with you. You want to be with me. Why fight the birds and the bees? Maybe if we just let it happen we can get past this… this distraction."
Giles stared at her. "I'm not sure 'let's get is over with' is the best reason to rush into things."
"That's not what I meant and you know it," Buffy protested. "I love you. You love me. We're not rushing anywhere. If anything we're positively snailing. We’ve taken it slow, baby stepped it all the way. We both know the costs, the concerns, and we’ve done the whole weighing of checks and balances, pros and cons, psychoanalyzing thing. In the end, it comes down to one thing. All I want is you. All of you."
Giles stepped forward, pulling her into his arms and holding her tight. He pressed his cheek against her hair. "I just want it to be special. I want it to be right."
She leaned back to look him in the eyes. "It can't be anything but special and right, Giles, 'cause I'll be with you."
He smiled a little, suddenly looking slightly unsure. "We may be ready, but are they?"
"Who, Xander and Willow? If I can draw your attention back to exhibit 'A', they were the ones scheming to get this party started. Them and Percy, their newest recruit to the Buffy and Giles relationship committee. I wouldn't be surprised if they already think we've... you know, done what we want to do."
"And Dawn? It's one thing to catch us kissing in the family room, it's quite another watching us retire to our bedroom together."
"Dawn loves you. You've practically been the only father she's known for the past eight years. I'm surprised she's hasn't already moved all my stuff into your room." Buffy's expression turned serious. "I want this more than anything, Giles. It's time."
He studied her face. "You’re sure." It was a statement.
Giles took a deep breath. "I guess part of me still can’t believe this is real. Things have already changed between us and it’s for the better," he kissed her quickly, "much better, but I want to hold onto this, because it’s so wonderful now."
Buffy stroked his chest through his shirt and rubbed a nipple. "It will be wonderful during and after too."
"Oh dear lord," Giles groaned, before pulling her to his chest again. He leaned down and kissed her hair and then spoke softly into her ear. "Buffy, I desperately want to make love to you, but once we do, we can’t go back."
"Giles, I don’t want to go back!" She laughed. "God, I don’t ever want to go back to the way things were before. None of it, that’s all in the past and I want to bury it there. We may never have normal lives, but as you said, we can try and we can try together." She reached up to touch his cheek. "Giles, believe me, believe in us. We're ready."
He stared at her for a long moment and finally broke into a wide smile. "I love you, Buffy. And I want to make love to you." He kissed her deeply. "Soon, I promise. Permit me chance to make some arrangements. Let me give you the evening you deserve."
Buffy smiled happily at him and nodded. "I’m free Saturday!"
"Then Saturday we'll…." Giles’ body stiffened and he let out a hoarse scream as he collapsed to his knees on the mat. Buffy immediately dropped to him, grabbing at his arms, trying to see his face.
"Giles, are you okay? What is it?"
"I... I don't know..." he seized up again as another shock ran through him. He fell forward onto his hands.
Buffy wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into her lap. "Giles, what is it? Talk to me." Her voice was panicked.
He went still, eyes clenched tightly closed. After a moment, he opened them and stared up at her. "Ethan's back."
"What? How do you know?"
"Willow and the coven are in danger." He hurried to get to his feet, accepting help from Buffy as he staggered for a moment. "We have to go now!"
"What happened?" Carrie asked Mark as she checked Dawn's forehead for a sign of fever.
"I don't know. One minute she was fine, the next..." he gestured to Dawn lying in the bunk, body curled up in a fetal position and sobbing in pain. "What's wrong? Is she going to be okay?"
"She suffers these headaches from time to time. We've dealt with them before but it's been some time since she'd last had one. Was she doing anything that might have caused it? Eating, drinking, some kind of exercise or physical exertion that triggered the episode?"
"Nothing. We were just talking." Mark's face showed his fear and confusion.
"I don't get this. I thought she’d gotten past it." Carrie drew the blanket over Dawn, carefully tucking it around her. "Then out of the blue it strikes again? There's no sense to this."
"You don't know what's causing it?"
"I thought it was some strange allergy or perhaps stress , but according to Buffy and Xander, things are much less stressful for her now. I must be missing something."
"What can I do? I want to help."
"She'll be fine, Mark, she will. Xander is in faculty lounge taking measurements. Would you get him for me but try to be discrete about it?"
"I'm on it!" He left before Carrie had a chance to thank him. Her attention returned to Dawn, who continued to writhe on the bed.
"Why is this happening to you?"