Buffy, Xander, Carrie and Dawn rushed down the stark white hospital corridor toward Willow and Giles. Relief crossed Willow’s face as she stood and Giles, also noting their arrival, finally stopped his pacing. He went to meet Buffy, greeting her with a quick kiss on the lips.
Dawn choked back a sob as she threw herself into Willow’s arms. "Are you okay? Buffy said Ethan tried to kill you."
"I’m all right," Willow said, returning Dawn's desperate hug. "He didn’t get the chance to hurt me."
Dawn pulled back and resolutely brushed the tears from her cheeks. "He sent me an email. I don’t know what it means. Something about ‘our day is coming.’" She looked around at everyone as she spoke. "We need to stop him before someone else gets seriously hurt."
Willow looked a little helplessly at Buffy, who stood watching the scene with one arm around Giles.
Giles glanced down at Buffy. "You didn’t tell them?"
Buffy’s eyes filled with tears as she shook her head. "Only about Jo. I thought it would easier to hear if we were all together."
"Who’s dead?" Xander asked with quiet resignation.
Carrie looked at him a bit shocked.
"Jo is still in surgery and the doctor says it will be another hour or two before they know anything," Giles said slowly. "Ethan performed some kind of ritual to drain the Coven of their powers. Deborah and Elspeth were weakened and are being hospitalized for observation, although of course the doctors don’t understand what happened and assume it’s shock." He pulled Buffy tightly against him. "Sarah and Katrina didn’t survive the draining. And Lessa..." He faltered and drew a shuddering breath before speaking again. "Ethan murdered Lessa to initiate the ritual."
Dawn gasped and turned back into Willow’s embrace. Xander stared at Giles. "How?" he asked, without inflection.
"Xander…" Willow held out her hand over Dawn’s shoulder.
"No, I deserve to know. I want to know what ugly death my friend suffered because Watcherman here didn’t pull the trigger when he had the chance."
"Shut up, Xander. This isn't Giles’ fault." Buffy stepped towards Xander.
"He could have prevented all this with just one bullet!"
"And maybe I could skinned him, or drained him, Xander, is that what you want?" Willow asked harshly. Dawn stepped back, away from the group, horrified.
"This bastard deserves to die, and none of you have the balls to do it!"
Carrie gripped his arm and pulled him back. "Xander, calm down. Think before you speak. You don't mean this."
"Like hell I don't." He ignored her. "How did she die, Giles? I have a right to know."
Giles met his gaze steadily. "Ethan slashed her throat."
Carrie cried out, pressing her hand to her mouth as she began to cry. She turned to Xander, who blinked a few times but was otherwise totally motionless.
"No," Dawn shook her head in denial. "He couldn’t…"
"I’m afraid he did," Giles said sadly.
"Why?" Dawn took a step towards Giles and Buffy. "How could he do that? I don’t understand. She never hurt anyone in her whole life. All she ever wanted to do was help people."
Buffy went to her and took her in her arms. "I know."
"He really killed them?" Dawn asked helplessly.
Looking away, Giles nodded and Dawn began to cry.
"So you can only tell us he was white, about six feet tall and heavyset. You couldn’t see some of his hair under the mask, make out his eye color, anything?"
Deborah shook her head. "I’m sorry, officer, it was so fast, so horrible, it’s all just a blur to me."
The policeman frowned. "What about his voice? Anything unusual? Maybe a speech impediment or a dialect?"
She glanced briefly at Elspeth lying in the hospital bed, before answering the young police officer. "Not that I could think of. He wasn’t very talkative."
He nodded, looking disappointed.
"Okay then, thank you. If you can think of anything else, *anything*, call us."
He folded up his notebook and put it into his jacket pocket. "I understand the hospital is keeping you both overnight for observation."
"Are you sure you don’t want us to post a guard? As I said…"
"We’re sure," Deborah said decidedly. Then she added more softly, "Thank you."
He nodded again. "We expect to finish up our on-scene investigation sometime late tonight, so there's a good chance you can go home tomorrow, if you want." He continued more hesitantly, "If you need a hand out there, you know, er, cleaning up, I know my wife and many others will want to help. You don’t have to go through this alone."
"Thank you, officer. The members of our community who were on retreat will return tomorrow afternoon. Elspeth and I won’t be alone."
"Okay." He turned to leave, saying, "This shouldn’t happen in Whispering Pines."
"No, it shouldn’t." Deborah stood and closed the door behind him.
Elspeth whispered sadly from the bed, "It shouldn’t happen anywhere."
"What do we do next?" Dawn asked. She sat leaning against Willow on one of the hospital sofas, beside a dusty potted palm and a table of dog-eared magazines. Xander and Carrie sat on the couch opposite, hands clasped, while Giles stood with his back against the wall, his arms wrapped around Buffy from behind.
"We wait for Jo to get out of surgery," Giles said.
"I meant... after," Dawn clarified.
"Then we begin the search for Ethan."
Straightening, Dawn brushed her hair back from her face. "What if you can’t find him?"
"We will," Buffy said firmly. "We won’t let him hurt anyone else."
"How?" Dawn asked quietly. "Giles tried to make him leave before, but he’s still here."
Buffy and Giles looked at each other.
"Dawn…" Buffy began.
The teenager looked at her calmly. "Are you going to kill him?"
"You could do that?" Carrie asked.
"Buffy's not supposed to kill humans, and apparently none of us can either," Xander said bitterly. "No matter how much they deserve it."
"Xander!" Buffy said sharply. "We’ll do what we need to do," she continued more softly.
"I’m not even sure he’s human anymore," Willow added darkly. "You should have seen him. Anyone who can do that, not just do it, but enjoy it..."
"As Buffy said," said Giles firmly, looking directly at Xander, "we’ll do what we need to do." He turned to Carrie. "And we all need to understand that there may be a chance that we have no other option than to kill him."
"I didn’t mean should you do it," Carrie said. "I meant... are you able do it? He killed three people and hurt three more. They were powerful witches."
"And he hurt Dawn," Willow added.
Dawn turned to her in confusion. "But he didn’t even come near me." Her face darkened with angry understanding. "The headaches? You think Ethan did that?"
"Are you sure, Willow?" Buffy asked, stepping forward.
"When he did the ritual, I could see... pictures. Snippets of our memories I guess, and one of them was Dawn with him in a room." She turned to the young woman sitting beside her. "You were joking around and then suddenly he grabbed you and you looked like you were in pain and passed out. Then," she closed her eyes and frowned. "Then, some... energy, I suppose it was, went from you to him." She opened her eyes again and looked at Dawn. "I think he took some of your energy every time you had the dizzy spells."
Dawn looked confused. "But he wasn’t always around when I had the headaches."
"She’s right," Carrie said. "Mark was with her when she fainted today and we know Ethan was no where near the school."
Giles frowned. "If the spell is strong enough, there doesn’t have to be a close physical proximity between the caster and the target. Given the number of headaches Dawn has suffered, clearly Ethan has tapped into those energies on more than one occasion. My guess is that he has established a sort of bond with her, making each attempt easier."
"Energies? But I thought my Key energy was gone."
"There’s no way for you to use it," Buffy explained. "It’s just something that’s there. It’s just you." She turned to Giles. "Right?"
"As far as I know, yes. We did extensive research before and after Glory tried to open the gate to her dimension. The Key was created for this purpose alone, and after the gate was closed, the energy no longer had a function." He smiled at Dawn. "Think of it as a key to a demolished house. It still exists but it doesn’t open anything."
"That’s just great! This is so not fair, I have this mysterious power that I know nothing about and can’t use. What kind of lame ass energy is this?" She ignored Buffy’s scolding glare. "I should be able to lift cars or jump tall buildings or something? I’ve got all this power but it’s completely useless? "
"Not to Ethan. He found a way to use the energy, to use Dawn," Xander noted and saw Dawn’s anger fade to sadness.
"Yes," Giles said, turning to Dawn but speaking to everyone. "One more reason we need to stop him." The group exchanged solemn looks .
"Um, excuse me?" Carrie raised her hand. "What are you talking about? Glory? Key energy? Alternative dimensions? Anyone have the Cliff Notes or an outline or something?"
Xander sighed. "I guess there are a few more stories you need to hear. It all started with a bunch of monks and an angry Hell god."
Ethan sat cross-legged on his bed, inspecting the project in front of him with a practiced eye. Four bottles of various colored liquids were neatly lined up on the dresser. In front of them was a small white bowl, so far only holding some stingers root. Silent and with deep concentration, he moved his hand over the bowl and the root started to dry up until it fell apart emitting faint smoke.
Smiling, he reached for the first bottle and carefully added a few drops of the colorless liquid into the bowl. What was left of the stingers root dissolved in a foul smelling puff of yellow smoke. A few drops from the second bottle turned the pungent contents to a green-yellow. Finally he took the last two bottles and, with an insane 'mad scientist' grin on his face, simultaneously added a drop from each. The wisp of smoke quickly intensified and he eagerly breathed it in, closing his eyes. "Celat!"
Suddenly the smoke vanished in a flash of blue fire.
"Now," Ethan gleefully told the empty shadows, "on to the main course."
"You can go in now," the doctor said.
Quietly closing the door, Giles approached Jo’s bedside. Her eyes were closed, but as he drew near, she turned her head to look at him. The weak movement of her left hand prompted him to take it in both of his. Sitting in the seat beside her bed, he gave it a gentle squeeze.
"Rupert," she said, the oxygen mask making her whispered words even more muffled.
He leaned closer, one hand gently brushing the hair from her cold forehead. "Shh, just rest. The doctor says you’re going to be fine."
"Willow?" Jo managed to ask.
"Safe. She's fine, Jo. She said that you saved her life." He smiled down at her and added in a heartfelt whisper. "Thank you."
"You told me there was such evil in the world, Rupert. I didn't listen."
"I never wanted it to touch the coven." He brought her limp fingers to his lips. "I am so very sorry."
Jo's expression darkened. "He needs to be stopped, Rupert." Her grip tightened weakly on his. "I understand your duty now. You need to stop him."
When Giles left Jo's room a few minutes later, Buffy was waiting for him in the hall and immediately crushed him in a hug. "I’m so glad that she’ll be okay."
"It should never have happened," he said, his face a mask of concern and regret. He drew away, keeping hold of her hand as he grimly headed back to the waiting room and the others.
"What happened wasn’t your fault," Buffy said, giving his fingers a reassuring squeeze.
"She’s right," Willow said, coming into the hall to meet them, the others in tow.
They all stopped, forming a tight knot in the hospital hallway, Buffy instantly with her arms around Giles.
"You told me not to feel guilty," Willow continued, "and if I shouldn’t, you shouldn’t either. Like you said, there’s only one person responsible for all of this. And now we have to make sure he’ll never do it again." She hesitated, "If we can."
"So our mission is to find Ethan?" Xander asked.
"We can’t just drive around looking for him," Buffy said, arms still around Giles. "And not even Ethan would be stupid enough to stay at the same motel where we found him last time. I think we’ll need a spell to locate him." She looked at Willow. "You feel up to it?"
Willow bit her lip. "I’m guessing ‘no’ isn’t an option, so I’ll go with ‘maybe’?"
"Good. Do we need anything special?"
"We should have everything at home, right, Giles?"
"Yes, I think we’re set."
"Do you want to talk Deborah and Elspeth again?" Dawn asked.
"I told them we’d leave right after Giles saw Jo. They understand and wish us luck," Willow said.
"If we leave now we might be able to locate him tonight," Giles suggested. He looked at Dawn and when she nodded and started moving, he followed her, the others close behind.
Back home, they gathered around the living room table, staring at a map of Whispering Pines and surroundings.
"Tell us again what we should be seeing?" Xander asked, eyeing the map suspiciously.
Willow frowned. "There should be a small light above his location. Maybe he left town."
"It wouldn’t be the first time," Buffy snorted.
"No, it wouldn’t," Giles agreed. "But I fear that his obsession with Dawn means that he is still around. Although attempting to drain her energy from a distance would require an unnecessarily complex spell."
The teenager despondently slumped down in her chair. "Who cares about complexity when he can drain me from wherever he wants?"
"No, Dawn, not from just wherever he wants. He can be quite distant, but the further away he is, the more power he needs," Giles explained. "It’s much better for us if he is out of town. That will make it easier for us to stop him."
"Is there a way to stop such a thing as ‘draining energy’?" Carrie asked.
"Of course there is," Xander said, squeezing her hand. "That’s the good thing about all the evil spells and devices, there’s usually a way to make it not happen. And in the case of it being a monster, Buffy just kicks its ass until it doesn’t get up again."
"Beheading usually works," the Slayer said absentmindedly. She looked from Willow to Giles. "So you guys know a spell to keep Ethan’s dirty fingers... mind... whatever off my sister?"
"There’s a blocking spell I’ve been looking into since Katako disappeared," Giles said. "It’s very similar to the natural protections which keep vampires out, but it extends to other creatures as well. At its most powerful it should be able to block any person who doesn't live there, as well as most magic, from entering a dwelling. At least for a limited time."
Xander nodded. "Okay, three questions. One. What is ‘most’ magic? Two. How limited? Three. Can you two do it?" He ticked off each question on his fingers as he asked it.
"It should fend off any normal attacks. I said ‘most’ because a very powerful spell would be able to break through. But even with stolen magic, Ethan isn’t strong enough to perform such a spell from a distance."
"What if he comes closer?" Dawn asked, a note of anxiety creeping into her tone.
"I can prepare the map so that an alarm goes off when Ethan comes into range," Willow said reassuringly.
"Not to rain on the magic parade, but are we sure that this isn’t another wonky spell and Ethan really is in Whispering Pines?" Xander asked.
Giles glared at him, but Willow spoke. "Fair question. Let’s see if I can answer it." She closed her eyes and murmured something before saying clearly, "Xander Harris."
A light appeared where Scobie Manor was located on the map.
"Wow. It’s like having your very own Marauders’ Map," Carrie said impressed, staring at the glowing light.
"Better take it off good guy and put it back on the evil setting," Buffy said.
Willow repeated the spell with Ethan’s name and the light disappeared.
"As for the limitation," Giles continued as if nothing had interrupted him. "I don’t think we can keep up the barriers for more than a day, but this should keep us safe for the night. Tomorrow we can decide how to continue."
"You okay?" Xander asked Carrie as he led her out of the living room where the others were preparing the spell.
"It’s still a very strange world," Carrie admitted. "But for some reason it’s surprisingly easy to believe all of this."
They stopped in the kitchen by the fridge.
"Could be because it’s real," he said, turning to take both of her hands in his.
"Yep, that might help. The only thing that I have a hard time believing is that Lessa and the other girls are dead."
His face fell and he looked down at their clasped hands.
Carrie's expression turned troubled. "Are you okay? I hardly even knew Lessa and I really liked her. I know that she was a good friend to you."
"She’s not the first friend I lost."
"But that doesn’t make it easier, does it?" she said, cupping his face with one hand.
Xander closed his eyes, pressing his lips together in a thin line. "There will be time to grieve after we get this asshole."
She pulled his head to her shoulder and they held each other as he started to cry. "There's time now." She stroked his back as he let the tears flow. "You can't hold these things in."
"But that's what we do," he whispered choppily.
"You need to let it out or it will weigh you down like before. You've lost too many friends and didn't let yourself cope. You need to grieve and I’m here for you, Xander."
He hugged her tighter for an extended moment and then pulled back, wiping at his face. His voice cracking slightly he said, "And how do I pay you back? By blubbering manly tears on your shirt, that’s how. Between tears, blood and demon snot, this job has a hell of a laundry bill."
Carrie laughed softly and stroked his cheek again.
He looked at her seriously. "I’m sorry."
"There’s nothing to be sorry about."
"You shouldn’t have to deal with something like this." He kissed her softly on her cheek.
"Neither should you. None of you should." She smiled at him in complete understanding.
"I don’t always lead an easy or safe life," Xander admitted. He blew out a resigned breath, shook his head, and then continued forcefully. "Carrie, you have to understand. I can’t promise you that something like this will never happen again."
"You don’t have to. You just have to promise me that we’ll be there for each other if something does happen."
Xander finally smiled back at her. "That sounds doable."
She put both hands on his face and wiped the tears away with her thumbs.
"I’ll have to go to work tomorrow, but I could stay here tonight, if you don’t want to be alone."
"You don’t have to do that."
"But I want to."
"Thank you. I really don't want to be alone tonight." He leaned down and kissed her gently.
Carrie kissed him back and then rested her head against his chest. "Truth be told, Xander, I don’t want to be alone either."
"Nothing shall pass!" Willow and Giles shouted together.
The glowing ball that was floating over the table suddenly exploded and a rippling energy wave shot out from it, growing quickly larger as it rushed past all of them.
"Woah, that was very Pirates-of-the-Caribbean," Xander said.
"They had a magical barrier in Pirates of the Caribbean?" Buffy asked.
Xander nodded. "Kinda. You remember when Elizabeth hit the water, or really, when the medallion did, there was this thing that called the pirates."
"Keira cleavage," Willow added wistfully.
"Oh yeah," Xander said dreamily.
"Xander?" Carrie said in mock-indignation.
"Not as good as yours of course. Not that I’ve actually... so Giles, did the barrier work?"
"There’s one sure way to find out. Willow?"
She stood up and the others followed her into the hall. She opened the front door and stepped outside.
"It’s not there," Dawn said in disappointment.
"Well, it is an invisible barrier. You shouldn’t see anything as long as it’s untouched."
"Which is not the worst thing," Buffy said. "It might be a bit hard to explain if Scobie Manor was surrounded by a giant glowing ball."
"Stay here." Willow walked out onto the front lawn and turned to face them. She raised her hands and murmured something. A little light ball appeared between her hands. She made a tossing gesture, propelling the light towards them.
It stopped abruptly and the barrier lit up for a moment as it absorbed the spell.
Willow came back inside. "It worked."
"That’s a pretty harmless looking light. I’m thinking that Ethan would go beyond some fireworks," Xander told her.
"Harmless you say?" Willow lifted his hands again and after another murmur a new light appeared between them. Xander took a step back, but Willow propelled the light outside where it hit a stone in the garden. The stone shattered, sending pieces of rock flying.
"As you can see, it works," Giles said, unable to hide his grin.
"So, do you want me to sleep on the couch or do you think we can share the bed?" Xander asked Carrie outside the bathroom.
"Seeing as the major sexual harassment was an isolated and magically induced incident, I think I can trust you."
"I’m not sure if that’s good or bad," he said with a grin.
"If it meant that you cannot do certain things it would be bad, but it only means that you won’t. Tonight. So... which side would you prefer to sleep on?"
"Could you two take it inside?" Willow asked as she walked by, pretending to be annoyed.
"We’re just about to. Night, Will."
"Goodnight you two. Sleep well." She winked at Xander. "If there’s any actual sleeping involved."
"Yes, there will be," Carrie said firmly. "We won’t disturb you."
"I won’t be disturbed. Watching him eat, now that is disturbing!" Willow waved as she started into her room. She paused at the door and turned as if a thought had occurred to her. "Although, if you think I should soundproof your room, you might want to tell me now."
Carrie rolled her eyes. "Goodnight, Willow," she said pushing Xander inside his room, and shutting the door before he could protest.
Dawn, Buffy and Giles came up the stairs. Buffy had her arm around Dawn. "You don’t have to worry, Dawn. You know I will protect you, if it’s the last thing I do."
"Let’s not do that again," Dawn said, trying to smile. "I don’t like that being the last thing. You dying is never a good thing."
Buffy hugged her sister.
"We’ll be fine. Hey, we survived the oldest and baddest evil of all. Compare that to Ethan. On a scale from one to ten he’s trying to go from a point five to a one," she said confidently. "Why do you think he ran out of town? He’s afraid of what we’ll do to him. He knows we won’t ever let anything happen to you. Okay?"
"Goodnight," she said, kissing her sister on the forehead.
"Night, Giles," Dawn said to him as she began climbing the steps to her room in the attic.
They waited until she was gone and the trap door had been pulled up then Buffy turned to Giles. "Tell me everything will be fine."
"Everything will be fine," he said obediently, putting his arms around her.
"Tell me you love me."
"I love you, as you know very well."
She thought for a moment. "Tell me next week’s lottery numbers."
"Next week’s lottery numbers," he said sincerely.
She smiled. "It was worth a try." Then she pulled his head down for a kiss. "I love you."
He kissed her slowly and then cupped her face with his hand. "I love you, too."
Buffy snuggled closer. "I'm glad we talked about... you know."
"So am I."
"It seems like so long ago, but it was only this afternoon." Buffy looked up at him. "You do realize that I'm going to hold you to your promise for that special night very soon."
"A promise I will be delighted to keep."
Buffy sighed. "We need to get up early tomorrow."
"Yes. And we’ll need all our strength." He smiled. "I do love you, Buffy. I don’t know what I’d do without you."
"You're such the sappy leading man, needing to make our goodnights so achingly hard."
"Speaking of good nights, achingly hard..."
Buffy laughed. "Goodnight, Giles."
They kissed again, lingering for a moment in the hall before entering their separate rooms. Giles turned off the hall light as he closed his door and darkness enveloped the house.
At the bottom of the steps, a figure appeared.
"Oh, yes . Everything will be just fine," Ethan said, looking up the stairs. "I hope you have pleasant dreams tonight, because tomorrow all your nightmares will come true."