“Damn!” Ethan roared and jumped furiously to his feet.
“What is it, sensei?” Katako rushed to his side.
“I’ve lost her.”
“They’ve killed Dawn?” Katako’s eyes went wide.
“No, but they’ve shielded her from my reach. I can no longer take what I need.”
“Then I shall bring her to you.”
“It’s sooner than I’d intended but I suppose we must since they are forcing our hand.” Ethan pulled a pendant on a thin leather strand from his pocked and slipped it over Katako’s head. She watched it with curiosity as it came to rest on her chest.
“What is this charm, sensei?”
“These soldiers who safeguard the collaborators use alternative means in their pursuits. There are precautions to be taken to ensure the success of your mission.”
“You speak of magic,” Katako said anxiously.
“I understand you are wary of such methods but I know what I’m doing, Katako. The collaborators wield such powers and tactics, so must we.”
“But they weaken you, sensei. I will not be here to protect you.”
“It is my time to protect you, my Slayer.” Ethan cupped her cheek affectionately. “Trust in me as I trust in you, and you will realize your destiny. Go through the woods now, but wait at the edge of dark ‘til sunset. The night will be your friend.”
Katako nodded resolutely. “I will return with the girl before the sunrise.”
“You have all my faith.” Ethan smiled as he watched her pull the black hood up to cover her head. “This stone will glow with corresponding intensity when one of the invisible soldiers comes near you.”
“I understand.” She turned to the exit.
“Wait!" He handed her small vial. "When you gain entry within the house, pour this somewhere on yourself.”
“What will it do, Master?”
“That would spoil the fun now wouldn’t it, my dear.” He handed her the vial. “Remember not to use it until inside the house. Trust me.”
“I do,” she said softly and turned to leave.
“Oh, and Katako…”
“Yes sensei?” She glanced back again.
“Let nothing stand in your way,” Ethan reached out, offering his sacrificial knife to the young girl who stared at the blood stained blade for a long moment before accepting the weapon. “I must have Dawn with me, no matter the costs.”
“As you wish.” Katako bowed and with a final resolute look, ran off into fading light.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” Ethan chuckled, running his fingers through his hair. “Still, girl’s got spirit with all that darkness bottled up in such a tight little package.” The sorcerer turned to examine the contents of the cavern. “Not quite the appropriate location for a reunion. But something tells me that will be the least of your worries. Eh, Dawn, my sweet?”
Giles quietly slipped out the second story balcony door and took in a deep breath of the crisp night air. His nose crinkled at the scent of stale cigarettes and he tensed at the sound of voices below.
“Got another fag?"
"Yeah, here you go." Giles could hear the rustling as the pack was passed. "You just get here?"
"No, I came over a couple of days ago and was assigned to Coven duty until today." There was a pause and the sound of a heavy inhale. "I was glad to be moved, frankly. Figured this is where the action would be."
The voice dropped. "Have you seen them?"
"You know who. The Slayer, the one who made the others. Her Watcher, the witch, the whole lot of would-be heroes. I've heard stories for years about them, but I've never met them. You?"
"I've seen a couple of them, but haven't been properly introduced." The man snorted softly. "But I'll tell you… I've heard all sorts of stories about them, and not all so good."
“Well, among other things, rumor has it that the respectable Rupert Giles and this Ethan fellow used to be mates.”
“Mr. Giles knows him? Why is the bastard still breathing then?”
“Can’t say. I heard they were real close. Maybe Giles can’t bring himself to do away with ‘im. Gotta be rough on the old man.”
“So you’re telling me that we were packed off stateside and stuck here because a bloody Watcher didn’t have the stones to do what was right?”
"Well, we don't know for sure what happened. Come on, we should check the outer perimeter again.…"
Giles quietly slipped back inside as the voices faded.
“Did they get him?” Dawn mumbled, barely able to open her tired eyes.
Buffy rushed to her side. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired. Super, big time tired. And kinda hungry.” Dawn tried to sit up and Buffy stopped her with a gentle hand.
“No, you don’t. Stay!”
“She has a bossy bedside manner,” Dawn grumbled, directing her glance beyond Buffy.
“Tell me about it,” Giles agreed as he stepped inside the room.
“Watch it, buddy. I know where you sleep!” Buffy warned.
“Hi Giles,” Dawn said with tired cheer.
“Hello, there. Would you like some cocoa?” Giles offered quietly.
“Yeah. And some of those cookies…”
“The elf shaped ones,” Giles nodded. “Coming right up.”
Dawn watched Giles leave and whispered, “You know the one good thing about all these headaches? His ideals about quality nutrition go out the window.”
“Leave it to you to find a way to manipulate a situation into guilt-free treats,” Buffy chuckled.
“Did they get him? Did they catch Ethan?”
“Do they know where he is?”
“No.” Buffy looked down.
“What’s going on?”
“We don’t know.”
Dawn thought for a long moment then asked brightly, “How’s our cookie supply?”
“We're okay there. We have enough to feed a small round-up of CoWboys.”
Katako approached the edge of the woods cautiously. She knelt low, staying in the deep shadows, scanning the clearing for signs of the army stalking the streets. After a moment, she pulled out the charm her Watcher had given to her. Though the streets seemed vacant, the strange stone glowed iridescent blue.
The Slayer ducked behind a broad fir tree and waited, listening as the soft footsteps grew louder. Checking the charm, she saw it was glowing nearly white. She stepped silently around the tree trunk, scooping up a handful of dirt and tossed it towards the footsteps.
The rain of particles settled along an outline of shoulders and head. The Slayer struck fast, lunging at the floating dirt. The solider tried to block her attack but with a quick brutal twist, his neck was snapped. He fell to the ground, making an eerie human-shaped imprint in the bent grass and sunken dirt.
“Forgive me.” She bowed respectfully and reached down to feel for what weapons, charms and gear lay hidden in the cloak of invisibility. Her fingers touched the outline of something rectangular and she lifted it up. The item became visible, revealing a portable radio.
“We will know your movements, now,” she smiled. “Sensei will be so pleased.” She searched the body again, then taking the little bounty she’d found, continued stealthily on into the streets.
A faint knock sounded at the open door. "Mind a bit of company?"
Dawn rolled over to see Percy peeking up through the doorway and she immediately blushed, wrestling with her blankets to cover herself.
"Oh… Percy, I mean Mr. Banks, er, Mr. Lord Sir... hey, are you like a knight or something, 'cause that would be really cool and I'm sorry that I can't curtsey or anything and, oh!... Sorry, come in!"
Percy laughed as he entered. "Thank you. As for the proper form of address, as old friends, I don't think we should stand on formality. You called me Percy before, no reason to change now. It's certainly preferable to Xander's designation of 'Mr. P.'
"Ohhhkay…" she glanced around nervously, "...Hi... Percy," she continued brightly.
"Hello Dawn." He smiled warmly. "I don't wish to intrude if you'd prefer to catch some rest. I know you’ve scarcely had a moment's peace with Buffy and Giles running in and out…"
"I'm thinking about giving them some of Carrie's pills, actually. I could use a break from them… not you." She smiled shyly. "What brings you here?"
He took a few steps closer. "It may not be the proper time to discuss this, but I'd like to follow up on your interest in possibly joining the Watcher's Council. I have to admit to more than a hint of enthusiasm that we might be able to recruit such a promising candidate."
"Really?" Dawn smiled brightly at him before starting to frown as she continued, "Well, I'm not sure. Buffy had that mildly freaked look when she found out so I'm guessing she may have already inked her veto stamp. That or she thinks it's just a phase I'm going through, like my short-lived obsession with the Wonderbra and 'Buns of Steel,'" she said, sounding uncertain. Percy raised an eyebrow and her eyes went wide with embarrassment and she quickly stuttered, "It's a workout video, and… and you probably should just ignore that last part."
Percy smiled gently. "While I would never encourage you to go against her wishes, I should hope you’ll make your own choice in the matter."
"I really liked helping Giles out with all the Watcherly stuff last year." Dawn sighed. "I kinda miss it now. I know Buffy wants me to have a normal life, and I appreciate that she hopes that for me but I gotta tell you… normal is way boring."
"I know what you mean," Percy chuckled. "When I quit the Council, I tried my hand at owning a modest-sized antique shop. Thought about it for years and took the plunge in hope of reinventing myself. Supportive as she was, Patricia warned me I wasn't suited to such a vocation. As is the usual, she was right. Lasted barely a week until some dim-witted thug decided to rob me. After disarming the twit and telling him what for, I'd had my fill of the tedium of normal life." He shifted his weight and leaned back against the wall. "Once you've been awakened to the mysteries life has to offer you, it's difficult to turn a blind eye. I'm sure Buffy understands this."
"You think you can sweet talk her into taking the idea more seriously, possibly letting me take a crack at it?"
"I'd very much like to help but I think you should discuss this further with her. Or at the very least, Rupert." He sighed when he saw Dawn's face fall with disappointment. "But I'll see what I can do."
"You're my hero, Percy." She smiled happily and settled back onto the bed.
"You flatter me."
"Nah, you're like Super Watcher or something," she said with assurance. "A real hero."
"Thank you." He said, winking at her. "I'll do my best to live up to your expectations then."
Giles walked towards the kitchen, stopping out of sight as he heard Xander say, “… let her have her shot. She’s the one who suffered the most.”
In the kitchen, Willow leaned against a counter, her shoulders hunched and her face a study in misery. “It’s not that easy, Xander.”
“Sure it is!” He stopped pacing long enough to take in her appearance. “Will, you know Dawn has the right to put him down.”
“No! She’s too young --”
“Fine, then. We'll go back to Plan A. I’ll put him down --”
“And how are you going to look Carrie in the eye in the future? You don't get it, Xander. No one’s old enough for that kind of responsibility,” she said as she looked up, tears welling in her eyes. “You really have no idea what you’re talking about. None.”
Taken aback by her intensity, he held up his hands in surrender. “I know what you went through, but…”
“The hell you do!” Willow dashed the tears from her eyes and straightened up. “You have no idea what I go through every… single… night. None.”
“He begged,” she said, talking over him. “Warren begged me to let him go. He apologized… so many times, he apologized. Toward the end, he even meant it. I’d scared sincerity into him, and he genuinely regretted what he’d done to Tara and even Buffy.”
Willow walked up to Xander and pointed a rigid finger at him. “It didn’t matter to me, though. I was so caught up in making him pay for what he’d done that I didn’t give a damn. Remember that bullet I took out of Buffy?”
In the hall, Giles stifled a gasp.
Xander swallowed hard. “Yeah. I remember it.”
“You know what I did with it?” Her eyes weren’t black, but she vibrated with tension.
“I used magic to hold it in front of Warren. Told him what a bullet felt like going in,” she said, moving her finger closer to Xander’s chest. “Then I pushed it into him as slowly as I could. It was way worse than if I’d shot him with a gun.”
“You never ask me about it, Xander. I killed two men that day, and you never talk about it. You pretend like it didn’t happen, but it did,” she said, pressing her finger hard against his breast bone. “I hear their screams at night, but mostly, I hear Warren begging for his life, begging for the pain to stop.”
Shaken, Xander gently grasped her hand to stop her from poking him. “You’re right. I had no idea.”
“Do you really want to put Dawn through that?”
“No. Of course not.” He took a deep breath. “I won’t let her be the one to kill him. I’ll take care of it.”
Willow slapped him with her left hand. It wasn’t a hard slap, but it made him back up a step. “No! I don’t want you to suffer what I go through!”
“I won’t! Don’t you see? It’s different this time. Everyone agrees that he has to die… and he does. Dawn obviously shouldn’t do it, and Buffy can’t do it. She sees him as human and not hers to kill. And Giles…”
Before Xander could finish his comment, Giles pushed through the door, slapping it loudly as it opened.
“Oh, hey, Giles,” Xander said with a weak, sickly smile.
Giles didn’t look at Willow or Xander, keeping his gaze focused straight ahead. He took the teapot from the stove and moved to the sink to fill it. Looking down, he said, “Dawn is awake but very tired. Perhaps you should go on up and see her before she gets some much needed rest.”
Willow and Xander shot guilty looks at each other, shuffling slightly before Willow finally said, “Sure. Sounds like a good idea.”
“If you don’t mind, Percy, I’ll be off to check in on the coven and leave you all to your strategizing,” Agnes said softly.
“Of course. Thank you.” Percy gave her arm an appreciative squeeze. “It means a lot to the Council that you came. And it means a great deal to me as well.”
“Think nothing of it. The relationship between the Council and the coven has been at odds for much too long. It’s nice to see such a refreshing new outlook on things.”
“That it is.” Giles strolled up and smiled gratefully. “Thank you for your help tonight. Things being as they are, it’s comforting to have some backup, if you will.”
“I’ll return shortly, as soon as I’ve made certain the coven isn’t in need of any assistance.” Agnes headed out the front door, pausing for a second to glance back. “And Rupert, don’t let Pisspot bully you so much. He has too much of a swelled ego as it is.”
Giles chuckled as he caught Percy rolling his eyes at the comment.
“I will try to keep his ego at bay. Thanks.”
"Rupert, we need to talk."
Giles looked up from the papers spread across his desk. "Certainly. I just have a few more calls..."
"It rather needs to be now." Percy descended the two steps into the basement and crossed to sit on the edge of the desk. "All in all, it's a very stupid idea, you know."
Giles frowned. "Obviously my hearing is failing and I missed the first part of this conversation. I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about."
"This absurd scheme you're formulating to kill Ethan yourself." Percy adjusted an already flawless pleat in his dark grey trousers.
Giles' face became a shuttered mask. "I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about."
"I know how your mind works, Rupert," Percy said, grimly. "You, along with that monumental sense of guilt of yours, have decided that you're personally responsible for each and every one of Ethan's many sins and that the only possible path to atonement is for you to eliminate him."
"I am responsible," Giles said coldly, abandoning all pretense of not understanding. "When Ethan showed up in Sunnydale better than anyone I knew what he was and the things he was capable of doing. If I had acted then we wouldn't be facing the problem now."
"Don't misunderstand me," Percy said crisply. "I fully support the notion of crushing Ethan like the loathsome insect he is. However, there is an aspect of the situation you haven't taken into consideration."
Percy folded his arms across his chest. "Buffy."
Giles surged to his feet, his face tight with anger. "How dare you sit there and say I'm not thinking about Buffy? I've damned well thought about little else since this mess began."
"What you've been thinking about was how you could protect her from what you see as your past mistakes," Percy corrected. "What you failed to take into consideration is that along with being the woman you love and who loves you in turn, is that you're Buffy's Watcher and she's your Slayer. How to deal with Ethan is something that must be agreed on by both of you."
"I'll think about it," Giles finally said. "But I'm making no promises."
“Hey.” Buffy stood at the top of the steps in the attic.
Dawn glanced up. “Hey,” she said, turning away again.
After a moment, Buffy again said, “Hey.”
“I think we covered that already,” said Dawn, who refused to look up again.
“Not really.” Buffy went to the bed and shifted Dawn’s legs so she could have a seat. “I don’t think the first ‘hey’ really conveyed my meaning.”
At that, Dawn faced her. “I don’t know about that. I got guilt, anxiety and anger from the first one. What else is there?”
Buffy paused, thinking for a moment, then said, “You left out love, pride and the whole ‘I’ll kill anyone who tries to harm you’ deal.”
Dawn looked down at her hands as she played with the bedspread. “You only kill monsters, remember? Human law deals with humans.”
“Ethan is different…”
“Like Willow was different?” Dawn still didn’t look up.
Buffy sighed. “Yes… No. Willow was redeemable. Ethan isn’t.”
“So you’re just gonna kill him?”
Buffy opened her mouth to respond quickly, but then she took another look at Dawn. She took a deep breath asked sincerely, “What do you think I should do?”
Dawn muttered, “You sound like a counselor.”
“Big surprise,” she said wryly. “It doesn’t change the fact that I’d still like to know what you think should happen to him.”
Still not meeting her sister’s gaze, Dawn said quietly, “He’s not redeemable, so I guess…" She stopped.
Buffy waited and finally prompted, "Yes?"
"…so I guess he should, you know, be dead, right? That's what we do when we can't save someone and he's evil, right? We don't have a choice, do we?" Dawn spoke in a desperate rush. "There's no choice."
“You tell me.” Buffy reached out and took one of Dawn’s hands.
“Doesn’t matter what I think.”
“I think everyone else is talking about who should kill him and why so we should too.” Dawn blanched at Buffy’s blunt statement, but she said nothing, so Buffy continued. “You’re as much a part of this as any of us… more so, really… I need to know what you think should happen to Ethan.”
Dawn swallowed hard, and tears welled up in her eyes. Still, she said nothing.
Buffy sighed. “You miss Randall, don’t you?”
“Randall was a lie.” The words came out fast and bitter, and Dawn pinched her lips together as soon as she said them.
“He was your friend,” Buffy said gently. “He made you happy.”
Her voice slightly raised, Dawn said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Dawn caught her breath at the name, and she looked up at Buffy. “It’s not the same.”
“The only difference is that starting out, Angel didn’t know he was a lie. He honestly thought he was safe from returning to the way he was.” Buffy shook her head at the memories. “The rest, though, is pretty much second verse, same as the first. And as far as I can tell, that includes feeling an incredible amount of guilt.”
“I…” Dawn took a deep breath. “I know you said this is all Ethan’s fault, but if I’d said something to Willow or Xander…”
“He would have found another way to hurt us.” Buffy scooted up the bed a little. “You aren’t responsible for his choices.”
“You say that, but Lessa…”
“I know how much it hurts. To this day, I can still name all the people Angelus killed in Sunnydale.”
A tear fell to Dawn’s cheek, and she swiped it away impatiently. “He’s gonna die, isn’t he?”
Buffy sighed. “I don’t see any other way out of this for him.” She studied Dawn for a moment and then asked carefully, “If you could be the one to kill him, would you want to be?”
“I… Maybe. I’m not sure.” Dawn’s face was a study in misery. “There’s a part of me that wants him to be okay. To get better… rehabilitated, you know?” At Buffy’s nod, she added, “And then there’s another part of me that really just wants to shove a red hot poker right up his…”
“Okay!” Buffy’s voice was brittle and bright. “No need to add to that picture at all!”
The two looked at each other for several seconds before bursting into laughter. Buffy leaned over and hugged Dawn fiercely and the young girl's laughter turned to soft sobs.
The sisters rocked together on the bed until Dawn quieted. Finally she wiped at her eyes and sniffed. She pulled back to look Buffy directly. “I know he’s dangerous, and I know something needs to be done about him. I’m just having trouble with the whole idea of him dying.”
“Him dying, or one of us killing him?”
"I think it's more than that." Dawn paused and looked at Buffy sadly. “I think it’s more about one of us being the executioner.”
Katako stayed in the shadows, avoiding the streetlights and neighborhood houses. She kept low, creeping from shrub to tree to parked vehicle, watching as the luminous stone guided her through the field of invisible combatants. When she came around the corner, the block before the house, she noticed no change in the intensity of the glowing charm. She could hear the faint sounds of heavy-soled boots on pavement, on grass, on the sidewalk; soldiers were everywhere.
She saw a SUV parked nearby and carefully climbed up top of it then leapt to the rooftop of the adjacent house. Pausing again to listen for signs of detection, she made her way from rooftop to tree to rooftop, closing the gap until at last, she was sitting perched on the rooftop just outside the attic window of the collaborators' home.
“Enjoy your rest now, luv,” Ethan spoke out into the night sky. “Save your strength, Dawn. You’re going to need it.”