Ethan watched with amusement as the young girl strained to see through the darkened windows, moving from front to back, and even holding her hands up to block out the light. He waited patiently, and she finally grew frustrated enough to give up and move on with her friends. Ethan watched her leave, unconcerned that his power source was moving away from him and making her way toward the edge of the parking lot.
Not normally one for delayed gratification, he had nonetheless come to appreciate that sometimes waiting was necessary. Spending the last three years of his life as a prisoner of the Initiative had taught him to deal with long bouts of inactivity, and despite his vigorous attempts to fight it his entire life, Ethan Rayne had learned patience. He smiled softly to himself. He had his old pal, Ripper, to thank for that. Taking Ripper's advice, the Initiative had found a way to prevent Ethan from using his magic to escape. Someday the sorcerer hoped to repay the favor of those painful years, tenfold.
Within minutes, a small sedan, painted a dubious shade of purple, pulled up to the curb. Ethan watched the mystery girl wave to the others and then climb inside the vehicle. Since Ethan's car had already drawn enough attention, he didn't follow just yet, deciding instead to focus on her friends.
When Ethan turned back from the sedan, he saw the other girls were already leaving the school grounds. He got out of the car and delayed his pursuit long enough to neaten his clothes. As always, he was dressed stylishly. Of course, his maroon silk shirt and black pleated pants were in much smaller sizes than he'd once needed. The Initiative Prison was not conducive to physical fitness, and he had yet to regain the weight he'd lost during his stay. Stroking his beard, he set off down the sidewalk after the girls.
With his much longer stride, it didn't take Ethan long to catch up to the girls. He listened to their idle gossip, as he followed, silently waiting for a chance to interrupt.
"Think she's really okay?" the red head asked her friend.
The girl with short blonde hair shrugged as she dug through her purse. "She says she is. So what are we supposed to do?" She triumphantly pulled a pack of cigarettes from her voluminous bag before bouncing to a new topic. "Did you see Mr. D's tie today? He was breaking all laws of taste with that one."
The red head laughed as the blonde pulled out a cigarette and lifted it up to her mouth.
"Pardon me, ladies."
The two girls glanced over their shoulders at Ethan, before turning back and resuming their conversation. They didn't even bother to stop.
"And what's with that lame comb-over?" The redhead giggled. "Just admit defeat already."
Her friend snorted with laughter, the cigarette now dangling from her lips as she searched through her bag again.
"May I have a moment of your time?" Ethan tried again, oozing as much charm as he could muster.
The girls stopped this time, glancing at each other briefly and then turning to him impatiently.
"Look Mister! We weren't smoking on school property." The cigarette bobbed in the blonde's mouth, as she spoke. She gestured vaguely at their surroundings before searching her purse again. "And last time I checked, this was a school-free zone." Giving up on her purse, she began patting her pockets.
With a self-assured smirk, Ethan pulled a lighter from his pocket and flicked it open.
The girl looked up at the familiar sound of lightly scraping metal, and her eyes widened the minute they fell on the platinum case.
"Allow me," he said. After another quick flick of his thumb, he held the lighter's flame toward her mouth. His lips curled smugly when she leaned forward to accept his offer.
"You a narc?" she asked as she blew out a long stream of smoke.
"Narc?" Ethan cocked a brow, as he slid the lighter back into his pocket. "I take it that is something one would rather not be?"
"You aren't from around here, are you?" the redhead said with a smirk.
"How nice of you to notice." Ethan smiled graciously at both girls. "Actually, I'm trying to surprise my niece. I thought I saw her with the two of you a moment ago. But I must have just missed her. I'm afraid it's been sometime since I last saw her. I've been," he paused, "otherwise unavailable."
"You mean Dawn?" the redhead asked. "That would make sense with the accent and all."
Ethan didn't quite follow her logic, but smiled pleasantly anyway. "Um yes, that's correct. I don't suppose either of you ladies could help me catch up with her."
"Sure, she lives –,” the smoking girl began, but was interrupted by an elbow from the redhead. They exchanged a meaningful glance. Ethan could tell that the redhead didn't trust him. Rightfully so.
"We have lab with the Dorkmeister... I mean, Mr. Dumire everyday," the redhead offered. "We usually discuss the sad state of his attire after school. Check back tomorrow, and she might be here."
"Thank you." Ethan gave a slight bow. "I can't wait to see her after all these years." He paused and then leaned forward and whispered, "Oh, and please don't mention anything to her just yet. She doesn't know I'm in town, and I'd like to surprise her."
"My lips are sealed." The redhead couldn't quite keep the sarcasm from her voice as she answered. Ethan could tell she wasn't to be trusted. Then again, neither was he.
"I'm sure they are. Good day, ladies." He gave another bow and turned away, mumbling softly under his breath. Once he reached the end of the stanza, he snapped his fingers, and the girls suddenly carried on with their earlier conversation as if they'd never been interrupted.
"Mr. D was breaking all laws of taste with that tie today."
"And what's with that lame comb-over..."
"Buffy, your ride is here," Lyle called out as he came in the door with a large garden hose draped over his shoulder.
"Thanks, Mr. P." Buffy grinned and then froze, suddenly worried that she had pushed her luck a bit too far this time. She looked over at Daisy, who sent her a reassuring smile. The woman seemed to revel in Buffy's predilection for catching Lyle off-guard with her overuse of the familiar. When Buffy glanced back at Lyle, she gave a small sigh of relief. There was a slight smile curving up his lips.
Both women knew that Lyle was beginning to warm up to Buffy, even if he refused to admit it. Buffy took it as a challenge and continually tried to get Lyle to relax. After all, she'd managed to conquer Giles and his stuffiness, and he was definitely a part of the laid-back Buffy band now.
Buffy grabbed her raincoat and gave a little wave as she left. "See you tomorrow."
"Take care," Daisy called after her. "And thank you."
Buffy smiled, but felt a little strange at being thanked by her boss. After all, she was a paid employee. She got money for doing what she was supposed to do. But every day, without fail, Daisy thanked Buffy before she went home. She'd really found something special at the curious little nursery. Buffy tried to picture her boss at the Doublemeat Palace thanking her for her work. The idea was too ludicrous to imagine.
Buffy put on her jacket since the light rain that had been coming and going all day had returned once again as a full fledged drizzle. Standing under the store's awning, Buffy peered around until she saw the SUV idling by the curb and hurried over to it. One glance through the window revealed Jo, not Giles, at the wheel. Buffy yanked open the door and scrambled into the passenger seat. "Where's Giles? Is he okay? That giant didn't come back or anything, did it?"
"Rupert's fine," Jo reassured her. "He's busy with Elspeth, and since I had to run some errands in town, I offered to stop by and pick you up."
The adrenaline rushing through her system slowly abated, and she reached out and shut the door. "But he's all right?"
"He's fine." Jo put the car into drive and carefully merged into traffic. "Besides, I thought we could take the chance to talk and get to know each other a little better. We really didn't get to spend much time together when you were staying at the Coven. But now that you're settling in well, and with things progressing between Rupert and myself, I thought it might be a good time to talk."
Buffy squirmed in her seat. She hadn't exactly been subtle about not being a flag-waving member of the Jo fan club, and Buffy hoped Jo wasn't about to ask her why she was so hostile at times. Buffy couldn't explain it to herself, let alone anyone else.
"Um yea. I guess I just needed a little alone time when we first got here," she murmured before the silence drew out too long.
"I'd like for us to be friends." Jo glanced at Buffy. "I know how much you mean to Rupert."
Buffy gave a silent inward groan. That sounded suspiciously like it had come directly from a How to Speak to Your Boyfriend's Children self-help book.
"Giles is very important to me, too." Buffy chose her words carefully, not quite sure how to further explain her feelings or their relationship. They were Watcher and Slayer and Jo's self-help book on dating fathers and talking to their daughters didn't apply. Their relationship was complicated and not something Buffy cared to discuss with outsiders. And no matter what Jo seemed to think, she was still an outsider.
Jo didn't respond and the silence began to hang awkwardly in the air.
Buffy finally said something, hoping to change to subject. "So what's Giles working on at the Coven?"
"One of my apple pies," Jo said with an indulgent smile. "His nose quickly honed in on it while it was baking. When I left, he was loitering around waiting for it to cool off. He and Elspeth are probably sitting at the table with some blackberry wine right now, making sure my baking skills are up to par."
Buffy forced a chuckle. "He's always been a slave to his sweet tooth." Bittersweet memories of all-night research parties and jelly-filled doughnuts flickered through her mind. "Between him and Xander, I think they need a twelve-step program for sugar."
Jo chuckled and then fell silent for a moment. "You're all just such wonderful friends," she said somewhat wistfully. "And you've been through so much together."
Buffy glanced over at the older woman. Jo couldn't possibly understand what they'd all been through.
"It must be so hard for him," Jo continued.
"Hard for who?" Buffy asked.
"Rupert." Jo wove through traffic. "You're all grown up now," she explained. "And he's done such a wonderful job. Particularly with your mother gone."
Buffy flinched and struggled to remain polite. "I don't really want to talk about my mother."
"I know how difficult losing her must have been," Jo went on with dogged determination. "At least after you lost your mother, you still had Rupert."
Buffy clenched her hands into fists. What part of 'I don't want to talk about my mother' was so damned hard to understand? The woman sounded like she was following a well-rehearsed script and wasn't about to stop until she'd said all of her lines.
Taking a deep breath, Buffy forced herself to relax. "Giles is a wonderful friend."
"Yes, of course. After all, you're the Slayer and he was your Watcher. It was his job to guide and teach you. I can understand why you're so protective of him."
"I watch his back, he watches mine," she said, deliberately using the present tense.
"Of course," Jo agreed quickly. "Rupert wouldn't want it any other way. He's such a responsible man, and he takes his duties very seriously. But I think he's been neglecting himself, don't you agree?"
"Giles can take care of himself." Buffy turned to look out at the window, hoping Jo would take the hint that the conversation was over.
"Of course he can. But the question is, will he?" Jo took her eyes off the road and glanced at Buffy. She spoke more urgently, trying to get Buffy's attention back. "He works so hard for the Council, and now he's preparing to take on this new job at the University. That plus taking care of all of you doesn't leave him much time to think of himself."
Buffy had a hard time coming up with a response. She couldn't think of the last time Giles just took some Giles-time. Still, she wasn't about to tell Jo that. "We take care of each other," she said finally. "We're family." She reluctantly turned back to Jo.
"Exactly,” Jo said, nodding quickly as if this was the point she'd been trying to reach all along. “He's a part of your family, just as the coven is a part of mine." She smiled warmly. "And like all families, we want one basic thing for the people we love. We want them to be happy."
Buffy gritted her teeth. Jumping out of the car was beginning to sound like a good idea.
"I like Rupert very much," Jo continued. "He's intelligent, charming and not at all bad-looking either." Her mouth crooked into a knowing smile and she chuckled. “I can't remember when I last felt such tingles. Rupert is a wonderful man and he deserves some happiness, especially with all that he's gone through being a Watcher."
"Yes, he does." Buffy said, keeping her voice neutral. She gave a silent sigh of relief as the SUV finally turned into their driveway. At least, this tortuous conversation would soon be over.
Jo put the car into park and turned to face her. "Well, I'd like to be the one to give Rupert that happiness."
Buffy closed her eyes to prevent them from rolling at Jo's statement. This woman obviously didn't understand Giles at all. She talked about being a Watcher as if it was a job that Giles had chosen. Nothing was farther than the truth. A job was something you could quit if you didn't like it. It was a part of your life. Being a Watcher was Giles' destiny, just as being a Slayer was hers. They'd both tried to escape their destinies at some point or another in their lives, and neither had succeeded. Taking a weekend off to 'think of yourself for a while' just didn't work when you had a calling.
What was Jo going to do when her dates started getting interrupted by evil coming 'round to visit? Buffy could just hear Jo's voice in her head. "Oh, don't mind the murdering ghost zombies, Rupert. Finish your dessert first. You really should think of yourself for once."
Of course, Giles was a grown man who could make his own decisions. If Jo made him happy, Buffy would force herself to find a way to deal with it. No matter how wrong she thought it was. Buffy didn't trust herself to speak, so she just forced her lips into a thin smile.
"I hope that you'll find it in your heart to accept me as part of your family, Buffy," Jo said. "I know that it might be difficult, but I've grown to care about all of you. You, Willow , Xander, Dawn... you're all very special people." She gave Buffy a small smile.
"Being a part of our family is dangerous," Buffy felt compelled to point out.
"I'm sure the danger would diminish given time."
Buffy shrugged, as if dismissing the hope of a quiet retirement. "It's not a 9-to-5 kinda gig. Lots of danger, no vacations, no medical plan, no pension. All in all, it's pretty thankless. And trouble just seems to follow us... follow me."
"Then you're quite lucky to have a man like Rupert there for you."
"He's one in a zillion," Buffy said. In that she and Jo were in total agreement. Having Giles by her side, whether in battle or researching, had made the difference between survival and death more times than she could ever count. And she realized that she had learned to enjoy just having him as part of her life, her non-Slayer life, too.
Jo relaxed back into her seat with a pleased expression, as if the conversation had gone exactly as scripted.
"I only hope you can find your happiness here, like I've found mine with Rupert." Jo reached over and patted Buffy's hand. "Whispering Pines is such a wonderful place, a magical place. I know you'll find your place here. Just as I know Rupert will find his."
Buffy nodded and gathered her coat around her. "I hope so too," she said as she opened the door and slid out of the vehicle. "Thanks for the ride."
Jo nodded and smiled brightly. "Any time."
Buffy shut the door carefully, doing her best to hold back her Slayer strength. She watched as Jo backed out into the quiet street, gave a cheerful wave, and drove off.
"Would you please pass the asparagus?" Dawn asked. "The yellow stuff on it's really good."
"Thanks. It was easier to make than I thought. You know, given the weird name and all." Buffy handed her the serving bowl.
Dawn put it down with a thump. "Wait! You made this? Why didn't someone warn me? I could have been poisoned or something."
"Giles supervised," Buffy told her sibling. "And stop with the gagging."
"There is nothing weird about the name at all. It comes from the town in Bearn , France , where the sauce's creator, Chef Jules Colette, was born.” At a collective rolling of eyes, Giles stopped speaking and reached across to snag the dish for another serving before the younger Summers changed her mind. "And it is delicious, Buffy.”
“I'm surprised you have room for it after the apple pie you snacked on this afternoon.” Buffy was pleased that her tone contained only minimal sarcasm.
"I missed apple pie? Hey! Giles, if you had pie, you don't get any more goo.” Xander made a grab for the bowl. ”Wonder how this would taste on pizza?"
Giles grinned across the table at Dawn. "Would you be willing to make a retching sound on my behalf?"
She grinned. "If you give me the last of the yellow goo."
"What about me?" Willow demanded. "Don't I get a chance? I can make disgusting noises, too."
Buffy looked around the table at the grinning faces and shook her head. "There is something seriously wrong when I'm the one acting most grown-up."
Giles flashed her an ironic grin. The expression made him look boyish, almost like Xander, but in a much more sophisticated way. She smiled at him, mesmerized by the look. Had she seen him this youthful before? This happy? It had been a while, if she had. When she realized Giles was now staring at her with a patent Giles look of complete confusion, one she used to elicit on a daily basis back in Sunnydale, she looked down at her plate. When she looked back up, he was still watching her.
“So Giles, how's it feel to once again be a member of the working class?” Xander asked.
Giles held Buffy's gaze for another moment, hoping more time might divulge exactly what was going on in that brain of hers, before finally turning his attention to Xander. “So sayeth the man who has been on his job for how many weeks now?”
“Hey, no fair picking on the handicapped!” Xander threw up his hands in protest.
“I'm kidding, Xander. To answer your question, I am glad to be employed. I was feeling like quite the slacker and to be honest, I was a bit jealous when you were hired on at Woodcraft.”
“Really?” Xander beamed from his position at the end of the table.
“Yes. Really. And from what Elspeth tells me, they have incredibly high standards in their production and only hire the best.” Giles continued to cut up his asparagus before it disappeared off his plate and miraculously ended up on a certain younger Summers' plate. He didn't need to look at Xander to know how much the comment had affected him. Giles had tried to make a point of ensuring that Xander knew just how competent and impressive Giles thought he was. It was easy for a man to feel overshadowed by a houseful of super-powered women – a Slayer, a Key, and a Wicca. The men really did need to stick together.
“Hey, we all knew Xander was Super Carpenter Guy. I just hope he finishes the shelves in my closet this weekend without sending me a huge bill. Now, tell us about your job, Giles,” Buffy said, a little more eagerly than she had intended.
“Well, as I said before, it's a teaching position at the University.” He laughed slightly, “I admit that I feel like I've come full circle, back to where I started at in America . Although I won't be loitering about the library…,” he hesitated and blushed when Buffy raised a ‘yeah-right' eyebrow. “Well not as much as before. I'll be in the History Department, with a class in Archeology and two in Ancient History. They had an unexpected vacancy for the Spring term.”
“Unexpected if you weren't on our trip to Eugene , you mean,” Dawn said.
“Dawn,” Giles said, warning in his voice.
“What?” Xander asked. “Do tell.”
“I'd rather not get into the details of how the job became available. It's rather messy,” Giles said.
”Ooooh, did the old teacher get eaten or turn into a spider or something?” Xander asked.
“Um, no. Messy in a non-hell mouth type of way,” Giles said.
Xander stared at him, confused.
“He means ‘boring' and the explanation would require inappropriate gossip,” Willow explained.
“Thank you,” Giles said, taking a bite to eat.
“Cool. So you'll be ‘Professor Giles' from now on?” Buffy asked.
“I suppose, but not until January. And it's only a part-time associate position.”
“Don't talk it down, Giles. That's awesome,” she said.
“Really?” he asked, and then caught himself beginning to sound like Xander. He turned away from her with a blush.
“So Dawn, how's school?” Giles asked.
“Hey, no changing the subject at my dinner,” Buffy said.
He turned back to her with that confused look again.
“I cooked dinner. I get to set the subject matter to ensure that it complements my meal.”
“Oh dear lord,” Dawn muttered, dragging the side edge of her fork across the plate in hopes of collecting another taste of goo, while the others broke out into laughter. Buffy sent Giles a half-hearted accusatory look.
“I have no idea where she might have picked up such –,” he couldn't seem to find a word to finish off his self-defense.
“Vulgarity?” Xander offered.
The group burst into giggles again, save Giles who was able to hold off for a few more moments, before succumbing. Before the noisy laughter and teasing of Dawn had completely subsided, Buffy used the opportunity to lean over and ask Giles a quiet question.
“So are you happy you stayed, Giles?”
The concern in her face stopped his laughter on the spot. Thankfully, no one else seemed to notice. Whatever brought on the serious topic change – whether the laughter just didn't complement the asparagus or the wine, he felt compelled to reassure her apparent doubts. “Of course, Buffy,” he said with a smile. When she didn't perk up right away as he'd hoped, he reached over and put his hand on hers, giving it a squeeze. “Very happy.”
Buffy studied him for a moment longer, glanced down at his hand resting on hers and then looked back up at him with a smile, apparently satisfied with his answer.
“Me too,” she beamed.
“Hey, what's with all the seriousness down at that end of the table?” Xander's voice broke the moment.
“Now Xander, everything can't be all fun and games,” Buffy said smiling before turning to Dawn with a ‘don't mess with me' look on her face. “And speaking of seriousness, Dawn, about what happened today…”
“What?” She popped up in her chair. “I'm innocent. What ever it is, I was uh... not there.”
Giles shook his head and chuckled.
"Oh really? Are you telling me you skipped school today?”
“What? No way. I was there. All 8 boring hours of it.”
Buffy shook her head and Dawn knew she was busted. “Then why don't you tell me what happened at school today? The nurse called and said you almost passed out in class."
Giles' chuckling stopped and he and the others stared at Dawn with concern.
"I told Miss Whedon not to call!" Dawn's voice rose half an octave. "It was no big deal. I just forgot to eat lunch."
Buffy frowned. "Dawn—."
"I'm okay, really. God, you dragged me to two doctors who said there was nothing wrong with me. Pick on somebody else." She shoved a forkful of food into her mouth and began to chew forcefully, trying to end the conversation.
Buffy thought about pursuing it, but a glance at Giles told her he thought it'd be best left for later. Probably right. Once Dawn got that teenaged scowl of pigheaded stubbornness on her face there was no point in trying to talk to her.
“Fine. Just don't forget to eat again,” Buffy said.
“Maybe it would help if you smothered her lunches in yellow goo,” Xander suggested, and the conversation slowly returned to lighter topics.
The following afternoon, Ethan was once again waiting patiently in his car. He enjoyed the Oregon weather: not only did it provide a welcomed change from the endless heat and glare of Nevada , but you never knew what it would be like from one moment to the next. It fit just marvelously with his chaotic nature. Instead of the dull uncertain drizzle of yesterday, he was currently enjoying a spot of weak sunshine. This had the added benefit of allowing him to keep his distance from the school parking lot so that his car would go unnoticed. He had briefly considered obtaining a different car, something less flashy, but the idea had been swiftly dismissed. He'd been without the finer things in life far too long and wasn't about to give them up now. Ethan glanced at his watch and as if on cue, the bell rang and students began pouring out of the brick building. Ethan leaned forward, eagerly watching the children scurry towards freedom and scanning the crowd for any sign of his prey. She finally emerged from the building, along with the same entourage as the day before.
Ethan glanced down at his passenger seat and double-checked his supplies. A bottle of chloroform, a rope, a handkerchief and a gun all lay nestled on the leather passenger seat. He usually despised guns, they were so crass and pedestrian, but recently he'd found them necessary for protection. Several of his previous customers were less than understanding of his forced absence or suspicious of his “ties to the government project,” and while he preferred relying on his mystical abilities to capture his prize, there was no point in taking chances. He still wasn't sure of the power this 'Dawn' truly had or whether she understood her importance. Judging by the effect she'd had on him yesterday, she could well prove more deadly than the gun beside him.
As yesterday, Dawn chatted with her friends. After about five minutes or so, a large SUV pulled up to the curb. Ethan made a mental note of the new car's license plate for future reference. He watched as Dawn said good-bye to her friends and climbed into the vehicle.
He waited until the SUV was a fair distance away and then pulled onto the street after it, careful to keep his distance. It wouldn't do to be noticed, not when he was so close to his goal. They left the main part of the town and drove through the quiet residential streets for a while. As they passed row after row of neat houses, with their carefully manicured lawns, Ethan found himself longing for the action and excitement of a city. He'd been in this banal town for entirely too long. Such nice, quiet, pleasant communities always made his skin crawl. Still, the mystical energy that swirled through this town had been more than enough to keep him here for the last few months.
When the SUV turned a corner and pulled into the driveway of a large white house, Ethan drove on, parking a bit further down the block on the other side of the street. He grabbed his supplies and shoved them into his pocket before getting out of the car. He strolled casually towards the home of the young unknowing guest of honor for his evening plans. His handsome face twisted with a cruel smile as he reviewed his plans. Stopping at a corner, he hid behind some tall shrubs, watching as Dawn got out of the car and skipped down to retrieve the mail. She seemed so normal, so average, yet despite the distance between them, he could all but taste her power. Ethan closed his eyes in delight, reveling in the magic energy that buzzed lightly through him.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a tall man climb out of the driver's side, stroll around and open the back before leaning in to grab a bag of groceries. Ethan rolled his eyes, prepared to witness a sickly display of domestic life. At any moment, the 'little woman' would be traipsing out to greet the new arrival. However, as the man came around to Ethan's side of the vehicle, grocery bags in hand, his face finally came into view. The sorcerer froze in disbelief.
"Well, well, well. 'Ello Ripper," Ethan chuckled, an eager smile curving his lips. "Long time, no see."