Tea was soothing. He didn't require soothing anymore.
The flat in Bath had seemed like a false start, so he moved to London. Not to Oxford. He didn't want to spend the rest of his days being politely looked away from, hearing the whispers behind his back telling him what he already knew. That the unconventional Slayer had finally spawned the most unconventional Watcher of all--the one who had simply retired, leaving his charge in the field without him. Far fewer people knew him in London, knew enough to understand what his presence there meant.Sometimes, in his darkest heart of hearts, he wished Buffy had stayed dead.
"You thought you were free," Ethan said from where he sat on the windowsill. "For the first time in your life, you really thought you were free."
"Perhaps," he said, stirring the tea.
"And then she came back, and they all needed you so much that you couldn't stand it. You ran. History repeats itself. Poor girl. I could have told her that's how it would go."
"Piss off, Ethan."
"Well," Ethan said, starting to sparkle into evanescence. "What do I know? I'm only a troubled spirit bound here by inexplicable forces--"
"I said piss off."
"All right, all right."
After he was gone, Giles looked down at the cup. Cold again.
He had been more prepared for the news of Ethan's death than he cared to admit. He knew what secret government detention facilities did to their prisoners; rehabilitation was low on the list of priorities. He probably ought to be worried about the haunting, but that seemed only inevitable, and fitting, too. Ethan was not the only one who had the right.
The Council did not quite dare to officially disown him, but contact was minimal. He had heard when they'd been debating sending Buffy another Watcher; a phone call to Travers had put a stop to that idea. "If you don't care for a repeat of that humiliating incident last year, I'd give it a miss, Quentin," he'd said. "This time, she might not strike wide."
"But who will do her research, Rupert? Clearly it won't be you."
"Willow Rosenberg has served an apprenticeship on the Hellmouth more demanding than any Watcher's," he'd said. "I doubt you will win any points with Buffy by impugning the competence of her friend."
When he'd hung up, Ethan was going through his coat, trying, futilely, to extract a pack of cigarettes. "Little Red's lost her head completely, you know," he tossed over his shoulder. "But you do know, don't you? She threatened you."
"Yes, she did." A girl he didn't even recognize anymore, sitting across the kitchen table from him with dark, dark eyes.
"Now she's convinced herself that magic is addictive. Little did I know practicing my calling was on par with some boyband member smoking pot before making out with a blonde groupie named Sunshine. Any excuse not to face up to the reality of what she's done. I'll give you this much credit, Ripper, you were never daft enough to try that line on me."
"Why are you here, Ethan?" Giles asked.
"That's for me to know and you to find out." Giles gave him a look. "All right, that's for me to wonder and you to please figure out before I go mad from nicotine withdrawal."
"And if I'm not interested?"
"I never threatened you, old man."
His smile glittered til he was gone.
Giles got up and went to his bookshelves. He stood in front of the section on ghosts and reached out for a volume. Then he frowned and turned away. Letting Ethan badger him had never come to any good.
It would have been easier to put it all out of his mind if his days were full, but they weren't. He'd had plans--a book, practicing his music, perhaps some freelance work investigating the occult--but somehow he couldn't bring himself to start anything. Instead, he watched the telly or read bad historical fiction or dozed on the couch, always telling himself he'd begin the next day. The next day passed, and then the next, but he remained motionless.
The third time apprentice Watchers turned up on his doorstep, wanting stories, secrets, training, he threatened to curse them til their blood boiled in their veins. The idea of subverting the Council from within had more than a little charm, but--no. He would have no more students, subject himself to no more hopeful, demanding eyes.
Anya was the only one who wrote. She sent him long letters in a laborious, childlike hand. "The store is making lots of money. I had some new inventory-control spells put in because Dawn kept stealing things. How can you stay in England? It's so full of English people. Now Willow will have to be Xander's best man at the wedding. I guess it's all right. Because she's gay, you know. But it would still be better if you were here."
He thought about going back for the wedding, but in the end salved his conscience by paying for a great many flowers for the church. It wasn't as if he'd never disapproved of a marriage before.
"You know, sometimes I think I should have recruited young Harris," came a voice from the end of his bed. Giles jerked upright to find Ethan sitting there in a dishevelled tuxedo. "He has such a gift for causing chaos."
"What are you playing at tonight, Ethan?" he inquired grumpily. "Ghost of agonalias past?"
"Since you weren't interested, I thought I'd pop in at the wedding."
"Ethan," Giles growled, clenching a fist, "you didn't sow any discord."
"Of course not," Ethan said airily. "I didn't need to. The participants did a bang-up job of that all on their own. Lovely ceremonies, weddings. Supposed to be rites of ordering, but, in reality..." He grinned. "The world is a wedding, they say."
Giles dropped back down onto the bed. "So it was a trifle chaotic. But they muddled through, as they always do."
"And you call me optimistic."
He put a hand over his eyes. "It didn't go off?"
"Young Harris left that tragically reformed demon girl at the altar."
Giles rolled over and said nothing. He wasn't supposed to be relieved at the news. Poor silly Anya. She didn't deserve it. But she didn't deserve to be trapped in a marriage with a thoughtless young man who had no respect for her, either.
It wasn't his responsibility. He could only do harm by making it his responsibility.
"Ripper, darling, while I do so love the opportunity to admire your arse like this, I'd like it better if you got around to liberating me. I have the strong feeling that I'm supposed to be somewhere else. Enjoying a nice spot of agonalia, no doubt."
"I'm not on twenty-four-hour call anymore, Ethan. I've earned my rest."
"You know what I think? I think you're enjoying flaunting your arse at me when you know I can't touch it."
"Leaving. But I am now regretting every time I urged you to embrace the concept of the lie-in..."
He stuck his head under the pillow until Ethan's voice faded away. After he was gone, though, Giles reached for the phone. "Hello, Cogswell? Sorry to bother you so late..."
Cogswell had grown a mustache since Giles had seen him last; it made his plump, friendly face look like a not-particularly-competent pirate's. He put a plate of the Hobnobs Giles had brought into the institution down on the table between them, but Giles shook his head.
"You don't mind if I do, then...? I'm not supposed to buy these for myself, you know. Right." He crunched noisily for a minute, then shook his head. "I don't see why you've come to me, old chap. I don't need to do a minute's research. It's a textbook haunting."
"I'm not so sure."
"Look." Cogswell leaned forward, cheerfully earnest. "You tell me he died all alone in some godforsaken place. His bones are probably bleaching white on unconsecrated ground in the New Mexico sun. He blames you. It's absolutely the classic setup for prank calls from the great beyond, Giles."
"He worshipped Janus, not Jehovah," Giles said tartly. "If I'd had him buried in the bloody village churchyard, he would have risen from the grave and eaten my brains in vengeance."
"It's funny how that works, isn't it? Old I-Am-That-I-Am specializes in quieting unruly spirits, no matter their affiliation. Probably one of the major contributors to his early popularity. Those columbariums must have been seething with supernatural menace."
"So it's your opinion that to end this haunting, I'd have to..."
"Find his bones, do the decent thing by them, wish him Godspeed. Then go get pissed, if you can stand American beer."
Giles frowned. It didn't seem quite right. Ethan could've been bitter and vengeful, out to turn his waking hours into a torment, but...he wasn't. Perhaps, however, he was merely looking for an excuse. "I don't think I can stand America, full stop."
"Why not? Didn't you spend five and a half years there?"
He got up, unwilling to talk about it. "Yes. I suppose I did."
"Well, then. It ought to be simple enough. You can bring me back some Oreos."
"Perhaps," Giles said, and made his escape as quickly as possible.
After chasing yet another apprentice Watcher off his doorstep, Giles finally decided. He abused Council contacts to discover the facility where Ethan had been held, then boarded a plane. America spread out beneath him; he did his best not to look. Once in Tucson, he rented a car and drove out to the site. Miles and miles of sand and scrub, blank and soothing. His radio kept turning itself off and on in the middle of the most outlandish sermons, but there was no other sign of Ethan's presence. The wind blew tumbleweeds through the open gate as he drove up.
There was a single caretaker at the base, pushing a broom down the hallway of what had obviously once been a laboratory of the most hideous kind. It didn't take much to cow him; thinking of Ethan held down with the thick straps attached to some of the tables, it was easy to bring just the right crazed glint into his eye. "The burial grounds," Giles told him pleasantly, watching his eyes dart about. "The burial grounds, if you please."
The man looked panicky. He probably thought that if Giles found his friend's gravesite, he would be so angry he'd do something unpleasant. "I--I--"
"I'm not going to harm you. I know the person in question is dead. I just need to see to...certain things."
The man laughed nervously. "The burial grounds. Okay."
He led Giles through the chill grey building and out the back door. The base opened up onto the desert there, with nothing but a marker to indicate the boundary. Giles frowned. "What's this?"
"The...burial grounds," the man said. "They cremated the bodies and dumped the ashes here. It was the safest way."
Giles blinked once, slowly, and whispered, "Sleep." The man slumped to the ground next to him, and Giles turned to stare into the desert. Ethan's ashes, mingled with the dust of the earth, gone beyond anyone's power to recall. He thought of the other bodies he had buried: Randall, Jenny, Ben, Buffy. Was there to be no laying of their spirits, ever?
"Cheer up, old boy, it was a good theory." Ethan was squatting next to the caretaker, sifting handfuls of sand through his fingers. "Too bad about the execution, but I give you full marks for effort. Coming all this way."
"I never thought I'd set foot in this country again," Giles said quietly, "and all for nothing."
"Oh, now, don't be offensive, Ripper. For me. I may be dead, but I'm not quite nothing yet."
Giles looked down at the top of his head. The dark hair that had once been so soft against his palms. "Very well," he agreed, "not nothing. But I don't know what's to be done next, Ethan."
Ethan didn't respond; he was still staring at the sand spilling from his fingers, staring at the patterns it made on the ground before sinking in. "Hm," he said softly.
Something cold touched the base of Giles's skull. "Ethan?"
Ethan remained motionless for a minute, eyes unfocused. Then he threw back his head and laughed heartily. "Oh, dear."
"Ethan, what is it?"
"It's nice to see death proving just as amusing as life," Ethan said, and rose to his feet, dusting off his hands. His eyes were twinkling. "Did you feel it, Ripper?"
"I felt--something. What was it?"
"My purpose. You know, I really think it could've been announced in a more thrilling fashion. I deserve a last good show..."
Giles sighed. "Ethan, I'm standing in the middle of a bloody American desert, thousands of miles from a proper cup of tea. Perhaps you could share the joke?"
Ethan gave him that old grin that told him that the world was a joke to people such as them, if only he would stop being so stuffy and just admit it. "Did you know, old man, that chaos regards itself as somewhat in your debt?"
Giles snorted. "I must have missed the memo. Why would that be?"
"Last year. That odd little incompetent transvestite with the god on his back?"
Giles squinted up at the sun, wishing it could burn the memory from his brain. "I killed him, Ethan. As Glory wished to destroy the universe by reducing it to chaos, I hardly see how that would have endeared me to Janus."
Ethan shook his head. "That's because you've never quite gotten it, Ripper. Chaos isn't evil. It's merely--chaos. Janus has no interest in the destruction of the universe in itself. And a universe full of chaos, well--"
"It wouldn't be chaos at all, but a new form of order." Giles turned to stare at him.
Ethan looked startled himself, then arch. "Congratulations, Watcher. And it only took you twenty-five years!"
It changed so little. Ethan then had been whippet-thin, sweating, nervous, exultant. Ethan now was cool, intangible, hardly even angry any more. "Janus needs its opposing principle."
"That's right. Without the contrast, chaos would have no meaning. Hence, I might point out, the otherwise inexplicable phenomeon of one of its worshippers being true to his love for over twenty-five years." He cleared his throat. "So Janus is grateful to you. You acted when the Slayer wouldn't."
He didn't want to think about Buffy, what Buffy wouldn't do, what he had done and could do no longer. "Well. That's all very well, I suppose, but I don't see what it has to do with our being here."
Ethan stared out into the desert, northwest. His face looked oddly hollow. "Something's happened in Sunnydale."
"Yes, you've been taunting me about it all for weeks now."
"No. Something new, something terrible. They need your help. That's why you've been brought here. Without it--" He shook his head. "Things will be bollixed up indeed."
Need. The word twisted in his gut. "No. I can't. I can't act for them anymore."
"Yes, you can. You weren't made to run away, Ripper, not really. You're a Watcher. You were made to show the way."
"Retired?" Ethan laughed again, this time sadly. "This was a test, old man, to see if it was worth Janus's trouble. If you really were done with it all, do you think you would have been so open to my intrusions all this time? Would you have come all this way?"
Giles frowned. Unfinished business, all. There were times he resented the way magic worked its way through analogy, metaphor, sneaking its way past normal logic to illuminate the truths one had hoped to avoid. "Perhaps...not."
"Well, now you'll be well rid of them. And of me. I'll be getting my agonalias after all, no real thanks to you." Ethan clapped a hand to his shoulder, and the wry twist of his smile inscribed itself on Giles's heart. "You won't be able to defeat her with this, Ripper, and yet you will."
"A riddle, Ethan?"
"A goodbye present." Ethan kissed him, and he saw all the stars. Felt the love in Ethan's mind, the love as enduring. The pain, too, but it was fading, fading as Ethan faded away, the magic that had held him to that plane passing into Giles. Images: Tara dead, skin flayed away from flesh, a temple on the sands...
Ethan had been right, he thought. The power coursing through him now wasn't evil. It was human, it was life. It was...the answer?
He looked around, thinking that that last had not sounded like his own voice, but Ethan was gone. He knew it was for good.
He took a deep breath and readied himself to teleport. If he survived this, it would be time to think about not turning those students away.