Seasons Of Love
written by Adele


Rating: FRT
Spoilers: Post Season 7.
Summary: An innocent question from Dawn sends Buffy on a reflection through the seasons.
Thanks: A big tackling hug to my wonderful beta, Kate, for another great beta job!
Feedback Author: Adele
Author's LJ: Predestined


Ethan hesitated at the yawning darkness before him, but the talon digging into his shoulder gave a final prod that sent him stumbling onto the stone floor of the cell. "I'm in, all right? Was that really necessary?"

His captors, implacably silent since issuing their ultimatum, merely shut the door with a heavy rasp of old oak and iron, cutting off the light before Ethan had adjusted to the dark. The quiet was instead broken by a groan from farther inside, a faint metallic edge to the noise as if it was bouncing off a hard surface. "Ethan?"

The voice was corded with effort, but Ethan would recognize it anywhere. He peered into the darkness towards the sound. "Ripper? That you?"

"Christ, and I thought things couldn't get any worse. What the hell are you doing here?"

"Oh, just the usual. However do you see in this dark?"

"I don't."

Ripper never could manage any good on-the-spot magic. "Not to worry, old chap. *Lumine kantos* -- ow! That hurt!" The bright flash, like a magnesium flare, only lasted long enough to sear Ethan's vision, and his fingers smarted like he'd been slapped with a ruler.

The git was chuckling in the darkness. "They've warded the abbey against magic."

"You might have warned me."

"But where would the fun be in that? How did you get here, anyway?"

"Oh, you know how it is for the small-time freelance contractor," Ethan said airily. "Negotiations sometimes sour." He touched the wall and felt cool, moist stone. His nostrils filled with the smell of damp earth; the monks who'd abandoned these catacombs must have suffered perpetual rheumatism.

"Negotiations? You were working for them?" The acoustics made it hard to pinpoint Ripper's location, though Ethan thought he must be up against a wall.

"Well, yes. Sorry, old chap. Believe me, it was completely personal. I -- what's funny?"

Ripper's chuckle cut off abruptly on a groan, and Ethan wondered what was wrong with him. When he spoke again, Ethan could hear the strain. "Oh, Ethan. You utter prat. Didn't you ever learn to do your homework?"

"Not really. Unlike some, I've always learned more from experience."

"Pity your experience didn't lead you to consult your Marley. Chapter two, page 36, 2/3 down…also cited in Ul'grhn, Zandyce, and the entire grimoire of…"

"Oh, do stop showing off your cross-referencing skills, Ripper. We'll choke on the dust. All right, what did I miss?" Ripper's speeches nowadays made Ethan want to search him head to toe for any vestige of the hedonistic boy he remembered, and despaired of ever seeing again.

"Mmmh. What happened just before everything went all pear-shaped?"

"Hmm, let me think," Ethan drawled. "I'd just masterminded that amusing diversion starring you and your little honor guard." Ethan wondered, if he got closer to Ripper, whether he'd be able to feel out whatever was putting that breathy pained sound in his voice. As weak as his old friend sounded, he probably wasn't up to punching him.

He moved along the wall, but barked his shin hard on something low and edged. "Ow! Dammit. Anyway, children today watch far too much television; I thought they could do with some exposure to the great literary classics." Cautiously he felt around and discovered a low wooden pallet that was bolted to the wall, supported by heavy chains. It was large enough that it might once have been used as a bed.

"You would have been proud of them, Ripper, they were magnificent. Pity that while they were evading the Red Queen, or stamping on the Lilliputians, they couldn't keep a closer eye on their Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Did you enjoy tilting at windmills, old chum?"

"I'm only surprised you didn't make me Sancho Panza instead."

"Perish the thought. You're always the star of the story for me. Besides, I wanted to see the look on your face when you finally caught up to your Dulcinea, and she gave you a good demonic snogging, knocked you on the head and took you prisoner. It was most entertaining."

"Yes, you're very funny. And then?"

Ethan found that he had to steel himself for every step gained into terra incognita. The impenetrable darkness was nothing like the white walls and eternal light that haunted him, but without his sight or magic he felt incomplete, incapable.

"And then I followed them back here to collect my fee for a job well done. I asked to see you, now that you were back to your senses. It just isn't as much fun without a good gloat."

"Of course not."

"They said you were rather preoccupied, and I said I didn't mind waiting."

"Naturally."

"But they said that you'd be permanently out of commission. I told them that was fine with me, of course," Ethan needled. He shuddered as his hand encountered a mold-slick patch on the damp stone, then crept forward through the long, expectant pause.

Finally Ripper broke the silence. "And?"

"And what?" He jerked back as his fingers brushed something sinewy.

"And what else did you tell them?"

"Nothing! I swear." Cautiously, he reached out again. "Only that I'd gladly see you dead, so I'd just leave them to get on with things."

"Good Lord."

"Oh, whaaat?"

"You didn't…want me dead?"

"I did!" A vine, he thought, or…no, it must be a root; it was tough and slightly cool. He continued forward, ignoring the other strands.

"You care."

"Absurd. I ardently and urgently desire your demise. It's why I sold you to them, after all."

"N-no point in denying it. As you'd know if you reviewed your Marley, Finnera demons always know when someone is lying."

"No!"

"Yes. They can smell it, I believe."

"Bloody hell." Well, that explained a lot, although surely not the way Ripper seemed to think. Perhaps they'd caught a whiff of his determination to go sell Ripper's current location to the next high bidder that came along. Ethan ruthlessly suppressed the awareness that he'd have gone looking for the next bidder rather closer to the New Council's quarters than was good for his health.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden faint glow of light from the doorway which disappeared with a metallic clank. Something hit the floor with a papery thud. "What's that?"

Ripper paused. "Supper, by the smell of it."

In a flash of inspiration, Ethan backtracked along the wall until he found the protruding roots. He tugged until one separated from the wall. "There must be a hatch in the door. If I can prop it open, we ought to get a bit of light…there." The hatch lowered down like a letterbox flap. He squinted for a moment into the glow of the lighted corridor, and fancied he heard breathing to the side of the door. "Not easy chatting in all this dark," he muttered.

He anchored the root to the door handle, and tugged until the line was taut enough to hold the hatch open. Light streamed in along a narrow shaft across the cell, and he turned to look. "Much better…Bloody hell, Ripper! What've they done to you?"

"Should have thought that was obvious," Ripper said, with remarkable hauteur considering the broad blade sticking through his right arm.

Or perhaps his coolness came from shock, Ethan thought, as he darted to his old friend's side for a closer look. Ripper lay half-twisted on one of the numerous suspended benches, his arm stretched alongside him but raised up a few extra inches, palm facing the room. The blade, easily three inches wide and God knew how long, had been buried almost to the hilt between the bones of his old friend's forearm and wedged deeply into a crack between the stones, pinning him firmly in place. He lay awkwardly angled, unable either to twist fully onto his left side or rest his right shoulder on the pallet. Ethan noted with a shudder that the edge was aimed towards Ripper's hand and his awkward position meant he could hardly help but tug on it with even the slightest movement.

Dry-mouthed, he asked "Does it hurt?"

Even in the dim light, Ripper's look spoke eloquent volumes. Then he shook his head slightly. "Not…not as much as it should, I think. Hurt like the devil when they did it, of course. I'm not sure they expected all the blood. And screaming. One of them chanted something and the bleeding slowed down and it…numbed. A bit."

Ethan reached over and gingerly touched the wall beneath Ripper's arm, feeling the tackiness. "Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him," he muttered.

"Very droll," said Ripper.

"Shall I try to shift it?" Ethan gripped the handle but jerked back when even that slight jostle made Ripper groan loudly.

"Ethan," he gasped. "Don't do that again. Please." He panted for a moment, then sighed. "What did they give us, anyway?"

"Cockroach hash and gruel, I expect," Ethan said. He went back and retrieved the white bag, grateful for any excuse to tear his eyes away from Ripper's arm for a moment. "No…it's Happy Meals."

"No gruel? Where have the standards gone, I ask you."

"Well, when you think of it, gruel's a lot of trouble nowadays. You have to make a bit of effort to get a good punishing gruel. I suppose they didn't want the bother." Ethan opened one of the boxes. "Stone cold. Punishment enough."

Ripper coughed. "Is there…don't those have something to drink? Pass it over."

"No."

"Ethan!"

"I haven't looked at the toy yet. Oh -- they're both the same."

With careful deliberation, Ethan crouched down and placed the little box on the floor beneath his friend. He'd judged it just right; Ripper reached blindly as far as his could, but merely brushed the box with his fingertips. After a moment of struggle that culminated in a wince, he collapsed back.

"It's rather a diabolical situation, isn't it?" Ethan drawled. "Stuck fast as a butterfly."

"Ethan, please…"

"One-quarter of the way onto your cross."

"Ethan…"

"Surprised the soldier boys never thought of it." He cursed himself as soon as he said the words, but found he was holding his breath to hear his old friend's reply. There was a long, heavy silence.

"Going to say sorry, mate?" he finally prodded.

"Sorry?" Ripper shifted just enough to cast him a contemptuous glance. "Why would I?"

"Well, you did leave me to be carted off to a hellhole for most of three years, until they closed down shop." Sometimes, he felt the worst indignity was he hadn't even managed to escape…nor been rescued.

"Don't be ridiculous. You brought that on yourself."

"You could have stopped them." Ethan winced at the petulance he heard in his own voice.

Ripper sighed. "As one of my young friends quoted incessantly last summer, Ethan, I didn't condemn you. But nor was I obliged to save you."

"Charming precept. Nietzsche? Machiavelli?"

"Batman, I believe."

"Ah." Ethan considered Ripper for a long minute. He lay limply on the bunk, eyes closed, a faint clammy sheen on his face, his left arm still dangling over the side. He looked so old; Ethan hadn't changed nearly so much, he was sure of it. Had worry for the Slayer etched the lines so deeply in his forehead?

With his toe, Ethan nudged the little box closer until it bumped Ripper's hand. Ripper fumbled blindly with the top until Ethan knelt and undid it, then looked inside and pulled up the small cup and straw. He passed it into Ripper's good hand.

"So…what do they want you for, then?" he asked.

Ripper fumbled the straw to his lips and took a long pull before answering. "They want to know about what happened in Sunnydale. How all the Slayers were called at once."

"What's the harm in telling them?" Ethan asked. Ripper seemed to be having difficulty holding the cup without tugging his injury. Ethan leaned forward and wrapped his fingers around Ripper's hand.

Ripper gave him a long, searching look while taking another sip. "It would hurt the Slayers."

"Really? How?"

"You needn't sound so eager. It's not going to happen. They don't just want to know what happened. They want to know how to reverse it."

"But why would they think you would know that?" Ripper didn't shift his cool gaze. "Oh. Because you do. There's really a way to send the nubile nymphette horde back the way they were?"

"Possibly. It's not entirely certain." As Ripper took another long drink, Ethan wondered if the effort it seemed to take could possibly be worth whatever comfort it gave.

When he heard the straw draw air, he put the little cup aside. "So tell them. Maybe it won't work. Or maybe your little girls will be able to handle the crisis, and no harm done."

"I've no doubt that they could. It doesn't matter. There will be no harm at all, if I don't tell them."

Ethan knew nonsense when he heard it. "There'll be harm to you! And me. You think they'll let me out of here if you don't tell?"

Ripper looked away. "You got yourself into this. Get yourself out."

"Oh?" Slowly and deliberately, Ethan leaned over towards the wall. Gently, he wrapped his hand over Ripper's wrist, just above the blade. "And what if I decide that the best bet for me, is to torture the answer out of you?"

Ripper flicked his eyes back to Ethan's for a long moment. "You'll do what you must, I'm sure."

"Might not take much, you know. You're likely halfway there already." Ripper's wrist was sticky with congealing blood. He said nothing.

Ethan shifted his hand slightly. "I know you've lived through it before -- but that only makes it worse," he mused. He interlaced his fingers with Ripper's own, and stroked up and down between them as he spoke. "Waiting for the inevitable you can't control, sick with fear because you remember how it was? I know that very well. Your soldiers taught me that."

Ripper said nothing, staring at Ethan's stroking fingers as if hypnotized. For a moment he seemed hardly to move, but Ethan saw his lips and eyes were tightening so gradually it was like watching a blossom wither and crumple in real time. He could see Ripper's chest tightening until he hardly seemed to breathe.

Suddenly, silently, Ripper's entire body began to tremble. His injured hand twitched as if he would clench his fist around Ethan's, but he was too weak to curl his fingers more than slightly. He began to gasp out loud as he shuddered, and fresh blood began to well up around the blade.

Ethan lunged across him to the wall to contain the damage. Ripper's trembling grew more violent and it became difficult to hold him steady. In desperation Ethan reached underneath him to cradle his shoulders as well. He felt the tension and realized that his old friend was perpetually straining to hold himself up to gain a measure of relief from the blade.

Ethan wondered if he could give the man more support, then put action to thought. He lifted Ripper slightly higher and slid in behind him to prop him up. For a terrible moment he thought he might have done more harm than good. His old friend groaned with pain, but Ethan folded his legs around Ripper's and sat so he could lie back against Ethan's chest and relieve the strain on his arm.

Ripper was too panicked to accept the support, though. He shifted and twisted desperately, breath coming in short fast gasps. The groans turned to pathetic mewling noises and with a chill Ethan realized that he could not draw breath to cry out.

"Ripper! Ripper, calm yourself!" Ethan said. His position was awkward but he held steady until Ripper finally seemed to settle down a bit, and sank limp with exhaustion in Ethan's arms.

"Hurts…" Ripper gasped. "Hurts like..." Words seemed to fail him. "Chest, too." He sounded anxious, his breathing steadier but still shallow.

"Just - just be still, all right?" Ethan instructed. "It'll pass."

"Will it?" Ripper moaned. "Maybe they've done it. Maybe it'll get worse unless I tell you…"

"You could always do that, of course." Ethan wrapped his free arm around his friend's chest, rubbing gently.

Ripper looked fretful, but finally bit off through clenched teeth: "It was Anya."

"Anya?" Ethan asked.

"Anyanka."

"The vengeance demon?"

"You know of her?"

"I rather suspect I ran afoul of her kind in a previous reality. It would explain a lot. Anyanka made all the little Slayers?"

"The First…came to Dawn as her dead mother. Anya ch-chose to interpret it as "scorn." She was always very…creative in her vengeance wishes." There was a faraway tone in Ripper's voice that Ethan couldn't place.

"A vengeance demon created an army of Slayers, on the request of the Slayer's little sister?" Ethan questioned carefully, mind racing. "And how do the Finnera reverse the spell?"

"They have to…bring Anya back. She died in the fight."

"I'll go tell them that, shall I?"

Ripper sighed. "Suppose there's no choice."

Carefully, tenderly, Ethan stretched around Ripper's side to make sure that his grip on the injured arm was rock-steady, with no possibility of shifting. With his left hand, he snaked up and clipped his old friend round the ear.

"Hey!" Ripper croaked indignantly. "What's that for?"

"Thinking I'm thick enough to believe that, old mate."

"Oh."

"Vengeance demons don't die unless they've lost their powers. I met one in the prison. If your Anya was weak enough to die, the spell would be broken already."

"Ah. Should have thought of that." Ripper sounded slightly restored, though pain still laced his voice.

Ethan felt piqued. "And what happens to me if I swallow your stupid story, eh? I go running to the Finnera with your clever little lie and they catch it out. Mayflies'd have more chance of blissful old age than I would."

"Perhaps," said Ripper, "but if they believed you, they might have brought Anya back. I rather miss her."

"Not your lamb to the slaughter, old mate." Ethan shifted slightly to ease the ache in his back, but held Ripper's arm steady.

"You? A lamb? Never."

Ripper's breathing had slowed and he seemed a bit more settled. Ethan tried to draw on his hazily-remembered medical knowledge, largely based on MASH reruns. Loosen the collar and cuffs, he thought. Ripper's right cuff hung open, but he gently undid the top button of his shirt, and then the left cuff. Absently, he stroked his arm higher and higher, until he realized he was gently rubbing the tattoo.

"Like old times," Ripper murmured.

Ethan smiled, remembering when he had held his friend in a similar position. "Seen any purple plushy pandaroos, hopping about?" Captaining Ripper's first acid trip had been…memorable.

"No, just a sodding great knife. At least the pandaroos were cute," Ripper huffed out a chuckle. "Whatever happened to those days."

"Don't look at me. You changed. I didn't."

"Not so many people would boast that they hadn't changed in thirty years," Ripper said mildly.

"Oh, but a complete personality transplant, that's something to cherish," Ethan snapped.

"It didn't…" Ripper hesitated. "It didn't seem that way at the time. I only knew that I had to make amends."

"For Randall."

"Such a bloody mess. It's foolish, but…I thought we'd been careful enough to handle it. Arrogance of youth. God, we were idiots."

Ethan chuckled fondly. "Yes, you were such a tight-arse about the ritual. Thomas called you Mother Hen behind your back."

"You all did. To my face."

"Tinhorn dictator."

"I was too far out of my head to have much control," Ripper said sadly. "I should have known."

But Ethan made no reply, caught as he was in a sudden vertiginous rush of memory. Ripper *had* been obsessive, demanding rules and requirements and ritual purifications he made up on the spot. Ethan had laughed at him and thought him a quaint fussbudget. When it had all gone to hell, he'd thought Ripper hypocritical and pathetic for running home and flinging himself onto the pyre of a destiny he'd claimed to despise.

Suddenly he saw his old friend's behavior in a new light. Despite numbing out in a haze of drugs, booze, and magic, Ripper's instinct had been to protect his friends. The sight of Ripper sobbing while he swung the sword that swept off Randall's head -- somehow, until now Ethan had remembered the tears more than the bravery.

It was an epiphany so crushing he could hardly breathe. The Ripper he'd known hadn't dried away and mummified himself in layers of tweed. The Ripper he'd known, had held the seeds of the man who now lay bleeding in his arms.

The realization was swiftly followed by another memory, one he'd tried to suppress and ignore, but had never forgotten. Could he…could he say it out loud, now, at the end? Suddenly, the thought that he and Ripper both would likely be dead by morning seemed almost cheery. After everything was lost, was there anything left to lose?

"Ripper," he began. No, that wasn't right. "Rupert…" No. "Giles," he said.

"Mmmh?"

"You said…you never understood how it had happened. With Eyghon, I mean."

"Randall lost control; I know that."

"Remember, remember all those rituals you had for us to follow? Cleansing and purifying…no fun of any kind for three days before, remember?"

"Think I said 'no drugs, booze, or sex,' so, yes," Ripper allowed, "no fun."

"But…Randall and I thought you were full of crap, you know. We…the night before, we smoked some weed, sucked each other off." He waited for Ripper's burst of anger.

For several long minutes, Ripper said nothing. Ethan wondered if he had made his confession too late -- or timed it just right. Finally he spoke. "I wondered if it was something like that."

"You wondered? You mean, you guessed? I thought you'd kill me if you knew." Ethan felt unaccountably put out by his equanimity.

"Might've done, then," Ripper agreed. His words were beginning to slur.

"But now?" Ethan prompted. "What's changed?"

"Stopped raising demons," Ripper mumbled, "started raising Slayers. 'Snever easy t'be young'n powerful…mistakes're on a grand scale too." He trailed off.

They sat together in silence while Ethan tried to process this unfathomable absolution. It was long ago, the others had all died and soon they would join them…but still, there was a welcome sense of peace. He heard a scrape and a rustle in the hallways, then more silence.

Suddenly Ripper's back stiffened against Ethan's chest. "Oh dear Lord," he gasped.

"Ripper?"

His friend's torso contorted as he began moaning in agony again. Suddenly he began to choke and retch. A gush of vomit bloomed from his mouth in a terrible spew.

"Bloody hell!" Frantically, Ethan struggled to turn Ripper enough to let the vomit stream clear, but a gurgled shriek reminded him that he still had to keep Ripper's arm relatively stable. In a reflexive panic, he pressed a hand to Ripper's chest and cast a healing spell to try to ease the convulsions. He had forgotten the magic warding. The pain in his hand was bad, but the suppressed spell's effect on Ripper was devastating. His body curled inwards while he wrenched on his arm as if to pull it from the wall by brute force. Ethan could see to his horror that the knife was actually a fraction closer to Ripper's wrist than before and blood was gushing from the wound.

Ethan found himself frantically clearing Ripper's mouth with one hand while holding his arm steady with the other. Finally the retching stopped and Ripper panted, leaning against Ethan's chest as limp as a rag doll. His eyes were closed and he lay silent.

Ethan could feel his own heart racing, and his voice was none too steady when he spoke. "Oh, Ripper, you sad bastard. Why do you make everything so bloody hard on yourself?"

Ripper made no reply, though whether he was too weak to respond or beyond all hearing, Ethan couldn't tell. Ethan murmured soothingly.

"How can they be worth so much to you? It's not natural, you know. Not healthy to value another person like this. Once you give them that kind of power over you…who knows what they'll do with it?"

He sighed, feeling weary and old, but oddly calm as well, with Ripper in his arms. "Bugger it. Go ahead and martyr yourself. See if I care."

Absently, he smoothed his old friend's hair.

"Keep your bloody secret." He shifted a bit to make himself more comfortable, his right side braced against the cool stone, and settled back to wait for the end.

Eyes still closed, Ripper mumbled something. In the chill darkness, Ethan heard "Secret…mustn' tell."

Ethan held him steady. "Don't worry, pet. I won't."

"Mustn't tell 'bout Willow…"

Ethan stilled. "What about Willow?"

"Can't let them use the scythe."

"Use the scythe? How would they do that?"

Ripper's eyes flew suddenly open and for a moment he seemed to stare into the next world.

"They…they can't do the Rite of Chamos. Take their power." Ripper's eyes drifted shut again.

"The rite of Chamos takes the Slayer power? So the Finnera get it?" But Ripper only lay limply against Ethan's chest, as still as the grave.

Ethan sighed. Then, as gently as he could, he eased himself out from behind Ripper. It was an agonizingly slow process; Ripper's limp form was as unwieldy as an old mattress. Ethan's muscles screamed with the strain of supporting his old friend's dead weight in a slow smooth arc from his sitting position to lying almost on his side again, while holding Ripper's injured arm firmly in place at all times. It was almost five minutes before Ethan knelt unencumbered beside the pallet, and several more as he watched Ripper's chest rise and fall. Finally, with a last stroke over his hair and a kiss high on the cheek, Ethan went to the door.

He rapped smartly on the door. "Service!" he called sarcastically.

After a moment, the door opened and a burly Finnera stood blocking it.

"Did you get all that?" Ethan asked nastily.

The demon hesitated. "We are not sure. He spoke very low. There was…a foulness…but it did not smell like the stench of lies."

"He puked on himself, that's what that was. Now listen. I've done my part. Now, what will you do for me?"

"Just as we agreed. If you have found the truth from him then we will pay your fee, and you may go."

"No," Ethan shook his head. "It's not enough, he has to go too."

"That is not possible. He would warn the slayers."

"Not in the shape he's in. Look at him. He's no good to anyone now." Ethan gave the demon his most charming look. "What harm can it do, eh?"

The demon seemed to consider.

"Listen, mate," Ethan said urgently. "Let him go, or I'm saying nothing."

"He has told you the truth, then?"

"He's told me, but he can't repeat it for you. And I won't either. So help me, you can do the same to me, and I won't say a word. Unless you let us both go."

The demon took a deep breath and paused thoughtfully. Then it nodded. "Very well. I accept these new conditions. Tell us, we will verify, and let you both go."

Ethan turned to look back at Ripper's still form. "Dammit," he muttered, and faced the demon again. "There's a little red-haired witch named Willow. Very powerful. She used something called a scythe to make the Slayers. He says if you do the Rite of Chamos, you can take their power from them."

"The Rite of Chamos will weaken the Slayers? That is what he said?"

"Yes, that's it exactly." Ethan waited expectantly. Could anything else go wrong?

Another long draw of air, another thoughtful pause. "Very well. You will wait here until we have verified."

"And by the time you come back, I'll be sat with a corpse. Do it now!"

The demon waved impatiently. "The bleeding is stopped. That will serve." It spun on its paw and stalked away.

Ethan returned to Ripper's side to wait for the end. He took the clammy limp hand in his own, and felt for a pulse. It was there, but distressingly faint and thready.

"Now just hang on, you daft old grebo," Ethan muttered. "I didn't sell out everything you love just so you can die for them anyway."

Time passed in silence; Ripper showed no sign of rousing. Suddenly, Ethan heard a clamor on the corridor, crashes and shouts of fury. He stole over to the door to peek through the hatch.

Luckily, he just managed to dive out of the way before the heavy door crashed open, swinging so forcefully on its hinges that the iron doorknob splintered the oaken panel.

"*Chameleus!*" Instinctively, Ethan muttered a defensive spell, and then felt foolish when he remembered the magic wards. But -- wait -- no flash, no sting, and when he looked down he could see no difference between his lap and the rough stone beneath him. The wards had been lifted.

Seconds later, he knew why. A clear, piping voice split the darkness. "Oh my God -- he's in here!"

In tumbled Rupert's children, and strange that despite the years the first in should still be the ones he knew, the same coltish girls and lumbering boy, though even in the dark he could make out marks of the passage of time.

The gaggle of eager teenage girls who piled in after them was new, of course, but at the center of the action was the tiny, commanding figure he remembered best. He watched her feel for Ripper's pulse.

"He's still here, barely," she said. "Giles -- can you hear me? You're gonna be okay. Will?"

Ripper lay silent, so oblivious to all the hubbub that he didn't flinch when his Slayer carefully tugged the knife out of the stone wall, nor stir when the red-haired witch made ingenious use of Melchior's Balm as an ethereal tourniquet to stanch the bleeding. The young man directed several of the baby Slayers to jerk the door the rest of the way off its hinges and bear Ripper away, the fallen hero on his shield. Through all of it, Ethan watched, unseen and unknown.

* * * * *

It took three days before Ethan was able to find a way past the Council warding, as well as the extra security they had placed over Ripper. He had worked out how to penetrate the shields in two, but spent an extra day making sure he could seal them back behind him. He wanted no unexpected interruptions.

He found Ripper asleep in a well-equipped infirmary, and smirked at the odd picture that modern medicine made when combined with traditional magics: a clear IV dripped into Ripper's undamaged arm and his breathing was assisted by a nasal cannula, but a talisman of bones and feathers hung from a cord around his neck and by the smell of it his right arm was smeared with an herbal poultice beneath its antiseptic white bandages.

Ethan was content to sit and watch over his old friend in silence for a few minutes, until he got bored. He tried a discreet coughing fit, but Ripper did not stir. Finally, exasperated, Ethan poked him in the ribs. Ripper opened his eyes.

"Oh. Hello," he said, showing no surprise at seeing Ethan.

"Takes more than a gate of Danae to keep me out, old mate."

"Fancy that," Ripper said. "Come to finish what you started?"

"Which bit?" Ethan asked. "There's a lot to choose from."

"I suppose so. My mind turns to the 'delivering me to mine enemies, then letting them use you to get what they wanted by any means necessary' bit," Ripper said.

"Ah. Well, yes, that does sound rather like me," Ethan agreed. "And then again, I might have come to give you another chance to use me as your sacrificial lamb."

"You, a lamb? Never."

"You know the Finnera would have done me in if they'd guessed the Rite would weaken *them*, not the bitty Slayers. Dumb luck you got sick so they couldn't tell."

"I always heard a shock victim shouldn't drink anything. I just never dreamed it could happen to me," Ripper said innocently.

Ethan couldn't decide if he was more annoyed or impressed. Annoyance won out. "And then you lied to me."

"Not really. You drew the wrong conclusions, and then you lied to them. You just didn't know it."

"And what if I'd drawn the right conclusions, eh?"

"It was a risk," Ripper allowed. "A gamble that you hadn't done your homework."

"And that they hadn't done theirs, or they'd have killed us both anyway."

But there was no apology in Ripper's face. Ethan gazed down at the ruthless, hard-edged man, and once again felt the rush of memory. How had he ever imagined his Ripper was gone?

"How is…that?" he asked, gesturing at Ripper's bandaged arm.

Ripper sighed. "Better than I deserve, really. Willow and the Coven healers have done what they could since the wound was partly magical. Otherwise, it would be weeks before the doctors could even begin the surgery."

"Surgery?"

Ripper nodded. "Surgeries, most like. Healing the magical aspect of the wound is one thing, but healing the bloody-great-knife-through- the-arm aspect…that's quite another." He looked down at the bandages. "Some restored function is possible, the doctor says. In time."

"Tell me, doc, will I ever fight again?" Ethan quipped.

"She doesn't know," Ripper said, and now he looked sad. "No more guitar, though. That's certain."

"The day the music died," Ethan said. "End of an era." But the thought hit him like a punch in the gut. He remembered Ripper on stage, playing with passion and abandon. How would the young man have felt to lose it?

Ripper seemed lost in thought, sunk in his pillows gazing moodily at his arm. He didn't glance over when Ethan leaned over to the pitcher on the night table and poured a glass of water.

"I came to bring you something," he said, and fished the packet out of his pocket. He waited until Ripper was watching him before he spilled the black crystals into the water with a flourish. They fizzed and cracked.

Ripper watched as he stirred the mixture with a straw. "What is it?"

Ethan set the potion down on the table, making sure the bendy straw poked jauntily at his old friend. He could tell by Ripper's bemused expression that the scent of dark enchantment had wafted over. "It's all in fun, old mate. An amusing diversion. A potion that might help. Might even bring the music back someday."

Ripper objected. "I told you. They've already done all the magic healing they can."

"That's all *they* can do. I have access to...other forces."

Ripper stared at him. "Ethan...what have you done?"

"Nothing special, mate. Not to worry." But Ripper stared at him as if he could see through Ethan's sleeve to his bandaged right arm, under his shirt to the claw marks on his chest. Ethan felt far too vulnerable, too well understood. He spoke in a rush. "Going to try it?"

Ripper looked at the tonic, which spat out a dramatic black puff of vapor on cue -- the potion reflected the caster, they said. "It doesn't look like a healing draught. It looks like poison."

"Could be, could be," Ethan agreed affably. "Break into your sickroom to poison you? Might be an amusing twist in the tale. Up to you, of course."

Ripper stared at the glass for a long minute. Finally he reached for it and picked it up. His good hand trembled, and Ethan thought he was going to dash the potion onto the floor.

But instead, Ripper lowered the glass back to the table. "I don't think I can hold it. Could you?..." The last words were inaudible.

Ethan wrapped his own hand around Ripper's fingers, and helped him raise the straw to his lips. Ripper stared at Ethan for a long, uncertain minute.

And then he drank.

END