Giles took him from the private hospital against medical advice. “He’s not ready to travel,” Ethan heard the young doctor argue outside his open door. “If he leaves now---.”
“Can he walk?” Giles’ voice was charged with every ounce of his authority, icy and condescending as only Watchers could be.
“Well, yes, but---.”
“Then he’s ready.”
As he was wheeled from the hospital, Ethan’s comment about Ripper’s need to top every male in his presence was largely ignored.
He didn’t ask where they were going, though all it took was a careful regard to the passing road signs to deduce their northerly path. The hospital had been on the Mexican border, small and exclusive, and Ethan had wondered during his entire stay if the Council was footing the bill for his recuperation or if it was coming out of Giles’ pocket. Nothing had been said about what was going to happen to him. Nobody but Ripper and staff had been to see him. It had been an odd sort of stasis while the worst of his injuries were attended to, but Ethan didn’t waste time questioning what wouldn’t get answered. He spent the bulk of his time wondering just how he was going to get away from Ripper before it was too late.
He also wondered about Buffy.
He’d seen her get stabbed at Wolfram and Hart, remembered her barked command for the vampire to get Ethan out of the building. After that, the night was a blank, courtesy of Spike’s definitive punch. When Ethan had next woken, he was in the hospital bed with a blowzy nurse fussing over his every bodily function. He’d asked for Buffy, but she’d claimed ignorance, as did the rest of the staff. Giles had been the only one to give him an answer, and then, it had been a brief one.
“She won’t be coming,” he’d stated. And that, as they said, was that.
There was no more link between Ethan and the Slayer. Every time he attempted to establish one, he was rewarded with a blinding headache and vomiting that made his broken ribs ache. It only took a few attempts to realize that Ripper had somehow put a dampening field on his magic, but until more of Ethan’s strength returned, he could do nothing to counter it.
So he contented himself with conjecture, with fantasies about Buffy waiting in some secret hideaway. “I’m all you’ve got,” she’d said. That had to mean something. Surely, the fact that she’d come to him rather than run away was proof that the ties that bound them were stronger than his magic. There was loyalty. There was affection. There was amazing sex. He had given her life, and Buffy was far too smart not to realize the import of that.
She would be waiting for him. He was sure of it.
It was nearly noon when they reached Los Angeles. It looked just as it had when they’d left two weeks earlier, but Ethan had no nostalgia for the place. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the thought that Buffy had been right, that her fears about returning to the city where she’d died had been justified, danced around demanding his attention. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve, he thought with a leadening heart. There was little he regretted after the fact, but this…this would likely rate as one of the more unwise choices in his lifetime.
Streets flashed by with a growing familiarity. Houses that should’ve been anonymous taunted Ethan into recognizing them. Then, they passed the street upon which Buffy had lived when she’d first been called, and he sat up in his seat, his pulse coming back to life.
“Where are we going?” he asked for the first time since leaving the hospital.
“They say criminals always return to the scenes of their crimes,” Ripper replied.
“You’re only a criminal if you get caught.”
“And the fact that you’re with me means…?”
“That you can’t bear to live without me.” Ethan smiled, but there was no mirth in his eyes. His fears were starting to overcome his certainty that Buffy would be at the end of this particular path. He couldn’t imagine her returning to her old neighborhood outside of the duress of his will.
They passed Buffy’s old street, meandering through the tree-lined avenues until Giles turned through the entrance of a local cemetery. Theirs was not the only car in the lot, but the others were unfamiliar and Ethan noticed that Giles didn’t even glance in their direction as he walked around to the trunk and removed a black duffel.
He followed silently along the well-trod path, eyes flickering to every sign of movement they passed along the way. A mourner here, a gardener there, and not one of them was her, not one of them even glanced up to see the two men walking stiffly into the bowels of the graveyard. The quiet was eerie, as if someone had picked up the plot of land and taken it away from the bustle of Los Angeles, but not even Ethan was up to disturbing the peace. He just wanted the journey over.
Giles moved from the main path to weave his way through the headstones. When he finally stopped, it was in front of a fresh grave, the flowers still bright where they’d been placed at the marker.
“Here,” he said, dropping the bag to the ground. “The next time I see you, Ethan, I will kill you. Be warned.”
Turning on his heel, he’d only gone a few steps when Ethan called after him.
“This is a joke, right? You’re doing this to try and scare me. Punishment for my wicked, wicked ways.”
“I only wish it was,” came the reply.
He didn’t see Giles turn around, and he didn’t see him return until he was standing just behind Ethan’s shoulder. All Ethan could see was the headstone with the name of his Slayer clearly etched into it.
There was no epitaph, no parting words from loved ones declaring who she was to them. Just her name carved in simple block letters. It was both too much and not enough, and Ethan’s eyes stung unexpectedly.
“She didn’t make it out,” Giles said quietly. “There were too many guards and---.”
“No.” The single word scraped his throat, made his mouth want to bleed. “She’s not dead. I’d know. I’d---.”
“She broke your control, remember? She could be standing right behind you, and you wouldn’t know. You don’t have that power over her any longer.”
Though he knew it was absurd, Ethan glanced back over his shoulder anyway, half-hoping Buffy would be standing there with a bright smile and an “April Fool’s!” on her lips. An empty graveyard yawned back at him.
“Why did you bring me here?” Ethan demanded, shifting his gaze back to Giles. “What happened to that self-righteous need of yours to show me the error of my ways? Don’t tell me you’ve had second thoughts.”
For a long moment, they stared at each other, the years of their acquaintance laying them open to their fierce regards. When he saw a flicker of sympathy appear and then vanish behind Ripper’s eyes, Ethan turned away, choosing instead to burn the specter of Buffy’s grave onto his retinas.
“It was her request,” Giles said. “If…she didn’t make it. She asked me not to turn you over to the Council.”
Slowly, Ethan stepped forward, his fingers reaching for the cold stone and tracing over the block letters. “That’s my girl,” he murmured.
He didn’t expect the sharp punch into his side, and he felt his bones shift beneath his skin as he crumpled to his knees. Pain shot through his torso, jagging his breath into saw-toothed gasps, but through the haze, he heard Giles say, “She was never yours. You never gave her that choice.”
He forced the response even though speech seemed impossible. “There is so much you’ll never understand, Ripper. Including what she and I had.”
“No, you’re right. But I do know that she’s safe from you now. You can’t touch her any more.”
Giles was already moving when Ethan lifted his head.
“Her ring?” he called.
“Buried with her.”
This time, Giles didn’t stop.
He sat there for long minutes that cramped his still-healing joints. If he stared at the marker long enough, surely that would void its existence. Prove to him that it was just a figment of his imagination. She wasn’t dead. She hadn’t died making sure he got free from Lilah Morgan’s clutches. The world was going to dissolve away, and he’d wake up back in the hospital, a victim of the doctor’s too-liberal drug usage. It was just a dream.
But it wasn’t. Nothing about the graveyard changed except for the sun above and the occasional visitor that passed in the distance.
When the light began to mellow into the soft blush of late afternoon, Ethan sighed. It was foolish to be in the cemetery after dark; in his condition, he wouldn’t last long enough to scream for help, and this time, there was no Slayer to come to his aid. Pulling the duffel closer, he began digging through its contents, hoping that Ripper had at least left him enough cash to pay for a bus ticket. He dreaded such mundane transportation, but he feared he had few other choices at the moment.
There was little that was surprising in the bag. A few of his clothes, spare shoes, his passport. A slim wallet fell from between two folded shirts, and a quick examination revealed it contained over a thousand dollars. Ethan smiled. It was sufficient to get him out of town, perhaps even in something better than the cattle class of Amtrak.
As he closed the duffel back up, something lumpy inside shifted against his thigh, and he reached through the opening to pull out a small box. He frowned, lifting the lid, but the contents he found erased the lines from his brow.
“That’s my girl,” Ethan murmured with a half-smile. “That’s my Buffy.”
He sat there for far longer than anyone could’ve expected, tucking the box safely back into the duffel before rising to his feet. His hand trailed over the top of the marker, caressing the cold stone, but his face was hidden from scrutiny, his head bent while he murmured words too low for anyone but the dead to hear. Then, picking up the bag from the ground, Ethan walked toward the front of the graveyard.
She watched his slim form grow smaller and smaller against the horizon until a bend in the path took him from her view. There had been a few moments when he scanned the surrounding cemetery that Buffy was certain he could see her in spite of her special care to hide from him. During those fearful seconds, she shrank back into the murk of the mausoleum, her heart thudding inside her chest. She waited. She didn’t want Ethan to know that she was there, but the urge to see him one last time, to see the look on his face when he realized she had given him Jutta’s Ring, to see his pain when he discovered he was still stuck in this world without the only person who’d ever cared about him, had been too great for Buffy to ignore.
Giles would’ve been furious to find out that she’d jeopardized all his careful arrangements just for a sneak peek at Ethan. She realized that in the long run, she didn’t care.
Night crept in on silent feet, blanketing the cemetery in deceptive peace. Buffy waited until after midnight before leaving her sanctuary, her bag thrown over her shoulder. The world thought she was dead, and most importantly, the Council thought the same thing. It was time for her to get out into the world and start living. All she had to do was leave Los Angeles behind.
There was a lone car parked in the lot, and Buffy hesitated when the red flare of a cigarette tip temporarily illuminated the lean figure leaning against the driver-side door, the bleached hair a dull scarlet in the darkness. A quick scan around her revealed no other creatures lurking in the near vicinity, and so she resumed her pace, angling her path to where he waited.
She stopped ten feet away. “I guess you found me,” Buffy said.
Spike took a deep drag on his cigarette, his shadowed gaze sweeping over her. His nose twitched, and then his head tilted in curiosity. “You healed up quick,” he commented. “Is that how you got out in the end? Because you weren’t really hurt?”
Ignoring his questions, she dropped her bag to the ground and started rolling her stiff neck. “Let’s just do this,” she said.
“Do what, pet?”
“You’re here for your big fight, right? The fourth Slayer under your belt? So, let’s get it over with. I’ve had a really long day, and I’m not in the mood for any of your so-called foreplay right now.”
He shook his head, his cigarette smoke a pale corona above him. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Heard the Slayer kicked it and came to pay my respects. Imagine my surprise when I pulled into the lot and got a whiff of eau de Buffy. And not the dead kind, either.” His tongue ran along the edge of his teeth, the flash of white gleaming in the darkness. “C’mon,” he said, his tone wheedling. “Tell me how you managed to scarper off with your skin still intact. I’ve been sittin’ here for the past three hours tryin’ to suss it out.”
“Get used to disappointment, Spike.”
“With you, pet? Never.”
The fists she’d had ready at her sides relaxed, her eyes narrowing in contemplation. “Giles said you’d disappeared.”
“Guess that’s something else we have in common then.”
Silence fell between them, the only sound the sizzle of Spike’s cigarette as he took one last drag before dropping it to the ground. Its absence left his face even more in shadows, and she wondered if he did it on purpose.
“You know,” he finally said, shattering the calm, “you weren’t the only one I sniffed out here.”
He didn’t need to elaborate; she knew who he was talking about. “They left hours ago.”
“Gettin’ their last fond farewell? Or…just makin’ plans for later, maybe.”
Buffy bit back her smile at his obvious fishing. “I’m dead, remember?” she said. “They did all their farewelling to a headstone. Any plans they have don’t include me.” Bending to pick her bag back up, she added without looking at him, “On the other hand, I need to find a ride.”
When she straightened, Spike was staring at her, head cocked to the side, his tongue running along the edges of his teeth. Deliberately, he shoved his hands into his coat pockets and said, “I have a car.”
The familiar response made the other words tumble more freely. “There’s probably going to be fighting. And danger. Mortal, maybe, because, well, I don’t think that me being dead to the world is going to make that much of a difference to any of the vampires or demons I run into.”
The corner of his mouth lifted in amusement. “Have I mentioned mortal danger’s my favorite kind?”
“You cross me, Spike, and I’ll dust you.”
“You can try.”
This time, her smile was brilliant, though she ducked her head to hide it. Pushing off from his perch on the car, Spike closed the distance between them, reaching forward to take her bag before heading back to the trunk. Buffy didn’t say a word as she went around to the passenger side and got in; there was nothing more that needed to be said. She had a ride out of town, she had enough money to get a new start almost anywhere she wanted, but best of all, she had her life back.
Dying was the best thing that had ever happened to her.