Half To Fall
by Branwyn

Ethan is hunting.

There is little about the streets of Sunnydale to put him in mind of London, but he feels the tug of nostalgia anyway, because it is night, and he is out looking for a bit of fun. He also happens to be in Rupert's neighborhood, which would at one time have meant that the search was over, but, alas. No longer.

At the moment, Ethan is...well, not relaxed. But he is more or less at ease, savoring a warm wind which in England would have felt the very zenith of summer's heat, but is in Sunnydale merely a harbinger of spring. His shirt sleeves are rolled to reveal a cautious portion of forearm, far enough to give the appearance of casual comfort but not so far that any of the more defined scars peek out. There is no real chance of actually blending here, but Ethan has a certain knack for going unnoticed. A skill that has less to do with disguise than manipulating people's innate desire to avoid complication.

Ethan wields his gaze like a weapon, and passers by are only too happy to avert their eyes.

Though she had not, and Ethan had turned his back and slipped quietly out of the club when he felt her eyes on him, because any further opportunity for perusal and she would know him. Not for what he was, but for many of the things he had the potential to be.

Faith. Slayer. Not Ripper's, though she could have been. Should have been, Ethan knows with a certainty as he watches her leave the club forty minutes later, sauntering down the street with her arm around a young and nervous looking girl in a brightly colored shirt. The cautious, stammering Watcher's hide Rupert was wearing now wouldn't have lasted six months with a girl like that. She reminds Ethan of Deirdre, of Thomas, of a dozen other beautiful and self- destructive children he and Rupert loved or shagged when they were young men.

She reminds Ethan of himself.

Perhaps Ripper is also reminded of Ethan when he sees the girl, and that is the reason for his shameful, and, it must be admitted, uncharacteristic neglect of her.

A Slayer....the word sends a tingle into his palms. He remembers a fight, twenty-five years ago on another continent. Rupert, preparing to abandon him, had looked everywhere but the corner where Ethan watched him, mostly silent, eyes glittering with furious, keening hatred. Rupert did not say much. Only, over and over: you can't understand. There's no way I can make you understand.

Though he had tried, in later months and years. Long, pointless narratives about Augusta, his father's Slayer, sandwiched between canting paragraphs on duty and tradition and his grandmother's failing health. Ethan burned them, mostly, or crumbled them to powder and cast spells that caused boils to break out on Rupert's fingers the next time he sat down to write. He disliked excuses.

She had always been there, pale ghost of a spent girl-child, haunting their flat, clinging to Ripper wherever he went. He had been raised to venerate her, confuse her with his long dead mother and the Virgin, to see her as a goddess perpetually reincarnated into incidental bodies. The Slayer. They wrapped his mind and soul around her, so that it would hardly come to matter what face she wore when she was his at last.

It explained the look of Rupert lately, three years into his tenure watching over the blonde one. She had survived her Cruciamentum; she was the oldest Slayer in centuries. Rupert should be radiant with contentment and pride. But he looked old and tired, and rarely met anyone's eyes nowadays. Rotten luck, really, to spend a lifetime in service to one's sense of the sacred then discover that the object of your devotion considered you an unfortunate side effect of a calling she treats like a homework assignment: tiresome but morally necessary in some obscure American way.

The strength of his continued attachment to her was a testament to the comforting durability of illusion. Bubblegum and hair barrettes aside, she was the Slayer. Rupert's Slayer.

Faith never had a chance.

Ethan is sure that Faith senses this, on an instinctual level, that she feels it more deeply than she would ever reveal. She had been assigned a Watcher in Boston, and she had let the woman die, which was more than Rupert knew; but Ethan had seen it, wincing with distaste at the state of the corpse even as he admired the girl's will to survive. She has another Watcher now, a twitchy, pallid creature. Unbelievable that they had sent this one out into the field. A liability to himself and to his Slayer, from the mirror polish of his shoes to the regulation oil of his hair pomade.

Which, for Ethan's purposes, is convenient.

He pulls his rental car into the parking lot of Sunnydale Motor Inn, where he has taken a convenient room two floors above and seven doors down from Faith's. He has been careful to enter from the back; not that it is likely Faith would recognize him, but she has the occasional visitor who might. Ethan wants the chance to present himself to her in circumstances of his own devising.

He is too fully attuned to Chaos to invest himself wholly in plans that hinge on any one human being. Still, Faith, or what she represents, is....important to him.

She is out when he gets to her room--she always is, at this hour, patrolling or diverting herself in other ways that are either more or less healthy than killing vampires, depending on your point of view. The simple lock on her door yields to the unsophisticated violation of a judiciously applied credit card, and the door swings opens to reveal a mundane single bed motel room, bare of anything save the standard accouterments and randomly strewn articles of clothing.

He steps inside, closing the door behind him, and in the darkness of the room begins to sift for the bits and pieces of herself she will have inadvertently have left behind. Faith's preferred forms of self- expression tend to be of the intangible variety.

He moves casually, and by the time the door opens for the second time that evening, he has found nothing more revealing than a drawer containing what he would have thought an optimistically large number of condoms, had he not seen how Faith moved when she danced. He closes it without hurrying as the door shuts, and he hears the soft brush of a hand sliding along a wall, feeling for a light switch.

Tall, thin shape of a boy in a not particularly nice suit. Blinking into the light, though he is not so blind that he does not see Ethan, does not tense and automatically begin to reach for his inside jacket pocket, until he realizes all he carries there is a stake, and that if Ethan were a vampire he would be dead already.

The boy stares at him a long moment. Long enough for Ethan's curiosity to give way to bemusement, and his face begin to stretch in the shape of wide, wide smile.

The boy, trained to recognize predators, begins to blanche, but a lifetime of ingrained pomposity comes to his defense soon enough, and he squares his shoulders like a soldier on parade. "Who are you, sir, and what are you doing here?"

"Waiting for Faith. What are you doing here?"

"What is your business with Faith?"

Watchers. Was the relentless lack of imagination a result of centuries of inbreeding, or was it merely a self-defense mechanism? Ethan clucks his tongue. "You needn't pretend for my benefit that she answers to you....Wesley, isn't it? No, I believe I will prefer to keep our business between ourselves."

To his credit the boy neither blusters nor retreats, though it is apparent the remark has not missed its intended target. "I see. Is Faith aware that you have....business, together? Because I really shouldn't like to surprise her. She can be--unpredictable."

Much of sorcery is seeing through layers. Subconscious levels of Ethan's mind automatically begin tearing the boy's words apart, weighing them against what he knows and what he can learn. "All part of her charm, as I see it." He pauses, then makes an offering. "I'm Ethan, by the way."

"Yes." A flicker of amusement. "Giles' former...associate."

Ethan's left eyebrow temporarily loses all sense of decorum, shooting straight to his hairline. "Someone's been telling tales out of school."

"The details of Rupert Giles' transgression and rehabilitation are a closely guarded secret. As such, every student at the Watcher's Academy knows the story before third form."

"How delicious. So glad I could be part of your tiny rebellion. What do they say of me, then?"

The invitation is as much for Wesley's benefit as for his own. Ethan knows something of Watchers, after all. Perceives, in an instant, that this one has retreated beneath a skin as rigid and false as Rupert's, painted differently but serving the same function. It is not hard to imagine what Wesley has nurtured beneath it all. With what clarity and hatred he must regard Rupert.

But Wesley's false skin is newer, cinched more tightly, protectively, than Rupert's, and when Wesley averts his eyes it is enough to free him from Ethan's compulsion. All the more tantalizing, because Ethan senses how Wesley could be persuaded to lay the pretense aside. He is not so fond of his lies as Rupert. Even now the silence he is forcing onto himself chokes him like a badly undersized cravat.

He answers with a hesitant yet knowing smile. "Enough."

Ethan sighs deeply. "You're not even going to play with me a little bit, are you?"

"I don't see us playing well together."

No trace of a blush. Ethan grins anyway. Lets silence and a smile do the work of a thousand innuendoes.

The boy looks aside, his features suddenly tight with weariness. "I suppose you wouldn't leave if I asked nicely?"

"It does seem rather unlikely."

"There's that theory gone, then."

Bemusement again. Ethan tilts his head. "I beg your pardon?"

Wesley sits heavily on the edge of Faith's bed, elbows on his knees and one hand cupped at the back of his neck. The pose is strangely touching, if only because Ethan is certain that Rupert has never seen even this far into the boy's mind.


"I've been entertaining the idea that if I asked Faith, or Buffy, to cooperate with my directives, they might respond more favorably than they have so far done. It would appear, however, that I persuade no more ably than I command."

"Oh, there now, child. Don't let me be your yardstick. You will find that I respond meltingly to the correct stimuli, but....they are not other men's stimuli."

Wesley lifts his head and stares. "How liberating that must be."

He can hardly claim to be surprised at himself--not while Chaos buzzes in his veins like some impure narcotic--but when Ethan crosses the space between himself and the bed and kisses the boy, he does so with a gentleness that he would not have predicted.

Ethan plants a knee on the bed beside Wesley and leans over him, holding the smooth sides of his white face in two hands and forcing his tongue past teeth that seem to think it their duty to clench against him. He threads his fingers through the short hair at the back of Wesley's head, massaging the tense muscles at the base of the neck, and lets his other hand slip to the side of Wesley's throat. His pulse thunders against Ethan's palm and the thumb that rests against Wesley's windpipe trembles under its shuddering.

"Freedom is always closer than you think," he says, his lips beside Wesley's ear, in a low voice that isn't precisely a whisper.

Ethan stands up, regarding Wesley's high color and his fists, clenching Faith's threadbare bedspread. His breathing is steady, but audible. He is looking from the wainscoting to the curtains and at no point does he raise his eyes any higher than the level of Ethan's knees.

Before Ethan can inform Wesley that his own room is quite nearby, the door flies open with the sort furious violence Ethan has come to associate closely with Slayers. He turns just in time to see Faith's eyes dart from Wesley to himself, and her expression turn from bewilderment to hostility.

"What the hell, Wesley?" She takes a step forward and crosses her arms over her chest.

Wesley gets to his feet as though called to attention. Looks at Ethan, who smiles at them both.

"So sorry, Miss. I came to this room by mistake and your friend here was just giving me some directions. Sorry to barge in." He turns to the door, and Faith meets his eyes just as he's slipping past. Recognition, there, but she seems willing to let it pass, which is not trust so much as supreme confidence in her own powers of survival. He can't suppress a grin.

He casts one last look over his shoulder just before the door swings shut, to see Wesley on his feet and trying to decide what to say to Faith: whether to apologize for the scene she nearly walked in on or to be angry with her for one or all of the many ways she's disappointed his concept of her.

Watchers. Ruined, hysterical creatures, all of them bound and determined, as if by some biological urge, to shape others in their twisted images.

How dull his world would be without them.

Ethan inhales the night air and turns, consideringly, toward his room. Puts his hands in his pockets, changes his mind.

Goes looking for Rupert, and a bit more fun.

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled,--
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.
Essay on Man. Epistle ii. Line 13.


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