“The point Rupert, is still that is would be a lot let individual weight carried by each person alone if there were three of us,” Buffy cleared her throat, and Ethan narrowed his eyes, “three sorcerers, that is, to carry the weight of the binding. And I’m sorry Buffy, but as wonderful as you are, as much innate power as a Slayer should have, you’re still untrained and lacking practice. What we need is practiced power, not a child at play.”
Rupert and Ethan were arguing again. Or ‘debating a point, forcefully’ as Rupert preferred to call it.
“I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be easier. What I’m saying is that the only other person, who we know with even a part of the experience towards tackling something like this with us…”
“Is the witch, yes, I know.”
“Then I’d assume you also know, or remember as the case may be, what exactly happened last time she got near a portal. She rent the damn thing open, Ethan. And I know that there’s a part of you that still thrives under Chaos, but to risk that… No.”
“She’s powerful, Rupert.”
“You think I don’t know that? But it’s a bellicose power, not a restrictive one, which is something else that you also know, surely.”
“And mine isn’t?”
“It’s not the same thing, and you know it. You’ve been fine-tuning yourself since you were what, twelve, wasn’t it? You have a bloody lifetime’s experience controlling yourself.”
“And you’ve been putting your foot down ever since…” he glanced at Buffy, and cut his sentence short; ever since I told you about it.
“Even if I have been, it’s beside the point, Ethan. We’ve pulled powerful spells together before. And I also distinctly remember telling you to think more, not less.”
He allowed an edge of ice to come into his voice, a touch of iron that Ethan knew from pushing against in the past was something that would hold up under pressure. It wasn’t often that Rupert put his foot down, or drew the line in the sand, but when he did Ethan knew to leave well enough alone. He was stubborn, but not stupid, after all. He liked friction for the sake of friction, but not when it threatened to do real damage to the life that he was comfortable in.
Rupert found his gaze drawn to the Slayer, almost as though he’d forgotten that she was there.
“Hmm? Was there possibly something that you wanted to add?”
“Sorry. It’s just… it’s been a while since I’ve heard that sort of authority in … well, it’s just been a while.”
She had been about to say that it had been a while since she had heard that sort of authority in his voice. Another stark reminder that this wasn’t the man that she knew; in those final months that she had known him he’d been more likely to brush her off than to put his foot down about anything.
“Anyway, I don’t even know what bellicose means, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t give her a chance if it’ll make things easier.”
“You’re right, you don’t see. And you didn’t see what happened last time we gave her a chance. The base of her power was corrupted by what she tapped, Buffy, and it’s something that gets more out of hand, the closer the proximity to darker powers. It turned it into something destructive, something that it never should have been.”
His expression softened a little, and he ran a hand back through his hair, a sure sign of frustration
“Sorry for asking.”
“No, don’t be. You weren’t to know, and you won’t find anything out unless you do ask someone.”
Another brief silence fell.
“Isn’t there anything that could be done?”
Ethan spoke before Rupert could, “The chance would lie in her stopping use of her power altogether, and cleansing totally. Such a thing would wipe out the base power, and, well, reset it, to a point, I suppose. Possibly. But if it did work, the magical withdrawal alone would be hell on her. And then she would have to learn how to use what she has again, from the basics up. And again, the point lays in the fact that we’re in the middle of a war, here. We don’t have the time, and we can’t afford to lose a valuable resource, even temporarily.”
He let out a slow breath, “I’m sorry, I know it probably sounds harsh to you. But we have to think in the terms of the overall outcome, not in human cas… effect.”
“And what was that word you cut off there?”
He winced, “Causality.”
She looked at him, squarely, “You know, your choices really suck.”
His laugh in response was a bitter sound, “Believe me, we’re more than aware of that wonderful little fact, dear thing.”
Then, with a glance at the exasperated-looking man who was about a foot away from him, he rolled his eyes, “Yes, Rupert, before you say another thing I do concede.”
“Good. It’s time that could be better spent planning. Speaking of which, where did we stand before you began to try picking your customary fight? On top of it I lost my train of thought.”
“Balance,” Ethan shrugged, “which is apparently out of the question, so I suppose we move onto protection, which we will need you for, Buffy. I’d much rather you were at our back than someone with a machine-gun. When Ripper and I go under we’ll be oblivious to the rest of the world, for the duration of this thing. It’s always the same way with the more powerful magick; you get given a new world in which to play in, with its own unique series of rules and laws, but the price that you pay is that you lose the one that the physical self stays in.”
“I think I actually followed that.”
“Well, considering I condensed it for you…”
Turning away from Rupert, he made to check the bag of ingredients that they’d been gathering, on the pretense of making sure that they had everything, so that he wouldn’t have to meet that pissed-off look in his lover’s eyes that he was sure that the Slayer hadn’t noticed. Rupert had made all the right sounds about sweeping the argument to one side, but it was obvious, to him at least, that he hadn’t. He knew how this worked; Rupert would carry it for a few days, and then it would dance back around again, on the heels of another disgruntlement, and Ethan would wind up apologizing for both grievances, old and new if he wanted things to settle back to what they should be.
“So,” he looked up at her, out of the corner of his eye, “have you got our backs?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it covered. So, how long is this thing going to take?”
Rupert snatched the bag from him, the movement a little rougher than it normally would be.
“Ideally, it’ll be a couple of hours. We can’t rush it, because of the amount of energy both that this will take, and because of the energy that the portal itself will be producing. We do it too fast, and not only is overexertion a risk, but the backlash from closing it too fast… well, picture it like an elastic band, stretched to breaking. Both parts lash the surrounding area, only in this situation the surrounding radius that will potentially be destroyed will quite possibly cover several city blocks, and will almost assuredly kill us, too.”
“I can see how that wouldn’t be a good thing.”
Rupert gave her a smile, that didn’t quite reach his eyes, “Yes, that’s one way to put it. Anyway, we move out just after one, so I suggest that you perhaps have a chat with Ethan, about something that I know he’s been avoiding, and then get some rest. And I’d appreciate if you didn’t kill him, because it would be a pain to have to carry the spell on my own.”
Ethan stared at him, unable to hide his shock, “That’s a little bloody underhanded, don’t you think?”
Rupert looked back at him, unflinching, “Just get the damned conversation out of the way. I’m sure I hardly need to point out that the last thing that we need is anything taking us by surprise and with something like that, forewarned is forearmed.”
The scowl that he gave Rupert’s back went unnoticed, and he made sure to lift his voice so that Rupert didn’t miss a word, “Let’s just say make sure that nothing gets the upper hand, and leave it at that, shall we?”
He froze in mid-step and turned back.
Ethan found himself cursing his own natural inclination towards friction more than he usually would. It had been a long time since he had seen genuine anger in Rupert, and that cold, flint-hard look in his green eyes, entirely belied by the neutral set of his expression told him that this was no mere irritation which he had stirred up this time.
That perfectly measured ‘would you like to rethink that’ tone of his voice was another give-away, too. It only picked up that false-calm tone when he was at his angriest, and served as a warning that one more misstep would be all that it would take, the control that it was taking for him to hold himself in check evident in it.
“Christ. Sorry, Ripper,” his own tone of voice was completely reticent and sincere, although he also knew from past experience that it would take more than the single word to sooth the dog who’s nose he had just tweaked back to a lull, “you know how sometimes words have a habit of bypassing my brain.”
“I’d say that both thought and common sense do sometimes, as well,” still that fake-calm.
Ethan found that he was holding his breath, because if Ripper was going to lose it, then it would be within the next few moments. As one dragged by and then another he watched the fascinating process of a little tension dropping from his stance, although his eyes still didn’t lose that look of cold fire, and Ethan shook his head to stop his life from flashing before his eyes.
He knew what Ripper’s anger could do, had seen those unfortunates whether Council or otherwise, who had truly pissed the man off. None of it had been pretty, and yet he still couldn’t seem to keep his hands out of the fire.
“Well, are the two of you going to stop dancing around whatever this apparently vital piece of information is?”
Ethan watched as Ripper startled towards her, a hint of surprise coloring his expression. It seemed that in his effort for self-control, he had forgotten the Ace of the hand that he’d just played.
With the attention off him, Ethan finally managed to chase down his circling thoughts and arrange them into a pattern that seemed as though it may keep him from grievous bodily harm. Closing his eyes he let out a slow exhale, enjoying what hopefully wouldn’t be his last breath.
“I cut a deal with the devil; or rather… a demon to be precise. Not the first time I’ve done so in this thing; desperate times, desperate measures and all that, but the first familial power that I’ve brought into this. And I brought you into it, too. It… it wasn’t a part of the initial plan, because, to be quite frank, there wasn’t much of an initial plan outside of survival. Past circumstances, on the other hand, allowed for it. The tattoo that my, ah… counterpart, left you with is a very old form of magic, if I’m seeing it from the right angle. You got the mark removed, I’m assuming, unless it’s simply not in a visible area, but a ghost of the power from it would have remained with you, an echo of it in your blood, so to speak. What’s more is that without the mark to anchor it, it’s a non-specific … target, if you will. I drew on the power for myself, and of course it took notice of Rupert, because of what he and I have shared, but it rather took interest in you, too. So, for the sake of my, er, continued living I suggest you be careful.”
He tried not to hope that she wouldn’t ask for names. For the first time in a long time luck was on his side there, too. He watched her face changing; anger, uncertainty, thought, wonder, more uncertainty, a brief detour to something that looked surprisingly like it could have been related to Ripper’s fond exasperation of last night, and then just as he was waiting for the thrilling conclusion of his fate it went perfectly blank.
He wondered whether he dared to talk again, decided that it wouldn’t make much difference if she were planning to launch a swift execution.
“As Rupert here is fond of saying, there are times when common sense tends to get bypassed.”
Another flash of… something… reassurance…? in her expression.
“No, I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think that’s it at all, or maybe not as a prime motive. I think it’s everything to do with self-preservation. And, you know, I think I was half-waiting for this, or something like it. You want to know something else?”
She paused, actually waiting for a response, and he could recognize what was half a fond memory, and half of a painful one.
“Screwing up is human. I know I’m human, so it’s kinda nice to get the reassurance that at least one of the all-powerful sorcerers is, too. Besides, even if I was going to get angry with you, then now isn’t really the time, is it? I could yell if I wanted, and that doesn’t change that what’s done is done. I could say that it was stupid, but you seem to have already covered that. I’ve also seen enough of him,” she nodded towards the leather-jacketed man, leaning against the stairway banister, who was looking a little less threatening than he had been a few minutes earlier, “to see that he isn’t too different to what I remembered. Altered by circumstances, sure, but who wouldn’t be in this fucked-up world? Anyway, the point there is that I’ve seen enough of him to trust what I see, so far. Doesn’t take a genius to see that he’s annoyed, too, but I think if what you did was a threat in any way, then you wouldn’t be standing here talking to me about it.”
You don’t know the half of it, dear girl.
For once that was a thought he managed to bite down on, though. It wouldn’t do to throw himself back into the fire, when he’d just been spat out of the frying pan, and clear of the grate. She had only seen a fragment of Ripper. If she ever saw what was behind the attitude, intelligence and forced self-control then he doubted she would hang around long enough to see whether he got back up after she knocked him for six.
He could see that edge of satisfied sociopath around the outline of Ripper’s expression, and told himself to settle back down. The man had lasted out this long in the world of the sane, on only a hint of who he had used to be. This world was enough to sate any craving of chaos. He would hang on, would be able to keep his head. After all, Ripper had always been the one with better self-control.
And for the first time in a long time Ethan had won a round.