Chapter 14 – Cold Comfort (Reality)
“And they will lead you like a friend
Until you see that they’re right,”
- Janus – Glue Factory
In the end it had taken close to a month for Rupert to recover fully from the damage done to his magic and his life-force, and almost as long for the wounds to heal, since they had been tied to the draining. The marks where the demon had held him had become a set of ten black scars, but he was lucky with the rest. They had healed cleanly.
Ethan’s care was probably the only thing that had prevented an infection setting in and making things that much worse. The vampire had washed him down daily and changed sheets and dressing just as regularly. It had also made him eat whenever he had been able to, which hadn’t been often, or fortified him with brandy to keep his strength up, showing a level of commitment that he would not have suspected such a thing to be capable of.
There were times where he found himself wishing that it hadn’t pulled him out of that fucking factory that night. He had been sick before, but never that sick, and some nights he couldn’t sleep for the pain, unless Ethan gave him sleeping pills to wash down.
After the first few times he had refused them, because they made him sleep, alright, but they also trapped him in a nightmare landscape that could have only been a twisted future or some blighted hell-dimension. More likely the latter, because he doubted Eyghon would have appreciated having its chance at freedom snatched out from under it.
When the pain began to fade, and he was clear-headed enough to talk and think again, he realised that something inside of him had changed. The creature inside of him that had fought tooth and claw for freedom wasn’t there any longer. Something, between Eyghon’s assault which had damn near killed him, and Ethan’s methodical, clinical care afterwards had lulled that driving force and sated it.
He doubted he would ever like Ethan, but he didn’t want to see it dead any more.
The day after he dragged himself from the bed for the first time Ethan sat him down at the table and pulled out that grimore which had been Deidre’s, and placed it before him. Rupert looked at it, trying to avoid staring at the bloodstains, his own blood on the skin-bound cover.
“This thing was never meant to get away from me.”
“What?” Rupert wasn’t entirely sure that he had heard right.
“I started writing some of the earliest material in this a hell of a long time ago. It was more a diary than anything else. Fell out of my hands a good couple of millennia ago, and it’s obviously been added to since then. I tracked down and destroyed every other copy that I could find, save for one.”
“Were you going to burn it in front of me?” Rupert pressed his lips together tightly, and tried not to betray any emotion, “A message, or something? This is your last hope, going up in smoke?”
“No,” Ethan shook its head, “You won’t be up to physical training again, for a while yet, and you’ve blooded this, so it’s yours. I expect you to start work on a translation of it, in the mean-time. Not a half-arsed one, either, but a proper one. Anything that you can’t work out, you ask me about. Is that clear? If you’d read that spell properly in the first place, then you would have actually understood the bloody thing properly, and you wouldn’t have wasted this much time.”
“I don’t want it,” Rupert shoved the book away, but Ethan simply put it back.
“It doesn’t matter. You will do as I tell you, Rupert. Believe me, my patience is wearing very thin. You’ve also lost your right to leave this house unsupervised again.”
Rupert scowled at the book, then flicked his gaze back up to Ethan and shivered, “I don’t care,” he whispered.
“I said I don’t fucking care,” Rupert rose his voice, “I just don’t care any more. I…I can’t ever like you, but I can’t hate you, and I just don’t care. House arrest is the least I deserve. I wish you would tear a strip or five out of me.”
“I’ll not help you destroy yourself, Rupert.”
“I… Jesus, Ethan. I killed someone.”
Something unidentifiable flickered in its gaze, “I know you did. I smelled his blood on you.”
“I…I… he trusted me. He wanted something, they all did, but he trusted me. He trusted me, and I slit his throat. I killed someone, and I can’t even blame you for it. I…I did it, and it was easy. It … it jus…it shouldn’t be that easy, to take have someone’s life in your hands, and end it.”
“Humans are fragile. I took care of the other six. Are you going to attempt to string me up? Snarl and call me despicable?”
Rupert slowly shook his head, “That’s different. It’s a part of what you are.”
“You would have before.”
“Guilt isn’t going to turn time back and it isn’t going to change what you did.”
“You think I don’t fucking know that? Everything’s changed.”
“No, it hasn’t. The only thing that has changed is your perception of the world.”
Rupert looked at Ethan, letting the silence between them speak for him, before he slowly stood and grabbed the book with one hand.
“I’m going to put this thing away, and then I’m taking a bath. I want some space to think.”
Ethan looked at him again, with another flash of that expression that he still couldn’t define.
“I know this wasn’t an easy lesson for you. I hope that for your sake it doesn’t have to be repeated.”
“I don’t think you have much to worry about there,” he answered in a cold tone and laughed bitterly.
“Have a decent soak. It’ll do you some good.”
Rupert shrugged and didn’t reply, as he left the room moving slowly and stiffly.
Fuck it. Even the windows in the stupid bathroom were black during the day.
Xander had been hoping for at least a way to see outside. What the hell did a fucking vampire need a sunlight-proof bathroom for, anyway? Yeah, sure, practicality. But it wasn’t like it had to use a bathroom, was it? He looked towards the shower over the tub, and cut off his internal monologue. It may not need to shit, but it still showered, obviously. Or whatever.
He flicked down the lid of the toilet seat, and sat on top of it, staring at the door. He felt shaky, and his head was aching. He didn’t get how he could still have time, after last night, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. The last thing he wanted to do was talk right now.
The sound of the phone ringing from somewhere in the house startled him enough that he jumped, and as he strained his ears he caught the murmur of one side of a conversation. He eyed the shower, and wondering if he might be able to wash the smell of Rupert off his skin, and out of his pores. He could just recall, like a memory of a memory, Rupert coming in and wiping him down, so it obviously wouldn’t undo what he’d done.
He wasn’t going to, specifically because he had been told to do so. As far as a rebellion went, it probably wasn’t very impressive, but at least it was something, and anything was better than nothing. He wanted to know how the fuck someone like Rupert could have would up living with a monster like Ethan in the first place, but he wasn’t sure he would like the answer.
More than anything, he wished he was back at home, and that life made sense again. His mother kept to herself, and his dad hadn’t much liked him at all, but at least he’d known what to expect, and how to deal with it. Here, he felt like he’d been thrown into the deep end. He didn’t even want to know what becoming part of a fucking vampire’s family would entail. That was something that he was trying very hard not to think about. Nope he didn’t have any suspicions. None at all, thank-you very much.
He leaned back against the cistern with his eyes closed, shivering. Why did it have to be his fucking life that was screwed over? He had a feeling that his father might be glad to see the back of him, and he’d been looking forward to being old enough to leave, but he sure as hell hadn’t imagined it coming about like this.
He got that Rupert had wanted to keep him safe, but in his mind that didn’t make much of a difference right now. Sure, he’d kept him safe from monsters, but he sure hadn’t done a very good job otherwise. Half of him wished that Rupert hadn’t even tried. The other half was trying not to imagine what his life might have turned into if he actually had gone out into the midst of those vampires on Vor or Vig-whatever-the-hell it had been called, or if he’d been picked up by something else.
That wasn’t a particularly pleasant thought either.
Buffy looked at Willow over her shoulder, then hung the phone receiver up and turned to face her.
“I got Giles. He said that Xander came to, some time after two this morning, and he’s sleeping it off after a night of being prodded every twenty minutes to make sure there was no concussion. He’ll be fine for school tomorrow.”
She noticed Willow’s frown.
“I guess they must have talked last night, then. I mean, you did notice that tension that was there, didn’t you?”
“I did. But if they talked, then that’s a good thing, right?”
“Yeah, I guess. I suppose it just feels…weird, without him hanging around.”
“Wouldn’t you want to sleep, if you’d spent the whole night being poked and prodded?”
“Yeah, sure,” Willow slowly nodded, and tried to put her unfounded concern to rest.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. A few fluffy white clouds hung around the sun, but aside from that it was blue sky all the way. After she was dropped off, the first thing that she did was make her way to the library. She was surprised to find Xander already there, until she realised that he must have come in with Rupert this morning.
“Buffy.” Xander nodded to her, then opened his mouth a couple of times, as though to say something else, then closed it as Rupert came out of the office.
She had expected that feeling of tension to be resolved but instead it seemed thicker than ever. If looks could kill, then she had a feeling Rupert would have been flat on his back with his limbs twitching.
“Okay, I give. What on earth is up between the two of you?”
“It’s nothing. I didn’t sleep well,” Xander finally said, “and that never does me much good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and get ready for class.”
He was speaking to Buffy, but he looked at Rupert, who nodded.
“You do that, and I’ll see you back here after class, please. For…ah, help with that homework problem that you’ve been having trouble with.”
Xander didn’t look at either of them, as he left. Buffy stared after him, until Rupert cleared his throat.
“He really got up on the wrong side of the bed, huh?”
“Sorry?” Rupert’s voice was distant, and it was obvious that he hadn’t heard a word she’d said.
“I said he must have got up on the wrong side of the bed, today.”
He didn’t reply to her. Instead, he drained the rest of the cup of coffee that he’d left sitting on his desk, and pulled out a handful of books to shelve.
He look at her coolly, “Was there anything else, Buffy?”
She felt like he’d pulled the rug she was standing on out from under her, “I guess not.”
“Then you should get ready for class too, shouldn’t you? I…I’ll see you back here after last period. For training.”
He seemed completely ill-at-ease, but if he wasn’t going talk to her, then she couldn’t force him to. If he wasn’t going to talk to her, then she wasn’t sure why she should make an effort.
Xander stood at outside the entrance of the school, with his bag dangling loosely from one hand, trying to relax a little as he soaked up the rays. One day without it, and already the day seemed so much brighter and warmer. The day had been a bust, but that wasn’t unexpected. There was just too much going around in his mind at the moment.
“Hey, you,” He heard Buffy’s voice behind him, and turned his head to look at Buffy and Willow, as they joined him on the step. He moved so that he could lean against the railing.
“Buffy. Willow,” he nodded to the pair of them.
“Ooo, he speaks,” Buffy teased, in a friendly tone.
“It’s been a long day,” Xander finally said, looking away and staring out at the traffic, and watched as a flash black car with tinted windows pulled up, and Cordelia made her way over to it.
“Didn’t Giles say something to you about getting some help with some homeworky-type thing in the library?”
“He wants to talk, he can damn well come and get me himself,” Xander’s voice was heated, “and what’s the bet you’re meant to be working out in there yourself?”
“I’m doing something that’s a little more important, in my opinion. What on earth is up between the two of you?”
“Don’t try and say ‘nothing’ either, Mister,” Willow backed Buffy up, “we’ve noticed the tension there.”
Xander bit his lip for a moment, and then shrugged a shoulder, “We had a fight, on the night of Vigi-whatever it was.”
“Vigorous,” Buffy offered, helpfully.
“Vigeous,” Willow corrected.
“Anyway,” Xander continued, “it got brought up again the other night. That’s all, alright?”
“An argument over what?” Willow pressed. Sometimes he really wished she didn’t care quite so much.
Cordelia chose that moment to push into the conversation, with her usual lack of regard for anyone else, and Xander was glad for the excuse to stop talking.
“Come on, Richard and his fraternity brother want to meet you,” she grabbed Buffy’s hand and began to drag her towards the car before she had a chance to process what was going on.
“I’m not interested in meeting frat boys,” Buffy protested, but made no move to shake Cordelia off.
“And I have no idea what strange interest they have in you. Now come on, let’s go.”
“Okay, what twisted universe did that just come out of?” Xander stared after her.
He watched the exchange, as Buffy quickly dismissed the first guy and turned to walk away, only to have some tall, pleasant-looking guy with dark brow hair follow her from the car and stop her. Xander felt a flash of satisfaction, as he saw that she was responding favourably to him.
“Better than a vampire,” Xander muttered, and Willow glanced at him. There wasn’t time for her to say anything, though, as Rupert came out of the front entrance at that moment.
“Come along,” he called.
Still, Xander didn’t move, until Buffy had passed him, and was half-way back down the hall.
“I’d better go,” he said, reluctantly, “I’ll catch up with you later, Willow.”
“Sure. Later. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have things to do anyway.”
Xander hated that dejected tone in Willow’s voice, but he knew that there was nothing he could actually say to her right at this moment, that would make her feel better. He was having a hard enough time trying to keep himself in check.
He took his time working his way through the slowly dwindling crowd that were making their way out of the school, and by the time he actually got to the library there were only a few people left, and Rupert was already wearing pads, and facing Buffy with a pair of swords in his hands. A quarterstaff was on the table within easy reach.
Xander sat down at a far table. Right about now he thought that if he saw Rupert get his British butt handed to him then it would make his day.
“I’m not going to pull any punches,” Rupert warned, and Buffy nodded in acknowledgement.
“Fine,” she said.
She followed as Rupert slowly circled her, looking for a weak spot. When he exploded in action, it looked to Xander as though it was completely out of the blue. He launched an elbow towards Buffy’s ribcage, which she dodged, then tried to bring his foot down against her instep, with a sideways kick. Buffy stepped out of the way of this then ducked, as the shorter of the two swords cut through the air above her head. She straightened quickly, snapping her head up, so that it caught the underside of his chin, in the same moment that he kneed her in the chest. She grabbed his leg as it made contact, and yanked so that he landed heavily on his back. Then she stepped on the blade of one of the swords, and caught his other hand as he swung for her, twisting it to disarm him.
The second he released the sword she let go, and held a hand down to him to help him up, “That was way too easy, Giles. Not up to your usual standard at all.”
Rupert accepted her hand, and get to his feet, rubbing his back in spite of the padding, and catching the breath that had been knocked out of him, “Yes, well, we can’t all be as good as you,” he said, crisply.
“Hey, just a comment,” Buffy held up her hands defensively, and Rupert shook his head.
“Sorry. Anyway, why don’t you head out, and get ready for patrol this evening, then I’ll see you in the morning for your report?”
She glanced towards Xander, as though she could see the tension that he was feeling. Or maybe she could feel it. He nodded to her, and she looked at Rupert again.
“Sure. I’ll see you tomorrow then, I guess.”
“Thank-you, Buffy,” he said.
As she left, he began to strip the protective gear off, then tucked it and the swords away his office. Finally, he came back out with the usual bottle of whiskey, and a pair of glasses, which he put down on his desk.
“Come here, Xander.”
“What if I’d rather not?” he tilted his head up, and stared coolly at Rupert.
Xander pretended to think about it for a moment, before emphatically shaking his head, “I’m not moving.”
Rupert sighed, then picked up the glasses and bottle and walked over to the table that Xander was sitting at, and poured out a measure of drink, which he knocked back quickly before he poured another.
Drinking and magick. Lovely combo. Xander had seen enough escapist behaviour to recognize what he saw now. The human mind was meant to be able to adapt to almost anything, but there were times when he really doubted it.
Rupert raised an eyebrow at him, “Did you…?”
“Hell, yes. Hit me. Why not add underage drinking back into the mix?” Xander cut him short, and watched as Rupert poured a couple of fingers into the other glass. Following his example, he picked it up and had about half of it, before he pulled a face and set it back down.
Rupert took a deep breath, which he let slowly out, and swallowed, staring at his hands, “Dare I ask how you were today?”
“Just peachy. My life has been turned on its head, so I’m singing in the fucking choir. How the hell do you think I am? Seriously?”
He knew that Rupert’s patience had probably been wearing thin since yesterday. He could just about see that temper threatening to boil over, like a wave about to wash over a sandbank.
“You think you’re the only person right now stuck doing something you hate?” Rupert hissed.
That was something that stung a lot more than it should have, with how much he didn’t like this situation, “Oh, so I’m something you hate now? That’s real fucking rich, Giles.”
“I never said that I hated you.”
“Really,” Xander’s tone was laced with sarcasm, “because stuck doing something you hate? That’s real fucking subtle. You know, a few weeks ago I used to respect you. Hell, a few weeks ago I wanted to be like you.”
“Never heard the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’, then?” Rupert snapped.
“I never wanted this,” Xander bolted back the rest of his glass, and shoved it back across the table. Rupert only just stopped it from shooting over the edge.
“Neither did I! But it’s what you got, and it’s what you’re stuck with. At the very least, you could try to be grateful!”
“Grateful? How the fuck is that one meant to work, when I’ll have no fucking option but to screw with you?!” Xander matched Rupert’s tone with ease.
“Because this isn’t forever!” Rupert took a deep breath, and struggled to get himself back under control. He knew first-hand how badly he could fuck things up if her completely lost his rag, “Listen, Xander. In a few years, you’ll be marked, which will keep anything with half a brain away, and you’ll be more than capable of taking care of yourself. The height of a submissive’s xenophiliac breeding cycle doesn’t often last longer than ten to fifteen years, and I know that probably sounds like a lifetime now, but it’s not. You will get your own life back, which is more than I’ll ever have.”
Well yes, he would fixate on that, wouldn’t he?
“That’s not the point. The point is…”
“You expect me to kiss goodbye to fifteen years of my fucking life, spend it as part of a freak-show, then you think I’ll what, be able to step back into it like nothing ever happened?”
“It’s a hard fact, that life changes people regardless,” Rupert rose, and jabbed a finger into Xander’s shoulder, “and you’re going to just have to suck up and deal with it.”
Xander twisted his head away, “You can be a real prick, you know?”
“I’m the prick who will be keeping you alive,” Rupert said, squaring himself.
Even with the anger that was in his tone Xander thought he could still hear a note of defeat in his tone, and there was definitely exhaustion there, too. He shook his head. What the hell was he doing, picking out his tone of voice, when he had already decided to hate him for this? Hate would make life so much simpler. It was black and white, rather than shades of grey.
“Look, Xander,” Rupert reached down and rested a hand gently over his. Xander yanked it away from underneath, and caught the frown that flitted across Rupert’s face, “We’re both on edge, and this conversation is getting us nowhere for the moment. Why don’t you go home and get some rest for the night, then I’ll see you back here with Buffy tomorrow morning?”
“You honestly think I’ll be able to sleep after this?” Xander laughed bitterly.
“Just try, for the sake of both our sanity.”
“Why, gonna strangle me again if I don’t?” Xander pushed him.
“Don’t. Just…just go.”
“Maybe I will go. I could make a quick track out of town, and away from this, and you wouldn’t be able to do jack shit to stop me.”
Rupert looked at him, trying to tell whether it was a serious threat. He weighed his words, before replying, “You’re right, you could. But it wouldn’t be long until you ran into something a lot worse than Ethan or I. Just keep that in mind, if you do.”
It would be better to have him thinking about things, and a little scared, than to have him take off after leaving the library.
Rupert stared at his glass, in silence as Xander grabbed his bag and left. Then he knocked that one back as well, put his forehead in his hands and closed his eyes. He must have been a true villain in some past life to bring all of this onto himself.
Buffy made her way through the darkened woods, taking her time so that she didn’t miss any signs of trouble. Not that she expected to. Earlier on she had taken out a single vampire that had still had dirt in his hair, but aside from that she hadn’t seen anything over the last few nights. The town actually felt like any other normal town, which didn’t do much to set her mind at ease.
It was like the vampires were staying indoors, or underground, or whatever, for the time being, and that was never a good thing. She would have called it a night and gone to catch up with Angel, but that had recently taken a turn for the worse.
Angel hadn’t turned on any of the lights, or lit the candles. He was sitting in the dark, staring at the door as though waiting for her to come in. She supposed that he had known she was there from the moment she had entered the mansion. Vampiric hearing was something that she had always found impressive.
She could see just enough of him through the shadows to see that he was wearing his usual black jeans, and a white singlet.
“Hey, you,” she whispered, not wanting to raise her voice and break the moment, as her heart quickened in her chest, “I was expecting you to show tonight.”
“Sorry. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, lately.”
Those words didn’t sound all that promising, but Buffy tried to ignore the possible implications.
“Penny for them?” she said, stepping closer to him, as he stood. She was close enough now that he could have reached out and ran a thumb over her cheek, but he didn’t make any move to.
“I think that this is moving too fast for you, Buffy. Earlier, you were using me to help make a connection with the world, but now that you’re back on your feet I think it’s time that you took a step back, and got some perspective. You need to ask yourself if you know where this is going, and if you’ll be ready for it when it gets there.”
“I do know where this is going, though, and I’m more than ready for it.”
“Are you? Are you really, or is that what you tell yourself for comfort? I’m not some prince, Buffy, and this isn’t a fairy tale. There isn’t going to be some happily ever after waiting for you, and when I touch you I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop.”
“I don’t want happily ever after. I just know that I want you now.”
“Think about it, Buffy. Think it through.”
He brushed past her, still without making contact, and a moment later she heard the sound of the door to the courtyard opening and closing. She stood there, feeling stunned, and taking the time to gather her thoughts, before she slowly made her way back outside.
A cricket chirruped from somewhere up ahead. Buffy walked out of the trees, and froze as she heard the sound of footsteps approaching rapidly behind her. Pulling out a stake, she turned and tensed, only to relax as Xander came out into the pale moonlight, a stake of his own drawn.
“You’re out pretty late.”
“Says the pot to the kettle. I can’t sleep, and I’ve been doing this since before I knew vampires existed, without getting my neck nibbled on. What’s your excuse?”
“Part of the job description. No pay and crappy hours. Reckon I could get myself fired by making a poor show of it?”
Xander shook his head, “Nah. They wouldn’t be able to find anyone else who’d want to take over from you.”
Xander sounded a little more like his old self, but Buffy couldn’t shake the impression that he was trying a lot harder than he normally would. He was acting normal, but something about his expression looked wooden. He moved out of the trees, so that he was standing beside her.
“Didn’t expect to find you on your own tonight. Where’s Dead Boy?’
Buffy gave him an exasperated look, but didn’t comment on the name that she knew Angel hated.
“He’s busy. Has been all week, in fact.”
She spotted the tiny flash of triumph in his expression and again wondered why he didn’t trust Angel, when the vampire had proven himself to all of them several time over.
“And here I thought that guy was harder to get rid of than blue cheese,” he spotted something glittering dully in the moonlight, and walked over to it, dropping into a crouch to pick it up by a delicate chain, “Today’s bogie prize from the Hellmouth, for your viewing pleasure.”
He held out the broken bracelet half, and Buffy took it, holding it up to the scant light so that she could see it properly. She didn’t need any extra illumination to see the faint hint of tacky brown that had run into the engraved letters ‘ENT’ that were on it.
“There’s blood on it, and it’s a girl’s bracelet. What’s around here that we know of?” she bounced the question off Xander, as she started to walk. He hurried to fall into step with her.
“Well, we’ve got trees, a graveyard not far away on one side, and UC Sunnydale not far away on the other. The fact is that could have come from anywhere. A bloodsucker could have found its first meal, or someone could have tripped over taking a shortcut to class, or stumbling away from a frat party.”
Buffy frowned, and Xander could see that she was thinking about something. ”Maybe I should go to that party with Cordelia to see if anyone knows anything.”
“Maybe see more of that guy you were talking to, this afternoon?” Xander gave her a wink.
“Well,” Buffy drew the word out.
“Come on, if you and Angel are on a break, then you have to test the water. He was human, so I reckon that’s a tick in the plus column straight off, and from a girl’s perspective I reckon he probably was pretty easy on the eye.”
Buffy laughed, “Okay, so that’s true.”
They came to the road that ran along the other side of the university, and started down it.
“I’m taking a quick sweep through Restfield, and then I’m going to call it a night. It’s pretty dead out here. Were you in?”
“Sure,” Xander nodded.