Mortality

Written by Glassdarkly, July 2007

Giles set the telephone down on its stand very gently. He stared at it for a moment; then he shook his head – just once - and crossed to the window.

It was still snowing outside and the wind was rising. Thick wet snowflakes spiralled to the ground and blew back and forth across it in frantic miniature tornadoes. Gaunt trees in the park across the street raised black branches into the sky, like skeleton arms that thrashed and twisted trying to fend off the blizzard.

Just a few days ago, Giles had thought spring finally come but now it was winter again with a vengeance – and just for once it seemed only right that he should be alone in this strange city at dusk with the snow falling. News like this seemed to demand a certain sense of alienation – of creeping melancholy –and he had both of those in spades.

Suddenly annoyed at his own whimsy, he closed the curtains with a jerk, cocooning himself in warm lamplight. He poured himself a shot of vodka and drank it in one gulp, the pure liquid like fire in his throat and belly. Then he poured a scotch into the same glass – something to sip – and took it over to his armchair by the lamp. He'd been marking class reports on the individual Slayers when the phone rang and now he set the glass down next to the pile of papers. There were still plenty to get through and he ought to get on with it– put this trivial matter out of his mind.

So Ethan was dead. What did it matter? If it were him that had died, Ethan wouldn't spare him a single thought.

He picked up the top paper on the pile – Poole, Miranda – and began to read it. It took him a moment to realise that the words weren't nonsensical, just that he couldn't make sense of them.

"Damn it!"

His voice disrupted the uneasy quiet, making him jump, as if it were someone else who had spoken. He picked up his glass and drank the rest of the scotch, which was slopping around rather noticeably as he carried the glass to his mouth. With a grimace, he realised he wasn't fooling anyone, least of all himself. Poole, Miranda and the others would just have to wait till tomorrow.

Ethan was dead.

This time the words seemed to toll inside his head like a funeral knell, which he supposed was only fitting. And in retrospect, he should have asked Buffy what had happened to the body, though as usual she’d been in too much of a hurry to talk to him for long. Probably, she'd had to leave it behind, which meant that at some point, the military would bury it in an unmarked grave and that would be the end of the matter -for them.

Ethan was in no state to care now of course but Giles was sure he would have preferred cremation – would have abhorred neatness in death as much as he had in life. Chaos-worshipper that he was, he'd have wanted a pyre on a lonely beach like his boyhood hero, Shelley – or to be tossed naked onto the bare hillside and left for the dogs to eat.

Still, maybe the military would be wiser than Giles had found them in his admittedly limited experience. Maybe they'd have the good sense to bury Ethan deep, with enough stones weighting his coffin to keep a dead sorcerer where he belonged.

A strong gust of wind rattled the windowpanes and Giles shivered. He reflected – not without irony – how quickly he'd gone from almost mourning Ethan – never quite, but almost –to wondering if he would actually stay dead.

Abruptly, he unbuttoned his cuff and pushed up his shirtsleeve, staring at the tattoo on his forearm. The mark had lost its original sharpness long ago, fading as the ink bled into the skin.

He ran a questing fingertip around the outline of the mark – the only physical connection that remained between him and Ethan. Of course, Ethan had removed his tattoo– poured acid over it, Buffy had said – during that very unpleasant incident with Eyghon. Somehow though, Giles doubted it could be erased altogether. The mark wasn't just tattooed into flesh. It went bone-deep, tying them together for eternity.

"Damn it!" Giles said the words again, because now his eyes were damp, which was ridiculous. Ethan wasn't worth a single moment’s grief or regret – not on Buffy's part and not on his.

He rolled his sleeve down but now the mark seemed to burn on his forearm, as if by touching it he'd disturbed something more than memory. He shivered again and got to his feet. Going back to the window, he drew the curtains aside, almost expecting to look down into the street and see Ethan there on the snow-covered pavement staring up at him with that infuriating smirk on his face.

The dim remains of daylight were fading fast, chivvied along by the blizzard. In the park, a flock of crows took to the air suddenly, wings flapping like untidy black flags against the stark white ground and Giles tensed at the sight. It seemed ominous somehow, given the way his thoughts had been tending.

"Ethan?" Suddenly, he had a strong sense of his old friend's presence right behind him – full of malevolence, of joie de vivre, of sheer recklessness; the very essence of his youth made flesh. He turned, almost sure he'd find himself nose to nose with Ethan and maybe they'd laugh about it all - their past sins, their youthful follies- and have a drink together.

God knew, Giles thought, he could do with someone to drink with.

There was no one there, though. The room was as empty as it had been before – as it always was these days– though a sudden draft under the door set all the papers aflutter.

Was it entering the room or leaving?

There was a breathless silence and then, cursing himself for a sentimental old fool, Giles closed the curtains once more. He poured himself another scotch and drank it more slowly. He thought about Ethan again – about good times and bad – more bad than good, looking back at it and yet here he was torn between fearing he wasn’t dead at all and trying to will him back into existence.

What was wrong with him?

Maybe it was just the loneliness making his imagination run riot. Oh, he could put on a good act in front of the trainee Slayers but when there was no one to look at in the bathroom mirror but himself, day after day – maybe for the rest of his life – well, it got a man down eventually.

Or it could just be creeping senescence – that uneasy feeling that came over you when the friends of your youth all started dying around you. He'd had that feeling for years now – and here was Ethan gone, almost the last of them and – once upon the time – the nearest and dearest.

"It's your own mortality you don't want to face Ripper, you washed up old has-been, admit it!"

Ethan's voice with its familiar gloating tone seemed to whisper the words in Giles's ear. He grimaced, because he had to acknowledge the truth of them. Ethan had always known him better than anyone else and it seemed that was still true even in death.

He sighed. Then he raised his glass.

"To you Ethan, you old rogue." His mouth tightened. "Now piss off and leave me in peace."