It is Xander who encounters the couple next, and in a far less dramatic fashion than prior meetings.
He's managed to get a half hour of training in with Giles, but Buffy takes precedence, and Xander is cool with that. Playing test-dummy to a still-angsting Slayer is something he doesn't envy Giles for – the career questionnaire earlier had really brought bitterness to the pity party. Xander himself is resigned to the idea that he has a shiny future in janitorial services, because even if he had the brains, he sure as heck will never have the money for college, so he gets the lack of options. He doesn't want to go home just yet - it isn't like dinner will be waiting, or anyone will ask about his day – and he's wondering if he has enough money to buy a Meal Deal (and shaking off the ghost-memory of MRE's) or if it will be a lucky dip in the freezer, when he becomes vaguely aware of someone ahead of him trying to juggle their bags, and the door of the Golden Pagoda. One of the cartons makes a desperate bid for freedom, and the resulting grab sees everything go flying in shower of wonton.
"Oh, arse." says an exasperated British voice. Then, "Xander?" A smile of recognition.
Xander, already automatically stooping to help gather things, stares. It takes him a moment to recognise her. Last time he'd seen her, she'd been wide-eyed, face bloodied. But it is definitely the woman he has dubbed in his mind as Chaos Lady. (Blissfully unaware of just how appropriate that is.)
Eris gives him a considering look.
"If I bribe you with food, will you help me carry stuff back to the shop?"
Xander's stomach growls, and he blushes. She obviously takes his mumble as assent, because he finds himself loaded up with a fresh set of cartons ("Ah, Mr Harris – 16, 43 and a double order of 7b") - he'd be embarrassed, but this place does the best General Tso's Chicken, even if the Jade Dragon over on Sepulveda has the edge for spare-ribs. He imparts this wisdom to Eris, who nods gravely.
"I shall rely upon you to be my native guide. Though I think we've toured most of the fast food joints in town by now. I am so looking forward to having my own kitchen, Ethan will happily live on burgers, but I want the chance to try out some recipes."
"You're staying here?"
"We're opening a bookstore."
Xander eyes her in alarm.
"And are the books gonna come alive and suck people into them?"
"Hopefully not." She rolls her eyes. "I'm going to be spending a lot of my time apologising for that wretched man, aren't I?" Thinks a moment. "Hmm, better not mention the people-eating books in front of him, actually, I don't want him getting ideas."
Eris reassures him.
"I won't let him turn evil, that would be terribly dull, and Rupert would want to thump him again." Tilts a smile. "Which reminds me, you got to beat up your nemesis, I understand?"
"Oh, yeah." Diverted, Xander allows a blissful grin to cross his face. "Another minute, and I've have gotten Spike, too."
"Shame, that. Better luck next time."
"Next time?" Alarm.
"Facing down a vampire with superior fire-power, is all I meant. You need to drink less coffee, kiddo." But she grins at him, and Xander can't help grinning back.
The store looks totally different to the last view Xander had of it. Clean, with a faint smell of fresh paint and new wood, there are now tall bookcases along the walls, some partially filled. The till is now to one side of the door, and the other side has a couple of small couches and a low table. Ethan is slouched there, looking rather less urbane than usual, in jeans and rolled shirt-sleeves. He looks slightly surprised when Eris breezes through the door with Xander at her heels, but simply raises a languid arm, mug in hand.
"Hello again. Can we tempt you to a civilised beverage?"
"Does coffee really count?"
"Tchah, Colonials." But Ethan grins back. "Unlike the impression you may have gained from dear Rupert, we do not all run on tea and tweed."
"Says the man who needs two cups of tea to even function in the morning." Eris drops a kiss on his forehead in passing. "But yes, tweed would not suit you."
Ethan watches Eris, waving her hands and laughing as she outlines their plans to Xander, and has a moment of complete disorientation. He's not supposed to be having this sort of life.
When Ethan had headed for California, he'd never envisioned this sort of thing. He'd thought sunshine, beaches, pretty women to cater to his every whim.
Well, he's got the sunshine, and there is a beach within easy driving distance. He even has the pretty woman, though expecting her to cater to his whims would be an exercise in futility. The gainful employment, the suburban home, that had been unexpected. He's gone from being a solitary mage for hire, to a prospective member of the business community. He's...respectable.
Ethan's mental image of himself has always been that of a free spirit, a charming rogue who wandered the world at will, without ties or responsibilities. Somehow, putting up curtains had never quite figured into that picture. But Eris has been quite firm, if she is going to be in Sunnydale for a while, she is going to live somewhere other than a motel room. Luckily, property is cheap and plentiful, and a small house in a quiet cul-de-sac has just acquired new tenants. He's been made to purchase kitchenware. Yardwork looms on the mental horizon.
The one consolation is that it is going to drive Ripper crazy. Threatening to run him out of town when he'd been a (lone) vagrant sorcerer was one thing, but there is no recourse against this situation. The bookshop is simply that, a bookshop. He is doing nothing objectionable, possibly for the first time in his existence. And really, he's spent enough time in cold and lonely motel rooms, eating take out and watching pay per view. Perhaps owning a set of saucepans is not going to be such a dreadful thing.
He contemplates his future. It's the first time in years that he has even considered that he might have one. He's never been given to long-term planning, never had the luxury, moving from job to job. He's never been one to look back, either, a creature of the now. Somehow, in a mere couple of weeks, this woman has insinuated herself into his life, upended it completely. He's bewildered, dizzy, unsure of what will happen next, towed along in her wake.
He's not sure what he is to her, diversion, amusement, accomplice, but he's scaring himself to death with the hope that he's - important to her. Not just because he's useful in her plans. And he wonders when he got to be so pathetic. (He thinks it was probably about the time he found himself blinking up at her, as she gently wiped blood from his face and scolded him.)
Ethan sighs, sags, admits defeat. He'd thought he was too cynical, too wary to fall into this trap. But no, he's helplessly in... something, with Eris. Bugger.
Xander can't quite believe that he is sitting and making nice with the guy who nearly got them killed at Halloween. (Except – he got to punch out Larry, and now, he's got stuff in his head that makes him better prepared. And, heck, if Buffy hadn't chosen that dress to try and impress tall, dark and broody...) If he'd known Ethan better, he'd have been a bit less sanguine about accepting food and drink from him, but the mage is too exhausted by physical labour to cause mischief.
The man is the same age as Giles, but far looser, catches his pop culture references and slings them right back. This forces Xander to remember that Giles had once been something other than the stuffy librarian, wonder what he'd been like at Xander's age. Being him, he asks. Ethan, being Ethan, replies.
"Well, I didn't know Ru until a few years later. He'd started wearing leather by then..."
"Played guitar, yeah?" Off Ethan's startled look. "I, er, saw a photo."
"Nearly everyone we knew was in a band. All you needed were three chords, ripped jeans, and the ability to sneer." Ethan lifts the corner of his lip to demonstrate, a disturbingly Spike-like expression. "He used to tell girls he was a founder member of Pink Floyd. The dim ones believed it."
"If you're going to tell tales, you should wait and do it when you can enjoy Rupert's face." Eris grins at him. "You used to tell them that you worked for David Bailey, anyway."
"What is this 'shame' that you speak of?" Ethan says cheerfully, taking more rice. "We were young and handsome, and we had our lives before us."
"What he means is that they all hung out in a horrible old house, trying to pick up girls, who usually ran screaming when they saw the state of the kitchen." Eris points a chopstick.
"I was at art college, that practically obligated me to be a drug-addled Bohemian with authority issues and no useful life skills." Leans forward, with the air of one imparting great wisdom. "Opting for banking may bring you security, but you'll get invited to less parties."
"Hey, I suspect I'm going to turn out to be cut out for the thrilling world of the fast food service industry." Xander lifts a shoulder in response to the raised eyebrows. "It's Career Week."
"You can always come and be our stock boy." Eris grins, then blinks. She slaps her forehead. "Oh, sod it. Xander, have you got Rupert's number? I just realised, there's a good chance that the Order of Taraka are on their way here."
"Uh..." Xander obediently picks up the phone and dials, holds out the receiver to Eris. Ethan is still mopping himself up. "And this Order of the Teriyaki is bad, because?..."
"Assassins. Come in a variety of species, have the whole 'Terminator' deal going on." The man's eyes are wide and a bit wild. "Eris, my sweet, how exactly did you forget something like that?"
"Only human, now, darling, and first time round, Buffy met the first one because she was on a date with Angel. Since he's now absent, events are proceeding a bit differently... Rupert? Hi, it's Eris. Just a heads up..."
Xander hears Mount Giles erupt – he quite obviously knows about these assassin guys. Eris cuts through the outrage, cut glass tones that cause all her listeners' spines to straighten, atavistic masculine fear.
"As I was just explaining to Ethan and Xander, this is a point of divergence. The initial encounter occurred when Buffy skipped out to go on a date with Angel...Xander is perfectly fine, though I think he's contemplating arm-wrestling Ethan for the last spring roll...Focus, Rupert. Prospective assassination threat to your Slayer first, and then we'll discuss the use of sweet and sour pork as a vile instrument of corruption...Events may have gone completely off course, it depends, did you lose a book to a random vampire a few weeks ago?... Right, Du Lac manuscript, it's useless without the cipher, there is, or was, a cross buried in the Du Lac crypt...ah, well, yes, then you probably do have a trio of nasties converging..." Her voice sharpens again, eyes narrowing. "I am saving you quite a lot of research here. This is not my job." The agitated buzz grows more conciliatory. "...Thank you. Obviously, it's a diversion, they aren't big hitters, just cannon fodder. Spike's attempting to heal Drusilla. If you dust him, then the Order will drop the contract, no client to pay them...Well, they're going to be buggered anyway. The ritual required the presence of the sire...oh, no, it got interrupted when Buffy dropped a blazing church organ on them. Didn't stop them for long, but it had a certain Acme charm to it..."
"Okay, what the hell?" Xander's own eyes are basically bugging out by now.
"I'll let Eris explain." Ethan is still rattled, himself. He has never had dealings with the Order, but he had once failed to collect a paycheck from someone who most unfortunately had.
They listen to a very concise description of who to watch out for, and then Eris is sweeping towards the front door, Xander right on her heels.
"One of them took out Buffy's neighbour in order to get a surveillance post, so I hope I remembered in time." She looks grim and a bit stricken.
"You had nothing to do with unleashing the Order." Ethan gives her a swift one-armed hug. Part of him wants to dig his heels in, because rushing out after assassins is a White Hat thing to do, and even on his best day, he's a kind of dirty grey, but the boy is obviously determined, and Ru will not be happy if one of his charges gets hurt. (He refuses to consider that he might want to look heroic in Eris' eyes, because that's ridiculous.) "I have the car-keys."
"I can guide you." Xander doesn't want to be left out of things. "Now, I repeat, what the hell?"
"I'm what happens when magicians don't think their spells through properly." Eris says. "You got some nifty combat skills, Ethan got me."
Xander blinks at her, then turns to look at Ethan, wide-eyed. Ethan shrugs.
"Okay, most people just get candy." Xander's mouth is operating independently of his brain again. Ethan just smirks.
"Ah, but my Eris is so much sweeter."
Eris mimes being sick, and grins crookedly at Xander.
"He's such a smooth talker, how could I resist him?"
"So, you're a Seer?"
"I'm not nuttier than squirrel poo, thank you very much. It's more as if I can, well, remember events. Think time travel, rather than crystal ball. I did explain it all to Rupert."
As another example of Hellmouth weirdness, this is a nicer example than most. Magic lady with knowledge of the future - who doesn't want to kill him, eat him or mate with him, or any combination thereof, so Xander thinks he's ahead of the game there – and she detests vampires, which puts another tick in the 'yay' column. Also, she's fed him, and now they are off to save Buffy from a guy made of killer bugs.
Just another typical evening in Sunnydale, then.
Ethan can conjure small fireballs. He mostly uses them to light cigarettes. But combined with the can of Raid that Xander is holding, they make an effective makeshift flamethrower. Norman Pfister winds up as a pile of writhing, squealing, flaming goop on the sidewalk before he even reaches the Kalish house.
"You gotta teach me that trick." Xander pants, as they stamp on the last remnants.
"And have Ru thump me for corrupting your young mind? I think not."
"Giles doesn't think I have a mind to corrupt."
"He can be a little blinkered on occasion." Ethan regards the bottom of his shoe. "I'm going to have to burn these. This is thoroughly disgusting."
"At least vampires just turn into dust. Demons kinda...squelch. I've seen green goo, blue goo, brown goo, orange goo - there was even a purple mould thing once."
"I get the idea."
Xander uses a twig to lift the assassin's ring out of the slurry, Ethan wraps it in a handkerchief. He looks up and down the peaceful street.
"I must say, I'd heard about 'Sunnydale Syndrome', but really, we set fire to a bloke who dissolved into maggots, and then danced on the ashes, and nobody has come out to see what's going on?"
"This is a very weird town." Xander grins at him. "Still want to live here?"
Ethan rolls an eloquent eye towards the car, tries not to look fond and fatuous.
"I don't think I have a choice."
Eris, who hadn't even had a chance to get out of the car, gives a little finger-wave back. They stroll (slightly stickily) back towards the vehicle.
"...are you sure you can't teach me that fireball trick?"
Ethan considers. The boy is a liability around magic, apparently, and it will almost certainly annoy Rupert. It has the potential to be a very, very bad idea indeed.
"...How's your Latin?"
Like that has ever stopped him.