It wasn't as though he stalked the streets, stake in hand, hoping to find a vampire, although to be fair, driving the stake into the plump old woman's heart had rather released some stress. If she hadn't asked him to help get her kitty from the tree, and then lunged at his throat when he bent his head back to look, he wouldn't have killed her, wouldn't have noticed her at all. After almost five years in Sunnydale, one would think that the vampires might have some vague idea of what the Slayer's Watcher looked like and would have grasped the basic concept that one should try to avoid him, but apparently that was too much to ask.
Rubbing the mark on his throat where her fangs had scraped the surface, he wondered whether he ought to return to look for "kitty." One couldn't let a vampiric cat roam the streets, assuming it existed. Of course, come dawn, the sunrise would eliminate the problem, unless it was an exceptionally lucky cat. But studying it briefly could result in an interesting paper for the Watcher journal, even if he had to submit it through an established Watcher, since he'd left the fold...
Locking the door behind him, Giles set his briefcase on the coffeetable and strode directly to the closet. Perhaps he wouldn't even pause to dig out a shot glass, just take a swig from the bottle. Sprinkle a bit on the scratch for antiseptic purposes, as well.
"Hard day at work?" a familiar voice asked with mock sympathy.
He stopped short, closing his eyes. "Ethan Rayne." Of course. What else could possibly cap the day he'd had? He spun on one heel. "What are you doing here?"
Gazing down at him from the loft, Ethan cocked his head. "You remember me. I'm touched."
"I've pointed that out to you on more than one occasion, I believe." Ethan just grinned unrepentantly. It was almost impossible to hurt him with words, which was why Giles always ended up using his fists to make his point. At the moment, however, Ethan was too far away to hit. "How did you get in here?"
"Oh, I picked the lock, of course. You taught me, remember? One of the few good things to come from your Watcher Cub Scout training."
"Not the only mistake I made at the time."
"You cut me to the quick," Ethan said. He actually looked as if he meant it. He was sporting quite a dark tan, accented by the white suit he was wearing. It looked rather classier than his usual flashy attire. "You knew where I was, having consigned me to the tender mercies of a government laboratory. Yet you didn't visit, or call, or even send me a birthday card. I felt quite forgotten, and we can't have that, can we? My thanks for the free vacation, by the way, but Nevada didn't agree with me."
"How exactly did you escape?"
"Oh, I didn't. I simply changed places with a particularly unpleasant guard. Since I took care to maintain the glamour even after I'd left the state, they still believe he's me, despite his protests. Or they did until yesterday." Ethan's mouth quirked. "I had to release the spell; I thought I'd best be at full strength when we met again."
There were no weapons visible--the suit was much too tight to conceal any--but Ethan didn't need weapons to be deadly. Giles stayed by the closet, mindful of the foil stored there. It probably wouldn't be much use; from the sound of it, Ethan intended to match magical powers. A pity, since Ethan had devoted his life to magick, and Giles had done his best to avoid ever having to use it.
"Go away, Ethan. Aren't we even, at this point? You turned me into a Fyarl demon and nearly got me killed by my Slayer; I turned you over to the government. Let it end there."
"There was a time you'd have been at my throat as soon as you heard my voice."
"I already killed someone today; I don't care to exceed my daily limit." Giles gestured toward the closet. "I was about to pour a drink. Care for one?"
"I don't think I care to be stabbed through the heart with a foil, no. You keep the most interesting things in your closets. The shotgun I understand, but a shrunken head? Rattlesnake venom?"
"You never know when an unwanted guest might need to be...uninvited."
"Veiled threats? Is this any way to welcome an old friend?"
Giles carefully removed his glasses, folded the arms, and slipped them in his pocket. "You're right. The threats should be open. Get out of my home, Ethan. While you still can."
"There! That's the man I remember. Actually, Ripper, I'm not the one leaving, you are. I'm sending you on a wonderful trip, one that you should've taken years ago. Hence the suit." Ethan rocked on his heels, beaming. "There really ought to be a dwarf scampering about, braying, 'De plane! De plane, Boss!'" Apparently catching the completely baffled expression on his face, Ethan sighed. "Really, you need to watch more TV. Those Watchers are positively medieval. Think of all you've missed."
"Reality TV," Giles said. "Barry Springer."
"It's Jerry, not Barry. And he's quite amusing, actually. All those whining little people who've wasted their talents in meaningless little lives. You've got so much in common with them, don't you?"
//That does it.//
Giles started up the stairs, feeling the tattoo hidden under his shirt beginning to itch. Alarmed, Ethan took a step back, reached out, and swung a body around the corner, tucking it in front of him. It wasn't easy for him to hide behind the slender red-haired woman, but he bent his knees and peered over her head.
"You'll be taking a friend with you. Wouldn't want you to be lonely."
Willow's wide, frightened eyes blinked at him. Her mouth was taped shut, and some sort of leather restraint on her arms, just above the elbows, held them in place.
The tattoo was burning him. "Let her go, Ethan," he growled, "or I'll kill you."
"Oh, I'm going to let her go. She's going with you, as I believe I just said. You never listen to me, Ripper, that's your problem. Well, that's one of your problems. Here, catch."
Something small and round, like a ball, sailed over the railing, and Giles automatically reached for it, even as some inner voice was screaming, "Grenade! Poison! Drop your hands, idiot!"
It nestled into his fingers, and the world went away.
Hearing poor Melissa panting behind him, Giles paused, switched his walking stick to his right hand, and reached back for her with his left. "Here, love, it's just another few steps to the top."
"I'm all right, but couldn't you slow down?" She climbed up beside him and grinned. "You will go striding off with stick in hand, like some prophet on his way to the Promised Land, completely unaware that your flock is falling behind."
"Well, they did promise us a food servery and information centre once we reach the top."
"Not to mention the panoramic view. But that hardly constitutes the Promised Land."
"It's what passes for it on the route from Dorking to Westerham," he contended.
She brushed back a long strand of night-black hair that had worked loose from its leather tie at the nape of her neck, breathing deeply. "How did I let you convince me to take this walking trip, anyway, Rupert?"
"I believe it was my rugged good looks that did the charm."
"No, you berk, I mean, to do the North Downs instead of Icknield Way. At least that's the oldest road in Britain. There're archaeological wonders there, not just pretty scenery. Isn't archaeology one of your interests?"
"This isn't meant to be a school trip. It's a vacation." He put his arm around her waist, and noted that she didn't object. Not that he'd expected her to. "Besides, I've rather put archaeology and anthropology aside for now."
Melissa took a swig from her water bottle, and held it up for him to sample. He fancied he could taste her lips there. "So I've heard. It's the talk of the commune. When I left for my fieldwork, you were moping about, grousing about family traditions, and when I came back, you'd dropped out. What happened?"
"I decided to have my mid-life crisis early and avoid the rush." He tugged her gently forward. "Through those woods, I think."
Melissa dug in her heels. A tall, solidly built woman, she easily stopped him in his tracks. "Not so fast, Ranger!"
"If you must hear all the gossip, I'll give you the gory details over tea and sandwiches."
"The prospect will only make you walk faster. Talk now; using up your breath might reduce you to a normal pace."
Giles squinted uphill, shrugged, and led her onward, careful to lessen his stride so she wouldn't keep complaining. "Fine. I just decided to play at being a hoodlum."
"Ahh. Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll?"
He smiled reminiscently. "Completely."
"Yet you're back now."
As the yew and box woodlands thickened, the sunlight dimmed. He didn't mind the slackened pace after all. It was almost romantic here, with only bits of bird song and twigs crunching underfoot to break the hush. He was quiet, too, searching for the right words. "I...lost a friend, tragically. I decided I wasn't meant to be a bad boy, after all."
"Oh, Rupe, I'm so sorry." She tugged on his arm, turning him to look at her. Her round full-moon face was troubled. "Not that you're back, but about your friend."
His eyes skittered away from hers, focused on the path again, and he swallowed. "Yes, well, it's left me rather at loose ends. I'm tired of being the predictable, dull, obedient man my father demands, but I'm not interested in--"
"Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll?"
He laughed. "Well, the sex and rock-and-roll are still on, just not in quite the same format."
"That's good. We are sharing a room tonight, after all." She leaned her head briefly against his arm. "Mind you, if you wear me out walking...."
He came to a dead stop with a look of alarm. "Can't have that!"
"Oh, go on, I'm looking forward to the panoramic view you promised me." They walked in comfortable silence for a minute or two, before she ventured, "Business, though? Somehow I don't see you as the corporate goon."
"Heavens, no. I thought perhaps I could combine my languages and history background, set up a tourist guide business of some kind. Plenty of adventure opportunities there, and it would piss my father off royally to see me in trade. Or I could always implement my childhood dream of being a grocer."
He loved that hearty laugh of hers. Melissa never seemed embarrassed by anything. "A grocer? Whatever for?"
"Well, after all, look at all the free food and candies. And the grocer knows everyone, and everyone likes him. However, since starting this term, I've learnt to my horror that the food and candy are not, in fact, free."
"Another childhood dream shot down." She wrinkled up her nose. "Do you smell orchids?"
"There's a meadow of them, on along the ridge. You'll see it after lunch."
"Mmm. I fancy rolling about in an orchid meadow."
She batted naturally mascara-black eyelashes at him. "If you insist."
He spluttered with laughter. "If your instructors could hear you--!"
"You're not the only one who tires of always being well-behaved and proper, Rupe."
Giles grinned. God, he'd needed this vacation. Melissa was wonderful, full of fun yet intellectually stimulating, and it was hard to feel sorry for himself around her. Holding her hand and hopping across the stepping stones in the river below had felt like being baptized, washing sins away, and the fresh air and sunshine were invigorating. He'd missed horseback rides, and canoe trips, and brisk hikes--getting back to nature. Ethan loathed all of it; he was a city boy to the bone, all cigarettes and whisky and loud music.
//Ethan. Why did I have to ruin a wonderful day by thinking about him?
They rounded a curve, and he realized why he'd suddenly thought of Ethan. The bastard was standing there, smiling, in those too-tight jeans and black tee and battered leather jacket. He was tossing a rock in the air and catching it neatly in one hand--if he had a past life, it must have been as a rude, scheming jester.
"Hallo, Ripper. Catch."
He tossed something, not the rock but a talisman of some kind. Giles caught it automatically, then his eyes swept the ground as a frost layered his belly. They were standing in a ring of small stones. Giles dropped the talisman, lunging at Ethan, but Ethan had already set the last rock in the circle, and was spouting something that sounded vaguely Arabic.
The world went away.
Horrified, Willow watched Giles collapse into a heap at the bottom of the stairs, as if every bone in his body had suddenly been removed. He just laid there, limp and still. She'd waited for the past hour, scared to death but sure that somehow Giles would fix everything, and now he was--he was--
Ethan pushed her down the stairs ahead of him, propelling her by her right elbow. "Stand here. Oh, for heaven's sake, what are you sniffling about? He's not *dead*. If I wanted him dead, I'd have blasted him with his shotgun when he walked through the door, wouldn't I? You never give me credit for brains, you Slayerettes."
Willow blinked away a sheen of salt water and stared down at the body. Giles was breathing, and there wasn't any blood; he just looked as if he was sleeping. Ethan stepped over him and walked quickly to the open closet, reaching inside for the black bag he'd put there an hour ago, Unzipping it, he pulled out two sets of handcuffs.
//I should do something. Only I can't run away, because I can't really open the door quick with my arms tied up, and I'd end up just running in circles around the room until Ethan catches me, which would probably make him sort of mad. And I can't yell for help, because of the tape. And I can't work any magic, on account of the no voice and no hands thing. Oh! Oh! Maybe if I concentrate really hard on the spell mentally, I could do a telepathic link with Tara and--//
Without looking up, Ethan said, "If I feel any magick that I didn't produce myself, I'm afraid I'll have to...hmmm." Deftly, he fastened Giles's wrists behind his back with one set of cuffs. "I suppose I'll break one of Ripper's ribs. Maybe I'd best break one of yours, as well, so you'll know exactly what you've done to your friend." The larger set of cuffs went around Giles's ankles. "I find violence so tedious; don't you?"
Willow nodded. She found it more terrifying than tedious, actually, but it was a distinction not easily made in a headshake.
Ethan stood up and cocked his head to one side, studying the body. "That should do. Now, just a few finishing touches." Rummaging in the bag, he produced a leather harness like the one Willow sported.
Her knees felt like they were going to give out, so Willow plopped down on the stairway. If he didn't like it, let him yell at her or something. Except that he didn't even bother to look up. Instead, humming, he put both hands around Giles's throat.
Alarmed, Willow leaped to her feet, except that with her arms the way they were it was more like a lurch. //I'll kick his face in! That'll stop him!//
Ethan rolled his eyes at her, elaborately patient, and removed his hands. Giles was still breathing, and his throat wasn't swollen, but there was a thin filigree of interlaced black lines around his neck, like some sort of necklace. Oh. He wasn't strangled, then. Shakily, Willow plopped back down on the step.
Still humming, Ethan fastened the harness around Giles's arms, like hers, so he couldn't lift his hands more than a couple inches, once he woke up. But that was kind of reassuring, actually, because would he go to this much trouble if he wasn't expecting to wake Giles up again? She watched him crouch, peel back one eyelid to check one green eye, then slide his hand down Giles's face in a gentle caress. If she'd blinked, she would have missed it. Briskly, he stood up, reached out, and yanked the tape from her mouth.
"Oh, I am sorry." Somehow, he didn't sound particularly sincere. "Surely all those tears loosened it just a little? Take slow, deep breaths, Ms. Rosenberg, or you're going to hyperventilate on me. I haven't hurt you yet, and I honestly don't intend to, so what is the problem? Hmm?"
She licked her sore lips. "You kidnapped me. You tied me up and gagged me. You're kidnapping Giles." He just stared at her, as if waiting for the explanation to start. "You're a--you know, a bad guy."
"I most certainly am not!"
"Good guys--good guys don't do stuff like that."
"No, they don't. But bad guys would spend the hour we waited for Ripper in raping you--you really are an attractive young woman--and would have waited until he was at the top of the stairs to knock him down, wouldn't they?"
Willow blinked. //I can't believe I'm having this conversation.// "So you're, what, an in-between guy?"
"That would be a more appropriate label, yes." Reaching down, he pressed something into her right hand. It felt like cold metal. "Don't lose this. Where you're going, they don't have handcuff keys."
"Where I'm going? Where am I going?"
"With Ripper, of course." Turning away, he lifted a small ivory statue from the bag and placed it reverently on the floor beside Giles. "I told him that, remember? Weren't you paying attention?"
Willow scowled at him. It wasn't as if there were some special kidnapping protocol that she was required to observe, after all. "Well, then, where's he going?"
Ethan glanced at his watch, sighed heavily, and sat down on the sofa. "I suppose we have a few minutes yet. I'm sending Mr. Giles on a great adventure. It's not a punishment for turning me over to the government labs for study, although that was quite an unpleasant experience. No, it's for his own good, actually. Of course, the fact that I was given a tremendous amount of money to produce him doesn't hurt."
//So you're, what, a cross between travel agent and angel?// she thought crossly, but had enough sense not to say it. "You couldn't just send him a ticket?"
"He wouldn't go. He wraps those small-minded Watchers and their right-wing attitudes around him like a cloak and hides from the world, denying what he could be. What he is."
"Giles left the Watchers."
"Twenty-five years too late. He's thrown away his life hiding in a library, reading ancient books about magick but never using the magick itself. Oh, eventually he broke away enough to get that job at the British Museum, and he did have a few small adventures, but even then he dutifully came here to Watch a snippy sixteen-year-old girl kill vampires. Where's the adventure in that? Where's the power? Where's the bloody fun?"
"We had lots of fun!" Willow said, stung. "We ate doughnuts while we researched demons, and we played board games, and we--um--"
Ethan gave her a baleful look. "You were selfish spoiled brats who used him for everything you could get. You expected him to give up a social life--let alone a sex life--and devote himself to your needs, be at your beck and call 'round the clock. When one of you children lost a lover, everyone had to gather 'round in sympathy; when his lover was murdered and dumped in his bed, he was expected to have a stiff upper lip and get over it promptly. When one of you was hurt, it was a terrible thing; when he was tortured for hours by Angelus, he was expected to welcome his torturer into his home afterwards, and his loving Slayer ran off for the summer, leaving him to recover on his own, if he could. Love him? You didn't even respect him."
Okay, so there were major guilt feelings here, but she knew very well there was more to the story than that. They loved Giles, all of them did, and he knew it, even if they didn't say it to his face. Which they should. And she would, too, if they got through this 'adventure' in one piece. Or even in pieces. She felt her head drooping. "He didn't...say anything."
"He wouldn't, would he? Seems to think he deserves to be ignored."
Willow tried to fight back. "Yeah, but...I didn't see you offering him love and fun and--and respect. You turned him into a--a mucus demon. You fed him candy that made him act like a bad teenager. You turned us into Halloween people, and tried to feed babies to demons, but you didn't come help him when Angelus did what he did, did you?"
"But he threw me out decades ago. He chose you lot over me, stagnation over magic, servitude over power. I told you, he's become a glutton for punishment." Ethan shook his head slowly. "You never knew Ripper, just meek little Rupert Giles. Now, Ripper was arrogant, and powerful, and daring. He was quite the young stallion in those days."
Willow sneaked a dubious look at Giles. He was pretty good-looking for someone his age, yeah, and totally brilliant, and she had had a secret crush on him (and the Backstreet Boys) in high school, but he was...well, he was old, and he was a librarian. Ex-librarian. Not that librarians couldn't be sexy, because she found the smell of old books really intoxicating, but...well, he was as good as Buffy's father. Your best friend's father figure wasn't ever a young stallion. Just couldn't happen."
"And kidnapping him and handcuffing him and sending him somewhere is going to, um, improve him?" Willow asked dubiously.
Ethan shrugged. "Well, *any* change would be an improvement, at this point."
"I don't think so. We like Giles the way he is. He's brave, and smart, and loyal--"
"--and obedient, and he turns in a circle three times before lying down."
"He does not!"
"Really? How would you know?"
That shut her up for a moment, and Ethan leaned forward to rub the statue. It was Janus, the two-faced god. Willow blinked, trying to remember what Janus stood for. Androgyny? Deception? Didn't they name January for him? That didn't sound too evil; cold, maybe, but what did that have to do with facing two ways? People didn't sacrifice other people to Janus, did they?
"So, um, where exactly are we going? Who's paying for you to do this?"
He swung his head back to her with a sly little grin. "You're just like him, aren't you? Can't stand not to know who, what, where, when, and why about everything. It eats away at you, not knowing."
"Well, we do both like learning things," she conceded.
"Which is why I'm not going to tell you. I'm sure Ripper will be glad to fill in all the details for you, ad nauseum, when he comes to."
"What can I say? I take my pleasures where I can get them."
She was beginning to see why Giles always started beating Ethan up every time he saw him. "Okay, then why me? Do you think I need a personality change, too?"
"I don't know you well enough to say, do I? At least you and your little blonde witch are willing to use magick, which speaks well for your intelligence." He glanced at his Rolex again. "I knew my employer would need a lever, since Ripper's not going to be a happy man when he wakes up there, so I took my pick of his children. That meant Buffy, her little Dawn, the boy, or you. Buffy--well, obviously, that wouldn't work. I'm not sure how Dawn would affect my magick, and don't have time to experiment. Ripper has a streak of chivalry when it comes to women, which made you a better choice than Harris, although your use of magick is a drawback." He shrugged. "You're rather cute. I chose you."
//Cute? I'm being kidnapped because I'm cute? That's insulting! I'm a witch. I meddle in dark arts, almost. If I'm going to be kidnapped, it should be for being too smart, or good with computers, or a--a mystic force to be reckoned with. Not for being *cute*// Willow clenched her fists..//And what does he mean, 'rather' cute?//
Squaring his shoulders, Ethan rose. "Right. Now, before we begin, I want you to do one tiny little thing for me."
//Oh, dear.// "What?" she asked nervously.
He must be totally bladdered. What had Ethan put in the whisky last night? It wasn't enough that they drank it like water, or that they screwed like rabbits when they called up Eyghon; no, Ethan had to keep slipping drugs in, his idea of fun. Usually Giles was careful to watch, and not eat or drink anything Ethan didn't touch, because Ethan liked to stay drug-free and watch them make arses of themselves, but he must've slipped up last night, for he had the whirlies for sure.
Someone was lying on his legs. Giles twitched one hand, and felt long thick hair. Deirdre?
Groaning, he opened his eyes, and blinked. Someone was pouring water on him. "Sod off, I'm awake," he muttered sullenly, although he wasn't, really. He blinked again. There was no one emptying a glass on him; it was raining. He was outdoors.
//Ethan,// he thought again, and then, //We were walking on the North Downs. But it was sunny.//
With an effort, Giles sat up. That wasn't Deirdre, it was Melissa, with her curly black hair spread over his knees like a blanket. Her face was unpleasantly pale, not the light caramel color it should be, and she was unconscious. A few feet away, Ethan had slipped out of his jacket and was holding it over his head like an umbrella, making a face. Like a cat, he disliked getting wet.
"You wanker," Giles said thickly. "What have you done?"
"Magick. You reek of it."
"Oxford does churn out smart lads, doesn't it? What was your first clue?"
"Ethan, this isn't funny. Look at Melissa. What have you done? And why?"
Ethan cast a mildly worried glance at her and lifted one shoulder. "It took more power than I expected. The spell hasn't been used in centuries, can you imagine? I found it mentioned in one of your Watcher texts, and traced it to--"
"You drained Melissa? To do this?"
"Well, I wasn't going to use up my energy, was I? And what if I needed another magician to watch my back once I got here?" He cast an irritated look at the dismal grey sky. "How was I to know it was an umbrella that I needed most?"
A spell that hadn't been used for centuries. Not mere teleportation, then. He scanned the meadow, but saw no indication that he was anywhere other than the North Downs, except for the abrupt change to rain. //Have to assume there's nothing too dangerous at the moment,// he decided, focusing on Melissa. Heat replaced the frost in his belly. What the hell gave Ethan the right to endanger her? To endanger anyone, for that matter? Hadn't the whole Eyghon disaster taught the little wally anything?
She was breathing well enough, and her heartbeat seemed steady. Giles gently pulled his legs out from beneath her, and stood.
Ethan began to look alarmed. "Look, it's an adventure! Remember how we talked about it, all our plans? It's a whole new world to explore. Treasures to find. Nothing *dangerous*, like calling up demons. I'll admit that wasn't well thought out on our part, but--"
The meaty thwack of a fist against that mouth felt good, too good. Watching Ethan stagger back, one hand flying to his bloody lip, Giles tried to remind himself that he wasn't an aspiring hoodlum anymore. But he really wanted to hit Ethan again, so he did. Ethan cowered in the cold mud, staring up at him. "The first one was for me. That's for Melissa."
"You couldn't let her do her own slapping around?"
"When she wakes up--if she wakes up--I'll offer her the chance."
"Of course she's going to wake up! I didn't hurt anyone. I told you, I never expected the spell to demand so much--"
Giles wiped his hands on his jeans. "It's never your fault, is it?"
"Bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders is somehow better? Moping about full of regrets and denial is a useful response to a problem? Is that what they teach you at Oxford?"
Giles reached out and roughly hauled Ethan to his feet. "Come help me wake her up."
"She'll be fine--"
"I'm sure you brought the ingredients for a spell or two, just in case. Didn't you?"
Still firmly grasping Ethan by the arm, Giles propelled him to Melissa's side. Making a face, Ethan dug into his jacket pockets, producing an astounding array of charms, talismans, herbs, and potions in corked test-tubes. Choosing a charm and one fairly large herb packet, he tried holding them out. Giles forced him onto his knees in the mud, and knelt beside him. Muttering the spell rapidly under his breath--quite destroying the beauty of the words--he laid the charm on Melissa's throat, and sprinkled a pinch of the herb over her head.
Nothing happened. Milk chocolate eyes didn't open. Melissa didn't give him that impish grin that transformed her face into something delightful rather than just plain.
"I'm trying! I'm trying! It should've worked, dammit!" Ethan did it again, slower, filling the words of the spell with sonorous power. Nothing. "This shouldn't be happening."
"And if you hadn't kidnapped us, it wouldn't be happening." Giles picked up Melissa's hand. It felt cold. Perhaps she was going into shock. Lying in the mud in the rain couldn't be helping. "Take us back. Now."
"Do you have any idea how much power that would take?"
"We'll go halfsies," he said coolly.
"But, Ripper, listen--"
"You're casting the spell again, and we're taking her to hospital. We're not going to have another Randall on our hands."
For a moment, Ethan looked stricken. "Damn you. Randall wasn't my fault. You *told* them never to try it without one of us there--"
"Without either you or me, they never could've called up Eyghon, or any other demon, for that matter. We taught them. We showed them how much pleasure he could give them. We're no better than sleazy drug-pushers, only what we addicted them to was Eyghon."
"They weren't little kids, Ripper, they were old enough to make their own decisions, just like you and me. It's not our fault!"
"God. We've had this quarrel before."
"Just shut up! Shut up and do the spell!" he shouted.
Ethan rose stiffly and walked around the meadow, picking up stones. Turning his back on him, Giles scooped Melissa into his arms, trying to shield her from the rain. At least it wasn't a harsh rain, just one of those dismal runny-nose sort of showers. Wherever Ethan had landed them, it seemed to be the same season as it had been back home. "Lissa?" Gently, he stroked her face, willing her to awaken. "Lissa, love, time to wake up."
But she didn't wake up, not even once Ethan had completed the circle and returned, grim-faced, to make one more plea for staying and looking for treasure. Melissa's humor and good sense were treasure enough for Rupert Giles; quelled by his stare, Ethan knelt across from him and reached out. His hands were cold and wet; there was none of the sexual tension this once would have aroused. Giles prepared, expecting a sudden drain on his energy as Ethan tried to use him in place of Melissa, but nothing happened.
"You're not trying!"
"Sod off! Of course I'm trying!"
He closed his eyes tight, picturing the path through the yew, with sunlight filtered through green leaves and soft shadows, but he felt none of the tingling sensation of life and magick intertwining. There was no response to his frantic calls. He wasn't a witch--his magicks worked best with ceremony and sacred objects--but he had always been able to tap into the heart of the world, the place where magick gathered...until now.
"Christ. Ethan, what have you done?"
Ethan was white-faced. "It isn't supposed to be like this."
"You kidnapped us and dumped us into a world without magic? You brought us here without even having a way to get back?"
"It wasn't on purpose!"
Giles fumbled for the walking staff, found it dropped in the grass near where he had lain. "Oh, so you just coincidentally wandered past Dorking when we happened to be there, and accidentally cast a spell...." His voice sounded surprisingly calm to him as he rose.
Screaming, Ethan hit the ground and rolled. The staff whistled through the space where his ribs had been. Giles spun it and drove the end into his stomach, but again Ethan rolled, and the point slammed into the mud. As Giles struggled to yank it free, Ethan scrambled across the grass, grabbing Melissa and hiding behind her.
"It's NOT MY FAULT!" he howled.
Her eyelids fluttered. "Rupert?"
Giles tossed the walking stick aside. "Lissa? Are you all right?"
"I don't think so," she said uncertainly. "I feel...so tired."
He glowered over her shoulder, where Ethan hovered, prepared to duck. "We'll finish this later."
"It's finished now. Ripper, we have to work together if we're going to get out of this--"
"Lissa, we're going to find...." //Find what? A tree to shelter under? A doctor? A town? Safe haven?// "...people. Can you walk, if we help you?"
She nodded, a faint frown settling between her eyebrows. "It's raining," she observed.
"Just a bit of drizzle." With an effort, he kept his voice soft. "Take the other side, Ethan."
Ethan opened his mouth, thought better of it, and stood up, draping her left arm over his neck. If he muttered something about a moose, he was sensible enough to keep it just below the level where Giles would be obliged to respond.
"Wait. Drink some water."
"Just open your mouth and swallow. With this rain, who needs a canteen?"
"Shut up, Ethan."
Melissa obediently swallowed, then turned to frown at Ethan. "You know him?"
"To my infinite regret. Ethan Rayne. One of the reasons for my precipitate return."
"Ooh, big words. I'll never be able to figure out that you're insulting me." Ethan appeared to feel somewhat safer, sheltered as he was by Melissa's body. "That comes from Oxford, I suppose. We mere mortals can only marvel."
"I offered to bring you with me, get you enrolled...share a flat"
"I don't take charity."
"Bull. You taught us to beg for folding."
"That's not charity, that's scamming," he said with dignity.
"You were just afraid you couldn't pass even the remedial courses. You always have to be the star. You--"
In a stronger voice, Melissa said, "Giles? Where did he come from?"
"London," Ethan said. "And you?"
"He, um, took us by surprise."
"Where are we?"
"That's...part of the surprise."
Ethan said briskly, "I cast a magic spell over you, and brought you to Akhdar, but you don't seem to travel well. Do you get car sick, too?"
Melissa's frown deepened. Her head swung back to Giles. "I fell down and hit my head, didn't I?"
"Er, no, actually, by the time you hit, you were in soft mud, and Ethan had some trouble finding enough rocks for the circle, so I doubt...."
"Do something magical."
"We can't, I'm afraid. It doesn't seem to work here."
"So you're telling me that magic works, and you used it to make the sun stop shining and the yews disappear, but now it doesn't work." She considered this for several yards, then decided, "I must be dreaming. Pinch me."
"Gladly," Ethan panted.
"I was only doing as she asked," he said innocently.
Through gritted teeth, Giles told him, "If you don't stop taking the piss, I will kill you. This isn't bloody funny."
"Humor is an individual thing."
"Then I'm sure you'll find it thoroughly amusing when I smash your head like an egg. I know I will."
"If this is a dream, I don't like it," Melissa decided.
"It's not a dream," Giles assured her. "Magic is real. I've spent my life studying its history and uses--one of those horrid family traditions I was railing against. When I dropped out of the uni, it was to, er, play with magick instead of reading about it. Ethan and I were both rather good at it."
"I'm better." Ethan grunted. "Could you please lean a bit more to your right?"
"--up, Ethan. I know."
"I know more about magick, and about acquiring forbidden texts," Giles told her. This time Ethan was silent; having stolen several of Giles's more choice books from him, he could hardly disagree. "When we got blotto, we used to talk about bravely exploring new worlds, using magic. He apparently decided to get started on it by kidnapping us."
"If I'd asked nicely, would you have come and helped me? No, of course not."
Melissa looked worried. "Giles, what drugs did you two do when you were AWOL? And how many?"
"I'm telling you the truth, Lissa. It's not a hallucination. The world is full of demons, vampires--"
"Well, no, those are mythical. As far as I know."
She seemed to be gaining her strength back, or perhaps it was just that tackling an intellectual problem distracted her from any physical woes. "Rupert, I'm an anthropologist. I've studied magical beliefs from around the world, and there are psychological explanations for those beliefs, but no proof whatsoever that--"
"Not everyone can do magick. It's a fairly limited field, actually. There's some controversy over how the ability is propagated, as well. Some of us seem to have bloodlines oriented toward occult abilities, while others spring up, like Ethan, for no known reason."
"Mutants," Ethan suggested.
"He reads American comic books. He keeps waiting for The Magnet to find him."
"Magneto," Ethan and Melissa chorused. For a moment they stopped walking to stare at each other in surprise. Giles nudged them onward.
"My dreams usually revolve around events in my life--things I've read or thought about lately. I don't remember anyone or anything quite reminiscent of this," she mused. "If it's a dream, things will shift soon enough. If it's not a dream, either you two are about to be put in straitjackets, or there's some vague truth to what you're babbling." She thought about this, then said, sounding vaguely dissatisfied, "I suppose I'll pretend it makes sense, for now."
"It would be safest."
Ethan said, "Yes, you mustn't irritate us, or I'm liable to scratch your eyes out. We madmen are known to be dangerous."
"You say this place is Akhdar? Is that the entire world?" she inquired.
He coughed, obscuring the answer. Giles felt a sinking feeling. "The continent, perhaps?"
"Um, I really...."
"The nearest city?" Melissa asked.
"The bloody meadow we crashed into?"
"The spell referred to Akhdar, that's all I know. I believe it means, er, 'green.' I took it for a good omen." Giles couldn't see him, but he sounded thoroughly disgruntled. "With all this rain, it's no wonder it's green."
That was just an attempt to distract them by whining. In fact, the rain had dried up, with only an occasional mist to remind them why they were wet. Giles sighed. //Oh, marvelous. We're stuck in a world where magick doesn't work, we can't get home, and we know nothing about it except that something somewhere in it is named Akhdar.//
They trudged on in silence, except for the squishing sound of boots in mud.
"Hang on." Ethan stopped short. "I hear something. You hold up Big Bertha; I'll suss it out."
"Let me fall on him, and I'll squash him like a bug," she whispered.
It was quite tempting, but after a momentary pause to savor the image, Giles helped her sit in the wet grass and joined Ethan in crouching at he edge of an incline, allowing himself only one sharp jab to Ethan's back with his knuckles. Below them was what appeared to be a small English village, quaint and old-fashioned. It almost looked like some sort of historical reenactment, except that old time English villages didn't use human-drawn rickshaws or three-wheeled bicycles. Well, perhaps the bicycles.
"No electricity," he murmured.
"I suppose we can rule out dry clothes, then. At least they look human," Ethan pointed out, cheering up.
"Yes, two of us will fit right in."
Ignoring the thrust, Ethan offered, "Why don't you slip in, mingle, and see what you can find out? I'll stay here and protect Mel."
"Her name is Melissa, dammit."
She crawled in-between them. "Well?"
"I believe I do see one, there on the right," Ethan muttered snidely.
Giles rolled his eyes. To Lissa, he said, "Ethan and I are going down."
"Lissa, you're still weak...."
"And wet, and chilled. There must be a pub down there. Can you think of a better place to soak up the local atmosphere?"
"How will we pay for it?" Ethan objected. Avarice glinted in his eyes. "Tell me, Mel, is that a real emerald in that ring, or colored glass?"
"We can always try selling you into slavery," Giles told him. "I think you'd make an excellent rickshaw-puller." He rose, offering Melissa his hand. "Let's go." To Ethan; "You first. We'll cover your back for you, so you needn't worry."
Close up, the anomalies became more apparent. For one thing, the locals were all quite tall and solidly built--more like Melissa in appearance, towering over Ethan and Giles. Many had dusky skin with a strong blue tint, not quite the color of a black person or even a Middle Eastern or Indian person from their own world, yet not Smurf blue, either. Some wore vaguely Middle Eastern clothing, but the men, rather than the women, cloaked their faces. Other people could have passed for tourists if dropped in Dorking by a spell.
The pub, thank heavens, was a traditional one, comfortable and somewhat dark and quite amiable. No one objected to their entry. Either they were all speaking English, or Ethan's spell had included a built-in translation effect. There were bad jokes, and complaints about politicians, and the occasional thick accent that sounded almost familiar. It didn't seem likely that he would need to defend himself and his companions with his walking stick after all.
What appeared to be Guinness Stout was on tap, and one or two people were munching on sandwiches that smelled divine. Giles felt his stomach rumble, and realized just how hungry he was.
"That's not our brand of money they're slapping about, more's the pity."
"Well, we'll just have to get some," Giles reasoned.
"Ripper could mug someone for us," Ethan suggested hopefully. "He does have the walking stick."
"Shut up, Ethan," they both hissed.
From the corner of his mouth, he groused to Giles, "If you'd brought a bit of skirt with some looks to her, she could earn a bit of folding, but this one...don't you know any cocktail waitresses?"
"I hang about with people of class and intelligence these days," he said flatly, since starting a fight now would not be a good idea. Ending up in the local jail was not a viable solution to their problems.
What exactly did they have? Selling off their jewelry wasn't a good idea, at least not until they had some idea of what was valuable and how much to expect for it. They couldn't work magick. Speaking and reading five languages wouldn't do any good if those languages weren't in use in Akhdar's dimension. Ethan could probably pick some pockets, but again, the risk of jail was too daunting.
"You can stand in the square and juggle, while we collect from the crowd."
"In the rain?"
"It's not raining now." Still, Ethan had a point; there was more of a crowd in here than outside. He sighed. "I suppose I'll have to sing for our supper."
"You don't have your electric guitar in that backpack, do you?"
"I used to sing in the choir, before I found rock-and-roll."
Ethan nodded. "Sing a hymn and start a religious war, there's a plan."
"Ethan, if you don't have any useful suggestions, please--"
"I know. Shut up."
Melissa asked, "If he knows, why doesn't he do it?"
"He's much too self-centered to believe anyone could possibly fail to want to hear him whinge." Giles left their corner table and leaned over the varnished wooden bar to catch the attention of the barrel-chested, mustachioed bartender. "I feel the urge to sing. Would you mind?"
Surprisingly, the man turned pale. "N-Not at all."
"Would you mind if my friends asked for donations? We're a bit short on cash, and the food here smells delicious."
The bartender's chin dipped down and up. Not an enthusiastic welcome, but not outright rejection, either. Somewhat embarrassed, Giles sat on the edge of an empty table. //Something old-fashioned. Cream wouldn't do, without an electric guitar. A folk song, I suppose.//
"All in the merry month of May,
When green buds they were swellin'
Young Willie Grove on his death-bed lay,
For love of Barb'ra Allen.... "
A capella was harder than singing with a guitar to back him up. As the verses flowed from memory, he closed his eyes, concentrating on the words and melody.
"Oh, Mother, Mother, make my bed.
Make it both soft and narrow.
Sweet William died for love of me,
And I shall die of sorrow...."
He really should have chosen something else. This was a woman's song. Giles forced down the doubts, and tried to really sell the song, picturing the events in his mind, trying to make the story so real that the listeners wouldn't stop to question it.
"They buried her in the old churchyard.
Sweet William's grave was nigh hers,
And from his grave grew a red, red rose;
From hers a cruel briar.
They grew and grew up the old church spire
Until they could grow no higher;
And there they twined, in a true love knot,
The red rose and the briar."
No one applauded. Apparently they weren't fans of the Child ballads, or perhaps they simply didn't like his singing. Wonderful. Now he'd have to put up with Ethan's mockery, on top of his hunger. Then the applause started, and foot stamping, and whistles. Puzzled, Giles opened his eyes, and gaped.
A tall rose brush had sprung from the floor of the pub, and a few feet away a briar, and the two grew to the height of the pub's ceiling before twining together, forming an arch of red roses and thorns.
//What the hell...?//
He turned to Ethan and Melissa for help, but found none. Melissa was staring at him in silent disbelief, and Ethan was scurrying about the room, gathering money.
//I did this?// Sliding off the table, Giles walked through the arch formed by the plants, turned around, and stared at them again. //How?//
"I-I'm dreadfully sorry," he told the bartender. His face felt hot.
The man couldn't seem to tear his eyes from the plants. Silently, he waved one hand, brushing aside the apology as unnecessary.
"Mel's got the food. Come on, Ripper." When Giles didn't respond, Ethan snatched his arm and yanked hard, lowering his voice. "Hurry up, before they charge us for damaging the place!"
Giles stumbled behind him, stopping in the doorway to cast one last backward glance at the roses before letting Ethan pull him into the daylight.
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