Sitting on the edge of the emperor-sized bed, Willow felt like Goldilocks. All the furniture in the room was big--not giant-sized, but maybe meant for an extra-large man: a desk that was a hair higher than usual, with a chair wider than usual; the big bed with the quilt done in shades of green and a matching canopy; a sofa that, when she sat on it, left her feet dangling an inch above the floor. All of it was done in ornately carved wood and shades of green, all of it vaguely masculine. It was intimidating, because she kept expecting a big bad giant to come in and want to know what she was doing on his bed.
At the moment, what she was doing was resting, after finally getting the handcuffs off Giles's wrists. This wasn't easy to do with her arms bound, especially since Giles was still unconscious and she had a hard time getting him to roll over. Plus, at first she was too scared to do anything but wait for the bad guys to come gloat. Unfortunately, these didn't seem to be gloating villains, but more the make-them-wait-and-worry kind of villains. Since she had seen a lot of scary things in five years of helping Buffy slay vampires and monsters and demons, worrying, unfortunately enough, came easily to her.
"Okay, Giles, now I'm gonna do your ankles, okay? Except this bed is too big, and you're lying crooked, and your legs are in the middle." She studied the layout, and sighed. "I'm gonna lie down now. If you're awake but just sort of not moving yet, I hope you don't take this the wrong way."
Flopping backwards on the bed, she rolled over his legs, and realized that it wasn't a good idea when she tried to sit up, because she couldn't use her arms to push. Eventually, huffing and puffing, she managed to straddle his legs, find the handcuff key that she dropped on the bed again, and start work on the locks.
//Nope, too far.// She scooted down his legs until she could reach the cuffs, despite the limited maneuverability the harness gave her. As she worked, her tongue lolled out between her lips, the way it did when she was in kindergarten and was concentrating really hard on coloring between the lines. //Almost got it....//
Giles's body stiffened, and she practically bit her tongue off. Then he was twisting and squirming, trying to buck her off. Squeaking, she fell back against him.
"Yikes! Giles, it's me! Willow!"
He sank back against the mattress. "Willow?"
"Are you feeling okay? You've been unconscious for a long time."
"Yes, I'm...I'm fine. Did he...hurt you?"
"Ethan? No, he was polite, for him. And whoever he sold us to hasn't come in yet." She rolled around, arched her back, and dragged herself upright again, still straddling his legs. "I'm trying to uncuff your ankles."
The ankles stirred experimentally. "Don't worry about them for now. Let's work on hands, first."
"I did them."
"The harness. Are you wearing one?"
"Wriggle up here and let me look at yours." When she hesitated, he said, "Don't be embarrassed. We seem to have--have a great deal of room to work with here."
Getting off his legs, she scooted backward in the bed. "Okay. It was Ethan Rayne. Do you remember what happened?"
"Yes. I stupidly caught a charmed object...Willow, I'm going to inch up against the headboard. Once I'm sitting up, edge back until I can reach this blasted thing." The mattress was very firm, but she could feel him wriggling backward. "Did he tell you what he was up to?"
"Not really. Just that he was sending you on an adventure and it was for your own good. That's why he was dressed as Mr. Roarke."
"Who? Move closer, Willow. That's it."
"Mr. Roarke. Ricardo Montalban on Fantasy Island. I've seen it on reruns. He always wore a white suit, and he was a multi-billionaire, and people came to his resort to have their fondest dreams come true." She felt his fingers squeeze her right hand reassuringly, then move up her arm to the leather. "I, uh, didn't know your fondest dream was to get us both kidnapped."
"It's not." He was silent for a bit, working on the harness, then said thoughtfully, "I wouldn't mind becoming Eric Clapton at the start of Cream, perhaps...."
"Well, Ethan didn't look much like Mr. Roarke, so you probably shouldn't get your hopes up, huh? He said I was a lever."
"I won't let them hurt you, Willow."
"I know. He said he wouldn't tell me who paid him to do this or where we were going. He said you'd tell me."
For a moment, the fingers stopped moving, then he tugged gently on the harness. His voice tried too hard to be unconcerned. "Willow...is there something on my throat?"
"Ethan put it there. It looks sort of like a necklace."
He muttered something that sounded awfully nasty, except she didn't recognize the language. "I don't suppose you were in choir in school or at the synagogue, were you?"
"What is this, some sort of kinky audition? Why is everyone so obsessed with me singing? I really, really like singing. It's not my fault I do it off-key!" He jerked the harness back, and suddenly her arms fell loose, but all the pain she'd been ignoring was unleashed, too, as if the leather had been holding it in. Her arms were trembling, her shoulders were stiff, her back ached, and she was crying.
"Ssshhh. It's all right, Willow. It doesn't matter. Here, lie down, and I'll...I'll massage your arms, shall I?"
She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Giles, I tried to be brave--"
"You've been very brave. It's just that your arms are hurting quite a bit now." She spooned against him, letting his hands rub her arms. At first it intensified the pain, but then it began to help. Buffy always said he gave good massages after work-outs. Even with his arms bound.... "That's an awkward position to keep them in for so long. It will feel better in a moment."
"Your arms must be hurting, too," she realized.
"I'm fine. Just relax."
But she wriggled free. "Turn over. Your turn." Her arms both tingled, but they moved okay. She stared down at Giles in dismay. "He made yours tighter than mine."
"He's a bit of a sadist, when he thinks he can get away with it."
"And he knew he could get away with it, 'cause he didn't come with us. He could've just used handcuffs; they wouldn't be so bad."
"After a bit, they can get uncomfortable, too." It sounded like the voice of experience, and somehow she didn't think Watchers did field exercises involving wearing handcuffs to see how they felt. "Ow! Sorry, it's nothing you did...a muscle cramp, I think. Keep pulling." His face was strained, but she recognized a Resolved Face when she saw one, and went on working on the straps. "He...stayed outside the circle when he cast the spell?"
"Yup. Giles, where are we?"
"Akhdar, I think...yes, that's done it...give me a moment." His face was beaded with sweat.
//He must be really hurting. // Hesitantly, Willow reached out, then drew back. It was too soon for a massage; right now even touching his arms would intensify the pain. //Maybe a spell...?// She looked around the room, making sure no one was there. Ethan couldn't break Giles's rib if he wasn't there to sense her use of healing magick, right?
Only Hecate wouldn't answer her request.
//What did I do wrong? Why can't I help him?// It was like dialing a phone, but not even getting a busy signal--just a dead line. Willow swallowed hard. Okay. She could deal with this later.
"Let's take turns rubbing each other's arms to get the circulation back," she said as calmly as she could. "Tell me if I'm hurting you."
He drew back almost imperceptibly. "I'm fine, Willow."
Ignoring him, she slid her right hand into his left hand. "Squeeze hard if it hurts too much." Except she knew Giles, he'd never let on that he was hurting if he could help it. With her left hand, she made little circles on his shoulder, working downward, gradually pressing harder. "What's Akhdar?"
He was quiet for a long time. "It's...you remember how Dawn's blood opened up the dimensions?"
"And in some of them there's no shrimp?"
He gave her a funny look. "Well, yes. Or in others the shrimp evolved into human-like intelligence, instead of primates. There's an endless number of dimensions, some of them very close in nature to our own."
Willow switched to his other arm, and breath hissed through his teeth. "So where's Akhdar on the scale of diversity?"
"Up--upper mid-range, I should think."
"And they want you because...?"
She couldn't read the expression in his green eyes. "Because I have a great rock-and-roll album collection, basically. And I like musical comedies, and classical music, and opera."
"We're back to the singing again, huh?"
He looked away. "Do you have the key to these ankle cuffs?"
"Yeah, Ethan gave it to me. He said they don't have handcuff keys here."
Accepting the key, he bent over his legs. "How thoughtful of him." Freed, he slid off the bed. "I was--I was here, before."
She watched him pace back and forth, staring at the walls. It was basically a nice room, if you overlooked the fact that there were no doors or windows. Not even cracks in the walls.
"How long ago?"
"Just...just after the--the demon thing."
Back when he called up Eyghon. He'd shown them the picture of him in black leather, wearing a guitar, his hair all blond curls, a boyish grin on his face. He'd been really young then, like...like Xander, sort of, in a Giles sort of way.
As he paced, his left hand crawled along the black filigreed lines in his throat, but it was as if they were embedded in the flesh. Like they were part of him.
"So, uh, what does the necklace thing do?"
"It's to keep me from singing. Or humming." Absently, not really listening to his own words, he mused, "I wonder if rap counts as music? If one could chant rhythmically, without an actual melody...."
"Is singing a bad thing?"
"Yes. No." The pacing increased, his shoulders slightly hunched, his body tense. She'd seen a tiger in a cage at the zoo pace like that. It had worn a path in the concrete floor of its cage. "If I could sing, we could get out."
"Is that how they get in and out? With singing?"
"Not normally. Only in prison cells, like this."
"As cells go, it's a luxurious one, though," she said, trying to look on the bright side.
"Doesn't matter how they dress it up. A cage is a cage."
She'd never seen Giles like this, like coiled rage. He got angry, yeah, but it was a controlled anger, impatience and irritability combined, nothing more than that. Was this 'Ripper'? He and Ethan talked about Ripper as if he was a real person, separate from Giles--sort of like Angel and his vampiric self, Angelus. Except Giles wasn't a vampire.
"Last time you were here...did they hurt you?"
He swept his left arm across the top of the desk, sending blank parchment and pens flying. For a moment he just stood there, staring at the pile on the floor, then he yanked a drawer from the desk and slammed it along the desktop. It splintered. He broke another drawer, and another.
There were no more drawers, and the desktop was scarred and in some places shattered. Panting, he swept up the heavy wooden chair and pounded it against the desk, snapping legs off, sending back slats flying, reducing it to stakes fit for vampire patrol.
"Giles, stop. This is scary." Willow could hear her voice tremble. It was embarrassing.
Maybe he didn't hear her. He spun around, and to her horror he drove his own fist right into the wall. In her nightmares, she would swear she heard the bones crack.
He stopped then, legs spread apart, the broken hand held up as if about to strike again. There was blood on the wall, and dripping from his fingers to the floor. Those poor fingers that Angelus had snapped, trying to make Giles tell him about the Acathla rites. Giles wore the splints until the doctor removed them, but fingers were delicate, and sometimes when it rained she saw him massaging them, first one hand and then the other.
"Let me see it. Oh, Goddess, what have you done?" She gulped down bile, staring at the shards of white bone poking through the skin.
"How could he do this?" he asked her. His eyes were glazed, the color of distant seas on a foggy day. "Send me here. Where it happened."
"I don't know," she said, distracted. "Hecate, hear thy daughter's plea, remove this pain, heal what has been--"
"Your magick doesn't work here," he told her. He looked at his hand as if wondering what had happened to it. "Not the way you're used to."
"Giles, it *has* to work! Tell me what to do. Do I have to sing? If I try really hard, and I sing--"
His head snapped up, and some of the fog had cleared. "Music. They're coming."
There was no door. There was not even a crack, because she'd checked every inch while waiting for Giles to wake up, and there weren't even any hollow-sounding parts. But four people stepped right through the wall and into the room. There were two women and two men, all wearing the same outfit: white flowing slacks under knee-length forest-green tunics. Each tunic had a mix of lines and dots stitched on the chest in white thread that glittered. The men and women were all tall, and all had dark hair pulled back at the nape with silver clasps, flowing down their backs. Two had blue skin and yellow eyes, two looked quite ordinary. One of the woman was playing something that looked like a small bagpipe, except she played it by pumping with her elbow instead of blowing into a tube. Giles had called it music, but it sounded more like a dying alien.
Behind the foursome, a woman with short peanut butter brown hair entered, and she was wearing black slacks and a black tunic that came to mid-thigh. She looked to be at least as old as Giles, maybe older.
He stepped in front of Willow, as if he could somehow take on all five of them.
"Do you, um, know these people?" she whispered.
He shook his head slightly, not taking his eyes off the invaders. The one with the dying octopus thing began to sing, except it sounded more like wailing. Like this was the start of a funeral or something.
"Sir Rupert," the peanut-butter-hair one said, acknowledging him. She turned piercing blue eyes on Willow. "Come here, child."
Giles lunged at the woman, but three of the uniformed strangers spread out in a semi-circle and grabbed him, driving him back against the ruined desk. Inexplicably, Willow found herself standing beside the blonde, with no memory of moving. She looked back, confused. Giles was struggling, but the hands pinned him down, and then the threesome began to sing, too, their voices blending harmoniously with the musician's alto. It sounded prettier that way, still mournful but with a melody, sort of like a church hymn in a language you don't understand.
The really freaky thing was that as they sang, Giles's hand changed. First the blood stopped dripping, then the white bones flattened and eased back into place. He snarled at them, as if he'd rather have the broken hand than go through this, but they went on serenely singing, and the skin knitted itself closed again.
The woman pulled her toward the seamless wall.
Again he fought against the restraining hands, but it was no use. "It's all right, Willow," he said hoarsely.
"These are the bad guys, right? The ones who paid Ethan to kidnap you?"
"Yes, I'm sure they paid him well. But they won't hurt you." He was bitter, but confident.
The woman led her through the wall, and it was like stepping through a soap bubble. The last thing she heard before her ears popped was his voice.
"They're the good guys...."
It wasn't the promised fast food servery, and there was no panoramic view of the North Downs, but sitting on a hillside in damp grass, Giles was momentarily content. There'd been some concern that food from another dimension might not nourish them--might in fact poison them--but far from killing them, it proved delicious; some sort of spicy beef equivalent lathered with mustard and piled atop rolls, with chips on the side. It did much to replace the strength Melissa had lost.
Under duress, including a brief shaking while being held upside down by his ankles, Ethan produced the full amount of their current funds, and as they ate they examined the bills and coins, trying to understand the economy.
"I believe these are from more than one country, rather the way one finds Scots and Irish money when in England."
"I agree. Notice the way some are labeled in English, and some in this more Arabic style."
"I like the green and blue ones," Ethan said.
"They seem to be the highest denomination. What a surprise."
Fondly caressing his small stack of bills, Ethan mused, "I wonder if we could make some."
"More busking and singing?"
"No, the same way you made the roses and briars. Sing a song about money."
"Only you would think of counterfeiting through magick."
"What we ought to do is consider using your talent to get us home," Melissa observed. "I imagine if you sing 'Home Sweet Home' while thinking about Oxford--"
"Where's the fun in that?" Ethan demanded. "We've only just gotten here. This money's worth nothing back home."
The voice of reason said that he should agree with Melissa and take them home now, before something went wrong, but Giles had to admit to himself that the idea of staying was tempting. They were on vacation, after all, and had meant to do some exploring, enjoying someplace new. Another dimension had to be even more interesting than a walk along the North Downs. Think what sort of spell a good rock-and-roll song could cast. If only he had his electric guitar....
//With no advance research? No weapons? No plans to deal with emergencies? No back-up other than Ethan Rayne, who kidnapped us in the first place and would sell us both out in a heartbeat to save his own skin?//
He sighed. Sometimes the voice of reason was a bloody pain in the arse. "Melissa's right."
"What if you screw it up? What if only one of us gets through, or only pieces of all of us?" That sounded as if Ethan was running out of dire predictions. "You don't even know the spell to come back and get the rest of us, if anything goes wrong."
"Thank you for reminding us. You'll explain the original spell in detail for us before we try anything else."
Ethan bristled. "I'm not ready to leave yet."
"You'll be ready once your nose is broken, I'd imagine."
"You're not going to beat me up in front of your girlfriend."
"Quite right. Lissa, close your eyes, please."
Ethan scrambled away, stuffing his money into his pockets. "Look, you're the one so into research. Why don't we at least find a library and do some reading on the principles of magick here, before we muck about with things we don't understand?"
"I hate it when he's right," Giles told Melissa, who opened her eyes and shrugged.
She scanned the horizon thoughtfully. "The sun's going to set sooner than I'd like," she said. "Do you think we have enough money to rent a room in an inn?"
He rose, brushing off his jeans and hefting his walking stick. "If not, Ethan and I will earn some more. But I think we should look for another town. There might be laws against amateur interior redecorating here."
"At least it was tasteful. Only think what would have happened if you'd sung another Child ballad, like 'The Unquiet Grave,' and brought a ghost to life."
"Oh, there's a lovely thought, Mel. Always look at the bright side, do you?" Ethan shot her a dirty look. He didn't like being frightened. "Ripper, do they have vampires here?"
"How the devil would I know? You're the one who brought us here." Giles hefted the walking stick, hoping he could break it in half if a stake were needed, or at least that he'd have the strength to impale a vampire on it even without a sharp point.
"Didn't they cover this in Watcher school?"
"Don't be stupid. You said that spell hasn't been used in centuries. No one would have any reason to know anything about this place. Couldn't you have used a spell to transport yourself to Las Vegas, if you wanted treasure? At least there we'd know what monsters to expect."
"Watchers?" Melissa said.
"Another family tradition. They study occult texts, collect spells and prophesies, do their best to control the vampire population, and, well, Watch."
"It sounds right up your alley. That's the reason for the five languages, and all the anthro and archaeology classes?"
"It was. Everyone assumed...." He shrugged. He was tired of letting everyone else assume control of his life, whether it was his father or Ethan Rayne or his school counselors. But then, taking control of his own life hadn't been a success, had it? He'd engaged in wild sex acts that were more than pleasurable and less than responsible, and in the process ended up killing one of his new friends. That was scarcely a record to be proud of.
Enough dark thoughts. As they walked, he cast his mind back to the events at the pub...the incredible sight of the arch he'd created without even trying. Since Eyghon, he'd avoided magick altogether, but this felt so right, so good. To combine two of his loves, and work magick with music, was an incredible rush.
//Only think what Pink Floyd could do here...!//
They had to test it. He had to master it, because in a crisis there wouldn't be time for fumbling and experimenting. Tonight they ought to make a list of songs that would be appropriate for various problems. Could one re-write the lyrics to be more appropriate? Surely that would work. And rock-and-roll would be best, because it would be unique; no one in this dimension would be prepared to deal with that particular musical form.
"Ethan, that hand had better be preparing for a sexual advance, because if it's reaching for my money, you're going to need finger splints."
"Well, I *have* missed you," Ethan said weakly, but his hand fell away without achieving any goal.
"And you had best not make advances of any kind on Melissa."
"Give me credit for some taste, won't you."
He really shouldn't be wasting the power on anything major. Magick wasn't something to be tossed off lightly, and they might seriously need it later, especially if he was the only one who could manipulate the forces in this dimension. Yes, he was angry with Ethan, angry about Randall dying, angry about their quarrel afterward, angry about being used against his will for Ethan's latest ill-advised project, and yes, a bit of revenge would feel bloody wonderful, but that wasn't excuse enough.
"Oh, dear." Melissa sounded exhausted as she stumbled to a halt. "A river. No ferry in sight, either."
If he *was* going to do this, he really ought to feel more guilty.
"When you're weary__feelin' small,
When tears are in your eyes--"
"Ripper? What are you doing?"
Giles widened his eyes innocently, keeping his voice sweet and cherubic as he sang the very slightly altered lyrics.
"I'll dry them all, I'm on your side.
Oh, when times get rough.
And friends just can't be found--"
"Oh, Christ, RIPPER!"
"Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay you down,
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay you down!"
Even though he'd expected it, the force required for such a major spell knocked him back on his buttocks. Melissa simply screamed.
In the rich light of a full moon, a bridge formed over the river before them. It wasn't a large or majestic bridge, but considering the source, Giles wasn't surprised. It was a small, flashy bridge, somewhat slipshod but serviceable.
"This is a dream, right? I'm dreaming this?"
"No, it's real. Come on, let's cross while we can. And be careful--I wouldn't be surprised if it had a trapdoor in it."
Melissa stared at him in horror. "It's real? Rupert, what have you done?"
"It isn't permanent. It's such a huge undertaking, the effects would fade on their own in minutes even if I didn't cast a release spell," Giles said reasonably. Quite like the escalating series of prank spells they had cast on each other in London, actually, except that it was much more impressive. "Come on."
She dug her heels in at the edge. "No! I'm not *walking* on him!"
"It won't hurt. He's a bridge. Bridges like to be walked on; it gives them a purpose."
He backed onto the bridge, tugging on her hand. Hesitantly, making an awful face, she tiptoed after him.
Giles said, as if it had just occurred to him, "I heard him call you a moose."
Her face flushed. She stamped one foot on the bridge. Nothing happened. There were no screams from the bridge, not even a rusty creak. She bounced experimentally. They exchanged glances, simultaneously jumped as high as they could and came down hard, then ran to the other side of the river.
"What do we do now?" she asked breathlessly.
Giles grabbed her other hand. "We sing an appropriate song, while I concentrate on the transformation."
"Then it has to be 'London Bridge,'" Melissa said firmly.
There, in the moonlight, they danced in a circle, giggling through a rather inadequate rendition of "London Bridge Is Falling Down," and on the final line, "We all fall DOWN!" they suited actions to words and collapsed in the grass. The bridge shimmered, and suddenly Ethan did a noisy belly flop in the middle of the gurgling river.
"--isn't funny!" he spluttered, resurfacing.
"Oh, I thought it was. Lissa?"
She waved one hand, laughing too hard to reply. After a minute she gasped, "Is it always like this? Magick?"
He didn't feel like laughing anymore. "No. Sometimes it's deadly. Often it's deadly. Usually you must petition a deity or demon to work a spell, and they can't be easily controlled." For some reason, he felt uneasy. "I could never have done that transformation at home, not alone. Ethan, come out of there. We don't know what sort of fish they have here." //Piranha, freshwater sharks, river monsters, trolls...//
"You're stronger here? Is Ethan stronger, too?"
"Ethan couldn't carry a tune if it came in a bucket. Unless we learn differently in a library somewhere, he can't work magick at all here." It felt rather good, defeating his rival in magick, even if he had to go to another dimension to do it.
Ethan was standing in knee-deep water, looking back the way they'd come. "Ripper--someone's coming!"
Giles felt it before he saw anything: a pounding on the ground underfoot. He should know that sound. Horses' hooves on hard ground, many of them. Then the darkness was pierced with globes of light, and irregular bursts of scarlet and golden flames. Ethan ducked back into the water, stroking to the left. His instinct for self-preservation was always sound.
"Run," Giles told Melissa, shoving her to his left. "Don't look back, whatever happens. Find shelter and hide, if you can run far enough."
"I'll join you later. Go!"
She stumbled across the meadow and was swallowed by the night. No need to worry about her; he'd seen her in the jungle, doing fieldwork, and she was magnificent. He knew magicks, but she knew survival. And Ethan...well, Ethan always looked after himself first and foremost.
//This might not be bad. Could be friendlies, just passing by...but not bloody likely.//
God, he wished he had his guitar. Half the power of Pink Floyd would be in the music, not the lyrics. If he'd conjured up a guitar and speakers, instead of wasting effort on a childish bit of revenge...and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on "Waiting for the Worms," hearing the music in his head.
"Oooo You cannot reach me now,
Oooo No matter how you try.
Goodbye cruel world, it's over.
Walk on by."
It worked, for a bit. Men in chainmail thundered past him, illuminated by wands capped with incandescent balls, held aloft in one hand. Weirdly, the horses had reptilian tails that ended in forked tassels, and massive barrel chests, and the flames he'd spotted earlier were being breathed from their black nostrils in short spouts. Like riding small wingless dragons. Did they feed the horses hay mixed with coal, to stoke the flames? Although Giles had close-up views of the riders' grim faces--they were all sporting mustaches and beards, some quite long, and the blue-tinged leader had golden eyes--they looked right through him, as the song directed, spurring the horses on.
That wouldn't do. They'd catch up to Melissa in no time.
"Here, now, you yobs. Don't you know a wind-up when you see one?" he shouted.
The nearest horses reared, shooting out two-foot flames, making a sound that was a cross between a neigh and a roar. He released the spell gratefully, because it was draining him. Dammit, that bridge prank had been a terrible mistake.
"Mage!" the leader of the riders snapped. He was as barrel-chested as his steed.
"Rider," Giles observed, and waited, head cocked, with as insolent an air as Ripper had ever displayed.
Dimensions over, coppers recognized hoods. The man scowled at him. "You are summoned to Sorcerers' Hall."
"Because you're a mage. All mages work for the Hall."
"I don't. I'm a tourist."
"All mages work for the Hall!"
The other riders encircled him, and the breath from their mounts was making him uncomfortably warm. He played a guitar riff in his head, making the strings sing, and softly sang along.
"Sitting in a bunker,
Here behind my wall,
Waiting for the worms to come.
In perfect isolation,
Here behind my wall,
Waiting for the worms to come."
Flames flickered upward against an invisible wall around him, and he grinned at their leader, an Ethan grin designed to make a bobby itch to hit him. The man glowered.
"Where are your companions?"
"My servants? I dismissed them. They weren't talented enough. They were holding me back"
The man jerked his head, and two riders peeled off, one to the left and one to the right. Melissa should be in hiding by now, and the horses weren't likely to go in the water willingly--it'd put out their flames--so Ethan should be safe enough. Giles tapped one boot to the music only he heard, but the guitars were fading. He hefted the walking stick in both hands.
"Waiting, to cut out the deadwood.
Waiting, to clean up the city.
One of the riders pulled some sort of harp from behind his back and began to pluck the strings, singing some ululating spell. Feeling the guitars go off-key, Giles mentally boosted the amps. Dammit, this would work much better with real guitars.
"Waiting, to follow the worms.
Waiting, to put on a black shirt.
Waiting, to weed out the weaklings.
One of the riders took a swipe at him with a light stick, and the globe at the end shattered, but he felt the wall crumble a bit. It was hard to concentrate on the song, because he was getting dizzy. Apparently he was about to get an intimate acquaintance with this Sorcerers' Hall. Whoever ran the place must not be all that popular, if his invitations were this rude and forceful.
Letting the spell collapse, Giles swung the walking stick at the leader's head. He'd studied various forms of fighting in preparation for his career as a Watcher, but his father had failed to order studies on fighting with men on horses. Add to that, the fact that these war horses simply set his weapon on fire as it swung by, and the outcome of the fight was inevitable.
//Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into, Ethan.//
Willow was hesitant to step through the wall, not so much because she expected to bang her forehead on it and embarrass herself in front of everyone as because she expected Giles to be standing on the other side. He'd be awfully sorry after he accidentally walloped her on the head with a cuspidor, but she'd still have the aching noggin. But Lady Alison raised one eyebrow, looking down her nose, and Willow, resigned, walked forward. He probably wasn't standing there, waiting to beat someone up; they'd been gone for hours now.
Sure enough, he'd gotten tired of pacing and was sitting on the floor, slumped against the wall. Someone had cleaned up the room and replaced the desk and chair, and the bed and sofa were still there, but apparently he was making some sort of point by ignoring them. When he saw her, he got up and strode toward her, and Willow melted into his arms. It felt so safe, being hugged by him. She felt him kiss the top of her head, then he held her shoulders and stepped back to peer into her face.
"Are you all right?"
Willow nodded. "They were very polite. They fed me supper and everything. Did you eat?"
If she hadn't been staring up into his face, she never would have caught the flicker of his glance toward the wall. "They brought me food, yes."
There was a stain on the wall. Willow frowned anxiously at him. "Giles, you didn't throw it at the wall, did you?"
"I, um, wasn't hungry." Proving him a liar, his stomach chose that moment to rumble. "It was probably drugged, anyway. Come sit down and relax. Tell me what happened."
"Uh-uh. Not until you eat."
He bridled. "I'm not going to beg for food."
She reached into her jacket. "I figured something like this might happen, so I sneaked you a sandwich. I'm not sure what sort of meat it is--one of the kids said horse, but I think he was just trying to gross me out, you know how little boys are--but it tasted pretty good." She frowned down at the crusty bread. "I don't think it was drugged."
He took the sandwich, peeled back the bread for a look, apparently decided any drugs wouldn't be visible, and took a bite. Willow curled up on the bed, sitting cross-legged, and patted the quilt beside her. Giles ducked his head and sat beside her. Although he looked sheepish, he ate the sandwich as if he were starving.
"Okay. They took me to a school, and the kids were telling fairy tales." He looked up sharply, but she just gave him the wide-eyed innocent look that always fooled her parents, and sure enough, he went back to eating. "And then they took me on a tour. This is the capitol city, and there were slums, and people who looked really hungry. I almost gave away your sandwich."
"Did they ask you to talk to me?"
"Yeah, they wanted me to convince you that you should, um, make nice with them. I said I couldn't tell you what to do."
He looked gratified, but that faded when she added, "'Cause you're really, really stubborn and when you get mad you won't give in."
"Yes, well...sometimes that can be a virtue."
"Yeah, I can hear you now, telling Xander that breaking furniture or his hand is a good idea, and throwing dinner on the wall is the grown-up thing to do."
Giles considered that for a moment, licking the mustard off his fingers. "Sometimes...when one returns to a place from one's childhood...one reverts to old patterns of behavior."
"Like licking your fingers?"
"They told me stories about back then. Before I talk about that, though, I wanna hear your version. You know. Like a bedtime story."
"It's not an appropriate bedtime story for children."
"So who's a child any more? Besides, have you read the original Brothers Grimm? In Cinderella, the wicked stepsisters hacked their feet up with a butcher knife, trying to fit the slipper. And what about 'Rockabye, baby, in the treetop'? It ends with the baby and cradle falling out of the tree! Bet it gives nightmares to *lots* of kids." She leaned her head against his shoulder. "Come on, Giles. Talk."
"Sometimes you remind me very much of Melissa."
"Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?"
He smiled ruefully. "Let me tell you about my hiking trip with Melissa, and you can decide for yourself."
Cuddled up beside him, it felt like being a little girl and listening to a fairy tale, except that her mom was rigidly liberal and added so many lectures about how Cinderella was an idiot to marry a man obsessed with looks and how the Three Little Pigs were right to use natural biodegradable materials in their homes that bedtime stories felt more like lessons, and she used to be afraid there'd be a quiz in the morning. Giles was good at telling stories. He always wanted to give you all the details, and sometimes that was boring to the rest of the guys, but Willow felt it gave things substance. He didn't just say, "Ethan was being obnoxious," he gave you the whole conversation, and you could practically hear Ethan's sneer.
"That's not very scary," she observed, when the gentle English voice finally stopped in a yawn.
"You sound disappointed. Haven't you been frightened enough, living on an active Hellmouth?"
"That's different. That's not a story."
"Neither is this. It happened a long time ago, but it did happen."
"But you're not finished. What happened after the soldiers grabbed you? Did Ethan and Melissa get away?"
"It's getting late, Will. Why don't I finish this tomorrow?"
Yeah, right. She'd felt the muscles in his arm tightening as they got to the part about the dragon horses and the soldiers. If they stopped now, he'd sit up all night, thinking about it. But if she objected, Giles would get all stubborn again. So Willow approached it from the back door.
"You know, until now, I never realized how much Ethan Rayne and Spike have in common."
"They're both from England, albeit different centuries," he said carefully. "They're both self-centered bastards and both dangerous. However, only one of them is a vampire. I don't see that much similarity."
"Well, back then, Ethan dressed like Spike does now, right? And he talked like a hood, all slang, instead of hoity-toity like he usually does now."
"Oh, Christ," Giles muttered. "And I've lived with both of them. They were both horrid roommates. What did I do in my past lives to deserve that sort of misery?"
"And Ethan is evil, just like Spike. And just like we never stake Spike, we never kill Ethan."
"It's not for lack of trying," he said morosely.
"Except Spike keeps saying he's evil, and Ethan says he's doing this for you." That didn't get a reaction, so she shifted position, trying to catch a glimpse of his face. "He worships Janus. What does Janus stand for? Other than January, I mean."
His mouth twitched. "Most authorities regard Janus as the god of beginnings and endings, and of past and future--that's why he's shown facing both ways. Ethan, however, considers him an avatar of Chaos, which is neither good nor evil, but both, depending on one's viewpoint and the circumstances." Mostly to himself, he mused, "I've always thought it appropriate that his god is two-faced."
"How can chaos be a good thing?"
"A question I've asked him more than once. He uses it as an excuse to avoid responsibility. For Chaos's sake, he interferes when anyone gets too comfortable and too stable. Since 'good' is mostly in power, that means he's usually working with 'bad,' but every now and then he'll do something he claims is meant to help our side, just to confuse everything and keep it chaotic. He isn't powerful and doesn't control his own life the way he'd like to, so he goes about making sure no one else is completely in control, either. And if things go wrong and someone is hurt, it's not his fault--it's the result of Chaos. All he did was set things in motion."
"That's a dumb excuse."
"Yes, well, you're considerably more mature than Ethan is."
"He helped Mr. Trick kidnap those newborn babies to feed them to a monster. If that's not evil, what is?"
"Ah, but Buffy saved the babies. He'd claim that was Chaos, stepping in to balance the scales."
"But that's Chaos, not him. What *he* did was evil. He didn't know the babies would be saved."
"Ethan believes the end justifies the means. It's all right to do evil, if your intent is to keep anyone from taking control of the universe."
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions, that's what they say."
"In Ethan's case, he doesn't have many of those, and he's still galloping along the road to hell."
She twisted a lock of her hair along one finger. "The people I met today have good intentions."
"And to support them, they hired Ethan to kidnap us both and hold us prisoner against our will. He gets to do what he considers a 'good' deed and still profit from it."
"Then how come you said they're the good guys?"
"Because compared to the previous regime, they are."
"Is that who the soldiers worked for?"
Closing his eyes, Giles rested the back of his head on the headboard, tightening his arm around her shoulder. "Yes."
//Okay, forget the back door.// "The kids all talked about a powerful alien mage who used strange new songs to rescue Akhdar from the evil sorcerer, and then disappeared. They said one day he'll come back and heal all ills. It's sort of like the whole King Arthur thing."
Utterly silent, he released her, crawled to the far side of the bed, and stood up. For a moment her heart thudded against her breastbone, because she thought he was rejecting her, but then she heard the gut-wrenching sounds, and knew he was vomiting into the cuspidor thing. Oh, God. So much for the sandwich. Couldn't she ever do anything right?
"Giles?" Willow threw her arms around his back. "Giles, I'm sorry. But you have to talk about it, don't you see? It's like when you have a boil. Unless you lance it and let all the pus out, it'll never heal."
"It's my burden, not yours. You're just a child...."
"And you're practically my father. Ethan says we're your children. I know I love you, Giles. Lots. Even though I never say it, 'cause I get embarrassed. And I wanna help. Please."
He sat down on the edge of the bed, but was silent for an excruciatingly long time. Biting her lower lip, Willow put the flats of her hands on his back, feeling the rigid muscles, then slowly began to rub the knots away.
After awhile, Giles said quietly, "There are always plenty of people who can sing. Those who sang the best, even though they couldn't manipulate the forces used in magick, were taken to the Sorcerers' Hall to sing when a mage needed the additional power. People who can work magick are rarer, and people who can both work magick and sing well are rarer still. Add to that my knowledge of music--not just singing, but playing instruments--and of forms of music they hadn't invented here, and I would be a powerful rival. Better to make me a tool. After all, I appeared to be a bookworm sort of fellow trying to come across as tough. Unfortunately, I was actually more of a hoodlum trying to revert to being a bookworm sort, and those are much harder to break."
"The legend says you were there for weeks."
"I wouldn't know. Time lost all meaning. In a cell with no windows or doors, there is no day or night, and since they started by denying me food and water, I couldn't use meals to judge time."
"I was nude. I had nothing."
She rested her forehead against his back. "Oh."
"The next step was sleep deprivation. You go mad without sleep. I used to hallucinate...and then came the violence. Simple beatings. Broken bones. A choir would come in and sing a pretty hymn, and the bones would knit, and in a day or two they'd be broken again. Whippings. There was claret everywhere."
"Claret? They gave you wine? To get you drunk?"
One short sharp bark of laughter, utterly without humor. "It's slang, love. It means blood."
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