FIC: Bells and Memories
RATING: Teen for (occasional) language
PAIRING: Giles/Anya around the edges
LENGTH: just under 2400 words
SUMMARY: Diverging from canon after Season 6 "Tabula Rasa." Back in England, Giles is in Oxford for a Watcher conference, feeling guilty about leaving Buffy and unhappy about leaving Anya. It's time for him to remember something that happened decades ago, when he was at university....
Ninety-nine steps circling to the top of Carfax Tower. Ninety-nine steps down.
Giles, his hands fisted in his pockets so that he didn’t punch his nattering Watcher colleague in the face, gazed up at the top of the tower. Pale stone, and sun-drenched blue sky above it –
The image of night sky and someone falling, no, Buffy falling from Glory’s tower, was strong enough to superimpose itself on reality, the past a momentary stop of his heart. He thought then of Ben, and uncurled his hidden fingers one by one.
“—And I do think regular hypno-suggestion is particularly effective on Slayers, at least in the field trials I’ve recently overseen,” Albert Cholmondeley said. Then, “Giles? Are you listening?”
“Yes,” Giles said. It was almost not a lie.
He had been trying to listen all day, at this Watcher conference held in the Council’s secret rooms near Christchurch College, Oxford. He had been trying to pretend to be the Rupert Giles he’d been before Sunnydale, before Buffy, before losses and murder and a Slayer brought back from the dead. He had been trying to pretend to be here, now, his mind and heart and body on the job.
A pathetic effort, really. He’d had to flee the stuffy rooms, bad tea, vile colleagues (one of whom had followed him).
Just as he’d fled Sunnydale after that disastrous forgetting spell of Willow’s. He’d been ready to go anyway, but the events of that long blank day and night had propelled him across North America and the Atlantic in what he might admit was panic. The idea of Buffy in ceaseless pain…and his own sweet pain of Anya in his arms under the spell, the sick sad sensation of awakening to who he was. He couldn’t help his Slayer, and he couldn’t have his partner.
But it wasn’t easy to forget, and it wasn’t easy to pretend. Not bloody easy at all.
At random he said, “Er, why do you think regular hypno-suggestion is to be trusted, Cholmondeley?” No use raising the ethics question with this git.
The man puffed up like a particularly nauseating Grop demon, all red face and braces that looked like scales. Cholmondeley had always been a pillock, even back in their Merton College days. “I told you. Tests. Experience.”
And Giles was struck by an odd, broken recollection, as if clean cold truth was sneaking through a cracked window. “Experience. Experience... years ago, we met a woman on this corner. Who was she?” More of that long-ago encounter returned, and he half-sang, half-incanted, “’A lady from the hedgerow, lean and true.’”
Cholmondeley stumbled back, as he had done all those decades before when the pale gleaming figure had come toward them there on the edge of the High, singing that very phrase, what on earth was he remembering.... “Don’t. Don’t, Giles.”
“Don’t what?” Giles said.
“Don’t remember. Because if you do….” Cholmondeley seemed to choke on what he wasn’t saying. “Don’t.”
Giles blinked at him. “What?”
“Nothing. Good.” Cholmondeley pushed up his sleeve, checked his watch, buttoned his suit coat. “Looks like they’ll be starting again, good session on False Prophecy, must be going.” He turned on his heel, muttering, “Not prophecies, never that. Not true. I know it’s not. It can’t be. ” Narrowly avoiding a tourist family and two hand-holding students, he fled.
Giles gazed after him. Prophecies and truths. Pretending. Forgetting. What the bloody hell had been let go?
His hands, still in his pockets, burned briefly, and with a fresh rush of wind and the taste of ashes on his tongue, an old spell crumbled. He was, in memory, an angry young man nearing Carfax Tower.
Those berks. Fanton playing those bloody mind-games with that poor fresher from Lady Margaret Hall, Cholmondeley a… well, a fucking watcher like the others. Watching Fanton break the girl’s heart, and worse.
Giles shoved his hands deep in his pockets, wished for a pint or the weed Ethan had in London, walked on through the oddly quiet evening without knowing where he was going. Didn’t matter in the end.
“Ripper! Wait!” came the puffing cry behind him.
“Go back, Chummy. Don’t fucking want to talk to you.”
“No! It’s Fanton!” Cholmondeley got out.
Giles stopped. He wasn’t in anyone’s way, even though this corner – he was right below Carfax Tower – was usually busy. “What about that tosser?”
“It’s, I mean… what did you do to him?” Crimson with exertion, Cholmondeley tripped to a halt.
“Just told him not to play games with that girl’s heart. And not to touch her again.” Giles didn’t add that he’d given this advice whilst shoving Fanton right into his wall and punctuated his remarks with a fist to the nose. He wasn’t particularly proud of it. Or the way he liked a punch or two of an evening. Or the way he felt oddly trapped in Oxford unless he was barricaded in the Camera or the Bodleian.
Too late tonight, but tomorrow he’d go up to London, see what trouble he could get into.
“Well, he’s… wait. Sorry.” Cholmondeley bent over, hands on his knees, wheezing.
On the point of leaving, Giles hesitated -- not because of the git trying to catch his breath, but because he heard bells.
One often heard bells here – bicycles’ tinny rings to alert the unwary, the bells of Carfax Tower themselves to ring out the hours, bells from the other towers in this Oxford of stone and memory. But these bells were different. They were merry, mesmeric, and coming this way.
He looked down the High, and there she was – tall, pale, skin gleaming almost green in reflected streetlight. She looked a bit of a flower-child, striding along in bare feet under a long skirt, with a belt made of bells ringing with every step. She was… extraordinary.
And she was singing as she closed the distance between them. “’A lady from the hedgerow, lean and true, Comes to tell fortunes for the likes of you.’”
Beside Giles, Cholmondeley stood, quivering like some… some bloody rabbit or such, trapped in light. “Come back and fix Fanton, Giles, now. Now!” he got out, plucking at Giles’s leather sleeve.
“Not now,” Giles said, and shook off the hand.
The woman had seen them. “Hullo, young masters. A fine moonless night for meeting friends.”
Giles didn’t know where the words came from, but he found himself saying, “Good evening to you. Although, er, we’re not friends.”
“You and I, young master, or you and the other young master?” she said.
“Giles!” Cholmondeley yelped, then, “We have to leave.”
Giles shot him a sideways glance. The tosser had gone sickly green, not like the shining vision in front of them. Did the sodding idiot think Giles couldn’t handle himself? That he hadn’t thought briefly about vampires, demons, and other uncanny beings who made the night their own? He had a stake in his pocket, and two good fists, and a brain.
And the lady seemed pleasant enough. He opened his senses, the way he and Phillip and Dierdre had been practicing, and he felt her power and her… not good will, exactly, but not ill will either.
So he said to the woman, “But I’d be happy to cry friends with you, lady. At your service.”
“You have fine manners for the evening,” the woman said, and spun around with a melodic accompaniment of bells. When she stopped spinning, she stood near enough so that Giles caught her scent – spearmint and rue all mingled together. “Cross my hand with silver, young master, and I will tell you a good tale.”
Giles felt in his pockets for a coin, anything, but – “I’m sorry, I only have a couple of pound notes.”
“Giles,” Cholmondeley moaned, and started to leave. The lady touched him once, on the shoulder, and he shuddered himself to a hard-breathing stop.
“Young master,” the lady said to Giles, “what do I see around your neck?”
Even as his hand went reflexively to the silver chain he was wearing, he said, “Er, you can call me Giles. Or…” Somehow Ripper seemed to stick in his throat. “Or Rupert.”
“Rupert, then. Answer the question, sweet Rupert.” Her index finger lightly brushed the chain where it rested on his tee-shirt, there below his neck.
At her touch the world around them – voices, engines, all the humming life of a great college city – went silent. Her eyes were deep green, her mouth dangerously pale. He wanted her. But he wasn’t bloody stupid enough to think having her would be a good idea in any way.
She must have read his thought, because she laughed, merry like her bells, dark as storm, filthy as a wet country lane. A second finger joined the second. “Wise, sweet Rupert. What do I feel here?”
“It’s…” He moistened suddenly dry lips. “It’s a chain. And, and it’s silver.” A gift from Ethan on Giles’s last birthday; he’d said there was magic with it. Giles hadn’t believed it, but now… “You can have it if you like.”
“Do not throw away the gifts of love,” she said sharply, even as her hand closed around the chain, even as her eyes closed. Then, “Sing to me as I sang to you. If you remember, that is.”
Giles dimly registered Cholmondeley’s twitch at that, but his world had narrowed again, to green and dark, to mint and rue, to clear water and cold silver. And he sang, “’A lady from the hedgerow, lean and free, Comes to tell fortunes for the likes of me.’”
She laughed, and the bells around her rang. She leaned forward – she was as tall as he was, he noted absently – and said, so close he could taste her breath, “Sweet Rupert, sweet clever Rupert, before I go I shall leave you a charm. But now…”
There in the circle she’d made, the lady and Giles and that shivering idiot Cholmondeley, she swayed forward, back, forward, back. The bells rang out, and then the bells from Carfax Tower, and then all the world was bells –
Silence. She opened her eyes. All merriment was gone.
“Let me talk to you of your work, of watching and books and sales, one of which jobs you will not choose but it will choose you. After the fall from the tower, you will leave twice. You must return thrice, and you must not dally on the way, lest the earth open up and hell enter.”
He blinked. “Er, what?”
Her hand tightened on the silver, and he lost breath.
She said more urgently, “Work is not all that you are, sweet Rupert. Your first love will lead to death, and will not survive that poison. Your second love will end in death, and her loss will bruise your heart but not break it. Your third love will change and change again in herself, and you must speak the binding words before the other man does.” She hissed then, and lifted her head as a snake does above the grass. “She is here, that last love, and if you speak to her tonight, much pain will be averted, what I’ve said can be broken. Speak to her, darling boy, speak to her.” Her free hand passed over his head, sending sparks along his skull. “Your charm, a hard head. You’ll need it.”
She let go, but the chain went with her. It was in her hand when she turned to Cholmondeley. “Sir, you are no friend of mine or the Fair Folk,” she said coolly, “but I will tell truth regardless. You will not evade justice. When he remembers, you will fall where you stand.”
She was gone, and the world came back in noise and hustle, a gust of wind and one last distant ringing of bells.
Giles touched his neck, bare where the chain had been, and swallowed hard. “Right. Right, well, I need a pint or two after that—"
“No,” Cholmondeley said. More strongly: “No, no. I can fix it.”
Giles couldn’t help a curl of his lip at the man’s cravenness. “Don’t be a fucking ass, mate. It’ll be fine.”
“Yes. Yes, it will.” Cholmondeley’s hand went into his trouser pocket.
Shrugging, Giles turned away. He had enough for drinks at the Eagle and Child; a part of him was always amused that it was on St Giles Street, and after this possibly magical encounter, the drinking home of the Inklings seemed appropriate. But when he took his first step on Cornmarket, he found himself face-to-face with a pretty, sharp-featured young woman. Head down, she was tapping along on high heels, muttering to herself, “This was a fool’s errand. Someone’s already taken vengeance on the guy’s nose, and I don’t approve of wasted effort.”
And then she looked up, and Giles’s heart contracted oddly. She was odd, certainly, but something about the deep brown eyes....
But when he opened his mouth – to apologise for being in her way, to say anything at all – Cholmondeley’s hand reached around and caught nose and mouth in a handkerchief, strangely scented, cloying, sick-making. It tasted of ash. From behind Cholmondeley pressed in and said hoarsely into Giles’s ear, “Forget.”
He remembered. He remembered it all, the encounter with the fey lady, the missed opportunity with Anya, Cholmondeley’s treachery.
He had to go back to Sunnydale. For Buffy and his life’s work, for Anya and his love, for himself.
For the lady he’d met so long ago, who’d charmed him so he could pass through pain and stand here today, in the shadow of the great tower.
Even as he spun around, ready to bolt, to find his way to the nearest bloody airport, shouts rang out from down the High. People gathered around a fallen figure Giles could only just see. Cholmondeley, crumpled, one arm thrown out as if to stop his fate.
Beside the knot of people huddled around Cholmondeley’s body stood a pale, lean figure, skin gleaming green in the sunlight. She tossed back her hair and then glanced Giles’s way. He could see her dangerous smile even at this distance.
He heard bells, from Carfax Tower, from all the other bells in the city, a mad clamour of sound. Inhaling, he caught the scent of spearmint and rue.
Then she was gone. But this time Giles remembered.