Title: A Heavy Darkness Falling, Chapter 1/7
Word Count: 60,000
Rating/Pairing: R, Giles/Willow
Disclaimer: Not mine! They belong to Joss and Mutant Enemy.
Feedback: Would be really, really nice, even if it's just to say hi.
Summary: When a cult that worships the First Evil makes Willow their target, Giles finds himself on a quest in the Amazon to save her - and world (again) - with the help of bloody Ethan of all people. Post-Chosen.
Author's Notes: This was written over the course of about six weeks. It was an incredible experience that I hope to never have again, and it would not have been possible without certain people. Thanks to my Amazing Narcoleptic Line-Editor fuzzyboo03 for holding my hand, helping me piece together the damn action sequences, and forcing me to tame my clauses. Thanks also to kivrin for beta reading and looking at the Big Picture when I couldn't see it anymore. Last but not least, thanks to twitchylizard for her mad Wiki skillz, which were invaluable during the research process.
And now, on to the fic!
Darkness was falling, and a very heavy dark it would be too. Giles shifted uncomfortably; even with the orange life vest cushioning the unforgiving hard wood of his bench in the motorized canoe, after eight hours his back was complaining in the most eloquent way it knew how. He wanted to keep going for as long as possible, however, and had said as much to Paulo, his Brazilian guide. The young man had merely nodded; he’d become quite taciturn once he’d realized that Giles truly had no interest in stopping to peer through binoculars at the sloth dozing in the upper reaches of the canopy.
Giles watched a flurry of bats whip past, low over the water, and thought with frustration that they would have to stop soon. They could continue upriver in the dark, but he was navigating almost entirely by the memory of a single, confused vision. Some of the information had come through loud and clear: a dark hut with a candle burning, trembling hands clasped over blue-jean clad knees, and then a flash of Willow lying in a bed, her red hair plastered to her forehead with sweat. She had looked feverish.
And then, finally, had come one last flash, this one of a wide, sweeping bend of river, a log emerging from the deep brown water with vines dangling over it, and the distant scream of a howler monkey.
It turned out, however, that the Amazon twisted and bent like a snake, and the majority of those bends were marked by a submerged log or seven; hanging vines there were aplenty. Giles hoped there would be some other sign, because he was rapidly losing confidence that he would recognize the spot when they came to it, provided, of course, they hadn’t passed it by already.
The vision had been accompanied as well by a rush of emotion, and it was that more than anything else that had compelled Giles to first pick up the phone and, minutes later, to drop all Council business on Xander and Andrew’s heads to rush down to Devon. The vision had come from none other than Ethan Rayne, Giles had known that much instantly from the wild, chaos-tinged flavor of the magic, and it could easily have been a trap. But Ethan could not have faked the feeling behind the vision, nor even controlled it, or he probably would not have chosen for Giles to know that he was very tired, and hungry, and, above all else, frightened.
Giles thought of Willow, shivering under that blanket, and strained his eyes against the dim light. He let another half an hour go by in silence, though the jungle itself was increasingly raucous with dusk merging into night, as the cicadas started singing and the nocturnal frogs started croaking their echoing chorus. Paulo turned on a powerful torch at the bow of the boat, illuminating the swathe of brown water directly ahead of them. Giles dug his own torch out of his pocket – no easy task given the voluminous folds of his rain poncho – and trained it in long sweeps over the deepening shadows of the shoreline. A cayman’s eyes lit up red and then vanished as it submerged, but he didn’t see any logs. At least, none that struck him as that very particular one.
Another half an hour. This was getting foolish, Giles knew, if not yet dangerous. But there was another bend in the river just up ahead. He had no reason at all to think that it might be the one, and yet the idea of asking Paulo to stop now made him itch on some deeply magical level.
They swept round the bend. Giles had grown used to the movement of the canoe after nine hours, and leaned into it, training his torch along the river’s edge.
Yes. This was it. That was the submerged log – he remembered the broken branch hanging off of it, making that ripple in the water – and those were the vines, thick enough to swing on if one felt like being extremely foolish. And next to them, Giles saw, gritting his teeth in grim satisfaction, was something Ethan hadn’t seen fit to include in his vision: an old, rotting dock with a set of dubious steps leading up to what Giles at first assumed must once have been a village. But then his torchlight snagged on a faded sign, obviously hand-painted, with a rough caricature of one of the rainforest’s more curious and elusive creatures. Everything but “Tapir L –” had eroded away, but that was enough. Not a village at all, then, but an old, abandoned lodge.
“This is it,” Giles said to Paulo, his Portuguese being rather thinner than the guide’s heavily accented but much practiced English.
“Are you sure, senhor?” the guide asked. He cut the motor, which only made the cicadas and frogs seem louder.
“Yes,” Giles said. Even if the signs hadn’t all been there, this place felt right. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he thought he could feel Ethan nearby – he was in that lodge, Giles was sure of it. “Pull us up and tie us off, please,” he said, pointing with the torch to the crumbling dock. Paulo, who obviously thought Giles quite mad, did so.
Giles stood and nearly fell over as his back gave a ferocious twinge. He stretched gingerly, and then stripped the poncho off over his head. This was Ethan after all, and Giles didn’t much care to meet him with his movement so restricted. Plus, the damn thing made him look ridiculous.
“You’ll be all right to stay here for a bit?” he asked Paulo. “I want to check things out myself.”
“I will be fine,” the guide said. “But, senhor, I must warn you that the jungle is full of dangers, especially at night. I am an expert –”
“I don’t doubt it,” Giles interrupted, as politely as possible. “But let me assure you that I am an expert in other areas.” He aimed the torchlight up the crumbling steps, and glimpsed a ring of huts, but nothing else. Not waiting for Paulo’s reply, he stepped carefully over the side of the boat and began making his way up the stairs, keeping to the left as the middle of the boards seemed the most rotted. At the top he paused and turned to look at Paulo, who was watching him with obvious anxiety. “I’ll be back as soon as possible,” Giles said. “If I’m longer than an hour –” He hesitated. “Please do as you see fit,” he finished at last, and turned away.
The lodge had never been luxurious. Giles would have bet that its small, primitive huts had seen a succession of university students, backpackers, and hippies. They were built in a circle, high up on stilts in case of flooding and connected by a wooden walkway. A quick sweep of the torch showed that there were boards rotted away or missing altogether. Giles stood, listening to the almost deafening nocturnal song of the jungle, and wondered if he dared risk the walkway. Another sweep with the torch convinced him he had no choice. He retrieved the long, thin knife he’d strapped to the inside of his boot, took a deep breath, and tried to step lightly.
He reached the first hut without incident. A quick search of its four rooms turned up nothing except an impressive tarantula that had claimed one of the bathrooms for herself and her offspring. Giles doubted anyone would argue with her over it for very long.
He’d nearly reached the second hut when a board gave way beneath his boot. He couldn’t quite swallow a yell as he went down, but at least he managed not to lose either the torch or the knife as he crashed forward, flat on his face. He levered himself up, swearing but grateful not to have sprained or broken anything. So much for stealth though. He picked his way carefully up the stairs of the second hut and sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound, and all that. “Ethan?” he called. “Are you there?”
There was no immediate answer, but Giles thought he heard movement in one of the rooms. He glanced quickly into the other three, and, finding nothing, aimed the torch at the room in question with wary caution. There were much worse things than tarantulas or Ethan Rayne that could have made a nest in there, after all. He eased the door open – and blinked in the sudden yellow glow of candlelight.
“Hello, Ripper,” Ethan said. “Nice of you to finally show up.”
“Ethan,” Giles managed. “You look like hell.” He did, too: pale and almost gaunt, with three days’ uneven beard growth. His face was shiny with sweat and the room reeked.
“Yes, well,” Ethan said. He was sitting on the floor, hands resting on his bent knees, just as he had been in the vision. He leaned his head back and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “I’ve had an extremely trying few days. Though I must admit, less for me than for some.” He glanced toward the room’s single bed, gone unnoticed by Giles until now because of its location in the deep shadows thrown by the flickering candle.
“Oh God.” Giles started forward at once. “Willow.” He set his torch aside to bend over the bed. Her eyes were closed and she lay very still – much more so than in the vision, where she had tossed and turned in seeming delirium. Giles knew far better than to mistake her stillness for the peacefulness of true sleep. Despite the oppressively humid warmth of the jungle, her skin was cold where he touched it. He sat on the edge of the bed; one of her hands, chilled and limp, lay outside the blanket and he picked it up between both of his, trying to warm even that small part of her. He pressed it between his hands and then to his heart, and then, strangely, had to quash the urge to press it to his lips as well. She didn’t stir.
“Ethan, what happened?” Giles demanded in a low voice. “And what the hell are you doing to her now?”
Ethan sighed with weariness that Giles, for all his suspicion, did not think was exaggerated and said, “In answer to the second question, I’m keeping her alive. In answer to the first –” He stood, bracing himself against the wall; before Giles could protest, Ethan had pulled the blanket down, exposing Willow’s bare chest, a hand-shaped blistering burn in the center. Psycho-somatic though he knew it was, Giles felt a sudden twinge in his own scarred-over version, directly over his heart, where two years ago Willow had stolen his magic and nearly killed him.
“My God,” Giles said, when at last he could speak. Ethan had slid back down the floor while he’d been staring dumbly. “When –”
“Three days ago.”
“And you’ve been sharing your magic with her ever since?”
“Ripper, I don’t have the energy for you to play dim. Would she be alive if I weren’t?”
“Who – no,” Giles said decisively. “Are we safe here?”
Ethan shrugged. “For the moment.”
“Then let me tell my guide that we’ll be staying here tonight, and I can – relieve you.” He covered Willow back up, tucked her hand under the blanket, and stood.
“Thank you,” Ethan said, without a trace of humor. Giles judged that he was very near the end of his endurance. Another two hours, three at the most. If he had told Paulo to stop before that last bend of the river, he’d have likely arrived here in the morning and found them both dead. He shuddered, and made his way carefully back to the canoe.
He had found his friends, Giles explained to Paulo, but they were in a bad way. No, neither of them had been bitten or stung or eaten something they shouldn’t have, thank you for your concern. They hoped to be on their way tomorrow, as early as possible so as to reach Macapá before dark. Good night.
Giles closed the door on the guide’s earnest concern and locked it using magic for good measure, since there was no other way of doing so. He knew he’d been abrupt to the point of rudeness, but that was the least of his concerns.
He set his rucksack, which had been purchased hastily along with the rest of his supplies in the city, down on the rough-hewn wood floor of the hut. “There’s food in here,” he told Ethan, who opened his eyes in acknowledgment. “You’re to eat once we’re done. Are you dehydrated as well?” Very probably, given the cracked, dry state of Ethan’s lips. Ethan gave the barest nod. “There’s water too. Don’t make yourself ill, please.”
He grasped Ethan’s hands without further ceremony or delay, and reached out, testing, feeling – yes, there was Ethan, weak, depleted, but there. Giles considered giving him a boost to help him on his way back to normal, but then thought better of it. Ethan would recover on his own in fairly short order, and Giles would need to conserve his own energy for Willow, who would – not. Not easily, at any rate. Giles reached for her, the third presence in this triangle, and felt her more as an absence – something that should have been there but wasn’t, like a severed limb.
Giles drew a deep breath, and when he let it out he let his magic flow into Willow. She soaked it up, like dry desert earth soaked up rare and precious rainfall, but he knew it would only evaporate again. He felt Ethan withdraw his magic from her, and then let go of Giles’s hands. Giles opened his eyes.
“Food, did you say?” Ethan said. His eyes were already a little brighter. Giles nodded. Ethan pulled the pack toward him and began rooting around in it, while Giles pushed himself off the floor and went to sit once more on the edge of Willow’s bed. He took her pulse – sluggish, but growing steadier as she absorbed Giles’s fresher energies – and stroked her hair back from her forehead. He thought he felt just the slightest movement under his palm, but he couldn’t be sure.
“I’m here now. It’s going to be all right,” he murmured to her, though he was not at all sure that it would be. What else could he say, after all? He looked over at Ethan, who was eating his way through a package of dried fruit. “Pass me a water bottle please,” he said. “And then begin at the beginning.”
“As you wish,” Ethan said with his usual irony. He passed Giles a water bottle, took a long swallow from his own. “I guess the beginning would be escaping from the truly dreadful government holding facility you let those Initiative blokes put me in. Not that that was any great feat, but really, you should have seen the uniforms. Orange pajamas. Hellish.”
“Don’t be such a bloody queen, Ethan,” Giles said, attempting to dribble a little water into Willow’s slightly parted lips without choking her. This time he wasn’t imagining it – her lips moved and she swallowed the water. She was only unconscious because Ethan had lacked the energy to support her fully. He sighed in silent relief, and turned to glare reflexively at Ethan. “Get on with the story, will you?”
“Right, well, I decided after that that it would be prudent to stay out of your way for a time, so I came down here. It was Carneval in Rio – more magic and mayhem than even I knew what to do with. Afterward I just stayed, traveling a bit, causing a ruckus when the mood struck me. Nothing on a grand scale,” he added when Giles frowned. “I’ve been a very good boy lately, Ripper – as you might know from the fact that your young friend here is alive.”
“Yes,” Giles admitted, rubbing one of Willow’s hands gently. “That . . . means a great deal to me. And I’m quite interested to know why you’ve gone to so much trouble. You risked your own skin, Ethan, and that’s not something I’ve seen you do very often.”
Ethan sighed. “Yes, I know. Call it old age if you will, but it seems that I’ve started to get priorities. Most annoying.” He shoved the last piece of fruit into his mouth and crumpled up the empty wrapper. “In any case,” he went on once he’d swallowed, “it was after you and your Slayer shut down the Sunnydale Hellmouth, I suppose, that I first started to hear things about a cult calling itself the Children of the Dark Eye. Nothing specific at first, just the usual, you know – Dark-worshipping cults are a dime a dozen.”
“I’m aware,” Giles said impatiently.
“Of course you are. Well, with a name like that I figured they couldn’t be too serious. But a few weeks ago I started to realize they weren’t the usual amateurs, and that,” he grimaced, “was when I made my first mistake.”
“Not contacting you. I’m still quite supportive of a bit a trouble now and again, you know, and I figured that, what with you being head of the Council now and having however many hundreds of Slayers mucking about, surely you would hear of them on your own and take care of matters without my needing to meddle –”
“In short,” Giles interrupted, “you didn’t want to face me, so you justified sitting on information you knew I should have.”
Ethan ripped open a package of some local sweet made with peanuts and sugar that Paulo had insisted on, claiming it would provide quick energy. “Yes, well. That’s one way of looking at it.”
“Ethan,” Giles began angrily.
Ethan pointed emphatically toward Willow. “She’s alive, Ripper! Do remember that, all right?”
Giles subsided, fuming. The man had a point, fortunately for him. He looked down at Willow and squeezed her hand, receiving weak pressure in return. Very fortunately for him.
“Anyway, something didn’t feel right about this cult,” Ethan said at last, into a silence grown ominous. “So I sniffed around a bit, tailed one of their members in Rio, and found him casing her apartment –”
“And you still didn’t –” Giles began, surging to his feet but mindful of the fact that any extreme physical exertion would have a mystical toll as well. It therefore probably wouldn’t be the most brilliant idea to beat Ethan to a bloody pulp; there was, however, no harm in letting Ethan think otherwise.
“They moved too quickly, Ripper,” Ethan said, looking up at him with a disappointing lack of alarm. “And I didn’t know who she,” he nodded toward Willow, “was at the time. I knew something was about to happen, though, so I kept an eye on the bloke I’d been following and that night –”
“I know that part,” Giles said shortly. He’d seen the flat in Rio himself: everything in shambles, glass shards on the floor, Kennedy’s blood drying on the sofa. Kennedy herself had been taken away already, hours earlier. Giles wondered how much Willow had seen. Did she know Kennedy was dead, or would he have to tell her when she woke?
“Yes,” Ethan said grimly. “And this is where I made my second mistake, which was the same as my first. Instead of contacting you, I followed them.”
“Teleporting?” Giles asked, raising his eyebrows.
“As far as Macapá. Incidentally, how did you get here?”
“Willow and I have friends at a coven in Devon,” Giles replied. “They teleported me to Rio after I received your vision. While I was looking into things there, their Seers were trying to find Willow. They couldn’t get a very close fix on her, unfortunately, or they might have saved me a nine hour canoe ride.”
Ethan grimaced. “I didn’t realize we were so far out. I hope you don’t expect me to do anything strenuous tomorrow.”
“No, the Council jet should be waiting for us in Macapá.” Along with Xander, who had insisted on coming to meet them once Giles had called in with the news from Rio. “Now could we return to the matter at hand, please?” he added impatiently when Ethan did not immediately go on with his story.
“All right, all right,” Ethan said, his mouth full. He swallowed. “Where was I?”
“You were in Macapá –”
“Right. They disappeared on me there – I’d been following their signatures, which were very . . . unique. I should have realized then what I was dealing with and left them to you to sort out. You did well enough before.”
“And what, exactly, would ‘it’ be?” Giles asked, frowning.
“The oldest and the darkest,” Ethan said, with his usual flair for the dramatic. “That which predates all except the Powers, of course. The First.”
Giles stared. There was the most dreadful ringing in his ears and a terrible, acid feeling in his gut. He wanted to deny it, he wanted to say that was impossible, there was no conceivable way the First could have re-established a toehold in this dimension again so quickly. But of course, it could have. It was the First. The oldest and the darkest, as Ethan had said. All it needed were some willing servants.
“A First-worshipping cult,” he said slowly.
“As you say,” Ethan said through a mouthful of peanut candy. “I had to ask a shaman friend of mind to help me find them again, and by the time I got there and realized who they were and who she was,” he nodded toward Willow again, “well, it was too late. I did manage to get her out, though, and a very messy operation it was. And I feel I should point out that I did not make the same mistake a third time.”
“No,” Giles said heavily. He was silent, and so, mercifully, was Ethan. “Her power went into the members of the cult, I assume?” he asked at last. In which case, it was gone; when Willow had stolen his, she had returned it to him willingly in the moment she had come back to herself. He highly doubted the members of the cult, these “Children of the Dark Eye,” could be persuaded to do the same. Even split among however many people, Willow’s power would make them formidable. And as for Willow herself . . . if her power were truly gone, then all of Ethan’s efforts and Giles’s own were only serving to delay the inevitable.
He felt suddenly chilled, even in the steamy heat of the jungle. They were probably planning to pick them all off, everyone who had been involved in shutting down the Hellmouth and defeating the First, starting with the witch who cast the spell. Oh God, Giles thought, he had to get back to Macapá as quickly as possible. Xander would be there by now, waiting for them, and he would have no idea of the danger he was in.
“Hmm,” Ethan said, drawing Giles’s attention back. “No, I don’t believe so.”
Giles raised his eyebrows. “It . . . didn’t go into them?”
“Not as far as I could see. And I think she and I would have had a much more difficult time escaping if it had.”
“Yes,” Giles said, his initial relief fading as he realized a few of the possible implications. The cult would never have let all that power go to waste, so just what, exactly, were they planning to use it for? Nothing benign, that much was certain. But perhaps there was yet some hope of getting it back. He squeezed Willow’s hand again. Her fingers flexed in his own. “I think we’re going to find that a – a mixed blessing.”
“One I was grateful enough for at the time, I assure you.”
“I’m sure,” Giles said, frowning at him. “Which brings me to my final question.” He shifted to face Ethan squarely. “Why did you save her? And then go on saving her for the next three days, at considerable personal risk?”
Ethan grimaced. “Well, she is the greatest witch of our age, Ripper. She’s caused her fair share of chaos in her time as well, which you know I admire. Seemed an awful waste to let her die.”
“You’ve shown no such compunction in the past.”
“Ripper, you wound me,” Ethan said, placing a hand over his heart.
“Cut the dramatics, I don’t have the time. I need to know your motivation, Ethan.” To know how much I can trust you went unspoken. Giles would have preferred to not trust him at all, but that did not seem to be an option at this point.
“Oh very well. Would you believe me if I said I didn’t much like that cult once I’d got a more up close and personal look at them?”
Ethan sighed and crumpled up the second empty wrapper, tossing it on the floor next to the first. He took the last swig from his water bottle and finally said, with obvious reluctance, “Fine. Janus help me, I felt responsible for this mess.”
“Good,” Giles said, though with rather less ferocity than he would have liked. “You should.” He rubbed his hand over his eyes. “But I won’t say anything more about it. Tonight, at least. Has she been conscious at all?”
“At first, yes. Less so as my energies started to run out.”
“Speaking of which, there’s a sleeping bag in the pack. I want to try to leave early.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to sit up with her a little while yet.” If she woke, he wanted to be there to talk to her. Questions about what had happened could wait; he wanted nothing more at that moment than to reassure himself that . . . he wasn’t sure exactly. Perhaps that she was still Willow, that they hadn’t broken her.
Ethan dug the sleeping back out of the pack and pulled it out of its compression sack. “You have a guide, you said?”
“Does he know?”
Giles shook his head. “Only that I was looking for some friends in trouble. Good night, Ethan.”
Ethan was already crawling into the sleeping bag. “Good night, Ripper.”
He was asleep in seconds. Giles rubbed the back of his neck and then pinched the bridge of his nose. He’d had no idea what to expect when the coven had teleported him to Rio, but the First certainly hadn’t been on the list of possibilities. But it had been banished, not vanquished, and they had known that; they should have known, too, that there would be demonic groups – or humans, even, and he had no idea just yet which they were dealing with here – who would be extremely displeased by this state of affairs. He wasn’t sure he could have foreseen this turn of events specifically, but something like it – that, he should have predicted, and he should have protected Willow better in the event. He’d assumed she could take care of herself, even better than Buffy, but he had not counted on this.
He looked down; Willow was blinking up at him in obvious disorientation. “Oh, there you are,” he said, as gently as possible. “Hello.”
“Oh God, Giles, is it really you?” she asked, her voice breaking.
“Yes,” he said, “it really is.” He stroked her hair. “How are you?”
“I – oh God, Giles, Giles –” She started to cry, softly, turning her face into his palm. “I’m sorry,” she managed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Willow, what on Earth – there’s nothing for you to be sorry about,” he said, surveying her in bewilderment. “I’m sorry, for failing to prevent this. But you shouldn’t – you can’t possibly blame yourself.”
She shook her head and took a shuddering breath. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said, and then reached out to lay her hand over the scar on his chest: a perfect fit, her hand and that scar.
“Oh,” Giles said. He covered her hand with his own and pulled it away from his chest. “No, Willow –”
“I did this to you,” she said with a sob. “I did this to you and I – I – oh God, Giles, I’m sorry, you don’t know how, how much –”
“Shh,” he said. “Willow, please, you have to calm down. You’re expending too much energy. I’m supporting both of us right now.”
She nodded, swallowing, her green eyes bright with unshed tears. “Sorry,” she whispered.
“Please, Willow. We can talk about this later, if you’d like, but not now. All right?”
She nodded again. He could see her bringing herself back under control, and relaxed minutely. “Is, is Ethan okay?” she asked at last.
“Yes,” Giles said. “Don’t worry about him. He usually lands on his feet.”
She sighed. “I’m so glad you’re here. So, so glad. I dreamed you were, before, and then you weren’t.”
“Well, this time I’m quite real, I assure you. Do you think you could eat something? I’m afraid supplies are fairly limited, but it might help.”
She shook her head. “Could I have some water, please?”
“Of course.” He held her head up so she could sip from the water bottle. “There you go,” he said, easing her back down onto the thin pillow. “Try to sleep now, all right? We’re leaving early tomorrow. Xander’s going to meet us in Macapá, and from there we’ll fly straight back to England, where the coven can get this all sorted.” If it could be sorted. If it couldn’t . . . well, there was no use dwelling on that now.
She tightened her grip on his hand. “You’re not going anywhere, are you?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Of course not. I was going to raid one of the other rooms for a blanket and sleep on the floor – I’m afraid Ethan’s stolen my sleeping bag.”
“Or, or you could stay here,” she said uncertainly, glancing away. “With me.”
He frowned, and then flushed, glad that it probably wasn’t visible in the candlelight. He was aware that she was naked under that blanket, and the fact that these were the most unerotic circumstances imaginable did not make him less uncomfortable with the idea. She was looking at him so hopefully, though, that he could hardly bring himself to say no. Of course she would think nothing of it; she had never thought of him that way, and it would never even cross her mind that he might be uncomfortable with it himself.
“Just a moment,” he said, giving in and feeling as though it had been inevitable. He grabbed his torch and unlocked the door, peering out into what passed for a hallway in the hut. One of the doors was closed; Paulo must have claimed that room for himself. He went into one of the others, which he remembered from his search as being fairly intact, and found a blanket draped over the bed. Something had been chewing on it recently, but was not doing so at that very moment. He shook it out just in case, gave it a quick examination with the torch, and decided it would have to do.
When he returned, Willow had moved over so she was pressed up between the bed and the wall, and had also, Giles was grateful to see, wrapped herself up more securely in her blanket. He sat down beside her to unlace his boots.
“Giles?” she said.
“Did – did you go to Rio before this?”
He twisted round to look at her. She was biting her lip. “Yes.” He saw in an instant that she knew about Kennedy, and was torn between relief at not having to tell her and sorrow that she must have seen it happen. A second lover, murdered right in front of her. God. “Willow, I –”
“Please,” she said, almost inaudibly, “I kinda don’t want to talk about it now. I just needed to know if – if you knew.”
He nodded and lay down beside her under his blanket. She was warmer now, he realized, on the surface at least, but after a moment he pulled her closer. She tucked herself up against his chest, her head beneath his chin. “Thank you,” she whispered.
He kissed her temple in reply, and fell asleep listening to the strangely soothing nighttime noise of the jungle.
Waking up the next morning was more difficult than Giles would have liked. Ethan had to shake him for an unconscionably long time before Giles realized that the earthquake was not, in fact, part of his dream. Once awake, he blinked stupidly up at the ceiling for the better part of a minute before it all came back to him and he sat up, rubbing a hand over his face.
He felt . . . well, “fucking awful” was the only phrase he could find to adequately describe it. His connection with Willow was taking its inevitable toll and his entire body ached from nine hours in that sodding canoe the day before. Today he’d have to do it all over again – followed, he was forced to hope, by eight hours in the Council jet, provided nothing had befallen Xander in Macapá. At least those seats would be padded. And reclining. He and Willow would both be more comfortable there, and a good deal safer as well.
Not to mention drier. It was raining heavily, drumming on the roof of the hut and leaking in to form puddles on the floor. This was probably not all that unpredictable for the rainforest, but it would be annoying nonetheless if it kept up all day.
Beside him, Willow lay sleeping deeply still; she had not stirred at all when Ethan had woken Giles, nor when Giles had disentangled himself and sat up. Giles glanced to Ethan, who thankfully seemed to have recovered his physical, if not mystical, energy and was putting the rucksack back together. “We have no clothes for her at all?” he asked.
Ethan looked up, pressed his lips together, and shook his head. “They obviously wanted her naked for whatever ritual they intended to perform,” he said. “But as far as I could see, that was all.”
Giles felt a tension he’d not known he’d carried leave him. “Right,” he said, a little faintly. “Good. Er . . . could you – ?” He made a shooing gesture.
“Could I what?” Ethan asked with a raise of an eyebrow. “Fly away?”
Giles was not in a joking mood. “Piss off for a bit.”
“Oh fine,” Ethan said, with a significant look in Willow’s direction. “I see how it is.” Giles glared, and he amended, with satisfying haste, “Have it your way. I suppose I can see if that Paulo chap needs help with the canoe.” He left, closing the door behind him.
Giles pushed himself to his feet, tucked the second blanket around Willow for good measure, and went to rummage through the pack until he found the oversized shirt he’d had in mind. It was big on Giles; it would be very big on Willow, and might do well enough to cover her up. He took it and went to sit on the edge of the bed, where he picked up Willow’s hand and rubbed it. “Willow,” he said, and then shook her shoulder slightly. “Willow, you need to wake up, please, we have to go.” Nothing. “Willow,” he said again, more loudly.
“Mmph,” she mumbled.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Willow, please, you have to wake up.”
Her eyes opened and she looked up at him. “Giles?”
“Yes, it’s me,” Giles said. “Good morning.”
She frowned, squinting as though she had a headache. “If you say so. We have to go?”
“I’m afraid so,” Giles said. “Back to Macapá. Xander’s meeting us.”
“Xander,” she said. Just thinking of him seemed to give her some purpose and clarity, as Giles had hoped it would. “Okay.”
Giles stopped her struggle to sit up with a hand on her shoulder. “For both our sakes, I have to ask you to move as little as possible. But I’d like to – we should – is it all right if I put this on you?” he managed at last, showing her the shirt. “I, er, promise not to look more than is, is necessary,” he added, and then wondered why he’d felt the need to.
“Oh,” she said, “yeah. Thanks.”
Giles had to pull the blanket down to help her get her arms into the sleeves. Averting his eyes was more difficult while dealing with the shirt’s many buttons, but the hand-shaped burn on her chest was more than enough of a distraction. “Is this painful?” he asked, careful to avoid brushing against it with his fingers or the shirt. His had hurt like the devil for days, even with the salve Mary Harkness had given him.
She winced. “Yeah. It’s getting worse, I think.”
“I have some antibiotic cream,” he said, unzipping the front pocket of his pack. “Burns are very easily infected. You should put some on it.”
“Thanks,” she said, accepting the tube of Neosporin. It wasn’t enough, Giles knew, not after three days in the most rustic of conditions with no medical care, but it would have to do for now. She spread it over the burn herself, biting her lip and going even whiter about the mouth, and then let Giles finish buttoning her up. He wrapped her in the blanket again and lifted her carefully, leaving the pack for Ethan to get.
He had expected some awkward questions from Paulo on the subject of Willow. It must have looked very strange, after all: two middle-aged men and a beautiful, nearly unconscious twenty-something woman. But all Paulo did was raise an eyebrow and help Giles and Ethan settle her on the bottom of the canoe, cushioned as much as possible by yet more florescent orange life vests and covered with a poncho to protect her from the worst of the rain.
Giles settled himself on his bench again and sighed. Ethan, damn him, looked positively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Giles supposed it was for the best that one of them was, but all things considered, Giles would have much rather it had been him.
The rain let up a few minutes after they got underway. The morning’s ride back down the river would have been almost enjoyable, had Giles not been so worried and had his back not hurt so abominably. He was glad when they stopped just after noon, pulling the canoe up on shore enough that it would not be washed away by the slow, powerful current. He coaxed Willow into taking some water and eating a few bites of dried fruit before letting her fall back to sleep. He ate his own lunch, such as it was (more peanut butter candy, some rather mysterious dried meat, and water), standing up on shore. He decided then that a brief walk was in order to stretch his legs and relieve his bladder before getting back into the canoe. He signaled to Ethan, who nodded, and Giles started up an overgrown path, probably used sporadically by guests at the eco-lodges they had passed that morning.
The jungle was quieter in the daytime. He didn’t want to go very far, so he stopped just out of sight, allowing himself to relish briefly the deep, organic smell of the forest: moss and rotting leaves, and the cleanest air he had ever breathed in his life. Something rustled in the canopy overhead, and Giles tilted his head back, straining to see. He could just make out the dark shape of a primate of indeterminate species, launching itself from one branch to another. Probably one of the howler monkeys they’d been hearing, with their unearthly screams.
Giles frowned. He had heard something – definitely not a howler monkey. His name, or part of it, and not out loud but in his head. Giles swore and buttoned his trousers with suddenly frantic fingers, thinking how criminally foolish it had been to leave them alone as they were: Willow nearly unconscious and vulnerable, Ethan with his magical energies still dangerously depleted, and a guide who knew nothing at all. He tried to hurry without making any noise that would announce his return; difficult, with so much vegetation underfoot, but at least most of it was soft and rotting.
The little landing area came suddenly into view and Giles froze, unable to quite believe what he saw. Paulo, apparently, knew rather more than Giles had thought.
Ethan was caught in a glowing, poisonously green magical bind. It held his head at what must have been an extremely uncomfortable angle, but fortunately did not stop his mouth. Giles recognized all the signs of Ethan Rayne attempting to fast-talk his way out of an impossible situation: a charming smile, a slightly desperate glint in his eye, and the fact that while Paulo seemed to be holding something – possibly something as mundane as a knife, even – to Willow’s throat, Giles didn’t think she was dead. Yet. He was sure of it, in fact; with their current connection he’d have known beyond the shadow of a doubt if she were dead.
He retrieved his knife from the inside of his boot. Any spell strong enough to harm someone with the power to bind Ethan would probably overwhelm Giles in his current state. The knife it would have to be, but while Buffy could have thrown it with deadly accuracy from where he stood, he could not. He didn’t want to kill the man either, at least not at the moment; he wanted him to drop the knife and Willow, and lose his concentration enough for Ethan to break free of the bind. But ultimately, Giles wanted information.
He crept forward, hefting the knife in one hand. Ethan had seen him by now, Giles was sure, but he just kept talking, expert con-artist in action. Giles wasn’t sure why Paulo hadn’t shut him up yet, except that perhaps he shared the First’s penchant for toying with its victims. Dangerous weakness, that. Giles let fly the knife.
Bulls-eye. Giles was moving before the knife even hit, but he saw it go in on target, right under Paulo’s shoulder blade. Paulo jerked, his own knife falling from suddenly nerveless fingers, though he still had hold of Willow. Ethan broke through the weakened binding at the same time Giles reached the water’s edge. He crashed through two feet of standing water, vaulted over the side of the canoe, and grabbed Paulo by the throat. He reached around, yanked the knife out with a single, brutal motion, and held it to his jugular. Willow’s eyes were impossibly wide. “Set her down very slowly, if you please,” Giles said.
“Do you think it matters if you kill me?” Paulo asked with a choked-off laugh. “I am a servant of the First. My life is not my own and the greatest honor would be to die retrieving the Vessel. You cannot frighten me.”
“Oh no?” Ethan said, appearing suddenly at Giles’s side. He held his hands out and said something in a language Giles didn’t know – Assyrian, perhaps – that caused Paulo to cry out and nearly fall, dropping Willow in the effort to keep his feet. Ethan caught her, moved her out of harm’s way, and then stood, charming smile transformed into something fiendish. “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps we can’t scare you. But we would like to try, wouldn’t we, Ripper?”
“Yes,” Giles said. “I think we would.”
“Never,” Paulo said, and with no other warning leaned into the knife Giles held to his neck. There was an immediate and sickening wash of hot blood all across his hand, and, as the artery gave one last desperate pulse, a spurt of it onto his shirt and face. Paulo’s eyes rolled up into his head as the blood pressure in his brain fell to nothing, and Giles found himself staggering under the weight of a dead body.
“Bloody hell,” Giles said, pushing it away. He used his sleeve to wipe away the blood on his face.
“Fanatics,” Ethan said with disgust. “No good for anything, not even a spot of old-fashioned interrogation.”
“Are you hurt?” Giles asked, crouching down beside Willow.
“No,” she said, though with a degree of uncertainty that concerned Giles. “He was pretty rough, but I don’t think he wanted to kill me.”
“No,” Ethan agreed. He was surveying the river, probably checking to make sure no one had caught a glimpse of their little scene. Wouldn’t that have alarmed the tourists. “You and me though,” he added to Giles, “that’s a different story. I think he was waiting for you to come back to finish us both off.”
“Perhaps,” Giles said. He looked down at Willow. No, Paulo had not been trying to kill her – he had been trying to retrieve her. The Vessel, he had called her. The cult had not yet achieved its goal then, which meant both that they still had time to stop it and that Willow would be in danger until they did so. Giles looked up and caught Ethan’s eye; Ethan nodded grimly.
“What do we do with him?” Willow asked, nodding toward the dead body. She was slumped over against the side of the canoe now, looking considerably worse than she had before. Giles felt it too – his physical exertion coupled with the magical one she had made to contact him telepathically. He wanted to sleep for a year, not that it would do him any good.
“Dump him in those bushes, I say,” Ethan said, pointing. “Something four-legged and hungry will find him before long, I imagine.”
Giles grimaced, but it was the only solution he could see. They could not take the body back with them all the way to Macapá, and dumping him in the river would mean running the risk of being seen by one of the increasingly numerous canoes of tourists. “Come on,” he said to Ethan, “help me with him.”
When they were done, and satisfied that the body couldn’t be seen from any likely angle, Giles swapped his blood-stained shirt for a fresh one. Willow was lying on the floor of the canoe again with her eyes closed, though Giles didn’t think she was asleep. He stepped around her carefully and sank onto his bench with a groan.
Ethan, head bent over the motor, paid him no mind. “I think I almost – yes.” He pulled something and it roared to life. “That shaman mate of mine in Macapá has one of these,” he explained to Giles over the sudden noise. “I’ve been out in it a few times – I shouldn’t think it’d be much of a trick. Just point it downstream, right?”
That . . . did not bode especially well. Giles hid his wince by leaning over to ask Willow quietly, “How are you?”
She opened her eyes and looked up at him without speaking. He reached down and laced his fingers through hers. Perhaps it was all in his head, but he thought physical contact helped the connection some, made it less exhausting. “Not much longer now,” he told her. “Xander will meet us in Macapá and from there we can be in Devon in less than twelve hours. The coven will know what to do.”
“If they can do anything,” she said, almost too low to hear.
He tightened his fingers on hers, but looked up instead of answering. Ethan had managed to maneuver them out into the flow of the river and did not seem to be in imminent danger of crashing them into anyone or anything. He looked down at Willow again. “Something will be,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what, but I won’t – we won’t give up.”
“Maybe we should,” she replied, closing her eyes again. “I’m so tired, Giles,” she went on, barely moving her lips. “And you are too. I know you are. If you just, just let me go, you and Ethan would have a better chance.”
He stared. She opened her eyes again after a few seconds and looked up at him steadily. They were glassy and glazed with pain, and a weariness that ran deeper than bone. Giles found himself sliding off his hard little bench to wedge himself in beside her on the curved floor of the canoe. He didn’t allow himself to think that none of this was proper, that it was most likely unwelcome, that Ethan was undoubtedly watching – smirking, to be more specific, Giles would just bet – and gathered her up to hold close. To his surprise, he felt her clutch at his shirt and then turn her face into his neck.
When she spoke, the movement of her lips against the pulse of his throat made him shiver. “I’m so tired,” she said again. “And everything’s just . . . gray.”
“I know,” he murmured, remembering how the color had leached out of everything after she had stolen his magic. He stroked her hair and ducked his head to murmur in her ear, “But we have to push through. Think of Xander.”
She nodded. “Yeah. It’s just, the path of least resistance, you know?”
“You’ve never chosen that before,” Giles said, smiling faintly. “I see no reason you should start now.”
“Hmm,” she said, in what might have been the ghost of a laugh. “Yeah.” She sighed. “I think I might sleep now. Do – do you have to move?”
“Well,” Giles said, “yes, I’m afraid so. My back is not going to hold up to this for very long. But here.” He managed to slide down so they were lying together, rather as they had last night, only this time they were cradled in the broad, stable curve of the belly of the canoe. “There,” he said, adjusting the blanket around her. “All right?”
“Yeah,” she said, faintly. “You?”
“As much as I’m going to be in this bloody boat.” He felt her smile against his collarbone. She fell asleep quickly and Giles stared up at the broad swathe of gray sky overhead, the canopy blurring into green at the edges. Ethan was going faster than Paulo had.
Sleep was probably not such a terrible idea. Not that it would help very much; Willow had been right. He was tired and getting more so, and it wouldn’t let up until the coven was able to relieve him. He had no idea how Ethan had kept this up for three days, except that, sporadic spurts of suicidal heroism not withstanding, Ethan was probably more accustomed to doing things that were very bad for him, magically-speaking. Such as casting that spell at Paulo only a few hours after having nearly been drained altogether. That had been stupid and Giles thought they were lucky they weren’t all passed out in the bottom of the canoe together.
Oh, sod that. Giles frowned. Ethan was more powerful than he was and that was all there was to it. Much as it pained Giles to admit it, it was the truth. Stupid blighter with his awful wardrobe, utterly vile sense of humor, sudden, inexplicable conscience, and, apparently, very large reservoir of most likely ill-gotten power.
Sleep beckoned. Giles followed.