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.
The jungle air was warm and damp on Giles’s skin after the cool dryness of the jet. It was just after eight o’clock in the evening, and the sun had set in Macapá nearly two hours earlier. The airport tarmac was lit only by a few floodlights as he made his way briskly toward the terminal building, which had started to feel very familiar. Though Macapá was accessible only by plane or boat, the airport was small and had few amenities. Aside from the usual rows of hard plastic chairs and a kiosk (currently closed) to sell coffee, there was nothing.
The airport officials stood back, eyeing him with obvious suspicion. Macapá was not an international airport and supported two airlines with flights to exactly two cities. The Council had large shears for cutting through international red tape and even international law, if need be, but they could do little to counter people’s natural suspicion. The men clearly had no idea what Giles was – though he thought narcotics kingpin or CIA operative were probably high on the list – but they were unnerved. Giles gave them what he hoped was a reassuring smile, sat in one of the chairs, and took out his mobile.
Ethan picked up on the third ring. “It’s me,” Giles said. “Where should I meet you?”
“Ah, Ripper. How was the flight?” There was street noise in the background, and the quality of Ethan’s voice was uneven, as though he were walking.
“Fine, thank you. At the hotel?”
“No, as it happens you’re just in time. I’m on my way to meet Josué for dinner, have a bit of a strategy session.”
“Good,” Giles said, standing. He had a single small bag with him; going to a restaurant first would not be a problem. “I have a plan.”
“I thought you might. The place is on the river.” Ethan gave him the address while Giles went out to meet the waiting taxi. The airport officials, clearly eager to have him out of their hair, trailed him closely.
“All right, see you there,” Giles said, and snapped the phone shut as he slid into the taxi. Within a few minutes they were winding their way through the flat streets of the city. The area on the outskirts near the airport was quiet, but as they neared the center the quiet gave way quickly to a nightlife that bustled even on a Monday. Bars lined the streets, spilling young patrons – mostly Brazilians, but a few foreigners as well – out their doors. Macapá wasn’t really a tourist spot in and of itself, but the Amazon did draw people.
The taxi dropped him at a riverfront promenade that was even more crowded than the center had been. The atmosphere was festive, as though everyone were permanently on holiday. Giles found the restaurant occupying one of the modern buildings that faced the great river, so wide here that it appeared almost like the ocean; he supposed the opposite bank would be visible in the daytime, but by night there was nothing to see but brown water fading into indiscernible blackness beyond the reach of the city’s lights.
The restaurant had indoor seating, but it was deserted. The hostess, a young woman with black hair to her waist, led Giles up the stairs to the rooftop terrace. He found Ethan sitting at one of the tables, each of which sported a candle in a colored paper bag, and appearing remarkably relaxed. He smiled at Giles and then at the hostess. In passable Portuguese he said, “Please tell the bar, dear, that we’d like another caipirinha?”
“We would not,” Giles said firmly. His own Portuguese was rough and Portugal-accented, but he managed. “Mineral water, please.”
“Caipirinha,” Ethan insisted. Not wanting to argue in front of the hostess, Giles made an irritated, assenting gesture, and she went away.
“You’re in Brazil, Ripper,” Ethan said, leaning back in his chair. “Caipirinhas are the only thing to order.”
Giles glared. “This was not meant to be an all-expenses-paid-by-the-Council holiday, Ethan. Have you forgotten why we’re here?” He had thought of little else all throughout the flight, though he’d finally managed to block some of his more personal feelings. There was an apocalypse to avert; he’d dealt with that a dozen times and thinking of it that way made it manageable. If he thought about Willow, about the possibility of saving the world and yet losing her anyway, it might very well paralyze him into indecision. He could not afford that.
“Oh, settle down,” Ethan said. “I assure you I haven’t. Josué should be here any minute and then we can discuss your plan.”
Giles said nothing as a different young woman, this one with coppery skin and blond highlights, delivered his drink. It came with a thin red straw, but not, thank goodness, an umbrella. Giles poked at the ice and squinted in the light of the paper bag lanterns to try and discern what was in it.
“Cachaça, raw sugar, ice, limes,” Ethan said, watching him with obvious and infuriating amusement. “At home they’re usually made with rum, but these are the real thing. Vastly superior. Not an experience to be missed.”
“What the hell is cachaça?”
“Sugar cane liquor. It’s not going to kill you, Ripper, I promise.”
“No,” Giles said, still poking at the drink with the straw, “but after the flight and the time change it could easily knock me out.”
Ethan sighed. “Stop being such an old man and enjoy your drink.”
Giles gave up and sipped. It was just this side of too tart, and the cachaça had a distinctive kick. He mixed it more thoroughly, stirring up the sugar at the bottom of the glass, and sipped again. He could not envision ordering one in chilly London, but here, in the muggy night air of the Brazilian Amazon, where he could feel himself sweating even as he sat, it seemed acceptable. Fitting, even. Giles leaned back, undid the top two buttons of his shirt, and rolled up his sleeves.
“Ah,” Ethan said, smiling. “There’s our Ripper.”
Giles frowned at him, but sipped again despite himself. “You’re a terrible influence.”
“Isn’t that what your father used to say?”
“Yes, and he was right, too. I knew it even then. That’s why I liked you.”
“Oh, there were many reasons you liked me,” Ethan said with a smirk. But for once he seemed to exercise his better judgment about continuing a thread of conversation that was bound to get acrimonious. Before Giles could reply, he asked, “How was Willow when you left?”
Giles frowned at his drink. “Not very well, I’m afraid. She didn’t want me to come. None of them did – Buffy and the others, I mean.” That parting had been difficult, especially coming on the heels of the memorial service. Willow had realized the necessity, but he could not erase the memory of the look on her face as he had kissed her good-bye. It had felt like abandonment, even if he had every intention of returning.
“Don’t they trust me to take care of dear old Giles?”
“Not very much, no,” Giles said, smiling back despite himself. “They should, however, trust me to take care of myself.”
“Indeed,” Ethan said. He was done with his drink, Giles saw. He checked his watch and glanced toward the door.
“How late is he?” Giles asked.
“Half an hour,” Ethan replied. “Not late at all for a Brazilian, but late for Josué, especially under these circumstances.”
“When did you last talk to him?” Giles asked, suddenly uneasy. He hoped that it was merely Ethan’s concern setting off his alarm bells.
“This afternoon, about four.” Ethan shook his head. “Finish your drink and don’t rush it. If he’s still not here by then, we’ll go.”
The shaman had not arrived fifteen minutes later when Giles took the last swallow of his drink. Ethan signaled immediately for the check. They paid and rose, threading their way back to the stairs among the tables of laughing tourists and locals, most of whom had a caipirinha at hand. Once on the promenade Ethan sped up; Giles followed, wishing he hadn’t let Ethan talk him into even one of those blasted drinks. He felt the alcohol as fatigue in his legs, nothing more, but he knew better than to make what could be the fatal mistake of believing his reflexes were normal. The warm, thick air and the weight of his bag on his shoulder did nothing to help matters; after only a few minutes of brisk walking, Giles’s shirt was completely soaked through.
“Where – ?” Giles began, intending to demand where the hell Josué lived. But Ethan stopped then in front of a building. It was four stories high and fairly new, but the unframed windows gave a rather rundown impression. The front door was ajar. Giles glanced around nervously.
“Come on,” Ethan said, and without waiting for an answer, started up the stairs.
The stairwell was dark and stifling. They went up three flights and stopped in front of a door – this one was closed, at least. There was no name or identifying number, but Ethan knocked once, and then again, harder, a few seconds later. “Josué!” he called. No answer. He tried the knob and it gave way.
“Did – does he usually keep his door unlocked?” Giles asked.
Ethan shook his head. “Not in this neighborhood.” He took a deep breath and Giles glanced at him in surprise. Ethan had often played the coward in the past, but it had nearly always been . . . strategic. Calculated cowardliness. This, however, was something else. The door swung open.
The entrance hall that lay just beyond was completely wrecked. The floor was littered with books whose pages had been ripped out, picture frames that had been cracked, and shelves that had been pulled straight down off the walls. Glass crunched under their shoes as they stepped inside. Even worse was the crackle of magic in the air, raising the hair on the back of Giles’s neck. He had a sudden flash of Willow’s flat in Rio, and knew without needing to look that through the door to his right, Josué was dead, as brutally murdered as Kennedy had been. Giles could see by the way Ethan’s lips tightened that he knew it as well.
“Do you want me to go first?” Giles asked.
Ethan shook his head. He pushed the door open and froze, not moving to let Giles through. He finally had to push past Ethan in order to see into the flat’s living room, equally destroyed, and there, tied to a chair in the middle of the room –
The bile that rose in Giles’s throat was wholly unexpected. He turned and staggered two steps back into the hallway before being sick all over the glass shards and picture frames. “I’m –” he managed, but could not squeeze out “fine” through the heaving. When he was finally able to straighten, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he avoided Ethan’s gaze out of pure humiliation. The scene in the other room was terrible, there was no doubt of that, but Giles had seen worse. He had no idea how to tell Ethan that it would not have had him doubled over and retching if the shaman had not been tied to a chair. Ethan didn’t know about Angelus, and Giles didn’t think now was the right moment to explain.
“I’m fine,” he managed at last. His voice was too thin, but Ethan only nodded.
The second time they went in, Giles avoided looking at the chair in the center of the room until he had taken in all the other details he had missed the first time. The living room had been methodically wrecked: drawers dumped out, sofa cushions overturned, all the pictures and bookshelves pulled off the walls. They – the Children of the Dark Eye – must have been looking for something.
Finally Giles steeled himself, looked back toward that chair, and flinched as he saw what he hadn’t noticed before: a hand-shaped burn in the center of the shaman’s chest. It wasn’t easy to see; the man’s throat had been cut and there was a horrific amount of blood, but it was there nonetheless.
“Ethan,” Giles said, when Ethan said nothing for nearly three minutes, “how powerful was he?”
Ethan could not seem to tear his gaze away. “Very.”
Ethan shook his head, and finally looked to Giles. “I’m not sure exactly. Somewhere between me and Willow, I think.”
“Bloody hell,” Giles muttered. He looked around. “Was there anything here worth finding?”
Ethan shook his head again. “His books, but he always kept those well hidden. I doubt they could have found them without knowing how to look. The really important things were the maps he’d found, showing how to get to the Mouth of the Beast. And those aren’t here, they’re in –” He froze, eyes widening.
“Where?” Giles pressed, a horrible icy feeling in his stomach.
“My hotel room.”
“Bloody hell,” Giles said again, with even more feeling. “Let’s go.” He pushed Ethan out into the hall ahead of him and grabbed his bag, pausing just long enough to wipe the doorknob of prints. The police could do nothing about the real killers, and having to deal with them coming after Ethan was a complication Giles could do without.
Once out of the building, Ethan immediately stepped into the street to hail a taxi. “We need the maps,” he said over his shoulder. “Without them I have no idea how to get where we need to go.”
“Can you get other copies if we’re too late?” He was almost positive the Children of the Dark Eye now knew whatever the shaman had known, including where Ethan was staying. He didn’t know how much of a head start the cult had, but if Ethan had last spoken to Josué at four o’clock, they could be several hours ahead of them. Or he and Ethan could be about to run into the cult raiding their hotel room; it was simply impossible to know for sure, and Giles wasn’t sure which he preferred.
“I don’t know,” Ethan said as a taxi finally pulled over, honking once to warn the cars behind it. They slid in and Ethan gave the address to the driver before turning back to Giles. “As I said yesterday, Josué’s connections here are – were excellent.”
The hotel Giles’s secretary had booked Ethan into was one of the nicer ones in Macapá. It was a genuine colonial era building on a relatively quiet street in the center, a large, rambling house with a tropical garden blooming in back. Giles had spent one night there himself on his way upriver to look for Willow and Ethan, and he remembered the staff as being very helpful and friendly. He dreaded what he might find in the lobby.
Nothing, as it turned out. “Mr. Rayne,” the young man behind the desk said, blinking. “And . . . Mr. Giles, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Giles said. “I’m afraid we won’t be staying, though. We’re just here to collect a few things from Mr. Rayne’s room and then he’ll need to check out.”
The young man frowned at Ethan. “But, senhor, you already did.”
Ethan darted a glance toward Giles. “Pardon me?”
“You checked out half an hour ago. Did you forget something?”
Giles looked at Ethan, who stared back impassively. “Yes,” Ethan said at last. “I think I might have.”
The young man retrieved the key to room nineteen from its hook and led them upstairs to the first floor. He unlocked the room and remained in the hallway while Ethan went in, followed by Giles. The room was small but comfortably furnished with a high bed, an elegantly carved wardrobe and bedside table, and two armchairs. Ethan immediately dropped to his hands and knees to peer beneath the bed.
“Under the bed?” Giles could not help saying incredulously. “That was your brilliant plan for hiding these apparently invaluable maps?”
“There were other things protecting them, Ripper,” Ethan said, muffled, and then sat back on his heels, shaking his head. “They’re not –” He broke off, eyes going wide. “Get down!” he yelled, and scrambled back. Before Giles had the chance to move, there was a sound like an explosion heard underwater and he felt himself lifted off his feet and flung like a rag doll against the wall. All the air rushed out of him and he slid to the floor, sick and dazed, unable to draw breath.
The hotel clerk rushed in, exclaiming something in Portuguese that Giles was much too groggy to understand. “I’m fine,” he managed to gasp, raising a hand. “Ethan –”
It took another few seconds for the stars to clear enough for Giles to see that Ethan had been thrown back as well, with probably a good deal more force. He had landed against the air conditioning unit, it seemed, and lay unconscious – Giles hoped. The hotel clerk bent over him, checking the pulse in Ethan’s neck. There was a residual crackle of magic in the air; it was fading quickly now, but it had been very strong at the beginning – not strong enough to come from whoever had stolen the shaman’s power, Giles thought, but strong enough that he suspected it had been meant to kill. Only Ethan’s split-second reaction had saved him.
Giles struggled to push himself away from the wall and off the floor using limbs that didn’t want to obey, and managed to stagger over. Ethan was breathing, he was relieved to see. Giles leaned against the wall to keep from falling over.
“Senhor, I shall call an ambulance,” the hotel clerk said, standing.
“No, no,” Giles said quickly. He knelt and examined the bump on the back of Ethan’s head. “He’ll be fine.” Already Ethan’s eyelids were beginning to flutter.
“What was that?” the clerk asked, casting a spooked look back toward the bed.
Giled eyed him in sudden suspicion. Paulo had seemed innocent and ignorant as well, after all. “You must have a gas leak,” he said, grateful for once that his years in Sunnydale had given him ample practice in inventing absurd stories to explain away magical or demonic phenomena.
The clerk frowned. “I do not smell anything.”
“Still,” Giles said, “best to check, don’t you think?” The clerk nodded anxiously and rushed off to fetch his manager, who would probably insist on calling an ambulance if Ethan weren’t fully conscious by the time he arrived. “Come on,” Giles said, shaking Ethan’s shoulder. “Ethan!”
Ethan’s eyes snapped open and he winced. “Ow,” he said, raising a hand to his temple. “That was a nasty bugger.”
Giles nodded his agreement. “Not particularly inventive,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the innocent dark space under the bed, “but effective. Can you stand?”
“Do I have to?”
“I’m afraid so. We should get out of here as soon as possible.” He could hear two sets of footsteps on the stairs; his heart started to race and he hurriedly pulled Ethan into a sitting position.
“God, that’s unpleasant,” Ethan said, bracing himself against Giles. He was very pale, but Giles was ruthless as he hauled him to his feet.
“It’s called a concussion,” Giles said. “It’s actually a rather refreshing change not to be the one knocked unconscious. Lean on me. Let’s go.”
They met the clerk and his manager at the top of the stairs. Giles froze, but his suspicions turned out only to be paranoia. After a great deal of arguing about calling an ambulance, Giles finally convinced him that he would take Mr. Rayne to the nearest hospital post-haste, and they were allowed to escape.
Outside it had begun to rain, but it was as yet only a fine, thin drizzle. They stumbled along for a few blocks, Giles casting tense glances over his shoulder every few steps, waiting for a figure to step out of the shadows and obliterate them both. He had no idea where they were going and he’d been in Ethan’s shoes often enough to know that he was probably having trouble just staying on his feet.
At last Giles spied a café, deserted save for a single bored waiter, spilling friendly yellow light out onto the sidewalk. He steered them both inside and chose a table where he could see anyone who walked by or came in. The café had a North American feel to it, with abstract art on the walls, comfortable furnishings, and a bilingual menu. Giles ordered coffee for himself and tea for Ethan, and the waiter went away, remarkably uncurious about their disheveled appearance. Most likely he thought them drunk.
Giles dug through his bag until he found the first aid kit he never left home without and shook out two paracemetol. “Take those when your tea comes,” he told Ethan, who had gone pale and glassy-eyed.
“Nothing stronger, Ripper?” he asked, accepting the pills just the same.
“Yes, but now is not the time, unfortunately. God, that went to hell fast.” Ethan didn’t bother to answer. Giles leaned back in his overstuffed chair. It wasn’t even midnight yet, but he’d been up for well over twenty-four hours. Ethan most likely had concussion, and was clearly functioning on some minimal level. Discussion about how to find new maps and put the rest of Giles’s plan into action would have to wait until tomorrow. He had counted on having some fairly strong connections to the black arts community in Macapá though, and now it seemed they didn’t.
The waiter brought their order. The coffee was strong and woke him up, even if it was too hot for the steamy Amazonian night. Ethan took the pills. Giles watched him and wondered if he dared say anything. “I’m sorry,” he offered at last. “About Josué, I mean.” Ethan merely sipped his tea. “Did you know each other . . . well?”
Ethan looked at him for a few seconds, face utterly unreadable. “Ripper, regardless of what you might think, I would never have pulled someone I didn’t know well into this mess.”
“Oh,” Giles said, looking away. “Quite. Well, I am sorry.”
“So am I,” Ethan said quietly. He seemed to focus for a second, looking at Giles. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes, of course, I’m not the one with concussion,” Giles replied, frowning.
“That isn’t what I meant. At Josué’s flat –”
“Oh,” Giles said. “Yes, I’m fine.” He cleared his throat. “It’s a long story, and one I would rather not tell just now.”
Ethan nodded, and neither of them said anything for several minutes. Finally Giles rubbed a hand over his face and drained the rest of his coffee. “All right,” he said, “first things first. We both need sleep. Is there anywhere you know of that’s safe?”
Ethan frowned. Giles waited until at last he looked up. “Define ‘safe,’ Ripper,” he said, an echo of his usual infuriating smirk lurking about his lips.
Half an hour later, Giles found himself trailing along behind Ethan in the thick, murky darkness of the marina. It was raining more heavily now, which Giles supposed he should be grateful for, since it made it far less likely that anyone would see them, especially as the area was not well-lit to begin with. But Giles was wet all the way through already from the walk and, since Ethan had not seen fit to let Giles in on his plan for finding them shelter for the night, he was impatient and annoyed as well. The boats bobbed gently in their moorings, their windows like blank, unseeing eyes: sailboats, motorboats, more of the dreaded motorized canoes, and houseboats as well.
It was the latter that Ethan seemed interested in. He went from one houseboat to the next, each time bending over to check something on the underside while Giles looked around nervously and kept a firm grip on his bag. Crime was not as much of a problem in Macapá as it was in larger Brazilian cities, but if ever anyone were a target, it would be the foreigner with a bag in an unlit part of the city after midnight.
At last Ethan made a satisfied noise. “This one,” he said, and lowered himself onto the deck of the boat, which floated a few feet below the dock in the low tide.
“Pardon me?” Giles said.
“I said, this one,” Ethan repeated impatiently as he bent to examine the lock on the cabin door. “How are your lock-picking skills these days?” When Giles only stared, Ethan shrugged. “Good thing you have me along then. Mine have rarely been better.”
“Ethan,” Giles said, and then stopped. He cast one last look over his shoulder and then swung himself down onto the deck as well. “When I said safe, I rather thought –”
“What, another hotel? They’d want passport numbers and identification. I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on giving those out at the moment.” The cabin door swung open, revealing the pitch dark interior – pitch dark, at least, until Ethan’s lighter flared.
“And how do we know this boat’s owners aren’t going to be along tomorrow morning to have us arrested?” Giles hissed.
“The algae,” Ethan replied, peering around in the flickering blue glow of the lighter’s flame. He nodded. “Yes, this will do.”
“What algae?” Giles asked. The cabin was dark and cramped, but there were two beds and a bathroom, which was an improvement over some hotels Giles had stayed in. If he ignored the fact that this was all completely illegal and likely to land them both in Brazilian jail, it would do nicely indeed.
Ethan frowned at him as though Giles were being slow. And perhaps he was, but after the day he’d had, Giles rather thought he had the right. “The algae on the bottom of the boat is thick as fur. Means no one’s gone river cruising in this for quite some time. We should take care not to be seen coming and going, but I doubt whoever keeps an eye on the marina would recognize the owners of this boat if they came along and pinched them on the arse.”
“And the cult?” Giles said evenly.
“Do you think we were followed?”
Giles shook his head. “There are, however, other means of surveillance.”
“Unfortunately true,” Ethan said. He nodded, mostly to himself, it seemed. “We can take care of that. Care to give me a hand?”
After some argument they put up three wards, one to warn them if anyone approached, one to deflect the more basic offensive spells, and one to protect them from prying eyes, ears, and minds. Giles assisted, watching Ethan carefully since doing magic with a head injury was never advisable. Given how fatigued they were, however, the spells went up without any particular difficulty, and it was with relief that Giles watched Ethan lock them in with a spell. Giles claimed the bathroom first, where he changed into pajamas and brushed his teeth with bottled water, since he was fairly certain the tap water came straight from the river.
He came out to find Ethan asleep on the narrow bed by the window. Giles thought then that standing watches might be wise, but the truth was that he was swaying on his feet from exhaustion. He stumbled the two feet to the other bed and collapsed upon the bare mattress with scarcely another thought.
Giles woke in the early morning, utterly disoriented. For nearly half a minute he had no idea which country and even less which time zone he was in. Eventually he realized that he didn’t usually wake up soaked with sweat in England, and stifled a groan. Though he couldn’t have slept for more than four hours and was still exhausted, he didn’t fool himself into thinking he could sleep anymore. He dug his shaving kit out of his bag and shuffled yawning into the bathroom, where he tested the shower without much hope. To his surprise it worked; the water was brown and cold, but then again, a hot shower was really the very last thing Giles wanted. He peeled off his clothes and washed quickly. He shaved at the tiny sink, dressed in khakis and a clean shirt, and felt better afterward.
Ethan was still asleep. Giles looked him over with some concern; if he really did have concussion, they should have probably been much more careful. But his breathing was normal and the bump on the back of his head seemed to have diminished overnight. Giles let him be for the moment and tested the door at the back of the boat. It opened onto a small patio area Giles imagined was meant for sunbathing and possibly grilling. A few seconds’ search revealed a cupboard with several folded-up beach chairs. He pulled one out and sat down, gazing over the railing at the marina laid out before him, and beyond that the river itself, slow and inexorable. He watched the sky lighten and mulled things over.
Unfortunately, the mulling was much less productive than he might have liked, since it seemed that any time to think led inevitably to thoughts of Willow. She was likely sitting down to breakfast at the coven now, with Buffy and Dawn on either side of her. He was glad he had thought to send them back with her; she should not be alone. He would ring her before they left for the Mouth of the Beast, he decided, and with some difficulty turned his thoughts to their current situation.
This was not particularly fruitful either, and eventually he dozed off, waking an hour later when Ethan began to stir inside the houseboat. Giles waited while Ethan took his turn in the shower and then ducked back into the cabin. “Good morning,” he said.
Ethan had changed back into his clothes from the previous day, since of course he had no others. He was in the midst of checking his pockets, it seemed. “As you say,” he said, barely glancing up.
Giles hesitated. “How are you?”
“Fine,” Ethan said, probing gingerly at the back of his head. “Better, at least.”
Giles nodded, satisfied. “We should eat something then, I suppose, and talk about what to do next.”
“You’ll have to buy, I’m afraid,” Ethan said, with a distinct lack of apology in his tone. “I’m down to pocket change. Most of my cash was in the hotel room.”
Fifteen minutes later Giles found himself in a dim café on one of the narrow side streets near the marina, facing a hollowed out gourd full of something called – according to Ethan – açai. He poked at it suspiciously and then eyed Ethan, who was eating his own with apparent enthusiasm. Giles took a fortifying sip of his black coffee and then a bite of the mush in the bowl. The palm berries tasted like black raspberries, with perhaps the barest hint of chocolate, and the tapioca was smooth on his tongue. Giles might have preferred bacon and eggs, but he had traveled enough to know that it could have been much, much worse.
“Not going to kill you after all then?” Ethan asked, raising an eyebrow.
Giles swallowed his second bite. “It seems not.”
Ethan sipped his coffee. “You said you had a plan?”
“Yes,” Giles said, and pulled out the folder with the Council research team’s report. He slid it across the table to Ethan. “Read that to start with,” he said, and waited patiently while Ethan did so.
He had finished his açai and ordered more coffee for them both when Ethan looked up at last. “Fascinating, Ripper,” he said, “but you know I’ve never been much for history. Tell me what you’ve got in mind.”
Giles grimaced at him. “It occurred to me that we have two options for dealing with the matter of the talisman – and the same applies to the maps as well now, I suppose. The first option is to simply steal them back.”
“Suicide,” Ethan said immediately. “Even if we knew the location of the cult’s base in Macapá, which Josué was never able to turn up even with his connections, it’d just get us both killed.” The waitress returned with two fresh cups of coffee, and Ethan waited until she’d left to add, “And the same goes for whatever we do unless we leave the cult thoroughly weakened.”
Giles sighed. He’d known as much, really, especially now that the cult held the shaman’s considerable power. “What about the maps then?”
Ethan frowned. “There might be something I can do about that. I’ve met a few of Josué’s friends – they might help me. What was your Plan B for the talisman? And I do hope it’s better than ‘steal it back,’” he added acerbically, sipping his coffee.
Giles ignored his tone. “As you can see from the account,” he nodded toward the folder, “the power must be released from the talisman at a crucial point in the ritual. It seems to me that this is the cult’s most vulnerable moment. If we can move in then and recapture Willow’s power in a different amulet –”
“We will then be murdered,” Ethan finished, “quickly if we’re lucky, slowly and tortuously if our current luck holds. Ripper, self-sacrifice is all well and good for other people, but it’s never been my thing. Do you have any plans that don’t involve being killed?”
Giles set his coffee cup down on the table and glared. “I have no intention of being killed, especially since that would leave no one to take the amulet back to Willow. I believe there might be some way of, of mimicking the effects described in the report.”
Ethan pulled the folder toward him and scanned it again. “Perhaps,” he said. “If I had the right books and the right ingredients. A simple explosion is child’s play, but to mimic the outpouring of a huge magical force like this is somewhat more difficult.” He looked thoughtful. “The easiest way would be to turn the cult’s magic . . . inside out, shall we say. You want them to think the ritual simply went awry?”
“That was the idea.”
“And you think they’ll buy that?” Ethan shook his head. “They obviously know we’re here – they’ll be on guard for anything we might do.”
“If we do it right, they’ll be too weakened to come after us anyway,” Giles pointed out. “And I believe we could recapture the power without revealing ourselves. Before I left London, one of our mystics found a spell she thought might work.” He pulled a folded slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Ethan, who scanned it.
“A focusing spell,” he said. “With the amulet as the focal point.”
“Followed by something to safeguard her power within the amulet, of course.”
Ethan nodded. “Simple enough.” His mouth twisted in wry amusement. “Certainly better than ‘steal it back.’ If we can find the materials . . . yes, I think it might work.”
“And can we?” Giles asked. “Find them, I mean?”
Ethan frowned down at the spell. “Hard to say. In Rio it wouldn’t be a problem, even in Belem – that’s the next big city downriver,” he added at Giles’s questioning look. “But Macapá is small –”
“Three hundred thousand people isn’t small,” Giles objected.
“It is for Brazil,” Ethan said. “Its seamy dark magics underbelly is even smaller, and very secretive and closed. Part of the reason I was so keen on having Josué with us,” he added.
“I see. And there’s no one who might talk to you because you knew him?”
“Perhaps,” Ethan said. “But I’m as yet unsure what the . . . reaction to his death will be. I may be blamed.” Giles gave him a sharp look and he amended quickly, “Oh, not that anyone will harm me, but asking favors just now might be difficult. The upshot, however, is that the Children of the Dark Eye are outsiders as well. If I can make it clear who was actually responsible, they will find many doors unexpectedly closed.”
Giles sighed. “Well, that’s something.”
Ethan glanced back down at the list. “It’s also possible that Josué had some of the books I need in his flat.”
“I could go back and check,” Giles offered, “if you wanted to look into the maps.”
Ethan drained the last of his coffee. “That would work. And the amulet?”
“That . . . might be rather more difficult. The specifications are somewhat, er, specific.”
“Meaning what, Ripper?”
Giles sighed. “It should be forged in magic, but magically inert in and of itself. It shouldn’t be associated with any dark power – or any power, period, for preference. And I think a precious jewel of some kind at its core would be ideal, to help with the focusing.”
“That will be rare,” Ethan said, raising his eyebrows, “and therefore cost a very pretty penny.”
“If I had the time I’d commission it from someone I know to be reliable. Money is no object.”
“How nice for you,” Ethan said dryly. “I can look into it along with the maps today.”
“Do you have any idea how long –”
“No. This is going to be delicate.” Ethan grimaced. “I’ll meet you back at the marina when I’m done.”
“And there’s no way I can help?”
“No,” Ethan said firmly. “They’re extremely clannish, as I said. The presence of another outsider would only make things more difficult.”
“I see,” Giles said. He checked his watch; it was just shy of nine o’clock. “We’d best be on our way then.”
Ethan gestured to the waitress, and while they were waiting for the check wrote down a list of books Giles was to look for, along with detailed instructions on how find them. Giles read them over and raised his eyebrows. Well-hidden indeed.
They parted on the sidewalk outside, Giles only just managing to swallow a reflexive, “Be careful” as Ethan turned away. He watched him until he vanished into the throng of people on the street. Ethan had been worried, Giles thought, and rightfully so. Even if he were right and the cult found itself in deep trouble with the local magical community over the shaman’s death, they could still catch wind of what Giles and Ethan were up to. Giles had not counted on having the element of true surprise on their side – the cult had to know the Council would come after them, both to stop the ritual and to retrieve Willow’s power – but he had not expected so many problems so quickly. At which thought he almost laughed at himself. He had obviously been too long off the Hellmouth.
It was a ten minute walk to the shaman’s flat through the center of town. When he arrived he found three police cars parked outside and a crowd of Brazilians on the sidewalk, gaping as Josué’s body was brought out on a stretcher, covered with a sheet. Rather than be caught staring, Giles went into a café across the street, ordered tea, and sat near the window. The waiter served it silently and Giles set to waiting.
He’d drunk three cups by the time the last police car left. Giles paid his bill and set off down the sidewalk, away from the shaman’s building. He circled back and jogged up the steps as though he belonged there. The front door was locked this time; he unlocked it with magic and made his way up the dim staircase. He had to break the police seal on the door to get in; he shut the door behind him as quietly as possible while casting a nervous glance over his shoulder. At this time of the day most of the neighbors were probably working, but one never knew.
The flat looked much as it had the night before. Giles stepped around the spot in the front hallway where he’d been sick, and, once in the living room, bypassed the chair quickly, trying not to look. He shut himself in the bedroom, which had undergone treatment similar to the other rooms in the flat. The closet door stood open, but a quick inspection showed that while the floor was strewn with clothes and photographs and empty boxes that had apparently been pulled off the top shelf, the cult’s members had never realized that the back of the closet was not nearly as ordinary as it seemed. With the right incantation, it opened into a temporal fold, and from there the shaman’s books were readily accessible.
Giles searched until he found an empty duffel bag made of cracked red leather to put the books in. Then he stepped back into the closet, shut the door behind him just in case, and stretched his hand out. He commenced reciting the incantation in Nheengatu, the indigenous language Ethan said the shaman had used for all his personally designed spells. Giles could only hope he was pronouncing it correctly.
It seemed he was. The back of the closet wavered. Giles touched it tentatively, and when there was no magical bite, passed through.
It was the same flat as the one that lay just behind him, but this one was floor to ceiling books. Giles stared, astonished. He had only very rarely seen a personal collection larger than his own – Wesley’s had been, by perhaps twenty-five volumes, and there had been two or three other Watchers with more – but this was probably fifty percent larger than his. Some of them were very old and rare as well. Giles reached out and touched the spine of one reverently. He had been deeply suspicious of the shaman even up till now, but somehow seeing his collection like this made Giles regret that. He was suddenly very sorry for more than just pragmatic reasons that he would never have the chance to talk to the man who had once owned these books, to hear his stories and learn about his methods.
The books were arranged alphabetically by author, for which Giles was grateful. Some collectors had strange systems unknown to anyone but themselves, but Josué hadn’t been one of them. Though Giles could have lingered for days, he quickly scanned the shelves for the volumes Ethan wanted. He’d requested three; Giles found two. He put them into the bag he’d pilfered very carefully – that was Lacroix’s Grimoire, for heaven’s sake, with the original engravings. With one last glance over his shoulder he passed back through the temporal fold – and immediately froze.
There were voices in the bedroom beyond the closet door. They were speaking Portuguese, and his first thought was that someone had seen him enter the shaman’s flat and called the police. He bit his lip to keep from swearing; being arrested for breaking into a murder scene would cause an unbearable delay, even with all the pressure the Council’s lawyers could bring to bear.
“I was not mistaken,” someone said. “Someone performed a spell here, not ten minutes ago.”
Bloody hell. Not the police then. Giles tried not to breathe. He was trapped. He could not reopen the temporal fold and escape that way, since it would only alert them. He had no way out if they very logically decided to check the closet. Except . . . he was sure he had latched the closet door behind him when he’d gone in, and now it was just slightly cracked. Perhaps they had checked it already.
In which case, Giles realized with a twist of his gut, he was quite lucky not to have come through and found the closet door wide open and himself wholly exposed.
Footsteps entered the bedroom. Giles could see nothing through the crack, but he strained the limits of his Portuguese to listen.
“There’s no one in the bathroom or kitchen,” a woman’s voice said.
“Whoever it was, they’re gone now,” a third voice said, masculine like the first one, but without the sense of authority.
“Don’t be stupid,” the first voice said. That had to be the leader, possibly of the whole cult – Saramargo, Willow had said he was called; there was a hum of magic in his voice, just beneath the surface. Giles would have bet almost anything that he was the one who had stolen the shaman’s power. He swallowed and pressed himself back against the clothes hanging in the closet behind him. “It was those –” He said a word then that Giles didn’t recognize, but it sounded impolite, to say the least. “Almeida’s trap last night obviously failed. We have to find them today. We cannot risk them interrupting the ritual.”
“They’re not staying at any hotel in the city,” the woman said.
“Because they aren’t complete idiots,” Saramargo snapped. He said something else, too fast for Giles to make out. “We have until tomorrow morning,” he heard clearly then. “No more.”
“They’ll need supplies,” the man said.
“Check all likely locations then,” Saramargo ordered. “All known magical suppliers.”
There was a brief silence. Then the man said, “That may be . . . difficult. The shaman’s death –”
“Was necessary,” Saramargo said in a tone that brooked no argument. “And just for that, you can be the one to do the checking. Boa sorte,” he added nastily. Good luck.
“Look,” the woman said, “there’s no one here. Let’s go.”
Giles listened to them leave, and finally let out the breath he’d been holding. He sagged back against the now solid wood of the back of the closet and closed his eyes. He was soaked with sweat and not only from the heat, though it was stifling inside the closet.
He waited until the minute hand had crept around the face of his watch seven times before he dared venture out. The bedroom beyond was empty and so was the living room. Giles set the leather duffel with the books on the bed and went to the window, which faced the street. He pushed the curtains aside just enough to look. No one was loitering suspiciously, either on the sidewalk in front of the building or across the street. There was, however, a young woman seated at one of the outdoor tables at the café Giles himself had used earlier to watch the building. The same waiter who had served him brought her coffee and a pastry. She pulled a book out of her purse and pretended to read, but Giles could see that she kept raising her head to watch the front steps of the building.
He stood there, frozen and watching, for five minutes, and she never turned a page.
Damn. Giles retrieved the duffel and slung it over his shoulder. He hadn’t seen a fire escape, and he thought it unlikely that the building had one. Magic was not an option, so he couldn’t even repair the police seal as he’d planned. He didn’t dare contact Ethan from the flat; God only knew what eavesdropping spells the cult had left.
He let himself out of the flat. A quick look around revealed no fire escape, so he set off down the stairs with an extremely uncomfortable lack of a plan. Once he’d reached the ground floor, he stopped on the last step, eyeing the front door and considering his options. For a few seconds he was on the verge of heading straight out and hoping she either didn’t recognize him – unlikely, that; the cult had sent Paulo to him after all – or that he could sneak past when she wasn’t looking. But then he noticed that the stairs continued down one more flight before ending in a door labeled with a word that instantly became Giles’s very favorite in all the Portuguese language: Embasamento.
“Yes,” he muttered.
The door was unlocked. Giles glanced back up the stairs, and, seeing no one, slipped inside. He found himself at the top of a flight of stairs that led down even further into a dim room. It was silent; no hot water heater in this building. The air was hot and stale, and the only source of light was a grimy window near the ceiling on the other side of the room, set at the level of the ground.
It was the work of a few minutes to shove a table, probably discarded by a former tenant, beneath the window. He found a broom and broke the glass, using the handle to clear away the shards as best he could. As soon as he thought he could manage it without cutting himself too badly, he climbed onto the table, glass shards crunching under his shoes, and shoved the duffel bag out onto the grass. His shoulders barely fit, but with a good deal of very undignified wriggling he finally managed to squeeze through. He ended up lying on his back on a patch of grass, looking up at a palm tree. He rolled quickly to his feet, ready to run, but the only one who seemed to have noticed anything was one of the city’s many stray dogs, who cocked his head and perked his ears at Giles curiously.
“Good dog,” Giles managed. The side of the building shielded him from the street, but he could just see the woman at her table in front of the café. He watched her sip her coffee and glance once more toward the steps of the building. Giles smiled grimly, hoisted the duffel bag, and backed away.
He didn’t ring Ethan until he was safely on another street. He left a message and walked along briskly, clutching the duffel bag and trying to look as though he knew what he was doing. He had nearly reached the marina when his mobile rang.
“Did you get them?” Ethan asked immediately, for once not bothering to bully Giles into exchanging pleasantries.
“Two of them,” he said. “Had a bit of trouble though.” He filled Ethan in on what had happened as succinctly as possible. “The good news then,” he finished, “is that we have two of the books and they don’t seem to know where we are. The bad news is that they’ll be trying to make things difficult for you.”
“They can try,” Ethan said, sounding satisfied, “but I think they’ll succeed only in making things difficult for themselves. The community is very stirred up over Josué’s death.”
“Are you all right?” Giles asked. He’d reached the houseboat, which was floating level to the dock now with the high tide.
“Yes,” Ethan said. “They know who to blame and thankfully it’s not me.”
“Good,” Giles said. He unlocked the cabin door and checked quickly to make sure all was as they’d left it. It was, and the spells were still in place as well. He tucked the books under one of the bunks and realized suddenly that the back of his hand was bleeding, undoubtedly from the broken window.
“However . . .” Ethan paused. “I take it there’s no chance of us going back to the flat to retrieve more books.”
“I think it would be unwise,” Giles said, pausing in the act of digging out his first aid kit. “Why?”
“Because I think I’ve found what we need, the maps and the amulet, with the same dealer. But she drives quite a hard bargain.”
“I told you,” Giles said, attempting to open a package of antiseptic cotton swabs with one hand. He gave up, cradled the mobile between his ear and his shoulder, and tore it open. “Money is no object.”
“Money isn’t going to be enough,” Ethan replied. “But there are books in Josué’s collection – which ones did you get?”
“Lacroix’s Grimoire,” Giles said, wincing at the sting of the antiseptic, “and The Twelve Elements of Magic.”
“Good,” Ethan said. “Those should be enough for the spell and the Grimoire might serve well to sweeten the transaction with our dealer.”
Giles dropped the antiseptic swab. “Ethan, you can’t possibly – that book is dangerous! We can’t – I can’t allow it to, to be –”
“Even if it would mean the difference, Ripper?” Ethan replied. Giles didn’t answer, and after a moment he went on, “I promise you, Laserpía is a better guardian of that book than most people you’d find. She’s adamantly anti-apocalypse, for one thing.”
“Shouldn’t she give us everything for free then?” Giles asked tartly.
“Oh no, Ripper. People must do business after all. Listen,” Ethan added before Giles could think of a properly sarcastic response, “negotiations are proceeding. I should go. Probably best if you stay put, don’t you think?”
“Probably,” Giles muttered. He hung up and finished bandaging his hand. It made him itch, the idea of giving up that book, ninety percent of which had no possible good use. Anti-apocalypse, Ethan had said. Adamantly so. Well, Giles supposed that was something. It never failed to shock him how many people weren’t.
He checked to make sure the marina-side door was locked and double-checked the spell to warn him if anyone approached. Then he went out onto the little patio, settled himself in the beach chair and took out his mobile again.
His first attempt went to voicemail after an absurd number of rings. Giles tried it again, and this time Buffy answered, sounding breathless. “Giles!” she greeted him. “We didn’t think we’d hear from you – is everything okay?”
“Yes,” Giles said, but cautiously. “We had a few, er, problems last night, but today seems to be going moderately well.”
“Oh good. Not the problems, I mean,” Buffy amended. “But the moderately well. Moderately well is a lot better than a complete freakin’ disaster.”
“True,” Giles said, smiling to himself. “And how are things on your end?”
“They’re, um . . . less moderately well.” She sighed. “I don’t know, Giles. Willow’s hanging in there, but you can tell the waiting’s driving her crazy. Me too, actually. This is so not what I was made for.”
“I know,” Giles said. “And I’m sorry. But it won’t be much longer.”
“I guess. It’s just . . . it’s Will, you know? Sorry, really stupid question. Of course you do.”
“I do,” Giles said with a sigh. He swallowed, no longer smiling, and watched a bird flying out over the river, too far away for him to tell what it might be. “Er . . . may – may I talk to her?”
“Oh, yeah, just a sec.”
He listened to her muffle the phone and call for Willow, and then to the half-mumbled words and sounds of the phone being handed over.
“Hey, Giles,” Willow said.
Giles stomach flipped over and it was a split second before he found his voice to reply. “Hello, darling,” he said. “How are you?”
He didn’t think he imagined the catch in her breath at the endearment. “I’m okay,” she said. She paused, “Actually no. Not okay at all. God, Giles, I wish you were here. Or – no, that’s not it. I wish I was there.”
“Me too. But –”
“I know. I can’t be. I get it. I hate it, but I get it.”
“I wish you were here as well,” he said, though truthfully he was just as glad to have her out of immediate danger.
“Yeah,” she said, almost tonelessly. She sighed. “Sorry, that’s just – my stuff. How’re you?”
“Fine. It’s going well,” he added. “I would even say very well if I didn’t think it would be tempting fate.” She didn’t need to know details, he decided. Didn’t need to know about Josué. Not at the moment, at least, and possibly not ever, though Giles thought she would want to eventually. She would want to know how high the price had been.
“Good,” she said, “good.” And then she added, sounding slightly shaky, “Giles, I know I said this before, but please be careful. I really couldn’t stand it if, if –”
“I’ll be careful,” he said. “Ethan and I can take care of ourselves.”
“I know, I just – I hate – never mind.” He heard her take a deep breath and let it out. “I guess you’d probably better go. Things to do, right?”
“I should, yes.” He hesitated. “Could you hand the phone back to Buffy first, though?”
“Sure. Um . . . I love you.”
“I love you too.” It was almost ridiculous how much he loved her, and he had to wonder how long it had really been. He remembered noticing how beautiful she was as far back as that long, difficult summer they’d spent together at the coven. She had worn no make-up at all those three months and had dressed in earth tones, as though trying to blend in with her surroundings. And he had realized what she had not: that it made her even more beautiful. Perhaps it had begun then, and continued as he’d watched her find her center, find her confidence, find her true power. He didn’t know for certain, and didn’t think he ever would. But it didn’t matter.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll call again the day after tomorrow if – I’ll call.”
“Thanks. Here she is.”
“Giles?” Buffy said.
“Buffy . . . I – I need to ask you something. A favor.”
“Sure. Ask away. Believe me, anything I can do to help, I am there.”
Giles closed his eyes. “That’s – it’s not quite . . . I’m not sure how to say this. But, Buffy . . . if – if I don’t –” He swallowed against a throat that was suddenly very tight. “You and Xander,” he managed. “You will be there with her, won’t you?”
“Giles,” Buffy said in a small voice, “are you – are you sure it’s going okay?”
“Yes, but, Buffy, please – I promised her I’d be there, but if I can’t be, if I – if I fail –”
“Yeah, Giles, of course we’ll be there.”
Giles leaned his head back against the hard metal bar running along the back of the beach chair. He felt sweaty and tired and relieved, all at once. He’d needed to know she wouldn’t be alone. If he couldn’t be there, someone else would be. “Thank you.”