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.
Giles was deep in the Grimoire when Ethan arrived back at the houseboat just after five o’clock. The spell alerting him to someone’s approach went off. He grabbed a dagger out of his bag and positioned himself behind the door. Chances were good it was only Ethan, but he didn’t care to be caught unawares if it weren’t.
The door swung open and nearly broke Giles’s nose. “Put the great bloody sharp thing away, Ripper, it’s just me,” Ethan said.
“No harm in being careful,” Giles replied, lowering the dagger.
“No,” Ethan agreed, turning to him. “Especially since I was nearly followed. Oh, don’t worry,” he added at Giles’s look of alarm. “Laserpía’s servants took care of them. She does not take kindly to people who interfere in her deals, and even less kindly to those who have just murdered her favorite shaman.” Ethan smiled, very thinly. “Still, it seems they know who we’re dealing with now. I think we had best dress for this meeting tonight. I hope you have something for me in your bag of tricks.”
“Er . . . yes.” Giles frowned. “Meeting?”
“To hand over the cash and the Grimoire in exchange for the maps and the amulet.” Ethan sat down on the bed and picked up the book in question. “We’re to meet them at nine, which should give me just enough time to get the information I need before we have to give it up. And eat something, I’m famished.”
“Ah – yes,” Giles said. “I was looking through it just now. This spell here,” he reached over and flipped to the page he’d marked, “coupled with one of the spells in the other book – well, you’ll know better than I, but I think they should do the trick.”
Ethan read quickly down the page, and then glanced at the one Giles pointed out to him in The Twelve Elements of Magic. “Yes,” he said, “good.”
“We’ll need these herbs,” Giles said, “but they’re all standard. Will that be a problem?”
Ethan shook his head. “We can get them tomorrow morning before leaving upriver.”
“Would it be possible to get them now?”
Ethan glanced at him. “Probably. I could call my contact with Laserpía and ask him to add them to the list. Last minute changes will cost you though. Why?”
Giles sat back on his own bed and then leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. “Because I’ve been thinking about what the cult members in Josué’s apartment said about having until tomorrow morning to find us, and I think it would be helpful if we were at the Mouth of the Beast before them.”
“Ah,” Ethan said. “I do see your point.” He looked thoughtful. “We have to take Josué’s canoe to the meeting point anyway, and it’s several miles upriver – we may as well leave from there. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to one last night of relative comfort,” he added in a mutter. “Can I at least talk you into a decent meal before we go?”
“Yes, yes,” Giles said. “I don’t propose to starve you. Do you need my help with the research? There are things I should buy if we’re leaving tonight.”
Ethan was already taking notes from the Grimoire and, rather than answering Giles directly, merely gestured impatiently to indicate he’d heard. Giles had to smile as he’d left; Ethan could complain like no one else Giles knew, but he had always loved a challenge. In their younger, more foolish days, it had often led to them all biting off more than they could chew. Strangely enough, as Giles made his way back toward the center of the city in search of the nearest small grocer’s, he found himself trusting that Ethan had learned his limits in the intervening years.
Three hours later, Giles was glaring at the back of Ethan’s head and wondering why he would ever trust Ethan Rayne about anything. The man himself seemed oblivious as he attempted to maneuver the canoe into the shallows of one of several large islands that dotted this portion of the Amazon. Ethan finally cut the motor, letting them drift the last few feet. “Perfect,” he said in satisfaction. He glanced over at Giles then, and, apparently reading his expression by the light of the torch, rolled his eyes. “Oh, come off it, Ripper. You’ve lost all sense of adventure in your old age.”
“I most certainly have not,” Giles replied, standing. He checked the dagger at his hip and hoped that it and the knife concealed in his boot would be enough, if things came to that. He made his careful way down the length of the canoe and jumped out to help Ethan pull it up further onto the soft ground of the shore. It had begun to rain and Giles’s glasses were wet and fogging. He pulled them off to glare first at them and then at Ethan for good measure.
“You most certainly have,” Ethan retorted, swinging his torch around in an arc to find the path. “You’ve become one of those Brits who could go all the way to the tip of Patagonia and only want bangers and mash.”
“Excuse me,” Giles said, following Ethan as they started up the hill, “but do you have any idea what I ate last year when I was globetrotting, trying to find the Potentials?”
“And yet,” Ethan threw back at him over his shoulder, “here you are all worked up at me over a little alligator meat. You liked it well enough before I told you what it was.”
“That’s not the bloody point, Ethan.” Not that Giles expected Ethan to ever understand the actual point – which was, as far as Giles had been able to articulate it to himself, that he would never be able to trust Ethan more than twenty-five percent if he persisted in pulling stunts like tricking Giles into eating alligator. All things considered, Giles supposed he should be grateful he didn’t have horns and a tail this time, but it aggravated him to no end that even working together against a common enemy, he had to constantly wonder what trick Ethan had up his sleeve.
On the other hand, Giles had to admit that perhaps it was the very quality that drove him mad that made Ethan so formidable an ally.
It was perhaps for the best that there was no opportunity to continue the argument. Giles was more than occupied picking his way up what could only have been termed a path in the very loosest sense while carrying a very heavy, very valuable book. The nightlife of the jungle had woken and Giles, listening to the cicadas and the croaking frogs, thought of that very first night, less than two weeks ago, when he had found Ethan and Willow in that derelict lodge. The first night he had fallen asleep holding Willow. To his annoyance, he found he couldn’t stay angry at Ethan while thinking about her; if not for him, she would never have had a chance.
“Here we are,” Ethan said as they crested the hill.
Giles could feel something in the air, not a crackle of magic, nor even a hum, but more of a . . . tingle. He cast Ethan a questioning glance.
“A minor place of power,” Ethan said. “Not answerable to us, I might add.”
“To whom, then?” Giles asked uneasily.
“Laserpía, of course.” Ethan looked at him, as serious as Ethan Rayne ever was. “Do let’s avoid pissing her off.”
“Agreed,” Giles said, and refrained from demanding to know exactly why Ethan had arranged for them to meet this woman, who was certainly more than human or at least something else in addition, in her place of power. Most likely Ethan hadn’t been given any choice in the matter.
“They should be here soon,” Ethan said.
“I think they already are,” Giles replied, pointing down the hill. He could see three cloaked figures with lanterns climbing toward them and felt the adrenalin start to flow, but there was nothing to do but wait. Eventually he was able to discern that the one in the lead was very tall, perhaps three inches taller than Giles himself, but clearly feminine in form. One of the other two, who were both considerably shorter, carried a black cloth bag.
“Good evening,” Ethan said, when the three stopped just a few feet away. “I don’t mean to offend m’lady, but would the three of you care to remove your hoods? My friend Mr. Giles and I are just a mite skittish at the moment.”
“As you wish,” the woman in the lead said in a deep, hissing voice. A hand emerged from her sleeve. It was beautifully shaped, with long, elegant fingers and well-formed nails polished pearl white, but there was no mistaking scales where there ought to have been skin. Strangely, the scales themselves were not the least bit ugly; they had the same shifting colors as the insides of some seashells, from dark blue to dark green and everything in between. The hand pushed back her hood, revealing a face that was half-woman and half-serpent: her nose was flat, her eyes large and oval-shaped, her skin the same hue as her hands. But she had high, elegant cheekbones, a lovely mouth, and a fall of thick black hair. Giles thought he’d rarely seen anything so simultaneously beautiful and disturbing in his life.
When at last he stopped staring at her long enough to look at her servants, he saw they were human. One man and one woman, both expressionless.
“Satisfied?” Laserpía said at last.
“Yes, thank you,” Ethan said. “I’m sure you understand.”
“I do,” she said. “These are troubling times.” She turned her large, oval eyes on Giles then. He would have described them as reptilian, except he quickly realized they lacked the coldness of a reptile’s gaze. It was almost more unnerving. “Rupert Giles,” she said clearly.
He cleared his throat. “Yes – m’lady.” That was what Ethan had called her and Giles found himself very much wanting not to give offense.
“You are most eager for the contents of the bag my servant carries.”
“Yes, m’lady. We have a journey,” Giles replied, spine straightening instinctively. “And there is . . . much at stake. The end of the world.”
“Yes,” she said. “That is a reason. But that is not your only reason. That is not your first reason.”
“M’lady, I have sworn an oath –”
“Yes, an oath.” She smiled at him. “But your oath, if that were all you were thinking of, would not allow you to give me that most venerable book you carry. You do not trust me.”
Giles swallowed. “That’s true,” he admitted.
“Your oath, therefore, is your second reason. Your first reason is love. A foolish reason,” her voice deepened, took on a dangerous edge, and the tingle of power in the air was no longer minor. “A mortal reason.”
“One that has served well enough in the past,” Giles replied evenly.
“So you tell yourself,” she replied, lifting her chin, “even as you break your oath.”
“I break no oath. Mr. Rayne has vouched for you.”
“Yes,” she said. “Mr. Rayne. Who, I sense, you trust only slightly more than me.” She turned her gaze toward Ethan. “You, Mr. Rayne, have no oath.”
“No,” Ethan said, “thank all gods.”
“And you are not in love. Why, then, are you here?”
Ethan smiled. “For a reason no less mortal, but perhaps less foolish. Money.”
“Ah!” she said, apparently relieved. “A most excellent reason for doing anything. And so, Mr. Rayne, it is from you that I must exact the final part of our bargain.”
“Wait,” Giles said, “no one ever mentioned anything –”
“Quiet,” she snapped, her large eyes narrowing. She turned her gaze back to Ethan, the movement of her neck sinuous and mesmerizing. “I charge you, Mr. Rayne, with ensuring that Mr. Giles’s foolish, mortal reason does not stand in the way of his oath. The Children of the Dark Eye must be stopped; a young woman’s life means nothing to that. Are we in agreement?”
Ethan glanced at Giles, who nodded as imperceptibly as he could manage. “Yes,” Ethan said.
“Good.” She stepped forward. “And just to be clear, Mr. Rayne. If you fail in this, all hell will quite literally break loose. And in the midst of it, I will find you and I will punish you. Think on that, if the time comes.”
Ethan nodded, almost smiling. “I will think of little else, I assure you.”
“Very good then. The cash and the Grimoire, if you please.”
They made the trade, Giles and the female servant with the bag. Since Laserpía immediately counted the bills, Giles decided it would not be unforgivably rude if he looked in the bag.
He pulled the maps out first, and handed them off to Ethan impatiently. He could feel the weight of the amulet, coiled at the bottom of the bag beneath the satchels of herbs. He reached in and retrieved it, let it hang between his fingers and turn in the light of the torches and the lanterns, and felt his breath catch in his throat. It was white gold formed in the shape of a knot, not large but with weight to it, mostly from the enormous emerald at the center. In this light, the color of the stone closely resembled the color of Willow’s eyes. If he had had time to commission something, it would have been very like this.
“Will it do?” Laserpía asked. “Is it worthy to keep safe the power of your beloved?”
“I – yes,” Giles managed. “Thank you.”
She nodded. “We are done then. Remember your oaths, both of you.” With that, she and her servants turned away and retreated down the hill, taking the lanterns with them. It seemed much darker than it had before their arrival.
By the time Ethan had finished inspecting the herbs, it had begun to rain harder and the trail back down to the canoe had turned into a mudslide. Giles fell once, right on his arse, and accepted Ethan’s hand up, which surprisingly came without comment. They would have to talk eventually about what Laserpía had said, but Giles was glad Ethan wasn’t forcing it at that moment. His elation at the successful procurement of an appropriate amulet was rapidly fading in the face of being wet, muddy, and now bruised as well. Not to mention his glasses were fogging again. He ripped them off and shoved them in his pocket.
Between the rain and Giles’s myopia, everything was a blur by the time they reached the canoe. Ethan got there first and made a disgusted noise, the first sound either of them had uttered since Laserpía and her people had departed. “It’s half-filled with rainwater,” Ethan reported to Giles, who was moving somewhat more slowly in an effort not to repeat his earlier pratfall. “We’ll have to bail it out before we can go anywhere.”
“Lovely,” Giles muttered. He climbed into the canoe, which tilted precariously, and accepted the bucket Ethan offered him. He set to bailing out clear, clean rainwater with a grumble.
He hadn’t been at for more than thirty seconds when the spell hit him, square in the back. It wasn’t flashy, but it was startlingly effective; Giles felt as though something were pressing down on his shoulders, crushing him, and he had no choice but to bend with it until he pitched forward over the side of the canoe and into the river. He felt it as a slow motion fall, each second drawn out interminably by the crushing pressure, but time sped up once he was underwater. The pressure ceased as suddenly as it had begun and he surfaced sputtering.
“Ripper, what the -” Ethan started to demand, but broke off as something – a spell, a rock, Giles didn’t know – struck him in the chest, knocking him backwards over one of the benches. Giles looked frantically for the source of the attack, but between the rain and the dark and the fact that he had, in an act of supreme idiocy, taken off his glasses, he couldn’t see a damn thing. He didn’t know which way to move, much less where to throw a counterattack. Giles heard Ethan climbing to his feet in the canoe – at least he wasn’t unconscious.
Movement on shore caught Giles’s eye. He squinted; there were two figures, he was almost sure of it, and even they could not be quiet while slogging through several meters of water to get to them. Giles was ready for the first blow, aimed at his face, but the second to his stomach left him off balance and gasping. His attacker hooked his foot behind Giles’s and he went down into the brown, murky water. He managed to surface once to grab a breath that was only half air before being shoved underwater again and held there this time.
His eyes were wide open but the water was dark with every kind of organic matter imaginable. The bottom was too soft, he couldn’t get his feet under him to stand, and his lungs were already aching. He was using too much oxygen in the struggle.
His hand closed on the dagger at his hip. He pulled it out and shoved upwards without any notion of aim. It connected, slid in – he knew that feeling too well, the moment a dagger broke through the scant resistance offered by human flesh – but still the attacker did not let go. Both his hands were occupied though, holding Giles’s head beneath the water, which left him open to attack. Giles yanked the dagger out and thrust it back in again. This time he felt the attacker’s hands clench once, spasmodically, and then release him.
Giles surged to the surface, simultaneously gulping air and gagging on river water. His assailant was floating face down in front of him, dead or unconscious and drowning. Giles pushed him aside and staggered toward the boat, pausing halfway to vomit again. God, if they lived through this he’d probably end up with hepatitis and amoebas and salmonella and whatever other nasties one contracted from drinking the Amazon.
He reached the canoe at last, but in his dazed state it took him several seconds to realize it was empty. Where the hell was Ethan?
“Fuck,” Giles muttered, and belatedly fumbled his glasses – thankfully not broken – out of his pocket. It was still raining, not that it mattered. He could go after Ethan and the second assailant, except Giles hadn’t the foggiest idea what might have happened after he’d gone under. They could have teleported away, though that seemed rather unlikely, or any number of other things.
Finally Giles decided the first thing to do would be to get out of the water. He clambered into the boat and stood dripping, before finally stripping off his poncho and flinging it to the side. He would check the supplies, he decided, bail out some more of the standing water, and then make a circuit of the island in the sodding canoe. The cult had probably sent their assailants upriver the mundane way, and if he could find their boat he might find Ethan.
He found the black bag at the bottom of the canoe, half in and half out of three inches of rainwater. The maps were slightly damp, but at least the herbs were dry. Giles winced and set them aside, hoping they hadn’t just gone to all this trouble for nothing. The other supplies, their food, water, and (relatively) dry clothes, seemed untouched. He shoved his hand in his pocket then to check for the amulet in a gesture he thought would quickly become a compulsion, and froze.
It was gone.
“No,” he said, “no, no, no!” He checked it again and then his other pocket too, but it wasn’t there and a thorough search with the torch revealed that it wasn’t at the bottom of the boat either. He shined the torch into the river, but all it lit up was murky water and the body of his assailant, which had washed up against the roots of a tree. Impossible to see the bottom.
Ethan would have to take care of himself. Giles pulled off his boots and soaked socks; if he was going to find the amulet at all it would have to be fast. Protected as the inlet was from the massive current, it would still be covered over with silt within a few minutes.
The bottom of the river was soft. Giles’s bare feet sank into the mud; he grimaced in disgust as he began shuffling back toward where he thought he’d been attacked with small, questing steps, searching through the mud for anything small and hard. He did not want to think about what they might have to do if it were well and truly lost.
Ten minutes later he was still searching, this time by the boat since it might have fallen out when he’d fallen in. His mouth was dry and his movements were becoming less careful and more desperate; he thought he might only be stirring up the bottom, causing more harm than good. Panicking would not help one whit, but it was a rather appealing notion all the same. A nice panic attack would at least give him a break from reality for a few minutes. He stopped, leaned against the canoe, and forced himself to think everything through.
He’d not got very far when he heard someone coming down the hill through the brush. Giles scrambled over the canoe’s benches to the motor – how did the damn thing work anyway? “Ethan managed it,” he muttered to himself, searching desperately to for a cord to pull or a button to push. “It can’t be that hard.”
“Ripper, old mate, I hope you weren’t planning to take off without me.”
Giles sagged with relief. Ethan was almost as wet as Giles was, but he was grinning and seemed fiendishly invigorated by it all. He had a limp body, presumably his attacker, draped over his shoulder.
‘Thank God,” Giles managed at last.
“You weren’t worried, were you?” Ethan asked, letting the unconscious body fall into the front of the boat, where it lay in a crumpled heap of sodden black fabric. He pulled a face at the water in the bottom of the canoe as he stepped in. “No harm done,” Ethan went on. “Just the thing to wake us up. Plus,” he smiled, teeth white as a shark’s in the torchlight, “I caught us a live one. What say we see what we can get out of him? Not here though – I know a spot on one of the other islands.”
Giles had to clear his throat twice before he could answer. “We can’t,” he said. “Leave, that is.”
Ethan, who had been about to start the motor, raised his head. “Pray tell why not?” He nodded toward the assailant. “I didn’t see much grappling with him, but I’m pretty sure he and his friend aren’t the only ones here. Once they figure out we’re not dead –”
“I lost the amulet,” Giles ground out.
Ethan blinked at him. “What?”
“The amulet,” Giles repeated. “I lost it in the fight.” He ran a hand through his hair and closed his eyes, shaking his head. “I just spent ten minutes trying to find it, but I think it’s gone.”
“You mean this amulet?” Ethan said, and held it up. Giles stared. “I pilfered it while we were bailing the canoe out right before.” Giles narrowed his eyes and made a grab for it; Ethan pulled it back, just out of reach.
“Why?” Giles demanded.
“Given Laserpía’s charge to me, I thought it . . . prudent, shall we say.” Ethan looked at him, almost expressionless save for a twitch of the lips that might have been a smile or a frown. “Is this a problem?”
“Yes, it bloody well is,” Giles snapped. “You couldn’t just tell me, could you? You had to be underhanded about it.”
“You would never have given it to me freely, Ripper, and you know it. Look, we don’t have time to discuss your so-called trust issues now, though believe me, we will, because I’m so sick of them I could spit. Let’s get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Giles said, and barely had time to climb in the boat and sit down before Ethan pulled the throttle and they went tearing out of the inlet.
They spent nearly an hour going up and down the river, winding through the islands, until Giles was thoroughly turned around. By the time Ethan was convinced they weren’t being followed, Giles had no idea where they were. Ethan’s assailant, revealed in the torchlight as a young man of no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, started to come to a few minutes after they had left the first island; Giles tied his hands and feet and taped his mouth. Once fully conscious, he lay in the still-flooded bottom of the canoe and glared murderously.
The inlet Ethan finally maneuvered them into was much deeper than the one they’d left behind and very still, though the considerable noise of the jungle seemed amplified. The water lit up by the torch was more black than brown. The canopy had closed over their heads and Giles felt he had stepped back several thousand years. This was a primordial place and it did not necessarily welcome their trespass. Giles ducked vines hanging from the trees and was relieved when Ethan cut the motor back, allowing them to drift forward with just the barest mechanical rumble. This was more eerie than Laserpía’s place of power, and Giles did not like to think what they might be angering with their noise. Or what they might be waking.
“Almost there,” Ethan said, and tossed Giles a wooden paddle. “Make yourself useful.”
It was harder than he expected to paddle the canoe into the spot Ethan had selected. When at last they managed, Giles was sweaty and irritable; he had finally begun to dry off from his swim in the river, no small feat in this sort of humidity, but now he feared he would never be dry again. He was even more soaked once he and Ethan had manhandled the assailant out of the canoe and onto relatively dry land, propping him against a tree and tying him to the thick roots. Then he stepped back, wiped his brow on his sleeve, and looked to Ethan. “What now?”
“I suggest a good old-fashioned round of Good Cop/Bad Cop,” Ethan replied. “I, of course, will feature as the Bad Cop. What do you think?”
“That depends,” Giles said. “I’m not sure my Portuguese is proficient enough to be the Good Cop. Does he speak English?”
“Possibly,” Ethan said, “but I doubt he’ll feel inclined to make this easier for us. All right then, just stand there and glower. Try to look threatening if you can.”
“Pardon me, but I assure you –” Giles stopped. Infuriating as Ethan was in this sort of mood, it probably wasn’t a brilliant idea to bicker in front of the prisoner.
Ethan, smiling, went and ripped the tape off the prisoner’s mouth. “Good evening,” he said, apparently having decided to play both cops himself.
“I am a Servant of the First,” the prisoner intoned. “You cannot frighten me.”
Ethan rolled his eyes at Giles. “Not a very creative lot, are they?”
“It wouldn’t seem so, no. Get on with it, will you? I’d hoped to be halfway to the site by now.” Giles crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the prisoner, hoping the torchlight made him look more intimidating.
“Right then,” Ethan muttered in English, before switching back into Portuguese. “There are a few things we’d like to know, and you’re going to tell us nice and easy, or,” he picked up one of the prisoner’s hands and gave it a pat, “I’ll break every one of your fingers.”
“Ethan,” Giles managed in a low voice.
Ethan ignored him. “So, first of all, just to confirm – where is this little ritual of yours going to take place?’
The prisoner looked up at Ethan without the slightest trace of fear. “The Mouth of the Beast,” he said, and then, astonishingly, laughed.
Ethan cast Giles a strange look; Giles merely shook his head, though he wasn’t sure Ethan could see even that much. He’d lowered the torch when Ethan had first mentioned breaking the man’s fingers, as he didn’t want either of them to see how he’d blanched. Just his luck that some very particular buttons had been pushed on this trip. Giles hunched, wishing his clothing were better suited to hiding, but he was damp and sticky and laid bare. Or so he felt.
“You mind telling us what’s so funny?” Ethan asked, crouching down to the prisoner’s eye level.
“You think you can stop us,” the prisoner said, still giggling in a most disturbing way, “but you’re too late. The first part of the ritual was performed days ago. The First is here - here!” he gasped, eyes suddenly wide.
Giles froze. Perhaps it was only his own paranoia, but something in the way the prisoner spoke made Giles think he was telling the truth – in so far as he knew at least. He was too mad to lie, for one thing, and there was a glint in his eyes that Giles didn’t like.
“That ritual failed,” Ethan pointed out, his voice very even. “Tomorrow night –”
“The ritual will be completed,” the pirsoner said, smiling almost beatifically now. “Dead or alive I shall be present when the First is made manifest and grants us our reward and you your everlasting torment.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Ethan muttered, before saying more loudly, “Is that it then? ‘You’re too late’? I’ve heard it before, I think. Usually seems to mean the exact opposite.”
“Not this time,” a new voice from behind them said. “This time you really are much, much too late.”
Giles turned slowly, already knowing what he would see. He had thought this part of it to be over. He had hoped not to have to go through his days half-expecting to see his ghosts at every turn: Jenny, Buffy, Angelus. Those had been the First’s favorites when it had wished to torment him. It had never become the boy standing before him now, wearing the same black leather jacket, torn t-shirt, and faded jeans he had worn the night he’d died. All his clothes had been ripped and bloodstained by the end, of course, but these were clean, or at least only normally dirty; the First had gotten every detail right down to the faint brown stain on the collar of Randall’s shirt. And his accent – the twisted vowels of a boy raised in one of the wealthiest families in England, trying to sound as though he hadn’t been. Randall had never quite mastered the working class accent of London they had all done their best to affect.
“You’re not real,” Giles heard Ethan say, voice shaking.
The First frowned and held his hand out, inspecting it. “Real? I think I am. Alive?” The First smiled. “Well, that’s a different story. But you know that. You killed me.”
Giles swallowed. “It’s not him,” he managed. “It’s the First. It can take the form of – of anyone who’s died.”
The First shook its head. “You always were the smartest of all of us. I told you that once, didn’t I, Ripper?” Giles nodded before he could stop himself. “Weren’t smart enough to save me, though. Or any of the others.”
“This is ridiculous,” Giles said, turning away. “Not corporeal so it can’t do anything but stand there and taunt us.”
“Not corporeal yet,” the First corrected. “But I am well on my way, and as my young friend tied to the tree said, you are much too late to stop me. As you might have guessed by the fact I’m here.”
Giles gritted his teeth, glanced toward Ethan, and realized suddenly that the First’s show was not for him. It had never become Randall for him before, because Giles had long since made his amends with that part of his life. Had spent decades making amends for it, and found forgiveness in himself and others. He had been lucky that way, he supposed.
Ethan, it seemed, had not been.
“Just keep on,” Giles said in a low voice, still with his back to the First.
“Yeah,” the First said. “I think you were about to break some of that boy’s fingers.” And then, in a different voice laden with irony, it added, “Doesn’t that bother you, Rupert? Watching him do what I did to you?”
Giles stiffened, fists clenching involuntarily. “All right,” he said, “we’re done. Leave him.” He turned away, not waiting to see if Ethan would follow, and stopped.
He should have known. Where there was the First, there were bound to be Bringers. Three of them in this case. Behind him, Angelus – the First laughed.
“If you could only see your face, Rupert,” it snickered.
“If we can get to the boat –” Giles said, pulling out his dagger.
“Yeah,” Ethan replied, and then the Bringers closed in, two of them on Giles.
He ducked the first blow, a predictable and easily dodged swing of the Bringer’s axe, and came up with his dagger at the ready, only to find his hand knocked aside with a force that sent a painful shock all the way up his arm. The second Bringer kicked him low in the back, right over his kidneys, and Giles fell to his knees. He struggled to his feet almost immediately, but it cost him; one of the Bringers had hold of his arm and when he twisted to drive the knife in between its ribs, Giles felt his right shoulder dislocate with a sick popping sensation. He cried out, but the knife went in. The Bringer fell.
His respite lasted less than a second before the other Bringer moved in, swinging his sword at Giles’s stomach. He avoided it by moving closer rather than further away, since close combat at least made the sword less of a threat. His arm was useless though, and the Bringer’s strength superior; a few painful seconds of hand-to-hand found him in a chokehold, gasping for help from Ethan. But Giles could see out the corner of his eye that Ethan had problems of his own.
The Bringer tightened his grip and shook him like a rag doll, causing hot pain to shoot from Giles’s shoulder down to the tips of his fingers. His dagger was gone, out of reach, stuck in the back of the Bringer he’d killed, his oxygen was cut off, and he couldn‘t fight, couldn’t break the Bringer’s grip. He heard Angelus’s voice saying something, but Giles didn’t even know if it was the First or just some echo in his rapidly fading consciousness.
The Bringer let go so suddenly that Giles was left gasping on the ground. There was a blur of motion overhead and then that Bringer fell as well, straight across Giles’s chest, crushing the air out of his lungs so that his yell of pain became a silent gasp. Ethan shoved him off, helped Giles sit up, and then hauled him to his feet.
“Urgh,” Giles groaned.
“We’ll do your shoulder in the boat,” Ethan said. “Let’s go before more of those blasted things show up.”
“Yeah, hurry up,” the First said. It was Randall again, Giles noticed dimly. “Run away. It’s what you do best, after all, Ethan. Like you ran away that night, leaving Ripper to clean up your mess.”
To Giles’s relief, Ethan didn’t answer. Instead he bundled Giles into the canoe and sat him on the bench closest to the engine. Giles cradled his arm against his body and clenched his teeth. It had been thoroughly wrenched on top of being dislocated; he could feel cold sweat on his face and the back of his neck, and he felt lightheaded and ill. He bit his lip until he tasted blood, hoping the sharp pain would help him focus. He could not pass out. “We must have missed something,” he managed, even though he didn’t think Ethan was paying any attention. His voice echoed from far away, down a long, dim tunnel. “Another part of the ritual, or . . .”
“So it would seem,” Ethan said, and then there was the rip of the engine catching.
Once they were underway, far from the Bringers and the prisoner (though not the First, Giles thought dizzily, because you were never further from the First than it wanted you to be), he gave in to the lightheadedness. If he could just go to sleep for a few minutes, the pain might be gone when he woke up.
It wasn’t, of course. He came to lying on the bottom of the canoe, soaked again from the rainwater and staring up at a sky swirling with stars. The moon was full and gleaming on the water and they were drifting – or perhaps it was he who was drifting. But no, he realized quickly, the motor was off and the boat was being swept slowly but surely downstream with the current. His shoulder still hurt like the devil, but not as badly; Ethan must have done him the favor of popping it back in while he’d been out, which meant there was a bright side to having fainted so ignominiously from the pain. He sat up slowly, trying not to move his arm and wishing he had a sling to keep it immobile. He knew from experience that he would forget and gesture in exactly the wrong way at exactly the worst possible moment.
Once he’d managed to sit up without further damaging himself, Giles saw that Ethan was sitting beside the motor, hunched over strangely. “Ethan,” he said, suddenly worried he had sustained some injury Giles had noticed at the time.
Ethan looked up. “Well, Ripper,” he said, in a poor approximation of his usual sardonic tone, “nice of you to join me. I was starting to think you’d be out all night.”
“It seems not.” Giles managed to haul himself onto one of the benches. “The First?”
“Well, that’s a blessing.” Giles leaned on his good arm and wished in vain for very strong painkillers.
“Ripper,” Ethan said, and then stopped. “Rupert,” he began again after a moment, “when it became that vampire –”
“Yes. It said something about breaking all your fingers.”
“Not all of them,” Giles said, feeling a discomfort that had nothing to do with his shoulder. “Just the ones on my left hand.” He cleared his throat. “It’s a long story.”
“Would this long story also explain why you vomited at the sight of a man you’d never met tied to a chair?”
“Yes,” Giles replied shortly.
“Angelus tortured you.”
Ethan crossed his arms over his chest. “For a long story, that was rather short.”
“Ethan,” Giles said in as even a tone as he could manage under the circumstances, “it might not shock you to learn that it’s not something I enjoy talking about.”
“Especially with someone you don’t trust.”
Giles’s jaw clenched. “It has nothing to do with that.”
“Like hell it doesn’t. Laserpía was right. You don’t trust me and you never have. Not since Randall, anyway, and maybe not before.”
“Ethan –” Giles shut his mouth on words that would have been pure lies. “You’re right,” he said at last. “I don’t trust you to, to not turn me into a Fyarl demon, and not feed me alligator meat, and not steal things out of my pockets. Since these are all things you’ve done in recent memory, some of them very recent, I don’t think that’s as unreasonable as you do. But . . .” He hesitated. “It doesn’t have anything to do with Randall. Or at least only tangentially.”
“You’ll excuse me if I find that difficult to believe,” Ethan replied coldly.
Giles nodded. “I’m not surprised.” He paused to choose his words with care and then continued, “The First never became Randall for me at all last year, did you know? It chose . . . other people. That was all for you. I regret deeply my actions that led to Randall’s death. But he made a choice, as did we all. It was a stupid, dangerous one and he died. I am sorry. But I’ve left my guilt behind. About that particular incident, at least.”
Ethan turned his face away, into the deep shadows. “How nice for you.”
Giles said nothing. A great many things suddenly made sense, though he thought it wisest not to voice them aloud. Giles had run after Randall’s death, just as far and as fast as Ethan had. He had run to his family, to the structure of university, to the Council. He had buried his guilt in books and rules. Ethan had run the other way, burying his guilt in Chaos and dark magics until, he’d told himself, he’d become the sort of man to whom guilt meant nothing. Giles had wondered for years how Ethan could have kept on with it all after Randall; now he realized that Ethan had seen no way out. He’d had no family, no future, no destiny. He’d needed something. It was a pity he’d chosen so badly.
“Laserpía was wrong about some things though,” Giles said on the heels of a long silence. He was aware the river was drifting them away from their goal, and thought it was time to remind Ethan why they were there. That seemed to be what the First was best at: making one lose sight of one’s purpose. “I might not trust you not to make a complete fool of me at every opportunity, but I trust you to do what Laserpía told you to.” Ethan gave him a sharp look, and Giles nodded gravely. “Do you really think I haven’t known all along that it might be necessary? And that I might not be able to do it? That’s why you’re here, Ethan. And,” he added, realizing it was true only at that moment, “it’s why Buffy isn’t.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows. “I had wondered why your precious Slayer wasn’t along. We could have used her back there with those, those –”
“Bringers,” Giles supplied. “And she wanted to come. I wouldn’t let her.” He sighed. “Buffy . . . has always put her heart first, before everything else.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Ethan said, frowning. “How can she possibly have lived so long if that’s true?”
Giles smiled a little sadly. “Sometimes I’m convinced it is only through the most extraordinary luck. But in all honesty, while it may be foolish, it is also something I have always loved about her. It’s been her strength more often than her weakness.” He looked down at his hands. “But she could not have let me destroy the talisman knowing . . . what it would mean. Much less do it for me if I could not.”
“Oh,” Ethan said, and fell silent.
“Speaking of which,” Giles said, “we have a long journey ahead of us and it gets longer every moment we spend drifting downriver.”
“Yes.” Ethan eyed Giles shrewdly. “And just out of curiosity, Rupert, what happens if it comes down to that? Would you ever forgive me for killing your sweet Willow? Or will we be back to you beating me to a pulp every three years?”
Giles smiled thinly. “I don’t know. I suggest we not find out.”