Giles finished The Magician’s Nephew too quickly, even though he’d been reading with strict attention to prose style, as slowly as he could. It was losing its power to comfort, he thought. Not that a story about a world created in corruption ought ever to have been comforting. Could a fall from grace ever be considered a good thing? Giles stretched out his legs in the bay window seat, bracing his bare feet against the opposite sill. He’d gone running that morning and had done his five-mile course at punishing speed, and his legs still ached.
Water slid down the pane of the glass at his elbow. It had been spattering on and off all day, broken by fitful moments of clear spring sunlight. His seat in the window nook was cozy. He’d insisted that he and Ethan take the flat when he’d knelt in it and looked down at the little garden in the back of the house.
He really ought to return to his reading of the Mabinogion. He’d broken down part-way through “Culhwch and Olwen”, and fled to refuge in Lewis. His Council tutor had told him he’d be expected to start a translation of the Council’s edition on Saturday, the version with the story of Bedwyr that they hoarded away from outside scholars. His command of the medieval Welsh was advancing, had advanced greatly that morning when Giles had memorized a swathe of vocabulary. Not far enough to satisfy the tutor, Giles was sure.
He couldn’t bear the thought of studying any more.
Ethan was asleep on the sofa, long slim legs in faded jeans stretched out, knuckles on his hand brushing the floor, some dreadful economics treatise open face-down on his chest. Giles could get up and make tea for the both of them, but the noise would disturb Ethan. And he couldn’t bring himself to move.
Ethan stirred in his sleep, and the heavy book slid to the floor. He cried out and sat up.
“What?” He looked around himself as if startled to find himself in their flat. Ethan always woke up like that.
“You dropped your book.”
Ethan leaned over the edge of the sofa to locate the text on the floor, then left it there, face down, pages bent. He sat up and stretched. “Time?”
“Just gone five.” Giles was disappointed to discover it. He’d hoped the day were further advanced, nearer the time he could reasonably put himself to bed under soft blankets. Though he could always just go to bed anyway. Giles considered this plan. It had the disadvantage of requiring motion. He stared out the window, eyes unfocused.
Ethan had gotten up and come over to stand at Giles’ elbow. “How’s the work? Ah. Not working. Reading that again. Second time this week.”
“I know, I know. The thought makes me want to… it’s just an endless bloody list, of every horse and dog the fool writer felt like name-dropping, and every one of them important. Worse than the catalog of ships.” Giles let his head fall back against the wall.
“Come on. Let’s go get a few pints into us.”
“I’ve got to–”
“You’ve probably done three times what your tutor wanted from you, as usual. You could stop work entirely right now and still waltz away with a First in a month.”
“That’s not the exam that matters.” Ethan groaned. They’d argued about this before.
“Come on. Up with you.”
Giles allowed Ethan to pull him up from the window nook, groaning. Which was absurd: Giles was all muscle, the student athlete. Ethan was languid softness in comparison, a willow next to Giles’ oak. Giles bent to touch his hands to the floor, stretching stiff leg muscles. Socks, boots. They shouldered on their leather jackets, no raincoats for these brave boys, and Giles followed Ethan down the narrow stairs to the street.
“So what has you in a state today, Rupert? You were all right last night.”
“Jerry came round while you were out. The team wants me back.”
“And you said?” Ethan zipped up his jacket against the damp and buried his hands in the side pockets.
“That I couldn’t, of course.”
“There’s no ‘of course’ about it.”
“Ethan, please.” They stood together at a corner, waiting for a break in the traffic. Ethan was leading away from their usual haunts near the Cowley Road.
Ethan sighed. “Who gives a fuck if it’s useful for training a Watcher? You love rugger. So play it.”
“I can’t go against a direct order like that.”
“Yes, you can. Stand up to them. Ignore them, curse them, kill the lot of them. Whatever. Rupert. Please.”
Giles hunched into his jacket and pulled his hands up into the sleeves. “I can’t. It would be wrong.”
They walked through residential streets for a few minutes in silence. At the next corner, Giles spoke again. “I know you think destiny is rot. But I can’t escape it. I might as well make a good job of it.”
“It’s killing you.”
Giles cast a sideways glance at Ethan.“We’ve had this conversation before. If I don’t know what I’m doing, the Slayer dies. Not me.”
“That’s why your father is-- oh, fuck, sorry, Rupert. I didn’t mean…”
“I know what you meant,” Giles said, quietly. His father had died with his Slayer, just over a year ago. Horribly.
“But you don’t have to. Somebody else can do it. All right! I’m dropping it.”
The neighborhood they wandered through now was working-class. Giles hadn’t been to this part of Oxford before. Ethan had explored considerably more of the city than he had, and was always dragging Giles to new places. This pub didn’t look welcoming. The Oak and Thorn. Ethan held the door for him. Dark inside, smoky, decent custom, mostly male. It claimed to brew its own, which was something. Ethan sent Giles to sit while he got drinks. Ethan never had money when it was time to stand a round for their friends, but he always seemed to have it when Giles needed tending. He came back with four pints. He slid the ale in front of Giles and kept the cider for himself. He lounged across the opposite bench. Giles took his first gulp. Bitter in the mouth, heavy in the stomach, but sweetness and light in the head. Or it would be as soon as he finished the first. A different sort of numb indifference would follow. The glow was in his blood and in his head already, the beer opening the gate for temporary escape.
Food appeared on the table about the time Giles was finished with his first pint. Greasy stuff, fish and chips, the sort of thing Giles avoided when he was in training for rugby. Which he wasn’t any more, so why not? He’d eaten nothing all day. He poured on the vinegar and ate, and drank his second pint. Ethan poached a few chips, but otherwise just watched Giles eat. He lounged with one foot up on his bench. He drank little. He hadn’t even made a start on his second pint by the time Giles was down to the last inch of his.
Ethan pulled out the cigarettes he’d begun smoking recently and lit up. Giles made a face. He hated the taste of ash in Ethan’s mouth. It was otherwise a wonderful mouth, clever, whether talking or caressing Giles. Giles finished his beer. He stared at Ethan’s mouth and imagined what it would feel like on him later. How it would taste. Giles loved Ethan’s face entirely. Pale under the shaggy dark hair, sensual, cruel at times, but always with intelligence shining out. And for some reason Ethan liked quiet, shy Rupert Giles.
Ethan basked in the stare for a little, then curled his mouth in that impish smile Giles loved. “What are you thinking?”
“Just trying to work out what you taste like. Nobody else has tasted like you do.”
“Magic. Most likely. Sweet and tangy at once? Fizzing?”
“Not exactly, but it’s something…”
“Magic. You taste of it yourself, you know.”
“Don’t you know? Haven’t you… what have you been studying in all those extra tutorials, if not magic?”
“Demonology, mostly. And languages.”
“What the fuck do you do with all your power, then?”
“Bloody hell, Ripper! It was practically the first thing I noticed about you. I mean, after I saw that the girl I’d had my eye on all night was hanging around your neck, and that you were prettier than she was. After I got over that, I could smell it on you. Can taste it every time I kiss you. You’ve got a lot of power.”
Giles stopped chewing his mouthful of chip. “Five months ago I was reliably informed that I have an only marginal magic talent. Not worth training at all. Though in the modern Council, that’s no disadvantage. Father… my father would have been disappointed. He had hopes.”
“Reliably, my skinny arse.”
“I can recite to you the report I read about it, written by no less than Quentin Travers, sub-director of field operations for England. I have little magical aptitude.”
Ethan reached across the table to poke Giles in the chest. “Utter rot. You’re dripping with it. Like honey from the comb, you and the magic.”
“Not according to the Council’s evaluation.”
Ethan stared at him. “You’re terribly dense for such a smart boy, you know, Rupert? They were either flat wrong or lying to you. And given the way they treat you, I’m going with lying. Though why, I have no idea.”
Giles upended his second pint. “Precisely. Why would they bother? So therefore they are not lying, and you are wrong.”
“Come 'round here. Taste me.”
Giles obediently moved to Ethan’s side of the booth. Ethan stole a kiss, right there in the pub. Not the sort of pub where that was wise. Ethan seemed not to care. He leaned closer and bit at Giles’ ear. Giles slipped an arm around Ethan and kissed him again. Sweet cider. Tobacco. Salt from the chips. Ethan’s tongue in his mouth, so different from a woman’s tongue. Broader, more insistent than any girl Giles had been with. And yes, it was sweet and sharp at once. Giles could imagine kissing this mouth every day for the rest of his life. He sighed happily.
Something smacked the table. Giles disengaged from Ethan to look up. There were two of them. Mid-thirties, townies. Fags still in the corners of their mouths. The one in front was beefier.
“You, nancy boy! Stand up.”
Giles deliberately picked up Ethan’s second pint. He drained it in long swallows. He put the glass down, then turned on the bench.
“Were you addressing me?” He enunciated every word clearly, in his plummiest voice.
“Yeah, you fuckin’ fairy.”
Giles stood and swayed on his feet, just a trifle. The handicap wouldn’t be enough to make the fight interesting. He could see by the way the punter stood, un-centered, with his fists held in a movie fighter’s posture. Giles stepped away from their booth to give himself a little more room, and held himself ready, loose and balanced.
“Yes, I do think I heard that the first time. Did you have some kind of point about fairies to make?”
“Don’t want you here in my pub. Keep yourself to the fuckin’ university.” The man took a swing. Giles leaned aside easily and let his elbow intercept his victim’s nose, almost as if by accident. Giles threw his own punch and caught the man’s eye. His third blow was to the stomach, to make the idiot double over and provide an easy opportunity for a knee to the groin. That one was out and Giles wasn’t even winded.
The second flung himself at Giles, which was a pure gift. All that momentum! Giles stepped aside, and kicked high. The man flipped onto the table beyond and rolled. His shoulders hit the window. He fell backwards and out, screaming, trailing showers of glass and splintered wood. Giles followed, leaping onto the ruined sill and out, smashing more glass with boots and leather-armored elbows. He grinned and bent to haul up the lout, to finish the job.
Ethan was there, however, pulling him aside and away. He had his hands in the air, casting a spell Giles was learning to recognize. He chanted something quickly, twice, and brought his palms together. The people emerging from the pub shouting turned away from the pair of them and clustered around the man on his back, bleeding. Ethan tugged at Giles’ elbow. They walked briskly away, Giles leaning on Ethan as the third pint hit his blood. He hadn’t hit the second one enough to be truly satisfied, but the sound of breaking glass had been fantastic.
“Do you feel better?”
“Lord, yes. That was brilliant.” Giles pulled Ethan close and kissed him. “Can we find something else to beat up? Vampires?”
“Not in Oxford, love. Let’s get you home, then,” said Ethan, and was that a note of worry in his voice? Ethan had nothing to worry about. Giles was fine. More than fine. Why hadn’t he thought of doing this before?
Once in the flat, door locked behind them, Giles pinned Ethan against the staircase wall and kissed him until he could taste it again, whatever it was in Ethan’s mouth that he hungered for. Then he tugged Ethan the rest of the way up to the flat and into the bedroom.
Giles had liked it sweet. On those first nights with Ethan, the first times he’d touched another man, he’d been perfectly happy to rub himself against Ethan’s body. That way he could hold Ethan close, and kiss him, and look into his eyes when he came. In the four months since, Ethan had taught him other things, other ways of pleasing and of taking. His sexual horizons had expanded dizzyingly. Ethan’s were still further out; he kept trying to coax Giles into things Giles was certain he wouldn’t enjoy. But he was an apt pupil in this, as in everything. He’d learned that on these nights, after fights or scrums, Ethan liked it rough. Ethan wanted the feeling of Giles’ cock inside, transfixing him, Giles’ weight on his back, covering him. Giles obliged. He gave Ethan what he wanted, a hard fast ride, one hand braced on Ethan’s hip, the other reaching around to grab and pull. Ethan’s cries at climax triggered his: a moment in suspense, then release and he was falling onto Ethan’s back, collapsing into blackout.
A few shuddering breaths and he returned to himself. He rolled off Ethan, sweaty and spent and hollow. Sobriety was binding itself around his head again. And fear. The words of his Council tutor came to him, the lecture he’d received early in his schooling, about the dangers of Pagan friendships. Temptation and corruption and moral decay. He hadn’t understood it at the time. All of this was forbidden: the magic Ethan cast, the sex. If they knew, they’d make Giles leave. Or they’d do something to Ethan to make him leave. How long would he be allowed to enjoy this?
“You’re still wound up, aren’t you,” Ethan said. He was leaning on an elbow, studying Giles.
“I can’t-- I keep-- Everything I like, they take away.”
“They can only take away what you let them. Ripper.”
“Rub it in, why don’t you.” Giles tried to sit up. Only his rugby teammates called him that.
“Hey! Hush. I’m not needling you. I just like thinking of you playing. Muddy and bloody and so fucking magnificent. Shirt torn half off. My Ripper. That’s who you are to me. Who you were in the pub tonight. Gonna call you that, to remind you.” Ethan ran his hand over Giles’ chest, then down his flat belly. That wasn’t who he was. Giles knew it. But if Ethan wanted to believe it, if Ethan wanted him to be that man, Giles could do it. That was a small price to pay for the caresses Ethan was tickling over him now.
“Sorry. God. Ethan. Sorry. I’m such a berk.”
“I’ve got an idea for you. I think it’s time you worked it all out. Cleared out the lumber from the attic in your brain.”
“What?” said Giles, suspiciously.
“Let’s go on a little holiday this weekend. Get out of town.” Ethan rubbed circles around Giles’ navel.
“I can’t. Got to do that translation for the Council–”
“Yes, you can.”
Giles sighed. “Where?”
“Why there?” Giles turned onto his side, mirroring Ethan.
“I know you were reading about the site there, the lake village. I saw the papers on your desk last month.” Giles smiled and looked away for a moment. Nobody had ever paid as much attention to him as Ethan did. “And it’s soaked with magic because of the Tor. If you can’t feel it there, then I will believe you’re inept.”
Ethan pushed him onto his back again, and knelt up next to him.
“I can’t get away this weekend.”
Ethan’s questing hand had found its goal in Giles’ half-hard cock, still messy with lube and his own come.
“Yes, you can. And you will. Won’t you, Ripper?” Ethan straddled Giles’ thighs, and wrapped both hands around him. Giles was hard again in two breaths. He reached up over his head and gripped the posts on the headboard. He strained upward under Ethan’s weight, struggling to thrust. Ethan had perfect control over him, had him pinned. He’d do whatever Ethan wanted. He always did. Left to himself he’d just hide in the flat and work. Ethan could take him outside himself.
The Triumph was running well enough that Giles wanted to ride it down to Somerset. It was still spitting rain, off and on, though, and Ethan didn’t want to get wet. Giles had been going frantic with the need to be outside and moving, inside his skin and not inside the books. He’d been living on the memory of that moment when the pub window broke, the sight of the man flying through it, the feeling of the glass under his boots. If he couldn’t have that again, he wanted to ride. And in this instance, he got his way. So they were two up, Ethan’s hands on his waist, both in leather jackets and boots, their supplies for the weekend in a rucksack on Ethan’s back.
Ethan did a screening charm over them, to keep the worst of the rain off. He had to renew it periodically as they rode. He groused every time.
Giles wrung the Bonnie’s neck and kept it as fast as he felt was sane, given the wet roads and the fact that they were two up. He scraped pegs in the more open corners. This was almost as good as playing rugger, or brawling. Leaning into the turns, the bike an extension of his body, the breathless thrill of watching road sweep into view around the curves. He almost wished Ethan weren’t there, so he could go all-out and see what that felt like. Do his best Mike Hailwood. Maybe break his neck, scatter his body and the bike across the road, but there was no one left to care about that. Only gray men in suits who’d shake their heads and mark him down “failed” on their clipboards before banishing his records to the dead files.
Ethan would care. Giles could feel Ethan snugged up against his back. Hands tight on Giles’ waist, thumbs threaded through his belt loops, his thighs warm against Giles’ hips. Grounding him.
Around noon, the landscape opened out, and flattened. They were in the Somerset Levels. The road wound through flat, treeless pastureland. Glastonbury Tor crept into view across the fields to the south miles away, even through the rain-haze: a terraced keel jutting above the moor, the only hill.
Giles slowed to look at it. It was strange. He knew the geological reasons for the formation, so it ought to seem mundane. But it wasn’t. It was an entrance to the underworld. Not a hellmouth, but a portal to the realm of true gods. Its summit had boasted many sacred sites to them. A ruined Christian church was visible there now, graceless stone walls erupting straight up.
They were near the town, now, a little maze of streets crowded at the foot of the Tor. Giles relaxed his wrist and took them into town at a staid putter. Ethan directed him through the streets to their lodging with taps on the arm. He braked neatly in front of the inn and waited for Ethan to dismount before kicking down the sidestand. He pulled off the helmet and stretched. The last twenty miles had been a trial on his legs.
Ethan shoved a wad of notes into Giles’ hand. “Do the talking, would you, Ripper? Do your best young don imitation. The middle-aged ladies eat that up from you.”
So Giles went in, and offset the bike and the leather with a nervous push of his wire-rimmed glasses up his nose, and a bit of Oxbridge stammering. Ethan liked to pretend that it was an act, that Giles hid behind the donnish persona. Giles knew well enough that the shy smile he gave to the innkeeper and her pretty daughter was genuine. Pretend he wasn’t an academic. Pretend he was a rugger thug. Escape from himself. Giles was along for that ride.
“Here to walk up the Tor, then?”
“I was hoping to take a look at the lake village. It’s, ah, my field. At university.”
And the woman was indeed charmed, and happy to show the two nice young men the room they’d asked for when they’d phoned a couple of days ago. One room with a single bed was fine; they were pinching pennies.
They dropped their gear and puttered off on the bike again to see the lake village. They wandered around the site for what remained of the afternoon. Their student status and Giles’ name-dropping his tutor got them more access than the few tourists present had. Giles was thrilled with the site. He’d read a great deal more than just the papers Ethan had seen on his desk, of course, since Britain’s early history was his specialty. He was afraid he wittered on too much, given the indulgence that had crept into Ethan’s smile.
“Are you bored?”
“My idea to come here, Ripper. You look happy.” Ethan stuck his hands into his jeans pockets, and rushed on. “Besides, if the details of pottery design are less than, ah, fascinating, I can always just soak in the power. It’s nearly strong enough for a mundane to feel it, I should think. There are few places in England where it’s this close to the surface.”
The hair had risen on the back of Giles’ neck more than once as they’d walked, but he wasn’t sure if that’s what Ethan meant by power. He asked.
“So you truly didn’t know.”
“No. But I think I’m beginning to get an idea.”
They walked in silence for a while. “And here I thought you’d been holding out on me, and was working up to a royal snit about it. Well, well.”
“So I can sense something. I still don’t believe I have any power.”
“I can prove it.”
“Tomorrow. We’ll visit the abbey site and climb the Tor. I’ll give you something to make you more receptive. If you see visions on the Tor, you’ll know you’re an adept. Mundanes can’t.”
“If you’re not an adept, you’ll just get stoned and have a good time. Which is why we’re here.”
“Ethan… I don’t know.”
“Do you trust me?”
Giles just looked at him sidelong, and began leading the way back to where they’d left the bike.
They had a nice dinner that night, something better than pub food, from one of the restaurants catering to tourists. Ethan paid from a surprisingly thick wallet. Ethan had a pair of absent-minded parents somewhere in London, who paid his tuition and board, but not much more. Giles supposed he should be asking where Ethan had come up with the dosh, but he set aside the problem. It was Ethan’s business.
Back in the room, Giles got what he wanted. Nothing complicated, just simple mutual head, which he thought had to be his favorite thing in the world. A long, slow worshipful caress with lips and tongue. Sweet.
Afterward, lying sated with Ethan’s taste in his mouth, with the taste of Ethan’s sorcery in his mouth if what Ethan said was true, Giles said, “All right, I’ll do it.”
Gray light filtered in through open curtains. Car tires splashed through puddles; rain pattered on the street. Another wet day. Giles sat up and rubbed his face, then slipped out of bed. He pushed the window sash down to keep the wet out, then sat on the sill, yawning. He watched Ethan sleeping: on his stomach, head wedged between the pillows, turned toward where Giles had been. Ethan’s bare knee poked out out of the sheets. One hand rested across the hollow Giles’ body had left. Slim, graceful, palm scarred from magic. Giles had to suppress an urge to climb back in with him, wake him, spend the rest of the morning sighing under that hand. Writhing under it. Instead he crept out of the room and found the bath down the hall. He washed and dressed in the shirt and tie he’d brought, over his jeans and boots.
He walked down to the high street through a drizzle to attend the early service at St John’s. He entered the church and stood just inside the door to polish the rain away from his glasses. He nodded to the innkeeper, there with husband and daughter, and tucked himself into a pew at the back. He drew in the scent of churches: incense and wood and dust. Dry and familiar, comforting. But now that he thought about it, he could smell something else as well, something similar to what he’d tasted in Ethan last night. If that was not a sacrilegious thought. But there was something in that frankincense, or maybe in the air itself over the altar. Giles couldn’t be sure.
As a child he’d always thought he could see things in the air, something flickering over the priest’s head. When he was a teenager, at the Watcher prep school, he’d watched carefully in chapel to catch any hint of that blue shimmer he thought he remembered. But he’d seen nothing. Childish imagination. Until now. Perhaps a sense other than sight? Giles closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, under the familiar sounds of the Sunday service.
“For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried.”
Giles sighed. Why was he here? This was something he did every week that puzzled Ethan. What had the Christian god ever done for Giles? Ethan could point to a number of interesting things Janus had done for him. Giles had no answer for this. Ethan’s paganism seemed to follow different rules than Christianity. Ethan cut his palm, offered blood, and was given power. Giles went to church and was offered what? The Three Powers of Christianity were real; only a fool doubted that. Men proved it fresh every time they raised the cross in the face of a demon. But They were otherwise silent. Giles sat here now, making the responses, because he always had, because his father had taken him and had seemed to think it significant. And because the Council required it of him. That was why he was here. So he could tell his Council tutor that he had remembered his duty, even on his weekend escape. Dutifully, he took communion, head down, kneeling at the altar rail.
The smell of the smoke choked him. He had to restrain twitches, his knee jumping, fist clenching. He needed to get out. Now. A vivid image of himself, flinging the vicar through the great window, then following him in a shower of colored glass and lead. The pub window, smashing. The window in his flat, spraying down onto the garden, his books following. Christ, what was wrong with him?
He left a fiver from Ethan’s questionable stash in the collection. He half-ran back to the inn, scrubbing rain from his face, desperate to get back to Ethan. Ethan was awake when Giles returned, and dressed. He was sprawled out on the bed, across the rumpled sheets, reading a biography of Kropotkin. Giles calmed the moment he saw him. He shut the door of their room and leaned back against it, letting his breathing slow. Climb back into bed now and never get out?
But Ethan wound himself around, tossing his book aside and twitching up to a seated position, knees clasped against his chest. He watched silently while Giles changed out of his button-down shirt and tie to t-shirt. He twisted his face in a sardonic smile.
“Did you eat anything?”
“Just the communion wafer.”
Ethan rolled his eyes. “Good. You’ll want to skip breakfast, or it’ll come up again.” He slipped off the bed onto the floor and rummaged in their rucksack. He handed Giles a cellophane bag with something dried. Mushrooms. “Eat these.”
“Just like this?”
“Don’t be a baby. They taste fine.”
Ethan took the baggy back and opened it. He tipped a mushroom into Giles’ mouth. He chewed. Not unpleasant. A little sweet, a little almondy, fibrous. Ethan fed him another and brushed his fingers across Giles’ lips. Giles kissed Ethan’s hand, on cue. Ethan fed him everything in the bag, even the scraps. By the time he was done, Giles was hard, rubbing himself against Ethan’s leg, licking his scarred hand. Ethan pushed him away, however, and wiped his palm on his jeans.
Giles sat back obediently and looked around their little room. It looked normal. “Is anything supposed to be happening?”
“Give it half an hour. Here, give me your specs. You’re not going to want to worry about them.” Ethan tucked them away into a pocket of his jacket.
They walked across town, shoulder to shoulder. Late Sunday morning, quiet. Some tourists milled about the abbey car park, but the sporadic rain kept most of them to more sheltered pursuits for the day. Giles didn’t mind the rain, now that he had his leather on. It smelled good. Fresh. Clean. It lightened and lifted as they stood looking at the great cross near the entrance to the grounds, leaving the air sweet.
Ethan brushed a hand against Giles’, discreetly. “Seeing anything yet?”
“Don’t think so.”
“You will soon. That was a bit of an heroic dose I gave you.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’ll be good. That’s all you need to know. And I’m here for you.”
Now that Giles was looking at the cross, he thought that maybe he was seeing something. Colors. Everything was looking more intense. Sparks. Red and green and blue tracers, faintly running over everything. He looked more intently, leaning close and running his hands over the crosspiece. Yes. Definitely something was happening. He grinned at Ethan. “Brilliant!” He led Ethan all over, examining everything, searching for more hints of that color. Decorations on stone caught his attention: the knot-work had his mind chasing itself around in intricate patterns. It was all so vivid and beautiful. Bright figures moved in the periphery of his vision. Animals. Ethan trailed after him, grinning, while Giles wandered across the wet grass, jeans soaked halfway to his knees, questing among ruined pillars, fragments of walls, the remnants of the abbey. Giles followed streams of sparks. Power. This ground was holy. Truly holy. Whatever he’d smelled in church had been nothing compared to this.
The tourists were more plentiful now, as the day rode on toward noon, and the rain held off. The two university boys were joined by Americans with Polaroid cameras, church groups with pamphlets, a weekending historian from a red-brick university, and one or two other fellow seekers with blown pupils and secret smiles. Giles tried to keep himself composed as he stood near them, gazing at the decorations on a stone arch, to look like he wasn’t having the most amazing experience of his life, like he wasn’t hallucinating so hard he couldn’t tell reality from vision. It was all just the drug, he knew, every bit of it. He knew Ethan well enough to know that he might have made up the business about magical ability just to coax Giles into this. But Ethan had his interests at heart. Giles was grateful. This was wonderful.
It changed when they moved within the shadows of the ruined lady chapel and descended into the crypt. What remained of the walls rippled, breathing. They closed around him. No sun at all, not the cloud-filtered wet sunshine. No streams of power. The crypt was cloaked in deeper shadows. The animals fled, as unwilling to enter as Giles was. He took a few more steps forward across the ruined wet floor. He clutched at Ethan’s arm and stopped. Ethan was looking up, at the walls standing on three sides, at the rail over which tourists peeked down, at the grass poking up between wet stones. Giles saw none of this, only shadow. Then forms resolved.
Watchers. Men in sober suits and ties. A few women. Dressed as he’d seen them all dress for his father’s funeral last year. Giles thought he recognized faces, faces of men who’d visited his father often when he was a boy, less often in the years when he had a Slayer, but he wasn’t sure.
Those visits. The men would hang their coats in the hall and lock themselves away in his father’s study, and raised voices would leak from around the door. Giles and Angelina would listen, pressed as close to the door as they dared. Angelina with her Slayer hearing would catch more than he could.
“They don’t like how he’s handling me,” she’d whispered to him, grinning mirthlessly. “They’re threatening to fire him.” Giles had stared.
When they left, his father turned from the door and glared at the pair of them. “You heard everything, I suppose. I am a disgrace to the name of Giles.” He grimaced, then smiled a private smile at Angelina. “O felix culpa!” Angelina shrugged slightly and returned the smile. The smile that ought to have made Giles feel left out, but instead made him long for the day his own Slayer would smile at him like that. The smile he could never properly explain to Ethan.
In the end Angelina had survived Cruciamentum and made it past twenty, unheard of in modern times. Barely twenty-one last year, when something had shredded her. And his father. Bodies so mutilated that the Council mortician had fought him when Giles had demanded to see them. Hellhound pack, they’d told him. They’d talked out of the other sides of their mouths at the funeral, telling young Rupert what an example his father had set for them all.
Those men. Disapproving Councilmen. They were the ones present in the crypt of this ruined chapel.
The Councilmen stood in a tight circle around something Giles couldn’t see. Something on a table. No, a bier. Giles did not want to see what it was. He desperately did not want to see it. Not again. But they stood aside, made a path for him. He walked up to it. No choice. Never a choice.
The body of a Slayer lay on it. Giles moved closer. Many Slayers. All dead. A stream of faces flickering, awash in blood, drained white, broken, crushed. Then it changed, and was the body of a blonde girl, a little thing, face bright even in death, in a party dress stained with water. Giles didn’t know her. The current Slayer? A Slayer long dead?
“Do you know what to do with her?” The nearest Watcher was speaking to him. “There are rules to follow. You have to know them. Your job is to end up here, with your Slayer right there. You’re not following the rules, Rupert. Your father didn’t either. It’s why he’s not here.”
Giles didn’t know what to do. Whatever it was he wanted, it was not to end up here, staring at the body of his dead Slayer for eternity. Better never to know one, than this. He fell to his knees in a puddle, shaking.
“How are you doing, love?” Ethan was next to him, arms around him. Giles leaned against him.
“They’ve followed me here,” Giles said, pressing his hands over his face. “They can’t even let me take a holiday.”
“What? Who, love?” Ethan held him close and stroked his face, pushed the damp hair back from his sweaty forehead.
“Watchers. Men in tweed. And a dead Slayer.” Giles let his hands fall. He leaned his head against Ethan’s shoulder. The touch helped. Ethan was warm.
“It’s just the drug. Just the drug. They’re not actually here. You’re hallucinating, love.”
“But I see them. Dozens of them. They’re upset with me.”
“The mind is its own place,” Ethan said to him, a little amused. “Let’s not make a hell of this heaven. They’ll have to come through me to get you, love. And they won’t. Come on. I think you’ll do better away from the ruins.” Ethan helped him up.
“It’s not ruined, you know. It’s still standing. We’ll have to go out this way.” Giles led the way out of the crypt.
“Holy hell,” said Ethan, but he followed Giles anyway, as he threaded through half-seen aisles. “Let’s get away from the tourists, then.”
Giles paused at the battered doorway, and ran his hands over posts he thought he’d seen chipped, crumbled. “I don’t remember the doors,” he said to Ethan. Heavy wooden doors, solid, thick, studded with bent-over iron nails. He grasped the ring and hauled, straining against reluctant hinges. Rust flaked. Wood scraped on stone. Giles released the ring, flexed his fingers, gripped again. He strained and the door yielded.
Ethan was watching him, bemused. He’d already passed through, somehow. He stood on the other side of the threshold, on bare grass in pale light, smiling, holding out his hand. Giles stepped through after him and felt his mood lift. Ethan led him gently away from the buildings, toward the far corner of the grounds, away from the groups of tourists. He did indeed feel calmer the further they got away from the site of the crypt. He kept hold of Ethan’s hand, though.
They followed the path of a stone-flagged walk. Though from the sound of his footsteps on grass, it wasn’t really there. Giles stood still a moment, tugging Ethan to a stop. He considered the change in his vision. Now it was not so much about the color, and the animal figures moving just out of his view. It was grayer and sharper. Giles knew he was seeing something different now. He was seeing this place as it had once been. The very sunlight was different here. Silver and aged and ageless and from some world not this one.
He turned back to the abbey building, and saw it whole, great walls arching up. It was lovely. He smiled. “The abbey,” he said to Ethan. “It truly is intact. Or at least I’m seeing it that way. A vision of the past, I think. Astonishing.”
Ethan studied his face. “You seem… together again.”
“Mm,” said Giles. “It’s different now. Power. I can feel it.”
Ethan perked up. “Yes?”
“There’s power all over,” Giles said, dreamily. “Blue and red and green lines streaming all over everything. The holy spirit walks here with us.” He followed a trail of something, some spark in motion, toward the sight of water. He led Ethan clear across the grounds, toward the track that led up the Tor. He stood waist-deep in grass at the edge of a pond. It seemed murkier than it ought to be. He wondered how deep it was. He backed away from the edge and worked his way around.
Ethan followed, bemused. “Duck pond, Ripper. A lot of ducks.”
“Yes, ducks. And other birds. And there’s something underwater.” Giles stepped out onto a rock that jutted out a little ways into the pond. He flung himself onto his face across the rock, looking down into the pond. Something gleamed, deep down. It rose, and came into clear view: a pair of swords, crossed, wrapped in leather, the hilts just inches below the surface. A pair? Why was he hallucinating this?
“Two swords,” he said to Ethan, who stood just behind him on the rock. “I’m seeing two swords. They’re beautiful. No jewels, or any of that rot. All business. I could do a lot with one of those.”
“Swords in the lake. Oh, Ripper. You have Arthur on the brain.”
“No. Can’t think of any legends about this. And Arthur was never here anyway. That’s tourist nonsense.” Giles reached in, soaking his arm up to the elbow. The water was warm. The swords receded from his fingers, but remained, shimmering several feet underwater. Which was odd, because he hadn’t thought the pond was that deep. He pushed himself up onto his knees and looked around. The pond had become a lake. It stretched out south and east, nearly to the foot of the Tor itself. Mist rose from its still surface. Reeds rustled along the edges. A world other than the one Ethan was in had closed over his head. He swam in the deep water of the visions Ethan had promised him, and was far beyond the shallow sparks and colors of the earlier hallucinations. This vision was knife-sharp. He could see the lake and the reeds, smell the scent of the forest below them, hear the cry of the water-birds. The past, the present in another world, pure hallucination? The past, he thought.
Giles stood, and followed the sparks away from the water, around the shore to what appeared to be a trodden path. The power he’d been sensing all morning came from somewhere up that path. Giles followed it away and up.
“Hey,” said Ethan, snatching at his arm. He hauled Giles back to his side. “Watch the road.”
“I can’t see it. You’ll have to lead me.” Ethan gave him an odd look, but led him with his arm crooked through Giles’. Giles walked when Ethan walked, stopped when Ethan stopped, and tried to keep his wide-eyed gaze at the land around him in check. But it was difficult. It was so marvelous. The modern road obviously tracked the iron age road he seemed to walk upon, but his road led through open fields not a town, then into the strip of trees at the foot of the hill. They emerged onto the slope of the Tor. Cattle and sheep grazed.
“Here we are, Rupert. Should be safe now-- it’s just the walk up the hill.”
It was steep. Ethan noticed the climb more than Watcher-fit Giles did, breathing freely and sweating. Giles stopped to wait for him more than once, at the crest of the first ridge, beside a cow that existed in both the worlds they walked through, placidly cropping grass. They had a ways yet to climb. He drew Ethan along with him, tugging at his hand. He could see their destination now, somewhere within St Michael’s, erupting from the crest of the Tor. The power was streaming out and down from a point inside the ugly walls.
Giles and Ethan could both sense it, and were drawn to it for their separate reasons. As were others on the hill. Even the ones with inner senses stopped up could feel it.
Giles outpaced Ethan again, and reached the summit before him. He stood at the crest, absorbing the view. He turned to look downhill, at the flat plains of the Levels, watching the rain sweep across the landscape toward them. Ethan caught up to him, dark hair plastered to his face with sweat and rain. Giles hugged him close.
“How are you doing?” Ethan asked him.
“This is… it’s marvelous, Ethan. Lovely. So eerie. I’m seeing the underworld, I think. The visions you promised me.”
Ethan pulled away for a moment to look him up and down. “Can’t believe you’re so lucid, honestly, Ripper. The dose was…”
“You didn’t need to do this to prove anything, did you. You could have just taught me to cast something.” Ethan opened his mouth as if to defend himself, but Giles held up a hand. “S’all right.”
Ethan turned to look at whatever version of the Tor he was seeing. “I wanted to give you a holiday.”
“Mm. Thank you. Ethan. I, you. God.” Rather than stammer out something that didn’t say half of what he wanted, Giles slipped his arms around Ethan’s waist again and snugged up to him from behind. Ethan leaned back against Giles’ chest. He was warm. The breeze up here was chilly through Giles’ damp jeans.
“Come on, then,” said Giles, after a time. “Let’s look inside this dreadful church.”
Somebody murmured something that Giles couldn’t catch.
“What was that, love?” Giles said.
“Didn’t say anything.”
The voice spoke again, in a language like Welsh, yet not quite. The language he’d been reading earlier in the week, though the vowels weren’t quite as his tutor had pronounced them. And it spoke again. This time Giles realized it was coming from behind them.
He spun and nearly overbalanced. Ethan held him up, alarmed. “What?”
A man stood on the path. Grayed out, with hints of color in his tunic, with a faint crystalline gleam over him. A shock of dark hair, a pale face, a thick mustache. He was armed. He wore a torque around his neck and leather bracers on his arms. Giles placed him as a noble. The dagger in his belt would be iron. Giles could rattle off a thousand facts about his people, and where he had lived, and what he had eaten, and none of them meant anything when the man was standing ten feet away from him. Breathing. Watching him cautiously.
He spoke again, this time impatiently. Giles shook himself, and muttered over what the man had just said, then it fell into place. He’d just asked Giles who they were, that wanted to walk upon the sacred ground.
Giles gave his name, and was given the ghost-man’s name in return: Mael the son of Roycol. Giles suppressed a groan, and resolved not to tell Ethan where he’d heard the name before. He pulled himself together, and did his best to be polite in a language he had only just learned. They exchanged greetings, and small talk about the beauty of the view from the Tor. Giles praised the richness of his torque.
“Who are you talking to, Ripper?” Ethan sounded a little indulgent, still. Giles recalled that Ethan had no idea what Giles was seeing.
“Um, there’s a Cornish or Welsh noble standing on the path. At least he’s speaking some variant of medieval Welsh.”
“Coincidentally, the language you’ve just been studying. So there’s a man here, standing right here talking to you.”
“Yes, about ten feet in front of you.” Ethan took a few steps up the path and waved his hands. “Yes, just there. He can see you, you know.”
“We’re being rude to Mael.” Giles dipped a shallow bow at the twilight man.
“That’s his name. Uh, he’s asking where is my killer, my demon-hunter. Oh. He’s asking me where my Slayer is.”
Giles told Mael that he had no Slayer. Mael laughed. Giles glowered.
“What? What’s the imaginary bloke saying to you, Ripper?”
“He’s laughing at me. I’m stuck as your companion instead of a warrior-girl’s. He, uh, he knows that we’re, um, lovers. He, well. I should have a demon-hunter in my bed, not a demon-caller. What? Must have that wrong. And now he’s saying… Um.” Giles thought the last thing he’d said had been uncomplimentary to Ethan’s manhood.
“Tell him to fuck off from me, would you?” Ethan cocked an arm in the direction Giles was looking. Mael seemed to know what it meant, or at least to know that Ethan meant insult.
“Bugger, my vocabulary isn’t good enough. Jenkins was right. I need to study more. Let’s see…”
Giles apologized, saying that his companion did not believe that Mael was present, since he could not see. He then asked Mael what proofs they could offer his companion that Mael was truly there, speaking with Giles. The man considered for a moment, then smiled. There was something in the smile that made Giles nervous, and it wasn’t just the glitter of the ghost-world.
“I have a gift for your lover,” he told Giles. He removed a ring from his hand, and tossed it onto the ground. A silver thing, with a watery gem, with the crystalline sheen that shimmered over Mael. Giles bent over it, but his fingers closed over nothing.
Mael laughed. The laugh had begun to wear on Giles.
“Ethan. There’s a ring here he says is for you. But I can’t touch it.”
“Under your hand here? I can’t see it at all. Not all the way into this world, then. You can bring it all the way over. If you’d like to try some magic.”
“Crash lesson time,” Ethan said, a thoughtful finger on his lips. “No time for theory. Here’s a, well, a spell for you, for lack of a better word. Tantum visum, transi et corporasce. Concentrate on the object, and, um, exert your will on it. And say it.”
Giles brought his brows together and considered the ring. “Tantum visum, transi et corporasce.” Nothing happened. Mael laughed at him again. He looked down and pressed his lips together, containing his anger.
Ethan laid a hand on Giles’ shoulder. “You can do it, Ripper, love. You’ve got the power and you know it. Find that place in yourself where it lives.”
Giles opened his eyes again and met Ethan’s gaze. Find the place in himself. Where was the magic? He searched. Profane memory: Ethan’s taste in his mouth last night, hot and salty and bitter and sweet and fizzing with something… There. Giles bent his will on the ring, and spoke the command again. He felt something go out of himself, then return. A surge of something, passing through him. Power, in his hand. In his blood. His power. He was strong. He was as strong with this as he was with the sword. With the fist. This was his. He spoke the words again, and this time he knew.
The ring glittered on the grass. It was silver, with a red stone. Giles reached down and picked it up. He nodded at Mael, with savage triumph. He handed it to Ethan, who was grinning at him.
“There’s my boy, my Ripper,” Ethan said. “I told you.” He dug a fist into Ethan’s shirt and yanked him close for a moment. They kissed, right in front of everyone. Giles didn’t care.
Ethan slid the ring onto his thumb and blinked. “Janus! You’ve been seeing this all along? There’s an entire damn abbey here! And a bloody lake! And a bloke in costume, with a dagger.”
Giles shook with silent laughter. “Now you see!”
Mael stepped close to Ethan. Too close. He said something.
“Get out of my face, you!”
Ethan lifted his hands to push Mael away. Giles stopped laughing. Mael shoved Ethan. Ethan shoved back.
The warrior shouted something Giles couldn’t understand, then leapt. Ethan dodged. Mael swung a fist and connected with Ethan’s jaw. They fell together and tangled in the mud, battering at each other.
“Fucking hell! Ripper, help!”
Giles snatched at Mael’s hair, but his fingers closed on nothing. Ghost. But he was hitting Ethan hard enough, which meant–
“Throw me the ring!”
Ethan wrenched it from his hand and tossed it at Giles. He stabbed out a hand and caught it.
The twilight warrior drew his dirk and slashed it across Ethan’s throat. Giles gasped a warning, too late. Ethan didn’t seem to notice. He’d slumped back onto the grass, and was rubbing at his barked knuckles. Taking off the ring had saved him.
Giles was angry now.
He slipped the ring onto his forefinger of his right hand. The world rippled and came into deeper focus. The crystalline shimmer over everything vanished. Giles did not pause to consider this. He launched a kick at Mael’s head, and sent him flying across the grass. Before he could recover, Giles was on him, driving him down into the mud. He grabbed the knife hand, fingers wrapped around the thumb and thumbnail digging between the second and third knuckles, twisting the arm like a screwdriver kote gaeshi and the dirk flew to the side. Mael spat out a curse.
Giles rolled, and came up with the dirk in his hands. He backed a step away, cautiously, watching the other.
Mael pushed himself up and showed his teeth to Giles. He said something Giles couldn’t follow, and produced another dagger from somewhere.
“Bloody hell,” said Giles.
“Ripper, what’s going on? What are you doing?”
“Stay back. Keep out of my way.”
They circled each other, feinting, testing each other out. Giles had better reach. But Mael was unafraid. He’d been fighting all his life, in real battle, and he must have known a thousand dirty tricks. Giles didn’t know any. No, wait, he knew one. Giles let the corner of his mouth lift. He let the ring slide down to the last joint, holding it in place with his thumb. Next pass…
Mael feinted. Giles allowed their blades to touch, then let the ring fall into his palm. He rolled straight through Mael’s body, came to his feet turning. He thrust a fingertip through the ring. Reality shimmered, and Giles struck.
Chain under the shirt.
Mael’s counterblow caught his upper arm and sheared through his leather jacket. Bright pain. He staggered. Mael closed for another blow, but Giles had already let the ring slide off again. The Welshman stumbled this time. Giles felt blood trickle down his arm. Not pumping, at least. He might live.
Ring on again, and circling. Mael shifted his feet. Ring off, step inside his guard as he swung at Giles, ring on.
Giles stabbed upward into Mael’s exposed armpit, through the gap in the chainmail. Blood sprayed. Giles twisted the dirk viciously, thinking of Mael slashing across where Ethan’s throat had been. He ripped the blade out. Mael crumpled writhing onto the blood-spattered grass. Giles howled in triumph, dagger upraised.
“End it,” said Mael, voice thick. “Or would you have me die slowly?”
Giles returned to himself. He fumbled for the words. “Why? Why fight me?”
“To show you what you are. Now end it.”
Giles hesitated, then knelt in the mire. He leaned forward and opened the carotid with the dagger point. Blood, for a moment, then a reality-shimmer. Mael sat up, whole.
“You’re blooded now, young one. You must kill that which she cannot. Remember that.”
He vanished. Giles stumbled back. His knees failed him and he sat on the grass in a heap. He put his swimming head down and breathed. Adrenaline was still pumping. The smell of blood, on top of whatever it was Ethan had fed him, conspired against his stomach.
“Fucking Council’s good for something, eh, Ethan? All that weapons training…” Giles closed his eyes.
“Sweet Janus,” Ethan said. He scrambled over to Giles. “Ripper. Ripper! You’re covered in blood. Or something. What the hell is this?”
Giles looked down at himself. His t-shirt and jeans were spattered in black. “The blood of a man who’s been dead a thousand years. A guardian. A figment of my imagination.”
“That’s your blood! Shit, Rupert, he got you.”
“Not badly. Surface wound. Just needs to be cleaned.”
Ethan stripped off his jacket roughly and bent to Giles’ arm. He pressed it with his fingers and swore.
“Can’t you magick it or something?”
“With chaos? No.” Ethan searched out the inevitable handkerchief from the inside pocket of Giles’ jacket and tied it across the slash. It was clotting already. That would do until they got back to the inn. Would have to do.
Giles held up the blood-stained dirk. Iron, as he’d thought. Garnets at the crosspiece-- Mael was indeed a noble. “Can you see it?” he asked Ethan.
“Uh, not really. A moment.” Ethan raised his hands, fingers spread. His eyes went glassy. “I can see something faint in your hands. Like white smoke. A ghost-blade. I saw that fucking dagger well enough when I had the ring on.”
“Tantum visum, transi et corporasce.” Giles said it almost casually. The power surged in him again. The dirk flared bright, then solidified. He wiped it on the grass.
Ethan took it from Giles and turned it in his hands, ran his fingers over the blade. “Oh, we’re going to go far, Ripper, my friend. You and I.”
“Brilliant,” said Giles, showing his teeth. He took the dirk back and slipped it into the pocket inside his jacket, the one he’d had made for stakes. He put the jacket back on. The ring went into his hip pocket.
Ethan stretched out a hand and lifted Giles to his feet. Giles rose, then swayed. He groaned. The drug was gone from his blood. The second sight had abandoned him. His stomach was uneasy. The anxiety he’d felt in the chapel ruins gripped his throat again. He took an unsteady step. Ethan wrapped an arm around his waist and helped him up the last rise, to the ruins of St Michael’s. They passed within the gray walls they’d been climbing toward all day.
Ethan came to a halt and lounged, hands shoved into jeans pockets, just where the altar would have stood. “Here we are. Portal’s here. I don’t know how to use it.”
Giles looked around, and saw nothing. But he could feel it, now. Power and possibility. Potential. The place where the barrier between worlds had worn away.
He fell to his knees at Ethan’s feet and heaved. Ethan danced aside. Giles tried to laugh. Ethan knelt beside him and held him close until he stopped shivering. Giles pulled away and slumped onto his back on the rain-wet grass, breathing hard. He stared up into the clouded sky. The rain spattered onto his face and slid down. But he smiled when Ethan leaned over him, worried. A secret smile.
“The portal’s open,” he told Ethan.