“Only a couple miles now,” Giles said.
Xander looked up from the map book in his lap and over at Giles in the driver’s seat of the Land Rover. “Good.” Good, because the drive would be over soon.
Xander closed his book, leaving a forefinger stuck in it to keep his place, and turned his attention outside the car. He tried to come up with a word for the current variety of rain. Not bucketing; he’d seen bucketing yesterday. This was more drifting rain, stinging rain, lifted high and sent sideways by gusts of wind over the sodden fields. It had sleeted on them briefly on their way out of Westbury, which Giles said was to be expected in December. No sleet now, but visibility was tanked. Not that this slowed Giles down. He was careening over the roads at typical English country driving speeds, slowing only for the places where the speed cameras were. Worst traffic calming measure ever, as far as Xander could tell.
More than a year in England had not exhausted Xander’s ability to complain about the weather. It still gave him hives, how unpredictable it was. No two days were the same. In a single day it might change five times. But Giles, Giles was on his native soil, and comfortable inside his skin in a way Xander had never seen him comfortable before. Rain and windy country roads. Sleet. Wool sweaters, red noses, and hot drinks. Giles territory. For the last year, Xander territory by adoption. All in all, he liked it better than Sunnydale. Sunnydale hadn’t had much going for it when he left. Willow had never forgiven him for smashing the world’s last urn of Osiris. His only consolation had been knowing he’d done right by Buffy.
Giles territory had its downside. Mostly Giles himself, who was a perfectly good boss and only occasionally annoying as a roommate, but entirely oblivious to Xander as a guy. Or indifferent, which was the same thing as far as Xander was concerned. He wished he could say it was mutual, but what had started as a slow-simmering long-standing crush had flared out. Sometime in the last year, Xander wasn’t sure when. Maybe it had happened during that case in the Parisian catacombs, when that French woman had flirted with Giles and he’d blushed. Or earlier, when they’d de-demoned the St Pancras station, and Giles had been so deadly with that silver knife. Or maybe it was just the new haircut. Who knew? It wouldn’t do him any good to figure it out.
Giles turned off the main road onto a little feed road, still paved but single-lane. In California Xander would have called it a fire road, except they didn’t need things like that here. He rechecked the map. They were somewhere east of Avebury and off the beaten tourist track. And getting close to their destination: Giles slowed and nosed the Rover onto an even narrower road, more a gravel-strewn track than a proper road. It wasn’t on the map Xander held, even though he was certain he was on the right page of the guide. The track was blocked by a gate. Gates were Xander’s job. He sighed, pulled on his hat, and shoved open the car door. The rain stung his face and chilled his hands to the bone in the seconds he spent fumbling with the latch. Giles pulled the Rover through the gate and Xander shut it behind. What was in this field, anyway? Cows? No, sheep, black-faced sheep, with green paint sprayed on their tails. They were heading away, toward shelter. Smart sheep. Back into the truck, heater blasting against the damp, and down the road, much slower now as the Rover jounced along the track.
Xander tucked the now-useless street guide into the glovebox. Mode switch into prep for the job.
“How long has this guy been missing?”
“Seems like a day longer than I would have expected. Are we going to find him alive after two days?”
Giles made a grunting noise that Xander couldn’t parse. Giles knew even better than Xander that time mattered in these cases. Their last job in a crypt underneath a medieval church had been an emergency call not more than half a day after a questing curate had gone AWOL. They’d found that guy alive, barely, scared out of half his lifespan. Probably literally: his hair had gone white, which Xander had always thought was a myth. Apparently not, according to Giles. Ghosts could do that.
The supernatural was Giles’s expertise. Xander’s was all the other stuff, the getting in and the getting out. Lock-picking and wall-scaling and mapping the catacombs as they wandered in. Giles would still be lost inside that underground maze in Scotland without Xander’s fluorescent paint arrows showing the way they’d come. And the ghost at the center would have killed Xander without Giles there to bind it. It was a good partnership.
Except it wasn’t. Rupert Giles, Investigations and Excavations. That’s what the business cards said, the ones Giles left in the used book shops. There was a second set of cards that said “Supernatural Investigations & Curse-breaking”, which Giles tacked up in the magic shops. His name wasn’t on those either. Peon status for him, the guy without the string of letters after his name. He was going to have to do something about it some day. Some day when he grew a spine. But today apparently wasn’t that day. Today he did his job like a good assistant. He’d do half the work of rescuing the anthropologist in the neolithic barrow and get none of the credit.
Speaking of barrows. “What lives in barrows?” he said.
“If this were anywhere else, I’d say the usual ghosts. But this sort of site attracts barrow wights. They like the communal graves. The more bodies, the more attractive.”
“Probability of wight versus the guy just breaking his neck caving without gear or training?”
Giles downshifted and spun the Rover around a hairpin turn. They were climbing a little hill now, with a cluster of trees at the top. The road had dwindled to little more than two tire-track ruts worn through the grass.
“I’m expecting a wight,” Giles said. “The barrow has somehow escaped all previous observation, which tends to argue for an active, er, unearthly presence. And he vanished on the solstice.”
“As you say. Ah. Here we are.”
A little red Ford hatchback was sitting in the track in front of them, slewed a sideways. Past that was another car, a battered Saab with a grimy rear window with a Darwin fish on the back. Their contact and the missing anthropologist, respectively, Xander guessed.
Giles pulled the Rover onto the field and drove around in front of the Saab. The engine cut and coughed to silence. Rain spattered on the windows. Xander sighed. Show time. He fumbled for his jacket snaps. Gore-Tex and Polar fleece, the fabrics of the new millenium, perfect for exploring something that Giles assured him was at least four thousand years old. Nearly old as the pyramids and way way wetter.
Xander cast a glance aside at Giles and found that Giles was looking right back at him. There was a line between his eyebrows. “Xander,” he said. “Is something the matter?”
“No. Let’s do it.”
Xander opened the Rover door and let in a blast of cold wet wind. Out, onto the wet field, door slammed shut. Giles was climbing out on his side. A little man in tweed had emerged from the hatchback. He had shaggy white hair poking out from under a wool cap. His left arm was held in a sling under his coat, a sling with a plaid pattern on it. A long scarf hung loosely around his neck. The overall effect was genial eccentric of a species peculiar to this island, in Xander’s experience. They were especially common in the supernatural branches of academia.
This specimen used the tag end to wipe off his glasses as he came nearer. He peered through them and then smiled. “Young Dr Giles!”
“Ah, Mr Eccles. A pleasure to meet you again.”
The two men shook hands.
“Bleak circumstances, Dr Giles. Bleak. I must say I was surprised the Council sent you. I thought you were in America.”
“Been back for a year now.”
“Ah, who’s this new fellow with you? A student?”
“My assistant, Xander Harris.”
“Hey,” Xander said, and stuck his hand out. Eccles stared at it for a moment, then extended his own for a perfunctory shake.
“A souvenir of your travels, then?” Eccles said, addressing Giles with a chuckle that made Xander want to rearrange his face. He met Giles’s gaze. Giles looked back quickly at Xander then away. Xander gritted his teeth. It wasn’t the first time this had happened at these jobs. Giles showed up, got the effusive greeting, and Xander got handed the luggage to carry. Giles himself never treated Xander that way, but something always made their clients dismiss him as hired help. Student? Nope; American. And zoom, Xander was as absent from their attention as he was from the business cards.
Hooray, he was the Zeppo here too.
“So, there’s a guy missing, I hear,” Xander said, breaking heartlessly into the chit-chat about how awful the States must have been for poor Giles.
Eccles surprised him by giggling nervously. “Oh dear, yes. Poor Dr Dalziel. He seems not to have taken my warnings about the site to heart.”
Giles cleared his throat. “Er, yes. Could you show us where?”
Eccles led them over the lumpy field to a jumble of rocks near the base of the hill. One of the stones was like the ones all over Avebury: creepily white and jutting upright over all the others, like a ghostly fang. Below it was a cluster of gray-blue stones that looked more or less natural until Xander got closer. Then he saw that there was a sort of doorway, only it was half-collapsed and it pitched downward almost immediately. He crouched next to the opening and played his pocket flashlight into the opening.
Eccles leaned over him. He smelled vaguely like pipe tobacco and it make Xander’s nose itch. He said, “Not the original entrance, in Dr Dalziel’s opinion. Constructed much later by some person or persons who wanted access to the barrow.”
Grave robbers? Or was that the habit of a later civilization? Xander knew that grave robbing was a bad enough problem that lots of tomb-builders had left nasty traps behind, hence the “curse-breaking” on Giles’s second set of business cards. But neolithic stuff wasn’t where you found the elaborate coffins and the corpses buried with gigantic diamonds.
Giles leaned alarmingly far out over the opening. “Bugger. Straight down, is it? How’d Dalziel get down there?”
“I didn’t see him go in,” Eccles said, then giggled again. “Didn’t know he’d descended until I got word he’d gone missing. He was an odd one.”
“You left him here on his own?”
“He assured me his assistant was on the way. And, if you’ll forgive me, it was pissing down. Was just as glad to leave him to it.”
Which Xander couldn’t blame him for, much as he wanted to. He said, “Not to mention your arm.”
“Excuse me? Oh, yes. My arm. It was a bit in the way, yes.”
“What happened to it?”
“Fell off a horse,” Eccles said, with no trace of the giggle in his voice.
“So you left the guy here at a known supernatural locus and didn’t check back?”
“Now, Xander,” Giles said, but Eccles didn’t seem annoyed. He pulled off his hat and put it back on again and looked shamefaced.
“Got distracted by another task, to be quite honest, over to Avebury. Turned out to be nothing. A frightened tourist. Meanwhile–” He gestured with his single free hand. “Rather glad you’re here to sort it out. Been in this business for years, but human stupidity still takes me by surprise.”
Xander frowned at him, but he couldn’t argue with that. It was how it usually went. They never took the risks seriously, these amateurs, and they got themselves stuck at the bottoms of holes.
Giles had his hands all over the white rock, the one that looked so out of place. He had an expression on his face that Xander had learned to fear and be charmed by at once. It was the expression of Giles completely caught up in fascination. Fascinated by what, though, Xander had no clue. The rock looked like all the other rocks dotted across Wiltshire: vaguely creepy but nothing special. Nothing about that rock said to Xander “stand me on end in a pit you dig by hand”.
Giles said, still with his nose to the rock, “This site has been undiscovered all this time?”
“Seems so,” said Eccles. “The field hasn’t been under cultivation for a good long while. Just the sheep. The owner ran amuck and contacted the university instead of me, despite all the work I’ve done establishing my persona as an expert.” He sniffed. “And Dalziel would insist on investigating. Wanted a head start on publication, I suppose.”
Giles and Eccles shook their heads and sighed in mutual exasperation over civilians who would plunge headlong into dangerous close encounters with the supernatural. Though of course they had no clue. Their profession was keeping those civilians blessedly innocent so they could walk around after dark without fear. So they would enter those neolithic barrows and second dynasty tomb complexes and Victorian necropolises without being eaten, soul-sucked, zombified, vamped, terrorized, folded, spindled, or mutilated.
Mostly they managed it. Mostly. Dalziel, assuming they found him in one piece at the bottom of that barrow, was going to have one hell of a drinking story to tell.
Xander cast Giles a glance that he wasn’t sure he noticed, then headed back to the Rover. After their first prehistoric grave experience, he’d taken steps to make the next one easier. He’d joined a climbing gym and taken all the classes they had on safety and caving. He’d even gone on expeditions with the local spelunking crazies, which had involved way more bats than he ever expected to see outside of Sunnydale’s creepier cemeteries. Bats were normal, though. Seeing bats was reassuring. It meant that nothing was down there eating them. Xander liked bats. Who knew? No bats in December, however. He opened the Rover’s rear hatch and sat himself inside, partly out of the rain, and opened the duffel with the caving gear. The barrowing gear. He buckled himself into his climbing harness, snagged a second for Giles, then a third for their missing anthropologist. Two helmets with lights mounted on top, which he’d probably have to force Giles to wear. He shouldered on a bandolier heavy with climbing gadgets. Then he changed into climbing shoes.
Giles was still over there mooning around with the snotty, giggling Eccles. Xander was mad about that. Madder about that than maybe Giles deserved, but screw it. He hopped down into the rain and shouted.
“Hey, Giles, give me a hand here, would you?”
Gesture, shrug, and Giles came trudging over the grass. His shoulders and hat were dripping and his breath steamed. He looked more than a little put out when he arrived.
“What’s this about?”
“Put your harness on.”
Giles cooperated with Xander’s harness and helmet installation. Xander let himself steal a moment of private pleasure as he fiddled with straps at Giles’s waist. It was the closest he’d managed to get to Giles’s guy bits, and unless he grew a pair for himself, the closest he ever would get. Not that it mattered.
“What do you know about that guy?” he said. He wanted to vent.
“Been with the Council for donkey’s years. My father knew him. He’s one of the rare ones who prefers field work. Always looked up to that.”
“You trust him?”
“Implicitly. He just told me a story about my grandmother.” Giles smiled, one of those brief flashes of pure pleasure that usually went straight to Xander’s heart. Not this time.
“Xander, don’t be ridiculous.”
“He’s being a complete jerk to me.”
“That’s–” Giles flailed his hands around. “Not uncommon. He’s a perfectly fine fellow once you get to know him.”
“Which I have no intention of doing.”
Giles stood up abruptly. “Suit yourself. Are we ready to head down yet?”
“Gimme a minute to stow my pack. I need the full rescue kit. Guy might have fallen.”
“Do let me know when you’re ready.” And that was Giles being sniffy. Xander watched his stiff Goretex-clad back progress up the hill to rejoin Eccles the Evil. He wasn’t sure which of them he was more annoyed with.
When he returned to the barrow entrance, Giles and Eccles were right back into their wrangle about the history of the site. Giles wanted to know how it could possibly have been overlooked for so long. Eccles was going on about how many similarly undiscovered sites there had to be in Wiltshire. The discussion was polite yet animated, and it was probably going to continue until Xander physically separated them.
He turned his back on them and got to work. Where could he anchor? He cast around a bit looking for a rock that would work. They’d all work, come to think of it. These things weighed a ton each and they were all half-buried in earth. Nothing short of a backhoe was budging them. Why not go for the creepy one? He cast around the rock he’d dubbed White Fang and got himself tied in properly. Giles broke off from his conversation with Eccles and turned off the absent-minded professor mode. He checked Xander’s ropes and nodded. Xander checked Giles’s belay set up in turn.
“You’re going down, then?” said Eccles, master of the obvious. Xander didn’t bother answering. “Bit dangerous.”
“We’re well-prepared for whatever we might encounter,” Giles said. It was good to hear the sniff addressed at somebody else for a change.
Xander sat on the soggy rock edge, dangling his feet into the barrow shaft. He gingerly edged out and let his feet find a spot to rest over the edge.
“Bombs away,” Xander said.
He let himself slide down. Two feet, and a smooth stop, braked by Giles’s steady hand. He got the soles of his boots solidly against the wall, and nodded. Kicked out, another few feet down, and his feet found an outcropping to take his weight. His head was now below ground level. Solid rock, blobby, lots of fissures and knobs to get his hands on for the way up, but it was all dripping wet and lichen-covered. Xander signaled up.
“Gonna hold here for a sec,” he said to Giles’s face leaning over the edge. He extracted a wedge-y piton from the collection on his bandoliers and set it against a crack in the rock. One solid hammer blow got it half-way in. A second strike drove it the rest of the way. Carpentry practice came in handy at the oddest times.
“What are you doing?” said Eccles. “You’re harming the site!”
“No more than it’s been harmed before,” Xander muttered. There were recent marks scored across the rock, big gashes through lichen and into living rock visible under his headlamp. The rock was sharp-edged and lighter-colored than the rest. And below that, older gashes. Interesting. Xander gave the piton a last setting blow, then hung the hammer on his belt again. “Okay, Giles, give me another few feet.”
“Really, Dr Giles, you need to curb your assistant.” Eccles, a little muffled by wind.
“Er, Xander, be careful with the site. No unnecessary damage.”
Xander swore under his breath, then said, “Okay, whatever.” They were going to do this the hard way, then.
He cheated a couple of times on his way down, in places where the rock was like slippery soap under his hands and he couldn’t see anything. Places where the fear of falling got to him, even with Giles at the other end of the rope. He wedged a couple of hex nuts into cracks and hoped it would be enough. He’d never really taken naturally to climbing and heights. Especially not in the dark, when he couldn’t see the pointy stuff at the bottom. Or the giant sinkhole.
Forty feet down, maybe more, not completely in a straight line, and it got dark and narrow toward the bottom. Caving was no hobby for claustrophobes. Barrowing. Whatever. His feet touched bottom, a soft soggy bottom, but definitely something he could stand on. Xander flashed his headlamp around. The usual sodden mess of half-rotted leaves and half-rotted other things padded the rocky floor beneath him. A tunnel curved back into darkness and wet. Water ran away from him, gurgling down and away toward something he couldn’t see. He devoutly hoped that he wouldn’t be wading through waist-deep water. Not again. Not in December.
He shouted up and got a muffled reply from Giles. His turn. Giles was more awkward than Xander in the tunnel, less practiced. He wasn’t the one who’d spent a year at a gym trying to build back muscles to impress somebody who didn’t notice. Ah well. Xander had hooked up with a couple of guys he’d met climbing, and they’d noticed. He was sure he’d hook up with them again. Just as soon as he got over this one.
The view of Giles’s ass descending toward him was not exactly helping with the recovery. No matter how irritating Giles was being in the moment, overall he was something else. God, Xander had it bad, that he could watch this guy scramble awkwardly down a rock wall and think of nothing more than how much he wanted to be nailed by him. Crass, given that there was a missing person he was supposed to be worrying about instead. Leave it to Xander to lower the tone of every heroic rescue mission. At least he’d learned to keep his mouth shut a hundred percent more often than he used to.
Giles was only about ten feet up now. He froze in place on the wall suddenly and scrabbled with his feet. Xander could see the panic. He splayed himself against the rock and shouted. “Hullo up there? Please don’t touch the rope.”
Xander saw the rope jerk as if somebody were yanking on it. Somebody? Had to be Eccles.
“Hey! Leave the rope-- Fuck.”
Xander stepped forward just enough to get his body in between Giles and the jumble of stuff where he’d land. Giles scrabbled for a hold on the wall with hands and feet, caught, lost it, then slid down the last eight feet or so, right into Xander. His knees buckled under the weight-- Giles was a tall guy-- but they both landed soft.
“Shit. You okay?”
“Yes. What the bloody hell? Did it break? Eccles! I say! Eccles!”
No reply came from above. Xander bent to retrieve the rope and ran his hands over it, searching for the end. He knew it hadn’t broken. This rope didn’t. He found the end and held it up to Giles: knife cut. Giles swore with deep feeling.
“I was right. That guy was evil.” Though it was weird he’d waited so long to cut the rope. He could have killed Giles outright if he’d cut it earlier.
“You were right,” and that was contrition in Giles’s voice, not that it helped.
“So he’s our number one suspect now.”
“Wight story a big hoax?”
“Perhaps,” Giles said, thoughtfully, but he didn’t sound convinced. It would be worse for them if there were a wight, in Xander’s opinion. Giles took a step away from Xander, down the tunnel, then returned. He didn’t seem particularly frightened. Instead he sighed. “Can we get back out?”
Xander glared at him. “Maybe. It’s going to be a bastard of a climb without any protection fixed. And with that evil jerk up there waiting for us…”
Giles shook his head. He turned away from the shaft up and peered further down into the cavern ahead. “Let’s do what we came here to do before we worry about that, shall we?”
Xander shrugged. Might as well. First, though, safety. He roped himself to Giles with a good ten feet of slack. Giles had wandered off more than once. Sometimes Xander thought he should stick a bell on his harness. Hey, that was actually a good idea. Bell the ex-Watcher.
Giles stooped down and entered the tunnel. He looked huge: six foot guy in a tunnel dug by five-foot malnourished guys using deer antlers. Xander ducked down and hovered at the threshold. Once more into the breach, dear idiot demon hunter. On the creepiness scale, he rated it below the medieval catacombs. There were no statues intended to scare him into good behavior, for instance. And no deliberate traps. The people who’d made it hadn’t set out to kill anybody coming along later. There was just a tunnel into the dirt lined with heavy rough stones. It would be short, because you didn’t dig long complicated tunnel networks when you were digging with deer antlers. Deer antlers. That was the part that always made his eyes bug out.
A jig to the left, and it was pitch black ahead of him. The light on Giles’s helmet flashed around, up along the ceiling, ahead into the tunnel. Water trickled down the rock walls of the barrow and ran in streams deeper inside, somewhere beyond the limits of his lamp. The air smelled like water and mud. There was something else there, too, decay maybe. Everything dead here was supposed to have been dead about four thousand years. Maybe an animal had fallen in.
The earth under his feet shook. Stone ground against stone. Earthquake, he thought first, then he realized it was a cave-in. Xander crouched and drew breath to swear. If he was going to die in a cave-in, he was going to do it with the word “fuck” in his mouth. Something hit him in the small of the back, viciously, and he pitched forward. His foot caught and then he was landing on top of Giles. Giles’s elbow caught him in the chest and knocked the wind straight out of him.
Xander lay where he was for another few breaths. Giles. Warm. Soft. Hard. Pointy. No, that was all the hardware Xander was wearing over his body.
“No, that’s not a piton in my pocket. I’m just happy to see you.”
Giles smiled at him, a flash of genuine amusement, and then he was untangling his legs from Xander’s. Xander let Giles help him get up, and that was when he learned he’d wrenched his ankle. He sat down again, almost gracefully, on the tail of his coat. Thank heaven for the inventor of Gore-Tex.
Light flooded the cave and Xander raised a hand to cover his eyes. Giles had switched his headlamp on high. Right. Duh. He did the same. Giles’s light was pointed at the tunnel they’d come through: instead of tunnel there was a huge slab of rock. It blocked the way back completely. The Neolithic barrow-diggers had been into traps after all, and what a great way to find out about it this was.
Giles came back and hovered over Xander, who hadn’t tried to stand.
“Ankle. Twisted good.”
Giles knelt down in the muck before him and eased the climbing shoe off his foot. He worked Xander’s ankle gently back and forth. Xander grunted.
“Just a bad strain. Nothing damaged seriously,” Giles said.
Giles laced the shoe up again, tighter than it had been. Xander caught a good whiff of Giles’s aftershave and had his usual reaction, completely badly timed. He closed his eyes and tried not to breathe until Giles finished with a tug at the laces.
“It’ll do well enough in your boot,” he said. “Won’t swell until you take it off. So don’t.”
“Not about to.”
Giles stood and gave Xander a strong hand up. The pain in his ankle was blunter now, though he couldn’t put much stress on that foot. He could limp, at least.
“So what happened?”
“Exactly what happened to Dalziel, it seems. We’re trapped in the barrow.”
Giles snorted. “Precisely.”
Giles hauled his cellphone out and started punching buttons, but judging from the expression on his face it wasn’t working. No surprise. They were down fifty feet at least in an surprisingly rocky bit of a mostly-chalky county.
Xander turned his own lamp down to its lowest setting. LED lamps, long battery life, but the spare batteries were in the back of the car and not in his pocket. How much food did he have? Energy bars for a couple of days. Water would be the problem. He looked at the back of Giles’s head and carefully did not say this. There’d be time for panic later. And Giles, strangely, did not seem to be panicking or even making snarky comments about doom.
So, okay. Proceed with plan A. Keep calm and carry on. Xander played his light over the slab blocking their exit.
“Something look funky to you about this, Giles?”
Giles leaned close to the slab and ran his hands over it. “It’s too neat. Squared corners, flat surfaces. It’s either not neolithic or-- not natural.” He stood silent for a little while with his eyes closed and his hands against the stone. Xander watched cautiously, half-expecting another attack. Though what he could do about it, he didn’t know. The magical stuff was Giles’s area of expertise. He was clueless.
Then Xander turned and looked down the tunnel and he realized the slab wasn’t the only thing funky about the situation. Where had the mud and the mulch gone? His shoes were still soaked and leaving soggy footprints, but on bare dry rock.
“Are we even in the same place? Look at the floor.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Giles said. He stood, half bent over, with a hand on the tunnel wall, peering thoughtfully into the depths ahead of them. “Odds are now firmly in favor of a wight being present. A surprisingly strong one.”
“Well. Nothing for it.” Giles waved his hand in the direction that counted as forward. “Tally ho.”
“Shouldn’t we be, I don’t know, scared of whatever’s that way?”
“Dalziel was alone. We are not.”
“Oh. Right,” Xander said, faking comprehension. “Tally-ho-ing.”
The tunnel wound down from the entry shaft. It was longer than Xander would have expected. Giles wasn’t stopping, and the rope connecting them meant that Xander wasn’t stopping either. He got his bravery at the end of a rope, tugged along behind the ex-Watcher who never seemed scared of anything. And at whom he couldn’t stay mad for more than five minutes at a time. Maybe those two things were connected. Maybe he should stay mad. Maybe after he was sure he wasn’t going to die miserably he’d think about that.
Usually these places were simple: a brief tunnel with a low roof, room made of giant rocks, empty spot where bones had been piled a couple thousand years ago and where some nasty little coven was operating now. This tunnel was longer than he’d expected. And it was getting chillier as they walked.
“My feet are cold. Also wet. Did I mention cold and wet?”
“Your country sucks, Giles.”
“Better this than ninety in the shade on Christmas Day.”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Santa collapse from heat stroke.”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve frozen the end of your nose off singing carols in the rain. But at least we have wassail to make up for it.”
“Later. Good Lord.”
Giles came to a halt. Xander ranged up behind him to see what had startled him. Their breath plumed out in front of them, eerie in the light from the headlamps. And in the blue-white light from the chamber that opened in front of them, which was wrong in a million ways. The wrong color. Wrong for existing at all, this far underground. Wrong because of what it lit up.
What the light revealed to them was bones. Lots and lots of bones. From lots and lots of dead people. Skulls grinned up at him from piles of long white bones and rib cages, biting up at empty air with broken teeth.
“Curious,” said Giles. He crouched down before the bone pile and leaned forward. He was careful not to touch anything, Xander noticed. First rule of archaeology, don’t disturb the site until you have a bloody clue what you’re doing. Or so Giles put it, and he generally didn’t disturb things even when clued. They got in, broke curses, and got out once they were sure the official teams wouldn’t get eaten by demons.
“So many bones. Mostly skulls and thigh bones, you’ll note. The peoples of neolithic Britain seemed to like them especially. But–”
Giles broke off. He stood up abruptly and came over next to Xander. He put a hand on Xander’s shoulder. Then he began waving his free hand in a repeated pattern and chanting something in a sing-song voice. Xander stayed put and kept his eyes open. Giles fell silent. His hand rested warm on Xander’s shoulder as if he’d forgotten it was there. The fog swirled and withdrew, coiling itself into the corners of the chamber. As it withdrew, the bones were revealed again. Not bones. Bodies. Dead people. Dressed up, wrapped up, wearing jewelry. The worst was the guy tied up with arrows in his chest. He looked as if he’d just been shot and the expression on his face was surprise.
Xander swallowed. Freshly dead bodies were worse than four thousand year old bones. Much, much worse in the creeping him out department. Giles squeezed his shoulder and let go. Xander found himself keenly missing that hand. Giles was warm. Possibly Giles was the only warm thing in the barrow. So many dead things. Xander shivered.
Xander then realized that the bodies weren’t really there. The guy with the arrows in him, he’d have been bleeding if he were truly here and freshly dead. Xander had seen the newly-dead many times before in his career as a demon hunter. Vampires weren’t always neat about their kills. Blood had a smell. These things didn’t smell like anything. He reached out a hand and hovered it over the nearest body: a man, a short guy, stocky, with longish gray hair, eyes closed as if he’d gone to sleep. The air shimmered blue and cold. He pulled his hand away before he could touch it. If it was touchable, which he wasn’t sure of. He hoped it wasn’t. There was something soul-suckingly depressing about that sad guy lying there as if he had just slumped backwards and fallen asleep. Asleep for four thousand years.
“So. What are we looking at?”
“The wight’s world,” Giles said.
“Jeez. Kind of amazing if you’re an anthropologist. You can look at the bodies before they turned to skeletons. Revolutionize the field.”
Giles shook his head. “Brief glimpses only. And only through the power of the wight.”
“Speaking of which, where is it?”
Giles only grunted in response. Translated from tweed-speak, that meant Giles had no clue. Xander undid the rope connecting the two of them, and left Giles to his examination of four thousand year old corpses. He wandered a few steps away and aimed his headlamp at the dim corners of the barrow, where a wight might be lurking. Did wights lurk? Not for the first time, Xander wished he’d done his homework on the supernatural part of the case. It was all very well and good to have three different kinds of rescue descenders in his pack, but they wouldn’t be much use if a wight tried to eat him. Maybe he could bludgeon it with them. Bludgeon. Good word. Xander repeated it a few times under his breath while he rotated around, lighting up as much of the chamber as he could. No wight. Just bodies, glowing bluish white.
“Hullo! What have we here?”
Xander jumped, then realized it was just Giles. Giles was standing over the body of a guy who looked completely different from the other bodies. He had on what Xander recognized as a jacket and knee-length pants. He was on his side with his arm thrown over his face, hiding his eyes. Giles shone the flashlight on the back of his head, and Xander saw the red ribbon and the little pigtail.
“That guy is not four thousand years old.”
“No. Eighteenth century. Middle, I think. Not an expert.”
Xander turned up his headlamp and took another look around the barrow. “Over there. That woman.” She was laid out on her back, with her hands folded on her breast, more peacefully than the others. But again, her clothes were all wrong for somebody in a barrow like this, as Xander understood it.
Giles knelt down beside the woman’s body. Xander stepped back to give him more light. “Victorian. Early? Servant class, perhaps, given the clothing. Doesn’t appear to have been a victim of violence.”
“Wow, this is creepy. They’ve been burying people here all along. One of those weird-ass horror movie villages. Like the Wicker Man, only they freeze you to death instead of burning you.”
Giles stood and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I wonder.”
He said nothing further but stepped back from the body of the Victorian servant. He raised his hands and waved them again and said something sing-songy in Latin, different from the last time. Xander’s vision wavered and shifted. Bodies vanished and there was nothing but old bones left. He let out a long, long breath. Who knew it would be a relief to see a pile of skulls? Or the woman’s body, at Giles’s feet yet, now a pile of bones inside black rags? That at least was reality.
Reality was a major bummer. So many people here, represented by their thigh bones, dead one and all. Dead for so very long, along with everybody who knew them, everybody who spoke their language, everybody who’d had any semblance of a clue about why they’d built this place. Everything lost. So many bones, everywhere he looked in this room. He limped away from Giles, all the way to the end of the rope. Bones and more bones. And–
Against the wall was a body that wasn’t a jumble of bones, a body in completely modern clothes. Xander yelped and Giles came over at a run. Giles knelt down in front of the man and felt at his neck. He stood and shook his head at Xander. They stood over him in grim silence for a moment.
“Dalziel,” Giles said.
Xander had the urge to take off his helmet in respect, which he resisted. Then a more practical urge overcame him. He hunkered down and took a good look at the body, being careful not to touch it. Dalziel was slumped over now but obviously he’d just been sitting against the wall, legs stretched out before him. Less than two days down here, and it was cold but not freezing and he’d had warm stuff on. And bottled water, there by his side, next to a neatly coiled climbing rope. And he had a digging tool, one of those combo shovel-pickaxe things you found in hiking supply places. It was lying on the ground next to him, under his hand, as if he’d just set it down. He’d been swinging at something with it, though, because the end was dented. A desperate attempt to break through the slab, maybe.
“He shouldn’t be dead. I don’t see any blood. What killed him?”
“The wight. Drains the hope and will away first, then the life energy. As a self-defense mechanism, mostly.”
“So he just sat down and died?”
“Yes. It looks like a death from exposure superficially.”
It was probably a quiet way to die, not violent and bloody and painful the way Xander had seen some people go, but it still creeped the hell out of him. He broke out in goose-pimples. Christ, he was such a coward. If he weren’t trapped there he’d be booking it back to the surface. He was shivering with fear now.
No, wait. That wasn’t fear. That was cold. He could see his breath pluming out in front of him. The temperature was dropping fast. This far underground, that meant only one thing: something wicked this way came.
Xander turned. The wight was there.
It was a vague white cloud at first, as if Xander’s exhaled breaths had coalesced. Then it began to take shape, writhing and rippling as it solidified. Human-like, in some ways, but the limbs were impossibly long. Its feet were not quite touching the ground. As it drifted closer, slowly, as if blown by a breeze Xander couldn’t feel, more details came clear. The fingernails that were like claws, for instance. And the shimmering rags wrapped all around it. And its left arm, which didn’t match the right.
Its left arm was oozing ichor. Xander could see it fall to the rock floor, silvery shimmering droplets. The wight held it at an odd angle across its body. Xander had seen somebody holding his arm just like that. Eccles, on the ground over the barrow, saying he’d fallen from a horse.
Xander grabbed Giles’s sleeve and pointed. “Arm.”
“Arm? Oh dear. Yes, that explains it.”
Giles still sounded impossibly calm. Xander tried to imitate him. Not very well, as usual, but he was trying. “Not sure I get it,” he said.
“Eccles has linked himself to the wight somehow. He’s using it. Drawing power from it. Life essence.”
“Life? Is he undead?”
“No, perfectly human, if you think necromancers are human. He’s the one who murdered those people. Yes, even the ones from hundreds of years ago.”
“So he’s older than the guy with the pigtail.”
“At least. It does explain how he knew my grandmother. But it poses a bit of a problem for us.” Giles’s voice was dry, and he still sounded impossibly calm.
“My confusion is epic. But don’t bother explaining it.”
“I imagine Eccles has been luring people down here as victims. And we’re next.”
“I said don’t bother.”
Xander thumped down onto the rocky floor. Something went crunch underneath him but he ignored it. His ankle hurt and he was cold. What was the point of explanations? They were trapped. The wight had them. They might as well give up and go quietly.
Giles loomed over him. His face was blue in the wight-glow. Or from cold. Xander shivered. Giles said, “Xander. Touch me. Hold my hand.”
Xander shrank away and folded his arms. “Huh?”
Giles tugged Xander’s hand out from where it was tucked against his side and grasped it. His fingers were hot against Xander’s. “The wight. Fight it. Think good thoughts. Positive thoughts. About something you love.”
Xander stared at his hand in Giles’s. Giles’s hand was warmer than his but it was useless. Giles would never be interested in him. Never think of him as anything more than the guy who lifted the heavy objects and sharpened the stakes. He wasn’t doing anything good with his life. Why not give it up for a better place?
His hand slipped from Giles’s and he slumped over onto his side. He could lie right here.
“Don’t give up,” Giles said. His breath was right in Xander’s face and his hands were dug into Xander’s jacket. Xander stared at them in puzzlement.
“Why not? What’s the point?”
Xander lay down again, and this time Giles slumped with him. There was a strange white cloud hovering over the two of them that was supposed to mean something, but Xander had forgotten why.
“Can’t give up.” But Giles didn’t sound like he meant it.
“We all die alone,” Xander said, and he closed his eyes.
“Like hell we will.”
Giles gripped him by the shirt and hauled him to his knees. Xander resented that. He wanted to sleep. He opened his mouth to protest. And then Giles kissed him. Xander was too shocked to do anything other than let it happen. And then Giles kissed him again.
It wasn’t the world’s most amazing knock-out kiss ever, at least not at first. Giles’s teeth banged into his and his hands were digging into Xander’s shirt so hard they hurt. All that gear hung on Xander’s bandoliers was wedged between them painfully. It didn’t matter. Xander reached up and got his numb fingers into Giles’s hair. Giles made a noise that sounded like a whimper, except it couldn’t possibly be one. And then his body was over Xander’s and his tongue was in Xander’s mouth.
He wasn’t cold any more. Every place he touched Giles was almost on fire. Hands, lips, hips. The white cloud thing was gone. Giles had wedged his knee between Xander’s thighs, right up where it was easy to grind against. Giles broke free first. He took that amazingly-placed knee away and rolled off Xander onto the ground. Good thing too, because otherwise Xander would have spontaneously combusted.
He lay there on the ground and just breathed.
Giles touched a hand to his arm. “Xander? Do you need any more?”
“No! Hell, no,” Xander said. Any more of that would have him doing embarrassing things in his pants.
Giles stood up and extended a strong hand down to help Xander up. Xander let go immediately, because Giles was still hot to the touch. Then he wiped his mouth, which was not something he started out intending to do. He’d intended to touch his bitten lips and then beg Giles to resume. Then he remembered where they were and what was going on. And then he saw the expression on Giles’s face, which wasn’t so great. Giles turned away and made a big fuss out of straightening out his clothes. Yeah, he’d just had to kiss Xander Harris to free him from a wight, and he wasn’t stoked about it.
Xander’s heart was broken now, but he didn’t have time for it. The wight had been driven off into the corner by whatever the hell crazy magic Giles had just worked, but it was coming back now.
Xander pointed and Giles sighed.
“Wight. Kill it.”
“Can’t. But I can cut its connection to Eccles.”
“Whatever it is you’re going to do, do it fast. Don’t wanna go through that again.”
The wight was drifting closer to them again, one hand raised. Giles turned and swore under his breath. He cupped his own hands in the air before him and began chanting something. Energy gathered around him and pooled in his cupped hands.
He threw the ball of energy at the wight. It hit the thing in the chest and exploded soundlessly. Even Xander, magic-naive as he was, felt that wave of energy. The wight wavered, staggered, and went motionless.
Giles braced his hands on his knees and breathed hard. Blood was dripping from his nose. He rubbed at his nose, then looked at his hand and seemed surprised. Out came the handkerchief.
“Well,” he said. “That’s done, then.” He didn’t sound entirely certain.
The wight also seemed nonplussed. It hovered where it was, midway between the two men. Then it drifted slowly over toward Xander.
“Hey!” Xander said. He raised his hands to block the thing from getting at his face, but it was his left arm it was after. It pinned him against the wall and wrapped its impossibly long fingers around his arm. Xander saw the nails at the end press deep into his jacket. It felt as if they were nails driven into his arm. He tried to yank himself away but he could not move. The wight smelled weird. He couldn’t think like what.
Then Giles was there, getting right up into the wight’s face. He put his hand over the wight’s and winced. His nose was still bleeding slowly. There was sweat on his face despite the chill in the air.
“You may not take from the living,” Giles said. “It’s not what you are meant for.”
Then Giles said something in Latin, still obviously speaking to the wight as if it understood him, which for all Xander knew it did. The two of them were staring each other in the face. The wight let go of Xander’s arm. He backed away, stumbled, and fell onto his ass. He rubbed at the place where the nails had dug into him. They hadn’t punctured the jacket but his arm felt as if they had.
The wight spoke. Not in any language Xander spoke and not with anything he could describe as a voice. Wind sighed in the chamber and there were words in the wind somehow.
Giles said, “This place will no longer have anything for you. Life will come and take away your bones. Go now. Leave these spirits to their long rest.”
The chamber went dark. Xander fumbled with his helmet and got the light turned on again. Bones, bones everywhere, yes, but not nearly as many as it had seemed mere moments ago. It smelled musty, damp, muddy, like years of decay, but it was no longer creeping him out. Warmth was seeping back into him. Also water, from the damp floor under his knees. Xander stood up and winced. His ankle was still screwy and now his arm felt strange.
“It’s gone,” he said.
Giles wiped sweat from his forehead. “I persuaded it.”
“I’d have gone for killing it.”
“It’s not evil, Xander. More a force of, of unnature.”
“How about killing Eccles? Did we manage that?”
“Unfortunately no. He leached away another twenty or thirty years of life from Dalziel. He’ll coast on that for a while, then he’ll be on the lookout for another source.”
“So next we stop him.”
“Yes. He’s likely waiting for us above.”
Xander couldn’t find words to express his joy about that, so he said nothing. Despite everything he was feeling a lot better about life, his soaked feet, his sore ankle, and the knowledge that Giles for sure wasn’t into him. Well, maybe not that. He limped his way over to the threshold of the main chamber, following Giles, and ducked into the tunnel. Whatever had made the passage a creepy place was gone along with the wight. There was nothing but a low passage that made both Giles and Xander stoop down to walk through, with a muddy, moldy wet floor, lit only by flashes from his headlamp. The barrow was once again a place in present time. The bones they turned their backs on were of mysterious people long-dead. Not to mention the one poor guy who’d died just yesterday. They’d have to get the body out. No, they’d have to have the police get the body out. There was no covering up a death like this.
He could smell fresh air ahead of him. When he turned the last corner he saw that the giant slab of rock that had blocked them was gone. Three more steps and there was the tangle of rope that Eccles had cut, and a couple of daubs of reflective paint marking where he’d placed the first protective nut in the rock.
They were almost home free. All he had to do was climb out on his gimpy ankle and then haul Giles out. And not get killed by Eccles at the top. Xander sat his butt on a knob of rock and rubbed at his twisted ankle. He could climb on it, but it would be a bitch.
Giles rummaged in his pack and came out with a strange-looking pistol with a long thin barrel-- an air-pistol, the kind that used CO2 cartridge and shot tranquilizer darts. He favored that over the air rifle these days. Giles loaded an air cartridge onto it and stuck it into his pocket. Then he bent and picked up the cut rope. “This is long enough, isn’t it?”
Xander hopped down from his perch and made sure he didn’t wince. “You’re not climbing that. There’s no way.”
Giles drew himself up to his full height. “Your ankle is injured. And Eccles is up there. I’m perfectly capable.”
He was not. He so very was not. But Xander didn’t want to rub it in. He said, “Did you or did you not just do two big spells that always make you wobbly right afterward? Yeah. Give me the gun.”
“I am not wobbly.”
“Your nose is still bleeding.”
Giles’s hand rose to his nose automatically. He looked at his fingers and swore under his breath. Out came the handkerchief again. He handed over the gun without any more griping. Xander checked the safety, then clipped it to a spare biner on his bandolier, right next to all the other useless junk. Safety on, so he didn’t shoot himself. That stunt would definitely be a nice capper to the career of Xander Harris, demon hunter.
“Be careful,” Giles said. He reached out as if to touch Xander, then pulled his hand away. He got busy double- and triple-checking knots that didn’t need checking.
Lead climbing, in the dark and freezing rain, in a cave, up to a field where there was a madman in league with a wight trying to kill you. Or suck your soul out to feed his own life essence, which was the same thing as “trying to kill” and he couldn’t procrastinate any more, could he? Xander reached up and hooked a solid grip onto a lump of rock. He stepped away from the cave floor and up. Left foot, right, and yeah, that hurt. It wasn’t buckling, though, so he ignored the pain and stood up on it.
Once he got into the groove he was fine. He sweated freely inside the jacket, good and warmed up and limber. Step, get secure, find a place to wedge some protection in. Clip his rope in, look around, find another slabby bit of rock to grab, move. He was maniacal about his line of protection. He used maybe twice as much as he would have if he was lead climbing with his buddies, thinking about how bad Giles was at this climbing thing. Well, in comparison bad. Overall Giles was okay. Giles. Warm on top of him, heavy, insistent. Tongue in his mouth. Wow. No, don’t think about that now. Think about the fact that the next foothold was going to pop his head over the top, and Eccles might be there.
Xander stopped where he was, leaning against the shaft with his feet braced out wide. Little flakes of snow drifted down onto him, through the opening onto the real world above. The air in his nose was cold and so was the rock under his hands. It would be just his luck to survive the wight and the cave and six years of constant vampires only to get offed by a dorky necromancer in a wool cap. What to do about it?
He wasn’t a ninja, but he was going to play one on TV right now. Go.
Rocks, snow, mud under his hands. He got a knee up on the surface squishing into cold mud and that was it, he was out. He scrambled away from the hole and into the snowy field, fumbling hopelessly for wherever it was he’d stuck the air pistol. He couldn’t get his hands on it, but it didn’t matter. There was no one in sight. Xander stood and turned slowly, scanning for Eccles hiding behind something. No sign. He’d discovered that he could do brave, but he didn’t get the payoff of nabbing the baddie.
It had turned colder while they’d been underground. It had been snowing for a little while and the fields were frosted over white. The Rover had a good inch on the roof. The Ford hatchback was conspicuously not there by the Saab. Eccles had a solid head start, probably, because there were no tire prints in the snow showing where it had gone.
Xander swiveled around slowly. Then he saw it, the dingy red car, tucked nearly out of sight at the hedges by the gate.
The voice came from behind him. Xander stifled the urge to swear even more crudely, just to annoy the guy.
“Hey, wight-lover,” he said.
“Hands up and turn around.”
Xander closed his jacket just enough to hide the air pistol, then raised his hands in the air. He turned slowly. There was Eccles, with a wooden rifle held in one hand. Not so great for shooting, but he didn’t have to be accurate over any distance more than a few feet. Xander’s mouth tasted like metal but he kept his gaze steady on Eccles’s face.
“You two have seriously discommoded me.”
“You think? Just wait till Giles gets his hands on you. You’ll learn why his friends call him Ripper.”
Eccles laughed. “I expect he’ll be trapped nicely down there without you.”
There was a certain amount of dismaying truth to that. Xander settled for sneering, but Eccles smiled at him unpleasantly. Not buying it. He shifted the grounds of attack.
“How you feeling without your pet wight? Feeling a little, oh, old? Creaky? Ready to fall over dead?”
“Hardly. Now. Back down into the hole with you. You can join your employer, or whatever he is.”
“It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re alive or dead when you hit bottom. If you want to live a few hours longer, climb.”
Xander rolled his eyes. “You’re a real tool. No.”
Eccles smashed him in the ankle with the rifle barrel, hard. Xander went down like he was a professional soccer player. He rolled onto his face, whimpering and writhing as if he’d just broken a bone, working his hands around to get hold of the pistol.
“Get up, you sniveling American dogsbody.”
Xander didn’t move. He had it. Pistol unclipped, there under his body where Eccles couldn’t see it. Safety thumbed off. He said, “Was that supposed to be an insult? 'Cause I have no clue what that means.”
“Get up or I’ll shoot you.”
Xander rolled and kicked out at where he guessed the rifle was. He connected with Eccles’s shin instead. That gave him just enough time to lift the pistol. He pulled the trigger. At this distance he couldn’t miss, and he didn’t. The dart went right into Eccles’s stomach, under where his arm was held in that absurd plaid sling. He looked down at the dart, up at Xander, and then he raised the rifle. At this distance he couldn’t possibly miss either, and Xander stared into the face of the man who was about to kill him.
Then the rifle barrel wavered, and tipped to the side, and over he went. The snow crunched under his body. He tried to sit up, and then his eyes closed. He was out.
Xander breathed. His hands were shaking now. He carefully put the safety back on then returned the air pistol to its home on his bandolier. He picked up the rifle, found the safety, and thoughtfully set it down on a rock far out of Eccles’s reach. Only then did he sit down in the snow and look at his shaking hands. He’d lived. A squeaker, but he’d made it.
Why did he always get horny at these moments? Every time he made it out, he had the urge to find some guy and jump him. His timing sucked. All he had was Giles, and Giles was-- still stuck at the bottom of a hole.
Xander ran back to the white fang rock and leaned over the opening and shouted. Giles’s voice came up the shaft, but Xander couldn’t make out the words. He got himself roped in again, fast. He yelled down to Giles to start heading up. For good measure he tugged on the rope in the pattern that meant “yeah, climb up”, if Giles remembered it, and of course Giles would remember that. He could probably do Morse Code on the rope and Giles would get it. Giles was good with that stuff as he was mediocre about the climbing part. And indeed, there came the tug pattern that meant Giles was on his way up. About halfway up non-shouting conversation was possible again, though Xander didn’t much feel like talking. His inappropriate urges had faded, thank God, and he was left with bitter thoughts about what had happened in the barrow and before. He listened to Giles grunting as he climbed, coiled the rope, and thought about bravery.
Stones, he had them. Now what?
Giles got his hands onto a rock and levered himself up more gracefully than Xander had. He rubbed his forearms and took a few steps toward the Rover. Then he saw Eccles’s unconscious body, lying there on his side in the snow.
“You got him,” Giles said. He looked annoyingly surprised.
“Yeah. Wasn’t a problem.” He’d had more than enough time for his adrenaline to fade, so that came out normally casual.
Giles knelt down by Eccles and checked his breathing. He produced plastic ties from his pack. One zipped around the guy’s ankles neatly.
“Gimme your cell.”
Giles handed Xander his phone and returned to the business of trussing up the baddie. It had a signal, thank goodness. That was the thing about England. No matter where you went, civilization was twenty miles away as the crow flew. That was what made the place feel alien to Xander, not the rain and the water lying around on the ground willy-nilly in ponds and little streams. The people everywhere, around them in space and time. Buried everywhere, in pits and barrows and crypts and churchyard graves and sprawling cemeteries with moldy marble angels weeping over them. England was haunted by people dead and alive, far more than the Sunnydale Hellmouth ever would be.
Giles took the phone from him when Xander got through to emergency services and put on his full educated accent, the one that got the people around him hopping to do whatever Giles asked. The British empire voice, all starch and snipped-off ends of words. Xander wondered if Giles talked like that in bed. That would be-- inappropriately hot. He was letting somebody from the Council have it at full blast, which was doubly hot.
“Look, I don’t give a toss what you think. Your man’s been rogue for centuries and that’s that. I’m setting the civilian authorities on him. He’ll be in jail by the time you get here.”
Giles sounded as if he’d lost more than simple patience and he jabbed his finger at the hang-up button so hard he missed it. “Idiots. Their fathers knew him so he must be a fine fellow. See how well that worked out? Their fathers knew him because he’s a bloody necromancer. Anyway. The police are on the way.”
“Good.” Xander decided not to point out that Giles had been the same kind of idiot; Giles already knew. He turned away from him and took a few steps down the hill, away from the white fang rock. The snow was coming down fast now. It was the light, fluffy kind, not the heavy wet kind it had been earlier. Giles came up beside him.
“Not the best of endings for this one, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, not what I’d have picked for my last case.”
“Excuse me? Last?”
“Yeah. I’m going back to California after this.”
Giles looked shocked. Good. Xander was getting back in touch with the anger he’d had to put on hold back in the barrow. He said, maybe only a little maliciously, “Yeah. It’s not working out.”
“I thought it was. We did rather well as a team just now.”
“Not so much from my point of view.”
“Xander.” Giles’s voice went all high-pitched and stiff, the way it always did when he was nervous. “Is this about what happened in the barrow?”
“No. You did what you had to. We’re not talking about it.”
“We’re not. Talking. About it.” There were lights visible on the road now, red and blue flashes against the white of the snow. Xander watched them pause at the gate while some guy hopped out to open it, as he had that morning.
“If only to allow me to apologize. It was a dreadful imposition and it will not happen again. But–”
“I realize that my intimacy was unwelcome but it felt necessary in the moment. I could have found another way. I should have.”
Worse and worse. Xander’s face went hot with shame. “First rule of holes, Giles, stop digging.”
“It’s great you saved me, awesome, but quit rubbing in that it was a pity fuck. Kiss. Pity whatever the hell that was. Oh, you know what I mean. You don’t like me. I get it. You made yourself clear. I’m bugging out of your life now.”
“Oh,” Giles said. “Oh.”
And then he was right up in Xander’s kitchen, invading his personal space in a way that Giles never did. He was mister standoffish. Normally. Now he was so close Xander could smell his aftershave. Still sexy. Xander looked into his eyes and for the life of him he couldn’t make himself stomp off despite everything. Giles looked defiant and happy. Happy?
Of course the police convoy jounced their way into view across the field just then. Xander broke eye contact and pointed, silently, at the little car sliding its way along the snowy track.
“Bugger.” Giles turned away and headed down-slope to meet the police.
The next few hours were more awful than the time they’d spent trapped in the barrow with the wight, in Xander’s opinion. One hundred percent less threat to being alive, yet just as soul-destroying. Necessary, however, because Dalziel was no longer missing and was instead known to be dead. And they had a body to extract from the barrow. There might, Xander thought, be even more people down there Eccles had killed recently. The county probably had missing person cases going back centuries that were his doing.
And then after they got the body out, Giles and Xander had to be questioned about why they were there and what they had done. Those questions got a lot more polite after Giles’s Council credentials were trotted out. The battle against the supernatural was a bit more in the open here in England, at least in some circles. And the soul-destruction came along with over-sweetened too-strong tea. With a mug of that stuff in him Xander could face any amount of questioning. He felt almost okay when they sent a medical type around to strap up his ankle properly so it wasn’t annoying him so much. The place where the rifle barrel had caught him was bruised up and his ankle had done the predicted swelling.
When they were released at last, the sun was long since set. It was still snowing, had been snowing for hours. They stood by the Rover, peering out at the white mounds over everything. The drive home was going to take forever. Hours in a car with the guy he’d just sort of dumped. Hooray.
“There’s an inn I’ve stayed at before,” Giles said. “In the next town.”
“Fine,” Xander said.
Back into the Rover they went, this time with snow flickering down in the headlights. Snow covered the roads, thick and barely rutted, but this was what the Rover did best. Twenty minutes of crawling along one of those curling, winding country roads to the next village over, and they were parked at the inn.
Xander hopped out of the truck and into eight inches of snow. There were Christmas lights in the windows of the inn, red and green and white blinking candles shining out. He followed Giles toward them. The snow squeaked and crunched under his feet.
Snow for Christmas. It was his second Christmas in England. The first one it had just rained on them and been cold and muddy and dismal. At least they’d spent that one at home. Next year he’d be back in California, probably. On the Hellmouth again, providing his services as a lame-ass curse-breaker while trying to stay out of Willow’s sight. Heat waves for Christmas. Why didn’t the idea make him happy?
For the first time since they’d left the barrow, Xander remembered he was miserable.
He was more miserable five minutes later, when the innkeeper broke the news that she had exactly one room free for the night. Everyone was snowed in, very busy, yes, thanks, one room with one bed because it was the bridal suite, and would that suit the gentlemen?
“It’ll be perfect for us,” Giles said. He was looking at Xander, not the innkeeper, and his chin was thrust out. “We’re in a celebratory mood.”
“That’s lovely. Why don’t you go in and we’ll get you a spot of dinner.”
Giles smiled his most charming smile at the innkeeper. He detoured to the men’s room on the way in to the main room. Xander continued on to a free table against the wall, where he could stick his leg out in front of him. It had been a long, stupid day. He watched Giles appear in the room, spot Xander, and head over to the bar. Xander continued watching him, for lack of anything else to do. Giles had an exchange with the bartender that pleased him for some reason, then made his way over to where Xander sat stewing. In his hands were a pair of small steaming glasses. He set one in front of Xander.
“Wassail,” Giles said, with a glint in his eye. “Traditional holiday drink. Happy Christmas, Xander.”
“Merry Christmas to you, Giles,” he said, only a little bitterly, and drank. The world’s hottest, sweetest, apple-est, cinnamony-est, alcoholic thing. Not bad. Not bad at all. Xander had another good gulp. He could feel the warmth threading all the way through him from his stomach out. Good stuff. He tipped his head back and let it rest on the wall. This was the other side of Giles’s England. The outdoors was drenched with whatever precipitation variant the island had decided to dump on them today, but there was always a pub, and it was always warm and dry inside. And it always had something good to drink. Tea, beer, weird fruity spiced hot things. No good coffee, though. First thing he’d do when back in the States was get a big mug of joe with cream and sugar. And a donut. Plain, so he could dunk it.
He opened his eyes again to find Giles watching him over his glass. He had that glint in his eye still, the one he’d had back at the site before the police had arrived. The one that said he thought he was going to get his way. Which he wasn’t. Xander was leaving.
“I’m leaving,” he announced, just in case Giles had forgotten.
“So you said.”
“I’ll try to be out by the end of January. I’ll pay rent if you want after you give me my last paycheck.”
Giles drank some wassail and set this glass down. Xander did the same.
“May we discuss this first?” Giles said, politely.
“Yeah, if you want,” and if it came out sounding a little sulky it was probably because he felt sulky. Xander picked up his half-empty cup and frowned into it. He set it down again. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. If Giles started talking about Xander’s inappropriate feelings and how he could overlook them, he’d take off and spend the night in the truck.
“Discuss,” he said, eyes still closed. He waited for a while, listening to the noise of music and conversation in the room.
“I was thinking,” Giles said, at last, “that I owe you an apology.”
Xander opened his eyes. “You do.”
“For not believing you about Eccles.”
“You don’t trust my judgement.”
“I do. Ordinarily. That time, I-- It’s difficult to explain.”
“Maybe you should try.”
Giles picked up his glass and had a hefty slug of wassail. Xander watched him swallow, consider another swig, then set the glass aside. He leaned back against the wall of the pub, much as Xander was doing. Middle-aged English guy in baggy sweater with a ragged sleeve, a little gray in his hair, a pair of glasses that was maybe hip for a professor but not exactly high fashion. Why did this guy make Xander’s pulse race? Sword in his hand, knife in his hand, ball of glowing energy in his hand. And the way he walked toward the danger when everybody else was running away.
Giles cleared his throat. “Eccles…” He trailed off, then tipped his head back against the wall of the pub and continued. “Eccles made an insinuation that hit upon all my insecurities about you. It put me off balance. That was likely his intent. He’s a canny one. He fooled me and trapped us. If you hadn’t been able to plan an escape route, we’d have died in there.”
Xander shrugged. “I’m not the one who saved us.”
“You banished the wight.”
“We both contributed. We work well together. Always have. If you choose to go I shall miss you dreadfully.”
“You never seemed to notice me.” That definitely came out sulkier than Xander felt.
“I did. You must believe that.”
“You didn’t appreciate me until I quit.”
“No, that’s not it. I never knew what to say to you. You came here at a time that was rather awful for me. For us both, I suppose. Adjusting to Buffy-- to not being a Watcher any more. You fit yourself into my new life so smoothly I barely noticed. When I’d got my feet back under myself I found you were simply there, handling things I didn’t enjoy thinking about. I was used to it. It was rather nice to have, well, backup. At last.”
He smiled at Xander as he said that, a shy smile that was made Xander’s heart thump stupidly. Xander had some more wassail, on the theory that it would stiffen his spine even though all it was really doing was making him feel like he’d felt in the barrow when Giles had been kissing him. Warm all over. Warm all the way down.
Tactical error. He pushed the empty glass away.
Giles said, “My, my growing emotional entanglement made it worse. I was fretting about whether I was fawning over you. Being too attentive. Upsetting you. I seem rather to have over-compensated.”
“Entanglement? What are you talking about?”
“To begin with, I quite mistook-- That is, I knew you’d been seeing men, so it wouldn’t have been utter insanity, but I–”
Giles was stuttering. That was odd. Xander turned away from Giles stubbornly. He wasn’t going to fall for it.
Then Giles said, “I’m going about this all wrong. Back up. What do you know about wights?”
Xander turned back to him out of sheer surprise. That voice had been pure old-fashioned Giles lecture voice. It took him back to the Magic Box, that table, and a box of donuts. He answered before he realized he was speaking. “White, cloudy, silvery blood, suck the will to live out of you before they eat your life energy. Really cold.”
Giles raised a finger. “Barrow-dwellers, drawn to concentrations of sorrow and grief, carrion-eaters who feed upon the fading energies of the dead. Also upon heat. Essentially benign, in that they are inimical to life but not driven by malice. What is the defense against them?”
“No clue.” Giles gave him a look, and Xander apparently still had a weakness for Giles-glares. This annoyed him; shouldn’t he be over it now? “Having a tongue shoved down your throat by a guy who doesn’t like you?”
“Okay, fine, I still have no clue.” Which was a lie, because he wasn’t that pig-ignorant, but he was sulking. Dammit. “What’s the defense against wights?”
“There are several. Open flame harms them, as does direct physical attack. Other acts interfere with their ability to feed. Anything that grounds your emotional state. Anything that can generate feelings of hope. And of, of love.”
Xander felt that shame-flush creeping back onto his face. “What’s your point?”
“Have you asked yourself why I kissed you in the barrow?”
“Pity. Pure pity. You knew it would make me feel hopeful.”
“No. I was saving myself. I had no idea it would work on you as well as me.”
“Why would that work on you?”
Giles merely tilted his head and glared at him. No, it wasn’t a glare, exactly. It was the face of a Giles who wanted to spit out a comment that was withering and funny at the same time. Only he wasn’t saying it. He was just watching Xander patiently.
“Oh,” said Xander. “Oh.”
Giles said nothing further but merely picked up their empty glasses and shoved his chair back. Xander watched him head over to the bar and get them refilled. There he stood, one foot on the bar rail, being charming to the barman. Giles, the guy with the unsettling talent for magic and the disturbing talent for knives and the definitely freakish book collection fetish. The guy who was deadly accurate with sarcasm at ten paces. The guy who hadn’t so much been ignoring him the last year and a half. Giles, the guy who was in love with him.
That guy came back to the table with more wassail. He set the glasses down without a word. Xander took his glass from Giles and sipped it quietly, head tipped back against the wall again. Being warm, safe, and a little tipsy made things look a lot better than they had in the afternoon. Many, many things.
Then Giles spoke again. “I was thinking again.”
“You do that a lot,” Xander muttered.
“That was it was time to have new business cards made.”
“I speak for us all when I say, huh?”
“Harris and Giles, Investigations and Curse-breaking.”
“Now you’re mocking me.”
“I meant that.” Giles sounded serious. He leaned forward over the table. Xander frowned at him. He was back to digging himself into holes. Then he said, “Become my partner in the business.”
“Yes, partner. We both make the decisions, handle the money, deal with clients, carry Council credentials.”
Giles sat back and Xander let that idea sink into him. Partner. Full-fledged partner. His mind rattled around like a hamster running the wheel at top speed. No need to go back to California. No sunshine, no donuts, yes four million kinds of rain, yes good beer. Yes to Giles? Yes to the guy who got nervous about emotional entanglements?
Something occurred to him. “No more this is my assistant Xander, he carries the heavy stuff and looks hunky.”
That glint was back in Giles’s eye. “You plan to stop looking, er, hunky?”
“My muscles are beside the point and you know it. Answer me.”
“No more failing to introduce you or introducing you as my assistant. Instead you will perform the introductions exactly fifty percent of the time.”
Xander thought about some of the starchy old men they met on their stranger cases. “That might not be completely necessary. But I appreciate the spirit of the offer.”
“And about the other matter–”
“The other? Oh.” The other matter. The emotional entanglement thing.
“We can go on ignoring it if you’d prefer. If you’re still angry with me. But since we are both, ah, agreeable, perhaps we might, um, get together that way as well. I am, it seems, rather fond of you. Which is to say, well.”
Giles was staring off somewhere over Xander’s shoulder when he said that. It was about the most stuttery, wordiest proposition Xander had ever received. He bet that it wasn’t the wordiest Giles had ever delivered in his life, though. Giles had two modes: Ogg Grab and Mr Stammer. Apparently the stammer-man was in the house, all entangled.
“Need to think about that one,” Xander said. “I’m good with the business plan, though.”
“Do we have an agreement?”
“Yeah. We do.”
Giles extended a hand over the table and Xander reached out to meet it. They shook hands. Then they remained like that, hand in hand. Xander wasn’t going to be the one to let go and apparently Giles wasn’t either. It was going to get awkward in another minute because what ought to happen next was a kiss, and Xander wasn’t sure if that would go over well in a random country inn full of wassail drinkers. Not that it would stop him. The smile on Giles’s face was something to see. If this went on ten more seconds he’d have to give in and kiss him. Oh god.
The waitress appeared with an armful of plates just then, putting a merciful end to his quandary. She loaded the table with food. Dinner was the roast beast, potato, and two veg rib-sticking variety. Lots of rich brown sauce of some indeterminate kind, all in vast quantity. Xander ate all of it, even though his stomach was fluttering, because it turned out he hadn’t eaten since the morning and he was starving. And yes, he was freaked. Giles wasn’t. Giles was calm. And he had that glint in his eye again and a little smile on the corner of his mouth that was just for Xander.
He’d never noticed before that Giles didn’t ever swap hands. The knife stayed in his right hand, and the fork stayed in his left. Bizarre. Xander performed his knife swapping dance and shoveled the last of his roast beast into his mouth. He set down his fork and shoved his plate away. Now for the important question, the one that would determine how his evening went.
Dessert, yes or no? The innkeeper was there, telling them all about the strange Christmassy dessert things she had, and letting them know that their room was ready. Their one-bed room. Xander’s opinion of that had changed radically over the last hour. But did the gentlemen want suet pudding with black currants or whatever the hell it was first?
“No dessert,” Xander said. “It’s been a long day.”
Giles looked at him and he looked at Giles. Xander was certain they understood each other perfectly.
“Right, then,” Giles said, to the innkeeper. “We’ll just turn in.”
“Up the stairs and along the hallway, at the very end. You’ll have a nice view of the snow out the window in the morning.”
“Thanks,” Giles said. He took the key and held it up between them. Was that a smirk on his face? Xander tried very hard to keep himself from grinning in response. Probably he was failing. Definitely he was failing, but Giles was already striding out of the public room and across the entryway to the aforementioned stairs and Xander had to scurry to catch up. He found Giles dawdling, two steps up from the bottom.
“Where were we?” Giles said. That glint was back and it had gleamed right out into a look that reminded Xander of why his oldest friends had that silly nickname for him. Uh oh.
Then Giles was on Xander again, hand on the back of his head, one knee nudged up between Xander’s. Xander was pinned to the wall. He knew he was about twice as strong but he was a-okay with being pinned. And kissed. And groped. On a stairway about ten feet away from a room with a bunch of people in it. God, this man could kiss. He was hot in Xander’s mouth, and insistent. He knew what he wanted and was taking it, right there in the hallway. Giles had him completely hard in his pants in about ten seconds and halfway to coming in another thirty. Then Giles let go of him and stepped away. Xander leaned against the wall and tried to get his breath back and figure out what had just happened.
“I beg your pardon,” Giles said. “Just wanted to be sure.”
“Sure of what?”
“That you-- Oh, never mind. Upstairs with us.”
Giles hauled him away from the wall, turned him, and propelled him in the direction of the stairs. Xander’s ankle was bad and walking was awkward for erection-related reasons, but he found a way to make it work. He didn’t dare not, what with mister humping him in the hallway right behind him, bumping into his ass deliberately. Where was the stammering man now? This was the Giles who kept a switchblade in the pocket of that jacket with the leather patches on the elbows.
Giles pinned him against the door of their room with one hand planted on Xander’s chest. Xander was fine with that, too. He stayed where he was put and waited while Giles got the outsized key into the old-fashioned lock. It was apparently harder than it looked to get the key into the lock and the door opened. Maybe that was because Giles couldn’t stop kissing him. And because Xander had a hand on his ass, pulling Giles against his chest.
The door opened inward. Xander rode it backward, away from Giles so he could catch his breath, and into this alleged bridal suite.
The room was nearly entirely bed. The thing was huge and, in Xander’s highly inexpert judgement, a million years old. Four posters, canopy, the works. It was covered with a giant white thing that had to be a duvet but looked too puffy to be a member of the blanket family. Their stuff had been laid across a chest at the foot of the bed. A fire was burning in the fireplace. It was about as perfect as it could possibly get, but then, anything that had a bedlike surface would qualify as “perfect”. The back of the Land Rover would work.
Oh, god, he was going to have to have Giles there some day soon. Or Giles was going to have him. Giles was the having type. Also the bend him backwards kissing him type, the ravish him with his eyes type, and the bearing him down onto the bed type.
Xander’s back hit the bed and the puffy thing turned out to be slippery because the next thing that happened was that they both slid off to the floor. Giles giggled. He wriggled over and straddled Xander’s thighs.
“I’m too old for the floor,” he said.
Giles showed no signs of wanting to get off the floor. He wasn’t giggling any more but he looked like he might start up again at any second. He looked almost joyful. Xander let Giles pull his shirt off over his head unceremoniously. He tossed it at the bed and didn’t look to see if it hit. Giles got to work on Xander’s belt buckle. Xander reached up to return the favor.
“Half a tick.”
Giles rolled away from him and dug both hands into his trouser pockets. He pulled one hand out with his fist wrapped around something. “The machine in the gent’s. Overpriced, I’m sure, but–” Giles opened his fist and a pile of condoms fell out onto the carpet. Xander stared and counted. That was enough for an entire weekend of debauchery, which he doubted they’d be able to get through in one night snowed in here. Never say Giles wasn’t an optimist. Or a canny bastard in his own right, to have planned ahead for this.
“Shall I? Or would you prefer?”
“You wear the condom. Eventually. Last time I did this the guy took his pants off first, which I can’t help but notice you haven’t done yet.”
“My shirt’s off.”
“But not your pants. And you’re showing no signs of fixing this.”
“Doing what?” Though that had an obvious answer: Giles was busy running his hand over Xander’s body, everywhere. Down his ribs, up his stomach, around his pecs, lingering on a nipple, then back down his chest again. Wandering, and looking. Staring, in fact.
Giles said, “Never been to bed with anyone like you.”
“Like me? American? Brown-haired? Male?”
“Who knew you were shallow?”
Giles laughed. “Anyone I’ve ever taken to bed. But–”
“I don’t feel shallow about you.”
The only thing to do in response that was to kiss the man.
Some time later they found the energy to clamber off the floor and into the ridiculous bed. Which was about twice as big as it needed to be, in Xander’s opinion, especially because Giles apparently liked to sleep half-sprawled over his bed partners. Xander was okay with this. He lay awake pinned under a very warm former Watcher, who was nuzzling into his neck contentedly. His ankle still hurt but it was a distant ache, unimportant next to some much nicer aches. Such as the spot that former Watcher had bitten him on the shoulder. That had been the second time, with Xander on hands and knees in front of the fireplace. Romantic, if anything with that much biting could be called romantic. Xander decided it could. And he also decided that he was going to get his own back with the biting in the morning.
“What time is it?” Giles murmured.
Xander squinted at the clock on the bedstand. “Two-ish.”
“Christmas Eve day, then. Hope we’ll make it home for a proper Christmas eve.”
“Don’t need it,” Giles said. He yawned against Xander’s neck and quieted. Asleep, probably. Soon Xander would find out if he snored.
They definitely didn’t need mistletoe, though it would be fun to use it as an excuse. Christmas in England again. This year it had snowed on them. Chances were that next year it would rain. That was about like guessing the sun would rise in the east: next year England would rain on Xander Harris. Over and over. It would bucket, drizzle, spatter, shower, and sleet on him. No to 30SPF sunblock, yes to a pair of boots he’d learn to call wellies. Horrible, terrible, awful weather. He wouldn’t trade it for anything.