Hawk's Blood
written by Claire Bott


Rating: FRT
Spoilers: None indicated.
Summary: A combination answer to the following two challenges: "Giles discovers his destiny" and "the Strange and the Mundane".
Thanks: To Michelle, many thanks for the beta.
Dedication: For Wenchie and Dana, who posted two challenges which bumped into each other in my head and created... a monster!!! Bwa ha ha haaa!!!
Author's Notes: Warning: Issues around child abuse. Transatlantic translation: Okay, because I managed to confuse my long-suffering beta with this one: a tower block is what I think you guys call a "high rise".
Feedback Author: Claire Bott



Maude was sitting in the launderette, waiting for her bedsheets to finish going through the spin cycle. She was reading a book by Fay Weldon. It was all about how awful it was to be a woman, and Maude was finding it rather hard going. She should, she reflected, have brought a Ruth Rendell with her instead. You couldn't really go wrong with Ruth Rendell.

She looked up from the book and stared vacantly at the door, hoping someone would come in that she could talk to. It wasn't really likely, though. It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning, and most people who weren't Maude had better places to be.

Just as she was thinking this, the door burst open and a tall man in a crumpled suede jacket dashed in, almost tripped over Maude's feet, apologised hurriedly, and vaulted over one of the washing machines, dropping neatly out of sight in the gap between it and the wall.

Maude blinked. This was hardly normal behavior in the Hackney Wash-N-Dry. She was just considering the prospect of possibly going over and asking the tall man what he was up to, when the door slammed open again, letting in several large, heavily-built men who were carrying guns in a disturbingly obvious sort of way.

One of the men looked around the launderette, saw no-one but Maude, and fixed a threatening glare on her. "You," he snapped. "Where did he go?"

For all Maude knew, the tall man was a dangerous criminal, and this person currently barking questions at her was a senior policeman. Nevertheless, something made her point at the window in the back wall of the launderette, which, though fairly small and fairly high up, was still low enough that an athletic man could have reached it, and large enough that a slender man could have climbed through it. "That way," she said, then added helpfully, "It opens on an alley-way round the back."

The gun-waving man, correctly judging that neither he nor his friends were slim enough to fit through the window, even if he could have got up there, hissed, "Damn," and ran out again, followed by the others and yelling things like, "We'll have to cut him off!"

Maude waited until the footsteps had died away, then went over to the washing-machine and peered down behind it. "They've gone," she said.

The tall man stood up, and vaulted the machine again. Maude was impressed. Now that she could get a better look at him she could see that he was handsome, very handsome in fact, intellectual-looking without being soft, greying slightly at the temples in a very distinguished sort of way. It had been several years since Maude had been standing this close to an attractive man, and she wasn't entirely sure what to do about it. She thought it would probably be a breach of etiquette to ask a man fleeing for his life if he wanted to go out on a date. Frantically, she groped in her pocket for a bit of scrap paper and a pen, and - miracle of miracles - found both.

"If you need a - a safe-house or anything," she blurted, scribbling rapidly. "This is my phone number." She handed it over.

The tall man looked startled. "You don't know anything about me."

*I know that I wouldn't kick you out of bed for eating biscuits*, Maude thought. "Oh well," she stammered, "you look trustworthy."

The man looked at the piece of paper for a moment longer, then said "Thank you," pocketed it, and ran out of the launderette, leaving the door swinging behind him. Maude watched him go.

* * * * *

Giles pelted down the street, dodging startled shoppers as he went. *Well*, he thought grimly to himself, *Welcome back to England*.

A few days before, he'd got off the plane at Gatwick, aching and gritty-eyed with jet-lag. It was only mid-afternoon here, but his body was telling him that it was the morning after a night when he hadn't slept at all. He never could sleep on planes.

He hailed a taxi, and gave it the address of one of the Watchers' hostels, set up so that those who were coming back after a long time abroad would have somewhere to stay while they got themselves together.

It looked like a private house, of course. When he rang the weathered plastic doorbell, there were slow footsteps inside, then a ratty little man poked his head out suspiciously. "Yes?"

"Rupert Giles," he said wearily. "Back from America."

The little man's eyes lit up. "Oh really? Bet you could tell us some tales, eh?"

Giles made himself smile. "I could," he agreed, "But I'm just really tired just at the moment."

The ratty man opened the door properly, and waved him upstairs. "Go on up. Room Five. You can have a shower if yer want, but don't use all the hot water. It's me that gets the flak when there's no hot."

"Right," Giles mumbled. He made his way up the creaking stairs, carrying his holdall, careful not to touch the banister, which looked as though you could catch something from it. Room Five, when he reached it, was small, cheerless, cold and damp. The wallpaper was peeling, and the only furniture was a bed in one corner. The mattress was hard, the pillows harder, the sheets were yellowing and the blanket smelled as though it had recently been used as a toilet facility by an incontinent dog. Giles dropped his bag on the floor, heeled his shoes off, and crawled into the so-called bed still in his clothes. He spent several minutes trying to find a sleeping position that didn't involve touching the actual sheets at all, then gave up and dropped into sleep like a stone into a well.

At about three in the morning, he slammed into stark, irrevocable wakefulness. *Stop it*, he told his body-clock. *I'm in England. It's the middle of the night here*.

*Tough*, snapped the body-clock. *You're awake now. Deal with it.*

His body clock, he couldn't help noticing, seemed to have acquired a distinct Californian twang.

Now that he was awake, the excruciating uncomfortableness of the bed was becoming obvious. He shifted about, but there was no point where he didn't feel as if he was being attacked by a lot of people with sharp knives. In fact, he would rather have been attacked by a lot of people with sharp knives. At least then he could have fought them off.

In the room above him, someone started to snore.

*Right*, Giles thought. *That's it. I am not staying in this bloody place for one moment longer*. He sat up, slipped his shoes on, grabbed his bag, and left.

Outside in the streets, he began to feel better. Even in London, the air was crisp and sharp this early in the morning, and, in spite of the heavy hold-all on his back, it was pleasant to be able to just wander, without anywhere in particular to get to, or any - Responsibilities.

*Buffy*, he thought, and then *Willow. Dawn. Xander. Tara. Anya. Oh Lord. Was I a fool? Am I being selfish?*

Buffy. Golden child, more than daughter. He'd hoped, right up until the moment his flight started boarding, that she might come to the airport for a last-minute reconciliation, for forgiveness and farewell. She hadn't.

*I can't stand to see you suffer*, he'd said to her. So instead he'd come hundreds of miles, to a place where, though he knew she must be suffering, knew it and ached with it, there was nothing at all he could do.

"Clever idea," he muttered aloud, his breath making little puffs of white in the early-morning chill. "Really highly intelligent."

All right. There was nothing he could do about it now. Right now, he needed somewhere to stay. Last time he'd come back, that hadn't been an issue. He'd stayed in one of the Watcher's hostels, sunk so far in numb misery that he'd barely even noticed the décor (or lack of it) until the miraculous phone call that had brought him running back across the Atlantic.

Not an option this time. He'd made up his mind, for good or ill, and he was sticking to it. However, that didn't mean he had to stay in a place where he would also stick to the sheets.

He ran quickly through a mental list of old friends who lived in London, who would probably still be living in London even after whatever upheavals six years could bring, whose address he remembered, and who he'd known well enough that he could turn up without warning on their doorstep.

Put like that, the pickings were remarkably slim. In fact, he could only think of one person who he could be pretty sure wouldn't just turf him out onto the street. Peter Harris, who, in spite of the fact that he was a perfectly mundane professor of linguistics at UCL, had known more than, perhaps, he ought to have done about the secret side of Giles's life. Peter, who'd always been willing to stay up till four in the morning, if that was what it took, helping to research whatever obscure trail Giles had stumbled on, helping out just for the fun of it. The last he'd known, Peter had lived in Muswell Hill. Hopefully, he still did. The Tube wouldn't be running at this time in the morning; he'd have to get a night bus down there.

* * * * *

About an hour later, Giles was standing outside Peter's door, hesitating. Peter Harris opened the door in his dressing gown, squinting irritably in the early morning light. "What kind of time do you call thi- good God. Rupert? Rupert Giles?"

Giles grinned at him. "Hello, Peter. It's been a while."

"Well." Peter leaned on the door-jamb, blinking at him. "Well. You'd better come in. I'll make us a cup of tea."

Giles felt a wave of contentment wash over him. It was good to be back among people who understood about the important things in life.

* * * * *

"So," Peter asked, when they'd both got settled, "How was America?"

Giles shrugged. "Big. Hot. It's a strange place. Go into a clothes shop and ask for pants, they'll give you a pair of trousers. I won't even attempt to describe the reaction you get if you walk into a stationery shop and ask for a rubber."

Peter waved a hand impatiently. "I don't mean that. I mean - what you went over to do. You know."

Giles nodded. "Yes. All right. It's a long story."

"I've got the time."

Giles sat back among the sofa cushions, and launched into the story. It took a while, even stripped down to essentials.

"So," he said at last, "I had to leave. I didn't want to, Peter. But -" he faltered, feeling his throat close around the words. He looked down, blinking, and hurriedly scooped an overflowing spoonful of sugar from the bowl into his tea-cup.

"Well now," Peter said, "I think you're going to find you've made a mistake there."

Giles looked up, startled.

Peter leaned over, and gently took the cup away from him. "You don't like it that sweet." he went on, "You're going to have the devil of a time drinking it with that much sugar in. I'll just go and tip it down the sink for you."

He was in the kitchen for a lot longer than it would have taken to pour tea down the drain. By the time he came back, Giles had himself under control again.

He took the fresh cup of tea that Peter poured for him, and smiled gratefully. "Thank you."

Peter smiled back. "Don't mention it. Now look, Rupert, do you need somewhere to stay?"

"I do, as it happens. Do you mind?"

"Don't be silly. Of course not. I don't have a spare room, I'm afraid, but you're most welcome to the sofa. Will that be all right?"

"Absolutely. Thank you, again."

"I said don't mention it. Now, if you don't mind, I think I might go back to bed. Just for a short nap. I'm not exactly used to having my beauty sleep interrupted by people hammering on my door in the small hours."

"Oh, aren't you? Lucky old you."

After Peter had gone, Giles lay back on the sofa for a while and tried to get a little sleep himself. It was no use. His body clock was informing him that it was quite early in the evening, and that he had, in any case, been asleep all day. At last he gave up, got up, and went over to Peter's bookshelves, browsing for something to read. He'd just settled on The Compleat Collected Molesworth when someone rang the doorbell.

There was no sound of footsteps from upstairs. Clearly, Peter was now sleeping too deeply to be easily woken. The doorbell rang again. Giles decided he might as well go to answer it.

As Peter had done a couple of hour earlier, he swung the door open to find someone he knew, someone he'd known for a while, someone he hadn't been expecting to see.

"Ethan," Giles said wearily, "I haven't been in the country for more than a day yet. Don't you think you might wait just a little longer before attempting to make my life a burden to me?"

"Ripper," Ethan said quickly, "I need help."

"Oh really? You need help from me? That's a turn-up for the books. Well, let me see - how does 'no' sound?"

"Ripper, *please*. They're coming, they keep coming after me, I can't stop them. I can't hide, they find all the places I know. Please. Help."

"Who, exactly, is coming after you?"

"I don't know. It was a summoning, I did it wrong and these things came through instead, they look like people but they're not and they just keep coming and I can't stop them."

"Hold on one moment. You are being pursued by indefatigable malevolent creatures and you chose to lead them *here*? One of my oldest friends is asleep upstairs. How far behind you are these things?"

Ethan glanced nervously over his shoulder. "Not - not far."

Giles stormed out of the door, swinging it shut behind him. He grabbed Ethan by the shoulder and began to haul him down the path, out of the gate, along the street.

"Where are we going?" Ethan demanded.

"Anywhere that isn't here!" Giles hissed at him. "You can drag me into your mess, all right, fine, I'm used to that. One thing I will *not* do is put my friends in danger if I can help it. If you're being chased by something, we're getting as far away from Peter's house as we can."

Ethan wasn't listening. He was looking over his shoulder, his face slack with fear. "Ripper - they're coming. They're here."

Giles looked back. A group of twelve men were walking along the street, nonchalantly carrying large, impressive-looking guns. They spotted Giles and Ethan at the same time as he saw them, and one of them raised his arm, aiming at the pair of them.

Giles dived over the hedge of a nearby garden, pulling Ethan with him. "All right," he muttered. "Listen. We're going to split up."

"No - "

"Yes. It's probably the only chance either of us has of surviving right now. Give them two different moving targets. I assume they're going to be chasing me as well, now that they've seen the two of us together?"

"Uh - yes."

"Bloody marvellous. All right, there's a flat at the top of a tower block in Clapham." He gave him the address. "Get there. Any way you can. Do your best to lose them. I'll meet you there in an hour." Shoving Ethan away from him, he bolted round the back of the house, vaulted the back garden fence, and was away down the road.

* * * * *

One hour later, Giles was standing on the balcony of the Clapham flat he'd given Ethan the address of, and waiting. It was fifteen stories up, but he wasn't that bothered about the height. What was bothering him was that some people, or some things, were trying to kill him, and he had no idea why.

"Ripper?" Ethan's voice, distorted through the door, sounded plaintive. "Ripper, are you in there? There isn't a doorbell or anything here."

Giles stalked across the flat, and wrenched the door open. "There's a reason for that," he said icily. "This is a Watcher's safe-house, for use in emergencies. The only way to get in or out is if you are an accredited Watcher, otherwise the door might just as well be part of the wall."

Ethan stepped inside, nervously. "And - we're protected here, are we?"

"It's tighter than a gnat's arse, all right? Therefore we have all the time in the world, which means you have no excuse for not explaining to me what exactly is going on." He stalked back out on to the balcony, and Ethan followed him. "You can start," Giles went on, "By telling me how exactly you knew I was staying round at Peter's."

Ethan turned away from him, looking out over London. The bright morning had turned into a grey day, the clouds hanging soggy in the sky like dirty tea-towels. "Well," he said slowly, "You remember when I - ah - slipped a little something into your drink and temporarily turned you into a demon?"

"Vividly."

"It wasn't the only thing I put in there. I used a tracer-spell as well. Basically, it means that I always know where you are." He took a deep breath. "So I knew when you came back. I knew it when you were still only half-way across the Atlantic. And - well, I wanted to set up a little welcome home party, as it were. But for what I had in mind, I needed money, you see. Some of the ingredients are bloody expensive, it's ridiculous what they charge. So I took on a little job. Something a friend of mine had been nagging me to do for some time. He wanted me to - get rid of a business associate of his. Untraceably."

"Kill him with magic," Giles said bluntly.

Ethan winced. "You can be so crude sometimes, Ripper... but yes, in essence. So I tried to summon up something to take care of it, but it went wrong. These things came through instead."

Giles took off his glasses, cleaned them carefully, and slid them back on to his nose. "So what you are in fact saying is that all of this, this pursuit, which you asked for my help with and which you almost dragged an innocent into, is the direct result of you trying, yet again, to make my life a misery?"

"Ah - well - if you put it like that, I suppose so. Yes."

Giles lunged forwards, grabbed Ethan by the front of his jacket, swung him round, and hoisted him over the balcony railing, dangling him over the drop. "Give me one good reason," he said levelly, "Why I shouldn't let go right now."

"Ripper -"

"One good reason, Ethan. Just one."

Ethan clutched desperately at Giles's wrists. "Ripper, please -"

"You've got ten seconds."

"Ripper," Ethan whispered, looking past Giles's shoulder, his eyes widening, "Look."

Giles twisted to look behind him. In the living-room, in the middle of the flat that Giles *knew* was shielded and protected and warded until the most powerful demons in Hell would have had trouble getting in, the men with guns were appearing, coalescing out of the air, thin still, transparent and misty, but getting stronger every moment -

He dumped Ethan on the balcony and ran for the bedroom, the other man close behind him. As he slammed the door to and bolted it, he could see the gun men growing more solid, more real. A moment later, there was the sound of thudding, of something slamming again and again into the solid bedroom door.

"You said this place was protected, damn you!" Ethan cried.

Giles rounded on him. "It is! Nothing should be able to get in, not unless they were a Watcher or had someone inside helping them." He took a step forwards. "Ethan - have you set me up?"

"No! Ripper, do you really think I'd do that?"

Giles sighed and sat down on the bed, suddenly feeling very tired. "I don't know. I don't know any more what you'd do or wouldn't do. I used to, but that was a long time ago now. You've changed. You've changed more than I thought. You always were sadistic and out of control - but contracting out as a hired assassin? How did you manage to fall that low?"

Ethan's face twisted, tightening. "Well, you should know. You were the one who left. You were the one who walked out. Just one little mistake, we could have gone on as we were, but oh no, you had to get cold feet and ruin everything by running off, didn't you?"

Giles was on his feet before he realized he was moving. "One little mistake? Is that what you call it? Someone died, Ethan. A man died and you call that one little mistake?"

"Don't get all righteous with me -"

"Hang on. Shut up a moment."

"And don't start trying to order me around, either -"

"No, I mean it. Shut up. Listen."

Ethan listened. "I can't hear anything."

"Yes. Precisely. Neither can I. The banging's stopped."

"Maybe they've gone away?" Ethan suggested hopefully.

"And why exactly would they want to do that? These things, whatever they are, have, by your own account, been chasing you from pillar to post for some time. They seem to be remarkably eager for your company. Though I must say I have absolutely no idea why. They finally get you cornered here - and you think they might have gone away? I really think not."

"Well then, why's the noise stopped? Do you think it's a trap?"

"Why bother? If they've got enough firepower to get into this flat in the first place, they've certainly got enough to break that door down without resorting to traps."

Ethan licked his lips apprehensively. "Well then, what?"

Before Giles could answer, the banging started again. Softer than it had been, but growing louder with every moment. Ethan shot a look of fear towards the locked door. The noise increased again.

And Giles realized. "I'm an idiot," he said softly. "It's not as if I haven't run into the same kind of thing before."

Ethan whirled on him. "What? What kind of thing? What are you talking about?"

"Fear. Those things, whatever they are, they feed off you. Your fear. Think about it. When I was threatening to drop you off the balcony, that gave them enough power to break in. When you got angry and forgot to be afraid, they were powerless. When you started to be frightened again, they got stronger."

"But -"

"No! Not 'but'. Listen for once. *You have to not be frightened*. It's vital. You have to stop being afraid of them."

"Too late," Ethan whispered. "Oh dear God. Too late."

"Too late? What do you mean, too late?"

"They - they're changing. Outside the door. I can - I can feel them. They're changing - oh no. Please no."

"Ethan, what? What are they turning into that's so terrible?"

"My father," Ethan cried, his voice cracking; and the door burst open.

The thing that stood there was the form of a man crudely carved from darkness and pain, and it was too large for the room. Too large for any room. Even an open field would have been too small to hold it. It moved forwards with a terrible purpose, ignoring Giles, heading for Ethan, who had collapsed into a trembling heap on the floor and was babbling something incoherent.

Giles's first thought was *Ethan's father is a demon? Well, that explains everything.* Then, *But it doesn't look like any demon I ever heard of...*

In another moment, he knew. This was not the face Ethan's father had worn to the world. Not what friends and strangers would have seen when he walked down the street. But this was the shape a terrified child had remembered, down all the years from that day to this. The shape of fear. Of pain. Of the dark.

Then he heard what it was that Ethan was whimpering, his voice high and shrill like a little boy's. *Daddy. Stop. Please. Daddy. Don't. Stop. Please. Daddy. Please.*

When fear can walk across a room wearing a face out of nightmare, you are in a place where feelings can make a shape in the world. Giles closed his eyes, and let a hard, sharp, glittering anger fill him until it overflowed. When he opened his eyes again, he was holding a sword.

He stepped in front of the advancing thing. "This ends," he said coldly. "This ends now."

It looked down at him. "Foolish man," it sighed, with something in its tone that was almost like pity. "Little, foolish man. Why do you fight? The unspeakable happens daily. People are killed, hurt, damaged irreparably. You cannot stop it all. You cannot save everyone. Why even bother to try?"

The voice was soothing, seductive. It was impossible to argue. The thing was telling the truth. Better to surrender now. Better to...

No.

He raised his head. "You're right. I can't save everyone. But - I might be able to save some people. And I can't stop everything. But I will stop you."

He struck. Not at the heart. The thing had no heart. But at the core, the place where the darkness swirled most strongly. For a moment, the blade and the darkness were one.

Then Giles was standing weaponless, and the creature was gone.

* * * * *

Giles shrugged. "I don't know," he said, helplessly. "But if I had to hazard a guess - I'd say that having his past thrown in his face like that has - broken him, somehow."

"And believe me, I'm not unsympathetic," Peter answered. "I just don't see why he needs to have his catatonic breakdown on my settee in particular."

Giles sighed and pushed his hands through his hair, shoving it back. "All right. You've made your point. I'll find somewhere else."

"For him?"

"For both of us, I suppose. I can hardly abandon him like that. I don't think he could even feed himself just now."

"Well." Peter got to his feet. "All right, then." He started to leave the room, then came to an awkward halt midway and turned, looking slightly marooned in the middle of an expanse of carpet. "Rupert - you do know, don't you, that if it was just you, you'd be welcome to stay for as long as you wanted to? But this man - who I don't even know, and who, from the little I do know about him, seems to be rather unpleasant - why should I put myself out for him?"

Giles stood up and walked over to the sofa where Ethan was lying completely still, his eyes wide and empty, his pupils shrunk to pinpricks. "Funny," he murmured, "That's just what I was thinking."

* * * * *

Maude was sitting curled up in an armchair, reading a dog-eared Georgette Heyer and reading biscuits, when the phone rang. Hastily she put the book down on the arm of the chair, brushed the crumbs from her lap, and went to answer it.

"Hello?" said an unfamiliar male voice. "Is that - ah - Maude?"

Her first thought was *telesales*, though admittedly the man had a more cultured voice than the average telesales person. "Er, yes?" she said cautiously. "What did you want?"

The man on the other end of the line paused. "You gave me your number," he said at last. "In the launderette. You said, if I needed -"

"Oh!" Maude clapped a hand to her mouth. The man from the launderette! She'd forgotten. Or, not forgotten. Pushed it out of her mind. She'd always been such a sensible person, right from when she was a small child; but handing out your phone number to strange fugitives, even very handsome ones, was hardly a sensible thing to do. It had been so very out of character. So much so, that she hadn't really known how to deal with it, except by pretending that it hadn't happened.

But the problem with that approach was, it *had* happened. Here was the result of it, explaining across the phone lines that he needed a place to stay for a few days, with a friend...

The rational, down-to-earth side of Maude, the side that had been ruling her actions since she was about five, was telling her that assenting to this would be a very bad idea. She would be opening her home to two complete strangers, one of whom was certainly on the run from someone, and either or both of whom might turn out to be burglars, murderers, rapists, terrorists, or worse. The best thing to do, the voice of reason told her firmly, would be to say, "Sorry, I'm afraid I've changed my mind," or better yet, "I think you might have a wrong number," and then put the phone down.

There was a reason why Maude failed to fall in with this excellent plan of action. The reason was not entirely to do with the striking attractiveness of the launderette man, though she would have been lying if she'd said that had nothing at all to do with it. But there was another reason, one that Maude herself would have found very hard to articulate, except to say that her life was dull, had always been dull, that she had reconciled herself to the dullness long ago, but that this phone call, and the original incident in the launderette, seemed to be the opening of a door that led into a different world, one full of bright colours and exciting things, and she couldn't bring herself to close that door, no matter how much risk she was putting herself in, no matter what dangerous things might come through it...

"Yes," Maude said firmly down the phone to the man whose name she still didn't even know, "Of course you'd both be welcome to stay."

* * * * *

Whatever else the launderette fugitive might have been, he was certainly efficient. Within two hours, the friend (whose name, it turned out, was Ethan) was ensconced in the spare room upstairs, and the handsome fugitive (whose name, it turned out, was Rupert) was sitting on Maude's sofa, drinking tea and nibbling on a Custard Cream.

"Would you prefer a bourbon?" Maude blurted, then blushed painfully. Here was this man, who clearly had a terribly thrilling life, and she was offering him a choice of biscuits? How gauche of her.

But Rupert only smiled a bit distractedly, and went on dunking the Custard Cream in his tea. "No, thanks. That's fine."

Maude leant forwards. "So - why were those men chasing you like that?"

"Ah." He sat back. "Well, that's a bit of a long story. And if I was to explain it to you, I'd have to explain a lot of other things as well - some of which you'd probably have rather a lot of trouble believing."

"Try me," Maude offered.

Rupert shrugged. "All right then. You're probably going to think that I'm clinically insane before I've got halfway through, but - well, we'll see."

An hour and a half later, Maude's chin was dangling somewhere around her knees. When Rupert stopped speaking, she had to wait a moment before she could hoist it back into place. "Oh," she said at last. "Oh. Well. Oh."

He smiled, a bit sadly. "See? I said you wouldn't believe me."

Maude thought about that. "Actually, I think I do believe you."

"Really?" He cocked an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Because -" Maude struggled for words. "Because it all sounds so ridiculous. If you were going to tell me a lie, wouldn't you tell me a more plausible one? The only reason you could have for telling me all of that would be if it was true."

He grinned at her. "So you believe my story because it's so unbelieveable?"

Maude smiled sheepishly. "Well, yes."

For a moment, something flickered in his eyes, and his face became withdrawn, unreadable.

"Oh, have I upset you?" Maude flapped. "Was it something I said?"

He shook his head. "No. I was just thinking - Xander would have said 'Your logic does not resemble our earth logic.' Or something along those lines."

"Do you - miss them?" Maude asked timidly.

He nodded. "Yes. All of them. Buffy most of all." He lay back against the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. "I hope she'll be all right. I think she will. I was so sure, before I left, that I was doing the right thing. Now I'm just confused again. I seem to spend my life being confused about one thing or another."

"Me, too," Maude offered.

"Oh, really?" He lifted his head from the sofa-cushions and looked at her. "Nice to know it's not just me."

* * * * *

The next few days were - well, lovely. For a start, it was so nice to come home and find someone had already gone shopping and cooked dinner. Rupert was startlingly domesticated. She told him so, but he only shrugged. "I've been a bachelor all my life, and squalor becomes rather tedious after the first decade or so." She offered to pay him for the shopping, but he wouldn't let her. He was putting her to enough inconvenience, he said, and the least he could do was contribute something to the household expenses.

Not that Maude felt it was an inconvenience. All she really needed to do was to take up food on a tray to Ethan before sitting down to eat herself. The first night she did it, she had to feed him by hand, his mouth opening and shutting automatically as she shoveled the food in, his eyes blank and mindless. The second night, he took the fork from her half-way through, and began silently feeding himself.

The third night, he said something. It was when Maude came up for the second time, to collect the tray and the empty plate. He was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling with empty eyes.

"It hurts," he said quietly.

Maude actually jumped, it was so unexpected. "What hurts?" she asked in tones that she hoped were reassuring.

"Everything."

She waited, but he didn't elaborate. After a while, she picked up the tray and crept downstairs.

"He said something!" she burst out, setting the tray down on the kitchen worktop. "Do you think that means he's getting better?"

Rupert, who was piling the dirty plates beside the sink ready for washing, didn't look at her. "Possibly," he said coldly. "Possibly not. I find it rather hard to care."

"You -" Maude faltered "You - don't really like him at all, do you?"

He still didn't look round. "Considering that he spent approximately two decades devoting a considerable portion of his leisure time to finding interesting new ways of annoying me, I rather think that I am excused from liking him."

"But now you know why -"

"An explanation does not necessarily constitute an excuse."

She leaned back against the worktops and looked at him, her head cocked a little to one side. "And yet - you bring him here, you make sure he's taken care of. You didn't have to do that."

"Ah, well." He started running hot water into the sink. "Liking someone is very different from feeling a sense of responsibility."

Maude stood and watched him for a moment. You're an extremely good person, really, aren't you, she thought, and realized a moment too late that she'd said it out loud.

"Me?" He did turn around then. "What about you? You invite two complete strangers into your house without turning a hair, you don't even ask when we might be thinking of leaving - and it's been days now. You certainly didn't have to do any of that. You didn't even know us."

Maude blushed an unbecoming shade of scarlet. "Oh but - but that's different."

"Really? How?"

"Because - because it wasn't about compassion, or, or a sense of responsibility, or anything, it was just - I couldn't stand to not do it. I couldn't stand - I've got a neat little house in a neat little area and a neat little job as a secretary and neat little friends who come round for tea sometimes, and I just couldn't stand it any more! I felt like I was buried sometimes. So it wasn't altruism. Or anything like that. It was selfishness, really. I wanted something different."

He smiled gently at her. "Your selfishness comes in a very appealing form, I must say. I wish more people could be selfish like you."

She took a step towards him. "Rupert -"

"Yes?"

"The sink's overflowing."

He whirled round to find the water spilling over the edge and down onto the ancient lino. "Bollocks! Pass me some kitchen towels - we need a bloody mop, where do you keep the mop?"

Laughing, Maude went over to help him clear up.

* * * * *

The next evening, as Maude was laying the table, she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and looked up. Ethan was standing in the doorway, looking uncertain. She swallowed down her surprise, and smiled encouragingly at him. "Hello. It's nice to see you downstairs. We were just about to eat."

Before he could answer, Rupert came in from the kitchen, holding a steaming hot-pot with Maude's oven gloves. "Get the place-mats out, this thing's hot - oh." He set the hot-pot carefully down on the table. "Ethan."

The other man nodded. "Ripper."

"Don't call me that."

"Oh yes," Ethan sneered, "And why not, pray?"

"Because," Rupert enunciated with unnecessary emphasis, "That. Is. Not. My. Name."

The tension between the two men was shattered by a thunderous pounding at the door. "I'll get it!" Maude squeaked, relieved of an excuse to get out of the room.

There were three men standing on the doorstep. The one in the middle was small, skinny, and unpleasant-looking. The other two were large, heavily-built, and unpleasant-looking.

"Er - what is it, please?" Maude asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

"Rain," the man in the middle said briefly. "We want rain."

Maude blinked. "You want - rain?"

"Yes. Now."

"Um, could you just hold on a minute please?" Maude shut the door hastily, and ran back to the kitchen. "There's a nasty little man out there with two bodyguards and he says he wants it to rain or he wants rain or something and what do I do?" she gasped, all in a breath.

Rupert looked up. "He wants Rayne?"

"Um, yes."

"Ethan. Care to explain what you've been up to?"

Ethan's face had gone a rather unhealthy shade of grey. "You remember I told you I'd agreed to - get rid of someone?"

"Yes."

"Well, I rather suspect that this is the man I made the agreement with. He must have found out I was here somehow - he's got people everywhere."

"Well, why don't you just trot out there and explain to the nice gentleman that you went and ballsed up the spell, so would he like his money back?"

"Why not? Why not? Because he'd kill me. Slowly, in several interestingly painful ways."

"Now do please explain to me why I ought to care."

"Rupert!" Maude hissed. "You said - remember?"

He looked at her, and she almost flinched. His eyes were hard as stones, his face shuttered. "What did I say?"

"About - about the sense of responsibility? Remember?"

His shoulders slumped slightly, his face relaxing a little from those frightening, inflexible hard lines. "All right. Yes. You're right." He sighed, and straightened up. "All right. Maude, we're going to have to go out the back door, so -"

"Wait!" she cried. "Wait! I - I'm coming too."

"You don't have to -"

"Yes, I do! Stop arguing and come on, there's no time!"

* * * * *

"Where are we actually going, exactly?" Maude panted, as the three of them clambered over the back garden fence.

"King's Cross," Rupert grunted.

"And from there?"

"Bath. There's someone I know there. And I'm hoping the influence of Ethan's unfriendly associate won't extend outside of London."

* * * * *

Harriet Weston opened the door of her Bath flat, and gave Giles the same welcoming smile that she'd always met him with when, as a grubby-kneed ten-year-old, he'd run round to her house for cake and biscuits.

"Hello, poppet. Come in, won't you? And your friends too." She was wearing a dressing-gown and slippers, Giles noticed with a small pang of guilt. He seemed to be making a habit of waking his old friends up at unearthly hours.

"Sorry to get you up, Harriet. I didn't expect the train to take so long, but the bloody thing broke down because of the wrong kind of leaves on the line or something, and it took two hours before it got moving again -"

"Darling, stop apologizing. If I minded, I'd have said so. Now stop skulking around in the corridor, and come in."

They trooped into the flat, and stood somewhat awkwardly in the small hall.

"Now," Harriet said briskly, "You both look tired. Why don't you just go straight in to the spare room? There's two beds and they're both made. Rupert and I will sit and chat about old times. The loo's just across the hall if you need it."

"All right," Giles said, when Ethan and Maude had been efficiently shooed into the spare room and he was sitting in the flat's living room with Harriet opposite him, "What's all this really about?"

She blinked at him innocently. "All what, dear?"

"All this 'Rupert-and-I-will-talk-about-old-times' business. What are you up to? I know perfectly well that you're up to something."

She sighed. "Yes. You're right. I needed a word with you on your own."

"What about?"

"Well - did you ever meet my niece Emma?"

He shrugged. "Possibly. I quite honestly can't recall. You always had so many nieces and nephews hanging about the place."

"Yes. Well, in any case, I've kept in touch with her."

"How nice for you. Were the details of your familial relationships really what you wanted to talk about?"

"Rupert dear, don't interrupt. It's a terribly bad habit. What I was about to say was, Emma is now a powerful witch, and an excellent seer to boot. This Monday, she called me up and said she had something important to tell me." Harriet paused. "She said, 'Auntie, in a few days' time you will be visited by three people. One comes to you from over the water, one from under the earth, and one through the fire. When they come, call me and let me know.' Now, you've only recently come back from America, haven't you? That's over the water, or I'm a Chinaman. So what I wanted to ask you about was, do the other two fit?"

He thought of the top floor of a Clapham tower block. A boy's voice crying. "Ethan's... been through fire," he said slowly.

"And the lady? Maude?"

*I felt like I was buried sometimes*, she'd said. "Yes," he answered. "I think 'under the earth' fits for Maude."

Harriet let out a long sigh. "Well then, I'll have to call Emma. It's a bit late tonight, I think. I'll ring her in the morning. She might want us to go down to where she lives with her friends."

"Her friends?"

"Oh, they call it a coven or some such silliness. I don't see why people need to make up silly names for things, I really don't. Anyway, I'm off to bed. I'm an old lady, I need my sleep. You'll have to take the sofa, I suppose, seeing as the other two have the spare room."

Giles groaned. "I've been sleeping on far too many sofas lately. Peter's, Maude's and now yours. I think I may be in the process of doing permanent damage to my spinal column."

"Well, that's as may be. I'll see you in the morning." She stood up, pulling her dressing-gown around her. "Goodnight, dear."

"Harriet?"

She turned in the doorway and looked at him. "What is it?"

"When you asked Emma what would happen if the three people *didn't* come, what did she say?"

"What makes you think I asked her that, dear?"

"I know you. You asked. What did she say?"

Harriet sighed. "She said, 'Then my vision was wrong. And there is no hope.'"

* * * * *

"Wow," Maude breathed, as they clambered out of Harriet's old Morris Minor the next morning, "When you said it was a house in the country, I didn't think you meant anything like this."

The building loomed above them, a mass of grey brick. Harriet, locking the car up, seemed unfazed. "Oh, I think one of Emma's friends owns it. Well, shall we go in?"

The corridor inside was dark and seemed to be deserted.

"Coo-ee!" Harriet called. "Emma dear! Are you there? I've brought them along."

"Oh Auntie," said a resigned voice from the darkness. "You do know how to spoil a dramatic moment, don't you?" The owner of the voice approached, looking slightly ghostly as she materialized out of the dimness. "I had a big speech all planned," she went on, "About the terrible peril and how we must face it boldly - but it would sound a bit wrong after, 'coo-ee, I've brought them along.'" She gave Harriet an affectionate peck on the cheek.

"Emma darling," Harriet said briskly, "Simply because we are all at risk from some unspecified peril, there is no reason for you to start talking like a minor character from Lord of the Rings. Whatever this trouble is, it is doubtless bad enough without that. Anyway." She waved her hand at the other three. "Here they are."

Emma turned to look at them. "Oh yes. These are the ones foretold." She turned to Ethan. "You are - fire. So beautiful, so dangerous. What you touch, you burn." Then Maude. "Earth, yes? Yes. Stolid and reliable. Not a showy element. Not gaudy. But strong. Strong as the roots of mountains." Last, Giles. "Oh, your element is written so plain upon you. Water that gives life. Water that drowns. The ocean is so calm and so still - but the depths go further than any man can measure, and there is darkness there."

There was a silence.

It was broken by Harriet saying, "Emma dear - I did say that there was no need for you to go around talking like someone out of Lord of the Rings, didn't I?"

Emma smiled. "Yes, Auntie."

"And you did hear me, didn't you?"

"Yes, Auntie."

"Well, that's good. I would so hate to feel that I was wasting my breath. Shall we go through and meet your friends?"

"You mean the coven?"

"Silly name, but yes, I do."

* * * * *

They were out in the grounds, sitting cross-legged in a ring. One of the women rose to her feet as they approached. "Welcome, travelers. I am Regan. Will you step into the circle?"

Ethan folded his arms. "I am doing nothing at all until there is an explanation of exactly what is going on here."

Regan looked doubtful. "It's quite a long story..."

"In that case," Harriet pointed out, "the sooner you begin it the sooner you will finish it. And I must say that this young man, though rather rude, has a point. What exactly do you want these people to do?"

Regan clasped her hands lightly in front of her. "Very well, then. What do you know of the tale of Merlin and Nimue?"

It was Giles who answered. "Not a great deal. Nimue is supposed to have seduced Merlin, persuaded him to teach her his magic, then tricked him and trapped him in a cave... that's all I know."

Regan nodded. "That's all most people know. The truth was rather different. Nimue and Merlin were indeed lovers, and she did serve as his apprentice for a time - but the end of the story has been twisted. What happened was that Merlin foresaw a great peril coming upon the world in the far future, a peril only he himself could turn aside. So he and Nimue cast a great spell, which trapped Merlin's essence and stored it in a separate sprit plane that they built with their magic. They warded it, to keep the power of his essence from being carelessly released before the time foretold. The wards were set to be such that only the people Merlin had foreseen coming to free him would be able to undo them."

"And - are we the people he foresaw, then?" Maude whispered.

"You are," Emma replied. "You are, and you have come."

"And I," Ethan put in, "Am going." He turned on his heel, and began to walk away.

"Wait!" Regan stretched out her hand, as if imploring. "Don't you understand? A terrible darkness is coming. Unless Merlin is freed to fight it, the world will be swallowed up by Chaos and Old Night."

"And you say that as if it's a bad thing," Ethan drawled.

"But don't you see -"

"No," Giles interrupted. "He doesn't." He caught Ethan by the collar, and pulled him forwards until the two men were eye-ball to eye-ball. "Ethan. You're going to do this, because if you don't, I will personally thrash you to within an inch of your life. Is that perfectly clear?"

Ethan shoved him away. "All right, Ripper. There's no need to be quite so importunate about it. I know you have an insatiable desire for my company, but you could make it clear in a slightly more decorous way."

Giles shrugged. "Sneer as much as you like. You're going to do what you need to, that's all I care about."

"Will you," Regan repeated, "step into the circle?"

"Wait!" Harriet cut in. "I would like to have a short word with Rupert first." She took him by the arm, and drew him away from the others. "You do understand, don't you," she said softly, "that whatever you find in this spirit plane, you will all have to face it together?"

"I have no objection to that," Giles huffed. "Ethan, on the other hand -"

"No. Hush. Stop that. You are not, hard though I am finding it to believe at the moment, ten years old any more. You cannot run to the teacher complaining that the other boy started it. You have to be responsible."

"I am responsible!" Giles protested. "In fact I've been told that I'm too responsible."

"Well, you aren't showing many signs of it just now. And - Rupert?"

"Yes?"

"You told me he'd been through fire. A burn can leave ugly scars, so I'm told, but I would never have thought, in the days when you used to sit at my kitchen table and eat all my biscuits, that you would have grown into the kind of man who would look down on a person for being damaged." She turned and walked back to the circle. Giles followed, frowning slightly.

One by one, the three of them stepped into the circle.

"You will need to clasp hands," Regan told them. The two men hesitated. Maude reached out eagerly, holding one of their hands in each of hers.

The witches began to chant, a low, musical susurrus that sounded to Giles like the buzzing of bees in the hedgerows, and was just as soporific. He closed his eyes.

And opened them to find himself standing on a wide, featureless plain. Alone.

He looked around. There was no sign of either of the other two. "Maude?" he called. Then, reluctantly, "Ethan?"

No reply.

He stood and waited.

After a while, he sat down. Then lay down. He closed his eyes again. It really was very warm...

"Wake up!" Maude's agitated voice startled him out of his incipient slumber, and he started to his feet, blinking.

"What - who - where -"

Maude shook her head. "No time! Look!"

He looked where she was pointing and saw a wall of flame sweeping towards them, too fast to be outrun.

"Oh my G-"

Maude, her eyes screwed up in concentration, raised her arms in the air. She did it slowly, effortfully, as though she was lifting a great weight. And as she did so, the ground rose up around them, until they were standing inside a tall, circular wall of earth.

"What the hell - ?"

"I don't know how it works," Maude said, panting. "But it does. Listen now, this wall won't last forever. When me and Ethan came through we were on a raft on an ocean in a storm. I made a path to the shore, but whenever we tried to step onto it, the waves swept us off. So Ethan made an arch of fire, and that held the waves off. I think that's what the tests are, that we have to use our elements to defeat whichever element it is we haven't got. That's why we're being tested in twos. Do you see?" She peered at him anxiously.

"Yes - I think so."

"You have to put the fire out. The wall will give you enough time, but you have to do it."

He tilted his head to look up at the sky. It was blue and clear, with only a few small white clouds drifting across the azure. He could feel every water molecule in the air around him, as clearly an as inexplicably as he could feel his own hands. Gently, he began to nudge them together, pushing them into groups, more and more of them. The clouds began to grow, swelling and darkening. Now they filled the sky, heavy and sullen, the colour of a bruise.

Lightning arced to the ground, followed by the dull growl of the thunder.

"Rain," he whispered.

The torrents fell. Quickening from a few drops to a downpour, until it was as if they were standing under a vertical sea. He closed his eyes against it -

And opened them in the dark.

"What on earth - ?"

"Not on earth," said a soft voice beside him. "Under it."

A flame sparked and leapt in the darkness. By its light, he saw that he was in an underground cavern. Ethan stood looking at him, holding fire in his cupped hands. "The question, I assume," the other man went on, "is, how do we get out?"

"I have absolutely no idea."

"Really, Ripper? And you such an ingenious man."

"How long, exactly, is it going to take you to stop calling me that? I ask purely from curiosity. I want to know how long I'm going to have to keep hitting you."

"Is it actually possible," Ethan purred, "for you to have a conversation with me without threatening physical violence at any stage, these days?"

"Not as long as you carry on using that name, no."

The flame guttered and flared. "But it's your name. You can deny it all you want. Pretend all you want. It is still your name. Your only name. The name of your heart and your soul. And you know it, don't you? That's why you don't like hearing it. Because it frightens you."

"Ethan, will you shut - Look out!"

"If you think I'm going to turn round just so that you can get the drop on me -" He got no further; because the creature that stood behind him, a massive thing that looked like a slab of rock made animate, raised its arm and struck.

Claws flashed for a moment in the firelight. Ethan cried out, and the flame winked into darkness.

Giles was standing in the dark, unarmed and helpless. "Ethan?" he whispered.

The only reply was the soft sound of rock against rock. The thing was coming closer. He tried to back away, but the sound echoed, confusing him.

Claws like knives ripped into his shoulder, hurling him through the air like a broken doll. He crashed against the rock wall, and the darkness of the cave came rushing into him, blotting out his mind.

* * * * *

Giles came back to himself slowly. He was lying in darkness, bruised over every part of him. For a moment, his mind yammered, *Where's Buffy? Is she in trouble? Do I need to help* - then the rest of his memories slipped back into place.

He hauled himself to his feet, wincing. His torn shoulder throbbed with pain. "Ethan?" he called. "Are you there?"

"Here." The voice was a thread of sound. He stumbled after it through the darkness, until his foot struck something yielding.

"Ow! Yes, excellent plan, kick me in the leg. I needed another part of my body in excruciating agony."

Giles lowered himself to the floor of the cave. "I see you're feeling better, then," he noted drily.

"No, as it happens. I'm lying in a cave with a large hole in my back, and even if I didn't bleed to death, we're almost certainly going to die of hunger and thirst, since I can't see any way out of here."

Giles considered the situation. "Yes," he admitted at last, "You're probably right."

There was silence for a moment.

"Ripper?"

"Yes, what?"

"We - we were supposed to fight it, weren't we? Together, I mean."

"Yes. Probably."

"We buggered that up pretty comprehensively, didn't we?"

"We? Hold on, I warned you, you were the one who -" He stopped in midsentence. *You can't run to the teacher complaining that the other boy started it.* "All right," he sighed. "We did."

"Do you remember," Ethan said softly, "when it was the two of us? When we knew we could do anything at all?"

"I - remember."

"What happened to that?"

Giles pushed his hand through his hair. "Ethan, we've had this conversation. What happened was that you decided 'anything at all' included the death of innocent people, and I decided that wasn't exactly my style."

"God, Ripper, you can be so bloody sanctimonious sometimes."

"I hardly think objecting to casual murder qualifies as sanctimonious."

"It was an accident."

"Yes, everything's an accident to you, isn't it? Because you never take responsibility for any single thing you do. You just wander through the world like a toddler in a sandpit, kicking the other children's castles over just for the fun of watching them cry - I don't even know what you get out of it," he finished abruptly.

"Out of what?"

"Your life. The things you do. The way you chose to live. Everyone else I've fought down the years, I've at least understood why they were doing what they did. It was for power, or revenge, or money, or sometimes just food... But you. What do you get out of it?"

"Freedom."

"Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? You could have freedom without spending your life finding new ways of hurting people."

"Yes, but it's more fun that way."

"Is it? Really? Living hand-to-mouth, drifting from hotel to hotel, never settling anywhere - is that fun?"

"Look, shut up, will you? It's what I do. It's who I am. Piss off."

Sometimes, something is so obvious you can't see it. But all it takes is a tiny shift of perspective, and it's there. So clear you wonder why on earth you didn't spot it before.

"He told you it was because you were bad, didn't he?" Giles asked quietly.

"Who? What are you bloody talking about?"

"Your father. He said it was because you were bad. Didn't he?"

"Shut. The. Fuck. Up."

"Ethan - he was lying, you know."

"No." Suddenly the other man was talking much too fast, the words pouring out in a flood. "No you're wrong because everyone said, everyone knew, what a fine man, what a pillar of the community and what a trial for him to have a child like that who was always in trouble and never looked you in the eye and seemed to have the devil in him and -" He broke off with a gasp that trembled into a choked sob.

It was, Giles realized, the first time he had ever heard Ethan cry.

"You don't have to listen to them," he said gently. "The curtain-twitchers, the ones who sit in their stolid little living-rooms and think they can divide up the whole world into 'our type' and 'not our type' - they don't decide what you do with your life. They don't get to say if you're good or evil. The only person who can do that is you."

"Lovely little homily, Ripper," Ethan snapped, his voice still shaking a little. "It is, however, rather wasted by the fact that we are both going to die, which does mean that the chances of my experiencing some kind of Dickenesque redemption are fairly slim."

Giles shrugged. "Yes, well. You do have something of a point there."

The silence rolled back, as heavy and thick as the dark.

"Ripper - was there anything you missed?"

Giles turned, automatically and uselessly, in the direction of Ethan's voice. "What do you mean?"

"You were away for six years. That's a long time. Was there anything you missed?"

He thought about it. "Marmite," he said at last.

"You missed *Marmite*?"

"It's all bloody right for you. You've never been without it. I used to wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, craving Marmite on toast."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. Eccles cakes."

Ethan started to laugh. "That's Ripper for you," he said into the darkness. "Four thousand years of history and culture, and what does he miss? Marmite and Eccles cakes."

"Well, there were times when I could have really done with a decent pork pie, too..."

"You wanker. You're winding me up."

"Well. Yes. A little."

He laughed again. "God, Ripper. I've missed you. I've missed you so much."

Giles stared blindly into the dark. "I've - missed you, too," he said quietly.

"As much as Marmite?"

"Well, maybe not quite as much as that."

This time they both laughed, the sound ringing out softly in the darkened cave.

There was a flicker in the dark, and Giles frowned. "Ethan, did you just call fire?"

"Are you joking? The state I'm in, I'd be doing well to manage a wisp of smoke."

"Then what -"

The flicker came again. And again. Then steadied into a continuous glow. Giles looked around, frowning. They were still in a cave, but it seemed to be a different one this time. It was larger, for a start, and there were passages leading into it.

Out of one of the passages, into the warm light that now filled the cave, Maude came stumbling. She broke into a relieved smile when she saw them. "Oh, there you are! After the bushfire or whatever it was went out, I just ended up in this horrible dark corridor. I've been wandering around for ages. So, you passed the test then?"

Giles got to his feet, gingerly testing his injured shoulder. To his surprise, it didn't seem to hurt as much as it had. "I don't know," he muttered, half to himself. "I thought we'd failed, actually." He turned to help Ethan to his feet.

"Maybe the test was something different from what you thought it was," Maude said under her breath.

Giles looked at her. "Hmm?"

"Oh - nothing."

"All right," Ethan snapped tetchily, pushing Giles away. "I can walk, I'm not a cripple."

"You do seem remarkably healthy for someone who was planning on bleeding to death five minutes ago," Giles commented.

"Yes, well, I feel better now, all right? Now, let's got this over with. I want to get back to my life."

Maude pointed down one of the passages. "I think we should go that way."

Ethan raised an eyebrow. "You think?"

"Yes. I've got a sort of feeling."

"A sort of feeling," Ethan repeated, somehow managing to pack an essay's worth of sarcasm into four words.

Maude raised her chin pugnaciously. "Listen, this is *my* element, all right? If we were in a fire, I'd listen to you. Instead we're in the earth, so you listen to me."

"Your element," Ethan sneered. "You didn't even know it was yours until about half an hour ago."

"Well, you didn't know about yours till half an hour ago, either."

"I had an instinct."

"Oh, an *instinct*..."

They bickered away down the rock corridor. Giles followed, grinning to himself.

The passage ended in a bare wall. Ethan leaned against it, smiling sardonically.

"Oh, get away with you and let me have a proper look!" Maude snapped, pushing him to one side. She ran her hands over the rock, frowning to herself. "It should be somewhere about - here..." Under her hands, a shard of stone fell away from the wall, revealing a recessed engraving. Now it was Maude's turn to give the others a smug smile.

The three of them gathered around, looking at the carving in the rock. It was simple enough. Three symbols grouped in a rough triangle - a stylized flame, a stylized wave, and an irregular shape that must have been an attempt at a stylized rock. Rocks don't stylize particularly easily.

"So what do we do now?" Maude asked.

Giles shrugged. "Touch the symbols, maybe."

They reached out, each covering one of the primitive pictures with their hands.

"This is ridiculous," Ethan grumbled. "I feel as though I ought to be saying 'Go go Power Rangers' or something."

And then

There was no more

Ethan/Maude/Rupert

Only a unified They

Which reached out

Took hold of the /latch/

Opened the /door/

To let out the Master of Air.

*It is time,* /said/ Merlin.

*It is time,* They agreed.

*Mordred comes,* Merlin /said/.

*He comes,* They replied. *We would stand with you.*

*No. Your part is played. You could not bear this fight.*

*But if you lose?*

*Then the world ends.*

There was a light and a darkness, battling.

It seemed to go on for a long time.

It seemed to go on forever.

After an eternity of /waiting/, they saw the light begin to fail. The darkness rose up stronger, the light guttering beneath it.

They became

Maude/Ethan/Rupert

*What is happening?* The first voice. Maude. Frightened, unsure.

*Will the world end?* The second voice. Ethan. Almost eager. Almost pleased.

*No,* /said/ the third voice. *Not if I can help it.*

Then there were two lights, a greater and a lesser. The dark was caught between them. Trapped. Beaten down.

Destroyed.

He was hanging suspended in nothing. *Where are the others? Where am I?*

*Child,* /said/ Merlin's voice in his mind, *You make me proud.*

He woke up.

He had a filthy headache, a crick in his neck, and a right leg that had gone dead from being lain on.

"If you'd told us we were going to pass out," Giles grumbled, sitting up, "We could at least have found comfortable positions to lie in." He thumped his leg, which was rapidly developing an agonizing case of pins-and-needles. "Ow. Bugger it. Ow."

"What happened?" Maude asked, looking around. "Did - did it work? Did we - manage?"

Emma smiled. "The threat has gone. I felt it die away. Yes, you managed."

Ethan swung himself to his feet. "Right. I'm off then."

Giles found, a little to his surprise, that he was suddenly disappointed. He'd thought - had thought what? That they would fall upon each other's necks and swear eternal fellowship? Ridiculous. That was what six years in America would do for you, six years of over-exposure to sentimentalized Hollywood-style endings everywhere you turned. Real life was never that simple; and here was the proof of it, walking away from him with shoulders hunched and head bowed.

"Ethan, wait!" Emma called after him.

He didn't even turn.

"Let him go," Giles said quietly. "Don't you know you can't hold fire in your hand? Let him go." He watched him disappear from view, then sighed quietly and turned back to the circle.

Maude scrambled to her feet, looking flurried. "Oh yes, I should probably be off too, shouldn't I? I mean - I've got to - got to get on with my life, and that kind of thing..."

Regan put a hand gently on her arm. "Maude - we know that you've got your own pursuits, and we don't want to hold you here against your will. But - well, would you consider staying here? Working with us?"

Maude blinked at her. "W-working with you? How? Do you need a secretary?"

Regan smiled at her. "No, we don't need a secretary. But we could certainly do with another witch in the coven."

"Oh but - but I'm not a witch or magical or - or anything, you see, so -"

"Maude. You have the power of earth. Believe me, you are very 'magical or anything.' We'd be honoured if you'd work with us."

"Oh." Maude stared around her as if the world had suddenly turned bright purple. "But - where would I live?"

"Here, of course. Would you consider it?"

"Consider it? Oh - I'd - I'd love to. Thank you! Thank you!"

Regan laughed. "Don't thank me. It's us who should be thanking you."

Harriet, sitting bolt upright on the grass a little way away, coughed slightly. "Affecting though all of this is, are we to understand that this business has been concluded? Yes? Because if it is, I for one genuinely *would* like to get home. It is growing rather late. I am an old lady, and need my rest."

Giles looked at his watch. "Good God. Seven hours?"

Harriet nodded. "More than enough time for these old bones to start aching, especially as there didn't seem to be any seats available. Help me up, would you, Rupert dear?" There was a pause while Harriet was maneuvered gently into an upright position. "Thank you. At my age, once one has got down, it is rather hard to get up again. Now, am I to take it that we can go?"

Regan nodded. "Of course. We will not hold you here. But - Rupert, would you, too, consider working with us?"

He thought about it for a moment. "Working with you - yes. Living here - no. The last time I tried communal living was at university, and I didn't like it much even then. I'll get a flat locally. You can call me if you need me."

"Perfect," Harriet said briskly. "Now, unless anyone else has anything to say, Rupert and I will go out to the car. No? Good."

* * * * *

Harriet drove them both back to the flat in a silence that she broke only once, to say apropos of nothing in particular, "Of course, you'll stay with me until you find a place. The spare room is free now, after all."

"Of course," Giles murmured, and yawned. "I mean - thank you. I think my manners have been incapacitated by exhaustion."

"Tiring, was it?"

"Yes. And - confusing."

"How so?"

"Merlin said - well, not 'said' exactly, it was strange, it wasn't like speaking - but he told us we wouldn't be able to join in the final fight. But I could. At the end, when it mattered, when I needed to, I could. I don't understand why, but it happened."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. At the end, he said I made him proud. He only said it to me, as far as I knew. Not to either of the others. Of course, that could have been just because of the fact that I helped - but -" He stopped, as something about the tone of her voice percolated through to his tired mind. "Hold on. Harriet, what do you know about all this?"

"Wait." It was almost a whisper, barely loud enough to be heard over the roar of the car engine. "Just until we get back to the flat. If I try to tell you while I'm driving, I'll have us both in the ditch. Wait just a little. You've waited all your life to hear this. You can wait a little more."

After that, neither of them spoke, only staring ahead while the car's headlights swept over the hedgerows, the fields, the buildings, passing on, passing home.

* * * * *

"All right." Giles put the tea-cup down on Harriet's occasional table, and sat back. "Now tell me."

Harriet clasped her hands together in her lap. If it wasn't that she'd always been completely unflappable, he might have thought she was nervous. "You heard what Emma's friend said, about Merlin and Nimue, and the prophecy?"

"Seeing as she was saying it about six feet away from me, it would have been rather tricky *not* to hear her."

"Well. Yes. She didn't tell you everything. She didn't know everything. Very few people do." She paused.

"Go on."

"At the time when Merlin went into the spirit plane, Nimue was pregnant with his son. That boy grew up, had children of his own - and that, Rupert my dear, is your line of descent."

He stared at her, unable to take it in. "Wait. Hold on. I'm descended from *Merlin*? Oh come on, Harriet, that's ridiculous. Why didn't I know before? Why didn't my father tell me?"

"Your father never knew. It was your grandmother who told me."

His grandmother... she'd died when he was seven. He remembered a hawk-like face, fierce blue eyes, white hair scraped back into a tight bun. "She told you... but she never told me? Why didn't *you* tell me, if it comes to that?"

"She told me because you were too young to be burdened with it, and left it up to me whether to pass it on when you reached the age of maturity."

He felt a dull anger stir. "And you simply decided to keep it from me."

Harriet sighed. "Oh, poppet. I am sorry. Perhaps I was wrong - but you seemed to be struggling so with the need to become a Watcher. I thought it would only make it harder for you to find out your true destiny."

He looked up sharply. "Destiny? What destiny?"

"Oh dear. I'm going about this all wrong. I'm telling you everything in the wrong order. You see, there was another prophecy, besides the one that Regan told you about. It was Nimue who made it. She foretold that, so long as her line and Merlin's should last, there would always be one to stand on the borderline between the light and the dark, to defend the world of men. And women, I suppose, but the 5th century wasn't a particularly politically correct era."

"Oh no, you've got it wrong." He shook his head, smiling. "Buffy is the one who's chosen. She's the one who stands between the light and the darkness."

"Rupert, dear," Harriet said softly. "For someone so intelligent, you can be startlingly dim-witted at times. Did you think there was only one way of being chosen? Only one way to fight? Of her battles, how many would she have won, do you think, if you had not been there?"

He looked away, frowning. "Well, she has to fight alone now."

"Yes. She does. And so do you. Myself, I think she has the easier end of the deal. She only has to give up needing, which is quite easy. You have to give up being needed, which is almost impossible. But you'll do it. I know you. You'll do it." She leant forwards. "When your grandmother came to me, after she'd finished explaining who and what she was, she said to me, 'The boy is my successor. I feel it in him. When he is old enough, you may tell him so, or not, as you see fit. In the final analysis, it does not, perhaps, matter very much. Whether or not he knows his birthright, he will always do what is necessary to be done. As I have done. As do we all, those of Merlin's line who follow Merlin's path. That is our gift, and that is our curse.'"

"And did you," Giles asked quietly, "tell her to stop talking like a minor character from Lord of the Rings?"

Harriet sniffed. "I don't take sauce, young man. Not even from Merlin's line. No, I did not. I wouldn't have dared. She was a remarkable woman, your grandmother." She stood up. "Well, I am going to bed. I need my sleep."

"Go on then. And - thank you. For telling me now. And for not telling me before."

"Ah." A few of the lines smoothed away from around Harriet's mouth. "So, I did the right thing?"

"You did the right thing. I wasn't ready to hear it, then."

"And now?"

"Now - I think I am."

After she'd gone, he went over to the French windows leading on to the tiny concrete balcony, opened them, and stepped out. It was a clear night, the stars so bright it almost looked as though you could have reached out and touched them.

He will always do what is necessary to be done.

That is our gift, and that is our curse.

Giles felt something wash over and through him. It felt almost like peace.

END