Safe behind the car window, Giles stared at the lake and fingered the piece of paper he'd torn from his notebook.
Lake Erie was grey this October noon. Clouds from the northwest were scudding closer and closer, bringing autumn.
The problem was, Giles thought, he was already bloody cold.
When had the chill started? Perhaps after the Council had blown up, after history and knowledge and above all, people had been lost to fire and ash. The First Evil's real skill, Giles had thought then and thought now, had been the sheer fucking insidiousness of the pain it had caused.
Insidious, now. Interesting word. Came from the Latin for “cunning,” but it evoked the hidden places, the inside of a human heart. That was where the First Evil colonised. It emptied one of love and knowledge, then it filled one with its poison.
And when the First had gone, taking Sunnydale with it, Giles for a bit had found it impossible to look inside his heart, lest in the ashes he found it truly empty of everything but ice and death.
Cleveland was just another Hellmouth, really. The few Watchers who'd been tucked away safe crawled out to start anew, and those who'd escaped the fall of Sunnydale – led by Buffy the brilliant, Xander the loyal, Willow the powerful, Faith the brawler, Dawn the Key to a new Council – had joined them there. He'd gone with them, although he still sometimes felt that he was invisible to the eye, that they couldn't see the real Giles beyond the ghost they'd made of him.
“Well, old man, you have to let yourself be seen,” he said. The words sounded strange in the chilly confines of the hired sedan.
He hadn't bought a car here – he didn't plan on staying. This time he didn't even wish to.
Because after the first month of dealing with fucking awful administrative trivia, the paperwork and meetings, Christ the utter horror-film procession of meetings, he'd gone out one evening and sat by the white-capped lake and made himself look inside.
First, he wanted home, wanted that cottage in the green depths of the West Country, wanted a gig of his own. As much as he loved the children and vowed to honour their linked lives better than he had done, he didn't need to be here any more.
Second, deeper and more of a secret, she was inside, a shadow on a wall, a flicker of memory and sharpness, longing and missed connections. Anya.
It seemed nobody had much missed her after Sunnydale fell. Xander mourned for a little while, but as he confided to Giles in a tavern one night, he and Anya hadn't really been together for a long time, and – “Well, in the end we hadn't wanted the same things,” he had said, and slid his empty bottle of beer down the long bar and raised a finger for another. Giles hadn't said anything, because Xander's dismissal of her made him so fucking angry and relieved at the same time, and because he knew more than anyone that one's surface might not read true.
Dawn and Andrew had separately broken down in Giles' presence, their tears spilling over into his silent hugs and offerings of handkerchiefs. (Only Anya's loss could have made Giles tolerate that bloody Andrew's whining, at which thought he had to push away guilt.)
Giles had done his own grieving in private, just as he had spent his time with Anya that last year.
They'd become... friends... in the Magic Box, and those last months in Sunnydale, cold as he was, he'd been able to talk to her more than anyone else. For one thing, she could be relied on to have something other than war to discuss – stupidities in the Society of Magic Shop Owners newsletter to which they both still subscribed, or iniquities of historical events that in this crowd only the two of them even knew about, or their pleasingly energetic yet friendly arguments about everything on earth and beyond. Day or night they'd sit out on the Summers' back steps and chat, and day or night he'd feel better.
For another thing, as soon as she'd realized his cold that night in the desert, she'd made a point of touching him. She'd rub his arm when they passed each other in the kitchen, or rest her shoulder against his during meetings, or make a fuss about his untidy hair or collar and smooth it down. Every time he'd come back from a Potential-gathering trip, she'd collected him at the airport, throwing her arms around him and holding on. She had been such a grounding force, a good fire in a bad winter.
He had touched her too – in a friendly way, he hoped. She was struggling no less than he, and so in those airport hugs, he'd hold on just as strong, breathe in her sharp sweetness, lend her what comfort he could.
His lips curved as he also remembered the appearances she'd made in his private erotic dreams that last year. She'd have loved to have known that, wouldn't she.... And then he closed his eyes against the pain, and closed his fingers on the paper, and said, “I have to know.”
When he let go of the now crumpled paper, the phone number he'd scrawled the night before after some basic research didn't quite untwist all the way. “Typical. Appropriate,” he said, half-affection, half-derision. Then he smoothed out the paper and took out his mobile, with its international calling capability.
The phone on the other end only rang twice before that familiar voice, smooth and mocking under its post-Initiative damaged rasp, said, “Rayne here.”
The fact Ethan announced his name was itself proof that his time in those fascists' hands had changed him – or perhaps it had been that for once, Giles had saved rather than beaten him, had pulled him out of the Initiative's hell. Because how many times in the old days had he leaned forward, higher than the fucking Oxo Tower, and said with the sincerity of the truly fucked up, “Never give a man your real name unless you know him, Ripper. The shit that can cause....”
Real names, real loves, the real inside.
Giles had to know where she was. And so he said, “Hullo, Ethan. It's Giles. I'm calling to collect that favour you owe me.”
Another slip of paper from his notebook, another phone number. With this one, the woman answering had not given her name. But she'd said she'd meet with him.
Giles lifted his half of cream bitter, a lower-strength drink for a night he'd have to be at his best, and leaned on the bar. And he silently mocked himself, for taking this evening in Bangkok – Krung Thep, yet another bloody City of Angels – and having a pint in a ridiculously themed “Londoner Brew Pub” on Sukhamit rather than going out and exploring the city.
The bitter wasn't too bad, however, and Giles had seen quite enough of the worst of humankind in his day, quite enough of the world's dark corners in his travels with the Potentials. He was perfectly content to stay here in the posh part of the city, booked into a four-star, air-conditioned Novotel and saving his energy for whoever and whatever this seer would be.
Ethan, in a rare moment of charity (or possibly brain-damage), had listened seriously to Giles' request for “the best honest seer you know” and given him this number. When Giles had asked for further details, however, the git had just laughed. “You'll know when you're there, Ripper.”
Giles took another sip, set the glass down, centred the paper in front of him. Numbers, letters, words. Knowledge. These had been his touchstones, but he'd always needed more –
“Hullo, dear one,” said a familiar female voice from behind him, “it's been a long, long time.”
When he spun around, he blinked. The woman standing there was... “Sera?”
“Ripper my lad,” she said, and put her hands on his shoulders, and smiled. “Ripper, my darling lad, even though it's been a few years, or decades, I'd have recognized you anywhere.”
“Which proves, Sera, that you truly have the Sight.” Smiling, he let himself embrace this patchouli-scented, linen-draped part of his past.
Sera Nevin, her Romany eyes as huge and perceptive then as they were now in this Bangkok pub, had drifted in with his and Ethan's crowd during that turbulent time – for the drugs and the sex, primarily, because even then she'd been wiser about dark magic than he. A month before the Eyghon-madness, in fact, she had been lying in bed with him in that Camden squat after a powerfully good session of shagging. (Ethan had got up to find Dierdre and Phillip, and so it had just been Sera and he curled up together.) She had straddled him, kissed him deeply, and then sat up. Her face had shifted into truth-telling, her voice changed. “A dark path, Ripper my darling lad. You'll walk the dark before the light, and it will be a long way to Tipperary.”
“'But my heart's right there,'” he'd sung, trying to make a joke of it. The notes had fallen strangely in the darkened room.
“Oh, baby boy,” she'd crooned, and stroked the side of his face. “You won't find your heart until you've walked the path and come out the other side. Ah, and it'll hurt like hell, Ripper darling. Walking the path will hurt like the fires of hell.”
She'd been gone when he woke the next morning, and he'd put her and her words out of his mind – except years later in Sunnydale, when Jenny had turned her head a certain way and he'd seen Sera in her. When Jenny had been murdered, he'd thought about finding Sera and lodging a complaint that she hadn't told him that he'd lose his heart after gaining it.
Just as well he hadn't, he thought now. When he'd realized that Anya had been lost in the wreck of Sunnydale... that must have been the fires Sera had meant.
Sera now, here, stroked the side of his face. “Ethan told me you'd be ringing up, but I would have seen it anyway. Oh the ghosts that haunt you, Ripper, the ghosts.”
“That was you on the phone? It didn't sound like you,” he said, trying to step out of memory.
“I was hiding, my lad. Had to see you before you're Seen,” she laughed, although her voice had roughened with emotion. “And we'll talk about what you need, and what you'll have to do, once we get to my place.”
They went out into the steam of Bangkok's late monsoon season, into the lights and craziness of Bangkok's early evening. As they walked, Sera chatted about her own choice to relocate here a decade ago. “The folk here have their own ways, of course, but in the end Krung Thep's a town of ghosts, and my and my work-partner's Sight is helpful for those who mourn.” Her smile flashed red in reflected light. “Finders, Limited, that's us.”
She lived in a high-rise block of flats, directly opposite an unfinished multi-story building, nothing but beams and darkness. When they reached her cosy flat on the eighteenth floor, the skeleton building was the centrepiece of her lounge windows. A string of lights marked each floor and the emptiness between. She noticed his gaze, patted his back. “As I said, Krung Thep's a city of ghosts. Sit down here--” she indicated a long, low sofa set behind a long, low teak slab -- “and you won't have to see those particular ones.”
The base of his spine began to itch, and he had to work to repress a shiver. “I'll be seeing other ghosts?”
He didn't find this particularly comforting, but then, he hadn't exactly come for comfort.
Sera went into the open kitchen and put the kettle on; she always had liked her tea. Then she took out her mobile and made a quick call. He knew just enough Thai to understand that she was saying something about 'business' and 'old friend'; he guessed from her tone that she was speaking to a lover.
“I'm sorry,” he said when she came back with the tea tray, “Er, if I've interrupted your plans....”
“Not to worry, lad. Sonchai is happy to work in his office this evening – he's a professor at the University and has a lovely book-lined space there, which makes it easier for me to bring home my clients. We get along very well, my man and I. We like the same things.”
Pushing aside all thoughts of Anya and him chatting on the Summers' porch, he accepted the cup Sera gave him. The brew, he rather thought, was something other than one's ordinary black or green tea. Yes, she always had liked her version of tea.
She didn't sit, however. She went back to the open kitchen and made another call. This time her voice was too low for him to catch any words – and then the tea itself, light and bitter, made its magical presence felt with his first sip. He was too occupied in managing the resultant lightheadedness to pay much attention to Sera.
When the doorbell chimed, soft and civilised, he put down the cup. “Were you expecting someone?”
“Yes.” Her smile was a flutter in the dimness of the flat, like a swinging light from a beam in the midst of emptiness. “I can't trust my Sight for you, Ripper my lad. There's too much history between us. So I've taken the liberty of alerting my work-partner, who'll try his luck with you if you pass his test.”
Cautiously, already fighting for balance, Giles stood. “What sort of test?”
Instead of answering, she opened the door.
The man who entered was not what Giles might have expected. He looked like any labourer off the streets of... Dublin, judging by the enormous Celtic knot tattooed on one biceps. Red-haired, map of Ireland in his freckles, but there was a real likeness in those dark eyes and their canny expression.
“Is this your brother?” Giles said.
Both she and her brother froze. Sera was the first to recover: “Well spotted, Ripper darling. Yes, this is my own baby brother Diarmuid, a decade younger than myself and centuries older in seeing. Diarmuid, this is our client.”
“Ripper, is it?” Diarmuid wiped his feet carefully before coming over to take Giles' hand. The grip was firm, but Giles, disoriented, felt that he was on the highest beam in that skeletal building and wind was whipping at his feet.
Still, he managed, “Rupert, actually. I put aside the nickname 'Ripper' when I grew up.”
“Did you?” murmured Diarmuid, “I shouldn't have thought so,” and released Giles' hand. “I think I'll still call you Ripper. Now sit down.”
The unexpected snap of the command had Giles resisting, rather than obeying. “I beg your pardon?”
Sera, still at the door, burst into laughter. “Oh, yes, Ripper my lad, in the old days you might have added a curse or two to that, but the dislike of authority is so very familiar.” Grinning, she blew him a kiss. “I'll leave you in my brother's hands for a bit. Diarmuid, I'll be downstairs in your flat, reading your mail.”
“You're a hateful sister and a hideous tease,” Diarmuid said, grumbling, and then shot her a grin. “Off with you. I'll take care of your old friend Ripper.”
When the door shut behind her and Giles was alone with Diarmuid, however, Giles felt unsteady again, felt like the world was falling away under him. He hoped that his seating himself on the sofa looked like intention rather than loss of control.
Diarmuid didn't seem to notice. He threw a floor cushion on the other side of the teak slab and folded himself down into a lotus position. Without speaking, he took out two candles from a hidden drawer and set them on the ends of the table, and then set Giles' cup out and removed the tea tray to the floor. “Drink up,” he said softly. “You're not quite in the right frame of mind yet.”
“What is the right frame of mind?”
Giles drained the cup, set it aside, and then gazed at Diarmuid, who looked fox-like in this light and from this angle. “I am desperate,” he said without quite meaning to, “but your Sight won't help that.”
“Because the woman I seek is gone, and I know better than to try to bring back the dead.”
Diarmuid's eyes glittered in the candlelight. “Ah, mate, the dead are still here, telling their tales. That's why you've come, aye?”
“Yes. I've come to learn where she went. She was a... complicated... being, and she fell in a battle against unspeakable evil. Died.” Giles reached into his shirt pocket and drew out a snapshot of Anya, which he'd taken in the Magic Box. In the photograph she leaned over the cash register, beaming at him; the light from two orbs on the back shelves filtered through her hair, softening the sharp edges he'd secretly rather adored. He placed the photograph in the centre of the table.
Perhaps it was the tea that made him see her smile flicker, made him see her eyes widen and focus on his. Perhaps it was just desperation indeed.
Diarmuid hummed softly and touched the edge of the photograph. “Pretty girl. Her name?”
Giles found himself laughing. “Well, er, that too is complicated. Anya. Anyanka. Originally, she said, Aud.”
“By what name did you know her?”
“Then that's where we'll start.” Diarmuid rummaged around under the teak for a moment, and then out of another hidden drawer brought out six square pieces of a dark, smoothly polished wood Giles didn't recognize. Each piece was perhaps two by two inches, no more than that. “So, mate, what do you know about puzzle boxes?”
Giles could have recited a monograph on the history, use, and misuse of that particular item, but with his old name on the seer's lips– “Well, I have seen the film Hellraiser.”
Diarmuid chuckled. “Ripper my lad, we're not like that here. But well done for the joke.” He moved Giles' cup off the table before arranging the six pieces in a tidy row by the candle to Giles' left. “What I'll have you do is the inverse of a puzzle box, where one finds one's way in. You're already inside. You're going to build a box out, and then I'll See.”
“I won't trap myself inside this box, will I?”
“Only if you're a fool.” Diarmuid's smile darkened, and Giles thought again of the word insidious, the poison from inside. “Are you a fool, Ripper?”
“Don't be one this evening.” Diarmuid touched the edge of Anya's photograph once more. “Make the puzzle box with her inside. Show me, and I'll See.”
Before Giles began, he looked up at the window. It had begun to rain at some point in the conversation, and now the window was curtained in rippling water, ghost-grey against the dark.
It was so bloody wrong for bright, clever Anya to be wrapped in grey. And with that thought, he centered himself, and he touched the first piece of wood and set it on its edge next to the photograph.
Blood exploded behind his eyes and in his mouth, and he saw Anya in a bathroom mirror no it was himself in the mirror no it was Anya saying “What have I done,” what had they both done, so much blood. The Bringer brought down its sword, and death was all there was.
Fighting nausea, Giles took another piece and set it against the first to make a corner of the box. A line of light fused the two pieces together.
Tears exploded behind his eyes and in his mouth, and he saw Anya alone in a cottage weeping into her hands, himself alone in his boyhood bedroom weeping because he'd have to be a Watcher and put aside what he loved, Anya alone walking back down an aisle in a wedding dress which darkened with every step, himself alone walking out of the hidden plot where they'd laid Buffy after she'd fallen, and then Anya, strapped up and hurting from her own wounds, leaving Xander to hold Giles' hand as he walked. Behind them walked the Bringer and its sword.
Fighting ridiculous sobs, Giles took another piece and made another corner. Three sides of the box, and another line of light to hold fast.
Laughter exploded behind his eyes and in his mouth, and he saw Anya's face smiling from her place behind the Magic Box register, his own face soft and alive with inside amusement as he gazed at her, Anya's and his conspiratorial looks of pleased superiority when a Scooby said something ridiculous, his own face smiling down as she smiled up. The Bringer and its sword peered through the shop window, locked out.
Fighting a familiar chuckle, Giles took another piece and finished the walls of the box. A line of light fused the last join, burned kindly in the three already done.
Passion. All he felt was Anya in his arms, her tears still in her mouth, his laughter only just buried, there in the Magic Box where they should and should not be. All he felt was Anya. The Bringer couldn't get at her here.
“Put her inside,” Diarmuid said softly, but Giles' hands were already moving.
The photograph slipped easily into place. She'd be safe there, so long as she could get out – “Keep going,” Diarmuid said. “Bottom and top to go.”
She'd have made an inappropriate remark about that particular double entendre, Giles thought, and he'd have laughed. Inside. But he didn't want to finish this now, he really didn't want her to be under all that weight of the world, didn't want –
“You want to know,” Diarmuid said, and the candles burned higher, pushing at the ghosts who wanted in too.
Fighting reluctance, Giles put the second to last piece to cap the four walls. Light spun from the candleflames to the box, and the world smelled like Sunnydale as it had fallen, gas lines broken and death and blood and fire, Christ where was she, why couldn't he find her, and the Bringers were sodding everywhere, it was duty that kept him away and it was duty that killed her, fuck duty.
“No,” Giles said aloud, his tongue thick in his mouth as if choked with ash, “No, I can't do any more.”
“Then you'll live in darkness. Your choice.”
Giles hesitated. Anguished. And then turned his box upside down, whispered “Tell me, darling, so I can honour you properly” to the beaming image, and put the last piece in place.
Candleflame soared to the ceiling, and against the ghost-grey window hammered... something, not a spectre but something, two somethings, dear God –
And Diarmuid leapt up and ran to the windows, threw them open to the rain, and held out his hand. “I See miracles!” he called. “Thank you, kind gods.”
Giles found himself on his feet, he didn't know how. “What did you see?”
Diarmuid shut the windows. “Look under your box.”
“Under, yes. Pick up the box and see what's below.”
Slowly Giles bent over – he hurt everywhere, as if he'd been battling devils or something – and put his fingers on the box. The wood was cool and smooth and perfectly joined. Then he lifted what he'd made.
Anya's picture, the one he'd enclosed inside the box, smiled up at him. She was out and unharmed. And in the corner, a name –
“Sjornjost. That's where she is.” Diarmuid came back to the table and tumbled onto the floor, missing the cushions and not seeming to care. “I Saw that two souls, one demon, one human, were pulled from death after that battle you spoke of. The demon isn't yours to worry over. But she, Anya who was Anyanka who was Aud, apparently is.”
Giles forced himself not to tighten his fingers and crush the hope he held. “Sjornjost? Er, Sweden?”
“Yes, Ripper my lad.” Diarmuid blew out the candles and then bonelessly slid down to lie on the carpet. “And after I call Sera back and we all have a glass of something to celebrate, you'd best get to the airport.”
“Er, right. Yes.” Giles put Anya's picture with its magical direction in his shirt pocket, and then, “Yes. Um, Diarmuid, what do I owe you?”
The seer's eyes gleamed fox-like, even though the candlelight was gone. “Man, I'm keeping the box you made. A puzzle box of blood, tears, laughter, passion, and magic – do you know how much I can get for a thing like that?”
“I don't, but Anya will,” Giles said, and then laughed and laughed until the rain stopped and the ghosts went away.
Another slip of paper torn from his notebook, another phone number. In the light from the hotel desk lamp, the paper seemed to glow.
Anya's number. She should be on her way here.
Giles looked around the small, comfortable hotel room one more time, checking to see that he'd cleared away his things properly, checking to see that the ritual elements were to hand.
He'd got to this small town on the banks of a river three days ago, found the only hotel and booked in, and then gone out into the cobbled high street – where he'd seen her at once, greeting someone in the doorway of a bookshop. When he'd unsteadily walked over and gone inside, she was flicking a duster over a shelf of books on the arcane and the occult, the way he'd seen her a hundred times in the Magic Box. His heart had ached with joy.
What he'd said, however, bloody suave as always: “Er, hullo, Anya.”
She'd looked up sharply and said, “Hello, ruggedly handsome stranger, you speak English! Do you know me? Do you know who I am?”
Because she hadn't known herself.
Over tea she'd told him that she'd been found bruised and confused on the riverbank here months ago – the day after the fall of Sunnydale, he realised but didn't say. She didn't really know much Swedish – they said her accent was funny and her words and grammar archaic – but she did remember her name as Anya Jenkins and her language as American English, and a kind couple had given her a temporary job while the American embassy in Stockholm had tried to see if there were any missing young women of her name and description.
“But apparently no one is looking for me,” Anya had said, frowning into her cup of over-milked tea.
“I am. Have been,” he'd said. “And, er, perhaps I can bring your memory back. Give me a day or two.”
Her beam had been utterly familiar, bless her. Full steam ahead, that was his Anya.
He'd spent the following two days in frantic research – internet research, gods help him, at the little internet cafe next to the hotel – and planning, including several calls to Grace Harkness and the coven for backup and help with forged papers, which had arrived this morning by messenger. (He'd also checked in with Buffy, and adjudicated by phone a dispute between Dawn and Willow over a grimoire. He had to better honour all his links, yes.)
He'd spent the evenings with Anya, talking around what he couldn't yet tell her. Yet their conversations had been just as easy, rich and funny and slightly combative, as on the Summers' back steps. At the end of their second supper together, she'd put her hand on his arm and said in a soft voice he remembered from that night in the Magic Box they'd believed themselves to be engaged, “Rupert, you won't leave me, will you?”
One more evening to keep his truth inside, he had told himself. So he'd merely brought her hand to his lips and said that he wouldn't.
Tonight, he thought, tonight will be different.
A gust rattled the window, sending a hint of cold curling over the sill. Winter was coming in here, snow in the forecast. His throat was a bit sore, perhaps from the dramatic shifts in temperature he'd lived through, Cleveland to Bangkok to Sjornjost. He did hope that wouldn't affect his spellcasting...
An enthusiastic knock on the door stopped his useless fretting. He opened it to that beam of hers, put out his hand, and drew her inside.
“Hi, Rupert!” Unselfconsciously she kissed his cheek and then breezed past him, heading straight for the round table he'd set. “What's this? What were you going to show me before dinner?”
“Well, um, I've planned to try a little, er, magic.”
“Magic? Like, tricks?” She turned to him. “You don't believe in that, do you? I think it's all balderdash and chicanery....” She stopped. “Why did I use those strange British terms, and why do I think I've heard someone say them before?”
His throat had closed entirely on that wave of memories. Forcing himself open: “You have heard them, Anya. From me, sort of. Regardless, um, let's just give it a try, shall we?”
He held her chair for her, and she sank down with uncharacteristic quiet. Then, without his prompting, she rested her hands, palms up, on the table. The unlit candles and his inverted puzzle box – which he'd bought at a bloody exorbitant price from Diarmuid and Sera – lay inbetween. He took his own seat, took her hands, and with a great deal of concentration and a silent incantation, lit the candles.
“Whoa,” she said softly. Her fingers tightened on his.
He looked across the table at her, at the luminous power of her, the brightness. No, she wasn't a ghost. She wasn't trapped under the weight of evil and the world. And he vowed to free her the rest of the way, and in so doing free himself. “Ready, darling?”
She registered the endearment he couldn't keep in, smiled, nodded. “Ready.”
He looked away from her, looked at the puzzle box. He closed his eyes and went inside.
No one had been able to discern who had saved Anya and the yet unnamed demon soul, so he called generally on the Powers, on all gods concerned with souls, and asked in the names of Blood, Tears, Laughter, Passion, and Magic for the return of the rest of Anya, for the recall of lives gone so she could start her new life right.
There was no reply, except a rattle at the window.
He called again, called louder, pushed the magic out.
Candleflame roared to the ceiling, the puzzle box lifted into the air, a gust slammed against the window, and Anya cried out without words.
And the puzzle box clattered to the table and the candles went out.
He'd opened his eyes at the roar of fire and the sudden grip of her fingers. What he saw now were images of his own past, that Camden squat and Ethan and Sera holding his hands in a circle, Jenny in the glow of a computer screen, then grave upon grave upon grave, and then Anya, now Anya –
“Oh, Giles! Rupert!” she said on a sob, “I remember,” and she was around the table and in his lap, holding onto him as the pain of memory regained dug in, as her weeping grew uncontrollable.
“Anya, Anya,” he murmured, “don't keep it inside,” and he held on, his mouth open, catching her tears as they fell.
It had been a long way to Tipperary, but his heart was right here. That much he knew.