Smoke like the smog outside hanging, golden, halo, around your head, and Ethan's aura magicked out of him into an afterimage of candy-bright blue, pink, green, static in his dynamic path as he traces the walls. His voice drifting in and out of your haze. Sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing, but there's nothing better to do than listen:
"Brilliant stuff, imagine it, Ripper -- a stable, harem, of pretty young things, all looking up to you like a, like a, bloody godhead --"
You lean back, sprawl into the Corpse Pose on the listless couch, run fingers back through your damp hair, watching Ethan's elliptical orbit of the room. You're too dormant to take care of anybody but yourself, to pretend to take care of Ethan.
"Last thing I fucking need," you say, and he turns to look at you. A pink line marks where his shoulder was, loose lines, connecting to his lean hip. "Bunch of brats? You're handful enough."
Admire the way he doesn't trip as he spins around, coming to you across the threadbare carpet, eyes coy behind his dark hair. He straddles your spread thighs, smiling, his arms brush your ears as he leans forward slowly, green losing its spark to blue behind his head, his hands cupping the back of your neck. The aura traces his mouth even, you can see the colours shifting--yellow, suddenly--as he widens his smile. "But you love my handful, don't you?"
Red inside his mouth.
You shift your hips back away from his, fit your thumb into the thigh-high crease of his jeans, your fingers brushing the ragged edge of a torn back pocket. His aura parts for you. "On occasion," you say.
He blinks lazily. "Frequent occasions. 'Sides, I'm not that much younger than you."
The negatives of Ethan moving to you, onto you, fade--no, retract, drawing back to his outline, and fray into nothing. He is pale, and sweat beads his forehead, neck, collarbone.
"Millennia younger," you say. "Aeons."
Ethan grins at that, he likes that. He leans away, tipping his head back. "Sill. Ought to do it. Not so hard, and the regular crowd's becoming all too--" you want to bite the soft lump of his Adam's apple "--regular. Fresh blood, some changelings and faeries, just the trick."
His chin lowers, he looks at you, heat in his narrowed eyes. "One each for you, Ripper." He taps his forehead "--Blond, ginger, dark," you admire the perfect rippling change of his hair colour-- "Black eyes, blue--" the blue of them is startling, unnatural, but you know that's on purpose-- "green." True green, not the half-hazel of his real eyes. "Variety, darling, and youth. And you -- you -- to guide them."
You stare at him and laughter is in his eyes--because he knows you won't let him do it, or because he wouldn't do it for you, only for himself--you want to laugh. His smile widens even more, and without the aura's glamour fuzzing his edges, his teeth are glittering, spit-slick and sharp. You move your hands up to his waist, under the edge of his t-shirt, and dig your nails into his thick skin. His lack of reaction floods you with want and a kind of warm, fond fear.
"Oh, brilliant idea, that," you say lowly. "Hello, sir, I'd like your children. Nothing to fear, just inculcating them into the dark arts. Eh? What's that? Some alchemy, raising of dread demons, you know the routine."
Ethan giggles. "You know what I meant--"
"Yes, sir, of course I'll take care of the pretty young things," you continue, moving your fingers up over his ribs, rubbing the lines of them. "You can trust me. Sure."
He breaks into laughter finally, and kisses you without stopping. His hands pulling you up. You lean into him and he gives, leaning back until you lose your balance and land on the floor, his legs hooking around your thighs, unbalancing you again, until he is on top.
Dust rises into the orange afternoon, around him like an afterimage of his afterimage, and you whisper, "Silly boy. So damn silly."
"And pretty," he adds. He always has to remind you.
You grip his shoulders and flip him onto his back, swing a leg over his waist. You kiss him, taste sage and hash and sweat, the turned cider at the back of his throat. You forget his proposal, his laughter, yours, you wrap around him like an aura.
A fairytale path leads there, and grown-ups don't believe in fairytales, even though the path leads down clanging metal stairs, down towards the catacombs, into the definition of adulthood. There's no reason to come here. It is silent and dust is layered like the gut of a mountain, safety lights snap on and off, buzzing like moths, illuminating the twist of narrow hallways.
Through the ceiling, a giant's height above, the dome is a bell jar trapping the dust and the hollow sound of footsteps. Still. Nothing moves, like an enchanted dungeon.
You read in the dungeon. You stay long hours, like you're chained, leaning forward and forward until there isn't any gloom through which you need to squint, you don't care. It's quiet. It's isolated down here, which you find a pleasure rather than a cause for despair. You are not missed, anyway, there's no one you want to find you. Not missed, but perhaps someone might say, "where is the bookish one," and someone else might reply, "he's over at the other place."
The Council, and the Museum. You serve two masters, and it's still only a part-time job.
Two masters, though, really? You see the same faces in both, recognise names. The Council has a ninety-nine year lease on its building, beholden to the Sloane Trust, which blankets some of the Museum's activities.
You are too tired, too half-blind, to care about the nexus and connecting sites of power. It all happens above you, anyway, outside of the sub-basement, in the real world.
So. You read.
You translate uselessly, you lose what remains of your self in past-ripe languages, you are the words, alone. Forgotten, in these stuffed corridors, the catacombs archive Empire, forgotten. If you believed in an ordered universe where things are balanced and accounts come to rights in the end, you might think you deserve this gloom. Darkness, dust, the anonymous glint of your torch in a self-important mirror.
You don't think you deserve where you are, that your being down here is payment or penance of any kind. You want to be down, under, in the dungeon of a buried fantasy world, you are hiding. Like the vermin you can hear, scurrying up and down the halls of the tombs.
Even though you don't believe in a balanced universe, you do know that actions have consequences, and you are hiding from yours.
You are hiding, and Ethan is somewhere laughing, printing his afterimage on someone's eyes.
Sometimes you regret leaving him and locking yourself away like a melancholy sorcerer, and sometimes you hate him for not betraying you first. Sometimes you want to lay claim to the ghost-ridden shambles that surrounds Remus. You want to be the one wielding blame and the earthquake of disillusion.
You want, sometimes, to be hiding because you are ashamed of Ethan's exploits, not because you are entirely apathetic.
It's an old thing, you worked with the Order while you could, did what you could, which wasn't much. You delivered Remus texts and scrolls, dug far back in the catacombs for moldering leather and flaking goldleaf, around the low simmer and snap of his anxiety, tension, the quick darting of his eyes from page to page. Then the Slaughter ceased and no one was really sure what had happened, like a hurricane suddenly calmed. No one knew if it was over, or if the eye had only come to rest upon them--temporarily. Calmness for a time.
You're not sure if Remus seeks you out for company or by necessity, but the exchange of information--woefully unbalanced, not that this is anything new--and books between them makes up for your uncertainty. Not that you care why he comes, why he still comes.
Sometimes, you want Ethan to have looked bereaved, torn apart, a ruin of a man, like Remus that August.
More often, you want to have looked like that; you want the further similarity between yourself and Remus, both inconceivably foolish men, both attached too deeply to born criminals. You want to feel sympathy for his torment, rather than a cool distaste tempered by pity.
His ascetic melancholia becomes rare, but he still comes, and you keep reading.
"I, I have those maps," you say, you hate the stutter, dropping the tube of satellite images on the table.
Remus runs a finger through the dust on a ragged pile of parliamentary minutes, nodding.
"Thank you," he says, his voice raw. He picks up the tube and holds it slightly away from himself, fingers not quite grasping firmly. "You didn't have to."
You stand up straight, knocking your glasses askew while running a hand through your hair, then righting them on the way back. He looks ancient, his hair longer than fashionable, probably even among his--his own kind.
Remus taps his fingers on the tube and you think he might want to look at the maps, so you mutter, "Fiat lux," and the gloom lifts fractionally.
He starts and blinks owlishly, dark green eyes, his face more pale than even yours, and lined deeply, strained.
"For the maps," you say needlessly. "No need to ruin your eyesight."
Remus lifts his chin, ah, and suddenly his wand is out, flicking with his wrist like it's just another finger, and he says clearly, "Lumos."
Remus's face is shadowed by the golden orb that instantly hovers over the table, but the plastic film on the maps shines glossily as he unrolls them. He draws a chair over and sits absently, free hand already skimming down the brightly coloured pages. A thick lock of hair falls from behind his ear, hiding his face, and you want to move it, so you can see him as he searches.
Instead you look at the orb, glowing with priceless, ageless precision, and he studies the maps. His wand lays an inch from his hand at all times. You want that, the stability of the perfect sphere hovering perfectly, steadily--you are a museum of magics.
You have sewn your energy together through academic sweat and the salt-sugar of sex, from gods too old for names and demons, and civilisations fallen, revered in their obsolescence. Your insides are a patchwork of languages, no focus, no conduit of wood and mythical remnants, your head is full of voices demanding obediance, sacrifice, worship, worship. Adulation or vengeance.
To know Eyghon and to summon him, you had to study Canaanite idolatry and the spells used to bind paupers' fields.
You rub your forearm absently.
Eventually you sit too and you watch the colours on the maps, the bright essential spectrum cutting and spinning together. Darker reds, burning to vermilion and yellow, lime like Ethan's favourite fake eyes, leaf, jade, moss like his real ones, like Remus's eyes. Jade burning supra-tropical and temperate.
These maps are burned into images by heat, and you think it is illogical to search for a place like Azkaban on a map made with warmth. Remus has told you things, and it is a place of cold, you suppose, of chilling vacuum. You can't imagine having your magic leeched away like that. Though the silence of the sub-basement would be more complete if you were impotent.
And there is nothing there, of course, of course there isn't. The colours are blinding, the cerulean and electric blues of equatorial waters, or indigo further north. True blue and lightest green near the coasts.
Lightest green like earliest dawn, nearest the horizon, walking away from Ethan, hating yoursel for the cliche--or maybe sunset, and you lose track of how you've been sitting at the table, watching Remus touch the shiny, bright maps. You lose the space of time, you find yourself sitting suddenly heavy in the chair, sight perforated by shifting black dots, and the jagged neon afterimage of the orb and Remus's shoulder.
A sound, a sigh like the fingers stroking up and down the map's surface. You feel sorry that you cannot be of any use now, you cannot give him any peace for the semblance of peace he has lent to you, the similarities. The familiarities--
Lips on yours, dry, twice, you watch Remus kiss you and then you kiss him back. Tasting, tasting meadow at night and a sacred circle in a dank wood, acrid quicksilver of fog--thin fingers on your shoulders, on your neck, your waist. You touch too, try to find the opening of his ragged robes, he pushes you up and back, you are overwhelmed so you comply.
This is a slow thing, but it happens so fast, and the orb winks out.
And then it is goodbye, he's never said goodbye before. Remus's lips, still dry, against your cheek.
"It doesn't have to be --" you say, and it's only a token. It hurts but you were expecting it. Still, it hurts.
"It's best if I start anew. I'm sorry, Rupert."
"Just because you're teaching one course --" Arms around you, he follows as you slowly fall to the floor, you want to curl small, around him, as small as possible, and you want him--
He says, "Defense against the dark arts," as if it should change anything. It can't; you've run straight into the fate in which you don't believe. His voice is dry, and that is familiar as anything, your own voice.
"Monsters," you say in the same tone. "How to protect oneself from them, how to combat them."
"Among other hazards, yes."
Oh, you know. And it hurts to know, it hurts, it hurts, because here you hide in your play dungeon and he stands before tall, evil things, dark things--it isn't fair, after everything, that you should be inside with your lack of guilt, and he should be outside with his torn heart.
"Vampires?" you say, suddenly curious, "Do you deal with them?"
Because, in the lexicon you have compiled regarding Remus's world, they don't seem to embody everything evil, they don't seem to be an icon of darkness. Just another symptom, sign of Voldemort, which must be treated while searching for a cure.
"Of course," Remus says. "Any number of demonic and chthonic threats."
You don't, you feel so small and jealous and scared--"It's those in human form which disgust me the most," and suddenly you realise you're scared of being alone, being alone disgusts you, because he is alone but he's not hiding, and you--
"Is that so?" he says, looking at you and you look back, his eyes deep and forest-green.
"Any of the homunculi," you say, holding his hand where it touches your thigh, clutching. Stay, stay, I am--"Revolting. Succubi, werewolves, vampires, it doesn't matter."
"Human killers in human form," Remus says, voice thin with disappointment and sadness. "They're far worse than any--"
The scent memory of sodden fabric--Remus's robe--kerosene follows, then blood, and retching, the summer-sickness stench of Randall's terror, and you hear over it all, over everything, you hear Eyghon laughing. High, thin, laughter.
You gag, try to push away but Remus holds on and then you are--blinded by silver and the impact of your back on the floor, you freeze, stare up. The paws on your shoulders shift, the wolf noses your neck, licks your face. You taste, haltingly, wet wood, cold metal underneath, Remus.
He settles himself down on you, and the wolf's black eyes are like depthless tunnels, but you see the smallest, smallest shadow of yourself, lined in dark green--you give a short noise, moan of denial and acceptance, closing your eyes.
The extra weight you hadn't noticed disappears and you open your eyes to see Remus, straddling you, sweaty and shaking. You can't be afraid of Remus. Never.
You tug his shoulders down, and you hold him.
"I'm sorry," you whisper, "Stop--" You press your face into his neck, Remus keeps trembling, the small hard knots of his spine pressing up against your fingers.
You push his hair back and kiss his cheek, meet his eyes, and he is scared of you.
"I didn't know," you say, "I am sorry--"
"No," Remus says. "Would have changed everything."
You want to lie and tell him that isn't true, but you find yourself lacking the energy. You want him to stay, but you don't want him to see your own twin, covered for more than twenty-one days at a time--deadly nonetheless.
He frightens you still. He has no control over his monster.
You touch your forehead to his chin and nod.
Remus lifts himself away.
At the floo, you straighten the hang of his robes, admire the clever way Remus slips his wand up the sleeve.
Uselessly, you ask, "You're going, then?"
"I am," Remus says. "It's not an opportunity to ignore, Rupert."
"No, of course not." Rhetorical response. Your hands are clasped painfully tight behind your back.
"I'm hardly going to--to China. Tibet." He smiles sadly. "The Council does have owls. Use them." He brushes a hand over his face and the smile is gone.
"I will," you say, and you won't.
You move back to the Council building.
You translate memos and re-route them.
You feel sunk into age, your body sagging along, and you cannot play your guitar anymore.
You stammer regularly, speaking with Olivia and her friends in dark pubs.
You are, speaking melodramatically, an afterimage.
Your life is over.
You take comfort in that, perverse as always.
You pack your records, your books, your television, and you go to California.
Your life, it seems, is not quite done with you.
She is careless, bouncing and young but too old. You are a bureaucrat, you are too old for certain, Merrick is barely settled ashes in an urn, this is disaster.
Though you're proud of being asked to Watch, you know. You know:
She will die. In a year, three at most, and you hope, hope that she will do some good--do un-evil, in any case--before her life is over. Not figuratively. Only in the literal sense do Slayers become over.
But you are proud, and this is an unexpected honour, not an opportunity to ignore, and even if your father says you're a fool (Father who lost more girls than he will admit).
You are not going back to England. You feel it is important, at this juncture, to have something concrete waiting for you in the end.
Over the mid-Atlantic, you press your fingers into your eyes and watch the jerking memory of the seat in front of you--pink, yellow, blue.
On your birthday Oz takes you to a concert and takes you home. You sit at your desk shuffling and spreading index cards, pretending not to hum with the Dylan in the background.
Outside, there is the lengthening of shadows which signals night in Cleveland, and the window is open to let in cool air on your sweaty skin, car horns to your ringing ears, moths before your heavy eyes.
You wave the flittering away, watch Oz's flickering whiteness round a corner and disappear into the kitchen.
You breathe deeply, still smelling smoky sweat and ozone from the speakers.
"Whatcha doing?" Oz asks. He slides a plate of cookies and a cup of tea onto the desk, crumpling the cover of a battered Rolling Stone. His arm then hangs casually, familiarly, around your shoulders.
You hear his jaw working as he chews his cookie, you can smell the chocolate chips and cinnamon candy on his skin--his mouth will burn semi-sweet when you kiss him.
"Memoirs," you say. You toss your pencil across the desk and it rolls back. Your hand has already found the perfect concavity at the small of Oz's back. Alas. "They seem to think my past is worth something."
You press only slightly, but he slides into your lap without hesitation, his skin warm and pale and glowing faintly in the lamplight.
His eyes, looking at the desktop, are faceted emerald, pine, dark forest green. He smiles a little bit, surveying your index cards, and he picks one up--fingers on the top edge, thumb on the bottom. He holds it tilted into the light (cream of the card almost as pale as his hand), and you read it with him:
The children know about his youth, and they know him now, or did, but nothing else. For the young, all is binary. There is youth or age, and nothing in between. He still believes that himself. He's too old to be a Watcher, and always was. Young Wesley, that's who a Watcher ought to be. Upright and fit, able to keep up with his marvelous girl. Too many years, empty, too much grief.
And you know very well that it's self-indulgent, over-dramatic--but that is what you used to be. You lean your head on his thin, sturdy shoulder and he turns his head, his cheek against your hair.
"You believe that?" You can tell he's not smiling anymore.
"No," you say, "I did, but--"
He leans away, forcing you to hold up your own head, and his face is drawn to centre, frowning, concerned. "In the third person?"
You sigh, rub your forehead. "It seemed appropriate. At the time, that is."
"Know that," he says, he kisses your forehead between your fingers. "Just worry sometimes."
"Don't," you say. You mean it. "Not necessary."
He flexes the card so it makes faint cardboard-y snapping noises. He grins and says, "Classifying them?"
Cataloguing, indexing, yes, because there are common occurrences, themes, which are not only visible in hindsight--but it's an old habit and it doesn't comfort you now.
"Not anymore," you say, and he drops the card back in its place.
You used to believe that there were separate selves, marking backwards the progression of time, that Ripper and Rupert and Giles were individually contained, and that Ethan and Remus had nothing in common. Static outlines in a trail behind the body, auras one assumed at appropriate intervals.
Sunnydale slid them all forward, bound you to them, one realised image in full colour, and here is Oz--you hold him, years after running away, and you are content to fuzz and fade with him.
When Olivia married you took him with you to London, and she teased you--recapturing your youth, she said. For a split second you considered the validity of that statement. Then Oz picked some lint of your shoulder and loosened his tie, saying, "Nah. Chronology's just a conspiracy. Pharmaceutical companies in league with the cosmetics industry."
Olivia and her friends found him charming. Olivia's sister complimented you on your taste.
Oz kisses you and he does taste like straight cinnamon and chocolate, with the wilder wet forest behind it, always.
"You're going philosophical on me," he whispers, "Can tell. You're squinting and everything."
"Nah," you say, tucking a finger in the waist of his jeans. "Senility. It's different."
He rolls his eyes. "Shut up."
He grins and kisses you again, again, until he tastes slightly of mint tea.
"Okay," he says lightly, slipping off of you. "Coming to bed?"
You turn off the lamp and let him lead you away.