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Of Woe or Wonder

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"I am more an antique Roman than a Dane," Ethan purrs into his ear.

Giles used to find Ethan's voice--its masculine depth and camp intonation--erotic. But that was long ago. A grief ago, as Dylan Thomas would say. Too many griefs ago to count.

"Shut up," he tells Ethan. Not out loud, of course. Giles is on the telephone with Assistant Undersecretary Patricia Lynch, United States Department of Defense. Assistant Undersecretary Lynch is denying, emphatically and at length, that the U.S. has, or ever had, a military program to combat what she calls "the occult." She's never heard of the Initiative, or Sunnydale, or Ethan Rayne.

Giles is beginning to suspect that Lynch's job is to deny things. She does it rather skillfully, with a certain polish only given by long experience.

"Yes, thank you, Undersecretary," he says at the first opportunity. "I quite understand. Now, if you'd give me the name and contact information of your superior, so that I can pursue this discussion with someone who might know . . ."

"So very forceful, Ripper."

This is easy to ignore, as Lynch begins a several-minutes-long explanation of why she can't possibly fulfill his request, not that there's anything to be learned regardless. All he can lever out of her is the Secretary of Defense's public mailing address, which is on the internet and which Giles has already tried. He thanks her anyway, very politely, because his bridges are too few to burn. Whatever influence the Council had with the American government was blown to bits along with the building, the records, and most of the Watchers.

"They're not going to tell you anything," Ethan says after Giles hangs up. He sounds rather satisfied. "Still, it's touching to see your quixotic efforts. Mind you, poor old Quixote was absolutely barking."

"I am not mad," Giles says, and only realizes he's actually spoken when Andrew pops his head in from the outer office.

"Did you need something, Rupert?" the boy asks, puppyish and eager. If he had a tail, it would be wagging.

"You let him call you Rupert?"

"Er, no, Andrew, sorry." Giles waves his hand in the direction of the computer. "My what-d'you-call-it . . . browser froze up. Swearing at it seems to have worked."

Andrew has slipped into the doorway and rocks a little on his feet, bursting, it seems, with the desire to explain the internet yet again. Then he visibly remembers what Giles said last time and subsides. "I think I'm gonna head down to the cafeteria. It's roast beef day! Do you want to, um - "

"I'm not very hungry, thanks. Perhaps you could bring me a sandwich when you come back?"

Andrew's face scrunches up into concern. It would be funny except that he really has been trying to look after Giles, ever since the news came. "Sure." His voice is pitched to consolation, and Giles is glad that the desk is between them. Andrew has taken to patting his arm or laying an understanding hand on his shoulder whenever he gets the chance.

Andrew rushes off. He'll be back within fifteen minutes, Giles fears. Probably with a whole plate of sandwiches, a pot of tea, and one of every variety of biscuit the kitchen stocks. As though Giles is pining like a Victorian maiden and needs coddling.

"You're in there, mate."

"I certainly don't want to be," Giles says silently. "And I don't let him call me Rupert, I just can't seem to stop him."

If he closes his eyes, he can picture Ethan sitting in the hideous wing chair opposite him, legs crossed, smiling enigmatically. He doesn't close his eyes.

"Are you sure you're not mad? A boy of his age throwing himself at you--any sane old pervert would have him over the desk every afternoon."

"These days, I only have sex with people I like."

Ethan's laughter grates on his ears. "These days, you don't have sex with anyone at all."

"Shut up, for God's sake." Out loud again. Much too loud--he's getting angry, and that is madness. Giles takes ten slow, deep breaths, then closes his eyes and thinks, with all the force he can muster, "I'm not listening anymore."

For thirty seconds or so, there's silence. At the very moment when Giles begins to hope that it's worked, he hears, "You'll not be rid of me that easily, dearest."

"You're a projection of my guilt. I'll be rid of you as soon as I cope with that."

"Let's try again, with a little more Occam's razor and a lot less pop psychology. I have--had--magic, Ripper. A hell of a lot of magic, even after everything those Yank fascists did to me. So what's the likeliest explanation?"

Giles says nothing. Arguing with a projection of one's own guilt is perhaps not the clearest mark of sanity. Instead, he takes out a notepad--he'll have to type it up later, but he can't bear composing on the screen--and starts drafting a letter to Roger Wyndam-Pryce asking if he's got any American contacts. But it's no use. He can feel Ethan's silence, waiting for an answer. "You're dead, and so's your magic. Spells die with the caster."

"Are you sure? Are you truly, truly sure? Perhaps my death released the energy to set the spell. Perhaps my decomposing corpse keeps it going--matter into energy and all that. Would you like to talk about decomposition?"

"No." He doesn't need to hear it. He's had dreams, on the nights when he manages to sleep. "If you're real, prove it."

"How shall I do that? Tell you something only you and I know? This isn't some minor John Le Carré novel, Ripper. But if you like, I could describe the first time we fucked. In a public lavatory, as I recall. Did you think sucking cock was only queer if you did it in a bed? I soon got you past that, of course."

"Ethan - "

"I love it when you say my name."

"It's not your name. You are my subconscious." Giles wants to cover his ears, press his face to the desk's cool and smooth mahogany. Like a child hiding under the covers.

"You must be in a very bad way if that's true. Poor boy. But honestly, Ripper, isn't this just the kind of thing I'd do? Isn't it what I've always wanted? You can't leave me now. You can't hit me or send me to prison. My voice will be the last thing you hear at night and the first thing in the morning. We're one flesh now. We're married, darling."

"I don't believe you."

"You want to. You wept when she told you I was dead."

Buffy sat in the chair Ethan's not sitting in now, and Giles thanked her with tears running down his face. For trying to free Ethan. If she'd succeeded, would he still have thanked her? "I cry too easily. At every funeral, Eyghon said."

"Well, I was pleased to see it."

"I expect you were." The only pleasures they've given each other for decades have been cruel ones. Blood and tears.

"If you look very carefully, I think you'll find you have no moral high ground. There's none left between us. Only trenches and mud."

That, Giles thinks, isn't Ethan's kind of metaphor; it's more his own. "If you're real, why didn't I hear you until after Buffy told me?"

"Perhaps that's what completed the spell. Or perhaps I was waiting. Or perhaps I'm just a projection after all."

"Tell me what they did to you."

"But I'm so enjoying your efforts to find out."

"Tell me they're up to, this new Initiative. What are they planning?"

"Why do you imagine I'd know that?"

Evasions and sodding doubletalk. It certainly sounds like Ethan. One way or another, he really is in Giles' head. Under his skin. A spell, or has he been there all along? Has a part of Giles been Ethan since the days when they loved each other? "Then tell me . . . tell me why you quoted from Hamlet. I can't picture you as Horatio."

There's a laugh, soft and almost fond. "Don't you remember your Shakespeare? Horatio's about to commit suicide when he says that line."

Ethan dying to warn Buffy, to save her. Giles can't picture that, either. But it's the sort of thing Ethan might want him to believe. "He doesn't do it. Hamlet asks him to live. To tell the story."

"All this can I truly deliver. Bloody, carnal, and unnatural acts. Accidental slaughters . . . damn, I can't remember how it goes."

"Be Horatio, Ethan. Tell me what happened."

"How can I tell you, when I'm just a waking nightmare your guilt has vomited up?"

"You said you were real."

"Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. Maybe I'll let you wonder for a while. For, say, two thousand, six hundred and fifty-seven days, which coincidentally is how long I spent in that prison."

Andrew's knock on the door saves Giles from pleading with the voice in his head. He's carrying a tray laden with everything Giles expected, plus a green salad and a pear. Giles thanks him, trying to be polite but not encouraging, and sends him off to do the monthly weapons inventory.

Ethan has hardly stopped talking in the two-and-a-half weeks since he started. But now he keeps quiet while Giles finishes his letter; writes up his fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth Freedom of Information Act queries to various U. S. government agencies; and even does some of the work he's meant to be doing as nominal head of the Watchers' Council. At six o'clock he stretches the aches out of his back and looks out the window at the green expanse of Scottish hills. It's sunny, a picture-perfect June evening. The weather's been very fine lately. He only feels as though it rains every day.

"Go for a run," Ethan says. "You'll get old and fat behind this desk."

"I thought you'd gone."

"No you didn't."

"I wish you would." Giles shuts down the computer. A run, he decides, sounds good.

"Right. Pull the other one."

There's no point arguing. There never was, with Ethan. And certainly there's not if he's only talking to himself. Anyway, he's not sure Ethan isn't right.

Ethan, if he's actually here, must love making him doubt himself. "Fine. You win."

In a soft voice, a gentle voice that Giles remembers from the few months when they were happy together, Ethan says, "I always will."