Flames leap in the darkened cave of the fireplace, teasing at the tiled surround, sending light out into the dusk-brushed room. Dark comes early on December afternoons in Devon, which means that Anya can stand in the hallway and enjoy unobserved the picture of her men safe together, listen to the boyish voice finishing his recitation–
"...chi, psi, omega."
On the hearthrug, Rupert rolls over onto his back and stretches himself lazily toward the fire. "Oh, very well done, David," he says to their son, who's perched on the new ottoman, looking deceptively like a small scholar-angel. "Next, do the five levels of obeisance in the Mikh social system. And then, er, name the current Chelsea side."
For a second David doesn't understand his father's humour, something to which Anya can relate. "Dad, that's not fair!" he yelps before he gets the joke, and then the scholar-angel transforms into a small, giggling figure of vengeance and pounces from the ottoman. Although his goal in the dive-bomb is his father's stomach, Rupert's too fast for him, and the wrestling match begins in good earnest. There's a tangle of big Giles and little Giles, and wild laughter, and finally – "you're so mean," David gasps while trying to squish Rupert, which attempt is roughly akin to a cub climbing on a silver-maned, tea-and-muffin-sated lion.
Still, time to intervene. Balancing her own fresh cup of tea and an apple, she steps into the lamplight and announces, "Be careful with your father, David. His bones become increasingly brittle with age."
Rupert glowers at her, then with one hand casually flips David over and pins him to the rug. "Ha," he says.
"Take it easy, honey," she says, smiling, and then tosses David the piece of fruit, which he catches with both hands. "There, son, that's for excellence in study and for not breaking your dad."
"Thank you, Mum." He bites down – he has strong teeth, which pleases her– and then around a mouthful of fruit says, "'s Macallan...?"
"He and Cava are outside, waiting for Aunt Dawn and Mr Camp to arrive, which should be any minute now." She takes a breath to steel herself for what comes next. "If you pick up your coat on the way out, you may go play with the dogs and watch for the car lights."
"Oh, brilliant!" He scrambles to his feet, still clutching the apple. He does adore Dawn, whom he's missed terribly during the past months that she's been in Cleveland on Watcher business. Anya focuses on that, and not on the early December sunset or the dark settling over the moors and dells.
Not on the things that can't get past the wards on the grounds, anyway.
"Take the bell so you can alert us when they arrive," Rupert says, waving his hand at the cowbell on the side table. "And your jacket's on the rack by the door."
"Yes, Dad," David says in an overly patient tone amusingly like his father's, and then sprints out of the room as if a pack of werewolves is after him. Of course he forgets the bell.
"David!" Rupert shouts.
"Right, sorry–" A blur of boy returns, fetches what he needs, and then disappears.
"Coat!" She and Rupert are in unison that time.
Another blur of boy in the hallway as he zips back to get his jacket. The sound of footsteps sends Cava into a fit of barking outside; Anya thinks she can also hear the terrier bounce against the door. "Be careful," she begins to say, but then the cold breeze reaches in as the front door opens. There's a definite dog-squeak as wood hits terrier, although the impact doesn't sound too bad.
"Oh, sorry, Cava," David says from outside, and then the door shuts. She tells herself that nothing will happen to him in their front garden, he's got guard dogs, he'll be just fine. And then she gulps at her tea.
Sighing, Rupert lies back down on the rug. He winces a little as he moves, his hand surreptitiously going to his ribs, and Anya's heart thumps painfully. The memory of his ugly multi-coloured bruises from his last surveillance gone wrong is far too fresh for her, and David is growing fast. "Honey, did he really hurt you?" she says, and with due care of her tea, she drops to her knees beside him–
And then he's up, pushing her mug to safety and then rolling her underneath him with an apparent lack of aches. His shoulders block out the light from the fire as he presses down on her, all warm and solid and bulky-jumpered. "'His bones become increasingly brittle with age'?" he says, and his head lowers, his mouth coming closer, closer – but not close enough. "I do believe you'll need to be punished for that, darling."
"Yay!" It's hard to exclaim properly, what with oxygen loss and sudden ill-timed lust amidst all the nerves, but she manages. "I was aiming for that all along, in fact."
"Were you now," he says, then kisses her. He's just teasing, though, only a brush of lips and a quick taste – and long before she's done, he pushes himself off her and sits up, bracing his arm against the ottoman. It moves a little under his weight, makes a funny sound. He pushes at it again. "For fuck's sake, what's wrong with this thing?"
"Nothing, absolutely nothing." She knows that he's still a little annoyed that she bought the vintage piece at Camden Market without his input. When she brought it home to Islington, he spent a good fifteen minutes pointing out the frayed cording around its top, the worn places in the old velvet upholstery, and the wobbly leg, all of which he declared he wouldn't fix, it wasn't his bloody idea to buy the thing, blah blah blah. But even his grumbling had quieted when after David had been put to bed that night, she'd reclined on the ottoman and done a slow, sultry strip-tease for him, which had led to fast but equally sultry sex. Okay, the wobbly leg broke off during their pleasure-moment, which he then had to repair after all, but still. There's something undefinable about the ottoman she likes, something that spoke to her in the dimness of the dealer's stall.
He pushes at it again. "No, Anya, seriously. Doesn't that sound odd to you?"
She wriggles around so that she can rest her head in his lap, curl her hand around his waist. "Nope," she says into his thigh. His jeans feel weathered and smooth against her lips, and when he shifts underneath her, she can feel the beat of his blood. It's very soothing, and she sinks a little further down into him, as far as she can go.
It's not far enough. David's out there in the dark, and there could be things in the yews....
But Rupert's fingers begin to thread through her hair, the slightly roughened tips caressing her skull as they slide. "I'm impressed," he says quietly. "Another minute or two, and we can check on him without it looking too strange."
She closes her eyes and arches into his hand. "Did you notice how it was my idea that he go outside?"
"I did indeed. Let me correct myself – I'm very impressed, dearest." The fingers circle in place, gentle yet firm, and it's like he's trying to erase all the terror – the memory of the July sunset when she came out of the front door and saw David at the front gate talking to a hooded, cloaked dwarfish figure, the echo of her screams when the figure had extended his claws over the wall as if to grasp at her baby. She'd run down the steps and onto the path so fast that the creature hadn't been able to disappear before she'd smelled the rotten-eggs and heard the distant flute.
Much as she loves the way he touches her, not even Rupert will be able to take away those screams.
His hand lifts away. "Shall we go out and wait with David, then?"
Rupert worries too, she has to remember that. Even though they both know that the Devon Catcher was awakened by a spell gone wrong which they then counter-spelled with Willow, even though they both further know that the Catcher hides in winter and only hunts children during the short hazy summer nights, she's found him more than once in the middle of the night standing in David's doorway, watching him sleep. He keeps watch that their only child is safe, because that's what Rupert does.
The cowbell being rung shatteringly loud mingles with hysterical barking, deep and high, from outside, and she pushes herself up. "Sounds like Dawn's here."
"And her guest." Rupert's voice is neutral, but she knows how irritated he is by the very idea of the man who's been sent to them to interrupt their holiday. "Let's go, darling."
They help each other up – now he is wincing in earnest. She thinks again of those Mykin demons ambushing him four days ago when he was staking out the lair in East Ham, thinks of him limping through their door in London and waving away her help. But she doesn't say anything, merely makes a mental note to coddle him further that night.
It's cold in the hall away from the fire; the four lit wish-candles flicker when they open the front door onto the night. David, without bell but with dog-attendants, is dancing around their well-dressed Dawnie, who's just emerged from the hire car. "Look, Mum, Dad! It's Aunt Dawn, finally!" he sing-songs, laughing as she grabs him.
There's something not quite right about the way Dawn's holding him, a little too desperate and trembling for their self-possessed Summers girl, and the impression is strengthened when she looks up and tries to smile. "Hi, you guys. I've missed you all so much."
"An important Watcher like you, my dear? We're flattered." Rupert's words are dry, but he hurries Anya down the steps with almost as much eagerness as David, and hugs Dawn as if he's never been a repressed, standoffish Englishman in his whole life.
Dawn throws one arm around him and then gathers Anya in too. "You guys, I've missed you so, so much," she whispers again, her face tucked in between their shoulders, and Anya knows something is wrong.
A cough from behind them spreads into the night, rather like an infection. Anya peeks around to see not the grey old man she's expecting, but a handsome young blond, his well-cut overcoat flaring in the wind like he's a poor imitation of Spike back in the day. However, the voice is Watcher-formal, though with an American Southern accent: "Hello there, I'm Edward Camp. Thanks so much for extending your hospitality to me for the next few days." He reaches out and puts his hand on David's head, which makes their son quite rightly squirm away. "Come on now, little fella. Nice to meet you too."
"Yessir," David says, visibly resistant. She doesn't correct him.
Macallan and Cava on either side of him, Rupert steps in front of both Dawn and David as if to shield them from this Camp person. He extends his hand, says quietly, "Mr Camp – welcome to Swallow's Nest."
Anya keeps an arm around Dawn and then gets David as he tiptoes backward. "Yes, welcome," she echoes, and then holds on tighter.
She can almost hear a distant flute in the wind through the yews outside the barrier.
There's something outside flickering at the edge of Giles's peripheral vision, a jump in the shadows, a shape in the trees, a thing....
He steps closer to the window. It's long past dark, however, and the warmth and light from inside the lounge makes it difficult to identify anything beyond its safety. Putting his nose almost to the pane, he struggles to see past the reflections, discern whatever's lurking out there. But there is only night.
As far as he can see.
Behind him, loud enough to fill the lounge and spill over into the hallway, that bloody drawl keeps on going: "–requires more analysis, of course. At least we've got some understanding of the new way the Call works, after those two Slayers fell in the Bolivia incident and the subsequent uptick in the number of Potentials identified. Whenever the next Slayer dies, we'll know more. We're paying close attention to the Potentials gathered in Cleveland and at the new training facility I'm setting up at the secondary Hellmouth in Atlanta. Nice to be going back there, of course–"
Giles pulls the curtain across the glass, moves away from the threats he imagines waiting beyond the walls of his home, and sips at his after-dinner coffee. Unfortunately that doesn't drown out Edward Camp, who started talking the most appalling shit three hours ago and has stopped only to draw an occasional breath, shovel in random bites of Willow's famous experimental roast-with-root-vegetable dish at dinner, and touch Dawn in an offensively proprietorial manner throughout. All attempts to interrupt him have been swallowed up by the great maw of Camp's self-absorption.
Giles is worried about Dawn, in fact. When she first called to say that she was bringing Camp for a visit and that the Council felt it important for the man to talk to the Investigations and Acquisitions team, she hadn't sounded right, nor had she really answered Giles or Anya's subsequent questions. And although she's stayed next to the tosser all evening, she's shrinking into the corner of the sofa, into herself. Her hair hides her face.
However, Anya could find out soon enough what the problem is, he thinks – or she could if Camp ever stops talking. Sipping again at his coffee, he moves to stand behind her chair. When she reaches around to catch hold of the belt loop on his jeans, he can feel the need for vengeance thrumming in her fingers. He leans down to whisper in her ear, "We're going to have to do something, darling. Let's just choose our spot carefully."
She turns her head, brushes her lips across his cheek, then whispers back, "I know at least two good silence-curses, and I bet Willow knows more. How about it? You want me to signal her to let loose?"
He muffles his laugh with a kiss to her hair.
Curved around each other in the largest easychair, trying not to yawn, Willow and Fred have also given up on interrupting Camp. There have been a few valiant attempts to discuss Fred's new research appointment in the School of Physics at Exeter and some matters of coven business that Willow wants to share, but not even the greatest witch of her generation and her talented partner are enough to break through Camp's impenetrable pomposity. Not without one of those silence-curses or one of Fred's space-time alteration devices, at any rate.
Possibly David's got the right idea. While his son has been remarkably patient all evening – perhaps because he's the only one who's got Dawn away from Camp for any breath of time – he's currently drumming his heels against the side of that wretched ottoman Anya loves, in a thud-thud-thud-thud that, if encouraged further, might pound their visitor into shutting up. The ottoman does still sound a little strange, Giles thinks.
"–Robson has entrusted me with a corresponding new project as well, one I'm extremely excited about. But more of that later." Camp sits back, silent at last, and sends a smile around the room.
Anya seizes the moment. "Great! Wonderful! But I think it's time for David to start getting ready for bed –"
"Mum," David moans, "I haven't hardly got to talk to Aunt Dawn at all!"
"It's bath and then bed time, David. If we ask nicely, though, perhaps Dawn will help me set out your pajamas and get your room ready." Anya beams, one of her most irresistible expressions in Giles' eyes. His wife's force of personality alone should sever that disturbing connection between Camp and Dawn.
"Please, Aunt Dawn!" David says.
But she says, "Well, maybe I should stay down here for a while. You know, just in case." Her glance at Camp is nervous, yet so fleeting that Giles almost wonders if he's imagining it.
He thinks again of dark shapes and shadows outside, of other threats he might be imagining, and he says, "David's been waiting to see you all day, my dear. Go, visit with him and Anya – no one here will mind, I'm sure."
Camp's smile doesn't change, but he shifts his weight on the sofa and sighs. Flinching, Dawn looks down again. It's not like her to hide this way, and Giles' worry deepens.
Fred says, "Willow and I have to be going anyway, don't we, Willow? I've got some online work to do yet tonight, need to be getting gone."
"We'll come back and hang out a little tomorrow, Dawnie," Willow says. "We haven't heard anything about your work in the archives, you know, and I want to hear about all your dusty adventures. Wait, that didn't sound right." When she frowns at her own phrasing in a wholly characteristic manner, Fred starts to laugh, and even Dawn manages a smile.
It's a perfect cover for an intervention. Giles and Anya move at the same time, he to pull Dawn to her feet, Anya to grab David off the ottoman. His son resists the maternal control – rather invested in being a big boy, is David – but then Dawn isn't much easier to budge. However, experienced parents and herders by now, they manage.
David throws his arms around Dawn for a fleeting hug, says quickly, "Come on, Aunt Dawn," and then explodes toward the hallway, followed by the dogs, who've been lying on the hearth rug guarding him. When he stops for a breath, the three collide, and he says over his shoulder, "Are you going to read me my story tonight, Dad? After my bath?"
"Right, absolutely. We'll carry on with The Sword in the Stone, but not until you're clean."
"Yeah! Come on, Aunt Dawn!" David zips around the corner, then zips back to hover in the doorway, feet turning in and out in the nervous energy he can't suppress any longer. "Er, sorry. Night, Aunt Willow, Aunt Fred." Feet in and out, a frown. "Night, Mr. Camp sir." He bobs a little, not quite a bow, and then takes off.
"Well done, David," Giles says under his breath. Only Anya hears him.
Smiling, she cups his arse, her fingers teasing, but she lets go so quickly that if he weren't so tuned to her touch he might have missed it. Then she says briskly, "Willow and Fred, thanks, see you tomorrow; I'll give back your casserole pan then. And as for you, Watcher – " she brings Dawn's arm through hers in an inescapable hold – "you're with me."
"Well, what can I do?" Dawn says, laughing a little, although she again sends Camp a nervous look. The man doesn't speak. When Willow and Fred converge on her for a brief, warm hug, she hides her face against Anya's shoulder again.
For only Giles's eyes, Anya shakes her head and mouths, "I'm on it." Without any more ceremony, she pulls Dawn out of the room. Their footsteps – thud-thud-thud-thud – echo in the sudden silence.
Willow, of course, is the first to speak: "Well, now that we're up, we might as well be out, 'cause Fred's got work and I've got...stuff. And the Great Cat's probably missing us, too, needs our attention–"
"Great Cat doesn't care two bits if we're around, sugar. He's a Great Cat, with great powers," Fred says. When Willow gives her a look of eloquently squinched-up reproof, she amends, "But yes, we should be going."
"I'll walk you two out." Giles puts his coffee cup down, then turns to look at Camp. The man's pose and expression touch some memory-note in a minor key, which dies too quickly. He'll have to think about it. But in the meantime: "If you'll excuse me, er, Camp? Do you need anything at the moment?"
"I'm fine, Giles. Say, it's okay to address you that way, isn't it? I understand you were called Giles back in the days you were a Watcher." Camp smiles again.
"He's still Giles, still a Watcher even if he doesn't have the title," Willow says, fingers twitching.
"No, never mind," he says to her. The gibe has no power to hurt him any more – he could have rejoined the Council at any time, which he feels sure this wanker knows, but he's content to serve as independent consultant and as part-time instructor at the London academy. His MI5 work and Investigations and Acquisitions, not to mention the attention required by a much-loved wife and son, give him quite enough to do. To Camp he says, "I'll be back in a moment."
"Fine." The man's smile doesn't fade. "However – and you just say if this is going too far – would you like me to find you something else to read to the little fella? I've got a book or two in my bags, and The Sword in the Stone's not going to give him any real facts about Merlin or magic, now, is it."
"Yes, that's going too far," Giles says pleasantly. "I'll be happy to discuss my son's reading programme when I return, however, should you wish."
The image of Camp's smile stays with him as he helps Willow and Fred on with their coats, as he whistles the dogs to come with him from upstairs, as the front door opens on frost and night and the dogs gallop past him. For some reason he thinks he sees a shape lurking outside the gate – Christ, how the terror lingers, long after the night he'd run out to see Anya rocking David in her arms and just beyond them the fluttering cloak of the Catcher as the creature disappeared into dusk –
But he can't see anything now, not really, and he makes himself shut the door. As soon as the door catches, Willow says, "Oh, geez, could that guy be any more...icky? Cute enough if a person likes that sort of floppy-haired boy, but a nightmare, with the yapping and the stupidity and the kind of sexist overtones. Kinda like Wesley way back in the day, you know?" When she pauses, Giles nods. That's the connection he's missed – although at the thought of Wes, he has to repress a wave of sadness. "I'm so glad I've missed Edward Camp on my trips back to Cleveland."
"A full-grown tosser, there's no question. Anya will find out what's going on from Dawn, er, I hope." He shepherds them down the steps and toward their car parked in the drive behind the hire car from London. The garden is dark, with only the lights from the first-floor windows and the slices of Macallan is nosing at the front gate, while Cava plays with something in the dead grass – oh, it's David's discarded apple core from earlier.
"That guy gives me the creeps. You let us know what's happening, okay? But right now we need to tell you something, Giles," Fred says.
"Oh, yeah." Willow's voice drops into her official tone. "Gillian wanted you to know that there's been something running around on the tor."
"'Something'–" His breath huffs out in a frost-cloud of fear. "But it's winter, the Catcher should be sleeping."
"No, Giles, not the Catcher. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," Willow says, and Fred puts her hand on his arm. He realizes that he's begun to shudder, and he breathes in cold, makes himself calm down. "But it's still bad. The coven think it's a wish-hound, wakened nobody knows how."
"The Black Dog, you say." Giles looks again at the front gate beyond Macallan's familiar shape, straining to see if something else slinks, uncanny and feral, in the shadows.
"It hasn't been seen down here yet, and I haven't felt anything. But hey, it's good to know," Willow says. "Tell Anya and David to watch out for paw-prints. As well as for any giant supernatural canines that look kind of phosphorescent."
Fred half-laughs. "'Mr Holmes, they were the footsteps–'"
"'Of a gigantic hound!'" they all chant in unison, a note of humour in the dark. The note lingers as he sees them into their car, opens the gate of the drive for them, waves them safely on their way. But the humour fades, and he's left with the snick of the latch echoing in the cold, with shadows and rustlings outside the stone wall.
He looks back at Swallow's Nest. The light from the first-floor windows seems brighter now, and he fancies he can hear his wife and son laughing upstairs. Safe for the moment, he thinks.
Macallan stirs at the front gate. In a sliver of light Cava throws the destroyed apple core up into the air and, growling, snaps at it as it falls.
Something outside the gates flickers at the edge of Giles's peripheral vision. When he turns his head, though, there is only night.
As far as he can see.
The water isn't quite hot enough on Anya's wrist. The boiler at Swallow's Nest is old and temperamental, given to pouring out bursts of scalding liquid after minutes of cold, and vice versa; although it'll have to be replaced soon, for now Anya contents herself with running David's bath herself. It's a small thing, but one she can control.
Over the sound of the water she can hear Dawn and David talking across the hall: new lessons, questions about the airplane ride (David is very fond of planes, for reasons that escape both her and Rupert), Cleveland and the people he knows there. It takes Anya a moment to realise that Dawn isn't talking much and is hardly laughing when David makes a joke. Not that the jokes are very funny, he's six years old and given to terrible puns, but Dawn usually laughs nevertheless.
She turns her head and watches the water slide over and between her fingers. It's getting hotter now, so she leans over the edge of the old tub and puts the plug in the drain. The drumming of water on porcelain fills her ears, reminds her strangely of David's heels on her ottoman.
Still, the question comes across the hall loud and clear. "Aunt Dawn, do you really like Mr Camp?"
Anya holds her breath – but then the water suddenly is all but boiling, hissing against her skin. In her rush to regulate the temperature, to make the bath safe for her son, she misses the answer.
The slight burn on her skin doesn't disappear right away.
As she's testing the water in the appropriately filled tub again, Dawn and David appear in the doorway. "One young Giles, reporting for bath-time duty," Dawn says, her hands on his shoulders. He's rocking back and forth in her hold, in what Anya thinks of his boyish version of Rupert's occasional penchant for pacing, and his pajamas are crumpled in his hands. He's unsettled too, then.
Anya makes herself smile. "One bath, ready for young Giles." One last check of the water temperature before she pushes herself to her feet. "I'll be with Dawn across the hall if you have any problems...." Such as trying to drown yourself, she finishes silently.
"Mum," he says, blowing out a breath. "I've been having my own baths for years and years and years. I'm fine."
"David, you are unmistakably your father's son." She kisses the top of his head as she passes him.
Then she grabs Dawn before she can get away and drags her into David's bedroom. "Sit," she says, pointing to the oversized chair in the corner from which Rupert does his nightly reading when they're here.
"Anya," Dawn says, in a voice just like David's. But, like David (most of the time), she sits where she's told.
This is not in fact a good sign, Anya thinks. As she begins to straighten up the books and clothes that David has somehow managed to strew everywhere in a mere nine hours, she says, "Okay, out with it. Is it sex or work that's making you act so strange with and toward Edward Camp?"
"I'm not acting strange...oh, hell." Dawn turns her face away.
"You knew I was going to ask, and I can't carry on a conversation with you when you're hiding. Come on, sweetie."
"It's both." Dawn shudders, then covers her face in her hands. Her words are jumbled together, muffled by building tears and her own pressure: "It's both, and it's too hard, Anya. I'm just so confused."
Tossing down a small jumper, Anya moves to sit on the arm of the chair, and then puts her hand on Dawn's shoulder. One touch is enough to make Dawn bury her head against Anya's cashmere sweater, and Anya begins to pet that shiny Key hair. "Let's make this easy and uncomplicated. Sex first. How long, how much, and is either one of you calling it love?" She pauses. "I'd ordinarily ask 'how good' as well, but that might be... no, it's relevant. How good?"
"I've really, really missed you," Dawn says, accompanied by an odd laugh-sob-gurgle.
"I've missed you too. Now answer me."
One hand scrubbing at her face, Dawn says, "Two months, just after I got to Cleveland. We went out, had a few drinks and whatever, got to talking–"
"Did you actually get to speak?"
A snort of sad laughter against her sweater. "He doesn't shut up, doesn't he? I never really noticed until recently."
"Uh-huh. I guess that answers my question about the quality of the sex."
Another snort of laughter, then a sigh. "I've never... I mean, I've had other lovers? But he just takes me over, just....Yes. It's great sex. Orgasm City and its furthest suburbs."
"Okay. And then there's that slight resemblance to Spike, with the blondness and the cheekbones and the coat-flaring, which might also be attractive to you." Ignoring Dawn's slightly appalled chuckle, she adds, "Out of bed, how does he treat you?"
Dawn stops talking, and for a minute it's quiet enough that Anya can hear the soothing splashes (if slightly worrying in terms of tidal waves on the bathroom floor) from across the hall. David's singing to himself, too, something that Rupert's taught him about an octopus's garden. Downstairs the front door opens and shuts, a solid gate-keeping sound, and she can just barely hear the enthusiastic entry of the dogs. Rupert must be back inside. Safe for now, she thinks as she pets Dawn's hair. "How does Edward Camp treat you out of bed?" she says again.
"He says he loves me." There's doubt in Dawn's voice, and surprise – as if this is the first time she's articulated what she knew good and well. "But, but he doesn't listen. He... I mean, he's not mean, you know? But he knows best or at least better than me, he thinks, and he doesn't... listen." She snuggles in more. "That doesn't make sense, does it."
"No, sweetie, it does. In the vengeance-days it was one of the leading causes of Wishes. Almost every woman has had the good-sex, bad-patronizing-boyfriend experience." Anya plays that back in her head. "Say, how is Xander these days? Did you see him when you were in Cleveland?"
Dawn looks up at that, grinning. "Anya, you're terrible!"
"I fail to see why honesty is terrible."
"And that's just so you." Dawn hugs her and then gets out of the chair. She starts picking up the books Anya's left, stacking them just so as she talks. "No, I didn't get to see Xander. He's been out of town, and now he and Andrew are off working a nest of Mykin demons in Wisconsin – which is why Andrew hasn't come home yet, he's missing everyone too and he's going to try to be back for Christmas Hanukkah Solstice Kwanzaa Gurundar's Ascension. But when I talked to him a couple of days ago, he said Xander's okay."
"After 'the Rift'–" Anya makes the air-quotes, then frowns. "Why does Andrew call it that, anyway? What's it from? That Tiny-town show, or what?"
"Smallville, Anya." Dawn giggles before she crouches for another book. "Yes, 'the Rift' is alive and well. Wes and Faith are off with Angel, somewhere undisclosed. Still doing Council work, though, I know the Inner Council has regular reports."
Anya gets up too, joining her efforts to Dawn, bringing order back into chaos. They don't really need to talk about the disaster that happened that summer, when Wes and Faith's long-time affair was discovered and lines were drawn, cutting off friend from friend, family from family. On one side is Wes – whom Rupert and that stupid Jools had to fish out of a drunken, self-loathing, half-crazy binge in London after it all came out– and Faith. On the other is Xander who is admittedly the wronged party, and with him Buffy and Spike. It culminated in a horrible Buffy and Faith screaming match turned into fist-fight in the middle of Council headquarters, which has led to their reassignment far, far apart.
But at least Rupert and Anya have maintained some sort of tie to everyone, even though it's hard to be a neutral nation since Zoe, the other wronged party, is one of Anya's closest friends. "Being Switzerland is no easy task," as Rupert often puts it.
Anya never adds that Switzerland has its share of monsters, like the cave-demons that live on the Matterhorn. But she thinks it.
A couple more moments of noise-laced calm, of octopus's gardens and gentle splashes while they fold up the clothes and put them in the armoire or hamper as the state of cleanliness requires. Downstairs there's a rustle of movement – and one of the dogs must not be happy. Fading in and out is a high whining howl.
Except the sound's from outside and the dogs are in, which strikes Anya as strange.
She takes the last load of books and shoves them in the bookcase in the one spot that's left. Dusting her hands, she says, "All right. David's going to be finished soon, so you'd better tell me the rest of it."
As if her legs suddenly lose strength, Dawn sits down on David's bed. Rubbing at her thighs, she says, "Okay, so I was already worried about Edward. What I'm doing with him and everything, but I can't seem to stop. Then, the Council offers me this choice of jobs, and now I'm just...." One long fingernail begins to pick at the outer seam of her trousers.
Anya sits down next to her. "Stop destroying your clothes and explain this to me."
"Yes, Mother." Dawn tries to laugh again and fails. "I don't know what Edward's going to be doing in Atlanta – okay, the Potentials-school, but there's some other thing he keeps talking about without actually saying anything. He's asked me to be the archivist for the facility, though."
"He wants you to move to Georgia with him, without actually telling you what he's doing." Anya doesn't like this at all.
"Yes. And it's a good job with the Council, really, but I just don't know. I don't know, Anya. The other job the Council offers would keep me based in London; I'd be collecting materials from several private collections, building a secondary library for the European region. There'd be some travel – and I'd have to work closely with the geniuses at Investigations and Acquisitions to source some texts, I think."
"Well, obviously I know which job I want you to take, even aside from the possible nice commissions. But it's your choice. Still, sweetie –" Anya puts her arm around Dawn– "why did you bring Edward Camp here in the first place? Do you want me and Rupert to vet him? We have contacts, you know. Good contacts. Deep-background contacts, in case he turns out to be a shape-shifting demon."
"Yes, please spy on my lover," Dawn says. Regrettably, this is sarcasm. "No, see, it's just like I told you guys on the phone. Last week Robson called me in and asked me to bring Edward when I came to see you. I mean, Edward had already been asking, and I'd been thinking, but now, officially and all...."
"Now I am officially not happy about this," Anya says.
Dawn says quietly, "Me either. But at least I've told you. I feel a little better now."
It's quiet in the bedroom. Tick of David's little alarm clock by his bed, a bit of settling in the old house –
And Anya realises that there's no boyish singing, no splashes from the bathroom. "David?" she says, loud enough that he should be able to hear. "David?"
No answer. Her heart stops, and in the deep, deep silence she can hear the flute in the yews again.
It takes four steps to get across the hall, a couple of shaking seconds to push open the bathroom door which has somehow shut – "David!"
Her son erupts from the bottom of the tub, blowing out water, and then drags his dripping hair out of his eyes and frowns at her. "Mum, please! I can take my bath by myself!"
As she all but collapses with relief, Rupert runs up the stairs with the speed of a much younger man, the dogs hot on his heels. "What's wrong, darling?" He braces her, his arm going around her waist to hold her against him, and then looks over her shoulder. "David?"
"I don't know what's wrong, Dad. I was just playing Octopus Under the Sea. You know, 'resting my head, on the sea bed–'" He sings the last bit in his croaky little-boy voice.
Anya doesn't know why it makes her want to cry. But she manages to say evenly, "I called you and you didn't answer. You know that makes me worry."
Rupert's arm tightens around her; he must be able to feel her shaking. "Let's not play Octopus in quite that literal way again, David. Your mother's right, you know the rules."
"Yessir," David says, perilously close to a pout.
"You should get out now, anyway. I think you're probably turning into a prune, or some other type of unattractively wrinkled fruit." She makes herself smile.
David smiles back, sunshine again, and then waves his arms around. "No, Mum, this is what octopus tentacles are supposed to look like!"
"Out, David," she and Rupert say in unison. But she lets Rupert pull the door closer to shut, and then she allows herself to rest against him, breathe him in for a minute to calm herself back down. His hands pass up and down her spine, gentling her, as the dogs settle themselves at their feet.
"Everything's okay, then?" Dawn says, smiling at them, and then a heartbeat later, an echo from the landing of the stairs–
"Everything okay up there?" Edward Camp stands in the shadows of the landing, that damn smile of him turned on high. "Sorry, I heard the noise."
"Everything's fine, thank you," Rupert says.
"Well, great." Camp's smile widens even further. Anya doesn't like it, not one bit; it makes her think of fangs for some reason, which is stupid because he really is very handsome. Then he extends his hand and says, "Dawn? You want to come on down with me?"
Dawn hesitates – hiding again, Anya thinks – before saying in a rush, "Well, okay. Okay?" The second 'okay' is addressed to Rupert, to Anya, maybe Dawn's better self, but she doesn't wait for an answer; she runs lightly down the stairs toward that outstretched hand. He grabs hold of her, and he pulls her the rest of the way down and out of sight. She doesn't say anything else as she descends.
"For fuck's sake," Rupert mutters against Anya's hair, and he pulls her against him, close as she can go. She snuggles in and tries to ignore the fact that he's trembling a little too.
From inside the bathroom comes the sounds of draining water and a wet little boy slipping around on the floor, humming to himself again. But from outside, louder, comes a high whining howl.
Which is not only strange but rather scary, Anya thinks, because Macallan and Cava are still lying silent and anxious at their feet.
Dawn knows it's a mistake the minute Edward clutches her hand on the staircase. She can feel the not-rightness, the edge of too tight in his clasp. She always could feel it, maybe, but only now after Anya's pointed questions can she acknowledge it fully.
But there's also that warmth, a good sex-touch rushing between skin to skin like a river between its banks, and for a moment she lets herself go down with the current. She tells herself it's just for the moment.
He pulls her down the steps and into the front hallway, where the wish-candles still burn. She takes a second to notice that four pillars flicker with light, to realise that one has been wished for her. It's love and safety for all the family members staying under their roof, she knows – and a different warmth spreads through her, one that makes her remember who she is. She's Dawn Summers, sister of the Queen Slayer. She's part of Giles and Anya's family.
And she's a Watcher.
Think, she tells herself, even as Edward spins her into a pool of darkness and crowds her against the wall leading to the kitchen. Even as her knees begin to buckle and her breath comes short and fast, even as his toned body pushes against her, chest belly hips, God so hard, so good, she tells herself again.
His mouth takes hers for a heartbeat – she can taste his after-dinner coffee, its warmth going sour, smell the travel on them both – and he leans in further. His free hand flows up to her neck, his fingers flexing on her nape under her hair. "Hey, sugar," he says in that voice he saves for their private moments, the drawl so thick and deep she could drown in it. Drown in him. "Don't leave me like that again. I don't like it when you're gone from me."
Another kiss cuts off her words. His tongue steals her breath, and then he pulls back to gaze at her. She can't see the colour of his eyes in the shadows, but she knows how blue they are. She doesn't know if they're warm or cold now, though. "So what did you and Mrs Giles talk about, sugar?"
"The only people who call her Mrs Giles are official types and Jools Siviter, which irritates the crap out of her. Well, and Giles very occasionally, but he's allowed. She's Anya, okay?" Edward smiles at that, leaning on her a little more. And oh yes, she's thinking now. She edits what she says next. "We just talked about family stuff. David, and Xander, and the Wes and Faith thing."
"Right, the unfaithful ones," he says, but absently, like he's thinking of something else. A brush of a kiss, moisture lingering from before. "What'd you say about the little fella?" His breath is warm against her lips as he comes closer still. "Mrs Giles doesn't seem to take too good care of him, what with that bath time alarm just now and all."
Dawn flattens her hands against his chest. "Anya is an excellent mother," she says, enunciating every word with the precision of the woman she defends.
"Of course she is," he says. The hand on her neck tightens. "Just talking, my Dawn. Just talking."
"Really? Well, don't talk like that again–"
But before she can finish, he's taking her mouth again. This kiss is deeper, and his other hand steals underneath her sweater, sweeps up over her breast and holds on. He begins a rhythmic pulse, the heel of his hand rotating against her nipple, and she can feel the current deepen.
Think, she tells herself. Focus on anything but the pleasure.
Through the drumming of her blood in her ears, she can hear something in the December wind outside. Sounds like a dog crying, but no, it can't be – Swallow's Nest is too far from the village and from other houses. Maybe it's a stray or something.
Although his hands keep moving on her, making her curse her own dissolving, Edward lifts his head away from hers. There's that smile of his, wide as a river. "What are the chances of old Giles and Anya – see there, sugar, did just like you wanted – coming back down this evening?"
"Pretty good. But probably only for a little while to lock up, and not soon. David's story-time is always a big family deal." It's hard to get the words out. Hard to stay strong.
"Story-time, huh." She doesn't understand the way he underlines that with his voice, but she files it away for later consideration. "That means no more business tonight. Well then...." And he swings her further away from the brace of the wall and into the dark of the kitchen, his hands moving but never letting go. It dizzies her, like the current is splitting against rocks, like whirlpools are forming. Against her neck he whispers, "I know they put you in that little tiny room –"
"My room," she interrupts. She has to make it clear where she belongs. It may be just a small room off the kitchen, but one that Giles and Anya gave to her once they took the cottage back from the coven, once the house became all of theirs. She had spent a happy weekend with her then boyfriend Jack and Andrew and Ian, painting the uneven walls a soft peach and then doing the sills and doors in rich green. Green for Key-girl energy, Andrew said when he first poured the trim paint into the tray.
And she suddenly realises that it never even occurred to her to tell Giles and Anya not to make up the bed in her room. She realises that who she is comes in part from that cozy, protected space, and she never considered taking Edward in with her there. She doesn't trust him enough.
But she's brought him here to this safehouse, and that frightens her full awake.
He says, deeper and huskier, his lips etching her skin, his hands locking on her, "Sugar, don't go away from me like that. Come on down now. You stay with me."
She lets him lead her toward the door leading down – he's been put in the nice guest quarters built last year in the basement, dubbed jokingly by Andrew "the Tom Quinn Memorial Suite." She lets him control her passage through the dark of the kitchen, past table and counters, in and out of that mournful dog-howl creeping in through the crannies of window and door. Yet this time when she winds her arms around his neck, when she sways against him and then nips at his ear, when she allows him to trace his tongue along the vein in her neck, she's riding the river rather than sinking in it.
She's a Watcher, after all. She's going to watch this guy for real and figure out what's going on.
In the bathroom Giles splashes his face with cold water, and then grabs a towel to dry the moisture and perhaps scrape away his building headache.
The last notes of the Black Dog, if that's what it is, are still hanging in the air, even though the last howl was several minutes ago. The keening had accompanied Giles through his dramatic reading of King Pellinore's reunion with the forlorn Questing Beast, to which David listened while Anya rubbed dry his hair. After David was tucked up safely, Giles and Anya had gone downstairs to deal with the fire and the last of the day's mess. As he'd told her about Willow's message, the uncanny howl had come again.
No, he corrects himself, it had seemed to come closer.
One more time he'd switched on the outside lights, taken a torch and the dogs, and gone into the garden to patrol. His beam playing along the stone walls and on the shut gates, he'd tried to see something, anything, in the night. There had been only sound, different sounds like the scraping of large paws against rocks, like panting breath nearby. It hadn't been Macallan and Cava.
The final cry came when he and the dogs got to the threshold of Swallow's Nest, trailing in after them so that the entryway rang with it. But there was nothing there.
He warded the front door with everything he knew, nevertheless.
After putting the towel back on the rack, he pads out of the bathroom and into the hall. In the yellow glow of a small nightlight (provided for the youngest Giles' occasional midnight ramblings), Macallan and Cava make a canine barrier in front of David's door. Without eliciting more than a soft acknowledgement from Macallan, he silently opens the door and looks into the dimness.
From what he can tell, David is asleep in his favourite position: head half-under the pillow, body rolled up in the blanket, one arm outside the covers at an odd angle. Anya swears this is a mirror of one of Giles' own sleep-poses, although he doesn't believe it. While his son snorts in his sleep, Giles whispers a wish for safety – although he doesn't believe in it either, not really.
But he'll ward his loved ones with everything he knows.
When he goes into his and Anya's room, he stops on the threshold to savour. The picture would be called something like 'Lamplit Wife, with Brandy and Swatches': Anya in her reading glasses, tucked up in their four-poster, studying four squares of different upholstery fabrics strewn across the duvet and cradling a half-full snifter. Without looking up she says, "Everything okay, honey? No visible sign of the Wild Hunt encroaching on us so far? David asleep?"
"I walked around the house and checked the lane, but I saw nothing. And yes, as far as I could tell." He comes around to his side of the bed, discards his glasses, and then crawls in without disturbing her materials. She holds the snifter high so that nothing spills as he organises himself. "You were the last one downstairs, though. Everything all right there?"
Her gaze meets his, and he reaches over to pluck off her glasses. Half-smiling, she takes them from him and puts them on her bedside table. "Fine. Well, except that the door to Dawn's room was open, and there was no Dawnie inside and noises were coming from the cellar. More of her ill-judged time in Orgasm City, regardless of my own attempts to hint that Edward Camp's a creep and a jerk." Her smile disappears. "I think I was too subtle."
Wincing not at Anya's expression but the reality of Dawn's choice, he settles deeper into his pillow. "You did the best you could, darling. So what do we do now?"
"I vote for stabbing him with the toasting fork over the breakfast table." When he smiles, she hands him the brandy snifter. "Here, honey, I warmed this for you. And had a little, obviously, but it's yours."
"Thank you. A rare treat." Their fingers brush as the exchange is made, and he lingers on the touch.
"Well, tonight you deserve it. We've had a tough evening." She leans up to kiss him, the merest brush against his lips, and then returns to her own pillows.
He stares into the depths of the snifter, thinking of that odd comment Camp had made about reading material. Thinking about howls in the wind. "I suppose I could call Robson tomorrow, see what the bloody hell is going on."
"Remember that Robson sent him to us, honey," she says crisply.
She doesn't have to say anything else. Their ties to the Council are broken or strained – Wes and Faith in exile, Buffy, Spike, Xander, and Andrew off in the field, Willow more allied to Tor House – and the upper echelon of the Council apparently can't be trusted. He and Anya are on their own.
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was. He takes another sip of brandy.
It's quiet in the house – no uncanny sounds from outside, only the merest stirring from the dogs in the hall – as he swirls the liquid in the bowl and as she fusses with the fabric squares, holding one and then another up to the light. He tests the nearest swatch, a blue patterned thing, with his finger. "Anya, must you turn to home decorating like a drug?"
"I'm choosing new material to re-cover my ottoman, whose shabbiness you've been complaining about. And ha ha, that attempt at a 'joke' rivals David's about the elephants wearing their ele-pants, with its substitution of a consonant intended to provide comedy."
"It saddens me that our wonderful senses of humour are lost on you."
"Ha ha ha, Rupert." The fabric swatches go flying as she leaps on him, and it's only with a superhuman effort that he saves the remainder of the brandy. But she pulls back almost at once, giving him time to put the snifter on his night stand. When he turns back, her hands span his ribs. "Let me see," she says, but her delicate touch, not her gaze, outlines the faded bruises from his last field-work.
It's so quiet now, and he shifts uneasily under her fingers – more the memory of pain than the sensation now. She slides down in their bed so she can kiss the worst mark, high on his side. Softly: "You're not going out tomorrow to look for signs of the Wild Hunt, are you, honey?"
"Anya," he says gently, firmly. "Someone has to. Not everyone is as protected as we are."
"Crap. I knew it." Another feather-brush of lips on his bruise, drawing out even the old ache, and then she slides her mouth up to his nipple, teasing until he shifts underneath her in pleasure. She raises her head. "Do you even know what to do if you find a supernatural hound? I've never actually had to shoo off a harbinger of doom in canine form, so – "
"I've got a few texts here, and Dawn can assist me. Or perhaps Dawn can watch David. You might come investigate with me, Tuppence." He pulls her up to him. Her mouth glistens in the lamplight, tempting him so that he forgets what he's saying.
"My Tommy. But I don't know if I want to leave David –" Then she stops talking, slides into position, and cuts off his vision of her mouth with its pressure on his. The kiss is long, deep and flowing, and he can taste her nerves and her arousal as well as the brandy. He circles his tongue around hers so he can catch every drop. "Yes, please, honey," she says when she can, and he doesn't think she's talking about searching for clues.
They have to be quiet, both of them know that. He doesn't speak as he unbuttons her nightshirt and then sends his fingers travelling down. Silent, he pauses as always at her C-section scar, caressing the mark of the most terrifying and wonderful night of his life, and she arches against him, encouraging him to go further, to dip inside that glorious heat and dampness and twist his fingers until she's wet. She doesn't speak when she helps him strip off his pajama bottoms, her mouth brushing at the jut of his hip, sipping at his cock. She doesn't speak when he rolls her over, brings her arms over her head and locks them onto the bedpost, and then settles into her as he does his most comfortable resting place. But he whispers praise and wishes as he begins to stroke into her, and she buries her moans in his shoulder.
He will ward his loved ones with everything he knows.
When David wakes up, he's lost for a minute. It's deep dark in the room, and he thinks he heard something in his sleep, he doesn't know what, but something. It sounds like that night he met the Catcher, like music, high and scary, in the trees outside as sharp finger-claws come out of ragged old sleeves–
For a minute he thinks he'll hide under the covers and pretend he's not there. But then his eyes get used to the dark. He can see the light from the hallway through the open door, and he can see the glowing numbers of his clock on the table. It's little-hand-on-the-one, big-hand-on-the-six, one-thirty. Then his ears get used to the middle of the night, and he can hear Dad and Mum's funny sleep-noises from down the hall. He mustn't call them snores, especially Mum's, cos that makes Mum all squeaky and "I do not snore" and then Dad laughs and then both he and Dad are in bad, bad trouble.
He rolls over on his back and looks up at the ceiling. It's dark up there, and wavy, like he's under the sea in the octopus's garden in the shade. There's treasure in the octopus's garden, maybe. Probably.
Then the music in the trees fades away, and Swallow's Nest begins to call to him.
David likes exploring. He likes finding new things, especially in familiar places – one of his very favourite stories is the family fairy tale of the time Aunt Dawn and Uncle Andy and Aunt Willow and Uncle Xander found the hidden staircase with the magic cup in the London-home. When Dad was reading The Magician's Nephew to him, David asked if they had a magic attic too. No, Dad said, because they didn't live in a house like the one in the book, and then Mum said that anyway dimensional portals rarely appeared in wardrobes or attics, and Dad got his usual look like he wanted to grin at Mum or kiss her or something bizarre like that.
His best friend Tariq at school has been calling everything 'bizarre' lately, and David likes that word. 'S cool the way it rolls out of his mouth, and the way he can make the 'r' sound all long, like he's a pirate. "Bizarrrrre," he whispers into the dark.
"Bizarrrrre," the house whispers back. "David, come seeeee." Come see what, he wants to ask, but he doesn't. He really should stay where he is –
But then the pipes in the walls make a weird gurgly sound, drumming like waves, drumming like a sword smacked on a treasure chest, like shoes on furniture, and he bolts upright.
There's something in the ottoman, he remembers thinking. Treasure, probably.
Before he can think twice, he's up and out of bed.
It's cold now in the house, cold enough that he reaches for a jumper to wear over his pajamas and then gets a pair of socks too. No shoes, though – Mum can wake up when a board creaks at the top of the stairs, she's always listening, always ready to take care of him, and then Dad sometimes wanders around at night too. 'S kind of too much sometimes. Just perfect-right other times, like when the Catcher came.
When he's working his jumper over his head, he gets the weirdest idea that he can see the thing's claws again reaching over the gate, coming for him in the dark – but then he pulls his head free, and it's fine, and he remembers Mum cuddling him close and then Dad coming outside and putting his arms around them both, carrying them back to the house where it's safe.
As he puts his socks on, he thinks about how Mum always says he's his father's son. One time he asked her who else's son would he be, and she said that it was an expression which meant that David was very, very like Dad in ways big and small, even though he's his own boy too. This is brilliant, he thinks, especially cos Mum then hugged him hard and told him so.
Like Dad, he likes books and stories. In the book Dad's reading to him now, Wart goes off on lots of quests to find out stuff, but he's mostly safe because Merlin is watching out for him. Dad's kind of like Merlin, except married to Mum and not so magic and mysterious – but he knows things, and that's important, that's what David wants too. Dad would probably say that David should go questing just like Wart.
Okay, the rules say not in the middle of the night, but anyway.
"Bizarrrre," the house says again, with a gurgle and a sigh. "David, come seeeee."
When he gets to his bedroom door, the dogs wake up. Cava likes her sleep – she opens her eyes and grrs, but then rolls over against the floor so she can't see and doesn't have to follow. Macallan, though, always goes with David. Sighing a dog-sigh, he stretches and then stands at attention, mouth open like he's saying "Let's go!"
The door to Mum and Dad's bedroom is partly open; their sleep-noises are louder here. Then Dad moves around and mutters – he talks in his sleep sometimes, Mum teases him about it – something about "Hie thee hence." David doesn't know what it means, but as he hides against the wall and waits for them to quiet down, he repeats the words in his head.
"Hie thee hence." That sounds like a brilliant Merlin-spell.
He and Macallan start downstairs once the noises fade a little. He has to keep his hand on Macallan's neck, hold him close, so that the dog doesn't run with heavy feet all the way down like he always does. It's quest time, and that means quiet, even in the kind of scary dark.
David remembers the Catcher again, remembers how quiet that one night was except for the sound of the flute and the harsh breaths coming from inside the dwarf's hood. It's safe to remember when he's got his fingers in Macallan's fur and he's inside the wards. That one night, he'd been out playing with the dogs but they'd gone off sniffing at rabbit-track under the rosebushes in the corner, not staying with him. He'd had to face the Catcher by himself.
His fingers tighten in Macallan's fur so hard that the dog whines a little before he goes quiet again.
When they get to the landing, the light changes – Mum and Dad left the outdoor lights on, so that yellow creeps inside through cracks in the curtains. It makes the downstairs look weird, like the normal things change shapes in the middle of the night. But David's been downstairs in the dark before, and he knows everything's mostly the same, so he keeps on going.
But the things could change shape, he thinks.
After the Catcher was sent away, they had a whole family night in London where the grown-ups talked about how many different ways a Catcher could show up in different places and stuff. Dad read a poem about a pied piper who had a flute too and stole children, and then Mum told a story about a faraway dimension where children couldn't go out after dark because there were so many Catchers of all colours and sizes, she didn't say why, and then Uncle Andy and Aunt Dawn put on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Dad ran away to the kitchen early in the movie, though, cos he said the music was appalling, and then Mum followed him and started singing "Truly Scrumptious," and Dad said something else that was probably rude, and there was laughing and also kissing noises. Which was good if bizarre, cos David didn't like the Child-Catcher in the movie, and he had to hold on tight to Uncle Andy and Aunt Dawn and hold on to Mum and Dad laughing.
In the stories, all Catchers are the same, no matter what they're called. No matter what they look like. It's important to know that stuff, and hold on.
When David steps off the stairs, he puts his hand on the table where Mum keeps the wish-candles. The wood is solid under his fingers, just like always.
And Swallow's Nest is calling to him, "Come seeee," so he and Macallan go into the room with the ottoman. The dark is striped with yellow from outside, little lines of light, and it's enough to see the round thing waiting for him. He dives onto his tummy, Macallan going flat beside him, and he puts his hands on it.
It's soft but uneven – there are flat bits where it's all been rubbed off to just the shape underneath. When he rubs a little more, he can feel a crack underneath, where he's been kicking. No, two cracks. He pushes at the ottoman, and it goes all creaky, like it's going to break. He pushes again, harder. It creaks louder, and then there's this treasure-chest rattle.
"Bizarrrre," he says under his breath.
But his fingers find a hole in the stuff at the bottom of the ottoman. A little wiggle – Macallan scoots up so he can use his nose to help – and then there's a rip and a bigger hole. Underneath it he can touch the crack in the wooden base. The rattle inside gets louder, like something wants to be found –
And then from behind him, a room or two away, there's a click. It's like a light-switch, or maybe even a latch lifting on the gate. Click, he hears again.
Then he hears footsteps. Not Dad's, which are solid yet soft. Not Mum's or Aunt Dawn's, cos they don't make hardly any noise unless they're wearing high heels. These are strange footsteps, heavy and loud and echoing like a monster's.
The footsteps come closer.
He pulls Macallan in, and the two of them slide on their tummies away from the yellow stripe of light, into the full dark just past the ottoman. When the dog starts to whimper, David wraps his hand around his mouth and nose, holding the noise inside.
"Who's there?" comes a voice, all slow and thick and deep. More footsteps, closer now.
David thinks for a moment he'll just close his eyes and pretend he isn't there – but that's no good. He needs to see the monster, needs to know. Careful to keep in the dark, he lifts his head.
Out in the hallway, a stripe of yellow lights up a wide, wide smile, and a hand stretches out to touch the darkness. In the weird light, the hand looks like a claw coming out of ragged old sleeves.
And the voice of Mr Camp says, all slow and thick and deep, "Hey, is that the little fella? David, you awake?"
David Martin Giles knows the voice of a Catcher when he hears one.
He can't move, even as the footsteps come closer, as the Catcher comes almost across the threshold. But he can think Dad's Merlin-spell over and over – Hie thee hence, hie thee hence, hie thee hence –
One more footstep, and Mr Camp is almost inside.
Then there's a flash of shiny long hair, and a good smile, a warrior's smile. "Edward? Whatever are you doing?" Aunt Dawn says, coming up behind the monster and putting her arms around him. David wants to shout at her to get away from him, but Aunt Dawn's really tough and smart, smarter than the Catcher, probably. "The munchies are the other direction."
Mr Camp takes another look into the darkness. "I thought I heard something in here. Or someone," he says, staring right at the spot where David and Macallan lie.
"A house this old is always noisy," Aunt Dawn says, and she pulls him out of the room, in and out of the yellow stripes of light. As they go off to the kitchen, her voice fades, but David can hear her say, "Come back to bed, and stop worrying about night-sounds."
As soon as he hears the door shut, he and Macallan are gone – up the stairs, fast as they can, quiet as they can. First thing he sees is Dad, stumbling out of the door of his and Mum's room, and David throws himself at his father. "Daddy," he whispers, even though he's too old to call him that any more. Just this once it makes him feel safer.
"What the...are you all right?" And Dad manages to pull him up into his arms, holding him close and safe. David hides his face in Dad's neck, cos he doesn't have to look any more, he knows the worst now. The good Merlin-voice says, "Son, what's wrong?"
"Honey? What – David, what are you doing up?" Mum's there too, yawning a little and pulling her robe around her. "It's almost two in the morning."
"Catcher," he whispers. "I'm not like Wart after all, Daddy. Sorry, Mum."
His father's big hand cradles the back of his head, while Mum rubs his back in a very Mum way, sharp and comforting. "Nightmare," they say in unison, and they do their nightmare-things – Dad puts him back in bed, Mum brings him a little glass of water, Dad sings soft and quiet, Mum smoothes his forehead until his eyes close.
As he falls into sleep where it's safe, he thinks he'll have to tell them tomorrow that it's real, that the stories don't lie. All Catchers are the same, no matter what name they're called.
Anya wakes to the sound of hard rain on the windows, hard rain on the roof. When she opens her eyes, the day is liquid grey, her husband is stretched out warm and solid and finally still, and she thinks hazily that after such a disturbed night, maybe it's okay to sleep in a little longer. It's nice and cozy in bed.
Rupert's arm is loosely thrown over her waist, his hand not quite touching her belly. He didn't settle on this position until after five am; he's muttered and thrashed around all night, both before and after David's nightmare, which hasn't made it easy for her to get enough rest. She kept waking herself with worry, trying to hear if David was up again, trying to hear whatever vital thing Rupert's saying. At the thought, she brings her hand up to link with his–
And without warning his fingers tighten, just before he moves closer. "Darling," he says in a morning-cracked voice.
"Honey," she says. It's not an endearment so much as her affirmation that he's there, always there. "Does your throat hurt?"
A hard swallow, a harder exhalation. "A little, perhaps. How did you know?"
"Because you wouldn't shut up last night, you talked in your sleep for hours. I imagine your throat is raw by now." Awkwardly, because of their joined hands which at the moment she doesn't feel like separating, she wriggles around to face him. He looks still a little tired, but his smile is sweet. With her free hand she reaches up to push back his rumpled silver hair. "So what are you repressing this time, hmm?"
"'Repressing'? What makes you say that?"
"Oh, call it my intuition," she says, then nips at the point of his chin.
His other arm comes round her, brings her sharply against his body. "If the next words out of your mouth are that I'm the 'paperwork type,' darling, I'm going to avenge myself. It might involve damage to those bloody upholstery swatches."
She actually didn't mean to echo their exchange during Willow's spell long ago, although she does love to remember it. Smiling, she says, "Cranky, cranky man–"
But he kisses her insult away, warm morning-sour pleasure and punishment. When he pulls back, however, he's not smiling. He pushes her tangled hair (blonde-streaked at the moment) away from her face, his touch lingering on her cheekbone, his gaze intent on her. "Anya," he says, and then pauses. It's a long pause, long enough where she can begin to worry again over everything, hear her fears beating in the hard rain on windows and roof. "Right, er, I can't actually remember ....there was a spell I was trying to work, a banishing spell, but I didn't have the right tools. I had the words, but then they disappeared." He frowns before he finishes with, "Just an ordinary anxiety-dream. No repression."
"Anxiety-dream, huh. I usually have those when I'm awake. They're easier to remember that way." When he not-quite-chuckles and then nuzzles her neck, she holds him closer. "By the way, it's raining."
"Um-hmmm." It's an indeterminate sound of agreement, or possibly lust. He's stirring against her.
She wants to let herself go, slip her hands inside his pajamas and find him, make him hard, bring him safe and hot into her while the liquid grey light plays over them. Still, it's more important to make this point clear: "No, honey, I mean it's raining. As in, you don't have to go out and search for clues about the supernatural beast, because all phosphorescence, demon footprints, etcetera, will have been washed away." Not that a fifty-six-year-old man with a sore throat has any business running around in cold December wet anyway, she thinks but doesn't say.
He knows what she's thinking, however; he's frowning again when he pulls back. "I'm going to have to investigate, Anya, rain or not. But yes, I'll start with indoor activities first. Get Dawn and possibly that tosser Camp on the research job as well –"
"Call the coven to see what action they're already taking," she suggests. "As for Camp, I still say, Go toasting fork. Choose toasting fork."
"Ha ha." After one last hard kiss, he rolls away from her – she feels the heat-loss even before he throws back the covers and gets out of bed. In her scramble to pull the bedclothes back up, she almost misses his, "But you're right about the coven, darling. I'll check with Gillian and Willow first thing after my shower."
"Good enough. So where does breakfast fall in your schedule?" she says, in the midst of enjoying the orderly way he's collecting his pair of jeans, his two shirts, and his boxers from the depths of the armoire and putting them on the foot of the bed. Good angle on the flex of that still very toned ass in nicely draped pajama bottoms, in fact.
"Fuck's sake, must I decide everything all at once?" he says, tossing a pair of socks on the pile. Then he flashes a grin at her. "Once I've showered, I'll set up the complete programme, including a full range of research activities for you."
After almost seven and a half years of marriage he's quite good at anticipating when she's going to throw something at him, so he dodges the pillow-missile with ease. At least it's his pillow on the floor, she comforts herself.
A couple of doors down, the toilet flushes. David must be awake, which means that David's mother should get up. Now that she's listening, she can hear the sound of the water going downstairs as well: Dawn and/or Watcher-Jerk must be showering too. "Please don't use all the hot water, Rupert, not even in the course of vengeance," she says.
"Yes, dearest. I shan't even take time to shave." As he picks up his clothes, he kicks at a swatch on the floor. "Besides, I've decided to reserve my vengeance for that wretched ottoman of yours."
"Anyone who touches my ottoman without permission will feel the full force of my wrath," she announces as she throws back the covers.
There's a thud from out in the corridor, as if something just slammed against the wall, and the dogs bark short and sharp like a warning. As she sits straight up in bed, Rupert sticks his head out of the door to check – "Oh dear, David, are you all right? Did the wall jump out and grab you?"
"No, Dad," comes a small voice from outside, just before her tousled, wide-eyed son appears in the doorway, accompanied by dogs. "I mean, I'm all right. Morning, Mum."
"Good lad." Rupert rubs David's shoulder reassuringly. "Now, if you'll excuse me–"
"No, Dad. Mum...." To her surprise, David puts his arms around Rupert, clutching as tightly as he did last night.
Renewed worry and unformed dread begin to howl, and in seconds she's out of bed and into the cold, kneeling at her son's side with her arm on his shoulders. He shifts his weight to lean on her, all little-boy smells and shivers. "What's wrong? Are you sick, or is it about your nightmare?"
He doesn't say anything for a long moment. Her gaze meets Rupert's – their shared fear echoes and amplifies until she can barely hear David mumble, "Wasn't a nightmare, actually."
Rupert drops his clothes and then kneels down too, so that they're a unit of three, arms around each other like wards around a house, Macallan and Cava the sentries nosing past the walls. "What was it, then?" he says.
Biting his lip, David looks at them both. Then: "S'pose it'll sound stupid and you won't believe me and stuff. But I know that Mr Camp is a Catcher. I saw him last night."
She and Rupert say together, "Tell us."
And the three of them sit down on the floor while David talks about going downstairs in the middle of the night, about having Mr Camp walk toward him with outstretched hands like claws in the dark, about David's using the words that he'd overheard Rupert saying, about Dawn's rescue. The story is a little thin in places, such as why on earth he was running about the damn house at one-thirty in the morning when he knows it's forbidden, but she knows her son. She knows this is real.
The cold from outside bleeds through the walls and into her bones as he talks, and the echoes of a thousand years of vengeance drum louder than the rain on windows and roof. Not since that horrible night in Sunnydale, drenched in blood and remorse, has she ever wanted her powers back. Now she does.
Rupert knows this, of course. He slides one hand over to her shoulder and holds on, even as he says, "All right. We're going to find out more–"
"But he's a Catcher, Dad!"
"I understand that, David." Rupert's words might seem calm, but she knows her husband too: she can hear the dark violence underneath, not directed at their son but at anything who would threaten him. For some reason it eases her own rage, channelling it into order so that she'll be able to handle the crisis. She mirrors his action, locking onto his shoulder, feeling his own anger knotted into his muscles, as he says, "But we don't know what kind, do we? Even though all Catchers are the same, the methods to fight them aren't. We need to know who exactly he is."
No, we should toss that evil ass out into the rain, right after disembowelling, Anya wants to protest. But the current between her and Rupert is strong enough to keep her focussed. "He's right, David. To be safe, however, while Mr Camp is here I want you to stay with either your father or me at all times."
"Right. Or Aunt Dawn," David says.
"Let me tell Dawn privately first, but then, yes, you can trust her as well –" Rupert's words are broken by the tinny alarm of her mobile going off. With a muttered curse and a crack of his joints, he gets up and goes to her bedside table, digs inside her purse for the phone. After a frown at the display, he clicks it on. "Giles here. What is it, Willow?"
While Rupert makes noncommittal listening noises, Anya shifts her weight; before she's even settled, David has forgotten his big-boy independence and climbed into her lap. He's getting so very big, she thinks as she cuddles him closer. When her mind conjures an image of claws reaching out for him, she closes her eyes, kisses his hair, and mentally lists wards, barriers, shields, to keep him safe and herself calm.
The rain beats harder now, streaking like blood down the windows. She can't hear the sounds from downstairs any more
David sighs, then scoots out of her arms. "Sorry, Mum," he says, catching hold of Macallan's fur.
"You don't have anything to be sorry about, son," she says. The look of guilt on his face makes her pause–
But then Rupert says into the phone, "No. No, Willow, we'll go out this morning and see what we can. Right – and I'm so sorry about your cat. Yes, fine, I'll call you later."
"What's this about seeing, and what about the Great Cat?" Anya demands as he drops the phone back into her bag.
He's turned away from them so she can't see his face, but she can see tension-pain in his shoulders, the anger-knots in that broad back. "Er, it seems that the wish-hound was rather busy last night. Willow and Fred, er, lost their cat when he crawled out through the window, and when Fred went into the village this morning, she heard that other pets were also taken. Killed. Except...." He hesitates, gathering his thoughts, before he says, "It wasn't just pets. And after some consultation with the seers, Gillian apparently believes this is not a traditional wish-hound."
"Well, what is it, Dad? Is it Old England animals? Like wolves, or boars, like in the Forest Sauvage?" David says.
But Anya has heard Rupert's real hesitation – 'it wasn't just pets,' he said. Even before he turns around and she gets a good look at his eyes, she has a nauseated certainty that she knows what else might be threatened.
He doesn't confirm it then, of course, David's right there. But after he evades David's question, after he takes a quick shower while she helps their son choose his clothes for the day and make his bed, he finds her alone in the hallway. While David hums his octopus's garden song nearby, Rupert says quietly that there's a little-known adjunct to the Devon Catcher story, found only in coven records which Gillian has withheld from him and Willow. The demon has a hound that can take on his attributes, eat small creatures, and steal children.
Geoff and Mary Davis's toddler Jack – a cute little boy, Anya's seen him in the shops a time or two – is gone from their cottage. The only things left behind were his Pooh blanket and his shoes.
They hold onto each other for a long moment, while David sings and the rain beats all around and above them. "You're right, honey. Not everyone is protected as we are," she says into his shoulder, and he kisses her gently in answer.
After her own shower, taken so fast that the water almost doesn't touch her body, she collects her darlings and the dogs, and they go downstairs together. David's being brave now. He won't let her or Rupert hold his hand – "Cos the Catcher shouldn't know anything's different," he says, his mouth set in his father's stubborn lines – and his footsteps are defiant and heavy on the treads.
But she keeps her hand on Rupert's back, circling on his knots, holding onto the current between them so she can maintain focus.
At the landing the dogs burst out of formation, barking short and sharp like an alarm. Below them all, Dawn stands at the wish-table, getting out a match to light the pillars. "Morning, you guys!" she says, smiling up at them.
The dogs hurtle through the entryway and then throw themselves at the door. Out of sight, Mr Camp's voice says, "Oh hey there, guess y'all need to go out."
"Wait –" Rupert begins, and Dawn echoes, as Camp comes out of the lounge and goes to the door.
"I'll handle it," the man says over his shoulder, as he opens the door on a rush of wind and rain. The outside lights are still shining, an odd note in the grey day.
Anya can see that Camp does something to break the barriers, she doesn't know what. But as Macallan and Cava whine at the threshold, the lit match Dawn's holding goes out and the good magics fall apart.
And Anya can see a bundle of....something...lying at the front gate. Regardless of the rain, red is streaked on the gravel around it, spreading underneath. Spreading closer to Swallow's Nest.
The open front gate creaks wetly, swinging just an inch or two on its own. Gravel crunches underneath Giles's feet; he's careful not to step on the bloodiest of the stones as he works. The shovel scrapes on the rocks as he pushes it underneath.
Fred wipes moisture off her face – tears, he thinks – then holds out the already burdened sack. "You gonna be able to get this in too?" she says as matter-of-factly as she can.
"I think so." When he lifts with an effort, the mutilated body of Mrs Bentley's toy poodle raises into the rain. Dirt and rock and bits of torn flesh cascade off the sides of the shovel, all tainted with what the Devon Catcher's hound left behind. Grimacing, he slides the body into the bag.
Red remains on the gravel, streaked by the rain.
She ties off the sack. "Thanks, Giles, I'll get them to the site, set the protection even if it's too late. I'll tell Mrs Bentley we did what we could."
"Yes." He looks back toward Swallow's Nest. David, bright in his yellow slicker, sits watching on the top step; he's safe for the moment in the circle of Anya's arm. After spending a breath in vain longing for a world where he could protect his son from all knowledge of the dark things lurking inside as well as out, he turns back to Fred. "I'm so sorry about the Great Cat, you know."
"Stupid thing thought he was bigger than he was. Sure, Willow hadn't set the wards for the night yet, but he still didn't need to go out the bathroom window when he heard a devil-dog howling for blood," she says. But he can see the anguish behind the composure – she was the one who had found the body crushed against the stone of Yew Cottage, just beside the door. Too close.
And she's the one who's had the hard task of talking to Geoff Davis, who still thinks that his child's loss is just an ordinary kidnapping.
So he says, "Thank you for this, Fred. Will you be at the cottage afterward, so I can tell Willow?"
"Yeah. I'll go there.... after." She lifts the bag a fraction, exhales hard. "Anyway, when she gets here you tell her to be careful if y'all are going to the Devil's Seat, and you tell her to call me as soon as y'all get back."
"I will. You take care as well." He steps back to let her pass through the gate, head for her car. Then he walks back to his family, dropping the shovel along the way.
Anya's already on her feet, pulling David up with her, such light in the midst of lowering darkness. "While we wait, I could make you some tea, honey." She makes herself smile. "With honey, honey. Look, repetition for the sake of stress-relieving humour."
"To which I can only say, 'oh dear Lord,'" he says, making himself smile back.
"Bizarre. Come in, Dad," David says in a voice he perfected when he was five, a blend of my-parents-are-so-weird and let's-get-on-with-it. Giles treasures that voice, as alarmingly like Anya's as it is.
When he reaches the steps, he hesitates. He's just noticed traces of blood on his fingers, he doesn't want to touch her or David – but Anya takes away the choice and links her fingers with his, and David reaches up to hold onto his belt loop. A trifle awkwardly, they walk into their house that way. They only break apart to hang up their coats. He keeps his on the outside, however, ready. Sheltering theirs.
In the kitchen, the dogs are finishing a late breakfast, and Dawn's leafing through one of the sadly inadequate texts he has on the Devon Catcher. "Edward's downstairs. He'll be up in a minute, though," she says in a well-feigned normal tone, even as she pushes away her coffee cup in order to pull David close.
She's handling it well. Anya drew Dawn aside earlier, just after the wards were broken and while Giles took Camp outside to look at the destruction the hound had wrought, and she told her what David had seen. Dawn listened, then said under her breath, "Okay, that makes a weird kind of sense. When I caught him in the hallway last night, I thought his eyes looked... wrong." Since then she's been vigilant, never letting Camp get too far away from her. Giles does know she can be trusted to manage her role in the plan they've cobbled together.
Washing his hands at the sink, watching the last red drops blossom and then slide down his fingers, Giles considers that plan. Although he trusts his son's words, he needs more context for judgement – what kind of nasty work Camp is, exactly, whether demon, or sorcerer, or just evil human. The answer determines how they proceed.
But first, they need to get him the bloody hell out of Swallow's Nest and away from David.
When he turns off the water, he can hear the front door open, and then Willow's would-be light, "Hey you guys!"
"Kitchen!" Anya calls. She takes David by the shoulders, at which point he puts his feet on hers so that she's the only one touching the floor; then the two walk backward, in that silly game they've played since he was able to walk. They won't be able to play that much longer, however, he's getting too big.
Giles doesn't know why it makes his throat hurt afresh, a knife slicing through his attempts to stay calm.
He wipes his hands on a convenient kitchen cloth and then hangs it on its rack, repressing the urge to hurl it against the wall.
And Willow, dressed for the outdoors, appears in the kitchen doorway. She's been crying, eyes reddened and tear-tracks just visible on her pale face, but at the moment she's clearly trying for the same normality as the rest of them. "Hey, guys," she says again, and waves a roll of paper. "Here we go. Gillian finally coughed up the what." There's a flicker of power in her voice, a flash of light which suggests that her fellow coven members may be hearing much more, and to the purpose, about withholding prophecies and legend.
"What have we missed?" he asks, almost in unison with Anya, Dawn a beat behind that.
"Whoa, home-theatre surround sound!" Willow says, before she takes a seat at the table and unrolls the paper. There's not particularly noteworthy or antique about it – certainly this century, Giles determines, which is confirmed by her next words. "Apparently one of the coven members in the 1920s spent a convalescent summer writing down the lesser legends associated with the area, but when she was finished, somehow they got misfiled. Also, there was the whole she-was-crazy rumour which didn't encourage retrieval. Anyway, Gillian found them in an old desk years ago. But here's the thing." Her index finger follows along a broken line. "'The Devon Catcher has oft been seen with a great hound, pitch-black with luminous eyes. The hound, not properly a wish-hound by accounts, is able to walk by day as a normal canine creature, bound to its master's interests yet a free monster. Like its master, it can disappear even when there are no shadows; like its master, it can be called betimes by an unintended spell.'"
Dawn says, "So someone says the wrong spell, or says it the wrong way–"
"And the Black Dog shows up," Anya says.
Edward Camp says from the open door leading to the cellar guest rooms, "So, let me get this straight. You let this little fella listen to your cases and such?"
Giles picks up the kitchen cloth again, begins to fold it into tiny squares so that he doesn't succumb to his urge to throttle Camp. As his hands work, he says softly, coolly, "Occasionally, yes. I feel as disinclined to hear your comments on his listening as I did regarding his choice of reading, however, so if you'll allow Willow to continue–?"
"Of course," Camp says. He swaggers over to Dawn and sends his hand possessively down her back., bends down to whisper in her ear. She manages to hold it together, even smiles at the creature.
Giles makes another, smaller square – folding up his anger to carry in his pocket, he thinks with some bitter amusement. He'll use that anger soon enough.
Anya, holding a silent David even closer, says, "So how do we send the Catcher's dog away?"
"Oh, that's here too!" Willow says. Her finger zigzags down the page, seeking the words. "We'll want to seal up the Devil's Seat like we did with the Catcher himself – see, where we screwed up was that we didn't do it for both, but hey, we didn't know – and then speak the banishing spell."
"Which is?" Giles says.
"Um. Not exactly written down." Willow makes one of her eloquent wrinkled-nose faces.
With a breath Giles remembers his nightmares, his smoke-ridden attempts to grasp the one thing he doesn't know, his cries without echo, without answer. He can't think of that – he has to believe the answer will come. So he puts his folded cloth absently into the nearest drawer and says, "We'll figure it out after we seal the hound's home."
Camp drawls, "Well, that's pretty unconventional planning for a mission."
"Field work often works that way. Which reminds me – why don't you come with us?" Giles says. The man startles a little, his hand tightening on Dawn's shoulder. Giles allows himself a smile, one honed by years of interrogating hostile demons and other complete shits in the Old Council. "After all, it's time that a Watcher headquarters man like yourself, er, saw a bit of the real country, wouldn't you say?"
"Well, I didn't really pack for a walk in the cold English rain," he says.
"Are you scared of it, cos you'd melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West?" David asks. At Camp's glare, he backs closer to Anya and adds reluctantly, "Sir."
"No, little fella. And that's kind of–" Camp trails off when he sees Anya, Willow, Giles, even Dawn ranged against him. His hand taps nervously against Dawn. Then: "Guess it wouldn't hurt."
"David and I will stay here, of course," Anya announces. She and David begin walking themselves to Giles, and, with her words in time with the steps, she finishes, "We'll let the Watchers go on their Watcher adventure by themselves."
Giles pulls them close, breathes them in, as Willow and Dawn begin to scrape back chairs and rattle cups and dishes, while Camp stands alone. There's something strange about the man now, as if magics are breaking down. Giles thinks of what Fred said about the late Great Cat – 'Stupid thing thought he was bigger than he was.' He will have to be, and he will be, in order to keep his family safe, he thinks. No matter how much blood lingers on the stones.
Dawn has been hiking the Devon fields for seven years now, in summer and winter, sun and rain. The harsh wind off a tor has become comfort to her. She's walked with Giles, with Anya, with Andrew and Ian before they split up, with boyfriends long gone, with Willow and Fred. She's watched David dizzy himself, spinning with open arms against green grass or dark and light stone – in her imagination, it's a stop-motion film, sandy-haired toddler into larger child into six-year-old tough guy in a couple of airplane turns.
She has never felt so soul-deep wrong in these hills as she does now, with Edward Camp holding her hand in the rain. If she could scream like she used to, or if she could find one of these rocks and scrape her hand and self clean of his touch, she would.
It's worse than that moment in the middle of the night, when she found him in the entryway, when he turned and stared at her with gleaming, unfamiliar eyes. Then she only guessed. Now she knows. Knows something, not enough.
But at least she has felt his heartbeat – she hasn't been having sex with one of the Little People, the Good People who have no heart. She suppresses a shudder at the thought.
Giles and Willow walk on either side of them, steering them, steering the conversation. It's started out reasonably enough – talk of the hound and its victims, talk of why kill has been left as trophies only at Yew Cottage and Swallow's Nest. After a discussion as uneven underfoot as the ground they cover, it's agreed that since Willow, Giles, and Anya were the ones to have sent away the Devon Catcher, they're the target of its creature's wrath.
"Vengeance," Edward says, with a sidelong look at Giles that Dawn intercepts. "Ugly business."
"Vengeance indeed," Giles replies. She doesn't think that Edward hears the danger he's in.
As they pass further and higher in, and off Giles and Anya's land, the conversation changes. Willow asks how long Edward's been a Watcher. "Almost nine years," he says.
Giles says, his voice sharper now, "Nine years....then you were one of the lucky ones who escaped the blast at the Council? Or – forgive me if I don't know you – you escaped the Bringers' swords out in the field?"
"I was still at school. The Academy." The weight he gives the name is enough to tell Dawn that he doesn't mean the London branch she attended, but the now-gone public school out in the Cotswolds. The traditional one, she thinks, and she remembers dark stories told her by Wes, others hinted at by Giles.
He pauses a minute to catch his breath, his tight hold on her forcing her to stop too. He's ordinarily in pretty good shape, weightlifting in his gym several times a week to keep himself fit, but the climb seems to be getting to him. A few steps ahead Willow and Giles stop, turn back to look at him. The rain is coming down harder now. He says, "But I got sick my last term, had to fly home to Georgia. That's why I wasn't there when the bombs hit."
"Ah. So not quite a Watcher yet," Giles says, each word the point of a sword. Dawn's not even the target, and she can feel herself wince in reflected pain.
It sends Edward off-balance, more so than the slippery stones underfoot. "Mr. Wyndam-Pryce thought I was, I was his–" he snaps, before he stops himself, breathes even harder, forces a smile. "You were a little busy, Giles, guess you missed an up-and-comer in the ranks."
"I suppose I did," Giles says.
Edward's hand slips from Dawn's, wet in the rain.
"–No, Xander, I don't care why you answered Andrew's mobile at four in the morning. No, really, I don't care if you can't seem to find a date outside the extended family." Anya, striving for patience she doesn't have, looks over at David playing tug with Cava. The sight of him, normal and just fine and unthreatened at the moment, lends her what she needs, and she says into the phone, "Xander, stop your unconvincing protests. Could you just please put Andrew on? It's an emergency."
While she waits, she scans the paper Willow's brought, reading it for the hundredth time. Words flash up at her in the well-lit kitchen, one in particular....'Wish-hound." Wish-hound, she thinks, they've been using that word all day but they need to really look at it –
And then the mobile squawks, and the familiar voice of her once-second-in-command, now trusted friend, says, "Anya? Is there an Investigations and Acquisitions crisis? What can I do?"
"Hello, Andrew. I need information about this jerk Edward Camp."
He takes a breath. "Dawn's Edward? He's very unpleasant, not that I've said anything because one's sexual partner is one's own business–"
"I'm not going to ask you about Xander, if that worries you. Camp is a Catcher of some undetermined kind who's threatening David, and we need to know why he's here. Do you know anything about his special project?"
"A Catcher who's threatening David?" Andrew's voice loses the nerdy, whining edge it had; he's all seasoned Watcher now. "I know he's talked his way into the headmaster position at the secondary school for Slayers we're putting together in Atlanta – he's not well-liked, though, so there's still significant opposition in the Council. He's no political mastermind like Palpatine...er, sorry. Anyway, he's in a precarious position."
"What's his other project? He keeps mentioning this secret deal, which I do understand is a secret, but if anyone would know the gossip, it's you."
His reply is lost in an explosion of happy dog-growls from Cava as she wrests the rope away from David, a bellow of boyish rage, then Macallan's alpha-dog intrusion into the playtime. "David, stop! I can't hear your Uncle Andy," Anya says as calmly as she can. Into the phone: "Just a second, Andrew."
"Sorry, Mum," David says, his guard dogs at either side. Shifting his weight uneasily, he adds, "Er, since the Catcher's gone, can I go play? I don't want to be a bother."
"Come here," she says, and he catapults himself into her embrace. "You're my son and I love you. You're not a bother. However, you are exceptionally noisy."
He burrows in for just a moment. "I promise I'll be quieter, promise. So can I play in the lounge? With the dogs? I'll even ring the bell if bad things get back in and stuff."
It's a struggle, but she steels herself to say, "All right. But the cowbell must be no more than five inches from your hand at any given time. If there's so much as a bird flying against the window–"
"Mum, I love you, you're brilliant!" She gets a smacking kiss from her boy, all toast crumbs and coffee he must have sneaked from Dawn's cup, before the David-blur heads into the hall, the dogs at his heels.
After she picks up Willow's paper and a stray pen, she takes the mobile to the doorway, from where she can see him hurdling her ottoman. Sighing, she says, "Okay, Andrew. What did I miss?"
"Man, I wish I was there," he says quietly, then in his usual manner says, "I don't know what the project is. But I hear that he's actually having trouble getting the Inner Council's approval for whatever. I don't know – do you want Robson's private number? You know, to ask him yourself?"
"You have Robson's private number?"
"Yep! I'm connected. Say, Xander, could you please hand me my iPhone? And, um, turn on the light?"
Anya watches David play with the dogs while she waits and sends good wishes into the rain-light, thinking about the family who's lost their baby, worrying about her poor husband and Dawn out there with the Catcher. The more they know, however, the better they can fight – and maybe they're not as alone as they thought.
When Andrew gives her Robson's private number, she scrawls it on the paper just over 'wish-hound.' The word seems to flash whenever she moves.
Faint traces of red stain the rocks of the Devil's Seat on the top of the tor – new blood, mixed with the taint of the Catcher's hound.
At the foot of the stone formation lies a small body, its clothes torn and bloodied. The hound has brought its master a child, caught what the trapped demon couldn't any more.
For some reason the fact that the child isn't wearing shoes is the detail that hurts Giles most. Angers him most.
Crying out at the sight, Willow and Dawn begin the last steep ascent toward the rocks. "Come on, we need help," Willow says over her shoulder.
"Come on, Camp," Giles echoes, and he shoves the man ahead of him. The sense of something wrong emanating from Camp is stronger now, almost visible, like a spark or a tinge of smoke in moisture-rich air. Yet the man seems distressed enough when he bends down next to Dawn to inspect what's left of little Jack Davis.
Giles crouches down too, willing himself to maintain the Watcher-calm in which he was trained. "Perhaps you should call the authorities, Willow," he suggests, as he gently pulls the child's coat over his face.
"Yes. Yes, okay." Willow is too distraught to cry. In her own Watcher-voice: "Dawnie, if you could do the protection spell, before we –"
"Of course." As Willow walks away from the rocks, Dawn digs into her pocket and gets out the mixture she always carries, then scatters it around the body. He reaches out to help, and hands clasped, they speak the words they need, call on the forces that will help them. Good protection takes time, and they don't rush it.
When they've finished he can feel the good change in the air, in the rain, and they haven't even sealed the demon in yet. "Well done, Dawn," he says.
She leans her head against his shoulder and sighs in answer. "It's a hard day, Giles. Glad to be with you guys, though."
"Hey, you guys, the connection's crap, I can't get through – " Willow says, before she says in a quite different tone, "Wait wait wait, where did he go?"
Edward Camp no longer stands beside Dawn.
"Shit. Did the protection spell banish him or something?" Dawn says, as they scramble to their feet.
"Unlikely," Giles can hardly get the word out through his sudden swamping fear.
"Not that spell, Dawn, not no way. He's doing other magics somehow." Willow scans the hillside, saying just loud enough to be heard, "He'd better not be teleporting, because that's all kinds of badness."
But it's not teleportation. Giles can see something at the foot of the hill – rocks cracking together, disturbed even though all that can be seen is a shadow passing through grey rain. "Down there. An illusion of some kind," he says. A hard breath, a swallow of fear, before he manages, "Can you deal with this here–"
"Yes, just go!" Willow says, and Dawn, losing the quiet that's strangled her all visit, screams in the old way, "Go!"
And he does.
The ground is treacherous. The mud and loose stones and slippery grass cause his boots to slide as he runs, and he almost falls more than once. But still, he moves quickly. He's older now, but no longer is he the "out-of-shape shopkeeper" he was in those latter Sunnydale days – he runs with the dogs almost every morning, he plays squash with Jools twice a week, he hikes these hills with his wife and child.
It's for his child that he runs after the Catcher, even as the rocks slip under his feet, and he lets his anger loose at last.
He pays no attention to the harsh breathing and scrabbling paws of the shadow right behind him.
As he plays tug-of-war with Cava, dodging the sofa as he pulls backward on the rope, David sneaks another look. Yeah, Mum's still in the kitchen doorway, waving around the hand not holding the mobile. Mr Robson must be saying important stuff about the Catcher, cos her voice has got all high like it does at work when she's trying to investigate and the other person has information and she's not wanting to give anything away but she's mad.
"No, Robson, he didn't tell us any of that, and there's no way in hell we'd agree," she says. "And you do not want me to ask how the Council got David's test scores." Which is weird, he thinks, cos his reading tests and stuff aren't that interesting. But then her hand makes a fist at her side. She's more than mad now, but she's still listening to get her information.
She and Dad trade jobs some times, so that Dad buys things and Mum learns things. Or they trade taking-care-of-David jobs. He wouldn't ever ever say out loud that Mum doesn't read bedtime stories as well as Dad, but she doesn't. But that's not a bad thing, cos Dad says a person is hardly ever good at everything even though he has to try hard at everything anyway. Like Dad isn't too great with numbers, so Mum always helps David with maths homework – "and it'll be fun, David," she always says, "next come flashcards!" And then Dad groans really loud.
Besides cuddles and tucking in at night and maths, what Mum's also really good at is making him feel guilty-bad if he does something wrong with her treasures. It's justice, Dad always says with a funny smile, she's very good at rightful vengeance.
Still, guilty-bad makes his tummy hurt even though it's his fault. And that means that now the Catcher's gone, he needs to fix the hole in Mum's ottoman somehow before she finds out.
The ottoman isn't talking at him now, not loud anyway. 'S just little voices, "Come seeee, come seeee," humming like laceprigs in the background. The house doesn't seem so weird in the day, although rain makes funny shadows on the window and the floor. He scrambles up on the sofa arm and turns on a lamp. Its yellow light isn't stripy like middle-of-the-night, but the shadows don't go away.
"You should have asked us before you sent him. I don't care if you thought he'd damn himself, he's dangerous," Mum says into the phone. She's using the sharp-knife voice, and she's so furious that she stomps all the way into the kitchen, out of sight.
"Classic," David whispers. He takes a roll of invisible tape-stuff out of his pocket – he got it out of the kitchen drawer when Mum was washing the dishes– and then throws himself at the ottoman. The hole looks bigger and more like vengeance even in rainy daytime. One more check to see if Mum's watching, and then a screech as he pulls a bit of tape from its home.
But he stops. "Come seeee, come seeee," he hears again, and maybe it wouldn't hurt just to look.
Sticking the tape on a worn bit of the fabric, he pushes his fingers through the big hole, feels the cracks in the wood. He pushes more, the hum getting louder now so he can hardly hear Mum in the kitchen – then, wham, the wood falls apart underneath, and the stuff just rips, and the hole is big as his hand, and oh this is bad.
Then Cava and Macallan crowd against him and start barking, wild and deep like they do when they're scared, and David smells smoke. 'Cept the fire's not lit.
It's the Catcher. He's here, standing in the entryway just like last night, but he's breathing hard like he's been running, and his hands shake when he holds them out toward David. "Hey there, little fella," he says in a voice that's all shivery, and his eyes look funny-wrong. "I want to talk to you about a new school. A boarding school, that is, with me and your Aunt Dawn right there to take care of you –"
"No, get away!" David says, as the smell of smoke gets stronger, as the dogs bark louder. Get away, get away, they're saying.
He scoots back against the ottoman, but it's already broken, and his weight is too much – its bad leg, the one Dad fixed, snaps off. When the wood cracks, it sounds like a cricket bat hitting a ball, and the ottoman splits in half.
Only David can see the treasure that spills out of it. Three crystals, each one big as his fist.
"You get the hell away from David," Mum says from behind Mr Camp. She's still got the mobile in her hand, she looks like she's going to throw it at the Catcher.
But he throws first. It looks like smoke's coming from his hand but then the Catcher says a word in a language David doesn't know and there's fire in the air.
It reaches toward Mum like claws out of ragged sleeves.
"Mum, no!" David shouts. He grabs the crystals in both hands, cos they're treasure even though they cut into his skin, and he struggles to his feet. He can get there, the treasure might help –
And Mum steps out of sight for a second, gets safe out of the way of the bad magic, then comes right back before David can get scared. She's got a wish-candle in her hand now and that look on her face that means someone's in terrible trouble. With one fast move she catches the fire at the candle-tip and holds it like a torch. She makes the fire pretty, too, turning it all good colours like the inside of their house in London, and David would clap except his hands are full of the treasure.
Mr Camp raises his claws again, but Mum raises the candle, and then from the door there's Dad, saying, "Leave our home, Camp. You've lost."
Trapped between Mum's fire and Dad's cold, cold voice, the Catcher turns. He's got one hand forward and one hand back, and his face is sort of weird and melty around the edges like a mask, like the Wicked Witch of the West. But he still looks like Mr Camp. "See, I was afraid you'd be unreasonable, the way you turned your back on your duty all those years ago. If you'd just let me have David, Giles, if I thought I could convince you rationally and then the others would follow.... I didn't want to have to do this." Then he raises his hand and starts to say something in that weird language –
But Dad leaps forward, takes the Catcher by the shoulders, and spins him toward the door.
David really wants to see what happens next. With Macallan and Cava on either side, he stumbles forward til he's almost to Mum and Dad, and then he does see. Mr Camp has grabbed onto either side of the door, keeping him inside the house, but now there's something on the path outside.
It's a big black dog, no, bigger than a dog, like a pony almost, all funny-wrong eyes and stinky black fur and black fangs. And it's growling, and it's getting closer to the threshold.
This is worse than bizarre.
After pushing Camp away from his loved ones, Giles struggles to breathe – now that he's home, the effort's finally registered. Anya collects a fistful of his jacket, though, and her hold steadies him until his muscles stop trembling and his lungs start working again.
It's been a long, hard run with the hound at his heels. He couldn't see the beast until they reached the front gate of Swallow's Nest, but for the past mile the charnel smell and fog has threatened to smother him, just like in his dreams. He didn't know why the hound didn't attack, but he does now.
The Black Dog has found itself another Catcher: human or demon, all Catchers are the same. Whining, a long rippling howl that echoes off the stone floors, the devil-dog pads up the steps toward Edward Camp. Bloodied paw prints mark its path, and the rain turns red when the drops fall from its coat.
His head tilted, Camp stares at the Black Dog. "I didn't mean to call you," he says, at which the creature whines again in protest. Louder, he says, "No, I didn't mean to, but maybe I can use you."
"We can't let the wish-hound inside," Anya whispers to Giles. "Quick, honey, what's a good banishing spell?"
"You know it, Dad, you said it in your sleep," David says suddenly, appearing from around the corner with their dogs as his guard. Then he holds out his small hands. Three crystals, their plane faces catching the rain-light and lamplight, glow in his palms.
A whirl of coat and teeth, one step closer for the hound. "Hey there, what's that you have, little fella?" Camp says, and he holds out a hand as if to pull the crystals and David into his grasp. "Oh, you bright little guy, look what you've found. With my teaching you'll make a real Watcher of the old kind, see if you don't." When the Black Dog steps closer, almost to the door, Camp steps just outside so he can place his other hand on its head.
But a rain-swept wind comes through the open door first, blowing away both the charnel-house smell and the fog that has troubled Giles' dreams. Good wishes and fire, the right words and the right tools, coalesce in his mind: it's as if he's caught misty daylight and lamplight and candlelight, like the crystal in David's hand and the fire that Anya holds.
As Camp bends down to mutter dark words to the hound, Giles scoops up one of the crystals from David's palm. then holds the stone in the fire. The flame leaps almost to the ceiling when he makes his wish for love and safety, lighting the entryway. Concentrated light, the crystal burns in his hand – the right tool indeed – and he takes two steps, places the hot stone on the hound's head. When his palm crushes the stone against its skull, the hound whines, tries to get away, but it's trapped on the steps.
Giles calls to the light, saying, "Hie thee hence, And harm no more."
At the words the hound writhes, its mouth opening in a soundless howl like that of Giles' dream. Giles presses down once more, speaks the incantation again.
The wind sweeps through the door again, clean and fresh, even as Camp screams "No," and the Black Dog dissolves in one last burst of blood and charnel smell.
The outer steps are empty, save for the track of tainted paw prints that the rain can't seem to wash away, and Giles trusts Willow and Dawn to have sealed its lair. It has been banished.
Camp says slowly, "You shouldn't have done that. You shouldn't have been so unreasonable." His eyes look strange in the flare of light from Anya's candle, which burns merrily, untouched by the wind. The man raises his hands again, crooking his fingers; for the first time Giles sees the resemblance to claws.
David tugs awkwardly at his father's wet coat. "Go on, Dad."
"Yes, Rupert. Send this Catcher away, just like you did the demon one." When Anya raises the candle, Camp takes a shuddering step back. Then he regroups: the claws remain outstretched, the muttering begins anew.
When Giles takes a second crystal from David, the facets catch and concentrate the light.
"No," Camp screams, rushes forward – but Giles takes coldly angry pleasure in driving his elbow into the man's throat, and the Catcher drops onto the stone.
Giles slides the crystal into the flame. This time, Anya's smile is brighter than the fire. She cups her free hand around his, sheltering him, and together they speak their wish for love and safety.
When the flame leaps in its spectrum of saturated, familiar colours, David says, "Oh, that's so brilliant."
"Isn't it, David," Giles says, smiling at his son. The smile fades when he looks down at the creature fouling the entryway floor, however. After breathing through a sudden rush of pain, he crouches at the man's side, puts the hot crystal on the man's forehead, presses it down. Then, closing his eyes and calling on the light, he says, "Hie thee hence, And harm no more."
Edward Camp doesn't disappear, of course. He's a man, and thus bound by different rules than a devil-dog. But as Giles stands up with only a modicum of wincing, as David throws his arms around his waist and Macallan and Cava start to circle around, smoke trickles out from Camp and then dies in the wind through the open door.
The man looks much smaller than he was.
Anya goes to the entryway table and puts the lit candle back in its holder, then picks up the mobile Giles has just noticed is there. "Okay, Robson, how much of that did you hear?" she says into the phone. Listens for a minute or so. Beams, brighter than the four flames of the wish-candles that flicker untouched by the wind. "Yes, that sounds like justice to me," she says.
The wounds of the day burn clean in the fire, he thinks, and he holds David closer and then pulls Anya in.
Flames leap in the darkened cave of the fireplace, teasing at the tiled surround, sending light out into the dusk-brushed room. Dark comes early on December afternoons in Devon, which means that Anya can stand in the hallway and enjoy unobserved the picture of her men safe together. David spins around in a game of his own – it has something to do with airplanes, she believes, and it's usually followed by a gallop up the stairs for more serious play – and Rupert, freshly shaved and showered and sated with tea and muffins, is stretched out on the sofa, staring at the fire.
An arm drops over her shoulder, and Dawn says softly, "Thanks for the suggestion, Anya. And the bottles too, of course." She holds a big paper sack in her free arm; the fresh branches for mourning that Anya's chosen for Willow and Fred and for the Davises peek over the top, throwing shadows in the wish-lights.
"Well, they like cream sherry, who knows why. Besides, it's not like we're going to drink it, and I dislike waste. That stupid Jools always gets the wrong thing."
She pauses – David is spinning dangerously close to his father, there could be an accident. Before she can say something, though, Rupert reaches out one long arm and steadies their son, who says "Thanks, Dad!" before intensifying what are likely supposed to be engine noises and spinning away again.
She and Dawn stand there for a long moment, silent, until Anya says, "Okay, be safe on the road, Dawn, and be safe on the road back. We worry, especially now."
Dawn's hold tightens, uncomfortably yet pleasantly. "Geez, Anya, I'm only going to Yew Cottage for supper. I'll be back here for dessert. Edward's gone from Devon and gone from the Council, and my room is here." Then she rests her head against Anya. "My room is here," she says again, almost under her breath.
"Yes, it is – even though you're a good Watcher and your job means you have to leave us occasionally. Less now that you've chosen the sensible job in London, of course." Anya pats Dawn's hand before she says, "Now you'd better get going. Who knows what experimental dish Willow's concocted after the hard day she's had; timing to the minute might be involved."
"Oh, so that's why you're staying here tonight, it's fear of culinary art!" Dawn says, giggling. "You guys really do plan everything." Then she lets go. With one of her bursts of energy she dashes into the lounge, kisses David's cheek (who actually pauses in the dizzy-making activity), and waves to Giles before she plunges out the door.
Anya follows her to the threshold, catching the door before it can swing too far open. The wooden edge is cold on her palms, but the rain has stopped at last, just in time for early sunset. She waits until Dawn's got into the last family Saab, and she watches the headlights come on, watches them back into the lane, before she shuts the door. The bloodstains on the outer steps shine even in the dusk. The losses remain.
Dawn's wrong, she thinks. They try, but they can't plan for everything.
Rupert raises his head and smiles at her when she comes into the lounge. "There you are, darling," he says, and he starts to get up –
"Stay," she says, putting her hand on his chest. After only a token struggle, he lies back down. Then: "David, whatever are you doing? Or more to the point, why?"
He's hopping over to the corner where the broken halves of her beloved ottoman are laid carefully, one on top of the other. Then he turns around and stands still, folding his hands together. "Er, well," he begins, in exactly his father's voice except an octave or so higher. "I think I have to confess."
When she sits down on the edge of the sofa, right by Rupert's waist, he scoots over a little and curves an arm around her, resting his hand on her thigh. "Confess," they say in unison.
"Right. Cos I didn't mean to, but I sort of broke the ottoman even before the Catcher came back today." Earnestly, the firelight shining on his face, David tells them the story of the talking house and furniture and why he had really got out of bed that night. Then he confesses the fabric-ripping and the tape idea and the inappropriate lack of earlier confession. "So I'm sorry, Mum, I'm really sorry, and I know I have to feel your force of your wrath and stuff," he finishes, bowing his head.
Rupert has to turn his face into the back of the couch to stifle his laughter. Idiot male.
Before she can explain loudly and in great detail the manifold errors David has committed, however, her gaze is caught by the last of the crystals; it gleams on the mantel, centred between two candles. The light on its facets reminds her of what they've feared and what they've gained. So she gets up, crosses to him, and kisses his forehead. "Do you feel guilty about what you've done?" she asks seriously.
"Yes, Mum. Right here." He pats himself just above his stomach.
"Then never do it again, and we won't talk about this incident any more."
"Actually?" he says, eyebrows drawn together in disbelief.
"Actually." She kisses his forehead again, and then stands up.
He throws his arms around her for one of his whirlwind hugs before he spins away. "That's classic, Mum, you're very good at rightful vengeance!"
"I'm what? Very good at rightful...." She throws a look over her shoulder at Rupert, who's sunk into the cushions, contemplating the ceiling in a suspiciously absent-minded manner. "Um, okay."
"Cool. So may I please go upstairs and play with my planes I brought from London?" David says.
"Of course," she and Rupert say together.
"Brilliant!" Their son smiles at them before he charges off – but then at once he's back, the blur slowing for just a minute. "Er, I don't need to take the bell or anything, do I?"
"Oh, I think we'll hear you without it," Rupert says dryly.
"Thanks, Dad," is carried on the wind behind David's usual pursued-by-werewolves exit, and the thunder of boyish feet is followed by Macallan and Cava erupting from the kitchen and following their charge upstairs.
The echoes fall softly, and Rupert stretches, repressing a wince. He's aching from his hard day, she knows, not to mention the lingering sore throat, and she says, "Hey, honey. Are you feeling too bad to share the sofa?"
"Not at all, darling." Although he starts to shift himself, she's too fast, and with all due care of his muscular discomfort, bruises, and important appendages, she settles herself on top of him. It's one of her favourite positions, his favourite too, as evidenced by his slightly breathless, "Ah, my own personal warming blanket."
"Just one of the many services I provide," she says, threading her fingers with his.
Hands linked, they lie there together and watch the fire for a few moments. It's quiet now, except of course for the heavy six-year-old footsteps and pawsteps from upstairs and the occasional thud from who knows what. She's lulled by the crackle of the fire, the metronome of his heartbeat, until he says quietly, "I'm so sorry that the Council got David's IQ scores – I'll investigate what the bloody hell went wrong when we get back. Perhaps we should take him out of that sodding school –"
"We can't do that. He has friends there, he's happy, he's learning." She kisses his neck, allowing herself a lovely taste, and then settles back down. "None of the Edward Camp mess is your fault, Rupert."
When he says nothing, she sighs. One more Watcher-derived complex she'll have to deal with: he's impossible, he really is. But she tells herself she can worry about this later. Crackle of the fire, metronome of his heartbeat – then he says, a laugh somewhere in the dryness, "I do know what you're thinking." His lips move sweetly against her hairline, and he says, "Dearest, 'Absolve me now of all my sins of the future, so that I may enjoy them without remorse.'"
That sounds familiar somehow... but now that he's asked so nicely, she wriggles up to kiss him better. He tastes of tea and muffins, and Rupert, and ease after a difficult day. "You're absolved," she says when she can, and then rearranges herself slightly so she can look at him. "But you know what, you have fallen down on your husbandly job."
"Have I now," he says, his free hand smoothing back her hair.
"Obviously I'm going to need a new ottoman!" At his groan, she smiles. "And you should buy it for me, because I haven't heard one word from you about my brilliance in choosing that particular piece. I knew somehow from the moment I saw it in Camden Market that it had rare treasure hidden inside."
"Oh, you 'knew somehow.'" His reply defines skepticism.
"Yes, knew somehow. Because –" she gets an amusing, wicked thought – "of my intuition and natural bent for the supernatural, while you're more the paperwork type."
"Anya, for fuck's sake–"
"Who has brittle, aging bones."
He lets go of her hand, so that both of his can slide down to her bottom. "For that, darling, you deserve three. One for insulting your husband–" A smack, sharp and hot, if a little off-target because of the angle. "Two for repeating the horrible joke–" Another smack. That one is aimed just right on the fleshiest part of her bottom, and Anya feels pleasure begin to swell in them both. "Three for making me exert myself when I'm tired." That smack is the hardest yet, the best yet.
But then he stops and lets his hands slide away. She pushes herself up so she can glare at him. "Excuse me, Rupert, you call that punishment?"
"No. I call that a taste of things to come." He smiles at her. "I shall allow the perfect time for anticipation and remorse, Anya. And, er, my recovery from various aches."
"Oh, honey," she says, smoothing out the pain-furrow over his brows and then kissing him lightly.
"Just one of the many services I provide," he says, the smile now in his voice.
Anya recaptures his hand, pressing her fingers into his, and then lays her head against his chest again. They do have things to worry about – the Council's intrusion, Dawn's healing from the bad boyfriend, poor Willow and Fred and if there's something to be done for the Davises. Tomorrow, too, they'll have to find a way to lighten the bloodstains on the steps and the path, even if they can't erase them completely.
For this hour, however, they can rest. While David and the dogs safely thud around upstairs, she and Rupert lie on the sofa together, hands clasped, and watch the fire in the darkened fireplace until it's time for supper.