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Heavy Strings

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"Rupert, should I get your hat for you?"

When Anya’s question rings through the closed bathroom door, the mirror all but shivers, inside and out.

Good God, not again. Giles sighs at his wavering reflection before putting away the mouthwash and then saying with some emphasis, "I rather thought I wouldn’t wear it tonight."

The door flies open. She doesn’t look pleased. Beautiful, yes – cream and gold, and a new softness in the charity-shop designer clothing she favours – but not happy with him. And an unhappy Anya is apt to make her point with force....

"Honey, I bought you the hat, I love you in the hat! Why do you want to deprive me of Sharp-Dressed You?"

"Ah-hah. So you only love me when I wear it?" He leans forward to steal a kiss. This is a tactical error, as she’s prone to nip when displeased. Pulling away, a finger to a newly chewed lip, he frowns at her. "Biting’s not the best strategy to get your way, darling."

"I’m very sorry." She could hardly sound less so. "Also, you know perfectly well I love you even without the attractive and also protective headgear. But you put away the fedora in March because you said it was for autumn and winter wear, and now it is autumn, which means–"

"Which means it should be autumn, not this bloody never-ending summer." With a hand to her waist, he walks them both out of the bathroom and into their far too hot bedroom, despite the ceiling fan and air-conditioner. "I promise that when it’s a proper temperature, I’ll bring it out for you."

Dallas bakes in what he’s assured is a completely normal heatwave for October – trapped sun slides through the windows even now, a few hours after sunset. He’s rarely been so uncomfortable, and it’s worse because he yearns for cool this time of year. For a moment he misses England, longs for cold rain-winds and conkers and a jacket and scarf, still green grass and tea that’s neither iced nor that bloody ‘sweet’ horror, Somerset hills and London streets.

But then Anya bends over her bag, rooting about for something, and he remembers in body, mind and spirit just why he’s happily lived in Texas for a year and a half, unconscionable heat or not. Here is his Anya, and here now is his duty. He values both far more than he feels comfortable expressing.

As he picks up his watch from the bedroom desk, he says, "When are we supposed to meet this Johnny Ames person?"

She stands up empty-handed, pushes newly streaked hair out of her eyes, makes one of her ‘stupid man’ faces. "You’re the Blind One’s Watcher. Don’t you know?"

Yes, of course he does... well, vaguely. When they’d received the message from Terrence about the meeting, he’d been distracted by a recently acquired monograph about swamp-magicks in the Big Thicket. He also knows that she’s got organized everything he needs. It’s one of the perquisites of their life together, his loving Anya and being loved in return – the fact that all details are accounted for, everything neatly in its place, without him having to do anything. However, understanding that it’s impolitic to put it quite that way, he says, "Just checking. It’s, er...."

"Ten-thirty. Right after the first show ends at this dive we’re going to." She stares at him as he puts his watch on the wrist not wearing his commitment band. "Which means?"

"Which means Shanice and Lindsey will be here presently, so we should make the most of the time we have," he says. It’s two steps to her, and then he cradles her face and lifts her to her toes. The kiss is easy, a caress of mouths and tongues and breath, and she makes one of her joyous noises and presses her breasts against him, uncurls like a cat in the sun. He thinks, with a brief sharp pang, that they’ve not done enough of this lately.

He’d love to stroke her the rest of the evening, but they're on a schedule. Ignoring his own arousal, he puts her away from him. "Come on, then," he says. "Work to be done."

They go downstairs and walk through Magic Places in silence. He’s worried about the upcoming meeting; the Blind One has sensed ‘pulls on the fabric,’ dissonance in the local and global harmony that only the Blind One can hear, and this apparently dubious contact might have information about markers of trouble amongst the magic and the mundane. Part of him, however, registers Anya’s quiet as its own marker of trouble, silence as dissonance.

As he opens the outside door for her, he says, "Are you all right?" She gives him a half-smile, which in no way allays his sudden worry. She came up empty-handed, he thinks again – "No, really, Anya."

In the rush of overwhelming night-heat and music from down the block, he can only just hear her say, "Nothing. A rabbit in the grass."

"And what does that mean, pray tell?" His literal-minded love’s use of metaphor is reason enough to fret, he thinks.

"It means that it’s something only I would be upset about," she says without guile or side. "Oh look, here they are!"

Shanice’s old Eldorado pulls up to the curb, the horn sounding three deep notes. It’s a ridiculous tank of a car, truly, but he’s grateful for it tonight – lots of room for him and Anya in the backseat, for one; lots of metal barrier between them and the hostile night, for another. When he and Anya are safely into the artificially cooled, leather interior, he says, "I do appreciate your driving this evening, Shanice."

She waves at him, the gesture doubled in the rearview mirror. "De nada. I used to love the place when it was called Jack Black’s. Don’t know that you folks would find it without me. Don’t know if you could get in the door, in fact."

Even seen at an angle and from behind, Lindsey’s grin is illusively wide. "Aw, Niecy darlin’, we can handle ourselves," he says, and bursts out laughing as she slaps his shoulder. Then, while rubbing the assaulted spot: "Y’all ready for some dirty blues?"

"Yep. Dirty blues and weirdness," Anya says, as her hand finds Giles’. "We’d better get going."

He wants to ask more forcefully what’s bothering her, but the turn of her head precludes questions, and this is hardly the time. As Shanice pulls the Eldorado out into traffic, sounding the horn again at a drunk, straggling pedestrian, he tightens his grasp on Anya and slides down in his seat.

Dallas freeways can be disorienting, he’s found, especially at night. When the Eldorado cruises from street to interstate, the lights outside begin to swirl together. It’s worse when Shanice pilots them through what locals call the Mixmaster, a horrific junction of motorways. They take the road that leads them up, up, over three other roads; far below, Dallas and its outflow of suburbs make a tangled skein of light, yellow and red and white strands flickering. There’s always a pull on the fabric when he looks down, and he feels separate from the place where he lives, a visitor from above.

Struck by vertigo, he puts his free hand on the window to brace himself. The glass is still hot from the day.

Lindsey starts humming then, and a few notes in, Giles recognizes the intro to "Let Your Light Shine on Me," a Blind Willie Johnson song he loves. At his request, he and Lindsey play this every jam session – it’s his private thank-you to the universe for giving him this last chance. After waiting for the right breath, he joins the humming.

Then Lindsey does a drumroll on the dashboard. That’s a signal: Giles starts the vocal, and Lindsey joins in even as he makes his own percussion, with Shanice adding her own steering-wheel drumming. Anya scoots closer, and Giles lifts their joined hands to his chest. Finally he does feel braced – at least for the moment.

The song takes them from threads of light into a very bad part of South Dallas, where every other streetlamp is broken and the roads are full of hazards.

When Shanice pulls into the car park of the Bloodknot, the noise from inside rises through its gravel, rumbles past the group of men hovering by the door. "Nasty change from what I knew," she mutters. "And we ain’t even inside yet."

"Yeah. Nasty as hell." Lindsey’s not smiling now, and Giles considers the man’s recurring dips into a familiar inward darkness. McDonald’s depressions grew worse after this spring’s troubles in Los Angeles – one year after Sunnydale disappeared forever, sinking into the fabric of the earth to be rewoven into history. Giles’ thoughts always stick at that reworking, at that loss of so much, and he can’t focus well enough on Lindsey’s troubles –

Glass shatters against the doorframe of the Bloodknot. The men there bark and twist and push, and then they disappear beyond the reach of red and green neon. The door is all the way open now, the bass deeper, the darkness spreading like disease.

"Hmm," Anya says. "Do we think the cops will be arriving to investigate that small destructive moment?"

"Not at the Bloodknot, not the way it looks now." Shanice sighs, then opens her car door, lets in the heat. "Well, sooner done, sooner the hell gone."

When boots touch earth, the burn is intense. Giles pulls Anya closer to him, pushes away remembrance of the Hellmouth, says, "Yes, swords out – metaphorically, of course."

The four of them cross through emptiness toward the Bloodknot’s stygian interior.

....................................................................

"Go right in," the man at the door tells Shanice after money changes hands, and they pass inside.

The curtains of smoke inside remind Anya of one of her least favourite dimensions, as do the smells of perspiring humans and spilled beer and aggression. At any moment she expects to see blood, and not just as a literal interpretation of the bar’s name.

Rupert adjusts so that his right arm is around her and he’s sheltering her with his body. He shouldn’t protect her, she thinks – she might be bad luck. She really might, despite her reprieve from vengeance-punishment.

She’s been dreaming the past few nights of vicious things in the grass, and there have been actual bad omens at the shop, like snapped register tapes and broken good-luck charms, but she can’t read what the signs mean. She remembers the Magic Box basement during a past apocalypse; she’d found that stuffed rabbit which she’d thought was a giant billboard saying "Death and Defeat Here,’ and Xander had laughed at her and asked her to marry him. In retrospective she can interpret what the rabbit was really there to tell her – ‘say No to Xander and go upstairs to find your wonderful Rupert, or your heart will be broken for a time, and there will be blood and loss and so many regrets’ – but hindsight doesn’t do a damn bit of good. What she needs is hindsight in advance.

Rupert’s arm tightens. "Stay close, Anya."

After mentally listing the pros and cons of disputing this rather annoying command, she decides not to push it. She might not be bad luck, after all, and for a man steeped in the arcane and occult and many volumes’ worth of prophecy, Rupert has the oddest fuddy-duddy reaction to what he considers superstition. Also, she does prefer being close to him –

Especially in a place like this. She looks around: a few vampires and pure-bred demons are scattered in between the gold-toothed men and bruised and tired women; weapons are everywhere, knives and guns and even a Hax demon’s pointy metal bar for unsanitary street tracheotomies; over the bar is an old beer sign, mostly burnt out, that red-flashes "OR". Or what, she wonders.

On the small and no doubt sticky stage, a vampire strums the blues very badly on an electric guitar, accompanied by a beat-box, and wails like the feral cat that prowls behind the shop. After a year and a half with Rupert, Anya’s evaluations of music have grown stricter (although she still likes various female mainstream artists such as Carole King and Stevie Nicks, which makes him squirm in dismay when she plays her CDs very loud), and she knows this vamp songster sucks. The three musical types she’s with, in fact, look like they’re being beaten with that Hax demon’s stick.

But more worrying is a reflection in red, not, not.... She can’t articulate what it’s not. But there’s something behind the vampire, a double, a shadow. It’s not supposed to be there.

Shanice grabs Lindsey’s arm – not in a sexual or romantic way, more in a ‘I’m just a DJ and this place scares me, I need a buddy’ way – and says, "Beers all around?"

"We’re taking our lives into our hands to drink anything here, but yes, thank you," Rupert says, before nudging her. "Anya, that table?"

She sees the empty, dirty circle with four chairs a few steps away, and despite her worries about hygiene, they make their way fast enough to beat out a large motorcycle enthusiast and his equally bear-like girlfriend. When the other seekers start to rumble loud enough to drown out the beat-box, Rupert accesses his best Ripper-attitude, which Lindsey jokingly calls ‘the badass sombitch academic’ – she can feel him tighten his muscles, roughen his voice. "You got a fucking problem, mate?"

No problem, the other two say hastily, stumbling away, although the woman turns around to add, "You don’t belong here, Englishman. You and your little whore–"

Anya begins, "I never charged–" but she stops at what sounds like a gunshot.

Rupert’s taken one of the empty bottles and knocked it against the side of the table hard enough to make it crack. It’s not broken all the way yet, but it only will take a finger-push to send it all crashing down, make the ordinary into a weapon. "I don’t allow people to insult my partner," he says coldly.

The patrons of the bar who’d turned around now look away – and boy, she thinks, even big burly types can skedaddle pretty damn fast when they get a hint of what Rupert usually hides.

Not that he’s pleased with himself, of course. He winces himself back to normal and puts the cracked vessel on the table. "I’m sorry. That was...I’m just sorry."

She snuggles close to him, petting away his useless self-disgust. "Stop apologizing, I appreciated the growl. Although of course they wouldn’t have even messed with us if you’d worn The Hat like I asked you...."

"No, they’d have been approximately five times as likely to harass us. That bloody fedora doesn’t fit here any more than I do."

"Do you mean something beyond the fact that this is a hellhole? Are you distinguishing yourself from the rest of us for some Watcher reason?" she says, but before question can become argument, Shanice and Lindsey show up with the beer.

As Lindsey gives them their longnecks, he says, "Jesus, that bloodsucker can’t play."

It’s true that the vampire soloist hits an extremely wrong note at that moment, one that echoes off the walls to cause maximum pain – although Anya’s not sure whether Rupert’s grimace is about the music or his first swallow of Lone Star, which on a previous occasion he judged ‘worse than goat piss.’ (When she asked him if he’d ever actually tasted goat piss, he muttered something about a misread ritual and Ethan Rayne, and then kissed her to make her shut up. She didn’t pursue it.) Anyway, Shanice says, "But it should be that guy’s last number. Del the bartender said that Johnny Ames’s set starts at eleven."

"Which means he should meet us shortly, as planned!" Anya says. Then she pauses. "Were we told he was a musician?"

"We know very little beyond that he’s given the Blind One information before, and Terrence is frightened of him, won’t have him come to Blind Willie’s. Which isn’t particularly encouraging, I have to say." Rupert grimaces again, without beer.

Lindsey props one boot on the edge of the table and tips his chair back, even as he takes a long swallow. Then, wetly: "What on earth or off it could scare big ol’ Terrence?"

The vampire hits one last wrong note, holds it while the beat-box goes crazy and the crowd begins to shuffle its feet.

And Anya shudders like ice has been stabbed into her neck...oh the Powers, this isn’t good. The music stops, and the bar noises rise, applause and laughter and a scream or two when the vamp shows gameface before moving away.

Even so, the cold rushes at her from behind.

A chill hand comes down on her shoulder, presses hard so she can feel long nails digging in. She tastes earth on her tongue.

Rupert says "Let her go," and slips his bottle down so the neck rests against the edge of the table. Another crack, another weapon in the making.

A muddy laugh bubbles from the unseen man’s throat, and she’s released. "Lookee here! So this is who the Blind One sends to meet me – an old Watcher and a shape-shiftin’ demon-girl."

"I’m human now," she says, despite her fear. "I chose this life."

"Shape-shifting girl, gone back to the light to stay! What a pity," Johnny Ames hisses, still laughing, and he comes around to the one empty chair, kicks it back from the table, sits himself down. He’s tall, oddly mottled in the light, gold-toothed like many of the other patrons, and swathed in an ugly Mexican poncho. "But never worry, child. I have a special fondness for shapeshifters and ghost-lovers." He pats Lindsey’s boot at that, slides one hand over his ankle and under his jeans. "Like this one. Hey there, boy."

"Hey," Lindsey says with admirable calm, and he takes another drink.

Well, Anya thinks, Lindsey did put in his combat time at Wolfram and Hart, just as Rupert got his raising demons, just as she got hers through a millennium of vengeance. She hopes it will be good enough practice for dealing with a damn sorcerer of the dark.

She doesn’t like those who misuse voodoo. It’s really bad business in every way.

.........................................................................................

When Giles looks at Johnny Ames for the first time, he thinks, Bokor: practitioner of death-magic, direct line to bad spirits. He also thinks, Fuck.

But he says pleasantly, "My name’s Giles. This is my partner–" he nods at Anya but doesn’t say her name, he bloody well won’t give the man that opening for bad magics–"and two of my colleagues. The Blind One sends his...acknowledgement, and asks for information, as he’s done before."

"‘Acknowledgement.’" Ames laughs again, then leans forward to take Shanice’s beer. She scrapes her chair back, closer to Giles, but she doesn’t protest the loss. The bokor’s eyes flicker; he drinks, and a sudden dank smell, rotted earth and mold, rises like swamp gas. "Well, what kind of information does the old slug want, and what do I get for it?"

"He’s wondering what on the metaphysical landscape might have changed for the worse recently," Giles says. "He’s aware of, er, encroaching darkness, and he thinks you might know more about the kinds of activities which might cause that."

"Not that we’re judging you," Anya puts in. "Just a simple request for information."

Lindsey says, "And we have to hear what you want before we tell you what you get."

"Yeah, yeah. Just a sec, let me study on it." Ames leans back and drinks the beer. The smell of rot and mold is stronger now.

As Giles looks away, he slips his hand into his pocket. The worry-talisman Anya gave him is the focus that allows him to access his small gift of insight. He closes his fingers around the stone, he opens himself up to the world.

The evil emanating from Ames almost chokes Giles. The man is cut off from all the gods he might be expected to worship.

Giles holds tighter to the stone, makes himself see further. The interior of the Bloodknot seems awash with now visible swamp gas, heavy, staining, its steam rising over the stage. He perceives something foul encased in the wooden support-beams, hears faint cries of someone imprisoned.

He looks back at Ames. The bokor’s smile is a death’s-head, and for the first time Giles notes the bulge in Ames’ shirt pocket, the arms of a home-made doll reaching over the material to loll like snapped heavy strings. In fact, they are – cords made of braided guitar strings, twisted into pain.

The cry smothers itself, leaving only the bar noises and the hiss of now invisible gas.

Smiling wider now, Ames puts the half-empty beer down on the table. "‘Bout time for me to play," he says. "So let’s lay it out. Something’s gone and accessed power, called on those long gone, lifted ‘em up to sing – maybe that’s what the Blind One’s hearing, ya know?" Gold-tooth flashes, reflects neon red. "But the real deal is for the Blind One’s ears alone. Not his errand-boys and girls."

"Your price is a meeting with the Blind One?" Lindsey says. "Don’t think he’ll go for that, buddy."

Giles is thinking quickly, however. They have clues to work with now – "My colleague’s right, we would have to consult him first. But assuming we do so, how might we contact you to give you his answer?"

When Ames stands up, he stretches so that the arms of the doll wave helplessly, and Giles’ stomach twists like the cord. Ames looks back at the stage, then looks back, smiling. "Terrence will know, Giles and friends. Oh yeah, Terrence’ll know." He puts his hands on the table and leans in. "You see, children, everybody’s got to be somewheres. But somewheres may surprise ya." Then he smiles wider, the mouth of a grave: "Y’all should stay for the show. Y’all might learn something."

When he walks away, the movement’s somehow jerky, uncoordinated, like a doll manipulated by an invisible hand.

"I don’t think I’ll care for his music," Anya says quietly but emphatically, once the man’s out of earshot. "Can we leave now?"

Giles wraps her hand around his so that she can feel the talisman in his palm. "Let me hear at least the beginning, please."

"Well, you’re the Watcher. Okay." But even as she speaks bravely, her fingers tremble against his.

Shanice uses an empty to push away the beer Ames touched, get it as far from them all as possible – Lindsey uses another broken empty to keep it from falling off. The way they position the bottle means that from Giles’ perspective, red light pours through clarity.

Ames, clambering onstage with an electric guitar in his hand, takes a position directly in line with the red-lit glass. Direct line to bad spirits, Giles thinks. Fuck.

As Ames plugs in his guitar and touches his nails to the strings, Giles closes his fist around the talisman – and Anya’s fingers close as well, which braces him. He opens his senses –

And there is evil, there is emptiness through which good light refracts red, twists into bad. There come cries from the imprisoned, who have been pulled back from their right road and now dangle helpless in another’s grasp.

"I’m gonna play and sing for y’all tonight. Gonna show you the way to truth," Johnny Ames says into the microphone. The crowd rumbles approval. "Here’s one of my favourites..." As the first notes of Hendrix’s "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" bite into the night, he starts to sing. But–

"That doesn’t sound like Jimi, does it?" Lindsey says.

"No. More like Stevie Ray," Giles says. The attack is so familiar, the vibration of those heavy strings, even the voice, so alive despite the deadness of the eyes – Oh dear God.

Johnny Ames is indeed a bokor of a different kind, and he’s reached back to disturb one long dead.

Shanice, staring at the stage as if literally enthralled, slides her hand toward the bottle from which Ames drank. Her fingers creep closer, and red light spills over them.

The guitar screams like the cry of one imprisoned.

Giles catches her wrist before she gets to the glass. "No! Don’t touch it."

She shudders herself awake, and he lets her go. "What the hell was that?" she mutters, looking at her hands. "What the hell was that?"

"Whatever it was, we’re going." Anya is already on her feet, tugging at him. "Come on, come on, come on."

Giles doesn’t know enough context to stop whatever bad magic’s being cast here, and Anya’s right, they should go. After Lindsey takes Shanice’s arm, the four of them make their way through growling patrons, the human and demon alike merging into one identity.

From every table shine red-tinged eyes, animal glare, dead glare, although that might be a trick of the light, and hands reach out for them. The guitar screams again. Ames sings louder.

He feels something near his ankle, and looks down to see his jeans rip up, exposing his boot. He sees nothing else, not in the dark, but something scrapes like teeth, like claws, nibbling at the leather. It’s going to taste him next....

"Come on, honey," Anya says, and she drags him, stumbling, from dark to dark.

Shanice starts running the second she hits the parking lot, and Lindsey’s right behind her. Giles pushes Anya toward the car, then stops, turns around for one more look.

The doorway to the Bloodknot is a black empty rectangle. In front of it lays a couple of rows of broken glass, now lined up neatly. They reflect red. They look oddly like guitar strings.

"Voodoo Child" still plays, its guitar line snaking through the black rectangle, heavy, rising up to strike–

"Oh, good grief," Anya says, as she grabs him from behind. "Stop gaping and get your ass in the car!"

As soon as they crawl into the backseat, almost before he can shut the door, Shanice starts the car. Rocks spin from under the wheels as the old V8 engine roars, and they pull out into the half-lit street. Lindsey helps her with a hand on the steering wheel when they hit a hidden hole in the road.

Anya says rather shrilly, "Rupert, what the hell happened to your leg?" and slides over his lap, her head down, to check the tear.

He rests a hand on her nicely presented bottom – the best place to brace himself, he thinks with some amusement – and leans his head back against the seat. "I don’t know. Perhaps it was a rabbit in the grass."

She arches up and twists so she can better glare at him. "That’s not at all humourous."

Before he can reply, his shirt pocket starts to vibrate – his mobile’s ringer is off, he realizes. After he retrieves it, he squints at the display. It’s a text message, but, "Oh for fuck’s sake, I can’t read this."

"Eyesight problem or the horror of text-speak?" Anya asks, even as she flips onto her back and grabs the phone from him. He stretches out his arm across her waist and curves around to steady her, steady them both. He can feel the shudder of the Eldorado’s engine and the jolting of wheels on bad road, he still can hear that bloody song in his head. It’s like the world he cherishes is breaking underneath him –

She says flatly, "It’s from Buffy. Emergency. She wants you to call her back as soon as you can."