The scent that hit Giles as he opened the door was both familiar and not. Familiar in that the blend of incense, candles, and herbs was very like what one might smell upon entering The Magic Box. Not familiar because this used to be strictly a book shop, though clearly that had changed somewhat over the last twenty-three years.
The young woman at the till watched him suspiciously, or so his conscience interpreted her stare, as he wandered not entirely aimlessly past the displays. He was unable to avoid thinking that his table of crystals was more appealing to the eye than this scattered array upon purple velvet while the candle arrangement might have some ideas that could be borrowed. Eventually, he worked his way over to the metaphysical books, most of which were about as metaphysical as his old socks. But they’d had what he needed buried here once. He’d already tried every other shop he knew of between Bath and London. If he didn’t find it here, he would have to make do. There had scarcely been time to stop here before his flight.
Ironic that he should be poking about like this in someone else’s shop. Anya would simply have done a search on the computer and tried to order from one of their suppliers. Not that he hadn’t checked their catalogues, but one simply didn’t find the sort of thing he needed on bloody eBay, besides which, he was fairly certain the Council was watching his transactions rather closely. So here he stood, sifting through some of the silliest things ever to pretend they spoke of magic, unsure whether the hope that they would or would not have what he needed was stronger.
Shelf after shelf was filled with useless tripe mixed with somewhat more useful psychobabble. He’d about given up, when he noticed one last bookcase tucked away in a corner. The spines of the books were dull rather than glossy, and as he approached, he noted that several of the titles were in languages other than English and a confidence-inspiring layer of dust showed that most customers and possibly the shop owner couldn’t be bothered to pay these tomes any attention at all.
Many were books he had in his personal collection. Others were familiar if minor works easily found in the Council libraries. Two arrested his gaze and made his heart stop. Animus Veneficus and Mehrdimensional Theorie. Soul Magic and Multi-Dimensional Theory. They might be utterly useless or precisely what he needed. He reached out and plucked them both off the shelf. The flight to California would be time enough to review them.
Giles felt rather than saw the trap as it sprang, freezing him where he stood. The front door of the shop slammed open and uneven steps punctuated with the thump of a cane or crutch stormed towards him.
“Yes, thank you, Miss Greengrass. Please just attend to the shop,” came a sinister-sounding voice.
It wasn’t Travers, nor anyone else he’d recognize by voice alone, so most likely not a Council trap. Of course, that was not precisely the worst possible scenario. The footsteps stopped behind him.
“Well, well. What have we here?” the voice drawled. The books were plucked from his grasp, and the air seemed to turn several degrees cooler. “Not just the average Muggle dabbling in love spells, are you? In fact, you don’t seem to be quite a Muggle at all.”
Giles felt himself magically lifted and turned until he was looking at a much older version of a face he’d never thought to see again.
Giles would have echoed the sentiment, had he been able.
The man spun faster than anyone with an apparently game leg had any business doing and proceeded to hobble through a door that had most certainly not been there when Giles had last looked. Still magically bound, Giles trailed along behind him like a balloon being tugged by a string.
The room they entered was dark and smelled even more strongly of herbs than had the shop. An empty box transformed into a chair, and Giles found himself lowered into it, black ropes shooting from the other man’s wand an instant before the magical paralysis was lifted. He supposed that was an improvement, but somehow being physically tied down was far more panic-inducing.
“Severus,” he gasped before gritting his teeth to hide his terror.
“Ripper.” The man inclined his head in mocking acknowledgement. “It seems you did not learn as much from the events surrounding our prior encounter as I had thought.”
“Appearances are often deceiving.”
An eyebrow lifted, and Severus planted his cane before him, leaning on it with both hands.
“By what authority are you holding me here?”
“By what authority are you prowling about after books you should certainly be able to obtain through the illustrious Watchers’ Council were your purpose legitimate?”
Giles’ jaw set. If the Council got wind of this, if they had the slightest idea, their response would be swift and brutal. Unbidden, the images of his nightmares flashed through his mind: the rift between realities, Ben struggling for breath, Buffy falling, falling, and then lying entirely too still.
When the memories abruptly stopped, he realized what had happened. The despair that had begun to fill his chest ignited into rage.
“You have no right!” He struggled against the ropes, trying to tap into the magic that had created them and the chair in order to break free. Clearly, some spellwork had been added to prevent that. “Question me if you must. Drug me like you did before. But stay. Out. Of. My. Mind!”
“I have every right!” Severus slammed his cane against the floor, raising a small puff of dust. “You think you can bring her back? Do you have the slightest idea …? I spent two decades of my life enslaved to one who thought he had the right to wield power over life and death. I will not suffer another Dark Lord to rise, wizard, Muggle, or Watcher!”
“You think that I …?” Giles laughed bitterly at the irony. If only things were that simple. “You stopped too soon, or you’d have seen the rest. She’s already back.”
And now it’s left to me to pick up the pieces or possibly shatter them further. They’re hardly children any longer. I should have been able to leave without their breaking some of the strongest laws of nature and magic!
The silence that fell was like a third person in the room.
“I don’t know.” Giles sagged as much as the ropes would let him. “I don’t know what Willow’s done … whether it will need to be undone. Whether it can be.”
“Your Slayer’s name is Willow?” A hint of a sneer.
“No. Her name was Buffy. Is Buffy.” He didn’t offer further explanation.
A definite sneer this time, and Severus turned and limped over to a stack of boxes, stood the two books so Giles could see them, and tapped each one in turn with his wand. A shimmer signaled a glamour being broken, and they were revealed to be two very ordinary recipe books.
“As you can see, these would not have helped you in any case.” A flick of the wand and the ropes vanished.
“No.” Relief and despair fought for dominance in Giles’ chest as he reflexively crossed his arms, rubbing the places the ropes had constrained him as he stood. “Interesting shop you keep.”
The derisive stare that answered this confirmed that, whatever Severus might be, he was no more a mere shopkeeper than Giles himself.
“Quite.” Giles stared at him a moment longer. “Am I free to go?”
Severus looked at him carefully. “A moment,” he said before turning and limping around a stack of boxes. When he returned, he held a much smaller book. “I do not know if this will cover the type of resurrection magic that was used. However, it may give you some ideas on how to determine whether your Slayer can safely remain among the living.”
“Thank you.” Giles felt a shiver run up his arm as Severus shoved the book into his hand, their fingertips briefly grazing one another.
“It is not for you.” Severus snorted. “If a Slayer has been brought back from the dead, one can only imagine the magical ramifications for us all, should the slightest element of the spell have been mishandled.” His eyes narrowed. “And I trust you will see to the one who cast this spell? I meant what I said. The world, not merely the wizarding world, cannot withstand the rise of another Dark Lord. Not yet.”
Giles’ blood ran cold again, and the book in his hand suddenly took on the weight of a cement block. With a nod, he followed Severus’ gesture towards a door that led him directly to the street, a taxi coincidentally waiting for a fare and more than willing to bring him to Heathrow. On the ride there, it occurred to Giles that he and Severus had met twice, and he still did not know the man’s surname.
Seven months later
Althenea’s voice snapped him back to the present.
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?”
“I’m afraid I must admit that I haven’t,” he said with a sigh. The pain is just rather distracting. While he understood that getting Willow under control was a priority, he thought he just might need more than an ice pack, and his physical injuries were probably the least of his worries.
“I said that I think you need more attention than we’ll be able to give you.” Her eyes, he realized, radiated concern. “It’s going to take all our efforts to stabilize Willow, and you’ve been through a substantial magical shock.”
“Yes, you could say that.” It still felt as though his heart had been ripped out of his chest and poured back in through his nose actually, but he wasn’t sure Althenea needed to know that.
“I have one more Transport Talisman,” she continued. “It’s keyed to bring you to … well, to someone who can help.”
Giles removed the ice pack and pondered emptying it over her head. Probably not a terribly helpful impulse, but a gratifying idea at the moment. Instead, he asked, “Could you be a bit more specific? I find I’m not in the mood for surprises.”
“He’s hard to explain.”
Althenea sighed. “He was the one who warned us about Willow, even before our Seer began to pick up on her magical excesses. Something you ought to have done, by the way, but that conversation can wait.”
“Quite.” He reapplied the ice pack to the back of his head.
“He’s supplied us with magical ingredients and tools for years, and he’s very knowledgeable about magical assaults and care.”
“I’m sure your recommendation is enough,” Giles said resignedly, “but does this man have a name?”
“Snape,” she replied, handing him the talisman that looked suspiciously like a bookmark. “Severus Snape.”
“Of course,” he muttered as the now-familiar tugging sensation began.
When the spinning stopped, he fell to his knees. Using three of those infernal devices in one day was entirely too much, even if this last had been the shortest trip yet. His stomach roiled, and only the fact he’d not eaten in hours kept him from vomiting. After a moment, he looked up and saw that he was in front of the till at the bookshop on Charing Cross Road, a brown-eyed woman peering down at him.
“Haven’t I seen you before?” she asked.
“Yes.” He grabbed hold of the counter and pulled himself up. “I’m here to see—”
“What is it this time, Miss Greengrass? Oh.” Step, thump, step.
Giles turned to face him.
“Fought her yourself, did you?” Severus took hold of Giles’ free arm and gave an impatient tug.
“Really, I’d thought you had at least the sense nature bestowed on a Flobberworm.”
“Yes, well, it worked.” Giles straightened a bit but found he couldn’t quite let go of the counter’s support, even though Severus was trying to steer him away from it. “The world appears to still be here and minus one potential Dark … Lady.”
When Giles’ knees threatened to buckle again, Severus let go of his arm—bastard—and drew his wand to cast a spell that made him feel several times lighter, making it far easier to stand. So perhaps not such a bastard. Giles nodded his thanks and was answered with a snort.
“Well, it’s not like I’m about to carry you.” Severus tapped his cane.
“With a spell like that, why do you even need a cane?” It was a rather personal question, but Giles didn’t much care. There were enough things going unexplained as it was, he didn’t much feel like letting even the simple things remain mysterious.
“Not all injuries are so readily accommodated,” was all Severus said. Curiously, he ran a finger along the inside of his collar as he said it, as if the garment were too tight. “Let’s go. Even with magical assistance, you clearly will not last on your feet for long.”
“Where are we going now?” Giles hated the whinge that had crept into his voice, but really, all he wanted to do was lie down somewhere and rest.
“Precisely,” Severus answered his unspoken thought.
“I do wish you wouldn’t do that.” Giles couldn’t repress a shudder. It wasn’t what Drusilla had done to him, not precisely, but it was near enough to give him what Buffy would call “the wiggins.”
“I know.” With a smirk, Severus rapped him on the head with his wand, and Giles felt a liquid coldness flow down over him. “Stay close.”
Without another word, Severus turned and limped out of the shop and into the dark night, Giles following behind. Surprisingly, he led the way into the battered, abandoned-looking pub across the street that Giles remembered from so long ago.
While I wouldn’t mind a shot of that Firewhisky about now, I hardly think that’s going to fix anything. And why must I be invisible?
“Your usual room?” the barkeeper asked.
“Yes, thank you, Tom.” Severus deftly caught the key tossed to him.
Giles wondered at the exchange but kept his peace, following silently up the stairs.
The room was further down the hall than Giles might have preferred, as even with the effects of the Lightening Spell he was growing wearier with every step, but he supposed it was preferable to have some distance from the stairs and other patrons. And the room itself was inviting, with a cheerily crackling fire and a bed that looked like it would be very comfortable for his aching bones.
He’d taken several steps towards it, when he felt another rap on his head, and warmth trickled over him, rendering him visible again. As he turned to offer his thanks, somehow the room spun quite a bit faster than he thought it should and continued doing so for a long minute until it faded to a blissful gray, peaceful in its near silence marred only by the oddest word.
The gray was comfortable. There were no dreams. There was no pain, except when the gray thinned. Then he felt himself shifted about, and often foul-tasting things were poured into his mouth. He quickly learned to tolerate them, as they brought back the gray. Sometimes, if the gray took a bit longer to come back, there were also fingers stroking his hair away from his forehead. As nice as the gray was, he rather missed the fingers once it returned.
Eventually the gray dispersed completely. Giles opened his eyes and took in the room. The fire, the oaken wardrobe, the black … something folded over a chair. It all appeared somewhat familiar, and yet he couldn’t think where he was. He did, however, feel surprisingly refreshed.
Bracing himself on his elbows, he located his glasses on the nightstand, put them on, and looked the room over a bit more carefully. It had the feel of an inn, though it looked more rustic than most he’d frequented. Nothing suggested electricity was available, leading him to wonder whether it had indoor plumbing. The drapes were drawn, but sun peeked around the edges, and on the table in front of the window, there was an impressive array of bottles filled with multicolor liquids.
Potions of some kind. I remember drinking … something.
Nothing yet told him whether he was guest or captive, though it felt a bit too cozy to inspire much fear. Looking down at himself, he saw that he was wearing soft cotton pajamas. Not standard-issue prison garb. A flushing noise answered the plumbing question, and in a few moments, the door opened, and a tall, thin man entered. In a rush, Giles both recognized him and remembered what he was doing here. He sat the rest of the way up with a start.
“Awake at last,” Severus said. “High time. One would think you were on holiday, lying in this long.”
“How long … ?”
Two days. Two very long days during which absolutely anything could have happened to Willow. Or the coven. Or the whole of Devon.
Severus held up a hand. “Althenea has been in touch. She did not share any details, but did insist that you aren’t to concern yourself.”
Giles felt the tension that had just gathered flow out of his shoulders. “How is it that you know Althenea?”
“She and her coven, as well as a select few others, are among my best non-wizarding customers.” Severus smirked. “I have you to thank for that. Had we not met, I would never have known there was a legitimate market among non-wizarding practitioners of magic.” His gaze darkened. “Or that there was such need to ensure that the more dangerous knowledge does not fall into the wrong hands.”
“I see.” He didn’t really, but there was no need to belabor that particular topic. There were hundreds of other questions he’d rather ask, but he wasn’t quite sure where to start. Instead, he said, “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Then don’t.” Severus’ lips pressed into a tight line, and he turned and walked over to the table by the window. Flasks clinked against one another.
Puzzled, Giles pulled off the duvet and swung his legs over the side of the bed, wondering if he was quite ready to stand. He felt surprisingly energetic for having been in bed for two days with nothing but potions for nourishment.
“Clearly, you are in a rush to be on your way,” Severus said, turning back to face him, his expression unfathomable. “You are not fully recovered yet. You will need to take four drams of this potion morning and night.” He held up a flask of pearlescent blue liquid. “And two drams of this one before bed.” He held up another that was a dull reddish-brown. “There is enough here to last you two weeks, which should be sufficient.”
“I … thank you, Severus.” Giles hadn’t measured anything in drams in years. That would take some looking up.
“This is a Portkey that will return you to Devon.” He pointed to the bookmark that had brought Giles to the bookshop. “Make sure you are ready to leave before you touch it.”
Giles nodded, but as he listened, tried to reconcile this seeming eagerness to be rid of him with the tender brush of fingertips along his skin. Or perhaps that had been merely a dream?
“I have been away from my duties during your convalescence.” Severus drew on the black frock coat that Giles had seen lying across one of the chairs before. “You do not need to tidy the room. The staff will see to that.”
And before Giles could say another word, Severus had gone.
“What the hell just happened?”
“You look better, Rupert,” Althenea said as she let him in the door. She took the two potion flasks and set them in a cabinet.
She had to be exaggerating. He was slightly amazed that he was still upright, given the way he’d rushed to clear out of the room as Severus had clearly intended him to do and then the nauseating swirling of the Transport Talism— Portkey.
“It looks like Severus was right,” she added, leading him over to the sofa and taking a seat herself. “A couple of days along a magical border balanced you right out.”
“A … what?” He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Althenea, no one has explained a blessed thing to me since I arrived, and apparently I’ve spent most of that time unconscious. Could you please …? Starting with Willow actually.” He waved the hand that held his glasses.
“Willow is stabilized,” she replied. “Her magic has been permanently altered, but it has leveled off. More importantly, she seems truly repentant and eager to learn how to handle it responsibly.” She fiddled with her hands briefly. “Would you like some tea?”
“Oh, God, yes.”
She stepped into the kitchen for a bit, and he could hear the rattle of pot and cups as she organized a quick tea. Fortunately, she wasn’t long, either because she’d had a kettle on already or because she’d used magic to speed the process. Giles wasn’t about to question it. He accepted the cup she poured for him and took a grateful sip of the aromatic brew.
“The pub where you stayed,” she said, “sits on a boundary between what they call Muggle London and a sort of wizarding bazaar, as I understand it. Given the massive shifts in magic you’d experienced, Severus theorized that remaining in a place maintaining a dynamic equilibrium between the two worlds for a bit would put you right.”
“I see.” He set his teacup down. “That would explain how … energized I felt when I woke.”
Funny how that seems to have dissipated.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Why in the world did he do it?” Giles spread his hands. “He was clearly glad to be shut of me, obviously felt put out by it all.” In fact, Giles shuddered to think of the sort of care Severus must have given him over the past two days. Small wonder that he’d been glad to be done.
Althenea looked at him oddly, then rose and fetched several scrolls of parchment from a drawer.
“From some of the things he said, I believe he saw something of himself in you.” She handed him the scrolls. “He mentioned something about playing nanny to heroes bent on destruction.”
Giles chuckled at that as he unrolled the first parchment and began to read the spidery writing. The letter opened with a scathing critique of the coven’s strategy of imbuing Giles with their combined power and sending him to Willow as bait. With a start, he realized it had been written just before he’d left, as it mentioned the “Transport Talismans” being included with it. He rested the parchment in his lap and looked back up at her.
“I don’t understand.”
“He’s a difficult man,” she replied. “Very private. Clearly not just a shopkeeper, but we’re not entirely sure what his role is in the wizarding world.” She looked at him oddly. “And we’re also not sure why he insisted upon becoming so involved in this situation, particularly your care. You can read his justifications.” She waved at the parchments. “But my impression is that he doesn’t know either.”
Giles looked at the pile in bemusement.
“When I returned to Sunnydale in the fall,” he said, “I told Buffy I’d almost made a new friend. Rather remarkable at my age, though we had actually met once before. Perhaps that was truer than I’d realized.”
Althenea smiled and gestured to the parchments. “Perhaps it was.”
Taking another sip of tea, Giles unrolled a second parchment and began to read. This one was a report on his condition. Very clinical and precise for the most part. But when he reached the section in which Severus had opined that it would be “difficult at best to discern whether any long-term brain damage was sustained given the utter lack of rational thought behind the actions that led to the current situation,” a smile began to tug at his lips. By the fourth parchment, which was also the fourth set of comments in a similar if inventively varied theme, the smile had turned into a grin, and he’d already begun composing a letter of his own.