"I'm not so sure about this."
The young woman sitting next to Rupert Giles seemed hesitant, and most profoundly unhappy. Dark green eyes gleamed out from under long, messy dark hair that shone red in the sun. Her already-pale complexion was flushed, and her eyebrows were drawn together in concern.
Giles turned to look at her sideways. "I suppose you have a better idea?"
She held his eyes a moment, then sighed, looking away. "No. I wish I did, but I don't."
"She has to be stopped."
"I know. But if you fail--"
"But *if* you do--"
"*If* I fail, it won't really matter now, will it?"
For a moment, she glared half-heartedly at him. "No. You're right. I know. I know. Damnit."
There was a moment of silence. Giles, elbows resting on his knees, ran a hand back through his hair.
The two of them sat back-against a rockface, on a grassy ledge that looked out over a deep, cool green valley. The sun, just westering, cast almost heavenly shafts of light down through the clouds, lighting Giles and his companion in yellow, and cutting a white swath through the misty cedars that trooped up the mountainside. The entire setting had a feeling of unreality about it, which was only fitting.
"If it helps, I wish I were wrong."
Giles turned to look at her again, but she shook her head. "You're not. I know you're not. I've known it for a while now."
"You knew this would happen?" Giles looked at her askance.
She shook her head again in denial. "Not-- not this. But... *something* would have happened, sooner or later. Something, to tip the balance. To..."
"To send her over the edge," Giles finished.
She closed her mouth, and nodded. "I'm sorry it had to be this way." Her voice was very quiet, honestly apologetic.
Both were silent for a moment, the tension rising incrementally. Giles clenched his fists. "I still think - you should have done something - but --"
"I couldn't have known--" She sat up straighter, her own hands clenched in her lap.
"I know, I know." He waved off her protests. "I know. I do." He sighed. "I wish I didn't. It would make this easier. On everyone."
She looked out over the valley. "Is it time yet?"
He nodded. "Has to be soon."
"All right." She got to her feet, offering him a hand up. "Let's get it over with. The others must be waiting for you."
Giles stood, suddenly towering a foot and a half over her.
"You must understand - if you fail..." She let the words trail away.
She held his eyes again, this time searching. "You must be sure about this."
His voice held no hesitation. "I am."
Slowly, she nodded. Her bearing shifting slightly - shoulders straighter, so that she seemed, if not taller, but somehow... brighter. He couldn't quite fathom the change, but he saw suddenly, as he had many times before, what it was in her that made her what she was, and felt, without really anything more definitive than instinct, what it was that made her followers worship her the way they did.
"I am certain, Guardian. Do it."
Their gazes linked, he suddenly felt something take hold of him, deep inside. She lifted her hand, and pressed it to his chest, just above the solar plexus. And though he didn't blink, there was a moment where his vision failed - or rather, shifted: for a moment, for a single moment, he was everywhere, everything, his senses screaming with the overload... then it was gone, and the sense of hold was gone. Her hand hung at her side. Inside him, the gift thrummed like a pulse; outside, it clung closely to his skin. No; it wasn't gone, just blurred, dimmed. He wondered, with a sense of mild awe, if this was anything like what she felt, day by day. He wondered how it did not drive her mad.
She stumbled, catching herself against the rockface. He reached out a hand to steady her. "Are you--"
"I'll be fine. It was just... the shock." She shrugged, then looked up into his eyes again. "You must succeed, Giles. I don't think I have to tell you what would happen if you fail."
"No. That, Guardian, I know." His smile was weak and grim. "I have to go now. Time is wasting."
She nodded. "Remember - no cost too great."
He began to fade, then, and her bearing shifted again - now it was almost regal. Legendary, he thought. He smiled to himself.
"Good luck, Watcher," she said.
"Good luck to us all," he answered, but it was lost on the wind.
Someone caught his shoulders, held him almost upright as he came back to himself. Another set of hands touched his face, waved something strong-smelling under his nostrils. In a moment, he was choking and sneezing, his eyes watering.
"I'm awake! I'm awake! Get that bloody stuff away from me!"
Blinking tears from his eyes, Giles looked around him. The circle of witches stared at him with wide, awestruck eyes. "Did it work?" asked the nearest, the one who had waved the smelling-salts under his nose.
Giles nodded, with care for the spinning of the room. "It worked. I have it."
There was a scattered chorus of congratulations, muted by the severity of the situation.
"All back in one piece, I take it?" Asked another member of the coven, the young woman holding him.
"More or less," Giles replied, sitting up and swiping his sleeve across his damp forehead. Slowly, his eyes squeezed shut, he got to his feet. The circle rose with him.
"Time to go," he said.
The coven nodded as one, and the young woman disappeared through the nearest door to make final arrangements.
"Can I ask you a question, Mr. Giles? Before you go?" This was the first young man, eager eyes wide and serious.
Giles looked at him. He couldn't have been more than nineteen. "What?"
"What was she like?"
All the coven was listening now. They were her devotees, after all, and this uninitiated Watcher had seen her, instead of them. Powerful though the Lady was, she hardly matched up quite with the image that legend had painted of her. But still; that was not the kind of thing you tried to explain to a group of people who had been raised to follow her since early childhood; especially when you had an apocalypse to avert.
Giles smiled. "Exactly as she should be," he said quietly.
He had been seventeen, he remembered, when his father had told him. That he was going to be a Watcher, more, that he *had* to be. That it was passed from father to son, and so this was what was expected of him. His father had insisted.
But then-seventeen-year-old Rupert Giles had wanted other things - argument ensued, animosity that lasted years. And finally, four years later, while studying at Oxford, the pressure of his destiny finally became too much. He dropped out, went to London, and fell in with the worst crowd that would have him. They called him Ripper.
The demon, the one they summoned for their highs, would posess one of their group. Then they would exorcise it. One night they lost control - they had to kill the posessed boy, Randall, to rid themselves of it.
Afterward, Giles was shaken, disillusioned, and uncertain. The monster had shown him something he had never realized - it had shattered the illusion of the very young, the illusion that he was immortal. It had made him realize that he could not stay in London. But where could he go? He had no desire to return to the crushing tedium of Oxford, to be forced into a lifetime of tweed-jacketed doldrum like his father, and his father before him. The prospect even frightened him. So one night, he'd gotten very, very drunk and gone wandering the streets of London.
He couldn't have said how long he'd walked - he had vague recollections of the Tube and a streetcar or two - but somehow, hours later, he found himself along the bank of the Thames, the Bridge in sight upstream, throwing stones into the river and shouting semi-drunkenly into the misty London night.
That was when she came.
He'd looked up, and seen her standing there - it had been enough of a surprise that he slipped and nearly fell headlong into the Thames, but saved himself (just barely) from a ducking by catching himself on his hands. The bottle, however, had not been so lucky. He'd watched it float off downstream with a sensation of what he suspected was greatly disproportionate loss, before he turned his head.
He found that she *was* still there, was *not* a hallucination. Which seemed altogether unlikely, as she'd appeared as if from nowhere. The only way down to the bank was the path down which he'd come, and it had been in plain sight. *Would* have been in plain sight.
He got slowly to his feet, wincing at bruised palms, as she stood there looking at him with an expression that inspired dual sensations of both awe and annoyance. The annoyance, he could readily explain. The awe, he couldn't quite. She stepped down from the path and approached him all the same, her booted feet crunching quite normally in the gravel on the bank. She stopped again a few feet away, tilted her head at him. "Rupert Giles," she said, holding out one hand.
For no reason he could discern, he stepped back in alarm. "Who are you?" he asked. "How did you--"
She looked at him and dropped her arm to her side. The previously serene expression (which he'd thought looked rather forced in the first place) vanished from her face, to be replaced by annoyance mirroring his own. "They told me you'd be difficult," she muttered, apparently to herself.
He glared at her. "Who told you?" he demanded. "Look, if my father sent you, you can just sod off." He turned on his heel, meaning to storm dramatically off down the river bank but stumbling instead - apparently the alcohol hadn't gotten quite so thoroughly through his system as he'd thought. He heard a chuckle from behind him, whipped around to see the woman smiling.
"Graceful," she observed.
"Hey, look - " He steadied his rather unsteady feet, clenched his fists at his sides, and concentrated on looking menacing. "I didn't ask for your opinion. You're treading on bloody dangerous ground here, bird, so just--"
"Excuse me - "bird"?" She stopped looking amused and placed her hands on her hips. "*You* listen to *me*, *kid*. Where *I* come from, that is not how you talk to a lady."
"*Kid*?" he stuttered, and then realized that stuttering was not a very macho thing to do. "What do you mean--" he stopped, looked at her more closely. He realized abruptly that she was older than he'd first thought - though he couldn't tell by how much. Her appearance was indeterminate, but by her bearing she must have been older - older than him, certainly.
"How old are you?" he asked, staring in a bewildered sort of way. She glared.
That was something, anyway. Her accent was strange - maybe American, but not quite. He decided he couldn't place that, either, which only annoyed him more. Nothing about her was normal or recognizable, except that she seemed to hold him in at least mild contempt. It annoyed him mostly because it all made it very difficult to work out what to say or do to make her stop bothering him and leave him the hell alone.
"So, you *are* Rupert Giles, aren't you?" she asked then, interrupting his train of thought, and he looked up.
"What's it to you?" he asked with a glare, his last feeble attempt at machismo.
"I was just wondering," she said conversationally, "whether you plan on staying in London or going back to Oxford."
"How do you--"
"Never mind. Which is it?"
He blinked at her for a moment, then turned to look down the river, in the direction his bottle had gone. He briefly considered going after it, then decided it was too cold for a swim, and he'd probably drown in his current condition. Which on second thought, might not be so bad.
"Those are not very healthy thoughts," she observed, her tone grave.
He stiffened, looked at her again. "What are you," he growled, "reading my mind?"
She let no expression cross her features, but shook her head. "Only what you're shouting at the top of your proverbial lungs," she said. "It's a bit hard to miss, you know. But I guess you don't, or you wouldn't be doing it."
"Well, stop it," he snarled. "Bloody telepaths. No concept of privacy. Listen - why don't you go violate somebody else's thoughts and leave me the hell alone, all right?"
She shook her head. "Can't, I'm afraid."
"Well why the hell not?"
"Because you need to go back."
That did it - his over-burdened (and somewhat liquor-weakened) patience reached its breaking point, and he turned toward her; he had a vague, half-formed intention of pitching her into the river, but the thought never progressed that far. He took one step, two, three--
--and found himself suspended in mid-air, unable to move, limbs frozen in a most ungraceful pose. The woman held one hand before her, fingers crooked, one eyebrow raised into her short fawn hair.
He roared in frustration and tried to move, but couldn't. She let him writhe for a while before asking him whether he was finished. Grudgingly, he nodded, and she let him down. He crouched where he'd fallen, head bowed, breathing hard, and strangely exhausted.
"That was my doing," he heard her say as she moved to sit down beside him. "I'm sorry. Well. No, I'm not. You were behaving like an ass."
"What do you... what do you want?" he demanded again.
"Did I say 'was'?"
He managed to catch his breath, and found that the adrenaline had cleared his head some. "Are you a witch?"
"Close, but not quite. Actually, not all that close, but in the right ballpark. Do you know what a Guardian is, Rupert?"
"Ripper," he corrected her automatically.
"All right, Ripper. Do you know what a Guardian is, Ripper?"
He turned his head to look at her, shrugged. "The underworld's full of things naming themselves with audible capitals. Bloody annoying, really."
She smiled at him, faintly. "We're not talking underworld here, kid. We're talking about the Circle of Crystallis, Octo Custos, protectors-of-humanity-since-the-beginni
He shook his head.
She looked disappointed, even concerned. "They don't teach you that, huh? That's a pity. I hadn't thought they were so self-posessed as to pretend we didn't even exist."
"So you're one of these 'Guardians'?"
"Yes. My name is Menya."
"Humility's not one of your things, then, huh?"
She looked briefly confused, then grinned at him. "Not even slightly. Not me, anyway."
"So what do you want with me?" He was most definitely beginning to sober up, and not enjoying it. He longed for his poor bottle, lost at sea.
"'What do you want with an Oxford dropout', you mean? Or 'what do you want with a slightly inebriated witch gone A.W.O.L. from Watcher school?'"
He blinked at her, but didn't bother to summon surprise. "Either. Both."
She studied him, laced her fingers together on her knees, before she replied. "You believe in Fate, don't you, Ripper?"
He scowled. "Hell, no. Bollocks. A lot of poofy old men telling people what they *should* be whether they like it or not."
"I don't mean *your* fate as ordained by your elders, Ripper. I mean... Fate. Big, vague, mystical Fate. With a capital 'F'. Fate of nations, move of tides, march of time, that sort of thing."
He shrugged. "I suppose. Doesn't really have much to do with me."
She shook her head. "You're wrong," she insisted. "You... the Watchers, for example. Do you really understand what a job that is? What... what it means to witness and record history? You were studying history, Ripper. Those who forget their history..."
"D'you have a point, or are you just going to bore me with dusty proverbs all night? Or can I leave?" He started to get up, but something pushed him back down. He turned to glare at her and found her eyes on him.
"Your Watchers --"
"They're bloody not *my* Watchers!"
"-- their methods might be questionable, but they *are* important. The Slayer - I don't think you really understand the importance of what you were born into, Ripper. I know it chafes to be told "this is what you have to do". But sometimes... sometimes you have to."
"Well, I don't sodding feel like it. So can you let me up out of this hocus pocus you've got on me and bugger--"
"No. I can't. And I won't. You have to understand. You *have* to go back. If you don't... if you don't, then people are going to die. A lot of people. Maybe... maybe everyone."
He looked back at her and found her looking at him earnestly.
"What do you mean?"
"You said you believe in Fate. Then believe that everyone has one - that everyone has a place and a purpose. Yours is back there - doing what you were told to do, not because you were told to do it, but because you're needed to do it."
And then she reached out one hand, and touched his face.
Suddenly he was seized with overwhelming terror - loss, guilt, pain, claustrophobia, desperation, sudden certainty that there was *nothing* he could do and it was over, too late --
--and then he was back on the riverbank, the Guardian's eyes staring into his.
He jerked back convulsively, managing to land on his back. He struggled up to his hands and knees. "What the *hell* was that? You keep away from--"
The images slowly stopped spinning wildly and incoherently about in his head, and a moment later he was left with only a shadow. He got slowly to his feet and saw her watching him. Something about her, now, was different - some sense left over from a moment before, as if his eyes were drawn to her, as if she radiated more power than anyone he'd ever encountered, and that it was older than anything he'd ever even *heard* of, but the sensation was shoved rudely aside by the dizzy, terrified feeling in his stomach.
"What was that?" His voice sounded faint to his own ears.
"That," she said slowly, standing, "is what will happen if you don't go back. I told you - people will die. You're needed, back there. You're needed to keep bad things from happening."
He felt cold. "But -- why *me*?"
"That's not something I can tell you."
"Because I don't know."
She stepped closer to him. "You're not a bad person, Ripper. We both know that. No matter how hard you've been trying to pretend otherwise. Stupid, maybe, but not bad." She smiled briefly.
"All I know is that if you stay here, *that* will come true. That, and you'll end up an attractive, leather-clad corpse within the week, with the state you're in."
He flushed as he realized just how close to an unfortunate and distasteful end he'd really come. His father - his father hadn't been right. But neither had he.
"And if I go back - *that*... that won't..." He gestured vaguely, trying to supress the dizzy, nauseous feeling in his chest.
She shook her head. "I don't know. It's not as simple as 'will it, won't it'. But if you *don't* go back..."
"All right, all right. I get it." He swiped a sleeve across his damp forehead, and sat down abruptly on the ground. He felt like throwing up.
"That happens sometimes," she said from above him. "I'm sorry. I should have warned you."
He waved one hand dismissively and concentrated very hard on not being sick. "Is this how you always convince people? Reach into their heads and squeeze?"
"Not often," she said with some amusment in her tone. "Only with self-titled macho men who don't know what's good for them."
He managed a chuckle, and looked up. "Has anyone ever told you that you're a real--"
He blinked. And turned. And turned back.
She was gone.
"'Ello?" he called out, but his voice echoed up and down the bank with no answer. He was alone.
Getting laboriously to his feet with a few stern words to his stomach, he looked around again, but there was nothing. No mysterious harpie.
He stood there for what must have been several minutes, trying to decide whether or not it had all been an alcohol-induced hallucination or not.
But the memory was still there. A sense of dread, becoming more vague by the second, still filled him. And some indescribable certainty that...
He had to go back.
Grimly, he began to make his way up the bank, wondering idly about his bottle.
"One thing," he muttered to himself, as unheeded, the sounds of night creatures slowly resumed, "I'm not wearing one of those damn tweed coats."
Behind him, the river Thames roared toward the sea, as if laughing to itself.
And there's another part. And then it degenrates into crossover. But anyway... ;)