Retreat to the Future


Giles stepped out of his car in the small car park and slammed the door with a clunk that sounded both final and strangely derisive. He frowned in sudden suspicion and looked at the set of keys dangling from the ignition. Locked out. Oh, what a wonderful start. At least he’d unpacked so food and shelter weren’t a problem. He stood still for a moment or two and then shrugged. He wasn’t planning on going anywhere for a few days, and if the lock proved impossible to jimmy, there were plenty of rocks that would make breaking the window simple enough, though he rather hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Shouldering his pack, he set off into Breaker’s Woods, following a trail that was designed to showcase all the attractions the woods had to offer, from streams to meadows, tall trees to lookout points. The sea was close enough that the air held a tang of salt, which, combined with the pine scent from the trees, reminded him of walks through Scottish forests. Less midges, though he wasn’t sure that was a blessing if they were replaced by mosquitoes. Too late in the season for them of course, though it stayed so warm here, that even in November he didn’t feel entirely safe.

He had told Buffy that this was a retreat. He had mentioned Druidic rituals, thrown in some vague descriptions of what he planned to do and, he flattered himself, sounded quite convincing as he did so. It wasn’t entirely a lie, which helped.

He had come to this place because its past associations made it suitable and he was in retreat, as his past was the key to his mission. He hoped that the car incident wasn’t an omen.

Glancing up at a darkening sky, he decided to set up camp as quickly as possible. Occupying himself with the mundane matters of erecting a tent and collecting firewood might calm him down. At the moment his heart was thudding with anticipation and apprehension – if he didn’t relax a little, he’d be in no state to perform the ritual. The clearing was empty of all but an inquisitive squirrel and the litter from the summer campers; less than he expected, but still enough to make him purse his lips with irritation as he gathered it up.

Hours later, with the winter sun long since set and the trees around him swaying in a breeze cool enough to make him glad of the fire he’d kindled, he sipped appreciatively from the hip flask he’d tucked into his pack. The single malt had been chosen with a nod to the past, as had his clothes. Stretching out jean clad legs, he looked down at his chest, taking wry amusement in the way the t-shirt clung to him. The day that he’d bought it, it had been fashionably baggy. Must have shrunk in the wash; he couldn’t have put on that much weight...

Drinking what he used to drink – when he could afford it -, wearing the same clothes...but he wasn’t Ripper now. He was Mr Giles, the Slayer’s Watcher, in charge of ‘humanity’s guardian and defender’, as Travers put it with his usual pomposity. But she was more than that. She was also a girl, a frivolous, affectionate, impulsive young woman and in a month’s time he might lose her. There was little he could do to change what must happen. Her birthday came closer with each passing day and soon, very soon, he would prepare her for the test she had to endure. Prepare? Perhaps that wasn’t quite the correct word.

No way to change it, no matter how much he wanted to. If he refused, he would be removed and another Watcher would take his place. If he tried to warn Buffy – but the loyalty he felt to the Council precluded that, though it was fading in the face of the reality of what he was expected to do. He was torn between the organisation who gave his life purpose and the Slayer who gave it meaning.

He pushed his concerns aside to concentrate on what he’d come here to do; a ritual performed first over twenty years ago, and every year since. “An habitual ritual,” he said, laughing rather foolishly at the rhyme and chanting the words to himself in a low voice until he realised what he was doing, and screwed the lid firmly on his flask. Enough whisky. He’d be talking to the bloody squirrel at this rate.

The ritual was simple. So often they were. The costumes, the trappings – they were for the audience, the impressionable novices. When it came down to it, it was frighteningly easy. This was the anniversary of his first kill, a kill that, unwittingly, he had made on a night that came once every thousand years or so, and was known in the ancient texts as a way to gain insight into the future. The price was the blood of a friend, spilled by the hand of one who had never killed before. The annual reward was a glimpse, fugitive, fleeting, into the next year.

Giles had learned, sitting silent and horrified in a dusty room as he was lectured by a man whose eyes wandered from book to book without ever meeting his, that the vision was triggered by contact; the hand that dealt the final blow had only to touch another’s, no matter who they were, and then the images would pour into his mind, to be analysed and probed, dissected and deciphered. He knew how to meditate to focus on whatever question he wanted answering.

He didn’t know if his re-admission into the Council, after what his family called, ‘Rupert’s little adventure’, was made smoother by the fact that they’d taken a surprisingly short time to discover that he could use the ritual. Probably not – they’d come to his rescue before they found out, he was sure of it - but it hadn’t hurt, he supposed, and he’d never refused when they dictated what he was to look for. It’d saved lives, he knew, not always, but often enough.

This year, it was going to be used for something the Council wouldn’t call important at all. He had to know if Buffy would survive. The Slayer line was eternal; she was not. He had to know.

He had to know.

Barefoot, with the ground cold against his feet, dried leaves swirling around his ankles, he walked to the circle he had prepared around the small fire, taking out a small, sharp knife. Slashing the palm of his hand without flinching, though the shallow cut hurt enough to make him hiss with pain, he held it out over the flames, and began to say the words of the spell, watching clinically as the flames rose up, all blue and yellow, burning coldly as his blood dripped onto them. He gritted his teeth as the flames licked at his hands, numbing them, and at the same time sending pain in ripples down his arms, forcing himself to carry on with the incantation, as his mind was swept back to that night...

***

“Don’t know what’s up with you tonight, Ripper. You’re no fun.” The words were slurred, but Alan’s eyes were bright as he looked at his friend coaxingly, his fingers wrapped around the neck of a whiskey bottle. “You haven’t been out for days, weeks. You just sit and brood.”

Rupert Giles looked at his friend with an appraising eye. Alan seemed to spend his life in a drunken haze, picking up girls, living off an allowance that never seemed to run out, pretending to be a student. Eventually his wealthy parents would tighten the leash and he would wake up to find himself in a smart suit doing whatever job they could pull strings to get for him. Alan wasn’t hovering on the verge of despair because he’d helped raise a demon that had claimed the life of a friend – Randall’s face contorted in agony, dear God, that would haunt him forever – and Alan wasn’t contemplating an embarrassingly anticlimactic return to a destiny that used to bore him and now quite frankly terrified him.

Ripper. They wouldn’t call him that anymore. He’d be Mr Giles for the rest of his life, hanging around dusty libraries doing research, negotiating office politics, trying to land a job as Watcher, or possibly avoid it as he didn’t think he could cope with the death of someone he was supposed to be responsible for...the sheer misery that comprised his future washed over him in a tidal wave of brown sewage.

“Let’s go out, get pissed.” Giles looked at Alan. “More pissed. Pisseder.”

Alan laughed. “Now that’s more like it.”

***

It was two in the morning, they were both at the stage where a curry had been ordered, partially consumed and totally regurgitated, and they were back at Giles’ flat, passing a joint back and forth and talking about everything and nothing. Alan noticed a small pile of books in the corner of the small room and waved at them.

“Not still studying are you? Thought you were done with all that crap when you left Oxford.”

Giles tried to focus. “Oh, them. You don’t want to know about them,” he said. “Full of ...” His voice faltered. “Evil. They should be destroyed but I think I know an even better place for them.”

Alan gave them a speculative glance. Even drunk, he could spot something that looked valuable, and some spare cash was always useful, no matter how indulgent his parents were. If Ripper didn’t even want them, well –

Giles never remembered falling asleep on the couch, but he woke to a scene from a nightmare. While he had slept, Alan had leafed through the occult books, his curiosity mounting, his caution dulled by the combination of drink and drugs. What had possessed him to read aloud a rite of summoning, Giles would never know, but whatever his intent, he was paying a terrible price.

His screams dragged Giles from a drunken stupor and before he had time to think he was facing a demon armed with nothing but a sword, more ornamental than useful, that hung over the fireplace. The demon – he learned later that it was a Fragash demon, not all that powerful, but more than a match for poor, foolish Alan – had ripped open Alan’s chest and his misshapen head was buried deep in blood soaked flesh. Alan’s screams continued in an unending ululation as Giles hacked off the demon’s head, enduring the spray of acidic, nauseating blood as he completed his task, thrusting the demon’s corpse aside as he bent over Alan’s writhing body - and doing what he had to do.

Giles sat beside his friend’s body for a while, the tears refusing to come. Again. It had happened again. Part of him wanted to turn his back on it all, take the sort of job that Alan had been destined to do – but he knew with a sick certainty that it was impossible. Once you knew they existed, once you’d glimpsed what most people went their lives without even suspecting, well, there was no way back. The demons had you and your dreams would never be free of them.

Moving stiffly, the blood sticking to his hands, his face, his clothes, Rupert Giles went to shower. If he cried as the water ran over his face, turning red as it fell, no one could see and he could pretend, a little, that they were for Alan when he knew that they were for himself.

Then he called the Council and watched them tidy up with an admiring detachment.

A week later he attended Alan’s funeral, commiserated with his stricken parents about the motorbike accident that had required a closed casket and an hour later he was packing his bags in preparation for the start of his training as a Watcher.

They’d even promised him a vampire to kill.

***

“And as the blood of a brother fell
And as his life was taken by me
I claim the right of first kill to tell
What the future holds, I need to see.”

Giles finished speaking, his mouth twisting at the words – who wrote these spells? - and watched the flames die back. Taking a deep breath he stepped onto the coals and threw his head back, letting the wind take his screams, as the fire surged up again to engulf him. Holding tightly to the knowledge that the spell protected him from the heat of both mystical and mundane flames, he endured the inferno until, satisfied, the heat died away and he stumbled out of the circle of ashes to lie, spent, on the ground, his fingers curled around winter-dry grass and skeletal leaves.

He slept until late morning, his dreams confused and confusing, and spent the day meditating, focusing his thoughts on what he wanted to learn from the vision. The peace of the woods sank into him, easing his concerns a little, but he couldn’t escape a feeling that all wasn’t well with his Slayer. Convincing himself that he was helping her more by completing the ritual, he stayed one more night and then broke camp at dawn and headed back to his car, moving a little stiffly after his nights under canvas and trying not to scratch at a bite on his arm from what was presumably the last surviving mosquito of the season.

The car was still there, which was something, and he managed to persuade the door to open using a handy short length of wire discarded in the clearing. Smiling with relief, he slung his gear onto the back seat, climbed in and turned the key. The battery was dead.

“Oh, that’s just bloody typical!” Giles said, all his contemplative calm shattered by the thought of a long trek to a phone. Seething, he grabbed his valuables, locked the car, taking care to pocket the keys, and began the walk towards the road leading to Sunnydale.

***

An hour later, feeling tired and hungry, and with no sign of a phone box, Giles decided to risk hitchhiking. Sunnydale was miles away; he couldn’t possibly walk it and be back in time to resume his dual duties as Watcher and librarian. The road seemed depressingly empty of vehicles, but he thought he could hear an engine in the distance. He cursed as he saw that the car was headed the wrong way but stuck out his thumb anyway. It didn’t really matter where he phoned for a tow truck after all.

The car was black and dusty, the windows opaque and Giles frowned in sudden suspicion. It slowed and pulled over to him, crossing the lanes with a reckless disregard for the rules of the road. The window on the driver’s side opened a crack and Giles looked into the sparkling blue eyes of a vampire he knew too well for his liking. The last time he had seen Spike, the vampire had been watching as Angelus and Drusilla tortured him. Spike hadn’t joined in and as Giles had learned later had actually been planning to help Buffy but even so, Giles disliked him intensely.

Taking care to stay in the sunlight and out of reach, Giles glared at the vampire, his eyes stony.

“I trust you left Sunnydale as you found it and that your visit was your last?” he asked without bothering to greet Spike.

Spike flashed him a grin. “Your Slayer’s in one piece, mate. In fact, we ended up fighting side by side. Angel wasn’t much use. Stupid bugger let a door fall on him. Looks as if he needs feeding up.”

Giles was sceptical, but had little interest in questioning Spike further. “Well, good of you to stop, but please don’t let me interfere with you leaving. I really mean that.”

The acid in Giles’ voice simply made Spike’s grin spread wider. “Don’t you want to know why I came back?” he said. “See, I had this falling out with Dru –”

“Oh, God. Spare me. Spike, my car’s broken down and I’m looking for a phone. If you remember spotting one not too far away I’d be-” Giles felt his teeth grind, “grateful. If not, I must be off.”

“Hop in, mate,” said Spike. “Bit too sunny for me to be fixing motors but you can ride with me until we come to a garage or something.”

“Are you insane?” said Giles. “If you missed breakfast that’s not my problem.”

“Wouldn’t eat you; not after the favour the Slayer just did me. But suit yourself.”

He began to wind the window up and then paused. “Come to think of it, there’s a diner a mile or so that way. They’d have a phone. I didn’t stop there so there’s probably someone who can help you out.”

Giles flinched at the thought of what he would have found if Spike had stopped there for ‘breakfast’ and forced himself to nod curtly in acknowledgment.

“Well, I’ll be off. Got a long drive ahead of me. Don’t suppose I’ll be back until you’re long dead, so all the best.” Spike stuck his hand out, taking care not to leave the shade of the car. Caught by surprise, Giles took it automatically and then snatched his hand back. If Spike had pulled him inside...then he gasped and fell to the ground as the vision took him.

Spike watched him with amused incomprehension and then, seeing no way to help him, even if he had the inclination – which he didn’t - drove off, forgetting the Watcher in his blood filled, lustful imaginings of Drusilla’s impending torment and capitulation.

Giles recovered enough to drag himself to a large rock and sat, head in hands. The vision had involved Buffy and she looked a little older – she’d done something new to her hair; well, it was longer and it couldn’t have grown that much in a month, so, yes, she must have survived the test.

But why was she kissing Spike passionately and often? And surely, please God, surely, he’d misheard the part where Spike addressed him as ‘father-in law-’...



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Many thanks to Mahaliem and the posters at Con Critique for their input on this story.