Title: Silent Upon a Peak in Darien
Disclaimer: Ethan belongs to Joss. Anyone you don't recognize is mine. The town is fictitious.
Notes: For the Ethanficathon for lj usermoonanstars who wanted Ethan gen, minimal involvement of the Scoobies, Ethan in Europe. He does get there, eventually, the plot just sidetracked me along the way.
Summary: How Ethan Got His Groove Back.
It wasn't until his third or fourth struggle into consciousness that he was able to speak, and the first thing he croaked out past his parched throat and atrophied vocal cords was, "Where am I?" Inane, predictable - things that Ethan usually despised in others and sought to avoid in himself - but in this case, unavoidable. He wasn't in the American army's hellhole any more, unless a refit had replaced the military greys and harsh lights with whitewashed ceilings and pastel walls, and while he was overwhelmingly, pathetically grateful for that alone, knowing that he hadn't merely been transferred to some brand new prison would be much better.
He'd spent a long time in the darkness of his cell. The light here was dazzling, but he forced his eyes open. He blinked, hard, and the fuzzy shape above him resolved into a blonde woman in a white coat, stethoscope around her neck.
"Welcome back, Mister Rayne," she said pleasantly, and his heart dropped to the floor. Some new captivity after all, then. She couldn't have known his name otherwise. But she went on, "You're in the hospital in Red Milloy. You had an accident of some kind, but you were very disorientated when the paramedics brought you in. All we got was your name. Can you tell me what happened?"
He turned his head, ignoring the agonized protest from his neck muscles. He was in the last bed of a ward of maybe two dozen, all of them filled. Other men of assorted ages and races slept, or sat up in bed reading, or talked to their visitors. The man two beds down had a voice that carried around the whole room. Ethan was the first to hold up his hands and admit that all American accents sounded alike to him, but years of watching afternoon television repeats back at home had left him able to identify at least one.
"Red Milloy?" he mumbled, half to himself. "Is that in Texas?" The compound he'd been in had been just outside California, he was sure – Nevada, perhaps New Mexico. He'd never cared to gain any indepth knowledge of American geography, but Texas had to be a thousand miles from where he'd been.
"Mister Rayne?" the doctor prompted. "What's the last thing you remember?"
He closed his eyes, concentrating. It had been dark. He'd been on the cot in his cell, fuzzily on the border between waking and unconsciousness, kept that way by the IV taped to his arm. Maybe he'd had a moment, just a second, of lucidity, and as he always did he'd reached out, tried to tap into the magic that had been there since he was fifteen, but there had been nothing. An empty well, bone-dry even when he scrabbled at the edges for some drop of power.
Then he'd felt something, like a whisper on the very edge of awareness, and then it had hit him like a tidal wave. More magic than he'd ever felt at once, surging through the compound and away, and he'd snatched it blindly as it passed. He'd been in the cell in the dark, and then there was rain on his skin and he was surrounded by headlights.
He'd teleported once, on something of a drunken bet when he was too young and too foolish not to know better. The shift of six feet to his right meant two weeks of migraines and a month of nosebleeds. If he was right about where he'd been and where he was, something had been powerful enough to let him cover half a continent in one desperate push.
He forced his voice to be as guileless as possible. "I think I was crossing the road," he said, blinking up at the doctor. "The motorway… what do you call them, freeways? A car skidded in the wet and clipped me."
She marked something down on her clipboard. "Doesn't seem to be any concussion. You're severely underweight."
"Just haven't been taking care of myself." He hoped to hell the ugly jumpsuit of a thing he'd been wearing for the last eternity didn't prompt them to call the authorities, enquiring after escaped convicts.
"Hmm," she said, making another note. "We couldn't find a wallet. Is there somebody you want us to call for you?"
"No," he said. "There's no-one."
The smile she gave him was rather detached, rather mechanical, reassuring in the way it said he was nobody out of the ordinary. "Try to get some sleep. I'll be back to take another look at you later."
The plan was to wait until the nurses' backs were turned and simply informally discharge himself. If he was going to stay free, he had to steer clear of institutions associated with the government, especially those that knew his name. It was a splendid plan until he tried to stand up, and then his legs folded beneath him and he had to be helped back into bed by a large nurse, who scolded him for being silly and forgetting about the call button.
At the end of her shift, she brought him a crossword book and some magazines to read. Fan of the accent, probably. He sat for a long time staring at the front page of the Weekly World News, not even seeing its scoop report on a two-headed baby in Wichita that could speak eight languages. At the top of the page, innocuous and so small as to be nearly unreadable, the date read May 2003.
Three years and four months. There had been no way of telling the time in the cells deep beneath the ground, nothing to mark the passage of days and nights. He'd spent most of his time drugged, anyway, but he'd thought a year, maybe two. He was forty-eight, now, not the forty-five he'd been before his capture in Sunnydale-bloody-Sunnydale. Almost to the half-century mark, as if he didn't have enough gloomy thoughts crowding for space in his mind.
The sunshine filtering through the window at his elbow was the first natural sunlight he'd seen for three years and four months; he hadn't breathed in fresh air for as long.
He very deliberately turned on his side, away from the window, and tried to channel some power. No specific purpose, no ritual, just energy to be released into an unsuspecting universe to do as it pleased. He'd once done this as a matter of routine, part warm-up and part amusement, simple as a virtuoso going over C major. Now he concentrated and held his focus until he gave himself a headache, and there wasn't so much as a glimmer. All of it gone, drained away.
When he gave up and opened his eyes, the ward had a visitor.
The man was middle-aged, perhaps four or five years older than Ethan himself, with dark, silver-streaked hair, solidly built in the way that always made Ethan wonder if Americans force fed their children protein from the second they slid out of the womb or merely injected the steroids direct. He looked not unlike some distant cousin of one of the bigwigs back at the prison, the one who'd been there when he first arrived, who'd looked him over as if he was a lab animal.
Ethan hated him on sight. When he positioned a chair back to front by the bed and straddled it, introducing himself as the Reverend Thomas Miller, "but everybody calls me Tommy," hate turned to loathing, and not a small amount of interest.
There was more to causing chaos than calling down gods and casting spells. Part of it, a large part, was in the reading of people, sizing up their flaws, their weaknesses, because those were the things that could be turned against them.
Reverend Thomas Miller reeked of arrogance. It was there in the way he introduced himself, the way he tapped the cross on his collar like a sheriff's badge, the faint condescension in his eyes as he watched one of the female doctors deal with another patient.
Ethan noted all this in a matter of seconds, and then turned himself into exactly the kind of person the Reverend Miller wanted to see. The easiest glamour of all, no magic required, just a humbleness in the twisting of his hands over the coverlet, an inability to call the man by his first name even when he'd been magnanimously allowed to do just that.
"Doctors said you'd got no papers," Miller said. "You on the run, Ethan?"
He didn't recall offering either of his names. "I'm in trouble with some people," he said, lowering his eyes. "Not for anything terribly bad." Perish the thought, his tone said. As if he would dream of doing anything even a little wicked. "But I'm… I'm in this country illegally." That was true, in so far that he'd had a visitor's visa, once upon a time, but it had long since run out. And anyway, it had been a forgery.
Miller gave one nod of that big head. "That's what I thought. You a good man?"
He forced a look of blank confusion. "I don't…"
"Are you a decent man, a Christian man?"
"I think I'm decent," he said, a suggestion of tears creeping in. Too much, he wondered? Go overboard on the crawling and he was just going to come off as effeminate, and in this state they probably took queers out behind… barns or cowsheds or something and shot them before breakfast.
Miller fixed him with a stern look. Ethan made himself wilt under the scrutiny. Harmless fellow who's down on his luck, his body language said. Willing to kowtow to you and worship you in a way that you'll pretend doesn't give you a thrill, because being a good Samaritan's all about the people you help, isn't it, not about the gratification you get from it.
"Immigration's gonna be looking for you," he finally said. "I run a place for people trying to get back on their feet. See about getting you a room, if the doctors says it's all right."
His gratitude wasn't entirely fake.
He still had to rely on a wheelchair to get from the hospital to the car – one of those huge American ones that looked like they should more rightly be called trucks – and from there into the house, but he was semi-free, and that was what mattered. Absconding from the halfway house that Miller ran with his wife would be child's play, as soon as he was strong enough.
Mrs. Miller was younger than her husband, although Ethan had been living in their house for a fortnight when he worked out that his estimate of her age had been out by almost a decade. The worry lines on her forehead and around her eyes had aged her. She was quiet, and kind, and rarely spoke when her husband was in the room.
Ethan kept to himself in the calculated way that said he was shy but not standoffish. Mrs. Miller brought a tray to his room three times a day and he turned on a gentle, effusive kind of charm until she took to staying in the room with him while he ate, anxiously fluttering a duster over the dresser and the mirror as if to justify her lingering. By the end of the week, he was calling her Deborah and inquiring after the health of her sister in Wichita, and she was telling him what he needed to know. Her descriptions of the other residents were sparse and rather dull, but he couldn't very well go snooping around by himself, unless he intended to do it on hands and knees. The man of the house could very likely give him more information, but his visits every evening were restricted to one-sided pontificating on the Bible that Ethan bore with a façade of eager attention.
Whenever he was alone he tried to use his magic. He'd hoped the loss had been temporary, a by-product of his imprisonment. He spent hours in furious concentration, until sweat was dripping from his forehead and his head was throbbing. Nothing. He couldn't raise a circle three feet wide. If he'd had apparatus – anything, even the damned silly candles and incense the New Age shops sold to little children playing at the dark arts – he might have tried a ritual, but he doubted Deborah's shy generosity would extend to bringing him tapers and matches without some explanation.
So a few weeks passed that way, and he regained the strength he'd lost in his three years in captivity, and after a while he didn't jump so violently when the doorbell rang downstairs. He'd gained some weight, and he could walk again, as long as he sat down every so often, and for the first time he was able to throw on the ill-fitting clothes Deborah had got for him from some Oxfam equivalent and explore his surroundings.
The house could accommodate six or seven people besides the Millers, but was currently half-empty (as Deborah put it). The rooms on either side of his housed two silent, sour-faced men, recovering alcoholics who, unlikely as it seemed to Ethan, were both called Elmer. Elmer the Elder looked worryingly like an ex-military man. Ethan, when Deborah came to bring him dinner, asked some careful questions about whether they had any involvement with the army, and when he decided they were too absorbed in their own problems to bother about him, he tuned out anything else she said about them.
Upstairs, his only female housemate had the attic room. It wouldn't be appropriate for a lady to be on the same floor as three gentlemen, Mrs. Miller said, her cheeks turning pink, and Ethan stopped himself from asking if she'd come direct from the Victorian era or had had to make some side trips.
Gina of the Attic was forthright about her status. "I'm an ex-con," she told him on the first night he joined the group for dinner.
Deborah's fork froze at her lips. "What Virginia means to say is…"
"Gina recognizes her past mistakes," Miller said, his booming drawl drowning her out. "She's made a clean start, just like us all. We say no more about it."
Now that he was almost completely recovered, he'd been added to the chore rota that was stuck to the fridge with a magnet shaped the star of Bethlehem. It was handwritten in Deborah's careful, rounded letters on some insipid writing paper with flowers around the site, and it decreed that he and Gina were on washing-up duty.
He tossed the dishes into the sink while Gina sat on the step, blowing the smoke from her cigarette out the open door. Tobacco was one of Reverend Miller's great vices. To hear him rant against it, one would think smoking had brought down Sodom and Gomorrah.
"What are you in for?"
He winced. "English."
She took a deep drag of the cigarette and held it out to him, one eyebrow up. He shook the worst of the suds off his hands and accepted it. God, it felt good hitting his lungs. He hadn't smoked since before that last time in Sunnydale.
He handed it back, and noticed the way she looked at his arm. He'd pulled up his sleeves before plunging his hands into the water, and he realized she was staring at the number on his inner forearm. Deborah had noticed it the other day and telegraphed as clearly as if she'd shouted it to the whole house what was going through her head – that he was far too young, surely, and he didn't have the right kind of accent… He'd pulled down his sleeve and changed the subject. Now, Gina nodded at it and asked, "What's that?"
HHS034, the tattoo read in stark block letters. Military terminology, he'd picked that up quickly enough, back when his mind had been free of the drugs. Hostile Sub-Terrestrials for the demons. Humans, unimaginatively enough, were Hostile Homo Sapiens.
"Prison souvenir," he said. It was the truth, but it was also what she wanted to hear, and that was a far more compelling reason to say it.
"Cool. Got a cross on my hip. My cellmate did it for me. Indian ink. Looks pretty."
He went back to the dishes, giving each plate a cursory run under the tap to make sure it wasn't too obviously dirty before setting it on the side. It was like living in the bedsit again, back in his and Ripper's student days, except that they'd usually only resorted to cleaning anything when it was starting to grow mould, and even then only when they couldn't be arsed to go out and buy or nick some new plates.
"How long were you in jail for?" he asked.
"Six years. Embezzling, fraud, some forgery, general grifting. Uh, bigamy, only they didn't call it bigamy…"
"Polyamory," he suggested.
She was counting on her fingers now. "Breaking parole, passing bad checks, perjury, and interfering with a witness."
And she only looked about twenty-eight. That was the kind of young person who gave him a smattering of hope for the next generation.
"And now you've reformed," he said, the arch in his eyebrow matching his voice. "Found the love of the baby Jesus and turned your back on your wicked ways."
She burst into laughter, then looked behind them at the closed door. "I'm sorry I got caught," she said, quieter. "I'm real sorry about that, sure. The Reverend, he spoke up for me at my parole. I know he's an asshole, but," she shrugged, "got to have somewhere to live till I can legally leave the state, and it's better than working for a living. Who knows?" She winked at him. "Maybe I'll go straight this time."
"These husbands of yours," Ethan said, "why did you marry them, exactly?"
She dropped her cigarette on the step, grinding it to ash beneath her shoe and brushing the guilty traces onto the ground. "Money, mostly."
Well, he'd guessed that. "And you didn't think that more might be gained by divorcing them?"
Gina shrugged, tossing her black hair back over her shoulder. "Yeah, works in theory. That was always to plan to start with, but once I married 'em, I sorta forgot. Guess I'm just kind of stupid about men."
"Really," he said. "That's interesting."
Magic was a fascinating thing. There was ritual magic, which could be done by a chimp if it could read and follow and recipe, and then there was what he'd always thought of as real magic. The stuff that involved power, that had to be tapped from within. Anyone who spent enough time immersing themselves in magic could recognize that power in others.
Take Ripper. He'd been nothing but a narky teenager who'd never cracked a spellbook when they'd first met, but even then he'd crackled with raw power. The touchpaper had always been there, Ethan had just helped light it. The Slayer's friend, the little redheaded girl, she'd been oozing with it, a potential he'd have loved the chance to hone.
The majority of people had nothing like that kind of power, though. Gina was about as inherently magical as a box of cereal. If she applied herself she might, after many years, be able to float a pencil an inch or two off the page. The Elmers and Miller himself were no better.
It wasn't a lot. What he sensed from her was more like the distant buzzing of a fluorescent light than the clamouring of bells. But he was trapped in a vast silence, and it was the best he could do.
The problem, then, became exciting this timid little church-mouse into the kind of passion that would increase her power. He imagined good old Reverend Tommy never sent her to those dizzy heights in the bedroom, and lord knew he wasn't volunteering for that job himself.
The obvious next option was jealousy.
"I have to admire your husband," he said. They were in the small garden at the back of the house, kneeling on two old cushions by the flowerbed. Ethan, who had barely ever set foot in a garden let alone worked in one, was pulling up anything that wasn't too obviously a flower. It was dull and menial, but it time alone for a casual, friendly chat about nothing important. Certainly nothing that would cause Deborah to fret and work herself up.
"Oh, everybody admires Tommy," she said. He waited. After a moment, she sat back on her heels and raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. "Why? I mean to say, why in particular?"
Ethan straightened up, too, swatting away a bee that was getting unnervingly close. "The work he does here. It really is a tremendous thing to do, bringing these troubled souls into your own home, transforming them into model citizens. Even people like Gina."
"She's a nice girl," Deborah said, but it was a doubtful kind of protest.
He went back to the weeds with even more industriousness. "I don't think there are many men who would try to reach out to her, knowing her history. The Reverend must be extremely strong in the face of temptation. That's always rather been my problem."
"'I can resist anything except temptation'," she quoted "That's what I was studying, you know. Literature. I did a term paper on Oscar."
That explained the books she'd brought when he was convalescing - Austen, Bronte, poetry by Dickinson. "I didn't know you'd been to university."
"I dropped out," she said, plunging the short trowel in her hand deep into the soil. "My sophomore year, I met my Tommy and got married and… just didn't seem to be any point to finishing." She cleared her throat. She even did that discreetly, as if she was perpetually in the audience at a concert and didn't want to annoy anyone. "Do you – do you think Gina's pretty?"
He thought she was all right, if you liked dyed hair and false eyelashes. Having been a teenager in the Seventies, he couldn't in honesty claim ignorance of either area. "She's a beautiful woman," he said. "That makes it harder for her, I think. She's used to men falling all over her, so naturally enough she expects it. If a man tries to help her, she doesn't assume it's from the goodness of his heart, she assumes it's because he wants the same thing from her that all the other men have. Poor girl."
"Yes," Deborah said, after too long a pause. "That poor girl."
"C'mon in. Hi, Ethan," Gina said. She was on her stomach across the bed, flicking through a magazine of some kind. He closed the door behind him and she rolled over to sit on the side of the bed.
"Thought you might like some coffee," he said. "Milk and no sugar, is it?"
"On the money." She took the cup and drained half of it in one long gulp. "S'good, thanks."
She'd left the magazine open at a two-page spread of beaming women in wedding dresses.
"Planning the next time?"
She grinned at him over the brim of the cup. "No shame in looking. Had to steal it from the dentist. Ma Miller doesn't like me buying it, even when the Rev gives me an allowance."
Ethan closed the door and made a show of interest in the room. It was bigger than his own, but the slope of the roof took up much of the space. There were two large skylights in the ceiling, both of them open as far as they would go. He wondered if that was a condition common to ex-prisoners, that craving for natural light.
"Did you say you get an allowance?" He leaned back against the wooden chest of drawers, bracing himself on his hands. "Daddy gives you pocket money to buy yourself some sweeties? I suppose he can afford it."
"How d'you figure?"
He gave an appraising glance at the ceiling, the wooden floors. "Hmm? Oh, must be worth a quid or two, that's all. Big house like this on top of a vicar's salary. No children to eat it up."
She seemed to have forgotten her coffee. "And it's not like they have fancy clothes or take vacations in Europe. Tommy does have that big car…"
"Probably a gift of the church," he said, tsking. "Some of the perks these so-called men of the cloth get. You'd think they would listen to their own words. Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, all that. I bet you he doesn't give a penny to charity. Squirrels it away into a bank account, I'm sure." He shook his head in sadness at the evils of the world, and clapped his hands together briskly. "Well, I'll leave you to your reading. See you at dinner."
She seemed too lost in thought to reply.
There was more he could have done. Manoeuvred a scenario where Miller would have to spend time alone with Gina, or kept planting those vicious little seeds in Deborah's mind. But the point of chaos was to let things unfold as they would, to give a system that one little push and then stand back to watch the avalanche. Strip away the magic and the principle still held up nicely. A butterfly flapped its wings somewhere over the jungle and a thousand miles away, there was a tropical storm…
So he pushed, and then he retreated.
Reverend Miller held nightly prayer meetings in the largest downstairs room, the living room that had been converted to a hall. He stood in front of the semicircle of too-small wooden chairs and prayed loudly for the souls of those gathered. The front row of seats was always left for the live-in residents, the church members filing behind. Ethan suspected this was to put the degenerates up front as an example to the good Christian folk of the town.
"The kingdom of heaven awaits you!" Miller slapped his palm against the worn leather Bible. "He has gone to prepare a place for you, but brothers and sisters, there is also a place in the fiery pits for each and every one of you who does not heed to His word, and there there is suffering, and there there is torment everlasting."
Hallelujah, Ethan thought. Praise the Lord and pass the collection plate.
The enforced attendance at these things wasn't all bad. Miller had a touch of the Billy Graham in his performance, and there was nothing to stir up a crowd like some righteous fundamentalism. Ethan cleared his mind, searching for any trace of magic in the crowd. One or two of them had a little, unfocussed power that he carefully pulled towards himself. Not easy to do this when he wasn't touching the person, but even the wisp that he could snatch from most was better than nothing.
Beside him, Gina was dressed more suitably for a disco than a divinity class. The strappy thing she was wearing could cover most of her cleavage or most of her thighs but not both together. She seemed to have compromised somewhere between the two. At dinner, he'd watched her lean very slowly past Miller to reach the dish of potatoes. Even the Elmers had looked startled at the display of her attributes, glorious in all its unsubtlety.
"Did the Lord our God not send His son to this Earth to die for our sins, and did He not say…." Gina crossed her legs, stiletto narrowly avoiding Ethan as it came down. Miller trailed into a wordless glaze, faint sheen of sweat on his upper lip. "Did he not say," he went on, fixing his eyes on some spot in the back of the hall, "that I am the Way, the Truth and the Light? That the only way into heaven is through me? Think about that, now, as we bow our heads in prayer."
Ethan bent his head but kept his eyes open, and any prayers that he was sending out weren't to deities the Reverend Miller would have considered. He watched Deborah, delighted at the tightly closed eyes and mouth pursed into a hard, angry line – she was furious, as he'd never seen her to be, and the latent power that was normally no more than a flicker shimmered in the air around her like a heat haze.
The first time he went beyond the garden gate he forgot a jacket, and that cloudless sky wasn't a guarantee that it wouldn't rain later, so he went back to get it. By the time he was back in his room, there didn't seem much point in going all the way back outside, so he stayed in. This repeated the next day, and the next, and by that time he'd siphoned off enough power from his personal scorned woman that he was feeling more confident. He had to pull himself together, he thought, as he strode away from the house and down the main street. If the army was looking for him, they were far more likely to find him in the house, since the hospital knew that was where he'd gone.
That was a worrying thought, and he kicked himself for only just coming to it. It had to be the drugs, the years of living inside a cloud. Not as sharp as he'd once been, not just yet, but he'd get there.
Deborah had gone over the directions twice to make sure he knew where he was going. "The Reverend not around today?" he'd asked, and two high, bright spots of colour had risen in her cheeks as she said that no, he was out doing some home visits in his car. Gina had gone with him. Said she felt like the ride.
The library was as poor as he'd expected. The whole of the public section was one big room, half of that space given over to the children's section. His wander among Adult Fiction lead to the disappointing discovery that Anne Rice still retained use of her typing fingers.
They did have an occult section, nestled on the same shelf as the out of date computer manuals, but it consisted of a couple of crackpot books on alien abduction and an encyclopaedia of vampires. He flicked through that one for the entertainment value and found he could charitably call it 'highly fictionalized'.
Nothing magical at all. He'd make do with one of Crowley's books, even one of those fluffy I Can't Believe It's Not Witchcraft books for teenage girls. Anything. He wasn't strong enough yet, if he was going to do anything at all it would have to be a ritual.
Well, if in doubt, ask a librarian.
The plump woman behind the issue desk gave him a suspicious look that made him feel as if he was being Dewey decimalised. "We don't really carry those kind of books, sir. No call for them. You new around here?"
"Just visiting," he said pleasantly. "A local library for local people, is it?"
She slid a card across the desk. "If you want to register, you have to fill out the form. Gotta get it all on the computer." She looked at the machine to her right with loathing.
"No, I don't think I'll bother." I hope you meet a serial killer on the internet and he eats you, he mentally added.
It was then, when he turned to go, that a poster on the wall caught his eye. Badly drawn, photocopied thing, about some kind of exhibition here in the library, but what caught his attention was a picture in the centre. A man's head, but with two faces.
"Janus," he said.
"Yup? Oh, that freaky mythology thing." Her name badge, he noticed for the first time, declared her to be 'Janice'.
People called it serendipity, or coincidence, or blind luck. Ethan called it the beauty of chaos.
"Where's this exhibition?"
She pointed at a display stand in the children's section. "Fifth graders from the school did it."
At the centre of the display was a diorama of a lopsided plasticine temple. Lego worshippers clustered around the walls. 'The Temple of Janus' the caption read. 'Janus was the god of doorways. He had two faces so people believed he looked to the past and the future. Today the temple is destroyed. Janus is who the month January is called for.'
"Creepy looking things," Janice observed. "Can't see much advantage to having two faces."
"Two sets of eyes," Ethan said, mouth on autopilot while his brain kicked into top gear. "The extra vision let him catch the nymph Carna."
"Men," she snorted.
Ethan hadn't chosen his god lightly. He'd stolen books from some of the finest university libraries in England, thank you very much, and he knew more about Janus than most archaeologists or scholars of the Classics. All the stories, all the myth, all the entertaining anecdotes that had only survived in very rare sources.
The temple, the Aedes, had stood on the road into the Forum Romanum, its two great doors kept open in times of war to better allow the god to intercede on behalf of his followers. It was long since gone to rubble. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair, Ethan thought, surprisingly himself with the melancholy turn.
The place was gone, but the site was still there. If he was going to get his magic back, completely back, he was going to have to go to Rome.
His travel plans were temporarily put on hold when he got back to the house. There was a tingling in the back of his brain – not déjà vu but not unlike it either, more like the memory of a sensation. A moment's experimenting with different places found it was stronger in one particular direction. Hotter, cooler, hotter, boiling hot…
He opened the door to the meeting hall. Miller was knelt on the floor with a woman and a teenage girl, both of them weeping. The palm of his hand was pressed to the girl's head.
"Release this girl!"
The woman's wailing got louder.
Someone pulled gently at his arm. "Come away," Deborah whispered. "We're not allowed to go in."
Gina was holding court in the kitchen, surrounded by women he recognized from the meetings. They were leaning forward to catch her every word. "Swear to the Almighty himself, I was there when she was showing it to Reverend Miller. That tiny little girl in there lifted two of her daddy's hundred pound weights like they were a bag of sugar. I mean, I saw girls in prison could bench press crazy weights, but I never seen nothing like that, not ever."
"Maureen says she's been having nightmares," one of the women said, her voice hushed. "Nightmares about demons."
There were murmurs of shock.
"The Reverend, he'll shoo the devil out of her," Gina said. "Him and the Lord, they'll drive him out." Her eyes shone with the happy conviction of the new convert.
Ethan slipped away. Deborah had already left. He thought she had joined her husband, but there were raised voices from the room next to his and he stopped in the corridor to listen. "…what he's doing with that tramp." The last word was half a sob.
"He's a fool and he doesn't deserve you, Deborah." Ethan raised his eyebrows. That was a degree of passion he'd never heard from the older of the Elmers, who could make 'pass the salt' sound like a death sentence.
"I have to!"
"But we can't!"
Yes you can, Ethan thought. It's easy. You give Elmer a tumble and your husband thinks he's being very clever in hiding the fact that he's shagging Gina and she runs off with all his money. In the long run, you'll probably be a lot happier.
There was no dinner that night, and no prayer meeting. Miller emerged from the room at about nine, declaring success and wondering aloud where his wife had got to, but Gina leapt to her feet and fawned over is brilliance and offered to make him a sandwich. Ethan had never seen him smile before. It was quite an event.
He went to bed at almost eleven, once the squeaking and the tiny, breathless gasps next door had stopped. Quite a productive day. Shame he hadn't been able to find out what kind of demon was possessing the girl, because it might have been one he could make a bargain with. Getting passage to Italy wasn't going to be easy, and finding a demon that could teleport was sounding like the best plan.
It was about two in the morning when he jerked awake. The feeling of familiarity today, the prickle across his skin in that room – he had felt it before. Stronger, greatly amplified, but the echo was unmistakeable.
It was the same magic that had brought him here.
An hour later, he'd mostly worked out the chain of events. There had been no demon in that room today. The girl wasn't possessed. She was a vampire slayer. Once he'd arrived at this insight, the rest was easy. A new slayer meant Rupert's girl must have died. She'd been working with the army, hadn't she? The soldier who'd arrested him had arrived with her. So maybe she'd died in the compound, in the medical bay above his cell, and he'd been in just the right place to latch onto the power as it travelled outwards to its new host…
Suddenly he had a whole new fear of discovery. The Watchers would be looking for her. They'd have psychics and covens scouring the world for the girl, and it couldn't be too long before they found her. And when they did, when they sent someone to fetch her, there was a chance he'd be seen. Ethan liked his notoriety, but in this case it could spell a hasty trip back to the government's oubliette.
That was never going to happen, not if he had to kill the bitch himself and get a new one called.
He crept out past Elmer's room and down the stairs. There was a vegetable knife in the cutlery drawer, a black-handled one with a sharp edge, and he lifted it out. A moment's combing through the cupboard under the sink left him with three candles and a box of matches.
His room wasn't big enough to lay out the candles. He cast the circle in the meeting room instead, almost hoping that Miller would walk in and catch him performing sinister magical rites.
Admittedly, the small Lego astronaut he'd pocketed in the library robbed the whole thing of some of its mystery.
He nicked the heel of his palm with the knife, deep enough for the blood to drip onto the middle candle. "Janus," he murmured, "I stand at the doorways and I call you." He touched the top of the blade to the astronaut's head. "I bring the avatar of your priest -" this was ludicrous, but no more so than some of the rituals he'd attempted in his youth. And, to be honest, his prime - "and I call you. Janus, heed me."
The magic was hard, far harder than a fairly basic glamour should be. By dawn, his palms were covered in tiny cuts and the candles were burned to stubs, but he had what he needed.
"I need you to do something for me."
Gina carefully laid a bookmark in the Bible - oh, how far she'd fallen - and set it aside. "What's up?"
Things were too urgent for innuendo and careful words now. "You said you were in prison for forgery."
"I'm ashamed to say I was," she sighed. "Amongst other things, all of which I regret."
"Yes, well," he said impatiently, "you had contacts, didn't you? Other criminals you knew, forgers? Maybe some who are still on the outside?"
Her eyes were very wide. "Mister Rayne, I don't do that any more. Seeing that poor girl yesterday made me think some things over, and I got to talking with Tommy and – I've changed."
He dumped a carrier bag on the bed. It was overflowing with banknotes. "A hundred thousand dollars," he said. "I need a passport and a flight to Italy, and I need it very, very quickly. Find someone who can do it, pay them whatever you want. Keep the change. They're unmarked notes. Can't be traced to you."
Gina stared at the money with hungry magpie eyes.
"It could buy a new life," he said. "If you were going to run away, say, with someone who was being unfaithful to his wife."
She picked up one of the notes. Ethan held his breath as she turned it over, but it didn't turned back into scrap paper when she touched it. He poured all the energy he had left into the spell, enough to hold it for a week, ten days at a stretch.
"I guess one more job couldn't hurt," she said.
He travelled business class. The security procedures at the airport took a very long time, and he was terrified that the passport was in some way an obvious forgery, but eventually they waved him through.
He watched America shrink beneath his window and promised he'd never come back here. Well, not unless he was going to take a prolonged and vicious revenge against every single person who'd played a part in keeping him prisoner. Or if it was for something really fun.
Gina was the only person he'd said goodbye to, and that only because she drove him to the airport. Miller, doing a wonderful impression of someone whose braincells had been eradicated by too much sex, had given her a tolerant, absent smile and let her have the car keys.
"I'll miss you, Ethan." She'd given him a sloppy hug and was actually wiping her eyes when she pulled away. "Write me from Italy, 'kay? I'll send you a wedding invite."
"Of course," he'd lied. His life would be infinitely enriched if he never saw any of these people again. Still, he liked to think he'd brought something special to all their mundane lives, some small thing that said 'Ethan Rayne was here'. For Gina, that would probably occur in two or three days' time when the money reverted to its true form.
He pulled the plastic cover down over the window and tried to get some sleep.
The Forum Romanum had been standing for thousands of years. That didn't stop the slight fear that it would fall down before he had a chance to appeal to Janus, so he checked into a cheap hotel (Gina's associate had generously included a visa under the same pseudonym as the passport) and went directly to the site.
Ethan had very specific ideas as to how he liked his gods. He was willing to do some prostrating of himself in worship, so long as it was understood that this was a two-way arrangement. In exchange for a certain amount of devotion, he wanted a few favours. Miraculous lucky coincidences that benefited him, say. With that in mind, he'd hoped that getting his full strength back would be as easy as coming here and waiting to be struck by lightning. Metaphorically.
He spent most of the day under the hot sun, ignoring the puzzled looks from the tourists as he paced the crumbling monuments, trying to find some trace of Janus. This was his portal, the centre of his power. If he was anywhere, he should be here.
He sat on the dusty ground and told himself it was jetlag, not despair.
He'd used all his power on the money-glamour. There was nothing left. He could drag together bits and pieces again, but it would never be the easy thing it once was. Every spell would be a crushing effort, something to be sweated and struggled over.
"Janus!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. Every person in the ruins turned to stare at him. Let them, he thought. It didn't matter.
He waited and waited for an answer, and then he turned and trudged away.
Some child had left a colouring book in the café beside his hotel. It was the kind of thing they sold at airports, filled with pictures of the Italian flag, cheery gondoliers, the mythical gods. He flipped listlessly through it, letting the cappuccino grow cool on the table. The final picture was Janus, the bearded face turned to the future, the clean-shaven one looking behind them, at the past. In his hand was a large, ornate key.
He kept thinking about chaos. It was more than magic, he kept telling himself. Yes, it had been the magic he'd worshipped, mostly, but look at what he'd done in America. He'd turned people's lives upside down with hardly any magic, and it had been fun in a means-to-an-end way. He'd proved he could do without it, if he had to. Now that he had to. He tested those words in his head. He had to do without magic. Yes, it was fine.
Outside, it began to pour with rain. He propped an elbow on the table and rested his chin on his hand, watching the drops drizzle down the glass.
The door burst open. A trio of girls rushed in, teenagers, all of them soaked. They were giggling, talking over each other about how suddenly it had turned stormy. American accents. He couldn't get shot of that bloody race.
He was about to leave his untouched drink and go back to the hotel, figure out what on Earth to do with the rest of his life, but something stopped him – a feeling like static in the air. His hair wanted to stand on end with it.
The girl in the middle of the group that was now commandeering one of the larger tables, the brunette with her back to him; he'd never seen her before in his life, and yet he was suddenly convinced that he'd known her as a child. She'd been in the shop, that was it, his costume shop in Sunnydale. The slayer's sister, who'd been so torn between outfits that she'd opted for a fairy warrior princess with mouse ears.
Powerless he might have been, but Ethan had called down some very dark things in his life, and he'd put enough wards and mind-protections around himself to know when his memory was being tampered with.
He looked a little to the left of the girl's back, and let his eyes go out of focus, and cleared his mind. There! A jade aura, dense and impossibly beautiful, hung over her like another skin. Magic, pure, raw and easily tappable. He barely had to think about it to get the teaspoon to leap off the table and into his mug.
Of course, he could only use her power if he was around her. Or if he worked out some way to siphon it off permanently. He had faith, suddenly, that he'd work something out. After all, it was a wonderful, nearly miraculous coincidence that it had rained, and that she'd sought shelter here.
A butterfly beating its wings in South America…
Ethan laid a hand on the page in front of him. The magic flowed into the paper, and his god bestowed him a benevolent wink from each face.
"Thank you, god," Ethan whispered, and he really, truly meant it.