Alexandra Coombs, nee Rayne, was a patient, open-minded woman. She'd bloody well had to be, what with the family she came from. Dark, musty family home in Oxfordshire, with locked attics and basement rooms that one wasn't supposed to try to get in to, whispered history that your parents wouldn't let you listen to, odd relatives who disappeared and reappeared years later with bizarre tales--
"Mum, when is Uncle Ethan going to get here?" asked her daughter Paula.
"He'll be here in time for dinner, love. Go set the table, please, I need to check the roast."
"Daddy's working late tonight, isn't he," Paula said knowingly. At twelve years old, she was beginning to have a more grown-up appreciation of interpersonal dynamics.
"Yes. Yes, dear, he is."
"Daddy doesn't like Uncle Ethan, does he."
Alexandra always made an effort to tell her children the truth. "Your Uncle Ethan does not always go out of his way to make himself likeable." Showing her true Rayne heritage, Paula only giggled appreciatively and went out to set the table.
At a quarter to seven, with the roast just finishing and the wine ready to be poured, there was a knock at the door. "What, no portentous flash of lighting?" Alexandra mused. "Or even a roll of thunder?"
Paula ran to the front door. "Uncle Ethan! Uncle Ethan!"
Alexandra came out from the kitchen to see her brother, four years her elder, come in and lean down to hug his niece. "And hello to you, Paula." He looked up at the sound of running footsteps, but the boy who entered did so at a respectable walk--despite the huge grin.
"Hullo, Uncle Ethan," the boy said with all the dignity of his nine years.
"Good evening, young Ethan." The pair shared a smile that was too conspiratorial for Alexandra's peace of mind, and she cleared her throat. The elder Ethan straightened and went over to hug his sister. "And, of course, good evening, Lexie." He kissed her on the cheek.
"Good evening, Ethan. Punctual as ever."
"I left in good time to pass customs at the border of this alien land you live in. High Wycombe, Lexie, of all the unbelievable places ..."
She led the way into the kitchen. "You needn't worry, your smog-choked London lungs won't be too badly damaged by the clean air. Would you pull the roast? It's almost done."
Ethan found the oven gloves and extracted the roast from the cooker. "I passed your vicar on the way in. I think he blessed himself when he saw me."
"I wouldn't be surprised. He's the same vicar as when you were here last."
"Ah. That would explain it." He set the roasting pan on top of the cooker to cool, then turned to watch his sister assemble the rest of dinner. She hummed as she worked. "It always amazes me how happy you are in this world."
Alexandra reached past him for the rest of the salad makings. "You make it sound like we grew up in Hogwarts or something."
"Children's books, never mind." She gestured around the kitchen. "This is perfectly normal, Ethan. You are the one who lives in the strange world of mystery and weird doings."
"The word you're looking for is magic, Lexie," he said quietly. He nodded slightly at the uncomfortable look on her face. "Are we waiting dinner for your husband?"
"Um, no. Huw's working late." She saw the smirk on Ethan's lips. "He didn't grow up like we did, Ethan. It's amazing he even believes in it at all, you can't expect him to be easy with it."
He shrugged. "Yes, I suppose it's quite decent of him not to hold your family against you, Grandmother celebrating all the Sabbats with full ceremonial, Uncle Malcolm and his Golden Dawn group, Mother and Father encouraging you to argue with Vicar Thomas. Me. Dashed decent of him."
"Ethan, don't. This is why he isn't here, all right? So you and I and the children can visit without it getting bitter."
"Sorry," he said sullenly. "I'll be ..."
"If you say 'good,' I shan't believe you." That brought a more natural snicker from him. Alexandra went to hug him. "He's a good man, Huw is. I love him, and he's wonderful with the children."
"Oh, I know, but, honestly--he's an insurance salesman, Lexie."
"We can't all fall in love with gorgeous rebels who wear indecent jeans and play guitar." She turned back to the dinner preparations before she could see the memories and plans on her brother's face.
Ethan was distracted by another set of footsteps coming his way. He looked down at the gap-toothed, brown-eyed toddler clutching his trouser leg and grinning up at him. "Well, if it's not Rebecca. Self- mobile, are we? What a tragedy for the breakables."
"Ba," the child seriously.
"Really?" He crouched down to look at her more easily. He glanced towards Alexandra, saw she was busy, then leaned forward. "Cthulhu," he said softly.
The grin got bigger. "Tooloo."
"Oh, good girl. Here's a new one, Yog--" A firm hand settled across his mouth, and Rebecca giggled. Ethan raised his eyes to his sister and raised an eyebrow.
"You are not teaching my children summoning spells," Alexandra said firmly. "Carry the roast to the table, we're ready."
The saying of Grace and to whom one should address it was such a topic of debate at any Rayne dinner table that Alexandra decided to skip the whole subject. When her husband presided, of course, he always gave a brief, respectful Grace, little knowing his family was only being patient with him.
Alexandra was at the head of the table, with Rebecca in a high chair next to her. Ethan was at the foot, with Paula and the young Ethan to either side. The conversation consisted of school updates and the more innocuous tales of travel in exotic lands such as Mexico, New York, and Islington.
During a lull near the end of the meal, Rebecca pointed at the table imperiously and declared, "Tooloo!'
Ethan nearly dropped his fork and did a quick scan of the table and the room, just in case.
"Tooloo!" Rebecca repeated firmly.
He cleared his throat. "Rebecca, it's impolite to summon the Old Ones at the dinner table."
"Relax," Alexandra said, reaching for a serving bowl. "It's her new word for spinach."
"Spinach?" He blinked as Alexandra spooned a small helping of the vegetable onto Rebecca's plate.
"Because it's green and tentacley," Ethan the younger volunteered with a grin.
His mother glared at him. "Yes, someone's been helping her with the proper names of things."
"Ah." Ethan watched the toddler pick up a handful of cooked spinach and shove it in her mouth, where the ends dangled out as she cheerfully chewed. It was remarkably disturbing. "And she eats spinach willingly."
"Unlike some small children, yes," Alexandra said with a smile to her brother and a frown to her son. "Though I do prefer they learn the proper words in English before you corrupt them all with demon languages."
"But it's much easier to learn these things when they're young--"
"No occult things until they're sixteen."
Paula pouted, and young Ethan looked guilty. Ethan looked at him apologetically. "Looks like I'll need those books back, old man."
"Oh, but, Uncle Ethan--"
"She's your mother, she decides. Sorry." The boy crossed his arms over his chest and pouted.
Ethan looked up and blinked in dismay at the look on his sister's face. Shock and a bit of outrage, he expected, but he didn't expect the fear.
"Are you finished, children?" she asked in a tight voice.
Paula began to protest, then looked from her mother's face to her uncle's. "Yes, mama."
"I'm not," young Ethan grumbled. He jumped and glared at his sister, who had apparently kicked him under the table. She nodded at their mother, and the boy bit his lip. "Yes, mama, I'm done."
"Would you take your plates to the kitchen, then, please?" Silently the pair obeyed, leaving the grownups alone with the happily spinach-munching Rebecca. "What are you teaching him, Ethan?" Alexandra asked.
"Nothing dangerous, Lexie."
"What is in those books?"
"Granny magic, household stuff. Wards and protection, lighting candles, dispelling of vermin. They're Granny Eugenie's books, you've gone through them yourself."
"But you didn't tell me you gave them to him, and he didn't tell me either. Why?"
Ethan picked up his wine glass to fidget with. "It seemed--simpler."
"Simpler to go behind my back than to get my permission?"
He shrugged but didn't look at her.
"Are those the only books you gave him, Granny Eugenie's books?"
He sighed. "I brought one with me tonight, a book on meditations and focusing the will. There are several exercises such as levitating pencils and summoning kernels of light. I was going to give it to him, since I'm leaving."
Alexandra picked up a roll and began shredding it. "You mentioned that on the phone, that you were leaving. Is this something that you want to do or that you have to do?"
"Do I have to leave? Oh, no, no. I'm not on the run from anything. I wouldn't have come here if I was," he said seriously.
"You weren't going to tell me about that book, either, were you. Have you been encouraging him to lie to me?"
"Lexie, we haven't lied to you. We just haven't--volunteered anything. I swear, all I've shown him are very small, inconsequential things."
"That's how you started," Alexandra whispered. "With the small, inconsequential things. And once he's on that road, he'll find his own way. You told me that, that there was no going back once you start on that road."
Ethan glanced towards the kitchen, wondering how well the children could hear them. "Lexie, he's a Rayne. It's in him. It's in all of them. And you know as well as anyone that you can't ignore it."
Alexandra stared at Paula's empty chair. "Have you been--all this time--"
"No. Well ... it's very faint in Paula. She may start showing odd knacks now that she's, well, growing up, but it will never be strong. Much like you. Your son, on the other hand ..."
"You're turning him into another you."
"No, I'm not. I'm answering his questions, I'm giving him something safe to try himself on."
The roll was in tiny crumbs now. "I remember when you made the puppets dance without strings. That was wonderful. And then you tried to make my kitten dance."
"And you nearly split my head open with your little chair," he added, but not without a reminiscent smile.
She nearly smiled in return, but not quite. "The kitten was scared. You made her cry. That's what I remember most, you scared my kitten. And you weren't much older than he is now."
"All boys are beasts, surely you know that by now." He couldn't meet her eyes any longer. "But some are more beastly than others. It's not the magic you need to be worried about, Lexie, it's the person wielding the magic. And your young Ethan is not the sort to try and make a helpless kitten dance."
"But you are?" she whispered.
"Quod erat demonstrandum. Thus is it proved." He looked up at her again. "There are reasons I don't visit that often. It's just as well."
There was a small cough from the doorway. Young Ethan stood there, several books in his arms. "Here they are," he said quietly. Ethan held his hand out, and the boy brought them over.
Ethan scanned the titles, then raised an eyebrow at the boy. "There's one missing."
"The diary? But there's nothing in the diary, just Granny talking about the crops and such--"
"And the rituals she designed to deal with the crops."
"But not how, just why."
"Your mother said, not till you're sixteen."
Alexandra cleared her throat. "That's Granny Eugenie's diary? I haven't read that in years. I'd like to take a look at it."
"My dear girl," Ethan blinked, "they're as much your books as mine. You can keep the whole lot, if you like, lock them in the pantry or something."
"I--think you're best qualified for keeping those."
"As you will."
Rebecca abruptly became tired of the current entertainment and pounded on her high chair tray. "Tooloo!" she ordered, pointing again at the bowl of spinach.
Ethan jumped again. "God, I wish she wouldn't say that in that very emphatic voice. It's going to work one of these days."
"And whose fault will it be if it does," Alexandra pointed out. "Honey, in English we say 'spinach.' Can you say spinach?"
Rebecca looked suspiciously at her mother. "Spinch."
Later, after a decadent trifle and good-nights to the children, Ethan and Alexandra finished the bottle of wine between them on the couch. "Shouldn't Huw be back soon?" he asked.
Alexandra drained the last of the bottle into her glass. "I'm to call him when you leave. He doesn't want to risk running into you."
"Considerate of him, I suppose. Lexie, about the books--"
She waved her hand. "I'll keep them. I'll put them somewhere he can't find them, look through them myself, then we'll see."
"Thank you. It's not so much so he can study them, it's just I don't want to put them into storage. I may be gone a long time."
"Where are you going?"
"My god, what's in California?"
"A little town called Sunnydale. I have business there."
"What kind of--" She stopped, dismayed at herself. There were many comforting lies she told herself that allowed her to let Ethan near the children. None of those lies were designed to stand up to straight answers to straight questions.
His smile was twisted. "I'm going to open a shop. What kind of shop and why Sunnydale is not a tale for children--or for the people who keep children safe." He took her hand. "There should be one grown-up who can look at me with a clear conscience."
"Be careful," she said finally. "You're my favorite brother and their favorite uncle."
"I'm your only brother and their only uncle. The competition isn't that fierce."
"That doesn't mean you can be careless." Alexandra studied her brother with as much honesty as she could bear. His cleverness was once again closer to cunning, and his wit was shading heavily into mockery. Whatever he was plotting, it wasn't nice. "Just--watch yourself, please."
"I always do. Self-preservation is one of the things I'm best at." He glanced at his watch and got to his feet. "And I have to drive back to London tonight. I'd best get on the road so Huw can come home."
"Keep in touch."
"Of course, phone calls and letters, and packages with strange postmarks and dubious stains." He started towards the door, then realized Alexandra wasn't with him, that she was still curled up on the couch. "Lexie?"
She shook herself and got up. "I'm sorry, I just--it's just a feeling."
"What kind of feeling?"
She hesitated, then hugged him. "The feeling that I'm never going to see you again."
"Oh, my dear, stop being maudlin. Nothing's going to happen to me. I'm just going to look up some old friends and see what opportunities present themselves. I'll be fine."
He kissed her on the cheek and headed out the door. She watched him walk to his black Lagonda, and she tried not to cry. He was a Rayne. Raynes always landed on their feet, and troubles rolled off them like raindrops. She hoped her brother proved adequately waterproof.