Two hundred and eighty eight. . .
Two hundred and eighty nine. . .
Two hundred and ninety. . .
There's still no sign of Buffy or Ethan. Almost five minutes ago – a long, drawn out five minutes, filled with nothing but the sound of Xander's pain – Buffy drew us out of the warehouse and onto the metal staircase where she explained her plan in a hushed whisper. Then her and Ethan slipped off into the darkness, leaving me and Spike to watch proceedings in the warehouse from our vantage point up on the walkway.
Two hundred and ninety two. . .
Two hundred and ninety three. . .
Two hundred and ninety four. . .
It must have been the longest five minutes of Xander's life. His face is bruised, and blood drips down from a cut above his eye, his chest and arms are bleeding from a dozen shallow cuts, and twice now, the room has been filled with the sound of his screaming as the man crushed his broken fingers cruelly between sadistic hands.
Two hundred and ninety six. . .
Two hundred and ninety seven. . .
I'm counting seconds. Mostly just to keep from panicking. To try and keep my breathing slow and my mind occupied, to try and keep from doing anything too stupid too early. . .
Two hundred and ninety nine. . .
Three hundred. . .
Three hundred. Three fucking bloody hundred. What's taking them so long? They've had their five minutes. Where the fuck are they? I hope Buffy has everything under control. I hope to high hell that Ethan doesn't bollocks up this time.
And now I've lost count. Three hundred and four? Five? It doesn't really matter, they've had their five minutes. I'll just give them a count of twenty, then I'll. . .
I'll what? If Buffy's plan falls through, there's nothing I can do. I was helpless before she arrived. And I feel even more helpless now she's gone.
Two. . .
Three. . .
Four. . .
Xander looks like he's on the verge of passing out. The man grabs his hair and jerks his head back savagely, and he whimpers. I look away.
Six. . .
Seven. . .
Where are you, Buffy?
Nine. . .
Ten. . .
And then finally, the door bursts open, and a shout goes up.
'Milton, we've got Ethan here. He says he has to talk to you.'
The man – Milton – lets Xander's head drop. 'Aren't you the lucky boy? Looks like your slayer does love you, after all,' he sneers, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, he turns and grips Ethan by the throat. 'Because there's no way Ethan would come back empty handed a second time, now, is there?' he growls. Ethan lets out a strangled gasp, probably even more shocked by the speed of Milton's movements and the strength of his anger than I am.
'Milton, please. . . ' he chokes. 'For fuck's sake. . . can't breathe. . . Milton, stop!'
As suddenly and violently as he grabbed him, Milton pushes Ethan away. Ethan goes crashing to the floor, clutching at his throat. Milton lets him lie there, coughing and struggling to breathe, for a few moments, and then he grabs him by the shoulder and pulls him to his feet.
'Well?' he says, sounding almost bored again. 'Where is she?'
Ethan's voice is shaking. '. . . won't come. . . not here. . . ' he manages. 'No! No, wait!' he yelps as Milton's hands grip his throat again. Milton relaxes his grasp a little, and Ethan draws a deep, shaky breath. 'She's offered a swap,' he says hoarsely.
'No!' Xander whispers. 'No, please, no. . . ' Milton turns and glares at him.
'She'll give herself up if you'll let Xander go,' Ethan continues quickly and loudly. 'But she won't do it here. It'd be too easy for you to ambush her.'
'True,' Milton says with a vicious grin. 'Smart girl. Where, then?'
'The Bronze,' Ethan says. 'She's waiting there now with her friend, the witch. She'll stay until she sees that you've sent Xander in and that he's all right. Then she'll come out to you.'
Milton snorts derisively.
'Oh no you don't. I've seen this movie before, and it always ends badly. Once she's got Xander safe, why on earth would she come out to me?'
Ethan's eyes dart. He must have been expecting the question, him and Buffy have to have planned out what he's supposed to say. . . but it still seems to make him uncomfortable.
'You have the Bronze surrounded when you send Xander in,' he says dully. 'She'll have to come out eventually, and when she does, you'll be waiting for her.' I catch my breath. That was something Buffy neglected to mention when she outlined this plan to me and Spike. Either that, or Ethan's making it up on the spot and trying to be as uncooperative as possible. Rescuing Xander was never exactly his first priority, perhaps he's trying to get at Buffy just one last time, even as she's helping him out of this hole he's dug himself into. He knows me and Spike are listening. He knows that whatever he tells Milton will be passed straight back to the Slayer. But knowing Ethan, maybe his hunger for revenge outweighs his common sense. He never had much of that in the first place.
Maybe I'm just being paranoid. But god, it's unbearable having to rely on someone I trust less than most of the agents of hell I've had to deal with.
Milton's eyes glint. 'And was that her idea or yours?' he asks. I'm vaguely wondering the same thing myself.
Ethan's eyes flicker again. 'Mine,' he says forcefully. I wonder if he's telling the truth. I wonder whether Buffy knew what he was going to say.
And I seriously fucking hope we can trust him.
Milton stares at Ethan contemptuously for a long moment.
'You know, I don't even begin to trust you,' he says, echoing my thought of moment earlier. I can't work out whether that should make me feel better or not. 'But if that's the best you can do, then I suppose I'll have to deliver the puppy to the Bronze. I tell you what, you can come along for the ride, too. And if I even begin to suspect you of double crossing me, then. . . well, by the time you're through, you'll wish I'd just killed you.'
Ethan begins to grovel, but no one's really listening, not even me or Spike. I heave a sigh of relief. Our biggest fear was that Milton would head for the Bronze alone, leaving Xander here, under guard. Other than discouraging Ethan from saying or doing anything stupid, that was one of the main reasons why me and Spike had stayed at the warehouse rather than going with Buffy to the Bronze; in case breaking Xander out of here turned out to be the only option. At the very least, we hoped to lure off Milton and some of his guards. But it looks like it's turned out better than that. He's going to swallow the bait whole, and take Xander out of here with him.
Milton silences Ethan with a single, threatening gesture, and turns to Xander.
'And you can count yourself lucky, boy. I wasn't even half done playing with you,' he says. 'There're so many toys I didn't have a chance to try out. There aren't even any permanent scars on your pretty face.'
Xander stares miserably at the floor. Milton gestures to one of the men standing by the far wall, who comes hurrying over, carrying something that's at first completely unrecognisable. It takes me a long moment to work out that it's a welding torch. Milton turns up the gas, and a flame begins to glow blue and hot in the darkness. Xander cringes in absolute terror, but Milton laughs.
'No, we don't have time for any of that now. There's no need for you to get so worked up,' he sneers. Then he brings the torch up to the chains, inches away from Xander's bare arms. Xander closes his eyes sets his teeth against the heat, but can't keep from crying out. The skin on his arms is already beginning to blister by the time first one chain and then the other gives out. No longer held to his feet, Xander collapses to the floor. I can tell that his first instinct his to curl up and hide away, but there's six inches of red hot metal chain hanging from his wrists, and he's lucid enough to realise that, so he just lies there, flat out on the concrete floor, sobbing for breath. Milton douses his arms with water – at first it looks almost like a kindness and I don't understand, and then I realise that he wants the chains to be cold enough to handle – and then forces him to stand. He sways on his feet for a moment, and then Milton grabs the chain on one of his wrists, and gestures for Ethan to take the other. He snaps an order for the men guarding the main entrance to remain and secure the premises – and to keep an eye out for the mage, in case he makes an appearance. The rest of his men follow him out of the warehouse. After a moment, I hear the sound of an engine starting up.
Damn. We'd hoped to sabotage their van. Now they've got a head start on us.
Still, that could have been a lot worse. If that's the worst thing to go wrong today, it'll be a miracle.
Beside me, Spike snarls slightly, and shakes off his game face.
'I was hoping for some action,' he complains.
'We'd better hurry up and get down to the Bronze,' I say 'There'll be plenty of action there.'
He nods, and begins to make his way quickly down the metal staircase. 'I think they were all bloody well human, anyway,' he mutters. 'Just my bastard luck. . . '
I'm not sure I understand what he's complaining about now, so I ignore him, and follow him down the stairway.
'I wonder if Buffy told Ethan to say that,' I murmur.
'About surrounding the building.'
'Oh, that. Constantine, does it really matter?'
'It does if Buffy's not expecting it and they get there before us,' I snap. 'So hurry up!'
He rolls his eyes at me, but starts to move more quickly.
We run down the drive and pile into the car that I left hidden behind one of the wrecked outbuildings, I wave my hand over the ignition, and the engine roars to life. All the time I'm expecting to hear the sounds of shouting, or maybe even shooting, echoing from behind us, but it's seems Milton's men are as deaf as they are cruel.
'Directions!' I hiss at Spike. 'I don't know where the fuck I'm going!'
'Oh. Right. Yeah. Left.'
'Left! I said left!'
We scream off down the driveway in a cloud of dust.
'Constantine,' Spike interrupts his own directions after a moment, 'I hate to state the obvious, but hurry the fuck up! We're not going to be much help if we get to the Bronze after Milton, and he's had a head start on us. And. . . '
'Tell me something I don't know!' I snap back.
'I was about to! I think we're being followed.'
Oh fuck. I think he's right. I can hear the sounds of pursuit now. Fucking typical. Here's me steering one handed, not knowing where the fuck I'm going, and controlling the damn car with a mixture of magic and sheer bloody-minded will power more than anything else. . . and now there's what sounds like two guys on motorbikes revving up behind us. Just what I needed.
'You fucking drive!' I yell at Spike.
'I can't keep the engine going!'
'Don't worry about the engine, I'll deal with that! Just make sure we don't crash into anything important. And if you can keep us heading in the general direction of the Bronze, that'll be a bonus. . . '
He grabs the wheel from over my shoulder. The car lurches madly, I swear loudly, and scramble over into the back seat. Spike yanks desperately at the steering wheel, and the car jerks wildly across the road, before he manages to slide into the drivers seat and get the thing under some semblance of control.
I stare out of the back windscreen. There're three motorbikes, not two. They must've heard us as we were going down the fire-escape and followed at a distance, leaving the other two to cover the building. Well, we weren't exactly discreet about leaving. I suppose we asked for this one, really. But, oh fuck. . . I don't know what to do. We don't have time for this. . .
Spike turns a sharp corner and I'm thrown against the back windscreen. But when I look up again, they're keeping up with us, following us turn for turn. In fact, they're gaining distance. In a complete panic, I focus all my concentration on the bike in front. . .
. . . The world begins to go white around the edges. There's a sudden explosion. I cry out and bury my face in my hands. Spike swears loudly, and the car swerves from side to side. For a moment, there's nothing but chaos, and then the engine cuts out and there's nothing but darkness. And then, when my vision's cleared slightly, the road behind us is on fire. The first motorbike is gone altogether, nothing remains but smoke and fire. The two behind are smouldering in the wreckage.
'Impressive,' Spike mutters. 'How did you do that?'
'I. . . I must have. . . ' I draw a deep breath, trying to clear my head. 'I don't really know. . . ' I say, slightly shakily. 'I just kind of. . . lashed out. . . and. . . ' I shrug.
'Bang.' Spike finishes for me.
'Yeah. Bang.' I draw another shaky breath. 'Action enough for you?' I say softly.
'Just get the bloody car going, Constantine,' Spike mutters. 'We're going to be too late.'
I wave my hand over the ignition again, and the engine splutters unwillingly back to life. We drive in almost complete silence now, other than Spike's muttered directions, too tense for anything else.
But once we're out on the main road, the tension lifts. Milton's van stands abandoned, the bonnet open, the engine smoking. I heave a sigh of relief. I mean, it's not like pulling out all those wires could have done the thing any good, but the fact that they'd been able to drive it off at all had been a bit of a bummer. Now they're on foot, we have some hope of getting to the bronze ahead of them. Things are looking up. Spike grins at me, I hit the accelerator and we speed off along the darkened road.
There's still a small stain of what looks suspiciously like my blood on the pavement outside the Bronze, but the skylight seems to have been fixed since last time I was here. Efficient. It's only been, what, two days? Three? Jesus, somehow I find it hard to believe that it was only four days ago at the very most when I first noticed there was something following me. . . Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?
We dump the car. There's no sign of Milton or Ethan yet. Buffy's waiting in the shadows by the main entrance, looking anxious. She can't have been waiting for much longer than ten minutes, but she's already agitated.
'Well?' she snaps.
'He bought it. They're on their way. They should be here any minute now, if nothing else goes wrong. . . '
'Good,' Buffy says with a sigh of relief, and then she frowns slightly. 'All right then, what went wrong?'
'Oh, we had a bit of a problem with their van. And a brush up with some motorbikes. Nothing we couldn't handle.' Spike says.
'Hmmm.' I say, glaring at Spike. 'Buffy, did you tell Ethan to tell them to surround the building?'
Buffy's eyes flash angrily.
'No. Not exactly what I had in mind,' she mutters through gritted teeth. I can't resist throwing Spike an 'I told you so' look. He growls at me.
'Spike!' Buffy snaps. 'Behave yourself or get lost!'
Spike mutters angrily, but backs off. I can't quite stifle a grin.
'Watch it, Constantine,' Spike growls. I ignore him and turn innocently to Buffy.
'Is Willow here yet?' I ask. Buffy nods.
'She's back there. Sorting stuff out.'
'I should go see if she needs help,' I say, and head inside. Spike looks as if he's about to follow me, but Buffy stops him.
'Uh-uh. Not you. You can watch the back door,' she says brightly.
'From the inside,' I remind him, seriously. He glowers at me.
Willow is sitting under the balcony burning herbs over a candle flame. The thing that really gets me is quite how little attention people are paying her. I know that, given the hellmouth, these people must be pretty used to the weird shit, but there's still something disconcerting about their complete lack of reaction.
'Hey,' Willow says, looking up. 'Are they coming, then?'
'Good. That's good.'
'You under control?'
'Yeah. Just about. Of course, it would be better if I could spread the candles more evenly across the whole building, but the dance floor kinda gets in the way. This place wasn't exactly set up for casting spells. . . '
'Can I help?'
'Umm. You could spread this round the perimeter of the room. An even circle about two centimetres wide. . . and you have to chant . . . umm. . . I've got the words written down somewhere, I think. . . '
'I know how to do a magic circle, luv,' I remind her. She blushes.
'Of course you do. Sorry.'
I start to scatter the herbs and sand in a circle around the room. I must look like a bit of an idiot. . . one or two clubbers give me slightly strange looks and one or two more shoot me knowing glances. . . but most just ignore me. Willow tacks pictures of Xander up by all the doors, muttering quietly under her breath all the time.
'Photographs? Don't you have any of his hair? Or nail filings or anything?' I ask as I go past her. She looks slightly put out.
'I – I tend not to collect my friends' toenails,' she says.
'Really? I find stuff like that has a tendency to be unexpectedly useful.' She frowns and shrugs.
'Well, most stuff works just as well with a photo, anyway. Hair and that is. . . pretty old fashioned.'
Great. So now I'm old fashioned. And the worst thing is, I know she's right. When I was her age, lighting your occult candles with a cigarette lighter and mixing up your potions over the electric stove was the height of modern magic. Now, I bet if you know what you're doing, you can download spells over the bloody internet. And one of these days, someone younger than me but just as much of a bloody-minded bastard is going to use that to their advantage. I should have kept up. . .
But that's something to worry about another time. Right now, I just want to get through the rest of the day without anything else going wrong.
'Right, that should do it,' Willow says. 'They can't get in. Only Xander admitted.'
'But can we get out?' I ask. 'Won't that break the circle?'
'No, I thought of that. It's an Amoebus circle, a one-way barrier. And it's not a protection spell, so we're free to leave the circle without breaking it. In fact, it can only be broken by the will of its creator. . . um, that's me. I'd have to chant. . . '
'So we can get out just fine. It's getting in again that would be the problem.'
'Uh. . . yeah, that's about right.'
'And if they really are going to surround the building, we could be here a very long time. . . '
Willow frowns anxiously.
'I'm sure Buffy's thought of something,' she says.
We don't have long to wait before there's a commotion at the door, like someone's tried to walk through and has been thrown back into the road. Of course it could be just some kid arriving late for a night of clubbing. . . until the shouting starts.
'Well, now you've given yourself away, Constantine! Come out. We need to talk.'
Now, the teenagers who are just here for a good time seem to have finally work out that there's something seriously wrong here tonight. They're edging away from the doors. I fight my way through the crowd towards the sound of the shouting.
'Oh no you don't!' I yell. 'I know the agreement you made. Hand him over.'
'Constantine, I don't know what you're talking about. . . ' the man snaps. 'Stop playing games before we really lose patients with you. . . '
At that moment someone grabs my arm. I pull away, hard. . . but it's only Buffy.
She's glaring at me.
'I thought you said they had Xander with them!' she says angrily.
'They did! They do! I saw him. . . ' I say. She shakes her head.
'Well he's not there now!' she snaps.
'I don't understand. . . we both saw him. Milton melted through the chains, and him and Ethan dragged him out. . . '
'Ethan? Ethan was with them?'
'Yeah. Milton didn't trust him enough to leave him. . . why do you ask?'
'Cos he's not there now,' Buffy says flatly.
We stare at each other in silence for a long minute.
'Where. . . where do you suppose Ethan's taken him?' I ask eventually.
'I don't know.'
'What the hell do you suppose they're after, if the swap's not good enough for them?'
'I don't know.'
'What are we going to do?'
'I don't know! I just don't know, Constantine!' She's yelling. She's angry. But she's also upset, and near to tears with worry.
'Oh god. I'm sorry. . . '
She raises a hand and cuts me off. 'Look, I know it's not your fault. You did your best. Just give me a moment to think. . . '
'Constantine! Are you listening to me?'
I haven't been. But now that I am. . . there's something odd about the voice. It's not Ethan talking. I've been assuming that it's Milton. But it doesn't sound like his bored, cold tone. This is. . . something else. A voice I recognise from my time in Oxford, all those years ago. . .
And a voice I recognise from a phone conversation at six o'clock this morning.
And suddenly, everything is a thousand times more complicated than I thought it was. And suddenly, I understand.
'What have you done with Xander?' Buffy snarls.
'Nothing,' Quentin answers.
'Buffy! Wait! He never had Xander!' I yell. . . but it's too late. Buffy's lunged forward to grab his collar. . . and stepped out of the circle. I groan in exasperation and burry my face in my hands. . . and at that moment, there's a commotion at the other door.
Ethan is rejected by the circle and sent flying. But Xander staggers through. No longer forced to stand by his tormentors, he collapses to the floor. Willow rushes over to his side. Buffy's eyes widen, and for a moment she stands frozen, realising her mistake. Then Xander whimpers, and she can't help herself; she runs full speed at the invisible wall. But the power of the circle flings her aside, and she on the concrete floor in a crumpled head. Quentin bends over her.
'Slayer,' he hisses. 'Listen to me!'
Now, Milton's realised that there is no way he can enter the bronze. His guards have tried forcing their way through. . . unsuccessfully, and he's muttered spells and counter-spells. . . with no result.
'You sneaky little bitch!' he yells. 'You think a simple spell like this can keep me from getting my hands on you?'
He's right. Willow's magic won't be enough to keep a determined psychopath out for long. I force my way across the room, hoping to keep him busy, to buy Buffy some time at least.
'Well, it seems to have been pretty successful so far!' I yell.
'Constantine? Is that you?'
'Yeah. The one and only.'
'They do say the pull of the hellmouth is pretty hard to resist. I'd heard the rumour that you were in town. I wondered whether you'd get mixed up in this eventually.'
'Well, here I am,' I say. 'What do you want with the Slayer?'
'I'd have thought that would be obvious, Constantine. What do people like us ever want?'
I shudder at the phrase. People like us. . . I am nothing like you, I think desperately, but I can only hope it's true. Because I do know the answer to his question.
'A little more protection. A little more power,' I mutter.
'Exactly,' Milton says triumphantly. 'Drain the slayer of hers. . . take it for my own. . . and just imagine what I could do, Constantine. Just imagine what I could do. . . '
I imagine. . . and I shudder. The image of his knife sliding across Xander's chest, his hands gripping Ethan's throat. . . With Buffy's power. . . he could rule the world with terror and blood. I swallow hard and try to keep my calm.
'Get past a school-girl's magic circle, for one thing,' I say angrily. He scowls.
'True, it's keeping me out, Constantine. Don't think for one minute that that protects you if you don't hand over the Slayer.'
'I can't,' I say truthfully. Milton snorts.
'Interesting,' he says softly. 'Can't. Not won't. Can't. . . ' He looks at me thoughtfully. 'Tell me one thing, Constantine. Are you really protecting her from me, or do you just want her power for yourself? Because I'd be prepared to strike a deal. . . ' he stops, catching the horrified look on my face. 'Not interested?' he smirks. 'Or perhaps a little too interested for your own comfort?'
I shake my head helplessly.
'I'm not interested. I'm not!' Milton smiles.
'I've heard the rumours, Constantine. Hell's after you. Council's after you. I'm offering you a way out. . . '
'You're damned already, Constantine. What have you got to lose?'
I freeze. He's right. What have I got to lose?
...Only the one friend who's never abandoned me. Only the kid I've been trying to save. Only the newly won trust of the Slayer.
'More than you'll ever know,' I snarl. He smiles.
'Well, if that's the way you want it. . . ' he says. 'Just remember, the deaths are on your hands, Constantine. I gave you the chance to bargain.'
'Milton, wait!' I yell, but he's turned away, muttering something under his breath.
'No. . . ' Ethan breathes. 'Milton, no!'
'What is it? Ethan, what's he doing?'
Ethan looks up at me. His face is completely white.
'He's summoning it here. . . magic circle won't keep it out. . . ' he says frantically. 'It'll rip the place to pieces. . . '
Milton falls to his knees. There are sparks dancing in the air around him.
'Ethan, stop him!' I yell. Ethan stares at me, wild eyed with fear, and then glances at Milton. For an instant, he hesitates. . . and then he runs for it. I swear loudly and violently. Milton's smile broadens, and his chanting intensifies.
I can't let him finish the spell, I can't. But my mind is completely blank. Without thinking, without stopping to count the armed guards, without bothering to remember that once I've left the circle I can't get back in again, I throw myself on him, punching his face. I try to pin him to the ground, but he's stronger than he looks, and more sadistic than I could ever be. He grabs my bandaged arm and twists, hard. I cry out. . . and now it's him that's close to pinning me down. At least with us grappling on the floor like this, the guards don't dare shoot me for fear of hitting him.
And at least I've stopped his chanting. For now.
I wrench my arms free, and lash out at him wildly, ineffectively. He laughs, twists, and jerks out of my grasp. I hit my head hard on the concrete floor, and gasp as the world begins to go dim around the edges. No. Can't black out now. Can't let him finish. . .
The air crackles with electricity. I pull myself to my knees, grab his hair, and jerk his head back. Again the spell falters, but he this time he lashes out and sends me flying. I hit the invisible wall of the magic circle, and am thrown back. I land on my knees, gasping for breath, almost sobbing with pain. Again, I force myself up.
'You're a persistent bugger,' Milton whispers. 'I didn't want to have to hurt you, Constantine, but. . . ' He shakes his head and mutters something under his breath. He doesn't even have to touch me; all I can do is curl up and scream. It feels like my skin is being ripped off by something with blunt claws. After a while, it wears off slightly, and I collapse to the floor, sobbing for breath, barely conscious. Can't black out. . . got to do something. . . something important. . . I force my eyes open. The world spins, and I groan. Got to. . . got to stop something. Something important. . . can't black out. Not now. Can't.
The sound of Buffy's feet pounding on the concrete as she runs up behind us rings loud in my ears. I hope desperately that she'll be able to stop Milton where I failed. . . but then the last few words of a summoning spell pierce through the fog in my brain, and a cold shiver runs down my spine. There's a roaring in my ears which is nothing to do with the pain. That was. . . I was supposed to stop. . . oh god, I'm too late. . .
From somewhere far away, Buffy is shouting.
'Will, break the circle! Willow, let me in! Break the circle!'
More chanting. . . . I was supposed to stop the chanting. . . Screaming.
'No. . . ' I murmur weakly.
'Willow, hurry up!'
'I'm trying, Buffy! I'm trying! I can't. . . I don't understand. . . it's not working. . . '
More screaming. A horrible, gurgling sound. Shouting. Sobbing.
More chanting. It's. . . it's Willow chanting. I don't understand. I was supposed to stop the chanting. . . unless. . . no, that was Milton. What's Willow doing? I know it's important, but it all seems so far away.
I try desperately to concentrate. The magic circle. She has to break it. To let Buffy in. Because. . . because I was too late. And Milton summoned something. And it's in there, inside the magic circle, and Buffy can't get to it. Willow's chanting to break the circle. Because she created it. She's the only one who can break it. . .
Buffy's pounding on the wall with her fists.
'Please, Will! Willow, please!'
The chanting's getting desperate.
. . . Because. . . because she didn't create it, did she? I did. It was me. . . I made the circle. . . spread the herbs and the sand. . . walked the perimeter of the room. Wasn't Willow that did it. It was me. I created the circle.
So only I can break it.
I've got to let Buffy in. Can't. . . can't remember the words. I shake my head, trying to clear it. My mouth is so dry. I cough weakly, and swallow hard. Got to break the circle. Got to say the words.
I stammer over them, stumbling, barely remembering them at all, choking, gasping, faltering. My voice is hoarse and cracked, my tongue is swollen, and my head is spinning so badly that I can't see.
'Constantine?' Buffy murmurs anxiously
I gasp out the last few words, and she staggers through the invisible walls of the circle.
And then everything is chaos. And then everything is blackness.
'Constantine! Oy, Constantine!'
I groan and open my eyes. For a brief moment everything is agony and I think I'm going to pass out again. Then the pain subsides to a bearable level, and I blink and try to get my eyes to focus.
Someone's kneeling over me. At first I think it's Buffy, and then I think it's Giles. . . and then my eyes come back into focus slightly, and I realise it's Spike.
He looks terrible. He's got a black eye and a bloody nose and a deep scratch down one side of his face.
'Wha' the hell happened to you?' I manage. He snorts.
'I was stuck inside the magic circle with that thing,' he reminds me bitterly. I close my eyes and swallow hard.
'You said you wanted some action. . . ' I murmur. He rolls his eyes.
'Can you stand?' he asks. I grimace.
'Dunno.' I struggle to sit up, but a flash of blinding pain in my head forces me to give up the effort. 'Don't think so,' I say through gritted teeth. My head is pounding, and I swallow hard to keep from throwing up.
'I'll get Buffy.' He turns to go.
'Wait!' I call.
'What is it?'
'Xander? Is he alright?'
'He's been better.'
'Was anyone hurt?'
'Not too badly. I had it under control.'
'Quentin's got him.'
That sentence might have made more sense if my head was spinning slightly less. Quentin. . . and Milton. . . . they weren't working together. There were two different groups out to get me. . . I mean. . . was me they were after? I don't bother trying to work it out now. Spike turns to go again.
'Spike! One more thing. . . ' He raises a questioning eyebrow. 'Tell her. . . remind her. . . no hospitals.'
Spike nods, and wanders off without saying another word. And it's only after he's gone that I realise that although we were all trapped outside the circle there was nothing on earth keeping him in other than whatever passes for his conscience. Vampire he may be, I think, but heartless bastard he isn't. I smile, but it turns into a grimace of pain.
The next time I come to, it's in the back of the car that me and Spike nicked earlier. Spike's driving. I don't know how the hell he got the engine started. Xander's in the seat next to me, and he actually looks a whole lot better than I feel. He's cradling his broken fingers, and he looks a bit knocked about, and justifiably slightly freaked, but mostly what he looks is relieved.
'Hey, you're awake,' he says.
'Yeah.' He smiles awkwardly.
'Thanks for the rescue,' he says.
'You're welcome. Don't mention it.'
'It was you who took the circle down,' Willow says.
'How did you do it? It shouldn't have been possible! Only the circle's creator. . . '
'That was me. I created the circle.' She still looks confused. 'You said the words,' I explain. 'But I was the one who physically made the circle.'
'Of course!' She looks cross with herself for not having worked that out sooner.
'And you figured that out with the concussion?' Spike asks incredulously.
'Well. I'm impressed,' he mutters.
'What happened to Ethan?' Buffy asks suddenly. I shrug, and then wish I hadn't.
'He ran. He got away. I couldn't stop him.' She nods.
'It was brave of you to try and stop Milton,' she says.
'Stupid,' I mutter. 'Jumped in without a plan. Got beaten up.'
'Bought us some time,' Buffy says. 'I needed it, John. Thank you.'
I manage a smile.
'There were two separate groups of them,' Buffy explains to Giles, later. Willow's taken Xander down to the hospital to have his fingers set, and Spike's gone back to his crypt (with what looked like quite a substantial reward), and I'm sitting on Giles' sofa again, washing down aspirin with another mug of tea. 'Quentin and the council were after Constantine. It was like you said. . . they wanted to make some deal with the rulers of hell.'
Giles pulls a face. I grin at him.
'But Ethan was working for Milton,' I say. 'And he was just out for himself. He wanted Buffy. He wanted to drain her power and use it for his own purposes, like you would with some demon you'd summoned from another plain.'
'Milton does work for the council,' Buffy fills in. 'But I don't think they had any idea what he was doing.'
'Ethan was being blackmailed,' I tell them. I don't think that Buffy knows that yet either. 'Milton had control over some demon he'd summoned, and he was threatening to let it loose on him if he didn't cooperate.'
'Yes. Well. That explains a lot,' Giles says.
'So it ended up with all of us. . . '
'. . . except Spike. . . '
'. . . All of us except Spike, trapped outside the Bronze,' Buffy says. 'Couldn't get past our own magic circle. And Milton summoned the demon inside the magic circle, when John wouldn't hand me over. But him and Spike bought me enough to sort out a deal with Quentin. John broke the circle, and Quentin helped me contain the demon.'
'And here we all are,' I finish cheerfully. Aspirin and tea have helped more than I would have thought possible. And I wonder if Buffy knows how much it means to me that she's calling me by my name.
Giles smiles at me vaguely, and then looks over at Buffy.
'Just out of interest,' he says. 'What sort of a deal did you strike up with Quentin?'
'Well, I told him what Milton had done to Xander and I said what you said before, about how not all evil comes from the demon dimensions. I told him that I wouldn't hand over John, and even if I did, he wouldn't be able to rid the world of evil. I reminded him that I was no longer working for the council and that they had no control over me. And then I told him that if he helped me stop Milton and then went away and never interfered with me again, then I wouldn't kick his ass.'
'Oh. I see,' Giles says weakly.
I'd been vaguely dreading spending another night on Giles' sofa, but I sleep more soundly than I have done in a very long time.
In my dreams, Ripper kneels beside me, and whispers words that I can barely hear or understand.
'Giles knows,' he tells me. 'Giles knows the answers too. You just have to ask him.'
'. . . I can't. . . ' I whisper. I look down at my hands, expecting to see blood. . . but they're mercifully clean.
Ripper smiles, and takes my hands. 'When you're ready, John,' he murmurs.
Xander locks his big, brown puppy-dog eyes on mine. 'I trust you,' he whispers.
'I trust you,' Ripper echoes. 'So does Giles.
And Spike reaches down and takes my hand.
'Can you stand?' he asks.
'I don't know.' He looks at me and raises an eyebrow.
'You don't know?' He shrugs. 'I'm damned too, you know. Hell, I don't even have a soul. But it doesn't mean anything. I'm still. . . '
'. . . one of the good-guys,' Buffy finishes. She touches Spike's face, and then reaches out and takes my other hand.
'No,' I mutter. 'You don't understand. . . I. . . there's things I've. . . you don't understand. . . '
'I think I do,' she says gently. 'You could ask Giles,' she adds.
'No,' I say, more softly. 'No, I don't think I can. . . ' She shrugs.
'Can you stand?' she whispers.
'I. . . I think so,' I murmur.
I wake up in the warm darkness, stiff and uncomfortable. The nightmares might have gone, but sleeping on Giles' sofa has still given me a crick in my neck. . .
'You won't stay another few days?' Giles asks.
'No. You see, I left London in a bit of a hurry, and. . . well, there's stuff that I ought to sort out. People I ought to see. That sort of thing.'
'I thought you'd say that,' Giles says.
'I'm a busy man. It's not easy being hell's most wanted. . . '
Giles grins. 'You always were a cocky little sod,' he says. 'All right then, off you go. But you'd better drop by sometime when neither of us is in imminent danger.' I laugh, and his eyes sparkle. Then he claps his hand on my shoulder, and says, suddenly serious, 'I love you, you bastard. Take care now.'
I clasp his hand in silence for a long moment.
He's still watching me from the doorway as I make my way down the road. I light a cigarette, and I turn up the collar of my trench coat.
And I don't look back. . . .