Yet They Grind Exceeding Small
(the Mills of God Remix)
Copyright April 2012
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
This story is a remix (done for Remix Madness 2012) of #4 of "Four Drabbles" by SRoni.
Ethan Rayne was not, by nature, an impatient man. His dedication to chaos, paradoxically, required a substantial amount of planning and discipline, because genuinely creative destruction took work. Even his temperament inclined him toward savoring the pleasures that came his way, which — again — called for a measure of self-control. And, in an instance such as this, when a prize of some note was nearly within his grasp, he was prepared to endure a long wait and considerable discomfort to achieve his ends.
All the same, it was almost as if the character in front of him was deliberately working to make him suffer as much as possible.
"The thing you gotta understand about women," Big Al was saying, "is they're like cats."
"Really?" Ethan resisted the temptation to grind his teeth, and kept the encouraging smile fixed on his face. He itched to just drug this buffoon and get it over with … but Big Al preferred beer, cans from the room's wheezing minifridge, that he opened individually and never relinquished till he was ready for the next. Ethan was adept at sleight of hand, and a dusting of powder over the top of a glass would have been child's play, but the narrow opening of a poptop can was a prohibitively difficult target. Particularly when the man kept waving it around like that.
"Damn straight." Big Al belched. "Ever watch a cat? They're funny as hell, but they got this pumped-up sense'a diggety … dig … dignity. A cat catches you watching, realizes you think it's funny, that cat'll get mad and stalk off. An' punish you, one way or another, till it decides you've paid enough."
"That does sound like women," Ethan admitted. He took another pull at his own drink. At least Big Al was generous with his liquid cache; even if it was watered-down American piss, free beer was not to be scorned.
"An' they're always changin' on you," the other man went on. "Nothin' ever holds constant, you try to keep up with what they care about, what matters to 'em, you make lists'a what they want first … even if you could hold it straight in yer head, they'll just shift things 'thout lettin' you know, and you're the one sleepin' on the couch for not already knowin' what they never ever said."
Apparently, the cat analogy had been overstretched, or outright abandoned. "Not easy putting up with the creatures, I'll agree with you there." Right; that should safely cover either ground. "No head for business, either. The transaction you and I were discussing, for instance …"
"No rush, ol' buddy." Big Al drained the can he was holding, crushed it, and flung it at the corner wastebasket with a lurching sidearm motion. The can caromed off both walls in the corner and went clattering into the open door of the room's rickety closet. "I got all day, an' …" Big Al opened another can, took a long swallow, and peered craftily at Ethan over the top of it. "An' you're a captive audience, right?" He guffawed at that, falling back into his chair. "God, I love my life."
Ethan returned the grin, amusing himself with contemplation of the various retributions he would inflict on this lout once he had the Antoninianus in his possession. Nothing lethal, of course — too crude — and even crippling would be over the top. Why, the man would probably be fit again in less than a year, even if the pustules and sloughing took a bit longer to fade. Still, perhaps a soupçon of syphilis, just to top it off … now there was the gift that kept on giving …
"Now, one way cats 'n' women are different," the other man went on (so he hadn't yet exhausted his store of banal comparisons), "a cat'll hold a grudge for awhile — weeks, sometimes — but once it forgets why it's mad at you, you got the end in sight. A woman, though … no matter how long it's been, no matter how deep it's buried, no matter how much she's gone over it an' worked it through an' really tried to put it behind her … You give a woman a grudge, and you never know when it'll pop up again, ready to bite you on the ass an' start throwin' lightning bolts."
Definitely unlike cats. Ethan smiled again (self-replenishing kidney stones, now, that would be tricky but few things caused more pain with less overt damage), and observed genially, "No matter how long she holds a grudge, though, a woman can't do anything about it if she doesn't know where to find you." That seemed a safe enough observation; the only people who frequented the Cebu City bar where Ethan had finally run Big Al to ground were peripatetic types of his own sort, men of no country who moved from one short-term score to another. Big Al was definitely the type. Ethan himself wore a guyabara shirt, eminently suited to tropical climates where amenities might be limited but rough use was less of an issue; his mark, on the other hand, favored a bush jacket that showed more than its share of rough use, stained and with occasional small rips, the type of thing you saw not on yuppie poseurs but on men who valued utility and durability far more than style. The deep tan wasn't the kind that came from a booth, and the muscled forearms and scarred hands spoke of hard experience. Ethan knew very well how to deal with this type of individual, and if it meant sitting through an entire evening of drunken philosophizing, he could buckle up to the necessity. "One assumes, of course, that the lightning bolts are figurative."
"One assumes," Big Al returned darkly. "You piss off a woman enough, you don't want to take anything for granted. Including the bit about not knowing where to find you."
"My acquaintance with women tends to be, um, transitory." Ethan took on a bit more beer; he had considerable alcohol tolerance, and Big Al was outdoing him almost three-to-one, so he felt safe there. "I don't always get their names, and never remember them, and much of the time I tend to use an alias myself."
Big Al nodded blearily. "Smart man. Wouldn't do me any good, though. The gal I'm thinkin' of right now, I've known her, Christ, my whole life. Alias wouldn't work there, right? An' I thought I knew everything about her, thought I understood her. If there was one thing about her, it was that she was reliable, right? Turned out, not so much."
"Been there," Ethan agreed. How much longer now? "Inconstancy, thy name is woman."
"Whoa." Big Al blinked at him. "That is deep. But, like, I knew she had a thing for me, an' I knew enough not ta ever do anything about it, 'cause why mess up somethin' tha's already good, right? Only then I did, an' it DID blow up, but then it blew over, 'cause lifelong friendship goes deeper than dumb-assed hookups."
"Oh, I'm sure." Ethan chuckled. "I can already feel the 'but' building to its inevitable explosion."
"Hmm? Nah, no but there. The but comes later." Big Al took another huge swallow, emitted another stertorous belch. " 'ccordin' to some people, the Big Butt was me. Except Enormous Ass was the way they put it." He stopped, frowning, as if he had momentarily lost track. "Anyhoo, you take this woman? She was a mouse. Smart, loyal, good person … I did say smart, right? Major smart. But the timidest thing you ever saw." Another frown. " 'Timidest'? There's … that doesn't sound right. But, really shy, okay? Rather die than stand up to anybody, 'cause dyin' wouldn't hurt as much as havin' people actually look at her."
Ethan sighed inwardly. Janus, how long could this go on? "The kind, it sounds, that I never bothered with. Too much work to convince, and too many lamentations afterward."
"You'd think. Only, didn' work out like that." Big Al emitted a short bark of laughter. "Turned out this lady had depths. We're talkin' major issues. An', an' we worked through that, me 'n' her 'n' all our friends, or we thought we did — I mean, there was a BIG scene this one time, we're talkin' Armageddon on toast — but we got past it, right?"
Oh, bloody wonderful. Not just philosophizing, but bleary moaning about some idiotic love affair gone wrong. Ethan had none of the requisite materials on his person, but would it be simpler to simply announce he was making a short trip for some cigarettes, round up the proper ingredients, and ensorcel Big Al from a distance? Labor-intensive, to be certain, but surely less onerous than listening ad infinitum to these maunderings. "Except, according to your current testimony, she's unlikely ever to relinquish certain grudges."
A period of welcome silence while Big Al considered this observation (and finished his current beer and pulled out another). "Not talkin' about any grudges she's got against me," the man said at last. "I mean, you could be right, don' wanna be takin' that for granted, but it wasn't what I was talkin' about." He looked at Ethan with boozy earnestness. "Woman I been describin', she went totally around the bend. I mean … well, I'm lookin' for colorful descriptions here but I come up short, 'cause if you didn't see it yourself there's just no way ta make you see it."
The Antoninianus, Ethan reminded himself with stern determination. The Antoninianus, used by Julian the Apostate when he repudiated Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and made his first offering at the oracle of Apollo at Daphne, outside Antioch. The chaotic potential bound up in this single desacralized coin would power nearly a dozen wonderfully disruptive enchantments. More than worth certain voluntary mortifications. "I'll take your word on this one, chum," he told Big Al with oozing sincerity. "You make a convincing case."
"Yeah, yeah." Big Al waved it away, popped open the new can of beer. "Thing is, with a woman like this one? You don't take chances. You don't just do what you gotta when you're dealin' with her straight-on, you start lookin' ahead for anything that might rock the boat. It's … Okay, look at it this way. You don't wave a red flag in front of a bull, right? But if the bull can shoot rockets out its horns, you make damn sure nobody comes near it got any red on 'em. An' if the rockets are nukes, you start lookin' to see if there's any way to frickin' outlaw red, anywhere, on anybody." He cocked an eyebrow at Ethan. "An' the woman I been describin'? You're almost to punchin' anybody's lights out who looks like they might even be capable of mentionin' red. Ever. That's how serious I mean, here."
The intensity being expressed was beginning to sharpen Ethan's attention; the man seemed to be working up to something. If he got there, satisfied himself that he'd said his piece, might they then get to business? "You speak of someone who sounds formidable indeed. Would I be amiss to guess that's why you chose to spend your time in less, um, well-frequented areas of the world?"
"Yeah, like that'd work." Big Al scowled, shook it away. "Anyway, this woman, somebody did her wrong once. Things got bad, I mean bad BAD bad. Blood 'n' … well, no guts, but that was about all that was missin'. Flayin' an' earth golems an' homing fireballs an' let's see if we can destroy the world while we're at it, okay?" He shuddered without inhibition. "See it once, you don't wanna see it again. Been operatin' on that principle for, what, four years now? An' so far it's been a solid policy.
"Only then I start runnin' across little things. Minor things, casual 'n' trivial 'n' inconti–… incongr–… inconsequential. Tiny stuff. Stuff that doesn't really mean anything, but there's a few different things they might mean, an' one of those things is an all-your-hair-standing-on-end kinda unwelcome. Not too likely, but when five or six different little morsels pass by, an' any one of 'em could mean three or four possible things, but there's only one thing that matches on all of 'em? That's when the game starts to change."
Ethan shifted in his chair. Imprudently, he had allowed himself to be seated with the other man between him and the door. It had situated him to see anyone else who might enter, but over the last several minutes he had increasingly found himself wondering if that might have drawbacks which outweighed the single salutary advantage. "My friend," he said carefully, still keeping his expression and tone good-natured, companionable, "I suspect I'm beginning to lose the thread of the narrative here."
"Gettin' there." Big Al started to raise his beer can for another swallow … then, squinting at it, he set it down on the small table instead. "So, anyway, when you get a whiff of somethin' that might be this kinda really, truly, deeply foreboding, you gotta know if there's anything to it. An' when everything you find keeps tellin' you the same thing, you gotta do somethin' about it. Only, it's gotta be careful, it's gotta be low-profile, it's gotta be so far on the down-low you hafta reach way up to squeeze a snake's nuts. 'Cause you can't, you cannot, take any chance that it might ever get back to the woman who would actually count this as a grudge. You might as well be Slim Pickens, ridin' that H-bomb down to ground-level, whippin' your cowboy hat 'n' bracin' for a thermonuclear enema."
He stood up, as if about to step over to the minifridge … except, no, he'd not finished his current brew. Instead he stood casually, relaxed but somehow positioned to move in any direction or manner he might need. Ethan pushed his chair a bit further back from the table: not rising, no, he suddenly suspected that might bring a response he would not at all enjoy, but at least making it a trifle easier to come to his feet if he had to do it quickly. A sheen of sweat beaded his forehead; Big Al, by contrast, seemed perfectly comfortable, and — oh, bugger — not swaying in the least, as should have been expected from the amount he had been drinking.
"Very careful," Big Al went on. He was speaking differently now, the beer-sodden slur gone and his persona shifting, coming into force. "Very under the radar. Very not the kind of thing that would catch the notice of people who make it their business to watch out for anything that might mean anything. 'Cause I'm one of those people, and all of us report back to the same place, and that place has the woman I've been talking about here, and when you're looking at somebody who could end all life on the planet if she got hit with the wrong trigger, you don't want anything even to hint that any such trigger might exist.
"So you make sure. I mean absolutely sure, no question, no room for doubt. And you start putting out feelers. And you pick up a particular item that a particular someone would really like, would definitely come looking for." A muscle began to twitch in one cheek, the one below the black eye-patch, and Big Al raised his hand to knuckle at the spot without letting his gaze move away from Ethan. "And you find just the right spot, where the ley lines just happen to make a pattern that exactly suits what you need to do, and you find a friendly Katalonan who's willing to consecrate a particular room in a way that'll make it really hard for anybody who gets inside it to work any other magic. And you drink more than maybe you ought to, because what you know you have to do isn't anything you ever wanted to do, or ever thought you could."
Ethan stood now, but something kept him from moving forward, an ancient prickle of warning. "I think we may be dealing with a misunderstanding here," he said, projecting every last ounce of con-man's assurance he could summon.
"Nope." Big Al shook his head slowly. "The things I went through to make totally sure on this … well, it'd take longer to describe 'em than I'm willing to spend. But I kept going over it, and over it and over it, because I didn't want it to be true. Didn't want to have to face what I knew was coming. Because this thing, this one awful thing that nobody ever suspected, nobody can know about this. Nobody, anywhere, ever. We get done here, I'll call in favors from three different people and get every memory of this taken out of my head, even if I don't know how much else I'll lose along with 'em. No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, Willow can never know about this."
Ethan couldn't get to the door, that was clear. There was no window in this room. He had no weapons, no effectual enchantments pre-loaded and on his person (besides which, Big Al had apparently made certain he couldn't bring any such to active use). "This isn't what you think," he insisted, his assumed calm beginning to crack.
The other man simply ignored it. "I'll give you points for one thing," Big Al said. "You accomplished more with less than anybody else I've ever seen. The guys we deal with, they set up these centuries-long plots, seal 'em with mass sacrifices, do dark rituals that have to be shored up by long-lost mystical artifacts and carried out at exactly the right star-solstices or some such … You, though, you just picked up a phone and said four words." He shook his head. "I mean, that is some serious bang for the buck. Four words: 'Slayers aren't exactly bulletproof'."
From inside the bush jacket he suddenly produced a massive revolver, the enormous opening at the end of the barrel sucking in every iota of Ethan's concentration. Big Al's tone was still conversational, almost amiable, but his hand was steady and the barrel never wavered. "But, the thing about that? neither are wizards."