Consciousness returned in another bright flash, accompanied by a small explosion of pain in Giles' skull. Giles groaned, tried to raise his hands to his temples, and discovered that he couldn't move. This was enough to snap him from a groggy daze to full wakefulness. He raised his head, wincing as the movement set off another series of explosions, and looked up.
He was sitting in a hard, straight-backed armchair in the center of a small, square room. Heavy black chains bound his arms and legs to the chair. The walls and ceiling were rough gray stone, and the floor was unfinished wood marked with a number of brown stains Giles instantly decided not to think about. There were no decorations, no windows and -- more to the point -- no Ethan. Torches in iron sconces provided uneven light and a rather unpleasant smoky smell. All of this was alarming enough, but not half as alarming as the man who stood looming between Giles and the door.
At first glance, Giles was reminded of an illustration of a golem he'd seen in a 13th-Century grimoire in his father's collection. The man's face looked as if it had been sculpted, rather inexpertly, from clay and then damaged during the firing. Only the eyes, glittering black under a wild mane of shoulder-length gray hair, looked as if they belonged to a human, though not any human Giles would care to meet in a dark alley.
"Awake, are you?" The man's voice was deep and harsh. He wore a long, dark-red garment, somewhat like an early medieval robe, with a gold sunburst embroidered at each shoulder. "Ready to explain yourself?"
Giles mustered all the dignity he could manage under the circumstances and met the stranger's glare with what he hoped was a steady and challenging gaze. "You have rendered me unconscious, kidnapped me, and chained me up in a dungeon. I don't believe I'm the one who should be explaining himself. Who are you? Where's my friend?"
"Don't play games with me, Death Eater!" The man took a step forward, baring his teeth in an angry grimace. His boots sounded very loud on the floorboards. "Thought you could fool us, did you, disguising yourselves as Muggles? We're smarter than that."
There was a lengthy pause while Giles tried to translate that statement into comprehensible English. "I don't suppose," he said finally, "that it would do any good for me to say I don't know what you're talking about?"
The man's expression shaded from anger to disgust. With a slow, controlled movement, he reached with his right hand into his left sleeve and produced a slender length of polished dark wood, which he tapped in a deliberate rhythm against his palm. The gesture was clearly meant to be menacing, and probably would've been if Giles had any idea what he was supposedly being menaced with. Instead, he flashed on a vivid mental image of his first-year Archeology professor at Oxford, who had performed the exact same hand-tapping gesture with his pointer during slide shows. Giles bit his lip. Laughter, he suspected, would be a terrible mistake under the circumstances.
The man stared for a few seconds longer, then began to walk in a slow, wide circle around Giles' chair. Giles stared straight ahead, even after the man passed from his field of vision. Footsteps thumped steadily behind him, then stopped. Something cool and hard pressed against the back of Giles' neck. It took him a moment to connect the sensation with the stick his captor had been holding earlier. It felt a lot sharper than it looked.
"We've caught you red-handed this time," the man hissed. "The bodies weren't even cold yet. Like using the Unforgivables on children, do you? Maybe I should give you a taste of what it feels like on the receiving end. Something to remember me by in Azkaban."
"I assure you, this is all a mistake." Giles kept his voice low and even. "My friend and I had gone into the house to see if anyone inside was hurt. We didn't see any bodies." He remembered the smell at the top of the stairs and shuddered. "Whatever happened in that house, it was over by the time we got there."
The man behind him growled softly, and Giles braced himself for… he wasn't exactly sure for what. A blow? A knife in the back? An Unforgivable, whatever that might be? Before he had a chance find out, the door creaked open.
"Terrorizing the suspect again, Moody?" said a mild voice. "There will be paperwork if he dies of fright."
The new arrival was a very young man, barely out of his teens by the look of him, with untidy black hair and pale gray eyes that crinkled amiably behind horn-rimmed spectacles. He wore the same dark red garment as his companion, but with a single silver sunburst on the left shoulder.
Giles heard a mildly annoyed grunt behind him, and the pressure against his neck disappeared. A moment later the first man -- Moody, presumably -- came into view again.
"Potter. Took you long enough." Moody folded his arms across his chest and glowered. It was quite an intimidating glower, but Potter seemed unaffected by it. "What did you find out?"
"It all checks out." Potter reached into a pocket and took out an ordinary brown leather wallet, which he held out to Moody.
"Hey," Giles said indignantly, "that's mine!"
Both men ignored him. Moody continued to glower, while Potter opened Giles' wallet and began to cheerfully catalogue the contents.
"Muggle driving license." He removed the folded green paper from its plastic sleeve, held it up for inspection, and put it back again. "Muggle library card. One Muggle credit card, twenty-six pounds and seventy-three pence in Muggle money, two Muggle photographs of a nice silver-haired lady, and…" He paused dramatically before fishing out a small square packet and waving it in front of Moody's nose. "One Muggle contraceptive device. I'm shocked." Potter smirked and quirked an eyebrow at Giles. "What would the nice silver-haired lady say?"
"She'd say, 'Please unchain my son and give him back his wallet,'" Giles said through clenched teeth. Now that the threat of immediate assault appeared to have passed, he was starting to feel angry. For all the pseudo-medieval trappings, the scenario was starting to look disturbingly familiar. He had seen it before, not only in the American detective dramas that his non-tweed-wearing friends occasionally forced him to watch, but also during that one, horrid night when an all-too-real London police inspector had questioned him about Randall's disappearance. He had no idea who these men were, or who had gone and appointed them magic police, but he was rapidly running out of patience with them.
"I'd be a lot more willing to help you," he said, "if you told me what's going on. Who are you people? Is Ethan--is my friend all right?"
"He's fine." Potter sighed and made a half-hearted effort to smooth down his hair. "Moody, can we unchain the gentleman, please?"
"No." Moody's forbidding expression remained unaffected by condoms, driving licenses, or pictures of Giles' mother. "Not until we get to the bottom of this. How many times do I have to tell you, boy--"
"Constant vigilance, yes, I know." Potter sighed again. "But can we, at least, be comfortable?" He reached into his pocket again and pulled out a wooden wand that looked remarkably similar to Moody's, only newer. Potter held it out in front of him. "Formasella!" he said, and a sturdy wooden chair appeared in front of him out of thin air.
Giles squeezed his eyes shut for a couple of seconds. When he opened them again, the chair was still there, and Potter was sitting in it, staring pointedly at Moody. Moody stared back, then shrugged and unfolded his arms.
"Very well," he grumbled, conjured his own chair from nowhere, and sat.
"That's… quite impressive," Giles said weakly. He knew of several spells that could conjure large objects out of nothing, but they all required lengthy incantations and a fair amount of advance preparation. More to the point, they expended a large amount of magical energy -- enough so that anyone with an ounce of sensitivity could feel if such a spell was cast nearby. Yet Potter and Moody had conjured twice in quick succession, practically under Giles' nose, and he hadn't felt a thing. "Would you mind my asking how you did that?"
"Magic," Moody said curtly. "But you knew that, didn't you?"
"Don't mind him," said Potter. "Look, maybe we should start at the beginning. Mr. Giles -- that is your name, isn't it? Rupert Giles?" He waited for Giles to nod before going on. "I'm James Potter. This is my partner, Alastor Moody. We're Aurors, and you have no idea what that is, do you?"
"Absolutely none," Giles said emphatically. Potter beamed.
"See? He's a Muggle."
"He says he's a Muggle." Moody scowled. "But that light they had in the house was no Muggle device." He rose from the chair and loomed over Giles again. "Did you create that light?"
Giles hesitated, wondering if they had interrogated Ethan yet, and what he might've told them. "Yes," he said finally.
Moody continued to loom. "How?"
Apparently, it was the wrong answer. Potter winced and hid his face behind one hand, while Moody somehow managed to look angry and smug at the same time. "So you admit you're a wizard?"
"A wizard?" Giles blinked. "Well, it's not the word I'd normally use, but I have studied magic, yes."
Moody's eyes narrowed. "What word would you normally use, then?"
Giles shrugged. "What do you want, a formal title? I'm afraid I don't have one. I'm a scholar, really. History and Ancient Languages. Magic is just... a sideline."
"A sideline," Potter repeated in a dazed voice. He looked as if he couldn't quite grasp the concept behind the word.
"Where did you go to school?" Moody demanded.
It was not the follow-up question Giles had been expecting. "Westminster, why?"
There was a long, strained silence. Potter and Moody looked at each other, then at Giles, then at each other again.
"Let's talk outside," Moody muttered finally, and marched out of the room. Potter followed, pausing only to give Giles a quick apologetic smile before shutting the door behind him.
They didn't go far; Giles could hear them holding an animated discussion on the other side of the door, though the voices were too muffled for him to follow the conversation. The word "impossible" seemed to figure in it a great deal, along with the ever-puzzling "Muggle" and "Death Eater." Neither man sounded very happy.
After about five minutes, the argument died down and the door opened again. Potter and Moody came back in and resumed their seats. Potter looked excited, Moody grim and suspicious.
"All right," Moody said. "We're ready to listen. What were you and your friends doing in that house?"
Giles took a deep breath. "We had just left a party a few blocks away. We saw that... that thing in the sky, the skull with the snake. I wanted to investigate, and Ethan came along. We had just enough time to get up the stairs before you two showed up."
Moody scratched his scarred chin. "Most Mu--most people would've either run away or called the police."
Giles shook his head. "The apparition was clearly magical in nature. The police would've been of no use. And I was afraid that something dangerous might've broken loose: a destructive spell gone out of bounds, or even a demon manifestation. I couldn't just leave it."
"A demon?" Moody frowned.
"Ancient Muggle superstition," Potter said promptly. "Most of their cultures attributed magical power to external sources, such as gods, spirits, or evil superna--"
"I know what a demon is," Moody snapped. "I don't need you reciting your lessons at me."
Potter shifted in his chair. "Sorry, Sir."
"Never mind." Moody aimed his glare at Giles again. "You say you perform magic, yet you believe in demons?"
Giles stared back. "You say you perform magic, yet you don't?"
Moody did not dignify this with an answer. "That light spell of yours -- describe how you did it."
"Uhm…" Giles gathered his thoughts and forced himself to remember everything he'd ever learned about the creation and use of Helios spheres. It was, he recalled, quite a simple spell, so basic that he hadn't cast it in years, and not even Ethan had ever managed to wreak any havoc with it. It would do no harm to tell.
He described the ritual for purifying the crystal, the meditation technique, and the symbolic sacrifice designed to persuade Helios to imbue the sphere with a tiny spark of power.
"It's not a very powerful spell," he admitted, "but it's useful because the effects will vary depending on what incantation you use when you break the sphere. You can produce light, heat, noise, minor illusions, a small guide light that will always point to true north, or…" he trailed off, frowning. "I'm afraid I don't recall all the possibilities."
"We get the idea," Potter said. He sounded a little breathless. "My God, Alastor, if this is true... we might have an entirely new--"
"Not here," Moody said quickly. His face had gone totally expressionless, which Giles found more worrying than all the previous displays of temper. "Come outside again."
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" Giles said plaintively. All he got in response was the sound of the door slamming.
They were gone much longer this time. There was no clock in the room, and Giles couldn't see his watch from where he sat, but it felt as if hours passed while he sat there, unable to move, with nothing to look at but the wall. His back and shoulders began to hurt, and his knees stiffened. Once or twice, he thought he heard footsteps and voices outside the door, but no one responded to his shouts.
When the door finally did open, the men who entered weren't Moody and Potter, but a pair of poker-faced strangers, a man and a woman in plain gray clothing. They, too, carried wooden wands. The man unlocked Giles' chains with a tap and a muttered word, helped him out of the chair, and cuffed his hands behind his back. The woman stood a few paces away and kept her wand aimed at Giles the whole time. Giles kept his head down and made no sudden moves. True, he had yet to see one of the wands used as a weapon, but if they could produce furniture out of nothing, they could no doubt produce something much nastier.
They ushered him out of the room and down a series of identical gray stone corridors, then into another room. This one had a fireplace, a rug, and six chairs arranged around a large mahogany table. The fireplace was lit, the chairs had cushions on the seats, and the table held a water jug and some glasses on a tray. It was almost cozy. Giles' escorts uncuffed his hands and marched out, leaving him alone. Giles peered into the water jug, decided that it would be pointless for anyone to try to poison him at this late stage, and poured himself a glass. He had just settled comfortably into one of the chairs when Ethan was brought in.
"Giles! I see you survived the Inquisition, too. Hey, careful with those, I bruise easily." The last remark was directed to the man who was removing his handcuffs. Ethan sprawled in the nearest chair and made a dramatic production of massaging his wrists. He waited until he and Giles were alone before he spoke again. "Do you have any idea who these people are? They seem to think we killed somebody in that house. I *knew* we shouldn't have gone in there. This is all your fault, you know?"
"Must be a nice change for you," Giles muttered, "having somebody else to blame."
Ethan looked as if had a number of snide things to say in response, but before he could voice any of them, the door opened again and Moody and Potter came in. They were accompanied by a third man, whose appearance made Giles stare and provided Ethan with a handy new target for his wit.
"Good Lord!" Ethan rocked his chair back, then landed forward again with a thump. "It's Gandalf the Magenta."
Giles had to admit it was an apt description. The new arrival was draped in an ankle-length, reddish-purple robe with billowing sleeves and a midnight-blue cloak embroidered with gold stars and crescent moons. He had a rather magnificent mane of silver hair that hung past his waist, an equally impressive silver beard, and a long, sharp nose with a pair of half-moon spectacles balanced precariously near its tip. He should've presented an utterly ridiculous sight and yet, somehow, he didn't.
"Good morning," The old man pulled out a chair and sat across from Giles and Ethan, resting his hands on the table. Moody and Potter stood behind him, shoulder to shoulder. "I understand there has been a... certain amount of confusion. I do hope you haven't been too terribly inconvenienced."
"Actually, we have been," Ethan said coldly, while Giles was still struggling to find a diplomatic reply. "And I, for one, intend to file a complaint with--Ow!"
Giles felt a momentary pang of regret as he lifted his heel from Ethan's instep. It would've been interesting to hear just where, exactly, Ethan was planning to file his complaint. But he had the distinct feeling that Gandalf the Magenta was not someone to trifle with, even less so than the two sentries behind him.
"It's all been very confusing," he sighed, putting on his most harmlessly diffident manner and hoping Ethan would keep a straight face. "Perhaps if someone could just explain what's going on..."
"Of course." The old man smiled gently. His eyes were a pure, clear shade of blue normally seen only in very young babies. "I should start by introducing myself, shouldn't I? My name is Albus Dumbledore."
Ethan actually snickered, earning a threatening glare from Moody and a scandalized look from Potter. Dumbledore, however, did not appear to notice.
"This may take a while. We really should make ourselves comfortable." He clapped his hands. The water jug and glasses disappeared from the table, to be replaced by a full tea service for five, complete with a three-tiered serving tray loaded with breakfast pastries and five snowy linen napkins folded into elaborate rosettes. "There. This should tide us over for a while. James, Alastor, do sit down. It's very difficult to carry on a civil conversation with the two of you looming so aggressively."
Potter and Moody reluctantly settled themselves in two of the remaining chairs. Dumbledore placed a cup and a saucer in front of each man, shook out one of the napkins and draped it over his lap, took a miniature scone from the tray, and reached for the tea pot. "Now, allow me to explain..."
Four cups of tea, three raisin scones, two crumpets and a chocolate croissant later, Giles wasn't sure what would give out first: his stomach or his head.
"Look." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, trying to push back the incipient migraine. "I'm not trying to be difficult, really I'm not, but… You're telling me that there's an entire *extra England* that's existed alongside the regular one for the past thousand years, and… and no one has noticed?"
Ethan looked annoyingly unfazed by the concept. "People have been managing not to notice vampires and demons for much longer than that."
"Vampires and demons," Giles said irritably, "don't have their own governments, schools and transportation systems."
"Oh, and such things are ever so much more noticeable than fangs, horns or extra heads?"
"To most people, yes."
"I know it must sound incredible to you." Dumbledore shrugged apologetically as he refilled his cup. (The squat teapot had produced sixteen cups of tea before Giles stopped counting, and it still showed no sign of running low.) "But believe me when I tell you it's even more incredible to us. You two gentlemen are Muggles, yet you perform magic. Not only that, but it appears to be a form of magic entirely unknown to us. Summoning demons, invoking deities… it's all very hard to believe."
"I still don't believe it," Moody grumbled. "It makes for a pretty story, but what proof do we have? I say, let's see them actually cast a spell, and then we can decide what sort of magic it is."
"It's not a bad idea." Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully. "And I must admit I'd be curious to see a demonstration."
Giles wasn't especially thrilled with the idea of putting on a show, but the unholy gleam in Ethan's eyes made him speak up quickly.
"I'll do it. I'll... uhm... need the appropriate components."
"I'm sure that can be arranged." Dumbledore rummaged within the folds of his cloak, eventually producing a blank parchment scroll and a peacock feather quill. He unrolled the parchment to lie flat on the table, and the quill rose up to hover over it. "Just tell us what you need."
It was very difficult to concentrate properly with everyone watching. Giles felt like a stage magician putting on a performance for an audience of skeptics. He resolutely ignored Moody's suspiciousness, Potter's unabashed curiosity, Ethan's amusement and Dumbledore's air of placid expectation, and focused on trying to think of a reasonably useful and harmless spell that didn't require esoteric ingredients or equipment.
"Eyebright," he said finally. "Fennel seeds. White rose petals. Vervain, rue, celandine..." The peacock quill faithfully wrote it all down. Dumbledore sat with his hands steepled in front of his chin, looking pensive, or maybe sleepy; Giles couldn't quite tell which. He didn't bat an eye at any of the ingredients Giles listed, not even the goat's liver.
When Giles finished, the quill hovered expectantly for a few more seconds, then gently settled on the table. Dumbledore picked up the parchment and held it out to Potter.
"Here you are, James. Would you mind doing the fetching? I'm sure Circe will have all the ingredients at hand."
"I'll be right back." Potter tucked the scroll into his pocket and walked over, not to the door as Giles would've expected, but to the fireplace. He pinched a small amount of some powdery gray substance from a bowl on the mantelpiece and tossed it onto the fire, releasing a quantity of thick smoke. "Potions Department, main supply room," he said loudly, walked into the flames and disappeared.
He reappeared about five minutes later, staggering out of the fireplace a great deal less gracefully then he went in, since his movements were hampered by the bulky cardboard box in his arms. He set it on the table with a thud and lifted the top flap.
"There you go. Circe didn't know if you wanted the plants fresh or dried, so she sent both kinds. Oh, and the only ivory mortar she had is a half-pint. I hope that's big enough."
"That's perfect, thank you." Giles stood up to peer into the box. Yes, there was the mortar, and the neatly tied herb bundles, and the hermetically sealed glass jar labeled "goat liver" on the lid. "Your Potions Department seems remarkably well supplied."
"Hah. You've never heard Circe grousing at budget meetings." James sat back down and snagged the last chocolate croissant from the tea tray. "She's very curious about what we're doing with her stuff, by the way. Wanted to come back here with me, and I had to put her off. I think she's peeved with me." He looked quite discomfited by that thought. "Maybe I should hire a food taster for the next week."
Both Moody and Dumbledore seemed to find this funny. Giles smiled politely and busied himself with laying out the spell components on the table.
"Need help?" Ethan asked hopefully.
Giles glared at him. "Don't touch a thing."
He measured the ingredients into the mortar, mashed them into a paste, and used the feather end of Dumbledore's peacock quill to paint the spell pattern onto the tabletop. It took him a few moments to remember the opening lines of the incantation, but once he got started, the Greek syllables rolled trippingly off his tongue. He could feel the magic gathering in the air around him, a faint electric tingle that made the hair on his arms stand up. Ethan felt it too, Giles could read his expression well enough to know it, but if any of the other men sensed the power in the room, they were doing an excellent job of hiding it.
Now came the fun part. He took off his glasses, placed them in the center of the pattern, and spoke the final phrases of the incantation. There was a loud pop and a flash of pale blue light as the spell snapped into place. Ethan, who would've been expecting it, nodded his approval. Potter and Moody looked startled. Dumbledore scratched his beard and looked thoughtful.
"I do believe it worked." Giles put the glasses back on, squinted at the closed door behind Moody, and found himself looking at the empty torch-lit corridor on the other side. "Yes, it has." He took the glasses off again and held them out to Moody. "Here, would you like to try?"
Moody stared at the glasses as if he expected them to explode in his face. "What will they do?"
"Allow you to see through solid objects. Not automatically -- you have to choose what you want to see through, and concentrate a bit. It may take you a few tries, but it's really not very difficult."
"Brilliant!" Potter made a grab for the glasses, a fraction of a second ahead of Moody, and put them on in place of his own. He stared at the wall in front of him, frowning in concentration, then gave an enthusiastic whoop. "Hey, it works! I can see Frank's office. Damn, too bad he's not in it doing something embarrassing." He was grinning broadly. It made him look about twelve years old. "Hey, can you use these to see through people's robes?"
"See?" said Ethan. "It's not just me." He smirked at Potter, who smirked back. "He tried to tell me I was *frivolous*, just because it was the first thing I thought of when we learned this spell. Some people have no concept of fun."
Giles decided not to dignify that with an answer. "You can do it if you fine-tune your focus enough," he told Potter, "but if you get it wrong, you might find yourself looking at people's internal organs, which are seldom a pleasant sight."
"And if Lily finds out, you might find yourself looking at your own internal organs." Moody snatched the glasses from Potter's nose and put them on himself. Like Potter, he took only a few seconds to get the trick of it. Then he grunted with satisfaction and proceeded to examine all four walls of the room, the floor and the ceiling. "Handy, that," he said finally, and handed the glasses off to Dumbledore, who seemed quite childishly delighted with them.
Ethan was starting to look a bit put out at not being the center of attention. "Really," he muttered. "The way they're all going on, one might think you turned lead into gold or something."
"Why?" Dumbledore looked faintly surprised. "Is that supposed to be difficult?"
"I want to try something." Moody took the glasses back from Dumbledore and held his wand over them. "Revelate Incantatem!" he barked. Nothing happened. Moody raised his wand again. "Finite Incantatem!" He put the glasses on again and looked around the room. "The spell is still working," he said, sounding impressed for the first time.
"It will wear off in an hour or so," Giles told him. "Now, may I have my glasses back, please?" He took them back from Moody and polished the lenses against his shirt before putting them back on.
"It's not affected by our* magic!" Potter practically bounced in his seat. "This is brilliant! We can use this, Albus! Voldemort won't be able to--"
"James!" Moody said sharply.
Potter blinked, then blushed and sank a bit lower in his chair. "Sorry. Jumped ahead a bit there, didn't I?"
"Jumped ahead on what?" Giles demanded, just ahead of Ethan's "What's a Voldemort?"
No one replied. Moody and Potter looked grim, and Dumbledore's eyes lost any trace of cheerfulness. The silence stretched and stretched, until Ethan violently clapped his hands together, making everyone jump.
"Aw, come on now." He sounded almost gleeful. "Drop that other shoe. I've been waiting for it all morning."
"I apologize if we've kept you in suspense." Dumbledore walked over to the fireplace and stood with his hands folded behind his back, gazing into the flames. "But this is a painful subject for us. You see, we are engaged in a… I suppose you would call it a civil war, though I have never been fond of the phrase myself."
"Against a Voldemort?" Giles asked.
Dumbledore nodded. In profile, lit by the flickering light from the fire, his face looked older and harder than it had when he was munching biscuits at the table. "He likes to style himself Lord Voldemort, though he will never be Lord of anything if we can help it. He is quite powerful, and quite mad, and quite determined to impose his madness on the rest of us."
"He sounds charming," Ethan drawled.
Giles thought back to that ruined house in Chiswick, with the green skull in the sky and the dreadful smell at the top of the stairs. He remembered Moody standing behind him in the interrogation room, giving off rage like heat as he accused Giles of "using Unforgivables on children."
"The house where you captured us -- had he been there? What did he do?"
"Not himself, probably," Moody growled. "It's the sort of thing he likes to send his lackeys to do. A Muggle family, nothing to do with the war. But their youngest daughter got her Hogwarts letter last week. Voldemort hates Muggleborn wizards. Wants to wipe them out."
"They killed everyone." Potter shoved his fists into his pockets and hunched his shoulders. "The parents and the three kids. Tortured them and killed them. It will be in your Muggle papers by tonight."
"It's been going on for over ten years now," Dumbledore said quietly, "with little hope of an end in sight. Voldemort is, as I said, a powerful wizard, one of the strongest who's ever lived, and he has the advantage of being willing to use methods that we won't stoop to. At least..." He frowned and lowered his head a little, stroking his beard slowly with one gnarled, long-fingered hand. "We haven't stooped to them yet. Things have been changing recently, and I'm afraid that if this war doesn't end soon, any victory we achieve will be no better than a defeat."
This prompted a muffled snort from Moody, who looked mildly mutinous but kept his objections to himself. Dumbledore gave no sign of noticing the interruption.
"And now here you are, Mr. Giles and Mr. Rayne, performing a type of magic that we cannot recognize, detect or counter. If you taught us your methods--"
"You'd have a new secret weapon for your side," Ethan finished the sentence for him. "How nice for you. What's in it for us?"
"Ethan," Giles muttered through clenched teeth. Ethan didn't spare him as much as a glance, addressing Dumbledore instead.
"It's a fair question, isn't it? You spin us such a pretty tale: magic kingdom, evil wizard, a war between darkness and light -- I can see Rupert's all ready to be measured for his shining armor." He gave Giles a smug grin, which Giles resolutely ignored. "But I like to think of myself as a practical man. If I'm going to take sides against someone who's powerful, insane and fond of torturing people, I want to know what I'm getting in return."
"Preventing more deaths isn't enough for you?" Potter asked. Ethan merely raised his eyebrows and smirked.
"It is a fair question, yes." Dumbledore turned away from the fireplace. He walked back to the table and stood with his hands resting on the back of his chair. "What sort of reward are you looking for, then?"
Ethan made a great show of thinking it over, though Giles could plainly see he already knew what he was going to demand.
"You want us to teach you our magic," he said. "Fine. You teach us yours."
"I'm afraid it doesn't work that way." Dumbledore looked genuinely regretful. "Were you both born in Britain?" Giles and Ethan both nodded. "Then, if you had any wizarding ability at all, you would've received your Hogwarts letter before your eleventh birthday. There's an easy way to make sure, of course." He pulled a wand from the folds of his cloak and held it out to Ethan, ignoring Potter and Moody's frantic signs of protest. "Here. Give it a wave."
"A wave. Right. Here it goes." Ethan leaned back in his chair, raised both arms, and gestured like a maestro in front of his orchestra. Nothing happened, though Potter and Moody both looked ready to leap out of their skins. Ethan glared at the wand as if he thought this was somehow its fault. "Should I be chanting something?" he asked. "Hocus-pocus? Abracadabra?"
Potter and Moody sprang out of their chairs as if someone had set fires under them. Moody struck at Ethan's arm, slamming it down onto the table and knocking the wand from Ethan's hand, while Potter scrambled to place himself in front of Dumbledore.
"Gentlemen!" Dumbledore's voice cut across Moody's elaborate swearing and Ethan's melodramatic groans of pain. "There's no need for alarm. Sit down, Alastor, you're frightening our guests. You too, James." His eyes held an amused but kindly gleam as he patted Potter's shoulder. "I appreciate the gesture, my boy, but I'm sure Mr. Rayne meant no harm."
Potter muttered something self-deprecating under his breath and slunk back to his chair, red-faced. Moody picked up Dumbledore's wand from the table and handed it back to him before sitting back down in the chair closest to Ethan's. Ethan edged away from him, rubbing his arm.
"You must forgive my friends," Dumbledore said. "They're a bit overprotective of me. But this little demonstration did prove my point -- the wand didn't respond to you. You cannot learn our magic."
"Wonderful," Ethan muttered. "In that case, I would like to go home now, please."
"Of course," Dumbledore said mildly. "And you, Mr. Giles?"
Giles hesitated. His instinct was to say yes, but Ethan's comment about being measured for shining armor had stung. Besides, he reminded himself, he'd had a hell of a rough night and was in no condition to be making sensible decisions. "I need to think about it," he said.
"Of course." Dumbledore nodded. "I understand it's a lot to absorb all at once. And we've all had a long night. Perhaps we should all go home and talk again tomorrow."
"That's it?" Moody looked stunned. "You're just going to let them go? They could be on another continent by tomorrow!"
Dumbledore crossed his arms over his chest, looking stern. "We do not hold innocent bystanders captive for our convenience, Alastor." His tone allowed for no possibility of further conversation on the subject.
They got their wallets back, along with Ethan's deck of pornographic playing cards and Giles' battered paperback copy of *Gulliver's Travels*, and James Potter volunteered to escort them outside.
"I'm sorry about Moody," he said to Ethan as the three of them walked out into the corridor. "I hope he didn't hurt your arm much. But that word you said -- abracadabra, was it? -- I wouldn't go saying around wizards if I were you. It... makes us uncomfortable."
"Naturally." Ethan flexed his wrist and winced. "I would ask why, except I really don't care." He shivered suddenly and huddled deeper into his jacket. "Is it me, or is it getting cold in here?"
"It's not you." The temperature in the corridor was dropping rapidly. Giles stuck his hands in his armpits to warm his rapidly numbing fingers. He could see his breath misting in front of him. "What's happening?"
"Fuck!" Potter was frantically rummaging through his pockets. "What the hell are they doing here? And where did I put the..."
Giles was no longer listening. The cold was seeping into his bones, leeching the strength from his limbs until he had to slump against the wall to keep from falling. For no apparent reason, he found himself thinking of Randall the night he had died -- no, the night they had killed him. Giles recalled his face, terrified and ridiculously young -- he'd been nineteen years old, the youngest and magically weakest of the group -- as he knelt in the center of the pentagram, crying. He and Ethan had lit the candles and chanted the exorcism spell, and had thought they were doing extremely well, until the flesh had begun to peel from Randall's face in rotting strips.
Next to him, Ethan was standing with his hands braced against the wall and his head lowered between his arms. Giles couldn't see his face, but he could hear his labored breathing. A few feet away, James Potter was shouting at a thin, stiff-backed man with short salt-and-pepper hair and a pencil-line moustache.
"What the devil were you thinking bringing them through here, Crouch, you know they're supposed to go in the back way!"
Crouch was making some sort of reply, and looking very supercilious while he was at it, but Giles was finding it difficult to listen, or to wonder who the mysterious "they" were that had Potter in such a state. All he could think about was Randall's body, sprawled limply on the bloodstained carpet, twitching slightly as the flesh melted from his bones.
"Mr. Giles! Can you hear me? Mr. Giles!"
"Huh? What..." Giles shook his head, blinking. The man named Crouch had walked away down the corridor, and the air seemed to be getting warmer again. Potter, looking shaky and very angry, was pressing something into Giles' hand.
"Here, eat this. It'll help." He patted Giles' shoulder and moved on to Ethan.
"This" turned out to be a chunk of dark, bittersweet chocolate, and its effects were remarkable. Giles could feel the cold receding with every bite he took. He wolfed it down in a few seconds, and turned to see Ethan licking his fingers while James unwrapped a bar for himself with unsteady hands.
"What the fuck was that?" Ethan demanded. His voice squeaked a little on the last word.
"Dementors." Potter took a bite of his chocolate bar. "Shit. Crouch had no business taking them through here. The man thinks just because he's made of stone, everyone else must be too. Do either of you need more chocolate?
"Uhm…." Giles took an experimental step away from the wall. His legs seemed to be holding him up. "I'm all right, thank you."
"I'll have some," Ethan said quickly.
James broke off half of his remaining bar and handed it over. "You're lucky you're Muggles," he said grimly. "You don't actually have to see the things. And you don't get the full effect."
"You mean that was the diluted version?" Giles shuddered. He considered asking Potter what it had felt like to him, and decided he didn't really want to know.
"Can we go now?" Ethan stuffed the last piece of chocolate into his mouth. "I think I've had enough of this magic kingdom."
Potter led them through the maze of corridors, then up a steep and winding staircase that appeared to terminate in a dead end. Before Giles had time to start feeling uneasy about it, Potter tapped his wand against the wall, which turned into a door.
"This will take you to Muggle London," Potter said, and held out his hand. "I hope we'll meet again."
Giles shook Potter's hand while Ethan pointedly pretended not to notice it. "How will we find you again?"
Potter grinned as he opened the door for them. "Oh, we'll be in touch."
It was bright daylight outside. Giles' watch informed him that it was seven-thirty in the morning. He stood on the pavement and turned around slowly, trying to orient himself.
"Either I'm losing my mind, or that's--"
"Banqueting House." Ethan sounded as befuddled as Giles felt. "We're in Whitehall."
"So we are." He could see the entrance to the Horse Guards just ahead and across the street. Car horns blared. A red double-decker bus sped by, carrying a contingent of early-morning commuters. Giles had to restrain a sudden urge to pinch himself. "Right. That's it. I'm going to go home, lie down in a dark room, and pretend that this all makes perfect sense."
"You do that." Ethan clapped him on the shoulder. "I, on the other hand, am going to go home, collect my belongings, change my name and move to Machu Picchu. Or maybe Milton Keynes. No one would ever look for me in Milton Keynes."
Giles frowned at him. "You can't just ignore what we've learned tonight, Ethan."
"Oh, yes, I can. And so can you. And you will, if you know what's good for you. Take my advice, Ripper, and keep away from these people. It's not your crusade."
"Actually, it is. I took an oath, you know. To gather knowledge and use it to defend the Light. To oppose the Darkness wherever I find it. It's not just a matter of Slayers, you know, it's--" Giles broke off in mid-sentence, because Ethan's shoulders were shaking, and he was making loud sputtering noises. It took Giles a moment to realize that he was laughing.
"Ah, Ripper…" Ethan shook his head as he wiped tears of merriment from his eyes. "This is why I missed you so. You have this wonderful way of making any situation humorous."
Giles felt his face grow hot and cursed himself for rising to the bait. "I'm not joking, Ethan."
"I know. You're perfectly sincere. You always are. That's what makes it so hilarious."
"I'm glad I serve a purpose in your life," Giles said peevishly. "Do call me the next time you need a laugh, and I'll do my best to oblige."
"But of course." Ethan sputtered some more. "I'll be sure to call collect from Machu Picchu. Hey, is that a taxi? Taxi!"
"Ethan, wait--" But Ethan was already climbing into the back seat of a black cab, causing a fresh explosion of car horns behind him. Giles considered getting in after him, but he was too tired and confused to argue with Ethan, and besides, he was going in the wrong direction. So he stood there quietly until the taxi pulled away; then he sighed, turned around, and headed toward Charing Cross.
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