Fic:: Like Dead Flowers
Yeah. Well, fic is always good. This is the sleep-deprivation fic, astonishingly enough. Finished, betaed, everything. I'm actually rather nervous about this - me writing Buffy fic, so not something I would have predicted.
Fic:: Like Dead Flowers
R, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, slash (Ripper/Ethan), pre-series.
Gets the rating for vaguely disturbing imagery and gratuitious use of the word "fuck."
On August Bank Holiday, in the late afternoon, there were flowers lurking in the grass and two boys stretched out in graceful lethargy.
Ripper was falling asleep. His eyelashes were fluttering down, his limbs splayed in deliberate indolence with bare feet surprisingly white on the grass. Ethan wondered what he’d done with his boots, whether he’d even worn them at all or had walked down the city streets barefoot. It sounded suspiciously likely. Ripper never complained about elemental things such as heat; he just moulded the world so it wrapped around him.
But it was too hot, Ethan decided. Vague, shimmering heat-haze lingered close to the ground, blurring his vision so the sky faded white at the horizon. It hurt to stare too long at it, so he lay back on the cool green and let his eyes close. The sunlight became dull fire-red behind his eyelids, splashes of dazzled colour bursting into life then fading as darkness rose. He was tired. The night was never meant for sleep, not for him nor Ripper, yet so young in deed.
He shifted on the grass and pulled at Ripper, kissing him quickly but deeply and letting him roll so Ripper’s weight settled on top of him. Nearby picnickers stopped talking abruptly and twittered as they realised the truth behind Ripper’s long curls and lashes, and he resisted the urge to giggle.
Ripper didn’t speak as Ethan held him, then threw him off so they were lying side-by-side again, the distance established safely. Ethan didn’t mind, not really. He liked their silence, sometimes more powerful than words. And now, the soft grass was a pillow beneath his head, Ripper’s steady breathing a lullaby, and together they were prelude to his slow slide down from consciousness. His fingers threaded idly through Ripper’s hair, movements slow and languid until at last they stopped altogether in the softness and silence. When he stirred again, it was because he was cold and there was music.
Ripper lay exactly as he had been before; above them, the sun was dark red and descending. But he wasn’t asleep. Ethan never could tell for sure, but this time he was fairly certain; although his eyes were still closed, Ripper’s fingers were moving over his guitar strings, strumming out the rhythm from instinct.
Ripper knew he was being watched. His eyes opened with characteristic quickness, and narrowed as they came to rest on Ethan. “You let me fall asleep.”
“No, I didn’t,” Ethan lied.
“Yes, you did,” Ripper stated, and his voice was so clear that it allowed no room for contradiction or denial. The music had stopped.
Ethan didn’t speak, knowing it would be useless. Ripper said and did and felt everything with eighty-decibel intensity because he was Ripper; Ripper with his barely concealed passion and anger, Ripper with his too-precise, analytical mind; Ripper, who could do magic.
Ripper, who was even now getting to his feet, bass slung loosely over his shoulders, moving silently over the grass.
It meant all Ethan could do was follow.
They left Green Park just as the first streetlights lit themselves. Ripper walked slightly in front of his companion, hands in pockets, staring at the ground, and he didn’t look up as Ethan asked, “Are you really going to do this?”
A long pause, then a few surly words. “I want to.”
Ethan nodded; he had expected nothing less. It was a challenge, something to do that would hurt and give power, and Ripper must have been the sort of child who never refused a dare.
Ethan said, “I do hope you’ve considered the possibility this isn’t going to achieve a bloody thing.”
Ripper gave him a brief half-smile, just visible in the sodium light. “Nothing isn’t worth trying.”
Like that easy grace, Ethan thought, magic was just one of those things about him. It wasn’t the precise incantations, the words of power, the formalised ritual. It was everything Ripper did that had the brief metallic taint of magic; it underscored its own melody beneath plucked guitar strings, and Ethan could sense it in the soft curls thrown against his face on those occasions when Ripper was close enough to touch.
“Nothing?” Ethan asked, his mind rife with possibility.
“I need this,” Ripper answered, as cryptic as ever. It might have made Ethan wonder why he had to do this, why anyone had to do this, but he knew what it was to care for magic more than he didn’t care for pain, and he didn’t want the clarification.
Instead, he asked the practical question. “How long?”
Ripper met his gaze. “Five days.”
His words were final; the subject needed changing and Ethan knew how to change it. In the dingy dimness of the flat, Ripper perched on the windowsill, his fingers curled round the edge of it, and Ethan smiled. He touched Ripper’s hands, his fingers making clear his intent, and Ripper glanced up. “If you must.”
Ethan would have done it with or without the assent, and Ripper probably knew it. He complained, because he always did. “It makes me look like a pouf.”
“You are a pouf,” Ethan pointed out.
“Yes, but now I look like one,” Ripper said, and tossed his head. Ethan followed his gaze, looking out above the skyline to see a faint, twinkling point.
“Make a wish, Ripper,” he said softly.
Ripper smiled. “But if I tell you, it won’t come true.”
Ethan wondered what the wish was, but Ripper’s star-touched eyes gave him no clue. Ripper kept his silence, and Ethan let it wash over him like a blanket as he worked.
He painted Ripper’s nails like a casting, with all the same delicacy and intensity. The last of the daylight was just enough to invoke Chaos with each black brushstroke, and Ripper was restless but fascinated, his hands slender and white against the gleaming black.When Ethan had finished, it was dark. Ripper leapt lightly to his feet, Ethan followed, and although they both knew where they were going, they never quite walked side-by-side.
Deirdre answered the door with eyebrows raised. “Wasn’t expecting you two here tonight.”
“Neither were we,” Ethan replied frankly, and would have paused in the doorway, but Ripper brushed past them both, disappearing into the sticky dimness inside without looking back.
Deirdre watched him go with the ghost of a smile. “Had a tiff, have you?”
“Not so far as I know of.” Ethan shrugged. “He’s gone a bit loopy is all. You wait, he’ll be worse.”
Deirdre drew back to let Ethan in and swung the door shut. Immediately the noise rose to a cacophony of dully thudding music and people, talking, laughing and crying, accompanied by the occasional shriek of pain or sexual ecstasy. “Any particular reason, or is this just generally Ripper?”
“There’s a reason.” Ethan grimaced. “Where’s the sainted boyfriend?”
“You don’t have to be so sarcastic,” Deirdre replied, pouting insincerely. “If you mean Philip, he’s busy tonight.”
“Washing his hair?”
“No, he’s got a dissection.”
“Ah, yes – he cuts up corpses for educational purposes.”
“Ethan, you’re horrible.”
“It’s a talent.” Ethan leaned against the door. “Whom do I have to sleep with to get a drink round here?”
“Me,” said Ripper softly, and Ethan jumped. Ripper moved silently; his hands were on Ethan’s shoulders and a glass had been pressed into his hands all without Ethan really noticing.
“Huh.” Ethan shrugged and knocked back the liquid in the glass without bothering to check what it was. “You can tell her about your latest. I’m getting another drink.”
He left Ripper talking to Deirdre; their voices faded quickly in the smoke and confusion of the party. It was hard to make out through the haze, but most people were on the floor, draped over the furniture or leaning against the walls. There was a couple engaged in noisy bliss on the floor by the table, but Ethan ignored them, stepping over them to where there were enough bottles left to supply a pint of warm beer. He drank most of it in one go and closed his eyes. His other senses were saturated with warmth, cigarette smoke and sweet-scented pot vapours, and he breathed in slowly, leaning against the table.
When his eyes opened again, someone was watching him. Bright blue eyes stared at him from across the table, and he frowned. “Fuck off, kid.”
The boy – and he was only a boy, the wrong side of that yawning chasm between seventeen and twenty-one – looked startled. “Sorry,” he said quickly, his voice almost swallowed by the surrounding noise. “I just... thought... I’m sorry.”
The boy had a guitar hanging off a strap, and Ethan’s interest was piqued for a moment. “And you’re staring at me like I’m the ghost of Caesar because...”
The boy shifted. “No reason.” Sensing he ought to say something else, he added, “I’m new round here.”
Ethan didn’t doubt it. Even in the dimness, the boy was too fresh-faced and well-scrubbed.
“Do you have a name?”
“Your name’s Linton and you want to be a rock star?” Ethan asked, and smiled a little. “Nice guitar.”
“Yeah, it is,” the boy said quickly, animatedly, and for a moment he lost the shyness. “It’s a good one. I’m in a band, it’s called Ugly Rumours. Do you play?”
“Nah, that’s Ripper’s department.” Ethan turned to where Ripper was lighting a cigarette, his eyes as bright as the small flame. Deirdre was saying something and laughing, but Ethan could only make out a few muffled words and then another peal of laughter.
Linton followed his gaze, taking in the sight of Ripper with wide-eyed bemusement. “He’s your...”
“Flatmate,” said Ethan quickly.
“Yeah.” Linton looked serious, then nodded. “You’re Ethan Rayne, right? I’ve heard of you.”
It was somewhat amusing to ask, “And what have you heard about me?”
“You and… Ripper, yeah, you’re like, well…” He squirmed. “Sort of occult.”
Ethan laughed. “Occult?”
“Yeah…” Linton looked scared again. “I’m not into that stuff,” he said quickly. “Only, I have this mate, he’s in the band with me, he’s dead interested in it.”
“Oh? And who’s this mate of yours?”
“Probably me,” said a new voice. “My name’s Randall.”
Ethan looked up, surprised to see the owner of the name seemed far less unassuming than his friend. “You’re interested in the occult?”
“Yeah.” Randall gave Ethan a swift, appraising look before turning his attention to the laconic figure standing by the doorway. Ethan saw the way his eyes swept over Ripper, less swiftness and more lingering appreciation, and bristled a little.
“We don’t mess about,” he said abruptly. “No Ouija boards and tea leaves and all that crap. Come by our flat some time, you’ll see.”
“I will.” Randall’s gaze was steady, far more assured than Linton, who had fallen into the background.
But Ethan was bored of the conversation now; he drifted off towards where he could still hear Deirdre laughing, and Ripper seemed amused as Ethan’s arms wrapped around his shoulders. “You want something. What do you want?”
“You,” Ethan replied promptly, and kissed him behind an ear.
“You can’t have me,” Ripper said. “Not in public.”
“It’s dark,” Ethan persisted, petulantly wanting it, and Ripper laughed suddenly, pulling himself free of the embrace.
“Careful, Ripper,” Deirdre cautioned, grinning. “Wouldn’t want to fall asleep, would you?”
“He wouldn’t fall asleep,” Ethan said.
“So catch me if you can,” Ripper murmured, and when Ethan had given chase through smoke and the press of bodies, allowed himself to be cornered against the door. His head was thrown back so what little light there was fell straight down into his eyes, and Ethan took five deliberate steps forwards. In a second, he had pulled Ripper down to his knees and onto the floor, letting his weight crush him. Painted nails were digging deeply into skin and his face was buried in cigarette-smoke-scented hair.
Mine, Ethan thought, and the music thudded and the world turned.
The dawn was a cloudy one, the sun rising in storms of cumulonimbus, but Ethan never saw it. The afternoon was calm and clear, and he woke to a perfect sweep of blue sky and a curious feeling of cotton wool inside his head. Ripper’s scent still clung to him, the smoke and leather a brief reminder, but Ripper himself was gone. He had left his boots.Ethan wasn’t surprised. He sat up with a barely muffled groan, and waited for his vision to clear. The floor was a mess of bottles and bodies, sleeping entwined, but the window had been opened and he heard movement.
“Wake up, you lazy bastard.”
Ethan yelped and sat back, the voice cutting straight through his skull. “What the...”
“It’s me,” Deirdre hissed. “Saw you were awake.”
“In a manner of speaking.” Ethan rubbed his head; it hurt to talk.
“You’re getting some fresh air,” Deirdre ordered without room for argument, and Ethan felt himself tugged to his feet. In the kitchen, plastic bag ties were thrust into his hands.
Two minutes later, they were outside, standing on the pavement. It seemed strangely quiet compared to the ringing inside Ethan’s head. “Why...” he began.
“It’s not that I needed help taking the rubbish out,” Deirdre said matter-of-factly. “You’re here to keep me company.”
“Oh,” said Ethan.
She ignored him and continued, “And before you ask, I don’t know where Ripper is. He went off somewhere at about five o’clock this morning.”
“Oh,” said Ethan again. The fresh air was, against all expectations, beginning to clear his head. “Where?”
“Not a clue. What’s wrong with him, anyway?”
Ethan sighed. “He didn’t tell you last night?”
“He tried. I get the feeling he’s not exactly compos mentis.”
“Not exactly.” Ethan didn’t feel up to explaining and fell silent. Somewhere close at hand, a bird was singing, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.
Deirdre seemed bored of the subject. “Some bloke was asking about you last night.”
Ethan forced his befuddled brain to cooperate, pulling out a name after a second’s thought. “Randall?”
“That’s the one. He’s a bit weird, but he’s in a band.”
“He wants to know about you, and about Ripper, and about… what did he say? The occult, and stuff.”
Ethan groaned. “Bloody hell. We’re not running night school classes here.”
“Yeah?” Deirdre looked dubious, but didn’t push it. She had nearly finished tying up the bin bags, which were mostly full of bottles in any case, and arranged them into a careless pile by the edge of the road. Yawning, she straightened up. “You coming back inside or what?”
Ethan shook his head. “Nah. I’m going.”
She shrugged and made to go back in. “Suit yourself.”
Ethan watched her go and idly flicked his hair – long, because Ripper liked it that way – into a tangle behind his ears, clearing his peripheral vision. He walked slowly down the street, hands stuffed in pockets, headed for home. He hated the morning after the night before; the intensity of his hatred was matched only by Ripper’s, but without Ripper to grouse at, it was worse.
He let himself into the flat and made coffee once he’d found some milk that didn’t actually crawl out of the bottle. Two sips didn’t help the headache, so he left the mug on the table and went to bed, drawing the covers up over his ears and waiting for Ripper to join him. The day passed in blackness and semi-consciousness, tinged with expectation.
It was only in the cool of the evening, buried beneath a pillow and aware of the silence, that Ethan remembered. Ripper wouldn’t, not tonight.
The day after, Ethan glanced up as Ripper let himself into the flat and didn’t offer a word of explanation. Ethan kissed him, smelt smoke and perfume on him; he breathed in the usual heady cocktail and didn’t ask.
Deirdre marched in about lunchtime and threw a pair of leather boots at the wall. “Yours, I believe.”
Then she flopped herself down on the sofa with on top of something that went crunch. “Fuck,” she muttered, knocking the smashed glass to the floor. “Ripper, you look like hell.”
“Appropriate, don’t you think?” Ripper asked, not raising his eyes. “If you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss stares also into you.”
“Ah,” said Deirdre. “One of those. Ethan, what the fuck’s wrong with him this time?”
Ethan wasn’t quite ready to answer. Once again, he had bypassed the morning entirely, waking only when the sun was falling from zenith behind a layer of grimy clouds. The window was spattered with raindrops that cast strange moving shadows over the floor and he had missed Ripper more than he cared to admit.
“I keep trying to tell you,” he complained. “Loa ride me and all that jazz.”
“Call upon the First,” intoned Ripper in the dreamy voice of the emotionally dissociated.
“Yes, Ripper, whatever you say,” Ethan told him, mock-soothingly. “He’s already bloody losing it.”
“Am not,” said Ripper petulantly, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
“Oh, yes, you are, love. You are.”
“But how come?” Deirdre persisted. “Bloody hell, ask a simple question.”
“And what a question it is,” said Ethan happily, swinging round on his chair. “It would appear that for purposes of material and magical gain, our dear Ripper has forsworn mere worldly considerations until such time that it becomes undeniably clear he has lost his mind rather than its current state of being a mere plausibility.”
Deirdre frowned, then picked out the relevant portion of the sentence. “Worldly considerations?”
“Sleep,” Ethan clarified.
Deirdre’s expression cleared. “Oh, I knew about that. How long has it been now?”
“Three days,” Ethan replied. “I thought he’d give it up before now, but no.”
“What is this actually going to do?” Deirdre asked. “Besides turning him into a basket case, of course.”
Ripper shifted. “Séance.”
“Losing it,” Ethan muttered, but he listened.
“Like that,” Ripper said, waving one hand around haphazardly. “Like a séance. You take yourself down deep. Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes. It’s like music, only quieter.”
Ethan shrugged at Deirdre. “It made more sense three days ago.”
“And they come to you.” Ripper rocked back and forth for a moment. “They come, like spirits and demons and, and...” His voice faltered. “Angels.”
“Angels.” Deirdre’s voice was carefully even.
“Demons.” Ripper’s eyes were slipping out of focus. “Always demons.”
On impulse, Ethan moved forwards and wrapped a languid arm around Ripper, holding him loosely until the moment had passed.
“Right.” Deirdre shook her head ruefully. “You two deserve each other, I must say.”
Ethan touched Ripper lightly on one shoulder. “Did you hear that, Ripper? She thinks we deserve each other. She of the poncy med student boyfriend and bloody Bay City Rollers.”
“Fuck off, Ethan,” Deirdre said amiably. “I’m going, I only came to give Ripper his boots.”
“Where are you going?” asked Ripper in a moment of unexpected lucidity.
“To see Phillip.” She smiled wickedly. “He’s coming up from Guy’s and we’re going to Hyde Park for a picnic.”
Ethan frowned. “And you’ll come back inexplicably happy with grass in your hair.”
“Whatever you say.” Deirdre blew a kiss to Ripper and wandered happily out, closing the door carefully behind her.
“She didn’t deny it,” Ethan told Ripper, who didn’t answer. He was watching the closed door with some kind of manic intensity. After a moment, he ambled off in the direction of the kitchen and didn’t answer when Ethan called after him.
Ethan let him go. He grabbed his battered sketchpad from where it sat half-hanging off the table, and barely looked up when Ripper returned clutching a knife. Ethan’s attention span was short, but not when sketching out the design for a casting, his mind jumping through fire-ringed hoops as he considered what each word and flower petal could invoke.
Both worked in silence through the day, both preoccupied and less likely to reach out for each other.
The afternoon was chilly and nondescript; nothing of any importance had occurred since morning besides Ripper finding the knife and Ethan looked up as the door creaked open.
“Fucking hell.” Randall raised a hand to shadow his eyes, as if doubting the evidence they provided, and he didn’t step over the threshold. “Do you sacrifice goats in here or what?”
“Oh, do come in,” said Ethan acerbically. “I’m sure you can make yourself at home.”
Gingerly, Randall stepped in, still looking warily up at the window. “Jesus suffering fuck.”
Ethan followed his gaze to the murky glass, decorated with red sticky handprints and smears. “Yes, yes, it’s all very intriguing, let’s move on. Is there something we can do for you?”
“Well… yeah.” Randall perched himself awkwardly on the edge of a chair, still unable to drag his eyes away from the window. “I’m interested in magic, and paganism, and stuff like that, and Deirdre said you could help.”
“Help with what, exactly?” Ethan inquired. “How to win friends and influence people? How to painlessly remove oneself from one’s skull? How to bring the wrath of hell down upon us all? Actually, that one’s easy – fuck with Ripper.”
“Yeah,” Randall agreed faintly.
At the sound of his name, Ripper turned green eyes on them both. “Nietzsche,” he murmured sleepily. “Hell is other people.”
“Sartre, not Nietzsche,” Ethan corrected, and took the knife off him. “Stop it, you’ve had enough.”
Roughly, he grabbed at Ripper’s hands, displaying the runes carved into the skin. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“He did that?” Randall was transfixed with muted horror. “To himself?”
Ethan traced a finger over the long knife-cuts, noting with interest the fact Ripper didn’t flinch. “He’s got a steady hand. Did you sterilise the knife?”
Ripper took a moment to understand the question. “Hot water,” he said clearly, and made a grab for the knife again.
Ethan held it out of his reach. “Not now,” he said firmly.
“I’ll fall asleep,” Ripper pleaded, and when Ethan refused to be shaken, turned despairingly to the window, hands pressed to the glass. This time, Ethan saw the handprint forming, dull red and translucent with the rainwater on the other side.
“Stay with us, Ripper,” he said. “Two days to go.”
“Two days?” Randall repeated. “Are you all stark raving insane? He’s putting himself through two days more of this?”
Ethan gave him a look. “If you’ve quite finished with your moment of melodrama, some of us have other things to be getting on with.” As he spoke, he was hauling Ripper away from the window. “It all gets so messy,” he mused as Ripper shook himself free and trailed blood. “What happened to your friend?”
Randall was still bemused by Ripper. “What?” he said after a moment. “Oh, Linton. He’s left the band.”
“Wants to make something of himself, he says,” Randall said. “I don’t know what that means either. He’s gone, anyway.”
“So this leaves you,” Ethan said happily. “Drummer by day and occultist by night, right?”
“Right,” said Randall, looking warily cheerful, and Ethan reacted, pushing Randall back into his chair and holding him there.
“You think it’s that easy?” he snarled. “You think you can stroll in off the street and start dabbling in the bloody occult? Is that what you think?”
Randall shook his head furiously, not daring to speak, and Ethan’s voice went back to its usual softness. “If you want to stay, stay,” he said. “Stay and cope with this.” His arm was outstretched, index finger pointing at Ripper’s blood-patterns dripping down the window. “Then you can talk about the occult, and stuff. It’s not fairy-tales or Conan Doyle or fucking fluffy bunnies!”
After a beat, he added, “Or even the sacrificing thereof.”
Randall nodded. After a moment, he seemed capable of speech. “I’ll stay.”
“Good.” Ethan was calm again. He sat back and pulled Ripper towards him, letting his nails dig into the skin of Ripper’s neck and leave long scratches of absolute possession. “This is going to be a long two days. I’ll need your help.”
“Then you can help me, too.” Randall’s expression was suddenly calculating, and Ethan was surprised.
“Oh, so it’s a deal you’re after. Whatever happened to good honest altruism?”
Randall shrugged. “So help me, I’m no angel.”
“I should hope not. What do you want?”
Randall jerked his head towards Ripper. “Him.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows and kept his voice level. “Not that I’m naturally violent, but I think you’ve just ventured into get-the-fuck-out-before-I-kill-you territory.”
Randall merely stared. “Linton’s left the band,” he said. “And I heard your nancy-boy here plays bass.”
“Oh.” Ethan thought about it. “That’s his business.”
“I’ll take it up with him, then.” Randall shrugged again, not looking at Ripper. “Two days, you said?”
“Yeah, good plan.” Ethan deliberately turned away. “Of course, he may not be alive to talk to in two days. It’s your call.”
Randall appeared unimpressed. “He won’t die.”
“Probably not. He’s stubborn.” Ethan didn’t turn round again, still facing Ripper and the window, but he heard the footsteps recede behind him and the door latch click.
“Yeah. So am I.”
Ethan turned around. Randall was standing beside the closed door.
“On your head be it,” Ethan murmured for Ripper’s ears, and louder, “You help me. Two days before Ripper finally goes under. In return, I allow you three minutes’ conversation with him without cursing your balls off. Do we have a deal?”
Randall considered, and then smiled. “Don’t forget the occult, and stuff.”
Ethan frowned. “I’ll think about it. Are we agreed?”
They didn’t shake on it. In the corner, Ripper was cutting again.
Randall woke Ethan from what had been the first real sleep he’d had since the whole affair began; he was dreaming about something clean and sweet and too difficult to hold onto once Randall’s frightened expression had come clearly into focus.
“Ethan. Wake up.”
“You’d better have a good reason,” Ethan growled, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes. He’d fallen asleep on the sofa, he remembered; he could feel the sharp edges from the glass Deirdre had broken earlier.
“It’s Ripper,” Randall said quietly. “You asked me to stay and watch over him, and, well.” He shrugged, and added helplessly, “I think he needs you.”
Ethan stumbled to his feet in a blur. The night was short but currently impenetrable; only a few slivers of moonlight mixed with the sodium streetlights illuminated Ripper on the floor. He was lying still for the moment, staring at the ceiling.
Ethan knelt beside him. “Ripper?”
Ripper smiled. Four days of sleep deprivation in the moonlight, and he was green-eyed and beautiful and quite, quite mad. “Ethan. Don’t make me go to sleep.”
“I won’t,” Ethan said, and inwardly cursed Randall’s scaremongering. For Ripper, this might be lucidity.
“I have dreams when I’m awake,” continued Ripper, calm to the point of being childlike. “They’re pretty. They hurt me.”
Ethan sat back in annoyance. He never liked being woken up without good reason, especially when sleep was hard to come by.
“Ripper,” he began, and Ripper screamed. Ethan jumped at the raw intensity of the sound, and he jumped back, hands shaking. From his current hiding-place in the shadows, Randall shot him an I-told-you-so glance.
The scream faded into silence, and Ripper didn’t move. After a moment, he spoke, and now his voice was hoarse with fear. “I can see her.”
“Who?” asked Randall fearfully.
“A girl,” Ripper said. “Romansch.” He sighed. “Ring a ring o’roses, and they all fall down.”
Randall blinked. “What?”
Ethan groaned. “Fuck this. I’m going back to bed.”
He didn’t, of course, because he had never been in his bed in the first place, but he went back to his former spot on the sofa, stretched out and tried to sleep. Randall might have tried to sleep, too; Ethan didn’t know, and to be perfectly honest didn’t particularly care. At any rate, it was Ripper who made it difficult; Ripper who was now padding round the flat in his bare feet and making no noise but keeping Ethan awake simply by his moving, flighty presence.
After about an hour of it, Ethan was angry enough to get up again. Ripper was in the room with him, pacing up and down and singing quietly to himself.
“You’re supposed to be keeping him quiet,” Ethan hissed at Randall, who jerked backwards, startled.
“It’s nearly your turn, anyway,” he said mildly. He was sitting somewhere near Ripper’s feet and merely observing.
“We’re not taking turns,” snapped Ethan. “Christ, it makes me feel like some kind of babysitter.”
“Then why did you ask me to stay?” Randall asked reasonably, and Ethan glared at him.
“So I have help carrying the stretcher when Ripper tops himself,” he said waspishly.
Randall would probably have replied with a similar degree of annoyance, and Ethan would have continued in kind, but they were both cut off by Ripper’s soft voice.
“I wish I could stay,” he said thoughtfully.
“So do I,” Ethan replied. “Unfortunately you’re already on a pretty planet where the trees are pink, so it’s becoming something of a moot point.”
“Thou shalt have no gods before me,” said Ripper, and lay down on the floor.
It was later (although how much later Ethan couldn’t say; Ripper seemed to be clinging onto the night) when Ripper said something that made Ethan sit up and look at him.
“It’ll grieve me, because I love you.”
“What did you say?” Ethan stared at him with eyes narrowed. “Ripper?”
“I can’t bear it.”
“What?” Ethan was on his knees, arms round Ripper and rocking him back and forth. “What is it?”
“I can’t leave,” whispered Ripper, almost too softly to be heard, and Ethan wondered if he was allowed to be happy at that, if it was it wrong beyond wrongness to feel his heart lighter.
“Don’t leave,” he whispered back. “Don’t ever leave.”
But there was no promise from Ripper, there never would be, and Ethan could only let him go as he tried to stand up and get away.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he tried.
Ripper stared at him in confusion and some sort of disbelief. “Nothing to be afraid of,” he repeated.
“Nothing,” said Ethan confidently.
“Demons,” said Ripper with the same level of confidence, and took another step back. Ethan got to his feet in turn, trying to get closer.
“Demons everywhere,” Ripper said, and god, he was frightened. Ethan was torn, now; torn between jumping forwards and taking him in his arms, taking away the blank and staring fear, and running away as fast as possible, away from Ripper and the horrors reflected in his eyes.
He didn’t have a chance to do either. After a moment more of blankness, Ripper seemed to focus on something. “Demon,” he said quietly.
“There isn’t any demon,” Ethan said quickly.
“Right behind you,” replied Ripper, staring fixedly at a point just beyond Ethan’s left shoulder. “Demon!”
Ethan jumped and wheeled round, already reaching for anything that could be used as a stake... but there was nothing. Only empty air and a draft from the window.
Ethan exhaled. “Christ, Ripper. There are no demons in here!”
“Oh, yes there are,” Ripper told him, and sat down cross-legged on the floor. His perfectly seductive, nicotine-and-tar voice was taking on a singsong, Watch With Mother quality. “There are demons everywhere. Over hill and dale, they do wander everywhere.” He paused, and then inclined his head as if imparting a secret. “They’re inside us. They come for us at night. They hurt.”
“Fuck you, Ripper” – but Ethan was scared at the strangeness in his own voice.
Ripper lay back, staring up at the ceiling. “They’re singing.”
“Angels.” Was that a smile? Maybe some variant thereof, Ethan thought haphazardly; there was a curve to Ripper’s lips and some mitigation of the terror in his eyes. “They sing at Magdalen. There’s no demons there. They stand on the tower and it’s May, and they sing, and the demons fly away.”
“Fly away,” Ethan echoed faintly. “They’re gone. They can’t hurt you.” And because it was all he could do for the moment, he knelt down, pulled Ripper forwards and held him.
Ripper shifted a little. “Fly away,” he said into Ethan’s shoulder. “They all go away, and a little child shall lead them.” After a pause, he said it again, slower. “A little child shall lead them. Suffer the little children.”
“Suffer the little children that come unto me.” And there was real pain in that; pain Ethan could feel as Ripper’s jerky movements in his arms. “They come unto me, and they hurt and they suffer and the demons come and the demons come, demon, come.”
An exorcism, Ethan remembered. To rid oneself of demons, and comfort and nursery-rhyme to a child with a destiny.
“Hush,” he said again, and waited for Ripper to stop shaking.
It was hours later again, again, hours without sanity or reason, hours that had lost all meaning beyond night and sleeplessness. When Randall had stopped waking him up and vice versa because neither of them could sleep through this, Ethan realised they were approaching the point of no return. Ripper paced up and down and bounced on the balls of his feet, fretful and crying, occasionally screaming, his movements strangely rhythmic and hypnotic until Ethan felt he had been here forever watching Ripper in the yellow light.
Silence when it came made a noise like a thunderclap. Ethan was suddenly aware of his own heartbeat, his own breathing, and from outside, sirens and bluebottles were like pneumatic drills against the sudden hush.
He had to break it. “Ripper?”
Slowly, Ripper raised his head. His eyes were more feline than ever in the half-light, and for a long moment they held contact. Ethan heard Ripper breathe out, shudderingly and in pain. The air crackled.
Ripper’s eyelids dropped shut. Above him, the lightbulb shattered, plunging the room into darkness as glass showered down on Ripper’s head.
“What the...” Randall breathed.
Ethan ignored him. “Ripper?” he tried again, his voice shaking in the dark, and there was no reply. Only a gasp – the softest, briefest sound of despair – before a heavy thud and Ripper was on the floor, rocking back and forth and only just visible as Ethan’s eyes accustomed to the blackness. Randall seemed almost mute with fear, and Ethan had a feeling he was on his own.
Cursing silently to himself, he began rummaging through the debris on the floor, kicking Randall in the process. Randall jerked back. “What are you looking for?”
Ethan ignored him more successfully than he was ignoring Ripper, and eventually found what he was looking for under a crumpled, week-old Guardian. The phone receiver was pleasantly cool against his burning hands; he jammed it against his ear and prayed there would be a dial tone. Amazingly, there was. Fumbling a little in the dark, he dialled the number.
It rang twice before being picked up. “Hello?”
“Deirdre, get Phillip on the phone.”
“Ethan?” she asked blurrily. “What time is it?”
“Doesn’t fucking matter. Get Phillip.”
“It’s three in the morning, Ethan. Why the hell do you need Phillip at three in the morning?”
“Where is he?”
“You know perfectly well he’s at Guy’s. I’m putting the phone down now.”
“Don’t you dare,” Ethan growled. “It’s about Ripper.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
Somehow, she managed to sound bored and sleepy at the same time, and Ethan let his voice drop. “He hasn’t slept in five days, hasn’t eaten in three, and as of this moment, is on the floor fighting invisible ghoulies and ghosties and I think that if this goes on he’ll kill himself. Is that good enough for you?”
“What’s Phillip got to do with it?” she asked, but there was a note of guarded worry in her voice.
“Because he’s a med student and might maybe, possibly, perhaps know what to do? Where is he?”
“You know he’s at Guy’s!”
Ethan was losing his temper. “And you know that he’s lying right next to you and he’s heard every word, so don’t be so fucking coy!”
Wordlessly, Deirdre handed over the phone.
“Yes, hello, Phillip.” Ethan resisted the urge to scream. “What the fuck do we do?”
“How long has it been?” Phillip asked. His voice reminded Ethan incongruously of Ripper, who always had an undercurrent of Oxford consonants beneath the Cockney.
“Four days, nearly five. It’s starting to show.”
“Holy smoke.” Phillip breathed out. “You’ve got to get him to sleep.”
“Well, thank you, Dr. Frankenstein, you’ve been very helpful.” Ethan was reaching his last shreds of patience. “Get him to sleep! Why on earth didn’t we think of that?”
“Well, I don’t know!” Phillip sounded exasperated, and Ethan wondered what Deirdre was saying in the background. “I’m not a doctor, in case you hadn’t noticed! Look, can’t you sedate him or something?”
“I don’t know!” Phillip was still aggravated. “Break into a pharmacy or something.”
“Give it back to Deirdre,” said Ethan evenly.
She was already in full flow. “…honestly, Ethan, you can’t ring people up at three in the morning and then shout at them because they’re not as helpful as you’d like!”
Before Ethan could reply, a hoarse scream rent through the relative silence, and he heard Deirdre’s sharp intake of breath. “What the hell was that?” she asked.
“That,” said Ethan grimly, “was Ripper.” As he spoke, he glanced across at Ripper; Randall was attempting to soothe him, with little success. Ethan bristled at the sight anyway.
“Look, do you want me to come over there?” Deirdre was asking. “Maybe both together we could…”
“No, it’s all right,” Ethan interrupted. “Wunderkind here has just given me an idea.”
“His name is Phillip,” she said, but there was amusement in her voice now.
“Phillip, yes,” Ethan agreed. “Tell him sweet dreams. I’ve got to go.”
“Bye,” she said, and there was a clunk as she hung up on him. Ethan replaced his own receiver with a faint grin. The amazing thing, he mused, was that he hadn’t had the idea earlier.
Randall looked up. “Yeah?”
“Get some candles from the kitchen. Quickly.”
To his credit, he didn’t ask questions. While he was getting them, Ethan slipped a hand in Ripper’s right pocket, pulling out the lighter without having to look for it. He tossed it to Randall and began his own preparations – sage, thyme, common kitchen herbs along with the neem leaves and Lethe’s bramble, the magical among the mundane.
There was more than one kind of casting. He liked the elaborate ritual of the fire-burn-cauldron-bubble variety, with the herbs and scent of fallen rosemary crushed beneath his feet and the thrill of the sheer power they wielded. It drained his own and Ripper’s power for days, but it was always worth it; at the moment of casting, the world danced to their tune, fell before the feet of two so young. It was a dizzying feeling.
And yet, Ethan thought, there was something in this, too. There was power in small things, veiled and subtle but present in the touch of the dried petals as each pink flower crackled under his fingers. The bramble, which he could identify by feel, and he held it lightly as he sat by the small fire. He’d set it up in the fireplace with all the due ceremony for magic, but it was small and burned with a low-level light. Like Ripper, who lay in the darkness by the window and didn’t sleep. Ethan knew he was still awake; he could still feel the faint glitter of his eyes, watching and waiting for revelation.
He cast the flowers into the flames and whispered, “Sleep.”
Not Latin, nor Greek like Janus – sometimes there was power in the simplest things. After a moment, he remembered the spell needed direction, and added, “Ripper.” Not his real name, but Ethan’s name for him and truer than most.
When nothing was left but ashes, he carefully stood up and stretched out. Randall jumped forwards, vaguely expectant. “Did you do it?”
“Yes,” said Ethan dismissively, his attention very definitely elsewhere. Trying not to run, he moved swiftly across to the window.
Ripper rolled over. His eyes were open, and Ethan risked a glance back at the fireplace. The bramble was gone.
“I’m going to drown,” said Ripper matter-of-factly.
“Close your eyes,” Ethan said softly. “It’ll all go away.”
“Can’t close my eyes. It’ll be dark.”
“Dark. Right.” Ethan paused and looked around the flat. Dark, yes – the fire was dying, and Randall was only visible as a diffident shadow somewhere near the door. The window was still smeared with dried blood. Too dark.
With as much grace as he could muster, he leaned down and picked Ripper up. He was lighter than Ethan had expected, and he could always move softly with Ripper in his arms; he took careful steps towards the door and nodded his approval as Randall opened it.
Within a few minutes, they were outside and Ripper had been induced to walk a little with Ethan still half-carrying him. They made it to a park bench as the sky became blue, not black. In the silence, Ripper’s head dropped onto Ethan’s shoulder, and finally, his eyes closed. Ethan stroked his hair and kissed him once. “Such a fucking nancy-boy,” he said quietly, affectionately. “You’re quite mad, Ripper. You’re not doing this again.”
He knew as he said it that it wasn’t true; that if he didn’t help Ripper do this, Randall would, and Randall’s eyes had lingered over Ripper too many times for too long. He knew, also, that Ripper sparkled with guitar strings beneath his hands; he would play for Randall, for the sheer joy of it, there was no monogamy there.
In the end he carried Ripper back inside, and waited for the darkness and the bad things to go away.
And now it really is morning. Ethan is aware of the sunlight, hot and sweet against skin, and remembers he ought to make a start at cleaning the window at some point. But not now, he decides. Not now when it is so quiet and peaceful and he is content.
Ripper is beside him, lying on top of the covers with hands and feet hanging over the edge of the bed. He has slept for three hours, which have smoothed out his features and taken away some of the dark shadows, and Ethan thinks he will probably sleep for another ten, waking only when night falls. Under cover of darkness, life will return to normal, or at least as normal as it ever is. Life for him is only magic and Ripper; two different types of dizzying power and potential that still might as well be synonymous.
Ethan wonders if the spell worked. It was a small thing with real power in it, and yet he has his doubts. The casting was meant for Ripper, Ethan’s Ripper, and anyone who has known magic knows there is more in a name than Shakespeare allowed. With green eyes hidden, the pale-faced nancy-boy seems more careworn, more like he is irrevocably bound to a girl not yet born; more like his name is not Ripper but Rupert Giles.
Ethan shudders convulsively, and thinks about going out, but he can’t leave Ripper. He wonders how much Ripper remembers, will remember, and whether they are destined to go through this again. Next time he will be ready – next time he will stop Ripper, stop him before the magic and blood become too much, except he won’t because he can’t because nothing can stop Ripper from doing exactly what he wants.
Ethan pauses there, his hands moving of their own accord until he is stroking Ripper’s hair, slowly and softly, in rhythm with Ripper’s breathing. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” he whispers, and laughs to himself.
Ripper sleeps through the day, as Ethan thought he would, and Ethan is sure he can feel Ripper come back to him, minute by minute, back from whatever hell they both inhabited last night, back to this place they choose to call home because the other is there. The night feels safe again.
Ripper’s eyes open with a snap, bright green and relatively sane. He moves slowly, getting to his feet with uncharacteristic caution, but he is Ripper, free of visions and chasing demons, and Ethan needs him.
Randall visits that night, and he is the same person Ethan remembers from the party, dismissive and sardonic.
“So,” he says, “in short, this didn’t achieve anything beyond insanity and was in fact a gigantic waste of time.”
Ripper ignores this, his eyes hard as flints. “I believe you wanted something from me.”
Ethan promised, so he lets them argue it out without cursing anyone or anything, and besides, he knows Ripper will agree in the end. His guitar is lying on the floor at Ethan’s feet, shining in the light like Ripper himself.
It is dark, now, and the window has been opened so the wind and creatures of the night, creatures Ethan first heard of as fairy-tales and Ripper as Watcher’s truth, can get in. As Ethan listens, he hears the hooting of an owl, strange within the urban landscape, and all matter of small, after-dark sounds that could be anything. There might be vampires abroad tonight – vampires, demons, ghoulies and ghosties and all the rest of it. Maybe even the vampire Slayer, whoever and wherever she is. Ripper would laugh if he knew.
But everything’s all right. Ethan can relax, enjoy the night – because Ripper’s here. Ripper, his guitar and his magic, and he isn’t going to leave.