They had walked a block in silence before Buffy felt the need to fill the quiet void. “So, anything exciting on the docket for tomorrow night?”
“I was thinking you could check out the hospital.”
“The hospital? Are you sure?”
“Of course, why not?”
“You know how much I hate hospitals.” Buffy whined.
“Well, that’s hardly a secret, the way you’ve carried on about it in the past.”
“So why do we have to go to the hospital?”
“First of all, I wasn’t including myself in tomorrow night’s patrol. I really must spend more time with Severus.”
“Fine, why do I have to go to the hospital?”
Giles took a deep breath. “Weren’t you just telling me that Riley and his colleagues thought there was something peculiar going on at the hospital?”
“Yeah, well, I meant for you to check it out, since I would have more important places to look… like cemeteries and stuff.” Buffy wrung her hands, knowing her argument held no water with her watcher.
“Since the gas leak was clearly a red herring, the hospital appears to be our only lead.”
“There’s the shoe. I could look for guys missing shoes.”
“Alright, alright.” Buffy grumbled. “But, I want it stated for the record, that I think sending me alone to the hospital is a bad idea.”
“Look, if you’re so worried about going by yourself, perhaps you could talk one of your friends into joining you. After all, Willow’s father works at the hospital so she may be more comfortable with the setting.”
“Right, that’s a great idea.” Buffy smiled falsely, “But, you’ve forgotten one important point. Tara’s all done with exams tomorrow, so my guess is no Willow sightings any time soon.”
“Ah, yes, well. Perhaps you could talk to Xander?”
“Oh, that reminds me! Has Xander seemed weird to you lately?”
“No, not that I’ve noticed.” Rupert arched his brow, making it clear he saw the distraction for what it was.
“Well, I haven’t really paid any attention to the boy in a while.” Rupert frowned. “I would think Anya would be far more vocal about it if Xander were in trouble of any sort.”
“I don’t know. After the whole thinking he was hit by a bus thingy, I called him up. He was definitely weird.”
“Oh?” Rupert mused while silently wondering what had possessed the boy this week.
“It was like he wanted to tell me something but then kept changing his mind. You don’t think Xander would keep anything secret from us, would you? He totally wouldn’t do that. I mean, other than that whole dating Cordelia thing, which if you think about it, I guess was pretty major.”
“Honestly, Buffy, I have no idea.” Rupert cringed, his head throbbing in pain.
“You know, you’re the watcher, you’re supposed to have ideas about these sorts of things.”
“Buffy, I assure you, monitoring behavioral changes in a slayer’s friends was not included in the watcher’s handbook, training manual, or associated workshops.”
“Yeah, well, I just can’t help but think…” Buffy’s voice trailed off.
“What is it?” Giles quietly asked, wondering if she had detected something.
“It’s just, life wasn’t supposed to be so complicated. Even with the whole demon killing thing. I mean friends are friends. It’s like I hardly know them any more, and yeah, I know it’s partly my fault what with the whole college thing, and Riley thing, but still, why does it have to be so hard?” Buffy looked up to her watcher as though he would have an answer.
Giles’ small smile was hidden in the darkness. During the day, Buffy’s alternating sullenness and perkiness tended to drive him mad, but after a hard night of slaying, Buffy’s introspective comments often gave him a window into his slayer’s soul. It was conversations like this that he would remember most, despite their absence from his official watcher’s journal. “Friendships are just like everything else.” Buffy was about to comment, but Giles raised his hand with the shoe to quiet her. “If it’s going to be of any sort of quality, you’ve got to spend time on it. People drift apart, and it’s a lot of work to keep them together, and you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the effort.”
“I know.” Buffy didn’t sound nearly as hopeful as Giles had intended.
“If it makes you feel any better, if there’s one thing about Willow and Xander that I’ve noticed over the years, it’s that they are willing to put in the effort when the occasion calls for it.”
“Thanks Giles.” Buffy leaned her head against Giles’ shoulder. “And if it makes you feel any better, if your brother is anything like you, he’ll be out of those casts in no time.”
“Well, I appreciate that sentiment.”
“In fact, I bet if you took him to the hospital tomorrow night, the doctors could get some of the casts off. And hey, while you’re there, you could take a look around for anything weird, you know, and save me the trip?”
“Nice try, but it won’t work.”
As the boys stepped into the entryway of Westbury manor, they could hear raised voices coming from down the hall. “That’s three murders in three weeks. Gentlemen, clearly something needs to be done.”
“And just what do you think needs to be done? The murders are scattered throughout the country, with no rhyme or reason.”
“There’s always a reason! We just don’t know it yet.”
“The victims have nothing in common. Most demons have some sort of pattern- attacking the old and the weak, or only attacking in the middle of the night. It’s befuddling, that’s what it is.”
“There must be some sort of pattern. Have you taken her to the scenes yet?”
“Of course I’ve taken her to the murder scenes. She insists that she senses nothing about it.” Rupert recognized the voice of the current active watcher, Mr. Albright.
“How peculiar. I would have thought she would have honed her skills at sensing demons. How long has she been active, four months?”
“Has it ever occurred to you that this may not be the act of a demon?” Sir Bradford’s voice echoed from the study.
“Well, of course it can’t be a single demon, but surely you can recognize the danger if we have a group of new demons acting in concert!” A voice responded that Rupert vaguely recognized as the elder Mr. Travers. He and Severus exchanged worried looks.
“Is the entire council meeting here?” Rupert asked Mrs. Snape-Giles.
“Your father invited the high council over for dinner.” Cassandra answered, keeping her voice down lest anyone in the study notice.
“How long have they been discussing this?” Severus asked his mother.
“Why don’t you boys get cleaned up? I’m sure you two would like to get out of those uniforms and we’ll be having dinner shortly.” Cassandra whispered casting a nervous glance at the study, as the voices raised in argument.
“Yes, mother.” Severus muttered as Rupert answered, “Yes, ma’am.”
The boys walked down the hall, past the study towards their rooms. Cassandra followed behind them, stopping to knock lightly on the study door. There was a hush as Cassandra let herself in.
“She doesn’t believe us, does she?” Rupert asked his step-brother as they changed from their school robes to the muggle suits they wore to formal dinners.
“Well, we hardly had convincing evidence, and she can hardly go around accusing the Malfoy family of murder, even if we had the invitation with us, which we don’t.” Severus frowned. He knew it was a risk telling his mother of their hunch on the way back from the train station. It would have been a far safer position to look up this Order of the Knights of Walpurgis before talking to the adults, but it just sort of slipped out as they were driven to the manor.
“Do you think she’ll tell my father?”
“With all those Council people in the study? Not likely.” Severus muttered, running a comb through his hair, which was disastrous as usual.
“Do you suppose they’re all staying through dinner?” Rupert straightened his tie.
“Well, it would only be the polite thing to do.” Severus pointed out. “But, if they try to seat me by Travers, I swear I’ll go mad.”
“Too true.” Rupert ran a hand through his hair, glad to see it mostly stay in place. “I’d rather spend the holidays at Hogwarts than sitting next to Travers for the evening.”
“Sounds like they brought the slayer in, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe.” Rupert answered knowing full well that the “she” argued about in the study must have been the slayer. “Do you think a slayer could stand a chance against a full grown wizard?”
“I suppose it would depend on the wizard. I doubt she could take on someone powerful like Mr. Malfoy, but some wizards aren’t very intimidating at all.”
“True, I bet Madam Malkin…” Rupert’s response was cut off as a maid summoned the boys to the dining room. Rupert and Severus were dismayed to see which of the senior Council members were joining them for their evening meal.
“So boys, tell us how your semester has gone.” Mr. Travers said, choosing the seat between Severus and Rupert. Several of the men looked on, eager for the change of topic from whatever was being discussed in the study.
“The classes are going quite well, thank you.” Rupert quickly replied shooting meaningful looks at Severus.
“Yes, the classes are fine.” Severus chimed in.
“You look about old enough to sit your o-levels.” One of the other council men commented.
“That will be next year.” Rupert answered, ignoring the questioning looks from Severus.
“So have you decided what you’ll study at the University, boys? You know, your father was one of the top foreign language students.”
“I think I’ll pursue history, and Severus is interested in Chemistry.” Rupert filled in, ignoring the now angry glare from Severus. His step-brother could glare all he wanted; they were not going to explain the Potions Masters Guild to a table of muggles, no matter how magically attuned they were.
“Very interesting fields.” An elderly man nodded sagely.
“My son was considering majoring in history, but instead has chosen to focus on classical studies.” Mr. Travers interjected. “You remember Quentin, don’t you?”
“Of course, Mr. Travers.” Rupert tried very hard to keep his voice level. It would be difficult to forget the twit who had been sending him meaningless assignments for the past two years.
“My son was top of his class at Sherborne and is looking to graduate cum laude at university.” Mr. Travers continued unabated.
“And then, no doubt, he will follow in the family business?” Mr. Albright tiredly commented.
“Oh, yes, he is looking forward to working at the Watcher’s Council Headquarters.” The dinner carried on in much the same vein, with Mr. Travers hijacking any interesting conversation starters to discuss his family’s ambitions. It wasn’t until after dinner that the boys learned what Cassandra had done with their information.
“Well, shall we adjourn for the evening to the study?” Sir Bradford asked, clearly indicating that he felt the argument from earlier needed to be resolved.
“That would be lovely. Boys, can you show the guests to the proper room?” Cassandra shot Rupert and Severus a meaningful look.
“Of course, mother.” Severus rose. “If you would all follow me?” Severus led them down the hall, Rupert bringing up the rear. Rupert looked back just in time to see the pantomime between Cassandra and Bradford.
After a few awkward minutes in the study, Rupert finally got the idea to offer the men drinks. “I say,” said one of the watchers as he watched the two teenagers attempt to fill drink orders. “It is rather odd for Bradford to leave his guests like this. I do hope everything is alright.”
“I daresay, everything is fine.” Travers answered. “I saw Mrs. Giles detain him, and you do know how those womenfolk are.” Severus bristled at the slight to his mother.
“Now Mr. Travers, that is a bit hasty of you.” Said a small man with an accent indicating he’d spent considerable time in the British East Indies. “There have been many competent women in our organization over the years, the elder Mrs. Giles being foremost among them. In fact, one might say our organization is centered on the idea of strong women.” Severus’ estimation of the young foreign man rose considerably.
“Yes, yes, of course, Mr. Zabuto.” Travers waved the man’s comments away. “But that does lead us to the true discussion for the evening. How are we to deploy the slayer if we can not predict the location of the next attack?”
“As I was saying, before dinner,” One of the truly elderly men cut in, his voice shaking with age. “The prophecy of Al Kazah has foreseen this. The answer will come from…” The men stared at the speaker with a mixture of deep respect for the once wise leader of the Council and dread for whatever would follow. “The answer will come from… oh heaven’s I can’t remember. I don’t suppose anyone has that prophecy memorized?” The group sighed.
Rupert had taken the opportunity to stand next to Severus by the fireplace. “I can’t guess which is worse - this or that meeting of the British Alchemical Society.”
“Oh that was far worse. If we make fools of ourselves tonight, at least I don’t have to work with these people for the rest of my life.” Severus whispered back.
“Thanks a lot.” Rupert muttered.
“Gentlemen, I apologize.” Sir Bradford rejoined his company, ignoring the two boys by the fireplace. “I’m afraid Cassandra has brought most interesting and yet troublesome news. Some of her connections,” one of the men snorted. Evidently this wasn’t the first time Sir Bradford had invoked Cassandra’s mysterious connections, “have recognized the gas symbol as possibly the insignia of the Knights of Walpurgis.”
“And did her connections have information on this order of knights?” One of the men asked, skeptically.
“She didn’t know of any.” Sir Bradford’s eyes rested on his son. “Still, it is a better lead than we’ve had. I recommend we spend the next few days researching this order. In the meantime, the slayer will be no better or worse off remaining in London.”
“As much as we respect your wife, don’t you find it a bit odd that she should have no other information than just a name?” Travers asked suspiciously.
“Undoubtedly she will be pursuing this subject with her contacts.” Both Severus and Rupert shuddered at the look they were receiving from Sir Bradford. “However, if you are uncomfortable with this, you are welcome to pursue your own leads.” Travers grunted, knowing he had exhausted all of his ideas weeks ago.
“It is a pity we had to pull the slayer from the Orient only to have her patrol the cemeteries of London. Our training classes have gone over that territory extensively already.” One watcher commented.
“Well, where would you rather send her? If we don’t know where the next attack will be, we can’t very well send her to some place more useful.”
“What about Cornwall?” Rupert spoke his thoughts before realizing what he was doing. Granted, the Malfoy Manor hosting the solstice event had a Cornwall address, but that hardly excused him from interrupting the adults.
“Cornwall? What sort of poppycock idea is that? There hasn’t been a major demonic presence in Cornwall in…” The elderly watcher paused.
“Two hundred years.” One of the other watchers filled in.
“Exactly. My boy, clearly you have not studied your watcher’s manual.” The withered man concluded.
“No sir, I’m sorry sir.” Rupert blushed, ignoring the nudge from Severus.
“Yes, well, as we have no better location to consider, I guess the slayer will have to stay in London, at least until we’ve had time to pursue all the available leads.” Mr. Zabuto drew the attention away from Rupert. “Now gentlemen, it is a long drive back into the city. I suggest we leave the Giles’ for the evening.” The group excused themselves for the night, thanking their host for the dinner and continuing various personal conversations on their way to the driveway.
Finally, only Sir Bradford and the boys remained in the study. “Sit down,” Sir Bradford ordered. “Now boys, you better have a good explanation for this. I am putting my reputation on the line by repeating this theory of yours. I expect you to spend your break researching either to defend this theory of yours, or to prove it false.”
“Yes sir.” The boys mumbled, watching their plans of a leisurely vacation evaporate.
“Now, since you have brought this theory up to the Watcher’s Council Executive Board, you might as well tell me how this came about.”
Rupert refrained from commenting that it was the man’s own choice to mention the knights to his colleagues, and instead settled for, “We came across the insignia on the train ride home and it bears an uncanny resemblance to the green smoke figure seen above the murder sites, sir.”
“And do you know anything about this Order of the Knights of Walpurgis?”
“I believe it is an organization for full blooded wizards, as Lucius Malfoy was the one who had the invitation.” Severus answered.
“Rupert was invited to the Knights’ Solstice Ball.” Severus answered, ignoring the looks his brother was sending him.
“You were, were you?”
“Yes, but I told Lucius that I would have to ask you first.” Rupert stuttered.
“Quit fidgeting, boy.” Sir Bradford scolded. “At least you had the common sense not to make any rash plans. By any chance, do you have this invitation?”
“No sir, I told Malfoy that I would owl him if I could attend, and he could send the invitation then.”
“Were you invited?” Sir Bradford turned on Severus, who had been enjoying Rupert’s floundering.
“How peculiar.” Sir Bradford paced to the liquor cabinet and helped himself to a scotch, neat. “Why did he invite just you?”
Rupert stammered. Somehow he doubted his father would appreciate the internal politics of Slytherin that had driven him to that point. “Lucius owed me a favor, and thought that would suffice.”
“What an odd child. I can’t imagine anyone your age considering a formal state dinner an acceptable payback for a favor.” Bradford mused. “So this invitation was the only place you’ve seen that symbol outside of the pictures Quentin sent you?”
“And you have never heard of this Order before today?”
“Very well, I expect to see you in the library, assisting Cassandra with research immediately after breakfast. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir.” There was a silence as this command sunk into the boys’ minds. Sir Bradford saw the disappointment on the boys’ faces but knew that the boys needed discipline if they were to succeed later in life. He was amused to see the slight spark in his son’s eye when Rupert finally asked, “Father, I promised Lucius that I would send him a response in the morning. What shall I owl?”
“Let him know that you appreciate the invitation but you have family obligations that take precedence.”
“But Father, shouldn’t I write something more extensive. If this is in fact the group that is behind all these murders…”
“Then that is even more reason why you should not be answering their summons unescorted. You haven’t the field training to handle such situations.” His father cut him off.
“But sir, if Rupert refuses Lucius’ offer…” Severus cut in.
“Then Lucius will just have to find another way of returning this favor, whatever it was. Considering my nuptial choice, I am well aware of the Slytherin mindset, Mr. Snape, but dormitory politics are in quite a different class than murder investigations. You will not attend this ball, and that is final.”
“Yes sir.” Rupert answered, head kept down.
“First thing tomorrow, I expect you to send this notice to your little friend.” Sir Bradford ordered. “Now, I imagine you have considerable unpacking to do tonight. Good night.”
The boys took the dismissal for what it was and marched to the door. “And boys, I still expect you in the library immediately after you owl your school mate.”
“Damn.” Severus muttered as the left the study. “We should have gone with Gran to Romania when we had the chance.”
“You’ve got that right. I’d take fire breathing dragons any day over this.” Rupert agreed, shutting the study door behind them.