A lonely cat mewled in the gutter, its thin and bony body stretched out as it scratched at the door of a crumbled house. Small claws made tiny marks in the damp coating of moss, making barely audible sounds against the ancient brick beneath. The cat twitched its whiskers at the offensive smell of rotting matter that came from the bricks, growling softly in the back of its throat as it tried to make itself heard. But no one came, for there was nobody to hear its pathetic calls. There had been no one for weeks, ever since the last resident had been taken away. His emaciated body had been carried out in a black bag, surrounded by an honour-guard of young PCs, all trying to keep from being the first to throw up at the smell. He had lain unnoticed for a fortnight, in the hot, airless rancour of the sultry days. Even the old and world-weary coroner had looked pale.

"Hey cat." The sound of a human voice was enough to make the small animal arch its back in welcome - or just in relief. It turned about, staring up at the newcomer, making curious purring sounds as a sign of its goodwill. The newcomer stared down at it, perhaps noticing the hungry look on the small face, perhaps recognising that the creature was alone and tired and hungry. Finally he bent down and scooped the cat into his arms.

"Hi." It purred its answer, and he hefted it into the crook of his arm. "I don't have a whole lot to eat, you know. Might have a packet of biscuits if you're lucky. Is that okay with you?" The cat mewled at him, and he shrugged. "Does anybody live here?" There was no answer, understandably, and he shrugged again. "Guess not, huh. Otherwise you wouldn't be looking so desperate. In that case consider me your new landlord." He put the animal down for a few minutes, and surveyed the door. "Not exactly Fort Knox, is it. I think we can get in here okay." He gave the door handle a quick shake, and it fell off in his hand. "Great." The cat appeared to be looking at him in contempt, and he scowled. "Hey, I'd like to see you do any better." Abandoning the door he made instead for a nearby window, and with a little difficulty managed to get it open. The cat leapt through before he so much as had a chance to pull himself up, and was waiting for him in the room beyond when he jumped to the ground. He flashed it a smile.

"Hi. Come here often?" The cat ignored him and ran away through a door.

"Great." The newcomer pulled the window shut and turned in a circle to look around his new home. He was standing in a bare room, decorated in peeling paint the colour of primroses. The ceiling was grey, of a shade that suggested it had once been white, and was stained in places with great black shadows of damp. Plaster flowers burst out of the corners, sprouting the faces of gargoyles. They leered silently, their long tongues hanging out, their teeth bared in rictal grins of ghoulish amusement. The floor was a mass of rugs, all different styles and colours, some clashing, some complimenting each other in a purely accidental fashion. The haphazard display was uneven and askew, with rug edges overlapping, creating traps for the unwary. Most of the rugs bore holes, some larger than others. Others still were starting to become un-woven. Their long held patterns were drifting apart, running into each other in a swirl of tangled, loose yarn.

"Home sweet home." The boy - for he was certainly little more - threw his old and tattered bag to the ground and tugged open the rusted zip. A jumbled mishmash of items greeted him - an old jumper, a moth-eaten scarf, a leather jacket balled up into an untidy jumble. It was this item that he extricated first, shaking it out into its proper shape. A packet of shop-bought shortbread - or shop acquired at any rate - fell from one pocket, and a hurried search also produced a tin of sardines, a couple of carefully wrapped slices of bread and a tin of peaches. The boy made a face. Hardly haute cuisine, but it beat the food that came out of the school kitchens. He dug a knife out of the pocket of his faded blue jeans, and attacked the tin of sardines. As if on cue, the cat appeared again. The boy offered it a lopsided grin.

"Don't suppose you'd prefer the shortbread?" The creature purred affectionately, and he sighed. "It's fresh you know. I only nicked it this morning. I got chased for three streets by some little Hitler of a security guard for this stuff." He scowled. "You'd think a bloody great chain of supermarkets could spare a guy a tin of sardines and a packet of shortbread." The cat didn't look terribly sympathetic, and he decided just to give in gracefully. He scooped most of the contents of the tin onto a rug-less piece of floor, watching with a sense of quite alien benevolence as the tiny creature gobbled the fish down. He scraped what was left in the tin onto the least mouldy of the two slices of bread, and ate it silently. The cat finished before he did and sat watching him, licking it paws as if to show its pleasure at a meal long awaited. He gave it the tin to lick out.

"So you're all alone, huh?" he asked it. The cat twitched its ears in response to the sound of his voice, but was too busy with its nose in the tin to give him any other kind of answer. He reached out to stroke its head. "Me too. Oh don't get me wrong, I've got a mother and an uncle or two and a whole conspiracy of teachers who try and look after me, but the truth is I'd much rather look after myself." He smiled. "Not doing too badly either, am I?" Almost self-consciously he glanced down at his ragged jeans and much-holed shoes, and shrugged. "Well, most of the time anyway. And I eat three days out of every five, which is more than some people manage." The cat didn't venture an opinion.

"Peach?" Feeling suddenly magnanimous, the boy opened the tin of peaches and offered a slice to the cat. It took it suspiciously, licked a small piece, and then tucked in. He ate half the rest himself, then drank some of the juice. It was too thick to be a proper drink, and did little to ease his growing thirst, but it beat another night listening to the rain, and craving even its salty, polluted taste. Even the sickly syrupy stuff that peaches were packed in was better than allowing the pain of lingering thirst to keep him awake at night.

"Finished?" Giving the cat a quick stroke he rose to his feet and shrugged into the leather jacket. The cat looked faintly jealous, as if it wished that it too had something warm to wear. Despite the fact that the day had been hot, the night was still very likely to be chilled. The boy picked the small animal up.

"Where do we sleep around here?" he asked it. The cat settled itself into his arms as though demonstrating, and he shook his head. "Not exactly what I meant." Abandoning his attempts at getting intelligent conversation from the raggedy animal, he headed out of the room and along the long, walnut-panelled corridor that he found beyond. The floor was of heavily varnished wood that was in need of a clean. Sticky patches marred the finish, and great scuff marks showed where some heavy item of furniture had long ago been dragged this way, gouging deep pits in the wood as it went. The boy followed the marks, coming eventually to a long, twisting flight of stairs that led upwards. He paused at the foot, looking with a growing sense of unease at the worm-eaten unsteadiness of the banisters. The first step creaked loudly underfoot, and he thought that he felt the edge give way. He moved on quickly to the next step. The third was cracked right across, and he broke into a run, suddenly panicked that the stairs might not support his weight. He passed paintings on the way, clinging to the wall by means of old wire, heavy with dust and cobwebs. He saw the faces of the subjects in a blur as he ran, some catching his attention, others fading into a half-remembered rush of colour. One lone pair of bright blue eyes seemed to follow him to the top of the stairs, but when he glanced back he could not see which painting they might have been a part of. His eyes ran over the array of Victorian-types, all with high collars and stern expressions; the Edwardian men with their impressive moustaches; Georgian ladies accompanied by rapier-thin men in ill-judged britches. There were certain passing resemblances between them all, which suggested that this was more of a collection of family portraits than any kind of haphazard rogues gallery. The boy grinned at the nearest painting, a large image of a buck-toothed, grey-haired gentleman in his late fifties, wearing eighteenth century garb. One white-gloved hand rested ostentatiously on the hilt of a bejewelled sword that he did not look at all able to lift. A tri-cornered hat rested on the top of his thick, back-combed hair, and a pair of heavy eyebrows almost covered the bright, black eyes that glared thunderously at the intruder. There was a name in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, but it was almost impossible to read, and was as likely to have been the name of the artist as it was that of the subject himself.

"Hi." The boy gave an exaggerated bow. "The name's Giles. Rupert Giles. Lord of the Manor." He straightened the grubby collar of his shirt. "Don't feel obliged to bow and scrape, I'm really not in the mood. But if you'd like to tell one of the staff to draw me a bath I'd be most grateful." His strong East End tones mangled the attempt at a gentleman's speech, but he went gamely on. "I'll be taking breakfast in my room at nine. Just a little kedgeree, maybe some kippers. Easy on the toast. Fresh orange juice naturally. I'd prefer tea, but coffee will do provided it's not instant. My mother always told me never to trust coffee that comes out of a jar, no matter how good the picture on the front looks." The man in the painting glared mutely back at him, and he sighed. "Oh well. Least you don't snore."

The upstairs of the house proved to be considerably less ostentatious than those parts of the lower floor he had so far seen. There were six bedrooms, which was more than enough, he decided, for one teenaged boy and a rather mangy looking cat. He left the animal curled up on a dust sheet-covered bed of modest proportions, and went in search of other sleeping quarters for himself. A couple of the rooms bore bars on the windows, suggesting that they might once have been nurseries, and there was another room that still bore a set of chipped china accessories. A chamber pot stood by the foot of the ancient bed, proudly displaying a much-faded design of pink roses, hand-painted by some long dead artist without much of an eye for detail. There was a matching bowl and jug on the worm-eaten dresser, with a little dirty water still in the bowl. It looked more like rainwater than washing water however, and the huge damp patch on the ceiling directly above was testament to that likelihood. Giles left the room alone and went further down the passage. He found a junk room filled with an astounding collection of umbrellas and walking sticks, not to mention a pram so old that it looked as though it might well have once given shelter to the child of a conquering Roman. The next door that he tried was locked. Giles grinned.

"Ah ha!" Unable to resist, he dug around in his pockets for his knife and set to work on the lock. It gave easily, too hampered by rust to give much resistance to his probing assault. He jiggled the blade around, listening intently for the sound of falling tumblers, and with a flourish toward some invisible, enthralled audience, he twisted the handle and threw the door open. It crashed back against the wall and he stalked proudly inside, ready to survey his new domain.

It was a large room, decorated from floor to ceiling in Regency stripe wallpaper that was almost painful to behold. Furniture in shades of antique pine stretched proudly in almost every space around the edges of the room, looking for all the world like rigid sentries standing to attention. The chest of drawers yielded nothing more exciting than the scented paper used to line the interior. It still smelled faintly of lavender and roses, although there was an unmistakably sixties look to the pattern. The first wardrobe bore a comprehensive collection of coat hangers, along with a pair of leather boots so large that they might have been made for Goliath himself. Giles contemplated trying them on, but he doubted that he would be able to walk in them. They looked as if someone twice his size would have been dwarfed by them, and he could not help but wonder at the size of their original owner.

The second wardrobe was rather more interesting. Amongst a dusty array of blankets, and a feather pillow that moved suspiciously when he touched it, he found an old army greatcoat with crested buttons and battered epaulettes. He pulled it on, digging his hands deep into the pockets, and felt his fingers close around something left inside one. It caught in the lining, but with an effort he extricated it, and stared at it in the half-light coming through the window. It was a bullet, silver-coloured and crushed out of shape, as though through once having been fired. One end looked blackened from the firing charge, and the other end bore stains that, to Giles' over-active imagination, were clearly the lifeblood of some long-dead victim. He tossed the bullet in his hand, surprised at the icy-coldness of its touch against his skin. Even holding it tightly wrapped in his fist did nothing to warm it. He shivered, suddenly cold himself, and went over to the large, four-poster bed that stood more or less in the centre of the room. It was covered with a large, dark blue bedspread with embroidered snowdrops. There were stains on the bedspread too, suspiciously like old blood even to a mind now operating more through logic than childish fancy. Giles ignored the marks and climbed into the bed. Even with the greatcoat over his own leather jacket, he still felt cold. He pulled the bedspread around him, burrowing beneath the dusty purple blankets that he felt beneath. Where his trouser legs rode up, his ankles touched satin sheets, and the coldness of their smooth sheen was a surprise to his skin. He curled up, resting his head on the ancient feather pillow, and tugged the bedspread closer around his shoulders. He could almost fancy that he saw his breath, rising in white clouds up towards the ceiling. He shivered. How had it become so cold so very quickly? It was only a short while since he had been standing outside this old house, wearing just his jeans and a T-shirt. There had not been so much as a cloud in the sky, at least that he had noticed. Now suddenly it was as though all the snow clouds in the world had gathered outside the bedroom window.

"Trust me to choose some mouldy old dump to rest up in." He gathered the thickest of the blankets up around his ears, covering much of his head, pulling his hands close to his chest. His fingers felt stiff with the cold, and his right hand was beginning to redden. He stared down at it, listening to the steady chatter of his teeth, striking urgently away in time to the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. He frowned. No, that wasn't right. It couldn't be. The clock had been one of the first things he had noticed on coming into the room; the glass was broken, the tiny pendulum long stilled. The hands had been frozen at twenty past three, although whether that had been a.m. or p.m. it was impossible to say. Cautiously he peered over the top of the bedclothes. The pendulum was swinging backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, with a steady, predictable rhythm. The second hand was sweeping around, moving much faster than seemed natural. The hour hand moved as fast as the minute hand might be expected to, but the minute hand itself remained resolutely still. He watched, with bated breath, as the hour hand raced around the clock. Twenty past eight, twenty past nine, twenty past ten... He felt his heart beginning to pound, and all of a sudden his right hand began to burn, with the intense, powerful sensation of terrible cold. His clenched fingers fell open, and there, in his palm, rested the silver bullet. It seemed to shake as it lay in his open hand, the crushed nose beginning to move, slowly edging around until it was pointing at the clock. Giles stared at it, gaping, watching as the broken glass of the clock face mended itself seamlessly. The bullet in his hand gave a little jerk, and with an abrupt, terrible sensation of fear, he hurled it away. It hit the floorboards and rolled under the closest of the dressers. He heard a low, dull thud as it hit the wall. Immediately the clock stopped.

"What the-?" He stared at it, watching in amazement. For a second there seemed to be a haze to the air. The clock blurred in his vision and the hands seemed to merge; then the glass was broken again, the pendulum still and once more covered in dust. The hands read twenty past three. Quite suddenly Giles was no longer cold. He blew out a long breath, and began extricating himself from within his cocoon of blankets.

"Oh boy." Lying on top of the bed he stared up at the peeling white paint of the ceiling. Plaster flowers stared back at him, some embellished with smirking and scowling gargoyles just like the ones he had seen downstairs. He felt his whole body beginning to shake. Suddenly it seemed a very good idea to be getting on his way; leaving this house far behind him and finding somewhere else to spend the next night. And yet... it was a comfortable bed, and the house was good shelter. There was the cat for company, and a collection of paintings that he had hardly even begun to look at. There was the rest of the downstairs to explore. He grinned at the most jovial looking gargoyle, and folded his hands behind his head. The over-large sleeves of the greatcoat flapped like dull, grey-green flags. His eyes drifted towards the dresser beneath which the bullet had fallen, and a tiny shadow of doubt entered his mind. He slipped his hands back into the pockets of the coat. There, deep within the right-hand one, caught in the lining, was a bullet. There had only been one before, and somehow he was sure that this was it. Another shiver ran through his scrawny frame.

"Oh boy," he said again, his voice a tiny whisper in the heavy silence of the room. He thought again about leaving, and wondered vaguely if he would make it out of the house. He took a deep breath. Was he really scared? Was he really going to let something that was probably easily explicable cheat him out of the first decent shelter he had had in a fortnight? Yes, screamed his brain. He was rather inclined to agree with it. Tugging off the greatcoat, he rose to his feet. Up above him, unseen, one of the gargoyles blinked, and turned its stone head to watch him as he made his way to the door. The gargoyle blinked again, and the door slammed shut. Giles jumped.

"Who's there?" Sensing some kind of presence, he whirled around. His eyes were drawn to the gargoyle, but it was still once again, looking for all the world as though it had never moved. Giles ignored it and ran to the door. It wouldn't open, no matter how hard he tugged at the handle, and no matter how hard he beat on the wood. He hands stung with the force of the blows.

"Who's there?" He shouted louder this time, and thought that he heard an answer; not words so much as a sound; a long, drawn-out sound that seemed to come from the very heart of the house itself. Beads of cold sweat welled up on his forehead and he felt them trickle, almost feverishly, into his eyes. He blinked them free. Beneath his feet, he thought that he felt the floor shake. He made a grab for the nearest piece of furniture, but even as his hand scraped at the smooth wood, suddenly there was no longer anything there to hold on to. His fingers snatched at empty air, the floor gave way beneath his feet and he tumbled, helpless, into blackness. Cold air rushed by him, and he let out a yell, indistinct even to his own ears. He looked up, saw the room far above him; a distant square of light marked at the edges with Regency stripe - then darkness closed in all around him, and he saw nothing but the distortion of distant light, refracted through the icy tears that clouded his eyes.


He lay in darkness for what seemed like a great many hours, before finally he felt the strength to move. Shadows that must have been rats congregated in the corners of the room in which he found himself; a small, stone-flagged space with an open drain running across the middle of the floor, and a scant scattering of straw gathered mostly in the corners. A sudden, violent scratching nearby made him lash out, grabbing for a fistful of straw to throw at the small, furry creature which had dared come so close. He caught a brief glimpse of tiny teeth bared in an unconvincing threat, before the rat decided to plump for retreat. A low laugh echoed in Giles' ears.

"Who is that?" He was sitting upright immediately, staring into the inky blackness. He could see shadows and he could smell damp, and he could feel the cold; but he could hear nothing at all. He shivered. "I know you're out there."

"There's no need to be afraid. I didn't mean to scare you." It was a young voice - so young that it surprised him. He turned his head. A candle flickered into existence, defusing the harshness of the dark with a gentle orange glow of surprising warmth. A girl was holding the candle; a tall girl of an almost ephemeral appearance, with a face that hid childish innocence too far beneath adult sorrow. She was the same age as him, he guessed; seventeen at the very most; Chinese in ancestry if not by birth. There was the trace of an accent to her words, which suggested that English was not the language she had been born to speak, but she was fluent in it nonetheless. She moved closer to him.

"Are you alright? The fall didn't hurt you?"

"I'm okay. I think." He started to stand up, but she held him down with a hand on his shoulder. She was very strong, which took him by surprise even more that her presence in this extraordinary place. She looked as though she might find carrying school books a chore, and yet clearly that was just an illusion.

"Stay here for a little while," she told him. "There's no sense in overdoing it. It's a long way down, and there's not much here to break the fall. Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm sure. I know how to land." That was true. He had been learning such things for years now, when he bothered to turn up for the lessons; how to land, how to roll, how to avoid harm; and how to cause it. Even so, the back of his head ached, where he had apparently struck it an unpleasant blow. He rubbed at it with one hand, using the other to take his weight as he leaned back, trying to put a little distance between himself and this extraordinary girl. The extra distance gave him a better view, and for a second his eyes lingered on the light brown skin and the long black hair. She had dyed parts of the fringe red and purple, and braided them with tiny glass beads that sent scatterings of minuscule rainbows across her forehead. They danced in her eyes, reflecting in the pupils, adding to the aura of otherworldliness that so infused her presence. She smiled, tilting her head on one side to return his scrutiny.

"You're Rupert Giles," she told him, and he jumped. Whether it was her words or just the very sound of her voice that startled him, he couldn't be sure. He blinked at her, green eyes shadowed and dark.

"How do you know that?"

"I heard you introducing yourself upstairs. I talk to the paintings too. It helps to feel less alone." She looked away. "I thought it would be fun here, but it's not. It's just lonely."

"Then why are you here?" Pushing aside her restraining hand he rose to his feet. The top of his head brushed the ceiling, and he knocked irritably at a collection of dangling cobwebs. The girl also rose to her feet. She stood slightly stooped, suggesting that she was fractionally taller than he was.

"Because it's the last place on Earth that anybody would think to look. If you were looking for a teenage girl, would you come here? To a ramshackle, haunted house that nobody else will go near?" A wry smile crossed her face. "Why did you come here, incidentally?"

"Well I certainly didn't know the place was haunted." He glanced back up, trying to spot the place where he had fallen, but the hole, wherever it had been, had apparently closed itself up. "Is that why - why I fell?"

"I think so. All kinds of weird things happen in the master bedroom. That's where they found the last resident. He died a month or so back, I heard, although they didn't find him till just a couple of weeks ago. When the police came here they found the place looking as though nobody had lived here in years. He was lying in the bed, all wasted away, and shot right through the heart. They never found the bullet, but they found traces of silver in the wound. Imagine that - being shot with a silver bullet." She smiled with child-like delight at such gory details. "The locals have reported all kinds of things over the years, but especially since they took that last man away. Lights at night, strange noises - the works."

"Cool." He didn't feel especially impressed. All that he really wanted was to get out of this tiny, dark space and into the fresh air. "Is that why you stay?"

"I'm not scared of ghosts." She lowered her head. "Why should I be? I've seen worse than a few restless spirits in my time, believe me. Most ghosts have little ability to really harm the living, and those that do are usually only capable of hurting you if you let them."

"Richard Irvine, Ghosts And The Medium Of Transition." Giles frowned. "You've read that?"

"I have, yes. I'm surprised that you have. It's not exactly widely available these days."

"Published 1848, but only a limited amount were ever made available for sale. Irvine died two days after the printing of the first copy, and the publishers' works burned down along with all the drafts the very next night." He shrugged. "My family has access to a very large library."

"Cool. I think I'd like to see that."

"No you wouldn't." He turned away slightly, remembering the small and yet oddly vast room, with its huge wooden beams and sweeping parquet flooring. The sets of wooden steps leading up into walkways filled with more and more books; the domed ceiling with its central, circular window inscribed with a suitably dark Latin motto. The huge wooden doors that let in no light, and the echoing voice of his father telling him which texts to learn by lunchtime. He didn't think that he would ever feel comfortable in a library again. He certainly didn't think that he would ever want to voluntarily spend time in one. The girl smiled at him.

"I like books. I like reading about all this kind of stuff. Don't you?"

"I think I did once." But any hobby became a chore when it was something you had to do. Rupert Giles would far rather have been a Slayer than a Watcher; but then that was something that he could hardly explain to this girl. She would never have heard of either profession. "Look, can we leave the chat till later? I want to get out of here."

"Of course. I'm sorry." She reached out in the half-dark and took his hand, startling him so much that he almost pulled away. "Come on. We can get into the main cellar from here, and then it's easy to get to the living quarters. I found a priest hole leading off one of the bedrooms, and it makes a great place to live. There's plenty of space if you want to stay."

"You're serious, aren't you. You really live here, even though this place is haunted."

"Is there any reason why I shouldn't? I told you; I'm not scared of ghosts." She gave a little shrug, and pulled gently at his hand. "Are you?"

"Of course I'm not." He pulled free of her then, storming ahead even though he had no idea which way to go. The light from her candle faded as he left its circle, and his feet slipped on the damp straw.

"Giles, wait." He heard her footsteps speed up, and quickened his own pace in response, ignoring her call. His hands stretched out in front of him, feeling for the wall, and touched the rough, cold stone at the edge of the room. He ran his hands along this barrier, searching for a door or an opening, and was relieved when his hands touched empty space. He took a step towards it.

"No! Giles wait!" A hand grabbed at him, snagging in his sleeve, and he pulled forward irritably. He took another step forward; and his feet met nothingness. His body lurched forward. Beneath him he got a dizzying view of a great, seemingly bottomless pit, drenched at the sides with the girl's lingering candle light. Row after row of brick and stone, leading the way down into a gaping chasm. He tried to reach out for a handhold, but the stone around him was wet and slippery, and all he succeeded in doing was tearing the skin from his fingertips in his haste.

"Got you!" The voice was triumphant, and as a series of eerie echoes burst from the chasm, Giles felt his body jerk to an unexpected halt. A hand was gripping the collar of his jacket; one hand alone; one smooth, seventeen year-old girl's hand that was somehow stopping him from falling. He struggled, suddenly desperately afraid that she would let him go. Instead she pulled, and with her one-handed grip she heaved him back up, setting him on the solid floor once again. She didn't even seem out of breath at the exertion, and gave his jacket a cursory brush down with her hands, straightening his collar where she had pulled it out of shape.

"Drat," she announced, in a tone that suggested she was entirely unaffected by all that had just happened. "I dropped the candle." There was a scuffling as she retrieved it, and a sudden scratching as she lit a match. The candle flared back into life, and in its glow Giles saw her smiling face. She looked calm and unconcerned, which was more than he felt at all capable of just now. He wiped sweat from his forehead, leaving a trail of grime in its wake, and blinked rapidly at his saviour.

"How did you do that?" He was aware that his voice sounded unsteady, and he hated himself for it. It was bad enough sounding scared, but to let this girl hear him sounding that way was a gross affront to his pride. He struggled to regain control, and his eyes flashed in the light of the candle. "You shouldn't be that strong. You can't be."

"Can't I?" She shrugged. "Then I suppose I'm not. It's nothing special, Giles. Not for me. I've always been stronger than most people, at least for the last couple of years."

"But - but that - what you just did. It was unnatural. Impossible." He shook his head. "You - you're impossible."

"Very likely."

"Are you a ghost?"

"Definitely not. I think you'd know it if I was. Most ghosts can't touch." She reached out, touching his hand, and he felt the warmth of her skin. "And I can touch. I think I've proved that."

"You're not cold either." He wanted to take her hand and hold it, but instead he pulled his own away. "Ghosts are supposed to be cold. Are you something else?"

"You mean a witch or a demon or a bloodsucking vampire ready to drink my fill?" She giggled. "You've no idea how crazy that suggestion is."

"Then there's only one thing you can be." He took a step forward, and found himself staring very intently into her eyes. "You must be the Slayer."

"Yes, I suppose I must." She frowned at him, puzzlement showing in her eyes. "But how did you know that?"

"The same reason we've read the same books, I imagine." He looked away. "I'm supposed to be a Watcher. One day, at any rate. It's my destiny to assist you."

"No." She smiled, and turned away slightly. "Not me. My successor, or hers, or even the next one after that. By the time you're old enough to take your place as a Watcher, I'll not be the Slayer anymore. I'm seventeen, Giles. Slayers don't often live even that long."

"Don't be daft." It was his turn to reach out to her, and he took her hand in his. It was small and delicate looking, not at all how the hand of a warrior should look. "You saved my life. I don't want to hear you talk about dying."

"Well thankyou for your vote of confidence." She smiled, looking much abashed. "Now let's get out of here before something else happens."

"I'm right behind you." He moved aside to let her take the lead this time, and followed as she led him towards a small wooden door. It felt slimy to the touch, and was marked with mould and mildew, and yet still seemed solid. The girl seemed to find it hard to open, which amused him no end. It seemed odd after her great display of strength that she should now be hampered by a stiff door handle; but then perhaps she only wanted to use her strength when it was necessary. He fought the urge to move forward and open the door for her.

Beyond the door, there was a corridor of sloping stone. The drip of water was everywhere, and the walls glistened with its wetness. A shallow gutter ran along either side of the floor, and dirty water moved sluggishly along these grooves. Its path was blocked every so often by slime, or by the bodies of small animals, and the floor was almost awash where the guttering had flooded. It was rain water, or seemed to be; but Giles could see no way for it to enter this isolated, grim place. He wondered if this had once been a dungeon of some kind, but the house hadn't really seemed the type to have such an addition. If it was just a cellar it had clearly missed its calling. His footsteps echoed, running ahead and then rushing back at him, and it was an infinite relief when the corridor came to an end at a flight of worn stone steps. His guide ran up them ahead of him, and opened the door at the top, flooding the pair of them in sudden lamplight. She grinned.

"Come on. Maybe we can open a bottle of wine."

"Great." He ran up after her, emerging into a huge, bright space that could only have been a wine cellar. Racks lined the walls and formed columns up and down the room. Most were hung with cobwebs, and were thick with dust, and of the bottles that did remain in their places, a good many were broken. One of two looked as though they might still contain their original contents. This possibility, along with the sudden dry air and relative warmth, made Giles feel infinitely cheered. He reached for a bottle, and held it up to the light. There was no label, but whatever the contents of the bottle happened to be, it was red. That in itself was extremely promising.

"Connoisseur?" She was smirking at him again, but it no longer seemed to annoy him. He shrugged.

"My mother would kill me if I said yes, but I quit worrying what she thinks a long time ago." He dug out his knife and used it to pull free the cork. "Don't seem to be any glasses. Sorry about that."

"It's okay. I don't drink." She watched him, seemingly amused by the frown that came in response to this comment. He shrugged.

"Fine. More for me." He took a long pull from the bottle, and whistled through his teeth. "Not bad. Not bad at all. Not exactly smooth, but I never was one for the subtle approach." He caught her smiling again, and this time he glowered. "You find me funny? 'Cause I can find you plenty else to laugh about."

"What happened to the grateful young man whose life I saved?" She turned away. "Forget it."

"I already have." He threw himself down onto one of the few rickety chairs that stood about in the cellar. It was good to get some of his confidence back, but whether it was the wine or just the light which had replenished it, he couldn't say. Either way, being his usual, arrogant self was a great improvement on the nervous and uneasy image he had been projecting so recently. He knew which Rupert Giles he preferred, and if this goody two shoes Slayer disagreed, that was her problem. After all, it wasn't as though he had really needed her help. He could have stopped himself from falling if he had had to. What did he need some girl for? He put the bottle down on the floor at his feet and dug a cigarette out of the inner pocket of his jacket. Leaning forward to light it from one of the many flickering lamps positioned around the room, he flashed his companion a grin.

"So this is home sweet home, huh? Could do with a few little comforts."

"I told you, this is just the cellar. I've been living in a priest hole two floors up." She frowned at him, suspicious. "You know, all kinds of things can look different in the light of day, but I never thought the same was true of people. What's happened? You were friendly down there."

"Sorry." He flashed her another grin, and took a puff on the cigarette before holding it out as an offering to the girl. She shook her head.

"I don't smoke."

"Oh you do surprise me. Are all Slayers such clean-living paragons, or am I just lucky to have found you?"

"One of us is certainly rather more lucky than the other." She turned away. "I'm going to my room. You can stay here if you want, or there's the rest of the house. Maybe you'll get even luckier, and survive the night."

"I'm not scared of ghosts." He mimicked her earlier tone as he said it, and blew a long plume of smoke into the air. "Maybe I'll go Slay a few."

"Be my guest." She had got as far as the door before she turned back. "Oh, and whilst I suddenly find it very hard to care what happens to you, I will give you one word of warning."

"What's that?" He spoke around the neck of the bottle as he took another long pull. "Don't speak to strange ghouls?"

Her expression was withering, but it had no effect on him. "Watch out for the cat. It lives somewhere around here, although lives isn't really the right word. Seems to be a focus for all the bad energy in this place. If you talk to it, or touch it - and especially if you try to feed it - you could be putting yourself in serious danger. It's a skinny little thing, black with tabby patches. Yellow eyes."

"Real scary I'm sure." He put his feet up on an old crate, and tilted his head back. "Thanks for the warning, but I'm not the catty type. See you in the morning."

"I doubt it." She pulled open the door and vanished through it. Giles watched her go through one eye, the other closed. Only when her footsteps had echoed away beyond his hearing did he sit suddenly upright and stare after her.

"Hang on. A cat?" He frowned, thinking back to the mangy, scrawny-looking animal that he had met by the front door. It had been black, now that he thought about it. Black with tabby patches and yellow eyes. And he had talked to it, and he had touched it - and he had fed it. Suddenly he began to regret having drunk so much, and having mingled it so quickly with his special tobacco mix. His head buzzed. "Oh great." Slowly he rose to his feet, and made his unsteady way across to the door. He peered out into the corridor. He could see no sign of the Slayer, and as he considered calling out to her, it struck him that he had no idea of her name. He frowned. What was he supposed to shout? 'Hey Slayer?' That was hardly going to endear him to her, any more than his recent actions had. He groaned, and rested his head on the door post. Maybe he shouldn't have been quite so free with that wine. There was no telling how long it had been here, maturing; or what its original recipe had been. A chill washed over him, and he pushed his hands into his pockets. The fingers of his right hand hit something small and hard, and with a sudden feeling of panic he pulled it out. It was a bullet, battered out of shape as though through once having been fired. Silver in colour, it was stained with what appeared to be dried blood. He frowned at it, staring in shock at the tiny missile, trying to understand how it could possibly be there, then threw it across the room and slumped into the nearest chair. He didn't care. The whole stupid house and all its creepy secrets could go to hell. He just wanted another drink.


Kwan Li-Tai kicked sulkily at a loose screw that lay on the bare wooden boards of her secret bedroom. It had fallen out of one of the hinges of the escape hatch leading down to the dining room on the ground floor, and she hadn't got around to replacing it yet. The door in question was so old and stiff that a missing screw made it easier to operate anyway. She kicked again at the screw, and it skidded and bounced its way across the room and vanished through a hole in the floor. She swore, then blushed. If Rosemary heard her swearing... An embarrassed smile crossed her face. What did it matter now what Rosemary thought? Her Watcher was a million miles away, back in Edinburgh where she had left her. It had been so easy, slipping away into the night whilst the Watcher was making her report on a series of kills her young charge had made; a trio of ancient demons who had been haunting the underground chambers of Edinburgh's plague city. Grotesque, four-armed, slimy creatures with a taste for human lungs. She almost shuddered at the memory. Funny that anybody - or anything - would want to eat a lung anyway. Until she had seen several of them, recently removed from their original owners by the hungry demons, she had always thought of them as little more than bags of air. A biology lesson and a Slaying, all in one. Who said being the Slayer couldn't be an education as well as a calling?

"Rupert bloody Giles." She kicked at the floor, stubbed her toe, and swore again. This time she didn't blush. Who the hell did he think he was, coming here, interrupting her solitude, pretending to be nice; and then coming over all sullen and arrogant? She had saved his life, and he had started acting like a reform school dropout. Somehow, especially after becoming acquainted with Rosemary Jordan and her infinitely stuffier predecessor, Li had got the impression that all Watchers were reserved bookworms from birth; that they had personality removal operations at the age of three, or something. Thinking about it now, alone in her room, she couldn't help wondering whether there weren't more of them like Giles. After all, was it really any less inconvenient being obliged to Watch than it was being obliged to Slay? She had rebelled. She had run away. Clearly Giles had done the same thing. She sighed. Maybe she had been unfair towards him. Maybe it wasn't his fault that he had acted like such a total prat. She almost smiled. Life was so unfair. Here was a boy who would make a perfect Slayer, and here she was, a girl who would so enjoy being a Watcher. And yet each was destined to do the task that the other was most suited for. She scowled again. Maybe she should go down and apologise; offer to start again from scratch. She had been a little patronising towards him anyway, and all that he had really done was to make a few jokes at her expense... Well, that and the reform school act. She remembered the insulting look in his eyes as he had puffed on that cigarette; the clear enjoyment he had taken in her annoyance. She folded her arms, glared at the floor, and gave the nearest chest of drawers a powerful kick. The bottom drawer staved in, and she heard something inside creak and crack.

"Oh..." Words failed her, and the epithets she had used earlier didn't seem to come so readily now. Maybe that juvenile delinquent Watcher downstairs had been right. Maybe she was a paragon of virtue. Maybe she was desperately annoying. She tried to open the bottom drawer to see what it was that had broken, but the pieces of shattered wood interlocked with each other, and the drawer refused to open. She kicked it again, then flew into a temper and dragged and heaved at the drawer until it fell open onto the floor. It landed on her foot, and with a yell of desperate fury she seized hold of part of it and hurled it across the room. Suddenly tired she sank to the floor. Bloody Rupert bloody Giles. It was all his bloody fault. She found herself smiling, and gave what was left of the drawer another kick. Teach it to lie there and smirk at her. She could see now what it was that had broken, and she reached out to pick it up. It was a china figurine, although why it had been inside a drawer instead of out on display she couldn't imagine. It was the figure of a small boy, dressed in a painted-on sailor suit. He looked about five or six, and possessed a pair of the most improbably rosy cheeks that she had ever seen. His eyes were wide and blue, and his bone-white face was round and cherubic. She could see tiny teeth between his painted red lips, and his tiny fingers were closed around something. It looked like a flower, too small to see in any real detail. She thought that it was a forget-me-not. She stroked the smooth coldness of the china, saddened to see that her angry kick had shattered the small boy's legs. She found was left of them still in the drawer, complete with neat little black shoes, decorated with shiny silver buckles. There was an name on the bottom of one, but a piece had broken away, and all that she could read was the word Arthur. She wondered who he had been; what he had looked like; whether he had used a real little boy as his model; or whether Arthur was the name of the boy. There was something about this little statue that suggested he had been real; some child that the artist had known perhaps; maybe even his son. She lifted the figure closer to her face, admiring the incredible detail of each wispy, painted hair; each curl of blond-painted china perfection. She could imagine those hairs blowing in the wind, could see the tufts when he woke up in the morning. She could imagine the angelic innocence of his face crinkling in disgust when somebody tried to comb those blond curls, so that they would look as neat as they did in this china caricature. She smiled, and gradually the painted lips of the little figure curved to match her expression. The little blue eyes sparked with life, and the china cheeks dimpled as the smile changed to a smirk of malicious glee. She gasped, dropping the figure, and took a few stumbling steps backwards. Something warm blocked her way. She turned her head; and saw a small boy of no more than five standing behind her. He was dressed in a sailor suit, and his blond hair was freshly combed. Blue eyes burned with a ferocity that went far beyond his years. Li let out a small scream of shock, and the boy reached out and gripped her wrist. His hand was icy cold. She tried to pull free, but strangely she found that she couldn't. Her Slayer's strength seemed to be deserting her. She stared into the wide blue eyes upraised to hers, and her lips formed questions that she couldn't ask. She felt her knees beginning to buckle.

"Goodnight Slayer." The boy's voice was childish, and sounded unnatural with hate. Li's brow creased with confusion.

"Why...? How-?" She hit the floor hard enough to end her attempt at conversation. The boy glared down at her.

"Easy," he said simply; and vanished. Alone in a room suddenly filled with manic shadows, Li passed out. Seconds later a lone figure walked past, and bent to touch her unconscious form. Lost in her dreams, Li shivered violently, but when the figure chuckled to itself in response she didn't hear a thing.


The hours passed. Outside the house the dusk thickened into early night. Clouds blocked the moon and the stars, and the previous warmth of the air dissipated into a breezy chill. The trees began to bend and sway in time to the growing wind. The grass chased itself across the lawn, and those flowers that still clung to their stalks in the garden were finally knocked loose, and blew away over the walls and out into the distant world. The remains of some long-dead bonfire scattered themselves over the path, and a wild and unkempt rose bush began to hammer on the window of the scullery. Its tiny thorns beat repeatedly against the glass, pointed fists begging permission to enter. A ragged bunch of petals which had once been a perfect flower drifted to the earth, and vanished into the muddy water of the drain. A rat darted out of the way, sitting up on its hind legs to watch the growing turmoil outside. Its little ears picked up as the wind began to rattle loose tiles and shake cracked panes of glass. Its little teeth bared as voices began to burst forth from the screams of the growing gale. One voice rose above all of the others, drowning out even the wind as it screamed in desperate anguish. The rat listened to it for a second, then turned and ran. It ran down through the drains, deep, deep underground, following tiny, thin passageways built for waste, which even ghosts did not bother to haunt. All was silent there. All was calm. But still the rat shook, and still its whiskers quivered; and far above it, out in the garden, still the mystery voice screamed in wretched misery above the raging of the building storm.


Rupert Giles raised his head, and stared down at the stone flagging that loomed so large in his blurred vision. He felt cold, and his entire body was damp. It was a persistent damp; a nagging coldness that felt as though it were a part of him. He shivered, and it felt as though every bone in his body rattled. Had he drunk too much? Very likely. He grinned. The wine was good, and the home-rolled cigarettes even better. This was definitely the best stop-over he had had since running away from school again. Well okay, so there were one or two weirdnesses, but they were not likely to bother Rupert Giles. He faced danger with a smile on his face - or an arrogant smirk at any rate.

Rising to his feet, Giles tested his weight rather uncertainly on legs that did not feel too confident. The doorframe offered him some friendly support, but he pushed on past it and left the wine cellar far behind him. The house beyond was dark and still, and the winding staircase by which he had made his original ascent to the bedrooms no longer seemed as dramatic and welcoming as before. He went up it slowly, uncertain quite where he was going, or why. Again, as he went past the rows of paintings, he was sure that one pair of bright blue eyes burned more intently than the others, but just as before he was unable to place them. He reached the top, and glanced back at the display of mute ancestry. The old man at the top of the stairs glared thunderously at him from beneath his beetling brows, but this time Giles didn't speak to him. Instead he turned his back on the pictures and headed for the nearest bedroom.

It was a small room; much smaller than the other bedrooms he had explored. Dust sheets covered most of the furniture and a large rug of Indian design was spread over half of the floor space. The clear shape of a bed, draped in thick white sheets and a sprinkling of dust and cat hairs, was the centrepiece of the room. Giles went straight to it. The cat was still there, curled up into a tiny ball right in the very middle of the bed. It opened its yellow eyes in greeting as he approached, and performed a jaw-splitting yawn and stretch movement that showed off its feline form to fine advantage. It blinked up at him, and began to purr.

"I've been looking for you." Giles reached out almost instinctively for the creature, but pulled back at the last second. "I thought you were alone. I thought you needed me." The cat gave no answer, and instead began to wash its front paws. "So what are you? Are you some kind of ghost thing, or are you just a cat?" Still there was no answer, and he sighed, castigating himself mentally. If it was demon, it was hardly going to stand up and introduce itself. He reached out a tentative hand, and very gently laid it on the creature's head. It pressed up against him, beginning to purr very loudly. Gradually Giles relaxed.

"You certainly don't seem very dangerous." He scratched its ears. "Maybe she was having me on." He sat down on the bed and smiled down at the cat. As if in answer it climbed onto his lap and lay down, yellow eyes closed in happy contentment. "I've been a bundle of nerves since I came into this house. I'm not usually like this. Honest." The cat showed no interest in his assurances, but he carried on regardless. "I've fought demons before. And vampires. I reckon I could do just as well as any Slayer." The cat twitched its tail, but Giles didn't notice. "Now suddenly I arrive here, and straight away I'm hearing voices and jumping at shadows. Even seeing bullets. Like some old lady with a nervous twitch. Next I'll start praying over this thing." He dug inside his shirt and produced the antique silver crucifix he had worn around his neck for years. It swung from his fingers, sending a shaft of reflected light onto the bed. He frowned for a moment, wondering where the light was coming from. There were no candles or lamps in the bedroom. In his lap, the cat stirred and began to hiss.

"Hey, steady!" Giles pushed himself away, staring in surprise at the little bundle of fur. It spat at him, and its claws extended, digging into the dust sheets. A low, unpleasant growl sounded deep within its throat, and its bright yellow eyes fixed themselves intently on the crucifix. Giles stared at it, dangling from his fingers, and his face went a deathly shade of pale. He moved forward slightly, letting the crucifix swing towards the cat, and it backed off. It let out another hiss of warning, and its tail lashed at the air. Its eyes began to burn with a bright glow.

"Uh oh." It wasn't the most dramatic thing to say, but completely at a loss, the young Watcher could barely give voice at all. A jumble of words fell into his brain, all of them refusing to be organised into spells and incantations, or anything else that might have been of use to him. Quite suddenly he found that he was unable to remember the first line of the Lord's Prayer. That was what you were supposed to say, wasn't it, when you were confronted by something like this? He rubbed his eyes. Why the hell couldn't he remember? He had spent the last seven years living and breathing this stuff. Even before that - before he had found out about his destiny - he had been studying the dark side. He had practically learnt to read in his father's occult library. And yet now it was all a madcap jumble in his head; half remembered verses of ancient poems thought to work as spells of containment; texts in Greek and Latin that intermingled and confused themselves. A limerick Charles Attworthy had taught him in his first year at prep school, which had got them both a caning from the Head of Year when they had cheerfully recited it to the matron. A line from Homer's Iliad, which he had had to write a thousand times after messing up the translation and screwing up the tenses. A line from The Who's Substitute. He shook his head, and raised his eyes to meet those of the cat. Green desperation met yellow fury. The cat gnashed its teeth, and in a sudden blur of black smoke and oily vapour it disappeared. In its place was a small boy, no more than five or six years-old, with wide blue eyes and neatly combed blond curls. He was dressed in a sailor suit, and he looked very scared.

"Help me," he said, and his eyes widened still further. "I want to get away. I want my mummy."

"Where the hell did you come from?" Automatically Giles took a step towards the boy, then froze. "Who are you?"

"Arthur." The boy stared back at him, his expression suddenly cold. "Who are you?"

"Rupert Giles." Slowly Giles lowered the crucifix. "Are you okay?"

"I think so. But I want my mummy." A small tear trickled down one chubby cheek. "Will you look after me?"

"I look after number one, kid. Nobody else." Giles sighed. Was it possible that whatever demon had taken the form of the cat had also ensnared this small child? Certainly the boy didn't look at all dangerous, and if he really was an innocent, Giles didn't know what he should do about it. He thought about the Slayer. She was a girl. Surely she'd know what to do with a small boy? It struck him that she would probably deny that, but if he moved quickly enough he could be gone before she'd had time to protest. He smiled.

"Come on." He reached out and took the boy's hand. "I'll take you to a friend of mine."

"And I'll take you to a friend of mine." The boy smiled, and his hand closed very tightly around Giles'. The young Watcher felt steely, ice-cold fingers digging into wrist, and with a cry of surprise he looked down at the boy. Yellow fires flashed within the baby-blue eyes. Giles tried to pull away, but the grip on his wrist grew tighter and more powerful.

"What are you?" He took a step back, but the boy merely laughed and pulled him closer into his embrace.

"I'm Arthur." His voice was incongruously still that of a small child. "And you should never have come here."

"I'd be happy to leave." Somehow he managed to keep up the bravado, which helped him to feel a little better. The tough guy act wasn't terribly convincing in the face of the undead, but he wasn't ready to try begging for his life just yet.

"Leaving isn't an option, Watcher." The boy was smrking, still somehow managing to hold him immobile. "Not now, not ever."

"You'd better be aware that the Slayer's in this house." It was little more than an attempt to bluff his way out of this, but Giles felt his confidence growing. He stared into the eyes of the boy, gathering together all of his determination. "She'll come after you."

"The Slayer..." The boy pronounced the title with a marked hiss. "I spoke to her, but I didn't hear the heart of a warrior. She's just the same as you. A runaway looking for a life beyond destiny. Easy pickings."

"She's the Slayer." Giles was aware that he sounded horribly like a petulant child as he made this assertion. "She can't run away from that."

"Oh but she can." The grip on his wrist tightened, and the world around about began to blur. "Why don't I show you?"


Kwan Li-Tai was floating, although she wasn't sure where or how. Limbo... The word floated through her subconscious without her being fully aware of it - or of what it meant. Did it mean home? Or did it mean escape? Was limbo the place that she had been looking for this past year - the refuge from her destiny? She didn't think so. It sounded like a nice solution, but she didn't think that it was that either. Maybe it was just a dream.

She could see things as she floated. She saw herself at six years-old, playing beside a stream at the edge of a field. She didn't know what was growing in the field. All that she knew was that the water in the stream was cold, and that she could see a tiny fish, flitting to-and-fro in the shadows. She saw herself reach out a hand to try to touch the fish, and felt her disappointment as it swam away too fast. She remembered slipping on the bank in her eagerness to catch it, sinking into the cold, fast water up to her hips. She remembered her mother glaring down at her, not sure whether to laugh or just to get cross. She remembered drinking hot tea to warm herself up. She remembered her mother standing over her, pouring the tea, smiling... Li wanted to reach out, to touch her mother and feel her warmth again; but her mother was dead. On the very day that Li had first excepted her new duties, a gang of vampires had laid waste to her village, and killed almost everyone that she knew. Revenge, Patrick Lumbe had said - right before another vampire had ripped his throat open. Li's first Watcher had barely Watched her for long enough to get a proper look. She remembered him now, as she floated through the strange nothingness that enclosed her. He had been very tall, and very proper. Very refined, very precise in his every manner. Kenyan by birth, but with an accent so English that he had reminded her of some of the BBC broadcasts she had heard on the radio. She had decided to hate him, but she had felt a razor sharp pain in her stomach when she had seen him die. It hadn't been shock, or anger, or repulsion - it had been sorrow at her loss. She remembered that feeling now, and felt the hollowness of it in contrast to the happiness of her memory of her mother. Life had been so much happier before. Before she had become the Slayer, before she had had to assume this dreadful mantle. Before she had become some all-conquering superhero, with a destiny and an eternity of expectations to live up to. Before... before she had been taken away to learn how to fight and how to kill and how to cease to be a normal teenage girl. Floating in her vast expanse of emptiness, Li felt that emptiness spreading inside her, filling her with darkness and cold.

You can stop it, you know. You can escape. The voice was within her, and she felt it as an echo of her own mind. Even so, she tried to turn her head and search it out; to find it in the world around her. But there was no world, and her head wouldn't turn, and her eyes wouldn't even open. She wasn't even sure if she was trying to open them.

"What do you mean?" She was shocked by the sound of her voice. It was loud and it seemed unnatural. It was her voice and it wasn't her voice. She seemed to recognise the voice inside her head much more easily that she did her own.

I mean, you can escape. It's what you want, isn't it? It's why you left your Watcher. It's why you came here. Escape. You are what you don't want to be. You want to be something else instead. Someone else. Don't you.

"Who are you?"

It's what you want, isn't it. Escape. You want to escape. You want to run away from who and what you are. You want to be free. That's right, isn't it.

"What do you want?"

That's right, isn't it?

"Where am I?"

I'm right, aren't I. You just want to escape. You don't want to be yourself anymore.

"Yes!" She shouted the word as a challenge, angry at the refusal of the voice to answer. "Yes, that's right! Why should I be me? Why should I be the Slayer? Why should I be the one who has to risk her life every day, who has to fight other people's battles? Why should I be the one who can't have a future? It's not fair!"

Then change it.


You have to want to do it.

"I do. I want to be free. I want to be able to walk the streets at night without hearing the voices of the undead screaming in my ears. I want to be able to walk through a graveyard without feeling the earth shake with the coming of the next vampire. I want to be able to go home, without being afraid of what it might mean for the few there who are left alive. I don't want to have all these responsibilities anymore."

Easy. If you really mean it.

"I really mean it."

Good. There was a giggle. It sounded childish, almost as though the owner of the disembodied voice was a gleeful child. I'm glad.


"Giles!" Li was surprised at how pleased she was to see the young Watcher, and as her eyes flickered open and her vision focused on a dark, leather jacketed figure, she felt relief and happiness mingle together inside her. "Are you okay?"

"That's supposed to be my line." He helped her to her feet. "I'm fine." He sounded belligerent, but genuine. She smiled, strangely pleased by his arrogance. It might just prove to be a source of strength. "What happened to you? When I came in you were out for the count."

"I had an experience." She shuddered. "How did you find me? This place is supposed to be a secret."

"You're not in any priest hole right now." He turned away from her, lighting up a cigarette that smelt distinctly dubious to her admittedly not terribly experienced senses. "We're in the master bedroom." She frowned, but as she turned to look around she saw that he was right. "Which is good I guess. At least it means we get to feel important before the junior demon decides playtime is over." He blew out a long plume of smoke and watched it dissipate. "Any idea what he wants?"

"Junior demon?" She frowned at him, confused. "Giles, you've lost me. I - I remember... I remember finding a statue of a small boy, and then it turned to look at me... But after that it's all very vague."

"A boy? Blond kid with blue eyes and a sailor suit? Mr Angelic, till his eyes start to glow?"

"That's him." She shivered. "I don't remember anybody saying anything about me having to Slay small children."

"Then don't Slay him. Why bother? Whatever it is he's up to, let's just leave him to it and get out of here. It's a big world, and we're both running from the same people. Alone, we might make mistakes. Together we might have a chance to stay one step ahead of the Council."

"Or twice as many chances to get caught. I don't know, Giles. Running away hasn't got me very far up till now."

"You weren't with me before." He smiled at her, a curiously charming smile which suggested to her that there was the potential for something else beneath the tough guy exterior and James Dean karma. "It's not like you have any contract signed in blood. Nobody asked you if you wanted to be the Slayer, right? Just like nobody ever asked me if I wanted to be the Watcher."

"I don't think what you're suggesting is allowed."

"Screw what's allowed. I'm going for it anyway. I've had enough of school and learning, and all those bloody books in languages nobody else speaks anymore. In the past year I've faced more conflict from the spirit world than most Watchers do in their whole lives - in a hundred of their lives. I know enough now to make my decision, and I think you do too."

"Very highly commendable." With the dull sound of a single pair of clapping hands, a man wandered out of the shadows at the edge of the room. He wore a suit of dark grey, with a shirt and tie of identical colour, and his eyes were coloured the same, sombre shade. He was smiling, a strangely humourless expression, his thin, pale lips stretched along teeth that seemed far too numerous to be natural. His skin did not seem entirely natural either. It possessed a curious and most un-skin-like hint of pale grey - almost white but for an unhealthy tinge to his cheeks. His long, bony fingers steepled together, forming a peak which he directed at the pair before him. "Very highly commendable." He gave a studious nod. "I like people who know their own minds."

"Who are you?" Pushing Li behind him, Giles squared his shoulders in a show of determination. It didn't matter to him that the girl was rather more capable of handling any trouble than he was; to show any weakness was quite unforgivable to him. Just let this creepy looking eavesdropper try anything; he'd soon wind up on the wrong end of a razor-sharp flick-knife. Instead of showing any fear, the newcomer laughed.

"Who am I?" He sounded as though he were himself intrigued by the question. "Who am I indeed?" There was a shrug. "Have you heard, my friend, of Cumail? Or perhaps of the Keeper?" He gave a low bow when he saw the spark of understanding in Giles' eyes. "Ah. I see that my name has preceded me. It's good to be known."

"I don't understand. Who is he?" Keeping her voice low, Li kept her eyes firmly on this new arrival. She could feel the muscles in her arms and legs beginning to tense, in readiness for whatever violence might prove to be necessary. A Slayer's place was to fight strange figures who stepped out of shadows. Few people of such kind brought anything but trouble and danger. Giles clearly was of a similar mind, for a flick-knife had appeared in his hand. Li could see the knuckles of his left hand pale to white as he held the weapon. It was familiar in his hold, she could see, but he seemed somehow nervous.

"Cumail." Giles spoke barely above a whisper. "He preys on the dispossessed - runaways, strays, those who have lost faith. He's even worse than the rest of the undead scum he was created with."

"Big words for a boy who hurts everyone he comes into contact with. Which of us is the biggest threat, Watcher? The demon who does his work above board, or the boy who slices up anyone who gets in his way? Maybe you can't see the blood on that blade, Rupert, but I can smell it. Oh I'm no vampire," this last with a nod toward Li, "but I know the traces - the drying stains - of blood when I smell them. I can see it on the hands of both of you. Your souls are as dark as mine, so I'll not take too kindly to the threat of resistance when I decide to add them to my collection." The thin smile spread its way across his face once again, and his teeth showed up in the dim light. They seemed uncommonly bright, shining with the same power as the whites of his eyes as the smile became increasingly predatory. "Not that I expect too much resistance from this delightful young lady that you seem so foolishly determined to protect, my dear Rupert."

"And quite why you are so determined to protect me I can't imagine." Li moved Giles aside very gently, then took a few steps forward to face the Keeper. "I've never heard of you, but that's okay. Because pretty soon nobody is ever going to hear of you again." Cumail laughed, and his thin shoulders jerked about in response to his mirth. His cheekbones stuck out in sharp prominence as his mouth stretched agape, and his blood red tongue hung over his almost non-existent lips.

"How charming," he breathed, a horribly flirtatious suggestion lending his voice new horror. "How completely, delightfully charming. Try it my dear. Please, I absolutely insist. I would love it if you were to try and kill me. It would really make my day." His eyelashes fluttered, and he giggled softly. "What'll it be? Stake, sword, flaming torch? No? Bare hands then. Oh lucky me."

"You're asking for it." Li moved forward again, her slight frame taking on a battle-ready stance. Cumail did not move at all, but merely watched her come.

"Be careful." Giles was watching her with very real concern. "He's up to something."

"You don't say." She knew all the tricks, or liked to think that she did. A demon that asked to be attacked clearly believed that it was more than capable of handling anything that came its way. Well in that case, she would show this Cumail that she was a match for him. She had only recently dispatched three creatures that were far bigger and stronger than this bony, emaciated creep. Cumail himself still had not moved, but as she now prowled even closer to him he folded his arms, and leaned casually against the wall behind him. An insulting smile played about on his lips, and in sudden concern Giles advanced as well. The cold grey eyes of the Keeper flashed towards him, and for a brief, almost imperceptible moment, they burned with a hot, red glow. The flick-knife burst into flame, and as Giles let out a cry of shock, the sleeve of his leather jacket also caught fire. For a horrible moment he thought that he would be engulfed entirely, and he tore desperately at the garment to free himself from its terrible heat. He heard Cumail laugh, but he could see nothing bar the flame and the sudden, choking clouds of smoke that were issuing forth from the melting leather. Finally free of the jacket he hurled it to the floor and stamped on it. The flames died down - then with a sudden hissing, roaring sound as of a mighty inferno taking new life, they shot ceiling-ward in a split-second flash. Giles felt the heat rush past him, but it moved too fast to be of any real threat. For a few seconds more he was engulfed in a whirlwind of impenetrable smoke before finally the heat was gone. His leather jacket, utterly unscathed by its experience, lay in a heap on the floor. He stared down at it, transfixed, then turned with an almost robotic stiffness to look at Li. She stared back at him, and he saw the shock written clearly in her eyes. She shook her head, and with a mighty battle cry she swung around to face Cumail. Giles saw her as a blur of well-trained motion as she moved through the air. Her right leg extended in a perfect manoeuvre, heading on a faultless trajectory toward the Keeper's stationary head. The Watcher found himself marvelling at her expertise, feeling a twinge of something very like jealousy as she brought her leg around for the perfect assault. Cumail threw up an arm, blocking her blow, and with a sudden scream of pain the girl fell backwards, hitting the floor with a dull thud. She lay very still.

"What the-?" Giles ran forward, eyes wide, reaching the Slayer just as she tried to sit up. She groaned, rubbing the back of her head where it had struck the floor.

"That shouldn't have happened." She sounded as though she were still stunned, and in a great deal of pain. "He shouldn't have been able to do that. It didn't - I didn't - I couldn't get it to work right."

"Of course not my dear." Cumail was towering above them, smug pleasure oozing out of every pore. "After all, it's not as if we're well matched. You're hardly the Slayer, are you."

"Get out of here." Giles rose to his feet, turning about to face the demon. One of the Keeper's long-fingered hands rose up, dropping gently onto his shoulder. His touch made Giles' body tingle with something very like pins and needles of intense heat. The other hand stroked his cheek, before moving down to caress his chin, forcing it back in the same movement so that the pair were staring into each others eyes.

"I'm not going anywhere, Rupert." Cumail's voice dripped with vicious humour. "Why should I? There's nobody here to make me."

"Leave him alone." Li stumbled back to her feet, looking horribly unsteady. Her vision was blurred, although she could not imagine why that should be. She had suffered worse falls than that during her previous encounters. To the Slayer they were little more than minor irritations, which only hurt for a few brief moments. So why now could she barely move? Again Cumail laughed, and taking a firm hold of both of Giles' shoulders he moved the young Watcher aside.

"You don't give up, do you. It's really rather sweet." As Li moved forward, so too did Giles, but this time Cumail moved against both at the same time. With one hand he caught Li, interrupting her advance with smooth skill. She let out a cry of surprise, and in the same second the Keeper's left hand snatched at the Watcher's shirtfront, hurling the belligerent youth across the room with no sign of effort at all.

"I don't understand." Helpless in Cumail's grip, Li struggled but could not break free. "I don't understand what's happening. I should be able to fight you. I should be able to--"

"Why?" Pulling her so close that she felt that their eyes might touch, Cumail smiled widely enough to make his bright white teeth flash horribly. "Why should you be able to fight me? You're just a girl. An ordinary human girl. You made the choice, remember? You said that you didn't want to be the Slayer anymore. We discussed it whilst you were asleep. Remember?" She could feel his breath on her face as he spoke, bursting forth in jets of rancid heat with his every word. It made her feel faint, dragging her back from the forefront of consciousness, taking her back to that vast emptiness in which she had found herself floating so helplessly. She remembered the voice, and she remembered its questions, its nagging persistence. She remembered her anger and her fear and her desperation, and how she had yelled so loudly about her frustrations. She remembered the voice telling her that all her problems could be solved so easily, if only she would allow it. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she felt the first of them running down her cheeks. Slowly Cumail lowered her back to the floor, pushing her away from him with the barest of effort. She stumbled, falling backwards to land in a heap on the floor.

"I didn't mean it," she muttered helplessly. The Keeper grunted in vague contempt.

"Yes you did. We all know how much you meant it. You don't want to be the Slayer any more than your boyfriend over there wants to be the Watcher. You can't face up to your responsibilities, and so you both ran away from them. And that, my children, is where I come in. That's where I always come in. It's my special rôle in life, if you like; my duty. I gather up the lost, the confused, the strays. All those who are running from something come running in the end to me. Just as you both did." He gave an unpleasant, sardonic laugh. "And who is more lost than a Slayer who has no wish to Slay, or a Watcher who has no desire to Watch? Who is more lost, more strayed from the path, than the two chosen by destiny to make the world safe for everyone - when they have no wish to do just that? You want to stand aside, to let chaos reign, just because you don't want to take up your Chosen positions. Well that's just fine with me. It makes everything so much easier for me and my kind. I could have done with a pair like you centuries ago."

"It's not like that." The tears now flowing freely down her face, Li looked up at him, staring into his cold grey eyes. She turned to look at Giles too, but he would not meet her gaze. He had made his way back to his feet, and he stood now shrouded in shadow, his fierce green eyes all that she could clearly see of him. There was something about him that seemed almost demonic, but she threw that thought aside. "Tell him. Tell him Giles. It's not like that. We didn't mean it like that."

"Didn't we?" Giles sounded angry, and with a jolt she realised that his anger was directed at her. "It sounds just right to me. Why the hell should we have to be what we don't want to be? I don't give a damn if you leave the world unprotected, or if I leave the Slayer without her book-wielding guardian. Let them all take care of themselves, let them see what the world is really like. Why should we take all the risks when everybody else out there is sitting around their TV sets watching horror movies, and thinking it's all some big joke?"

"Well spoken, my boy. Well spoken." Cumail stalked towards him, fists clenching and unclenching in what appeared to be barely suppressed excitement. "So what do you say? I've taken the Slayer's Slayerhood. What will you give me? Will it be your knowledge, your skill with languages? Will it be your memories of those long days spent reading ancient texts? Will it be the training you've undergone, all those battle skills you've learnt? You'll have no need of them any longer, if you're not planning to pass them on to your Slayer."

"Giles, no." Li didn't rise to her feet, but stayed where she was on the floor. Either she didn't have the strength to get up or she didn't have the motivation, she wasn't sure herself which it was. "Please, don't let him do this to you."

"Be quiet my dear. This doesn't concern you anymore. You already belong to me." For a second the Keeper looked back at her and his eyes twinkled with surprising fondness, then he turned back to face Giles. "Well? Are you ready to join my fold?"

"Get knotted." Giles clenched his fists, staring into the skeletal face so close to his own. "I don't need a Slayer's strength to deal with a jerk like you. Just because I don't plan on being a Watcher doesn't mean I have to surrender anything to you."

"Oh but it does, Rupert. It does." A long forefinger traced the side of Giles' face, lingering for a second beside the gold ring in the boy's left ear. "That's why they call me the Keeper." The gently stroking fingers seized hold of his chin, slamming his head back into the wall as the voice became suddenly hard. "Because I keep."

"Not my things you don't." Giles struggled, but was unable to break free. He raised his fist, throwing a punch towards his attacker, but in the cramped space his movements were clumsy, and Cumail easily caught the fist in his free hand. He squeezed hard, and Giles let out an involuntary cry as he felt the bones of his fingers begin to crack. He struggled again, but still he could not break free. Pinioned by the weight of Cumail's body, he could not move his legs or his torso, and his head was still held immobile in the fierce grip of the Keeper's right hand. Desperate, he scrabbled about with his one free arm. Its movement was severely limited due to the crushing proximity of Cumail, and his first few wild flails proved to be worse than useless. He could not hurt the demon with the vague blows of one, hampered hand, and in response to his attempts the Keeper merely tightened his own hold. Giles felt his feet begin to lose contact with the floor. It seemed to him, now, that Cumail's powerful fingers were sinking deep into his flesh; if not in their corporeal forms, then certainly in some ghostly way. It was almost as if he could feel them reaching into his skull, probing his mind, searching for entry into the innermost recesses of his very self. His free hand scrabbled about even more wildly, snagging eventually on the pocket of his jeans. He dug deep inside, not knowing what might be there. Another flick-knife, a spare blade - right now he would even take a catapult if there was any way it might prove to be useful to him. Instead his fingers closed around a small, hard object that immediately seized him with a sensation of deepest cold. He felt it burn his hand with its icy touch, felt the pain of its presence; and with sudden steadfast determination, he pulled the silver bullet from his pocket. His head was spinning, and it took all of the concentration that he now possessed to ensure that his increasingly numb hand did not just drop the bullet, but with the willpower that had made him who he was, and which had turned him into the bane of the Watcher Council, he forced his tired limb to do his bidding. He lifted the bullet up, up, up - and dropped it inside the collar of Cumail's shirt. The demon gave a cry so loud and furious that the sheer force of its sound was enough to make Giles stagger - then with a rush of heat and a blast of scarlet flame he disappeared. A few curls of acrid smoke lingered for a second and then vanished. Giles collapsed back against the wall.

"Is he dead?" Li's voice sounded weak and despondent. She was still sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, her shoulders slumped and her beautiful eyes refusing to look at Giles. He went to her, crouching down beside her.

"No. Retreated temporarily, that's all - and when he comes back he's going to be one seriously angry demon." He pulled her to her feet. "Are you okay?"

"Of course I'm not okay." She tried to break free from his hold, but without her Slayer's strength she was not even as strong as he was, and her efforts proved useless. He saw the anguish register on her face at this realisation, and to his credit he actually backed off. Giles was not known for his thoughtfulness or tact, but he read the message hidden in her almond eyes.

"I guess we could try to get your Slayer skills back," he began, almost kicking himself for sounding so doubtful. Li took a deep breath before changing the subject.

"How did you get rid of him?" she asked, controlling the shake in her voice with a mighty effort. Her shoulders squared as she spoke, and a measure of readiness came back to her eyes. Clearly she had decided that if Giles could face a demon without Slayer-strength to help him, so then also could she. Giles frowned at this abrupt change of direction, but then shrugged and threw his doubts aside.

"A silver bullet. Damn thing must be haunted. It's been following me about since I arrived in this house, and it tried to kill me earlier on, but I guess all things have their uses."

"Silver bullets work on this creature?"

"Not that I know of. No more than they would do on any other undead creature at any rate. I suddenly remembered something I read about Cumail once, and I figured out what must have happened to the last inhabitant of this place - the one you said the police took away a few weeks ago. My guess is he was pretty lonely here, and that would have made him a perfect target for the Keeper. Cumail probably took something of his, and the only way he could find to escape was to shoot himself with a silver bullet. It's supposed to be the way." The trainee Watcher was clearly warming to his theme. "See, what happens is Cumail latches onto a person by keeping something of theirs - part of what makes them who they are. In return he leaves a part of himself inside them, and he uses that to feed off them. He takes their life energy, drains their soul - and they just waste away. Eventually they die, but by that stage he's got all he wants from them, and their soul is his to keep forever. It becomes a part of him, sealed away inside. The only way to break free is supposedly to shoot yourself with a silver bullet. It's fatal naturally, but it gets you your soul back." He shrugged. "For whatever use it is." Suddenly his expression changed. "That's not to say that you should - I mean - I don't mean - that's not really the only way out. We could kill Cumail."

"Thanks." She didn't know whether to be exasperated at the futile picture he had just painted, or amused by his anxiety to reassure her. "Don't worry. I wasn't planning on killing myself just yet. Besides, I don't have any silver bullets."

"Me neither." His hand went to his pocket and his expression changed. "Strike that." He withdrew the small missile, holding it at arms length, gingerly gripped between his thumb and forefinger. "Dammit. I'm glad it came in handy, but I wish it would leave me the hell alone."

"It must be a key to all this." She reached out to take it, but it fell from Giles' hold and bounced away across the floor. "Oops. Sorry."

"Don't apologise, please. And anyway, it'll be back, believe me." He went with her to the windowsill, sitting down with her on the wide, cushioned space. "What did you mean, about it being a key?"

"I don't know. It's following you around. Maybe it's trying to tell you something. I mean... well this isn't exactly your average suburban dwelling, is it. Do I have to recap? There's the whole trap-in-the-floor thing, the china figurine that came to life, the small boy wandering around terrorising the guests..."

"The mad cat that turns out to be the moggy from hell, the silver bullet with a life of its own and the big bad demon that wants to kill us." Giles smiled. "Actually believe it or not, this is a pretty average place compared to some of the ones I've stayed in." Li couldn't help but giggle at the sincerity of his expression.

"I don't doubt it. I'm not much of one for the quiet little cottages myself - but this house is something different." She reached out, taking one of his hands in both of hers. "I don't have the know-how to deal with this, Giles. I only found out about this whole Watcher/Slayer thing eighteen months ago, and I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention during the initial debriefings. I think they call it shellshock."

"It's okay." He smiled at her, although to her the expression seemed a little forced. "My training is supposed to compensate for any and all limitations of the Slayer. My job is to know everything, and to miss out on all the fun."

"You really think what I do is fun?" He wasn't sure if it was anger he detected in her tone, or if it was just surprise or disbelief. Not caring much either way, his face hardened and he rose to his feet.

"It doesn't matter what I think, does it." Already he was turning his back on her, heading towards the door. "Because you're not the Slayer anymore, and I don't have any intention of being your guiding light through your life's work anyway." He snatched up his leather jacket from the floor, shrugging back into it and sinking his hands deep into the pockets. Once again any sign of reason was gone from his eyes, and the brooding hooligan was back. Li sighed. Every time she thought she was making some progress... If it hadn't been for the fact that she couldn't help liking him - although quite why she did she couldn't imagine - she would have turned her back on Rupert Giles when he had first starting playing the hard man back in the wine cellar.

"Giles..." She followed him to the door, but he didn't turn around. Instead he tried the door handle.

"Locked." He pulled a flick-knife from his pocket and set to work on the lock, acting as though this were an everyday occurrence. He seemed as familiar taking a knife to the door as most people would have been doing the same job with the key. Li frowned.

"I thought Cumail incinerated that thing."

"He did. In a manner of speaking." He waved the little blade above his head. "I'd never be fool enough to hit the streets with only one of them, would I."

"They're illegal you know."

"Of course I know." He shielded the blade once more, and stowed it away in his pocket, then turned the handle and opened the door. "But if you think I give a damn about laws you've got as much sawdust in your head as dear old Uncle Stephen."

"There's no need to be mean, Giles." She sighed at his resolutely squared shoulders. "Look, we've got to think this through. Properly. It's nearly dawn, so we're not going to get any more trouble from Cumail tonight. Let's just leave - get out of here, as far away as we can. You suggested it earlier, and with me the way I am now, the Council isn't going to be falling over itself to find us. We can go somewhere far away, and begin all over again."

"Can we." Giles turned his head to stare at her, and his dark green eyes flashed with something else besides their usual belligerence. "Cumail has a hold on you, or had you forgotten that already?"

"You know I haven't. But I don't see what--"

"He has you. You can't leave this house. Not now, not ever." He spoke as though this were something that everybody knew - as though she were a fool for not realising it herself. "You see? That's why the last occupant never left; why he never sought help. Don't tell me you hadn't wondered about that."

"I - I didn't--" She shook her head, and sat slowly down on the nearest seat - an antique wooden chair with flamboyantly carved legs, and an ancient seat that, in her honest opinion, could have done with a few less carved rose buds and a few more cushions. "Well that's that then. It's funny. I never expected to grow old as the Slayer, but I never expected it all to end so suddenly either. So... so soon."

"Don't talk crap. It's not over yet." He pulled her to her feet, irritation showing in his expressive eyes. "We'll find a way out of this."

"We don't have to. This isn't our problem." She broke free from his grip, although to do so required a disturbing amount of effort. Funny how quickly you could get used to something as extraordinary as super-strength - and how much you could miss it when you lost it again. "I have to deal with this, not you. You might as well get going. If it hadn't been for me you'd probably never have stayed this long anyway."

"Wrong." He sighed, looking as though his patience had long worn out. "I told you that I'm not afraid of ghosts. Well that includes demons too, and cats that turn into little boys, and statues that come to life, and silver bullets that keep following me around. I'm not afraid of anything, and I'm not going to run out on you." He took her hand again, with surprising gentility. "Now I suggest that we find somewhere to spend the day. We're going to be pretty busy come nightfall."

"I don't understand you." She didn't resist as he began to lead her up the small staircase that stretched up towards the attic. "I thought that you were just another teenager, and then I thought that you were the hardcase from hell. Now I'm not so sure." A frown crossed her forehead with tiny wrinkles. "What are you? A good guy or a bad guy?"

"If you have to ask that, I'm doing something wrong." He rounded on her abruptly, and his grip on her hand was suddenly anything but gentle. "I'm not the guy you want to take home to meet your mother, and I'm not the guy you want to leave alone with your kids. I don't have any heroic reasons for being here. I'm not staying to save your life, I'm not staying because it's the right thing to do - and I'm sure as hell not staying because it's the honourable thing to do. I'm here because I want to be. Because it might be fun. Because I want to know what's going on. And when I leave it'll be because I want to go. Cumail might still be alive, you might still belong to him, and the rest of the country might be poised to sink into hell. I don't care." He turned to push open the door that led to the attic, pulling her inside. "Any more questions?"

"No." She found herself smiling. He fascinated her, even though she didn't want to admit that. She was beginning to see something else beneath this perpetual tough-guy exterior - something that he probably wasn't even aware of himself yet. It was like the patterns of his speech, which flickered almost unconsciously between harsh, East End mutterings and the precise tones of someone who had been taught to speak well. There were almost two Rupert Gileses, and the pair of them didn't seem to get on.

"Good." He stalked across the uneven wooden floor, lit now with the first rays of what might have been dawn - or might just as easily have been the filtered light of distant streetlamps coming through the scattering of tiny windows. There was a selection of rickety furniture at the far end of the room, and he threw himself into the embrace of a long, purple chaise-longue. Its back was a profusion of gold-braiding, and its legs were extravagantly carved hardwood, bedecked with richly-detailed flower petals and leaves. Giles looked almost hilariously out of place in it, like a skinhead at a Liberace concert. Li had to suppress a smile. She didn't want to hurt his feelings. Weird and almost pathologically unfriendly though he might be, right now he was all that she had.

"Get some sleep." Already his eyes were closed, although he didn't sound very tired. She sat down on a vast armchair, neatly embroidered all over with tiny, slightly crooked fleur-de-lis. It felt as though it were stuffed with duck's feathers, and she sank rapidly into its deep cushions. A yawn escaped her, and she groaned. She didn't want to sleep. She wanted to talk to Giles.

"Giles?" she asked. He opened his eyes, staring right at her. There was a challenge on his face, but the hostility had gone from his eyes.


"I never even told you my name."


"So we might be going to die together."

"And you telling me your name will prevent that?" His eyes closed again, and he missed her frustrated scowl. Why couldn't she just leave well alone? she asked herself, exasperated. Instead, she had to keep talking to him, and provoking his terminally tough-guy attitude. She only hoped that he didn't read too much into her interest.

"It's Kwan Li-Tai," she persisted, still keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the Watcher. For a moment she thought that he was asleep, for he made no reaction at all at first - then his eyes flickered open and he looked over at her.

"That's pretty," he told her, then a frown flickered across his forehead. "Now go to sleep."

"Of course." This time she could not prevent herself from smiling, and Giles' frown deepened. Quickly Li closed her eyes and settled back into the comforting depths of her chair. Giles stared at her for a moment, watching her face relax into the beginnings of sleep. Slowly a smile spread its way across his own face, and with an expression of sincere warmth he watched on as she drifted into a doze. It was only as his own fatigue took hold that he finally turned his eyes away, and let sleep take him as well. His muscles relaxed, and the street hooligan was gone. In his place was a young man who might have had the potential to become something very different indeed - but as the sun finally rose outside the house, and the attic was flooded with warm, yellow light, it left the Watcher's face shrouded in shadow. In the darkness he shifted restlessly, and his eyes flickered open and shut in his disturbed dreams. The sunlight made no attempt to venture into his eyes, and the green light within them was his alone. It was dark and unreal, and it flashed with the echoes of gloom.


The house was quiet, and as empty as ever. Giles was wary of encountering the cat as he strode the hallways alone, but he saw no sign of it. If it was still within the building, clearly it was hiding somewhere. Perhaps his attack on Cumail had weakened the smaller demon as well; but given that he had encountered the creature outside before nightfall, he was very much on edge. It might be more powerful than an ordinary demon; it might be of a type that he knew nothing about it. There was also the possibility that it merely possessed the cat at certain intervals, and that the rest of the time the cat was merely what it appeared to be. Whatever the truth, he was not taking any chances. His knuckles were white as his fingers gripped a large, crudely made cross, fashioned by tying a couple of pieces of wood together with a length of bailing string. He had found the pieces amongst the junk in the loft, sabotaging some ancient doll's cot for the wood, and taking apart a clearly home-made kite for the string. Li had told him off for ruining some poor child's well-loved toys, but he was fairly sure that she had been joking. After all, whichever child had made the toys was probably buried in the local graveyard by now; that or breaking all the records for length of life.

Li had not wanted him to leave the attic, but he had gone anyway. Never one to take the advice of others at the best of times, Giles was restless. They had awoken early in the afternoon, stiff and cold, and spent the next hour prowling around the attic, tripping over each other's shadows, and generally getting in each other's way. Li kept trying to be friendly, which was alternately pleasant and just downright bloody annoying to Giles' way of thinking. In the end, rather than be browbeaten into yet another deep and meaningful conversation, he had decided to strike out on his own for a little while. If he stayed in the attic with the ex-Slayer any longer, he was fairly certain that she would be proposing marriage, six kids and a little thatched cottage with roses by the door. Either that or he would have to resort to some serious strangulation.

A noise behind him made him jump, and the Watcher whirled around. He was standing at the top of the main flight of stairs, looking down to the entrance hall. It had seemed run down and almost poky when he had passed this way the previous evening, but by the full light of day, and seen from above, it gave the impression of once having been a very great sight indeed. Before the paint had become so dull, before the wallpaper had become so mildewed, it must have seen a great many splendid arrivals and departures; great balls in the twenties perhaps, when crowds of the rich and well-to-do had walked through on their way to the grand ballroom off to the left. It was a huge room, with a smooth wooden floor bearing many marks that might have been the result of dancing. Standing up here now, looking down at it all, it was easy to imagine all those young women, scuffing the polish of the dance floor as they kicked up their heels to the Charleston. Giles smiled. He had seen a fair number of impressive guest lists and important parties in his lifetime, but at none of them had young women danced the Charleston. Those which had danced at all had looked disapproving of anything more strenuous than a waltz. Uncle Stephen's parties mostly, filled with upper-class twits with double-barrelled surnames, armed with girlfriends with laughs like lobotomised donkeys. They stood around pretending that they were important, dropping names and discussing the stock exchange, whilst Uncle Stephen himself kept hoping against the odds that one day one of the Watcher Council might actually accept the regular invitations that he sent their way. Uncle Stephen had actually been the uncle of Rupert Giles' father, and he had always been bitter that the family tendency towards Watcher destinies had skipped his branch of the family. He was deeply disapproving of the way that his great-nephew was skilfully dodging his responsibilities, and had long ago become one of the many people that Rupert Giles regarded with the utmost contempt. Giles leaned over the banister now, trying to hold onto the daydreams of beautiful young women in inappropriate dresses, but they wouldn't stay. Instead he was left with the less than inspiring view of an array of paintings, led by the stiffly-attired old man he had introduced himself to when he had first arrived. The Watcher bowed to him again, his expression ironic.

"Nice place you've got here," he commented. "I especially like the housekeeper. A nice touch, employing the undead. I'm sure the unions would approve." There was, predictably enough, no response. Giles sighed and headed down the flight of stairs. He had to find something to eat before he started to contemplate eating Li. She had mentioned having some food stowed away in one of the downstairs cupboards, and it was with that as his goal that he had originally ventured out. The stairs creaked as he went down them, but this time, instead of hurrying past them, he slowed to a halt and looked back up the steps. He was on an eye-level with the upper floor, and had a view of the threadbare carpet and cracked skirting-boards, the rusted carpet nails and the stained walls. This house had seen a lot of life and a lot of people, so why end its days in the company of demons? Why had the last inhabitant been here all alone, letting the house fall into disrepair, letting Cumail steal his life away from him? His thoughts strayed back to what Li had said, about the silver bullet being a key to whatever was going on. He reached into his pocket. The familiar ice-cold touch of the bullet answered him, and he dragged it out. Quite why it had attached itself to him, he couldn't imagine. He couldn't have been the first person to find it since the death of the man it had killed. After all, the police would have wanted the bullet for their investigations, and they certainly would never have put it inside the pocket of an army greatcoat hanging in the wardrobe. He threw it idly into the air, watching it spin, throwing it again and again to see the patterns of light it threw out. The broken shards of the paintings reflected in parts of it, warped in shape by the curves of the bullet's edge. He saw a jumble of ears and mouths, and a blur of painted clothing; and in the middle of it all he saw a pair of bright blue eyes. He caught the bullet again. The eyes were gone.

"Who's there?" He whirled about, staring around, but all that he could see were the paintings. Twenty-five of them, rising in progression up the stairs. Nineteen men and six women, none of them more recent than much beyond the turn of the century. All staring fixedly ahead, all linked by their common ancestry, all with the same shaped faces, the same shaped eyes, the same firm set to their mouths. All painted against the same backdrop; the faded fresco of the attic wall. He had been standing before it himself just a few hours ago, marvelling at the ancient artistry. Muted browns and reds, gently splintering expanses of greens and blues. A giant reconstruction of some ancient Roman mosaic as far as he could tell, painted by a hand which had long ago brandished its final paintbrush. He frowned, and moving so slowly that he was not altogether sure if he was really moving at all, he stretched out his hand and touched the nearest painting. Beneath his fingertips, the canvas crackled. He jerked his hand away, surprised by the sensation of passing electricity, but then cautiously reached out once again. His fingertips tingled, pulsing as though with some distant pulse within the picture. Gently he ran his hands as far up as he could reach, touching the hands of the man in the painting. They felt cold, more so than any painting had a right to be, especially in a house that was unnaturally warm. He turned, scanning the rest of the paintings with feverish eyes. One of them was watching him, he was sure of it. He could feel eyes on his back every time he passed this way; could sense someone watching him even now, right this minute. He could see nothing. None of the pictures seemed more alive than the others, none of them blinked or gave sign of movement. Every time he turned his head he thought that he could glimpse of a pair of bright blue eyes, gleaming just on the edge of his vision - but as soon as he swung back again there was nothing. He took a step back, unnerved, and felt the gentle touch of a cold hand on the back of his neck. Panicked he whirled about, fists clenched, but there was nobody there. He leant against the banister, panting hard, trying to catch his breath; then scowled and turned back to face the painting once again - just as a hard hand gripped suddenly at his arm.

"What the-?!" Leaping almost out of his skin Giles whirled around again, his fists leaping to the attack. He pulled his punch just in time when he saw Li standing before him, and the girl jumped almost as much as he had.

"Giles!" She stumbled back away from him. "What's got into you?"

"I thought you were a--" He broke off. A what, exactly? A painting? "Just don't creep up on me like that."

"I didn't creep up on you. These stairs make a hell of a racket. I thought you had heard me coming." She smiled. "You jumped like a jack-in-the-box. I thought you weren't scared of anything?"

"I'm not." He scowled, angry with himself for being spooked so easily. "What are you doing here anyway?"

"Looking for food. You said you were going to find some, but you never came back. I thought you might have got lost, or been kidnapped by a ghost or something. Or maybe shot yourself with a silver bullet." She sounded jaunty, as though the rest in the attic had done her the power of good. "I didn't know you were an art critic."

"Huh?" Confused, he turned his back on her, and stared up once again at the paintings. He could no longer see those disturbing blue eyes on the periphery of his vision. Instead he was more concerned with the twenty-five pairs of painted eyes, all staring down at him from the walls above. Li sighed.

"You're staring at those paintings like they're worth a fortune. Is the brush work especially impressive or something?"

"No." He frowned, still very much distracted. "I just thought I saw something, that's all."

"Something scary, or something art related?" She grinned at him. "Come on, I'm hungry. Let's forget the paintings and worry about getting something to eat. Okay?" She caught his arm again, more gently this time. "Come on..."

"I preferred you when you were being a basket case." He was about to pull free of her grip when he saw the faintly hurt expression in her eyes, and he sighed. "I'm sorry. Uncalled for, I know." Dammit, what was wrong with him? Rupert Giles never apologised. "Okay. Food."

"Great." She looked delighted, and to his surprise he felt his reservations fade away. He took her hand and led her down the stairs, beginning to realise that he was actually enjoying her company. It was a novel experience. So engrossed was he in this new thought that he didn't notice the pair of bright blue eyes fixed intently on his departing back, frowning at him in close interest as he crossed the entrance hall and strode off in search of lunch.


They made a quick meal out of the remainders of Li's food store, intermingled with what little there was left of the food Giles had brought with him. Semi-stale bread and slightly soggy crackers, mixed with half a tin of tuna fish in oil of dubious origin and some cheese that was badly in need of a fridge. Giles came up with a selection of half-melted souvenirs from a sweet shop, gained courtesy of a pair on kids of roller-skates who he had bribed to make the shopkeeper look the other way. A pair of Curly-Wurlies and half a dozen Milky Ways that he had forgotten about lay at the bottom of his bag, in as much need of a fridge as was Li's cheese. The former Slayer managed to come up with a bottle of lukewarm orange juice as well, which had started life as a carbonated drink, and was currently denying all knowledge of that. Giles would have preferred to return to the wine cellar, but he took note of the look in Li's eyes when he suggested it, and decided to play along for now. Instead he lit up a cigarette, and leaned back against the nearest wall.

"We need some kind of a game plan," he observed. Li screwed up her Curly-Wurly wrapper into a little ball, and watched it unravel in the palm of her hand.

"I suppose." She was frowning, clearly bothered by something. "You don't have to stay, you know. I'm not the Slayer anymore, and you're not the Watcher yet. So there's no obligation."

"I know." He blew a cloud of doctored smoke into the air. "But I don't have any place else to go right now, and it looks like it might rain later."

"Don't joke, Giles." She gave a heavy sigh, which was only just this side of tears. "I mean it. I have to stay, but you don't. Cumail hasn't got you yet. If you stay here he might."

"If I leave here, what makes you think he won't come after me? And even if he doesn't, I'd hate to be in my shoes if the Watcher Council found out I'd abandoned their protégé in her hour of need."

"Is that why you're staying?"

Giles smirked through the smoke. "You really think I give a damn what the Watcher Council thinks of me? Or that I care one tiny bit for their discipline? No, that's not why I'm staying."

"I don't want you to get hurt on my account."

"I don't particularly want to get hurt on anyone's account." He shrugged, and offered her the cigarette. To his surprise, she accepted. "Those things are bad for your health, you know."

"I know." She took a small breath, and coughed. "But this might be my last chance to try it out. I smoked a proper cigarette once, but never one like this. It's got something in it, hasn't it?"

"How should I know? I bought the grass in good faith, and if the dealer put something in it, it was nothing to do with me." He smiled at her. "What do you think?"

"I think it's a bizarre form of entertainment." A fit of coughing interrupted her, and she handed the cigarette back. "So I take it that you don't get on with the Watcher Council? I haven't had much to do with them myself. My first Watcher turned up out of the blue when it was time for me to take over as the Slayer, and then when he died another one popped up. I didn't even realise there was a Council at first."

"Somebody's gotta pretend to be in charge." He shrugged. "I don't know how it works. Somebody knows who you are, and how to get in touch with you when it's your turn - just like somebody always knows when a Watcher is born. They don't look like the magically endowed kind, though. In my experience you have to be at least eighty to make the Council, and if you vote Tory and oppose female suffrage you've got an even better chance. I get called to see them every so often, when I fall out with someone in a big way. They give me all these speeches about destiny and duty and so on and all the rest of it. About the rising tide of darkness and the honour that there is in being chosen to play some part in waving the flag for light and righteousness. One day they'll get the message that I just don't care."

"Really? You really don't care?" She looked so earnest that for a second he faltered, then gave a carefree shrug.

"Listen, I don't pretend to be a white knight. I don't pretend to carry the needs of humankind on my shoulders. If you ask me it'd be a whole lot more fun wandering the streets at night scaring the passers-by, getting a shot at living forever, than it would be wandering in the Slayer's shadow, helping her to kill creatures I've got no real quarrel with. The world hasn't given me anything. Why should I throw away the rest of my life trying to defend it? Do you see the sense in defending half of the people you meet out there?" A wild gesture with one arm indicated the outside world. "Losers, wasters, the lot of them. They don't see what's going on. They laugh at the stories of vampires. They tell jokes about demons and monsters. It all goes on right outside their comfortable houses, and all they care about is what's happening on TV, or which record is number one in the charts - which shirt is most fashionable to wear to the night club this weekend. They don't know anything, and they don't care. They don't want to defend themselves, so why should we defend them? Kill a vampire this week, save some guy who was about to get his throat ripped out - and next week it'll probably get ripped out anyway, when some mugger decides he fancies his chances in a dark alley. We're on the wrong side, Li."

"Maybe." She looked away, swirling the remnants of the orange around in its plastic bottle. "And maybe not."

"There's no maybe about it. Working as the Watcher I can expect to spend my days in some dead-end cover-story job, and spending my nights helping some girl fight monsters. Working against the Watcher Council, against the Slayer, against all of that, I can become something that really matters. I could become a magician, or a warlock. I could cast spells that would make the whole Council quake in their shoes. I could become a vampire and live forever, and leave the Council wishing they'd been a little more friendly." He smiled, and the smile was entirely wicked. "I could summon demons, and leave the whole country in ruins."


"Why?" He laughed, shaking his head at her lack of vision. "Because I feel like it. Because I hate the whole damn Council and every Watcher who stands on it. Because it would just drive Uncle Stephen so nuts." He blew a cloud of smoke into the air, and his eyes glittered with malice as he watched the off-white fingers spread out across the ceiling. "Because I'm just some low-life good-for-nothing, who's never cared about anybody other than himself, and never will. What do you care? If we get through this you'll be the Slayer again, and then we'll be on opposite sides. I shouldn't even be telling you this."

"We'll never be on opposite sides." She leaned over to take his hand. "I'd rather be with you than off Slaying some creepy demon. My mother was killed by a horde of vampires in revenge for what I was. My whole village was torn apart, just because I happen to be something that I never asked to be. I want to go and live the life I always planned to live. I want to go to Hong Kong and see the boat race. I want to go to Australia and see the Great Barrier Reef while it's still there. I want to go rafting down the Amazon, and swimming in the South Pacific, and I want to visit the Bermuda Triangle and see if I disappear. I don't want to spend the next few years trailing around the world after my Watcher, killing demons that one day will kill me. There's no future in life as the Slayer, and there's very little point in making any elaborate retirement plans. I want fun. I want kids. I want to go on a world cruise and learn how to scuba dive." She smiled. "Not necessarily in that order." She took his cigarette again and leaned against the wall next to him, trying to blow the smoke into the air in the way that he did, without coughing too much in the process. "I feel I don't know. Like the rest of the world gets to live, and I just get to pretend I do."

"Fine. Then once Cumail is dead we'll head off together. Screw the rest of the world. They can watch over themselves." Giles smiled happily at the ceiling, casting his companion a sidelong glance. "What do you say?"

"I say we should go and get a couple of those bottles of wine." She puffed on the cigarette again, beginning to get the hang of it now. It tasted nothing like the puff she had once taken from a friend's cigarette at school - there was no flavour of conventional tobacco at all. It was almost as much of a buzz to be aware that she was smoking something legal as it was to actually smoke the stuff itself. She giggled, and passed the joint back. "Red or white?"

"I don't think there's a whole lot of choice." Surprised, but not intending to argue, he clambered to his feet and headed towards the door. "I'll be back in a tick."

"Do you have any more of those cigarettes?" she asked him. He grinned.

"Don't hang around, do you."

"There's no time for that, when you might be dead come sunrise."

"Good point. There's a pouch of grass in my bag, but I don't know how many papers I've got. You'll have to take a look." He threw her his cigarette lighter. "Try not to set the house on fire."

"I'll try not to." They shared a smile, and he left. Li stared up at the ceiling for a few moments, watching the gargoyles blink and stare. Their eyes seemed to grow and shrink, the pupils focusing and refocusing upon her upturned face. She giggled. Was this what it meant to get high? She had no idea. Time itself was warped. A lone gargoyle almost directly above her winked, and its leering face split open into a wide, jeering grin. It waggled its tongue at her, before morphing its features into those of her Watcher, Rosemary Jordan. The middle-aged woman's spectacle-covered eyes frowned down at her, her lips pressed together in tacit disapproval. Her lips drew back as the gargoyle's grin became even wider, and suddenly Rosemary had long, sharp fangs and yellow, staring eyes. Li gasped.

"What's up?" It was Giles, reappearing in the doorway, a pair of dusty bottles gripped in either hand. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." She smiled at him, a little distant and shaken. "I was just watching the gargoyles."

"Creepy beggars aren't they." He grinned, popping open one of the bottles and handing it to her. "No glasses. Sorry."

"I think I can survive." She took a sip, and broke into a startled coughing fit. "Good grief."

"It's pretty hot stuff." He opened a second bottle and took a long pull, at the same time staring up at the leering gargoyles. "You know, one of them looks just like my mother. That one over there, by the window."

Li giggled. "You shouldn't talk like that."

"Why not? My mother can't hear." He took another drink, finishing it off with the last of his cigarette. "Actually strike that. She hears everything - except what I want her to hear."

"Sounds like my Watcher." Li took a longer drink, beginning to get a liking for the strong flavour and powerful warmth of the old liquid. "Rosemary. She never hears me when I say that I'm tired, or that I need a rest. But as soon as I mutter something about wanting to jack it all in, she hears. Even if she's in the next room she hears that kind of thing."

"Personality removal. Final phase of Watcher training." Giles stamped his cigarette out, grinding it into the centre of a rose woven into the rug at his feet. "How's your wine?"

"Fine thankyou waiter." She giggled. "It's missing something though."

"I know just what you mean." He began to burrow in his bag, searching for his home-roll ingredients. "I thought you were going to get the next joint started while I was away?"

"Got distracted by the gargoyles." She burst into a fit of giggles which sounded almost hysterical. "They were watching me."

"It's the grass. Take it a little slower next time."

"No, it's not the grass. They've been watching me since I got here last week." She folded her arms, looking like a petulant child. "I've been here all that time, and nothing really interesting happened until you arrived. All I saw was a few ghosts, but suddenly you turn up and we're fighting for our lives."

"Call it a talent." He began to roll a second cigarette, watching her all the time. "You know, we really should be talking about how to handle Cumail."

"Spoilsport." She took a long drink of wine, then curled up beside him, watching his practised fingers at work. "I don't want to talk about demons. I want to talk about us."

"There might not be any us come daybreak."

"Then we'd better make the most of it while we can." She yawned, then plucked the finished joint from his fingers and lit it. It looked like a professional move, not the actions of a girl who had never lit a cigarette in her life. She took a deep breath, coughing only a little this time. "Tell me about being a Watcher, Giles."

"Like what? Like being bored out of my skull for most of the last seven years?"

"Yeah. And tell me about Uncle Stephen."

"Now there's a fascinating subject. Uncle Stephen's still upset that it was my father's side of the family who got all the Watcher genes. I keep offering to swap, but he's not taken me up on that so far. He's sixty odd, ex-army and won't let anybody forget it. I think he's still sore that Slayers have to be women, 'cause he doesn't think women should be allowed much beyond the kitchen. He's never forgiven Labour for presiding over the removal of the colonial forces from India, and I think he's still smarting that the Americas got their independence a couple of centuries back. He'd like to still have the prison colonies over there, so he could have me transported and have done with it." He took a drink of wine and grinned. "If he could see us together right now he'd have a seizure."

"Then let's give him something to seize up over." She handed over the joint, and took Giles' bottle in return. "I think I've been missing out on a lot, living life the strait-laced way. I'm counting on you to make the most of my re-education."

"And Cumail?"

"Sod Cumail." She took a long pull at the bottle, discovered that it was empty, and threw it aside. It clattered on a patch of bare floorboards, and cracked from neck to base. "If I'm going to die tonight I want to do a little living first."

"I think we can manage that." He pulled her close, and reached out for another bottle. When you were about to face a crafty demon armed with nothing more than a flick-knife, getting smashed was probably the most advisable thing left to do.


Giles awoke slowly, blinking up at the chuckling face of a gargoyle that did not seem nearly static enough. He rubbed his bleary eyes, turning his head to watch the spectacular sunset outside the window. From his position sprawled on the floor he had a perfect view of a stunning sky, all oranges and reds and streaks of angry purple. He shook Li awake.

"What is it?" She sounded like a small child being forced to wake up far too soon.

"Look out the window." He pointed, and she followed his finger with half-closed eyes.

"Mmm. Very nice." A yawn escaped her lips. "Next time show me a sunset when I don't have a hangover." She frowned, and her eyes flickered open once again. "Sunset?"

"Yep. Night's on its way." He pulled her to her feet, ignoring the moans and groans of protest. Li leaned against him heavily. She certainly didn't look like the Slayer right now; hair a mess, clothes rumpled and loose, shoes lying halfway across the room. He vaguely remembered her throwing them there a few hours earlier, declaring that they were spying on her, and had to be punished. She had wanted to send them to Coventry, but had decided that she wasn't strong enough to throw them that far. The Watcher made a vague attempt to steer her towards them, with a view to making her put them back on, but she stumbled in his arms and landed heavily on her knees.

"Ow." She rested her head against his legs. "Make the room stop spinning Giles."

"No can do. We've got to get back to the master bedroom before Cumail gets himself up and about."

"Why?" She allowed him to guide her to her feet. "What's the master bedroom got that we haven't?"

"We can barricade the doors, and there's a lot more furniture in there. That can be useful." He hooked an arm under hers, and led her out into the entrance hall. The stairs swept away above his head, and Li balked at the sight.

"Sorry Giles. No way am I making it up Mount Kilimanjaro." She giggled. "Maybe getting drunk wasn't such a good idea after all."

"It was fun at the time wasn't it?" He managed to get her as far as the third step before she slumped into his arms once again.

"Yeah." She muttered something slurred in her own language, and his translating skills gave up after the first word. He had never had a particularly good grasp of even the basics of the various Chinese dialects.

"What was that?" he asked her. She frowned up at him.

"Did I say something? I don't remember. Oh...Next time I ask you to get me drunk, just shoot me and have done with it. Please? My head feels like somebody is slicing it up into tiny little pieces, and I think my eyes have jumped ship. And my stomach..." She groaned quite impressively, and held her head. "My stomach is in a food mixer right now, and somebody keeps turning the speed up. I only hope the lid's on tight..."

"So do I." He dragged her up a few more steps. "Come on. Think nice thoughts. Think about... staking vampires. Beheading demons. Beating the hell out of your Watcher during training sessions."

"I'd rather think about earlier." She managed to step away from his guiding embrace, and made it up another two steps before she sank against the banister. A smile crossed her face. "I've never played Chess by those rules before."

"And at this rate you never will again. Come on. At least let me get you somewhere safe."

"Safe? Where the hell is there in this house that's safe? Cumail already has me, Giles. I'm not the one we're supposed to be worried about. I'm going to face him alongside of you, or I won't let you go either."

"You're not really in any position to stop me right now."

"No." She slid slowly down the banister rail, sitting down hard on one of the stairs. "I'm not in a position to do anything right now. I just want to go to sleep, and not wake up until next Thursday." She tipped her head back, staring up at the paintings, and wagged her finger at the closest one. "And you can stop smirking at me too. Can't you see we're in the middle of a crisis?" Despite himself, Giles couldn't help smiling. He sat down beside her, taking her hand.


"Not now Giles. I'm disciplining the paintings. Clearly they've been allowed to get away with far too much over the last hundred years."

"It's nearly dark, Li. There's not much light coming in through the windows."

"Oh." She squinted up at the painting just above her head. "I picked a hell of a time to go rebel, didn't I."

"You were just great." He put an arm around her shoulders, suddenly no longer caring about making it to the master bedroom, or trying to prepare some kind of a defence against Cumail. "And hey, everything's going to be just fine."

She squinted across at him. "That was almost spontaneous enough to be convincing. Almost, but not quite." Her head fell against his shoulder. "I don't feel so good, Giles. And I don't think it's all because of the alcohol."

"Cumail must be close to rising." He held her hand tightly. "Don't worry."

"Loose the cheap platitudes Giles. You're far more convincing doing the Rebel With A Cause act." She stared up at the paintings, watching the residue of blurred colours from her alcohol-and-grass trip splurge and twist their way across the figures. Twenty-five men and women. One of them was smiling at her patiently, her intense blue eyes staring down out of a nineteenth century portrait. Through the confusion of her swirling senses Li could see a tall woman, hands clasped neatly before her - clasped neatly, she wondered suddenly, or clenched together in tension? She frowned, taking in the long, dark blue dress, with the froth of lace around the throat; the smiling, friendly mouth with its hint of frustration and strain. Skin that suddenly seemed far too pale.

"Giles?" She reached out, grabbing his arm, making him turn to her in surprise. "Look at the paintings."

"I've seen them. Very nice."

"No no no. Look at them. At that one, or at that one over there - look at all of them. They're all part of the same family."

"Tell me something I don't know." He was more interested in watching through the hall window, seeing the last of the light fade. Already shadows were gathering beneath the stairs, and he knew what must soon step out of them. He remembered the expression of utter rage on Cumail's face when he had attacked him with the silver bullet. That was going to be one almightily ticked-off demon.

"No Giles. You're not listening to me. All members of the same family. All living here. All staying, even though the stories go back through generations. Don't you see? Cumail had them all. The whole family. Every one of those people up there is one of his victims. They're all part of his collection."

"Very likely. But how does that help us?" Still he could not take his eyes off the shadows beneath him. He could almost feel the Keeper's strong, hard hand on his throat; could almost feel the demon's power taking him. He felt light-headed, and decided that it wsas not a sensation he was fond of.

"Can't you see?" She took his head in her hands, and forced him to look at the paintings. "They go back centuries, and yet they're all painted against the same backdrop, and they're all painted by the same person."

"They're a collection. And that mural in the attic has been there centuries. You can tell by the way it's faded."

"No, Giles. Look at the first of these paintings. It's so ancient there are signs of the paint beginning to flake. And the most recent ones - you can tell how much newer they are just by looking at them. But they're all painted by the same person."

"And you can really tell that." He shook his head. Only one tiny crack of light remained at the window now. He estimated that they had a minute left at the most. There were many things he would like to do with his last minute on Earth - especially when in the company of a beautiful girl like Li - and none of them involved discussing a collection of ancient paintings.

"It's obvious. You can tell by the brushstrokes, by the way the subjects all look..." She shook her head. Strange; she hadn't thought that she knew anything about art. "Look at the way the paint is used on this one." She reached out, taking hold of the painting of the nineteenth century woman with the intense blue eyes. The shock of touching it, of feeling the spark and crackle from within the canvas, made her gasp. She held on tight nonetheless, and tugged hard.

"Li, there isn't time for this. We have to get ready." Giles drew his flick-knife, eyes twitching left and right as the last of the light faded. From beneath the stairs he heard a low, bestial growl. A soft breath blew on the back of his neck, and a non-existent hand drew its fingers across his throat. Behind him Li was oblivious to his concern, and with a last, desperate pull she brought the painting crashing down on top of her. Giles jumped, spinning around, catching the girl just in time before she rolled down the stairs. The painting hit the edge of one step, landing squarely on its lower right-hand corner. The frame split, and one edge of the canvas came loose, flapping lightly in a breeze that should not have been there. The breeze grew, chilling Giles. He pulled his leather jacket more closely around him, and looked down the stairs. A pair of yellow eyes gleamed at him in the newly complete darkness; feline eyes, unblinking and direct. He took a step back, suddenly nervous under the scrutiny. Hands touched his shoulders, gripping him tightly; hands that could not possibly have belonged to Kwan Li-Tai.

"Li?" In the darkness he could no longer see her. He could hear her breathing, faintly, from somewhere off to his right. She sounded scared, or maybe just out of breath.

"No." It was a male voice, light and sibilant. A faint hiss marred the sound of the breathing that came from so close by. He felt the rush of cold exhalation tickle the back of his neck. Cumail.

Reacting with the skill of a trainee Watcher, Giles jabbed back with his left elbow, spinning on one heel and reaching out with his other hand. His fingers closed on empty air, and a low laugh came in mocking answer.

"Too slow." Cumail's voice, filled with glee. Giles whirled about, trying to track the noise in the darkness, wishing that Li still had her senses intact. His foot hit something small, which snarled and hissed in the voice of a cat. A set of claws raked at his leg, but his jeans gave him protection enough to avoid damage. He stumbled nonetheless, looking for solid ground and finding only the edge of the next stair. His foot slipped and he almost lost his balance.

"Giles?" Li was close by - closer than he had thought. He reached out for her, wanting to be sure of her presence, certain of her safety. He thought that he felt her fingers against his. The touch was female, he was sure of it. Certainly the hand that momentarily brushed his was not Cumail's; but in almost the same instance he heard Li's quick intake of breath, and he knew that the touch he had felt was not hers. He reached out blindly in the darkness, and this time his fingers brushed against free-flowing material. It felt like a dress, made of something heavy and soft. Li was wearing cotton trousers and a light sweatshirt, and Cumail certainly had not been wearing a dress.

"Who's there?" The darkness was confusing, particularly since he knew that it was no obstacle to the Keeper, or to the cat. He fumbled about, hands outstretched, heard Li give a sudden shout of surprise. Cumail laughed.

"Li!" He threw himself forward, hands striking out in every direction that was available to him. He felt them connect with something solid, and heard a sound that he knew came from Cumail. There was a flash, a sudden blaze of blue smoke and the smell of sulphur. A small blond boy in a sailor suit stood before him, lit by some strange unearthly glow. He was grinning.

"Have you come to play with me?" He reached out one small, lily-white hand, and touched Giles. His fingers felt like ice. Behind him a shadow loomed.

"Where's Li?" The Watcher whirled about, ignoring the boy, looking out for the cat, wondering if it and the sailor-suited child were one and the same. He hated not knowing all the details, not being sure of what he was facing. He couldn't see Li, even in the glow that this strange, demonic child was surrounded by. The shadows were growing closer. Giles took a step back - and bumped into a large, very solid shape behind him. Hands descended on his shoulders and clung tightly. He felt powerful fingers digging into his bones.

"Nowhere else to run to, Watcher." Cumail's voice seemed to be right inside his head, and yet at the same time it circled about him, as though blown by some otherwise imperceptible wind. "Nowhere to go." The fingers tightened their hold, if that were at all possible. "Time to be mine."

"No!" Li's voice came from somewhere in front of them, or maybe from somewhere behind. There was a yell, the sound of feet on hard boards and the unmistakable scuffle of an attack. Cumail gave a low laugh, and for the briefest of seconds one of his hands loosed its hold on Giles. There was a heavy thump and a startled cry, and something flew past Giles, over the banisters, down to the floor of the hall beneath.

"Li!" He tried to turn, tried to see over the banisters, tried to make sure that she was alright; but both hands were holding him again, and the fingers seemed to be sinking in, driving themselves into his flesh, feeling their way inside. He wanted to move, but he didn't seem able to do a thing. His head spun, raging insanely, as though his mind were a small boat being tossed about in the midst of stormy seas. He could feel his thoughts turning, could see pictures in his mind. The Keeper was inside him, looking for things to take, searching for the best and easiest way to make this latest victim a part of his collection. Somewhere at the edge of Giles' consciousness he heard a low groan, which could only have been Li. She sounded badly hurt, and he felt his heart skip a beat.

"Why Cumail. Good evening." The words came from a little further up the stairs. Giles wanted to turn his head to see who had spoken, but he wasn't altogether sure that anybody had. His senses told him that the grip on his shoulders had eased up, but he had no idea if that was real either, or if it was just a passing thought produced by his confusion. He heard the gentle slap of light soles on the uncarpeted stairs. Someone was coming closer. Someone was stepping into the faint aura of blue light that surrounded the boy in the sailor suit. Giles had a vague picture of a woman, dressed in a dark blue dress with a foaming of lace at the throat. Intense blue eyes burned out of the darkness, and deathly white skin provided a shocking contrast to the darkness of the hair that framed it. Blood red lips were parted in a sneer of something approaching true malice.

"Judith?" Cumail's grip did weaken then. Giles was sure of it, and he tried to step forward. He couldn't move. Cumail held him close, one hand stroking the side of his head, the shadows of his fingers still probing inside. "How did you get here?"

"How do you think?" The woman stepped closer, her presence bringing new chills, new non-existent draughts to tickle the Watcher's spine. The boy in the sailor-suit recoiled, but the woman caught him by the arm. "Arthur. How good to see you again."

"Mother." The boy flashed her what seemed to be a very nervous smile. "How have you been?"

"Bored." Her grip tightened on his arm, and his small face showed true pain. Giles almost felt sorry for him. It was all too easy to be taken in by the illusion of the boy's size and immaturity. "You abandoned me."

"I didn't mean to." He took her hand, and his eyes widened in childish innocence. "I couldn't reach you."

"You could have broken the frame. You could have let me out. I had to wait for these mortals to do it instead." Her hand came up, and she struck the boy a mighty blow to the face. He tumbled backwards down the stairs, landing in an ungainly heap. For a second something very like sorrow passed across the round, childish face. Giles almost expected the boy's lower lip to wobble. Nearby Cumail laughed, and Giles felt his hold slacken still further. Once more he tried to slip from the demon's grasp. As before the fingers gripped tighter in reflex, but this time it felt as though they were not nearly so tight as before. The Keeper took a step forward, half dragging, half carrying the Watcher in his wake.

"Excuse me? When you've quite finished? I do have my own agenda to follow here, and it has nothing to do with those bitter-sweet family reunions." He gave Giles a shake as demonstration. Judith laughed, a particularly unattractive sound to Giles' way of thinking. It sent new shivers racing up and down his spine. He swallowed hard, and took full advantage of Cumail's relaxed grip.

"Who are you?" he asked. Judith raised an eyebrow, staring down at him with the sort of superior glare that seemed designed to make him feel like a small mouse, about to be devoured by a particularly large owl. Despite this apparent sign of his complete lack of importance, she answered nonetheless.

"My name, child, is Judith."

"You're part of Cumail's collection?" He felt the demon behind him laugh; felt the fingers gripping the interior of his skull moving about in response to the gentle shaking.

"Not exactly." Cumail sounded amused. "Her family summoned me. Her great-great-great-whatever grandfather, to be more precise. A strange man. Vastly rich, and utterly pointless. He had all the money he could possibly want, and nothing to spend it on. His family despised him, society ostracised him for his eccentricity. He was a fool, who thought that black magic could fill the void in his life." The fingers inside Giles' head tightened momentarily, as if reminding him of their presence. "Much like somebody else I could mention. Once he summoned me, I became a part of him. In order to save his own worthless life, or at the very least to prolong it as much as possible, he gave me his son, and his granddaughter. He gave me his great grandson, who in turn gave me his brother, and his nephew. And so it went on. Each of them giving me their nearest and dearest, in the hope that I wouldn't kill them all." He practically smacked his lips at the memory. "The feeding was the best I had ever tasted."

"And then he tried his magic on me." Judith stepped closer, her fearsomely bright blue eyes burning as though with a very real fire of their own. Cumail laughed again, but this time there was less humour. He sounded angry, or even bitter.

"We all make our mistakes."

"I don't take too kindly to being part of some demon's soul collection." Judith's hand reached out, stroking at Giles' forehead. He felt her fingers pressing against him, as though trying to reach inside him and probe his mind, just as Cumail's had done already. "And so we fought."

"And she killed her family. She murdered every last one of them, to be sure that my supply of food was gone." Cumail's grip relaxed almost entirely, but although Giles felt sure that he could move away now, he remained where he was. The Keeper's voice had become bitter. "Her mother, her father, her brothers and sisters, her husband, her children... So many dead bodies. The blood ran down the stairs in streams." He licked his lips, then suddenly his grip on Giles' shoulders was powerful and intense once again, as he gave the young Watcher a violent shake. "Do you see what you've done? Releasing her again. All the work, all the strain, all the magic. Sealing her inside that painting was the accomplishment of my life. I almost destroyed the last living soul in my collection in order to make that spell. The last of Arthur's mortal energy gone forever." He reached out suddenly, his hard, cold hands caressing the small boy's blond hair with an almost paternal affection. "His input was vital, but in the course of the spell she turned him into a china statue, stealing the last free life force that I had at my disposal." He took a few steps forward, pulling Giles with him, until they were standing face to face with Judith. She was smiling broadly, and her blue eyes flashed brightly in the darkness. She reached out, caressing Cumail's face.

"We could have been so good together, my dear."

"I doubt it." He drew Giles closer to him again, almost lifting him off his feet. "All those paintings, all those captured souls - dusty, lifeless morsels to sustain me in my hours of ravening hunger. All her fault. Unable to leave the house for the spells she cast, unable to do anything save hide in shadows and wait for the return of some life to seize upon. And what do I get? Just an old man, more skin and bone than flesh and blood. A lonely soul, a wandering mind, certainly - but with no vigour, no strength, no real life force. He wanted to die. He wanted to end it all. I could have solved that for him, but even that possibility was stolen from me. He killed himself, he freed his soul, and after all those years of waiting for another addition to my collection I was foiled again." He spun Giles around, drawing him closer still, lifting him slightly so that their eyes were on a level. Giles felt the wall behind him, unyielding and absolute. There was nowhere to run to. His head grazed against the frame of another painting, drawing blood. He felt it trickle down the side of his face, wanted to wipe it away. He couldn't even move. Cumail's flashing eyes were mere inches from his own now, and with a sudden sensation of cold fear, he saw that the demon was smiling. "Until you came along. The Slayer... so beautiful, so lost - but not lost enough. Not until you spoke to her. Not until you raised her doubts. Then she was perfect prey. Glorious prey. The most beautiful strength and life and power." With a flick of his wrist he slammed Giles against the wall. "And you try to stand in my way." Again he slammed Giles back. Again the Watcher's head caught the frame of the painting. For a second he thought about trying to drag it from the wall - trying to smash it as Li had done with Judith's. His eyes drifted across to the woman now, lurking in the shadows, only her eyes truly visible. He thought about trying to appeal to her - to ask for assistance - but all that he could think of was what Cumail had said. She had killed her entire family, just to weaken the demon. She had murdered her own children. Why would she even think of helping him? He raised one hand, weak and tired, and felt his fingers scrape at the edge of the closest frame. He managed to make his fingertips catch on the back, and then tugged with all his might. Nothing happened. Cumail laughed.

"You want to free more of them? Dry husks, every one. Free them, by all means. I insist!" He threw Giles aside, sending the young Watcher rolling and crashing down the stairs, then raised his hands above his head. On a step higher up, Judith laughed in throaty anticipation. Sparks ignited in the air.

"Giles?" Li sounded very close by now. She was weak, but she was moving. Giles held out his hand, feeling her fingers close around his. "What's happening?"

"I don't know." He closed his eyes. How much had she just heard of what Cumail had said? Had she heard that the mere fact of his presence had been enough to turn her into part of the Keeper's collection? In the darkness he closed his eyes. Li seemed to sense his discomfort, and she reached out for him, taking his shoulders. Beneath them the ground shook, throwing them together in a tangle on the floor. One by one the paintings lit up with a dull, rust-coloured glow.

"What's happening Giles?" Li's face loomed large in his vision, and he stared past her, looking back up the stairs to the silhouetted figures.

"I don't know."

"I'm sorry." She was virtually in tears, which surprised him. Although she had lost her Slayerhood, he had never thought of her as anything less than the Slayer. Hearing her cry was a startling realisation; an indication that she was just as human as he was. It was strange to think it. Watchers were never usually trained to think of their Slayers as anything other than superhuman robots - automatons living a secret destiny. They didn't have emotions, and they certainly were not supposed to cry. "It's my fault."

"Your fault?" He dragged her to her feet, the pair of them leaning on each other for support. "How d'you figure that? It was me who attracted Cumail's attention. It was me who gave him license to jump in. I'm the lost one. Not you."

"But I pulled that painting off the wall." She turned her head, staring up the stairs. In a shimmering rainbow of darkness, the paintings were beginning to bulge outward, the flat canvases taking on three bulky dimensions. One by one the figures inside staggered out onto the landing. "I started this."

"I don't think we can blame you for that." It didn't seem fair to blame her, even though she had unleashed this latest frenzy. She was a girl - little more than a child - and someone of her age was supposed to make mistakes. She was supposed to demonstrate bad judgement, she was supposed to get drunk once in a while. It wasn't supposed to put her life at risk. Anger flowed through him. She should never have been put in this position. She should never have been pressed so hard that she had run to this place. She should be living safely somewhere, with her family; going to school, getting into trouble over homework - staying out late and getting yelled at for it. Giles blamed it all on the Watcher Council. Sending a child out to face this sort of thing as routine, whilst they stayed behind, secure in their cloisters, getting dusty alongside their ancient manuscripts. It made him sick.

"Look!" With a cry of amazement as much as of fear, Li pointed up the stairs. Staggering down the steps came the people of the paintings, their arms hanging low, their shoulders slumped. Their faces were grey, the colour of dust, the skin loose and peeling. Cobwebs hung from their arms, drooping low from their fingers. Their hair was matted and faded to grey. Their clothes were tattered and torn, patchy and threadbare, stained by the years. They came closer, stumbling on the stairs, their age-old limbs finding it hard to bend. One stumbled and fell, crashing down the steps, landing hard on his back in the hallway. He made a few scrabbling attempts to get up, then lay still. His eyes stared unblinkingly up at the ceiling, and the gargoyles leered back at him. One came free from the ceiling, dropping like the stone it was, and the fallen painting man made a few feeble movements with his arms, trying to shake it off. It ignored the feeble attempts and went straight for his throat. Pale blood, so pale it was almost more pink than red, dribbled onto the floor. It looked like water, not at all like blood. The man's pathetic struggles ceased. The rest of his fellows marched on.

"Who are you?" Standing between them and Giles, still clinging to the last vestiges of her Slayer training, Li tried to look strong enough to fight off the band. They didn't look like they would take much fighting, to be fair, but she did not feel up to tackling even one of them. Adrenalin was seeing off the worst of her hangover, but still she did not feel herself. Giles pushed her aside.

"Stand back." He folded his arms, left hand still clenched around the handle of the flick-knife. "If you think I can't handle a bunch of paintings you've got another think coming." The group swayed to an unsteady halt, staring at him through pale eyes, their faces blank of all expression. He recognised the man from the top of the stairs, so different to his portrait. The beady black eyes were dimmed now, the proud head lowered. Even his impressive clothing and defiantly stiff posture seemed to droop now, lifeless and faded, weak and tired.

"There's your army, Watcher." Cumail was laughing. "You wanted to free them - now see how much use they are to you."

"You're playing with the poor baby. That's not fair." Judith was coming down the stairs, pushing aside the stragglers at the back of the painted army. Those that she touched fell as though stunned, crashing onto the floor like stranded crabs, their legs and arms moving in vague patterns. The gargoyles fell upon them, draining their blood.

"Back off." Trying to sound as though he still had some aces up his sleeve, Giles squared his shoulders. He gestured to the closest of the painted bunch. "Stop her. Don't let her get through." Incredible as it seemed, they moved to do his bidding. She ignored them all.

"I was one of them." She was almost before him now, already towering over him, her intense blue stare making his skin crawl. He had seen her eyes watching him every time he had walked past the paintings, and never once had he suspected who and what she might be. He remembered the feeling of her touching him as he had stood on the stairs, and a shiver ran down his spine. Judith noticed, and her laugh echoed around the hall.

"Leave him alone." Cumail was coming forward now, and the painted people cowered away from his approach. "He's mine."

"Only if you get to him first." Judith reached out, brushing a stray lock of hair from Giles' forehead. Her touch went beyond mere cold. He tried to back away, but the air was full of hovering gargoyles, their staring stone faces watching everything, eager for their next victim. A stone claw caught in his jacket, and he heard the material rip.

"I've already got to him. He's already mine." Cumail was suddenly before them, although nobody remembered having seen him move. "Let him go, Judith."

"Take the Slayer." With her free hand, the woman pushed Li towards Cumail. He swatted her aside, and she tumbled into a heap of the painted army, knocking them down like skittles. She leapt away from their touch, but to her credit she tried to help them as the gargoyles descended.

"The Watcher is mine." Cumail reached out, grabbing at Judith. He caught her around the neck, and she let out a shout of fury.

"You'll not add me to your collection, Keeper!" Whirling about, she lashed out with her hands, and her fingernails raked the demon's face. He screamed in pain and anger, and sparks flew from his eyes.

"You'd try to fight me?" He took a step towards her, seeming to grow with the movement. "Let's see you try again."

"Why don't you just destroy each other?" With a mighty burst of energy, Li hurled herself at Cumail. She hit him low, throwing all of the force that she could find into one, desperate blow. The Keeper wobbled, furiously trying to snatch at her, then fell forward. He crashed into Judith and they fell to the floor, rolling together, arms and legs knitting together into an inexorable tangle. The gargoyles descended.

"No!" Blue flame erupted into the air, obliterating a handful of gargoyles and taking several of the painted people with it. Judith's voice echoed about the room, rising to a pitch that was painful to hear. Li snatched at Giles' hand.

"Run!" she whispered, forcibly pushing him towards the door. "Please, go. Before anything else happens."

"No." He slowed her stride, pulling her into his arms. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Then what-?"

"Then nothing." He reached into his pocket, pulling out the silver bullet. "This helped us before."

"Not to kill Cumail. It only sent him away. Made him angry." She was tugging at his clothes. "Please Giles. Just leave. I'm the Slayer, remember, whether I've got the strength or not. You're the Watcher, and you belong on the sidelines."

"I never was one to follow the rulebook." He clenched his fingers around the bullet. Its ice touched him to the very soul, driving spears of intense cold up his arm and through his chest. "It's got to do something. It's got to mean something."

"It's haunted, Giles. It's a part of all the madness that makes up this house. Do you want to summon any more demons? Do you want to make things worse, like I did with the painting?"

"No." He turned to look at her, and despite the darkness she saw his eyes glittering brightly. It was almost like the glitter in the eyes of Judith, save that his fires were green. For some reason she felt herself shiver.

"We haven't got a gun, and it wouldn't fire anyway. It's too flattened. How else is it going to save us?" She pulled the bullet from his hands, showing no signs of shock at its freezing temperature. "Just leave, Giles. I really never took you for the heroic type."

"Screw heroics." He made a grab for the bullet, but she held it away from him. "I just don't want to lose you."

"Oh great. You picked a hell of time to get sentimental. What happened to the walking attitude problem?" He looked vaguely hurt, and she almost regretted her outburst. "Hell Giles, just go. I have to stay. I have to die. You can walk out of the door at any time."

"Yeah, sure." He glanced towards the ongoing battle. Cumail had almost extricated himself, and with one powerful fist, the demon crushed a flailing gargoyle. Little Arthur watched from nearby, cowering down behind the banisters, blue eyes wide.

"Then you'll go?" Li wasn't watching the battle. She didn't seem to care. It might have touched Giles, if he had stopped to think about how much she cared for his wellbeing; but his mind was already focused on other things. There was no time for thoughts of fleeing, or of how much he hoped for a chance to grow closer still to the Slayer he barely knew.

"I'll go. Sure." He stepped past her, and in the same, smooth movement, he punched her in the stomach. Her eyes widened in sudden pain and shock, her arms and hands went slack, and the silver bullet dropped neatly into his waiting hand. He lowered her to the floor. "Sorry. You can bash me for that later, when you've got your super-stuff back."

"You... bastard." She could hardly speak from the pain and the breathlessness, but he just grinned. His eyes were dancing with amusement, and as she looked up into them, she thought that she saw the same leering sense of mischief that burned in the eyes of the stone gargoyles. He gave a low giggle that was almost depraved.

"That's me." Then he was gone. She tried to follow him with her eyes, but the gargoyles were moving closer, blocking her vision. She had to fight nausea in order to rise to her feet, in order to face the wildly flapping stone creatures. Since building up their strength on weakened painted people they had become considerably more challenging. A stone tongue rasped at her foot, and she stared down into bright, excited eyes. A quick kick sent the audacious creature rolling away across the floor with a startled oof. The others backed off slightly.

"Alone, Slayer?" It was Cumail, pushing his way through the gargoyles. They moved aside reverentially. "Where's your little protector? Your Watcher, your shadow? Or has he finally turned his soul over to the dark side he so loves to court? Maybe he's on my side now?" He glanced about as though searching out the small, dark form of the young Watcher. "You should watch that one, Slayer. I certainly intend to. He tastes of black magic, and dark intent." A smirk appeared across the grey, sallow face. "But then, you already know what he tastes like. Don't you."

"Leave me alone." She was backed against a wall, staring up at him from a height that had always seemed adequate to her in the past, and now seemed hopelessly small. Cumail laughed.

"I had planned to drain you over the years, as I usually do. Instead I think I'll take you in one gulp. You'll be less trouble that way." He made a grab for her, but even without her strength she still had her battle training. It was easy to dodge aside. Cumail laughed.

"You have some nice moves."

"Thanks." She flashed him a sardonic smile. "You're not so bad yourself. Fancy forming an acrobatic troupe?"

"Don't mock me." His voice was suddenly several decibels louder than it had any right to be. Li felt a breeze rush through her hair at the force of the sound. She winced.

"Where's the girlfriend?"

"Judith?" He spun about at that, as though expecting the bizarre woman to come flying out of the furniture, or from the ceiling along with the next wave of gargoyles. Instead he saw her nearby, calmly incinerating the few remaining people from the paintings. One tried to escape, but it had no strength and no speed. It burst into a brief tower of flame, and a few flakes of dried paint and burning canvas fluttered down to the floor. Cumail tutted.

"And to think I once thought they were worthy of eternal preservation. Even the most impressive of my victims fade to uselessness in time it seems. But you my dear, will be spared that. I shall obliterate you entirely. In one wonderful, perfect moment of utter exquisiteness. If you'll pardon the poetry." He made another grab for her, and again she slid aside. A frown crinkled his forehead. "My dear you really must give in. Die gracefully. I'd prefer it that way. In fact I insist."

She dodged aside again. "Did anybody ever tell you you're seriously ugly up close?"

"Did anybody ever tell you to do as you're told?" He made a sudden grab for her, and as she tried to twist away he changed the direction of his attack. She dodged straight into his waiting embrace, and his irresistible arms snapped tight around her chest. Caught in a python's grip she could not break free. She struggled, and the powerful arms tightened, threatening to crush her ribcage. A small whimper escaped her, and she tried to calm herself. If she was going to die, she was going to die like a Slayer - whatever that meant.

"Hey, Keeper." It was Giles' voice, and Li almost cried with relief. Much as she wanted him far away from this place, it was still a reassurance to know that he was close by. Strangely the idea of death was less terrifying if she could be sure that she would not be alone. Cumail turned, dragging her with him. His grip did not lessen.

"Rupert." The demon sounded amused. "What are you doing?"

"Planning on killing you. Does that not fit in with your plans?" Giles sounded supremely confident, which was proof enough to Li that he didn't have a clue what he was doing. She could barely see him in the bad light, but what she could see made all her senses scream in disbelief. What the hell did he think he was doing? He was standing on the banister, balancing God knew how, a small cat in his arms. The cat was purring. Even amidst the turmoil of hovering gargoyles she could hear the sound. Cumail laughed.

"What's the deal Giles? I release her or you drop the cat? Even if I did care about Arthur that wouldn't work. He's not mortal."

"I wouldn't drop the cat." Giles sounded deeply insulted. One hand caressed the small animal's head. Its eyes flashed a brilliant yellow, momentarily lighting up the small patch of air around it. The light blazed in a powerful reflection against the blade of the flick-knife in the young Watcher's hand. Slowly he bent to let the creature go, watching as it stalked up and down the banister rail, flaunting its superior balancing skills. Judith giggled.

"He has guts, you can't deny that."

"He'll see them for himself before I'm through with him." Casting Li aside, Cumail strode forward, running up the stairs in graceful bounds. "What are planning, boy? What's your big scheme?"

"I don't have one." Giles jumped down from the banister, poised in a battle stance, flick-knife ready in his hand. He looked as though he were preparing to tackle some similarly armed teenage thug in a street brawl. Cumail looked singularly unimpressed.

"Fool." He made a swipe at Giles, who ducked, leaping backwards out of the way. Cumail stepped forward immediately, closing the gap between them, storming onwards up another stair. One foot knocked against the cat, which gave a loud screech. There was a burst of smoke, and suddenly the cat was Arthur again. His hair no longer looked neatly combed, and there was something gripped in his hand.

"That hurt," he said darkly. Cumail laughed.

"Get lost boy. I've no more need of you." He struck out, one hand catching the child on the side of the head. Arthur stumbled but did not fall.

"You've needed me well enough the last hundred years." He sounded defiant, which seemed altogether wrong from a voice so young. Cumail swatted him aside, sending him crashing into the wall.

"A simple snack to keep me going. Something rather more edifying than a handful of souls stored so unsatisfyingly in a bunch of paintings." His voice dripped with contempt. "You're no more than an hors d'oeuvre, boy. And now it's time to move onto the main course."

"So that's it? A hundred years as your servant and then nothing? A hundred years at your beck and call, letting you suck my life force when you couldn't get anything better? And now it's all over, just so that you can eat some second-rate hood and a girl who used to be the Slayer?" Arthur sounded anything but childish now, and his fingers uncurled slightly from the object gripped in his hand. "My mother gave me to you to save her own soul. I was five years old. I've had no life since then. I've been stuck in this sailor suit for a hundred years." He took a step forward. "I hate this sailor suit. I've always hated this sailor suit. I only wore it to make my mother happy, and what did she do? She slashed my father and my brothers and sisters into little pieces while I watched, and then she handed my soul over to some demon with a lousy idea of childcare. Well I've had it."

"This is no time to get shirty, Arthur." Cumail glanced up at Giles. "I'll be with you in minute."

"Take your time." Giles folded his arms. There was a smile on his face, but if Cumail saw it he did not seem to worry about its presence. Instead he turned to the small boy, whose eyes were anything but young.

"I should have killed you decades ago. I should have turned you into a painting alongside your mother."

"And I should have found a way to do this a century ago." The fingers finally unfurled all the way, and there in Arthur's palm lay the silver bullet. It was beginning to glow, a steady white light shining from its centre.

"What are doing with that?" Cumail actually took a step back. Arthur laughed.

"The Watcher gave it to me. I was going to flatten him, but he made a lot of sense." The bullet levitated, spinning idly on its axis an inch above the boy's hand. "What do you say Cumail? Do we make this slow, or do we make this quick? Neither way's painless, but hey, that's life."

"Just do it." Giles was getting restless. Arthur shot him a poisonous glare.

"Stay out of this Watcher. Now I've got the bullet I don't need you."

"What do you plan to do, Arthur?" Slowly mounting the stairs, Judith moved with a seductive grace. Her small son did not bother to look at her.

"Simple mother. I intend to do this." He took a deep breath, toying all the time with the bullet. It was changing shape under the power of his presence, turning back into the shape it had held before being fired. The bloodstains vanished and the nose once more became pointed. A fluttering figure appeared in the air, gradually gaining substance. A white figure, slightly bent but undeniably strong. An old man. Cumail gasped.

"You! I thought you were gone for good. I saw them taking your body away not a month ago."

"I was gone, but hardly for good." The bent old man stepped forward, reaching out for the spinning bullet. "When I shot myself with this I hoped never to see you again. But I knew that I would." He chuckled, his voice hollow and unearthly. He was fiddling with the bullet, fitting it into the chamber of a white gun which had appeared in his hand. It had a ghostly air to it, as though it were not entirely solid, but the bullet fitted inside it safely enough. The old man spun the chamber. "Feel like a game of Russian Roulette, Keeper?"

"Get away from me." Cumail took a step back down the stairs. The old man laughed.

"Now who's the frightened one?" He fired the gun, but there was no sound. "Ah. You got lucky." He spun the chamber again. "How about this time?" Again he pulled the trigger, and again there was no report. "Ooh. You really are the lucky one." He spun the chamber yet again. "Will it be a third time lucky?"

"You - you can't shoot him." Judith sounded worried. Arthur smiled sardonically. Down below them, Li was watching with bated breath. Giles stole a glance in her direction, flashing her the barest of smiles. She answered with one of her own, but her eyes did not leave Cumail. He had come to a halt, no longer backing away.

"He won't shoot me." There was anger and defiance in his tone. "He can't. I built this place. It rests on my powers. The buttresses stand upon the shoulders of my earliest victims. The gargoyles are all that is left of my most misbegotten prey. This entire house is the focal point of my collection. Kill me and this whole place falls down around your ears."

"I don't care." The old man gave the chamber another spin, as though for extra luck. "I'm dead."

"Arthur isn't. And Judith. She's your ancestor."

"She's not dead, no. But she sure as hell isn't alive." The old man shrugged. "And besides which, I don't give a damn."

"The Slayer, and the Watcher. They--"

"Are nothing to me. The girl will die anyway, if you don't. And the boy won't live much longer the way he's going."

"Then you'd let them die?"

"They'll take their chances." The old man shrugged. "They came here. The boy found my bullet. His fate has been sealed ever since."

"This is his doing?" Cumail's gaze flickered back to Giles, standing further up the stairs and looking increasingly unsure of himself. "You'll pay for this, boy." His only answer was a very nervous grin. The old man shook his head.

"We all pay eventually, Keeper. Question is, is this the night you meet your final judgement?" He gave a short laugh. "Let's find out shall we?" And he pulled the trigger. There was a flash of fire, a blast of noise, and the Keeper let out a scream of rage. In a blaze of pure white fire his body collapsed in on itself, and the shreds of his being burst outward. The gargoyles fell upon what was left, screeching and tearing at the remains of the flesh. The old man gave a brief laugh, then fluttered out of existence.

"Fools! Do you have any idea what you've done?" Judith was staggering, her shoulders slumped. Before the eyes of the other three she was visibly ageing. Her bright blue eyes burned with hopeless malice. Her face became wrinkled and haggard. Her frame stooped, decayed, and finally broke open. Soon there was nothing left of her but a tangle of leathery skin and ancient bones. The gargoyles didn't even bother looking at her.

"Goodbye mother." Arthur laughed, turning his childish gaze towards Giles. "Goodbye."

"Goodbye." There was a mighty sound from above their heads, as of masonry tearing. Giles glanced down at Li.

"Hurry up." She sounded different, he noticed, and without waiting to wonder why he leapt down beside her, staggering slightly. She caught at his arm to steady him, and he recognised the new strength in her movements. He grinned.

"We really shouldn't hang around." A thundering crash above them backed up his words, and a shower of broken stone and wood tumbled from the top of the stair well. The gargoyles dropped to the floor, crumbling away on impact into powdery residue. The banisters began to give way.

"I think you're right." She grabbed his arm, pulling him towards the door. Behind them the stairs, still bearing young Arthur, broke apart and fell away into nothingness. The walls began to split open. With a mighty effort, Li knocked aside a falling beam and managed to tear open the door. She thrust Giles through it, sending him stumbling and sliding across the grass. A few second later she was beside him.

"What the hell happened?" She dragged him to his feet, setting him carefully upright, staring back at the house as it crumbled away. Fire burst forth from somewhere within it.

"Cumail was holding it together. Without him there was no house." Giles shrugged. "Either that or shoddy workmanship."

"But how did he die? I don't understand."

"You don't have to." He was grinning, looking very happy to have survived, and to be with her. "You're the Slayer."

She punched him on the arm. "I still want to know."

"Hard luck." He was staring at the flaming ruins, still crashing and cracking as the wood and stone broke apart. "I took a chance. I thought Arthur night know something about the bullet."

"He might have killed you!"

"Yeah." The young Watcher shrugged. "Still, he didn't, did he."

"You're insane. Dangerously insane." She flung her arms around his neck. "But I love you."

"No need to get soppy." He pushed her aside. "I wonder where Arthur is."

"Dead, surely. Like the others."

"Maybe. But I doubt it." He shrugged. "What does it matter? You've got your strength back. Plus we survived the night, which is always a bonus." He gave her a quick hug, which was obviously the closest that he felt like getting to a display of real affection. "So where shall we go first?" Her eyes searched out the ground, and he felt his heart skip a beat in fear.

"Edinburgh." She didn't meet his gaze.

"Edinburgh? But that's where your Watcher is."

"Yes, I know." She smiled awkwardly, reaching out for his hand. He snatched it away. "I owe them, Giles. I'm sorry."

"You owe them? You owe them what? They forced you into this job. You don't have to do it. You don't have to go back to them. You said--"

"That was cannabis talking. Cannabis and wine. You can't hold me to what I said."

"Yes I can. We agreed."

"I lost my Slayer skills, Giles. That showed me how much they mean to me. That showed me what I am. You stayed with me when you had a chance to leave. It's my duty to do the same for everyone else."

"I never meant to set any fine examples."

"Maybe not." She smiled, this time catching his arm, pulling him close. "Giles, I love you. So come with me. One day you might be my Watcher."

"One day I might watch you die."

"Yes. But that might happen in a road accident too. Or a plane crash. Or a random mugging."

"Yeah. But it won't." He stared into her eyes, his scrutiny so powerful that she had to look away. "Why don't you just come with me?"

"Why don't you come with me?"

"I can't." He looked away. "You know I can't."


"Because... Because I can't - I can't be--" He shook his head. "I can't do that. I can't be a part of that. It's not me."

"You'd rather be alone?"

"Yeah." He lowered his head, then turned away. When he spoke again his voice was horribly bitter. "You sure changed your tone real quick. I never thought I'd be that easy to forget." His voice hardened. "Goodbye Li."

"What? Just like that?" She grabbed his arm, using her superior strength to force him to turn back and face her. "Giles, I--"

"No." He smiled, then slowly broke her grip. She didn't resist. "I've heard all I want to. They've got you, haven't they, just like Cumail did. They've got you under their spell, believing their hype."

"Defending the world isn't hype, Giles."

"No? Well maybe not, but it sure as hell isn't my scene." He sunk his hands into his pockets. "So long. It's been fun."

"It's been hell."

"My kind of fun." He shrugged. "Li..."


"Nothing. But just remember. If you ever feel a chill in the middle of the night, or you hear ghostly footprints following you down a dark alley..."

"I'll always have a stake handy."

He nodded. "Good. 'Cause it'll probably be me, and you won't want to see what I've turned into." He flashed the blade of his flick-knife at her. "Be seeing you." Somehow it sounded more like a threat than a farewell. She wanted to say something more to him, but before she could even begin to think of the words, he had gone. His dark shape vanished into the distance. Li sighed.

"Goodbye Giles." She felt something rubbing against her legs, and absently turned to pick up a cat which seemed to have appeared from nowhere. It was a small black creature with tabby patches, its yellow eyes burning like beacons in the night. It purred at her touch, its thin form light in her arms, and she decided that she was glad to see it; whatever it might turn out to be. Maybe there was still room for rebellion in the heart of a Slayer.

"I guess it's just you and me then," she told it. It didn't seem to mind, so with a mighty effort she turned her back on the departing Watcher and set her sights north. "Ever been to Edinburgh? 'Cause we're going there now." Her new companion settled down into her embrace, purring loudly, and she didn't notice as its eyes flashed in sudden hot yellow intensity. "No objections? Good." Without so much as a backwards glance she started to walk; and she tried to not think about how unbearably heavy her heart had become.

A short distance away, standing alone in a pool of light cast by the unusually bright moon, Rupert Giles watched her dark shape head into the distance. There was pain in his eyes; real pain, of a kind that was not easily going to fade. He stared down at the flick-knife still gripped in his hand.

"I guess it's just you and me then," he told it. Its blade winked back up at him. "But then when the hell did we ever need anybody else?" There was, rather obviously, no answer. He put the blade away, and sunk his hands deep into the pockets of his leather jacket. He would walk, and he would haunt the alleyways, and he would turn over a shop or two. He would mug an old lady if it got him something worth taking. Maybe he would even go home, for a while, and listen to his mother fuss and worry. He didn't give a damn. Something inside of him suddenly felt very cold, very empty. For the briefest second he felt a hate more intense than any he had ever experienced in all of his short life. He hated the world. He hated the responsibility he was supposed to bear for its wellbeing. He hated it for its dependence upon the Slayer. He hated the ancient destiny which tried to bind him to some girl - some other girl somewhere in his future; some child like Li, who was one day going to take on the mantle of the Slayer. Some girl whose very existence would mean that Kwan Li-Tai was dead. Whoever she would be, he hated her. He hunched his shoulders in angry rebellion, and turned to face the east. He wanted to be far away from this place.

And as the sun came up before him, many hundreds of miles behind him the night was just beginning to deepen. Far away to the west, a girl much his own age was walking onto a dance floor. Her name was Joyce, and she was about to dance her first dance with a boy named Hank. He took her hand and she smiled up at him, and she thought that it was the most romantic moment of her life. And far away in England, a wizened little old man in a tiny, dusty office ticked something off in an ancient, leather-bound book. Another starry night. Another prophecy fulfilled.