Rupert Giles was drunk. Not slightly drunk; not even quite seriously drunk; but deeply, heavily and intensely drunk, as though his steady intake of alcohol had begun in the very early hours of the morning, and had not yet paused for any less liquid form of sustenance. Now the day was growing dark; heading towards the point at which the sun would drop beneath the horizon, leaving everything as black as only Sunnydale could ever become; and still the alcohol flowed. Giles lifted a beautifully crystal-cut whisky glass into the air, ignoring the patterns of light that reflected and refracted their way through the amber liquid and the multi-faceted patterns of its glass vessel.

"I propose a toast," he announced, in a voice that was not quite up to its usual, stiffly British standard. As a rule Giles spoke rather like somebody who had grown up in an expensive public school, before moving on to the closeted spires of Oxford - which was exactly the way in which his life had once been shaped. Just now however, as he prepared to tip another glass of whisky into his mouth, he sounded more like a Cockney gutter-rat; the cheerful fruit seller from so many post-war British movies perhaps, or the orphaned hero of a Charles Dickens' novel.

"Yeah?" His guest and fellow drinker, a man of much the same age and background, not to mention the same inauspicious youthful stalking grounds, raised his own glass. "To whom exactly?"

"I propose a toast," Giles repeated, as though building the tension in preparation for the great moment, "to magic. All magic. The good, nice magic that makes the sun shine and the butterflies flutter, and the deep, dark, nasty kind that - well - doesn't."

"Hear hear." His companion downed his whisky, then sat very still. "Ouch," he announced, in a voice that was somewhat dazed. "I suspect that that last one might have been too much."

"I have to say..." Giles finished his own drink, then let the glass slip from his fingers. It didn't break, for it was fortunate enough to have struck a thick, hand-woven rug acquired some twenty years previously in a gloomy store in London. It was alleged to have been woven from the spun fleeces of mere-beasts; half-goat creatures with fangs and snake-like tails that supposedly dwelt in the tunnels of the Underground. Needless to say, in truth it might have originated anywhere, but even after twenty years it still bore a strange smell that had never quite faded. It was the smell of incense, and powders used in the very deepest of dark magics. Giles had once used it to impress girls, and now it served to make Willow ask breathless questions; which was the same thing, if with slightly different results.

"You have to say what?" His friend waved his own empty glass at him, like a conductor leading an orchestra. Giles frowned.

"I don't know... yes I do." He held a finger in the air, illustrating his regained memory. "I have to say that I agree. With foresight, that last whisky was an extremely bad idea." His more usual accent was back, East London lost amongst the whisky fumes and drifting smoke from the jasmine heating gently in the oil burner at one side of the room. He frowned as he looked about for his fallen glass. "How about another?"

"No." His friend lay back against the cushions that supported him, and prevented him from sliding down onto the carpet beneath his feet. "I want to talk for a bit. Exchange news. How's it been with you, Ripper old man?"

"You know how it's been for me." Giles suddenly sounded very much more sober. "This is Sunnydale, and I have a Slayer to look after. A Slayer who doesn't want to be looked after, which makes things all the harder." His voice took on a petulant edge. "Watching isn't what they told me it would be like. There was talk of obedient Slayers obeying the Watchers; well-planned battle strategies and dedication of the highest order. Instead I get Buffy, who hasn't listened to a word I've said to her in four years."

"But you're not her Watcher anymore," his companion pointed out. Giles nodded.

"True. But what am I? An uncle? A confidant? A-a-a-an unemployed librarian looking for fun, frolics and friends?"

"You've got friends, Rupert." His companion leant over to him, patting him shortly on the knee. "There's me, and..." he shrugged. "And rather a lot of dead people actually. But they still love you." He grinned broadly, his voice sounding ever more slurred by the drink. "Even though they're dead - and some of them have been for an awfully long time - they still love you. There's... well... there's your dad! He... well actually he didn't really pay you any attention, so maybe he wasn't a good place to start from... but hey! There's one that's still alive! That girl... the pretty one... the one that got taken over by Eyghon that time." He frowned heavily. "She was a bit of alright, that one. Wild look to her." He wagged a finger. "Where's she now?"

"Dead, like everybody else." Giles might have spared a melancholy thought for dear, sweet Jenny Calendar, had he not been quite so drunk. "And anyway-" he waged a finger at his companion- "if most of my friends are dead, I'd like to draw your attention to the person most often responsible. Namely you. Ethan Rayne, conjuror of all things dark and horrible. Slayer of friends from far and wide."

"I didn't kill Deirdre." His drinking partner - Ethan - looked and sounded most indignant. "Or Thomas. Or Philip..."

"You killed Stephen." It wasn't an accusation so much as an observation.

"Oh, Stephen. Well..."

"And Rachel." Giles was ticking them off on his fingers now. "And Clara; and Hans, that little East German kid that latched onto us in that inn just outside St Petersburg..."

"Well if you're really going to blame Hans on me, then I--"

"And Gordon." Giles looked up. "And there's probably more, if I think about it."

"Gordon?" Ethan shook his head. "I didn't kill Gordon. That was nothing to do with me."

"He said he didn't believe in magic, so you conjured up a... a something--"

"A soul keeper. Ravenous wolf-like creature that dwells just outside the gateway to the underworld. Snatches the unsuspecting that wander from the path as they await the opening of the gates into the next realm." Ethan frowned at him, wagging an admonishing finger. "You should know that."

"I do." Giles frowned, having momentarily lost the track of the conversation. "Anyway, you conjured it, it ate his soul, and then it dragged his screaming body down beneath the earth. Quite a crowd gathered. We had to pretend that we were filming for a Hollywood movie. You swore blind that you were Ray Harryhausen, and started handing round autographs to all the kids."

"Yeah..." It sounded as if Ethan found it to be a happy memory. "Okay, but I'm still not claiming responsibility for Hans - or Rachel or Clara. Nobody asked them to get involved. I warned them all, fair and square." He grinned cheerfully. "Just like I always warn you, Ripper. Don't get involved if you can't take the consequences."

"Which brings me to a question I'm sure I probably asked you several hours ago." Giles was squinting, as though beginning to have problems focussing. "What are you doing here, and didn't I last see you getting arrested by the Initiative?"

"I did get arrested." Ethan almost sounded as though this were an achievement to be congratulated upon. "But I also escaped. Things got a bit confused. There was a monster thing, and lots of people running around. Somebody high up in that demon-fighting military whatever-it-was got herself killed, or eaten or something. I took the opportunity to climb out of an air-conditioning unit. I went back to Britain for a while, and eventually wound up in Cairo." He sighed, obviously very happy with that particular memory. "I always loved Cairo. They welcome magic there. So many street sellers and back street practitioners with little jars full of ancient secrets."

"Not to mention cheap rubbish for anybody who doesn't look hard enough." Giles was confused, still certain that Ethan had missed out a major part of his expected explanations. It came to him just as he became aware that Ethan was about to launch off into some anecdote about Cairo and its back street practitioners of small-time - and not so small-time - magic. He decided to interrupt, before the story took on a life of its own, and directed the attention of both of them far away from the point in hand. "Now what are you doing here? I'm sure I remember telling you never to come back."

"Grudges, Ripper? So unlike you."

"You turned me into a Fyarl demon. If it hadn't been for an insufferable vampire, I'd have been a lost cause. I'd probably have been staked by my own Slayer."

"It was an enchantment worthy of the old days, Ripper." Ethan shrugged. "Anyway, that's all in the past. I came bearing gifts."

"Do they explode?"

"No." Ethan sounded vaguely affronted.

"Bite? Cast spells? If they're likely to turn me into anything non-human I'm definitely not interested. No matter how drunk you get me."

"Some people can't take an offer of kindness." Ethan might have stood up and walked off in an outrage, were he able to find and successfully use his feet. He thought about it, but dismissed the idea. It didn't seem at all safe putting weight on any part of his body beyond the bit that he was currently sitting on, and he was fairly positive that his legs were somebody else's anyway. "And besides, you've already had the first of my little gifts; and it hasn't done you any harm, has it?"

"I beg your pardon?" Voice taking on a dangerous note, Giles sat up very straight. Ethan shrugged, still looking oddly petulant.

"The first gift. Of two. Comprising a nice little spell and a small potion." He stretched, finding his limbs and muscles rather more co-operative than he had imagined they would be. "Why else would you have invited me in for this nice little chat, especially after the last time?" He put on his best sorrowful expression. "You don't mind do you?"

"I feel sure that I will when the potion has worn off." Giles didn't seem to mind anything at that particular point, which probably helped to explain just how he had managed to get so very drunk. Such behaviour was not the kind of thing that he indulged in these days. He found himself wondering if Ethan's potion might help stave off the effects of the mammoth hangover he felt sure that he was heading for otherwise.

"Not necessarily." Ethan suddenly appeared oddly animated. "There's still the second gift, after all. I hope you'll like it. I'll be damned if I can work out what it's for, but this street vendor swore blind that it was exactly what I was looking for. He wouldn't say why. I decided that I wouldn't use it until I'd had a chance to check it out with my personal advisor." He rummaged around in his pockets and come up, eventually, with a small wooden box. He tossed it across to Giles, who turned it over in his hands, examining it in close detail. It was old; he could tell that much without needing to guess - probably five hundred years at least. Gold inlay formed patterns that were breathtaking despite their tiny size. Small pieces of jade had been painstakingly placed in patterns resembling some vastly intricate jigsaw. There were the tiny marks of writing, but he could not see them without the aid of some form of magnification. Ethan waved a hand at the box.

"There's writing on top," he announced, apparently as an afterthought. "I had to get a bloody great magnifying glass to be able to read it, but it turned out to be in Hebrew. It says 'Speak out thy greatest desires, and await thy judgement." He shrugged, "So what do you think? Judgement tends to be in the apocalyptic area, as a rule."

"As a rule." Giles gave the box a little shake. Inside, something moved around. It sounded like a small shape sliding backwards and forwards, or possibly scratching against the wood. He had a sudden feeling that there was something alive inside there; an insect, perhaps, struggling to find an escape, or a large spider such as a small boy might keep in a matchbox to make the girls in the playground scream. He moved it closer to his ear.

"I think there's something alive in there," Ethan commented, as though backing up the suspicions of his old associate. Giles nodded.

"Good or bad?"

"Apocalyptic or harmless?" Ethan shrugged. "You see my dilemma."

"So you decided to bring it to me, and get me to do your dirty work." Giles didn't sound impressed. Ethan shrugged.

"I knew you wouldn't be able to leave it alone until you'd worked it out. Not my fault if you're predictably curious, is it." He leaned closer. "So what do you think?"

"I think you should probably throw it away." Giles shrugged. "But on the other hand..."

"Not going to learn anything if we dump it, are we." Ethan rose to his feet on unsteady legs, and dropped down onto the settee beside Giles. "So do we open it?" There was a silence. Giles was dimly aware that, being very drunk - and apparently drugged into the bargain - he was probably not best placed to make serious decisions. On the other hand, there might be something interesting in the box. He shrugged.

"I think we open it." It made sense to the part of his brain that was still heavily under the influence of Ethan's potion, and the part of his brain that was extremely drunk agreed. The rest of it wasn't putting up much of an argument, so he gave the box a final shake. His hands readied themselves on the catch.

"This could be a great moment," Ethan told him solemnly, the solemnity heavily warped by far too much whisky. Giles nodded.

"Could be. Undoubtedly isn't." He flipped the catch and lifted the lid. Nothing happened. Ethan looked crestfallen.

"You've broken it," he announced crossly. "All that shaking has--"

"Look!" With a hushed kind of awe to his voice, Giles pointed at the box. Within it, almost invisible at first against the jade lining, a small spark of light was beginning to stir. It rustled and scratched against the walls of the box that had been its prison, then, as though realising that the lid was gone, grew suddenly larger, stretched, flashed brighter for an instant, and settled. The light drifted away, and in its place, sitting upright on the arm of the settee beside Giles, was a creature. It was clearly a demon, for its thick skin was green and scaled, covered in patchy hair in some places and a thin scattering of feathers in a few others. Its bulbous head bore two small horns and two gigantic ears, above a mouth filled with a very many tiny, sharp teeth. Two large, blue, soulful eyes blinked up at Giles, before the creature gave a hysterical squeal, a manic cackle and a surprisingly loud, bestial roar. With that it was gone, scampering away up the stairs, threads flying from the carpet as its little claws gashed the upholstery on the way up. Giles stared after it.

"That didn't look terribly apocalyptic," Ethan muttered, almost as though he were disappointed. Giles shook his head.

"I have no idea what it looked like. It's nothing I've ever seen before."

"So what was all that stuff about desires and judgement?" Ethan was still frowning, much as though he had been denied some hoped for consequences. Giles shrugged.

"I have no idea. It's obviously just some trick. A mischief demon perhaps. I'll wake up tomorrow morning and find that all of my socks have been mismatched, and that my ties are all knotted together."

"Yeah." Ethan stifled a giggle. "Ah well, never mind." He gestured towards the whisky. "Let's have another drink, shall we? We still have a lot of news to share."

"Yeah." Still disturbingly happy to share his time with his old friend and enemy, Giles dismissed the small demon from his mind, and sent all thoughts of the potion still affecting him to the back of his brain. "Whisky. Right." He retrieved his glass. "Weren't we talking about something before?"

"Yeah. Old days, I think." Ethan burst out laughing suddenly, as some thought hit him. "Remember that last time I found a demon that we couldn't identify? It turned out to be a frost demon, and it froze the entire house from top to bottom. The stairs were unusable, and all the pipes burst. Thomas got hypothermia, and did a strip tease on the front lawn. Deirdre had to put a hex on that young constable before he'd go away, and agree not to arrest poor Thomas for indecent behaviour."

"Yeah. And that old woman from across the street came round to complain."

"And you seduced her granddaughter, and we didn't see either of you again for two days." Ethan clapped him on the shoulder. "Just what did you tell her?"

"That I was a musician. One of the founding members of Pink Floyd." He shrugged. "It had worked before. Did wonders with her, anyway. I still see her now."

"The lovely Olivia. She was convinced that you were such a sweet boy." Ethan smirked. "And all the while you were summoning demons by the cover of darkness." He frowned. "You really told her that you were a member of Pink Floyd?"

"Founder member. Uh huh."

"And it worked?"

"Like a charm, every time. Of course my equipment wasn't up to much. I still had that banged up old guitar back then. It only had one and half pick-ups that worked, and the tremolo arm kept falling off." He looked wistful. "I always wanted a Fender Stratocaster. A black one. Never did find one though. They were all white like Hendrix's, or red and white like the ones that The Shadows played. Had to be black for me."

"The secret innermost desires of Rupert Giles." Ethan clapped him on the shoulder. "Pour the whisky, Ripper. I think the sentiment is starting to get to you."

"You promise you won't turn me into a Fyarl demon?"

"I promise." Ethan smothered a smirk as Giles filled both of their glasses. "A toast then."

"To what?" Giles asked, holding his own glass aloft.

"To demons everywhere, no matter what they happen to be demons of. If it's something bad, so much the better, obviously. I'm not prejudiced though. I'll drink to the nice ones too."

"To demons." Giles raised his glass even higher, and then drank the lot in one go. His head swam. "I think that one was even more of a mistake than the one before."

"You could be right there." Ethan made a grab for the whisky bottle, trying and failing to replenish his glass. The bottle, thankfully almost empty, tumbled to the floor, where it chinked loudly upon contact with one of its forebears. "Maybe abstinence isn't such a bad idea."

"Yeah." Giles stared dolefully at his glass, as if willing it to refill itself. "Maybe you're right."

"We can always have another drink for breakfast." Ethan yawned loudly. "Maybe we should call it a night."

"Yeah." Despite the agreement they remained where they were, neither wanting to be the first to give up and go to sleep. In the end it was time that decided it for both of them, lulling them away before they had even begun to realise it. Alcohol dreams soothed overhead in dimming waves. Deepening night claimed the last of the daylight, sucking it from the sky and hiding it in its jealous grasp. Vampires prowled. A hell hound scavenged for prey in the gutters. And upstairs in Giles' apartment, a small demon with large blue eyes set about fulfilling its purpose, whilst the humans to whom it owed its freedom slept soundlessly on the floor below.


Giles awoke with the distinct feeling that he had done something very stupid. It was a sensation he had been familiar with once, although he had long since ceased to follow such inadvisable paths. He yawned and stretched, feeling a distinct stiffness in his neck and arms that told him in no uncertain terms that he had been a fool to sleep in such a position. He opened his eyes, glancing around, discovering Ethan Rayne slumped next to him. Giles let his eyes fall to the bottles of whisky on the floor, and groaned. No wonder he felt so bad.

Deciding to try to recover some sense of humanity from his jumbled brain and thick head, Giles rose to his feet and headed up the stairs. He sought out the bathroom, splashing water on his face and neck, trying to convince his eyes that they wanted to remain open. Down below he could hear Ethan stirring, and heard a number of unpleasant curses.

"I feel terrible." Ethan was evidently on his feet, to judge by the thumps and crashes. "It's all your fault."

"My fault?" Giles stared at him over the banister. "I don't remember drugging you, so that you'd want to play at old friends. If you hadn't used that potion I'd have spent last night beating your skull against the wall; and you wouldn't be suffering from a hangover this morning."

"Believe it or not, I almost wish that was the case." Ethan touched his head very gingerly, certain that a beating - even from an incensed Ripper - couldn't be worse than the way he was feeling right now. "I really wish--"

"I don't care." Heartless, Giles turned away and headed towards his bedroom. He had already tugged off his shirt, and was reaching for another one and pulling it on before he had a chance to look at his bedroom. He settled the crisp new shirt into place, straightening it up as he glanced in the mirror - and it was in that same silvered glass that he caught his first glimpse of the room. He stared. Beside the bed, resting against the bedside table with its small lamp, wooden cross, and square piece of material for covering the mirror at night, was his guitar; the one he had been playing for some months now at a local bar. It was just where he had left it, just as he would have expected to find it - except that now, standing next to it, as if to attention, was a bright, beautiful, gleaming Fender Stratocaster. It was deep black in colour - so black that it seemed to suck every inch of light into it, swallowing everything into its deep, dark body. Giles gaped at it, bewildered, amazed, mind still wallowing in the mires of his drunken confusion, and his inability to remember much about the night before. Thoughts and realisations were just beginning to interconnect, giving birth to new theories, and new ham-fisted truths. Downstairs he could hear Ethan still talking.

"You're no fun anymore, you know that? I'm sorry, but sometimes I wish--"

"No!" In a sudden moment of clarity, caused, perhaps by the utterance of that one, bewitchingly harmless word, Giles spun around and raced back to the top of the stairs. "Ethan don't--!" But Ethan did not seem to have heard.

"--and I may be being a little unfair in this matter; but I just wish that things were more the way we once planned for them to be. A world as we saw it; chaos, demons and all."

"No!" Giles stood, halfway down the stairs, an expression of horror fixed upon his face. Ethan glanced up at him.

"What?" He sounded perplexed, and a little amused. The after-effects of too much alcohol still showed in the unfocussed quality of his eyes, and his thoughts had slowed to a barely serviceable level. As if in answer to his question the lights dimmed, then flickered and went out. Outside the windows a wind was beginning to blow, making the curtains wave and dance. Giles sank down onto the stairs. Behind him a dreadful cackling burst from nowhere, and he spun around, not surprised to see the little demon sitting just above him. Its blue eyes were no longer soulful, and instead were filled with delight.

"Your desires were judged," it chattered gleefully. "And they were granted." It rubbed its clawed hands together, grinning and hopping, sparks of pitiful fire flying from its mouth like some baby dragon learning to breathe its first flames.

"Now you listen here," Giles began, starting towards it with a furious gleam in his darkened eyes. The little demon shook its fist at him, cackled once again, and then disappeared in a puff of purple smoke. The former Watcher stared after it, stricken.

"What just happened?" Ethan inquired, wandering dazedly to the bottom of the stairs. Giles glared, summoning all of the hatred that he could muster.

"What indeed." He stormed down the stairs, pushing roughly past his old friend; then grabbed a crucifix and a stake from the desk and headed for the door. "I'm going outside."

"It's morning, Ripper old man. I doubt you'll be needing the stake." But for some reason, Ethan found himself picking one up too. Giles glared at him.

"I don't know what we'll be needing out there." He put one hand on the doorknob, almost unwilling to open the door. What would he find out there? Had Ethan's wish truly been granted, the way that his own had done? All his dreams of owning a Fender Stratocaster came back to haunt him now. Stupid demon, with its cursed blue eyes. How could he ever have thought that it wouldn't be dangerous? If only he hadn't drunk so much... but of course he had only done that because of Ethan and his potion.

"What do you suppose has happened?" Ethan inquired, with uncharacteristic innocence, as he came up behind with a hesitant look upon his face. He was clutching a stake and a cross, the latter made hastily from a pair of pencils and an elastic band, all gleaned from Giles's desk. Giles didn't bother looking at him. His mind was on thoughts more important than Ethan. Where was Buffy? How might this insane wish, if indeed it had come true, have affected her? Where might she be, and how could he find her quickly enough to satisfy his concerns, given her tendency to wander far and wide these days? He slammed a fist against the doorframe, angry and frustrated. Damn it all. There was only one way to answer any of this. He tore open the door - and stared out into the middle of a war zone.


The streets were a vast mass of rubble stretching in every direction, the houses that should have surrounded Giles's apartment building no longer recognisable as the homes that they once had been. The tarmac of the road was scratched and blistered, and as he wandered out of the short tunnel that led from his front door, Giles stared up at a black sky, marked with the furious red outline of a hidden sun; a blood red eclipse that stole all the light from the world, and pitched this bright summer's day - as it should have been - into a dark, churning maelstrom of black and red. The world was a living nightmare.

"What's going on?" Thoughts still somewhat blurred by the hangover, and the lingering effects of a certain amount of remaining drunkenness, Ethan followed Giles up the path to the side of the road. He starred about, mouth wide open in an uncharacteristic display of wordless confusion. "Bloody hell. What happened?"

"What happened?" Giles whirled, snatching the neckline of his old friend's rumpled shirt. "What happened is your stupid wish. What happened is that damn box you brought for me to look at for you. What happened is that you drugged me, and made me listen to you, so that all of this could come about!" He released the other man very suddenly, sending him stumbling backwards, slipping and overbalancing on the sloping ground.

"Hey!" Angry now, he started forward. "I didn't make this happen. How could I?" He pushed past Giles, sending the other man stumbling off the kerb. "This is crazy. Maybe we're just drunk."

"Not anymore." Giles had never felt more sober. He turned his head, staring further down the road, unable to see a single building that remained standing - save his own. Even that was almost unrecognisable, the windows of the other apartments cracked and broken, the glass turned grey with dust. The bricks had lost their colour, and the grass verge was blackened and burnt. A body lay sprawled against the side of the building; grey bones dressed in the windblown remains of an expensive suit. The tie flapped, oddly merry in its movements, slapping against the unseen breast bone beneath a discoloured dress shirt. Ethan followed the direction of his old comrade's eyes, seeing the body with its mad, staring grin. He shuddered, despite his one-time familiarity with such things.

"I don't think I like this place the way it is right now." He glanced up at the sky, where a few fingers of something like light were now escaping as the eclipse passed over. It was not a welcoming light; it was cold and anaemic, but it chased some of the glowering redness from the sky. New light brought new visions of hell; more bodies, slumped against the rubble; new signs of destruction; craters in the ground, and bloodstains on fallen bricks. A few dismembered body parts littered the ground alongside the road - a skeletal hand; a grinning skull; half a torso, still bearing its rotting flesh, and a few strands of stained denim. It looked as though it came from a person not yet dead for more than five or six days. A crucifix lay on the ground beside the body, as though the dead person, whoever he or she might have been, had been struggling to make some kind of a defence against the creatures that had eventually proved too strong. Giles had a horrible feeling - perhaps given the denim, perhaps just through the presence of a crucifix, that the victim had been somebody young. Somebody that he knew. Somebody that he and Buffy were supposed to have been there to protect.

"What do we do?" Ethan's voice dragged him back to the present, tearing his mind away from the bodies and the carnage, and the terrible, consuming silence. The voice of the dark sorcerer sounded weak and lost; a man facing a dream that he once had longed for, and which had come true only in proof of its own horrors. "I mean... this can't be because of what I said. It can't be like this everywhere."

"I rather think that it is." Giles was still thinking about Buffy, and the thought made him feel sick. Could any of this really happen if there was still a Slayer living in Sunnydale? His anger had gone now, seeping away with the angry red and black of the strange eclipse. In the pale, empty daylight; in the midst of a scene straight from the darkest place in which his mind had ever been; he had felt quite terribly alone. Not in a long, long while had he felt so desolate and forsaken.

"Rupert." Ethan's voice was soft, but it carried with it a certain firmness; a certain note of resolution. Giles's old friend had retrieved his companion's stake and crucifix, dropped in the early moments of their discovery of this strange new world. He had dropped them to seize hold of his companion in his moment of sudden anger, and had made no attempt to retrieve them. Ethan suspected that he had not even noticed their loss.

"What do we do, Ethan?" The sorcerer hadn't seen such a look of desolation upon the face of his friend since the night, so many years ago, when they had all stood, shaking, around the body of Randall James. The man they had killed in order to purge the world - or so they had thought - of the terrors of the demon Eyghon. Randall had been their friend, their comrade - and they had killed him with certain, steady blows - a violent assault brought on by madness and fear. Giles had looked this way then - standing slightly apart from the others, his body language showing them all that there was a gulf within their once happy union that could never again be breached.

"I suppose we look for somebody." Ethan glanced about, unsure whether there could be anybody left to look for - anybody left alive in all of this hopeless carnage. "Maybe there's... I don't know. Someone from your little gang? Perhaps, if this world really is full of demons, there are people out there somewhere who can tell us about it. Maybe they're fighting back."

"Maybe they can help us find out what went wrong, so that we can put it back." Giles rubbed his eyes, trying to regain touch with his calmer, more rational side. There had to be a way. Anya had spoken of the wish world - the place that she had created by means of her special powers; the place from which, somehow, another version of Willow had once come. If there had been a wish once before, which had turned Sunnydale into a nightmarish hell hole, there had obviously been a way to right things; to turn the world back to how it was supposed to be. He didn't know the mechanics of it all; didn't understand what was what, or how any of it worked... He just knew that, if there had been a way to put it right before, there must also be a way to put it right now. He thought of the little demon with the big blue eyes; its manic cackle and its glee at the granting of the two wishes. It was as good a place as any from which to start. He had to find out what the demon was - where it had come from, what its powers were, how it could be stopped. Perhaps the best thing to do was simply to go back inside his house, and turn his mind to his books.

"We should go back inside." Ethan had clearly come to the same decision. "Your books..."

"My books?" Giles's voice was bitter. "You've always hated my books. You always tried to make out that I was a fool for keeping them. You always said that the day would be very dark indeed before you turned to my books."

"It looks to me like it is a very dark day." Ethan shook his head, frustrated and annoyed. "And I may have been rude about your books, Rupert, but I used them more than once. They taught us things, showed us things. I may have made jokes, but I knew what was important."

"Yeah. You made your jokes." Giles sounded more bitter than ever. "It's all about jokes, isn't it. You joke about me, you joke about coming here; about your potion and your surprises, and your damn stupid wish. Well now I have to put the pieces back together again, and try to find out if the people I care about are even still alive. Is that a joke too Ethan? Is this all really funny?"

"Damn it!" Ethan pushed hard, shoving Giles away from him, sending him tumbling backwards onto the grass. "Will you stop blaming me for this! I didn't mean for any of this to happen. It was a wish, sure - but it was just a stupid thing I said. I didn't mean it. Why would I? It looks to me like our brave new world here isn't exactly the sort of place I'm going to thrive in." He took a deep breath, uncomfortably aware of the simmering rage that showed so clearly in his old friend's bright eyes. He knew only too well how suddenly that anger could erupt; and what the consequences of such an eruption could be. Giles might have turned to the paths of righteousness, and become the gentle guardian of a gang of teenaged defenders of all that was right and good - but he was still the same man who had so rightly earned the nickname bestowed upon him by his enemies and friends. When hatred and rage smouldered in the eyes of the Ripper, even Ethan Rayne kept his distance. Years of comradeship and spells of blood and kinship meant little enough already. This time, however, he saw the fight seeping away, drifting from Giles's taut frame in just the way that the sunlight was seeping back into the world. Very slowly Ethan extended a hand and helped Giles climb back up to his feet. They stood still for a moment, gripping hands, staring at each other with the silence born of long familiarity. It was almost like old times - until Ethan saw something approaching as he stared over Giles's left shoulder. Giles saw the change in his friend's expression, and swung around. Their hands fell apart, and once again Giles dropped his crucifix upon the ground. It struck the kerb and fell into the gutter, lodging in the slatted cover of a drain hole. This time Giles was aware that he had dropped it, but still he made no attempt to pick it up. Instead he merely stared at the scene before him.

Six vampires were walking up the street, walking abreast, dressed in black suits and sunglasses, looking for all the world like hopefuls at an audition for Reservoir Dogs. That they were vampires was plain enough to see - and yet the daylight was shining down, strong enough to be lethal to one of their kind even though the sun was still so cold and weak. Ethan shifted his grip on his stake.

"What the bloody hell...?" He didn't finish the sentence. Giles made no response. "What do we do now?" Ethan glanced in the other direction, finding it apparently empty. "I'm leaning towards retreat. Tactical of course, no reason to think of it as running away."

"There isn't time for that." The vampires were indeed very close; close enough to be able to see the snake tattooed upon every neck; a large, fanged beast that bore something of the human about it, as though it were certainly not the usual kind of fork-tongued creature found in the wild.

"We can't just stand here!" Ethan was still looking left and right for a likely escape. Everywhere seemed to be blocked by rubble, providing no obvious route. Giles shook his head

"Run and they'll give chase. We can't stay ahead of them for long, and a chase only gets their blood thirst up. These creatures are out in the middle of the day. We don't know how strong they might be. I'd suggest not taking any risks."

"So you're just going to stand there and let them kill you?"

"I was hoping that they might talk." Giles gripped his shoulder. "If they don't, we'll die - but we'd die if we ran as well. At least this way there's a chance."

"I suppose." Ethan stared towards the approaching figures, hoping that he looked rather less pale than he felt. Even as he and Giles had been discussing their gameplan - such as it was - the lead vampire had stepped away from the main group, striding towards the two men as though entirely heedless of the makeshift crucifix in Ethan's outstretched hand. He smiled, fangs showing the traces of a recent meal. So there were some people left alive in Sunnydale at least - even if they were only being kept as fresh food.

"You're Rupert Giles." The lead vampire pulled off his sunglasses, regarding the former librarian through slightly unfocussed blue-grey eyes. Giles nodded, the movement mechanical. The vampire returned the gesture.

"Somebody wants a word." He waved a hand at his confederates, and as one the five vampires fanned out, heading forwards all of the time. Giles raised his stake - only to have it immediately swatted from his hand. One of the vampires leered at him.

"You're going to make someone a good appetiser." He gripped Giles's wrist, twisting it slightly. Giles made as though to fight back, but the leader of the group immediately stepped forward once again.

"No tricks, gentlemen. I'd like to take you to the boss in one piece, but I'm sure he'd understand if I had to take a few pieces away." His tongue ran down the length of one fang, lingering on the spots of blood. Giles forced himself to relax. He had no doubts that this creature meant everything it said. Beside him Ethan was breathing heavily, forcing himself into an unwilling state of relaxation; using his powerful, trained mind to keep himself grounded. Giles hoped that he didn't try anything. Ethan could be unpredictable at best, and at worst he was entirely unrestrained. Certainly his particular brand of magic was not best advised in this uncertain moment. He seemed to understand that, or so it appeared, for the words that he was muttering to himself were simple phrases designed to help him stay calm. As yet they were not spells, and Giles hoped that they stayed that way.

"Where are we going?" Demanding it with force, Giles tugged back as his most immediate captor threatened to tear his arm from its socket. The vampire growled at him, but made no answer. Instead the leader of the group bent to pick up the former Watcher's fallen stake.

"You're going to meet with the Ruler of the Hellmouth." He ran his hands over the stake, as though it were some priceless piece of jewellery, and he were admiring the workmanship. Giles watched the deadly tip, eyeing that sharp, hand-hewn point, wishing that he were still in possession of the weapon. The vampire touched the point with his thumb, then used it to clean beneath his long, yellow fingernails. "He's anxious to speak to you. It was a surprise to suddenly find you appearing here."

"We like to pop by unannounced. Adds to the fun of the occasion don't you think?" Ethan smiled. The lead vampire moved in close to him, stake held out towards his chest.

"I was told to bring Rupert Giles. Nobody said anything about you." The point of the stake touched Ethan's chest.

"No need to get unfriendly, old man." Gingerly Ethan pushed aside the stake. "I'm sure that your boss would be happy to speak to me as well as old Rupert. If he knew who I was..."

"Who are you." The yellow eyes of the lead vampire glittered brightly, painfully close to Ethan's own eyes, which now were threatening to water. Ethan had never been the bravest of men, but when circumstance called for it he could be truly courageous - or just plain foolhardy. It was this side of him that was speaking the loudest now, which worried Giles no end.

"Name's Ethan Rayne." Ethan's eyes narrowed, taking no notice of the fanged mouth so close to his face, nor the stake that hovered so near to his vulnerable chest. If a trained human found it so easy to stake a vampire, how much more easily could a vampire, with its added strength, perform the same fatal act upon a human? He knew only too well, for he had seen it happen before.

"Very well, Mr Rayne. But I'd advise against jokes." Tapping against Ethan's chest with the point of the stake, the vampire pulled suddenly away. The stake fell once more to the ground.

"I never joke." Ethan was the picture of wounded innocence, but the undead gang were clearly not in the mood to sample his performance any further. Instead they began to manhandle the human pair along the edge of the rubbish-strewn road. Giles struggled.

"Wait. I want to know what happened here. Why has the town suffered such damage?" There was no answer, and he struggled all the more. "Buffy." The name burst out of him, even though he was now fixed on a direct course - unavoidably destined to ask the question he could probably not bear to hear answered. The name had a powerful effect on the vampires, who stopped as one.

"What did you say?" The low, growling voice of the leader of the gang came from somewhere uncomfortably close to Giles's right ear. He steeled himself not to wince, for the creature had a loud, sharp voice that threatened to slice straight through the ear drum it had so unexpectedly assaulted. Giles felt himself being jerked to a halt.

"Buffy." He said it with an air of defiance, as though it were some magic word that might weaken the troops set against him. Instead of showing further unease, however, the vampire leader merely smiled.

"The Slayer." He spoke it with an air of gratified amusement. "The Slayer has been dead for more than six months. I watched her last pitiful writhings myself. At the end she was stubborn. She refused to scream for my master's pleasure. He should have made her suffer for that, but perhaps his spirit was no longer in the game." He moved closer to Giles, his hard, bright yellow eyes looming near enough to the former Watcher for Giles to be able to see himself mirrored within those fierce, bestial pupils, with their inhuman light. They made him look yellow in the reflections, lending his own otherwise perfectly reproduced eyes a demonic hue all of their own. The voice lowered. "She had lost her own will to live after witnessing the deaths of her friends. Perhaps it was watching her mother being drained by one of my brethren that made her cease her attempts to fight back." He shrugged, letting a look of teasing puzzlement cross his face. "Why? Did you know her well?"

"You bastard." With a furious burst of strength, Giles tried to leap at the creature, feeling his arms threatening to tear loose from their sockets as the vampires holding them clung grimly on. The former Watcher felt himself beginning to tug free - before the grip abruptly tightened, and he was jerked backwards off his feet. The lead vampire leaned closer to him, clicking his tongue with a mocking disapproval.

"Now now." His finger wagged in front of Giles's face, like a teacher admonishing a young child. "Like I said, I want to get you back to HQ in one piece. I'll be upset if I have to alter those plans..."

"What were you before you were turned?" The fury in Giles's voice could find no outlet, and he knew that he sounded helpless; furious yet impotent; unable to do anything to fight back. All that was left was to mock the demon before him, if not for his demonic status, then perhaps for the ridiculous courtesy that continued to show through between his threats. "Some kind of a civil servant? I'm sorry if I'm interrupting your schedule old man. You'll have to forgive me. Demon foot soldiers always bring out the worst in me."

"Actually..." If he had been expecting some kind of a violent reaction from the subject of his goading, Giles was disappointed. "I did work in the civil sector, yes. I was one of the mayor's personal staff." He straightened the black silk shirt he now wore - presumably a choice of his demon side, and not the lingering remnants of the public servant he had once been; although his obvious pride at this former career path was entirely human.

"The mayor?" Frown lines creased Giles's brow, darkening his hard green eyes behind the glasses. "Hang on. How long did you say it was since the Slayer--"

"Not now." The vampire pushed him on again and, still held in the grip of his two guards, Giles had no choice but to obey. Ethan had seen the signs of new-born theories in the eyes of his friend, and he tried to lean closer to him as they walked.

"You think this mayor link is important?"

"You of all people should know the kinds of things that the mayor was involved in." Giles stared straight ahead, heedless of the attempts of the vampire escort to discourage further conversation. Ethan frowned.

"Inventive fellow. Chief assistant was an old acquaintance of mine named Trick. He and I had some fun in a candy factory." A thump in the back made him stagger. "Ow. Do you think he's somehow involved in this?" 'This', indicated by a somewhat hampered wave of a pinioned arm, was the wanton destruction through which they now walked. Giles shook his head.

"I doubt it. He Ascended, and then Buffy and I blew him up along with much of her school. The last that I saw of the mayor was the rear end of a giant snake disappearing along a school corridor."

"You blew up the school?" Ethan sounded impressed. "Like that time in '77 when--"

"Be quiet." The voice of their leader carried no threat, nor any apparent signs of irritation, but it held within it enough authority to suggest that the consequences of disobedience would be dire. Chastised, without knowing quite why, Giles and Ethan lapsed into silence. The roads and pathways of Sunnydale passed them by as they were led through the town, each street showing greater damage than the last. A few huddled humans - obviously survivors - stood in doorways or hid behind burnt-out cars. One of two threw stones. All were dressed in tattered clothing, and looked badly under-nourished. One or two seemed familiar to Giles, as though they might well have been people he had queued with on occasions in a grocery store, or merely the people that he passed in the street when going for his morning jogs. There did not appear to be so much as a stake or a crucifix in evidence anywhere. No union then - no identification of the threat, or examination of the ways in which to combat it. Probably no leadership either. Their guide, the former civil servant, noticed the direction of his gaze.

"Survivors," he commented cheerily. "We let a few live. Free range blood is better than the alternatives, and the hunt is always good for morale."

"Where are the others?" Giles didn't really want to know the answer. He received it anyway.

"There are no others. This is all that remains. Perhaps a hundred people living within the town limits, and another two hundred imprisoned beneath the ground." He shrugged, clearly disdainful. "Captive blood, with no sunlight to brew it to the proper flavour. It's fit only for those with no taste. The foot soldiers that you spoke of." He looked momentarily annoyed. "And I said no talking. We'll get to where we're going a lot quicker if you'll do as you're told."

"Because we do so want to be taken to demon headquarters. Summary execution has such sparkling appeal." Ethan ignored a second thump in the back, designed no doubt to suitably cower him. Their vampire guide laughed.

"You'd be a lucky man to experience a summary execution, Mr Rayne. There are few of them in Sunnydale. Here we deal in far more inventive methods." His heavy demonic brow darkened. "Now no more talking." He smiled, and his tongue licked once again at a blood-stained fang. "The next one to speak loses their tongue." His teeth gleamed in the sunlight as his smile broadened further. "I'll bite it out."

And somehow his prisoners found themselves believing him.


Giles knew the town hall well. He had been there on more than one occasion in the past - once or twice for fairly run of the mill reasons, as well as the more recent night-time manoeuvres with Buffy. He had even been there once for a town meeting, and it was that occasion which came most readily to his mind now. It looked the same as it had done then - crowds holding flaming torches, as once they had held placards. Shouts of triumph and lordly dominion, in place of the rhythmical chants demanding justice. The first time there had been a sea of mind-controlled adults demanding that the murderers of two small children be brought to justice. Giles and Buffy had gone along to gauge the situation, and had wound up being all but unmasked by Buffy's own mother. Now the chants were more like shrieks, supplemented by the occasional howl - of fear or pain or wicked joy, it was impossible to tell. There were no marching human adults; merely shouting, stamping, fighting demons. The atmosphere was the same though - one of uncertainty; of something being not quite right. Of burgeoning violence and ill-will threatening to cause a greater chaos.

"This place has changed." Ethan was looking about, noting the new developments. Added towers; new, startlingly Gothic architecture that had been tacked onto the hall using rubble from the destroyed buildings around it. Great archways broke up the familiar lines of the old structure; crooked turrets hung precariously at odd angles, their glass-less windows sometimes gaping, sometimes barred. Wisps of smoke floated from some; pinks and greens and yellows; odours that stirred the thoughts of both human men. Neither was a novice in terms of the dark magics, and the smell of roasting leaves and stewing skins identified at least one spell of dangerous intent. Someone deep inside the building screamed, and the sound echoed through those warped and ragged turrets, making the ill-placed slates on the crooked roofs rattle and clatter. One slid to the ground, shattering into a hundred pieces on contact with the blackened and cracked tarmac. Somehow it had become dark again; or nearly dark. Once more the sun had chosen to flee, hiding beneath a swathe of roiling, broiling black clouds. A streak of red lightning tore across the fearsome mass, but could not penetrate its dense body to reach the cowering sun beneath. The scream tailed off, lost somewhere in the depths of the building. Ethan swallowed hard.

"I think I preferred this place before the renovations." He took a deep breath, looking up at the steps that led the way to the front door. He didn't remember there being steps before - or at the very least, not nearly so many of them. Now there were at least twelve huge marble slabs, each one high enough to make it a difficult obstacle to negotiate even for a man of his not unimpressive height. The vampires around them scampered up, spiders in the darkness, their inhuman bodies twisted and bent as they used all four limbs to swarm up the sloping marble staircase. Ethan stepped onto the first slab, startled to find his feet losing their grip almost at once. The smell of rotting meat assuaged him, lifting up from the steps as soon as his movement disturbed the air around them. He could see a coating of slime smeared across the stairs, catching the light that flickered in the twisted windows. His stomach turned.

"Come on Ethan." Giles seemed steady, or steady enough. He gripped his friend's arm, helping him up the first few steps until the awkwardness of the terrain had become a little more familiar to both of them. "This is no worse than that Gothic monstrosity we lived in when we first met."

"There was less slime there." Ethan staggered on nonetheless, trying to tell himself that nothing here was going to harm him. After all, this was his wish wasn't it? Whatever this world was, he had created it out of his own desire. Somehow he didn't quite believe that it would be that simple. Already he had seen little that bore any resemblance to desires he might have had. Perhaps it was the world that he had once wanted - but it was certainly not being run in the way he had envisaged, during those nights in the great, mouldering house where he had whiled away the seventies in a dark haze.

"This way gentlemen." Their obliging guide herded them towards the huge door, larger than it had once been, the frame splintered and broken as if forced by some gigantic creature seeking entrance. The two men went as instructed, having little choice in the matter, crossing the threshold with a shared sinking feeling that came in reaction to the familiar presence of sinister magic. There were spells guarding the entrance-way; spells that made the skin crawl; spells that made the heart race. Spells that recalled London in 1977, when the demon Eyghon had reigned supreme in a ramshackle manor house filled with the smell of death. Giles and Ethan had woven the spells together then, and recognising them in the work of others seemed to make the atmosphere of evil intent all the stronger, and all the more overbearing.

The interior of the town hall was rather different to the way that both Giles and Ethan remembered it. Gone were the walls that connected the various rooms; obliterated were the corridors that once had wound their officious way from place to place. Instead there was now one single, gigantic room, the only remaining doors those that led off to the jagged towers and turrets made from cannibalised rubble from the town's ruined shops and homes. Where once there had been a low ceiling, there was now a towering dome of a roof, several floors high, marked across its massive length by symbols written in long-dried blood. Giles recognised a few; Ethan recognised a few more. They were dangerous symbols, from the very darkest of the dark arts. Giles remembered learning them in the earliest days of his training as a Watcher - huddled lectures from his father in a candlelit study, with tea laced in brandy to help the work along.

"This way." Their civil servant guide was still the image of fluctuating courtesy, his occasional outbursts of violence and threatening behaviour doing little to detract from his more frequently chosen demeanour of virtual servility. Giles and Ethan followed him past candles that stretched twelve feet into the air; past vast frescoes apparently painted in blood; past a huge cauldron, filled with some noxious liquid of indeterminate colour, bubbling furiously under the force of heat from a huge fire built underneath. The steam that rose from the contents of the cauldron was green, the time honoured shade of all witches' brews. Ethan leaned close to the stuff, wincing as the rancid heat of the concoction blew into his face. The vampire escort dragged him on past.

"Here." Their leader announced their arrival with the sort of flourish that suggested he was anxious to be off to do something rather more interesting. Giles looked around, seeing nothing about this new area of the huge room that was different to the parts of it they had walked through on the way. The only item of note appeared to be a golden chain, heavy and distinctive, that hung on an ostentatious hat rack against one heavily frescoed wall. It caught the light from the flames beneath the cauldron, and from the flickering candles that towered above them all. Giles couldn't quite understand why the candles were so high, since they could only possibly be of use to somebody taller than they were. It wasn't until he was pushed a little closer to that large and bulky golden chain that he began to think of a likely explanation. His step slowed.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say that you're getting a theory." Ethan was not looking at Giles, preferring to stare around instead, forever on the look out for potential threats. Giles nodded, his movements stilted, his own eyes searching out likely dangers in the gloom of the massive hall.

"I rather think that I do." He gestured towards the chain. "Remember the mayor that I mentioned?"

"The one who was supposedly behind my little candy stunt?" Ethan smirked. "I always wanted to get to know him. He seemed to be a man with promise. Big ideas. Big plans."

"He was. He built this town as a magnet for demons. He planned his Ascension for more than a hundred years." The former Watcher took a deep breath, his cautious eyes already searching the swirling darkness far above his head. "In the real world, he was killed just moments after he Ascended, but I rather think that in this world..." His eyes became accusing, "your world, he may very well have survived. This is Sunnydale as it would have been had the Ascension gone according to plan." He reached up to pull off his glasses, his head beginning to ache from the ramifications of his theory, and from the flickering and insubstantial light that reflected so disturbingly upon the lenses before his eyes. His hand holding the glasses fell to his side, and his shoulders slumped a little. "Buffy must be dead. Either that or..." He shook his head. "I wonder who the Slayer is now?"

"Does it matter?" The sound of footsteps - cold, sharp footsteps, from cold, sharp heels - echoed through the vast arena. Giles recognised the voice, and its deep and measured tones made his blood run cold. He refused to turn to face the new arrival, despite the imperious note of command. "After all, whoever was sent to replace Buffy doesn't have any need to come here. There's already a Slayer in Sunnydale, and she's very comfortable here."

"Indeed." Putting his glasses back on again, Giles allowed himself to turn around; but slowly, and with an unhurried air. In the bad light, coloured by flashes of the nausea-inspiring flames beneath the cauldron, Faith looked just as he remembered her, in the days before the fight with Buffy had so nearly claimed her life. There was no sign of the subsequent events which had befallen her; the body swap with Buffy, the struggle for escape; all things which, of course, had not actually happened here. She was dressed in black, as ever, the dagger Buffy had once taken from her stuck through a scarlet belt at her waist. Her long hair was pulled back, tied behind her head with a scarlet ribbon. She looked pale, but her eyes were vibrant and cold. Giles offered her an off-hand smile, just as he had done when she had wandered into the library for briefings, when he was still her unofficial Watcher. "Hello Faith." If he thought that his gentle courtesy was out of place in this insane hellhole, he gave no indication of it, but merely carried on in the same vein. "Keeping well?"

"Giles." She answered with the same kind of courtesy, although in her case it was obviously derisive. She sauntered closer. "How are you?"

"Fine." He nodded towards his companion. "This is Ethan Rayne. He's... sort of an old friend of mine. Ethan, this is Faith. She's a Slayer."

"I heard you had two." Ethan wanted to move closer, in order to get a better look at this gorgeous young woman now standing before him, especially given her revealing choice of wardrobe. Instead he remained where he was, a little unnerved by the news that there seemed to be a Vampire Slayer in league with the enemy. Slayers were given to acts of extreme violence against him as a rule, and Ethan Rayne did not like personal agony. If there was any pain being mêted out here, he would rather that it was not his; and he had learned long ago that the best way to avoid such things was to keep very still and remain very quiet. Faith seemed to see all of this in his brief nod of greeting, and her answering smile was calculating and wry. Ethan felt very cold, despite the uncomfortable heat emanating from the cauldron. Giles offered him a sympathetic smile.

"How have you been?" He kept his tone steady and polite, for all the world as if Faith were still his pupil. She shrugged.

"So so. It's amazing how it improves your outlook on life when you work for the guy who rules the world." She pulled a cigarette from the breast pocket of her shirt and lit it on the cauldron fire, before putting it into her mouth. A lazy plume of smoke rose into the air, mingling with the green steam from the noxious brew. She blew a smoke ring and smiled.

"Does he really rule the world?" He asked the question with a terrible, cold fear, although he prided himself on his ability to prevent that fear from being shown. Instead he sounded quite disinterested, as though he were making polite conversation at a cocktail party. Faith shrugged, and blew another smoke ring.

"Not yet. But he will. He already does what he wants with the sun, and with the weather and the tides. He's given the vampires the ability to withstand sunlight. How long do you think it'll be before he's running the whole show?" She looked him up and down, a slight frown crossing her face. "Unless that's why you're here."

"Now now Faith." The voice came from far above them, somewhere out of the gloom that was invisible to them above the candles. "Don't let's get ahead of ourselves." There was a stirring in that impenetrable darkness, before slowly a shape took form. It began as a massed lump of black, darkening and crystallising as it moved closer, looming, growing; until finally it was clear to all. A snake, its size unimaginable, its face decorated with extra mandibles that snapped and clicked and waved in the air. It came lower and lower, finally slowing to a ponderous halt some three feet in front of Rupert Giles. One eyebrow - or eyebrow-shaped collection of scales at any rate, arched in an unspoken query. "Hmmm..."

"Mayor Wilkins?" It wasn't much of a question. Giles needed little confirmation as to the identity of his captor. How many other giant demon snakes were there that owned mayoral chains of office? Even in Sunnydale he was betting that the answer was a singular figure. The snake seemed to smile at him, then twitched suddenly about with startling speed, and knocked the cigarette from Faith's mouth. She scowled.

"Nicotine is nobody's friend, Faith." The creature may have had the physical appearance of a snake, but its voice and mannerisms were entirely that of the human - or human-like - Richard Wilkins III. He tossed the cigarette onto the fire, then swung back around to face Giles and Ethan. "Now, where were we?" The head cocked on one side, then righted again, "Oh yes. Mr Giles." He nodded at Ethan. "And Mr Rayne."

"Ask them why they're alive." Faith had taken to playing with her ostentatious dagger. The snake nodded in her direction.

"That's a fair point." He frowned, the ridges of scales that acted as eyebrows coming together above his huge and repulsive eyes. "Why are you alive? I know for a fact that you at least used to be dead, Mr Giles. You've been that way for six months." He seemed to shrug. "A tragedy I suppose, for you at least. Personally I wasn't all that sorry to see you go. Still, it does raise one or two interesting questions. I had thought that I was the only immortal one around here." The giant head loomed closer, almost knocking Giles from his feet as it swayed to within a few inches of his face. "You're not planning an Ascension of your own are you? I never did like copying. Nasty habit. Nearly as bad as biting fingernails." He shuddered, as if to illustrate his distaste. "I'd advise co-operation now Rupert. You don't mind if I call you that? Only Mr Giles is so formal, and if you can't be a little informal when you hold the power of life and death over everything, then when can you?" The question appeared to be rhetorical, for he did not wait for an answer. "You're not going to be recalcitrant, are you Rupert? Only, if you were to refuse to answer my questions, I would have to ask young Faith here to be extremely unpleasant to your friend Mr Rayne. Torture comes quite naturally to her. I suppose I should find it worrying, but it's good to encourage hobbies and interests in the young, don't you think? I'd much rather she was here with me, indulging in a little harmless maiming and murder than being out on the streets mixing with the wrong sorts. Maybe drinking alcohol." He shuddered again. "You have to be so careful with kids of this age. It's so easy for them to go astray."

"It's nice to know that you can be so public spirited." Giles was watching the snake with thinly disguised revulsion, and a very clear sense of defiance. He had no intention of telling the mayor how he really came to be alive and well and back in Sunnydale when he was apparently supposed to have died. If Wilkins, or Olvukan, or whatever he liked to call himself these days knew about the wish, and the way that the world was supposed to be, he would do everything in his power to prevent things being put to rights. Giles couldn't allow that, for Buffy's sake even if for nothing else.

"Public spirited?" The mayor laughed. "Not at all. There is no public here, not any longer. I made it my millennium project to kill them all." His head lowered, and his eyes deepened to a truly evil glow. "Now come on, don't be shy. From one success story to another... just how did you manage to come back from the dead?"

"I..." Giles hesitated, caught in indecision. He was beginning to realise that Wilkins thought him capable of great feats of magic, and he couldn't help feeling that it was better to keep him thinking that way - unless of course the mayor decided that he was a rival, and had him executed on the spot. He shrugged.

"It was nothing. A few spells."

"Before or after the moment of death?" Yet again that ridge of scales rose, much as though the mayor-demon were regarding him with a certain ironic amusement. The huge, many-toothed mouth twisted into a reptilian grin. "Or perhaps there's some other explanation for your return from the other side."

"He was definitely dead." Faith sounded faintly indignant, as though she suspected that some slight had been inferred; that either the mayor or Giles himself was hinting she had not done her work as well as might be expected. Wilkins smiled at her, in an oddly tender fashion that was not at all spoilt by the issue of his being a snake.

"I have no doubts in that respect, Faith." There was a strong note of paternal affection in his voice, and Faith looked momentarily aglow. "If you say that you killed him, I believe you." He grinned at Ethan and Giles, the snake's massive mouth offering a fearsome view into the depths of its fathomless gullet. "Nobody kills like my Faith. It does my heart proud to see what she can accomplish. So much imagination, so much tenacity." He sighed. "You know, when I was mayor, I was always hearing such worrying reports from the youth leaders, and the teachers and the policemen of Sunnydale. They all seemed to think that the young people of this town lacked direction. They had no real ambitions, no great desires to seek out their natural talents and develop them. Faith, on the other hand, has done just that. She came to this town with nothing save an innate fondness for violence, and she has become, with only the merest guidance from myself, one of the greatest torturers of the modern age." He gave a funny little sigh that made his tail rattle with suppressed joy and pride. "My great success story. Or one of them at least. I personally dealt with the problem of the rest of the town's useless youthful layabouts." He giggled, and the snake within him hissed. "I killed them. Ate most of them. Faith had her fun with a few more. The air was filled with the sound of their tormented screaming... but hey, they got to die young and beautiful, right? And what else is an American teenager supposed to dream about?" He gave a strange, shoulder-less shrug. "Well, not all of them were beautiful. Not by the end, anyway. I don't know what it was that my Faith did to some of those boys, but yuck." He gave a shiver. "It was all blood and gore, and bits of stringy intestine hanging from the light fittings. It'd be enough to make the Slayer crazy... except that she already was." His smile became sly and malicious, and Giles's expression darkened. This latest hint of some dreadful fate which had befallen Buffy was making his pulse quicken. He missed the girl, with her bizarre jokes and barely decipherable language. It wasn't right to be facing the foe now without her by his side, making him worry for her, making him wish that she was somewhere - anywhere - else. Now that she was somewhere else, there was nowhere he would rather have her be than at his side. He couldn't bear to think of her slow and agonising death at the hands of Richard Wilkins and his demonic aides.

"Are you going to talk all day, or are you going to tell me why we've been brought here?" He spoke loudly, as though to address as much of the room as possible, despite the fact that the only people likely to be interested in what he had to say were standing so very close by. The snake's head rose up, waving from side to side above him before sinking back down. Sharp teeth flashed, and a smell of rotting meat blew forth from the creature's distant stomach.

"You haven't told me how you managed to come back from the dead yet, Mr Giles." The friendly tone had gone from the mayor's voice, and in its place there was an inkling of the nature of the beast within; of the demon Olvukan whose body the mayor had conjured, and now inhabited on some kind of licensed rental. "There seems little point in progressing to the next item on the agenda until I'm entirely sure that you won't be plaguing me for eternity." He gave another curious shrug. "Not that Faith here couldn't find a use for you under those circumstances...You were one of her favourite projects after all."

"I was?" Giles had to fight not to swallow. There was something in Faith's dark-eyed stare; in her calculating smile and glittering menace that worried him. It seemed so much more than anything he had seen in her before. Where was the uncertain young girl that he had Watched over for so many weeks before the arrival of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce? Where was the girl who had been happy to take his guidance; who had looked for friendship within the Scooby Gang; who had seemed so lonely and insecure? Now she appeared as demonic as the giant snake to which she was so clearly attached. Any trace of human feeling had apparently been sucked from within her; lost somewhere in the pits into which she had sunk since crossing that most fundamental of barriers, the night that she had killed another human being for the first time. Giles had wondered, even during her most recent escapades, whether she might not have been an entirely lost cause. Perhaps if the Council had dealt with the situation differently, from an earlier time. Perhaps if there had been more understanding, more appreciation of her need for careful handling. Or perhaps she had always been destined for a life of evil. He could see this theory supported in every glimmer of hatred in her eyes; every reflection of flame against her face. The harsh, intermittent lighting brought whole new shadows to her countenance, suggesting at the myriad demons that appeared to dwell within her soul. So it had been the psychopathic renegade Slayer who had brought his life to its end, in this other version of events. He wondered what she had done to him, and decided abruptly to give the matter no further thought. The memories of his experience at the hands of Angelus were still too fresh. They probably always would be.

"Nobody came back from the dead." Ethan had his scheming face on, and was using the voice that went with it. Giles stared towards him in horror.

"Nobody asked you, Ethan." He elbowed the other man in the ribs, but Ethan, it seemed, was determined. Perhaps he had seen the chance for a deal here, with the man - or be he now a snake - who had sent work his way once before. The mayor was a former ally after all; and if he was an enemy of Giles's, that gave Ethan Rayne added leverage. He dodged a hasty blow from his former comrade-in-arms, and retreated behind Faith for protection. She made as though to use her knife against him, but a movement from the mayor caused her to allow him a reprieve. Giles took a step forward.

"You don't want to listen to him. The man would lie to himself if he thought that he had something to benefit from it." Ethan glared furiously at him, but Giles was not about to be swayed by someone who hid behind teenaged girls - even super-powered teenaged girls - in order to save himself.

"You can't believe anything he says." Ethan drew himself up to his full height, which was an absurd gesture when still hiding behind somebody else. "He's got this insane grudge against me."

"Oh, and could that be because you're an evil, self-centred bastard who might just have condemned the whole world to hell for the sake of a harebrained wish in a moment of utter thoughtlessness?" Giles was almost within reach of Ethan now, but a warning movement from Faith inspired him to halt his advance. Ethan glared poisonously at him, and the former Watcher was quick to return the gesture. Above them the towering snake moved hypnotically back and forth.

"Indeed." The deep voice was at once both the mayor's and not the mayor's. Perhaps something had summoned forth Olvukan, twisting its own, sibilant voice into the midst of the mayor's more jaunty syllables. "And what wish would this be, Mr Rayne? Enlighten me. I like it when people offer me information that I can use for my advantage. It puts me in a grateful frame of mind. People tend to survive when I'm feeling grateful." The twisted smile came back out for an encore. "Or at the very least, they get to keep their full complement of limbs." Ethan unconsciously hugged his arms to his chest, as though trying to avoid losing one of them unexpectedly. Giles started forwards once again.

"If you tell him anything, Ethan, then so help me I'll--"

"You'll do nothing, Mr Giles." This time the mayor-snake's voice was quiet - but as hard as stone. Sharp knives seemed to glitter in the spaces between his words. Giles glanced up at that towering head, with its jumble of moving mouth parts, and its flickering, threatening tongue. He could see no way of arguing with it, at least sensibly. Ethan offered him a hesitant smile.

"It can't hurt." He had his best self-serving smile on; one that Giles knew only too well. The former Watcher took another step forward.

"I mean it, Ethan. If you say so much as a word I'll take you apart with my bare hands. It'll take more than the darkest of magics to put you back together again."

"You'll do nothing." The snake slid forwards, manoeuvring its long, muscular body between the two opposing humans. The feel of the scales was unpleasant and their touch was painful and sharp; like a particularly vicious sandpaper, or the scrape of a shark's tooth-like skin. The great head came towards Giles at speed, pushing him further back, isolating him in the darkness beyond the sphere of influence thrown by the cauldron's dancing flames. A lone vampire hovered in waiting, as though always on the lookout for scraps thrown to him by his master; a faithful hound waiting on the sidelines. Giles felt one of his arms being seized by this shadowy creature, but although he was not able to break free, he did not feel the beast reeling him in for the final bite. Instead it seemed content to wait, either for the nod from the mayor, or for orders to release Giles, and send him back into the firelight. Giles struggled, but found his exertions futile.

"Continue." The mayor-snake had fixed Ethan with an intense stare that made the sorcerer feel momentarily beyond himself. He shook his head, struggling to regain control.

"I made a wish," he mumbled eventually, trying to avoid Giles's accusing glare. "There was this demon in a box, and I wished that the world was further within the realms of dark magic. I often feel that way when I spend some time with Rupert here. He and I go way back. We worshipped demons together as young men. We tried to change the world, but we failed."

"One of us failed." Giles was speaking through his teeth, furious now. "The other chose another way to change things, that's all. You failed to make the world an evil place, but I succeeded in making it better."

"Silence." The mayor-snake shot him a look guaranteed, if not to freeze the blood exactly, then certainly to make it quiver in fear. The monstrous eyes swivelled back to Ethan. "Explain more. What was this wish? Which demon granted it?"

"Demons are your area, not mine." Ethan tried out a hesitant grin, not expecting to see it returned. It wasn't. "It was just this little thing, all ratty and ruffled. It looked almost as if it was made out of patchwork, with scales and fur and feathers and things. Oh, and it had these huge blue eyes. We thought it was harmless - a mischief demon or some such. Then it said something about granting our wishes. I'd made a comment about wanting things to be the way I'd tried to make them back in the seventies." He shrugged. "And that's exactly what I got."

"You're telling me that you come from a place where the world is not like this?" Wilkins' voice had dropped to a chilly whisper. Ethan blanched.

"You don't want to tell him all of this Ethan." Giles spoke hardly more loudly than did the mayor, and yet his voice carried just as well. It seemed to be just as icy; just as menacing. Ethan was beginning to feel as though he were caught between a rock and a hard place, with the added non-attraction that he was caught there with a knife-wielding Faith. The sorcerer hesitated, weighing up the threat from the snake - an unknown quantity who once, and not all that long ago, had been very grateful for his assistance - and Rupert Giles, a man known for his deep and long-held desire to see Ethan dismembered as slowly and as painfully as possible. There was not really much of a choice to be made.

"You lost," he blurted out, without much in the way of tact. "Buffy killed you right after your Ascension. She went on to greater things, annoying the hell out of the rest of us on the way. Sunnydale is - was - still full of teenagers attracting every size and shape of vampire, and Buffy Summers carried on killing everything that looked even remotely interesting."

"And Faith?" The mayor barked the question as though the fate of his young charge was at least as important to him as the knowledge of his own destiny - perhaps more so. Ethan shrugged.

"I have no idea. There were whispers that she went after Buffy again. That she did some kind of a body swap spell or something. It didn't work." He hesitated. "She did live though, at least as far as anyone can tell."

"A world without me in it." The mayor gave a long shudder, then swung around to stare towards Giles. "And you come from this world? You're not the man that Faith here tortured to death six months ago. You're not the man that I captured at my Ascension?"

"No." There was no point in claiming otherwise now. Any leverage he might have been able to gain through pretending that he had achieved some great feat of magic had already been irrevocably lost. Ethan, he saw now, was beginning to look rather guilty; not that his regrets gave either of them a better chance of survival.

"And now you plan on putting your world to rights." The many mouth parts moved and snapped, as the mayor apparently considered whether or not to believe either man. Giles finally shrugged off the hold of his vampire guard, before approaching the snake once again. The dark eyes stared down at him, in contemplation of the relative benefits of devouring the human, and ending a potential problem immediately, with one decisive strike.

"I have to." Giles shrugged, as though the matter was of little importance. Perhaps it was, for he cared little for Sunnydale. There were few of its inhabitants that featured very highly on his list of favourite people - even the best of them seemed to have their connections with the dark arts, either through open collaboration or just through ignorance and non-action. There were those that he did care about though - those that he wanted to save. Buffy, Willow, Xander and Oz; Cordelia, Wesley; even Anya. He wondered what had become of Angel. Had the vampire managed to survive? Was he one of the survivors living wild on the streets, or had he managed to make his escape as planned? Perhaps he was living in Los Angeles in this reality too.

"You have to." There was a mocking note to the snake's voice. Giles ignored it. Ethan was looking from one to the other of them, clearly afraid, and it was to his former playmate that Giles now turned his attentions. He hurried to the other man, ignoring Faith with her hovering blade.

"Ethan, listen to me..."

"There'll be no listening to anyone except me." Wilkins made a sharp gesture with his coiled tail, and a small group of vampires scuttled up, one or two of them still wiping hastily snacked blood from their mouths. They stood in a line awaiting orders. Ethan backed away, now looking increasingly nervous. It was with a certain harsh delight that Giles witnessed his unease, for even though Ethan's death would also be his own, it gave him a certain warped pleasure to think of the other man experiencing a nasty end. With that in mind he allowed himself a small smile. Ethan saw it, and clearly guessed the motive. He looked older somehow, as though fear was making time catch up with him.

"What happens now?" Giles asked the question to the snake, but it was Faith who answered, her voice soft and measured - gentle almost.

"A nice cell." Her dark eyes shone with a light that was almost flirtatious. "With lots of rats and mould. We seem to breed that kind of thing here. Can't get a decent interior decorator. I guess the boss must have eaten them all." Above them the mayor chortled with delight at her comment. Giles felt his skin crawl.

"That's it? You're just going to lock us up?" Ethan sounded relieved, but Faith laughed in his face.

"Hardly. Tomorrow night we'll let you go. Our troops could do with a hunt to hone their senses. They're going soft on this captive diet. They get to have some fun hunting you down and tearing you limb from limb, and the boss gets to enjoy watching it all. A little post-supper violence, and everybody's happy."

"I helped you!" Outraged, and not a little afraid, Ethan stared up at the towering snake. It zoomed in close, staring into his eyes with its own.

"You did." The mayor's voice, as ever, sounded peculiar coming from that inhuman body. "But I'm not feeling particularly grateful today. I don't like to hear stories of a world where I never made it beyond the first few moments of my Ascension. All my plans, all of my preparations... I filled in my wall calendar, listing all of the things that I was going to do after becoming a demon. I had an entire year's worth of plans - and you tell me that I didn't get to fulfil any of them? I'll be damned if I'll see that turn of events coming true. I intend to keep my little kingdom here. Sunnydale is mine; every fallen building and broken brick of it. And it's staying that way."

"But I helped you!" Incensed, Ethan took a step forward. He was stopped immediately by the vampires, who seized his arms and dragged him back. He fought wildly. "Tell them, Giles! Tell them I'm on their side!"

"Oh he is." Giles said it with all due honesty. "This craven fool would sell his own grandmother to buy his freedom - if he hadn't already done it fifteen years ago. He's rotten to the core." There was no reaction from the enemy, and he shrugged. "Sorry Ethan. They don't seem to want to spare you."

"No!" Already being dragged across the floor, Ethan tried to dig in his heels. It was impossible to slow his progress on the cold stone floor however, and he was pulled inexorably onwards. Giles went more quietly, following along in the other man's wake like some visiting dignitary being shown the seedier side of life. He didn't much like the sound of the hunt - but at least it would give him a chance to get out of the immediate hands of the enemy, so that he might be able to take a shot at sorting the mess out. The wish demon was obviously in the town somewhere. That had to be the best place to start.

"This is all your fault." As they were dragged down to the cells - clearly a modified section of underground storage and filing rooms - Ethan glared daggers at his fellow prisoner. Giles glared back. Things were not looking good for either of them, but if they were to be locked in the same cell perhaps he could amuse himself by hurting Rayne copiously whilst they waited for the hunt to begin. Ethan seemed to guess his thoughts.

"I want my own cell," he demanded finally, his panic bubbling over just as the little group reached the lowermost collection of rooms. He was rewarded with a sharp shove from one of the guards that sent him stumbling through a damp doorway into a cold, musty room. Giles was pushed in after him.

"Hey!" Ethan stumbled back towards the vampire guards as if the hordes of hell were after him, only for the door to be slammed in his face. He sagged against it, not feeling its unpleasant wetness against his clothes and skin. Giles clapped him on the back.

"Never mind Ethan. Look on the bright side. At least you're amongst friends."

"I didn't mean to tell him anything, Rupert. I swear."

"Shut up." Giles pushed him onto the floor. "I have to think."

"About how to get us out of here?"

"No. About how best to dispose of you. I'd like to make sure that it's painful." Giles glared at him. "Of course about how to get us out. Our best chance is on this hunt. We need to find shelter quickly, and begin to put together some weapons. Crosses are easily made, but the stakes will be a little harder to come by. We'll need knives at the very least."

"We make for your place then," Ethan asked, sounding wretched. Giles nodded.

"I think so. Oh, there is one other thing."


"A little something. In gratitude for everything you've done for me so far today." Giles smiled sweetly, earning a worried look from Ethan. The grin widened. The eyes of the Ripper flashed cold and hard - and the one-time Watcher lashed out, sending Ethan to an ungainly sprawl upon the floor, blood cascading down his chin. The sorcerer groaned once and lay still. Giles smiled. The punch had hurt, but it had been more than worth it. Much more. He sat down, massaging his hand as he began to think. There had to be a way to put all of this right - a means by which to get that demon to revoke the wish. It rang a bell in the back of his mind; a strange feeling of déjà vu. He couldn't put his finger on it - couldn't even begin to imagine what memory this bizarre experience was awakening within his mind. Certainly he didn't remember ever being in such a position before. But then, cautioned his mind, rational as ever, if he had been a part of some alternative version of events before - a passive part, rather than the driving force as on this occasion - and he had seen things put to rights, he wouldn't necessarily remember them. Once fixed, they would never have happened... so he couldn't remember them. His head whirled. That way lay madness, imagining things that might have been, or might never have been; a million billion possible realities, or combinations of realities, all switching places according to which spell was struck, or which wish was made by which unsuspecting dreamer. Not that, he was sure, anybody save Ethan could be counted upon to make a wish as daft as this one, turning the whole of Sunnydale, if not the whole of California, over to a mad snake that was clearly torn between two very different identities. Part of it was the ancient demon Olvukan made real; the dark snake incarnate, given birth within the confines of the Earth; and the other part was Mayor Richard Wilkins III, a sorcerer with a very bad case of verbal diarrhoea. When he wasn't actively killing people he was trying to talk them to death.

"Ow." Coming round slowly, Ethan rubbed his jaw and began to sit up. His hostility and anger rushing out of him like the air tearing from a suddenly deflated balloon, Giles reached over and hauled him up. His old friend looked vaguely grateful, beneath the scowls and moans of pain. Giles dusted him off, straightening his shirt and jacket.

"Welcome back." He said it in a friendly tone, but Ethan still looked a little cautious.

"Are we still in trouble?" He looked about, clearly contemplating the idea that everything had been a drunken dream. They were not, however, once more in Giles's apartment, surrounded by empty whisky bottles and eclectic items of furniture. They were in a small, damp-ridden room of stone, uneven slabs upon the floor, and a trickle of brownish water running in a constant stream down one wall. There was no light, save the flicker of candle flame from a bracket in one corner of the room; a single, yellowish candle that was already nearly burnt down to the base; and a collection of intermittent flames that shone through the crack beneath the ill-fitting door. Ethan scowled.

"I see that we are."

"Hours from certain death by the look of things." Giles sounded cheerful, but his companion clearly did not appreciate the levity.

"Have you tried picking the lock?"

"No." Giles gestured towards the door - there was no lock. Apparently they were held in by magic, or by more basic means. Ethan muttered a few spells, but the heavy door resolutely refused to budge. He scowled, and sat down on the cold, wet floor, immediately regretting it and leaping back to his feet.

"Must be a bloody great stone jammed up against it."

"I wouldn't be surprised."

"Can't you look even slightly worried?"

"I am worried." Giles's eyes were very serious indeed, but his concerns were not so much for himself or for Ethan. Instead he was thinking of his friends; of Buffy and her mother; of Willow, Xander, Cordelia and Oz; of Angel, Wesley, Anya, and a scattering of others who had wandered through their ranks at various times. Larry, the former bully who had befriended Xander so unexpectedly... Percy, the athlete that Willow had tutored... Amy, the witch's daughter who had turned herself into a rat with such remarkable efficiency... She at least should be safe, unless she was unable to get out of her cage - but then perhaps a slow death from starvation had been the best that any of the Sunnydale teenagers had experienced. He should have been here for them; but then of course, he had - not that it had done any of them any good, himself included. "I'm just not worried about you."

"Thinking about the others?" Apparently experiencing one of his rare, considerate moments, Ethan left his post in the middle of the room and crossed to the door to stand beside Giles. The former Watcher shrugged, sinking his hands into his pockets and tapping restlessly against the doorframe with one foot.

"What's to think about? They're all dead."

"You don't know that. They only said that Buffy was..." He frowned, looking and feeling very awkward. "And I feel really bad about that, obviously..."

"Spare me the pretend commiserations Ethan. I know exactly how you feel about Buffy, and about my relationship with her. You don't have to pretend."

"I'm not pretending... exactly." He shrugged rather vaguely. "Okay, so maybe I am. Either way it doesn't really matter, does it. She's not dead really. Just here."

"Here is real, Ethan. It's all that there is thanks to you." Giles drew in a long, slow breath to calm himself. "As long as your wish stands, this is all that we have; and that means that Buffy is dead."

"But it doesn't mean that the others are. Maybe they got away. Alexander and... Winnow or whatever her name is. And that one who kicked me the day that Eyghon brought poor Thomas round to the high school library."

"Cordelia." Giles was staring at the ground, intent upon difficult thoughts. "I doubt that any of them are still alive. The mayor would have hunted them down after his Ascension, and if he didn't kill them, Faith certainly would have. She'd have considered it to be suitable revenge, or at the very least a good way of tormenting Buffy. And me." He shook his head. "Angel is the only one that I have any hope for. He's rather more durable than the others. I doubt that he'd stand by and let this go on if he was alive, but he is rather hard to kill."

"Tried have you?" Ethan folded his arms and leant against the wall, the shock of the cold wet stone surprising him just as it had done when he had tried to sit upon the floor. He winced, but didn't change his position. Standing up straight all of the time was beginning to become a nuisance. "Hang on. Isn't Angel your pet vampire? The tame one who helped to screw up my nice little Halloween surprise a few years back?"

"That's him." Giles sounded as though his mind was far away. "I wonder where he'd be? His old place is out of the question because Faith knows it, but it'd have to be somewhere where he could be sure of keeping out of the sunlight. He isn't likely to have been awarded the same kind of resilience that the mayor's vampires have developed." He scowled. "For all I know he's not even in Sunnydale anymore. If he's got any sense he's probably living at the other end of the continent right now."

"Try the cell next door." Ethan sounded almost apologetic, and Giles looked up at him sharply. His old friend shrugged. "It's got a window in the door. I saw him as we were walking past."

"He's here?" The delight in Giles's voice was obvious. "Then perhaps we can--"

"Rupert." Ethan's voice cut through his companion's happy stream of thoughts. "I don't think it's that simple."

"Of course it's not that simple." Giles sounded frustrated. "It's a start, that's all. Once we've explained the situation to him he'll help us for sure. He'd do anything for Buffy, and if he knew that we can be sure of turning things back... having her alive again... well he'll--"

"Rupert..." This time Ethan's voice was rather more gentle. "You don't understand. Your friend Angel isn't a prisoner in the cell next door. When I saw him through the window he was eating the prisoner in the cell next door. I'm sorry, but it looks as if the demon dimension around here has helped the nice vampire to find his teeth."

"Angelus." All of a sudden the hope seemed to have gone from Giles, and with the sudden collapse of his plans he slumped back against the wall. There was a solid clunk as the back of his head collided with the stone, but he didn't seem to notice. "The mayor must have succeeded in banishing his soul again."

"I see." Ethan didn't sound as if he saw at all, but he didn't bother asking for explanations. "We're counting him out of the gang then?"

"If Angel has given way to Angelus once again, he's certainly not going to help us." The words were heartfelt. Giles would never forget his last moments with the vampire's evil persona, despite the many times when he and Angel had fought together since, on the same side. He shook his head, the fight apparently knocked out of him. "We're in trouble."

"You were determined enough before you knew he was here. Why does it make a difference now? We're just back to square one, that's all. Just the two of us. We've faced some pretty unpleasant things together in our time, Ripper. Remember the plague of fire sprites?"

"Which you caused." Giles did not smile, nor did he show any sign of having been affected by Ethan's attempt at a stirring speech. "And I defeated them. As I recall, you were hiding in the bathroom at the time, trying to spray yourself with water so that they couldn't--"

"Okay. Bad choice of example perhaps. What about the Brotherhood of Dark Sorcerers that we faced in '83? Or that lynch mob of possessed villagers in the Far East back in '86? We saw it through together old man. You and me." He drew himself up to his full height, and did his best not to look scared. "And we handled it all rather well, even if I do say so myself."

"Yeah." Giles smiled, despite himself. 1986 had been an extraordinary year, all things considered. An unexpected reunion with Ethan Rayne whilst on a scholarly visit to a secluded area on the Indian border had led to a drunken brawl, during which he had come close to hurling his former friend and associate into a huge hole created overnight by unexplained tectonic activity. By early morning it had been smoking fiercely, and had begun to belch out corrosive fumes at perfectly precise intervals. Things had deteriorated rapidly for the two Englishmen, and they had wound up standing shoulder to shoulder, using a mixture of improvised potions, half-remembered spells and clumsy hand-to-hand combat techniques in order to save themselves from a blood-thirsty gang of local anthropologists inhabited by an ancient sect of demon hybrids. Compared to the follow-up incident in 1988, however, 1986 had been a breeze. He managed a fairly confident nod. "I suppose we can do without Angel's help."

"Then let's get on with it." Ethan gestured at the door. "We have to get out of here, Ripper. There's no sense in waiting for that oversized earthworm up there to start up his hunt. We wouldn't have a chance with a pack of vampires and a giant demon snake coming after us - not to mention that psychopathic schoolgirl that seems to be so fond of you. We have to get moving now."

"Yes. I agree." Giles took off his glasses, rubbing them on his increasingly grubby shirt. He wondered how long ago it had been since he had put it on, before discovering the shiny black Fender Stratocaster, and being launched into this nightmarish parallel. "I just don't know how to do it."

"I may have an idea." Ethan frowned at him, looking more serious and more determined than Rupert Giles had seen him in a long, long time. "Do you trust me, Ripper?"

"Never in a million years."

"Good." Despite the very real feeling behind Giles's answer, Ethan smiled at him. "That's alright then."

"What are you planning Ethan?" Giles was dubious, and not a little sceptical. Ethan merely looked typically obtuse.

"I'm going to get us out of here old man." He straightened his shirt, ignoring the trails of moisture and mud gained from the revolting walls of their cell. "Just be ready to follow my lead when the time comes."

"I'll be ready." Giles turned away from the door, not wishing to dwell upon the thoughts of what his companion might be up to. Rayne, meanwhile, had begun to whisper in a hoarse, largely inaudible voice. He closed his eyes very tightly, clenching his fists as the knuckles turned marble white. Blood began to run from his palms. His voice turned steadily more hoarse; steadily more angry; steadily more determined. Giles leaned back against the far wall to watch him, his scepticism gradually beginning to fade. Ethan Rayne might be a coward, a charlatan and a pain in the neck - but sometimes, just sometimes, he could be a genius.

And with the faintest of rumbling groans, the door began to move.


Angelus finished his meal feeling oddly empty and unfulfilled. The human had tasted dusty somehow; contaminated by the damp in which he had lived the last weeks of his miserable life. Letting the last few drops of the unfortunate soul's thin, pale blood spill onto the floor, Angelus let go of the body and turned his back on it. Poor fool. He had been taken some six months previously, after trying to hide out in one of the old banks with a group of other pitiful survivors. Angelus himself had captured the man, along with some thirteen others. They had been intended as offerings to Olvukan, but the reptile god had been too busy listening to the tales of Faith's latest exploits to care much about the prizes delivered by his vampire underlings. Angelus had been angry at first, then philosophical. After all, it was foolish of him to think of making offerings. He bowed to no man - or snake. He ruled himself, and therefore he would hunt and kill for himself. He had ordered that the fourteen survivors be incarcerated in the cells beneath the town hall, awaiting interrogation and torture at the hands of a true master. They had proved to be anything but entertaining, however, and Angelus had all but forgotten about them. This was the last - or had been the last. A man of middle age, dressed in the mangled ruin of a business suit. He had been a religious man, apparently, for he had called out to his God to save his soul once his death had become a certainty. Angelus had felt the blood beginning to burn his lips just as the plea itself had burnt his ears. Angry, restless, and still very hungry, he left the forlorn body of Ira Rosenberg in its damp-soaked cell, and headed back out into the corridors that turned the earth beneath the hall into a putrefying labyrinth.

He had not gone far before he heard voices ahead. Male voices, adult and foreign. He smiled to himself as he fell into step behind the as yet unseen owners of the hushed tones. They were British, and well spoken; and both were voices that he knew. So the rumours amongst the other vampires were not merely tales, and Rupert Giles really had returned from the dead. Angelus heard things wherever he was in Sunnydale, for his standing was great enough to allow him almost as many spies and servants as the Mayor himself. He had heard tales even before the librarian had been brought for his audience at the town hall - tales about a wish demon, and stirrings in the powers that governed such creatures. Giles had supposedly been incarcerated in one of the spellbound cells, where his efforts to revoke whatever wish had been granted could be sure to end in failure before they had even begun; and yet not only was he now wandering about in the tunnels beneath the mayor's stronghold, but he was doing it in the company of a sorcerer known to be in possession of dangerous powers. Angelus allowed his smile to become a malevolent grin. He had had fun with Rupert Giles before, and Ethan Rayne was well known for squeaking rather pleasantly whenever a situation became unfriendly. There was fun to be had here, Angelus told himself; and perhaps knowledge to be gained too, from the two men in all of the world who might be able to help him to challenge the mayor. Swiftly and surely, upon feet that were almost impossibly soft, the vampire ran in the wake of his unsuspecting quarry. Blood trickled down his fangs, and he swallowed without noticing it. Weak blood, pale and virtually tasteless. The blood of an already long-beaten victim. Angelus had no time even to spare the aftertaste an unappreciative thought; for he was on the trail of some of the richest blood ever to have been put upon the Earth, and already his hungry mouth was beginning to water.


Ethan found the way out of the labyrinth with an ease that nearly made Giles suspicious. As far as he could see the place was unfathomable - great lengths of slimy black tunnels, filled with unspeakable ooze, swathes of bright green mould, and the rotting carcasses of others who had tried to escape. Giles looked at the fallen bodies as he passed them, identifying some, unable to identify even so much as colour or gender in most cases. He knew the wounds though - recognised the patterns of claws and teeth scratched so deeply that they left their telltale signatures on the bones themselves. They were the marks of Hydri, minor demons in terms of brain capacity, but violent to extremes. They dwelt in wet places; slimy and cold by preference; and were known to serve their more powerful brethren as guards. Clearly there was a group of the creatures in the labyrinth, mopping up escapees and preventing entrance into the town hall by means of the tunnels. Wherever they were they did not give the two Englishmen any trouble. Giles was almost disappointed. He felt sure that between them he and Ethan were more than capable of dealing with a few of the creatures, and was almost spoiling for a fight. It would have been a great source of satisfaction to have crushed a few Hydri heads - the only sure way to kill them - and avenged just a few of the people he had seen torn to shreds on the way.

"Here." Standing aside as they reached what was evidently some kind of an exit, Ethan gestured towards it. "You first. I don't know what might be out there."

"You're all heart." Giles scrambled up a slight incline in the slimy rock, peering out through a half-covered hole. Between fronds of dangling weeds that dripped moisture down the back of his neck he saw a ruined stone wall held up with large pieces of wood. The decor beyond was familiar - the paint, the ragged pictures and posters that still clung to the woebegone pillars were all known to him. Half of the flooring was burnt away, but he knew the patterns that the scorch marks hid, even though he could not see them. He knew the tables and the chairs, knew the caved-in ceiling and the bar largely covered with rubble. He slid back into the labyrinth, and leaned against the wall.

"Something up?" Ethan was frowning, almost concerned. Giles stared back towards the hole, conscious of the fact that he had gone very pale.

"The Bronze." He said it almost matter-of-factly, despite his sorrowful expression. "Buffy's favourite place when she was still at high school. More than once I had to come here to drag her away from a party or a dance, so that we could go and kill something. She used to moan about it..."

"We'll get her back, Rupert." Ethan was clearly trying to be supportive, for he rarely used his old friend's given name - save for the purposes of goading, which did not seem to be the case here. Giles dredged up a wan smile.

"Of course." He took a deep breath of the damp, musty air, then pulled himself out through the hole and into the ruins of the sorry-looking night-club. Ethan clambered out after him, looking about.

"Nice place." He straightened a few of the tables and chairs, almost as if the desolation and destruction offended him in some way. Giles was staring at a poster that clung lopsidedly to a crumbling pillar.

"Moping isn't going to achieve anything." Ethan joined him by the poster. "Listen, Ripper. I know this is hard for you, but we have to keep moving. Do you really think it'll be long before our escape is discovered? We have to get to your place."

"We don't know that that demon will be there. For all we know the mayor has already sent a team there to find it and get rid of it. The last thing he wants is for us to put things back to how they were - at least now that he knows about it all."

"I'm sorry about that." For once in his life Ethan sounded genuinely repentant. "But this isn't the time for reflections or blame. You know that I'm right."

"Yes. I know." Giles gave him an accusing glare, then turned back to the pillar. For all Ethan's words, and his own agreement, he found it hard to drag his eyes away from the drab poster before him. It was a simple enough affair - a laminated piece of paper, A4 in size, with a stencilled message written diagonally across a picture of a guitar and a howling dog. 'Dingoes Ate My Baby', read the sign, in a font that looked straight out of The Rocky Horror Show. 'Tomorrow Night 8-10'.

"What a name." Ethan caught sight of the look in Giles's eyes, and wisely made no further comment. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Giles was far from okay, lost in thoughts of Oz and his daft hair, his dry jokes and his general unflappability. The way that Willow had looked at him, and the others had drawn strength from him. His calm acceptance of the fact that he was doomed to spend every full moon locked in a cage. The Watcher didn't want to think about how Oz had met his end. He could only hope that the mayor's long-ago comment that 'some of your deaths will be quick', had applied to at least some of his friends. "Come on." He turned his back on the poster; turned his back on the stage and the tables and the bar; and headed towards the partially collapsed door. Mooning about in The Bronze was getting him nowhere.

It was cold out on the streets. Even though it was daylight the sun appeared grey and weak, more moon-like than the moon itself usually appeared to be. The sky was cloudless, but its colour seemed closer to the night-time shades of black than anything resembling a familiar blue. Ethan shivered a the sight of it, almost preferring the destruction and desolation of the ruined night-club to this outer world. Here all was ravaged by the dark magic that ran riot in the streets. The air was cold and heavy, everything seemed overbearing and stifling; even the light breeze seemed painfully over-defined. It made breathing less of an automatic process, and more of a constant chore; something that had to be thought about before it could be performed, rather than an on-going process that required no awareness.

"Are we heading straight for your place?" Ethan jumped at the sound of his voice, unnaturally loud in the even more unnatural stillness of the empty streets. Giles shrugged.

"Where else is there?"

"I don't know. Some hidden stash of weapons, a magic shop where we might be able to find supplies. This is your stomping ground, old man, not mine. You know the land."

"Yes." Giles sounded doubtful as he looked around. It was hard to get his bearings even in this familiar place, for it seemed all of a sudden to be familiar no longer. All of the landmarks had gone, the roadways had changed directed as landslides of rubble had sliced across one path, only to create another where once there had been buildings and gardens. He could see the place where one magic shop had been, but even if he had entertained any intention of going there for supplies the fact was immaterial now. The magic shop, or all that might remain of it, was buried beneath what looked to be at least ten tonnes of rubble. A pair of curtains fluttered from one surprisingly still intact window, in the midst of a veritable Mount Everest of bricks, slates and various household sundries.

"This place is full of ghosts." Ethan took a few steps in the first direction that occurred to him, and which was, as he was soon to discover, the right one. Giles let out a long breath that he hadn't been aware of holding.

"Yes, it is." Shaking himself back to life, he followed on after Ethan, taking the lead and heading off in the general direction of his apartment building. "But then it always was."

"Hell of a place to live."

Giles managed a wry smile. "Story of my life."

"I never did envy your Sacred Destiny, Ripper."

"Just as well. I never envied your Self-Serving Layabout Destiny." Giles didn't wait for the riposte, but instead pointed at the ragged, jagged horizon of towering ruins. "We need to go left over there. Keep your eyes open for survivors."

"And bad guys." Ethan dug around in his pocket, and finally came up with a small golden crucifix on a chain. "If you see something with pointed teeth, give me a yell. I want to be ready to run in the opposite direction."

"I never expected anything else." Giles quickened his step. "If we see anything around here with pointed teeth it'll be just before it pounces. There won't be time to run away. Not unless you've been increasing your magical skills since we last met, and you've developed the ability to pause local time."

"Not yet. Not that I haven't been working on it." Ethan smiled. "As it happens, Rupert, since we were talking about pointy-toothed nasties..."

"Was I aware that we're being followed?" Giles began to climb a small pile of rubble that he hoped would provide him with a shortcut to his home. "Yes, I was aware. Have you been able to spot him yet?"

"Not yet. I'm fairly sure that whoever it is is alone though. It's probably not the massed forces of the mayor as yet." Ethan frowned. "Is he still the mayor? I mean, how much is mayor and how much is the demon he Ascended into?"

"Probably about half and half. The mayor's half seems to be dominant though, at least so far as the personality goes." Giles frowned, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. "I always meant to make a study of the mechanics of Ascensions, but I could never find any data."

"You always were disturbingly dedicated, you know that? Even when you were a brooding juvenile delinquent you did it with enough dedication to put James Dean to shame."

"You really know how to give a compliment, don't you." Giles reached the top of his little mountain and glanced back down at his friend. "Are you coming?"

"Yeah." Ethan clambered up after him, making a big show of huffing and puffing every step of the way. "How far is it?"

"We should be there within half an hour." Already heading back down the other side of the hill, Giles cast another look behind him. "Any sign of our shadow?"

"None. He's still there though. I can feel him." Ethan almost shuddered. "I wonder which side he's on."

"I'm sure we'll find out eventually."

"Thanks." They reached level ground again, and quickened their pace. "I'd feel better if we knew now though. It's a little easier to prepare when you know what you're up against."

"We can't prepare until we reach my place anyway, so there's really no point in speculating. Out here we're isolated. We've nowhere to make any kind of a stand, and we've no means of defence or protection. Right now it wouldn't matter if we did know who he is."

"There's nothing quite like looking on the bright side, is there." Ethan was good at grousing, and he did it with relish. His hand closed around the small golden cross in his hand. It was little more than a psychological boost, but it did at least serve to make him feel better. He hoped that Giles's little arsenal back at the house was enough to given them some real means of defending themselves. Holy water would be nice. Flame throwers and atomic missiles would be even more comforting, if rather less likely.

"There's no sense on looking on the bright side until the mayor is dead again." Giles was sounding increasingly tense. "In the meantime, just keep on the look out for anything we can use as weaponry. There's no telling what might happen when we get to my place."

"And yet again he chooses to be optimistic about it all." Scowling outwardly, but secretly sympathising with his old friend's painful situation, Ethan began looking about in one of his more enthusiastic attempts to be useful. "Actually you know, this place looks rather familiar." Skirting one of the larger piles of rubble, he came upon half a building of a pale white stone. "Yeah, I think I stayed here the last time I was in Sunnydale. With a bit of luck there might be some of my stuff still here, if we can get to it under all of the mess." He smiled to himself, remembering something. "Atmospheric place - your perfect Hellmouth Holiday Home. The owner was a weird guy even by local standards. He insisted on wearing a string of dead toads around his neck to ward off the evil sprites he swore were haunting the kitchen cupboards. I kept trying to tell him that there's a simple incantation that does the job much more capably, but he didn't want to know. I think he liked his toads."

"Yes, well I rather I think that he still does."

"Beg your pardon?"

"Two o'clock." Giles was keeping his voice very quiet. "He looks like death warmed up, but I think it's your landlord."

"Our shadow?"

"No. Wrong direction, wrong everything. That man couldn't trail a magnet if his pockets were full of iron filings. He has the subtlety of a Warhol painting." He frowned. "And he's not alone."

"So I see." Their curious new observer had been joined by some half a dozen companions, all dressed in the sorry dregs of once snappy clothing. They looked gaunt and weary, bedraggled and careworn; but each of them was holding a large wooden club. The dead toad wearing landlord gripped a heavy-looking axe instead, its rust-edged blade bearing traces of what looked like blood dribbled in old brown rivulets down its scuffed wooden handle. "Do we run?"

"Don't you always?" It had not escaped Giles's notice that his continually self-serving 'friend' had hidden behind him as soon as the group of survivors had made their appearance. "Just take it easy Ethan." He watched the approaching figures with no small amount of trepidation despite his words. "They don't look as if they're capable of posing much of a threat."

"They have weapons." Ethan took another step back. "We don't."

"Good point." Giles glanced around, seeing nothing remotely weapon-like in the mess at his feet. He didn't see much good in picking up a heavy brick, particularly if he was going to be called to do battle against a man armed with an axe. Deciding to take the bull by the horns, and attempt to stave off any likely violence before it had a chance to begin, he took a step forward, raising his voice to call out to the unruly gang of survivors.

"Good afternoon. My name is Rupert Giles. I was wondering--"

"Rupert Giles?" The leader of the group, with his necklace of swinging dead toads, came closer, frowning at Giles in the manner of a man used to using glasses, who had lost them at some point during his rough existence. Giles nodded.

"Yes, that's right. My friend and I--"

"You're the one who used to work with the Slayer." The man was glaring at him now, expression accusing, eyes hot with anger. "You're her Watcher. Where were you, hey?" Angry, apparently forgetting the weapon in his hand, he pushed at Giles. Hard hands caught the Watcher in the chest, making him stumble backwards into Ethan. The pair only just managed to stay on their feet.

"Hey!" Giles stepped back towards the man, beginning to get angry himself. "What's going on? My friend and I are lost. We're trying to find a way to defeat the mayor."

"You think we care about you and your plans now? After all these months you suddenly think that you can come back here and put everything right? We're not interested. You should have been here last summer, when the mayor first turned into that giant snake. When he ate most of our children, and dragged most of the others away. Where were you then, huh?" Again he pushed Giles, this time with more force. The axe slipped from his hands, but he did not seem to notice its loss. "Where were you then? You and the Slayer crawled off into the woodwork for a year or two, is that it? You thought you'd wait until things were a little safer for you, and leave the rest of us to take the heat in the meantime."

"That's not what happened." Incensed, Giles almost pushed the other man in return, but quashed the instinct and kept to words instead. "The Slayer is dead. She was killed by the mayor and his cronies some months ago. All of her friends are dead. You don't understand what's been happening."

"No. You don't understand." This time hands closed upon his shirt, threatening imminent violence. "We're not interested in your explanations. It's all come too late. Far too late. If you had plans to save us you should have tried them a year ago, not waited until most of us are dead, or worse. Last night I had to drive a stake through the heart of my brother's youngest daughter. She was fifteen years-old when the mayor's soldiers took her, and made her one of their own. Today would have been her sixteenth birthday. I'm really not interested in your lies right now."

"They're not lies." Giles struggled, but found it impossible to break free of the hard hands that gripped him. The gaunt man looked barely strong enough to wield the hefty axe he had so recently dropped; and yet he had the grip and the power of a man twice his size. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the Watcher, clinging on despite the furious struggles of his captive.

"Strangely enough, I really don't care what you say." The ragged figure stared past Giles to Ethan, who was trying surreptitiously to sneak off into the background. "And you can stay where you are, Mr Rayne. It looks as though you might be a part of this too."

"Do me a favour. You know that I'm no fan of the Slayer." Ethan smiled sweetly. "Tell you what, I'll go and get her, and you can argue this out amongst yourselves. Only there's going to be a giant snake and a lot of people with fangs coming after us in an hour or two, and I'd like to be a long, long way away before that happens. It's nothing personal, just self preservation."

"Shut up." One of the other men moved forward, cutting off Ethan's escape, using his heavy weapon to emphasise the point. Ethan raised his hands above his head.

"On the other hand, I'd love a little chat with you gentlemen. Perhaps we could discuss--"

"I said to shut up." His expression ugly, the sullen survivor swung his club, catching Ethan across the stomach. The sorcerer stumbled, gasping for breath.

"Hey!" Giles began to turn, held back by the man still gripping his shirt. "We're on your side. You can't--"

"Just shut up. If you've got so much to say, you can say it before the people of this town." His captor gave him a hefty shove, this time sending him tumbling backwards against a pile of loose rubble. He hit the mass of stone hard, the wind escaping from his lungs in a painful rush. His vision swam.

"We really don't have time for a debate with the general population." Still doubled over, Ethan gasped the words out in a tumble of exhaled air. His scowling guard raised the club as though preparing to hit him again.

"We don't care. Just get moving."

"You make a persuasive argument my friend." Ethan forced a smile, then crossed to his fallen companion to assist him in rising to his feet. Giles glared at him.

"Remind me never to visit your hotel room again."

"Actually I think we're in the bar." They shared a rueful smile. "But then times have changed since the last time we got into a bar fight. Haven't they."

"It would appear so." Giles brushed some of the stone dust from his clothes. "I certainly don't have a flick-knife in my pocket anymore. I don't even have a stake."

"I thought I told you to shut up. Save your voice for the people." The leader of the little group pushed him again, but a little less roughly than before. Giles glared at him.

"Whatever you may think, you haven't been abandoned. I don't know how you come to be aware of the Slayer's identity, but I can assure you that she no more abandoned you than you abandoned Sunnydale."

"We know who they Slayer is, because we live in Sunnydale. Do you think that we're all blind and ignorant here? Only the police and the parents were unaware of what went on in this town. The rest of us know a lot more than you think we do. That's how we know who the Slayer is, and who her Watcher is, and how we came to be abandoned by the very people who were supposed to protect us from creatures like the mayor. You don't know what it's been like, living in this town for the last year. You don't know what it's like with vampires walking the streets in the middle of the day as well as at night. Demons coming up through the floorboards, and the water pipes, and the electricity wires. People being ripped apart on street corners, with nothing that anybody can do to save them. The town being taken apart piece by piece, brick by brick, and all everybody's friends and neighbours being dragged away to the town hall, where nobody can save them. My wife is in there somewhere; or at least she was. I hope she's dead, because the alternatives are a whole lot worse. I certainly don't want to see her walking towards me one night, or one day, with fangs and yellow eyes." He brandished his fists, as though anxious to put them to use. "Now get moving. There are a whole lot of other people who want to talk to you, before we decide what we're going to do with you."

"Sure. Why not." Smiling genially, Ethan took a lazy step forward. "We can chat about your problems, maybe find some way to help you all out... I think we can probably come to some sort of an arrangement." He spun about suddenly, galvanised into action without warning, bending down to snatch up his former landlord's fallen axe. There was a blur of weak light on the curved blade, a shout of rage from somewhere nearby, and the axe swung through the air. The nearest of the survivors screamed in agony, and the blade of the axe lodged in his arm. Ethan tugged it free, paling noticeably at the rush of gore that followed it.

"Er... sorry." With a wild look at Giles he threw the axe towards the leader of the gang, grabbed the one-time Watcher by the shirt collar, and broke into a desperate run. Giles followed in his wake, stumbling and slipping in a hurry to catch his balance after the awkward start to his flight. The pair almost fell, gaining enough momentum to stay upright only at the last moment. Behind them there was a roar of rage.

"What about that man?" Giles was gasping, although more from shock than exhaustion. "We can't just leave him."

"We can't do any more for him that they can. I doubt that the hospitals are taking many patients at the moment." They breasted a hill of rubble, not bothering to look back and check on the progress of their pursuers. "Damn it, this is insane. We're supposed to be fighting a demon, not your neighbours."

"He's your landlord." Giles chose a new direction, pulling Ethan after him, sending the pair of them into an uncontrolled skid down the unsafe hill. A huge steel roof girder followed them, dislodged by their unchecked tumble, and they narrowly avoided its damaging touch. It felt strange to be running on hard, level ground again after their dash through the rubble, but the tarmac, despite being broken and scorched, was a welcome change of terrain nonetheless.

"Which way?" Ethan sounded panicked, which had long ago become a familiar state of affairs. Giles glanced about.

"This way I think." They dashed through the ruins of a house that had remained almost intact, dodging a central fireplace with a towering chimney, making their escape through a backyard that remained strangely garden-like. Despite the destruction and the rubble, flowers still grew in a neat line around a small patch of lawn, and although a large rose bush was starting to take on a wild look, still there remained something of the neat suburban garden in the little scene. Giles almost paused to look around.

"This way looks quickest." Ethan made a dash for the back wall of the yard, clambering over it with a remarkably agile manoeuvre. Giles followed him, winding up gasping for breath in a long, thin alleyway. Enough wall remained on either side to make the short stretch of road quite dark. A rusted Coke can lay in the gutter, and a streak of brilliantly coloured graffiti marked out an artistic legend upon one wall. Dingoes Ate My Baby, it read, in bicoloured letters at least a foot tall, followed by Devon 4 Cordelia, scrawled in rather less grand style, but clearly by the same hand. Giles paused for a second to look up at the words, a wistful expression beginning to take over his face - but Ethan grabbed him by the arm, dragging him forcibly onwards down the alley. Their feet echoed loudly in the confined space.

"Once we leave here we should turn left." Giles was thinking hard, finally beginning to get his bearings. "That should lead us almost directly back to my place."

"Glad to hear it. I need at least a bottle of whisky before I'm going to be able to look at the world again." Ethan skidded to a halt. "Uh oh."

"What?" Behind his companion in the confining width of the alleyway, Giles could not see the reason why Ethan had stopped. The sorcerer moved aside, pressing himself against the wall partly to allow Giles a better view, and partly just to make himself a smaller target. Giles looked past him. Standing at the mouth of the alleyway, clubs held ready, were three members of the gang that they had so recently evaded. Giles turned, looking back the way he had come. Three more members of the gang were coming down the alley, walking slowly and casually, their feet almost inaudible in their worn and thin-soled shoes. One of them slapped his heavy club against his hand, making a loud, echoing noise that caused Ethan to swallow hard. The sorcerer forced a breathless grin.

"So glad you fellows could join us. I was a getting a little worried that we might have left you behind."

"You're not getting away from us this time." Advancing towards them, clubs raised threateningly, two of the men gestured for the hapless pair to follow them to the mouth of the alley. Ethan raised his hands high above his head.

"Don't worry. We're coming."

"You're a real hero." Sparing his companion a derisory look, Giles followed in the other man's wake. Behind them the others followed on, all looking decidedly pleased with themselves. Only when they had left the cramped spaces of the alleyway did the clubs lower slightly. The toad-wearing leader of the group stepped forwards. He had reacquired his axe, the blood of his fellow still staining the blade in an extremely off-putting display of callousness that did nothing to settle Ethan's stomach. He smiled nervously at his old landlord, trying to look as harmless and as well-meaning as possible.

"We really don't mean any harm." He beamed around at the group as he spoke, arms still held straight up in the air. Giles knocked them down.

"They're not interested in explanations, Ethan. They think that Buffy and I abandoned them, and they want some kind of justice. They don't want to hear your protestations of innocence."

"But I'm good at protestations of innocence. Give me a chance, okay? I've got a whole speech I've been working out about unavoidable--"

"Shut up." His landlord knocked him sharply across the chest with the flat side of his axe blade. "If you've got something to say, you can say it to everybody. We just want to know what happened, that's all. We want to know why the Slayer abandoned us."

"I don't know why the Slayer abandoned you. I have nothing to do with the Slayer. Do I look like a Watcher to you?" Ethan waved his arms in the air in a manner that he hoped would indicate his non-Watcherness. "Look. No tweed. No glasses. I - am - not - a - Watcher."

"You were told to shut up." Somebody grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, pushing him forwards. "We only need one of you to face trial."

"Trial?" Giles sighed heavily, beginning to wonder if he hadn't been better off in a soaking wet cell beneath the town hall. At least there he had not had to face a lynch mob. Just a giant demon snake, a bitter and twisted Slayer who wanted to torture him, and the promise of a bloodthirsty hunt to the death. Maybe he hadn't been better off in the cell after all. A club thwacked hard against his shoulders, sending him stumbling forwards, and he revoked the previous thought. There had been no clubs in the cell. That definitely made it a better place to be.

"Just keep walking." The voice in his ear was angry and hard; the voice of a man who had seen things that he should never have had to see. Giles felt responsible, no matter how irrational such a reaction might be. He wasn't sure just where he had been when the town was being destroyed - being tortured by Faith apparently - but he still couldn't shake the idea that it was his job to look after these people. He and Buffy were supposed to protect Sunnydale, not see it burnt around them. Ahead of him Ethan's voice echoed loudly, jarring his thoughts away from blame and retribution; away from pointless finger pointing. He listened to his old friend shouting about justice and understanding, and attempting to explain about his wish, and the way that the world was supposed to be. Nobody else seemed to be listening. Giles smiled to himself. By the looks of things he was going to end his days at the hands of a lynch mob, as punishment for letting Sunnydale be torn apart by a wish made in a drunken stupor by a man who had not even realised what he was doing. It all sounded so very much like just another day on the Hellmouth.

"This way." Pushing Giles towards another alleyway, one of the gang of men suddenly stiffened, face turned away from the rest of the group. Giles frowned, wondering what he had seen. The mayor's hunt already on the move? He tried to follow the direction of the man's gaze, but could see nothing save a line of ruined buildings. Somebody grabbed him by the back of the shirt, throwing him into the alleyway. Ethan was thrust in afterwards, and the landlord with his necklace of dead toads followed on.

"There's a vampire about somewhere." He said it the way that anybody else might have spoken of a rat found in a kitchen, or a cockroach found in a cellar. Vermin, frequently encountered; a problem that everybody knew how to deal with. Several of his men crowded into the alley as well, forcing the main group further down. It was even more cramped in this place than in the alley they had just come from, and Ethan and Giles, pressured by determined men, found the going hard. It was not long before they came to a bend, made narrower by two fallen dustbins that spilled a bright streak of rotted detritus across the path. Compelled forwards, Giles slid sideways around the bend - and came to face with Angelus. He froze. The demon, fangs bared and eyes at their brightest yellow, grinned brightly.

"Hello Rupert." Before Giles could back away, the vampire reached out, seizing him by the shirt collar and dragging him around the cramped bend. The Watcher began to shout out in warning to the others, only to be flung against the wall by Angelus. Breath knocked from his body Giles could only gasp inaudible words. Ethan was hauled around the bend after him, before the vampire, eyes gleaming horribly, pulled a long knife from his belt. Giles stumbled back to his feet.

"No!" It came out in a rush of returning oxygen; a desperate shout that had absolutely no effect. The knife jabbed around the bend; an advancing arm showed whitely against the stones of the surrounding walls. Somebody yelled aloud in pain, and the knife reappeared in a blaze of gushing blood. There was the sound of running feet; stumbling, racing bodies; shouts of warning and desperation. Angelus pulled his victim around the corner, finally dragging him out of the clutching grasp of his few remaining comrades. A young man dressed in leather, bleeding profusely from a knife wound in his arm, the helpless prisoner struggled weakly. The sound of departing feet showed that his friends had given up on him, leaving him to face his fate alone. The noise made him sag in defeat, sinking back against the vampire still holding him so tightly. Giles started forwards.

"Let him go." He spoke as calmly and as levelly as he could, trying not to incur the wrath of the lethal demon. Angelus laughed.

"Still trying to save the world, Rupert? Shame you couldn't bring Buffy with you. I've killed her once, and I'd really like to get the chance to do it all over again." He bent his head to the man in his arms, teeth seeking the neck with the ease of long practice. Giles took another step forward, faster now and more determined. The eyes of the man in Angelus's arms opened wide as the pain of the bite reached his brain, and he began to struggle weakly. His eyes locked upon Giles, pleading without words. Giles took another step forwards, and Angelus began to growl in warning.

"Keep back!" With a snarl he spun his victim about, whirling the man like a weapon, legs flying out like those of a rag doll. The young man's booted feet grazed the Watcher's chest, making him stumble back. He regained his balance in a matter of seconds, but as soon as he stepped forwards once again, and his eyes once more caught those of the young man, he saw nothing but the glazed look of emptiness. The young man was dead. Angelus let him fall.

"Damn that tastes good." He wiped the blood from his mouth, staring dispassionately at the body at his feet. His knife was still lodged in the man's arm, but he made no effort to retrieve it. "Now you and I are going to go somewhere quiet for a little chat, Rupert. There are some things that we need to discuss."

"There's nothing that I want to discuss with you." Giles looked down at the dead man, still reeling over this vision of an Angel who was once again without a soul. For some reason that he did not wish to dwell upon, all that he could think of now was Jenny.

"Well that's just hard luck, Rupert." Angelus was smiling, insulting and scornful. His fangs had disappeared, and his face was once again that of the young man with whom Buffy had fallen so very much in love; the man that Giles had considered such a close and useful friend. Ethan nodded.

"I agree with him. There's no point in arguing."

"Listen to your friend." The smile had gone from the vampire's face; the good humour evaporated in a second. "You come with me, or you die. Your choice. I actually like both options so it really doesn't matter which one you choose."

"Ripper..." Ethan was tired now, the playful cowardice gone from his voice. This time he was not a man joking, but was a man genuinely asking for his life. Giles hesitated, listening to the silent city around him. It seemed to emphasise Ethan's voice, pushing his point home. The Watcher sighed, and gave a brief, heavy nod.

"Alright. We'll go back to my place." At least there there was some chance of salvation. Angelus nodded back, clearly satisfied.

"Your place it is. Oh, and Rupert?" He was smiling again, eyes bright and amused. "Try anything, and you're dead before you've even started to make your move. Understand?"

"We understand." Ethan stepped aside to let Giles take the lead. "Don't we Ripper."

"Oh yes. We understand." Slowly simmering, Giles closed his mind to the presence of the deadly vampire. He wanted to think about other things, for time was running out. Soon the mayor would be coming; and if he had not found a way to cancel the wish before then, he would never see Buffy again. More than that - the whole world was likely to suffer. The whole world could finally sink into the mire against which Slayers and Watchers had fought since the beginning of Time. He found, without any real surprise, that he didn't care about any of that. All that he cared about was what had happened to Buffy. Saving her was all that was important.

Right now, though, it didn't look as if he was even going to manage that.


It was reassuring to be back within the warm and relatively safe walls of Giles's apartment building. Ethan had no idea how it came to be so unscathed considering the destruction around it, but he ignored that conundrum, and instead merely threw himself into a chair. The whisky bottles from the previous night rolled about as he kicked them, and the sound of chinking glass was music to his ears. He closed his eyes.

"No slacking." Angelus sounded angry. Giles shot him a decidedly unfriendly look.

"What is it exactly that you want?"

"The usual." The vampire smiled a sly, ill-tempered smile. "Power, fun, chaos... torture." He reached out, grabbing Giles by the back of the neck. "Blood."

"If you were planning to drain us you'd have done it already." Irritable, Giles pushed the vampire away. He had once become used to seeing Angel as the enemy, but he had had plenty of time since then to re-adapt himself to thinking of the dark and brooding man as his friend. He had forgiven Angel for the wrongdoings of Angelus; for the hours of torture in that dark little room; even for the death of Jenny Calendar. And yet now here he was again - the demon in the flesh. Six feet of evil intentions and malicious humour. The Watcher's hands itched for a stake, even though he was not sure if he would be able to bring himself to use it.

"Good point Rupert." Angelus turned away, apparently more than trusting in his safety. The profusion of weaponry did not seem to bother him, which suggested that his instincts were still well-honed. "You still got that whisky hidden in the old tin in the back of your cupboard?" He wandered into the kitchen, rummaging around with a clatter of falling saucepans. "Ah yes. Here it is." He reappeared with a bottle and three glasses. "Can I offer anyone a drink?"

"Yeah." Not caring about the vampire's reasons for bringing them to the apartment, and certainly not caring about why he was being friendly enough to offer round drinks, Ethan clambered to his feet and accepted a glass. Angelus poured a good measure of whisky into it, then filled another which he handed to Giles. The Watcher looked at it, but made no move to drink. Both Ethan and Angel drained their glasses in a gulp. Angelus flashed Giles an amused smirk.

"Not drinking, Rupert?"

"Not with you." Giles put the glass down. "Now how about you tell me what it is that you want? Aside from torturing us, that is."

"You know, anybody ever tell you that you really hold a grudge? So I tortured you once... for a few hours. So what? It doesn't necessarily follow that that's all I'm interested in. I also like finding things out. Granted, the two usually go hand in hand... but then if I want to find something out, and somebody won't tell me, then they've got nobody but themselves to blame if they get themselves tortured. And if that's the way it has to be between us, Rupert..."

"Er..." Holding his hand up like a school child waiting to be asked the answer to a question, Ethan fluttered a nervous smile at the two other men. "I don't require any torture, thankyou. Just ask me a question and I'll be happy to answer it. Really. Honestly."

"You know something? I believe you Ethan. I honestly do." Angel dropped his hand onto the sorcerer's lightly quivering shoulder. "You have nice friends, Rupert. It's a pity that you don't follow their example." His eyes darkened in a flash of simmering menace, and his hand abruptly tightened its grip upon the hapless Ethan. The Englishman's eyes bulged and he began to sink to the floor, face paling drastically.

"Leave him alone." Giles felt sick at Angelus's show of unnecessary brutality. "If there's something that you want from us, just ask. We came here with you obligingly enough. We could have staked you by now."

"Ha." Angelus let go of Ethan, watching dispassionately as the unfortunate man stumbled backwards, rubbing at his pained shoulder. "What with? You were unarmed out on the street, and even if you had had a nice sharp piece of wood, you wouldn't have used it. You're smarter than that, Rupert old man. You know that you only need to pull out a stake and I'd break your neck before you could take a step towards me. I'm not one of those useless creatures you run into during a night patrolling the streets with Buffy." His eyes narrowed. "And speaking of which... how is she? In your world I mean. Still putting wrongs to right? Still saving the idiots who haven't realised how dangerous the night can be?"

"Of course she is." Pride showed clearly in Giles's voice. "What more would you expect?"

"From somebody as boring and predictable as my former lady love? Nothing." Angelus smirked. "And what about me? What am I doing in this other place?"

"Making the world a little better every day." Giles couldn't resist an inadvisable smirk of his own. "Saving lost souls in Los Angeles, protecting the weak and the helpless. I'd be proud of you Angel, if I wasn't annoyed at the way that you walked out on Buffy. The pair of you clearly still love each other."

"Liar!" With a wild swing Angel launched a powerful backhand at Giles, which luckily did not strike home as squarely as he might have hoped. Giles dodged the worst of it, although it still carried enough force to knock him back a step. "You're trying to tell me that I keep my soul? That the mayor's death sentenced me to a life as that useless, do-gooding, de-fanged aberration forced upon me by the curse? I'd rather die."

"Oddly enough, that can be arranged." Touching his lip rather gingerly, Giles discovered that there was no blood. Angel glared at him, but made no attempt at a further assault. Instead he sighed, turning away to punch the wall with disturbingly unaffected knuckles.

"Great. Just great. I get stuck with the most annoying demon I've ever encountered, and now it turns out that I'm only me thanks to him. Are you honestly telling me that if it wasn't for that over-sized, over-blown ego machine, I'd still be Angel the Ever-Forgiving?"

"I imagine that he revoked the curse after coming to power." Arms folded, Giles leant against the breakfast bar. "Presumably he had his reasons."

"Oh he did." Angelus seemed to have recovered his sense of humour. "We had a lot fun, the two of us, tormenting Buffy." He ran his tongue across his lips. "I finally got to wipe out that irritating little twerp Xander - not that he was worth it. He tasted of cheap after shave. But Buffy looked like her heart was going to drop out." He giggled gently to himself. "It was like working my magic on Drusilla all over again, back in the good old days. I could almost see Buffy going mad, each time that I killed somebody she was close to. I'm only sorry that somebody else beat me to her mother." He smirked. "And to you, Rupert. She could have Watched you for a change - or rather she could have watched me taking you apart. That would have been beautiful." He shrugged, refilling his glass with more whisky, and offering the bottle towards Ethan once again. "Still, I had my fun. There was this little guy called Jonathon." A lazy grin had begun to spread itself across the vampire's face, and it grew broader at the flicker of recognition that Jonathon's name had sparked in Giles's eyes. "He whimpered beautifully, although in the end he was surprisingly brave. I like a whimperer. It adds spice."

"Yes. Beautiful mental image though all this presents, you still haven't got any closer to telling us why it is that you've brought us here." Giles managed to keep the lion's share of the distaste from his voice. Angel raised an eyebrow, the darkness of his expression changing only slightly as he reached out for Giles's abandoned whisky glass. He held it out.

"What I want, Rupert, is for you to share a drink with me. It's not a lot to ask."

"I wouldn't drink with you if I was dying of thirst." Giles resisted the temptation to knock the glass from the vampire's hand. Angel glowered.

"You'd better rethink that. Either you agree to a partnership, or I kill the pair of you now. You know that I can deal with you both without breaking a sweat. You see, you and I, Rupert, we're both after the same thing. We both want to deal with the mayor. I'm suggesting that we pool resources. You need me to get close to him, but you're the ones with the knowledge. You can find a way to kill him, preferably without having to bury Sunnydale beneath a volcano in the process. I'd like there to be something resembling a town left when we've finished. A king needs a domain over which to rule, don't you think?"

"You're suggesting that I help you to kill the mayor, so that you can rule Sunnydale in his stead?" Giles looked horrified, and made no attempt to take his proffered glass. "Why the bloody hell would I do that? I have no intention of killing the mayor. Buffy and I have already done that, a year ago at her graduation ceremony. All that I want to do is to turn things back to how they were before Ethan here made his wish."

"A world where I've got a soul again?" Angelus shook his head. "No can do, Giles old man. I'm just not interested. And I don't think that you can do this without my help. The mayor will be here any time now. He'll have discovered your escape, and he'll be coming with a hundred of his minions. Then you'll be right back where you started."

"I don't care." The vehemence of Giles's words surprised even the Watcher himself. "I wouldn't work with you whatever the stakes happened to be. Do you think that I could help the creature that killed Jenny? That I would ever consider helping the monster that did such unspeakable things to Buffy - tormenting her, trying to destroy her in such a despicable fashion?" This time he did take the glass, but instead of drinking from it he hurled it to the floor. Whisky splashed Angelus's heavy leather boots, and the glass itself shattered into oblivion.

"You're going to be sorry that you did that, Rupert." His shoulders squaring, the vampire took a step towards the Watcher, who valiantly stood his ground. Ethan was resolutely refusing to catch his eye, which rather destroyed any chance of his being able to take advantage of such a tailor-made distraction. Angelus growled.

"Kill me and you'll never defeat the mayor." This time Giles did take a step back, his foot sending shards of glass skimming about on the floorboards. Angelus merely laughed.

"Screw the mayor. He can keep Sunnydale. To be honest with you Rupert, killing you might just be worth it."

"You can't." Refusing to back-pedal any further, Giles came to a resolute standstill. "You're no fool. You know that pretty soon the mayor is going to begin suspecting that you're not at all loyal. How long do you suppose it'll be after that before he has you killed? Without me you have no way of killing him. Angel may have been good at research, but with your soul gone you're nothing but a barbarian again. You don't have the patience to spend all those hours trawling through my books."

"A barbarian?" Angelus stopped dead, a frown curling its way across his forehead. "You think having a soul made me more intelligent? You think I had more time for the finer things in life just because I wore lots of hair gel, and liked to watch the moon rise? You think that that... that travesty of a demon was better with a soul just because he was all repentant and polite, and because he liked to sit around brooding a lot? You know, I'm inclined to take that as an insult." He lashed out, this time without giving Giles time to dodge the worst of the blow. The back of the vampire's hard hand caught him across the mouth, sending him stumbling backwards in a reel of confused senses, vision blurred uselessly. When he recovered himself, and was able, once again, to see the world clearly, he saw that Angelus had turned. The fangs leant his insulting grin added menace, and his heavy brow ridge emphasised the evil burn of the hot yellow eyes. The vampire regarded him for a moment, clearly on the brink of doing something that he was very much going to enjoy. "And I really, really, don't like to be insulted." He leapt.

They hit the ground together, Angelus on top like some rabid beast, his growls and roars adding to the illusion of wild abandon. Giles felt claw-like nails against his shoulders, cutting through the material of his shirt, making short work of the skin beneath. A pair of fangs loomed close in his vision, near to his neck, ready to bite. He fought back, struggling to get the upper hand no matter how futile it might be to struggle against so powerful a creature. He managed to push the demon back to arm's length, gaining one brief, vital second in which to catch a breath, before Angelus was upon him again, dragging him to his feet, hurling him against the wall. Giles's glasses fell to the floor, smashing into pieces as Angelus came towards him again, the heavy black boots crushing frame and lens without so much as a sound. Once again the hard, powerful hands of the vampire closed upon Giles's shoulders. He stared back into the mad yellow eyes, almost hypnotised, for a second, by the tumult that burned within them - the rage, the hate and the evil; the madness that came from a creature born of hell. For a second the fear almost took him; before he gathered his determination once again, and put all of the strength that he could muster into a punch that caught Angelus in the stomach. The vampire let out a howl of pain, stumbling back a step, gasping for breath - then breathlessness turned to growling, and the howl became a roar. The illusion of humanity all but gone, he hurled himself at Giles again - and this time the Watcher knew that there was not going to be another chance to fight back. They crashed to the floor, both winded, but Giles the more so. His head collided with the floorboards with a thud that turned his stomach. The sharp fangs that filled his vision made a snatch for his neck, locking instead upon his arm as he made one last attempt to defend himself. He felt the powerful teeth sinking into his wrist, felt a rush of heat and pain as the blood began to flow; then felt his arm almost wrenched from its socket as the vampire tore the wrist from his mouth and bent again to the unprotected neck. Giles had a brief thought that perhaps he had been safer, back in the days of ties and tweed - and then suddenly he could no longer breathe; could no longer see; could no longer hear or smell anything other than the looming, feeding vampire. Everything began to spin in darkening circles. He thought that he heard, dimly, a heavy crash, but he was no longer clear-headed enough to be sure.

"Rupert?" Ethan's voice called him back, and he opened his eyes uncertainly. The blurred face of his friend looked down at him, anxious and concerned. Giles blinked.

"What happened?" Vaguely wondering if he was just waking up after the previous night's drinking marathon - an illusion supported by the fact that he was lying on the sitting room floor just feet from the scene of that earlier escapade - the former Watcher groaned loudly and began to sit up. His head hurt, there were two hot, sharp points of pain in his neck, and his wrist was slick with blood. He groaned again. No hangover. Not this time. "Angelus?"

"I hit him." Ethan pointed, at the same time helping Giles to rise to his feet. The vampire lay on the ground nearby, clearly unconscious. The weapon that Ethan had apparently used to render him in such a state lay beside him; a huge crossbow made from heavily-treated wood with the weight and feel of stone. Giles had almost forgotten its existence, not having used it in years. It was hardly a convenient weapon for swift battle and dextrous manoeuvring. Apparently, though, it was perfect for the rather less adroit task of clobbering somebody over the head.

"We should stake him I suppose." Ethan helped Giles to the breakfast bar, where he could more easily lean and support himself. "He'll probably wake up soon."

"Undoubtedly." Regaining his breath with reassuring speed, Giles looked around for something with which to staunch the flow of blood from his bitten wrist. His neck seemed to be dealing with its situation itself, the damage there perhaps being less. The wrist looked as though it had been put through a mincer. "He's the resilient sort."

"That doesn't surprise me." Ethan returned from the weapons chest with a stake; a slightly crooked affair that had been one of Buffy's earliest attempts to learn the skill of cutting them for herself. "I'd have done it earlier, but I didn't want to risk missing when things were looking so urgent."

"And you didn't want to risk him killing you as well." Giles took the stake, then hesitated as he looked towards Angelus. Unconscious upon the ground, fangs and other vampiric features gone, he was once again Angel - a friend and associate; Buffy's boyfriend; the man that Giles had fought alongside on so many an occasion. Ethan seemed to guess his thoughts.

"It's not your friend that you're killing. You're not really killing anybody at all. Once we put things back to how they're supposed to be, he'll be alive again. None of this will really have happened, except to us."

"I know." Walking over to the fallen figure, Giles stood beside him, staring down. "But that doesn't make it any easier. It doesn't make any of this any easier. It's still killing - just on rather a larger scale than I had envisaged."

"I don't follow." Ethan crossed to stand beside him. "He's just one vampire. Okay, so he's sort of a friend, but--"

"I don't mean Angel." Giles threw the stake onto the nearest chair, and went unsteadily to the window. The curtains were still drawn from the previous night, but chinks of weak daylight showed through. He tugged the heavy curtains aside, revealing the streets in all their damaged horror. Lines of survivors stood there in the cold, arranged like the bedraggled armies of some defeated but still determined warlord. There were many more than had met Giles and Ethan in the ruins of Ethan's old hotel. A hundred or so men and women, with a few scattered, ragged children; all of them holding weapons salvaged from the ruins of their homes. "I mean all of them."

"I still don't understand you." Cautious of turning his back on Angelus, Ethan followed Giles to the window, wondering if the beating had damaged his old friend's mind. "We're not going to kill them. We're going to given them their lives back."

"In a sense, yes. But in a sense we'll also be killing them. These people aren't the ones that live in Sunnydale now - the Sunnydale that we left behind. These are people who have been shaped by their experiences, and turned into entirely different personalities. They have different lives; entire lives. To us this has all happened overnight, but to them it's all been this way for more than a year. They've been shaped by their experiences, learnt new lessons. Like it or not, Ethan, we haven't just created a new Sunnydale; we've created a new population. And we'll be killing them if we turn things back. You can call it liberation if you like - but it's also murder. Mass murder."

"So you'd rather let things stay as they are? Let more of them die, let them live as the toys of a creature like the mayor? Everybody that you care about is dead in this reality, Ripper. What are you planning? For the two of us to try to make things work in this brave new world? Because if that's your plan you can count me out. I'm getting out of here by the first available route."

"I didn't say that I wasn't going to try to change this back. I'm just saying that it's not as straightforward as it was supposed to be. It's not all that simple. As soon as we met those men out on the street, everything changed."

"And everything is going to change even more pretty soon. If we don't get a move on your neighbours are going to find a way in here, and are going to tear us limb from limb. That's always supposing that the vampire doesn't wake up and do it for them. We have a demon to find, Rupert. We have a wish to revoke."

"One wish for another." Giles turned away from the window. "For all we know, the world that we live in is just somebody's wish. Maybe even that's not the way things are supposed to be. Maybe the true reality is something very different for all of us."

"That guy really did hit you hard, didn't he." Ethan sighed. "Right or wrong, true or not, we have to turn things back. I don't care if our world is a dream or a wish or an illusion. I don't care if none of it ever really happened at all, and we're just hallucinating the lot as part of some mammoth opium dream back in 1976. It doesn't matter."

"No, I don't suppose it does." Walking rather painfully, Giles wandered back to Angelus. There seemed little point in killing him if they were merely to return back to their own world. Somehow he couldn't quite stir himself to use the stake. Instead he hurled it aside and went to the kitchen, snatching up a cloth to wrap around his still-bleeding wrist. "But even an assertion like that doesn't help us very much. We still don't know how to turn things back - or even whether it's possible to do so."

"Any spell can be revoked. The trick is knowing how to do it." Ethan stood watching him bind up his wrist, making no effort to help. "I can't believe that I'm intending to help you make things right. Me, a white hat." There was a crash as some makeshift missile hurled by a Sunnydale resident broke through a window, hitting the ground with a smash of splitting floorboards and crunching glass. "And then all of a sudden I remember why I want to help. Roll on Buffy. I want the Slayer back."

"The Slayer isn't going to help you." His voice a growl in the back of his throat, Angelus had awoken; or more likely had been awake and listening in secret for some time. He made no attempt to get up, and instead lay where he had fallen on the ground. Ethan jumped violently at the sound of his voice, then snatched the stake from where Giles had left it, and tried to make himself look menacing. Angelus clearly was not impressed. "The only thing that can help you is if you help me to kill the mayor."

"I thought you were happy to let the mayor keep Sunnydale. I thought that your only interest was in killing me." Giles finished seeing to his hand, and faced the vampire with more than a trace of superiority in his murky green eyes. Angelus growled.

"I can compromise. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. I can forgo a pleasant hour ripping your throat out, if you'll help me rip the mayor's throat out instead - figuratively speaking." He ran a tongue across his lips, somehow contriving to make the gesture both lascivious and truly evil. "And then I'll deal with Faith personally." A second crash momentarily stole his attention, as another missile made short work of a second window. The vampire smiled. "Better make up your mind quickly Rupert. At this rate it looks like your neighbours will be tearing you to shreds before the mayor even gets a look in."

"That doesn't matter." Giles was advancing towards him, eyes hot. "I keep telling you, Angel; it's not the mayor that I'm after. All that I want is to fix Ethan's wish; to destroy this charming little world that he dreamt up. If I can't do that, I still won't help you. My place is in the real world with Buffy, not hiding in a wish with the creature that tortured her to death."

"Then you'll die. You're never going to catch that demon. You don't even know that it's still here." Angelus, unconcerned by Ethan's attempt to be threatening, stood up and crossed to one of the windows. He pulled back the curtains with so much force that they fell from their railing, dropping to the floor in a shower of broken rings and snapped plastic hooks. Beyond the glass the massive shadow of the mayor's snake-like form towered; a vast dark form that stretched the length of the street. Walls that had managed to remain standing collapsed as he twitched his tail, and somewhere a voice screamed in mortal agony. Giles lowered his eyes. He felt responsible, somehow, for each death that was the fault of the mayor. If he had not opened Ethan's box; if he had not allowed Ethan inside his house; if he had not got so stupidly, totally drunk - none of this would have happened. Sunnydale would still be safe - relatively speaking - and the mayor would still be dead. The residents of the town at the mouth of hell would not have seen their children eaten alive on graduation day. The landlord at Ethan's old hotel would not have been forced to kill his sixteen year-old niece. Buffy and her rag-tag gang of friends would still be alive. Instead every one of them - from the oldest to the youngest inhabitant of Sunnydale, and who knew how far beyond - had been forced to ride the roller coaster nightmare that was Ethan's wish. Ethan's wish. It came clear to him then in a second, with the sort of molten black clarity that could only exist in a world of magic that was truly evil.

"What are you looking at me like that for?" Giles hadn't been aware that he was staring at Ethan, but his old friend's voice called him back from his darkened reverie. He blinked.

"I was just... thinking."

"About how to get us out of here?"

"Yes." Giles shook himself mentally, trying to recover the certainty of thinking which had been lost to him in the onslaught of Angelus's first vicious attack.

"Good." Ethan was staring out of the window at the approaching army of vampires that trailed in the mayor's wake. The army of Sunnydale residents were still in place outside the house, and it looked as though a battle was soon to commence. One or two of the men and women hurled their missiles at the enemy, either forgetting Giles's apartment or choosing to face the more immediate problem first. The mayor roared his displeasure. Angelus laughed.

"It looks as though your neighbours are going to beat you to the next life, Rupert. Maybe they'll forgive you when you join them there."

"Maybe." Giles was still staring at Ethan, who seemed to have forgotten him now. He was transfixed by the tumult on the streets. Vampires and humans were moving towards each other, the mayor standing above it all like some mammoth referee. It looked like graduation day all over again, when the armies of the mayor had clashed with the armies led by the Slayer and her gang; when everybody had joined together to fight off the threat they had chosen to ignore for so long. There was no sign of togetherness in this fight though; no hint that the humans were united against the vampire foe. Instead there was merely anger and helplessness; fury and futility. The humans, despite being in the majority, were already beginning to lose.

"You have to kill him, Rupert. You're never going to revoke that wish. Killing the mayor is the only way that you can save Sunnydale now." Angelus was moving close to Giles; dangerously close, although the Watcher felt no sense of threat. "Find me a way to kill him, or there's going to be nothing left of this town or the people in it."

"No." Giles was as transfixed by the fighting as Ethan, although fragments of his mind lingered on another thought. "No, there has to be a way."

"But you said yourself that changing things back would be the same as killing these people. You may be getting one world back, but you'd be destroying another in the process."

"This isn't the real world. It doesn't count." Giles was heading towards the window. Angelus caught hold of his arm.

"You don't know that. This might be the real world. Maybe the other one was just a wish."

"And maybe they both are." Giles let the vampire spin him around, staring into the all-too human eyes so close to his own. "Maybe everything is just a wish. Maybe you were never a vampire. Maybe I was never a Watcher. Maybe in the real world Buffy is just a cheerleader who's never had to face a single demon." He tore his arm free. "And maybe in the real world we're all dead, and the mayor is just the lapdog of some truly terrifying demon that rules everything. Truth is..." He shook his head. "The truth is that I don't know what the truth is. I don't know where one wish ends and other one begins. I just know that the only way to revoke one wish, is to make another."

"The demon isn't here." Angel's voice was filled with a hateful sneer. "It won't come true."

"Yes it will." Giles stepped away from him, unwilling to turn his back on the vampire, but not seeing any other way. "It has to."

"And what is this other wish?" Angelus was not bothering to follow him, but from the sound of his voice, Giles could tell that he was no longer wearing his human face. Giles took hold of Ethan's shoulders, turning him around. With gentle hands he took the stake from his old friend's slackening grip.

"I wish..." Giles stared up at the mayor; at the dark, evil eyes that hovered above him. At any moment that head was going to make its strike. He could see the intentions in the expression of reptilian delight. Even as he thought it, the head seemed to move back, in preparation for its purposeful descent. He caught a glimpse of Faith standing by the mayor's side, her hands gripping her beloved dagger, its blade wet with blood. She was smiling; happy and joyful for the first time since he had laid eyes on her. The one person in all of the world, it seemed, for whom Ethan's wish had meant something good. "I wish that I didn't have to do this."

"Ripper..." Ethan was staring at the stake, gone from his own hands, gripped now in the hands of his oldest friend - and oldest enemy. Giles shrugged.

"You made the world, Ethan. It's a world made from your wish. You wanted chaos and evil. You wanted demons to rule it all. You have to face the consequences."

"I wish for your death too." Ethan's face had changed; contorted by a sudden burst of hatred. Giles smiled a last, sad smile.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that now. I don't think there ever was, once you'd made a wish like that. Everything here is something that one or the other of us has wished at some point, at some time in our lives. A world of dark magic; Sunnydale residents who understood the battle we face; Angelus evil again, to make it easier for me to live with everything that he'd done. I actually did wish that once, not long after I learned that he had regained his soul. I didn't think that I could live with it all otherwise..." He shook his head. "Point is, I've wished most of this before, and a whole lot of it is stuff that you've wished too. For Buffy to be gone. For you and me to be on the same side again, whatever side that happened to be. And I'm willing to bet that at some time in your life, recently or otherwise, you've wished me dead. I know I've wished the same of you."

"I can't let you do this, Rupert." Giles wasn't sure if the voice was Ethan's or Angel's. Either way he shrugged.

"And I can't let it be any other way. It's one wish or another. One way or another."

"Ripper..." Ethan's eyes were pleading. Above their heads the mayor had drawn back to the final extent of his height, ready to descend at speed. Giles knew what the likely result of that was going to be. The only question that remained to him now was whether Angelus would move quickly enough to kill him before the mayor did. He smiled. So much chaos and mayhem. So much destruction. That had been his wish as well, once upon a time. Before him, trapped against the window frame, Ethan began to struggle. Giles turned his eyes hard, and raised the stake. Behind him Angelus growled. Above him the mayor began to roar. Outside the window the vampires and the humans were joined together in a furious, insane battle that filled the world with even greater, baser, more furious screaming and shouting. All of the noise joined together as one. Giles might have cowered away from it, had not the Ripper been drinking it all in. With one last, deep breath to steady his hands, he brought the stake down. Ethan screamed; his eyes bulged. Blood poured forth in a mighty stream. Angelus howled his fury and the mayor struck. The last glimpse that Giles had of the world was of the window beside him exploding into a million billion tiny shards of glass; of a rushing blur of black and green as the mayor crashed into the room; and of Ethan's body, eyes accusing, as it slumped in a heap upon the floor. Then there was nothing but heat, and teeth, and pain that shut out the world.

And after that there was nothing.


In the beginning, there was nothing but darkness. Total darkness, of the kind that could only be found in the depths of a Sunnydale night. Light followed slowly at first; tiny pinpricks of painful intensity, like persistent fire flies determined to make the world a brighter place. The fire flies were talking in loud voices, that for some reason made the darkness an altogether more painful place in which to lie. Why did everything hurt so much? And why was the world so bloody dark? Gathering his strength, Giles opened his eyes. Oh yeah, that was it. He had had his eyes shut, because the light hurt them too much. He groaned.

"How much did you drink?" The voice definitely didn't belong to a fire fly, of that much he was now certain. He tried to answer it, no matter to whom it happened to belong. A dry-throated mumble was all that he seemed capable of coming out with, and he frowned. Where had his voice gone? He sat up, and in a whirl of rushing blood, spinning senses and protesting limbs, everything came flooding back. He and Ethan. Two bottles of whisky - mercifully neither full - and some insane attempt to be the last man standing. He groaned.

"There's no sense looking sorry now." The fire fly had at last resolved itself into Buffy, the small blonde girl that carried the fate of the world upon her narrow shoulders; and who had, single-handedly, turned the life of Rupert Giles upside down. He smiled. It was quite wonderful to see her again. She caught the warm glow in his eyes and blushed.

"And don't try to get around me that way. You're too old to party. It's unnatural."

"Whores." Xander announced it as though it should all make perfect sense to everybody. "Fur flying. I've been warning you guys about this for years, and nobody paid any attention. Once he started singing in a night-club, it was really only a matter of time."

"Yes. Thankyou Xander." Giles sat down rather heavily on the settee, trying surreptitiously to remove the blood-soaked cloth still wrapped around his wrist. He was sure that everybody must have noticed it, but nobody said anything. Fortunately the puncture marks beneath had gone completely; just as though they had never been there. To judge by the time displayed upon the clock on the wall, perhaps they never had been. "Um... might I inquire what you're all doing here?"

"We heard that Ethan Rayne was back in town." Willow was sitting on the arm of the settee beside him. "We thought..."

"I haven't seen him." Giles straightened his shirt collar, hoping that the marks from Angelus's tearing fangs had vanished from there as well. Buffy nodded.

"That'll be why he's lying over in the corner, as drunk as a skunk."

"Which is probably being a little unfair towards skunks." Xander turned to look at the prostrate man. "I have to say that, in all my experience of skunks being drunk - which is quite a lot, because believe me they're really quite under-rated party machines - I have never yet seen one as drunk as that."

"Oh." Giles glanced over at his old friend, blushing slightly. "He may have stopped by for a while last night, now that I come to think about it."

"You want me to call the police?" Buffy looked as though she would far rather deal with Ethan herself. Giles shook his head, regretting the movement immediately. Time clearly was not the only thing reset to obliterate the events within the land of Ethan's wish; Giles's body was equally convinced that it had never happened. As far as his head was concerned, he was merely waking up after the mammoth drinking session. It was almost enough to make him wish that he was back in the mayor's ruined Sunnydale. There had been no hangover in that world.

"No." Giles smiled at her, in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion. "He's not here to cause trouble. Actually he, er, he was trying to help. He brought news of a new demon in town. To, um, t-to be honest Buffy, I think that he may have learnt his lesson."

"Really." She didn't sound even slightly convinced. "We'll see."

"I don't think he'll be staying in town anyway. I rather think that he'll be heading back to Cairo." Giles stood up, determined to gain some control over his unruly and rebellious head. "He likes it there."

"And we like him to be there." Buffy took a look around the room. Several ornaments were broken, and the carpet on the stairs was torn, as though by the marks of small claws. "Next time the pair of you decide to have a drinking competition, maybe you should do it at his place."

"That mightn't be a bad idea." He hesitated. "Listen, Buffy I--"

"No." She held up her hands. "Ever since that day when I walked in on you and Olivia for the first time, I've had this urgent desire never to inquire into your private life. It was enough of a revelation just to discover that you even had one." She gestured at Ethan. "Just make sure that he leaves town before I run into him again."

"I'll do that." He felt quite sheepish about being discovered with his supposed enemy in his house - not that it was the first time Ethan had done something despicable, only to return to a surprisingly friendly welcome. "Um... did you patrol last night?"

"Did two hours around midnight. Killed two vampires. Nothing major. All very routine."

"And everything seemed... normal?"

"Boringly so." She frowned. "Were you expecting anything else?"

"Oh... not really." He smiled, still looking faintly awkward. "I was just wondering."

"Having seen Ethan back in Sunnydale I'm wondering myself." She sighed. "But I have classes to worry about right now."

"Oh!" Willow leapt to her feet. "Classes. Yeah. Psychology."

"Which is, like, so much less intense since Professor Walsh..." Buffy trailed off. She was only too well aware of Giles's opinions regarding Professor Walsh. They didn't seem to have softened any since her recent death, either, which spoke volumes about the depths of his dislike. He nodded.

"You'd better be off. I don't want to make you late. We'll meet this evening, yes?"

"Seven o'clock. I'll be here." They shared a smile. It was nice to be arranging meetings again - to be getting together for the Slayer training sessions that they had both missed so much the previous year. "Should I bring a king-size box of Alka-Seltzer, or will your head be obeying orders again by then?"

"It'll be obeying orders again. Either that or I'll, er, I'll have removed it." He flashed her a rueful smile. "Go on now. Lessons."

"Yeah. Lessons." Xander shook his fists in mock excitement. "And I have to go and vacuum some cars at the twenty-four hour car wash place, so obviously I'm not wanting to be late either."

"Never mind, Xand. Maybe Anya will drive by and leave a really big tip." Buffy began to herd her little group towards the door. "See you Giles."

"Yes." He smiled after her, still feeling quite ridiculously happy to have spoken to her again. Behind him there was a short burst of heavily derisive laughter.

"She really does have you twisted around her little finger, doesn't she. Slayer's pet."

"Ethan." Giles crossed to his old enemy, hauling him to his feet. "You look... ill."

"So do you." Ethan pulled away from him. "And don't talk to me. I don't want to speak to you again."

"Oh dear. That'll be so hard to live with." Giles shook his head in mild exasperation. "For goodness sakes, man. Don't take it so personally."

"Personally?" Ethan, quite clearly, was outraged. "You staked me."

"Yes." Giles nodded patiently. "But look on the bright side..."

"Bright side? There is no bright side. You drove a stake through my heart. Was I a vampire? Was I acting even slightly demonic? Did I even have a wicked smile? No. And yet you staked me."

"I didn't think that I had a choice. And anyway, you're alive aren't you?"

"No thanks to you, you traitor."

"No thanks to... It's entirely thanks to me! And if it comes to being a 'traitor', there are more than a few words that I could be having with you on that particular subject, Mr I Turned My Best Friend Into A Fyarl Demon. Mr I Keep Coming To Sunnydale To Do Unspeakable Things To The Slayer. And yet you call me a traitor?!"

"At least I've never staked you." Ethan pushed Giles rather hard, earning a similarly hard push in return. "I could have been killed. No, damn it. I was killed. You killed me!"

"Only for a little while."

"I don't care. You still killed me."

"Oh for goodness sakes. You do whine on about the most minor--"

"Being murdered is not especially minor."

"Then you shouldn't have made such a damned silly wish. I didn't have a choice. Listen to me Ethan. Everything that we saw in that place - all of it. That all came from the wish you made about wanting more demons and chaos. That version of Sunnydale existed inside your head, and the only way that I could think of to destroy it was to... well..."

"To destroy me too." Ethan, clearly, was livid. He started forward, jabbing a hard finger into Giles's chest. "But you didn't know that it would work. You had no idea. As far as you knew you were killing me for no reason."

"I didn't have much time for further options, Ethan. We were about two seconds away from being eaten by a giant snake. In fact, as it happens, just after you died I was eaten by a giant snake. I don't remember it as being much fun."

"Really? Well try this for size." Ethan made a dart to his right, coming up with a cross bow held firmly in both hands. "See how you like having something driven into your chest." He stopped short, staring back at Giles, who was holding an identical weapon. Hard eyes stared at hard eyes.

"You can't shoot me without me shooting you." Giles sounded cold. Ethan frowned. One day, he thought to himself, he was going to learn never to try crossing the Ripper. On the other hand, he hadn't learnt yet. Maybe he never would.

"You wouldn't shoot me." He smiled genially. Giles drew back the bolt in the crossbow, latching it in readiness to fire. Ethan mirrored the action, feeling rather obliged to do so. At this range, neither one of them could miss, and the sorcerer began to wonder just how he could lower his weapon without looking incredibly stupid. His eyes narrowed as he tried to gauge the other man's mood. It was impossible.

"Your desires were judged." Its voice shrill and unexpected, the little demon from the previous night appeared upon the stairs in a flash of silver and purple smoke. Giles and Ethan looked at it, then looked back at each other. They could each see the question in the other's eyes. Who had made a wish this time? Ethan opened his mouth as though to speak, but the demon beat him to it. "And they were gran--" Both men spun, firing at once, the crossbow bolts striking home just as the little creature spun into a delighted back flip. The force of the shots knocked it backward through the air as the twin blows caught it simultaneously, in almost exactly the same spot in its chest. There was a high-pitched shriek, a flutter of tattered feathers, and the creature burst apart into ashes. Only its eyes remained, huge and blue, staring brightly from the midst of the demon-shaped dust cloud. Then the ashes had gone, the shriek cut itself off, and the eyes bounced loudly down the stairs. They came to a halt at Giles's feet; two large and perfectly spherical blue stones. He picked them up, tossing the crossbow onto the nearest chair. After a second, Ethan followed suit.

"Jewels from a dying demon. That's got to be worth something." His tone was friendly again. Giles glared at him, then allowed himself to break into a warm grin.

"You take them then. I don't want them."

"But they've got to be unique. Priceless."

"Probably. I just don't like what they represent, that's all." Giles pressed the stones into his friend's eager hands. "You keep them."

"Thanks Ripper. I really appreciate that." Ethan was touched. "Really. I mean after all that... well. You know."

"Yes, I know." For a second there was nothing but warmth between them, and a strange kind of affection that any number of confrontations down the years had been unable to destroy. "Listen, you should be going. I don't mean to throw you out, but Buffy said--"

"Yeah. I heard her." They shared a smile. "And you're right I suppose. The last thing that I want is a broken jaw courtesy of the Slayer."

"You'll be lucky if that's all she breaks."

"Yes, I know. Exactly." Ethan's smile became rather more rueful. "Well I hate to cut and run, but since there doesn't seem to be any choice... I guess I'll be in touch."

"I have no doubt of that." Giles trailed him to the door. "Take care of yourself. Oh, and don't lose those stones."

"I won't." Ethan raised them in his clenched fists, evidently delighted with the turn events had taken in his favour. "Thanks old man. This means a very great deal to me."

"I'm sure that it does." They shook hands. "I imagine that I'll be seeing you. Soon perhaps."

"Yeah." They shared a final smile. "So long, Ripper." Head held high Ethan turned about, his spirits evidently soaring, then walked away down the path. Giles watched him go, a growing smirk lighting his face with a look of unbridled amusement. Filled with a tension that bordered on excitement, he waited impatiently until his old friend was out of sight, before turning and heading back inside his house. Of all of the books that lined his walls, he knew exactly which one to take from its shelf, and he flicked to the right page almost unconsciously. There before him was an illustration depicting a series of perfectly spherical stones, their colours many and varied. There was a small piece of old-fashioned type beside the drawing, and he read it aloud, following the words even though he knew them almost by heart.

There is known to be a certain breed of demon first created by the Devotees of Adorvan, sixteenth century Magicians from the Schools of the Dark Arts. These demons, when killed, appear to leave jewels in their wake, which unsuspecting humans seize as items of great value. These stones, however, despite their great beauty, carry curses of a fiendish design. Prolonged exposure, as well as initiating a period of extreme bad luck, soon results in a process of gradual metamorphosis. The owner begins to take on the physical characteristics of the demon from which the stones were obtained. Ear shape is the first to change, followed by skin texture, colour and tooth size. It is not known whether these changes have the capacity to become permanent, but they can be reversed. The spell required for this is both long and arduous, and requires a considerable degree of skill. Destruction of the stones is advised immediately upon discovery, using an incantation, and the application of liquid fire. Distribution of these stones is highly frowned upon by the Council. Giles grinned, and shut the book with a snap.

"Be seeing you Ethan." His voice, despite his best attempts to hold on to his characteristic sobriety, fully reflected the grin that he could no longer keep from his face. He began to laugh. Some time soon, he thought, he would likely feel very guilty; but until then he was going to enjoy the joke to the full. He returned the book to its shelf and leaned back against the shelf, running the image of a mutated Ethan through his mind. It really was a truly glorious picture. A contented smile of wicked pleasure fought against his self control in a determined effort to take over his face - and eventually succeeded. He couldn't wait to see Buffy later in the day, to share the joke; except that-- He scowled, amusement momentarily lost. Buffy undoubtedly wouldn't see the funny side. She could be remarkably responsible at times for a young girl who was usually so determinedly carefree. Sad though it was, he had to admit to himself that there were some jokes that he just couldn't share with his Slayer - some situations that she really just wouldn't understand. He sighed, before the grin came back for an increasingly wicked encore. There was somebody who would understand; somebody who would share the joy of the darker side to his humour. All of a sudden, he very much wanted to give Olivia a call.

He crossed to the telephone with something in his step that brought to mind Buffy, and her half-joking disapproval of his private life - or, to use her own words, the fact that he actually had one. She would, he was sure, look faintly distressed by his eagerness to make the call to his on-off overseas girlfriend. The warmth of lingering humour caused his grin to grow again as he picked up the receiver and began to dial. Sometimes it was good to shatter your own reputation, no matter how long it had taken to craft it so painstakingly. Parts of his more responsible side were tugging at him though, even as he was waiting for his call to be connected. Maybe he should warn Ethan. An anonymous letter, perhaps. Maybe he should let on about the true nature of those gems. On the other hand... He began to laugh. On the other hand, he was very much looking forward to the day when Ethan turned up at his door wearing horns, not to mention feathers and scales. His laugh grew louder. Led on by the tiny demon - probably wearing a leather jacket and earring - that he was sure was sitting on his shoulder; after disposing of the angel that was supposed to be sitting on the other one; his laugh had not yet faded when Olivia answered the phone.

"Giles, is that you?"

"Yes." He forced himself to sober up a little. "I was wondering if I could see you this weekend."

"I was planning to fly over on Friday. Actually I was just going to give you a call." He could hear her smiling. "You must be a mind reader."

"No. I just knew that you'd be coming. I made a wish." He continued to laugh softly, unable to stop himself.

"Are you quite sure that you're alright Rupert? You haven't hexed yourself or something?"

"Quite sure. It's just... I've got a little story to tell you."

"And would this have anything to do with why you sound so pleased with yourself?"

"It would." He swallowed another laugh. "You remember Ethan Rayne?"

"Ethan? Of course. What's this got to do with him?"

"Everything." This time he couldn't quite stop the laugh. "Remember the time when he cursed my guitar so that it would only play Abba songs?"

"Horribly well, yes. Especially when the curse developed further, and your guitar started playing all by itself at three o'clock in the morning. Abba was the least of its crimes."

"Exactly. Well let's just say that I may finally have got my own back." His laugh grew rather more wicked. "You see, there was this wish demon. And a giant snake."

"Pink Floyd doesn't feature in this story at all does it?"

"Not this time. Just a man with a lot of dead toads."

"Oh." She smiled at the receiver, remembering how much less complicated her life had been before her reunion with Rupert Giles. How much simpler and easier things had once been. And how very much more boring. "Toads, you say."

"Toads." He grinned. "You're not... toadphobic are you?"

"No, I'm not. Although I'm not sure that it's called that."

"Jolly good." He sat down on the desk, looking towards the pile of dust that had once been a very strange-looking demon. "You see, it begins several months ago, when Ethan turned me into a Fyarl demon. I wasn't best pleased."


"And then yesterday he came round for a drink. On the whole, not one of his most sensible moves."

"You haven't done anything illegal have you?"

"Illegal? Definitely not. The law was never imaginative enough to prohibit my battles with Ethan Rayne."

"That's what I was afraid of." She couldn't help a smile. "You know, I rather think that you're gloating." Giles laughed his wicked laugh once again.

"Yes, I rather think that I am. I feel just terrible about it."

"I don't believe you. Why don't you start this story from the beginning?"

"Certainly." He leaned back against a heavy pile of leather-bound books. "You see, it all started like this..."