Halfway There

By Indri

SUMMARY: What happened to Giles in Season Seven?
SPOILERS: For almost all of the televised Buffy and Angel. Guaranteed free of spoilers from the comics, as I haven't read them.
RATING: PG13 for adult themes and violence.
LENGTH: 22 500 words.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Some dialogue is quoted or closely paraphrased from "Lie to Me" and "Restless" by Joss Whedon, "A New Man" and "Storyteller" by Jane Espenson, "Bring on the Night" by Marti Noxon and Douglas Petrie, "Lies My Parents Told Me" by David Fury and Drew Goddard, and "Dirty Girls" by Drew Goddard.Thanks to my beta readers, Peasant, Shapinglight and Revdorothyl.
WRITTEN: Begun September 2004, recommenced September 2009, completed October 2009, finalised and published September 2010.


/1. Newspaper/ 2. Glass/ 3. Spade/ 4. Shoes/ 5. Van/ 6. Hat/ 7. Sofa/ 8. Bulb/ 9. Trolley/ 10. Shirt/ 11. Window/ 12. Bucket/ 13. Apron/ 14. LP/ 15. Cupboards/ 16. Chair/ 17. Car/ 18. Curtains/ 19. Sandwich/ 20. Mattress/ 21. Mugs/ 22. Sleeves/ 23. Slippers/ 24. Spoons/ 25. Gateau/ 26. Beer/ 27. Cigarette/ 28. Jeans/ 29. Keyring/ 30. Juices/ 31. Tarpaulin/ 32. Toothpaste/ 33. Carpet/ 34. Paperback/ 35. Bicycle/ 36. Swing/ 37. Pizza/ 38. Jeans/ 39. Firecrackers/ 40. Tea/ 41. Coffee/ 42. Fabric/ 43. Nachos/ 44. Mobile/ 45. Gin/ 46. Grass/ 47. Rug/ 48. Toast/ 49. Sodas/


1. Newspaper

Molly and Annabelle are waiting for him back at the flat. He has to telephone through first, standing at the booth they can see from the second-storey window. One of them -- he can't tell which -- gives a tentative wave but they don't pull back the bolts until he's called his name through the door: "It's Mr Giles."

The girls look behind him, down the hall, as he enters. "No-one new today," he says, thinking of Robson's charge lying dead back in Bloomsbury. "I think we'll be leaving for America a little earlier than planned."

The rented room's so small that the cord of his bedside phone can reach the kitchenette. He makes himself some tea when the airline puts him on hold. Through a doorway he watches the girls repack their bags, while he tries not to think about how close the axe came to his head. "You'll have to travel light," he tells them. "Onboard luggage only."

Molly looks confused: she's never been out of England, or gone on a plane.

"No suitcases," Annabelle explains. "Just a largish backpack and a handbag."

"Yes, three tickets," says Giles, "as soon as possible to New York. If you wear your bulkiest clothes you won't have to pack them."

The taxi comes at 4 a.m., its headlights blinding. The air is chill, despite a thick layer of cloud, and the girls are shivering as they climb in. "Heathrow," he says, and when the driver asks he has to invent some story about an international youth group for girls.

Heathrow is just starting to waken as they arrive. Molly runs around, looking at anything and everything, and both of the girls want breakfast. He makes the mistake of buying them a bacon sandwich each and is thanked by a frosty glare from Annabelle. Molly eats one and he has the other while Annabelle spends two of his pounds on runny-looking scrambled egg and toast. The whole time he has to keep his eye out for Bringers amongst the queues and crowds.

Past security, he feels a little better, and lets the girls wander around a little as they wait for their flights. Molly is delighted to discover that there are whole stores devoted to hair ornaments for teenagers. Annabelle goes to buy a book as soon as the newsagent's opens; he approves.

That's when he sees the newspaper headlines: there's been a bombing.

He grabs Annabelle's arm. "Fetch Molly," he says.

He buys a copy of The Independent, The Telegraph and even The Sun. They all say the same thing: yesterday afternoon, a savage attack, perpetrators unknown. Neither the Real IRA nor Al Qaida have claimed responsibility, although someone representing anti-WTO groups said something vague on a website. Giles knows it won't be any of those organisations, because the building destroyed is the Council of Watchers HQ.

The papers are unsure of the casualties. "Dozens," one says. "Many feared dead," says another. He checks the time until boarding -- fifteen minutes -- and dares to make a call. He calls Nigel Pradhani first, because he has a mobile, but doesn't get through. Then he rings Alan McEwan, who doesn't pick up. Louise Wells, Fiona Black...

Molly is tugging on his sleeve. "I think they've called our number," she says.

Finally, he rings Penny Jones-Walters in New York. Penny says, "I haven't heard. I don't know. I think I got a call from Lydia but her voice was very weak on the machine. I'll keep Kennedy safe, Rupert, if I can."

"They killed Brian Robson," Giles tells her.

"Last call!" says Molly. "They're saying last call!"

Somehow he gets them onto the plane and persuades them to stow their backpacks. He has to show Molly how to use the seat-belt and then she fiddles with the fold-out table while the plane taxis towards take off. "You have to keep the table up!" snarls Annabelle.

They're children, Giles thinks. They're fifteen.

He doesn't sleep on the flight. He doesn't want to and he's not sure he could. While it's doubtful that Bringers could be smuggled on board, the First could have other agents. Still, he lets the girls sleep fitfully when they can, uncomfortable in their economy-class seats. He only wakes them when a steward starts coming around with lunch.

JFK is a nightmare as always, but they get through it after an hour. He hires a car for the trip to Westchester and then goes to ring Penny's mobile.

There's no answer on the phone.

He looks at his two charges and wonders what to do. An airport hotel, then, before tomorrow's flight to LA? Or should he try to move them to an earlier flight and ring Buffy?

Behind him, the phone starts to ring. Without letting the girls out of his sight, he picks up the phone.

"Hey, who is this?" asks a voice. It's young, female, American and scared.

"This is Mr Giles," he says. "Did Mrs--"

"Where the fuck are you?"

"JFK. We'll be in terminal 3, near the Delta check-in desk."

"I'll be there. Unless, you know, they bust me for driving too fast."

"Are you all right to drive?" he asks, but she's hung up.

"Change of plan!" he announces brightly to Annabelle and Molly. "Kennedy's going to meet us here."

He spends the next twenty minutes at the Avis counter, trying to cancel the car. Then he goes to beg for an earlier flight to LA. After much pleading, he gets a flight for late in the afternoon, but they'll have to change planes in Dallas Fort-Worth.

There's a Starbucks in Terminal Three which the girls want to visit. He lets them buy frappuccinos.

When he spots a dark-haired young woman striding towards the check-in desk, he runs to intercept her. "Ladies, now!"

"What?" she says, clearly confused.

He shakes his head, trying to rid himself of his English idioms. "Restroom. You need to get changed. There's blood all over you."

She looks down at herself. "Some splashes."

"We're on a plane in forty-five minutes. You need to wash up. Don't dump your clothes in the bin -- trash-can -- just put them in as dirty laundry in your bag. And Kennedy--"

"Yeah?"

"Well done. You made it."

She nods slowly and then heads to the restroom.

She comes out twenty minutes later looking freshly-scrubbed and with her make-up re-applied. She's now wearing a denim jacket. There's an awkward set of introductions.

"You're English SITs, then?"

Molly and Annabelle look at each other uncertainly.

"Slayers-in-training?"

"More like slayers-before-training," Molly says. "We only just found out."

"So do you know how to use any weapons? Giles, these things tore Jonesy apart."

"Mr Giles..."

"Tore apart?" whispers Molly.

"Yeah, they had these mucho big curved knives--"

"How did you escape?" Giles asks.

"We got to the car," she says. "I was backing out of the drive. She had a crossbow but they stabbed her and then pulled her out of the window. I just floored it and ran. Then you called her cell."

"Do we get crossbows?" Molly asks.

"No," Giles snaps. "You do not get crossbows."

"Is that other girl in London dead?" asks Annabelle.

"Yes," Giles says. "Nora is dead. Brian Robson is dead. Penny Jones-Walters is dead. At least half of the bloody Council died yesterday. Now will you pay attention!"

They all look at him silently. Then Kennedy says, "You know, we were all paying attention."

No-one wants a second frappuccino when he offers.

They can't really talk during the flight to Dallas because the plane is packed. The two English girls stare hollow-eyed at episodes of Frasier while Kennedy flips almost vengefully through the Skymall catalogue.

"I'm sorry about your Watcher," Giles offers quietly. "I'm sure you did what you could."

"Yeah," says Kennedy. "Me too."

The seat-belt sign goes on as they approach Dallas and the plane hits some turbulence. There's a storm over the city, they're told, and the landing will be delayed.

The holding pattern lasts for half-an-hour.

Down in the airport, Giles discovers that their flight to LAX has been cancelled due to poor weather. Unending queues of people are trying to rebook their flights. It takes him two hours to reach the head of the queue and get new tickets for that night.

They eat in a Chili's. Annabelle has to have salad "without chicken" while the others share fajitas. The food's a little too hot for Molly and she has to drink half a gallon of water to go with it. Then she spends the next couple of hours popping in and out of the loo. Giles gets nervous whenever she stays in there too long and sometimes sends Kennedy in to check. It would have been easier if Penny had made it.

He spends more time on the phone, fruitlessly trying to get through to the few people he still thinks of as friends in the Council. Then he flicks wearily through the US papers, to see if they have any more details. It's made the front page of some, because of the alleged terrorist link. All he learns is that the building was totally destroyed.

He finally thinks to call the Coven. Rosalind answers the phone. She says, yes, it is every bit as bad as he thinks. They'll send him the obituaries as they are printed.

The flight to LA is delayed, first for one hour and then for a second. The girls slump together in their chairs. Shortly after the fourth delay is announced, the airline admits they've had to postpone it until morning.

It's one a.m. The re-scheduled flight is at six. Giles considers the effort of finding a motel, checking in and then checking out again before the flight. "We'll be safer waiting in here," he tells the SITs.

They push some chairs together so that the English girls can get some kip, but neither he nor Kennedy feel able to sleep. He has some indigestion from the fajitas. He'd kill for a coffee, but all the places are shut and he can't stand the sludge from the vending machines.

They don't turn off the terminal lights overnight, or the televisions that hang from the ceilings. He hears regular weather updates twice an hour while asinine anchormen talk about sport.

"Are we going to stay in LA?" Kennedy asks him. "Or are we going to Sunnydale?"

"Sunnydale," he says. "I presume Penny told you about the current Slayer?"

The young woman shrugs. "Sure. In a what-not-to-do kind of way."

"Buffy's been the Slayer for seven years," he says, quietly.

"That's a long time," says Kennedy. "Me? I'm planning on living even longer than that." She looks out towards the terminal's vast glass windows.

They finally board the plane at five-forty-five. No-one's had any breakfast because the Starbucks and Chick-fil-A don't open until six. Molly and Annabelle collapse with jetlag as soon as their heads hit the headrests. Even Giles allows himself some sleep, but only once he's assured himself that Kennedy knows how to keep a lookout.

LAX is a little easier than JFK, if only because this time they're flying domestic. He forces them all to buy bagels and donuts on their way out. Molly stares at them. "Is all food circular in America? Like pizza?"

Kennedy just rolls her eyes.

None of them smell particularly good at this point, so he gets them to roll down the hire car windows. "Just another hour," he says, "and we'll be there."

"Whatever," Kennedy says. "I just want a shower." The other girls agree.

This time it's Kennedy who at last manages to sleep. The English girls are too excited, looking out at the freeway as if concrete hoardings and blue sky were unbelievably exotic. "The cars are all so huge!" says Annabelle.

"And the lorries!" says Molly.

"Yes, well," Giles tells them. "You'll find that America is different in a lot of ways."

"Is it like the cop shows?" Molly asks.

"Not very," he says. "Far more demons."

2. Glass

It's only as he turns onto Revello Drive that he realises he hasn't rung Buffy. Among all the other calls he's been making, he simply forgot. He pulls up in front of the house, and sees that the windows on the ground floor are boarded up. There are other, smaller signs of recent struggle. It's Sunnydale's way of saying, "Welcome back."

"Here we are," he says. "Please take in your things. I'm sure we'll all be grateful for a cup of tea and a shower."

"So this is where the actual Slayer lives," says Annabelle, clutching her bag, as Kennedy looks unimpressed.

"Look!" says Molly, as they go up the drive. "There's glass all over the lawn. We'd tidy that up in England."

Kennedy frowns. "Are we sure this place is safe?"

The strangest thing happens as Giles approaches the house: England disappears. The months and years he's spent trying to get away from this place simply up and vanish. His flat, the pub in Bath, the tentative fingerlings of his new-old life in England: these fall away from him like a dream. He's never left Sunnydale, ever.

Buffy opens the door before he even knocks. And he's glad, always, always glad, to see her, even when she's looking as tired as he feels.

"Giles," she says.

The girls swarm in the door, in front of him, faking a nonchalance he knows they don't feel.

"I'm afraid we have a slight apocalypse," he says.

Inside, the gang's all there: Buffy, Dawn, Willow, Anya and Xander. Even, for some reason, that rat Andrew tied to a chair. Giles knows his part and he knows his audience. This is his job, to stand in front of frightened children and tell them of their doom.

Within thirty-six hours, Annabelle's dead.

3. Spade

Xander fetches a blanket from the back of his car. "This is all I've got," he says. It's a faded bedsheet with characters from Peanuts on it. Charlie Brown plays football. Lucy stands with her hands on her hips. Snoopy lies on the top of his kennel and contemplates the sky. "I try to keep plastic sheeting in the trunk, for moving demons, but with everything going on right now, I've run out."

"It will have to do," Giles says.

They wrap Annabelle's body in the Peanuts cartoons. Her blood seeps through a little, and a lock of her hair protrudes from the top. Xander takes her shoulders and Giles grasps her knees. With a practised heave they haul her body into the back seat.

"Want a coffee?" Xander asks as he drives. "We could stop by the Espresso Pump."

"I'd love one," Giles admits, "but we have a corpse of a young woman in the back seat."

"It's no problem," Xander says. "I'll pick one up."

Xander's a young man now, Giles supposes. A surprisingly handy one, at that. Boarding up windows, repairing doors, shepherding teenage girls, and fetching coffees for knackered survivors of imperilled mystic orders.

Giles downs the double espresso.

Annabelle's parents live in Walthamstow. He calls them when he gets back to Revello Drive. It was her fourth day in his care and her second in America. "Yes. No. I'm sorry. I thought..."

Buffy still looks terrible after her fight with the Turok-Han. He wants to hold her hand or touch her cheek, but she's so covered in bruises he's sure it would hurt. Molly is standing in the lounge, looking at Annabelle's things as if she's not sure whether she should move them. From outside, he can hear Xander's spade hitting earth.

Willow takes the next call. "I can't hear you," she says, "can you talk louder?" Then she hands the phone to Giles.

"It's someone from the Watcher Council," she says.

4. Shoes

Dr Lydia Chalmers, senior Watcher, the woman who wrote her thesis on William the Bloody: her voice sounds very weak on the telephone.

She's in hospital, she says. She doesn't know who else in London is alive or how she survived. That's not important right now.

"Roger claims he's in charge now," she says, "but he can't... There's nothing he can do. Mr Giles, it's up to you and your Slayer now. You have to carry on. You'll need..."

And then there comes a pause so long that Giles starts to wonder if the connection's been lost.

"You'll need funds." She gives him the account number and a password for some US-based Council money.

"There are some SITs unaccounted for," she says. "They may still be alive. The closest one to you is in Seattle. Can you get there?"

"I'll head to the airport straight away."

"Good," she says. After another long pause, she provides an address.

"You never think," she says then, "that you live in the End Times." He waits a long time for her to say more, but she's silent for minutes until the phone's abruptly hung up.

The name of the girl in Seattle is the improbable Violet Greene.

He hasn't unpacked, of course, and it's still only early evening. His next call books a flight. Buffy just smiles thinly as he leaves.

He has time to think, on the plane. He considers the First. Is it really as bad as all that? Hasn't he been here before, mortally worried for Buffy, facing a foe they don't yet know how to fight? Invulnerable mayors, demons who cannot be injured by weapons forged, goddesses in high-heeled shoes? And they've always got through it before. Apart from those two times she died.

Of course it's been worse, he chides himself. There was that terrible summer when she was gone. And the terrible autumn, when she came back.

It's snowing in Seattle. He doesn't know whether that's seasonal or not. It's also 10:30 p.m. and his coat's not nearly warm enough. He struggles with another hire car and another fold-out map to get to Bellevue. East along South 176th Street, he thinks. He needs to find the ramp to Interstate 405.

If the First came to him, what shape would it take? Surely it would it come to him as Jenny? Or as Randall? Perhaps it would turn up as Quentin just to piss them both off.

Travers is almost certainly among the dead.

Bellevue turns out to be a rather nice part of town, with large detached houses with good-sized lawns, for those who like that sort of thing. The Greenes open the door in their dressing-gowns. The hallway behind them is untidy with boots, magazines and cases for musical instruments.

"I'm looking for Violet," he says, "I'm from the Council of Watchers."

The Greenes glance at each other before turning to him.

"But Vi's already gone," they say.

5. Van

He pulls over to the side of the road, cursing the ill-lit road signs, his map and the falling snow. He thinks this is the right way, but it's hard to tell, the roads are so featureless in this weather. He passed the last of the street-lamps a good while back, and now he's just climbing upwards, into the foothills of the Cascades, past trees but perilously few houses. The low clouds obscure any moonlight to be had.

Council safe-house, his arse.

And what if this is a goose-chase, a ruse of whoever it was picked up Vi? No good to think of that -- if that's the case, she's already dead.

The next road he turns onto is little more than a track, gritty and unsealed, with a sheer drop of ungaugeable depth on the right-hand side. A couple of turns later, he finds a pile of tires with "Lot 49" painted on them in white.

This is it then. He turns into the barely-discernible drive and crawls up the slope for another half mile. He finds a carpark, which little more than a cleared space among the trees.

Two vehicles are there already: a compact hire car and an elderly white van. Giles shivers in his thin coat as he inspects them. The van smells stale and metallic: drying blood.

From further along the drive he can hear a sound that isn't the wind in the trees, a sort of heavy thumping.

A Bringer rounds the corner, clutching some car keys, looking as if he's forgotten to pick something up. Giles punches him before he has a chance to unsheathe his knife. The Bringer tries to stab Giles with the keys instead, but Giles floors him with a blow to the head. Giles breaks the Bringer's jawbone with a solid kick, seizes the knife, and swiftly finishes the job. He pulls the Bringer into the underbrush, thinking, one down, many million to go...

The keys fit the van. As he unlocks the door, he realises his hand is aching. He hopes he didn't break anything too important punching the Bringer. Perhaps he can drive back one-handed or using his elbow?

The back of the van has traces of blood and cloth, and little clumps of things he has no intention of examining. It also includes a great deal of useful equipment. Axes. A toolkit. A petrol can.

Giles binds his injured hand in a handkerchief. He puts the toolkit and the petrol can in the passenger seat. He fetches the blood-spattered robe from the Bringer and pulls it on.

He gets a clear view of the house as the van rounds the corner. It probably once resembled a modest wooden holiday home. Now the decorative cladding has been stripped off, revealing the concrete-and-steel safe house underneath. The Bringers are trying to break down the door. Thank God, there seem to only be three of them.

Giles drives up behind them, gripping the petrol can. He floors the accelerator.

6. Hat

Afterwards, Vi asks, "How did you scare them away, exactly?" She's wrapped in a thick greatcoat that Giles envies and she's wearing a small wool hat. David's behind her, carrying their luggage.

"Fire," he says. "Ah, you'll probably want to step this way." In the dark, it's hard to see what the wet pools are made of. He wonders if she'll notice the smell in the air or the tracks in the snow where he dragged the bodies away. He thinks he needs to win a fraction more of her trust before he can say, "I ran them over and then set them on fire."

"I think I've lost my flute," she says. "My parents'll kill me."

David says, "Oh, the Council will get you a better one. It's lost in the line of duty, after all."

David Clerkwell's eighteen. He'd be good-looking if he wasn't so gormless. "Of course, I'm not a Watcher yet," he'd said. "I'm in training." ("Like me!" said Vi.) "Or I would be, except I'm taking a gap year. But then my mum rang to tell me about the trouble with the SITs. So I looked up the nearest one I could find."

Giles doesn't know whether to berate him for his stupidity, his presumption, or his bravery. He decides not to say anything at all.

They take David's car back towards SeaTac. Giles nurses his hand and lets David drive down the snow-covered roads. He's astonished to find that it's only two in the morning. It feels much later.

"So I started in New York," David's saying. "And I know everyone says it's fantastic, but it really was! I expected the skyscrapers and the yellow taxis and so on, but then there's these ornate churches with copper roofs and climbing gargoyles. Have you been there?"

"Oh sure," Vi says. "My aunt lives there. She used to take us to the museums."

"The dinosaurs!" says David.

"The whole Egyptian temple in the Met," says Vi. "And the swords! I loved them as a kid."

"I didn't see those," David admits.

"They were so shiny and... full of purpose. And you know I thought that even before I knew I could be a Slayer."

"I was in New York," Giles volunteers, "the night before last, I think."

"What did you see?"

"The magnificent interior of a 1947 airport. David, please take the next left."

By the time they near SeaTac, David's account has reached Chicago. "I hadn't known it was on a lake."

They stop to get a very late dinner at an all-night Applebee's. "And in Wisconsin," David says, "they sold cheese hats."

"Cheese hats?" Vi asks, sceptically.

They've ordered, but the food's yet to arrive. David unzips the small suitcase he has with him and pulls out what looks like a flat sheet of plastic. He finds the mouthpiece and starts to blow.

"Look, David, Vi," Giles says, "can you both keep a lookout?" He gestures towards the restroom sign. David nods, still blowing, while Vi thumps the table with her fist and looks serious.

Giles checks the carpark afterwards but sees nothing to cause alarm. There's a payphone handily situated next to the windows, so he can keep an eye on the teenagers while he calls Lydia. It's stopped snowing, but it's still bitterly cold.

Lydia sounds very weak again. She says, "I have a list now of some of the casualties." In a measured tone, with occasional pauses for breath, she reads out the names. These are people that Giles has known since they were children, or who knew Giles when he was small.

David's parents are both among the dead.

Giles's food is cold by the time he gets back inside. Vi is slurping up a drink as she elbows David. "Show him!" she says.

David pulls out an inflated piece of orange plastic in the shape of a cheese wedge, with an indentation in the middle. He places it on his head and grins.

Vi says, "Now isn't that the cheesiest thing you ever saw?"

7. Sofa

In LAX, Vi picks at her airport breakfast. David's flight back to London has just left.

"Will my parents be OK?" she asks.

"They should have nothing to fear now you're no longer with them. It's the mystical line you belong to that they wish to eradicate, not the strictly genealogical."

"I should have asked him to write me," she says.

Later that morning at Revello Drive, he plonks down his luggage and tries to get some sleep on the sofa, but Buffy wants to talk. "Will's gone through the files you brought but she didn't find anything. What do we know about the Turok-Han, Giles? How do we kill it?"

Willow stops by an hour later. "I do the meditation, Giles, but I can't get calm. It's eating me up inside, Giles."

Dawn comes by at lunchtime. "Move over," she says. "It's Oprah."

Lydia rings at two. He asks, "Are you still in hospital?" but she doesn't answer his question.

"I have a partial list of missing SITs," she says instead. "They're in Paraguay, Egypt, Israel, Brazil..."

"No," says Giles, "no. Look, which are the closest? I should start with those."

"Ciudad Juarez," she says. "Then Austin, Madison, Phoenix, Honolulu."

He jots down the names and addresses.

Lydia says, "Roger came to visit me this morning. He doesn't want something this important in the hands of 'a cowboy'. He's asked me not to provide you with any more information or money."

"I see."

"I will route funds to you via our Vietnamese and Portuguese stations as he won't be monitoring those as closely. I'll dictate what I know now."

Giles waves at Dawn and passes the phone to her. She writes into a notebook as he picks up his bag.

"When will you be back?" Willow asks, but he shakes his head.

The first useful flight he can get from LAX is to Austin, not Cuidad Juarez or its near neighbour, El Paso. He has forty minutes before the flight and three hours in the air. He can allow himself a drink.

The sports bar is decorated with fake snow and tinsel. A rosy-cheeked Santa figurine stands on the counter, clutching an oval ball. Two giant television screens are replaying "Great Games of the Year."

A man sits at one of the tables, with a glass of beer in one hand and a copy of the LA Times in the other. He looks up as Giles approaches.

"Hello, Rupert," says Ethan Rayne.

8. Bulb

"So what's your excuse this time?" Giles asks. "Are you setting up a shop? Going into manufacturing? Here to give me a warning?"

"The last one," says Ethan.

"Well, if it's 'From beneath you it devours', I've already heard it."

Ethan looks nonplussed. "I might know more," he says. "Fancy a beer?"

Giles shakes his head in exasperation. "Not after the last time. Look, whatever it is you're doing here, I don't have time for it. Just clear off."

"And what if I don't, Rupert? Are you going to thrash me in full view of airport security?"

"Much as I'd like to, no. But why don't we go and talk to Security, Ethan? Is your passport valid? Aren't you a missing US military prisoner?"

"Funny story, that," says Ethan. His face falls: "Not really."

"I am going," says Giles, "to sit over there and have a quiet drink. If I see you do anything more untoward than turning the page of your newspaper, I will call for the Slayer and the most powerful witch in the Western Hemisphere and then I will get on my plane and leave them to it."

"And you used to do your own dirty work."

"Oh, piss off." He turns back towards the bar.

Ethan rustles his paper. "Still no lead on the London bombing," he says. "It's on page twelve."

Giles takes a seat in the opposite corner of the bar. He drinks his beer and stares at Rayne. Ethan feigns nonchalance and takes exaggerated interest in the sports section. Tosser.

Half an hour later, Giles leaves for his flight.

Austin is in the middle of a downpour when he arrives. The Avis attendant says she can't hire him a car as the one he hired in Seattle hasn't been returned, so he hires a Hertz.

It's rush hour and dusk. Giles crawls along in the traffic, looking for the on-ramp for the Interstate. He puts the radio on and it's playing "Hotel California".

The buildings fade into darkness as night arrives. He can see the cat's eyes, the traffic signs, and the neon lights of Walgreens and motels. Traffic starts to speed up.

The address is somewhere not quite in Austin and not quite in the next town over. It's an apartment complex, two turns from the Interstate, and he realises as he arrives that he has no idea of the socioeconomic meaning of such a home. But then he hears gunfire.

He runs out into the darkness and the rain, feeling his clothes soaking from the outside in. He runs towards the gunfire, because that's his duty and his calling.

The apartment stairwell is lit only by a swinging bulb a couple of stories above. Giles trips over the body of a Bringer and hears glass crunch underfoot. There's the sound of a struggle from above and the scent of blood.

He gets halfway up the first flight before another shot is fired: the sound is deafening. On the landing he can see two Bringers tearing a gun from a young woman: they start to pull out their knives. He rugby tackles one, smashes the Bringer's head against a wall, but that doesn't seem to do much. He tries an uppercut, and the pain in hand makes him cry out. So instead he launches himself up the stairs, towards the gun. The Bringers grab the girl by the ankles.

He has the good sense not to fire an unfamiliar weapon in a confined space. He reaches down to hand it to the girl.

She holds it in both her hands as she is dragged down the stairs towards a fallen knife. She fires and a Bringer crumples.

The next moment is one that Giles cannot, for a moment, understand. There is an explosion from above, an explosion from below, and the loud retort of the girl's gun being fired close by. The shadows swing sickeningly with the bulb.

Giles wipes some sweat from his brow and his injured hand comes away dark. There's a man with a shotgun coming up the stairs. The last Bringer has fallen, but so has the girl. And someone is coming down the stairs behind him. Giles sways, wondering if he has been hit.

9. Trolley

For the second time in --- three? --- nights, Giles finds himself lifting the body of a girl into the back of his car. He's bound her wounds, but she's still bleeding heavily, the blood washing from her in the rain. Her father is shaking. The neighbour with the shotgun says, "It must have ricocheted."

At the hospital, attendants put her on a trolley and wheel her inside. Her father slaps Giles on the shoulder and tries to thank him with the sheer gratitude in his eyes. "They say she has a good chance. She wouldn't have one without you."

Giles knows that the girl is not yet a Slayer; she has no Slayer healing powers. She'll be in surgery and then on life support, unguarded except by her father, in the middle of a public hospital. The Bringers will still come, but Giles cannot stay to protect her. There are others with better chances.

"I do what I can," Giles says.

The back of the rent-a-car is soaked with blood. Giles doesn't bother to return it and leaves it abandoned in the Austin-Bergstrom carpark. He changes out of his wet and blood-stained clothes.

Lydia doesn't answer when he rings. Instead, a furious woman with a Glasgow accent picks up the phone. "Is it you that rings her day and night? Do you not think she needs her rest? She's in hospital, you eedjit. What's so important? She canna come to the phone, she's having her operation. And I'll be taking the phone away from her so she can rest."

Dawn has some news, but it's not good. The Watcher in Cuidad Juarez has been confirmed dead and his SIT is missing. He should move on to the girl in Wisconsin. So he books a late-night flight to Chicago and an early-morning flight from there to Madison.

O'Hare's a ghost town by the time he arrives. The souvenir shops and cafes are closed. He ties his luggage to his ankle and lies down on a row of seats to sleep. The edges of the chairs dig into his hip and shoulder.

He doesn't dream.

Ethan is there when he wakes up. It's five a.m. and the airport is otherwise deserted. Ethan's sitting on the next row of chairs, finishing off a bacon and egg sandwich. The smell makes Giles ravenous; he can't remember when he last ate.

"You look terrible," Ethan says. "You look old."

"Are you passing my movements on to the Bringers?"

"No need," said Ethan. "There's more than enough Bringers to go around."

"So you do know more."

Ethan sighs. "Don't you want to know why I'm here?"

Giles closes his eyes and lies back on the uncomfortable chairs. "Because if the First wins, the world truly will be in chaos, and then you won't have nearly as much fun."

"Unlikely allies," Ethan says, "united against a common foe."

"I remember how well that worked with Eyghon."

"You mean, the second time," says Ethan. "We worked quite well together, back in the day."

Giles sits up and pokes in his bag. "Did you do anything to this while I was asleep?"

"No," says Ethan.

Giles roams O'Hare until he finds a grill restaurant that's just opening and will make him a ham and cheese sandwich. Then he has to dash across the airport to get to his departure gate on time.

The snow in Madison is quite different from the snow in Seattle: it's thicker and more settled. The morning is clear and bright, and the sunlight sparkles off the snow.

He drives the quiet streets. Central Madison seems to be composed mostly of lakes. The house he wants is in the western suburbs, on a street of wooden homes, which all look insubstantial to his British eyes. The porches are hung with Christmas lights and the doors are hung with wreaths.

He slows down as he approaches number eighty-two. Two police cars are parked outside. There's blood-stained snow on the front lawn and two officers are carrying someone out of the house in a body-bag. Neighbours are peering through lace and chintz curtains.

Giles drives on past.

Madison airport is quite small. It has a snack bar and a souvenir shop and that's about it. The payphone's broken. As he waits for the next flight back to Chicago, he finds himself staring at a shelf full of Badger t-shirts and a pile of discounted cheese-hats.

Ethan is waiting for him back in O'Hare. "I knew you wouldn't be long," he says. Giles resists the urge to deck him, but his hand aches pleasantly at the thought.

"You know, Madison isn't that far from Chicago," Ethan says. "It would have been faster to drive."

Giles finds a phone and calls Lydia while Ethan pokes around a nearby magazine and book shop.

"She's in recovery," a nurse tells him (not the Glaswegian one, thank God). "She can't come to the phone but I'll tell her you called."

Althenea takes his call at the Coven. He explains the situation and asks for their help. "I don't know how much more information I'll get from the Council," he says. She promises to use all their resources.

Dawn says Phoenix is next. At least that's an airline hub, so it shouldn't be hard getting flights.

"And an Olivia called. She said you had her number. She sounded kind of upset."

Giles calls Olivia, trying to keep his voice low enough that Ethan can't overhear.

"Rupert!" Olivia says. "Where are you?"

"Chicago. I'm in transit."

"Are you OK? Should I be worried?"

"Not always," he says, "and -- Sunday, I was going to meet you Sunday. Shopping and the gallery."

"I drive down and there's post piled up and you've left your front door unlocked. You've taken a bag but not a suitcase and the milk's gone off in the fridge. I know you have emergencies you've got to get to, but you didn't ring."

"I was busy," he says. He knows how pathetic an answer that is. "Olivia, many of the people I care about are in grave danger right now. Some of them have died. I didn't call you because I knew you'd be safe." He grimaces. "I don't even know what day of the week it is."

"It's Wednesday. We were going to stay with my parents, remember?"

"After all the trouble you took to persuade them to meet me."

"Rupert," she says, softly, "is there anything I can do?"

"Stay safe," he says, "just stay safe. Be the person I don't have to worry about."

He hears her sigh. "I have to be one of the people you ring, Rupert."

Giles books his next flight. He goes back to the grill bar for some lunch. Halfway through, Ethan joins him.

"Eventually," says Ethan, "I will run out of patience and leave, and then you'll never know if I could have helped you."

"How?" asks Giles. "What exactly is it that you think you can bring to this? What can you do that Buffy, Willow and I can't?"

"Is she really as powerful a witch as they say?"

"Yes."

"Bitch," says Ethan.

"She came this close to destroying the world last May," Giles says, holding his thumb and finger together to indicate something very small indeed.

"I can't compete with that level of power," Ethan says, "but I have my contacts. I can ask around, find out what others know."

Giles is sceptical. "You have friends of friends, perhaps, of the Ultimate Evil?"

"I know people who know people," Ethan says, "who know people who aren't people. And when I find something, I'll come and find you."

"Can you give me any proof your intentions are even halfway worthwhile?"

Ethan thinks for a moment, then says, "Beljoxa's Eye. Look that up, back in Sunnydale. And Rupert?"

"Yes?"

"You really should get a mobile phone."

10. Shirt

The flight to Phoenix is unusually quiet, and he doesn't realise why until he notices the date on the boarding pass: it's Christmas Day.

He gets a little sleep on the plane. He picks up his bag, steeling himself to do battle with the hire car companies once more.

But when he arrives, there's a couple of people standing next to the gate, holding a sign marked "Giles". There's a man around Giles's age, and a teenage girl.

"Mr Giles," the man says, "this is my daughter Chloe. Thank you so much for coming."

The man holds himself stiffly. His shirt is bulky in places which suggest bandages. "They came after her in the mall. Your Dawn Summers called and said you could help."

"I don't want to go," says Chloe.

"You'll be safer with him, sweetheart."

"I want to be here. I want to be here with you and mom."

"Your mom's in the hospital!" her father hisses. "She's been stabbed because of you!"

Giles says, "Chloe, there are many other girls in Sunnydale who are experiencing what you're going through. We can look after you and you can look after each other."

"Are you going to wait," her father asks, "until your brothers are hurt too?"

Chloe has a little backpack and a wheeled suitcase covered in rainbow stickers. She grips Giles's elbow as they go to buy tickets to California. On the plane she pretends to sleep under the airline blanket but her body wracks with sobs.

Anya's on lookout when they get to Revello Drive. "Oh goody," she says without enthusiasm. "Another one who'll want to share the bathroom. Weren't there supposed to be four?"

There's a group camped out around some candles on the living room floor. Willow is carving out some lumps of fruitcake and Buffy's putting little marshmallows into mugs of hot chocolate.

"This is Chloe, everyone," says Giles. "Merry Christmas!"

Chloe looks around at the boarded-up windows and suburban furniture. "This is it?"

"Welcome to Slayercamp," says Buffy. She looks and sounds a little less like a human bruise than she did the day before yesterday. "Or should that be Potential-Slayercamp?"

"It's just like Girl Scouts," Xander says, "only the bonfires are made of our enemies. And not all of us are girls."

Vi and Molly are huddled on the sofa. Kennedy sits cross-legged on the floor. "I'll show you around," Molly says to the new girl.

Giles takes a seat next to Buffy. "I'm sorry I haven't brought a present."

"Doesn't matter," Buffy says. "You've been busy. I'm just glad that you're here."

Ah yes, Giles thinks, because I wasn't last year.

11. Window

Giles had a rather nice life in Bath. He had a flat in one of its Victorian terraces, in easy walking distance to the city centre. There was a record shop around the corner, a chippie down the road, and a mini Tesco's next to an off-license. He spent wet afternoons nosing around the museums and sunny ones walking the Cotswolds. He bought a motorcycle and took it to small local gigs in Bristol and Bath, and caught the train to London for bigger shows. He had a generous pension from the Council, much of his back pay, and the income from The Magic Box.

He chose Bath because it was a small, pretty city, and it was not Oxford and it was not London. It was also about an hour's drive from where Olivia lived, a fact that had turned out to suit them both very well.

He had sent her a note as soon as he felt a bit settled in, and she had happened to be unattached. So she'd turned up on his doorstep one morning, with her usual dubious expression, saying she had an hour to spare before she had to head off to a meeting.

"It's not a Hellmouth here, is it?" she'd asked, standing at the flat's living room window as if she expected to see the Gentlemen floating past.

"Nothing of the sort," he'd said, "that I know of." He took a couple of steps closer to her, to look out at the terraces and chimneystacks and Fiat Puntos. "I've left that behind."

After that, she'd come and visit him on weekends, or he'd go and visit her. Not every weekend, as her business was often demanding, and, in truth, he liked that she was busy and needed only a little of his time. It was very nice to wake up next to someone in the morning, but he was always a little relieved when she had gone, and he'd spend a few minutes each time putting the coffee mugs back in the right place and picking up her newspapers. He'd lived too long on his own now to want to share full-time with someone else. He didn't want to justify how he spent his evenings to anyone but himself, whether he was watching bad amateur productions of Shakespeare, or indexing demon tomes while singing along to The Dark Side of the Moon. Olivia's feelings were similar in kind, if not in specifics. She said that every time she'd moved in with a man, she'd ended up doing all the housework, and Giles could bloody well wash his own shirts.

He needed to have a project to work on, he knew, to keep himself happy and occupied, and to assuage the guilt that he felt on having left Sunnydale. He started work on a study of dimensional portal spells and began to describe himself as an independent scholar. For a time he also researched accounts of Slayers and their field Watchers, but that had been too close to the bone for him to continue.

He'd spent his last Christmas largely in his dressing gown and pyjamas. He'd made himself pancakes in the morning, served American-style with maple syrup and bacon, and had sat in the armchair between the radiator and the TV. He watched a couple of old movies, and spent some time trying out his new guitar. He experimentally roasted a poussin for Christmas lunch, then showered and shaved in time to look suave when Olivia arrived at eight.

After years on the Hellmouth, England felt safe. The soft grey light and the intermittent rain were a pleasure after the harsh sunlight and the improbably cyan skies of southern California. Oh, England had its problems too, but he felt a kind of nostalgia for the football hooligans, the tabloid press, and the small-time drug dealers who loitered near the park. He spent weeks at a time without being knocked on the head.

12. Bucket

When Beljoxa's Eye tells them the problem is the disruption in the Slayer line, Giles hears it and believes it. It's as he feared.

He and Anya return to the house to find people in a jubilant mood. Buffy has slain the Turok-Han! One of the SITs, Eve, is missing, but Giles decides to wait until the morning to ask why.

Downstairs, the SITs excitedly retell each other what they saw. How strong she was! How she fought back! Upstairs, Buffy is in her bedroom, carefully tending a wounded member of the undead. She gestures him into the room and he fetches a chair. Spike's lying with his eyes closed, but Giles can't tell if he's conscious or not. Spike doesn't flinch as Buffy washes the caked blood from the scars on his chest. Giles averts his eyes: it feels too intimate to watch politely.

"So, what did you find out?" she asks. "How do we kill the First?"

"It's as we thought," he says, "we can't. We can merely wound it."

"Giles, that's not what I want to hear," says Buffy.

"It's, it's Evil," Giles says. "It just is. It's everlasting and unconquerable."

Buffy's probing for broken ribs now, and suddenly Spike pitches forward to throw up lumps of black blood into a carefully positioned bucket. Buffy passes him a glass of water to wash his mouth out.

"That's loser talk," says Spike. "There's nothing this Slayer can't kill." His eyes take on a pleading look.

"We're not dealing with a demon," Giles says, "or a God. We're dealing with a personified reification of what has always existed and will always exist, as long as there are conscious beings to be conscious of it."

"I'm a personification of thirst," says Spike, "and you can still chop off my head."

"If we can't kill it," says Buffy, "maybe we can capture it somehow. Bottle it."

"Put it in a lamp," says Spike.

"Well, possibly. That's the, um, lead I'll follow then. But Buffy, the Eye said something more, about the reason for the First's strike." Giles signals that he doesn't really want to say this in front of Spike, who has collapsed back onto the bed.

"Anything you can say to me you can say in front of him," she says.

He sighs. "The First is taking advantage of an instability in the Slayer line, of something that's never happened before."

"There's been of two of us for six years," Buffy says. "Isn't it moving kind of slow?"

"That event, although unprecedented, was entirely natural. That wouldn't be enough to disturb the line."

"Oh," says Buffy, "you mean the big Willow mojo to summon me back?"

"I'm afraid so."

Buffy shrugs. "We'll deal. We always deal, Giles."

Yes, thinks Giles, until the day we don't.

13. Apron

He calls Lydia, but she's still unable to answer the phone. So he asks Dawn where he should head to next. "Shanghai," she says.

He looks at her. "What about Hawaii? Or Egypt or Brazil?"

She shakes her head. "They were all alive before, but the way the Bringers work, we don't know that now for sure. But we have one on Doctor Chalmer's list that the Coven seer could confirm. And she's in Shanghai." She passes him an address. "Your flight's at two."

"Is that a.m. or p.m.?" he asks.

"A.M.," she says.

So he heads back to LAX.

Fifteen hours non-stop to Hong Kong, flying economy, in a centre seat with nowhere to stretch his legs. He should have booked business class, he thinks: it's the Council's money. He'll do that on the way back.

He folds himself up in the cramped seat and eats what's put in front of him. Sleep doesn't come, so he flicks through the selection on the in-flight TV.

The man on his left is a businessman from Ghangzhou province. His factory makes aprons. Is Mr Giles's business related to aprons in any way?

"I work for an NGO," Giles says. "In emergency services. We have not much call for them, no."

"Surgical aprons," the man presses.

Giles smiles and takes his business card.

The man in the right-hand seat does not look at Giles. He's been asleep since shortly after they got on board.

The aeroplane's lights dim sometime after another random meal of noodles. Mr Liew of the aprons rummages in his bag and then heads down the aisle with a toothbrush.

Mr Right-Hand-Side wakes up then, stretching luxuriously, his hand narrowly missing Giles head. The man's Caucasian, with dark and wavy hair.

"Remember me?" asks Ben.

Giles's heart thumps. "We haven't met," he says.

"Oh, but you killed me, an innocent, and vulnerable---"

"I mean, I haven't met you, the First. Ben I obviously have met, and killed, for reasons I still regard as necessary though deeply unfortunate. And it wasn't me who placed Ben in danger, but Glorificus, who frankly didn't care."

Ben turns into Jenny.

"Ah, Jenny," he says. "Yes, Jenny. But I didn't kill her either."

"Rupert," says Fake Jenny, "I have a message."

"This is obscene," Giles says. "Why do you do this? You know I know this isn't her."

"Buffy will pay for her weakness," Fake Jenny says. She turns back into Ben. "And so will you."

The First disappears.

Mr Liew returns to his seat. He puts away his toothbrush and pulls out a small pillow. "Where is our third passenger?" he asks.

"I think he got upgraded," Giles says, hoping Mr Liew cannot hear the tremor in his voice.

But at least now he can stretch his legs.

14. LP

He has an hour to spare in Hong Kong before the flight to Shanghai. He spends most of it in an electronics store, buying a phone. "It has to be one that works all over the world," he says.

"Satellite or Tri-Band?" asks the shop assistant, a young man with amazingly coifed hair.

"What's the difference?"

He doesn't know why he finds electronic gadgets so difficult. He's perfectly adept at mastering all sorts of other complicated information. Perhaps it's due to a deep-seated suspicion that they devalue the physical objects that he loves, like books and LPs. Or perhaps it's something like gadget-dyslexia. Besides, for years he's avoided learning anything by asking Willow to take care of it. He peers at the shiny plastic handsets and realises he's been falling behind all that time. If Jenny had still been here, she would have helped him with it, and mocked him at the same time.

In Shanghai's gleaming airport a few hours later, he buys a book of maps. He pauses over an English-to-Shanghainese dictionary, but the book says at the front that most Shanghai residents speak some Mandarin, which is the one Chinese dialect he knows a little of. Then he's off to hire yet another car.

Ten minutes later and he's very glad of the maps.

15. Cupboards

First, he passes trucks, train stations, warehouses, and all the other usual accompaniments of a major airport. Then some fields. Then a motorway. Then some quaint-looking houses. Some housing estates, with blocks of flats stretching into the distance. Some more fields. An elevated train track. Huge, rectangular ponds. More houses, more warehouses. Industrial estates. The Yangtze River.

The buildings are getting taller. He passes into wide streets lined with skyscrapers. There are plazas, department stores, municipal lakes. More motorways, more tall buildings, another river.

Shanghai stretches on. Houses, skyscrapers, factories, universities, parks, hospitals, railway stations, shops. And people, everywhere people. People in cars, on motorbikes, on bicycles, on buses, on foot, on skateboards. Reading newspapers, having snacks, chatting on their mobiles, heading off to lunch. Driving taxis, selling stallfood, sweeping streets. On pavements, on roads, on railway platforms, hanging half-way out of windows.

Giles can't remember how long he's been driving. There's a thickness in the back of his head that means the jetlag's about to hit. (Houses, sportsfields.) His map insists he has still has another fifteen miles to go. (Houses, shopping malls.) He's too tired to drive with any concentration - perhaps he should pull over? (Railway station, park, houses.) Why does it look nothing like he expected? (An Ikea.) It's because he's been picturing the city in the 1920s: jazz age, bawdy, gaudy. (Houses, strip mall.) A lot has happened to Shanghai since.

Perhaps Spike remembers the Shanghai of the Twenties.

He finally reaches what he thinks is the right housing estate. The buildings are terraced, four stories high. The numbering is confusing and Giles has to double-back a couple of times to be sure.

He knocks. He waits. He knocks again. He waits for a car to go past behind him, then he breaks a small front window and reaches in to unlock the front door.

Inside, the house is empty. There's no carpet or furniture. He walks through to the next room, wary: still nothing. The kitchen has a stove but empty cupboards. But there's no sign of a struggle, or of blood.

It's the same story upstairs. Perhaps he has misread the house number? His map and the address are back in the car.

He steps out the front door and is instantly knocked on the head.

16. Chair

When he comes to, he is tied to a chair. This is very far from being his favourite way to wake up.

He's underground, he thinks, or deep within a building, or perhaps it's night. He can see no trace of natural light, just four concrete walls, a door, and an electric lamp. He feels nauseous.

A man in a military uniform comes in then. "Rupert Giles?" He glances at a clipboard. "A British national, currently living in the United States?"

"Currently in China," Giles says. "I travel around a lot."

"So we know. You arrived yesterday from Los Angeles, hired a car, and drove immediately to the home of a young woman we have been monitoring for some time."

Oh God, Giles thinks.

"On Tuesday last, Wu Chao-Ahn was attacked by a group of six blind men. As we had been monitoring her movements, we were able to neutralise the men and took Wu into protective custody."

"They're not men," Giles says. "You'll find--"

The soldier cuts him off, glancing at him sharply. "Wu is one of an accounted thirty-two known young female targets of these men. Of these, twenty-six, including three members of national Olympics teams have--"

"You have to bring the survivors to me," says Giles. "We're keeping these girls safe, we're--"

"Have died," the soldier says, "along with approximately sixty-eight other citizens plus fifty-two foreign nationals. Many of those who were murdered were also under surveillance: suspected cultists and those who were in frequent contact with undeclared international political networks."

That would be The Council of Watchers, thinks Giles.

"Wu has been questioned, but claims to know nothing of these men, the cultists or the international network. Then you arrive." The soldier puts down his clipboard and takes a step closer. For the first time, Giles gets a good look at his face: he's probably in his fifties, and has such sad eyes. "What's going on?" the soldier asks.

Giles explains as best he can. "Of course, all of that only makes sense if you believe in demons, or in the reification of unspeakable evils."

The man considers.

He gestures to someone outside, and four younger soldiers come in. They untie Giles but seize his arms, forcing him to walk along corridors and down stairs deeper into the building.

They reach a door that is protected by four armed guards and a series of heavy locks. Giles doesn't like the look of this.

The door is pulled back and Giles is taken in.

Inside is a comfortably furnished room, with a bed, a sofa, a desk, a computer, a telephone, a fridge and TV, but no windows or other doors. A young woman sits on the sofa, with the phone in her hand.

The older soldier arrives. "Rupert Giles, I am releasing Wu Chao-Ahn into your custody." He hands Giles some official-looking documents, including a passport.

"Ah, thank you," says Giles, not really sure where this is coming from.

"And also Fong Li."

Giles turns around to see a handcuffed woman being brought in. She's middle-aged, a little tubby, and has hair going salt-and-pepper black-and-white.

She looks as surprised as Giles does.

17. Car

"I was looking for her as well," says Fong Li. She is sitting in the back seat of Giles's hire car, next to Chao-Ahn. In the rear-view mirror, Giles watches her rub the back of her head. "You want the next right."

They're in a district of huge warehouses and factories, nowhere near, as far as Giles can tell, the apartment block where he'd looked for Chao-Ahn.

"No," he says. "My general intent was 'away'."

"And put the pedal to the metal, before Comrade Zhi changes his mind."

"Is that likely?"

"Well, his superiors might change his mind for him."

"What happened back there?"

"They let her go," she says, "and they let us go too as a happy coincidence."

"But why?"

"Zhi wants to let her go. Her family has influential friends and they're influencing. But if he lets her go, she dies, and that's bad for him. Also, he might not like it very much, as he's an OK guy. But now he has you, convenient foreign stranger, so he can claim to be releasing her into safe hands and make it your fault. And I'm just too awkward to keep."

"And who are you exactly?"

"I'm Mrs Fong," she says. "Think of me as a friend."

They pull up at stoplights. They're leaving the warehouses behind now, and are heading into the city proper. He asks, "Are you a Watcher?"

"Not the way you mean. But there's a bunch of us who kept our knowledge going in unfriendly decades and political climes."

Chao-Ahn says something he can't understand.

"Can you ask her to say that in Mandarin? I can speak a little of that."

Mrs Fong asks, but Chao-Ahn's reply is brief. "She can't speak Mandarin. She's from Hong Kong."

"Bugger," says Giles.

Traffic is bad as they reach the city centre. Chao-Ahn and Mrs Fong have a long conversation as they inch through the streets. When their talk tails off, Mrs Fong asks, "Is that 'Giles' as in 'Wade-Giles'?"

"Ah, yes, in fact" he says. "Herbert was a distant relative. But my own language studies have concentrated rather more on the Indo-European."

"Pity," says Mrs Fong. "Miss Wu's going to have a long trip."

"When you said her family is influential--"

"You don't want to know," says Mrs Fong. "Keep her safe and you won't have to worry about it."

"I don't find that reassuring," Giles says.

They reach the airport after an hour. Mrs Fong shakes his hand.

"Won't you come with us?"

"Too many Potential Slayers here, I think. Plenty to do. You take care of her."

Chao-Ahn watches this conversation and then asks something of Mrs Fong. She does not like the reply. A huge argument breaks out. There is shouting and tears.

Finally, Mrs Fong grabs Chao-Ahn's shoulders and says something to her, quiet and intense.

"Does she know why she's going with me?" Giles asks.

"I've told her there's issues," she says. "As I said, her family's influential. I haven't said exactly what, but I've told her she'll be safe with you."

"And she believes you?"

"Not all that much."

Chao-Ahn stands tall and turns to face Giles. She says something to him.

Mrs Fong translates: "She says, 'Let's go.'"

And so they do.

18. Curtains

In the airport, he calls Lydia. Once again, it's one of the nurses who replies.

"Are you a relative?" she asks.

"Her cousin in America," he says, as it's very nearly true. "Rupert Giles."

"Well, you might want to come and visit soon," she says. "The operation didn't go well."

Giles cancels the flight back to California and books them on to London. He tries to explain to Chao-Ahn, but the best he can get is confused looks as he points at a map.

Another thirteen hours trapped in a flying metal tube. Chao-Ahn is restless, looking about herself the whole time. Often she seems on the verge of speaking to one of the other passengers.

Giles pops into the loo halfway through the trip and when he comes back he sees Chao-Ahn lean forward to speak with a Chinese-looking man in the next row up. The man says, in an American accent, "I'm sorry, I don't speak much Chinese." She sinks back on her chair.

They get a taxi from Gatwick. This turns out to be a mistake: the M23 is at a standstill. Giles finds himself shouting at the driver and hitting the taxi door with his fist.

At the hospital, he is directed along corridors and up several flights of stairs. Chao-Ahn hangs back and he has to beg her to hurry with the look in his eyes.

Lydia has a private room, antiseptic-clean, panelled with wood veneer. The window is half-open and net curtains blow a little in the wind.

He does not recognise Lydia at all. Her head is red and puckered where it shows from under the bandages and she does not seem to have any hair. Her arms are swathed in bandages apart from her left hand. Her legs, under the bedsheet, seem to end at the knee.

The nurse is saying something, but otherwise the room seems very still. The nurse says something again.

"What?" asks Giles.

"She passed," says the nurse. "She passed not two minutes ago. Very quietly."

Giles has never seen anyone who looked as bad as Lydia who lived longer than an hour. How had she answered his calls? How had she kept things going? And what made her decide that Giles was the right horse to back?

"Are you sure this is Lydia Chalmers?" he asks, stupidly.

The nurse nods.

Giles pulls a chair up to the bedside and takes Lydia's less damaged hand. It's still warm in his grasp.

"Have any of her other relatives visited?" he asks.

The nurse nods. "Mr Wyndam-Pryce," she says.

"Older than me or younger?" he asks. "There are two."

"Older," she says. "He's already taken most of her things. Not that she had much, just her notebook and her phone."

Giles sits with Lydia until she grows cold. Chao-Ahn sits in a corner, staring in consternation at the woman's dead body.

19. Sandwich

Ethan meets them in JFK this time.

"Are you under a geas to wander airports for the rest of your days?" Giles asks him.

Ethan shrugs. "Why, are you?" He proffers his hand to Chao-Ahn, who sensibly shrinks back.

"She doesn't speak any English," Giles says. "She has only the faintest idea why she's travelling with me."

"A Slayer-to-Be then?"

"They're calling them 'Potentials' these days."

Ethan shakes his head. "This modern slang," he mocks.

"And have you brought me any useful information?"

They have an hour before the flight to LA, so the three of them sit around a cafe table. Giles gives Chao-Ahn some US dollars so she can buy herself something, but he doesn't let her out of his field of view.

"All my sources point towards the First making a tactical withdrawal," says Ethan. "Licking its wounds, so to speak."

Giles nods. "Anya heard much the same thing. Anything more on how to injure it?"

"That's more tricky. Previous attempts have generally left people as pools of goo."

"If anyone had successfully injured the First, it wouldn't want people to know."

"And it's had centuries to erase the knowledge from the records, yes."

"Look, do you know anything about mobiles? I can't get mine to work." He puts it on the table and Ethan peers at it with the same sort of mild disgust that Giles feels.

"Which carrier are you with?"

"Carrier?"

"Which phone company did you sign up with?"

"Ah," says Giles, "the shop assistant didn't mention that bit."

"It would probably help."

Giles sits back in his chair. Chao-Ahn has reached the head of the queue and is pointing at sandwiches and muffins. "Do you remember Arnold Chalmers?"

"Was that the chap who tried to drag you back to Oxford? Balding on top, Zappa moustache?"

"That's the one. His daughter died yesterday. From the bomb blast. Little Lydia. That's why I stopped off in London."

"Was Arnold caught in that too?"

Giles shakes his head. "He died a few years ago. Leukaemia, I heard."

Chao-Ahn comes back with her food. Giles checks the receipt to make sure she's been given the right change.

"Just about everyone I know from then is gone now," Giles says. "Isn't that the same for you?"

"I haven't really stayed in touch," says Ethan.

Giles arrives in Los Angeles after his fourth long-haul flight in five days. In Sunnydale he hands Chao-Ahn over to Vi and Molly. No-one in the house knows Cantonese either.

"I'll add it to my list," says Dawn, "after I finish Turkish. OK, five calls while you were gone."

One is from Annabelle's parents, who are threatening to sue. One is from Olivia, to check he's not dead.

"I told her you looked fine four days ago," says Dawn.

One is from the Coven, who have found a promising archival lead but haven't yet got any solid information. One is from someone claiming to represent Chao-Ahn's parents.

"They want to send her money," says Dawn.

The final call was from Chloe's dad. Dawn hops about a bit and frets over a folded note. "Chloe was out training when he called, and I asked him if he didn't want her to call him back, but he just asked me to pass on the message. And I couldn't do it."

"Do what? Pass on the message?"

She passes him the folded note. Her voice goes up an octave. "I couldn't do it."

Chloe's mother has died of injuries sustained in the Phoenix Bringer attack.

20. Mattress

He dreams of Jenny. Not of Jenny as she actually was, but of Jenny possessed. Eyghon-Jenny. First-Jenny. Vampire Jenny, even. He thrashes at the leering Jennies.

And wakes to find himself in the front passenger seat of a large 4WD. SUV. Whatever they're called.

"Are you all right?" asks Molly.

"Yes," he says. "Eyes on the road!"

They're already on the edges of the desert, and night is falling. He switches on the heater and the high-beams. He is unbelievably tired but doesn't want to go back to sleep.

Rona, Vi and Chao-Ahn are in the seat behind him. Chloe and Amanda are in the third row. Kennedy has stayed home, sick.

"Just another hour," he says. He tries to keep his eyes open.

He dreams then that he is back in the London squat where he once lived. There's the peeling ceiling, the mattress on the floor, the pile of books and black magic gear he kept stacked in the corner. A late summer sunset ruddies the walls. He feels disembodied, floating.

"Mr Giles! Mr Giles!" It's Rona driving this time. The stars have risen. "There's no more road."

Giles steps out of the 4WD, onto the desert sand. The cool air wakes him up a little. "I'll drive this part," he says.

Thirty minutes later, the SITs are building a fire.

"God," says Rona, "it's just good to be out of that house!"

"Breathing fresh air!" says Vi.

"It's kind of fun," Amanda says.

Even Chao-Ahn looks interested. Only Chloe is, understandably, subdued.

Giles sits cross-legged, pretending to study his tome. His eyes close, and then he's sitting in front of another pentacle, three a.m. in a children's playground. Randall, Deidre, Tom, Philip and Ethan are all there, but Stan isn't, because he's pissed at Ethan tonight. Dee's falling out of her dress and most of them are already looking out of it. Giles leans forward to start the spell that summons Eyghon.

He jerks awake. The SITs are all seated quietly now around the fire. He thinks, better cast the right spell, and starts to conjure the First Slayer instead.

21. Mugs

The SITs are all away having their mystical experience when Xander, Anya, Dawn and Andrew arrive. Much to his surprise, they literally throw themselves at him. They've been worried that he's the First.

"We couldn't remember you touching anything," Dawn says.

"And you're not driving!" says Anya. "You love driving."

"I'm also very, very jet-lagged," Giles says. "And as for not touching anything, there's only been my clothes, mugs, packets of cereal, take-away coffee, the near-infinite number of hire cars to the airport, towels, the bathroom door--"

And, he thinks, I helped carry Annabelle after she died.

"Okay, okay," says Anya. "We panicked. But we had a call from a guy called Robson. He thought you were dead."

"I thought he was dead," says Giles. "In fact, I'm fairly sure he was."

"How can you be sure?" asks Anya.

"He had no pulse. He'd stopped breathing."

"Oh," says Dawn.

"We, uh, better get back to the car," says Xander.

"Yes," says Giles, "I think you'd better."

They run back across the dunes. Giles wonders what's going on in Sunnydale that the First wants to keep them away from.

22. Sleeves

Willow doesn't end the world that night after all, even without Xander or Giles to stop her. Apparently it was Kennedy's turn to persuade her to spare the Earth.

"Nice work," he says to Kennedy when he hears, but she gives him an odd look.

"I think that what we're finding," says Giles, to an assembled group of SITs and Scoobies in the Revello Drive living room, "is that the First is operating in increasingly sophisticated ways. We have to remember, it's been doing this a long time."

"It has many tricks up its non-existent sleeves," says Anya, with a note of professional approval.

"May I remind you that it can look like anyone you know who's died, and sound like anyone you know. Or even," says Giles, rather pointedly, "like anyone you don't know."

"Can also smell like someone you know," shouts a voice up from the basement: Spike and his supernatural hearing. "Couldn't fool a vampire long otherwise."

"Right," says Giles. "So: sight, sound, smell--"

"But not touch," Spike calls out. "Not taste."

"And it can also produce the illusion of objects," Giles says.

Andrew nods. "Otherwise all the ghosts would be naked."

"For example."

"Can the First tell what we're doing?" asks Dawn.

"It knows everything that dead people know," says Willow.

"OK then," says Kennedy, "so who around here's dead?"

"I am," calls Spike.

"Me too," says Buffy. "I mean, I was."

"So whatever kind of plan we have," says Xander, "Buffy's going to know. And the First will know it too."

"Ooh," says Buffy, "so what we need is a plan so good that it can't think of a way to stop it, even when it knows what it is."

"Yes," says Giles, tiredly, "an unstoppable plan would be the ideal."

He takes Chao-Ahn to the mall so she can spend her parents' shopping money, and so he can sign up for a mobile phone carrier. He learns he can program people's numbers right into the phone, which sounds useful. Except, of course, that almost everyone in his well-thumbed address book is now dead.

Everyone's larking about when he gets home. Xander has a date, Buffy's "investigating" the handsome school principal, and Giles has some idea now about Kennedy and Willow. What do they think they are doing?

And then there's Spike, without his chip.

23. Slippers

At four a.m., Giles still can't sleep. His body no longer has any idea what timezone he's in. Warm milk hasn't helped, so perhaps it's time for some scotch.

He pauses outside the door to the basement. In slippers and dressing gown, he pads down the stairs. Spike's lying there, lit only by the gleam from the hallway upstairs. Pale skin, pale hair: Buffy's latest folly.

"Come to bring me a drink, have you, Rupert?" Spike asks. He sits up, bringing the planes of his face into the light. Giles is pleased to see that Spike's still securely chained to the wall.

"I don't approve of what Buffy's done," says Giles.

"Doesn't matter," says Spike. "Decision's made."

"The First could still trigger you at any moment--"

"Then help me," says Spike. "Get it out of my head. Help me not be its bitch any more."

"You've had so many second chances--" says Giles.

"Help me," says Spike, "and I'll go. Once I'm safe."

Giles takes a long sip of his scotch. "All right," he says.

24. Spoons

"Ready?" says Dawn. And then she reels off a stupendous list of cities, countries, names and addresses.

"What, all of these?"

"The Coven's had a total breakthrough. They've contacted other seers all over the world--"

"All right, but I can't possibly get to all of these places all at once."

"No," says Dawn, "but I figured there had to be a fastest way to get to them all--"

"And that's when she asked me," says Anya. She's sitting on the sofa, picking at some biscuits. She hands Giles a sheaf of printouts. "That's your itinerary."

Giles takes the fistful of papers into his hand and has a look. "And I start about -- now," he says.

He goes to fetch his bag from upstairs, discreetly ignoring the way Willow and Kennedy are having a snog in the back room.

Downstairs, he looks for the phone he still hasn't set up yet. He finds it in the kitchen, with Chao-Ahn, who is confidently going through the Chinese pages of the instruction booklet, tapping away at its buttons. She snaps the handset shut, triumphant, and hands it to him.

"Thank you," he says.

In Atlanta, the Potential Slayer lives with her grandmother in a flat above a shop. The grandmother doesn't want her to go. Giles sleeps in the hire car overnight, until the girl leaves for school in the morning. Feeling like a pedophile, he draws up beside her and gives her his phone. She talks to Buffy, Dawn, Kennedy and Vi, and then she gets in back of the car.

"If this is anything else, I can stab you, right?"

In Montreal, the girl lives in a flatshare with her three best friends. They insist that all four go with him. "Anywhere she goes, we go too," they say, except, of course, in French. This lasts as far as Sunnydale's outskirts, where the latest hire car is driven off the road by Bringers. Giles fights the Bringers almost single-handed, with a tire-iron and then with the Bringers' own knives. The Potential helps with a hockey stick. Her friends take a look at the scary man with his glasses askew, his blood-covered clothes, and the tire-iron in his hand, and bid them adieu.

In Stockholm, he and the Potential are chased down the narrow streets of Gamla Stan. They are backed into a dead-end and have to break a window into the back of a cafe. He fights the Bringers with pots and spoons so that the Potential can get away, but for once, a Bringer has excellent aim when throwing its knife. Then there's nothing more Giles can do.

In Frankfurt am Main, he waits for his flight to Sofia. He practices saying, "You are in grave danger," in Bulgarian. Olivia calls him on his shiny new phone. "Should I forward the bills from your flat?"

In Plovdiv, the girl has a monolingual Watcher who has kept her alive by locking her in a nuclear bunker. "I could have been the last girl in the world," she says (in English, which she speaks), "but not known in it there." Her Watcher is killed by a gunshot wound to the head on the way to the airport. Giles and the Potential are then delayed for six hours by the police. Anya has the new itinerary faxed to him when they pass through Charles de Gaulle.

In Cairo, the girl's already dead, but her parents travel with him as far as Amman, where they convince the parents of a second Potential to let her go with him.

Every time, he takes the girls back to Sunnydale, stopping only long enough for a cup of tea and a shower. He starts to resent perfectly ordinary things, like Andrew baking brownies, or Xander watching TV.

From Nairobi, he calls up Roger Wyndam-Pryce. "We have twelve Potential Slayers who've reached Sunnydale, two of whom have died, but none when in our care." He rubs tiredly at his eyes. "How are you scoring?"

Roger agrees that the Council's three surviving Slayers-in-Training will join their fellows in Sunnydale.

Karachi, Hyderabad, Ho Chi Minh City, Bali... Anya's itinerary ruthlessly ignores anywhere far from an airport or where Giles might run into visa problems. Even LAX is too far from Sunnydale. She starts to book him onto connecting flights to the town's airport when she can. She sends him a pack of fake US entry permits for the girls from countries which aren't part of the US visa waiver program.

Buffy and Kennedy are trying to turn the girls into an army. He watches them from the bathroom of Revello Drive as he shaves. Out in the back garden, they stab phantom vampires in formation.

His phone sings out -- quite literally, as Chao-Ahn picked a crooning piece of Cantopop as the ringtone. He quickly dries his hands and picks it up.

The voice on the line has a thick accent and the quality of the sound is very poor. He has a hard time understanding her. He thinks she says, "I am a friend of Rosalind and Mrs Fong's? They think I have what you need.

"It's called the Prokaryote Stone."

25. Velvet

It takes some effort for Anya to route him through Melbourne. "Flights there take far too long. And it's very far from anywhere with a Potential. Except Perth," she says. "You can go out through Perth."

It's autumn in Australia. He meets his contact in a cake shop in St Kilda, not far from the beach: fat seagulls waddle on the pavement outside. She's small, dark-haired, perhaps in her late sixties. Her accent's certainly Slavic, possibly Serbo-Croatian. Beyond that, he can't tell.

She won't give him her name. "I only let my friends find me," she says. "But you are a friend of friends and I can help you."

She orders a Turkish coffee and a slice of blackforest gateau. "You need something to clear a mind with, unyoke it from another's will?"

"Yes," he says. "It's not for me, but for a--" He baulks. He can't call Spike a friend, or an enemy really, or even a fellow warrior who fights the good fight. "It's for someone controlled by an ancient evil," he says. "He's not possessed, but -- brainwashed? We're not sure."

She nods, as if that's the sort of thing she hears about all the time; perhaps it is. From a small brocade purse, she draws out a velvet jewellery bag. She passes it over the table. "It needs to go in the brain."

"What, with a knife?"

"Magic is better," she says.

He takes the stone out of the bag. It feels warm in his hand.

She folds his hands over the stone. "It doesn't like light," she says. "Bring it back to me when you're done."

"How will I find you then?"

"If you defeat the First," she says, "I'll know to call."

The girl in Perth dies before he leaves Melbourne. He hears the news report on the hire car's radio: a young woman, stabbed through the heart, found floating in the Swan River.

Then Xander rings to say Chloe's hanged herself.

26. Beer

Giles is surprised to find Ethan in Tullamarine. "Isn't Australia a little out of your way?"

"I thought you'd want to hear my news." Ethan grimaces as he stretches his neck and shoulders. "I hate those trans-Pacific flights."

They take a booth in a cafe with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the airfield. Giles watches the planes leave and land.

Ethan says, "I've met the First."

Giles raises his eyebrows. "What form did it take?" he asks.

"It took several. Randall first, then Dee for some reason, then a couple of people you haven't met."

"What did it want?"

"It was trying to persuade me to stop working with you."

"Right," says Giles. He looks towards the cafe counter. "Do they have something to drink here?"

"Beer," says Ethan.

Giles buys a couple and proceeds to drink them both. "So we must be getting close to something." He can't think what. "I saw the First as well, on a plane."

"What did it look like to you?"

"Jenny, and someone you've never met. It was unpleasant but not very convincing."

"What did it want then?"

"To make me doubt Buffy." He takes a swig of his beer. "Which shows that the First doesn't know me very well." He asks Ethan, "So what have you been looking at? What are you close to that it doesn't want me to know?"

"Some archives. And some people who are hard to reach."

"People?"

"Well, demons, a few of whom claim to represent some of the banished Elder Ones. Most of them are nutters, but there are one or two... Not all of the oldest creatures are happy that the First's still in this dimension, which they're locked out of."

"Frying pan and fire," says Giles, rolling his eyes. "All right, it's something we might be able to use. I'll ask the Coven."

Ethan snorts. "I don't think the Coven's going to keep that sort of company."

Giles checks his watch. "Right," he says, "time I got to the gate." He checks his itinerary. "Singapore in eight hours."

"Actually, I'll meet up with you again in Changi. One of my contacts is a geomancer near the Malaysian border."

"All right," says Giles. "Six a.m. local, Terminal 2? And here's my mobile number, in case you can't make it." He leaves Ethan the slip of paper.

"Be seeing you," says Ethan.

Giles scowls.

27. Cigarette

As Giles queues to get on the plane, he wonders what it would be like to have sex again with Ethan. It's been twenty-five years, but he's pretty sure he remembers how. Not that he would, of course, because he can't trust Ethan enough to have a drink with him any more, but it's a thought to keep him entertained on the long flight over.

He's too tired to drive safely when he arrives in Singapore, so he hires a van and a driver, the kind who earns a living showing tourists around in five different languages.

"Can you speak Cantonese?" asks Giles.

Half an hour later, they're at the correct address, and Giles has learnt a dozen key phrases (he's always a little slower learning languages with tones). He asks the driver to come back in an hour.

It's well after ten at night. The air is warm and very humid. He's stuffed his coat and jumper deep into his duffel-bag, but he's still sweating into his shirt and wool trousers.

He's looking for a ninth-floor flat in a large block of apartments. Of course, the lift's not working and he has to climb nine sets of stairs up a damp concrete stairwell.

No-one answers the door when he knocks. She might be out, or perhaps it's too late at night to welcome visitors. He picks the lock and immediately knows that he's too late: it's the smell. But he goes on in anyway, in case there's someone left to save.

It's a bedsit apartment, what they call "an efficiency" in the US. It has no curtains, and moonlight pours through the window and an open balcony door. There's not much furniture, just a beanbag and a small TV, plus a kitchen sink and a stove. The girl's sprawled face-down on the beanbag, which has gone dark from her blood. She looks like she's been dead for days.

Giles steps quickly through to the balcony, to swallow in fresher air. He pushes the door shut behind him with his sleeve. The girl's left a packet of cigarettes out on a ledge, and he takes one to get the taste of her death out of his mouth. This is where she would have stood to smoke, he thinks. Most of the view is of the neighbouring blocks of flats, but there's a gap between two of the buildings to the south. Through the gap he can see the lights of the city sloping down toward the sea.

28. Jeans

They won't let you smoke in Singapore airport unless you stand inside a glass box, puffing away next to your fellow smokers. From outside, the glass room is filled with dark silhouettes and bluish air. It's a salutary lesson of some sort, Giles thinks.

He sits on a bench not far from it, eating pork pastries for his breakfast.

Ethan turns up at six a.m. on the dot.

"How'd you go?" asks Giles.

"My contact was uncooperative, at first," says Ethan. "But I persuaded him to talk."

"And?"

"There's an immortal I should talk to in England."

"Sounds like a good night's work," says Giles.

"I hope so. You?"

"Crap," he says.

Ethan looks about them. "No rescued Potential today?"

"Dead for days," Giles says, "and no-one had found her." He wipes the last pastry crumb from his lips. "Look, I'm booked on a nonstop back to LA. Sixteen bloody hours without anyone to bring back. But I've got an old address in Honolulu, so I'm thinking of breaking up the flight in Hawaii. Want to come along, give me a hand?"

"Shouldn't I be hightailing it to England?"

"World's round," says Giles. "You can get there east or west."

Ethan grudgingly agrees to come.

Changi's a shopping mall as much as it is an airport. Giles has no trouble buying a couple of changes of clothes better suited to Honolulu's climate. T-shirts, jeans, and a pair of chinos. He changes in the airport loos.

"Off we go," says Giles.

29. Keyring

They're in a tourist part of town with high-rise hotels, palm trees and restaurants. The corner shops sell surfboard keyrings, plastic leis and liquor. The air smells of the ocean, Japanese food, and exhaust fumes. It's evening.

The address Giles has turns out to be for a hotel. "Bugger," he says.

"Probably a tourist then," says Ethan. "Could have left weeks ago."

"Let's have a look around."

There's a downstairs pool, an upstairs pool, and a wide bar with views of the ocean. A gym, a restaurant, a clothing shop. Hundreds of hotel rooms.

"We're never going to find her in here," says Ethan.

"Oh?" says Giles. "Forgotten your tricks, have you?"

Giles pays cash for a room on a middle floor. He pushes its furniture against the walls while Ethan sets out his gear on the floor. Ethan draws a large circle on the beige carpet with garnet sand from a bag. "You have to stay out of the circle," he says. "I need the curtains closed and the smoke detector off, there's a good chap."

Giles stands on a desk to disable the detector and then pulls the curtains shut. He takes a chair to sit in the bathroom doorway, as he watches Ethan at work. Giles flicks off the lights as Ethan lights candles.

Then Ethan closes his eyes and starts to chant. This one's in Late Middle English. "We seek/ One who is gifted/ One who will be chosen/ A girl."

Ethan's eyes have taken on an unearthly reddish glow. The candles snuff out, and the room is illuminated only by his eyes. When he blinks, the darkness is abrupt.

"Room 1401," he says.

30. Juices

The fourteenth floor looks just like all the others. Room 1401 is on the left, past the laundry and the lifts. They reach it and hear screams from inside. Giles slams his shoulder into the door and the flimsy wood gives way. Ethan follows behind.

The first thing he sees is a startled Japanese couple seated at a table, with room service dinner in front of them. The woman's in her thirties, too old to be a Potential any more. But out on the balcony is a young woman in a hotel uniform, struggling with two Bringers.

She pulls free, knocking one off-kilter. Giles runs over and slams his fist into the Bringer as the girl flees to the neighbouring balcony. The other Bringer clambers after her.

Giles shouts to Ethan, "She's heading for the fire escape. Meet us there!"

He follows the Bringer and the girl from balcony to balcony. She's well ahead of them both, taking the fences like hurdles. She reaches the fire escape just before Ethan does and starts pulling herself up.

Giles stretches out to catch the robe of the second Bringer, dragging it back to where he can punch it. He throws it through a plate-glass window into somebody's room.

The girl's reaching the top of the fire escape. She grabs hold of the final rung. Which is when a third Bringer appears above her and plunges its knife into her shoulder. She lets go of the ladder.

She does not fall as Buffy fell, in a perfect swan-dive backlit by the dawn. She bounces against the fire escape, tumbles, and smashes her head against a balcony rail before falling the long distance below. But she makes the same sound, a kind of wet cracking, when she hits the pavement. Or so Giles thinks.

Giles throws up. He throws up his in-flight curry and his breakfast pork pastries, and the glasses of scotch from the night before. He keeps on throwing up his stomach juices and then nothing at all, but he keeps retching. There's the sound of an ambulance from below.

31. Tarpaulin

Giles is in quite another hotel by the time Ethan finds him. He's found a seat on a terrace which looks out on a view of palm trees and the ocean. Or it would, if it weren't night and the moon weren't set.

Giles is already quite drunk. He slouches in his chair, savouring the smell of the wet air and the burn of the Laphroaig on his lips. He feels very slow. Ethan seems to be waiting for him to speak.

"Buffy died," Giles says, "a couple of years ago. Her death was mystical, but her body fell several stories and a building partly collapsed. I was down on the ground, among the debris. We were all there -- Willow and Xander, Tara and Anya and Dawn and Spike.

"And Buffy was just dead. The back of her body had been crushed by the impact. I tried to roll her over, but bits of her came away in my hands. We had to get a tarpaulin and a spade to make sure we got all of her.

"We buried her and made her a nice headstone. We spent quite some time just sitting around the house, not talking, or suddenly leaving the house, or weeping. We did our best to fill her place and keep the demons down, for a few months at least. And then I decided to go home. My gig had ended in the traditional way and my job description had been Buffy, not the Hellmouth. So I got myself a nice flat in Bath and an on-again off-again girlfriend whom I'm pretty sure is off-again right now. I did all the kinds of things I always imagined I'd do when Buffy was gone, except that I'd never properly allowed myself to imagine them when she was alive.

"And I told myself, 'Well, that's the worst thing that's ever going to happen to you in your life. It will never be that bad again.'

"They brought her back from the dead, Ethan. Her 'friends'. Selfish, stupid, heartless little children. I mean, I thought we were stupid, summoning demons for a high? But bringing back the dead -- how could anyone ever possibly think that could turn out well?"

"She'll die again sometime," Ethan says.

"And I'll have to live through all that again," says Giles. "Or I'll be the thing the First has to kill to reach her."

"Don't you think then," says Ethan, "that it would be a mercy to end the Slayer line, to--"

Giles launches himself at Ethan, fists flying. But he's drunk and Ethan sidesteps him neatly. Giles ends up on the floor.

Ethan says, "I only meant that then there wouldn't be an endless line of doomed girls and their devoted Watchers. And most Slayers aren't as effective as she is: they just do a kind of demonic spot-cleaning. Your Buffy's unique, Rupert. A freak coincidence of an active Slayer with a world-class witch as best friend."

"Well, I like to think I've had something to do with it," says Giles, from the floor.

"Why ever did the Council entrust Ripper Giles with her delicate moral upbringing?"

Giles laughs. "Look, could you help me up to bed? I don't think I can stand."

"I'll call for some staff," says Ethan, quickly. "I have my flight to catch, remember?"

"Oh," says Giles from his spot on the floor.

"I'll see you again when I have some news."

Giles nods up at him. "Good luck."

32. Toothpaste

Giles wakes around noon the next day. He's hungover and hungry, but he feels obscurely better. It's the first time in months he's had an uninterrupted night's sleep in a proper bed.

He takes a leisurely shower, stretching himself under the hot water and shampooing his hair. He shaves in front of a hotel mirror from which he can catch glimpses of the afternoon ocean. He digs out his toothbrush and toothpaste from his duffel.

It's while he's brushing his teeth that he comes to his realisation.

Ethan Rayne is dead.

33. Carpet

"It's chaos here!" says Anya, her voice made even more tinny down the phone. "The school principal opened a dimensional portal and we had to go rescue Buffy. We had to rescue Buffy! It's topsy-turvy, Giles."

There's a voice in the background: Andrew. "The Slayer of the Vampyrs does not need rescuing! She rescued herself. She just needed our help."

Dawn grabs the phone. "The book in the bag was totally Sumerian, Giles, but from what Buffy said, they spoke modern Swahili."

"What book?" asks Giles. "Who? No, don't tell me -- if it's all sorted out, you can let me know when I get back."

Anya says, "And now there's a riot at the school!"

Giles feels very calm, very tactile. He can feel the hotel carpet under his feet and the soft air floating in through the window. All the things the First can't feel or touch.

"Is there any urgent news?"

"Buffy did want to speak with you, but she's gone out. And I've paid the hire car companies for the additional costs you incurred in Seattle and Austin. Now, where are you?"

"Waikiki," he says.

Anya curses him. "Hawaii? Australia? Giles, you can't keep picking these isolated places. You need to stick to densely-populated continents with excellent airline infrastructure which are covered by the visa waiver program. Anything else is inconvenient and expensive." He hears her tapping away at a keyboard. "I can route you to San Francisco, there's a new potential Potential there."

"Do it," he says.

He should have been able to tell from the start it wasn't Ethan.

"It's done," says Anya. "We'll see you soon."

He waits for hours in Honolulu Airport and no-one comes to talk with him at all.

34. Paperback

Adrienne picked him up at a gig in 1973. She road-tested him in a newsagent's doorway, then took him home to her squat. She was wide-hipped, with dishwater-blonde hair and a pleasing stamina. She was a very sensible girl in some ways, was Adrienne, the only one of them to hold down anything like a proper job. She did volunteer work for political causes.

Giles remembers waking up in the afternoon, pulling on some jeans, and going to have a look around. It was an end terrace, long neglected, smelling of incense, paint and mold. The floorboards were mostly intact, nailed down here and there with pieces of packing crate or covered with carpet scraps. The ceilings needed a lot of repair.

The stairwells were what smelt of paint. They were covered -- floor, walls and ceiling -- with intricate symbols, stick figures, and faux-naive artwork, some of which was amusingly pornographic. Later, he learnt it was Randall who painted the stairwell. Deidre would sometimes bring him t-shirts to paint, which she'd then take to sell on the Portobello Road.

On the floor above there was a window bay on the landing, piled high with mildewed paperbacks of all sorts. He turned a few over: Moorcocks and Highsmiths, Shame Dame and Sin on Wheels.

There were two doorways off the landing. Through the first he found a couple still asleep (that had been Deidre and Tom). Through the second he found a grand old room that was probably once a formal drawing room. It was all bare boards and peeling wallpaper by then, but a pair of thick curtains still hung next to tall windows.

Sitting on the floor was a man about Ripper's age and height, wearing a tie-dye waistcoat and a pair of jeans. He had a cup of tea next to him and a set of stones and candles that he was carefully arranging. Giles recognised the pattern as one of the better-known elemental pentacles. He walked up and pushed the last stone into place with his bare heel.

The other man looked up.

35. Bicycle

Randall died four months later. Possessed by Eyghon, he'd gone on a rampage. They chased him down the high street towards the canal at four a.m. Ethan cast a spell to exorcise the demon, but it hadn't worked. So Ripper beat Randall's head in with a piece of bicycle frame.

Giles remembers standing there, panting, feeling the first of the shoulder pain from where he'd torn his muscles. The street sounded impossibly quiet at first, and then he started to hear a few distant noises: the canal waters, a barking dog, and the whir-and-clatter of an early-morning milk cart. Ethan and Deidre looked over Randall's remains. Tom and Philip-the-new-guy had run away hours ago.

Stan died next, losing control of his car at sixty miles an hour on the motorway near High Wycombe.

Adrienne died in the early nineteen-eighties, of breast cancer. Giles went to see her in the oncology ward, where she was dosed up to the eyeballs on morphine. He didn't think she recognised the man in the tweed suit.

Eyghon killed Tom, Deidre, and Philip in 1997.

He last saw Ethan alive in January 2000, when he was manhandled into an Initiative military van, his destination a rehabilitation centre in the Nevada Desert. Giles wonders now what that meant, and to what extent he is responsible for whatever may have come after.

The remaining survivor of the Camden Town squat watches the sun rise over the Pacific as he eats his airline omelette from an aluminium tub. The white noise of the aircraft's movement drowns out the sounds of his plastic knife and fork on the metal. The airline pilot calls out the weather forecast for San Francisco: "Cloudy, and with early-morning fog."

36. Swing

On the other side of the Bay Bridge is an address in El Cerrito. The girl's not at home, her housemate tells him.

"It's important that I see her straight away," says Giles. "It's about an inheritance." She directs him to a park up a hill.

It's spring in California. Giles walks up the wooded hill, feeling the climb in his legs and back. At the top, he finds a swing leaning out over a drop on the steepest side of the hill. There's a girl there, standing on the seat, swinging backwards and forwards over the void. The view is astonishing: sunlight rippling over San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Caridad Suzio?" he asks, looking up at her. "I'm afraid I have to change your life."

At LAX, he gets out of the airport as soon as he can, even though it means missing the connecting flight to Sunnydale.

Xander calls then. "We got a call. You want to get to the San Bernardino bus station."

A Greyhound was ambushed by a group of robed and masked men, but the driver and passengers successfully fought them off. There are three slightly wounded, one of whom is a Mexican citizen, a teenage girl.

It's the Slayer-in-Training from Cuidad Juarez.

37. Pizza

"Hundreds of Turok-Han," says Buffy. "Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands. More than I could see, Giles."

They're sitting on the bench in the back garden of Revello Drive. From inside the house comes the enthusiastic sound of dozens of teenage girls eating Benny's Dial-and-Go Pizza.

She says, "I can't kill them on my own. And these girls, they're good, but they're not Slayers. That's why I need him. I need to have all my warriors with me."

Giles doesn't think Spike will make much difference against a hundred thousand Turok-Han. Buffy's always been the better fighter and Buffy has only managed to kill one.

"Buffy," he says, "some people don't change however much you want them to."

"It's not how much I want him to," she says, "it's how much he wants to. And he does, Giles."

"Buffy--"

"Thank you," she says in a tone that shuts down the conversation, something she's been doing more often of late. She looks at the Prokaryote Stone in her hands. "I'll take this to Willow."

She goes inside, leaving Giles alone in the garden. He stays to make a few phone calls he'd rather make in private.

First, he rings Annabelle's parents. "My sympathies for your loss are deep and sincere in ways I can barely begin to express. I understand, I truly do. But no matter how many times you call me, I cannot bring your daughter back. And you wouldn't want me to if I could."

Second, he rings Chloe's father. "I'm sorry to say that your daughter has died. She died bravely, fighting a foe which has taken many and to which no-one is immune. I am so very sorry."

Then he rings Olivia. "I won't be coming back," he tells her. "The work I have to do is never going to end. I'll always need to be here, on the Hellmouth. For me to pretend otherwise is self-deception."

Olivia says, "That's just a little bit shit, Rupert."

Willow comes to the door. "Giles, we're ready."

He goes downstairs to face Spike.

38. Jeans

William the Bloody is chained to the wall. A hundred and twenty years of savagery and mayhem in a t-shirt and jeans.

The Prokaryote Stone is poured into Spike's eye and finds its way into his brain. Spike is still for a while, then explodes into violence. Buffy's thrown across the room and Dawn's injured.

And Buffy still can't acknowledge how dangerous this is.

The school principal talks with Giles afterwards: he's Nikki Wood's son, raised by Bernard Crowley. He wants to kill Spike. He seems to think he can succeed where his Slayer mother failed.

Giles agrees to give him the opportunity to try.

39. Firecrackers

It's not just Spike, he thinks, it's all of them. All of them have a trigger. The First's being trying to set them off like firecrackers.

He and Buffy are out in a graveyard. It's like old times, in some ways. The stars are twinkling and the vampires are restless and unending.

"I don't know what I'm doing here," she says.

"You're practising your basics, Buffy," he says.

The basics include: one kills one's undead paramour as soon as he becomes a danger. Giles genuinely does not doubt that Buffy will do this once she sees the need, but she's blind to the obvious, that the need is already here. Perhaps if Spike kills the Principal, it will be a little clearer.

A vampire wakes and Buffy dances with a grace that makes him smile in wonder, once again.

Giles may doubt the number of Turok-Han Spike can single-handedly take on, but there are well-documented records of how many unarmed humans he can kill in relatively short periods of time. The number is quite large.

If Spike were triggered when Buffy was not nearby, he could probably kill many or most of the Potentials, plus Xander, Anya, or Dawn before one of the humans got in a lucky hit or Buffy arrived. The loss of so many Potentials would be a setback if not entirely disastrous, but he has to factor in the time needed for Buffy to get through the initial emotional impact.

And the First "let slip" that it "wasn't time" for Spike yet? Hundreds of thousands of years of cunning and it just happened to let that go? So Spike will either be triggered very soon or is a complete red herring.

If Spike is a red herring, then who is the First trying to distract them from? It knows how to play people. Who would be the most effective weapon? Dawn, just possibly, but only because no-one, Giles included, is really sure what it means for her to have been the Key.

Buffy knocks the vampire down, but does not kill him, at Giles's request. He asks Buffy if she'd be willing now to kill Dawn, to save the world.

"If I had to...," she says, "to save the world. Yes."

But it's Willow who's a much more likely prospect. Giles has done his best to help Willow and so has the Coven. Kennedy seems to be providing a much-needed stabilising influence. But if the First can trick Giles so thoroughly, with his years of experience and self-knowledge, how much more vulnerable is Willow? And where is it that she's gone to, without explanation and on extremely short notice?

And there's Giles himself, of course. What was the fake Ethan supposed to persuade Giles to do? What has Giles been distracted from? Or has the whole charade been arranged so that Giles would be emotionally unbalanced at a critical time? He's still going through the numb phase, but this will soon be followed by the alcohol phase and the maudlin phase, interspersed with episodes of self-recrimination and self-pity. It feels like the last straw.

What does the First have in mind for him?

"So, you really do understand the difficult decisions you'll have to make? That any one of us is expendable in this war?"

"Have you heard my speeches?" Buffy mutters.

This isn't a world he'd wish for Buffy to live in, but it's the one they have. The hard decisions have to be made.

This is the way it's been since the beginning, before time.

It's terribly simple.

40. Tea

Buffy says, "I think you've taught me everything I need to know." She shuts the door before he can get another word in. He stands there for a while, looking at the white paint, wondering what has just happened. He considers knocking on the door and following her in, but his mind feels as if it has just hit a wall too. He's tired and confused.

He goes down to the kitchen and makes himself a cup of tea. He doesn't drink it, but it gives him a reason to be in the kitchen and it gives his hands something to do. He should review the situation, he thinks. Instead he stirs sugar that he doesn't want into his tea with a spoon.

He's not alone in the kitchen, of course. SITs go in and out, looking for biscuits or making themselves bowls of cereal or mugs of hot chocolate. They move around him as if he isn't there, but their manner becomes quieter, more subdued, when they notice him. They must think he's old. Old and wise, that's what he's supposed to be, drawing from his decades of hard-won experience to advise his charges on the best course of action.

Giles's first supposition: Spike will kill Wood. Spike is a century-old demon, with deeply-ingrained demonic reflexes, and, placed in a position where his life is threatened, he will lack the necessary self-control to curtail his lethal violence. Supposition proved false.

Giles's second supposition: The First will retain control over Spike. The First has been playing mind-games with people for thousands of millennia. It is unconquered and unconquerable. A jumped-up, badly-dressed, and not particularly intelligent vampire should be easy prey. This supposition has also proved false.

Giles's third supposition: Buffy will understand why she should kill Spike and, while regretful, she will be grateful to her long-time mentor for his insight. Supposition false.

Giles's underlying supposition: That he has any idea what he's doing. Proved false.

He might as well admit it -- he doesn't know what he's doing any more. His judgement is shot, his acuity has vanished, and he's undergoing some sort of personal meltdown. Any moment now, he's going to be overwhelmed by doubt and self-pity, and he'll start to drown in it. He can't prevent it, only sit through it, perhaps with his eyes closed and clutching the chair.

Once the worst of it is over, he goes to call Rosalind at the Coven. No-one picks up, so he checks the number and dials again. Again, he gets no answer. After he gets no response from Rosalind's mobile and then Althenea's, he gives up.

He gets some fitful sleep and in the morning presents himself to Anya to ask where the next SITs are for him to rescue. He can do that part, sometimes.

By then, Dawn has realised the Coven are no longer answering calls. She's rung around and has confirmation of a sort: The Coven's been attacked, as have many other nodes in the worldwide network of seers that they've recently strung together. It's not yet clear how successful the attacks have been.

The next two places for him to go are Reno and Vancouver, Anya says.

"Are you sure you want to go?" asks Xander. "This is starting to sound kind of endgamey."

"I should be able to bring in another one or two," he says. "And besides, there's a source I want to tap."

41. Coffee

Fake Ethan is seated in an LAX passenger lounge, where he appears to have a wheeled carry-on suitcase and a copy of an inflight magazine. He sips from a fake paper cup of fake coffee.

"Ah, Ripper," says Fake Ethan, gesturing for Giles to sit opposite. Giles takes the seat next to him instead.

Fake Ethan is a marvellous reproduction, up close or at a distance. The skin tone, shape of his ear, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck. He's wearing an impressively maroon shirt.

"How was your flight?" asks Giles, not really listening to Fake Ethan's reply. "And your trip? I did some research and found a reference to something called the Deeper Well. But I couldn't find out more than its name."

Fake Ethan then tells him a long and exciting story about his hunt for the Well, his adventures locating it, and his cleverness in extracting vague and unhelpful hints from the Well's keeper.

Giles nods along. He should have taken the seat opposite. From here, he keeps wanting to slap Fake Ethan on the back, or tap his knee, or punch his head in. Fake Ethan actually looks a little uncomfortable at having Rupert this close.

"Do you think I should go and visit this Drogyn person to find out what I can?" asks Giles.

Fake Ethan chuckles. "If you think you can be more persuasive than I can. But if I were you, I'd be looking a little closer to home."

Why did the First decide to impersonate Ethan, of all the people Giles once had known? It's a curious choice. It's hardly unlikely that Giles and Ethan would touch in some way. Most of Giles's strongest memories of Ethan are dominated by touch, whether it was the warmth and weight of Ethan's body as they dozed together on a mattress, or the shudder Giles had felt through his foot as he broke one of Ethan's ribs. The First must have all of Ethan's memories, and yet it didn't understand this. What other blind spots does it have?

He'd like to kill this Fake Ethan. He'd like to feel its ribs smashing too, the impact of his fists and boots on flesh and bone. He feels denied.

He says to Fake Ethan, encouragingly, "Closer to home?"

"Well," it says, "there's a rumour going around... We know the First is manipulative. That's the chief weapon in its arsenal, not these showy Turok-Han. If I were the First, what would I think was the best way of destroying the Slayer line? Not the Turok-Han and certainly not the Bringers."

"No?"

"Willow," he says. "She could destroy them and all of us in an instant. You have to kill Willow."

Giles recalls that the thought occurred to him only the day before. It had seemed quite reasonable then. "How?" he asks.

"Well, she trusts you. She won't be on her guard. And it has to be something quick enough that she can't kill us all with her dying breath. Poison," suggests Fake Ethan, "given with a soporific."

Giles says, "I don't know how to make that." As if in a pantomime, he says, "I suppose you do?"

"Yes," says Fake Ethan, "but I'll need some time."

"Let me know when you have it," Giles says, before he leaves LAX.

The Denver Potential has an army husband and a three-month-old child. "Your daughter will be safer without you," Giles explains, but the woman won't leave.

The Potential in Vancouver was in a traffic accident a year ago. She can barely walk and spends six hours a day on rehabilitation exercises. Giles doesn't ask her to come.

He goes back empty-handed to Sunnydale to find that Willow's returned.

And she's brought Faith.

42. Fabric

It's a rogue's gallery stepping in and out of Revello Drive now. The renegade Slayer, Faith. The notorious vampire Spike. Anya, the Vengeance Demon whom all Vengeance Demons looked up to. Willow, who almost destroys the world every time she gets upset. Dawn, who -- mostly innocently -- opened a rip in the dimensional fabric. And on a much smaller scale, there's repentant demon summoners Ripper Giles and Andrew Wells, plus two freelance demon fighters in Xander and Robin Wood, and roaming packs of Potential Slayers. They lack only the werewolf guitarist, the doomed white witch, the original souled vampire, and, ah, Cordelia.

Giles sits on the sofa and tries to work out the odds of any one subset wiping out the others. He's just reached the part in his grief where he wants to get terribly, terribly drunk.

A man dressed as a priest stabbed a Potential and gave her a message for Buffy. He says he has something of hers.

Buffy says, "It could be a girl, a Potential trying to get to us."

"Could be a stapler," says Giles.

That night, another two Potentials die: Molly and the one from Plovdiv. He makes another two phone calls after looking up the word for "condolences" in Bulgarian.

Althenea calls to say that she and many of the Devonshire Coven members have survived and have fled to a place on the Brittany coast. Rosalind, however, died en route.

Rona has her arm broken and Xander loses his left eye.

So it goes.

43. Nachos

The exodus from Sunnydale begins the next day. Giles takes a look at the traffic jams out of the city and cancels the flights he had for Kansas City and Des Moines. He won't get to the airport on time. Instead he joins Willow on a trip to the police station to get information on Caleb.

A violent, partying mood takes hold of those left in the town. Giles wanders through around lunchtime, watching the looters breaking into the liquor stores and electronics shops. He lifts a few bottles himself.

He spends the afternoon going through police files with Dawn, trying to keep the more graphic ones out of her way. He has a couple of beers and they share a plate of nachos. Together they work through unsolved murders, crimes of sexual violence against women, reported felonies conducted by members of the clergy, death cults...

"Look at this one!" says Dawn, finally finding a file that looks a little more innocuous. "Disappearing monks! They made me, I -- read about them disappearing!"

Giles wonders again about how the monks made Dawn. Did they stand over her crib, granting her the looks of Snow White and the linguistic skills of Constance Garnett?

He sends Spike and Andrew to the Garlic Capital of the World at Gilroy, to investigate the monks. Andrew's a distracting pest and Spike's able to smell when Giles is properly self-medicating.

Buffy comes home. She's bruised again, and tired again. Last night she didn't sleep -- again. She's had even less chance for a break than Giles has. If only she could have a day or two, to rest her mind. Or a stiff drink.

Instead, she's off to the Bronze to shout at Faith and the Potentials, and back again to shout at everyone else.

Giles realises she won't take a break of her own accord. So when the others decide to throw her out, Giles lets them.

Then the lights go out.

44. Mobile

It's like living in the squat again. No electricity, cold water only, people wandering in and out. A few people he knows really well and a bunch of others he couldn't pick out from a lineup. Pilfered food, sleeping bags everywhere, some surreptitious shagging. No-one's willing to admit that anyone else is in charge. And someone even suggested the bloody parliamentary procedure.

He measures out just enough alcohol to dull things but not enough to overwhelm. He takes it upstairs to sit on the porch roof, which is just about the only place he can get any privacy at the moment. Sitting there, he can see how the whole city's gone dark. There are the silhouettes of the buildings and then, the night sky. He laughs when he realises he's probably the only man left in Sunnydale over the age of thirty-five. Only he, wily Giles, persists.

At three a.m., Fake Ethan (or someone who actually has fingers) calls Giles on his mobile. "I have what you asked for," says Fake Ethan. "Where shall we meet?"

"Outside my old flat," Giles suggests. "Two o'clock."

45. Gin

The morning after Randall died, Giles had headed back to the squat. His memories of that morning are a little confused: there are clear images and snatches of dialogue, but it's hard for him to put them together in chronological order.

He remembers that his arm and shoulder ached terribly. He had trouble closing his fist. The kitchen cupboard smelt of mustard powder as he searched through Stan's stash, looking for painkillers or some forty-proof vodka.

Deirdre had poured them all gin and tonics, as if that would help at six a.m. in the morning. Then she'd sat on the filthy kitchen floor, drinking. She was wearing her black dress, the one with the lace sleeves, which was ripped and barely hanging from her. Her long hair stuck to the stains on the oven door.

She'd said, "We have to call Paul," but maybe that had been earlier, when she was still pouring the drinks. Paul was Randall's brother, whom Deidre had once been engaged to. Paul was a doctor, as all of Randall's family were. Deidre was one of those women specially bred to marry them.

Another time, she turned to Giles and said, with venom, "You killed Randall!"

Philip-the-new-guy had gone back to his flat. Tom was upstairs, packing his and Deidre's stuff. Except that Giles also remembers Philip standing there in the kitchen wearing a dressing-gown while Adrienne spoke in earnest. Tom came down with a suitcase and Deidre had screamed.

And he remembers Ethan, standing away from them all at the sink, running his hands under the tap. He'd burnt his hands extinguishing the spell candles, trying to dispel Eyghon. He was pale from the exhaustion of deliquescing the corpse.

Giles remembers saying, in no order he can be sure of, "People go missing all the time, in London." "Somebody slap her." "Eyghon killed Randall; I killed Eyghon." "A demon of that level of power won't remain dead."

It was not his finest hour.

46. Bottle

The power's not yet back on in the morning. He alone, among the members of the household, knows how to conjure hot water. And there's a standard haunting spell used to set off radios and record players that works perfectly well for other small electrical appliances. Behold: the miracle of tea and toast.

"Use up the cereal first," he hears himself saying, "before the milk goes off. I can't stay in all day to power the fridge."

"I can go and look for a generator," Xander offers.

"No, it's OK," says Willow. "I think I got it." There's the sound of the fridge powering up again.

"Serious juice, Willow," says Kennedy the Supportive Girlfriend.

Giles decides to walk to his rendezvous with the First. He takes a knife, just in case, but sees no-one on the way. The town is empty and largely intact. It's a sunny day in late spring, rather beautiful in fact, and it feels like the afterlife, or a town in a dream.

His route takes him past the mall where they defeated the Judge: the carpark's empty now. Down the road, past Party Town Costumes and the alleyway where Spike crashed Giles's Citroen, then on to the first location of the Magic Box. He passes the road to the docks, and another road that leads to UC-Sunnydale. He takes a shortcut through one of the graveyards, where the grass is lush and green and the headstones glitter in the sun. Past the Starbucks, the pig's-blood butcher, and Willy's Bar. Sunnydale's ice rink is to the left and Joyce's old gallery is to the right. Then it's up the hill towards his former home.

Fake Ethan's sitting on the top of the stairs leading up to the flats. A small, brown medicine bottle is next to him.

"Here's what you're after," says Fake Ethan. "First, she'll fall soundly asleep, and then the nerve agent will activate. There's no risk."

Giles takes a seat next to him and picks up the bottle. "You didn't think of anything else, then? This seems a little blunt. None of your usual cruel metaphorical logic."

"You asked for something that would do the job," says Fake Ethan. "You're not getting cold feet, are you?

"Oh no," says Giles. "In fact, I'm thinking of poisoning almost the entire household."

"Really?" asks Fake Ethan, studying Giles's expression.

Giles wonders how he could ever have mistaken this travesty for Ethan. Ethan was sadistic and self-centred, certainly, but where in this facsimile was his genuine pleasure in magic, his artistry or his rare moments of true generosity? If Ethan had been like this, Giles would never have given him more than the time of day.

Giles shrugs. "Well, we have practically an entire club for repentant villains back at the house at the moment." He considers. "I expect that irritates you quite a bit."

"Why?" asks Fake Ethan, "because I'm not a repentant villain?"

"Oh, I don't know," says Giles. "Last time you only turned me into a Fyarl, which is pretty mild for you these days. And not entirely undeserved. And then you hung around that fleabag hotel, waiting for me to turn up."

"I don't understand what you're getting at," says Fake Ethan.

"No," says Giles, "I don't expect you can."

Giles allows him a moment to consider what that would have been like, to have Ethan as part of the rogue's gallery of Revello Drive. It seems unlikely, but how much less so than Anya, or Spike? Then he shuts the thought down, as the possibility has gone.

"Well," says Fake Ethan. "I'd better be going. I still have quite a bit to do. I look forward to hearing the news from Jonestown."

Giles doesn't move from his seat on the steps as the Fake Ethan stands up. But he says, "People do get better, Ethan. Things change and it's often for the good."

Fake Ethan gives him an uncertain look.

"Be seeing you," says Giles.

47. Rug

The houses on either side of the Summers' have been abandoned. The Potentials take them over, glad to be out of the cramped quarters they've been in. Andrew and Dawn go with them, promising to scream very loudly if anything goes wrong.

Giles keeps watch as well, from the back porch of Revello Drive. He hopes he has bought them a day or two free from a direct assault from Caleb. Now he waits for Buffy.

Around two, he goes in to get a nightcap and almost trips over the obviously post-coital Xander and Anya lying under a rug. Xander's snoring heavily, his head pressed against her breast and shoulder.

Anya stirs. "It's the pain meds," she says, leaning up on her elbow, "they always make him snore."

"Couldn't you have found a room?"

"Where?" says Anya. "Willow and Kennedy are in Willow's room and Robin and Faith are in Buffy's. And the basement is damp and unattractive."

He steps into the kitchen to find mugs and glasses. He can hear her dressing behind him.

She comes through and watches him pour himself a cup of tea and a glass of scotch.

She says, "Giles, I've never told you this before, but I was once wished into a world where you and Buffy had never met."

"Oh," says Giles, startled.

"I think you should know that this world is better, for humans."

"Better how?"

"The Apocalypse started six years ago over there."

"Really?" He is genuinely pleased. He tears up a little and tries to hide it by fetching milk from the fridge.

"So," says Anya, "you made a difference! Go you!" And she punches him playfully on the arm.

"You want some of this scotch, don't you?"

"Hell, yes," she says.

48. Toast

The next morning, Faith takes the Potentials on a mission to a sewer tunnel, most likely imperilling all their lives. Buffy still isn't back yet, a fact that's starting to worry Giles despite himself.

He spends the morning sifting through more police records, sewer maps, accounts of incorporeal evils, books on serial killers and mad priests through the ages. He eats as he works, pausing for a moment to savour the simple pleasure of toast.

No wonder the First's psychotic. Existing for millennia watching people eat foods like hot buttered toast.

It's a bit of a disaster when the Potentials return. One is dead, many have been injured, and Faith is unconscious. He helps with the triage of the Potentials, and with Xander he caries Faith upstairs.

But then there's Buffy, returned to them, looking well-rested and carrying a--

"It's a scythe," she says, twirling it experimentally in the confines of Willow's bedroom. It's clearly a polearm, of course, most obviously prefiguring the voulge or the glaive-guisarme, but she seems determined to call it a scythe. He supposes the term's catchier and has all those Reaper connotations.

"Buffy," he says, as she continues to put the Scythe through its paces, "I think I may have found a, a vulnerability in the First, a lead of a sort."

She holds the Scythe still and suddenly turns very attentive.

"I've been thinking about the various manifestations of the First which we've encountered. It's everlasting and indestructible and very cunning but I, I think now it can be defeated."

"Tell me how."

He shakes his head. "I don't know exactly, but I do know that it's limited. It understands anger and hatred and some aspects of loneliness and grief, but it doesn't understand the more generous of our emotions and impulses; it can only ape them. If it did understand, it couldn't be what it is. We need to surprise it with a motivation that would never occur to it."

She puts the Scythe down and embraces him. "Now that sounds more like the Giles I know."

"I'm sorry, Buffy. It's been a terribly long year, even among the terribly long years we've had before."

"Tell me about it," she says.

"Ah," says Giles, "perhaps not quite at this moment."

49. Sodas

The day after next, Buffy and Willow change the world. Buffy shares her power and a generation of Slayers find their new strength. Spike kills all of those Turok-Han after all, with the help of a magical amulet that Angel brought.

The activation of so many Slayers simultaneously will have ramifications both mystical and practical that Giles is certain none of them can foresee, and he's inclined to question Angel's motives, but today is not the day to say so.

When the dust settles, Spike is dead, and Anya is dead, and so are half a dozen Potentials-turned-Slayers, who came all too briefly into their powers. Amanda is one of them.

Now Giles has two dozen wounded superheroes healing super-fast in the back of a school bus: Kennedy, Vi, Chao-Ahn, Rona, Caridad and all the others. They're already starting to demand showers, hot snacks, and cool, refreshing sodas.

His adrenaline high is wearing off and his muscles are starting to ache.

And the Hellmouth is gone. With Buffy, Willow and Xander, he stares into its filled maw. They've been unchained.

The undefeatable has been defeated. Good has triumphed because it is good. Things which he had once thought were as immutable as the sun's rise and set have been changed.

He looks over to where Buffy stands on the lip of the former Hellmouth.

And she smiles.


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