If I Were You
written by Claire Bott


Rating: FRT for violence & some swearing.
Spoilers: Late-ish Season Three
Summary: This actually started off as a response to Wenchie's "crossroads" challenge, which she posted - oh gosh, months ago now. Sorry it took so long, Wenchie!
Thanks: To Michelle, for the beta. You go, girl.
Author's Notes: Warning: Character turning, character death, angst'n'pain. But at least the ending's happy. Well, mostly happy.
Feedback Author: Claire Bott



*In the bare upper room of a run-down Victorian semi, in London in the 70s, a boy chooses.

And the paths divide...*

* * * * *

It was a quiet Saturday evening in Sunnydale - for a change. Giles came through from the kitchen with a fresh cup of tea, put it down carefully on the table, and went to put a record on. Pink Floyd, tonight. Humming along under his breath, he collapsed into a chair and reached out for the tea.

That was when the room began to spin. For a moment, he thought it was his imagination or a fit of dizziness, but it went on too long; now he could feel the distinctive tang of magic in the air. Something was pulling at him, drawing him. He got to his feet, trying to fight it off.

There was a soft sound, like an overstretched elastic band snapping back into place, and suddenly, he was no longer in his own small, comfortable sitting-room.

He was standing inside a magic circle, in a bare, dark room hung about with magical implements, but it wasn't the surroundings that caught his attention. It was the man standing in front of him.

Apart from the leather jacket, the dark purple shadows under the eyes, and the week-old stubble, Giles could have been looking into the mirror.

"Who are you?" he whispered.

The other man stared back at him. "Who am I? Everyone knows who the Ripper is. Who are you, standing there with my face?"

"My name is Rupert Giles."

The other man, the stranger who was him, took a step back, and Giles could see fear blossoming in his eyes. "How - how did you know my real name? No one knows my name. No one but - who are you? *What* are you? Did Ethan set this up?"

"Now hold on a minute," Giles snapped. "I was just settling in for a quiet evening at home, when I found myself dragged off to a strange room by a man who has my face and goes by a name I haven't used for decades, who then proceeds to accuse me of 'setting something up' with someone I have every reason to hate and despise. Frankly, I think it ought to be me asking the questions, starting with, who are you and why have you summoned me?"

"Oh my God." Ripper reached up and ran his hands through his hair. "Oh my God. I know who you are. You're another version of me. You're the one who went back, aren't you? *You're the one who went back.*"

Giles blinked at him. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."

"All right. Come through to the other room and sit down. It'll be more comfortable there. I'll try to explain."

The other room was not exactly what Giles would have described as "comfortable." "Opulent, "ostentatious" and "extremely large", yes, but not "comfortable."

"Drink?" Ripper asked, going over to a mahogany cabinet in the corner.

"Scotch, thanks."

The other version of himself smiled slightly. "Nice to see some things don't change." He poured out a glass for Giles, handed it to him, then poured himself a glassful and drank it down in one.

"Steady on," Giles protested, alarmed. "That's a good quality single malt, you can't just treat it like some cheap cider."

The Ripper poured himself another glass, then took it and the bottle with him to one of the deep, beautifully-upholstered armchairs and sat down. "I need this stuff, Rupert. You have no idea how much."

Giles sank into a sofa opposite him. "Well, would you mind explaining it to me, then? You still haven't told me why you summoned me."

"I didn't - not you, specifically. I sent out a summoning for someone who could help to - to make things better. Sending you through was just the universe's idea of a nasty joke."

Ignoring the last part, Giles asked, "Make things better? What things?"

"No. Not yet. I'll tell you, I promise, but first I need to know - are you a different version of me, one who went back? I can't think of anyone or anything else you could be, but - "

"Went back? Went back where? From what?"

"To the Watchers, of course. From Ethan."

Giles stared at him. "Are you trying to tell me that you *didn't*?"

"It wasn't an easy decision," Ripper said, defensively.

"No. But I made the right one."

The Ripper stared down at the amber liquid in his glass, swirling it slowly around. "You did," he said sadly. "You really did."

"Wait a moment. You are me?"

"Yes. Or you're me. Depends on how you look at it."

"I have to say, I'm finding this rather hard to conceptualise."

The Ripper barked a short, bitter laugh and tossed back his drink, pouring himself another one immediately. "'Conceptualise.' Look at Mr. Long Words."

"Considering that you seem to be well on the road to alcoholism," Giles snapped, "I would say that you have something of a nerve, criticizing me."

For a moment, they glared at each other. Then Ripper looked away. "I'm - I'm sorry. It's just - things haven't been easy around here. Particularly lately."

"These would be the 'things' that you wanted made better, yes? I'm fairly sure I would be able to come up with more efficient solutions if I knew what it was you actually needed solved."

Ripper hesitated. "Before I tell you - what's your world like?"

"My world?" Giles shrugged. "Vampires and demons scurrying around. A Hellmouth we're fighting to keep from being opened. Pretty normal, really."

"The Society of Watchers?"

"Is being its usual irritating self."

"And - the Slayers?"

"My Slayer is doing fine, thank you very much."

"Your Slayer? What - you have a Slayer?"

"Yes. Or at least," he added darkly, "I did. But that's a long story."

"Wh-what's her name?"

"Buffy. Buffy Summers. Why?"

"Oh God," Ripper moaned. "It's the same one."

"The same one?" Giles was getting a nasty feeling in the pit of his stomach. "The same one as what?"

"Wait, first tell me -"

"No. No more questions. Answers. Now. What's been happening in this version of the universe? *Tell me.*"

Ripper looked away. "It - it was after Randall died." He looked back at Giles. "Was that when you left?"

"Yes."

"I knew it," he mumbled. "I knew that was when I should have gone."

"Back to the explanation, please."

"Ethan got really excited by it. He said, if we could kill a demon, that meant we could do anything. He started to make plans. *Big* plans. I think - I don't know, I think he was more upset over Randall dying than he ever let anyone see. It was as if he wanted to make it mean something."

"And so he...?"

"Like I said, made plans. He started gathering together magical artifacts, powerful spells, things from all over the world. If Ethan having fun was dangerous, Ethan taking things seriously was -"

"Deadly," Giles finished for him.

"Yes. Very much so. Fifteen years ago, he destroyed the Society of Watchers and took over Britain. A lot of countries made war on us then. They probably thought it would all be finished really fast. All those nations, and only one little country? Over by Christmas." He snorted. "They didn't know how long he'd been planning."

"He won?"

"He won. He took America a couple of years ago. Since then, there's been no-one to stand against him. Oh, there are some countries he hasn't actually conquered; they all send tribute, just the same. It's safer that way, you see. No one wants demons coming and getting them while they sleep."

Giles took off his glasses, cleaned them thoroughly, and put them back on. "Are you seriously trying to tell me that Ethan - Ethan Rayne - is the ruler of the entire world?"

Ripper nodded. "They call him the Sorcerer King now. He insists on it."

Giles snorted. "Typical Ethan. Always did have delusions of grandeur."

"Yes, well. They aren't delusions any more."

"So I see." He looked up sharply. "And Buffy?"

"H-how do you mean?"

"When I mentioned her name, you said, 'It's the same one.' The same one as what, Ripper?"

He closed his eyes. "She was the general of the American Army," he said shortly. When they were defeated, he had her taken captive and -" His voice faltered.

"And what?" Giles demanded.

"Forcibly turned into a vampire. She's the Slayer Vampire now. She stands at his right hand."

Giles got to his feet, filled with a cold fury. "The Watchers destroyed. The world taken over. The Slayer turned into a vampire. Did it not occur to you, at any stage, that you ought to be trying to *stop* him?"

"You don't understand," Ripper whispered. "By the time I really knew what he was planning, he was too powerful to stop. Besides -" He broke off.

With an insight that was more self-knowledge than anything else, Giles knew what he'd been about to say. "Besides - if you'd left, if you'd tried to stop him, you might have got yourself hurt. Even killed. Couldn't have that, could we? Never mind if everyone else around you was dying. Let's look out for number one." He sat down again abruptly. "So what's changed? Why did you suddenly decide to sprout a conscience?"

"He - he's got really strange, lately. Ever since he took America. It's like he gets edgy with no-one to fight. He's been turning against people, acting unpredictably. I thought - I was afraid he might -"

"You were afraid he might turn on you. That was what it took to make you get off your arse and do something. You really are a pathetic excuse for a human being, aren't you?"

Ripper's face twisted. "But I'm you. I'm you. How can you be so cruel?"

"*Because* you're me. Because I *hate* knowing that could have ended up as a cowardly, amoral wreck like you. Even when you finally decide to take action, all you do is try to call up someone to do your dirty work for you. I suppose you were expecting whatever came through to sort everything out all by themselves?"

"No. Not quite." He reached into his jacket pocket and came out with a strap of paper, holding it out to Giles. "Here."

"What's this?"

"It's the address of a resistance movement. I found out about their existence a few weeks ago. I didn't go to Ethan with it, Rupert. Give me credit for that much, at least."

Giles snatched the paper slip from his double's hand, stood up, and made for the door.

"W-where are you going?"

"To see the people at this address. Hopefully, there'll be someone there with a backbone. One that hasn't been dissolved in alcohol."

"Wait "

Giles turned. Ripper had taken off his jacket, and was holding it out. "Wear this. No-one will dare to stop you if they think you're me. Oh, and you should put your glasses in your pocket. I don't wear them out and about. Spoils the image."

He took the jacket, and began to put it on.

"You need to take the third left, second right, and then the fourth left to get out of the building," Ripper added, as Giles slid his arms into the jacket's sleeves.

"Big house, is it?"

"It's Buckingham Palace. Ethan requisitioned it when he took over."

Giles rolled his eyes. "Typical bloody Ethan. Right. Thanks for the jacket. Don't go out of this room until I come back. If someone calls, hide and pretend you're not in. Clear?"

"Clear."

He walked down the corridors of Buckingham Palace, following Ripper's directions. Everyone he passed turned to look at him, most of them with fear. Some shrank back against the walls when he passed.

Out in the city streets, he noticed it was getting dark. Perhaps he should go back, ask Ripper if he had any spare stakes... But he was still too angry to be in the same room with that man. That man who was him.

He walked through the deserted streets. Several of the houses he passed were in ruins, and there were piles of rubble lying in the streets. It reminded him of old pictures taken during the Blitz.

He was half-way to his destination when a man stepped out from an alleyway, blocking his path.

No, not a man. A vampire. Fangs bared, grinning with bloodlust. Cursing himself for not having gone back for stakes, Giles raised his head and met the creature's eyes.

The light from the street-lamps fell on his face. The snarling thing stepped back, its expression shifting from glee to terror.

"L-lord " it gasped, dropping to its knees. "Forgive me. I - I meant no offense. I didn't see. I didn't realize it was you. Lord, I beg you. Forgive me."

"You're forgiven," Giles managed.

"Lord, I thank you." It scrambled to its feet and darted off, running down the street as if the hounds of Heaven were after it.

Giles watched it go, frowning. Lord? What sort of man was his other self, then, if he could make vampires cower in terror? What kind of things must he have done, to earn that kind of a reputation?

The thing had knelt before him. It would have cut down Rupert Giles without a second thought, but it had knelt and begged before what it thought was the Ripper.

The worst of it was, a part of him had enjoyed it.

He shook his head violently, as if he could shake off his thoughts, and walked quickly onwards, towards the address on the piece of paper.

* * * * *

When he turned the corner into the right street, he stopped, staring. The house half-way along - the one whose number was on the paper in his hand - was abandoned, overgrown, the windows broken and boarded up.

*Fool,* he told himself, after a moment. Of course the resistance would have their base in an empty-looking house, one that no one would ever look twice at. But that must mean they had an inconspicuous entrance somewhere - it wouldn't do for people to be seen going in and out of an abandoned building.

He went to the end of the street, and looked around. There was a narrow alley-way running along the back of the houses. He walked down it, counting paces until he reckoned he'd reached the back of the abandoned house. There he stopped, and looked narrowly at the wall. It was brick - and old. There were places where the cement had crumbled away, where you could squeeze a finger or a toe between the bricks and climb up.

He shinned over and dropped to the ground on the other side. The back garden he was standing in was more of a jungle than anything else, but when he looked closely, there were signs of a path amid the foliage. Someone - or several someones - had taken that route often enough that the undergrowth had been trampled down a little, some of the branches broken or bent back.

The path led to - nothing. It petered away into a patch of undergrowth. Frustrated, Giles kicked at the turf.

It shifted. He kicked it again, and it moved further. Underneath was a rotted wooden trapdoor with a rusty metal ring set into it.

"Ah-ha," he murmured. "I think we have an entrance." With an effort, he lifted the trapdoor. Beneath it was darkness. He peered down, but there was no way of telling what was down there, or how far he might have to fall if he jumped down. "Ah well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

He sat on the edge of the hole, lowered himself carefully until he was hanging by his hands, then let himself drop.

He landed with a soft thud on a packed earth floor. He was in a bare cellar with a flight of rickety stairs leading up to an open door.

Someone was standing in the doorway, holding a crossbow and looking at him with undisguised loathing.

Someone he knew.

"Xander?"

The boy's eyes narrowed. "So you know my name. I guess you have your spies. It's not going to keep me from killing you, though." He raised the bow to his shoulder, and fired.

Giles threw himself aside at the last minute. "Xander, no!"

The younger man was already re-loading, cursing under his breath. Giles ran for the stairs, reaching out to grab the crossbow.

He was two steps away from Xander when the boy gave up trying to load the bow and simply swung it, catching Giles hard across the face and sending him tumbling into a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Before he could get up, Xander was on him, kneeling on his back to keep him from rising. The boy grabbed his hair painfully, jerking his head back, and Giles heard the soft sound of a blade being unsheathed.

"Xander, wait," he gasped. "I can explain -"

"I don't want to hear your explanations."

The cold edge of a knife-blade touched his throat.

"Xander, stop " A sharp cry from the top of the stairs. A girl's voice. One that Giles was extremely familiar with.

The knife-blade at his throat moved away a fraction of an inch. "Stop? What's with the 'stop', Will? I would have thought it was more of a 'carry on' situation myself."

"I'm not sure. But - he feels strange, Xander. Inside my mind, when I reach out on the spiritual plain, he feels strange."

"Yeah, that would be the evil-serial-killer vibe you're sensing there."

"No. Not like that. He feels - different - as though he didn't belong here."

"Willow?" Giles croaked. "Is that you?"

Both of them went silent for a moment.

"He knew my name too," Xander said at last. "Will, I should kill him. All the time he's alive, he's dangerous. You know that."

"Yes. I know. But, Xander, why didn't he kill you before you fired the crossbow? Why did he come alone in the first place? There's something wrong here."

"I agree. I think the something wrong is the Ripper still being alive in spite of the fact I could have killed him several minutes ago. Who knows what he's planning?"

"What if he came to talk to us?"

"You mean talk in the evil-guy-sneering-threats sense, or talk in the actual talk sense?"

"The second one."

"We can't trust him. He could be trying to get into our confidence. Anything we told him could make its way straight back to the Sorcerer King."

Willow sighed. "We can't trust him. You're right," she said sadly.

Xander's knife pressed against his throat, cutting a hot line of pain.

"Not unless we could really know what he was thinking," Willow went on. "Not unless I went inside his mind."

"Willow, no. You can't. This is the Ripper. You know what he can do. He could gut you from the inside out. I'm not going to stand there and let that happen."

"No. You're not. Because at the first sign of anything suspicious, you're going to kill both of us."

"*What?*"

"I mean it, Xander. If he did come to talk with us, to parley, we can't risk passing that up. It could be the break we've been waiting for. But we can't risk trusting him unless someone goes inside his head. That someone has to be me. Which means that the clear up-man has to be you. You know me best of anybody. If he takes me over, you'd be able to tell right away - and you'd have to kill me."

"As a plan, this is not appealing to me. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I *really* don't like it."

"I'm not asking you to like it, Xand. I'm asking you to do it."

Eventually, reluctantly, he nodded. "I'll do it. But you - you come back safe. Okay?"

"I'll try, Xander. I always do."

Dragging him up by his hair, Xander hauled Giles to his knees, still keeping the knife at his throat. He was facing a thinner, harder-faced version of the Willow he knew, who was looking at him warily, as though he were a trapped wild animal. "Hold out your hand," she ordered. The knife dug into his throat again, and he quickly obeyed.

Willow edged closer, extending her own hand as far out from her body as she could, and touched his fingers with her own. He felt her mind slide inside his, and deliberately left his thoughts and memories open to her. Snapshots of his life danced past as she sifted through them. Himself at five, crying after his sand castle fell down at the beach. Himself at sixteen, struggling to cope with his heritage as a Watcher. In his twenties, running away. And then - coming back. The years of duty, stretching out into decades. Then release. In his forties, meeting Buffy Summers for the first time. Her battles, and his own.

Willow withdrew from his mind, letting her hand fall away from his, and he was back kneeling on the earthen floor of the cellar. She looked up, and he saw she had tears in her eyes.

"Let him go, Xander. Let him get up. We can trust him."

"Are you sure?" Xander asked. "He could have fooled you - this *is* the Ripper -"

"No." She shook her head, and laughed. "That's the thing. He isn't the Ripper. He's the man the Ripper ought to have been. Let him up. We'll go upstairs, and I'll explain."

She led the way up to a room at the top of the old house. It was sparsely furnished, with only a battered kitchen table, a couple of upright chairs, and an ancient armchair with stuffing bursting out of it at every seam. In this, a barefoot man in faded jeans and a tattered T-shirt sat cross-legged, his dark hair falling over his face, idly cleaning his fingernails with the point of a curved, vicious-looking knife. He looked up when they entered.

"You," hissed Wesley Wydham-Pryce, his face contorting into a snarl. He leapt from the chair, knife still in his hand. "I swore if I ever met you I'd -"

Willow stepped in front of Giles. "Wes, no. This isn't him. Sit down."

He stayed on his feet, knife raised.

"*Wesley*." Willow's voice had steel in it.

Slowly, Wesley sank back into the chair, resting the long knife across his lap.

Willow gave an apologetic glance at Giles. "He's been on the run for fifteen years," she said quietly. "It changes a person."

"So I see," Giles murmured.

"Why are you talking to him?" Wesley demanded. "Why aren't you killing him? Why aren't you letting *me* kill him?"

Xander nodded. "Gotta say, I'm with the kill-first-ask-questions-later guy on this one. Why *aren't* we getting rid of him, Will? In case you've forgotten, he is the enemy."

Willow dropped onto one of the wooden chairs. "Sit down. I'm going to try to explain. Be patient, both of you. It's not going to be easy."

* * * * *

"So," Xander said, "He's not the Ripper?"

Willow shook her head. "He's not."

"He's from another universe?"

"Yes. Or another version of this one. It's hard to explain."

"Hard to believe," Wesley said.

Willow shrugged. "I can't make you believe me. All I can do is ask you to trust me."

Xander looked from Willow to Giles and back again. "All right, Will," he said at last. "I trust you. I always have, and I haven't regretted it yet."

"Wesley?"

"You're the commander."

Willow and Xander looked at each other. "I think that's as close to a 'yes' as we're going to get," said Willow. She turned back to Wesley. "Wes, I want to tell him about - the secret, but I won't do it unless we're all agreed."

He gave an angular shrug. "You're the commander," he repeated.

"Again, a very nearly 'yea' vote from Negative Boy in the corner," Xander said. "Looks like that's all of us on board."

"Right." Willow got to her feet, went over to the wall, and tapped out an intricate pattern on the peeling wallpaper.

A section of the wall swung aside, and a young dark-skinned girl walked through. "I heard," she said. "I trust you too, Willow."

Willow turned to Giles. "This is -"

"Kendra," he finished for her. "The Vampire Slayer. We've met."

She shook her head. "I have never seen you in my life before."

"Yes. I know. But in my reality, we've met."

Willow sat down again. "Well, that simplifies things a little. You're right; she is the Slayer. By the end of the war, we had as many Slayer-potentials as we could get in a secure training facility, well behind the front lines. When - when the Sorcerer King turned the General, Kendra was chosen. Xander and I were part of the team that was picked to get her out."

"Only part? What happened to the rest of them?" Giles asked.

"They died," Willow said simply. "Xander and I managed to get away with Kendra, but it was a very near thing. We both wanted to just get her as far away as possible, but Kendra insisted that we came to London. She said there might still be a chance to strike at the Sorcerer King, if only we were close enough. So we found our way to England. That was when we met Wesley."

"'Met' me," Wesley muttered. "Hah. Saved my life."

"You'd have managed to get away on your own -"

"I would have died. Messily. There were six of them and only one of me." He began to clean his fingernails with the knife again. "There's only ever been one of me."

"There's us, now, Wes," Willow said gently.

For a moment, he met her eyes. "Yes. There is."

"And we have the Slayer," said Xander. "That's gotta be worth something."

Wesley spat on the floorboards. "If we could get her anywhere near him. If he didn't have the Slayer Vampire always hanging around. If he didn't have his own bodyguard of trained vamps to back her up. If he wasn't the most powerful spellcaster in the world. If the entire palace wasn't hung around with wards, and filled with guards, and - we might as well give up," he finished, abruptly.

Giles looked at him. "That doesn't sound like the Wesley Wyndham-Pryce I know."

Wesley's head snapped up. "You don't know me."

"Not in this universe, no. In the reality I come from, I did."

"What's he like, then?" Wesley asked slowly. "The Wesley you know."

"Oh, a pompous little fool. A stuffed shirt with a great deal of difficulty in listening to anyone's opinion other than his own. But you can say one thing for him, he's a determined little git. Once he's decided on something, he'll carry it through. No matter what. He'd never give up. And he'd never have said what you just said."

Wesley looked away.

Giles leaned back in his chair, looking around at them all. "What would you say if I told you there was a way to bring the Slayer Vampire over to our side? To get your General back?"

Kendra shook her head. "I would say it is impossible. Vampires are evil creatures. The person who was the General is gone."

"Yes, but we can get her back. There is a spell that can give a vampire back their soul."

Willow stared at him. "Are you sure?"

He nodded. "I know it exists. What I don't know yet is exactly how to cast it. But I'll find out, I promise you."

"How can you promise that?" Kendra asked, disdainfully. "You have just said, you do not know it. How can you be sure that you will know it?"

Giles grinned. "Research," he said happily. "It happens to be one thing I'm very, very good at." He got to his feet. "Now I just need to go and do it."

Willow leaned forwards, touching her fingertips to his forehead. Again he felt the brush of her mind against his, cool and fresh as toothpaste. "There. I've made a link between our minds. When you need me, or any of us, call for me, and I'll hear you."

* * * * *

Giles was down in the cellar again, trying to work out how to let down the rope ladder that Xander had told him about, when a soft footfall at the top of the cellar steps made him turn. Wesley was standing there, looking down at him. The younger man was still holding his knife, and for a moment Giles felt a spasm of panic.

Then Wesley said abruptly, "I won't give up." He turned, walking quickly away before Giles could think of an answer.

* * * * *

By the time Giles got back to the palace, the night was half gone. He trudged along the corridors, yawning, trying to remember if it had been this passageway he'd taken on his way out, or that one.

Round a bend in one of the corridors, someone came walking. Someone with a jaunty stride, and short-cut blonde hair.

"Buffy?"

She nodded curtly. "Ripper."

He knew that he should just nod back, walk on, not risk blowing his cover, but the words starting spilling out before he could call them back, and then it was too late. "Buffy, how did you come to this? You were a general. You led an army. Now you're the bodyguard for a tin-pot dictator with a megalomania complex."

She folded her arms, giving him that defiant stare he knew so well. "Are you trying to taunt me, Ripper? Coz you might not have noticed, but I don't taunt that easily. I'm here because I want to be. I get all the slaves, all the torture, all the meals I want, served up on a silver plate with a little side-garnish if I ask for it that way. Why would I want to go anywhere else?"

"Better to serve in Hell, than rule in Heaven?" Giles murmured.

She scowled at him. "I don't like you, Ripper. And do you know what? Ethan doesn't like you much any more, either. He only keeps you around because he thinks you're amusing. Any time now, that joke's going to wear a bit thin. Then he'll give you to me." She pushed her face as close as she could get to his, given the height difference. "It might take you days to die. Weeks, even." She stepped back, and gave him a perky grin. "Sleep well tonight, Ripper. Sweet dreams." Still grinning, she walked away without looking back.

Giles closed his eyes. "Buffy," he whispered.

It was all the heart's cry he would allow himself.

* * * * *

He managed to find his way back to Ripper's rooms and knocked on the door. No reply.

"It's me, you fool," he hissed. "Let me in."

After a moment, Ripper opened the door. He was haggard, grey-faced. It wasn't like looking into a mirror any more. More like looking at an image of himself ten or twenty years from now. "Oh, for Heaven's sake," he snapped, irritated. "What's the matter with you?"

Ripper stumbled back to the sofa, and collapsed on it, burying his head in his hands. "I never knew before. Not before you told me. But - it really is all my fault, isn't it? If I'd gone back, none of this would have happened. None of it. I did it. It was me. I thought it was Ethan but it was me. Oh God. Oh God." He started to rock back and forth. "Oh God oh God oh God."

Giles took a step forward. His foot hit something that chinked, and he looked down. It was the whisky bottle. Empty. He picked it up, and stood holding it for a moment.

Remembering...

* 'Oh God. What have I done?'

'Stop it. Giles, you're scaring me.'

'I'm sorry.'

'Don't be sorry. Be Giles.'

Fear and pain. And guilt. Breaking over him like waves.

Drowning him.*

"Right," he said aloud, snapping himself out of it. "Coffee first, I think. Strong coffee. Then you're going to help me with a little project."

Ripper looked up. "Wh-what project?"

Giles stopped halfway to the kitchen, and turned. "We're going to give Buffy her soul back."

* * * * *

They spent most of the rest of the night going through books, collecting them in armfuls from the palace library when Ripper's private collection ran out. Towards dawn, they grabbed a couple of hours' sleep before hitting the books again.

It was near the end of the second day when Giles turned a page - and saw what they'd been looking for. A thrill of excitement chased through him, pushing away the weariness. "Ripper. Look."

Ripper got up, pushing his own book away, and came over. "God. You've found it."

"We found it," Giles corrected. "Now we have to use it. Do you know where Buffy would be likely to be, right now?"

Ripper looked at his watch. "Probably just getting up. I could give you directions to her rooms, if you wanted. Why?"

"Someone needs to be there when this spell hits. Realising what she is, what she's done - it could pull her apart."

"And that someone's going to be you?"

Giles nodded. "It's going to be me."

"Ah. So that means I'm going to be doing this spell on my own, does it?"

"Yes. Do you have a problem with that?"

Ripper straightened up. "No. I'll do it."

"Good. Get it right. And don't start drinking. The last thing I need is you performing a vital spell while half-cut."

Ripper nodded. "I won't let you down."

* * * * *

Following Ripper's directions, he found the door to Buffy's rooms easily enough, and knocked.

She opened the door, and glowered at him. "Ah. Ripper. Just what I need to make my night. Come in and make yourself irritating, why don't you?"

He stepped inside. Buffy closed the door behind him, and turned to face him, standing with her back against it. "Well, now that you're here, what shall we do to pass the time? Shall we play a little game? Shall I see how much of your skin I can take off before you die?"

Giles began to back away.

"Or, perhaps not," Buffy went on, advancing on him. "That might get too much blood on the carpet. Takes ages to get the stains out. Maybe I'll just break all your bones. What do you think?"

Giles hit the wall with a bump, and couldn't back any further. "Actually, what I think is that I'm confused," he said quickly. Keep her talking. Just keep her talking until the spell hits. "Why aren't you afraid of me, Buffy? Everyone else seems to be. Why aren't you?"

"Afraid of you?" She laughed and shook her head. "Why would I be afraid of you? You're a washed-up has-been, Ripper. Sitting in your room all the time, drinking yourself into a stupor, never going out - I think you get less sun than I do. Those people who run away when you look at them? They aren't afraid of you. They're afraid of who you used to be. And I guess I'm just a live-in-the-moment kind of gal."

Before he could move, she grabbed both his wrists in one small, strong hand, dragging him with her as she moved towards a silken drape that covered one section of the wall. She yanked it aside, revealing a selection of polished, gleaming torture implements. "Hmm. Now, which one should I use first?" She tapped her finger against her lips, looking for all the world as if she was picking between different types of doughnuts in a bakery.

"Won't Ethan be angry if you do this without getting permission?" he asked, trying to play for time.

She shrugged. "Maybe. But like I said, I'm a live-in-the-moment gal. And just right now, the moment includes me, an annoying dipso, and a whole load of torture stuff. What more could a girl ask?"

He struggled to free himself, but she had Slayer strength and vampire strength combined. He didn't stand a chance. Why didn't the damned spell kick in?

"Stop that," she said absently. "You wouldn't be able to get out anyway. The door doesn't open unless I'm standing right next to it." She selected a scalpel, and stood twisting it in her fingers, smiling at him.

He remembered Angelus. The glee in his eyes. *"I really want to torture you."*

But this time it was going to be worse. So very much worse - because this time it was Buffy, and he loved her.

"Now, hold still," she grinned. "This is only going to hurt a lot."

He closed his eyes as the scalpel slid down his cheek, drawing a line of blood.

"Ooh. That looks yummy. Reminds me, I haven't eaten yet tonight. I wonder what you'd taste like, Ripper?" She looked at him hungrily. "I could just have a little nibble now and save the rest for later. Yes, that's what I'll -" She broke off in mid-sentence, her grip on his wrists falling away. For a moment, her eyes shone with an inner fire, then it faded.

"Wh-where am I?" she asked, looking around in bewilderment. "What's happening -" Then her eyes widened, as the memories hit her. "Oh God no. I didn't. I couldn't. I -" Her knees buckled, and she folded up like a broken doll.

Giles caught her gently before she hit the floor. "Buffy? *Buffy.*"

His only answer was a soft, agonized sob.

He lifted her in his arms, carrying her across the room. The door swung open when he kicked it, and he carried her through the corridors, towards Ripper's room.

"Took your time," he snapped, as the door swung open.

"Sorry. I couldn't work it out at first."

He put her down on one of the sofas. She keeled over, burying her face in the cushions.

"Is there anything I can do?" Ripper asked.

"No. Yes. What's good for shock? Go and make her some sweet tea with plenty of sugar."

Ripper looked at him. "That's good for the kind of shock where you almost crash your car. I'm not sure it'll help with the kind of shock where you realize you're a bloodsucking creature of evil."

"Well, what would you suggest?"

"Neat whiskey. Lots of it."

"Yes, well, I think I'll stick with the tea plan, thank you."

"Right. Fine. Tea." He disappeared into the kitchen.

Giles knelt down by the sofa. "Buffy?"

"Leave me alone," she moaned. "Either kill me or leave me alone "

He took his own pain, his agony at seeing her suffer, and pushed it away, refusing to let it overwhelm him. This was no time for him to fall apart. "I can't leave you alone," he said gently. "I'm sorry, but I need you to listen to me."

Her head snapped up, and she glared at him. "Listen to you? *You*? You're the Ripper. You were worse than I was, and you hadn't even lost your soul."

"Actually, no," Ripper said, coming through from the kitchen with a steaming mug in his hands, "That would have been me."

She stared at him as he gave her the mug. "Two of you? How can there be two of you?"

Giles shrugged. "It's a long story."

"He's from another reality where he's the good guy."

"Well, apparently not that long."

She looked from one to the other of them, shaking so badly the tea slopped over the edge of the mug. "Did - did you do this to me?"

Giles nodded. "Yes. I planned it, and Ripper did the spell. It was us."

"I hate you," she whispered. "I *hate* you. I was happy before. I was doing awful things, but I didn't know they were awful. I just thought they were fun. And now I can't forget, I can't forget any of it - I'm dead and I'm a monster and that's never going to go away -" Her voice cracked, and she started to cry.

"Buffy," Giles said gently, "Do you remember Angel?"

For a moment, he wondered if she and Angel had never met in this reality, then something at the back of her eyes changed, softening. "Angel. How do you know about Angel and me?"

He shook his head. "It doesn't matter."

"He died. Did you know that? He died in the last battle. The last thing he said was - was that he loved me."

"Buffy, you have to be true to him now. To his memory. Do you understand? Everything you're going through now, he suffered too. You have to follow the way he took." He paused, watching her face. "Buffy?"

She shook her head, bewildered. "How do you know all this? About him - about me? How do you *know*?"

"In the other reality - the one I come from - I'm... well, I'm your Watcher."

"My Watcher." She reached out a trembling hand to touch his face, as if she needed proof that he was real. "My Watcher. I would have loved to have had a Watcher. Someone like you. But all I had was the army. It was kind of like Ender's Game, only without the winning part."

He smiled slightly. "Now I know you're feeling better. You're making jokes again."

Slowly, she nodded. "I think I am. I still can't forget what I did, but there might be a way to - to atone?"

"Yes. There will be." He stood up and rested his hand on her shoulder for a moment. "Welcome back, Buffy."

* * * * *

She looked up at him, tears still on her face. "Okay. So what do we do now?"

"Now - I have to contact some people," Giles said. "If you don't mind."

"Do you trust them?"

"Yes."

"Then I don't mind."

He shut his eyes, reaching inside himself. *Willow?*

*Giles? Are you all right? Have you found the spell to help the General?*

*The General is back. She's here.*

*God. Oh God. You did it? It worked?*

*It worked.*

*Where are you?*v *I'm in the palace.*

*But - but that's even better I can use the link to pull me and the others in, we can bypass the wards *

Giles hesitated. *Before you do, there's something you need to know. The Ripper is here. He's - well, on our side. I know it's hard to believe, but I'm going to need you all to not kill him. Even Wesley. Actually, especially Wesley.*

Now it was Willow's turn to pause. *Okay. I'm going to need to talk to the others. I'll re-establish contact in a moment.*

The link faded, and Giles opened his eyes again. "Buffy - it looks like we're going to have company."

"Company? Who?"

"Some people who've been trying to fight Ethan. Two survivors from the American Army; the Slayer who was called when - when you -"

"When I died," Buffy said steadily.

"Yes. And a Watcher."

She shook her head. "That's not possible. There are no Watchers any more. They were all killed."

"Not quite," Ripper said. "There was one survivor." He looked at Giles, fear in his expression. "H-he's coming here? Now?"

Giles folded his arms. "Yes. When I met him, he tried to kill me because he thought I was you. Now you're acting like you've been asked to tap-dance across a minefield because he's going to be turning up here. You told me that Ethan destroyed the Watchers, but I'm starting to think that wasn't the whole story. What was your little part to play, Ripper?"

Ripper smiled grimly. "Isn't it obvious? I gave Ethan the information that he needed.

"You sold them out to him."

He nodded, looking sick. "I told him everything I could remember. Where people were stationed, what magical defences they had, what their weaknesses were. He used that to take them down. Every man, every woman... every child. The only person who escaped was one of the trainees. We wouldn't even have known about it, except that one of Ethan's pet demons said it had seen a dark-haired boy running away from the Watcher's Academy shortly after it was set on fire. Ethan's been trying to hunt him down ever since. God knows what he's been through - that night, and afterwards..."

*Giles?* Willow's voice sounded in his mind, and he turned away. He didn't want to look at Ripper just now in any case, didn't want to be reminded that this man had his face.

*I'm here.*

*I've talked to them. Can you make sure that the Ripper isn't right there when we come through? I don't know if Wes is going to be able to deal with it if he is.*

*Given what I've just heard, I can't say I blame him. I'll handle it.* He glanced back at Ripper. "Go through to the kitchen. Don't come back till I say."

His other self went quickly through to the other room, shutting the door behind him.

*He's gone. What do I have to do to help you come through?*

*Just - keep yourself open. Let me use the link.*

Quickly, he turned to Buffy. "They're coming through now. They need you to be strong - they need to see you strong. You're their General."

"I can be strong," Buffy said.

There was a stretching sensation, as if he was being used as the rope in a tug-of-war. Then the tension released, and four shadowy figures began to materialize in the middle of the room. They solidified, becoming Willow, Xander, Kendra and Wesley.

Buffy got to her feet. Willow and Xander both snapped to attention, saluting crisply.

"At ease," Buffy said. She walked across the room, stopping in front of Willow. "Name and rank, soldier?"

"Colonel Willow Rosenberg, Witch Corps."

"Rosenberg - I know your name. You did fine work. The protection field around New York, that was you, as I remember. Held them off for a good long time."

"It gave way in the end," Willow said quietly.

"No one could have held them off at the end. You saved a lot of lives. Don't feel bad." She turned to Xander. "Name and rank, soldier?"

"Lieutenant Alexander Harris, Infantry."

"Are you ready for war, soldier?"

"Anytime you ask, General."

"Good man."

"I am Kendra," said the girl, when Buffy looked at her. "The other Slayer."

Buffy shook her head. "No. You are the Slayer. I'm - a vampire who used to be a Slayer. I am the General, and I will be fighting beside you. But you are *the* Slayer."

Some of the tension went out of Kendra's stance. "I understand, General."

"Good." She stepped forwards to where Wesley stood. "And you're the Watcher."

"Wesley." He shrugged. "Not a true Watcher. I was only a trainee when - when it happened." His voice shook a little on the last few words.

She looked at him closely. "You escaped. Don't blame yourself for that. You couldn't have helped the others by dying with them."

He only shrugged again, refusing to meet her gaze.

Buffy stepped back. "Now, what we need to do is -"

She was interrupted by the soft squeak of a hinge. They turned and saw Ripper standing in the kitchen doorway.

Before anyone could stop him, Wesley was across the room, knife drawn, pressing the blade up under Ripper's jaw. The older man froze, holding himself very, very still.

"Fifteen years ago," Wesley said, almost conversationally, "I swore an oath." He turned the knife in his hand, twisting it upwards so that Ripper had to rise onto his toes to keep his throat from being slit. "I don't know if I can stand to break it now."

"Wesley," Giles asked, "When was the last time you killed someone in cold blood?"

"Never."

"Then do you want to let him make you into that kind of a man?"

*"I made an oath!"*

The raw pain in the man's cry shocked Giles into silence.

"Wesley." Buffy's voice rang clear in the sudden stillness. "I hate him too, but we might need him now. If you kill him, you could be taking away our chance to defeat the Sorcerer King. Is that what you want?"

For a moment more, the tableau held. Then Wesley jerked his knife away. In the same moment, his free hand came up in a blindside punch, knocking Ripper to the floor. "*Scum!*" he spat. "Murderous, treacherous, *scum.*" Sheathing the knife, he turned and walked away.

Ripper got shakily to his feet, wiping a smear of blood from the corner of his mouth. "Thank you," he said to Buffy.

"I didn't do that for you," she told him coldly. She turned her back on him, walking towards the others.

"Idiot," Giles muttered. "I thought I told you to stay in the kitchen?"

"You did. I - I thought it was time to face up to something. For once."

* * * * *

Buffy leant over the rough map she'd scribbled on a bit of blank paper. "Okay, the Sorcerer King's apartments are here. Right across the corridor is where the vamp bodyguard is quartered."

"How many of them are there, altogether?" Willow asked.

"About thirty."

"We need a plan," said Kendra.

Buffy looked around at them. "I have a plan. We go in there and kick his ass. If anyone else tries to butt in, we kick their asses too. Any questions?"

"I'm in," Xander commented. "Let's go."

Buffy shook her head. "No, you guys wait here. Giles and I will go in, then Willow can pull the rest of you through when we're there. That's better than all of us stomping down there in a posse and maybe getting stopped. Willow, have the spell ready to use. Giles, call her on my mark. The rest of you, be ready to fight. Ripper - you've got a stash of weapons somewhere, I'm guessing?"

"Yes."

"Good. Hand them out." She stood up. "Giles, you're with me."

They walked through the corridors side by side, and the people they saw flinched or ran. When they reached Ethan's rooms, the two vampires bodyguards saw them coming and hastily opened the double doors. "The Slayer Vampire and the Ripper", one of them announced hastily as Buffy and Giles strode in.

Ethan got up from where he was sitting, and looked at them with his head a little on one side. He was wearing what Giles thought was a rather ridiculous cloth-of-gold outfit and had an over-ornamented ceremonial sword by his side, but it was still the same old Ethan. Same long, thin face, same sardonic grin. "Well now, this is a surprise. I thought the two of you couldn't be in the same room without fighting."

Buffy shrugged. "We came to tell you something important."

"Oh yes? What would that be?"

"You're dead." Then, to Giles, "Call her!"

*Willow!*

Five shapes began to materialize almost immediately. Ethan looked from them to Giles and Buffy, alarm in his eyes. "Guards!" he shouted. He raised one hand, and the double doors flew open again. The doors on the other side of the corridor were flung wide as well, and a troop of vampires began to race through.

Giles and Buffy glanced at each other, and he saw that she knew what he knew. If the vampires got into the room, the battle was as good as lost. There were too many of them. The only place they could be stopped was the narrow confines of the doorway.

The door must be held.

"Xander, Willow, Kendra - to me!" she snapped out, running for the doorway. They joined her, standing shoulder to shoulder, holding the vampires back.

Ethan looked around at the other three. Ripper was holding a longsword, and Wesley had drawn his knife. "Oh, is it a rebellion? How absurd." He flicked the fingers of one hand, and Ripper went flying, smashing into the wall and sliding down it to lie in a crumpled heap. Ethan turned, moving inhumanly quickly, and kicked Giles's feet out from under him before the Watcher could react.

"Now, this is interesting," he mused, as Giles sprawled, winded and gasping, on the floor. "What are you? You're not Ripper, I can see that now, but you look enough like him to fool even me. Under other circumstances, I might try to find out how you managed that, but as it is, I think I'll just kill you." He raised his hand again.

Then Wesley was there, standing over the fallen Giles, his knife raised and his eyes fixed on Ethan. "I saw my friends die screaming because of you," he said softly. "There hasn't been a night since then that I haven't dreamt about it." He lunged forwards.

Ethan's arm snapped around, catching Wesley by the wrist, bending it back until the other man cried out in pain, the knife slipping from his hand. Viciously, Ethan twisted further, bearing down, forcing Wesley to his knees. "Well, this is even more intriguing. You must be the Watcher-boy who escaped. You've been surprisingly elusive all these years." He unsheathed his sword. "Time to finish the job."

"*Let him go.*"

Ethan turned his head to find Ripper standing behind him, his own sword raised. He whirled, bringing his blade up to catch the blow.

"Too many people dead because of you and me, Ethan," Ripper said. "Too many. No more. I'm not going to let it happen any longer."

"Oh, you aren't going to 'let' it happen, are you? And just exactly how do you propose to stop me?" Ethan gestured, and Ripper was flung through the air again, thrown against the wall and held pinned there. "You're a third rate amateur, you don't have even half the magical power I have, and you're trying to fight me with a bit of metal? I can kill you without even coming near you." He made a pressing motion with his palm. Ripper groaned, as Ethan's magic began to crush the life from him.

"Wesley," Giles hissed, struggling to his feet.

The other man, who had retrieved his knife and was beginning to advance on Ethan, looked around impatiently. "What?"

"We can't defeat him physically, he's got some kind of spell augmenting his fighting capabilities."

"What other way is there? He's too strong to fight magically."

"Directly, yes. But I think I can set up a magic vacuum around him," Giles explained hurriedly. "It'll suck away the effects of any spell he casts. I don't have enough strength to do it on my own, I'll need to draw on yours. Will you trust me?"

For an agonizingly long moment, Wesley hesitated. "I will," he said at last. "Take what you need."

Giles began to chant under his breath, focusing his consciousness down to the place where all the people in the room became simply nexuses of energy, spiraling through space. He sent out a pulse from the bright core of himself to Wesley, linking them. Raising his hands, he sketched patterns in the air, shaping the spell to his needs.

And released it.

Ripper fell to the floor, gasping. Ethan turned, his face twisted in rage. "What are you doing?" he demanded, advancing on Giles and Wesley. "I'll kill you -"

"You'll leave them alone," Ripper said, hauling himself upright, sword still in his hand.

Ethan snarled, turning back towards him. "All right, have it your way. I'll finish you off first, then."

The two swords met with a clash. Wesley leapt forwards, knife in his hand.

"Get back " Giles snapped, frowning as the sudden movement almost disrupted his focus on the spell. "If you're using your strength to fight, I can't use it to keep the spell going. If I lose the spell, Ethan can get his power back, and this time he's unlikely to waste time toying with anyone."

"It was my people he destroyed," Wesley said slowly. "It should be my blade -"

"Oh just bloody shut up about your endless vengeance quests Which would you rather do, be stupid and heroic and get everyone killed, or be sensible and win?"

"Win."

"Then stay here. And let me concentrate."

The duel between Ripper and Ethan, Giles thought with a small, abstracted corner of his mind that wasn't focused on keeping the spell going, was unlikely to go down as one of the great fights in history. Both men were aging, past their first strength; both, he noted disapprovingly, were somewhat out of practice. The only remarkable thing about either of the combatants was the look of grim determination on Ripper's face - and the growing fear on Ethan's.

Then Ripper, lunging too far, overbalanced and nearly fell. He stumbled, the sword spinning out of his hand.

Ethan grinned. "Oops. Butterfingers." He drew back his sword for the finishing thrust, his eyes dancing with a kind of mad happiness.

"Ripper!" Wesley shouted. He threw his knife. It flew across the room, end over end.

Ripper snatched it out of the air by the hilt, turning back to face Ethan. "What was that you were saying about butterfingers?"

Ethan shrugged. "A knife. I'm so terribly afraid, especially seeing as I'm holding a sword."

With a sudden, almost balletic grace, Ripper spun inside Ethan's sword-range, beating his wrist aside and knocking him to the ground, the knife at his chest. "You were saying?"

Ethan tried to raise his sword-arm. Ripper knocked it away again. "Ripper. Wait. Don't - don't do this. We're friends. Remember? You were my friend when it counted - you were my friend when no one else was."

"I should have stopped being your friend a long time ago," Ripper said and stabbed Ethan through the heart.

The other man gasped, his face twisting, then the life slipped out of his eyes and he was still. Ripper knelt there for a long moment, looking down at the body of his enemy, his friend, the Sorcerer King of the world. Then he hid his face in his hands, and wept.

Wesley took a hesitant step towards him.

"Don't," Giles said quietly. "Let him mourn."

Wesley scowled. "I only meant to get my knife back," he muttered.

Giles smiled to himself and said nothing.

The two men turned towards the battle in the doorway.

Which was almost over. Almost half the vampire bodyguard had been dusted. The rest, seeing their leader fall and reinforcements coming for the enemy, turned and ran, shrieking.

"C'mon!" Xander whooped. "Let's get 'em!"

"No." Buffy's voice cracked out like a whip. "Let them go. They aren't important now."

Willow wiped dust from her face with a weary hand. "So. What now?"

"Now - you have a world to rebuild," said Giles.

Buffy looked at him. "'You?' Don't you mean 'we'?"

"Buffy, I can't stay. I have my own reality to get back to."

"But you can't leave now!" Xander protested. "We only just started getting to know you! Is this about the whole thing where me and Wes tried to kill you the first time we saw you? Coz we are both so over that. Right Wes?" "Don't go," Buffy whispered. "Please."

His heart broke for her. "I must," he said gently. "I don't belong here. But - there is a version of me who does, you know."

"Who?"

He gestured to Ripper, who was standing now, his cheeks still damp with tears. "Him."

Buffy's face slammed closed. "He is *not* you."

"He is. He made the wrong decision, but he is still me."

"I'm not," Ripper said quietly. "I don't know what you're trying to do, but - I'm not you."

"You are," Giles told him. "You just haven't realized it yet."

Their eyes locked for a moment, then Ripper looked away. "All right. Fine. I'll go and work out a way to reverse the spell, then. Join me when you're ready." He walked away from Ethan's body without turning back, out of the room, towards his own quarters.

Giles looked back at Buffy. Her eyes were like blue ice, her face set. "Go then. If you're going." She turned away from him.

"Goodbye," he said to her rigid back, but she didn't move.

"Goodbye, Giles," Willow said tearfully, hugging him.

Xander embraced him awkwardly. "Yeah, bye G-man. Sorry 'bout the whole trying to kill you stuff."

He turned to Wesley. The other man took a quick, startled step back. "I don't - touch."

"It's true," Xander confirmed, "He doesn't. I tapped him on the shoulder one time to get his attention; he nearly took my head off. Literally."

"Well - goodbye, then."

"I wish you could stay."

"Sorry, Wesley. I can't."

"I know that. I still wish you could." He walked quickly away to the other side of the room.

"Coming from Wes, that's almost a eulogy," Willow said quietly. "You oughtta be proud."

Giles looked over to where Wesley was cleaning his knife, his head bent over it, scowling. "Do you know," he said, surprised, "I believe I am."

Kendra hugged him stiffly. "I will not forget you."

That only left -

"Buffy."

She turned, her expression cracking like ice in summer. He opened his arms, and she flung herself at him, hugging him so fiercely that he was sure he could hear his ribs creak. "I'm sorry," she mumbled into his chest. "I didn't mean to be a bitch. It's just so unfair that I only just met you, and I have to lose you. You're not mad at me, are you?"

"Oh Buffy. How could I be?"

She tightened her arms around him, and he winced. "Touched though I am by the gesture of affection - ow - I think you may be doing severe damage to my internal organs. Would you mind letting go?"

She stepped back, trying to smile, but her lips were trembling and tears were threatening to spill down her lashes. "I wish I was the other Buffy. She gets to have you around the whole time. I just hope she appreciates it, that's all. I hope she knows how lucky she is."

He smiled and shrugged, not entirely sure what to say to that.

"Goodbye," Buffy said, her voice wavering.

"Goodbye, Buffy." He hesitated a moment, then turned and walked out of the room.

* * * * *

Ripper crouched down, squinting at the chalk lines on the floor. "That ought to do it. I've set it up so it'll take you back to within a few hours of when you left." He looked up. "Why did you say - what you said? To them? I would have just gone - I wouldn't have asked for anything."

Giles leaned against the wall. "Yes, I'm sure you would. Creep away when no-one's looking. Take the easy way out. Because that worked so *well* the last time, didn't it?"

"That's unfair " Ripper protested. "I did stop running."

"Temporarily, yes. You said you wanted to face up to things. That's not something you do once and then you've got it over with, you know. It's something you do every day of your life."

"How? Whatever you tell them, they still all hate me. They've got every reason to. I can't be one of them. It's all very well for you to say it's the easy way out, but what else can I do except leave?"

"Ripper, listen. They might not want you, but they *do* need you. They're children. Well, except for Wesley. And Wesley is broken."

"Which is my fault."

"Yes. It is. So are you going to run off and then mope around kicking yourself for it, or are you going to make up for it?"

"But *how*?" Ripper cried.

"You have to be the one who is always there, and the one who is always strong. You have to be the rock. What's the first thing you learn, at the Academy?"

"The world relies on the Slayer," Ripper recited. "The Slayer relies on the Watcher."

"Exactly. When she needs someone to go to, when she needs to be allowed to be weak, even if only for a moment, that is when you are there."

"And - if *I* want to be weak?"

"That is not your prerogative. Quis custodiet ipsis custodes?"

Ripper's mouth quirked in a half-smile. "Who will watch the Watchers?" he translated.

"The answer is: no one. There is no back-up. There is only you."

Ripper glanced at him sidelong. "Are you trying to tell me that you've never let yourself be weak in front of your Slayer? *Never*?"

Giles looked away. "Once or twice."

"And?"

"It terrified her. The Slayer, whatever else she may be, is still a child. She needs one place that is safe, one person who is absolutely reliable. That is your responsibility. That is who you are."

"I - I don't think I can be. Maybe I could once, but now - I'm not that person any more. There's no way back to who I was, Rupert."

"Bollocks," Giles snapped. "That's an excuse - a terribly convenient excuse that allows you to feel ever so sorry for yourself while you creep away and hide in a corner. Don't you think it's time to stop hiding?"

"I'm afraid -"

"And you think I'm *not*? Every minute of every day? For crying out loud, man, you've been running away from yourself for more than twenty years, and where's it got you?"

"Well, where has going back got *you*? It doesn't seem as if your life is exactly a bed of roses."

"At least I'm not drinking myself into a stupor every night."

Ripper flinched.

"I'm sorry," Giles said, after a moment. "That was uncalled for. I apologise."

"No. No, it was - accurate." He gave Giles a wry grin. "Do you treat your Slayer this way?"

"On occasion."

"I feel sorry for the poor cow. All right. I'll do it. I still don't know how I'll ever convince them to even let me be in the same room with them, though."

Giles considered. "Start with Wesley."

"*Wesley*? He wants to kill me "

"Wesley," Giles said evenly, "Has spent fifteen years hating you in an attempt to keep from hating himself, and it still hasn't worked. Try talking to him. If you can get him to trust you, I think the others will follow."

Ripper shrugged. "I'll try. I don't hold out much hope."

"That, if you don't mind my saying so, is because you are an idiot."

"Doesn't that make you an idiot too?"

"Perhaps."

They grinned at each other.

"Time to go," Giles said. He stepped into the circle - and turned back. "Oh. One thing."

"What?"

"You sent out a call for someone who could make things better. What you ended up with was another version of yourself. Think about it."

* * * * *

As the dizzying sensation of the spell died away, he reached out to steady himself, and found himself leaning on the back of his own armchair. The tea was stone cold, and the record was spinning silently on the turntable, having reached the end of the last track.

A thunderous knocking on the door made him jump. "Giles!" shouted a familiar voice. "Are you gonna let me in at all?"

He rushed to open the door, and Buffy burst in like a small blonde hurricane. "Have you gone deaf or something? I was standing out there for ages."

"Sorry. I, ah, fell asleep."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, great. I'm out there kicking ass and almost getting killed, and you're in here being asleep." She sat down, curling her legs under herself. "A whole lotta nasties out there tonight. I've been big with the Slayage. Are you pleased with me? Do I get a cookie?" She looked up at him winsomely.

*You're not dead. I'm not evil. The world hasn't been taken over by Ethan, of all people. Frankly, I think all of that calls for some kind of celebration.* "Yes," he said aloud, "'Cookies', indeed. Also cocoa. Would you like me to make you some cocoa?" He dived into the kitchen, and began poking through cupboards.

Buffy appeared in the doorway, looking at him suspiciously. "Okay. Who are you, and what have you done with Giles?"

Rummaging for the good china, he glanced at her over his shoulder. "Hmm?"

"It's just you're being weirdly nice, with the cookies and the offer of cocoa and - oh my God. You're getting out the nice pretty plates? You never use the nice pretty plates. What's happening? This isn't the Giles I know."

He smiled to himself. "Oh, but it is," he said under his breath. "It really is."

END