The Watcher's New Clothes
written by Ruth & Gail Christison


Rating: FRC
Spoilers: Immediately post-'Chosen'.
Summary: Everyone is stuck en route to Cleveland, and something odd keeps happening to Giles' clothes.
Thanks: Thanks to Gileswench for beta.
Feedback Author: Ruth & Gail
Gail's Website: Once More With Feeling



"Faith? It's Giles. Run into a spot of trouble, I'm afraid."

The cell phone was a long way from the transmitter, but the faint voice on the other end still had its unmistakable edge of cynical amusement.

"Slayers and trouble. There's a thing. If it's the regular demony kind, put all the greenhorns on it. Get 'em to bitch at it 'til it loses the will to live."

"Ha, ha," shot back Giles. "We're in a small town called, er... " He squinted again at the cards pasted on the motel notice board. "... Sloan, some miles short of Las Vegas. The bus broke down at a road junction and we couldn't re-start it; the mechanics at the local garage don't hold out much hope. So, if we're to rendezvous as we agreed, it will have to be here, and you'll need to bring transport for all of us. The only buses I've seen around here are not for sale."

"Sure. Got a handful of quarters right here in my pants pocket: should cover it easy."

Giles snorted impatiently, turning as he did so to watch the lobby as it filled with dirty, bloodstained, exhausted and ill-tempered girls.

"Robin has access to the funds held for the School. Talk to him about it when he's well enough. What do the doctors say?"

"Still kinda gutted. Must be havin' to put up with me stayin' all night." Faith paused, teasing. "Y'know, like in a chair, in his hospital room?"

Another snort. "Yes, well. Thank you for agreeing to stay with him, Faith. I'll phone again in a couple of days, all right?"

"Have wacky fun meantime."

Wacky fun. Haring across America with a bevy of talkative young women and two uncharacteristically silent young men, headed for another Hellmouth via all points east of California. Giles switched off the phone and trudged back to the reception desk, where the sound of raised voices drowned out attempts by the clerk to find out who was in charge and what they all wanted.

* * * * *

"No way! I slept up by Vi's head at Buffy's house, and she snores fit to wake the dead, *which* ain't no metaphor!"

"Chao Ahn spilled potato chips inside my sleeping bag two days running!"

"Ladies, can we" He tried to make himself heard.

"No' me. No' my chips. Faith chips."

"Chantal's addicted to baked beans and garlic bread. *No-one* wants to room with her."

"Buffy's with me, right? Right?"

"Just listen a minute, would you?"

"I *so* do not snore; my Mom says"

"Do."

"Do not."

"Says you."

"Buffy, tell her to lay off me. Big bully."

"WILL EVERYONE PLEASE *BE QUIET*!"

A couple of the youngest slayers actually jumped, and all of them turned wide eyes in Giles' direction in the ensuing stunned silence. He admitted to himself that it was somewhat gratifying.

The desk clerk sighed loudly with relief and looked at him expectantly, pen poised over her bookings diary. She was a plump matron with a weathered tan and blue rinsed hair, the epitome of polyester-clad ordinariness; he only hoped she'd had plenty of experience dealing with the extraordinary in other people. She had been eyeing the group askance, taking in their extreme state of dishevelment, and Giles decided that a cover story was in order.

"These, um, students... were the victims of an earthquake; you might have heard about it on the news: Sunnydale?"

The blue rinse quivered sympathetically as she nodded.

"Terrible, terrible. You've lost dear ones?"

Giles looked involuntarily to the edge of the group where Xander stood, hands in pockets, and looking sideways at the floor.

"Some of us, yes, I'm afraid so. We desperately need to rest and recuperate. We're willing to double up, or more, if you're short of rooms."

"Well, now. We did just lose a big group booking, so I might be able to squeeze you all in. And a special rate for that *darlin'* accent, sugar." She positively simpered, and Giles reddened as a chorus of half-hearted giggles and sniggers rose up from the slayers. He coughed, cleared his throat and ploughed on.

"Could you just see what you have? I think it's clear that Xander, Andrew and I will be sharing."

//Needs must... //

Willow leaned over the counter and peered into the back office.

"Don't you have it all computerised?"

"Well, now, those machines are a mystery to me and Mr. Pottschalk. This does us just fine," and she started to leaf through pages in search of vacancies. Giles brightened a little.

//Well, now//, Kennedy mouthed in anticipation, making Willow, fighting a grin, send her a reproachful look.

"Well, now," began Mrs Pottschalk obligingly, "you gentlemen can have room 24; it's on the corner with a smidgeon more space. As for all you young ladies... "

The clamour erupted again until Giles was forced to call for order once more.

"Buffy and Dawn, Willow and Kennedy. They're two pairs. The rest of you... " He begged a sheet of paper from Mrs Pottschalk, jotted down the remaining names and made ballot papers. Shuffling them in a waste paper basket, he had everyone draw them out in pairs and triplets according to the available rooms and sternly quashed any residual complaints with the reminder that this would only be for a few days and that the sooner they all rested properly, the better.

"Way to go, Giles." Buffy's quiet voice came from behind him. They watched the gang start to disperse. "I think maybe they've had enough of me pushing them around. Thanks for stepping in there."

"Straightforward application of logic. Still good for something, perhaps."

He cursed himself for the plea underlying his words, as he looked at the woman who had ceased to be, but in his heart would remain, his Slayer. She looked about as weary as he felt, which was to say, beyond utterly, and didn't reply. There were a number of things still unsaid, but now was really not the time.

Getting the key and climbing the stairs ahead of his roommates, he unlocked the door and took in the twin beds and fold-out cot, all on autopilot, before simply falling face down onto a bed and passing into blessed unconsciousness.

When he awoke, the first thing he noticed was that he stank. The second thing was that Xander also stank. The third thing was that Andrew, in the shower, couldn't hold a tune if it came with integral handles and a 'This Way Up' sign. Giles massaged his aching temples with one hand and pushed himself to a sitting position with the other. He watched Xander's restless sleep until the shower was shut off and Andrew emerged clutching a thin but clean towel around his middle.

"Mrs P. says the hot water's continuous, Mister Giles. You can go next if you want. "

It had been bliss to rest, really rest for the first time in weeks. It was paradise to stand under a stream of hot water and get really clean. Then, there was the abrupt descent to earth when he remembered he had no fresh clothes to put on. Washing his socks, undershirt and shorts in the sink, he hung them out to dry on the window ledge, trusting the hot Nevada sun to do its work. His sweater was all but ruined: sprayed with motor oil and brake fluid from his futile attempts at running repairs. The cords would never dry in time if he washed them, so he just climbed back into them, lay down and dozed a while. It had been early evening when they'd arrived, was early morning now, and he could hear movement and voices in the corridor outside. His stomach reminded him how long it had been empty, but he couldn't stir enough to do anything about it.

At that moment, a knock on the door heralded Willow, doing the rounds about breakfast.

By the time Giles was able to present himself in the lobby, fed, just about clothed, and in his right mind, the whole group was assembled and it was obvious just how lacking they all were in the most basic necessities. Despite the fatuity of the mall talk at the lip of the crater that was Sunnydale, it might in fact be the necessary port of call. Everyone had discarded what they could of clothing that had been shredded to make dressings, or was too caked in blood, their own or others'. Even what was left would probably have to be thrown away pretty soon. Vi, who stood barefoot in a ripped singlet and shorts that weren't shorts yesterday, piped up:

"Um, I hate to ask, but is anyone else sorry we didn't stop at that K-mart?"

Buffy looked at her with an 'I can't believe you really said that' face.

"I think we can do better than that." She started to march out into the street, but halted suddenly, hand on her back pants pocket, realising that to shop needed more than a keen eye for this year's styles. She backed up slowly and turned around with a hopeful expression.

Giles was already looking through his wallet for his black Visa card.

One of the things he'd done, in between bouts of jetlag over the past few months, was to sort out the finance from the ruins of the Watchers' Council. A few coded calls, citing some numbered Swiss bank accounts, and he was theoretically as rich as Croesus, although he had to account for every penny to the Trustees in Zurich. Filing the last set of returns might be somewhat problematic, however, seeing as they were on the hard disk on Willow's laptop, under a few hundred tons of rubble...

Buffy, Dawn and a small party of the most presentable of the slayers were delegated to accompany the walking cash machine in a trek to the out of town mall, and he waited whilst they picked out outfits for themselves. He felt sure, as he watched polka dot miniskirts and asymmetric tops being bagged, that he *had* suggested 'practical' clothes. Xander and Andrew tagged along in the second wave of locusts, er, slayers, and went for Hawaiian and clashing respectively.

They were almost out of the mall before Giles realised that he still owned nothing but the clothes he stood in, and that his pants were likely to start a new and fulfilling life of their own as vermin bait before too long. He let the others go on ahead whilst he traipsed back to the clothing store to see what they had. From behind the coffee bar in the food court, a pair of watchful dark eyes flashed in recognition. Pleading a break, their owner slipped out and tailed Giles carefully, taking advantage of his preoccupied air to escape detection.

Giles wandered amongst the racks of men's wear, wondering if indeed 'clothes make the man', or whether it was the other way round. He was momentarily attracted to a row of butter-soft leather jackets, imagining black denim and a tailored shirt to go with them. He absently fingered his left earlobe and the nearly closed piercing there. He'd worn a sleeper at night until quite recently, but now he wondered, with a faint pang, whether he shouldn't just let it go.

//Middle-aged bachelor ex-teacher, that's you now, Giles, // he told himself, trying to be resigned to it. // Better to stay good and invisible.//

He turned resolutely away and bought safe, buff-coloured cords and a pack of beige cotton t-shirts. As he paid for them, and for more clean underwear, he had the odd sensation of being observed; but the young people had long gone, he knew. He shook it off as general unease and residual tiredness.

Behind a nearby pillar, Ethan Rayne shook his head and muttered his disapproval.

"Do not go gentle, Ripper, old mate. You can do better than that. With the right incentive, of course."

He smiled.

* * * * *

The door of the shabby hotel room rattled open and the slim figure walked wearily over to the bed and tipped out the contents of a paper bag onto it. There were candles, herbs, and several items not readily identifiable to the average eye.

Ethan stared at the ingredients for a long moment before going to the tiny cupboard with the kettle on and making himself a strong cup of cheap, nasty motel coffee. It went with his cheap, nasty life at the moment. If he never saw Nevada... better still if Nevada sunk into the Earth's core and was never seen again... it would still be too soon for him. But... until his magic and his body were back at full strength, there wasn't a lot he could do about it.

He was stuck in this little tin pot town, masquerading as a tourist working his way across country and fallen on hard times... he paused and shrugged. *At least that part was true*. His incarceration had been the most singularly miserable period of his life, and given his childhood, that was saying a lot. And there hadn't been a single opportunity to escape... not one, even for a such a brilliant intellect, skilled sorcerer and expert conman... He smiled at his own conceit. It hadn't done him much good while the Initiative experimented on him, or when they used a number of very un- 'American good guy' techniques to 'encourage' him to participate in even more experiments to assess his magical abilities and power.

He clenched his fist to still his fingers and dismissed the sudden rush of sensory memories... painfully bright lights, aching hunger, the smell of singed hair and flesh, darkness, isolation... pain... so much pain.

God, he never thought he'd leave there alive... if at all. It had been pretty clear that even if he departed this mortal coil, by their hand or his own, his remains were going to be just as pored over, studied and dissected as his mind was while he lived. Never had he ever felt so much like a piece of property...

And never before had he been so happy to feel such a terrifyingly huge mystical disturbance as the recent one which had blown every sensor and data collector in the Nevada complex, setting the place on fire and creating general pandemonium and chaos in its wake. He'd felt the Hellmouth open, seen confirmation of it in the rising of the demon and vampire prisoners, many of whom rioted and some of whom escaped when the meltdown of so much electronic equipment had shorted out the complex's electricity supply, completely shutting down the grid. It had even allowed weakened, terrified Sorcerers to use what remnants of magic they could still call up to make good a getaway sent from heaven... well, from dear old Sunnydale anyway, and probably dear old Rupert and Co, if he had to guess...

What he didn't know, was what caused, first one, then a second, staggering burst of magical energy... the last one closing the Hellmouth again just as he was 'borrowing' a vehicle from the parking lot of a loud and garish bar, to complete his getaway. Pity the owner had been so lax about keeping the bloody tank filled... and an even bigger pity that he'd had to push the thing into a ravine and walk the rest of the way to this thrice-damned town, since the car was stolen and if attention was drawn to it, rather a beacon in terms of pinpointing his whereabouts...

"Well, Ripper," he murmured as he sipped the instant coffee, "at least having a bit of fun with you will keep me from going completely bloody insane... "

* * * * *

In the tiny hotel bathroom, Giles looked up from his attempts to wash his old jeans to use as spares. "If you two don't stop bickering, I'm going to come out there and knock your heads together."

Xander and Andrew finally ceased their debate over the Fett family and which generation was the coolest.

Andrew's gaze flicked sulkily to the door. "Did he ever even see the movie?"

Xander shrugged. "Not sure. I think he was either kinda busy raising hell... among other things... or learning how to be boring in tweed in ten easy lessons... "

"I heard that," a voice growled, echoing the in bowels of the tiny bathroom.

"What are you doing in there, anyway?" Xander retorted. "And why isn't Anya here to say something totally wrong and hilariously funny about it... ?" His voice trailed off as the wicked grin slowly faded in the shadow of the sadness that fell across his unshaven face.

A few moments later Giles emerged, his expression much the same, a pair of barely-wrung out, dripping, tan cords in his hands.

"Failing dismally to get these bloody things clean. I'm going to see if there's a laundry. If you want anything done, bag it: might as well make a load."

"Can you bring back some cokes... ?"Andrew shrank a little at the glare Giles turned on him. "I mean, if you see a-a machine or anything."

Xander looked Giles' new clothes up and down. "Jeez, Giles... having flashbacks to what... bland-land? You were kind of getting down with the 'funky Giles' there for a while... what happened to that? I mean, It's not like I'm still gonna be traumatised by the concept of you and coolness in the same sentence... I can deal with Watcher coolness... there's just... something faintly disturbing about you letting yourself go like this... it's not all that long ago you were dating a supermodel, for cryin' out loud.

Giles blew out an annoyed breath. "And I am in such peril of having anyone to impress right now," he muttered. "These are practical," he added, deliberately looking Xander's loud, impractical shirt up and down, "and comfortable."

"Spoken like a true babe magnet," Xander opined, and both he and Andrew snickered, tried to control it... then collapsed into giggles.

Giles rolled his eyes, picked up the plastic bag in which Xander's new clothes had travelled back. "Berks," he muttered, picking up the scattered remnants of their old clothes with just thumb and forefinger, thanking all forms of deity that he'd made the pair of them at least rinse their underwear and vile socks the previous night, so that the air in the room might be somewhere near breathable...

Halfway across to the main office to ask directions to the laundry, he found a drinks machine situated between a large potted palm and the door to a storage room, before wasting several minutes finding and assembling enough change to buy several cans of drink, only to find the last one failed to appear on cue.

Irritated beyond measure, Giles pushed the button several more times then swore and hit the machine. It refused to co-operate. After a beat to wait for Vi to wander across the courtyard and back to her own room, he regarded the evil drinks machine again. A moment later he aimed a fist just below the selection buttons and punched it several times in rapid succession, blows punctuated by each word he spoke: "I have... had enough... of being... ignored!"

When he was done and breathing hard, more from anger than the exertion, the machine continued to sit there in arrogant defiance.

Giles flexed his knuckles knowing they would be painful later. "Fine," he said quite calmly, collected his sack and tucked the other cans in the plastic bag. He turned just as passively... or seemed to... whirling around in a blur at the last second and landing a perfect spin kick that would have made his old Watchers' Academy instructor proud... and Buffy's eyes pop out, probably...

Permanently dented, the machine finally capitulated, offering up two cans, one cola and one orange, as penance, spitting them out so forcefully they were ejected onto the concrete walkway.

Giles grinned to himself as he retrieved his prizes before they could roll under the building.

The laundry was shabby and ill equipped for a hotel. One washing machine with a coin slot requiring quarters and one industrial sized dryer, a folding table with coverless magazines of indeterminate age on it, and an ironing board that looked like it had been in a fight with an angry cat, with an iron attached to a whip on the end of it. One of those gimmick devices supposedly to keep the cord under control. He hadn't seen one in years...

Giles dumped out the dirty laundry, his glasses and the cans on the table and ran a hand through his hair before contemplating the vending machine: one of those wall-mounted things with the miniature boxes of laundry powder. He suggested to it, with flashing eyes, that it might be best served to behave itself rather better than its large, red... now dented... cousin.

At that point he realised how long it had been since he'd had anything to eat or drink and absently picked up the bonus can of orange soft drink as he contemplated the number of quarters he was going to need to both wash *and* dry.

The subsequent explosion made him shout a startled obscenity as he leaped about a foot in the air, before starting to swear all over again. His arms, neck, all down his shirtfront and the whole crotch of his pants, were soaked in sticky orange soda.

After a few moments to contemplate the perfidy of fate, he purchased one of the small boxes of powder from a very meek machine, turned and began rubbing soap powder into all the worst stains in their collective dirty laundry, then shoved everything into the washer, confident that one load would do, particularly given that he wasn't exactly rolling in quarters. Where was Faith when you needed her... ?

By the time he was done the warmth of his body had well and truly stuck his T-shirt to his chest and he was having horror flashbacks to the day, as a six year old, he'd been made to stand in a corner at school simply for answering a chum who'd whispered to him in class about what they were going to do in the lunch break. The idiot teacher had left him there so long under threat of further punishment if he so much as uttered a peep, that he'd wet his trousers when the urgent need to go had overwhelmed the unfortunate little boy.

He looked swiftly around him, and then outside, before closing the laundry door. Then he removed his boots and stripped off the offending items. Even the band of his boxers and his left sock were soaked... but he was going to be damned if he'd take his shorts off, even with the door closed. He would change into his new spares when he got back to the room. The socks, however, went in with the rest of the load, leaving him barefoot, long, lean legs tapering to a firm behind under the black cotton boxers, their waistband hugging a belly leaner than it had been in long time. He was in fair shape, considering that he had spent the last few months without regular workouts. His 'battle scars', pale pink mosaics of old wounds, were really only visible at close range save for a few particularly unpleasant calling cards left by someone - some*thing* - of which he preferred to avoid even casual contemplation.

It was some time before the washing machine finally offered up its bounty. Giles, in the mean time, grew bored beyond the telling of it, despite having amused himself with such illuminating questionnaires as 'how do you rate in bed', 'are you happy with your body' and 'does your boyfriend shape up' which he would have found amusing if not for the three pages of variously sized and shaped... well... penises, that accompanied it. Considering that the publication was quite obviously aimed at young women, even teenage girls, he wondered how many of their parents knew exactly what they were reading...

He opened the lid of the washing machine, relieved that the exercise was almost over, and began hauling out the contents.

Once the whole lot was piled on top of the washer lid, he stood staring at it incredulously. Xander's dark jeans and the various dark coloured underwear and socks had survived, but Andrew's motorcycle t-shirt, buff trousers, Xander's colourful shirt, and worst of all, his new t-shirt all now had a subtle pink hue added to the colours of each, and his new trousers which must have finished up resting against the offending object, looked rather like he'd murdered someone with an axe while wearing them.

Giles picked up Andrew's cheap red windbreaker and let loose with another string of expletives, this time the foulest, bluest curses he could think of, including several demon words for which there were no human equivalents, before hurling the item across the room. He should have realized. He'd been doing his own laundry for years... but he'd always been sane enough to buy items that were colourfast or permanent press, or, as he'd persistently been told by one and all... dull. Nothing whatsoever that could so thoroughly ruin an entire wash...

Still muttering, he threw the items that had survived into the big dryer, and after a moment's contemplation, his new pants and shirt. How else was he going to get back to his room... ? He arranged the quarters in the slots and pushed the lever all the way in before starting the machine. Silence. He checked that it was plugged in and turned on, then went over the meagre controls. After another moment's thought he went hunting for a lint filter to empty, then made certain the door was closed and seated properly.

Nothing.

He sighed. Could anything else possibly go wrong... ?

Right on cue he heard the chatter and the giggling. Chatter and giggling that was getting louder...

"Don't... !" He raised his voice just as the door flew open. "... Come in here," he finished limply and stood glaring at the two girls who'd frozen in their tracks.

Willow came to her senses first and hastily closed the door again. "Giles... ?"

"Missing something there, Giles?" Buffy teased, trying not to giggle.

"Very funny. If you must know I had a run in with a soft drink can and almost every machine in this place seems to hate me."

"Y'know this is all kinda Levis commercial-y," Willow mused. "All you really need is a big honkin' motorcycle waiting outside... ."

Giles snorted. He remembered the ad campaign in question. "The young men in those commercials all had friendly machines, dry Levis and a suitably impressed young woman," he said crossly, stuffing the wet clothes back into the plastic bag.

"If you would be so good as to find... " He stopped dead. Even if they had anything, he'd never fit into Andrew's clothes and Xander had nothing to spare anyway."Damn!!"

The two girls looked at each other.

"Sorry," they said in unison.

"You want us to get Mrs Pottschalk to come over to fix the machine? One thing's for sure: you would definitely be appreciated," Willow giggled, unashamedly checking him out while he slightly bent over the wet clothes.

Buffy suddenly clued in, looked at her friend and elbowed her, not gently.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"Oops," She said innocently, then went back to her own study of the vision in front of them.

"So, boxers, not briefs, huh?" she said finally, a grin in her voice, and watched his shoulders freeze.

"If you two don't mind, there is such a thing as respecting someone's privacy," he growled, still trying to ram the soft drink cans in with the wet clothes.

"Hey, you could've warned us that we were in danger of being scarred for life, here," Willow protested, barely holding back more giggles.

"Yeah, Giles. Who knew that the biggest fun of the trip so far would be your Chippendale impression? You are so lucky none of the other Slayers got here first."

"He's lucky Xander didn't get here first," Willow added. "He could be catatonic by now... or... or... "

Giles' eyes flashed with irritation, even though he knew they didn't mean any harm. "Break a rib, perhaps, from laughing so hard?"

A giggle escaped from Buffy, surprising everyone in the room. She'd been so unhappy for so long they'd forgotten what it sounded like. She struggled for a moment to clear her throat and straighten, but after all the terrible things that had happened to them, the sight of Giles standing there all but naked, his eyes flashing and knuckles pressed into his hips in annoyance the way they did when he was feeling harassed at training, was just too much.

The giggle tidal wave rolled over and took Willow with it, engulfing them until they could barely stand up. Within a very few seconds, despite his best efforts, Giles' mouth was trying to pull into a smile at that very absurdity. Very soon the smile became a chuckle, then when Buffy and Willow staggered into, and held each other as they roared with laughter, he began to giggle too. The girls looked up at him then, saw that he was gone. Their eyes met and all three of them were swept into a grand concert of hysterics.

Eventually, and with many false alarms, all three of them subsided, gradually gaining control and all looking at each other, and all surprised to see the tears in each other's eyes weren't just from laughing. The atmosphere, and the silence grew very charged.

Then, finally, it broke.

Both women moved forward at the same time. The embrace was fierce on all three sides, Giles' state of undress completely forgotten as they pressed into his arms and he gathered them close, holding them fiercely... as though he could, somehow, protect them against the uncertainties each of their futures held.

"Oh... My... God."

Giles let go of the women as though stung and they turned to put themselves between him and Xander's and Andrew's view.

"What... what's going on here?" Xander managed in a voice pitched a couple of octaves higher than normal.

"What does it look like?" Buffy asked in a provocative voice.

"Buffy!" Giles protested in a strangled whisper.

Willow grinned mischievously. "Yeah, this is a private orgy, get your own."

"Orgy?" Andrew managed in a strangled squeak, his eyes desperately trying to see past the girl's curves to the occasional flash of black boxers and firm thigh.

Xander went three shades paler at the very idea. "Um... so not needing that visual right now, Will... like there isn't already enough trauma in my life. We were worried about the big guy," he explained shakily. "... I mean how long does it take to wash a few clothes with modern technology?"

"Worried about me?" Giles snorted. "I'm less than thirty feet away and you panicked about me being gone for what... ?"

"An hour and seventeen minutes," Andrew offered timidly.

Giles opened his mouth to say something cutting then changed his mind. He understood. After all that they'd all endured, all that they'd lost, of course they were going to be terrified of losing what was left...

"I need some clothes," he said gruffly. "Andrew's bloody jacket bled out in the wash. Everything, except Xander's jeans and the majority of the underwear, is ruined.

"My shirt!" Xander exclaimed.

"... Is now a manly plaid over rose pink," Giles confirmed. "And my new clothes look like I sacrificed a goat in them," he added crossly, pulling the wet cord pants from the bag and holding them up.

Willow and Buffy looked at each other, pure mischief buzzing between them.

"Giles, we could buy you some new clothes," Willow volunteered. "You did get cash out of that machine by the donut stand, right?"

He stared at them, his mouth open, then gathered his wits and cleared his throat. "Trust you two to buy clothes for me? I hardly think so. Knowing the pair of you I'd end up dressed like Mick Jagger and singing like Barry Gibb."

"Trusting, isn't he?" Buffy smirked. "How do you know we wouldn't have gone on a tweed hunt? Jacket, patches in the elbows, vest, baggy pants, tie... sounding familiar... ?"

Giles sighed. Yes, all too familiar. The other side of the 'buff cords and colourless t-shirts Giles'... More and more his statement to Ethan so long ago seemed to echo in his ears. Was that really who he was now... ? *All* he was now?

He didn't know and he wasn't sure he wanted to know any more...

"Xander," he growled finally, making the girls jump out of the way, the teasing over.

The younger man stepped forward and took the folded notes Giles was holding out.

"Jeans, size thirty-four, plain t-shirts, comfortable, not tight, a jump... sweater of some kind and a shirt I can wear with the jeans without looking like a prat."

The younger man paused. "And may one know exactly what a 'prat' might look like... for to avoid Watcher off-pissing... ?"

Giles looked pointedly from Andrew to Xander, the latter's gaze following his.

Xander shrugged sheepishly. "Gotcha," he said, and started to turn.

"Xander."

He turned back.

"One single item with so much as a pineapple on it and I'll strap you to the roof of the bus for the rest of the trip... do we understand each other?"

Xander half smiled, then swallowed, then nodded. "Absolutely. Boring Giles lives," he added, giggling again, and turning with Andrew to scramble out of the room before their ears could be singed by Giles' inevitable retort.

When the room had cleared, Giles sighed, aware that he wasn't going anywhere until Xander and Andrew had returned. And considering that between the entrance to the mall and the menswear stores there was a computer store, comic shop, a Warner Brothers outlet and two donut stands, he knew he was in trouble...

Willow was watching the crestfallen Watcher. "Y'know, Giles, I could... " she offered, gesturing toward the recalcitrant dryer.

His head came up, and for a split second Willow could see him actually consider it, especially since her encounter with the non-dark side of the force. Then he shook his head and sighed again. "However, the offer is appreciated." Then he half smiled at her before wandering over and dropping into the folding chair that went with the folding table.

Buffy was on the other side of the table, browsing the reading material.

Willow regarded them both: Buffy still tired and drawn from the stress of the last few months, not eating properly... or for that matter grieving properly over the people she considered that she personally was responsible for losing, and Giles, sitting there in nothing but his boxer shorts, with nearly as much dignity as if he was wearing a three piece suit and Gucci loafers.

It wouldn't hurt to...

"Giles!"

"What?" He stood up fast, knocking the table. "Willow?"

"Will, what is it?" Buffy was at her side moments after Giles reached her.

"I... I just tried to... and nothing happened."

"Tried to what?" Giles prodded.

"Just... just a pair of pants... nothing fancy... just the same as the ones you were holding up before... o-only without the goat sacrificing, y'know?"

Buffy got it. "A spell? You were trying to make Giles some clothes?"

Willow nodded.

"But nothing happened?" Giles added.

She nodded again. "D-do you think my power... ? I don't feel like I've lost any... but what we did back there... it was so huge... Giles, I'm scared."

Giles raised a hand. "It's too soon to be frightened, Willow. You said you couldn't feel any difference?" he asked, the wheels visibly turning in his mind. "That would be... unlikely... if someone as powerful as you lost their magic suddenly. Have you tried to do anything else?"

She shook her head. "Not since... I've been awfully tired, and a little scared ever since, y'know... "

He smiled gently and nodded. "All right. Try something small. Something that won't strain you too much."

Willow focused on the idea of a robe, just like his old one, for Giles. Nothing happened. She shook her head miserably.

Buffy put her hand on her friend's arm. "You can do it. I know you can. Try something else." Both women looked to Giles, who nodded.

Willow's gaze settled on the dryer. Within moments of her silent incantation it jumped to life, causing Giles to hurtle over to it and open the door before retrieving the undamaged washing and throwing it in, closing the door and listening to it rumble to life again.

"It must have been a glitch," Buffy proposed. "A magicky glitch. Like you haven't fully recharged yet or something?" Willow looked at her friend with fond amusement and Buffy grinned back. "Whatever. I'm just glad you're okay, Will."

"So am I," Willow agreed fervently, "but that doesn't change the fact that Giles is still kinda naked."

Giles rolled his eyes, but he knew something was definitely going on. His magic was as atrophied as his taste in clothes, but even he could feel magic as powerful as Willow's... always tugging at the edges of his senses. There could of course be any number of explanations: dabblers in magicks who had unknowingly tapped into genuine power; natural magic leaking out of the earth, as it did in certain places, certain sacred spots used and re-used for ritual over the ages; some residual effect of the spell to share power among the Potentials and turn them into fully-fledged slayers. Unless and until there was proof of actual threat, the best course of action was simply to carry on as normal, and just *be aware*.

Normal. Now there was a word capable of a myriad of interpretations.

A predictably, but painfully, long time later, Andrew and Xander returned with one big bag from the men's wear store in full view, and two smaller ones from 'Captain Creature's Comix Collectorium' not very well concealed under their shirts. Giles' pointed glance coaxed an apologetic shrug from Andrew and a faithful promise to pay him back as soon as humanly possible from Xander.

"It's for morale. Andrew said he couldn't possibly live with the thought of owning every issue of 'The Fantastic Four's Galactic Glory' *except* number fourteen."

"Yeah," agreed his companion. "'Cause, even though the other ones are down in my Dad's basement, like in the uber-basement now, with the uber-vamps using them to... " He snickered. "... Wipe their uber-butts, it makes me feel that there's a part of me that's, y'know, *complete*."

Giles stared at him, opened his mouth to say... he couldn't think of a thing. After some more wallowing in incredulity, he gave up. He didn't even bother to ask Xander what *he'd* found so unmissable.

The contents of the large bag proved to be a pair of badly cut polyester navy blue slacks, a store brand thin t-shirt and a cheesecloth shirt, both also navy. A grey garment lurked limply in the bunched-up corner. Shooing the youngsters out to join Buffy and Willow, whom he'd persuaded to stand guard and not let anyone else in, he changed once again, noting with dismay that the trouser legs were a bit too short and the shirt hem wasn't even. He wondered fleetingly how many sets of these clothes he could have bought for the price of a rare comic book. Nevertheless he thanked the gods that he was at least covered, and remembered to thank Xander and Andrew also, with a good deal more sincerity than he actually felt.

The group held an impromptu pow-wow early that evening over dinner at the local burger bar, much to Giles' discomfiture. The greasy food gave him indigestion and the excited mass chatter echoed around the brightly lit, moulded plastic room so loudly that he had to stop himself from putting his hands to his ears and closing his eyes tightly. He was getting a sore patch on his neck from a rough seam, and was starting to wonder quite what his place was in the brave new world of the slayer sisterhood. If he even had one.

"We have to stay in shape while we wait: that's key." Kennedy was holding forth, hanging on Willow's arm with one hand and jabbing the air emphatically with the other. "Everyone can join me tomorrow morning for drill, eight o'clock sharp."

"Right after kit inspection," muttered Rona, rolling her eyes and earning a swipe on her uninjured arm from Buffy and a cool:

"You got a better idea, let's hear it."

They still weren't entirely at ease with one another and perhaps never would be, Giles imagined. The old adage about not being able to choose your relatives seemed to apply to slayers in spades. Look at Faith.

Rona shrugged. "Hey, I'm just sayin': those of us with a little more healing still to do, don't want to be extras in the remake of "Platoon" just yet. What do *we* do?"

Buffy spread her hands in a 'don't ask me' gesture. "No more army, no more General Buffy, remember? More like... Slayer local government, but without the garbage trucks... which is a shame really, because hey: transport outta here *and* plenty of trunk space to put the shopping."

The girls laughed - after the release of tension in battle and the ultimate relief of victory, their normal high spirits were coming to the fore again, despite the losses they had suffered from their number. Not that they would forget them soon.

"Maybe we're the next UN," put in Vi. " We could form a task force of Slayers, sort out the world's demon problems; weigh in with little pale blue stakes and keep the peace."

"Yeah. With a huge secretariat, in somewhere way cooler than Switzerland," enthused Dawn. "Like Venice or Monte Carlo. Or Timbuktu." She sounded out the last name with noticeable relish.

"Or London," piped up Angela loyally, thinking of home, but the rest dismissed it: "Always raining"; "Boring"; "Full of British people who hate foreigners"; "Not another Watchers' Council, *please*."

The last was from Buffy, and although, given her past experiences he could have expected it, Giles felt a knot of trepidation in his stomach at what more she might say on the subject.

"The Guardian told me that the Watchers were the continuation of the Shadow Men. They just wanted to use and control the Slayer's power because they had none of their own. We're not going to give it up to anyone. We don't need anyone to tell us what to do, how to fight; we can figure it out for ourselves. Together."

Giles glanced at the non-Slayers in the party. Dawn was nodding vigorously at her sister's words; Xander and Andrew, off to the side, were engaged in a contest to see who could hold the most fries in his mouth at the same time.

The choice then, seemed to be capitulation, or abdication and irrelevance. He quietly slipped out of the restaurant, walked to the window of the travel agent he'd noticed on the way into town, and started to calculate when would be the first available opportunity to catch a flight back to England. That was the worst thing about déjà vu. Every time it came back, one recognised it as an old thought, an old feeling, but it still stung as if new.

The prickle of a nearby magical aura assaulted him again suddenly; his spiritual guard was down, as it tended to be when he was at all upset. He looked about him sharply, but missed the figure drawing back into the shadows across the street, waiting there, watching.

A hand tapped him smartly on the shoulder and he turned to see Buffy, who demanded to know:

"And what do you think you're doing, mister? Aside from worrying us all with the vanishing act just now?"

Giles was reluctant to have this kind of conversation in public, or indeed at all. He began to stutter his way through a species of explanation, trying to pitch it rationally, sensibly. Trying to give her a gracious way to agree with him.

"I... I was getting a bit uncomfortable in there. 'Fast food' doesn't agree with me: it has a tendency to lead to slow heartburn." He rubbed his stomach, which was genuinely unhappy, even without the added nervous tension. "I... thought I'd take a short stroll, and, and was considering how best to help... fight the good fight; thinking that perhaps I might be of more use... elsewhere, since you have everything you feel you need here, it seems. So, er... "

Buffy shook her head slowly as she looked up into his face, trying to meet his eyes as he shifted on the spot, giving darting glances at all the other slayers as they looked on with varying degrees of curiosity. Then she sighed, not unkindly.

"We'll talk," she said decisively. "Just you and me. Later, okay?"

"Er, okay. Yes, if you'd like." //Get it settled, one way or another. Yes.//

* * * * *

Back at the motel, Giles excused himself to go and shower and shave again. It was important to face the future clean, whatever it turned out to be. He made the decision to seek Buffy out, rather than wait for her to come to him. Dawn looked a little surprised as she opened the door of their room, but Buffy only smiled and stayed calmly sitting on the end of her bed.

"Dawn, go make yourself elsewhere for an hour. If it takes magick, ask Willow for some help," she told her sister with another smile. Once the door had shut behind Dawn, she said to Giles:

"I'm glad I have her."

He nodded and waited for her to go on.

"Sit down, Giles. You look all 'fight or flighty', standing there by the door, shuffling."

Giles took a seat on the other bed and half-turned to face her.

"Buffy, I... "

"You were gonna leave again." Her tone was neutral; it was hard to tell how she felt about the possibility. Giles reflected again on how strong and resolute she had become.

"It crossed my mind. You obviously have everything under control here, Buffy. But I don't know what the future holds for all the other young women and girls with whom Willow reports you shared your power. If I can be of use to them, I'd like to be. Perhaps some of them... still need a teacher. Contacting the coven would be a first step, and only so much can be accomplished over a transatlantic line, whether telephone or mystical. I should visit in person."

"And then what?"

"I don't know. As I said, there is a lot of work to be done: that's abundantly clear. What's a good deal less clear is *how* it's to be done. How it's to be organised. *If* it's to be organised. You, er... favour the alternative, I take it?"

"Alternative? I need a 'native' first, if I'm gonna choose an ALTER-native. What are you talking about?"

"The Guardian of the Scythe told you that the Watchers originated with those who originally... forced the First Slayer to take up the burden of defending humanity. You made it quite clear when you told me... us, and again just now, that you utterly rejected and abhorred all that they stood for. All that I... " He stopped, frowning, trying to collect himself.

Buffy's face was full of concern.

"Giles, when I said I didn't want any more Watchers, I didn't mean... it wasn't aimed at you. It's not like you're one of them."

Giles swept off his glasses, folded them in his hand and leaned forward urgently towards her.

"But I *am*, Buffy. Waking and sleeping, for forty years, I've been nothing else. My life, my destiny: when I ran away, when the Council sacked me, even when I left you. I'm a Watcher. And now, I find that it appears it was all a sham: that I was a jailer, not a guide. An abuser, not a protector." He chewed on his lower lip and pulled at the irritating shirt collar, "Buffy, I'm so very sorry. If I'd known, I'd have... I'd have cut off my hand before I touched the sacred stone and took my oath." He pleaded with his eyes, trying to find a way to make her understand that he wasn't exaggerating.

"God, will you *stop that*?"

Giles stared. She seemed annoyed rather than moved by his admission. Not for the first time, she baffled him utterly.

"I... I don't understand."

"I swear, if you don't quit beating yourself up, I'm gonna do it for you. I don't care what the job description says, what the 'history' is. When did I ever? I know what you *did*. I was there, remember? You cared. You helped me. You stayed up late and got up early and found me what I needed to do my job. If the Shadow Men and Quentin Travers followed the program instead, that's their lookout. Didn't do 'em any good: they're dead 'n' buried." She paused, considered, then shrugged. "Well, kinda atomised in Quentin's case. Of the past, anyhow. You can be part of 'Watchers XP'. New and improved version."

"And do what? Build another network? Another organisation? Is that what you need?"

"I don't know yet. I know a lot about what I *don't* need. Musty books and dire prophecies and people doing things behind my back for my own good, for a start." She aimed a deliberately challenging expression his way, but although he lowered his eyes and sighed, he didn't cave in.

"I did what I thought was right, with the information I had at the time. Perhaps fate was on your side, with all the coincidences coming together. I don't believe in relying on fate, or taking needless risks. You should know that by now. You're a free agent, an adult. We don't have to agree with everything the other says or does."

"We could trust each other, though."

"Which works both ways, Buffy." It was probably petty of him, but he was pleased to see she blushed just a trifle. "You don't need a teacher; I won't be a lapdog. You don't need a Watcher; I can't stand idly by."

"You only know how to be a Watcher; I don't need one. What's wrong with this picture?"

He didn't meet her eyes, only made as if to stand up and leave. She had to catch his sleeve to keep him seated and to get him to pay attention.

"Don't be dumb, smart guy. I've got all these wonderful new slayer sisters all over the world, and barely a clue how to find them, whether I even *need* to find them, and no idea what comes next for any of us. Advice is at a premium, experience is out of stock, and an instant solution is not included in the sale. I'm looking for someone who's been around, speaks more than a few languages, and knows one end of a slayer from another. I could go generic, but they say no one ever got fired for sticking to a reliable Brand, and I want the best Brand there is. I want a Giles. I'd say you're uniquely qualified. Care to apply for the position?"

He smiled a little tremulously, reached over with his free hand and gently pressed hers where she grasped the edge of the comforter.

"I think you'll find it's already been filled."

Buffy sent him a tender and happy glance. "I was hoping you could moonlight as well."

"Hmm?"

"As my friend."

"I believe I could squeeze it in."

* * * * *

Next morning, for lack of an alternative, he had to don the ill-fitting clothes again. He was about to make his own trip to the mall after breakfast, when a small delegation of slayers came to the table where he, Xander and Andrew were seated. Kennedy was already leading her drill team in stretches and breathing exercises on the lawn in front of the motel, causing not a few heads to turn among the passers-by. Willow and Buffy looked on proudly and critically, respectively. Dawn stood back a little, watching the watchers.

The opt-outs were led by Rona, her arm out of its cast now, but not yet fully fit for combat. All of her group were still recovering from battle wounds.

"Mister Giles? We thought maybe you could... tell us some stories. The kind of things slayers have to do, have to face. You know, like on an everyday basis. We've done Armageddon, but not a lot else. If we're going to do this, I for one want to know what I've signed up for."

"Are you sure their experiences are still relevant to you? This is a whole new concept: this, how shall I put it, 'fellowship of slayers'?"

"Like the Fellowship of the Ring," put in Andrew. "Only not so many hairy toes."

Xander sat up a little straighter and closed his good eye for a second. Then he shook himself and managed a ghost of a smile. Rona nodded even as she was rolling her eyes at Andrew's comment.

"Sure. There are more of us, is all. Same bad guys to fight. Same 'pick and poke' fighting them."

Giles put both hands flat on the table and pushed himself to his feet.

"All right, then, I'll see what I can remember." He turned to his breakfast companions more out of politeness than enthusiasm. "You're both welcome to join us of course."

"I lost my video camera," moaned Andrew. "I can't record the ancient tales, and your telling of them."

"Good. Lead the way, Rona. If you please."

* * * * *

They all ended up sitting in a semicircle in the shade of the largest tree in town, presiding majestically over a small park founded by some long-dead local worthy. Sloan was in a very dry area and the park was carefully maintained with an artificial water supply of its own, bubbling up pleasantly in a miniature fountain. It was a congenial environment for a quiet morning's meeting, and soon the Slayers and the two young men were sitting spellbound as Giles chose the most dramatic and illustrative stories he could think of, from Buffy's experiences and those of other Slayers about whom he'd read, to try to show the new slayers the variety and challenge of the life ahead of them.

Unbeknownst to the storyteller, he also sat spellbound, but it was not the magic of the tales that gripped him.

It was just coming up to lunchtime and, despite the fact that he was well in the shade, Giles was sweating from the noonday heat. The polyester pants kept sticking to his backside and thighs and he had to adjust them as unobtrusively as he could whilst the focus of attention by so many pairs of eyes. Sweat stung his neck where a patch of skin had been rubbed raw, prompting him to slip off his shirt self-consciously and lay it on the ground. At least the t-shirt was fairly comfortable.

"What's with the tattoo, Mister Giles? Is that a Watcher thing?"

He looked down at the Mark of Eyghon and winced.

"No, not in the slightest," was all he said, and frowned at Xander's prompt offer to all and sundry to fill them in with the details whenever they liked.

"I'd like to keep control of my own life story, thank you. I don't want the 'over-fully illustrated' version being circulated in breach of copyright, if you don't mind."

He got to his feet and stamped a few times to restore the circulation back to his legs. Unfortunately the vibrations only added to the attraction of the body-warmed spot, and he was just about to suggest they all go and find somewhere *other than the burger bar* to eat, when he became aware of a tickling, then a biting sensation, on his calf, rapidly advancing to his thigh. Tiny sewing machine bites assailed him in lines as he twisted his head and tried to shake them out of his pant leg. More and more, attracted by his movements, moved in to attack, at which point Giles realised they were more than regular ants. Ultra-aggressive, they had decided in the depths of their primitive collective unconscious hive 'mind', that he was a threat to their colony and must be eliminated.

Even if they didn't have a chance at securing their aim, they could and did make life extremely unpleasant for their quarry. The sheer quantity of bites began to raise painful weals on Giles' legs and the creased cloth only gave them more places to run and hide. A number of them had already made their way upwards, and the thought of them biting anywhere more... intimate... was a most alarming idea. Hopping around and swearing colourfully, unable to take much notice of the giggling girls as he tried in vain to brush or shake the insects out, he was finally forced to unzip the pants and take them off, swiping at his body with the cloth until he discovered that he was only decanting more ants. He tossed the garment aside, only to find that some 'visitors' had climbed onto his forearm and were swarming under his sleeve to bite his chest and shoulders.

With an emphatic obscenity that raised more than a few eyebrows, he stripped off the t-shirt as well.

"Andrew, Xander! For God's sake come here and give me a bit of cover. And help get these damned things off me!"

Andrew obeyed with slightly suspicious alacrity. Xander was a little slower, but his larger frame provided more shielding from public view. Fortunately the only 'public' currently present were all ex-Sunnydale, or he might very well have been arrested. When they finally managed to separate Giles from his enemies, Andrew was despatched along with the Slayers to get a blanket or blankets from the motel, and Xander was left to join in inspecting the damage. Giles tried hard not to scratch the bites, but they were intensely itchy, and after slapping his fingers a few times, Xander gave up and let him.

"I'll get calamine from Mrs Pottschalk when we get back," he promised. For a while they stood in awkward silence, then Xander picked up the discarded over shirt and offered it to his older friend.

"I don't think there're any ants on this, if you want to preserve the furthest corner of your dignity."

"Rather late for that, I fear. Thank you, but no thank you, anyway. The shirt is... well it's damned uncomfortable, to tell you the truth. I don't mean to dismiss your kindness in getting it for me."

"Sorry. You shoulda said. Spent my childhood shopping at low-rent closets like that one. Force of habit, I guess. Pick the first halfway decent thing, then skedaddle and go somewhere that doesn't remind you how little money you got. There's one or two better stores further in; you might wanna try them next time. Not that I'd know. My eye for fashion must be the left one. Only ever got it fifty-fifty. Now I'm doomed to sartorial lack of splendour for the duration."

His familiar lopsided grin plucked at Giles' heart for a moment. He couldn't begin to imagine how one adjusted to a radical maiming at such a young age. Tentatively, he put out a hand and laid it on Xander's shoulder, saying nothing, but lending unspoken support, and Xander nodded slowly, his grin becoming wider, more genuinely happy.

"Those girls are *so* gonna get the wrong idea about you, G-man," he joked, more easily than he might have done even a year ago.

"Just tell them that your aged, confused parent needs guiding back to the care home," Giles suggested, not without a hint of resignation in his voice.

Xander snorted, looking him up and down without balking or snickering, without a sarcastic or derogatory quip in sight.

"Look, you might not be able to bench press three hundred pounds, like someone not a million miles from here... " He allowed himself a smug quirk of the lips." ... But for a guy your age, you're in plenty good enough shape that no-one's gonna say 'aged'. As for 'confused', we'll put that down to the Britishness. Nobody's perfect."

Giles swiped at his head playfully.

"And what's the Americans' excuse?"

Xander swiped him back.

"Seriously, you're okay, Giles. Sorry about all the "old guy" crap I used to pull on you. It was my stupid mouth in league with my no-smarts brain. We're all grown-ups now."

"You in particular, it seems, Mister Harris," Giles assured him with affection.

"Been happening slowly; but I got a boost just lately; a reminder not to assume anything. Lost my depth perception but gained a better perspective, I guess."

* * * * *

It took turning inside out and an extensive examination of the offending garments before Giles would even consider putting the pants back on. The wretched shirt was discarded in favour of the cheap grey sweatshirt Xander had bought in lieu of an actual sweater. Both items were laid out on Giles' bed while he sat patiently, allowing Buffy to work on his bites.

Now she was dabbing on calamine lotion with local-anaesthetic, found and brought back triumphantly by Willow, on all of the bites.

Everyone knew how miserable they were making him, and several patches were raw from his scratching. What was even more raw was his pride, having to sit in just the boxers once again, while Buffy tended to him. It had been taken out of his hands from the moment the jokes started in the motel courtyard about who was going to put the lotion on the bites that no one could see. It had all been harmless teasing, but of all of them only Buffy had realised that he was not only going insane from the itching, but was mortified by his exposure, both physical and metaphorical, and just wanted to escape.

She'd snatched the bottle from Xander just as he was suggesting that maybe they should get Mrs Pottschalk, who would probably have loved to come and apply the lotion, and hustled him into his hotel room. She'd given Xander and Andrew the job of de-anting Giles' clothes and waited patiently while he showered and changed into clean underwear, before re-emerging with a white hotel towel around his hips.

His hair was damp, and the bites were standing out lividly against his pale skin now, as were the reddened scratch marks.

"I-I'm sorry about this."

Buffy grinned. "Actually it's kinda nice... taking care of you for a change. All these years... you always patching me up... and the ER always patching you up. Now it's my turn. They look real nasty."

"Bloody things... what kind of ants do you have here, anyway?"

"Those were pretty much the regular kind... well, the regular kind for around here. You were lucky they weren't fire ants... calamine really not going to help much with anything they could do to you."

Giles rubbed the back of his head with an agitated hand. "You know, I can probably manage most of this by myself... "

She smiled again. "Look, how about I do your back, anywhere you can't reach, and let you handle the rest? Much as I'm tempted to make you squirm right now, I'm not going to. I think we've all had enough of being made to squirm by everything that's happened in the last few weeks... months... actually." Giles nodded gratefully and sat down on the bed with his back turned to her.

Buffy dampened a ball of cotton wool with the lotion and began dabbing the bites. There were a lot of them, and wheals, spread in patterns over particularly his lower back and under his arms. By the time she'd worked her way around the front, the air was charged, the level of intimacy they were sharing a direct contrast to the painfully estranged nature of their relationship since his return to Sunnydale. When there was no objection, Buffy quietly continued putting lotion on the clusters of bites on his chest and stomach.

"You're wearing boxers, right?" She asked when she smeared lotion accidentally on the towel.

"Um... yes," he admitted.

"Then put the towel on the bed and lie on it."

Somehow, it seemed the most sensible thing to do, so he did. Once he was lying with his head on his arms he realised what he was doing and how vulnerable it made him, but Buffy simply continued silently, putting lotion on the very nasty wheals and rawness on his legs and the backs and insides of his thighs.

"You okay so far?"

"Mmffhuh," he managed.

Buffy smiled to herself. "Well, looks like we're about done. You think you can reach anything under the cute shorts by yourself?"

There was a short silence. "The Tasmanian Devil was Xander's idea," he growled. "I'll be fine. You've done wonders already. The anaesthetic is starting to work. I might even manage some sleep tonight, after all."

"In that case, I'm going to wash my hands because this stuff is starting to dry and it smells... and it's pink," she complained. "You want me to get someone to lend you a t-shirt, or I can take Dawn to the mall... we could... "

"I'm sure you could," he said dryly, looking over his shoulder, "however I think I'll be able to manage. My trousers are at least serviceable, if a little ridiculous, and the sweatshirt isn't a complete disaster."

"Like the rest of your wardrobe lately has been anything to call a... well... wardrobe. I mean: you know me... 'what me, notice anything?' girl, and even I noticed how not-Giles you've been looking lately. I mean it's not like you were ever on speaking terms with the Fashion Fairy, but jeez... "

Giles rolled his eyes at her and his mouth became a thin line of annoyance.

Buffy recognized that something of a tactical retreat was in order, at least momentarily. "Not... that... tweed was exactly a bad thing... or-or the suspenders... but the baggy sweaters definitely... and you need to stake whoever picked out that corduroy coat... which thankfully is somewhere near the bottom of a hell dimension now... where it belongs."

He snorted. "Well thank you for the fashion advice. It was my impression that you lot wouldn't notice if I was wearing a tuxedo or a tutu, so it's gratifying to know that I wasn't completely invisible over the years. For your information, I chose the coat. Selfridges were having a sale... and it was both warm, and practical," he retorted, his expression growing sheepish, "... and quite a bargain."

Buffy slid off the bed and started for the bathroom. "You so need to get a life where the word 'practical' is not a daily mantra," she teased, but there was affection in her voice. He was sounding like the annoyed librarian Giles of old, which was kinda nice. "What happened to all those suits you used to wear when you were working at the Magic Box? At least the lady customers used to notice you... "

"I beg your pardon?"

"Anya used to report on your daily hittage. She thought it was cute, y'know, all those women wanting to take home the overdressed British guy instead of the merchandise... " she called back from the bathroom as the water started running.

Giles muttered something and started to dress, not really caring how much of the semi-dry lotion got on the inside of the horrible blue trousers or the sweatshirt, whose neck was already out of shape... without even being washed.

When Buffy re-emerged he was peering into a sock for any sign of tiny marauders.

"So, will you be having dinner at the mall? The rest of us were thinking pizza, and by now Dawn and the slayers will be getting restive and... well: Xander and Andrew... God, this is a nightmare, money-wise. Can I get enough cash off you to pay for dinner for everyone? I can't believe none of these people, except Xander, even have bank accounts. Actually, weirdly enough, I think Andrew said he had some money in an account if we wanted it and he made it sound like it was a lot... but the rest of them... " She shook her head. "Dawn has a college fund, but I didn't have to work through high school, even part time, and I definitely don't want her in places like the Doublemeat Palace or Hotdog-on-a-Stick after school, even if the money would help... "

"Don't forget, many of the girls aren't very much older than Dawn," Giles said gently. "It's not their fault they've been torn from the lives they knew. And you can't blame the families; many of them poor, or those who quite rightly objected, only to have the girl choose to come with me anyway, nor can you blame the girls with non-existent family or means. We'll be fine. The Council funds will easily cover our costs for the time being... even Xander's vast appetite... at least until he can sort out some paperwork to access his own assets again. I don't suppose we can blame any of them for leaving everything at your house in the belief that we would either win or perish. There was no way to know that the Hellmouth would take back its own so... er... comprehensively."

"I don't mind it taking back it's own," Buffy grumbled, "it's taking back *mine* and everybody else's that I'm just a 'leetle' ticked about."

He chuckled, glad she could make light of what were in essence, extremely traumatic times for all of them. For once, though, he'd lost the least of any of them.

Buffy was still alive... and Dawn, Xander and Willow... his home was in England and untouched, even all his worldly goods were there now. But he knew how much they would all feel it over the next few weeks... the displacement, the loss of their whole world... their identities, in a sense. Like flood or fire victims they would need time to grieve, to adjust their psyches to the concept of being from nowhere, with nothing to link them to their past, or even to the lives they once knew... except each other.

"I think I will be kind to my digestion and pass on the pizza," he told her. "Enjoy yourselves, and I'll see you all in the morning, if not before."

"Cool," she said easily, swatting his hand away from scratching his calf before turning to go. "If it gets bad tonight, Xander already promised he'd help out. You don't have to suffer in silence, Giles, okay?"

"Meddlesome girl," he muttered with more than a little affection, as she closed the door behind her. Then he smiled to himself, absently scratching at the point of his shoulder as he contemplated tea in the mall.

* * * * *

The scalding pot of fine Ceylon tea was surprisingly well brewed and Giles savoured it slowly, happy that the little café had booths and less intrusive lighting than the main part of the mall. His head was hurting. Visions of a small girl turning purple with rage when her mother refused go back to the toy department to buy whatever it was that she wanted, then making enough noise to wake the dead, made him scowl even more. It seemed to be a day for hapless parents to take screaming, spoiled little monsters out to inflict them on an unsuspecting public...

The peace of the last twenty minutes or so, along with the tea and a rather nice approximation of scones with strawberry jam and *real* cream, had put him in much better spirits and allowed him to contemplate what he was going to do next. He'd been so intent on getting out of Sears and away from the vociferous tantrums of the small girl, who'd made Bysarian Shrieker demons sound like Irish tenors by comparison, that he'd paid for the soft blue jeans he'd picked up from the sale table and made a swift exit. They sat in their plastic shopping bag next to the equally soft, quality white t-shirts from J C Penney. He'd enjoyed the relative quiet there until a young couple arrived with a pram and another set of impossibly loud lungs, and proceeded to ignore it while they bickered about what brand of underwear the husband would or would not wear.

He ran a hand over his face and decided apocalypses were far preferable to malls.

On his way back to J C Penney's to buy a comfortable shirt, he stopped at an L.L. Bean shopfront to eye the display of beautifully cut Oxford shirts. Somehow, much as a part of him would have liked to go in and buy the attractive French blue one that would have done quite nicely even with the fairly ordinary generic jeans he'd already bought, something stopped him. He wasn't even quite conscious of why, or what... except that it had to do with the question of whether there was any point since he'd been more or less invisible for what seemed like forever, anyway. Instead he went to K-mart and bought a couple of plain blue polo shirts before heading wearily to the exit and the motel.

The room was deserted when he let himself back in. Thankfully the pizza banquet appeared to have been held elsewhere, possibly in Dawn and Buffy's room. He took the chance to divest himself of the old clothes and cheerfully cram the polyester pants into the waste paper basket by the bed before indulging in a long and blissful, if still ill advised, scratch of almost his entire array of wheals and bites.

In the process, he padded to the bathroom and closed the door, pausing to study himself in the full-length mirror on the back of it. Exertion had made the weals stand out nastily, despite some residual smears of the calamine lotion over them. His salty perspiration had despatched most of it, and hadn't helped the irritation any more than the hot Nevada weather had helped his disposition. One thing was certain, he sighed. He was no boy any more... despite satisfactory weight and fitness. The inevitable march of gravity was beginning to exact a toll. He'd taken so little interest in himself for so long that he was a little surprised by the changes... unaware that to the outsider he was still fitter and better put together than most men ten years younger. In the end he shook his head quietly and went to shower. He would have preferred not to spoil Buffy's good work, but the heat, even so late into the evening, had put paid to that ambition. The shower, set to coolish, was so good... and so soothing on his bites, that he allowed himself the indulgence of prolonging it for several more minutes.

Even so, by the time he'd dried himself and padded out to find clean boxers, he'd started to itch again. He put on his old boxers and one of the thin t-shirts Xander had purchased, after adding calamine to every spot he could reach. When he was reasonably confident the stuff had dried on his skin, he crawled into bed.

The events of recent days and the pressure of the responsibility incumbent upon him for the future of all slayers, was beginning to impact heavily, combined as they were with the worry about Buffy, Dawn, Willow and Xander's immediate futures and long term plans and the not-quite-so subliminal grief he still carried for the demise of the institution which had for so long formed such a major part of his identity... For all its flaws it still represented so much to him personally: his grandmother, his father... his family friends... honorary relatives... and colleagues... so many of them bound up in its history... so many of them still unaccounted for... or known to have perished...

When Giles stirred not too long after dawn the next morning, Andrew was fast asleep, snoring comically, and Xander was nowhere to be seen. He quietly dressed in his new clothes, aware of two things. It was getting towards the time to gather up the group and press on to Cleveland, and he was homesick... not for England... but for a world that included Anya and Tara, Xander's eye and Sunnydale with all of its flaws; trivia like the Magic box, and all of the familiar and well-worn volumes he'd lost; well trodden patrol routes; various townspeople with whom he had a nodding acquaintance, either from his days of early morning jogging, or as fellow vendors in the small business district. He wondered what had happened to the standard poodle that lay in wait daily for him to jog past its gate, or the old lady who used to arrange the flowers in the fresh displays outside the florist. He wondered how Dawn would hold up once it began to sink in that in all likelihood she would not see any of her teachers, her classmates or her friends again...

Outside, he wasn't surprised to see Xander sitting, leaning forward, elbows on knees, head down, on the single park bench plonked in the middle of the courtyard, a trash can on one side, a large concrete planter with straggly daisy bush, on the other.

He walked across and sat down quietly alongside him.

"Enjoy your pizza last night?"

"I think it gave me nightmares," Xander replied without looking up. "I miss her, Giles."

Giles put a hand on the younger man's broad shoulder.

They sat in silence for a long time, before Giles finally broke the silence. "I think breakfast is in order. I remember once, a few years back, Willow mentioning how much you like Denny's... something about a triple breakfast special that rather appealed to your vast appetite," he said dryly, but with affection evident in both his voice and the light in his eyes. "I saw an advertisement for one on a billboard in the Mall. It's only two streets further over. Fancy a brisk morning constitutional and some breakfast?"

Xander looked up and grinned slowly, his own eye growing bright with affection. "Sounds like a plan I could live with: a meal with no flock of cackling females and best of all: no Andrew... "

Giles chuckled and nodded. He couldn't have summed it up better himself.

There were no triple offers current at Denny's but Xander had already set his ambitions on a placard proclaiming 'two stacks of hotcakes for the price of one' with butter and whipped cream to go with the ubiquitous bottle of maple syrup on the table next to the ketchup, barbeque sauce and mustard. The place was still fairly empty, though, Giles suspected, probably not for long.

In the end he settled for Lipton's tea, the oatmeal deluxe and an English muffin. Xander, on the other hand, luxuriated in his menu for some time before settling on an All-American slam to go with his hotcakes. Giles, who normally avoided American fast food outlets like the plague, couldn't believe that the plate was for only one person: three eggs scrambled with cheddar cheese, hashed browns, two strips of bacon, two sausage links and a in Xander's case, a bagel. There didn't seem to be any possible way the young man would be able to deal with the stacks of hotcakes when they were delivered to the table...

They ate in companionable silence, Giles taking his time and savouring his surprisingly pleasant meal, while Xander wolfed through his plate, explaining with a crooked smile, his dislike of cold food. On his second cup of tea, Giles watched Xander's eyes light up as the hotcakes were placed in front of him, before he upended the bottle of maple syrup, wholesale, over the lot.

"How is everyone coping?" He asked when Xander finally sat back, stretching his midriff and sipping at a fresh cup of coffee.

He seemed almost to have expected the question. "Pretty good, all things considered. Dawnie pretty much had a blast last night. They found a music video channel on the TV in their room, so it turned into a pizza dance party," he explained, amused. "Yeah, I think they're all gonna be fine... eventually."

Giles raised an eyebrow.

"Dawn told me she's started having nightmares about her mother again... same as after... you know. And she told me Buffy doesn't sleep much. Apparently she makes all the right noises, goes to bed and everything, but Dawn hears her get up a little while later. She says sometimes she hears pages turning, sometimes muffled crying from the bathroom and sometimes she hears her slip out and doesn't hear her come back in til daylight. Willow... she's dealing, but she's scared of what's ahead of her. At least she has Kennedy... they're pretty strong together. I... I think she'll... " His head dropped and he swallowed hard, several times.

Giles' hand returned to his shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. "I know, " he said softly. "It's going to take time, but it will get better, I promise. I miss her too."

Xander cleared his throat, and sat up, half smiled, trying to ignore the moisture in the brown eye and the green ones looking at him with such compassion.

"So... what's for dessert?"

* * * * *

"Serves you jolly well right," Giles pointed out without an ounce of sympathy.

Xander groaned again as they made their way along the main street. "Man, I knew the waffles were a mistake."

"The *waffles*? Most mere mortals would have been in dire trouble after the first stack of pancakes!"

The next moan was even more expressive than the previous one. "I think I may even barf," he complained.

Giles' nose pinched. "Not anywhere near me, thank you very much. I've only just got these clothes. They're comfortable and I don't intend to spend another day either in a department store or a Laundromat for some time, if I can humanly avoid it."

"No problem," Xander agreed greenly. "There are plenty of perfectly good gutters I can decorate."

"As long as you neither decorate my clothes nor our room when we get back. If you do only one person will be cleaning it up."

"Fine, whatever," Xander muttered, sidestepping an oncoming pram only to walk full tilt into a trestle supporting one end of a plank. He didn't have time to look up before the occupant of the plank fell on him, followed by a yell of both rage and dismay from Giles. When he finally did, the sign painter was scrambling to his feet, torn between sheer temper at Xander and actual fear of the Watcher whose fearsome expression looked positively homicidal, in between the globs of fluorescent green paint.

The painter sucked it up, outrage outweighing fear. "Do you know how much that stuff costs? You better be going to pay for this or I'm gonna call the cops!"

Giles advanced several steps, convincing the smaller man, who'd picked himself up off the sidewalk and dusted himself off, to back pedal furiously. The Watcher spread his arms wide, encompassing his thoroughly spoiled clothes.

"I'd say we were even, wouldn't you?" He suggested dangerously.

Across the street, in the doorway of a liquor store, Ethan Rayne watched the tall, quite obviously fuming, figure with iridescent lime green paint in globs and streams from hair to shoes, with a smirk.

"The beauty of chaos," he said smugly, "is that not only will you learn from it eventually, old son, but in the meantime even I get to be entertained by the direction it takes... " The smirk stretched into an amused grin and then, for the first time in a long time, Ethan started to laugh.

* * * * *

"Al-all right, buddy, we'll call it quits then, on account of collateral damage and your friend's, uh, special circumstances." The sign painter avoided meeting Xander's gaze, indicating the eye-patch with a tilt of his head as he spoke to Giles. "I'm sure he, er, he couldn't help it."

Xander tensed, took a deep breath and started to open his mouth, but Giles frowned at him and shook his head tightly. He couldn't actually take hold of Xander's arm without risking transferring some of the paint, so he had to rely on whatever tenuous moral authority he had to persuade him to leave the situation be and come back to the motel.

After a beat, Xander, glaring mutinously, first at Giles himself, then at the bent back of the sign painter picking up brush and pot from where they'd fallen into the gutter, consciously lowered his hunched shoulders, let out a breath and followed Giles' lead.

Once they were a little way down the street, Giles could hear his companion muttering:

"Cause, yeah, of *course* the optic nerve's connected to the brain, and half my brain must have dropped out through the damn hole while I was in the hospital."

Giles hesitated, unsure whether anything he might say would be at all helpful.

"Okay, maybe it's just as well I didn't start a fight. Thanks, Giles. I'd have got my ass whupped anyhow. Probably couldn't even land a punch straight." His tone wasn't nearly as resigned as his words.

"Yet, here you are," remarked Giles gently, taking Xander's blind side without comment, to watch out for traffic as they crossed the street, then moving back to the side he could see from. "Still alive after Armageddon."

Xander shook his head angrily.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it: count your blessings, things could be worse, you still have your other eye, yadda, yadda, yadda. Not one of you has an idea in *hell* what it's like, so save the sermon, would ya?" He quickened his pace and strode ahead until they reached the motel, where he threw himself into one of the armchairs in the lobby. Giles approached slowly, crouched down until he could look in Xander's face, and waited until he had his attention.

"That wasn't what I meant, Xander."

"Wasn't it?" The young man was clearly unconvinced.

"You survived the battle; therefore you *can* still fight, you are still... part of the team. You could put your survival down to sheer good fortune if you wished, but I'd say that's most unlikely. No, I have no idea what it's like for you, and I'm sorry for that. I'm not, however, going to spend a lot of time being sorry for *you*, because, unless you say otherwise, it's probably neither what you need nor what you want. Anything practical or... anything I can do, anything at all, you only have to ask; I hope you know that."

The corner of Xander's mouth turned up and he cast his eye up and down Giles' still-bespattered form.

"Well, much as I'd like my own personal glow-in-the-dark beacon for night vision... "

Giles abruptly remembered the state he was in and stood up, looking around him as he tried to think how he would begin to get clean again.

"Jeez, Giles, it's like someone put a jinx on you," Xander joked. He snickered, then froze at the exact same time that Giles himself did. They stared at each other for a moment.

"Magic?"

"Could be."

"I need to speak to... "

"Willow."

* * * * *

She wasn't watching the mass slayer workout, which now encompassed all the girls, accelerated healing having restored most of them to full fitness and the rest fast catching up. Kennedy and Buffy were demonstrating hand-to-hand techniques against opponents with varying strengths and weaknesses to accommodate everyone. Dawn was also absent this time.

Willow wasn't in her room, nor, as far as he could see, in any of the communal rooms. In the meantime, Giles was conscious that the green paint was rapidly drying on his skin and in his hair, as well as on his clothes. He decided to throw himself on the mercy of Mrs Pottschalk.

"Well, now, what *has* happened to you, Mister Giles? Please tell me you haven't been sitting on any of my furniture in that condition?" She was obviously sympathetic, but she had a living to make, after all.

"No, no," Giles reassured her. "I've done my best to avoid touching anything, and I wiped my feet off outside. So far as I can see, it's only me who's in need of renovation." He smiled at her sheepishly and was slightly alarmed to see her visibly melt.

"Well, now, don't you worry, sugar, we'll have you all fixed in two shakes of a rattler's tail." She scuttled into the back office, from where sounds of thorough rummaging and tutting emerged as she searched for, but failed to find, what she was looking for. She returned to the front desk clutching an aged metal container and wearing a disappointed expression.

"This is all I have, but it's a mite caustic. I'm not sure if you should use it, seeing as how you're real fair-skinned and all." She peered at the small print on the tin and shook her head. "No, I don't think this will do at all. You know, there's a hardware store at the mall. Mister Pottschalk gets all his supplies there; just say Camellia sent you. That's me," she explained with an expectant air.

Giles remembered his manners "That's, um, a charming name, Mrs Pottschalk. Your family are, um, keen gardeners?"

"Well now, so they are. Do you garden, Mister Giles? Or may I call you Rupert - what a *wonderful* old fashioned English name *that* is, to be sure... " She put the paint remover down and beamed mistily at him. Giles' discomfort went up a notch.

"Only back home, I'm afraid. I have, um, a busy life over here, with all these, um, students to look after. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go and see about finding a way of drawing less, um, attention to myself."

He beat a hasty retreat, and was girding his loins for another foray into retail hell, when he met Willow and Dawn coming in through the front doors.

"Giles! What on earth happened?" Willow asked, eyes wide. Dawn put a hand over her mouth and her shoulders shook with the effort of holding in her mirth.

"I joined a colony of experimental artists," he quipped acidly.

Willow was about to make a witty reply, looked at his expression and changed her mind, settling instead for a sensible 'sympathy face' and waiting for his explanation.

"I had an accident, Willow. Again. I'm beginning to suspect that more than natural mischance is at work."

"Magicks?"

"She didn't do it. Nobody saw her do it. You can't prove anything," Dawn put in between strangled giggles. Giles glared at her and continued:

"Not that I in any way suspect you, Willow. I merely thought that you were the logical person to consult to help me find out if I *am* under some kind of supernatural influence or attack, and why. I just hope no-one else is in danger."

"Sure, I'd be glad to help. You wanna get cleaned up first?"

It looked as if it was the mall after all. Giles had started to walk past them to the door, when Willow stopped him.

"Look, Giles, I don't want to slip back into bad old 'magic as convenience store' Willow, but I don't see any harm in helping you out on this one. What with the ant bites, you don't want to risk anything more on your skin until it's had a chance to heal."

So saying, she beckoned him down the corridor to the deserted breakfast room, Dawn trailing behind them out of curiosity. Once they were behind closed doors, and checked that none of the staff were around to witness the spell and ask awkward questions, Willow chanted a few phrases and made some signs in the air. She waited a couple of seconds, repeated part of her incantation, and then frowned.

"It's not... "

Giles started suddenly and looked down at himself as the gobs of paint began to disappear from his hands. He could feel the magic working likewise through his hair and on all the exposed skin.

"I believe it did," he told her gratefully, but she shook her head, pointing at his jeans and polo shirt.

"See, your clothes are still painty. It only worked on what was on you personally, and I meant to get rid of all of it, but... something stopped me."

"It wasn't strictly necessary to clean my garments; are you sure your spell didn't just self-limit?"

Willow contrived to look slightly affronted. "Sure I'm sure. All the paint should have been consigned to the rainbow dimension, where all colours exist in perfect harmony. It's their natural plane of existence; sorta like... repatriation. No, this was interference."

"Someone impounded its passport," suggested Dawn with a grin. Two sets of green eyes rolled at her in concert, and she sighed. "Whatever. No one appreciates it when you extend a metaphor. Especially when you're funnier."

"Did you get any sense of intelligence, of purpose?" Giles asked Willow. "Or was it merely background 'static'? The day after we got here, do you remember: you tried to work magic, and at first it was unsuccessful. Do you think there could be a connection?"

Willow considered for a few moments. "I'm really not sure. I'd need to do a proper locator or focal point spell to be certain, and I don't know if I can get all the ingredients for it around here. I might need to catch a bus to Vegas. You know Mister Paulsen, he used to supply the Magic Box sometimes. He could help me."

"I realise it's a long journey for the sake of a simple spell, but although so far only I've been affected, and I've not come to serious harm, there's no telling where it might all end. I'd be grateful if you could see your way to doing it, Willow."

"Can I go? I've never been to Vegas. We could work the tables while we're there: swell the slayer coffers by counting cards and reading people's minds." Dawn shrugged at their horrified expressions. "Just kidding," she assured them hurriedly. "Can I still go? I am *so* bored hanging around just watching other people do stuff. It's like school."

Willow was about to capitulate, when Giles stepped in.

"I'm sure I can find something interesting and worthwhile for you to do, Dawn. Just have patience while I go and find some replacement clothes, then I'll meet you in the lobby after lunch. Tell all the other girls to be there, too. And make it a light lunch, hmm?"

There was the hint of a twinkle in his eye, and Dawn was intrigued. "Okay. Better be more fun than Caesar's Palace, though."

Giles smiled. "As to that, I couldn't say. But I think you'll enjoy it. I believe I shall, as well."

* * * * *

Fortunately, Giles still had one spare white t-shirt in his motel room, and once he had scraped the worst of the green mess off his jeans and his glasses, he felt presentable enough to venture back into town. More than a few female - and male - heads turned, as folk passed him. Some of them were wondering what new fashion in decorated denim he was sporting; some of them began to invent odd painting jobs around the house that they could sure use some help with; one or two simply contented themselves with blatantly checking him out, mostly from behind.

He stepped back inside the mall and made straight for the nearest store selling any item of men's clothing whatever. It was a sporting goods chain; as a sideline, they stocked a few tracksuits and leisure jackets. Giles picked a plain grey pair of track pants in roughly the right size and some comfortable trainers, paid for them and then hurried out, intent on his plan for the afternoon. The atmosphere had quietened considerably since the day before, so he dropped into the coffee shop part of the food court for a quick caffeine infusion before going back to the motel.

A thin, harassed looking, middle-aged woman who moved as if fuelled largely by the product she sold, efficiently made him a cappuccino and tossed his money into the till. A small queue had formed behind him meanwhile, and she muttered furiously under her breath that if that damn Limey didn't quit sloping off God-knows-where at a second's notice she'd fire his slippery ass, she didn't care if the customers thought he was a charmer. Giles' interest was piqued - he'd met surprisingly few Englishmen during his years in California, and most of those had been Watchers. But it was scarcely any of his business, and the lady next in the queue had begun shuffling her feet with impatience nearly the second she'd got there.

He took his coffee to a table on the edge of the eating area and took his time over it. His back was turned to the coffee bar, so he didn't see the errant employee get a flea in his ear about actually being there to pull his weight when it was busiest, or smarm his way out of trouble again by promising to stay late again on Saturday. He was unaware, too, of being observed with something approaching, but still at arms' length from, satisfaction.

After lunch, the convocation of slayers and hangers-on, minus one Wicca, gathered in the lobby as he'd requested. Giles indicated the large carryall he'd rescued from Sunnydale High, and which now rested by his feet.

"Weapons," he offered. "I know some of you have done some training with your Watchers, and of course, over the past few months, but from what I've seen, it's not been nearly as systematic as you're going to need, to be prepared for all eventualities. I thought that, if anyone is interested, you might care to practise some moves, get the opinion of an impartial observer. Entirely voluntary, of course."

"I'm in," announced Kennedy enthusiastically. "Happy to be a demo model like I was this morning, if you like. Whatever they all need to get up to speed."

The irritated expression on a few of the girls' faces was not lost on Giles. In any case, the lesson plan was already well formed in his mind.

"We'll see," he replied amiably. "First of all, how many combatants have we, and where can we find to practice without someone calling the police?"

Everyone laughed and raised their hands, then a few girls named an uptown gym they had checked out which could be hired by the hour for sports clubs and societies. A phone call, some reassurances about safety and qualifications - the Watchers' Council had been very thorough in putting its operatives through all the recognised courses - and the space was theirs for the rest of the afternoon.

Giles changed into his new track pants and trainers before they all left. The pants were a little close fitting, but he judged he should still be able to manoeuvre well enough in them. He wasn't quite sure what to make of the covert stares and whispered comments as he emerged and bent to retrieve the weapons bag. He turned a questioning glance at Buffy but she appeared to be suppressing some comment of her own very hard indeed, and he wasn't sure he was ready for her rapier wit just yet. The girls formed a file behind him with suspicious alacrity; the exceptions being Kennedy and Buffy, who seemed to have elected themselves his bodyguards and strode along either side of him, exchanging a torrent of non-verbal communication as they did so.

Giles decided he was probably better off not knowing.

* * * * *

"These are all sharps as you know, therefore I need not remind you to exercise particular caution in using them as sparring weapons. Get the weight and balance of each weapon sorted out long before you think to take a pass with it, let alone strike or parry. We have plenty of space, use it to manoeuvre: 'void' a blow in preference to parrying. Let me see footwork."

He'd carefully pre-selected and kept back the most suitable of the 'broadswords' for his own height and reach, reasoning that there had to be some teacher's perks, and let the others all pick what they wanted. Of the girls, only Dawn stood to one side, hanging back uncertainly near the bench on which sat Xander and Andrew, who had definitively taken on the role of spectators, complete with jumbo bag of chilli tortilla chips.

Giles had a private theory that Xander's occasional travel sickness was largely a matter of his stomach's intense need to exact revenge.

Most of the girls' swordplay was still rather static, he noticed, as his gaze swept the spacious, but shabby hall. Fine for fighting at close quarters in a group; but alone, against a more mobile opponent...

"EVERYONE *CEASE*!"

A dozen struggling forms broke apart, panting. A dozen pairs of expectant eyes turned to him. Andrew busied himself picking his suddenly spilled chips up off the floor.

"That was an impressive display, ladies."

Satisfied murmurs greeted his remark, but Giles could see Buffy grinning as she watched him encompass the group with a glance over the top of his glasses.

"However...

Buffy's grin became a small chuckle.

"... There are a number of ways you could all improve on your technique." Giles walked amongst the slayers, focusing on individuals. "Rona. That's a war hammer, not a mallet. You're not driving in tent pegs."

"Warhammer?" Andrew, scattering crumbs of tortilla chips, leaned forward excitedly.

"Not the game, Andy," Xander reminded him. "We can only dream of scantily clad Wood Elf Sorceresses riding unicorns into battle... " A slow, lecherous smile spread over his face, but Andrew made a tiny distressed noise and wrinkled his nose. Xander sighed.

"Fated to dream alone."

Giles, meanwhile, had begun to demonstrate a fluid, continuous back and forth sweep with the hammer, before returning it to Rona. For her partner, armed with a stabbing spear, he modelled blocking, thrusting and avoidance tactics as Rona tried to pin him down to get in a pulled smash. By the time she managed to stop a swing a few inches short of his head, making the onlookers gasp, he needed a breather.

"Not... as young... nor as fit... as I once was," he complained, as much to the unforgiving passage of time as to the assembled company, as he bent to catch his breath, hands on his thighs. "Much better, Rona."

"Well, it's all about the power; guess you can't expect to beat a slayer," Kennedy opined cheerfully from somewhere behind him.

He straightened slowly. Folding his arms, he turned on his heel and fixed her with a calm, considering stare. She stared confidently back, sword in hand, and smirked when he appeared to concede.

"Yes, perhaps I should choose a better matched partner. Someone at least who is used to pacing herself with me."

Buffy brightened and began to step forward, but Giles' attention bypassed her and transferred to the far corner of the hall. Dawn was sitting with her back against the wall, wearing a faintly disgruntled expression. She didn't seem to have been following the action or the conversation; when Giles called her name, she looked round as if to see what might be wrong, or to get her things if she needed to leave.

"What's up?" She put on her best helpful expression, longing even for an errand to break up the monotony of mere spectating.

"Pick yourself a sword, Dawn. Any one you like, I'm sure whoever has it now won't mind."

Giles waited patiently for the puzzled girls to shake themselves out of their momentary surprise. Dawn shot him an 'are you really serious?' look. On getting a confirming nod, she grinned gleefully, bounced on her toes and took her time inspecting the available blades before plucking one out of the hands of Vi, who shrugged as if she would just take what came and see what happened. They were all a lot less easily disconcerted these days, Giles noted. One plus point in favour of the End of The World (Averted).

He fetched his own sword from the carryall and asked for plenty of space. The slayers ranged themselves round the edge of the hall whilst Dawn and Giles took up a fighting stance in the centre.

"Dawn and I did some work together here and there, while you were all busy training en masse over the past months. She may not have the sheer power and strength of a slayer, but she does have a distinct natural talent for swordsmanship. In addition, she's just a bit nearer my height than most of you."

Dawn favoured her sister with a sidelong shrug and was rewarded with a narrowing of the eyes and a mouthed 'Get you later'.

They began to fight, ranging over the available space, slicing and swinging with elegance but without superfluous flourish. Giles had more physical strength and a longer reach, but Dawn was able to get in under his guard if he over-extended himself. He was proud and pleased to see how thoroughly she had absorbed her lessons. As he had taught her, and her sister before her, she parried with the flat of the blade, not the cutting edge, protecting it from too much damage and minimising danger to her unarmoured sparring partner, deflecting blows without halting the flow of her own attack. She had the balance of a dancer as she tossed the lightweight sword from one hand to the other and disarmed Giles with a neat move from the unexpected side.

A round of enthusiastic applause and whistles from the 'crowd' encouraged her to play it out a little more. She put the point of her sword to Giles' heaving chest.

"Did he fight well? Shall I spare him to enter the arena another day?"

Laughter and a small forest of upraised thumbs was her answer, and as Giles picked up his sword, he was beaming his approval of her performance in more senses than one.

"So you see," he addressed the slayers," physical power isn't everything. You may come across opponents who must be defeated by quite other means."

Kennedy remained sceptical.

"Doesn't it bother you, getting your hand stung by a sixteen-year-old with a sword?" She asked, in a tone which made it clear that it would bother *her*.

"I'd be far more bothered if I thought she wasn't really trying," replied Giles aloud. As he passed by Buffy on his way to put his sword away, she distinctly heard him say, sotto voce:

"Beats being knocked on my arse by a sixteen-year-old with a quarterstaff, anyway."

He had them take turns practising in a large space, encouraging each of them singly and in pairs to take advantage of their enhanced speed, reactions and agility as well as strength, and to explore the possibilities of different weapons. He was in the middle of a very technical explanation of the relative properties of tempered steel as against armour or the scales of certain demons, when Kennedy heaved an audible sigh.

"This is all great stuff, Mister Giles: interesting, sure, but I don't see we really need it. We've proved we can take on pretty much anything and survive. I can see how *your* slayer needed to keep up with all this, to give her an edge, but we've got each other's backs. Besides, put enough muscle behind it, and I still say you're most of the way there."

Those slayers in Giles' line of sight noticed how his jaw worked silently before he pushed his glasses firmly and precisely onto the bridge of his nose with one finger. Those who caught the irritated glint in his eyes exchanged glances, unsure whether to bail Kennedy out or stand back and enjoy the show.

"Perhaps you'd care to illustrate your theory, Kennedy," offered Giles.

"Happy to." She either hadn't picked up on his annoyance, or was choosing to ignore it.

"Do you have a preference for a particular weapon and partner?"

"Rapier... and you, Mister Giles. I won't let up, on account of you being a mere man, either, I promise. I'll really be trying."

Giles suppressed a smile. "I don't doubt it."

Kennedy had all the moves down, fencing as if she was trying out for the Olympic squad, pressing the advantage of enhanced strength and driving Giles back relentlessly. His expression of calm concentration never wavered, however. He let her think it was a completely unequal contest for just long enough before kicking out with one long leg at a precise spot on the side of her knee. The joint gave way and she fell hard, striking her elbow so that she dropped the sword and it skittered away across the floor.

"Hey! No fair!" She scrambled to a sitting position, nursing her arm as well as she could with the end of a rapier poised under her chin.

"No," agreed Giles pleasantly. "Rather like life. And death." He withdrew his sword, brought it up in a formal salute, and bowed slightly. " Muscle, speed, even technique isn't enough sometimes. Know your enemy."

//Know your enemy... // Something tugged at the corners of his consciousness as he heard his own words.

It continued to tug all through the rest of the afternoon, and all the way back to the motel where Willow sat in the lobby with a carrier bag by her feet, reading the latest issue of "The Modern Wicca".

* * * * *

"Must we sit on the floor? Why can't magic be done at the table?" Giles grumbled as they sat down in the circle Willow had marked out.

"Just one of those magick-y clichés we're kinda stuck with," she teased, her tone resigned but her eyes full of amusement.

Giles snorted as he manually forced his legs into a cross-legged position. "All very well when you're not my age and you haven't spent the day sparring with extremely energetic young people with mystically enhanced strength."

"Pfft," Willow chuckled. "You and I both know you're in better shape than pretty much anybody your age, and a bunch that aren't. I've seen you stick a yoga position longer than Buffy just to annoy her."

"And I paid for it for the next two days," he grumbled. "It felt as if I'd dislocated both hips. Anya was highly amused until she realised that since I couldn't bend down, she was going to have to restock most of the shelves by herself."

They both grew silent for a long moment.

"Everything's so different now." Willow's voice was both sad and uncertain.

"Whatever lies ahead, we will prevail," Giles said quietly. "It will take some time, but you all have each other... and perhaps every other slayer created that day."

Willow frowned. "We, Giles. *We* all have each other. Are you planning on going somewhere you haven't told us about yet?"

He shook his head slowly. "Not at all. I have simply come to accept that you've all grown up now... and that I no longer... " He trailed off. "It's not important. I'm not going anywhere."

"Something's wrong," she prodded. "I can feel your energy is all over the place... all mixed up... angry, depressed... sad. What's wrong, Giles?"

He turned his head enough to look at her sideways. "Do you really want to know?"

Willow grew very serious. "No, I'm only asking you because I like the sound of your voice," she growled. "I care about you, Giles."

His look was far more sceptical than he would have liked.

She looked suitably contrite. "I do," she reiterated. "Back in high school I kinda worshipped you. I think that's part of the reason why... why a part of me... the bitter part... got so mad at you. You were supposed to be my mentor... my-my Yoda... my Dumbledore... and all you ever did was say no... my magic was... *I* was never good enough for you." She winced at his look. "Stop with the look. I don' t back away from the horrible things that evil me said. I know at some point I did feel all those things... no matter how wrong they were, but she wasn't me... this me, I mean. It was the me without this me there... "

Giles finally looked at her squarely, finding it hard to keep his mouth to its flat line of disapproval. She'd gotten herself in such a muddle, her cheeks were red and the combination of guilt and petulance made her look like a small child who'd just been caught out. He wanted to laugh, to let her off the hook she'd made for herself, but a part of him... a part very near his heart... still wasn't ready for that yet.

"I'm fine," he told her, taking control of his errant lips. "These aren't exactly the most settled of times and I'm as unsettled as everyone else."

Willow's eyes narrowed and she suddenly looked every inch the adult she was.

"You're not fine, and I'm not a school kid anymore. If we're going to do this spell you have to be focused... or don't you remember who taught me that?" She added sarcastically.

Giles heaved a heavy sigh. "I've been around well and truly long enough not to let my personal feelings interfere with a spell," he said quietly. "When you need me, I will be focused."

Willow rolled her eyes. She knew that tone and she knew she wasn't going to get any more out of him about what she'd sensed.

* * * * *

It took them less than fifteen minutes to pinpoint the source of the spell on Giles. Both of them sat back, bemused. The Mall wasn't exactly where they'd expected the spell caster to be.

Willow looked up, her face a picture of concentration. "Giles, I can feel it... the magic. I-I've felt it before... I know I have... but I have know idea who... or where."

Giles frowned. "Then the source is one which either originates in Sunnydale, or which has visited there... "

She sighed. "Well, yeah, seeing as I haven't actually been anywhere else... duh." She straightened. "You don't think it's anyone here... ?"

Giles shook his head. "Not even Xander is up to practical jokes yet. Everyone here is having a difficult enough time simply coming to terms with the fact that their lives are permanently and irreparably changed, and their future utterly uncertain."

The reminder didn't help Willow's morale either, but it made sense. "Gloom and doom guy. But I guess not even Andrew would do something this dumb... not now, anyway."

*No, not now. Wait another couple days and I won't vouch for him, though*

"No," he said thoughtfully. "No, he wouldn't. What I can't fathom at the moment is motivation. What possible purpose could be served in continually ruining my clothes?"

"Somebody wants to see you nekkid?" Willow offered cheekily before she could stop herself.

"Ah yes... somebody wants to see the ancient Watcher unclothed... right... and unicorns are dancing in the hotel courtyard," Giles retorted with a little more feeling than Willow would have expected.

On a whim, she mentally said a simple inter-dimensional shift incantation then cleared her throat.

Giles followed her gaze to the feature window, his eyes almost literally bugging out at the site of a small white unicorn cavorting on the lawn outside.

"Willow!" He managed in a strangled whisper.

There was a giggle and then the beautiful creature was gone.

"Sorry, but back in high school I spent entirely too much time trying to imagine what you'd look like, well, not naked, exactly, but out of the tweed. I mean, there were arguments, lots of them, with Buffy and Xander: Speedos or trunks, boxers or briefs... does Giles even own a pair of jeans or a cool shirt... ? Will he ever wear an earring again... ?"

Giles looked flabbergasted. "Good Lord. You lot actually expended energy arguing about what I would or would not wear?"

Willow giggled again. "Uh-huh... there was even mention of tweed diapers. Burning questions, Giles... most of which still don't have answers, y'know... Well, except we know now that it's boxers... " She giggled again, at least until he scowled. "Well, yeah, um... so who do you know who might want to bug you this much?"

*Nice moment of levity and nice reminder of a time when the gang did talk about Giles behind his back*

A strange expression crossed Giles' features and the niggle that had been at the back of his consciousness suddenly came into focus.

"No," he said softly. "Impossible."

"Giles?"

"It's Ethan. God alone knows how, or why... but it's bloody Ethan... it has to be."

After a beat she turned outward again and nodded confirmation. "I've only really felt him once... I-I wasn't strong enough before that time he turned you into a demon. But why... ?"

Giles shook his head. "Ethan is a law unto himself. I'm sure we'll find out in due course. In the meantime at least we know who to look for in the Mall... " His expression suddenly grew irritated. "And where."

"Giles?"

"Get your purse or whatever. I'm going to buy you a cup of coffee."

"Ooh, mocha," she said brightly then sobered. "You know where he is, don't you?"

* * * * *

The coffee shop was busy, but if the harassed look on the owner's face was anything to go by as she coaxed foam from the espresso machine, the errant Brit hadn't put in an appearance for some time.

"Excuse me," Giles said pleasantly over the top of the high counter. "We were looking for... um... Ethan."

"Yeah, well, if you find him, tell him he's fired," an unexpectedly Texan drawl retorted. "Are all you good-looking Brits as charmin' and as unreliable as that weasel?"

Giles cleared his throat. "Indeed not, Madam. I'm afraid Ethan isn't a very good ambassador for the human race, much less his country."

The dryness in Giles' voiced coaxed a smile from the harassed woman as she put the finishing touches to two cappuccinos, a latte, two flat whites and an espresso, black, adding spoons and packages of sugar to the tray.

"You could try his hotel room. Twin Palms... corner of Mesa and LeGrande. Lord knows where he slopes off to when he's missin', though. Not that he doesn't bring in the customers when he's around... he just ain't around enough lately."

Giles smiled kindly at her. "Thank you. If we see him, we'll pass on your message."

She was entranced enough to smile back, but not enough to stop her from raising a clenched fist.

"Oh yeah? Well, pass on one of these while you're at it, just from me, okay, hon?"

Both Giles and Willow found it difficult not to smile.

"My pleasure," Giles managed, before they both turned and Willow actually did giggle.

"I'll just bet," she cackled.

The answering anticipatory gleam in Giles' eye only made her giggle even more.

* * * * *

The seedy motel was the last place Giles expected to find Ethan Rayne. Normally, if by no other means than his magic, Ethan made a point of ensuring his creature comforts wherever possible.

Not unexpectedly, he wasn't there. With Giles' accent it hadn't taken much to convince the teenage girl at the desk that he was Ethan's concerned sibling, there to help his stranded brother. The fact that Ethan had signed in as 'R. Giles' both helped and hindered, though with a little help from Giles' driver's license the essentially disinterested young woman accepted that there was a connection between the crazy foreigners and gave them the room number.

After a beat, Willow touched the doorknob and Giles heard it unlock. He looked down at her.

"No more scary Willow," she said quietly. "She's been AWOL since I was touched by the scythe. Except I'm not gonna assume she's gone until I know for sure, but I do know that doing magic to *really* help someone, feels good, and right."

"And unicorns?" He asked pointedly.

She shrugged. "It didn't hurt anyone... not even the unicorn. As far as it knew it was still playing in a meadow in its own dimension. Only we could see it. That's what I mean by not taking anything for granted. I'm not about to do any more spells to hurt anyone or just to make myself feel better, or to get my own way or because it's the easy way out. That way lies the road back to scariness."

Giles stared at her for a long moment, then smiled slowly, tenderly. "Welcome back, Willow," he said, acknowledgement and real warmth in his voice.

Willow stared back into the green eyes for a long time before finally smiling back shyly. It had been so long since she'd felt it... that gentle, amused... unqualified... affection she used to take for granted... that she'd missed far more than she would ever admit, even to herself.

Ethan's room was drab and his presence there meagre. It was obvious that he'd come with little and wasn't intending to make Sloan any kind of long-term proposition.

Willow easily located the remnants of his magic supplies for doing the spell before picking up a shoe. A moment later she dropped it, shuddering.

"Willow?"

She shook her head. "Bad. Something... there's a residual imprint of... of suffering ... pain. Something really bad happened to him, Giles."

"You sure it's not something he did to someone else?"

Willlow shook her head slowly. "Y-you think... ? You think Riley's people hurt him?"

Giles' eyes narrowed. "If there's any justice in the world, one would hope so." Then, realising Willow's face was still pale and her eyes bleak, his expression softened.

"With the military, anything is possible. Consider the Initiative itself: Adam... Walsh... the lack of differentiation, and even outright cruelty, in their dealings with their demon captives. When you work outside of societal rules, it's very easy to succumb to the notion that you are answerable to no-one and that you are always right, even when you're terribly, terribly wrong."

Willow moved to the bed and picked up a discarded shirt, concentrating for a long moment.

"He's not far from here. I can feel him... how much they hurt him... how weak his magick is, compared to... "

"Can you be any more specific?"

She shook her head. "I may be connected to everything, but Ethan's not stupid... he can feel me too, and he's using wards to keep me from getting too close. They're just... not so good, cause his magick is so... well, weakened, I guess."

"Damn. Then we're going to have to wait until he comes back here. I suggest another location spell, this time at about four in the morning, when even he should be asleep... somewhere. I want this resolved. It's time we were moving on. We can't stay here indefinitely. There's another Hellmouth that's almost certainly going to have a startling upsurge in unpleasantness, if it hasn't already. We're needed there."

* * * * *

"So where did you guys get to? We were starting to worry."

"We were trying to track down the cause of my clothing disasters. It appears that Ethan Rayne is in town."

Buffy's eyes widened. "Ethan... as in locked up somewhere in the Nevada desert Ethan? Oh... right... Nevada," she added, in mock, resigned, epiphany. You mean they let him go?"

"Unlikely," Giles replied as they began to count and sort the weapons laid out on the lawn, preparatory to cleaning them all and packing them away properly... a job too big to be done in a tin-pot hotel room, much as he would have preferred privacy. Thank God it was America. Anywhere else and they would probably be arrested... "But the only other explanation would be that he escaped, which seems even less likely."

"So... Ethan wants you nekkid... why?"

Giles rolled his eyes. "I have no idea what he's up to, but one thing I'm certain of is that no one in their right mind is interested in seeing me naked."

Buffy's response would have been a joking 'darn tootin'', in memory of old times, but he was so vehement about it that she simply stared at him for a long moment trying to figure out why. With the veil of responsibility and the constant threat of failure finally lifted... at least partially... she was becoming more and more aware of the nuances and subtleties that had been lost on her for so long. Right now, even she could tell that Giles had a lot more issues going on than he was ever going to admit to. She watched him as he bent, having finished counting, to pick up the carryall, and put it next to the pile of swords before picking up a polishing cloth.

"You're being a little harsh," she said finally, before her voice took on a teasing note. "True, Dawn might be scarred for life... and I think Xander might not recover... but you're not so bad for an old guy. Olivia obviously liked the package... er... " She turned red and waved her hands at his slim form. "Y'know."

"Not so bad... but still an 'old guy'," he pointed out, working on a sabre. "I find it incomprehensible that you all fairly salivate over film stars and even rock singers who are significantly older than I, and yet I am always treated as though I'm about to enter my dotage."

Buffy shrugged uncomfortably and picked up the hammer to begin cleaning it as he put the finished blade in the bag. "You act old. You always have. Why is that?"

"I *what*? I do *not* act 'old'," he retorted, whipping his glasses off and polishing them furiously.

She pointedly looked at his hands until he noticed.

He cleared his throat and shoved the glasses in a track pants pocket, thereby also drawing attention to his dowdy middle-aged attire. "Yes, well," he said uncomfortably. "Do I *always* act 'old', as you so tactfully put it?"

Buffy thought for a long moment. Dozens of 'old guy' moments were flashing through her mind, more and more interleaved with everything from flirting with Jenny Calendar to skewering the mayor, to the be-robed Hugh Hefner guy with the half-naked Olivia wandering around his apartment looking entirely too pleased with herself.

"Not always," she said honestly. "It's just... easier... to think of you that way... you know: as our 'grown up friend, except not in a creepy way.'" After a flash of annoyance in Giles' eyes, they both chuckled at Willow's ad-lib interpretation of his place in their lives.

Probably a more honest appraisal than even she would be willing to admit, Giles realised as they sobered. "Easier as opposed to what?" He asked, partially because he needed to know the answer and partially because he couldn't stop himself.

She looked a little confused for a moment then seemed to concentrate on formulating a reply. It reminded him how long it had been since Buffy had actually had time to grow as a human being... or even to seriously practise her social skills...

Perhaps years of chaos, of one catastrophe or tragedy or confrontation after another had seen her almost exclusively focused on the part of her life in which she was little more than a weapon, progressively losing more and more of the ability to relate to others, or even to the world around her. For the first time he realized how long she was going to take to really catch up, if she ever did. For that he was truly sorry...

Buffy finally focused on him again. "The truth? It was easier than thinking of you as a 'guy' guy... the kind of who might be out with someone of the opposite sex... or *in* with them as the case may be," she scowled, before continuing. "Someone who might not always be there; who could, maybe even, find someone they want to settle down with and get out of the business of taking care of the Slayer and all things Slayer-y."

He didn't look convinced. "And here was me thinking that old age to the young, particularly in this country, is simply repellent, and that values here are so skewed towards the youth market that anyone over thirty-five is in peril of being consigned to the rubbish heap as outdated, obsolete and over-the-hill."

Her eyes flashed. "Issues, much?" She looked him up and down. "You're not old. You've got a body, Giles. Do something with it. You want people to see a different you... maybe the real you... stop dressing and acting like the 'absent-minded professor' so much."

That took him a little aback. "I... I have a body?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Looks like it to me. Except you've always kept it hidden under layers and layers of stuff... tweed, suits, crappy sweaters, sombreros."

He huffed at her tone and started on another sword. "I liked the sombrero... it was very... well, festive, and fun."

That gave her pause, a furrow forming in her brow. "We used to take bets on what 'Giles fun' actually was. The best we ever got out of you was cross-referencing. Not exactly the manly man's pastime of choice. You really had fun with that outfit and the kitschy toys and the candy?"

The annoyance turned to sheepishness. "Well, no... not for more than about five minutes. Actually what I really had fun with, was the chainsaw... " He smothered a grin of actual relish at the thought, then grew serious again, thrusting his hands into his track pants pockets. "But it was at least something other than mind-numbingly boring and lo... quiet."

This time Buffy's mind wasn't filled with questions of mortality, apocalypses, failed romance or household crises. She saw clearly and her eyes grew very bright.

"See," she said half a beat later. "Now that was a totally macho Giles moment... an entrance to equal any Schwarzenegger crash or bash... or even swash or buckle." She smiled tentatively at him. "Even I noticed how good you looked. Trust me, chainsaws look great on you... stop worrying."

He turned red and looked down, and they both chuckled.

"I'm sorry about back then," she said softly. "I'm sorry about a lotta stuff. It's going to take me a lifetime and a half to catch up with everyone I need to say that to... but I mean it, Giles. I owe you about a million apologies, not to mention more quality time than I can count... I think there's even a plate of moussaka... see, I even know what it is now... and possibly a gallon or two of tea in there somewhere, too... "

Giles could hear the emotion in her voice. He didn't look up; it was safer to keep focused on the work.

"At least," he agreed gruffly, finishing the second sword.

She smiled tenderly at him and deliberately changed the subject. "In that case how long before we're outta this dump? We do have things to do... after all."

He finally looked up, surprised at the change of tone. Their gazes held for a long moment before he cleared his throat and spoke.

"The sooner the better... but there is the matter of Robin and Faith. Still, I promise, as soon as practicable after Willow and I find a way to lift the spell... and preferably throttle Ethan in the process, we're packing up and getting out. A few days in Sloan suddenly feels rather like a lifetime."

"Amen to that," she agreed and threw the polished hammer into the bag. "You know... what's wrong with this picture?"

"Pardon?"

Buffy indicated the broadsword, from the tip of which Giles was trying to remove chewing gum. "Shouldn't the students be doing this, not the teachers?"

He stood up to stretch his legs. "Under normal circumstances, most certainly. Although I don't seem to remember you putting in much time cleaning weapons... " he teased.

"Hey... hours of whittling stakes on my resume, thank you very much, and getting guts and blood out of my clothes so mom wouldn't freak... so no picking on the veteran, huh?"

"We are, aren't we?" he smiled. "The veterans? Truth is I feel bloody ancient, Buffy... "

Buffy was contemplating a comforting hug when the air sizzled and purple flames seemed to engulf Giles for several seconds. By the time the adrenaline drove her the rest of the way forward to put him out, he was standing there, totally unharmed, and totally... naked.

* * * * *

Dawn scrambled up from the small circle she'd made on the floor, collected up the last shreds of the left-over ingredients she'd secreted from Willow and Kennedy's room while Kennedy was taking a shower, and hid them under the pizza boxes in the waste basket. Dying to go and tell Giles what she'd done for him, she wasted no time in removing the chalk ring from the parquetry floor to avoid her sister's wrath, before flying out of the room, only to come to a screeching halt at the sight of Giles' very naked butt and her sister seemingly in his arms.

She shrieked.

"Oh, Lord," Giles exclaimed, extracting himself from Buffy's overbalanced effort to put him out. By then the shriek had brought out almost all of the other Slayers and Xander at a bolt, while Andrew skulked in the doorway behind, holding a comic book.

Giles looked even more pained. "Oh, dear Lord," he said again, looking around.

At that point Buffy recovered from the shock of believing he was on fire and deliberately turned and backed up so that she was shielding his modesty... or most of it... from the world at large.

"I'll see your 'oh, dear lord,' and raise you a 'holy freakin' crap'," she muttered, thinking homicidal thoughts about Ethan.

"Naked Giles... there's an image that I really needed burned into my one good retina," Xander cracked then turned to a boggling Andrew. "Andy, towel, now!" He ordered.

Andrew tore himself away from the scene and disappeared inside the room again.

"This isn't what was supposed to happen!" Dawn wailed as Willow skidded to a halt alongside Kennedy.

"Dawn? What did you do?" She turned to her lover. "I was only gone for half an hour. I thought you were watching her?"

"She's not a baby."

"I'm not a kid!"

Willow rolled her eyes. "What did you do, Dawn?"

"Yes, do tell us all," Giles said nastily, thinking of about seven different ways to make Ethan Rayne wish he was never born.

Buffy just scowled ferociously at her sibling.

Andrew tore back outside and tossed the towel to the Watcher who wasted no time tucking it about his waist.

Dawn swallowed. "I-I was only trying to help. I remembered a neat spell I found when I was researching, y'know, when we were trying to find stuff about the First... I used to write all the cool ones down... just i-in case. It's just a protection spell; it was supposed to protect Giles... well, his clothes anyway. I don't understand. I did everything exactly... even all the ingredients were right... "

Giles looked around at all of his wide-eyed audience. "All right everyone, spectacle's over... back to your own activities. I'm sure you'll recover from the horror soon enough. Buffy, Dawn, Willow, Xander: my room, NOW."

The crowd started to dissipate, murmurs of 'nice buns' and 'cor, fancy hiding that'; 'so that's what a Watcher's ass looks like' and 'wonder if he's taken... you think Buffy has dibs?'" Heard as they wandered away and the Scoobies headed for the guys' room.

With paint splattered pants and his last decent t-shirt dragged on Giles faced Dawn again. "Which spell exactly did you do?"

She recited the incantation exactly and told him what book it came from.

"It should have worked," he muttered then focused on Dawn again. "Which doesn't excuse you from taking ingredients that didn't belong to you without asking, or doing a spell without supervision. He cast a glance at Willow. "After everything that's happened to us, you should have known better."

"He's right, Dawn, " Willow said severely then turned to Giles. "But it's true. If she did exactly what she said, the spell should have worked... unless Ethan's spell reversed it. Is he that good?"

Giles sighed and nodded. "Better."

* * * * *

"I still don't see what purpose is served in you coming with me. All I'm going to do is buy yet more clothes for Ethan to destroy. It doesn't take a brain surgeon... or a Slayer."

"Think of it as much needed Watcher/Slayer bonding," she told him, ignoring his pissy tone. "Besides, I could teach you a thing or two about fashion... "

He shook his head. "It's not about fashion. It's about me. It's about time I stopped denying who I am, stopped pretending that I'm anything but books and tweed and old... "

"Don't say it!" She warned. "We've already been there. There's no going back, Giles. Remember, I've seen it all now," she teased. We have to dress that body the way it deserves." She grinned mischievously. "Hot, sexy Giles here we come."

Giles gazed at her, his mouth open, unable to assimilate the fact that those words, in that combination, actually issued from his Slayer's mouth.

"Buffy, are you quite... well?" He finally managed.

"Oh yeah. Better than I've been in a long time, if you really want to know. And just so you do know: I am still me... still a sucker for washboard abs, pecs of steel, the usual yums. I'm just old enough now to appreciate other stuff, especially when it comes packaged like... " She grinned, looking him up and down appreciatively before growing serious again.

"Just be you, Giles; the real you. Whoever he is, he doesn't deserve polyester hell and neither does that body. He deserves... *you* deserve... the best."

He grinned at her. "Sometimes, when I least expect it, you surprise me all over again."

"That's kinda the plan."

* * * * *

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because there are limits. And these are a long way past mine."

"But... "

"*No*."

Buffy reluctantly put the soft, red leather pants back and wandered off to see what other treasures she could find.

Giles looked around the store. Buffy wouldn't allow him to shop anywhere less... upmarket, but he wasn't comfortable amongst the painfully 'yuppie' and fashion junkie lines. When she returned with a designer jacket with a four-figure price tag - admittedly a stunningly well cut and attractive one, just not for him - he knew what he was going to do.

As she held it out for him, expecting him to turn and slip his arms into the sleeves, he shook his head.

"Buffy, this isn't going to work. We simply have divergent tastes."

"Yeah. As in mine belongs in this century. Trust me, I know what I'm doing."

"For you, perhaps. For Xander or, or... Robin. None of this... is 'me'. "

"Then what?"

He shrugged, then after a moment's reflection decided: "I'll know it when I see it. You go back to the motel. Ring Faith; find out when the hospital thinks they might be willing to release Robin, and when we can expect them to get here. Cleveland calls." The last sentence came out with a mock rhetorical flourish and Buffy obligingly struck an heroic attitude and adopted a 'comic-strip' tone of voice.

"A slayer's work is never done. Guess I won't be making that career move to Personal Shopper to the Acting Head of the Watchers' Council. Darn; just when I'd aced all the psych tests."

Giles laughed, his whole face and body relaxing at the return of the cheeky, quipping young woman who had consistently managed to inject humour into the direst, and the most mundane, situations.

"Whilst I appreciate the vote of confidence, I wouldn't promote me just yet. And I'm sure you would make a wonderfully... well-adjusted shopper. Not, however, for me. I'll see you later."

"Okay." She half turned to go, and then looked back, wagging her finger. "But positively *no* seventies retro flares or platform soles. Don't put stripes with plaid. Don't even think about... "

Giles gave her a mock glare and his firmest tone of voice."*Buffy*. I'll see you later."

After she'd disappeared from view, he rapidly escaped the section she'd insisted they visit first, and began to explore more of the store. It was on two levels and held a great deal of stock. He could be there all day, picking through shelves and racks. He considered getting a salesperson to help, but that would have been scarcely any different to retaining Buffy's 'services'.

Finally he just let himself wander, giving in to spontaneity and waiting for something to catch his eye. He let his mind woolgather a little too. He found himself owning up to and facing some of the negative thoughts and feelings about himself and his future, which Willow and Buffy had guessed at. They'd done their best to get him to think more positively, but if he were really honest with himself, he knew that the solution lay within himself. He was somewhat ashamed that he'd let the drift towards self-pity go so far. As he passed one of the counters at an oblique angle, he saw a printed card taped to the side facing the salesclerks as they worked. It was dog-eared and ink-stained, but if he got up close he could make out what it said:

'No -one can make you feel inferior without your permission: Eleanor Roosevelt.'

Giles smiled quietly. The same went, no doubt, for feeling old and unwanted. He meditated on that silently for a while longer as he walked, until he was brought up short, almost colliding with a life-size mannequin moulded from shiny white plastic in the modern fashion. Its head was turned to one side and only hinted at facial features; one leg was flexed so that the figure seemed to be resting casually against the wall.

He noticed the shirt first, a deep teal green cut in classic lines, the weave subtly shifting the colour as the light caught it from different angles. He fingered the material and found it to be top quality cotton, finished to a soft sheen. The display staff had teamed it with inky black denims from a nearby stack. Button-fly Levis 501s. Giles grinned as he remembered Willow's joking reference to 'those' ads. Someone had furnished the mannequin with a single hoop earring in stainless steel, and this time Giles was glad he'd kept his options open and not let his piercing go. What he did let go, in that moment, was any preconceived idea of what he "should" dress like, whomever the idea belonged to.

He stood looking at the outfit, eyes narrowed, for a good five minutes.

// Would I look like a sad old git? Or can I possibly get away with it? Yes I can. And I bloody well will. //

The mood of slightly belligerent adventurousness stayed with him all the way through picking out shirt and jeans in his size, and going in search of a changing room. The nearest one was in fact not very near; he had to take a short cut through the underwear and socks section. More white plastic facsimiles of the male figure adorned the tops of the displays, this time cut-off torsos sporting Calvin Klein and YSL boxers, close fitting jersey numbers which moulded to every contour. Giles cast a glance and smirked naughtily.

// Poor chaps. Still, size isn't everything. I'd imagine. //

He stopped, momentarily surprised at himself. Then he shrugged and let the thought stay just where it was, right alongside the smug self-congratulation. He snagged a pack of the boxers in a mix of dark jewel colours, noting with anticipation that the jersey knit was in heavy gauge silk. A brace of pairs of socks to match soon joined the pile.

Once in the cubicle, he hesitated a moment, then exited again and caught the eye of the nearest salesclerk, a chirpy but rather twitchy young man in an immaculate suit.

"Excuse me, I think I'll actually buy these first." He held up the pack of boxers and the clerk's eager face positively beamed.

"Excellent, excellent choice, if I do say so, sir. *Very* comfortable and stylish."

The price was steep, but Giles didn't balk. He'd set his mind on a course of action and was committed to it. In any case, he could probably have bought the entire contents of the shop, the building and the land it stood on, with as little impact on the wealth now at his disposal, as emptying the petty cash from the Watchers' Council HQ Tea Club .

Safely in the privacy of the cubicle, he stripped to the skin and slipped on a pair of the boxers in black to match the jeans. They felt wonderful as the fabric glided over his skin; sensual and yes... sexy. God, it had been such a long time since he'd let himself formulate *that* particular concept. Before he could dwell too much on the reasons for that, he pulled on the jeans, leaving the fly unbuttoned for the moment, and did up the shirt most of the way. Despite its classic cut, it really wasn't a shirt to be worn with a tie so, leaving the top two buttons undone, he tucked in it and fastened the jeans. They were snug but not tight, and as he turned in the mirror he was more than satisfied with what he saw. He took off his glasses, hooking them in the vee of his shirt, and his satisfaction increased. The trainers weren't right, but he could deal with the footwear issue next.

Suddenly he couldn't bear to change back into the discarded, rejected image that presently lay crumpled on the cubicle floor. He scooped up his old clothes and went to the counter as he was, picking up an extra shirt in rich maroon from the same line as the one he had on. At the counter, the clerk was bending to find something in a bottom drawer, and Giles had to cough politely to get his attention.

When the clerk straightened, it was clear from his face that his attention had definitely been got. In fact, as he rang up the purchases he kept making intermittent, hopeful eye contact. Giles had the uncomfortable feeling that more than his credit rating was being checked out. He did his best to maintain a carefully neutral expression throughout.

"Is there anything more I can do for you, sir?" Amazing how much innuendo could be packed into such a workaday phrase.

"Yes, could you just get rid of these for me? Thank you."

The clerk bundled the old outfit away in a trash bin with a disappointed air.

"No problem, sir. Have a nice day."

* * * * *

Giles was moving perilously close to 'trendy' territory, he knew, browsing in a franchise that boasted the name "Xtremities" and consisting entirely of shoes and jewellery for both women and men. On the other hand, the pair of plain, hand-stitched, black loafers, the leather so supple that he could flex the shoe in his hand, were worth the danger. Soon they were on his feet, and the trainers in the store bag at his side.

One last addition had yet to be made, he thought, remembering the mannequin that had shown him a glimpse of the still possible.

Five minutes later he signed another credit slip, and took another peek in the small mirror by the pay desk. He turned his head to one side, letting the beaten silver hoop hanging from his left ear catch the intense interior strip lighting. He tucked the box containing an alternative in eighteen carat gold, into his breast pocket. The young sales clerk had gone to help another customer, and he was left alone with his reflection. Glancing swiftly from side to side, Giles ran a hand through his hair, mussing it away from its too-neat, conservative style and teasing out some of the curl. When he'd finished, he nodded at the doppelganger, who nodded back.

//Better.Now, all that remains is to sort out Mr Rayne, don't you think, Giles?//

// Couldn't agree more, Rupert. //

The motel lobby was quiet; most of their party must be out again. The few other guests Giles had seen during his stay were fleeting and unsociable, mostly en route to Vegas and a rendezvous with false hopes of easy wealth.

He was just crossing to the stairs, intending to while away the time before supper reading something light and untaxing, when a surprised voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Oh. Oh *my*. Mr Giles, is that you?"

Camellia Pottschalk, resplendent in salmon pink chiffon and a rope of fat, artificial, pearls, stood in the doorway of her office with her mouth agape, newly manicured hand splayed on her ample bosom.

"Well, now," she continued once Giles turned cautiously to face her. " Don't *you* look fine this afternoon?"

Giles wasn't quite sure how best to respond. He didn't much care for the way she was raking every inch of him with her eyes, rather different to the sweet fluster with which she'd reacted until now. Finally she sighed shortly, shook her head and went back into the office. As he retreated thankfully, he was sure he could hear her say:

"But if I was twenty years younger... well, now. Aren't you just lucky I'm such a loyal wife, Mister P?"

* * * * *

Giles didn't see anyone else until early evening. He found himself rather enjoying the peace and quiet after months of living in an overcrowded house and then days of experiencing involuntary roommate status. It was surprising how much more he enjoyed his own company, now that the nagging feelings of obsolescence had been firmly shown the door; now that he was starting to look forward to the future with a sense of adventure rather than apprehension.

He was just about to turn the final page of his thriller, to confirm his suspicions that the urbane Master of an Oxford College was indeed an Islamist double agent, when a knock on the door made him start. He opened the door to find that Dawn had once again been assigned round-up duty. She greeted him with her normal cheerful smile, then stopped in mid dinner-invitation and stared.

"I thought Buffy was going to take you clothes shopping? That isn't Buffy," she told him with certainty, gesturing at his outfit. She took a closer look at his left ear and blinked. "Neither is that. No, *sir*. Buffy is not in the building."

"What makes you say that?" He was prepared for some criticism; but damned if he'd change a thing.

"Because it's *way* better than anything she'd have dared make you get. Who'd a thought ?" Dawn winked conspiratorially and walked off down the corridor.

Giles followed her. He was starting to feel that could get used to this, which was just as well, because it was only the first of many double takes and slightly surprised but sincere compliments. The only holdout was Rona, who thought blue denim would suit him better. Xander asked him where he'd got the gear; Andrew was giving him the same discomforting scrutiny as Mrs Pottschalk had done. He might need to have a tactfully phrased private conversation with that boy sometime.

Over dinner, he and Willow finalised their plan of campaign. They would summon a guiding light over a broadly sketched map of the town, done in sacred sand to mask the enquiry, memorise the route as quickly as possible, and dispel the magicks right away, hoping that a sleeping Ethan would be unaware he'd been pinpointed.

It meant staying up all night, or getting up at the crack of dawn. They decided for the sake of their respective roommates that the former was preferable, so they camped out in the motel lobby with the bag of ingredients and a book each. The night clerk - a lanky youth, one of Mrs Pottschalk's nephews - looked at them curiously once or twice but said nothing. At one in the morning he locked the front door, bade them good night and disappeared out the back.

For a while, no sound except the occasional turn of a page disturbed the peace of the deserted lobby. Then Willow shut her book with a snap.

"Giles?"

He looked over at her, brow creased a little. He knew it couldn't be time for the spell yet.

She seemed to make her mind up about something. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"If you, too, are going to ask me when I had my ear pierced, the answer is the same one I gave everyone else: 'before you were born'."

Willow grinned fleetingly. "I wasn't actually; but nice earring all the same. It's about the magicks."

Her hesitant, embarrassed air suggested that this was more than a simple enquiry about a simple locator spell. She pressed on, and asked her question:

"Do you... *enjoy* working magicks?"

"I haven't played with the Forces for 'fun' in a very long time, Willow. I know better. But if a spell leads to the right outcome, and no-one is harmed, then there's a certain satisfaction, yes."

"There's nothing in the actual *process*, then? Then maybe it's just me. Because I'm... "

"... So powerful," Giles finished for her. "I'm sure it makes a difference to the... intensity of the experience." They exchanged glances, fairly certain that each now knew what they were *really* discussing. Giles picked his next words carefully.

"Magick is a powerful elemental force. It seeks out what you are, and uses you, quite as much as it is used: good and bad, mind and heart, soul and... body. There's an inevitable, er, knock-on effect in all those areas. It's, um, not at all unusual for there to be a degree of... "

"Sexiness?" She smiled to see him shift in his chair and fail to meet her eye. "Don't worry, I'm not going to make you talk details if you don't want to. I just wondered if it was only me, being weird. T-Tara and I never straight out talked about it. 'Cause we never needed to."

They were silent together for a long moment.

"It seems like so long ago. And like yesterday, at the same time," Willow said at last.

Giles nodded. "The most important memories always do."

* * * * *

Four a.m. In a circle formed by pushing tables and chairs in the breakfast room out of the way, Willow put the finishing touches to 'Sloan in sand', and lit a small candle at the site of their motel. Two others stood unlit, where Ethan's workplace and deserted motel room had already let them down. She and Giles joined hands and recited an incantation.

Willow concentrated her powers on the one flame and begged the light to aid them. A small flicker, and a piece of the flame detached itself, floated through the air and lit the other two candles briefly before each snuffed themselves out. For a second they both feared that he'd left altogether, but the roaming fire wasn't finished. It swooped to a spot on the far side of town, near the road out to Vegas, and caught on the sand lines, burning steadily. Swiftly, Giles poured water on it, and with a faint hiss, it died. The pungent smoke of its passing curled around his fingertips, stroking his palms, and he shuddered.

He jumped to his feet, the tiny visceral charge of the magicks in his belly and loins becoming an adrenaline and testosterone-fuelled push to action. He was going to confront Ethan, and do it now. Willow instinctively knew that he didn't want her presence; that he neither needed protection, nor wanted a witness. She hoped he wouldn't end up doing anything he'd regret. Giles at his most positive and determined, and when his temper was tried, could be pretty formidable.

But he'd be okay. Ethan, on the other hand...

Ethan Rayne was sleeping the sleep of the until-recently-interned, when the door to his weekly rented apartment was kicked in. He was just about to curl up into a foetal position to protect his head, when the light came on and the figure looming in the doorway got a good look at him. The figure took a swift intake of breath and paused in its forward momentum towards the bed.

"Ethan?"

Giles had the grace to sound shocked and more than a little humbled. Ethan uncurled himself and sat up, letting the shabby bed linen fall away from his pale, naked chest and pool in his lap. The carefully cultivated tan and well-toned body that he'd taken such pride in were gone. His formerly impeccable grooming - expensive haircut, manicured hands, perfect teeth - had been replaced by an unkempt, depressed, desperate appearance, bluish rings under his eyes and more lines than time alone could have written on his brow.

Before Giles could say another word, Ethan raised both hands, whispered a word and struck him dumb.

"Don't be afraid, Ripper old chum. I'm in no fit state to fight. It's not to silence your groans and pleas for mercy; in fact, in other circumstances I'd quite like everyone to hear them. But if I don't shut you up straight away, I know what I'll get: Remorseful Rupert flagellating himself, and not in the recreational sense. Spare me."

He reached over to the nightstand and extracted a cigarette from its pack. After he'd lit it and taken a deep drag, coughing chestily for several breaths afterward, he sat up straight, with his back against the headboard, and took the measure of the man he'd shadowed and bewitched for the past few days. The man he'd never get entirely out of his system.

"I'm not going to give you the Amnesty International report: what they did in gruesome detail; how it felt; where the scars are. I'm not even going to tell you that it's all your fault. I'd be willing to bet you've already calculated the precise degree of guilt and remorse you owe me, Rupert, and how it weighs against what a menace to decent, orderly society I posed." He smiled faintly. "Pose."

Giles struggled against the spell, summoning his own latent powers, but without words he wasn't strong enough. He shook his head, tying to tell Ethan with his eyes that it wasn't like that; that he was genuinely shocked and horrified by the changes in his enemy-friend; that he realised his fault in merely abandoning him to his fate, in casting him from his memory ever since. He knelt at the side of the bed and tentatively laid a hand on Ethan's arm. Ethan's dark, secretive eyes flitted over the point of contact. They glittered as he deliberately sent a dense puff of cigarette smoke into Giles' face, making him draw back and let go.

"You know, they say that suffering reveals the true nature of a man, Rupert. Not that I was ever in any doubt about what I am, and I've no intention of changing; I regard myself as perfect for my own purposes. You've been shaped by it too, I could see every time I came to Sunnydale. But the big difference between you and me is that you provide ninety percent of the suffering for yourself." Giles' face expressed his outrage, but Ethan continued smoothly: "Oh, come now. I *know* you, so very much better than anyone else. You know what your trouble is? A hard head allied to a soft heart. Deadly combination, mate. You see the right way ahead and feel compelled to go there, even if it tears you to bits. You want to be needed and loved, but you won't sacrifice any of that pig-headed nobility to get it. So you end up never satisfied, never integrated. Always pretending you don't mind. That it can't be helped; that it's your 'duty'. Pretending there's no anger, no passion; that you don't wish you could throw all of the rules out of the window sometimes. Poor sod. Don't waste your pity on me. Save it for yourself."

He took a few more drags of nicotine, smiling his charming crocodile smile every time he took the fag away from his lips.

"You know, I've enjoyed this... conversation, Rupert. So much so, that I'm inclined to give you a reward, in the shape of you getting the last word. Laxare!"

He waved his hand again and Giles' vocal chords were freed.

"You may be right." It was worth it for the expression on Ethan's face alone.

"My hearing must have gone, what with all the probes. Did you just admit I was right?"

"I did say 'may'." Giles sighed and got up from his crouch beside the bed. Pulling up a chair, he ran his hand reflexively through his hair as he sat down. "You may not want to hear it, but for what it's worth, I *am* sorry. You deserved a good kicking, I'm not budging on that. You should probably be kept away from civilised society. But *no-one* deserves what you've obviously been through. Have you seen a doctor since your release?"

"Give me a bit more time and I won't need one, you know that. Your little red-head isn't the only one with power. In any case, men in white coats make me... nervous these days." Ethan's face clouded and he looked away before Giles could fathom what briefly passed behind his eyes. "Back to my favourite subject - next to the topic of me, that is - why you keep pretending to be someone you're not; though on that score, you do seem to have been doing some good work at last."

He encompassed Giles' appearance with a sweeping glance, and the Watcher remembered why he had come in the first place. He had a sudden suspicion.

"Yes, I surmised I had you to 'thank' for my continual involuntary disrobing. Are you trying to say there's been more to it than merely harassing and humiliating me?"

"As if I'd do that, dear one."

"For God's sake drop the vaudeville camp act, Ethan. It's bloody annoying," Giles grunted.

Ethan smirked. " But *I* rather like it. Fact is, old man, all I did was invoke Lady Chaos as per usual. A quick invocation, a reminder of all I've done in her service, and presto! Boon granted."

"What sort of 'boon'?"

"The desire to make you, well to help you at any rate, see for yourself what could be. What *should* be. The clothes were merely the outward and visible sign of your inward and spiritual malaise. Just like that tweed straightjacket the Council insisted you wear, or the middle-aged dropout look you had last time we... tussled." Ethan, as ever, managed to make the image suggestive, and Giles scowled at him. The sorceror jabbed a triumphant finger at him.

"Yes. Hold that pose. *That's* the Ripper who's been missing in action: the clothes, the man, the attitude. I'm satisfied, and so the spell should dissipate. Allowing for a few after effects, of course."

Giles leaned forward, alarmed. "What after effects?" he demanded. Ethan shrugged.

"If they were predictable, how would Chaos be satisfied? I only wish I could be there to enjoy the fun."

"You have plans to leave?"

"I'd imagined that 'get out of town' was going to be in your next breath after 'I'm so terribly sorry, it's all my fault except for the fact that you brought all on yourself'. But if you can't bear to let me go... "

Giles scowled again. "Is there any point in my saying I'll be glad to see the back of you?"

"Only insofar as I can make a terribly amusing play on words with the concept of you being glad to see my... back." Ethan enjoyed Giles' irritation once more, and stubbed out his cigarette in a cracked saucer, which sat on the nightstand. "Once I'm up to full strength, I might see if I can work my wicked conjuring tricks on Her Majesty's Consul and get back to Blighty. I'm surprised you've stuck it out in this godforsaken country as long as you have."

Giles shifted in his seat. "As a matter of fact, I've been home for quite long periods over the past couple of years. I... Buffy doesn't need a Watcher. Not an old-style one, anyway. Besides, the Council itself is gone now. Destroyed. Only a handful of us are left, with no organisation, no backup. It's a whole new world out there. All the potential slayers who exist, known and unknown, have been activated. We averted an Apocalypse, but we don't know yet what we've created."

"Wonderful potential for chaos, if you ask me. Well done, Ripper!"

"There's no need to take the piss," Giles told him wearily. "It wasn't my idea; it was Buffy's."

"Thought up, I'm sure, on her usual spur of the moment with nary a nod to the problem of long term consequences."

Giles laughed shortly. "What do *you* know about long term consequences?"

"I said I wasn't going to show you the scars."

"I'm... "

"Sorry. Yes, yes. Can we just take it as read and move on? I told you, I'm not angling for pity. You know, it occurs to me that I might actually be of some use in your new, less ordered existence."

"Your hearing disorder seems to be catching. You, Ethan Rayne: why should you want to be 'of use'?"

"Oh ye of little faith."

"Oh me of long experience. It would be... uncharacteristic, you must admit. The notion of you as part of the vanguard in the struggle against evil... " he suppressed a chuckle.

"Who said anything about the struggle against evil? The struggle against penury is more to my taste. You must still have access to the Council's millions, and next to nothing to spend them on. In return for... adequate remuneration, I could handle those vital underworld deals you wouldn't sully your lilywhite hands with. Although from the look of you now, you might be up for some of the rough stuff now and again."

Giles allowed the tiniest of complicit smiles to pass between them. "What, and ruin my new clothes?"

* * * * *

The Sunnydale group were all at breakfast two days later, when a loud hooting from the front courtyard heralded the arrival of Faith, Robin Wood and their final escape from Sloan. Buffy was still trying to get her head around the idea that Giles would consider for a moment hiring Ethan even from time to time. There were still moments when Giles himself had trouble with it; but, nonetheless, the channel remained open. Ethan knew how to contact them, and they him. Giles thought it best for now to leave it at that.

Faith was at the wheel of a shiny new air-conditioned coach, not exactly Sunnydale School Board standard issue. Principal Wood climbed stiffly down the steps, supporting his side with one hand and smiling his relief at surviving both Armageddon, and Faith's enthusiastic but unlicensed driving.

As Giles came out at the head of the gang to greet him, Robin cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow, amused and impressed both with the image and with the renewed confidence in the older man's face and bearing.

"Did I miss another Apocalypse? Bernard Crowley used to tell me there was more to being a Watcher than books and demon languages, but it seemed to me he mostly just talked the talk. The way you fought back there; the way you are now: seems you're gonna be about walking the walk."

Giles smiled calmly. " Not much point otherwise, is there?"

Robin turned to watch Faith sashay her way around the front of the bus. She linked arms with him briefly in relaxed intimacy. Then she caught sight of Giles, whose approval of the pairing was obvious. She accepted it with a nod, then came up to him and stopped, one hand on hip, other one curled in a fist under her chin in a parody of careful consideration. A full minute of careful inspection, then she nodded gravely and walked round to the back of him. She repeated the performance for the benefit, and to the great amusement, of the others. Giles merely stood there, waiting, standing tall.

"Mm-*Hmn*."

With that, she proceeded regally into the motel without another word, but with a grin that lit up her whole face, and told of her thoughts.

//That's more like it, G. //

* * * * *

"Giles! Guys! Are you ready? We're all set to leave, out here." Buffy put her head round the door of the motel room where the three males were busy gathering their meagre belongings and stuffing them into carrier bags. Andrew was insisting on protecting his comics properly.

"I need something rigid!" he wailed, causing Xander and Giles to stop momentarily and glance at each other with identical expressions of rigorously suppressed mirth. Buffy rolled her eyes.

"I knew it was risky leaving you in each others' company so much. C'mon, Faith's got the motor running, and if you think she wouldn't dare leave without ya... "

They grabbed their possessions hurriedly and followed Buffy out.

As the bus crossed the city boundary, Giles felt a sudden, unnatural prickling sensation at the back of his neck. He had a instant of panic at what Chaos might be up to, but after sitting holding his breath for several seconds, nothing seemed amiss. He shrugged and put it down to apprehension at what he might have done, setting Ethan free, and with promises, into an unsuspecting world.

It wasn't until unpacking in Vegas hotel room that evening that he found the last legacy of the spell. Each piece of clothing he'd bought now sported a neatly sewn, woven tag inside, bearing the legend:

'Return to Ripper If Lost.'

END