Giles didn't know why he was so surprised to find out that the very particular Japanese people allowed sleazy bathhouses to exist in Tokyo. A society as rigidly organized as Japan's was bound to throw odd offshoots. And, if nothing else, if a sleazy bathhouse hadn't existed, Ethan would have been forced to create it, just so he'd have a place where he felt comfortable.

The place was old, and the geishas working there looked nearly as tired as some of the wooden

floorboards. They gave Giles very veiled disapproving looks for the color of his skin, but the fact that his Japanese was both fluent and British-accented made the smiles a bit less forced. When he asked for Ethan, the smiles flashed just a bit closer to pleased and naughty, then the cool professionalism came back and he was escorted to a small changing room with shower.

The kimono he was given was spotless, though faded through dozens of washes, as were the slippers. That was one of the reassuring things about Japan: whatever strangeness happened, at least it would be clean.

Carrying his belongings in a bundle, he followed a young woman back through the narrow, steamy hallways. White curtains hung in the wooden doorways of the smaller bath chambers. Faint murmurs of conversation came from some of the rooms, with fainter moans of pleasure of one sort or another. Giles kept his eyes on the flowered kimonoed back of the woman ahead of

him, especially when grim-looking men with extensive tattoos showing under their loosely tied kimonos pushed by. A quick check of hands showed those men were frequently missing portions of their fingers.

A familiar voice came to him through the curtain at the end of the corridor. Ethan, making contented noises, with an occasional grunt of "Right there" thrown in.

Giles' guide bowed at the doorway. He bowed in return and, with a deep breath, drew the curtain aside. "Ethan, it's me."

On a futon on the far side of the room lay Ethan, face down with a tiny woman mostly draped in a towel walking on his naked back. "Hello--oh, yes, love, right there--Rupert. This is Midori."

Giles bowed. "Konnichiwa, Midori-san."

Midori smiled brightly and bowed in return, still treading Ethan's spine. "Konnichiwa, uezama."

"This girl has the most amazing toes," Ethan said between gasps. "Would you like a turn?"

"Not at the moment, thank you anyway."

Ethan studied him out of the corner of his eye, then waved a hand at the girl on his back. "Domo, Midori-chan. Tajitsu, jiyuu."

She climbed down with a smile and another bow. "Hai, Etan-sama, tajitsu." She went to the other side of the room, past the large free-standing bathtub, dropped her towel casually and pulled on a bright yellow kimono with printed peacocks and a pair of wooden clogs. With another bow and bright smile, she glided out.

Ethan sat up and studied Giles. "How bad is it?"

Giles stared at the wall behind Ethan, absently tracing the wood grain with his eyes. "There was a

Turok-Han. It killed Annabelle."

"Oh, fuck." He looked his age for a moment. "Rupert, I am sorry."

"Yes, well, I think we knew that there was the possibility that something like this could happen--"

Sighing, Ethan got to his feet, took Giles' bundle and put it next to another next to the wall, then pushed Giles towards the tub. He tugged on the kimono. "Off."

"Excuse me?"

"Take it off or I do it for you. The bath's nice and hot, and you look like you need to relax."

Giles slowly began unknotting the sash. "If I relax I may fall asleep."

"I won't let you drown."

He remembered why he wanted Ethan with him during this mess, because here was someone he didn't have to be strong for. Even someone he could go so far as be weak with. Slowly he let the tension fall from his shoulders, along with the kimono. Ethan guided him to the stairs next to the tub, helped him up and into the water, then lowered himself into the hot water with a sigh.

The two men sat parboiling in peace for several minutes. Giles let his eyes close and his head fall

back against the rim of the tub. He heard Ethan, across from him, give that low, hedonistic grunt that said he was settling in for a long wallow in bliss. Giles' mind wandered off on that sound to memories of good beer, better music, hot days in cheap flats with anemic fans in the open windows trying to pull cooler air in from the streets outside. How strange to think of London in the summer as being hot after having experienced summers in California . . .

He winced as memories returned.

"Stop it," Ethan muttered. "I can hear your blood pressure rising."

"This is shameful. I cannot take the time to wallow in a hot tub while the others--"

"While the others search for what comforts and solace they can find in between crises. I've met your children, Rupert, they're not sitting in corners bemoaning their fate."

Giles felt a knot in his stomach. "They've changed. We've all changed. There is no time for pleasures, we have a war to fight."

"During a war is when pleasures become even more important--or why the hell else bother fighting?"

"So that the innocents who know nothing of the war can continue with their innocent pleasures."

"Not all pleasures are innocent, my dear Ripper. And in difficult times they're frequently a good idea. Is not the deciding vote with the body? And is the body always ill-advised?"



Giles sat up. "It always disturbs me when you start quoting poetry, Ethan."

"It's a perfectly respectable English poet. It's not like I'm trotting out the Rimbaud or the Beaudelaire." Sighing, Ethan sat up as well. "Well, if you're not going to take a perfectly good chance to loll around happily, tell me what's happened? How in Janus' name did they get a Turok-Han, and what did they do with it?"

Giles closed his eyes again as he told the tale. "I can't stay away long," he finished. "I'll need to pick up--oh, what was her name?"

"Chao Ahn," Ethan told him. "In Shanghai, according to what you said. Unfortunately, she's another one who hadn't been contacted, so she won't know anything of what we're talking about."

"Oh, dear."

"What?"

"Talking."

"You're making far less sense than usual, Rupert. Is it sleep deprivation or what?"

"They speak Mandarin in Shanghai, don't they?"

"Yes, they--" A more-evil-than-usual grin appeared on Ethan's face. "Still? You still haven't learned Mandarin? Of all the languages you know, you've never bothered to pick up one spoken by hundreds of millions of people?"

"I'm awake enough to drown you, and I imagine this place doesn't quibble about disposing of bodies. I take it that you, in your unnatural and more than likely reprehensible dealings around the world, have picked up Mandarin."

"Of course." The grin became absolutely diabolical. "Don't worry, Rupert dear, I'll look after you and translate everything you need to know once we get there."

"And that's another point. I rather left it to you to figure out how we're getting into Mainland China during a time of world unrest, and now I'm feeling very anxious about that. So tell me, Ethan. How are we getting to Shanghai?"

"I don't suppose you'd just accept a cheerful 'Trust me, Rupert', would you?"

"Not on my last day on earth with the hounds of hell nipping at my heels."

Ethan sighed dramatically. "Yes, the honeymoon is definitely over. All right, first we go to Hong

Kong--"

"Shanghai's closer."

"British citizens are common in Hong Kong, plus there's a train to Shanghai."

"We'll need visas."

"Yes, visas are required," Ethan agreed blandly.

"No. Ethan, no. We're not sneaking across borders, there's no need."

"You take all the fun out of things, Rupert."

"This is serious business, Ethan, this is not Rayne and Giles on the Road to Shanghai."

"Of course not. You're far sexier than Bing Crosby, and I would object very strenuously to being compared to Bob Hope. Though I imagine Midori would look lovely in a sarong a la Dorothy Lamour."

***

Despite Ethan's best efforts, Giles insisted on visiting the Chinese embassy for proper visas. A well-dressed bureaucrat looked over their forms.

"There should be no problem getting visas to Hong Kong," the man said. "How long do you expect to stay?"

"Not long," Giles said. "We're planning on going on to Shanghai. Can we get the necessary paperwork here?"

"Rupert," Ethan muttered urgently. "Not here."

The bureaucrat raised an eyebrow. "And what is your business in Shanghai?"

"Pleasure," Giles answered easily.

The bureaucrat only looked at them. "Pleasure."

Ethan sighed. "Actually, I had family in Shanghai during the war."

The suspicion in the man's eyes changed to mixed sympathy and discomfort. "Indeed."

"I haven't wanted to mention it here in Tokyo."

"No, I don't imagine you would want to."

Ethan proceeded to weave a tale of old friends of the family who had stayed in indifferent touch and his wanting to see them before time erased all living memories of that difficult time. The bureaucrat efficiently helped them with the necessary papers, told them they could pick up their visas the next afternoon, and seemed grateful to have them out of his office.

On the street, Giles turned up the collar of his coat against the winter winds. The damp chill settled into all his old injuries, making him long for that bathhouse and hot water again. Beside him, Ethan buttoned up all the buttons on his Royal Navy deck coat, then pulled a black woolen scarf out of a pocket to wrap around his ears.

"I hear it's lovely in Istanbul this time of year," Ethan said. "There couldn't be a potential Slayer there you need to collect?"

"Not anymore. She's dead."

"Oh. Sorry."

They started down the busy street towards their hotel, working their way carefully through the bustling crowd.

"Did you really have family in Shanghai?" Giles asked. "Or was that yet another patented Ethan Rayne tale made from whole cloth?"

"No, actually, I did have someone there. A third cousin several times removed, she was always held up as an example of what kind of person one would not want to be."

Giles blinked at him. "A sorceress, cheat, liar, and scoundrel? A role model for you?"

Ethan chuckled. "No, as far as I could ever find out, there were no magical tendencies in Cousin Hildegard in the slightest. Rather she was a young adventurer making her way in life on her wits and daring. If she'd been a man she'd have been lionized. She was last heard of working for the British Consulate in refugee matters. The family lost track of her when the Japanese sacked the city, though I always got the impression that no one tried very hard to find her." He glanced over and saw the look on Giles' face. "No, I'm not nursing fond hopes that we'll find her or word of her. My god, it's been nearly 70 years, now, she'd be in her 90s. I'd almost rather not know what happened to her," he added quietly.

"No, it's probably best."

The chilly afternoon was quickly darkening into cold evening, but the crowds did not diminish. Giles saw with some concern that Ethan had begun to shiver. He started to speak, then something in a nearby alley caught his eye.

Ethan took a few steps further before he noticed Giles wasn't at his side any longer. "What is it?"

Giles stared tensely into the gathering darkness of the narrow alleyway. "I'm--not sure. I thought I saw . . ."

Ethan joined him and likewise studied the alley. "What?"

"I thought I saw one of those Bringers." He started forward, but Ethan grabbed his arm.

"If we go after it, we get a fight. If we stay with the crowd, we can do our jobs. I don't know about you, but I'd like to be able to feel my fingers if we get into a tussle."

Giles grimaced but turned to head down the street. "They're after us."

"You sound surprised. It just means we're doing our job correctly." He shoved his hands into his coat pockets. "I really have to get some gloves."

"I know how much you hate the cold," Giles said sympathetically. "Thank you for putting up with this."

Ethan shrugged. "Just because I'd rather be on the Cote d'Azur about now . . . " He grinned sidelong at Giles. "I know the most lovely clothing optional beach . . ."

"The odds of my wanting to patronize a nudist beach at this time of my life range from slim to nil." His look at Ethan was stern. "Neither of us is twenty anymore."

"True," Ethan sighed. "But do you remember that holiday when we all went to Majorca? Deirdre in that absolutely amazing purple two-piece suit?"

"Oh, yes. That. Positively conservative in this day and age, that swimsuit."

"It's good to be alive in the 21st Century."

Despite the remembrances of hedonisms past, Giles kept an eye on the street around them as they walked, wondering how far away were the creatures who meant them harm.

This time the hotel Ethan had chosen was large, Western, and luxurious. Giles had been mildly surprised to find Ethan had booked a suite with two bedrooms. Whatever new footing their relationship was on after London and the destruction of the Council, it obviously didn't extend to Ethan making presumptions. Giles had spent several minutes working out whether he was relieved or disappointed at the sleeping arrangements. Not that he wanted to attempt recapturing the decadent days of his youth, but when times got stressful he found he liked the idea of . . . company.

Still, a two-bedroom American-style suite meant two bathrooms, which meant blissful hot showers for two men cold to the bone. They had a surprisingly domestic evening in, with room service bringing up saki and sashimi, which they ate in front of the television as they laughed at one of those amazingly murderous Japanese game shows that encourage people to risk life and limb for pathetically banal prizes. They debated whether the Japanese were only mirroring Western culture or whether they'd perfected it in all its mindless consumerist frenzy

It was rather a shock when, in mid-commentary on Giles' ancestry and how his descent from a pair of baboons thrown out of the group for being too stupid not to know they couldn't mate with rocks had impaired his critical reasoning facilities, Ethan suddenly stopped, looked at the clock, and declared, "I'm going to bed." Giles had been composing a rebuttal based on the fact that anyone who had willingly worn gold lamé trousers, no matter how stylish they were in hip Soho clubs in the '70s, was hardly in a position to judge the validity of any statement which required intelligence. He watched Ethan retreat into the other bedroom, let the years fast forward in his mind to current reality, then wobbled off to his own bed.

***

Despite Ethan's pleas for a nice long sleep-in, Giles had him up in the morning at an hour when the meal was still entitled to be called breakfast.

"Unnatural human being," Ethan muttered as he buttered his toast. "They won't even have the visas ready until this afternoon. Why the hell are we up?"

"Because I refuse to loll around all morning while Buffy and the others are working so hard to find a way to stop this thing."

"Oh, lord, sympathy suffering. Others are miserable, so I must be too. You can be such a prat some times."

Giles grimaced. "For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good to do nothing."

"For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good to fret itself into an early grave. It's not like you're on a pleasure jaunt, Rupert. But if you really think it will enhance the experience, I'm sure the concierge will be happy to track you down some sackcloth. I doubt they'd have any trouble finding you something to flog yourself with, either."

"I can do without your snide remarks, thank you very much."

Ethan gave him a level look over his coffee cup. "Actually, you can't. You asked me to join you on this fun-filled adventure, remember? Apparently, my job is to keep you from losing yourself in brooding."

Giles pushed his uneaten breakfast away. "It--it just all hit me this morning. The hopelessness of it all. It knows us all, it can play us all. It's subtle and ruthless and there's no way to stop it."

Ethan shoved the plate back towards him. "Then why don't we just forget the visas, head down to the Ginza, and get terribly, terribly drunk. You can show them how karaoke should really be done, and I'll line up half a dozen lovely young things and we'll have a mad old time of it while the money and the world lasts."

"We can't do that! We have to get to Shanghai."

"Why? I thought it was hopeless."

Giles glared at him. "I am not facing the end of the world drunk on my arse. In whatever final moment presents itself, I intend to be in there fighting." The essential melodrama of his speech stopped him, as well as the faint, annoying smile on Ethan's face. He began eating his waffle. "Pillock. You're having me on, winding me up just to hear me spout rubbish."

"Having you on? On the contrary, I would very much like to spend a few days on the Ginza making a drunken fool of myself and of you." He sighed dramatically. "Alas, the warriors of good have no time for frivolity--ah, thanks, Rupert." He began slicing the orange Giles had thrown at him into wedges.

Giles ate thoughtfully. "Then you think we can beat this?"

Uncommon seriousness appeared on Ethan's face. "Do I think that we, as individuals, can beat this? I don't know. Do I think this so-called First Evil will win? No. The balance of the universe is too powerful to be mucked with."

"That's just it. There are signs that the balance has been mucked with. In every generation there is a Slayer. One Slayer. There are two. The balance is already off."

Ethan shrugged. "Nudged, maybe, but hardly overthrown. This primal evil is deluding itself. Not to say that horrific things won't happen and people we like won't get hurt, but I cannot see one side of the balance being able to completely disrupt the entire fabric of the cosmos. Order cannot expel chaos, chaos cannot expel order--though not for lack of trying," he added with a grin. It faded as he studied the look on Giles' face. "What?"

A sense of delighted disbelief filled Giles. "I never really appreciated this before. You, Ethan, are a man of deep personal faith."

Ethan looked away. "No need to get shirty about it," he said sullenly.

"No, I think it's lovely."

"Now you're laughing at me. I could tell you where those sausages really came from, you know."

"I am not laughing at you." He hesitated, though, and put down the sausage he was about to eat. "What I am doing is being amazed at you. All those speeches you made about chaos and resisting stifling order--I thought it was just the marijuana talking. But you truly believe."

The look Ethan gave him in return was a little worried. "You must believe in something. You go out, day after day, fighting against horrific enemies. You must have a reason."

"I suppose--I suppose I believe in Buffy. I have a choice. She doesn't. None of those poor girls do. For millennia they've gone out, and fought, and died, and another one comes along. I can't let them keep marching on to their doom without trying to help."

"But you left her," Ethan said softly.

Giles shoved his food away again. "Yes. That seems to be a bad habit of mine, running away from my responsibilities every twenty years or so." He studied Ethan. "But you never change, never waiver. My god, are you stronger than I?"

"Oh, for god's sake, no. Bite your tongue. I just had the good sense to choose a cause that lets me indulge myself. Wouldn't catch me being all noble and Watchery." He licked a bit of orange pulp from a finger. "Not to say they didn't ask."

"I beg your pardon! Are you insinuating that the Council approached--offered--you ..."

The full, wicked Ethan grin appeared. "Not long after you returned to the fold, a pair of the most straight-laced, stiff-upper-lip, disapproving men appeared at my flat door. Woke me up from a sound sleep, they did, even if it was three in the afternoon. Seemed quite shocked at my appearance."

Giles, who knew quite well that Ethan considered clothing to be either costume or camouflage but always a nuisance, couldn't decide between hysterical laughter and shock. "Who were they?"

"They didn't bother to introduce themselves other than by Council affiliation. Though I did hear the younger refer to the older as Mr. Travers."

Hysterical laughter won for a few seconds, then was followed by a desire to call Quentin Travers and bring this up, then by the memory that Travers had been trying his best right before being killed. "What did they offer you?"

Ethan shrugged. "A chance to use magic for the good of my country and all that swill. A chance to see you again. Seems they were collecting wizards and witches and sorcerers of all types. Wanting to keep track of them. I sent them on their way and changed digs as quickly as I could."

"They never mentioned this to me," Giles said after a moment's contemplation of a Watcher's life with Ethan in it.

"Oh, of course not. I didn't believe any of it for a second. You were being groomed to be a respectable Watcher, they'd never have allowed you to associate with a trashy bit of lowlife like me." There was no self-pity in Ethan's voice, just a note of evil glee. "And their lovely organization wouldn't have survived a week of me being a member."

The man who had diligently studied how to be a proper Watcher "tsked" at the entire concept of a chaosmage in the hallowed precincts of the Council. The man who often enough still answered to the name of Ripper chortled at the lovely images.

"Besides," Ethan went on, "you'd have gotten sick of me if you had to be around me much longer. Much more fun to pop up every now and then and wreak havoc."

Giles only smiled, but he knew Ethan was right. The man he was trying to be after his London adventures would have been horrified to have Ethan around, trailing memories of havoc and joy. Still, "what might have beens" were notoriously seductive. No time, though.

"Anyway," he said briskly, "since we're up, we do have a few things to take care of. We need plane tickets to Hong Kong and a connection to Shanghai. I'd like to leave right after we get the papers."

"How depressingly practical of you." Ethan grabbed the sausages off Giles' abandoned plate.

"Then we can go shopping. Get you some gloves. I doubt it will be much warmer where we're going."

Ethan perked up. "Yes, shopping! There's the most interesting little store near the Ginza, where they let you try things on--"

"Keep in mind we're going to be going through customs and we need to travel light?"

"Didn't say we had to buy anything that was tried on."

Giles swore not to ask for any more details--or directions!--regarding this shop. "Go get dressed. We have work to do."

***

They stopped by the Chinese Embassy at the hour appointed and picked up their visas with no problems. With their small packs of traveling necessities, Giles was reminded of their sojourn in London with Molly and Annabelle. This time, at least, the pair of them looked like eccentric but well-off adventurers instead of bums.

As they descended to the subway and the train to Narita Airport, Ethan studied Giles. "They're not going to jump out at us here in the Tokyo Underground."

Giles did not stop watching all the shadows. "I don't think stealth is a real concern for them, so long as they succeed."

Ethan latched onto Giles' sleeve as they maneuvered through the crowd. "I think they'd have a difficult enough time just getting in reach of us in this mob."

They found the correct train and made their way on. As did several hundred other people. Giles panicked a little at the crush of bodies against him. He couldn't move to keep an eye out for trouble in the crowd.

"They don't have much of a personal space taboo, do they?" Ethan observed as he was shoved up against Giles. "Would you mind moving your bag? It's digging in rather painfully to sections I'd like to keep whole."

"Sorry." Giles studied those bits of the crowd he could see over Ethan's shoulder, then tried to crane his neck around to check behind him.

"Relax," Ethan said. "You watch behind me, I'll watch behind you. Just like old times."

"Right."

The last riders were shoved into the car--literally--and the train started moving. The press of the crowd kept movement to a minimum, but Giles still twitched at the way bodies swayed into him, all the strangers at his back. At least Ethan was paying close attention to what was going on behind him. Or, actually, rather distracted attention now that Giles was looking at him. Ethan was keeping very careful watch on what was going on behind Giles. Indeed, he was looking everywhere but at Giles. A rough spot in the track made the crowd sway, and Giles bumped against Ethan. Ethan twitched and moved back just as soon as he could, but not before Giles realized why he might be a bit distracted.

And now Giles was distracted, realizing how close he was to Ethan. There in that shower back in London, they'd both been naked and in each other's arms. But that had been shock, and Giles had been holding memories and reassurance, not a man. With a sense of touched surprise, he realized that Ethan was trying to be a gentleman, both now and last night, when Ethan had taken himself off to bed rather than continue one of their old-style debates/arguments/passing the time before finding other ways to amuse themselves conversations.

He cleared his throat. "Ethan."

"Yes, Rupert?" He still wasn't taking his eyes off the crowd. The twitch at the corner of his mouth gave him away.

Well, and what was he going to say? That he didn't mind that Ethan got aroused when he was close to Giles? In the words of the children, so not a place he wanted to go. Memories were memories, the past was the past, they had a job to do and physical distractions were best ignored.

Then Ethan did look at him, and Giles realized that, once again, he was not in control of a situation involving this man.

"Is that the same aftershave you wore when we were young?" Ethan asked casually. He wasn't trying quite so hard to keep from bumping against Giles.

"No," Giles said just as casually. "They don't make that anymore. In any case, I'm not wearing aftershave."

"Really?" He smiled faintly. "So it's just you, then."

"Afraid so."

The train braked for the next station, throwing them together. Ethan's smile broadened. "Is this where we--"

"Oh, don't finish that. No, this is not our stop. We get off two stops from now." He winced at the phrasing. Ethan let the obvious pun die its well-deserved death, but he smiled knowingly.

They had to hold on to each other not to be dragged apart by the shifting crowd at the stop. Giles watched for any threats, but none materialized. He cautiously glanced back at Ethan, who raised a curious eyebrow over that half-smirk. "Oh, don't," Giles said.

Ethan blinked in near-innocence. "Don't what?"

"Don't look at me like that."

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

The train started forward, bouncing them together again. Ethan did nothing overt, but he made no great effort to avoid brushing against Giles either.

"We have work to do," Giles said softly. "And we're not the men we were."

"Speak for yourself." For a moment a flash of old longings appeared in Ethan's eyes, but he considerately put it away.

Giles shook his head with grudging fondness. "Pillock."

"Prig."

***

Narita Airport sat on an artificial island out in the estuary, connected to the mainland by a long bridge. It sat on top of a fault line and made Ethan very nervous. The Japanese were normally much wiser about fitting their orderly lives into the chaos of their geologically unstable land. Still, he and Rupert wouldn't be there long, and he didn't feel the ache in his joints that presaged an earthquake. He'd never mentioned that little knack to anyone, not really noticing it himself until he left England, bless its seismically stable heart. He could only imagine what the Initiative would have done with him if they'd known they had a statistically reliable earthquake predictor in their grip. Fortunately he'd been able to blame the aches he felt in California on arthritis and the inevitable side effects of a depraved life.

He and Rupert stuck out in the crowd like--well, like fairly tall Europeans in a crowd of short, politely shoving Japanese and other Far Eastern folk. They weren't the only Westerners, of course, but most of the others were baffled looking tourists. One tour group was just passing, following its flag-carrying guide like obedient sheep. It would be very amusing if that bunch was unable to catch up with their luggage for the entire trip.

He was just raising his hand for a nice confusion spell when Rupert grabbed his wrist hard.

"Don't you dare," Ripper growled.

It still gave him a thrill to poke sleeping tigers with short, sharp sticks. "Or what?"

A grip so tight he could actually feel the bones shift should not make him so happy.

"I do not have time for your idiotic games. If you cannot keep your mind on the job, I will leave you here and muddle my way to Shanghai without you."

"Terribly sorry, Ripper. I'll be good."

The look he got told him exactly how much that statement was believed, but Rupert contented himself with one more glare and a peremptory tug on Ethan's coat sleeve as they headed for the proper gate.

Passion, in any form. Perhaps that was what he was addicted to most. The extreme of feelings. He wanted to be the complete focus of someone's attention, for good or ill. But it was never ill, no matter what the attention, so long as the particular someone was thinking only of him.

He followed obediently to the plane.

Hong Kong had been in Chinese hands for several years, but it still carried some of the same air of freewheeling opportunity it had under British rule. The People's Republic of China vacillated between encouraging the very profitable business activities of the foreign companies and cracking down on the ideologically unsound freedoms that could lead to unrest.

Still, the place was a disappointment to Ethan. Even five years ago he could have pulled off any kind of scheme his fertile imagination could conceive. Now, however, people thought a moment more or glanced over their shoulders before giving answers. And they said "No" more often than they used to.

"This is depressing," he said to Rupert as they maneuvered through Kowloon Airport. "The last time I was here I'd been offered at least six unnatural or perverted acts by this time, two of which even I had never heard of."

Rupert didn't answer, but Ethan was pleased to see a faint smile of amusement poking through the attempt at disapproval.

They paused for food at a stall just outside the airport, then flagged down a cab to take them to the train station.

"Why aren't we on a plane to Shanghai?" Rupert asked. "It would be quicker. It'll take us most of the day on the train."

"Because our enemies are looking for us to go to Shanghai, and airlines have a tendency to want names. We can be anonymous on the train and we won't be as badly confined if it all goes bad."

"Paranoia is sometimes useful."

"I'm not paranoid," Ethan said primly, "I'm just used to people looking for me with intention to do me harm."

"I'll tell you know, though, that I have no intention of leaping off the train in the middle of the night into god knows what kind of countryside."

Ethan smirked. "Not that you've *ever* done anything like that before, of course."

"I was twenty years old and drunk."

"What, all three times?" He laughed at Rupert's attempt at dignified silence.

There was no orderly line at the ticket counter of the train station. Easterners apparently believed more firmly in survival of the fittest than Westerners, who placidly waited on line. Ethan grabbed Rupert's hand and led the way in an assault on the ticket counter. Rupert tried to apologize at every step, but Ethan only grinned at the tiny grandmother who comprehensively described his reptilian heritage and personal relationships with parasite-ridden canines.

The businessman at the front of the line refused to yield the field, so Ethan pulled up behind to reluctantly wait his turn. Rupert kept apologizing until Ethan tugged him around.

"Stop acting like such a tourist, Rupert. No one apologizes in this country, not seriously. If someone tells you they're sorry, you know they meant every word and deed. You'll lose face if they think you're sincere."

"My god, no wonder you're so at home here."

The businessman got his ticket and left, but the clerk at the window slid off the stool and disappeared. People began to grumble, but in a few seconds another clerk appeared and glared at the two Englishmen.

"Two tickets for the Shanghai train," Ethan said.

"Sold out."

"Excuse me?"

"Sold out."

Ethan raised an eyebrow at Rupert, who was frowning, then he switched to Cantonese. "I am not some stupid foreign devil tourist. Give me two tickets on the next train to Shanghai."

The clerk didn't even blink at the shift in languages. "Sold out."

Ethan rested a hand lightly on the counter, shielded from the rest of the crowd. He smiled directly at the clerk as sparks began to dance across his knuckles. "Two tickets. The next train to Shanghai."

The clerk glanced at Ethan's hand, then back up. "Sold out."

Ethan took a deep breath, and Rupert took hold of his arm. "Not for this, Ethan. We don't need to make this much fuss."

"You said you were in a hurry."

Rupert actually hesitated, then made a frustrated noise. "He can't sell us tickets if you blast him."

"His replacement could." He shrugged and flicked the gathering spell off his fingers. "Fine. What isn't sold out?" he asked in Cantonese.

"Night train."

"That goes to Beijing."

"Change at Changsha."

"When's the next Shanghai train?"

"Two days."

"We want a sleeper."

"Hard sleeper only."

Ethan relayed the information to Rupert, who nodded impatiently. "All right, two tickets for the night train to Shanghai. Isn't that a Led Zeppelin song?" he added to Rupert.

"Pink Floyd, maybe."

The clerk glared one more time, the slid off the stool behind the counter. "Two tickets, night train, Shanghai," he said to another clerk, who frowned, then came up to the counter to take the money.

"Pillock," Ethan muttered. He accepted the tickets and handed Rupert his. "I'm sorry--"

"Can't be helped. I'm trying to hurry as much as possible, but at least I expected delays."

They forced their way out through the crowd and out on the street. Ethan compared his watch to the clock on the building. "Five hours, but I imagine we'd best get here early, just in case they overbook the thing."

Rupert nodded. "Indeed. And I think I want a bit more cash on me. I doubt bribes have been completely eradicated from the Communist paradise. Will they search our bags when we get into China proper?"

"Possible." Ethan grinned. "Are you carrying something you shouldn't be, Ripper?"

"Not yet." Rupert's smile was surprisingly innocent. "I doubt we'll give them any reason for a closer search, so they'll likely not find the dagger I have tucked in that sheath in the back of my trousers."

"It's good to know you haven't lost all your instincts." He glanced around the street. "Were you wanting something in addition to that discreet dagger of yours?"

"Unfortunately, anything else I might want is too large to be discreet. Since we're here, we might as well look around to see what's available."

They stopped at a nearby bank that catered to tourists and persuaded the clerk that, no, they didn't want traveller's cheques, they wanted cash. When they left the bank, Ethan nudged Rupert and nodded towards a pair of young men who had followed them out of the bank and were now lounging on the other side of the street, carefully not paying too much attention to anyone. Rupert smiled faintly and nodded in return. Neither blinked when the young men fell into casual step behind them as they strolled down to the stalls further down the street.

Ethan negotiated a larger dinner with a dim sum seller. He was careful not to show how much money he was carrying, but he saw the merchant rapidly categorize his clothing and gear. He waited till the man looked up and gave him one of the better predatory smiles in his repertoire. The man frowned very slightly and turned to his next customer without any apparent further interest.

Rupert had been watching. "I'm feeling oddly offended."

"Why is that?"

"We used to be the ones checking out the marks. I rather resent being considered target material."

Ethan managed not to smile too broadly. "Just imagine how much fun we can have with them if they try anything." It took real effort not to laugh in delight at the anticipatory look that went across Ripper's face. He tried so very hard to be upright and respectable and everyone's ideal of a proper English gentleman, but the very core of him still rebelled. Ethan should have invited him on an adventure to an exotic land ages ago. He was even moving differently, looser and more alert, watching the shadows but not apparently caring very much.

Foolish, foolish Ethan, to be even entertaining the kind of wistful thoughts that accompanied walking beside Ripper on a chancy city street. Best get it well in your mind, old man. Even if there is a bit of dust-up in the works, odds are that you and he are not going off together to celebrate the survival of mayhem and violence.

Night had fallen, and while there were enough streetlights and such to find one's way, few of the merchants were going out of their way to provide extra illumination for their wares or for the shadowy corners where passers-by could come to grief. Ethan paused at a stall to buy gloves against the chill and saw Rupert scanning the crowd.

"Are our two friends still with us?"

"Oh, yes. They're perusing pirated DVDs down the way."

"DVDs? Anything good?"

Rupert poked him in the arm. "No time for DVDs. How long are we going to wait for them to make their move? I want them out of the way in good time to make the train."

Ethan nodded down the row of stalls and counters. "There's a lovely dark passage down there. Two foolish tourists might think it goes somewhere interesting."

The look Rupert gave him was heartwarming and otherwise exhilarating. "But are they really going to believe we're foolish tourists? You rather give off the air of liar, cheat and scoundrel."

Good god, did he feel himself blushing? The words had been said before, in seriousness, but now when they were backed with an old-fashioned, approving Ripper smile . . . Damn, the man was lethal. "You rather have the look of a wolf trying desperately to keep an ill-fitting sheep skin pulled up over your ears yourself." And he felt positively giddy at the pleased gleam in Rupert's eyes.

Ethan paid for the allegedly calfskin gloves with their sufficiently warm, fuzzy lining, but he hesitated in putting them on. "If there's work to be done, I'll be wanting my hands free."

Give Rupert Giles a hint of mayhem, and all his careful disguises flew away. He was actually bouncing very slightly. Perhaps the whole First problem had frustrated him to the point that some simple violence was what he needed. "The kind of work we're going to be doing, gloves are more advisable."

"Oh, dear. You know I abhor physical violence--at least the type that gets my hands dirty."

"Hence the gloves," Rupert grinned.

"My brand new gloves," Ethan muttered, tugging on the gloves as he followed Rupert down the road towards their chosen alley. The two young toughs obediently trailed along.

It was a perfect alley, dark, smelly, vermin infested, empty. Ethan realized Rupert was whistling softly. Not a relatively respectable rock and roll song, either, but the kind of raucous drinking song one sang to encourage brawls.

Rupert gestured him into a darker nook next to an old crate. Ethan considered the muck on the ground and his good leather shoes, then glared at Rupert, who only smiled back. Muttering in Aramaic, he retreated into the corner and busied himself with quietly detaching a portion of the crate for a club.

The two thugs strolled down the alley, innocent of any potential danger. They didn't even blink with the genial English tourist turned and smiled at them.

"I'm terribly sorry for bothering you, but I seem to have lost the train station," he said in English. "Can you help me?"

The young men smiled at each other and stepped forward, then the taller one apparently recovered the ability to count and began looking around. Ethan stepped out of the shadows behind them. The shorter one spotted him and grabbed his partner's arm. They looked back at the genial tourist just in time to see if he was involved in this ambush, just as Ripper reappeared.

It was a quick little interaction. When they turned to deal with Ripper, Ethan smacked the taller one across the back of the head with his club. The shorter one spun on Ethan, and Rupert stepped up and kicked him in the chin. The pair hit the ground within seconds of each other. Almost automatically, Ethan crouched down to check their pockets.

"All that Watchering has certainly kept you limber," he commented. He looked up when there was no answer. "Oh, dear."

The only problem with the modern Ripper was that he came equipped with Rupert's conscience. Now that the scuffle was done, he was feeling sorry for the punks.

"Are they all right?" he asked.

"Are they alive? Yes. Do they need a doctor? Yes. Am I going to raise one finger to get one for them? No. And neither are you."

Rupert grimaced. "I was enjoying myself. Dammit, I was supposed to have grown out of things like that."

Ethan started to speak, but movement at the end of the alley changed what he was going to say. "If you do intend to grow out of things like that, don't start just yet." He slowly straightened.

Rupert looked at Ethan's face, then over his shoulder. Three of the Bringers crept through the shadows. "Bugger. Come on, back to the market."

Two more Bringers appeared at the other end of the alley, knives drawn.

"Well, then." Ethan pulled off his new gloves and carefully tucked them into his coat pocket. "I trust you won't mind my making a bit of a fuss about this."

Rupert had his own dagger drawn. "Not in the least." They put their backs to each other as the Bringers began to run.

The eyeless creatures facing Ethan charged in while the others stayed back, avoiding the knife that they couldn't see but knew was there. Ethan murmured a phrase in a hissing language and brought his hands together, then apart. Sparks danced down his fingers, then sprang through the air towards the Bringers' faces. They dropped their knives and swatted at the glowing particles that swarmed around and into their mouths and noses. They fell, gasping for air, and went still.

"Two down," Ethan said over his shoulder, breathing hard. It was never easy, pulling up that kind of spell cold.

"Distract that one," Rupert said tersely. He moved carefully, letting two of the Bringers get in each others way while the third tried to maneuver around for a good angle. Ethan almost had energy at the moment for a simple flash cantrip, but that was useless against beings with no eyes. He looked around, caught up his wooden club and threw it at the third Bringer. That one caught the board full in the face and staggered, breaking the concentration of the other two.

Rupert charged, slicing one Bringer up the inside of its knife arm and kicking the other in the stomach. Ethan found a chunk of concrete and slammed it down on the head of the kicked Bringer while Rupert turned to shove his dagger under the ribcage of the other one and up into the heart. That left one Bringer, who didn't last long against two-to-one odds.

Ethan found a convenient wall to stagger to and lean against while Rupert made sure of the five bodies. He'd never been good at the hands-on mayhem, always preferring to leave that to Ripper, who loved a good dust-up. If it couldn't be dealt with at a distance, Ethan preferred dealing with the matter by being absent. He didn't mind leaving a trail of damage behind him, but he truly disliked getting close enough for the damage to be returned.

Rupert came up and laid a hand on his shoulder. Ethan kept from pulling him into a tight embrace by an act of will. "Are you hurt?" Rupert asked anxiously.

"No, not hurt. Just drained. One really shouldn't try to pull off Harakhte's Swarm without any warning."

"Harakhte's Swarm--" Rupert glanced at the suffocated bodies. "So you *do* have the Scroll of Abydos."

"*Had*, I'm afraid. A few years ago the Acolytes of Set tracked me down and demanded its return. Still, it's a useful spell to have in one's repertoire." He forced himself upright. "I'll be fine. Just--something more in the way of dinner, I think, and something to drink."

"Of course."

As Rupert took his arm to steady him back down the alley, Ethan told himself sternly that the gesture meant nothing. Only an old comrade lending aid to a friend. No point in trying to decide if the hold on his arm was firmer than solicitude would require or if the frown on someone else's face came from concern about the mission or concern about the man. No point at all.

But, damn, it was good to be fighting at Ripper's side again.

***

They reached the relative safety of the train station without further incident. Ethan had quickly eaten another edition of dinner and was now napping on a bench against a wall in the station. Giles sat beside him, watching the crowd anxiously.

How did the Bringers track their quarry? Was the First Evil keeping that close an eye on things? Or were he and Ethan considered that much a threat? And a responsible person wouldn't feel proud of being considered a threat by a power of globe-spanning evil. Damn, Ethan was a bad influence on him.

Oh, be honest. Ethan wouldn't be any kind of influence on you if you weren't willing. Stop lying to yourself, especially when life and death matters were involved.

He considered the man sleeping beside him. Harakhte's Swarm was one of those half-mythical spells better suited for movie-style special effects, not efficient magical work. Granted, it was fast and powerful, and there was no known way to block it, but more modern spells would do the job with less effort. It was like calling an airstrike on an ant hill. Still, you knew the ants weren't coming back.

Giles finally admitted to himself that he was worried about the strain on Ethan. Anyone else, and he'd be asking a dozen questions on the construction of the spell and the pronunciation required. Instead he fretted about Ethan not taking proper care of himself.

The man still snored, and it was still a cute snore. Damn him.

Giles stood up to pace, but he didn't go far. No sense dividing one's defenses when proven enemies were about. No one in the waiting crowd paid obvious attention to them, but he watched the shadows in the corners. By all reports, the Bringers waited till their targets were alone, but Giles didn't think the First would really care too much about innocent bystanders if it wanted to attack.

What was going on in Sunnydale? He wanted to be there, but he was the only one able to retrieve the potential Slayers. The First obviously agreed, else there wouldn't have been that attack. He had to admit that it felt good to actually do something against the enemy. Standing back to back with Ethan against all foes again hadn't felt very bad either. Ethan had never been a brawler, but he did have the knack of not being in the way in a fight.

Giles shook his head. No nostalgia. It was a different world from twenty-five years ago. They were different men. Fond memories weren't enough to compensate for fundamental differences.

He glanced back at Ethan. The man looked his age and then some. Sorceries of the level Ethan worked with were paid for from the caster's personal energy. As he'd said before, there were very few fat wizards. There weren't many old wizards, either. They tended to burn out spectacularly when they tried just one spell too many on depleted reserves.

Giles looked for any English language reading material. Or French, or Romanian, or even Fyarl. Something to distract him from inappropriate thoughts.

***

Too many old movies had led them to expect a train out of an adventure serial. The train waiting to take them on the first stage of their journey to Shanghai was modern and utilitarian, but it didn't look like a featured player in a tale of desperate searches for damsels in distress.

"I need more sleep," Giles complained as he followed Ethan through the shoving crowd.

"You can catch up on the train. That nap I got did me a world of good." Ethan grinned over his shoulder. "I imagine this will be the last chance we have for something approaching comfortable beds. You are planning on heading out after this girl as soon as we get there, right? Because I didn't bother making any arrangements for a hotel in Shanghai."

"You imagine correctly."

"Assuming everything goes without a hitch, how are we getting this girl out of the country?"

"I have ways," Giles smiled. He resisted Ethan's intrigued look that asked for more information.

They made their way through the crowd on the train until they found a conductor who led them to their compartment. Two bunks, one above the other, and just enough space to stand up and turn around.

"I've been in roomier jail cells," Ethan observed.

"So have I. And not just with you," Giles added, just to see that curious look in Ethan's eyes. They ducked into the compartment to make way for the bustling group of Chinese matrons, all chatting with each other and oblivious to anyone who might be in their path.

Giles couldn't help chuckling. Except for the language, this reminded him of excursions on British Rail, though in those days he'd have been doing his best to scandalize the matrons.

"What are they talking about?" he asked softly.

"Whose sister's husband's brother has been fooling around with which daughter's boyfriend's mother."

"You're making that up."

"Not by much."

He laughed, then memory leaped up and slapped him for his callousness. While he was having a jolly adventure, people were dying and suffering. And this world that made him so happy was hanging by a thread. He remembered his fear that his journeys to save the potentials were just make-work, nothing that would make any difference in the ultimate fight. He couldn't leave the girl Chao Ahn to the mercy of the Bringers, but, really, what was one more potential other than another body to be warehoused in Buffy's tiny house?

He looked up at Ethan's disgusted noise. Ethan started to speak, but shrugged. "I suppose I shouldn't complain. I had several hours of Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde deserves some exercise."

"I'm sorry. I just remembered everything we're up against."

"We win or we lose. We live or we die. That's all it's ever been." He sighed. "You were complaining about needing more sleep. Take the top bunk, I'll sit up and keep an eye out."

Just like normal--or what passed for normal these days. They'd both forget the years between and treat each other like the comrades of old. Giles smiled sardonically to himself. Comrades. Right. Say it, Rupert, at least in your head: lovers, friends, two halves of one mind. They weren't going to get that back, no matter how much it seemed so these days. Too much had changed. Still, the remembering hurt, those moments when they looked at each other with clear minds instead of with their earlier memories.

Ethan sat on the lower bunk and looked out the window at the activity on the train platform, ignoring him. The Chinese ladies outside continued chattering. Giles closed the door on them and climbed up to the top bunk, where he folded his tall European frame into the tiny space. He stared at the compartment ceiling and let the familiar breathing below him lull him to sleep.

Ethan woke him at Changsha very early in the morning, and they changed to another sleeper on the train to Shanghai. Ethan paused among the vendors on the platform and handed over something unfamiliar that served for breakfast, but they said little while they settled in. Just before scrambling up to the top bunk for some sleep of his own, Ethan pulled a book from his backpack and handed it to Giles. A basic guide to spoken Mandarin.

"I'm afraid it's a bit lacking in our sort of technical vocabulary, but you should be able to make your way across the city by yourself if you have to."

"Thank you, that's very helpful." Giles flipped through the pages, trying the sounds out in his head. When he looked up to ask a question about pronunciation, Ethan had already curled up on the top bunk and rolled over to face the wall.

The last time one of them had helped the other learn a language, there had been much wine involved and what he remembered as a terribly funny effort to find words for various intimate activities. Even now there were phrases in Aramaic that he couldn't say without blushing.

He settled himself on the lower bunk and began at the beginning of the book, looking up occasionally to gaze out the window at China passing by.

When it was closer to midday than morning, hunger forced Giles' hand. "Ethan, wake up," he said, waiting for a twitch of response before reaching for Ethan's shoulder. "Wake up, I'm hungry."

Ethan rolled over onto his back with a pain filled groan. "Dear god, where am I?"

Giles couldn't help grinning. "You could be on a train going to Shanghai to help me find a potential Slayer."

"Why in the name of everything unholy would I be doing a damn fool thing like that?"

"I'm not quite certain," Giles said honestly. "But I'm glad you are."

Ethan blinked at him sleepily. Their faces were practically on the same level, and Giles had forgotten how soft Ethan's eyes could be in the morning. Ethan raised a lazy hand to run his knuckles along Giles' cheek.

"You're getting rather scruffy, love."

Giles let himself feel the weight of fingers against his skin and whiskers. "So are you."

The fingers started drifting down his neck, then the hand froze and lifted away.

"Sorry," Ethan said, looking away. "I'm not quite awake yet."

Giles stepped back. "Food will help. There's a washroom down the passageway. Shall I meet you in the dining car?"

"Do you think it's safe to split up?"

"No. Probably not."

Ethan nodded and sat up slowly. Giles picked up his pack and waited near the door for Ethan to gather his own things.

In the washroom and in the dining car, Giles said very little, listening instead to the native speakers and Ethan converse, comparing the language as spoken to what he'd learned from his book. He much preferred learning dead, written languages, he could argue proper pronunciation on an equal footing. He suspected his current fluency level put him at risk of insulting someone's sainted granny rather than giving a polite greeting.

Among the local travellers in the dining car were several adventurers having a more interesting journey than the usual tour group plane ride. Australians, by the accents, very interested in the football scores found in a paper acquired in Changsha. Giles eavesdropped shamelessly, grateful to give his mind a rest from the intricacies of Mandarin.

He looked out through the windows and watched a brand new land go past. Except for the language of the signs and the color of the people, though, it could be any semi-industrialized area of any nation. Not like one of the oldest countries on earth. Such a shame there was no time for sightseeing, he truly wanted to see the Great Wall. He personally doubted that they'd preserved the section where the wizard Ling Po had helped the Chin Dynasty Slayer, Jade Mist, and her Watcher repel the attack of subelementals, though he would have liked to see the claw marks the demons had supposedly left in the wall. Would it be out of place to grateful that desperate fate had given him the chance to see all this, in such company?

Ethan's voice came to him through the confusion of sound, both comforting and disconcerting with the familiar tones speaking an unfamiliar language. He sounded amused by something. Giles couldn't help responding, wanting to be a part of that pleasure, feeling that voice twist through well-worn pathways in his gut. Then Ethan laughed, and it was close to the sound Giles had heard in that London club, when he'd heard something he had to possess, and he'd wound his way through the crowd to where the languid young man held court at the bar. For all Giles remembered his old life with shame, that moment was kept close in his collection of precious things: Ethan turning as Ripper pushed his way through the circle of admirers, his eyes widening appreciatively at the swaggering arrogance of the new arrival.

My god, they'd been so young. The things they thought they'd get away with, just because they wanted to. The things they'd pulled off.

These memories weren't supposed to make him so happy. He could accept enjoying Ethan's company now, but he was supposed to be finding new common ground, not dwelling on the ties that used to bind them.

He couldn't hear Ethan's voice any longer, and he looked over to the table where Ethan sat. He was looking back, frowning. Giles managed a smile and a shrug. Ethan turned back to his conversation, but he kept glancing over at Giles. Finally he excused himself and took the empty seat at Giles' table.

"What's wrong?" he asked quietly.

"Nothing." Giles laughed at the disbelieving quirk of an eyebrow. "Nothing that can be mended." As if he would say to Ethan, 'I am obsessed with memories of you and the way we used to be, and I find myself longing to be that way again.' Not when he knew that Ethan, unreconstructed hedonist that he was, might be willing to try. He could not rejoin Ethan on the road to chaos; he didn't now how far Ethan was willing to travel on the road to preservation. He'd lost too much to run those kinds of risks now.

"Do you need more sleep?" Ethan asked.

Giles rubbed his eyes. It was better than seeing the legitimate concern in those particular eyes. "Possibly. A nap would be pleasant. How are you doing, sleepwise?"

Oh, god, had he really just practically asked Ethan if he wanted to "take a nap" with him? By the lightening flashes of surprise, pleasure, doubt, then nothing in Ethan's eyes, that was what *he'd* heard. Damn, what kind of idiot subconsciously concocted offers he had no intention of following up on? How was he going to defuse this without utterly offending Ethan? And when did he start worrying about offense?

The panic on his face must have been self-explanatory. The old sardonic smile twisted Ethan's lips.

"Go take your nap, Rupert. I need to do some preparation work anyway."

"What kind of work?"

"I'd rather not get caught flat footed and needing to throw something like Harakhte's Swarm again."

Giles frowned. "Don't you have anything a little less draining in your repertoire?"

"Give me a chance to think of it and have it ready, and, yes, I do."

"I can help with the magic part."

Ethan gave him a serious look. "Can you? Have you even touched magic since that debacle with Willow?" He nodded as Giles looked away. "I felt that, you know, that fight with Willow. It was insane, strolling in there with that much power and waving it in front of power-mad witch until she yanked it all from you. Do you even have any power of your own left, or did she rip it all out?"

"I have enough so that you don't have to risk yourself with these spells that sap your energy so badly."

Ethen blinked, then he got up from the table, the same cynical smile on his face. "Don't start worrying about me, Rupert. It's a little late to start."

Too late for a lot of things, Giles thought as he crept back to the sleeper. Just at the moment he hoped a gang of Bringers snuck up on him in his sleep.

***

They did not speak to each other the rest of the afternoon. Giles woke after several hours of surprisingly peaceful sleep to hear familiar snoring from the bunk below.

He focused on the job at hand. He wished he could believe that they'd broken their trail, but he suspected that some power was tracking them. They'd just have to be particularly careful when they got to Shanghai in a couple of hours.

Rolling over, he peered through the scrap of window at the passing landscape. He still felt horridly guilty for leaving Buffy and the others while he indulged in international journeys. No matter if they involve desperate struggles in exotic alleyways. He was still doing what he'd wanted to all his life, seeing the world and having adventures.

Especially having adventures in the company of a . . . friend.

He looked over the edge of the bunk. Ethan slept serenely below, showing no signs of strain. Giles wondered what was inspiring his feelings of dread when he thought of Ethan and magic. Some of it was memories of Willow and how close she had come to the edge. But Ethan had always known about that edge; part of his joy came from inching his toes over that edge and peeking down. Willow had denied there was any danger in the power she wielded. Ethan sought that danger out.

He remembered the rush of magic, the connection to higher forces, the sense of holding the fabric of the universe in your hands--and the urge to twist and rip. He still regretted the story he'd allowed to continue about magic in and of itself being addictive. If that were true, Giles would not have been able to walk away, and he would never have dared to go back. As for Ethan--well, he'd seen Ethan under the influence of addictive substances. Not much for the precision of thought necessary for his sort of elaborate schemes.

What Giles thought Willow was addicted to was the power. The ability to force the universe to bend to her will. He'd hoped the time in England with the coven would have shown her the difference between magic and power, but she was simply too terrified of what she'd done and what she could do in the future to explore the possibilities. For this as much as anything, Giles mourned Tara. She had been a true Wiccan, seeing the balance and the interlocking whole. She could have helped Willow see that the person she was while drunk on the power was different from the power itself. Instead of magic that had drawn her in, it could have been any source of power. If not for Jenny's influence, Willow might have lost herself in computer hacking, become obsessed with the ability to manipulate the world that way.

Just their luck that supreme skill and strength rode in a person with such insecurity at the core that she defined herself by the power she could wield. They were going to need her skill, but someone who was afraid of her weapon was a liability in a fight.

Though there was another mage handy. One experienced in his craft and very skilled at making the magic his tool rather than the other way around. Giles fought down a chuckle at Buffy's probable reaction to him suddenly popping up and saying, "You remember Ethan, he's here to help." Then he thought seriously on the odds of Ethan being willing to risk himself for the larger fight rather than for, well, Giles.

He stared at the face below him for a few more moments, then rolled back over and stared at the ceiling.

***

Like all modern cities of the 21st century, Shanghai was sufficiently cosmopolitan as to have multi-lingual signs in its train station.

"You seem much more relaxed," Ethan observed, strolling along the station platform at Giles' side. "Perhaps the train trip was too long."

"It's not the trip that bothered me, it was knowing I was unable to make myself understood very well. The book you gave me is a good start, but I need more than the proper phrasing for finding the loo to function."

Freedom from the confines of the train seemed to have improved Ethan's mood as well. "I'm still perfectly willing to translate for you, old man." He flipped through a guidebook he'd acquired. "By the way, will we be in town long enough to do any sightseeing?"

"I doubt it. Why?"

"There's a museum on Wuding Road. Their displays sound quite--uplifting."

The innocent tone told him everything he needed to know. "What sort of museum?"

"The Ancient China Sex Culture Museum." Ethan consulted his guidebook. "1133 Wuding Road. I don't think it's far, if you wanted to look."

"No."

They stepped outside the train station into the chaos of a major transportation terminal in a very large city in the most populous country on earth. Ethan actually laughed in delight. Giles shook his head and pulled the "large crowd of strangers" coping mechanisms over his mind. Most of him loved the countryside, but there was that part that adored cities, the confusion, the anonymity, the possibilities. Cities were where Ripper was most happy, and that was the part of his personality that was best suited to survival.

It was starting to get dark, and the wind was cold. They pulled on their gloves and their scarves as they debated their next step.

"Bus or cab?" Ethan asked. "And where is the girl, anyway?"

Giles looked around, then nodded across the street. "Let's go over there and get some coffee. I want to check the paperwork."

"Rupert, that's a McDonald's. Crass capitalistic symbol of American economic imperialism."

"Since when the hell do you care about American economic imperialism?"

"We're in the mystic Orient, Rupert. Let's be adventurous--and don't give me that look."

Giles raised both eyebrows at him.

Ethan caved in. "And McDonald's has appalling coffee."

"You'll live."

They found at table big enough for them to check over a map of the city. Chao Ahn lived in a big apartment block not far from downtown, but the bus system was more of a mystery than they wanted to delve into.

"Should we call first?" Giles wondered. "Or, rather, should you?"

Ethan was thoughtful as he sipped suspiciously at his coffee. "What do we know of her? Has she had any contact with the people in the know?"

Giles pulled out a much folded sheet of paper. "She lives with her parents and grandfather in a slightly larger than average flat. Her parents are heavily in business and doing quite well. Unexceptional school record. She was spotted in the usual way, and an intermittent watch has been kept on her. The Watcher for this region went back to London just in time for . . ."

He had to stop talking when the memories overwhelmed him. He saw it in his nightmares sometimes, the blossoming flower of flame and destruction, the flying debris, the fragments of . . . things floating in the rising heat. In his nightmares he sees their faces, hears their screams of horror and disbelief, these people he'd known for most of his adult life.

Something hard hit his shin, and he blinked back to attention.

"Stop that," Ethan said firmly. "Brood on your own time. Spend your time on thinking how we're going to convince a family to let their only child leave with two perfect strangers. I'd rather not be accused of immoral activities if I'm not going to have the pleasure of committing them.

"You are so dependably vulgar."

"It's part of my charm."

They decided on a cab out to Chao Ahn's neighborhood, then to choose their approach based on the lay of the land. Giles was becoming increasingly worried about the Bringers closing in. There weren't many Potentials left in the world, and the hunters were concentrating in smaller areas.

Ethan looked out at the gathering darkness. "Should we wait for daylight? It's easier to see the villains coming."

"I don't want to leave the villains with a clear field tonight. I have the most dreadful fear that we're going to arrive in the middle of a scene of blood and grief."

"Like Lord Whatzit at the end of Hamlet." He grinned at Giles' look of disbelief. "I dropped out of just as good a school as you did, you know."

They were hardly inconspicuous in the middle class Shanghai residential neighborhood they found themselves in. Far from being the paradise of the proletariat that Mao had dreamed of, the area was full of bustling opportunists, people with carts and trays accosting the homeward bound commuters. The drab grey suits were a thing of the past, too. Ethan and Giles both paused to admire a tall Chinese lady striding down the street in a perfectly tailored crimson suit with a very short skirt.

"Gosh," Ethan said when she was past. "The old men in Beijing must have apoplexy every day at all the Western decadence polluting their perfect world."

"Good."

Giles lead the way to Chao Ahn's apartment building, ignoring the glances the locals were giving him and Ethan. In a less respectable neighbourhood, he imagined, people would be scurrying off to dark corners to spread the warning about suspicious strangers in the area. A neighbourhood such as he and Ethan used to live in, for example.

He paused on the sidewalk and laughed. In the old days, it was police and other authority figures who had inspired the caution. To imagine himself and, especially, Ethan in that role . . .

The best approach seemed to be simply going up to the Ki family and introducing themselves. Depending on the reaction, they'd go from there. Ethan led the way up to the 11th floor, nodding and murmuring greetings to people in the hallways. Giles countered his own annoyance with being amused at how charming Ethan could be when he worked at it. And it was work, too. The sardonic sneer kept trying to escape, and watching Ethan trying to be a good herd creature was endlessly diverting.

They reached the proper apartment and Ethan glared at Giles. "Stop giggling, dammit. This is your show, try to look trustworthy."

Giles nodded guiltily and paid attention as Ethan knocked on the door. After a few moments, the door opened and an old man peered out. He didn't speak but only looked at them.

Ethan smiled as winningly as he could and began speaking in Mandarin.

The old man's eyes narrowed, then he reached for something out of sight. Before they could react, the man threw an orange at Ethan, who caught it automatically and stepped back.

The old man sighed briefly, then frowned at Giles.

"Give it to me," Giles said, reaching to Ethan. Ethan blinked, then handed over the orange. Giles tossed it into the air and caught it.

The old man leaned against the doorway and whispered something.

"Tell him we're not here to hurt her. Tell him we're here to help."

Ethan nodded in sudden comprehension. He spoke rapidly in Mandarin to the old man, who still looked suspicious but not quite as edgy. He asked a question, which Ethan answered with a shrug and a smile.

The old man studied Ethan carefully, then looked at Giles. "Parlez-vous francais?" he asked with a near perfect accent.

"Mais oui," Giles answered automatically.

The old man nodded and smiled faintly, glancing back at Ethan.

"No fair making me superfluous," Ethan grumbled in English.

"Do you speak English?" Giles asked.

The old man shook his head. "My French is much better," he said in that language. "Who are you two?"

"The answer to that depends on who you are and what you know." Giles held the orange up pointedly.

He nodded. "I am Cho Ko Shang. Chao Ahn is my grand-daughter. There are--things hunting her."

"What sort of things? Where are they?"

Ko Shang sighed. "You aren't asking how I know. So you already know what's going on."

"How do *you* know," Ethan asked.

Ko Shang looked up and down the hallway, then gestured for them to join him inside the apartment. To Western eyes it was small, but it was brilliantly laid out. The main room had comfortable, modern furnishing, but an uninspired view of other apartment blocks. A songbird in a cage near the windows whistled, and Ko Shang whistled back.

"It's best not to speak of certain things where people can hear," he said. "It is not so long since the government men became very suspicious of those who had too much learning, especially of Western matters. That has changed, praise be, but there are still things one shouldn't make a point of knowing."

He glanced at his two visitors. "My father was a wizard." He paused, then nodded. "You aren't laughing or looking like I'm crazy." He looked more closely at Ethan. "You're a wizard, too."

Ethan shrugged. "We both are, but I'm just more in practice. He's had his moments recently." He nodded at Giles.

Ko Shang studied Giles. "What are you?"

A man, a musician, a scholar--those were the words he wanted to describe himself with. But the relevant part was something else. "I'm a Watcher, or I used to be. I look after a Vampire Slayer."

The old man winced, then sank down onto a couch. "That's what I feel with Chao Ahn. I knew there was some fate bound to her, but I couldn't find out what. A Vampire Slayer."

Ethan raised an eyebrow at Giles. "How lucky that we find someone who knows all about these matters when we're trying to collect the last Potential, who knows nothing."

"I'm beginning to wonder if luck has much to do with it. We needed a break. And I have always wondered why some girls are born to be Slayers and others aren't."

Ko Shang pulled himself together. "You think my grand-daughter is caught up in this because of me?"

Giles invited himself into a nearby chair. "I'm not sure what I think. It may be that you are caught up in this become of some long-dead ancestor of your own. Chao Ahn may only be the latest in a series of descendants touched by these forces."

Ethan was wandering the room, peering through doorways at the other rooms. "Where is everyone?"

"My son and his wife always work late." Ko Shang shook his head. "To think I would live to see capitalism once again fashionable in this land. I am waiting for Chao Ahn to come home from school."

Giles saw him glance at a clock. "Is she late?"

"Sometimes she goes to the shops with her friends. I have told her that she needs to be more careful, that the streets aren't safe, but she laughs and shrugs." He frowned. "I've told her nothing of the dark, secret things in the world. My son calls it all foolishness and will not bear such talk." He studied his hands and flexed his fingers. "I have done what I could, but my wizardry is slight. I've set small spells of protection and ward, but I'm afraid they'll attract as much evil attention as they will protect Chao Ahn." His look at Giles was suspicious again. "Why are two Western wizards here, now? Are we that close to the end of days?"

"There are more girls like your grand-daughter in the world. Creatures have been hunting them, killing them. We've been able to save a few." He took a deep breath, but was unable to tell this devoted grandfather that he was not just there to save the girl but to haul her off into a fight that had better odds of killing her than the Bringers hunting her through the streets. He wasn't there to make sure Chao Ahn didn't die but to make sure that she didn't die before she had served her purpose.

Ethan cleared his throat, attracting Ko Shang's attention from Giles. "Where would the girl be at this hour? Should we go looking for her?"

"It is late." Ko Shang got to his feet. "Yes, let's find her."

Full dark had fallen. Giles and Ethan followed Ko Shang to a busy shopping street that wouldn't have been out of place in any Western city. Half the neon-draped stores had familiar logos-- Ethan had to grab Giles' arm to keep him moving when he stopped in dismay at sight of a Starbuck's.

"She's not in there, is she?" Giles asked.

Ko Shang peered in through the door at the crowded shop. "Her friend Po isn't working, she won't be in there. They're probably down at the record store."

Giles found his feet dragging as he followed Chao Ahn's grandfather down the street. The girl had a life here, apparently a happy life full of friends and activities and typical teenaged things. Like Buffy used to have. At this moment Chao Ahn was probably chattering with a group of friends, utterly unaware of the fate that was seeking her.

"Ko Shang, how do you know Chao Ahn is being hunted?" he asked, distracting himself from the confusion he was about to bring to a young girl's life.

"I've had dreams," the old man said. "I've seen scarred, eyeless men chasing girls through alleys, brandishing knives, and--" He shook his head. "I knew those girls were like my grand-daughter, heirs to the Slayer's power. I knew those men wanted to destroy all those girls."

"Do you often have such dreams?" Ethan asked.

Ko Shang nodded wearily. "All my life. They saved my father and me during the war and after. During the Cultural Revolution, it was very useful, having warnings of when the troops would be searching for people who needed re-education. I learned I could communicate through dreams with other wizards, but there are few such these days."

Ethan looked like he wanted to ask more detailed questions, but Giles was focusing on the job at hand. "So you've seen the Bringers in dreams, but none here? At least, not yet?"

"Not yet. But I know they're coming. And I know they're led by formless evil, which mocks the dead by taking their shapes."

"Hence the orange," Giles smiled. Ko Shang nodded. "It's less intrusive than being gang tackled, at least." He saw the puzzled looks but didn't explain.

Like all the other stores, the record store was full of shoppers, mostly teenagers talking at high speed as they gestured over the racks of CDs. A perky pop song fought for listening room over the store's loudspeakers. Ko Shang glanced at a cardboard cut-out of a Chinese girl who was bringing the classic 80s look of lace and costume jewelry to her countrymen as she promoted her new album.

"Do young girls dress like this in the west?" he asked his companions, shaking his head in dismay.



Ethan sighed. "Not anymore. Twenty years ago it was all the thing. Now they're wearing strange plaid things and dark colors. I blame Tony Blair."

"You need to spend more time in California," Giles said. "The ones who don't have multiple piercings and black leather are wearing their jeans so low they're barely hanging on their hipbones."

Ko Shang shook his head again. "Young people these days." Ethan and Giles shared a look that spoke of the battered blue jeans and sturdy engineer boots of their own youths. The old man raised his head. "Oh, there are her friends. Over here."

At least Chao Ahn's friends were clustered in the jazz and blues section. Two boys were waving CDs of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Waters at each other as they argued. The other four boys and girls were flipping through Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, giggling and whispering. They all looked up with identical looks of false innocence as Ko Shang approached.

Ethan leaned to Giles. "They're saying they have no idea where Chao Ahn is," he translated quietly. "She was here just a moment ago, maybe she's in the ladies room or looking at some other albums."

By the looks of it, Ko Shang didn't believe their wide-eyed protestations any more than Giles did. Giles checked around the record store for a girl who looked like she was hiding from an authority figure. He'd certainly seen that look often enough in California, and he imagined it transcended language barriers.

An outraged clerk caught his eye in the back of the store, glaring towards a hallway that led into the storage areas. Giles nudged Ethan. "Ask them if there's a back door over there and if Chao Ahn just snuck out."

The young people looked nervous at being addressed by a Western stranger, but the looks changed to guilt and attempts to appear too cute to punish when Ko Shang repeated the question.

Ko Shang turned to Ethan and Giles. "Yes, she sneaked out when she spotted us coming in, she told them she didn't want to dragged home by her overprotective grandfather. Should we go after her?"

"Oh, yes," Giles said quickly, heading towards the back of the store. "The idea of her off by herself makes me very nervous."

They were on their way to the back of the store when Giles thought he heard someone call his name. He paused and looked around the store, baffled. Ethan hesitated, but Giles waved him off after Ko Shang.

He searched the store once again; just as he was deciding he was starting to have auditory hallucinations, he heard it again.

"Mr. Giles!"

A waving hand was quickly followed by a short, balding Western man in an ill-fitting suit working his way through the crowd of teenagers. He looked very vaguely familiar.

"Oh, thank god I found you," the man gasped, coming to a stop. "I've been following you since the train station, but you move so fast, you and--who is that with you?"

"A friend of mind. Have we met?"

The man looked chagrined. "Oh, of course, you probably wouldn't know me. Bradshaw, of the Council. Well, of what's left of the Council, which is one regional head from Cardiff, an assistant head from Bombay, and three junior clerks from Haiti. And me." He looked down. "I was in the car park when you came out of HQ, just before . . . I followed you out onto the street, then . . . I think I'm the only one who got out."

Giles took off his glasses. "At least someone got out. Good for you. But--you've been following me? How? Why?"

Bradshaw looked both proud and sad. "One of Mr. Travers' final instructions: find Rupert Giles. We knew you'd been looking for the potential Slayers, that you wanted to get them under some sort of protection, what with the . . . attacks. Mr. Travers was hoping to coordinate with you on who was most likely to be the next target."

"There was nothing to coordinate. I was just grabbing whomever was next on the inheritance list. There are still dozens out there, but several of them have passed the age of likely inheritance, or they're just too young. If we had time, I'd try to find them all, but I need to get back to Sunnydale."

"Mr. Giles . . ." Bradshaw bit his lip, then took a deep breath. "Do you really think we have a chance? It's killed so many of us, destroyed HQ, ripped the very heart out of us."

Giles couldn't meet his eyes. "I don't know, Bradshaw. But the only other choice is to simply sit down and fold our hands and wait for the enemy to win. I don't propose to do that."

"Still, my wife's been after me for a vacation. It might be nicer to spend the last days with someone you care about."

"All the people I care about are already in Sunnydale, I might as well go there anyway. Well, nearly everyone," he added, glancing towards the back of the store. "We'd best hurry, Bradshaw, I don't want to let them get too far ahead."

Bradshaw followed him through the aisles. "The Chinese girl, yes. Seems a shame to take her away from a family that loves her, just to throw her into a fight that's likely to kill her."

Giles glared at him, partially for bringing up dark thoughts he'd already had. "If we don't take her away, the Bringers will find her and kill her anyway."

"You're right," Bradshaw said, firming his shoulders. "Besides, that's what the Slayers are for, to fight gloriously for the time they're given, then die heroic deaths to make way for the next one."

He wanted to protest, but he'd heard that party line before, even couched in those glowing, pseudo-Victorian terms. Trust the British, who cherish stories of polar explorers taking themselves off into storms to die so as to no longer be a burden to their teammates, to run an organization based on the untimely deaths of young girls.

Bradshaw paused just shy of the back section of the store. "Still, Mr. Giles, have you ever wondered if what we're doing is--right? The evil in the world has to be stopped, of course, but the method . . . Do you ever wonder what the Council members who have daughters must think of it? Or do they know their daughters are safe?"

That was something Giles had never really thought of. His own grandmother--had her parents, who knew about Watchers and Slayers and vampires, ever wondered if their own daughter might be a Chosen One? How on earth had the Council convinced generations of parents that the possibility of being a Slayer was an honor, rather than a curse? He remembered Ko Shang's fear and grief at the fate that pursued his grand-daughter. No wonder Joyce had hoped against hope that Buffy could give up the calling. For once he was glad he had no children of his own blood, that he would have had to watch and fear for.

He paused at the end of the aisle. "Mr. Bradshaw, what was it you did for the Council?"

"Hm? Oh, well, nothing very glamourous. Filing papers, shuffling reports. Nothing like you, out in the field, facing dangers at the Slayer's side day in and day out."

"No, nothing so glamourous." Giles considered several small stuffed dolls hanging on a rack. He pulled one off, a bizarre sort of blobby yellow thing with three eyes. He spun and flung it at Bradshaw.

Bradshaw's hand came up automatically, but the toy sailed through the hand and body and landed on the floor.

They stared at each other for several moments, then Bradshaw grinned. "Oh, very good. I thought I'd have you driven to a good whiskey-swilling depression before you figured it out."

Giles ignored the apparition and ran towards the back door.

"Yes, best hurry," Bradshaw called. "They're rather outnumbered, and I don't know how long it will be before your--'friend' decides to write it all off as a lost cause and runs for it. Wouldn't be the first time, you know. See you in California!" He blinked out, and only a few of the shoppers seemed to notice that anything at all out of the ordinary had occurred.

Giles shouldered past a clerk and out the back door onto the loading dock in the alley. There was no light back here except for reflections from the streetlights out front bouncing off the clouds above. He didn't see anyone, but he heard scuffling down around a corner, followed by the scream of a girl and a shout from Ko Shang. There was no sign of Ethan. He jumped off the loading dock ran towards the sounds at the end of the alley.

He saw Ko Shang and the girl who must be Chao Ahn first, holding on to each other and staring in horror at nearly a dozen Harbingers, all with knives. Between hunters and quarry stood Ethan, who looked equally scared but was smiling in that way he had when well and truly backed into a corner. As Giles watched, Ethan made a scooping gesture in the air. "*Inflagro*," he snapped, flinging the handful of air towards the larger group. A fireball ignited halfway there and impacted the middle of the group. Three took flame and, flailing desperately, caught two others on fire before falling.

Ethan said something in Mandarin to Chao Ahn and Ko Shang, and they all started cautiously back down the alley. Chao Ahn saw Giles first and flinched back. Ko Shang tried to reassure her.

"It's about bloody time you showed up," Ethan snapped, still watching the Bringers.

Giles ran to his side. "Sorry, had to chat with an old acquaintance." He waved aside the explanation Ethan was about ask for. "On the whole I preferred the situation in Hong Kong," he said, looking at the Bringers.

"Yes. Rather more difficult odds this time," Ethan said.

Giles took a very brief moment to study Ethan. The First Evil was right, of course. Ethan always ran at the first opportunity. It kept him alive to connive another day. Best not to wonder why he was still here, then, facing several creatures who wanted to kill him in order to get to the potential Slayer he was helping protect. Some questions Giles didn't want to know the answers to--or he already knew them.

"What do we do?" Ethan asked as they continued backing down the alley.

"I'm in favor of running myself." He turned to hurry Ko Shang and Chao Ahn along. When they turned the corner back near the record store, though, he froze. "Fuck."

Ethan did a shocked double take, then looked down the alley. "Bloody buggering hell."

"That too."

Another half dozen Bringers were striding their way.

"How many of the bastards are there?" Ethan demanded, trying to watch both groups.

"Enough, by the looks of it."

Ethan checked the first group of Bringers and found them regrouping. Turning to the second group, he spoke in what Giles' half-recognized as some form of Spanish, and, at his gesture, the robes of the second group of Bringers began tightening and constricting around them.

"Get them out of here," he told Giles.

"I beg your pardon!"

"Get them out of here!" Ethan still held his hand towards the second group of Bringers, controlling the spell that was strangling them. "I'll slow them down, catch up with you when I'm done."

Giles saw he was breathing hard, despite the vicious grin. He could hear the footsteps of the first group behind them. "You can't hold them all. I can help--"

"With just your knife? Don't be foolish."

"Foolish? Me? What you're pulling here is dragging on your very life." He grabbed Ethan's arm. "They're dazed, we all go, now."

"And fight a running battle across Shanghai with this lot and who knows how many others there are out there?" Ethan pulled his arm free. "Someone has to get the girl to California." He dropped his hand, breathing hard, then turned around to fire a blinding flare of light at the first few Bringers to poke their noses around the corner behind him.

"You take her, you speak her language. I'll stay and delay this lot."

"Oh, yes, I'm going to stroll into Sunnydale and say to our Buffy, 'Rupert's most likely dead in China and I've brought you the last of the potential slayers, but no hard feelings, eh, old girl?' Do you even think I'll last long enough with her to get the second word out?"

Chao Ahn was dragging her grandfather carefully down the alley, towards the second group of Bringers, who were slowly recovering from the attack. "Mr. Giles, Mr. Rayne," Ko Shang called, "hurry, please."

Ethan shoved Giles after the two. "Get them out through the record store, that seems fastest."

Giles found himself unable to move. Who was this self-sacrificing man and what had he done with the Ethan Rayne who made the wind look sluggish when there was danger to be run from? "Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?" Ethan blinked, then grinned. "Oh, Rupert, I'm no hero, you know that. I put another couple of spells into this bunch, and I'll be right behind you. And if I can't find you, I can get myself out of the country. If nothing else, I'll catch up with you in California. Trust a coward, love, the idea of a dramatic last stand to cover your escape makes me nauseous."

There was a touch of mockery in Ethan's eyes that Giles didn't trust. But was that mockery aimed at Giles, for thinking Ethan would stoop to such self-destructive foolishness? Or was it aimed at Ethan himself, for abandoning a lifetime's habits and willingly courting danger to protect someone else?

But there was no time to debate, and it was the best idea. Ethan couldn't function in Sunnydale without Giles, and he was the best equipped to fight a delaying action. The larger group of Bringers was even now coming down the alley, and the seconds were slipping away where there was still time to escape past the others.

Giles grabbed Ethan's head and kissed him hard. "Find me, or I will hunt you down and beat you to death."

Ethan grinned. "That's my Ripper. Get going."

Giles nodded, then ran down to join Ko Shang and Chao Ahn. He snatched up a pipe lying on the ground to use against anyone who tried to stop them before they reached the crowds on the street.

Ethan watched till they were out of sight, then he pushed his fist against his chest, fighting the pressure behind his sternum. It was a poor wizard who couldn't look after his own vital signs, but such things were best done in peace and quiet, not in the middle of a fight.

"Not yet, Janus," he muttered. "We can have words about things later, but not yet. Keep me on my feet a few minutes longer."

He backed up against the alley wall and let the bricks support his weight as he shuffled options in his head. The Bringers were torn, wanting to follow the potential Slayer but knowing better than to leave Ethan behind them. A swift assessment obviously contented them, and they all formed up together, facing him.

He smiled. Perfect grouping for a lightning strike.

The blast made everyone in the shopping district look up and start to shout, but Giles kept Ko Shang and Chao Ahn moving.

***

He knew he should have made more of an effort to make sure Chao Ahn fit in with the other potentials, done more to find a way to communicate with her. Fortunately Dawn, in the exuberance of finding something all her own that she was good at, added Mandarin to the list of languages she was force-feeding herself.

He got them through the meltdown of morale that was the attack on the vineyard, himself through the shock of Spike without his chip, then he got out of the way and let Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, direct her ultimate campaign against the First.

But Ethan never showed up, and he had no idea how to contact anyone in China for any kind of word. When he tried the locating spell that used the ancient Janus coin Ethan had given him in London, he got no response. He chose to believe this was because his powers were still recovering.

All the wrong people were getting noble and self-sacrificing. Angel walked away and let Buffy decide her own destiny. Spike stood at the end of the world with a wry smile and made sure everyone else got out.

Perhaps that was the master plan of the Powers that Be: while the heros were being tormented by the First, the sometime-villains were there at the crucial moment to make sure everything worked out right.

And, no, it wasn't much of a comfort, especially in the middle of the night, when hardly anyone was sleeping and no one wanted much to talk about their pain.

Then Giles had the dream.

He wrote it off as a nightmare when he first woke, because of the image of Ethan lying in the alley, still and burnt. He'd tried to wake himself, not wanting those images in his mind, but the dream persisted. It showed images of Chao Tsu and of Ko Shang. As with all dreams, everything made perfect sense while he was asleep, but when he jerked awake there in the middle of the night, the sense began to fade into fragments.

Along with the painful images of Ethan, though, there was a compulsion to go somewhere, a place he'd never been before, and to go there with Chao Ahn. After several minutes, he remembered Ko Shang saying he could communicate with other wizards through dreams. Perhaps that was what this was, the old man sending a message. Whatever, it wasn't like the wandering caravan of Slayers and whatnot had a schedule to keep. Which is what brought them to this lonely spot in San Bernardino County: an old airstrip at the end of a rutted dirt road, fifty miles from the nearest other thing that passed for civilization.

They all exited the bus to stand in the blistering sun at the side of the airstrip. Once the bus' engine stopped, the only sounds were the tick of cooling metal and the wind through the sagebrush. A mostly-ruined adobe building provided a couple of square feet of shade, but the pile of rocks against the wall looked like a probable home for snakes.

Xander scanned the landscape, turning his whole body to make up for his blind spot. "Not to be a downer, here, but this place screams 'Top 10 Secret Landing Spots for Columbian Drug Runners' to me."

"And you know this how?" Kennedy asked.

"I watch the news." At his side, Andrew stuck his tongue out at the Slayer.

Buffy joined Giles at the airstrip. "What are we doing here, Giles?"

Giles watched the sky to the west. "We're waiting for someone."

"Who?"

"I'm not certain."

He heard her sigh in an annoyingly patient manner. "How do you know someone's coming here that we're supposed to wait for?"

"I got a message--and before you ask anything else, I'm not sure who it was from, but I believe it was Chao Ahn's grandfather. He's something of a wizard and he can communicate through dreams."

He didn't even need to look at her to know what expression was on her face. "We're here in the wilderness because you had a dream."

"Yes, we are." He glanced at her. "We've done more on the basis of your dreams."

"I'm the Slayer, dreams are in my job description." The wondering "oh, yeah" look went across her face again, and she looked at the young women gathered around the bus. "Our job description."

He followed her look and proud smile. A brilliant strategy, gifting the power of the Slayer to all the girls who had the potential. Though it made him wonder how many potential Slayers he'd missed in his search of the world. How many he and Ethan had missed . . . He pulled the two- headed Janus coin out of his pocket and shuffled it through his fingers.

"What's that?" Buffy asked.

"A memento."

She blinked at his abrupt tone of voice, but he couldn't find it in himself to explain or apologize.

Rona suddenly shouted and pointed to the west.

Giles turned to look. An airplane was approaching. Suddenly he didn't want to know, didn't want to hear. If no one told him the truth, then he could keep his hopeful stories to himself for comfort.

The plane was large, a cargo plane of some sort, but surely not nearly big enough for a trip from China. It bore no markings of country or airline on its battered sides. It landed easily on the air strip, rolled to the end, then turned and taxied back to stop by the bus.

Everyone came up cautiously, ready to lend a hand if this turned out to be Colombian drug runners annoyed at having several supernaturally powerful young women and their friends parked at their drop point.

A door in the side of the plane opened, and a set of stairs were dropped out. A dark-skinned man in a leather jacket climbed out and approached carefully, looking over the group.

"G'day," he said politely in an Australian accent. "Is one of you ladies Ki Chao Ahn?"

Chao Ahn started at hearing her name and came forward, Dawn at her heels. "My name is Ki Chao Ahn." This was pretty much the extent of the English she'd managed to pick up in her weeks in America.

The man from the plane nodded and began speaking in Mandarin to her. She smiled delightedly and spoke rapidly back. They conversed, then the man handed her a folded piece of paper. Chao Ahn unfolded it and read the Chinese characters .

"What is that?" Giles asked.

"Letter from her grandfather. We're here to take her home." The man glanced over the group. "Interesting set-up you've got here."

"Yes," Giles said quellingly. He could only imagine what a stranger would make of a group composed of four men--if one counted Andrew--and nearly a dozen young, lovely women. Ex- Principal Wood was lounging against the bus, Faith at his side, both of them oozing casual menace, and Xander, quietly unnerving with his eyepatch, was slouched not far from Giles with his hands in his pockets. Buffy herself was giving the man from the plane a look that said she was still trying to figure out if he belonged in the animal kingdom of classification or in the protozoa kingdom.

Chao Ahn finished reading her letter and was speaking rapidly to Dawn, who was smiling and shaking her head, knowing only that the Chinese girl was excited and happy but not understanding word one.

"Was that the only message?" Giles asked. "The letter from Ko Shang to his grand-daughter?"

"'Fraid so, sorry." The man looked eager to head back to the sky, away from these strange people. "Were you expecting one?"

"Perhaps not. The message I got from him may have been all the word I was going to--"

Over at the plane, another man was making his way stiffly down the steps. Once he reached the ground, he stretched slowly, then put his hand up to shield his face from the sun.

"Oh, my god," Buffy whispered. "Isn't that . . ."

"Ethan," Giles breathed. Numbly, he started over.

Ethan smiled as he came. "Hello, Rupert, lovely, desolate country you've got here. Please remind me that the next time I take a trans-oceanic flight that I am to book my passage on a plane with real seats and drinks service every--"

He was cut off by Giles throwing his arms around him and holding on very tightly. Ethan returned the embrace just as tightly.

"You bastard," Giles finally whispered without letting go. "What do you mean by not getting me word? I've been here wondering what the hell happened to you, thinking you were . . ."

Ethan's laugh was a touch shaky. "Well, I thought I was. When I came to I was in the oddest little room with a tiny old Chinese lady peering into my eyes and taking my pulse at disconcerting locations on my body, and every time I tried to talk they poured more herb teas down my throat."

"It's been weeks, dammit. Surely you could have gotten to some sort of modern communications equipment."

Ethan pulled back to glare. "And who was I supposed to communicate *with*? The only phone number I ever had for you is long since disconnected, and if you've acquired a mobile in the last few years you never mentioned it to me."

"You could have called Buffy--"

"Oh, yes, that would have gone over well, 'Hello, luv, it's your old mate Ethan Rayne, how's the tattoo? Might I have a word with Ripper?'"

They were still holding on to each other's arms, and Ethan pulled Giles into another hug. "My god, what you did," he whispered. "I felt it in China, it was like an earthquake in the aetherium."

"It was rather dramatic right there in the middle of it, too."

"You closed a Hellmouth, Rupert. Of course things will be dramatic."

Giles pulled back again, knowing he was grinning like a fool. "And if anyone knows drama, it's you."

"Please, Rupert, my blushes." Ethan glanced at the waiting group. The open-mouthed shock was clearly visible. "I suppose it's time to renew old acquaintance and let Neville get his plane back in the air."

"You didn't come all the way from Shanghai in this, did you?"

"Well, not all the way, but from Brisbane to here, yes. With stops in the Philippines and Hawaii and someplace in Central America that I chose not to enquire too closely about. Ko Shang vouched for Neville, and I'm here unscathed." He took a deep breath and started forward. "Whether I stay that way, now . . ."

Chao Ahn returned from the bus with her bag of belongs, and she gasped when she saw Ethan. Ignoring the disbelieving stares of the others, she ran forward and hugged Ethan, chattering in Mandarin. He laughed and tried to get a word in whenever he got a chance. Finally Neville interrupted, and Chao Ahn gave a swift round of hugs to her fellow Slayers and everyone else before boarding the plane.

The people left behind barely noticed the plane rolling to the end of the runway, turning, then racing down the strip to take off and disappear into the sky. They were all staring at Ethan, the Scoobies in disbelief and the others in curiosity.

Giles, still grinning, put an arm around Ethan's shoulder. "I'm sure several of you remember Ethan Rayne."

"Hello, all," Ethan said brightly.

"Giles?" Buffy barely managed to squeak.

"Oh, yeah," Xander said, "we remember. Costume shop Ethan Rayne."

"Eyghon Ethan Rayne," Buffy added. "Tattoo!"

"Band candy Ethan Rayne," Willow put in.

"And turning you into a Fyarl Ethan Rayne!" Buffy finished.

Giles jumped in--but not before elbowing Ethan for looking so demurely proud of the litany of his capers in Sunnydale. "And also saving my life in London several times, not to mention in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Ethan Rayne. He helped me find the potential Slayers."

Buffy shook her head. "That doesn't mean he's now trustable Ethan Rayne."

Giles thought a moment. "On the contrary, yes, it does."

As Buffy gaped in shock, Faith came up. "This is the guy you told me all those stories about, B? The big, bad, evil sorcerer?" Buffy nodded numbly. "Dude," Faith said, sounding terribly disappointed, "you sure don't look it. Shouldn't there at least be an evil laugh?"

"He specializes in creepy smirks," Xander said.

Ethan started to protest, then apparently got a good look at Xander. "Oh, dear."

"What?" Xander snapped.

Ethan only shook his head and looked closer at the group. "I don't see Molly," he said slowly.

"No, you don't," was all Giles said. Ethan nodded with a sigh.

Buffy pulled herself together. "No," she said. "No, no, no. He shouldn't be here. I don't want him with us."

Out of the corner of his eye, Giles saw Ethan tense. "I understand, Buffy. Would you be kind enough to let him travel with us until we get to large enough town where we can rent a car? We can leave you there."

Ethan did a double-take, then fought down a grin.

"Huh?" Buffy gaped.

Giles gave Ethan a side-long smile. "You're perfectly within your rights, Buffy, not to want Ethan along. I can't expect you to have the same reasons I do for trusting him." He turned completely to Ethan. "What are your thoughts on coming back to England with me and trying to make sense of what's left of the Council?"

"Me?" Ethan blinked. "Help you with the Council?"

"They asked you to join once, never too late to take them up on their offer."

"I thought you were the only member of the Council left."

Giles shrugged, a smile starting to get away from him. "Well, then, when you join up, there will be two."

Ethan actually looked like he was trying to be responsible. "Rupert, I'm a chaosmage. The Council is--"

"A bunch of stiff-necked, reactionary berks who were unable to adapt quickly enough to the times to survive. If nothing else, Ethan, you're adaptable." The smile had completely escaped by now.

Ethan raised an eyebrow in disbelief, then he began to laugh. "Deal, then."

He held out his hand, which Giles took, although he had other ideas. He pulled Ethan close and kissed him, in full view of Buffy, the Scoobies, and all the others. The gasps of surprise and shock were delightful to hear. He clearly heard Xander yell, "Oh, great, now he's gay, too!"

"Wait, wait!" Andrew suddenly said loudly. "I know this one! Boyhood friends, one went good, one went evil, they were arch-enemies all their lives, but when they had to work together to fight a common enemy, they settled their differences and lived happily ever after! Or something like that!"

Dawn recovered her voice first. "I think so."

Ethan pulled back, still laughing. "So where shall we go first, Rupert? Are we very far from Las Vegas?"

"Vegas?" Giles protested. "I am not letting you anywhere near Vegas."

"I won't even use magic. We'll be rich in three days. Come on."

Xander finally managed to close his gaping mouth. "You know, Vegas sounds like fun. Cheap buffets. Room with showers."

"Wedding chapels," Faith added, grinning at Wood, who gave her a very disapproving look.

Buffy was still shaking her head. "This is--deeply not right." She started to say more, but something in Giles' eyes--or maybe his grin--must have told her that she was fighting a losing battle. She threw up her hands and headed back to the bus. "Fine! Just--no kissing where I can see it. Or where Dawn can see it. In fact, don't go anywhere near my sister, you creep."

"That's quite all right, Buffy," Ethan grinned. "I plan to be staying near Rupert for a bit. Catching up on the news and such."

Buffy made another disgusted noise and climbed back onto the bus, followed by the others.

Giles stopped Ethan. "Here." He held out the Janus coin. "I'm sure you want it back."

Ethan studied the coin a while, but he didn't take it. "Keep it. You might need a way to track me down again."

He tried not to show how jolted he was. "Were you planning on disappearing again soon?"

They studied each other for quite a while, then a smile Giles hadn't seen in almost three decades slowly reappeared on Ethan's face. Pleasure with no mockery, affection with no edge. Simple happiness, that they'd once been too sophisticated to admit to, then too at odds with each other to dare remember.

"Not soon," Ethan said. "Maybe someday, but not soon."

Giles nodded. "Good. Because I'm sure I'm going to be involved in all sorts of things that would be horribly disrupted when I drop everything to track you down."

Ethan ran the back of his knuckles along Giles' cheek. "And I know how much you hate being interrupted at your work."

Giles pulled him into another hug that slid easily into another, longer kiss that lasted until someone on the bus said clearly, "Oh, but they're cute!"

Ethan pulled away and closed his eyes. "Newts."

"That was Willow. Frogs."

"Even better."

They put their arms around each others shoulders and headed for the bus. Ethan took the empty seat right in front of Buffy. "So, Buffy," he said with his best charming, evil smile. "How did that tattoo work out for you?"

Giles sat down across the aisle. "Ethan, she will hit you, and I won't stop her."

Ethan raised an eyebrow and was about to speak when Buffy shook her finger at him. "Don't say a word! Nobody wants to hear it!"

Andrew opened his mouth to protest, and Xander, sitting behind him, smacked him on the back of the head.

"And no more eyebrows," Buffy went on when Ethan turned a hurt look on her. "And no grins or smirks or anything. And that goes for you, too, Giles. Just--don't look at each other where we can hear it." She saw the look that went between the two men, and she fell back against her seat with a disgusted noise.

Wood started the engine and put the bus in gear. "Vegas, going once? Twice? Vegas it is, then."

"They won't know what hit them," Ethan said, still grinning at Giles.

"God knows I never did," Giles said, smiling back contentedly.

He had no idea how this was going to all work out. It might be the world's most absolute cock-up, it might be the chance of a lifetime for everything he ever wanted. But nearly everyone he loved best in the world was on this bus, and for a change nearly everything was right with the world.