"Ethan Rayne," murmured Giles, jaw set in a grim line. His eyes were watchful, vigilant and cold behind his glasses.
Ethan tilted his head and studied Giles. "Honestly Ripper, how long have we known each other? Surely we're beyond first and last names by now."
Faith regarded the newcomer with curious suspicion before looking to the others for explanation. Willow remained half hidden behind Giles' leg, but her little face was scrunched into a hostile frown. Xander harbored no such desire for security. Boldly leaving his place of concealment, he stood protectively at the forefront, legs astride and hands clenched into fists at his side. As for Buffy, every ounce of animosity that had been directed toward Faith only moments before had now been compounded and transferred.
"Who's that?" asked Faith impatiently.
"A bad man," Buffy told her, eyes focused unwaveringly on Ethan.
That was all Faith needed to hear. Hands on hips, she favored Ethan with a dark glower.
"What are you doing here?" Giles demanded.
"Checking on you, actually," replied Ethan with a charming smile. "I wasn't exactly expecting to find you like this. I thought you'd be shorter."
He took a step forward and apparently, that was all the provocation Xander had been waiting for. Running like a bat out of hell, he kicked Ethan's shin as hard as he was able. "You're bad!" he blurted fiercely.
Ethan winced visibly at the pain. "That's subjective, don't you think?"
Without warning, Buffy threw herself into the fray. Drawing back her foot, she rammed the toe of her Mary Jane into Ethan's other shin. "I don't like you!"
Ethan's mouth formed a silent 'ow' as he grimaced. "Can't say I think much of you either!"
Pushing between Buffy and Xander, Faith began to hammer punches on both of Ethan's kneecaps in a rhythmic pattern. She uttered not a single word, save for the occasional grunt, but her grin said it all.
Not to be left out, Xander and Buffy quickly rejoined the attack and Ethan found himself assaulted by three tiny terrors who were doing their utmost to pound him into a pulp.
From her well-protected position, Willow narrowed her eyes with concentration in Ethan's direction. "Frog. Frog. Frog. Frog," she chanted, although to no effect.
Gritting his teeth, Ethan reached down and scooped up a squirming armload of whoever was most convenient. It turned out to be Buffy.
"Adorable little delinquent, aren't you?"
Feet flailing, she swiveled and punched him squarely on the bridge of the nose. In almost the same instant, Giles was there to snatch her away.
"Good girl," he whispered approvingly, causing Buffy to beam with pride. Stretching out his free hand, Giles gestured out to the others. "Xander, Faith, come away," he cautioned, his tone calm and soothing. "It's all right."
Reluctantly, Xander backed off and so did Faith, after delivering a hard-driven stomp onto Ethan's foot. Guardedly, they inched their way toward Giles.
Ethan dabbed gingerly at his nose, checking for blood, but there was none. "Hurt first, ask questions later," he stated with nod of commendation. "You've taught them well."
"Don't make me ask again," Giles warned. "What are you doing here? And what did you mean, 'this isn't right'?"
Pulling out a handkerchief, Ethan polished away Faith's dirty footprint from the top of his Italian leather boot. He chuckled. "It's a bit of a funny story." He looked expectantly at Giles and his army of four munchkins. None of them appeared amused. He shrugged. "Well funny to me, anyway."
Making his way to the counter, he accepted the sundae that the gawking and immobilized Ice Cream Guy was offering and helped himself to a napkin. Digging a spoon in the melting chocolate, he sampled the dessert. "Delicious."
He sauntered past Giles, who instantly shepherded his wards out of harm's way, and with a leisurely stride, headed toward the main pavilion.
They watched him in silence but made no move to follow.
"Come on," Ethan tossed over his shoulder. "Do you want Happyfun, or don't you?"
In the very heart of HappyfunWorldLand, Ethan and Giles sat across from each other at a small table. Ethan was relishing his pilfered sundae while Giles kept one wary eye out for any sudden movements and the other upon the kids.
They were playing in a huge pit of multi-colored plastic balls. Netting surrounded the area, but Giles could see them from his location without too much effort. In the middle of the pit, like a giant spider in its web, sat a jungle gym. There were monkey bars to climb on, plastic tubes to run through, platforms to dive from and all manner of intriguing nooks and crannies in which to hide.
"Would you like a bite?" asked Ethan, sliding the dish toward Giles and offering the spoon. "It's quite good."
Ethan shrugged and dragged the dessert back again. "Your loss." He dug deep and included a maraschino cherry in the scoop.
Giles' tenuous patience was rapidly evaporating. "This is all your doing."
It was an accusation, not a question.
Ethan considered for a moment. "Not entirely," he responded. At Giles' ensuing frown, he gestured in the direction of the play area. "I'd lay at least part of the blame on whoever opened that box. And then I'd probably give them a stern talking to about sniffing around other people's presents." He tutted disapprovingly under his breath. "There's no excuse for rudeness. You'll want to watch them, Ripper. No telling what kind of people they'll be when they grow up."
Giles rested his elbows on the table. "Reverse it." His tone was deceptively calm.
"It's not that simple."
The library at Slayer Central was a hubbub of activity. Watchers were everywhere. Research books were everywhere. Legal-sized pads with hastily scrawled references were everywhere. Photographs of the wooden box, taken from every angle imaginable, were spread around the room. Several white boards covered with notes, carefully worked through theories and a multitude of arcane symbols, lined the walls.
At a long table, one of the younger Watchers checked his scribbles and then quickly cross-referenced his findings. His eyes grew very wide and very round. "Oh, no," he muttered.
To be on the safe side, he repeated the process before raising his hand and calling out, "I found it!"
Hannah and Spencer rushed toward him immediately.
"Make it that simple," insisted Giles, leaning across the table.
Ethan shook his head. "Oh, if only such things could be determined by will alone."
Forcefully pushing back his chair, Giles rose to his feet. Instantly, Ethan's coward-senses went into alert mode. Alarmed, he thrust up his hands to ward off what he believed to be imminent blows. "Wait, wait, wait!" he urged hurriedly, relieved when Giles resumed his seat.
"It's magick, old man," he relayed persuasively. "You know as well as I do you can't bully magick. And I'm afraid now it's too late."
Hannah and Spencer, together with the majority of Watchers inhabiting the library, had gathered round the table waiting impatiently for answers.
"The problem was that we were looking for the answer in one spell, when this," the young man gestured toward the box, "is really made up of three separate temporal magicks." He shook his head, clearly impressed. "It's phenomenal. These spells should not work together, but whoever cast them ..."
Hannah cleared her throat and the Watcher cast her a nervous glance before hurrying back on track.
"Right. The thing is, it was originally meant to be as it sounds – a way for spellcasters to knock off a few years here or there. But mixed in with these other spells ... this is a curse. A deadly one."
"I don't accept that," Giles denied with the shake of his head.
"Well that just makes it all untrue then," replied Ethan.
"Being children again ... Too old to forget what they know, but too young to realize what it all means. I won't let you do that to them," he warned. "I won't force them to live through that again."
"Funny you should phrase it like that ..."
"The victims – Buffy, Faith and the others ... they'll begin to regress further," the Watcher explained. "Physically and mentally. Until ... until there's nothing left."
Hannah's eyes widened in alarm. "What?"
"What are you implying?" Giles questioned warily.
"What I'm saying, mate, is that you better enjoy them while you can."
Digging into the ice cream, Ethan raised the heaped spoon to his lips. He never made it. His chair rocked violently as Giles lashed out and grabbed a fistful of shirt. The ice cream slid and instinctively, Ethan tried to catch it in his open mouth before it fell. It landed with a dismal 'plop' on the table, soon to be followed by the clattering spoon.
Ethan blinked dazedly as Giles jerked him across the table until they were practically nose-to-nose. The eyes behind the glasses glittered like granite and Ethan floundered as Giles shook him like a rag doll.
"No more games, 'mate'," snarled Giles. "Are you saying this spell will kill them?"
"Yes," the young man confirmed regretfully.
Hannah's face registered horrified shock. "But ..."
"How long?" asked Spencer.
"24 hours from when they were affected."
Spencer looked at Hannah, whose eyes flew immediately to the clock on the wall.
"Less than three hours from now," she informed in worried voice.
Ethan's mouth began to twitch. Then, he began to chuckle. It soon turned into a full-fledged belly laugh. The merriment was short-lived though, as Giles swiftly released the shirt and instead, gripped Ethan by the throat. The laugh was cut off mid-stream, turning instead into a wet, strangled noise.
"I'm joking!" Ethan gasped, scrabbling ineffectually at the vice-like fingers cutting off his air supply. The grip on his windpipe tightened. "It's a joke!" he vowed desperately. "I swear! It's harmless!"
Giles' expression didn't change. "You're lying."
"Less than three hours," muttered Hannah, running a hand through her hair. "God. I've got to tell Ziggy." Looking extremely distraught, she hurried to the door.
"Wait!" the Watcher called out, and Hannah stopped in her tracks. "I think I found ..." He ran a finger over his notes and quickly rechecked the reference. "Yes ... Yes! I've got it!" he announced triumphantly.
"The reversal spell?" prompted Spencer.
The Watcher glanced up at him. "What?" He shook his head. "Oh, no, there is no reversal spell."
The air of expectation in the room instantly deflated, and the Watcher hastened to provide reassurance.
"But it's okay! I made a mistake. I thought the translation was saying they only had 24 hours before regressing to their original state. But it's revert to their original state. See?" He held the volume toward Hannah, but she only glared at him through narrowed eyes for giving her such a scare.
Shrinking a little in his chair, he tried to explain. "The root words are extremely similar, and ..." He glanced around the room, looking extremely sheepish. "It'll wear off on its own," he offered as penance.
Spencer peered down at the Watcher. "Are you certain?"
"Of course I'm certain!" rasped Ethan, almost choking. "I cast the bloody thing, I should know!"
Giles relinquished his grip slowly. "This won't kill them?"
Chest heaving as he gulped lungfuls of oxygen, Ethan shook his head. "It won't kill them, I swear," he puffed painfully.
Cautiously and somewhat reluctantly, Giles released his wretched victim and eased back into his seat. Ethan ruefully massaged his throat and somehow managed to look offended. "Really, Ripper. I'm not the murderer." He pointedly looked Giles in the eye. "I was never the murderer."
Giles' relief was evident. He ignored Ethan's wounded pride, and instead turned to watch the little gang playing in the pit of squishy balls. Worry-free, they seemed to be as happy as clams.
Faith was halfway to the domed top of the monkey bars, while Willow was still struggling valiantly to make it to the third rung. Climbing like a chimpanzee, Buffy zipped past the redhead with relative ease, jostling Faith on the way. The pair stuck their tongues out in unison for second and then glanced down to see that Willow had slipped back down to the second rung. Both Slayers extended a hand and then glared at each other, but neither was willing to retract the offer of help. Regaining her balance somewhat, Willow reached up to the waiting hands, but she was too far away. Then, with a huge grin, Xander appeared and bracing Willow's feet against his palms, provided the necessary boost. Before long, she was right behind Faith and Buffy on her way to the summit. Xander quickly brought up the rear. A soon as they all reached the platform on the dome, they hopped up and down, whooping a triumphant cheer. For a moment, they were on top of the world.
Unobtrusively, Ethan leaned across the table. "That was supposed to be you," he told Giles in a low voice. "Carefree. Enjoying the simple pleasures. Every right to be selfish, no worries, no responsibilities. Responsibilities have defined your whole life, Rupert, and they still do. You're not young any more ... isn't it high time you lived your life the way you want?"
Giles continued to watch the little quartet in silence as they noisily celebrated their victory. Joining hands, they backed along the platform and then began to run. They hit the edge at full tilt, leaping into the air as they sailed toward the pit of squishy balls, laughing all the way.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Paige rested her weight on her elbows and stared through the tall window at the immaculate front lawn below. Nearby, still seated in shadow, the pale girl still remained focused in her meditations.
"My daddy says that Lauren is in a better place now." Paige glanced over her shoulder. "Is she?"
It hurt to hear, and Paige's shoulders slumped, but nevertheless, it seemed to be the answer she was expecting. For a long moment, nothing else was said.
"Did Fate kill my sister?" Paige eventually asked.
"When Fate chooses, it may kill any of us," responded the girl without emotion. "We are all subject to Fate's mercy."
Paige scooted round to face the girl. "Did you pick me to come here because your sister died and my sister died too?"
"I did not choose you."
"Well they did!" exclaimed Paige. "The monsters!"
"They brought you here, true," the girl admitted, "but you were a convenience. They did not choose you."
Detecting a weakness, Paige argued, "If it doesn't have to be me, then it can be someone else!"
"Who would you have take your place?"
"I don't know! Maybe ..." Paige searched desperately for someone, anyone, who could fill her role. "Maybe Scotty Hall, or Mary Blanchard, or Christopher Ryan. I don't care! I just wanna go home! I'm scared and I want my mommy."
"Why are you here, Paige?"
The child was in no mood to play twenty questions. "I wanna go home!" she all but shouted, clenching her hands into tiny fists.
The figure in saffron silk didn't flinch at the outburst. Indeed, she didn't even flicker an eyelash. It seemed to have no effect on her whatsoever.
"Why are you here?" she persisted.
Paige's lips began to tremble as tears trickled down her cheeks. She made no sound as she cried, her body racked with dry sobs and her wretched little face a mask of misery.
The girl watched for a moment and then held out her arms. "Shh. Come here, aiko."
Paige accepted the invitation immediately, thankfully. Scrambling to her feet, she rushed into the welcoming embrace, desperate for comfort and solace. She clung to the arms that wrapped her in a protective cocoon and rocked her as though she were a tiny baby.
"You have been a very good girl. I will keep my word: I will let you return."
Paige's tears began to flow more freely. They were tears of relief and joy. She took comfort in the promise and in the gentle hand that stroked her hair.
The large recreation room at Slayer Central was conspicuously devoid of Slayers and uncharacteristically quiet. A vast assortment of board games littered the floor, some still in their original shrink-wrap. A pair of partially put-together Cooties lay upside down on the pool table and tiny baskets from Hi Ho! Cherry-O were scattered around the room. A Care Bears checkerboard, lacking many of the pieces, was shoved off to the side near five empty Happy Meal boxes. On the television screen, a looping DVD menu continually displayed the choices for classic Warner Brother's cartoons, but nobody was watching. Not Giles, and certainly none of his young charges.
In an overstuffed easychair, Willow and Xander were sound asleep, heads lolling together as they slumbered. Every now and then, Willow would violently twitch an arm or jerk a leg. Without waking, Xander simply scooted himself further to one side in order to give her more room.
Sprawled on her stomach atop the back of a couch, Faith resembled a contented little napping cat. It looked as though somebody might have hoisted her in the air and then gently draped her there. One cheek was squashed flat against the upholstery and she wore Giles' tie as a headband.
On the same couch, snoring lightly and stretched full length along the cushions, was Giles. Barefoot and jacketless, there were smears of dried ketchup on his trousers and a pickle juice stain on his collar. The head of a plastic Tenderheart Bear sporting a tiny crown protruded from his breast pocket. Face down, Buffy's head was resting on Giles' chest. She too was sleeping soundly as she clutched a bunched-up wad of his shirt in her slack fist. His arm was curled protectively around her shoulders. On the floor by the couch were two impromptu sock puppets.
Leaning in the open doorway, Ethan stared at the peaceful scene.
"Isn't it sweet?" he remarked. "Now this, I think we'd have to call 'a Kodak moment'. " He glanced over his shoulder to find Hannah standing there. "Wouldn't you agree?"
"Shouldn't you be off crawling back into a hole somewhere?" she asked, arching an eyebrow.
Tutting, Ethan shook his head in reproach. "Well I didn't get any birthday cake, so I thought I should at least see how it ends."
"Happily ever after?" Hannah queried with a wry smile.
"Only in fairy tales."
Hannah positioned herself at the opposite side of the doorway. "I can't decide which would have surprised me more: you actually daring to show up, or if you'd done the smart thing and stayed away."
"Villainy without enjoying the spoils?" Ethan seemed appalled at the very idea. "What's the point in that? Besides, then I would have missed this riveting conversation." He shook his head in denial at the mere thought. "No, can't have that."
Hannah's eyes moved to her ex-husband, who was stirring slightly while still keeping a firm grip on Buffy. Ethan watched her watch Giles for a moment.
"Do I detect uncertainty? A touch of regret, perhaps?"
Hannah shook her head. "To borrow a colloquialism, I don't do regret."
"I was, of course, referring to the spell."
She didn't answer immediately, giving due consideration to Ethan's words.
"I thought that reliving his youth, even for just a day, would be the greatest gift I could give him." Her smile was melancholy. "That it might help him remember why we're here. That the fight, without context, is meaningless."
"How very noble," Ethan patronized.
Hannah emerged from her reverie with a scowl. "When are you leaving again?"
"And we were just beginning to re-bond so famously," he responded smoothly, then waved a dismissive hand at her glare. "Not to worry," he reassured. "A bit more sightseeing, and you'll never know I was here."
His gaze returned once more to Giles and the slumbering little gang. A look of mocking adoration invaded his features.
"And quite a sight it is. Ripper and his darling children." He cast Hannah a sideways glance. "Were any of them in on it?"
"No. I'd say the past 24 hours were a surprise for everyone." Digging into her pocket, Hannah pulled out a check and offered it to Ethan. With a gracious nod, he accepted, and then promptly tore it down the middle. Flicking the two halves to one side, he seized Hannah's hand and brought it to his lips.
"Your grateful smile and the satisfaction of a job well done are all the payment I need," he purred with a grin.
Snatching her hand away, Hannah didn't reciprocate the smile. Instead her eyes narrowed.
"And may I keep the change?" he inquired.
"You're lucky I don't demand a refund," Hannah rejoined. "The spell was only supposed to affect Rupert."
"But where's the fun in that?"
Pushing away from the door, Ethan winked at Hannah and then presented her with a sealed envelope.
"Give him that when he wakes up, would you love?" He looked back at Giles. "Ahh, the turns life takes," he sighed before turning and leaving the room, quietly humming 'Happy Birthday' under his breath.
The vampire lackey paused outside the meditation room for a moment and listened before politely knocking. She strained her ears for a response and when there was none, tentatively turned the handle and opened the door.
"You sent for me, Lady?"
Standing in the center of the room, the girl was now dressed in a formal robe of heavy white linen that swept the floor. Piping of smooth black satin trimmed the hem, collar and cuffs. It was an elegant garment that enhanced her aura of majesty. The dark hair had been pulled into a high chignon and secured with two onyx combs. The newcomer made sure to keep her eyes respectfully lowered.
"Alert Oringo that I wish to discuss our progress."
"Yes, Lady," acknowledged the vampire. She gestured meekly toward the baseboard at one side of the room. "Should I dispose of that?"
The girl's gaze lingered on Paige's lifeless body. The child had been positioned carefully, almost reverently, upon the floor beneath the window. Her clothes were arranged tidily and her small hands, wiped clean of any grime, were folded neatly across her stomach. Her eyes were closed and were it not for the two prominent puncture wounds in the hollow of her neck, she would have appeared to be sleeping.
"Yes," came the command. "See that she is buried with respect. We taught each other much, aiko, did we not?"
The lackey was clearly interested, but didn't dare ask any questions. However, the girl must have been feeling generous because she decided to expand upon her statement.
"I sought enlightenment and I received this child," she explained. "She did not have the answer, but I failed to ask the correct question. 'Why' is unimportant. 'Why' demands reason that Fate will not give. Fate does not care about our needs or desires. She is accountable only to her whims."
It seemed as if the girl were now speaking to Paige alone, as though her little captive still retained the ability to listen attentively and garner wisdom from the words.
"You taught me this, aiko," she acknowledged, "and I am grateful. I can only hope that you find my lessons as fulfilling." She inclined her head in deference to the unmoving corpse. "As promised, I have returned you to your sister."
At the abrupt look in her direction, the vampire cast her eyes down even further in a humble apology for being so forward. She waited for castigation and when none was forthcoming, became encouraged to continue.
"What did you teach her, Lady?"
"That Fate has no mercy. And neither do I."
Opening the door to the bar, Giles scoured the area until he spotted a familiar figure. It was a relatively quiet little place. Not too rowdy and not too noisy, but then, it wasn't exactly overflowing with patrons either. He headed toward a booth near the rear of the establishment, where Ethan was sitting at a table with a beer and shot glass of whiskey in front of him. He seemed to have been nursing the beer for quite some time and looked up with a smile as Giles approached.
"Got my invitation, I see." He gestured across the table. "Have a seat."
Giles slid his way into the booth and arched an eyebrow at the beer and shot glass that had apparently been awaiting his arrival. He looked to Ethan, who raised his whiskey in a toast. "Cheers."
Throwing back his head, Ethan drained the shot in one gulp. Giles waited for a moment and then followed suit, setting the empty glass thoughtfully on the table.
"And how fare the little tykes?" asked Ethan with all due politeness.
"Back to normal. No thanks to you."
Ethan sighed wistfully. "They grow up so fast. No lasting damage, I trust?"
"Not on the surface at any rate," confirmed Giles through tight lips. "Their memories seem a bit hazy, but aside from that, they say they're fine. Xander swears his love of Lincoln Logs predates yesterday afternoon."
Ethan nodded. "All's well that ends well." As a waitress passed by, he flagged her down and gestured to himself and Giles. "Another round, love."
As she scurried away to fill the order, Ethan resumed his scrutiny of Giles' dark and threatening glower.
"Oh come now, Ripper," he cajoled. "Why so gloomy? Nobody died, there was no lasting damage, and I dare say it was a damn sight more interesting than whatever they had planned for you." He tilted his head and regarded Giles critically. "Or have you fallen so far that you actually respond better to tired old platitudes?"
Without waiting for a reply, Ethan lifted his beer. "Congratulations on making it to fifty; it's all downhill from here."
There was no reaction from his subject and Ethan opened his mouth to try again. When nothing came out, he lowered his drink. "That's all I know, I'm afraid," he stated with some regret. "I'm sure there's a terribly witty book with more that we can find if you like."
"You have no clue what you're talking about," Giles muttered.
"No book?" queried Ethan, lifting his arms and resting them along the length of the booth. "Perhaps an insightful cocktail napkin, then."
"Do you have any idea how ... how difficult you've made everything?" accused Giles angrily.
Ethan gave it some thought. "Uhm ... nooo?"
The waitress came and delivered the drinks, receiving a smile from Ethan and nothing at all from Giles, who was absently swirling the beer in his half-empty glass as he elaborated.
"My life, my work ... The things I've done. The things I must be prepared to do." He removed his glasses and placed them on the table. "To see their faces and know that one day, for the sake of the world, they may be sacrificed. That I may be forced to sacrifice them. I used to think I could juggle all my roles, but ..." He shook his head. "And then you come here and you make me remember how much I love them. Bastard." In one smooth motion, Giles downed his second whiskey.
"Well, I'm certainly no stranger to the insult," remarked Ethan, not appearing offended in the least, "but I must admit the reasoning for it is new."
Giles rubbed at his forehead. "I thought I had the answer."
Ethan shrugged. "Sounds to me like you're not asking the right question."
"And what is the right question?"
"Damned if I know," Ethan admitted merrily, tossing his hands in the air. "You're the thoughtful one; I'm perfectly happy making it up as I go along."
Not surprisingly, this did little to sweeten Giles' mood.
"You try too hard," Ethan reprimanded. "That's always been your problem. If you don't like where you are, then don't stay there. Go back. Start again."
"What if it's too late for that?"
"Only time it's too late, old man, is when you're cold in the ground," he advised, downing his own second shot.
"And if it doesn't matter?" insisted Giles. "If Fate always brings you back to the same point, no matter what road you choose?"
Ethan rolled his eyes despairingly. "God, you're dull when you're morose. Did you learn nothing after all those years in your precious Council?" He took a swig of beer and then got to his feet. "There's no such thing as fate, Ripper. Change it or don't, it's your choice. Always has been."
He pulled a handful of bills from his pocket and tossed them on the table. "Happy birthday, mate."
Giles didn't acknowledge his departure and Ethan didn't look back. If he had, he would have seen Giles gazing thoughtfully into the depths of his empty shot glass.