The power came back on in the middle of the night.
That was good in theory but actually a mixed blessing as Giles, going wearily to bed after hours of trying to read by candlelight, had left the bedroom light switch on.
Bloody power cuts.
They'd started in the North of England, inexplicable and random. Soon enough they'd moved south, tracked on the news by a map that showed a pattern of dots that if linked in date and order zigzagged wildly at first, but then become arrow straight, heading for London.
London ... and nowhere else.The National Grid was 'unable to confirm conclusively as to why these rolling blackouts are currently restricted to the capital' just as they were unable to rule out sabotage, terrorists, or mice. Giles didn't share the general indignation on that score – he knew too much about the way the world worked to expect answers as a God-given right – but he had felt a stab of annoyance that they wouldn't even cross rodents off the list, just in case it was, and they ended up looking like fools.
After stumbling over to switch off the light, he pulled the covers over his head, allowing himself to hope that that was the last one.
A breakfast of lukewarm tea and toast that was still white due to a power cut two minutes into his breakfast preparations put his ill-timed optimism to rest. He went into work anyway, deciding to walk for once as it wasn't raining. Most of the contracted-out translation work he did for the Watchers Council didn't require a working computer – just a sharp pencil and a stack of paper.
And a sizable occult reference library, but that he had.
Staring across the street, waiting for the traffic lights to change – they seemed to operate even when the power was out, which he assumed was because of some sort of backup generators – he drifted into thoughts of his current task, a particularly tricky assignment as he was having to brush up on a demon language he'd never been fluent in.
A shove against his arm alerted him to the fact that the lights had changed, and a blinking man was signalling that it was safe to cross. His moment of inattention meant that he was the last to cross, hurrying after a mother pushing a pram loaded down with bags and a squalling toddler. The pavement ahead was crowded as the people crossing arrived and split off in both directions, hampered by an indecisive couple, a young man and a woman, heads close together as they studied a map, blocking the way.
As Giles watched, a man hurried past them, his head down, and two things happened at the same time: the map was knocked from the couple's hands, caught by a sudden gust of air and fluttering away, and the lights changed, all of them turning green, leaving Giles in the middle of a busy city intersection with – Good Lord, cars bearing down on him from every direction –
He ran forward, slamming into the back of the mother with the pram, shoving her and her child towards the pavement where the thick crowds miraculously parted to allow her refuge. Stumbling, he leapt forward himself, reaching out to grip the low railing separating pavement from road around the crossing, using it to halt himself at the cost of a wrenched shoulder.
The space where he'd stood a moment before was suddenly filled with two cars, both clinging to the belief that they had right of way and unwilling to concede it.
The crash and grind of metal as the vehicles collided echoed in Giles' head as he took a deep, shaky breath.
No one, amazingly, was hurt, although the sobbing mother, once she'd been made to see that no, Giles hadn't wantonly attacked her, was embarrassingly effusive in her gratitude. Smiling awkwardly and nursing his aching arm, Giles retreated as quickly as he could without being rude and continued on towards his office as he did most days.
He'd returned to London over Buffy's protests, determined to get on with his life, and the Council, slightly to his surprise given the friction that still existed between him and Travers, had been good enough to send a fair amount of work his way. The organisation did, obviously, have a good deal of experience in dealing with Watchers who'd lost their Slayers, although considerably less with ones that had lost and then found them again.
Happily, his office was far enough away from his flat that the power was working properly there – either that, or in the time it had taken him to walk there things had straightened themselves out. As Giles opened the front door to the building that housed his office and started up the stairs to the first floor, he passed two women whom he believed worked on the ground floor, one of whom was complaining to the other that she'd lost half the contents of her refrigerator the night before. He sympathised with her. It'd happened to him, although on a smaller scale, the week before.
He unlocked his door and went inside his small office, noting that the bag he often used to transport books back and forth from office to home was sitting on the floor. He reminded himself that he ought to buy some more candles, of the utilitarian variety, so that he could stop using ones intended for more mystical purposes. Not that he'd had the opportunity to put those to proper use any time recently.
It wasn't that he missed the constant pressure of living on the Hellmouth, he told himself. Not really. Besides, one quickly grew accustomed to a town that, at night, was as safe to walk through as a cage of hungry tigers – because, with the Slayer there, the tigers were chained and muzzled. And he could take care of himself.
No, he didn't miss the danger, didn't miss the way he was reminded each day, in some fashion, that life was short and easily snuffed out – like a candle, if it came to that.
But he missed the people, missed his friends. And God, this was dull!
Useful, reasonably lucrative, well within his capabilities, but so very dull.
He turned on his electric kettle and stood waiting for it to boil, staring out of the window and rubbing his shoulder absently. Odd that the lights would malfunction like that.
On the other hand, he probably didn't know enough about the way the National Grid functioned. There was little doubt that a great deal of the control of power was done by computers these days. Perhaps the sort of malfunction that he'd just witnessed was commonplace. The kettle clicked off, alerting Giles to the fact that his mind had been wandering and bringing his attention back to the office. He quickly made tea and sat down at the desk that had come with the lease, no doubt because the previous tenant had found it too difficult to move; it was a monstrosity of a thing, far too big for the space it was in. It didn't take him long to lose himself in the small translation job he'd taken on for a private client, going back to the same two books now and again to double check his work.
At lunchtime, he nipped out long enough to grab a quick sandwich and a pint at the pub that was three doors down from his building. The locals seemed to have got used to him and his quiet ways, no longer attempting to draw him into conversations they were having about local politics or national sport but not exactly giving him the cold shoulder either.
Today, though, he found himself pulled into a conversation as he stood at the bar, waiting for his change.
"You been getting these power cuts up your way, mate?"
London was still a collection of villages, Giles reflected, taking a sip at his bitter. "Yes," he said, giving the elderly man on the bar stool beside him a pleasant smile. "Bit of a nuisance, aren't they?"
"You know who I blame?" the man said earnestly, leaning forward and giving Giles an emphatic nod. "I blame the government." He tapped a nicotine-stained finger against a beer mat, soggy from a puddle of lager and lime Giles' elbow had already landed in. "Stands to reason, don't it?"
"In what way exactly?" Giles asked unwisely. A man joined him at the bar, asking for a beer in an accent that held a faint Welsh lilt to it. Giles glanced at him, not recognising him as a regular, and sighed inwardly as he was forced to move a little closer to the old man, whose clothes reeked of pipe smoke.
The rheumy eyes lit up. "In what way? In what way? Young man –" Giles swallowed a retort, deciding that to this man he probably did look relatively youthful. "Did you ever stop to think –"
It took Giles ten minutes to escape, and even then he was saved less by his own ingenuity than the fact that the man had consumed his pint faster than normal due to all his talking and was forced to retreat to the Gents.
Giles finished his own drink, wrapped up his untouched sandwich in the paper napkin provided and signalled to the barman. "Here: get him in a pint on me and tell him I had to go."
The barman chuckled. "Thought your eyes were glazing over a bit, but old Charlie was having fun. Not often he gets anyone to listen to him. Made his day."
Giles smiled uncomfortably. "Does he really think the government's been taken over by robot doubles?" he asked. "Or was he trying to wind me up?"
"That I can't say, but he's on his way back, so you can ask him yourself."
"Oh, Good Lord –" Giles shoved some coins over the bar hastily and made for the door. His hand was on the door handle when the lights flickered and died. The barman called out to him over the groans from the people scattered around the room. "The pumps won't work now, mate, but I'll change Charlie's pint to a whisky. At least the bottles still work when you tip them up!"
Giles raised a hand in acknowledgement of the sally and walked out into the pale spring sunshine. At least they still had that to see by.
Back in his office, he tried to concentrate, but the silence of the building felt wrong, somehow, even with the sunshine filtering in through the two small windows. He was tempted to go to the effort of struggling to open them just to let some fresh air in, but he continued to tell himself that he'd do it in another few minutes, until the minutes had ticked away and it was suddenly after five.
He'd accomplished little despite the long hours he'd put in, and was suspicious enough that this would continue to be the case that he decided to call it a day and head back to the flat. Perhaps he'd be able to watch some mindless television this evening, if the power came back on, and start fresh tomorrow.
On the way home, Giles couldn't help but feel that he was being watched. It was absurd, really, the levels of paranoia which one could reach after years of training. Telling himself that it was nothing, he firmly put the thought out of his head and kept walking. It wasn't until he'd crossed the street – mindful of the earlier mishap, but the lights were working, at that intersection at least – that he glanced back, and when he did, he saw no one that looked even the slightest bit interested in him. Just dozens of other weary workers headed home after a long day. No one paying him the slightest bit of attention. So when he very nearly bumped into someone walking in the opposite direction, Giles was flustered. "Sorry," he said, and looked into the face of Ethan Rayne. Ethan was wearing dark sunglasses, but there was no question that it was him. Giles would have known him anywhere. There was a brief instant in which they stared at each other, neither of them moving or speaking. Then Ethan stepped past him and disappeared into the crowd.
Shock held Giles still for a long moment – too long because when he spun around, searching the crowd, Ethan wasn't in sight. It didn't stop him going after him, though, anger, suspicion, and yes, he admitted it, curiosity, adding urgency to the chase.
The passers by seemed to be in league with Ethan, swerving in front of Giles, blocking his way. In frustration he abandoned his manners and began to barge through the crowd, searching for a tall, dark-haired man – but hadn't there been grey at his temples?
He caught sight of him when Ethan rounded a corner, and managed to get close enough to risk calling his name.
Ethan paused – Giles was ready to swear to that when he replayed it in his head afterward – but didn't turn around. Moving quickly, he darted into the traffic and as Giles watched, he leapt onto a bus waiting at the traffic lights, vanishing inside as the lights turned green and the bus lurched off.
Giles cursed. He could try and follow it; the traffic was busy enough that he could probably catch it up at this time of night, but the odds of finding Ethan inside, sitting quietly and waiting to be found, were too low to make it worth his time.
He gave up, disappointment making his jaw clench as he strode along, retracing his steps.
He might have admitted to curiosity, but the flash of pleasure at seeing a familiar face was a different story altogether. That, he was determined to forget.
Moving slowly now, Giles made his way home, shutting the door to his flat behind him with a sigh of relief when he realised that the power was still on. The digital clock on the desk read what he was sure was the correct time. He was unable to work up the motivation to cook a proper meal despite the fact that he knew he ought to take advantage of being able to use the stove. Instead, he had two cups of tea and a handful of biscuits while he read the newspaper, took a long, hot shower and then settled himself down on the couch to watch television. There was nothing remotely interesting on, but Giles was determined not to waste any more time thinking about Ethan. How long had the man been in London? Had it been chance that they'd run into each other the way they had? Giles would have called the mere thought absurd, knowing Ethan the way he did, but the expression of shock on Ethan's face when he'd seen him, not to mention the way the other man had turned and run off... No, he was most assuredly not thinking about this. Resolutely, Giles went to bed early with a book and ironically enough, fell asleep with the lights still on.
Hello, old man.
I know you must be thinking that I engineered our little meeting on the street yesterday evening, but I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. I'd no idea you were back in London, I swear it. Not that my assurances mean anything to you, I'm sure.
In any case, don't worry. It won't happen again.
Forgive me if I find it difficult to believe that anything you do that concerns me is pure chance.
Do give me a hint as to what I can expect this time? Or would that spoil the fun?
We can't do this. I know the past has been a complicated series of dance steps, but I can't do it again.
There's nothing fun about this.
Have a good life, Ripper, if you can manage it between assignments and protocol and whatever else the bloody Watchers Council throws in your direction.
What the hell do you know about it? About my life? Apart from the fact that you seem to have made it your hobby to end it the last few times we've met. Can you blame me for thinking this is just the start of another of your games?
And if it isn't – but it is. Ethan, with you it's always something.
I want to know. Forewarned is forearmed and all that.
Or don't you owe me even that much?
I don't think you want to invoke the scale of measuring out what each of us owes the other. I really don't.
I didn't know you were here. I've nothing planned, and even if I were to have, it would be nothing to do with you. I'll say it as many times as you like.
And I've never tried to end your life. I'll admit to a certain desire to... spice it up a bit, to give you a touch of excitement. Can you really tell me truthfully that having your heart pounding in your chest, feeling that flood of adrenaline through your system, is so terrible?
In any case, I'll leave you alone after this, barring the accidental meeting on street corners.
I hesitate to point out that you were the one that followed me. That says something, doesn't it?
I don't think following you counts as anything but understandable caution on my part. I'd rather have you where I can see you, Ethan.
And I don't need you to make my life exciting, if that's what you call it.
I don't need you at all.
No, you don't need me, do you. Not really. You never did.
I'm just looking for a little peace, Rupert. I know that's probably impossible to believe given my past history, but it's true. I'm... well, let's just say I'm paying the price for past transgressions and leave it at that.
Good luck out there, old man.
And this is what you call not playing games?
Ethan, if you were within reach of my hands, I'd – no. I'm not going to give you the satisfaction of driving me – once again – to a physical expression of just how very frustrated you make me feel, even if it's only in words, not deeds.
Just tell me what's happening and stop being so bloody cryptic. What transgressions? Against me? And what price?
And for you to wish me luck is so very unlike you that I can't help wondering if it is you I'm talking to.
Is it? You could be anyone, after all...
Care to prove yourself to me?
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