"I still don't see why I can't tell Buffy and the others about Giles' birthday." Dawn stared at her reflection in the bedroom mirror as she slowly ran a brush through her hair.
"We've been over this again and again." Ethan's voice sounded exasperated even though the distortion of the computer speakers. "You cannot reveal my presence here. While you say that your sister and her friends aren't... what was it? ...the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree... if you suddenly announce the date of Rupert's birth they're going to wonder how you know." There was a pause. "You haven't said anything have you?"
"No," Dawn muttered sulkily. She put down the brush turned around to face the computer. "Not one word all day long. Not even at dinner tonight when everyone was all mopey about missing Giles."
"It's truly heart-warming how attached all of you are to dear Rupert," Ethan said silkily. "Such generous and unselfish devotion deserves to be rewarded."
"What did you have in mind?" Dawn giggled and leaned toward the camera. "This is so not fair!" she grumbled. "I wish I could see you. I can't believe you forgot to take your camera with you."
"No matter, luv," Ethan responded easily. There was a moment of silence and his voice lowered. "At least I can see you."
"Hey, did you notice? I got rid of the cows!" Dawn stuck a covergirl pose. "What do you think? I found them in this great retro shop downtown. The clerk said they're called baby-doll pajamas." There was no answer. "Randall, are you still there?"
There was a long pause and she could barely hear the whispered response. "Oh lord, yes."
"Randall, you okay?"
"Um… just spilled something. Give me a moment to… um, clean up, luv."
"You're having a rough day, aren't you?" she chuckled.
"Never fear, it's getting better by the minute." His voice trailed off for a moment. "I meant to say that you look, well, charming." His normal tone returned. "But they don't look terribly warm."
"I never get cold." Dawn rolled over and stretched out on her stomach. "Have you come up with a brilliant idea for letting the others know about Giles' birthday?"
"Yes, I believe I have. It occurs to me that…"
"Here Rupert, you look as if you need this." Percy handed a glass of brandy to Giles. "I assume Ellen has gone to bed."
"Yes, it was a long day for her. She's a lovely girl, but terribly skittish in crowds. Heathrow was a bit overwhelming for her."
"Well, the coven should be a welcomed relief then. I just spoke to Christina and she said she'll be here in the morning for Ellen."
"Good." Giles settled back into the big chair by the fireplace and sipped his brandy. "I think Ellen will do well in Devon. According to Faith, she shows amazing promise."
"Are you alright? You've said very little since you arrived."
"A bit tired. I've been in four airports in 18 hours and I don't even know what time my body is on."
"I do appreciate you escorting her here on such short notice. Merivale couldn't have chosen a more inconvenient time to break his leg." Percy took his own brandy and sat down on the opposite side of the fire in a leather chair that was a twin to the one Giles occupied. "Ellen's mother was very concerned about her making the trip to England by herself. I think you could tell that the adjustment to Slayerhood hasn't been an easy one for her."
"Yes, but she's strong. She'll make it." Giles leaned his head against the back of the chair. "As for the escort… it was the least I could do. I know you weren't exactly delighted by my decision to remain with Buffy."
Percy waved away the comment. "Ancient history, old friend. Over time I've grown accustomed to the notion of our most experienced Watcher and Slayer rusticating in… where is it again? Idaho?"
Giles laughed. "Oregon. As you very well know. By now you've probably accumulated dossiers on the entire population of Whispering Pines."
Percy grinned wolfishly, openly displaying the keen intelligence he usually kept well hidden. "One does what one can to be prepared."
Giles' smile faded. "How are things, Percy? It's a daunting task you've taken on."
"Says the man who helped to avert several apocalypses and defeat the First."
Giles looked at him. "You're avoiding answering my question."
"The news isn't all good," Percy admitted. "We are finding most of the girls in time, but in some instances we've been too late."
Percy nodded. "Eleven, that we know about. We're also seeing varying degrees of emotional and mental problems. The medical facility in North Yorkshire is caring for the more extreme cases and the Devon Coven is working with the others."
"What a bloody nightmare." Giles took a sip of brandy. "Please tell me there's some light at the end of this dismal tunnel and that it isn't an oncoming train."
Percy rolled the glass between his hands. "The majority of the girls made the transition without incident, and the system we established of one watcher being assigned to a group of slayers seems to be working very well. The girls are finding it easier to adjust when they are all, well, adjusting together, for lack of a better way to put it."
"That's something, I suppose."
"While we're not certain yet, it appears that new slayers aren't being created and the ones who have died aren't being replaced."
Giles nodded absently. "Willow and I thought it probable that the spell would only effect the current generation of Potentials if they met all the criteria on the day the spell was cast. But we weren't sure if that would mean that ultimately there would be only one Slayer again or if eventually there will be a fairly fixed larger number."
"It may take years before we know for certain," Percy agreed, "In the meantime, the reorganization of the Council is progressing much more quickly than we projected. Two of the founding families, Durham and Chilton, came back into the fold when they learned the Council had reformed its wicked ways and would be returning to its original purpose; being of service to the Slayer."
"Yes. I still have trouble saying that." Percy smiled. "I suppose it must be the same for you. I'm sure in your mind, Buffy will always be the one girl in all the world."
"Hey yourself, pirate." Lessa laughed as she leaned back against the pillows and shifted the phone to a more comfortable position next to her ear. "What are you doing up this late?"
"So you thought you'd wake me up, too? Thanks pal."
"Oh, shit! I didn't, did I? When I turned on the TV and "Son of Wolfman" was on, I figured you'd be watching it."
Lessa laughed. "I am. You know me. I just can't resist a man that's tall, dark and furry."
"You should compare notes with Will. Although in her case it was short, orange and furry."
Lessa laughed again. "Did you call me in the middle of the night to talk about Willow's old boyfriend?"
"No," he sounded hesitant. "I called to talk about my maybe new girlfriend."
Lessa muted the sound on the TV. "I'd forgotten you were going out on your first date with the nurse. Did you have fun? Is she as great as Dawn says she is?"
"Even better than advertised," Xander admitted. "Pretty. Smart. Funny."
"Don't you sound excited?" Lessa teased. "Would you have preferred stupid, dumb and gloomy?"
"I guess I just don't understand why."
Lessa waited. "Why what?" she asked finally.
"Why any of it. What would someone who's all that stuff see in me?"
"She'd see someone who's all that stuff, too," Lessa said forcefully. "I don't understand why you can't see what everyone else does… a brave, wonderful man."
Lessa could hear the humor in his voice, but it also sounded like he might be blinking back tears. "Don't let it go to your head. You're still all wrong about Kirk being a better captain than Picard."
Xander cleared his throat. "Don't you believe it for a minute. My man Jim would have the phasers going and the photon torpedoes flying while your wimpy captain was still tugging on his tunic."
"In the meantime, Jean Luc would have thought of six different ways to avoid blowing up anything. Not to mention that he doesn't jump any alien with a pulse and violate the Prime Directive every time he beams off the damned ship."
"Whoa! Down, girl."
"Sorry. For a minute there I flashbacked to my parent's basement and yelling at my brother." Lessa took a deep breath. "I guess we got sort of side-tracked from our original conversation."
"That's okay." Xander yawned. "All of a sudden, I feel like I could go to sleep."
"Okay then. Goodnight, John Boy."
"Goodnight, Mary Ellen."
Giles cleared this throat. "Speaking of Buffy, there is something I would like to discuss with you."
Percy sipped the brandy thoughtfully and then lowered the glass. "As your friend or as the head of the Council."
He settled back in his chair and crossed his legs. "Go ahead."
"You may have noticed that I'm quite fond of Buffy."
Percy stared for a moment then gave a shout of laughter. "I know as Englishmen we have a certain reputation to uphold regarding understatement, but really, Rupert, that borders on the ludicrous."
Giles flushed. "I should have let those K'dar demons pound your ass into the pavement when I had the chance."
Percy grinned widely and raised his brandy glass in a mock toast. "I hadn't thought about that in nearly thirty years. Although as I recall, one of those demons was female and had entirely different plans for my ass."
"Thirty years?" Giles murmured. "Has it really been that long?"
Percy nodded. "Just about. It was back when you were raising hell with Ethan and refusing to even speak to anyone from the Council."
"So my father sent my old friend, the Council's rising young star, to make me see the error of my evil ways." Giles couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"Instead, you ended up saving my life." Percy raised his glass in another salute. "For which I am most grateful."
"I suppose it's one of fate's little ironies that I ended up tucking tail and returning to the Council while you had the courage to refuse their detestable orders and leave."
"I had incentive." Percy gestured toward his desk. Sitting in easy view was an ornate silver frame containing a photograph of two smiling, dark-haired women. "Every time I looked at my daughter, I knew I could never turn anyone's child over to a man like Quentin Travers."
"How is Cecily?" Giles asked. "I haven't seen her since the wedding."
"She and Edward recently bought a house not far from here and Patricia is staying there this week to help with some redecoration. Edward, being a sensible chap, took an assignment in Vanuatu while his mother-in-law is in residence."
Giles grinned. "I have a difficult time thinking of Patricia as someone's mother-in-law. I still remember the paisley mini-skirt she was wearing the night you introduced us."
"I have some very pleasant memories of that skirt myself," Percy said with a laugh. "But haven't you heard? She's about to be more than a just a mother-in-law. Cecily's pregnant and sometime in June, we're going to be grandparents."
"Congratulations," Giles said after a short silence.
"Thank you." Percy got up and refilled their brandy glasses. "However, I'm sure you have more important things on your mind than listening to stories about my family. What was it you wanted to discuss about Buffy?"
Giles stared into the fire for a long moment lost in thought. "Nothing," he said finally, in a flat voice. "I've just realized it wasn't a very good idea."
"Buffy!" Dawn came down the back stairs two at a time as she headed to the kitchen.
"We're in here." The return shout came from the living room.
Dawn turned and charged the other direction. "What are you doing and why didn't you tell me next week was Giles' birthday?" she demanded. She tossed her jacket and bookbag on the sofa between Willow and Xander.
Buffy looked up from where she was sitting on the floor sorting CD's. "Birthday?"
"The anniversary of the day he was born." Dawn folded her arms across her chest and spoke slowly, accentuating every syllable.
Buffy threw a CD case at her sister. "Demon Spawn."
Dawn batted away the plastic container. "Vampire Lay…"
"Hey, how did you find out it was G-man's birthday?" Xander interrupted, before Dawn could finish her taunt.
"Yeah, how?" Buffy climbed to her feet.
"When I was at the mall yesterday, I ran into that lady that works with Giles. The one he introduced us to at the movie the other night."
"Professor Bryant. " Willow joined in the discussion.
Dawn nodded. "Yeah, that's her. She asked if Giles was going to be back in time for his birthday."
"How would she know about his birthday?" Buffy asked.
"She's faculty," Willow said as if that explained everything.
Buffy scowled. "Why didn't you say something yesterday?"
"I thought you knew. No one ever tells me anything, but he's been your Watcher forever." She watched as the guilt took effect, just as Randall had said it would.
"You're right. I should have known." Buffy sighed. "Why didn't he ever say anything?"
"Maybe because we never asked," Willow said miserably.
Buffy looked stricken. "You're right. I never even thought about it. What does that make me?"
"Thoughtless. Just like the rest of us." Xander swallowed hard as he made a neat stack of the CD's he was holding.
Buffy's face settled into a mask of determination. "We've got four days before Giles gets back. When he comes through that door we're going to have the biggest birthday surprise he's ever seen."
Ethan ran the knife along the edge of the box, neatly slicing through the packing tape. He reached in and pulled out a black leather jacket, rich with the patina of age. He stroked the old leather gently. "Oh my, the memories you bring back! And I think you'll help guarantee that dear Rupert's 50th birthday will be one that he and his friends will remember for a very, very long time."
He put the jacket on the bed and opened it to inspect the lining. Across the right shoulder a dark stain was faintly visible against the dark fabric. "Excellent," he muttered to himself. "Just as I remembered. Not as good as fresh, of course, but more than adequate for my gift."
He picked up the jacket and walked to the other side of the room where candles and a potion were already prepared for the necessary ritual. He settled in the center of the pentagram and muttered a spell under his breath. The candles flickered to life. He picked up the bottle and poured the liquid inside into his hands, rubbing his palms together for a few moments to warm the fluid. Then placing both hands on the jacket, he allowed the potion to be absorbed by the bloodied leather as he chanted,
"Once young and wild
Now acting old and mild.
But not everything is at it seems
And this Black leather holds the dream.
Lose yourself as you slip it on:
Become Chaos' wild pawn."
The candles flared and Ethan laughed in anticipation.
"See you soon, Ripper."