The End of the Beginning

by Marina

Chapter 1

June 12, 1981

Putting on a proper display of righteous indignation can be very difficult when one is too drunk to walk straight. Rupert Giles made this important discovery as he staggered around the living room of an ugly Chiswick flat at two in the morning, trying to rub out the chalk marks on the floor without falling over. Around him, people were shouting in confusion or annoyance. Someone was tugging at Gilesí sleeve. Someone Ė Ethan, probably Ė was laughing. Giles paid them no mind. He braced one hand against the corner of a bookcase and scuffed his foot across a particularly stubborn rune, turning it into a smudge. He wished he hadnít worn such smooth-soled shoes.

"Aw, come on, Ripper!" Ethan hauled himself out of the beanbag chair where heíd been sprawled, and took a couple of steps toward Giles. He, too, was unsteady on his feet, but his eyes were sharp and amused. "Donít be such a spoilsport. We were only trying to provide you with a little fun on your birthday."

"Thish ish-- fuck!" Giles pushed away from the bookcase, gathered the gin-soaked remains of his dignity around him, and forced himself to stand straight and enunciate. "This is not my idea of fun," he announced, and marched toward the door.

His exit was somewhat spoiled by the doorknob, which wobbled in his hand, refusing to turn. Giles grabbed it with both hands, wrestled it into submission, and staggered outside. It was raining, and his umbrella was back in the flat somewhere, but he wasnít about to go back for it. Ethan would laugh himself silly. Besides, the rain was helping to clear his head.

There was a lamppost at the end of the driveway. Giles slumped against it and raised his face to the sky, not even minding the drops that spattered on his glasses. He felt angry, and stupid, and angry with himself for being stupid. He shouldíve known better. Shouldíve just hung up when Ethan called the day before to wish him a happy birthday. But there heíd been, thirty years old, with no social life and no plans to celebrate, and no matter how much his better judgment screamed at him, part of him had been truly touched that Ethan had remembered.

They hadnít seen each other in over eight years. The disaster with Eyghon had been the final straw in an already shaky relationship. Giles had gone back to Oxford and Ethan had goneÖ wherever. Giles hadnít expected to ever hear from him again. The call had taken him by surprise and thrown him completely off-balance.

So heíd agreed to a pub crawl, and after the pubs had closed, heíd agreed to go to Chiswick, where some friends of Ethanís were having a party. It had been fun at first Ė Ethanís friends were enthusiastic and welcoming, and very free with their alcohol. Giles had barely noticed when Ethan started drawing on the floor, and one of the women began lighting candles. Then heíd stood to pour himself another gin and, in a random moment of lucidity, recognized the pattern on the floor.

"Ethan, you bloody bastard." Giles sighed and ran one hand through his hair, brushing wet strands back from his forehead. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"Talking to yourself, Ripper?" Ethan was standing right beside him, though Giles hadnít heard him come up. "Stop it and come inside. Youíre getting soaked."

"Sod off." Giles shoved his hands into his pockets and began to walk in a random direction. He had no idea where he was or how to get home -- they had arrived in a taxi, and Giles hadnít been paying attention when Ethan gave the address to the driver. Surely there had to be a street sign somewhere...

"Ripper!" Ethan had caught up with him again. He was grinning, damn him, as if there was anything even remotely amusing about the situation. Giles wanted to punch him. "I really donít see--"

"Stop calling me that!" Giles hissed. Ethanís grin grew wider.

"Very well, Rupert. I still donít see what youíre getting so worked up about. It was only a harmless little--"

"Thereís no such thing as a harmless demon summoning!" Giles shouted into Ethanís insufferably cheerful face. "God, donít you ever learn? Donít you remember? Randall is dead!"

"Yes, yes, and we must all torture ourselves about it for the rest of our natural lives." Ethan rolled his eyes. "Enough of the breast-beating, Rupert. I wasnít going to summon Eyghon. This isnít even a real demon, just a minor underworld spirit. Good for parlor tricks and not much else."

"Parlor tricks." Giles made no attempt to keep the disgust from his voice. He felt tired and old, and uncomfortably damp, and in no mood to try and break through Ethanís eternal insouciance. "Right. Whatever you say, Ethan. Iím going home."

Ethan pouted, an expression Giles clearly remembered finding charming less than a decade ago. "You used to be a lot more fun than this. Whatever happened to your sense of adventure? I mean, look at youÖ" He pinched a fold of Gilesí sleeve between thumb and forefinger, and curled his lip in exaggerated distaste. "Tweed?"

"What does that have to do anything?" Giles pulled his arm away, trying not to feel hurt. He was rather fond of his Harris tweed jacket with the little leather patches on the elbows. Heíd bought it at Harrods when he got the job at the British Museum -- his Watcher training had reached the independent research stage -- and it was by far the most expensive piece of clothing he owned. He wore it with khakis and a moss-green turtleneck, and thought he was striking the perfect balance between casual and academic.

"I'm just trying to dress my age, thatís all." He eyed Ethanís artfully frayed black jeans and chain-laden leather jacket with disapproval. "You should try it yourself sometime. You look like an over-the-hill rent boy."

"Been seeing a lot of those lately, have you?" Ethan wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "You really need a party, Rupert. Come--"

"Giles. Call me Giles."

"If I do, will you come back inside?"

"I--"

"No more summonings, I promise."

It was awfully wet outÖ Giles was about to voice his agreement when the sky caught fire.

Giles' first thought was that someone was setting off fireworks nearby. But there was none of the noise that normally accompanies fireworks. The burst of emerald stars floated upwards in eerie silence, trailing faint plumes of smoke, bathing the trees and rooftops below in flickering green light. As Giles watched, the stars began to move, arranging themselves into the shape of an immense skull. It was hard to judge size, with nothing around to give the thing scale, but Giles thought it had to be at least twenty feet across. A snake slithered from the skullís grinning mouth like a grotesque tongue. When the clouds behind it moved, the snake seemed to writhe.

"What the hell..." Gilesí head was clearing rapidly as adrenalin chased out the alcohol fumes. He shot a glance at Ethan, who stepped back and spread his arms.

"Donít look at me, I didnít do it."

For once, Giles believed him.

"We'd better have a look."

He was half a block away before he realized that Ethan wasnít following. Giles stopped, turned and glared, and got an equally pointed glare in return.

"I can see fine from here," Ethan said. "No need to come any closer."

"Whatever happened to your sense of adventure?" Giles came back, hooked three fingers through the loop of chain that dangled off Ethanís left shoulder and pulled, hard. "Come along now, thereís a good boy."

Ethan came along, protesting all the while about the rain, the party they were leaving behind, and the likelihood of them being killed unpleasantly by whatever entity had produced the mark in the sky. He shut up only when Giles pointed out, rather snappishly, that their chances of survival would increase dramatically if the entity in question couldn't hear them coming.

It was easy enough to spot the source of the apparition once they got close enough. The small Georgian terrace houses that lined the street were all quite peaceful looking and quite identical Ė except for the third house from the corner, where the windows were shattered and the front door hung askew on one hinge. Strangely, no alarms had gone off, and the adjoining buildings were dark and silent, as if none of the neighbors had noticed anything amiss. Giles peered through one of the broken windows but saw no movement inside.

"Right, then, we've had a look," Ethan murmured in a voice barely above a whisper. "Can we go now?"

"I want to make sure everyone inside is all right." Giles stood to the side of the door and carefully nudged it open with his foot. When a full minute passed and nothing leaped out to attack him, he went in.

He found the light switch by feel and flipped it, but no lights went on. Giles swore under his breath and looked back over his shoulder at Ethan, who was standing just outside the doorway with the air of someone who had no intention of moving.

"I don't suppose you have a torch on you?"

"Yes, I always take one along when I drag an old mate out for a birthday pub crawl." Ethan gave a deep, long-suffering sigh, hesitated, then dug a small crystal sphere from a pocket. "Don't say I never help," he announced, and threw the sphere to the floor. "Ergo lucis!"

The crystal shattered, releasing a globe of pale, steady light that rose from the floor to hover just below the ceiling. Giles examined it curiously.

"Helios sphere?"

"Yes, and now you owe me a new one." Ethan leaned against the door frame and folded his arms across his chest. "Hurry up, will you? Iíd like to get out of here."

The parlor was empty. So was the living room. Giles climbed the stairs, Ethanís mage light bobbing along in front of him. As he reached the top step, he became aware of a thick, acrid smell in the air Ė blood and vomit and other things he didnít want to think about, all horribly out of place in a quiet West London home. Giles stopped, one foot still on the stairs and one on the landing, and gripped the banister until his fingers hurt. There was a half-open door just ahead of him; it seemed to be the source of the stench. Giles stared at it, unmoving. Having come this far, he found he didnít want to know what was on the other side.

The steps behind him creaked, and he turned with a start to find Ethan climbing the stairs.

"I thought you were going to stay outside?"

Ethan shrugged. "Well, nothing's jumped out and eaten you yet, so I decided it was safe. What's that sme--"

There was a faint pop below them, like a very small balloon bursting near the bottom of the stairs. One moment there was nothing there but the empty hallway, then a pair of figures stepped out of the shadows, silhouetted against the window. Giles had just enough time to register an impression of long, flowing cloaks, or perhaps clerical robes, before one of the figures raised its right arm.

"Stupefy!" a voice called out. There was a brilliant flash of light, and then nothing at all.

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