The traffic in London that night was appalling. An accident in rush hour had disrupted all roads for several hours, leaving long queues of passengers fuming at bus stops. The weather hadn't helped anyone’s temper either, the rain sheeted down in waves, turning the roads into rivers under the wheels of the slowly moving traffic. Rupert Giles, having some twenty minutes earlier given up his seat to a veteran sporting WWII campaign medals, gloomily hung onto the overhead strap as his red double-decker crawled up to yet another queue of sodden commuters. Those standing down the centre aisle were already nervously intimate with each other at every lurch or gasp of the brakes and Giles had found his space particularly squeezed, his leather satchel twisting in his grip, as he'd fought against the tide of new passengers in a valiant attempt to remain near the front of the bus and the merciful fresh air each opening of the doors brought. The atmosphere was oppressive to him. The slot windows all remained firmly closed against the elements and the damp and the combined sweat created a heavy fug only tempered by a lady’s rather piercing perfume which, whilst shooting for vivacious, to Giles’ nose could only be really be said to have hit the target around vicious.
His thoughts drifted unbidden to Sunnydale, a town he could breathe in, a town he could at least drive in. It had been two months but he still found himself doing the time zone conversion. Anya would be checking the internet orders until Xander finished work and came to drink coffee and help with the heavy lifting. Dawn might drop by after school though he didn’t know if she did that anymore, maybe she was too old for that now? Willow and Tara might have class or be in the library but he imaged they were together, treating the shop as their personal study space. In his mind they were all there, just as he had left them. Except for Buffy; for some reason he could never quite picture what she did with herself during an afternoon.
The bus driver was remonstrating with a passenger, his vehicle was full, overloaded already, and no, he couldn't squeeze her on even though she was the last of the queue. The woman was refusing to get off and creating an impasse. An elderly lady, secure in her seat and clutching the handle of a walking stick declared it was a shame that young people just didn't seem to care about old-fashioned standards. The woman by the driver’s cab turned and looked hopefully at the standing passengers and in turning revealed she was heavily pregnant. The elderly lady continued to chunter about manners because in her day ‘a gentleman was a gentleman’. It was obvious that if they wanted the bus to move, if they all wanted to get home, then someone needed to get off. She finished her statements with a pointed look at Giles. Others too had assessed the line of people standing and judged him to be the most able bodied. There was a lot of muttering and coughing at his direction; Giles dropped his head and bowed to the inevitable.
“What time is the next bus due?” he asked as he squeezed past the pregnant woman to give up his space.
“Won’t be another one down this way tonight, mate,” responded the driver cheerily. Giles had already passed through the doors to duck under the bus shelter and he turned in disbelief.
“Then how, in god’s name-” he began.
“I think there’s an old tube station about mile east, you might do better there.” And with that the doors folded against him and the bus began to indicate its ambitions to pull back into the lanes of partially moving traffic. The guttering on the shelter tipped a quart of rain water down the back of Giles’ collar and his cursed his luck. He hadn’t dressed for such foul weather; two months but a part of him still expected sunshine every day.
The mysterious tube station was his best bet now. Giles tried to duck under awnings and shelters as best he could as he scurried along the mile or so. He hugged his satchel to keep the contents dry. It held several books from the Council Library; an institution of which technically he had no borrowing rights but which fortunately still had some staff that recognised him from the old days. They might not be happy he had abused their hospitality by smuggling some books out, but then so long as he was able to smuggle them back (with minimal water damage), they might never know. As rebellious behaviour went, he recognised it was pathetic but the Council were dragging their heels on his official status. A Slayer’s Watcher is not supposed to be six thousand miles apart from his charge and whilst he had upset them many times in the past, his present desertion was a thing they found truly inexplicable. The Quentins of this world were not alone in their condemnation; even his friends in the lower rungs of power had started to shun him, considering his actions unpardonable. There had recently been a run of bad luck with some of the potentials being killed and some their resentment stemmed from that. Well, it was hardly his fault if they wanted to treat him as an outcast, a Jonah. Giles was still resolute that his decision to leave Buffy had been the right thing to do.
A motorcycle courier whizzed past him close to the kerb, and a huge roar of water followed, a tidal wave that soaked his trousers up to his hips. Giles wondered if trying to stay dry even mattered anymore. His socks squelched in his shoes and his shirt clung uncomfortably to his back. He abandoned caution, and started to run, each footfall causing water to fountain around him. Giles drove on till he saw the comfort of a familiar red circle logo of the tube network. The building looked drab and forgotten; a place where even the neon signs seemed lacklustre and world weary but Giles was grateful enough for the shelter it promised as he pulled up into its dark ticket hallway and watched the rain from his coat puddle to the cracked tiled flooring. He took a couple of breaths into his lungs. A simple journey home from one part of central London to another should not have been as hard as it was this night.
None of the shuttered ticket windows looked like they’d been manned in years. Instead, he fed all his change into the gaudy machine for a pink one-way ticket then schlepped his way through the automatic barrier into the system of tunnels and mazes that gloried under the title of London Underground. It was only then that he noticed the name of the station, emblazoned in the tile work above the escalator. Giles blinked: Watchers End. He’d never heard of there being such a place before but then he supposed there were plenty of anonymous stations scattered around London with queer names. Watchers End. It seemed rather ominous. He felt a shiver as rain from his hair ran down his neck. Not tonight, he thought, not for this Watcher anyway, tonight he was at least in the dry and maybe only half an hour away from connections and the short walk to his flat. He took the escalator down and dutifully stood on the right out of habit. There was no-one else that late, perhaps the station was a little off the track for late night revellers. The lights flickered as he rode down.
He studied the simple map of his two line options. The line to his left promised him a westerly journey with connections to main stations, but then, to his right confusingly, there was a linking walkway that also promised west and stations with names he’d heard of. Perhaps when it was built there had been the scent of new industry and growth in the area, growth that had never materialised, and somehow no-one had quite had the heart to tell the station itself of the redundancy of that second set of tracks.
A train was already waiting on the left platform so he ran and jumped onto to the mostly empty carriage. There were only three people there: a woman sitting quietly on her own and a brash young couple in their teens dressed from a mixture of punk and grunge. The boy had short red hair and wore a blue grey RAF tunic decorated in paint and felt tip pen slogans of general prejudice. The girl wore a leather stud collar that Giles felt she was far too young to understand the significance of. They were drinking and showing off their sexuality for their expanded audience. The boy had said something obscene when Giles had leapt aboard and the girl had laughed. When it became obvious that the doors were not about to close, Giles realised his mistake in rushing. His train was not due to depart for some time. It sat quietly like a great beast on the rails, biding its time. He opted for an end seat slightly apart from the others and studied the back of his hands.
There was an odd smell in the carriage that he couldn’t quite place but felt he needed to remember. It was familiar and yet wasn’t a smell he associated with London or its Underground. He’d travelled many different subway systems and all of them smelt subtly different to him. None of them were as familiar as London to him though, with its unique musk of grease, fluff, cinders and hot metal. Maybe it stemmed from the arrogance of youth, but Giles had always felt comforted on London transport. The Tube held happy memories of friendly bustle and noise; it had been his playground and school during his misspent youth. Giles had been a seasoned traveller in those days. Days when for the price of a single fair, you could travel anywhere and everywhere so long as you only wanted a place to stay warm and dry. Ethan hadn’t been averse to picking the odd pocket for fun, but Giles had only ever stolen out of necessity. When they were flush they’d held beer parties on the Circle Line, taking over a carriage with a cask and partying freely until the beer ran out. Nobody in authority had ever tried to stop them; the only trouble came from the right-wing gangs that thought they owned Britain at that time. Still, Ethan could always be relied upon to take the piss and to stand up to the bullies in those days. They had fought and laughed together, and run and jumped trains to escape. As long as there was another moving train, Giles had always felt safe down there.
His current train was eerily silent however and he caught the strange smell again in his nostrils. It was unusual in that it burnt the back of his throat ever so slightly and it puzzled him. It was a smell he knew from Sunnydale somehow. He looked around boldly at the other passengers as if to give him clues. The couple in their teens were sharing a can of lager, the girl sat on the boys lap with his hand casually between the legs of her jeans. He wore his hair aggressively short and his white tee-shirt and jeans tight. The girl looked younger but had far more bits of her face pierced that Giles thought possible. He’d seen less stud work on a pincushion. She caught Giles’ eye on her and flashed in retaliation.
“Oy, what you looking at then?” Giles dropped his gaze to imply he hadn’t been staring intentionally. “Bloody perverts on this train,” announced the girl. “Watching people. Him, him over there.” She pointed at Giles as if there could be any doubt who she meant. “People have no fucking manners these days,” she added grandly. Thankfully the boy took no interest in her social commentary but he cast a lazy and thoughtful eye at Giles as he continued to drink his lager.
The only other passenger was a woman of about thirty. Her platinum blonde hair was striking in waves and curls pinned up high like a movie star and she wore a grey raincoat over a stunning dark green velvet dress. She also acknowledged Giles’ attention but with a kinder, shyer smile. Giles ducked her gaze and wondered when he’d lost the art of stealth.
“You got any money, Robbie?” the pincushion girl asked loudly of the boy.
“No, but I know how we can get some.” Out of the corner of his eye, Giles saw the boy nod towards the woman in green. Pincushion smiled and kissed him greedily - and oh Dear Lord but it looked a rather dangerous undertaking with her tongue piercing - however the boy responded vigorously enough before wiping his face on the back of his hand and then resuming his lager. God, Giles just wanted to go home. He closed his eyes and drifted. It was none of his business if some teenagers wanted to show off. He didn’t care, he didn’t need to care, and he wasn’t being paid to care. He found himself doing the maths again and wondering if Buffy had picked Dawn up from school. If she would be cooking that evening, if either of them were eating properly.
The woman on her own got up and moved down the seats to be away from the teenage couple. She sat opposite Giles with an obvious plea for safety.
“Aren’t we good enough for you, duchess?” the girl disentangled herself from under her boyfriend’s tunic and came closer also. She sat a couple of seats down on Giles’ side but her attention was fixed on the woman.
“I like your dress,” said the girl with just enough innocence to make it sound sinister.
“I bet it was expensive.”
The woman smiled shyly but said nothing. Her eyes sought out Giles’ for help but he chose to concentrate on wiping some of the moisture from his satchel to preserve the leather. The boy finished his lager and swaggered to join them. His tight blue jeans were rolled up to display his black calf length Dr Martens boots. With his short hair it was clear fashions had returned and the boy had embraced the skinhead sub-culture that Giles had clashed with in his youth. He sat on the seat next to the woman and ran a lazy finger up and down the armrest between them just as the carriage lights flickered and hummed. All four travellers looked up in surprise at that. The train still showed no signs of movement and all the other compartments seemed empty. Giles became aware of the strange smell again, it was stronger now the three had shifted nearer to him and it felt like a forgotten song.
“This train isn’t going anywhere.” It was the woman who spoke and in some annoyance. She rose with her handbag and after a brief nod to Giles, she walked through the doors and back into the station.
“Silly old bag,” the boy said. “We’ll be off in another couple of minutes.”
“Or now, Robbie,” said the girl, dripping menace and meaning in every careful word. “We could be off now.” They grinned at each other and then also rose. “See you around, pervert,” sang the girl as they left to follow the lady in the green dress. Giles watched them ape her walk before they disappeared around the curved bend and headed for the other platform. He checked his watch and cursed his luck. As they’d passed him, he had finally placed the memories that matched the odd smell. He cursed again. God Damn it, who was he to judge who lived and who died? Who was he to take on such responsibilities when he’d thought he’d left them half a world away? For two months he’d been hiding from the inevitable call from Sunnydale. The call that told him that one of them had died. That Buffy hadn't been able to protect them, because he hadn't been there to protect Buffy. Why did he now have to give a damn?
Because he had to. As soon as he’d placed the smell he knew he was committed, that he was doomed. It was his business and his responsibility to act. He could no longer afford to be a lotus-eater with the knowledge he had. He was still a Watcher even if he had turned his back on his Slayer. He still had a duty once he’d linked the smell to memories of hiding in Sunnydale funeral homes, and of Angel’s mansion and the long cold night he’d spent trying to stay alive yet secretly hoping to die. It was a tiny residue of formaldehyde that had clung to his nostrils; the embalmers secret weapon that ironically lasted long beyond a lifetime, and Giles was one of the few people on the Earth that could have understood its implications that night. He rubbed his tired eyes and accepted his duty. One of his three former companions posed a problem and he didn't know which. He only knew someone shouldn't be there because someone was already dead.
Damn. He left the train and followed the footsteps. The green dress evidently knew the station well for she diverted down an unmarked walkway instead of the reassuring exit. Giles followed cautiously as first one then three figures entered the lift. The doors closed immediately against him. Giles sprang forward and found the stairs that tumbled him down to the lower levels. Shit. Shit. Shit. They had a head start on him and he hoped he wasn't too late. The stairs were wide in their lazy curve and took a long snaking, slightly hypnotic journey as he reached the bottom only to find the elevator already empty. A distant drumbeat could be heard from a corridor that snaked invitingly downhill to his right. Giles released the strap locking his leather satchel and pocketed the solid wooden stake Xander had once made for him. He’d turned it from a rich oak to give a deceptively slim finish. It looked more like a conductor’s baton than a stake. Hitherto, Giles had only ever used it as a letter opener, but it was the only weapon he had on him now and at least fitted a pocket comfortably. Giles walked cautiously into the inviting corridor as its cream tiles domed over his head like the ribs of a whale.
He saw them first. They were alone by the uncomfortable metal bench against the platform wall. The lady in green was sitting nervously clutching her bag. The pincushion was perched on the back of the seats, stomping her feet. The boyfriend was walking slowly up and down, kicking his now empty can of lager in bizarre percussion coordination with the girl's stomping.
“Please just leave me alone,” pleaded the woman. Giles coughed as he came into view. The drumming stopped sharply and all three of them watched keenly as Giles tried to saunter up calmly. The electronic board said the last train of the night was due in 4 minutes.
The boy kicked his can onto tracks and spoke. “We’re only being friendly, princess. And you’ve got a white knight here now. He’s come to rescue you.” He stood and assessed Giles as if he were a piece of meat. “Don’t know how much use he’s going to be. Doesn’t look too useful.”
Giles drew level and said calmly, “I have my moments.”
“Is that so?” the boy was amused and nodded to Giles’ satchel. “What have you got in the bag then?”
“Be his schoolbooks, Robbie,” sneered the Pincushion girl. “Or an apple for the teacher.”
“Is that right, got an apple for me in there?” Before Giles could answer the boy produced a flick knife with alarming speed and held it high for him to see the sharp blade. Giles had witnessed the damage those things could do before, and he gave it the necessary respect. A Slayer might have the speed to knock the weapon away like they did on TV, but mere humanity just got stabbed in the guts if they tried anything that stupid. A knife was an easy weapon. It required no skill; you just stuck it in until they stopped screaming. The boy was pleased with his act of attention seeking. “I fancy peeling something tonight.” He slashed lazily in the air, getting provocatively close to Giles with every swing. When he got no reaction he grinned and pulled the bag from Giles shoulder. Giles gave it up easily and watched as the boy cut the straps and spilled its contents to the ground.
The titles of ‘Blood Rites of the Ancients’ and ‘European Sex Magick of the 12th Century’ were clearly visible, whilst ‘Eviscerating in Mongolia’ had fallen open at a disturbingly graphic colour plate. The boy was startled. “What is this shit? Are you some sort of black magic freak?”
“It’s my job. I’m a Watcher.” Giles said with a great deal of calm. He studied their faces for a reaction but his title seemed to have no effect on the teenagers.
The girl piped up in disgust. “Bleeding Peeping Tom, didn’t I tell you?”
The boy seemed to take Giles’ books as a personal affront. “This is filth, this is,” he accused. “You should be ashamed of yourself, you should be locked up.” He kicked them all savagely down onto the line. According to the board the next and final train of the night was due in just 2 minutes.
“Now go and get them, ‘Watcher’” he said menacingly. “If you want them, that is. That’s littering, that is. Go down and get them.” His girlfriend jumped down from her perch in excitement to join them. The boy gestured with his knife again. The board changed to 1 minute. He made to grab Giles’ arm and force him but it was then that the woman in the green dress intervened. She sprang suddenly and pushed the teenage girl hard towards the track. It was a surprising savage movement and the girl fell backwards and over the edge with the force. Giles saw his moment and punched the boy hard in the face. The kid went down to his knees but he was tougher than he looked. He had however dropped the knife in surprise.
“Now we run,” advised the green dress as she pulled on Giles’ coat sleeve to tumble them back into the station. He couldn’t help but agree. They fled around the corner and heard shouts of “Bloody bitch” from the boy and a banshee wailing of fear from the girl.
“There’s a train due, Robbie, oh god, get me out of here,” she was heard pleading.
The boy sounded younger and upset. “Somebody help us,” he shouted. “Don’t touch the rails, Cheryl, there’s like a thousand volts through them.”
But Giles couldn’t stop to help; he had to drive onwards at the heels on the green dress. She thrust out a hand and pulled on a metal access door. Giles followed and closed it behind him. He was in a narrow engineering section that housed the engines for the elevators, the lights were blue and faint but he had no time to stop, his companion in flight had run on and was already opening another door on the far side. He raced after her and found himself now in almost total darkness at the top of a narrow spiral staircase. Again, she raced ahead, the metal steps protesting noisily at her heeled shoes and Giles flung himself down and round further into a dark pit. He was breathing heavily now with adrenaline and fear. His dizzying descent seemed to promise no end and the sweat on his palms made the handrail slippery. He almost crashed into the woman, but she held his weight. She was not breathing heavily he noted with some disappointment. Her hand was cold and he wondered if she was frightened.
The darkness lifted as she led them out of claustrophobic staircase and out onto what looked like a long abandoned station platform with only a single light source. In the gloom Giles could see that the benches had been ripped out and the rails ripped up. It was a ghost station with and its curved ceiling trailed long cobwebs down towards the rail shaft. The paint of the red circle that promised passengers Watchers End was cracked and peeling.
“Come on,” the woman implored.
“I don’t think they are following us,” Giles protested but she pulled his coat again.
“They might be. Into the tunnel. They’d never dare look for us there.” She hopped down rather nimbly and Giles clambered after her with far less grace. There was a stack of enamelled signs propped up in a corner giving instructions for correct behaviour in the Blitz. Giles knew many of the old lines of the Underground had served as air raid shelters in the Second World War and he realised this platform was a long dead relic of that time, a ghostly reminder of the past. His supposition was confirmed by a faded cartoon poster on one wall, depicting two soldiers drinking and laughing whilst a sinister figure in a homburg hat took notes behind them. ‘Beware the enemy is closer than you think!’ warned the caption. Giles grimly knew it to be sound advice.
It was instantly very dark in the tunnel and though the tracks had been pulled up, he still managed to trip over something and disturb a rat. He scrambled up in shock as the fur ran past his hand, and lurched onwards into the abyss, further into the belly of the beast. He could see nothing, all the light had gone, and there was just darkness and the smell of death he’d picked up on before. He shuddered. If he died in there, his body might never be found. Sunnydale would carry on but would always think he had completely abandoned them. The Council might issue a search, but they just as likely might not. No one would know to grieve. Everyone would consider him to be selfish bastard for running away and nobody would lose any sleep over his absence.
“I think we’re safe now,” he whispered and stopped. He could sense her turn to face him, and then with a sad mixture of confirmation and resignation, he saw her two bright demonic yellow eyes glowing in triumph at him.
“I wouldn’t exactly say that, Watcher.” She moved quickly but Giles already had his cigarette lighter in his hand. He flicked the flame to life and the vampire backed off out of instinct. She growled, “Not very bright to follow me down here, are you?”
He shrugged. “I had to get you away from those children.”
The small flame flickered to embrace its moment of glory and partially light the tunnel. The most striking objects were, Giles noted grimly, the dead. There were bodies in various stages of decomposition heaped in a pile, some bones picked clean by the rats, all with blood carefully drained from the tell-tale puncture wounds in the neck. It was not so much a nest as a larder, and Giles fought a need to be sick. Interestingly, to the other side, there was a clothes rail of garments that shielded an old army cot and other rather tidy evidence of habitation.
“You live here?”
“Yes,” she said proudly. “I have been making a good living some sixty years down here. I couldn’t go home after the night I died.” She smiled. “Mainly because our house got flattened in the same raid that caused me to be sheltering down here in the first place.”
She shrugged. “Some GI in the darkness took me. Plenty of people around but everyone thought we were just having a bit of ‘how’s your father’ and let him get on with it. I’m not bitter. I had a very nice send off by all accounts, a decent buffet in spite of the rationing and a lovely sermon by the vicar. I ate him afterwards of course.”
“Of course. And you live by preying on the Underground?”
“Now that’s a bit rude. Look around you,” she gestured to her stockpile of bodies. “I’m particular in who I pick. These are the sort that do the preying. These are the scum that feed and prey in the tunnels. The ones that think a woman like me is an easy victim. They just get to find out that I’m just a little more than they can chew on. None of these were any loss to society. I’m performing a public service. Tell me honestly; were those two children up there really worth your death?”
“Maybe not but I couldn’t let you kill them. I’m sorry for what happened to you, but that doesn’t give you the right to judge like that.” As he spoke he held the cheap lighter between them. It was the disposable kind and low on gas.
“I never turn them if that’s what you were worried about. I’d get no peace if the little shits became vampires too.”
“That’s very commendable of you, I’m sure.”
“Of course you’re a very different catch. I've never eaten Watcher before.” Her eyes widened playfully. “I hear they taste a lot like chicken.”
His voice was probably too high but he answered her. “Yes, well, I’ve been told I have excellent running away skills.”
She was amused. “I’m sure you are a credit to your Slayer.”
Giles fought to keep the hand with the cigarette lighter from shaking too badly. “Not really,” he admitted. “She’d be appalled if she knew I was here alone and being so stupid. A Slayer slays and a Watcher watches, she once told me.”
“Then why isn’t she here with you?” She had posed a surprisingly valid question.
“I ran, I left her. I’m on my own now.” His words came out gruffly; he’d never before articulated his situation quite so plainly. With the Council and his friends he’d put more emphasis on the justification. The cold hard facts hurt.
She shook her head, perhaps at his idiocy. “You’re out of places to run now. They lock the station doors after the last train so there is no way out up top. And I have twice your speed and strength… You’ll never get out of here now. This is how it ends, Watcher.”
“I know.” Giles felt her inch closer to him, at some point he knew she would pounce and he would cease to exist. His brain fought for answers. “Why did you want me to help you? You could have had those two children without my ever noticing it but you encouraged me to follow you, why?”
She paused and considered his question thoughtfully. “I don’t really know. You looked interesting, I suppose. You looked special.”
He didn’t feel particularly interesting and he knew the only time he ever felt special was when he was at Buffy’s side, when he’d had a purpose. He stole a glance at the sad and rather lonely cot she had set herself up with. It was a pitiful existence to live below ground and stay away from your own kind. He felt a deep sadness for the life that fate had served up for her. At the same time, Giles was aware she had drawn even closer to him. She was a demon, he had to remind himself, she was a killer that was about to take his life.
“I’m really sorry,” he said with genuine regret.
Her puzzled expression exploded in a shower of dust as Giles rammed home the wooden paper knife Xander had made for him. The particles spat and danced by the light of his poor flame and settled on the floor, on his shoes, and in his clothes. He let go of the lighter and embraced the darkness.
“Because I shouldn't be here,” he said hoarsely.
Having no desire to be found with a pile of unexplained corpses he spent the night on her cot, listening to the rats feed. In the morning he climbed back up and retrieved his somewhat damaged Council books from the main train line. Not knowing if the track remained live during out of hours, he did so rather gingerly. There was no evidence of the young couple apart from the boy’s empty tin can of lager. They must have got off the track safely and left on the last train and Giles found he was oddly pleased about that.
When the station doors were finally unlocked at six AM, he slipped out of the station with the first straggle of commuters, tail-gating through the barrier with his polished look of an absent minded librarian. It was a ruse he’d established with Ethan and no-one challenged the fact he didn't present a ticket. It struck him as ironic that having learnt he couldn't run and hide from his calling as a youth that here he’d been, doing the exact same thing again. It was futile: the demons always found him anyway and that was a sobering enough lesson for one night. He yawned and stretched in the weak morning sunlight. It would still be a reasonable time of night in Sunnydale, he thought, only this time he smiled at his automatic time zone calculation. When he got back to his flat, he was going to call them all and make sure that everyone was OK. The traffic was moving sensibly and he hopped a bus with no trouble. After his long night tumbling into the darkness, Rupert Giles was going home.