There shouldn’t be anyone in the library at five in the morning. Hell, there shouldn’t be anyone in the school at all—that’s why Giles is there with his books and his scrolls, more or less at ease: he knows with as much certainty as he can have in California and on a Hellmouth that no one will interrupt. And yet. And yet there are footsteps in the stacks, careful but comfortable, too measured to be a student—and Giles is a Watcher and he knows what the world is like, so if it isn’t a student it’s a threat. He hefts a sword (it’s almost too heavy, he’s painfully aware of how out of practice he is) and steps as silently as he can towards the interloper, ready to strike once and hard enough to disable and—
He rounds a bookcase at the same time as his target and feels his hands go numb. He doesn’t drop the sword, too well-trained for that, but his grip goes slack on it and he almost trips, because he’s looking into his own face.
It’s not a perfect mimicry, that’s what makes it so jarring (a perfect copy, a mirror image, that would have been not quite expected but within reason. There are plenty of things that can mimic a shape, he’s seen them and read about them and fought them).
The other has his eyes, bright green and wary behind reading glasses, and his face (though with a brutal-looking scar that runs from his ear down his jaw and neck, and he wears a beard) and hair that’s greying in the exact same way as Giles’s own (longer, though, almost shaggy). Even with his hands raised in a non-threatening way, his shoulders seem wider than Giles’s own (maybe it’s the heavy leather jacket, it could be cut to make him look brawnier) and he’s wearing steel-toed boots and a small arsenal at his belt, not that he needs it because in the time it takes Giles to process all that he also processes the stink of magic hanging around the man like cigarette smoke and London smog and bad memories, magic so familiar it sends him reeling back, tripping over his own damnable loafers—
The other catches his wrist to steady him.
“Easy there—sure I gave you a turn, but there’s no need for that. I’m not—I won’t hurt you.” It’s Giles’s voice too, just with a shift in accent and cadence, pitched lower where Giles pitches his own high.
“Y-you—“ he tries, but of course fear is bringing his stammer out. The other looks sympathetic.
“I’m you, yeah? Well, not precisely, I’m—“ But Giles knows exactly who he is.
“You’re Ripper,” he snaps, and it’s an accusation. (You’re Ripper, and how dare you be, don’t you know what he’s done? Don’t you know how much blood is on his hands, on my hands? ) Ripper nods slowly.
“And we aren’t half so different, are we? If you know me. I almost thought you wouldn’t. What do I call you?”
“Giles.” (Just Giles, he’d lost Rupert when he’d left the Council, he’d lost Ripper when he’d gone back, and Edmund had been his father.)
“Giles,” Ripper echoes quietly, then offers a wry smile. “I don’t think I’m allowed that one.”
“What do you want?” Giles asks. Ripper’s smile fades.
“Should I want something?” he asks.
“Why else would you be here?” (Why else would you be that?)
“I don’t think,” says Ripper carefully, (and that’s strange, because Giles remembers never being careful), “that I’m here on purpose.”
“Then where, pray tell, are you supposed to be?” But he thinks he knows, even before Ripper clicks his tongue in exasperation and says it, that the answer is Sunnydale, California, La Boca Del Infierno, in a Watcher’s library at five in the morning on what promises to be a beautiful December day.
“Obviously I underestimated quite how much of a gateway this was,” Ripper adds after saying all that. He sounds curious, amused, damnably foolish (he sounds like what Giles would likely sound like, if he found himself in a parallel version of his own library, that’s the worst of it, and Giles can’t even be surprised because he’d always been curious and Ripper’d been reckless and that had been a dangerous combination).
“Then who—” There’s a thousand questions he wants to ask (who’s the Watcher here, if it’s not me? why are you here, if not to do your duty? how did you turn your back on duty and order when you know, you have to know what the world is like—) but Ripper beats him to the punch.
“What happened to you?” he asks. Giles blinks. (Reality happened, he doesn’t say. Reality and death.) “You were—you called me Ripper, that means you were me when—well, er—it means we both were—it means you left. Like I did. Didn’t you?” Giles nods, incrementally, and a relieved grin flashes over Ripper’s face. (He emotes openly, one of those things the Council teaches its sons not to do.) “Saw sense, didn’t you, and left, and then…” He gestures around him vaguely. (And then you became everything you didn’t want to be, he doesn’t say.)
“Eyghon,” he says shortly. Ripper freezes mid gesture, and the fear that flickers across his face is enough to make the bile rise in Giles’s throat. It’s all he can do to remember that Eyghon’s gone, surely gone for good, (gone along with Tom and Diedre and Philip, gone along with Randall, gone along with whatever shreds of a conscience Ethan-bloody-Rayne had once had before he saw fit to sacrifice a schoolgirl to save himself,) not lurking behind anyone’s eyes.
“Oh,” he says softly, all cheer gone. “How—how many of you made it out?” Giles thinks he might mean the first time, that he might mean 1977, but that’s hardly the end of the story.
“Me,” he says flatly. “And Ethan.” And he’s not entirely sure about that last point, because at some point the Ethan Rayne who had been his friend (despite Ethan having always been a bloody stupid self-centered mildly sadistic twit, they’d genuinely been friends) turned into a chaos-worshipping havoc-wreaking lunatic, and between one and the other there’d been Eyghon. It must show on his face (despite his best efforts), because Ripper looks pained.
“That’s…” (He doesn’t say less than optimal, but Giles knows he thinks it) “I’m sorry.” The funny thing is, he does look sorry, with his stupid beard and his stupid boots and his stupid scar, standing there looking like he really feels sorry for Giles and everything that’s happened. (His arms are folded, one hand clasped over the part of his arm they both know that damn mark is on.)
“It got Randall first,” Giles says. “How many got away in—for you. How many got away for you?” Ripper looks away (shamefaced, sorry, those aren’t expressions that suit his name).
“All of us,” he says. “Blind luck.” (Giles believes him.)
“I’m glad,” he says. They hadn’t deserved their deaths. (He’s glad there’s at least one world where it’s better, in that sense. That’s all he allows himself, because he if he starts envying Ripper he may never stop, and there’s a slippery slope to fall from.)
“Blind luck,” says Ripper again, more vehemently. (Watchers don’t believe in luck, chance and randomness and chaos are an anathema.)
“Just that,” says Giles. He needs a different topic, and hits upon one that hurts his heart just as much. “Who’s Watcher, here. With—with Buffy, and the other children?” (Are they alright? Are they happy? Does Buffy still argue and tease and stand up to everything, does Willow still love computers?)
“Some stuffy old bird,” says Ripper, and he’s so distracted his accent slips sideways. (He sounds like Ethan, for a split second, they both realize it.) “Er, that is—Post, Gwen Post she said. Stuffy, but she’s not—not half bad. Seems to like the children well enough.” He pauses, flounders. “They like her, she’s—trying. She thinks I’m a threat.”
“Aren’t you?” (With his weapons and his boots and his stupid scars, with a demon brand on his arm and Ethan Rayne so close they can sound the same, doesn’t that make him a threat?)
“No more than you,” says Ripper with a shrug. “Isn’t that how these things work?” (And you should know because you’re a Watcher, isn’t it your job to know things?) (But Buffy will be eighteen in a year, if she survives, and Giles will be standing by with poison, doesn’t that make him a threat? Just as much as Gwen Post, in that other Sunnydale, and far more likely a threat than Ripper.)
So he says he doesn’t know, instead, and tells Ripper to wait at the table and goes to make a cup of tea and is halfway through struggling with the electric kettle when he realizes that it isn’t his own electric kettle. It’s similar, but he thinks the brand’s German and there’s a dusky rose mug next to it atop a pile of notes written in an unfamiliar hand.
He says fascinating at the same time as Ripper does, only Ripper tacks on isn’t it? and then they both turn around to make sure they aren’t about to run into Post on her way to her five in the morning in December tea.
“I, er, I think I’m starting to see your problem,” says Giles a bit lamely, and then he makes eye contact with Ripper who’s trying to suppress laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. “... I have something a bit stronger, if we can make it back to my office—” Ripper laughs aloud.
“Oh, you’re definitely me,” he says. “Scotch at five in the bloody morning on a Tuesday.”
It takes another loop around the library, but they do get to his office, only to realize there are no books on alternate dimensions in there and the bloody library keeps shifting about on them. (If he ever does cross paths with Gwen Post, Giles swears he’ll have words with her about her organizational systems. Ripper snorts and asks if he means disorganizational systems, which is very funny at the time.)
They do, more or less, solve the problem eventually, but that takes six hours, multiple detours, a frantic attempt to hide from two different versions of Buffy (both of whom were equally dubious about loud noises in the stacks), a near miss with Gwen Post (a stiff-backed woman in sensible shoes), and a ritual that involved the phrase I’m sure this’ll work, I’ve read about it twice being uttered and a chair lit on fire. As Giles douses the fire (and mentally thanks the school’s budget cuts that the fire alarms didn’t go off), he spots a gap where the shelves don’t quite come together right. Ripper, naturally, sticks his hand in it then starts fiddling with a lighter right in the middle of it.
“It’s going to close on your head,” says Giles dryly. Ripper rolls his eyes.
“No it won’t, we’re good at this.” He stops flicking the lighter, though, and just stands there a moment. “But… better if it closes up like that than if it keeps fluctuating, right?”
“It won’t, anymore,” says Giles, who will absolutely spend the next three days cross referencing everything in his own library to find the root cause because he doesn’t quite believe that anything is ever quite sorted out on a Hellmouth.
“Course,” says Ripper, a knowing grin spreading over his face. “So, be seeing you, is it?” (More likely than not, that.)