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The One Girl Job

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The girl is not at all what she's expecting, despite the fact that Sophie has studied both her photo and the sparse information in her file every day for the past four weeks. At the sight of her, this unimpressed stick-figure with a mess of blond hair, all Sophie's words of welcome and solidarity and encouragement die on her tongue before she's even opened her mouth. Sophie clears her throat and says the girl's name, just to make sure, and what she gets in response is a glare that has her resisting the urge to step back.

“My name is Parker,” the girl says, unsettlingly calm for all the fury in her clear eyes. “Call me that and you might make it through this conversation.”

A shade below frantic, Sophie is wondering if the Council has some kind of psychological screening process for these girls before they send them into active duty, but in lieu of expressing this thought, she just says, “Parker,” and matches her calm with a smile. “My apologies. Shall we get started?”

Parker shrugs, kicks at the ground. “Whatever.”

Sophie actually makes it half a minute into her well-rehearsed lecture about the duties and expectations of the Slayer before Parker starts shaking her head. Sophie pauses, pushes her glasses up her nose; she doesn't actually need them to read, but she finds, perhaps ironically, that they bring a measure of authenticity to her role. “Problem?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Parker says. She blows a large bubble with her sticky purple gum, pops it and resumes chewing. “What's the money?”

Sophie stares at her. “I'm sorry, I--”

“Money?” Parker asks again, as though Sophie is particularly stupid. “How much am I gonna get paid?”

Sophie blinks. Of all the questions she'd anticipated... “It isn't quite as – this isn't just a – to be the Slayer is to answer a call, to fight for the safety of humanity, to stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of--” Sophie stops. Parker is laughing.

It's refreshing, in a way, to see Parker with something other than a mistrustful glare on her face; it isn't quite a smile, this flashing of teeth as she doubles over and actually snorts her amusement, but it's certainly different.

Sophie waits it out. When Parker finally rights herself, tears of mirth collecting in the corners of her eyes, she says, “Oh, God, that was so funny. No money.” Sophie continues to stare at her. Parker's mouth drops open. “Wait, you were serious? I'm outta here.”

She's halfway to the door when Sophie, desperate and desperate not to show it, calls out, “You'd get to hurt people.”

And Parker stops. Turns back around. Starts to smile.

Maybe Sophie's been going about this all the wrong way.

*

Parker lunges, swings her sword in a wide arc above her head with a strength that shouldn't come as the surprise it does. Sophie parries the blow just in time, feigns to the left and then waits for Parker to shift her weight before she steps to the side, slices up and sends Parker's sword clanging to the floor.

“Sloppy,” Sophie announces. “You can't possibly expect to--” Parker's ratty, dirt-covered sneaker connects with the joint of Sophie's wrist, knocking the sword clean out of her hand, and even as the dull pain sets in, Sophie beams at her. “Good!”

For an undernourished sixteen-year-old with no apparent family or schooling, Parker has mastered a pretty impressive set of acrobatic skills, one which she demonstrates by somersaulting over Sophie's head and starting in with the hand-to-hand combat from behind her. She fights hard and fast, entirely on instinct, defending and attacking and sparing no time for strategy, for anything beyond the basic drive for survival. Parker ducks a roundhouse kick to her head and stays down, uses Sophie's momentary disequilibrium to hook her ankle across Sophie's knees and knock her to the ground; Sophie lands on the training mat with a thud and stays there, pinned, Parker straddling her with a manic light in her eyes that Sophie isn't entirely sure is healthy.

Parker smiles serenely, stabs her in the heart with an imaginary stake. “Poof,” she says. “Now you're dead.”

Sophie flips her; hardly a feat, seeing as Parker weighs about as much as a large feather. “Or you are.”

“Cheater.” Parker glares. “I already killed you, remember?”

“Perhaps,” Sophie says. She slides off her and stands, extends a hand that Parker eyes suspiciously, doesn't take. “Or perhaps you'd have been surprised, and you'd be dead right now.” She waits until Parker has met her eyes again before she tells her, seriously, “You are strong and quick, despite your lack of training, but overconfidence is a dangerous weakness, Parker. Succumb to its temptation and it will cost you your life.”

Parker picks at her fingernails, looking bored. “So when can we go and get in a real fight?”

Sophie sighs.

*

The more Sophie sees her perform backflips and handsprings and astonishing agile feats of climbing, the more convinced she becomes that Parker has indeed had some training already, though how or when or with whom she couldn't say. She's too stealthy to be a gymnast, too bowed to be a dancer, too fearless to be entirely lacking in experience with danger; for all Sophie knows, Parker ran away with the circus at the age of eight, but Sophie has her suspicions about how Parker has managed to finance her life outside the foster system thus far. They aren't suspicions she's planning to share with the Council, not yet.

She knows about the foster parents, knows that Parker has run away from them and is technically being searched for by Child Services. She also knows better than to ask Parker anything about her past. “I have a spare room,” she says instead, as casual as she can make it, “and a home gym. Could be useful for training.” Sophie doesn't tell her that this is because she's spent the last few years of her life making ends meet in other ways, all the while hoping desperately that she'd be called into active duty as a Watcher. She doesn't tell Parker the room has always been for her, just lays it out there, an offer, no strings.

It doesn't surprise her that Parker doesn't take it up immediately, and Sophie doesn't push. She just waits, waits a week, two, three, until the morning in early November when Parker turns up to training – a fact Sophie still can't believe, most days – with her worn coat wrapped around her small frame, the tips of her ears and nose red, and mutters that she might want to check out that home gym Sophie had mentioned. Sophie doesn't ask why.

In the morning, when Parker edges out of her room in a borrowed pair of pyjamas that hang laughably large off her narrow shoulders, Sophie just nods in the direction of the open kitchen cupboard. “There's some cereal left, if you'd like it.”

“Oh, cool,” Parker says. She makes a beeline for the box, pours a generous helping into the bowl standing beside it, and happily tucks in without bothering to pour on any milk first. Sophie raises an eyebrow but decides to take it as a win.

It's a bright Saturday morning, so after Parker has chugged down her cereal and started looking slightly less like an elastic about to snap, they go out for a run. Sophie has trained to train a Slayer, but she's never trained with a Slayer, and the combination of Parker's natural athleticism and thoroughly obnoxious Slayer fitness-levels have Sophie gasping for breath before they've even made it three miles. Parker, made generous by the gift of a warm bed and milk-less cereal, slows to a pace better befitting a human for as long as it takes them to run a winding path that takes them out by the cemetery, where it's quieter. They stop at a park bench to stretch, side by side, and for the first time since the day Sophie tracked Parker down and told her a fairytale, the silence that falls between them is almost comfortable.

Parker is bent at the hips, head upside down between her knees, when she announces, “I don't like this place.”

Sophie rolls her neck along her shoulders. “Why is that?”

“Gives me the creeps. There's... there's something weird about the energy here.” She bends back up, looks at Sophie seriously. “Vampires.”

“Exactly.” Sophie sits down, isn't surprised when Parker remains standing. “Those instincts are an essential component of your powers as a Slayer, and you're right to listen to them. Hone them, learn to trust them; the more you fight, the more you learn, the more reliable they shall become.”

“But it's daytime,” Parker says. “Vampires can't hunt during the day.” She looks around, brow furrowed. “Can they?”

“No, they can't, that's one small mercy. But the cemetery here – all cemeteries – are breeding grounds for creatures of darkness. Fresh graves, new vampires, easy victims... these are places where young and vulnerable people come to escape the crowds, to be alone.” She shrugs. “Or to find a thrill.”

Parker nods vigorously and adds, “To make accidental babies nobody wants,” which Sophie decides to let go. “So this is where I should come to patrol, right? When it's dark?”

Sophie smiles at her, and Parker looks a little taken aback, like approval isn't something she knows how to recognise. It makes Sophie's heart beat a little faster in her chest, press a little harder against her ribs, anger and adrenaline and the useless swell of frustration at the injustice that has been this girl's life, but what can she do?

She can do nothing, so instead she says, “Come on, let's go find something to eat before sunset,” and she revels in the fact that Parker just nods and walks beside her without a fight.

*

They eat huge, greasy pizzas at a hole-in-the-wall Italian place that Sophie would swear up and down she's never been to should anyone ask. She orders a mushroom and cheese with anchovies, just like she always does, and Parker a meatlover's with extra sausage; when the waiter sets it down in front of her, she claps her hands together and squeals, “Dead animals are my favourite!” She's even smiling.

They stop at home to change and stock up on weapons and then they head back. It's two nights before the full moon and the vampires are in fine form; Sophie is forced out of the comfortable position of watching and judging from afar when four undead come at them at once – she manages to land in a few kicks that slow one vampire down long enough for Sophie to toss a bottle of holy water into her face. One down, Sophie turns around to check on Parker and finds her fighting off the other three, limbs flying with a coordination that hits Sophie like a slap to the face; she's spent half her life preparing for a Slayer, for confrontation with a Slayer's powers, and still she's struck dumb that this tiny, fierce ball of energy is a superhero. Parker dusts two vampires in quick succession and then jams her stake into the chest of the last one, a formerly-old guy whose return from the afterlife was made in a truly horrendous blue suit, and then they hear it: a shout, a curse, a thud--

Sophie barely has time to orient herself to the location of the cry before Parker has bolted in the direction of the mausoleum, vamp dust flying off her as she runs. They arrive in time to see a tall, slender dark guy and a shorter, bulkier pale guy fending off an especially ugly vampire in a baseball uniform. Well, the tall guy is mostly just vacillating between yelling abuse at the vampire and encouragement at his friend while the other guy fends him off. He actually lands a few decent moves, too – jujitsu, perhaps – at least before the vampire picks him up and throws him across a nearby headstone.

That's when Parker leaps in and taps the vampire on the shoulder. “Hi there,” she says, smiling in what Sophie considers a more alarming than disarming fashion. “You wanna fight me instead?”

The vampire grins savagely and takes a wild swing at her; Parker dodges, jabs up once, twice, somersaults up over his head, reaches around his chest from behind and stakes him. He bursts into dust all over her shirt and she turns to Sophie, frowning. “That was boring. I think I'm gonna drag it out longer next time.”

Sophie thinks about all the things she should probably say in response to that and says instead, “Well, the important thing is that you killed him. And saved them.” She makes her way over to the smashed-up headstone, where the tall guy is trying to help up his slightly-beaten-up friend but the slightly-beaten-up friend, all quickly-forming bruises and teenage bravado, is shrugging him off

“Damn it, Hardison,” he growls, shoving his long hair out of his eyes. “Quit that.”

Sophie approaches them carefully. “Are you two all right?”

“Uh, yeah? Does someone wanna tell me what the hell just happened?” Hardison's eyes bug out of his head as he looks beyond Sophie at Parker. “How'd you do that, girl? You weigh like a pound and a half.”

“I staked him,” Parker says. She demonstrates with a helpful stabbing motion. “And he exploded.”

“Yeah, but--”

10/10 on the slaying, Sophie thinks, but the tact could use a little work. She turns a kind, hopefully encouraging smile on the boys and says, “I know this must come as a bit of a shock to you both--”

“That vampires are real?” Hardison squeaks. “Nah, that's just everyday, that's just routine like goin' down the store to get milk, y'know what I'm – why would I be shocked by that? Eliot, man, are you schocked? 'Cause I'm just--”

Eliot elbows him in the ribs. “Shut up, Hardison, you aren't helpin'.” He turns to Sophie, his face dark. “I think what Hardison here is trying to say is: who the hell are you and why are you here killing vampires?”

Parker has walked up to stand beside Sophie, now, and she crosses her arms over her chest, stake still in hand. “And who the hell are you and why are you hanging around cemeteries after dark?”

The boys exchange an awkward glance and Hardison coughs, looks away at some imaginary distraction in the sky; Eliot, if the bright sheen of moonlight can be trusted, turns a bit pink. Sophie understands what they're not saying the same moment Parker says, “Ohh, so you came here to have sex?”

Is it strange that Sophie feels a swell of pride in Parker for having deduced that?

Hardison is stuttering out some excuse that Parker ignores in favour of saying, “Well, I'm Parker. I slay vampires.”

Eliot is watching Parker with a kind of amused resignation.“Yeah, I kinda got that. Why you, exactly?”

Parker smiles at Sophie, the first full, genuine smile she's ever seen, and Parker says, “It's kind of a calling.”

“Awesome,” Hardison says, wide-eyed and honest.

“Interesting,” Eliot says, but his face says wow.

“Thank you for saving us,” Hardison says. He glares at Eliot until Eliot sighs.

“Thank you for saving us, Parker.”

Parker looks uncomfortable, like she's never heard the words before and doesn't know how to respond, and then she turns to Sophie and says, “I want popcorn.”

*

The Council has ways of erasing people's short-term memories, ways that have a 99.9% guaranteed effectiveness if they're employed within three hours of the event in question. It's standard protocol for all newly-called Watchers to carry a supply of the drug, and she knows she's supposed to use it on Eliot and Hardison. She knows she should put the safety of her Slayer above all else, and that according to the Council's rules, that safety takes the form of preventing the Slayer from forming too close a bond with any human who might prove a liability to her efficiency, who might potentially distract her from her duties. The Slayer does not need friends, the Council says; the Slayer needs her Watcher, and her weapons, and her cause, and that is enough.

And up until two hours ago, Sophie believed it. But she sees the way these boys respond to Parker, speaking to her as though she is worthy of their time, showing interest in her as a person as well as a Slayer; she sees the way Parker's brow furrows at the attention, the way her mouth curves down at these overtures of friendship she doesn't trust or understand, and Sophie decides that she'll keep this one to herself. The Council doesn't need to know everything, does it?

*

Sophie Devereaux
The Watcher Diaries
March 5

Parker's training continues to progress at a rate that more than satisfies my expectations. Following some initial moments of concern, during which I doubted my ability to connect with her personally, I now feel confident to report that the last several months have shown a pleasing improvement in both her disposition and our ability to effectively communicate. It is my firm belief that until now, this girl's astonishing potential had been squandered in her unfortunate living situation, and that the introduction of a stable home and guardian, in addition to a true and noble purpose that enables her to daily contribute to the betterment of society and the world, has done and will continue to do wonders for her self-esteem, focus, and general happiness in life.

It is my intention to devote the next several training sessions to improving her technique with a sword; while she showed promise with such weapons in our early days together, a preference for hand-to-hand combat on both our parts has resulted in my neglecting her training in this other useful art form for too long.

Sophie puts her pen down, reads over what she's written and rolls her eyes. It's all true, but it's written in just a stuffy enough manner that it should ensure that the Council won't question her devotion to their ancient, inflexible rules. She's considering adding a sentence about introducing Slayer history into one of their next training sessions when Parker comes bounding into the study, a horse hat askew on her head. “Happy Halloween!” she cries, handing Sophie a tiny plastic pumpkin.

“Uh, thank you.” Sophie takes it, places it on her desk beside her paperweight, looks back up. “You're dressed as a horse?”

“Yeah.” Parker shudders. “Scary, right?” She brightens almost instantly. “Are you coming? Alec made a fire out of his boring old schoolbooks and Eliot did some amazing thing where he coated the marshmallows in chocolate then dipped them in cereal and we're going to--”

Sophie shuts the diary and follows her out, suppressing a smile. That's enough Watcher work for today.