Paige had been taking a few trips ‘upstairs’, since trying to pay more heed to her whitelighter half. Getting to know some Elders, learning how things were more-often done, learning about useful ways to work with her charges, and above all trying to get them to change those god-awful robes.
Normally her trips upstairs were well-intentioned. Well-mannered. Sometimes it was a challenge, with the Elders and their maddening arrogance, but she managed.
The one exception came a few months after her relationship with Henry fell through. She’d been talking with her sisters about a date she’d had the other night, ignoring the low hum in her head of her charges.
That had been one moment. The next moment, there had been silence, the thoughts of her charges no longer registering. It had taken a few seconds for her to establish that they were alive: that the lack of any flare of surprise or pain probably just meant they’d been removed from her care. Another few moments to call Leo and find that he was fine, and that only she’d been affected.
A goodbye to her sisters later, and she’d orbed upstairs, to find out what the hell the Elders were playing at, revoking her charges. They seemed perfectly reasonable however, and allowed her to speak, before one lone Elder took her to a quieter room, to speak.
“Are you going to answer?” Paige said, as she was led away.
The Elder regarded her. He looked more or less as she imagined an Elder would look: pale-haired, clearly elderly, but far from infirm.
“We needed your attention,” the Elder said.
“You could’ve just rang me for that,” Paige said.
“True,” the Elder said. “Our purpose was threefold. First, to call you. Second, we have decided to reduce your number of charges: any whitelighter may serve as guide to a witch, but no one else may function as Charmed One.”
“There is a new charge we would like you to oversee,” the Elder said. “One, we believe, you are uniquely suited for.”
They came to a small room, in amongst the pale cloud and pearl architecture of the domain of the Elders. Within the chamber was a pale blue table, and atop it a hemisphere of purest crystal.
The Elder rested his hand, palm-flat, on the pristine surface. Within it, light flickered: and a woman’s face became visible.
Red-haired, her eyes resolute but her smile playful. Her hair was long, reaching past her shoulders, and as Paige watched the red gave way to a holy white.
“She is a witch,” the Elder said. “An unusual breed, to be certain. She was not born to her powers, as you were: instead, she gained them later in life, in no small part due to a maw near her residence known as a hellmouth.”
“Hellmouth, huh?” Paige said. “Doesn’t sound good.”
The Elder shook his head. “The hellmouth itself is not intrinsically evil,” he said. “The power it bestows, however, can often be… unstable. Regardless, multiple people are touched by a hellmouth every day. This kind of witch is nothing new, though it is a nuisance. We’re unable to keep track of all of them, as there is no way to gauge where they will come from.”
“Evidently you tracked her down,” Paige gestured at the hemisphere.
The woman’s expression was altering. The playful smile had become positively radiant, and her skin seemed to glow. Her once-red hair was now entirely white, and moving as though caught in a silent breeze.
“ True,” the Elder said. “What do you know of Slayers?”
“Just what I’ve read in the Book of Shadows,” Paige said, frowning at the change in topic. “We’ve never met her. One woman born in each generation, bestowed with strength and resilience to fight demons.”
The Elder bowed his head. “She has altered that spell,” the Elder said. “Just days ago. Previously, the Slayer was a lone woman picked from an existing pool of potentials, upon the death of the previous. It was a great spell, by all accounts: incredibly complex, and incredibly powerful, to as last as long as it has. Like it was nothing, this witch changed everything.”
“How?” Paige said.
For a moment, she was frightened. Frightened that this witch might have eradicated the Slayer line by ending the spell, that she was an evil Paige was being sent to vanquish. Then, the Elder smiled.
“She did what we didn’t think possible,” the Elder said. “Where once one would have had the power, now all with have it. Every Potential a Slayer, every one with the power.”
A moment of silence. Paige glanced at the figure in the crystal, as the image replayed. She had red hair again, and a playful smile. There was a resolution there, also, that Paige hadn’t noticed before.
“I still don’t get why you wanted me up here,” Paige said.
“This was what brought her to our attention as a good witch,” the Elder said. “We noticed high levels of magic in the region last year, and some time before that also, but put it down to the hellmouth. Now the Slayer-enchantment has been altered, however, we suspect she had a hand, however slight, in those events,” a pause. “From recent days alone, however, we can conclude she is a witch of phenomenal power. As such, she requires a whitelighter.”
“Me, I take it?” Paige said. No other reason for her to be up here. “Why me? Aren’t there more experienced whitelighters, ones who’ve dealt with things like this before?”
The Elder shook his head. “There has never been a witch quite like this before,” he said. “Hellmouth-borne witches are nothing new. One of this strength, however, is.”
Paige looked at the ball again. She felt a shiver at the Elder’s tone. It wasn’t something she’d heard often before, but Paige was beginning to have the distinct impression that the Elders were scared.
“We have chosen you for three reasons,” the Elder said. “First, you are a witch: you understand her in a way few of us can. Second, you, like her, came into your power later in life. Third, you are part of the Power of Three: and, if the worst comes to pass and this prodigious witch is not a force for good…”
The Elder fell silent. He didn’t need to continue. Pursing her lips, Paige’s eyes returned to the orb.
If worst came to worst, she could vanquish the witch. Just looking at her face in the crystal, however, Paige found she didn’t want to.
“We know more about her,” The Elder spoke, “But it would not do to share it all. It would be best if you made up your own mind. Be wary, and be safe.”
A pause. That wasn’t hugely encouraging.
“What’s her name?” Paige said, silently accepting the task. The Elder nodded: smiled, gratefully.
“Willow,” he said, “Willow Rosenberg.”
The Elders had given her a place to orb down to. It was just a pity that place was in the middle of nowhere. An empty plain, and a road: a road that was empty until, moments later, a yellow school bus trundled along it.
It was then Paige realized she was standing in its way. She had enough to roll her eyes, great job Elders, before darting to the side, out of its way. As it passed her, it slowed.
The door opened, to reveal a fairly old man driving. A blonde woman stood by the open door and, scanning through the windows, Paige could only see a sign of one more occupant. While she couldn’t make out any details of that occupant, only seeing their silhouette through the window, she assumed it was Willow.
There was something odd about the woman’s manner though, and her dress; the same as the driver’s. A tiredness it took Paige a moment to place: battle-weariness. It was a feeling she knew too well.
Hours or days after a major battle, the mental and physical exhaustion still found ways of catching up with you.
“Are you ok?” the blonde in the doorway said. “Sorry, Giles didn’t see you.”
“I looked away for one moment,” the driver said, quietly, “She wasn’t anywhere a moment before, I-”
“His eyesight’s not what it used to be,” the blonde said, smiling.
“Age jokes now?” he said, “Really Buffy? You’ve dated older.”
Buffy? Strange name.
“Sorry,” Paige said, a little taken aback by the two’s evident friendship, even if it was punctuated by playful bickering. “I didn’t mean to-” she hesitated. “Ok, this may be a stupid question, but is there a Willow Rosenberg in there with you?”
Paige’s eyes darted to the silhouette at the back of the bus. It – she? – still wasn’t moving, just lying there. It had to be Willow though, surely: the Elders couldn’t be that useless.
The blonde at the doorway to the bus - Buffy? – shifted her posture: became more defensive. A physical fighter by the look of it, and trained; perhaps the Slayer? No, a Slayer if what the Elders said was right. Maybe the original, she certainly seemed well-trained.
“Who’re you?” Buffy said.
“Uh, Paige Halliwell,” Paige said, opting to use her birth surname rather than her preferred in case they’d recognize it. “Witch. Half-whitelighter, which is kinda why I’m here.”
Buffy frowned; glanced back at the driver, who was presumably Giles. He frowned.
“I think I’ve heard of her,” he said. “Halliwell, it’s a line of witches. San Francisco area, I think. They were important historically, I’d no idea they were still around.”
Some scholar he was. Paige suppressed the urge to ask if he’s heard of the Power of Three.
“And whitelighter?” Buffy said.
“I know the name,” he said, and hesitated. “Haven’t encountered them before. They’re good, I think, but my books are in England. I couldn’t tell you more, offhand.”
“I could get your books,” Paige said, speaking up. “You know, if you want. Give me the address, I can orb there and back.”
Buffy tilted her head, apparently uncertain what ‘orb’ meant in that context. Paige sighed, and turned to white light on the spot, just for a second or two. Then, refocusing, she reformed a step closer to the bus.
“Told you she wasn’t there before,” Giles said, quietly. Buffy rolled her eyes.
“Come in, then,” the blonde said. She seemed to have decided Paige wasn’t a threat: or, at least, that if Paige was a threat she would have done something with her powers other than announce herself.
Paige moved closer, and Buffy stepped back. Getting into the bus, Paige couldn’t help but notice how damaged it looked.
Battered, and stained with what might have been food, and might have been blood. There was a mess of clothes in one corner, and a few chairs snapped back, broken to serve, presumably, as beds. A cracked window had been boarded shut.
It was an oddly humble site, given what the Elders had told her. Then again, Paige reflected, Buffy and Giles have every sign of having fought somewhat recently, and Willow’s grand spell begged the question of just what required countless Slayers to be activated.
A redhead with a familiar face sat toward the back of the bus. She had a silver creation of metal that resembled nothing so much as a scythe on her lap, and had her eyes closed, neck tilted back, breathing slowly. Asleep.
Buffy quickly introduced the three on the bus: all as Paige had guessed. Herself, Buffy, the driver Giles, and Willow Rosenberg.
“She’s wiped,” Buffy said, as Paige’s gaze lingered on the woman she knew to be Willow. “Big spell a couple of days back, still recovering. She was all dazed and grinning, and a little bit high, for a day after, then she zonked.”
“Heard about that,” Paige said, absently. “Slayer-spell. It’s what brought her to their attention. Uh, the Elder whitelighters.”
“Yeah,” Buffy said. “I was going to ask about that. What are you exactly?”
“Whitelighters?” Paige said. “Uh, it’s a long story. Let’s settle for guardian angels. Witch-only guardian angels. We guide, help, chat, comfort. Usually heal, but I’ve never gotten the hang of that.”
“Could’ve done with you last year,” Giles said, from the wheel. “And the year before that. And the year before that.”
“I bet,” Paige said, and winced to look at them. “I said it was a long story. Apparently they didn’t know about Willow: normally the Elders watch genetic lines, families, witches who’re born to their power, like I was. Like my sisters were. Willow wasn’t, so… Only found out about her with the Slayer-spell.”
Buffy sat on one of the broken beds, near the front of the bus, and just behind the driver’s seat. Paige sat on the other side of the aisle, facing Buffy, and occasionally looking sideways, and crabbing her neck. She sat on the same side as her sleeping charge.
The chair creaked under her; wobbled. She tensed, hesitating, glad to feel that it stayed secure. After a few moments more, Giles began to drive, again.
“What happened here?” Paige said.
There was no way the bus was usually in this condition. Buffy shrugged.
“Ever locked a dozen teenaged girls in a confined space for a few hours?” Buffy said.
“Not… personally,” Paige said, “Can imagine it, though.”
Paige winced, glancing around the bus. Well, that would explain the damage. Maybe even why the remaining seemed so tired.
“Slayers?” Paige guessed.
“Newborn Slayers,” Buffy said. “Still getting used to their powers. It was hectic.”
“Where are they now?”
Buffy shrugged. “Faith… borrowed a bike at our last rest stop. Slayer. She’s scouting ahead with a new Slayer, seeing if there are any demons to watch out for. Dawn – my sister – she took a few with her in the last city we passed, to chase up a rumour of a woman with a lot of strength. Probably a confused Slayer. There’s a lot to sort out.”
There would be, Paige reflected. She found herself glancing at the slumbering redhead again, awed by what Willow had done. While she was no stranger to powerful magic, altering something on a global scale was still something seriously impressive.
“Kennedy went over a day ago,” Buffy said. “Back when Willow was still awake, and dazed. She could be impatient.”
“Who?” Paige said.
“Willow’s girlfriend,” Buffy said. “Ex now, I guess. Just to let you know, if you’re meant to be here to comfort Willow… And before Kennedy there was Tara, and she-” Buffy caught herself, and shook her head. “No, Wills should tell you that story. If she chooses to.”
Paige nodded, sympathising if not understanding.
A brief silence. Paige didn’t want to press the presumably-Slayer just yet, nor did she want to wake Willow. She had only to wait until the witch awoke.
They drove on, Giles taking only quiet roads, over dusty, empty plains. Maybe it was to make sure they could keep an eye out for any demons who fancied their chances against a worn out Slayer, perhaps it was because they couldn’t cope with busy roads just yet.
“Excuse me,” Giles said, from the driver’s seat. “Halliwell, wasn’t it?”
“Paige Matthews, actually,” Paige said. “Only their half-sister. And adopted. It’s a long story. But yeah, one of the Halliwell sisters. Why?”
“It’s just, I’ve heard something,” Giles said. “If the stories I’ve read are accurate, was there not a book that went with the family? It’s meant to be the foremost compendium on an entire demonic suborder.”
“Book of Shadows?” Paige said, uncertain. “Not sure what suborder you’re talking about, but it has a lot in about demons. And other stuff. Why?”
“I was wondering,” Giles hesitated, “Could I possibly have a look at it, sometime? It’s just, I’ve always-”
At that point, Buffy just burst out laughing. It was oddly pleasant to see: her still grime-streaked, sternly set face creasing with genuine amusement. She laughed far longer than whatever it was amused her would have seemed to justify, but no one made a move to interrupt her.
Eventually, she quietened, lifting and shaking her head as she inhaled. She wore a smile more comfortably, now.
“Giles and his books,” she said, by way of excuse, to Paige. “He gets like this sometimes.”
There was a stirring toward the back of the bus; Paige felt a twinge in the back of her mind, the quiet spot she knew to be the domain of her charges’ thoughts. Or charge’s, now.
A quick nod to Buffy, and Paige turned, to see the redhead stirring. Paige stood, quietly slipping down the central aisle of the bus, feeling Willow awake.
The redhead’s eyes flickered opened. They shone with a brief, soft, pale light; an aftereffect of tremendous magic, before she blinked it away. Then, Willow shifted, pulling herself up straighter. It was only after a moment she turned, blearily making out Paige sitting on the opposite side of the bus and facing her intently.
“Hiya,” Willow said, still clearly drowsy. “How are- who are you?”
She didn’t seem at all perturbed by the presence of a stranger on the bus. Maybe it could be put down to the spell, maybe it was simple sleepiness.
“Oh,” Paige said, “I’m, um, your whitelighter,” Willow tilted her head, not understanding. “Uh, your guardian angel, I guess.”
“Oh,” Willow blinked. Then, a goofy grin. “Nifty.”