The house was white with dark red shutters, the door a nut brown at the end of the brick walk. The front yard was practically non-existent but it was mowed and there weren't any weeds.
Xander took a deep breath and smoothed a hand down his suit jacket before knocking, uncomfortable because this was not how he liked to make contact with new slayers. A phone call, email with the website address, even better, a rec from the guidance councilor at the school, not cold calling at four in the afternoon. But with all other avenues stymied, he didn't have a choice. There was a slayer here - Willow had done the spells twice - and her parents' refusal to acknowledge that a girl even lived here was freaking him out.
A short woman answered the door, only opening it halfway and glaring at Xander before he had opened his mouth. "If you're from the church, I'm calling the cops," she said, phone clenched her fist, "Now get the hell off my property." She made to close the door, and Xander so shocked by this reception, almost didn't say anything in time.
"I'm not with the church!" he blurted which only earned him a scornful scoff. "No listen, I'm here from the Watcher's Council. We called you earlier -"
The woman, Mrs. Stelle, paused but the name only fueled her anger. "Listen, I don't know who you are, but I already told you to stop harassing us!" She took a menacing step toward him, forcing Xander back down the step. Antagonizing her was the last thing he wanted to do. "I'm not hiding my daughter because I have a son! You hear me? A son!" She shouted, her voice close to breaking on the last word, furious. Xander stumbled down the steps afraid she was going to go pyrotechnic on his ass, not entirely irrational in his line of work, but clearly he'd blindly stepped in something and he hoped he lived long enough to find out what.
"Mom?" a voice, a girl's voice, said from the door. Looking over Mrs. Stelle's shoulder Xander did a double take. In the doorway stood a boy. Or she looked like a boy. Or he sounded like a girl. Or maybe there was a girl behind him? But Mrs. Stelle only had one child.
Then it clicked. "Oh," he said, staring.
"What are you looking at?" the girl or boy demanded, her mother's anger echoed in younger features.
"Nothing," Xander stammered, quickly focusing on Mrs. Stelle again. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize -"
"Like hell," she spat. "Get the fuck out of here."
"Yes, ma'am," Xander said. Let it not be said he didn't know when to retreat, or when he was about fifty miles over his head down the rabbit hole.
Mom was upset until dinner. Tyler stayed out of the way, but to be honest he was pretty upset too. He knew it was his fault that people kept harassing them even if it was really theirs for being stupid fucking bigots who wanted him to go to hell. He couldn't help feeling it when Mom jerked her way through making dinner in silence. Everything seemed to be his fault one way or another. Dad certainly thought so, and even if Mom denied it, Tyler knew that even if he didn't mean to make everything fall apart, it was still true.
"Fucking shits," Mom said when they sat down to eat. She was still angry, but Tyler saw her fear too, and her worry. Her shoulders were stiff, and he knew that this was one more thing she didn't need right now. Not with the divorce hearing still looming and Dad siccing the congregation on them.
"From the church?" Tyler asked tentatively. He poked at his potatoes, not really hungry.
"No," Mom cut hers to pieces with sharp slices. "Those people who were calling last week. Watcher's Council." She dropped her fork and knife. "I should call the police," she said and was halfway out of her chair already.
"Mom," said Tyler. He hated the police. They never did anything except stare and treat him like a freak. "Don't. He left, right?"
"I don't want him coming back." But she sat back down. "Watchers. I don't even want to know what that's supposed to mean."
"Bet they're pervs."
"Tyler!" It was a reflex, but Tyler knew she was thinking the same thing. They probably thought Tyler was a perv. That's what everybody said. They came in their nice suits, just like that guy, and spoke really nice about what an abomination he was. They tended to talk about God a lot but Tyler just thought God was a fuck up if this is what He did to him. Put him in the wrong body. Who makes a mistake like that and still demands to be called perfect? Tyler wasn't the only one either. Mom did support group stuff, he knew he wasn't alone. But it sure felt like it.
"Do you know what he wanted?" he asked.
"The Watcher's Council guy? No." Mom put on a smile. "We never got past the fact that I don't have a daughter."
He knew it cost her something to say, but it meant everything to Tyler.
He picked at his food, and slowly as she ate, Mom relaxed. She was tired, and Tyler worried about her. He wished he hadn't done this to her.
"So," she said a few minutes later, her smile more genuine. "How was school today?"
She asked every night and it was a normal ritual because she had always asked, even before he'd changed everything. Before he had changed. Only now it wasn't just about science projects and math tests and whose birthday party was coming up. It was about how his teachers were treating him and who called him names at lunch.
Tyler shrugged and stared at the potato wedge on the end of his fork. He'd never really liked school since he never felt like he fit in, and it was worse now that he understood why and refused to give in. He had a dream once, at the beginning of all of this when his body started changing, he was standing in front of a mirror seeing himself as a boy and there was this voice that asked him if he wanted to be strong. It was like a door opened and he realized that the boy in the mirror was him.
"It was okay," he said. "No one bothered me." They had but he'd been lying about it for months. There were two boys in particular, Simon and Jeremy who he used to play with in elementary school, who liked to shove him around like a 'real boy.' Tyler was too scared to fight back ever since he broke James Westerly's nose and been suspended even though James had started it.
Mom gave him a worried look. "Learn anything cool?"
Tyler shrugged again. "Not really."
She sighed this time and didn't say anything else. They finished eating in silence.
The first thing Xander did when he got home to Cleveland was call Willow. She and Kennedy had left a week ago, their vacation and slayer-locating visit over till next year.
"Willow," Xander relaxed at the sound of her voice as he climbed the stairs to his room. "I'm so glad you're there. Like epically life-savingly glad."
"What? Why, what's going on?" Her voice was immediately concerned.
Xander flopped down on his bed. "There's something wrong with one of the new slayers," he said. "The one in Indiana."
"What is it? Xander, you're scaring me."
He swallowed hard, not sure how to say it, but he could hear Willow start to freak out and that was the only thing staving off his own freak out right now. "The slayer's a boy."
Silence. Then, "That's impossible."
"Slayers have always been girls!"
"They were chosen as sacrifices and the magical slayerness can only go to another girl."
"I know. But the kid I saw was board shorts and Transformers all the way, That's why I'm calling. You have to do the spell again."
"You think I got the wrong house? Didn't you check the school records?" Willow was good at the detection spell. They did the background check to make sure the address was right but she'd never been wrong before.
She had to do the spell again. That would fix this. Make it make more sense than what his head was coming up with. Because that . . . that? Xander wasn't sure he could deal with that. He was quite possibly freaking out now.
"Yes." He swallowed hard because they had done it. They had double checked it. "Theresa Stelle with two fights on her record and a bunch of other discipline problems. Mysterious hospital visit. Parents getting a divorce. But the kid at the house…" Xander hesitated, words, terms, caught in his throat. He felt like saying it aloud somehow made him sound like the bad guy. "She was a boy."
"Wait," said Willow after a pause, sounding pulled together in a way that Xander was grateful for. "You mean she was actually a boy or she was a girl dressed like a boy."
"I mean her mom said she had a son and not a daughter."
Willow was quiet for a minute; Xander could hear the gears grinding away and really hoped she had an answer for him because he had no idea what to do. If the slayer really was a boy then something was seriously wrong with the universe and Xander no doubt would have to deal with the fallout but that somehow seemed better than the alternative. If the slayer was a girl like she was supposed to be who just pretended to be a boy, well, Xander wasn't sure what to do with that.
"So biologically, is the slayer a girl or a boy?" Willow finally asked carefully.
Xander closed his eyes. She — the slayer was so young that it had been to hard to tell and his mind kept telling him one thing even though he recognized the anger in Mrs. Stelle's eyes. The threat of the cops and the fear of the church.
"Girl," he said finally.
"Oh, Xander," Willow sighed. "It's not the end of the world. He's just a boy in a girl's body. It's not his fault."
Any minute now Ashton Kusher was going to jump out at him. "What do I do?"
"You treat him like a boy."
Xander stared at his ceiling, a sinking feeling telling him it wouldn't be so easy. Not the end of the world, he repeated to himself as Willow kept talking until the kneejerk dread faded from his stomach.
When he got off the phone with Willow, Xander stayed on his bed. He'd made a mess of things already, pissed off the mom and probably the kid too. You'd think that after doing this for three years, he'd at least have an idea about where to start, but his brain kept giving him the highlights from Priscilla Queen of the Desert which wasn't fair on so many levels.
Downstairs he could hear the noise of the girls who lived at slayer central arguing in front of the TV, Verne and Diana's voices the loudest in their endless one-upmanship. Ana was probably with them but Courtney would be outside or in the basement training. In two weeks, Slayer Camp would start and forty more girls would descend on them for the summer, six of them just barely thirteen with their lives upended for the first time. Theresa was supposed to have been the seventh.
Xander kept breathing and tried to wrap his head around forty girls and one boy. If he could get her - him to come. Him to come, he repeated in his head. Willow's spell wasn't wrong, and this kid was a slayer. That's what mattered. Everything else would just have to be worked out.
Tyler got home before his Mom did. She had to work, and the bus stop was close enough to their house that she didn't worry about him walking the rest of the way home by himself. He was a teenager now anyway, old enough to walk home alone without getting into trouble.
He grabbed the mail on the way in and dropped his backpack by the door with a sigh. It also gave him a chance to change his clothes before she saw them. Today it was spilled milk all over his shirt. An accident according to everyone who saw Simon run into him at lunch, complete with him helping Tyler clean up by shoving him into a table and stepping on his feet. "You're not going to cry over spilled milk are you?" Simon had said to him, gripping his wrist too tightly as he yanked Tyler to his feet. "That's such a girly thing to do. But wait. You are a girl."
His shirt wasn't damp anymore but it smelled. He went to his room and kept the lights off - with the curtains drawn it was dark enough - as he changed. His side was a little tender where he'd hit the table, but it didn't really hurt. Mostly he just wanted to forget school and forget stupid Simon. Maybe tomorrow he'd bash Simon into a table and see how he liked it.
But he wouldn't, and he hated himself a little for that. Mom said she was proud he was no longer getting into fights, proud he wasn't sinking to their level, but Tyler just felt like he was acting like a girl and taking it. That's what he'd done when he'd pretended to be a girl.
Irritated with himself, he went back downstairs and turned on the TV. He grabbed the mail on the way to kitchen for a snack and flipped through it to see if there was anything that would upset Mom. He usually threw out the stuff from the church before she got home. There was only one pamphlet today, and a letter that had Mom's lawyer's name on it. And a letter addressed to Mr. T. Stelle.
Tyler frowned - his Dad was Kevin and had a new address now. There was no return address, just this logo that looked like an ax. It was kind of weird, but Tyler's curiosity overcame his fear. It was clearly meant for him, him as him, which must mean something. Still, it took him a minute before he opened it, braced for a mean joke from Simon.
Dear Mr. Stelle, it started.
My name is Xander Harris, Director of the North American Branch of the International Watcher's Council. We met a few days ago when I came to Indiana to introduce myself to you. Our meeting did not go as planned and I am writing to apologize for the upset I caused.
I am also writing to explain why I came to see you. I know what you are about to read will sound crazy but I'm asking that you look at it with an open mind.
The letter wasn't kidding about crazy. Tyler read it, the crap about slayers and vampires, superpowers and other stuff that was just plain stupid, and knew it had to be a big joke. Then he got to the part about the dream.
Have you heard a voice in your dream ask you if you are ready to be strong?
His breath caught because there was no way anyone could know that. It had to be a stupid joke. Just another laugh at his expense and this time from someone who said he was a girl with superpowers.
Tyler crushed the letter in his hand without reading the rest and threw it across the room. He grabbed the salt shaker, angry like he hadn't been since he broke James's nose, and threw that too, barely surprised at the sound of it colliding with the wall, cracking the plaster and making a dent. He was a boy and he was fucking strong enough to throw objects hard enough to break them, he had been for months now, and it didn't mean he had superpowers and it didn't mean he was a fucking girl. Then he threw the pepper shaker and watched it break the window.
The silence after the shattering of the glass felt heavy. Tyler felt his chest heaving. He felt his things moving up and down. His breath felt too loud in his ears and maybe he shouldn't have been able to break the window.
The breeze fluttered in and rustled the other pieces of mail and the other piece of paper that had been in the envelope. It was a brochure, but not one on glossy paper. It was regular printer paper and even had a miscolored line every few inches. The ax symbol was on the front again above two girls holding crossbows with serious expressions on their faces. IWC it said across the top, and You are not alone across the bottom under the girls.
It was a lie. Maybe if he'd kept being a girl like Dad wanted. But he hadn't and ever since then Tyler had known that he was very much alone.
Xander hung up the phone, his ear still ringing from Mrs. Stelle's diatribe. Harsh angry words about harassment and persecution. Had he no shame trying to scam a kid who had enough misery in his life already? She hadn't given him a chance to speak, and Xander had to resist the urge to shout that he knew what it was like to have a fucked up life, too.
His fingers lingered on the handset. The part of him that envied Tyler his mother's defense wanted to call Jack, but the rest of him that had grown up just fine on his own and had a job to do running this crazy place let it go and went back to the dinner table.
It was a full house tonight so Andrew had cleared the whole table of the normal workday clutter. He and his boyfriend, Tim, sat closest to the kitchen door, both craning around as Xander came in. Ana, Verne, and her boyfriend, Nick, lined the left while Diana and Courtney sat on the right. No one said anything; they'd overheard his attempts at taking control of the conversation and maybe some of what Mrs. Stelle had said, she'd been so loud.
"Was that the slayer in Indiana?" Diana was the first to speak.
"His mother." It still felt wrong to say it that way, but there had been an email from Willow with about a dozen links to transgender websites accompanied by several firmly worded threats not to be a jackass and perpetuate the marginalization of a vulnerable minority. But what got to him was when she wrote It weirded you out when you found out I was gay, but did it make you love me less?
"What, she thinks we're going to kidnap and crucify her daughter?" asked Verne. When Xander had explained earlier, Verne's response had been to roll her eyes like she did with everything that annoyed her.
"Son," said Andrew quietly but firmly, giving her what Xander had named his Watcher Face. The girls mostly ignored it but Andrew was learning to not let it crack in the face of their indifference.
"Someone should just magic her back into thinking she's a girl," said Ana lightly to break the tension. "Make everyone's lives easier."
"Hey, don't even joke about that!" Tim snapped surprising everyone.
"It's not like we're going to," Ana retorted.
"It doesn't matter. You're joking about messing with who he is on a fundamental level, something he's already getting shit for. Something he'll get shit for for the rest of his life."
"Well, maybe this way we'll spare her some pain," said Verne.
"We are not messing with anybody," Xander said loudly, before things got too out of hand, a little appalled at himself for how nice Ana's solution sounded. "Magically or not, so quit using female pronouns." Xander understood; it weirded him out too, but he was supposed to be setting an example.
"If he comes here," Tim went on anyway, still glaring and Ana and Verne, "You better watch what you say and treat him like he's a boy and not some freak of nature or you're going to make everything worse for him."
"We'll be nice." Another eyeroll, and now Nick was snickering.
"Nice like you're nice to me and Andrew and don't make us uncomfortable about being homosexual?" Tim shot back.
"We're nice!" Verne protested and Ana actually looked hurt by the accusation. Xander, for his part, was surprised. Tim had never seemed to have problems with the slayers. Most fights that broke out were between Verne and Diana in their constant struggle for dominance.
"I'm not saying you do it intentionally, and I'm old enough not to let it bother me. You were raised Catholic, I get it, but this kid is thirteen and it's going to matter to him how you treat him whether he wants it to or not." Tim's gaze drifted to Xander, and he looked older suddenly, like the girls who'd come through battle. Like Xander felt after years of fighting the good fight, like Andrew when his thoughts drifted to his life before the Scoobies.
"We're all freaks of nature," Courtney said into the silence that followed. She nodded at Tim and Andrew and said, "You're gay D&D freaks. The three of us," she gestured to include Ana and Verne, "ran away from home. Xander has one eye. The two of us," she nodded at Diana, "are orphans because we're slayers." She looked last at Nick. "I don't know what your damage is."
"I hang out with girls that can kick my ass," he said.
"And we all hunt vampires for fun," said Diana. The reason they were all here. The reason Tyler needed to come to camp, to learn about his power, control it, be prepared for the monsters that would be drawn to it.
"Sorry," said Ana, glancing over at Tim.
"I don't need you to be sorry," he said. "Just let this kid be who he is."
After dinner, Xander retreated upstairs to his room, back at square one. He needed parental consent to get Tyler to camp. Hell, he needed Tyler's consent, and it didn't look like he was going to get it anytime soon. At this point Xander's best option was probably waiting to try again next year.
He sat down at his desk. The computer was off and there were stacks of supply lists, slayer contact info, last year's evals, and a dozen other details of being a Watcher and running home base. Thought of slayers who hadn't been trained after answering the call, Courtney among them just last year, who'd suffered for it. Hurt others by accident, didn't know Xander well enough to call him when trouble came calling. He thought about the spells that had changed him, trapped him, and wondered if that's what Tyler felt like all the time.
Xander looked over his shoulder; Courtney was leaning in his open doorway. "Hey," he smiled. She'd dyed her hair black with blue tips after the last attempted apocalypse a few weeks ago, and her wardrobe was slowly edging into motorcycle gang territory. So far she managed to pull it off.
She sat on his bed, and Xander asked, "What's up?" letting her fidget till she was ready to speak.
"I want to go talk to him. The slayer in Indiana."
"I don't know, Courtney."
"You already tried twice and didn't get anywhere," she said. "Besides it's different when it's not you talking about it."
"Thanks for the endorsement."
"No, I mean, it's different when you talk to another slayer about it."
Xander regarded her thoughtfully. It was worth a shot. "We'll ask his mom in a few days."
"She won't say yes," Courtney said in that tone perfected by young teenagers everywhere as she rolled her eyes. "We should just go."
"The poor woman hates us enough. I'm not going to antagonize her more than I have to."
"Whatever. You're just giving up," she said angrily.
"No - "
"Something could happen, Xander!" Courtney was on her feet, just tall enough to glare down at him seated. Xander reached out, but she stepped away and ran out before he could say anything. He tried to go after her, but she was too fast - a slayer - hurt, and angry because that was how she dealt with it
The front door slammed, and Xander made it outside in time to see her running down the street.
"Shit." First hint of talking about her family and she was gone. Whether she would be back tonight was anyone's guess, but Xander had a feeling he'd be going back to Indiana sooner than he expected.
A girl was sitting on the front steps when Tyler came home from school on Wednesday. He stopped on the sidewalk in front of the neighbor's. He didn't recognize her, and she sure as hell didn't look like anyone who went to his school. Her jeans were ripped at the knee, her heavy jacket was black and a size too big, and the ends of her hair were blue. She'd already seen him, but she didn't move, just waited, frowning at him like he was wasting her time.
Tyler didn't know whether to keep going or run away, but in the end he manned up and went up the walk. It was his fucking house, and he wasn't going to let some girl sit there like he wasn't welcome. Crossing his arms he demanded, "Who the fuck are you?"
"Courtney," she said easily. "You're Tyler?"
He blinked surprised, because no one except Mom just said it like that. The teachers at school all did this pause like it hurt them to say it, and the other kids sing-songed it into a taunt.
"Yeah." Some of his belligerence shifted to curiosity. "Who are you?"
"I'm a freak," she grinned suddenly. "Just like you."
Breath caught in his throat. "You're -"
"A slayer. Just like you."
Tyler blushed, feeling stupid for thinking she was going to say something else. "Get out of here!" he shouted at her. "My mom told you people to leave us alone."
"We can't do that!" Courtney shouted back, getting to her feet. She was a little bit taller, maybe a year older. At the moment, Tyler didn't care. He couldn't hit anyone at school, but no one would care if he hit her.
She caught his wrist before it landed and moved so fast that between one second and the next his arm was twisted up his back painfully but not so painfully that Tyler didn't think he could get out of it. Before he could, though, Courtney was talking right in ear.
"I'm a slayer. You're a slayer. It's not crazy, a little fucked up, yeah, but not crazy, and I can prove it."
Tyler slammed his foot onto hers and spun out of her hold, landing two punches, blood rushing in his ears, before she knocked his feet out from under him. He slammed to the ground landing awkwardly on his backpack and scrambled to his feet, hands out, ready. He watched her, and she watched him, but neither of them moved. Tyler heard the blood rushing through his ears.
"You feel it, don't you?" Courtney slowly lowered her hands, shifting from what Tyler's felt as a threat back into a girl with blue hair. "Everything else? It's bullshit. That power? That's yours. It chose you and you stood up and chose back. Nothing else matters."
He was barely breathing hard even though he felt like he'd been running. Courtney hadn't even noticed his strikes against her, not like James who had crumpled to the ground screaming. No, Courtney knew how to fight, and like that, Tyler was suddenly overwhelmed by wanting to be able to fight like her. Be able to fight back. Something deep inside whispered that it would be easy.
"Show me," Tyler whispered.
The second time Xander showed up on the Stelle doorstep, it was in jeans and an old flannel shirt as the sun was setting over the suburban neighborhood. The GPS told him that Courtney's phone was still here and had been since early this afternoon. As good a sign as he was going to get.
When Mrs. Stelle opened the door, she looked a little shell shocked, just staring at Xander empty of her anger.
"Hi," said Xander softly and gave her a weak smile. "I hear you have someone of mine here."
"Uh, yeah," said Mrs. Stelle, blinking slowly as she opened the door wider. "Courtney. She just..." The way she looked to Xander for an answer was familiar, like she was staring over the edge of the cliff and not sure whether the trampoline at the bottom was real.
"She wanted to talk to Tyler."
"She did more than talk." She laughed, her breath catching somewhere in her chest, as she led Xander inside. The small vestibule opened on to the living room that wrapped around into the dining room and kitchen. On the table, a pair of golf clubs were tied into pretzels.
"My old clubs. I haven't played since my husband moved out and now they're useless. More useless anyway. I'd been thinking of getting rid of them, and now." She stopped a few feet from the table, arms crossed protectively across her chest. Xander gave her a minute. He'd learned that patience and silence were usually best for new slayer parents who were trying to wrap their head around superpowers they'd never believed in before. Sometimes it was too much for them to take in, but so far Mrs. Stelle seemed to be handling it okay. Not well, but okay.
When she finally noticed him again she said, "If I hadn't seen it - it's real?" scared and uncertain, but something hopeful there too that Xander didn't expect.
"Yeah. I know it's a lot to take in."
"Courtney showed me your website. It was . . ."
"Melodramatic?" Xander offered, and Mrs. Stelle smiled. "Yeah, Andrew got a little carried away, and it makes us look less crazy by being in disguise as a crackpot site. Or something like that." Andrew had gone to town on the website in his unique storyteller fashion back before he'd had Tim to distract him from going overkill.
"I'm being rude." She shook her head to clear it. "The kids are outside. I haven't seen Tyler like this since he . . . became 'he'." Through the window over the kitchen sink, Courtney's head was just visible.
"When was that?" Xander couldn't help but ask.
"Beginning of the school year." Mrs. Stelle turned toward the coffee maker, the tension easing as she gave herself something to do. "It was like puberty hit with a vengeance and suddenly he was demanding that he was a boy and that we treat him that way, and now puberty's happening the wrong way. Kevin was so angry."
"Soon to be ex-husband." She filled the pot with water from the sink and poured it in the top. "He wanted to send Tyler to one of those programs. I wouldn't let him." She flipped the switch and finally turned around, arms crossed defiantly across her chest. "When Tyler was little he wanted to be a boy too, but we thought it was a phase when it stopped when he started school. I have my suspicions why. And now I find out this slayer thing only happens to girls."
"As far as we've seen, the choice is made when a slayer's around 12 or 13. Most of them hear something, feel something - it varies - asking them if they're ready. Don't ask ready for what because that depends, too." Xander shrugged. "Anyway, they make a choice to accept or not, and the ones that do become slayers."
"We don't know. Not why one girl and not another. It's an ancient spell." Xander shrugged again. The coffee took a few more minutes to brew and Mrs. Stelle kept asking question after question. It was more familiar territory now and they sat at the kitchen table after Mrs. Stelle gingerly shoved the golf clubs to the side. They still made her nervous, but she wasn't outright ignoring them, a tiny glance here and there as Xander told her about a slayer's new strength and needing to learn how to control and channel it. He was in the middle of the pitch for slayer camp when Tyler and Courtney bounded in. Tyler stopped short upon seeing Xander, and Courtney was a mixture of sorry and defiant. Xander gave her a smile.
"So it was an okay idea after all," he said.
"Told you." She grinned and slung an arm over Tyler's shoulders.
"So can I go, Mom?" asked Tyler, red cheeked and nothing like the somber child Xander had caught a glimpse of before. "Courtney says I'll learn how fight properly and she'll help me fight off the other slayers if they're bitches about me." He bounced on his toes, ready to fly the moment his mother gave the word.
A soft expression crossed Mrs. Stelle's face, easing the creases around her eyes which were bright, like she was seeing Tyler for the first time.
"It'll be fun," Courtney added, turning guileless eyes hopefully to Mrs. Stelle. "I'll look after him."
"I'll think about it," she said softly.
Xander didn't let them press the point. Her consideration was all he needed right now. He gathered up Courtney after an extended goodbye and exchange of numbers and screen names. Xander gave Mrs. Stelle another one of his cards and shook her hand.
Courtney fell into the front seat with a happy oomph and a side of tired.
"You gotta quit running off on me," he said mildly as he started the engine.
"You knew where I was," said Courtney.
"I knew where your phone was."
Courtney shrugged and rolled her head his way. "You think he'll come?"
"Yeah," said Xander. "I think so."
Mom told him to go to bed but Tyler couldn't sleep. He was pretty sure he was not physically capable of it right then. All he wanted was to get up and run off into the night, and maybe jump and scream because something so amazing actually happened to him. Him. Courtney was totally cool about it and when Mom got home she knew what to say to keep her from freaking the fuck out.
She'd still freaked but then Tyler got the golf clubs and she'd freaked out about him ruining them for a little while. He really hoped she hadn't got rid of them yet.
Part of him still couldn't believe it. The rest of him felt like everything had fallen into place. It almost hurt how good it felt. Courtney grinning at him after she showed him how to dodge a punch, how to counter.
"Just the quick and dirty," she'd said before launching herself at him. Tyler barely had time to do the block and then it was just scrambling to get the upper hand. And when it was over, Courtney hadn't looked at his body once. Tyler, for the first time in ever, hadn't noticed it, feeling at peace with the wrong flesh because he wasn't forced to think about it.
"Tyler." His Mom knocked on the door. She cracked it open, spreading a column of light across his floor. "Still awake?"
"Don't think I'll sleep again." Mom came and sat on the edge of his bed. She brushed hair that was too short to bother him off his forehead. "How are you holding up?"
Tyler couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. He couldn't. "I'm a superhero."
"Mr. Harris said it was dangerous."
His smile faded a bit. "Courtney did too."
Lying on the grass as she told him about the Hellmouth in Cleveland, she had said, "It's not all fun and easy when it's for real. But it's important. My parents and my brother . . .they're dead. Because I was stupid about this and they were afraid to let me learn about being a slayer. You probably shouldn't tell your mom that. But it's important, what we do. It keeps people safe."
"Mom, I'm supposed to do this," Tyler said. "I'm supposed to be this. It's like waking up again." He could see her better than expected in the dark, but he couldn't tell what she was thinking.
"Even though it's an all girls club? Just after everything, I want -" Her breath caught. Tyler grabbed her hand.
"No one will beat me up again," he said. "They won't be able to touch me."
"There's more than one way to get hurt."
Tyler's thoughts leaped to the day Dad left. The absence that gaped the worse for wanting it filled. "I'm always going to be hurt like that," he said quietly. He wasn't sure his mother got that. School sucked, walking down the street sucked. Everyone had an opinion, and no one let him forget he was different. No one until Courtney said he was her kind of freak and the rest was all bullshit. "But now I won't be helpless."
Mom smiled and brushed his hair back again. "I love you."
"I love you too. It'll be okay." He could feel it. Today the whole world had opened up. "You'll see."