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Independent 18 - Reversible Error

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Reversible Error
(Twelve Slayer Awakenings That Did or Didn’t Happen)
by Aadler and SRoni
Copyright March 2014

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Other recognizable characters are likewise not mine, but presented with respect and affection. This author neither owns nor profits from the characters.

The new Council of Watchers didn’t maintain a permanent headquarters in London. The almost total obliteration of the Council’s elders, in the months leading to the Great Wave of Slayer activations, had taught the survivors a much-needed lesson in the merits of decentralization, redundant systems, layers of facilities and support personnel that overlapped and reinforced one another. The current arrangement borrowed heavily from both the military organizational structure applied in combat theaters, and the fail-safe designs in computer hardware and operating systems. Never again could the Watchers be essentially decapitated with a single bomb; lines of succession were clearly established, echelons of leadership were geographically dispersed, and Council headquarters shifted at least three times yearly on a deliberately randomized schedule.

Worthy goals all, and many of them long overdue. The upshot, however, was this: Rupert Giles had at long last made it to the Cotswold retreat.

Should have done this years ago, he thought to himself, looking out through the French doors to the shadows deepening over the sculpted landscaping of the estate grounds. A snifter of brandy was cradled in his hand, and behind him a low fire had been laid up against the expected evening damp. Everything before him, all the atmosphere around him, was redolent with centuries of acquired and cultivated tradition.

When he turned, of course, the entire tableau was instantaneously exploded … but he’d had more than a bit to do with bringing that about, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Many things had changed. Xander’s tan was so deep now that — aside from the horrendous, garish shirt and the eye-patch — he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the markets of the Punjab, and the muscles in his wrists and forearms had thickened impressively. Buffy was gradually working leather into her wardrobe, determined to wed style with durability, and she had (finally!) allowed her hair to return to its original color, a rich deep buckwheat-honey hue so dark that it could only barely be called blonde by dint of utmost charity, and somehow rendered her more stunning than ever. Willow, in her turn, had trimmed her hair in a tapered cut that left it rather shorter than Xander’s, and which made a striking contrast to the tailored, formal garb — almost a uniform — of the proper female Watcher (and Giles still hadn’t decided if she was perpetrating a deliberate parody, or innocently unaware of the effect she created). As well, there were a few new faces: Wendell Chu was once again reviewing the latest reports on the screen of his ever-present smartphone; and in the corner she had claimed as her own, Salome Beresford, wizened, silver-haired and merry, drew languid shimmer-patterns in the air with her fingertips.

Yes, much had changed. All the same, it had been so long since the four … original ‘Scoobies’ … had all been together, in the same place at the same time, that the fundamental nostalgia of the scene almost literally took his breath away.

Unsurprisingly, it was Buffy who broke his musing silence; she had both mellowed and blossomed in the nineteen months past, but the Slayer Prime still tended to be the most forceful and decisive personality in any gathering. “Okay, Giles, you’ve made us comfortable,” she announced. “You’ve done the intros, for those of us who didn’t already know each other. We’re not looking at any imminent world-endage, or you’d already be telling us about it, probably into your second page of footnotes by now. But, since you’ve pulled together all of the heavy deciders, we know this isn’t any casual meet-and-greet, so how’s about we get straight into the whatever of us being here?”

Giles gave her a lifted eyebrow and a tilted, rueful smile. “There is no pressing agenda,” he acknowledged. “In fact, when I first proposed this gathering, my primary thought was of reunion and well-deserved relaxation.” He sighed. “As I looked ahead to those matters we might discuss, however, I realised that there was indeed a particular issue that would soon call for some decisions.” He flicked a gesture to include Wendell and Salome. “And so I … expanded the guest list, for even if no choices can yet be made, this issue very much needs to be explored.”

“This isn’t about Spike again, is it?” Xander asked. It was startling to see the familiar schoolboy grin appearing in that firm-jawed, sun-bronzed face, but the easy, assured confidence in the man’s tone struck a note of even greater dissonance. “Because I’m tellin’ ya, he never, ever, stays dead.” He shook his head, and added, low and mournfully, “Ever.”

“No news on that front,” Salome assured them cheerfully, the piping little-girl voice rich, amused and conspiratorial. “I mean, he’s a sneaky bastard, so I make no promises, but the Coven is watching all the omens and monitoring any shifts or sudden peaks in the standard spectra, and we all know Willow would have sounded the alarm if her upstart line had spotted anything —” She chuckled as Willow stuck out her tongue in exaggerated retort, then went on. “I’m with Xander, the Peroxide Punker will definitely be back sooner or later … but it’ll be something original, knowing him, and we probably won’t have a clue till he appears in Trafalgar Square in front of a horde of mutant fire-breathing were-zebras.”

“Well, I’m not making any guesses,” Willow said with a shrug. “Mainly because it only delays Giles telling us.”

“Indeed,” Giles said in agreement. “Not that the colourful byplay hasn’t been every bit as entertaining as informative.” He set down his drink. “Very well, then. Wendell, how many Slayers do we have in register at present?”

“Right.” Chu began rapidly tapping keys on the smartphone’s screen interface, the custom-designed holographic spectacles giving his face a vaguely Strangelovian cast. “I think I might know where you’re going with this, sir, so: do you want the number currently living, or the total identified since the First Activation?”

“Ah.” Giles nodded. “Very perceptive, and quite correct. The latter, please, with detail.”

“Mm-hmm.” Chu tapped in a few more entries, then reported, “One thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven positively identified — not including Primus and Secundus — of whom forty-one are deceased. Additionally, there are one hundred thirteen who died before we could confirm their status, with an aggregate confidence of 85.4%, so the likelihood is that this number included ninety-six or ninety-seven actual Slayers. And —” More taps. “Fifty-one current possibilities are being investigated, with available evidence suggesting that at least twenty-nine are almost certainly Slayers, and seven more highly probable, with the remaining fourteen not yet firm enough for extrapolation.” He looked up. “In total, a probable one thousand, five hundred fifty-two, of whom roughly one thousand, four hundred sixteen are still living.”

“Got it,” Buffy said briskly. “We already knew we were slammed with a tidal wave of baby Slayers after Sunnydale did the ol’ sinkeroo, and we’ve been scrambling to play catch-up ever since. Sounds like we’re finally on top of it, thanks to world-class mystical detecting —” A nod to Willow. “— and field follow-up.” This to Xander. “Great job, guys, champagne is definitely warranted here.” She turned toward where Giles still stood. “Except, why am I thinking it’s not that simple?”

Giles shook his head. “Would that it were,” he sighed. “Would that it were.”

– December 2004 –

It was a matter of seconds. If it could have come even a few seconds sooner, less than half a minute …

Rousseau was leading; Alex was still getting used to the idea that this gaunt, driven woman was her mother, but it was beginning to feel real. She and Karl followed, staying together. Even though they had made good time through the scattered jungles of the island, Rousseau was insistent on pushing the pace. The older woman had a streak of realism, however, knew she couldn’t drive two teenagers hard and without pause for a full day and a half. Drawing up for a moment ahead of them, she said, “We stop here and drink. Two minutes.” She looked back to them. “Then we keep moving.”

Alex found a seat on the trunk of a fallen tree and raised her water bottle to take a swallow, while Rousseau moved a few more steps ahead, scanning the trees before them. Alex watched her mother unfold a crumpled piece of paper — the map Ben Linus had given them — and study it, probably thinking ahead to the next part of the journey and planning how to fortify once they arrived.

Karl sat down next to her, and looked around them, his expression troubled. “What’s wrong?” Alex asked.

“Nothing,” he said, but his eyes continued to search the jungle ahead.

“Karl,” she insisted, and at last he turned to face her.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just have a bad feeling about this. What if your dad is … playing us?”

Alex sighed inwardly. She knew he loved her; she was fairly sure by now that she didn’t love him. He had risked his life for her, though, more than once, and she would always care for him. If the time came that she had to gently let him down (and it probably would, and probably soon), she wanted to know in her heart that she had always treated him right. So she held his gaze with her own and said firmly, “Look, I don’t like taking orders from my dad any more than you do. But I know he doesn’t want me to get hurt.”

He nodded a little at that, smiled a little. “At least we’ve got something in common.”

He wasn’t the one for her, not now; she had grown older quickly after the events of the past few days, and he had fallen behind her. He wasn’t yet the man he would someday be, however, and he was still dear to her, so Alex gave him a small laugh. “I promise not to tell if you won’t.”

That was when they heard the sound: soft and sharp at the same time, not alarming but demanding notice. Then they heard it again, and water sprouted from a hole in Karl’s water bottle. They both looked at it, puzzled, not yet understanding enough to be afraid … then there was a third report, a third shot, and it caught Karl in the chest.

He toppled over, blood staining the shirt directly over his heart. Alex was crying his name, and behind her she could hear her mother calling to her. Then Rousseau was with her, pulling her away, tone harsh: “Come on. He’s gone.”

They tried to run, but a sleet of bullets was suddenly pelting the leaves and brush around them, and after only a few steps they had to take shelter behind the bole of one of the omnipresent palm trees. Alex was still crying for Karl, she felt her face taken roughly in her mother’s hands and Rousseau was speaking to her, fast and urgent —

— but Alex didn’t hear the words. She was somewhere else, seeing another face, hearing another voice. Being presented with a new and frightening choice. Frightening, and unforeseen … but not unwelcome.

Then she was back, and her mother was saying, “Are you ready?”

She didn’t understand, she was still trying to adjust, but something in her face must have looked like agreement, because Rousseau took her hand and said, “One. Two. Three —!” Then the woman was standing up, pulling Alex with her … and Alex yanked her back, hard, much harder than she had intended, the force of it smashing her mother’s shoulder against the tree and, a fraction of a second later and with a lesser impact, Rousseau’s head also impacted.

Learning experience. Learning by the second. Alex was already moving, her body carrying her low and swift through the undergrowth around her, leaving her mother stunned behind her. Instinct, new but trusted without hesitation, told her that Rousseau would need at least a minute or two to recover, and right now she was safer exactly where she was.

The men back in the trees had fired without warning, without a call for surrender, using sound suppressors to keep the noise of the shots from carrying to anyone else. They had no interest in prisoners. Suddenly, neither did Alex.

She had grown up in this jungle, knew it well. There were perils, and she had been taught how to avoid them, but she knew how to move, where to put her feet, how to keep a sense of direction by the angle of sunlight. She knew all this, and the new force within her seized that knowledge and converted it instantly into hard and efficient practice. She streaked through the dappled foliage, swift and silent as a leopard. Not fleeing. Hunting.

A man was in front of her, a big man in subdued camouflage, wearing a tactical vest and carrying a short, stubby-barreled weapon with a folding stock. He was turning to face her as Alex closed with him, and almost had the gun brought around to bear on her when she punched him in the chest with all her strength. Still learning: she felt ribs and sternum shatter beneath her fist, he folded in on himself as his body was smashed backward, and he was down and dead and she was on top of him, tearing at his belt.

Later she would chide herself for ignoring the firearm; instinct was one thing, but there were also realities to be faced. Now, however, she was still following the surging current that sizzled through her, and thinking wasn’t part of that. She got the fallen man’s knife and was away again, seeking her next quarry, senses alive and focused with lethal purpose.

There were seven of them. Only one got off a shot at her, and he was much — much — too slow.

When Alex returned, she saw that Rousseau was just beginning to stir. She helped her mother sit up, assessing the bruise on the side of the woman’s head. Lucky; if the shoulder hadn’t taken the main brunt, the skull might have been caved in against the tree, and Alex would still need to watch for concussion. Now, she knew to be more careful until she had learned the precise extent of her strength.

Now, she knew much that hadn’t been there before.

Rousseau’s eyes came into focus, and she looked around in memory and terror. “Where —?”

“They’re dead,” Alex told her. A part of her was amazed at her own calm. “All of them.”

The older woman looked around, wary, not understanding, then back at Alex. “How?” she asked.

And, meeting her mother’s gaze directly, Alex said, “It was one of the smoke monsters. I didn’t see it, I stayed down, but I heard the sounds.”

Rousseau considered that in silence, head tilted, listening for any further noises from the jungle. “It’s gone?” she said finally.

“I think so.”

Rousseau rose slowly, wincing at the pain in her shoulder, and carefully shifted the slung rifle to her uninjured side. “We should go on, then,” she said. “To the temple.” She paused. “I’m … sorry about Karl.”

“Yes,” Alex said. “Me, too.” She knew where his body lay, but she didn’t look back. There was no point. “Come on. I’ll help you.”

She had hidden the truth from her own mother, lying without hesitation or regret … and she knew she would never reveal that truth to anyone else, either.

It was bound up in the nature of power. The dead men she had left strewn through the jungle: they had killed Karl, and almost killed her and her mother, because they’d had power. Weapons, and training, and ruthlessness, and most of all, secrecy; they had struck before their targets had even known they were there. Now she, too, had power. If it had come a few seconds earlier, she might have saved Karl; a few seconds later would probably have been too late to save her and her mother.

Power … if she had learned one thing from her father, it was that hiding an advantage meant no potential enemy could develop a counter to it.

There were bad things on this island, people to be punished and people to be protected. Ben Linus — the man who had raised her as his daughter — was almost certainly one of the former. If not him, others, far too many who would dominate and terrorize and kill as they pleased unless something stopped them.

She had seen enough of that. Now, no more.

Alex Linus … Alex Rousseau … had been one of the victims. Now, she was an avenging fist. And, if those who fell to it never knew the identity of their executioner, that was fine by her.

[Alex Linus, Karl, and Danielle Rousseau (Lost) are the property of J.J. Abrams, Bad Robot Productions, and ABC Studios. (The dialogue, up to the moment Alex’s strength first manifests, is from the fourth-season episode “Meet Kevin Johnson”.)]

– August 2004 –

Cristina Moreno was not the type of person to rush into decisions. She infinitely preferred to weigh her options carefully before deciding on the right course of action. Knowing this about herself, and recognizing that her disinclination toward rash action might predispose her to hesitancy and second-guessing, she made every effort to think things out as far in advance as she possibly could, and prepare to meet any contingencies she could foresee.

Recent developments meant that some preparations could be open, while others called for privacy or even subterfuge. This meant that Cristina could persuade her roommate to study self-defense with her, and give the other girl a pendant cross to match her own and insist that wearing them together was a private form of solidarity, and make a point that two college-aged women had to be alert for any threat without letting themselves drift into paranoia … but she couldn’t be specific about which threats really concerned her, or provide Bernie with the most appropriate weapons, or even let her see the implements Cristina herself always made sure to have on hand. She did what she could, and focused an extra measure of watchfulness to fill the gaps she knew were still there, and hoped she was bolstering herself and her friend against a crisis that would never arrive.

A not unreasonable hope, but ultimately forlorn. Summer finals week, and she and Bernie were walking back to their little apartment from the library after a full day of studying. Though Cristina had taken care to limit their exposure after dark whenever possible, on that particular night they’d gotten absorbed in exam prep, and the sun was down by the time they left the library. Bernie got a call on her cell, and it was a guy she’d been hoping would call, and Cristina slowed to let her friend pull ahead on the sidewalk so as to have a bit of privacy. No more than twenty feet … but as Bernie drew level with an alley, a fast-moving figure lunged out, seized Bernie and hurled her back into the alley, and darted in after her, all in barely more time than an eye-blink.

And Cristina was dashing to follow, running full-speed while clawing at the padded outer pocket of the backpack that was never far from her reach. None of the hesitation she had worried about, no uncertainty, and — oddly — no fear except that she might be too late, too slow, too weak. As she rounded into the alley, light from a street-lamp carried just far enough for Cristina to see that the vampire (it couldn’t be anything else) had his face buried in Bernie’s neck, and that she was already going pale in shock from a combination of blood loss and an arm that looked broken.

Through her own choice, Cristina was no warrior. All the same, she had learned from her dreams. The vampire would be faster than her, so she wouldn’t try to use speed to defeat him. He was surely stronger, so Cristina wouldn’t depend on strength. Her only hope lay in determination, readiness, and preparation. The twisted, snarling demon’s-face (so familiar, though she had never truly seen such a thing before now) jerked up to fix its eyes on her, and she would have had no chance against the rush that followed if her own attack hadn’t been already in motion.

She’d snatched too frantically into the backpack pocket, one water balloon burst under her fingers, but she reached through it to grab the next, and flung it with a snap of her wrist into the path of the oncoming vampire. There was no time to try for another, she had dropped the backpack and had her hand inside her vest when the water balloon burst on the vampire’s chest, holy water spraying the creature’s upper torso and the lower part of his face. Bloody furrows ran down one cheek — from the placement, Bernie must have managed that before her arm was broken — and Cristina felt a moment’s flare of pride for her friend before adrenaline-propelled clarity settled over her.

Everything around her slowed down. She had all the time in the world to think about what to do, but her body, too, was trapped in the same slow motion. The stake she had crafted and tucked away was coming free from the sheath sewn into the inside of the vest. The vampire had faltered for a fraction of a second, screeching as holy water sizzled on exposed skin, then recovered and charged for her again. Her mind was still operating in sharpened clarity, and Cristina knew exactly what she had to do. Her arm moved with aching slowness, inching through the air, while the vampire came closer, closer, closer. The result was already set, it just wasn’t yet known: she would get the stake into position in time, or she wouldn’t, and the answer would determine which one of them died. Then the vampire was on her, the world speeding back up to normal as his body crashed into hers. Cristina felt fangs actually begin to close on her throat, and then the vampire crumbled into dust while Cristina fell backward from the impact, colliding painfully with the rough, grimy asphalt of the alley floor.

Her next actions, too, were directed by advance planning. Not a 911 call, but one to the nearest emergency trauma center, already set into her speed-dial. Disinfectant spray, large stick-on bandage to slow the blood flow. Bernie’s blood-type called in ahead of them while the paramedics transporting her were restoring her fluid volume with a saline IV. By the time they arrived at the trauma center, it was already clear that Cristina had been fast enough, prepared enough, and lucky enough to save her friend’s life … which left her ample time to reflect, while the doctors were busy with transfusions and antibiotics and vascular surgery, on what had happened and what it truly meant.

(It had also been necessary to speak to the police, since Bernie was obviously the victim of violent attack, but again Cristina’s research told her the right words to deliver: they’d been mugged, just one guy but he was probably on PCP or something because, well, there was something wrong with his face? The phrase, culled from the most helpful of the various Web sites she had consulted, had the desired effect, and the police hurriedly ended the interview and left Cristina alone in the waiting room.)

Bernie was alive, because of her.

Bernie had almost died, because of her.

Cristina Moreno was not the type of person to rush into decisions, infinitely preferring to weigh her options carefully before choosing the best possible course of action. Her life from adolescence on was proof of that. Take her decision to shoot for Princeton: five and a half years of planning had gone into that one, with Cristina ranking her top 25 schools of choice, researching them all extensively and listing the pros and cons to each. Cristina had learned, at a very early age, just how easily so-called “small” decisions could change someone’s life trajectory, and she wanted to make sure that the path she chose would lead her into becoming the person she wanted to be.

Because of this keenly developed aspect of her personality, when in May she had a … a vision, a sueño surrealista, of a girl with shifting features asking Cristina if she was ready to be strong, the only response Cristina could give was a regretful, “I can’t answer that until I know what I’m saying yes to.” The vision-girl had seemed to understand, giving Cristina a soft, sad smile that spoke volumes, but though other dreams came later, the visitor from the first never reappeared.

It had been odd, mystifying, unsettling, and all the more strange because something in Cristina knew that it wasn’t as simple as a dream, and that she really had answered a life-changing question. She had wanted to get more information before committing herself … but she knew that, by choosing to wait, she had in fact made a decision.

Being who she was, Cristina had promptly thrown herself into research, following threads of rumor and obscure publications and select Internet postings, integrating the information she found with the dreams that continued to recur, needing to find out what she’d said No to. When the dovetailing of various forms of evidence brought her to the stunned realization that vampires were real, she set about learning their weaknesses and how she, a regular human girl with no extra abilities, could go about exploiting those weaknesses. The water balloons were the first measure she had prepared: drawing crosses on the balloons, in the beginning, then following up a few days later by going to the nearest Catholic church to acquire proper holy water. (The priest there, recently transferred from a disaster-stricken California town which had figured prominently on several of the more lurid Web sites of Cristina’s discovery, had apparently recognized something in her eyes, because the two of them had quickly fallen into an unspoken agreement wherein he would bless anything Cristina brought him and ask no questions.) Other measures came later, as Cristina learned what she could while maintaining the studies and community involvement that had been part of her life’s goal since she had first become able to plan.

Of course, that left Cristina with the small problem of doing what she could to equip and protect her roommate, without ever fully explaining the truth behind it.

Until arriving at Princeton, Cristina hadn’t seen Bernice Clasky since Cristina was twelve, and the two found it quite serendipitous that, six years later, they were taking classes together on the other side of the country. Their friendship had been picked back up almost where they’d left off, and they decided to share an apartment together after Cristina survived her first semester with a roommate from hell. (Except, no, Cristina had learned that such a thing could be literally so, and Necia had been really bad but not that kind of bad.) Cristina and Bernie had discussed it before beginning their search for a place to live, and they’d decided to divide by their strengths. Bernie had more money, and her parents loved the idea of her rooming with Cristina, so she paid more of the bills. Cristina was a better cleaner (since she’d been raised by a housekeeper instead of with one), so she took on the majority of the chores and taught Bernie how to begin doing them more effectively for herself.

Just as, later, Cristina had quietly begun teaching the older girl other things, as the necessity for them became known to her. She had hoped it was enough, and assured herself that it would be … but … but …

Now that the reality of it all had crashed into her, there was one question that Cristina couldn’t escape: What would my mother think?

Flor Moreno was unquestionably, unarguably, the single most influential person in Cristina’s life. Every important decision that Cristina had made since the age of twelve had only been made after first asking herself what her mother would do. Flor was far from infallible, and Cristina probably knew that fact better than anyone else. Even so, Flor was the best person Christina knew, and if she asked herself if her mother would do something and the answer was no, chances were that Cristina probably shouldn’t do it, either. That wasn’t the final answer, since Cristina prided herself on her ability to think for herself (something, in fact, Flor had insisted she learn to do), but Cristina was still her mother’s daughter and proud to be so. In matters of judgment it might go either way, but as a moral barometer Flor always — always — took primacy.

The dream that was not a dream had been a decision. And the decision she had effectively made was not one in which she could take any pride. Cristina had wanted to know more before deciding … and now that she had that knowledge, knew what it would have meant to be La Cazadora, she wished she had simply agreed. The choice that had seemed so reasonable, so responsible, was now one Cristina fervently hoped would remain forever unknown to her mother. If Flor should discover that Cristina had elected to shirk a responsibility of this magnitude … well, the term “crushing disappointment” wouldn’t quite cover it.

That night, while Cristina waited to hear from the doctors about Bernie, she put her research ability even further to the test than she already had. After twelve hours of digging through all the Web sites she’d bookmarked in the previous three months, she managed to find a phone listing for a group that might, just possibly, be able to help her change her decision to what it should have been. At the very least, it was a place to begin; according to what she’d read about them, this was the go-to group for … “strange” matters of a particular type and flavor.

Cristina hesitated one last time, then dialed the number. As the sun outside the hospital windows began to creep up above the skyline, a voice on the other end answered, “Angel Investigations. We help the hopeless.”

[Cristina Moreno and Bernie Clasky (Spanglish) are the property of James L. Brooks, Columbia Pictures Corporation, and Gracie Films.]

Chapter Text

“The first thing that we must understand,” Giles went on, “is that we are dealing with two distinct types of new-Chosen.” As Wendell Chu had done, Giles automatically excepted Buffy ( Primus , the Slayer Prime) and Faith ( Secundus , for several years the ‘actual’ Slayer following Buffy’s various deaths and resurrections), because their service predated the opening-out of the Slayer line; by whatever definition, the term ‘new-Chosen’ most expressly did not apply to them. “The first type is that with which you are most familiar: those young women who were swept up in the first wave of Slayer activation, when Willow accessed the power of the Scythe to call forth that heritage in all who were then eligible for such status. Even among this type, of course, there were two smaller sub-groupings: those with us in the final battle of Sunnydale, who chose to accept that burden in the extremity of facing the First Evil, and all those others around the world who, in that first overwhelming release of power, were granted no more choice than enjoyed by any of the other Slayers who had preceded them throughout the millennia.”

“We know that, Giles.” Buffy’s voice was steady, and very controlled. “And I’ve spent some time feeling guilty over that, but I keep coming back to the same thing: we were fighting the end of the world, and better to have no choice, in a world that’s still there, than to be dead without ever knowing the reason for it.”

“Nor have I ever disagreed with that conclusion,” Giles replied. “At the time, or thereafter. However, I hadn’t yet come to the point. As was first noted by one of the teams trained and tasked by Xander — operating on the Chinese mainland, as it happens — there have been other Slayers called since the initial activation: a trickle, following the deluge of the first wave, the majority of them girls who were too young, nineteen months ago, but who have since matured into eligibility.”

He raised his hand, checking Buffy as she opened her mouth to speak again. “Yes, this also you knew already. But what you almost certainly do not know, for we have only very recently confirmed it, is that those subsequent to the first wave — most, at least, and very probably all — apparently do have a choice in the matter.”

– March 2010 –

It hadn’t always been like this. It shouldn’t be like this now.

It had started with Reika Matsuo being faced with a simple question: Are you ready to be strong? Not so much a question, actually, as a challenge. Reika did want to be strong; that was what she’d been wishing for for ages, striving to be more like Mihu, to be strong like Mihu, to not let herself be bothered so much by what other people said. Reika knew that she was the weak one. She wanted to be the kind of girl that nobody would ever pick on. She didn’t want to be a victim, but didn’t know how to make people treat her differently. She was a mouse, her best friend was a lion, and Reika didn’t know how to be like that. Even so, when asked if she was ready, her answer had been an unhesitating and unthinking, Hai. I am.

Those nine words changed her life forever. They turned her nights into nightmares and her nightmares into ceaseless ordeal. And yet, she wouldn’t go back on her decision for anything, even though she knew that Miharu would have been the better choice.

First came the dreams. Every night, several times a night, she would dream that she was a different girl in a different time, in different battles with different creatures. Even within the bewildering variety, though, there were certain common threads. Each girl was alone, except for one other person watching, sometimes helping. Each girl was strong and fast, but it wasn’t always enough. They had a strength inside themselves, all of them, that Reika wished she possessed.

Through her dreams, she learned the creatures’ appearances, names, strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, she learned how a warrior-girl’s body was meant to move. She’d still need to learn how to make her own body do it, but her dreams were study time.

Dealing with the enhanced strength and speed was an adjustment, to be sure, but she managed it. (Even if she did have a drawer filled with the things she’d accidentally broken.) She’d had to quickly work out an alternative for the alarm clock situation, and settled for keeping it across the room so she didn’t shatter it in the attempt to turn it off while half-asleep.

She coped by developing new systems, new routines. She would wake up in the morning and eat a quick breakfast, completing any homework she’d been unable to finish the night before. In spite of her new extracurricular activities, she was managing to keep her grades up with only a slight drop. She would go to school, enjoy whatever time she could have with Eiji. The dojo down the street had allowed her to rent a spare room for an hour a day, during her lunch, for a very low rate (and they’d helped her find weapons without too many odd looks). So every day, she would get out of fourth period, make an excuse to Eiji about why she couldn’t eat with him that day, race to the dojo, learn how to make her body do whatever she’d dreamed about the night before, wolf down some food, and race back to school for fifth period. After school she would study with Eiji, go home, and talk with her mom. At night, she would do a bit more homework, sneak out of her window, go hunting, deal with the various uglies and nasties, sneak back into the apartment, and dream. Dreams meant study, training, preparation.

The only part that was truly difficult was keeping her new life secret from Miharu and Eiji. There had never been anything she kept from Mihu before. Miharu knew everything about her, down to the fact that Reika’s wish during primary school had been to somehow find a dinosaur egg and have a brontosaurus for a pet that she could ride to school.

But Mihu already had enough to worry about without adding in Reika, along with what would be an iron determination to fix whatever scrape Reika had gotten herself into this time. Along with that, Reika knew that there was no way she could tell Eiji what was going on; he was the kind of guy that needed to protect his girl and look out for her. If he found out, he would think she didn’t need him anymore. He would be wrong, of course, but she didn’t know how to tell him that.

No, it had definitely been for the best that she keep it to herself.

But that was before. That was when Reika had been able to handle whatever came at her: maybe not as well as Miharu would have been able to had she been the one to become stronger, but well enough.

And it was before Eiji had gotten himself involved anyway.

Reika should have known her excuses wouldn’t hold him at bay forever. She had known, in fact, but had hoped that if she ignored it, he’d simply keep accepting the evasions as truth.

Tonight was the end of that. He’d followed her to find out what was going on with her: he was the moody and secretive one, not her. While it wasn’t in his nature to directly push her for answers she was unable to give, he wasn’t above doing a bit of detective work to figure her out. And he couldn’t have picked a worse time than tonight.

All right, so maybe he could have, but that was beside the point. This was certainly bad enough.

Reika had become used to dealing with one or two vampires at a time. Maybe as many as four at once, though that was uncommon. Tonight, she’d followed two vampires to a larger group, as had been her plan … but that had changed when she’d gone very quickly from hunter to intended prey of seven vampires. That was also around the time that she realized what a sucky hunter she was: Eiji had been following her since she’d climbed down the fire escape outside her window, and she hadn’t known.

So now Reika was trying to move quickly and quietly with Eiji in tow, which would have been bad enough because Eiji didn’t have a natural grace and had a tendency to walk heavily and loudly. Circumstances were considerably worse when you added in Eiji’s broken arm and bleeding neck, along with Reika’s dislocated shoulder and a gaping stomach wound from one of her own stakes (she was pretty sure that vinegar wouldn’t be enough to clean her sweater, and honestly she had serious doubts on whether or not her new accelerated healing would be up to managing this wound; it was by far the worst injury she’d dealt with to date).



She would do this. She had to.

What would Mihu do if she were in this situation?

… Actually, that really wasn’t as helpful as Reika had hoped it would be, because Miharu would have insulted them a few times and then won the fight somehow, simply because that was what Miharu did.

And not for the first time, Reika found herself aware that Mihu would have been much better suited for the role Reika now fulfilled than Reika herself was.

Reika tugged on Eiji’s non-injured wrist, allowing her vampire-tingly-sense to direct where they went. Eiji, thankfully, had acknowledged at the beginning, without words passing between them, that Reika was more knowledgeable in this, and had silently deferred to her expertise on the matter.

Reika stopped suddenly, her stomach knotting up with dread and the sick realization that in her effort to evade the too-large group of vampires, she’d allowed them to chase her into an area she didn’t know as well, one that wasn’t active at night … and worst of all, she’d gotten the two of them penned in.

She didn’t know what to do.

She didn’t know what to do.

She had to do something.

This was Eiji. Failure was simply unthinkable.

She took a quick inventory of her supplies: a number of stakes, three vials of holy water, and a rosary she’d picked up from the same church where she obtained the water. (Like her mother, Reika was Buddhist, but the dreams had taught her the efficacy of these — to her — foreign objects.) In her backpack, she had the heavy-duty supplies, a traditional wakizashi and a small hand-axe.

Reika passed Eiji a couple of her stakes, the wakizashi (since it had a longer reach than the axe), and a vial of holy water. She removed the rosary from her neck and placed it around his, and readied herself as best she could, slowing her breathing and doing her best to slip into an aware meditative state. She was making things up on the fly because she had no other option.

Two vampires, probably fledges, attacked ahead of the main group, and she took them out quickly and dispassionately, not even losing a stake in the process (and managing her fastest double-kill to date, two in just over five seconds). Then she waited again.

She’d leveled the playing field almost down to odds she’d fought before. These were smarter, though — and as such, probably older — than any she had ever faced before.

The five remaining attacked en masse. She’d made sure she and Eiji had a wall at their backs, so that they couldn’t be attacked from behind; the vampires came at them from the front and the sides, then, and Reika became an instant whirlwind of death, shutting out thought and moving and reacting on instinct alone. She had no idea how to win this fight, so she stopped thinking and simply did.

Then it was over, and she still didn’t know how they had survived, but that didn’t matter. Eiji threaded his fingers with hers, and Reika gave him a shaky smile before her knees gave out on her, exhaustion and blood loss finally triumphing over adrenaline.

It turned out that slapping bandages on her stomach, followed by a good night’s sleep, really was enough for Slayer healing to kick in, though she was moving gingerly for the next few days.

The day after the attack, however, when she arrived at her spare room in the dojo, Eiji was already there in an arm-cast and exercise clothes.

When they next went out together to hunt in their city, Reika thought, as she had done every day since her transformation, of the six-word question that had changed everything for her: Are you ready to be strong? For the first time, she had a new answer: I already am.

She still thought it should have been Mihu. Because it should have been. In her head, Reika would always measure herself against the kind of Slayer that Miharu would have made. But Reika realized that she wasn’t doing too shabby.

She would never be Mihu.

But she was finally content to be Reika.

[Cristina Reika Matsuo and Eiji Hayashihara (Red String) are the property of Gina Biggs.]

– January 2007 –

Akeem, prince of Zamunda (and by the grace of beneficent spirits, not to be king for some several years to come), sat across the kitchen island from his mother, his wife Lisa next to him. He wore silk pajamas, as this was an “informal” meeting, and Lisa was similarly casual; Queen Aoleon’s gown was far more richly detailed, for a reigning monarch must live by different rules, even within the innermost recesses of her own dwelling. That, in some ways, was the issue of this family conclave.

“She’s so young,” Lisa protested, yet again.

The Queen nodded. “She is young. We are not. We can allow her to be young for awhile longer, but our responsibility is to consider, and to plan, and eventually to decide.”

“Your Majesty —” Akeem began.

“Akeem,” Aoleon reproved gently, head tilted to one side.

It was a continuing theme between them, Akeem offering due tribute to his nation’s sovereign, the Queen preferring (unless official protocol demanded otherwise) to deal with her son. He had his reasons, and they went further than genuine love and respect; now, having again made proper obeisance, he said, “Very well, Mother. Yes, it is necessary that we discuss what kind of marriage we will someday arrange for our daughter. The difficulty lies in …” He coughed. “Well, in Malaika herself.”

“Akeem!” Lisa all but glared at him. “You make it sound like you’re ashamed of her!”

He took his wife’s hands in his own. “My beloved, I am proud of our daughter. I have been blessed beyond my deserving in having such a child. Our problem is that Zamunda may not feel itself equally blessed in its future monarch.”

“They love her,” she protested, but it was a weak effort.

“They love their outrageous, high-spirited princess,” he corrected mildly. “When the time comes for her to take the crown, they may feel differently.”

For, barring some tragedy to prevent it, Malaika would one day be called upon to govern this nation. Akeem was the only child of his parents; by similar mischance, Lisa had found herself unable to bear more children after their single daughter. That would raise difficulties, in time … and it was in recognition of those difficulties that, upon the death of his father, Akeem had led the successful petition to invest his country’s rule in the beloved Aoleon, rather than immediately in Akeem himself. He would be king someday, but not yet; and, when the time came for the succession to pass to Malaika, Zamunda would have precedent for (and memory of) a queen as ruler.

“She’s seventeen,” Lisa insisted. “She has time to grow, to learn. Akeem, you’re not even forty yet. By the time it comes to Malaika, she’ll be an entirely different person.”

“But we must begin our considerations now,” Aoleon replied. “And now, yes, my cherished granddaughter is a decidedly … unconventional prospect, for marriage as much as for rule.”

“I know,” Lisa sighed. “I know. She’s always been a handful; reminded me a lot of me at that age, if you want to know the truth. But the last few years —”

“Indeed,” Aoleon agreed.

Two years ago, the headstrong, impulsive Malaika had somehow … accelerated. Already an extreme personality, every part of her had suddenly amped up. A steady stream of harried tutors had resigned (or, in one case, been bodily ejected from the royal quarters by the indignant young princess). Her interests, mostly physical to begin with, had sharpened to riding, running, tracking, climbing — trees and mountains — archery, fencing, each more unladylike than the last. Hopes that this was simply an intense phase that the young woman would outgrow had proven fruitless; if anything, her energy seemed to grow more boundless by the day.

“She hunts with the Masai,” Akeem said, sighing also. “They feel great honor that an heir to the throne treks among them, and sing songs of her prowess in lion-hunting. Only … though those proud tribesmen are close-mouthed when it comes to outsiders, I have heard it whispered that at least once she killed a lion without bothering to use a spear. Much of the time, it is said, she fares into the deepest jungles with no companion at all, and none know what she hunts there.” He shook his head. “They have a name for her —”

“Death-Maiden?” Aoleon prompted. “Child of Sineya?”

Akeem looked to his mother. “You have heard this?” he asked.

“Not from them,” the Queen said. “There are old tales, legends …”

“Wait a second,” Lisa interrupted. “Death? What’s that about?”

Aoleon had come to love Akeem’s American bride, so she did not cool in response to this lapse in courtesy, though Akeem still felt a prickle of embarrassment. Instead she said to Lisa, “Among many of the tribes, not only in Zamunda but across much of Africa, ancient stories are told of extraordinary young women who would appear where evil creatures gathered, to fight and hunt and kill them, to hold back the darkness.” She smiled at her daughter-in-law. “I am sure, of course, that to you this must sound like primitive superstition.”

Lisa had been listening with gaping wonder, but now she shook it away. “You might be surprised at some of the stories I grew up with, clear back in Queens. Go on.”

“Very well. A child of Sineya — always a girl or young woman — is said to be strong as a mountain gorilla, fleet as a cheetah, fierce in combat as a mating leopard. She contests with demons, and these demons fear her. And, for such a girl, this heritage comes upon her when she herself reaches childbearing age.”

Lisa was paying attention, but at the same time a part of her thoughts seemed to be elsewhere. “So you think Malaika is one of these girls?”

“I am convinced of it.” Aoleon folded her hands in front of her. “When my only granddaughter changed so suddenly, I had those changes studied, and investigated, and researched. Quietly, privately, but very thoroughly. Old legends were not our only avenue: mutation, genetic manipulation, performance-enhancing drugs, all these possibilities were weighed and considered. Her new physical capabilities cannot be explained by science, but they match what is accounted for one of Sineya’s daughters.” She paused. “As did the dreams she described to me, when as her sovereign I requested that she tell me what she knew.”

Akeem suppressed a smile; a royal request would be tantamount to compulsion to anyone of Zamunda, even one allowed to privately call her queen ‘Grandmother’. What Aoleon had said accorded with his own he-had-thought-secret investigations, and he briefly wondered if he had unknowingly consulted some of the same sources as his mother. Then he turned his attention back to the more pressing concern. “One of these chosen young women, a daughter of Sineya —”

“She called herself a Slayer,” Aoleon mused. “With pride, it seemed to me.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” That earned him a sharp glance, and Akeem continued blandly. “A … Slayer … might make an awkward fit as a wife. Or as a queen.”

Lisa had looked deeply startled for a moment (when the Queen interrupted him, yes), but now she shook her head emphatically. “Her father and her grandmother are wise, good people, and her mother will have something to say about it, too. She will learn what she needs to know. I won’t have it otherwise.”

“I would be cautious,” Aoleon pointed out, “of demanding the wrong things from one whose destiny would seem to have a competing claim. Fate has made our precious Malaika a hunter, a warrior; this does not preclude her being ruler, and wife — and mother of the next heir to Zamunda’s throne — but neither is it to be trifled with.” She looked to Akeem. “Even with our own best judgment as final guide, we must avail ourselves of every possible resource in dealing with this matter.”

“I, too, have heard stories,” Akeem said to his mother. “But of the present day, not legends. Young girls, dotted across this continent, coming into sudden new power … and a man who comes to them, counsels and guides them, and sometimes sends them to where they may receive training, support, and education. I believe he is the one we should seek out.”

“The one-eyed man,” Aoleon said, nodding. “The carpenter. Yes, he carries a formidable reputation. But … do you suggest him as a mate for our Malaika?”

“No, no.” Akeem shook it away. “Much good is said of him, but it would be too ticklish for us to choose a white man as prince consort. Still, he may have knowledge we need.”

“Actually,” Lisa observed, “I might have a suggestion to make on this.” Their eyes swung to regard her, and she went on. “The legends you talked about, they reminded me of something, and when you said ‘Slayer’ —” She shivered. “Whoo, that was a jolt. See, one of my aunts in Queens used to talk about a friend she’d had in the Seventies. Told a lot of stories about her, made this woman Nikki sound like a real powerhouse. Only, a couple of times she used the word ‘Slayer’, and then shut up quick, like she’d let something slip she shouldn’t have.”

“I see,” Akeem said. “So, if we can find this Nikki —”

“Oh, she’s dead,” Lisa told him. “Sorry, I was about to get to that. But she had a son … and, according to Aunt Louisa, the man who’d been training Nikki — just like this carpenter guy you described — he took that boy to raise.”

There was silence while they considered that. “The son of a Slayer,” Aoleon said thoughtfully. “Reared, and perhaps trained as well, by one whose role was to guide Slayers. This could indeed be promising.” She tilted an eyebrow at Lisa. “Your aunt’s friend, and of course the woman’s son, they were —?”

“Definitely black.” Lisa laughed. “Hey, it might be a dead end, it was thirty-some years ago, right? But it’d be a place to start.”

“Just so. Just so.” Aoleon studied her son and his wife at length. “Akeem, do you believe you could persuade your fierce Malaika to leave off her lion-hunting long enough to accompany her parents on a journey to America?”

Akeem smiled. “If her father cannot persuade, her queen may always … request.”

Lisa stood up. “I’ll start making calls. Aunt Louisa’s pushing seventy by now, but you couldn’t stop her with a truck. What time is it in New York right now? Never mind, I’ll Google it.” And she was out of the royal kitchen in her own burst of sudden energy.

In the wake of that departure, Aoleon asked her son, “Does any of this strike you as perhaps a bit familiar?”

Familiar? He smiled back at her. Oh, yes, familiar indeed. Going to America, only it would be three of them this time; and, rather than a prince seeking a bride, it would be a princess seeking … something else.

To himself, he wondered if Malaika would find herself enjoying that hunt.

[Prince Akeem, Queen Aoleon, ‘Princess’ Lisa, and the country of Zamunda (Coming to America) are the property of John Landis, David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein, and Paramount Pictures.]

Chapter Text

Buffy took it in, considering it in silence, then looked to one of her two oldest friends. “Wil?” she asked.

“It’s true,” Willow said, nodding. “I mean, I don’t know yet where Giles is going with it, but he consulted with me on checking out this part. The new girls, the ones who were called after the first wave — and there are some who look like they had it hit only a few weeks after, or even a few days — most of them tell the same story. In a waking trance, ten or twenty seconds, they’re confronted by the Slayer essence, and she asks them what you asked the Potentials in Sunnydale: Are you ready to be strong?” She shook her head. “A lot of the time, it’s the First Slayer. Usually it’s from some other historical period — you show up more than anybody else, even if you’re outnumbered by all the everybody-elses — and sometimes the speaker’s identity will shift during the dream. But, as far as we can tell, it always speaks with the voice of the First Slayer, Sineya.”

“And she gives them the choice.” Buffy’s mouth set in a rather doubtful line. “That’s … good.”

“Better than good,” Xander broke in. “I mean … well, let’s face it, when I’m not giving inspiring lectures to field trainees, I generally do my find-and-explain deal in various venues of the Back of Beyond. Some of those places make Sunnydale look like Mayberry … not demon-wise, but as far as misery index and total suckage. Some of the girls, pulling them out and sending them to fight vampires — ‘Oh, and just in case I forgot to mention it, you’ll probably die violently before you ever reach twenty’ — is a step UP.” He shook his head. “And, even with all that, finding out they had a choice and said Yes, that’s definitely gonna let me sleep easier at night.”

“We still don’t know that for sure,” Salome observed. “What Willow said is true, most of the after-wave Slayers have that dream, and with a lot of the others we’ve been able to touch memories that sound like they might be the same thing. And the ones who remember are pretty firm about having said yes. Still, we don’t know.”

“Sample size,” Chu agreed. “Plus, correlation isn’t the same as confirmation. All the same, it does sound rather solid.”

“Yes,” Giles said. “It does. Which points to a number of ramifications. Among other things, we have always known that a potential Slayer has that status upon birth, but that she doesn’t reach, er, ‘eligibility’, until she is within a certain age range. Many of the newly-discovered Slayers — those we are certain came after the first wave — have had their activations at various points within that known range. It would appear, then, that age alone is not a determinant: that a Potential must reach a certain level of development, something in her spirit or internal mental state, or even that the call goes to some Potentials in response to particular circumstances …”

He stopped, seeing that Buffy’s eyes were taking on a rather glazed appearance. “Hrmmph. Well, we can explore that more deeply at a later time. For now … is anyone here not familiar with the case of Dana Caruthers?”

Recognition showed on the faces of Buffy, Willow, and Salome. Xander tilted his head, frowning for a moment, before admitting, “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“I know roughly what you’re referring to,” Chu acknowledged, “but I don’t know all the particulars.”

“Well, it can be quickly summarised,” Giles said. “Though not the first such instance, the young woman was the most pronounced warning of something we have since encountered in various forms: at the time of her elevation to Slayer status, Dana Caruthers had been in a psychiatric institution for almost fifteen years … and, though near-catatonic beforehand, she became uncontrollably and violently dangerous upon her activation.”

“We tried,” Willow added, soft-voiced. “Different combinations of medications, intensive counseling, astral communion, even psychic dampers, we tried everything we could think of. She was too far gone, though. She was never going to be well … and the dreams, the Slayer dreams, were making it worse.”

“Ah,” Chu said. “Yes, I remember now.”

“What?” Xander looked around, his single eye wary. “Remember what? What did you do?”

“We took it away from her,” Salome told him. “Rescinded the Slayer essence. There was really nothing else we could do for her.”

Xander’s mouth fell open, and he stared at the others in horror. “You de-Slayered her?” he blurted. “You just … stripped it away from her? I didn’t even know that was possible!”

“It didn’t used to be,” Buffy said to him. “This wasn’t a solo effort, Xand. I worked with them, trying to find a way to get through to Dana, and I okayed them running comparison tests, Dana’s aura against what they could see from me and other Slayers. Once we realized the dreams wouldn’t ever let her tune back into reality, there wasn’t any choice.”

“So you neutered her.” Xander’s voice was flat, almost disbelieving. “Buf … God, if it was anybody but you —!”

“But it wasn’t,” she interrupted him. “I  know, Xander: know how it feels to be a Slayer and then have all that power just vanish —” (she didn’t glance toward Giles as she said this, nor did his face stiffen, they had both long outgrown the wounds from her abortive Cruciamentum) “— and I also know how it feels to be crazy, kind of, thanks to my time in the Normal Buffy Imaginary Asylum.” She sighed. “Somebody had to make the decision, and I still can’t swear it was the right one, but I couldn’t just watch her being torn apart.”

“And it worked.” Salome’s tone was warm, casual, as if she were blithely unaware of the tension hanging between two of the Sunnydale legends. “We managed to do what needed to be done, and Dana is still insane but she isn’t in pain anymore. Ideal solution or not, it was a solution.” She grinned. “I just can’t believe Willow was able to get that New Line nonsense to weave in with traditional Coven magicks and make something that actually worked.”

“I’m fine with tradition,” Willow replied, all exaggerated hauteur. “Just not the missionary-position, whalebone-corset kind of tradition.” Then her face split in a grin of her own. “Besides, we need each other. Your way is history and experience, mine is innovation and experiment, and neither one would work as well without the other.”

“Which is very insightful and inspiring,” Wendell Chu remarked. “At the moment, though, I’m more concerned with the implications of what I just heard.”

Buffy looked from one of them to the other. “Huh? ‘Implications’?”

“Several sets of implications,” Giles confirmed. “Pertaining to several different areas.”

 – August 2010 –

It was quite distressing.

No: it was a nightmare. Or, at least, the very stuff of nightmare, for she was now called to battle creatures the mere rumor of which had been condemned generations ago as peasant superstition. At the time, the choice had seemed clear and inescapable: she had been presented with a duty, and Ying Mei had spent her entire life accepting those duties placed before her, and doing her utmost to fulfill them.

This … this was something more.

And it conflicted with so many other duties. Proper respect for her parents included truthfulness as well as obedience, and each time she slipped out of her room at night, to go hunting in the streets and markets (and slums, though officially such things did not exist) of Beijing, she was engaging in deceit, if only by concealment. Study and practice with the violin demanded attention, focus, dedication, but it was difficult to maintain the necessary total focus on days — most days — when she had crept back into her bed only a few hours before dawn. (She needed very little sleep now, but she still needed some, and now there never seemed to be quite enough.) At school, her class standing had fallen from fifth to twenty-third, and the future promised only further shame to her family.

In the dreams, Mei had seen others like herself, of various nationalities and races. Some were as young as she was, or even younger, but most appeared to be of marriageable age, nearing maturity if not yet completely matured. She should have felt honored, she knew, to be included in such advanced and heroic company; instead, there was a vague but growing sense of resentment.

And, of course, unhappiness.

She had never pictured herself as a warrior, never considered herself in those terms or harbored any such ambition, even briefly. Her perceptions of strength and responsibility had come from watching her parents: her father oversaw three factories, faithfully ensuring the welfare and harmony of the workers along with the quotas and quality of the finished goods, whereas her mother managed the household — schedule, budget, meals, physician’s visits, schooling, anything and everything that fell within her purview — with the same meticulous, exacting attention to detail. That was the structure of a proper life. Service to community, service to family, with personal satisfaction coming last and derived primarily from conscientious, suitable performance of the more important duties.

Of a certainty, the world required other roles. Every nation needed soldiers, every city needed policemen, even small farming villages had to have someone to watch for and protect against prowling wolves. Only … why did it have to be Ying Mei?

For some, her new station and obligations would have been not only welcome, but the living of a dream. Parker Dre (no, no, remember, Westerners — “white people”, heh-heh — insisted on putting their family names last) would very probably have embraced this Slayer identity. Not without trepidation, and not without doubts — for he did have a gentle soul — but Mei had watched him struggle to find his warrior’s-heart, and she could not envision him turning away from such a challenge as this.

Predictably, such thoughts only summoned forth others. Dre had worked hard for his skills, sought and fought and stretched himself to become more. He had grown in his character as well as his abilities, taken a long step toward becoming a man —

— but, compared to her, he was still the merest child.

She had always been older, of course. Close enough to him in age that the difference was not obvious, and his daring and enthusiasm had entertained and intrigued her, bridging most of the remaining gap. For a time. Now, however … For all his genuine courage, Dre fought within the bounds of a sport, by recognized rules, for points and trophies, while Mei now battled demons to the death on a nightly basis. The distance between them, once small and needing only small effort to reach across it, had become a yawning chasm, and she could not tell him why or even admit the change.

The new state of her life was shot through with injustice, and not just to her alone. She had watched Dre labor to grow and learn, tempering himself like a piece of steel and then honing that metal to a keen edge. An unremitting effort of weeks, of months … and overnight (though he did not know it) she had leaped past and beyond him. She could easily defeat him if she wished, or him and Master Han together, or Li and his entire school while wearing a blindfold and with both hands bound. She could master any weapon the first time she picked it up, and wield it with more deadly precision than one who had spent a lifetime in its study. (None of that virtuosity, however, manifested itself with musical instruments. Again, unfair.) She was a living machine ideally shaped for combat … and she had earned none of it, it simply was.

Her old life had ended. Only the pretense remained, a facade to serve as protection while a new and ugly reality unfolded before her. Her government, her teachers and classmates, even her family … if they ever learned the truth, they could become as great a threat to her as the things she fought for their sake. She would maintain the necessary camouflage, then, would do as she must to preserve the appearance of normality that would allow her to continue in her divinely appointed mission.

But, by the ghosts of all her ancestors, she wished the heavenly messenger had seen fit to deliver its summons to someone else.

[Mei Ying (Karate Kid, 2010) is the property of Columbia Pictures, China Film Group, and Jerry Weintraub Productions.]

 – July 2008 –

“Lazy,” Katie MacBride said. “Annoying. Stubborn.” She thought for another moment, then added firmly, “Weird.”

“Come on,” Robin Ericson protested. “I’d go with ‘laconic’. Jason … he doesn’t waste words, or energy, or emotion. He’s naturally laid-back, and he likes to stay steady. Those other things, they’re true about him, but they’re not what he is.”

“Sorry,” Katie insisted. “I’m sticking with ‘weird’.”

Robin could have continued to defend his friend, but Katie had her own share of stubbornness, and he didn’t see argument changing her mind. Instead, he turned to the other participant in the discussion. “Anne?”

Anne Onymous, supernatural champion and ‘secret’ protector of the Tandy Gardens community, pursed her lips and gave it careful consideration. “Jason is, uh, economical. With words, and facial expressions, and any exhibition of emotion. Especially excitement. But he takes responsibility seriously.”

Katie actually laughed at that. In fact, her scorn almost made it sound like one of her werecat snarls, even though she was fully human at the moment. “Responsibility? Jason? I want to try some of whatever magic mushrooms you’re munching.”

“No, I mean it,” Anne replied calmly. “Jason doesn’t go looking for responsibility, because he takes it seriously and doesn’t want to give it any less than the right amount of commitment. But he won’t try to dodge it, either, not if there’s nobody else available and qualified and willing.”

It was true, Robin realized. Jason might not be inclined to expend any more effort than absolutely necessary, but he would always do what was needed. And, if Robin were forced to be honest, it bothered him that Anne, after only a few months, had better insight to his best friend than Robin did after a lifetime.

“I don’t know,” Katie was saying. “There might be something to that, but I’m sticking with weird.” At their expressions, she shook her head impatiently. “Get real: am I the only one who’s noticed that he keeps turning into the same girl?”

“That’s not fair,” Robin said. “There are dozens of people in this town who’ve been hit with mystical transformations, even if we managed to get almost all of them turned back. And a bunch of us, especially us, have been through it lots of times.”

“And genderswap is a theme that keeps popping up,” Anne put in helpfully. “Quite a bit of that is me and my, uh, idiosyncratic sense of humor. And it could be argued that I’m subconsciously influencing even the things I don’t directly do myself.”

“Not arguing with you there,” Katie acknowledged. “But it’s still not enough. Jason gets turned into a centaur, it’s a redheaded female centaur. A satyr, it’ll be a female satyr, and a redhead. Ask him to channel a comic book hero, and you get a superheroine … with red hair.” She fixed the other two with a gimlet gaze. “And if you come right down to it, they’re all variations of the same basic female. Always, always, a redhead.”

“He likes red hair,” Robin grumbled. “He’s never denied that. Everybody has their preferences.”

“Not everybody keeps turning into their dream girl,” Katie shot back. “And he likes it, you can’t tell me he doesn’t. One of us gets transformed, our first thought is to get changed back as fast as we can. Jason? he gives his female alter-ego a name, and goes on a date.” She showed teeth in a carnivorous grin. “With a guy.”

“He’s, he’s adaptable,” Robin protested weakly. “He doesn’t get bent out of shape by what life throws at him, he just goes with the flow. You can’t just label him because of that.”

“And you can’t claim it’s even remotely normal,” Katie insisted.

Robin glared at her, unable to muster a conclusive retort. Katie glared back. Then, gradually, they found their eyes shifting to Anne. “Well?” Robin asked at last. “What do you think?”

She tilted her head, returning their gaze. “I think,” she said after some consideration, “that we should ask him.”

They let the thought settle in, and then without further words the three of them turned and moved together into the living room of Anne’s house. Jason Grey was installed on the couch, calmly focused — as was his typical state — on the comic he held, one of the seemingly endless stream that occupied his hands in the greatest majority of his waking moments. “Jason?” Robin prompted.

“Yeah?” Jason replied without looking up. Also typical.

“Do you … do you like being a girl? being Sonja?” (Sonja, anagram of Jason. Nothing at all offbeat about that, nah.) “I mean … you take it all in stride, I kinda admire that, but — do you like it?”

“Not my first choice,” Jason answered evenly, still scanning the page in front of him. “But when it happens, yeah, it’s nice. It feels good.”

Katie laughed at that. “What part of it? Getting ogled? Having somebody take it for granted that ‘female’ equals ‘dumb’? Or maybe it’s the opportunity to grope yourself?”

Robin felt his temper spike, and he was about to cut loose when Jason, unfazed as ever, said, “Nope. It feels good to be strong.”

“Strong?” Robin repeated blankly; Anne’s mouth was open slightly, meaning she was every bit as startled even if less obvious about it.

Katie laughed again; she was really in a snide mood right now. “I am woman, hear me roar,” she observed sardonically … which was all the more cutting from someone who could roar, three nights a month.

“Unh-unh,” Jason returned. “Not figurative. Not symbolic. Meant it the way I said it: strong.” At last he looked up. “What? You didn’t know?”

The others shared a confused look, and Anne was the first to respond. “Um … God knows I’m all for gender equality, but what are you talking about? Sure, some girls are stronger than some guys — just look at Samantha, I’m pretty sure she could dead-lift more than most guys at our school — but the stereotype of guys being stronger is there for a reason: because it’s usually true. You should have more actual strength in Guy Mode … a draw, at best.”

Jason thought a moment, and then shrugged. “Nope. I’m a lot stronger as Sonja than in my usual body.”

Anne studied Jason searchingly; then, practical as ever, she made the emphatic gesture that triggered the familiar change. Abruptly, Jason was female: slender, with wavy red hair, the planes of ‘his’ face shifted into an elfin delicacy. Sonja looked at them through the same calm eyes, and Anne said, “Prove it. Show us what you mean.”

‘Normal’ male or transformed female, Jason/Sonja was neither dramatic nor over-expressive. After a series of demonstrations, however (holding Katie in one hand and Robin in the other and carrying them around the room as casually as if hefting pom-poms; picking up the heavy oak kitchen table and twirling it by the corner on her index finger like a basketball; doing a backward somersault from a flat-footed start, one toe brushing the ceiling before she landed lightly and almost soundlessly at precisely the same point from which she had launched herself), she looked to the others with obvious satisfaction. “Strong,” she said again.

Her audience shared stunned looks. Finally, Katie broke the silence. “So … all this time, I was right when I called him a freak?”

“Whatever,” Sonja answered, shrugging. “Except, let’s not forget this freakishness seems to come with being female.”

There was nothing threatening about the way it was said; in whatever form, Jason didn’t threaten, it simply wasn’t part of his/her inner core. But, the others realized almost simultaneously, neither was it the indifference they would otherwise have assumed. No, this was something else. Something they hadn’t recognized before now. Something unexpected.

Quiet, calm, easy, total … confidence.

*               *               *

Amanda Miller had always been an authentically natural blonde. She still was, even if most of its current paleness came from being liberally threaded with an increasing silver-gray. However many pins she used, however, when she was frustrated her hair always seemed to break free and reflect her feelings for the world to see.

And Amanda was thoroughly frustrated now, because the glowing dot on the map — the dot representing the Slayer they’d been sent to find — had reappeared for a grand total of five minutes before disappearing again.

Amanda was part of the new majority; unlike the remnants of the ‘old guard’, she hadn’t been born and raised in any of the Watcher families. Her first introduction to magic had come at thirteen, when her best friend had gotten involved with it. The two of them had pulled their other friend, Andy, into it with them. Amanda (‘Mandy’) had been the one who researched things, and developed a love for obscure knowledge that could be linked with other scraps to detail the larger picture. Andy had been the bulwark, the reliable one, his daring and imagination and unflagging courage making the vital difference time after time. Randi had gloried in the power and possibilities of her own magic, a part of herself she never could have denied but that was made all the more delightful by her being able to share it with eager, dedicated allies.

When things went wrong, Randi had blamed herself for allowing her friends to participate in her world, no matter how fiercely Amanda insisted that she chosen that world, too, even if she didn’t have Randi’s natural gifts. Practitioner of magic or not, Amanda had still embraced the reality of magic and demons, and the responsibility of those who knew of these things to make what contribution they could. Even after the friendship with Randi had imploded, and access to magical events had been closed to her, Amanda still researched and learned, joy and need driving her with matched fervor. In college she found herself delving into ancient history and cultural anthropology and comparative religions and, ultimately, every dead language she could find on the curriculum.

And years later, Amanda was approached about applying new knowledge (and old experience) to train and equip teen-aged girls to go out and fight the darkness.

Now here she was, trying to find one of those girls, and nothing seemed to be enough.

Amanda’s tone was decidedly grim when she spoke to Clara Peters, the witch who — since the coven had found it so difficult to keep track of this particular Slayer — had been assigned to accompany Amanda on this field assignment. She wasn’t upset at Clara; Amanda was frustrated at their inability to pinpoint this particular girl’s location. “As best I can tell, either someone has shielded her with extremely strong anti-tracking wards that periodically lapse, or she is shifting in and out of this plane. Or both.”

“I can try to refine the spell,” Clara offered hesitantly. “I’ve never got a lock, but we came closer this time, I can work those new threads into the foundation, maybe tune in faster the next time she pops up —”

Amanda nodded. “Do that. Meanwhile, I think I’ll look through our databases and check over how many people might be able to produce the kind of shields we seem to be dealing with.” She shook her head. “At least it’ll give me something to do.”

Actually, coming at it from that end might be even more promising than the Slayer-detection spell. There wouldn’t be that many magic-workers capable of the subtlety and versatility they apparently were facing here.

And certainly not in the suburbs.

*               *               *

Miranda West’s mouth tightened into a thin line. Strangers in town, looking for a girl with extra-normal abilities? It was all but inevitable that they would stumble across some, or many, of the various events Anne had been involved in, and that would bring about complications that Miranda might not be able to fully extinguish. Keeping a low profile wouldn’t be enough this time; it would be simpler to help them find what they were looking for (so they could then leave!), while staying under the radar in the process.

She had had gathered the group of teens who had somehow, inexplicably, become her responsibility, and quickly laid out the necessary information: there were two women in town, looking for a super-strong teen-aged girl (who would have other talents as well, but the spectacular strength would be the most noticeable), and they needed to avoid drawing attention to Anne while still helping these women find the unknown girl so they would leave sooner.

Anne got that characteristic guilty expression, and Miranda suppressed a sigh. Of course Anne would be in the middle of it. She didn’t push the redhead, but simply raised an eyebrow and waited. Sure enough, Anne immediately began babbling out the explanation and, the code of silence broken, the other teenagers rapidly joined in. In the cacophony, it was hard to distinguish the information from useless noise, so Miranda held up a hand for silence and looked at the silent boy whose name had come up frequently and said simply, “Clarify.”

Jason looked up from his comic book. “Girl-me is really strong.”

Quite a bit more explaining was necessary, but Jason had covered the nub of it in those first five words.

*               *               *

Anne offered to do a location spell on the unknown women, but Miranda’s own investigations (ordinary town gossip had sufficed for most of it) had already provided a location. With Jason, Anne, and Robin in tow, Miranda made her way to the hotel where the Watchers Council representatives were staying, and knocked crisply on the door of the indicated room. The door was opened by a slim blonde in a tailored suit; blue eyes met brown in astonishment, and Miranda’s “Mandy?” was followed an instant later by Amanda’s surprised “Randi?”

Jason and Anne’s voices mingled in the same time disbelieving, “Randi?”

Miranda ignored the children. “Mandy, what are you doing with the Watchers Council? I thought we agreed that the magical world was no place for you.”

Amanda’s mouth went hard. “You listen, and you listen good, Miranda Elizabeth West. We didn’t agree on that. You dictated, and then shoved me out of your life. Destiny didn’t choose me like it did you, but I chose my destiny. So now I’ve chosen to help other teen-aged girls that destiny chooses, and you gave up the right for your opinion to matter to me a long time ago. If you don’t like my choices, or me encroaching on your town, I’m sorry. But I still have a job to do, I intend on doing that job, and your disappointment and displeasure are not going to prevent me from completing my job.”

Miranda was a creature of control, but that control slipped for a moment. “I was trying to protect you, Mandy,” she answered weakly. “Andy had just … and I couldn’t lose you, too. You had to stay safe.”

Amanda’s expression softened, just a tinge. “I know, Randi. I know you had good intentions. But you still decided you knew what was best. Still, that’s beside the point. You didn’t know I was in town, so you certainly didn’t come to catch up on old times. Why are you here?”

Anne, in her insufferable helpfulness, answered the question. “Jason’s the Slayer you’re looking for.”

Amanda flicked a look at Jason, and then back at Anne. “I don’t think you understand. Only girls can be —”

Anne did the hand-motion while saying the incantation.

Jason-as-Sonja looked up from the ever-present comic. “Yo.”

*               *               *

Jason liked being Sonja now and again, but he was still a guy. He didn’t want to be a girl all the time. He didn’t really want to be a Slayer, even though the strength and speed were kinda cool. But listening to the blonde lady talking to Miranda, he realized he wasn’t going to say no. Not because he wanted it — he really really didn’t — but because Destiny had still chosen him, in spite of his being the wrong gender. He had been given a responsibility, and even if he wouldn’t have chosen it for himself, you just didn’t walk away from something like that.

Which meant he was at his house, trying to pack up things for going to training. It had been decided that since he already belonged to a group dealing with supernatural things, he wouldn’t move away full-time; he’d go to a few weeks of training, and then return periodically for more.

Anne and Robin were perched on his bed, looking at him and occasionally opening their mouths to say something, and then changing their minds at the last moment. Finally, Anne tossed something to him. “Take this with you,” she said.

Jason looked at it, a pendant stone on a thin silver chain, and back at Anne. “Why?”

“Because. I’ve worked a permanent spell into it that will allow you to go all girly whenever you want, or back again.” Anne swung her legs back and forth, Robin nodding enthusiastically next to her. “That way, you won’t have to be Sonja all the time, unless you want to be.”

This? Right there? That was why Jason was best friends with Anne and Robin. Even when they didn’t fully understand him, they still had his back.

And now he had theirs. Always had, but this was different. He’d be home again in a few weeks, and — though Anne would always remain the powerhouse — a Slayer would be able to provide pretty potent back-up whenever she needed it.

The pendant … that was a pretty good idea, he’d probably want to have it on him all the time once he returned. On the other hand, he knew from comics how easy it was to lose a necklace in the middle of a fight, so he’d need to work out how to keep it safe. Maybe get it set into a belt buckle …

All that was in his mind. What he said to Anne, however, was just, “ ’Kay, sure.”

And then, after a moment: “Thanks.”

[Jason/Sonja Grey, Katie MacBride, Robin Ericson, Anne Onymous, and Amanda Miller (the Wotch) are the property of Anne Onymous and Robin Ericson (yes, the authors use character names as their own pseudonyms).]

Chapter Text

“First of all,” Giles said, “touching on a matter to which I previously alluded, there is the matter of Dana’s age.”

Xander sat up straighter. “First? That’s what you lead with?”

Giles favored him with a dry smile. “Think of it as laying a foundation. May I proceed? Yes? Thank you. Now, the records of the facility where Dana was being held indicate that she did, indeed, come into possession of Slayer attributes on the day Willow loosed the power of the Scythe. They also show that, at that time, she was almost twenty-five years old.”

“Truly?” Chu exclaimed. “I didn’t —” He broke off, again began accessing menus on his smartphone, then announced, “Yes, that’s so: Miss Caruthers is very nearly the oldest of the new-Chosen. I find record of only three older, by no more than a few weeks, and it would appear that none have ever been activated past the age of twenty-five …” He looked up. “Honestly, I hadn’t realised the cut-off point extended that high.”

Buffy nodded. “I know. She’s older than me, and not many Slayers can say that.” Her mood instantly switched back to somber. “Only, she can’t say it anymore.”

“No, I suppose not,” Giles said. “Still, it marks a point very much worth attention. I know you are far more immersed in the minutiae of our ongoing operations, Wendell, but I spent some time in studying the facts you just confirmed. Previously, no candidate had ever become a Slayer before the age of fourteen years, nor after the age of twenty-one; it would appear that twenty-five is now the upper limit. If so, Dana would have become ineligible within only a few more months. Which, to me, raises the question of how many more ex-Potentials there may be worldwide: those who might have become Slayers, but … ‘aged out’ … before the opportunity could arrive.”

Buffy frowned, and most of the others seemed equally puzzled. “I guess there’s no way of knowing,” she said. “And even if it did, why would it matter?”

“As I said, it ties in with Dana’s age,” Giles began, “and it’s, it’s really quite technical —”

“— but basically,” Salome interceded smoothly, “it comes down to reverse engineering.” Giles ground to a halt, and the others swung to look at her; she gave him an unrepentant smirk, and went on. “The work we did with Dana, the comparison of individual Slayer auras and the analysis of what we could measure of the Slayer essence, it opened out new areas we couldn’t ever explore when there was only one Slayer — OR when the stuffed-shirts in the old Council kept the established covens at arm’s length!” She shook her head. “So far, four basic results. One, we can repeat what we did with Dana, remove the Slayer essence in extreme cases. Two, we can fine-tune our location spells for new Slayers to about eight times as much sensitivity and precision. Three, something similar works almost as well at locating Potentials … which, since nowadays every eligible Potential either becomes a Slayer or turns it down, mostly means ex- Potentials who got too old for activation. And …” She paused, looked to Giles. “You want to take this last one, Rupert?”

“Thank you,” Giles said to her. Then, to the others, “The final result is, perhaps, less controversial than the ability to remove the Slayer essence, but is potentially much more far-reaching in its likely consequences: as a corollary, we now have the capability of awakening the Slayer essence, in those former Potentials for whom that activation never occurred.

“And this, as you may readily recognise, raises a number of issues. Important, significant, and possibly volatile issues.”

 – February 2008 –

It had seemed straightforward at the beginning: the restaurant manager had told Kendall that one of the customers, a British man, had reserved a private room and requested her as the server, with the promise of a generous gratuity. Kendall had welcomed the prospect of extra money, and the arrangement probably wouldn’t be about sex: this wasn’t that kind of place, and she’d made sure the manager didn’t think she was that kind of woman. (Not that she would have absolutely ruled it out, if the ‘gratuity’ was generous enough …) The likelihood had diminished when she saw that the customer was accompanied by a teen-aged girl too conservatively dressed to be a hooker, and when he invited Kendall to take a seat. Whereupon he very properly introduced himself … but didn’t ask her name, for he already knew the one she was using here in Spain. He had come to this place, he said, to meet her specifically, and from there the conversation just kept getting stranger.

“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Señorita Cardones,” he was saying to Kendall with grave courtesy. His Spanish was cautious and precise, that of an obvious foreigner who had put in a lot of study but still didn’t have a true feel for the language. “And I apologize for arranging a meeting in such an unconventional manner. I would have preferred to offer a better impression of my organization and our concerns, but in fact we have been able to learn so little about you, coming to your workplace was the best I could do.”

And I would really like to know how you found me at all, Kendall thought grimly. And why the hell you’re interested in the first place. Aloud she said, “The Madrid bombings in 2004, Señor? One of the railroad cars damaged was transferring boxes of vital records from the old district office to the new. Mine were among those destroyed.” Did that make sense? Would it hold up to any kind of investigation? She didn’t know, she was pulling this out of her ass even as she said it. “A small annoyance for me, compared to the greater tragedy of that day. There is little to know of me: my parents are dead, I lived and worked with my grandfather until he died as well, then I came to the city to seek a new life.”

New life, right. She was a goddamned waitress, doing everything she could to stretch out her limited funds. Okay, she knew this bozo wasn’t working for the Fitzpatricks, if Liam had tracked her this far he’d have sent a bullet instead of some Limey with a jailbait sidekick. More to the point, he never would have warned her by having someone contact her, so for now she just needed to find out what was Dweeby’s deal and what business he thought he had with her makeshift cover identity. Which, damn, he was talking again and she’d missed the first part of it, she focused her attention as he was saying, “… expect you to believe without evidence, so I’ll ask Caridad to make a small demonstration.” He nodded to the demure, gamin-faced girl who stood beside him.

Oh, shit! Kendall thought, registering the name. Her accent was barely good enough to convince the locals that she was native to Spain, though most of them believed she was from some rural province or another, but she’d thought she’d be dealing only with the Brit (Gerald, he’d said his name was Gerald), and wasn’t confident of holding her role under more exacting scrutiny … When the girl spoke, though, Kendall knew instantly that she was from somewhere in South America, and her sudden alarm receded. “With your permission, Señorita,” Caridad said to her, “might I ask that you cross your ankles, grasp the arms of your chair, and hold yourself very carefully in place?”

The request was as inexplicable as it was unexpected, but after a quick, doubtful look at the two of them, Kendall did as instructed. Caridad glanced toward the door that led out to the main restaurant area (closed, as the ‘customer’ had requested), and stepped up next to Kendall’s chair. She went down on one knee, reaching over to take hold of one of the rear legs … and then she straightened up, smoothly and unhurriedly, lifting the chair with one hand — and its occupant as well — to hold it above her head.

Kendall came within a hair of shrieking a string of good old-fashioned American obscenities, but the same shock froze her for the half-second she needed to recover her wits. She clutched the chair’s arms, struggling not to panic and throw herself off-balance, and looked down at Caridad. The girl stood without strain, the muscles in her arm prominent under the skin but not bunched or quivering; in fact, only the way she had spread her feet for stability indicated that she was holding any significant weight. “I see this,” Kendall said carefully. “I see, but I do not understand. What does this mean?”

Gerald nodded, and Caridad, still with unhurried control, set Kendall’s chair gently down, and moved back to resume her previous station. “That is only a preliminary demonstration of bona fides,” Gerald said to Kendall. “If you choose to accompany us back to England, for further education and assessment, we shall provide more. To make a very brief business of it, however: the world is older than you know —”

He explained at some length, and Kendall listened with total concentration.

The good news, they had found her (or so they claimed) by witchcraft; so, unless Liam had fucking leprechauns on his payroll — not impossible, knowing that lunatic bastard, but hardly to be expected — he wouldn’t be locating her that way. Better news, they wanted to sponsor her, pay for her travel and put her up while they were showing her their program and deciding whether to offer her a place in it. Best news, she’d drawn an inside straight that meant she might, if she played sweet and innocent and didn’t get caught out in anything, be given the same mojo that Muscle Girl had just demonstrated.

And that … well, that just gave her all kinds of extremely interesting ideas.

It was true that she’d been closer to her grandfather than to her parents, but that was in Shelby, Tennessee. From him she had learned the Spanish of Pamplona, but he had also made sure her English carried no trace of accent: “The people here, nieta, they hear ‘Spanish’ and to them that means ‘Mexican’, which means ‘wetback’. Life is hard enough already without giving anyone an excuse to look down on you.” True that: Land of the Free or no, it was a dog-eat-dog world populated by pit bulls. And, unless she was born to wealth and position, a woman had only two tools to work with: sex, and being underestimated. Kendall had devoted a great deal of attention and effort to becoming very good at both. As far as she was concerned, a whore wasn’t a woman who sold herself for money, but one dumb enough to sell herself for too little money.

Marrying Richard Casablancas was supposed to guarantee the security she had been seeking her whole life, but the moron had not only put all his money into land scams, he’d got caught at it. Then his psychotic son Cassidy had set her up and swindled her, and then she had doubled down on her rotten luck by getting involved with the Fitzpatricks.

It had almost worked with Cormac. Kendall didn’t put much trust in any man, but Cormac had really laid it on the line for her: helping her skim the money Liam regarded as his, setting up Keith Mars as the witness to her faked death, then sending her up the road with a substantial emergency fund while he stayed around to ‘hunt’ Keith and finish selling the illusion … Maybe Cormac really would have been a keeper, maybe not, but she’d never got the opportunity to find out. He didn’t show for their planned rendezvous, and she never found out what happened to the Van Gogh that had been intended to make their new wealth easily transportable … she should have kept the painting with her, she had almost insisted on it, but she had needed Cormac to trust her every bit as much as she had needed to trust him, and if it had just been a double-cross he would have killed her for real so that meant HE was probably dead … She couldn’t risk that Liam had managed to get the truth out of Cormac somehow, and she didn’t have a lot of cash, so she had thought of all her grandfather’s stories and caught a cheap, hurried, no-frills flight to the land of El Cid.

Now, she had a chance to switch from ‘survival’ to ‘moving up the ladder’, and maybe a lot more than that.

If she managed to con these people (they thought they were dealing with Maria Reynalda Paz Cardones-Ramirez, and she had no intention of correcting them), if she made the cut and actually became a “Slayer”, one of her first actions would be to return to Neptune and gut Liam Fitzpatrick. If he really had killed Cormac, he had it coming; even if he hadn’t, she would never truly be safe as long as he was living.

Afterward … well, she would work out that part as she went. The world was her oyster, and Kendall Casablancas (née Priscilla Banks, but she had buried that identity long ago) knew exactly how to reach in and rip the pearl right out.

[Kendall Casablancas (Veronica Mars) is the property of Rob Thomas, Rob Thomas Productions, and Warner Brothers Television.]

 – November 2003 –

Jess heard her roommate come in, knew that Jules knew she knew, but continued to lie with her back to the door. Meaning that she had an uninterrupted view of a mint-green cinderblock wall. Which was good. Calming. Something to meditate on other than the turmoil of her life as it currently stood. She needed the distraction.

It wasn’t enough, though. Not with the other girl’s eyes boring holes in her back. Not glaring, she knew Jules was on her side here. Only, there were two problems with that. One, Jules was about the only one on her side. (Perfectly understandable. That was part of what rendered this whole awful mess so … crazy-making.) Two, neither one of them really knew exactly what was the this that they were facing here. Jess just wanted to close her eyes and wait for it all to go away; wouldn’t work, but it was a way of dealing with the moment. Jules … Jules always insisted on attacking a problem. Going straight at it.

She sighed. Still without looking around, she asked, “Are they —? No, nix that. How mad are they?”

Jules’ voice held sympathy, and a small measure of the frustration Jess was feeling. “Pretty mad.”

Another sigh. “I can’t really blame them,” Jess admitted.

Footsteps, and then Jules’ weight on the bed, and her hand on Jess’ shoulder. “You have to realize how it looks to them,” Jules said to her. “I mean, one moment you’re sliding around them like they’re toddlers on the field, making them look like stumbling idiots … like you want to make them look foolish, rubbing it in their faces. The next, you’re fluffing the simplest moves, as if you can’t find your own feet. And they know how good you are, so they see it all as part of an act. They’re … well, it looks bad to them.”

Jess rolled over onto her back, looking up at the girl who had so quickly become her dearest friend, and only because she’d wiped her eyes before the turn was she not blinking away tears. “I know how it looks,” she said, her voice shaking. “I know. And I’m trying. I just … I just can’t …”

And now the tears wouldn’t be denied, and Jules put her arms around her.

Physically, the two young women couldn’t have been much more different: Juliette Paxton, lean, pale (even after months practicing under the California sun), hair hacked short, her full lips contrasting with the sharp planes of that high-cheekboned face; and Jesminder Bhamra, raven-haired and cocoa-skinned, trim but rounded, with regular, delicate features suited to classic Indian legend. The kinship they shared, though, ran deeper than appearance or even race, sisters in everything but blood.

Jules stroked her friend’s hair and said softly, “It isn’t fair.”

“No,” Jess mumbled in reply. “No, it isn’t. Not to me. Not to them. Not to anybody we play against.” She could feel the other girl’s sleeve getting wet. Let it. “All I ever wanted was to be a footballer. To play against real players, not just games in the park. I worked, I really worked to get good enough …”

“Yeah,” Jules agreed. She pulled back far enough to study her friend’s face. “And now you’re too good.”

“I am.” Soft as a whisper, fierce as a scream. “I don’t know why. I can’t turn it off. And I can’t … can’t find the right balance when I try to dial it back.”

“I know what you mean.” Jules shook her head. “You scorch past the lot of us like a Grand Prix car. Or you fall all over your feet. Or, when you almost get there, you make it look so easy it’s like you’re, well, showing off against Special Olympics kids.” She sighed. “I know you don’t mean it, know you can’t help it, and I’d hate you if I didn’t love you so much.”

Jess moved to sit up on the bed, and Jules shifted to give her room. “They’re going to call for the test, aren’t they?” she asked sadly.

“Yeah.” Jules nodded. “It’s been coming for awhile. They’d have done it weeks ago, I bet, if you hadn’t slimmed down instead of bulking up.” She shook her head again. “You got too much better, too fast. They have to be thinking steroids.”

“If it was steroids,” Jess said with quiet ferocity, “I could stop taking them and be done with the whole rubbish.”

“But since it’s not,” Jules pointed out, “they can do every test under the sun and they won’t find anything.” She put her hand back on her friend’s shoulder. “And you are getting better, at finding that balance. I bet, before long, you won’t be so … so obvious.”

And there, right there, Jess knew. Opposition she might have resisted, but before this steadfast, unflagging loyalty she was undone.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, ghost-soft. “I have to quit.”

It rocked Jules backward. “Quit?” she repeated incredulously. “Quit the team?” The other girl nodded, hopelessly, and Jules sputtered, “But you’re here on scholarship, for football. Can you even stay here if you leave the team?”

“I don’t know,” Jess said. “But I know I can’t keep on like this. Because even if it isn’t steroids, even if I don’t want it, it’s still cheating.” She looked to Jules, holding her eyes with her own. “You know it’s true. It’s not fair for me to play against anybody, not the way I am now. It wouldn’t be fair if I was playing what Americans call football, not even if it was just me against a whole team of big, hulking men. They’re not in my class. Nobody is.” She looked away, her face strained. “If I got to where I could hide it, I’d only be hiding the unfairness. It’d still be there.”

There was a long silence, as both girls looked at the inevitable end of a cherished dream. At last Jules asked, “So, will you be going home?”

Jess sighed. Lot of sighing today. “I think I have to. I mean, I still want to do college, but the whole point of coming here to Santa Clara Uni was to play, and … now I can’t. So if it can’t be this, it might as well be something back at home.” She looked to her friend with sudden determination. “You’ll stay, though.”

Her expression stricken, Jules began, “Jess —”

“We came here together, all right?” Jess went on insistently. “We were both going to do the best we could. Well, this is just as if I turned out not to be good enough. Would you want me to quit if you washed out? You’d never do that, and you wouldn’t be much of a friend if you did.” She took the other girl’s hands in her own. “So you’ll stay, and you’ll keep doing your best, and the better you do, the happier you’ll make me.” She smiled, a true smile even as tears slid down her face. “Do that for me, all right? Just now, I need that more than anything.”

Jules nodded, unable to speak, and they sat there together, united even in loss.

At length, Jules stood up from the bed, and crossed the room to sit at the desk chair. “What are you going to tell Joe?” she asked.

“What can I tell him?” Jess shot back, waving her hands in vexation. “All of a sudden I’m five or ten times as strong as a strong man, and I have nightmares about monsters, and if that isn’t barmy enough, I’m starting to think the nightmares might be real.” She looked away, and the wrath and tension oozed out of her. “I’ll tell him the truth as best I know it, and he’ll decide what he decides, and I’ll live with whatever it is. I can do that, even if it winds up hurting.” She drew a long, shaky breath. “What really scares me is when I try to think of what I’ll tell my family.”

That had always been the biggest worry. Family is an arse-ache for anyone … but Jules’ family, exasperating as they might be, weren’t Anglicised-but-still-traditional Punjabi Sikhs. Simply raising the prospect brought another silence to the room.

As if trying to fill it, or perhaps change the subject, Jules abruptly said, “Oh, did that man ever reach you?”

Jess looked up. “What man?”

“Angie down at the front said someone’s been trying to get in touch with you.” Jules turned in her chair, began to ruffle through the papers on the desk. “He left a little note and a card, I told Angie I’d get them to you … oh, botheration, what did I do with them?”

“If it’s important, he’ll keep trying,” Jess observed, unconcerned. “Any idea what it’s about?”

“Some kind of special program,” Jules answered, still delving through the clutter on the desk. “A group called RCW, or some such. Angie said he seemed really keen to talk to you.”

“Oh.” Jess looked out the window. “Can’t see as it’ll matter, since I’ll be returning to England soon.”

“Well, that’s just it,” Jules said. “I still can’t find it, but the card said the home offices are in London.”

“Really?” At last Jess showed a spark of interest. “Then maybe I’ll check on them once I’m home again.” She smiled. “Or, if they’re that keen to recruit me, maybe they’ll follow me all the way back.”

At the time, it was said as a joke. Later, they would both remember the comment, and how lightly it had been made.

[Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra and Juliette Paxton (Bend It Like Beckham) are the property of Gurinder Chadha, BSkyB, Road Movies Filmproduktion, Scion Films, and The Works.]

Chapter Text

“Oh, my,” Chu said. “This will not only require careful consideration, but quite a bit of new organisation as well, and may substantially readjust our overall mission.”

“Mission?” Willow repeated, almost vaguely, her eyes focused as if on something far distant. “Well, yeah, I guess I can see … Oh. Oh, boy.”

Xander sighed. “Okay, you guys have picked up on something. Probably those of us on the slow bus could work it out eventually, but how ’bout you save time and just give us a rundown?”

“It’s actually fairly obvious, if you’ve been dealing with these matters for as long as we have.” Chu spoke almost apologetically. “Until now, we’ve been faced with three broad areas of responsibility: those Slayers currently in our organisation, those we have contacted but who have declined to join us, and those we’ve not yet located. Now, however —”

“Now, it’s opened out,” Willow filled in. “We’re going to have to handle … Goddess! at least seven areas of focus now.” She began counting them off. “Slayers working with us now. Slayers we monitor and support, but let live their lives on their own. New arrivals, either First Wave or after that, who we just haven’t found yet. And in each of those groups, there will be some — and it won’t be many, and we won’t want to do it, but it’s there for us now so we’ll have to take responsibility — some who just shouldn’t be Slayers, so we’ll be choosing whether or not to … dis-empower them … so, that gives us three more categories. And finally, what Giles said: former Potentials who didn’t get the call, and we have to decide if we want to offer them another chance.”

“And at least one other sub-group,” Chu interjected gently. “We may also find that there are some who … who would ask to relinquish their enhanced status, in favor of a less demanding, less complicated, less dangerous life.”

From the expressions of those around him, it was clear that no one else had considered that, and Giles couldn’t help wondering how many other potential pitfalls they might even now be overlooking.

– June 2011 –

Though she had left the land of her fathers, she had not walked away from her heritage. Though the two best and strongest men she had ever known had been kuffar, unbelievers (and far too many of her own kinsmen were casually dismissive of the feelings and selves of their women), she had not forsaken her beliefs. And so when, within the space of a month, Michael Franks — father of her husband, juddi of her daughter — had died, and the man from England had sought her out and presented her with unsettling news and an even more disturbing offer, her first response had been to withdraw and pray.

Those who had known Leyla Shakarji would have sneered at the thought of her offering prayer: brazen harlot who had rutted with one of the ajamiy invaders, borne a mongrel child of that blasphemous union, dishonored her family and deserted her home to live among the Crusaders. (Perhaps worse, taken up weapons like a man and killed men in battle … but then, those she killed had likewise been kuffar, so very probably that would have been shrugged away as of no consequence.) She knew her own heart, however, knew that she had shared her body with Liam O’Neill in a total giving of self: not simple lust, but from a love more precious to her than life — indeed, death would have been preferable to denying that love — and could not believe, despite her family’s shame, that God would not cherish her child just as fiercely as she did. And so she prayed, prostrating herself in an inner room and crying out for aid, for understanding, for the discernment to know the proper course and the strength to choose it.

Because she knew: her greatest sin had been committed before her eyes had ever beheld Liam O’Neill, when God’s messenger — in the form of a woman, stern and terrible as an afreet — had offered her the chance to be champion as well as servant, warrior as well as woman, and the panic-stricken young Leyla had fled from that vision. And now, the same choice was being offered to an older Leyla, one more hardened and knowing … and one who had so much more to lose.

Perhaps it was as well that she had turned away from that first challenge. Given what she knew then, she would surely have thought her new power meant she was supposed to fight the American invaders, and she was convinced now that it would have been a dreadful mistake. For one thing, if God had wished Saddam’s reign to continue, Saddam would still be ruling from Baghdad; for another, the explanations of the English messenger made it seem that this power was to be set against the enemies of men, rather than to aid one group of men in war against another, and something inside Leyla told her that this was as it should be. At best, her misunderstanding would have led her into a horrible error; at worst, it would have struck a mortal wound to her very soul.

She wanted to discuss this with her mother; Shada Shakarji was harsh, rigidly opinionated, authoritarian and unsympathetic … but also ruthlessly pragmatic, deeply versed in the ways of the world and the ways of power. She wanted to talk with Leroy Jethro Gibbs, for Michael Franks had respected no man more. She wanted, needed to call on the judgment of anyone besides herself —

— but she had once turned away from God’s call, and now the call was come again, and Leyla Shakarji had spent too much of her life already in abdicating to others the responsibility for her choices.

She was no longer a child; now, she had a child. Once petrified at the very thought of any kind of physical conflict, she had shouldered a rifle and killed the men who threatened that child. She was a mother, and a mother’s duty to the babe of her womb superseded any other duty …

… except the duty demanded by God.

In the depths of her heart, Leyla wailed, but she would not ignore the truth she could see. If she joined this war, she faced a prospect worse than her own death: that of leaving her daughter motherless as well as fatherless. She would cut off her own hands rather than harm that beautiful little girl … but harm could arrive from neglect as well as from abuse, and if she knew of monsters skulking in the shadows of the world, and abjured the ability to fight those monsters, what was that but neglect? She could try to protect her daughter by hiding from this war, or she could try to protect her daughter by taking up a sword and fighting in it.

Perhaps she might have convinced herself that the second path, though more overtly courageous, was no more inherently virtuous than the first. Only, God had offered the sword to her twice now. That was … a rather broad hint, at the very least.

The very word Islam means ‘submission’. Faced with the purity and beneficence and rightness of God, the only honorable response — the only rational response — is to submit. Leyla Shakarji had been reviled for turning away from God, and she had reassured herself that, while she might follow an understanding of faith different from that dictated by the patriarchs, she was still a faithful and obedient servant. Now, it was time to behave as such.

She rose, and washed her face with a cool cloth, and through the broad window of the Mexican beach house she looked out at the incoming waves rippling over the sand at the water’s edge. Thinking of what she would say to her mother, and what arrangements she must insist upon with these ‘Watchers’ for the care and support of her daughter, and of the dark and violent world she was about to enter.

[Leyla Shakarji (NCIS) is the property of Donald P. Bellisario, Belisarius Productions, and Paramount Television.]

– April 2006 –

The interview did not go at all as Hester Ffolkes had anticipated.

It started out smoothly enough. They had a location on their candidate, and were quickly able to add a face and name. This allowed a bit of preliminary investigation, to establish basic facts and give them some initial operating parameters. Charlotte Young was just past thirty — not one of the oldest of the new group being approached, but far from being among the youngest — with no living family, and worked as a researcher for a metropolitan news organization. There were no indications of a serious man in her life, or even any relatively steady casual ones, but even so the odds of her choosing to join their organisation were fairly small: with her life already essentially in order, she would probably not be eager to change it so radically.

Hester and the Slayer accompanying her, a seventeen-year-old Irish girl named Mairead, elected to make contact with Ms Young as she was leaving work in the early evening. She normally passed through the park on her way to the bus stop, and that was an open, unthreatening venue for initial contact. From there, they might or might not be able to persuade her to give the matter serious consideration, but it would at least be an introduction.

Except that, on the moment of seeing the two of them, the woman stopped, surveyed them with a searching glance, and then changed course, moving to sit at one of the picnic tables. “Have a seat,” she said to Hester. “You’re here to make me an offer. I appreciate it, but I’m not interested. All the same, we have a lot to talk about.”

Hester sighed. “Ma’am, I’m not —”

“Not selling insurance, I know. You’re here representing the …” Ms Young stopped, furrowed her brow slightly. “The … Reformed? yes, Reformed Council of Watchers. Never heard of them before, but I’d love to learn more. I’ve been hoping for someone like you for a long time.”

Hester felt her skin prickle: Ms Young was unquestionably reading her mind. But … Slayers were never enchanters, the two were utterly incompatible, which surely meant it was equally impossible for Potentials, even ex-Potentials. She sat down across the table from the other woman, very conscious of (and glad for) Mairead standing a few feet away. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she said carefully.

Young’s smile transformed her face; already attractive, she was abruptly beautiful. “Yes, this puts the shoe on the other foot, doesn’t it? Usually you’re the one bringing strange news to someone, and then having to make your case. Don’t worry, I’m not a threat — at least, I really don’t want to be — and I’ll explain myself so we can get to specifics.

“First, my name isn’t actually Charlotte Young. I’ve stayed under the radar long enough, filtered through enough other identities, that I finally let myself have a name a little like my own. I was born Charlene McGee, but my parents called me Charlie, and that’s what I answer to now.

“Second, yes, I’m picking up your thoughts, but it’s not magic. Back at the very end of the Sixties, a really nasty government agency — it’s been wiped away since, and practically all of that was me — tried an experimental hallucinogenic drug on a bunch of college students. It gave several of them low-grade psychic abilities, and it scrambled their genes. They’re all dead now, but before that, two of them got married and had me. And mind-reading? that’s the smallest and most harmless thing I can do.

“Third, as I said, I’m not interested in being a Slayer. I’ll want to learn more before I make an absolute answer, but I’ve skimmed enough already to be fairly sure it’s a really bad idea. I will be going back to England with you, though, because it looks like you have some people I need to meet.”

Hester studied Ms Young (Charlie?) as she labored to bring her chaotic thoughts into order. Pointless to try and conceal anything from a telepath, of whatever provenance, but still, self-control was better than panic. “Why?” she asked at last.

Charlie smiled again, but this time it was sad. “Your Watchers group works to detect and prevent things that might threaten the world, am I understanding this right? Well, for a while some very knowledgeable people thought I might be that kind of threat … and they weren’t entirely wrong.”

“If you mean no harm,” Hester said slowly, while her mind continued to race, “then I fail to see how you could pose a … a dire, imminent danger.” And if you did mean such harm, you’d hardly be so forthcoming, would you —?

Charlie nodded at the words, while her eyes betrayed a deeper awareness. “Your people deal with demons. So tell me, what’s the deadliest thing you, personally, have ever encountered?”

That would be Faith, actually, but the question seemed to point toward a slightly different context. “Suvolte,” Hester answered. “I only saw it for a second or two … Non-breeder, fortunately, but it was lairing at the Avonmouth docks. We were alerted by three, ah, indicative deaths over a ten-day period. We’ve no way of knowing how many others there might have been before we located it and put it down.”

“I see.” Charlie’s gaze caught Hester’s, caught and held. “On a single day in October of 1982, I killed nearly fifty men — they cut the casualties to twenty in the ‘official’ reports, but I remember — boiled a small lake dry, and blew a sizeable building halfway into the next county. I was eight years old at the time.” Her eyes fell, and her expression went distant. “Before that, the men who were studying me said they expected I’d get stronger as I got older. One man — I never met him, but three years ago I got a quick look at a redacted report on him — speculated that I might, when I hit adolescence, be able to crack the whole planet like a china plate.” She looked up again. “He was right. They were all right. So the deadliest creature you’ve ever seen? she’s sitting in front of you.”

Next to Hester, Mairead shifted into what was not quite a combat stance, and Charlie lifted one hand, palm out. “Don’t. Seriously, don’t. You’re not actually planning to attack, I’m definitely not, but we could escalate off each other. I can stop you telekinetically if you try anything extreme … but if you really are as fast as you seem to believe, you could startle me into an instinctive reaction. Trust me, neither one of us would like that at all.”

The woman’s words were alarming, but her manner was not. Hester made a tiny stand down gesture toward Mairead; then, drawing a steady breath, she asked, “What is it you want to do, then?”

“It’s what I don’t want that’s important.” Charlie shook her head. “I don’t want to crack the planet open. I don’t want to turn the sun nova. I could do those things, but I don’t want to. Several times a year, I think seriously about suicide. Not out of despair, I’ve managed to make a pretty good life for myself, but just to make sure there’s no chance I ever actually destroy the world. Of course, there’s the problem of what my dying mind might do in that last instant, but I think if I set it up so I was breathing pure nitrogen, triggered by some kind of random relay so I didn’t know when it would happen … just fade away and wink out without ever realizing it …”

She stopped, laughed. “But now you’ve given me an alternative. These magic-users of yours, I really want to meet them. People who might be able to set in … dampers, controls, warning systems, maybe even some kind of emergency shutoff. If they can do that, I’d like to get it done as quickly as possible. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”

“I do,” Hester replied. “I very much do. In fact, I’m prepared to move without further delay.”

“Happy to hear that,” Charlie said, standing up. “I have a passport — well, three passports, in different names — it’ll take me about half an hour to get them from my apartment, so if you can have your people arrange a flight for us right away —”

Hester held up one hand, and with the other she opened her briefcase and extracted the sleek satellite phone. “Actually, if you’re agreeable, I believe I can manage something quite a bit faster than that.”

The Council field trainers had repeatedly emphasized that teleportation was power-intensive and not to be requested casually, and even more that the Red Witch did not respond happily to frivolous demands on her capabilities. Hester Ffolkes suspected, however, that Willow Rosenberg would definitely accept this request … and more, that she would be glad of the chance.

[Charlene McGee (Firestarter) is the property of Stephen King.]

Chapter Text

“The ramifications are far more complex and subtle than that,” Giles observed. “I fear we’ve only begun to scratch at the surface. Still, that’s a fair initial summary.” He retrieved the brandy snifter he had set down, and at last took a seat in the big armchair by the fireplace. “To take a Slayer and divest her of that status, to strip away her abilities and her heritage, is dreadfully reminiscent of the Cruciamentum, and occasions comparison to other practices of the old Council in which a Slayer was regarded, and treated, as a disposable tool. For those reasons, and others, the removal of the Slayer essence should be a matter of awe and dread, a rare and extreme last resort for those terrible instances in which no alternative will suffice. And, given that reluctance — which must be stressed and re-stressed, reinforced until no Watcher is ever able to think of it as a casual expedient — we shall, I think, find it necessary to exercise extreme caution in evaluating and selecting those former Potentials to whom we might offer the previously impossible opportunity to become Slayers after all.”

Buffy, who had been taking it all in, looking from one speaker to another, now sat down also. Heavily. “This is, is a major wallop right out of nowhere,” she said, “My head’s still spinning. But, as far as you talking about different groups, I can already see two types of former Potentials we’ll be looking at.”

Giles tilted his head to one side. “Yes?” he prompted with steady, even courtesy.

“Well, first there’s the ones you already mentioned, the ones who aged out before the Slayer call went worldwide.” She knit her brows at a sudden thought. “How far will we want to go on this? How old is too old? I mean, in this profession I’m old, but with modern nutrition and medical care, you take a healthy fit woman in her forties or even fifties, and slap the Slayer mojo on top of it …” She shook her head suddenly. “Gaah! Too much complication make brain hurt. But, well, there’s another group after that.”

She looked around at those assembled, assessing their reactions as she chose her words. “You say the new ones are being offered a choice. I’m telling you, if fifteen-year-old Buffy had been asked if she wanted to be strong, there’s just no telling what her answer would’ve been. But after I’d seen more, learned more …”

“I get it,” Willow said. “According to Giles, every new Slayer since the first wave is one who said yes. But the ones who said no, if we can use the new tracking spells to find them —”

“Some of them will be older now,” Buffy said, nodding. “More life experience, a different perspective, maybe more confidence or … or more sense of duty. If we pick out the ones who look like good candidates and explain that they’ll have a support team behind them, give them some background info so they can decide on a basis that isn’t spur-of-the-moment yes-or-no-right-now, we could get a different answer and pick up some solid people.”

“To replace some of the ones we lose.” Xander’s voice was bleak. “To our brand-spanky-new Acme Home DeSlayerification Kit.”

Giles looked to him, frowning slightly. “I had anticipated that Buffy would be the one to feel, and voice, the greatest reservation,” he said. “I am … surprised, I’ll admit it, to find you instead in that role.”

Xander shrugged, but his face was still set in hard lines. “Buf has nearly ten years’ experience carrying the weight of the world,” he answered. “Me, I’ve spent most of that time becoming the resident expert of being powerless on a mystical battlefield. Making somebody else powerless … that one’s a punch in the gut.” He sighed. “Look, I know it’s not that simple. Some girls aren’t meant to be Slayers — some people aren’t meant to carry that much juice — and if you have do something about it, well, this gives us another option.” He raised his gaze to meet Giles’. “Before, if we had a full-on outlaw and didn’t want to let her keep cutting a swath through defenseless civilians, we could only kill her or lock her up for life. This is better than that. But I don’t like it.” His hands clenched in his lap. “I’ll never like it.”

“I am frankly relieved to hear that,” Giles said, nodding gravely. “As I observed already, this course of action — this awful duty — is one I wish never to see regarded lightly. With this in mind, I would suggest some of the following measures …”

– October 2014 –

Being a mystical Key, recast into human form? Total bummer. On the one hand, you were special, literally unique; on the other, it wasn’t really good for anything. Dawn Summers, with (bogus) memories of a lifetime spent comparing herself to her Chosen sister, had fiercely striven to prove that she was Special, too … and, on discovering just how true that was — only not the way she wanted — come near to total meltdown.

Buffy? Classic valley girl who happened also to be a supernaturally empowered killer of vampires and demons. Dawn? A force beyond time, a font of power greater than anyone could even measure … and it had been stuffed into a thirteen-nearly-fourteen-year-old body, so that the universe-shattering Key was better known as ‘little-Dawn-who-has-to-be-rescued-every-Tuesday’. Because all that magickal mojo had no actual physical component: in every way that mattered, she was purely, ordinarily normal.

Or so she thought. Because, her first week of college, Dawn had discovered one little aspect of her nature that wasn’t ordinary: ridiculously quick recovery from certain, um, chemical overstimulations. As in, massive drinking (never try to drain an entire keg on a bet; the closer you come to winning, the worse you lose) produced a hangover that was horrendous in its intensity, but was over fast, a matter of twenty brutal minutes instead of hours of aching, muted misery. It also turned out to be true with less benign drugs, which was how 1) she’d got rid of her first roommate after that skank thought a bit of ketamine would “loosen her up”, and 2) an unscrupulous frat boy wound up with a dislocated jaw and a ruptured testicle when Dawn snapped out of the Rohypnol he’d dosed her with just as he was about to get down to (uggh) business.

This? Now? More like the K with the wooziness, more like the hangover with the pounding head and general awfulness. Dawn sagged in the chains that held her to the wall (chains? seriously? embrace the cliché, people), and tried to study her surroundings with something like professional detachment. Because she was a professional now: years spent studying to become and then operate as a Watcher, years spent learning how to research properly and fight bare-handed or with weapons, years becoming proficient in ancient and demon languages, years becoming not helpless and not a victim and not ordinary. She had made a name and a role and a reputation for herself, made herself someone that Slayers respected and even admired. She had outgrown her past, and now …

… now …

… now she’d been kidnapped again. Again! Of all the nerve! She was twenty-eight years old, this was her birthday, what kind of rude son of a bitch kidnapped a woman on her birthday? It was an outrage, it was intolerable —

Oh, hell. It was a Tuesday. Of course.

Control. Ignore the throbbing in her skull, that would pass. Don’t bother waiting for rescue, because 1) you didn’t want to pin your hopes on someone else finding you in time, and 2) she didn’t need rescuing, she was perfectly capable of saving herself and she’d kneecap anybody who said otherwise! Focus on the essentials: situation, physical status, location, possibilities. Assess, plan, act. Make it happen.

Location: this was no dank dungeon or even run-of-the-mill basement, but a closed and well-furnished room, like something you’d see in a tasteful mansion or a high-class country club. Physical status: feel awful, but everything works. Situation: drugged, obviously, though she didn’t remember it happening. Possibilities … yeah, this was where it got good.

At the age of sixteen (or three, since she’d been ‘created’ at not-quite-fourteen), Dawn had thought the universe had finally chosen her: Willow’s Potential-detection spell had flashed straight through her, and for a few hours Dawn had thought herself a Child of Destiny. Turned out to be a mistake, of course, which was actually for the best. If you were going to be Special, better to do it through your own efforts than have it depend on a roll of the cosmic dice. So, as her involvement as Slayer support deepened, Dawn had added other things to her accumulated repertoire. Though possessing no innate power — not like Willow or even Amy — she had discovered that her body had an affinity for magics, so even if she was no great shakes at actual spell-casting, it was possible to load spells into herself. Carefully selected and developed, incorporated into henna tattoos that she changed on a regular basis to keep herself ‘armed’ in a way that few people would even recognize.

Kidnapped, drugged, chained? Please. It was to laugh.

First, the chains. Dawn found the Spiral Dragon on her shoulder, stroked it while she Thought the trigger-word. This would loosen her muscles, make her joints flexible and the bones semi-elastic, she’d eel out of the shackles as easily as taking off her socks. Then would come testing the door, learning more about where she was being held —

Wait. She wasn’t flexible. She pulled, and her wrists caught on the cuffs of the shackles. Come on, damn it, she knew she’d done it right, but it wasn’t working, and she heaved and yanked at the chains in frustration and the bracket tore right out of the wall. Okay, piece of luck, they’d been in too much of a hurry when they installed it but she was still chained, she stood on the center links and pulled and strained again, if she tore skin getting out she’d just have to get healed once she was free but first she had to get out, and with a last desperate jerk she at last got her wrists out and through the cuffs.

Which had broken. What?

Okay, this was getting freaky. The cuffs were torn open, and one of the chain links had snapped. Was she having some weird reaction to whatever they’d used to drug her? No matter, think about it later, keep the momentum going. The door was unlocked, so she went through, moving softly and quickly. Hallways, yep a mansion and bigger than she had thought, this was like the downstairs servants’ passageways — or what she imagined those were like — there didn’t seem to be anyone around even though she was listening closely (and she was so amped up, she could swear she could almost hear the electricity running through the walls), so she’d regained consciousness faster than expected and if she was lucky she might make it out before her still-as-yet-unseen captors returned. She pushed on, losing her sense of direction in the rat’s-maze of corridors but looking for stairs or an outside doorway and bingo! there was a window set high and she could see the dim reflected light of a setting sun, this was her way out. Easy to get up there, she stroked the Snow Owl on her inner wrist and thought herself Light, she’d float right up there …

God damn it, no floating! Had the drug screwed her up so bad she couldn’t access ANY of her little tricks? She crouched and leaped, stretching, as if she would still make it happen, and she reached the window easily only it wasn’t floating, she’d simply jumped eight feet straight up like she was hopping over a curb. Whatever was going on had her thoroughly scrambled but, again, save it for later, she slipped the window catch and pushed it open, and seconds later she’d eased her way to the outside.

Gardens. Estate gardens. The shadows were falling deeper, the sun would be below the horizon in minutes — already it was blocked by the walls — so now she just had to find a way out of this part. Good so far, she moved swiftly while keeping an eye out for pursuit. Even confused and shaken by the malfunction of her secret arsenal, Dawn was feeling a growing optimism, time and speed were working in her favor now and she was determined to ride that wave while it lasted. Her body, too, was shaking off the last effects of drug residue, her head was clearing and her energy was growing like the acceleration of a Maserati, if she didn’t find a gate she’d just run up the walls, she felt that revved-up. Even while cautioning herself against overconfidence, she felt her hopes soar.

Then the vampire darted out to intercept her; definitely a vampire, nothing else moved like that. He was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, but he came at her like a charging leopard, and fear would have paralyzed her for at least an instant if she hadn’t been dealing with these things for, effectively, her entire life. She had a full third of a second before he reached her and this one had to work, it was almost bound into her essence, the Key by nature was pure so she stroked the Chalice and triggered Sanctify: for a few seconds her flesh would be almost as sacred as holy water, no vampire could bear the contact —

Notworkingnotworkingnotworking! His hands closed on her arm and shoulder, she wrenched herself desperately free and struck with a combination of instinct and trained reflex: raking her elbow down the center of his sternum (wouldn’t actually damage him, but the nerves were close to the skin there and the pain would make him jerk back) and then slamming a palm-heel thrust directly into his nose, angling upward, looking to shock and blind him while she made a break for any possible avenue of escape.

That was what was supposed to happen. Good technique, devastating against a human opponent and something a well-trained human could use against a vampire for a few moments of effect. What wasn’t supposed to happen was the crunch of cartilage in his breastbone, or for the palm-strike to break his neck. He dropped where he stood, and Dawn looked down at him for numb, bewildered seconds before breaking a branch off one of the decorative trees and driving the sharpened end of the break into his heart.

She was still struggling to understand when she heard the slapping sound of quick-and-dirty teleportation, and half a dozen Slayers fanned out to surround her and look outward for any threat, while Andrew tripped and fell and then pulled himself up, calling, “Dawn! Good, good, good! We figured you’d be okay, with a Slayer here to protect you, but we didn’t want to take any chances —”

Dawn simply stared at him. “What?” she said. The single syllable seemed to be the limits of her mental capacity right now.

“— we were doing a pull-out-all-the-stops continent-wide sweep for you, and then a new Slayer popped up in the screens, and that caught our attention, and then there you were right with her! So did she rescue you, or did you rescue her? ’cause it could absolutely go either way, we know the kind of stuff you can pull out of your hat …” He stopped, looked around. “Uh, where is she? We ’ported right here, because the two of you were together, it zeroed us in on the both of you, so … where is she? Really?”

And one of the other Slayers — Karen, Dawn remembered recruiting her three years ago — got it just as the awful possibility was beginning to come clear to Dawn herself, and she said to Andrew, “Oh, my God. You’re looking right at her.”

Andrew didn’t get it, Dawn could see that: looking from Dawn to Karen and around for the missing Slayer, then starting the whole process over. The others did, though, Dawn saw understanding and awe beginning to spread over their faces. It’s impossible, she thought dizzily, Slayers are never called before the age of fourteen or after twenty-five …

Except she was only just now fourteen, when you came right down to it: born in autumn of 2000, even if she could ‘remember’ the thirteen-some years before that, so even if she was physically pushing thirty she’d not actually entered the window of eligibility for the magic lottery till now, now, why now? “Slayers were never enchanters” … so everything she had learned, all the little extras she had incorporated into herself to make her extraordinary by her own achievements, had been casually wiped away, and now she was just one of a multitude of super-strong girls …

Most of the Slayers here knew her, for many of them she had been part of the team that explained to them the meaning of their own new calling, and they watched, expectantly, to see her response to her sudden elevation to the ranks of the true Sisterhood. Dawn looked back at them, to all these who would never be able to understand what she had lost, and said flatly, “Well, shit.”

[Dawn Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is, of course, the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.]

– February 2013 –

She hadn’t marked the beginning, hadn’t even recognized that anything was beginning. Her life had already led her through so many bizarre twists that the one cropping up unexpectedly during her junior year of college had been … okay, the most stomach-churning-out-of-this-world-insane-bizarre-EVER, but still, ultimately, one more on the list.

So, when did it actually begin? The day one of her longest-term remaining friends called her up, earnestly seeking advice and help in dealing with his beloved niece? The day her intimidatingly beautiful roommate (at Berkeley, Hearst College having proven both inhospitable and inadequate) stabbed a campus mugger with a sharpened length of wood, and then spent much of the next two weeks explaining — and then providing evidence for, and then conclusively demonstrating — how the dead man had dissolved into a shower of dust? The day she received an unexpected scholarship just after a grand jury had declined to return an indictment against her father (for tampering with evidence to cover her misdeeds)?

Or was it when a tattooed, shaven-headed poor-brown-trash gang kid had let slip that he had once loved Lilly Kane perhaps as much as she had?

She shouldn’t have had anything in common with Eli “Weevil” Navarro … shouldn’t have, and did. The deep wells of inner pain, and the adamantine refusal to allow anyone else ever to see that pain; the reality of being snubbed and marginalized by their “betters”, coupled with the relentless, scorching drive to show just who was better; the reluctance ever to trust another soul with their vulnerabilities, and deathless allegiance to the few who kept that trust regardless.

She had been a motherless daughter, an outcast, a rape victim, a detective, a mercenary, a blackmailer, an avenger. Then she had been a high school graduate, and a college student, and repeated a few of the prior roles before being an unpaid intern, and then a transfer student, and then an unwilling initiate into supernatural warfare, and then become an FBI agent. She had said goodbye to three men who loved her (and remained on tenuously good terms with only one of them); she had dealt dispassionately with rivals, admirers, and grateful clients (paying and otherwise), but retained only a very few actual friends.

In her brief life, Veronica Mars had worn many identities. Now, she was about to take on another.

If she would ever have sworn to one thing about herself, it would have been her inability to back down from any challenge. When Dawn Summers showed her the existence of a shadow world underlying the reality she had always taken for granted, however, Veronica found that this was a road she was unwilling to walk. The change required would have been just too huge, too absolute, a total reordering of everything. And so she had turned away: only after Dawn had explained, in detail, exactly how these demonic threats were being met and countered by supernaturally capable champions, but nonetheless she had turned away.

In the meanwhile, however, she had learned quite a bit about that world … and in the years since, without intending or desiring it, she had gradually learned more.

Now Ofelia Navarro, who Veronica had last seen as a happy eight-year-old at an amusement park, was apparently revealed as yet one more of those mystically appointed champions. How it had happened was still to be determined, but that it had happened seemed irrefutable. So: Ofelia the Slayer. An intense, adventurous life, and potentially a very short one, spent under the authority of these Watchers who observed and supported and trained and guided and …

… controlled …

Full stop. Because Veronica had undergone her own experiences with self-appointed authority figures who had been certain they were qualified to make important decisions for her. For her own good, of course. Even those who meant no harm, who truly DID have (or believed they had) her best interests at heart, weren’t to be trusted, because Veronica had never been willing to cede dominion of her own life to anyone other than herself.

The thought of such control being exercised over a group of young girls — brought home to her by the undeniable reality of one such girl that she actually knew — just made her skin crawl.

This wasn’t a challenge. It was an unsought and unwelcome duty. But this time, she couldn’t run away.

Her father had worried about her, she knew, since midway through high school. Loss and tragedy and betrayal and disillusionment had sharpened her, hardened her, made her pragmatic and ruthless and implacable in her resolve. He had feared, not that she would break, but that she might make the turn into full outlawry. He had been right to be concerned, but his love and his example and his own brand of ferocious determination had prevented the feared transformation from taking place.

She still had all those tools at hand, though.

Sitting at her desk in the office she would soon vacate, Veronica began to sketch out a series of notes. The responsibilities she was about to assume wouldn’t allow her to remain in the FBI, so she would have to turn in her resignation … but not before using her position to gather certain resources, information, and favors that she would need. The qualifications she had acquired over the years, the experience and the contacts — Graham Miller, Kate Lockley, Dawn herself — would make it ridiculously easy to acquire membership in this Watchers organization.

And once she got there …

Eli would be part of this, she knew already. Almost certainly not an official member of the Watchers himself, but she would find a role for him, to augment and enable his existing role of protective uncle. Ofelia Navarro would not find herself at the mercy of overlords who might or might not value the young girl who held the power of a Slayer; she would be watched by at least two people who put her first.

And, because there were so many other young girls who would need the same support, Veronica would have to find, and cautiously recruit, and invisibly direct, others who shared her priorities and dedication. Watchers within the Watchers, with a purpose that didn’t run counter to that of the larger group, so long as that larger group held to the ideals it claimed to represent.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? “Who will watch the watchers?” Veronica had heard the question posed many times, in many arguments (most devoted to theoretical principles), over many years. Now she faced that same question in an immediate and urgent context, one she couldn’t even wish to deny or ignore, and the answer was: I will.

She had no desire to oppose the Watchers … but if they ever proved unworthy of the trust that had been placed in them, they would find themselves confronted by an enemy they had no idea how to face.

She didn’t want this, but she was coldly determined to carry it through … and God help anyone who tried to stop her.

[Veronica Mars, Ofelia Navarro and Weevil Navarro (Veronica Mars) are the property of Rob Thomas, Rob Thomas Productions, and Warner Brothers Television.]

“Because we are, in a sense, substituting our judgment for that of whatever supernatural agency or process operates in the selection of Slayers,” Giles went on, “I prefer that we exercise utmost caution, both in activating those Potentials who declined the Slayer call or had it pass them by, and in assessing those active Slayers who might need to be … deactivated.” He looked around the room. “My thought is that, for such instances, we form an established, er, Committee for Decision, a council within the Council, of a composition very like that of this gathering.” He indicated himself. “A senior Watcher, if not always its current titular head.” A nod to Buffy: “A senior Slayer; no verdict should ever be rendered upon one of your number without there being a Slayer’s voice in that verdict.” A second nod toward Xander: “A senior member of the field support teams, those who have the deepest and most comprehensive experience in working side-by-side with Slayers.” A gesture that took in Willow and Salome: “Senior representatives of the traditional Coven — a voice outside the formal Council — and of the new-line enchanters directly affiliated with our organisation.” His gaze swung to Wendell Chu. “Wendell, I would most certainly wish you to be part of our initial organisation, but I’m not certain how I would describe your position, or if I would want it to become part of the formal arrangement. However much I value your individual judgment, I have reservations about establishing a permanent seat on this new group for, erm —”

“For bureaucratic bean-counters?” Chu’s smile was gentle and amused. “In that, we are quite in agreement, sir. I appreciate your trust, and I share your reservations. We shall have to proceed with care in this matter … Set one seat on the new Decision Committee for a delegate-at-large, perhaps?”

“A wild-card seat,” Salome mused. “That could be interesting. Maybe more than you reckoned with.”

Giles laughed softly, but before he could reply further, Buffy abruptly asked, “So, would Faith be eligible as the Slayer representative?”

He regarded her, one eyebrow raised. “I had presumed you would wish to hold that position.”

“I do,” Buffy said. “But we’re already looking ahead, trying to plan how it’ll work even when it isn’t us. And besides, I just want to know.”

“By right, she would be eligible,” Giles acknowledged. “On a practical basis, we would need to assess whether that would be a desirable approach.” He sighed. “Her past history …”

Xander nodded. “Issues,” he said.

“Gigantic issues,” Willow agreed. “So, what, you think she might go too easy on the bad girls?”

“It’s possible,” Giles admitted. “Or equally possible that her continuing desire for redemption might move her to be excessively harsh. Or even that her judgment would be irreproachable, but the fact of passing judgment would exact a disproportionate toll from her. We simply don’t know at this point, and those are considerations that must be addressed.”

“Okay,” Buffy said. Her eyes were downcast, and her hands moved restlessly on the arms of the chair. “Lots of things to work through, I get that.” She looked up, her mouth set. “But, basically, we’re doing this, right?”

Giles nodded. “I don’t see how we can avoid it,” he said. “Nor should we attempt to do so.”

“Genie’s out of the bottle,” Xander said, and stood up. “And we’re the ones who pulled the cork, so it’s on us to handle it.” He looked around at the others. “We have a responsibility: to the world, and to these girls. Whether we want it or not, it’s there, and I’m not about to turn it over to anybody else.”

He would set himself to war with the entire Council, Giles mused, studying the man before him, if he believed we were victimising these young women. The realisation was actually encouraging — he who had once been the Heart was now determined to serve as Conscience — but it would be best not to bring it to the attention of the current Council’s more bristly elements. “We do indeed bear a responsibility,” Giles said, “and I doubt any one of us is prepared to shirk it. So we have many things to consider, and guidelines to draw, and a proposal to be formed in such a manner as to persuade those in our consolidated organisation who cannot be directly commanded.”

He looked to each of them in turn, and in each face he saw acceptance and resolution. “The task before us will be long, arduous, and complex,” he announced. “Tonight is only a beginning.” He took a sip from the near-forgotten brandy. “All the same … it has begun.”