ORIGINALLY POSTED: February 15, 2003
AUTHOR: JK Philips
SUMMARY: Sequel to the Death Brings Clarity saga, now nearly ten years after The Fine Art of Blackmail. Giles wanted to prevent his daughter from inheriting her mother’s destiny. He wanted to give his son the choice he never had. He wanted Buffy to live a lifetime beside him. Fate had other plans...
SPOILERS: Everything up to “The Gift”
DISCLAIMER: I do not own these characters; they are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy & Fox. I simply am doing this for fun, and non-profit use.
EMAIL: . Feedback makes me giddy and my mother proud.
MY WEBSITE: www.jkphilips.com
---------------------------------------------------- Part 2: One Birth, One Death, and Two Twists of Fate Giles steeled himself for the chaos on the other side of the door before knocking. The Harris household was rarely a place of peace and tranquility. “Do we hafta sit with the boys?” Alex asked again. Dear Lord, the boy had mastered his mother’s pout and whine. “Yes, you’ll sit with the other children, and you’ll behave. And you’ll not incite them to cause mischief or fight amongst themselves. Don’t think for a second that I’m unaware who suggested the treasure hunt through their mother’s flowerbed during our last visit.” “I only said what if there was buried treasure. I didn’t tell them to dig up tulips looking for it.” “I shouldn’t have to sit with the boys,” Robin complained. “I’m a girl.” “Yes, a girl who must still sit at the children’s table.” He reached up and knocked on the door just as Willow came up the steps behind them. “Hey, kiddos!” “Aunt Willow!” The twins both launched themselves at her and tackled her in enthusiastic bear hugs. “Can we sit by you?” they asked simultaneously. “Sorry. No can do. John and April are supposed to come tonight, right?” She lifted her eyebrows in Giles’ direction, and he nodded. She continued with the guest list. “Wesley, me, your dad, possibly Lizzy, if she gets out of surgery in time, and oh yeah, Xander and Anya. Nope, the grownup table’s all full. You’re stuck at the kiddie table tonight.” They both groaned, and Giles shared a bemused grin with Willow before knocking on the door a second time, this time a bit louder and with his cane. “Just a sec, coming,” they heard from somewhere inside. Willow leaned over and whispered it to him conspiratorially, “So, you got any idea what the special occasion is?” Giles just shrugged. “Not in the slightest.” From between them, Alex piped up with his own opinion, “I bet they’re having another baby.” “Alex, shhh, be nice,” his father admonished him. The door opened then, Xander waving them in with a flourish, two-year-old Daniel slung against one hip, head tipping against his father’s shoulder and his eyes already drifting closed. “Someone’s ready for bed,” Giles observed, tickling the child beneath his chin and eliciting a sleepy grin. “Naptime was missed. I think Anya’s crankier about it than he is.” Xander passed the child over to Aunt Willow’s eager hands and led his guests into the dining room. “Where is everyone?” Willow asked, swaying with Daniel and softly patting the child’s back. She was so good with the children, Giles thought it was a shame she had never decided to have any of her own. Of course, Xander and Anya had graciously taken up the slack in that department. Not that they couldn’t afford it, what with Xander’s construction business booming and the Magic Box spawning franchises in three different cities. “Let’s see,” Xander answered. “The boys are out back. John and April are in the kitchen helping Anya with dinner. Actually, I think John’s cooking, and the women are supervising. Wes isn’t here yet. Hey, Will, is Lizzy coming?” “If she can. She’s supposed to be off at seven, but she has to finish an emergency procedure first.” “Hmmm… She rather suspiciously misses all of our Scooby get-togethers. I’m beginning to think this new girlfriend of yours is imaginary.” Willow rolled her eyes, but nonetheless took the bait. “She’s a doctor, Xander. She’s busy a lot. Which is okay, ’cause I’m not exactly drowning in free time either.” Xander surreptitiously inched his way towards the kitchen before replying. “Really, it’s cool, Will. Nick has an imaginary friend, too. Maybe they can sit together at the imaginary table.” She glared and waved a threatening fist at him. “If I wasn’t holding Danny right now, you’d be in big trouble, Mister.” He laughed and quickly ducked into the kitchen, leaving them to find their own seats for dinner. They filed into the formal dining room, the table already laid out with the appropriate number of place settings. Giles chose a seat nearest the door, expecting the room to eventually swell to near claustrophobic proportions and wanting to leave himself some breathing room. He stretched his legs out in front of him, grateful for the opportunity to get off his feet. His leg wasn’t bothering him as much as it had the day before, and he probably didn’t even need the cane. He’d done very little walking, the morning spent in the Council Library, cataloguing the items he had acquired during yesterday’s visit to LA, and the afternoon filled by meetings with various watchers and instructors, planning the next semester’s curriculum. Even so, his left leg ached. If he were honest with himself, it always ached after a day of even the most limited physical exertion, courtesy of Sulla’s past bullet wound, a full day of torture at Darla’s hands, and an unfortunate meeting with a mace-wielding vampire. He rubbed absently at his thigh, only to find his son’s fingers replacing his own, the boy gently massaging the stiffness from his muscles. Alex wouldn’t meet his eyes, however, and Giles wondered if he had been too harsh that morning when reprimanding him for the truancies and the lies told to excuse them. “You haven’t been to the therapist all month,” Alex mumbled, focused intently on his work. “There hasn’t been time,” Giles answered, relaxing slightly beneath his son’s nimble ministrations. He reached his hand out to touch Alex’s cheek, but the boy flinched back, his fingers dropping away. Giles sighed, the moment between them lost when the rest of the Harris brood flooded into the dining room, followed by their parents, and behind them John and April bearing dinner. There was Erik, eight years old, growing so quickly that he’d nearly reached Alex’s height, even though there were five years between them. Next came Nicholas, six years old, smart as a whip, with a penchant for disassembling things. Willow had him pegged for a watcher one day, a fact that didn’t seem to disturb Xander, but rather puffed him up with pride. Anders was next, four years old, fearless and determined to play the same games his older brothers did. That usually meant the child ended up as the test subject for whatever new sport they invented. He’d already had stitches twice this year. And then two-year-old Daniel, the baby of the family, had fallen fast asleep in his Aunt Willow’s arms. The nap didn’t last long, ended as soon as his brothers entered the dining room, pushing and shoving and arguing with each other at a high decibel level. Giles flinched as Anya shouted above the noise, ordering the three boys upstairs to wash their hands. Daniel started crying, and she collected him, placing him in a highchair at the end of the table and pacifying him with some goldfish crackers from her pocket. John and April laid the food on the table and took their places beside Giles. John winked at his friend and informed him in a soft voice, “You missed out. The kids were playing Council out back.” Giles raised one eyebrow, amused. “Really?” “Apparently it involved a lot of pretend sword fighting and fending off a siege of vampires. Sadly, you did not feature as the coveted role. They fought over who got to play Wesley.” Giles laughed and shook his head. “I don’t imagine stacks of paperwork and a schedule full of meetings makes for riveting playtime.” “Yes, well, you didn’t come in second, either. Stein had that honor. The loser had to play you.” John laughed hard then, elbowing his friend in the ribs as if to punctuate the joke. He took pity on Giles a moment later and tacked on, “If it makes you feel any better, only girls make up games revolving around second grade teachers. At least you’re a third rate superhero.” Giles smiled and rolled his eyes, thankful that he could enjoy such inside jokes with his friend. For so long, his life as a watcher and the existence of demons, slayers, and magic had remained a closely guarded secret from the Tims. But ever since they had accidentally stumbled upon this information, and he and Buffy had failed to adequately explain it away, John and April had joined the inner circle of Scoobies. There were times Giles missed their ignorance, missed having a relationship with “normal” people. Sometimes, though, it was nice not to lead a double life. And since April’s retirement from the force, she had proved invaluable as a profiler and security consultant for the Council. Xander’s boys, now washed up and clean, give or take a few grass stains on assorted knees and elbows, rejoined the group just as Wesley arrived, apologizing for his lateness. He laid a hand against the top of Robin’s head as he passed by, and she smiled up at him, following him with her eyes as he took a seat beside Willow. For a moment, Giles understood what Joyce had felt all those years ago after learning of slayers and vampires and what exactly the high school librarian meant to her daughter. Joyce had hated him, and for a fraction of a second, he hated Wesley, too. It didn’t matter that Giles owned a deeper understanding of watcher/slayer relationships than Buffy’s mother had. If anything, that made it worse, to know that one day Wesley would be closer to Robin than her own father ever could be. Giles took a sip of water and swallowed back his own jealousy. They ate dinner without incident. Aside from the occasional complaint that someone was kicking them under the table or had called someone else a rude name, the children behaved themselves. Lizzy was a no-show, as usual, which earned Willow further teasing. Dinner was excellent, the food thankfully more reminiscent of John’s cooking than Anya’s, although Giles had to admit that she had improved over the years. They reached the end of the meal, and Xander stood, calling for everyone’s attention. “We’re glad you could all come tonight. With the kind of work we all do, sometimes it takes a full house like this to remind me why we do it. And speaking of a full house, An and I have a special announcement.” She reached over and grasped his hand, beaming up at him. He smiled back at her, and she beat him to the punch. “We’re having another baby!” A stunned silence followed that news, quickly broken by Alex’s triumphant, “I told you so!” Murmured congratulations followed, then the required teasing and John’s protestations that he’d never get to retire if he waited for the last Harris child to pass through his classroom. Wesley lifted his glass, “To family, by blood or by choice.” They all agreed to the sentiment and clinked glasses. “There’s something else,” Xander added, sharing a significant look with his wife. She nodded and stood up beside him, wrapping her arm around his waist. She faced their assembled friends. “I really think that this time it will be a girl. I know I say that every time, but five boys would be a little ridiculous. And if it is a girl, Xander and I would like to name her Buffy.” The silence that followed that second announcement was more somber and reflective, the lighthearted mood quickly darkened by the reminder of who was missing from their celebration. All eyes turned to Giles. Anya tried to ease the tension with a frank explanation. “Buffy, because she was brave and smart and pretty, and because we all miss her. I’ve learned that humans use names to connect the past with the future, that doing so keeps the memories of loved ones alive. I think remembering Buffy would be good.” Xander patted her on the arm, his eyes still focused on Giles. “I think everyone gets that, An.” Giles glanced down, blinking rapidly to maintain control over his emotions. His eyes drifted over his plate and glass, focusing on the most trivial details: the pattern of rice left on his plate, the lines of sweat clinging to the side of his water glass. His fingers fidgeted nervously with his fork. “I think…” He cleared his throat, knowing they were all hanging on his next words, waiting for his reaction. “I think… I think I’m being paged.” He pulled the vibrating pager from his pocket, grateful for the distraction. His relief twisted into apprehension as soon as he’d registered the number on the display: the hospital. A quick phone call later, and he was headed towards the door, dispensing explanations and instructions as he went. “Faith is crashing. They can’t keep her airway clear. Willow, take the children for the night. I’ll call when I know more.” She blocked his departure, physically placing herself in his way. “What are you going to do? You can’t do anything. You’re not a doctor.” He saw it in her eyes, what she didn’t say: that it was time to give up, that it was a lost cause, that he was being unreasonable in hoping he could do anything to prevent Robin’s Calling. He grabbed Willow by the shoulders and forcibly removed her from the doorway, answering sharply, “I can bloody well keep the staff from playing angel of mercy.” She didn’t give up, close on his heels as he snapped up his cane and strode to the door. “They wouldn’t, would they? I mean, they can’t just let her die. They have an oath and stuff.” “The doctors have been hounding me for weeks to withdraw her life support,” he grumbled. “Every bloody doctor and nurse in the whole bloody hospital has talked with me about organ donation and DNR orders at least twice. I wouldn’t put it past any of them to do her a ‘favor.’ All it takes is a moment, Willow. Her heart stops beating for even a moment, and it’s finished.” “Maybe it should be finished,” Willow ventured. “Maybe you should let her die.” “I’m not having this conversation with you right now.” He paused at the front door, not facing her, not trusting himself to face her at that exact moment. “Please see that my children are looked after until I return.” It would have been satisfying to slam the door on the way out, but since he had already lectured his son on that very topic earlier in the day, it seemed unwise. Giles tapped his cane against the pavement as he walked to his car, praying to every known deity that his daughter would not become the Slayer tonight. *** Robin felt the emotional turmoil her father left in his wake. It was like a vacuum had sucked all the air from the room until no one could move, no one could breathe. She thought she might keel over and faint right there on the spot, and wouldn’t that be embarrassing? Everyone was staring at her, her brother included. He touched her softly and said her name, but she shrugged him off. He didn’t understand. He couldn’t. He hadn’t had this destiny hanging over his head for the past ten years. Nobody understood. She would make a rotten slayer, and people would die, and it would be all her fault. People had already died. And that was her fault, too. “I have cake,” Anya offered. “With three color ice cream. Would you like some cake, Robin?” “I want to go home,” she whispered. “Okay,” Willow answered. “Just let me get my-” “No!” Robin’s eyes sought out her watcher, pleading with him. “I don’t want to go to Aunt Willow’s. I want to go to my home. I want Wesley to take me.” Wesley nodded, waved off any further argument from the others, and escorted the twins back to their house. He kept glancing in the rear view mirror on the drive home, watching her expectantly, like he might be able to see the change when it happened. Robin closed her eyes and rested her head against her brother’s shoulder. Thankfully, no one tried to make her talk. Wesley sent Alex upstairs almost as soon as they’d gotten in the front door, for reasons that were pretty clear to everyone involved. Watcher and potential slayer stood in the foyer for several long, awkward moments, avoiding eye contact with each other. She knew he was waiting for her to confide in him, was making himself available to listen and to help in anyway he could. At the moment, the only person who could help her was one Ethan Rayne, and her time for miracles was quickly running short. “I don’t wanna talk about it,” she insisted finally. “It might help.” She shook her head. “I just wanna be left alone.” He glanced off to the side, as if peering back into the past. She could tell he was gearing up to make some grand confession to her. He did that sometimes, as if by baring his soul, he made it easier for her to do the same. “I have some idea of what it’s like, Robin, when everyone’s expectations of you are so high that you can’t possibly measure up. I was a complete failure as a watcher my first time around. Eighteen generations of watchers on my mother’s side, and my father’s side traced back practically to the beginning.” He gave a short, bitter, self-deprecating laugh that made Robin shiver. “I’d study to exhaustion every night, and still it wasn’t enough for my father.” “My father would never-” “No, of course not.” He met her eyes quickly, a comforting hand darting out to squeeze her shoulder. “Your father’s feelings for you will never change. But sometimes it hurts worse when we disappoint ourselves.” She sucked in a deep breath, like he’d punched her in the gut. She could feel the tears stinging behind her eyes. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. You won’t stop if you start now. He waited for a moment, measuring out her reaction before continuing. “I can offer you this: destinies are a bit like hand-me-downs. They never fit at first, and they never feel like yours, but in time you do grow into them and make them yours. You just have to allow yourself that period of adjustment.” “I said I don’t wanna talk about it,” she reminded him fiercely, and then bolted up the stairs, slamming her bedroom door behind her. Wesley would think she was sobbing in her room, which was okay with her if it meant he would leave her alone. He never seemed to know what to do with her when she was crying, like he wanted to gather her up in his arms and hold her ’til her tears were spent, only he had an invisible wall between them that didn’t permit it. Old school watcher, Alex had said once. He’d read about it and told her the stories, how watchers had once preached emotional distance from their slayers, how they had once thought of them almost as disposable weapons, relentlessly training them and then sending them out to die. But that didn’t fit her watcher either. That may have been his training, but she’d overheard the arguments he had sometimes with her father, when they both thought she was out of earshot. Her father would throw it in Wesley’s face, “She’s my daughter, and I’ll decide what’s best for her.” And Wesley would answer back with equal passion, “Yes, but she’s my slayer.” It was the way he always said it, the raw, unquestionable claiming in his voice. She was his slayer. No emotional distance there. She was not an instrument, a weapon, she was everything to him, just like her mother had been everything to her father. Robin wondered briefly if her watcher would be disappointed by what his slayer did next. *** The buzzer rang. Ethan, who couldn’t be bothered with crossing over to the intercom, simply waved his hand to magic the outside door open. Willow would scold him for such frivolous use of power surely, but she would forgive him as soon as he tipped her off to a young mage he’d recently encountered in Madrid. The lad had been meticulous, self-righteous, disgustingly honorable, and all-in-all pathetically boring. It was as if he’d already received his education from Ripper’s new Watchers’ Academy. A polite knock on the apartment door followed a few moments later, and Ethan jumped to his feet. Willow never needed to knock, and no one else knew that he kept a flat in Sunnydale. Then again, anything with a wicked grudge and a thirst for blood wouldn’t be likely to knock either, so he took his chances on opening the door. “Mr. Rayne, sir?” the young girl standing in the hallway asked nervously. A charming smile slowly spread across his face. Ah, the joys of Chaos that made life so deliciously unpredictable. Even if he hadn’t seen the pictures Ripper had so proudly shown off back when they were still on speaking terms, Ethan would have recognized the girl as a younger version of Buffy in a flat second. But what Giles’ little girl was doing on his doorstep, Ethan hadn’t a clue. And therein lay the fun. “I must say, it’s a bit early for Girl Scout cookies,” he tossed off. “I’m not a Girl Scout.” “You’re a bit young to be selling anything else.” She squirmed beneath his gaze, glancing nervously to the side as if mapping out her possible exits. “My name is Robin Giles, sir.” “So polite. You should’ve heard the mouth your father had on him when he was your age.” Ethan sighed and stepped aside, holding the door open. If he baited her any longer, she’d likely bolt. “Won’t you please come in, Miss Giles.” She marched inside, puffed full of false bravado. She informed him knowingly, “You shouldn’t give out verbal invitations like that. I might have been a vampire.” “A vampire your size… I think I’d manage to land on top.” He slipped into the kitchen to pour them both something to drink. If she wanted to insist on this pretense of social niceties, then he could play host in this particular scenario. Except that a closer inspection of his refrigerator found nothing safe for human consumption. Well, what did he expect after more than a month of traveling? These things didn’t refill themselves, at least not in any sort of reliable manner. He’d tried a spell once and come home to a refrigerator overflowing with olives, eggs, strawberry jell-o, and curdled milk. The liquor cabinet was still adequately stocked, but that was hardly useful. He settled for two glasses of water from the tap and joined his young guest in the main room. She jumped back guiltily as he entered, having been absorbed in inspecting his collection of books and trinkets. “Thank you,” she answered primly as he passed her a glass. They sat together on the couch, sipping water and looking anywhere but at each other. She seemed fascinated by his statue collection. Some of the figurines were not exactly age appropriate. “You do magic?” she asked him finally. “More often than I should, according to your father. Who, by the way, I’m assuming is completely ignorant of your presence here?” “He’s at the hospital with Faith. I snuck out the bedroom window.” “Ah.” Ethan clucked his tongue in mock disapproval and set his glass on the end table. “I hope your visit is more than simple curiosity. Else you’re wasting my time and liable to incur my wrath. I could turn you into a pretty little songbird to sit in my window, you know? Or maybe a toad. Always a classic.” She swallowed audibly, her eyes wide as saucers, and he bit his lip not to laugh at her. “You wouldn’t.” Her voice didn’t sound as certain as her words would suggest. “You’re friends with my father and Aunt Willow.” “With Willow, perhaps. Your father didn’t appreciate my last bit of mischief. Soured him on our friendship for good, I’m afraid.” “You like doing magic, don’t you?” she ventured. “You’re not as serious about it as Father. He never jokes about turning people into things.” “He never jokes about much of anything, I’d wager.” Ethan leaned closer and lowered his voice as if they might be overheard. “He didn’t always used to be so serious, you know. He used to be a lot more reckless and a helluva lot less boring.” He sighed wistfully. “Good times.” He stood up abruptly, shaking off that train of thought. He spread his hands wide and summarized the rest, “But we both got burned by it once… seems like a lifetime ago. Ever since then, I’ve spent my life devoted to magic, and he’s spent his avoiding its use at all costs.” “I have magic,” Robin offered eagerly. “Do you now?” “Yes, but Father and Willow locked it away.” Ethan shook his head disapprovingly. “He does seem rather fond of doing that.” He ignored her curious expression, not wanting to explain to the girl how Willow had once found herself in a similar predicament, nor how he had rescued her from it. A story for another time. He was far more interested in the story Robin was about to tell him. He crossed his arms and looked down on her very seriously. “Let’s stop beating around the bush, shall we? You came to see me, Robin, because I do magic and because you’re hoping I’ll lift your father’s spell. And you’re hoping I might even teach you how to do some magic yourself.” Not a question, she nodded in answer all the same. “How’d you guess?” “I’m exceedingly clever.” Her goal hadn’t been that difficult to puzzle out. Her questions had led him to the obvious conclusion. Only one thing he hadn’t figured out yet, however. “Why?” “Why what?” “Why do you want your magic?” She shrugged and ducked her head, her cheeks flushed. Whatever her answer, it was definitely more than simple curiosity. He sat on the coffee table across from her, his knees barely brushing against hers. He watched and waited patiently for her to lift her eyes. When she did, he informed her honestly, “You know your father’s not speaking to me. Whatever you tell me, it’d never get back to him.” She measured him with her eyes, weighing the man before her against the one she’d heard stories about. People tended to trust him on first meeting. It was only later that they figured out their mistake. Apparently, the charming man sitting across from her won out over the specter of Ethan Rayne, Chaos worshipper, and she decided to trust him. Leaning forward slightly, she divulged her plan in a breathy whisper. “I’m going to do a spell, a spell to not be the Slayer.” “To not be the Slayer?” She nodded and continued on in the same secretive whisper. “Faith’ll die soon, and I don’t wanna be Called.” “Do you know of such a spell?” he asked her, eyes narrowed doubtfully. “No, but there has to be one, doesn’t there? There’s always a spell for everything.” “Maybe,” he answered noncommittally. “But even if there were… You can’t do the spell yourself.” “Why not?” She raised her voice then, the conspiratorial whisper forgotten. “Wesley said my magic is really strong. That’s why they had to lock it away.” “Maybe. But you also have no clue how to use it. Anything could happen if you tried something of this level. Not that I don’t appreciate the unpredictability of the situation... But there are other considerations. Your father would sense the magic on you the minute you got home. More importantly, he’d know I had a hand in it. You ever see your father angry?” She nodded emphatically. “Yeah. Lots. Especially since Mom died.” “I guarantee you haven’t seen him angry like I have. If I cast a spell on you, you can bet I’d be having tea with your mum before the day was out.” “He wouldn’t kill you,” she said with conviction. “Maybe not, but he wouldn’t hesitate to kick the crap out of me.” Robin giggled, and he flashed her a wry grin in return. He stood and began pacing the small apartment, hands in his pockets, as he worked out a solution to the problem she’d sought his help for, also taking into consideration any possible personal benefits he might reap as a consequence. “Sneak out again tomorrow,” he told her. “Come back here, and I’ll take you to someone who can do the spell, someone your father won’t recognize, and more importantly: someone he won’t connect to me.” “Faith could die before tomorrow!” Robin protested. “True. Then again she might not, or the spell might not exist, or it might backfire, or you might get caught sneaking out the window.” He knelt in front of her and imparted to her the hard won wisdom of his life with a solemnity unlike the trickster they all thought him to be. “Control is an illusion, Robin. Always. It is something your father will never be able to teach you, something he has never been able to accept. Learn this lesson, and you’ll avoid the baggage he’s lugged around his whole life. “You can’t control what happens. You can’t force the universe to give you the ending you want. It’s called Chaos, Robin, and it’s bigger than you or me. We can roll the dice. We can try for a spell tomorrow, but in the end, it’s up to Chaos whether you’re Chosen or not. Sometimes that seems unfair, but sometimes it’s a blessing. Sometimes it absolves us of guilt or blame. We can’t control the ending we get, and so we are not ultimately responsible for it. Do you understand?” Her unwavering blue eyes focused on him and reflected back wisdom and sadness beyond her years. Eyes of a Slayer. Giles had tried to explain it once, how Buffy’s life as a slayer had matured her more quickly, had transformed her from student to equal until the age difference between them was gone. Ethan had always thought his friend was rationalizing himself out of the cradle robbing role, but looking into Robin’s thirteen-year-old eyes, Ethan shuddered and finally understood what Giles had been rambling on about. “But sometimes things are our fault,” she assured him calmly. “Even if you don’t mean for them to happen, sometimes they’re still your fault.” Ethan knew the circumstances of her mother’s death. He knew that just as her father had shouldered the guilt for Randall’s death, Robin now claimed the blame for her mother’s. It amazed him that enough guilt remained to go around, since he knew for a fact that Ripper zealously clung to more than his fair share for Buffy’s tragic end. Ethan sighed. It was a losing battle, he knew. The Giles’ genes seemed to carry an extra martyr chromosome, but Robin was such a pathetic sight, he had to at least try. “Just because things end badly, luv, doesn’t mean you’re responsible for how they end. We don’t get to see all the ‘what-might-have-beens.’ For all you know, the alternatives were worse.” Stubborn as her father and mother put together, which was definitely saying something, Robin remained unmoved by his words. Ethan bowed his head, conceding defeat for the moment. “Come back tomorrow, and I’ll hopefully have something for you.” “Thank you, sir,” she answered formally and showed herself to the door. *** “So you managed to buy Faith another day.” “More than that, I hope.” Buffy paused in her digging and brushed the dirt off her hands. She squinted up at him, the sun bright in her eyes. “And where was Robin while you were off intimidating doctors?” “Wesley took the children home.” “Ah.” She nodded her comprehension and resumed digging with her hands, thin rivulets of sweat trickling down the back of her neck and sticking loose strands of hair to her skin. “Because who she needed right then was her watcher, right?” Giles shifted his weight and his cane to his other side. “Buffy, please. I can’t be everywhere at once.” She reached her arms out for the young sapling, and he passed it to her. “You know, my father used to say that exact same thing to me all the time.” He bristled, answering back harshly, “I am not your father! Don’t you dare compare me to him.” “Ooo, struck a nerve, did I?” She undid the canvas wrapped around the roots and nestled them gently in the open earth. “Am I allowed to compare you to your father?” “You never knew my father.” She shrugged, scooping up handfuls of dirt and packing them around the tender roots. “Yeah, well I’m dead now, so I guess I get to be uber-knowledge gal and know everything.” She waved him closer. “Here, hold the tree steady while I finish filling in the hole.” It then registered on him what exactly they were doing, and he was momentarily distracted from their previous argument. “Buffy, why are you planting this tree here?” “You got a better spot picked out?” He scanned the horizon and the gently sloping hills of the meadow surrounding them, double-checking their position against his memories. “Well, no… It’s just… Every other time I visit you, this tree’s already grown. I mean, we often sit under it.” Packing down the last of the topsoil neatly, she surveyed her work with satisfaction before climbing back to her feet. She brushed dirt off her knees and hands. “So if I don’t plant it now, how we gonna sit under it?” “But we already have done!” he insisted. “Right,” she agreed. “And everything has to start somewhere.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and drew a deep, calming breath. “Yes, but things usually start in the past. Life is rather linear that way.” “Ten points for my watcher.” Buffy beamed up at him and rocked up on her toes to give him a peck on the cheek. “Usually, but not always. Something’s coming, Giles. I know, because it already came, and pretty soon we’re gonna be at the beginning of it all, and considering how it already turned out… I just think you might need a little guiding hand is all. Guess that makes me your Obi Wan, which is kind of an ironic role reversal, don’t ya think?” “Are you speaking English?” “Giles, Giles, Giles.” She looped an arm through his and started walking him down off their hilltop. Back down through the meadow, back down towards the valley. He dug his heels in. “Not tonight, Buffy. Please.” “When, Giles?” “Not tonight.” He felt her head against his shoulder, smelled the clean scent of her hair. A cool breeze played across their faces. Rain was coming. “Okay, Watcher-mine. Not tonight.” *** Thumbprint of blood on the forehead. “Mind.” Swath of red across the chest. “Heart.” Dipping a finger into the sticky blood once more, another mark dotted one palm. “Hand.” Blood on the other palm. “Shield.” Tossing a fistful of glitter in the air, a shower of gold dissolved in a burst of magic. “Watcher.” Polite applause followed, and the young man marked in blood smiled proudly. Someone snapped a photograph. A mob of well-wishers circled round to shake his hand. Willow got up off her knees, still a bit wobbly on her feet after the spell. A strong hand at her elbow held her steady. “Ack!” she complained, ruffling her fingers through her hair. “Next time, you do the spell. I’ll be washing glitter out of my hair for the next three days.” “I’m an old man,” Giles protested. “The magic takes too much out of me these days.” “Liar.” Wesley joined them at Willow’s other side. “Should be enough that we donate the blood. We shouldn’t have to do the spell, too.” “Hear, hear,” Giles agreed. “Besides, you look so lovely in all the photos.” “Well, Ahmed was my recruit,” Willow boasted proudly. “Guess it wouldn’t be right for anyone else to initiate him.” The subject of their conversation joined them a moment later, shirt now buttoned up to the neck, the marks of blood from the ceremony still visible on his forehead and palms. “Welcome to the ranks of Watchers, Ahmed.” Giles offered out his hand, and the young man grasped it reverently in a two-handed grip. “Thank you. Thank you, sir. It’s truly an honor. An honor, Mr. Giles.” Poor Giles looked as if he was about to have his arm shaken right off his body. Willow rescued him by distracting Ahmed. She licked her thumb and attempted to scrub off the mark of blood on his forehead. He batted her hand away before she could finish. She considered it part of her job description to keep the watchers unstuffy. “I have a few potential slayers I’d like you to visit,” Giles continued. “See if any of them click. They’re just young children of course… one is just a baby… But now that you have our watchers’ blood in you, now that you are truly a watcher, you should feel the pull if any of them are meant to be your slayer.” “My slayer,” Ahmed echoed with a note of wonder. “Do their families know what they are?” “The family of the eldest does. Stein spoke with them just before the girl entered school this fall. And the Watchers’ Council gained custody of one of the younger ones after her parents died in an automobile accident. We’ll have to arrange a chance meeting for the other girls who are still in the dark.” “Piece of cake,” Stein assured them, swaggering over to join the group. “We’ll send him in to read the water meter or fill in at one of the day care centers or something. Standard fare.” He offered out a congratulatory handshake to the new initiate. “Welcome to the club. You report to me now, so whatever slacking Willow let you get away with before won’t cut it anymore.” Ahmed sputtered something unintelligible, and Willow leaned forward to inform him quietly, “He’s kidding. If he ever comes down too hard on you, you just remember that I have an in with the big boss.” She winked and sent the flustered young man off for punch and cake before he could be intimidated further. “And you!” She whacked Stein in the arm. “You can wait a day at least before you scare him senseless.” He rolled his eyes. “Anyone who scares that easily would never have made it this far, and for good reason. Besides, a little fear can be an asset to a watcher. Keeps them from taking the kind of foolish risks that might put them on the wrong end of a swinging mace.” Stein’s gaze slid down the length of Giles’ lame leg as he said it, a smug smile on his lips. No one outside the inner circle could ever hope to get away with such blatant goading. Very few inside the inner circle would attempt it either. Willow was sure she would have got an earful if she’d made the same comment. But as it was Stein who’d said it, Giles only smiled thinly and replied, “Next time I’ll simply die and save you the bother.” The two men laughed loudly at that, an inside joke completely lost on anyone else. Willow knew that Stein had saved Giles’ life that day, and that Giles had left Stein in charge of the Council while he recuperated, never fully taking back the reins. Stein would head the Council when Giles stepped down. It wasn’t official or even common knowledge yet, but Willow had been part of the discussion, had in fact turned down the position herself. Wesley couldn’t accept, not with a slayer assigned to him, a slayer who would, in all likelihood, be the next Slayer. So Stein was the next logical candidate, and he had found no slayer of his own, not in all these years, almost as if he had known he was meant for this instead. Stein had been in the first group of new watchers, the very first they’d tried the spell on, in fact. A bit of Giles’ and Wesley’s blood, injected with magic, to give each new recruit whatever it was that had made the watcher bloodlines so unique, whatever it was that Sabrina had tried to steal with Camela’s sword, whatever it was that had allowed them to find their slayers and perform their sacred duty. Steadily, Giles had slowly begun to replenish the pool of watchers in this way. Stein had come to them through Winifred, who had met him at a physics symposium. His real name was something plain, something Willow had possibly never been told and certainly could not recall. By then he’d been called the next Einstein for so long, since his second year at graduate school, that the name just stuck. Stein O’Neal. No one in Sunnydale knew him by anything else. The name was not undeserved. Willow found she had competition for once: someone who could surpass her in academics, who could equal her in computers. Sometimes, when he talked about super string theory, she knew how other people must have felt around her on occasion. Xander thrilled at the opportunity to finally see her glassy eyed stare. She had Stein beat in the magic department at least, and yet he could put her on the defensive, even there. He had been the hardest sell of any recruit. Usually it was a Matrix deal: vampires and demons are real. Red pill, blue pill, which is it gonna be? Go back home or join our fight? He had stayed, but she wondered if he ever truly believed. From the moment she’d seen her childhood friend, Jesse, dragged off by vampires, gotten bit herself and then saved by some quick dusting on Buffy’s part, Willow had needed no further convincing. She had soaked it all in: the books, the magic, the monsters, and the prophecies. She had accepted it all. Stein challenged everything. As his instructor, Willow had needed to do more than teach the magic, she’d needed to prove the magic. It wasn’t enough for him to know how to do the spell; he needed to understand why it worked in the first place. And those were the answers she just didn’t have for him. Somehow, that made her feel inadequate next to him, even when she possessed the superior knowledge and skills. “Faith?” Stein lowered his voice, leaning closer to Giles. Wesley and Willow each stepped nearer, closing ranks and shielding the conversation from eavesdroppers. Giles shook his head solemnly. “One system after another is shutting down. The doctors say it would take a miracle to keep her going much longer.” A deep breath, and he squared his shoulders, as if refusing to give in to despair. He tapped his cane twice to emphasize his next words. “Not that we haven’t had a last minute miracle before. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He slipped past them and walked off to mingle with another group of watchers, not giving anyone time for a pessimistic reply. Wesley, Willow, and Stein shared significant, worried looks. “He’s in denial,” Wesley concluded. “Big time,” Willow agreed. “I’m thinking he invented denial, patented it, and gets royalties every time someone refuses to see the obvious.” “Someone should speak to him,” Stein suggested. “Make him see that this is hopeless. Pull the plug, deal, and move on. We’re more than a month without a slayer as it is.” “And we’ll be another two years without one even so,” Wesley reminded him. Stein threw his fellow watcher a skeptical glare. “Something tells me he might make an exception for any impending apocalypses. You wouldn’t have any reservations about turning her loose before fifteen, would you?” Wesley fidgeted for a moment before meeting the other man’s stare. “As her watcher, I would prefer not to. However… in the event it becomes necessary, I have stepped up her training as much as I can.” “As much as he’ll allow you to, you mean,” Stein corrected. “Let’s all be honest with each other here. She’s his blind spot. It’s understandable. He’s her father. But that’s exactly why he shouldn’t be in charge of these decisions.” “And you should?” Willow crossed her arms. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Wesley gearing up to step between them. “Look, I’ve tried talking to him, and I’ll talk to him again. But if you’re planning mutiny here, you might just end up the one who’s ousted, Buster.” She wanted to poke him in the chest to punctuate ‘Buster,’ but he had a very muscular chest and was very much larger than her. She chickened out and settled for jutting her chin out defiantly. Wesley wasn’t needed to play peacemaker. Stein backed down of his own accord. Hands held out to offer a truce, he assured her, “No one’s suggesting mutiny; just a conversation, an attempt to help him see reality. And you probably have a better shot of getting through to him than either of us.” “Alright.” Willow reluctantly let her guard down, uncrossing her arms and relaxing her stance. “I’ll take another crack at it. Tomorrow. Right now, I’m going to have a drink, possibly with alcohol, then a large slice of cake with extra frosting, and possibly start up a rousing game of Pictionary. I’m going to have some fun, dammit, and I’m going to make everyone else have some too!” She turned on her heel and set off to do just that. *** Robin straddled the windowsill, waiting for her nerves to settle. Her heart was pounding, her face flush with guilt. She never broke rules, not like this, not in a very long time. Sneaking out after dark two nights in a row to work magic no one would approve of… But she was more afraid of being Called than she was of being caught. Screwing up her courage, she swung her other leg over, feet dangling out over the two-story drop. Don’t look down. Too late. She couldn’t believe her brother actually liked climbing. She reached for the nearest branch, bark scraping against her skin. “Where do you think you’re going?” She missed her grab and wobbled off balance for a moment, snatching the window frame with her other hand to steady herself. “Alex!” Her voice was a shouted whisper, sharp enough to emphasize her irritation without being loud enough to raise an alarm downstairs. “Same place you snuck out to last night?” he guessed. “So what if it is? How’s it any of your business?” He had shut the door behind him and kept his voice hushed as well. He had no desire to involve any authority figures. After all, she could get him in far more trouble than he could ever get her. “Because I covered for you last night, and I’ll probably have to cover for you again tonight.” Her attitude softened. “You covered for me?” “’Course I did.” He climbed up to sit on the windowsill beside her. “Why you doing this? Sneaking off?” “I told you before: I don’t wanna be the next Slayer. He promised to help me do a spell so I won’t be.” “Yeah, but I didn’t think you’d really do it.” Alex frowned, and Robin felt her stomach knot up. He was the last person she would have expected disappointment from. “And if you’re not Called, who will be? Huh, Robin? You think about that?” “I don’t know, and I don’t care, as long as it’s not me. As long as it’s never me. Please, just this once? You’ll never have to cover for me again. I swear. Tell Uncle John... tell him I’m tired after training and went to sleep early.” She could tell he had his doubts. Their sudden role reversal had him off balance. But in the end, he relented. “Be careful. It’s after dark. Dad’ll kill me if you get nicked by a vampire. And when you get back, I want to hear everything.” He offered her a helping hand as she clambered out onto the tree branch and then stood vigil until she’d landed safely on the ground. She waved goodbye to him before setting off. She checked her watch. Her father wouldn’t be back from the initiation ceremony until at least eleven o’clock. She took a deep breath. Plenty of time…. Ethan was waiting for her outside his apartment, sitting on the curb and smoking a cigarette. “I’d offer you one,” he assured her, “but I believe I’ll be corrupting you enough for one night with just the magic.” He did offer her a can of soda, however, as he casually strolled past her, heading away from the main part of town and obviously expecting her to follow. “It’s a bit of a walk. I hope you’re up for it.” “So there is a spell?” she asked eagerly, jogging slightly to keep pace with his longer strides. “I think it should do the trick. Granted, the witch is rather ancient and senile, so it might amount to nothing.” That didn’t inspire her confidence. “Couldn’t you please do the spell?” “Ha! Unfortunately, I’ve grown rather attached to all my limbs. I’d prefer they stay attached. That means your father’s not to sense a drop of my magic on you.” He paused to stamp out his cigarette butt and pull out his own can of soda from his jacket pocket. He popped the top and continued walking, slowing his pace slightly to accommodate her. She tried to engage him in conversation, but he seemed too preoccupied with navigating their route to pay her any mind. Sometimes he’d reach out with one hand and close his eyes, as if feeling for an invisible something beyond her awareness. That meant they were probably going somewhere that was cloaked, somewhere you couldn’t get to in the ordinary fashion. She shrugged and drank her own pop, shadowing him silently as he led her further and further from home. It seemed like they walked for hours, which couldn’t be right, because they never actually got past the city limits. Heavy. Her feet were getting heavier and heavier with each step. Ethan didn’t seem to notice until he’d gotten a half block ahead of her. He stopped then to let her catch up, but by that point her feet had planted themselves where she stood. Too tired. Too tired to move. As a little girl, she would lift up her arms for her father to carry her. She’d wake when her head touched the pillow, and he’d kiss her on the forehead, and all her fears would be banished. He’d been Giles to her then, not Father. Other little girls had Daddies- she’d had one once, too- but she was the only little girl in the whole world who had a Giles, and she liked it that way. Fire. Smoke. Sirens. Huddled in terror until he appeared like some angel to rescue her. She still remembered that day. She still dreamt about it sometimes, nightmares painted with splattered blood and muffled screams. She would wake curled up in the corner of her bed with tears drying on her cheeks. The smell of burnt toast in the morning would send her retching into the bathroom. The can of pop slipped through her fingers, bounced across the ground twice, and then rolled. Ethan was at her side now, asking her something. She heard only half of each word, like phoning her grandparents in Spain and getting a really bad connection. Her eyes followed the rolling can of pop, the word Coke appearing and disappearing over and over again until it dropped over the curb and came to rest in the gutter. “Drugged,” she managed, though her tongue felt as if it was growing too big for her mouth. The whole situation struck her as funny, and she started to giggle uncontrollably. Ethan grabbed her by the shoulders, twisting her to get a good look in her eyes. He was still trying to talk to her in disjointed syllables. She recognized her name. She clung to him to keep from toppling over. “Why?” she demanded. She’d trusted him. Why had he done this? He eased her to the ground as her knees gave way. His lips were moving, but the sound didn’t match. A poorly dubbed movie in a language she didn’t understand. Desperately, she grabbed him by his shirtfront and forced the words out. “Alex knows. Tell Father.” Alex knew she’d gone to Ethan. If she didn’t come home, he’d tell. And her father would come. Giles would come. Ethan lifted her up into his arms, strong arms like her father’s. Her head lolled side to side, finally resting wearily against his shoulder. Eyes blinked in an effort to remain open, vision blurring. Her heartbeat thudded loudly in her own ears. The heartbeat became drums. Drumming, drumming, thrumming in time to her beating heart. Beneath the steady rhythm was only wind, wind across wide open spaces. She opened her eyes. All was bright. The ground was soft and yielding beneath her, her fingers sinking into sand as she sat up. An ocean of the stuff surrounded her in all directions, small islands of dry brush the only thing breaking up the endless horizon. “Where am I?” She caught movement from the corner of her eye, but when she turned there was nothing. “Hello?” She started walking, the terrain never changing beneath her feet, the sky never changing above her. She shielded her eyes with one hand against the sun. And then she felt it, a presence behind her. Spider sense, her mother would have said. “No. Choice!” The voice was deep, guttural, and angry, each word forced out with great effort. Robin spun and caught a flash of a black woman, white paint smeared across her face and arms, crouched down, moving on all fours, stalking her like a cat. Another flash, and there was only sand where she had been a moment before. “Really disappointing, B.” Robin whipped around again. Faith and Buffy had replaced the desert scene like a mirage solidifying into an oasis. They were standing in the kitchen at home. The counters and floor were draped with cloth, and the two slayers were diligently painting the walls red. Buffy stepped back and surveyed their work, offering her own opinion. “I don’t know. I kinda like it. I mean, if you can’t get the blood out, might as well make sure it doesn’t show.” “Not what I’m talkin’ about.” Faith wasn’t admiring the walls, she was looking straight at Robin. “I meant… You think your kid’s gonna be a chip off the old block, then bam!” Faith punched her fist in emphasis. “Disappointment. And you wonder what went wrong. She couldn’t have got that yellow streak from you. Not in a million years. Even Giles’s got the stones. So how’d the pair of you whelp such a whiny little weakling?” “Oh that.” Buffy shrugged and slapped red paint on the window panes, carelessly splattering it on herself as well. The light through the glass darkened as she painted over it in red. “Sometimes these things can skip a generation, you know.” “Fine for you, but where does that leave me? Dying, dying, dying. Oh, yeah, still dying. How long you think it’s gonna take me, B?” Faith offered out her own paintbrush to Robin. “Maybe we should let her have a go anyway. She can’t be any worse than a reformed homicidal rogue slayer now, can she?” “Try not to miss any spots, honey,” Buffy advised her daughter helpfully. But the brush transformed into a knife as soon as her fingers closed around it, an ornate knife slick with blood, and she dropped it as if burned. It tumbled through the air in slow motion, becoming a paintbrush again the moment it struck the ground, splattering red all over the neat white canvas draping. “Or maybe we should skip over her,” Faith concluded, advancing on her, the same knife now suddenly clutched in her hand. Robin backed up, one step at a time, trembling where she stood. Faith had always terrified her. The slayer swished her long black hair over one shoulder and started drawing lazy little x’s in the air with the point of her blade. “Slice, slice, slice. Or maybe just one ugh!” Faith jabbed forward in demonstration, and Robin jerked back reflexively. “Slide it in her like butter and put her out of the running. After all, you did it to me, B. Whadya say?” Robin fired a pleading look in her mother’s direction. But Buffy only threw up her hands in defeat. “Oh, honey, look what you made me do.” Red paint dripped down the front of her overalls, one smear of red across her cheek. “I’ll have to change now, can’t go patrolling like this.” Faith smiled. Her lips were the same color red as the walls. “Hmm. She didn’t say no.” Robin sprinted out of the kitchen, back door banging behind her, and vaulted off the porch. Thrust back into the desert, she squinted against the sun glaring too brightly in her eyes. Searching for escape, rescue, her father. Feet moving so fast, she failed to catch herself as the ground began to slope. She stumbled, then rolled, falling down the hill, rolling like the Coke can down the sidewalk. Sand gave way to grass. She clutched at roots, grass, rocks, anything to stop her descent. The daylight was dimming, storm clouds rolling in overhead. The air smelled like rain. She came to an abrupt stop at the bottom of the hill, an all-too-familiar cave waiting for her like the jaws of some great beast. She backpedaled, crab-like, scurrying to find a way back up the hill. But Faith was waiting for her at the top with her wicked blade and her cruel taunts, and Robin was trapped. “Why are you afraid?” a voice from behind asked her softly. She turned, relief flooding her features when she recognized the speaker. “Aunt Dawn!” Her aunt was leaning against the entrance to the cave, her hair done up in tiny ringlets and dressed in a flowing lavender gown like she’d worn in her last movie. Whatever momentary relief Robin felt dried up in the next instant. A second figure moved into her peripheral vision from the side, the figure of the black woman from before. Lithe, sleek, stalking closer, movements graceful as a cat, power rippling through muscles beneath dirty rags, dreadlocks swaying with her movements, head shaking slightly as her eyes roamed over Robin, sizing her up. Robin stood completely rigid, frozen with terror. Her voice quavered as she asked it, “Who are you?” It was Dawn’s voice that answered, reciting the lines, acting as the mouthpiece for this primal being who couldn’t speak for herself. “I have no name. No words. I am the hunt, the kill: action, motion, the striking blow, the fatal cry. I bring death to the dead.” Robin shrank into herself as the primitive woman came closer, circling her, sniffing at her, balanced on the balls of her feet, body in constant motion like a shark, a predator. “A Slayer?” Robin asked. “The first.” Dawn confirmed, and the first Slayer straightened proudly. “Why are you afraid?” “Because Faith is going to make me go next.” The Slayer glanced at the cave and then back at Robin, her face a mask of confusion. Dawn traced her hands delicately over the stones marking the entrance and corrected Robin gently, “No. Not that. Why are you afraid of an enemy already vanquished?” “My mother died here.” “Yes. In a time past. But now it is nothing but rock and dirt and moss. She is not here. There is nothing here. Nothing to hold you back. It is time for you to walk the path. Your time now to fight and kill and die.” “No!” Robin shouted it, anger thawing her fear. She spat it at the first Slayer, who personified this uninvited destiny. “I don’t want to be like you. I don’t want any of it. I don’t want to be Chosen.” The first Slayer puffed out her chest, leaning into Robin’s personal space, nose to nose. She spoke with her own voice this time, not Dawn’s, her voice rough and raspy with disuse. “No. Choice.” A bald man with round specs stepped between them and proudly showed off a slice of American cheese he’d cut the center out of. Sliding one finger through the hole, he intoned ominously, “One cheese to rule them all.” Robin backed away from them, from her famous aunt and the first Slayer and the strange man crooning “Precious” to his cheese slice. “Get out of my dreams,” she demanded. “I don’t want slayer dreams. I don’t want any of it. Don’t you get it? I suck at it! I should never have been next. And if all the other potentials hadn’t been killed, I wouldn’t be next. I can’t save the world. I can’t save anyone. I couldn’t even save… Trust me on this: you don’t want me anymore than I want you.” “Is that how you truly feel?” Robin didn’t recognize the frail, ghostly female voice that whispered to her from behind. Thin, bony fingers wrapped themselves around her upper arms and prevented her from turning to see who the new arrival was. The smell of her father’s library wafted over her: the smell of ancient, dusty tomes and cracking, brittle parchment, the heady smell of ink and tea and incense. The tingling feeling of magic crawled across her skin until she itched all over. Only now did she understand that the sensation had always come from the magic calling to her own buried power. She felt the spell surrounding her, felt the answering itch of her own warded magic as it tested the boundaries her father and Willow had set. The words slid around her, soft and intangible as mist. With the words flowed the magic, an incantation that only awaited her answer. “You would freely relinquish the birthright bestowed upon you?” “Yes.” “No!” Dawn shouted. The first Slayer raised her bone knife in challenge. Faith sprinted down the hill towards them. The man with the cheese nibbled along the edges. A third gnarled, wrinkled hand reached past Robin’s shoulders to wave them all back. With a flick of a wrist, they all went flying. “Who are you?” Robin asked. She still hadn’t seen the old woman’s face. The first two hands kept her pinned, facing forward. The third hand was now petting her hair in long, rhythmic strokes. She glimpsed a flash of silver rings as a fourth hand came forward to lazily twirl a lock of hair around one finger. “Best if you don’t see me, little one.” A fifth hand crept along her collarbone, pausing at the top of her sternum. Robin’s breathing quickened. This was no dream. The hand plunged into her chest, extracting something bright and shiny and perfect. There was no pain, just the sense of being hollowed out and empty, the best part of her plucked from inside and resting now in the old woman’s palm: a little ball of shimmering light which soared up into the sky. As it rose, it transformed into a majestic hawk, gracefully gliding across the open sky until it disappeared over the horizon. For one insane moment, Robin wanted to call it back. She fainted, five hands catching her before she could fall. She blinked. The world had suddenly become so dark. She thought she felt the first drops of rain. When she opened her eyes, she was lying on Ethan’s couch. “Thank the gods.” He sat next to her, and she scooted back, watching him suspiciously. “It’s been more than an hour. Didn’t think you’d sleep so long. You have to get home before your father figures out you’re missing. Or at least before he can come looking for you here.” He handed her a glass of water. “Here, drink this.” She pushed the glass away. “I don’t think so.” He sighed. “Come now. There’s nothing in it.” He sipped some himself to prove it. She took the glass when he offered it this time, watching him intently as she drank. She was so thirsty. Like a hollow place had opened up inside her, and she had to fill it with something. She passed him back the empty glass. “You drugged me.” He seemed hurt by the accusation in her voice, or at least he was pretending to be hurt. “Unfortunate, but necessary. Surely you didn’t think I’d double-crossed you? Sold you out to the highest bidder?” He shrugged, acknowledging the validity of her suspicions. “True. The next slayer’s worth a pretty penny on the black market. I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.” “You didn’t sell me.” “Ah, your mother’s gift for stating the obvious. No, I didn’t. You happened to mention that your brother knew where you were. I believe we already covered the me-avoiding-the-arse-kicking-your-father-would-so-love-to-deliver aspect of this arrangement in a previous conversation. Needless to say, I was forced to remove the merchandise from the market. Pity. I could have retired on that.” “You were never planning to sell me.” Having accomplished her goal, Robin felt quite a bit braver. And having been duped by Ethan already, she was less inclined to take him at face value. “You’d already worked out the spell with that lady. You took me to her, and she did the magic to stop me from being Chosen. Just like you promised.” “Such undying faith! Is idiocy contagious in this city? Something the Hellmouth gives off?” Ethan got up off the couch. He shook his head and started pacing as he talked to himself. “Willow thinks she can reform me. Ripper knows better, and yet even he always takes me back eventually. And now here sits one little girl who actually believes I’m a man of my word! I ask you: what in god’s name did I ever do to justify this faith? Nothing good, I assure, that wasn’t also balanced with something just as rotten.” He stopped pacing suddenly, shoved his hands in his pockets, and looked down on her. “You got your wish. I found the spell and the ‘someone’ to cast it. I arranged the whole bloody thing. And did you ever ask yourself why? Why was I helping you?” “Because… Because…” She cast about for an answer. Because I asked you to, sounded incredibly naïve in hindsight, and the truth was that she had never considered any other explanation for his charity. “Because you were friends with my father, with Willow. Because you came after Mother died.” “Because I like screwing with the Cosmic Plan. Because everyone expected you to be Chosen, and I hate predictable endings. Because someone paid me a tidy sum to make sure you weren’t next.” “You got paid?” Somehow that seemed the biggest slap in the face. “Of course. What kind of do-gooder did you take me for?” Ethan strode to the front door and opened it. “You got what you came for. I did what you asked. What do you care if I made a deal on the side? Now get lost. Go home and plan out your plain, ordinary, boring, destiny-free little life.” Robin jumped to her feet and stormed over to the front door. “Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll start by telling my father that you drugged me and tricked me. What if I tell him what you did?” “What you did, you mean.” He ticked off the list of her offenses on his fingers. “Sneaking out two nights in a row, contacting someone I’m sure he warned you was dangerous and untrustworthy, soliciting said person’s help in performing a difficult and untested spell that could irrevocably alter or extinguish the slayer line forever. On the scale of bad deeds, mine hardly rate.” Robin’s attention was stuck on one word. “Extinguish?” He patted her on the head like a small child. “Let’s see if another girl follows Faith before we start worrying about ‘what-ifs,’ okay? And before you get it in your head to make any weeping confessions… Well, who are you going to tell your father helped you?” “You.” “Who?” He bent over to put them at eye level with each other. He was grinning broadly, seeming to enjoy this part. “Say it with me: E-than Rayne.” He sounded out the syllables slowly, but she just stood there with her jaw hanging open. With one finger, he gently closed her mouth. “But you can’t say it. My name. Doesn’t roll off the tongue like it used to. Just a bit of a bonus the old bird threw in for me. I’ve gotten better at covering my own ass over the years. Not as fond of getting caught as I used to be. Now run along home, little girl. Wish granted. Problem solved. Don’t expect me to deal with the fallout if you wind up with a whole new set of problems. And don’t mistake me for your friendly benefactor: This favor was gratis, but the next will cost you.” “I won’t be back,” she promised, stomping out the front door. “I hope I never see you again!” He chuckled and leaned against the doorframe, watching her storm down the hallway. “Now you’re starting to sound like your father.” When she had reached the outside door, he tacked on, “Good luck with the magic. Best stick with beginner spells until you get the knack.” She turned, but he’d already shut and bolted his apartment door. She mentally reran his parting words before their meaning clicked: the old witch had done more than free her from a slayer’s fate, she’d undone her father and Willow’s spell. Robin had magic again. *** The twins were late coming down for breakfast. Their eggs were getting cold, and Giles was going to be late for his meeting if they didn’t hurry. Willow was nibbling on a stolen slice of toast. “Chill, Giles. I can take them. Better I’m late than you.” “That’s not the point. Neither of us should be late.” He paced back to the foot of the stairs and shouted up, “Your five minutes were up ten minutes ago!” Flipping open his pocketwatch, he checked the time again. “What could possibly be keeping them?” “Well, you know, Robin’s at that age where girls like to…” She tapered off when she caught his glare. “…like to play with Barbies and dollhouses and have nothing whatsoever to do with boys or makeup or stuffing Kleenex anywhere… You know, I think I’ll wait in the car if that’s okay.” Willow fled. A stampede down the staircase predicted the twin’s arrival. They raced past him, snagged Pop Tarts from the kitchen cabinet and were out the front door in a blur. Giles sighed. Pop Tarts. Buffy would be proud. He followed them at a more sedate pace. The pair of them were already in Willow’s backseat. Apparently, it had been decided that she would drive them. He paused to wish them a good day at school, reminded Alex of his language lessons and Robin of her training after school. And since Willow had kindly started him worrying, he reassured himself that Robin hadn’t indulged in any makeup. Giles reached his hand through the open window and tilted his daughter’s chin up so he could get a better look at her face. She looked tired. “Robin, are you all right? You seem different… Tired… There’s something… something…” Before he could ponder too long on the something different, Alex leaned over his sister and vied for his father’s attention. “Dad, can’t I miss languages tonight? Some of the kids are staying after and playing-” “Schoolwork comes first,” Giles insisted. He ignored the sad puppy eyes he got from both his son and Willow. She always wanted things to be easier for the children. Easy didn’t build character, didn’t prepare them for the world. If she were a parent herself, she’d understand. Xander would understand. Strangely enough, Xander was waiting for him when he arrived at Council Headquarters. “Problems with the expansion project?” Xander shook his head, falling in line as they walked towards the main conference room. “No, but I need to borrow you for a minute.” “I’m on my way to a meeting. Can it wait?” “It’s waited too long already.” Xander steered him down a different corridor. “Let’s play hooky. Wes and Stein said they’ve got it covered.” They ended up in a mostly deserted wing of the Library, and Xander jumped up to have a seat on the balcony railing. Giles crossed his arms and tapped his cane against the side of his leg. He was beginning to suspect what this was all about. “This is an intervention, isn’t it? Wesley and Stein put you up to it?” Xander shrugged. “They put Willow up to it, and she passed the buck on to me. So yeah, kinda, in a round about way, I guess they did. And it is.” “Faith is not dead yet.” “This isn’t about Faith. It’s not even about Buffy.” Xander pulled his car keys from his pocket and absently rubbed at the little clay charm he had hanging from his key ring. A baby’s handprint preserved in ceramic. His good luck charm. Xander usually acted as the comic relief for the group, but sometimes he could turn on a dime and surprise them all with his wisdom and insight. It was that serious face he showed Giles now. “You’re not pulling the plug on Robin, you know. She’ll still be here when it’s all over.” “For a while.” Xander continued worrying at his good luck charm, pressing his thumbs in the grooves left by tiny fingers. “I don’t get it. You never gave up on Buffy, why are you giving up on Robin?” “Buffy made it to 31. That made her the longest-lived slayer of all time. Robin should have more to look forward to than that. She deserves more than a hard life and an early death. It’s what… what Buffy wanted for her.” “Bull.” “Excuse me?” Giles was thrown off balance by Xander’s vehemence, and by his sheer arrogance in claiming to know what Buffy would have wanted. “If Buffy were still alive, you’d be having this same argument with her. The most important thing I ever learned from her is that you do the best with the hand you’re dealt. You fight with what you’ve got. If all you’ve got is a pool cue, you don’t stand around hoping for a crossbow.” “Xander-” “Just let me finish, ’cause I’m going somewhere with this. You think Buffy felt sorry for herself? You think she would have traded her life to be any of those other kids at our school who got to leave Sunnydale and never look back? I’ve been to the reunion. Most of them put on thirty pounds, found out the high school sweetheart they married is a total loser, and have no more ambition or meaning in their lives than the next promotion or the next new car. “So Buffy died at 31. She lived more in those years than most people do their whole lives. Sometimes things sucked, and sometimes they didn’t, and every once in a while she managed a little bit of happiness. But she lived, Giles. She didn’t wall herself up in a cave until it was safe to come out. She went to prom and college and her sister’s school plays. She fell in love a few times, married a pretty okay guy, had some babies, found a job she loved to do, and made a difference in the world every night. ’Cause you and I both know the world is never going to be safe. Sure, Robin might get killed by a demon while fulfilling her sacred destiny or-” He tossed Giles his keys. The ceramic handprint had worn smooth over the years, no fingerprints left, the etched name ‘Zoey’ nearly faded off the back. “-or she might end up in the hospital with meningitis. “I know what you’re afraid of, Giles. I lost my daughter. It’s every bit as awful as you imagine it is. And if I thought this was going to buy Robin even one more day, I’d say go for it. Stick all the wires you like in Faith and squeeze every last minute you can out of her. But you’re not buying Robin time. You’re keeping her in limbo. And every day that you continue with this doomed holding pattern, you send her a message: you tell her that you don’t think she can be the Slayer.” “No,” Giles protested, although with very little fire. It was difficult to argue with Xander while holding his dead child’s clay handprint. “That’s not what I think.” “That’s what she sees. Everyday that you put off the inevitable, you erode her confidence a little more. Robin will be the Slayer, Giles. Nothing you or I can do will change that now. And if she doesn’t think she can do it, she’s gonna be one of the shortest lived slayers on record. And that is something you still have the power to change.” Giles bowed his head. He had clung to this last bit of hope for so long, he was afraid of the fall when he finally did let go. “When you lost Zoey, there was Anya. You had each other. If I lose Robin… it will be like losing Buffy a second time. I can’t face that alone.” “You won’t be alone. You’ll still have Alex. And all of us. Plus, there’s something you keep forgetting: Faith is the one who’s dying, not Robin. And after she’s Called, we’re all going to do everything we can to make sure Robin beats her mom’s record. A whole new record: forty, fifty even. After all, my Nick has been carving the initials R.G. on the trees out back for a while now, and I’d hate to see his little heart broken.” Giles chuckled, remembering his daughter’s opinions of the six-year-old’s crush. He offered Xander back his good luck charm. Their fingers touched as it changed hands, and Giles smiled sadly at his dear friend, hoping he would see in his eyes the emotions not expressed in words. “Do you want me to come to the hospital with you?” Giles shook his head. “No. I can do this part on my own. But thank you, Xander, for forcing me to see my own shortsightedness.” “All part of the service.” Xander saluted casually. “Drywall, concrete, roofing, and the occasional nudge in the right direction.” “Congratulate yourself on an effective speech.” He shrugged. “After Willow put me up to this, I spent most of last night trying to figure out what to say to you. Can’t even remember what I had planned out. Probably the same stuff everyone’s been saying to you all month.” Xander held up the ceramic handprint, as if it explained everything. “But when it counted, the words just came.” He pocketed his keys and nodded towards the exit. “I better go check on the crew, or you’ll never get your dorms finished before the next batch of watcher trainees wants to move in. And you better get to the hospital before you change your mind. I don’t want to do this all over again tomorrow.” Xander hopped down off his railing seat and had barely gone five steps towards the exit before Giles called him back. The watcher didn’t lift his eyes from the ornate scrollwork at the top of his cane. “Xander…” He took a deep breath and swallowed past the lump in his throat. “I think… I think Buffy would be a lovely name.” “Really?” Xander’s tone sounded doubtful. “I think it would be a little weird, don’t you? I mean: there’ll only ever be one Buffy. It was Anya’s idea, the naming. Do you like it? We could if you want us to. But I don’t think it really matters anyway. I’m sure it’ll be another boy.” Giles smiled and shook his head. Five boys. He strongly suspected Anya would push to keep trying for a girl. “Whichever you decide, you have my blessing to use the name.” *** Faith died before dinner with very little fanfare. If she had died even one day sooner, it would have fallen to Robin to succeed her. But the Chosen One’s heir had bargained away that right with magic. And so Fate Chose another path and another champion. Two twists of fate accomplished with one spell. ***
Back HomeBack: Part 1: We Don’t Always Get What We Want Next: Part 3: The Search for the Slayer
Please, send me feedback, either by or form: Form processor by www.tectite.com