ORIGINALLY POSTED: February 26, 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 3: The Search for the Slayer Robin was just clearing the dinner dishes when the phone rang, and her father disappeared. He’d picked them up from school, excused her from training and Alex from lessons, and taken them to watch movies at the downtown multiplex. Popcorn and Twizzlers had ruined their dinner, which didn’t matter so much, since they sat through two movies in a row and didn’t get back home to even bother with dinner until half past eight. If her father hadn’t been so preoccupied with his pager, the evening might have been almost perfect. But he’d checked the display almost every fifteen minutes through the first movie. Even worse was when he’d stopped checking the display altogether. “Do you think he knows?” Robin whispered, handing her brother the rest of the dirty plates and silverware. Alex set aside the soapy dish sponge for the moment and scouted around the corner to make sure their father was definitely occupied elsewhere. “I don’t think so. I’m sure he would’ve said something. But he was all nice and let us play hooky from all the slayer/watcher stuff. Movies and junk food and no important Council calls that couldn’t wait.” “But they do that sometimes. Parents. They do really nice things, just so you’ll feel really guilty about whatever you did wrong until you just can’t stand it anymore and just have to come clean.” She stared out the kitchen doorway in a mild panic, expecting her father to come swooping in at any moment to confirm her fears. “He knows. I’m telling you: this… this bracelet thing doesn’t work at all.” She twisted said bracelet nervously around her wrist, the little glass beads knocking together. He placed his hand over hers, stilling her movements. “Well, it’s not going to work if you break it. Look, Aunt Willow drove us to school this morning, and if she’d sensed even a little bit of magic, she would have said something. So the only way you’re going to get caught is if you keep acting suspicious.” “Easy for you to say. You’ve had way more practice at this kinda stuff than I have. This morning… all he said was ‘something’s different,’ and I almost cracked.” “I know. But I distracted him, and everything’s still cool. Just stop worrying… and stop playing with the bracelet or you’ll break it.” He swatted her hand away after she’d begun absently twisting the string of beads again. “Aunt Anya’ll notice if I have to steal you a second one.” That was one more thing to feel guilty for. Returning home after her adventure with Ethan, she’d slipped into her brother’s room and spilled all the details. Terrified that their father would sense her newly freed magic and learn what she’d done, she had pleaded with her brother for help. So even though it was Alex who had technically snuck out in the dead of night with a spare key to the Magic Box he’d swiped from his father’s bureau, she was ultimately to blame for his theft. He’d known Aunt Anya stocked cloaking charms. Magical items constituted part of his watcher’s training. Eventually it would be part of her training too, after she’d mastered her basic combat skills. And cloaking charms could hide a person’s magic from those who could sense it. Which would only help her if her father failed to notice that she was wearing stolen goods. “This is never gonna work!” she lamented. “Stop being such a baby,” he scolded, returning to washing the dishes. “I get away with way worse.” “But sometimes you get caught.” “Sometimes,” he agreed reluctantly. But not often, she had to admit. In trouble for skipping school, he’d escaped discovery on the forged report cards. Nine out of ten detentions never registered on their father’s radar, and he had yet to be caught sneaking out of the house even once. She wondered if that bothered him, the not being caught, because part of her really wanted to be found out. The guilt and apprehension were probably worse than whatever punishment her father might mete out, and it would be a relief to be rid of the weight of her awful secret. She reconsidered when their father returned to the kitchen. The grim look on his face resolved her inner conflict. She hoped he never found out what she’d done. “Robin, may I speak with you privately?” Cold dread settled in the pit of her stomach. She shared a panicked look with her brother, the unspoken question passing between them: did he know? She followed meekly behind her father, mentally building herself up for whatever she might face. He settled them both on the couch. He didn’t meet her eyes, which was fine by her. “Faith died a few hours ago, Robin.” “Oh.” That wasn’t how she’d expected the conversation to start. Robin wasn’t sure what she should be feeling. She supposed she should be sorry or sad or something. But she had always been a little afraid of the dark slayer, and after Buffy’s death, she had hated Faith for being the one who lived. “Am I the Slayer now?” she asked him. She didn’t feel any different. She selfishly hoped the spell had worked. It meant someone even younger and less ready would be Called, or possibly no one at all, but she didn’t care. As long as it wasn’t her. Her father merely nodded, not knowing about the spell, knowing only that Robin was the oldest of the potential slayers and, even at the tender age of thirteen, was the likeliest candidate. “You may have dreams tonight,” he warned her. “With Faith?” He nodded. “Perhaps other slayers. Perhaps even your mother.” He said it so wistfully, with such longing, that she wished she could give him the dreams meant for her, wished he could be the one to see Buffy again. All she could give him was a brave smile. “Doesn’t sound so bad, I guess.” “I’m told they can be. Bad, that is. You might dream of their deaths, might watch your mother... die... again.” He did raise his eyes to meet hers then, reaching out one hand to grip her shoulder. “Whatever you need, whatever concerns you have, I’m here for you.” “I know.” He pulled her into a tight embrace. She closed her eyes, rubbing her cheek against his shirt, letting the feeling of being wrapped up snug against him chase away her fears, pretending for a moment that she was a little girl again, that everything was back the way it should be, that she hadn’t ruined everything for all of them. She felt the tears start and knew that he could feel them too as she shook in his arms. He hugged her more tightly, pressing kisses on the top of her head and crooning meaningless platitudes to her softly as she sobbed. He rubbed her back in slow circles like he had that awful night when they’d come home alone. Alex had locked himself in the bathroom, and Giles had sat on the bottom step, and Robin had curled up on the floor with her head in his lap. He’d rubbed circles across her back for hours while she cried. And he’d stared at nothing the entire time. Said nothing. Did nothing but rub steady circles across her back. She couldn’t relive that night. If there was no other reason to pray Ethan’s spell had worked, this would have been enough: she couldn’t dream of her mother’s death. *** The sun shone down bright and warm. Giles, stretched out on the soft grass at the top of the hill, watched his slayer train. The slow, focused, and precise movements of her warm-up routine flowed effortlessly. Angel had started her training in tai chi. The brooding and meditative discipline suited the similarly brooding and meditative vampire, so it was no wonder that Angel favored it. That Buffy had taken so strongly to it was more of a surprise. She loved a challenge though, and tai chi required more than just physical skill; it tested one’s mental focus as well. Giles had added it to her training at her request. And if he took some small amount of personal satisfaction in the fact that she had advanced further under his tutelage than Angel’s, well perhaps he was entitled to that bit of selfish pride. She was exquisite in motion. Wearing just a tank top and bike shorts, nothing of her muscled form was left to the imagination. She was pure grace in the sunlight. Was there a watcher who ever lived who didn’t thrill at the sight of their slayer in action? Balance, poise, power, strength. Until their slayer stopped mid-flow and shed the mystique of the warrior like a costume, frowning at her watcher and asking with a pout, “Am I doing it wrong? ’Cause you’re looking at me funny.” “I was just admiring. You’re so beautiful.” She smiled, flouncing over to have a seat beside him. “This is nice, isn’t it?” “Very nice.” A hand pressed to his chest, she encouraged him to lie back, arranging herself at his side with her head resting on his arm. “You haven’t had any of those other dreams for several days now.” He kissed her on the top of her head. “You must be my little dreamcatcher. They never come while you’re here.” They both stared up into the blue sky above them. No tree to lie beneath; it had gone. Or perhaps had not yet grown. “Yeah, I’m getting better with the dreaming. See, watch.” She stretched her hand up towards the sky, pointing at the clouds drifting by. One of them shifted, as if through wind currents, elongating at one end, collapsing on the other, until it formed a perfect white heart against the blue sky. “See? I’m getting good.” “Lucid dreaming.” “Lucy who?” He laughed. Sometimes he suspected she misunderstood him on purpose, just to get a rise out of him. “That’s what they call it when you can control your dreams. Lucid dreaming. Unfortunately, I never mastered it myself. It certainly would have made those months after Jenny and Angelus more bearable. Not to mention every time you died.” “And when the First Slayer attacked us all in our dreams. Hey!” She rolled over on top of him, her chin resting on his chest. “Maybe that’s why I beat her in my dream when none of you could. Lucid dreaming.” “Perhaps.” “You try it. Show me… show me what our kids look like now.” He closed his eyes and concentrated. He could picture them in his mind, how they had looked that afternoon when he’d picked them up from school, both of them bouncing with excitement when he’d promised them an afternoon outing rather than their usual routine. Sadly, their images remained locked inside his head; he couldn’t manifest them for Buffy. “I’m sorry.” She rolled onto her back, the pair of them laying side by side and staring up into the sky. The cloud cover was thickening. She sighed softly. “It’s okay, Giles. Took me some practice to get the hang of it. Shoot, the first time I died, I could only get in your dreams that one time, and even then I couldn’t do much of anything once I got there.” He turned his head to stare at her. The grass tickled his cheek. An ant crawled over his hand, and he flicked it away. She turned her head to meet his gaze, their faces only inches apart. He searched her eyes for something, anything to indicate that this was real. “Are you saying you’re Buffy?” She gave a little shrug. “I’m not Faith.” The ache in his gut washed over him, so overpowering he needed to touch her to keep from being swept away in that tidal wave of grief. He closed the space between their mouths, kissing her like she was the only supply of air for a drowning man. She kissed him back with equal fervor, so warm, so alive in his arms. They parted breathless, their foreheads touching. His one arm lay beneath her, cradling her close, while his other hand framed her face. His voice trembled, so full of emotion. “I want so much to believe that you’re real.” “Does it matter either way? If it helps, then go ahead and believe.” He shook his head, hesitant to allow himself this comfort. “Are you… still here? Watching us?” “No. This is just… just…” She tilted her chin up to kiss him again. “Think of it as a watcher/slayer perk. I just have to be a little careful. Other slayers have pushed it too far and landed their watchers in the loony bin.” He chuckled. “Haunting me?” Her lower lip curled out in a tiny pout. “Not in a bad way.” He considered their past dreamtime activities. “Giving me clues to something?” “Maybe.” “Pointing me towards something?” He ran his fingers through her hair. He missed doing that. He missed sleeping with her curled against one side, one leg draped over his, and falling asleep as he toyed with her hair. His bed never seemed very comfortable anymore. “Can’t you just tell me what I need to know?” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t remember it when you woke up if I did. But this…” She held her fist between them, slowly uncurling her fingers to reveal a tiny seed. “This can slip past the censors.” He plucked the little, round seed from her palm, rolling it between his fingers as he thought. “This? I don’t understand.” “It’s the tree we used to sit under in your dreams. It needs to be planted soon, or the sapling won’t have been there.” She sat up, face lifted to the darkening sky. His side quickly cooled with the absence of her warmth. She stretched out one hand as if feeling for raindrops. “Wait until the rain stops before you plant it. It will have needed the rain.” Slowly, she rose to her feet. He followed her line of sight as it dropped down from the rain clouds rolling in overhead to instead gaze over the sloping hillside and what lay at the base of that slope. “No,” he insisted. “Buffy, I can’t.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “I know. It’s okay. It’s almost morning, anyway. I may be the best damn lucid dreamer you ever saw, but even I can’t stop the morning.” She returned to her place at his side. He closed his eyes, wrapped his arms tightly around her, and tried to forget that she would be gone when he woke. “You can’t put it off forever, Giles.” Her voice was whisper soft and hot against his ear. “Sometimes you have to look back before you can look forward.” Her words echoed through his head, merging with the sound of his alarm as he was unwillingly pulled to full consciousness. He wiped his hands across his face to erase the lingering traces of sleep. His fingers came away wet with tears. *** Wesley was at a loss. He tipped his head and indicated that he and Giles should confer privately. They stepped over to the practice dummy, leaving Robin standing by herself in the middle of the training room, crossbow discarded at her feet. “There’s never been an instance of delay, has there?” Wesley was searching his own memory, but coming up short. Giles’ face was a mirror of Wesley’s own puzzled expression. “There have been occasions when the timing of one slayer’s passing is not known, or when the next is not found immediately, but nothing to indicate a delay between the two. And we have hundreds of documented cases where we can compare the loss of one slayer with the Calling of the next. The activation has always been immediate. Faith’s first watcher, for instance, recorded the precise time, and it matches, right to the very minute, the moment Drusilla killed Kendra.” Wesley frowned and peered at the target once more: not a single bolt in the bull’s-eye, a few in the neck and torso, one through the head, and a worrisome number scattered across the wall behind the dummy. “My aim is better.” The slightest flicker of a smirk twisted the corner of his mouth. He couldn’t resist. “As your bankbook can attest.” Giles failed to acknowledge the reference to his loosing streak during their weekly darts match. He was busy ripping a bolt from the wall and inspecting the tip, as if the explanation could be found in faulty equipment. Another possible explanation was worrying Wesley. “Has it occurred to you that a slayer can miss the target intentionally? Can allow herself to be taken down while sparring? Can hide her true strength?” The cool disdain with which Giles accepted that suggestion was answer in itself. “Are you insinuating that my daughter would mislead us? In point of fact, lie?” “She has expressed misgivings. It would be understandable-” “That’s enough!” “No, it’s not!” Wesley regretted his harsh tone immediately. Putting Giles on the defense would accomplish nothing. He softened his demeanor, lowered his voice, and tried to take the position of reason. “We need to be certain who the next slayer is. Until we can conclusively rule out your daughter, she remains the most likely candidate.” Giles raised one eyebrow and leaned forward, hands crossed over the grip of his cane. “And what do you propose?” “Slayer healing cannot be faked one way or the other.” That was the spark that lit Giles’ fuse. “Preposterous! If you think I’m going to let you harm my child for the sake-” “Oh, for the love of God, I’m not suggesting we chop off her hand. A tiny cut. No worse than a scratch she’d get in the schoolyard.” “Absolutely not.” Wesley nodded his head slightly. “Stein was right. She is your blind spot. You can’t see clearly where Robin is concerned. Not as respects the decisions a watcher must make.” Giles barked out a bitter laugh. “Travers once claimed that a father’s love was useless to the cause. Well, I may have a father’s love this time, but you know what? This isn’t Travers’ Council anymore. His breed of watchers are all dead, and I’m running this show now. We don’t exclude the families from the decisions that impact their daughters. And watchers do not overrule parents.” “Stop it!” Robin shrieked. They both snapped their heads around in reaction to her cry. There she stood, in the middle of the room, the crossbow at her feet, exactly as she had been when they’d turned their backs to her. Except that she was clutching a throwing dagger in one hand as blood dripped down the other. “Robin!” they both gasped at the same time. Wesley reached her side first, faster on his feet than Giles, whose limp hindered his pace. Tears were streaming down her face, and Wesley grabbed for her hand to inspect the damage. She’d sliced her palm from thumb to pinky, and it was bleeding nicely, trickling down her fingers and dripping onto the floor. He wrapped her hand with his handkerchief, applying pressure. Giles arrived just behind him, snatching the knife from her other hand and tossing it aside. She stuttered slightly as she tried to speak through her tears. “S-stop fighting. I’m n-not the Slayer.” He pulled her into his arms and relieved Wesley of the task of caring for her hand. “Shhh… I’m taking you home now. You’re finished here.” He was looking at Wesley as he said the last, making it clear he meant more than just today. He meant she was finished with all of it. A decision made a bit prematurely and rashly, in Wesley’s opinion. She may have dodged the bullet this time, but the odds were still in her favor for the next. And Giles could not remove him as her watcher on a whim. Oh, no. It had been one of the man’s personal crusades in rewriting the bylaws of the Council: that no watcher should be unjustly taken from his slayer without recourse or merit as Travers had done in firing Giles. To be removed from their post, a watcher had to be voted out by a majority after first presenting their side of the story for review. Giles might come to regret authoring such waterproof directives. *** Stein crossed the last name off his list. Every watcher had checked in. Every potential had been tested, either openly or surreptitiously for those still in the dark. Even the infants had been called in by their “doctors” to be screened for… Well, he couldn’t remember the name of the viral outbreak they’d invented, but they’d all tested healthy and normal. Which was a good thing, he supposed, as a baby slayer would be of no use to them, not to mention giving the “terrible twos” a whole new meaning. But they were still left without a slayer. The last time this had happened was with Buffy Summers. The Council had missed her as a potential. Was it possible that another had slipped past them? The spell the Seers cast seemed to indicate not, but Stein put little faith in magic. Not like Willow, who was currently entrenched in the Library, poring through volumes for prophecies or spells. Nor Wesley, who was sequestered in his office, phoning up psychics. The legitimate kind, Stein was assured. That Wesley could say it with a straight face immediately after the encore performance of “Hard Headed Woman” was laudable. The entire Council was growing restless, a fear slowly spreading via hushed water cooler conversations: what if there were no more slayers? Faith might not have been dead even a whole day yet, but they had all been so certain that Robin would be next, and there were so few runners-up in contention for the title. Wild speculation quickly gained credibility as theories were made and accepted without challenge. Buffy was the first slayer to die and come back. Twice. No slayer had been Called after her second death. Nor after her third, more permanent one. They’d all assumed the slayer line flowed through Faith and that her death would bring the next. But what if two slayers simultaneously had somehow unbalanced the forces that drove slayer succession? Perhaps the magic was used up. Perhaps Buffy and Faith were truly the last. A terrifying concept for watchers. For what was a watcher without a slayer? A librarian. A historian. A museum curator. A clever linguist. A quiz show champion. As good as dead, and the world with them. But the facts did not yet support this hypothesis. They didn’t refute it yet either. There were a number of theories still possible. Stein would seek to disprove them before falling into hysteria. And Stein had one piece of data the others were lacking. He knew why Robin was not Chosen. He opened the top drawer of his desk and scrounged around for the scrap of paper he’d written the number on. He may have possessed a brilliant and detail-oriented mind, but his office and living space were utter chaos. Speaking of chaos… He found the number and jotted a note on the back while the phone was ringing. He’d loaned out his copy of Yorke’s article: “Creation of Universal Concepts in Complex Systems- Chaos and Fractals” on his last visit and needed to remember to get it back. “Ah, Rayne,” Stein readjusted the receiver between his ear and shoulder as his hands dug through his briefcase for his calendar. “I was hoping we could get together again. Tomorrow afternoon maybe? Say three…? Don’t forget those articles I loaned you... Well, yes, but aside from the math…” He chuckled as he penned in the appointment. “Yes, ‘Does God Play Dice?’ was always one of my favorites too, if a tad outdated at this point. Listen, we’ll talk more over coffee…. tea, whatever... See you then.” As a firm believer in the idea that chaos could eventually be predicted through the application of science, Stein always enjoyed debating with those holding opposing views. And understanding more about the spell Rayne had arranged would help to shape his theory regarding who might succeed Faith. *** Willow brightened as Wesley joined her at her research table. But he only shook his head, and she deflated back into a sorry lump in her chair. She really liked books, but right now she was ready to shred this particular one into tiny pieces and have a ticker tape parade to celebrate her complete lack of progress. Giles would probably not approve, especially considering that the volume in danger was the Pergamum Codex. “Nothing?” Wesley confirmed. “Nada. Well, nada useful, at any rate. It’s all riddles and pretty prose. I started at the part where Buffy died the first time: ‘And in this time shall come the Anointed, the Master’s great warrior. And the Slayer will not know him, will not stop him, and he will lead her into Hell. The Master shall rise, and the Slayer shall die…’ yadda, yadda, yadda.” Willow slammed the book closed. “Sure, it happened and all, but in hindsight, he only rose ’cause she came, and she only came ’cause the prophecy said he’d rise.” She made a disgusted face. “Okay, that sounded more PG in my head.” “Any mention of two slayers? If we can match what’s already happened, we might have an idea where to search for references to Faith’s successor.” Willow shrugged and pushed the book over to his side of the table. He could read Latin as well as her. “I couldn’t find any mention of two. Then again, Faith never really did anything to write home about. There’s a mention of a god, which I’m assuming is Glory, and another passage about a plague upon the watchers. I guess a couple thousand years ago, TNT-go-boom could be classified as a plague. But nothing else makes much sense. I’m sure after it happens, we’ll all read it and go: ‘Ohhh! Duh!’ but then again, predicting something after the fact is hardly useful prophecy.” She cocked her head to one side and looked at him more closely. “So aside from pissing off Giles, has your day been a sparkling success like mine?” He laughed and ran one hand over his stubble. He had neglected to shave that morning. He could be forgiven, considering that he’d probably had more pressing things on his agenda. Only this morning, he’d believed himself to be the watcher to the active slayer. “Well, I sang ‘Hard Headed Woman’ into a telephone receiver.” “It helps if you pretend it’s a microphone,” she offered. “Yes, it also helps if you’re not on hold at the time. I’d finished the whole song before I realized Lorne had switched over to take another call. When he came back on the line, I had to ‘take it from the top.’” Willow giggled, and Wesley soon joined her, the pair of them laughing off the tension of the day. Stein took the chair on Willow’s other side. “Nice to see you two can still keep up morale during these uncertain times. The many pairs of eyes looking up to you-” He waved cheerily to an eavesdropper loitering at the end of one of the stacks, and she quickly fled out of the reading room. “-will be encouraged by your good spirits. And maybe if we can quash this whole ‘no slayer’ rumor, people might actually start focusing on finding her again, whoever she might be.” “I never expected it not to be Robin,” Wesley murmured. Stein propped his feet up on an empty chair. “I’m not so surprised. Let’s all be honest with each other. She always came up a bit short. In her training, she lagged behind girls much younger than her. She lacked drive, courage, and most importantly: desire.” “You think a slayer has to want to be Chosen?” Willow believed that Buffy would have had something to say about that. “I think that in certain situations, it can make a difference.” Wesley shook his head, clearly not agreeing with that sentiment. “You expect me to believe that The Powers That Be would pass over Robin because she didn’t want the job, and instead choose a girl who, at best, recently celebrated her ninth birthday? I’m sorry, but The Powers never balked at drafting their champions before.” Willow thought about the girls who lived with their watchers. Anna’s parents had died in a car accident more than four years ago. She had been the first potential born after the vampire Joseph’s slaughter of all but Robin, and although there were several other girls who were only a few months younger, she was considered next in line after Robin. Anna loved her training and loved the idea of a grand destiny. But she was still so young. Robin had also bubbled with that same enthusiasm at an earlier time, before her mother died, before learning firsthand what being a slayer truly meant. “Ah, the man of the hour!” Stein removed his feet from the empty chair and pulled it out for the new arrival. Willow turned around. Giles was limping heavily today, leaning on the cane with each step. He’d been on his feet all day, going nonstop, and he looked as if he might drop. The worry lines around his eyes and across his forehead seemed more pronounced, and the gloomy expression he wore didn’t fit a man whose daughter had just been spared a slayer’s fate. If anything, he looked like a man who had just learned the lesson “be careful what you wish for.” Wesley sat up straighter, the amusement wiped from his face. They regarded each other for a moment, the tension palpable. “How is Robin?” Giles sat in the seat Stein offered. “She will heal. Perhaps not at slayer speed, but…” “I never meant for that to happen.” “I know.” “Apology made and accepted,” Stein summarized. “Moving on… What’s next?” Giles fixed Willow with a serious stare. “The Codex?” “Nada.” Stein was next: “They’ve all checked in.” Wesley shrugged his shoulders, the same air of failure hanging over him. “I spoke with AI: no visions from Cordelia. All Lorne could foresee was that I could expect some possible car trouble and a minor kitchen mishap. Spike said he’d put in a few discreet inquiries…” “So what’s next?” Stein asked again. “Sleep,” Giles answered frankly. And then his eyes glazed over, a small frown on his lips, as he seemed to turn something over in his mind. “Sleep, perchance to dream. Wesley, see what you can find regarding watchers’ dreams after their slayers’ passing.” Willow leaned forward, all sympathy. “Are you having dreams?” He shrugged off her concern. “It may amount to nothing, but I’m willing to explore any possibility at this time. Even…” He met her eyes, the conflict evident in his face. He didn’t want to ask. “Willow, if you could speak with…” “Sure.” He didn’t need to actually say Ethan’s name for her to catch his drift. Stein seemed to perk up a bit, also clear on the subtext of their conversation. She only hoped he wouldn’t want to tag along again. The last time she’d taken Stein to visit Ethan, they’d argued chaos theory for an hour, and she’d ended up on the couch, watching Survivor: Antarctica. Not to mention that Giles would probably not approve of her introducing his right hand man to his constant pain in the ass ex-friend. Stein offered to pick up the slack with whatever Council duties the others needed to let slide while they searched for the next slayer. Duties divided out for tomorrow, they all adjourned for some much needed rest. Not that they wouldn’t each continue with their research at home as well, but at least at home Willow could curl up in bed with her books. And maybe, if Lizzy hadn’t picked up an extra night shift at the hospital, she would have someone to keep her warm while she worked. *** “Robin, check it out.” Alex slid in next to his sister on the cafeteria bench, reaching in his book bag for his newest acquisition. She seemed less than interested, glaring at him even. She’d been so moody since the spell to make her the Unchosen One. “Where were you last period?” “At the Magic Box. Don’t worry; no one saw me. I went in through the basement.” “We had a quiz,” she informed him coolly, unwrapping her sandwich one-handed, as her left hand was still bandaged from the day before. “Good thing I skipped then, huh? I haven’t done any of the reading. Woulda failed.” “You know, one day Ms. Kitch might call Father while he’s actually there.” “Nah. He’s never there. She’ll only ever get his voicemail.” Alex laughed dramatically, an evil movie “Muwahahaha” kind of laugh. “And I know how to erase his messages before he can check them.” “William Alexander, if you studied even half as much as you plot to get away with not studying… maybe the A’s and B’s Father signs would be real, and you wouldn’t have to keep lying all the time.” She took a forceful bite of her sandwich. He rolled his eyes. “Do you want to see what I got or not?” He pulled the hardcover book from his bag and passed it to her beneath the table. She reluctantly accepted the volume, flipping it over to read the title. “‘Beginning Witchcraft’? You stole this from the Magic Box?” “You didn’t complain when I nicked you a cloaking charm.” He leaned over and opened the book, paging through to point out some of the more interesting spells. “Look, it’s the same book Aunt Willow teaches Intro Magic with at the Council. I thought you could maybe try one out tonight. Something small. Here: ‘Static Starlight.’ Like a tiny nightlight.” He watched her eyes as she skimmed through the first few chapters. Eyes growing wide with wonder, ghost of a smile at the corners of her mouth, the weight of the past resting lighter on her shoulders, and the future promising more hope than despair; the book had definitely been a brilliant idea. “You really think I could do this?” she whispered. Her fingers brushed over one particularly detailed illustration. It was the happiest he’d seen her since Faith had landed in the ICU. And the smile she gave him was the first real smile he’d seen since then. Sometimes he forgot how much she looked like their mother. Until she smiled. “So what do we got here?” Tommy’s voice directly behind them. And wherever Tommy went, Mike and Stu followed. A triumvirate of trouble. ’Cause a school just ain’t a school without a few bullies. “Go away!” Alex snapped. Robin valiantly tried to hide the book beneath her chair, but her attempts at being stealthy only drew attention to the fact that she had something worth finding. Tommy made a grab for the book, and she ducked under the cafeteria table, escaping to the other side. Unfortunately Mike and Stu had circled around and snatched the volume from her hands as soon as she reemerged. “Give that back!” she shrieked. Stu shoved her hard enough to land her on her butt. Tommy joined his two friends and relieved them of the stolen book. He was the ringleader, and as such, always got the best part of the bullying: the taunting. “Let’s see what Tweedledee and Tweedledum are reading today.” He snickered when he saw the title. “‘Beginning Witchcraft.’ Wow. We got ourselves a witch.” His two cronies joined in the chuckling. Alex seethed, fists clenched at his side. But they were in the next grade up and arguably the biggest kids in their class, while Alex was quite possibly the smallest boy in his. He may not have been afraid of these dimwitted bullies, but he also wasn’t stupid. And the teachers… well, there weren’t enough of them to monitor the entire cafeteria well. He could run and fetch some adult intervention, and pay for it later when there was none, or he could swallow his anger and wait for them to finish their fun and move on. Tommy leaned over Robin menacingly. “Know what they used to do to witches?” Robin stood up and faced down her tormentor. “Aunt Anya said they only burned the innocents, ’cause the real witches…” She dropped her voice dramatically. “The real witches would just cast a spell and turn them all to stone or give them smallpox or… or liquefy their brains so they ran out their noses.” The three bullies took an involuntary step back. While Alex might have admired his sister’s pluck at that particular moment, he realized that she’d only made a bad situation worse. She’d rattled them for the briefest of moments, and when they got over it, they’d have to knock her down twice as hard to save face. He wished she could show them what a real witch could do. It would serve them right. Tommy’s expression hardened. “Wanna see me do a magic trick?” He pulled a lighter from his back pocket and flicked the flame beneath the corner of one page. “Disappearing trick.” She lunged for the book, but Mike stepped between and blocked her, holding her back as her arms stretched desperately past him. The paper began to blacken and warp as the tiny flame kissed its edges. The crushing defeat in Robin’s eyes was too much for Alex. He jumped over the table and tackled Tommy. The total surprise on his face was worth any bloody nose he might give Alex later. They played tug of war for the book, which was singed, but thankfully not on fire. “Give it back,” Alex insisted vehemently. “Make me,” Tommy challenged in return. So Alex did. He hit him. Tommy went down, crying like a girl. Alex pressed his advantage, wrenching Tommy’s arm back until it snapped and the book dropped. Tommy screamed. Big baby, Alex thought. He can sure dish it out, but he can’t take it. Alex snatched the book off the floor and turned around to triumphantly offer Robin his hard won prize. But her eyes were filling with tears, gazing past him to where Tommy was lying on the ground. “Oh, Alex!” He turned to give his defeated foe a second glance. The bully sat there, tears running down his cheeks, one arm dangling limply, his forearm bent at completely the wrong angle. His other hand went back and forth between cradling his injured arm and trying to stop the stream of blood currently pouring down into his mouth. He was rocking with the pain. Alex suddenly realized that Tommy wasn’t just being a big baby. He was hurt, really hurt. And he, Alex, had done that to him. Tommy aimed a glare of pure hatred in his direction. “You broke my nose, you bastard!” which sounded more like: “You boke by doze, you bastard!” for obvious reasons. The arm, too, looked broken. Unless, of course, Tommy was secretly a demon whose elbows bent the other direction. Now they had attracted an audience, including two teachers who were summoned from the other side of the cafeteria. There was no way Alex could forge his father’s signature for this. The principal would require a parent conference. It would all come out into the open: all the lies, the bad grades… the detentions… the skipped classes. Everything. He ran out of the cafeteria, out of the school, down the street. He ran until his side hurt and his breath caught. It even crossed his mind that it might be better to keep running, to just run away and not have to face his father again after this. *** Giles’ secretary tracked him down in L.A. He’d traveled there in hopes of coaxing some information from a source more likely to level with Giles than with Angel Investigations. It wasn’t a wild goose chase. Giles had been given a genuine lead, another informant who would be willing to shed some light on the force that attracted vampires and demons to the slayer. Whoever she was, wherever she was Called, she always pulled evil to her like some kind of magnetic north. Perhaps the watchers could somehow tap into that force and find their way to her as well. He was waiting at the rendezvous for his contact, sipping passable coffee in the corner booth of the Barnes and Noble bookstore café when his pager went off. Intended for emergencies only, he frowned as he read the display. He flipped open his cell phone and turned it on. Another irritating, if necessary, modern contrivance. Like a bloody electronic leash. He rang up his secretary. “Dare I hope that they found her?” No such luck. “Your son’s school called. The principal wishes to meet with you.” “Schedule something for tomorrow.” “It won’t wait until then.” Her voice was crisp, firm, insistent. Giles sighed and glanced at his watch. “Can you ask Willow to take care of it for me? I have a very important meeting in a few minutes, and I won’t be back in Sunnydale until at least this evening.” It couldn’t wait, and it required his presence and his alone. He was fuming by the time he’d cancelled on the one good lead they had left and driven all the way back to Sunnydale. But that was nothing compared to the temper he left the school in. He searched for Alex briefly, but quickly realized that he had no idea where the boy would flee to under the circumstances. It was becoming painfully clear to him that he didn’t know his boy at all anymore. He sent Willow and Xander to search instead. Then he called the dispatcher at the station and asked the officers to keep an eye out for his son. They were only too happy to help out Buffy’s widower. Nothing left to do but wait for Alex to either return on his own or be dragged back by someone else. Giles sat at the dining table, sorting through the papers and report cards the principal had sent home with him. The school had written Giles off as an uninvolved father, who didn’t seem to care if his child missed class or performed poorly. But now he was beginning to piece together how Alex had intercepted all communication between the school and his father, keeping his father blissfully ignorant and the school grudgingly placated. Giles accepted part of the blame. He had been busy, overburdened with running the Council, especially preoccupied as of late with Faith’s medical condition and Robin’s probable calling. Willow had taken the children to school and picked them up more often than their father. But that in no way excused Alex’s behavior. And Giles’ anger only escalated as each note and each report card he read only compounded his son’s lies. Robin came home from school at the usual time, delivered by a discouraged Willow, who had made no progress in tracking down the wayward twin. Giles began to worry, which only raised his temper another notch. Robin wisely busied herself with homework upstairs in her room. At half past five, Alex quietly slipped in the front door. He waited in the foyer, eyes downcast, shoulders squared to accept whatever punishment would be laid on them. Giles rose from his seat at the dining table and pulled the end chair out, setting it down again with an audible thud. “Sit.” Alex meekly obeyed. “Where have you been?” “Out.” “Out?” Giles took a deep, calming breath. He gripped the back of Alex’s chair tightly. “Out? People are looking for you. Willow. Xander. April. John. Half your mother’s department. Watchers who should be looking for the next slayer are instead looking for you.” “I’m sorry.” “While you reflect on how sorry you are, I’m going to go call the search off.” He pointed at the chair the boy sat in and ordered firmly, “Don’t. Move.” Alone in the kitchen, Giles allowed himself a moment’s relief that his son was safe and unharmed. He sagged against the counter, the stress of the last few hours leaving him shaky and weak in the knees. He had tried to push the thought from his mind, but it kept bubbling up: the memory of a runaway Buffy. She’d been gone for the entire summer, and if the last few hours were anything like what Joyce had felt during those months, no wonder she had hated him. He had worried about Buffy in that time too, searched for her, laid awake at night, but that was nothing remotely like the paralyzing fear when it was one’s own child who was missing. But Alex hadn’t run away. And Giles could let that fear go. He made the necessary phone calls and returned to his sullen child. Now that the relief and the fear and the worry had faded, there remained only anger. He sat sideways on the tabletop and crossed his arms, glaring down on his son coolly. “You’ve been suspended from school for fighting.” No response. “You broke that boy’s nose. And his arm.” Alex did look up then, protesting strongly, “I didn’t hit him that hard. Honest.” “But you did hit him?” This Alex couldn’t deny, and he bowed his head once more. “He only did it ’cause they were picking on me,” a voice to the side piped up in defense. Robin stood on the bottom step, leaning against the banister and watching them sadly. “They were picking on me, and he was only trying to make them stop.” “Robin, go upstairs.” “But-” “Go upstairs right now!” Giles repeated himself, a bit louder and with a finger pointing the way. She turned and dashed up the stairs, slamming her bedroom door behind her. “I don’t care why you hit that boy, Alex. It’s still inexcusable. Violence is not how we solve our problems.” “Yeah, and all those swords and crossbows and stakes are just for show,” Alex muttered. “Look at me.” Giles waited for his son to meet his eyes. “With demons. To save lives. Violence is not an acceptable way to deal with people. Are we clear on the difference?” Giles was surprised he didn’t choke on the words. What a hypocrite he was. He had killed with his own hands. “I’m sorry,” Alex reiterated, as if merely saying the words was enough. “I don’t think you are. You’ve been lying to me for months, thwarting your teacher’s attempts to contact me, skipping class, neglecting your schoolwork…” Giles reached over and sifted through a stack of papers to find the most recent report card. “Forging my signature to abominable grades that are so far beneath your abilities… I… I have no words.” He waved the card in front of Alex’s face, and the boy turned his head to avoid looking. “What is this?” Giles read through the report card one more time, shaking his head. “The only decent grade you earned was for art class. A D in Math. Science. You failed history.” “Yeah, I know. Doomed to repeat it.” Giles banged the table hard. Alex jumped. “You think this is funny? You failed English for God’s sake! English! You’re fluent in Greek, Latin, and Sumerian… I guess I just assumed it was a given that you could at least pass English! What’s the matter with you?” “I don’t like school,” Alex answered feebly. “Yes, well too bad. We’re all required to do things we don’t like in this life. And as a watcher-” “But I don’t want to be a watcher!” Alex jumped up off his chair, now face-to-face with Giles, who was still sitting on the edge of the dining table. “Not ever! I don’t want to learn Etruscan or Aramaic or even plain old Spanish. Not one more language. I don’t want to catalogue artifacts or translate prophecies or memorize demon characteristics. Just ’cause your parents made you be a watcher, doesn’t mean I should have to be one too. Why do you think I’d want to be a watcher anyway? So I can have a slayer? So I can let her die the way you…” The rest of that sentence stretched out into the silence between them. When the tension became unbearable, Giles broke the silence, his voice much more controlled than the inner turmoil of his emotions. “When you are of an age to make that choice, you shall have it. Until then, I decide what you study and how hard you study it. Until then, you will receive a watcher’s education, so you might as well get used to that fact.” He rose and turned his back on his son, setting the report card down carefully on the table. His hands were shaking. “You’ve been suspended from school for three days. You’ll spend that time studying at the Watchers’ Council. I’ve scheduled extra language and history lessons, as well as tutoring in your regular schoolwork. After you return to school, I’ll be checking in with your teacher everyday and reviewing your homework every night. You’re grounded until further notice. Now go upstairs.” He listened to his son’s heavy footfalls as he stomped up the stairs, bedroom door slamming behind him. Giles sank down into a chair, tossing his glasses onto the table and rubbing one hand over his weary eyes. It had been a long day. And it was barely six o’clock yet. So I can let her die the way you… Giles erased the memory of his son’s words with a stiff drink. *** Robin slipped quietly into her brother’s room. He was sitting at his desk, drawing furiously on his sketchpad. All black and red and scary looking, whatever it was would have fit in nicely in one of their father’s monster compendiums. Not that she’d ever say so to Alex. “Hey.” “Hey,” he answered back noncommittally. “You okay?” He shrugged. “I dunno.” “You shouldn’t have hurt Tommy like that.” It had been bothering her all afternoon. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I know. I didn’t mean to.” Alex set aside his colored pencils. “I really didn’t think I hit him that hard, Robin. Honest. I was just trying to get the book back.” “I know. That’s what I meant.” She sat on the end of his bed. “You shouldn’t have hurt him like that. You shouldn’t have been able to. His nose… maybe you coulda broke that with a lucky swing. But you broke his arm, too. Without even trying.” He turned around in his chair, arm looped over the back. “What do you mean?” Robin scanned his room for something solid, substantial, unbreakable. Her eyes landed on a metal baseball bat standing up in the corner. She fetched it and handed it off to her brother. “Bend it,” she told him. He balked, trying to pass it back to her. She refused it, pushing it back to him. He looked at her doubtfully, and then took the bat in a firm grip, one hand on each end. He bent it quite easily. “How?” he asked, stunned by his success. The answer seemed obvious to her. How else could her brother have knocked down a boy half again his size? All things being equal, Tommy should have been able to cream Alex without breaking a sweat. But all things were not equal. “Alex, you’re the Slayer.” Still staring at the baseball bat he’d bent into a large horseshoe, Alex had a simple response, “Cool.” ***
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