ORIGINALLY POSTED: July 18, 2004
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 4: When Dead Vampires are Not a Good Thing “But the point of Chaos is that you can’t know every variable! That is the very nature of Chaos: that it defies all attempts to define or catalogue it.” “Yeah, but certain variables influence the outcome more than others. Knowing those variables can allow you a reasonable prediction, regardless of whatever other factors remain unaccounted for.” Ethan shook his head vigorously, his now tepid tea forgotten at his elbow. For him the debate was more than academic, it bordered on a personal crusade. He felt like a missionary saving souls. And who would have ever ascribed that particular role to him before? Here was another man who had also devoted his life to Chaos, who revered and studied, lived and breathed it as Ethan did. But rather than surrender to it, revel in its unknowable mysteries, and bask in all its power and glory, this man sought to harness it, to force it into the confines of some neat equation, to essentially bring order to Chaos. Blasphemy. And yet somehow appropriate that Janus, the two-faced god, would inspire such polar opposition in his disciples. “If there are factors still unaccounted for,” Ethan reasoned, “then how can you possibly know what effect those factors might have on the outcome?” “Past experience.” Ethan rolled his eyes. “Pffft… Past experience tells you nothing except what happened in the past. You can’t predict the future based on past experience.” Stein leaned forward. Ethan hoped he wouldn’t start drawing on the napkins again. Winning an argument by spouting off equations and physics jargon that your opponent couldn’t possibly understand could hardly be considered fair play. Train A leaves Edinburgh at 10:30am, going 60 miles an hour. Train B leaves London at 1:00pm, going 40 miles an hour. What time do they meet? On paper, all might seem straightforward. But if Chaos puts a drunken engineer behind the controls, who’s to say it doesn’t derail in Birmingham? But Stein refrained from breaking out the magic markers again. He just leaned forward and insisted, “Past experience shows you trends. Gives you the data to decide which factors are influential and which are irrelevant. With the computers we have now, we can input and analyze millions upon millions of pieces of data in mere seconds. We can begin to unravel the complex system of Chaos.” Ethan stopped him before he could wax poetic with an ode to the mighty microprocessor. “I guarantee: you could input the entire history of man into one of those bloody machines, and you still wouldn’t have any idea what might happen tomorrow. And that’s even if you had all the information in the first place, which you never do.” Stein rapped his knuckles on the table like a judge banging his gavel to regain the floor. The cups rattled. “There is order in chaos, Rayne. The size and scope are too overwhelming for a single man to see, but there is a pattern to be found in any system, no matter how complex. There are rules which govern it, and a map you can follow if you can only decode the legend.” “In the world of science alone, my friend. But magic-” “Magic is just the name we give to things we don’t understand yet.” He ticked the list off on his fingers. “Electricity, television, cellular phones, cars, radios… five hundred years ago, they would have all been considered magic. The spells we do now… I don’t know why they work, but someday someone will.” Ethan laughed. “God save us from warlocks with chemistry sets!” “Physics,” Stein corrected gently. “I apply physics to the study of chaos.” “You’re not studying Chaos; you’re trying to change it into something it’s not.” Ethan tapped the side of his nose conspiratorially. “Past experience suggests that kind of approach will eventually blow up in your face. Who knows, maybe it already has.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “You came to speak with me about the spell I arranged, remember? It was uppermost on your mind before we sidetracked ourselves by discussing our individual perspectives on Chaos. Have you forgotten already?” “I had a few questions. That’s all.” Stein leaned back in his chair, his enthusiasm for the debate flagging. Perhaps he realized that Ethan was on to something. “I’m guessing you expected one result and got something completely different.” Ethan crossed his hands neatly on the table and made no attempt to wipe the smug grin from his face. “Enlighten me, oh master of Chaos, how did you overlook even one possible outcome? If the future is so foreseeable, that is, and Order is simply masquerading in Chaos’s robes, then how could this spell have baffled you in any way?” “Oh shove it, Rayne.” The man chaffed at even the suggestion of being proved wrong. A fact to file away for later. “You know I never claimed any expertise with magic. This proves nothing, except that you’re too quick to gloat.” Ethan considered the accusation. “In retrospect, gloating has often been my downfall. I should really give it up, except… well, it’s so damn fun. But if I promise to refrain from any ‘I told you so’s, can we talk about the spell? Has Willow said anything? Did it work? Was the girl passed over?” “That part of it worked-” Ethan banged the table hard enough to upset his cold tea. Stein leapt forward to soak the spill up with napkins before it could run into both their laps. Ethan just sat there grinning. The spell had worked. He had carved his initials into the sacred branches of the slayer family tree and attained the very brass ring Ripper had reached for and come short of all these years: he had spared his friend’s child the fate of a slayer. A shame he’d never get his due credit, but somehow he didn’t think Ripper would thank him for the favor. The money Stein had paid him to arrange it would need to be reward enough. “Unchosen, just like that,” Ethan marveled. “So easy, it’s a wonder no one’s tried it before.” Not so great a wonder, he supposed. The power couldn’t be taken, only relinquished. And how many people could casually turn down such power, even power that came at such a high price? But Stein had another explanation for why it had never been done before. “It didn’t just stop her from being Called. I think it stopped anyone from being Called. If that is the case, then that would be why the watchers never used this spell to control the line of slayers, and why I need to find a way to reverse it.” “Pfft!” Ethan swirled his hand in the air in casual dismissal, a giddy smile still on his face as he reflected on his success. “Why should we care who the next slayer is? You only paid me to ensure that this particular girl didn’t get the job, and I’d say I delivered nicely. Let the watchers worry about the rest of it. That is their purpose in life after all, isn’t it?” The even, patient expression Stein leveled at Ethan slowly melted the happy grin off his face. In the sudden silence, he could hear someone ordering at the register across the room and the ring of the bell as another customer entered the store. Measuring up the man seated across from him, Ethan realized he’d missed all the warning signs. “Crap. You’re a watcher too, aren’t you?” “You didn’t know?” Ethan rubbed his fingers over his brow, shaking his head in frustration. “I thought you were just a professor at the University with Willow. She never said you were a watcher.” He pointed an accusatory finger, as if Stein were somehow responsible for this oversight. “And you demonstrated far too much independent thought for me to ever assume they’d brainwashed you into their club. You’re a disciple of Chaos, for Janus’ sake!” Stein laughed. “All those conversations about chaos… magic… slayers…?” “I assumed you got that from Willow.” Ethan shook his head. “I’m an idiot.” Stein didn’t contradict him. “And when you called to inform me that this girl had approached you about a spell to prevent her from becoming the next slayer… you weren’t calling a watcher to offer him a chance to fix the slayer lottery, were you?” “I thought you’d appreciate a real life experiment in Chaos. You know, a chance to put all our theoretical discussions to the test. I would have never expected a watcher to go along with it. Plus… plus, I knew you could pay me, and the girl couldn’t.” In all honesty, it was that last reason that had decided him on involving Stein. Stein continued to laugh. He was enjoying Ethan’s discomfort far too much for Ethan’s taste. “Well, now that you know I’m a watcher, what’s it going to take for you to help me put all this right?” “There isn’t enough gold in the whole bloody world, thank you very much!” Ethan rose, but Stein snatched him by the wrist to prevent him from leaving. “So I’m a watcher. So what?” “You don’t understand. Ripper connects this to me, and he’ll kill me. I know he’s made idle threats before, but this time I’m fairly convinced he’d follow through. He’s completely lost his sense of humor since his slayer died, and I’m afraid I’ve used up my share of second chances.” “Ripper?” Ethan relaxed slightly. “You don’t know him? Thank God for small mercies.” “Ripper…? Rupert…? Rupert Giles?” “Knew I couldn’t be that lucky,” Ethan groaned, sinking back into his chair. “You do know him then?” “You could say I’m something like his first officer.” “Yes, that is just my luck: making deals with Ripper’s right hand man.” “You’re afraid of Giles?” This started Stein on a laughing streak to rival Jerry Lewis on Prozac. “He has hidden depths,” Ethan insisted. Gasping for breath, it took Stein a moment to get the words out, “I assure you: Giles is incapable of killing another human being, not even if he had to.” “Obviously, you don’t know him as well as I do. Now if you’ll excuse me…” Ethan stood and slid his empty chair in beneath the table with an air of finality. “Ordinarily, I live for helping my fellow man, but in this particular instance, you’re on your own. Good luck. I’d start with the ‘Reshnelan Chronicles,’ maybe skim through ‘Khoeland’s Dreamlands.’ Don’t bother with the old hag who cast the spell. She skipped town practically the same day.” Ethan ticked through the relevant information in his head and decided that was everything he could offer. “And as payment for pointing you in the right direction, I’ll thank you to refrain from mentioning my name to your ‘boss’ in connection with this little… fiasco. Actually, I’ll thank you to refrain from mentioning my name period. No sense planting ideas in his head.” “That’s it? You’re just leaving?” Loud enough to draw curious stares. Ethan pondered the question just long enough to lend the illusion that he’d pondered it. “Yes.” Stein chased him to the door. Ethan hoped he’d be spared any impassioned pleas to reconsider. The whole thing was turning into a scene, a scene the eavesdropping coffee shop patrons likely imagined as a breakup scene. But the man seemed to accept when the battle was hopeless. Not like Giles, who never gave up, not even in the face of insurmountable odds. Maybe there was hope for his successor after all. Stein only asked, as if this was his last chance for an answer, “I just have to know: why does he hate you so much?” “In general? Or now, in particular?” “You and Willow are still friends, and he seems okay with that. But he won’t even say your name.” Ethan considered lying, toyed with the idea of inventing some tale that would reveal himself as the misunderstood hero of the piece, but he would gain nothing from the effort. And the truth… the truth was something Stein would learn eventually anyway. “I bring out the worst in him. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve happened to be there when he was at his worst. He’s forgiven me more than any other man would have, but this last was too much even for him: I forced him to keep going when he wanted the world to stop.” Stein nodded, although Ethan didn’t think he could possibly understand. Understanding the shifting and multifaceted relationship between two sorcerers who had drifted back and forth between friend and enemy like the ebb and flow of the tide for nearly forty years… Well, it was no more possible for an outsider to grasp than it was possible for physics to unlock the mysteries of Chaos. Unfortunately, Ethan didn’t think he’d have the opportunity to teach the professor that last lesson. Stein would apparently need to learn the hard way, and Chaos could be an unforgiving teacher. Just ask Randall. *** Robin came down for dinner alone and subdued. Her eyes flicked briefly to the wine glass beside her father’s plate. Giles rarely drank anything in front of the children, but tonight he’d made an exception, and she’d apparently noticed. He was careful not to drink too much, one drink earlier, another with dinner, just enough to dull the sting of his son’s words – So I can let her die the way you… – but not enough to allow him to forget them. If Robin disapproved, she held her tongue. “Your brother’s not joining us?” he asked. “He said he’s not hungry.” Giles only nodded. Robin didn’t appear very hungry either; she pushed her food around endlessly and separated all the onions and mushrooms out to one side. “Is your hand feeling any better?” She nodded and reached for a roll, busying herself with buttering it meticulously. “Is something the matter, Robin? That boy Alex fought with… you said he was bullying you?” She shrugged, eyes avoiding his. “It’s not important.” “I can tell something is weighing on you. If it’s your brother... You do know you’re not responsible for the trouble he’s in? The fight at school was only part of it… the proverbial straw.” “I wasn’t thinking about that.” “Oh.” Giles had been so certain that her brother was uppermost on her mind. “I was thinking about the Slayer.” “Oh?” For some reason, he had assumed she wouldn’t give it a second thought the moment it became obvious she’d been passed over. Her forehead crinkled up as she puzzled through whatever it was she was trying to articulate. Her words seemed tentative, a rough draft of her thoughts. “If no one ever finds that… person… what happens to him – I mean her? Do they just get to have a normal life?” “Maybe. For a while. At the cost of who knows how many innocent lives. But no one can outrun a slayer’s life forever, Robin. It Chooses them; they don’t exactly get to say no. Eventually, evil would find her, be drawn to her: vampires, demons, gods… Even if she didn’t live on a hellmouth, her backyard would soon become one, and she’d have to fight or die.” A brief pause as Giles considered how few people really got to choose their lives. He had hoped that his children, at least, would have limitless possibilities stretched out before them, any number of paths to walk. Maybe they could still have that. He smiled soothingly for his daughter. These were things she shouldn’t have to worry about. “That’s why we’re doing everything in our power to identify her: so a watcher can find her before anything else does.” She nodded and asked no more questions of him, but she was still clearly troubled by something. Her emotions had always influenced her appetite, ever since he’d rescued her from the McGregors’ burning house at three years old and she’d refused food for a full day. So he could tell by how little she ate just how troubled she must be. He did notice, however, that she didn’t shy away from stockpiling rolls into the folded napkin in her lap. She did it while his back was turned to pour another glass of wine. Apparently, she’d forgotten that the opposite wall had a mirror. After he’d resumed his seat, he cleared the faint smile from his lips and informed her very seriously, “You needn’t sneak food up to your brother. Starving wasn’t part of his punishment.” She blushed, caught out. “Take him up a plate when you go.” She took that as permission to leave, dishing out a plate for Alex and heading for the stairs. She returned a moment later, pausing in the foyer as if mentally debating something with herself. She hesitantly approached her father, standing at his side. “Father?” “Hmm?” The fingers of one hand absently twisted the stem of his wine glass. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be the Slayer.” “I’m not.” He cupped his hand against her cheek tenderly, and then brushed her soft hair back over her shoulder. He had wanted a daughter to remind him of Buffy, with her blue eyes and bright smile. And his wish had been granted. But it was not in laughter or joy that the resemblance was most striking. It was when Robin carried a sadness beyond her years that Giles could see her mother most clearly. Robin leaned closer and pressed a light kiss to his cheek before gliding off to deliver her wayward brother’s dinner. How could she think he would ever regret her not becoming the Slayer? No matter who went in her place, however young, however unprepared, better anyone else than her. Even no slayer was better than his daughter. He couldn’t imagine ever regretting that she had been spared. *** Willow didn’t bother to call ahead. When asking for favors, it was always better to catch Ethan unprepared. If he’d known she was coming, he’d have probably arranged to be elsewhere, and if he’d known why she was coming, he’d have probably managed to remain elsewhere until the crisis passed. “Fair weather friend” wasn’t exactly a fair description. After all, the man had come through when Giles had hit rock bottom, even if his methods could be considered unorthodox. But for anything short of rock bottom, Ethan was content to stand back and leave everyone else to play white knight. Which meant she’d have to back him into a corner if she wanted him to lift a finger. She buzzed his apartment, surprised both by his tone when answering and by the fact he answered at all. Usually he magicked the outside door open, and she scolded him, and then he complained that Giles’ repressive tendencies were rubbing off on her. It was their standard hello routine. This time, he snapped, “You’re late!” his irritation evident even through the tinny intercom speaker. And then the lock clicked off before she could respond. She opened the outside door, baffled by her reception. Had Ethan been expecting her? Apparently not, judging by his expression when he opened his apartment door to her. She sidestepped past him before he could slam it in her face. “Oh, soddin’ hell! What do you want?” “Nice to see you too.” She didn’t know why she was so insulted; Ethan had never exactly cared about social graces before. “I was going to ask ‘how was your trip?’ But I guess I should start with ‘Who cast the grouch spell on you?’ instead.” That’s when she noticed the suitcases leaning against the wall and the boxes stacked on every available surface. “You’re leaving again? But you just got back.” The betrayal in her voice surprised even her. “You saying you’ll miss me?” He pressed his hand over his heart in mock appreciation of her sentiment. “How touching.” She pulled a worn spellbook from the open box nearest her. Beneath rested half his library collection, the rest stacked in the box beside it. She wandered through his living room, glancing at the contents of several other boxes. She lifted out an erotic Greek statuette of two men enjoying each other’s company, a tongue-in-cheek gift she’d brought him back from one of her watcher hunting expeditions. She replaced the chipped statue on the bookshelf where she knew it belonged. All his shelves were empty. The doors to all his closets stood open, only empty hangers hanging from their rods. She faced him, all the reasons for her visit blown completely out of her head. “You’re not just leaving on another trip, are you? You’re leaving leaving. For good.” “How very astute of you.” He retrieved the statue from the empty bookcase and packed it away again. “But… but…” To her eternal embarrassment, her vision was blurring as her eyes filled with tears. “You weren’t even going to say goodbye?” Her voice rose at the end like a small child. “What’s this?” he asked, wiping one errant tear off her cheek and then inspecting the drop of water clinging to his fingertip. “Tears for the villain?” “You’re not a villain, Ethan, not really.” “Might be wise to hold off on that verdict; the jury’s still out.” He left the room, and she sank down onto his sofa. Her mind was spinning, and this was so not the conversation she had been rehearsing in her head on the way over. He returned with packing tape, sealing each box, watching her out of the corner of his eye. The front door buzzed, and he answered. The cab that he had been waiting for, that he had mistaken her for, had arrived. And all Willow could think to do to delay his departure was to offer him a ride herself. And all she could think of to say after he’d sent the driver away was: “Why?” “Why do you even need to ask? You know I don’t belong here anymore. You’re the only one who’ll care if I go.” “Just give him time, Ethan.” “It’s been two years. How much time does he need?” Willow didn’t have an answer for that. Ethan sighed and pushed one of the boxes on the coffee table to the side. He sat down in its place, facing her, hands on his knees. She did her best to avoid his eyes. “I’m going to be straight with you,” she heard the sly grin in his voice as he finished, “and for once you won’t even need to get me drunk first.” She giggled a little, and sniffled, and then she did meet his eyes. He looked tired, and he looked old. She never thought of Giles or Ethan as old, but they were both close to sixty now. “I don’t expect to be forgiven for what I did, Willow, and it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as you seem to think it should. I sacrificed a friendship to save a friend. It was damn noble of me, even if you are the only one in the whole world who agrees with me, and I think I should go now, before you end up hating me too.” He stood, and she grabbed his wrist to keep him from walking away. “Stay,” she asked him simply. “I don’t know when I stopped thinking of you as his friend, but I did. Now you’re my friend, too. And I want you to stay. You’re the only one who can understand the dark Willow part of me. Xander can’t. Giles can, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to remember me like that, and I don’t blame him. But sometimes I need to remember me like that. Please, Ethan, I still need you, even if he doesn’t.” She could see the answer in his eyes. The decision had been made long before her arrival, and whatever she said to him was irrelevant. He jerked his hand from her grip and hurried to the opposite side of the room, busying himself with sticking shipping labels on each packed box. “Need me? Please!” He slapped the labels on roughly, rattling the contents of each box slightly in his haste. “The only thing people could ever possibly need me for is to stir up trouble. If that’s what you needed me for, I’d be happy to stay. But no, you want me to piece things together for you, a helpful and productive member of the gang. You forget: people don’t like the way I fix things.” He stopped abruptly and turned to point at her. His eyes were hard, whatever softness he’d shown her moments before banished. “Look, let’s just call it a stalemate. You’ve been trying to reform me, and I’ve been trying to corrupt you, and a decade later neither one of us has made headway. Let’s just shake hands across the net and return to our separate sides of the court, shall we?” “We were never on opposite teams, Ethan. You were never totally evil. You just dabbled sometimes. You’re a dabbler.” His mouth opened and closed before any sound came out. Pure indignation was a thing rarely seen on Ethan’s face. “I am most certainly not a dabbler.” “A dab of evil, a dab of good. You do dabble.” She got up off the couch, things becoming clearer to her now that she’d processed the fact that he was leaving. “And you don’t fool me with this mean routine. You’re just being nasty so I’ll get mad, and you can skip the whole goodbye scene. Sorry, Buckeroo, goodbyes will be exchanged, and I’m gonna cry all over your shirt, and you’re gonna have to watch the whole blubbery scene. So you better just get used to it.” “My, my, is this dominatrix persona what attracted your last girlfriend? Please tell me there are whips and leather involved when you speak to her like that.” Willow rolled her eyes. “And you’re not going to put me off with rude, pervy comments either. In fact, if you don’t stop trying to get out of it, I’m gonna save the big, dramatic, weepy goodbye scene for the airport lobby, where we’ll have a whole huge audience to enjoy the show.” “You’re insufferable.” “Yeah, and you’re gonna miss that about me.” She helped him label the rest of his boxes, an obviously temporary address: a hotel in London. Where he planned to go after that, she didn’t know. Tracking him down would be pointless; if he wanted to disappear, she knew she’d never find him again. She helped him load his suitcases in her car, and then they took their seats, the finality of their next conversation momentarily stealing her speech. Ethan broke the awkward silence, “Have we arrived at the mawkish goodbye already?” “No.” Willow started the engine. For some reason, sitting in the driver’s seat made her feel in control of the conversation suddenly, and she remembered why she’d come to him in the first place. “But there was something I wanted to talk to you about; it’s really why I came tonight.” He groaned. “So it’s true: there’s no such thing as a free ride.” “Well, you don’t have to help if you don’t want to. It’s okay. I mean, if the entire Watcher’s Council couldn’t figure it out, I don’t know why I thought you could. Never mind.” He had to have seen through her transparent attempt at manipulation. He was probably just humoring her when he said, “Go on then, try me.” But at least he was willing to listen. “I don’t know if you heard, but Faith finally died.” “Tragic.” Willow rolled her eyes. “It’s okay, you don’t have to pretend to care.” “No, truly, it is a tragedy. Faith was the sort of slayer I could actually respect: not self-righteous, not a puppet of the Council, not willfully in denial of the darkness she drew her power from. She was human, flawed.” “Not to mention a regular chaos generator.” Ethan smirked, the cat-that-ate-the-canary kind of smirk that no one else could match. “Of course, that was her best quality.” “Here’s the catch, though: Robin wasn’t Called.” “Really? How perplexing…” Willow was suddenly wishing they weren’t having this conversation in the car where she had to watch the road instead of his face. There was something odd, something suspicious in his voice. “Yeah,” she agreed, glancing over at him and taking mental snapshots to review later. “And even weirder: we haven’t found who was Called. None of the girls we’ve been watching… all dead ends. We’ve tried spells and prophecies and psychics…” She slammed the brakes a little too hard at the red light. “What else is there? What are we missing?” Waiting for the light to turn, she could study his face. Willow knew his tells. He gave himself away with the finger brushing across his lip as he thought. “Why are you asking me? I’m not a watcher. How the bleedin’ hell am I supposed to know how to find a slayer?” “Ethan…” Her tone was warning, scolding. “You know something.” He waved her attention up to the stoplight. “Doesn’t get any greener.” She accelerated through. “What do you know, Ethan?” “Nothing!” “Come on, you didn’t sound at all surprised that Robin wasn’t Called.” “The real question should be: why were all of you so surprised? Why did you assume you had it all figured out? Something so volatile, so mystical as the Calling of a slayer: a warrior of light who draws her power from the darkness. The very contradiction as much as invites Chaos to have a bit of fun with all your predictions and theories, don’t you think? And Faith was the most contradictory of all the slayers. When did she ever do what anyone expected of her?” “You’re saying you think chaos had something to do with it?” “More than you think.” Willow made the turnoff for the airport, drumming her thumbs against the steering wheel and trying to figure out how to keep Ethan from running off before the conversation ended. He always connected everything to chaos, but this time he might be on to something. Besides, she couldn’t afford to be picky about her leads right now. “Would Stein be able to help research the chaos stuff? I mean, whenever you two started talking about it, he seemed to know as much as you.” “He knows, but he doesn’t understand.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means, little grasshopper, that like a man who has studied fire from a textbook, who has memorized its chemical composition and analyzed its theoretical reactions with theoretical kindling, he has yet to understand that if you touch it, it burns.” She had pulled up to the drop-off curb and was looking at him when he said the last. “In other words, he is an arrogant know-it-all in dire need of a real world education.” “I thought you liked him.” “Oh, I do.” Ethan grinned. “And I especially like watching know-it-all types get cut down to size. Particularly when they’re not me.” A deep sigh of regret as his eyes drifted up to the lights of the airplanes passing overhead. “But unfortunately, I won’t be here to witness him fall off that pedestal. You see, I’ve finally learned to just do the damage and get out of town.” “Damage?” “Simply a figure of speech, my dear.” His hand was reaching for the door handle, and somehow Willow didn’t think turning on the childproof locks would be enough to stop a chaos sorcerer. Damn Chrysler. There should be some kind of add-on for that. “Wait! Don’t go yet. You haven’t really told me what to look for.” “Keep your eye on Stein. That’s the only advice I can offer.” He opened the car door, and she grabbed his wrist to stop him leaving. She’d been so focused on her task during the drive, now that the parting moment had arrived, her tears ambushed her. “We haven’t said goodbye yet either.” She heard the tremor in her voice, felt the warm flow of tears down her cheeks. With one swift twist, he slipped from her grip and was holding her by the wrist instead. He bent to place a tender kiss at her pulse. “Let’s just leave it at this then: Be seeing you.” *** Alex waited until the house was sleeping. Now that he knew he was the Slayer, the Chosen One, the one boy in all the world with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, now he knew, he could feel the power and strength in his muscles, the heightened awareness, the sharpened agility and reflexes that gangly preteen limbs could never have aspired to. He had tested his newfound gifts all evening long, like a child might worry at a loose tooth. Rolling pencils off the end of the desk, he had waited until they nearly hit the floor before catching them. Throwing tacks at his wall, he had thrilled at his aim. He had effortlessly snapped a pen in half with one hand (only tried that once; the ink splattered everywhere). He had snatched a fly out of the air with his eyes closed and had held a perfect one-handed handstand until his face turned red. While his father and sister were having dinner, Alex had stayed upstairs, digging out the little wooden sword he’d had as a child and enacting mock battles with imaginary foes. He had waited restlessly for the house to fall asleep, so he could test his powers for real. The weapons closet downstairs still had a lock, although Alex and Robin were tall enough to reach by now. Alex wondered if he was taller than his mother now. It had been over two years. But if he tried to sneak down the stairs or go out the front door, his father would surely hear him. Giles kept a weapons trunk in his bedroom, but that wasn’t a possibility either. So Alex made do with the one wooden stake he kept in his desk drawer, a pocket full of sharpened wooden pencils, and the cross off the wall above his headboard. He opened the window silently, well practiced at the art of sneaking out. His mom had confided in him that she’d done the same when this had been her room. Out the window, over to the larger branches that reached nearly to the roof, then slither down the tree and drop to the ground. She’d told him this, not to plant ideas in his head (she was smart enough to know he’d already considered the possibility), but to warn him that she was one step ahead of him. He’d never climbed out his bedroom window while his mother was alive. He’d never have gotten away with it. There was a time his father would have caught him, too. But these days, there were a lot of things his father didn’t bother to notice. One foot on the windowsill, a harsh whisper froze him in place. “William Alexander!” Only fair, he supposed, that since he had caught Robin sneaking out, she would catch him doing the same. Rolling his eyes in exasperation, he dropped his foot off the windowsill and faced her. “How’d you know?” Hands firmly planted on her hips, her tone was scathing. “Because you’re just dumb enough to go off patrolling all alone. You know, that’s why slayers are always girls: ’cause boys do dumb stuff!” “I have to do this, Robin, you know I do. I’m the Slayer.” The Slayer. It sounded even cooler the more he said it. She crossed his room in a hurry, continuing their conversation in an even quieter voice. “Father would freak. And you’re in enough trouble already.” “Then we won’t tell him. Mom used to sneak out all the time when she was in high school, before her mom knew about the slaying. Dad doesn’t have to know.” “Father said I couldn’t patrol until I was fifteen. You know he’d say the same for you.” That was debatable. Somehow Alex didn’t think the son would be as difficult to sacrifice as the daughter, considering the fact that his father had chosen her once before. “I don’t care. I have to do this.” Alex swung his legs over the windowsill, determined to follow through with his plan. He’d grown up on sacred duties, and one thing he’d learned about them: nothing, not even meddling sisters, could stand in the way of a grand, sacred destiny. “You’re not going by yourself.” She pulled a stake from her back pocket and held it in a ready pose. “I’m going with you.” “No, you’re not.” “Yes, I am.” “No, you’re not.” They had inherited their mother’s dazzling debating skills. “Yes, I am.” Robin drew herself up to her full height, possibly even standing on her toes a little. “William Alexander, you may have the power of the Slayer, but you don’t know how to use it.” He crossed his arms and glared at her. “And you do?” “I’ve been training for it for three years. I know more about being the Slayer than you do.” He rolled his eyes. “So what does that make you? My watcher?” What he said with sarcasm, she accepted as a suggestion. “You need a watcher.” Alex could see the resolve in her face and her posture. He knew he wouldn’t get out of the house without her. “Fine. But stay out of the way.” He helped Robin climb down. The branches of the tree by his window were spaced further apart than the tree by hers, and she was less skilled at sneaking out in the dead of night anyway. His new slayer powers notwithstanding, he could have been up and down the tree three times by the time he helped her to the bottom branch. She would have made a rotten mountain climber. They dropped the last few feet to the ground and both held their breath, waiting to see if their father had heard the thud. But his window remained dark and still. They headed off towards the nearest cemetery, seemingly by mutual agreement, although they hadn’t discussed it. They were often able to sync up like that without trying. “Twin-epathy,” Uncle Xander had dubbed it. Their gaits matched as they strode down the sidewalk with purpose and false confidence. In truth, now that he had fled the safety of his house and actually embarked on this vampire hunting mission, Alex found himself with a bit of the jitters. And Robin seemed petrified, the stake shaking in her hand and her path drifting closer and closer to his until she seemed attached to his hip. The slightest noise made them both jump, hearts beating faster and eyes scanning their surroundings for the source. He made quiet conversation, to distract himself as much as her. “I thought you said there’d be dreams,” he asked her. “When Dad thought it’d be you, he said you’d have dreams. I haven’t had any slayer dreams.” Thinking about something else seemed to calm her, although her voice trembled slightly as she answered. “Wesley said that when they locked my magic away, they did the spell to you too.” Alex stopped, and she knocked into his shoulder. “I have magic?” She shrugged. “I dunno. I think they did it just to be safe. But maybe that’s why you haven’t had any dreams.” He considered the possibility. Just this morning, he’d woken up as a normal boy with this undiscovered slayer power buried inside him, and now maybe there was even more power waiting somewhere inside him too. Alex wondered what kind of boy he’d wake up as tomorrow. “Maybe we should undo the spell. Maybe I should have the dreams. Maybe they’re important.” Robin hooked her arm through his and forced him to keep walking. “Or maybe we shouldn’t push our luck.” They paused beneath the archway welcoming them into Eternal Peace Cemetery. Trading nervous glances, they gripped their stakes tighter and marched through. They stopped in front of the first gravestone in the first row. They stood there quietly, heads bowed, hands crossed, hearts pounding in their ears, as if they’d just come to pay their respects. He’d expected vampires to be waiting on the other side of the gate, like caged animals in a zoo. He hadn’t planned for the possibility of no vampires in the cemetery. He hadn’t the foggiest idea where else to look for them. His mom had always talked about patrolling, making the rounds of the cemeteries; she made it sound like that’s where they lived. Robin pointed at the gravestone they were so seriously contemplating. “I don’t think she’s gonna come up. She died a hundred years ago.” “Oh.” They traded glances. “So…” “So…” They looked around the empty cemetery. The adrenaline rush was rapidly dissipating. Robin offered out a plan: “Let’s look for new graves.” Sounded logical. They wandered through each row, keeping to the path, not stepping on graves, although neither one of them was certain why that was taboo. They completed their tour, and no vampires. This patrolling thing was turning out to be totally lame. And Alex was beginning to wonder what his parents were really up to all those hours they’d spent “patrolling” and he’d spent at the babysitter’s. By the time he was eight, he’d already gotten pretty suspicious about all the “training” they did together. “Now what?” he asked his sister. “Well, there are eleven more cemeteries. Let’s try the next one.” After the third empty cemetery, he was ready to give up and go home. Of course, as luck would have it, it was on the walk home that they finally spotted a vampire. Crossing the street, a man’s arm looped over her shoulder, the sounds of flirtatious laughter echoing in her wake, the woman looked like any other woman on a date. For some reason, Alex had expected vampires to wear long, black leather coats like Uncle Spike and Angel, to scowl and move with a dangerous grace, like black panthers on the hunt. This vampire twisted one ankle on her high heels and hopped awkwardly for a few steps to recover. But he was certain she was a vampire. He had felt his stomach knot up in a way he had never experienced before, and yet immediately recognized. Robin tugged on his sleeve. “I think she’s…” “Yeah, she is.” He gave his sister a double take. “How’d you know?” “I haven’t seen anyone wear an outfit like that since Mom dropped us off for our first day of kindergarten.” “So it’s dated?” “Like carbon dated.” Alex smiled. It sounded like something their mother would have said. “Come on, let’s follow them.” They followed them as far as the front door of the Bronze. The vampire and her date/victim strolled right in. Alex and Robin, however, were stopped by a very large man who stepped in front of them and blocked the entire doorway. He chuckled as he requested, “ID.” “We just need to go in for a sec,” Alex pleaded. A little firmer. “ID.” “We’re not gonna drink,” Robin promised. The bouncer stooped to put himself eye level. “Look, kids, you gotta be in at least high school to get in whether you’re gonna drink or not. And you’re what? Ten?” “Thirteen!” they both chorused indignantly. “Vamoose!” he shouted, straightening to his full, intimidating height. Alex, ever the resourceful liar, said, “Those were our parents who just went in. We just hafta ask them something. Please, mister.” The bouncer smelled a lie better than Giles, apparently. “Nice try, kid. Now scram, before I call the police to come help you ‘find’ your parents.” He winked as he said it, the insinuation clear. “Alex, let’s go,” Robin tugged on his sleeve, trying to pull him backwards. “Before we get in trouble.” They gave up on getting in the front door and instead walked around to the alleyway behind the club. Hopefully the vampire would lure her date out there to feed, and they could stake her then, but the only patrons who came out the back door were drunk ones who needed a secluded place to vomit. “It’s one in the morning, Alex. I’m tired. And this patrolling thing isn’t turning out so great. We should just go home.” “I wanna catch her first. You know she’s gonna kill that guy if I don’t.” Robin sighed. “They probably left through the other door already.” “I guess.” He kicked at an empty beer bottle in frustration. It shattered against the brick wall. “Even Mom couldn’t save everyone,” she consoled him. BANG! CRASH! The echo reverberated through the alley like thunder. They both jumped and grabbed for each other, snapping their heads towards the source of the unexpected noise. “What the…?” Alex was breathing too hard to finish. His heart was pounding a steady drumbeat beneath his sister’s response. “Something fell in the dumpster from…” Robin pointed at the roof just above them. A shadow stepped away from the edge, too fleeting to identify. She let go of his arms, moving slowly towards the dumpster in question. He followed right behind. They both inched forward in slow motion, pausing between each timid step. It was like one of those awful horror movies, where you were screaming at the characters on screen to just turn around and run away. For God’s sake, don’t investigate the mysterious noise! But his feet were still moving, as apparently were Robin’s. They stopped next to the dumpster’s rusty metal side, trading glances. Everything was still, too still. He could almost hear the creepy music that would play behind such a moment. His vivid imagination did nothing to settle his nerves. His mind played a steady stream of full Technicolor movies filled with creatures worse than any he’d studied during his watcher’s training, all leaping out of the dumpster to kill them both horribly. Being the Slayer offered little comfort against that scenario. “You look,” Robin told him, nudging him forward. “You’re the Slayer.” It sounded far less cool when his sister said it, especially under their current circumstances. “So? That doesn’t mean I have to look.” “Yes, it does. Being the Slayer means you have to look first.” “So if you’re my Watcher, what do you do? Stand there and watch?” “Pretty much.” “Figures. I think you’re just making these rules up as you go along,” he grumbled, even as he relented and stretched up on his tiptoes to see over the top. He still wasn’t quite tall enough, so Robin knelt beside him with her fingers laced together. Accepting the two-handed boost she offered him, he grabbed the top rim and pulled himself up. “Ewww! Gross!” he complained. “What? What’d you see?” “Nothing yet,” his nose still crinkled up in disgust, “but the top of this dumpster is really sticky.” “Oh, for God’s sake! What do you see?” “A lot of garbage. Hang on.” He swung his legs up and over, standing up on the garbage mound and poking around the mess with his feet. Shifting some newspapers and cardboard boxes to one side, he found what had been dropped off the roof. He jerked back reflexively, his thigh knocking against the dumpster’s side. “What is it?” Robin demanded. “A body.” The seriousness of that answer silenced them both. Until this exact moment, becoming the Slayer had seemed like a superhero gig to Alex. But now, while standing over a real dead body, his enthusiasm for the position was rapidly waning. Mostly when remembering what it had been like to grow up the son of the Slayer, his memories belonged to the little boy whose mother could do back flips and cartwheels across the training room like he’d only seen in the Olympics, whose mother could win him any toy he wanted at the State Fair (until they banned her from all the game booths), whose mother was faster and stronger and braver than any other boy’s mother. Alex had watched her spar against his father, had watched her take him down again and again, had watched her flip through the air like she could fly, had watched her hit the bull’s-eye over and over again with crossbows and throwing daggers and her police issue revolver. He had watched her, wanting to move like her, wanting to be her. Standing over the dead woman’s body, surrounded by stinky garbage, Alex wanted to give all his powers back. Because now he was remembering everything else about his mother, all the moments he had pushed out of his mind, all the times his father had ordered him back to bed when he caught him loitering in the hallway in the middle of the night, stealing glimpses of his mother’s bruises and the bloody rags stacked in the bathroom sink. He remembered the way she kissed him goodnight before patrol sometimes, as if saying goodbye. He remembered hard plastic hospital chairs and dozing against his father’s shoulder. He remembered the night his mother didn’t come home. “Are you sure they’re dead?” Robin whispered softly. “I mean, maybe they’re just hurt, and you know, we should…” “No, she’s dead.” Alex didn’t bother whispering, feeling a bit less somber than his sister. Whenever the woman at his feet had died, it hadn’t been tonight. She’d already been buried and mourned by anyone who had cared for her, rising again to become the very vampire he and his sister had tailed to the Bronze. Dumped off the roof and not a drop of blood. Even vampires bleed. And after a fall from that height, even a preternaturally strong vampire should bleed at least a little. A dead vampire would be dust. And an undead vampire wouldn’t just lay there at his feet, a brain-dead vegetable with a vacant stare. So pale, even for a vampire. Not a drop of blood, because she didn’t have any. A vampire starved of blood slowly loses higher brain function until eventually going comatose. A vampire drained of blood skips right to the finish. This Alex knew from his watcher’s training and from the horror stories his Uncle Spike told him on occasion when describing his first days with the chip. Vampires needed blood to animate the demon inside. The vampire at Alex’s feet was so far gone, fresh blood pumping a foot away couldn’t stir her instincts to feed. He drew the stake from his pocket. Easy to hit the heart when the target wasn’t moving. His first dusting as the Slayer, and he could find no satisfaction in it. “Was she a…?” Robin asked when she saw him pull out the stake. “Yeah. And now she’s dust.” He climbed out of the dumpster and dropped to the ground. Brushing himself off, cursing the vampire dust that clung to everything, he started off towards home, Robin falling in line behind. He didn’t tell his sister that he’d just staked the same vampire they’d followed. He didn’t mention that she’d been drained. Drained vampires were not a good thing. The only time he ever remembered hearing anyone talk about finding drained vampires was two years ago. Two years ago, just before his mother died. *** “He doesn’t hate you.” Buffy was intently carving something into the weathered and twisted trunk of the tree they were standing beneath. She methodically peeled off strips of thick bark to expose a smoother working surface beneath. Curls of wood shavings gathered at her feet like the mulch his mother had used to line her flowerbed. Buffy shook her head, whether in frustration at him or at the slow yielding of the wood beneath her penknife, he wasn’t sure which. “He could never hate you, Giles. He worships you.” “No, you were the one he always worshipped. Now that you’re gone, he blames me for it.” “Is that such a surprise? You blame yourself. You beat yourself up about it everyday. Alex just believes what your eyes tell him.” Giles ran his fingers over the rough grooves of bark, traced his eyes up along the dense tangle of branches. This tree was stouter than he remembered their tree being. Old, worn, gray. He knew what that felt like. Buffy switched the knife to her other hand, flexing cramps out of her fingers. “He’s not going to stop blaming you until you stop blaming yourself.” She nodded towards her carving. “Whadya think?” He inspected her work for a moment, stealing a glance to the side to judge how invested she was in his opinion. “It’s… it’s…” Like when the children had been younger and had eagerly brought him unrecognizable pieces of artwork, he stalled in hopes that she would clue him in on what exactly he was looking at before he insulted her efforts by calling it a dog or an elephant, when clearly it was supposed to be a giraffe. She rolled her eyes, exasperated. “It’s not done yet,” her tone allowed the duh! at the end to remain silent. “What do you think of it so far?” “Yes, yes,” he nodded as if “so far” made all the difference. Clear as day. “So far it’s… it’s…” The end of that sentence still remained as murky as ever. Her carving looked like a hatchet job in lines and curves with no discernable pattern. He had an easier time with some of the ancient runic tablets that came his way. “Well, it’s not a little heart with ‘B/G Forever’ in it, but I think you’ll find this handier.” He walked around the girth of the tree, meeting her on the other side. “It’s so much bigger than I remember.” “It’s not our tree, Giles.” “It’s not?” She pointed upward. “Our tree’s up there, growing somewhere in one of those branches.” She pointed down to the ground, where bulging roots turned the topsoil bumpy. “I found the seed on the ground over there somewhere.” “This seed?” But when he reached in his pocket, the seed she’d given him in an earlier dream was gone. “You woke up before you could plant it, so I had to. Gotta plant a seed if you want to grow a tree.” She bent close to her project again, intently gouging out round holes at the intersections of all her lines. “The circle of life, Giles. I won’t sing you the song, ’cause our son pretty much soured me on it after his two month Lion King marathon when he turned three, but… full circle means things don’t always start when you think they do.” She took a few steps back from her carving and tilted her head slightly as she contemplated her work. “Being dead, I have a totally different perspective now. I can see the whole circle, but everyone standing on that circle, they just see a straight line.” She wrapped her fingers around his wrist and guided him closer to the tree. Gently, she placed his hand over her carving. “Giles, I need you to see.” The grooves beneath his fingers failed to resolve themselves into any discernable pattern in his mind. “You want me to remember,” he whispered. “Yes.” “I’ve tried so hard to forget.” He attempted to pull his hand back, but she held it firmly in place. “I know, Giles, but you’re failing to see the obvious here. You’re coming up on the million dollar question, and I don’t know how many more lifelines I can throw you. I need your final answer.” The sky flashed bright, then darkened again, the boom of thunder shaking through his chest. The storm clouds had sneaked up on him. The air cooled more every moment, and he could feel the promise of rain on the wind. He shivered. “Stay with me,” he whispered. She took his hand and gently urged him down the hill. He squeezed her hand more tightly with each step. One benefit of slayer strength: he couldn’t break her bones. The rain came tentatively at first, advanced scouts mapping the terrain. By the time they’d gone halfway down, the reinforcements had arrived, a steady downpour soaking them both through. Buffy turned her face up and laughed, catching raindrops in her mouth. She pushed him forward, past the point of no return: he could see the mouth of the cave, and he feared morning remained too far away to save him. The growl of a vampire froze him in place for a fraction of a second before he spun to deflect its blow. Two other growls sounded behind him: two vampires leaving the comfort of the dry cave they’d made their nest to join the fray. He was outnumbered. “This wasn’t what I had in mind, Giles,” his slayer scolded. “You don’t understand.” He ducked, blocked, adrenaline lending him strength. “You were gone. And this-” One vampire landed a blow to his stomach that bent him in two. A punch from another laid him flat on his back. “-this was the moment I knew it.” He scuttled backward, fingers digging for the stake in his pocket. The moment was pulling him in, drowning out the dream that had led him here. His son, he had to save his son. The vampire was on him. No time for the stake. “Incidere!” Fire arced from his hand. The rain quenched the flames, fate mocking him. He was tired of fighting. And yet his son needed him. Even without the fire, the vampire still disappeared, the dust unseen and consumed in the downpour, almost as if Giles had simply willed it so. “Giles!” He saw Stein then, running full tilt down the hill, a crossbow in one hand. The two remaining vampires saw him too, splitting up. One vampire for each of them. No longer outnumbered. “Giles, Alex isn’t here. He’s safe. It was a trick.” Stein had no time to reload. He used the crossbow to club his opponent repeatedly, a stake in the other hand, trying to slip past the creature’s blocks for a clean strike to the heart. No time to focus on Stein, Giles had his own vampire to contend with. He struggled to his feet, dodged one advance, and jumped back a few feet to put distance between them. He’d managed to pull the stake from his pocket, and he held it at the ready. The vampire brandished his own weapon: an iron mace which he twirled in front of him like a baton, mindless of its substantial weight. They circled each other, Giles keeping out of range, constantly adjusting his grip on his stake, looking for an opening. The vampire did his best to bring every arc of that mace closer to its target. Then Giles saw it. The cave she’d died in. He’d circled the vampire, and ended up facing the entrance, only a few steps from where he’d found her. Both the cave and the vampire in front of him, and the cave seemed the more menacing of the two. She was gone. He couldn’t remember why he was fighting so hard. She was gone. His son was safe. Why was he fighting so hard? The vampire gave him his opening, but he didn’t take it. The stake was a leaden weight, and his hand dropped to his side. The vampire slowed his advance, sensing that his prey was no longer running. The stake slipped through his fingers. Later he would claim that the rain had made it too slick to hold. Giles closed his eyes. End it. Nothing happened. He opened his eyes again, and the vampires were gone. Stein was gone. Just the cave, the rain, and Buffy shaking her head. Her disappointment was a stake to his heart. He bowed his head. “You gave up.” “I tried to. My adversary didn’t oblige me with a quick and merciful death. He shattered my leg first. I suppose that gave Stein enough time to rescue me. I don’t really know the rest of the story; by that point, I was unconscious.” Giles lifted his eyes to meet hers, gauging the depth of her disillusionment, but needing her to understand. “As I blacked out, I thought I saw you. It was just for a moment. I knew I was trading my life for that moment, but I was with you again, and I would have given anything to stay with you.” “This isn’t the memory you’ve been trying to forget.” “It’s one of them.” “Alright, but it’s not the one I’ve been trying to get you to remember.” She tipped her head up, water streaming down her face and slicking her hair back. The sky only seemed to be getting darker. “It stormed the day I died too. The electricity went out, and the tree branches kept banging against the upstairs windows. First time I ever remember closing the shutters.” “Buffy, I need to wake up now. I can’t do this.” She stretched her hands out, catching the rain in her hand. “How many times does it storm like this in Sunnydale, Giles? Not very often.” “I need to wake up. I’m sorry, but…” She strode over to him, determined, forceful strides. Winding her arms around his neck, she told him in a voice that brooked no argument, “Remember, Watcher-mine, I never wanted to leave you.” *** Wesley had volunteered to tutor Giles’ young son during his suspension from school. It would be a welcome distraction from their continuing fruitless search for the next slayer. Besides, sometimes setting aside a problem for a short while can lend a fresh perspective when later returning to it. It also didn’t hurt that he was fond of young Alex, that he might even see a bit of himself at that age in the boy, stumbling beneath the weight of his father’s expectations and the destiny he had never asked for. The boy was quieter than Wesley had ever remembered him being. Both children had become more withdrawn since their mother’s death, but today Alex’s sullen disposition was especially pronounced. His attention drifted. When left to read alone, he fell asleep with his cheek resting on his history textbook. Wesley allowed the door to slam behind him when he returned, startling the boy awake. “I’m sorry,” Alex mumbled, wiping sleep from his eyes and flipping through the pages of his text to find his rightful place. “I’m just—” “Tired,” Wesley finished for him. “That much is obvious. Did you not sleep well? Did you have dreams?” A sudden idea popped into his head as he asked the last question. Preoccupied with Robin’s potential, he had completely forgotten about Alex’s own gifts. The boy had foreseen Travers’ death, the fire that had nearly killed his sister, and the destruction of the Council. The same wards that had been set for his sister had also been set for him, after which the dreams had disappeared. But maybe… “No, no dreams,” Alex insisted, yawning. “Just didn’t sleep much.” Wesley pulled up a seat at the table, directly opposite, and quietly broached the subject. “Do you remember the dreams you had as a little boy?” The child’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Sometimes I had bad dreams about killer bunnies… But that was just ’cause Aunt Anya used to change the story whenever Robin made her read the ‘The Velveteen Rabbit.’” His eyes widened. “There aren’t really killer bunnies, are there?” “No, no, of course not. By dreams, I meant…” Wesley sighed. The boy had only been three years old. How much of those events could he be expected to recall? “Alex, do you remember when you were very young, before your sister came to live with your family?” “Kinda. I remember Dad used to carry me around while he made breakfast. After Robin came, we always had to sit on the counter.” “Do you remember the dreams you had then, before your sister lived with you?” Alex closed his eyes, focusing inward as if scanning through old home movies in his mind. Wesley waited him out, giving him all the time he needed to remember whatever details he could. His eyes popped open with sudden wonderment. “I used to dream about Robin all the time. It was like she already lived with us, but I was the only one who could see her.” “Yes.” “Did I… Was I…” Alex was casting about for the word. He had definitely not had enough sleep the night before. “Psychic?” Wesley absently chewed on the end of a pen as he thought. “There’s no way of telling right now.” “Because Dad and Willow set wards to stop it?” That caught him off guard. He perked up in his seat, dropping his pen. He grabbed for it again, but only managed to clumsily bounce it back and forth between hands until it tumbled to the ground like a pinball missing both flippers and rolling down the drain. He bent over to retrieve it from where it had fallen beneath the table, taking advantage of the moment to recompose himself before straightening again. He managed to sound nonchalant when he asked, “How did you know about the wards?” Alex covered his mouth with one hand, but Wesley had already seen the grin and realized the boy was avoiding eye contact to keep from laughing out loud. Wesley simply went on as if nothing had happened, ignoring the warm creep of a blush and trying to remain gravely serious. After all, their difficulty in locating the next slayer was a gravely serious matter. “Alex, how did you know about the wards?” “Robin told me. You told her that Dad and Willow set wards on both of us, because she had magic.” “Ahh, of course. I should have remembered that the two of you share everything.” The boy leaned forward eagerly, their current conversation holding his interest far more than the morning’s history lecture. “Are you going to take the wards off, so I can have the dreams again?” “I imagine your father would have misgivings about that plan.” Wesley pondered his options. There might be a chance, a small chance, that Alex’s dreams could lead them to the next slayer. And yet he remembered Giles’ fury at the suggestion of testing his daughter for slayer healing. Suggesting that they remove the wards from his son would likely lead to a similar argument. But maybe… “Maybe they could be removed temporarily. All we would need is one dream, one dream to lead us to the Slayer, and then the wards could be reset.” Wesley rose, motioning Alex back when he moved to follow. “Wait here. I need to talk to your father first.” He tapped the book that still lay open on the desk. “Chapter four. And try not to fall asleep this time.” He set off down the hall, on a mission, rehearsing the conversation in his head. He might have even mumbled some of the dialogue out loud. Completely absorbed in his task and oblivious to his surroundings, he almost knocked Willow off her feet as he turned the corner. He grabbed her by the arm to steady her balance, apologizing profusely. “Aren’t you usually teaching at the University this time of day?” “I got a sub. Something came up. We need to talk, emergency Council meeting stuff.” He nodded towards the end of the hall and Giles’ office. “I was just on my way to talk to him about something else.” “No, no, no!” Willow grabbed him by the arm and hauled him off in the opposite direction. “Giles can not know about this. We’re keeping him out of the loopy on this one.” “What is it?” Willow stopped and glanced both directions as if checking for spies. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, which seemed a little silly considering they were the only two people in the hallway. “You know my new recruit, Ahmed? Last night was supposed to be his first dusting. You know, carefully controlled conditions, captured vamp, plenty of backup?” “Dear Lord, no one was hurt, were they?” “No, no, everyone’s fine.” She waved off his concern impatiently. “But when they got there, someone had beaten them to the vamp.” “It had already been dusted? Are you sure it didn’t just escape?” “Not dusted, Wesley.” She double-checked the hallway again. Obviously whatever she was about to reveal was top secret. “Drained.” “No.” “Yes. Drained!” Her volume spiked at the end, squeaking with a touch of fear, and now Wesley took over the role of paranoid one, urgently shushing her and glancing down both sides of the hallway to see if anyone had overheard her outburst. “I can certainly see why you want to keep this from Giles. But… but…” He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. “Are you absolutely sure? It’s been more than two years. Why would it return?” Willow shrugged, head shaking. “All I know is that when they opened the cage… Surprise! The vamp’s been sucked dry. And unless you can think of another demon with vampire blood on the dinner menu and a habit for cleaning his plate… Well, heee’s baaack.” “The last slayer who faced him, died.” “Yeah, Buffy,” she added softly. “This time, there is no slayer.” “At least we’re not starting out from square one this time. I mean we already did the research, we know what we’re facing. All we need now is to figure out—” “How to kill it,” he finished glumly. “What makes you think we’ll have any more luck the second time?” “Because we have to, Wesley. We just have to.” ***
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