Morning's Echo

by Alix Adler
Copyright 2000

This story is set during the summer between Seasons Three and Four, so "Graduation" would be the pertinent spoiler. Unlike most of the things I do, this one is basically all talk, no action. Still, I like it.

Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox.

Part I

Sunnydale, California

This was going to be difficult, that was a given; there was no getting around it, so the question was how to reduce it to bearable levels. She had heard him turn off the shower about the time she finished dressing, and now she busied herself in the kitchen. He wouldn't be in any hurry, she knew, but she couldn't see him dawdling, either. He wasn't the type to dodge the inevitable just because it was awkward.

She sighed to herself; why couldn't he be more of a coward? It would simplify things enormously. In fact, they wouldn't be here at all if he weren't so damned earnest and dutiful. (Of course, the world might not be here, either. There was always that.) He was who he was, and she was who she was, and this was where they were, world without end, amen. Live with it, deal with it, get on with it.

With apt timing, he entered the kitchen just as the teakettle began to whistle. His hair was damp and characteristically untidy, and he wore the warmup suit she had laid out for him, obviously uncomfortable but carrying himself with a kind of fatalistic dignity. "Have a seat," she told him briskly. "Tea will be ready in a few minutes."

"Ah," he said. "Thank you." He took a chair, and watched her warily through wire-framed glasses. Having nothing to offer him besides the warmup suit (two sizes too large for her, it hadn't shrunk with cleaning as she had expected, but still tight on him), she had chosen her own attire with some thought to putting him at ease, and now wore a light knit blouse beneath an open men's-style shirt, with khaki shorts to complete an outfit intended to convey 'casual' without suggesting anything else.

It seemed to be working; at least, he didn't have the trapped-animal expression she had seen in most of their recent encounters. "I feel I must apologize again," he began, the familiar nervous stammer for once not in evidence. "My presence here is an unnecessary imposition ..."

She interrupted him firmly. "Giles, please. After last night, where else would you be? This was my choice, we both know that."

"Yes. Well." He blinked at her with the habitual discomfiture that could be every bit as maddening as endearing. "Given the circumstances, it was perhaps not an altogether free choice. It was ... irresponsible of me to call upon you as I did."

"I wouldn't want it to become a regular Friday night thing with us," she agreed, "but I'm not sorry. It's nice to know I have something to offer besides paying the bills and putting breakfast on the table. Speaking of which, would you like some toast along with the tea?"

"Yes, thank you." He removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. "All the same, in regard to our, um, activities last night, I believe it would be best if we --"

"Don't tell Buffy," she finished for him. "Way ahead of you."

He waited without speaking while she made toast for the both of them, then joined him at the table, tea for him and fresh-squeezed orange juice for herself. The silence between them, usually strained, was for once actually companionable. Not unexpected, after what they had shared in the pre-dawn hours: hearts racing, blood surging, crying out together at the final explosion ...

Which reminded her. "I have your clothes in the wash," she told him. "I'll dry them on the delicate cycle, so it may be awhile before they're done."

"Indeed?" He looked to her with raised eyebrows. "Given the effect the cruitl's visceral fluids had on my skin and lungs, I had rather assumed my apparel was to be consigned to the rubbish bin, if not burned outright."

"I'm just glad we were only a few blocks from here when you started wheezing, and that showering the stuff off was enough to get you breathing okay again." She wagged a finger at him. "I thought you'd stay in there forever, though. You had me worried."

"Yes, your periodic checks made your concerns quite clear. I'm sorry to have alarmed you, but I wanted to be thorough. Such toxic effects, when they do occur, tend to be serious."

"Well, you seem to have come through it all right." She spread jam on a slice of toast. "As for your clothes, I don't give up so easily. I have some protein solvents that will take out almost anything, if you can get to it quick enough. And tweed doesn't show stains the way most of Buffy's stuff does."

"One of the advantages of being a traditional Briton." His smile was almost too faint to be seen. "Yes, I had forgotten you would have prior experience with ... unconventional laundering tasks."

"Let's just say I could probably give lessons to the EPA." She returned the smile. "Over the years I've had to deal with blood, slime, tar, scales, ashes -- lots of ashes! -- paint, ichor, mucus, resin: you name it, I've seen it. Once, in the cuff of her jeans, I found an inch or so of rubbery flesh with suckers on it. Must have been part of a tentacle of some kind, though God only knows from what."

"Mm, yes." He took a careful sip of the tea. "I presume you made that discovery after you had become aware of her calling?"

"No, before. If you can believe it, I convinced myself it was from some biology lab dissection." She shook her head. "I was so willfully blind for so long, she must think her mother is the biggest idiot who ever lived."

"She doesn't," Giles replied, gently but with the vaguest hint of underlying iron. "Nor do I. If you must know ..." He trailed off, ruminated for several seconds, then went on. "In most cases, the Chosen One comes from a known pool of candidates. The Watchers Council expends substantial time and effort to ascertain their identities and prepare them for the eventuality of being summoned, so that in almost every instance the Slayer has received years of training and education by the time she is, um, activated.

"Buffy did not. For reasons difficult to explain, we were unable to locate her until after she became the Chosen One. She was catapulted into the most lethal combat on this planet with less preparation than is provided for the average cab driver, and yet she has become possibly the greatest Slayer in history. Even granting her own remarkable qualities, one must suppose some additional reason for her success." His gaze rested on Joyce. "I personally believe parental example to be the most likely explanation. Occasionally I've fancied that, under other circumstances, you might have been Slayer material yourself."

Something in his tone told her this wasn't gallant flattery, he actually meant it. "That's really nice of you, but I'm afraid I can't agree. She and I are nothing alike, much as I might wish we were. That time she was ill, and came after the vampire who had kidnapped me: right then she was no stronger than I was, but she still outfought him and outthought him and burned his black heart out. That's not me. I could never be like that."

Giles looked away, blinking rapidly, suddenly flustered for no reason she could see. "Um. Yes. Perhaps. She is indeed unique. But even before you learned of your daughter's status, I heard reports of your intervening with a fire axe at a critical point; and, of course, there was your quick action with the machete earlier this morning. You underrate yourself, I think."

She sighed. "I wish I believed that. I wish I thought Buffy believed it. You know she sent me out of town, just before graduation?"

"I knew," he admitted. He would not insult her by adding that he had been relieved at knowing she would be out of harm's way.

"Leaving was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Joyce went on, her eyes bright with tears she would never, never shed in his presence. "But she said I would get her killed if I stayed. What else could I do, once she told me that?"

Giles drew in a sharp breath. "She told you? She gave you a direct warning?" He was absolutely gaping at her, and pulled himself together with a start. "Forgive me, I ... I had always assumed she averted your attendance at the ceremony by some subterfuge; that's what the other youngsters did. For her to put that kind of trust in you ... well, it is really quite extraordinary."

"Why?" she asked, with a bitterness he had heard from her only once before. "Rule Seven in the Slayer Ops Manual? Never tell your mother the truth?"

Here, at least, he was on firm ground, for he had pondered this matter for months. "Not at all. Do you recall last year when she was missing, and you stated that you blamed me for her having concealed her secret life from you? You were quite correct to do so, and at the same time quite mistaken. It is indeed imperative that the Slayer operate in secret, and I repeatedly sought to impress on her that no one should be informed unnecessarily; and yes, I specifically enjoined her against telling you. Surely, however, you more than any other must know she has a mind of her own. No matter how stringently I insisted, she would not have hidden the truth from you, had not she thought it best."

"And then I found out anyhow," Joyce replied softly. "And nothing changed except that she stopped making up stories. She still won't tell me what's going on in her life; the only difference is, I know now that the truth, whatever it is, will be worse than I ever would have dreamed." She looked to him with a grief that struck him to the heart. "How can you say she trusts me? The library -- at least while it was still standing -- was her second home. She spent more time with you, even outside school hours, than she ever did here. When all hell was about to break loose at graduation, what did she do? She clustered together with you and Willow and Xander and Angel and Oz and even Cordelia, with everyone except me. I was the one she sent away. I was the one she didn't need."

Caught up in the pain of that memory, she had failed to note the thunderclouds gathering in Giles' expression, so she was taken completely by surprise when he slammed his fist down onto the table with an impact that made his teacup jump. "You," he said in the harshest tone she had ever heard him use, "were the one she couldn't afford to lose. No, be quiet! The library may have been a second home for me, but for her it was headquarters. She went there to plan, and arm herself, and work out strategies with the others. She came here to rest, and be with her mother, and renew her strength." He glared at her, breathing heavily. "You put your finger on it, right enough: she loves the rest of us, and it would tear her heart if any of us were to die, but she takes us into battle all the same. You she insulates, seals away from it all, she won't even tell you about it. She needs us, she relies upon us, we're her sword and her shield and her counsel and her confidants and her good right arm; but you're her life, the last link to what she had before her world went insane. So if she has to hurt your feelings to keep you safe, to preserve one small corner of creation where she doesn't have to be the sodding Slayer ... well, I say, buckle to, girl! Tally-bleeding-ho!"

Joyce stared at the apparition seated opposite her: red-faced, wild-eyed, nostrils flaring and hair askew, in a tangerine velour warmup suit, and to their mutual astonishment she burst out laughing. Giles held the fierce expression for a few more seconds, then his mouth twitched and the fire went out of his eyes.

"Yes, well," he murmured. "Now that I've quite finished my little jeremiad ..."

"No, no, I'm sorry," she said, still shaking with sporadic giggles. "You were right, look at me feeling sorry for myself!" She regarded him with something like wonder. "I can't believe it: you just cut me off at the knees, and I feel better than I have in weeks."

"Um, yes," Giles said. "I suppose one should, should never underestimate the therapeutic value of verbal abuse."

Joyce let out another little laugh, and started to say something more, then checked. "Oh. Oh, hold on a minute, I'll be right back." She stood and hurried from the kitchen, and after a moment Giles went over to refill his cup from the teakettle.

"Sorry for running off like that," she said when she came back in. "I was right, the washing machine was done, I have your clothes in the dryer now. I'm afraid the shirt may be a lost cause, but I think the rest may come out okay."

"I appreciate your efforts regardless of the outcome," he assured her. "You've been far too kind already."

She nodded and resumed her seat at the table. "You know, when you called me last night ..."

He closed his eyes, raising a hand to forestall her. "Please, you must believe me, I had no notion events would transpire as they did. The fault is mine, it's clear I grossly mistranslated the scrolls. I thought the cruitl wouldn't emerge from their cocoons for several days yet, and I'd only need a larger vehicle and a bit of assistance to get the pupae to a secluded area for disposal ..."

"And all the others were out of town for the weekend, and this was supposed to be no big deal; we've been over that already." She dismissed the subject with an impatient wave. "Come on, Giles, I'm the one who hung up a zombie resurrection mask at Buffy's homecoming party. Give it a rest, for God's sake."

"Of course," he mumbled, removing his glasses in automatic diversion and looking around for something to use in polishing them. No error, this woman could be every bit as disconcerting as her daughter ...

As if to prove it, she went on, "What I meant to say was, I was glad you called me because I had already been thinking about getting in touch with you. There was something I wanted the two of us to discuss."

"I see," he said, and it was all too obvious that he was bracing himself for what he thought was coming next. She felt a flash of anger; would the subject have been so terrifying? "What is the matter at issue?" he inquired with careful politeness.

She quelled the momentary resentment. Time to get to business. "What we just went through, with those demon larva things: that wouldn't have been any real problem for Buffy, would it?"

"Why, no, not for her." The seeming change of direction had confused him. "I still feel it was unconscionably careless of me to expose you to that level of risk ..."

"I said give it a rest, Giles. Things never go according to plan, that's just life." She quirked a smile at him. "And I'd say we did okay, under the circumstances. The way you went at them -- I never would have thought of a shovel as a combat weapon."

"We ... acquitted ourselves decently, I'll grant you." He was still watching her with that guarded look. "And I shall certainly add to the current literature that one should withdraw a discreet distance after dousing them with petrol and tossing a match."

"No, wouldn't want to forget that. It's just, those creatures were way down on the threat scale, weren't they? Compared to the kinds of things Buffy normally faces?"

Too late he saw the trap into which he had blundered. "I, I'm not sure I would express it in quite that --"

"Giles, how long do Slayers live? On average?"

There it was, out in the open, and she felt an unworthy satisfaction at seeing him struggle for recovery. "They, er, the histories ... I peruse the annals for research purposes, I've never attempted to compile actuarial tables ..."

"You're hedging, Giles. I don't deserve that. I've played the game, I've been a good soldier." Her mouth twisted in an instant's spasm of pain. "This isn't a question I'll ever ask Buffy, the last thing she needs is to have my fears dragging her down. But you owe me a straight answer, so I'm waiting: what kind of lifespan can a Slayer realistically expect?"

"It isn't a matter of averages," Giles said reluctantly. "An average would be misleading; the brutal fact is that most die within the first six months. For those who survive that initiation period, the odds improve geometrically. I, ah, I don't know if it's any record, but I saw one reference to a Slayer who was still hale and energetic at the age of sixty-three."

(No point in adding that Mathilde had achieved that longevity by deserting her calling, fleeing her homeland, and taking refuge in a Buddhist nunnery in Nepal; or that in her absence vampire hordes had rampaged through Europe under cover of the Black Death; or that she had expired finally through the efforts of a cadre of mercenary assassins dispatched by the Watchers Council of France, so that a more suitable Slayer could take her place. Why ask for trouble?)

Joyce, however, was unimpressed. "You're still evading the question, which really is an answer in itself. So: she won't have a long life." Giles flinched, but she ignored it. "I can't change what she is, and I suppose I shouldn't even wish for it. She once made a comment about saving the world, and it didn't sound like a joke. But I won't give up just because she's the Chosen One."

"I'm ... quite certain there's something here I don't understand," Giles said after several seconds' silence. "You've never given up on her, not even when she thought you had. Obviously you mean something else by that, but you must enlighten me as to what."

"I'm talking about Buffy's future," Joyce said. "However much there is, I want the best there can be. That's why I spoke to Angel, weeks ago." She shook her head angrily. "I felt awful about it. The way those two loved each other, I've never seen such ... transcendent passion. But she had no future with him, even he could see that: no children, no days in the sun, no chance of ever growing old together. So he left, and it was like I had cut out her heart myself, but it had to be done."

Giles gave a weary sigh. "If it is any comfort, I concur with your assessment. In fact, I believe Buffy herself has come to accept the, er, long-term correctness of his decision."

"It isn't enough, though," Joyce said. "I learned that from the tantrums the flower children threw in the Sixties: there's no use tearing down something unless you have a clear idea of what will replace it. Buffy starts at UC-Sunnydale in the Fall; what's she going to do, hook up with some guy in Freshman Lit who doesn't have the least idea of who she is or the things she has to deal with? She can't do that. She can't give her heart to someone who doesn't know the truth, and she can't pull some poor unsuspecting boy into that world just because she needs a date."

Still not sure where this was going, Giles observed, "That is a quandary she has faced continually over the last two years."

"But she never settled it," Joyce insisted. "Partly because Angel complicated the picture, but mostly because there IS no solution." She paused. "Except for one. The only hope Buffy has for anything approaching a normal life, of whatever length, is that she be matched with someone who already knows about that world, someone who has already shown that he can hold his own in it."

Giles frowned, and doubt was heavy in his voice when he spoke. "I must say I have serious reservations about such a course of action, although I'm sure Xander would greet your conclusions with heartfelt enthusiasm ..."

"Xander?!!" she blurted. "My God, no! That boy is, is ... Giles, I meant you."

He didn't freeze like a deer in the headlights, or drop the teacup, or erupt in a fusillade of stutters, all of which she had catalogued as possibilities. He simply sat quite still, studying her as if she were some intriguing curiosity, before speaking with rigid composure. "What you suggest is utterly out of the question."

"Why?" She wouldn't lower her eyes from his, despite the flush she felt rising to her cheeks. "Are you going to try and tell me that, in all your histories, nothing has ever happened between a Slayer and a Watcher? I know she broke the rules by bringing other people in on her secret, but she's still closer to you than to anyone else. Why is it so impossible?"

"I wouldn't say impossible," he replied, still with that reflexive restraint. "I would say unseemly, and indefensible, and an appalling betrayal of my responsibilities."

Joyce clenched her fists on the table in front of her. "What responsibilities? You were fired as her Watcher, and she doesn't work for the Council anymore. The only reason you're still with her is because you love her. You can't deny it."

"Buffy is indeed dear to me, but not in the way you would wish." He sighed. "Surely it hasn't escaped your notice that I'm old enough to --"

"I know," she interrupted. "You could be her father. But you're not. Please, Giles. Donald Trump does it all the time, just to have another trophy to show off. Can't you at least consider doing it to give her a chance at happiness?"

His hands shot across the table suddenly to close over hers with cruel force, his hard-held discipline vanishing, and in his eyes were all the things they had locked away for months: memory, and hurt, and yearning, and an insistent hunger that threatened to strip away her last defenses. "Joyce, why are you doing this?" he demanded roughly. "Why in heaven's name would you ask such a thing of me?"

Despite the unexpected weakness his touch had triggered, she met his gaze without faltering; he had asked the essential question, and the answer drove out all other considerations. "Because I love my daughter more than anything else on this earth, and so do you. Either one of us would die for her in a heartbeat. Next to that, this is nothing."

The barriers had fallen at last, and all that they were passed between them in that silent moment: conflict, and vulnerability, and anguish, and loss, and need, and implacable resolve. She welcomed the pain where he gripped her hands, and again she whispered the lie that carried the vital truth: "This is nothing."

* * * * *

Part II

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The jukebox selection was from the Sixties, but it was a total loss all the same: Top 40s dreck, nothing either to match his mood or to improve it. He went back to the bar, noting with sour interest that no one in the establishment was looking at him directly, but all kept him in the corners of their eyes. Good instincts there: skinny middle-aged ponce walks in wearing deck shoes and a silk shirt, you'd expect him to be eaten alive in a place like this, but they were keeping their distance, more's the pity. A good electrical fire or an exploding water main would perk him up no end just now, given the least excuse.

"Another," he said, tapping the empty beer mug, and the bartender sullenly moved to comply. Ethan could understand the resentment, not that he cared. He was an unknown quantity here: too outré to be a copper and not wound tight enough to pose an obvious threat, his presence nonetheless disrupted the normal rhythms while the patrons tried to decide what to make of him.

He threw another glance at the clock over the bar (he seldom wore a watch himself these days, much too methodical for a devotee of chaos), and decided he'd give the lout Cain another half-hour. His bloody choice they meet here, and then late for the appointment. Shocking poor form, and not too smart, either; someone owes you money, it's generally a good idea to show up on time to collect.

Hold on, though. What if one of the regulars tried to have him on, and he departed after a bit of creative destruction? That would establish that he had in fact been here for the meeting, serve as a lesson to Cain that it was risky to take him for granted, and spice up an otherwise dreary morning. Child's play to get something started, too, just a little curl to the lip and a disdainful once-over, and some yob with more testosterone than gray matter would leap to oblige him. Hullo, now, this could be promising ...

He knew by the change in timbre of background conversation that Cain had arrived, and turned on the stool to watch the big man cross the room. It was almost comical to see how everyone relaxed: rough, dangerous and nasty, Cain was something they could understand, and his nod to Ethan meant this was business, so they could dial down their alarms and drift back to their normal habits. "Rum and tonic for my guest," Ethan said to the bartender. "But no ice, he's far too masculine."

Cain settled onto the next stool, accepted the rum with a grunt. "Rayne."

"Gib." Ethan took a long pull from his beer, then said, "Right, then, that'll do for socializing. You brought it?"

Cain was already signalling to the bartender for a refill. To Ethan he said, "Mind if I collect on the original contract first? Business like mine, man carries a lot of overhead."

Ethan flashed the charming smile that set wise men to checking their wallets and brake lines. "Come now, old son. Surely you don't think I'd cheat you?"

Cain snorted, eyeing the other man morosely. "You got more sense than to stiff me solid, but yeah, I think you'd give it a shot just to keep me on my toes. And I ain't up for games right now, your boy Gluuphthri was a double handful and then some."

"Precisely why you were able to command such an exorbitant sum for dispatching him, dear fellow." Ethan laid a locker key in front of the rum glass. "Main bus terminal. You'll find your money there."

"Mmnh." Cain inspected the key, then tucked it into one of the myriad of pockets in that ridiculous safari vest. "And our other little bargain?"

"By all means. You show me yours, as they say, and I'll show you mine."

Another grunt, and the big man pulled back the flap of an adjacent pocket and extracted a ziplock bag. He dropped it on the bar, while Ethan passed over a worn brass medallion on a short length of broken chain. The two men inspected the proffered goods, Ethan poking the transparent bag with an expression of mild surprise. "Rather more than I asked for, mate."

Cain shrugged. "I couldn't remember which of the thing's fingers you wanted, so I cut 'em all off." He raised the medallion. "This better be the real deal."

"Temperance, my lycanthropocidal colleague." Ethan favored him with a thin smile. "You'll have to determine for yourself if it works as advertised, but I guarantee it's the promised article. Anoint it with wolf's blood before a hunt, and it should alert you as you draw nearer to your quarry. By vibration, I think, though some sources indicate increasing heat. Either way, useful in your profession."

"That's the idea." Cain tossed down half of the second drink. "I'm gonna be pissed if it don't live up to its billing."

"Caveat emptor, chum." Ethan held up the baggie, the taloned digits inside it shifting with the movement. "I don't know these will give me what I want, either. We're each taking a chance, and neither will be much the poorer if it doesn't play out. The contract we made regarding Gluuphthri, now, that's a different matter: I get a demon persecutor dead, and you get a satchel of cash. This other, it's just a side bet."

"True enough." Cain stood -- no offer to cover his own drinks, Ethan noted -- and started for the door, then paused to look back. "You never said why our boy had it in for you all of a sudden."

Ethan let out a noiseless chuckle. "I attempted a major enchantment while deeply intoxicated. Called on Gluuphthri for power, and when he came to collect ... Well, call me parsimonious, but his price was a touch beyond my means, I've developed rather a fondness for keeping my internal organs where they are."

Cain weighed the information, and finally said, "I really, truly hope you're not thinkin' you can pull that kinda kissoff with me."

Ethan leaned back against the bar, watching the other with amusement. "Don't trust my sense of honor? Prudent of you, as I don't have one. But self-interest will carry the day long after scruples have been given the toss. You see, if I cheated you, I'd have an expert hunter after me, instead of a formidable but rather dimwitted demon. Even if I tried to kill you, you might survive; besides, who's to say I won't find myself needing your talents sometime in the future? No, it's easier all around to just pony up the lolly."

Cain accepted it with a millimeter's shrug. "Pleasure doin' business," he said, and was gone.

The baggie would have been too tight a fit in his trousers pocket, so Ethan stuffed a few napkins inside to make the severed fingers less obtrusive, and to soak up some of the dark blood that had collected in the bottom corners. He paid for the drinks and finished his own beer, still half-hoping someone would take exception to his continued presence, but there were no takers, and he no longer cared enough to provoke a confrontation.

The exchange with Cain had provided only a few minutes' diversion. That was the main problem with his avocation, he reflected as he began the walk back to the execrable motel room he had rented for his stay here: no intellectually stimulating company. The hunter was competent but one-dimensional, a source of neither comradeship nor entertainment. Even the new, neutered Giles was preferable ...

Sudden unease prickled at the back of his neck, and he kept his gait steady while questing about for whatever had alerted him. Not any kind of psychic or supernatural sense, he didn't have any such (though he could do scrying well enough, given time and the proper utensils); no, this was something that had trickled into his subconscious while he was preoccupied with his own thoughts ...

There: a light clicking or tapping sound, barely audible in the background of street noises, with the loose regularity that bespoke a living agent.

Bugger, none of the minor magicks he'd prepared for the wait in the bar would avail him here. He walked on, looking for an escape route or a window so angled that its reflection might provide a glimpse of what lay behind him. The tapping continued, even and unhurried, and his mind raced and sorted through tidbits of fact and rumor to draw a shadowy suggestion of what might be trailing him.

The young black woman with the tailored suit and icy demeanor, who had offered to pay for some carefully timed anarchy in Los Angeles; he'd declined as much because he disliked dealing with bloody accountants as because the scenario requested by Trick had seemed more aesthetically pleasing. Talk of demons and other supernatural operators hiring the services of -- or sometimes providing services to -- some low-profile clearinghouse organization. (Institutionalized diabolism? The very thought was enough to make him retch. Where was the fun in something like that?) Fragmentary stories of assassins on permanent retainer ... including some mysterious bint who was said to be blind but who killed as effortlessly as a ninja or a kraken wraith.

That tapping could easily come from the kind of cane a blind person used. How long had he been hearing it before he got around to noticing? Why the bleeding hell would somebody set an assassin on him? Had Gluuphthri contracted for his termination before Cain succeeded in terminating Gluuphthri? Or had the demon perhaps been part of some larger endeavor, with unseen others now brassed off at him for interfering with something he hadn't even known about?

He saw the cab just as he had decided to take off running as soon as he rounded the corner. His arm went up, and wonder of wonders the vehicle slowed and pulled over. "Cypress Motor Court, Seigen Lane," he was saying as he slid into the back seat, and the cabbie pulled away from the curb with welcome celerity.

A chill swept away his heartfelt relief: had he just let himself be steered into a trap? "On second thought, just head for the airport," he said. The driver, a plump Asian woman with her hair in a spiky ponytail, lifted a hand in acknowledgment, and hung an appropriate left at the next intersection. Gradually Ethan felt his heart rate ebb back toward normal.

Fear gave way to an indignant wrath. Set a frigging assassin on his heels? He'd root out those corporate wankjobs and bring their sodding offices down around their heads. He could do it, too; chaos magic always worked better on larger populations, individuals being more adaptable than groups. That was why he usually preferred to aim his spells at suburban communities ... and a city was a bleeding paragon of flexibility compared to an organizational hierarchy. Give him a week to work out the right combinations, and he'd have those white-collar bastards eating their own junior associates ...

The tension drained out of his muscles, and Ethan settled back into his seat and began to laugh softly. Maggie's corset, he'd been about to declare one-man war on some bunch of pinstripe drones in Los Angeles, just because of random tapping sounds on the street. Worse, he had relished the thought, all but panting for blood and devastation. Had his life really become so humdrum?

Gods, but he missed Ripper! Seeing the old fire leap up again in his former friend's eyes had been well worth the beating he'd taken in return. He'd had rich plans for the next round, before Eyghon had bollixed it all with his putrid pursuit; he knew he'd little chance of further games, after trying to offer up Rupert's pet Slayer as a substitute for his own much-valued flesh. Then the contract with Trick had taken him back to Sunnydale, and sure enough Ripper wound up right in the middle of it. A paler version, to be sure, the doctored candy had diminished concentration as well as inhibitions; but still, it was almost like old times.

Of course, the bloody Slayer had to take all the fun out of that one, too. The physical roughing-up hadn't really been especially severe, he'd gotten worse from Ripper in his old costume shop; what mattered was that she wouldn't stay out of it! Disrupting his own plans, reining in Ripper, turning one of the world's great hellrousers into a bloody stammering lap dog ... The morning after fleeing Sunnydale with Trick's payment, he had worked himself into a towering rage, fueled by loneliness and frustration and copious infusions of Black Frost, and attempted the curse that had left him so perilously indebted to Gluuphthri.

And the worst of it was, he couldn't even remember what the sodding spell had been supposed to accomplish.

He hefted the baggie. He had intended to use Gluuphthri's runing finger to augment some entropy inversions -- why waste good ingredients just because the former owner had been a personal acquaintance? -- but nothing said he couldn't apply the thing to other purposes. The power for the curse had come from Gluuphthri; with the demon's relic and the proper retrospective incantations, he might be able to rediscover the original intent, possibly even determine what had gone wrong with it. He was almost positive it had been directed at the Slayer, though it might have been a jab at Rupert ... and, considering the penalty Gluuphthri had been intent on collecting, he must have spun up a real corker. You could obliterate someone with sorcery at that level, wipe them from reality so completely that they not only no-longer-were but never-had-been.

No wonder he hadn't been able to carry it off, the state he'd been in. All the same, even a failed spell of that potency should have had some effect; but from all reports the Slayer was still do-gooding merrily on, and poor Ripper as throughly whipped as ever. Nauseating, the waste of it.

No question, he had let himself go slack; even discord needed a firm purpose to guide it. Time to get to the bottom of all this, or have a hell of a good shake at it anyhow. And perhaps he should think of returning to Sunnydale, come what might. There had to be some way to bring the old Ripper out of the conscientious clown now wearing his face, it was just a matter of finding the right approach ...

In the front of the cab, Wei-ben Tiew kept her eyes straight ahead and wished fervently that the company would spring for a bulletproof glass partition. She hadn't gotten any bad vibes from this character when she first picked him up, he'd just seemed rushed and a bit jittery, but surreptitious surveillance in the rear-view mirror had shown an alarming chain of mood swings. Agitation to fear to anger to amusement to some really spooky pondering; and the low chuckles he let out now and again just made her skin crawl. She probably would have been more cautious on the graveyard shift, but who expected such weirdness this early in the day?

Ethan was oblivious to the apprehension he had engendered; he was still musing on delicious possibilities. Him and Ripper, together again ... Gehenna, if only he could pull it off! The chaos they could create!

He laughed again. Ahead of him, Wei-ben hunched her shoulders and drove on.

* * * * *

Part III

Seattle, Washington

He was going out of the coffee shop as she was going in, and neither would have noticed the other if it hadn't hit at that exact moment. She saw him register the sudden energies, and he saw her see it. Their eyes met for a succinct fraction of a second, then he continued on through the door, as did she, each shifting with the ingrained reflex of the lifelong urbanite, so that they passed without contact, though a sheet of waxed paper couldn't have been squeezed into the space between them.

When she emerged from the shop, minutes later, he was across the street, sitting on a bench at the edge of a green, open park. She noted him with a quick glance, then went to the corner, pausing at the light; and, watching, he genuinely couldn't tell whether she thought of changing the light ahead of schedule (and refrained to avoid providing him with knowledge of her abilities), or just contrived to have it appear that she had made such a choice (to imply that her capacities were small enough that she didn't wish to betray any of them).

At any rate she waited, crossed at the normal time, and came to the bench without discernible hurry or reluctance: a trim, brisk woman with light brown hair, wearing a tailored pants suit that somehow combined practicality and understated style. If not for the easy assurance with which she carried herself, she might have been in her late twenties, though he knew her to be at least ten years older.

She in turn saw a slightly built young man with gingery hair and eyelashes, in a nondescript sports coat, a garish magenta shirt, and a narrow-brimmed hat of gray dyed straw. "Hey," he greeted her, as if they were old acquaintances meeting routinely. "You went with the Danish, good choice. I keep trying to find a decent bagel, but they just don't do 'em right outside the Big Apple."

She sat at the other end of the bench, placing the coffee and Danish at her side. "I still haven't made up my mind," she said reflectively. "Was I not supposed to be able to sense that ... pulse ... or was it a test to see if I could detect it?"

"What it was, was coincidence." He took another bite of the bagel, spoke around it without self-consciousness. "I didn't even know you were here, I was kickin' back till time to check out an up-and-comer at a local dojo."

"So you scout gifted individuals," she said after a moment's consideration. "Would I get a straight answer if I asked why?"

"Depends." He looked her over with unconcealed appraisal; there was no prurience in it, only plain curiosity. "Truth's too complicated for straight, and you strike me as the type who'd rather have honest than simple. What I want to know is, I give you an answer, are you gonna believe me?"

She lifted her hand in a quick gesture of exasperation, and the edge of one finger caught the lip of the top on the styrofoam cup of coffee, jerking the cup upward in a half-flip. She snatched at it, only succeeded in knocking it further out to splat! on the pavement, her hand brushing against his knee in the follow-through of the miss ...

"Whoa, smooth," he said in admiration. "Very convincing. So, what'd you get from the touch-pass?"

She had already begun babbling an apology, all flustered and embarrassed, but at his words it slid away from her like water from vinyl, and she looked back at him with matter-of-fact calm. "You're not human," she announced.

"Yeah, but apart from that I'm a real sweetheart." He shook his head. "Look, kid, we can keep dancing or we can do the cards-on-the-table thing. I'll show first: I go by Whistler, and you're Amanda."

If she was surprised that he knew her name, she didn't reveal it. "You don't have much mana, but your roots go very deep," she mused. She raised an eyebrow. "Demon? Earth-spirit? Cursed wanderer?"

"None of 'em, really, but you're in the neighborhood." He had finished the bagel, and now wiped his hands on his chinos. "I keep tabs on people, I scope out what's happening, sometimes I drop a couple words of advice. Mostly they don't listen, but you'd be surprised how much you can do with just a nudge at the right time."

"Like an agent of change," she said, still assessing the brief flash she had snatched from him. "Only the opposite: you make sure everything stays in balance."

"See, you keep doin' that," he told her, almost aggrieved. "Near enough I can't just say no, but still off the mark. People hear balance, they always think of scales, keepin' the scales even. It's not like that. Good 'n' evil, they can't stay even, it don't work like that, sooner or later it'll reach an end. But it's a process, and it has to go by certain rules. Think of balance like riding a bicycle, never leaning too far in any direction, and you'll have a better picture."

"And that mystical pulsation we felt," she prompted. "Where does it fit into all this?"

Whistler sighed. "Yeah, that's sort of a wild card. There's a guy ... actually, he's kinda like a counterpart to me, he joneses on disorder where I work at easing things toward harmony. 'While back, he tied one on and tried to do a serious reshuffling of the deck; it didn't work out, least not the way he wanted, and the buzz we got was him trying to find out what went wrong."

"It was like ... distant thunder," Amanda said, eyes focused inward. "Faint, but you could feel the force of it. Just how powerful is this chaosmonger of yours?"

"Oh, he's cute, but not a major mover. He was cookin' with gas on this one, he's gonna attract some unpleasant attention if he's not careful." Whistler showed teeth in a one-sided smile. "You, maybe."

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she said levelly. Her expression dared him to disagree.

"Really?" Whistler leaned back on the bench. "Not a clue?"

"You expect me to go looking for him? That's ridiculous. I know nothing about him: name, appearance, habits, history, nothing. I'd be groping in the dark ... and even if I found him, then what?"

Whistler shrugged. "Your call, kid."

"It's ridiculous," she repeated. "I don't do that kind of thing. I never have."

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I know."

"I made choices," she insisted angrily. "A long time ago. To take it up again now, to try to go back into that world, it's, it's ..."

"You don't need to convince me," Whistler said. "I was there."

Again she showed none of the surprise such a statement might have produced. She simply said, "When?"

"Look, you gotta understand, it's all about possibilities." He gave her an apologetic grimace. "I monitor lots of folks, watching how things shape, puttin' in my two cents when it's needed. Time was, you coulda been a player. 'Fact, you were supposed to be; way the currents were movin' then, you were gonna go head-to-head with a woman named Catherine Madison, square off against her a dozen times over the next five-six years, then take her out in a big showdown when she tried to free a master vampire in SoCal." He made a little snorting sound that could have been regret or amusement or both. "Probably woulda died doin' it, but I've seen worse."

"Apparently," she said. "You almost sound disappointed."

"Hey, don't take it personal. Things shifted, we made adjustments, it's all headed down a different track but the overall direction still holds. Life's what happens while you're planning something else. Coulda been a lot worse, believe me."

"Just don't expect me to feel guilty," she said grimly. "I have a husband, I have children, I had to make my decisions for their sake as well as my own. I won't apologize for that."

"Nah, you're missing the picture." He waved it away. "Your choices made a difference, sure, but the big switch happened before you married Rick Tucker. It caught us all by surprise, it was close to four years before things settled into a pattern we could start to read. Had nothin' to do with you, you were moved by the wave like everything else."

"You're positive?" She had relaxed at his lack of opposition, and her tone now held something that was almost wistful. "I meant it when I said I wouldn't apologize, but ... I won't deny I've wondered if I was avoiding a responsibility just because it was unwelcome. I steered us away from cases that had supernatural overtones, I persuaded Rick to move the agency here because I could feel the occult energy building up in San Francisco; I kept trying to put barriers between my family and the things that might have threatened them, and I knew I was turning my back on something but I did it anyway. Are you saying it was all right? That things worked out on their own?"

"You want comfort, I'm not your guy," Whistler replied. "If it had played out the way it looked at first, some people woulda died and some woulda lived. Instead, other people lived or died; different distribution, and who's to say which is better? I'm just sayin' it didn't start with you. Can't offer more than that."

She accepted it, and they sat in silence for several minutes. "And now?" she asked at last. "Am I supposed to go after the man who sent the seeking spell?"

"Like I said, your choice." He studied her with gentle detachment. "It's a place to start if you wanta get back into the game, but he's not the only open account we got right now. Truth is, the ripples have been building for close to twenty years; keep your eyes open, and you'll see plenty of opportunities."

"I suppose so." Her gaze didn't waver from his, but it was focused somewhere beyond him. "I should be pretty good at recognizing them by now, I spent enough time sidestepping them."

"Never know when somethin' like that's gonna come in handy," he agreed cheerfully.

"You're manipulating me," she said without heat. "I said I wasn't going to feel guilty, but you managed to do it anyhow."

"You're who you are," he told her. "I didn't hit you with anything you weren't already carrying."

"You're asking a lot of me," she went on. "I have two girls in high school. How can I let such things into my life, and still shield them from it?"

"High school kids, caught up in the battle between good and evil?" He held his hands against the sides of his face in a burlesque of dismay. "Horrors!"

Amanda gave him a long, measuring look that held no warmth. "I don't know if you're being condescending, or if that was some kind of inside joke. Either way, I don't appreciate it."

"Sorry," he said. "You see the kinda things I have, you either get a sense of humor or you eat lye."

"All right," she said, standing abruptly. "You've said your piece, you've tweaked my conscience. Fine, mission accomplished. Just don't expect me to like you for it."

Whistler sighed. "Nobody likes me. It's my curse."

"Not curse: attitude." Her expression still held that odd mix of composure, rebellion, and resignation. "We're talking about my life here, my family, my future and theirs. Maybe you can be flippant about it, but I can't."

"That's how it works," he said, tone soft with something that might have been sadness. "The people with the most to lose, they're the ones who fight hardest."

That struck deep, and he could see she wanted to blast back at him. Instead she just said, "I'm sure you know where to find me if you ever have anything useful to offer. Otherwise, I don't believe your company will be required." She turned without waiting for a reply, and strode quickly away down the street.

"You're who you are," Whistler murmured again. Her resentment and resistance wouldn't keep her from doing what was right; it was her nature, and she would have come to it on her own soon enough, even without the unexpected encounter. Amanda Tucker was back in play ... and maybe her daughters, too, that was an option that had been outside the curve twenty years before.

Not quite twenty years, actually. The shift had hit in April of '80 (widely noted and much discussed at the time, though no one had been able to determine its source), so it was only just now nineteen years. The effects had been subtle at first, becoming more apparent as the divergence had firmed into new paths. Catherine Madison's blossoming obsession had been deflected and postponed by motherhood; Lucas Buck had never turned his attention to the West Coast; and Amanda, her destiny once so clear, had somehow never made it onto the stage.

Meanwhile, something else -- someone else -- had been moving unnoticed to fill the gap left by the change. What was it he had said to Buffy Summers? Nobody saw you coming. She and Amanda were polar opposites: one fading from prominence despite multiple portents, the other bursting onto the scene from nowhere, and then proceeding to confound or evade one prophecy after another; as if they didn't quite apply to her, as if she were somehow exempted from normal laws.

Nobody saw you coming. That had been truer and more important than she had been capable of understanding at the time, but it had intrigued Whistler, and he had been working through the implications ever since. Who was this girl? How had she attained such consequence without being noticed before now?

As soon as you took a hard look at her, you could see that anomalies had surrounded her from the beginning. The Watchers Council had been unable to get a fix on her until after she had become the Slayer. Seeming totally unsuited to her new status, she had nonetheless survived direct combat with two master vampires in her first year. She had "died" nine months after assuming the role of the Chosen One ... and come back stronger than ever. She had coexisted with two other Slayers, something that had never happened before, mainly because it wasn't possible.

She didn't just break the rules; her very existence was a violation of laws almost as old as humanity.

Ethan Rayne was the key to it all, Whistler had sensed that months ago. The miscast spell had jarred mystic seismographs over half the continent, but only Whistler seemed to have felt in it any similarity to the jolt that had realigned the future-to-be almost two decades previously. And the follow-up probe today (a miss, Whistler knew, Rayne hadn't found what he was seeking) had provided a triangulation point. He would have worked it out anyhow after that, all the pieces were there, but the conversation with Amanda Tucker had brought it into perfect focus without effort on his part.

No wonder the most skilled seers hadn't been able to pinpoint the origin of the massive shift in 1980; they'd been trying to track an enchantment -- curse, actually -- that hadn't been cast yet. Rayne himself didn't know what he had done, and hopefully never would; screwing with time was like playing bumper-cars with nuclear warheads, it was dangerous even to think about it.

What had happened was the kind of thing you could never sell in advance, it was just too improbable. A drunken sorcerer, a dilettante in the mystic arts but talented all the same, gets thoroughly hacked off at someone, and lines out a sequence of forces sufficient to remove the offending party from the world as we know it, erasing her not only from the present moment but retroactively clear back to the instant of her creation. What the sorcerer doesn't realize, what nobody knows, is that the target of his wrath is first coming into existence at the same time the spell is cast.

Picture the lifeline of Joyce Summers as a strand of silver wire. Picture the fertilized ovum that will become Buffy Summers as a bead strung on that wire. Picture a distant hand blindly pushing the bead backward along the wire, to come to rest nineteen years before it began.

Picture a child conceived on a surreal night in November of 1998, and her mother first becoming aware of the new life within her in June of 1980 ...

Whistler rose from the bench and strolled down the street, east where Amanda had gone south, humming softly to himself. There was still plenty of time to look in on the kid Karasu (martial artist and clairvoyant, now there was a combination that could really be made to sing), and meanwhile he could ponder the ramifications of the meeting just past.

If Amanda and her daughters got into the mix with anything near her former potential, it would draw uncommitted energies away from the California nexus. Angel might be able to stay in L.A. after all, and Dale Cooper was sure to find the new developments in the Pacific Northwest more interesting than tenuous rumors out of South Carolina. A fresh set of ripples, intersecting and interacting with previous patterns, and no telling where it would all lead.

That was one thing you could say for this job: it could get wearing, but you were never bored. The game had broken wide open, danger and opportunity magnified exponentially. Now, if they could just keep anyone from recognizing the truth about Xander Harris for another six or seven years ...!

The humming resolved itself into a tune that an intuitive and knowledgeable listener might have recognized as the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", and Whistler began walking more quickly. Suddenly he was eager to meet the possibilities which had arrived with the new day.


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