Voices in the Dark

by Aadler
Copyright 2000

This piece takes place in Season Three, after "Enemies" but before "Graduation". I had seen character introspection done by other authors, and wondered what would happen if I attempted something in the same vein. This is the result.

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

Part I

She's out there, somewhere: park, graveyard, alley, any of the places where shadows assume dreadful substance, where earth and hell intersect. Perhaps she is accompanied by one or more of the other youngsters, but the odds don't favour the possibility. It is well past midnight, after all, and on a school night, and years of experience with the arcane have inculcated in them the habit of seeing to sufficient sleep in all except extraordinary circumstances. She requires less sleep, and her sense of responsibility is keener, so she will still be facing the darkness while they take refuge in slumber.

I do indeed recognise the twin oddities that rest in the preceding statements. First, that her compatriots (and she, and I) should look upon vampires as routine: a serious matter, to be sure, but one that she can normally accommodate without aid, so that we reserve our assistance for out-of-the-usual threats. And second, that I should so readily acknowledge her responsibility, who have so frequently chided her for the lack of that selfsame quality.

In truth, though there have been glaring exceptions, I have had little doubt about her mettle since the night she went to meet the Master. She has faced sterner trials since that time, endured deeper pain, but it all began there: knowingly going to her death, because the cost of shirking her fate was less acceptable to her than the cost of meeting it. She looks to me as a mentor, an authority figure (she who so reflexively bridles at authority!), and I endeavour to play the role because she draws strength from it, while in actuality I long ago ceased to be other than an adjunct to what she has become.

A Slayer without a Watcher is still a Slayer. A Watcher without a Slayer is a supernumerary, an irrelevance. And, of course, since my dismissal by the Council I haven't even the official capacity to claim. Yet still she turns to me.

The Council. So much tradition, knowledge, history, power; and still they don't understand, apparently cannot understand, the truth of what we have in her. How many bitter reprimands have come to me regarding her "undue reliance on outside parties"? Yet time and again she has shown that ultimately she relies only on herself. Time and again she has prevailed even when forsaken by those whom she trusted ...

Objectivity requires that I face the facts squarely. Part of me would prefer to avoid the subject; and another part, egocentric and self-flagellating, would look only to my own appalling behaviour. Regrettably, I am but one of many. We have all turned on her at one time or another.

Yes, I betrayed her in helping to subject her to the Cruciamentum. Xander betrayed her in withholding the information of Angel's prospective cure, although I personally feel that to have been a sound tactical decision. Jenny betrayed her as a spy for the Romany in their transgenerational vendetta against Angel. Her mother ... I can't quite call it a betrayal, Joyce's desperate ultimatum on the night Angel succeeded in unbinding Acathla, but certainly it operated in the same fashion. Faith betrayed her, and the rest of us, and her own humanity, in her despicable defection to the Mayor. (At the moment I can think of no comparable transgression by Willow; she has always been the best of us, the purest and most steadfast heart; yet she, too, was part of the awful cascade of recrimination that was interrupted only by the zombie party crashers.)

Angel, of course. First, worst and always, Angel. Months of calculated torture, doubtless the same kind of campaign that drove Drusilla to madness before her induction into vampirism. A lover's intimate knowledge of her vulnerabilities, and an artist's delicate precision, and a monster's sheer delight in cruelty, all dedicated to her destruction; and she survived, and defeated him, and even more incredibly survived his defeat.

Even that, however, is not the greatest wonder. Greatest is that she has never forsaken those who forsook her. We all are still part of her life; all except Faith, too caught up in her own rage to accept whatever absolution awaits her, and Jenny, who at least before her murder knew she had been forgiven. We still live in her world, revolve around her axis, and will continue to do so until the day death divides us.

Quentin, in his casual termination of my position as her Watcher, observed that I have a father's love for the girl. So true in so many ways, but in the end inaccurate and inadequate. A father sets standards, labouring to help his child grow to completeness; but she has already grown beyond my ability to teach or guide, and now exemplifies the standard against which I measure myself, too frequently to my discredit. I remain not because she needs me, but because my paltry contribution to her efforts nonetheless makes a greater difference in the world than anything I might do alone. The threat posed by the Mayor's coming Ascencion is but the most recent of impending apocalypsae; if -- when -- we thwart it, more will come, and she will meet them all.

Ironically, the one time I came nearest to the familial situation of which Quentin spoke could easily have destroyed my relationship with her. That sodding candy ... My headiest regret, second only to the memory of debauching her mother, is that I was prevented from introducing to Ethan's brainpan the bullet it so urgently needed. She did not know, then, of my offence with Joyce, and I still find it miraculous that, upon finally learning of it, she let it pass into the realm of the unspoken. (After the one devastating reference, that is to say; but even that was revealed as a blessing, for it told me I need no longer fear the sword that had hung over my head through months of troubled sleep.)

Needless to say, no blame devolves upon her mother for that deplorable episode. The unknown potion in Ethan's candy served, in my case, merely to strip away the inhibitions that hold my more loutish persona in check; but for Joyce, obviously, it operated as a mind-altering agent of near-hallucinogenic potency. Even then, her primary concern was for the infants imperiled by Trick and (we now know) the Mayor. She is a remarkable woman, and I have often fancied that her influence must have compensated markedly for the years of training her daughter should have required in order to successfully assume the role of the Chosen One. How else to explain this Slayer's victories over menaces sufficient in number and power to have filled the careers of any dozen of her predecessors?

A remarkable woman ... and there is the danger I must avoid. We share a love of the girl, and a dedication to her welfare, but an affiliation between us would poorly serve that welfare. Each of us has a station in life, and were I to step out of mine insofar as to attempt to build something with her mother, it would be a source of confusion and turmoil that would subvert my responsibilities. She has sacrificed far too much in her unsought calling; it would be obscene for me to indulge my selfish wishes at her expence.

I detest coffee, particularly this loathsome "instant" swill. I selected the brand especially because those insipid advertisements for it on the telly were so nauseating, I knew I couldn't possibly derive any relaxation from the brew. So I sit here on such nights as this, swallowing black alkali and rehearsing my demeanour for her arrival in the morning. Slightly condescending, a touch weary, crushingly patient. She expects that, she relies upon it. I have little else of value to offer her now, and the privilege of giving it is far more than I deserve.

"They also serve who only stand and wait." I cling to the hope that Milton's words hold true in this instance. She has given her life to the defence of a world that will never know of her service. How can I do less?

* * * * *

Part II

She's out there, you can bet on it. Miss Perfect, Miss Xena 90210, Miss Ooh-look-I-chipped-a-nail-saving-the-world. It's enough to make me ralph (not that I need to rely on that skanky binge-and-purge stuff, this body is one hundred percent authentic moi). I can match her for looks and blow past her for style, but how do you compete with someone who can make beat-up-and-scruffy seem adorable? I swear, there ought to be a law.

Oh, yeah, she's out there, guaranteed. How can she keep milking the Protector of Mankind routine if she doesn't go out and slay? So then she comes skipping to school in the morning with cute little smudges under her eyes, and certain males Who Shall Remain Brainless just absolutely throw themselves at her feet. Meanwhile I spend hours turning myself into a work of art (God, what am I going to do when my custom supply runs out and I have to fall back on name brands?), and who notices? Football players? Please.

No way am I staying in this town after graduation. Even if you don't count the everyday disadvantages of living on a Hellmouth (like, roughly a fiftieth of the population gets eaten, incinerated, sucked dry, sacrificed, or turned into swamp pus every year), I can't keep my household situation secret much longer; as in, no house, no money, no pride, no status, no anything. Harmony and the other ex-Cordettes would be on me like a pack of starving Pomeranians if they ever got a whiff of the truth, and I have already had enough experience with humiliation in the past year, thank you very much. Los Angeles is close, and it's got the whole Hollywood thing going for it, and it's safe; I mean, what do you run into there besides gangs and riots and your occasional serial killer? Translation: hasta la vista, Sunnydale.

Believe me, I am counting the days. (Sorry, Wesley, you're on the clock whether you know it or not. Move it or lose it.) Because, even without knowing how far I've come down in the world, Harmony's found a way to keep her claws sharp. The trauma of Xander Harris wore off quick -- sure, it still hurts, but not because of anything anybody says -- but somehow Harmony has tuned in that I start steaming whenever the talk turns to our friendly local Warrior Princess.

Mostly it's just a rehash of rumors and gossip, the lamer and ickier the better. She's having sex with Giles, she's having sex with Wesley, she's having sex with Willow, Giles is having sex with her mother. She's a hit-woman for a neo-Nazi group, the Bandidos have a price on her head, she's Susan Lucci's illegitimate daughter. On and on, thinking I care, thinking I still count her as a friend, thinking it bothers me to hear her trashed down.

It bothers me, all right. Because no matter which direction it's coming from, everything is about her.

I Am Somebody. I am special. I am unique. I don't play second marimba to any little bottle-blonde Slayer-come-lately.

Oh, yeah. I re-a-ally believe that.

The truth is, the world changed as soon as she came into it. Mostly for the worse, but I won't try to say it was all bad. But it just never stops, you know? Why does everything have to be so serious? Why do my perfectly appropriate priorities have to get reshuffled on me? They've done the job for years, and all of a sudden I start having deep thoughts.

Like: Xander is a goofy loser styleless nobody. Who is brave and reliable and puts his life on the line weekly, just because. And looks really hot in a Speedo.

Like: would I rather have someone with money and a rave car and an invite to Matt Damon's next little soirée, or a guy who's helped save the world a couple of times while I was having my legs waxed?

Like: there are important things happening here, and some really special people are right in the middle of it all, and I'm not one of them.

Stop. Stop the insanity. Comparing me to that crowd should be a joke. It should be a joke so bad nobody would even think to make it. Picturing me with them should be a joke.

Sure. Dream on. Everything's changed, and it's all her fault. Don't ask me how, I just know it is. I'm, like, living in two worlds at once. There's the regular world, the things that used to matter, the things that are supposed to matter: clothes, cars, who's In and who's Out, who stands where on the ladder and who's dating who. Only there's another world inside it, a secret slimy scary place where the Ins are clueless sheep and the Outs are holding everything together. Total mondo Bizarro.

Well, that and the whole Good versus Evil thing. But you can see my point: it's just unnatural.

And I'm not clueless anymore. I can't go back to the regular world, and I don't fit in the secret world.

That's why it hurt so much to find Xander and Willow together. You could see it rocked Oz, too, but it wasn't the same for him. He's one of them, he belongs. Me? I've been saying all my life that I was nothing like them, and I was right. I may catch myself wishing now that I was wrong -- and hating myself for wishing it -- but I was always right, even when I didn't know why I was right.

I mean, look at the roster! Top of the pyramid are the Slayer (God, talk about an inversion of the natural order!) and the hunky broody Vampire With A Soul. Then comes her Watcher, major tweed freak but he knows every dead language there is and he can puncture a poltergeist with nothing but a tambourine and a box of paper clips. Under them are the Shy Nerd and the Grunge Nerd, enough IQ between them to power your average classroom through a week's worth of logarithms or biorhythms or whatever; she could make a computer do lap dances even before she started all the nature Wicca earth goddess stuff, and he rips through a few bags of chew-toys three nights a month and spends the rest of his time slamming out electric chords and sniffing out evil like a short punky Rin-Tin-Tin. Then there's Xander; how long are they going to keep kidding themselves about Xander? how many times has he saved her, saved me, saved the day? He gets chased by insect women and mummy girls and even that loopy Drusilla (no, I refuse to comment on the totally grotesque story I heard about him and Faith, even he isn't that demented), and his own friends can't see that there's anything unusual about him? Wake up and smell the latté, people.

Oh, and finally there's me. Don't forget me. I'm a terror with a charge card (or at least I was before the IRS got them), and I can shake those pom-poms like nobody's business.

Right. Let's hear it for the girl. I'm not one of them, I'm not special and I'll never be special, not the way they are, and I always knew it was only a matter of time before they got tired of me.

Want to know my proudest moment? Not May Queen, not head cheerleader, not even when Hugh Grant turned around to take a second look (and it would have been more than a look, guaranteed, if that anorexic Hurley hadn't sunk her nails into his arm). No, it was when the world did a flip-frame and I saved her for a change, stood eye-to-eye with that redneck vamp and stared him down. That was my peak, my Shining Time, that was all my heart and brains and (yuck) guts rolled into a solid ball of YES!!! It was the greatest thing I've ever done.

They do stuff like that all the time. All the time. I'm supposed to stay and try to live up to that?

No, thanks. I'm for a quiet graduation and a quiet bus ride to L.A. Followed by international superstardom and the rest of my life on the Riviera, the way it was always meant to be. No more mystical people, no more mornings spent trying to figure out how to clean swamp pus out of suede. The Hellmouth can go to ... well, to itself. And as for her --

As for her, I hope she lives forever. I only know a few things for total sure, but those you can depend on. I know tie-dye will never come back; I know that thing on Bill Shatner's head can't possibly be real hair; and I know as long as she's walking around in this world, the world will keep on turning.


* * * * *

Part III

She's out there, I know she is. The night air is thick with murder, and whenever there's devilment afoot you can count on finding her in the middle of it. Even when she doesn't start it herself (and even I don't blame her for everything that happens in this misbegotten town), she flies straight to trouble like beetles to a lava lamp. How can I be expected to maintain order when I have her tripping me up at every turn?

I still dream about the blissful day I expelled her, and the happy humdrum months that followed. The death rate dropped nine per cent while she was out of town, and you want to tell me that was a coincidence? But no, the ACLU had to get into it, and her sultry Nordic spitfire of a mother, and suddenly she's under my feet again and the FDA is confiscating the band candy and there's another pocket quake under the library, and who catches the flak for all that? Me, who else?

No one else understands this job, no one else can see this stinking quagmire of a school from my perspective. Do they think I enjoy riding roughshod over these pestilential children, crushing their spirits, dimming the eager light in their eyes? Well, yes, actually I do, but that's beside the point. I serve an important function here, I'm one of the unsung heroes who hold everything together. I don't expect glory or even recognition, I'm no fool. But do they have to call me "Ferengi" and "Ratboy" and "impotent Nazi troll"?

Fine, let them laugh to each other and whisper names behind my back. I have the pride of a man doing a thankless task for the greater good. I'm the first line of defense against chaos, madness, the collapse of civilization. I run a tight ship, I brook no nonsense, I keep things in order. I'm the Dutch boy with his thumb in the dike, I'm Horatio at the bridge, I'm Mister Waverly orchestrating those U.N.C.L.E. pretty boys in holding Thrush at bay. I may not be popular, but ... well, the last man to hold this office was a cheerful tolerant namby-pamby who got himself eaten on school property. You're not about to see that happen to me.

Somehow everything keeps coming back to her. She's a slippery one: always with an alibi, always with that smarmy Brit backing her up, always with her guerrilla group of student accomplices. (And her mother. If I could just get my hands on ... no, drop that.) Sly, and sullen, and defiant, and right on the hair-trigger edge of instant violence. Behaviorally speaking, she's a perfect twin for that little psychopath Mayor Wilkins has taken under his wing --

Oh. Well. I didn't really want to go there. I have enough sleepless nights already without letting in those kinds of thoughts.

It's Detective Stein's fault. I had more than my share of worries and headaches, but never any doubts until he invited me to sit in on his weekly poker game. Just a few civil servants getting together to relax and trade war stories: him, Hiro, and Finch, and I made the fourth. I don't win any friends in this job, so I jumped at the chance to at least be with people who understood what it was like. And even though I'm no hot shakes at cards, I did okay, I usually came out twenty or thirty dollars ahead every night we met.

The real game, though, was the conversation. War stories, I said; we all had plenty of those, but right out of the gate I learned there were rules for the telling. The most important one was to never let on exactly what it was that we were talking about. Say it casually, straight face, no excitement or raised eyebrows, we're just a bunch of regular guys mentioning the things we have to deal with at work. The wonderful warm sense of shared knowledge was more liberating than any gushing gabfest; the whole point was that we didn't have to say it all straight out, we understood.

That was how it worked for me, anyhow. Finch said the least, and did the poorest job of looking nonchalant. In a way I liked him for that. Stein is always stolid and imperturbable, the best poker face I've ever seen; and Hiro talks about the things that pass through the coroner's office with a gentle little smile and a twinkle in his eye, even when the subject is someone's heart burnt out from the inside, or bones turned to yogurt, or brain extracted through the nostrils; but Finch was scared, plain and simple. He and I could both see how serious this whole business is, and now he's dead, and I know she had something to do with it even if Stein says her story checks out clean.

Because I don't trust him. He and Hiro are following an agenda of their own, a game inside a game inside a game, dropping hints, making me afraid to believe in anything. It was all so subtle I still don't really know when it began, but ... well, sometimes the things a man doesn't say carry a message all their own. Never really anything I can put my finger on, but it's filling my mind with questions they won't admit to raising, and I know they're doing it deliberately.

I won't. I won't let them weaken me. I believe in Richard Wilkins, more than anyone else he's kept this town from spinning away into insanity. He picked me for this job, he's stood behind me when the bleeding hearts and alarmists were ready to turn the school into a parking garage, and I swore to him I'd give the best I have. I won't back down from that promise.

Only ...

Only there was that little clandestine night meeting in the cafeteria, and the box full of those hellish spiders, and the Mayor's new protégée, the one who looks like a motorcycle moll. Why was he meeting in secret? Why was she carrying that evil-looking knife? How did his face heal from the same wounds that killed the cop? Why, with my employer and superior on one side, and all the usual suspects on the other, did I not know which side to be more afraid of?

Why was Finch part of the group that worked so cunningly to make me question my loyalties? Why is Stein so blandly unconcerned about the regulatory roadblocks that have been holding up the new security measures at the school? Why am I not allowed to fire that Limey librarian, or at least bar his prissy "cousin" from coming and going on school property? Whatever happened to the Mayor's other associate, the snappily-dressed black man with the charming smile and eyes that looked you over like you were top sirloin?

So much depends on me. The weight of the world rests on my shoulders, responsibilities no one else could possibly understand. I want to do the right thing. Maybe ... maybe a man in my position has an obligation to hedge his bets.

Mayor Wilkins has really been pushing to get the security upgrades in place before graduation, especially the metal detectors. He's always pleasant, but every time a state ruling has caused another delay (building codes, mandatory minority contract bidding, materials inspections, a red tape nightmare), I've seen his smile get a little stiffer. We only have a few weeks left now. In my time as a school administrator, I've learned a trick or two for tweaking the process; if I really pushed, with a bit of luck I could see it finished by the original deadline.

But, you know, there are structural repairs that also need to be done, and our budget isn't unlimited. Leaders have to make decisions; sometimes it's a matter of weighing the benefits and going with your gut. All things considered, I think we'll be okay if the metal detectors are installed in time for the Fall term. Not my fault if those pinheads in Sacramento have to micromanage everything, it's just the way the system works.

Besides, what does it matter? The biggest thorn in my side will be gone after this school year ends. Personally I hope she goes to college somewhere in Bosnia, but even if she picks UC Sunnydale I'll still see to it that her shadow never darkens my campus again.

So close to deliverance, so close! Some terrible snarl in the fates wouldn't let me beat her, but then she couldn't beat me, either. And in such a very little time, she'll leave for good.

Graduation can't come soon enough to suit me.

* * * * *

Part IV

She's out there, somewhere in the poisonous night, ready as always to stand alone against whatever hell-crazed monstrosity a black fate has chosen to cough up this week. She doesn't sneak out any more, we're past that, but she still comes in quietly to avoid waking me. Before, it was to keep from getting caught, but now she's just being thoughtful, letting me sleep.

Or so she believes. Our roles have reversed; now I sit up with no lights on so she won't catch me out of bed when she returns. She can't change her destiny, and I can't ask her to ignore her duty. I'd give anything short of my soul to take that responsibility from her, bear it in her place, but that's not an option. All I can do is let her be what she is, not add any pressures of my own to those she already has to face. If I have trouble sleeping when she isn't here, that's my problem. I won't make it hers.

Part of me knows it's pointless to rail about the injustice of a reality where the only thing I can offer my daughter is to stay out of her way -- the world is what it is, it doesn't shape itself to our wishes -- and another part just wants to go ahead and scream anyway. I wanted so many things for her ... but then, she's become so much more than I ever could have dreamed, so I suppose that can be said to balance out. For the longest time I kept myself unaware of the truth of what was happening in her life, and as a result was equally blind to just how special she is. I really don't know how to express it to her now, I'm always afraid it'll come across as overblown and embarrassing (or worse, that the fear will break out in spite of everything I can do, and put another burden on her), but I'm sure she knows how proud of her I am. She has to know.

I've argued with myself over whether or not I should tell Hank. Regardless of the state of things between us, he's her father, and technically has as much right as I do to know the truth. (I had the most awful nightmare once, right in the middle of an exhibition at the gallery it came back to me: him standing next to me at her funeral, almost crazy with grief, unable to comprehend how such a horrible thing could have happened. He doesn't deserve that, nobody deserves to be blindsided that way.) I never really settle the matter with myself, but I do keep coming up with the same answer: if she wants him to know, she'll tell him herself. She has to deal with so much, maybe it would just stretch her too thin to have to handle that, too.

God knows, she hid it from me long enough.

Sometimes I look back on how it used to be, and almost yearn for the ignorance that protected me then. It's ridiculous, but my concerns were so wonderfully trivial: she was having problems at school, she always ran out without getting a proper breakfast, her boyfriend seemed a little too old for her. (Tell me about it. Six times my own age, if I understand her right.) I was totally useless to her -- and I'm such a great help now! -- but at least I didn't spend every waking moment in fear for her life.

Well, I can't go back to that, wouldn't if I could. When that insane Kralik kidnapped me as bait to lure her in, I got a long, clear look at the kinds of things that move in her world. I had seen glimpses before (most memorably the invasion of her welcome-home party by walking corpses), but nothing compared to sitting helpless while that murderous genial maniac chuckled reminiscently about eating his mother. I knew the bait would work, knew she would come for me, and hated myself for being made into a weapon against my own daughter. Not that it was the first time, or the last; I did turn her over to be burned at the stake, after all, and I have some kind of dim memory of trying to brain her with a pickaxe. But if I keep my eyes open to what's going on around me, I at least have a chance to avoid being used against her again.

Kralik ... after I thought it was all over, Giles burst in to save us from a threat I'd never seen coming. Maybe she could have taken that last vampire on her own, certainly she's faced worse, but I'm not sure; I've never seen her so exhausted, not even when she was in the hospital delirious with fever. But whether or not he was needed, Giles was there. He's everything I'm not, he understands her world and he's able to help her in ways I can't imagine. I envy him and resent him and ... and ...

Yes. Well. There it is, isn't it? The thread that ties so many different issues together. The man who can give her what I can't. The man who is more a father to her than her own father. The man who has seen me at my worst, repeatedly, and remains tactfully silent about it. The man who represents the area where I've failed her yet again.

I think it was the night of the band candy that brought it into focus for me. Like everyone else, I had always accepted the image he projected: prim, formal, bookish, repressed. When the psychopharmaceuticals in the band candy wiped away the facade, I saw a different man. Ruthless, fearless, animal-alive, dangerously masculine. And what did he see? A giggling trollop, worthless for anything more than a few minutes' recreation. He's far too much the gentleman to make any reference to that mortifying night, but I don't know how he can look at me without contempt showing in his eyes. Not that I can meet his eyes for more than a few seconds, on those occasions when we can't avoid one another.

I burn with shame every time I think of it, but I could get past that. In a way, keeping things formal between us makes it more awkward, because I know he's seen me without the mask, and is only honoring the pretense. If I allowed -- or helped -- something personal to develop between us, such intimate knowledge would be less stark, a natural part of an intimate relationship. And it wouldn't be pretending, not for me; he's decent and brave and brilliant and dedicated, and I think ... I think he may love her as much as I do. There's no denying he shares more of her life, her real life, than I ever could.

It would be good for us. It would be good for her. We could pool our efforts, coordinating together to meet her needs, allowing her to integrate her two separate lives, providing for her the solid home she deserves. I want so much to be able to do that for her, and I won't deny that I want it for myself.

But I can't. I can't. It would just be lighting a fuse. I saw Kralik, I saw the children-turned-demon at the book burning, I saw the shambling dead fighting their way up the stairs after us. I may not understand her world, but I've seen it. She matches herself against things that would wipe me from the earth in a heartbeat, and she wins. Time and again, she wins.

But she only has to lose once.

In fact, that "once" has already happened. Only for a few minutes, she assures me, she came right back, but still: she died. It's a miracle she's still here, and I'm grateful for it, but they're called miracles because most of the time they don't happen. Keep playing the odds, and eventually the odds catch up with you.

The nightmare. The funeral. The two of us standing together at her grave.

No. No. It has nothing to do with reason, it goes beyond right and wrong. Knowing he had prepared her for the mission that killed her, sharing my home and table and bed with the man who sent my daughter to die ... I couldn't. I'd tear us apart, destroy us both, and I simply don't have the courage to begin it, knowing what waits at the end.

And because I don't, I rob her of something that would enrich her life and probably would prolong it. That's the kind of mother she has, that's how far beneath her I am. She's a crusader, and I'm a coward.

She wasn't a beautiful baby, but her eyes ... I lost my heart to her the first time I saw those eyes. I had such dreams for her: not that she would do great things (how could I have foreseen just how far she would go?), but grandchildren and long life and happiness. Now I stare out the window at the deathly blanket of darkness, and pull the robe tighter around myself, and I'm still cold.

* * * * *

Part V

She's out there, no question, but I don't have a chance of tracking her. Even if I were still walking on two good legs, she's too quick and too alert, and I can't risk having her know of my interest. I've observed her during the day, and at the club where the kids here like to congregate (traded stories with the bartender, and even got an invitation to do a short stint on blues guitar some evening), but seeing her in action is a different matter. In ten nights of off-and-on surveillance, I've watched her fight exactly once, and then for only a few seconds.

Educational, let me tell you. In 1985 I sat in the stands at Wimbledon while Björn Borg played John McEnroe. Borg was a marvel, quick as a whip, reaching out to catch the farthest edge of streaking drives and slam them back across the net at angles impossible to intercept ... and McEnroe was always there, meeting those impossible returns and bulleting them right back again, facing off against a master of unsurpassable speed and power and precision, and surpassing him. That's what this fight was like. They outnumbered her three to one, and human muscle simply can't duplicate the force and velocity of their attack; but she was right in there with them, blocking kicks that would have felled small trees, slipping punches that moved too fast for my eyes to register, shaking off hits that would have killed most healthy men and counterpunching in instant devastating reaction. I've watched a lot of individual combat in the last thirty years -- mostly sword duels, naturally -- but never anything close to this. She took out two of them before I blinked the second time, and I lost her when the last one ran and she went after him.

I guess I'll have to admit to Adam that he was right. When he first put me onto this I was understandably skeptical, but I couldn't just dismiss the possibility, not after what I'd seen with the Ahriman business. Still, vampires? And a mystical champion, a female at that, whose birthright was to hunt them? It was the mention of a Watchers Council that caught Adam's attention, and kept mine. No matter how garbled the old stories, I couldn't afford not to investigate the possibility of an organization that paralleled my own.

Well, they exist. (I'll have to find a way to thank that boy Birkoff for getting me a peek at their files, and Langly for putting me in touch with him.) And there really is a Slayer. And -- unless she's found a way to turn a living man into dust in a fraction of a second -- vampires are real as well. What's most interesting, though, is what happens when you take some of the old writings of their Watchers, and integrate them with the knowledge base of my Watchers, and check the result against sources that neither group has paid much attention to in the past.

I've spent most of my adult life in this job, and I thought I knew the subject about as well as it could be known. But bring in a few fresh facts, and suddenly the picture changes. You're not just seeing it in a new light, but from an entirely new angle, details being brought out that you couldn't spot before and the reality of it all taking on a different meaning. If I can confirm what I believe, a lot of very old questions have just been answered.

The composite scenario goes something like this:

Once the world was ruled by demons. Nasty buggers, real believers in giving misery plenty of company. Rivers of blood, mountains of skulls, lakes of fire, a generally depressing geographical theme. But the wheel turned a few times and their reign came to an end, and finally they were exiled to a different reality. The last demon to go transfused his blood, or whatever the hell it was, into a human, making the first vampire, and they've been with us ever since.

Vampires don't reproduce, strictly speaking. It's more of a really hard-sell recruiting drive, when one wants to make another vampire he feeds some of his blood to a victim before draining him the rest of the way. Human reproduction seems to scramble the process, though. Maybe pregnancy changes the blood chemistry in a way that vampires don't like, or that keeps the transformation from working, but the upshot is that it's very, very rare for a pregnant woman to be made into a vampire. When it does happen ... well, it's like the Almighty says, Forget it, pal, only one to a customer; the unborn child is protected, insulated, and continues to grow.

That's where Immortals come from, and why they're always foundlings. The undead mother is burned out by the innocent life awakening inside her, until with its birth nothing remains of her. And for the child, inoculated in the womb against death, death turns out to be the doorway to a life that can last centuries or millennia.

That's not the end of it, though. Like most interspecies crossbreeds, Immortals are sterile, unable to produce children even before their first resurrection. But sometimes the lines can recross. If an Immortal is killed by a vampire, he comes back from it like he would from any other death; but if this is his (or her) first death, he or she comes back as an apparently normal human, aging and dying like the rest of us, having children who carry in their genes the legacy of their supernatural ancestors. And when two carriers pair and reproduce ... well, the legacy seems to be tied to the X chromosome; so male children of a carrier mating can still be carriers themselves, or ordinary human, but the female children will either be carriers or something even more special.

So special, in fact, that there are never more than a few dozen of them alive at any given time. The Watchers (my own group, that is) have never taken any special interest in Immortals who haven't yet realized their nature, mainly because we have no way to identify them before that first death, but I privately call them protoImmortals. By the same token, these young women might be called protoSlayers, because any of them is capable of receiving, by some mystical selection process I can't guess at (and that their own Watchers can't seem to control), enhanced physical capabilities that make them able to fight vampires on equal terms.

Any of them, but not all. Only one at a time, as a matter of fact. Their Watchers refer to that one as the Slayer, but also as the Chosen One. "One girl in all the world ..."

Remind you of anything? Does me.

So far I've followed pretty close to what's in the histories of the two Watcher organizations, with some external material here and there to plug the gaps. What comes next is my own speculation. I've never been comfortable with the traditional interpretation of the Gathering. How it works is easy to see -- the Immortals fight to the death until only one is left -- but the prize to be gained ... well, I just don't know. Ultimate power? Could happen, I guess, but something about it just doesn't feel right. After intermeshing the two mythologies (and after seeing the drive and will, the living force of this girl), I have a theory of my own.

I think God plays chess. I think when Satan was losing, and seeing his demon generals about to be swept off the board, he set up vampires as a counter-move, and played into a trap. I think his own soldiers have been used to generate a new set of champions for the human race ... or, what the hell, maybe even the next stage of humanity. The Immortals will fight it out to the last man (and a damned shame it is for the female Immortals, they were just a side-effect of the Game, never had a chance at the big prize), and that last man, carrying thousands of years of memories and experience, will link to the Chosen One, and something brand new will begin.

I hope it's not just wishful thinking. I've seen good people cut down in the last stages of this merciless bloody game, and I'd like to believe it was for something worthwhile, and not just meaningless slaughter.

This particular Slayer has only been active for a few years, but she's racked up a hell of a box score. Watching her with her friends, I saw the other side of that, of the scene from the park. She's not just brave and determined, she's clean and decent and good. If all of future humanity is to descend from a single woman, it could do worse.

I've heard the words repeated for so long, the sound of them just makes me feel sick now: "In the end, there can be only one." The last few years, I've let myself hope that One would be Duncan MacLeod, but now I'm going to add a rider to the wish: I hope the time comes soon enough that this girl will still be here for him.

She's out there, fighting a lonely, secret war to hold back the darkness ... and maybe, just maybe, she has a higher destiny awaiting her than the one she knows.


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