Many thanks to the beta readers (y'know, those people I've been cursing for the past several weeks). In no particular order:
Elaine, who put up with my scene-by-scene freaking out since before draft one; Mike, who made me think about the implications on the characters (and who also wanted more blood < g >); Dianne, who wouldn't let me get away with a weak ending < grrr! >; Maureen, who kept pushing at me to finish it; Karen, who found the repetitive redundancies; meerkat, who insisted on "show, don't tell"; WorstWitch, who wanted me to fill in the gaps in the action and found the Americanisms; Cyn, who made me give the bookends a second chance when I was about to throw them out; Mary Beth, who made me realize what the heck the story was really about, 'cause I sure didn't know; Tina, who found the two big gaping holes; Pod, who wasn't a beta reader but whose fault it is I started the story in the first place (and then the story changed focus and didn't fit her zine anymore. Oops); and Sandy, who found several of the "huh?" bits.
Geez, I didn't realize I had nagged so many of you. < g > Thanks, all.
Giles slammed the thick book shut. If he weren't so well-trained, he would've thrown the book against the wall.
Nothing! He could find nothing! He collapsed back in his chair and ran his fingers through his hair.
As a Watcher, Rupert Giles felt like a failure.
It was his duty, as the latest in a long line of Watchers, to watch over the Slayer, to ensure her safety. When something unexplainable happened, it was his job to decipher the nature of the threat so he could prepare her to face it and, if necessary, destroy it. But what if he couldn't decipher it? Ever since Buffy's brief hospital stay when she'd had the flu, vampire activity in Sunnydale had been close to non-existent. Nothing of a supernatural nature had taken place in weeks. Even the long series of unusually strong storms had ended. It had been very quiet, and this worried him.
The library door opened and two teenagers came in.
"Ah, Willow, Buffy," he greeted them. A third teenager came through the door. "Xander."
Buffy replied half-heartedly. She had been distracted, lately; no doubt brooding over Angelus. She saw the weapons Giles had laid out on the table and raised an eyebrow at him. "Sticks again?"
"It's called a quarterstaff, Buffy, as you well know."
She rolled her eyes. "Sorry. So, if you have two of these, is that a half-staff?"
He ignored her and picked up his protective gear off the table. As he strapped it onto his body and secured it in place, Buffy glanced quizzically at her two friends. Willow and Xander, ostensibly there to do their homework, had settled in at the central table to watch. They shrugged their shoulders at her. Giles had been very tense, lately, and their every attempt at making him relax had failed.
Suddenly, Xander jumped up. "Wait. I forgot to bring supplies. Be right back." He ran past a puzzled-looking Giles and out the door.
Willow explained to him. "Emergency snacks run."
"Ah." He turned to Buffy. "Are you ready?"
Giles suddenly swung his staff at Buffy's head and narrowly missed hitting her, catching her by surprise. She ducked and swung at his feet, but he managed to avoid being struck. They circled each other, watching for an opening in the other's defenses.
*Oh boy! It's going to be one of those, isn't it?* Buffy was worried about Giles. His sparring sessions had been more frequent lately and they were way more intense than they used to be. Buffy wished that whatever the Hellmouth had in store for them next would hurry up and get it over with. The pressure of not knowing what was going on was obviously getting to Giles and, if this kept up, somebody was going to get hurt.
Buffy swung; Giles blocked it neatly, turned, and aimed a blow at her middle. She blocked it and managed to strike Giles. His shoulder pad absorbed the blow. His concentration was contagious, and Buffy never noticed when she started hitting faster, harder.
Swing, block, the occasional blow.
They both sparred with unusual intensity. Giles might not be able to figure out why Sunnydale was behaving so...normally, but he knew it was bound to stop, sooner or later. And when it did, he intended to make very sure that Buffy was ready for any unexpected physical attacks.
Jab, parry, duck.
Emotional attacks, on the other hand.... As her Watcher, Giles felt responsible for both her physical and emotional well-being. Angelus' silence of the past several weeks had been very unnerving for Buffy, and Giles couldn't think of a way to relieve her anxiety. What he should've done was nip her romance with Angel in the bud and prevented all her heartache from happening.
He laughed at his presumption. All of her heartache? Buffy had been through a lot in the past year. She had died at the hands of the Master, had seen her classmates murdered, had lost her mother's trust, had fallen in love with a vampire who had then become her fiercest enemy.
Buffy ducked a blow and heard Giles laugh. *Oh, great! Just what we need. Giles is cracking.* She tried to read his expression but had to concentrate on blocking a series of well-aimed jabs at her body. She responded in kind, swung her staff low, and managed to wipe his feet off the floor. He fell to the ground with a dull thud and a sharp crack.
Buffy dropped her staff and ran to where he lay unconscious on the floor.
"Oh, god, Giles! Giles, are you okay?"
"Whaa--" Giles came to suddenly. A dark-haired girl peered down at him, looking very worried.
"Are you all right, Mr. Giles? I'm sorry, I--I didn't mean to hit you so hard."
He blinked, confused. She helped him off the library floor and sat him down at one on the tables while she continued apologizing. He made vague noises when she offered to get him a cup of tea, and she took the noises as assent and disappeared into his office. He took the opportunity to try to regain his bearings but the pounding in his head made things difficult. He shook his head to try to clear it, but that only made his dizziness worse. He held his head, groaning.
"Here, Mr. Giles, drink this. It'll make you feel better." He took the cup, automatically, and gulped down the too-hot tea. The burning liquid served to distract him from his headache. He looked up at the girl who was still fussing over him.
"Alice, I'm fine. Please, relax."
Alice did not relax, but, eventually, at Giles' insistence, stopped apologizing and went home for the evening.
Giles sighed. Being Alice's Watcher hadn't been at all what he had expected.
A few months ago, when he had received word that the new Slayer had been found in California, and that he was being assigned as her Watcher, he'd had conflicting emotions. On the one hand, being a Watcher was what he had trained for all his life. On the other hand...California? He envisioned Alice as the stereotypical California girl--beach, sand, surf, brainless, and oversexed. He was willing to admit that his impressions had been formed by American television--despite his best attempts, Baywatch had managed to creep into his consciousness--and his impressions could be wrong.
However, his first day at Sunnydale High School hadn't done much to lessen his dread. He'd had the bad luck to ask Cordelia Chase for directions to the principal's office. The student had been polite enough in answering his question, but, unfortunately, he had managed to overhear her remarks after she believed he was out of earshot. "Gads, where does the school board find these losers? Did you check out those clothes? *Nobody* this century dresses like that. And that smell! Can you say "mothball city"? Yeewww!"
He had met Alice early one morning after someone had knocked her things to the floor.
"Let me help you pick those up," he had offered.
She had looked up, startled. "Thanks, but, I'm...I'm fine." She seemed embarrassed by the attention as she took the notebook he handed her. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Giles started back the way he'd been going.
"Excuse me, sir?"
He stopped and turned back to her. She stood in the middle of the hallway, looking lost.
"Um...where's the library? Principal Flutie said I'm supposed to go there to get my books," she held a crumpled slip of paper in her hand, presumably a book list, "but I don't know where anything is. I'm new here."
He stopped in his tracks. He knew of only one new student starting this late in the school year. "Miss Peterson?"
She blinked at him.
"I'm Mr. Giles, the librarian." So, this was the Slayer. He wasn't sure what he had expected. She looked so...normal. Medium height--a little on the short side, maybe--medium weight, brown eyes partially obscured by wavy dark brown hair. Just an ordinary girl. There was nothing about her to suggest she was the Chosen One.
He realized he was staring. "So sorry. That was very rude of me. Umm...the library is this way," he pointed down the hall. "I was heading there, myself."
They walked together in uncomfortable silence. Giles was debating with himself how best to broach the subject of Alice's Slayerhood. He didn't want to scare her away, but she needed to be told as soon as possible. Most Slayers started their careers when they were much younger than Alice was now. What if she didn't accept her role in life? What if she wasn't up to the job?
Alice was very confused. She couldn't decide what she thought of the librarian. There was something odd about him. The way he stared at her, for instance. Sure, everyone stares at the new kid, but, when he did it, she felt like he was looking inside her. Creepy. But, at the same time, she also felt she could trust him, and she wasn't sure why.
When they reached the library, he held the door open for her and followed her in. He went behind the counter on the right, where he kept the leftover textbooks, as she looked around the room in admiration. The curved wooden banisters, impressive skylight, and rich dark wood furnishings gave the split-level library a sense of elegance unusual in a school setting. Giles smiled at her reaction.
He checked the textbooks he had gathered against the list she'd given him and placed them on the counter. "Here are the books you need."
She was still looking around.
She turned back to him. "Sorry. I--I guess I got distracted. It's... Wow. I've never seen a library like this. I like it." She seemed almost embarrassed by her enthusiasm.
The library door suddenly swung open and a student rushed in, almost running into Alice. "Oh! Sorry! Have you seen Mr. Giles?" She was about Alice's height, and her long, straight red hair swung around as its owner bounced excitedly and breathlessly.
"Yes, Willow?" asked Giles.
"Oh, hi." She hadn't noticed him behind the counter. She tried to get her breath back and tucked her hair behind her ear in a nervous mannerism. "You know that project I'm helping you with, the one I said I would finish today? I just came to say that I can't do it. Today, I mean. Tomorrow--no, tomorrow's Saturday; I mean Monday. I can finish it on Monday, if you like. But mom is surprising me for my birthday and said she's taking me to the new computer exhibit at the Natural History Museum in L.A. It's supposed to be really cool! So we stopped at school for a minute so I can drop off my paper for English and to tell you that I wasn't coming in today. 'Cause I didn't want you to think that I don't want to finish the project, 'cause I do want to finish it. Is that okay?" She finally ran out of breath and looked up at him, expectantly.
Giles blinked at her and repeated the one thing he had managed to understand. "Today is your birthday?"
She grinned. "It's really tomorrow, but mom got tickets to the VIP opening at the museum and that's today. Isn't that great?"
A bell rang before Giles could answer.
"Oops. Gotta go. Mom's waiting for me in the car. Bye, Mr. Giles." Willow waved at Giles and Alice and ran out without waiting for a reply.
Giles stared at the library door, bemused. Willow Rosenberg was one of the best students at Sunnydale High School. She excelled in every subject but seemed to have a particular talent for computers. He, on the other hand, could not understand the attraction. Computers were totally alien to him and filled him with dread, yet he was required to use them as part of his job as school librarian. Fortunately, Willow had come in to the library on his first day, explained that she had been helping his predecessor--an old gentleman who had been at the school for as long as anyone could remember--with any and all computer work the library required, and had volunteered to continue doing this for him, if he wanted her to. His relief had been almost comical.
Since then, she had spent her free periods at the library, updating the catalogue and doing whatever other mysterious things people did with computers.
Giles suddenly remembered Alice--"Miss Peterson?"--but she had left while he wasn't paying attention. He would have to find some way to talk to her in private. She needed to know about her destiny.
He had found an opportunity sooner than he expected. Later, that same day, Alice had returned to the library.
"Hi, Mr. Giles." She had seemed unsure of herself. "Is it okay if I do my homework here? I have a free period and Mrs. Dowling said I could go to the cafeteria or to the library. And the cafeteria's too noisy."
"Of course." He scrambled to move several piles of books from the central table. "I'll just need to clear some space for you. I--I'm not used to students coming here." She had caught him by surprise. Other than Willow, who also had a free period at this time, hardly anyone came to the library, so he had planned to spend some quiet time reading old Watcher journals. He'd hoped to get some ideas about how best to approach the Slayer. And here she was, and he still had no clue.
"They don't?" she sounded a little startled.
"Um...I mean...if students aren't allowed in here, I can go back to the cafeteria--" she started edging out the door.
"No, please. I didn't mean that." He hadn't mean to sound abrupt, but her unexpected appearance had flustered him. "Students are always allowed in here. But most of them don't care to, apparently."
"Oh." She stood at the door, undecided. "Are you sure it's okay? I don't want to bother you."
He smiled and tried to look more welcoming. "I'm sure. Please, come in. You can sit here." He ushered her towards the table. "I'll be in my office if you need anything. And, please, don't be afraid to ask. You won't be bothering me. All right?"
She nodded, slightly reassured.
Giles busied himself reshelving books while Alice did her homework. She was diligent and systematic, seemingly oblivious to distractions. That was a good sign. Starting her career as a Slayer so late in life, she was going to have a lot of learning to catch up on. The Slayer Handbook, for one. The lore, the history, her duties; it would all be new to her. He wondered how good she was at languages. Giles was a firm believer in learning from primary sources, whenever possible--translations could be so unreliable--and most of the ancient tomes of vampire history were written in Ancient Greek and Latin. Then there was the physical training: self-defense, weapons training....
He put the stack of books he was carrying on a table, removed his glasses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had a lot of work ahead of him, but, before he could begin anything, he had to talk to the Slayer. Alice. He watched her from his vantage point at the top of the stairs.
Unbeknownst to him, Alice was aware that he was watching her. He had done that a lot in the past half hour. He'd carry a load of books to the upper level, shelve them, stop to watch her, then repeat the process with the next armful.
Alice prided herself on noticing what went on around her, especially when no one was aware she was doing it. Most times, people weren't even aware that she was in the room. Her father had been in and out of hospitals for the past few years and her mother spent all her time worrying about him, so Alice had learned to stay out of the way by learning the art of fading into the background. She had been amazed at how much there was to see from there.
Then, a few years ago, came the dreams. Nightmares about vampires. Sometimes, the vampires killed people. Other times, they spoke to her, told her they were waiting for her to come. After lying awake too many nights after one of the dreams, she had taken to sneaking out her bedroom window and going for long walks in the middle of the night. She wasn't afraid of the dark. She knew how to avoid any people she came across in her walks and, despite her dreams, she didn't believe in monsters. They only existed in the movies. And in her nightmares.
A week ago, her family had moved to town so her father could start some new treatment at Sunnydale Hospital. As soon as she could, Alice had started exploring the town, hoping to find something interesting beneath the sleepy suburb exterior. Boy, did she ever find it! She had seen things late at night that puzzled her. Something was definitely going on in Sunnydale and (1) no one seemed to know about it and (2) she had no idea what "it" was, but she was determined to find out. If she hadn't had so much homework to catch up on from starting the semester so late, she would've stayed at the cafeteria today and watched. And listened. And learned.
Instead, she had come to the library, and now she was the one being watched, and it made her uncomfortable. She wasn't used to being noticed, especially by adults. This librarian seemed to be the exception. There, he was doing it again. She heard him drop a load of books on the table up there, and now she could feel him watching her. It didn't feel threatening or "bad" in any way, just...weird. She heard him coming down the stairs again but, instead of returning to the book cart for another load, he went to where she was sitting.
Despite knowing he was there, she jumped.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he apologized. "I was going to put some water on for tea. Would you like some?"
"Um...y-yeah," she stammered out. "Thank you."
As he went to his office to take care of tea, she mentally kicked herself. She wished she weren't so bad about talking to people, but she never knew what to say.
After a few minutes, he popped his head through the door. "Would you mind if I joined you out there?" She shook her head and he disappeared back into the office. He came back out with a tray, set it down, sat opposite her at the table, and started pouring. "Cream and sugar?"
"So, have you been in Sunnydale long?" He was trying his best to make her comfortable but, from the way she was looking down, avoiding his gaze, his best didn't seem to be good enough. In a way, she reminded him of Willow when they had first met. Alice seemed to be even shyer. He hoped she would relax, eventually, the way Willow had done.
"We just moved." She spoke into her tea cup.
"Ah. I'm fairly new in town, myself. New to this country, as a matter of fact. No response from her. He continued, regardless. "In the short time I've been here, I've been doing some fascinating research. My particular interest--more of a hobby, really--is the occult. Witchcraft, magic, sorcery." He paused for effect. "Vampires."
She looked up and stared at him. He had her full attention. "Vampires?"
He met her gaze steadily. "Do you believe in the existence of vampires, Miss Peterson?"
Her eyes widened. "Maybe," she replied, warily.
Giles broke eye contact. "More tea?"
She blinked a couple of times at the non sequitur. "Yes. Thank you."
Giles poured again and handed her a fresh cup of tea. "There are many fascinating legends about vampires, far more interesting than what you see in the movies, actually." He continued for a while about vampires throughout history.
Alice listened, entranced. She loved storytellers, especially when they really knew their subject, as he obviously did. Several times, he wandered to the stacks to look up a reference or to illustrate a point he was making. Eventually, he brought the subject around to vampire hunters and someone he called, "The Slayer. Into each generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a chosen one, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of their evil--"
"A girl? Isn't it usually an old guy called Van Helsing?" Giles' enthusiasm was contagious and Alice had surprised herself by coming out of her shell. She was leaning forward, elbows on the table, having an actual conversation with an adult, as if she did that sort of thing every day.
"That is in the movies. The Slayer is always a girl."
"But how can one girl do all that by herself?"
"The Slayer is not alone. She is trained by her Watcher. The Watcher is in charge of preparing her, physically and mentally, to fight and destroy vampires."
"How?" She sounded skeptical.
"The Slayer has several advantages over other girls. She has superior strength and agility. She heals faster than normal and has greater stamina, thus being able to withstand and recover from injuries that would incapacitate someone not so gifted. The Watcher's job is to train her to use these gifts to the best of her abilities."
"And you say there's only one in each generation? So what happens when she dies? There's no one to fight vampires until a new one is born and grows up?"
"No. At all times, there are several girls around the world with the potential to be the Slayer. When the Slayer dies, one of those girls becomes the Slayer."
"But...how? And how does the Watcher know who she is? And how does *she* know who she is? And--"
He raised his hand to stop her string of questions. A glance at the clock had shown him that the period was almost over. He didn't have much time left. He had to tell her now.
"Usually, most of the potential Slayers have been identified ahead of time and the Watchers..." he searched in vain for the right word, "...know...when one of those girls has become the new Slayer. However, sometimes the Slayer is not among the known potential Slayers, so the Watchers have to look for her."
"But how do they know where to look?"
"They don't. They look all over the world, hoping for the best. Sometimes, like now, it takes years."
Alice stared at him. Suddenly, she didn't like where this conversation was going. "What do you mean, "like now"?" she asked in quiet voice.
He could see her retreating behind her protective walls. He leaned forward and spoke carefully. "Alice. Listen to me. What I just told you, about the Slayer. It's all true. It's not a fairy tale, or a legend, or a myth. It's fact. Do you understand?"
She nodded slowly. Her expression was unreadable.
He continued. "Vampires are real. Slayers are real. I am a Watcher. After looking for several years, we have finally found the new Slayer and I have been assigned to guide and train her." He paused, hoping for some sort of reaction from her.
As Giles talked, Alice had unconsciously been leaning back into the chair, away from the table and Giles, trying to distance herself from the topic. Things were starting to make sense, and this frightened her. The feelings of danger she got around the park and the cemetery, warning her away. The way her hand had healed so quickly after she broke that glass last year. The way she could outrun all the kids in gym at her old school.
She really, really didn't like where this conversation was going.
She looked up. It was hard to tell who was the more nervous of the two.
"Alice.... You are the Slayer."
Before he had finished talking, she was shaking her head. She was still shaking it when she stood up and backed away from him, and only stopped when she hit the counter and couldn't back away any further. She was breathing hard, and her voice was ragged. "No, I'm not." But she was. She *knew* she was, but she didn't want to be. She didn't want the dreams to be true. She didn't want the monsters to be real. She just wanted to be little Alice Peterson, the one no one ever noticed. "No, I'm not," she repeated, hoping repeating it would make it so, but knowing it wouldn't.
Giles didn't know what to do. No one ever knew what to expect with a new Slayer. Skepticism, of course. But...apprehension? "Alice--"
"Why me?" she whispered. "Why pick me? I'm not special."
He saw his opening. "But, you are, Alice. You're the Slayer. The only one in all the world. That is what makes you special."
That had been three months ago, and in that time he had tried to convince her he was right. After several long conversations, she had agreed to do as he asked and they had set up an after-school training schedule. She had proven to be a fast learner. She had memorized several sections of the Slayer Handbook in record time and was making progress in learning to read Latin and Greek. Her skills in self defense and weapons handling were improving remarkably. He never failed to congratulate her on her progress.
However, he had yet to take her on any vampire hunts. He should've started her on that at least a month ago, if not sooner. but he didn't think she was ready. Oh, she had the skills. What she lacked was confidence, and without confidence....
Giles spent the rest of the evening with his books. For days, the signs and portents had given warning. Something big was about to happen and he needed to find out what, and when.
He went back to the library early the next morning, still researching. He was only interrupted once that morning, by a faculty meeting to discuss a dead boy found in the girls' locker room. Another sign.
Early in the afternoon, Alice and Willow came in, as usual. They shared a free period during which Alice did her homework while Willow worked on whatever library project Giles had for her that day. Thanks to these daily meetings, the two girls had become friends. From his office, Giles could overhear occasional snatches of their whispered conversations.
"I can't go. I have to tr--I have something to do this evening. Exercise class. After school."
"That's okay, you can come after class. We were going to meet later than usual, tonight."
"I can't, really. I'm busy."
"Are you sure? Jesse and Xander are going to go. And Xander promised to do his world-famous Cordelia imitation."
"Really, I can't."
Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Even to his ears, Alice had sounded wistful. In an attempt to increase her self-confidence, he had intensified her training in the past month. She had worked hard, trying to please him, but she still didn't believe in herself. Perhaps what she really needed was to relax with her friends and think about something else, for a change. He sighed. It wasn't right for a young girl to spend all her spare time training, even if she was the Slayer.
When Alice returned to the library after school that afternoon, she was surprised to find that Giles hadn't laid out the usual weaponry and padding. In fact, Giles didn't seem to be ready for her at all.
"You need a break, Alice. Why don't you take the rest of the day off?"
"It's a nice day, Alice, and I'm declaring a holiday. Go...wherever it is that young people go to have fun."
"But, I'm supposed to train, Mr. Giles."
"Not today. You have been working very hard, and it's time you had a vacation, even if it's a short one. So, go, before I change my mind."
Very early the next morning, Alice knocked on Giles' office door. "Mr. Giles?" She had never liked to disturb him when he was reading, but her usually tentative greeting sounded more timid than ever.
Giles, immersed in his work, didn't hear her. After several minutes, he finally became aware that he wasn't alone. He looked up and saw Alice sagging against the door.
He jumped to his feet. "Good heavens, Alice! What's wrong? Sit down." She didn't seem to be too steady on her feet as he guided her gently to his desk. "Alice?"
She took a deep breath. "It's W-W-Willow. And Jesse..." She faltered.
"Here, why don't I get you a cup of tea, then you can tell me about it." At her shaky nod, he stood and put the kettle on the hot plate. As he waited for the water to boil, he watched Alice. She looked pale and scared and she was trembling. Something had scared her badly. The kettle's whistling distracted him from his worrying.
He put the steaming cup carefully into her shaking hands. "Here, drink this."
Alice set the cup down but didn't drink from it. Abruptly, she turned towards Giles. "It's really real, isn't it?"
"Vampires. All that stuff about v-v-...vampires and Slayer and prophecies... It's all real, isn't it? And that's why they're dead, right? People are going to die and I'm supposed to stop it from happening, right?"
"Dead?" No, not shy, gentle Willow... "Alice, who is dead?"
"Willow and Jesse, all right?" Suddenly, she was on her feet, shouting. "I went to the Bronze last night and now they're dead! I'm supposed to protect them, right? I'm supposed to be the great Slayer protecting humanity from the evil vampires, and I can't even save my friends."
"I can't do it! I'm not a superhero. I'm just a kid." She dropped back down on the chair and burst into tears.
"Oh, Alice..." Giles only hesitated for a moment and reached out and drew her into his arms. He let her cry for a good long while. When she had calmed down a little, he lifted her chin so they were face to face.
"Alice," he said to her, kindly but with conviction. "I don't expect you to be a superhero, I only expect you to be you."
"Listen to me. You are the Slayer. You are capable, and smart, and strong. You have trained hard, and you have studied hard. You can do this, Alice." He paused while she thought it over. "All right?"
She nodded, unconvinced.
"Now, please tell me about last night. What happened at the Bronze?"
Alice closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Giles waited patiently. After another deep, shaky breath, Alice reopened her eyes but didn't meet his gaze. "Okay," she started. "I was supposed to meet Willow outside the Bronze. I've been there with her and the guys before, and I usually get there early, so I won't be late.
Giles smiled. That sounded like something Alice would do.
"Anyway, Willow got there really early, too, so we went inside to get a table and wait for the guys to show up. The place was pretty packed. Then Jesse showed up, but he was more interested in trying to talk to Cordelia than to us, so he went to look for her. So Willow and I looked at guys." She stopped and glanced up at him, looking slightly embarrassed. "It's okay if I talk about guys, right? I mean, it's okay to tell you that we talked about guys?"
Again, he smiled. "Of course. Go on."
She nodded back. "Okay. Then Jesse came back and then this guy from math class came over and asked me to dance, and I said no. So Willow said I should've said yes and I told her I didn't want to, and besides I don't know how to dance. And Jesse said I was just scared. I said I wasn't scared, and Jesse said we both were, me and Willow. So Willow said she was not, and then Jesse dared her to dance with the next boy who asked. And Willow said, "Fine, I'll show you I'm not afraid of boys." Just then this guy came up and asked Willow to dance. I didn't think she'd go through with it, but then Jesse started to smirk so Willow got mad at him."
Alice had managed to compose herself during her story. She still looked lost, but her voice was steadier. "You should've seen the look on Jesse's face when Willow went off to dance with that guy." She managed to chuckle a bit. "Jesse and I watched them for a bit, then Jesse saw a girl he hadn't seen before so he went to try to talk to her. Then Xander came in, but then I couldn't find Willow or Jesse. We both looked for them, but no one had seen them. So Xander walked me home. Then, this morning, Xander called me--" Alice's voice faltered.
"It's all right, Alice. Take your time." His soft voice was reassuring.
She swallowed hard and continued. "Xander called me at home. He said Willow's parents and Jesse's parents had phoned him because he was their best friend and they wanted to make sure he heard the news from them and not at school. He said their bodies had been found near the graveya--"
She was interrupted by the library door swinging open. A short, balding, middle-aged man walked in.
"Hello? Is anyone here?"
Giles and Alice stood up, startled. Giles smiled at her, reassuringly, and went out to meet the principal. "Yes? Principal Flutie?"
"Ah, Mr. Giles, there you are. There's going to be a faculty meeting today at noon about the two students who died last night. Attendance by *all* faculty is required." He suddenly noticed Alice standing behind Giles. He turned to her. "Do I know you? Are you a student here?"
Alice blinked at him and tried to hide further behind Giles. Giles came to her rescue. "Yes, this is Miss Peterson. She was just telling me about Miss Rosenberg and Mr.--"
In a flash, the principal was ushering Alice towards the door. "You knew the two dead students? It's imperative that you speak to a grief counselor right away."
"But--" She looked at Giles for assistance.
"Immediately. Before untold damage is done to your subconscious." The principal and Alice were almost at the door before Giles could get a word in.
"Principal Flutie? Surely you don't want the other students to see her like this?" Giles pointed out her tear-stained face. "Perhaps, if you let her compose herself, first? I'll make sure she goes to the counselor right away."
Flutie considered his idea briefly. "All right. But make sure she does. They'll be expecting her. And I expect to see you at noon at the meeting."
Giles and Alice watched him leave. A session with Principal Flutie was like surviving a small tornado. It left one breathless and confused.
Giles waited near the library doors to give Alice some privacy as she washed up at the small sink in his office. When she came out, looking slightly damp but refreshed, he gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. "It'll be all right, Alice."
She nodded, and gathered her book bag off the floor where she had dropped it when she came in.
"Oh, Alice?" He called out to her just before she left. "Make sure you come by in your free period. I found something in my research last night that we need to discuss urgently."
"Sure, Mr. Giles."
Giles went to the door and watched her through the window. Despite the hallway being crowded with students, she looked alone. Her shoulders were more hunched over than usual, as though she were carrying the weight of the world on them. After last night, perhaps she finally felt as if she did.
He didn't notice when he went back to his desk and absent-mindedly drank from Alice's untouched tea cup. He rubbed his eyes. He was very tired. He had stayed up all night doing research, and had finally figured out what the portents meant. The Harvest, a ritual bloodletting involving the deaths of many mortals, was meant to free the Master--the local vampire king--from his inter-dimensional prison. And, according to the signs--that is, if Giles had read them properly--this Harvest was supposed to take place tonight.
He had intended to find Alice this morning, before school, and tell her the news, but Principal Flutie had seen to it that wouldn't happen. He took a deep breath. His Watcher training hadn't included much about the psychology of teenage girls, and he often felt as though he were making it up as he went along. From his reading of the Watcher journals, he knew that no Slayer was like the ones before, but he didn't recall any of them being like Alice. Slayers tended towards brashness and overconfidence. Alice had the skills and the knowledge, but if she was to succeed as a Slayer, she had to believe, deep inside herself, that she truly was *The* Slayer. He had yet to find a way to make her believe in herself, to awaken that spark in her. As far as he could tell, she was merely going through the motions, doing the training only because he asked her to and because she didn't want to disappoint him.
Not good enough.
With a sigh, Giles returned to his work.
As often happened when he was involved in research, Giles lost track of time and someone had come to remind him of the compulsory faculty meeting. Ungraciously, he attended and wasted precious time listening to Flutie's theories and other such nonsense. Finally, the faculty was released and Giles returned to his office.
He glanced at his watch. Alice should be in soon. As he gathered the books he would need to show her, he heard a muffled thump coming from the library. That would be her, dropping her book bag on the floor, as usual. The next sound would be Xander Harris, who always walked Willow to the library--Giles stopped in mid-step.
Not today. Willow wouldn't be coming in today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day.... Giles sighed wearily. He was going to miss her. Her bright smile, her eagerness to learn. She had kept him up to date on the school gossip and yet had never shown a hint of malice. She was a happy child and wanted all around her to be happy, too. Willow, who always had a joke or story ready for him; who thought he was "cool." Giles smiled to himself, remembered the overheard whispered conversation between Willow and Alice. He sighed. Shy, sweet, Willow. And now she was dead, a victim in a war she knew nothing about.
He stopped that train of thought. This was no time for sentimentality. If Alice was to stop the Harvest tonight, she couldn't be distracted by emotional Watchers. He took a deep breath and prepared himself to prepare the Slayer.
When he came out, he saw Alice at her usual seat, her textbooks spread out over the table. With a shock, he noticed that she was taking up only exactly half the table. The other half had always been Willow's.
At his gasp, she turned around and looked at him. Anger. Not directed at him, Giles was relieved to notice after a moment, but anger, nevertheless. It was in her eyes and in the way she held herself, shoulders straight and head held high, not her usual wallflower hunch.
"You said you found something, Mr. Giles. Is it about killing vampires?" She sounded brusque, business-like.
"Um--yes. Yes, in a way." He came out of his shock. Until this morning, he had never seen Alice angry. Not even miffed. He wasn't sure how to take this. "I--I think I've found the answer to something that has been puzzling me," he continued, thumbing through one of the books he had brought from his office.
As he explained to her about the Harvest, she listened attentively, as always, but, whereas she usually just nodded obediently at the end of one of his lectures, this time she had questions. She needed to know details; everything he knew about the Master, about the Harvest; about any weaknesses she could use to stop him.
"Any idea where they're doing this Harvest, Mr. Giles?"
"I'm not exactly sure about that, yet. They'll want a place with lots of people; young people, preferably, since they have a more vibrant life force--"
"They're going to hit the Bronze."
"The Bronze," repeated Alice, sounding very sure of herself. "It's the only place in Sunnydale. It's always full of kids, and tonight there's no cover." She stopped and looked up at him. "They're going to pay for what they did to Jesse and Willow." Her eyes dared him to contradict her.
Before he could react, the bell rang. Alice gathered her things. As she rushed out of the library, Giles called out to her. "We'll meet here tonight, at seven."
"Don't worry. I'll be here. Bye."
Giles sat back down, still a little overwhelmed by what had just happened. He reviewed their conversation and decided that, overall, he was pleased with the change in Alice. She seemed to have developed a sense of purpose. At least some good seemed to be coming out of last night's tragedy.
They met that evening, as arranged. Giles had gone home after school to freshen up. After spending the past thirty-six hours doing research at the library, he had felt in need of a shower, a real meal, and something softer than a desk to sleep on.
Alice was already at the library when he arrived and didn't notice him coming in. She was punching and jabbing an imaginary opponent. Her form was faultless, her hits unwavering.
Not wanting to interrupt, he didn't speak until she stopped to drink from her water bottle.
At the sound, she whirled into an attack position, startling him into backing up a step. She relaxed when she recognized him. "Oh, hi, Mr. Giles, it's you. Sorry 'bout that. I got here early to practice some more." She was breathing hard, restless, pacing the floor as she spoke. "I'm ready for them."
"That's...good." Giles looked worriedly at her. He set his briefcase on the counter and took out some books. "There are some things we need to go over--"
"Now? We don't have time for that!"
He blinked at her.
She looked as surprised as he was by her outburst. "I mean...the Bronze..." she stammered, suddenly abashed.
"No." The new Alice reasserted herself. She looked up at him, defiantly, then looked away and started stuffing her things back into her bag. "We don't have time to go over things. The bad guys are going to show up at the Bronze and kill everyone, remember? We have to go now! We gotta stop them."
Giles stared at her, unsure of how to react. The detached, academic side of his mind noticed that Alice's hands were shaking. He tried again. "Alice--"
"No! We don't have time for talk! Willow and Jesse, remember? All-you-can-eat at the Bronze, remember? We have to go now!" She was pacing again, shouting, her bookbag swinging from her arm. "We have to stop them from killing everyone! I'm the Slayer, remember? It's my job to protect people!" She turned abruptly towards the door. "I'm going there now."
"Alice, wait!" He grabbed at her arm and tried to stop her.
"NO!" She spun and pushed him away. Hard. Harder than she intended.
Her bookbag hit him square in the chest and knocked all the wind out of him. He stumbled back and fell hard against a chair and sprawled breathlessly on the floor. "Oo-oof...."
"Oh, god, Mr. Giles, are you all right?"
With an odd sense of deja vu, he found himself looking up at Alice. His mouth opened and closed a few times, but no sound came out. He concentrated on reminding his lungs how to breathe.
In.... Out.... In....
"Mr. Giles!" She was shaking him.
Out.... In.... He gave it another try. A strangled sound came out.
"Oh, god, Mr. Giles, I'm really sorry. Are you okay? Please say something!"
He noticed the panicked tone in her voice and tried harder to get his voice back. He cleared his throat and tried a third time. "I'm all right." His voice sounded reedy, but it would do.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
He checked himself quickly. Other than a few bumps and bruises where he had hit the furniture and the floor--and the rapidly growing ache in his chest he was doing his best to ignore--this was no worse than anything he'd endured during one of their sparring sessions. "Um...yes. Yes, I think so."
"I'm really sorry, Mr. Giles, I didn't mean to push you so hard, really. Are you sure you're okay?" She helped him up and was fussing over him. If anything, she seemed more frantic, now.
"Yes, yes. I'm fine, thanks. Alice, stop!" He grabbed at her hands. "Alice. Please! I'm fine. All right?"
She stood stock still, staring at his hands holding hers. Her breathing was ragged, her hands shaky, and she didn't resist when he led her back to the table and sat her down.
He recognized the signs of shock. Alice had never felt strong emotions, before--Alice was an unusually even-tempered girl--and today she had been hit by some of the strongest: fear, rage, the need for revenge. They had given her that extra edge, that sense of purpose he had wished for her only this morning. She needed the emotions to survive as a Slayer, but she hadn't had time to learn how to control them. He had to tread carefully, lest the emotions take control of her, instead.
He blinked, surprised. Not the sound he had planned to make. He saw her mouth twitch a little; almost a smile. Good. Her sense of humor wasn't gone. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Alice?"
She didn't look up.
Giles realized his mistake. He had always treated her like an equal, a peer, both preparing to face the enemy together. But what he really wanted to do was take her far away from here, away from this madness, to where she could be safe. But he couldn't. Coddling was the last thing she needed right now.
He tried another approach. He stood, walked over to the counter, and picked up one of the books. "As I was saying, there are some things we need to go over before we go to the Bronze." His tone was no-nonsense, business-like. He turned his back to her and made a show of looking for the right page.
When he turned back, she had composed herself. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but she looked calmer, focused. He walked back to the table and continued his explanation. "I've found out more about this Harvest. There is one vampire in particular, the Vessel, you need to be on the look-out for."
"Vessel? What's so special about him?"
"He is...um...a middleman, of sorts. The Master uses him as a conduit. Every time the Vessel takes the blood from a victim, the Master feeds off that energy and grows stronger. If the Vessel isn't stopped, the Master will become strong enough to escape into this world."
"Okay. So, how do I recognize this Vessel guy?" The determination she'd shown that afternoon was back in her voice and her attitude.
"He'll have a mark on his forehead, like this." He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and drew a three-pointed design on it as Alice leaned forward to look over his shoulder.
She examined the drawing carefully. "Right. So, I'm looking for someone with a Mercedes-Benz logo on his forehead. Shouldn't be hard to miss. Anything else I need to know?"
"A Merced--" Giles looked at his design, again. "Yes. "Yes, I suppose it does resemble a Mercedes-Benz logo, in a way. How peculiar. I wonder how--" He noticed that Alice was looking at him, amused. "Ahem. Yes. I suppose I can look it up later, after we get back."
She nodded. "Is that is, Mr. Giles?"
He realized he was stalling. "Yes. That's all the information I have."
"Okay." She grabbed her bag off the floor where she had dropped it and headed for the door. "Let's go." ----------
As Giles pulled up in front of the Bronze, they could tell something was wrong. The converted warehouse looked dark and empty. "Is it always this quiet?" he asked her as they looked around.
"No, it's not. There are usually lots of kids hanging around out here. This is weird." She sounded worried. "Do you think we're too late, Mr. Giles?"
"Let's hope not."
"Right." She took a deep breath and went into what she had referred to in the car as "Slayer mode." "Plan A?"
"Alice, wait." He was sending her off to battle for the first time and--he had to admit to himself--he was afraid for her. She had the skills and the knowledge, but sparring sessions were not like the real thing. Her fire, her confidence in herself, were still very new. Would she know how to make use of them properly? Would she be able to keep her emotions under control?
He realized she was waiting for his lead. He cleared his throat and pushed his thought aside. "Plan A," he agreed. "And be careful."
She grinned. "Thanks, Mr. Giles. Just get the kids out. I'll keep the vampires occupied." She turned and went up the fire escape ladder.
The fire exit door didn't have a knob on the outside, so she broke a nearby window and went in. It was dark inside and it took her a few moments to get herself oriented. Something didn't feel right about the place. She was at one end of the walkway that overlooked the dance floor. The walkway was deserted except for the spotlight operator at the other end. He hadn't noticed her.
Alice suddenly realized what was wrong. The place didn't *sound* right. There should have been music, sounds of young people dancing and chatting. Instead, she heard...whimpering...moaning? Quietly, so the guy with the spotlight wouldn't hear her, she peeked over the railing.
Realizing she'd said that aloud, she retreated into the shadows. Fortunately, the spotlight guy hadn't heard her. He was too intent on the events on stage. She closed her eyes tight. She didn't want to remember what she'd seen down there. A large, ugly man with a disfigured face had been sucking the blood from a girl's neck, then tossed her body aside like an old chicken bone.
*Oh god oh god oh god*
She retreated further into the corner and forced herself to calm down.
Okay. There are vampires down there. Real vampires. She had studied so much about them, she'd forgotten she'd never seen one in the flesh, until now. Theory and books were one thing. Real life, on the other hand....
Real life was the Vessel down there, on stage, killing people. Alice felt a surge of...anger...power...*something.* Whatever it was that made her the Slayer. She let the feeling take over. Inside, she was scared stiff. Outside, she knew she had a job to do, and she was ready to do it.
Besides, she didn't want to disappoint Mr. Giles.
Without a plan in mind, she tiptoed down the stairs and made her way backstage. All those years of "invisibility" were paying off, finally.
The Vessel was addressing the crowd. "What? No volunteers?" No one replied.
Alice stepped onto the stage, where everyone could see her. "Hey!"
The Vessel looked up, surprised. "Who are you?"
"I'm the Slayer." She stepped closer to him. "I'm here to stop you." With no other warning, she attacked him.
Giles had surprisingly little trouble breaking open the lock of the stage door; he pounded it with one of the large empty metal canisters piled up outside the door. When the lock finally broke, he grabbed his satchel, carefully stocked with crosses, stakes, and bottles of holy water, and went inside.
It didn't take his eyes long to adjust to the dim light. There were stairs to his right, leading up. Ahead of him, a series of curtains blocked most of his view of the main floor but didn't prevent him from listening. Giles heard a large number of young voices that sounded frightened and confused. An arrogant, mocking voice addressed them.
"What? No volunteers?"
The Vessel, Giles guessed. Suddenly, the voice was interrupted.
"I'm the Slayer. I'm here to stop you."
Recognizing his cue, Giles beckoned to the first group of kids huddling near the door. "Come on, get out. This way." He ushered them out the door. Others noticed and followed. Soon, he was busy getting groups of dazed young people out the door, and could only occasionally listen to the sounds of fighting coming from out on the floor. He could only hope Alice was doing well.
Finally, there were no more kids near the door and he had to venture past the curtains to look for more. The curtains opened up onto a large dance floor; a stage to one side, small tables and bar stools to the other. Iron stairs in the back led up to a central walkway that overlooked the whole room. A large group of young people were standing along the edges of the dance floor, guarded by several vampires. Everyone's attention was riveted on the stage.
Giles looked over and saw Alice holding her own in a fight against a vampire twice her size--the Vessel, he guessed. Despite the difference in bulk, Alice seemed to be coming out the best in that fight. Her smaller size helped her duck under his swings and sneak in several good punches before the vampire had a chance to avoid them. Giles couldn't help but feel a small thrill of pride at her skill.
Suddenly, the Vessel blocked one of Alice's punches, twisted her arm viciously, and knocked her down.
"Alice!" Giles started forward to help her when he was abruptly pulled back by the collar and thrown face first against a wall.
Alice heard her arm snap where the vampire twisted it behind her back. Before she could scream, he punched her in the head and knocked her down.
She dropped to the floor, moaning. *This is not how it's supposed to work. I'm one of the good guys. I'm supposed to win.* She tried to get away from him, but he was toying with her, blocking her way. *I shouldn't be on my knees, crawling. I should be fighting back. It's what the Slayer would do.* But she *couldn't.* She wasn't fast enough, good enough--
The Vessel, tried of playing, reached down and picked her up by her broken arm. The pain seemed to give her new strength. He laughed at her attempts to fight and held her tight, one arm around her waist, pinning her arms against her side, grinding together the broken ends of her bone. His other arm around her neck, he stood up straight, lifting her off her feet, and squeezed.
Giles was punched in the stomach and fell to his knees, all the breath knocked out of him. As he gasped for air, Giles heard a woman's voice next to him. "Hello, there. Are you supposed to be the hero?" He was grabbed by the hair again and pulled up to his feet. He sagged against the wall, unable to stay upright, and found himself facing a young-looking female vampire incongruously dressed in a Catholic schoolgirl's uniform. "I'll bet you're here to help the Slayer, aren't you, hero?" Giles was too stunned and in pain to do anything but stare at her, blinking away something warm that kept running into his eyes. Dimly, he realized he was bleeding in several places.
Suddenly, her face lit up with delight. "Hey, I know who you are! Old guy, hangs out with the Slayer...I bet you're her Watcher." She leaned close to him and whispered in his ear, confidentially. "I like Watchers." To his horror, he felt her lick his ear. "They taste sweet." Feebly, he tried to push her away but she punched him in the stomach again. He nearly passed out as the air was knocked out of his lungs a second time. All that kept him conscious was the pain in his scalp as she dangled him by the hair.
Finally, she released him and he fell to his knees, gasping. She knelt down next to him. "Well, guess what? You're too late, hero." She grabbed him by the hair, again, and turned him around to face the stage.
The Vessel had Alice in a stranglehold. She was kicking at him and fighting to get loose, but he laughed at her efforts and squeezed harder. Giles watched in despair as he saw her strength failing fast. Finally, Alice slumped in the Vessel's arms, unconscious.
The female vampire whispered in Giles' ear. "Look, Watcher, the last thing you'll see. Your Slayer's dying, Watcher? How does it feel? How does it feel to fail, Watcher?"
Giles watched, frozen with horror, as the male vampire pulled back Alice's head and exposed her neck. With a triumphant cry, the Vessel bit into the Slayer's neck and drank from her.
As in imitation of the events on stage, the female vampire pulled back Giles' head and bit his throat. He felt the life drain out of him, slowly. After too long a time, she withdrew her fangs and gave his throat a final lick. "How does it feel to die, hero?" She let go of him and he slumped to the floor, barely alive.
Alive...but aware that he was dying. He was dimly aware of sounds, noises, confusion.
Someone tripped over his legs, but he didn't feel it. He heard a scream nearby, far away.
A dull thud. A shape appeared next to him. He struggled to focus on it, but failed.
Fade to black.
"Hey, Giles? Wake up, Giles."
Giles woke up abruptly to find Buffy leaning down close to him. "Gaaaah!" The sudden movement gave him a blinding headache.
"B-Buffy?" he sat up and groaned. Willow was tugging at the straps of his padded helmet and she was making him dizzy.
"Giles, are you okay? I think I knocked you out."
He closed his eyes and held his head, unsuccessfully trying to block out the pain. "What happened?"
"We were sparring, remember?"
"Oh yes. Sparring." Buffy and Willow helped him up to a chair, despite his protestations that he would be fine.
"Are you sure you're okay, Giles? You look kinda pale. Can't have a Watcher who's not all right, you know. 'Cause a not all right Watcher is a...not all right Watcher."
Giles' fogged mind wasn't up to Buffy's brand of conversation at the moment. Fortunately, Xander chose that moment to return with the snacks and drinks and rescued him. Reassured that Giles was fine, the girls converged on the food while Giles went to his office for aspirin.
A short while later, Buffy knocked on his door. "Giles, we're done for today, right?"
"Hmm...?" He was sitting at his desk, head buried in his hands. He'd almost fallen asleep.
"Giles, you look awful. What time did you go home last night?"
"Um..." He wasn't sure.
"Thought so. Tell you what. Since I get the evening off, you should get the evening off, too. In fact, you need a vacation. At least one day. I mean it, Giles. When was the last time you spent any time away from the library?" She continued before he could answer. "There, see? You can't even remember."
A voice called Buffy's name from the library.
"I gotta go, Giles. We're having Indian movie night at my place. You go home, okay? I mean it."
Giles made her a half-hearted promise to leave soon. Not really satisfied with his answer, but knowing it was the best she would get, she left.
He sighed. Perhaps Buffy was right. He decided to follow her advice and go home early. But, first, he needed to write in his Watcher's journal. It was one of his daily rituals and, in this time of uncertainty, he took some comfort in the familiar.
As he wrote, snatches from his dream flashed through his mind. A dark-haired girl crying in his arms...Willow dead? He removed his glasses and rubbed his temples for a moment. He concentrated on the circular motion of his fingertips as he tried to remember. Was it just a dream? It had seemed so real. Unconsciously, he rubbed at his throat, at the spot where...
He blinked. The events of the dream came rushing back to him: The Slayer, dead on stage. "I'm not a superhero, I'm just a kid." His own death.
*How does it feel to fail, Watcher?*
He frowned. Had he?
The Slayer handbook made it clear. The Watcher was there to teach the Slayer. Given the proper guidance and training, the Slayer would succeed. But Buffy had taught him that it wasn't that simple. If training was all it took, anyone could be the Slayer. What was important was the person *inside* the Slayer. Did she have the need, the drive that told her that being the Slayer was what she was here to do? It was the fire within that made the Slayer unique. And to become a successful Slayer, she needed a Watcher who could help her bring out this spirit, could help her learn to control it and use it to her advantage.
He was very fortunate to have Buffy as his Slayer.
Under his watch, she had blossomed and matured, both as a person and a Slayer. She had come so far since their first day together when, angry and bitter, she had declared that she was retiring as the Slayer. They were going through a bad spot, right now, but they'd get through it together. Despite their differences in age, background, and temperament, Buffy and he made a good team.
*How does it feel to fail, Watcher?*
He didn't know. With Buffy's help, perhaps he never would.
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