By the way, any generous person out there who would be interested in designing an icon and/or wallpaper to go with this story would be most welcome. It was a last minute decision for me to start this now, and I haven't taken the time to ask anyone. My talents, sadly, lie elsewhere!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
“You can do it, Kara.”
Kara heard her father’s voice from where he sat with the rest of the students, but she didn’t think she could do it. She didn’t think she could do much of anything.
Kara stepped onto the mat, felt it give beneath her feet, and was glad that there would be some padding, considering she would probably be flat on her back in a moment. On the other side of the blue square Jason Quinn also stepped forward, looking a great deal more confident but still a little concerned. They strode toward each other until only a few feet apart, then bowed.
“Just like in training, Kara,” she heard Jason whisper while their faces were hidden from the sensei. “You know you can do it. You have the talent -- just be confident.”
“Easy for you to say,” she muttered back. “You’re a quarterback.” Not to mention Jason’s father, who was Madison, Indiana’s local conspiracy theorist, drilled him every day on military weapons and tactics. Running five miles before breakfast in the morning made Kara’s sparring partner twice her size -- all muscle.
They straightened and stepped back, and Kara heard the sensei call for them to begin. Then he added, his voice low, “You have the ability, Kara. You can do it.”
Kara rolled her eyes. I feel like I’m in a Nike commercial. She moved to her left, and saw Jason step to his left so that they began circling each other. She could try a leg sweep -- that worked once in practice. With another quick step, she dropped down and jabbed out with one straightened leg.
Jason stepped over it like a jump rope and at the same instant punched straight out with his fist, which came straight at her forehead. Instinctively she drew back, but that put her off balance and -- as predicted -- she ended up flat on her back. Without being hit by a single blow.
Someone in one of the two lines of students tittered, and someone else shushed them. Kara felt her face redden. The Sensei, his mouth down turned, simple said, “Continue.”
“It’s OK, Kara,” her father called. “No points against you.”
Father, would you please shut up? She climbed to her feet, watching Jason as he danced forward, looking more concerned than ever. Oh, just go ahead and hit me, and get it over with. This is one exam I’ll never pass.
He spun a foot out at her, and she dodged in the most spectacularly ungraceful way ever. “I can’t hold back,” Jason grunted as their heads passed. “It’s like the class final.”
“Fine.” Wanting to get it over with, she lashed out with a one-two fist combination that had actually made contact against her father once, but Jason dodged, and she saw his hand darting toward her torso for a point scoring hit --
Power flooded through Kara, causing her to jerk back so quickly Jason missed. He spun around and tried again, but his blow again hit empty air. Then, to his surprise and hers, she gripped his arm, threw him forward off his balance, and landed a blow on his back as he went down with a surprised gasp.
Jason rolled over, staring at her in shock, but Kara barely noticed. Instead she stared at her hands, aware of every nerve, every muscle, the condition of her bones and skin, the energy flowing along her spinal column. It was like being half asleep and suddenly, for the first time in her life, coming wide awake.
One part of her mind took note of the total silence that engulfed the room. The students who usually made fun of her, and the ones who rooted for her success, all regarded her with wide eyes, frozen in position. Her father, always the first to cheer on her successes, sat open mouthed.
“Um . . .” The sensei hesitated. “Point.”
Her father yanked a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his glasses, as if a spec on the lenses caused him to see something impossible.
Finally Jason regained his feet, a smile replacing the earlier worry. “Okay!” He took an attack stance, and when he was sure Kara’s attention was on him he charged forward, throwing a quick combination of punches and kicks.
Kara parried the first punch, jumped over the kick, spun around and kicked Jason’s legs from under him, then closed her fist as if holding some kind of object -- and brought it down on his chest, right over his heart.
“Oof.” Jason pushed her hand away and rubbed his chest. “Where did you learn THAT?”
From the startled expression on his face, the sensei was thinking the same thing. He turned to Kara’s father, who shook his head so quickly his glasses almost flew off. The other class members, most of them high schoolers like Kara and Jason, started murmuring among themselves.
This time, when Jason got up, his expression had turned deadly serious. Encouraging his friend was one thing, but losing a match without scoring a single point was something else entirely. Looking determined, he rushed forward with the quick attack move that every student except him, at one time or another, had used to force Kara out of bounds before she could mount a counter attack. She remembered, as she poised to counter him, once overhearing two of them call it “Kara’s Kryptonite.”
An instant later Jason soared through the air upside down, landing right on the laps of those same two students. For a moment Kara fought an uncontrollable urge to stab him in the chest with something, anything, but even as she glanced around for a stick or piece of lumber the sensei managed to squeak out “Match”, and her father raced forward to wrap his arms around her. Most of the other students followed, laughing and talking loudly enough to cover their astonishment.
“Is Jason --” The crowd parted and Jason stumbled forward, holding one wrist and favoring his left knee. “Oh, Jason, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean --”
“It’s all right,” he assured her, holding up his good hand. “Mostly my pride. It’s just -- where did you suddenly come up with those moves?”
The students hushed to hear her response, but Kara could only shrug. “Honestly, I don’t know. It’s like . . . something just came over me, all of the sudden. Like everything was moving in slow motion and I knew just what to do.”
“Well,” her father said after a moment, “maybe it just took awhile for you to catch up to the rest of the class . . .”
Nobody spoke, and after a moment Kara realized how ridiculous that statement was. Nobody in the class had ever done anything like that because, despite the sensei’s mix of various martial arts forms, and despite his insistence on using the imagination during matches, he had never taught anything like that.
The silence was broken by a voice that boomed through the open double doors to the lobby: “Someone turn on the TV! Quick!”
A first year student hurried to the television that perched on a stand in the corner, but before he could ask what channel to switch to everyone’s attention riveted on the screen.
Shot from a helicopter, the view showed what appeared to be a massive hole in the desert. Kara realized just how big when a school bus, looking like a tiny yellow speck, came into view near one edge of the crater. A commentator, sounding excited, was continuing on:
“Scientists who have been detecting tremors in the area are speculating caverns beneath the town simply opened up when a stronger earthquake hit, and the chain reaction formed what has to be the biggest sink hole in recorded history . . .
“But whatever the reason, one thing is certain: The town of Sunnydale, California, has been swallowed up by this chasm and has vanished off the face of the earth.”
“So, Buffy . . . what do we do now?”
Andrew heard the bemused tone coming from Xander Harris, and Willow Rosenburg’s almost joking addition: “Yeah, how do you follow up destroying a whole town?”
Not for the first time, Andrew decided these people were crazy.
“Well, we could take out a state.” This from the Slayer Faith, who Andrew knew was still wanted for escaping her prison sentence for murder.
“A small state.” Buffy stood looking at the huge crater in the desert, where the community of Sunnydale, California used to stand. She didn’t even glance at the others, but used the same light tone. “Rhode Island.”
“Oh, be more ambitious than that,” said Buffy’s sister, Dawn, who stood closer to the bus and was now homeless. “New Jersey.”
“Would anyone notice?” Xander asked.
“Really,” pronounced Rupert Giles, from where he stood a little apart from the rest of the group, “You should get serious.”
Finally, Andrew thought -- someone who understood the magnitude of what had just happened.
But then Giles finished, in that dry British tone of his, with: “Of course someone would notice if New Jersey disappeared.”
Andrew shook his head and turned from the huge hole, examining instead the yellow schoolbus they’d used to barely escape going down with the rest of the town. Ironic, he thought, that the bus should be the only reminder left of an entire town, a place they all called home.
Well, not all of them. Inside the bus the slayer potentials -- no, full slayers, now, thanks to Willow’s spell -- patched up the wounded as best they could. He wasn’t able to get a count, but at least a few of them had not escaped the battle with The First and its army of super vampires. Spike was also gone, and Andrew shuddered as he remembered Anya being almost cut in half before his eyes.
But the Scooby gang was acting as if they’d just thrown a party, now making lame jokes about what jobs they should search for now that every job in town was gone.
Xander -- Anya’s one time fiancé, who lost an eye in the fight against The First -- planned to become a pirate. Willow wanted to use her magic abilities to give people power-ups for pay, just as she had powered up the slayers. Buffy even turned away from the crater to relate how she once told her first Watcher that she wanted to be a buyer, even though she hadn’t completely clear on what that job entailed.
That first watcher -- he must have also died, Andrew realized, or Giles wouldn’t have taken his job. “Why am I alive?”
Andrew didn’t realize he spoke aloud until the others fell silent. He felt a blush spread over his face, but thought he was saved from further embarrassment when Kennedy jumped out of the bus and walked toward them.
“Ambulances on the way, thanks to Willow,” Kennedy said, throwing an arm around the redheaded witch’s slim shoulders.
Dawn perked up at that. “Oh, did you use her summoning spell?”
“Nope --” Kennedy held up a small device. “Her cell phone. The dispatcher was a little preoccupied, but thanks to the magic of 911 they know where the hurt people are.”
“They’re getting a lot of calls?” Giles asked.
“Not from close by, everyone but us got away. But when Sunnydale got swallowed up it made the ground shake for miles around.”
Before anyone else could speak Dawn suddenly turned to Andrew. “What do you mean, why are you alive?”
“Takin’ over from Anya with that directness thing,” Xander said softly.
“I mean . . .” Andrew wasn’t sure how to explain it to himself, let alone someone else. “I just didn’t expect to live through this. This was so big, and I’m so . . . well . . . small.” Emboldened by their silence, he forged on: “You’re all taking this so lightly, like it was just dusting one vampire or burning a single house down. But we just defeated the very First Evil ever, the biggest big bad, and all these people died and our town was swallowed up and I don’t have anything but the clothes on my back and there’s another Hellmouth in Cleveland and what do we do now?”
“We start by not going all hysterical,” Kennedy said with a warning tone.
“No.” Dawn shook her head. “Look at all that just happened -- maybe we deserve a little hysterics.”
“I’m not trying to be hysterical --” But now they were talking amongst each other again, as if Andrew hadn’t even been the one to bring up the subject, and not for the first time he felt left behind.
“Hysterics is good after the fact,” Xander said. “A little dancing around in small circles and making panicked screeches can really relax a person after a hard day saving the world.”
“Yes,” Willow agreed. “And Oreos. With milk.”
“I’m still for the bubble bath,” Faith added. “I didn’t expect one for another twenty-five to life.”
“This is what I’m talking about!” Andrew protested, but their voices had become a babble, and a helicopter hovering above almost drowned them all out. The group didn’t quiet down until Giles stepped forward with a shout.
“That’s enough!” He looked around to make sure he had everyone’s attention, including the new Slayers who were hanging out the windows of the bus. “Andrew is right -- we’re in denial. It’s a normal part of grieving, which is something we’re all going to have to go through to some extent in the coming days. We’ve lost close friends, and homes, and gone through a very traumatic experience.”
“All the more reason,” Faith told him quietly, “why we really do need some serious R and R. When we’re done joking we’re all going to crash big time.”
Giles nodded. “And we need a place to do that. First we deal with the inevitable questions, and make sure the injured are taken care of. Then we need to decide the best course of action to find and train the new Watchers and their slayers.”
The helicopter moved on to another part of the disaster scene, leaving a dead silence in its wake. Most of them, Andrew noticed, seemed shocked, but Buffy just looked mad, and was the first to speak.
“No way. Giles, I am officially retired --”
“Don’t you think I want to go straight back to England, and pick up my normal life again?” He took a swipe at his sweat stained face, reminding Andrew they were still standing in the middle of the desert. “There’s nobody better than us to find potential new Watchers --”
“The last thing we need is more Watchers!” Faith protested. “Don’t you remember what those old British guys did to me?”
“Faith, you did a lot of it to yourself.”
Faith clamped her mouth shut, jaws working as if she was trying not to scream. But then she took a deep breath and looked away. “You’re right. But Giles, a lot of what the Watchers did amounted to keeping the Slayer under their thumb so she didn’t think for herself.”
Giles nodded. “The Watcher’s Council became corrupted by their own power in some ways, I'll admit that. But those people are gone, and the job of the individual Watcher is more important than ever. There are hundreds of young slayers who have suddenly gained new and frightening powers, and they need direction.” He turned to Buffy. “There is no one alive better than you and Faith to teach the Slayers their new responsibilities, Buffy. No one else who understands as well. We’re needed.”
“I need to be a normal girl again!” She clenched her fists, looking ready to flee until Faith stopped her with a quiet, resigned voice.
“You were never a normal girl, B. He’s right. Nobody’s better at avoiding responsibility than me, but . . . he’s right.”
“We’ll all help.” Willow waved her arms to take them all in. “It’ll be the Scooby Gang again, only this time we’ll be like the bosses and won’t have to do the dirty work as much. Right, Xander?”
“Sure. Shouting orders, yelling for coffee, ordering more memo pads --”
Andrew couldn’t believe it. They were getting way ahead of themselves again, forgetting the basics, assuming everything would just work out -- well, it had so far, but still. “But we don’t have anywhere to go. We don’t have jobs, we don’t have money. I might have to sell my camcorder.”
Dawn laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Your camcorder’s in the hole, sweetie.”
“First let’s take care of treating the injured and come up with a good cover story that won’t keep us in police custody for weeks.” Giles looked around at the highway and scrub brush that lined it, as if the answer would pop out at him. “Then we’ll head to Chicago.”
Another silence. Chicago? To Andrew, Chicago seemed further away than any demon dimension, and for this group it probably was.
“Um . . .” It always required someone brave to break a silence, and this time Dawn went for it. “What’s in Chicago?”
“The other Watcher’s Council.”
Still another silence. Andrew realized his mouth was hanging open when a bug flew into it, and by the time he was done coughing and choking Buffy had just recovered enough to speak.
“Did you say --”
“ANOTHER Watcher’s Council?” Faith interrupted with horror.
“Are they all dry and boring?” Kennedy asked.
“Maybe they’re gangsters,” Willow told her. “You know, big time Chicago crime lord types.”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed. “Tweed wearing dandies from England and gun toting mobsters from Chicago. Maybe there’s a gay Watcher’s Council in San Francisco.”
“It’s not PEOPLE.” Giles sounded thoroughly exasperated, especially at Xander. “It’s a location, a headquarters where copies of our research materials were kept as well as some other items that might be needed, in case the original Council headquarters was ever compromised.”
“And you planning to tell us about this when?” Buffy sounded more than a little upset, herself.
“Well . . . I just now remembered it.” Seeing the doubtful looks from the others, Giles hurried on. “Certain key Watchers knew of the other quarters, but volunteered to have our memories modified so our enemies couldn’t find out about it. Apparently the events of today triggered some sort of key --”
“Like me?” Dawn asked with a grin.
“The knowledge that our enemies were destroyed, perhaps, or the sudden need we have of a place to go. In any case, once we get to Chicago we’ll be able to stay there while we plan our next move.”
“Do they have a bathtub?” Faith asked, but Buffy waved her off and glanced around at Dawn, then the others.
“But no people?” she demanded.
“As far as I know, I’m the only surviving member of the Watchers.” Suddenly Giles looked very tired, and Andrew wondered how many friends the Englishman had lost. “We need to get Robin and the others to medical treatment, and after that we can use the Chicago location to reorganize.”
Buffy nodded. “Okay. We’ll have a place to crash and time to regroup -- I can’t imagine who would challenge us right after we defeated the First Evil.”
Many people called him the Cheeseman.
Not to his face, of course. Although deceptively mild looking, only one being ever called him Cheeseman to his face, and that person had met a very painful, messy end. After that, word spread fast through the demon dimensions.
Sweet lounged in his throne, mentally working up some lyrics to a new opening, when the gilded double doors on the other side of the ballroom opened to admit his demon colleague. Cheeseman didn’t look like cheese, which in the world of demons was a legitimate question. He looked like a normal, mild mannered gentleman in his later years, wearing a dull tweed suit and glasses. But nowhere did the cliché “appearances can be deceiving” mean more than among the hundreds of demon races that inhabited the dark crevices of the supposedly real world.
Sweet, who with his red, rubbery skin looked much more the part, knew who he faced the instant Cheeseman entered Sweet’s corner of this particular dimension, although the two had never met in person. Among demons, these two were famous for coming closest to the current Vampire Slayer without losing their heads -- although for different reasons.
Stretched out on his throne, Sweet cupped his hands behind his head and examined the interloper. It wouldn’t be impossible to eject Cheeseman from his domain, but his newest queen had recently burst into flames, and he was feeling a bit bored while waiting for his next call. “Greetings. Have you come with a song in your heart?”
“Maybe later.” Cheeseman marched across the gilded dance floor, his bald head flashing from the disco ball lights, and held out a tray. “I bring an offering.” He withdrew the covering to reveal a nicely laid out display of cheese -- of course. Colby, cheddar, American; slices, chunks, strings.
“Looks yummy, but I can be a messy eater. It may have to wait until I can get out of this custom made pinstripe suit -- it’s an original.” Sweet waved to the throne on his right, then remembered it held a charred corpse in a blackened lace wedding dress and pointed to a chair on his left, instead. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Why, thank you.” Cheeseman found a footstool to rest the tray on, then perched on the chair. “Sorry I missed the big finale.” He gestured toward a half dozen smoking bodies littering the dance floor.
“There are always more chances to put on a show. Could it be that’s what you’re bringing me?” Although somewhat horrified by Cheeseman’s awful sense of fashion and rather limited culinary tastes, Sweet had to admit his curiosity was overwhelming him.
“Possibly.” Reaching forward, Cheeseman picked up a block of cheddar and examined it in a disturbingly loving way. “Ah, cheese. It never fights the inevitable. It doesn’t care right from wrong. It knows its place in the universe and simply -- accepts it. Not like Buffy Summers.”
Oh, of course, Sweet thought, Buffy Summers. “In her defense, the Slayer is somewhat more --”
Cheeseman shot him an angry glare, and Sweet decided to change tack. “-- But of course, she has to die.”
“I entered her dreams, once, and you can see the hearts of your victims. Between the two of us, we know more about Buffy Summers than almost anyone.”
“And you want my help so you can --?”
“Destroy her, of course.” Cheeseman nibbled on the edge of the cheddar with an expression of bliss, but after a moment his eyes narrowed, and he turned back to Sweet with a dark expression. “I entered her dream, but there was another, more powerful presence already there. She ignored me! Me! I can’t allow that to go unchallenged.”
“Hm.” Sweet stroked his chin, considering. “She managed to shake off my magics once, too. Of course, the landscape has changed. The First Evil has apparently been driven from the human plane, at least for now, and instead of one slayer you’re facing hundreds.”
Cheeseman waved that off. “One slayer or a million -- I don’t operate on their plane of existence, so they present me no danger. I want revenge against one slayer only. The rest can live or rot, for all I care.”
“But to reach her, you may have to operate on her world.” For the first time, Sweet began to get a little concerned. Cheeseman seemed somewhat unbalanced, and considering what Buffy Summers had already done, incurring the girl’s wrath again seemed a dangerous notion.
On the other hand, it would be an interesting concept, pitting a Dream Demon against an army of slayers. If he could help Cheeseman gain an equal advantage, the resulting conflict might provide Sweet with entertainment for weeks. “So you’re looking for a weakness to exploit.”
Cheeseman leaned forward eagerly. “You can assist?”
“I can advise. And, perhaps, tag along -- your silent partner, or as they say in show business, the sidekick.” To soften the blow of what he had to say next, Sweet reached forward and picked out a slice of American. “My friend, your own experience should have shown you both what to exploit and what to fear.” He took a bite and was surprised to find it fresh and pretty darn good. Clearly, Cheeseman rotated his stock.
“Her friends, of course. They survived an attack by the sprit of the First Slayer and also battle with the First Evil, and they’re getting stronger. We demons don’t usually have friends, so we fail to understand how powerful a force love can be, but that’s what kept Summers alive for so long.”
Nodding slowly, Cheeseman sat back against the throne. “And her weakness?”
“Also her friends. She will risk her life and her mission to protect them. Now she’s going to be occupied with an army of untrained and untested slayers, and the loss of any one of them will effect her greatly. Strike while they’re still more of a liability than a strength, and you have a chance against her. If you wait until they come to know her, they’ll defend her with their lives.”
“Slayers . . .”
“Yes, indeed. Buffy’s already one of the oldest who ever lived; she’d be a great leader of a slayer army.”
“A slayer army . . .”
Realizing Cheeseman was following a different train of thought, Sweet gave him a sharp look. The small man stared off into space for a long moment, until a smile slowly spread across his nondescript face. Then he reached forward, took another chunk of cheddar, and turned to smile at Sweet. “You’ve led me right to the solution, the best revenge.”
“Oh? Care to share?”
“I need to know for sure it can be done. If you’d still care to tag along, we’ll investigate together.”
Sweet glanced over to his former bride, who had almost stopped smoking. Why not? There was no action here. “You’ve piqued my curiosity, sir.”
“Fine, fine. Buffy Summers may be firm and fresh now, like a fine block of cheese, but when I’m done . . .” He clenched his fist over the cheddar, until it crumbled and pieces fell out from between his fingers.
“Ah, you’ve lost your snack,” Sweet said with a smile. “And with the price of milk so high, too.” He stood to follow his new colleague.
Cheeseman just brushed away the crumbs. “No matter. If all goes well, the demons and vampires of the world will shower me with gifts of cheese. For the world will soon be filled with dead slayers.”