WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Kara’s father sat in his favorite easy chair. He was surrounded by stacks of books, in what was normally his most relaxing place in the world -- his bookshelf lined study near the center of their old house. He sat back, tapping his pursed lips with a finger, and studied the four people lined up on the couch before him.
“So. Kara is a vampire slayer.”
Kara heard the one eyed man beside her gulp, as if meeting his date’s father for the first time. “Yes, sir.”
“And you’re the -- head slayer’s -- best friend.”
“We haven’t actually come up with a special name for her yet, but -- yeah.”
“She’s the last of the, um, single slayers,” Dawn offered.
Richard turned his frown on her. “And you’re that slayer’s sister.”
“Acting as an emissary, seeking out more slayers.”
Dawn nodded. “And Watchers.”
“Yes, Watchers. People who . . . watch.”
“And train,” Xander added. “And advise, and research. Like teachers, only Watchers actually help people.”
Uh oh, Kara thought, as she nudged him. “Xander, did I forget to mention my dad was a teacher for ten years?”
“Boy, you sure did.” Red faced, Xander held a hand up. “Not that teachers don’t help people. ‘Cause they do. And if I’d let my teachers help me more, I’d know when to shut up.”
Richard peered at Xander over the rim of his glasses, giving the impression he was looking down his nose at the young man. “So true.”
On the other edge of the couch from Kara, Jason raised his hand. “Can I say something?”
“No. You’re going to have enough trouble explaining why the coffee shop got wrecked and then abandoned, while you made no attempt to call the police.”
“The police couldn’t help,” Dawn told him. “They’d only bring guns.” Xander gave her a half smile, then turned back to Richard.
“The thing is, sir, having those vampires show up means they know we came here, and the one who survived saw how well Kara fought, so he has to have it all figured out by now --”
“She fought well, then?” For the first time, a slight smile played on Richard’s lips, and Kara felt a glow inside.
“She sure did,” Dawn said.
“She kicked ass,” Jason added, which got him a blistering look from Richard.
“Okay, let's focus.” Xander held two fingers up. “We really need to one, find this potential Watcher, and two, get Kara somewhere she can be trained safely.”
“Safe is hardly a word that would describe her circumstances if I let her go. Besides, vampires can’t come in the house uninvited, and they can’t come out in daylight. It seems to me she’s safest if she stays here.”
“Stuck inside the house all night, every night?” Kara asked her father. The more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea of being part of a group of demon fighters. Could a future career be any more exciting? Besides, Dawn was only a few years older than her.
“Wait a minute,” Xander interrupted. “How did you know vampires can’t come in a home unless they’re invited?”
“Research.” Richard gestured to the stack of old books beside him, then picked one up. He whipped off his glasses and set them aside, then began leafing through the volume. “I suppose I had a premonition something was happening, because I’ve developed somewhat of a fascination with the occult in recent weeks. Vampires, werewolves, demons, succubi -- all fascinating.” He paused on a page. “I’ve even found a very vague reference to something called The Rising of the Slayers, which I’d imagine is the event you’re saying your witch caused.”
Xander and Dawn glanced at each other.
“I never thought I’d make use of those Latin classes,” Richard muttered to himself as he grabbed up another book. “And I also never thought these things were anything but myth, but I trust my daughter.” Putting the book aside, he speared Kara with a glance. “Not enough to send a fifteen year old girl to Chicago in the hands of perfect strangers, you understand.”
“Oh, we’re not perfect,” Xander said. Dawn punched him in the arm.
Richard shoved his glasses back on. “Assuming all this is true, the next question is, how are you going to find this potential Watcher? His job description is so general. He could be a teacher, police officer, our martial arts instructor, or my personal favorite: a man jailed as a lunatic for putting forth crazy theories.” Looking frustrated, he yanked his glasses off again, pulled a white handkerchief from his sweater pocket, and began cleaning them. “The texts are not at all clear on how to choose a Watcher.”
Xander looked at Dawn. Dawn looked at Xander. They both grinned. “He doesn’t have an accent . . .” Dawn began.
“Actually, it’s kind of a southern-midwestern twang,” Xander told her. “But other than that, the similarities are uncanny.”
As he spoke, Kara figured it out for herself and jumped in her seat. “Oh!” That would solve a few problems, although unfortunately it also meant hanging out with her father. “Dad loves to travel.”
Richard looked up at them. “What?”
In an alley near downtown Cleveland, two girls were fighting.
Actually, if you looked closely, one of the girls had a strangely ridged face and long, sharp fangs. This came as no surprise to the fight’s only witness, a young witch who had seen more vampires then she cared to remember.
This vampire, like most, seemed to have developed an innate fighting ability, despite the fact that she still wore the nun’s habit she had apparently been buried in. She spun around, her fist almost ramming into the back of Kennedy’s neck, but the slayer ducked and landed a punch with her left hand that drove the vamp back.
Willow wasn’t a big fan of the violence, but she wasn’t overly worried about one vampire -- Kennedy had a good teacher. Sure enough, Kennedy dashed forward before the vampire had a chance to recover, and drove a stake into its chest. After one very brief look of surprise, the thing exploded into dust that was carried away on a slight breeze.
“So,” Kennedy said, thrusting the stake back into a leather loop on her belt, “There are vampires in Cleveland.”
“No big surprise.” Willow wrapped her arms around Kennedy and kissed her on the cheek. “Still, we’ve been here over two days and that’s the first supernatural thingy that’s popped up. That’s kind of strange, for a hellmouth. Maybe they heard you were coming.”
“Maybe they heard we were coming.” Kennedy kissed her back, this time on the mouth, and lingered there for a moment. “After all, we’re the dream team.”
“Maybe.” Arm in arm, the two began making their way back to the street they’d been meandering down when they spotted the vamp. “But we also haven’t found any trace of our missing slayer. No strange articles in the newspapers, no rumors on the streets -- suppose something already got to her?”
“But no bodies were found. Unless the authorities are keeping it under wraps?”
“Ah.” Willow nodded. “Let’s find one of those internet cafe’s, and I’ll do some hacking into the official records. We’ll save the magic for last, since that’s been known to stir up the baddies.”
“You,” Kennedy said, pulling her closer, “are a wise woman.”
“And you -- are hot.”
“Is that what you love me for? My hot bod?”
“It’s a start.”
Pushing against each other, the two women wandered into the cone of light thrown by a street lamp, and kept going toward a more populated area of town. The presence that followed them, barely visible in the dark alley, disappeared in the reflected illumination.
Rupert Giles was going insane.
Every time he tried to retreat into the library for some good, solid research -- or at least for some quiet time for himself -- someone followed him. This time Rona, Chao-Ahn and Vi stood in front of his desk, while his tea grew cold in its cup before him.
To make matters worse, all three of the girls were rather underdressed, which he found extremely disconcerting. Rona wore only a daring black leotard, Vi’s red shorts and Chicago Cubs belly baring tank top left little to the imagination, and Chao-Ahn had walked in soaked, wearing only a white bath towel. Clearly there was a story to be told behind that, but Giles wasn’t thrilled about the idea of hearing it.
Vi and Rona both burst out at the same time:
“One of us needs to be in charge --”
“Her training routine isn’t working at all --”
Giles held up a hand. “One moment. Buffy is in charge.”
“But Buffy’s not back from California yet,” Rona protested, “and neither is Faith. You’ve been busy setting up the facilities and tracking down the new Watchers and slayers, so those of us who started training the earliest should help the others with their conditioning.”
Vi nodded. “Rona’s not paying enough attention to finesse, and centering --”
“Centering! How about center mass, as in hitting? The girls need to develop their physical strength before they get into that kung fu crap.”
Now Vi shook her head. “The girls are slayers -- they have physical strength. But that doesn’t help if they can’t keep their cool, and stay on target.”
“Ladies, please.” Giles tapped one of the books on his desk. “What about their mental education? Identification of their enemies, the reason for their mission, their history and --” He stopped when he saw the blank looks on the slayers’ faces. Had there ever really been a time when slayers were obedient and eager to learn? “See here -- you’ve each been given a copy of the Slayer’s Handbook. Buffy will be back in just a few days, and in that time I suggest you all do some reading. Almost all of these girls are still under eighteen, and most don’t have a high school diploma, so sooner or later we’re going to have to --”
He stopped when he saw the expressions on Vi and Rona’s faces. “I daresay you didn’t look this terrified when you descended into the Hellmouth. Perhaps I’ve gotten through to you, then, and you’ll give me a few moments of peace before I send you all back to public school. Now, at least start going through your handbook, and I’ll work out a balance of learning, skills and physical development.” He turned to the other slayer, who had remained silent. “Chao-Ahn? What can I do for you?”
The Chinese girl held up an empty box. “Tampons?”
Giles felt the blush spreading up his face. Luckily, Vi and Rona forget their differences and immediately started fussing over their friend, promising a loan from their personal supply and a nasty reminder to their supply clerk to order more. Within seconds, in a burst of noise, they left the library, and Giles sat back with a sigh.
The tea cup had barely reached his lips when the door burst open again and Andrew stomped in -- as much as someone his size could stomp. “Mr. Giles, the girls are picking on me!”
“Does this have something to do with you forgetting to order feminine hygiene products?”
Stopping short, Andrew looked away. “Well, I can’t be expected to go through the women’s dorm.”
“I dare say that would be a mistake, yes. I’ll talk to the ladies about keeping track of their own supplies. Now, if you’ll excuse me --” The computer, banished to the far corner of Giles’ desk, chimed. “Oh, bother.”
“You have mail,” Andrew said, sounding unaccountably happy about the idea. “I’ve got the server set up to deliver your individual e-mails straight to your desk, and any returns on inquiries about slayers or Watchers goes both to your desk and the main computer console.”
Trying to ignore him, Giles tapped the “receive” button.
“Which automatically posts any sightings on the map, along with updates from locater spells. If a new slayer is identified, it plays the “Superman” theme, and a new Watcher makes it play “Close Encounters”, and any demon sightings gets the Darth Vader theme from “Star Wars”. John Williams is just the best, if he’d compose more classical it would get popular again, don’t you think?”
Giles rubbed his temple and tried to concentrate on the message from Los Angeles. Clearly, this situation needed dealt with, but --
“But James Horner did really good on “Star Trek 2”, even though he didn’t have as much to work with as “The Motion Picture”, which was just made for majestic music. He did great after, especially with “Apollo 13”. You know, I don’t think “Titanic” could ever qualify as fantasy or science fiction, even though --”
“Andrew, I want you to go to Las Angeles for a mission.”
Andrew stared at him, mouth still open. Giles was astonished, too.
Two of the younger slayers burst through the door, arguing about some issue involving whose turn it was to clean up the supper dishes.
“Take some of the slayers with you,” Giles said, “including those two.”
The slayers stopped in their tracks.
“What --” Andrew swallowed, and started over. “You mean -- I’d be in charge?”
“Yes, yes. There’s a slayer suffering some sort of emotional disturbance who’s being kept in a mental institution there. Apparently Angel Investigations is about to get involved, but I don’t know if we can put our trust in Angel while he’s involved with Wolfram and Hart. She’s a slayer. She needs to be here, with other slayers, which alone might help her mental state.” Giles had qualms about sending the new slayers out, especially with Andrew, but he had to give them a mission sooner or later. Other than getting past the government red tape, he didn’t see much danger here. Demonic activity was still down, and in truth he believed Angel, Wesley and the others would help shepherd Andrew and the inexperienced slayers through the situation.
“You’re putting trust in me.” Almost magically Andrew turned completely serious, pulling himself to attention. “Me. This is the proudest moment of my life.”
The slayers looked at each other as if prepared to run for their lives.
“Andrew, one more thing. Buffy had expressed some interest in touring Europe once this business is settled. If Angel should happen to ask questions about her, it might be best if he thinks she’s already on the other side of the world.”
“I won’t let you down.” Saluting, he turned and almost ran head on into the girls. “Come on, ladies -- we have a mission!” He gave a war whoop and ran out.
The slayers sent doubtful looks at Giles. “It’s all right. Just let him handle the situation, and stay out of sight until he really needs backup. It’ll be good practice for all of you.”
Giles had the funniest feeling his headaches were about to come down on someone else. He didn’t know who, but as long as he got a week or so of relative peace -- and as long as everyone came back safely -- he didn’t care.
Giles’ two most experienced slayers were more than halfway back to Chicago. They wanted to get Robin as quickly as possible to a place where he could stretch out and recuperate in some comfort, so they’d taken turns driving day and night, while their passenger curled up on the too-small rear seat of the Mustang. Whenever they got near a city and hit heavy traffic Faith took over: Buffy held only one of Andrew’s faked driver’s licenses, and a notorious reputation. Still, staying on the move and violating every speed limit in existence had gotten them into Nebraska in near record time.
It was only there, with Robin snoring in the back and the setting sun glowing orange in the rear view mirror, that Buffy glanced away from the road and began to tell Faith about Tara’s grave.
Faith’s position -- safety belt cinched tight, legs out straight and arms gripping the dash board -- loosened as she heard the story, until she finally leaned back with a thoughtful expression. She was quiet for several minutes -- except for reminding Buffy to turn the car’s headlights on -- then spoke quietly: “Tara was . . . nice.”
“Everybody liked Tara,” Buffy agreed. Willow, Dawn, Spike -- even Tara’s killer had been aiming at someone else. And yet such terrible things kept happening to the poor girl.
“But, what does it mean?” Hearing a soft noise from the back seat, Faith craned her neck to watch Robin with a concerned expression, then turned back to Buffy and lowered her voice. “Could Tara be alive?”
Buffy shook her head. “No, that’s not it. Tara died a natural death --”
Faith snorted. “If you call being shot natural.”
“Well, not a mystical death, anyway. There are rules.” Buffy realized she sounded a little bitter. Sometimes, on bad days, she wished she could trade her second chance at life to bring Tara back. “Magical deaths can be undone, but when it’s your time to go in an earthly way you’d better hope Xander’s around to do CPR.” That made her think of her mother, and she willed herself not to tear up.
“I suppose if there was a way to bring Tara back, Willow would have done it,” Faith said. “So -- what? Could the body have been buried under some more debris, or just -- um -- deteriorated?”
“We looked. And -- well, there would have been something still in the casket. Riley double checked to make sure the burial detail didn’t get there first, but no joy. We have to face the possibility that it may have been stolen. She was a witch, after all, and maybe there was some mystical energy still there, something someone could use.”
Faith shivered. “What an awful thought, that she could have been dropped into a cauldron. Should we tell Willow?”
“Absolutely not. She’s happy with Kennedy now, and I don’t think stirring this up again would do anyone any good. I’ll discuss it with Giles when we get back.”
“Yeah, it’ll wait until -- Buffy!”
Something loomed up on the highway in front of them. Buffy jerked the wheel to the right and slammed on the brakes, and she felt the Mustang shudder as it veered off the pavement and into high grass. It angled down an embankment while Buffy stood on the brakes and told herself she’d never drive again -- ever.
A moment later the car shuddered to a halt, and Buffy jammed the transmission into park as Faith released her seat belt and turned toward the back. “Robin?”
“I’m okay,” he said, his voice weak. “Slept through most of it. What happened?”
“I think a deer ran out in front of us.”
“I think it was a moose,” Buffy said as she opened the door and climbed out, planning to check for damage. “Maybe an elephant. Or a dinosaur.”
Straightening, she glanced up and saw a form at the edge of the road, silhouetted against the twilight. She’d been closer to being right with elephant, only this thing stood on two legs. She saw gleaming red eyes, one straight horn that rose to a point over its brow, and -- at the end of muscular arms -- claws on the end of fingers that flexed, looking for flesh to dig into. As Buffy watched, two similar forms stalked up beside it, then all three started down the embankment toward the wrecked car.
“Faith,” Buffy said, “it wasn’t a deer.”