Reversible Error

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Other recognizable characters are likewise not ours, but presented with respect and affection.

Part IV

“First of all,” Giles said, “touching on a matter to which I previously alluded, there is the matter of Dana’s age.”

Xander sat up straighter. “First? That’s what you lead with?”

Giles favored him with a dry smile. “Think of it as laying a foundation. May I proceed? Yes? Thank you. Now, the records of the facility where Dana was being held indicate that she did, indeed, come into possession of Slayer attributes on the day Willow loosed the power of the Scythe. They also show that, at that time, she was almost twenty-five years old.”

“Truly?” Chu exclaimed. “I didn’t —” He broke off, again began accessing menus on his smartphone, then announced, “Yes, that’s so: Miss Caruthers is very nearly the oldest of the new-Chosen. I find record of only three older, by no more than a few weeks, and it would appear that none have ever been activated past the age of twenty-five …” He looked up. “Honestly, I hadn’t realised the cut-off point extended that high.”

Buffy nodded. “I know. She’s older than me, and not many Slayers can say that.” Her mood instantly switched back to somber. “Only, she can’t say it anymore.”

“No, I suppose not,” Giles said. “Still, it marks a point very much worth attention. I know you are far more immersed in the minutiae of our ongoing operations, Wendell, but I spent some time in studying the facts you just confirmed. Previously, no candidate had ever become a Slayer before the age of fourteen years, nor after the age of twenty-one; it would appear that twenty-five is now the upper limit. If so, Dana would have become ineligible within only a few more months. Which, to me, raises the question of how many more ex-Potentials there may be worldwide: those who might have become Slayers, but … ‘aged out’ … before the opportunity could arrive.”

Buffy frowned, and most of the others seemed equally puzzled. “I guess there’s no way of knowing,” she said. “And even if it did, why would it matter?”

“As I said, it ties in with Dana’s age,” Giles began, “and it’s, it’s really quite technical —”

“— but basically,” Salome interceded smoothly, “it comes down to reverse engineering.” Giles ground to a halt, and the others swung to look at her; she gave him an unrepentant smirk, and went on. “The work we did with Dana, the comparison of individual Slayer auras and the analysis of what we could measure of the Slayer essence, it opened out new areas we couldn’t ever explore when there was only one Slayer — OR when the stuffed-shirts in the old Council kept the established covens at arm’s length!” She shook her head. “So far, four basic results. One, we can repeat what we did with Dana, remove the Slayer essence in extreme cases. Two, we can fine-tune our location spells for new Slayers to about eight times as much sensitivity and precision. Three, something similar works almost as well at locating Potentials … which, since nowadays every eligible Potential either becomes a Slayer or turns it down, mostly means ex-Potentials who got too old for activation. And …” She paused, looked to Giles. “You want to take this last one, Rupert?”

“Thank you,” Giles said to her. Then, to the others, “The final result is, perhaps, less controversial than the ability to remove the Slayer essence, but is potentially much more far-reaching in its likely consequences: as a corollary, we now have the capability of awakening the Slayer essence, in those former Potentials for whom that activation never occurred.

“And this, as you may readily recognise, raises a number of issues. Important, significant, and possibly volatile issues.”

*                *               *

– February 2008 –

It had seemed straightforward at the beginning: the restaurant manager had told Kendall that one of the customers, a British man, had reserved a private room and requested her as the server, with the promise of a generous gratuity. Kendall had welcomed the prospect of extra money, and the arrangement probably wouldn’t be about sex: this wasn’t that kind of place, and she’d made sure the manager didn’t think she was that kind of woman. (Not that she would have absolutely ruled it out, if the ‘gratuity’ was generous enough …) The likelihood had diminished when she saw that the customer was accompanied by a teen-aged girl too conservatively dressed to be a hooker, and when he invited Kendall to take a seat. Whereupon he very properly introduced himself … but didn’t ask her name, for he already knew the one she was using here in Spain. He had come to this place, he said, to meet her specifically, and from there the conversation just kept getting stranger.

“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Señorita Cardones,” he was saying to Kendall with grave courtesy. His Spanish was cautious and precise, that of an obvious foreigner who had put in a lot of study but still didn’t have a true feel for the language. “And I apologize for arranging a meeting in such an unconventional manner. I would have preferred to offer a better impression of my organization and our concerns, but in fact we have been able to learn so little about you, coming to your workplace was the best I could do.”

And I would really like to know how you found me at all, Kendall thought grimly. And why the hell you’re interested in the first place. Aloud she said, “The Madrid bombings in 2004, Señor? One of the railroad cars damaged was transferring boxes of vital records from the old district office to the new. Mine were among those destroyed.” Did that make sense? Would it hold up to any kind of investigation? She didn’t know, she was pulling this out of her ass even as she said it. “A small annoyance for me, compared to the greater tragedy of that day. There is little to know of me: my parents are dead, I lived and worked with my grandfather until he died as well, then I came to the city to seek a new life.”

New life, right. She was a goddamned waitress, doing everything she could to stretch out her limited funds. Okay, she knew this bozo wasn’t working for the Fitzpatricks, if Liam had tracked her this far he’d have sent a bullet instead of some Limey with a jailbait sidekick. More to the point, he never would have warned her by having someone contact her, so for now she just needed to find out what was Dweeby’s deal and what business he thought he had with her makeshift cover identity. Which, damn, he was talking again and she’d missed the first part of it, she focused her attention as he was saying, “… expect you to believe without evidence, so I’ll ask Caridad to make a small demonstration.” He nodded to the demure, gamin-faced girl who stood beside him.

Oh, shit! Kendall thought, registering the name. Her accent was barely good enough to convince the locals that she was native to Spain, though most of them believed she was from some rural province or another, but she’d thought she’d be dealing only with the Brit (Gerald, he’d said his name was Gerald), and wasn’t confident of holding her role under more exacting scrutiny … When the girl spoke, though, Kendall knew instantly that she was from somewhere in South America, and her sudden alarm receded. “With your permission, Señorita,” Caridad said to her, “might I ask that you cross your ankles, grasp the arms of your chair, and hold yourself very carefully in place?”

The request was as inexplicable as it was unexpected, but after a quick, doubtful look at the two of them, Kendall did as instructed. Caridad glanced toward the door that led out to the main restaurant area (closed, as the ‘customer’ had requested), and stepped up next to Kendall’s chair. She went down on one knee, reaching over to take hold of one of the rear legs … and then she straightened up, smoothly and unhurriedly, lifting the chair with one hand — and its occupant as well — to hold it above her head.

Kendall came within a hair of shrieking a string of good old-fashioned American obscenities, but the same shock froze her for the half-second she needed to recover her wits. She clutched the chair’s arms, struggling not to panic and throw herself off-balance, and looked down at Caridad. The girl stood without strain, the muscles in her arm prominent under the skin but not bunched or quivering; in fact, only the way she had spread her feet for stability indicated that she was holding any significant weight. “I see this,” Kendall said carefully. “I see, but I do not understand. What does this mean?”

Gerald nodded, and Caridad, still with unhurried control, set Kendall’s chair gently down, and moved back to resume her previous station. “That is only a preliminary demonstration of bona fides,” Gerald said to Kendall. “If you choose to accompany us back to England, for further education and assessment, we shall provide more. To make a very brief business of it, however: the world is older than you know —”

He explained at some length, and Kendall listened with total concentration.

The good news, they had found her (or so they claimed) by witchcraft; so, unless Liam had fucking leprechauns on his payroll — not impossible, knowing that lunatic bastard, but hardly to be expected — he wouldn’t be locating her that way. Better news, they wanted to sponsor her, pay for her travel and put her up while they were showing her their program and deciding whether to offer her a place in it. Best news, she’d drawn an inside straight that meant she might, if she played sweet and innocent and didn’t get caught out in anything, be given the same mojo that Muscle Girl had just demonstrated.

And that … well, that just gave her all kinds of extremely interesting ideas.

It was true that she’d been closer to her grandfather than to her parents, but that was in Shelby, Tennessee. From him she had learned the Spanish of Pamplona, but he had also made sure her English carried no trace of accent: “The people here, nieta, they hear ‘Spanish’ and to them that means ‘Mexican’, which means ‘wetback’. Life is hard enough already without giving anyone an excuse to look down on you.” True that: Land of the Free or no, it was a dog-eat-dog world populated by pit bulls. And, unless she was born to wealth and position, a woman had only two tools to work with: sex, and being underestimated. Kendall had devoted a great deal of attention and effort to becoming very good at both. As far as she was concerned, a whore wasn’t a woman who sold herself for money, but one dumb enough to sell herself for too little money.

Marrying Richard Casablancas was supposed to guarantee the security she had been seeking her whole life, but the moron had not only put all his money into land scams, he’d got caught at it. Then his psychotic son Cassidy had set her up and swindled her, and then she had doubled down on her rotten luck by getting involved with the Fitzpatricks.

It had almost worked with Cormac. Kendall didn’t put much trust in any man, but Cormac had really laid it on the line for her: helping her skim the money Liam regarded as his, setting up Keith Mars as the witness to her faked death, then sending her up the road with a substantial emergency fund while he stayed around to ‘hunt’ Keith and finish selling the illusion … Maybe Cormac really would have been a keeper, maybe not, but she’d never got the opportunity to find out. He didn’t show for their planned rendezvous, and she never found out what happened to the Van Gogh that had been intended to make their new wealth easily transportable … she should have kept the painting with her, she had almost insisted on it, but she had needed Cormac to trust her every bit as much as she had needed to trust him, and if it had just been a double-cross he would have killed her for real so that meant HE was probably dead … She couldn’t risk that Liam had managed to get the truth out of Cormac somehow, and she didn’t have a lot of cash, so she had thought of all her grandfather’s stories and caught a cheap, hurried, no-frills flight to the land of El Cid.

Now, she had a chance to switch from ‘survival’ to ‘moving up the ladder’, and maybe a lot more than that.

If she managed to con these people (they thought they were dealing with Maria Reynalda Paz Cardones-Ramirez, and she had no intention of correcting them), if she made the cut and actually became a “Slayer”, one of her first actions would be to return to Neptune and gut Liam Fitzpatrick. If he really had killed Cormac, he had it coming; even if he hadn’t, she would never truly be safe as long as he was living.

Afterward … well, she would work out that part as she went. The world was her oyster, and Kendall Casablancas (née Priscilla Banks, but she had buried that identity long ago) knew exactly how to reach in and rip the pearl right out.

[Kendall Casablancas (Veronica Mars) is the property of Rob Thomas, Rob Thomas Productions, and Warner Brothers Television.]

*                *               *

– November 2003 –

Jess heard her roommate come in, knew that Jules knew she knew, but continued to lie with her back to the door. Meaning that she had an uninterrupted view of a mint-green cinderblock wall. Which was good. Calming. Something to meditate on other than the turmoil of her life as it currently stood. She needed the distraction.

It wasn’t enough, though. Not with the other girl’s eyes boring holes in her back. Not glaring, she knew Jules was on her side here. Only, there were two problems with that. One, Jules was about the only one on her side. (Perfectly understandable. That was part of what rendered this whole awful mess so … crazy-making.) Two, neither one of them really knew exactly what was the this that they were facing here. Jess just wanted to close her eyes and wait for it all to go away; wouldn’t work, but it was a way of dealing with the moment. Jules … Jules always insisted on attacking a problem. Going straight at it.

She sighed. Still without looking around, she asked, “Are they —? No, nix that. How mad are they?”

Jules’ voice held sympathy, and a small measure of the frustration Jess was feeling. “Pretty mad.”

Another sigh. “I can’t really blame them,” Jess admitted.

Footsteps, and then Jules’ weight on the bed, and her hand on Jess’ shoulder. “You have to realize how it looks to them,” Jules said to her. “I mean, one moment you’re sliding around them like they’re toddlers on the field, making them look like stumbling idiots … like you want to make them look foolish, rubbing it in their faces. The next, you’re fluffing the simplest moves, as if you can’t find your own feet. And they know how good you are, so they see it all as part of an act. They’re … well, it looks bad to them.”

Jess rolled over onto her back, looking up at the girl who had so quickly become her dearest friend, and only because she’d wiped her eyes before the turn was she not blinking away tears. “I know how it looks,” she said, her voice shaking. “I know. And I’m trying. I just … I just can’t …”

And now the tears wouldn’t be denied, and Jules put her arms around her.

Physically, the two young women couldn’t have been much more different: Juliette Paxton, lean, pale (even after months practicing under the California sun), hair hacked short, her full lips contrasting with the sharp planes of that high-cheekboned face; and Jesminder Bhamra, raven-haired and cocoa-skinned, trim but rounded, with regular, delicate features suited to classic Indian legend. The kinship they shared, though, ran deeper than appearance or even race, sisters in everything but blood.

Jules stroked her friend’s hair and said softly, “It isn’t fair.”

“No,” Jess mumbled in reply. “No, it isn’t. Not to me. Not to them. Not to anybody we play against.” She could feel the other girl’s sleeve getting wet. Let it. “All I ever wanted was to be a footballer. To play against real players, not just games in the park. I worked, I really worked to get good enough …”

“Yeah,” Jules agreed. She pulled back far enough to study her friend’s face. “And now you’re too good.”

“I am.” Soft as a whisper, fierce as a scream. “I don’t know why. I can’t turn it off. And I can’t … can’t find the right balance when I try to dial it back.”

“I know what you mean.” Jules shook her head. “You scorch past the lot of us like a Grand Prix car. Or you fall all over your feet. Or, when you almost get there, you make it look so easy it’s like you’re, well, showing off against Special Olympics kids.” She sighed. “I know you don’t mean it, know you can’t help it, and I’d hate you if I didn’t love you so much.”

Jess moved to sit up on the bed, and Jules shifted to give her room. “They’re going to call for the test, aren’t they?” she asked sadly.

“Yeah.” Jules nodded. “It’s been coming for awhile. They’d have done it weeks ago, I bet, if you hadn’t slimmed down instead of bulking up.” She shook her head again. “You got too much better, too fast. They have to be thinking steroids.”

“If it was steroids,” Jess said with quiet ferocity, “I could stop taking them and be done with the whole rubbish.”

“But since it’s not,” Jules pointed out, “they can do every test under the sun and they won’t find anything.” She put her hand back on her friend’s shoulder. “And you are getting better, at finding that balance. I bet, before long, you won’t be so … so obvious.”

And there, right there, Jess knew. Opposition she might have resisted, but before this steadfast, unflagging loyalty she was undone.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, ghost-soft. “I have to quit.”

It rocked Jules backward. “Quit?” she repeated incredulously. “Quit the team?” The other girl nodded, hopelessly, and Jules sputtered, “But you’re here on scholarship, for football. Can you even stay here if you leave the team?”

“I don’t know,” Jess said. “But I know I can’t keep on like this. Because even if it isn’t steroids, even if I don’t want it, it’s still cheating.” She looked to Jules, holding her eyes with her own. “You know it’s true. It’s not fair for me to play against anybody, not the way I am now. It wouldn’t be fair if I was playing what Americans call football, not even if it was just me against a whole team of big, hulking men. They’re not in my class. Nobody is.” She looked away, her face strained. “If I got to where I could hide it, I’d only be hiding the unfairness. It’d still be there.”

There was a long silence, as both girls looked at the inevitable end of a cherished dream. At last Jules asked, “So, will you be going home?”

Jess sighed. Lot of sighing today. “I think I have to. I mean, I still want to do college, but the whole point of coming here to Santa Clara Uni was to play, and … now I can’t. So if it can’t be this, it might as well be something back at home.” She looked to her friend with sudden determination. “You’ll stay, though.”

Her expression stricken, Jules began, “Jess —”

“We came here together, all right?” Jess went on insistently. “We were both going to do the best we could. Well, this is just as if I turned out not to be good enough. Would you want me to quit if you washed out? You’d never do that, and you wouldn’t be much of a friend if you did.” She took the other girl’s hands in her own. “So you’ll stay, and you’ll keep doing your best, and the better you do, the happier you’ll make me.” She smiled, a true smile even as tears slid down her face. “Do that for me, all right? Just now, I need that more than anything.”

Jules nodded, unable to speak, and they sat there together, united even in loss.

At length, Jules stood up from the bed, and crossed the room to sit at the desk chair. “What are you going to tell Joe?” she asked.

“What can I tell him?” Jess shot back, waving her hands in vexation. “All of a sudden I’m five or ten times as strong as a strong man, and I have nightmares about monsters, and if that isn’t barmy enough, I’m starting to think the nightmares might be real.” She looked away, and the wrath and tension oozed out of her. “I’ll tell him the truth as best I know it, and he’ll decide what he decides, and I’ll live with whatever it is. I can do that, even if it winds up hurting.” She drew a long, shaky breath. “What really scares me is when I try to think of what I’ll tell my family.”

That had always been the biggest worry. Family is an arse-ache for anyone … but Jules’ family, exasperating as they might be, weren’t Anglicised-but-still-traditional Punjabi Sikhs. Simply raising the prospect brought another silence to the room.

As if trying to fill it, or perhaps change the subject, Jules abruptly said, “Oh, did that man ever reach you?”

Jess looked up. “What man?”

“Angie down at the front said someone’s been trying to get in touch with you.” Jules turned in her chair, began to ruffle through the papers on the desk. “He left a little note and a card, I told Angie I’d get them to you … oh, botheration, what did I do with them?”

“If it’s important, he’ll keep trying,” Jess observed, unconcerned. “Any idea what it’s about?”

“Some kind of special program,” Jules answered, still delving through the clutter on the desk. “A group called RCW, or some such. Angie said he seemed really keen to talk to you.”

“Oh.” Jess looked out the window. “Can’t see as it’ll matter, since I’ll be returning to England soon.”

“Well, that’s just it,” Jules said. “I still can’t find it, but the card said the home offices are in London.”

“Really?” At last Jess showed a spark of interest. “Then maybe I’ll check on them once I’m home again.” She smiled. “Or, if they’re that keen to recruit me, maybe they’ll follow me all the way back.”

At the time, it was said as a joke. Later, they would both remember the comment, and how lightly it had been made.

[Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra and Juliette Paxton (Bend it Like Beckham) are the property of Gurinder Chadha, BSkyB, Road Movies Filmproduktion, Scion Films, and The Works.]

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