The Choice

Duncan Johnson

This story takes place after season seven

I first noticed there was something different running for the bus. Three months I'd had this job. And six days a week for those three months I had left it late and had to run to catch the bus into work. And six days a week for the past three months I had missed it. But not tonight.

* * *

A lot of the girls complained about having to work the night shift, but I kind of liked it. It was quieter for one thing, so I could sit and daydream rather than be rushed off my feet serving customers. I tended to daydream a lot. Old man Withers, who ran the diner, used to rag me for it, but he didn't pay us enough to expect any better and he knew it. Not that I was complaining - I was saving up to go to college so I was glad of whatever work I could get. Another reason I enjoyed the night shift: the pay was better.

So, what did I dream about? Well, I wasn't so different from other teenage girls and a lot of my daydreams involved guys. Tall, handsome, sexy guys who would walk into the diner and sweep me off my feet. In some of the dreams that was enough. Well, enough when coupled with some hot, sweaty stuff, but I am so not telling you about that. Other times, though, I dreamed of a life beyond the diner and those sexy guys, while still a feature, were a lot less important in my grand plan. I certainly didn't dream of being stuck in a two-bit diner in the middle of nowhere for the rest of my life. No, I was after fame and fortune. My dreams would vary wildly on the specifics, but in each and every one, I ended up as somebody important, someone special. And isn't that what every girl dreams about when it comes down to it?

It was a hot, humid evening and sweat glued by uniform to my body. Correction, me being a delicate female and all, I didn't sweat, I perspired alluringly. Yeah, right. While I considered Withers' choice of outfits for his staff to be sexist at the best of times, on summer nights like this one, I was glad he hadn't gone for something more substantial. It was even worse in the kitchen so I stayed out front as much as possible, catering to the customers. Not that we had much of a crowd that night.

Joe was a regular, you could have guessed as much from his figure. He and his wife fought regularly and Joe would scurry to the diner to hide from her until she decided to forgive him. I expected to see 'Mrs Joe' turn up looking for him before midnight and I'd already set aside a slice of pie for her sweet tooth. A family of four had taken the corner booth, having stopped for a bite to eat before continuing their journey to someplace else. The kids, having been cooped up in the car all day, were revelling in their small bit of freedom. Revelling noisily I might add. I had to keep reminding myself that they were customers or I might have had a few choice words to say to the parents.

At least I was not the only one getting annoyed. The guy at the counter, who couldn't have been much older than me, kept shooting dirty looks their way, but the family remained oblivious. He was nursing one of our black coffees (must have had a strong stomach) and sketching in a notepad. He was good. I'd told him so and tried to start up a conversation with him, but all I got were a few noncommittal grunts in return. I was about to try again (there wasn't a whole lot else to do that night) when the bell over the door jangled and I looked up to greet our new customers.

* * *

There were two of them, a man and a woman. She was white, with long brown hair and wore a denim jacket and leather pants that complained as she eased herself into a booth. The man - black, bald and handsome - sat down opposite her. I sidled up to them.

'Hello,' I began, 'is there anything I can get for you?'

'A moment's peace and quiet might be nice,' the woman snapped.

'Ignore Faith,' the man told me, flashing me a warm smile. 'Any chance of a couple of coffees?'

'Sure,' I replied. 'How do you take it?'

'White for me,' the man replied. 'Faith likes hers strong, black and sweet.'

'Oh please,' Faith muttered, rolling her eyes. 'And I'll have a beer out the fridge instead. I've done my turn driving.'

'You got it,' I said, making notes on my pad. 'Anything else?'

'I'll have a cheeseburger, if you do one,' the man continued. 'Faith's not hungry.' Faith opened her mouth to protest, so the man added, 'Faith shouldn't be hungry. Not after all the doughnuts she put away at our last stop.'

'What can I say, man,' Faith replied. 'I've got a high metabolism. I'll have what he's having. I'm sure we can help each other burn off the calories later.'

Please don't tell me these two were an item. That would really make my night. Not that I was, you know, interested myself, but still…

I turned to leave and Faith immediately started talking like I wasn't there.

'And what do you mean I'm having a bad day,' she demanded of her friend.

'I was only saying…'

'You try being cooped up in a bus with a load of hormone-ridden teenage girls,' Faith persisted.

'Maybe I imagined it,' the man replied slowly, 'but I'm pretty sure I was.'

'Yeah, well, there is that,' Faith conceded, 'but you're used to it.'

'Give it time,' that man said,' and you might get used to it to.'

'If that ever happens,' Faith replied, 'stake me.'

I ducked into the kitchen to deliver their order and for a while I was out of earshot. However, once I was back behind the counter preparing their drinks, I continued eavesdropping. No, I didn't feel the least guilty. I had to get my entertainment where I could in this job or I'd die of boredom.

'So, how long do you reckon we'll be stuck here?' Faith was asking.

'As long as it takes them to find her, I guess,' the man said.

'Just great,' Faith complained looking at the ceiling.

'You can go wait on the bus if you prefer,' the man offered with a smirk.

Faith glared.

I put their drinks down in front of them.

'Thanks,' - the man squinted at my nametag - 'Becky.'

There was more of a skip in my step as I walked back to the counter. I sat on a stool by the cash register and surveyed my domain. I glanced over at the guy with the sketchpad to see what he was up to and did a double-take. He was drawing me. I felt blood rushing to my cheeks and hoped to god he didn't notice. Boy, was this embarrassing, but in a good way. Then I felt a twinge of pity for the poor guy. Any other time this might have been his lucky night, but tonight the starring role in my dreams was going to be filled by a tall black man with a single gold earring.

I watched him and his friend (not girlfriend, I decided - he'd have way better taste than that) chatting and drinking, killing time until whoever it was they were waiting for arrived. I thought I was being subtle, but Faith spotted me staring. She grinned cheekily and winked at me and I looked guiltily away.

Time seemed to drag uncomfortably by as I kept sneaking the occasional glance at tall, black and handsome - I couldn't help myself - and expecting Faith to call me on it every time. She didn't, but I knew that she knew and that she was enjoying making me squirm. Eventually, though, I was put out of my misery by a shout from the kitchen telling me the burgers were ready.

* * *

The kitchen was absurdly hot and I couldn't understand how the staff put up with it night after night. They never complained, though. Strange as it may be to believe, they were the most cheerful bunch of the lot of us, usually sharing a joke or a sing-song when I poked my head around the door. Tonight was no different. I'd missed the punchline, but was just in time to be struck by an eighteen-wheeler full of laughter coming the other way.

'What's so funny?' I asked Maggie.

She tapped the side of her nose. 'Now that would be telling.'

'That's kinda the point,' I protested, but Maggie would not be swayed.

There was a grunt from across the way. Kirsten was trying to manhandle a big stack of plates onto one of the shelves and not having much luck at it.

'Here, let me help,' I offered, taking the plates from her.

'Careful, they're heavy,' Kirsten warned. 'You don't want to break them or you just know Withers will…'

She trailed off as I effortlessly hefted the plates onto the shelf as if they weighed no more than a packet of crisps - which they didn't or, at least, I didn't think they did.

'Cheese and crackers, Bex,' Kirsten announced, open-mouthed, 'have you been like working out or something?'

'Or something,' I murmured, equally perplexed at Kirsten's inability to lift the plates on her own.

Hastily, I scooped up my orders - cheeseburgers, fries and some limp-looking lettuce - and made my escape before anyone else could start asking questions I didn't have the answers to.

* * *

The guy was in the bathroom when I returned with the food, but Faith was waiting for me.

'So, you like him, huh?' she asked.

'Sorry?' I pretended not to know what she was talking about as I put the plates down on the table.

'Come on,' Faith teased, 'I saw the way you were looking at Robin.'

'I wasn't…'

Faith held up her hands defensively.

'Hey, no harm in looking,' Faith said, 'least not in my book, particularly when the item in question's so easy on the eye. Just remember, this particular merchandise is already taken.'

I wanted to come up with a witty reply, something suitably cutting to put this Faith in her place, but the words wouldn't come. Fortunately, I was saved from looking a total dork by the return of the man himself and I realised that Faith had at least done me one favour, however unintentional. I now knew his name. Robin.

'Been making friends, Faith?' he asked.

'Hey, you know me,' Faith replied with a grin and a shrug that seemed to take up her whole body.

'Yes,' Robin mused, 'that's what worries me.'

He started to sit down, but his foot must have caught on something on the floor because he stumbled and knocked his mug of coffee off of the table. Before I knew what had happened, it was in my hands and I had not spilled a drop.

'Nice reflexes,' Robin said to me, admiringly, as he took the mug from my hands.

I couldn't resist sending a look of smug satisfaction Faith's way.

'I could have caught that,' Faith protested petulantly.

'I know, Faith,' Robin conceded.

Robin sat down and I left them to their meal, confident I had ended that encounter up on points. Just to be sure, though, I continued to eavesdrop.

'So this is what it's going to be from no on, is it?' Faith asked, playing with her fries. 'Driving across the country scaring up Slayers?'

'Somebody needs to look out for these girls,' Robin replied. 'It's got to be something of a shock to wake up one morning to suddenly find that you're stronger and faster than you remember.'

That started alarm bells ringing.

'It's going to take some adjusting,' Robin continued, 'and someone needs to be there for these girls.'

'Yeah, but why us?' Faith asked. 'I mean, not that it's not important and all, but haven't we done our bit? Isn't this more Giles' deal?'

'Giles can teach these girls a lot,' Robin explained, 'but he doesn't really understand what they're going through. You do. That was you not so long ago, remember?'

Hang on, rewind. I though about the bus, about the plates and the coffee. So, girls were suddenly becoming stronger and faster, were they? I guess I might fit the bill, but I was somehow like Faith? No, I don't think so.

'Yeah, sure,' Faith drawled, 'I understand.'

I didn't and I needed some air. I shouted for Kirsten to cover for me for five minutes and then stepped outside.

* * *

The gravel outside scrunched beneath my shoes as I paced and tried to make sense of what was going on. What the hell was a Slayer when she was at home? And was I really one? I mean, I seemed to fit the bill, but I couldn't be sure. Oh, who was I kidding? I'd known something was up since catching the bus. I was different, I just didn't know what that meant.

Robin seemed to, though, so why didn't I just go and ask him? I couldn't actually think of an answer, but I wasn't rushing back inside all the same. What if…what if I didn't want to be a Slayer? Did I get a choice or was it just something that I was going to have to live with now that it had happened to me? I didn't have those answers and I was afraid to try and find them in case I was better off not knowing. So instead I stood outside and waited for someone to come along and make the decision for me.

The guy with the sketchpad emerged from the diner. He was about to head to the bus stop when he spotted me and paused.

'Erm, Hi,' he offered, rubbing the back of his neck with his left hand.

I smiled weakly at him.

'Hi. You finished for the night then.'

'Yeah,' the guy agreed. He seemed about to say something else, but then stopped himself.

Slightly teasing, I asked, 'So, did you draw anything interesting?'

'Well, I…' He began, flustered.

I laughed.

'It's okay,' I said. 'I saw.'

'Oh, er, right,' he said. 'I'm sorry. I should probably have asked first, but…'

'Hey, no harm,' I assured him. 'I kinda liked it.'

'Really?' he asked, his eyes lighting up. 'I mean, it's not much, but…'

'Don't put yourself down,' I scolded him gently. 'You've got a real talent there.'

He looked down, scuffing the toes of his trainers in the dirt.

'Listen, I know we don't really know each other,' he began, avoiding eye contact, 'but we're both here most nights and I've been watching you - not in a creepy, stalker kind of way, if that's what you're thinking - but I think you're a really nice girl and, well, I was wondering if maybe you might like to, that is, we could, I don't know, maybe get a coffee sometime? You and me?'

I was more than a little taken aback. As if I didn't have enough to think about right now.

'Have you tried the coffee here?' I responded, trying to deflect him with a joke.

'It doesn't have to be here,' the guy said hurriedly. 'We'll go somewhere else. Wherever you want. Just give me a time and place.'

He was so earnest it was embarrassing. But also kind of sweet. What had I been asking for a moment ago? Someone to make my decision for me. I could go with him, right now, and leave all this talk of Slayers and special powers behind me. But then I'd never know.

'Ask me again tomorrow,' I said, giving the guy an olive branch. It was easy enough to do. After all, I figured I might not be there the next night.

'I'll do that,' the guy replied, a ridiculous smile plastered across his face.

He turned to leave, but I stopped him.

'Hey,' I said, 'aren't you at least going to tell me your name?'

'It's Richard,' he replied.

* * *

I'd had my chance to run away and turned it down so now I re-entered the diner and relieved Kirsten. I refilled Robin's cup of coffee, which earned me a smile, but the site of those gleaming white teeth didn't thrill me like it had earlier.

'All I'm saying is that maybe we shouldn't be looking for these girls.'

Faith and Robin were in the middle of a heated discussion. Not quite an argument, but not far short.

'Someone has to look out for these girls,' Robin countered.

'Why?' Faith asked. 'Why can't they be left to get on with their own lives.'

'You know why,' Robin said, an edge to his voice. 'You more than most. Someone needs to make sure these girls use their power responsibly.'

'So they don't end up like me,' Faith shot back. 'That's what you're saying, isn't it.'

'No, that's not what I'm saying,' Robin insisted. 'Listen, these girls need guidance. They're part of something bigger now and someone needs to make sure they understand that.'

'Really?' Faith said. 'Why? So we can groom them to be good little Slayers like Buffy and…well, I'd say me, but we all know how that turned out, right? You dump all that stuff on a girl's shoulders, maybe she's not going to handle it so good.'

'And you're saying we should just leave them to deal with it by themselves,' Robin remarked.

'Let me tell you something,' Faith replied, 'if I hadn't been chosen my life would have been a whole lot different. I missed out on a normal life, Robin.'

'You had a destiny,' Robin responded quietly.

'Is that what your mother told you?' Faith snapped.

Robin flinched away, as if she'd slapped him.

'I'm sorry,' Faith apologised hastily, 'that was a low blow. Maybe she was right. Maybe I did have a destiny. But things are different now. It's not all 'one girl in all the world'. All I'm saying is that being a Slayer ain't all candyfloss and puppies and maybe, just maybe, we aren't doing these girls a favour by going looking for them.'

Robin shook his head and sipped at his coffee.

'Maybe,' Robin said sceptically, 'but I still don't like the idea of all these super-powered teenagers wandering around without someone keeping an eye on them.'

'Don't tell me that the idea of all these super-strong girls is undermining your manliness,' Faith teased.

'You tell me,' Robin teased right back.

* * *

The bell over the door jangled and two more girls walked in, a small redhead and a taller brunette.

'Any luck?' Robin asked, standing.

'Not a flicker,' the redhead said.

'Willow did this locator mojo,' her friend explained, 'but we couldn't find any trace of her.'

'Pity,' Robin said, looking back at Faith. She flashed him a crooked smile.

Robin came to the counter to settle up and a little voice in my head screamed at me to say something.

'Hey, it's me. I'm the girl you're looking for. Take me with you.'

But I kept my mouth shut, right up until the point the door swung closed behind them.

I shook my head to clear it. That wasn't my life. My life was waitressing and college and guys called Richard. Robin and Faith and Slayers and what have you…well, they'd still be with me, but only in my dreams.