The Coven
The rise of the greatest Seeyo in history prior to the natural re-situation of Humanity in the Cosmic

Prologue Summary: A woman from the mysterious organization the Coven arrives in Sunnydale and helps 8-year old Willow Rosenberg unlock her latent powers
Description: Alt BTVS Universe. Contemporary. Supernatural.
Pairings: Willow/Other, Willow/Tara
Warnings: Violence, strong language, moderate to graphic sexual language/situations, character death

Tara and Willow and other characters from the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were created by Joss Whedon.

PROLOGUE: Witch Maclay, Part 1

Power is only safe with those who don't want it. I used to want it and it made me a monster.

I wouldn't want that for our children. I'd want them to be free. If one of ours were to have that ambition, then I know that we had failed. Most likely because you weren't there to teach them, which would mean that I had failed.

I'd rather have the simple things. To be comfortable, to feel safe, sharing a home with you. To not be hungry, except for the hungry ache deep within that never really goes away, even if it's temporarily sated, just for you. The warmth of your body around mine. I want to be entertained. I am, by your look, in wonder at the beauty or the cruelty of nature or humanity, the rapture in your eyes as they shut when you tumble over the edge I brought you to. Your stories, the source of your words, how they were prompted. To be your wanting that makes you wet. I want your clit between my lips and your soft warm walls squeezed around my fingers. At times, I feel I want the roundness of your belly and the soft but strong heartbeat underneath its delicate surface… but not now. Now, only you, my darling.

The most precious possession one can own is the freely given love of a good woman.

Innumerable years ago…

"She's doing it in her head." A look of panic quickly erased the strained rapture on Ethan's face as the second-hand images currently being generated in the mind of one eight-year-old Willow Rosenberg flooded his half-conscious, half spell-entranced mind. The mystically-forged link between them was tenuous, weakened by distance and the time lag and her magically untempered nature. Still, the girl's responses to the test questions were so rapid and multi-layered, Ethan could barely make any sense of all the strands of logic as they were woven in her apparently very busy brain. The coordination was anathema to him, as a worshiper of Chaos.

Beside him, under black robes that did little to disguise his hulking bulk or the scales covering his demon face, Chaos rumbled, "That is why this little one needs to be turned."

Two weeks later…

"Her potential is… unmappable. Pure power…" the mentat mused in awe. The lights covering the surfaces of the large domed helmet it wore blinked with such rapidity, the room, darkened to allow it to focus on the multitude of computer screens lining its nest, was awash in the bursts of tiny yellow and red lights.

"There's nothing pure about power," said Glory from over its shoulder. She had been standing a good two meters from it but had to get closer to peer herself at the myriad screens. Her delicate nose wrinkled at the stale odor the shriveled little former-man with the huge head and the poor teeth, rotted from lack of use, emitted. Mentats were notorious for their poor hygiene, especially when hooked to their Machine, all essential nutrients and excretory functions taken care of by the intravenous solutions and draining apparatuses that could not fully suppress the odors of the natural body functions they superseded. And this particular one had been attached to its Machine for the better part of the past 72 hours. "Which is why it can always be transferred to another holder. I want it." She turned to the closest EA, one of her mid-level minions, a frightened-looking woman of forty-five or so. How she had managed to survive so long in Glorificus' company was a wonder that fortunately for the sake of the better than average pay Glory was far too busy to pay mind to. "Does she have family?" Her eyes seemed to naturally narrow at the last word, before she shook her head in impatience. "What does it matter… Not at all. You'll get it for me."

And with her master's direct authorization, the EA arranged to send an A-level retrieval team to Sunnydale.

"Extraordinary," muttered Giles. He pulled his glasses from his face, and began to wipe them with his pocket square as he looked at the printout Andrew held to him.

"Oh, I don't know. All you have to do is be wired into a supercomputer or something," said Andrew. "It wouldn't be too hard."

"No, not too hard, unlike, actually having resource to said supercomputer?"

Andrew thought about it a second. "Oh," Andrew said sheepishly. He wasn't a practical applications type of thinker.

"Oh," confirmed Giles. "By the by, how many supercomputers are left that could handle that task in the less-than-eight seconds it took her to complete?"

"Yeah, and that…" Andrew trailed off.

Giles replaced his eyeglasses. "Keep her monitored—and me informed, of any changes, no matter how slight, to the young lady's circumstances."

"If it's something that Glory wants, then it's something we need," the MABELL Veepico-Acquisitions said. All the Veepicos looked and sounded the same, down to their carefully maintained professional androgyny. One could only distinguish them by the descriptive following their title. Luckily, they wore name badges prominently displayed as per corporate policy, above the left breast pocket of their standard heather grey business suits. Imbedded into the badges were transmitters that allowed their movements within the corporate offices to be tracked and permitted them access, unlocking the portals and corridors that segregated them into their respective areas. The Veepico-Acquisitions seemed to have more clout than the normal Veepico. It had a thin white stripe patterned into its heather grey suit. "Draft a proposal to secure whatever resources are necessary to close it. Convene The Board. Push it through today. This hour. Get her." The lawyers scurried.

"Genius level, huh?" Ira looked down at his small daughter, from the top of her brownish-red hair to her sneaker-clad feet, then back again to the scholastic aptitude test summary he held in his hand. Sheila beamed down at the girl over her husband's shoulder. She was a good seven centimeters taller than Ira, so it wasn't hard. "'Unchartable potential.' Still? Guess all those video games you play haven't made your brain all mush yet, huh?" The corner of his mouth twitched upward in teasing. His daughter was more wont to take apart the video games and then put them back into functional but different working order than actually play them like other kids. Being a programmer himself for a small firm that catered to the financial industry but never quite able to break the mid-level class or pay level with the decades-long glut of qualified programmers currently on the market, he was quite smug in his pride of his little prodigy. Of course, it didn't bode well for her having a truly lucrative career like in entertainment—sports, or movies or teevee or such. Still, the pay could be quite good if you got up over to the upper tier. Then the big players like Glory or MABELL could even recruit. Ira just had to keep her interested in it until he could get her into a decent trade school. He and Sheila had started a savings account for that, and he doggedly put in 7 percent of his bi-weekly pay into it. Sheila put in 20 from her part–time counselor's job at Sunnydale Community college, though she would likely be losing that position after the most recent cuts to the state's education budget soon. It only made the future of the Rosenbergs that much more clear. A lot of their family's hope to break out of the lower-middle-class Montvale district rested on Willow's thin shoulders.

Willow looked back at her parents solemnly, with her characteristically soulful, large green eyes as wide as they got. She smiled, a bit sheepishly, and shrugged. She had felt a little twinge at the back of her brain throughout the testing, like someone was standing over her shoulder as she typed in the answers. After a moment's discomfort, she had let it go. Truth be told, she didn't care if one or all 50 of her classmates copied off her exam. The puzzles the mathematical equations posed were kind of fun, like fiddling with her video games, though without the physical challenge of manipulating a controller. "It was actually pretty easy." The smile faded a little. Her friend Xander had not found it so easy. His father had beat him when his scores arrived. She had seen the purpling on his upper arm, under the sleeve of his tee shirt this morning. He had tried to hide his shame with a flippant shrug of his shoulders.

Ira shook his head, still smiling. "Oh no you don't. Don't be embarrassed that you're the smartest or the best of your class, pum'kin. Never be ashamed of being more than everyone else, if that's what you are. If it's who you're meant to be, you have to fill that potential." He winked at her and turned, in effect dismissing her. It had been a long day, his eyes hurt and his left wrist was acting up again, and he was about ready for a nap.

Willow turned and scampered to her room. She had found an algorithm that replicated itself 843 steps down a decanumeric system.

She had to write it down with her different colored pens before her busy brain moved onto a new mystery and forgot this one. They made such pretty patterns.

Eight months earlier…

A nude, slender redhead reclines in the bed, lying heavily on her side in the stark, brilliant white sheets. She is perhaps twenty years old. Next to her lies another girl of the same age, slightly heavier, with a haler frame, a blonde. Their limbs cross languorously, meeting at multiple physical planes that echo the multivalent metaphysics of their lying abreast, just so, among the crisp waves and folds of the bedding as daylight streams in through sheer, flimsy gauze over ceiling-high windows. The plane of the redhead's inner thigh rubs against the top of the blonde's. Their skins are damp but not soaked, creating an intimate friction that pulls the flesh over taut, flexing muscles as they make their slow, deliberate motions. The blonde widens the angle of her legs, spreading Red even more as their hands find each other. The blonde girl simultaneously moves back, pulling the redhead to her. At that angle… They gasp at the sudden lack of distance.

Red smiles at the blonde, who returns the expression by half, though the effect is wholly complementary. Perhaps she's just feeling lazy. The blonde has my eyes.

Their breathing becomes heavy as they rock against each other slowly, steadily. My viewpoint circles their nest of mussed sheets and pillows so I now watch, a voyeur, over the blonde's shoulder. Perhaps her eyes—my eyes—close so they don't see what I, an impartial observer, see. Red's eyes, a lustful green, had turned a brilliant yellow. Her mouth open, first in a pant, then wider, in hunger. I can see her fangs glint in the murky light just as they descend on the other girl's neck.

I would scream a warning, but as I finish my turn around their bed, the girl underneath is well aware of the change in her lover. Her hands are pressed to the other's shoulders, holding the leaner woman close. The look on her face is one of unadulterated rapture…

"Uh, no. I mean it was really and truly weird. I've had wet dreams before. I know how to recognize them, usually because I wake up… er, wet. This wasn't one." I frowned, recalling the decided lack of sexual excitement I felt upon waking violently that morning, sweating not with arousal, but with anxiety, the sheets bunched around my tensed limbs, my heart in my throat, caught and half-swallowed with the cry of warning that died before my teeth as I crossed back into awareness. The dream had made me a bit… uncomfortable, and in a way I realized I probably wouldn't have felt if it were a female and male stranger rather than the two nubile young women I watched in my vision. Even so, there was more to my dread than that, something more sinister that underlie the gender of the two lovers, though gender was the easier of the two problems to deal with. Even so… I tried to push the thought down, to forestall the question poised on Jenny's pursed lips and slightly screwed eyes, the only way I knew how—self-deprecation. "Besides which, you know me. No matter how hard it hurts, I need a little wood to shiver me timbers."

At that, Jenny smirked. "The mouth on you, Ms. Maclay!"

"Exactly my point!" I grinned.

Jenny shook her head. "Okay, so despite the resemblance, it wasn't you?"

I hesitated. "I don't think it was."

"But you're not sure?"

"No. I'm not. I mean, the girl was familiar, somehow, but damn it, she was a stranger, too… I mean, she looked like me maybe fifteen years ago…"

"Well, did you ever…?"

"Uh, no. Not even close. Not even a thought."

"Oh, c'mon. That's kind of hard to believe. You mean to tell me you've never thought of another woman that way?"


Jenny grinned.

"I mean, I'm only human. I have needs, plus, living in a mostly women's commune the past eight years? I'd have to be made of stone. But really, being completely and totally honest about it, I see a woman with nice tits, usually the first thing I think is, 'I wish mine were as good as those.'"

"Well, childbirth and all," Jenny said.

"Yeah," I sighed.

"And age takes its toll."

I frowned.

"And just… gravity."

"Hey!" Jenny giggled, giving in. But I nudged the conversation further, to steer completely clear of the topic. "So, I guess this means that you've…?"

"Sure. Never said I hadn't," Jenny said with a shrug.

Huh. You learn something new about someone, even someone you regard as your closest friend, every day. Thankfully, though, it did the trick and she let it drop. She had a class to teach, and I was on my way to conference room four at the bequest of Cylla, at whose pleasure I, like the other Coven witches, served.

Later, I let myself feel a little guilty. I wasn't being exactly forthright with Jenny. The dream did bother me more than I let on. It had been so vivid, almost Technicolor, but more colorized, kind of flat, outside me. It worried me.

I've had prophetic dreams before, but the rule of reiterability didn't apply to me. I could count the number of prophetic dreams I've had on one hand. But dreaming of dropping and destroying a favorite piece of crock ware and doing the same a day later was a far cry from a fair maiden, a stranger and yet not, sexually communing with a demon. Would this be the vision that destroyed me?

Conference room four was part of the small hall where Cylla, our senior witch, our mother superior the younger witches snidely called her, resided. I have to admit, I agreed with their assessment though I had the good manners and sense to not laugh along, given the old bird is a borderline TP—doesn't do to have an undisciplined mind, much less mouth. Of course, reading a fellow witch would be a violation of the Code that we live by to govern our Talents, but you can never be too careful. Always govern yourself first.

Still, living at the Coven with its emphasis on the ascetic life of quiet scholarship and meditation, sometimes it did feel like a convent. How ironic that witches were persecuted for centuries in pre-modernity by the Juxes, often falsely accused of deviant sex practices and demon worship, when in truth most of them are as boring as Jux nuns. Things certainly have a way of coming full circle—or less diplomatically, karma sure can be a bitch. Now it's they who are persecuted for their quaint faith in a single omnipotent Divine.

The hall was on the southern part of the Coven's campus, at the base of Mount Corda, and on the far side housed Cylla's personal chambers, library, and her sanctum sanctorum. On the near side were the conference halls. Reasonably, with her mangled leg and arm, she held all her conferences there. At times I wondered if the disfigurement were the reason she had steered her Coven into solitude. Invariably, I would decide it could not; it would have been rather a personal bias for such a political position.

I made my way through the neatly kept lawns to the courtyard outside the open air corridor to the conference room indicated on the invitation I had received earlier. However, upon entering the chamber, I was surprised that we were not alone. A projector and terminal with what appeared to be an outside feed was set up on the long table behind which Cylla and Alise, the coven counselor, sat. Alise didn't surprise me, however, as much as the feed. Aside from being a separatist, Cylla was the old-fashioned type. The use of technology, not to mention the link to the world outside, the world of mud, was a little unusual.

Neither woman was known for their social graces, which suited me just as well. The better to receive my directive and be on my way. They were the most powerful women within the Coven and they used as few words as possible to convey their intent. I don't generally try to attach myself to powerful people. They tend to the dour, like these two. I was curtly acknowledged with a nod of Cylla's head into the seat opposite them.

Our elder witch began typically without preamble. "Tara, something unexpected has happened." She paused before adding with the slightest bit of emphasis, "Regarding the Artaggio Codex."

The Artaggio Codex? The one that's been discredited by all reputable scholars in the already-not-so-reputable field of prophecy study in the five centuries since its writing by Artaggio, the mad druid?

I guess my disbelief must have been obvious, as Cylla continued. "Yes, the Artaggio Codex. I ask that you suspend your personal disbeliefs until the end of our meeting, at which time I will ask you to make a great personal sacrifice for the betterment of the Coven—in fact, perhaps, for us all." She gestured toward the projector as she depressed a button from the room's mechanics control in front of her and the lights dimmed. "Alise, we should begin."

The twins in soul were separated but will once more become one. The joining will mark the end of the many, all but one will to be done. Rise, Seeyo, rise…

Artaggio wrote that, but in some dead tongue five centuries plus ago. Perhaps something was lost in the translation to post/modern English. Perhaps not. Who knows?

It was the last thing entered into his journal when the rescue party found his remains in a crevasse on the upper summit of Mount Turinto in what is now the Western Russian state of the European Union. History held that the druid Artaggio had been driven insane by prophetic visions of a world ending apocalypse during a meditative retreat assumedly popular in the day that somehow escalated to a full-blown religious ecstasy. Oh, it began quietly enough at the foot of the mountain, in a nice, fairly comfortable and well-appointed lodge. Too well-appointed, I suppose, as he began an ascent to the summit after efforts to communicate with The Powers That Be at the base in the shelter of the structure proved fruitless. The gods apparently favor the reckless or insane. He had received the visions after attempting to reconcile the coming of the demon Ka'as, as foretold in one of the founders of his order, Jacob the Elder, with the rise of the great corporations. A lot of what he had written, needless to say, doesn't make sense. Much of it had to do with interpreting the congloms as demon houses. Still, he did okay for a 14th century kook. The congloms came well after his time, and are certainly full of demons now. Maybe Ka'as is sitting on the Board of MABELL right now.

Of course, it's all ridiculous. Still. Still ridiculous. I'm no better off than some crazy druid freezing various body parts off stuck on the side of some gigantic mountain above the clouds, waiting for enlightenment from Above. I'm still a slave to higher powers, even if they now wear human faces. Being flesh and blood rather than spirit and mojo just means they can now literally reach out and touch me, which is not generally a Good Thing.

In fact, the latest "blessing" on me and mine had me in a bit of a seethe.

I looked down at an open file folder before me holding some 5 or 6 data sheets, on top of which is the 2D portrait of a shyly smiling eight-year old girl, one Willow Rosenberg. It was one of those school photos, the headshot ones, with the kid set against a stock fake sky background. Long, brown hair—auburn, I think is what they call the shade, quirky, pert mouth and dimpled nose, and eyes that look almost too big for her head. Cute kid. Kinda dorky looking, as most eight-year-olds are.

I sighed, long and deep. This was my special project? The reason I would be leaving my own child, the home we had made for ourselves, my students for the next year, and perhaps more? I was not impressed. And I was not happy.

My displeasure was palpable. I have never been able to guard my emotions well—I know, ironic, for an empath.

Jenny was grimacing, her expression sympathetic. But an ungrateful part of me was resenting that, too. Had Cylla sent her to placate me? And how much had she known before my meeting with her mentor? I know my resentment was also blatantly obvious. I had to vent.

"If she's so damned important, why not send Catherine?" I referred to our resident power practitioner. I'm empathic, for godsakes. I know only defensive spells.

"Cylla thinks Catherine would be overkill."

I snorted. I had to admit, that one word just about summed up Catherine.

"The nature of this project is critical, but sensitive. Subtlety is required, which is not Catherine's signature style. You're there strictly—"

"Yes, I know. Strictly to observe the girl, perhaps nudge her in the Coven's direction if the opportunity presents itself? I understand. It doesn't explain why you need a master grade babysitter. Surely one of the older journeymen could—?"

"You know it's not my call," Jenny cut me off, a brief flash of impatience lighting in her dark eyes before she mastered herself. "Believe me, Tara, if it was, I'd do it myself, just so you wouldn't have to. You know I've done this kind of thing in the past."

Immediately, her eyes closed, contrite, as mine widened at the not-so-subtle chiding. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way." Her voice lowered even further. "I know you're concerned about Leda—"

"No, no. Leda will be fine. She's doing great. I'd just…" I took a deep breath. I didn't want any extra attention given to my daughter, or to the fact of her continued fragility, something we'd both gone to pains to mask. Her sonuvabitch father had given her reminders to last a lifetime. And we didn't need any well-meaning sympathy from any of our Coven sisters, either. But Jenny… I could trust her. I do trust her. Implicitly. In the eight, almost nine years I had known her, she had earned it many times over, the first by befriending me, the second by helping me escape with my daughter, intact, from the bad decision that had been Donald. Escape to the Coven. But did I owe them as a result? I earned my keep, and still do. But Jenny… Yes, my debt to her was not a quid pro quo matter. It was immeasurable, and eternal. I dragged the file back to me, then immediately flipped it closed and lifted my eyes to meet Jenny's. "Will you take Leda in?"

Jenny smiled. "Always." She shifted in her seat. "I realize this is a delicate time for her. She's almost ready to pass forward… I know that's why this seems like it couldn't have come at a worse possible time—"

"No, it couldn't."

"But if the assignment goes as planned, you'll be back in time for her rite." Jenny smiled. "She's turning into an extraordinary young woman. Catherine is jealous. Amy isn't doing half as well."

"Oh, is that all? Amy isn't even ten. Leda will be fifteen next October. Someone needs to give Catherine a reality check. And I don't want her looking in on my daughter. She doesn't need the pressure."

"I agree," Jenny said, "but you must know Leda has caught more than just Catherine's eye."

I knew what Jenny was referring to. Cylla had praised her at the last solstice dinner, for winning the trials of her age group. She has been singling out my daughter for similar things more and more lately. It makes me anxious. It feels like it's too soon for her, but then, maybe I'm being overprotective. She's done so much better since we arrived—well, anything was better than what we left. "If she exceeds me in her Talents, that's enough." I know I was frowning. My attention was pulled back to the file in front of me as the doubts of something amiss, something not being shared with me, returned, like a persistent itch just underneath the skin. "And that's another thing. All I've seen about this girl indicates she's made for mud. What do we want with her?"

"It's not what we want so much as what Cylla wants."

My left eyebrow shot up. "Oh? So you're not united in this?"

"I don't always just follow the party line," Jenny said softly.

I winced. "I didn't mean—"

"No, it's alright. I understand where you're coming from. Believe me."

I looked at Willow's picture again. I wonder what gods you pissed off to warrant the kind of attention you're about to get. "Poor kid," I muttered.

I think Jenny heard me, but said nothing. Say what she will. She is, at the end of the day, a witch of the Coven.

Three and a half months later…

Willow, her nose in a book as she walked slowly down the hall, oblivious to her surroundings as was her unfortunate habit, felt the paw against her chest followed by the quick shove before she could even utter a protest at the unwanted contact. She was sent sprawling, already barely in balance with her school bag hanging low against the small of her back, filled to capacity with books, both for school and the five checked out from the library—five was the limit, the new librarian Wood had told her, else she surely would have taken more. The book she had been so engrossed in fell from her hands and the edge caught her lip as she tumbled down, her behind smacking the linoleum hard. She tasted blood.

Kevin Connor grinned as he loomed over her, his fists on his hips and his stance wide, his girlfriend Cordelia smirking behind him. All around, the other students drew back but around, interested to watch Kev's latest bullying incident and relieved it didn't directly involve them this time. "Didn't you hear me, geek? You have to step to the side. We've got important stuff to ferry through for the school assembly." Cordelia held the school banner across her arms. She and Kev were apparently on their way to the school auditorium in preparation for Principle Snyder's monthly assembly, or as he secretly referred to it, juvenile offenders roundup. The irony of using one such offender as his lackey of choice for the menial tasks beneath his own esteem was completely lost to the mean little man.

Tears filled her eyes, leaving Willow no time to react as a blue and black colored blur entered her field of vision from the right, smacked into Kev's larger frame, and sent both forms crashing into the lockers lining the corridor. Xander was on his feet first, though holding his right arm awkwardly. "Keep your freakin' hands off her, asshole!"

Willow cried a warning as Kev scrambled up and pulled his arm back, his hand curled into a fist impossibly meaty for a twelve-year old. Surely he had been left back more than the two years he admitted to? Xander's eyes screwed shut, but he stood his ground.

Before the fat fist could propel forward to smash her friend in his nose, its momentum was stopped by a hand with long tapered fingers wrapping around it and pulling him back. Kev was spun around to look up at the new history teacher, Leigh Mack, as she glowered fiercely at him. "What are you doing, boy?"

"He started it!" Kev ground out. The blonde woman had, probably unknowingly, twisted his wrist painfully when she had spun him around to face her. He yanked his arm from her grasp, and brought himself to his full height. He was a little taller than the slight woman, despite his age and the boots with a good heel she wore underneath her long skirt. Still, for some reason or another, her presence seemed to overwhelm him.

Leigh looked from Kev to Xander, still cringing and cradling his elbow from where it had impacted against the locker after tackling the larger boy away from his friend. When she turned back to Kev, her expression was incredulous. "Are you seriously offering that as your answer?"

"It's true, Ms. Mack! Kev and I were on our way to deliver these things to the auditorium for Principal Snyder for the assembly this afternoon when Xander—"

Leigh turned to Cordelia. "Ms. Chase, please be quiet. I'm not a fool, and I don't mind telling you that you reveal yourself by trying to play me for one." Cordelia quieted instantly. Leigh turned her attention back to Kev. "Mr. Connor, I'm surprised you'd attempt to hurt a boy half your size when there's nothing in it for you aside from a suspension and the momentary satisfaction of proving the obvious, that you can. What you really ought to remember is that no matter how big you are, there's always someone bigger. There will always be someone bigger. I suspect your father may be one such a person. l expect either he or your mother to answer my call tonight, at 7pm, to discuss this foolishness, and an appropriate punishment. You and Ms. Chase are dismissed to run your…" she looked at the cloth banner draped across Cordelia's arm, "errand?" Again, her expression was incredulous.

Kev colored at the inflection of her last word—it stung worse than the preceding scolding, in fact. He stomped off, Cordelia trailing behind him. Xander sunk to his knees, his adrenaline finally ebbing and leaving him a little wobbly.

"The rest of you should be getting to your next classes as well." The crowd seemed to magically disperse at Leigh's softly worded suggestion.

At that point, Willow hiccupped and sniffled. Leigh turned her attention to the small girl still on the floor. They locked eyes for a moment, Leigh's sea-blue gaze piercing into Willow's green before she reached out to help Willow onto her feet, though Willow immediately knelt again, by Xander. "Xander," she sighed unhappily. "Are you alright?"

"I'm okay, Will…"

"Mr. Harris, go to the infirmary and have your elbow looked at," Leigh ordered. Her attention barely wavered from Willow.

Xander hesitated, obviously not wanting to leave Willow with the blonde teacher, who was a bit of an x-factor still. She had come in mid-year to replace Mike Russell, the school's 30-plus-year regular history teacher after his suddenly decided early retirement. She seemed to keep to herself and had successfully avoided all the usual traps students set for substitutes, chief among them the standard Internet investigations into her off-duty life. She had weathered them all, and was still here at Sunnydale elementary and middle school, as much an enigma as the day she had shown up with her piercing dark blue eyes and dirty blonde hair and long skirts and full-collared shirts.

Xander thought her creep factor unusually high, though being not-too-bad-on-the-eyes for an older lady softened the creep for most of the student body to a more manageable mysterious. Apparently very cool, too, for saving him from a face-smashing by Thug Connor, but still creepy nonetheless. He straightened. He was grateful for the rescue, but he regretted nothing and would have done the same and risked himself for Willow again in a heartbeat. His heart sank as he realized he would now still have to look out for an ambush from the fat bastard after school, at least for the next couple of days. Thank the gods the fucker was as dumb as he was big. Maybe he'd forget sooner rather than later. Out of sight out of mind for Bronto Connor…

"Xander?" Willow's soft voice finally reached him. "It's okay, Xander," Willow whispered. "Get your arm taken care of. Thank you for looking after me."

Xander nodded. Willow helped her friend up to his feet and he reluctantly went off.

"Thank you," Willow finally addressed Leigh.

"Thank me? For what?"

"For not punishing Xander for calling Kevin a bad name."

"Bad na—? Oh." Actually, Leigh had thought 'asshole' had been rather mild. By her standards, anyway. "You're welcome, Willow," she said smoothly. "Or do you prefer Ms. Rosenberg?"

"Willow's fine," Willow said in a quiet voice.

Leigh helped Willow with the books, grunting with the weight of the backpack. Willow quickly took it from her. Leigh picked up the book the girl had been engrossed in at the beginning of the fracas. "Fundamental Principles of Neo-Kantian Ethics? A bit of light reading before gym class?"

Willow reddened. Wood had recommended it to her, after she'd gone through the library's collection of the humanist's primary works.

"Sorry, I was joking." Leigh cleared her throat. Some empath, she chided herself, then reached out just slightly with her Talent to get a better feel of the child before her.

Oddly, her Talent came up with nothing.

Okay. That hadn't happened in a while. At least by someone not trained in the Art. The girl seemed to be somehow deflecting the gentle probe. Rather than attempting a more forceful read, Leigh decided to try a different, more mundane if blunter tack. "You know, Willow, I only saw the tail end of what happened just now so I'm giving Xander the benefit of the doubt that he had a good reason for stepping in as he did, but I do think that you need to take a little responsibility. You have to be a little bit more careful yourself. I'm referring to the reading while walking thing? You live in a world that can at times be dangerous—much more so than a pre-teen bully, you need to be mindful of it. Not that it's a bad thing letting a good book take complete hold of you!" Leigh hurried, as Willow blushed so crimson with the mild reproach it shamed Leigh's naturally empathic heart, too. "But there's a proper time and place for everything. Okay?"

The rebuke softened, Willow nodded.

"By the way, there's something else I'd like to discuss with you, if I may. I'd like you to come by my office after school today, just for a little chat about what you might be doing with your history elective next semester. I'm thinking of staying on, maybe set up an advanced studies program that I think you'd do very well in. Do you think you can drop by to discuss it?"

Willow was grateful for Ms. Mack's intercession and not coming down on Xander for calling Connor an asshole, but meeting with her alone was the last thing Willow wanted.

At least she's a dreadful liar and has absolutely no ability to dissemble, Leigh realized. "It's okay if you'd rather not. In fact, I'm still at the planning stages, so it's probably not the best time, anyway. But maybe if you have a free moment, alright? Any time you want, actually. I like meeting some of the more serious students, but it's hard, you know? When you're shy, like I am, and new, and don't know many people yet."

Willow's eyes widened at that, but got an okay vibe from Leigh's warm, sincere smile.

"Anyway, you're welcome to drop by, even if it isn't class-related. When I'm not teaching, I'm usually in my office. It's B-18."

Willow's eyes relaxed in relief. "Thank you, Ms. Mack. I might. Visit, that is."

"Okay. You'd better go off too. Do you need a note or something since you're late?"

"N-no. I have study hall."

Leigh nodded and watched as Willow walked off under her bag of books, looking back just once, before she too turned for the stairwell for the basement and her makeshift sanctum sanctorum.

I think Jenny set up the "Leigh Mack" name as my alias just to see the look on my face when I read through my mission briefing. Donald Maclay was so self-righteous about his family name and sharing the honor with me, his blushing, socially inept bride, I'm sure if he knew how I've mangled it for my own purposes he'd have an apoplectic fit. Not that I give a damn anymore. I've used and discarded so many names in my 36 years, sometimes I hardly know which one I'm using one day to the next. Memories of lessons my mother taught me came unbidden from the repository of my brain… "The ability to take and give away a name shows that one is not tied to the material world." I can see the truth in it. Plus being able to divest oneself of the baggage associated with a name—always a plus, though that does raise the interesting conundrum of why anyone would take up someone else's name if it's already burdened with its own history.

Gods, sometimes I think myself into a corner. Tara is a fine name for a witch.

Anyway, I'm half-convinced Donald's given up looking for us by now, so the benefits and disadvantages of fooling around with an alias is moot. The last time I checked, Agritech had relocated him to Old New Mexico as a foreman for the upcoming Spring and Summer seasons, so he should be occupied with it for eight months more, certainly at least through the end of September. I hope by then my tour with Willow-watching will be over and I'll be back in the safety and seclusion of the Coven with my own daughter.

To that end, after setting up shop as the mid-year replacement history teacher for Sunnydale Elementary (highly recommended, of course, with my fake credentials), I quickly set about my surveillance of Willow. Her school file revealed nothing out of the ordinary, but that didn't discourage me. The record-keeping system of most middle and high school systems is normally pretty proprietary from bordering-on-violating-civil-liberties meticulous to downright negligent. Sunnydale's was somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Two weeks later, I hadn't made much headway into my directive. What about this girl had caught the collective inner eye of our Coven seers in their review of the Artaggio event? Sure, Willow's a good student. A great student, even. But that's not too unusual. Every district, especially in the old Western states where the public educational system's become entrenched and hegemonized, tends to have one or two really good prospects. Usually it's enough to set up some kind of state or cross-state academic competition or even just a standardized test, let them have at each other, then throw scholarship money or even guaranteed employment to the winner. Doubtless, Willow would have a good shot at one of these types of competitions. But a player in an apocalyptic prophecy? I found nothing on the surface to suggest her role as either one of the twins or the seeyo, a term that besides meaning the obvious, though pre-modern Artaggio would never have known, also translates to "hammer" or more generally, "instrument" in his dead tongue—presumably, the instrument of the apocalypse.

Likewise, her family was utterly mundane. Daughter of Ira, 44, programmer for CPV Tech, a smallish, still mostly privately owned, corporate inventory system vendor, and Sheila, 42, clinical child psychologist, currently unemployed due to a lapse in her accreditation and licensing—she had left her position at a private institute to devote five years of her life to raising Willow. She had yet to recover from that professional hiatus. Fairly typical lower middle-income family. In fact, other than the incident of being unable to read her this morning, I honestly had no inkling that Willow was anything other than an ordinary girl, though gifted with extraordinary intelligence.

In other words, the first two weeks have been very quiet, though perhaps things will pick up now that I've made direct contact with Willow—that is, if I haven't permanently scared her off with the scary disapproving adult routine. The inability to read her was, of course, a curiosity and worth noting, which I did when transmitting my weekly report back to Jenny. But I wasn't overly concerned. I had blind spots as much as any other empathic witch, though it's not immodest for me to say I have fewer than most, as it's true. It's also not uncommon for first "contacts" to take more than one meeting to develop, even with a young child like Willow who still wears her emotions up front, especially in those huge eyes. Magic, much as some would argue otherwise, isn't science.

The lack of immediate success did allow me to pad the second part of my weekly transmission. Along with my second report reiterating much of what the first did, I sent another personal note to my daughter. Of course, she had taken my new assignment hard. I fully intend to make this up to her upon my return. Maybe take her somewhere for a trip away from the Coven, as long as it's not Old New Mexico (Donald) or Sunnydale (land of the unchanging seasons). In the meanwhile, we'll have to make do with the personal missives piggy-backed on the secure, encrypted weekly summary. Of course, this type of communication is one-way, mostly. I so hope that Leda is doing better, but the few brief lines Jenny manages to secure for her in the briefing responses back don't satisfy the hole in my heart. I miss her fiercely, too.

It's hardened my resolve to finish my business here, and go home. I'm grateful it's gone fairly simply so far. It would have been impossible to begin without securing a position where I could watch Willow with an unimpeded view. Convincing Russell to take early retirement hadn't been too hard. He was working past his 35th year, and teaching can wear even the most dedicated of people down. Many, many years ago, at the beginning of the technology revolutions in the 1950s, there was an advertising campaign jointly financed by the nationalistic States and baby congloms, to encourage young professionals into education as a career. The promotional materials stressed the joys of service as its primary draw. Of course, there was little corresponding salary augmentation, like they did for their own field of employees. So instead we ended up with the beginning of the decades-long glut of lawyers and system programmers, analysts, and salesmen, while doctors and teachers are still on the outs due to lack of incentive and the increased regulation regarding accreditation peculiar to each field. Over the years, the ethical sense of duty and self-sacrifice, the practical difficulties of mediocre compensation and the juridical hurdles set up to legislate professional accreditation did the trick, and now no one with a practical mind wants to be a doctor or a teacher.

The latter was to be my profession, had I never felt Donald's last blow eight years ago that sent me, unconscious and internally hemorrhaging, to the hospital, and Jenny's subsequent rescue—Leda's "kidnapping" and our escape to the Coven. But in a way, it's what I ended up doing, anyway. I wonder if I'll be so lucky some day as to be offered a nice retirement package by a mysterious charitable organization, after I'm through shaping the minds of young witches thirty years down the road?

Eh, I doubt it.